<% Page = Request("Page") If Page="" Then Page = 1 %>

Good Guys – Bad Guys

For those of us in our white hats, who love to preen over those in the black, the year 2006 has opened well.

First, there were the Jack Abramoff scandals in Washington. This echt-Republican lobbyist not only got caught and pled guilty to new, fantastical levels of corruption, but began turning, too, on many of our most well-ensconced members of Congress. Speaker of the House Tom DeLay faced related charges of corruption. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was under investigation for insider trading, and members at the top of the Bush White House were still subject to the Fitzpatrick grand jury looking at them. For us salivating over the rich and powerful getting comeuppance, 2006 was nicely opening.

As the new year proceeded, through January a couple reporters for The San Francisco Chronicle were periodically publishing more from the investigative work they had begun late in 2005. Todd Wallack and Tanya Schevitz continued detailing how higher education in California has gone entirely into the hands of administrators using the system lavishly to reward themselves. Wallack and Schevitz's first reporting, late in 2005, described millions of dollars in pay-outs over and above the publicly-reported benefits to those at the top of the UC system: millions in hidden accounting for bonuses, free cars, luxury travel, relocation fees, further bonuses, severance pay packages, and new, high-income berths specially set up for spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends. Subsequent writing then noted lawmakers reacting to what looked and smelled too-obviously rotten.

In "Insight," the editorial section of The San Francisco Chronicle for Sunday, January 15, a guest writer took a slightly different angle on this high level, genteel corruption. Though disgusted at it all himself, Robert Meister conceded every bit of it was – surprise, surprise – perfectly legal. Speaking as president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations, he noted that administrators arranged their plush bonus and compensation packages for themselves quite systematically under what Meister termed the logic of privatization. They might as legally as they could be trying to hide their moves from the public, but even so, he said, theirs was an ethics and a systematic strategy absoutely normal and widespread in corporate America. UC administrators were lapping up public funds for themselves because they had come to compare themselves "not with other public officials but with private sector entrepreneurs who expect to be rewarded for their deal-making skills."

Meister's January 15 piece noted some of the corporate clients whose mega-million-dollar research contracts have taken over all University of California campuses: drug maker Novartis, Silicon Valley corporations, and "Los Alamos in partnership with Bechtel, BWX Technologies and Washington Group International." He could have continued listing our many more war, electronics, and agribusiness corporations that have tilted higher education priorities. He could have named the many more prominent corporate names, except this would soon also implicate his own faculty colleagues. Meister knows – everyone in the racket does – how all good professors conspire in this system, beginning with those who write, annotate, edit, and revise all those heavily-plastic-coated, corporate textbooks engorging all their niche specializations. Complete with links to ancillary audio-visual, pamphlet, chart, and PowerPoint materials, this industry of theirs pads résumés, gets faculty their shares of sideline pay, and lets publishers cover it all by setting hugely-jacked up prices on otherwise captive student markets.

Wendell Berry wrote about some of this thirty years ago in a classic of searing indignation and literate elegance, The Unsettling of America. Berry in the early 1960s had tried some peripatetic college teaching. Then, after a Fulbright to Italy, he abandoned migrant academia, settling where he's been since, on his and his wife Tanya's hillside farm on the Kentucky River, along the eastern edge of his native Henry County. (He was born and raised on Henry County's western side, the same county which, where it abuts the Ohio River on the north, Vincente Minnelli had cameras sweep the entire valley and onto the small, river town in Indiana that opens the Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Dean Martin version of James Jones' Some Came Running.)

It was, fittingly, the Sierra Club that published The Unsettling of America. Back then people like Earl Butz and James Watt were leading the federal and lobbyist-tandem rapaciousness gearing industrialized, government-subsidized assaults on us and the environment. Since then the names have changed. Not much else has. People like Robert Meister, speaking for his fellow faculty in California, inhabit an ongoing melodrama of corporate souls fitting public office to themselves and their friends. It's an old script. Wendell Berry has enough grounding in New Testament stories to know how old it is. He has enough grounding, too, in his own, local, Henry County realities, to have some healthy perspective on how our corporate culture fits all to its larger, money-based imagination – to its conceits of sprawl, marketing, consumerism. He knows – The Unsettling of America described it – how the logic of money-based, corporate culture colonizes souls, especially including those otherwise posturing in our so-called higher education, all of them inured in their depersonalized, mutually-isolated departmentalizations.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was interviewed on National Public Radio January 23 this year, where he addressed the way authorities like to shepherd us into their safety zones. What our schools elevate as specialization, Vonnegut calls tribalism. He doesn't spare his fellow good, lefty liberals, who normally presume him an ally. No friend, either, to the right-wing tribe that wants "intelligent design" tricked out as science, Vonnegut nevertheless sees how in this case it's those on the right who are probing some of our best, most fundamental issues. He regrets how our it's our good, rational, "true" scientists who pull the drawbridges up to exclude questions tangential and inscrutable.

Vonnegut admitted he, too, belongs to a tribe: in his case, the same secular humanists he chided on NPR. Trouble is, this tribe also includes many of the genteel rogues of corporate academia. Not even Vonnegut can come up with a good enough new tribal label for his fellow artists – for our best story-tellers, poets, musicians, architects, photographers, fashion designers, painters, tailors, seamstresses, jewelers, and chefs. Maybe no one can altogether label them – or herd them, any better than one herds cats – though our commercial culture seeks to herd, to reduce them, as it does all.

Maybe we call them artists because, as their instruments differ, they open possibilities elsewhere. They can open us up, too – point ways out, even for souls otherwise deep in institutional hierarchies, standardized forms, and conformity pressures. The instruments of art can spring us elsewhere – to the many more values in humanity also out there. We all inhabit five sets of instruments whose no-name artists have given us our choices and givens, in our 1) landscape design, 2) food presentation, 3) clothing & accessories, 4) transport modes, and 5) buildings & interior design. If we look well at how we inhabit these, we can expand in the many ranges of humanity beyond the melodrama of good guys and bad guys again and again set in old cliché.

We ever inherit that old base script. Robert Meister's op ed piece showed a current version: on one side, administrators in their big-money corporate souls; on the other, good Californians losing our once-legendary system of public higher education.

It's so Hollywood: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Except the seed pod, soulless invaders come not simply from the obviously corrupt administrative skies, but also and more so from Meister's fellow faculty – all striking liberal arts poses while their specialization habits model the very corporate priorities at which he is shocked, shocked.

Faculty could be more humane within their disciplines, more literate across them. They could link their courses to what's going on in actual students. If faculty connected their material directly to the students in front of them, and to colleagues around them, students could see how one enlarges humanity by engaging real souls. But in corporate academe, dead souls become that way by excluding the human. To get dissertations approved, jobs in specialist slots, and tenure and promotions, all learn to void the person.

Through the end of January, reporters Wallack and Schevitz continued to uncover new schemes in the huge-money gifts UC administrators fix for each other. The latest, on January 27, involved over eight million more dollars that top executives have given each other over the past five years. As part of a severance package system, even administrators who quit for more lucrative jobs elsewhere each collected hundreds of thousands of dollars additionally, from yet another pot: again, all legal, all hidden. Wallack and Schevitz deserve praise for revealing this. Meister deserves credit for noting the corporate parroting behind the worst corruptions. They're all "good guys-bad guys" stories. We ever have them as the main narrative in money culture. As in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, when similar souls set money ethics into the temple, the same logic rules today: same story for Hollywood, corporate academe, our lobbyist-sucking government.

2006 has opened as another good year for the ongoing saga of white hats and black. But we can't forget that other ethics beckon. Beyond our most base narratives, other stories, other styles – real "others" – show how people really differently have humanity well beyond our highest levels of smug, rich, corporate culture.

Return to the top