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Sunday, July 20, 2014

The first unplanned words from the moon

by John MacBeath Watkins

When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, everyone was eager to hear man's first words from another
world. We all know what he said, and we all know about the controversy -- he muffed his lines and failed to say "a man."

But what interested me that day in 1969 was the first unscripted words from the moon. And they told me more about the moon, and less about mankind. Here's what Armstrong said after his famous line:

And the—the surface is fine and powdery. I can—I can pick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers like powdered charcoal to the sole and sides of my boots. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles. 

Now, that's an authentic astronaut talking the way those guys talked.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Free-lunch Conservatives

by John MacBeath Watkins

Our political taxonomy puts "fiscally conservative" voters mostly in the Republican voting bloc, but this seems indefensible. The last Republican president to act in a fiscally responsible manner was George H.W. Bush, who realized that his party had no taste for real cuts in the budget and raised taxes to deal with the deficit.

Republicans hated him for that. Merely failing to deal the a budget deficit would probably have allowed him to be re-elected, but raising taxes was not acceptable.

Yet informs us that "...the Republican Party is most often credited with creating the fiscal conservative ideal, despite the big-spending tendencies of the most recent GOP administrations."

Substitute "fiscal conservative rhetoric" for "fiscal conservative ideal" and you'll have it about right. The Republican Party from St. Ronald of Reagan onward has been all about lowering taxes. Reagan claimed that the effect of his lower taxes would be such an economic boost that revenues would increase rather than decrease. When this did not turn out to be the case, Republicans chose to stick with tax cuts and invent a series of justifications.

Reagan vastly increased the size of the government and tripled the deficit. While there was some budget cutting early in his administration, it soon became evident that Republicans do not, in practice, want smaller government. They want government that spends less on Democratic priorities and more on Republican priorities.

In short, they want more goodies for their side, and they want to pay in less in taxes. This is not fiscal conservatism. It is free-lunch conservatism. It is the reason Republicans are the party of "borrow and spend."

The "fiscal conservative" label has been a bit of marketing genius, but at some point, our country is going to have to face the truth. The tax revolt and the anti-tax movement have never been about cutting government, they've always been about getting a free lunch. Oh, sure, Republicans have talked a good game about cutting the sorts of programs Democrats support, but since they've wanted to spend more on Republican constituencies, there's always been an element of "we cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you!" in their rhetoric.

If you want a tax cut, and you want it paid for out of someone else's pocket, how fiscally conservative are you?

The concept of "the other" has an enduring appeal to Republicans of a nativist bent. About 13% of the people living in America at present are foreign born, a percentage last seen in the 1920, which were about the peak for the Klu Klux Klan, then preaching "One Hundred Percent Americanism"

Republicans have clearly campaigned against those who who are not 100 percent American by the standards applied by the Klan back in the 1920s -- White and native-born. Only what might be called the "Bundy fringe" have violated the law,as the KKK liked to do, but the nativists have this time allied themselves with the free-lunch conservatives. One group wants to cut a certain kind of spending that they think benefits "those people," the other wants to cut taxes regardless of the cost to later generations or society as a whole.

It's a marriage made in one of the inner circles of the Inferno.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

More notes for a novel in 1940s noir

by John MacBeath Watkins

"Get your mitts off me," I said.

"Those are your mitts," the bouncer answered. "See, they're connected with a string that goes through your sleeves."

It was a nice, quiet joint. There hadn't been a knifing in a month, and they'd hired librarians to shush the

The job sounded easy. Too easy. But what if those kindergarteners were tougher than I thought?

"Babe, I could go for a girl like you," I said, drinking her in with my eyes.

She had long legs, slender hips, lots of blond hair. Some men might not have liked the size of her Adam's apple, but I like that in my women.

The door to her bedroom was ajar.

"Let me go first," I said, pulling my snub-nosed .38 out of the shoulder holster. I slammed the door open and moved in fast, scanning the room with my eyes and my gun. Most of the bedding was on the floor, every drawer was pulled out and there was clothing strewn everywhere.

"Notice anything?" I asked her.

"It's just like I left it this morning," she said. "Don't mind the mess, it's always like this."

More here:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Former professions of famous writers

John MacBeath Watkins

Most writers did something else before they became famous writers. I've long been fascinated by this, because the experiences they bring to bear on their writing shapes the narrative.

Herman Melville was a merchant mariner who later became a customs inspector when he found his writing wouldn't support him.
Aphra Bhen, secret agent

Mark Twain was a printer's devil, then a riverboat pilot before the Civil War and a journalist after that, before becoming a successful novelist, essayist and lecturer.

Dante Alighieri was a cavalry soldier and later joined the physicians' and apothecaries' guild before writing The Divine Comedy.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, better known only as Cervantes, was also a military man, serving as a marine in the Spanish Navy during the Battle of Lepanto, where he was wounded three times, leaving his left arm limp. Returning to Spain, his ship was captured by an Algerian corsair, and he worked as a slave for five years and made four unsuccessful escape attempts before his parents ransomed him and he could begin his literary career.

Solomon Northup, born free in New York, was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and worked for 12 years as a slave before he was rescued. New York had in 1840 established funding for rescuing its citizens who were kidnapped and sold into slavery, so apparently this was a problem for quite a few free New York blacks.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, and escaped at about the age of 18, later writing his autobiography and becoming an influential abolitionist and reformer.

Chester Himes get busted for armed robbery when he was 19, and began writing in prison. If you haven't read If he Hollers Let Him Go, do so immediately.

Nathaniel Hawthorne began writing while working at the Boston Customs House. He was also a magazine editor at one point, but earned most of his money in the customs service.

Captain Frederick Marrayat, who set the pattern of square-rigged adventure stories, served in the British Navy, as a midshipman under the infamous Lord Cochrane, later invented a lifeboat (and got the name "lifeboat" Marrayat) and developed a flag signalling system known as Marrayat's Code. After the Napoleonic wars ended, he held the rank of captain and could still get commands, but he wrote a novel, Frank Mildmay, or, The Naval Officer, and sent it off to a publisher. When he returned from a two-year voyage, his book had been published and he was a best-selling author. He gave up his commission and devoted himself to writing.

Like Twain, Ernest Hemingway was a journalist before he became a novelist, but not until after he served as an ambulance driver in World War I. George Orwell was a journalist as well as well, but not until after he'd served as a policeman in Burma. Orwell also served in an Anarchist unit in the Spanish Civil War.

Joseph Conrad ran away from his home in Poland at the age of 17, and became a merchant mariner. He became a Captain in the British merchant marine, and worked at that until his health forced him to return to land and become a writer. Another merchant mariner was Jack Vance, a science fiction writer. He was nearly blind, but memorized the eye chart to become a able-bodied seaman.

Vance also studied physics and engineering. Robert Heinlein, another science fiction writer, studied engineering at the Naval Academy and had a career as a naval officer until he was forced by his health to retire and become a writer. Isaac Asimov, famous for inventing the laws of robotics, was a biochemistry professor. Arthur C. Clarke was a pensions auditor before World War II, became a radar operator during the war, and studied physics and mathematics after the war.

Aphra Bhen, one of the first famous northern European women writers, was a spy until poverty and debt drove her to writing. Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, John le Carre, Muriel Spark, and Compton McKenzie (an early gay writer and author of Whiskey Galore) also served in intelligence. Christopher Marlowe, who bought jokes for his plays from Shakespeare, was also a spy.

Mary Wollstonecraft worked as a lady's companion and a governess before becoming pregnant out of wedlock, not once, but twice. The second time she married British author William Godwin and began her career writing and campaigning for women's rights.

Jane Austen, born to the landed gentry, lived at home and seems not to have worked outside of it before beginning her literary career.

Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orczi, aka Baroness Orczy, despite her noble birth, had little money and worked as a translator before writing Gothic novels which are still read.

Charlotte and Anne Bronte were governesses, and Emily Bronte worked as a teacher until the 17-hour days broke her health and she returned home.

W. Somerset Maugham was a medical student when he started writing, but he was so successful as a writer he had no need to practice medicine.

Dorothy Sayers is another who gained literary success without a prior career. She was also one of the first women to receive an MA from Somerville College in Oxford when those degrees became available to women.

Josephine Tey was the pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh, a physical education teacher.

Ursula Le Guin did an MA in French and Italian literature, but worked as a secretary before she became one of the most respected living writers of science fiction and fantasy.

George Eliot was a magazine editor named Mary Evans before she was published as a writer under he pen name. George Sand was an often-straying housewife named Amantine Dupin before being published under her pen name.

Louisa May Alcott worked as a teacher, seamstress, governess, and domestic helper, before success as a writer allowed her to focus on this craft.

Jack London escaped long hours working in a cannery to become an oyster pirate. After his oyster sloop got damaged beyond repair, he worked for the Fish Patrol, hunting poachers such as he had been. He signed on with a sealing schooner, and on finishing the voyage, fell on hard times and became a tramp. At this point in his life, he was still only 17, and became a high school student. A saloon keeper lent him money to go to college when he was admitted, but finances forced him to drop out.

He was 21 when he left for the gold fields of Alaska, and suffered scurvy there. He decided that the only way to get out of poverty was writing, and early on even when published, he was paid badly and late. By 1900, his fortunes had turned, and he made $2,500 writing that year. Keep in mind, that's about what a modest house cost in 1900.

One might have expected a man with such a heroic career to write the ultimate hero stories, but that fell to Robert E. Howard, now remembered for the Conan stories. He did a little journalism and worked as a stenographer for an oil company.

Flannery O'Connor was interested in birds, and raised peacocks, emus and ostriches before gaining her literary fame.

Isabel Allende worked for the U.N. and later translated romances into Spanish before launching her literary career.

Maya Angelou worked as a street-car conductor, night club dancer, prostitute, madame, and actor before gaining success as a writer. Robert Ludlum, after serving in the Marines, became an actor and theatrical producer before writing thrillers.

William Faulner, rejected by the U.S. Army Air Force in World War I, changed the spelling of his name and lied about his birthplace to join the RAF. He was still training when the war ended. He also worked at a post office in New York before being asked to resign for "moral reasons." Faulkner was, of course, a drunk, and likely was drunk on duty. He often elaborated his RAF experiences, fabricating war wounds, including a metal plate in his head.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, born with every advantage, was doing badly in college when he dropped out in 1917 to join the army. He worked for an advertising agency before gaining a reputation as a writer, then drank himself to an early death.

More later.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A nation founded on debt (rethinking liberalism)

by John MacBeath Watkins

There is an email making the rounds of elderly white conservatives that quotes the Founding fathers on "economics, capitalism, and banking."

A sampling:

#1 "A wise and frugal government… shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government." — Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

#2 "A people... who are possessed of the spirit of commerce, who see and who will pursue their advantages may achieve almost anything." - George Washington

#3 "Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own." – James Madison, Essay on Property, 1792

#4 "Banks have done more injury to the religion, morality, tranquility, prosperity, and even wealth of the nation than they can have done or ever will do good." - John Adams
And 11 more along those lines. One problem is that in practice, the founding fathers borrowed a great deal of money, much of it from the Dutch, to finance the war. After we'd won our independence, they followed Alexander Hamilton's advice and funded the debt, creating a stable market for securities which private companies could tap when they needed money.

Hamilton argued that public debt would be a blessing if it didn't become too large, and so it has been. We've eliminated the national debt once in our history during Andrew Jackson's administration, and this was followed by an economic disaster.

Another problem with the chain email is with the headline. Capitalism hadn't been invented yet, which is why the founding fathers never used the word (which was invented by Karl Marx in about 1850.) They were talking about the economy, but not about capitalism.

Yes, markets and private property had existed since antiquity, but there is a great deal more than that to capitalism. In pre-capitlist societies, wealth was viewed as pretty much a zero-sum game -- I get my wealth by taking it from you. There might be resources not being used, fields not tilled, mines not dug, but the wealth was there waiting to be taken. The means of production, such as plows and spinning wheels, were usually owned by those who used them. The rich did not invest in looms or spinning wheels, those were for the peasants. You might do well as a merchant, but wealth was closely tied to power, because in a zero-sum game, wealth flows from the ability to decide who gets it.

Capitalism broke the relationship between the artisan and their tools. The capitalist was not an artisan who owned his tools, he was an investor in the means of production, and investment in constantly improving capital stock was the major source of growth. He hired artisans and laborers to use the means of production he owned (and in the early days, property laws insured this would be a "he.)

In Confucian thought, all wealth came from the land, and merchants just moved it around, artisans just re-arranged it. Physiocrats, a system of thought that started in France, thought the same. At the time of the American Revolution, the main alternative system of economic thought was mercantilism.

The concept that capital could lead to growth is a concept that was still being invented when this country gained its independence. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, and the modern theory of value was invented about a century later in the marginal revolution.

The founding fathers fell mainly into two groups, the merchants and the planters. The planters, such as Jefferson, tended to be physiocrats. They believed in laissez faire capitalism, which was rather convenient in that the abolitionists were already proposing that the government should interfere in their slave markets (Jefferson made a lot of his money selling slaves: "I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm," Jefferson remarked in 1820.) Physiocrats also believed that all real value came from the land, another convenient thing for a planter to believe.

The merchants, such as Alexander Hamilton, tended to be mercantilists. They believed in trying to capture as much wealth as possible for their country. This meant high tariffs on imported goods, substantial government projects to develop the country, like the Erie Canal and the post roads, and if possible, colonies from which wealth could be extracted.

Both of these systems of thought were built on the notion that the wealth of the world is a zero-sum game. Capitalism is not a zero-sum game. David Ricardo wrote about the theory of comparative advantage in 1817, suggesting that if each country focused on doing what it does best and purchased from other countries what they could produce more cheaply, everyone would be better off. The mercantilists, though they were focused on developing the wealth of the nation, had at least some notion that investment could increase wealth. They came up with the American Way, a program for public and public-private investments for the development of the nation, but had not realized what a mechanism of growth private capital could be.

It is all too easy to impose our modern framework of thought on people long dead, but they had a different set of tools to work with. I don't think capitalism really existed until the idea that free trade and investment in the means of production were seen as essential to the creation of wealth. The physiocrats, such as Jefferson, were in favor of the former, the mercantilists, such as Hamilton, were in favor of the latter, but almost no one at the time the constitution was written was in favor of both.

More on physiocrats and mercantilists here, on the nature of capitalism here.

Now you can see that the founding fathers' quotes presented here were, in fact, not about capitalism, but about a physiocrat's view of government. However, in practical terms, what they actually did about government debt was based on a mercantilist's point of view, and it's a very good thing that happened.

This country was deep in dept by the time it had won its independence. The physiocrats in congress were generally in favor of screwing the investors, but Alexander Hamilton realized that the national debt could be a tremendous asset.

From this source:

His 1790 Report on the Public Credit proposed funding the debt, thereby creating a stable market in bonds in this country that enabled businesses to borrow more cheaply than they could have otherwise.

It is all very well to quote the physiocrats among the founding fathers on the subject of public debt, but their understanding of banking and debt generally was fairly primitive. They were wise enough to follow the advice of a mercantilist on the actual handling of the debt -- that "if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing."

Now, you might think mercantilists were really capitalists, but you'd be wrong. Mercantilists advocated the development of the nation, and wanted to get as much of the world's wealth in their country as possible. They were empire builders. Cotton grown in India would be shipped to England to be made into cloth, then shipped back to India, even though the shipping costs and the cost of English labor made the cloth more expensive.

Capitalism broke that bond as well, dooming multinational empires. Once global capital was able to move production to undeveloped countries where the labor was cheap, and avoid paying the taxes that had supported the empire, the feedback loop that supported empires was gone. It is in the nature of capitalism that empires don't pay, and the new world order is one built on alliances within trading blocs.

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 

Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Monday, June 9, 2014

More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy (rethinking liberalism)

by John MacBeath Watkins

Thinking further on my earlier post on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy, it seems to me that I should explore further Leo Strauss's idea that totalitarian is a result of the modern nihilism found in Thomas Hobbes's work. Strauss claimed that what is opposed to this is the effort to build the just society.

First of all, we should note that Marxists are all about building a "just" society, by their own standards. They are great believers in the idea that a just society can be achieved by overthrowing capitalism and building a communist society. The fact that they in practice failed to build a just society reveals defects in their thinking. For Strauss, Marxism represented the negation of any need for the political and economic institutions of society. This is what is known as political nihilism.

James Madison
And it's true that Marx made the error of thinking that institutions that cause great harm in society, such as private property and religion, could be eliminated and the harm they caused would stop. He then imagined that the state would wither away, not realizing that when you take away major organizing institutions in society, the gap will be filled by the remaining institutions In this case, the state filled the gap, which is what has happened wherever Marxism has been tried.

But Marx was not the last Marxist. Lenin stressed the need for a vanguard of intellectuals to push for the revolution and head up the revolutionary government. Totalitarianism could not have come from political nihilism, which denied the need for the state, but only from people who firmly believed that they needed to be in control. To claim that Stalin was a political nihilist who didn't believe in the need for political or economic institutions is utter nonsense. Stalin clearly, based on his actions, believed in a strong, centralized state, firmly in control of the economy, the political life, and even the beliefs of its citizens.

Anyone actually wanting to practice political nihilism in a Stalinist state would have been killed. Marx may have preached a sort of political nihilism, but the lacunae in his own philosophy meant that in practice, all Marxist rulers have been firm believers in a powerful central state.

And what of the fascists? Did they believe in abolishing the political, economic, and social institutions of society?

Hardly. They were big believers in the ideology of nationalism, a strong central state, and strong cooperation between the state and industry. They were authoritarian not because they believed political institutions should be abolished, but because they believed in, as Benito Mussolini put it, in "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."
In short, Marxists were totalitarian in practice because they were not believers in the basic tenets of political nihilism.

But were they moral nihilists, a more familiar sort of nihilist?

Strauss deemed Hobbes a nihilist because his philosophy was based on "mere preservation." Hobbes, after all, said that we needed a ruler to enforce laws, so that we would not meet a violent death.

But in saying the ruler has value because he (and the ruler Hobbes had in mind was his pupil, Charles II) does a job of work for the citizen, he was laying the groundwork for democracy. After all, what if the ruler sucks at his job? Shouldn't you be able to fire him? And why should the ruler pass the job on to his first born son? Shouldn't the citizens be able to hire the rulers they want?

Hobbes had invented a new basis for the legitimacy of rulers, which was needed because the 30-Years War and the Reformation had destroyed traditional bases for the legitimacy of rulers. But this new basis for the legitimacy of rulers didn't really support the outcome he wanted, which was the absolute monarchy of his friend and pupil.
Was he a moral nihilist? It's a bit hard for me to see him that way. He believed that the injustice of violent death, of theft and banditry, could only be avoided by having a ruler with the authority to enforce the laws we want enforced. In fact, he wanted a society more just than the chaos of the 30-Years War would permit. He had seen what the breakdown of political and social institutions could do, and charted a path away from that.

In Strauss's eyes, this focus on the material matter of remaining alive made Hobbes a nihilist. Since he was arguing in favor of political institutions, he cannot have been a political nihilist, so he must have been indicting Hobbes as a moral nihilist.

If we were to accept that Hobbes was a moral nihilist, should we also accept that this was the sort of modernist approach to ethics that led to the totalitarian philosophies of fascist and Marxist states?

This seems dubious. Marx clearly was motivated by an effort to build a just society, the same goal Strauss admired; he just disagreed with what constitutes a just society. Lenin agreed with Strauss that society would inevitably be ruled by a small group of the "best" people, he just disagreed with Strauss about the nature of the group that should rule.

Were fascists moral nihilists? I believe that rather, they had a perverted sense of justice. Keep in mind, worse things are done in the name of justice than have ever been contemplated in the name of crime. Mussolini even referred to fascism as a religion.

The Holocaust, the Inquisition, and the killing fields of Cambodia were not carried out be people who believed in the evil of what they were doing. They were carried out by people with a deep conviction in the justice of purifying the world of bad people. They were following the tenets of their beliefs in building a just world to the logical conclusion. People without such an ideology, such a central myth, people merely concerned with the preservation of their own lives, would not have acted in these ways.

Which may explain why the Nocturnal Council in Plato's The Laws bears more than a passing resemblance to the Inquisition. Plato considered central truths, that is, a central myth of society, to be necessary for building a just society, and a body to enforce that belief to be essential. But when it was put into practice, this notion produced a system that was notoriously unjust.

This makes it rather odd that Strauss would place such emphasis on belief in a central myth as being necessary for building a just society. Straussians tend to call that central myth "American Exceptionalism," by which they appear to mean something different than the Marxists who coined the term. Those Marxists claimed that America didn't have the kind of stratified class structure that made Marxism attractive to European workers.

Neoconservatives seem to mean it more in the sense of John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity" which referred to "A City Upon a Hill," indicating the notion that America is a model of what the world should be. This is really a claim of national greatness, not so very different, in fact, from the claims of national greatness  made by fascists in Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

Certainly I prefer Winthrop's vision of Christian love and charity to Hitler's vision of a triumphant Aryan race. But it is not the central idea of America. Winthrop wrote his sermon in 1630 for a Puritan audience. Most American settlers were not Puritan. Many were Anglican, or Baptist, or Methodist, or Quaker, or Catholic or Jewish. To say that the Puritan project was the project of America is to vastly overstate their importance. Many of my ancestors were Quaker, and became so after one of them was kicked out of the Puritan church for giving aid and comfort to Quakers. Being the descendant of those who where kicked out of the church Winthrop belonged to for being too inclusive in their associations makes me skeptical of the notion that a Puritan in 1630 defined the essence of America.

The essential nature of the American experiment has much more to do with the thought of John Locke than John Winthrop.Winthrop did not believe in religious tolerance or democracy. He presided over the trial of Anne Hutchinson, who did not agree with the Puritan credo that it took both faith and good works to get into heaven. Like many modern-day Christians, she believed that faith alone was enough. For this she was labeled a heretic and banished from the colony, and Winthrop called her an "American Jezebel."

Nor was Winthrop an admirer of democracy, saying:
"If we should change from a mixed aristocracy to mere democracy, first we should have no warrant in scripture for it: for there was no such government in Israel ... A democracy is, amongst civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all forms of government.  [To allow it would be] a manifest breach of the 5th Commandment."
To my Catholic and Lutheran readers I should explain that Winthrop was using the Calvinist system for numbering the commandments, so he was referring to "honor they father and mother," not "thou shall not kill."

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Bill of Rights, thought very highly of John Locke and did not approve of the intolerance of the Puritans.

James Madison, who had as much to do with the framing of the Constitution as anyone, argued in Federalist Paper #10 that religion was one of the major sources of faction in a country, and this tendency to faction could only be controlled in a large and diverse republic. Madison was also a major supporter of the Bill of Rights, in which the rule against the establisment of religion ensures that no one can be punished for not believing what people like John Winthrop might think they should.

The vision of America that Jefferson and Madison proposed was one that varies greatly with the vision neoconservatives insist on. The open society they wanted did not rely on perverse readings of ancient texts, but on easily understood concepts embodied in the constitution. Straussian readings tend to seek the hidden meaning of texts, but Jefferson and Madison and the other founding fathers were doing their best to make their meaning clear and persuasive. I don't think they would have seen the point of hiding their meaning, and I suspect any hidden meaning found is one made up by the reader.

In practice, the neoconservative notion of American exceptionalism amounts to an assertion of national greatness. In policy terms, the neoconservative idea seems to be that America can lick any man in the house, and should fight anyone who looks at us funny. Their American exceptionalism amounts to nothing more than Amerika über alles, hardly a slogan for a democratic country.

More on rethinking liberalism
Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 

Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Friday, June 6, 2014

On reading young adult fiction

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the immortal words of John Rogers, "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs. "

A Slate piece by Ruth Graham titled Against YA suggests that "...Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children."

I'm sorry, (he said, with icy politeness,) but Young Adult fiction is a marketing category, not the mark of Cane. Belonging to that category does not mean a book is badly written or emotionally unsophisticated. Moby Dick was published as a kids' adventure story, as was The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnAtlas Shrugged was published as a novel of ideas aimed at adults. But which of these has the greater emotional and moral depth?

 The truth is, you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can tell from its cover what the publisher thought its audience was. The thing is, publishers are seldom right. Quite a few rejected Animal Farm, one of them saying, "it is impossible to sell animal stories in the United States."

Robert Pirsig sent Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to 121 publishers before the 122nd bought it. If publishers understood their audience, they would have known this would be a best seller, but in truth, no one understands the reading public well enough to be certain which books will sell best, or which will be regarded as classics a century later.

In addition, most adult fiction has no particular claim to literary merit. Should people be ashamed of reading westerns, or mysteries, or fantasy novels? Why single out young adult fiction for the sneer? People don't read porn for the character development or the sophisticated prose, but those books are unquestionably aimed at adults. Should we feel shame any time we are reading something that a creative writing professor would give a B grade to? Are we to outsource our tastes and our choices to people with pretensions as arbiters of taste who may, in the end, miss the mark as badly as the 19th century pretenders who ignored Moby Dick?

How badly do the arbiters of taste miss the mark? Consider this rejection, with gratuitous misspelling of the author's name, of The Bell Jar
This is an ill-conceived, poorly written novel, and we would be doing neither ourselves nor the late Miss Play any good service by offering it to the American public…I don’t doubt that certain elements of the British press will puff the book nicely, but Mrs. Jones’s original four-line report strikes me as the only honest and responsible critical reaction to the work.
P.G. 3/29/63
 Miss Jones, the other Knopf editor who read the manuscript, gave her initial response thus:
[1] Reject recommended
I’m not sure what Heinemann’s sees in this first novel unless it is a kind of youthful American female brashnaess. But there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.
Since two editors at a major publishing house thought the book was crap, should we be ashamed of reading The Bell Jar? Yet it has entered the 20th century canon as a classic.

Is there recent YA fiction that will someday be regarded as classic literature? I couldn't tell you, because that decision will be made by readers yet unborn. Maybe Louis Sachar's Holes will be regarded as great literature one day, maybe it will be forgotten, as most books are. I do not arrogate to myself the power to dictate the appropriate taste of any other reader.

In fact, I think past efforts to do so have been destructive to literature. When academics came to wield great power over which poets are regarded as good, poetry lost its organic connection to a mass audience. Increasingly, literary fiction is written by professors of creative writing, in part because it is becoming more difficult for authors to support themselves on what they can make. Is this a good thing, or will it enervate the novel the way this dynamic has enervated poetry?

I submit that the reason adults are attracted to YA fiction is precisely the fact that the arbiters of taste don't control it, the audience does. When I read Annie Proulx,  I get a good read, but I also get some prose that seems very written, very much intended to bring attention to the cleverness of the author. My preference is for authors who don't let the words get in the way, who let me look right at the story without demanding attention for themselves. Heart of Darkness isn't a great book because it has memorable sentences, it's a great book because the sentences disappear and leave you facing Kurtz. It's a great book because once you've read it, the book becomes a part of you, and changes who you are.

And it's a great book because generations of readers felt the same as I do on reading it. The formation of a canon does not depend on the utterances of experts, it depends upon a consensus formed by many readers over a long period of time.

Take the example of The Lord of the Rings. It came out at a time when critics preferred the then-fashionable style of social realism. But J.R.R. Tolkien wasn't writing some pale imitation of The Grapes of Wrath, he was writing an epic, something no one else was doing. It took a couple generations for critics to take it seriously, but if I had to name a book I was certain people would still be reading in a hundred years, the ring trilogy (originally intended to be one book) would be my choice.

Yet, had I followed the advice of Ruth Graham's Slate piece, I would have been ashamed to read it. It was written as a sequel to The Hobbit, which was very definitely a kids' book. It even won an award for "best juvenile fiction" from the New York Herald Tribune in 1937.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

All of our poetic posts

I've labeled as many of the posts I can find that are poetry or about poetry with a poetry tag, so you can find them all in one place.

Just click on the above link, and they will present themselves.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Saturday, May 24, 2014

New Eyes on old New York Times Articles

by Jamie Lutton

It is not only the question of the world views of Hitler during his rise to power, and his first years as Fuhrer that intrigue me.

I would love to go through, say, the New York Times, to narrow it down to one newspaper, and see how they covered different eras. It would be worth reprinting their own articles, to reveal what prejudices they showed, and what, say, the editorial page looked like from decade to decade. Even from year to year, when the society was changing quickly.

I am not picking on this newspaper in any particular way, except that it is a very old  and respected paper, and is still being published, so there is some continuity that makes their statements somewhat less quaint.

The received wisdom that we tend to get in the history books allowed  in  public schools, was that America always knew what it was doing; and rarely went wrong.  The newspapers of the day, in particular this one, does give witness that this is simply not so. 

Think of all sorts of matters that are settled today, that were wildly controversial in their own time. A few examples might include the struggle in this country for blacks to achieve any civil rights for the last 150 years.. I understand that the when the New York Times covered the funeral of Fredrick Douglass they commented that he was so intelligent because he had 'white blood' in him.  That would be fun to dig up and reprint.

A careful selection of topics  might be fun to go check and see what the current wisdom was.  Women's struggle for the vote, and married women's property rights in the early 20th century.  The rights of Native Americans. The rights of Chinese and other Asian citizens and immigrants.

Closer to our time, how the  New York Times handled the new idea of women working outside of the home, and wanting to enter 'nontraditional' work places, like becoming lawyers, doctors, and engineers, and how this was seen as heretical and mocked gently and not so gently.  In the late 1960's. I recall this, myself, from when I was a teen.   Perhaps some of the respected journalists who wrote them went on to change their tune as the culture changed.

Then, it would be good to show to those interested in the modern civil rights era to see how the works of Dr. Martin Luther King jr. was covered by the press. I do believe there was a call, almost in unison, that he was asking for too much, and going too far, from every newspaper and from every pundit - that was white - for decades.

There is a book in this. I do not have the talent or the resources to write it, at least now, but it would be wildly entertaining.  It would only take a microfilm reader, some focus, some patience, and a strong stomach.   

A few of the most famous arrogant errors  of the Times are fairly notorious - who has not heard that when the Wright brothers made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, the New York Times did not believe it, and would not report the event for several years? This story is often repeated in aviation history books.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The poverty of neoconservative philosophy (rethinking liberalism)

by John MacBeath Watkins

Neoconservatives, a group which included formerly liberal academics and their younger Reaganite allies, have had a great deal of influence on American foreign policy, especially during the lamentable George W. Bush administration. They envisioned a world in which American dominance would be unquestioned, and opposing regimes would be overthrown and replaced with democratic regimes, as the Bush administration attempted in Iraq.

They tried to portray themselves as the adults in the room, but their program proved impractical, unpopular, and built more on fantasy than reason. There was no economic or any real strategic rationale for the military adventures they championed, and the notion that you can impose democracy by force proved as fanciful as it sounded. Yet they retain influence in conservative foreign policy circles.

How did that happen?

Part of the story is about intellectual apprenticeship to a scholar not greatly celebrated in his lifetime, and whose influence may have as much to do with what people thought he meant as with what he actually said and wrote.

The intellectual roots of the movement were sown by Leo Strauss, one of the less coherent political theorists of the 20th century, famously referred to by M.F. Burnyeat as the "Sphinx without a Secret,"  after an Oscar Wilde story in which the subject is a woman who wants to appear mysterious, but has no secrets worth concealing.

Leo Strauss
Strauss is a peculiar figure in political thought. He wrote nothing I know of about modern public policy, and although his works are widely available in the United Kingdom, he seems to have no great following there or in continental Europe. Although he died in 1973, his influence wasn't celebrated or defended much until his former students began to influence high-level American foreign policy in the 1980s.

Catherine and Michael Zuckert, in The Truth about Leo Strauss, considered one of the more balance books about the man, noted that:
Many scholars found his books nearly unreadable, and many others considered them so drastically misguided in their substantive readings of the history of philosophy that he was often dismissed by fellow scholars as an eccentric or, worse, as a willful and distortive interpreter of the philosophic tradition.
Burnyeat's takedown, Sphinx Without a Secret, published in 1985, was not the work of a political pundit, but of a respected scholar with a great reputation for his studies of the ancient philosophers Strauss taught about. He portrayed an almost cult-like intellectual surrender as part of Strauss's teaching technique.
Strauss asks—or commands—his students to start by accepting that any inclination they may have to disagree with Hobbes (Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides), any opinion contrary to his, is mistaken. They must suspend their own judgment, suspend even “modern thought as such,” until they understand their author “as he understood himself.” It is all too clear that this illusory goal will not be achieved by the end of the term. Abandon self all ye who enter here. The question is, to whom is the surrender made: to the text or to the teacher?
This may explain why his followers were his students, not people who had simply read his books and agreed with them. Reading is an interpretive skill, and critical reading is a particularly valuable one. Pleasing the teacher is a social skill, and coming under his spell is a personal transformation.

While liberalism starts with attempts to describe human nature -- "man in the state of nature" -- and derive from that knowledge what sort of government and society is best suited to mankind, Strauss was more interested in the question of whether the just society was possible (apparently, it isn't.)

The best we could do, he said, was for the philosopher to educate the gentleman in how best to manage society.

 From Sphinx Without a Secret:

The leading characters in Strauss’s writing are “the gentlemen”and “the philosopher.” “The gentlemen” come, preferably, from patrician urban backgrounds and have money without having to work too hard for it: they are not the wealthy as such, then, but those who have “had an opportunity to be brought up in the proper manner.”[12] Strauss is scornful of mass education.[13] “Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.”[14] Such “gentlemen”are idealistic, devoted to virtuous ends, and sympathetic to philosophy.[15] They are thus ready to be taken in hand by“the philosopher,” who will teach them the great lesson they need to learn before they join the governing elite.The name of this lesson is “the limits of politics.” Its content is that a just society is so improbable that one can do nothing to bring it about. In the 1960s this became: a just society is impossible.[16] In either case the moral is that “the gentlemen” should rule conservatively, knowing that “the apparently just alternative to aristocracy open or disguised will be permanent revolution, i.e., permanent chaos in which life will be not only poor and short but brutish as well.”[17]So who is “the philosopher,” and how does he know that this is the right lesson for “the gentlemen”? He is a wise man, who does not want to rule because his sights are set on higher things.[18] 
Strauss might be called the Saint Simone of conservatism, in that his popularity among the elite seems to have had a lot to do with convincing them that society should be run by people like them, for its own good.

Strauss believed what Plato had posited in The Laws: A society must be based on central truths. It's all very well to question those truths in your own mind, but if you publicly do so, you would, in The Laws, be brought before the Nocturnal Council, who would try to persuade you that you were wrong. If they did not succeed, they would try to convince you to keep your doubts to yourself, and if you insisted on publicly questioning the central truths, they would have you killed.

And the central truth, for Strauss's followers, was "American Exceptionalism," a phrase borrowed from American Marxists, which they redefined to suit themselves. You can hear the echoes of this belief in their claims that President Obama does not believe in American Exceptionalism.

The phrase was originally a term American Marxists used to explain the fact that while Marxism had gained many converts in Europe and parts of Asia, American workers wanted nothing to do with it. They argued that America lacked the class structure that enabled European workers to identify with Marx's thoughts.

Neoconservatives have taken American exceptionalism to mean America is exceptional, and belief in its greatness became the central truth around which the society was built. That is not necessarily a Straussian view, but one might call it the view of "vulgar Straussians," much as Stalinist came to be viewed by the more refined Marxists of the New Left as "vulgar Marxists."

Strauss repudiated John Locke, whose ideas are by most scholars considered the basis for the philosophy that produced the American Constitution. Strauss regarded Locke as a bridge to modern historicism and nihilism, which he felt led to totalitarian regimes.

The word "totalitarian" was invented by liberals to describe the Fascist regime in Italy, and enthusiastically picked up by the Fascists, who followed Benito Mussolini's dictum, "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

How that differed from Herrod's Judea, other than the fact that the term had not yet been invented, remains a mystery.

Now, it seems strange to anyone who's read Locke that Strauss would think badly of him, since Locke based his philosophy on natural law (now often called human rights,) which at least for one school of Straussians is the central belief on which America was founded. But Locke argued that the social contract that is the basis for any government is formed to protect those rights. Strauss felt that modernism lowered its sights compared to the ancients, having as its goal survival, while the ancients sought truth and justice.

Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, considered Locke one of the three greatest men ever to have lived. Clearly, there would appear to have been quite a gulf between the beliefs of the founding fathers and those of Leo Strauss.

Strauss left the University of Chicago in 1969 and died in 1973, so one might think his influence should be waning, if not a thing of the past. But he influenced William Kristol, editor of the influential conservative journal The Weekly Standard, and John Podhoretz, editor of another conservative journal, Commentary. They, in turn, have influenced a couple generations of conservatives. And while Strauss wrote little about contemporary American politics, those men have written of little else.

Strauss may have died, but he left behind him Straussians to spread his ideas.

The Straussian understanding of the American project has therefore become thoroughly entrenched in the mindset of many on the right. The problem is, this understanding of America is very much at odds with the basic ideas of liberal democracy as understood by the framers of the Constitution.

The notion of a central dogma all must believe is very much at odds with the freedom of speech and belief enshrined in the First Amendment. We have no nocturnal council, we have instead the flexibility of a republic that can change as minds change, and the freedom to argue for change.

Now, a philosophy that is as top-down as that of Leo Strauss and his followers might believe we can overthrow opposing regimes and be welcomed as liberators, and they will elect a regime friendly to us. But in practice, any sovereign nation allowed to choose its own government will choose one that reflects the ideas and interests of its people. In Iraq, for example, that was a regime more friendly to Iran than to the United States.

Part of the problem is that neoconservatism is not an economic philosophy, except by association with the supply-siders who were part of the same Republican administrations. They really had no ideas about how their foreign adventures would pay for themselves, and in fact, were not concerned with this. They wanted to spread the influence of American exceptionalism, however defined.

The problem is, past empires have been built on an economic basis which modern global finance undermines. You can bring peace to a region and get your nation's companies a chance to exploit foreign markets, but their stateless income will seek the lowest tax regime, not the nation that made that income possible, as we explored in this post. This means that there is no cycle (virtuous or vicious, depending on your point of view) to support empirical power.

As a result, it appears the new world order will be built by trading blocs, more like modern versions of the Hanseatic League than like any past empire.

Neoconservatives have accused President Obama of "leading from behind," because he's tried to form alliances to solve international conflicts rather than going it along or as a leader of a barely-willing coalition. But his technique seems like a better match to the reality of the modern world system of security. Aggressive nations that assert their individual power tend to generate a backlash against themselves, as China seems to be doing in southeast Asia.

But the failure of neoconservatives in formulating foreign policy that produces desirable results does not seem to keep politicians on the right from listening to them.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 

Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Vladimir the hairless Russian bare

by John MacBeath Watkins

Vladimir Putin
thought he was a cute one
and the Russian bear
liked to show his chest bare
quite free of hair
did he use Nair?
Is he bare
down there?

How many times must a man shave his chest
before they will call him a man?
And how many times must a man oil his abs
before he's a boy in the band?

The answer, my friend, is blowing up Ukraine,
the answer is blowing up Ukraine.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Tribalism and the emerging new world order

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've written before in this space about the breakdown of the world system as stateless income deprives nations from the rewards they once enjoyed by enforcing international order. Now I'd like to address the order that seems to be replacing the old system.

In areas where total peace is breaking out, such as western Europe, tribalism is reasserting itself. Catalonia, Venice, and Scotland once again contemplate independence within the European Union, confident that they will not have to defend themselves from rogue state actors. Their expectation is that matters such as currency and central banking can be left to the EU, and perhaps they can either enjoy the protection of NATO as free riders or even as participants.

Ethnically diverse states outside of such organizations are in trouble. Breakaway groups can make alliances with predatory states, as South Ossetia did with Russia in the Russo-Georgian War.

Vladimir Putin attempted to swing Ukrainia into the Russian orbit with soft power, offering money and cheap natural gas to the elected government as a reward for turning economically away from Western Europe and toward Russia.

In exchange for $15 billion and a 33% discount on natural gas, Putin got Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to agree not to sign the E.U. Association Agreement that was on offer. This led to riots that eventually led Yanukovych to flee the country, leaving behind documents that showed how much he'd stolen from the citizens he was elected to represent.

Faced with the fact that no one seems to want to link themselves with Russia except at gunpoint, Putin brought out the guns, which like the uniforms, trucks and armored vehicles of the Crimean invasion force, were not marked with their nationality.

This is making association with a larger protective association essential for countries with bumptious neighbors. The Philippines, which kicked out American military bases in 1992, has recently signed an agreement allowing the American military to build up its presence in the Philippines. This came after China became more assertive in its irredentist  claims to territory that has been governed by its neighbors.

The emerging order relies on organizations like the EU, NATO, ASEAN, SEATO and the African Union , some economic and some security related, to keep regional order. This represents a continuation of the trend for the replacement of a system of empires with one based on hegemony, of the soft power of voluntary association replacing the hard power of conquest. It also represents an end to empires based on conquest.

Economic associations tend to grow more rapidly than security associations, but the need for the latter becomes evident after the establishment of the former. Just as empires relied on economic feedback to support their military adventures, and economies relied on empires to protect their interests, economic unions lead to a need to protect trading partners. Putin understood that a Ukraine economically enmeshed with Western Europe would eventually want the protection of NATO.

Only the largest countries, such as China the United States, can afford to operate independent of such associations. Russia, with an economy smaller than the United Kingdom and Brazil, is clearly trying to punch above its weight, but with an economy about the size of Italy's, it is not clear that it can afford to sustain its aggressive posture over time. The use of maskirovka, or masked warfare, may be cheaper than an out-and-out invasion, but even such tactics won't keep costs down if there is sustained resistance.

One of the lessons of the Soviet war in Afghanistan is that a Russia dependent on hydrocarbons for income it spends on imported food is economically vulnerable. Russian farming isn't quite the disaster Soviet farming was, and the nation now provides itself with grain, but it still imports more food than it sells.

Russian interference with the Ukraine and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea are going to test this new system. I don't know how willing voluntary associations will be to defend the Parcel Islands, but populated areas that are part of security organizations are probably going to be safe. Areas not part of such associations, not so much.

Voluntary economic associations are related to liberal ideas. They may include autocratic states such as Myanmar, but they then become a source of pressure on such states to institute liberal reforms.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A strange kind of patriot: The historical background of the Bundy philosophy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Sean Hannity is shocked, shocked, to learn that Cliven Bundy is a racist. Bundy said that Negroes were better off as slaves. Back in what he seems to think of as the good old days, a young slave, wondering what career to follow, would be directed to the cotton field with a large bag, and their life's work was set. Or, as Bundy put it:
... “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves...
Who knew that someone who refuses to acknowledge the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution would harbor racist sentiments?

Anyone who has studied the history of this philosophy.

Armed men from around the country are now flocking to Bundy's ranch to protect him from the law of the land. They claim that no one above the level of the county sheriff should have law enforcement authority over the federal land Bundy has his cattle on, and has been grazing his cattle on without paying for two decades.

Who thinks this way?

At one time, most of the former states of the Confederacy. After they lost the Civil War, federal troops occupied the South during the period of Reconstruction, from1867 to 1877. While there, they enforced laws allowing former slaves to have access to polling places so that they could vote. This was decisive in the 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Initially, it appeared that Sam Tilden had won the election, winning the popular vote and 184 electoral votes. Hayes had 165 electoral votes and there were 20 disputed electoral votes. The votes were in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, where each party reported that their candidate had won. One of the reasons Tilden did so well was that in the former confederate states in 1874 and 1876, all levels of government chose not to police the polls, allowing whites to intimidate blacks to keep them from voting.

The matter was resolved by giving Hayes the contested vote, which the Southern states agreed to for a price. Hayes would remove federal troops occupying the South, and the Posse Comitatus Act would prevent federal troops from enforcing state laws in the future. This was the beginning of the era when you had to be a white racist to win public office in a former Confederate state.

This is why a philosophy that says the federal government is evil and should be cut back "until it's small enough to drown in a bathtub" is so appealing to people like Cliven Bundy (aside from the fact that it gives him an excuse for not paying his grazing fees.)

Bundy has promoted himself with a video showing him riding a horse while carrying an American flag, but he's a strange kind of patriot:
“I believe this is a sovereign state of Nevada,” Bundy said. “And I abide by all Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”
Good to know. So, what's that you've got attached to the pole, a dish cloth?

States' rights got another boost when the feds got involved in voting again, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1969, a Portland, Ore., retired dry cleaner named Henry Lamont Beach started issuing charters for Posse Comitatus units, promoting the idea that there is no legitimate unit of government above the county level.

Beach was a former member of the American Silver Shirts, a fascist organization that was started after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933.

And here's what Bundy said on Glenn Beck's  radio show recently:
“I only want to talk to one person in each county across the United States, and here’s what I want to say: County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucracy. County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucrats.”
This talk is part of a philosophy that stemmed from the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the efforts to keep white power over blacks. The federal government isn't a bogyman because it's powerful, it's a bogyman because it uses its power to enforce the rights of people who aren't like Cliven Bundy. I don't think he's just a swindler who wants to graze his cattle for free, though that temptation might help shape his views. I think his entire philosophy starts with his racism, and goes on to condemn the federal government because it wants him and people like him to stop acting on their racism.

The modern conservative movement got its start with Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign of 1964. That was the year the Civil Rights Act passed, and Goldwater opposed it, on libertarian grounds, he said. This, and Nixon's Southern Strategy in 1968, formed an alliance between libertarians -- actually never a very big group -- and racists.

In the 1970s, southern whites faced with integrating their schools began starting "white academies" -- private schools often associated with churches. Keep in mind that Southern Baptists split with the rest of the Baptist church over slavery in 1845. Northern Baptists tended to disapprove of slavery, and didn't want missionaries to take slaves with them, for example. Southern Baptists wanted a church that taught that slavery was just fine.

In the 1970s, when the IRS started questioning the tax-free status of church-affiliated schools that discriminated against blacks, the modern conservative coalition was complete. Certain churches joined in the cry to limit government power.

Granted, libertarians didn't have much in common with religious conservatives. But they wanted allies who wanted to limit the power of government, and their philosophy became attractive to people who wanted to limit the power of government for reasons having nothing to do with philosophy.

I'm well stricken in years, and have become cynical about why people believe what they do. All too often, a set of ideas can be a cover for attitudes and prejudices that have nothing to do with reason. In Bundy's case, his refusal to pay grazing fees to the government is symptomatic of his deeper attitudes. It's not about the grazing, really, it's about history and prejudice.

“I only want to talk to one person in each county across the United States, and here’s what I want to say: County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucracy. County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucrats,” Bundy said
“I only want to talk to one person in each county across the United States, and here’s what I want to say: County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucracy. County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucrats,” Bundy said

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On being a ghost in a soft machine (The strangeness of being human #26)

by John MacBeath Watkins

There was a time when the term "computer" was a job title for a human being. Now it is the name of a machine. But what if the human being was a machine, as well?

In Rabbit at Rest, this passage addresses the matter in discussing Rabbit's heart surgery:
  "...what's wrong with running your blood though a machine? What else you think you are, champ?"

  A god-made one-of-a-kind with an immortal soul breathed in. A vehicle of grace. A battlefield of good and evil. An apprentice angel...

  "You're just a soft machine," Charlie maintains.
The term "soft machine" comes from a William S. Burgess novel by that title, in which people are programmed by Mayan priests using sounds, until a time traveler disrupts the system.

Gilbert Ryle famously derided René Descartes' mind/body dualism as "the ghost in the machine."  He claimed that the idea of the mind's actions being parallel to the body's and interacting in some unknown way was nonsense. He proposed that the thoughts of the mind are no more than the actions of the brain.

Since Ryle's The Concept of Mind came out in 1949, the work of neurologists and social psychologists
A soft machine.
suggests that Ryle was correct. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, has called us "biochemical puppets." Paradoxically, he argues that awareness of the physical determinism he proposes increases our freedom because it allows you to "grab hold of one of your strings."

This seems at odds with his statement about triple murderer Joshua Komisarjevsky:
"If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky's shoes on July 23,2007 - that is, if I had his genes and life experience and identical brain (or soul) in an identical state - I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this.”
So, Komisarjevsky could not have been anything but the monster he was, but we can have greater freedom because we know we are unfree? If that's supposed to make sense, do I have to be sober?

I find arguments over free will dull. Either we have it or we don't, and if we don't, neither side's argument can be attributed to their own volition. If we don't have free will, no one is responsible for bad acts, no matter how reprehensible.

I propose two ways out of the reductionist dilemma of the mind: First, a sort of Pascal's Wager about free will, second, an alternative form of dualism.

Blaise Pascal argued that you might as well believe in God, because if you don't and you are wrong, you will suffer an eternity of suffering, and if don't believe in God and you are right, you will have wasted a few Sunday mornings going to church, which is far less harm that an eternity in Hell.

If I believe in free will and act as though I have it, and I'm wrong, I was destined to act as I did, and couldn't help it. If I act as if there is no free will and there is, there is much I might have done that I will have not bothered to do.

I suggest even those who claim to believe in predestination or in a mechanistic biological determinism act as if they've taken the sensible side of that wager, including Sam Harris. He makes conflicting statements on the issue because he is uncomfortable with the ambiguity of not knowing, and tries to come down hard on one side, but he's not really comfortable with the implications of his own reasoning.

I say we don't really know if we have free will, and may as well act as if we have it.

The new sort of dualism I suggest to replace the mind/body dualism of Descartes is a sort of hardware/software dichotomy. This will be familiar to those who have been reading the series of posts I've labeled "the strangeness of being human." Much of what we are is the software of the mind -- memes that make up the structure of our thought.

Of course, it's more complicated than the relationship between an operating system and a motherboard. The long, slow process of learning everything we expect an adult human to know physically shapes the brain as well as the beliefs and logic of that person. But that, too, can change as we play with ideas and create new memes.

A truly great book leaves us changed because we read it. An important person in our lives changes who we are. A brain tumor can change our personality, and removing it can restore the person we were. The kindness of a person of another race can make us less racist, the angry broadcast of a racist person can make us feel we have permission to be more racist.

There are things that can change who we are, and if we act as if we have free will, we can control, to at least some extent, what influences we expose ourselves to and which we accept or reject. At least, I'm betting that's the best way to act.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
On being a ghost in a soft machine