Category Archives: My Topics

Projective Misattribution in Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes

The novel is narrated by an elderly Englishman living in Geneva in the late 19th century.  As is usual with Conrad, the unnamed narrator figure provides a narrative frame through which the reader watches the story unfold, with the effect that the reader is, usually, denied direct authorial insight into the characters.  Though it needs to be said that, in this novel, those passages in which we supposedly get direct reporting of Razumov’s private thoughts, though ostensibly based on his diary, are actually the narrator’s rendering of what he thinks Razumov thought.  Thus, the narrator himself indulges in projective misattribution, not only to Razumov but to other characters, particularly Miss Haldin.

In the story proper, one day Razumov returns to his room to find a fellow student named Haldin waiting for him inside.  Haldin proceeds to tell Razumov that he has just participated in the bombing assassination of a prominent Russian bureaucrat and that he has turned to Razumov for assistance in escaping.  Razumov quickly realizes the he is the victim of (what I call) Haldin’s projective misattribution: on the basis of little evidence, misinterpreted, Haldin has assumed that Razumov shares his radical political opinions, but in fact Razumov does not.  But feeling trapped by the situation, Razumov at first goes along with the plan, but soon decides that this puts him in more danger than he at first thought, so he turns Haldin in to the police (who nevertheless are suspicious of Razumov), who quickly execute him.

Razumov soon realizes that he cannot return to his quiet dedicated life as a student, for word has circulated among the students claiming that he was a co-conspirator with Haldin, and that he is something of a hero.  Nor can he escape the surveillance of the police, who recruit him as a spy and send him to Geneva to gather information on the exile revolutionaries living there.  Also in Geneva are the mother and sister of Haldin, the latter of whom ascribes all kinds of heroic meanings to Razumov and falls in love with him.  Other exiles, according to their own personalities and motives, and especially their own delusions, ascribe various, often conflicting, traits to Razumov.  Desperate for authenticity, to be known as himself rather than as a revolutionary hero that he isn’t, Razumov dramatically confesses and is badly beaten, then staggers in front of a tram and is reduced to an invalid.  He is taken away by the servant of one of the revolutionaries and cared for by her for the rest of his life.

Although most critics focus on the political subject matter, the real theme of the novel is the extent to which we ascribe to others the traits we want to see in them (as if they were mirrors, or screens on which we can project our own dramas) at the same time that others do the same thing to us.  It is usual for us to accept these attributions and to live according to them—it’s what makes social life possible (and yet also impossible)–Razumov’s tragedy, no doubt arising largely from his lack of family and connections (those misattribution machines that shape us before we have any choice), is to see, as others do not, what is going on; and if he is at all a rebel, it is against this projective misattribution that he rebels.

See also:

Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire

Adam Phillips’ theory of the unlived life (or as I prefer, the parallel imagined life)


“The Elephant in the Brain”: A Review

One thing I’ve learned from years of wide reading is that every text, whether fiction or nonfiction, article or book, consists of two levels: the subject matter and the agenda. The subject matter is, basically, the topic or explicit contents of the text (e.g., the presidency of Andrew Jackson), and the agenda is the real point (sometimes stated, often hidden) of the text (Jackson prefigures the populist nationalism of Donald Trump, with likely similar results). “The Elephant in the Brain” which constitutes the subject matter of this book is the largely unconscious work we do to deny (to ourselves and others) the hidden motives that drive our behaviors in our everyday lives, how in fact we “accentuate our higher, purer motives” over our selfish ones. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson describe the ways in which a number of these motives (competition, status seeking, self-protection, self-esteem, etc.) are expressed in various contexts, such as conversations, consumption, art, education, religion, and so forth.

They are, however, far from being the first to explicate such foibles of the human psyche. There is a vast literature from ancient times to modern that have already explored the same phenomena—one thinks of moments in the Old Testament (“the heart is deceitful in all things”), of Sir Walter Scott (“Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive”); or of Erasmus’s “In Praise of Folly” (“No man is wise at all times, or without his blind side.”), Charles Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” or just about anything by Freud. Nor should we exclude Thorstein Veblen’s “Conspicuous Consumption” from this short exemplary list, as his theory anticipates Simler and Hanson’s chapter on consumption.

That Simler and Hanson have little new to say about our propensity for self-deception does not mean they can’t occasionally be interesting and even fun. Their chapter on medicine makes an excellent point: that much (too much) of our consumption of health care exceeds our need for it; that such consumption amounts to “conspicuous caring,” a kind of status seeking or signaling that is analogous to Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, with the same kind of wastefulness of resources. Their chapters on education and charity demonstrate that, as they put it, “many of our most cherished institutions—charities, corporations, hospitals, universities—serve covert agendas alongside their official ones. Because of this, we must take covert agendas into account when thinking about institutions, or risk radically misunderstanding them.”

I can think of an example: At my state university, the football and basketball head coaches make $2,475,000 and $2,200,000 million (in base salary) respectively, while their putative boss, the university president, makes a base salary of $800,000. The university’s mission statement makes no mention of either the football or basketball program; instead it brags about research, learning, career success—the usual academic checkpoints. Yet money speaks louder than words.

But otherwise, the authors have little new to say about our hidden motives, so why then have they written this book, and why has it been received so positively by reviewers and readers? Because it fits smoothly into our contemporary Zeitgeist in which everything is explained (or re-explained) in terms of 1) digital technologies and 2) evolutionary theory (especially “fitness”). It’s as if these two paradigms supply us with the long-sought theory of everything and thereby relegate all that has come before to the dustbin of error and superstition; consequently, everything, including our propensity for denying our own motives, must be explained as if they had never been explained before, as if for the very first time in all of human history and thought, we have identified and explained the sources of all of our traits and quirks.

Now, while the hyper-reductionist world view of the digirati is not directly mentioned in the book, nor explicitly appropriated as a supportive argument, it is nonetheless fundamental to the authors’ thesis, both of whom are full-fledged members of the geek collective: Hanson is an economist with a degree in physics, a devotee of AI and robotics, and the author of “The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule the Earth” (2016); he has arranged to have his brain cryogenically frozen, perhaps in hopes that in the not-so-distant future it will be one of the brains (the brain?) that will be downloaded into all those em robots that will soon take over the world. His co-author Kevin Simler (shown in his blog photo as a typical Silicon Valleyboy in tee shirt, hoodie, and little wire-rimmed glasses) has studied philosophy and computer science (not as contradictory as one might assume) and has had an extensive career with start-ups. Both separately and in collusion, they view the world through logarithm-tinted glasses. There are certain background assumptions that, in this book at least, while unspoken nevertheless shape their conclusions.

One of the most important of these is the notion that the brain is a computer that runs on programs and apps (“modules,” etc.)—consciousness is the screen behind which these programs are silently running without our awareness, invisible but determinative. Which brings us to the second of their paradigms, evolution—especially the notion that unconscious instincts, running determinatively behind our conscious minds, are not only sufficient to explain all of human activity but have only one goal, to win the mating game. And while they may be expert in digitization, they are rank amateurs when dealing with supposedly Darwinian explanations of human behavior (neither has a background in neuroscience, evolutionary biology, or anthropology, the fields most relevant to their claims).

This lack is most evident in their chapter on art, which they claim is nothing more than a means of signaling fitness, i.e., that the production of art signals to prospective mates that the artist has the vigor and strength to waste on nonproductive or impractical activities (“survival surplus”). They provide only scenarios (made up illustrative fairy tales), tired analogies (bowerbirds), and modals (such words as “may” or “may have,” as in “Art may have arisen, originally, as a byproduct of other adaptations.” Note the provisional quality here: it “may have” [but maybe it didn’t] and “originally” [but maybe now it’s something else?].) We have almost no evidence of how or why human beings first began making art; there is no evidence that the making of art has enhanced the reproductive success of any artist; indeed, many of our most famous artists had no offspring at all. Maybe some of them had more sex than average, but evolutionarily that doesn’t count if it resulted in no children (and grandchildren, etc.; Shakespeare had children, but he has no living descendants today).

It is true that art, or at least the collecting of art, can enhance a person’s social status, but it’s interesting to note that enhanced social status does not necessarily result in more descendants. Indeed, at least in our current world, poorer people tend to have more children than the rich, despite the fact that the poor do not have the wherewithal to purchase prestige works of art.

There is also the problem of ethnocentrism (including what we can call present-centrism): “One study, for example, found that consumers appreciate the same artwork less when they’re told it was made by multiple artists instead of a single artist . . .” (p. 194). These few words reveal a) that neither author has the faintest acquaintance with the history of art, either Western or world; b) that they are unaware that the idea of the individual artist we’re familiar with today is an historically recent development that even in the West did not exist before the Renaissance; c) that they are unaware that even in the Renaissance, the great artists whom we revere today did not do all the work on a canvas (for example) themselves but rather headed studios in which much of the grunt work (backgrounds, preliminary work, etc.) was done by apprentices (a modern example, of course, is Andy Warhol’s Factory); d) and they are also obviously unaware that in many cultures (including traditional Chinese) originality was not valued. Simler and Hanson’s theory ignores the vast majority of artists and arts of the world and is therefore without merit.

Frankly, I don’t believe that the real issue for Simler and Hanson is evolutionary fitness; rather, it’s their bias towards the “practical” and against the “impractical” that’s at play here, as demonstrated by their chapter on education. Consider this passage: “In college we find a similar intolerance for impractical subjects. For example, more than 35 percent of college students major in subjects whose direct application is rare after school: communications, English, liberal arts, interdisciplinary studies, history, psychology, social sciences, and the visual and performing arts” (p.228). Say what? Thirty-five percent of all students is a sizable chunk and hardly indicative of an “intolerance for impractical subjects.” And given their earlier argument that art enhances the fitness of its practitioners, one wonders why it’s included on this list of impractical subjects. Such an egregious failure to pay attention to the illogic of their own arguments suggests that the authors have an unacknowledged agenda.

It’s an agenda that the authors themselves may not be fully aware of: by reducing the human mind to nothing more than the usually unconscious expression of instincts, they can convince themselves and their naïve readers that the mind can be reduced to a network of programs and applications. Thus they can justify the fantasy that AI can duplicate and eventually replace the human mind altogether; they can envision a future in which minds (particularly their minds) can be uploaded to a computer or to multiple robot machines and thereby defy mortality (the law of entropy) and achieve that Faustian dream (nightmare?) of complete power and knowledge—at least for them, not for the masses. This is nothing but digital-age Social Darwinism. But as Jaron Lanier recently wrote, “Every time you believe in A.I. you are reducing your belief in human agency and value.”

Say It Ain’t So, Charlie Rose!

The pseudo-liberal cultural elite took a major hit when its leading culture maven, Charlie Rose, was exposed as a serial sexual harasser and exploiter of women who worked for his production company. The details are reminiscent of the behavior of unsupervised frat boys.

His female colleagues on CBS’s morning “news” show expressed their dismay. Norah was angry, Gayle was saddened—but it is hard to fathom how they could not have caught wind of this long before, considering how long it had gone on and the rumors that circulated.

Rose must have done a pretty good job of camouflage. Not surprising. I never particularly liked the guy. There was something deeply fake about him—he seemingly went everywhere, knew everyone, read everything, attended every event and watched every movie and television show. There was nothing he didn’t know, and know better than everyone else. He was the ideal Superman of that peculiar cultural class, the elite middle-brow pop culture intellectual. Including his political commentary, politics now being a form of pop culture entertainment (e.g., Trump as President!).

On his self-named show, he was a popularizer of the already popular, a promoter of the best that Amazon had to offer. Naturally, he waited until an author or star had become a celebrity before he interviewed them. There was nothing original, no new insight; every topic, no matter how trivial or serious, was treated with the same stentorian pomposity . And his interviewing style seemed designed to show off his own smarts, not that of his interviewee: watch an episode or two and notice the method—he asks a question, the interviewee starts to answer, Rose interrupts with another question, or several in a row; the interviewee attempts to answer those questions, whereupon Rose interrupts again with yet another question. Very few of his guests were able or willing to rein him in (“Well, let me finish my sentence first before we move on to that point,” no one said).

Charlie Rose’s persona, “Charlie Rose,” was a fake, one so completely maintained, and for so long, that the real Charlie Rose long ago disappeared—he may no longer exist. There are many like him among the elite middle brow class, and they have far too much influence on our culture. Most of the men who have been exposed in recent weeks belong to that class—we have read their books and articles, have watched their movies and attended their performances; we have been deceived but we have also colluded in our own deception.

Perhaps there are more shoes yet to drop (will some of those shoes be high heeled?). Perhaps Democrats will lose some votes in the next election because of this. More likely, it will all blow over (we like to serve our indignation hot) and something else will grab our attention and flood social media with righteous anger. Which after all is so much fun.

The Violent Bear It Away

Yet another mass shooting, by the usual suspect: a disgruntled white male armed with multiple semiautomatic weapons mows down innocent people gathered together for perfectly benign purposes. Followed by the usual expressions of disbelief (but how can we disbelieve something that happens so frequently?), in turn followed by the usual stock phrases of support for the victims (constituting virtually a new genre), in their turn followed by the usual attempts at explanation (mental health problems, domestic violence, bullying, white male frustration, etc.). This latest incident has stirred up much speculation about the role of domestic violence in motivating the shooter, so much so that people who know what they are talking about have had to raise their voices to be heard over the general noise: that domestic violence is not a common feature of such men and that most domestic violators do not go on to perform mass shootings.

Mass shootings are a performance. One in which more than the shooter perform their roles. Whatever is motivating the shooter, he invariably seems to believe that a great public event best expresses those motives. He knows in advance that his act will attract widespread, if temporary, attention; it will be on the news, pundits will pronounce for days about it, amateur video will be rounded up, victims will be interviewed, as will his own family members and friends. Often it turns out that he has already videoed his rehearsals or has posted virtual announcements to social media. Candlelight observances will be held near the site of the massacre. People will vow to live on despite the tragedy. It’s as if the sequence is scripted, and everyone knows what role to play.

Then the news cycle will move on. This latest massacre occurred on Sunday, November 5th, at a Baptist church in a small town in Texas. A mere month previously, there was Las Vegas, which by the time of the Texas shooting had long since left the headlines. The rush of emotions which such an event stimulates will die down, and life will continue as usual. Certainly nothing will be done—we have had ample opportunity to do something, after all, but we haven’t, so there is no reason to expect that this time, or the next time, or the time after that, will be different. Life as usual.

Robotics and Immigration

One of our most cherished myths is that America is a land of immigrants. In point of fact, we are—many millions of people migrated from the “Old World” to the “New” in the centuries following the first voyage of Columbus; what is now the United States became a favored destination of people from the British Isles, from Northern Europe (especially Germany), and later from Eastern and Southern Europe. These are the facts, the statistics. The mythic element, however, tells a story of people seeking freedom of various kinds—religious freedom, freedom from ethnic oppression, freedom from monarchs and oppressive class systems. No doubt these constituted the personal motives of many of the immigrants themselves.

Liberal and progressive arguments favoring continued unimpeded immigration are often couched in moral and mythic terms: that we have always been a nation of immigrants and should therefore continue to be (but: one definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over again despite not getting the hoped-for results); that we should forever continue to welcome “the huddled masses yearning to be free.”

What is not often considered are the motives of those already here (and of some who never stepped foot on American soil) in encouraging and enabling these mass migrations. From the very beginning, those motives have been all about profit: more specifically, about cheap labor as a means of exploiting the resources of this so-called “virgin land,” resources such as lumber, furs, gold and silver, and most especially agricultural commodities: tobacco, sugar (mostly on the Caribbean Islands), cotton, and wheat. With a few exceptions, early British colonies were chartered by London investors and were stocked with men and women from the desperate and criminal classes (people whom the British authorities were glad to be rid of), many of whom died shortly after arrival. As the colonies took hold, increasing numbers of the poor, the indebted, the jobless without prospects, the desperate, came here as indentured servants. Indenturement was little better than slavery, as many died before their term of service was up, others were cheated of their promised rewards. Then there was slavery itself, which brought millions of Africans here (and elsewhere in the New World) as chattel labor, valuable not only for free labor but as commodities in themselves.

Later, as the industrial revolution took hold, millions of Europe’s impoverished were allowed in to supply the labor for the factories as well as for the piecework that still occurred in crowded tenements and hazardous sweatshops (as exemplified by Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911). Cheap labor was also obtained from China, particularly in the building of the transcontinental railroads; migrant (usually Mexican) labor is still crucial for harvesting fruits and vegetables.

This thumbnail sketch illustrates that cheap labor is the primary reason that business and political leaders have favored mass immigration, and why, for the most part, most business leaders still do. Economists today argue that we need to continue mass immigration (despite the fact that we already have a population of over 320 million people) because an aging population needs an influx of young workers to support (through taxes) the retired elderly—though how immigrants who live below the poverty line and, if legal, receive more in government benefits than they will ever pay in taxes, could perform that function is never explained. And this despite the fact that behind the sunny employment figures of recent weeks are the huge numbers of potential workers who have given up looking for a job and who are therefore no longer counted as “unemployed.”

Now comes another reason why mass immigration may no longer be a good thing: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is rendering many jobs, especially those traditionally occupied by the less skilled worker, obsolete. Factories now use more robotics than human beings and will do so even more as time goes on; many lower-skilled white-collar jobs are being replaced by digital substitutes; retailing jobs are disappearing as more and more consumers purchase goods online (as is illustrated by the emptying out of shopping malls and the closure of brick-and-mortar department stores). In other words, in the near future (if not already), our economy will require far fewer human workers per unit of output than they once did, and therefore demand for human labor (with certain exceptions) will drop considerably. Starkly put, we will not need the labor of our current population, let alone the labor of new immigrants.

What we will need instead is a new way of distributing the wealth that AI will generate. While it is too early in this transformation to specify how the new wealth should be distributed, it is time to begin considering the problem. The profits from AI are now accruing to the corporations in the form of profits and to the corporate managing classes who run the companies and make the big decisions as to how AI will be used. Yet again, the people with no voice in the process are the working classes (including the middle class). In fact, the political system is set up in such a way as to divide and conquer working people (e.g., the breaking up of unions and collective bargaining, the federal trade agreements that ignore the consequences to working people, etc.). The election of Donald Trump, who defeated all the establishment contenders of the Republican party before going on to (barely) defeat Hillary Clinton, is symptomatic of the anger of many citizens—that anger is likely to grow as the very rich get richer and the rest get much poorer and more desperate.

See this article.

“The Evangelicals” and the Genealogy of Ideas

Francis Fitzgerald’s new book The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America is explicitly an exhaustive history of the “evangelical” movement in the United States, from its earliest manifestations in the first Great Awakening of the 18th century to the present day. It is a story of rise and fall, ebb and flow, of charismatic leaders and thoughtful academics, of politics and class, materialism vs the spiritual life (however that may be defined).

More interesting to me, however, is the insight implied above by putting the term evangelical in quotation marks, for it indicates the shifting definitions of what it means to be evangelical and the way that movements, whether intellectual, religious, political or artistic, develop. I can use a metaphor to express this idea: “the genealogy of ideas.” Like an organism, a movement or ideology is the descendent of a multitude of ancestral ideas or sources, and just as the genetics of an organism are shaped by the epigenetics of its environment, ideologies are shaped by the circumstances of their times.

In the case of evangelicalism, as Fitzgerald’s chronicle demonstrates, the multitude of sources include Wesleyanism, Calvinism, pentacostalism (both lower case and upper case), German higher criticism (more in reaction than acceptance), capitalism, Protestantism in general (especially individual conscience and reading the Bible for oneself), subjectivism, and so forth, mixed together and quoted more or less as the individual leader or thinker is inclined. Not to forget inerrancy, premillennialism, postmillennialism, dispensationalism, etc. Added to the mix more lately are pop culture notions, exemplified by the trend to self-help books in both secular and religious literature, as well as those twins, the prosperity gospel and the law of attraction. Oftentimes, the thinkers themselves have no idea where their ideas originate, have in other words no awareness of the genealogy of those ideas. And when they do, they (like all of us) pick and choose those sources and quotations which are most compatible with their presuppositions. Or their personal frustrations. Or their ambitions. (I may be mostly of peasant heritage, but I would like to point out that one of my ancestors was the bastard son of a 14th century king of France—so the throne is mine!)

Perhaps you’ve seen those television commercials for genealogy services in which (supposed) customers begin by stating that they had always assumed they were German or Hispanic or whatever, only to discover, upon researching their family trees or sending in a DNA sample, that they were really Scottish or a mixture of virtually every race on the planet. Americans especially have mixed ancestries, but even in other countries there are relatively few whose populations are genetically homogenous. Europe, for example, has long been a landscape of migrations, displacements, and mixed heritages (think of the Moorish, Roman, and Germanic influences in Spain, or the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman influences in Great Britain).

The point is that most of us don’t know whence our many ancestors hail, and likewise most of us don’t know the sources of our most cherished and taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs. Do your ideas about ethics derive from Kant, Nietzsche, Aquinas, Aristotle, Thoreau? Do your ideas of the Self (your Self) derive from Nietzsche, Emerson, Protestantism, St. Paul, capitalism, Freud, or Montaigne? Or all of the above, and more?

The fact is that despite our efforts to construct coherent and definitive “world views” or philosophies, we always end up with a set of ideas that are mongrels, a bit of everything we have read or been taught, 57 varieties and more, and we in our turn will pass on this mixed DNA to future generations. There are, of course, professionals (theologians, philosophers, political scientists) who spend their entire lives attempting to impose coherence on this mess, who attempt to create thoroughbreds out of the chaotic DNA of thought, but their efforts are doomed: some other professional will soon dissect his predecessors’ magna opera and reveal their inherent weaknesses and impurities in order to assure the ascendency of his own new, improved, and purified system. And so on.

But: “When it was announced that the library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy.” (Borges, “The Library of Babel”) But the people soon realized that this infinitude of books was not a blessing but a curse—there was no hope of reading everything, so they turned to rifling through the shelves to find the books that vindicated their presuppositions, though they were nowhere to be found. So the people turned against each other, quarreling, fighting, disputing, and eliminating, in the vain hope that their own answers to the mysteries of the universe would prevail, that their own books would be what everyone read. Hence, censorship, orthodoxy, systematizing, anathemas, excommunications, splinterings. But the infinity of books keeps multiplying.

Evolutionary Just-So Story, Again!

So yet again we have a story of evolution that seems to say that evolution works like God, i.e., that it indulges in design. I am referring to an article recently published in the New York Times reporting on research into why the squid lost its shell. The phrasing of the article will, in the minds of the naive, create the impression that the squid lost its shell in order to move faster to escape its predators (shells being rather heavy and cumbersome). “The evolutionary pressures favored being nimble over being armored, and cephalopods started to lose their shells.” This seems to be an innocent enough statement, but its construction implies that the pressure to become nimble preceded and caused the loss of the shells.

That is design. It may not be God design, though one could easily make that leap, but it is design nonetheless.

Oh, if only they would read Lucretius!

Here’s what really happened: Originally, “squids” we shelled creatures; generation after generation were shelled. Occasionally, a genetic mutation or defect (call it what you will) resulted in progeny lacking shells. No doubt, most of these shell-less individuals quickly died or were eaten and left no progeny; but at some point, some of them survived (perhaps thanks to another mutation that enabled them to move more quickly than their shelled relatives) and reproduced, eventually giving rise to a new class of creatures, squids and octopuses, etc. In other words, the change occurred first, without intention or purpose, and the benefit followed. The change did not occur in order to confer the benefit. It just happened.

Of course, such changes often occur gradually, say by shrinking the shell over many generations, in what some have called “path dependency” (i.e., evolution follows an already established path and does not go backwards, in other words it doesn’t restore the shell to creatures who have lost it). But the principle remains the same: first the change, and then, if it happens to have an advantage, it sticks.

As Lucretius said, humans did not develop opposable thumbs in order to grasp tools; we can grasp tools because we have opposable thumbs.

The Liberal Illusion

Nothing focuses the mind like losing, and in this election the Democrats lost not just the presidency but both houses of Congress and the governments of most of the states. That latter fact is important, because even if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, she would have faced the same obstacles as Obama did during his eight years in the White House. One might wonder, then, if it isn’t better to have a Republican government that at least might do something rather than a split government that can do virtually nothing.

But it is not my purpose here to parse the minutiae of the power plays likely to erupt in Washington nor to dissect the flawed strategies of the Democratic establishment during the campaign. That’s what the media pundits are paid to do. I am more interested in what the triumph of Trump reveals about the true nature of our country (and perhaps of human nature itself) and the illusions with which liberals have been living for the last half century.
As a teenager in the 1960’s, I was enamored of the Kennedys and the whole Camelot thing. JFK’s eloquent calls to “ask what you can do for your country” and his declaration that his election signaled the rise of a new generation ready to sweep away the cobwebs of the past were appealing to youthful idealism. So too was Johnson’s Great Society. I’m sure many of my contemporaries shared this attitude of hope for a better present as well as future, and we carried that hope forward to the election of Barack Obama, which was presented to us as symbolic of a post-racial America. In so many ways, Obama (or at least his rhetoric) was the apotheosis of the liberal myth, that not only the old attitudes to race but also to gender and the environment, war and tribalism had finally expired.

But as this election has showed, all the old prejudices and worldviews have not disappeared; in fact, around the world they seem to be rearing up again, like weeds once chopped down spring forth again from the roots. Or perhaps the weeds were never chopped down in the first place, but simply obscured from view by the colorful flowers of liberalism, for if we look back at those last fifty years or so, when we all believed that we were progressing to a better world, we see not only all the good fruits but the continued proliferation of the bad seeds. Johnson fought for the great society while bombing Vietnam; Nixon succeeded Johnson; Carter was driven from Washington by Reagan; Clinton abandoned the liberal agenda for a more “centrist” politics (“the end of welfare as we know it”); Bush mired us in Iraq and the Middle East and presided over the worst financial disaster since the depression; and Obama, despite his audacity of hope, proved to be an ineffective president, perhaps as Ta-Nahesi Coates has observed, too cerebral and naïve in his hopes, and what he did accomplish may be rolled back within the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

Trump’s appeal is not entirely to the old prejudices. The economic factor, the many blue-collar workers who have seen their jobs and their hopes plowed under by globalization, automation, and the greed of CEO’s, financiers and shareholders, played an enormous role in his victory. But old prejudices tend to emerge when people feel most vulnerable and displaced from their accustomed worlds. People whose jobs are about to be shipped to Mexico are not as inclined to view Mexican immigrants with favor as those whose jobs are secure and unaffected by outsourcing. The virtues of multiculturalism and diversity are luxuries that the abandoned worker may not feel that he can afford—or she; the vote count did not break down into the obvious gender disparities because it is, after all, the economy stupid that trumps cultural and social issues. (Frankly, no one has accounted to my satisfaction for the large number of women who, for example, are pro-life—I do not buy the notion that they are acting in bad faith or have internalized male oppression, etc.)

It is forbidden to make comparisons to Germany in the years leading up to Hitler’s rise to power, but I am going to make the comparison anyway—with the caveat that the comparison is not deeply incised; we are not Germany, of course, and the world situation today is quite different from that of the two world wars, but there is enough consistency in human nature that some lessons can be drawn from a comparison. During the years since the unification of Germany, Germans had in many ways prospered, and had constructed at least the semblance of a modern and in many ways cosmopolitan culture (much the same can be said of Austria, by the way). One of the effects of this flowering was the assimilation of German Jews. Yet after the defeat of Germany at the end of WWI “Germans” looked around for scapegoats and focused on the Jews as the avatar of their defeat and humiliation. It mattered nothing that Jews had contributed so much to the culture of Germany; in fact, those contributions were held against them, as indicative of the extent to which true German (Aryan) culture had been mongrelized by “foreign” and “cosmopolitan” elements. As the economic situation worsened, the polemics against Jews coarsened, culminating in the Holocaust.

Relevant to my thesis is the extent to which the Bildungsburgertum, the educated classes, both Gentile and Jewish, failed to recognize what was happening to their precious culture and would soon happen more brutally to them. After all, they reasoned, how could the Germany of die Aufklarung (the Enlightenment), of “Schiller, Lessing, Goethe, Kant and Herder” (Bolkosky 8), succumb to the crude blandishments of such a man as Hitler? What they failed to see was that most Germans were unacquainted with all this Kultur, that their apartments and cottages were not lined with books and sheets of classical music. Likewise, I’m afraid that American liberals have mistaken their own culture for the culture of the whole, that the books they treasure are treasured by everyone, that their ideas are obvious to everyone and that everyone reveres literature and higher education as much as they do—and thus that they have been blind to the real culture of the majority of their fellow citizens. They have not seen that their universal values are not universally shared.

Fermenting alongside the progress that we thought was being made were they old prejudices and world views that have haunted our history since the very beginning. This is the same country that displaced and slaughtered the Indians, whose economy was founded on the enslavement of millions of Africans, and which has exploited the white working class for, as Nancy Isenberg shows, 400 years. Over the last fifty years we have lurched from left to right, from one pole to the other, from progress to regression—indeed, we have often traveled both rails at the same time. But we liberals seem to have ignored the continued strength of the regressive strain in our politics and culture, dismissing it as inevitably doomed. We have thought that the combination of globalization and technology would erase the differences among people and bring about universal peace, reason, and tolerance. At the same time we have forgotten about the bottom line and that people without jobs or economic hope will care little for, or will be hostile to, peace, reason, and tolerance.

Bolkosky, Sidney. The Distorted Image: German Jewish Perceptions of Germany, 1918-1935. Elsevier, 1975.

Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America. Viking, 2016.

Death of a Bug

The other day I squashed a bug. It was quite small, rather rounded in shape, and making its way slowly across the surface of my nightstand. I am usually not insecticidal, but having a bug of any conformation so proximate to my bed brings out my squeamishness. And recently my condo association had sent out a newsletter with an article about bedbugs. This was probably not a bedbug, but nonetheless, it had to die.

I regretted my brutality immediately. The poor thing had as much right to its life as I have to mine. In the great scheme of things, the life of a human is of really of no more importance than the life of any other creature. We got here through the same process of evolution as they did, and since I do not subscribe to any form of teleology, I do not consider Homo sapiens to be any more perfect nor any more the apex and fulfillment of some great cosmic plan than that poor bug and his cohorts. It is the attitude that we do count for more that has led to so much environmental destruction and so much cruelty, not only to other animals but also to other people. For as eugenics exposed, the idea that humans are the perfection of evolution leads all to easily to the notion that my humans, the people of my group, are more fully perfect than yours. Hence, genocide.

It is therefore not surprising that good souls who reject cruelty to other people also reject cruelty to animals; and also not surprising what psychologists tells us of serial killers, that they tortured and killed animals in their childhoods. Many children, especially boys, do mistreat animals, at least of the insect kind (remember watching ants burst into flame under the magnifying glass?), but most children, even boys, soon outgrow that tendency. Serial killers apparently do not, which suggests that there is an element of immaturity, even of that primitivism that can be both so charming and occasionally so alarming in children, in the serial killer’s makeup. Something having to do with the child’s sense of himself or herself as the center of the world, the world being that which was designed for one’s gratification.

There are other ways in which this juvenile belief that the world owes us gratification can be manifest. The despoiling of the natural world for profit, so that we may live in an abundance that exceeds what the world actually can supply to us, fits this bill. We take not only what is our natural due but also that which is the natural due of all the other creatures with which evolution has populated this planet, which is why so many are being driven into extinction (why so many already have been), and why, when we know perfectly well that our “lifestyles” are warming the planet, we continue to pillage as if there were no tomorrow—until one day perhaps there literally will not be.

Perhaps I am making too much of the squashing of a mere bug. I mentioned that we are the product of the same process of evolution that led to all other creatures, and that process is anything but benign. The process of life is the process of death. Virtually everything that lives does so by killing and eating some other living thing. Even a vegan lives by killing carrots and broccoli and mushrooms (do carrots scream in pain and terror when we yank them from the ground?) There is no escape from this round of death and life. The vegan may not eat any animal product, but his or her efforts make little difference in the great scheme of things—there are predators enough to override the effects of the vegetarian. That is how evolution works its mighty wonders.

Which is why I am not persuaded by those good souls who imagine that we can end suffering and wars and crime and all the other means and ways that we wreak havoc on each other and the world. I am not hopeful that we who live in the so-called developed world will rein in our greed for money and things for the sake of the planet or even for the sake of the starving and terrorized millions of so much of the rest of the world, or even for those who live within our own borders. Like all other creatures, we kill to live. Unlike other creatures, we can overkill. All too often we do, both literally and metaphorically.

That little bug on my nightstand was most likely harmless, at least to me, and maybe it even had some important function in the ecology of my apartment. Or maybe it was just quietly living its own life. I killed it anyway.

See also my “Requiem for a Tree” at this site.

Sins of Our Fathers: Matthew Karp’s “This Vast Southern Empire”

The subtitle of Matthew Karp’s important new book neatly summarizes the book’s thesis: “Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy” during the period from the nation’s founding to the start of the Civil War. Slavery was not just a domestic issue but a global one, and the foreign policy decisions of the men who were in charge of the federal government for most of the antebellum period, slave owning Southern plantation elites, were well aware that the future of slavery, i.e., their future, would be determined as much by what happened abroad, particularly in the Caribbean and Latin America, as by what happened within the borders of the United States itself—in fact, the expansion of those borders that occurred during the antebellum period was largely determined by the desire of the Southern elite to protect and expand slavery at a time when it was being seriously challenged by both British and Northern abolitionists, as well as by slave rebellions in Haiti and elsewhere.

Karp lays out in ample detail, and in often elegant and occasionally sardonic prose, the policies and motivations of the major political and intellectual figures of the time, including Calhoun, the successive presidents, journalists and writers such as Louisa McCord (who could be called the Phyllis Schlafly of her time) and James De Bow. Since Karp does such a good job of narrating the history, it is not necessary for me to summarize it here—just take my word for it and read the book.

What really struck me as I read was the extent to which the ideologies of the slave-owning elites have persisted in the political DNA of the United States, down to the present day. Virtually every one of the political excuses for slavery and for the domestic and foreign policy positions they adopted have survived to today, though for most of us their original forms are obscured by subsequent layers of circumstance and party politics.

Let us begin with a prime example: Today we are all familiar with the phrase “states’ rights,” and probably have at least an inkling of what it means, and are aware of how it occasionally crops up in current political controversies, such as when the federal government overrides state laws on immigration or gender discrimination.

But what most of us probably don’t realize is that the notion of states’ rights emerged in the very early days of the nation and was taken up by Southern slave owners as a rationale for preventing the federal government (and thus the increasingly abolitionist North) from interfering in the South’s peculiar institution as well as to support the expansion of slavery into new territories. Today states’ rights are usually invoked in support of conservative causes, most notably in the persistent calls for reducing federal spending on domestic issues, whether it be on infrastructure or health care; while at the same time pressing for increased spending on the military in order to ensure America’s rightful place on the world scene and to guarantee national security (in those days against the British)—to achieve peace through strength, as it is often said. Both antebellum Southern elites and our contemporary conservatives want a decentralized government when it comes to domestic issues and a strong central government when it comes to foreign policy. They are strict constructionists domestically and liberal constructionists globally.

Intertwined with this view was Manifest Destiny, the notion that America is a special nation in the history of mankind, with a special mission not only to expand westward across the entire North American continent but to redeem the world. Manifest Destiny was widely popular throughout the United States, North as well as South, but it was especially appealing to the Southern elites as they looked to the southern hemisphere as a new source of commodities which, they believed, could only be exploited by bound labor, preferably African slave labor (which they hoped to supply from their own slave breeding programs). It is worth mentioning here that the four most important commodities for international trade of that day were cotton, tobacco, sugar, and coffee, all of which at that time were “tropical” products largely grown under deeply exploitative labor conditions. Those four commodities continue to be important in trade today, though their predominant role has been superseded by oil, wheat, and corn; sugar and cotton continue to benefit from federal subsidies (as did tobacco until quite recently).

The special mission of the United States led to the Mexican-American war and the acquisition of what is today the American southwest and California, as well as the Indian wars that cleared the West for white settlement. It led to the Spanish-American War and the colonialization of the Philippines; and in the twentieth century to our interventions in too numerous to mention other countries, ostensibly to extend democracy and peace but all too often in fact to protect and expand our economic and geopolitical clout. This has led to our situation today, in which we find ourselves in a state of cognitive dissonance between our fine rhetoric and our actions. American hegemonic ambitions have always been encircled by a decorative hedge of beautiful rhetoric–call it the aesthetic of imperialism.

Much of that dissonance originates in that dark shadow cast by American history, race. Although racial prejudice had existed in American thought since the colonial period and was present even in the Northern states (and even, it must be said, among abolitionists), it was Southern writers who articulated the most sophisticated and virulent racial theories of the pre-Civil War era. Just one writer of the many that Karp cites will serve as an example: Louisa McCord wrote that “God’s will formed the weaker race so that they dwindle and die out by contact with the stronger . . . Slavery, then, or extermination seems to be the fate of the dark races” (qtd. on pages 159-160). As Conrad’s Kurtz would later say, “Exterminate all the brutes!” And this slavery-or-extermination racism was not limited to Africans but applied equally as much to Native Americans and other “colored” races (and note that the very term “colored” makes a classificatory distinction between them and “whites”).

This so-called scientific racism, this notion that the strong must inevitably exterminate the weak, predated the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and Spencer’s coining of the phrase “survival of the fittest” (1864), yet it eerily anticipates the uses to which evolution would be put, in the form of Social Darwinism and eugenics, at least up to the Nazi racial theorists of the mid-twentieth century (I am not confident that it has disappeared even today). In the minds of McCord and others of her ilk, civilization itself depended on racial discrimination, particularly on bound labor—slavery was not only good for true civilization (the high arts and all that) but it was good for the slaves (slavery or extermination). Even “liberty,” of all things, depended on slavery (see page 67). Which raises the interesting question: What did the Founders mean, exactly, when they wrote so eloquently about “liberty”? What Southern theorists of race clearly did not mean was the freedom of the individual laborer to be worthy of his hire; indeed, they argued that “free labor” was less efficient and less orderly than slave labor, and they pointed to the declining Haitian exports of sugar after the Haitian revolution as proof—neglecting to note that sugar production for export may have been good for the bourgeoisie of Europe but not good for the Haitians themselves nor for the natural environment of the island.

The end of slavery after the Civil War did not mean the end of exploited labor and racial theory. The sharecropper system was part and parcel of Jim Crow racism, as were separate but equal, which indeed kept the races separate but by no means equal, and although significant and necessary changes came with the civil rights movement, race theory continues to infect social and political discourse today, however superficially camouflaged it may be. Likewise, the ideology of states’ rights continues to impact political thought and rhetoric, even within certain states whose political classes are reluctant to tax and budget for policies that would enhance the well-being of their citizens even as they provide tax breaks and sweetheart deals for corporations and sports teams. Meanwhile, federal military and surveillance budgets continue to climb, and a candidate for president from one of the major parties brags about bombing ISIS into oblivion.

The persistence of Manifest Destiny is best illustrated by the last sixteen years of federal foreign policy. President George W. Bush said of the invasion of Iraq that it was the “latest front in the global democratic revolution led by the United States,” though others saw that war as being more about oil than democracy. President Obama also wanted to promote democracy and advance our values in the Middle East and thought, wrongly as it turned out, that the so-called “Arab Spring” heralded the beginning of a new era in that region. Since Obama ran his first campaign as the not-Bush, it is ironic that both presidents spoke idealistically while pursuing less than ideal policies, as if they (and their advisors, and perhaps also the American citizenry in general) were unable to disentangle their idealism from the realities of the American imperial project. Perhaps that is because from the very beginning, American imperial ambitions have been couched in the rhetoric of liberty, civilization, and wealth—which makes us not so different from our antebellum Southern elite politicians, after all.