U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Unrighteous Mammon: A Parable of Precarity and Power

Before Hillary Clinton took the podium last Wednesday to give a concession speech with extraordinary dignity and grace, her running-mate Tim Kaine offered his own words of encouragement to the voters and volunteers who had supported the Democratic ticket.

In the course of his remarks, Kaine mentioned one of Jesus’s parables, the story of the workers in the vineyard.  This winsome vignette, one of my favorites among the “Kingdom of Heaven” parables, offers a lesson on generosity and grace.  It is a parable that academics would do well to take to heart, for it challenges the toxic logic of a zero-sum prestige economy, where the temptation is to bitterly resent “undeserved” praise or plaudits heaped upon others. “Why is everyone talking about the work of that hack / poseur / phony / walking mediocrity as if it were some exhalation of genius, when my work, which is clearly better, has gone under-noticed and under-praised?”  If you have ever thought this – and who among us has not? – then this parable may offer an escape hatch for bailing out of that particular vicious cycle of fruitless resentment.

But in these times, after this election, we probably need to take some other lessons to heart as well, for our own sake and for the sake of our fellow human beings.

So today I offer for your consideration a meditation on a different parable of Jesus, the parable of the shrewd steward.

Here’s the gist of the story….

A wealthy man realizes that the steward he has put in charge of managing his assets is in fact wasting them, and so he decides to fire that employee.  The steward, realizing that he is about to be fired and that he will have nowhere to go, decides to use the power and authority of his position, while he still has it, to make sure that when he loses everything he will have friends who are willing to help him.  So he calls his master’s debtors to the office and has them sign the paperwork to readjust their debts, writing off a significant portion of each borrower’s debt on the spot, a shrewd move that garners the admiration of the master.

This parable is not an endorsement of embezzling, or dishonest financial dealing, or even cynical and self-interested pandering.  Rather, as Jesus suggests in a riff on his own story, the steward understood what a lot of people do not:  we are all short-timers here, and the wisest and best thing we can do with whatever resources we have at our command is to ease the burdens of others.

I’ve been thinking of this parable a lot lately in relation to the problem of precarity in academic life.

The problem of precarity in academic life is this:  we are all precarious, but not all of us have figured it out yet.

I guess you could say that the steward in the parable had tenure — until suddenly he didn’t. When he saw that the axe was about to fall, he finally began to do what he could have been doing all along with his tenure:  he used it to help people in even worse shape than he was.

Brothers and sisters, the axe is about to fall.  The protections of tenure, such as they are, can be rolled back – just look at what the revanchist tribunes of ignorance have been able to accomplish in Wisconsin. And you can bet that this new administration will wage all-out war on the university as an idea and as a social institution that might offer some resistance, however doomed, to the forces of stupidity ready to take and hold territory long besieged and fatally softened by a vicious vanguard that has spent a half-century strategically, continuously, deliberately delegitimizing both facticity and thoughtfulness.

Yes, the axe is about to fall – but it is going to fall not just on the professoriate or the university or the principle of academic freedom.  No, the axe is about to fall on the broader public’s intellectual freedom and free speech and freedom to dissent.

We are all precarious.  But therein lies our power.

If keeping quiet and lying low cannot forestall the imminent collapse of the few pensive citadels of free inquiry still standing at this late hour, then whatever is the point of keeping quiet and lying low?

Believe me, I know the catechism on this question:  the calling of the scholar is to pursue intellectual inquiry at a deeper stratum and a more deliberate pace than is possible when navigating the whipsawing winds and chaotic currents at the surface of contemporary events.  We are staking our lives on the value of seeking knowledge for its own sake rather than for its immediate uses.  We are doing what we are best at, and in the process we are storing up knowledge so that those who come on the scene after we have left it — if we can still hope that anybody at all will come along after us — will have an inheritance of insight and wisdom that may somehow be of use to them.  That’s the scholar’s faith. I know.

Yet while we stake our lives on this principle – and it’s a principle in which I believe, to which I am committed – we also know that others’ very lives are at stake right now.

Yes, yes — others’ lives are always at stake.  “About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters…

Still, whoever has ears to hear, then hear this…

Do you have tenure at a publicly funded university?  You’re among the last of your kind.  The hour is late, the night is coming.  What will you do with the daylight you have left?  To whose aid will you come?  Whose rights will you defend?

Do you have a public platform, a corner of the internet, a byline, a readership?  How quickly the channels of discourse can be squelched by imperious tyrants afraid of dissent.  So what will you say while you can be heard?  To whose voices will you join your own?

We are all precarious, for we are all mortal.  We’re here for a moment, and then we are no more.  We’re all about to get the axe, always.  So while we have the ability, while we have the opportunity, let’s use whatever “unrighteous mammon” there is at our disposal in academe – whatever resources, however meager, we may currently be able to command; whatever authority, however limited, we may currently be able to exercise; whatever platform, however shaky, from which we may currently be able to rally others to a just cause – to ease the burdens of those who are in direr straits than we are.

Or, as one of the Founding Fathers, who is surely rolling over in his grave right now, Alien and Sedition Acts notwithstanding, wisely and bravely wrote, when dissent surely required some bravery, “Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”

We should dare, not because we are not precarious, but because we are.

For if everybody is precarious, then maybe nobody is.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. This is beautifully written and inspiring! I would just add that we are not all equally precarious, and this very important detail links directly with the mission of the scholar, which you outline so keenly. Highlighting how different forms of precariousness and privilege shape the U.S. body politic–and how they intersect–is an essential component in the construction of a truly “free inquiry” for all, based on not only political engagement–understanding that scholarship inevitably has political connotations and effects, but empathy. Onward.

  2. Kahlil — thank you. Yes, I needed to emphasize that. It was implicit in my thinking but not explicit in my expression. Black women on the tenure track are way more precarious than white men with tenure; people working in feminist studies, queer studies, critical race studies are more precarious than people working in computer science or business communication; adjuncts are way more precarious than tenured professors; tenured professors at public universities are, I think, in a more precarious spot than tenured profs at elite ivies. Unfortunately, part of what underwrites the precarity of the relatively more-at-risk is the instinct of the relatively less-at-risk to protect what few privileges and powers they / we do have. That is the response of careless stewards who do not realize that they themselves are on the chopping block. So if what’s ours to use is not ours to keep, and we’re going to lose it anyhow, we might as well do as much good with it as we can while we can.

    • Yes, yes, yes to your reply. I do have hope amidst the atmosphere of growing precarity, an important question is of course how to confront this beyond our individual production, beyond just producing for the corporate machine of higher ed, and yes, even beyond just being an individual teaching in the classroom. Not an easy “beyond” to confront, particularly for those who face more precarious realities, which is why I think it is essential to push the “relatively less-at-risk,” in all senses, but with empathy (I am sorry to hammer this word again, but I do think it is a key value in these times, if we’re are truly interested in building alliances across communities, without talking down to those who have been traditionally oppressed).

  3. I asked any of my students who cared to do so to read, think, speak and write about the election. With their permission, I wrote up a brief summary of their responses — you can read that at The Chronicle Review:

    The Day After

    (I didn’t pick the title, but that pretty much sums it up.)

    • Well, at least one of the names on this “watch list” has been removed. But the very existence of the whole list is infuriating and, to borrow a word, un-American (except for those who think Joseph McCarthy is the standard to which all should aspire). Anyway, I have updated the above-linked post accordingly.

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