Weekend Reading

I’ve emerged from my grad school hole! I don’t know if that means winter will actually start or not. Enjoy some readings before we reach peak holiday:

Initially, I thought migrant deaths were unintended consequences. But when I got deeper into the origins of the policy, I discovered that federal documents plainly stated that fatalities were going to increase because of this policy. One document I cite contains a table using migrant deaths as a metric for demonstrating the policy is working. Realizing that some government official was typing this up and recognizing these things, was when I thought: This is a machine that kills people. It isn’t collateral damage. These aren’t unintended consequences. These are direct consequences that, in the initial stages of design, people were thinking about.

[…]

The Mediterranean is in many ways like the Arizona desert. People die there, and the bodies disappear because nobody wants to claim them. The big difference with the European crisis is that it is much more visible. If you’re lying on the beach in Lampedusa in your bikini and all of a sudden a bunch of bodies washes up, that’s shocking. Or that photograph of the infant in Turkey, Aylan Kurdi, who became the human face of the migrant tragedy.

In Arizona, it happens in the middle of nowhere. There are no people with cameras or folks out there to be shocked. So it keeps going, unseen and mostly unreported.

Before Northwestern students were able to force Ludlow from campus, they taught him a lesson about how words really modulate. The struggle to expand the meaning of “rape” to include Ludlow’s attack on his former student was just that: A struggle. It was fought through the school administrative bureaucracy, the courts, and decisively by students putting their bodies and voices in the way of business as usual. Language is alive, but how it grows is a function of conflict and power. It’s a lesson I don’t imagine the man who will now be known as rapist former-philosopher Peter Ludlow will soon forget.

When Lukianoff and Haidt wrote in the Atlantic that colleges should “equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control,” what they meant is that college should equip students to endure a world full of words and ideas that they cannot change. Colleges, however, are faced with students who aren’t interested in that kind of training. Instead, students and young people outside the academy are building the power necessary to change the way Americans think, talk, and act. It’s no wonder people who rely on the old definitions are worried. Some of them should be.

Burundi’s Descent

Quick post with links on Burundi, where things have steadily gotten worse all year but may be descending even more quickly with a recent spike in violence.

Here’s Ty McCormick at Foreign Policy on recent armed attacks on military bases, and what it means for the broader political situation in Burundi. A month ago Kate Cronin-Furman and Michael Broache noted that the violence in Burundi is a political conflict, trying to steer conversation in that direction. However, as Cara Jones notes, the discourse around the conflict is changing form, and may be sign of increasing ethnic conflict:

Since the outbreak of protests against Nkurunziza’s third term, both government and opposition have used ethnicized rhetoric… The government uses ethnic rhetoric presumably to signal to the opposition the potential violence that could come their way and incite citizens to participate in violence. The opposition uses ethnicized rhetoric to push for international intervention, which has the potential of changing the makeup of government.

More concerning than the rhetoric, however, are the ethnic patterns of violence that appear to be emerging. There are reports, for example, that security forces have targeted protesters in Tutsi minority-heavy districts of Bujumbura. These individuals have been arrested, tortured and subjected to other forms of violence. Weekend violence resulted in at least 87 deaths, and witness statements and information on victims’ ethnicity strongly suggest that many of the victims were disproportionately Tutsi.

Refugees International published a report [pdf] that Burundian refugees are being recruited in refugee camps in Rwanda, with negative consequences for all of the refugees involved.

In a piece at Blank Spot Project, journalist Anna Roxvall tells several stories from Burundi over the last few months. The article includes several vignettes that demonstrate the heightened levels of violence that people are enduring. This is just one excerpt (including references to murder and rape):

The water in the Kinyankonge River runs, dirt-brown, down its furrow. A few young men have set up a make-shift bar on a slope and play an edgy Afrobeat through cracked speakers. It’s hot.

This neighborhood along the river is called Mutakura and is the area where the biggest protests against the government raged this spring. Many young men were killed during the clashes there, which is considered the seat of the opposition by police and the government.

”This place used to be bustling with people who came for the clay to make bricks,” says 22-year-old Alain, balancing on the porous river bank.

Nowadays, nobody dares to begin new construction. In the ongoing conflict, the river has turned into a no-name graveyard. In the morning, the people who live here find corpses that have been dumped under the cover of the dark.

”It’s usually not people from here, so I think it’s people who have ’disappeared’ from other parts of the city,” Alain says.

The corpses are mostly men, but one time there was a woman. Someone had violated her with a stick.

Alice, who is 27, also found a dead body here two weeks ago.”It was impossible to see who it was, he was back-tied and had a rice bag over his head,” she says.

We stand there and consider the plastic bags, trash and old shoes that are swirled around and getting stuck on the river bottom. Alice puts her arm around a little girl who has joined us and then makes an irritated gesture toward the mess in the river.

”This affects our children very much. How are they supposed to be able to focus on their education if they find dead bodies on their way to school?”

Update – Dec. 15: Ty McCormick published a follow-up report on the state oppression that followed the armed attack on military bases. While the attacks did happen, a majority of those killed by security forces afterwards were not involved, but were the victims of state revenge.

#ASA2015: Come Home Messaging on the Radio

Greetings from San Diego! I’m here for the annual meeting of the African Studies Association. On Saturday, at 8:30am in Room 411, I’ll be presenting as a part of a panel on “Accounting for Violence.” My presentation, entitled “Encouraging Rebel Demobilization by Radio in Uganda and the DR Congo: The Case of Come Home Messaging.” It’s part of a chapter from my MA thesis, which is also a forthcoming article. Here’s the abstract:

For several years, local radio stations in Uganda broadcast “come home” messages that encouraged the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army to demobilize. Since the rebels began carrying out attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic, several international actors have introduced the same messages to these regions. This new effort has internationalized radio programming, benefited local radio stations, innovated new forms of messaging, and collaborated with military actors. This article provides an overview of how come home messaging functions in different contexts, examining the effects of these actions and highlighting an important shift in military-humanitarian relationships.

If you’re interested, come check it out! If you’re at ASA, let’s get in touch! If you’re down for drinks, there’s a tweet-up tonight at The Grand on 5th at 8:30.

Hierarchies of Mourning: Notes on Paris, Beirut, and Beyond

When I first heard news of the shootings and bombings in Paris, my heart sank. Terrorism continues to be a fear in the corner of many of our minds (and much more than that for many others), and the recent expansion of the Islamic State’s reach is definitely troubling. But I also felt so many other things that will go into this otherwise perhaps haphazard post. In mourning for victims to terror around the world, here are a few reflections on the state of things, and a call for solidarity with victims of violence.

In writing this post, ostensibly about expanding solidarity and mourning, I run the risk of trying to “score points” or “politicize” a tragedy. I aim not to earn credit of any sort, but I do aim to bring politics into an already political situation. This post is as much for readers as it is for me – to jot down what my mind keeps circling back to, to reflect, to hope for a better future.

That said, I think it’s prudent to remember the context in which so much violence continues to occur. It is not coincidence that this attack happened in the heart of France, a country where Islamophobia and xenophobia are very real, visible, tangible forces in everyday society, and a country which has committed itself to stopping Islamic extremists across North and West Africa in addition to contributing to the fight against the Islamic State, just as it is not random that the United States was the target of multiple attacks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Acknowledging this does not excuse the violence that follows. Neither does it necessarily lead us to a solution or a recommended action. Nonetheless, I mention it because it should frame our understanding of events and frame the discussion of what comes next.

Terrorists are not irrational madmen – though we want to think of them as such – but are actually incredibly logical and methodical in where and how they carry out their brand of violence. Just as 9/11 targeted sites of America’s financial and military global might, the attacks in Paris targeted the most cosmopolitan parts of Parisian life: music, sports, cafés. The goal was to make a statement, and also to provoke a response. This is worth keeping in mind as our countries’ leaders weigh their options. As Vijay Prashad notes, Raqqa is still a city of hundreds of thousands of civilians, even as France drops bombs on it in response to Friday’s attacks. Sophia Azeb writes that “Daesh wants refugees to have no refuge. They want a global war. They want to expand the global war that the United States and other Western nations have been waging for over a decade. A lot of our heads of state want to give it to them.” If the reaction to attacking civilians is a retaliation that also takes civilian lives, we’d be hard-pressed to explain why we expect things to change for the better. As Sam Kriss notes, on politicizing such events:

There will be more war, more death, and more tragedy. The TV stations are bringing in experts to insist that this is all the fault of the migrants and the foreigners, as if refugees were carrying the violence they fled along with them. More repression, more cruelty, more pogroms. Terrorist attacks, as we all know, are carried out with the intent of setting the people against each other and sparking an intensification of the violence of the State, and so the people are duly set against each other, and the State announces its determination to do violence. This is already a politicisation of the tragedy, and to loudly speak out against it is yet another.

Looking at the history of the world, it is absolutely possible to argue that “the hellish world we live in today is the result of deliberate policies and actions undertaken by the United States and its allies over the past decades” and still mourn for the innocent lives lost. After all, those who walk the streets of Paris or work in the offices of New York or shop on the streets of Beirut are not the ones leading the world into further violence – they are the victims of it, as are students in Gaza and doctors and patients in Afghanistan.

“Their wars, our dead,” one headline says rather succinctly (“leurs guerres, nos morts”), declaring that “the only response to wars and terrorism is the unity of workers and peoples, beyond their origins, their skin color, their religions, beyond the borders.” We can condemn terrorism and recognize that state violence brings it about, all while mourning the victims of both. This is the way to speak out against the more-violence argument and still condemn terror.

Indeed, the only thing we can do is stand together against terrorism and tyranny. As Iyad El-Baghdadi notes, the objective of the Islamic State is to drive a wedge through humanity. To create a world of us versus them is to deny us all a chance at coexistence. But resisting radical terrorism and resisting imperialist wars can and should be part of the same struggle for a more peaceful and better world. If flattening the Islamic State’s territory isn’t an option (and it shouldn’t be, as it only reinforces their objective), and doing nothing isn’t an option either (and it hardly is in the face of such violence), then solidarity is at least a path forwards.

* *

But shared humanity has to move beyond just linking arms between New Yorkers and Parisians. In the aftermath of the massacres in Paris, there was a chorus calling for attention to the other victims of the Islamic State’s violence, not only in Syria and Iraq every day but especially in Beirut, where a suicide bomber had killed over forty people just a day before the attacks in Paris. “The problem lies in our unwillingness to confront the conditioning which has allowed us to only view certain people as victims when terror strikes,” one writer states:

We pray for those in the west, those that personify our western exceptionalism and ideals rooted in what whiteness designates as worthy of attention. We are taught to mourn with Paris, but not with Beirut or even Newark or Chicago. Social media outlets implement ways to honor certain victims, but not others. Parisians are cloaked in martyrdom while Lebanese are met with silence and blame as they await the coming of our mourning. That in itself is terrorism, for it teaches people that they aren’t valued. It places a hierarchy on who is to be grieved and is contradictory to any assertions that all lives matter.

This sort of statement is common on the left today. Sometimes likened to victim oneupsmanship or lecturing people on how to mourn, I prefer instead to see it as an urging for expanding empathy – a global #BlackLivesMatter. Beyond this, though, it’s also a strategic rejection of the Islamic State’s values. It’s not difficult to imagine that the Islamic State intended not only to strike fear into the Western world by shattering the illusion of safety, but also to “highlight our selective outrage” in the face of brown lives suffering the same fate. If the so-called “gray-zone” is endangered, our rallying behind the French flag while Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish lives are forgotten helps endanger it further. (Indeed, the ubiquity of the French tricolore over profile pictures is especially important – it may intend to stand as metonym for the French victims of violence, but to many it is also a symbol that colonized Syria and Lebanon and so many others). In response to terrorism anywhere, we have to stand with victims everywhere.

I’ve referenced inequalities of war and hierarchies of humanity before. As long as there is a hierarchy of mourning for victims of terror, we’ll continue to feed into the cycles that lead directly to that terror. If we recognize those who suffer at the hands of our militaries and those who fall victim to terrorism “over there” alongside the victims “here,” in that shared humanity we can find some semblance of a future without all these types of violence.

French flags cover social media newsfeeds. Companies are flocking to express solidarité with Paris. World leaders give speeches pledging to stand with France.  President Obama said that “this is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.” None of this is wrong – it is vital to stand together with the French people, but it is also important to stand with the rest of the people who are victim to this kind of violence. Beirut’s bombing – an attack on civilians – has been framed as an attack on Hezbollah (which also pledged to fight the Islamic State before the attacks) and has not been equated as “an attack on all of humanity” by the leader of the free world. Instead, countries rush to close their gates to refugees who are the frontline victims to the same perpetrators (even though most of those involved in the Paris attacks were French and Belgian nationals).

When I visited the French Embassy and the Lebanese Embassy yesterday, both had flowers and other mementos left by those mourning for victims of violence, but the scenes were very different. Only one had four news crews outside filming segments. Only one massacre has captured the passions of so many. This should give us pause.

IMG_20151116_124521

IMG_20151116_124725

* *

In the days immediately after the attacks in Paris, I saw something peculiar on Twitter. People were tweeting about the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria in January as if they had just happened (they did occur the same week as the Charlie Hebdo killings, prompting posts at the time not unlike this and others about Beirut now). I also saw a large number of tweets about the massacre at Garissa University in Kenya (seven million people clicked through to this BBC story, 3/4 of them from social media), similarly ahistorical. Tweeted headlines stated things like “Kenya attack: 147 dead in Garissa University assault” or “Kenya attack: 147 dead in Garissa University assault unbelievable what is this world becoming” without any hint that the messenger was comparing events from seven months apart. Indeed, some of the confusion may have come from posts making a historically conscious comparison, but many lifted the news without any context. Tweets containing the words “Kenya attack” numbered relatively low all month before peaking this weekend.

I joked that the reason these stories were re-emerging was that “everything that happens in Africa is timeless,” but this is also a serious effort to make sense of these types of occurrences. For people who had forgotten (or never knew) that Al Shabaab and Boko Haram have been carrying out violence in east and west Africa, these tweets seemed like news. People don’t forget about events that happen in Europe or America very easily, but events that happen in the Global South don’t always register in our news feeds or our minds. And if we didn’t notice it happen before, it can happen again in the context of Paris. It can be news in November because it wasn’t news in April or January.

Whenever a terrorist attack happens now, many of us in the West are reminded of 9/11, or of the bombings in London and Madrid, or of countless school shootings. I also think often of the Kampala World Cup bombings, not only because I was in Uganda at the time (way upcountry and far from the attacks, but still) and when I talk about it people seem to have no idea what I’m referencing, but also because it reminds me that these attacks happen in other parts of the world too. The Islamic State’s reach into Parisian streets and Russian airliners is definitely a troubling thing to come to terms with – one’s vulnerability always is – but we have to remember that this is a fear shared by those living within the Islamic State’s reach, often exponentially.

This doesn’t lessen our mourning for the victims of Paris at all. Rather, it should expand our mourning to all those who suffer, to put us back into the realm of empathy and coexistence and solidarity. This is a fundamentally important point that I am trying to make: I am not arguing that it is wrong to mourn for or stand with the victims of the attack in Paris, only that we can do even more, and stand with humanity in the face of bombs and guns. So when Sophia Azeb asks of the articles and thinkpieces that emerge after incidents like these, “Do we want to be a little more human, or a little less, as this rock we live on hurtles around the sun?” I hope that, in calling for solidarity in mourning, I lean to a world a little more human.

Weekend Reading on Student Protests

A short reading list this weekend:

Weekend Reading

As long as they’re being hunted down by the PC police, cultural conservatives can pretend that they’re the victims of modern culture. Think about it: An entire society wants to marginalize them for talking about black-on-black crime or genetic definitions of gender. Of course, no one is going to arrest them under PC law, try them in PC court or lock them in PC jail. But they feel excluded and socially coerced to behave in particular ways, so they fight back wherever they can against compulsory thoughtfulness.

What “South Park” libertarians don’t seem to realize is that they’ve crafted a whole politics around their bruised feelings, which is exactly what they accuse the PC police of doing wrong. More than police brutality or wealth inequality or state surveillance, they don’t like being told that they’re wrong or should behave differently.

We have read about torture, and Guantánamo, and torture again, glowing with outrage at every turn. Even if it did not secure accountability for these outrages, the defense of civil liberties at least strengthened the norms prohibiting inhumane conduct in war—especially unacceptable forms of detention and interrogation. The value of civil libertarianism was at its greatest when those norms seemed momentarily fragile, and the country appeared to be slipping over to the “dark side,” as revelations from Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere began to mount.

But we should not pretend that you can never have too much of a good thing. Oppositional to the state in the short term, civil libertarianism can function to grant the state legitimacy in the long term by helping scrub wars of their outrageous excesses—as if those excesses were the main problem.

Under civil libertarianism (now augmented by a much newer human rights internationalism), how the state fights its enemies is made to matter much more than why it does so and with what consequences. The question of whether a war is right or wrong to begin with is often left to the side so long as the way the war is fought is arguably in conformity with national law and international standards.

Conferences, Conferences, Conferences

A few conference-related items of potential interest.

Firstly, I’m issuing my own brief call for any fellow travelers in justice/reconciliation/Africa/intervention studies by anthropologists thinking about attending the American Ethnological Society this March 31-April 2 in Washington, DC. I’m thinking about submitting a newer iteration of the paper I presented at ASA last year, on reconciliation and accountability, the ICC, and Invisible Children. I’m open to ways of framing it, so if anyone wants to help me cobble together a panel, I’d greatly appreciate it. Deadline is Jan. 31, but you can’t submit until after you register (I know, right?). I’ve heard AES is awesome, and I can’t wait to go – hopefully you’ll come with me! Comment, e-mail, tweet, etc. if you’re down to do a panel together on any of the aforementioned subjects.

On a related note, doing my grad-student-Africanist duty and spreading the word of a couple of Calls for Papers to any relevant Africanist scholars-in-training:

Boston University’s African Studies Center will be hosting its annual graduate student conference this March, with the theme of “Mobilizing Africa: Innovation, Syncretism, Appropriation.” Deadline for submission is Jan. 15, and the conference is March 25-26. I’ve never been, but it looks mighty interesting and is geared towards graduate students, so check it out.

At about the same time, Tennessee State University will be hosting its annual Africa Conference March 31-April 1, with the theme of “Africa in the 21st Century: The Promise of Development and Democracy.” Deadline is Dec. 31, and more details are in the CFP here [pdf].

And lastly, it’s almost that time of year again. I’ll be headed to San Diego in two weeks for the African Studies Association’s annual meeting, where I’ll be presenting a chapter from my MA thesis that is also a forthcoming article in African Studies Review. The paper is on the role of come-home messaging in the LRA conflict, focusing on how come-home radio programs began in Gulu, how they fared in neighboring Lira district, and how they have been transplanted into northeastern DRC. Looking forward to presenting, and if you’re headed to ASA, it’s session IX (Saturday morning), panel I-1, vaguely titled “Accounting for Violence.” Hope to see you there!

Weekend Reading

You get one less hour of reading this weekend.

The entire courtroom is a spectacle of state power. Black body after black body. Latino immigrant in need of a translator after Latino immigrant in need of a translator. A sprinkle of white men in business suits… In the courtroom: [the judge] is god. “Law and order” is the de jure theology and white supremacy the de facto religion. For true democracy to flourish we must become atheists of The State. “If it brings me to my knees,” singer Frank Ocean declares, “it’s a bad religion.” This exceptional country brought Michael Brown to his knees, before bringing his lifeless body to lie in a pool of his own blood. Ferguson is no anomaly. Every 28 hours in America a black person is killed by police, a security guard, or vigilante.

Only partially accessible and visible, the San Francisco police memorial offers a model of remembrance that conveys police grief as part and parcel of a carceral logic: dangerously paranoid, bunkered off from public access, and perpetuating policing itself. The power of the police is here separated, territorialized, defensive, and defended. The architectural formation presents a forbidden shrine—a separation Bryan and I seemed to have pierced without invitation. Police grief here is falsely rendered as something socio-communal—as if the dead were one of us—and yet that space for remembering is not “ours” at all.

Weekend Reading

Readings:

While the gentrified Midtown is hailed as “the next Bushwick” and rents continue to rise, the rest of the city remains a shell of its former self, choked by poverty and suffering from a lack of services. Most visibly, for the past three years many in Detroit have had their access to water restricted as result of being unable to pay water bills, prompting United Nations rapporteurs to investigate human rights violations. Meanwhile, commercial accounts like those the city has with Chrysler, General Motors, and professional sports arenas are able to stay in operation despite overdue debts in the thousands of dollars. This is the Gilded Age calculus of the new Detroit: the burdened public carrying the privilege of a private few.

Most metaphors for data’s power draw on the idea of visual surveillance by regarding data harvesting as an all-seeing gaze sweeping across the citizenry. We imagine ocular devices (or even real human eyes) perched atop giant watchtowers, as in the “panopticon,” Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century idea for an efficient prison, revived in 1975 by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish… However, in the case of our new information politics, the metaphor of visuality may not be as plausible as it first appears. The surveillance mechanism of the panopticon relies upon total visibility —you see the tower and assume the guards can see you. But the mechanisms assembled on behalf of new-fangled national security and consumer analytics seem to presuppose the opposite. They function through invisibility. The watchtower garishly announced itself; we need to see the security cameras for them to be effective. By contrast, the algorithm is invisible as it constructs its composites; it ever runs silently in the background like all that circuitry, voltage, and machine code that quietly lets you into your computer without ever announcing itself.

The government and corporate sectors’ algorithms work with data that is constantly being harvested and analyzed without our awareness — not only because the harvesting is sometimes in secret but also because we tend to not recognize the massive variety of mechanisms at play for turning our action, experience, and thought into data that categorizes, compartmentalizes, and calculates who we are.

Debating Free Higher Education

The latest issue of Dissent is centered on the theme “Arguments on the Left.” The issue brings together disparate voices from across the Left to address some of the biggest issues we are confronting today. You should read the whole thing, which includes discussions on party politics, solidarity movements, justice, civil liberties, labor, reproductive rights, anarchism, Marxism, Zionism, and religion. Here, I’m going to link to a blog-favorite: the issue of free higher education. I’ve been on team-free-higher-ed for a long time, and three smart minds debate the topic in Dissent. Here are some excerpts:

Staking out a controversial claim, Max Bruenig argues that free college is actually a regressive demand, stating that “making college more or entirely free would most likely boost the wealth of college attendees without securing any important egalitarian gains.” He continues:

Given… class-based differences in attendance levels, institutional selection, and current student benefit levels, making college free for everyone would almost certainly mean giving far more money to students from richer families than from poorer ones. Of course, providing more generous student benefits might alter these class-based skews a bit by encouraging more poor and middle-class people to go to college or to attend more expensive institutions. But even reasonably accounting for those kinds of responses, the primary result of such increased student benefit generosity would be to fill the pockets of richer students and their families.

Conceding that college is mostly a place for the privileged, Tressie McMillan Cottom explains that people often don’t attend college due to cost, but also because “going to college is complicated. It takes cultural and social, not just economic, capital. It means navigating advanced courses, standardized tests, forms. It means figuring out implicit rules—rules that can change.” She lays out the inequalities and obstacles that keep people out of college beyond cost, arguing for an expansion of the conversation beyond its usual limits. She closes with a powerful rejoinder on education as a public good:

I do not care if free college won’t solve inequality. As an isolated policy, I know that it won’t. I don’t care that it will likely only benefit the high achievers among the statistically unprivileged—those with above-average test scores, know-how, or financial means compared to their cohort. Despite these problems, today’s debate about free college tuition does something extremely valuable. It reintroduces the concept of public good to higher education discourse—a concept that fifty years of individuation, efficiency fetishes, and a rightward drift in politics have nearly pummeled out of higher education altogether. We no longer have a way to talk about public education as a collective good because even we defenders have adopted the language of competition… Those of us who believe in viable, affordable higher ed need a different kind of language. You cannot organize for what you cannot name.

Already, the debate about if college should be free has forced us all to consider what higher education is for. We’re dusting off old words like class and race and labor. We are even casting about for new words like “precariat” and “generation debt.” The Debt Collective is a prime example of this. The group of hundreds of students and graduates of (mostly) for-profit colleges are doing the hard work of forming a class-based identity around debt as opposed to work or income. The broader cultural conversation about student debt, to which free college plans are a response, sets the stage for that kind of work. The good of those conversations outweighs for me the limited democratization potential of free college.

Mike Konczal argues for debt-free college education because of the vast inequality that is increasing thanks to student loan debt. He also sketches out how the erosion of higher education as a public service is hurting the country as a whole, and how it is tied to other aspects of our economy – “public disinvestment in the states has been paired with generous tax cuts for rich individuals and corporations” and “for-profit schools that have been filling in the gaps have saddled many poor people with lifelong debts.” He also makes a strong argument for higher education’s ability to help close the gap between classes in America and bring people together in unique ways:

Education is a right that the government must grant. Higher education, then, shouldn’t be left to a handful of private schools, where administrators pursue their own objectives independent of public need, or to the market, which is only interested in how much it can profit at any given time. The point of public higher education is to collapse precisely this distance between elite and mass education, by ensuring better access and higher quality that would never otherwise be available on a large scale.

Higher education also provides one of the last spaces for young people not shaped solely by market values. The American liberal arts model is unique in that it allows for experimentation, learning, and community-building. Attacks on higher education haven’t simply been about raising tuition but about dismantling this model itself. A notable example is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent attempt to remove phrases such as “improve the human condition,” “the search for truth,” and “public service” from the state university’s mission, reorienting it simply toward the needs of business.

All three of these pieces are worth reading and thinking about. I’m obviously partial to the latter two – education is a fundamental right to those who want it, a path for class mobility, a means through which to improve society as a whole, and a signifier of what we value in the communities we live in. The college population may be unequal, but – in my opinion – the idea of college itself continues to be a vital institution which we must defend.

This is just one of many conversations happening on the left – check out the rest.

Update, October 18: Sara Goldrick-Rab has also written a salvo also on the topic of free higher education. Though published by Brookings, it speaks clearly to the Left (don’t read the other stuff in the series there, which seems more like the typical). Goldrick-Rab makes clear the stakes that we’re facing. Higher education was possible and attainable for those who wanted it two generations ago, but it has been harder and harder to get precisely as a college degree becomes more ubiquitous and more necessary for our futures:

In the 1970s, targeting financial aid on the poorest individuals made sense—after all, most people didn’t want to attend college, it wasn’t required, and college costs were low enough that the Pell Grant largely covered the bills.

Today, that model is failing: the vast majority of the populace wants access to affordable, high-quality public higher education, it is required by the modern labor market, and college costs are so high that grants and scholarships provide but a meager discount restricted to only a fraction of students with financial need. Means-tested financial aid, administered via a massive bureaucracy, leaves out both the very poorest—who cannot navigate the system—and squeezes the middle-class, who are offered only loans.