One of the primary arguments of The Adjunct Underclass is that we can’t claim that we’re interested in serving low-income college students and having them make the successful transition from high school to college, and simultaneously give them a teaching force that is made up of people who are not supported by their institutions, who don’t really even belong. But that’s only one of thousands of practices, across all areas of society, that work directly in opposition to our desired outcomes.
Our careers, for instance, are full of gateway experiences that absolutely don’t prepare one for the life beyond the gate. I’ve often described architecture school, for example, as a bait-and-switch, in which training as a theoretical sculptor is the threshold for entering a profession that mostly builds cost-effective rectangles. As a culture, we do an awful lot of things that lead directly toward ends that we claim we don’t want.
In writing, for instance, the path to being noticed goes through short stories and flash fiction, building credibility through small publication credits. MFA programs create short story writers, because that’s the amount of story that semesters can hold. But being a novelist is just a different practice, and our novels have been reduced in possibility through being molded from the wrong model.
Hannah Gadsby said something similar in an interview with the New York Times, about the necessity of success in the short-story form of club standup to get a chance to do the longer-form work she thrives in:
What I was talking about there is club comedy. Because that’s the world that built comedy. Our comics come out of this gladiatorial setup/punch line shock. People celebrate club comedy like it is the art form. I love long-form comedy, but in order to get to that place where you can perform it, you’ve got to fight it out in the clubs. I know how to do that. I know how to tear someone a new [expletive]. I don’t feel good about it. I don’t like going onstage after other people who’ve done rape jokes, and that’s how I had to cut my teeth: Make a group of people who’ve just laughed at a rape joke laugh.
I’ve been thinking about this while watching police violence around the country. And I’m surprised that we’re surprised at it. When law enforcement agencies hire, they privilege ex-military members, sometimes by policy and law. They place enormous logistical and cultural barriers to participation by women, reinforcing all of the travails of fragile masculinity and instant reaction to perceived disrespect we talked about a couple of months back. And then we put them into armor, give them tanks and a broad array of sophisticated weaponry, and we’re somehow then surprised when we see American streetscenes that look like Kandahar.
We can’t be surprised by that. We select for it. We’ve written it into policy. We’ve abandoned the idea of the “peace officer,” and created an occupying army instead.
We’re hearing conversations about “Defund the Police.” And the immediate leap is that the inevitable next step is “eliminate the police,” which is absolutely not the point. It’s a handy claim to make, though, because it scares people, and scared people are easier to manipulate.
We could, though, scale way back on the weaponry. We could bring large numbers of police officers to a scene in school buses rather than armored personnel carriers. We could recognize that desert or forest camouflage uniforms are just symbolic in an urban American setting, a shorthand for the brutality of warfare that could be unleashed without warning. We could stop pretending that “non-lethal force alternatives” don’t cause lasting injury. And we could acknowledge that communities of color have been the occupied nation for America’s entire history.
We could shift our funding toward mental health first responders, so that every public instance of mental illness or domestic disturbance or neighborhood dispute aren’t met by an armed response. We could work in policy to end unannounced or “no-knock” warrants, remembering that the Fourth Amendment is at least equal in importance to the Second. We could put a lot more policing and prosecutorial power behind the control of white-people crimes like fraud and insider trading and conflicts of interest that cost all of us vast amounts of money and opportunity.
Our rethinking of police can’t just be logistical and tactical. It is, at heart, cultural. We’ve trained our law enforcement personnel through years and years of high school football and military service and masculine enculturation; we can’t ask them to instantaneously reject all the training that we ourselves have provided and steadily rewarded. We have work to do to heal ourselves on every front; there are none among us who have not been dyed in this pot.
This is the time for us to have a lot of serious cultural conversations. The nature of law and order, and law enforcement, is high among them. The alternatives are not binary, a choice between no police at all and exactly the police we have today. The alternatives are endless, and the deliberations must not be only among those who benefit from the status quo.