Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rousseau on Language and Writing

The following is the Forward that was very kindly commissioned of me by my friend John for his latest book, Rousseau on Language and Writing.  It has been available for purchase for some months (you can find it on Amazon here) so this notice is more than a little late but, better late than never as they say.


Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Selling Out or The Organic Capitalist

The twentieth century Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci is rightly famous for his concept of the organic intellectual, a term he interpreted to mean an individual from the lower classes who would work to critique the dominant culture of society used by the ruling class to control the population.

I contend that there is a flip side to this coin. That, just as an intellectual may arise organically from the lower classes to critique the culture, there is also an organic mechanism of capital for neutralizing such threats. The observation is not unique, but so pernicious I felt it deserved to be clarified and brought out into the open.

At one end of the spectrum the potential organic intellectual accepts while still young the propaganda that a college education is the best way out of poverty. Putting aside the problem of mounting student debt, there is the equally serious problem of the quality of education itself, a problem dealt with at great length by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In order to be an effective critic certain skills are essential, such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The disadvantaged student is limited in her choices as to which university she may attend, and must often sacrifice quality for affordability. Those institutions which are most affordable very often score the lowest in imparting those valuable skills. In large part this is due to the increasing commercialization of higher education. To compete, schools are becoming viewed more as businesses that provide a product. To sell more product means pleasing the consumer, i.e. the student, or more often their parent's, who want an easy path for their child towards graduation.

One consequence of this process has been the slackening of rigor in courses, and the sense in the student body of entitlement to a degree, since that is what they are in effect paying for. Thus, those individuals who might have the most to say about the current system are effectively silenced without coercion or complaint. The organic intellectual is effectively stillborn because she was never exposed from the start to the proper atmosphere for critique. Nevertheless, in compensation, they will be given what, in capitalist terms, is called an “education”, typically in business or some technical proficiency in the medical or technological fields, and never look back with any sense of loss as they pick the low hanging fruit from capital's tree.

The second progression for organically silencing dissent is far simpler, but not in the least less unsettling for that. It comes under the name of “selling out”, but its subtlety is such that the individual being sold has so completely appropriated the modes of capitalist thinking that the transaction is never even seen to have taken place. It is truly an invisible hand at work with magical prestidigitation.

In this instance, what amounts to the modern public intellectual, the entertainer or comedian, grows in increasing prominence, their presence becoming more and more inescapable to the larger social consciousness. At this moment the individual becomes commodifiable. He or she is offered a platform were they may reach an even wider audience than ever before. However, along with this increased influence comes increased affluence. The entertainer has attained all that they desired, they can entertain and are paid increasingly well to do so. This nascent social critic began as an outsider looking in and critiquing what he had seen. With increasing popularity however, he reached the point of commodification. Being absorbed by capital he begins to view capital's interests as his own. Whereas before he was an outsider looking in, now he is on the inside looking out, and in this natural non-coercive fashion capital thus nullifies the efficacy of dissenters who gain too much influence.

There are perhaps few better examples of this transition than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Stewart has repeatedly been called out for his half-hearted criticisms. His childishly naive dictum of “fairness” in giving both sides a serious hearing in his determination not to hurt feelings or ruffle feathers, has repeatedly given credibility to the worst excesses of the US government. This error of false equivalence was revealed no more tellingly than in the disastrous Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which became a massive joke at the attendee's expense. A sad deflation of hopes from a man who was reported to have been an admirer of Eugene Debs.

Organic Capitalism is stealthy, the tools at its disposal almost limitless yet, it can be overcome. With increased community outreach and education, and the simple moral backbone of those who can resist its temptations and see through its lies, a better world is not just possible but inevitable.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Gold Standard: A Philosophical Dialogue On the Nature of Poverty

Cast of Characters
Benjamin: A modern Socrates.
Pastor Fred: Pastor of the church which
has been robbed.
Scene
A street outside a church.
Time
Midday.

Benjamin, taking an afternoon walk, encounters Pastor Fred
sitting head in hands outside his church in apparent
distress.
BENJAMIN
Are you alright Fred? You look awful.
FRED
I’m not surprised. Someone broke into the church last
night and stole the big screen TV from the community
room.
BENJAMIN
I’m very sorry to hear that. However, if they needed
it that badly perhaps we should consider it an act of
desperation and forgive it as such.
FRED
Desperation!? How can a night time robbery, that was
obviously planned, be considered desperate? There is
plenty for those who know how to ask for it.
BENJAMIN
There is plenty enough that’s true. However, the way
it trickles down to those on the bottom is perhaps not
all that efficient.
FRED
It’s too efficient if you ask me. I pay enough in
taxes as it is, and those taxes pay to provide for the
poor.
BENJAMIN
Very true. And yet, even then it is hard to get by for
most. Only the smallest portion is allotted based on
what the government considers an acceptable standard of
living, while those who live with more than an
abundance are unwilling to part with even the smallest
percent.
FRED
That is only right, one should keep what one earns. Of
course we should give to the poor and needy, but not as
a legal obligation. It should come from the heart or
not at all.
BENJAMIN
This is well taken, and is a commendable ideal. How
would you implement it?
FRED
As it has always been done, through the church.
BENJAMIN
But Pastor, the churches already do this and yet
someone still felt compelled to steal your TV. If all
of their needs have been met, what may have motivated
their action’s?
FRED
Obviously the thieves were not content with what they
had been given. They were probably drug addicts.
BENJAMIN
How do you know they are drug addicts?
FRED
Well I don’t know, but it wouldn't surprise me.
BENJAMIN
Let us assume for the moment that they were not. Let
us assume that, like you they were angry.
FRED
What reasons would they have to be angry? I’m the one
who’s been robbed.
BENJAMIN
Perhaps it was the anger of frustration, the
frustration of a desire for luxuries they could no
longer afford with work being denied them.
FRED
That’s no excuse.
BENJAMIN
No, but it is not as easily dismissed. The addict we
assume cannot control himself, someone stealing sober
is acting out of more complicated motivations, or so at
least we can imagine. Is it not possible we jump to
the most convenient cliché to strengthen our own black
and white thinking?
FRED
Alright, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume
you’re right. It still doesn't change the fact that
they stole, and it still doesn't make it right.
BENJAMIN
I don’t claim a different set of reasons make it right,
only that the reasons may be more complicated than they
at first appear. Here, you once told me you were nearly
arrested for vagrancy. Tell me that story again.
FRED
I hardly see how that applies, but oh well. Some time
ago I was working late at the soup kitchen. While
preparing the food I managed to spill the larger half
of it on myself, soaking my clothes. I was forced to
change into some donated clothing that had seen better
days.
BENJAMIN
And what happened when you left for home that night?
FRED
I was stopped on the street by two police officers who
thought I was homeless. They didn't believe me at
first, but I managed to explain the odd circumstances.
BENJAMIN
But while you were still under suspicion, how did you
feel?
FRED
As though I had been stripped of my dignity, as though
I were less then human.
BENJAMIN
Exactly.
FRED
And how does that relate to the thieves?
BENJAMIN
It may not relate at all. But it does offer another
plausible explanation.
FRED
That they had lost their dignity?
BENJAMIN
Perhaps not so much lost it as found it
unrecognized. Perhaps when one is assumed to be
something repeatedly, out of exasperation one decides
to give into expectation and act the person the world
desires to see.
FRED
And what sort of indignities might they have
encountered, as I believe that is what you are getting
at?
BENJAMIN
Well, starting with the very churches you would have
dispense charity.
FRED
Do you mean to imply my church disrespects the poor!?
BENJAMIN
Certainly not. Your own church, I know, never turns a
man away, but there are those that do, or put
conditions upon God’s unlimited love. What happens
when the criteria for acceptability is not met? Where
then are the poor to go?
FRED
To Hell! Like the thieves who stole from my church.
BENJAMIN
Now Fred, I know you don’t mean that.
FRED
No I don’t. I’m just frustrated. It took months for
the congregation to save for that TV, now we must begin
all over again.
BENJAMIN
Yet, at least the loss is not irreplaceable. Your
congregation will recover quickly, whereas those who
stole from you have probably gained little to
compensate them for their effort by comparison.
FRED
You want to speak of effort, what of our effort’s? And
the efforts of everyone who works hard to earn a living
in the expected way? If a man cannot enjoy the fruits
of his brow then why bother collecting to begin with?
BENJAMIN
Perhaps the question is not why collect the fruits but
rather, need we collect so many? You and I have had
many talks about the history of the church. I’m sure
you remember our discussion of Luther. One of his
complaint’s against Rome was its acquisition of worldly
wealth.
FRED
I can see what you’re doing Benjamin. You mean to
accuse my church of the same vice. Don’t my
parishioner’s deserve a nice sanctuary and pleasant
surroundings?
BENJAMIN
I’m not making an accusation, just raising a point you
may not have considered.
FRED
I am well aware of the debates in the early church you
are alluding to. But the church serves a function in
the community of spiritual uplift. A shabby looking
church is something few would want a part of, or have
confidence in.
BENJAMIN
True, you have a point, but let me propose a different
thought. A few moments ago you were willing to condemn
the thieves to Hell, correct?
FRED
Yes, but I was speaking out of anger.
BENJAMIN
Precisely, in anger. Nevertheless, I’m sure you would
agree that the soul of someone, such as a murderer for
instance, is deserving of Hell?
FRED
I would certainly say I believe murderers to be in Hell
if anyone is.
BENJAMIN
Why is that?
FRED
Isn't it obvious? Murder is a terrible crime.
BENJAMIN
So you would agree that murder is a very great sin?
FRED
Of course.
BENJAMIN
And murder is a sin deserving of eternal punishment?
FRED
I would think more so than any other.
BENJAMIN
And theft is not?
FRED
I do not feel so.
BENJAMIN
But why?
FRED
Do I need to explain such a thing? When you take a
human life you presume to act like God, who alone can
decide questions of life and death.
BENJAMIN
Yet, if you were less the forgiving fellow I know you
to be, you could easily make such a judgment feel
appropriate, and could perhaps understand if any one of
your parishioners with similar anger made the same
condemnation?
FRED
I suppose that would be understandable, yes. But what
do you mean by all this?
BENJAMIN
What is the difference between a soul such as the
murderer and the thieves who stole the TV?
FRED
The magnitude of the crime of course. Theft is not the
same thing as taking a life.
BENJAMIN
And what is theft?
FRED
The taking of that which does not belong to us.
BENJAMIN
Just so.
FRED
What point are you trying to make?
BENJAMIN
That theft and murder are two different crimes.
FRED
We already know this.
BENJAMIN
But the implication is still unspoken.
FRED
Which is?
BENJAMIN
That a dispassionate observer would not condemn the
thief to Hell, but for the murderer would.
FRED
So in my anger you are saying I made a rush to
judgment. Yes, I will admit it was un-Christian of me,
but we are all imperfect.
BENJAMIN
Quite so, and we forgive the imperfections in others
that we find in ourselves more readily.
FRED
You mean to say that I’m a thief as well because I do
not give enough.
BENJAMIN
No, merely to suggest that, just as the dispassionate
person would not send the thief to Hell for theft, that
we cannot feel that what is stolen is of equal worth to
the thief. To murder is to take a life, to steal is
merely to take what is not our own.
FRED
But the murderer too takes what is not his.
BENJAMIN
True, but I doubt you would equate a human life with an
object, even less with something so abstract as money.
FRED
Where are you going with all this?
BENJAMIN
I’m getting there, I just wish to be sure we have come
to the same place together. What we have discovered
seems can be stated thus: what is owned by us is not
us. That we view an act such as murder or rape
differently than mere theft.
FRED
But it could be argued just the opposite, that what we
own is an extension of ourselves. When a man has built
a fine house for himself, is it not a part of him, of
the image he projects to others?
BENJAMIN
But Pastor, would that not be the sin of pride?
FRED
Pridefulness is indeed a sin, but only in excess. A
little pride taken in our appearance and
accomplishment’s is natural, and even perhaps
beneficial.
BENJAMIN
That is true, but it is pride in excess that I am
referring to.
FRED
And what of our labor? (If you wish to be
abstract.) Is that not something we own as well?
BENJAMIN
The capacity for labor is something we do possess but
not all possess equally, nor is it equally valued by
all. Like a talent, we may possess it, but a talent
for making pleasant sounds is of little value in the
land of the deaf.
FRED
If someone is unable to find work that’s why government
programs exist, and that’s what I pay taxes for.
BENJAMIN
“Are there no prisons? Are there no
workhouses?” Forgive me Fred, I couldn't resist. Let
me take a different approach. What did we determine in
the relationship between theft and murder?
FRED
That murder was a more serious crime than theft.
BENJAMIN
So we agreed that not all crimes are of equal weight?
FRED
I believe so, yes.
BENJAMIN
And I think you would agree that the judgment of a
crime should be impartial, and free from the emotions
of anger and disgust?
FRED
Certainly.
BENJAMIN
Well then, if we have determined that the magnitude of
a crime, as well as the image of that crime distorted
through the haze of anger are things we must consider,
would you then defend the hoarding of wealth?
FRED
Not in excess.
BENJAMIN
Would you then acknowledge that, if one has acquired
enough wealth to feed, clothe, and house himself
adequately, any more than this would constitute a sin?
FRED
Depending on the circumstances.
BENJAMIN
And what are those?
FRED
I don’t know. I would have to take it case by case.
BENJAMIN
But Fred, if we've already determined that crimes such
as murder and theft can immediately be recognized for
what they are, and with what severity we might judge
them, why so picky with the sin of greed? Let’s call a
spade a spade.
FRED
It’s not so black and white as that. It’s...
complicated.
BENJAMIN
Yes, it’s always complicated when it’s our own action’s
we are considering, funny how that is. The gold
standard is in the end the only standard, and a crime
becomes no crime at all if it’s big enough.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Silence Of Progress

Philosopher John Gray has a fitting name, and this disquisition on some of the unsettling aspects of his ideas perhaps goes a long way to explain my long silence.

In his most recent book, The Silence of Animals, Gray reiterates much of what he has said before. We are in thrall to a delusion established by the Enlightenment that society marches in a straight line from barbarism to increasing civility, as each generation demands more and more equality from the state. This is a black and white generalization that greatly simplifies the arguments, but it is the gist.

I have long been a student of Gray's polar opposite, the American philosopher John Rawls. Rawls is most famous for rehabilitating political philosophy in his master work “A Theory of Justice”, in which he laid down a series of fascinating arguments for the creation of a just society. Rawls started out in this book with enormous hope, as the young often do, but with time and experience his faith seemed to waiver. His later books are more considered, more focused than the broad scope of the first and, we learn that with increasing ill health, his hope that a truly just society was possible began to decline. When the greatest thinker on the nature of justice since antiquity begins to doubt its very possibility, then one must pause.

For many months I have indeed taken a long pause at this thought and its implications. At first I, like many liberal minded writers, dismissed Gray's thinking out of hand. Have we not had continuous progress in the twentieth century? Are not the civil rights movement, and even the recent victory for gays to marry, vindications of the Enlightenment ideal? These were the first thoughts to come to mind, but then I began to clean my rose tinted glasses. People of color are still grossly over represented in our prisons, and under represented everywhere else. The recent Supreme Court repeal of The Voting Rights Act is indeed a major setback for civil rights. A half African-American male sits in the White House, but his biography is no mirror for the average black experience. Think again about abortion. This victory, though forty years on, is still just news for millions of women. Many clinics have been legislated out of existence with clever legal slight of hand, and what clinics are available are often too distant to be of use. I am certain gay marriage will face similar retribution in the years to come.

Then add to these an even greater revelation. According to some recent studies the average citizen is so blinded by personal bias as to be incapable of objectivity. Another suggests the impossibility of teaching critical thinking skills. At first glance this second discovery may not appear so devastating, until you consider that our entire democracy if predicated upon the ideal of the informed citizenry, the belief that an educated electorate will always be able to sniff out deceit and vote for the best candidate. Instead, what many have long suspected appears at last validated, that our republic is merely an illusion, the product of propaganda and skillful marketing campaigns.

And so, it seems that history is not a straight line to some imagined progress, but rather a circle which brings us back around from whence we started. True, it could be argued we are still better off with this cycle of the wheel but for how much longer? If all things have their time when will extinction have its day? It has been possible for well over fifty years now to annihilate every living thing on the planet, and baring nuclear death, our own misuse of our earthly resources surely cannot continue without consequence. It appears as though we are walking a delicate foot bridge above an abyss, the ground we tread may feel stable and solid, but the reality still sits just beneath our feet.

What is one to do? As I become older, and I feel the uselessness of idealism, the wisdom of individuals who chose not to interact becomes more appealing. Montaigne lived in an age of chaos, one in which the state was divided against itself by rival religious factions, each absolutely certain of their own righteousness. Instead of throwing himself into such a maelstrom, he absented himself from public life to manage his estate and read and write peacefully in his library. Today such action might be viewed as cowardice, as a desire to escape one's duty to society. But what was his duty? Would his action's have had any conceivable effect upon the outcome? Probably not. The historical forces of his time were too great for such an insignificant soul to have been of the slightest aid. He was right I think to mind his own business, and we have the glory of the Essays as a result.

Going even further back into time one might summon up the shade of Cicero who, forced to abandon politics for a time, occupied himself by writing philosophy in the country. Perhaps he would have been wiser to remain in retirement, for when he returned to the podium of public life he would literally lose his head fighting against a zeitgeist even his eloquence could not tame. This hunger, this unquenchable need to be of consequence in the world perhaps best explains Cicero's disdain for Epicurus. Although he chastised the Greek thinker for hypocrisy in putting his name upon his books, it was Epicurus who counseled a retreat from the fray, the rat race of competition, to live in retirement and devote one's self to friendship and contemplation.

At his death, Epicurus donated his home known as “The Garden”, as a gift to his follower's so that they might continue to spread his message and look inward. For me this seems the best path, but it is one that only the independently wealthy may follow. To function properly for a group of individuals it would require either a piece of land set aside for the purpose, like The Garden and privately funded through some endowment, or self-sustainable like a farm, or for a group of fellow asylum seekers to put their own money in a communal pot and sacrifice their ego's for a greater good. Knowing human nature the latter is more feasible than the former, but just as rare. The wealthy who might fund such an undertaking are very often too much apart of the world to desire leaving it, especially if the bulk of the financial burden would rest upon themselves.

It is just this disparity between ends and means which makes one cry utopia and abandon the vision before it has even begun. Regardless, such societies have indeed existed. As sighted already, Epicurus and his Garden continued for many centuries after its founder's death, perhaps only ending with the rise of Christianity. Christianity then in turn, seeing the value of a quiet life of contemplation, founded the first monastic orders many of which continue to function to this day.

Thus for those weary of the world and its madness the models for sustainable seclusion, at least in theory, are there for those souls hardy and serious enough to attempt them. What do you say, any takers?

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Ever Falling Eve

I have been of two minds for many years over the ethics of pornography.  On the one hand, there are Feminists who claim such a profession "empowers" women, allowing them to revel in their hold over men.  On the other there are Feminists, this time joined by the church-going blue hairs, who believe it denigrates women and debases their character, and add to this the assertion that such women are the products of sexual abuse in need of psychological aid.

Some time ago I read an article concerning a new study which purports to dismiss the second of these claims.  However, if confirmed, this may not necessarily put an end to the debate.  The study argues that there is no solid evidence for porn actresses as broken souls unable to live "normal" lives.  Although the study has been criticized for a lack of depth and breadth, if it can be confirmed, just what does this say about the ethics of such a profession?  From my own view results either way are a win/win for theology.

Christianity has always taught that woman is a fallen creature.  In the past, her participation in such professions acted as a confirmation of her fallen state, that no woman is whole without the light and love of God.  On the other hand, if no psychological impairment is needed to explain the choice of such a profession it merely confirms the darker prejudice of Christianity, often unspoken but still implicit, that woman is an evil creature from birth destined to be the destroyer of men through the wiles of lustful temptation leading the virginal Christian knight from the path of virtue.

Again, whatever the final result, in the eyes of monotheistic religion, woman shall be the loser as she cannot help to be in a world whose dominate ideologies have been shaped by men.

The Temptation of Sir Percival, Arthur Hacker 1894





Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Shadow Over Portsmouth


The start of fall is the time for weird tales, so let me tell you one…..

We live in an empire in decline and, as with all declining empires, it is the outposts which tend to suffer first.  Portsmouth Ohio is one such outpost.  Once a prosperous river city that boasted wealth and commerce, now little more than a, forgive the pun, shadow of its former self.  Perhaps, ironically enough, the only thing of which it might boast today is its fourth tier college, which is the only visible sign of development in an increasingly retrogressing community.

The Innsmouth Look
In a story by H. P.  Lovecraft there is a portrait of a town similar to my own.  Though the fabled town of the story is set on the east coast and not a major river, water is water.  Innsmouth is avoided by those who know it, and those who inhabit it rarely venture forth into the wider world.  A stranger on holiday is taking a tour of the region to seek out colonial architecture and historical curiosities.  Against his better judgment, he buys a bus ticket whose route stops briefly within the town and upon arriving at his destination checks his bag at the local hotel.  He goes on to explore the sights and meet the locals.  To his irritation, he finds neither of much interest until he encounters the village drunk.  An aged fellow, he appears nothing like the other towns people, who all share the “Innsmouth look”, something between a fish and a frog with wide bulging eyes that never shut.  He engages the old man in conversation and, in a long rambling bit of dialogue, reveals perhaps a bit too much, and the visitor soon gets the impression of being watched.  That evening his fear's are confirmed when an attempt is made to enter his room.  He takes flight, just barely escaping in a moonlit scramble through the darkened streets of Innsmouth.

What does all of this have to do with Portsmouth?  Little, as far as the supernatural elements of the tale go but, to a poetic cast of mind perhaps, it becomes more obvious.  The visitor to the strange little town discovers that its wealthy elite long ago made, for all intents and purposes, a pact with the devil and, all are slowly losing their humanity as they devolve into monsters from the sea.  Even more unsettling, the visitor afterwards learns (while a student at Oberlin College no less) that he too is of their blood.

Long ago our nation made a similar pact, not for immortality, but for abundant wealth.  The devil certainly delivered but, as he always does, he's come back to collect his due.

In the decaying old streets of Portsmouth I see too often the dehumanizing effects of poverty work towards the retrogression of humanity, just as the magic of the Old Ones turned the men and women of Innsmouth into spineless jellyfish.  It will be a long time yet before the empire's leaders, who likewise are just visitors passing through at election time, discover that they consist of a similar goo.  But, as it always is in horror tales as in tragedy, the knowledge will no doubt come too late.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nothing Comes From Nothing or The Self-Made Myth

In American conservative politics there is much talk of the self-made man.  (Why a man rather than a woman I will leave to the reader to consider.)  He is a prominent fixture in Randian storytelling, and is a defining trope of Republican rhetoric.  In America one need only guts and the sweat off their brow and they can be rich.  If for any reason the American Dream appears to have failed you it must be because you failed it, and in America we don't cotton to failures.

What is most innervating about such thinking to anyone other than the high-born, is its utter absurdity.  Factories don't run themselves, otherwise the threat of unions would hardly be a threat at all.  But even the lowly entrepreneur with a single great idea doesn't go it alone.  He or she will usually start out small with a minimal staff.  Each worker with a stake in the enterprise will put in their own thought and energy, casting their lot in with the founder in the shared risks of success or collapse.  Or so it used to be before the Too Big to Fail mentality in which the risk is now shifted to those at the bottom absorb the explosion of failure without reaping the benefits of success.

These are common complaints often repeated, but there is a larger flaw in the reasoning behind the self-made myth, less often revealed I believe than it should be.  Conservative values are above all touted as "family" values.  Beyond the anti-family stance this implies of liberal political values, it is an enormous contradiction of the self-made mythology that they would use to justify greed and selfishness.  For, if the self-made man is indeed a reality, his existence implies a total negation of the value of community, friends, and family.  If one man really can do it all with just a little hard work and patience then, unless everyone else in his community is also of the same metal the concept of community just got a lot smaller, perhaps by ninety-nine percent, which I think reveals neatly what they mean by community while at the same time justifying their hatred for the poor and indigent.

If there's no such thing as a free lunch, the self-made man is just as imaginary.  Nothing comes from nothing after all.