What will we choose?

Donald Trump, in declaring anti-fascists are his enemy, is helping to remind and clarify to Americans what is fascism, who are the fascists, the great enemy an earlier generation of Americans fought and defeated. He has stated it in no uncertain terms.

If you’re opposed to anti-fascists, there is only one other choice. There is no third option. Are you for or against fascism? That is now the main dividing line in American society. It’s a stark contrast with centuries of unresolved conflict being forced to the surface.

If we allow it, the police will become increasingly violent and draconian. Lockdowns and curfews could become the norm. More and more innocent people will be attacked, killed and imprisoned. Eventually, if it continues, ghettos and camps will be created. Maybe we’ll even get to the point where people are simply disappeared.

Humanity is at this crossroads again. In a state of public crisis and moral panic, demagogues are offering the certainty of authoritarianism, the promise of law and order. But it’s also an opportunity to seek a just and fair society, to finally fulfill the dream of a free society, maybe a second American Revolution to complete what the first began.

What will we choose?

* * *

Donald Trump’s “Antifa” Hysteria Is Absurd. But It’s Also Very Dangerous.
by Chip Gibbons

Conserving America’s Radical and Revoltuionary Vision

What does it mean to be a ‘conservative’ in a country like the United States? What does it mean to conserve? What is it we might conserve? America was founded on protest, on riot, revolt and rebellion, some of it peaceful but much of it not peaceful in the slightest. Besides the American Revolution, there was the War of Regulation, Shays’ Rebellion, and much else, such as the later Coal Wars, Battle of Athens, and on and on. Americans have never ended their confrontational demands of freedom, even as we speak with yet another protest challenging abuse of power.

The classical liberalism that both liberals and conservatives often claim was given fullest expression in the American tradition from the words of Thomas Paine, the most radically left-wing of the founders. He is the only one of the main founders to directly demand a democratic government, not to mention he was a deist heretic and worst still advocated for what was the equivalent of a universal basic income with his citizens’ dividend. It was Paine who named this country, “the United States of America,” and the closest we’ve come to his radical vision was the Progressive New Deal.

Also, Paine had an honorary citizenship from France and called himself a citizen of the world. Then again, some of the other founders also had honorary citizenships of France and called themselves citizens of the world. Many in that generation had radical aspirations of global revolution, far beyond mere nation-building. Some of them hoped America would be an inspiration to further revolt. In fact, many rebellions were inspired. That legacy, if nothing else, has been conserved in the memory of humanity. That makes sense as it was Paine who argued that America never was an ethno-nationalistic project, since even when he wrote his revolutionary tracts the majority in several colonies were not English and not even British. America was to represent a new multiculturalism based on universal human rights.

Ignoring Paine’s religious hereticism and that of Jefferson, Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Young… which is a lot hereticism to ignore… even if we proclaim Christianity as the one true faith of American society, which of the over 4,6000 sects of Christianity in the United States get credit and privilege? And if we are to genuinely conserve Jesus teachings and example, we’d have to be as radical as he was in challenging accumulated wealth and challenging claims of authority, including the rule-obsessed and literal-minded fundamentalism of religious authority as Jesus did with the Pharisees and Sadducees. That would mean we’d have to treat far better the least among us, including the sick, homeless, prostitutes, etc. Instead of an elite, it would be the meek who would inherit the earth, those who are poor and trampled upon, those who are most child-like.

One might add that Jesus himself was a heretic, in a long tradition of Jewish heretics. There has always been a strong heretical impulse that splintered the Christian tradition, right from the beginning. This is maybe because Jesus never set to found a religion and so left no official organization, doctrine of beliefs, set of rules, methods of practice, etc. So, if Christianity is a product of heresy, blossomed in a diversity of heresy right from the start and maintained that heretical tendency ever since, then what does it mean to conserve Jesus’ ministry that opposed conserving what came before? Can one conserve heresy and the heretical mindset that motivated it?

We’d even have to take note of how Jesus paid zero respect to family values and follow his lead in his having told someone about their father to let the dead bury the dead and at another time declared that he came to turn family against each other. Jesus preached a universal love and compassion that extended far beyond kinship, far beyond all social identities such as race, ethnicity and nationalism. Anyway, if we are to ignore Jesus, which family values would we conserve? The nuclear family is a modern invention that is as unconservative as can be according to historical standards of family values. The notion of family used to be connected to a complex traditional culture of community and commons, but such a culture has no place in modern American society.

As for traditionalism as the heart of conservatism, the most traditional societies in America, those with the greatest claims on an established tradition are the Native Americans, some of which inspired the division of power that was adopted into the US constitution. In their existing as separate legal nations, they remind us of the federalism this country was based upon. Yet we still don’t honor the legal and constitutional promises made to them. If we want to be reminded of what conserving the traditional could mean, we’d need to relearn traditionalism from the few remaining American people who haven’t yet fully destroyed their traditional cultures, haven’t yet entirely sacrificed their ancient identities in worship of Mammon.

On the most basic level of all, let’s consider the main enemy of conserving traditionalism against change. It is capitalist realism that eliminates and replaces all that is traditional while devouring the world we’ve inherited. Instead of conservation of the environment, instead of caretaking for God’s Creation, instead of being morally responsible to future generations, we sacrifice the common good and leave nothing to be inherited as we inherited what was left to us. Is nothing sacred? What about the most conservative impulse of all, the precautionary principle that would lead us to not be so careless and wasteful, so morally indifferent and psycopathically destructive.

There is a further way in which modern American conservatism finds itself in a tricky relationship with traditionalism. Prior to the rise of reactionary conservatism in post-revolutionary era, the ancien regime was based on a sense in which social realities laid claim upon the individual. Everyone was defined by kinship, community, and the commons; by an entire network of relationships, obligations, and commitments; and a profound sense of place that rooted one in a shared social reality.

Modern American conservatism is a far different beast, in its being intertwined with capitalist realism. Instead of what claims the individual, it is about what the individual claims. The individual is defined by what they own, what or who they control, including subordinates below them in the capitalist order such as employees. Most of use never think about how strange that is, how unusual, how extremely different from most of the historical past. This is also the sense of modern ethno-nationalism. There is the demand to claim a country as an identity with mapped boundaries. In the pre-modern world, especially the ancient world, sociopolitical boundaries were much more blurred, overlapping, and shifting. People could be claimed by multiple social identities, depending on the context as identity was inseparable from particular relationships. There weren’t the abstract identities that moderns cling to.

If we seek to conserve what has claimed humanity for most of existence, we must forego our modern claims of identity that seek to force themselves onto the world and so reshape that world. To conserve would mean to some degree return to a sense of being claimed by the other, by the world. It would mean asking what we owe, who we are responsible to. An attempt to return to such a worldview would be a radical act. That is where we find ourselves now, having to choose either the reactionary or the radical. And the radical potentially takes more seriously and treats with more respect the traditional.

Other than unjust privilege, cruel oppression and rigid hierarchy, what is actually conserved by so-called ‘conservatism’ in American society? What can conservatism possibly mean other than convenient rationalization for whatever rhetoric is useful to the powerful at any given moment? But maybe conservatism could be more than that, if we were to take seriously the value of conserving what is of value. Imagine for a moment that American conservatism actually meant something other than defending a fantasy of power and instead was a guiding moral vision. Imagine if conservatives actually fought to conserve what mattered most.

Now that would be truly radical, maybe even revolutionary — radical as going to the root, revolutionary as a cyclical return. Let us return to the roots of the greatest of social, moral and political visions of American society, the founding vision that inspired more than any other. That would be worth conserving. In that case, we radicals could be conservatives. Maybe the only way to be meaningfully conservative now is to be radical enough to deeply consider the claims made upon us by the demands of conserving. The reactionary can mouth empty words, but traditionalism is forever lost to the reactionary mind. They are opposites. We radicals should make the case for conservatism.

The Empire Within Us

In a review of Buddy Levy’s book Conquistador, Chuck Pezeshki uses it as an opportunity to discuss the sociopolitical implications of psychopathic power, cruel sacrifice, and the loss of empathy (Learning from Aztecs and Bon Vivants — Empathy in the Time of the Coronavirus (VIII)). Levy describes, in taking Spanish accounts at their word, the claimed atrocities of human sacrifice supposedly committed by the Aztecs and how Cortés put on a pretense of moral outrage.

Levy writes that, “Some of Cortés’s men reported being shown a morbid place, an ossuary of human skulls, constructed to resemble a viewing theater of slain sacrifice victims. Set in stacks of five, on tiered poles between large supporting towers, were some 136,000 skulls, all the heads facing outward, the open-mouthed faces bleached to a bone-white patina from the high-altitude sun. For the Spaniards, it was a macabre and chilling sight. During his tour of the palaces and marketplace, Cortés would also have heard about other equally gruesome ritual practices, including the slashing open of the throats of infants, the beheading of young women, and the dressing of teenagers in recently flayed human skins. The shock and disgust that he felt (notwithstanding his own recent personal acts of barbarity) must have fueled his sense of mission and righteousness.” Was that true? Were the accounts accurate? Before answering those questions, let’s consider Hernán Cortés’ rhetoric and rationalizations given right before battle, from another section of Conquistador:

“Before departing, Cortés assembled the entire allied force—the Spaniards in clanking and shimmering armor, the Indian warriors in feathers—at the central square of Tlaxcala. By now more than proficient in rousing oratory, Cortés spoke to his men (translated to the Tlaxcalans through Malinche and a few pages who had learned Nahuatl) reminding them of (and cleverly providing legal precedent for) the task ahead. They embarked on a “just” cause, he said, simultaneously appealing to honor, faith, and greed. “The principal reason for us coming to these parts,” he bellowed across the plaza, “is to glorify and preach the Faith of Jesus Christ, even though at the same time it brings us honor and profit, which infrequently come in the same package.”

“Cortés went on, attempting to justify, both to the crown and in accordance with Spanish law, his proposed military actions by suggesting that the Aztecs were not a liberated nation but rather were vassals of Spain in rebellion, murderers of Spanish citizens who therefore required “a great whipping and punishment.” While the argument was weak and rather dubious, it achieved the desired effect: the army rallied with whoops and cheers. Cortés closed this portion of his speech with a salient reminder of the Aztecs’ vile practices of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and even sodomy (this last an appeal against a taboo, seemingly for punctuation). Then he called upon a crier to shout out a list of seventeen rules of engagement, recently scribed by his new war secretary. The irony of some of them is so egregious, given Spanish brutality and duplicitous behavior, that in reading them, one does not know whether to laugh or to cry.

“The highlights of this list, which Cortés called “ordinances for good government and other matters concerning war,” include the following. The purpose of the war was to impart to the local inhabitants of Mexico a “knowledge of our holy faith” and to “subjugate them, under imperial and royal yoke and dominion of His Majesty, to whom, legally, the lordship of these parts now belongs.” The terms “subjugate,” “dominion,” and “belongs” betray Cortés’s true intention: to bring this land to its knees and possess it.”

Basically, Cortés was not a nice guy, much less a trustworthy source on his own motivations. Spanish accounts were intended as imperial propaganda, but that is as expected. Of course, Cortés was also trying to advance his own career and reputation. “In effect, he was a rogue, a rebel, a pirate. Arguments about his relative morality will persist: he was manipulative, duplicitous, and egomaniacal. He was barbarous in his own way, using his religious faith and convictions to justify brutalities including torture, branding, execution, unprovoked massacre, and slavery.” He was ambitious, if nothing else, and would do anything to promote that ambition. The accusations of brutality were pretext to justify the brutality that was to come, as Levy explains:

“For the next three weeks, fueled perhaps by a desire for vengeance for La Noche Triste, and certainly wishing to make a show of unyielding power, Cortés terrorized the region, ravaging villages and cities with brutal impunity. He turned his ferocious armored war-hounds loose on any Aztecs or their allies who refused to submit; the snarling, blood-crazed animals tore them to shreds. Hacking and burning a wide and deadly course, Cortés took prisoner-slaves and exacted fealty from leaders until, as the thick smoke of sacked towns choked the horizon, he had subjugated the entire province of Tepeaca. Cortés would say of this bloody carnage, “Although…this province is very large, within twenty days we had subdued and pacified many towns and villages, and the lords and chieftains…offered themselves as your majesty’s vassals.” Cortés would later justify his brutality and the taking of slaves by arguing that it was in response to widespread regional cannibalism, which both he and the crown despised, but this claim rang false, sounding like an excuse. The campaign reached, even for Cortés, shocking levels of atrocity and barbarity. In one city he is said to have lined up and killed two thousand civilian men, while four thousand women and children watched—and the latter were then branded and enslaved.”

That was a brutal era of clashing empires ruled by the Dark Triad: psycopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. There wasn’t much allowance made for compassion or even pity. That apparently is what attracted Pezeshki to Levy’s book. Empathy is a central theme of Pezeshki’s blog and of his scholarship. According to his About page, he is “a published professor in the field of design theory and high performance work teams. […] And I’m also one of the second-wave pioneers in understanding nonlinear dynamics and complex system theory [… with] an extensive background in environmental policy [… and] experience up and down the governmental food chain.” His writings are more than worthy of studying, specifically his application of v-memes or value memes. He also has fascinating posts on diet and nutrition as they relate to society (see an earlier post, Diets and Systems, from this blog in response to that), although that is an entirely other topic. Anyway, the context of the recent post by Pezeshki is how empathy should be part of our discussion of COVID-19, specifically as a way of understanding different responses and what they mean. The focus is on human sacrifice and I agree with his larger point:

“Aztecs sacrificed victims regularly to make sure the sun would rise and set, as well as almost every other reason imaginable. That is never a good feedback loop to make. Once a society institutes Divine Rationalization justifying any depravity, the end is near. What such constant, chronic sacrifice certainly did was destroy empathy, and create a massively dissociated nation. […] What is interesting is that such treatment of people, both within, and very much without their society, destroys the ability of a society to have more evolved empathy. The last thing you would ever want to do is connect to someone having their heart cut out and then subsequently decapitated. […]

“Yet instead of being future focused, the psychopaths in charge created an entire civilization run off the rails by trauma. […] Through promotion of a class of highly sophisticated psychopaths who could both manage, exult in and design the grisly daily rituals of suffering and death, unmoored from their obvious consequences, should serve as a warning to all of us. Current Wall Street dynamics, anyone? […] This blog typically does not talk about moral justice in all of this. But it’s very hard to argue that the Aztecs didn’t have it coming. Something we might think about when we have our own version of sacrificing the poor as morally justifiable in order to keep our civilization running. What is the end game here? What can history teach us?”

He really isn’t talking about the Aztecs. Rather, he used a foreign society that is distant from us in time and place in order to give us the emotional distance to gain new perspective on our own society. I applaud what he is attempting and the ongoing project it’s part of, but I’m not sure the Aztecs are a good example for this purpose. That history of European conquest is mired in the unreliable accounts of the violent Spaniards, arguably far more brutal and psychopathic than the Aztecs. The Aztecs might have lost because they weren’t psychopathic enough compared to the Spaniards or else because they lacked the ambitious quality of psychopathy as seen in Spanish colonial imperialism, military expansionism, and genocidal exploitation — not to mention the Inquisition that led to the torture, persecution, and killing of millions. That isn’t to lessen the moral crime of human sacrifice that was practiced by the Aztecs, even if at a much smaller scale compared to the Spaniards at the time. But as we seek proper perspective toward our own society, we should also seek a fuller understanding of the societies of others.

There is much discussion and debate about Aztec human sacrifice. The archaeological record apparently hasn’t so far supported the claims made by the Conquistadors who would’ve been motivated to exaggerate. Three sites have shown the remains of individuals numbering 35, 123 and 150, not the thousands upon thousands of sacrificial victims from the Spanish accounts, much less the 100,000 that some have suggested nor even close to the ‘conservative’ estimates of 20,000. There was ritual sacrifice, but it was rather limited according to the evidence. Besides, most sacrifices were animals and, among humans, the most common practice was self-sacrifice. Even captured enemies who were sacrificed were kept for long periods of time during which they were well fed, trained in special dances, and much else. It was an immense investment and so, as this intriguingly involved knowing cooperation by the intended victim, these highly prized sacrifices were rare. Anyway, to put it in context, Cortés and his army killed more natives in battle than the most exaggerated number ascribed to human sacrifice by the Aztecs — according to Levy: “The clash of empires that followed culminated in the bloody siege of Tenochtitlán, to this day considered the longest and costliest continuous single battle in history, with estimated casualties of 200,000 human lives.”

As for Aztec cannibalism, it appears to have been much more rare, quite likely far more rare than the medical cannibalism practiced in Europe for many centuries and into the modern period, having fallen out of favor during the 19th century although it continued into the 20th century: “From creating candles made of human fat in the 1880s, to drinking blood at the scaffolding (still happening in 1908)” (Eddie Wrenn, Europeans indulged in cannibalism until the 1900s, two new books claim; Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: the History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians; & Louise Noble, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture). As a side note, similar to human sacrifice, cannibalism has been more common than previously acknowledged. Weston A. Price, in searching diverse traditional societies, couldn’t find a single example of veganism but many examples of cannibalism (Being “mostly vegan” is like being “a little pregnant.”). European history is no exception when it comes to cannibalism. As with a supposed cannibalistic elite among the Aztecs, European aristocrats, royalty and popes partook of human flesh (Keith Veronese, The UncLouiseomfortably Common Practice of Medicinal Cannibalism; & Bess Lovejoy, A Brief History of Medical Cannibalism). European scholars, priests, and peasants also joined in such morbid activities, not limited to eating human flesh but also smearing human fat and sprinkling human blood on their bodies. This might be unsurprising since Europeans at the time took seriously the idea that a symbolic ritual of eating the blood and body of a sacrificed godman would bring them eternal life.

Consider that “Europe boasts the oldest fossil evidence of cannibalism,” albeit of Neanderthals, and “the world’s first cannibal incident reported by multiple, independent, first-hand accounts took place during the Crusades by European soldiers” (Sarah Everts, Europe’s Hypocritical History of Cannibalism). To Europeans, the university lecturer Richard Sugg points out, “The question was not, ‘Should you eat human flesh?’ but, ‘What sort of flesh should you eat?’ ” One might argue that European cannibalism was far more barbaric in how it dehumanized the human body. “The one thing that we know,” says Beth A. Conklin, “is that almost all non-Western cannibal practice is deeply social in the sense that the relationship between the eater and the one who is eaten matters. In the European process, this was largely erased and made irrelevant. Human beings were reduced to simple biological matter equivalent to any other kind of commodity medicine” (Maria Dolan, The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine). The human body was made into mere matter, the result of the new ‘Enlightened’ thought. Such European cannibalism became common practice — in Eating Your Enemy, Richard Sugg writes:

“Though Christian Europeans shunned the cannibalism of the New World, they themselves in fact practised cannibalism more systematically than any tribes in Canada or Brazil. Until around 1750, human fat, flesh, bone and blood (preferably drunk warm) were widely used and esteemed forms of medicine. Advocates and consumers included Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Charles II. Meanwhile, from the early sixteenth century, Protestants and Catholics in northern Europe  denounced and slaughtered one another with tribal ferocity, even as each side attacked the ‘cannibal barbarity’ or inhumanity of the other. Frank Lestringant (1997) tells how, around 1580, a French Protestant was killed and eviscerated by Catholics. His heart was next ‘chopped in pieces, auctioned off, cooked on a grill and finally eaten with much enjoyment’.

“Elsewhere such savagery might be inspired by social antagonisms. Historian Piero Camporesi (1988) tells of violent aristocratic feuds in early-modern Italy. In one case, a victim’s disembowelled heart was bitten. In a second, the narrator tells us, ‘lucky was the man who might grind the entrails between his teeth’. In a third instance, a man was tortured and killed before being disembowelled. After gnawing his intestines, his attackers proceeded to ‘cut him up into small pieces to remove his fat because he was young, being probably twenty-eight years of age, tall and slim in build’. In Camporesi’s view, the emphasis on the victim’s youth and stature betrays an intention to sell this fat to ‘pharmacologist-doctors’ who would find it ‘beneficial to all nervous ailments’. Given the trade in cannibalistic medicine, the inference looks all too plausible.

“In these incidents the aggressors do not actually eat, but enact their dominance by cannibalistic gestures. Such gestures violently break taboos, yet avoid the possibility of being contaminated by the substance of their victims. In a broadly similar way, selling Orsi’s fat is a form of derisive exploitation, and one that procures someone else to do the actual consumption.”

With that in mind, let us return to what supposedly so horrified the Conquistadors, men who weren’t squeamish about blood and guts and the screams of the innocent. Pezeshki argues, based on Levy’s book, that human sacrifice and cannibalism were central factors in the downfall of the Aztecs. The assertion is based on the evidence of an uprising among the subordinate populations who would’ve been the source of victims offered to the bloody rituals demanded by an authoritarian elite. That surely played some role, although maybe not as much considering the evidence is skimpy for a large-scale death count. Revolt might have had more to do with basic reasons such as a starving and unhappy peasant class, similar to what incited the French Revolution. A lack of empathy would still be involved, even if no dramatic large-scale violence was necessarily involved. Standard authoritarian oppression is brutal enough by itself to instigate unrest, as the Spanish would experience themselves when oppressed people fought back with Haiti being a key case in point.

Whatever may have been behind uprisings that helped the Spanish invaders, some argue that the Conquistadors were so able to defeat the Aztecs because so many of the enemy soldiers were already sick and weak from an outbreak of typhoid-like salmonella enterica bacterium, “the second of three epidemics” that killed 15 million people, as compared to the bubonic plague that did away with 25 million (Agence France-Presse, 500 years later, scientists discover what probably killed the Aztecs). By the time the would be conquerors arrived, the city was in a chaotic state where an organized defense was no longer possible. Imagine if a large empire with a population immune to bubonic plague had attacked Europe while mass infection and death was taking hold. It would’ve been an easy victory even for a small invading army, with or without local revolt. Furthermore, the higher rate of deaths in the rural areas of the Aztec empire would’ve added to the social instability for the Aztec ruling elite living in the central city. There already had been drought, malnutrition, and famine preceding the arrival of the Conquistadors. This would’ve made the population susceptible to infectious diseases and rural areas might have been affected more harshly, a situation the Conquistadors were able to take advantage of.

To return to the issue of human sacrifice, that is a complex issue. At around same the time, as I pointed out, the Spaniards were committing human sacrifice as well, even if by other means. Between the Inquisition and genocide, many millions were killed, far beyond the scope of Aztec brutality. Public torture, quarterings, hangings, burnings, etc was common practice in Europe during that era, from feudalism to colonialism. There was systemic persecution and mass decimation of entire populations and religions like the Cathars. That moral depravity and lack of empathy didn’t stop these countries from creating advanced societies and rising into empires. If anything, too much empathy would have been a hindrance for the Spaniards in seeking to conquer and enslave other societies, far from limited to the Aztecs. Psychopathy was their key to success.

Interestingly, it was during this period of mass oppression, violence, and suffering in Europe that the ideals of empathy were emerging. It had more to do with a new understanding of individuality and psychology, such as what developed in the violently warring Italian city-states in the Renaissance. Some believe the changes in mindset had more to do with changes in technology and media, such as the printing press that made books more widespread. Also, there were changes in how text was written, as seen in the introduction of punctuation and spaces between words that allowed silent reading in the privacy of one’s own mind. The conditions that create psychopathy can simultaneously inspire new attitudes, ideals, and visions of empathy. Thomas Paine, to take an example from another empire, could see from his house the almost daily public killings at the gallows which included the death of a childhood friend and it probably helped to later shape him into a revolutionary who proclaimed himself to be a citizen of the world. By the way, what became of the executed? “In Great Britain, the body supply was easily replenished by using the corpses of criminals. The Murder Act of 1752 allowed executed murderers to be dissected for science. After the bodies were dissected, they were sent to apothecaries and were made into corpse medicine. Almost every single body part was used in one way or another” (Nichole K., Cannibalism in Europe: The Hypocrisy of Corpse Medicine in the 17th Century) — Paine was a teenager when this barbarism was put into law and so this was likely the fate of the corpse of his childhood friend. Brutality can deaden the soul but it can inspire others instead, as demonstrated by the martyrdom practiced by Stoics and inherited by Christians.

Empathy developed in spite of or maybe even in response to a dominant social order that was the complete opposite of encouraging empathy. The conditions that make greater empathy possible are complex and can take long periods to accrue. Julian Jaynes explored how the earliest signs of a more modern empathy appeared after the fall of the Bronze Age civilizations. Others have studied this in terms of the Axial Age societies and religions that came out of that prior period of dark ages, often using the Greeks as the key example. Interestingly, the Bronze Age civilizations became most brutally violent right before their collapse. Jaynes argued this change was caused the weakening of the bicameral social order. Empathy, as we understand it, had not been necessary to the communally-oriented bicameral mind with its collective identity of external voice-hearing. For that same reason, the early communitarian societies of small city-states were far less violent with no evidence of mass torture and slaughter. A new kind of violent hierarchy only rose later on with the tentative signs of a new individualistic and introspective consciousness that, so goes the argument, also made empathy as we know it possible. Violence might become more common and brutal in response to the radical potential of empathy that challenges it.

By the way, Jaynes does discuss the Aztecs. He was writing at a time when info was more limited and so he didn’t know about the drought, famine, and disease that preceded the Conquistador attack. His suggestion was that the Aztecs were still a bicameral society or beginning transition out of bicamerality and that their defeat partly came from an incomprehension about the mentality of the Conquistadors. Bicameral societies operated in a very different way. According to theory, individuality and hence sacrifice wouldn’t be experienced as is done with Jaynesian egoic consciousness. Here is what he wrote:

“The conquered Aztecs told the Spanish invaders how their history began when a statue from a ruined temple belonging to a previous culture spoke to their leaders. It commanded them to cross the lake from where they were, and to carry its statue with them wherever they went, directing them hither and thither, even as the unembodied bicameral voices led Moses zigzagging across the Sinai desert.

“And finally the remarkable evidence from Peru. All the first reports of the conquest of Peru by the Inquisition-taught Spaniards are consistent in regarding the Inca kingdom as one commanded by the Devil. Their evidence was that the Devil himself actually spoke to the Incas out of the mouths of their statues. To these coarse dogmatized Christians, coming from one of the most ignorant counties of Spain, this caused little astonishment. The very first report back to Europe said, “in the temple [of Pachacamac] was a Devil who used to speak to the Indians in a very dark room which was as dirty as he himself.” And a later account reported that

” “… it was a thing very common and approved at the Indies, that the Devill spake and answered in these false sanctuaries … It was commonly in the night they entered backward to their idoll and so went bending their bodies and head, after an uglie manner, and so they consulted with him. The answer he made, was commonly like unto a fearefull hissing, or to a gnashing which did terrifie them; and all that he did advertise or command them, was but the way to their perdition and ruine.” “

Even if it were true the Aztecs had been as violent and superstitious as portrayed with a lingering bicameral mindset, maybe they offered a mirror to the invading soldiers in which to gaze upon their own distorted visage. It was the familiarity of such a society that might have so frightened those simple Conquistadors. The vestiges of bicameralism were still strong in the European mind of that era when individualism was barely taking hold, not that long after the so-called Dark Ages. The threat of a still functioning bicameral society might have been that it awakened the still living voices that exerted so much power over these religious Europeans, at a time when worship of idols and corpses was still widespread in the Catholic church.

Those bicameral voices might not be so distant for us modern Westerners either. In reading the Spanish accounts of the Aztecs, it also holds up a mirror to our own repressed dark fears and depraved fantasies. We’ll never know the objective reality of who were the Aztecs and it ultimately doesn’t matter. We don’t have to look outside of the West to know the bloody origins of the psychopathy that rules our own modern world. The Empire never ended, as Philip K. Dick said — call it Roman, Spanish, Aztec, or American. It’s all the same Empire and we carry it in our soul and psyche, our shared humanity, in the shadows of the unconscious. It’s not whether or not those others lacked empathy but, as Chuck Pezeshki would agree, if we will allow ourselves to empathize with our own darkness, what we’ve denied in ourselves. The Other is to be found within.

* * *

Ancient Aztec skull rack discovered in temple complex in middle of Mexico City — decapitated victims’ skulls used in mortar and used like bricks
Ahhuatl:
A good demonstration of the disconnect between what the Spanish claimed and the actual empirical evidence.

ictlantecuhtli:
They found 35 skulls so far. Hardly close to 100,000.
The Spanish were quite awful at estimating things in their accounts. A lot of the numbers have been inflated to make things sound grander.
And Diaz wrote his book decades after the event when he was an old man. His account comes into conflict with Cortes’ letters on numerous accounts, probably because Diaz wanted to make things more exciting to get more money for his book.

Britannica Book of the Year 2014
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
p. 194

In central Mexico, north of the Maya world, archaeologists discovered another mass grave, in what appeared to indicate the largest human sacrifice in Mesoamerican prehistory. This finding, published in the December 2012 issue of Latin American Antiquity, garnered significant press after its initial publication. Christopher Morehart (then of Georgia State University) and colleagues—while investigating ancient canals and irrigation systems in proximity to Lake Xaltocan (now drained), about a half hour’s drive from Mexico City—discovered a looted site. This site, which appeared to have included a ritual shrine, produced evidence of more than 150 human skulls—some of which included the first and second cervical vertebrae—carefully placed in linear rows. The crania that were analyzed showed that most of the victims were male. Radiocarbon dating indicated that these individuals were sacrificed sometime between 600 and 850 CE, beginning about the time of Teotihuacan’s collapse. Teotihuacan was located just 15 km (9 mi) southeast of the shrine, and its collapse was attributed to social disruptions caused by massive drought. If indeed drought conditions were affecting the broader region at this time, then the region’s inhabitants may have intensified their ritual practices in an effort to appeal to deities that could intervene on their behalf. The site’s ceremonial nature was indicated by the presence of the shrine, which contained such ritual objects as incense burners, figurines depicting water deities, and pottery embellished with agricultural imagery. The sacrifice of so many male individuals within this ritual context suggested that the drought must have been severe along Lake Xaltocan.

Aztec sacrifice and the blood fetish
u/AlotOfReading:

Primary sources surrounding the Conquest of Mexico are a tricky thing to interpret. They were the product of a set of social and political environments vastly different than today’s. Even our best primary sources are far from comprehensive or accurate. Diaz is neither. There have been many different attempts3 to convey the context of Diaz’s writings to the modern reader, but none that can be understood by taking quotes out of context. It’s this difficulty with interpreting primary sources of the conquest that schools often teach guided interpretive readings of primary sources to help students navigate their biases. As /u/Ahhuatl and /u/Mictlantecuhtli (both flaired users on /r/Askhistorians) correctly note, Diaz’s claims are not archaeologically substantiated. I will defer to /u/Ahhuatl’s previous post to explain the issues with the scale of sacrifice and death in precolumbian Mexico.

Why did Mesoamericans sacrifice people, and why was it not because “the gods don’t bleed?” – A further analysis of the flaws of “The Road to El Dorado”
Ahhuatl:

“What’s unique is the scale and its centrality, not the act itself.”

This is actually a fairly debatable point. It is important to contextualize our understanding of Mesoamerican culture – specifically to recognize that our understanding of the scope and nature of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica is almost wholly derived from colonial era sources. The once source we have that actually interacted with Precolumbian Mesoamerica comes from the Conquistadors themselves – Cortes, Diaz, et al. These sources don’t do much in the way of granting us a sense of the number of people sacrificed by the Aztecs or any Mesoamerican culture and they, just like later colonial sources, had every incentive to exaggerate the scale of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica. The conquest of the Aztec Empire fueled a firestorm of controversy that was already taking place in Europe regarding the morality of subjugating people as the Spanish were doing. Emphasizing the supposed devilry inherent to Mesoamerican religion helped bolster the reputation of the Spanish in the eyes of the Church and the rest of Europe. This isn’t to lend the impression that all of the sources we have on Mesoamerica were deliberately distorting the truth. There are several other mitigating factors which call the accuracy of Spanish depictions of human sacrifice into question as well. Most notably, texts from the Middle Ages routinely involved the inflation of statistics for the sake of dramatic purpose. The Spanish themselves would claim that they claimed millions of people in the Conquest. Most damning however is that our most valuable sources – Sahagun, Duran, Motolinia – were all writing decades after the fall of the Aztec Empire. In that time period, a huge swath of the people who had actually lived prior to the arrival of the Spanish had died. The Spanish frequently relied on people who either claimed to be members of the Aztec elite or stories passed on to younger generations to form their understanding of what life was like before the Conquest.

I’m going to take a controversial stance here, so you should take what I say with a grain of salt. To be frank, I don’t find the figures provided by most Mesoamerican historians to be much more than baseless speculation. […] There is an elephant in the room when it comes these proclamations about the supposedly unparalleled scale and brutality of Aztec sacrifice: archaeology.

Lets play a guess game, shall we? In 2012, Archaeologists discovered the largest example of human sacrifice ever recording in Mesoamerica. If you had to guess how many unique individuals identified in that excavation, how many would you guess there were? More than 150,000? Nope. More than 15,000? Nope. More than 1,500? Nope. The largest example of mass human sacrifice ever found in Mesoamerica contained more than 150 skulls. 150 skulls. What Berdan is alluding to in his quote is the enormous gap that exists between the reported scale of Aztec human sacrifice and actual, physical evidence we have of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica. Given the scale and intensity of Aztec sacrifice (and note that the aforementioned discovery date to a period before the Aztecs were even around) to say nothing of Mesoamerican sacrifice as a whole, there should be vast quantities of sacrificial remains all over the region – yet there aren’t. Right now there are several flimsy explanations for this huge discrepancy, the most pervasive of which actually derives from the Harner if I remember correctly. It has been suggested that the befuddling absence of sacrificial remains can be attributed to cannibalism.

Cannibalism in Mesoamerica is an area of even more dubious credibility that discussions of human sacrifice. While there is no question that cannibalism did take place in Mesoamerica, what we know about its practice really does not explain the absence of subsurface sacrificial remains. […] Beyond this, only particular portions of the human body were consumed in ritual cannibalism. Other parts, like the skull, were displayed or ritually buried, so we should STILL be seeing more evidence of sacrifice than we are.

I don’t want to lend the impression that the Aztecs or other Mesoamericans did not practice at notable amount of human sacrifice. Rather I want to emphasize to you and other readers that we academics are still coming to terms with this complex issue on our own. When you look at the hard data we have about Mesoamerican human sacrifice and then look around at other cultures and realize the verifiable scale of Mesoamerican human sacrifice is barely greater than anywhere else in the world, your perspective on the matter changes significantly. It is fascinating to me how unequal the treatment of Mesoamerican human sacrifice is to say, Ancient Greek sacrifice. When people think of human sacrifice, they immediately think of the Mesoamericans. The entire legacy of this truly remarkable region has been polluted by this perception of Mesoamericans as a particularly bloodthirsty, cruel, superstitious, and barbaric group of people. Yet the reality that the Ancient Greeks practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism is something that is functionally erased from the collective mindset of the West. We still envision the Ancient Greeks as the inherently good an enlightened people – even though they subjugated a far wider array of people than the Aztecs did and even though held many of the same cultural practices as the Aztecs. Yet there is a deep, almost obsessive, need among not just the public but scholars as well to focus in on Mesoamerican sacrifice. I think if anyone ever suggested that the limited archaeological evidence of Greek human sacrifice stems from the founders of Western civilization simply eating all of their sacrifices, they’d be laughed out of the room. Yet these extreme explanations, so divorced from the evidence and rational explanations, are eagerly embraced by the West. Why?

The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction
by David Carrasco
Chapter 4: Cosmovision and human sacrifice
pp. 77-82

No topic has caused more controversy and confusion about Aztec life than human sacrifice. Chroniclers, priests, anthropologists, journalists, filmmakers, and creative writers have repeatedly focused on it, some to condemn it, some to refute it ever took place, and some to understand the indigenous purposes and cultural meanings of ritual killing and the ritual ingestion of human flesh. That the Aztecs practiced ritual human sacrifice is beyond doubt, but it is also clear that Spanish chroniclers exaggerated the numbers and purposes of these sacrifices as a strategy to justify their own conquests and prodigious violence against Mesoamerican men, women, and children. Scholarship also reveals that many ancient cultures including the Romans, Greeks, Japanese, Chinese, Africans, Andeans, and Egyptians practiced human sacrifice, often in very large numbers. Even though the Aztec image in Western thought ranks them as the biggest sacrificers in the world, there is no substantial archaeological or documentary proof that they ritually killed more people than other civilizations.

Evidence of human sacrifice

[…] This kind of eyewitness observation can be combined with Aztec pictorial and alphabetic sources, the detailed accounts of elders interviewed by Spanish friars, as well as archaeological evidence, to show that ritual violence was a basic part of Aztec life. We now know that ritual killing long predates the Aztecs with the earliest Mesoamerican evidence coming from hunter-gatherers in the Tehuacán Valley at around 5000 bce. It is also likely that many city-states before the Aztecs practiced some form of human sacrifice. But there is a huge discrepancy between the numbers that the Spanish “eyewitnesses” tell us and what careful archaeological work in this area has revealed. For instance, here is what the record shows at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, the most thoroughly excavated Aztec site in Mesoamerica, where the largest numbers of sacrifices most likely took place:

  • Two sacrificial stones ( techcatl ) stood at the entrance to the two shrines at the top of the Great Temple. Each rose from the floor about 50 centimeters and served as altars for ritual killings, just as Díaz del Castillo described them.
  • More than a thousand ritual knives, mainly of flint, were uncovered in the excavation of different stages and offering caches. They are carefully decorated and often transformed into the face of a deity awaiting the sacrificial moment. Evidence shows that these knives were not used in the ritual killings but rather were symbolic offerings.
  • Traces on the surfaces of statues, altars, and floors of certain ritual chambers reveal that sacrificial blood was smeared on divine images and spilled in significant quantities.
  • The human remains of 126 people were buried throughout the site. Forty-two are children who, suffering from various diseases, had their throats slit so the blood could be used as an offering to the gods. Forty-seven adult heads with the top vertebrae connected were found in various offerings. Only three complete human skulls have been uncovered. They were perforated at the temples probably indicating that they had previously hung on a nearby skull rack. Thirty-three facial skull masks decorated with shell-and-pyrite eyes and representing the Lord of the Underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, were deposited in the floors of the Great Temple.

This is the sum total of all sacrificial human remains found in over thirty seasons of intensive excavations in the main ritual precinct of Tenochtitlan. It is remarkable that more human remains have been found at the site of Teotihuacan (1–550 CE ) than at this central ritual landscape and capital of the Aztec empire. A Spanish account claims that more than 80,000 enemy warriors were sacrificed in a four-day ceremony, and yet no evidence approaching one-hundredth of that number has been found in the excavations of Tenochtitlan. […]

It may come as a surprise that the most common form of sacrifice was autosacrifice. This involved the use of maguey thorns or other sharp instruments to pierce one’s earlobes, thighs, arms, tongue, or, in the case of sinners and priests, genitals, in order to offer blood to the gods. The most common type of killing was the beheading of animals like the quail. But the most dramatic and valued sacrifices were those of captured warriors, women, children, and slaves. These victims were ritually bathed, carefully costumed, often taught special dances, and sometimes either fattened or slimmed down during the preparation period. In one of the most fascinating examples, during the feast of Toxcatl, great care was taken to choose a male with the most perfect body who would ritually become the prodigious god Tezcatlipoca before he was sacrificed. […]

Moreover, this person lived in luxury for an entire year as he promenaded, with guards, throughout the city, playing his flute, greeting people in gracious prose, for he was the living image of one of the most powerful of Aztec gods.

About thirty years ago, a heated debate broke out in academic and popular journals about the extent and purpose of Aztec cannibalism. Some argued that the Aztecs ate large numbers of people as a necessary source of protein. The Aztec state was called the “Cannibal Kingdom” by an anthropologist who unfortunately did a very limited study of the evidence. The opponents of the protein argument stated that cannibalism in Aztec Mexico was primarily a ritual need to feed the gods and renew their energy, not a gastronomic need of humans to feed themselves. This meant that in the Aztec understanding of sacrifice and cannibalism, it was the gods who were nurtured through the ritual offerings of blood and human flesh. The Aztecs had abundant protein sources in their environment, thus only small amounts of human flesh were consumed, primarily by nobles, on relatively rare occasions.

“…we are held fast in the grip of the dead.”

Monotheism as we know it arose out of the wreckage of the Bronze Age collapse, out of the shattered bicameral mind. It first took form in the following Axial Age, but came to fruition in the post-Axial era with Manichaeanism, Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, etc. Then many centuries later appeared Islam that quickly took over the Middle East.

Islam has been one of the most extreme manifestations of not only monotheism but of Jaynesian consciousness more generally. It’s not only that the bicameral voices went silent but became entirely forbidden, absolutely denied according to doctrine (Islam as Worship of a Missing God; Islamic Voice-Hearing; & Psychology in Religion or as a Religion). Accordingly, voice-hearing is not to be trusted.

Yet there has remained the mystical traditions in all of the monotheistic religions, Islam included. These mystics, as with the prophets, repeatedly ventured back into the territory of heresy. They had the audacity to claim to hear God or the angels or the prophets of old, to know the divine directly. To make such claims typically meant a death sentence. The bicameral voices didn’t die of natural causes but were genocidally wiped out.

The Old Testament describes the official decrees to kill off the last of the voice-hearers,  having gone so far as to have commanded parents to murder their own children. But the bicameral mind exists in all of us and so the voices keep erupting back to the surface, continue to defy church hierarchy. They can’t be denied for they speak with the authority of God or gods, of the divine and otherworldly, an authorization of command that trumps all mere human claims to authority.

These bicameral voices are the voices of the dead, the ancients; of the past, the eternal.

* * *

Catafalque
by Peter Kingsley

It was to show that our ideas of truth, or reality, are just an upside-down illusion. We, among the so-called living, are not in charge of our lives as we think. The real fingers around our necks or on our pulses are not our own. As a matter of fact we are hardly alive at all, here, because the real truth is that we are held fast in the grip of the dead.

This is why [Shihab al-Din Yahya] Suhrawardi’s tradition is, itself, so dangerously alive. It’s able to reach out through and across the centuries, secretly, silently, whenever someone is ready—whoever, wherever, you are. And that aliveness explains the name he gave his Ishraqi tradition: the “eternal leaven”.

Just like leaven or yeast it contains its own living germ, its transformative enzyme, inside. But that also makes it a perpetual source of ferment; of disorder and disturbance, agitation, unpredictable change. And this in turn is exactly why Suhrawardi was killed at the age of thirty-six, put to death by the rigid powers of dogmatism for opening the door to too much life.

Instead of admitting as expected to the Islamic clergy that prophecy was dead, that it had come to an end with Muhammad, when interrogated he gently indicated it was still alive inside him.

But even more threateningly, and offensively, he allowed prophecy to spread unchecked not just forward into the present or future. He also followed it far into the past—openly announcing that his own tradition of the dawn reached back way beyond Muahammad to the earliest Greeks and Persians. That was one of the main reasons for his execution: that he made the mistake of treading in the footsteps of the Ancients.

In fact aside from describing this troublesome leaven or restless ferment as eternal, he had another name for it too. At times he also called it “the leaven of the Pythagoreans”.

And he traced this livingness back not just to the sacred figure of Hermes but very specifically, very explicitly, to somebody else in particular—the philosopher and prophet Empedocles.

Just like some cosmic cycle, the prophetic impulse to find life in death is always going to be met by the deceptive need to turn life into death. Even though his final role as a martyr, not to mention many of the details in his teachings, Suhrawardi was following the traces of one very particular prophetic tradition: the lineage stemming from the great Gnostic known as Seal of the Prophets, Mani. And as is bound to be the case with such sacred traditions, that heretically challenge every cherished collective belief, the most potent threat to the threats it poses is never going to come only from outside.

On the contrary, it’s going to come from the innermost circle—in exactly the same way that it also comes from inside us.

Psychology in Religion or as a Religion

There is a strong connection between Islamic doctrine and, as Julian Jaynes wrote about, the post-bicameral experience of the lost divine, of God/gods gone silent. As a much later religious development, Islam took this sense of loss to a further extreme in the theological claim that neither God nor the angels any longer speak to humans (Islam as Worship of a Missing God; & Islamic Voice-Hearing), and that silence will continue until the end of time.

The divine supposedly can only be known about indirectly, by way of dreams and other means. It also makes it a much more text-based religion, since Muhammad wrote down his visions there has been total divine silence. So, there is greater focus on the power of language and textual analysis, as the only hope we have of sensing the voice of God in life is by reading the words of prophets who did hear God or, in the case of Muhammad, heard the archangel Gabriel speak on behalf of God.

In a way, this makes Islam a more modern religion, much further distant from bicameral voice-hearing. It was founded, after all, more than a half millennium following the earlier monotheistic revival in the post-axial era of the first century. So, Islam could be seen as an attempt to come to terms with a world ever more dominated by Jaynesian consciousness.

Evidence of this could be seen with Islamic psychology, ilm al-nafs. In the West, psychology developed more separately from and independently of religion, specifically Christianity and Judaism. But in Islam, psychological study and mental health became central to the religion itself and developed early on. That is a telling difference, so it seems to me.

Here is a possible explanation. Unlike the other monotheistic religions, the divine mind and voice in Islam is so distant as to have no immediate contact with the human world. This forces humans to study their own minds more carefully, including dreams, to sense the influence of the divine like reading the currents of the ocean by watching the ripples on the surface. This makes psychology to be potentially all the more important to Islam.

The West, instead, has largely replaced religion with psychology. This was necessary as religion had not as fully adapted itself to the new psychological mindset that emerged from Jaynesian consciousness. This leaves an uneasy relationship between religion and psychology for Western culture, something that is maybe less of an issue within Islam.

Islam has a more complicated and nuanced relationship to voice-hearing. This maybe requires a more psychological approach. The Islamic individual has a greater responsibility in determining the sources of voices, as part of religious practice.

The Islamic tradition sees religion and psychology as being inseparable. The psychologist Carl Jung, having developed mutual respect with the Islamic scholar Henry Corbin, agreed with that view in stating to Sigmund Freud that “religion can only be replaced by religion” (quoted in Peter Kingsley’s Catafalque). Jung argued that, “We must read the Bible or we shall not understand psychology. Our psychology, our whole lives, our language and imagery, are built upon the Bible.”

There is no way to remove religion from psychology. And all that we’ve accomplished in the modern West is to turn psychology into its own religion.

Mental Pandemic and Ideological Lockdown

“Don’t let anyone arguing to “reopen the economy” get away with “we have to let people work to stay alive.” That’s a rhetorical trick aimed at suckering you into accepting their toxic worldview. The real question is this: how did the richest nation in the world get into a mess like this in the first place?”
~Sam Smith, How Many Dollars Is a Life Worth (and Why Did We Choose This)?

If you’re familiar with low-carbohydrate diet debate, you’d know one of the big names is Ivor Cummins, AKA the Fat Emperor. He isn’t a health professional but a chemical engineer by training. For some reason, several engineers and others in technological fields have become major figures in the alternative health community, especially diet and nutrition along with fasting, sometimes in terms of what is called biohacking. They have the skill set to dig into complex data and analyze systems in a way most doctors aren’t able to do. Cummins runs a health podcast, is active on social media, and has a large following. His popularity is well deserved.

He has been on our radar the past couple of years, but recently, along with Dr. Paul Saladino, he has been at the center of contentious debate about COVID-19 and lockdowns. Besides seeing his active Tweeting, we were reminded of him with some commentary by Chuck Pezeshki, another thoughtful guy we respect (see his post, The Curious Case of the Fat Emperor — or How Not Understanding How to Merge Knowledge is Creating a Culture War). Here is Pezeshki’s description of Cummins: “What is most interesting is that he was not only a systems integrator — someone who floats between the different disciplines churning out various subsystems for complex products. He was a “systems system integrator” — where he was in charge of a team of systems integrators. The first-level integration positions are relatively common. Boeing has a whole employment line dedicated to Liaison Engineering, which they pronounce “Lie – a -zon”. The second tier up — not common at all.” So, not an average bloke, by any means.

We agree with Cummins in sharing his views on the importance of diet and metabolic health. Right from the beginning, we had the suspicion that COVID-19 might never have reached pandemic levels if not for the fact that the majority of people in the industrialized world now have metabolic syndrome — in the US, 88% of the population has some combination of major metabolic issues: obesity, diabetes, pre-diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease, liver disease, etc. These conditions are prominently listed as comorbidities of COVID-19, as metabolic health is inseparable from immune system health. Also, we’re in line with his anti-authoritarian attitude. Like Cummins, on principle, we’re certainly not for top-heavy policy measures like lockdowns, unless there is good justification. Yet early on, there was strong justification as a response to emergency conditions and many, including Cummins, initially supported lockdown.

Since then, he has become a strident opponent and, even as his heart seems in the right place, we find his present approach to be grating. He has become ideologically polarized and has fallen into antagonistic behavior, including dismissive name-calling. This doesn’t encourage meaningful public debate. We’re trying to resist being pulled into this polarized mentality in looking at the situation as dispassionately as possible, especially since we have no desire to dismiss Cummins who we otherwise agree with. We’re not even sure we exactly disagree about lockdowns either, as we feel undecided on the issue with a more wait-and-see attitude in anticipating a possible worst second wave if caution is thrown to the wind with a simultaneous ending of lockdown, social distancing, and mask-wearing as is quite likely in the United States. The public attitude tends toward either it’s the Plague or it’s nothing, either everything must be shut down or there should no restrictions at all.

Cummins strength is also his weakness. As an engineer, his focus is on data, not on the messy lived experience of humans. In his recent Tweeting, he is constantly demanding data, but it feels like he is overlooking fundamental issues. Even if there was good enough data available, we only have data for what is measured, not for what is not measured. About lockdowns, the confounding factors in comparing countries are too numerous and there are no controls. But to his engineering mind, data is data and the details of human life that aren’t measured or can’t be measured simply are irrelevant. Engineering is a hard science. But how societies operate as complex systems — that are living and breathing, that have billions of moving parts — can’t be understood the same way as technical systems to be managed in a corporate setting, as is Cummins’ professional expertise. He appears to have no knowledge of sociology, anthropology, psychology, cultural studies, philosophy, history, etc; that is to say he has no larger context in which to place his demands for ‘data’.

The dietitian/nutritionist Adele Hite hit the nail on the head in a response she gave in another Twitter thread: “You know data is never *just* data, right? It comes from somewhere, is collected, displayed & interpreted via some methods & assumptions & not others. […] Take a few science studies courses? maybe some science history? or just read some Bruno Latour & get back to me. It’s not nihilism to recognize that there is no such thing as a “view from nowhere” (the context of her comment, I presume, is here working on a PhD in communication, rhetoric, and digital media that, as she says on her official website’s About page, taught her “to ask questions I couldn’t have even articulated before”). She also points out the importance of listening to scientists and other experts in the specific fields they were educated and trained in, as expertise is not necessarily transferable as demonstrated by the smart idiot effect that disproportionately affects the well-educated.

According to his standard bio found around the web, Cummins “has since spent over 25 years in corporate technical leadership and management positions and was shortlisted in 2015 as one of the top 6 of 500 applicants for “Irish Chartered Engineer of the Year”.” That means he is a guy who was shaped by the corporate world and was highly successful in climbing the corporate career ladder. He then went on to become an entrepreneur as a podcaster, blogger, author, and public speaker. That is to say he is a high-achieving capitalist within the businesses of others and his own business, not to mention an individual having benefited from the status quo of opportunities, privileges and advantages afforded to him. The sticking point with lockdowns is that they don’t fit into the ruling capitalist ideology or at least not its rhetoric, although oligopolistic big biz like Amazon and Walmart does great under lockdown.

Our own biases swing in a different direction. We’ve had working class jobs our entire lives and presently we’re unionized public employees. Opposite of someone like Cummins, we don’t see capitalism as the great salvation of humanity nor do we blame lockdowns for economic decline and failure that preceded the pandemic for generations. All that has changed is that the moral rot and psychopathic depravity of our society has been exposed. That brings us to our main point of contention, that of a typically unquestioned capitalist realism that has been forced to the surface of public awareness with pandemic lockdown, as previously touched upon with the issue of what David Graeber calls bullshit jobs (Bullshit Jobs and Essential Workers).

Though lacking a strong view on lockdowns, we do have a strong view of those with strong views on lockdowns. It is hard to ignore the fact that those who are most vocal about reopening the economy are those whose lives are least at risk, those not working in service jobs (Their Liberty and Your Death). One might note that Cummin’s precise demographic profile (a younger, healthier, wealthier, white Westerner) is the complete opposite of the demographics hardest hit by COVID-19 and problems in general (the elderly, the sick, the poor, and minorities); though to his credit, he has spoken about the importance of protecting vulnerable populations, even if his understanding of vulnerability in our kind of society is ideologically and demographically constrained.

Here is the point. You won’t hear many working poor people, especially disadvantaged minorities, demanding to have the right to risk their lives and their family’s lives to work poverty wages, few benefits, and no affordable healthcare to ensure the capitalist ruling elite maintain their high levels of profits. Imagine how frustrating and disheartening it must be to be poor and/or minority as you listen to wealthy white people who are healthy and have great healthcare discuss lockdowns versus reopenings when the infection and mortality rates in your community is several times worse than in the rest of the country (Jared Dewese, Black people are dying from coronavirus — air pollution is one of the main culprits; Jeffrey Ostler, Disease Has Never Been Just Disease for Native Americans).

Think about this: “black people are more than 3.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people, and Latino people are nearly twice as likely to die of the virus as white people” (Bill Hathaway, New analysis quantifies risk of COVID-19 to racial, ethnic minorities); now increase that death rate several times higher when comparing poor minorities to wealthier whites, high inequality locations to low inequality locations, et cetera. And it’s even worse for other minorities: “In Arizona, the Indigenous mortality rate is more than five times the rate for all other groups, while in New Mexico, the rate exceeds seven times all other groups” (APM Research Lab, THE COLOR OF CORONAVIRUS: COVID-19 DEATHS BY RACE AND ETHNICITY IN THE U.S.). For those important people on the corporate media or the thought leaders on social media, COVID-19 for their own communities really might not be any worse than the common flu. Meanwhile, for disadvantaged populations, COVID-19 could be described as nothing other than a pandemic in the fullest sense. Yet the fate of these disadvantaged is being decided by the very people disconnected from the reality of those who will be most harmed.

Let’s put this in context of a specific example — in the District of Columbia where so many powerful people, mostly whites, live in determining public policy, blacks are only 44% of the population but 80% of the COVID-19 deaths. Many states show immense disparities: “In Kansas, Black residents are 7 times more likely to die than White residents. In Wisconsin and Washington D.C., the rate among Blacks is 6 times as high as it is for Whites, while in Michigan and Missouri, it is 5 times greater. In Arkansas, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, and Tennessee, Blacks are 3 times more likely to die of the virus than Whites. In many states, the virus is also killing Black residents several multiples more often than Asian and Latino residents” (APM Research Lab).

It’s not only that minorities are more likely to die from COVID-19 but more likely to get infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the first place and so this is another multiplier effect as measured in the total death count. This is exaggerated to an even greater extent with poor brown people in some developing countries where COVID-19 is also killing large numbers of the young (Terrence McCoy & Heloísa Traiano, In the developing world, the coronavirus is killing far more young people; Louise Genot, In Brazil, COVID-19 hitting young people harder). COVID-19 may be a disease of the elderly and sick among well-off white Westerners, but to other demographics the entire population is vulnerable. Furthermore, mostly ignored in Western data are poor whites and rural whites or even middle aged whites — all of which, in the United States, have shown increasing mortality rates in recent years. There is no data, as far as we know, with a demographic breakdown of deaths within racial categories. Then there is the issue of pollution, in how it increases vulnerability and maybe in how it could help spread the virus itself by riding on air pollution particles, and of course pollution is concentrated where poverty is found — keep in mind that pollution alone, without pandemic, is linked to 40% of deaths worldwide (Socialized Medicine & Externalized Costs; & An Invisible Debt Made Visible); combine that with COVID-19, pollution is then linked to 80% of deaths (Damian Carrington, Air pollution may be ‘key contributor’ to Covid-19 deaths – study). [For more resources on the inequities of COVID-19, see ending section of this post.]

By the way, we appreciated that Chuck Pezeshki did touch upon this kind of issue, if only briefly: “The problem is that because COVID-19 is truly novel, ringing that bell, while it may daylight the various ills of society, it also at the same time obscures responsibility for all the various ills society has manifested on all its various members. I have a whole essay, almost written, on the meatpacking plant fiasco, which is really more of a damning indictment of how we treat people at the bottom of the economic ladder than the COVID-19 crisis. For those that want the short version — we keep them trapped in low wage positions with no geographic mobility, with undocumented status, and poor education so they have no choice but to continue their jobs. COVID-19 is just an afterthought.” It’s too bad such understanding hasn’t been included to a greater extent in public debate and news reporting.

This is a situation about which everyone, of course, has an opinion; still, not all opinions come with equal weight of personal experience and implications. Being forced to potentially risk your health and maybe life while on the frontlines of a pandemic creates a different perspective. We are more fortunate than most in having a decent job with good pay and benefits. But similar to so many other working class folk with multigenerational households, if we get infected in our working with the public, we could become a disease vector for others, including maybe bringing the novel coronavirus home to family such as our elderly parents with compromised immune systems. The working poor forced to work out of desperation have no choice to isolate their vulnerable loved ones in distant vacation homes or highly priced and protected long-term care centers.

Meanwhile, some of the well-off white Westerners dominating public debate are acting cavalier in downplaying the concerns of the vulnerable or downplaying how large a number of people are in that vulnerable space. We’ve even seen Ivor Cummins, an otherwise nice guy, mocking people for not embracing reopenings as if they were being irrational and cowardly — with no acknowledgement of the vast disparities of disadvantaged populations. Imagine trying to have a public debate about government policy in a city or state where the poor and minorities are two to seven times more likely to die. Does anyone honestly think the poor and minorities would be heard and their lives considered equally important? Of course, not. No one is that stupid or naive. Now consider that the disparities of wealth, pollution, sickness, and death is even greater at the national level and still greater yet in international comparisons. At the local level, the poor and minorities might hope to get heard, but they are as if invisible or non-existent within the public debate beyond the local.

Still, that isn’t to say we’re arguing for a permanent lockdown even as we do think the lockdown, if only for lack of needed leadership and preparedness, was probably necessary when the crisis began — from the DataInforms Twitter account: “Not saying it’s the right action if you’ve planned for a Pandemic. Saying it’s the inevitable action to minimize risk, when you haven’t planned for a Pandemic. By not paying attention to 2003 outbreak we brought this on ourselves.” Besides being politically paralyzed with corrupt and incompetent leadership, we Americans are an unhealthy population that is ripe for infectious diseases; and one could easily argue that a public health crisis has been developing for centuries, in particularly these past generations (Dr. Catherine Shanahan On Dietary Epigenetics and Mutations, Health From Generation To Generation, Dietary Health Across Generations, Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration, Malnourished Americans, & The Agricultural Mind). The terrain theory of infection proposes that it is the biological conditions of health that primarily determine the chances of infection and hence, in a situation like this, determine how bad it will get as a public health crisis. As we earlier noted, the 1918 flu also began mildly before becoming fully pandemic later in the year with a second wave (Then the second wave of infections hit…), not that I’m arguing about the probability of such an outcome since our present knowledge about pandemics in the modern industrialized world, the West in particular, is only slightly better than full ignorance (Kevin Kavanagh, Viewpoint: COVID-19 Modeling: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics).

All of this puts us in an odd position. We simultaneously agree and disagree with Cummins and many others who support his view. Our main irritation is how the entire ‘debate’ gets framed, in terms of cartoonish portrayal of libertarianism versus authoritarianism. The frame ends up dominating and shutting down any genuine discussion. We noticed this in how, for all the vociferous opinionating about lockdowns, there is still no agreement even about what is a lockdown. When confronted about this, Cummins has repeatedly refused to define his terms, the most basic first step in attempting to analyze the data, in that one has to know what kind of data one needs in knowing what one is hoping to compare. The haziness of his language and the slipperiness of his rhetoric is remarkable considering engineers like him are usually praised for their precision and held up as exemplars in the alternative health community.

We weren’t the only ones to make this observation — Gorgi Kosev asked, “Did you reply to the people who asked to specify what counts as lockdown vs what counts as distancing?” Cummins responded to many other Tweets in that thread but he did not answer this question and appears to not be interested in such a dialogue. To be fair, I did come across one of his Tweets buried deep in another thread, in response to an inquiry by Gregory Travis, where he vaguely clarified what he meant but still did not operationalize his definition in a way that would help us categorize and measure accordingly. When asked for a specific list of what he considered to be lockdowns and not, he would not specify. In attempting to get at what is the issue at debate, Philippa Antell asked him, “Are you comparing lockdown Vs non lockdown ( in which case define those in detail)? Or sensible Vs non sensible lock down rules (again define)?” Cummins did not further respond. A point we and others made to him is that there has been a wide spectrum of government policies — Toshi Clark said that, “This whole thing seems predicated on making a distinction between distancing and lockdown policies. It’s not a binary thing”; and someone simply named Ed said that, “I think one of the problems Ivor is it doesn’t have to be black and white but shades of grey. Lockdown is a terrible term that is unhelpful as there has never been a full lockdown and no measure of each mitigation.”

Such comments were the opportunity to begin debate, rather than in the way Cummins took them as the end of debate. I get that he is probably frustrated, but he is avoiding the very heart of the issue while continuing to demand ‘data’ as if facts could exist separately from any frame of analysis and interpretation. I’m sure he isn’t actually that naive and so, even if his frustration is understandable, it’s unfortunate he won’t get down to the nitty gritty. As such, others understandably feel frustrated with him as well. One of the main points of frustration, as shown above, is clear and yet remains unresolved. In our own Tweeting activity responding to Cummins, we noted that, “It feels like he is trying to force debate into a polarized black/white frame that turns it into a political football, a symbolic proxy for something else entirely.” At this point, it’s no longer really about the data for it has become an ideological battle verging on a full-on culture war, and one of the first victims is the mental flexibility to shift frames as the polarized opponents become ever more locked into their defensive positions — a lockdown of the mind, as it could be described.

Let’s consider a concrete example to show how the ideological lines get drawn in the ideological mind, as opposed to how fuzzy are those lines in reality. In one of his few responses to my seeking to engage, Cummins shared an earlier Twitter thread of his where he compared the ‘social distancing’ of Sweden and the ‘lockdown’ of New Jersey; a bad comparison on multiple levels. Yet when asked what is a lockdown, he still never offered a definition and, even more interesting, he decidedly emphasized that his priority was not the data itself but his principles, values, and beliefs. He was asked point blank that, “Since I showed that there effectively was no implemented and enforced stay at home full lockdown in even some of the worst hit places like NYC, what are we talking about in terms of a lockdown? What is the real issue of debate?” And his answer was, “Civil Liberties and our future freedoms. Principles. And the Scientific Method being respected.” Those principles seem fine, at least in theory assuming they are part of a genuinely free society that sadly is also theoretical at present. The problem comes with his conflating all of science with his libertarian beliefs taken as ideological realism. His libertarian conviction seems to be both his starting assumption and his ending conclusion. It’s not that the facts don’t matter to him, that he is merely posturing, but it is obvious that the data has become secondary in how the debate is being so narrowly constrained as to predetermine what evidence is being sought and which questions allowed or acknowledged.

Our interest was genuine, in seeking to clarify terms and promote discussion. That is why we pointed to the actual details in how it played out in actual implementation. In New York City, there was a supposed full lockdown with a stay at home order, but that didn’t stop New Yorkers from crowding in public places (Stephen Nessen, More New Yorkers Are Crowding Onto Buses And Subways Despite Stay-At-Home Order) since it’s not like there is a Chinese-style authoritarian government to enforce a Wuhan-style lockdown. That is the problem of comparisons. In terms of effective actions taken, the Swedish example involved more restrictions than did what happened in New Jersey and New York City. That is because the Swedish, in their conformist culture of trust, enforced severe restrictions upon themselves without government order and for all practical purposes the Swedish had implemented a greater lockdown than anything seen in the United States. Unless a police officer or soldier is pointing a gun at their head, many Americans will continue on without wearing masks or social distancing. This is a cultural, not a political, difference.

It is bizarre to see libertarian-minded individuals using the example of the anti-libertarian Swedish society as evidence in defense of greater libertarianism in societies that are completely different from Sweden. These are the same people who would normally criticize what they’d deem an oppressive Scandinavian social democracy under non-pandemic conditions, but all of a sudden Sweden is the best country in the world. If we think the Swedish are so awesome, then let’s imitate their success by having the highest rate of individuals living alone in the world as promoted by government policy, a population that does social distancing by default, a cultural willingness to sacrifice self-interest for the common good, a strong social safety net paid for with high taxes on the rich, and socialist universal healthcare for all (Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism). Once we implement all of those perfect conditions of public preparedness for public health crises in promoting the public good, then and only then can we have a rational and meaningful debate about lockdowns and social distancing.

Otherwise, the critics are being disingenuous or oblivious about the real issues. Such confusion is easy to fall into during an anxiety-inducing crisis as we all struggle to see clearly what is at stake. Cummins is highly intelligent well informed and, most important, he means well. But maybe he has lost his bearings in being pulled into ideological polarization, which is a common malady in Western society even at the best of times — one might call it an ideological pandemic. No one is immune to such ideological mind viruses, which is all the more reason to be highly aware of the risk of memetic contagion and so handle the material with the proper intellectual protective gear, rather than assuming it’s only those other people who are mindless ideologues ignoring the cold hard facts. Obsessing over data can create yet another blindness, specifically when it leads one to seeking the data that confirms what one is looking for. The reality of diverse data, conflicting data, and missing data is far more murky, and the mud really gets stirred up when we are floundering amidst unstated assumptions and undefined terms.

The present debate isn’t really about public response to infectious disease. If it was only about that, we could be more fully on board with Cummins since, in terms of health data, we are in his camp. The other component to the ideological conflict is a failure of public trust in countries like the United states, as opposed to the success of public trust elsewhere. In terms of economics and health, the Swedish had comparably similar results as their Nordic neighbors who followed different government policies, which further demonstrates it’s more about culture than anything else. Lockdowns did cut the number of lives lost in those countries, but the greatest protection appears to have been cultural, which is to say how the population behaves under various government policies. Scandinavians have a culture of trust. The United States does not. I can’t speak for other countries that fared less well such as Italy and Spain, although hard-hit Brazil obviously has some public trust issues. Social distancing without any closures and restrictions probably works great in almost any strong culture of trust, whereas a lack of full lockdown could be a catastrophe where public trust is deficient. That would be a more interesting and meaningful debate.

What is it about American and British society, in particular, that soft issues of society and culture are reduced and rationalized away or dismissed and diminished by putting everything into a frame of economics and politics? It used to be that religion in the form of the Christian church was used as the frame to explain everything. But now capitalist realism, both in economics and politics, is the dominant religion. Notice most of the opponents of lockdowns are doing so in defense of capitalism (liberty), not in defense of democracy (freedom). It’s posing a particular kind of politics in opposition to a particular kind of economics. The idea of a genuinely free society is not in the frame, not part of the debate.

This is part of an old ideological conflict in the Western mind. It erupted more fully when the neoliberals took power, as signaled by former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that, “there’s no such thing as society.” Karl Polanyi theorized about the rise of a market culture where everything came to be understood through an economic lens. Even politics has been made an extension of capitalist realism. This is more broadly part of a mindset obsessed with numbers. Everything can be measured. Everything can have a price put on it. Not only was religion demoted but all ‘soft’ approaches to understanding humanity and society. This is how we can have a debate in comparing different cultures while few people even bother to mention culture itself, as if culture either does not matter or does not exist. We have no shared frame to understand the deeper crisis we are suffering, of which the perception of pandemic threat and political malaise is merely a symptom.

The sense of conflict we’re experiencing in this pandemic isn’t fundamentally about an infectious virus and governmental response to it. It’s about how many societies, United States most of all, have suffered a crisis in loss of public trust based on destruction of traditional community, authority, self-sacrifice, etc. Libertarianism is inseparable from this cultural failure and simply further exacerbates it. In opposing authoritarianism, libertarianism becomes psychologically and socially dependent on authoritarianism, in the way drug rehab centers are dependent on influx of drug addicts (think of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly). What gets lost is radical envisioning of a society free of ideological addiction of divisive polarization that is used for propagandistic social control. Control the public mind with frame of libertarianism versus authoritarianism and the ruling elite can guarantee freedom is suppressed.

We must understand difference between Latin ‘liberty’ and Germanic ‘freedom’. The former originated from the legal status of not being a slave in slave society; whereas the latter as etymologically related to ‘friend’ originally meant being a member of a free society, as being among friends who would put common good over individual interest. Philip K. Dick liked to say that, “The Empire never ended,” in seeing the Roman Empire as fundamentally identical to our own. Well, the Norman Conquest never ended either. Romanized Norman thought and language still rules our public mind and society, economics and politics. That is the sad part. Even the word freedom has become another way to invoke the liberty worldview of a slave society. This is taken as the unquestioned given of capitalist realism. Negative freedom (Latin liberty) almost entirely replaces positive freedom (Germanic freedom). Another difference between Latin is that it was more abstract than German. So liberty as negative freedom is much more of an ideological abstraction. One can have freedom in theory even while being oppressed in lived reality. Liberty ideology can justify lack of freedom.

Interestingly, this brings us back to an important point that Chuck Pezeshki made in his post where he was looking upon Ivor Cummins with more support and sympathy. One of the reasons,” suggested Pezeshki, “I fervently believe our current society in the U.S. is collapsing is the loss of noblesse oblige — the idea that those of us that are better off in some definable way should help those who are less fortunate. I view my role as a full professor as one where I am supposed to think about complex and complicated things for the common good, just like a rich person is supposed to build housing developments for the poor.” Basically, we agree, even if we take a meandering path and throw out a bunch of side commentary along the way. Noblesse oblige, one might note, was a carryover from feudalism. Like the Commons, it was intentionally destroyed in creating our modern world. We have yet to come to terms with the fallout from that mass annihilation of the public good. There has been nothing to replace what was trampled upon and thrown away.

Such loose human realities can neither be counted in profit nor measured in data. Yet they determine what happens in our society, maybe even determining whether an infectious disease is a momentary inconvenience or turns into a deadly pandemic, determining whether it kills high numbers of the vulnerable or not. The terrain in which a virus can gain purchase is not only biological but environmental and economic, political and cultural. We need to talk not only about physical health for a public health crisis is about the health of the entire society and in this age of interconnectivity with mass trade, mass transportation and mass travel that increasingly includes the larger global society. It’s not only about your own health but the health of everyone else as well, the least among us most of all.

* * *

The Coronavirus Class Divide: Space and Privacy
by Jason DeParle

Harvard Researchers Find ‘Inequality On Top Of Inequality’ In COVID-19 Deaths
by James Doubek

No Wealth, Poor Health: COVID-19 Has Exposed the Depth of Inequality For Marginalized Communities
by Shelly M. Wagers

Poverty, Tuberculosis, COVID-19 and the Luxury of Health
by Amy Catania

How The Crisis Is Making Racial Inequality Worse
by Greg Rosalsky

Social distancing in Black and white neighborhoods in Detroit: A data-driven look at vulnerable communities
by Makada Henry-Nickie & John Hudak

Poor New York City Neighborhoods Seeing Deaths From Covid at More Than Twice the Rate of Affluent Areas
by Julia Conley

COVID-19 outbreak exposes generations-old racial and economic divide in New York City
The Bronx is home to 1.5 million New Yorkers, many of them essential workers.
by Juju Chang, Emily Taguchi, Jake Lefferman, Deborah Kim, & Allie Yang

Divergent death tolls in New York’s Rockaways show Covid-19’s uneven reach
by Sally Goldenberg & Michelle Bocanegra

Density, poverty keep L.A. struggling against virus
by Brian Melley

In Mississippi, families of COVID-19 victims say poverty and race determine survival
by Candace Smith, Knez Walker, Fatima Curry, Armando Garcia, Cho Park & Anthony Rivas

Poor Health, Poverty and the Challenges of COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean
by Samuel Berlinski, Jessica Gagete-Miranda, & Marcos Vera-Hernández

India COVID-19: The killer virus is still poverty
by C.P. Surendran

Iran COVID-19 Crisis: Poor People Are Victims of Regime’s Criminal Policy of Forcing People Back to Work
by Sedighe Shahrokhi

‘We’re expendable’: black Americans pay the price as states lift lockdowns
by Kenya Evelyn

How air pollution exacerbates Covid-19
by Isabelle Gerretsen

Air pollution has made the COVID-19 pandemic worse
by Ula Chrobak

Air Pollution May Make COVID-19 Symptoms Worse
by Alex Fox

Are you more likely to die of covid-19 if you live in a polluted area?
by Adam Vaughan

COVID-19 severity and air pollution: exploring the connection
from Healthcare In Europe

Can COVID-19 Spread Through Air Pollution?
from Environmental Technology

Air Pollution Is Found to Be Associated with Vulnerability to COVID-19
by Shuting Pomerleau

Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: A nationwide cross-sectional study
by Xiao Wu, Rachel C. Nethery, Benjamin M. Sabath, Danielle Braun, & Francesca Dominici

Black people are dying from coronavirus — air pollution is one of the main culprits
by Jared Dewese

One reason why coronavirus is hitting black Americans the hardest
by Ranjani Chakraborty

Covid-19 Flares Up in America’s Polluted ‘Sacrifice Zones’
by Sidney Fussell

Study shows how air pollution makes COVID-19 mortality worse for marginalized populations
from News Medical Life Sciences

Air pollution, racial disparities, and COVID-19 mortality
by Eric B. Brandt, Andrew F. Beck, & Tesfaye B. Mersha

Air Pollution and COVID-19 are worsening existing health inequalities
from European Public Health Alliance

In the Shadows of America’s Smokestacks, Virus Is One More Deadly Risk
by Hiroko Tabuchi

‘I’m Scared’: Study Links Cancer Alley Air Pollution to Higher Death Rates From Covid-19
by Yessenia Funes

The Health Emergency That’s Coming to West Louisville
by John Hans Gilderbloom & Gregory D. Squires

COVID-19, pollution and race: new health concerns for Nicetown
by Nydia Han and Heather Grubola

Philadelphia’s coronavirus numbers show stark racial and income disparities
by Yun Choi

Many cities around the globe saw cleaner air after being shut down for COVID-19. But not Chicago.
by Michael Hawthorne

Pollution rollbacks show a ‘callous disregard’ for communities hard hit by COVID-19
by Justine Calma

COVID-19 Is Not a Reasonable Excuse for Continued Pollution
by Janet McCabe

COVID-19 Cannot Be An Excuse For More Toxic Air
by Amy Hall

How Trump’s EPA Is Making Covid-19 More Deadly
by Michael R. Bloomberg and Gina McCarthy

Dirty air, weak enforcement hurt Arizona during COVID-19
by Sandy Bahr

From Progressive Jewish Minority to Neocon Jewish Elite

Sean Last has an essay, Jewish Influence on American Politics, that is quite lengthy and heavy on the data. I say that with admiration, as I love it when someone goes to such immense effort in making an evidence-based argument. The data alone collected in one place is an achievement, no matter what one thinks of the analysis and conclusion. Let’s use this as an opportunity to explore the social and political history of the liberal faith.

Last’s argument is that Jewish Americans have become one of the most influential minorities, by way of a Jewish elite that formed because of favorable circumstances. That would be hard to argue against, although the interesting part is explaining why it happened. It probably helped that their identity was conflated with a global narrative of Nazi persecution, the United States defeat of the Nazis and rise of the Israeli state. It helped that the Israeli state, by way of Zionism, allowed Israel to become the single most important ally of the most dominant global superpower in all of world history. Most minorities, in the Western world, don’t receive anywhere near the same level of automatic familiarity and sympathy across the political spectrum and within mainstream thought, not to mention within the halls of power.

We have a conundrum. It is precisely right-wing politics that has allowed the rise of the Jewish elite. Zionism came to power in concert with neoconservatism, as most of the original neoconservatives were Jews. But there is a complex development. Many of these early Jewish neocons began their political careers as New Deal Progressives. They didn’t lose faith in Progressivism, as neither did Ronald Reagan when he switched parties, but they came to believe that Progressivism could only be implemented, enacted and enforced through military might and violence, through authoritarian laws and measures, and in practice this meant supporting the United States as a global military empire with Israel as one of its battering rams. American greatness would be Israeli greatness and there was a moral vision in this, inspired by a response to Nazi War crimes — never again, was the rallying cry. This wasn’t cynical realpolitik, at least not initially. Many American Jews were extremely idealistic in the post-war period in looking to Israel to demonstrate to the world a different kind of society, as seen in the kibbutz movement.

Even to this day, Jews maintain a reputation of being liberal (Daniel Greenberg, Jewish Partisanship and Ideology Unchanged Despite Political Controversies). “In terms of ideology, 44% of American Jews are liberal, much higher than the overall 25% among the total population, making Jews the most liberal of any major religious group we identify” (Ron Faucheux, Lunchtime Politics: New Polling Puts Biden First – America’s Jewish Voters; interestingly, this is from the D.C.-based PR firm Qorvis with Saudi Arabia as their principal client and with ties to Donald Trump), although probably no where near as liberal as Unitarian Universalists and maybe not as liberal as Quakers. The crux of Last’s argument is that Jews pushed American politics left. Well, they may have in certain ways. This is not in conflict with their pushing American politics far right in other ways. This requires an understanding of liberalism, in the United States and around the world. From the revolutionary era on, liberalism has always had a dark reactionary undercurrent.

This is far from limited to Jews, of course. Even the great historical and symbolic enemy of the Jews, the Nazis, came to power through liberals who feared the left-wing more than the right-wing. We must understand that liberalism is not the same as leftism, since the two often can be polar opposites. It’s easy to forget that the Nazis too were progressive for their time. It was the Nazi use of progressive rhetoric that appealed to the liberal persuasion. In light of this, note that many American neocons are socially liberal and can even be economically liberal, as neoconservatism is essentially a modernization of old school Whiggish progressivism that envisioned saving undesirable populations through some combination of genocide, forced assimilation, and eugenics. It was part of a grand and idealistic civilizing project and this old vision still inspires a certain kind of mind that isn’t easily categorized as left or right, even as it is very much ‘liberal’. This is why it’s useful to hold up Jews as an exemplar of American liberalism, so as to understand the broader tendency of liberalism itself.

The supposed liberalism of American Jews is not so straightforward in that liberalism in general follows strange paths. Some would argue that American Jews aren’t the liberal stronghold they are portrayed as or else that we need to think more carefully about what is liberalism. Yossie Hollander looks beyond the typical Jewish demographics and makes a counter-argument that American Jews more broadly aren’t necessarily liberal, much less leftist (Contrary to popular belief, most US Jews support Trump). Looking beyond the old Jewish populations, he sees an exclusion in the polls of other American Jews: Israeli Americans, ultra-Orthodox, first and second generation immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and internal immigrants to the Southwest Belt. Hollander sees Zionism as trumping all else:

“As we can see, most of the polls actually survey less than 50% of the Jewish population that is located in the old Jewish centers and who are largely democratic voters. If we consider all four populations described above where the percentage of support for Trump is high, it is likely that most Jews actually voted for Trump. Adding that to the fact that many voters are afraid to admit that they voted for Trump (especially to their Democrat friends), the obvious conclusion is that the real situation on the ground is the opposite of the common media theme about Hilary. Actually – most Jews voted for Trump. I cannot predict what will happen in 2020, but this trend is likely to continue and may even be strengthened, especially if the Democratic Party chooses an anti-Israeli candidate.”

More evidence would be needed to make a case for a pro-Trump majority among American Jews. It doesn’t sound plausible, but it might be possible if one specifically focuses on potential voters who are of the older generations. Anti-Zionism is strongest among young American Jews. Even if we accept that most Jewish voters do vote Democratic and that most Jewish non-voters lean Democratic, it doesn’t necessarily indicate their politics. “There is a common misconception that American Jews are very much on the left of the political spectrum, and it’s not really true,” Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin, of Yeshiva University said (Jon Levine, Why Jewish voters are turning on Bernie Sanders). “The Democratic Party’s most reliable voters are also some of their most moderate voters.”

Then again, it could be asserted that American Jews really are much further to the left. Joel Rubin, who was the Jewish outreach director of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, “insists that Sanders represents the interests of the majority of American Jews, not just on Israel but on a wide variety of issues. “American Jews support civil liberties at home, oppose gun violence, support women’s equality, oppose putting kids in cages, and are actively leading efforts to combat climate change and income equality,” he says. Indeed, a 2019 poll shows that healthcare and gun violence are top issues for Jewish voters, while Israel comes in at the bottom. But when it comes to Israel, Sanders, like most American Jews, supports a negotiated two-state solution. “Poll after poll shows that American Jews want the U.S. to be engaged in making peace abroad and pursuing social justice at home – positions aggressively embraced by Bernie Sanders,” Rubin says” (Mairav Zonszein, Sanders and the Jewish Vote).

Here is the rub, as explained in the same above piece: “That has not stopped AIPAC or the Democratic Majority for Israel—a year-old Super PAC with ties to AIPAC—from going after Sanders, And as his chances of becoming the nominee appear to be rapidly increasing, so too are the attacks. DMFI, whose mission is to apparently keep the Democratic Party hawkish on Israel, spent $800,000 in attack ads in Iowa questioning Sanders’s electability, all without mentioning Israel once. They are already running ads in Nevada, which is significant because it presents one of the only times that a Democratic Super-PAC is throwing its weight against a Democratic candidate. It is also noteworthy considering that Sanders remains a firm supporter of a negotiated two-state solution, which is no different than the policies DMFI and other American Jewish organizations claim to support. The only difference is Sanders’s willingness to actually force Israel to get there.”

The elite that styles itself as liberal are often out of alignment with the average person — they are far to right of most Jews, most Democrats, and most Americans in general. That complicates Sean Last’s argument that it was a Jewish elite who helped push American politics further to the left. When one looks at the actual positions of Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform and voting history, it is not politically left-wing. In fact, one would have to honestly admit that Sanders is rather moderate and centrist. This is shown in decades of public polling that demonstrates the American public is to the left of the elite of both parties and moving further left over time (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism). So, it’s not only a Jewish elite that is out of touch with the general public for the same pattern is seen across the elite in general (Political Elites Disconnected From General Public). What makes the focus on Jewish Americans so important is that they represent the supposedly most liberal component of a supposedly liberal elite.

That leads us to the hardest question. Why do American Jews and other Americans vote against their interests? That is to ask the reason for why most people are so easily manipulated by the elite. How is it the elite so dominate politics, control media, and manipulate the narrative? Well, they do so in the way elites always have, though wealth and ownership, power and cronyism. But how long can this disconnect last, specifically among American Jews. Zionism was the one strong link that kept Jews in the neocon fold, forced them to accept what they otherwise would not. Yet most American Jews, like Sanders, support a two-state solution. This majority has been silenced. Younger Jews, however, are more vocal in their anti-Zionism (Batya Ungar-Sargon, Young Jews Are Actually Winning The Generational War Over Israel). Being anti-Zionists isn’t necessarily to be anti-Israeli and being pro-Israel isn’t necessarily to be anti-Palestine, distinctions that most younger Jews in the US are able and willing to make.

Yet, as young American Jews swing left, the older American Jewish elite becomes more entrenched in an increasingly conservative attitude. As a backlash, the powerful interests that have dominated Jewish thought will become ever more reactionary and right-wing. The very forces that created a progressive force out of the Jewish experience will further force that progressivism into the neocon form. Will the new generation resist the old guard that has come to represent all of Judaism on the public stage? That is yet to be seen. Some, in still holding up the progressive ideal, don’t see hope in the rise of neoconservatism these past decades. The Jewish self-appointed leadership is certainly not moving left.

If as Sean Last argues it was ethnocentrism of American Jews as an oppressed minority that pushed them left, it is now ethnocentrism among an established elite that pushes them further right. A progressive movement among American Jews may have at one time gained victories on certain social issues and gained them a reputation of liberalism. But the neocons took the battlefield and won the war. It’s yet to be seen if, among American Jews, the tide will turn in a new era of ideological conflict and struggle in defining what Judaism means as a social identity and political force. It’s uncertain what will become of liberalism far beyond this one demographic. Will liberalism continue on the path down reactionary right-wing complicity? Or will liberals come to terms with their moral failures and regain the radical vision that once inspired so many Americans, minorities and otherwise?

* * *

My Jewish Problem C’ted: My Tribe Is No Longer a Progressive Political Force
by Observer Staff

When I was a kid, Jews were firmly on the left. They were outsiders in American culture—my dad faced antisemitic discrimination in his professional life (science)—and Jews were associated in the 60s with the civil-rights movement and the antiwar movement. And the great leap forward of the meritocracy, of which Jews were the prime beneficiaries (then), meant sharing the wealth of a progressive Jewish tradition, of valuing education and knowledge (as Yuri Slezkine has written) with the rest of society.

In my generation, the prominent Jewish presence in American life is no longer progressive. The meritocracy generated wealth and status, and wealth and status will make any group more conservative. Look around at the political landscape, and Jews can be seen very prominently in very conservative posts. In Commentary (a magazine my liberal Democrat family used to get, it was against the Vietnam War), Gabriel Schoenfeld has argued that the New York Times should be prosecuted for its publication of the illegal wiretap story. The New York Sun, a rightwing pro-Israel newspaper, argued in 2003 that people like myself who demonstrated against the war were guilty of treason. The Sun is funded by Bruce Kovner, the chairman of the American Enterprise Institute, which gave more brains to this administration, Bush once crowed, than anyone (he probably regrets it now!), and by Roger Hertog, who nearly wept at a Manhattan Institute gala a year ago when he described the pro-Israel roots of his thinking. Manhattan Institute brags about turning “ideas into influence.” It has done so.

It is not just the rightwing extremists. This is my point. Kovner gives money to Schumer, a good liberal Democrat who is a leading supporter of the Iraq War. Alan Dershowitz calls himself a Kennedy liberal, even as he justifies torture in the war on terror. Dershowitz’s argument is echoed by Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, an anti-Islam book that NPR finds potable (as the neocons’ ideas are not, for NPR). Joseph Lieberman symbolizes the Jewish establishment, and he is Bush’s lieutenant on Iraq. There are 14 Jewish congressmen from New York and California (as I count them in the Almanac of American Politics). Twelve of them supported the Iraq war in 2002. Including good old Vietnam doves like Henry Waxman and Howard Berman of Los Angeles. As did that other converted dove of the Jewish intelligentsia: The New Yorker magazine.

The argument is made that Jews still vote Democratic, and don’t support the Iraq war, in polls. Walt and Mearsheimer say so in their famous (realist) paper. Bush may have gotten 100 percent of the neocon vote, but only 24 percent of the Jewish vote. We’re liberals.

I would argue that while mainstream Jews are very liberal on abortion and school prayer and Hollywood sex and violence—social issues—they have allowed neocons to represent them—that is to say, Jewish public opinion is a conservative force in foreign policy. Ask erstwhile liberals Waxman (who represents Hollywood) and Lieberman, and watch from whom Ned Lamont’s insurgent antiwar candidacy against Lieberman in Connecticut draws its strength. The antiwar movement is so far a populist movement. Not very Jewish. Though, yes, Hilda Silverman and Dan Ellsberg are there.

I’m not saying the progressive Jewish tradition is dead. But we no longer characterize the force of the Jewish presence in American life. When I demonstrated against the war in the treasonous cold in February 2003, my favorite speaker was Tony Kushner, who’s a lot more Jewish than I am. Kushner is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. There are many of us, including California Congressman Bob Filner, a freedom rider in the 60s who led opposition to the war. But we are the outliers. I’m sure that there are evangelical Christians who depart from the mainstream evangelical Christian view that gays shouldn’t get married. But they’re not working the polls in Ohio. The body of Jewish opinion now licenses the neocons politically. The press routinely characterizes the evangelical Christians as rightwing; and I think the press should characterize the Jewish presence as centrist.

Why? One thing Kushner understands is that being a progressive in American life, and opposing the war, both these things necessitate a separation from Israel—a slight separation, inasmuch as he’s merely calling for a more evenhanded U.S. policy in the Middle East. The bulk of American Jewry cannot take that step. And so they have been swept to the right.

Linguistic Similarities of Scottish, Dutch, and Afrikaans

Why do some people from South Africa sound almost Scottish? Not quite but almost. My parents attend a Presbyterian church in the United States and the minister is from South Africa. His last name is Dutch. Does the Dutch influence create a Scottish-like accent? As an example, here is a video of a sermon by Danie de Beer, my parents’ minister:

I was wondering about other influences. Supposedly, my Scottish ancestry originally was Dutch. And there were many historical connections between Scotland and Netherlands. There were both Dutch and Scottish immigrants to South Africa. I noticed another question that partly covered this, at least the Scottish aspect: Are there Scots or people of Scottish descent living in South Africa?

The best answer to that other question was by Ruth Dryer. She notes the significant Scottish ancestry among white South Africans. In the past, as with other immigrant countries, there were ethnic enclaves where immigrants were concentrated. But the Scots were mixed throughout the general population. She argues that the immigration of Scots is ongoing: “Generally speaking, Scots to this day tend to drift into the Afrikaans community rather than the English.”

Here is the main part of her answer: “Mark here: Many; some are founders of great Afrikaner families. Numbers of Scots got employment in the Netherlands, as mercenaries in the Scottish regiments of Maurice of Orange. Others (many, provided they were not Catholic, could make shift to understand Dutch – Lowland Scots is pretty close already – & they were qualified artisans) joined the Dutch East India Company, & these became part of the mobile population of the Dutch Mercantile Empire, including the Cape Settlement.” Dryer also answered my question. “There two points of congruence in the Scots dialect of English & Afrikaans,” she wrote and continued:

“The first is that the Old Anglian once spoken in North England comes from a blend of the same closely related dialects in North-Western Europe that contributed to the foundation of the Afrikaners – & Afrikaans – some 1 000 years later. An Afrikaner reading Quirk & Wren’s ‘Old English Grammar’ finds it spooky how similar the language is, apart from the very old grammar. When Tolkien (of the LOR) was taken to the British Midlands, at the age of 4 from Bloemfontein, South Africa, it sounded to him that he’d come home. I have heard a Brit, a bloke from the Old West Country in South England, josh that actually Afrikaans is actually Dutch spoken with a Scottish accent – or – Scottish spoken with a Dutch accent. We in South Africa can spot the difference between a Scottish & an Afrikaans accent pretty soon. Mind you, we find a Scottish accent pretty easy to imitate.

“The other point of congruence is that Lord Charles Somerset, one of our British Governors, tried to anglicise the Afrikaners, & sent us Scottish Presbyterian ministers to replace the Dutch Reformed ones from the Netherlands (who were not keen to come, anyway). They had a FORMIDABLE influence on Afrikaners, & Afrikaans. The Scottish pastors came to teach, as dominees, & that is now the Afrikaans term of address to a pastor – ‘Dominee’. Here is a short list of respected Afrikaans families Murray, Barnard, Cambell, Turner (they used to be O’Neill, or Lamont – ask a Scot), McAlpine, among others.”

The influx of Scottish Presbyterian ministers to South Africa seems like a potential significant line of influence, considering the position of respect and authority minsters hold in a community and considering how central is religion to culture. I had also independently come across some info on this when I did a web search immediately after posing my question, but I didn’t know enough about the history of it. The first part of Dryer’s above answer, in some ways, interests me more.

I know the history of Northwestern Europeans settling in Britain. And I’m familiar with the specific ancestries that mostly ended up in particular regions, such as the Norse in the British Midlands. There was also the immigration of Flemish to Scotland, from 1100 to 1700 (Alexander Fleming, Scotland Has Been Going Dutch Since 1066) as part of their alliance with the conquering Normans, something I pointed out to Scott Hill and was commented on by Kenneth Marikos. This included Flemish aristocracy and monarchy. Further immigration to Scotland was caused by Catholic persecution. All of this has resulted in almost one-in-three Scottish having Flemish ancestry.

This is relevant to the question at hand, as Alexander Fleming noted: “The imprint of the Flemish has also been felt in many other ways, for example the absorption of Flemish words into the Scottish vocabulary. The Scots word ‘scone’, for instance, was derived from the Flemish ‘schoon’.” In general, there was a fair amount of movement of populations in both directions over a long period of time. This included some Scots that went to Netherlands, as did many Puritans before returning to England. And the Scots and Scots-Irish took in plenty of refugees from Europe. such as the French Huguenots who were in northwestern France that was originally part of Flanders.

I assume this could have had a major impact on the populations involved. I’m not an expert in European linguistic history, though. It seems unlikely that these large and continuous flows of people between these places would have left no permanent mark. People tend to carry elements of the culture and language of their ancestry, even when they assimilate to a new society. The fact that, long before the Flemish came along, the original Scots came from Northwestern Europe does seem significant. I’ve studied in enough detail the immigration patterns and regional cultures in Britain and the United States to know how these kinds of influences persist over centuries upon centuries.

By the way, Dryer wasn’t the only one to mention the Scottish Presbyterian ministers. “So for three quarters of a century, then after, Afrikaans South Africans had Scottish Presbyterian Dominies serving them,” commented Michael Baker in his own answer. “This has echoes in the words, the accents & the legal system. Many think that South African trained lawyers cannot practise outside South Africa – but, surprise surprise, they can swiftly be admitted in Scotland, which also has a variant of Roman-Dutch law.”

About the specific issue of language itself, there were some great responses to my question. Scott Hill simply states that, “I suspect what you’re hearing is the guttural G pronunciation and the rolled R pronunciation. The Afrikaans G sounds similar to a throaty CH sound that you’d hear in Scotland, such as “Loch”.” But Michael Koeberg gives an extremely detailed answer that explains the specific similarities, from vowel clipping to rolling effect, and concludes that, “Therefore, the similarity that you perceive does indeed have a good basis with the similarities between Scottish English, Dutch, and Afrikaans have with each other in their respective phonology.” It turns out there is a good reason to hear a similarity.

Wasn’t that a fascinating lesson on language, culture, and history?

Anglo-American Union and the Ties of Blood

Along with moral panics in American culture since the colonial era, there has been the ever recurring existential crisis about our collective identity. This has often taken the form of the pseudo-ethnic culture of WASPs (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants), the racial identity that preceded the Caucasian mythology of a general whiteness. This has overlapped with class issues, such as with the large number of poor ethnic Americans in this multicultural society. Benjamin Franklin, for example, complained about the German majority in Pennsylvania with many having refused to even learn the English language which forced the local government to publish official documents and notices in multiple languages.

The anxiety about what it meant to be ‘American’ fed into revolutionary fervor and demands for independence. It could be seen as part of the revolution of the mind that John Adams described in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. In not being accorded the full rights of Englishmen, the colonists embraced their American identity as a point of distinction and pride. In confronting this identity crisis, Thomas Paine as a working class Englishman went straight to the heart of culture and ethnicity by pointing out the inconvenient fact that many of the colonies consisted of non-English majorities, largely of German ancestry but African as well. There was no melting pot and the ethnic populations resisted assimilation, as did even African-Americans to the degree they were able. One suspects the English monarchy and aristocracy by way of the actions of Parliament secretly agreed with this argument, as they treated the colonists as second class citizens.

About the disease of moral panic, there was a particularly virulent strain of fear-mongering that began in the late 1800s and continued into the early decades of the following century — exacerbated by worsening concerns involving nostalgia, culture wars, media, diet, and health. It appeared as a political force with the Populist movement that was set ablaze with the proliferation of publications advocating liberal thought and progressive reforms, sometimes mired in racism and eugenics but at other times confronting these misguided inclinations. One such publication was the Midland Monthly Magazine, the personal project of Johnson Brigham, born in New York and later moved to Iowa where he would become the State Librarian (see Prabook and Carnegie Libraries In Iowa Project). Brigham’s magazine, available from 1893 to 1898, gave voice to local Iowan writers at a time when the state was still young — statehood was gained a half century before in 1846 and Chief Black Hawk surrendered the decade prior in 1832, still within living memory.

As with Americans in general, Iowans were seeking to invent their own identity. Consider what kind of state Iowa was, but also consider its cultural origins. The Lower Midwest, as argued by David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard, is a cultural extension of the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania that was part of the Mid-Atlantic region which included New York. In the colonial era, the Mid-Atlantic was the greatest concentration of diversity and Pennsylvania was specifically overflowing with Germans. Quakers established a multicultural tolerance that, combined with the laissez-faire of New York City, helped create the American Melting Pot that came to define the Midwest. Early cities in Iowa boomed with immigrants, in some cases with as much ethnic and religious diversity as the big cities like Chicago.

In Des Moines where Brigham lived, only 7% of residents identify as of English ancestry, according to the 2000 census (Statistical Atlas). I mention this in relation to one of the authors, E. W. Skinner, who was published in the Midland Monthly Magazine. Skinner lived in Sioux City that also is at 7% English ancestry (Statistical Atlas). Both cities have many Germans, but also a mix of other non-English ancestry. For example, “In the 1870s, Sioux City became both a staging point for Dakota-bound Norwegians, and a destination in itself” (Cherilyn Ann Walley, The Welsh in Iowa). This set a pattern for welcoming later immigrants. During the Second World War, German POWs felt so at home on the farms of Iowans with German ancestry that many of them decided to stay after the war. Places like Sioux City maintain a reputation of being welcoming, ranking at 96 in diversity among small cities in the United States and having the highest rate in the state of students from immigrant families. Although a majority white state, Iowa has always contained a wide array of ancestries and very little of it English nor more generally British.

After that discursive interlude, let’s get to the point. Brigham was quite liberal such as supporting suffragists. His advocacy for libraries brought him into the sphere of Andrew Carnegie, another progressive if not nearly as socially liberal. At the dedication of a Carnegie library built at Cornell College, Brigham as the State Librarian gave the address (Science Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 561, September 29, 1905, ed. by John Michels). This is amusing in relation to Skinner, also somewhere on the political left (e.g., “After Christianity, What?”, H. L. Green’s The Free Thought Magazine, March, 1895, from Vol. XIII). When Brigham was still putting out his magazine, he published a specific article by Skinner in 1896, titled “Anglo-American Union: Not Warranted by Ties of Blood”. It was a specific response to an 1893 opinion piece by Carnegie — giving large sums of money away tends to give someone the entitled sense that their opinion is of higher value. But Skinner called bullshit on Carnegie’s Anglocentric bigotry and, interestingly, he used a criticism similar to that of Paine’s, the criticism that largely justified the existence of a United States in the first place.

Inspired by the hope of the Great Rapproachement, Carnegie advocated a return to the protective and highly profitable embrace of the British Empire (with its vast military-protected trade networks, numerous port cities, abundance of natural resources, cheap foreign labor, and large numbers of prospective consumers/customers), if his aspirations were to Americanize the imperial project; he told W. T. Stead that, “We are heading straight to the Re-United States” (The Americanization of the World, 1901). He didn’t limit his dreams to a union of the United States and Britain, along with all of the other former British colonies. He wanted a racial unification of ethno-nationalism across these countries where Anglo-Saxons would be the master race ruling the world with a peace through power, a Pax Anglo-Saxony. This was motivated by Carnegie’s belief that the British and Americans were genetically and culturally the same people, based on the false assumption that most of American ancestry originated in Britain.

Yet it’s not clear that even acknowledging the largest segment of American ancestry, German, would have changed his views as that also could easily be incorporated into his views of racial supremacism. As with other early philanthropic robber barons, Carnegie was a major financial supporter of the eugenics programs in both the United States and Nazi Germany (William A. Schambra, Philanthropy’s Original Sin; & Edwin Black, North Carolina’s reparation for the dark past of American eugenics). To think of this British ancestry in terms of Anglo-Saxons, after all, is to ground it in the broader Germanic ethno-cultural history. Philip K. Dick, with German ancestry of his own, compellingly imagined how easy it would’ve been for Americans to have culturally assimilated to German society if the Nazis had won the war and come to rule much of North America. As Americans introduced eugenics ideology to the Germany, the Nazis looked admiringly to the American example of Jim Crow. All of this was part of Carnegie’s personal vision.

The debate over (Anglo-)American cultural uniqueness and autonomy would erupt again with the Cold War, which at its heart was a culture war. The ruling elite by way of the intelligence agencies sought to promote America as an empire in its own right, an empire that would become a global superpower with geopolitical and economic dominance. But first an American culture had to be established and that is why the intelligence agencies promoted American Studies in universities and paid American artists and writers, specifically in promoting a certain kind of modernism (Early Cold War Liberalism). During the world war era, multiculturalism and the immigrant experience had been suppressed through the force of law, violence and internment camps. Except for a few select countries, there were severe restrictions on immigrants even from most of Europe, as part of the eugenics agenda. This carried over into a cultural homogoneity during the Cold War. With Anglo-American hegemony, the United States and United Kingdom mended their centuries-old division and became even stronger allies, in fulfillment of the WASP imperial dream of Whiggish progress, but now it was America that was in the lead position.

* * *

Race, Utopia, Perpetual Peace: Andrew Carnegie’s Dreamworld
by Duncan Bell

Hubris, Thy Name Is Anglo-American Elite
by Bionic Mosquito

The Land of the Future: British Accounts of the USA at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
by David Seed

“Anglo-American Union: Not Warranted by Ties of Blood”
by E. W. Skinner
Midland Monthly Magazine: Volume 5, January 1, 1896
edited by Johnson Brigham
pp. 80-

The subject of an Anglo-American union, which was introduced by Mr. Andrew Carnegie in the North American Review, for June, 1893, and continued by Sir George Clarke, Mr. Arthur Silva White, Captain Mahan and Lord Beresford, in later numbers, has been discussed on the assumption that the people of the United States are very largely of English blood. Mr. Carnegie, as his first proposition, says, “The American remains three-fourths purely British,” and then follows the suggestion that the mixture of the other fourth is substantially all German, and that all three, German, American and Briton, are Teutonic. If this reasoning is correct, why should not all Teutonic people be em braced in the union? Or would it not be quite as natural for England to unite with her ancient mother as to expect the United States to cross seas to unite with hers?

Mr. Carnegie further says: “The amount of blood, other than Anglo-Saxon and German, which has entered into the American, is almost too trifling to deserve notice.” If he would claim all western and northern Europe as composed of Anglo-Saxon and German people he is not far wrong, for all of these have contributed liberally to make up this composite nation. There were substantial Scandinavian settlements on the Lower Delaware and Connecticut rivers at an early day, almost as early as the settlement of the Puritans at Plymouth, or the Hollanders at New Amsterdam. Colonies of French, German and Swiss Protestants were located in North Carolina, and New Berne was founded by the latter. The South Atlantic and Gulf States were originally settled by French and Spaniards.

France laid claim to all the country west of the Alleghanies and French settlements were scattered throughout the whole of the great central valley of the continent. Green Bay and the Fox River, in Wisconsin, were occupied by the French soon after Marquette made his first trip of discovery to the Mississippi. Eastern and northern Michigan were first settled by French. The French took possession of the Mississippi and many of its tributaries, established cities and settlements from its mouth to its source. As early as 1700 they had a town, Cahokia, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, near the present site of East St. Louis, which is said to have had as many inhabitants, at that time, as Quebec. The French, when expelled from Acadia, moved in a body to their brethren on the Mississippi. Everywhere throughout this great central region we find descendants of the early pioneers. If the historian would ignore their presence, the geographer cannot, for their ubiquity is attested by names they have given to cities, counties and streams all over the country, from the Alleghanies westward.

We have meager statistics as to the number of people in the United States or their place of origin, at the time of the Revolution, and the early census enumerations did not undertake to classify. All were Americans. We know, however, that New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware were settled by Hollanders and Germans, and that their descendants were nearly, if not quite, as numerous as were the English, at the time of the separation. Had Mr. Carnegie investigated the personnel of the business men surrounding his Pittsburgh home, he would have found that the majority of those controlling the manufacturing and mining industries, as well as the railroads of Pennsylvania, were descendants of the Dutch pioneers. The only colonies that were pure English were those of New England, east of the Connecticut River, and Virginia. England, as she conquered new territory, did not drive out the occupying people, but she introduced her vigorous language. The United States has wisely pursued the same policy. In many sections, however, the adoption of the language has been slow. Within forty years, sections of Pennsylvania had to import teachers if they wished English taught in their schools. To within a few years Louisiana has printed her laws in French as well as English. In New Mexico there was strong opposition to inserting in the act of ad mission as a state, by the last Congress, a clause requiring English to be taught in the public schools.

At the time of the separation it is evident that there was no ascendency of English blood in the then United States. After the acquisition of that portion called “The Louisiana Purchase,” which added so many French, and later, the acquisition of Texas and the territory from Mexico (embracing California, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Idaho), populated by Spanish, it left those of English blood largely in the minority. And, since we have become an independent nation, the immigration from other countries has been largely in excess of that from England. There have nearly as many come to us from the Scandinavian countries alone as from England. England’s colonies have offered inviting fields for her surplus population. Other countries, not having such outlets of their own, have given us liberally of their enterprising sons.

By the census of 1890 it is shown that 20,676,046, or thirty-three per cent of the whole population of the United States, were of foreign parentage – that is, per sons born in foreign countries, with their children. Children born to the second and later generations would be classed as natives. Of those of foreign parentage there was but 9.37 per cent from England. From the Scandinavian countries, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the percent age is 7.49, or more than seven-ninths as many as from England. Of French and French Canadians there was 3.75 per cent, or more than one-third as many as from England. Ireland furnished us 24 per cent, while Germany’s proportion was 33.39 per cent. Austro-Hungary, Italy and Russia each gave small percent ages by this census, but the immigration from these countries has largely increased since 1890.

In 188o the whole number of persons of foreign parentage was Io,892, or 5, the total population being 50, 155,783. The percentage shown by this census, of the nationalities of the foreign born population, does not materially differ from that shown by the census of 1890.

In 1870 the foreign born population was 5,567,292, of which England furnished 550,688, or one-tenth.

From the statistics given it may be safely inferred that more than fifty per cent of the population of this country has come to us from abroad, or has descended from those who have come, since the Revolution. Making a liberal allowance for those of English blood, who have come from Canada and other provinces, there is not over one-seventh of this added population English.

It will, then, be seen that the people of the United States, or America as we are called abroad, is not composed of pure English stock. It is safe to estimate that not thirty per cent of the blood of Americans is English. In fact, I think that outside of New England not one family in one hundred is of unmixed English blood, and into New England there has been, during recent years, a heavy immigration of Canadian French to the manufacturing towns, while Scandinavians have begun to occupy the deserted farms, notably in Massachusetts.

Mr. Carnegie says that the American, in many respects, resembles the Scotch man more than the English. There is no doubt that the infusion of Norse blood into the American has brought him to resemble the Scotch, who are largely of Scandinavian origin. Matthew Arnold noted the difference in the appearance of the two peoples. In his first visit to this country he wrote of us: “The American  Philistine, however, is certainly far more different from his English brothers than I had before supposed.” All travelers note this difference. An American in London is known at sight by every bootblack, while in America an English man can no more conceal his identity than can the bewhiskered Russian. With the Scandinavian it is different. A young man from the cities of Sweden or Nor way has but to change his clothing and learn to speak our language and he be comes an American, through and through. In looks, in actions, he cannot be detected from one to the manor born.

It is not strange that Mr. Carnegie, reclining within the shadow of the craigs of his native Scotia, should “look for ward” with fond hope to a union of his native land with the country of his adoption. His natal instinct binds him with reverence to the land of his birth, while admiration for the land where his years of active manhood were passed would prompt such a desire. Here, by energy and foresight, he wrought a name and acquired a fortune, which enables him to recline with ease and to dispense with a liberal hand from an ample store, in aid of worthy objects. What more natural than to overlook all obstacles to a union, which would be fraught with such pleasurable emotions?

In his desire for the union he fails to read aright “the writing between the lines” in the credentials to, and the resolutions and petitions passed by, the Continental Congress. There was a desire for liberty and separation, widespread and general, throughout the Colonies. Had his ancestors passed through that struggle, he would have felt that some thing deeper than the asking for a few concessions animated the members of that convention and the people whom they represented. But they were willing to wait, were willing to petition for that which they knew would not be granted. By a conservative, conciliatory course, they cemented more firmly all classes at home. By this course they won many friends among the Liberals in England, and appealed more strongly to the sympathies of other nations. Had England, at that time, yielded to the petitions, the separation might have been delayed, but that it would, eventually, have come, there is little doubt.

The obstacles to a union with England are insurmountable, were it even desirable. The argument for the union, on the ground of unity of race, hangs by a very slender thread. There is but one bond, and that is one language. Great Britain is too great and too powerful to become a component part of another nation. If she could become the con trolling spirit, the governing hand, then would she consent to the union, or an absorption.

Mr. White* speaks of a possible dissolution of the British empire and says “the welfare of the United States is bound up with the maintenance of the British Empire” [*North American Review, April, 1894]. Great Britain is not going to dissolve, nor will her power be materially curtailed for centuries. She is the newest nation of Europe, with the latest commingling of races, and, by the trend of natural causes, should be the last to decay. And America is large enough, strong enough to take care of herself. She does not need, as suggested by Mr. White, the assistance of the powerful British navy to protect her commerce or cause her just edicts to be respected throughout the world. For four decades her internal development has absorbed the greater part of the attention and energy of her people. The bulk of her products, both of field and factory, has been required at home. When the surplus, to any great extent, exceeds the home demand, she will find ways and means to increase her commerce. She will not “be satisfied to take a back seat , in the councils of the world.” Neither will she be required to do so.

It is not best, were it practicable, that there should be such a union. Great Britain will accomplish her proper destiny. The United States has a work to do which she can better do alone than by uniting her destiny with any other nation. True, as Mr. Carnegie says, “The combined fleets would sweep the seas.” But this is not what we want. It is not what the world needs. America’s ambition is not, and should not be, to help to strike terror. Her mission is and should be, “On earth peace, good will toward men.” Her territory is from ocean to ocean. From her Atlantic seaboard she should send cheer and succor to the hungry and needy of Europe. From her Pacific shore she should extend to China and Japan, and the islands of the sea, her friendly offices. To all asking aid, she should be ready to send that which would cheer, but never that which would destroy.

Sir George Clarke* alludes to the spontaneous assistance rendered by the United States flag-ship in restoring order at Alexandria [*North American Review, March, 1894]. Also, of the generous cheers of the American seamen at Samoa, when H. M. S. Calliope reached a place of safety. He cites these instances as showing the comity of the two peoples. These were not differing instances from what Americans would have accorded to those of any nation. America does not confine her sympathy or assistance to those who speak her language. The cause of humanity warms the breast of all true men towards all peoples, no matter of what tongue or clime.

We now have enough territory. We need no more land. We have much to do to build up and develop that which we have. To educate, to assimilate the multitudes that come to us, is no small undertaking, but we feel competent to its accomplishment. By the proper mingling of the various races, like the blending of different ores in a furnace, a better product results.

Adam Ferguson, an Edinburgh professor of the last century, begins one of his lectures with these words: “No nation is so unfortunate as to think itself inferior to the rest of mankind; few are even willing to put up with the claim of equality.” We, of America, in this respect, do not vary the rule. An unwillingness “to put up with the claim of equality” is inherited by us. Our ancestors brought this inheritance with them across the Atlantic, planted it in good soil on this side and it has had a healthy growth.

Bullshit Jobs and Essential Workers

“In our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it”
~David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs

“Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble…It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEO’s, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.”
~David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs

States are bailing out privately owned corporations’ #bullshitjobs with public money. No doubt austerity measures down the line will hit the very public sector workers we now call ‘essential’.”
~Tashina Blom

“What if an economy that forces poor people of color to wear diapers all day processing chicken parts during a pandemic isn’t an economy worth saving?”
~love one another

David Graeber: “Will we then pretend that everything was just a dream?”
from Zeit Online

David Graeber: Because the market is not so much based on supply and demand as we are always told – who makes how much is a question of political power. The current crisis makes it even clearer that my wages do not depend on how much my profession is actually used.

ZEIT ONLINE: This is the issue in your current book Bullshit Jobs : Many socially indispensable jobs are poorly paid – while well-paid employees often doubt whether their office work makes any sense at all or whether they are only doing a “bullshit job”.

Graeber: What is important to me: I would never contradict people who feel that they are making an important contribution with their work. For my book, however, I have collected voices from people who do not have exactly this feeling: They are sometimes deeply frustrated because they want to contribute to the good of all of us. But to make enough money for their families, they have to do the jobs that don’t work for anyone. People said to me: I worked as a kindergarten teacher, it was great and fulfilling and important work, but I couldn’t pay my bills anymore. And now I’m working for some subcontractor that provides health insurance with information. I tag some forms all day, no one reads my reports, but I earn twenty times as much.

ZEIT ONLINE: What happens to these office workers who are now doing their bullshit jobs because of the corona virus from their home office?

Graeber: Some people now contact me and say: I always suspected that I could do my job two hours a week, but now I actually know that it is. Because as soon as you do this from home, for example, the meetings that don’t do anything are often dropped.

Coronavirus Unmasks the Lie That You Have to Work in London to Succeed
by Aimee Cliff

Remote working is set to expose more than a few fallacies about our working life. At one end of the spectrum, it might lift the veil on the nature of white-collar work itself. Manual workers and non-office-based professionals are risking the lives of their loved ones to continue working while others – like me – are quickly able to dismantle and digitise our office cultures. As anthropologist David Graeber’s 2018 book Bullshit Jobs pointed out, a huge amount of our economy is predicated on the illusion that many people have to come into an office from 9 AM to 5 PM every day in order to create content, send messages, and schedule social media posts.

Or, as Twitter user @MikiZarzycki put it for the coronavirus era: “Everyone with a fake job gets to stay home and get paid to drop funny GIFs into Slack, everyone with a real job has to be a frontline pandemic worker or get fired.”

Coronavirus – Is telework identifying our Bullshit Jobs?
from GenX @ 50

The epidemic has resulted in statewide lockdowns in more and more states. With schools, businesses, and government offices closing or being limited in their services, people are teleworking if it is possible, being laid off if it is not possible, or still working if they perform an “essential” function. The truly essential jobs – keeping the food supply chain intact, medical work, trash collection, and other life sustaining and disease preventing professions clearly are not bullshit jobs. Other jobs like teaching, restaurant work, or manufacturing, are not bullshit, but can’t be done when under quarantine.

But the Bullshit Jobs associated with Graeber’s categories – flunky, box ticker, taskmaster – are all easily done when working remotely. In fact, if you can do your work remotely, it might be a good sign that you have a Bullshit Job!

I would argue that many of these bullshit jobs add negative value to an organization, creating useless paperwork, internal regulations, and otherwise throwing sand in organizational gears that might otherwise run more smoothly. Having these things not be done might improve overall productivity. Will anyone examine how things worked after the COVID-19 telework is over and decide that many of these administrative jobs were unnecessary? Perhaps it might be worth it to the bottom line to continue to pay some flunkies, goons, box-tickers, and taskmasters to not come in to work when this is over.

The COVID-19-Induced Crisis and Three Inversions of Neoliberalism
by Roderick Condon

If neoliberals truly understood economics they wouldn’t be neoliberals. Against Friedrich Hayek’s assertion that socialists don’t understand economics, Covid-19 exposes the neoliberal location of social value exclusively in the profit-making activities of private enterprise as misapprehending the essential basis of value creating activity in the reproduction of society itself. Suddenly, it is automatically and immediately apparent those services necessary for the continuity of society as a going concern as those, to appropriate a phrase from Louis Althusser, reproducing the conditions of production.

Two insights follow from this. First, the devaluation – in both material and symbolic terms – of use-values by exchange-values under neoliberalism. Financial activity, only barely distinguishable from compulsive gambling, has been elevated to the highest social importance while vital reproductive activity has been, in effect, beaten down, raped and systematically pillaged. Second, David Graeber’s aptly conceptualized ‘bullshit jobs’ are now exposed as the very foundation of a farcical social order in which all activity must constitute itself in exclusively economic terms and measure itself accordingly. The decelerated pace of economic life induced by Covid-19 directly reveals the superfluity of a great deal of what constitutes ‘productivity’ under neoliberalism as in reality socially unnecessary labour-time, to refashion Marx. Furthermore, the forced imposition of such activity by the social order is itself revealed as a type of hidden tax (something the neoliberal economists show a great deal of disdain for) on real, lived life-time; that is, the time available in each individuals’ lifespan for activities that truly matter.

The bullshit economy II: Bullshit-ish jobs and the coronavirus recession
by Andrew Mackay

I will revisit the difference between “the economy” (the method by which people obtain goods and services, through work or a welfare state) and “the Economy” (a reified concept based on a few stock indexes and how well billionaires and their conglomerates are doing) at a later date. I will focus on this post in how much the economy has been stripped down. Finding out which jobs are “essential” (largely the supply chains for food and medical equipment, along with education, though they are full of administrative layers and do-nothing middlemen skimming money off the top) and which are not is instructive. This is a natural experiment to go beyond the Bullshit Jobs framework, which relied on above-mentioned pollinga few hundred people who emailed about the bullshit parts (or wholes) of their jobs, and Graeber’s mastery of theory creation from an anthropological lens.

Landlords? Pure parasites, who get others to pay their mortgages and expansion, avoiding providing services as much as possible, which could be done collectively by tenants anyways.

Office jobs? Bullshit-ish, at the very least, if not total bullshit. The mass movement to working from home and teleconferencing within a couple of weeks indicates what a useless, environmentally-destroying artifice the office is. The office is an instrument of social control, whereby the bosses use the magic of at-will employment to add unneeded stress on people who know how to do their jobs infinitely better than management. With a huge drop in commuting, Los Angeles has some of the cleanest air it has ever had in the automobile era. Millions of hours of commuting and busywork have been cut, and people are able to balance whatever workload they actually have with accomplishing creative pursuits or otherwise having more time in the day. Graeber perceptively points out that many jobs have huge amounts of busywork because some jobs (like system administrators) require people to be on-call for a certain number of hours, but may frequently have no urgent work to do. Management hates to pay people to do nothing of substance, so they use the artifice of the office as a social control mechanism to feel they are getting their money’s worth and justify their existence.

It is clear that many jobs have bullshit-ish aspects to them. Some aspects, like interminable face-to-face meetings that could be sorted out in a ten-minute Slack chat, still persist. The “essential”, who are generally treated like dirt when there isn’t a crisis, show how little match-up there is between pay and social usefulness. A grocery store truck driver has orders of magnitude more importance than his superiors, and they could collectively management the supply chain with their co-workers, having so many years of combined experience on how food goes from farms to shelves. Countries like Denmark are paying a majority of laid-off workers’ salaries, though it should be re-evaluated what these workers should be paid given the social value of their work. 75% of salary seems okay (not ideal, but better than the nothing coming from America), but 75% of what, exactly? Marx’s labor theory of value has come into acute relevance in the past month, as it becomes clear who actually creates value (workers), and who is expendable (administrators, corporate executives, and industries like cruises and shale oil that have no future in a decarbonized economy).

What will the world be like after coronavirus? Four possible futures
by Simon Mair

The key to understanding responses to COVID-19 is the question of what the economy is for. Currently, the primary aim of the global economy is to facilitate exchanges of money. This is what economists call “exchange value”.

The dominant idea of the current system we live in is that exchange value is the same thing as use value. Basically, people will spend money on the things that they want or need, and this act of spending money tells us something about how much they value its “use”. This is why markets are seen as the best way to run society. They allow you to adapt, and are flexible enough to match up productive capacity with use value.

What COVID-19 is throwing into sharp relief is just how false our beliefs about markets are. Around the world, governments fear that critical systems will be disrupted or overloaded: supply chains, social care, but principally healthcare. There are lots of contributing factors to this. But let’s take two.

First, it is quite hard to make money from many of the most essential societal services. This is in part because a major driver of profits is labour productivity growth: doing more with fewer people. People are a big cost factor in many businesses, especially those that rely on personal interactions, like healthcare. Consequently, productivity growth in the healthcare sector tends to be lower than the rest of the economy, so its costs go up faster than average.

Second, jobs in many critical services aren’t those that tend to be highest valued in society. Many of the best paid jobs only exist to facilitate exchanges; to make money. They serve no wider purpose to society: they are what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”. Yet because they make lots of money we have lots of consultants, a huge advertising industry and a massive financial sector. Meanwhile, we have a crisis in health and social care, where people are often forced out of useful jobs they enjoy, because these jobs don’t pay them enough to live.

The coronavirus pandemic might have a silver lining. People might wake up to what’s really important.
by Peter Bolton

What jobs are really ‘essential’?

The first big question is: what jobs does society really need? Could it be that some are not only unnecessary but also harmful? And if so, could we just get rid of them? In the US healthcare industry, for example, private health insurance companies have ‘claims teams’ that determine whether the company will cover the cost of treatments for their policyholders. Such workers are even rewarded by their bosses for saving the company money by finding (often spurious) reasons for denying payment. Transitioning to a public system of universal care would eliminate this needless overhead and, in turn, lower healthcare costs.

Many jobs in the finance sector, meanwhile, are equally worthless. The 2007/8 financial crash, for instance, was caused in part by the bundling and trade of ‘subprime mortgage’ debt. And as The Canary has previously argued, financial markets increasingly resemble an imaginary world that bears no relation to actual production. This raises the question of whether jobs such as ‘stockbroker’, ‘currency trader’, or ‘speculator’ could simply be abolished. […]

Who really benefits?

If many jobs are pointless and many goods and services are unnecessary, then that ultimately raises a follow-up question: why do they exist? Scholars across various disciplines have tried to answer this question. In his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, anthropologist David Graeber suggests that the existence of pointless jobs is part of a deliberate strategy by the ruling class to keep the masses occupied so that they won’t have the time or inclination to question (or, worse, organize to dismantle) the power structures of the status quo. He says:

The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger. …

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how he or she could have done a better job. […]

Time to reflect

Ultimately, the coronavirus outbreak has shown that society can continue to function without certain kinds of work being performed – so long as governments intervene to provide for the social good. At the same time, many people in wealthier countries have realized that they can live just fine with less. And on both counts, this is exactly what socialists have been arguing all along.

Bullshit Jobs in an age of Coronavirus
by imothyt

Bullshit jobs have turned into a sort of “workfare” for the educated classes.

That’s a fact that seems inescapable now as the Coronavirus pandemic has deemed essential and non-essential. The essential people are the folks stocking shelves in the supermarket, driving long-haul trucks, delivery drivers, nurses, doctors, people manufacturing essential goods (medical and otherwise), farm workers, and food workers. The rest of us are told to stay at home, shelter in place, and devise new things to do with our time, to prove that we are productive.

The pandemic has forced us all to become task-masters, box-tickers, and duct tapers for the very (probably) bullshit jobs we held before so that we could all continue to exist at a high-level of universal basic income.

I’m not an economist but the whole system always seemed deeply flawed to me. When I was in the Army in the 80’s it was patently obvious that we were all there on a sort of welfare system. And as the military-industrial complex rose and as “pork-barrel” spending increased at the Federal level, I started wondering how many of the jobs which supplied the military and infrastructure projects (the bridge to nowhere) were just versions of workfare? If you build missiles you’re kind of just a Goon, aren’t you? The only reason we need rockets and bombs is because others have rockets and bombs!

And, all of this government “red-tape” that people says kills jobs? In my lifetime it does the exact opposite. It creates jobs! Millions and millions of jobs. Jobs for people to process oversight paperwork, efficiency modeling, insurance claims, and so on. […]

Graeber quotes President Obama after the USA passed the worst healthcare plan ever devised in human history*, “everybody who supports single-payer health care says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork. That represents one million, two million, three million jobs.” And all politicians know this for a fact. Running for president, Howard Schultz called universal healthcare “not American,” adding, “What industry are we going to abolish next — the coffee industry?” And said that single-payer would “wipe out the insurance industry.”

And not just the insurance industry (which is completely useless, Goon, work) but think about what Medicare for All really means. It says that it will save money – and it would – but it would do so by eliminating millions of jobs in insurance, middle-management, billing departments, claims-negotiators, oversight officials, and so on. All of those people make middle-class incomes which in turn support the people who do that actual work of our society.

That’s why Trump needs so many people to just go back to work and why he literally doesn’t care if we live or die from this virus or really from any of the existential threats we face (global warming, etc.). I’ve long held the sneaking suspicion that most of human endeavor (especially in the West) is a con of some sort. Getting people to do stuff that they probably wouldn’t want to do by tempting them with baubles like Harleys or new cars. The economy relies on people doing all of these bullshit jobs because the economy is bullshit and only functions as long as we are producing bullshit wealth for a bullshit class of top bullshitters!

Coronavirus and the Collapse of Our Imaginations
by Jonathan Carp

Millions of us have what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs,” jobs that produce nothing, create no wealth, but exist merely to help circulate money so goods can be distributed. Even white-collar workers with real jobs are chained to 19th-century notions of work, with a desk in a building and appointed hours at which they must sit there. We rise to alarm clocks, get into cars, belch carbon into the atmosphere, and alternate between working and goofing off as we wait for the time to pass.

But not under coronavirus. Under coronavirus, we wake with the sun, we take leisurely morning strolls, we fit our work around our children and our spouses. Instead of furtively scrolling Facebook when we get bored working, we play or make love or create. For many of us, coronavirus has been liberating amidst the quarantines. How ghastly that it has taken the threat of a global pandemic for our bosses to take advantage of technology that has existed for twenty years, at least. How cowardly of us not to demand it sooner.

What if we never went back? Imagine roads clear of traffic around the clock. Imagine air cleansed of the emissions of millions of cars. Imagine the demand for gas dropping first the price, then the environmentally devastating production. For my fellow office drones, imagine every morning waking up naturally, not to an alarm clock, and spending each day doing at each moment what you most wanted to do, not whatever would pass the time while waiting for five o’clock. That could be ours, if only we insist on it.

And what more could we imagine? Could we imagine, as my former colleague Kevin Carson has described in his work, a world of decentralized production, where “going to work” is for almost everyone a strange anachronism from a dimly remembered past? Could we imagine a world of automation that serves people rather than displaces them? Or will we be content to fritter with the margins of neoliberal capitalism, pushing for “oversight” on massive giveaways to corporations while villains like Ben Sasse clutch their pearls at the idea of a fast-food worker making more on unemployment than she does flipping burgers?

Adrian Ivakhiv: Pandemic politics, or what a disaster can do for us
by Adrian Ivakhiv

For me, this is in part a reaction against the push for “business as usual” in these strange, new times. “Keeping calm and carrying on” works for some, but easily becomes an excuse for disaster capitalism: if you can’t work normally, we’ll have you work from home. (That your kids are suddenly there with you all day, “zooming” into their classes, and that you’ve just brought your mother-in-law home from her precarious seniors’ community, and that the fridge is getting empty, is all irrelevant.) We’ll have you work harder to learn new tools that we can then require you to use when things have returned to “normal” (and if you don’t, then someone else can fill your shoes).

The other strategy is to stop and ask ourselves what’s really important. What do you need to do to protect your loved ones? Do you even know who your loved ones are? (How wide does that circle extend?) What work will keep you going in a world where business-as-usual has become an unaffordable luxury? When there’s so much to do to be happy and safe, some “bullshit jobs,” as anthropologist David Graeber call them (no mincing words), might start to look expendable.

Taking stock, for me, means asking: how can institutions of higher learning reach out to the communities we serve to help us transition into times of likely scarcity, in which the temptation for hoarding, closing borders, and “disaster capitalizing” — the temptation of the Handmaid’s Tale — will be all too palpable? How do we re-engineer our societies to preserve and enhance democracy, equality, and ecological integration when things get bad, as any good “disaster environmentalist” knows they will? That’s the challenge ahead of us, and COVID-19 is its messenger.

What’s the point?
by Anne-Sophie Moreau

Coronavirus acts like a daunting mirror, reflecting the sheer pointlessness of what we do. It exposes a phenomenon described by anthropologist David Graeber as “bullshit jobs”: most of us, he argues, occupy positions which at best, make no difference to society, and at worst, can be downright harmful. He says the ranks of big firms are filled with minions whose sole purpose is to flatter their boss’ ego, or fill in charts as part of painstaking but ultimately pointless “processes”. That’s when they’re not busy selling goods and services that empty the consumer’s pocket whilst exhausting the planet’s natural resources. In short, entire swaths of professional activity shouldn’t even exist at all! Surely that should put you off organising yet another meeting during the coronavirus crisis. […]

After all, “bullshit jobs” haven’t put an end to “shitty jobs”, Graeber explains. On the contrary – and this is why he thinks our societies are paradoxical –, the more useful we are, the less we’re paid. How many of our government ministers are truly interested in the foot soldiers of our digital platforms? Not many; and when they do speak to them, it’s to tell them to get to work! Bullshit jobs at home, shitty jobs on the front – this is the sad dystopia we’re living in. Not to mention that many service industry jobs will likely be replaced by AI, and that central banks are thinking of showering us with “helicopter money” to avoid a global recession… Will tomorrow’s office workers be forced to stay at home, force-fed with Netflix and free money? […]

Paradoxically, this crisis might help us rediscover the real reasons why we work. By hitting the rock bottom of uselessness, we might find a way to rise back to the surface of our ambitions. And yes, these might indeed seem futile. But even the act of drawing dinosaurs can be useful, Graeber argues. Does this surprise you? “I lean towards Spinoza’s theory of work, where the aim is to increase or preserve other people’s freedom”, he told me, when I expressed my surprise at him classifying entertainment as “useful”. He went on: “The paradigmatic form of freedom is chosen activity – in other words, play. Somewhere Marx wrote that you only attain real freedom when you leave the realm of necessity and work becomes an end in itself. That might be the new paradigm of social value: to care for others, to make sure everyone leads a freer, more leisurely life.”

Notes from a Pandemic
by Tammy Sanders

One refrain I keep hearing from friends with stock portfolios and retirement funds is that we’ve got to reopen the economy. But really, is that the best we can think to do, reopen an economy that typically disenfranchised the most valuable people in it?

Instead of reopening the economy, why not rethink it, rework it, redesign it toward the more ethical, just and sensible society so many of us want to have.

An example: I wonder now that so many men, millions of them, have for the first time in their adult lives spent the majority of their waking hours in the company of their children, could we see a fundamental shift in policy norms and standards around parental leave and flexible work. Conceding that some men cannot wait to get back to being away for 14-hour days, I also wonder how many more will no longer abide prioritizing their professions at the expense of their families.

In his book Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber talks at length about the notion of care-related work, particularly how and why our society devalues that work. Nowadays, we’re honking horns and applauding health care providers and grocery store cashiers as “heros” — but are we willing to insist they be paid a hero’s wage, perhaps 1/16th what an MLB pitcher or NFL quarterback earns?

Might we refuse to send children back to school, or better yet, might kids strike and refuse to go back to school until adults sort out school shootings?

Might we, as Graeber suggests in his book, commit whatever effort we can to stop making so much of what has until now made life unlivable for so many: unbearable traffic, inflexible work, toxic air, a ruthless pursuit of achievement at the expense of connection?

We crafted the world we lived in on 1 March 2020. Then, we stopped that world. If there was ever a time to point the world toward wellness, wholeness, more positivity, less polarization, now is that time.