Thursday, December 31, 2015

All the Sade Young Men; or, Kill for the Love of Killing

I've been reading a bizarre novel from the late 1960s, The W.A.S.P. (Bantam, 1968) by Julius Horwitz.  "Bizarre" doesn't mean bad, mind you; it's a serious work about blacks and whites in mid-century America, perhaps all the more interesting because it was written by a white man.

Julius Horwitz (1920-1986) doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, but there is a Facebook page dedicated to him, maintained by his younger son.  He wrote eight novels, and The W.A.S.P. is the first I've read.  He was a welfare case worker for New York City between 1956 and 1962, and that experience probably informs The W.A.S.P.

The novel begins with the narrator, John Brooks, attending the funeral of a liberal white lawyer, Samuel T. West.  Brooks is an expert on the welfare system, and he (along with everyone else, it seems) anticipates the arrival at the funeral of Thomas Emerson, a black friend of West's, who dropped out of Yale Divinity School and plunged into the most impoverished parts of New York City.  At the time the novel begins Emerson is running a storefront church which mainly functions as an afters-school activity center for troubled Harlem Youth.

Emerson arrives and delivers a twelve-page eulogy of West, describing the blight of poverty in New York City and recounting the dead man's good works, which ended when he went to Harlem to inform the mothers of two young black boys that their sons were in jail for bludgeoning to death an elderly white couple in their apartment building.  He was only able to tell one mother about it, because when she heard the news she began to scream, and West had a heart attack and died in his tracks.  This was the first sign for me that The W.A.S.P. was something other than a realist exposé.

Brooks tells the reader about his friendship with West, who introduced him to Emerson.  West, like the other white characters, was fascinated by Emerson; he saw him as one destined to become a murderer (another sign that the novel was moving into phantasmagoria) because as an aware black man in America, he could have no other destiny; and as an Ivy-League-trained minister, Emerson was in some obscure fashion the One, who by becoming a murderer would bring about some kind of apocalypse:
"Emerson knows murder," West said.  "He's seen murder in the children he works with. We need a murder. I mean America needs a murder. Not a Leopold-Loeb vase, which was sensational because it invoved money, murder and homosexuality.  We need a murder that will make us stand in awe of everything that we call justice.  We need a murder committed by a man who knows why he is killing, why he is taking a human life, why he chooses to kill a man at a particular point in his life.  A murder that threatens all of us, that alerts all of us at the same time.  The ancient human sacrifices were such murders.  The priest killed at an exact time to achieve an exact effect.  We need a murder to open our eyes.  The murder I might commit or that Brooks might commit or Emerson might commit if we believed that murder could accomplish what we couldn't accomplish by law or logic" [65].
This isn't just West talking; almost everyone in the novel talks like this, including Brooks, Emerson, and the professional participants at a conference on the welfare system that occupies pages 82 to 98, the junkie who rhapsodizes on heroin for three pages, the young Southern white woman, Jenny Beal, who is fascinated by Emerson -- all are demented bullshit philosophers in love with their own nihilistic voices. It's often difficult to tell just which character is speechifying at any given moment. (Notice the reference to homosexuality in the passage I just quoted.  The novel is mildly obsessed with homosexuality.  As the Kirkus review blurbed on the back cover of the paperback kvells, "Atrocities, murder, addiction, rats, homosexuality, right down to black babies being tossed out of Harlem windows -- it's all here.")
".... I had one boy that I used to give a quarter to run out and buy me cigars.  He was picked up by a detective for hustling, selling his fourteen-year-old ass to the homosexuals on Riverside Drive.  The boy called me because I was the only person in the world whose telephone number he had.  I got him a lawyer and he beat the charges.  I gave him money to go to Cleveland, where he had an uncle.  He got a job with a cousin of mine and now he's making a down payment on a house within three minutes of Shaker Heights" [The W.A.S.P., 111-2].
West showed Brooks the long letters that Emerson had written to him, describing the horrors of poverty that he'd observed.  A sort of friendship grew up between Brooks and Emerson, and eventually, divining that Brooks was reading the letters, Emerson began directing them to Brooks instead.  Emerson shows Harlem to Brooks, and when the story circles back to West's death, eventually Emerson finds his victim.  More than that I won't say, in case the reader should want to find out personally how it turns out.

I don't believe it diminishes the enormity of poverty and racism in America to say that the horrors Horwitz describes and lists are not really important in the novel.  If anything, The W.A.S.P. diminishes them by using them to work through the author's apparent obsession with ultraviolence, sexual and otherwise.  I happened on a review of Horwitz's earlier novel, Can I Get There by Candlelight?, published in 1964. That one concerns an American soldier stationed in London toward the end of World War II, and according to the review it involves "alcohol (consumed with a relentless dedication), orgies (a few), and fornication (lots)."  (I'm tempted to read it to see what the "orgies" look like.)  It sounds as if Horwitz had his Big Theme and looked for settings that gave him an excuse to write about gang rapes, people thrown from the tops of buildings, old people clubbed to death by feral children, heroin, and so on, rather than being moved by a situation that needed to be addressed.

To be fair to Horwitz, there was a lot of this kind of rhetoric in the air in America in the Sixties.  Horwitz's older contemporary William S. Burroughs loved to fantasize apocalyptic violence, for example, and I was reminded of Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream as well.  It has roots in American sensational fiction, such as George Lippard's 1845 best-seller The Quaker City, which in turn is descended from the apocalyptic works of antiquity.

It happened that I read a little further in Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton, 2002) today.  After discussing David Hume's demolition of natural religion and the Argument from Design, Neiman moved on to the Marquis de Sade.
Sade longed to be more criminal than he was.  Indeed, he longed to be more criminal than was conceivable.  For he often noted, with a mixture of rage and pleasure, that true crimes against nature are improbable.  If the impulse to crime is natural, mustn't nature cooperate in any urge to its own destruction?  There may be a way around this objection, and Sade sought it without rest [170].
Neiman noticed Sade's ambivalence, which probably had multiple functions.  It's a lot like Burroughs' ambivalence; as I wrote of him: "It is never clear to me whether Burroughs actually considers this debauchery noxious or not. Sometimes he seems to disapprove, even while he is cataloguing the practices in enthusiastic detail."  This fits with what I've read by Sade, and I think it also fits Horwitz's outraged yet voyeuristic catalogues of sex and violence.
"... The girl had a big belly filled with a baby.  She had the needle in her arm when I kicked open the door.  The needle dropped. She fell down on the toilet floor like an animal.  She started licking the stuff, licking it off that toilet floor.  Get out, I screamed at them.  Get out and kill yourselves."  Eaton said one day that I should get Harris up to the Foundation for a lunch [The W.A.S.P., 103-4].
In one of his letters Emerson tells of a visit to a police station, where a lawyer tells him this story.
He said, I've got to hang around this court because some white pig accused my client of rape.  One look at the pig would tell you that she couldn't be raped.  But my client is black and the pig is white.  He was driving home from work, the nut, when he stopped for a red light in Chelsea.  This pig opened the door to his car.  That should have been a cue for him to slam the door shut and take off against the light.  But the pig was white, young, looked attractive, at least in the time he had to see her while the light was changing, and she said it would only cost him twenty dollars.  He said, Move in.  When she got into the car they looked for a place where she could go to work.  He didn't want to take her to his apartment, for a very good reason -- he lives in a middle-class project with his wife and three children.  Finally he said to her, Maybe we'd better call this thing off.  He made the mistake of not giving her the twenty dollars or at least a five-dollar bill  The pig called the police, gave them a solid description of my man and the car and said she had been raped.  He has no defense unless the yellow sheet proves the pig is a whore [The W.A.S.P, 143-4].
Emerson "couldn't understand why he was telling me, a complete stranger, the details of his case, unless it was his way of telling me that the Part 1A court didn't exist, wasn't real and he had to confide in me to keep his sanity as he waited for the case to come up" (144).

Why did Horwitz tell his readers, complete strangers, the details of this fictional though perhaps not entirely unrealistic case?  He certainly told me something about himself -- that he didn't believe a "pig" could be raped (only hot babes can be raped) or that a whore could be raped (if she's selling it it's okay to steal it from her) or that in the world of white liberals the word of a john of any color is to believed over a whore of any color.  Perhaps he thought he was being extremely daring by making the whore white and the john black.  (If it had been the other way around, I wonder which one he would have sided with.)  Granted, the story is filtered through the words of the defense lawyer, but Horwitz invented the lawyer too.

Of course I don't know anything about Julius Horwitz as a person, and I'm not saying that he was a sadist who wanted to rape women or throw babies from a rooftop.  A writer, like anybody else really, is not his or her fantasies.  He was probably -- no sarcasm -- a nice person with a social conscience, and working in the welfare system surely must have given him good reason for anger and despair, which (being a nice person) he expressed through writing fiction and advocacy nonfiction instead of through violence.  Or something; I am not sure what he thought he was doing.

I don't think The W.A.S.P. works; the message gets shoved aside by the subtext.  The few quotations I've typed in here probably don't get across the cumulative effect of the descriptions of poverty and violence, which fails for me because Horwitz and his characters don't really seem to care about the victims.  Emerson is really the only black character in the book; the others -- children, gangbangers, mothers -- are disposable, extras, there to suffer and die.  All of Horwitz' spokespeople are hopeless about them: the children are feral, barely human, and it seems pointless to try to help them, unless you can get them away from the Homosexuals in time and send them to Cleveland.  As though there were no homosexuals or prostitutes or drugs in Cleveland.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

I See London, I See France, I See Donald's Underpants!

Ah, commenters.  Right after I wrote the previous post I read this comment under a post by Daniel Larison:  "America is not in the third grade, and the world is not a playground, so beating everyone up unless they give you their lunch money is not the winning strategy here."  America isn't in the third grade?  You could have fooled me.

In general, Larison's commenters are pretty intelligent, maybe because the comments are moderated.  But some are historically uninformed, or at least selective in their view of the world.  Well, who isn't?  But the tunnel vision leads to some significant distortions.

For example, under a post by Larison arguing that the world is mostly at peace these days, contrary to the alarmism practiced by many politicians and pundists, commenter collin wrote:
When thinking about constant wars in the Middle East, it is VERY useful to remember the near constant Civil Wars in South and Latin America in the 1960s through 1990s. I remember in the 1980s, the successful/unsuccessful coup in South America was an everyday news back then. Constant Civil War was just accepted reality. The constant battling in El Salvador and Nicaragua was Cold War politics at its worst. And then with the collapse of the Soviet Union and lack of US interest proved that these nations can develop if they were left alone. (I think you missed most of these 1970 and 1980 news stories but Civil Wars felt constant back in the day.)
The examples collin gives (coups, Nicaragua, El Salvador) all appear to be cases of US "leadership."  Nicaragua's problems in the 80s, for example, consisted of a terrorist war fought against the Nicaraguan population by US-supported (which means, trained, armed, and paid) thugs.  Nor did the US lose interest in Latin America after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  (I wonder if collin believes that the Salvadoran rebels, for one, were supported by the USSR.  They weren't, though the Reagan administration tried to make that claim.)  We continued to support coups against turbulent presidents long after the Cold War supposedly ended, and there are still obstacles to "development" throughout Latin America.

The same for RR's remark about Islamic extremists: many if not most of them were formerly on the US payroll, and many still are (the Saudis, for example).  And let's not forget the US role in encouraging Israel's efforts to destabilize the region.

Beijing Expat's reference to Muslim "drama queens" too.  If you want to see drama queens, look at most US presidential candidates, as DL does. You could usefully start with JFK's fraudulent missile gap in the 1960 campaign, but he wasn't doing anything new.  And is it really being a drama queen for a Muslim to notice that her country is being bombed, starved, gassed, maimed, and tortured by the US or its proxies?

But who cares?  Let's make fun of Donald Trump's hair again!  And don't forget -- Michael Moore is fat.

How Far Down Do You Want to Go?

I just saw the second meme today that said "If Bill Clinton's past is 'fair game' so is this", referring to Donald Trump's gamy sexual past.  I'm not going to link to it or post it here; you can probably find it with an online search if you want to see it.

Now, first: way to go, Democrats, sinking to Trump's and the GOP's level! If you object to their atttempts to lower the discourse, the right response is not to mimic them.

Second: Democrats prefer it that way, because the last thing they (or the Republicans) want is a serious, rational discussion of Clinton's policies and actions as President (or Hillary Clinton's policies and actions as Senator and Secretary of State). That would be going too far.

Third: this version of the meme consisted largely of several naked or nearly naked pictures of Trump's wives/girlfriends. So it's not really Trump's past they're interested in -- they want to slut-shame the women in his life. (And probably to look at naked pictures of women -- it's a win/win!) Which establishes these Dems as the lowest kind of scum, right down there with Trump himself. (Some of the comments on the previous sharing ranted about "skanks" and such. Stay classy, Democrats.)

Most fun of all, the person whose share put this meme where I'd see it is a vocal feminist, highly vigilant about such issues on her own account.  But she didn't notice the slut-shaming or didn't care as long as it was aimed at women associated with an official enemy, but who are not running for office themselves and have no impact on policy. Sort of like the slut-shaming we saw, some years ago, of a young woman named Monica Lewinsky -- not only by the Republicans but by Bill Clinton himself, trying to save his worthless ass.

See why I feel like I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place? There is a dime's worth of difference between the parties, but a dime doesn't buy much these days, and the Democrats are hellbent on being as sickening as the Republicans.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Birth of Propaganda

I had a very interesting exchange on Facebook the other day.  Someone had posted a link to a PBS News Hour story about six US soldiers killed, and two more wounded, by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.  Judy Woodruff reported, "Defense Secretary Carter said the Bagram attack is a 'painful reminder' of the dangers U.S. troops face in Afghanistan."

I regret the deaths, though they're far fewer than the "More than 90 Afghan soldiers [who] were killed in Helmand in two days of fighting" at around the same time, to say nothing of the Afghan civilians we're killing with abandon.  But we could get out of Afghanistan. We have no business being there. There's no good reason for US troops to "face danger" there.

I said so in a comment, and got this reply:
Actually, we did have business there. We were part of a UN assistance mission that the was sent in to help the Afghan government deal with the Taliban. We sent additional troops, with the UN's blessing, at around the same time in order to go after bin Laden. He was in Afghanistan at the time. The operations merged and the UN is still there, according to their website. So is the Taliban and they sound like they're just as bad as they were 20 years ago.
That's quite a nice distortion of history, and it's not even ancient history.  It was written by someone around my age, who's old enough to remember the actual course of events.  Bush's invasion of Afghanistan was his own decision, based on the pretense that the Taliban were responsible for the September 11 attacks because some of the al-Qaeda leadership were based there.  The Taliban had offered to extradite Bin Laden if the US provided evidence of his guilt, an offer the US spurned.  Who did these ragheads think they were, calling for due process?  The United States is above all law.  The UN was brought in to ratify his agenda, though the US' main allies were the Northern Alliance, Islamist fanatics so vicious that the Taliban had at first been welcomed as liberators when they defeated them.  (The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan was founded in March 2002, after the US invasion.) The US installed Hamid Karzai, whose government is the one the other commenter had in mind that needed help "deal[ing] with the Taliban," but he only came to power after the Taliban had been defeated.  At which point the Bush regime lost most interest in Afghanistan and Bin Laden as Bush moved to invade Iraq.  Despite the Obama regime's escalation of the war after his election, the Taliban have gained back much of their territory and their influence.  True, they are as bad as they were twenty years ago, but the takeover of Afghanistan by Islamists in the first place was largely the work of the US, which supported them in overthrowing Afghanistan's Soviet-backed secular government and then fighting against the Soviet forces who really were asked in by the government for help against the jihadists.  Even after Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops, that secular government managed to fight on against the Islamists for some time before it fell.

I pointed out to the other commenter that her fantasy version of history was rather like the distortion involved in the US invasion of Vietnam.  The more I thought about it, I realized that it was virtually cut from the same mold.  The propaganda justification for the US invasion of Vietnam had been that the government of Free South Vietnam, under attack by Communists in the pay of Moscow and "Peiping," had asked for our help to defend Vietnamese freedom.  This was a complete lie: the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem was installed by the US in 1954 to keep an anti-Communist foothold there, and US support including weapons, money, and American "military advisors" had grown steadily ever after, years before North Vietnam got involved after 1960.  Before then, the rebellion against the Saigon regime was almost entirely fought by Southerners, with no external support.  When Diem finally became interested in negotiating with those rebels, the US had him removed -- so much for the claim that we were standing by our allies.

Out of curiosity I looked at the other commenter's own Facebook page.  One of her recent posts claimed that Thanksgiving celebrates "the arrival of a group of people who were fleeing religious persecution. They were refugees, just like the people from Syria who are fleeing violence and oppression, looking for a new lives in new lands."  Thanksgiving isn't about the arrival of the Pilgrims, it's about their survival, celebrating a successful harvest.  But the Pilgrims were not refugees: they were refugees in the Netherlands, where they lived before they decided to try the New World, but they had freedom of religion there.  What they wanted was a place where they could be the persecutors, and they got one -- ironically enough from the same British government that repressed them at home. And there the parallel breaks down totally, for the Syrian refugees have not been granted land in the US by the Assad regime to start their own colony.  I credit the lady for having her heart in the right place and defending the acceptance of refugees in this country, but her distortions of history are not innocent.

It's hard for me to understand how someone who lived through the past fifteen years as an adult could have produced such a garbled version of US involvement in Afghanistan, but I'm not really surprised either.  And maybe "garbled" is the wrong word: her version was coherently written, it was just false.  I'm mostly intrigued that the propaganda narrative she'd absorbed was structured so much like the one used to justify the war in Vietnam, though I suppose most invaders and aggressors have used similar stories.  The United States often has.

Vagabond Scholar's Best of 2015

Once again, Batocchio has posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup, carrying on the good work of the late Al Weisel, alias Jon Swift.  Bloggers choose their own favorite post of the year, and Batocchio posts them.  I'm in there, of course, but so are a good many other writers you might not have heard of.  Take a look and see what you think.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Trouble with Science Is That It Has Never Been Tried

I'm not yet quite halfway through Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative Account of Philosophy (Princeton, 2004), but so far it's very impressive, though disturbing in many ways.  At the point I've reached, Neiman shows that Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, Kant, and David Hume were trying, not to vindicate Science and Reason as the legitimate heirs to religion, but to show that Science and Reason could not make sense of the world any more than religion does, and that the Enlightenment critique of religion was invalid in many important respects.

Hume, for example, wrote in The Natural History of Religion (1757):
Even at this day, and in EUROPE, ask any of the vulgar, why he believes in an omnipotent creator of the world; he will never mention the beauty of final causes, of which he is wholly ignorant: He will not hold out his hand, and bid you contemplate the suppleness and variety of joints in his fingers, their bending all one way, the counterpoise which they receive from the thumb, the softness and fleshy parts of the inside of his hand, with all the other circumstances, which render that member fit for the use, to which it was destined. To these he has been long accustomed; and he beholds them with listlessness and unconcern. He will tell you of the sudden and unexpected death of such a one: The fall and bruise of such another: The excessive drought of this season: The cold and rains of another. These he ascribes to the immediate cooperation of providence: And such events, as, with good reasoners, are the chief difficulties in admitting a supreme intelligence, are with him the sole arguments for it [quoted by Neiman, 153].
The Argument from Design* has filtered down to the "vulgar" in our day: people who've never studied philosophy have invoked it to me, though usually as a reason why I should believe in an omnipotent creator, not why they believe in one.  As Neiman observes, "These sorts of claims concern psychology" (154), that is, why people find religious or other claims convincing, rather than the validity of the arguments used.  Natural religion, or natural theology as it was also called, was a somewhat confused philosophical project.  It was the work of educated people, rather than the "vulgar," intended to provide rational support for belief in God, though this generally led to a God who wasn't the god of Christianity.  But it was also meant, as Neiman shows, to produce a new religion, a rational religion, free of superstition and miracles and priests, that a modern rational person could accept.

This should sound familiar. When I was criticizing the philosopher Philip Kitcher's book Living with Darwin a few years ago, I connected him to nineteenth-century liberal Christianity, which was true enough; I forgot that he is also the heir to the philosophes a century earlier, who also thought that Reason and Science could govern the world much better than religion had.  But Hume seems not to have shared that illusion; he was, Neiman tries to show, as interested in demolishing the pretenses of Reason as he was those of Revealed Religion.
He described the innocent heathen's view of the doctrine of the Real Presence to suggest that mythological reasons do less violence to intellect.  Later he attacked most any form of conventional worship by suggesting that all ascribe to God "the lowest of human passions, a restless appetite for applause [Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion]".  But traditional dogma was an easy target in England.  The Dialogues were bolder.  They proceeded to show that the natural religion allegedly founded on common sense is in fact less reasonable than other hypotheses.  As myths go, monotheism is not only less salutary but less scientific than alternatives.  Natural inductive procedures will lead us to polytheism [Neiman, 156].
Hume, like Voltaire before him, showed that the world does not make sense, and that Reason is of limited use in dealing with its senselessness.  (That he used Reason to demonstrate that isn't self-contradictory; that a tool is only of limited use doesn't mean it's of no use whatever.  I can't build the Great Pyramid using only a hammer, but that doesn't mean I can't use it to drive a nail.)  This is the road where modern non-theist scientists and philosophers generally prefer not to follow Hume.  They're happy to applaud his demolition of revealed religion, but they mostly have great faith in reason.  So we get revivalists like Neal DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye arguing that science can resolve moral problems like abortion, or how to govern a society.  In a free country they're as entitled to bloviate as any minister or Pope, but they have no authority in these subjects and shouldn't be taken seriously.  G. K. Chesterton famously declared, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."  But as the Christian writer Graham Shaw riposted in The Cost of Authority (SCM / Fortress, 1982) , this is "glib deceit." 
It gains its plausibility from the guilty awareness of all believers of the distance between profession and life, but if true it would be a devastating verdict on Christianity.  Few ideals have so preoccupied the imagination of men, or inspired more utter devotion.  If therefore the ideals are still untried, it may well be that they are inadequate to guide men through the complexities of life.  The same simplicity which gives them their imaginative power to haunt and obsess may also condemn them to ineffectiveness in actual life [5].
Reason and Science may not have been as widely popular as Christianity, but they have inspired many, and certainly their devotees would also claim that they have not failed but found difficult and left untried.  But that, to the extent it was true, would also be an indictment of those who claim to speak in the name of Science and Reason, but unscientifically and irrationally; even dishonestly.

Scientists will concede, a bit uncomfortably I think, that science has not been an unmitigated source of Good in the world.  True, Science has given us vaccines and rockets to the moon; it has also given us atomic bombs and eugenic sterilization.  Like Christian apologists, they will protest that it's not their fault or the fault of Science, it's because Men have misused Science to their evil ends.  (That's the Problem of Evil: Why do Men do bad things, and why does Science let them?  Because we don't have free will!) No True Scotsman comes in handy: those who did these bad things were not True Scientists or Christians.  To the extent that this is true, it undercuts the claim that Science (or Christianity) is basically Good; at best they should be judged neutral, without inherent moral content or consequences.  Since Neil DeGrasse Tyson appears to be the big celebrity scientist nowadays, I'm going to focus on his well-intentioned but blundering attempts to deal with this problem.

Tyson told NPR:
You will never find people who truly grasp the cosmic perspective ... leading nations into battle. No, that doesn't happen. When you have a cosmic perspective there's this little speck called Earth and you say, "You're going to what? You're on this side of a line in the sand and you want to kill people for what? Oh, to pull oil out of the ground, what? WHAT?" ... Not enough people in this world, I think, carry a cosmic perspective with them. It could be life-changing.
Here he is saying that "the cosmic perspective" would direct us better than whatever its opposite would be.  Of course, any religious believer could also claim to possess or have access to "the cosmic perspective."  The cosmic perspective on war can be found in the Bhagavad-Gita, and was summed up by whoever said "Kill them all, God will know His own."  Tyson, however, was talking about a perspective that he presumably associates with science.

But he also told a Scientific American blogger,
Lastly, you speak as though all War is bad. I tend to agree with you on a personal level. But I know as a matter of political awareness that not all wars are unjust and some wars are, in fact, worth fighting. Many scientists who serve military interests do so because they believe deeply in the value of their work to the security of our country
So maybe you will find someone with the cosmic perspective leading, or at any rate following, nations into battle.  I think as a description of reality, whether religious or scientific, that's more accurate than Tyson's fantasy about the moral effects of the cosmic perspective.  But the real problem is how we mere laypersons are supposed to tell who truly grasps the cosmic perspective and who doesn't.

This is a more serious problem.  On the one hand Tyson has denounced attempts by religious believers (whom he represents as "a few," though they probably greatly outnumber scientists in the US) to "control the behavior of everyone else." "That's no longer a free democracy," he says, though I wonder if we've ever had one by that criterion.  On the other, Tyson believes that "astrophysicists should be under no obligation to poll the public. I don't care how deeply affectionate you felt for these objects [the former planet Pluto, in this case] that we had talked about."

Still, alas, in America scientists are at the mercy of the dang sheeple.  In theory, at least.  So Tyson told Scientific American, "I can scream at lawmakers without limit, but their duty is to serve their constituents. And so it’s the electorate that I, as a scientist and educator, will always target for my messages."  I've pointed out before how doubtful it is that the lawmakers' constituents are the electorate, but at the moment I'm more interested in how Tyson feels as a scientist about public input into the science budget.  Scientists tend to view any restrictions on funding for their research as an intolerable infringement of their freedom to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead them, no matter how far, and have greatly lamented the decline in government spending on science since the end of the Cold War.  Tyson admits that he directs his persuasive efforts to the electorate, but his successes appear to have been through patronage from our elites. Contrary to liberal Democrats' view of George W. Bush and the Republican Party as anti-science, Tyson told the Daily Beast,
People can say and think what they want, but what matters is whether or not it becomes policy or legislation, and I don’t remember any legislation that restricted science. In fact, the budget for the National Science Foundation went up. What matters is money in Congress. What does Congress do? Allocate money. That’s really what they do. So the science budget of the country went up during the Bush administration, and the budget for NASA went up 3 percent—and it had actually dropped 25 percent in real spending dollars under the eight years of President Clinton. I don’t care what you say or think. I care about legislation, and policy.

Also, he appointed me! There may have been some science that he hadn’t learned yet or didn’t know fully, but he’s not creating legislation based on it. Speeches are politics, so you can’t fault a politician for saying something political.
What the voters want, then, doesn't matter much, nor does Tyson think it should.  I can understand his position, but it hardly bespeaks a devotion to either Reason or "free democracy."

Education, including science education, is also accountable to the voters, so it may not be surprising that the general population doesn't accept Science as much as Tyson and other scientists would like.  Large numbers of people, not just the few of whom Tyson speaks, don't believe in non-theistic Darwinian evolution.  That's mostly because of resistance to teaching it in schools below the university level, I know, but I can't help wondering whether part of the problem might also be that science isn't taught all that well.  Rather like history.  Remember that students' ignorance about historical facts has remained the same since the first research into the topic a century ago.  In history class students mostly are forcefed propaganda; in science class they dissect frogs and do basic experiments of the kind that physicists did before Galileo.  Under those circumstances, is it surprising that they don't understand the neo-Darwinian synthesis?  One thing I feel pretty sure of, though: you won't teach evolution or persuade people to accept it by the vitriolic abuse that constitutes so much public discourse on science education by liberal and progressive writers.  Whatever else you can say about it, that rhetoric does not model rationality.  Neither do Neil DeGrasse Tyson's less than coherent ramblings about science and society.

It might be argued that the trouble is scientists' and secularists' failure to be rational; if they were, their counsel would be faithful and true, and we could look to them to lead us infallibly into the future.  Maybe so, but they claim to be rational already, and again I wonder how I am supposed to tell whom to believe and follow.  The same dilemma is presented by religion, even if you limit it to one religion.  There is wide disagreement about what Christianity, for example, teaches about specific issues, a disagreement that goes back to the earliest days of the cult.  There are no authorities on whom we can rely without question.

We might start by teaching critical thinking from elementary school onward, but that course would meet fierce opposition from the religious and the non-religious alike.  Besides, it doesn't seem that reason and science now have the knowledge needed to make decisions, any more than religion does.  Rationalists have faith that someday all will be understood, and all manner of thing will be well; I think that's Pie in the Sky, and it doesn't help us in the meantime anyway.  For now we must recognize the limits of both science and reason.  That doesn't mean abandoning them for religion -- which religion? which minister or pope or mullah or lama?  That Darwinian evolutionary theory has serious problems doesn't mean that Genesis or some other creation myth of your choice is true.  Refusing to admit the limits of one's wisdom and knowledge is a common fault of both religion and science, despite the lip service both pay to that admission in principle.  Reason won't save us, nor will religion; we must make our own decisions and judgments, knowing that we make them from incomplete and inadequate knowledge.

This, I think, is the point of Sartre's existentialism, not the blank-slate vacuousness Mary Midgley ascribes to him.  But I'll go with something like Walter Kaufmann's version, as he developed it in Without Guilt and Justice: we must decide; no one else can do it for us; we must think hard about our choices but in the end we must act (even refusing to act is an act). If we turn out to be wrong we must take responsibility for our action and do our best to repair or ameliorate the damage.  If you have a better idea, let's discuss it.

Which brings me back to Evil in Modern Thought. Modern philosophy emerged, Neiman argues, from attempts to resolve the Problem of Evil.  Christianity can't do it; indeed, the Problem of Evil is a particular stumbling block for conventional Jewish and Christian monotheism, and the rationalist project showed this forcefully.  But that was a negative result; rationalists couldn't prove how we ought positively to deal with the painful finitude of human existence.  I'm looking forward to seeing how Neiman's account proceeds.

*Antony Flew argued, I think correctly, that it would better be called the Argument to Design rather than the Argument from Design, since  involves arguing from the regularities we see in the world to claim that they must be the result of design rather than happenstance; the move from there to a Designer is less of a leap.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Lake Wobegon War on Christmas

Before I forget, someone commented today on Facebook, under a meme mocking the War on Christmas, that she "actually shut Prairie Home Companion off yesterday, because the very first words from the host were, 'It's Christmas, we say Merry Christmas here.' As if 1) Christmas is the origin of these traditions, and 2) none of their listeners would be celebrating the holidays Christmas took its traditions from."

I've long disliked Garrison Keillor (see about halfway through that post), so I was pleased to add another reason for disliking him to my list.  But then I got nervous.  Don't believe everything you see on the Internet, right?  And even without an intention to deceive, people mishear what they hear.  Luckily, thanks to the Internet, it is easy nowadays to check these things.  The show she was referring to is available online, and dang if she wasn't right.  They weren't quite the very first words out of Keillor's mouth, but they came early in his opening monologue, and she didn't take them out of context either.  Perhaps one could argue that he was being ironic, as part of his fake-folksy persona, but I don't think so; listen for yourself and decide.

What Did You Learn in School Today?

A number of people have been saying stuff like this, but this meme, which I first noticed today, has the longest wishlist I've seen of subjects people wanted to impose on kids.

Of course I'm in favor of getting rid of gold stars and other reward systems, and I recognize that the meme isn't necessarily about schooling; it's perhaps deliberately ambiguous on that point.  The great educational reformer and critic of schooling John Holt also advocated the introduction of "real-world" subjects and projects into schools, and Alfie Kohn has been a sound critic of rewards and punishments in general.  But then, when I was in school, we had shop class and Home Ec; "practical" subjects were not excluded even from mainstream schooling, and I doubt they are now either.

It's telling, though, that reading, writing, math, and critical thinking are notable for their absence from that list. So is science. They also are worth doing for their own sake, and doing them is its own reward.

I also think it's funny how freely people pile subjects and tasks onto kids, or at least fantasize about doing it. One size fits all! (And there's at least significant overlap between people who post stuff like the meme above and those who post the one in that post.)  I think that in practice, kids would and do resent having their whole lives regimented by adults, because they have their own interests, and not everybody is interested in everything anyway.  Like it or not, kids are also interested in electronics and other technology, and no matter how much adults choose to simplify their own lives, it's going to be very difficult to return to the eighteenth century completely. 

Kids used to learn the listed tasks from their parents and grandparents, not in school, and that's appropriate. School was where you went to learn academic subjects, not what your family and neighbors taught you anyway.  We don't really live in the kind of society where that sort of thing is possible, and that needs to be thought about, not fantasized about nostalgically.  So this meme reminds me of adults who don't want to take responsibility for educating their children in their own religion, but want the schools to do it.

Whenever I see the words "common sense," I reach for my critical thinking. This meme is a good example of why.

P.S. The meme is also confused about the individual's position in the world.  On the one hand, the logo says the goal is to be "more self-reliant"; on the other, the text talks about encouraging kids to "care about something other than themselves."  Self-reliance, of course, is a great American myth.  American pioneers and homesteaders were self-reliant only when they had to be, and even then they depended heavily on technology (guns, iron tools) that they didn't invent and couldn't always manufacture themselves.  They also relied on neighbors for help, expecting to return the favors they received.  Barn-raising and quilting bees, for example, were group projects and activities, not just because many hands lightened the work but because human beings need company.  There were undoubtedly some pathological individuals who chose the wilderness and the prairie in order to get away from neighbors; we have accounts from the wives of some such men, who weren't as interested in solitude their husbands and longed for friends, company, the support of others.  Solitude and loneliness probably contributed to the failure of many a homestead.

I've also been seeing memes from some of the same people about a more recent period.  This one is representative:
"Do stuff"!  Maybe the words "supply chain" are meant to gesture toward the human networks Grandma was embedded in, but again, this meme puts too much emphasis on the atomized individual.  Grandma also relied on government Relief, on various charities, and just plain human kindness, which she gave as well as got.  This blog post, though probably not the best history, is a reminder of the reality:
My grandfather was born in 1928 and grew into a young boy in the aftermath of the US economic collapse. Pop-pop remembers his parents opening up our hay barn for random people to sleep in on cold winter nights. He also remembers that he and his family were “not so bad off”; they were farmers so they had the land and the knowledge to grow most of the food they consumed. In fact, Pop-pop told me that anyone who spent the night in their barn was also given a plate of food for the night, which shows how valuable their garden truly was. His impressionable years during a time of great financial ruin impacted the rest of his life dramatically, from his hoarding of cash and mistrust of companies and banks, to his refusal to use air conditioners and instead spend his summers in sweat-drenched muscle shirts. When he died he left an inheritance for each of his children from a measly family dairy farmer’s income.
The writer's grandfather didn't experience the Great Depression as an adult, and that surely makes a difference in his account.  (Neither did my parents, who were born in 1923 and 1926.  I wish I knew more about how my grandparents got through those years -- they all died in the 1960s, when I was a child -- but I know they had hard times.)

America was a lot more rural in the 1930s than it is now, and more people had space for gardens to grow food.  I live in a residential area with small lawns, for instance, but I don't know what my landlord would say if I started a vegetable garden.  There are community gardens around town, but they're some distance away from where I live, and some of the ground there has been contaminated over the years by chemical waste. My father kept a good-sized garden when we moved to the country, but never succeeded in getting us kids to really participate in it.  I think all of us could do some gardening if we had to, but we didn't have to.  (Nor did my mother can the vegetables my father grew, or make our clothes; not everyone relished the memory of their impoverished childhoods and wanted to relive them.)

If there were another economic crisis on the scale of the Great Depression -- and 2008, as bad as it was, wasn't on that scale -- the knowledge that people would need for frugality and self-help is still available and would surely be used.  But one always helps oneself among and with other people, with their help.  "Pulling one's own weight" is a better metaphor than "self-reliance."

Friday, December 18, 2015

Service Advisory

The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 
In a word, Jihad!

I don't know where the guy with the beard was radicalized, but he was certainly a bloodthirsty extremist if anybody was.  Notice also the beard, which he probably began growing in whatever madrassa turned him to the Dark Side.  But there is no question that he used religion to justify a war in which he killed 600,000 of his own people, a war whose consequences we are still living with a century and a half later.

Yes, that war had one positive outcome, in that slavery was ended in the United States.  It was a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.

I've been procrastinating lately because there's so much I think I ought to write about, but I just haven't felt like writing.  Or reading, most of the time.  It happens.  And now I'll be going out of town for the weekend, which will not contribute directly to productivity.  My apologies. But as inadequate recompense, let me refer you to John Scalzi's post today about the Toronto Star's recent decision to turn off comments on their website.  Scalzi then discusses his own comments policy, which led me to reflect again on why I don't enable comments here.  The discussion in comments (which Scalzi moderates) is pretty good -- Whatever is one of the sites where that happens.

One commenter wrote, "It’s amazing how polar opposite a 'comments section' is to what I hear of the current politically correct state of college classrooms with their 'trigger warnings' and such."  Ah, there's a topic I need to write about here.  Instead I replied to him there.

Perhaps you should be more skeptical about what you hear, but even if what you hear is true, imagine a classroom where the discussion was like the comments sections of most newspapers, Youtube, etc.  I avoid them, not because I'm a special snowflake, but because they're useless for learning anything.  There's nothing "politically correct" about not wanting to wade naked in an open sewer. 

Classrooms have never been open spaces like an unmoderated comments section; discussion there has always been moderated by the instructors.  And nobody's as special a snowflake as the legions of reactionaries who are furious that white heterosexual males are no longer given the special status they think they deserve, and feel they must react by verbal and often physical violence. (This is not really new.  In Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, she recounts that male students rioted when it was proposed that female students should be admitted to the elite English universities.  And I don't need, do I, to remind you how American whites reacted to the politically-incorrect presence of free blacks in what they believed was "their" country, thereby triggering terrible anxieties that could only be assuaged by rioting, dismemberment, and lynching of the offenders?)  Again, imagine a classroom where the students yelled death and rape threats at each other, which is the state of too much of the Internet today.  Again, there's nothing "politically correct" about not wanting to be subjected to that.

So.  Back in a few days, I hope.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Who Needs the Peace Corps?

The person who posted this meme commented, "Did you know?"

I still don't know.  Civics was still a required class when I took it in high school, along with everybody else.  That was 1965 to 1969; in those days (as now, probably) when Americans were shown the text of the Bill of Rights, they repudiated it as Communist propaganda.  We had a very good teacher, well-liked and knowledgeable.  My fellow students who are now on Facebook evidently forgot everything he taught them, or never learned it.  That goes for those who are now liberal, as well as for those who are now right-wing Republicans.

Is it surprising?  Of course not.  People who lament the ignorance of Kids Today are always ignorant themselves, if not wilfully misinformed.  (I'm inclined to put Zappa in the latter category.)  Kids have always been ignorant.  The first research on students' knowledge of "history" (defined as their ability to regurgitate discrete "facts" on a questionnaire), done in 1917, produced the same results, and the same denunciation of public education, as it does today.*  This was, as it happens, about the same time that Social Studies was first formulated by professional educators; as it's now defined, Social Studies is
"the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence." Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. In essence, social studies promotes knowledge of and involvement in civic affairs. And because civic issues--such as health care, crime, and foreign policy--are multidisciplinary in nature, understanding these issues and developing resolutions to them require multidisciplinary education. These characteristics are the key defining aspects of social studies.
Zappa's claim that Social Studies had something to do with "all the student rebellions in the 60s" is raving bullshit.  The way he expressed his point puts him in the same crank box as people who whine that children aren't pledging allegiance to Our Flag these days. His history is false, like theirs. One, if Civics is no longer being taught, it's not because of the student rebellions of the 60s, which were about actually implementing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It doesn't matter what the class is called, but Social Studies was what History class was called when I was in 6th grade, in 1961-2 in a backwater Hoosier school, before the student rebellions of the 60s had happened.  As I recall it, it had all the limitations one would expect from an elementary-school American history, but our teacher did go into some depth on questions like religious freedom and its role (or lack of it) in the early English settlements.

Of course Zappa also ignored the difficulty of teaching history and Civics correctly, thanks to reactionaries who (like him? I don't really know his politics) want students taught propaganda, not accurate history or Civics.  It's so much easier and safer to inculcate flag worship and to regard the Constitution as Holy Writ than to teach the complexities of American history and the controversies over the meaning of the Constitution.

I was relieved to see that numerous commenters on the previous post of this meme pointed out and corrected Zappa's distortions.  The person who'd posted it, who claims to be a former teacher and got it from a group called "Worldwide Hippies," rejected these corrections and defended the distortions.  (Evidently he's unaware that Zappa hated hippies.)

I respect Zappa as a tireless advocate of civil liberties, though in his case that mainly seemed to mean the freedom to say "Fuck" on stage and on records.  I honor him for attacking Tipper and Al Gore's campaign to censor pop music.  But that doesn't make him an authority on American history and political systems, or on the history of American education.  Whether he liked it or not, his struggle to do so was part of the same cultural and political movements he despised and misrepresented.

*See Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Temple, 2001), pp 32ff.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

But Here's a Rat's Ass

A former co-worker, a lovely person in many ways but nonetheless a fascist, shared this meme on Facebook today.
That's odd. Social Security, Medicare, public education, police (when they're doing their job), the fire department, the military (in principle -- and my friend is another one of those "Support Our Troops" people anyway), all kinds of public health service, disaster relief, public roads, public libraries -- do I need to go on? These are all government protecting and caring for us, giving a shit. It doesn't really matter whether a given politician cares or not, it's the government's job to protect and care for us -- "to promote the general Welfare," as it says in the preamble to the Constitution -- and it does that, quite a lot.

It could do more, I suppose, and do better what it already does. But Republicans and a lot of voters don't want it to. They want to get rid of government so that everyone who isn't rich can die. They expect the government to take care of them, but the GOP voters are surprised when it turns out that the guys they voted for don't give a shit about them, but only about the rich. They're deathly afraid that someone else - someone black, someone brown, someone slightly poorer than they are, an immigrant, a (gasp) undocumented immigrant -- might get something from the government, and in order to deny others they're perfectly willing to give up those
benefits themselves. Archie Bunker was a perfect example of this mentality. Now he and his kind are reaping the whirlwind. But go on, Archie, support Donald Trump; do you think he gives a shit about you?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Today's Facepalm

So all these Democratic anti-Trump memes that have been flooding my newsfeed, which are designed to promulgate fear, anger, and hatred of Trump and his fans, will turn those who view them into social conservatives?  That would seem to follow.  But I doubt it's what the meme-maker meant.  Our fear, righteous anger, and Two Minutes' Hate are different, because we're the good guys, intellectually and morally superior to the Rethuglitards.

I understand the desire to vent -- I do it often.  I don't object to venting in itself.  I object because, having vented, Democratic loyalists don't balance their rage with informed discussion of the political scene or anything else.  So I also see stuff like this link to TV pundit Ted Koppel saying that Donald Trump is "the Recruiter-in-Chief for ISIS."

That's really not fair to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other people already in (and out of) power who don't just advocate violence but actually practice it, killing and maiming and displacing innocent people and thereby causing the blowback we've been seeing for a few decades now. Trump is scum, and no doubt he's helping to recruit for Islamist organizations in his own small way, but he hasn't actually killed anybody or invaded and destabilized a country ... yet. All the others have.  Party loyalists can't admit, even to themselves, that in this respect Trump and the other Republican hawks are just continuing and extending normal bipartisan US foreign policy in the Middle East.

The author of the article on Koppel concludes, "Critical thinking and nuanced reasoning don’t go over too well in Trump Land."  That's true enough, but they're no more popular in Democrat Land, or whatever you want to call it.  I've often pointed out the confusion exhibited by educated people as to what critical thinking is, but here are a couple of positive models.  Deborah Meier, in The Power of Their Ideas (Beacon Press, 2002), sketched the Habits of Mind fostered in the alternative high school she helped found:
They are: the question of evidence, or "How do we know what we know?"; the question of viewpoint, in all its multiplicity, or "Who's speaking?"; the search for connections and patterns, or "What causes what?"; supposition, or "How might things have been different?"; and finally, why any of it matters, or "Who cares?" [50]
In Without Guilt and Justice (Wyden, 1973) the philosopher Walter Kaufmann proposed a canon, "the heart of rationality, the essence of scientific method, and the meaning of intellectual integrity."
Confronted with a proposition, view, belief, hypothesis, conviction -- one's own or another person's -- those with high standards of honesty apply the canon, which commands us to ask seven questions: (1) What does this mean? (2) What speaks for it and (3) against it?  (4) What alternatives are available?  (5) What speaks for and (6) against each?  And (7) what alternatives are most plausible in the light of these considerations?

Now it may be objected that doing all this is rather difficult.  But has it ever been a condition of virtue that it required no great exertion?  On the contrary... [178]
Kaufmann also liked to quote Nietzsche's quip "A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!!!"

Both Meier and Kaufmann acknowledge that objections may be raised to their canons; that possibility is included in their list of questions, and Kaufmann considered them at some length.  Meier says that the Habits of Thought have never been formulated finally, and have changed somewhat over time.  That's to be expected.  She also says:
There are plenty of liberal-minded citizens who are uncomfortable with Central Park East's stress on open intellectual inquiry and would have us leave young minds free of uncertainties and openness until "later on" when they are "more prepared to face complexity."  First, some argue, "fill the vessel" with neutral information and easily remembered and uplifting stories.  But such compromises will neither satisfy the Right nor prepare our children's minds for "later" [81].
What a coincidence (or maybe not)!  What "some [liberal-minded citizens] argue" is the position of the Right as well.  Critical thinking tomorrow, indoctrination today.  But tomorrow never comes.

It's the spirit of critical openness these writers exhibit that is missing from the liberal and left partisans I'm discussing today, and have discussed before.

Friday, December 11, 2015


Lately I've been seeing a lot of ranting online by liberals that we must oppose Donald Trump's "extremism" and "radicalism," and it annoys the hell out of me.  Trump is neither radical nor particularly extreme.  He's a familiar American type: a hustler, a racist, a bigot, a liar.  American politicians have always sought to appease and pander to Trump's constituency when running for office, by using dog-whistle tropes to signal that they despise the poor, the brown, the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.  Bill Clinton inadvertently gave the tactic its name: the Sister Souljah moment.  One of Barack Obama's was when he told a presumably black audience in Selma, Alabama, that "if cousin Pookie would vote, get off the couch and register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics."  (Ta-Nehisi Coates countered, "But Cousin Pookie did vote -- at historic levels, no less. And Cousin Pookie's preferred candidate has taken that vote and continued about the business of busting all the other Pookies out there for things the candidate did in his youth.") Another was when he said, after paying lip service to Gandhi and Martin Luther King in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, "But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people."  Nonviolence may not always be the proper approach to conflict, but it should be clear by now that the state violence Obama defended there with Bushite rhetoric does not defend nor protect the nation.  State violence, which routinely kills many more people than the retail violence of "terrorism," is almost always the work of moderates, not extremists.

I approved of a meme I saw that consisted of the mug shot of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood killer and the words "Where was he radicalized?"  It referred, of course, to the question that has been asked of the San Bernardino terrorists.  It's important and useful to remember that terrorism in the US has much more often been the work of white native-born Christians than of brown Muslim immigrants.  The answer in Robert Dear's case would presumably be that he was radicalized in evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic churches, which are hotbeds of anti-abortion propaganda and activism.

But the meme in its social and political context seemed to be more an attempt to deflect accusations of extremism and radicalization, which I think is confirmed by all the denunciations I've been seeing of right-wing extremism and radicalism.  These miss the point.  Racism and religious bigotry in various degrees of intensity are mainstream American values.  That doesn't mean they're good -- it means that "mainstream" doesn't equal "good."  Since the mainstream routinely tries to marginalize its critics as extremists and radicals, I think it's important to stress that change has often been the work of extremists and radicals.  (I should also say something about the use of the word "criminal" in this discourse, but I'll try to do that in another post.)

So, the meme I made and posted today.  (I hope it will be the first of a series.)  The question isn't rhetorical, of course.  Rosa Parks was radicalized first of all by being a black woman in white-supremacist America.  She joined the NAACP, and though that organization has often been derided as too tame, too safe, not "radical" enough, it wasn't and isn't seen that way by American racists.  She became an officer of her local chapter and underwent training at the Highlander Folk School, a Christian Socialist establishment.  Remember that for many years the Communist Party of the USA was the only white organization which not only supported equality for African-Americans but put its white members on the line, establishing themselves as targets for violence by white racists.  Finally, as is well known, Parks set off the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man when ordered to do by the driver.  That meant going to jail, which was an extreme choice for a middle-class woman of any color in the United States during the 1950s.  Civil disobedience was still a marginal tactic, and for a woman of color it meant extra risk of police violence while in their custody.  The bus boycott, though it's now hallowed by history, was an extremist if not a radical project; "more conservative black leaders" were at least uneasy about endorsing it, and it was denounced by white racists.
In the early weeks of the boycott, then-Mayor W.A. Gayle declared: ”We are going to hold our stand. We are not going to be a part of any program that will get Negroes to ride the buses again at the price of the destruction of our heritage and way of life.”
The echo of defenses of displaying the Confederate battle flag in that last clause is not coincidental.  It shows that the boycott and the aim of desegrating the buses was not only extreme, it was radical.  Having a few seats reserved for blacks, perhaps loosening the requirements that they surrender their seats to whites -- these are reformist solutions.  Rejecting racial discrimination altogether is radical in the context of the time and place (and meanings are always determined by context).  Think also of Gandhi and the movement for Indian independence, another extremist project -- as was the American Revolution: instead of accepting representation in Parliament and other reforms that they could probably have gained, the colonists chose the radical move of independence.  Direct action, like the bus boycott and later nonviolent resistance, is extreme.  It almost has to be if it's going to achieve its aims.

Which brings me to another point.  It should be obvious but apparently it's not.  "Extreme" and "radical" do not equal "violent," though that confusion is endemic not only to those who reject change but to some who want to bring it about.   As Noam Chomsky argued decades ago:*
In fact, it is senseless to speak -- as many now do -- of tactics and actions as being "radical," "liberal," "conservative," or "reactionary."  In itself, an action cannot be placed on a political dimension at all.  It may be successful or unsuccessful in achieving an end that can be described in political terms.  But it is useful to remember that the same tactics that one man may propose with high conscience and deep commitment to radical social change may also be pressed by a well-placed police spy, bent on destroying such a movement and increasing popular support for the forces of repression.
Martin Luther King Jr., who'll be the subject of another of my memes, explained this distinction to white "moderate" ministers in his letter from the Birmingham jail, some years after Montgomery:
You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of the extremist.
Instead of using the standard liberal response (Oh How Can You Say Such an Awful Thing!), however, King counterattacked.
But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice ... Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ ... So the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice --or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? ...
I'm not a fan of Jesus, Paul, or Amos, but King chose the right response here, especially considering those he was addressing.  I had an entertaining exchange on Facebook this morning when I quoted King's letter to some liberals, a few of whom reacted with fury, accusing me of confusing extremism and violence (no, they were; I was explicitly doing the opposite).  (It reminded me of the time I advocated direct action in comments at another blog, and a nice but historically-illiterate liberal accused me of being "a believer in the idea of destroying everything so a perfect Utopia can arise from the ashes."  Well, maybe she wasn't so nice, but what matters is that she had no idea what "direct action" meant.)  Long-dead "extremists" tend to be recast as moderates once their movements have joined or become the establishment.  This is also true of King, whom both liberals and conservatives would like to claim for their factions.

I'm not saying that the extreme or radical position is always automatically the right one.  For one thing, it's not always clear what is radical or extreme in a given context, and there are usually multiple options that might qualify in each case.  Maybe this is the place to quote Barry Goldwater's quip, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"  I agree, but Goldwater said it to divert scrutiny from the validity of his policies.  Each proposal must be evaluated on its merits, and whether it's extreme or radical or moderate or reformist is a distraction from more important questions.  There is no simple principle for deciding these things.  They have to be approached with evidence, knowledge, and critical reason -- which are no vices either, however unpopular they are.

* In American Power and the New Mandarins, Random House, 1969, pp. 398-99.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Orbis Non Sufficit

I'm working my way slowly through Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy by Susan Neiman (Princeton, 2002).  It's interesting, and it covers matters I don't know enough about.  It makes me want to read more Leibniz, Kant, Rousseau, and Hegel, the surface of whose work I've barely scratched.  I doubt I'll get very far with that wish, but it does map out some of what I need to know.

Neiman sees the Problem of Evil as the core of philosophy, and perhaps of theology as well.  (I nearly wrote "religion" instead of "theology."  I think religion is prior, logically and historically, to theology.)  She writes that for Hegel the Problem of Evil is central, and he thought he'd basically solved it.  "Philosophy," she quotes him, "should help us to understand that the actual world is as it ought to be" (100).

Unsurprisingly, many people object to such a program.  Neiman argues that Hegel was no sunny optimist, he didn't ignore the many terrors the world contains; he simply argued that it was impossible for things to be otherwise than they are.  Following her explication, I think I can agree with Hegel, provided we understand how his approach can be misunderstood and misused.

First, what is "the world"?  I suppose I should have studied German, because it would help to know if Welt feels the same in German as World does in English.  If it's meant to extend to the entire universe, then Hegel might well be right.  Certainly there is no reason to believe that the universe is structured to protect us or give us meaning; the universe has no feelings, and William Blake's claim that a bird in a cage "puts all Heaven in a Rage" is absurd.  We all die, most of us get sick, and this has nothing to do with human failings, as some attempts to solve the Problem of Evil argue. Ironically, it seems to me, it's as egoistic to believe that human beings could have designed a better universe than God did as it is to think that human actions can cause 'natural' disasters like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.  But it's a common religious belief that our misbehavior gives God sick headaches, and that he watches every one of us closely to add our sins to our entry in his cosmic ledger.

Second, the misuse I mentioned is not just fatalism, but the selective complacency about the appropriateness of the World As It Is which is popular among rulers and their toadies.  It isn't specific to religion, as the persistence of Social Darwinism and scientific racism should remind us.  The Divine Right of Kings easily becomes the Evolutionary Right of Elites with barely a twinge of dissonance.  Human beings can't put All Heaven in a Rage, we can't delay the exhaustion of the sun or the heat death of the universe, but we can (for example) put kings' and queens' necks on the chopping block, and we can jail bankers whose recklessness derails the economy.  We can change our laws to make society better.  Not necessarily good -- Social Security, for example, didn't eliminate death, it didn't even eliminate poverty among the old entirely, but it lessened it.  Evolution doesn't determine political systems or social arrangements.  Kings and dictators are part of the World As It Is, but so is the resistance that blocks, frustrates, and overthrows them.  It won't matter to the universe, but it matters to us, and we can have an effect on the human scale.

Is this really not obvious?  Not, evidently, to those who try to justify evil on the human scale by calling it natural.  But that's too easy.  More pervasively in our time, it's not obvious to those who try to justify the status of the rulers by defining them as meritocratic "elites" who just naturally should be in charge.  Which, come to think of it, is why Mary Midgley's appeals to human nature rub me the wrong way.  She doesn't support oppressive arrangements, of course, she's a nice, humane, liberal lady.  But her conception of human nature is equivocal at best, vacuous at worst.  Maybe I'll have to try reading some Hegel, to try to find out if he recognized this.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Don't Count Your Libres Before They're Hatched

Venezuela had elections yesterday, and the right-wing Democratic Unity Roundtable won 99 out of 167 seats in the National Assembly according to Democracy Now.  The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela won only 46 seats.  I'm not going to have much to say about this until some informed commentators whose opinions I trust weigh in.  As I've said before, it's very difficult to sort out truth from lies in US media where Venezuela is concerned.  (Not only Venezuela, of course.)  I will probably wait until the dust settles and we see how the new coalition conducts itself, because people are too damned eager to jump to conclusions about elections and their consequences.  (P.S. December 8: Greg Grandin's piece at the Nation is very helpful.)

I've seen a lot of raving where I have looked online.  One commenter on a Mother Jones pre-election post claimed that President Nicolás Maduro would refuse to accept the results of the election, stage a coup, and declare himself president-for-life or something.  (P.P.S. According to Grandin, DUC had been pushing this line throughout the campaign, so if it lost it could cry foul.)  Again, according to Democracy Now's brief post, Maduro has accepted the results.  Something could change there, but clearly a lot of people want Maduro to overturn the election so they can preen themselves on being right about him.  Not because they care about the welfare of most Venezuelans; they don't.  Accusations fly about Maduro's alleged corruption, his disregard for democracy, his attempts to suppress the opposition.  But again, I see no reason to suppose that the accusers really care.  One commenter pointed out, with devastating acuity, that Maduro was formerly a bus driver, and declared that he should have remained one.  Why?  It couldn't be because he really believes the wealthy are naturally immune to the temptations of corruption and abuse of power; it's presumably because he believes that proles should remain proles and let the Real People run society.  Just because.  Despite this commenter's protestation that he's not a right-winger -- he admits and condemns the many atrocities the US has supported and carried out in Latin America -- he shows no sign of being a believer in democracy or political equality.

A Venezuelan (but resident here in my city in Indiana) friend is spamming his Facebook feed with memes celebrating the change.  He seems to think that this vote turned current president Nicolás Maduro out of office, which of course isn't true. Another theme is that Venezuela is now "free"; again, he's jumping the gun, but also I think revealing his political assumptions and views.  I admit I don't know him that well, so it's entirely possible that he'd like a return to the US-backed dictatorships that ruled Venezuela for most of the twentieth century.  But more likely he's just not thinking, much like the people who celebrated the election of Barack Obama, or that of Justin Trudeau.  I've been criticizing his posts, so it's entirely possible we won't still be friends by next week or so; but it's too early to tell.

Here's what I think I can say.  First, in principle I think it's a good thing that the USPV lost an election.  One-party rule isn't good for democracy.  In the real world, though, it's obvious to me that the DUC (MUD is the Spanish acronym) won because of worsening conditions in Venezuela and Maduro's inability to improve them.  Venezuelan voters may or may not have had any illusions about the character of the opposition leaders; most likely they thought they were simply Voting the Rascals Out, as we do in the USA, and we know how well that works.  I doubt the DUC will be able to do anything about unemployment, inflation, food supplies, or other problems that affect most Venezuelans.  I also doubt they care.  They've been on the US payroll for years, getting millions from the Obama administration.  Imagine the frenzy that would ensue if it were revealed that Maduro had been funneling millions of dollars into either US political party's coffers, to "protect democratic space and seek to serve the interests and needs of the [American] people."  And the US, not excluding the Obama administration, has no interest in democracy or the welfare of most Venezuelans, or of most citizens of any country in the world including this one.  Obama, like his predecessors, has reliably sided with dictators and wealthy elites, and against democratic reforms and the majority of human beings.  I see no reason to suppose that he has suddenly gotten religion with respect to Venezuela, uniquely in the world.

Suppose that all the accusations against Maduro are true.  It would't follow that the DUC is going to be good, or even any better at all -- or that they intend to.  From the reports I've seen over the years, it's a coalition made up of a range of groups to compensate for the fact that no one opposition group had much popular appeal, but many of them are straight-out fascists.  Because it's a coalition, though, I'm not going to be too pessimistic yet.  If the DUC wants to keep its majority in the Assembly, it will have to make good on its rather extravagant promises to improve the lot of the poor majority at the same time it collaborates with US corporate elites and their servants.  If (or should I say "when"?) it fails to do so, it can expect to be voted out in its turn -- if it doesn't install a new dictator first.  Given its role in the 2002 coup -- supported by the US if not instigated by us -- against Chavez, and in political violence since then, that possibility can't be lightly dismissed.  I'm not Venezuelan, so I can really only be a spectator, wait to see how things will play out.  I think that speculation from here is a First World Luxury.  Venezuelans will have to decide what they'll do, and I mean all Venezuelans.