Governing Under the Influence

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the Common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the Common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things that we do not own,
But leaves the Lords and Ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the Common,
And geese will still a Common lack
‘Til they go and steal it back.
~ English folk poem, circa 1764

I never heard that the Creator opened an estate office to issue title deeds to land…. Every proprietor of land owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds.
~ Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice

Those are quoted from “The Rule of Property,” a pamphlet by Karen Coulter (in relation to the second quote, check out the proposal of a citizen’s dividend). I picked up a copy from a symposium I just got back from, although the text can be found online as well.

The symposium was Governing Under the Influence. It was held at the local Iowa City Public Library and organized by the Des Moines chapter of the AFSC and East Central Iowa Move To Amend, Iowa City Climate Advocates and Johnson County Greens.

As you can see, it was a decent selection of progressive and leftist politics, although nothing too radical, at least by my standards. Nothing was presented that would likely have been offensive to the average liberal. Still, the presenters were radical enough to challenge the status quo from different perspectives.

The first presentation I went to was “The School to Prison Pipeline.” It was given by Diana Henry, a local teacher who has lived in the area for at least a couple of decades. I noticed that she was the only black person in the room, among mostly older whites. I hadn’t considered beforehand what would be the makeup of the crowd, but I suppose it was unsurprising for an event like this around here.

I left the symposium to go back home for a short while. On my walk outside, I passed by various minorities. It’s a mostly white town, but minorities aren’t an insignificant demographic, as it is a diverse college town. It made me wonder about what kind of disconnect this signified. This symposium seemed to be at least as relevant for minorities as it was for whites. Then again, even most white people in this white majority town probably didn’t know about the event. Why should minorites be any different?

After returning, I next went to Professor Benjamin Hunnicutt’s talk, “Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream.” He is an expert in leisure studies and has written some books about the topic. I wasn’t initially excited by the title in the symposium schedule, but I went because my friend wanted to hear it. It turned out to be quite fascinating.

Hunnicutt offered a bunch of awesome quotes, from more recent to all the way back to the 1700s. He explained that he had been surprised by how far back his inquiry led him. One choice quote he offered was from John Adams, one of the least radical of the American founders:

“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

Now, that is economic and social mobility. Adams hoped that a couple of generations following him Americans would have the opportunity to live a life dedicated to leisure, education, and personal betterment. What happened to that American Dream?

Hunnicutt explained how our contemporary idealizing of work is rather new. What so many Americans strove for, from early America to the early 20th century, was a world of increasing free time, as an expression of individual freedom in a free society.

Freedom from labor inspired a wide variety of Americans, who envisioned a future when people worked very little. In fact, this future was becoming a reality, as hours worked decreased over most of American history, until the mid-20th century when work became the symbol of prosperity and of the American Dream. That is how we got to this point of fully equating not working with laziness and worthlessness.

Hunnicutt didn’t mention it, but I’m willing to bet that slavery and its abolition played a major role in shifting attitudes. For early Americans, labor was closely linked to slavery. To not work meant living the good life. Some of the founders envisioned a country ruled by an enlightened aristocracy, which meant those who could dedicate their lives to the public good because of independent wealth freed them from having to work, although Benjamin Franklin (the least aristocratic among them) was the only one to ever live this dream (the rest were either poor like Paine or in debt like Jefferson).

Slavery was abolished around the time industrialization went into full force. Reconstruction led to Populism, which led to Progressivism, which led to the New Deal. FDR re-envisioned work as a right and that implied work as an obligation, a civic duty even. Mass unemployment during the Great Depression was seen as a problem, rather than an opportunity for a new society of greater freedom. So, work programs were created. Ever since, politicians use employment rates as an indicator of the health of the economy and of the society as a whole. The number of hours worked on average has increased (even as money earned hasn’t increased), hence reversing a centuries old trend.

Why doesn’t this bother more Americans? Or rather, why are so few Americans even aware of this reality and the history behind it?

I’ve complained that these days even many American left-wingers can’t imagine a world without work. After all, without labor, how can their be labor organizing? Our entire lives are labor. What else do we have to organize around? That is a lack of imagination.

The concluding talk was by George Friday. She was supposed to discuss “Black Lives Matter,” but it was more informal and general. She wasn’t physically present. So, we listened to her disembodied voice calling in from her home in North Carolina. She mostly took questions.

One question in particular connected to my thinking. A white lady made an inquiry related to her professional experience in mental health and youth. She wanted to know how organizations, such as the one she works for, could reach out to the black community.

Friday gave some good advice, although mostly common sense. The main gist was to first develop connections of familiarity, trust, and respect. Then and only then seek more specific ways of helping and contributing. Basically, treat other people like humans who you care about knowing and relating to, not simply as problems to be solved.

However, what interested me was Friday’s assumption about who she was speaking to. She couldn’t see the crowd listening to her. All she knew was that we were in Iowa. As such, she assumed we were a bunch of privileged white people, which is basically what she told us. Well, she was right, more or less.

What occurred to me was this. Did anyone who organized the symposium reach out to minorities in the community in order to get more of them to attend? Instead of just white people, it might have been nice if there had been other blacks there besides the one presenter, Diane Henry. After all, one in sixty people in this town identify as non-white or mixed. I’m willing to bet a black living in this town, especially one who isn’t middle class, would have asked different kinds of questions.

It wasn’t just minorities who were underrepresented. There also weren’t many young people there or what I would perceive as poor people. Certainly, none of the homeless people I regularly see down the block were in attendance. The speakers and the audience were almost entirely older whites who were probably middle class professionals or retired professionals.

The lack of  young people was most noticeable. This is a small college town with a disproportionate number of young people, although many of them have left for the summer, which might lead one to ask why was the event scheduled after the students left town. It was strange to see so many people of retirement age in a town where half the population is under 25 years old.

This last line of thought brought me back to the issue of leisure. Economically well off people have the most leisure. In the US, older middle class white people represent the largest sector of the population that is economically well off. These are the people who, if working, don’t have to hold down multiple jobs (and, if they have children, can afford someone to watch their children) or, if retired, can afford to live off the pensions, savings, and investments from having had a stable well-paying professional career.

Free time isn’t just about leisure in the narrow sense. This symposium was about the serious work of democratic organizing and action in a free society. It takes a lot of work, mostly voluntary, to make a democracy function. Free time is the foundation of a free society and the expression of freedom in general.

Freedom to spend time as one wishes relates to many other freedoms. It is to be free from want, fear, and stress. To have the time is one aspect of having resources and opportunities. So much of the work we do is to get those resources and opportunities. This means the only way to create greater freedom is by offering greater access for all people to the lifestyle that at present is mostly limited to older middle(-to-upper) class whites.

Hunnicutt explains, in Why Do Republicans Want Us to Work All the Time?, that,

“Then real progress would begin. Humane and moral progress. Instead of perpetual consumerism and the infinite increase in material wealth, we would naturally turn to improving the human condition, learning how to live together “wisely, agreeable, and well,” as Keynes put it. Progress would then take the form of healthier families, communities and cities—the increase of knowledge, the enjoyment of nature, history and other peoples, an increasing delight in the marvels of the human spirit, the practice of our beliefs and values together, the finding of common ground for conviviality, expanding our awareness of God, wondering in Creation.”

There is one thing he doesn’t consider.

Maybe poverty, both of wealth and of time, is intentional, rather than an accidental side effect. There are few greater forms of social control than fear of destitution, the threat of hunger and homelessness. If people are so busy just trying to get by, constantly hustling, whether on the legal or black markets, they will never have the time to imagine a better life and a better society and they will never have the time to act, individually and with others, on such aspirations.

Is a poor person living in desperation actually free in any practical sense? In the US, this is an inevitably racialized question, but more importantly it is a class question involving all Americans of all races. Are we to treat freedom as a fundamental right or a mere luxury for the privileged few?

Freedom is meaningless as an abstraction. Either it is a tangible reality or, if held out like a carrot on a stick, a cruel joke.

William Clouse of Kentucky, 1805

Possible Residences, Marriages, and Children/Siblings

The 1830 census (Jessamine KY) for William Clouse (20-29) shows an adult female (20-29), presumably his wife Patsy Fain, and two (free white) persons under the age of 20. One of those should be James Wesley Clouse when he was around 4 years old, but the other is unknown. Another child?

In the 1840 census, William Clouse (30-39) is shown living alone in a neighboring county, Garrard. It isn’t known when his wife died, but it could have been before this time. Also, James Wesley Clouse at age 14 or so could easily have had an early unknown marriage or found work somewhere else. The other possible sibling might have been even older. Or maybe William Clouse was simply away from the Jessamine house while doing a job.

One intriguing hint is an 1850 census for Union, Montgomery, Indiana. There was a William living there with an Elizabeth and four children. The father, age 44, was born in Virginia, the wife in Indiana, and all the children were born in Kentucky. Other records show that William Clouse and Elizabeth Williams were married in Montomery in 1842. This is interesting as the last record we have for my ancestor, William Clouse, was last known from that 1840 KY census when he was living alone. Did he move and remarry? Did he have other children that he brought with him to this other possible marriage?

I have no records for when and where my William Clouse was born, although I’ve come across it being stated he was born in 1805 in KY. I don’t now recall where I’ve seen that stated and so I wouldn’t rely upon its accuracy at this point.

There were many people around at that time going by the name William Clouse. There is also a white William Clouse living in Richland, Rush, Indiana in the mid to late 1800s and who has same approximate birthdate as the Jesamine/Garrard William Clouse and the Montomery William Clouse; but this Rush William Clouse was born in Tennessee which is the location where some people claim my Clouse family came from. Also, in 1830, there was a free black family living in Scott KY which is very close to where my free white William Clouse was living. Is there a connection there? Were there slaves in the family that were freed?

I’m trying to figure out more about the Clouse family in general. I’d also like to know more about Patsy Fain. Where did she come from and what happened to her? Where did William Clouse and Patsy Fain die and where were they buried? Along with Patsy Fain, where was James Wesley Clouse and the other ‘child’ in 1840 as I don’t know of J. W. getting married until 1848? I’m fairly sure that 1830 Jessamine census is when all these people were living together as a family, but I can’t prove it as this is just circumstantial evidence.

I did further research. I found another 1840 census that fits better for my Clouse family. It has a William Clouse living with children. Two of these children fit the age range of James Wesley Clouse and the other ‘child’. The next three children were all under 10 years old and so were born since the last census. This would also further strengthen the potential connection to the 1850 Union IN William Clouse, as the two older children would have been gone and the three younger children fit the ages with another child having been born. I’m not sure how to verify or disprove this hypothesis.

Apparently, in 1840, there was a William Clouse in Jessamine KY and a William Clouse in Garrard KY, neighboring counties. Both were around the same age. Were there actually two people with the same name, around the same age, and living in the same immediate area? Or did somehow the same person get counted twice, once with his own household and another time while visiting/working in the next county over? There is a headstone for a William Clouse in Garrard, birth and death unknown.

* * *

Here are some of the relevant names in my family tree from census records:

1810 Garrard census: some Burton, some Teter,
1810 Jessamine census: one Close household (Mary with children), some Finn, (Welch, Penix)

1820 Garrard census: no Close or Clouse, some Burton, no Fain, no Teter or variant
1820 Jessamine census: some Fain, (Walters, Welch)

1830 Garrard census: no Clouse, some Burton, some Fain, no Teater
1830 Jessamine (much of it illegible): one Clouse household (William), no Burton, some Fain, no Teater,

1840 Garrard census: one Clouse single person (William), some Burton, some Tater
1840 Jessamine census: one Clouse household (Wm), some Fain (Welch)

1850 Garrard census: one Clouse household (William 20, Mary 19), one Clouse household (James 34, Catharine 25, Isham 1), one Clouse household (James W 22, Sarah A 22, Will E 1), some Teeter, some Burton, (Welch)
1850 Jessamine census: , some Fain, some Burton, some Teter, (Welch)

1860 Garrard census: one Clonce household (James, Catharine, Allen, John D, Wm F, Nancy, Lucy) some Burton, some Teater and Teates and Teeter, some Finn
1860 Jessamine census: some Fain, some Burton, some Teter

In the late 1800s, all of the Clouses began leaving the area. My family line then moved to Southern Indiana. It’s quite close by, just a few counties away.

Old Forms of Power

This description of volunteer firemen associations is intriguing.

“They were essentially fraternal orders . . . They had also been political organizations since the 1830s”
~ Leonard L. Richards (See more at end of post.)

American society and politics used to be dominated by such associations. I’ve written about some of them before. They were powerful organizations that were at times forces for good and at other times merely forces of local power.

I wonder how much of that world has survived into present-day. Many of those kinds of associations have disappeared. But I know that at least a few, like Kiwanis, have grown and gone international.

More specifically, I was wondering about the volunteer firemen associations. There are still many volunteer firemen in small towns and rural areas.

For example, in nearby West Branch, IA, they use volunteers. It is a small town, but it isn’t as poor as most small towns in the area, because a section of the town is part of well-funded county. They had enough money to build a quite expensive fire station, partly used as a clubhouse, and added an extension for an inside wash area, mostly used to wash their personal vehicles.

From what I understand, the West Branch volunteer firemen have a lot of power and influence in that town, such as getting funds directed their way, even as the sidewalks are crumbling. Also, I’ve been told that the volunteer firemen form a multi-generational legacy of volunteers, which makes one wonder about the process for getting approved as a member.

These are the remaining old families that still hold much sway. The last fire chief, Dick Stoolman, only stepped down because of a promise that his son, Kevin Stoolman, would take over. To quote his exact words, “I wouldn’t give it up unless he got it.” Old School nepotism, how quaintly charming.

It’s not as if holding power in a town of a couple of thousand is all that significant in the big scheme of things. But it is interesting as an example of how old forms of power can persist.

* * *

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
By Leonard L. Richards
Kindle Locations 458-466

Both were old New York firemen, Broderick as a member of Howard Engine Company No. 34 and Kohler as an assistant engineer of the New York Volunteer Fire Department and a member of Protection Engine No. 5. In New York, as well as other eastern cities, volunteer fire companies did more than fight fires. They were also the premier social clubs in working-class neighborhoods. They were essentially fraternal orders with their own badges, mottoes, and initiation procedures. They tried to outdo one another in staging prizefights, dogfights, dances, parades, and an occasional formal ball. They had also been political organizations since the 1830s, initially used by elite politicians to get out the vote, but now used as a voice for men like themselves. Out of their ranks would come six mayors of the city.39

For Broderick, as well as many others, service as a fireman had been a stepping-stone to a political career. Shortly after he joined the Howard Company, one of the oldest in New York, he had been elected foreman, even though he was not yet old enough to vote.

Kindle Locations 547-555

Simultaneously, and more important to Broderick, he became a force in San Francisco politics. Money never mattered much to him. He was a bachelor with no kin. His personal expenses were modest. He just wanted enough money so that he didn’t have to worry about it. But political power was a different matter. The more he had, the better. Here again he had the help of Stevenson, along with some of Stevenson’s disbanded New York Volunteers. Together, they introduced a modification of the Tammany system into San Francisco.

The system, as they fashioned it, depended heavily on volunteer fire companies. Fires were common in San Francisco, far more so than in New York, and they were far more dangerous, as they wiped out not just a building or two but buildings, shacks, and tents in all directions. So firemen in San Francisco were heroes with plenty of work to do. Broderick did more than his share and in one fire, in particular, distinguished himself by his bravery. But he never regarded his company and others as just firefighters. He made sure that they functioned also as political clubs, getting out the vote on Election Day and providing a training ground for up-and-coming politicians.

American Eyes On Cuba

Reading the below passage, I was reminded of the Cold War attitude and actions toward Cuba. This included the failed invasion and nuclear showdown during Kennedy’s administration.

There has been a longstanding antagonism between the US and Cuba. The US relationship to Cuba has involved paranoia, intrigue, and acquisitiveness. This has also involved conflict in both places, especially conflicts related to race and slavery, but also regional and partisan conflict in the US and class conflicts in Cuba.

The difference back then was that the feared superpower was the Spanish Empire, instead of the Soviet Union. Still, it was the same basic jostling for political power, imperial expansion, and military positioning.

* * *

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
By Leonard L. Richards
Kindle Locations 2109-2145

Upon arriving in Madrid, Soulé immediately alienated the Spanish government. He denounced the monarchy and cavorted openly with revolutionaries. He got into a duel with the French ambassador after one of the ambassador’s guests made a disparaging remark about Mrs. Soulé’s plunging neckline. For this affront the ambassador suffered a debilitating leg wound. From the outset, Soulé also made it clear that his mission was to acquire Cuba by hook or by crook. By this time, moreover, the Spanish, as well as every other European power, had heard that Quitman was raising troops to invade Cuba.

In September 1853, the Spanish government responded. It appointed the Marqués de la Pezuela captain general of Cuba, a post that put him in command of both the military and the government, with orders to take steps to defend Cuba. In December he issued decrees that among other things cracked down on those illegally engaged in the slave trade and gave citizenship rights to blacks illegally imported before 1835. At the same time, he recruited free blacks into the militia. Coming from a government that had no interest in abolishing either slavery or the African slave trade, Pezuela’s policy of “Africanization” made it clear that he was willing, if necessary, to use black troops against Quitman’s invaders and against any Cuban planter who sympathized with them.

Pezuela’s policy was also risky. It sparked fears of slave rebellion throughout the white South and calls for reprisals. It also aroused militants in the Mississippi Delta. They wanted action quickly. In response, the Louisiana legislature demanded “decisive and energetic measures.” Quitman, however, was unwilling to move until he had three thousand men, one armed steamer, and $220,000 at his disposal.11

Meanwhile, the Pierce administration decided that it might be possible to purchase Cuba if firebrands like Quitman were temporarily restrained. On April 3, Secretary of State William L. Marcy sent new instructions to Soulé, authorizing him to purchase Cuba for up to $130 million. If Spain refused, Soulé was then to concern himself with the problem of how to “detach” Cuba from Spain.12 Eight weeks later, the administration announced that it would prosecute all men who violated U.S. neutrality laws. The New Orleans grand jury then required Quitman to post a $3,000 bond guaranteeing his adherence to the neutrality laws for the next nine months. In the interim, in Cuba, Pezuela arrested more than a hundred pro-American planters and put some to death. Later that same year, Pierce called Quitman to Washington and showed him evidence that Cuba was strongly defended.13

Meanwhile, in Madrid, Soulé had no luck trying to buy Cuba. So the Pierce administration decided to let him confer privately with the other ministers in Europe—James Buchanan at London and John Y. Mason at Paris—and decide if it was feasible to persuade Spain to sell Cuba to the United States. Meeting in Ostend in October 1854, the three diplomats put their names to a dispatch that came to be known as the Ostend Manifesto.

The dispatch was a bombshell. Written mainly by Soulé, it urged the United States to immediately buy Cuba at any price up to $120 million. It also proclaimed that if Spain refused to sell and if its possession of Cuba seriously endangered the “internal peace” of the slave states, then the United States would be justified in seizing Cuba “upon the very same principle that would justify an individual in tearing down the burning house of his neighbor if there were no other means of preventing the flames from destroying his own home.”14

News of this saber-rattling manifesto sent shock waves through the Northern wing of the Democratic Party. They had just suffered huge election losses that fall. They had entered the election holding ninety-three seats in the House. They now had only twenty-two.15 What, many asked, was the Pierce administration up to? Didn’t they realize that the “burning house” rhetoric would provide Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune with even more ammunition to attack the party faithful? One Democratic newspaper after another thus distanced itself from the manifesto, even branding its authors “brigands” and “highwaymen.”The Pierce administration also ran for cover, disavowing the proposal and letting “the three wise men of Ostend” fend for themselves.16

That December, enraged by the reaction, Soulé resigned as minister to Spain. Several months later, in April 1855, Quitman gave back to the Cuban junta the powers it had bestowed upon him. No longer did either warrior have much hope of acquiring “the pearl of the Antilles” to offset the addition of California as a free state.

Mechanical Spider Legs and Progressive Reform

Did you see this article about FDR?

Report: White House Officials Deliberately Hid FDR’s Mechanical Spider Legs From Public

It does explain a lot. I always wondered why public photos of him never showed his legs.

On a happier note, here are some thoughts about the coming future, when mechanical spider legs will no longer need to be attached to humans.

‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’

One of the jobs that hasn’t been mechanized yet is that of torturer. But with Poland being held accountable, let’s hope it won’t be a growing job sector.

With US Accountability MIA, Poland to Make Payout for Torture of CIA

That article points out how the US government officials aren’t being held accountable for their own actions. That isn’t just true internationally, but also nationally. The US government isn’t accountable to American voters anymore than it is accountable to international courts.

Study: Congress literally doesn’t care what you think

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change. – The Boston Globe

A major reason for this is big money. The US government has big money (funding a big military—and increasingly militarized police—along with helping to fund a big defense industry) and, of course, American politicians are beholden to big money (including from that defense industry), a cozy corporatist collusion. Besides indirect bribes (beyond just campaign money) and unofficial kickbacks (via no-bid contracts and below-market-value of natural resources from public lands), there are also direct subsidies to corporations and banks.

US taxpayers subsidising world’s biggest fossil fuel companies

U.S. Taxpayers Subsidizing World’s Biggest Fossil Fuel Companies

Why Should Taxpayers Give Big Banks $83 Billion a Year?

Top Banking Analyst: Subsidies to Giant Banks Exceed $780 Billion Dollars Per YEAR

Big Banks Have Raked In $102 Billion In Subsidies Since 2009: Report

A related aspect is that of the climate change debate. People are always arguing over who is getting funded how much and who is doing the funding. Interestingly, many of the same big energy sources that fund political campaigning also fund the opponents of the scientific consensus, from funding think tanks to funding scientists. No matter how much money climatology researchers get, they can’t use that money for lobbying and campaign donations, as does big energy.

Accusations that climate science is money-driven reveal ignorance of how science is done

Not just the Koch brothers: New study reveals funders behind the climate change denial effort

Graphs of Science Funding

It’s obviously a complex issue, but one has to wonder what are the end results of all that money. Even the money that goes to research, is the issue really a lack of enough data to know we have a problem to deal with? I doubt it.

Big money corruption is a non-partisan issue, not that you’d realize that from the mainstream media. It has been a central concern of both the Tea Party and the Occupiers. In general, it has been a growing concern of all Americans. A movement is forming and those involved, individually and collectively, are demanding to be taken seriously. In some cases, concerned citizens are going to extremes in their attempt to get heard.

Can the Gyrocopter Gang Start a Political Reform Movement?

Much of the organizing is grassroots and the changes are starting at the local level. Just recently, the county I live in issued a resolution and so joined the ranks of a growing number of local governments across the country, in both red and blue areas.

County supervisors call for Constitutional amendment – The Daily Iowan

Now, we just need a president who is even half the man FDR was and apparently he himself was already half machine. Maybe having mechanical spider legs gives someone the courage to face down the fascists and oligarchs in order to demand progressive reform.

Partisan Apologetics, Bipartisan Bullshit

Someone pointed out to me two articles, one by Paul Street and the other by Thomas Frank. They are about liberal apologetics or rather standard partisan rhetoric.

I often feel wary about liberalism as a label, especially as applied to the Democratic Party. Barack Obama’s liberalism is to Martin Luther King’s liberalism as Jerry Falwell’s Christianity was to MLK’s Christianity. But that is neither here nor there.

The point is that the apologists in question are defending the status quo. I’m not sure if it even matters how such apologists self-identify or what kind of rhetoric they use, just as it doesn’t particularly matter how they identify their opponents and their opponents identify them. Depending on who you ask, Obama is a liberal or a neoliberal, a socialist or a corporate shill, a radical mastermind or a weak moderate, and much else besides. It’s all so much empty talk.

What does matter is what is being defended, beyond all labels and rhetoric. It’s party politics. And I’m sure at least Paul Street understands that the two parties are basically the same, even if one of them is consistently and persistently more despair-inducing than the other.

The point is that Obama isn’t being inconsistent about his beliefs. The more likely explanation is that he is acting according to his principles and values, despite it not being the hope and change some thought he was bringing. His presidency, as such, isn’t a failure, but a grand success. It doesn’t matter what one calls it. Obama serves power and money, just like Bush Jr. It’s the same old game.

It isn’t a failure of the Democratic Party. It isn’t a failure of democracy. It isn’t a failure of liberalism. All of that is irrelevant. It’s a show being put on. It is politics as spectacle. Sure, Obama will play the role of a liberal in giving speeches, but it’s just a role and he is just an actor, although not as great of an actor as someone like Reagan, not that the quality of the acting is all that important.

For that reason, the apologists should be criticized harshly. So should the partisan loyalists who so much wanted to believe the pretty lies, no matter how obvious they were.

After he was elected, I was for giving Obama a chance to prove his intentions, not that I ever bought into the rhetoric. That is why I hoped he would get elected to a second term (instead of Romney), so that no one could ever claim that he wasn’t given the full opportunity to implement what he wanted. As his presidency draws to a close, it is fair to conclude that he has proven beyond any reasonable doubt what he supports. Of course, that should have been obvious long ago to anyone paying attention.

The healthcare reform was a good example of what he supports. As explained in one comment to Frank’s article:

“Obama was able to get the ACA through with no Republican votes, relying fully on Democratic support. Why then, didn’t Obama push a single-payer plan through? The only answer is that either Obama didn’t want single-payer, or the Democratic establishment didn’t want single-payer.

“So instead the Democrats went for the individual-mandate, proposed by the far right-wing Heritage Foundation in the 1990’s, and implemented by Romney in Massachusetts.

“Instead of a truly public health care system, the Democrats mandated that We The People need to subsidize private-sector, for-profit corporations.

“Not to mention, this ‘recovery’ has seen a drastic increase in the stratification of wealth, where the uber-rich have gotten far richer while the middle-class shrinks.

“But under a President McCain or a President Romney, would we have really expected anything to be different?”

Democrats typically argued that Obama’s healthcare reform was a good compromise for pushing progressive change. Meanwhile, Republicans typically argued it was either socialism or a step toward it.

What was mostly ignored by both sides of mainstream politics is that Obamacare first and foremost served the interests of big money, which in this case meant big insurance. The only time big money gets mentioned is when campaign season goes into full gear and even then it’s never about serious concern for getting money out of politics (along with related corporatist issues such as ending revolving door politics, stopping  regulatory capture, etc).

How does this kind of corporatist policy lead to either progressive or socialist results? Why not just call it what it is and leave it at that? Why are so many people willing to play these political games of doublespeak?

People have their minds so twisted up with convoluted rhetoric that I suspect many of them couldn’t think straight, even if they tried. Heck, looking at this ideological mess, I must admit that I also find myself struggling to make heads or tails out of it.

Besides standard political power-mongering, the agenda is hard to figure out. Is it just mindless defense of the status quo? Why don’t those in power see how destructive this is, even to the system itself in the long run?

Gangs as Civic Institutions

I haven’t been following the news much lately, but I’ve caught snippets of what is going on in the Baltimore riots. Interestingly, the only video I’ve watched about it is the interview with the gang members, both Crips and Bloods, who called a truce.

The interviewer ended the piece with the question, “Is that not a very different perspective that you have ever heard?”

What she leaves out is the fact that the reason most Americans don’t hear other perspectives is because interviews like this rarely happen on the mainstream media. Instead, mainstream reporters tend to only report what officials tell them. In this case, the police officials made false statements that the truce was called so the gangs could work together to kill cops.

I’m one of the atypical Americans who is mostly informed by alternative media and who is fairly well read about American history. So, to answer her question: No, it is not surprising to me.

Gangs have been calling truces since gangs have existed, and they often do so for political reasons. Gangs are just one of the many expressions of humans social nature, and they even can at times take form as civic institutions and repositories of social capital. They even act as employers for those who have few, if any, good job opportunities.

I must admit there was a time not too many years ago when I had a more simplistic understanding of many things. It has required massive self-(re-)education to understand American society. Because of my studies of history, I was able to recognize what this video represented. I’d seen a similar thing when doing research on the KKK in the early 20th century, a far more violent time than right now (when street gangs first became dominant) and yet the KKK was never only or even primarily about violence.

I would argue such organizations, including gangs, aren’t really about violence. The gangs in this country aren’t necessarily any more violent than the police. I’ve pointed out that for many communities gangs act in the role of militias where the police have failed to maintain order or, worse, where police have become part of the problem in destroying lives, families, and the social fabric.

Italians a century ago found themselves in an antagonistic relationship to the dominant WASP culture. Immigrants brought with them the Black Hand (origins of the Mafia), which was equal parts gang and civic institution. The Black Hand defended Italian communities and maintained cultural social standards, but they also kept other violent forces at bay, including that of bigoted police who targeted ethnic immigrants. Don’t forget that Italians once were sometimes called the ‘N’ word.

As a society, we need to think more carefully about the human instinct for social order. Humans want to have a sense of belonging, a sense of place and community. Humans want to feel safe and secure, to feel they have some control over their lives. If the dominant society acts in a destructive way toward this natural impulse, it does no one any good.

* * * *

Articles of interest:

Crips, Bloods Call Truce, Not to Harm Cops But to Protect their Community from Violence & Looting
by John Vibes, Free Thought Project .com

However, their promise to no longer be divided, was such a threat to the establishment that within 12 hours there were stories on the home page of every mainstream media publication talking about how the gangs were going to join up with the specific intention of killing cops and burning down the city.

Each of the mainstream sources had basically republished a press release that was put out by the Baltimore City Police Department, citing that there was a “credible threat” that gang members were planning to carry out attacks on police. There was no evidence to back this claim up, but the very fact that rival gangs were calling a truce in the streets was enough to drive the establishment into panic mode.

This should tell you something. The establishment wants people divided, and they fear other armed and organized groups providing their own communities with defense, effectively challenging the state’s monopoly on violence.

One thing that is often forgotten is that many of today’s street gangs have roots in activist groups that sought to provide protection for communities that were being ignored or oppressed by police. These groups became less organized over the years, lost their way and turned to corruption. However, this truce could be a positive sign that these groups are returning to their roots and becoming more concerned with protecting their communities.

Gangs
by John Hagedorn, gangresearch.net

In major U.S. cities, gangs were strongly influenced by revolutionary and civil-rights organizations. The ideologies of groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, and the Young Lords Organization attracted many youths away from the gangs. Many of these political groups in fact began as gangs and aimed their recruiting efforts at the children of the street. Federal agencies used COINTELPRO, an FBI operation aimed at disrupting political organizations, and other tactics to provoke violence between gangs and revolutionary organizations. Rivalry between gangs and political groups was balanced by negotiations between them, and gangs joined many movement demonstrations.

Gangs also initiated community service agencies, started local businesses, and got federal grants for education and job training. The Conservative Vice Lord Nation, for example, a Chicago gang that came into existence in the 1950s, began multiple social programs and businesses in the 1960s.

But the 1960s ended in a flurry of violence, both from the streets and the police. Revolutionary organizations such as the Black Panther Party were smashed, and the social programs run by gangs ended when they lost funding. Thousands of gang members and political activists were incarcerated. While repression crushed the political groups, gangs persisted and maintained ties to the streets even from prison. Jacobs’ (1977) seminal study of Stateville, a notorious maximum-security prison in Illinois, demonstrated how prison life was now linked back to the community through the gangs.

Gangs joined with revolutionary and Black Muslim groups in demanding better conditions in prison. Many gangs adopted religious doctrines and rituals, which some said were a cover for gang activities and others saw as a genuine response to oppression. Gangs controlled the cellblocks with violence and superior organization, and many also maintained their hold over the organization on the street. But in the 1970s and 1980s, when many gang leaders were released from prison, the neighborhoods were even more rundown than when they left them. The sociologist William Julius Wilson vividly described the impact of de-industrialization on the black community. Far from withering away, ghettos persisted, and their conditions had deteriorated.

* * * *

Previous blog posts:

Substance Control is Social Control

And on the issue of poverty and unemployment, I explained an insight I had in my post Working Hard, But For What?:

These people believe in the American Dream and try to live it best they can, under almost impossible conditions. They aren’t asking for handouts. They are solving their own problems, even when those problems are forced on them by the larger society.

Take gangs, for example. Most gangs are what white people would call militias. When the police fail in their job, gangs do the job for them. If you are a black who is targeted by the police and everyone you know is targeted by the police, you’ll organize in order to protect yourself, your family, your friends, and your neighborhood.

That is how community forms when all of the outside world is against you, when life is difficult and desperate, where daily living is a fight for survival. When there are no jobs available, poor minorities make their own jobs. When there are no police to protect them, poor minorities police themselves. When the larger society is against them, they make their own communities.

There is a strength that comes from adversity. This was demonstrated by ethnic immigrants in the past, such as the close-knit bootlegging community of German-Americans in Templeton, Iowa. People who have had histories of disadvantage and/or oppression sometimes learn amazing skills of social adaptation and survival. They develop forms of social capital that those more privileged lack.

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence

The most powerful weapon against oppression is community. This is attested to by the separate fates of a Templetonian like Joe Irlbeck and big city mobster like Al Capone. “Just as Al Capone had Eliot Ness, Templeton’s bootleggers had as their own enemy a respected Prohibition agent from the adjacent county named Benjamin Franklin Wilson. Wilson was ardent in his fight against alcohol, and he chased Irlbeck for over a decade. But Irlbeck was not Capone, and Templeton would not be ruled by violence like Chicago” (Kindle Locations 7-9). What ruled Templeton was most definitely not violence. Instead, it was a culture of trust. That is a weapon more powerful than all of Al Capone’s hired guns.

What the mob forgot was that the Mafia began as a civic organization, the Black Hand. It was at times violent, as was the KKK, but most of what these civic organizations did was community work. They defended their communities and cultures, their traditions and customs. The Germans had their Bund, which served a similar purpose. Hispanics also have a history of forming tight-knit communities that will defend themselves.

African-Americans, however, have a tougher road to travel. Their unique African ethnic culture, language, and religion was annihalated by slavery. Even Native Americans fared better on this account. The social capital of African-Americans was intentionally destroyed. It has been an uphill battle for them to rebuild it, against all odds. They don’t even have the privilege of a jury of their peers, for the police targeting of blacks and the racial bias in the courts has disenfranchized so many of them from the opportunity of jury service. Many blacks find themselves before a jury of white people and, unlike the Templetonians, they have little hope of being saved from the jaws of injustice.

Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Generation

I told my dad that the KKK was basically the conservatives of their day and he agreed with me. Some months earlier, I had told him the exact same thing and he probably thought I was being unfair and mean. To most people, making a comparison to the KKK is about the same as making a comparison to Nazis.

We have a hard time seeing things for what they are or were. We put things into the context of our own time and judge them accordingly. That is problematic with something like the KKK which is easy to caricature and criticize with straw-man arguments. Most Klan members weren’t violent people who spent their every free moment thinking about how to oppress others. If anything is scary about the KKK, it is that completely normal people belonged to it and most of the time they did completely normal activities. They were good citizens, devoted husbands, loving fathers, and practicing Christians.

The KKK wasn’t necessarily all that different from any other number of civic organizations from that time. The Second KKK was even modeled on many of those other organizations:

“In an era without Social Security or widely available life insurance, men joined fraternal organizations such as the Elks or the Woodmen of the World to provide for their families in case they died or were unable to work. The founder of the new Klan, William J. Simmons, was a member of twelve different fraternal organizations. He recruited for the Klan with his chest covered with fraternal badges, and consciously modeled the Klan after fraternal organizations.
“Klan organizers, called “Kleagles”, signed up hundreds of new members, who paid initiation fees and received KKK costumes in return. The organizer kept half the money and sent the rest to state or national officials. When the organizer was done with an area, he organized a huge rally, often with burning crosses, and perhaps presented a Bible to a local Protestant preacher. He left town with the money collected. The local units operated like many fraternal organizations and occasionally brought in speakers.”

Those civic organizations have interesting histories. The KKK was created partly in response to new immigrants, but many fraternal and community organizations were created by and for new immigrants. The Germans were well known for their organizations that were a thorn in the side of those who wanted to force the non-English to assimilate. The Germans, until WWII, had more or less successfully resisted assimilation and the KKK didn’t like that. These ethnic and/or populist civic organizations, German and otherwise, were sometimes closely tied to labor organizing, another thing the KKK would have not appreciated.

Interestingly, the Second KKK arose at the same time and for the same reasons fascist movements arose in Germany and Italy. In the US, Germans formed the German American Bund which supported Nazi Germany before WWII. Like the KKK, the Bund formed large marches in cities where Germans were concentrated. Fascism was in the air. The characteristics of fascism included reactionary populism, social conservatism, folk religiosity, patriotic nationalism, ethnocentric nativism, etc. Despite their differences, the KKK and the Bund were expressions of the same basic shift within society at that time.

These organizations weren’t evil incarnate. They were simply people trying to bring order back to what felt like the chaos of a changing society.

My Preoccupied Mind: Blogging and Research

I haven’t been posting as much to my blog lately. I wanted to explain my reasons, in case anyone cared to know.

I’ve been thinking a lot about some related things.

A while back, I started a post about the radicalism of the Enlightenment. Many people, especially conservatives, forget how violently the traditional social order was overturned, in order to create the world we know today. Modern capitalist society may be many things, but it has nothing to do with any traditional social order and the same goes for modern conservatism that aligns itself with capitalism.

That led me to other topics. I was reminded, among other things, to some of my earlier thinking on the Axial Age, Julian Jayne’s breakdown of the bicameral mind, etc. I’ve always sensed a hidden connection between that earlier era of transformation and the radicalism of the Enlightenment, the latter being a greater expression and fulfillment of what first emerged more than two millennia ago.

With all of that in mind, I was looking many different articles and books. My curiosity has been in full gear ever since. I’m in research mode, which for me can be quite an obsessive and time-consuming activity.

This was made worse because I got into a discussion about shame. While putting the radicalism post on the back burner, I looked into this other topic, as I had never explored it before. It turned out that shame is a lot more fascinating than I had considered.

My investigation into the meaning of shame once again led me back in the same direction that the issue of radicalism had brought me.

Julian Jaynes had written about the comparison of shame and guilt cultures. He was influenced in by E. R. Dodds (and Bruno Snell). Dodds in turn based some of his own thinking about the Greeks on the work of Ruth Benedict, who originated the shame and guilt culture comparison in her writings on Japan and the United States. Benedict, like Margaret Mead, had been taught by Franz Boas. Boas developed some of the early anthropological thinking that saw societies as distinct cultures.

Connected to these thinkers, I was reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes the World. I realized a connection to my own speculations about symbolic conflation, about which I recently wrote a post. I explored that in a fair amount of detail, but it only touched upon one area of my mind’s focus as of late.

As you can see, I was exploring the connections of scholarly thought, but also the connections of different time periods. The past speaks to the present, whether the past of centuries before or millennia before.

At the same time, I feel like I have a family obligation to finish up the genealogy research I started years ago. I got distracted by other things. I do enjoy genealogy, but it is difficult and requires total focus. I have barely even started on my father’s side of the family.

I have my hands full. I enjoy blogging and will continue to do so, but it might be sporadic in the immediate future. I’m not sure what I might blog about, when I do get around to it. I’m known for being easily distracted and writing about such distractions.

Freedom and Public Space

Along the Upper Mississippi River and on the Iowa side, there is Fort Madison.

It is a medium-sized town, not exactly thriving but far from being in decline. It is an old river town that once had much wealth and still has many well-kept old houses. Some of the nicest and largest houses are located around a couple of parks in the center of town, just north a couple blocks from the downtown shopping area.

My brother moved there not too long ago and so I’ve since visited the town several times. He lives only a few blocks from these parks and only a few blocks from the river. It is a long and narrow strip of a town and so I guess everyone there lives within blocks of the river.

It is one of those places where you can sense the history. It is fairly quiet town now, but it had to have been a bustling at one time, back when the Mississippi River was more of a major transportation route. The old buildings still standing are of a wide variety of architecture. It has made me curious.

Much of the town has a standard Midwest feel, although of a river town variety. For example, there are the kinds of alleys I knew from my Midwestern childhood. Most of the houses wouldn’t be out of place in any other Midwestern smaller town. Still, there is much else that stands out. There are old federalist style houses. There are also quite a few houses with a clear Southern influence. One house across the street from Old Settlers Park reminds me of the houses in Charleston, SC, although it isn’t as narrow along the front.

Fort Madison was once a trade town. So, that allowed more diverse cultural influences for an old town so far north into the far reaches of the Midwest. Out of curiosity, I looked at the 1850 census, when Fort Madison was a young city and Iowa was a young state. In that census, there were people from diverse places within the United States (Washington DC, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Maine, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and from diverse countries (Canada, England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Switzerland).

Before being a trade town, it was the location of a major fort and hence the name. It was one of three forts in the new Louisiana Territory and the first permanent fortification on the Upper Mississippi. That touches upon the sense of history of the place.

The Mississippi River was the last natural boundary for the frontier. It is a massive river that back then would have been treacherous to cross. Iowa was one of the last areas Native Americans tried to hold ground to stop Westward expansion. Fort Madison was seen as an incursion and so immediately became a target of attacks.

One of the most famous Native leaders was Chief Black Hawk. He sided with Canada during the War of 1812. His first battle against US troops happened in Fort Madison and it was the only battle of the War of 1812 that happened West of the Mississippi. More than three decades later in 1838, he gave his farewell speech in Old Settlers Park, where today there is a plaque with a quote from that speech:

“I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now.”

As he described, just down the hill flows the mighty Mississippi. However, today the surrounding houses entirely block the view.

I walked to this park with my sister-in-law and niece. It has a large gazebo for bands and a playground. It’s quite beautiful with many old trees. The place is peaceful and it is hard to imagine the sadness Black Hawk must have felt as he gave that speech. As I stood before the plaque reading his words, I looked out across the park at the kids playing. It wasn’t lost on me that the park was filled with white kids. In fact, I never saw anyone who looked Native American in Fort Madison. The diversity the town once had never included the native population.

Where I live in Iowa City, there are two locations of former Native American villages. One of them was that of the tribe of Black Hawk’s medicine man. Iowa City was first settled by free blacks, many of whom were likely escaped slaves. Those free blacks sought the frontier for obvious reasons and I’m sure they were living there at the invitation of the local tribes.

In the pedestrian mall of downtown Iowa City, there is a small area that is called Black Hawk Mini Park. It also once was known as the People’s Park. It was the product of a fight for public space. On the side of the adjacent building there was a mural called “The Spirit of Black Hawk” that depicted the face of a Native American.

It’s telling that the freedom of public space often gets symbolized by Native Americans who lost their freedom and lost the very land they lived on, of which these parks represent a tiny portion.

“Why are you thinking about this?”

“Why are you thinking about this?”

That was the question my father recently asked me, in relation to thoughts I had about books I was reading. The moment I heard the question, I realized he had asked me that question many times before, when discussing other topics.

I’m a naturally curious person. It isn’t that I don’t think about the reasons for my curiosity, but I wouldn’t think about it in the way that my father’s question was intended. His question felt defensive, and I realized that I often sense that defensive quality whenever I bring up a new set of ideas to my father. I’m so used to it, though, that I don’t normally give it much consideration. It’s usually just in the background.

My father has been my intellectual sparring partner for my entire life. He taught me how to think more than anyone else. This is significant for a number of reasons.

Most importantly, he is a conservative and I a liberal. So, my own thinking has naturally fallen into the grooves of this ideological dialectic. I’m incapable of thinking of liberalism and conservatism as separate phenomena. My relationship to my father is the ground for my experience of liberalism’s relationship to conservatism. This obviously gives a slant to my views. My liberalism is forever the son’s challenge to the father and hence to all things patriarchal and paternalistic.

This relationship is well established between my father and I. We each know our roles. When he asks me for my reasons, he isn’t just being generally defensive, but specifically toward something. There is something, as I see it, that conservatives will seek to defend before all else. I’ve previously called it symbolic conflation (also, see here, here, and here). It is the linchpin of the social order.

When I go off on my questioning obsessions, I’m wiggling that linchpin. I know it and my father knows it.

I may pretend that isn’t what I’m doing, for sake of good relations, but the fact of the matter is that I find myself a disturber of the peace in the Hobbit’s Shire. Like Bilbo Baggins, I’m not intending to be a radical revolutionary, a mean-spirited malcontent, or a mischievous troublemaker. I resisted my fate, as best I could, but to no avail. A disturber of the peace becomes such for somewhere along the way his own peace was disturbed. My mind and soul is disturbed by forces I neither comprehend nor control (some would call it ‘depression’), and so I act accordingly. It is what it is.

No one chooses to see the linchpin. But once seen, it is hard to unsee, no matter how disturbing.

Researchers have even shown that people will sometimes go to great effort not to see something. A study was done on different patterns of eye focusing. There was some image that didn’t fit into a person’s worldview or else didn’t fit into what they deemed acceptable, and as I recall the researchers were specifically dividing people according to ideological categories.

What was found was that certain people would look all over the room while conspicuously not looking at the one place where that image was located. So, they weren’t looking at it, but at some level they had seen it in their peripheral vision and were unconsciously recognizing its presence by actively looking all around it. This is a cognitive blindspot, not a lack of physical ability to see, just a lack of conscious willingness and desire to perceive.

That is how I think conservatives deal with symbolic conflations (conservative-minded liberals deal with it in the same way). They spend immense energy defending what they will never directly acknowledge. That is why the structure of the psychological dynamic is so important, where the symbol is conflated with reality. The symbol, as such, represents and obscures. The conservative knows and doesn’t know what the symbol means. The conflation is so tricky that even most liberals have a hard time untangling the knot or even realizing there is a knot to be untangled, and that is the conflation’s primary purpose, to hide the soft underbelly from probing daggers.

The conservative’s task is much easier for the reason that most liberals don’t want to untangle the knot, to remove the linchpin. Still, that is what conservative’s fear, for they know liberals have that capacity, no matter how unlikely they are to act on it. This fear is real. The entire social order is dependent on overlapping symbolic conflations, each a link in a chain, and so each a point of vulnerability.

A symbolic conflation both represents and replaces what is unspoken, both distracts from and obscures what is hidden. It is a fluttering bird luring the predator away from the nest. My mind was brought back to these thoughts not just because of my father’s question, although the question helped focus my mind. Seeing the fluttering bird of his question, my attention was drawn to the trajectory from which it was fleeing.

What started all this was my reading about shame (along with guilt, honor, etc), the topic that elicited my father’s question. It so happens that conservatism and liberalism are key to my thoughts about shame, although I had not immediately stated so to him, but still he sensed the implications.

The issue of shame is a sore spot where conservatism and liberalism have, from their close proximity, rubbed each other raw. It is also a site of much symbolic conflation, the linchpin like a stake in the ground to which a couple of old warriors are tied in their ritual dance of combat and wounding, where both are so focused on one another that neither pays much attention to the stake that binds them together. In circling around, they wind themselves ever tighter and their tethers grow shorter.

Stepping away from that predictable struggle, I found myself wondering about what is outside the proscribed boundary of polarized consciousness. In my specific inquiry here, my mind slipped down a side path that runs parallel to well-tread ruts. Exploring shame caused me to wander afield, as the subject is new territory for me, and in wandering I found myself following this new trail of thought. As often happens, I discovered something of interest along the way.

I was led back to an author and a book with which I’m already familiar, but I was now able to see it in new light. The book in question is Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde. I had forgotten how much the author discusses shame and I have to say it is one of the better books on the subject that I’ve so far read. Here is what caught my attention. A few sections I recognized as territory from my own maps of symbolic conflation. Hyde’s cartographic descriptions of this emotional terrain, however, uses trickster mythology (instead of ideological predispositions) for the map’s legend and scaling.

In the first passage that got me excited, Hyde shows the relationship between shame, the body, and the social order. He writes that (pp. 169-170),

“[A]n unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.

“Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman). This substituting of one thing for another is called metonymy in rhetoric, one of the many figures of thought, a trope or verbal turn. The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. To begin with, there are always larger stories going on— about women or race or a snake in a garden. The enchantment of those regularly repeated fables, along with the rules of silence at their edges, and the assertion that they are intuitively true— all these things secure the borders of the narrative and make it difficult to see the contingency of its figures of thought. Once the verbal tricks are invisible, the artifice of the social order becomes invisible as well, and begins to seem natural. As menstruation and skin color and the genitals are natural facts, so the social and psychological orders become natural facts.

“In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.

“If this is how the trap is made, then escaping it must involve reversing at least some of these elements. In what might be called the “heavy-bodied” escape, one senses that there’s something to be changed but ends up trying to change the body itself, mutilating it, or even committing suicide…”

I loved his explaining of this metonymy as a bait and switch. It is a brilliant analysis of how symbolic conflation operates. Hyde unpacks the confusion and in its place offers clarity.

The visceral language he uses is powerful. Symbolic conflation sounds too abstract. The actual experience really is to be snared in a trap. The body, as being spoken of here, isn’t a mere metaphor. What makes it so compelling is that the imagined gets identified with the body, with specific parts and specific functions of specific bodies. One feels this in one’s own body and so at the most basic level of one’s sense of identity and reality.

So much falls into place once this is understood. I’m forced to think more deeply about my own previous speculations and understandings. I sense how this touches upon the beating heart of symbolic conflation. A symbol is always rooted in the imagination with the taproot running deep into visceral experience, the body being the dark soil in which it grows. It is in our telling of stories that this visceral experience is brought to life and made personally real. A story is about meaning, but it is a meaning more of emotions than of ideas.

I’m also brought back to thoughts of reactionary conservatism. Is Hyde specifically pinning down the fluttering wings of the reactionary conservative? Has he devised his own snare to entrap the reactionary conservative in action, like a camera set up to snap a picture of a wary beast in the deep wilderness? If so, what is the precise relationship between reactionary conservatism and symbolic conflation that is captured here?

I’ll return to those questions, but first let me explore further into what Hyde has written about. In the next passage, he explores a historical context for one particular trickster mythology, Hermes of the ancient Greeks (pp. 206-207):

“[Norman O. Brown] therefore proposes this parallel: just as Hermes acquires a place alongside Apollo in the course of the Hymn, so in the course of the sixth century the “Athenian industrial and commercial classes achieved equality with the aristocracy.” That equality was not easily won; it required the resolution of a whole series of differences. In the aristocratic era, wealth came from herding and farming the soil; in Athenian democracy those sources of wealth still existed but were increasingly challenged by a craft economy and commercial exchange with strangers. Agrarian aristocracy was organized around hierarchical kinship ties; Athenian democracy retained such ties but added a new ethic of equality symbolized by the fact that many political positions in Athens were filled by a lottery in which all citizens could participate, regardless of family or status. Most important, the emerging cosmopolitan democracy brought with it a “new ethics of acquisitive individualism [that] conflicted with the traditional morality which the Greeks called Themis— the body of customs and laws inherited from the age of familial collectivism.” The older morality took any deviation from “the archaic form of commerce by mutual exchange of gifts” to be an immoral thieving (even what we would now call fair trade was taken to be robbery). In short, during the sixth century, a world organized through kin relationships and a collective ethic of gift exchange gave way to a world in which hierarchy could be periodically revised and social relations were increasingly articulated through the individualist (which is to say, thieving) ethic of the marketplace.

“As for those who were excluded or marginalized, we should remember that, in a society where the dominant values are kin ties and agrarian wealth, those whose identity is bound up with trade are typically consigned to a subordinate place in the order of things. They are, so to speak, “low caste” (as they have been historically in India, where merchants and artisans fall into the lower two of the four varnas). If, in the Greek case, such people hope to place themselves on an equal footing with the warriors and family farmers of ancient days, they will have to subvert that order and reshape it on their own terms. Such, Brown argues, is exactly what happened: the “regime of the landed aristocracy was overthrown, its agrarian economy yielding to a new economy based on trade and handicraft industry, its political oligarchy yielding to the politics of ancient democracy.” The Hymn reflects that change: “The theme of strife between Hermes and Apollo translates into mythical language the insurgence of the Greek lower classes and their demands for equality with the aristocracy.”

“Brown’s claims cover a lot of ground and his talk of class conflict gives off an air of retrospective Marxism, but the [Homeric] Hymn itself, however we fit it into actual Greek history, sets up a tension in accord with the one that Brown suggests. There is little doubt that in the classical period Hermes is associated with artisans, merchants, and thieves, and the poem itself makes it clear that some kind of “outsiderness” is at issue, and that Hermes hopes to change it.”

Right there! That is key. The described “outsiderness” brings us directly to the doorstep of the reactionary conservative, as understood by Corey Robin. Before I get to that, let me add the paragraph that immediately follows the above (p. 207):

“To effect that change he has, as I said earlier, a method by which the excluded can enter a group, change its structure, and give themselves a place at the table. A whole range of cunning tricks makes up this method, but its underlying structure is quite simple: no matter what he does, Hermes is either an enchanter or a disenchanter.”

I would note and emphasize that this touches upon the Burkean roots of reactionary conservatism.

Edmund Burke was one of those outsiders (in his case, raised a Catholic in Ireland) who sought “a place at the table” of the English ruling elite. He didn’t want to overturn the table and certainly not to take an axe to it. His attitude was that of the emerging middle class challenging the weakening traditionalism of the ancien régime. It was the same basic pattern that played out two millennia before in ancient Greece.

It is interesting to think of the reactionary conservative in his role as trickster. He is seeking to redefine his position and remake the social order, of course in his own image. The reactionary rhetoric being used is tricksy, for it generously borrows from the political left in order to undermine the political left. The reactionary conservative seeks to usurp the liberals role as challenger to the status quo and simultaneously to remove the teeth of radicalism, leaving the left without any real bite.

Enchanter and deceiver. The trickster may free you but at a cost of enslaving you to something else. He hypnotizes you with a story and makes you drowsy with a song, he puts you under the sway of an archetype and delivers you into the control of an unseen power.

This is what the reactionary conservative does with symbolic conflation, not to claim that this is how conservatives understand their own actions, as this process happens mostly within the unconscious, the territory of the imagination and the playground of the trickster. Reactionary conservatives end up deceiving both others and themselves, a mutually-afflicted magic spell of misdirection and mystification.

Edmund Burke the progressive reformer becomes Edmund Burke the reactionary conservative. Was there an actual change of character or was his real character revealed?

Is the reactionary mode of being the trickster lying in wait within the liberal mind? Do liberals simply fall prey to their own fears and dark thoughts? If Burke hadn’t felt shame in his outsider status that he tried to hide by gaining social position, might he have avoided falling into this reactionary stance of pulling up the ladder behind him? Why is it so often that the challenger to power who is the one most fearful of challenges to power and so most reactionary to any further unsettling of the status quo?

With this in mind, Hyde does offer further context, in which he describes two aspects of the trickster (pp. 208-209):

“Depending on which way he is moving across the threshold, I call him Hermes of the Dark or Hermes of the Light. Hermes of the Dark is the enchanter or hypnagoge who moves us into the underworld of sleep, dream, story, myth. This darkening motion is a precondition of belief; with it Hermes delivers you to one of the gods and puts you under his or her spell. He dissolves time in the river of forgetfulness, and once time has disappeared the eternals come forward. Hermes of the Dark is the weaver of dreams, the charmer who spins a compelling tale, the orator who speaks your mother tongue with fluid conviction.

“Hermes of the Light is the disenchanter or awakening angel who leads you out of the cave. There the bright light prepares the ground for doubt. There he kills and roasts the sacred cattle. He dissolves eternals in the river of time, and when they have disappeared, the world becomes contingent and accidental. Hermes of the Light translates dreams into analytic language; he rubs the charm from old stories until they seem hopelessly made up and mechanical. He walks you inland until you stop dreaming in your mother tongue.

“Hermes himself is neither one of these alone but both at once. He is neither the god of the door leading out nor the god of the door leading in— he is the god of the hinge. He is the mottled figure in the half-light, the amnigoge who simultaneously amazes and unmazes, whose wand both “bewitches the eyes of men to sleep and wakes the sleeping,” as Homer says in the Iliad. I sometimes wonder if all great creative minds do not participate in this double motion, humming a new and catchy theogony even as they demystify the gods their elders sang about. Pablo Picasso had that double motion, disturbing classical perspective while presenting a strange new way of seeing, one so hypnotic it shows up decades after his death on billboards and children’s printed pajamas. Sigmund Freud had that double motion, dragging slips of the tongue into the daylight, or “explaining” Moses, while simultaneously retelling the old story of Oedipus in a manner so compelling that, decades after his death, Ivy League literary critics can’t get it out of their heads. Or there is Vladimir Nabokov: if you think his deft language magic is serious, you’re wrong, and if you think it’s just a game, you’re wrong.”

Hermes of the Dark and Hermes of the Light. The latter might be thought of as the liberal mind in radical mode. The former would then be the liberal mind in reactionary mode, what is known more simply as conservatism, it likely being redundant calling a conservative reactionary.

Hermes isn’t one or the other. He is both the enchanter and the disenchanter.

This is how I see liberalism in this liberal age. I suspect that ultimately the radical and the reactionary are the two archetypal roles of the trickster, as they get expressed in post-Enlightenment modernity. Hermes the enchanter puts the linchpin in place and hides its location. Hermes the disenchanter is the liberating force that wiggles the linchpin or even pulls it out, but only to put it back in at another location. The trickster shifts, not destroys, the boundary.

The great minds of any age play both roles in an act of creative destruction. They learn from the problems and weaknesses of the old vision. They then replace it with an even more powerful reality tunnel, a cognitive trap that will be even harder to escape, whether or not that was their intended result.

This is how we must understand conservatives. The best conservative thinkers and leaders were able to accomplish this magic trick. They offered something new and convinced so many that it was always that way. Conservatives are first and foremost enthralling storytellers, drawing us into their narratives, sometimes even against our better judgment. They don’t just redefine conservatism, but the entire political framework and the entire historical foundation of thought. They proscribe the perceived reality of what was, what is, and what must be.

This obviously isn’t how conservatives think of themselves, and that is the entire point. What they do has so much power for the very reason that it doesn’t correspond to what they say. The closer you watch the more you will be thrown by the sleight-of-hand.

I’ll allow Corey Robin to explain this from his own perspective, as written in his book The Reactionary Mind (pp. 42-43):

“Whether in Europe or the United States, in this century or previous ones, conservatism has been a forward movement of restless and relentless change, partial to risk taking and ideological adventurism, militant in its posture and populist in its bearings, friendly to upstarts and insurgents, outsiders and newcomers alike. While the conservative theorist claims for his tradition the mantle of prudence and moderation, there is a not-so-subterranean strain of imprudence and immoderation running through that tradition— a strain that, however counterintuitive it seems, connects Sarah Palin to Edmund Burke.

“A consideration of this deeper strain of conservatism gives us a clearer sense of what conservatism is about. While conservatism is an ideology of reaction— originally against the French Revolution, more recently against the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies— that reaction has not been well understood. Far from yielding a knee-jerk defense of an unchanging old regime or a thoughtful traditionalism, the reactionary imperative presses conservatism in two rather different directions: first, to a critique and reconfiguration of the old regime; and second, to an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes. What conservatism seeks to accomplish through that reconfiguration of the old and absorption of the new is to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses. A new old regime, one could say, which brings the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate.”

When I first read this book, Robin’s theory was disconcerting. I had previously been taken in by all of the confusing rhetoric. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of any of it. I couldn’t figure out what conservatism even meant or was supposed to represent. Like most Americans, the obfuscation was a powerful force in obstructing clear thought. But what if, as Robin suggests, conservatism is in some sense the complete opposite of what it pretends to be? That is a truly radical possibility.

The one part of his theory that is most intriguing is something I already pointed out. According to Robin, conservatism is and always has been driven by outsiders. That is what gives it such a dynamic quality, as opposed to its proclamations of traditionalism. In speaking about “populist currents,” he states that they “can help us make sense of a final element of conservatism.” As he elaborates (pp. 57-58):

“From the beginning, conservatism has appealed to and relied upon outsiders. Maistre was from Savoy, Burke from Ireland. Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock in Nevis and rumored to be part black. Disraeli was a Jew, as are many of the neoconservatives who helped transform the Republican Party from a cocktail party in Darien into the party of Scalia, d’Souza, Gonzalez, and Yoo. (It was Irving Kristol who first identified “the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism” as the conversion of “the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.”) 41 Allan Bloom was a Jew and a homosexual. And as she never tired of reminding us during the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin is a woman in a world of men, an Alaskan who said no to Washington (though she really didn’t), a maverick who rode shotgun to another maverick.”

This outsider element is key to probing beneath appearances. It gets down to the visceral feeling behind conservatism, the gut-level pull of its language and imagery. “Conservatism,” he continues (p. 58),

“has not only depended upon outsiders; it also has seen itself as the voice of the outsider. From Burke’s cry that “the gallery is in the place of the house” to Buckley’s complaint that the modern conservative is “out of place,” the conservative has served as a tribune for the displaced, his movement a conveyance of their grievances. 42 Far from being an invention of the politically correct, victimhood has been a talking point of the right ever since Burke decried the mob’s treatment of Marie Antoinette. The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim: one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose. His constituency is the contingently dispossessed— William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man”— rather than the preternaturally oppressed. Far from diminishing his appeal, this brand of victim-hood endows the conservative complaint with a more universal significance. It connects his disinheritance to an experience we all share— namely, loss— and threads the strands of that experience into an ideology promising that that loss, or at least some portion of it, can be made whole.”

This brings me around to the original issue. Loss is a powerful emotion and so it is a site of symbolic conflation, where the trickster can play his tricks. Loss speaks to everyone and it is a truly amazing trick to make loss symbolic of power itself, of position and privilege (pp. 58-59):

People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small. Even so, it is a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess. It used to be one of the great virtues of the left that it alone understood the often zero-sum nature of politics, where the gains of one class necessarily entail the losses of another. But as that sense of conflict diminishes on the left, it has fallen to the right to remind voters that there really are losers in politics and that it is they— and only they— who speak for them. “All conservatism begins with loss,” Andrew Sullivan rightly notes, which makes conservatism not the Party of Order, as Mill and others have claimed, but the party of the loser.”

But what is loss? It is primarily a feeling. Once elicited, many stories can be woven around it, both hopeful and disempowering, both beneficial and malign. Loss by itself, however, has no inherent meaning.

Loss is a wound, an opening and an openness to meaning. In portraying the listener as the wounded, the rhetorician and storyteller puts the listener in the position of vulnerability and fear. If one is wounded, someone must have done the wounding and so there must be an attacker toward which requires a defense or a counter-attack. The loss points an accusing finger to a thief and a criminal, someone undeserving and dangerous, a taker rather than a maker, a destroyer rather than a creator.

The trickster is as much about what isn’t there, silence as much as sound, which is why loss resonates so deeply here. Loss signifies something and yet refuses to settle on a single significance. It makes us uncomfortable, to sit too long alone in that throbbing ache. We seek to fill the emptiness with meaning or yet more emotion, anger or shame, hatred or longing, or else fill the silence with the sound of speaking, our own voice or that of another.

Loss is elusive, always shifting, hence its trickster quality and reactionary persuasion. We are willing to be deceived by anyone who will tell us what our loss means, who will give us a story to help us forget, if only temporarily.

Lewis Hyde also touches upon this theme of loss in Trickster Makes This World (pp. 287-288):

“Like the heap of stones over a grave, the symbol that stands for a thing that has been lost (not “Krishna” but “Krishna-gone”) belongs to an odd class of symbols. We cannot “read through it” to its sense, because what it stands for is missing. It operates not as a point of entry into meaning but paradoxically as a breeder of multiple meanings. That is to say, when we try to find the sense of one of these “symbols of loss,” we discover only senses that we ourselves bring to it, and we can easily bring new ones each time we approach. (A famous example is Thoreau’s remark in Walden: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail.” A hundred and fifty years after this line was written, what one notices is not that its readers have slowly settled on its true meaning but that meanings have proliferated each time someone looks at it.) Symbols of absent things draw interpretive minds the way the flute music draws the gopis. If multiple meanings are what you want, a lost hound is a better breeder than any real Fido. Krishna erases the mundane, then erases himself, and these removals— precisely because they do not declare— open the field for human beings to spin out endlessly their sense of what has happened.”

A symbolic conflation always points elsewhere, assuming it points anywhere at all. It is an empty signifier, for it can never mean what it claims, can never be as it seems. It sends one’s mind in circles, chasing what is not there, a shadow cast from somewhere else, and like a shadow it is defined by a lack of substance. It is the shape of an empty space, a sense of an absence. It is an aporia in the narrative, an elision between meaning and the meaningless.

I’m always enticed by what is missing, unspoken, ignored. My father’s question attracted my attention not because of some answer it was pointing toward, but because it seemed to point away from something else, maybe another question. That is the same basic reason that has obsessed my mind about symbolic conflation. It feels like there is no end to insights to be mined, for the trickster multiplies meaning. The trickster can always disenchant. Our minds can be freed of the binds that tie us down and tangle up our every thought.

Still, taken at face value, my father’s question is a serious question. Why do I focus on what I do? I ultimately don’t know.

It reminds me of my habit of always looking down as I walk. My father, on the other hand, never looks down and has a habit of stepping on things. It is only by looking down that we can see what is underneath our feet, what we stand on or are stepping toward. Foundation and fundament are always below eye level. Even in my thinking, I’m forever looking down, to what is beneath everyday awareness and oft-repeated words. Just to look down, such a simple and yet radical act.

Looking down is also a sign of shame or else humility, the distinction maybe being less relevant to those who avoid looking down. To humble means to bring low, to the level of the ground, the soil, humus. To be further down the ladder of respectability, to be low caste or low class, is to have a unique vantage point. One can see more clearly and more widely when one has grown accustomed to looking down, for then one can see the origins of things, the roots of the world, where experience meets the ground of being.

This is also of the trickster. One can learn a lot about people by looking at their shit and sifting through their garbage, all that is metaphorically and literally rejected and repressed, tossed away and thrown aside. The greatest of insights are gleaned this way. Those who know shame are given the opportunity to know what gets lost and hidden in the muck of shame. Toiling in the dirt and grime, they can dig up what was buried, now decaying, and in the hole dug they can plant seeds to grow.

Where sun and earth meet is the liminal space of the fertile.

As Hyde explains (pp. 179-180):

“In this world, in trickster’s world, life and death are one thing, not two, and therefore no one gets rid of death without getting rid of life as well. You get no seeds at all if the sunlight is too pure ever to mingle with the muck of the rice paddies. You get no seeds if shit never enters the New Palace. And because there is always a hunger seeking for those seeds, whenever humans or gods move to purify life by excluding death, or to protect order completely from the dirt that is its by-product, trickster will upset their plans. When purity approaches sterility, he will tear a hole in the sacred enclosure and drop a dead pony on the virgin weavers, or strew his feces under the Sun Goddess’s throne. In the Legba story we saw that trickster can create the boundary between heaven and earth, threatening the gods with dirt until they retreat into the distant sky; here we see that once such a boundary exists trickster can abrogate it, importing dirt into the exalted halls until some of heaven’s wealth is loosened and the earth is fertilized, the sun reborn.

“I am, of course, reading this Japanese story rather literally. While it is a nature myth for an agrarian culture (those seeds are actually seeds, and that pile of shit should properly be called manure), the images resonate at other levels as well. If dirt is “matter out of place,” if it is what we exclude when we are creating order, then this and other stories about tricksters and dirt must also speak to the sterility that hides in most all human system and design. The models we devise to account for the world and the shapes we create to make ourselves at home in it are all too often inadequate to the complexity of things, and end up deadened by their own exclusions.”

That is why the world needs skeptics and contrarians. Those who don’t just ask why but also why not. Sometimes the windows need to be opened to let the musty air out and the sunshine in, circulation and merging of the elements. A balancing, a coming to equilibrium.

To play this role, however, is difficult. For the outsider to succeed in forcing change to what is inside is likely to find himself then being on the inside. A window being opened, the opportunity of entry beckons and, with entry, comes promises of inclusion. This is how the trickster transmutes shit into gold, a turtle of the earth into a lyre for a god. And in this is found the secret link between the trickster and the cultural hero, between the bastard child and the prodigal son.

The trickster often finds himself having become domesticated and respectable. The trick of change is as much a trick played on himself as on others. “Such may be the frequent fate of radical change-agents,” states Hyde (pp. 224-225), “to be coopted, outflanked, and contained by the larger culture, to be brought up short of a full apocalyptic reallotment.” He continues,

“But what exactly are the options? A remark by Claude Lévi-Strauss offers a way to imagine the possible fates of those who threaten a group with fundamental change. Lévi-Strauss contrasts two types of societies: “those which practice cannibalism— that is, which regard the absorption of certain individuals possessing dangerous powers as the only means of neutralizing these powers and even of turning them to advantage— and those which, like our own … adopt what might be called the practice of anthropemy (from the Greek emein, to vomit).” The latter eject dangerous individuals; they leave them in the woods, or build special jails to cut them off from the group and keep them isolated. In short, groups can either expel or ingest their troublemakers. The most successful change-agent avoids either fate and manages to stay on the threshold, neither in nor out, but short of that difficult balance the next best fate may be to be eaten, to be incorporated into the local myth.

“Let us say, then, that the Homeric Hymn to Hermes records an incorporation; it is an after-the-fact record of a disruption that has been contained and re-presented as something Zeus “had in mind all along,” not an apocalypse. Trickster’s disruptions are always potentially apocalyptic, but in this case they are converted into manageable mischief. For apocalyptic action, one needs turn to Monkey disrupting the Taoist immortals or to the medieval Loki after whose disruptions the Norse gods are not reborn in Scandinavia but supplanted by Christianity.

“The Hymn is not so apocalyptic and that may be the more common case. It is what might be expected when an outsider penetrates the group: at some point there must be an understanding, a series of compromises that formalize the move, a negotiated living together. In this case the terms are to a large degree set by Hermes, but they do not upset the entire order of things; the order adapts to contain the introject, the foreign thing it has swallowed, and at that point we should divide the “domestication” plot into two forms. It is one thing to submit to an old set of house rules, quite another to enter a house that you yourself have helped to build.”

The reactionary conservative gets assimilated. This is how each generation of conservatives inexorably shifts ever leftward. Over a long enough period, conservatives becomes more liberal than even the liberals of the past.

The ultimate secret of all symbolic conflations contrived by the conservative mind is simple, that there never has been a conservative tradition. The voice of conservatism is but an echo of the liberalism that came before. A reactionary can only rearrange, never create anything new. Yet, in rearranging, the next stage of radicalism is made possible.

The reactionary asking the radical why merely provokes the radical to ask their own questions. These further questions the reactionary cannot answer.

* * * *

By the way, I’m not clearly speaking of absolutely distinct categories. I probably could have explained that better.

I don’t see any reason why a person couldn’t be a radical liberal at one point and a reactionary liberal at another. My speaking of both as liberal was my way of speaking to that possibility. Maybe everyone has the potential for each, and understanding that is our only defense against the extremes.

These are roles more than they are fundamental identities. I wanted to state this more overtly so as to not allow for any confusion.

In talking about my father, the context is a relationship. These roles always exist in particular relationships. As such, I’m only a radical to the extent that I’m relating to someone playing the role of a reactionary, my father in this case. Ditto for what I perceive as my father being a reactionary, a role he is playing in relation to me. These are situational and hence contingent roles, although people have a way of trying to make such roles permanent.

Anyway, it is irrelevant how an individual self-identifies. Labels can be misleading. What is important isn’t that my father prefers the label conservative and that I’ve tended toward the liberal label. There is nothing inherently reactionary or radical in a label.

None of this involves judgement of character. Neither role is morally inferior or superior. These are social realities and must be understood on those terms. They exist only in relationship and only as a singular inseparable dynamic. For me, this isn’t just a dynamic in my relationship with my father, but a dynamic of ideas in my head, what can feel like an internal division and conflict that gets processed by way of an external relationship.

In short, I can’t blame my father for how I experience my father. My response to his question remains my response. My purpose isn’t to objectively prove intentions and motivations. I’m limited to my own intuitive abilities to suss out meaning, an endless process.

These are thoughts I’m playing around with. When the personal is involved, it can make it easier to ground one’s thoughts, but it also can mire one in other kinds of confusions. That is what I was trying to indicate near the beginning of this post, when I spoke of the dynamic between my father and I. It truly has shaped my view of politics. Through this, I gain certain insights, but those insights no doubt have many biases and constraints.

This is the reason I find value in connecting my personal insights to the writings of others, to give me perspective. I’ve been developing these kinds of ideas for many years now. This represents some of my most original thought. My initial understanding arose out of my experience. My later readings have helped to give shape to this understanding.

As my understanding has developed, I’ve come to a more nuanced view of ideology and labels. This post represents one further step in the development of these ideas and insights.

* * * *

As a side note, I mentioned directly above that this is some of my most original thought.

I’m speaking of symbolic conflation. I came to that insight entirely on my own. In fact, I coined the phrasing of ‘symbolic conflation’, as I hadn’t seen it described by anyone else. Lewis Hyde comes close in his use of metonymy, but that doesn’t fully capture my meaning.

The insight slowly emerged from years upon years of discussions with my parents. So much of my political understanding goes back to my family relationships. The original inspiration was a single observation.

A highly emotional and divisive issue of politics is abortion. It has in some ways been the most central theme of the culture wars, connecting together so many other threads in a way that is hard to disentangle.

I presented my parents with the data that countries that ban abortions don’t decrease and, in some cases, increase the rate of abortions. This is to say that on average banning abortions does increase the abortion rate.

This undermines the entire rationalization of the socially conservative position. But my parents were unfazed by this challenge to the heart of their ideological system. I experienced similar refusal to confront these basic facts from other conservatives as well.

By their own logic, social conservatives shouldn’t support banning abortions. Doing so, according to their way of thinking, increases the killing of babies. The only way to protect life is by not making it an issue of shame and fear, by giving women many choices and resources. All of this prevents unwanted pregnancies in the first place and hence prevents most women from even needing to consider abortion.

This is common sense. Yet I’ve never met a conservative who is able and willing to morally and rationally confront this challenge. It hits too close to a nerve. Pull on that thread and the whole thing might unravel.

This is how I came to my original thoughts on symbolic conflation.

Now, having read Lewis Hyde, I realize that it was no accident that I first came to this understanding because of an issue like abortion. It is a highly emotional issue that take the body as an ideological battlefield. An ideology, as some see it, isn’t just about political opinions, but an entire worldview. When ideology is grounded in bodily experience, this creates the possibility of what I observed and what Hyde describes.

Lakoff sees the family as a fundamental metaphor for politics. That seems to be the case, but maybe that is because family relations are so personal and visceral. A mother gives birth to and breastfeeds the child. Parents hold, caress, and at times punish the child. Families live in and share the same physical space.

Hyde points in this direction with some of his examples, such as a mother telling her daughter a story of shame when her first menstration came. As Hyde explains, this is about creating and enforcing social boundaries. The first boundary ever created is the bond with the mother.

In future writings, i’d like to explore the relationship between shame and symbolic conflation.

I’ve recently come to realize how important shame is to so many aspects of human experience and society. I sense that shame might be core to every symbolic conflation. Both shame and symbolic conflation are about wanting to keep something hidden. Or rather shame is the experience of the failure to keep something hidden or the fear that such failure is likely, and that fear will never go away as long as the symbolic conflation is in place.

I’d also like to connect this to my thoughts on race and racism, along with some similar issues related to our collective past of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. Specifically, I’d like to connect this to my thoughts on the perplexing issue of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. The study of ignorance, agnotology, would also be the study of what is hidden, both to public and private awareness. All of this connects to ideas I first came across in the writings of Derrick Jensen, ideas about the victimization cycle, silencing, dissociation, splitting, doubling, etc.

Shame is the one of the most primal defense mechanisms. When I see shame in operation, I know something of the greatest of importance is being protected. People will kill and die for shame.

In thinking along these lines, Hydes book reminds me that with shame we touch upon the sacred. This is at the heart of what it means to be human. It isn’t just about conservatives and the conservative moral order. I wish to tread lightly, for we are all implicated.