Three-fifths of the American Dream

Celebrating the three-fifths compromise in the Constitution speaks volumes about America today, writes Rosenberg.

U.S. President Barack Obama talks at the 2012 Tribal Nations Conference
"[A]ntebellism transmutes everything being fought over into something worth fighting for: voting for Obama becomes electing another Lincoln, cutting funding becomes a constitutional compromise," says Professor Chris Taylor [EPA]

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” – US Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3

James Wagner, President of Emory University, wrote a brilliant little mini-essay, but then had it published in the wrong place. “As American as… Compromise” was perfect for The Onion, a witty send-up of the compromise-worshiping logic behind Spielberg’s Lincoln, it celebrated the three-fifths compromise in the Constitution – not just enshrining slavery, but giving added political power to slave-owners – as an exemplary achievement: 

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator – for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared – the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it. 

Their common goal of… Oops! The Civil War! Nevermind! Brilliant stuff, you have to admit. As an ironic skewering of the Spielberg/Obama/Hollywood/Beltway worship of compromise, it’s hard to conceive of a more perfect example. 

Except…. Wagner didn’t submit it to The Onion, as he should have. Instead, he had it published in Emory Magazine, in the “From the President” column. The irony, it seems, was entirely lost on the writer himself. A storm of outrage erupted online, forcing Wagner to clarify/obfuscate his remarks. Two posts, in particular, made points I thought worth dwelling on. First, “James Wagner’s ‘highest aspiration’” by Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry, focused specifically on how this piece encapsulated the neo-liberal managerial CEO mindset that typifies college presidents in America today. The subtext behind Wagner’s column, described in a news story Bady links to, is Emory’s sweeping abolition of entire departments announced several months ago – a move quite typical of how large corporations operate, but utterly at odds with the traditional role of faculty in determining the academic curriculum. Bady writes: 

The job of a university president, today, is not to be an intellectual leader but to be a manager and a fundraiser, the CEO of a corporation which just happens to be a university. And because the job is to ensure the continuity of the institution, no matter what, it makes a certain kind of sense that the 3/5ths compromise would appeal to him as an idea. Politics trumps principle. Especially in the era of fiscal crisis – which has been going on in higher education for decades now – the purpose of a university president is to manage that crisis, both to ensure the survival of the university and to use that crisis to make whatever structural changes he can to ensure its future survival. 

The pattern actually predates the era of fiscal crisis, as we’ll see in a moment. But first, a quick note: It’s remarkable that in his original column, Wagner wrote about “the intention to include as many points of view as possible”, even as he was presiding over the extinction of entire departments and graduate school programmes. What’s remarkable is not that this is extraordinary or unusual, but that it’s perfectly par-for-the-course for those involved in Wagner’s enterprise. 

“We’re still living in a world profoundly shaped by the three-fifths compromise, a world in which even our President is only entitled to three-fifths of an American Dream.”

‘Knowledge production’

And what enterprise is that? It’s the one most clearly staked out by then-president of the University of California, Clark Kerr, in his 1963 book, The Uses of the University, in which he wrote:

The production, distribution, and consumption of “knowledge” in all its forms is said to account for 29 percent of gross national product… and “knowledge production” is growing at about twice the rate of the rest of the economy… What the railroads did for the second half of the last century and the automobile for the first half of this century may be done for the second half of this century by the knowledge industry: that is, to serve as the focal point for national growth.

Kerr was hardly alone in speaking like this – he was just more focused, sustained and articulate than most. But it does shed valuable light on a famous passage from a speech by Mario Savio of the Free Speech Movement in December 1964: 

We have an autocracy which runs this university. It’s managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received – from a well-meaning liberal – was the following: He said, “Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?” That’s the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw material that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organised labour, be they anyone! We’re human beings! 

The vast disconnect between the students’ and the managers’ view of knowledge has changed remarkably little since that time. Of course, Kerr would not have said anything to suggest anyone settle for three-fifths of the American Dream. But that brings us directly to the second post, by Chris Taylor, an English professor at the University of Chicago, who helps explain what has changed versus what hasn’t. 

Taylor’s post, “Antebellism: The Neoliberal Compromise of the Political“, is not specifically concerned with higher education. Rather than focusing in, it expands outward to take in the wider framework of discourse which Wagner’s piece and the reactions it generated serve to represent. He notes that just a few years ago, during the Bush administration, the frame of reference was distinctively medieval – “Crusades”, water torture, etc. But now, he says, we are all wrapped up in the antebellum era: 

Antebellism equips its advocates – from Barack Obama to Steven Spielberg to your uncle who is currently wading through Team of Rivals – with an allegory with which to map the political constellation of the present… We’re all keyed into the antebellist register. We have all – right and left – formed a discursive compromise to think the present through the examples and symbols afforded by antebellum history. 

And he goes on to elaborate on how this impacts us all: 

Any invocation of compromise invokes the haunting fact of its failure, just as, and more broadly, the discursive formation of antebellism situates us in a moment just prior to a war that cannot but arrive. So, how is the world so structured that subjects come to know and feel themselves as political only within the horizon of total catastrophe? …. 

Antebellism finds its conditions of possibility in the routinised crisis marked by the intertwined processes of neoliberalism and globalisation…. [T]hrough the antebellist allegory, US subjects can imagine their accumulating, low intensity misery as turning into something – a punctual, cataclysmic, dramatic crisis. The alternative – that is, this world, the real world, the one wherein the accumulation of misery has not transmuted into qualitative transformation, the one wherein the permanent crisis of neoliberalism is lived non-dramatically – is too much to bear… [A]ntebellism transmutes everything being fought over into something worth fighting for: voting for Obama becomes electing another Lincoln, cutting funding becomes a constitutional compromise. 

While Taylor underscores the commonalities, there are, I think, at least three distinct ways in which different sorts of people tend to see the world through the antebellum lens. The first is the elite neo-liberal way shared by Spielberg, Obama and Wagner, which somehow takes this era of spectacularly failed compromises – moral abominations which also failed as practical politics – and reads it as a ringing endorsement of compromise as a transcendent moral principle. 

Multiple realities

The second is the “constitutional conservative”/”Tea Party” Republican way, which both take the original constitution as inviolable sacred text and rewrite zealously, at the same time knowing in its bones that it will end in cataclysmic blood and tears – they talk secession, because that’s how it ended the last time around, and if they’ve confused the attack on Fort Sumter with the Boston Tea Party, well, such is life.  

The third is how self-described American progressives see crisis as conferring meaning on the mundane politics of the day, which I believe hews most closely to the passages I’ve quoted above, without further adornment. Those who buy into Obama are described by his observation that “voting for Obama becomes electing another Lincoln”, while more sceptical sorts look elsewhere – to Occupy for an alternative democratic vision, for example, or to and its associates for a liveable planetary future. 

The benefit of these latter alternatives is that radicals like these have always sought to infuse mundane, everyday struggles with transcendent hopes (and with good reason – from black freedom to women’s equality, to Social Security, Medicare and the weekend, our world is profoundly structured by the impossible hopes of earlier ages, which radicals past infused into the struggles of their day). If that makes them antebellists in some sense today, then so be it. But it’s not any sort of major narrative swerve along the lines of how Tea Party Republicanism has come to replace Great War on Terror Republicanism, or how anti-war Obama supporters have turned into Obama kill list supporters. 

Which is to say, there is a deeper through-line to true radical thought, which does not divorce it from the cultural shifts around it. After all, those cultural shifts have rational components to them. They are not mere illusions. We had all that medievalism under Bush because – hey, we were doing the crusade thing again, something we haven’t done since way back in medieval times. And we are doing the antebellum thing now in past because the collapse of Reaganism, followed by the election of our first black president has thrown Reaganite true believers back into the state of questioning whether anyone who isn’t white can really be an American – much less President. And this profound traumatisation will not let anyone else’s politics rest. Birtherism is but the most nakedly obvious manifestation of the psycho-historically ghosts and other apparitions it has raised.  

This is not to say that these are the only things going on, obviously. We are still doing the crusade thing, for one – even though in highly minimalist/efficient form. We are always doing more than one thing at a time. And we are doing something completely new as well. Multiple realities resonate in every historical era. Ours is no different.  

Taylor’s piece is well worth reading in its entirety, though I definitely see the workings of antebellism as more fractured and varied than he does. At one point, he writes: 

We need to insistently demonstrate that it isn’t necessary to turn to the antebellum to think our present… We need to be able to say, “Um, hey, prez, you’re talking about budget cuts for university departments – not founding a state and collaborating in the eventual enslavement of millions of people. Drama much? Chill out.”  

And while the journalist working a beat in me could not agree more, I have to note that it’s not enough. At first glance, it seems a sobering approach. But the idea of disintoxication that Taylor proposes – setting all the resonances aside and just attending to the hear-and-now – is itself an intoxicating idea. If only we could just totally be here now, then we could at least make some small start to change the world! We would be talking about the real! And to a certain extent, I agree, but… We humans are complicated creatures, made up of our histories as well as flesh and bone. Actually, being here now for us means being here with all our demons, too, and all the spectres of history that haunt us as well. Which means that we’re still living in a world profoundly shaped by the three-fifths compromise, a world in which even our President is only entitled to three-fifths of an American Dream. 

Hmmm. Maybe I will see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter after all. I wonder, though, what would thoroughly post-modern Buffy think about it? More importantly, what would Buffy do

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he’s worked since 2002. He’s also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

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