Anthropology without Villains: Kurt’s Vonnegut’s Master’s Degree in Anthropology for Cat’s Cradle


Kurt Vonnegut just got published in the Chicago Tribune, even though he has been quite dead for the last nine years. So it goes. The title of the article is “The Secret Ingredient in my Books is that there Never has been a Villain,” even though he wrote about things like atomic bombs, The Holocaust, and the firebombing of Dresden. But the new newspaper article is not about these depressing things, rather it is mostly about the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago where his M. A. Thesis was rejected twice. And then once Vonnegut was famous, they accepted his novel Cat’s Cradle as a substitute thesis in 1964 or so, a fact that Chicago no longer acknowledge on their web site. So graciously, not even in the Anthropology Department of Chicago is Vonnegut accorded the status of villain.

Famously, Vonnegut was a Prisoner of War in Dresden during the fire bombing of Dresden by the United States and Britain near the end of World War II. As an Allied prisoner of war, he was kept in an underground meat locker, and brought to the surface only after the city was destroyed. In his novel Slaughterhouse Five: The Children’s Crusade, Vonnegut highlighted the execution of a fellow prisoner of war for stealing a teapot in the midst of both the Holocaust and fire-bombing of Dresden, two of the world’s great crimes. In which case the execution of a poor American p.o.w. for stealing a teapot while cleaning up the wreckage the Americans inflicted on Dresden seems just strange. It is indeed a strange place not to find any villains, isn’t it?

Anyway, Vonnegut returned to America, and used the GI Bill to attend the University of Chicago where he submitted his Master’s Thesis on some now forgotten topic, and the thesis was then rejected. He eventually submitted a second thesis which was also rejected. He then wrote a novel Cat’s Cradle, and became famous. So the University of Chicago Department of Anthropology issued the degree because the novel itself constituted his Master’s thesis even if it was um, made up. It takes place on San Lorenzo, an island that is made up, and it includes stories about what the guy who invented the atom bomb was doing when Hiroshima was bombed (i.e. playing the children’s game “cat’s cradle with bits of string), and more about a fictional bit of stuff that turns dictators into ice. As indeed perhaps the prisoner of war executed for the teapot was made up.

Which brings me back to the subject of ethnography, which is never supposed to be made up, except when it is. Just ask Alice Goffman whose ethnography On the Run was run through the ethnographic wringer last year because in the process of obscuring identities she got a number of the facts wrong. The facts may have been wrong which caused the huffing and puffing in the reviews, even though her broader point about the damage that aggressive policing tactics was pretty much unassailable. Getting the facts wrong helps the critics change the subject regarding her larger point about the damage of aggressive policing. Kind of like the weird story of an American soldier getting executed in the middle of a war crime, and the biggest humanitarian crime of all, The Holocaust. What is the death of a soldier stealing a teapot in the context of a smoldering Dresden?

Ethnography is of course an art. Every ethnographer has the right and responsibility to create a narrative flow to draw the reader into broader tale that they are trying to tell. In this respect, what is the difference between an ethnographer and a novelist? Perhaps it is that ethnographers go to IRBs, and novelists don’t? Or perhaps more appropriately it is that ethnographers have systematic methods of data collection, which is why there are so many classes on the collection of qualitative data. But still in the end, there is that shared narrative thread, which is made up.

And for that reason, I think that the University of Chicago did the right thing in awarding Vonnegut the degree in anthropology for a novel. The narrative thread is all-important in any ethnography. Alice Goffman had it, and so does Kurt Vonnegut. And judging from the precedent of the University of Chicago, ethnographers can be awarded degrees for doing that as well. Or as VOnnegut wrote:

And it can even happen when there are no villains. Imagine that in modern anthropology?

“Look at all that humans can do! They’re versatile. They can ride a unicycle. They can play the harp. They can, apparently, do anything.

Anyway, I liked the University of Chicago. They didn’t like me.


Originally posted at on Apr. 30, 2016

Speaking German Like You Work at McDonald’s (or are a Hollander)

German is a strange language for English speakers to learn. In part this is because in most German for Foreign Speakers classes, there is a strong emphasis on the use of correct use of articles (16 ways to say the definite article “the”, and 16 more ways to say the indefinite article “a”). There is also a big emphasis in German on getting the “modal verbs” in the right place in the sentence (second place with a bunch of exceptions), and assigning nouns to the right class (masculine, feminine und neuter). Finally there is the use of the genitive form of nouns which is far more elegant than saying the same thing using the equivalent “dative,” I’m told. As an English speaker, my response is to just roll my eyes and push forward.

So I have been pushing forward for the 25 years I have been married to a German. The result is I speak an understandable form of “street German” with my family and friends. But my German is totally bereft of the genitive form, articles are assigned by chance, and my verbs do not always land in the correct position. Fortunately, I’m not the only one who does this; most Germans are used to hearing German spoken in a fashion that is, um, less than elegant. After all, something like 12% of the German population is foreign-born, and there are significant dialectical variations around the country.

In that context, one of the students in a German class I took earlier this year, complained to our teacher about the necessity of learning so many article forms, and especially about the need to use the genitive. As foreigners speaking German, we do not really care first if we sound elegant; being understood is just fine, thank you. In a politically-incorrect moment of frustration, our teacher responded, “You need to use the genitive to speak German or McDonald’s is the only place that will ever hire you.” The assumption is language is a major marker for social class in German society, and that without the genitive you sound uncultured. The politically incorrect point she was making was that it is the foreigners with poor grammar who end up at McDonald’s. Germans are tolerant of accented German, but not German with poor grammar!

To verify this, I asked my sister-in-law if this was true. Ever the truth-teller, she said that it was, and what is more, my German sounds like I work at McDonald’s. To add insult, she added that if she judged me by my German alone, she would assume that I could not possibly work at a university as a professor (which I do—but in English). As a sociologist, I felt a momentary flush of rebelliousness—maybe I should get out and do a bit of participant observation with the Polish, Russian, Turkish, Romanian and other workers at the local McDonald’s! But then I thought about the drop in social status that would imply—as a US American professor I get the ultimately privilege of being respected (and paid) for teaching in my native tongue, even in Germany. And actually that is pretty nice.

Which brings up the nature of privilege, I guess, and why it is so nice for those of us who have it.

Having said that, though, I’m still glad that my German is improving. My accent is still strong, I suppose, but I am getting more confident about pushing into random speaking situations. The oddest one was the other day when I was asked for directions on the street. I knew the answer, but my accent came through strongly, I guess.

“Sind Sie Hollander” (Are you from Holland, using the polite for for “you”).

“Nein, ich bin Amerikaner!”

“Oh, then why aren’t we speaking English?” (said in English)

“Because you spoke to me in German?” (my reply in English)

“Um, oh yeah.”

That last question, said in English, left me at somewhat of a loss. One of the wonders of being American is that there is an assumption that we cannot speak any foreign languages. The other wonder is that many Germans do speak English, and indeed English is the high status second language here (unlike Polish, Romanian, Turkish, etc.). Being a native English speaker is indeed privileged, but at times it can be a strange kind of privilege, particularly when you are trying to inject the genitive into your sentences!


Originally Posted at, June 22, 2013.

The Case of the Exploding Pinto

A by-product of the industrial age are accidents by companies seeking to create wealth for themselves. Both hiring workers, and selling products creates a question of who is responsible for the safety of working conditions and products. And more important, who is responsible when a product fails, or an accident happens? Is it the person who buys or sells the product? Is it the responsibility of the company who buys or sells labor? Or is it the responsibility of the consumer?

A particularly well-known story of product safety is that of the Ford Pinto. This was made particularly famous when in a seven-page cost-benefit analysis done by Ford Motor Company valued human lives at $200,000 and concluded that it was cheaper to be sued by the predicted 180 burn fatalities, and 180 serious burn victims, than make an $11 design modifications on a predicted 11 million cars. Indeed, the lawsuit estimated that lawsuits would cost $49.5 million which was far less than the $137 million needed to re-design and retrofit the popular low-cost car (Strobel 1980:286).

Local governments wrestled with questions of product liability in the way they administer civil and criminal law. For the Pinto, the best example of this occurred, in August 1978, when three Indiana girls died in an accident in which their Pinto was rear-ended by Robert Duggar. Duggar, who had a poor record of driving, as well as open alcohol containers in the vehicle was not charged in the accident. But then the Elkhart County District Attorney Michael Cosentino took an unusual step. There had already been wide publicity regarding the dangers created by the design of the Pinto’s gas tank. Indeed, investigative reporting by Mother Jones magazine in 1977 had revealed that there was a bolt protruding from the axle which punctured the gas tank in the event of a rear-end collision. This design flaw meant that many low impact accidents resulted in lethal explosions, even when the collision was a low speed. Cossentino, pointed out that since the Ford Motor Company was well-aware of this flaw, they could be tried for manslaughter. And under Indiana law this was possible.

The Exploding Pinto

In August 1978, Judy Ulrich drove the Pinto she had bought with her father as a high school graduation present. She had graduated from high school that year, and was on her way to a volleyball game at a church some 20 miles away. She stopped to fill the gas tank of her Pinto, but in leaving the filling station, apparently drove off with the gas cap still on top of the car. The gas cap fell off as she pulled onto the highway. Judy made a U-turn on the Highway, and slowly drove back, looking for her gas cap. Apparently after spotting it by the side of the highway, she slowed. As she slowed, the van driven by 21 year-old Robert Duggar came up behind on the slowing Pinto at 50 mph, well within the speed limit. The van struck hard at the Pinto. The gas tank was forced onto into a protruding bolt on the rear axle which punched a 2 ½ inch hole in the just-filled 11 gallon gas tank. Gas splashed into the passenger compartment, and before the vehicles had come to a stop it exploded.

The Trials of Ford Motor Company

The death of the three Ulrich girls in the Pinto mystified Cosentino and his staff. Six months earlier, one of the investigative staff had read an article about the dangers inherent to the design of the Pinto gas tank in an article published in the September-October 1977 issue of Mother Jones. The article ”Pinto Madness” detailed how the Ford Motor ignored engineers concerns about the safe design of the rear-mounted fuel tank in order to accommodate a corporate goal of producing a 2,000 pound car for less than $2,000, The article indicated further that a follow-up study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 38 cases of rear-end collisions with Pintos resulted in 27 deaths. Of these deaths 26 died as a result of damaged gas tanks with subsequent fires. Subsequent safety tests conducted by the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration (NHTSA) revealed that an impact of 35 mph or greater was likely to result in a burst gas tank, and the immolation of any occupants in the vehicle compartment. Subsequently in February 1978, a California jury awarded $128 million in civil damages in an accident involving a 1972 Pinto (the verdict was eventually overturned, and Ford paid only $3.5 million). On June 9, 1978, two months before the Ulriches accident Ford finally announced a recall of the 1.5 million Pintos then on the road.

The death of the Ulrich girls created a legal conundrum for the conservative Republican prosecutor. He could do nothing, and permit the case to go to civil court as it had in the past. Judging from past awards, the girls’ parents would problem win a judgment against Ford Motor Company; he could prosecute Duggar for manslaughter, on the grounds that his reckless behavior had led to the death of the girls. Or, he could try a novel approach, and make a criminal charge against the Ford Motor Company and its executives by making the argument that in ignoring the obvious faults of the Pinto, Ford had committed “reckless homicide.” In other words, without Ford’s recklessness and disregard for consumer’s lives, the accident would not have been fatal..

The Elkhart County Grand Jury gave Cosentino what he had asked for: an indictment of the Ford Motor Company for reckless homicide. The indictment sent a shiver through corporate America. This happened because while the maximum criminal penalty for Ford was a trivial $30,000, executives could in the future be held criminally liable for financial decisions leading to the deaths of consumers.

The Trial of the Ford Motor Company for Manslaughter

At the trial, the expensive legal team for the Ford Motor Company chipped away at the charges. The judge limited the question of recklessness to whether Ford had been too slow in pursuing the recall in the 41 days between the recall and the accident which killed the Ulrich girls. Ford also made the claim that if there was to be criminal liability, it was not the Ford Motor Company which made a product, but the driver of the van who collided with the Pinto, Robert Duggar.

After days of difficult deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict which declared Ford Motor Company to be not guilty of the criminal charges brought by Cosentino. Members of the jury later indicated that although they thought Ford had been negligent, their decision-making did not rise to a level under which a conviction was possible under Indiana’s homicide statute.

How are Decisions Made about Product Safety?

Despite the acquittal in criminal court, a “Pinto Narrative” quickly emerged as being paradigmatic of corporate preference for profits over human life. Like high profile domestic violence cases, the case changed the nature of the running conversation about who is really responsible for death. Despite the courtroom loss, books, articles, and texts continue to hold up the case as the type of conscious decision-making which results in victimization in the pursuit of profit. Provocatively though, sociologists Lee and Erman (1999) called this assumption into question, pointing that “decision makers” working in a corporate environment do not make conscious decisions to market an “unsafe vehicle.” Rather they assert that such amoral calculations emerge not as a result of legal intent, which implies conscious decision-making, but in the context of broader institutional forces which emerge from the institutional cultures (in this case Ford), and the automobile industry in general. What this means of course is court proceedings which probe the minds of individual decision-makers may not be adequate for exploring how decisions leading to a great deal of human suffering occur.

This thesis is important for understanding not only how product safety decisions are made, but how any type of corporate decision-making resulting in death is evaluated. Simply put, correcting the decision making of individuals through the application of criminal law does not by itself result in more moral decisions. Attention has to be paid to the context—that it the ecology—of decision-making.

Further Reading

Lee, Matthew T., and M. David Ermann (1999) “Pinto ‘Madness’ as a Flawed Landmark Narrative: An Organizational and network Analysis.” Social Problems 46 (No 1).

Strobel, Lee Patrick (1980). Reckless Homicide? Ford’s Pinto Trial. South Bend, Indiana: And Books.

Dowie, Mark (1977). “Pinto Madness.” Mother Jones. September/October 1977.

 When Killing is a crime

Excerpt from When Killing is a Crime by Tony Waters, Lynne Ripener Publishers, 2007, pp. 248-250.

Originally posted at on April 8, 2015


Peace Corps Edifice Complexes

Most Peace Corps volunteers are young—in their early 20s. When I went to Thailand with the Peace Corps in 1980, I was 22, and fresh out of college with a degree in Biology. And I wanted to do stuff—big stuff—stuff that could be seen, and would be talked about, like The Pyramids of Egypt. The stuff of immortality—that which would be talked about and admired forever! Peace Corps of course warned us that edifices were not what it was about—that in fact we were about building “relationships” or something of the sort. But what 22 year old believes that? Particularly the young people with impressive degrees in Engineering, Biology, and other such majors where we had learned about world-changing technologies?

To do such big stuff, I was sent to Phrae, Thailand, where I was assigned to the Malaria Zone Office which had the commendable mission of eradicating malaria. Unfortunately, when I arrived, it some became apparent after I arrived that that job was already done. A decade or two of prosperity, two or three decades of spraying DDT on rural houses, and the routine treatment of all malaria cases did that job. All that was left was a large boring malaria bureaucracy.

The malaria zone office where I worked in Phrae was a sleepy place which processed thousands of diagnostic bloodslides (99.9% negative), and sent out teams to spray DDT across three provinces in northern Thailand. There were nice teak buildings and a central place to sit, read the newspaper, nap, and drink tea—frequent habits a the office. It was there in Phrae that I found out that bureaucracies have lots of meetings, sit around a lot, and are generally pretty boring places. So I sat for days in the entomology office back near the DDT store, where I raised guppies for distribution as mosquito fish, and studied Thai because there was little else to do.

In the evening, I would hang out in the market where I made friends with the market ladies who helped me with my Thai, or spent my evenings at my own teak house, which was tucked into a corner of a small Phrae neighborhood.  The house came complete with a betel nut chewing neighbor I called “grandma,” and another neighbor who drove a pedicab and frequently got drunk at which point he would yell at his adult daughter. It was a great group of people, especially when the pedicab driver was sober. As for “grandma,” she and her family helped me with my Thai too—there is nothing like listening to a mouth full of betel nut to train careful hearing. Among other things, she regaled me with tales of the former inhabitant of my house, the Peace Corps Volunteer “John” who liked to do drugs of some sort.

All this of course created a problem for that ambitious Peace Corps volunteer who wanted to do the stuff of immortality. The biggest problem was that indeed my predecessor in Phrae did in fact do the stuff of immortality, a condition highlighted by a 100 hundred meter long suspension bridge across a local river. I heard all about Steve (or was it Kevin?) who built the “Swinging Bridge” about 10 years before I arrived in Phrae. Steve was an engineer who in a fit of independence organized villagers to solve a real problem—getting across the river, the type of project Tom Hanks makes movies about!. The bridge had two tall impressive towers, and cables to hold it together. It was great—a miniature Golden Gate Bridge, and it swayed when I rode my motorcycle across! To make it worse, the Thai people told me that Kevin/Steve spoke outstanding Thai, wrote those squiggly characters, spoke the northern Thai dialect, ate the hottest food, and drank the local whiskey. The bridge in 1980-1982 was firmly in place ten years after he left—and certainly people talked about him, especially since the bridge provided access via foot, bicycle, and motorcycle to the entire left bank of the Yom River. So every time I rode my motorcycle across the river, I would wonder, what would my own personal mark on Thailand be? How could I be more “Gaeng” than Steve/Kevin? Or would it simply be two years sitting among the DDT? Isn’t the point of Peace Corps to leave a local memory of yourself?

Well, I found a way to leave that memory, or so I thought. Toward the end of my Peace Corps service, I found a village which needed water systems. Cheap PVC pipe which you glued together (as opposed to metal pipes with complicated threads) had recently been introduced to Thailand, and was about to revolutionize water supply. I managed to ingratiate myself to Ban Nam Jom, a really remote village where they still had work elephants for hauling illegal teak from the forest, brewed their own whiskey, and generally thought my Thai was Gaeng! So I hustled up $900 or so from the Peace Corps and Canadian Embassy, and voila—set the mechanics of my edifice in motion. I would provide rural water supply for the three hamlets of Ban Nam Jom—something like 200 people. Surely they would remember me from now until eternity, just like we remember The Pyramid builders of Egypt!

I was so thrilled with this, that after returning home to California, I wrote up one of my first academic articles about installing the water system of Ban Nam Jom. The journal Water International was so thrilled with it that they actually published it—one of my very first publications.

Anyway, earlier this year I returned to Phrae, and of course wanted to re-visit the sites of my Peace Corp glory. This was made easier because last year, using contacts I made while a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1980-1982, my 23 year-old daughter began teaching English at one of the schools in Phrae. So I was able to borrow her pink scooter, and jamming a helmet on my head which was two sizes too small, and conducted my Peace Corps edifice survey.

–Steve/Kevin’s bridge is gone! I asked around about it, and it was only vaguely remembered. When I went to the site of the bridge, I saw a brand new bridge. (Well, really not brand new, it is probably 20 years old.) As for the towers of the “Golden Gate Bridge of Phrae,” only one is still there, and it is covered with vines.   The locals don’t even notice it any more. Steve/Kevin has been returned to anonymity.

–I couldn’t find the malaria office where I worked for two years next to the DDT boxes. I think a row of businesses have been built on the parcel, but I couldn’t recognize which building it was, and these buidlings now look “old.” (Presumably they have very few mosquitoes though, the result of DDT’s long half life).

–A small hotel was built on top of where my house used to be—in fact it was finished just last year. I asked the family who owns the hotel what had happened to “my” house, and was told that they bought up the buildings, and knocked them down. They also mentioned that everyone was really happy about that because the houses were used for drug dealing, whiskey brewing, and who knows what else.

–I’ve kept in touch over the years with the ladies in the market who helped me learn to speak Thai. They’ve moved their shop across the street, but still settle noodles, as indeed the have for the last 35 or 40 years. They are still there selling noodles—it is the best Pad Thai in the world—if you want a referral, let me know. They are now teaching my now 24 year old daughter Thai, too.

–We went out to find Nam Jom, and were told that it was no more—what was left of the village had been merged with a larger village. Ban Nam Jom is now in the middle of a national park, and depopulated—there were only a few houses left. The government has cracked down on illegal lumbering, so the work elephants are all gone. (Maybe if they are lucky, they will get the wild elephant population back!). No idea what happened to “my “ water system.

And so life goes on. What really remains are the relationships with the market ladies, and a few others.   I suppose the fact that people in “my” Peace Corps town of Phrae continue to do more for me and my daughter, than I did for them. I seem to remember that somewhere in our training we were told that this would be the case—that the real edifice are in the relationships built. For the rest—it is all dust! Even for the engineers like Steve/Kevin.

Originally published at, August 12, 2015

Walkabout 3: Distributional Coalitions and Bureaucratic Silos in Chico and Thailand

This post part of my continuing “Walkabout in Thailand”, after leaving my regular position at Chico State in northern California in January 2016. The subtitle for this series might be: “free unsolicited advice for university administrators.”

One of the reasons for this walkabout was frustration with the Chico State bureaucracy. Officially, Chico State is about busting through “silo walls,” and encouraging inter-disciplinary work and research. But in practice silos abound. Silos are the result of “distributional coalitions” which rigidify the past. “Distributional coalitions” is really just Mancur Olsen’s fancy word for silos, i.e. those bureaucratic structures which always endure. For me personally, it means that I cannot teach the inter-disciplinary classes I designed, and research support has disappeared.  So time for a walkabout to see what else might be possible.

What Mancur Olsen was writing about, is what has begun to restrict my flexibility as something of a maverick at Chico State. Years of bureaucratic accumulation (i.e. distributional coalitions) created “the rules” that tie faculty, departments, and colleges into tightly together in some type of Rube Goldberg structure. If one piece does not do its part, it means that a major, minor, certificate, GE program, etc., cannot be offered.   The rule becomes important for its own sake, irrespective of its utility for achieving a broader goal.

At Chico State, this means that atop each of these major, minor, certificate, GE program, etc., is an ever-vigilant administrator ready to protect historical interests, no matter what “strategic” planning may say about he future. Committee-generated reports in which each pre-existing “stakeholder” has a say, are classic generators of such coalitions. Indeed, Chico State’s new President just reinforced Chico State’s own silos by dividing the university into four stakeholders (i.e. staff, faculty, students, and rich “friends”), and then conducting a “Listening Tour,” which is really just another way of saying that she wants to know how the pie was divided up in the past, so that those interests can continue to be protected.  That is what distributional coalitions are all about.

And so old habits will remain. Classes remain on the books long after a distributional compromise reached via stakeholder committees. The result: Ever taller bureaucratic “silos” wary of anything new or different. These silos of course work like a machine, each one a cog connected to the next so that you have a self-protecting system which breaks down if on cog falls out. Doing something different it is (correctly) reasoned, will result an existential threat to the various majors, minors, certificates, GE programs, etc. Scheduling works the same way—everything is fine-tuned so that students can be processed in predictable ways which frankly, are pretty boring. And then of course there is the all-purpose bureaucratic excuse that there is “no money” is invoked because in reality there isn’t any more—all the money has already been allocated to those pre-existing distributional coalitions. Or in plainer English, what has been divvied up in the past is more important than the needs of the future.

What about my walkabout in Thailand? I am teaching in an International College which is only 12 years old. Faculty turnover is high at the International College (not so much at the older Thai college), reflecting salaries which are low by “international” standards, and continuing demands by “Bangkok” for international-level qualifications. But there are few “distributional coalitions.” Scheduling is often done at the last minute, and you are not always sure what class you will teach, or the exact day it will start.  INdeed, since I’ve been here, I’ve taught in four departments both on my on initiative, and that of the administration.  Unlike Chico, there is at the same time encouragement to tie my teaching to my research agenda.  It is indeed a somewhat chaotic “inter-disciplinary heaven!” As for “silos,” there are in fact few in the traditional sense. The “distributional coalitions” are in fact weak, because there is little looking backwards to protect a non-existent gloried past. But in exchange, it seems like what a colleague here at Payap told me the other day. We are all like gears spinning independently. Yes, we get to do our “own thing,” but the specialized offices which would ordinarily support us are missing. Freedom we have, but sometimes a little follow-through would be nice!

International Borders and Border Guards

I don’t like international borders. I have been through many of them, and at each one there is the potential that you will be detained, and disappear into a system which is not accountable to anyone, much less you. Agents make decisions to arrest and detain you based on information they can see on their computer, but you cannot. And based on laws that they claim to know better than you, even if you do not.  It doesn’t matter if you follow the rules, or not—they win, you lose no matter what. When you cross borders, you do not have rights—you can be detained at the whim of the officer for reasons only the officer and their superiors know. You do not have a right to a lawyer, (see below) or even know why you are detained or deported. The immigration officer is always right—they can see their computer screen, and you cannot. 

I have been detained at borders in the United States and elsewhere, and sometimes threatened with arrest. Fortunately I have never been detained for more than a couple of hours. But every time it happens, even for a short time, it is disconcerting. Your freedom is in the hand of a faceless stranger in a uniform who is unaccountable to you or the law. It terrifies children, like the five year old Iranian boy old recently arrested in Houston. Or for that matter, the time an immigration officer in Oakland, California, threatened my wife Dagmar with deportation in front of our two small children.

The funny thing is that, despite the presumed rigor at international borders, the United States has some of the freest and safest travel. Without any immigration controls. Millions travel by road and train between Washington DC to New York crossing four state borders, and are never asked for their papers at a border check point. In the European Union, millions routinely cross national borders without being hassled by the faceless bureaucrats, either. This is because both the US and EU have figured out that security comes from things besides submission to a faceless uniformed bureaucrat. The borderless US and EU are two of the greatest achievements for freedom of human movement. For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many people seem to want to surrender freedoms to the faceless bureaucrats behind the computer screens who are unaccountable to the rule of law.

“Not going to happen,” an official tells lawyers at the airport.

Walkabout 2: My Diverse Classroom in Thailand

This post part of my continuing “Walkabout in Thailand”, after leaving my regular position at Chico State in northern California in January 2016. The subtitle for this series might be: “free unsolicited advice for university administrators.”

My walkabout has landed me far from Chico State, at Payap University in northern Thailand. My third semester teaching has just started—I have a class in Thai-English translation, Peace and Aesthetics, and a graduate class in Peace Education. In this post I mainly write about the students in my Peace and Aesthetics class, which is part of Payap’s General Education program in its “International College” program.

Thailand’s Experiments in Diversity

International colleges are of increasing importance in many countries, including Thailand. Being “international” means basically you offer an English Curriculum in a country where English is not the national language. Thus at Payap Universty, there are 4500-5000 students in the Thai language curriculum, and just over 300 in an English language curriculum. It is as if Chico State as part of its new status as a “Hispanic Serving Institution” were to set up a Spanish language college for about 1000 students, and then recruit to fill the seats and faculty spots. Anyway, the English program is available to students who can meet the entrance requirement, which is typically a TOEFL score that indicates they are ready to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in English. This is hardly a cross-section of Thai undergraduates,.

What is Payap really doing? Payap International College is creating a complete curriculum in what is for Thailand a foreign language, English. They do this because a new multi-culture society is emerging in Souheast Asia.  My Thai (and other) students will create a world for themselves in Southeast Asia and beyond. The Thai government is actually encouraging universities across the country to establish such English language programs like we have at Payap University, and granting them accredited status if they meet requirements for quality curriculum, faculty, etc.

So who does this International College  appeal to?

My Classroom
     A survey of the students in my “Peace and Aesthetics” class provides an indication. Peace and Aesthetics is a “General Education” class required for all students on both the Thai and English side of Payap. As a result, I have a good cross-section of students from the four “international” undergraduate majors Payap offers: English Communication, Business, Hotel Management, and Information Technology.

Of the 46 students answering the survey on the first day of class, nineteen were Thai, and the rest were from twelve other countries, with the most numerous being Korea, USA, and Myanmar, with four each. 39 were from Asia, and seven from elsewhere, including one from Brazil. As significant, there was a wide range of reported language skills, with the three Malaysians reporting the most diversity (English, Chinese dialects, Malay, etc.). In 46 respondents, I can classify only five or so as being the “classic” native speaker of English from English-speaking countries, like the US, Canada, UK, etc., though I suspect that some of the Malaysians may have English functionally as one of their “first languages.”

A big question is how do we shape this diverse lot of people into a coherent “Payap Identity” over the next four years? Over the last semesters I have gotten to know a few of them—I am impressed that they bring a range of difficulties to the classroom. To borrow some Chico State-style terms around the issue of diversity, many of them are second language learners, two-thirds are “international students,” a few of the Burmese might have questionable immigration status in Thailand, and a number of the Thai students are from either Thailand’s Christian minority and/or one of the many linguistic minority groups found in northern Thailand.

Here is some more of the ethnic diversity I have come aware of: Thai students from the Karen, Lahu, and other Thai minority groups. The majority of students are Buddhist, but there are a good number of Christians, Muslims, a Nepali Hindu, and some free thinkers. Students I have had in the last two semesters who have parents from Thailand, and each of the following countries: Germany, France, Singapore, Taiwan, US, and maybe a couple of others. One of my Korean students this semester grew up in Kazakhstan and lived in the US, and three or four of the Thai students report having grown up in the US, and attended high school there. Last semester I also had five students from Turkey, all pursuing degrees in English from Payap University’s “Thai sidem” who landed in my “international side” GE class. TLast week I had a conversation with two students that are friends: One from Japan, and the other from the highlands of Nepal whose first language is Tibetan.  Today I talked to a friendship who was one of those multi-lingual Malaysians, and a minority group in Myanmar.

A number of the Thai students have experience with high schools in an English-speaking country, but others have never left Thailand. How well the non-travellers have learned to speak English through Thai-medium schools is impressive. A number of the foreign students have parents who have lived in Thailand for some years as expatriates, but others showed up in Thailand yesterday a few months ago to go to school at Payap, including one from Russia For those students, who are 17-20 years old, the transition is of course tough. The Turkish students in particular tell me about how lonely the transition was. They Turkish students also have the odd situation of being from a country which has entered a period of sometimes violent turmoil since they left. The Turkish students worry about their home country as they watch the political situation there from so far away, sometimes wondering if they can go back or their passports will be pulled by the Turkish government. Students from the other countries undoubtedly experience similar difficulties.

Diversity Thai Style, and Diversity American Style: Comparing Payap and Chico

My diversity statistics from Payap’s International College are of course anecdotal and higgledy-piggledy, being mostly what I can generate myself from one particular class. This is because, to be honest, the Payap administration doesn’t much worry about diversity, rather they just muddle through with a program which is inherently diverse. Chico State of course is different. Chico State has offices dedicated to documenting diversity statistics, and in particular an office focused on ensuring that the campus can meet the bureaucratic goals necessary to sustain funding as a “Hispanic Serving Institution” which has 25% or more Hispanic/Latino students. They do this so they will receive extra money from the federal government to fund programs that serve these students.[1]

This creates a paradox in my mind.  On a certain level I envy Chico State’s intentional diversity, they muddle through paperwork to ensure federal funding is forthcoming, but create an intentional policy, and hire people to deal with the issues of diversity which indeed can be anticipated. Thus Chico State establishes programs and policies that assist Hispanic students as they adapt to the standard issue middle-class university culture Chico State creates and recreates. Programs to help students with roots in Mexico cope with the “foreignness” of going to Chico State are being established with the federal money,, which means special academic and student-life advising programs to help students adapt to Chico State’s pre-existing middle class English-speaking “American” culture.

What Chico is doing is all to the good, but in the context of what I am seeing in Thailand, I wonder, ifthat is the only way to go? The lack of intentional diversity at Payap means that students must, for better and worse, create their own “diverse” world in the context of the larger Thailand, and Southeast Asia. Preventable issues of depression are not avoided, as young people seek adapt to a foreign environment in what is a second language for most (I have heard rumors of suicide attempts). My Payap students are sometimes awkward and confused twenty year-olds today trying to find the “social rules” culture which are not written or bureaucratized like they are at Chico. But I also believe that in ten or twenty years from now, they will be recreating a vibrant multi-cultural world themselves. Unlike Chico State, they are not charged with the conservative task of assimilating to the pre-existing middle class world, but will create a new world of their own design.

My students at Payap University feel like outsiders, just like the Hispanic deal with the inevitable issues of “foreignness.” What I think is different is that there is no assumption that my students at Payap must adapt to the pre-existing Thai world. Rather, unbeknownst to them and the administration, they are creating a new multi-cultural/diverse world just by being who they are. And at Payap, through perhaps its inattention to detail, the are permitted to create organically a new culture that will be something new in the context of a new Thailand and Southeast Asia.

[1] The goal is not usually that difficult for most California universities to achieve, as about 39% of he state self-reports being Hispanic.


Vanity as an Occupational Disease–Of Politicians (and everyone else)!

My wife and I recently completed re-translating Max Weber’s classic essay “Politics as Vocation” which is part of a book Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society. The essay is about how the nature of politics, which is about the exercise of power, creates the type of human-being who is accustomed to telling other people what to do. Bill Clinton also lists it on his Presidential library site as one of his favorite books of all-time.

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Weber writes that one of the by-products of politics for a politician personality which is particularly vain because the politician becomes accustomed to hearing how wonderful they are.  Vanity is not something limited to politicians of course–but Weber says that for politicians, it is almost an occupational disease.  This disease emerges because politics requires the politician to always push themselves forward, asserting that the politician’s self is the possessor of the unique quality of leadership and judgment, which no one else possesses. Elections campaigns, in which a coterie of “table companions” and supporters sing the praises of the politicians feed into this self-conception.

Now, vanity is not a monopoly of the political profession–but as Weber notes, it is particularly dangerous in a politician because they wield power over others via the police, army, and other tools of coercive force. And wielding power over others is fun–actually he says it is “intoxicating.”  Weber writes that politicians come to see such issues of power as being addressable only through their own special personal qualities–and not those of anyone else. And there are of course those crowds of people, as well as a sycophantic retinue that they themselves create to remind themselves that they are indeed as wonderful as their press releases indicate.

   Vanity is a very widely spread trait and probably nobody is entirely free of it. Certainly, among scholars and academic circles it is kind of an occupational disease.


Nevertheless, especially for a scholar, vanity is distasteful when it expresses itself, but it is relatively harmless because it does not disrupt the functioning of academic organizations.


This is completely different in a politician for whom the pursuit of power is a means unto itself.


“The Pursuit of Power” is in fact one of the normal typical qualities of a politician.


“The sin against the Holy Spirit,” which is a deadly sin, in the context of the politician’s professional calling [Beruf ], begins when the thirst for power becomes irrational and a matter for pure personal self intoxication instead of being used exclusively in the service of a cause.


Ultimately, there are just two kinds of “deadly sins” in the field of politics: a lack of objectivity and irresponsibility—often, but not always, identical qualities. It is the vanity, and the need to be seen and to push oneself to the front, that is the primary temptation that leads politicians to committing one or both of these deadly sins. (Weber’s Rationalism, pp. 192-183).


Weber’s Rationalism will be available on-line in a hardback and electronic edition in April 2015. It is priced for libraries—please urge your library to buy a cop

First posted at February 2016.

Marx Channels Shakespeare on Money: Why the Lame Will Walk, the Ugly are Beautiful, and the Dishonest are Honest

Or, perhaps this post could be sub-titled, “Why Bill Gates can’t believe what anybody tells him,” simply because no one can really be honest around big money.

Or, as the young Karl Marx wrote in 1845:

That which is for me through the medium of money – that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) – that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has [In the manuscript: ‘is’. – Ed.] power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

Marx is in effect saying that money is the real brain creating what we believe to be good and bad. If it has money, it must be good. If someone does not have money, they must be bad in any world. Money though warps judgment by transforming what should be incapacities like dishonesty and stupidity into strengths to be ignored or even admired.  This is why the wealthy can go through life believing they are smarter than the rest of us, even if they are not.  They can even pay for grand projects which fail, but are not seen as failures. For one such example, see Ford projects like Fordlandia.EdselHenry Ford on Anti-semitism.  Henry Ford was also awarded a major medal (Order of the German Eagle) by Nazi Germany, and later have a US Postage stamp issued in his honor.  Nothing burnishes reputations for cleverness than simply being rich!

Marx cites Shakespeare (!) play “Timon of Athens” to conclude his point about the special powers of hard cold cash:

Shakespeare stresses especially two properties of money:

  1. is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.
  2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.


Karl Marx (1844) “The Power of Money” in the Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

Originally posted on, November 10, 2015.

Walkabout Part 1! A Chico State Sociology Professor Mimics Crocodile Dundee to Get Away from it All


A year ago, I came to Thailand to help set up a PhD program in Peacebuilding. To do this, I took a leave of absence from my regular position at Chico State in California. At the time, I described the extended leave as being a “walkabout.” This is what Crocodile Dundee did when he needed to get away because relationships weren’t working out as they should. Things weren’t right for some reason, so off he went. He would be back in “awhile,” and take up where he left off.

At the time I left Chico State last year it was going through some tough times. A vote of “no confidence” in the university’s president and two senior administrators passed the Academic Senate after months of confusion and acrimony on campus. Down in the ranks where I taught, this meant continuing demands for increased “workload,” which basically meant bigger classes, and lower quality undergraduate education. The acrimony at the top poisoned too relationships between colleagues, faculty and staff, and especially faculty and administrators. Perhaps I contributed my share to the acrimony—I don’t know for sure. I can only guess how the quality of education that students received declined. The quality of research also declined, as the administration withheld the assigned time previously devoted to research, and insisted that faculty like me deliver ever more “student butts in seats,” known in bureaucratic lingo as “Full Time Equivalent Students.” There was indeed reason for the no confidence vote by the faculty. But it is also true that the strife did not contribute to my morale. Time for a walkabout.

Now a year into my walkabout in Thailand, Chico State has begun to change. The President and the other two administrators are now elsewhere, and a new president is in place. The faculty has a placed a great deal of hope in the new president, and there was an optimism when we visited Chico over Christmas 2016. This visit also gave me a chance to start thinking about the sociology of university leadership, and I am hopeful that the continuing changes at Chico State will give me a chance to sociologize about it here at Distance was the point of both Crocodile Dundee’s walkabout in the Australian Outback (and in New York City), and I hope that I have the distance my “participant observation” of the last couple of years at Chico State provides context to the emotions of the moment.

In this context, I am going to start writing about the sociology of university leadership. It will be my way of offering unsolicited advice rooted in my sociological understanding of hierarchy and the nature of the modern public university. I think my first will be about why the four groups of inhabitants—castes—at the modern university are so different: At-will administrators, tenured faculty, unionized staff, and dependent students. They are different creatures, responding to different ideologies, and goals (Something that the last administration forgot!).

But I can also write about it from the context of my university in Thailand which shares with Chico State some of the problems of the modern university, but also has a capacity to create its own problems. Payap University is every bit as vibrant and chaotic as Chico State—albeit in different ways. And seeing those things anew—isn’t that the point of a walkabout?