On charity and justice

An excerpt from my latest, Charity is not a substitute for justice:

Charity, as a supplement to justice, should be applauded. But charity as a substitute for justice is neither charity nor justice. It is cruelty.

The same week that the nation cheered a charitable effort to make one child’s wish come true, the largest employer in the US held a charity drive for some of its own workers. Wal-Mart, whose six heirs to the company fortune have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of Americans, pays its workers salaries so low that many qualify for food stamps.

The costs are then transferred to taxpayers. A report by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated that one Wal-Mart Supercenter employing 300 workers could cost taxpayers at least $904,000 annually.

Yet instead of raising salaries to allow employees to live above the dole, Wal-Mart encourages charity – a common panacea to social plight. Universities employing adjunct professors, who are also paid below poverty wages, have held similar food drives for their employees.

In September, Margaret Mary Vojtko, a Duquesne University professor, who had worked at the school for 25 years, died in abject poverty with an annual salary of less than $10,000. Responding to accusations of callousness, Duquesne noted that they had offered Vojtko charity, such as an offer to fix her furnace. A Slate article promising the “real story” of Vojtko argued that she brought her troubles upon herself by refusing Duquesne’s gifts while working with a growing movement of adjuncts attempting to unionise.

In other words, Vojtko refused charity while pursuing justice. This is not a position to condemn.

Fiscal stability that relies on gifts is not stability. It is a guarantee of insecurity: income based not on work but on whim. Capricious generosity is not a replacement for a living wage, nor is it a basis for a functioning society. Charity is no substitute for justice.

Read the whole thing at Al Jazeera English.

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On professional identity and lost opportunity

My new article for the Chronicle of Higher Education is called Professional Identity: A Luxury Few Can Afford. An excerpt:

In a post-employment economy ridden with arbitrary credentialism, a résumé is often not a reflection of achievement but a document sanctioning its erasure. One is not judged on what one has accomplished, but on one’s ability to walk a path untouched by the incongruities of market forces. The service job you worked to feed your family? Embarrassing. The months you struggled to find any work at all? Laziness. The degree you began a decade ago for a field that has since lost half its positions? Failure of clairvoyance. Which is to say: failure.

Read the whole thing here.

In other news, my thanks to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing for his article reflecting on a PolicyMic interview I did in June:

Here’s a fabulous interview with activist Sarah Kendzior, a journalist and researcher who made a great, concise argument against unpaid internship as a series of four tweets last June. Policymic talks with Kendzior about her work on the “prestige economy” and the widening wealth-gap, and also talks about the theory of presenting arguments over Twitter, a subject on which Kendzior is every bit as smart as she is on matters economic and political.

As a result of the renewed interest, the interview has gone viral again. Thanks to everyone who shared it!

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All fall down

From my latest at Al Jazeera English:

When survival is touted as an aspiration, sacrifice becomes a virtue. But a hero is not a person who suffers. A suffering person is a person who suffers.

If you suffer in the proper way – silently, or with proclaimed fealty to institutions – then you are a hard worker “paying your dues”. If you suffer in a way that shows your pain, that breaks your silence, then you are a complainer – and you are said to deserve your fate.

But no worker deserves to suffer. To compound the suffering of material deprivation with rationalisations for its warrant is not only cruel to the individual, but gives exploiters moral license to prey.

Individuals internalise the economy’s failure, as a media chorus excoriates them over what they should have done differently. They jump to meet shifting goalposts; they express gratitude for their own mistreatment: their unpaid labour, their debt-backed devotion, their investment in a future that never arrives.

And when it does not arrive, and they wonder why, they are told they were stupid to expect it. They stop talking, because humiliation is not a bargaining chip. Humiliation is a price you pay in silence – and with silence.

People can always make choices. But the choices of today’s workers are increasingly limited. Survival is not only a matter of money, it is a matter of mentality – of not mistaking bad luck for bad character, of not mistaking lost opportunities for opportunities that were never really there.

You are not your job. But you are how you treat people.

So what can you do? You can work your hardest and do your best. You can organise and push for collective change. You can hustle and scrounge and play the odds.

But when you fall, know that millions are falling with you. Know that it is, to a large extent, out of your hands. And when you see someone else falling, reach out your hands to catch them.

Read Surviving the post-employment economy at Al Jazeera English

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How college admissions are rigged for the wealthy

From my latest for Al Jazeera:

“Diversity” is a cherished value of American schools – so long as that diversity does not include students whose families earn less than the tuition fee. Elite universities favour those willing to pay to play – and play again until they win.

Only 3.8 percent of American families make more than $200,000 per year. But at Harvard University, 45.6 percent of incoming freshman come from families making $200,000 or more. A mere 4 percent of Harvard students come from a family in the bottom quintile of US incomes, and only 17.8 percent come from the bottom three quintiles.

“We admit students without any regard for financial need – a policy we call ‘need-blind admission’,”Harvard’s website proudly proclaims. Harvard charges $54,496 per year for tuition, room and board, but waives the fees for families making less than $60,000 per year.

This would be a laudable policy were Harvard admitting low-income students in any significant numbers, but they are not. Instead, they fill their ranks with the children of the elite portrayed in Miller’s article – elites who drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on private schools, exorbitant “enrichment” activities, and personal tutors that almost no Americans can afford.

Harvard’s admission is “need-blind” only in that it turns a blind eye to actual need. Like many universities, it increases its number of aid recipients by inflating its price tag. With tuition higher than the median US household income, students from families making $200,000 are now deemed poor enough to qualify for financial aid.

Read The immorality of college admissions at Al Jazeera English.

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Some things I’ve been up to and events to come:

  • I did an interview with Tadween, an online publication of the Arab Studies Institution, on open access publishing and other contested issues in higher education.
  • St. Louis Magazine selected me as one of 15 people in “Generation Now” – “St. Louisans between 18-35 who are shaping laws, altering neighborhoods, and improving lives.” I’m among great company and I highly recommend checking out the other St. Louisans profiled in the new issue. Watch a video about our work here.
  • Rebecca Schuman wrote a great piece for Slate on academics who quit, drawing off my Closing of American Academia article from last year
  •  I will be making an appearance at this year’s American Anthropological Association meeting on a roundtable panel with Karen Kelsky (“The Professor Is In”) called “Anthropologists on the Job Market: How Departments and Job Seekers Can Respond to the Employment Crisis”.
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Advice on writing for free

My first column for the Chronicle of Higher Education was published this week: Should academics write for free? This is the first of a series of advice columns I plan to write for academics attempting to navigate the non-academic job market. An excerpt:

Seven years later, journalism has adopted the academic publishing model, only without the pretense of integrity. The 2008 economic crisis, combined with the transition to digital media, led to a glut of desperate writers willing to work for free—a practice that media corporations embraced and repackaged to novice journalists as “the way things have always been.”

Today media outlets making healthy profits refuse to pay the freelance writers who help make them a success. Exploitative publishers tend to argue along two lines: a fake crisis (“Unfortunately, we can’t afford to pay you at this time…”) or a false promise (“Exposure will help your career.”).

Academics are particularly vulnerable to media-industry exploitation. They are accustomed to writing for nothing and, in the case of adjuncts, to being treated terribly by their employers. Because academic work in professional journals is hidden behind paywalls, the prospect of reaching a wider audience can be enticing. For scholars interested in leaving academia and forging a new career, online visibility is essential.

Should academics ever write for free? Maybe.

Should academics write for free for a publisher that can afford to pay them? Never.

Read the full article at Vitae, a new section of the CHE focusing on jobs and the economy.

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Noblesse oblige without the oblige

From my latest for Al Jazeera English:

The debate on welfare is structured around what people “deserve”. Critics of welfare argue that no one “deserves” assistance from the state. This is true. No one deserves to live in a country where wages are so low that working families cannot feed their children without government aid. No one deserves to have the accreditation requirements for well-paid employment cost more than the average household income. No one deserves to be denied food — period.

Welfare is need mistaken for desire. Wealth is desire mistaken for worth. Everyone in America is cashing in benefits, be it welfare checks or the credentials purchased with privilege.

It is hard to say most people “deserve” what they get. But some forms of exchange are more acceptable than others.

Critics fault the poor for their dependence, telling them to get a job or get an education, when jobs for the educated have disappeared. They tell them to work hard and climb the career ladder, neglecting to mention that it terminates at a locked door opened with a golden key.

Adam Smith famously proclaimed that the rich are “led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”

Today the invisible hand is not invisible because we cannot see it. It is because it is not there.

One does not have to reject capitalism to reject the corruption that has decimated the global economy, or the venality that prompts a crowd to cheer when the children of the poor go hungry.

We live in a time of noblesse oblige without the oblige – wealth disguised as merit and merit as a pretext for malice. Nobility dodges, nobility punishes. Nobility pretends it is not nobility, and tells us to take out short-term loans.

Read A government above the people at Al Jazeera English.

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“Exploitation should not be a rite of passage”

This is the English-language version of an interview I did with journalist Nigâr Hacızade of 5Harfliler, a Turkish news site. My thanks to Nigâr for her terrific questions.

You were in academia and now you are “recovering from it”. From outside, academia may seem like this wonderland, where you are given the opportunity to be engrossed in your work, your craft, and even if you are a starter (ie aren’t making much money), you get the respect and the non-material satisfaction. How long did it take before you realized you weren’t going to do that? What was it like in that world and how hard was it to transition to freelance writing? 

I went into academia for the reasons you mentioned – I love to write and do research. I enjoyed having the freedom to study topics that interest me, such as the politics of authoritarian states. I never cared about prestige or making a lot of money. But I care about earning a stable income and providing for my children.

In my final year in graduate school, I realized that my ability to stay on the job market and pursue an academic career was dependent on financial resources that I didn’t have. I was a successful academic – I am well-published, in top journals, with strong teaching evaluations and a solid reputation in my field. But this was irrelevant when it came to finding a job in this economy. I was expected to adjunct, subsisting on poverty wages, until a tenure-track job came along.

Money, not merit, is the critical factor to staying in academia in the United States. Most recent PhDs are either living in poverty, in massive debt, or surviving off family wealth. The former two categories tend to drop out, while the latter pay to play.

In the end, I am glad I left, because what I am doing now is more interesting. I didn’t plan to work as a writer – I was recruited once I started writing for the public. Al Jazeera English contacted me after reading my work on website called Registan.net, where I had been blogging about Central Asia during my last year of graduate school. My Al Jazeera articles often go viral. Over time, other publications asked me to write for them as well.

I love to write so I am happy about how this turned out. But I know my story is not typical. That is one of the reasons I write about barriers to entry in journalism, because talented writers are being locked out because they cannot afford unpaid internships or expensive credentials. Journalism is structured in a similar way to academia, where pre-existing wealth is a de facto requirement for entry.

Everyone benefits from a more diverse and even playing field, so I try to draw attention to unfair labor practices in these professions. Exploitation should not be a rite of passage.

You are obviously well known enough now that you will not be left without work, but you carved that out for yourself and in time you had a new focus aside from your academic background. How did you do that and what’s your advice for someone who wants to venture out to try a new medium and new knowledge (I hesitated to use the word expertise)?

I am never confident that I won’t be left without work. I feel precarious like everyone else.

This is in part because of my experience in academia – I was objectively successful, and it did not matter. But it is also because I grew up in a collapsing economy. From the moment I graduated college, I saw whole industries wiped out. I saw paid work converted into unpaid labor. Talented people stay unemployed or underemployed for years. Many of my friends are in this position now.

Nothing is a safe bet, so you might as well pursue what you enjoy. My advice for people entering a new field is to work hard, read broadly and have humility when it comes to “expertise”. If you are writing, do not write for exposure or attention. In a desperate media market, writers pounce on a theme with proven popularity even if they know nothing about it. But in the end this cheapens both the subject and the writer.

True expertise is knowing what you do not know, and knowing when to shut up. There is no shame in not knowing something – that is an opportunity to listen and learn. When someone defensively claims “I am an expert!” it is usually a sign that they are not. Expertise is demonstrated, not self-proclaimed.

Do not let your professional affiliation define who you are. As I’ve said before to young people:  “You are not your job. Especially because you probably do not have a job.” Concentrate on doing good work, because while people will label you and limit you, your work speaks for itself, and no one can take that away.

At the same time, show respect in your professional relationships – not deference, but respect. Be polite, reliable, and receptive to feedback. When Foreign Policy listed me in their top 100 thinkers to follow on Twitter, they described me as “combative”, which I thought was funny because I can count the altercations I’ve had on Twitter on one hand. (Or as my husband says, on my middle finger.) I have no interest in fighting for the sake of fighting, and I think most people would say I’m easy to work with.

Flaubert wrote:  “Be ordinary and bourgeois in your daily life, so that you may be violent and original in your art.” This is good advice. Intellectual work is not a place to please people. It is where you should challenge people, most of all yourself. Be your own harshest critic before someone else beats you to it. Let your reputation derive from your ideas, not the other way around. Do not base your life on others’ expectations. Do not assume that people value emulation over innovation, or conformity over integrity.  Let them surprise you.

When life does not work fairly, you may as well live honestly.

I’m very interested in your critique of labor exploitation in certain fields, especially academia, the media and civil society, and the following idea that as a result that working or rising in these fields are reserved for the rich and the righteous. Interestingly, that is a trend in Turkey and I suspect elsewhere in the world. Could you elaborate on how this came to be and what it is leading to?

One of the most depressing things about writing what I do is that I realize what I had perceived to be an American problem is actually an international problem. Obviously youth unemployment is a global problem, but it is interesting that the erosion of merit – what I’ve called the “prestige economy” – is an international problem when prestige is such a culturally variable concept. I get email about this from people all over the world.

Ten years ago, I lived in Turkey – I worked for a year as an English teacher in Istanbul. Even back then, I would hear complaints similar to those you raise. My Turkish students, who were mostly college-age, would complain about corruption within the university system, or about how hard it was to enter certain professions if you were born in an impoverished region.

In the U.S. these structural inequalities are guised as deficiencies in “merit” – whereas the real deficiency is the lack of pre-existing wealth to purchase credentials. The U.S. uses the “American Dream” mythology to validate its own prejudices. It is tough to accept the death of the American dream when it benefited so many – including my ancestors, who came here in poverty but worked their way into the educated middle class in two generations. But today that dream is dead.

I do not know how people justify or explain away professional barriers and inequalities in Turkey. But every country seems to have its own way of doing so. And around the world, you are seeing young people getting very, very frustrated.

These are people who did everything expected of them and receive nothing in return. When they dare expect anything – basic things, like a job, or reasonably priced education and housing – they are told they are “acting entitled”.

But they are not “acting entitled”. They were told to follow a social contract and now they are being told this contract never existed. For five years, they have been waiting for things to go back to “normal”. Now they realize that this is the new normal, and that it will take organized effort to change things.

When I read an article by you or 15 tweets back to back, it often leaves me angry and frustrated at the mechanisms you describe and the mindset that tries really hard to ensure those mechanisms are perceived as normal. I definitely get a “no bullshit” tone from your writing, and I get anger. Is that true? You are essentially always criticizing a corrupt system and in my mind that has got to be mentally and emotionally exhausting. How do you cope with it? 

You could say I am angry, but I don’t see that as a negative quality. Anger is a normal reaction to suffering, whether you experience it or witness it. One can be angry without being hostile or violent. One can be angry and still be respectful and polite to others.

Anger is a positive emotion, because anger acknowledges the possibility for change. The opposite of anger is acquiescence – the acceptance of suffering as normal. Anger is a form of compassion.

Corruption and inequality are man-made problems. They are not inevitable and neither is the hardship that accompanies them. But in order to fix a problem, we have to see it as a problem, not an inexorable element of human life or human behavior. Saying “this is the way things are” discourages people from imagining how things could be.

If people are angry after they read my work, I am glad. I hope they use that anger to fight on behalf of others. One of the worst feelings in the world is to suffer in the open and have no one care or raise a hand to help you. We should not take terrible conditions for granted any more than we should treat the suffering they cause as acceptable. Anger demands accountability.

As for your question as to whether I am “mentally and emotionally exhausted“ — probably. But that’s because I am the mother of two young children, not because I’m some sort of revolutionary.

Criticizing corruption is not exhausting.  It is far more exhausting to pretend everything is okay.

Read the Turkish version of the interview at 5harfliler.

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Self-immolation and unemployment

My latest for Al Jazeera, on the man who set himself on fire on the National Mall and the jobless men who did so around the world:

Unemployment is not only the loss of a job. It is the loss of dignity. It is the loss of the present and, over time, the ability to imagine a future. It is hopelessness and shame, an open struggle everyone witnesses but pretends not to see. It is a social and political crisis we tell a man to solve, and blame him when he cannot.

When you are unemployed, your past is dismissed as unworthy. Your future is denied. Self-immolation is making yourself, in the moment, matter.

The most famous recent case of an unemployed man setting himself on fire was Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose actions are said to have spurred the Arab Spring revolutions. When Bouazizi killed himself in December 2010, the youth unemployment rate was 30 percent inTunisia and 25 percent in Egypt, where uprisings quickly followed.

In Spain, three years later, youth unemployment is 57 percent. In Greece, it is 64 percent. The youth unemployment rate is 23.5 percent for the combined European Union and 16 percent for the United States, a statistic which does not take into account the millions whose jobs do not pay enough to take them out of poverty. The youth unemployment rates of Western nations now mirror or surpass those of the Arab world before the uprisings.

When Bouazizi self-immolated, the case was initially covered as an act of economic desperation. Only after it triggered a mass outcry was it acknowledged as a political statement, a final stand against decades of corruption and autocracy. It is pointless to ask whether the self-immolation of an unemployed man is an economic or political act: the two are inseparable.

Read The men who set themselves on fire, Al Jazeera English.

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Poverty is not a character flaw

I wrote about the government shutdown for Al Jazeera English:

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty. Over the next half century, the war on poverty turned into a war on the poor. This war was once disguised as “compassionate conservatism” and debated with words like “responsibility” and “opportunity”.

Compassionate conservatism assumed that we could take care of ourselves so we did not need to take care of each other. It was an attractive concept, simultaneously exalting the successes of America while relieving the individual of responsibility for those whom it failed. Many good people believed in it.

Today the attack on the poor is no longer cloaked in ideology – it is ideology itself. This ideology is not shared by most Americans, but by those seeking to transform the Republican Party into, as former GOP operative Mike Lofgren describes it, “an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.”

These are the people who have decided that poor children should be denied food as a result of elected officials wanting poor people to have healthcare.

The government shutdown only formalises the dysfunction that has been hurting ordinary Americans for decades. It is not a political shutdown but a social breakdown. Fixing it requires a reassessment of value – and values.

When wealth is passed off as merit, bad luck is seen as bad character. This is how ideologues justify punishing the sick and the poor. But poverty is neither a crime nor a character flaw. Stigmatise those who let people die, not those who struggle to live.

Read: “A government shutdown, a social breakdown”

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