Failure of Public Intellectuals

Over at Teeming Brain, Matt Cardin mentioned a book. It’s The Ideas Industry by Daniel Drezner. There is an initial response I gave in a comment to Cardin. I turned that comment into a post I made earlier, Public Intellectuals As Thought Leaders. And I added to that with another post, Thoughts on Inequality and the Elite. In a second comment to Cardin, I sought to put it into further context:

This is an important topic and this book being far from the only example of it being discussed. There is also The Death of Expertise by Thomas Nichols, another book I haven’t read. There are many other similar books as well, such as Rigor Mortis by Richard Harris where is discussed the damaging failure of expertise in a particular field.

As I thought more about it, I realized this should be put into a larger context. The whole issue of “fake news” has received focus as of late. But who determines what is fake?

It was quite shocking see what was in some of the leaked emails, that those in the mainstream media were working close with party insiders, even to the point of secretly sharing debate questions prior to the debate and sending articles to them for editing before publishing. Yet this same corporate media wants to judge alternative media, one of the last bastions of honest discussion of important issues. There is a fight going on right now between old media and new media, such as what is going on with YouTube and AdSense, a fight that could shut down the growing voices outside of the establishment.

It is all very concerning.

There are other books that I could point to. Some of them are listed below, along with a few reviews and articles.

I’m not a big fan of blaming the public in a society that gives so little voice and power to the public, such as calling the public stupid. It would be a fair criticism if this was a functioning democracy, but the fact of the matter is that this is a banana republic. The real power is some combination of neoconservatism, neoliberalism, military-industrial complex, deep state, corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, plutocracy, kleptocracy, oligrachy, and I’m sure others could add a few to the list. I’ve often prefer the lens of corporatism with its long history in progressivism, fascism, colonialism, and earlier ideological systems. Corporations have become the dominant institution of our age.

Here is another angle. The pseudo-meritocracy, despite the liberal and progressive rhetoric, is actually a rigidly stratified system of concentrated wealth and power that tends toward authoritarian expressions of technocracy and scientific management (see an earlier discussion). Those with power and privilege love to wield the authority of expertise. But who determines who gets to be called and perceived as an expert in the corporate media, corporatist political system, and increasingly corporate-funded academia and scientific research?

The simple fact is that public trust has been lost. In many cases, it’s uncertain that it was ever deserved. Consider the authority of our criminal system, as assessed by the National Academy of Sciences:

Rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists are currently lacking, the report says, as are strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence. And there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods. Moreover, many forensic science labs are underfunded, understaffed, and have no effective oversight.

Forensic evidence is often offered in criminal prosecutions and civil litigation to support conclusions about individualization — in other words, to “match” a piece of evidence to a particular person, weapon, or other source. But with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, the report says, no forensic method has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.

Now consider an estimated 2-5% of prisoners and 4% sentenced to die are innocent of all criminal charges. It was a public legal system built on professional expertise that led to these sad results. It’s sadder still when one looks at the racial biases. And the very public intellectuals getting promoted the most are often those, like Charles Murray, who preach a racial narrative and so offer justifications for prejudice.

We can’t simply turn to public intellectuals in the hope they’ll sort it all out. They are often part of the problem. And it isn’t public intellectuals who are most harmed in the process. When even public debate among public intellectuals fails to lead to public good, where does that leave the general public that has little voice at all, specifically those among us who suffer the worst consequences?

The failure isn’t intellectuals as a broad category. It’s a minority of intellectuals who become members of the affluent and influential intelligentsia, often working for special interest organizations, lobbyist groups, and think tanks. This is what being a public intellectual has come to mean, at least as it gets presented in corporate media and corporatist politics. What we need is more public intellectuals from more sectors and levels of society, in order to have genuine public debate.

A technocratic ruling elite is not going to save us.

* * * *

Flawed Scientific Research

Twilight of the Elites:
America After Meritocracy
by Chris Hayes

What the “Experts” Got Wrong about the Global Economy
by Mark Weisbrot

Experts and Epistemic Monopolies: 17
by Roger Koppl, Steve Horwitz, & Laurent Dobuzinskis

Escape from Democracy:
The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy
by David M. Levy &Sandra J. Peart

Scientism and Technocracy in the Twentieth Century:
The Legacy of Scientific Management

by Richard G. Olson

Beyond Technocracy:
Science, Politics and Citizens
by Massimiano Bucchi

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium
by Martin Gurri

Type of expertise and their goal matters
by d. doyle

The problem today is not necessarily a lack of experts as it is how to determine what is relevant and what the goal is behind any expert’s pronouncement.

The Limits of Expertise
A defense of experts exhibits the very problems it complains about.

by Noah Berlatsky

Believe the experts! Experts are not perfect, but they are more likely than non-experts to be right. Experts know what they do not know, and are therefore more cautious and better able to self-correct. Sometimes, in small ways, non-experts may outperform experts. But in general, America and the world need more respect for expertise.

That is the thesis of Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. It is also, as it turns out, a critique of the book itself. Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, is an expert on Russia and national security; he is not, however, an expert on expertise.* His hand wringing about kids today is not grounded in a scholarly background in education policy or the history of student activism. He is a generalist dilettante writing a polemic against generalist dilettantes. As such, the best support for his argument is his own failure to prove it.

There are two central flaws in The Death of Expertise. The first is temporal. As the title implies, the book is written as though there were once a golden age when expertise was widely valued—and when the democratic polity was well-informed and took its duty to understand foreign and domestic affairs seriously. “The foundational knowledge of the average American is now so low that it has crashed through the floor of ‘uninformed,’ passed ‘misinformed’ on the way down, and finally is now plummeting to ‘aggressively wrong,'” Nichols declares. His proof for this statement is that “within my living memory I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As Nichols would ordinarily be the first to point out, the vague common-sense intuitions and memories of non-experts are not a good foundation for a sweeping theory of social change. Nichols admits that Americans are not actually any more ignorant than they were 50 years ago. But he quickly pivots to insist that “holding the line [of ignorance] isn’t good enough” and then spends the rest of the book writing as if he didn’t know that Americans are not getting more ignorant. […]

The balance between trusting experts and challenging conventional wisdom is always difficult. How do you create discussions online where folks who have been traditionally marginalized are welcome without empowering bad actors determined to harass them or spread disinformation? How can political parties encourage participation and democratic engagement without opening themselves up to opportunists and quacks? Those are questions worth asking, but Nichols, alas, is not the writer to answer them. Someone with more expertise is needed. Or, possibly, with less.

Comment to above article
by VG Zaytsev

“Believe the experts! Experts are not perfect, but they are more likely than non-experts to be right. Experts know what they do not know, and are therefore more cautious and better able to self-correct.”

That is 100% wrong in two ways. First as the breadth of knowledge continually increases, the scope of expertise shrinks. Attaining and maintaining expertise requires an ever greater focus on an ever narrower field, which necessarily means less knowledge in other areas, getting progressive lower as the distance form their narrow specialty increases. Which is fine in itself, but it is not how humans perceive the world and their social groups. Instead we believe that wisdom, cast as expertise, is wide – to universal. So that an “expert”‘s opinion is valued on a wide range of issues, most of which he has less information and experience dealing with than a generalist. Experts themselves are prone to this flaw.

Secondly the trust in experts and the narrow scope of actual expertise creates,the opportunity for faux experts to claim a level of authority and deference that they have no legitimate claim to. We see this repeatedly with “experts” put forward by the media to push a pre determined agenda.

‘The Death of Expertise’
by Scott McLemee

A survey of 7,000 freshmen at colleges and universities around the country found just 6 percent of them able to name the 13 colonies that founded the United States. Many students thought the first president was Abraham Lincoln, also known for “emaciating the slaves.” Par for the course these days, right?

It happens that the study in question was reported in The New York Times in 1943. The paper conducted the survey again during the Bicentennial, using more up-to-date methods, and found no improvement. “Two‐thirds [of students] do not have the foggiest notion of Jacksonian democracy,” one history professor told the Times in 1976. “Less than half even know that Woodrow Wilson was president during World War I.”

Reading the remark now, it’s shocking that he was shocked. After 40 years, our skins are thicker. (They have to be: asking the current resident of the White House about Jacksonian democracy would surely be taken as an invitation to reminisce about his “good friend,” Michael.)

The problem with narratives of decline is that they almost always imply, if not a golden age, then at least that things were once much better than they are now. The hard truth in this case is that they weren’t. On the average, the greatest generation didn’t know any more about why The Federalist Papers were written, much less what they said, than millennials do now. The important difference is that today students can reach into their pockets and, after some quick thumb typing and a minute or two of reading, know at least something on the topic.

Beware: the experts are usually poor forecasters
by Allister Heath

To say that experts often get it wrong is an understatement.

Philip Tetlock, a brilliant US academic who has studied this phenomenon in detail, once concluded that the average “expert” was in fact “roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee”. Consumers of expert advice should thus always heed the old adage of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware”.

The record of private and public sector forecasters is all too often abysmal, and in some cases almost a counter-indicator. The world craves certainty, even though no such thing can possibly exist. Pollsters thought that Labour would win the last election, have miscalled many others around the world and didn’t originally foresee the rise of Donald Trump. Most economists and large companies supported the UK’s membership of the euro, for example, which would have been a complete disaster. With a few heroic exceptions, hardly any economists saw the financial crisis and Great Recession coming, and of the very few who did spot that something was amiss hardly any worked out how the collapse would unfold.

So much for the big calls; the smaller ones tend to be equally wrong. We tend to see a strong bias towards over-optimism at the top of a boom and towards excessive pessimism at the trough of a recession. GDP numbers are always at least a little incorrect, and nobody predicted the employment bonanza of the past few years or the disappointing productivity performance. Even the Bank of England cannot correctly predict its own actions. As to most active fund managers, again with a number of brilliant exceptions, they aren’t worth the money: they cannot consistently deliver above-market returns after costs, even though that is their job. It gets worse: even oil companies cannot accurately work out what’s going to happen to the price of oil. […]

The problem is that it is impossible to know from the outset which so-called expert is actually a superforecaster and who will turn out to be no better than a random prediction machine. We therefore need to be very careful when listening to the expert consensus.

What if Elite Experts are Wrong About What They Supposedly are Experts About?
by Peter Boettke

Ever since the Wilsonian period, the progressive agenda has come with trained experts who by design immune from direct democratic pressures.  This is most evident in the Independent Regulatory Agencies — CPSC, EPA, FTC, FAA, FCC, FERC, Fed Reserve System, FDA, ICC, NLRB, NRC, OSHA, SEC — but it is an embedded attitude in our universities, our legal system, our politics, our media.  Experts are expected to lead the way based on their expertise in the policy sciences. […]

The problem with experts isn’t that individuals can have superior judgement to others, or that one can earn authority through judicious study and successful action.  The problem is an institutional one, and institutional problems demand institutional solutions.  In the case of the Levy/Peart and Koppl stories, the problem results from monopoly expertise that produce systemic incentives and social epistemology which is distortionary from the perspective of correct policy response.  […]

In fact, this focus on institutions of governance, and the fragility or robustness of these institutions, has been a focus […] Our knavery comes in the form of arrogance and opportunism, and if we construct institutions of governance that fail to check our knavery, and instead unleashes experts immune from democratic pressures, we get expert failure.

Tremendous power and authority has been entrusted in these experts.  Yet, there are serious issues that potentially delegitimize large segments of the establishment in: education from primary to secondary to higher, media from traditional print to radio, TV and even the echo-chamber of social media, public services from police to infrastructure to public pensions, and government from local to state to federal.  One way to “read” the election results is that this was an indictment of the establishment of experts.

Comment to above article
by arun

I think experts who serve an ‘elite’ aren’t going to be objective because an elite, by definition, believes that it’s values and preferences are ‘hegemonic’ in the Gramscian sense- i.e. they are prescriptive because of some obvious virtue which everybody recognizes as attaching itself to the ‘elite’.

In other words, the elite has an incentive to employ an expert who predicts that which is in their narrow interest and tries to pass it off as a ‘Muth Rational’ solution.

If Elites are insecure or subject to rent-contestation, sure, they may consult ‘expert cognition’ mavens so as to hedge their bets but they still have an interest in supporting official ‘experts’ who either predict what they want them to predict or who make a policy space multidimensional in a manner that gives the Elite ‘agenda control’and thus the ability to rig the outcome in their favor.

Comment to above article
by BenK

This comes back to the local knowledge problem; that experts may indeed have general knowledge about class of problem abstracted from its setting, but that only works for problems that are truly able to be abstracted. As a result, effective experts usually need to embed, or ‘condescend’ to understand local conditions when addressing a problem in the specific. However, when community problems are fundamentally about the ‘community,’ the experts are likely to favor being ‘objective’ and ‘distant’ rather than ‘involved’ and perhaps compromised. As a result, there is a conundrum. They cannot sit on high in judgement on the community and still understand it; but if they become involved, the problem will not appear the same. It’s a kind of relativity, particularly well known in families.

The answer is not to have contests among the experts to see who is more frequently right. This favors cherry picking and all sorts of bad strategies. The answer is to have experts as local as feasible; and keep them local, not giving them broad authorities. They can learn from each other but not subsume each other. There are costs to this approach, but it will be more robust than the current brittle strategy.

Class Confusion and Its Uses

There is an article in the Wall Street Journal that perfectly, albeit unintentionally, captures a common variety of confusion in American thought. The piece is “The ‘Longshoreman Philosopher’ Saw Trump Coming in 1970” by Reuven Brenner. The premise is that in Eric Hoffer’s 1970 essay, Whose Country is America?, he “eerily anticipated not only the political events of 2016 but the tone and language of last year’s campaign and the anti-Trump hysteria since Election day.” Brenner then goes on to blame ‘intellectuals’ for everything

It is completely idiotic. And it’s a propaganda piece. I would simply dismiss it, if not for the fact that the influence of such propaganda is all too real. Because it is pushed by corporate media, it is worth analyzing.

Keep in mind that Brenner is an employee of the Koch-funded Cato Institute, originally called the Charles Koch Foundation, one of the most powerful and influential right-wing think tanks in the world. He also has done work for the Koch-funded Fraser Institute and Shell corporation. Think tank employees are regularly given a platform on corporate media. But beyond that, the ignorance of the piece is maddening. And worst of all, I suspect the author to some degree believes his own bullshit or else believes that pushing such bullshit onto others is good for his personal and professional agenda, which is to say for the agenda of the likes of the Koch brothers and Wall Street Journal. He is apparently a highly sought after intellectual-for-hire, an intelligentsia mercenary.

About Brenner’s assessment quoted above, other people would strongly disagree. Al Hackle wrote that, “If a desire for decency and honesty equates to elitism, if billionaires are the common people — and if someone writing in 1970 to bash the hippy youth, etc., of that era from a pretentiously anti-intellectual (but highbrow!) standpoint was actually foreshadowing the politics of 2016-17 — then this article makes perfect sense.”

I wasn’t familiar with the particular Hoffer essay in question. Brenner begins with this quote from it: “Scratch an intellectual, and you find a would-be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of the common folk.”

That is plain bizarre on multiple levels, according to the normal definition of ‘intellectual’ (i.e., someone focused on intellectual activity as a career, lifestyle, or identity). I’ll have more to say about this further on, as the usage is apparently highly idiosyncratic. Also, one might suspect, as Matthew Watkins argued, that “I felt like the quoted passages were pieced together to validate the author’s anti-intellectual take on the election.” Well, Hoffer wrote those words almost a half century ago and so probably wasn’t attempting to predict distant future political events. But for the moment, let me take it at face value, in the way Brenner is treating it.

Hoffer is a famous American intellectual, even though he was of the self-taught working class variety (so he claimed; more about that below). This is nothing unusual, considering America has a long history of working class intellectuals. For that reason, it’s strange to hear anti-intellectualism from an intellectual, as if Hoffer worried that there is some kind of shame to being an intellectual and that he wants to defend against any accusation that he too is an intellectual, however he defines it. Stranger still is the fact that this is being quoted by Brenner who has made a long, successful career out of being a professional intellectual, and it’s quoted in an article written for a conservative newspaper that styles itself as highly intellectual (Wall Street Journal not being a low brow publication for the dirty masses). As one commenter put it (Patrick McCafferty), “Define irony: An intellectual essay complaining about the influence of intellectuals and their essays.”

Somehow, these ‘intellectuals’ are all of those other people to be dismissed, presumably the elite left-wingers aspiring to rule the world, bias the media, and propagandize the children. It turns intellectuality into some foreign danger invading the body politic and threatening the Real America of Real Americans, and accordingly this is why Real Americans (what right-wing culture warriors used to proclaim as being the “moral majority”) supposedly voted for and gave a political mandate to Trump. This portrayal of intellectuals, along with the portrayal of the American public, is a caricature in the demented fantasies of right-wing rhetoric. It’s amazing that this attack on intellectuals so often comes from intellectuals themselves, although less surprising when those intellectuals work for right-wing think tanks. One might suspect they are being disingenuous. Anyway, the average non-intellectual doesn’t read either Hoffer or Brenner. These intellectuals attacking other intellectuals, one might argue, are projecting their own sense of disconnection from the rest of the population. It would be amusing, if it weren’t so pathetic, specifically in the case of Brenner (as for Hoffer, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment, since his words are being used for someone else’s purposes).

Let me break down Brenner’s argument:

Hoffer started his analysis with “the conspicuousness of the young”—that is the baby boomers. “They have become more flambouyant, more demanding, more violent, more knowledgeable and more experienced,” he wrote. “The general impression is that nowadays the young act like the spoiled children of the rich.”

Similar accusations had been made toward prior generations of youth, specifically the generations born into the emerging America of industrialization and growing middle class, from the Lost Generation born into consumerism and violence to the Silent Generation born into affluence and a pampered childhood. How can any reasonably informed person not know this? How can such historical amnesia have such persistence?

This lack of basic knowledge is all the more shocking when it comes from intellectuals. Maybe that is what one gets when an intellectual dismisses intellectuality. An anti-intellectual intellectual is a confused person. I might be able to excuse Hoffer because he was a working class autodidact and so his self-education was maybe more random than thorough, just some guy voicing his opinions after reading some books (like me). Brenner, on the other hand, has gained wealth and respect as a formally educated public intellectual. Worse still, Brenner is the elite of the elite, not only a respected thinker promoted and read by the elite but also a college professor and published academic. Even if Hoffer didn’t know better, Brenner should.

A bit further on, Brenner writes that,

The “phenomenal increase of the student population”—enrollment in colleges and universities would more than triple between 1958 and 1978—created a critical mass: “For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image.”

Actually, the sharp increase in college enrollment began in the 1940s, initially because of the GI Generation returning from war and taking advantage of the cheap college education offered through the GI Bill. Besides that, there were other reasons. The college students from the late 1930s to the mid-to-late 1960s were mostly of the Silent Generation, depending on the years defining that generational cohort. The earliest wave of Boomers hitting colleges didn’t happen until 1964 and it would only have been in the following years when they would have become the majority on campuses. The Silents were the first generation to receive universal public education (it having been made compulsory in the early 1920s) and so the first generation with high rates of high school degrees, a requirement for enrolling in college. They were extremely protected in childhood and, upon reaching adulthood, never had to fight in any major war. Because of the peace and prosperity of the times, more of them were able and could afford to go straight from high school to college.

It’s possible that Hoffer was directing his antagonism more at the Silent Generation than any other. They fit the description of what he was complaining about, as they were the rising vanguard of intellectuals, radicals, activists, and leaders that brought on the tumultuous 1960s — having included such figures as Martin Luther King jr and Malcolm X, Jane Fonda and Wavy Gravy.

Hoffer was of the Lost Generation (according to the birthdate he gave), the generation before the GIs. They were one of the most criticized generations in modern history (the earlier equivalent of Generation X), although largely forgotten now as a cohort. Unlike the Silent Generation, they were not pampered and instead were latchkey kids.

The Lost Generation was known for growing up quick because they had little choice, having been born into a world of mass industrialization and urbanization, of absent parents and broken communities. Most of them spent their childhoods working, rather than in school, and they experienced little parental oversight. They were a precocious lot, the first generation of mass consumers, and possibly the most violent generation America has ever seen. The world they knew as children was rough and chaotic. They were notorious for forming youth gangs in the cities rapidly becoming overcrowded (think of the movie “Gangs of New York” which, although portraying an earlier generation from the mid-19th century, was based on a work written by someone of the Lost Generation, Herbert Asbury). Later on, they were the veterans of WWI who experienced the larger world and came back not just with a cosmopolitan woldliness but also suffering PTSD, alcoholism, and addiction. They were among the most famous gangsters and bootleggers, not to mention among the most famous artists and writers: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Nucky Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Norman Rockwell, Grant Wood, George Gershwin, etc (some of the Elliot Ness’ Untouchables were of the same generational cohort). This generation made itself known and notorious during the Roaring Twenties, as I previously described them:

The members of Lost Generation were many things, but respectable they were not. They were immigrants and the children of immigrants, hoboes and migrant workers, gangsters and bank robbers, socialists and anarchists, drunks on Cannery Row and Bonus Army veterans camped out in Washington, DC. The Lost Generation members of my mom’s family in Southern Indiana included moonshiners and moonshine runners. They were born into a rough world, lived rough lives and often had rough endings. They were what the KKK so feared, what the older generation saw as a threat to the American Way.

These younger Americans didn’t have respect for tradition and social order, especially not the young blacks and the young women who demanded equal rights, the women even gaining the right to vote in 1920. It was in this early twentieth century era when the NAACP was founded and when the IWW was organized.

Of course most of that generation were forgotten members of the nameless working class. But even among the working class, radicalism was in the air and the many workers organized to confront the powers that be, sometimes with violent results which usually meant workers getting hurt and killed by the agents of corporate and political power. For example, Hoffer belonged to the militant leftist ILWU that was formed following a 1934 bloody strike and was headed by Harry Bridges, another member of the Lost Generation. The mostly unknown men in that and many other strikes made sacrifices that would benefit the workers who followed them. The good life of later generations, including that of Brenner’s Boomer Generation, was built on their backs. And sadly all that many in the Lost Generation got for their sacrifices was high rates of poverty and short lives. But they paved the way for the better life that would follow in the post-war Boom era.

Interestingly, Hoffer speaks of “alienated intellectuals”. The odd thing is that he gives voice to the alienated intellectual, apparently perceiving himself as a thinker alienated from a new generation of thinkers, which is the source of his complaint. The largely uneducated Lost Generation is famous for its alienated intellectuals. They were also highly critical of American society.

The protests of the 1960s was child’s play compared to the violent rampage of the Lost Generation, a complete overturning of the social order at the beginning of the 20th century. They didn’t just have race protests. They went so far as to have race wars that involved WWI veterans fighting military-style battles on American streets, sometimes leading to hundreds injured and killed along with bombings and the burning down of neighborhoods. That was the origin of the Civil Rights Movement. The labor organizing of that era, not just on the docks where Hoffer worked but also in Appalachian mining communities, was the most ferociously combative in American history. And when the Lost Generation wasn’t involved in that kind of ideological violence, the most dangerous troublemakers among them were committing gang violence and sometimes fighting federal agents. Social conflict at such extremes and violence at such high rates hadn’t been seen at that time since the Civil War. And holy shit were their politics radical, rooted in left-wing ideologies of a working class variety: trade unionism, syndicalism, anarchism, Marxism, communism, socialism, etc. The Lost Generation were extremists in so many ways, particularly on the political left but also on the political right, including some drawn toward fascism.

Maybe more than any other generation, they helped create what modern America has become. Or at the very least, they most starkly represented the societal change that transformed America and the world, whether they are considered a cause or a product of that change.

Continuing his ‘analysis’, Brenner makes further use of Hoffer’s writing:

The problem for society is “that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone,” Hoffer wrote. “He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important.” The country continued to be plagued by problems “like race relations, violence, drugs.” Common people, however, “know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.”

That is rich. If the likes of Brenner (and presumably Hoffer) had no desire to influence or feel that their existence mattered in the slightest, why all the writing directed at an audience consisting mostly of the educated? It has been mostly intellectuals like Brenner who have read intellectuals like Hoffer. These arguments aren’t to any great degree reaching the lower classes, not that they were ever the intended audience.

Once again, what is most irritating is the historical amnesia. It was the Lost Generation, especially later in life, that did so much to promote big government in throwing large sums of tax money at problems, such as helping to create Social Security and universal public education that helped following generations. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was immensely popular among the that generation and that was decades before the 1960s. And that public spending was funded with the highest tax rate the country had seen before or since.

Many in the Lost Generation, for all the deserved or undeserved blame they got, didn’t want others to have to suffer what they suffered. And because of their sacrifices, they were the last generation of uneducated child labor. They worked hard to ensure their own children and grandchildren could get educated and get good jobs. I doubt many felt nostalgic and morally righteous about their own brutally deprived childhoods. Quite a few of them for damn sure believed in the role of collective action, through government and unions, in ensuring the public good. This is how the American Dream was created, with rise of economic mobility and growth of the middle class promoted through immense government funding for public infrastructure and public programs, World War II vets benefiting most of all in a way that World War I vets never experienced, although life did improve for those of the Lost Generation who lived long enough.

Hoffer, having lived into the 1980s, was a beneficiary of this government funding and progressive economic policies, this political activism and labor organizing. His self-education and writing career was made possible from the high paying job and plenty of free time ensured by the labor union, having been a member of the most powerful leftist union at a time when unions were at their height of power. His retirement was supported through social security along with a union pension. Although he claimed to have wanted neither, he actively sought out filing his application for social security when he was around 40 years old and as a longshoreman he was an actively involved union member.

At an earlier point in his life when he was unemployed and homeless, a police officer directed him to a federal work camp. He spent a month there getting back on his feet. Observing his fellow tramps, his thinking was split between judgment and praise of these lowest of the low, but he had one moment of clarity in realizing that modern capitalism couldn’t do much for these impoverished men in stating that, “less than half the camp inmates (seventy normal, plus ten youths) were unemployed workers whose difficulties would be at an end once jobs were available. The rest (60 per cent) had handicaps in addition to unemployment.” But he didn’t seem to follow this line of thought to explore its implications for the larger society.

Also, he was proud of having made use of public libraries in his self-education, which is to say his supposed self-education was publicly funded. Besides, there are reasons to question the account he gave of his past, as no one has been able to confirm most of it. This is detailed by Thomas Bethell in his book, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher. Hoffer could speak English, German, and Hebrew. Also, he was familiar with German textbooks on botany and Chemistry. He claims to have taught himself much of this while living in poverty on skid row in Los Angeles. Bethell concludes in one article, “That is hard to believe” (The Mystery of Eric Hoffer). More plausible is that he had received an education at some point and for unknown reasons wanted to keep this past a secret, one explanation being that he was an undocumented immigrant from Germany. As Aram Bakshiam explains, in “The Ultimate Self-Made Man“:

While we will probably never know the true details of his birth and childhood years—most of what he wrote about them was contradictory or unsubstantiated—he clearly was immigrant stock, and quite possibly an immigrant himself. Until his dying day, he spoke with a particular type of thick German accent: southern “Low German” characteristic of Bavaria and Austria, although he claimed that his father was a cabinet maker from Alsace-Lorraine who had settled in the Bronx. No records exist to that effect. His dramatic accounts of childhood blindness, benevolent nurses, and the early deaths of both parents are also unsubstantiated. Indeed, the first documentation of Hoffer himself is his application for a Social Security account, filed in Sacramento, California, on June 10, 1937, when he would have been 38 years old. His pre-California life is thus a matter of speculation, and it is possible—even likely—that he was born in Germany, received some primary and secondary education there, and emigrated to America on his own as a young man, “jumping ship” without papers and heading pretty quickly to the West Coast.

Despite his expressed anti-intellectualism and attacks on the more educated younger generation, the same year he wrote “Whose Country is America?” (1970) he also “endowed the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Laconic Essay Prize for students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, Berkeley” (Wikipedia). And that was at a time when Berkely was almost entirely funded by government, as compared to only 14% public funding today.

So, it’s not clear who were the intellectuals he was attacking. He had weird notions about intellectuals. This is made clear by reading his 1970 essay, Whose Country Is America? Having not read it previously, I gave it a perusal. I can see why Brenner decided to use it. The piece is still relevant, although for reasons Brenner doesn’t understand or for reasons Brenner would rather others not understand. The same confusion that Hoffer espouses remains common to this day among too many Americans. Still, it’s quite telling in the ways that Brenner misreads and falsely portrays Hoffer’s views. In the last half of Brenner’s article, he explains what he considers to be Hoffer’s accurate prediction:

It’s a warning that affluence condemns younger generations to political decline unless institutional checks and balances, combined with education for civic responsibility, are rigorously preserved.

That is a highly deceptive paraphrasing of the original argument. It is true that Hoffer targets affluence as problematic. But what a plutocratic apologist like Brenner won’t acknowledge is that Hoffer was aiming his sights on the plutocracy. In Brenner’s conclusion he quotes Hoffer as concluding that, “We must deflate the pretensions of self‐appointed elites. These elites will hate us no matter what we do, and it is legitimate for us to help dump them into the dust bin of history.” What is left out is that he is talking about the moneyed elite, not just the educated elite, Hoffer having intentionally conflated the two in his argument. The elite that is being referred to is the aspiring technocrats of inherited wealth who, in seeking global influence (specifically referring to foreign aid), “hanker for the trappings of the 20th century. They want steel mills, airlines, skyscrapers, etc.” It’s a vision of industrialized corporatism. Today we would see in this the agenda of neoliberal globalization and neocon imperialism, the kind of thing Brenner fully supports.

Brenner is a joke. There is no need to take his ideas seriously, even as his intentions are deadly serious. He isn’t making an honest argument. But Hoffer is more problematic for his argument is earnest in its honest attempt at persuasion, genuinely believing what he is expressing. Still, I want to be clear that the moral faults of Brenner shouldn’t be projected onto Hoffer. The latter hated the likes of the former. There is good reason to doubt there would have been any friendship or kindness between those two, if they had ever met. Now I want to take Hoffer on his own terms, considering where he was coming from in his views and exploring what he meant by ‘intellectuals’.

It’s not clear what were Hoffer’s ultimate political commitments. In his writings, there are many thoughts expressed, not all of them fully articulated or consistent. But I feel confident that, for all of his complaints about what some might call the liberal class or bourgeoisie, he was far from standard American conservatism. As someone who personally preferred lovemaking to marriage, he stated in no uncertain terms that, “Lovemaking is radical, while marriage is conservative.” And he was equally clear about religion: “Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.” He was no culture warrior seeking to defend religious morality and family values.

About ‘intellectuals’, it was simultaneously more narrow and more broad than how most Americans would use the word, at least in present usage. He wrote that, “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Yet, speaking of himself a couple of year before his death, he referred to himself as learned: “I have written learnedly on the nature of creative milieus” (Last Notebook, September 25, 1981; quoted in Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher by Tom Bethell, p. 248). So, who exactly are the ‘learned’? It’s not entirely clear, since being learned apparently can be either a good or bad condition. Otherwise, we must assume that he was criticizing himself in his old age, implying that in having become learned he had found himself “beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” That latter interpretation is a real possibility. There is a note of nostalgia in some of his writing.

As he distinguishes being a learner and being learned, he doesn’t see all of intellect and intellectual activity as the sole proprietorship of the intelligentsia. Taken from an interview by Calvin Tomkins published in New Yorker, Penn Kemble offers this quote by Hoffer (On Eric Hoffer): “Every longshoreman thinks he could write a book if he tried—and it is true, he probably could… Every intellectual thinks that talent, that genius is a rare exception. Talent and genius have been wasted on an enormous scale throughout our history; this is all I know for sure.” This could be taken as humility. After all, he was a longshoreman who thought he could write a book if he tried and successfully did so. Still, it is an exaggeration. It is highly improbable that many longshoreman ever have such thoughts. As far as I can tell, most people in general have no aspiration to write a book, not even as a casual possibility.

Hoffer was just making a point, basically declaring the intelligentsia to be condescending. And no doubt this would accurately describe some of those in the intelligentsia, especially at a time when being an intellectual meant being part of a clearly defined and confined class. But these days, it sounds strange. Intellectuals are dime a dozen in the world right now, most of them not being part of the upper classes, much less a real or aspiring ruling elite. I live in a town where large proportion of the working class is ‘learned’, in that they have college degrees. When Hoffer was a young man, having a college degree meant a lot more than it means now.

It still seems strange. All of his writings were written fairly late in his life, his first book True Believer having been published in 1951 which was more than a half century after his birth in the late 19th century. His strident harping on intellectuals came in the following decades. The piece that Brenner quotes was written by Hoffer as an old man in his 70s. In those decades of his late life writing career, college education was becoming more common and far from being limited to the economically well off. He lived to see a large portion of several generations having moved from working class to middle class by going to college. Even though he acknowledged this new affluence as a key factor in what he perceived as fraying the moral fiber of society, he continued to think of higher education in purely class terms, as if most college students were still the children of the plutocracy. His observations and condemnations lagged behind changing realities.

Something just occurred to me. He is giving voice to the complaints that were made during his own childhood and young adulthood, although a slightly different context. Jackson Lears discusses this in Rebirth of a Nation, the relevant passage to be found in a post of mine from a few months ago (Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males). As rural life came to an end and a new generation was being urbanized, there was a sudden fear about the loss of rites of passage that were supposedly provided by farming, fishing, and hunting. It was a fear of immaturity and emasculation, that boys wouldn’t grow up to be real men (nor girls real women). As Lears put it, “for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease.” This seems to be what Hoffer means when he speaks of ‘intellectuals’, the anxious transition toward deindustrialization having followed closely after the anxious transition toward post-rural industrialization. In “Whose Country is America?”, he writes:

In the past, breakdowns of value affected mainly the older segment of the population. This was true of the breakdown of the Graeco‐Roman civilization, of the crisis that gave birth to the Reformation, and of the periods of social disintegration that preceded the French, the Russian and the Nazi revolutions. That our present crisis particularly affects the young is due partly to the fact that widespread affluence is robbing a modem society of whatever it has left of puberty rites to routinize line attainment of manhood. Never before has the passage from boyhood to manhood been so difficult and explosive. Both the children of the well‐to‐do and of families on welfare are prevented from having a share in the world’s work and of proving their manhood by doing a man’s work and getting a man’s pay. Crime in the streets and insolence on the campus are sick forms of adolescent self‐assertion. The young account for an ever‐increasing percentage of crimes against persons and property. The peak years for crimes of violence are 18 to 20, followed by the 21 to 24 age group.

He talks about this as if it were a new phenomenon or else a new phase in an ongoing phenomenon. I wonder if was unaware that these exact same charges were made against his own generation. This shift had been going for centuries as urbanization progressed, but the same complaints were probably heard in the first city-states millennia ago. Certainly, there was rising crime rates centuries ago when, because of land enclosure, unemployed landless peasants crowded into cities. And there was a severe spike of youth violence in Hoffer’s own generation at the beginning of the 20th century, caused by rapid urbanization, mass immigration, and high rates of childhood lead toxicity. But overall violence and crime had been decreasing across history, as Steven Pinker pointed out with the Moral Flynn Effect. Nonetheless, I will give Hoffer credit for understanding that there is a larger historical context that needs to be considered, for a few paragraphs on he adds:

THE contemporary blurring of childhood is not unprecedented. During the Middle Ages, children were viewed and treated as miniature adults. Nothing in medieval dress distinguished the child from the adult. The moment children could walk and talk they entered the adult world, and took part in the world’s work. In subsequent centuries, the concept of childhood became more clearly defined. Yet even as late as 1835 schoolbooks in this country made no concession to childhood in vocabulary or sophistication. Child labor, so widely practiced in the first half of the 19th century, and which we find abhorrent, was not totally anomalous in a society that did not have a vivid view of childhood as a sheltered, privileged age.

To counteract an old man’s tend ency to snort at the self‐important young, I keep reminding myself that until the middle of the 19th century the young acted effectively as members of political parties, creators of business enterprises, advocates of new philosophical doctrines and leaders of armies. Most of the wars that figure in our history books were fought by teenagers. ‘There were 14‐year‐old lieutenants in Louis XIV’s armies. In one of his armies the oldest soldier was under 18. The middle aged came to the fore with the Industrial Revolution. The experience and capital necessary to make an industrialist required a long apprenticeship. One might say that from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century the world was run by and for the middle‐aged. The post industrial age seems to be groping its way back to an immemorial situation interrupted by the Industrial [Revolution?].

That is a thousand more times interesting than how Brenner filters the argument down into simplistic ideological rhetoric. It reminds me of a number of things. Daniel Everett observed that the Amazonian Piraha lack any extended childhood and adolescence with no stage of life involving tantrums or rebellion, just a straight and immediate transition into adulthood following toddlerhood. Research has found that, under stressful conditions, biological including neurocognitive development happens at a faster rate (related to this, Adam Smith argued for universal public education precisely for the reason that he predicted repetitive labor would stunt cognitive development, which is confirmed by this research showing stress-related premature development correlates to constrained development, meaning that earlier maturation comes at the cost of human potential). That is surely the case with the Piraha with the dangerous environment they live in and the corresponding high rate of child mortality, such conditions demanding early maturity which Everett noted in the greater physical ability of Piraha children. The same would have been true for childhood prior to modern public education and health concerns. For most children in the Western world until the GI Generation, they had to grow up fast often for the sake of survival. A kid who didn’t mature rapidly would have a low survival rate while working on a farm, in a mine, or in a factory. That was the reality for most children until child labor laws.

Hoffer doesn’t make it clear, but the issue of concern isn’t merely ‘intellectuals’. The comfortable intellectual class along with college students are symbolic in his mind of the growing affluence of society in general and so indicative of the worsening anxiety about what the changes mean. That said, his claim is absurd in arguing that the younger generations are acting out delayed adolescence in fighting for basic human rights. There is an element of truth that affluence makes social progress possible. The desperately poor and disenfranchised often have a harder time challenging entrenched power. The American colonists, for example, were able to successfully revolt partly because they were one of the most free and affluent populations in the world at that time. It takes immense resources (human, economic, and natural) to support such a collective action against centralized authority, even when it was as distant as was the seat of British imperial power. But it is pointless and unfair to complain about people who choose to seek betterment for themselves and their society when the opportunity arises. This is particularly the case for someone like Hoffer who took advantage of such a time of affluence, fought for by others, that allowed him to work shorter hours for greater pay in order to have the freedom to write and get published such intellectual arguments.

I find it hard to follow the line of his thought. He sees a modern industrial society as inevitably aligned with the middle class. But he doesn’t seem to mean the struggling and aspiring lower middle class of the upwardly mobile American Dream, many having been of the working class not long before. Maybe he is primarily speaking of the upper middle class professionals, the segment of the middle class that had been fairly stable for many generations at that point. Such stability is what is required for an intelligentsia to form, what he simply refers to as ‘intellectuals’. The argument, from what I can tell, is that affluence has made this upper middle class too stable and secure, and so utterly disconnected from the working class that they look down upon. There is some kind of loss of what originally motivated the middle class and fueled the Industrial Revolution, as a post-industrial age takes over and indeed in that 1970 piece he already saw America as becoming post-industrial, whatever that meant to him at that time.

It’s as Hoffer continues with his piece that he goes from being a crotchety old man to a mad visionary of fevered dreams. Listen to him here:

In this country, the coming of the postindustrial age may mean the loss of all that made America new—the only new thing in the world. America will no longer be the common man’s continent. The common people of Europe eloped with history to America and have lived in common‐law marriage with it, unhallowed by the incantations of “men of words.” But the elites are finally catching up with us. We can hear the swish of leather as saddles are heaved on our backs. The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride

What the fuck! It’s an amusing image, but it’s plain nonsense. When did the common man control all of American society? When the Constitution was put into place, only a few percentage of Americans could vote, hold public office, or participate in any way. Most blacks were enslaved, Native Americans were still experiencing genocide, most women didn’t even have the most basic rights, and even the vast majority of white men were disenfranchised. This has always been a country of a ruling elite, even as some Americans were always seeking to escape to the frontier to get beyond their reach.

What Hoffer probably had in mind was the sweet deal he had in one of the rare highly democratic labor unions in the country where workers had control over their own fates. As for most other Americans at the time, they had little control at all and neither did their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. In America, when the common man fought the elite, I can promise you the common man rarely won that fight. Legalized slavery through chain gangs, oppression in diverse forms, and political disenfranchisement continued well into the 20th century. Hoffer’s latter years were spent in one of those rare places and times in American history, far from being representative of what most Americans had experienced. And the freedom that Hoffer was given freely by his fellow union members was bought for with generations of their sweat, blood, and tears. It was a heavy price to pay for that small amount of freedom for a small part of the population and even that would be lost as unions came under attack near the end of his life. He took a lot for granted.

He continues:

The phenomenal increase of the student population is shaping the ‘attitudes and aspirations of the young. There are now more students in America than farmers. For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image. The young’s sympathy for the Negro and the poor goes hand in hand with an elitist conceit that pits them against the egalitarian masses. They will fight for the Negro and the poor, but they have no use for common folk who work and moonlight to take care of their own. They see a free‐wheeling democracy as a society stupefied by “the narcotic of mass culture.” They reserve their wrath for the institutions in which common people are most represented: unions, Congress, the police and the Army. Professor Edgar Z. Friedenberg thinks that “elitism is the great and distinctive contribution students are making to American society.” Democracy is for the dropouts; for the elite, an aristocratic brotherhood.

Holy fuck! What was this guy smoking? He seems to think being educated is a bad thing, the doom of America. Besides, it’s not like students killed all the farmers and feasted upon their blood. Many of those first generation of college students had been raised on farms. Their uneducated parents wanted them to get a college degree and do better. Considering that Hoffer comes off sounding like an alienated intellectual, his whole ranting jeremiad is rather misguided.

Even more unforgivable, he dismisses everyone who is not like him as being allowed membership into the “common folk”. Minorities aren’t common folk. The poor aren’t common folk. The young aren’t common folk. And anyone who aspires above the most basic manual labor isn’t common folk. I guess only older whites with little education but well paid unionized workers like Hoffer who hate mass culture are common folk. If so, these idealized common folk aren’t all that common. It’s disturbing to learn that all of the major institutions of American society (unions, Congress, the police and the Army, not to mention democracy itself) don’t represent minorities, the poor, the young, the educated, dropouts, the elite, or anyone else who doesn’t precisely share Hoffer’s demographic profile. I suppose I’m fine with excluding the aristocrats, but I don’r run into too many of them these days.

He preaches that, “For those who want to be left alone to realize their capacities and talents, this is an ideal country.” As he wrote those words, poor minorities were being ghettoized, working class white communities were falling into poverty and despair, an entire generation was once again being poisoned with lead toxicity, the police were being militarized to target the lower classes, his beloved unions were under attack, the government was destroying grassroots movements with oppressive COINTELPRO, a hopeless war in Vietnam was being fought and pointlessly killing so many in the process, several inspiring leaders had been assassinated, and one of the most corrupt leaders in US history was president. All he had to do was open his eyes and clean the wax out of his ears. His ideal society was in shambles.

He further lambasts the ‘intellectual’:

The trouble is, of course, that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone. He wants to be listened to and be taken seriously. He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important. He is free to speak and write as he pleases, and can probably make himself heard and read more easily than one who would defend America. But he can neither sway elections nor shape policy. Even when his excellence as a writer, artist, scholar, scientist or educator is generally recognized and rewarded he does not feel himself part of the power structure. In no other country has there been so little liaison between men of words and the men of action who exercise power. The body of intellectuals in America has never been integrated with or congenial to the politicians and business men who make things happen. Indeed, the uniqueness of modem America derives in no small part from the fact that America has kept intellectuals away from power and paid little attention to their political [opinions].

The nineteen‐sixties have made it patent that much of the intellectual’s dissent is fueled by a hunger for power. The appearance of potent allies—militant blacks and students —has emboldened the intellectual to come out into the open. He still feels homeless in America, but the spectacle of proud authority, in cities and on campuses, always surrendering before threats of violence, is to him a clear indication that middle‐class society is about to fall apart, and he is all set to pick up the pieces.

There is no doubt that in our permissive society the intellectual has far more liberty than he can use; and the more his liberty and the less his capacity to make use of it, the louder his clamor for power—power to deprive other people of liberty.

Martin Luther King, jr was an alienated intellectual. There were many people who had sought higher education to improve themselves and to better their life circumstances. That has always been a core element to American society, the aspiration for something more. Hoffer is correct in a sense that such people aspiring didn’t merely want to be left alone. They wanted freedom and opportunity to act. They wanted to be treated as full citizens as part of a functioning democratic society. They wanted to participate in civic society and to feel like they belonged. They wanted to be able to give their children what they had not been given. I doubt even Hoffer merely wanted to be left alone. His unionized job gave him far more than that. Most other Americans simply wanted what Hoffer had and took for granted. Getting a college education hardly gave most people entry into the intellectual elite. Hoffer sounds resentful of the younger generations for being given opportunities of higher education he had maybe been denied when he was younger, even though such new opportunities were still rather limited. The generations following his own were hardly living the high life. Most Americans of all generations continued to have rather basic lives, their greatest achievements maybe involved owning a house and affording to take vacations, no different than what was available to Hoffer.

It is odd that he felt so threatened by ‘intellectuals’. To this day, most people with higher education don’t have much power in our society. It’s the plutocracy of politicians and businessmen who go to Ivy League colleges and dominate American society. Even the average college professor or teaching assistant is far from being part of the ruling elite, especially as universities become increasingly dependent on private funding from wealthy benefactors and corporate interests. Sure, intellectuals could express their dissent and lend their voice to protest movements, but the intellectuals of recent history ended up having less impact than the intellectuals from earlier in our country’s history, from the American Revolution to the Civil War. The only way intellectuals can gain power is to become part of the political class or get hired by a corporate think tank, as did Brenner. Obviously, Hoffer had no idea where the country was heading, from his limited vantage point from a half century ago.

A bit further on, his tirade goes into yet more strange territory:

AN interesting peculiarity of present‐day dissenting intellectuals is their lack of animus toward the rich. They are against the Government, the Congress, the Army and the police, and against corporations and unions, but hardly anything is being said or written against “the money changers in the temple,” “the economic royalists,” “the malefactors of great wealth” and “the maniacs wild for gold” who were the butt of vituperation in the past. Indeed, there is nowadays a certain rapport between the rich and the would‐be revolutionaries. The outlandish role the rich are playing in the affluent society is one of the surprises of our time. Though the logic of it seems now fairly evident, I doubt whether anyone had foreseen that affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor and nudge them toward an alliance against those in the middle. What ever we have of revolution just now is financed [by?] the rich.

I didn’t know that present-day intellectuals lacked animus toward the rich. Apparently, there were quite a few intellectuals who weren’t told about this. Besides inspiring leaders like MLK, there were college-educated radicals such as Fred Hampton and academics such as Chomsky. There has been a long tradition of American intellectuals with less than friendly attitudes toward the problems of concentrated wealth and plutocracy. That has been a major driving force of a strain of American intellectuality over the centuries and directed at diverse guilty parties: British monied interests, Southern aristocrats, wealthy slaveholders, war profiteers, large landholders, those of inherited wealth, Robber Barons, etc. These intellectual critics of the rich have come from diverse backgrounds, from various degrees of education to various levels of socioeconomic class.

It’s extremely hard to figure out what Hoffer is going on about. Who are these “the money changers in the temple,” “the economic royalists,” “the malefactors of great wealth” and “the maniacs wild for gold”? If these plutocrats and moneyed interests aren’t in any aspect of government or business, then what are they doing and where did the wealth come from? He is being intellectually vague and evasive. The target of his ire appears to be an apparition of his imagination. What the heck is a revolution financed by the rich who aren’t involved in either the public sphere or the private economy? Is he suggesting that the Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, Black Panthers, etc are all being secretly funded by a plutocratic conspiracy against the middling but uneducated common folk? And what is this radicalism that he speaks of? Is he not including the labor union he belonged to, one of the most radical in US history? Why is the radicalism that has benefited him personally not included in his criticisms?

More along these lines, he explains this radicalism:

Moreover, the radicalized rich have radical children. There is no generation gap here. The most violent cliques of the New Left are made up of the children of the rich. The Weathermen…have not a member with a workingman’s back ground. The behavior of the extremist young makes sense when seen as the behavior of spoiled brats used to instant fulfillment who expect the solutions to life’s problems to be there on demand. And just as in former days aristocratic sprigs horse whipped peasants, so at present the children of the rich are riding rough shod over community sensibilities. The rich parents applaud and subsidize their revolutionary children, and probably brag about them at dinner parties.

I don’t know of many in the New Left that came out of wealthy elite. There were many radicals and activist that came out of the middle class, including the lower middle class. That has always been true, partly because the middle class have more time and resources for political involvement. Still, it would be false to say that the working class weren’t involved as well. He seems aware of this when in this same piece he wrote that, “affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor,” unless he is arguing that the working class and the working poor are two separate groups with the latter somehow being radically aligned with the plutocracy, which would be a kooky argument to make. I’m not sure how affluence radicalizes the lowest poor who lack affluence more than anyone else. There is absolutely no logical consistency and coherence to this meandering line of thought. His mind is all over the place.

Let me get at some specifics. Even where it’s clear what he means, it is far from justified. Take his claim that, “The Weathermen…have not a member with a workingman’s back ground.” That is patently false. I don’t know the background of all the members of the Weather Underground, but some of them were from the working class, such as Terry Robbins having been raised by a single father who was a factory worker and Naomi Jaffe having grown up on a small family farm. The New Left, like the Old Left, included many from the working class. As with MLK, the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton sought to organize the working class of all races and ethnicities in what was called the Rainbow Coalition. Hampton reached out to the working class white groups such as the Young Patriots, the kind of people who didn’t have the protection and representation of labor unions as did Hoffer. These working poor whites felt immense gratitude in being acknowledged and included by the Black Panthers, as they had been ignored and dismissed by mainstream society.

Like so many other respectable people at the time, Hoffer shows little understanding of these people and this is in spite of his once having had known poverty. His own words make clear the disconnection from the common folk that he projects onto supposedly wealthy intellectuals. In his comfortable older age made possible by the working class activism of his labor union, he forgot what it meant to be poor. He makes the odd assertion that, “It is remarkable that common people are aware of this fact. They know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.” Well, he must not have been talking to many common folk when he wrote those words in 1970. Yet he occasionally comes close to understanding, before flitting away back to his perch of middle class identity:

The diffusion of affluence has accelerated the absorption of the majority of workingmen into the middle class. The unemployable poor, left behind, feel isolated and ex posed, and it is becoming evident that a middle‐class society, which hugs the conviction that everyone can take care of himself, is singularly inept in helping those who cannot help themselves. If the rich cannot feel rich in an affluent society, the poor have never felt poorer.

What is left out is the large numbers of working poor. This population was the majority for most of American history. The middle class did briefly grow larger, but the working poor have never been small in number and they are returning to their predominance in our society. Hoffer doesn’t seem to realize the highly unusual and precarious nature of the temporary economic boom that made a large middle class possible after World War II. He acts like the working poor have disappeared from the world, based on an assumption that the only poor people remaining are those unable or unwilling to work. Yet most poor people continued to work what jobs they could find, although it is true that some turned to the black market for a source of income. Heck, when Hoffer was poor, he also turned to the black market of odd jobs. How did he come to lose this awareness of the lives of the working poor? Talk about disconnection of an extreme variety.

After imagining the working poor out of existence, he goes back to his routine of blaming the ‘intellectuals’:

I have yet to meet an intellectual who truly believes that common people can govern themselves and run things without outstanding leaders. In the longshore men’s union the intellectuals have a nervous breakdown anytime a common, barely literate longshoreman runs for office and gets elected.

He says this about the union he belonged to, the ILWU. What made it unique is that it broke free from another union that the workers perceived as corrupt. They formed the ILWU to be more democratic with little hierarchy to separate the union leaders from the union members, such as disallowing high salaries. Those supposed intellectuals had spent their lives making sacrifices and had participated in bloody strikes. These union leaders and activists were far less disconnected from the realities on the ground than apparently was Hoffer. And where does his moral high ground come from? He was an active member of the union, but he never sought a leadership position or to volunteer on behalf of his fellow workers. No one was keeping him from being more involved and having greater influence. Instead, he chose to spend the freedom that the union made possible to pursue his intellectual ambitions. That is as it should have been. The freedom given to him was a good thing. But maybe he should have shown more appreciation and gratitude.

Like his definition of an intellectual, his view on socioeconomic classes was a bit unusual. But the confusion is maybe more common than in a country like this. The class order has been constantly shifting for the entirety of American history. So, I’m not sure what to think of Hoffer’s ideas about class. Seven years earlier in 1963, he wrote another piece titled The Role of the Undesirables. He uses a similar class breakdown and yet his conclusion has a slightly different emphasis compared to his 1970 analysis.

In both cases, 1963 and 1970, he seems to conflate the working class with the middle class, portraying the extremes at the top and bottom as something else entirely. But in the 1963 piece, he refers to them as the best and the worst, which I guess portrays the amalgamated working-middle class as mediocre — stating that the “inert mass of a nation is in its middle section” and that, apparently in an inert state of impotence or apathy, “are worked upon and shaped by minorities at both extremes: the best and the worst.” He is uncertain about whether he should blame or praise the broad middle section of workers, even though he idealizes the work that he claims that only they do, the very work that supports and pays for all of society including the lifestyles of the presumably nonworking rich and poor. Yet as he argues in 1970, the affluence has made the middle class flabby and indolent. Does this mean the affluence has lifted them up into the lazy upper class? As for intellectuals, he never is clear about whether to entirely blame them on the upper class or to share some of the blame with the middle class. Where else are the increasing number of college students to come from other than the growing middle class?

In Hoffer’s vision of class order, specifically as it relates to the moral order, inertness is the rhetorical opposite of action. He often speaks of men of action. Like so much else in Hofferian thought, it’s not clear about the quality or value of such things. Businessmen and politicians are often portrayed as ultimate men of action, but also leaders of mass movements (True Believer, p. 115). On the other hand, the rich and intellectuals are defined as being men of leisure, no matter how much they may long for power over others. You’d think that this is praise of capitalist system where men of action dominate, but his take on capitalism is nuanced:

It is probably true that business corrupts everything it touches. It corrupts politics, sports, literature, art, labor unions and so on. But business also corrupts and undermines monolithic totalitarianism. Capitalism is at its liberating best in a noncapitalist environment.
(“Thoughts of Eric Hoffer, Including: ‘Absolute Faith Corrupts Absolutely,'” in The New York Times Magazine, 25 April 1971, p. 50)

Now that is a unique view of capitalism. There is an implied corollary conclusion: Capitalism is at its liberating worst in a capitalist environment. That is to say that capitalism only leads to freedom when it doesn’t dominate. So, one would think that the moment one is free capitalism should be quickly limited and powerfully regulated, lest it becomes a new force of corruption. Just because the businessman avoids the moral failing of leisure and laziness doesn’t mean that being a man of action necessarily leads to moral worth and excellence. Men of action are only made worthy in their capacity to build and contribute, even the most lowly men forced into action by circumstances. As a writer and an intellectual, Hoffer still sought his identity as a manual laborer, one who does productive work. Any other kind of action was suspect. So, the worker needed to distinguish himself from the intellectuals, including the intellectuals in union leadership, even when those intellectuals had worked their way up from mere laborers. And workers as men of action are in opposition to managers as men of action, when their action was merely to manage workers doing the real work. It’s an almost left-wing idealization of the worker minus any clear left-wing ideology.

Penn Kemble, in On Eric Hoffer, offers this quote:

To the eternal workingman management is substantially the same whether it is made up of profit seekers, idealists, technicians, or bureaucrats. The allegiance of the manager is to the tasks and the results. However noble his motives, he cannot help viewing the workers as a means to an end. He will always try to get the most out of them; and it matters not whether he does it for the sake of profit, for a holy cause, or for the sheer principle of efficiency. . . . Our sole protection lies in keeping the division between management and labor obvious and matter-of-fact. We want management to manage the best it can, and the workers to protect their interests the best they can. No social order will seem to us free if it makes it difficult for the worker to maintain a considerable degree of independence from management. The things which bolster this independence are not utopian. Effective labor unions free movement over a relatively large area, a savings account, a tradition of individual self-respect—these are some of them.

Management is to be kept in its place, serving its limited role and leaving workers alone. That describes how his labor union operated, as employment and specific work opportunities were directly controlled by the union, not management. He has the left-wing mistrust of management. And he goes so far as to see business as a corrupting force. Yet it is the intellectual who is most easily corrupted. In a 1967 interview by CBS’s Eric Sevareid, Hoffer explained:

First of all, I ought to tell you I have no grievance against the intellectual. All I know about the intellectuals is what I read in history and how I saw them perform. And I’m convinced that the intellectual, as a type, as a group, are more corrupted by power than any other human type. It’s disconcerting, Mr. Sevareid, to realize that businessmen, generals even, soldiers, men of action are not corrupted by power like intellectuals.

Here is how I make sense of this. Men of action have the power to corrupt. But it is men of leisure who are prone to corruption. I presume that is the fear of the middle class transitioning from a bourgeoisie working class to a bourgeoisie leisure class. And I presume that is why colleges are to be seen as potential sites of corruption, for that is where a new generation of wealthier intellectuals is born out of the middle class. Or something like that. As such, the only saving grace of society is the work of the working class, which he calls the middle class. This is why he argues for work being instated as a rite of passage for the young generation, to ensure they turned into proper adults, rather than lingering in extended adolescence. The proposal in question seems to be some kind of work program for social uplift, by keeping the middle class grounded in the working class out of which it emerged. Yet he acknowledges this situation was a creation of a middle class industrialized society and so the fate of a post-industrial society is far from hopeful.

I’m attempting to clarify what Hoffer himself never quite made clear. His thought had too many loose strands. Like his mysterious past, his criticisms of society and his moral vision maybe doesn’t quite add up. It feels like he is attempting some kind of balancing act with no specific point of balance. The poor and the rich don’t work. But the middle class that is the working class has become inert and is in danger of no longer producing men of action. These men of action are needed, even as they are inevitably corrupting. They are still better than the men of inaction who are simply corrupted. The problem is that action is motivated by work toward affluence, but that affluence undermines society. Everything is constantly under threat of becoming something else and so the whole precarious order breaks down. His intellectual philosophizing was formed out of and made possible by the radical activism of trade unionism, even as he denigrated both intellectuality and radicalism. Praise becomes criticism and criticism becomes praise. His thoughts go round and round without quite cohering into a whole.

All of this makes it easy to cherrypick quotes from Hoffer’s decades of writings and take his life experience out of context. His lack of clarity is a product of our confused society. And so it makes for useful fodder in justifying the muddled rhetoric about the social order, as long as one ignore the inconvenient parts of his thought. That is how such an odd thinker can end up being used by a think tank intellectual in a Wall Street Journal propaganda piece.

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The Right’s Working-Class Philosopher
by Peter Cole, Jacobin

He was a frequent guest on network television, often praising conservative politicians like then-California Governor Ronald Reagan. In his first and most influential book, The True Believer, Hoffer criticized mass movements of all stripes, especially communism, and lauded the government’s containment policy.

Yet Hoffer was a walking contradiction. Despite his rightist politics, Hoffer belonged not just to the country’s most powerful leftist union, the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), but its most militant local, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Local 10.

The central paradox of Hoffer’s life is even more striking because it was precisely the left-wing militancy of the ILWU that provided him the good fortune (yes, fortune) and time to write nearly a dozen books and hundreds of articles condemning radicalism, civil rights, and the social advances of the 1960s. […]

In a real sense, sailors and dockers were the world’s first proletarians, toiling under corporate-controlled shipping lines in the first global industry. And like some of the pirates of yesteryear, the ILWU had created a system that spread the wealth among all its members.

In addition to this largesse, Hoffer also benefited from the tremendous flexibility ILWU members had won. In essence, rank and filers could decide when — and if — they wanted to work on a particular day. He also had the advantage of location: While there were no guarantees of a ship to work, San Francisco had long been the largest and busiest port on the coast.

All Hoffer had to do to maintain his union membership was report to the hall a certain number of days each quarter, attend monthly meetings, and pay his union dues. Thus, the “longshore philosopher” could work three days a week, write the other days, and know that he would get dispatched when he showed up at the hall. Or, he could work six straight days and take a week off to think and write, as he often did. And if that didn’t provide him enough latitude, union members like Hoffer could decide that they wanted to work in another ILWU-controlled port.

It was into this union that Hoffer stumbled, making (for a writer) an incredibly soft landing. He then proceeded to lambast the politics of the Left that had made his life so rich in money, safety, and workplace power.

Hoffer deeply appreciated the working conditions created by his powerful union, calling them “millennial” on numerous occasions. Yet he refused to praise the union and its leftist leadership, including President Harry Bridges. Bridges and the ILWU membership were highly critical of US foreign policy, especially its military interventions in Asia.

As a result of their politics, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of ILWU members were investigated for “communist sympathies.” Bridges himself was likely the single most persecuted labor leader during the McCarthy era — both by the government and a rightward-shifting CIO, which expelled the ILWU in 1950. However, he survived due to the tremendous loyalty of ILWU members, most of whom were not communists but almost all of whom loved what Harry and the other “’34 men” had done to create such a great job for working people.

Even in his private journals, some of which later were published, Hoffer rarely credited the union, and never Bridges. Though the man wrote constantly and voluminously, he rarely wrote about the union that made the selfsame writing possible.

He occasionally commented in his journals on the work he did — unloading transistor radios for eight hours at Pier 34 or working with a Portuguese partner while talking about his family. But the “longshoremen philosopher” never seemed to reflect deeply on the ILWU nor his role in it. For a while he became interested in automation and its impacts on workers, but largely was sanguine, hopeful, and arguably naïve about the benefits of capitalism for ordinary people.

The man lived a rich life of the mind — reading on the job during breaks, taking half-day walks to ponder particular intellectual conundrums, journaling fastidiously, and writing for publications. However, he never changed his views that politicians like Nixon and, especially, Reagan (first as governor, later as president) were noble and his union leaders dupes, “true believers” of false idols who demonstrated their own lack of self-confidence by joining a mass movement. Based on the limited record, Hoffer never spoke at meetings, never ran for any union office, and never volunteered in the union to help his fellow workers.

Ironically, the best-known working-class American of the Cold War era was a conservative who was lucky enough to find a job represented by the most powerful leftist union in postwar America. As such, his life represents the cognitive dissonance of many working Americans today: profiting from — albeit less so than in the past — the great gains of the labor movement yet unwilling to become union advocates.

Public Intellectuals As Thought Leaders

“We are at a curious moment in the marketplace of ideas. It is the best of times for thought leaders. It is the worst of times for public intellectuals. It is the most disorienting of times for everyone else.”

That is what Daniel Drezner writes about in his piece at the Oxford University Press blog, The decline of public intellectuals. I understand the complaint, as it is far from unjustified. But I must admit that my perspective is different. I’ve seen too many bad examples of public intellectuals to be able to blame it all on thought leaders. Of course, that isn’t to say many thought leaders don’t deserve to share the blame.

My attitude on the subject is from taking a broader perspective on what it has meant to be an intellectual in the past and what it means today. In the past, most people were silenced, people such as myself. But it isn’t just that more people have access to being heard today. People also have more access to information and education than ever before. There simply are more smart educated people than there once was. Along with higher rates of high school graduation and college degrees, the average IQ has jumped up 20 points these past generations.

Yes, there are more thought leaders today. But there are also more public intellectuals. And generally there is simply more people involved in public debate. That is the only hope that we might one day have a functioning democracy. That is far from public intellectuals being in decline. It’s just that people don’t automatically bow down to them. When I think a public intellectual is wrong, I’ve challenged them and have done so with knowledge, even though I lack higher education. I’m more widely read than the average public intellectual, as understandably most public intellectuals have a field of expertise that has allowed them to gain public attention.

Is the world a worse place for there now being people who will force public intellectuals to be accountable and won’t let them slip past based solely on their claims of authority? This is a good thing and the author begrudgingly agrees to an extent, although one can sense that he is nostalgic for an earlier time when he imagines public intellectuals were respected. I’d point out that it wasn’t only the average person who was silenced in the past. Even most intellectuals and aspiring public intellectuals were silenced while a few public intellectuals dominated nearly all public debate, not always the cream of the crop rising to the top. There is no better time in all of history than right now to be a public intellectual or be involved in public debate in any manner.

Besides, anyone who thinks bad ideas didn’t flourish in the past is utterly clueless about history. And when a public intellectual makes statements to that effect, he should be confronted about it. The role of the public intellectual hasn’t fundamentally changed. And don’t for a moment think that public intellectuals never spread bad ideas. In fact, bad ideas would rarely become popular if not for public intellectuals. This is because there is no clear distinction between a public intellectual and a thought leader.

To be fair, he does make a good point about think tanks. There is big money promoting bad ideas. And it is hard for public intellectuals to fight against that. And he is right that the only solution is “is more discord and more debate.” But also more demand for honesty and integrity, especially from public intellectuals, whether working for think tanks or not (unfortunately, even scientists are increasingly getting their funding from corporations and corporate-related organizations). When a bad idea gets spread by a public intellectual, which happens on a regular basis, it gives that bad idea legitimacy. That is more dangerous than a thousand thought leaders spouting bullshit.

I read a Wall Street Journal article the other day, Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage by Bari Weiss (full text). He quotes from an interview he had with Haidt, a public intellectual who has increasingly become a thought leader. I found it a depressing experience to read his view because it was once again framed by a standard right-wing culture war narrative. He asserted college activists as being part of a dangerous campus religion, ignoring the incident in question at UC Berkley was instigated by unknown masked agitators who may have had no association with the student body.

Anyway, what about the long history of students protesting, sometimes violently, at universities that goes back centuries? Why is students protesting now all of a sudden a sign of activism turning into a religion? And what about all the other threatening acts by those who aren’t students: the attacks by Trump supporters, the recent increase in hate crimes, the violence directed at women’s clinic workers, the rancher supporters pointing guns at federal agents, the right-wingers who occupied federal land with weapons, etc? Is every act of protest to be considered religious or quasi-religious in nature? As always, there is historical amnesia and a lack of larger context.

Because Haidt is a respected public intellectual, his weird brand of conservative-minded liberalism gets pushed to center stage, the supposed ‘mainstream’, where he has immense influence. Worse still, many other public intellectuals will defend people like him, even when they step far outside their narrow field of expertise. To be honest, Haidt’s opinion on this matter is no more relevant than that of any random person. He is the kind of public-intellectual-cum-thought-leader that is disconnected from reality, arguing that academia has shifted far left even while being oblivious to the fact that the majority of Americans have also shifted left, further left than academia on such issues as economics. This has left those like Haidt trying to hold their ground in center-right liberalism, as the rest of the society moves further away in the opposite direction.

More than anything, what we need is more common people closer to realities on the ground, yet those who are well read and well informed enough to be involved in public debate. Their voices need to be promoted, as they often have perspectives that are lacking among the formally educated. For example, if we want to have a debate about poverty, the voices that are most important are the poor who have genuine insights to add, insights that most in the economically comfortable intellectual class would likely never consider. That came up in recent corporate media obsession with Appalachia, where a few desperately poor whites get all the attention while intellectuals and activists in Appalachia get ignored because they confuse the narrative, a point made by Elizabeth Catte among others. We need to rely less on a few famous public intellectuals to have an opinion on everything. That just leads to an increase in the incidents of the smart idiot effect.

I’m not sure the exact solution. I wish everyone involved would take truth-seeking more seriously, such as not making wild claims and accusations in order to get corporate media attention. I feel like the role of public intellectual has been cheapened, as so many attention whores chase the spotlight and compete for book deals. But I guess that is to be expected in this kind of capitalist society where even academics win the competition of ideas through fame and money. It doesn’t matter that there thousands of scholars with deeper understanding and insight than someone like Haidt. They don’t tell the corporate media hacks what they want to hear, the popular narratives that sell advertising.

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As a side note, this is hardly a new issue for me. I’ve long fought for a more inclusive and democratic vision of public intellectuality. If you publicly express your intellect on a regular basis, then you are a public intellectual. All that it takes is to be curious with a love of learning, willing to question and doubt, and a desire to engage with others.

I take this seriously. And I’m not tolerant of bullshit. I hold public intellectuals to a high standard because their role in society is so important. That standard remains the same no matter who the person is. Authority, perceived or real, doesn’t change the fact that a public intellectual has a responsibility to the public and so the public has the responsibility to hold them accountable. Public debate is a two way street, a discussion and not a lecture.

In that light, I’ve seen it as one of my roles to offer judgment where I deem it necessary. Along with criticism of Jonathan Haidt, I’ve turned my critical gaze to other public intellectuals, sometimes interacting with them directly in the process: Rick ShenkmanPaul BloomKenan MalikCris Campbell, and I suppose there might have been others.

Iowans and Alien Invasion

The Alien Invasion genre is more popular in Iowa than compared to most states, including elsewhere in the Midwest.

After being abducted by aliens a few times in a cornfield, you start to take the alien issue more seriously. Watch the movie ‘Children of the Corn’ and you’ll understand that great dangers lurk in cornfields. It’s not just dreams that are found in those fields. If you build it, you can’t be certain who or what will come.

Let’s just say that we are concerned. And we are also prepared, as another Iowan favorite is the Amateur Crime Fighters genre. Still, we are open to other possibilities, as we also like the Paranormal Romance genre. We’re undecided about the appropriate response to the unknown.

We don’t care much about the Fairy Tale genre, though. That is kid’s stuff. No one ever worries about a fairy invasion. Just don’t eat the food at the fairy banquet and you should be fine.

As for the Health & Fitness genre and the Money genre, we couldn’t care less. When the aliens invade, such mundane details of existence will be the least of our worries. Besides, the aliens offer free ‘health’ exams and, once they take over the planet, the entire monetary system won’t matter all that much.

We Iowans prefer to keep ourselves grounded with our enjoyment of the Humor genre. Maybe the aliens will turn out to have a sense of humor. Or even if not, it’s probably wise to not take things too seriously. The aliens will do what they will do.

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Popular Genres in 9 Maps

Funhouse Mirrors of Corporate Media

Many talk about biases in the media, by which they typically mean the ‘mainstream’ (corporate) media. Most people would agree that biases exist. Yet it is hard to find agreement about what those biases are. Maybe that is an important part of it. The issue isn’t just about biases, but how our very perception of biases becomes biased. We lose perspective because our entire reality has become so mediated by media. The more our lives become saturated with media, the less we are able to see media clearly.

It’s similar to looking into a funhouse mirror and trying to discern the meaning in the warped image one sees reflected back. Now imagine if you were surrounded by funhouse mirrors on all sides, everywhere you went. To understand the distortions of one mirror, you’d look into another mirror with different distortions. We’ve come to see the funhouse mirror as reality. We are simply arguing over which funhouse mirror is least distorted or else distorted in a way that confirms our own expectations. What most of us never think about is who are the people who make the mirrors and remain hidden behind them.

Maybe the purpose of so much media isn’t in what it shows but in what it doesn’t show. The bias isn’t necessarily toward a particular ideology but rather away from the real source of power and influence. It’s a tool of distraction, a key component of politics as spectacle. If you want to know what are the issues of greatest importance and what are the views of greatest explanatory power, pay close attention to what is ignored and dismissed, what is precluded and occluded. Look for what is absent and lacking, the gap in between what is stated and the space outside of the frame where something should be.

The failure of corporate media is as much or more ommission than it is commission. Various media figures attacking each other about their supposed biases is yet more distraction. Arguing over biases is a safe and managed debate, each side playing the role of controlled opposition for the other. But what is it that both sides avoid? What is disallowed by the propaganda model of media? What is not being spoken and represented? What is missing?

Competing Media Manipulations

I’ve been noticing something these past months. It partly relates to another thing I’ve noticed before. Facebook doesn’t always notify me when someone posts a comment and that is particularly true for strangers. I could set my account to private or whatever, but I don’t feel like doing so. What is different recently is the comments I’ve come across, when looking back at recent posts. It’s both what is posted and who is posting it that stands out.

There is a particular article from a particular website that keeps getting posted. The article is critical of Trump, listing some of his scandals and including some of the creepy pictures of him with his daughter. It’s the same article posted repeatedly for at least the past two months. More interesting, every Facebook account that is posting it is different. But they all show the account as being from Georgia (the country, not the state). I assume they are fake accounts.

I just delete the comments and block the accounts. It’s not of any great concern to me. If some organization or another wants to spam anti-Trump material, more power to them. It just makes me curious about who is behind it. And why are the accounts all portrayed as being from Georgia?

It reminds me of the paid trolls from the Clinton campaign. After a while, one begins to think that half the internet is being run as competing agendas of manufactured consent, political propaganda, perception management, public relations campaigns, astroturf, disinformation, controlled opposition, etc. All of it goes down to a deeper level beyond the obvious examples of fake news. This is magnified by how the media in general has simultaneously become concentrated into fewer hands and placed into an international system, which combined brings greater forces into clashing influence.

Meanwhile, the average person is drowning in a tidal wave of manipulation beyond his or her comprehension. The alternative media that could offer perspective too often gets lost in the noise.

Concentrated Capitalism

The concentration of the economy isn’t only happening in certain sectors, such as media. It’s becoming the norm for only a handful of mega-corporations to control their respective markets and eliminate competition.

Is it unsurprising that at the same time that the US government has become increasingly corporatist, probably already having fully become inverted totalitarianism? No, not surprising at all. This is why the majority of Americans have positive opinions of free markets and small businesses while having negative opinions of capitalism and large corporations. The problem has become obvious to the average person.

This was researched by Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin and Roni Michaely, in “Are US Industries Becoming More Concentrated?“:

“More than 75% of US industries have experienced an increase in concentration levels over the last two decades. Firms in industries with the largest increases in product market concentration have enjoyed higher profit margins, positive abnormal stock returns, and more profitable M&A deals, suggesting that market power is becoming an important source of value. In real terms, the average publicly-traded firm is three times larger today than it was twenty years ago. Lax enforcement of antitrust regulations and increasing technological barriers to entry appear to be important factors behind this trend. Overall, our findings suggest that the nature of US product markets has undergone a structural shift that has weakened competition.”

Jason Zweig wrote about it in the Wall Street Journal, Disturbing New Facts About American Capitalism (full access to the article can be found on his website). The amusing part, as expected from a WSJ article, is the optimistic note it ends on:

“Still, history offers a warning. Many times in the past, winners have taken all — but seldom for long.

“Perhaps the laws of creative destruction finally have been repealed once and for all. But sooner or later, capitalism has always been able to turn yesterday’s unstoppable winners into the also-rans of today and tomorrow.”

Don’t worry, folks! Capitalism is doing just fine. Or rather, capitalism is doing what it always has and will do, until something stops it. But what is to stop capitalism from its inevitable move toward concentration, if not some even more powerful force such as a functioning democratic government not beholden to capitalist interests? Don’t look for answer to that question from the concentrated corporate media.

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Look, Ma, no competition
by David Ruccio
Real-World Economics Review Blog

The business press may have changed the language—they like to refer to such corporations as “superstar firms”—but the problem remains the same: corporations are growing larger, both absolutely and relative to the industries in which they operate.

What mainstream economists and the business press won’t acknowledge is those tendencies have existed since capitalism began. The neoclassical fantasy of perfect competition was only ever that, a fantasy.

Certainly one mid-nineteenth-century critic of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism understood that:

Every individual capital is a larger or smaller concentration of means of production, with a corresponding command over a larger or smaller labour-army. Every accumulation becomes the means of new accumulation. With the increasing mass of wealth which functions as capital, accumulation increases the concentration of that wealth in the hands of individual capitalists, and thereby widens the basis of production on a large scale and of the specific methods of capitalist production. The growth of social capital is effected by the growth of many individual capitals. All other circumstances remaining the same, individual capitals, and with them the concentration of the means of production, increase in such proportion as they form aliquot parts of the total social capital. At the same time portions of the original capitals disengage themselves and function as new independent capitals. Besides other causes, the division of property, within capitalist families, plays a great part in this. With the accumulation of capital, therefore, the number of capitalists grows to a greater or less extent. Two points characterise this kind of concentration which grows directly out of, or rather is identical with, accumulation. First: The increasing concentration of the social means of production in the hands of individual capitalists is, other things remaining equal, limited by the degree of increase of social wealth. Second: The part of social capital domiciled in each particular sphere of production is divided among many capitalists who face one another as independent commodity-producers competing with each other. Accumulation and the concentration accompanying it are, therefore, not only scattered over many points, but the increase of each functioning capital is thwarted by the formation of new and the sub-division of old capitals. Accumulation, therefore, presents itself on the one hand as increasing concentration of the means of production, and of the command over labour; on the other, as repulsion of many individual capitals one from another.

This splitting-up of the total social capital into many individual capitals or the repulsion of its fractions one from another, is counteracted by their attraction. This last does not mean that simple concentration of the means of production and of the command over labour, which is identical with accumulation. It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals. This process differs from the former in this, that it only presupposes a change in the distribution of capital already to hand, and functioning; its field of action is therefore not limited by the absolute growth of social wealth, by the absolute limits of accumulation. Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many. This is centralisation proper, as distinct from accumulation and concentration.

Those of us who have actually read that text are not at all surprised by the contemporary reemergence of the concentration and centralization of capital. We have long understood that the forces of competition within capitalism create both the incentive and the means for individual firms to grow in size and to drive out other firms, thus leading to the concentration of capital. The availability of large amounts of credit and finance only makes those tendencies stronger.

And the limit?

In a given society the limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company.

Very Serious, Important Thoughts

(1) There is Amazon’s “The Man In the High Castle”, HBO’s “The Young Pope” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. They all seem quite relevant to the present. But it would be better to keep authoritarianism in fiction and not let it seep into reality.

(2) It is nice getting one thing cleared up. During Trump’s campaign, there was a question that was on many people’s minds. Is Trump actually crazy or is it all an act? Well, it turns out it isn’t an act.

(3) This is what scares me. Republicans want law and order without rule of law. That is an accurate working definition of authoritarianism.

(4) The positive side of this is that we’ve now seen the beast for what it is. Democrats like Obama going back to Republicans like Reagan put a friendly face on growing fascism. Most Americans simply didn’t want to know.

That was the situation we were stuck in for decades. But the stark reality can no longer be ignored. Now that Americans have been forced awake from their dreams, an opportunity is before us but an opportunity that requires a choice be made.

(5) Democratic partisans and establishment ignored the political left, excluded third parties, and attacked reform candidates. They did this for decades. And they were successful in disempowering and frustrating progressive change.

So now they have right-wing reactionaries to contend with. Those who have gained power will make us all pay attention. And the coming years won’t be a happy time to be alive.

This all could have been avoided. But it is what the Democrats chose. They threatened that they either would get their way in everything or they would unleash a madman on us. I hope they’re satisfied with their Pyrrhic victory.

(6) What then? That is one of my favorite questions. After thinking about one thing or another, it often comes to mind.

It can be applied to almost any issue or concern. Trump has been elected president. What then? The dog ate the cookies including the wrapper. What then?

It’s an important question.

(7) As I’m Mr. Optimism, here is another positive for you.

For as long as I can remember, many on the political right have argued that if only a real businessman were made president he would clean house and show how it is done. Well, now we know. Trump is showing us all how a businessman does politics.

It’s good to clear things up. I’m all for experiments. We tried it and that is that. No one has to speculate about what would happen if a businessman was given ultimate power. That ends that particular argument, at least for the next several generations.

What’s our next experiment? Maybe we could see how well our country continues to function after our government collapses from within. Isn’t experimenting fun!?! It is sort of like science, but without the controls. I think the peer review process will have to be done by other countries, though.

Just stick with me. I’ll keep you updated on the positives as they roll in.

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Bonus questions:

  • You’re in a bear pit. Which is worse, the large dangerous bear who is angry and hungry or the person who shoved you into the bear pit?
  • Everyone loves monkeys. Two scenarios: The Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz being torn apart by the witch’s army of flying monkeys. And the gangster in Bruce Almighty who experiences the exiting and returning ‘home’ of a little anal-dwelling butt monkey. You must choose the lesser of two evils. Which one do you prefer?
  • What is worse, that which weakens the immune system such as HIV or that which kills so many with weakened immune systems such as pneumonia? If you could only eliminate one of these, which would it be?

Walkability, In Theory and Reality

I noticed the website for walkable cities, Walk Score, has a map. Here is a version of the map from a Redfin article:

Looking at the most top ranked walkable cities (within the green range), three fifths of them are found in the North, what Colin Woodard calls the Midlands and Yankeedom. That immediately brings to mind cultural factors, as Woodard discusses regions specifically in terms of culture. When I lived in other parts of the country such as South Carolina, North Carolina and Arizona, I don’t recall there being much of a walking culture (or bicycling culture).

Then again, I’d be careful about taking too much from that map. The map doesn’t include most of the residential areas they’ve analyzed and I doubt they are looking at every residential area in the country. So it might not be a fair representation. Towns like this one, Iowa City, aren’t on the map. They do have a ranking for Iowa City, though. It only does moderately well on walkability, according to how they measure it. It makes me wonder about what they are measuring and how. There methodology page isn’t all that clear about the specifics. I live at the edge of downtown. Within a short walk from my house, there is:

Most of the local government buildings, a senior center with senior housing, a homeless shelter and services, public mental health center, offices for doctors and dentists, two hospitals, a youth center, a city recreation center, a University of Iowa recreation center, a public library, multiple university libraries, new and used bookstores, several theaters for movies and plays, a university auditorium for large stage performances…

A farmers market, dozens of restaurants and bars, four grocery stores, lots of random stores including several used stores, a pedestrian mall, an indoor mall, a drug store, several convenience stores, university campus, a walkway and green area by the river, some small parks and two larger parks, multi-use trails leading to other parks, three neighborhood public schools along with two private schools, multiple daycare centers, four churches, some banks and a credit union, etc.

Also, a short distance from where I live, there is a Greyhound bus station and the main public bus depot, not to mention the university bus service. Public transit goes about everywhere in the city and the neighboring city of Coralville. The buses have bike racks for transporting your bike and, along with the multi-use trails, there are bike lanes. Drivers in this town are used to both pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s a fairly safe town for non-vehicular modes of travel. It’s the kind of town that you can randomly walk out into the middle of the street without looking, as distracted students do all the time, and it is highly unlikely anyone will run you over. Pedestrians and bicyclists dominate this town.

Most of the population lives in or around the downtown area. It is a growing town, but more of the housing is being built downtown with highrises. If you wanted to, you could live your entire life without leaving a square mile area.

Yet the website only gives Iowa City a 44 walk score, stating that “Iowa City is a Car-Dependent city” because “Most errands require a car.” I’m not sure what errands they are talking about. I’ve lived here for two decades without a car and I pretty much walk everywhere I go. If I wanted to go to Walmart or to one of the really big malls, I’d need a car or bus to get there. But I don’t consider Walmart and big malls to be a necessity of life.

What is also odd is that the website gives it a 77 bike score. What is different between biking and walking? There is no where you can go in Iowa City by bike that you can’t also get to by walking. I can walk, going at a face pace, from my house to the furthest reaches of the city in an hour. How many people can claim to get anywhere in their town in an hour’s walk? Probably not many. How much more walkable can a city get?

I will admit that Iowa City used to be even a nicer walkable city. When I was a kid, there were more small neighborhood grocery stores and some of them had butchers and deli counters. And when I came back as an adult, I could still inexpensively do all my Christmas shopping downtown. I will admit that the downtown isn’t as nice as it once was, at least for the average resident, ever since it became gentrified. It’s harder to find cheap fast food, besides the Subway.

What I really miss are the movie theaters. There used to be more movie theaters, three of them when I was a kid and I’ve been told there was seven at mid century. The closest to a normal movie theater left downtown is one that shows independent movies. But there are other venues downtown that do show movies as well, such as offered by the University of Iowa.

That said, none of my complaints are exactly relevant to walkability, in any basic sense. In Iowa City, there are wide sidewalks downtown, safe pedestrian intersections, easy to negotiate traffic, low speed limits, nice neighborhoods and parks to walk in, plenty of green spaces to enjoy, and much else. If you live close to downtown, it might be easier to not own a car.

So, how can pleasant small college town like Iowa City get a lower walk score than many of the crowded, traffic heavy big cities? Methinks their rankings are a bit skewed. From what I can tell, when they measure the walkability of big cities, they aren’t including the entire metropolitan area nor are they including the fact that much of the population lives in suburbs and bedroom communities. So, a big city might be walkable after your long commute to get there. Is that really walkable when few people are actually living within walking distance of what is being measured and ranked? That is a misleading and unhelpful ranking system.

In a fair analysis, the most walkable places would be the remaining small towns that still have functioning downtowns, which used to be a common feature in every county of Iowa. Some places like this continue to exist where everything a person needs is concentrated in one small area, although such places are becoming rare. But they can be still be found in any farm state. If you live in a town that is the county seat with a moderately well off local economy (maybe because of a factory or slaughter house), all of your basic amenities (grocery store, bank, public school, church, etc) likely would be closer than is possible for the average person in the most walkable big city.

I’d be curious to know how many of those small towns ever get measured for their walkability. Near to Iowa City is West Branch. They actually do have a walk score for it. Many people who live in West Branch commute to work in Iowa City and come here for other reasons. The funny thing is that they mention the commute time to downtown Iowa City from West Branch and yet they give it a higher walkability rating than Iowa City. One of my brothers lives there. Both he and his wife work in Iowa City. And neither does much walking in West Branch.

I’ve spent plenty of time in that town. I know for a fact that few people walk in West Branch because there is little to walk to. So few people walk that they didn’t bother to repair the sidewalks for decades. Besides, many of the people who use West Branch amenities don’t actually reside in West Branch, instead living in rural parts of the county. And most of the people who have houses in West Branch would rather use the amenities in Iowa City or other nearby towns such as Coraville and Cedar Rapids. Why is it’s walkability higher? Just because it is a dinky town and so you could theoretically walk from one side of it to the other in ten minutes, really?

I like the idea of rating places according to their walkability. But I’m having doubts about the methodology being used.

Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical

Absence is presence.
These are the fundamentals of mystery.
The Young Pope

Below is a gathering of excerpts from writings. The key issue here is imagination, specifically Edmund Burke’s moral imagination with its wardrobe but also the dark imagination and the radical imagination. I bring in some other thinkers for context: Thomas Paine, Corey Robin, Thomas Ligotti, Lewis Hyde, and Julian Jaynes.

Besides imagination, the connecting strands of thought are:

  • Pleasure, beauty, and sublimity; comfort, familiarity, intimacy, the personal, and subjectivity; embodiment, anchoring, shame, and nakedness; pain, violence, suffering, and death;
  • Darkness, awe, fear, terror, horror, and the monstrous; oppression, prejudice, and ignorance; obfuscation, obscurity, disconnection, and dissociation; the hidden, the veiled, the unknown, and the distant; mystery, madness, and deception;
  • Identity, consciousness, and metaphor; creativity, art, story, poetry, and rhetoric; literalism, realism, and dogmatism; reason, knowledge, and science;
  • Enlightenment, abstractions, ideology, revolution, and counter-revolution; nobility, power, chivalry, aristocracy, and monarchy; tradition, nostalgia, and the reactionary mind; liberalism, conservatism, and culture wars;
  • Et cetera.

The touchstone for my own thinking is what I call symbolic conflation, along with the larger context of conceptual slippage, social construction, and reality tunnels. This is closely related to what Lewis Hyde discusses in terms of metonymy, liminality, and the Trickster archetype.

Read the following as a contemplation of ideas and insights. In various ways, they connect, overlap, and resonate. Soften your focus and you might see patterns emerge. If these are all different perspectives of the same thing, what exactly is it that is being perceived? What does each view say about the individual espousing it and if not necessarily about all of humanity at least about our society?

(I must admit that my motivation for this post was mainly personal. I simply wanted to gather these writings together. They include some writings and writers that I have been thinking about for a long time. Quotes and passages from many of them can be found in previous posts on this blog. I brought them together here for the purposes of my own thinking about certain topics. I don’t post stuff like this with much expectation that it will interest anyone else, as I realize my own interests are idiosyncratic. Still, if someone comes along and finds a post like this fascinating, then I’ll know they are my soulmate. This post is only for cool people with curious minds. Ha!)

* * *

On the Sublime and Beautiful
by Edmund Burke

Of the Passion Caused by the Sublime

THE PASSION caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. 1 In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.


NO passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. 1 For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on anything as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous. There are many animals, who though far from being large, are yet capable of raising ideas of the sublime, because they are considered as objects of terror. As serpents and poisonous animals of almost all kinds. And to things of great dimensions, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater. A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean: but can it ever fill the mind with anything so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes; but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed, terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime. Several languages bear a strong testimony to the affinity of these ideas. They frequently use the same word, to signify indifferently the modes of astonishment or admiration, and those of terror. [Greek] is in Greek, either fear or wonder; [Greek] is terrible or respectable; [Greek], to reverence or to fear. Vereor in Latin, is what [Greek] is in Greek. The Romans used the verb stupeo, a term which strongly marks the state of an astonished mind, to express the effect of either of simple fear or of astonishment; the word attonitus (thunder-struck) is equally expressive of the alliance of these ideas; and do not the French étonnement, and the English astonishment and amazement, point out as clearly the kindred emotions which attend fear and wonder? They who have a more general knowledge of languages, could produce, I make no doubt, many other and equally striking examples.


TO make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion. Almost all the heathen temples were dark. Even in the barbarous temples of the Americans at this day, they keep their idol in a dark part of the hut, which is consecrated to his worship. For this purpose too the Druids performed all their ceremonies in the bosom of the darkest woods, and in the shade of the oldest and most spreading oaks. No person seems better to have understood the secret of heightening, or of setting terrible things, if I may use the expression, in their strongest light, by the force of a judicious obscurity, than Milton. His description of Death in the second book is admirably studied; it is astonishing with what a gloomy pomp, with what a significant and expressive uncertainty of strokes and colouring, he has finished the portrait of the king of terrors:

—The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable, in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed;
For each seemed either; black he stood as night;
Fierce as ten furies; terrible as hell;
And shook a deadly dart. What seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.

In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree. […]

The Same Subject Continued

[…] I know several who admire and love painting, and yet who regard the objects of their admiration in that art with coolness enough in comparison of that warmth with which they are animated by affecting pieces of poetry or rhetoric. Among the common sort of people, I never could perceive that painting had much influence on their passions. It is true, that the best sorts of painting, as well as the best sorts of poetry, are not much understood in that sphere. But it is most certain, that their passions are very strongly roused by a fanatic preacher, or by the ballads of Chevy-chase, or the Children in the Wood, and by other little popular poems and tales that are current in that rank of life. I do not know of any paintings, bad or good, that produce the same effect. So that poetry, with all its obscurity, has a more general, as well as a more powerful, dominion over the passions, than the other art. And I think there are reasons in nature, why the obscure idea, when properly conveyed, should be more affecting than the clear. It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little. It is thus with the vulgar; and all men are as the vulgar in what they do not understand. The ideas of eternity and infinity are among the most affecting we have; and yet perhaps there is nothing of which we really understand so little, as of infinity and eternity. […]

Locke’s Opinion Concerning Darkness Considered

IT is Mr. Locke’s opinion, that darkness is not naturally an idea of terror; and that, though an excessive light is painful to the sense, the greatest excess of darkness is no ways troublesome. He observes indeed in another place, that a nurse or an old woman having once associated the idea of ghosts and goblins with that of darkness, night, ever after, becomes painful and horrible to the imagination. The authority of this great man is doubtless as great as that of any man can be, and it seems to stand in the way of our general principle. We have considered darkness as a cause of the sublime; and we have all along considered the sublime as depending on some modification of pain or terror: so that if darkness be no way painful or terrible to any, who have not had their minds early tainted with superstitions, it can be no source of the sublime to them. But, with all deference to such an authority, it seems to me, that an association of a more general nature, an association which takes in all mankind, and make darkness terrible; for in utter darkness it is impossible to know in what degree of safety we stand; we are ignorant of the objects that surround us; we may every moment strike against some dangerous obstruction; we may fall down a precipice the first step we take; and if an enemy approach, we know not in what quarter to defend ourselves; in such a case strength is no sure protection; wisdom can only act by guess; the boldest are staggered, and he, who would pray for nothing else towards his defence, is forced to pray for light.

As to the association of ghosts and goblins; surely it is more natural to think, that darkness, being originally an idea of terror, was chosen as a fit scene for such terrible representations, than that such representations have made darkness terrible. The mind of man very easily slides into an error of the former sort; but it is very hard to imagine, that the effect of an idea so universally terrible in all times, and in all countries, as darkness, could possibly have been owing to a set of idle stories, or to any cause of a nature so trivial, and of an operation so precarious.

Reflections on the French Revolution
by Edmund Burke

History will record, that on the morning of the 6th of October, 1789, the king and queen of France, after a day of confusion, alarm, dismay, and slaughter, lay down, under the pledged security of public faith, to indulge nature in a few hours of respite, and troubled, melancholy repose. From this sleep the queen was first startled by the voice of the sentinel at her door, who cried out her to save herself by flight—that this was the last proof of fidelity he could give—that they were upon him, and he was dead. Instantly he was cut down. A band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with his blood, rushed into the chamber of the queen, and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and, through ways unknown to the murderers, had escaped to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment.

This king, to say no more of him, and this queen, and their infant children, (who once would have been the pride and hope of a great and generous people,) were then forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcases. Thence they were conducted into the capital of their kingdom. […]

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that charity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the ancient chivalry; and the principle, though varied in its appearance by the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations, even to the time we live in. If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great. It is this which has given its character to modern Europe. It is this which has distinguished it under all its forms of government, and distinguished it to its advantage, from the states of Asia, and possibly from those states which flourished in the most brilliant periods of the antique world. It was this, which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a dominating vanquisher of laws to be subdued by manners.

But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any way, gainers by it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.

On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law. The precept given by a wise man, as well as a great critic, for the construction of poems, is equally true as to states:—Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto. There ought to be a system of manners in every nation, which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.

* * *

Rights of Man:
Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution
by Thomas Paine

But Mr. Burke appears to have no idea of principles when he is contemplating Governments. “Ten years ago,” says he, “I could have felicitated France on her having a Government, without inquiring what the nature of that Government was, or how it was administered.” Is this the language of a rational man? Is it the language of a heart feeling as it ought to feel for the rights and happiness of the human race? On this ground, Mr. Burke must compliment all the Governments in the world, while the victims who suffer under them, whether sold into slavery, or tortured out of existence, are wholly forgotten. It is power, and not principles, that Mr. Burke venerates; and under this abominable depravity he is disqualified to judge between them. Thus much for his opinion as to the occasions of the French Revolution. I now proceed to other considerations.

I know a place in America called Point-no-Point, because as you proceed along the shore, gay and flowery as Mr. Burke’s language, it continually recedes and presents itself at a distance before you; but when you have got as far as you can go, there is no point at all. Just thus it is with Mr. Burke’s three hundred and sixty-six pages. It is therefore difficult to reply to him. But as the points he wishes to establish may be inferred from what he abuses, it is in his paradoxes that we must look for his arguments.

As to the tragic paintings by which Mr. Burke has outraged his own imagination, and seeks to work upon that of his readers, they are very well calculated for theatrical representation, where facts are manufactured for the sake of show, and accommodated to produce, through the weakness of sympathy, a weeping effect. But Mr. Burke should recollect that he is writing history, and not plays, and that his readers will expect truth, and not the spouting rant of high-toned exclamation.

When we see a man dramatically lamenting in a publication intended to be believed that “The age of chivalry is gone! that The glory of Europe is extinguished for ever! that The unbought grace of life (if anyone knows what it is), the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone!” and all this because the Quixot age of chivalry nonsense is gone, what opinion can we form of his judgment, or what regard can we pay to his facts? In the rhapsody of his imagination he has discovered a world of wind mills, and his sorrows are that there are no Quixots to attack them. But if the age of aristocracy, like that of chivalry, should fall (and they had originally some connection) Mr. Burke, the trumpeter of the Order, may continue his parody to the end, and finish with exclaiming: “Othello’s occupation’s gone!”

Notwithstanding Mr. Burke’s horrid paintings, when the French Revolution is compared with the Revolutions of other countries, the astonishment will be that it is marked with so few sacrifices; but this astonishment will cease when we reflect that principles, and not persons, were the meditated objects of destruction. The mind of the nation was acted upon by a higher stimulus than what the consideration of persons could inspire, and sought a higher conquest than could be produced by the downfall of an enemy. Among the few who fell there do not appear to be any that were intentionally singled out. They all of them had their fate in the circumstances of the moment, and were not pursued with that long, cold-blooded unabated revenge which pursued the unfortunate Scotch in the affair of 1745.

Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

As Mr. Burke has passed over the whole transaction of the Bastille (and his silence is nothing in his favour), and has entertained his readers with refections on supposed facts distorted into real falsehoods, I will give, since he has not, some account of the circumstances which preceded that transaction. They will serve to show that less mischief could scarcely have accompanied such an event when considered with the treacherous and hostile aggravations of the enemies of the Revolution.

The mind can hardly picture to itself a more tremendous scene than what the city of Paris exhibited at the time of taking the Bastille, and for two days before and after, nor perceive the possibility of its quieting so soon. At a distance this transaction has appeared only as an act of heroism standing on itself, and the close political connection it had with the Revolution is lost in the brilliancy of the achievement. But we are to consider it as the strength of the parties brought man to man, and contending for the issue. The Bastille was to be either the prize or the prison of the assailants. The downfall of it included the idea of the downfall of despotism, and this compounded image was become as figuratively united as Bunyan’s Doubting Castle and Giant Despair.

* * *

The Reactionary Mind
by Corey Robin
pp. 243-245

As Orwell taught, the possibilities for cruelty and violence are as limitless as the imagination that dreams them up. But the armies and agencies of today’s violence are vast bureaucracies, and vast bureaucracies need rules. Eliminating the rules does not Prometheus unbind; it just makes for more billable hours.

“No yielding. No equivocation. No lawyering this thing to death.” That was George W. Bush’s vow after 9/ 11 and his description of how the war on terror would be conducted. Like so many of Bush’s other declarations, it turned out to be an empty promise. This thing was lawyered to death. But, and this is the critical point, far from minimizing state violence— which was the great fear of the neocons— lawyering has proven to be perfectly compatible with violence. In a war already swollen with disappointment and disillusion, the realization that inevitably follows— the rule of law can, in fact, authorize the greatest adventures of violence and death, thereby draining them of sublimity— must be, for the conservative, the greatest disillusion of all.

Had they been closer readers of Burke, the neoconservatives— like Fukuyama, Roosevelt, Sorel, Schmitt, Tocqueville, Maistre, Treitschke, and so many more on the American and European right— could have seen this disillusion coming. Burke certainly did. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, he was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”— that is, should they become realities rather than fantasies, should they become “conversant about the present destruction of the person”— their sublimity would disappear. They would cease to be “delightful” and restorative and become simply terrible. 64 Burke’s point was not merely that no one, in the end, really wants to die or that no one enjoys unwelcome, excruciating pain. It was that sublimity of whatever kind and source depends upon obscurity: get too close to anything, whether an object or experience, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. It becomes familiar. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” 65 “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.” 66 “A clear idea,” Burke concludes, “is therefore another name for a little idea.” 67 Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses whatever attribute— rejuvenation, transgression, excitement, awe— you ascribed to it when it was just an idea.

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Since 9/ 11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives— or their sons and daughters— to fight the war on terror themselves. For those on the left, that failure is symptomatic of the class injustice of contemporary America. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea— a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24— it is sublime. As soon as the war on terror becomes a reality, it can be as cheerless as a discussion of the tax code and as tedious as a trip to the DMV.

Fear: The History of a Political Idea
by Corey Robin
Kindle Locations 402-406

It might seem strange that a book about political fear should assign so much space to our ideas about fear rather than to its practice. But recall what Burke said: It is not so much the actuality of a threat, but the imagined idea of that threat, that renews and restores. “If the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person,” then, and only then, do we experience a delightful horror.”1 The condition of our being renewed by fear is not that we directly experience the object that threatens us, but that the object be kept at some remove move from ourselves.

Kindle Locations 1061-1066

Whether they have read The Spirit of the Laws or not, these writers are its children. With its trawling allusions to the febrile and the fervid, The Spirit of the Laws successfully aroused the conviction that terror was synonymous with barbarism, and that its cures were to be found entirely within liberalism. Thus was a new political and literary aesthetic born, a rhetoric of hyperbole suggesting that terror’s escorts were inevitably remoteness, irrationality, and darkness, and its enemies, familiarity, reason, and light. Perhaps it was this aesthetic that a young Edmund Burke had in mind when he wrote, two years after Montesquieu’s death, “To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”

Kindle Locations 1608-1618

As she set about establishing a new political morality in the shadow of total terror, however, Arendt became aware of a problem that had plagued Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville, and that Burke-not to mention makers of horror films-understood all too well: once terrors become familiar, they cease to arouse dread. The theorist who tries to establish fear as a foundation for a new politics must always find a demon darker than that of her predecessors, discover ever more novel, and more frightening, forms of fear. Thus Montesquieu, seeking to outdo Hobbes, imagined a form of terror that threatened the very basis of that which made us human. In Arendt’s case, it was her closing image of interchangeable victims and victimizers-of terror serving no interest and no party, not even its wielders; of a world ruled by no one and nothing, save the impersonal laws of motion-that yielded the necessary “radical evil” from which a new politics could emerge.

But as her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers was quick to recognize, Arendt had come upon this notion of radical evil at a terrible cost: it made moral judgment of the perpetrators of total terror nearly impossible.59 According to Origins, total terror rendered everyone-from Hitler down through the Jews, from Stalin to the kulaks-incapable of acting. Indeed, as Arendt admitted in 1963, “There exists a widespread theory, to which I also contributed [in Origins], that these crimes defy the possibility of human judgment and explode the frame of our legal institutions.”60 Total terror may have done what fear, terror, and anxiety did for her predecessors-found a new politics-but, as Arendt would come to realize in Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was a false foundation, inspiring an operatic sense of catastrophe, that ultimately let the perpetrators off the hook by obscuring the hard political realities of rule by fear.

Liberalism at Bay, Conservatism at Piay:
Fear in the Contemporary Imagination

by Corey Robin

For theorists like Locke and Burke, fear is something to be cherished, not because it alerts us to real danger or propels us to take necessary action against it, but because fear is supposed to arouse a heightened state of experience. It quickens our perceptions as no other emotion can, forcing us to see and to act in the world in new and more interesting ways, with greater moral discrimination and a more acute consciousness of our surroundings and ourselves. According to Locke, fear is “an uneasiness of the mind” and “the chief, if not only spur to human industry and action is uneasiness.” Though we might think that men and women act on behalf of desire, Locke insisted that “a little burning felt”—like fear—”pushes us more powerfully than great pleasures in prospect draw or allure.” Burke had equally low regard for pleasure. It induces a grotesque implosion of self, a “soft tranquility” approximating an advanced state of decay if not death itself.

The head reclines something on one side; the eyelids are
more closed than usual, and the eyes roll gently with an
inclination to the object, the mouth is a little opened, and
the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh;
the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to
the sides. All this is accompanied with an inward sense of
melting and languor . . . relaxing the solids of the whole

But when we imagine the prospect of “pain and terror,” Burke added, we experience a delightful horror,” the “strongest of all passions.” Without fear, we are passive; with it, we are roused to “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Locke, 1959,11.20.6,10;11.21.34: 304-5, 334; Burke, 1990: 32, 36,123,135-36).

At the political level, modem theorists have argued that fear is a spur to civic vitality and moral renewal, perhaps even a source of public freedom. Writing in the wake of the French Revolution, Tocqueville bemoaned the lethargy of modem democracy. With its free-wheeling antimonianism and social mobility, democratic society “inevitably enervates the soul, and relaxing the springs of the will, prepares a people for bondage. Then not only will they let their freedom be taken from them, but often they actually hand it over themselves” (Tocqueville, 1969:444). Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king, Tocqueville believed that democracies might find a renewed confidence in the experience of fear, which could activate and ground a commitment to public freedom. “Fear,” he wrote in a note to himself, “must be put to work on behalf of liberty,” or, as he put it in Democracy in America, “Let us, then, look forward to the future with that salutary fear which makes men keep watch and ward for freedom, and not with that flabby, idle terror which makes men’s hearts sink and enervates them” (cited in Lamberti, 1989: 229; Tocqueville, 1969: 702). Armed with fear, democracy would be fortified against not only external and domestic enemies but also the inner tendency, the native desire, to dissolve into the soupy indifference of which Burke spoke.

* * *

The Dark Beauty of Unheard-Of Horrors
by Thomas Ligotti

This is how it is when a mysterious force is embodied in a human body, or in any form that is too well fixed. And a mystery explained is one robbed of its power of emotion, dwindling into a parcel of information, a tissue of rules and statistics without meaning in themselves.

Of course, mystery actually requires a measure of the concrete if it is to be perceived at all; otherwise it is only a void, the void. The thinnest mixture of this mortar, I suppose, is contained in that most basic source of mystery—darkness. Very difficult to domesticate this phenomenon, to collar it and give a name to the fear it inspires. As a verse writer once said:

The blackness at the bottom of a well
May bold most any kind of hell.

The dark, indeed, phenomenon possessing the maximum of mystery, the one most resistant to the taming of the mind and most resonant with emotions and meanings of a highly complex and subtle type. It is also extremely abstract as a provenance for supernatural horror, an elusive prodigy whose potential for fear may slip through a writer’s fingers and right past even a sensitive reader of terror tales. Obviously it is problematic in away that a solid pair of gleaming fangs at a victim’s neck is not. Hence, darkness itself is rarely used in a story as the central incarnation of the supernatural, though it often serves in a supporting role as an element of atmosphere, an extension of more concrete phenomena. The shadowy ambiance of a fictional locale almost always resolves itself into an apparition of substance, a threat with a name, if not a full blown history. Darkness may also perform in a strictly symbolic capacity, representing the abyss at the core of any genuine tale of mystery and horror. But to draw a reader’s attention to this abyss, this unnameable hell of blackness, is usually sacrificed in favor of focusing on some tangible dread pressing against the body of everyday life. From these facts may be derived an ad hoc taxonomy for dividing supernatural stories into types, or rather a spectrum of types: on the one side, those that tend to emphasize the surface manifestations of a supernatural phenomenon; on the other, those that reach toward the dark core of mystery in purest and most abstract condition. The former stories show us the bodies, big as life, of the demonic tribe of spooks, vampires, and other assorted bogeymen; the latter suggest to us the essence, far bigger than life, of that dark universal terror beyond naming which is the matrix for all other terrors. […]

Like Erich Zann’s “world of beauty,” Lovecraft’s “lay in some far cosmos of the imagination,” and like that of another  artist, it is a “beauty that hath horror in it.

The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror
by Thomas Ligotti
pp. 41-42

As heretofore noted, consciousness may have assisted our species’ survival in the hard times of prehistory, but as it became ever more intense it evolved the potential to ruin everything if not securely muzzled. This is the problem: We must either outsmart consciousness or be thrown into its vortex of doleful factuality and suffer, as Zapffe termed it, a “dread of being”— not only of our own being but of being itself, the idea that the vacancy that might otherwise have obtained is occupied like a stall in a public lavatory of infinite dimensions, that there is a universe in which things like celestial bodies and human beings are roving about, that anything exists in the way it seems to exist, that we are part of all being until we stop being, if there is anything we may understand as being other than semblances or the appearance of semblances.

On the premise that consciousness must be obfuscated so that we might go on as we have all these years, Zapffe inferred that the sensible thing would be not to go on with the paradoxical nonsense of trying to inhibit our cardinal attribute as beings, since we can tolerate existence only if we believe— in accord with a complex of illusions, a legerdemain of duplicity— that we are not what we are: unreality on legs. As conscious beings, we must hold back that divulgement lest it break us with a sense of being things without significance or foundation, anatomies shackled to a landscape of unintelligible horrors. In plain language, we cannot live except as self-deceivers who must lie to ourselves about ourselves, as well as about our unwinnable situation in this world.

Accepting the preceding statements as containing some truth, or at least for the sake of moving on with the present narrative, it seems that we are zealots of Zapffe’s four plans for smothering consciousness: isolation (“ Being alive is all right”), anchoring (“ One Nation under God with Families, Morality, and Natural Birthrights for all”), distraction (“ Better to kill time than kill oneself”), and sublimation (“ I am writing a book titled The Conspiracy against the Human Race”). These practices make us organisms with a nimble intellect that can deceive themselves “for their own good.” Isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation are among the wiles we use to keep ourselves from dispelling every illusion that keeps us up and running. Without this cognitive double-dealing, we would be exposed for what we are. It would be like looking into a mirror and for a moment seeing the skull inside our skin looking back at us with its sardonic smile. And beneath the skull— only blackness, nothing.  A little piece of our world has been peeled back, and underneath is creaking desolation— a carnival where all the rides are moving but no patrons occupy the seats. We are missing from the world we have made for ourselves. Maybe if we could resolutely gaze wide-eyed at our lives we would come to know what we really are. But that would stop the showy attraction we are inclined to think will run forever.

p. 182

That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. To be an accomplice, however involuntarily, in a reasonless non-reality is cause enough for the harshest sentencing. But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it. How could we? Where pain and pleasure form a corrupt alliance against us, paradise and hell are merely different divisions in the same monstrous bureaucracy. And between these two poles exists everything we know or can ever know. It is not even possible to imagine a utopia, earthly or otherwise, that can stand up under the mildest criticism. But one must take into account the shocking fact that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise.

Still, on rare occasions we do overcome hopelessness or velleity and make mutinous demands to live in a real world, one that is at least episodically ordered to our advantage. But perhaps it is only a demon of some kind that moves us to such idle insubordination, the more so to aggravate our condition in the unreal. After all, is it not wondrous that we are allowed to be both witnesses and victims of the sepulchral pomp of wasting tissue? And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are.

p. 218

Without death— meaning without our consciousness of death— no story of supernatural horror would ever have been written, nor would any other artistic representation of human life have been created for that matter. It is always there, if only between the lines or brushstrokes, or conspicuously by its absence. It is a terrific stimulus to that which is at once one of our greatest weapons and greatest weaknesses— imagination. Our minds are always on the verge of exploding with thoughts and images as we ceaselessly pound the pavement of our world. Both our most exquisite cogitations and our worst cognitive drivel announce our primal torment: We cannot linger in the stillness of nature’s vacuity. And so we have imagination to beguile us. A misbegotten hatchling of consciousness, a birth defect of our species, imagination is often revered as a sign of vigor in our make-up. But it is really just a psychic overcompensation for our impotence as beings. Denied nature’s exemption from creativity, we are indentured servants of the imaginary until the hour of our death, when the final harassments of imagination will beset us.

* * *

The Horror of the Unreal
By Peter Bebergal

The TV show “The Walking Dead” is one long exercise in tension. But the zombies—the supposed centerpiece of the show’s horror—are not particularly frightening. Gross, to be sure, but also knowable, literal. You can see them coming from yards away. They are the product of science gone wrong, or of a virus, or of some other phenomenal cause. They can be destroyed with an arrow through the brain. More aberration than genuine monsters, they lack the essential quality to truly terrify: an aspect of the unreal.

The horror writer Thomas Ligotti believes that even tales of virus-created zombies—and other essentially comprehensible creatures—can elicit what we might call, quoting the theologian Rudolf Otto, “the wholly other,” but it requires a deft hand. The best such stories “approach the realm of the supernatural,” he told me over e-mail, even if their monsters are entirely earthly. As an example, he pointed to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “wherein the brutality displayed is so deviant and strange it takes off into the uncanny.” Ligotti doesn’t require bloodthirsty villains to convey a sense of impending horror, though. “I tend to stipulate in my work that the world by its nature already exists in a state of doom rather than being in the process of doom.” […]

“Whether or not there is anything called the divine is neither here nor there,” Ligotti told me. “It’s irrelevant to our sense of what is beyond the veil.” Ligotti believes that fiction can put us in touch with that sense of things unseen, that it can create an encounter with—to quote Rudolf Otto again—the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a state that combines terror and enchantment with the divine. In fact, Ligotti believes that “any so-called serious work of literature that doesn’t to some extent serve this function has failed.” It’s not a matter of genre, he says. He cites Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as a character who would go wherever the clues took him, no matter how deep into the heart of the “unknown.” “Chandler wanted his detective stories to invoke the sense of the ‘country behind the hill.’ “

Because Ligotti has no interest in whether or not that world beyond actually exists, there is a tension, an unanswered question, in his work: Can we locate the source of this horror? His characters are often confronted by people or groups who worship something so alien that their rituals don’t conform to any identifiable modes of religious practice. Usually, they involve some form of sacrifice or other suggestion of violence. The implication seems to be that, even if there is meaning in the universe, that meaning is so foreign, so strange, that we could never understand it, and it could never make a difference in our lives. Any attempt to penetrate it will only lead to madness.

As a practical matter, Ligotti believes that the short story is the most potent means for conveying this idea. “A novel can’t consistently project what Poe called a ‘single effect,’ “ he explains. “It would be too wearing on the reader—too repetitious and dense, as would, for instance, a lengthy narrative poem written in the style of a lyric poem. A large part of supernatural novels must therefore be concerned with the mundane and not with a sense of what I’ll call ‘the invisible.’ “

Trying to get Ligotti to explain what he means by the “invisible” is not easy. “I’m not able to see my stories as establishing or presuming the existence of a veil beyond which the characters in them are incapable of seeing. I simply don’t view them in this way. ” But his characters, I insisted, suggest that we are all capable of seeing beyond the veil, though it’s impossible to tell if they are simply mad, or if they have indeed perceived something outside normal perception. I asked Ligotti if he saw a difference between these two states of consciousness. “The only interest I’ve taken in psychological aberrancy in fiction,” he answered, “has been as a vehicle of perceiving the derangement of creation.”

Thomas Ligotti: Dark Phenomenology and Abstract Horror
by S.C. Hickman

Ligotti makes a point that horror must stay ill-defined, that the monstrous must menace us from a distance, from the unknown; a non-knowledge, rather than a knowledge of the natural; it is the unnatural and invisible that affects us not something we can reduce to some sociological, psychological, or political formation or representation, which only kills the mystery – taming it and pigeonholing it into some cultural gatekeeper’s caged obituary. […] The domesticated beast is no horror at all.

In the attic of the mind a lunatic family resides, a carnival world of aberrant thoughts and feelings – that, if we did not lock away in a conspiracy of silence would freeze us in such terror and fright that we would become immobilized unable to think, feel, or live accept as zombies, mindlessly. So we isolate these demented creatures, keep them at bay. Then we anchor ourselves in artifice, accept substitutes, religious mythologies, secular philosophies, and anything else that will help us keep the monsters at bay. As Ligotti will say, we need our illusions – our metaphysical anchors and dreamscapes “that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds” (CHR, 31). Yet, when even these metaphysical ploys want stem the tide of those heinous monsters from within we seek out distraction, entertainment: TV, sports, bars, dancing, friends, fishing, scuba diving, boating, car racing, horse riding… almost anything that will keep our mind empty of its dark secret, that will allow it to escape the burden of emotion – of fear, if even for a night or an afternoon of sheer mindless bliss. And, last, but not least, we seek out culture, sublimation – art, theatre, festivals, carnivals, painting, writing, books… we seek to let it all out, let it enter into that sphere of the tragic or comic, that realm where we can exorcize it, display it, pin it to the wall for all to see our fears and terrors on display not as they are but as we lift them up into art, shape them to our nightmare visions or dreamscapes of desire. As Ligotti tells it, we read literature or watch a painting, go to a theatre, etc. […]

Horror acts like a sigil, a diagram that invokes the powers within the darkness to arise, to unfold their mystery, to explain themselves; and, if not explain then at least to invade our equilibrium, our staid and comfortable world with their rage, their torment, their corruption. The best literary horror or weird tales never describe in detail the mystery, rather they invoke by hyperstitional invention: calling forth the forces out of darkness and the abstract, and allowing them to co-habit for a time the shared space – the vicarious bubble or interzone between the reader and narrative […]

This notion of the tension between the epistemic and ontic in abstract horror returns me to Nick Land’s short work Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator in which the narrator tells us that what we fear, what terrorizes us is not the seen – the known and definable, but rather the unseen and unknown, even “shapeless threat, ‘Outside’ only in the abstract sense (encompassing the negative immensity of everything that we cannot grasp). It could be anywhere, from our genes or ecological dynamics, to the hidden laws of technological evolution, or the hostile vastnesses between the stars. We know only that, in strict proportion to the vitality of the cosmos, the probability of its existence advances towards inevitability, and that for us it means supreme ill. Ontological density without identifiable form is abstract horror itself.” […]

Yet, as Lovecraft in one of his famous stories – “Call of Cthulhu” once suggested, the “sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” Here is the nub for Ligotti, the dividing line of those who continue to sleep in the illusory safety net of their cultural delusions […] Many will remember the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot once suggested that “humankind cannot bear too much reality”. […]

For Ligotti the subjective reaction to the seemingly objective stimulus of the uncanny is the gaining of “dark knowledge” about the workings of individuals, […] This sense that the corruption works both ways, upon the victim and the perpetrator; that the world is now topsy-turvy and that the uncanny boundaries between victim and perpetrator are reversible and hazy, and not always obvious is due to that subtle knowledge that each culture is circumscribed within its own black box of conceptuality. By that I mean by that that as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in his Cannibal Metaphysics argues the case that Amazonian and other Amerindian groups inhabit a radically different conceptual universe than ours—in which nature and culture, human and nonhuman, subject and object are conceived in terms that reverse our own—he presents the case for anthropology as the study of such “other” metaphysical schemes, and as the corresponding critique of the concepts imposed on them by the human sciences. […]

We’re in that position of moving either way: 1) literalizing our fantasies: building walls and barbed-wire fences against invading hordes of refugees, migrants, etc.; or, 2) of seeing through them, seeing the aesthetic and defensive use of art and social mechanisms to defend ourselves from the onslaught of our own daemonic nihilism and drives: our fears and terrors. […]

In our time we’ve forgotten this fact, and forgotten the art laughter, to see the world through the lens of art or horror literature and know that this, too, is illusion: the aesthetic call to our emotions, to our fears and our terrors that allows that purge, that release that only great art can supply. Rather in our time we’ve all become literalists of the imagination, so that apocalypse rather than a pleasant channeling of our fears has become an actual possibility and real manifestation in the world around us in wars, famines, racism, hatred, murder, mayhem… The problem we face is that we’ve targeted the external world of actual people and deemed them disposable as if they are the ravenous zombies and vampires of our contemporary globalist madness. We’ve turned the inside out, reversed what once existed within into a projected nightmare scenario and living hell in the real world not as fantasy but as daemonic threat and doom upon ourselves and others. Talking of contemporary horror films Ligotti remarks that the characters in these films “cannot be sure who is a “thing” and who is not, since those who are transmuted retain their former appearance, memories, and behaviors even after they have become, in their essence, uncanny monstrosities from another world.” (CHR, 92) This sense that we’ve allowed the immigrants (US) and refugees (US and EU) to enter into and become a part of the social body of our nations leads to this sense of the uncanny uncertainty that one cannot be sure who is the “thing” – is it us or them: a paranoiac nightmare world of ravening lunacy, indeed. Because our categories of normal/abnormal have broken down due to the absolute Other of other conceptual cultures who have other sets of Symbolic Orders and ideas, concepts, ideologies, religious, and Laws, etc. we are now in the predicament of mutating and transforming into an Other ourselves all across the globe. There is no safe haven, no place to hide or defend oneself against oneself. In this sense we’ve all – everyone on the planet – become as Ligotti states it, in “essence, uncanny monstrosities from another world”. (CHR, 92)

* * *

Trickster Makes This World
by Lewis Hyde
pp. 168-172

During the years I was writing this book, there was an intense national debate over the concern that government funds might be used to subsidize pornographic art. The particulars will undoubtedly change, but the debate is perennial. On the one side, we have those who presume to speak for the collective trying to preserve the coverings and silences that give social space its order. On the other side, we have the agents of change, time travelers who take the order itself to be mutable, who hope— to give it the most positive formulation— to preserve the sacred by finding ways to shift the structure of things as contingency demands. It is not immediately clear why this latter camp must so regularly turn to bodily and sexual display, but the context I am establishing here suggests that such display is necessary.

To explore why this might be the case, let me begin with the classic image from the Old Testament: Adam and Eve leaving the garden, having learned shame and therefore having covered their genitals and, in the old paintings, holding their hands over their faces as well. By these actions they inscribe their own bodies. The body happens to be a uniquely apt location for the inscription of shame, partly because the body itself seems to be the sense organ of shame (the feeling swamps us, we stutter and flush against our will), but also because the content of shame, what we feel ashamed of, typically seems indelible and fixed, with us as a sort of natural fact, the way the body is with us as a natural fact. “Shame is what you are, guilt is what you do,” goes an old saying. Guilt can be undone with acts of penance, but the feeling of shame sticks around like a birthmark or the smell of cigarettes.

I earlier connected the way we learn about shame to rules about speech and silence, and made the additional claim that those rules have an ordering function. Now, let us say that the rules give order to several things at once, not just to society but to the body and the psyche as well. When I say “several things at once” I mean that the rules imply the congruence of these three realms; the orderliness of one is the orderliness of the others. The organized body is a sign that we are organized psychologically and that we understand and accept the organization of the world around us. When Adam and Eve cover their genitals, they simultaneously begin to structure consciousness and to structure their primordial community. To make the temenos, a line is drawn on the earth and one thing cut from another; when Adam and Eve learn shame, they draw a line on their bodies, dividing them into zones like the zones of silence and speech— or, rather, not “like” those zones, but identified with them, for what one covers on the body one also consigns to silence.

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

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

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

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

These are the beginnings of conscious struggle, but we have yet to meet the mind of the trickster— or if we have, it belongs to the trickster who tries to eat the reflected berries, who burns his own anus in anger, who has not learned to separate the bait from the hook. As we saw earlier, the pressures of experience produce from that somewhat witless character a more sophisticated trickster who can separate bait from hook, who knows that the sign of something is not the thing itself, and who is therefore a better escape artist with a much more playful relationship to the local stories. The heavy-bodied, literalizing attempt to escape from shame carries much of the trap with it— the link to the body, the silence, and so on. Inarticulately, it takes the sign for the thing itself, imagining racism inheres in the color of the skin. Wise to the tricks of language, the light-bodied escape from shame refuses the whole setup— refuses the metonymic shift, the enchantment of group story, and the rules of silence— and by these refusals it detaches the supposedly overlapping levels of inscription from one another so that the body, especially, need no longer stand as the mute, incarnate seal of social and psychological order. All this, but especially the speaking out where shame demands silence, depends largely on a consciousness that doesn’t feel much inhibition, and knows how traps are made, and knows how to subvert them.

This is the insight that comes to all boundary-crossers— immigrants in fact or immigrants in time— that meaning is contingent and identity fluid, even the meaning and identity of one’s own body.

It should by now be easier to see why there will always be art that uncovers the body, and artists who speak shamelessly, even obscenely. All social structures do well to anchor their rules of conduct in the seemingly simple inscription of the body, so that only after I have covered my privates am I allowed to show my face to the world and have a public life. The rules of bodily decorum usually imply that the cosmos depends on the shame we feel about our bodies. But sometimes the lesson is a lie, and a cunningly self-protecting one at that, for to question it requires self-exposure and loss of face, and who would want that? Well, trickster would, as would all those who find they cannot fashion a place for themselves in the world until they have spoken against collective silence. We certainly see this— not just the speaking out but the self-exposure— in Allen Ginsberg, and we see it a bit more subtly in both Kingston and Rodriguez. Neither of them is a “dirty writer” the way Ginsberg is, but to begin to speak, one of them must talk about menstruation (which talk she links to becoming the mistress of her own sexuality) and the other must talk about his skin (which talk he links to possessing his “maleness”).

To the degree that other orders are linked to the way the body is inscribed, and to the degree that the link is sealed by rules of silence, the first stuttering questioning of those orders must always begin by breaking the seal and speaking about the body. Where obscene speech has such roots it is worth defending, and those who would suppress it court a subtle but serious danger. They are like the gods who would bind Loki, for this suppression hobbles the imagination that copes with the shifting and contingent nature of things, and so invites apocalyptic change where something more playful would have sufficed. Better to let trickster steal the shame covers now and then. Better to let Coyote have a ride in the Sun-god’s lodge. Better to let Monkey come on your journey to the West.

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“Disseminated Volition in the New Testament Gospels”
by Andrew Stehlik
The Jaynesian (Vol. 3, Issue 1)

It is well known that many words for inner spiritual motions and emotions are actually metaphors derived from primitive (outward) physiological observations. Brief references to any good dictionary which includes etymology can corroborate this conclusion.

Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind dedicated a whole chapter to this theme — looking forward through the Iliad (pp. 257– 272). He concentrates on seven words: thumos, phrenes, noos, psyche, kradie, ker, and etor.

Julian Jaynes recognized that these and other similar body based, physiological or anatomical metaphors (in almost any language) are actually more than simple linguistic metaphors and that they played an important role in the breakdown of bicameralism and the development of consciousness. Different forms of stress and anxiety trigger different physiological responses. Observations of these responses were used in naming and creating hypostases and metaphors useful in the terminology of introspection and the development of consciousness. […]

In the New Testament Gospels (therefore quite late in the historical process — the second half of the first century CE) I recently recognized an interesting phenomenon which could be part of this process, or, even better, a pathological deviation along this process.

Once in the gospel of Mark (9: 42– 48) and twice in the gospel of Matthew (5: 27– 30 and 18: 6– 10) Jesus is supposed to utter an almost identical saying. In this saying, individual parts of the body (eyes, hands, feet) are given the ability of independent volition. They can inform acting of the whole person. The saying suggests, further, that when the influence (instructions, independent volition) of these body parts is perceived as dangerous or harmful, they should be silenced by cutting them off to protect the integrity of the rest of the body.

All academic theological literature known to me takes these sayings as high literary metaphors. Frequent references are made to biology and medicine and the use of amputations are the last resort in serious conditions.

Completely unrecognized is the whole presumption of this saying according to which individual body parts could possess independent volition and as such can inform (sway/direct) the acting of the whole body. Even more seriously — the presumption that self-mutilation can stop or somehow influence higher mental processes. Even the person who is not a trained psychologist or psychiatrist can recognize that we are dealing with a seriously pathological state of mind. […]

Already at the time of recording in the gospels this saying was perceived as anomalous. Luke, the most educated and refined of synoptical authors, preserved the immediate context, but edited out most of the peculiar parts concerning disseminated volition and self-mutilations.

Further and broader contexts which may be mentioned and discussed: other Greek and Hebrew physiological and anatomical metaphors; the popularity of a metaphor of the body for structuring and functioning of society in Hellenism; the ancient practice of religious self-mutilation; the potential for facilitating our understanding of brutish penal codes or modern self-mutilations.

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The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
The Haunted Moral Imagination

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
On Truth and Bullshit
Poised on a Knife Edge
“Why are you thinking about this?”