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Tuesday, June 13, 2017


The sickening, embarrassing, creepy sight of Trump’s Cabinet delivering, one after another, fulsome words of praise for their Glorious Leader has inspired me to say something about the norms of civilized behavior on which every society relies for its quotidian functioning.  I anticipate that my attempt will elicit heated comments about the widespread immoral acts of ostensibly respectable public, corporate, and other governmental figures, comments that, though well-intentioned, and with the content of which I quite agree, will distract readers from the point I am trying to make.  In an effort to postpone those reactions, I shall begin by talking about a social realm with which most of the readers of this blog are familiar – the American university or college.

Those of us who spend our work lives in higher education very quickly become aware of the existence of certain norms of expected performance, and most of us, I venture to speculate, actually try to conform our own behavior to them.  Let me mention just three:  First, we try to offer in our classes thoughtful, intelligent, and informed lectures or discussions that arguably concern the ostensible subject of the course;  Second, much as we may hate it, we actually read the papers and exams that our students write and try to offer useful comments and criticisms of student work; and Third, if grades are called for, we do not simply assign them randomly, but try to fit the grade to the student performance in some predictable and impartial manner.

We are, of course, all well aware of colleagues who regularly violate one or another of these norms – colleagues who do no more than glance at papers before slapping grades on them haphazardly; colleagues who hand papers or exams back with not a comment or correction on them, just a bare grade; colleagues who do little or nothing to meet the legitimate expectation that their lectures will present in an orderly fashion material facially related to the announced subject of the course.  Let me give you one particularly egregious example, from South Africa, not America.  During several of the twenty-five years that I ran a scholarship organization for poor Black South African university students, I brought some of the money I had raised to Cape Technikon, an originally all-White Africans-speaking institution that had under the new post-Apartheid regime become integrated.  During one of my visits, some of my scholarship recipients took me aside to tell me of a problem they were having.  The lectures were supposed to be in English, which would be equally comprehensible to the Afrikaner students and to the Khosa and Zulu students.  But quite often, in a class, an Afrikaner student would ask a question in Afrikaans, and the lecturer [one of the hold-overs from before integration] would reply in Afrikaans and then proceed to give the rest of the lecture in Afrikaans, leaving the Black students mystified [save for the mixed race or Coloured students for whom Afrikaans was in fact their first language.]

Now, if you know anything about the way a university actually functions, you will recognize that in practice there is almost no realistic way to enforce the norms I mentioned.  In particularly egregious cases, an “intervention” might be attempted, with a professor’s senior colleagues taking him or her aside and quietly, tactfully suggesting some changes.  But it would be impossible to run a university in which every act by every professor were monitored, overseen, and disciplined.  If the university cannot count on the general run of professors to abide voluntarily by the norms of the Academy, reserving its minatory oversight for the rare outliers, the institution will simply collapse.  It will become Trump University.

Now, the norms of which I am writing are not universal, nor can they be deduced a priori from the concept of education-as-such.  They are social norms, variable from age to age and from society to society.  They are not so much taught as absorbed by those being socialized into a profession.  And higher education is of course not at all unique in exhibiting such norms of expected functioning.  The Military has its norms, as does the Church.  And yes, difficult thought it may be to believe, even the Corporation in a capitalist society has internal norms of expected behavior.  And so too do the institutions of representative government.

All of these norms are violated some of the time, and – a point of the greatest importance – some institutions, such as the Corporation, may be inherently immoral or unjust, so that even those conforming meticulously to its norms can be rightly condemned.  But in understanding even unjust institutions, it is useful to identify its internal norms and distinguish those who are constraining their behavior by them from those who are violating them.

Which brings me back to Trump.  What makes trump uniquely dangerous is that he is flagrantly violating all of the norms of political behavior to which the rest of the political class give lip service, and to which a good many of that class actually make some effort to conform their behavior.  [This is the point at which I expect readers to explode with outraged laundry lists of all the ways in which mainstream politicians violate those norms.  I am well aware of all of that, I would really like it of readers could contain themselves long enough to try to engage with what I am trying to say, but that is probably a forlorn hope.]

Perhaps it is worth pointing out that even in a socialist society, no instance of which has yet existed, there would be social norms on which the successful functioning of the society depended and there would of course be individuals who violated them.  A revolution would not alter that fact, even though it would most certainly alter the structure of society and with that the character of the accepted norms.

American society is bad enough.  American society absent these norms of publicly acceptable behavior would be even more of a nightmare.


howie b said...

Trump truly is alarming which makes you no alarmist, and the degradation of norms precedes Trump. My point is that we have to let this run its course rather than ride it out and act now and really act when the time comes for action. Trump is a reality, worse than death or taxes.Most chess games aren't won in the opening. On the bright side, all his cronies pledging allegiance, mean it as much as Goneril and Reagan, and their self interest does not align with his

Danny said...

I think on Trump I have nothing to add at the moment, but there is this:

'in a socialist society, no instance of which has yet existed'

So my response to this is to muse on what has, though, yet existed. For example, abstract and meaning-diffuse gobbledygook has yet existed. I do not believe that everybody who reads about 'a socialist society' is likely to be thinking in the same formal terms about what is the fundamental objective of socialism. Maybe what I expect shows that others are smart enough to know better what to expect.

Danny said...

I think of Melville's line: 'It is not down in any map; true places never are.'

I have actually read Moby Dick, back when I was a freshman in college, and I incline to give something more. I amuse myself with the thought that this is relevant to the dicussion of 'norms', but also to the concept of 'abstract and meaning-diffuse gobbledygook'. Regardless of relevance, Moby Dick is cool:

'Moby Dick
CHAPTER 12: Biographical.
Queequeg was a native of Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are.

When a new-hatched savage running wild about his native woodlands in a grass clout, followed by the nibbling goats, as if he were a green sapling; even then, in Queequeg's ambitious soul, lurked a strong desire to see something more of Christendom than a specimen whaler or two. His father was a High Chief, a King; his uncle a High Priest; and on the maternal side he boasted aunts who were the wives of unconquerable warriors. There was excellent blood in his veins--royal stuff; though sadly vitiated, I fear, by the cannibal propensity he nourished in his untutored youth.

A Sag Harbor ship visited his father's bay, and Queequeg sought a passage to Christian lands. But the ship, having her full complement of seamen, spurned his suit; and not all the King his father's influence could prevail. But Queequeg vowed a vow. Alone in his canoe, he paddled off to a distant strait, which he knew the ship must pass through when she quitted the island. On one side was a coral reef; on the other a low tongue of land, covered with mangrove thickets that grew out into the water. Hiding his canoe, still afloat, among these thickets, with its prow seaward, he sat down in the stern, paddle low in hand; and when the ship was gliding by, like a flash he darted out; gained her side; with one backward dash of his foot capsized and sank his canoe; climbed up the chains; and throwing himself at full length upon the deck, grappled a ring-bolt there, and swore not to let it go, though hacked in pieces.'

s. wallerstein said...

There are good norms and there are bad norms.

For example, the norms that have to do with how women are treated in Saudi Arabia are bad in general.

I believe that the academic norms which you outline above are good, although full disclosure, I may just be defending norms that I guided my professional life with during the years that I taught in a university.

I'm not at all sure which of the norms of U.S. political behavior are good and which are bad. We'd first have to have some sense of the explicit and implicit norms, tacit and stated norms, written and unwritten norms, which function there.

F Lengyel said...

The sickening, embarrassing, creepy sight of Trump’s Cabinet delivering, one after another, fulsome words of praise for their Glorious Leader ...

A spectacle evocative of late-period Stalin.

LFC said...

I agree with the post.

I read some brief account of Trump calling the press into the Cabinet meeting and of
various members of the Cabinet praising him, e.g. Price of HHS who, as I recall, said how honored he was to serve in the admin, etc. etc.

This is, in two words, quite repulsive. It is more like something one might expect to see in North Korea than in a formally (note: formally, not always or necessarily substantively) democratic, representative system in which the presidency is in an office with a place in a constitutional structure, not an office above the structure.

These norms have evolved, at least in some cases, because they signal or embody the culture that is supposed to support the system. So, to take one small example, the President is typically addressed as Mr. President, not as "Your Infallibility" or "Dear Leader" or "My Leader" or etc.

LFC said...

I didn't see I.M. Flaud's comment before I posted b.c I was in the process of writing my own. But I see now we were thinking along similar lines.

Jerry Brown said...

You were obviously concerned with what commenters might say about your post. Therefore I will comment :)

This article spends too much time heading off potential comments and too little time discussing how sickening the obsequious behavior of the cabinet members was. But I agree with you anyways. And let me mention how privileged (blessed even) I feel to be allowed to serve as a reader of your excellent commentary.

F Lengyel said...

I wish to echo Jerry Brown's last comment and to assure everyone present that I will not be the first one among us to stop applauding.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Well-said, as usual, Prof!

Jerry Fresia said...

Based upon what you have just said, I assume you would agree that norms tend to express ideology.
For example, prior to my first full-time teaching assignment at UC Santa Barbara, I was told (or maybe warned!) by
a professor friend that whatever I do, I should not “embarrass” the university (or department chairs, etc). It was
1986 and Desmond Tutu gave an impassioned speech, at a very large assembly open to the public, urging that
the UC universities divest. Chancellor Huttenback of UCSB responded by saying to Bishop Tutu, “I don’t know what to say.”

Later that day at a student rally, I was asked to say a few words. I recounted the advice/warning that I had received
(clearly a big fat norm) and told the students that the embarrassment thing was or ought to be a two way street and
that I was embarrassed by the Chancellor’s response.

So my question is, if norms are concrete manifestations of ideology, as I believe many norms are, are there social norms
that would support actions of liberation? Or do such actions always push a society or institution to the edge of collapse?

Note: About an hour after I spoke at the rally about my two-way sense of embarrassment, the Chancellor actually ran over me
with his car, literally. Long story (not very accurate reference here: Later that year Chancellor Huttenback was convicted and ousted over the embezzlement of university
funds as well as tax evasion. Ah, those were the days!

Anonymous said...

We agree, our learned leader. We will redouble our efforts to provide responses that meet with your approval. We, all of us, feel fortunate to be among your disciples.

LFC said...

Schumer put out an amusing little video parodying the Trump Cabinet meeting.

Danny said...

There are remarks about Trump and such, here, with which I agree, but I return to expand on my query as to the fundamental objective of socialism. Like what happens if different people complete the sentence: 'The fundamental objective of socialism is..'

Here are some possibilities: prevent capitalists and landlords from exploiting workers! attain an advanced level of material production and therefore greater productivity, efficiency and rationality as compared to capitalism and all previous systems! Under the view that an expansion of human productive capability is the basis for the extension of freedom and equality in society! foster a cooperative economy through the creation of cooperative enterprises, common ownership, state ownership or shared equity! the maximum social welfare of the society!

I would empasize that even more interesting to me here than riffing on 'socialism', per se, is considering the phrase 'fundamental goal'. It's my own phrase, yet I find myself wondering if a 'sole objective' is different, or if a 'main objective', or 'main goal', is different. We might back up and consider, maybe, an idea that 'Labor', as it were, needs to state its core values clearly, as a first step in recapturing the imagination and confidence of the community. So that, more abstractly, then, the socialist objective should provide the framework within which our detailed policy is formed and reflect the type of society we as Labor activists aspire to create. Or at least, the socialist objective should serve a purpose, etc. Or maybe, Labor's current 'socialist objective' may symbolise to us as party members what we have fought to achieve over 100 years of activism. I'm speaking figuratively here, about 'us', of course.

I guess that this 'socialist objective' does not reflect the outcomes of recent Labor governments. I call this a guess, because I'm trying to interpret this sentiment: 'in a socialist society, no instance of which has yet existed..'

So okay, this is, then, I take it, a 'socialist objective' that does not reach out to those who feel betrayed by Labor's failures in government! I'm just sayin'..but also, this is a 'socialist objective' that, I imagine, does little to attract the votes of those who have not had the opportunity or reason to support our movement..And when I say 'our', I'm speaking figuratively..It is not up to me to say what Labor can afford, in a time of self-examination..though I will suggest that it cannot complete a comprehensive policy review without debating what the core values anchoring our policy agenda are! Is there a rallying point, a light on the hill, such that supporting or belonging to Labor might become a badge of pride..and of course being interested in economics 101 is never going to be a badge of pride unless you are interested..but I digress..