Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

I’ve thought about the abortion issue in terms of social control, the morality-punishment link, and symbolic conflation. It’s been on my mind for much of my adult life. The culture wars began just as I started high school, as my thinking about the larger world began to develop. Abortion was always the most potent of the culture war issues.

Corey Robin brings in another perspective—What Donald Trump Can Learn From Frederick Douglass:

If the goal is simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, the simplest thing to do is to punish the disobedient so that she doesn’t act disobediently again. But in doing so, you implicitly recognize her agency, particularly if your punishment is tied to a set of laws and rules you expect her to learn. […]

If the goal is not simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, but to deny it altogether, the far better move is not to hold the disobedient accountable all but instead to blame her disobedience on some external force: Satan, the serpent, the doctor. She then becomes a vessel, the implement of another’s will (preferably a man’s will), which is precisely what so many in the conservative movement want women to be.

I’m not sure what to think of that theory. It’s interesting. I wonder if that in any way fits into some of my own prior thoughts on the matter. I sense some possible connections.

Symbolic conflation is about shutting down awareness and narrowing thought, and as such agency is central to it. The main insight I had early on was that the obsession with abortion never had anything directly to do with abortion itself. I’ve struggled ever since in trying to understand what it actually is about.

* * *

The following is a comment left at Corey Robin’s post—Chris G wrote:

That is the perfect rejoinder to this interview with a pro-lifer on NPR this morning – http://www.npr.org/2016/03/31/472501022/reaction-to-donald-trumps-abortion-comments

An excerpt: “Well, because the pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women. In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”

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A Liberalism That Dominates

Why do people think they can vote for a politician to represent them and then not be morally responsible for what that politician does in their name?

I’m specifically thinking of politicians with known political records. In such cases, voters can’t reasonably plead ignorance. One has to assume that they approve of the choices made by their preferred political representative. If that is the case and it is hard to interpret it otherwise, this speaks badly for most voters across the political spectrum.

Do these people honestly wonder why politicians do bad things when they vote for politicians known for doing bad things? Or are these people simply disconnected from reality, disconnected from the larger world of consequences where real people are harmed?

That last question points to a real possibility. Those who are most harmed by our government are those who don’t or can’t vote: the poor who are shut out of the political system, minorities who experience voter suppression, felons who are disfranchised, undocumented immigrants who never had voting rights, and foreigners who have no influence over our government. But those aren’t the people I’m focused on here. It remains to explain those who can and do vote.

I’m unconvinced that the voting public doesn’t know they are supporting politicians who harm so many other humans, large numbers of them being their neighbors and fellow citizens. I know ignorance is rampant. But with internet and social media, knowledge of government actions and political records is hard to avoid. To not know this kind of thing at this point requires a particularly virulent form of willful ignorance. Even then, in order for that ignorance to be willful what is being ignored has to be acknowledged at some level of awareness, even if subconsciously.

Another explanation is lesser evilism. I have considered that in great detail as of late. It is the rationalization often given for why people vote the way they do. I don’t doubt that people are easily manipulated by fear-mongering. And I don’t doubt that political campaigns and PR companies are highly advanced in the techniques they use to manipulate voters. Still, that isn’t a fully satisfying explanation.

What if we take at face value how people vote? Maybe they aren’t voting for a lesser evil. Maybe it is no mere unintended side effect the harm done by the politicians who represent them. Maybe, just maybe voters really do get exactly what they want. I’ve resisted that conclusion for a long long time. It is the most demoralizing possibility that I can imagine. But it is starting to seem compelling.

My thoughts here have been largely elicited by listening to supporters of Hillary Clinton. Her political record is well known and widely discussed. It is easy to find out all the details of her political career. What bothers me is that much of what she has supported over the years and decades has led to horrific results, both in terms of decisions she has made in official political positions she has held and what she helped promote in working with her husband in his political career.

Clinton has been extremely active in promoting a particular worldview and social order. And to be honest one has to admit that it isn’t entirely inspiring: cutting welfare, mass incarceration, tough-on-crime policies, war hawk policies, promoting the overthrow of governments, etc. All of this corresponds to the money she gets from speaking fees and donations to campaigns and to the Clinton Foundation—from: prison industry, corporations, particular foreign governments, etc. She does the bidding of those who pay for her services. All of this is out in the open.

Maybe people who support her (and politicians like her) know fully well what she stands for. Maybe these voters completely understand what they are buying with their vote. Maybe they are intentionally aligning themselves with certain powerful interests. Maybe they want politicians who, from their perspective, will do what needs to be done.

It might seem like hypocrisy. Supporters of Hillary Clinton often claim to be liberals and progressives. So, how can they support her illiberal and reactionary policies? Yet maybe this misses the point.

The purpose of politicians in a democracy is to represent voters. If we take this as being genuinely true, then it indicates politicians are doing what voters want them to do. The confusion comes from there being a difference between what people say they want and what they actually want. That is what politicians are for, as they will do what voters want them to do, even though voters can’t admit that is what they want them to do. Politicians allow for plausible deniability, a disconnect between the voting public and government action.

We live in a liberal age. But we rarely think about what this means. What really is liberalism? Why do conservatives speak the rhetoric of liberalism and invoke liberal values? And why do liberals so often act like conservatives? Considering this, what exactly is this liberal order that dominates our minds and lives?

Good Liberals vs Savage Nihilists

In every American community there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals. An outspoken group on many subjects, ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally. Here, then, is a lesson in safe logic.
~ Phil Ochs, introduction to “Love Me, I’m a Liberal

I’ve grown impatient with liberalism or at least a particular variety of it. Maybe call it mainstream liberalism (e.g., Democratic partisanship), conservative-minded liberalism, or even reactionary liberalism. It is definitely liberalism, some might even consider it the primary example of liberalism, with its close kinship to classical liberalism. Whatever name is given, it is weak and inconsistent, an uninspiring example to say the least.

The advocates of it are the good liberals with their self-portrayed good intentions. And most of them do seem sincere about it. But from the perspective of comfortable lives, they ultimately are defenders of the status quo. In olden days, they probably would have argued for a Whiggish colonial worldview of progress (Manifest Destiny, converting the savages, etc) and they still tend to defend universal values and a globalist belief system based on neo-imperial neo-liberalism (promoting free trade, spreading democracy, etc).

The problem for this kind of liberal is this. Most of them lack the awareness to make these connections. Liberalism is centuries old now and its roots go even further back. It carries a lot of baggage that requires unpacking.

It’s taken me a while to more fully come around to this critical attitude. After all, I identity as a liberal. I’ve spent years defending the good name of liberalism from critics on both the left and the right. Yet I’ve entertained the possibility many times that it is a pointless battle. The word ‘liberal’ can seem meaningless, for all the ways it is used and abused.

My complaints here are hardly new. I’ve been fond of pointing out the problems of my tribe. I’m a liberal through and through, and for that reason I’d like to have a liberalism worth defending. But there is a particular kind of obtuseness and cluelessness that is found among the liberal class and they typically are of a class, only the libertarian demographic being wealthier than liberals on average. Thomas Frank, in Listen, Liberal, points out that they are the new professional class increasingly disconnected from the working class (even though the working class may hold a fair amount of liberal views, they don’t identify with the liberal worldview—as portrayed by the liberal class in the MSM).

One example I spent much time analyzing is Jonathan Haidt, with his typical liberal desire for everyone to just get along. This is a desire I share, except when the sentiment is used to compromise liberal values in an act of reaching out to those who don’t share liberal values. The main failing of Haidt is his mind being trapped in the mainstream paradigm of politics, leaving him oddly confused about what is liberalism and what makes the liberal mind tick.

Another example came to my attention, that of Kenan Malik, an author I’ve been casually following for a few years. That will be my focus here. In a recent essay (After Brussels: Once Again Thinking Through Terror), he discusses the terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way. Malik clearly stated his central premise and conclusion right at the beginning of the piece:

Contemporary terror attacks are not responses to Western foreign policy. What marks them out is their savage nihilistic character

There is something dismissive about this. It is more political rhetoric than cool, reasoned argument. It shuts down debate, rather than inviting discussion. The words chosen are intended to elicit emotion and incite reaction, to express the anger and frustration of the author and so bring the reader into that emotional space. Terrorism can have a way of closing down the liberal mind and, at such times, the liberal is drawn into the conservative worldview of us vs them (as research has shown: liberals who repeatedly saw tv footage of 9/11 attacks, as compared to radio listeners, were more likely to support the Bush administration’s War On Terror).

When Westerners kill innocent Arabs, it is justified military action. When Muslims kill innocent Westerners, it is terrorism and savage nihilism. Malik doesn’t put it so bluntly, which makes it all the worse, a soft-pedaling of prejudice.

Whether or not that is a fair appraisal of Malik, that was how it struck me. My first response to Malik’s essay was emotional. Skimming it, I intuitively sensed that it was more of an attempt to disregard a problem than to understand it, despite the stated intentions of analysis. The use of ‘nihilism‘ as a frame felt like a sledgehammer being brought down on my skull. So, yeah, I had a strong reaction.

It seems like a non-explanation. Most people who are nihilists aren’t violent. And most violent people aren’t nihilists. Simply concluding, based on no evidence, that Islamic terrorists are savage nihilists is the opposite of helpful. This offers no insight.

After some thought, I began to wonder what Malik meant by that word, nihilism. I was familiar with the basic sense of how it’s typically used. Most people use the word in indicating a lack of belief in meaning. And so to call someone ‘nihilistic’ is essentially to call them meaningless. This accords with Malik’s use of the word, as when he argues that, “This is not terrorism with a political aim, but terror as an end in itself.” He continues,

Terrorists often claim a political motive for their attacks. The trouble with much of the discussion of terrorism today is that it misses a fundamental point about contemporary terror: its disconnect from social movements and political goals. In the past, an organisation such as the IRA was defined by its political aims. Its members were carefully selected and their activities tightly controlled. However misguided we might think its actions, there was a close relationship between the aims of the organization and the actions of its members. None of this is true when it comes to contemporary terrorism. An act of terror is rarely controlled by an organisation or related to a political demand. That is why it is so difficult to discern the political or religious motivations of the Tsarnaev brothers. They neither claimed responsibility nor provided a reason for their actions. It was not necessary to do so. The sole point was to kill indiscriminately and to spread fear and uncertainty. Far from being part of a political or religious movement, what defines terrorists like the Boston bombers is their very isolation from such movements.

These terrorists supposedly lack all meaning, purpose, and reason. As such, they are the complete opposite of the Enlightened liberal. In the mainstream liberal worldview, violence is morally acceptable if and only if a good reason is given. Hundreds of thousands of people killed with good reason (e.g., Afghanistan War) is better than a dozen people killed with no clear reason at all (e.g., Boston Bombers).

The former is in defense of the liberal order (either as a supposed reality or an ideal to be achieved) and the latter undermines liberalism altogether. This ignores that the former easily can make the latter more probable. Actually, it’s not a matter of ignoring it. Malik acknowledges it, only to deny it. Westerners harming and killing millions of Middle Easterners for generations can have nothing to do with Middle Easterners committing terrorism in the West since 9/11.

It’s a total lack of context. Malik waves away the splintering of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, Western alliances with authoritarian regimes, overthrowing of governments, undermining of democracy and independence movements, promotion of theocracy, arming of para-military groups, military invasions and occupations, the endless drone attacks, failed neocon state building, neoliberal economic manipulations, neocolonial resource extraction, economic sanctions, food shortages and instability from droughts caused by climate change, mass unemployment and poverty, migration of refugees, xenophobic racism, ethno-nationalist nativism, European ghettoization of minorities, unemployment and economic problems in Europe since the Great Recession, etc. Nope. It’s just ‘nihilism’. There is a willful obtuseness about this.

As Patrick Cockburn explained (How politicians duck the blame for terrorism),

There has always been a disconnect in the minds of people in Europe between the wars in Iraq and Syria and terrorist attacks against Europeans… Separating the two is much in the interests of Western political leaders, because it means that the public does not see that their disastrous policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and beyond created the conditions for the rise of Isis and for terrorist gangs such as that to which Salah Abdeslam belonged.

In After Paris, Malik writes the same sentiments that he repeats in other writings:

Such attacks are not about making a political point, or achieving a political goal – as were, for instance, IRA bombings in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s – but are expressions of nihilistic savagery, the aim of which is solely to create fear. This is not terrorism with a political aim, but terror as an end in itself.

He does admit that some terrorists are refugees. His argument, though, is that they aren’t the majority. That’s true. As I recall, something like 20% are refugees, which admittedly still is a large number. More important is the entire atmosphere. Even for non-refugee Muslims in Europe, they likely would be surrounded by and regularly in contact with Muslims who are refugees. In general, they’d be constantly reminded of the refugee crisis in the media, reminded of the public response of hatred and bigotry, and probably mistaken as a refugee themselves.

He is caught up in a typical liberal double-bind, unwilling to connect his liberal values to large issues, making it impossible for him to see what it means and so he ends up projecting meaninglessness onto terrorists. He can’t admit that normal people can turn to violence, often for normal reasons that are easily understood. He has to separate all issues as if they were isolated. Western foreign policies, climate change, refugee crisis, etc—none of this can be related to terrorism, and terrorism can’t be related to politics and religion in any way. It doesn’t even matter what the terrorists themselves say. We must not bring up the fact that, in the Paris attack, the terrorists openly stated concern about politics—a witness said: “I clearly heard them say ‘It’s the fault of (French President Francois) Hollande, it’s the fault of your president, he should not have intervened in Syria’. They also spoke about Iraq.” Terrorists in the attacks in Paris and elsewhere yelled “Allahu Akbar,” making their religious intentions known.

In response to a comment I made, Malik asked, “I wonder what ‘clear political message’ jihadists are sending to the West about its foreign policy when they slaughter 148 children in a Peshawar school, or kill dozens with a suicide bomb in a market in Beirut, or throw gays off a tower in Syria, or blow up a café in Morocco?” Well, he could simply pay attention to what the terrorists themselves say. Just because Malik doesn’t approve of their politics doesn’t mean they have no political motivations. What Malik denies is obvious to many others—such as Habib Siddiqui, from The Nihilistic Assaults on Paris, concluding that:

If we want a world in which human dignity is to be respected and honored, and human rights protected, our world leaders must learn to walk their talk. When they are silent about the horrible terrorist attacks in Turkey (that left approximately 128 people dead and 500 injured and in October) and Lebanon and are all agog about Paris, they send a wrong message. When they categorize Paris attacks as attacks on ‘civilization’, are we to interpret that the attacks in Beirut and Ankara were not against civilized people? Do French lives matter more than Lebanese, Turkish, Kurdish, and Yemeni ones? Were these not, too, “heinous, evil, vile acts”?” When they define Israel’s war-crimes on Gaza as acts of self-defense that is like mocking history, an insult to the memory of the thousands of dead Gazans, including hundreds of children, killed by the Israeli army. When their drone attacks against targeted individuals (the alleged terrorists) kill mostly unarmed, innocent civilians from Pakistan to Somalia, what they are committing are war crimes. Pure and simple! It is also an act of hypocrisy from a country that claims to be a firm defender of human rights and accountability.

Like many of the other colonial enterprises, the French society is imploding. Like the British and U.S. governments, it used the “civilizing” and “liberalizing” narrative to deny sovereignty, justify the colonization process and build an empire. Under Sarkozy, it defended the fallacy of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to support an illegal war. These “civilizing”, “liberalizing” or “national security” justifications were wrongful foreign policy narratives that have brought extensive suffering and had disastrous and long-term implications not only for the ‘other’ people in ‘liberated’ countries but also their own societies. As Malcolm X would say, the chickens have now come home to roost.

As long as the powerful governments fail to learn from its past mistakes they will likely perpetuate the long-lasting injustice of the area, obviate further atrocities, and prolong the suffering of entire populations. There is no escape from this sad outcome.

It also could be added that the Saudi Arabia, supposed friend and ally to the West, supports Islamic extremism. Yet Iraq which was a secular government that kept Islamic extremism in check was destroyed, allowing Islamic extremists to take over. Only a complete idiot wouldn’t see the connection to rising Islamic violence and the political significance of it all.

But Malik outright denies the validity of any external conditions and contributing factors in the larger world. There is just something different about these terrorists, he argues (After Brussels):

What draws young people (and the majority of would-be jihadis are in the teens or in their twenties) to jihadi violence is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the sense of not speaking the local language or being unaware of local customs or having little interaction with others in the society. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.

This is a superficial way of looking at society. It doesn’t matter that, “The Kouachi brothers, for instance, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings in January were born and raised in Paris. So was Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who, that same weekend, attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four Jews. Three of the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 attack on London tubes and a bus were similarly born in Britain. Most of the 4000 or so Europeans who have joined IS as fighters have been European-born, and many have been professionals, and well integrated into society.”

Many European Muslims still experience the negative effects of xenophobia, racism, ghettoization, and other forms of isolation, exclusion, and prejudice. They aren’t treated as fully integrated by their fellow citizens. Simply being born in a country doesn’t mean most people will see you as an equal. It takes generations for assimilation to take place. Even after centuries, Jews and Romani have continued to struggle for acceptance and tolerance in Europe.

Malik’s belief that religion can be separated from racism is severely disconnected from reality (see Islamophobia: the othering of Europe’s Muslims by Hassan Mahamdallie). His confusion might come from his sympathy with classical liberalism. He has previously written (Strange Fruit, p. 87) that, “Enlightenment thinkers were less interested in the biological differences between human groups than in the distinction between civilization and savagery.” The problem is most people aren’t Enlightenment thinkers. In this age of highly advanced science, biological differences are an obsession for many and a basic framework for society in general.

Malik seems to want to put everything into cultural terms. To his mind, it’s not really religion or politics. It’s a shift in social attitude, a collapse of Western values. It’s civilization versus savagery. But he thinks he is being a good liberal by talking around the history behind this worldview. The English treated the Irish as savages not just because they were seen as uncivilized but because they were considered a racial other, even though biological theories weren’t entirely dominant at that time. It didn’t matter that the Irish were more white than the English, as this didn’t stop the English from calling them white gorillas and comparing them to other racialized groups of ‘savages’, such as Africans and Native Americans.

To return to Malik’s article on Brussels, he writes that:

The consequence has been the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage about modernity. Many strands of contemporary thought, from the deep greens to the radical left, express aspects of such discontent. But it is radical Islam that has come act as the real lightning rod for this fury.

This gives a hint at the historical context of thought being expressed. Nihilism is an accusation that has been directed at the radical left since the late 1700s. Malik makes a direct link here, as he claims that left-wing identity politics and outrage against modernity feed directly into the European Islamic identity.

It is irrelevant to his mind that many of these people are the children and grandchildren of Middle Eastern refugees. It can’t be acknowledged that many don’t have citizenship, living in a permanent stateless condition, not accepted where they live and unable to return to their homeland. Once a person is born into a place, the entire legacy of a family and their homeland becomes meaningless background noise. All of the history of racism, oppression, and violence explain nothing since the moment a new generation is born and learns another language they are instantly assimilated—so Malik assumes.

The demise of traditional opposition movements has led many to look for alternative forms of struggle, and created a yearning for God-given moral lines. […] Shorn of the moral framework that once guided anti-imperialists, shaped by black and white values that in their mind possess divine approval, driven by a sense of rage about non-Muslims and a belief in an existential struggle between Islam and the West, jihadis have come to inhabit a different moral universe, in which they are to commit the most inhuman of acts and view them as righteous.

Wake the fuck up! There was once secular opposition movements in the Middle East. And they were often inspired by a global movement of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, independence and liberation, self-government and social democracy. But in the proxy wars of the Cold War, these were destroyed by Western powers. Religious extremists were armed and theocracies were put into power, anything to defeat the threat of traditional left-wing politics. It was successful. And the impact has reverberated over the following generations. Without knowing this history, we flail around in the darkness of our own self-induced ignorance.

I bet most of those terrorists are a lot less historically ignorant than are most comfortable good liberals. I remember the first time I listened to a full video of Osama bin Laden explaining his reasons and motivations. I was blown away. He was extremely informed and rational. He laid it all out in great detail, all the things that Malik conveniently overlooks or dismisses out of hand.

It’s not that Malik’s argument is entirely without merit. I agree with some of the details. But those details can’t be understood without context. A central concern for him is identity politics:

The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity. Because Islam is a global religion, so Islamists are able to create an identity that is both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world and providing the illusion of being part of a global movement. Islamism, like all religiously-based ideologies, provides, too, the illusion of divine sanction for jihadists’ acts, however grotesque they may be.

Western ideologies of Christianity and capitalism have led to more oppression and deaths this past century than Islamic terrorists could ever imagine in their darkest fantasies. Neoliberals and neocons have globalist and universalist aspirations that are grander than any religion, even the imperialistic forms of Christianity out of which they formed. Large numbers of Westerners are willing to join the military and sacrifice their lives to attack Middle Eastern countries that never attacked them, never harmed their own families and communities. Now, that is a powerful belief system or simply powerful propaganda.

Plus, consider the situation in the United States. American Muslims on average are wealthier and more well-educated. But unlike in Europe they aren’t ghettoized nor racialized in the same way (we already have our racialized boogeyman with blacks). Maybe it should be unsurprising that per capita American Muslims commit far less mass violence than do native-born American whites. In the US, you’re more likely to be shot by a white terrorist and treated by a Islamic doctor, in terms of percentage of each population.

The same identity politics and decline of traditional politics have happened in the United States. In some ways, the loss of community and culture of trust is far worse here in the States. Yet Islamic integration seems more of a reality than in Europe. American Muslims apparently don’t feel disenfranchised and nihilistic, as Malik assumes they should feel. This undermines his entire argument, indicating other factors are more important.

Obviously, there is nothing inherently violent to either Arab culture or the Islamic religion. The Ottoman Empire was one of the great powers of the world, not particularly different than European empires. If any European empire with large contiguous territory (e.g., Russian Empire) had been defeated and demolished in a similar fashion and then artificially divided up as a colonial prize, we’d probably now have something in Europe akin to the present violence-torn Middle East. There is nothing that makes either region unique, besides the accidents of history. After WWI, the Ottoman Empire could have been left intact or even given assistance in rebuilding. In that case, none of the rest would have followed.

This is the common sense that defies so many Western thinkers today.

Still, I do think Malik has some of the pieces of the puzzle. He isn’t a lazy thinker nor entirely ignorant. Even leaving out the larger context, he is right that outrage against modernity and identity politics plays a role. But then again, none of that is entirely new. These are developments that are at least centuries old.

The present struggle for power among different Islamic groups echoes the past struggle of different Christian groups. Like the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire, Europe was in endless conflict following the fall of the Roman Empire and again with Protestant Reformation. It was a violent splintering along religious, tribal, and ethno-nationalist lines. Also, it was the the burgeoning of modern reactionary politics and militant fundamentalism.

It might be best to understand present fundamentalists as expressions of Corey Robin’s theory of the reactionary mind. Karen Armstrong explains (Violent Islamic radicals know they are heretical) that fundamentalism isn’t orthodoxy:

It is unrealistic to hope that radical Islamists will be chastened by a rebuke from “moderate” imams; they have nothing but contempt for traditional Muslims, who they see as part of the problem. Nor are extremists likely to be dismayed when told that terrorism violates the religion of Islam. We often use the word “fundamentalist” wrongly, as a synonym for “orthodox”. In fact, fundamentalists are unorthodox – even anti-orthodox. They may invoke the past, but these are innovative movements that promote entirely new doctrines.

This relates to Corey Robin making clear that conservatives were challenging the traditional order of the ancien régime. The reactionary, past and present, saw the ruling elite as having failed to defend against challenges from the political right. Their being reactionary, however, doesn’t mean that they are nihilists, at least not in the dismissive and simplistic sense. They are more obsessed with meaning that almost everyone else. And they know that they are outsiders, a social status of which they embrace.

It takes an outsider to see the problems of the system and force something new into being. But don’t be fooled by how the political reactionary embraces left-wing rhetoric and tactics. And, likewise, don’t be confused by how the religious reactionary flouts the rules and norms of orthodoxy. Even in their attack of its weaknesses, they are seeking to strengthen and not destroy the social order. They are forcing a response from the rest of society. And, in the case of the fundamentalist, maybe even trying to force the hand of God.

Some background would be helpful. Like the term ‘liberal’, the term ‘nihilist’ has a history that goes back to the early modern revolutionary era.

The first to label others as nihilists was Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, a Counter-Enlightenment reactionary. His criticism was that of Enlightenment thought and ideals, specifically of the radical Enlightenment. It was the view that rationality unmoored from faith, as speculative reason and radical skepticism, was dangerous and would lead to meaninglessness, moral relativism, materialism, atheism, fatalism, and atomized individuality (see atheism dispute for further info).

Jacobi was charged as being an unsystematic thinker. By stating that others were nihilists, it was his way of defending himself—in that, to his view, at least he believed in something. Belief was everything to him and so its opposite was nothingness, i.e., nihilism.

From the beginning, nihilism was directly implicated in political issues. Later on, it took on overt political form as a nihilist movement in Russia. It followed the mid-19th century freeing of Russian serfs. It led to revolutionary stirrings, not unlike what happened with how the land enclosure movement in England ‘freed’ the serfs from the land they lived and depended upon. The creation of a massive number of landless peasants, homeless and starving, tends to lead to problems.

The nihilists said fuck that shit! They didn’t know what kind of society was possible, but they were clear that the one then existing was horrifically oppressive and needed to go. The cup has to be emptied in order to be filled again. Heck, maybe just smash the cup and start entirely from scratch. They were skeptics of the highest order, especially toward the good intentions of the older generation of bourgeois liberals who were invested in the system. Nihilists were anti-authoritarians and so, at times, they were terrorists toward the ruling authorities.

It was Ivan Turgenev who popularized the term. Here is a passage from one of his novels, Fathers and Sons, where the anarchist and anti-authoritarian strain of nihilism is shown:

‘A nihilist,’ said Nikolai Petrovitch. ‘That’s from the Latin, nihil, nothing, as far as I can judge; the word must mean a man who … who accepts nothing?’
‘Say, “who respects nothing,”‘ put in Pavel Petrovitch, and he set to work on the butter again.
‘Who regards everything from the critical point of view,’ observed Arkady.
‘Isn’t that just the same thing?’ inquired Pavel Petrovitch.
‘No, it’s not the same thing. A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.’

Nihilists were and were not political, depending on what you mean by that. What they weren’t offering was a dogmatic ideology and a predetermined plan. They had no interests in replacing one set of unfounded beliefs with yet another. They didn’t know what was possible, but they thought it was worth finding out. Anyone who got in the way of their finding out simply had to be made to get out of the way, sometimes by whatever means necessary. They weren’t idle dreamers.

Nihilists were most closely aligned with anarchists. Toward the end of the 19th century, anarchists also became known for their terrorism, specifically of the bomb-throwing variety. Both of these were part of early anti-imperialist politics, which went hand in hand with anti-capitalist and anti-corporatist politics. Anarchists joined communists in the fight against fascism. Yet the old reactionary accusation of meaninglessness remained. Radical politics seemed merely destructive and some thought it wasn’t politics at all.

Malik fits right into this milieu. He is dredging up old ideological feuds, maybe even without knowing much about them. When one uses such words as nihilism, one ends up bringing forth more than maybe was intended. To label as nihilists those committing terrorism today is to strike a deep chord of history.

The same goes for when this gets combined with even more inflammatory words, such as savage and savagery. Like calling someone a nihilist, calling someone a savage had great potency in past times, particularly for liberals of the 19th century. It was on this basis that liberals inherited the reactionary tradition of the Counter-Enlightenment in defending Enlightenment values. In doing so, classic liberals could present themselves as the moderates in an age of social unrest and uncertainty.

This resonates with how Westerners still perceive Muslims. They are an Other, not quite fully entered into modernity and so not fully civilized. Malik is careful to not be so blatant as to call them savages, but the word gets applied indirectly. In relation to nihilism, this isn’t merely about what is outside the founds of Enlightenment rationality and liberal meaning. There is the edge of the apocalyptic to terrorism, even moreso when suicidal and not limited to simplistic ideologies.

The same could have been said of the Plains Indians who were revolting and terrorizing at the same time nihilists and anarchists were doing their thing. And indeed an apocalyptic mentality had come to dominate the society of the Plains Indians. The reason for this is that these tribes formed from the refugees of other tribes that had been decimated by genocide, war, disease, and starvation.

Like many Middle Easterners today, many Native Americans back then saw their entire world destroyed. They were apocalyptic because they had experienced apocalypse or were the children and grandchildren of those who had experienced it. These were people who felt they had little to lose. They were only nihilistic in the sense that the stable social order that had given their lives meaning was no longer functioning. Their future was bleak. Their ‘savagery’ was that of desperation and hopelessness.

To white settlers, these native freedom fighters were terrorists. The politics and religion of these oppressed people would have been simply incomprehensible. It probably seemed like meaningless violence, terrorism for the sake of terror alone. It is unlikely that most attacking Indians explained their motives to white society. Whites were left to try to make sense of it in what was happening elsewhere, from free soil militants in Bleeding Kansas to fiery abolitionists leading rebellions. As with Malik, it would have been easy to connect the violence of natives with the radicalism of left-wingers, and then to dismiss it all as nihilism.

All of these expressions of terrorism are the continuing repercussions and legacies of a long history of imperialism and colonialism. Without understanding this, Malik at times goes down pathetically simpleminded lines of thought, as was the case in a 2002 article (All cultures are not equal):

So the real question to ask in the wake of September 11 is not, as many have suggested, ‘Why do they hate us?’, but rather ‘Why do we seem to hate ourselves?’. Why is it that Western liberals and radicals have become so disenchanted with modern civilisation that some even welcomed the attack on the Twin Towers as an anti-imperialist act?

No one who has ever looked very deeply into the issues could ask these questions. Very few Westerners actually hate themselves. When I’m critical of my own government, it isn’t because I hate myself. I don’t hate my country and those who share this society with me. I hate that my government does horrific thing in my name and using my tax money. I hate that we don’t live up to our own values and ideals. Pointing out that the 9/11 terrorism was blow back from military adventurism.

I don’t think Malik is stupid enough to fully believe what he says. It’s a straw man argument—set it up and knock it down. He is using rhetoric to dismiss his opponents, rather than dealing with the actual issues at hand. I’d be more forgiving of his viewpoint, if he didn’t constantly fall back on this kind of intellectual dishonesty.

He is trying to promote a particular ideological worldview. From his perspective, the problem isn’t that Westerners—specifically among the upper classes in dominant empires/societies—view others as savages. It is only problematic when the wrong group gets labeled as such.

His is a liberalism that seeks to define and defend the boundaries of the liberal moral and social order, outside of which no meaning exists and so no respectable debate can occur. Since the Enlightenment, all of Western civilization is framed by liberalism, even conservatism. It is the basis of meaning for our society, and so much is at stake. To question and doubt this liberal order is to bring on an existential crisis for those invested in it. There is no one more invested in it than the good liberal who has taken it to heart. That appears to be where Malik is coming from when he uses ‘nihilist’ as a slur against the enemies of Western modernity, real and perceived.

This is about controlling the political frame and narrative, and hence to control public debate. This is explained by Roy Ben-Shai and Nitzan Lebovic in the book they co-authored, The Politics of Nihilism: From the Nineteenth Century to Contemporary Israel (Kindle Locations 156-160):

Nihilism comes from the Latin word nihil, meaning “nothing” or “nothing at all.” The argument presented in this volume is that nihilism (literally, “nothingism”) could function as a mirror image or a limit case to all forms of “legitimate” critique in the public sphere. Nihilism marks the point where critique becomes unacceptable, threatening, or simply “illegitimate.” This intrinsic attribute of nihilism was expressed even by the earliest usage of the term and that expression continues to this day.

There is one thing that jumped out at me. Malik’s argument borrows much rhetoric from the political right: moral relativism, Western self-hatred, etc. The nihilist allegation itself began as an attack on Enlightenment liberalism, oddly enough considering Malik’s own liberal position on Enlightenment values.

Interestingly, according to Corey Robin, it is the reactionary who borrows from the political left. I’ve considered the possibility that a conservative ultimately is a liberal turned reactionary. But what does it mean when a liberal turns reactionary by borrowing from the political right?

With this on my mind, I’m reminded of the connection of reactionary rhetoric to symbolic conflation. To explain symbolic conflation, the clearest example I’ve found is abortion. It is a visceral issue and emotionally potent, touching upon issues of life and death. For similar reasons, terrorism also is ripe for symbolic conflation.

If this is involved, then the explicit argument being made is hiding the real issue. And the issue hidden always involves social control. This fits perfectly Malik’s obsession with the civilized and the savage.

It also makes sense why he leaves so much unstated, for the power of symbolic conflation is how it obscures the source of its own moral imagination. It always points elsewhere and makes analysis near impossible. Complexities are condensed down to pithy talking points that are easily and mindlessly repeated. As such, savage nihilism isn’t meant to explain anything, even as it is meant to give the appearance of explanation. A symbolic conflation is a meme that lodges in the brain, seizing up all thought into a constrained focus.

The savages are attacking. We better circle the wagons. For those on the political right, this means how do we literally encircle our societies by controlling our borders and those who cross them. But for the good liberal, it’s less crude. Malik acknowledges that the savages are already among us. So, the good liberal advises that we must circle the wagons in our minds.

 

“How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.”

From the boundless green ocean behind the Wall, a wild tidal surge of roots, flowers, twigs, leaves was rolling toward me, standing on its hind legs, and had it flowed over me I would have been transformed from a person—from the finest and most precise of mechanisms—into . . .

But, happily, between me and this wild, green ocean was the glass of the Wall. Oh, the great, divinely bounding wisdom of walls and barriers! They may just be the greatest of all inventions. Mankind ceased to be wild beast when it built its first wall. Mankind ceased to be savage when we built the Green Wall, when we isolated our perfect, machined world, by means of the Wall, from the irrational, chaotic world of the trees, birds, animals . . .

That is from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (pp. 82-83). It’s a strange novel, an early example of a futuristic dystopia. The author finished writing it in the 1921, but couldn’t get it published in Russia. An English translation was published years later.

In the above quote, the description is of the Green Wall that encloses the society called One State. It is an entirely independent and self-sustaining city-state, outside of which its citizens do not venture. The government is authoritarian and social control is absolute. The collective is everything, such that people have no sense of individuality and have no souls. They don’t even dream, not normally, for to do so is considered a symptom of mental illness.

There was a global war that killed most of the human population. The citizens of One State are aware that human society used to be different. They have no experience of freedom, neither social freedom nor free will. But they have a historical memory of what freedom once meant and, of course, it is seen as having been a bad thing and the source of unhappiness.

Like Julian Jayne’s theory of bicameralism, these people are able to maintain a complex society without an internalized sense of self. The loci of identity is completely outside. But unlike bicameralism, there are no command voices telling them what to do. The society is so ordered that few moments of the day are not occupied by scheduled activity. Even sex is determined by the system of authority. Mathematical order is everything, including how citizens are named.

What fascinated me about the novel is when the protagonist, D-503, gains a soul. It is an imagining of what this experience would be like, to gain a sense of individuality and interiority, for long dormant imagination to be awakened. Having a self means the ability to imagine other selves, to empathize with what others are thinking and feeling, to be able to enter into the world of another.

If bicameral societies did exist, this would have been similar to how they came to an end. A bicameral society would have required a tightly ordered society where the social reality was ever-present and all-consuming. For that to breakdown would have been traumatic. It would have felt like madness.

* * *

We
by Yevgeny Zamyatin
pp. 79-81

With effort, a kind of spiral torque, I finally tore my eyes away from the glass below my feet—and suddenly the golden letters “MEDICINE” splashed in front of me . . . Why had he led me here and not to the Operation Room, and why had he spared me? But, at that moment, I wasn’t thinking of these things: with one leap over the steps, the door solidly banged behind me and I exhaled. Yes: it was as though I hadn’t breathed since dawn, as though my heart hadn’t struck a single beat—and it was only now that I exhaled for the first time, only now that the floodgates of my chest opened . . .

There were two of them: one was shortish, with cinder-block legs, and his eyes, like horns, tossed up the patients; the other one was skinny and sparkling with scissor-lips and a blade for a nose . . . I had met him before.

I flung myself at him as though he were kin, straight into the blade, and said something about being an insomniac, the dreams, the shadows, the yellow world. The scissor-lips flashed and smiled. How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.

A soul? That strange, ancient, long-forgotten word. We sometimes said “heart and soul,” “soulful,” “lost souls,” but a “soul”

“This is . . . this is very grave,” I babbled.

“It’s incurable,” incised the scissors.

“But . . . what specifically is at the source of all this? I can’t even begin . . . to imagine.”

“Well, you see . . . it is as if you . . . you’re a mathematician, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, take, for instance, a plane, a surface, like this mirror here. And on this surface—here, look—are you and I, and we are squinting at the sun, and see the blue electrical spark in that tube. And watch—the shadow of an aero is flashing past. But it is only on this surface for just a second. Now imagine that some heat source causes this impenetrable surface to suddenly grow soft, and nothing slides across it anymore but everything penetrates inside it, into that mirror world, which we used to look into as curious children—children aren’t all that silly, I assure you. The plane has now become a volume, a body, a world, and that which is inside the mirror is inside you: the sun, the whirlwind from the aero’s propeller, your trembling lips, and someone else’s trembling lips. So you see: a cold mirror reflects and rejects but this absorbs every footprint, forever. One day you see a barely noticeable wrinkle on someone’s face—and then it is forever inside you; one day you hear a droplet falling in the silence—and you can hear it again now . . .”

“Yes, yes, exactly . . .” I grabbed his hand. I could hear the faucet in the sink slowly dripping its droplets in the silence. And I knew that they would be inside me forever. But still, why—all of a sudden—a soul? I never had one—never had one—and then suddenly . . . Why doesn’t anyone else have one, but me?

I squeezed harder on the skinny hand: I was terrified to let go of this lifeline.

“Why? And why don’t we have feathers or wings but just scapulas, the foundation of wings? It’s because we don’t need wings anymore—we have the aero; wings would only be extraneous. Wings are for flying, but we don’t need to get anywhere: we have landed, we have found what we were seeking. Isn’t that so?”

I nodded my head in dismay. He looked at me, laughed sharply, javelinishly. The other one, hearing this, stumpily stamped through from out of his office, tossed the skinny doctor up with his hornlike eyes, and then tossed me up, too.

“What’s the problem? What, a soul? A soul, you say? Damn it! We’ll soon get as far as cholera. I told you”—the skinny one was horn-tossed again—“I told you, we must, everyone’s imagination— everyone’s imagination must be . . . excised. The only answer is surgery, surgery alone . . .”

He struggled to put on some enormous X-ray glasses, and walked around for a long time looking through my skull bone at my brain, and making notes in a notebook.

“Extraordinary, extraordinarily curious! Listen to me, would you agree . . . to be preserved in alcohol? This would be, for the One State, an extraordinarily . . . this would aid us in averting an epidemic . . . If you, of course, don’t have any particular reasons not . . .”

“You see,” the other one said, “cipher D-503 is the Builder of the Integral, and I am certain that this would interfere . . .”

“Ah,” he mumbled and lumped off to his cabinet.

And then we were two. A paper-hand lightly, tenderly lay on my hand. A face in profile bent toward me and he whispered: “I’ll tell you a secret—it isn’t only you. My colleague is talking about an epidemic for good reason. Think about it; perhaps you yourself have noticed something similar in someone else—something very similar, very close to . . .” He looked at me intently. What is he hinting at—at whom? It can’t be that—

“Listen . . .” I leapt from my chair. But he had already loudly begun to talk about something else: “. . . And for the insomnia, and your dreams, I can give you one recommendation: walk more. Like, for instance, tomorrow morning, go for a walk . . . to the Ancient House, for example.”

He punctured me again with his eyes and smiled thinly. And it seemed to me: I could clearly and distinctly see something wrapped up in the fine fabric of his smile—a word—a letter—a name, a particular name . . . Or is this again that same imagination?

I was only barely able to wait while he wrote out my certification of illness for today and tomorrow, then I shook his hand once more and ran outside.

My heart was light, quick, like an aero, and carrying, carrying me upward. I knew: tomorrow held some sort of joy. But what would it be?

 

To Grow Up Fast

There are many questions that should be asked and answered. For example:

Why does it suck so much to be forced to miss having a childhood in order to grow up fast?

And related to it:

Why are people who grow up in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods different than those who have coddled childhoods? Why do those living in violent, war-torn communities struggle so much? Why is it so hard for those without freedom, opportunity, and resources to live up to their full potential?

Why do desperate people act desperately? Why do isolated, stressed people become addicts? Why do unhealthy conditions create unhealthy people? Why does poisoning children lead to dysfunction and violence?

Many, many questions. But the most important question of all: Why do the privileged and comfortable so rarely ask these questions?

* * *

Young Mice, Like Children, Can Grow Up Too Fast
by Alison Gopnik, WSJ

In the new experiment, published in 2015 in the same journal, the researchers looked at how the young mice reacted to early stress. Some of the mice were separated from their mothers for 60 or 180 minutes a day, although the youngsters were kept warm and fed just like the other mice. Mice normally get all their care from their mother, so even this brief separation is very stressful.

The stressed mice actually developed more quickly than the secure mice. As adolescents they looked more like adults: They were less exploratory and flexible, and not as good at reversal learning. It seemed that they grew up too fast. And they were distinctive in another way. They were more likely to drink large quantities of ethanol—thus, more vulnerable to the mouse equivalent of alcoholism.

These results fit with an emerging evolutionary approach to early stress. Childhood is a kind of luxury, for mice as well as men, a protected period in which animals can learn, experiment and explore, while caregivers look after their immediate needs.

Early stress may act as a signal to animals that this special period is not a luxury that they can afford—they are in a world where they can’t rely on care. Animals may then adopt a “live fast, die young” strategy, racing to achieve enough adult competence to survive and reproduce, even at the cost of less flexibility, fewer opportunities for learning and more vulnerability to alcohol.

This may be as true for human children as it is for mouse pups. Early life stress is associated with earlier puberty, and a 2013 study by Nim Tottenham and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that children who spent their early years in orphanages prematurely developed adultlike circuitry in the parts of the brain that govern fear and anxiety.

Protecting Elections From Democracy

Few people take seriously the issues and problems of democracy. This is apparent to me as an American watching the inanity of supposed democracy in action, i.e., the campaign season for electing the next president.

We don’t have a functioning democracy and few people have ever experienced a functioning democracy. On top of that, the media doesn’t help inform the public, assuming that even those working in media understand democracy. It’s hard for Americans to imagine what democracy might mean, what an actual and fully free society would look like.

I’ve pointed that out all before. It’s nothing new. And it is understandable. It isn’t as if past generations understood democracy better. We forget how young modern politics still is.

When some of the American founders proposed democracy, they had little clue what might result. Other founders didn’t want democracy at all. Once the post-revolutionary government was established, only a few percentage of the population had a right to vote or run for office. In some states, the majority was enslaved. And, in all states, most women only had slightly more freedom than a slave in their being treated like property of their fathers and then their husbands.

That isn’t a propitious beginning for freedom and liberty. Consider that, if one includes the colonial era, America has existed longer with slavery than without it. And there is also the long history of mistreatment toward other minorities. The results in recent politics shouldn’t be surprising. The winning of full protection of voting rights for most Americans happened within living memory. There hasn’t been a moment in American history when there wasn’t a ruling elite running the show. In some ways, it has gotten worse with wealth and power more concentrated than it has been in a long while, wealth and power that now has a truly global scope. We are in banana republic territory. Plus, systemic and institutional racism continues.

I was reminded of this because of various discussions about the campaigns. In response to my complaints about lesser evilism, C. Derick Varn (Skepoet) brought up an important issue about specific populations. He said to me, “Look at the demographics tied to political machines in Democratic cities, particularly in states that are otherwise red.” And added that,

“The Southern States have an enriched city based political elite that is dominant in the African American community. It may not reflect the option of African Americans as a whole because about 50% of black men can’t vote due to felon and prior felon exclusion laws in those states.”

That last point is what bothers me. Mass incarceration is directly rooted in slavery, as I’ve noted before. Along with keeping the population demoralized and apathetic, not to mention ignorant and propagandized, this continuing disenfranchisement of the historically oppressed is a powerful force for maintaining the establishment and keeping genuine democracy from emerging. These people who have had their voting rights stolen from them are a large enough part of the US population to potentially swing elections one way or another.

The same goes for voter suppression tactics: shutting down polling stations, voter purges, difficult ID laws, etc—all intended to shut down any hope of democratic process. Not to forget other important anti-democratic factors such as gerrymandering, big money campaign financing, speaking fees and other legalized bribery, special interest lobbying, revolving door between big biz and big gov, regulatory capture, and on and on.

Professional politicians in both of the main parties know this. Many of them wouldn’t be able to win elections if all US citizens were able to vote and did vote. What matters is to create the appearance of democracy, without letting it get out of control so that actual democracy might threaten to create a free society.

Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers

“Most men are not wicked. They are sleepwalkers, not evildoers.”
~ Franz Kafka

Lesser evil voting is mostly knee jerk groupthink, not rational decision-making and strategic thinking. If it was rational and strategic, Sanders would be guaranteed the nomination.

Sanders is the only candidate that the polling data has regularly shown to have any chance to defeat any of the Republican candidates. And he is the only candidate with both high popular support and low negative public opinion. On top of that, he is the only candidate of either political party whose politics aren’t some combination of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.

It’s about the narrative, the frame of how people think and what they can imagine. Lesser evil voting tends to mean backing the establishment and the status quo, no matter what. Some people use lesser voting strategically as a tactic, but these people are probably such a tiny fraction of a percentage of the voters as to be insignificant for elections. For most, lesser evil voting is simply about fear of the alternatives, even when their actions make the feared alternatives more likely.

Besides, so much of the argument seems pointless. Hillary Clinton has won most of the delegates even in states that have a majority supporting Sanders. The same happens in elections. What most Americans want is irrelevant to the system, especially considering how constrained is the election process, how controlled and manipulated and undermined is the pseudo-democracy. In a fully functioning democracy, neither Clinton nor Trump would make it very far in the process—both offering oppressive authoritarianism. Candidates like that don’t represent what most Americans support, as polls show. Despite how the MSM dismisses Sanders, he actually represents what is majority opinion.

None of this is charade is rational. It doesn’t matter what is proven to be true in polls, political records, released e-mails, historical documents, etc. It’s not about the issues. It’s not about what the American public supports and wants. This isn’t an actual democracy we live in. This is an open secret. Social science research has gone into this in great detail. It’s a favorite topic on the internet. Even the mainstream (corporate) media every so often throws up a piece on either asserting or questioning whether the US is still a democracy; and if not, what is it—military-industrial complex, banana republic, shadow government, deep state, inverted totalitarianism, corporatism/fascism, plutocracy, dark money, police state, or what exactly? The only place you don’t hear this kind of thing is in mainstream (corporatist) politics.

Yet everything goes on as if normal. We live in this dissociated state. We know it all is a charade or at least have strong suspicions. But we can’t bring ourselves to fully acknowledge this and act rationally in response to it. Rationality seems impotent when confronted by such horrific possibilities. Thinking along these lines would lead to radical notions and questions, and so we expunge them from our consciousness. It’s best not to think too much about it all. One might start feeling unacceptable impulses toward protesting in the streets, marching on the capitol, or God Forbid! starting a revolution. All of a sudden, the choice between Coke and Pepsi might be understood as meaningless as it always was. Such thoughts make people unhappy. If you confront people with this, they will get upset and angry. You can lose friends that way.

It’s understandable. There was something I think Franz Kafka said that has stuck with me—to paraphrase: Don’t destroy someone’s world, unless you have something better to offer them. That’s a tough standard to hold oneself to. It’s hard to imagine something new until the old has been cleared away. It might not be a matter of destroying someone’s world when they are acting self-destructively toward their own world.

In this situation, do you wait for full destruction to be complete before suggesting the consideration of alternatives? Why do we wait for problems to almost be past the point of any solution before even trying to figure out what those problems are?

None of this was inevitable. It was a series of choices made, the results accumulating over time.

Imagine if we had taken a different path. Imagine decades or even generations of greater good voting. Imagine for the past century that elected presidents included the likes of Eugene V. Debs, McGovern, Nader, Sanders, Jill Stein, etc. We wouldn’t even be facing the problems we now face. It’s not just about the lesser evil of this or that election, but endless kneejerk groupthink and fearmongering defense of the status quo.

Pointing this all out to people just irritates them. They have no way to make sense of it. The old narratives no longer explain much of anything and yet there is no compelling narrative to take their place. To imagine something new and different, people need to be told a story that draws them in and suspends their disbelief. One moment of envisioning an alternative could lift the cloud of cynicism and apathy.

That is one hell of a challenge. But maybe it doesn’t need to be as daunting as we make it. By nature, humans are talented at imagination. We are all dreamers. The trick is to learn how to dream while awake. Maybe this is not unlike, as Douglas Adams suggested, learning to fly by throwing yourself at the ground and missing. So, let’s throw ourselves at the dystopian fears before us and hope we miss.

* * *

The Logic of Lesser Evilism
by Andrew Levine, CounterPunch

The Reflective Voter’s Fear
by Andrew Levine, CounterPunch

75% in U.S. See Widespread Government Corruption
Gallup

Banana Republic Level of Inequality Is Undermining America’s Geopolitical Power
by Washingtons Blog

America the Banana Republic
by Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair

10 ways America has come to resemble a banana republic
by Alex Henderson, Alternet

Our Banana Republic
by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

The Permanent Militarization of America
by Aaron B. O’Connell, The New York Times

The Danger of American Fascism
by Henry A. Wallace, New York Times

When Fascism Was American
by Joe Allen, Jacobin

Have The American People Accepted Corporate State Fascism?
by Ray Pensador, Daily Kos

Deep state in the United States
from Wikipedia

Deep State America
by Philip Giraldi, The American Conservative

The Deep State
by Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal

The War on Democracy: The Deep State
by Bob Burnett, Huffington Post

The Quiet Coup: No, Not Egypt. Here.
by John Tirman, Huffington Post

Controlled by shadow government: Mike Lofgren reveals how top U.S. officials are at the mercy of the “deep state”
by Elias Isquith, Salon

“Every president has been manipulated by national security officials”: David Talbot exposes America’s “deep state”
Liam O’Donoghue, Salon

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.
by Jordan Michael Smith, Boston Globe

National Security and Double Government
by Michael J. Glennon, Harvard National Security Journal

Examining Who Runs the United States
by Anand Giridharadas, The New York Times

Sheldon Wolin and Inverted Totalitarianism
by Chris Hedges, Truthdig

Inverted Totalitarianism
by Sheldon Wolin, The Nation

Nick Hanauer: Beware, fellow plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming
TED Talk video

How Gilded Ages End
by Paul Starr, The American Prospect

The Political Roots of Widening Inequality
by Robert Reich, The American Prospect

Plutocrats Against Democracy
by Paul Krugman, The New York Times

America slouches toward plutocracy
by Sean McElwee, Al Jazeera America

A Study in Plutocracy: Rich Americans Wield Political Influence, the Rest of Us Don’t
by John Light, Moyers & Company

We are Becoming a Plutocracy No Matter What Obama Proposes Tomorrow
by Robert Lenzner, Forbes

5 signs America is devolving into a plutocracy
by Tom Engelhardt, Salon

Weirdness of Waze

There is a popular GPS app, Waze. It was developed in Israel and bought by Google. The purpose of it is to not just track where you are, but to keep track of where you’ve been and where you normally go, not to mention when and for how long. It then gives you info based on your behavioral patterns. It is the ultimate spy app.

I hadn’t heard of it until my dad mentioned it to me. He has been using it lately. I’m not sure he realized what it was intended to do, because he was surprised by the results.

On several occasions, it has figured out the precise place he visits: the local senior center, his church, etc. Then it determined what was going on while he was there and gave him info about future events. Just yesterday, it told him about the church service and what time it was to begin today, and it told him how long it would take to drive there and some info from the church newsletter.

The app had figured this all out on its own. It used my dad’s past behavior and searched the web to find data that corresponded. It has even recommended to him events to him that didn’t fit his past behavior but fit the kinds of things he’d like to do in the places he does visit. He found it slightly disconcerting. It is clear that vast amounts of data is being kept and analyzed.

My dad’s smart phone is also connected to his car, which has GPS as well. I don’t know if the app is able to access to the car’s GPS, but it seems like that might be the case. He was leaving somewhere and the app told him where he had left his car, without him even asking it to do so. It just assumed he wanted to go to his car and it knew where it was.

Before long, such apps will know us better than we know ourselves. But until then, there will be a learning curve with these new technologies.

* * *

Terms & Conditions: Waze is a privacy accident waiting to happen
by Andrew Couts, Digital Trends

Did Google Just Buy a Dangerous Driving App?
by Kevin Roose, New York Magazine

Israeli Students Hack GPS App Waze to Create Fake Traffic Jam
by Shiryn Ghermezian, The Algemeiner

Israeli troops relying on Waze app blunder into Palestinian area; clashes follow
by Ruth Eglash, The Washington Post

Waze app directions take woman to wrong Brazil address, where she is killed
by Shasta Darlington, CNN

On the Origins of Liberalism

The following is my side of a discussion from the comments section of a post by Corey Robin, The Definitive Take on Donald Trump. Considering the topic of the post, it’s odd that it became a historical and philosophical analysis of liberalism.

My comments are in response to Jason Bowden. He sees John Locke as more central to American liberalism. I don’t deny his importance, but I see it as having more diverse origins.

* * *

“The menu above is liberalism — limited government, individual rights, states rights, balance of powers, paper-worshipping Constitutionalism, privatization, deregulation, market-knows-best, blah blah blah. That’s the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, Godwin, Mill, Spencer, etc. It isn’t the counter-revolutionary tradition of Hobbes, Hume, Maistre, Burke, etc.”

I consider those type of people to be more in the reactionary category. That is particularly true of Locke, but even Jefferson and Godwin were never consistent and moderated their views over time. Also, as far as I know, none of these thinkers came from poverty or even the working class. The same applies to Burke with a father who was a government official and, I might add, began as a strong progressive before his reactionary side was elicited by the French Revolution.

Consider the details of Locke’s political views, as compared to an earlier thinker like Roger Williams:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/roger-williams-and-american-democracy/

“Basically, Williams was articulating Lockean political philosophy when John Locke was still in diapers. Even Locke never defended Lockean rights as strongly as did Williams. Locke didn’t think Catholics and atheists deserved equal freedom. Locke was involved in writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony which included slavery, something Williams wouldn’t have ever done under any circumstances and no matter the personal benefits. In writing about land rights, Locke defended the rights of colonists to take Native American Land whereas Williams defended against the theft of land from Native Americans.”

That demonstrates this difference between ‘liberal’ and reactionary. There was no liberalism as such when Williams lived, but by his example he helped set the stage for what would become liberalism. Locke came from an entirely different tradition, that which influenced the Deep South.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/deep-south-american-hypocrisy-liberal-traditions/

The difference between liberal and reactionary to some degree aligned with the difference between democrat and republican during the revolutionary era, and to some degree it matched up with Anti-Federalist and Federalist. Josiah Tucker, a critic of Locke, wrote:

“Republicans in general . . . for leveling all Distinctions above them, and at the same time for tyrannizing over those, whom Chance or Misfortune have placed below them.”

The more reactionary Enlightenment thinkers and American founders were wary of democracy. Liberals like Thomas Paine, on the other hand, advocated for democracy openly. Paine saw the failure of the French Revolution as their not having created a democratic constitution when they had the chance. Also in the category of liberals, as opposed to reactionaries, I’d place people like Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/natures-god-and-american-radicalism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/a-truly-free-people/

Paine, in particular, is the archetype of modern American liberalism and progressivism. Besides supporting democracy in general, he was for rights for (poor men, women, blacks, Native Americans, non-Protestants, etc), along with being for progressive taxation and strong welfare state. Paine represents what we mean by liberalism today. But even a classical liberal like Adam Smith pointed to how inequality endangered a free society and so he argued for progressive taxation and public education.

Someone like Jefferson was more of a fence-sitter. It is hard to categorize him. But he obviously never fully committed himself to the progressive liberalism of his friend, Paine. And as he aged he became considerably more conservative. The same happened with Godwin. It must be understood that both Jefferson and Godwin came from the elite and they never betrayed their class. It was class position that distinguished strong progressive liberals and everyone else. Paine, Allen, Young, and Clark were never fully accepted into the more respectable social circles.

“Sometimes I wonder if many Sanders supporters are closet reactionaries and don’t know it yet.”

I support Sanders’ campaign. I do so because I see it as a way of promoting needed debate. It is also good to challenge Clinton’s sense of entitlement to the presidency. But in the end I might vote Green. I’m undecided. I just like how Sanders has been able to shake things up so far.

“The left is defined as groups on the ascent. People benefitting from the established order — CEOs, immigrants, government employees, and the managerial class.”

I can’t say, though, that I feel like I’m part of a group on the ascent. I am a government employee, but my position is about as low as you can get. I have no college degree and I don’t make much money, as I’m only part time. I don’t particularly feel like I’m receiving any immense benefit from the established order, at least no more than the average American.

“A lot of suburban and rural whites have a lot to lose by the way things are going. In one possible political realignment in the future, they could be on the same side — the right.”

I see that as a separate issue. Many other realignments may form in the future, such as between various non-black minorities and whites, especially in terms of the growing Hispanic population. How that all settles out would be speculation.

* * *

What interests me about Williams is that he held to a view similar to Lockean land rights. This was before Locke was even born. I don’t if the idea was just in the air or where it might have originated. I’m not sure why Locke gets credit for it. It is sad that this philosophical and legal justification came to be used to take Native American land away, when for Williams it was meant to protect Native American rights.

He was an interesting guy, way before his times. I liked how he went to convert the Native Americans and came away converted to their having a superior society than their neighboring white settlers. He seemingly gave up on organized religion. He also took religious freedom much further than Locke ever did.

“I’m glad you brought up Roger Williams, because I definitely view progressivism, with its moral self-certainly, as a kind of secular Puritanism.”

That is at least partly true. I might broaden it a bit.

I see progressivism as largely a product of dissenter religions—not just Puritans, but also Quakers, Anabaptists, Pietists, Huguenots, etc. These were people who were tired of religious persecution and religious wars. I’d include Samuel de Champlain in this category, similar to someone like Roger Williams.

I’m most familiar with the Quakers. Having read about John Dickinson, I was fascinated by their separate tradition of living and evolving constitutionalism as a pact of a people with God, not a piece of paper. That is not unlike how many liberals and progressives still like to interpret the US Constitution, minus the God part.

“But Locke, while not a progressive, nor a democrat, brings the conceptual heft.”

I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m not sure how to categorize Locke. He did formalize many ideas and made them useful for the purposes of new laws and constitutions.

I have come to the view that Spinoza was important as well. Someone like Jefferson probably was familiar with Spinoza, but I don’t know how influential his ideas were in the English-speaking world. There were large non-English populations in the American colonies (some colonies were even a majority non-English, such as Pennsylvania). Besides dissenter religions, I couldn’t say what else non-English Europeans brought with them.

“It is a complete “Captain Picard” theory of man, strutting about the galaxy, pleading with everyone to put their irrational biases aside and just be reasonable.”

That might be what differentiated Locke from the likes of Williams and Penn. Religious dissenters weren’t so obsessed reason in this manner. I suspect that Paine inherited some of this earlier tradition. Paine’s deism wasn’t just about being rational but about knowing God directly, a very Quaker attitude. Paine, besides having a Quaker father, spent two influential periods of his life in a dissenter Puritan town and in Quaker Pennsylvania. Paine’s common sense could relate to his Quaker style of plain speech, it’s about a directness of knowing and communicating. It’s seems different than how you describe Locke.

“Out of Locke, one gets the instrumental nature of the state, disinterested power, the presumption of liberty when making trade-offs, popular sovereignty, and even government intervention for the public good, providing it meets a threshold of justification.”

In the non-Lockean traditions of dissenter religions and Spinozism, I sense another kind of attitude. It’s not clear to me all that distinguishes them.

Williams definitely had a live-and-let-live attitude, a proto-liberal can’t we all just get along. He didn’t want war, an oppressive government, or anyone telling anyone else how to live. Instead of banning, imprisoning, or torturing Quakers like the Puritans, he invited them to public debate—for the time, a radical advocacy of free speech. He expressed so many modern liberal and progressive values before almost anyone else in the colonies.

Along these lines, Penn later created the first tolerant multicultural colony in America. Franklin, who was a child when Penn died, complained about the German majority that refused to assimilate. This multiculturalism led to strong democratic culture.

“Liberals today write books like “Moral Politics” and writers like Dworkin think the Constitution should be interpreted in a moral spirit.”

That moralistic attitude would definitely be a result of dissenter religions. It also would relate to the Constitution being a living document.

“This is why a liberal like Spencer claimed that in reactionary thought, government resides in the “very soul of its system.” Spencer dreamed of a non-coercive world — morality is supposedly prior to government — while conservatism is about borders, culture, hierarchies, identity, etc.”

That is interesting. I’m not familiar with Spencer.

“Even in the United States, the biggest fans of free trade, limited government, and deregulation were southern slavers. The cultural inertia remains. It isn’t an accident that Clinton and Gore, both pimping for NAFTA, are from the south.”

That fits into Locke’s influence. He wrote or co-wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony. This Southern classical liberalism is, of course, what today we call conservatism—an ideologically mixed bag. But it also shaped Clinton’s New Democrats, which partly returned the Democratic Party to its Southern roots. The early Democratic Party was weakest in New England.

“Liberalism has always been a top-down movement, usually spearheaded by university professors.”

There has also always been a working class liberalism, often a mix of progressivism, populism, and moral reformism. It’s harder to identify this tradition because the people who have held it weren’t and aren’t those with much power and voice.

The revolutionary era began as a bottom-up movement, a class-based restleness about not only distant British rule but also local ruling elite. It was the process of Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas spreading across the dirty masses. Paine was so influential for the very reason he could be understood by the most uneducated person. The upper class so-called founders only joined the revolution once it became clear it wasn’t going away.

“If anything, liberalism is aristocratic and Puritan in temperament, an attempt to improve the perceived immorality of rowdy, sinful, shameless, vulgar people.”

There were those like the Quakers and Baptists as well. People of this other strain of liberalism hated haughty Puritanism and aristocracy. I wouldn’t discount this aspect, as this bottom-up liberal tradition has been a powerful force in American society and politics.

* * *

I’ve recently been reading about Abraham Lincoln. I was specifically curious to learn more about his having been influenced by Thomas Paine.

Lincoln was born at the end of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. It was only months away from Paine’s death. Much later, Jefferson and Adams died when Lincoln was 17 years old. Lincoln read many of the writings of the founders and others from the revolutionary era, including a number of radical thinkers. He was very much a child of the Enlightenment, even embracing a rational irreligiosity with a deistic bent. His mind was preoccupied with the founding generation.

I find interesting the contrast between Lincoln and Paine. Lincoln became a mainstream professional politician, something that Paine never would have done. Paine, even with his desire to moderate extremes, was a radical through and through. Lincoln ultimately mistrusted radicalism and had no desire for a second revolution. The government, in his mind, represented the public good. Paine, on the other hand, had a more palpable sense of he people as something distinct from particular governments.

Another difference seems to be related to their respective religious upbringings. They both held progressive views, but their motivations came from different sources.

Lincoln admitted to being a fatalist and that this came from his Baptist childhood with its Calvinist predetermination. This fed into his melancholy and sense of doom, oddly combined with a whiggish view of history (i.e., moral arc). The divine, portrayed in the light of Enlightenment deism, was an almost brutal force of nature that forced moral progress, decimating humans in its wake. Lincoln believed that individuals were helpless pawns, facing a dual fate of inborn character and cosmic forces. The Civil War was the perfect stage for Lincoln’s fatalistic drama of transformation through death and suffering.

Paine had so much more to be melancholy about. He saw one of his childhood friends, convicted of a petty crime, hanged from the scaffolding that could be seen from his home. His first wife and child died. His second marriage led to divorce. He spent many years struggling financially, sometimes unemployed and homeless. He almost died from sickness on his way to the American colonies. Yet, unlike Lincoln, Paine seemed to have an optimistic bent to his nature. He was a dreamer, opposite of Lincoln’s cold pragmatism. I suspect this at least partly has to do with how much Paine was influenced by dissenter religions, most especially the positive vision of Quakerism where God is seen as a friend to humanity.

The two represent different strains of Anglo-American progressivism, neither of which is particularly Lockean in mindset. In today’s politics, I’m not sure there is much room for either Lincoln or Paine. Their worldviews are almost alien to the contemporary mind. Politics has become so mechanistic and government so bureaucratic. There isn’t any room left for the vast visions of old school varieties of progressivism. Maybe that is why Trump is so appealing. He brings drama back into politics, no matter how superficial and petty that drama is.

* * *

I follow much of what you say. You describe the gist of the dominant strains of American liberalism and progressivism. But I keep thinking about origins. You wrote that,

“Locke invented liberalism: reasonable citizens updating public policy through reasonableness without resorting to terrorism.”

Did Locke really invent liberalism? To be specific, did he invent what you describe above as liberalism? To Locke, who was a citizen, specifically a reasonable citizen?

He had no problem writing or helping to write the constitution for a colony whose economy was dependent on slavery—in fact, a colony where the majority of the population was enslaved. He also didn’t support religious freedom for all, but only for certain religious groups and definitely not for heretics and atheists.

By reasonable citizens, would he have simply meant white male adults who were propertied and adherents of particular acceptable religions? Or did he think peasants, indentured servants, slaves, and indigenous people should be considered part of the reasonable citizenry? The reasonable citizens among the ruling elite and upper classes in the British Empire, including in the colonies, didn’t mind resorting to terrorism. Lockean land rights were even used as justification for taking away the land of various indigenous people. All of colonialism was built on violence, terrorism even, and Locke didn’t seem too bothered by that.

Was Locke genuinely praising reasonableness any more than previous thinkers? Didn’t those with wealth and power always think of themselves as reasonable? I’m sure the highly educated elite in the Roman Empire also thought of themselves as reasonable citizens maintaining order reasonably in their reasonable republic. The rhetoric of a reasonable citizenry goes back to the ancient world, e.g., classical Greece.

What was entirely new that Locke was bringing to the table? As I pointed out, even Lockean land rights as a theory preceded Locke, such as with Roger Williams. Others had also previously argued for social contract theory and against divine sanction, such as Thomas Hobbes. Many of these kinds of ideas had been discussed for generations, centuries, or even millennia—consider Giordano Bruno’s views on science and religion or consider how some trace liberalism back to Epicurus. What made Lockean thought unique? Was it how these ideas were systematized?

Also, what do you think about Benedict Spinoza? Some think Locke was influenced by him. Spinoza began writing long before Locke did. And Locke spent time in Spinoza’s Netherlands, during a time when Spinoza’s work was well known among the type of people Locke associated with. Locke did most of his writing in Netherlands and following that period. Some of Spinoza’s ideas would have likely resonated with and influenced Locke, specifically Spinoza’s advocacy of free speech, religious tolerance, separation of church and state, republicanism, etc.

There is always the argument as well that Spinoza and Locke represent separate strains of the Enlightenment, one radical and the other reactionary or moderate. Do you agree with this argument? Or do you prefer the view of there being a single Enlightenment and hence a single Enlightenment basis of mainstream liberalism? Do you think Spinoza had much of any influence in early America, either directly or indirectly? If so, can a Spinozistic element be detected in American political thought?

A number of people argue for an influence, e.g., “Nature’s God.” For example, Spinoza’s collected works were in
Thomas Jefferson’s library. Thomas Paine likely was familiar with Spinoza’s ideas, either by reading him or through those around him who had read Spinoza. One can sense Spinozism in deism and maybe in Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, New Age spirituality, and New Thought Christianity. Spinoza’s panentheism has aspects of unitarianism and universalism, both of which have been influential over American history—and so maybe it was incorporated into the Unitarian-Universalist tradition. I could see even Quakerism, or more mainstream Christianity being influenced.

Plus, there is someone like Algernon Sidney. I don’t know much about him. He doesn’t get as much attention from popular works, at least here in the US. From what I can gather, his views were partly in line with Spinoza. Some other related early Enlightenment thinkers are Conyers Middleton and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke.

Your comment got me thinking about all of this. I decided to do a web search. Here are a few things that came up (some that I’m familiar with and others new to me):

Radical Enlightenment
by Jonathan Israel

Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism
by Lewis Samuel Feuer

Nature’s God
by Matthew Stewart

New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty
Evan Haefeli

The Island at the Center of the World
by Russell Shorto

http://jeffersonandspinoza.blogspot.com/

http://www.thomaspaine.us/pdf/paine_spinoza_bisheff.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Age_of_Reason#Paine.27s_intellectual_debts

https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2008/11/19/spinoza-virtue-and-american-ideology/

https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2014/07/04/questioning-america-christian-roots/XVNKjkViIzncq9Rr9T7DMM/story.html

https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/25993801-nature-s-god-the-heretical-origins-of-the-american-republic

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-ca-jc-matthew-stewart-20140629-story.html

http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=philosophy_hontheses

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2004/09/14/americas_jewish_founding_father/

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/spinozas-vision-of-freedom-and-ours/

http://www.readperiodicals.com/201009/2131675381.html

“They join the army because they want to be like you.”

Below is David Graeber explaining the political right (“Army of Altruists” from Revolutions in Reverse). The view is similar to that of Joe Bageant.

It’s not that they have gone mad. Don’t callously dismiss them, as stupid. No, they aren’t voting against their own interests. It’s that the world they live in offers them few, if any, good choices. They are responding to a society that no longer values justice and no longer honors the agreed upon social contract, at least what many Americans thought was agreed upon.

This is why I argue that the Democratic Party, in refusing to offer genuine reforms that help the lower classes, have made this situation inevitable. The policies of the Clinton New Democrats are Republican lite: tough-on-crime policies, cutbacks on welfare, neoliberal attacks on the working class, war hawk mentality that is willing to sacrifice the lives of the poor for wars that defend corporate interests, bloated corporatist government that no longer serves the public good, etc.

Democrats have refused to offer an alternative that matters. Instead, they’ve offered policies that make miserable the lives of so many Americans, both whites and minorities. Yes, so have the Republicans, but no one expects right-wingers to fight for social justice and political reform. The desperate and disenfranchised have often turned to Republicans because they at least seem honest in what they are offering. Even for poor whites, telling tem that their lives are slightly less shitty than that of poor minorities is no comfort.

For the down-and-out American, facing poverty and unemployment isn’t an inspiring situation. Even finding work at McDonald’s or Walmart is not much of a sign of success and a hope for the future. An aspiring individual can make more selling drugs or prostituting themselves. It’s not like the good ol’ days when some poor, uneducated schmuck could start their own successful business or get a high paying entry-level factory job working his way up into management. These days, a working class job is a dead end and a mark of shame, not an opportunity to better oneself and one’s children.

It is unsurprising that large numbers of people in poverty turn to military service. The military offers these people discarded by society a vision of greatness and pride. They can be part of the most powerful military in the world. For too many Americans, this is the only realistic path of mobility left.

This is why conservatives praise the military and put it at the center of their political narrative. The good liberals of the Democratic Party, on the other hand, offer the poor jack shit.

Here is the passage from Graeber’s essay:

“America, of course, continues to see itself as a land of opportunity, and certainly from the perspective of an immigrant from Haiti or Bangladesh it is. But America has always been a country built on the promise of unlimited upward mobility. The working-class condition has been traditionally seen as a way station, as something one’s family passes through on the road to something else. Abraham Lincoln used to stress that what made American democracy possible was the absence of a class of permanent wage laborers. In Lincoln’s day, the ideal was that wage laborers would eventually save up enough money to build a better life: if nothing else, to buy some land and become a homesteader on the frontier.

“The point is not how accurate this ideal was; the point is that most Americans have found the image plausible. Every time the road is perceived to be clogged, profound unrest ensues. The closing of the frontier led to bitter labor struggles, and over the course of the twentieth century, the steady and rapid expansion of the American university system could be seen as a kind of substitute. Particularly after World War II, huge resources were poured into expanding the higher education system, which grew extremely rapidly, and all this growth was promoted quite explicitly as a means of social mobility. This served during the Cold War as almost an implied social contract, not just offering a comfortable life to the working classes but holding out the chance that their children would not be working class themselves. The problem, of course, is that a higher education system cannot be expanded forever. At a certain point one ends up with a significant portion of the population unable to find work even remotely in line with their qualifications, who have every reason to be angry about their situation, and who also have access to the entire history of radical thought. By the late Sixties and early Seventies, the very point when the expansion of the university system hit a dead end, campuses were, predictably, exploding.

“What followed could be seen as a kind of settlement. Campus radicals were reabsorbed into the university but set to work largely at training children of the elite. As the cost of education has skyrocketed, financial aid has been cut back, and the prospect of social mobility through education–above all liberal arts education–has been rapidly diminished. The number of working-class students in major universities, which steadily grew until the Seventies, has now been declining for decades. […]

“Why do working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich? It seems to me that the answer is simple. They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia. If you think about it, this is not an unreasonable assessment. A mechanic from Nebraska knows it is highly unlikely that his son or daughter will ever become an Enron executive. But it is possible. There is virtually no chance, however, that his child, no matter how talented, will ever become an international human-rights lawyer or a drama critic for the New York Times. Here we need to remember not just the changes in higher education but also the role of unpaid, or effectively unpaid, internships. It has become a fact of life in the United States that if one chooses a career for any reason other than the salary, for the first year or two one will not be paid. This is certainly true if one wishes to be involved in altruistic pursuits: say, to join the world of charities, or NGOs, or to become a political activist. But it is equally true if one wants to pursue values like Beauty or Truth: to become part of the world of books, or the art world, or an investigative reporter. The custom effectively seals off such a career for any poor student who actually does attain a liberal arts education. Such structures of exclusion had always existed, of course, especially at the top, but in recent decades fences have become fortresses.

“If that mechanic’s daughter wishes to pursue something higher, more noble, for a career, what options does she really have? Likely just two: She can seek employment at her local church, which is hard to get. Or she can join the army.

“This is, of course, the secret of nobility. To be noble is to be generous, high-minded, altruistic, to pursue higher forms of value. But it is also to be able to do so because one does not really have to think too much about money. This is precisely what our soldiers are doing when they give free dental examinations to villagers: they are being paid (modestly, but adequately) to do good in the world. Seen in this light, it is also easier to see what really happened at universities in the wake of the 1960s–the “settlement” I mentioned above. Campus radicals set out to create a new society that destroyed the distinction between egoism and altruism, value and values. It did not work out, but they were, effectively, offered a kind of compensation: the privilege to use the university system to create lives that did so, in their own little way, to be supported in one’s material needs while pursuing virtue, truth, and beauty, and, above all, to pass that privilege on to their own children. One cannot blame them for accepting the offer. But neither can one blame the rest of the country for hating them for it. Not because they reject the project: as I say, this is what America is all about. As I always tell activists engaged in the peace movement and counter-recruitment campaigns: why do working-class kids join the army anyway? Because, like any teenager, they want to escape the world of tedious work and meaningless consumerism, to live a life of adventure and camaraderie in which they believe they are doing something genuinely noble. They join the army because they want to be like you.”