Sunday, September 13, 2015

False Consciousness as a Pollyannaish Way of Life

You’ve got to love human beings. They think they are special. Human clans think they special. Human tribes think they are special. Human kingdoms think they are special. Human nations think they are special. Human cliques think they are special. Human corporations think they are special. Of course, humans, human clans, human tribes, human kingdoms, human cliques, and human corporations are not special, not peculiar, not unique, an not exceptional. Humans everywhere are simply human with all that entails.

Many at the Honest Weight Food Corporation think they are special. Many at Honest Weight, for example, think that the corporation of which they are shareholders is “democratic”, whatever that means since “democracy” like “freedom” and ‘liberty” is a symbol that means different things to different people. If your idea of democracy is a bureaucratic organisation with inequalities of power and control, only around 200 of its 10,000 members voting regularly, with a Board elected by those few members, incumbents elected over and over again, and a Board which can change its policies of appointing members to the Board by whim, than Honest Weight Corporation is, like General Electric, “democratic.

Many at Honest Weight think that the food the Corporations sells is special. Honest Weight does sell some local apples and a few other local goods. It also sells Green Giant Brussels Sprouts, Dole bananas, DelMonte bananas, and host of goods from China and other places across the globe including avocados from Mexico. If this makes Honest Weight special than Price Chopper and HEB are special too. If every grocery store is special than none are special.

Many at Honest Weight think that the Corporation is local. It is and it isn’t. Honest Weight is a member of the National Cooperative Business Association, a bureaucratic organisation that “suggests” policies to its member corporations, one of which is that member corporations should rid themselves of working members or volunteer members. Honest Weight works with other corporations to buy in volume so they can offer goods for sale on a regular basis. Honest Weight, in other words, is not that different from Wal-mart, Price Chopper, or HEB with its policy of buying in bulk and selling “low”. The Honest Weight Corporation is simply following a corporate model that goes back to the Gilded Age with its monopolies and cartels and vertical and horizontal integrations.

Many at Honest Weight think their membership programme is special. It isn’t. Most corporations like Honest Weight began as member only institutions that were closed to non-members. Over the years they have become something quite different, something that looks like a lot like the corporate old boss that cooperatives at one time did not want to be. There are a number of reasons that most corporate “coops” today look a lot different than they once did. The takeover of cooperative boards by corporate types who think only they and they alone have the secret knowledge of how to obtain profitability, the initiation of a management system that is inherently anti-democratic and bureaucratic, and the tendency among humans to let others do what they should be doing, amongst them.

If these ethnocentric corporate and bureaucratic powers that be at Honest Weight get their way little of the membership programme as it exists today will remain in a few months. Apparently, the powers that be with their lawyerly and corporate mentalities now believe that the membership programme at Honest Weight and which once dominates cooperatives is illegal. Such a programme, they claim, violates US labour law. Do they have any evidence, hard empirical evidence that this is the case? Of course not. They can give you their mantra that a cooperative in New Mexico some twenty years ago was told to cease and desist its membership programme by the government, though which government is unclear. Since this case never went to court, however, there was no case law that developed out of it. They can tell you over and over again that it is illegal but they can produce no empirical evidence that that is the case. Moreover, the lawyers at Park Slope, a traditional cooperative in Brooklyn, have apparently told that Coop that the notion that they are breaking labour law is simply false.

What is a person to do in the face of such contradictory information? Some might be willing to trust Honest Weight's lawyers and powers that be but not me. I am no Pollyanna. I am going to go with Park Slope. Honest Weight’s lawyers have produced no evidence that their claims are empirically true. Until Honest Weight’s lawyers show me the money, show me the empirical evidence that the Corporation is in violation of labour law, I am going to go with New York City lawyers since Albany, unlike New York City, is not at the heart of the legal world. Additionally, I am going to go with Park Slope and its legal advisers because I know that the National Cooperative Business Association has long preached the gospel that Corporations should not have member workers and, I know, that several members of the Board and of the management team at the Honest Weight Food Corporation have wanted, for a variety of reasons, to rid themselves of the member worker programme for years. It is not an accident that they now think they have now found the legal reasons to justify their most treasured wish.

Humans, of course, believe a lot of things. The Westboro Baptist Church, for example, believes that it is god’s prophetic instrument warning Americans that they are doomed for their collective iniquities against the most high. Many of Honest Weight Food Corporation’s members believe the propaganda that it is a democratic “cooperative”. Honest Weight’s lawyers believe that the Corporation violates labour law. Before I can assent to the truth of any of these assertions, however, I want to see the money. I want to see the empirical evidence. But hey, I’m weird, I prefer facts to smiley faced don't worry be happy everything will be OK apologetic and demagogic rhetoric.

Postscript: A Note on the Park Slope Communication to Honest Weight
Some members at Honest Weight Food Corp have been pointing out that Park Slope Food Coop and the Honest Weight Food Corporation are different. This is true. Park Slope, despite a handful of paid staff, is an old style cooperative. It is member run. Only members can shop at it. Members have to work at the Coop in order to shop at it. Honest Weight Food Corporation and Bloomingfoods used to operate just like Park Slope until they decided to become corporations and allow non-members to shop and work at it.

How does this affect the issue of whether member workers are illegal under federal or state law? Got me. It affects this issue only in so far as what Park Slope said in a communication with a member of the Honest Weight Board about whether member workers are a violation of labour law. My understanding from talking to the Board Member who received the communication is that the communication DOES NOT say that a worker coop like Park Slope does not violate the law while a consumer corporate faux coop like Honest Weight Food Corporation does. My understanding is that the communication says that this discourse about member workers violating labour law in general is a red herring, is a total fiction. So, dear readers, if you want to know what the communication from Park Slope really says why not ask those who have actually read it?

Monday, September 7, 2015

I Am Human Watch Me Roar: The Love It or Leave It Mentality

I have been studying humans intellectually and academically for forty some years now and I have to say that they continue to fascinate me. They fascinate me not because I learn something new about them everyday. They fascinate me because it's just the opposite, I continually see them doing the same things over and over again. I learned this universal lesson over again this weekend.

Over the weekend I learned from several sources, sources, by the way, who have never given me inaccurate information, that the Board of the Honest Weight Food Store was going to appoint someone to an empty Board seat. I learned that they were not going to do it as they had the last time--appoint the individual who had the most votes among those not elected to the Board--but were going to interview those who came in fourth and fifth in a Board election where only three, two of them incumbents, were elected.

During me free time, during my break time, on Sunday I informed members and staff of Honest Weight about this important information while no customers were present. Most of them listened and then intellectually processed the facts and finally, made a considered decision on how to respond to the factual information I provided. One staff member, however, told management that I was "saying bad things about Honest Weight". I wasn't, of course, I was just communicating the facts to others, but it is this notion that I was bad mouthing Honest Weight that I want to talk about in the rest of this blog and reflect briefly on what it says about human behaviour.

Some humans react to information intellectually. Most, however, as was the case with the staff member above, react to things emotionally. Reacting to facts emotionally, of course, has a long history. I think the first time I learned about it and experienced was when, during the Vietnam War, I, an activist against the war, was confronted by the love it or leave it crowd. Their response to my reasoned opposition to the war was usually not a reasoned response. It was usually love it--an emotion--or leave it--it being the object of their emotional attachment, in this case being that inanimate object known as the United States. Some people, you see, fear the truth particularly when the truth conflicts with their emotionally driven ideological presumptions.

The emotional reaction of one Honest Weight member staff, of course, is in every way an emotional reaction of the same kind. Interestingly, this staff member didn't express at the time any unwillingness to talk about the issue (or was it perhaps someone who overheard the conversation?) or didn't come to me with his or her "concerns" about me saying "bad" things about the Honest Weight Food Store. He or she instead went straight to management. Leaving behind the question of why this staff member didn't come to me first but went directly to management, this emotional reaction points up once again several things in general. First, humans often mistake facts for an almost demonic criticism, and, second, humans tend to react to things in emotional ways even when the object of their devotion is an inanimate object (an inanimate object that since it is a corporation would probably be categorised as a person by the US Supreme Court). The more things change the more they stay the same when it comes to human behaviour. Beam me up Scotty!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Smells Like Bureaucratic Spirit: Down the Honest Weight Rabbit Hole Yet Again

Recently the Board of the Honest Weight Food Store decided to fill an empty Board seat by appointing Leif Hartmark to the seat left empty by the resignation of Ron Royne. Hartmark, an educational bureaucrat. had run for an empty Board seat but had not been elected by Honest Weight's membership.

Fast forward to this week. Once again a seat at the Honest Weight Food Store is open as a result of the resignation of Kelly Carrone. Once again the Board has decided not to call a special election, something that raises questions about the Honest Weight Board's commitment to the "democracy" the food store claims as one of their holiest of holies. One would assume, given the precedent established by the Board when Royne resigned and the nearest to the vote post Hartmark was appointed to the Board, that the Board would follow the "rule" it had established earlier, but no, no such logic is in play. This time the Board has apparently decided to interview two candidates, the candidate who finished nearest and the candidate who finished second nearest to those who had already passed the Board election winners post and decide which one they want to fill the vacant Board seat.

Why the change of heart? One can only guess. The candidate who finished closest to winning election is a staff member and the hegemonic clique at the Corpop have an irrational fear of staff members on the Board and an even more irrational fear that staff should not be able evaluate the powers that be even though they have done it before, apparently does not want him to fill the vacancy. According to sources the candidate who finished second closest to winning election to the Board is more their type of man just like Hartmark, Homo bureaucraticus, that cultural status group that thinks it alone has the divine or natural right to guide corporations to the nirvana or profithood.

In all of this the hegemonic clique that controls the Board apparently fills no qualms in not only refusing to call a special Board election--so much for the "democratic" part of the Honest Weight "manfesto"--but in making sure that their preferred candidate is picked to fill the Board vacancy despite the fact that he finished behind the other "candidate" being interviewed. I find all of this astonishing. Still you have got to give props to hegemonic clique of the board--Messers. Fry, Kuchera, Hartmark, and their fellow travellers. These Homo Bureaucraticus types think that they can make up a rule, follow that rule, and then discard that rule when it no longer suits their situational power purposes. And they do it all so brazenly. Presumably, they feel, and sadly I think they are right, that there will be no consequences whatsoever for their we've got the powers and we intend to use it for our own benefit. Just like in American society at large incumbents tend to get re-elected at the Coop by the few who come out to vote.

I have to say I was a bit surprised that the clique that controls the Honest Weight Board is so brazen. I also have to say that I am surprised that other members of the Board who are not part of the ruling clique are letting it happen and offering justifications such as, well if I wasn't a Board member it would be even worse (let's call it playing kick the can on Fry/Kuchera/Harmark Street or how I prolonged the inevitable). Such ideological justifications and rationalisations may help one sleep at night but they don't excuse moral and ethical culpability. Banality, sadly, is the new normal even among those who still don't think that the new boss is much the same as the old boss (let's call it a kindler and gentler version of Stockholm Syndrome, Bureaucracy Syndrome. See also the Labour Theory of Aristocracy and the Asch Experiment).

Sources inform me that the Board can appoint whomever they want to the Board according to the "bylaws" of the Corpop. But that is not the issue. The issue is ought the Board to behave in such a clearly machiavellian fashion? If the Board don't ask for a special election what does that say about the Board's commitment to "democracy". If they don't take the person who got the fourth most votes in the election after the three who were elected what does that say about the Board's commitment to "democracy", the Board's commitment to following the membership's lead--they voted Nicholson fourth--and the Board's commitment to their own policies, situational though they may be, of appointing the person with the next most votes to the Board? The obvious answer? The Board's actions clearly show that they have a very limited commitment to democracy and a very limited commitment to the actions of Membership, in this case the Board vote earlier this year. Their actions seem to suggest that they are committed to their own rather oligarchic vision of democracy, something that should not be surprising given that they are products of a narcissistic bureaucratic world in which they, like corporate CEO types everywhere, see themselves as divinely or naturally mandated to rule because of their wheeler dealer we can make money "skills". Need I point out that their "skills" have brought the Corpop to the very edge of a very slippery financial downward slope on which it now teeters? Remember the 20% solution?

The Board did what everyone knew they would. They appointed the person who finished fifth, not fourth in the most recent elections for the Board. This is interesting in a number of ways. First, the election they chose to appoint the fifth place finisher from was not the Board election that Carrone won. In other words, they picked and chose not only the candidate they wanted but the election they wanted to take him from. Second, the Board member who made such a big deal of interviewing candidates before a decision was made managed to delay the inevitable for a few weeks. Gee, well done. Third, this shows again what we already knew, namely that the discourse that Honest Weight Food Corporation is a "democracy" is utter non-sense. It is propaganda not reality.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Life in the Pissant Swamp: Dazed and Confused.

Today's students are quite fascinating in a number of ways. In the classes I teach I preface my courses with an introduction on theory and method, something I suspect is largely absent from the high school curricula except in college track courses, during the first week of class for several reasons, one of them that both are essential to understanding not only how social science "works", but human life itself. The social sciences after all, whether History, Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, and so on, are fundamentally about understanding human life. And they are not only about "facts" but about interpretation of those facts.

Many students, however, seem to have difficulties for whatever reason in grasping the essence of critical thinking, of grasping that analysts, including historians, must use interpretive schemas to understand the whys of human life. At the heart of critical thinking in my classes is the proposition that human and what humans have made of the world can be grasped fully in five little words and the concepts behind them: economics, politics, culture, demography, and geography. Humans are economic animals. In today's world most of us have to work to survive and economic factors, such as work, impact us on a daily basis. We humans are also political animals. The politics of the SUNY system, for instance, impacts the work that I do in the SUNY system. We are meaning giving animals. I don't particularly enjoy the work and the routine of work that I do anymore if I ever did. It is hard to know in retrospect. We are demographic animals. At age 60 running around trying to do three jobs takes its physical and mental toll on this 60 year old. We are geographic animals. I work in three different geographical locations at this time.

I introduce these concepts in a way that is typical in intellectual culture and in academe. I state that humans are economic, political, cultural, demographic, and geographic animals and then give examples. This semester I have used three examples to make my case. First, I used the example of Mormon origins explaining how scholars, over the years have seen Mormonism as the product of economic--Mormons as products of economic change brought about by the Erie Canal--political--Mormonism as a reaction to Jacksonian democracy--cultural--Mormonism as a product of a seeker culture--demographic--Mormonism as a product of being poor--and geography--Mormonism as a product of New England--forces. Second, I have used the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer to explore how all of these factors affect television production and consumption. Finally, I use the example of college towns--college towns as towns in which a university dominates its economic, political, cultural, demographic, and geographic environment--to show that by looking systematically at the economic, political, cultural, demographic, and geographic aspects of a college town it allows to be another thing that is essential in critical thinking, analytical.

All of this, of course, is standard operating practise in intellectual life and in academe so the difficulty some have in grasping all of this raises a host of questions in my mind. Are students not being taught about social science theory and methods in junior high and high school? Are they being taught critical thinking in junior high and high school? Are students capable of applying generalisations--humans are economic, political, cultural, demographic, and geographic animals--to a variety of particular cases? Are students able to comprehend that critical thinking can be applied to everything? Are students able to grasp that what is significant is a product not only of the application of these five ways of looking about human life but also, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder? Do students really care about any of this? Are students here less for a liberal arts education than something else? What is the impact of student laziness on all this? Do students have difficulty comprehending in the age of omnipresent social media and text messaging?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Life in the Pissant Swamp: Learning Technology as Utopia?

One of the things faculty at colleges and universities have at their disposal in these brave new days of the digital revolution are what are called learning management systems. I teach at two schools at the moment, SUNY Oneonta, which uses the Blackboard learning system, and SUNY Cobbleskill, which uses the Moodle learning system. Other schools, I am told, use other learning systems though Blackboard dominates the market with a 41% share.

I have used the Blackboard learning system off and on since 2008. I first learned to use it at SUNY Albany and used it to teach a number of online summer classes. It wasn't perfect. It was somewhat clunky. It worked, however, and was relatively easy to figure out how to use. Over the years Blackboard has become even easier to use in my opinion and compared to another now defunct learning system which I unsuccessfully tried to use once, Angel, a learning system that didn't allow me to write an assignment with 0 points, Blackboard was a teacher's delight.

Moodle, an open source learning system developed in Australia, and, as a result, a cheaper alternative to Blackboard, and which I have been learning about on the job since I was hired last Friday to teach courses at SUNY Cobleskill, is proving to be only marginally better than Angel in my opinion. I have several complaints about Moodle. First of all you have to make courses visible for students to see. I don't understand why visible isn't the default setting. Second, there is a message in Moodle that tells the user to go to the faculty orientation page to learn how to make courses visible. When you go to the faculty orientation section, however, there are no instructions to be seen. I eventually learned how to do this by trial and error. Third, Moodle doesn't, as far as I can ascertain, have a mechanism by which you can increase font size. When I put my 12 point font syllabus in Moodle it suddenly became rather difficult to read because the font size is so small. As I said, I haven't figured our how or even if I can make the font size larger. Fourth, Moodle does not support Safari, my browser of choice. It does support Google's Chrome. Conspiracy theories anyone? Fifth, I went to Moodle this morning to see if students had begun to hand in assignments, some said they had, and the classes I spent hours frantically putting together had suddenly disappeared like a dissident in the USSR during the reign of Stalin. According to Cobleskill's IT experts Moodle is dropping some classes, mine among them, because of problems with the Banner and Moodle interface of grade rosters. As I write this blog, Moodle is still down for "unscheduled maintenance" some thirteen hours after I noticed that my classes had disappeared into the proverbial technological rabbit hole.

I remarked to IT when I noted that my classes had disappeared from Moodle that what had happened hardly inspires confidence in the system. It doesn't. They found such a statement "rude". Beyond damning me for my forthrightness their suggestion is that I make arrangements to use Blackboard or some other learning management system on my own. This is, to say the least impractical for a number of different practical reasons. The other more realistic option, of course, is the old tried and true one: I can have students hand in their assignments like we did in the old days, as hard copies. It is increasingly looking like that is the only real and viable option I have given the technical problems with Moodle.

Isn't technology wonderful? Can the best of all possible worlds be far behind?