This is the fourth post in my series arc of More Confessions From an Educated Fool. This one deals with the “cares of this world,” and how I got caught in a web of them, over and over again, like I was prey for a spider to bite and suck the life out of me.
So, a university president, a corporate senior vice president, and nonprofit senior program officer are all sitting at a bar off East 59th Street, after a long decision-day Thursday. Gus, their bartender, asks in his Hollywood-exaggerated New Yorker accent, “Hey jerks, what is it that youse do for a living, anyway?
Damon, the university president says, “I kneel and grovel for money.”
Steve, the senior program officer says, “I do cartwheels, somersaults, and floor exercises for money.”
After a brief pause, Alan, the senior VP says, “I use ads spots to hold up people for money,” while gesturing with his right hand in his blazer pocket. “Now give me your wallets!,” he says. The other two stooges laugh without restraint.
Gus pulls out his Saturday night special, and points it at the senior VP. “You mean like this?”
The senior VP says, without batting an eyelash or turning away, “I work for a trillion-dollar company. We get a billion people to sign their lives away every day. Hell yeah, it’s like this!”
The other stooges and Gus laugh. Damon pounds the table with his fist so hard he knocks over his drink.
After putting away his gun, Gus says, “What’ll it be? This one’s on me!”
Without taking a beat, all three gents say, “A vodka tonic.”
I have walked three paths in my career. Academia, the nonprofit world, and writing and publishing (and self-publishing) articles and books. Academia will claim that it isn’t a capitalist endeavor. The nonprofit world will say it claims 501(c)(3) tax status because they are changing the world by doing good works. The corporate world deflects while fully engaged in public displays of affection with capitalism, lips and tongues and spit included. “That’s just the way it is,” they sigh before another round of groping.
All of them are liars, I have found with 30 years (mostly) in and (sometimes) out of academia, 11 years working and consulting with nonprofits, and 20 years of off-and-on work in publishing articles and beating my brains into mush in book publishing. But if they are all liars, the lies are for people who are looking to do good in the world, for disdainful people, but people not so cynical that they have given up their core principles and universal moral values. They are for people like me.
That’s what capitalists do. They take advantage of people and rob them of their wealth, of their minds and bodies and souls. They like to do this at gunpoint, but they love to do it with slogans and pitches. “Connecting People, Creating Change” was the mantra of one Academy for Educational Development (AED), a nonprofit I worked with for nearly eight years. I used to joke that their real slogan was “Corrupting People, Creating Chaos.” The sad part was how correct I was in my assessment. This was even before I took on budgetary duties for a multimillion-dollar grant on a K-16 education project, where I learned AED had us mid- and senior-level program officer types to keep three separate budgets: one for the government, one for funders and potential funders (to hide our overhead), and the real one for AED’s nabobs. That last one included a one-percent vig on all grants that any of us brought in, a “rainy day fund” meant only for AED’s most senior staff.
It turned AED into a $600-million-a-year Ponzi scheme, and included millions in bribes to corrupt Afghans as part of the cost of “Connecting People, Creating Change” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The truth was, the 501(c)(3) status was only to get away with making a profit off government and private foundation funding without having to pay a cent in corporate income taxes. I knew this was the reality of this world in 1999, when I made the switch to full-time nonprofit work with Presidential Classroom, when my former APUSH teacher Harold Meltzer laughed at the idea of nonprofits in the US’ capitalist regime. I had ideals about doing good outside of higher education, but I was never naive about their larger money-making agenda.
Publishers, agents, and editors would have me believe that the only criteria for publishing my stuff is if my fastball, curveball, and slider/sinker combination is good enough for dissemination. But first always comes the disclaimer: “if you have a work that doesn’t easily fit into a formulaic category, or if you are Black and over 40, or if you don’t account for the feelings of fragile white readers, we can’t make money, so we can’t publish you.” However, “we will publish schlock, how-to guides, and very famous people with ghostwriters, because that’s easy work for quick bucks.” They are the most honest liars, mostly because they don’t give a shit about the greater good. I can work with this.
But what I can no longer stomach is academia’s hypocrisy. This time 30 years ago was my first week as an MA student in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Eric, a fourth-year grad student and PhD candidate in the program, a man who once saw himself as my mentor (I never saw him that way), explained the nature of academia this way. “The academy is a medieval institution, whose ways are founded on the idea of the guild.” In my head, I’m thinking, This is utter bullshit. The European university began its missions during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries to be sure. But they needed funds to run then, and they damn sure do now. This analysis from an avowed 40-something Marxist let me know just how much he didn’t get about the academic world.
The only thing medieval about academia in my three decades of learning, teaching, and experiencing it is its ideals. In reality, academia is a money-making machine for its boards, for its athletics programs, and for the “hot stuff,” scientific and technological research. It serves at the will of deep pocketed robber barons, professional athletic corporations, and at the behest of corrupt governments and the military-industrial complex. That anyone comes out of a college or graduate or professional school with their sense of morality and social justice intact is no small miracle. That anyone these days earns their degrees with low debt or no debt at all is either part of the super-rich class or has performed a feat John the Baptist would be proud of. And in that latter-day case, they probably are completely fine with the system the way it is, supporting the bloated salaries of upper university managers everywhere.
The story about the three stooges of my career should end with them all stumbling drunk out of the bar, only to be robbed by some random guy wearing a ski mask. After all, that is what they deserve. What I deserve, well, that’s a bit more complicated. Loving money has a way of making the mediocre hireable, popular, and powerful, while marginalizing everything and everyone else. I spent so many years chasing promotions for funds to help pay down student loan debt and to provide for our son the life I never had growing up with poverty (and then welfare poverty in my teens). The strategy didn’t work.
I had to accept that I am not built to be a capitalist cog or hamster. I had to accept that I as a person ask questions, and make good trouble doing so. I am at my best as a writer and thinker. I am at my best when I question the worlds I have inhabited, not when I am just going along to get along in them.