Friday, September 30, 2011

Human conduct and earthquakes

Some wag with a dark sense of humor once remarked that peace could come, at least temporarily, to Israel-Palestine if only the disputants--Jewish, Christian, and Muslim--were to come together on one item of agreement: hatred of homosexuality. Some advance towards that dubious goal has been shown in responses to the East Coast earthquake.

Joseph Farah, founder of World Net Daily and a Christian of Syrian-Lebanese descent, has voiced the following view. "If America doesn't face judgment soon, God will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah. And God doesn't offer apologies. He does, however, offer second chances, third chances, fourth chances. He's trying to get your attention. Are you paying heed? What will it take? Will your world have to be turned upside down before you recognize what's happening? Would even that be enough? I know. I know. It was just a little earthquake – and just another hurricane. They happen all the time. What are you making such a big deal about, Farah? You're right. We escaped this time. No big deal. But when your world is shaking, you tend to think about the things that really matter. And what really matters is our relationship with our heavenly Father, our Creator, the Lord of the universe. He is trying to tell us something. His message is very clear. Don't say you weren't warned."

Rabbi Yehuda Levin has voiced a similar view, ascribing the belief to the Talmud. In Yerushalmi Berakhot (9;2). earthquakes may indeed be caused by engaging in gay sex, but other transgressions may trigger the events, including disputes and improper religious offerings. Or God may just choose to bring them on because he is distressed at the destruction of the Temple.

What is the source of this strange harmony, fortunately limited to the fringe of both groups?

As I have shown elsewhere, it is not a case of Christians borrowing from the Talmud, but the reverse. The idea that toleration of homosexual activity causes earthquakes may be traced to a law of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the early sixth century. Doubtless his edict merely codified Christian folk belief.

So does ancient superstition live on, even today.


The old age of the New Age

Recent revivals of the musical "Hair" have taken us back to an era some forty years ago when one couldn't go to a party or social gathering without having someone come up and ask "What's your sign?" There was no need to explain that the expression meant "astrological sign." Astrology and much else of an occult or hermetic nature was part of the New Age package encapsulated in the Counterculture,

I was never able to believe in astrology, or the other "sciences" of this kind, but I occasionally yielded to a sense that these notions might be metaphorical stand-ins for some vision of collective harmony that would supplant the everyday rat race. For some people there were opportunistic considerations. A horny friend used to say that he was willing to adopt whatever sign was needed to give an attractive interlocutor the rationale for going to bed with him.

While it survives here and there, most of this New Age stuff has faded. These thoughts were triggered by reading Wouter J. Hannegraaf's remarkable comprehensive survey "New Age Religion and Western Culture."

As an exercise in counterfactuality, I wonder what things would have been like had the New Age beliefs survived and thrived. For one thing, they probably would have incited the Christian Evangelicals to make them their target--instead of the secularism that nowadays mainly attracts their ire. And Nancy Reagan, consulting astrologers in the White House, would no longer be an anomaly.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Two types of media malfeasance--or one?

The peaceful occupation of Liberty (aka Zuccotti) Square in the Wall Street district of Manhattan is completing its second week. Initially, there was a virtual news blackout. It was left to a foreign newspaper, The Guardian in Britain, to initiate serious coverage.

Through their misconduct, including the use of pepper spray on innocent participants, the NYC police made a backhanded contribution, one that made the events harder to ignore. Yet even though the movement has spread to a number of other US cities, coverage in the mainstream media remains spotty.

This looks like conservative bias.

In a different development, for some months flash mobs have been invading stores in a number of American cities. Most of these unruly crowds are made up of African-American and Hispanic young people. Overall, media coverage has been skimpy.

This looks like liberal bias.

A paradox? It may be, though, that there is a common denominator: the media are chary of reporting any cases of unrest stateside. I say stateside, because these folks went full throttle in the Arab Spring counties, not to mention Greece and England.

Why this reticence? It is almost excruciatingly notable in view of the absolute incompetence of the politicians in Washington, DC. That slow-moving disaster cries out for mass protest.

There I think is the key: the mainstream media and the politicians are two wings of the culture of corruption that is regnant in this country. It is high time that both were called out for it.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Our truly parlous economic situation

The ongoing demonstrations in the Wall Street section of Manhattan emphasize that that the US economic problems are much more complicated than the struggle over the budget in DC, squalid and discouraging as that is. It is not yet clear what the actual stance--or stances--of the demonstrators may be.

I doubt that any of these courageous people read Dyneslines; they have more urgent tasks to accomplish.

Still, in the interest of bringing some clarity to the matter, I would like to share some pithy observations by the brilliant Canadian economic journalist Chrystia Freeland, as published in the NY Times blog.

“. . . [T]he gap between rich and poor in the United States has widened in the past 30 years. In 2007 the top 1 percent of earners took home 18.3 percent of national income -- that is more than two and a half times their level in 1973, when their share was 7.7 percent. Those at the top haven’t enjoyed such a big slice of the national pie since 1929. The middle-class dominated nation that the Greatest Generation inhabited has become as polarized as the plutocracies of Latin America or as America itself was during its fevered Gilded Age.”

Further denial is useless. “The conservatives' argument that equality of consumption outweighed the inequality in incomes has been eviscerated. . . . The elite, particularly the conservative intellectuals who have dominated the national economic debate since the Reagan era, insisted that growing income inequality was propaganda invented by the class warriors on the left, and cited robust consumer spending as evidence. In a 1998 speech at Jackson Hole at the annual gathering of American economists and economic policy makers, Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, argued that what mattered was what people could buy, not what they earned.

“Inequality in consumption, when measured by current outlays, is less than inequality in income,” he said. Greenspan illustrated his point with some unusual measures of inequality -- ownership of consumer goods like dishwashers, microwaves and clothes-dryers. The comforting result? Even though inequality as measured in dollars was growing, when measured in dishwashers, microwaves and clothes dryers it was decreasing.

“The 2008 financial crisis and the prolonged economic downturn has eviscerated the consumption defense as ruthlessly as it has burst the credit bubble that allowed the middle class to feel richer than it was. Income inequality is today a fact of life, as essential to doing business as the rate of inflation: Proctor & Gamble executives study the Gini co-efficient, a technical measure of income inequality, to divine what is happening to their erstwhile middle-class consumer base, and have decided the best strategy is to give up on the center and to market instead to the top and the bottom.

“Citigroup advises investors to design their portfolios around income inequality. It calls this strategy the "Consumer Hourglass Portfolio" and has created an index of companies that serve the rich and the poor while avoiding the vanishing middle.

“Once income inequality has become a tool for marketing executives and stock pickers it becomes pretty hard to deny. But we can still argue over what is causing it.
The left likes to blame pro-rich tax policy. And it is certainly true that the gap in the U.S. has widened even as taxes on the rich have decreased. Today’s top tax rate, 35 percent, is half what it was 30 years ago. Capital gains taxes are even less than half of what they were 35 years ago -- 15 percent today, compared to 39.9 percent in 1977.

“Politics have tilted the playing field in favor of those on top in other ways, too. Unions are less powerful than they were 30 years ago, and an ever bigger gap between executive officers and the average worker has become acceptable to shareholders and boards: in 2010, C.E.O. pay at S&P 500 companies was 343 times the median wage.

Now Freeland comes to the truly important part. “But taxes, unions and compensation committees tell only part of the story. What’s also happening is an economic revolution -- actually, a pair of them -- that favors those on top and squeezes those in the middle. The technology revolution and globalization have allowed the very talented, the very lucky and the very brave to build companies and make fortunes nearly overnight. They have also created a highly numerate superclass of workers -- technologists, engineers, traders -- whose skills are in great international demand and whose salaries have soared accordingly.

“Meanwhile, a vast swath of jobs -- ranging from manufacturing, to clerical work, and now to routine law and accounting -- can be done much more cheaply by machines or by people in lower-income countries, and this is devastating the U.S. middle class, even as those at the top prosper.

“Justice is a central issue in American politics and in American society. That’s why it seems so important to figure out whether the rich are paying their fair share. It is a crucial question -- and the truth is that the rich are getting a better deal than they used to. But the even more central issue -- and it is one that both left and right are reluctant to acknowledge -- is that the fundamental forces shaping U.S. capitalism today are hostile to the middle-class majority, which defines U.S. democracy.

“The rancor and the paralysis that characterize American politics at the moment are the result of this conflict. Someone needs to admit that modern capitalism isn’t working for the middle class, and find a way to make it work better, before it is too late.”


Thus the middle class in this country may be well on the way to extinction, as we become an Hourglass Society. Taxing the rich may not do much to solve this problem, because that leaves two other huge problems: the growing use of technology, which makes many traditional white-collar jobs obsolete, and export of jobs to countries where labor is cheaper. Obvious remedies would be ludditism, restricting the use of technology' and erecting high trade barriers (protectionism). At this stage both seem quixotic. There remains the issue of what is to be done?

UPDATE (Sept. 27). An op-ed by economics correspondent Joe Nocera in today's NY Times provides two telling examples of the devastation that the application of technology is causing. In North Carolina two big new industrial plants are rising one in Charlotte for Siemens and other in Winston-Salem for Caterpillar. Yet since both rely heavily on robotics Caterpillar expects to employ only 500 people in its plant (notwithstandin some $14 million in incentives), while Siemens will have about 800 workers. Last year a major furniture manufacturer in Winston-Salem shut down, ending 900 jobs; the Caterpillar plant will not even make up for these.

Another piece of bad news is of broader import: an estimate that NC has lost 108,000 jobs (from the Economic Policy Institute, which implicates China).

FURTHER UPDATE (Sept. 29). In a piece in Slate yesterday ("The Bobots Are Coming!), Farhad Manjoo points up some of the changes that lie ahead:

"In the next decade, we'll see machines barge into areas of the economy that we'd never suspected possible—they'll be diagnosing your diseases, dispensing your medicine, handling your lawsuits, making fundamental scientific discoveries, and even writing stories just like this one. Economic theory holds that as these industries are revolutionized by technology, prices for their services will decline, and society as a whole will benefit. As I conducted my research, I found this argument convincing—robotic lawyers, for instance, will bring cheap legal services to the masses who can't afford lawyers today. But there's a dark side, too: Imagine you've spent three years in law school, two more years clerking, and the last decade trying to make partner—and now here comes a machine that can do much of your $400-per-hour job faster, and for a fraction of the cost. What do you do now?"


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Is formal logic an instrument of male supremacy?

During the 1970s many embraced the idea that “everything is political.” This statement is clearly too categorical, though there may be something to be said for the notion that many things are either tinged with politics, or are capable of such tincture.

A particular application of this notion is the idea that mathematics and formal logic, at least as we have known them in the West, are instruments of male supremacy. This is the central thesis of the magnum opus of the late Arthur Evans, “Critique of Patriarchal Reason” (1997).

Evans, who did graduate work in philosophy at Columbia University, seeks to trace the evolution of what he terms “the Parmenidean myth” from the fifth century BCE to the present. The sole surviving writing of Parmenides is a poem,,“On Nature.” There the Pre-Socratic thinker sets forth two views of reality. In "the way of truth" section of the work, he argues that reality (described as "what-is") is unitary, change is impossible, and existence is timeless, uniform, necessary, and unchanging. In the contrasting "way of opinion," he explains the world of appearances, in which one's sensory faculties lead to conceptions that are false and deceitful.

Evans pays little heed to Parmenides’ eccentric, counterintuitive view that change cannot occur. Yet he is much taken with the implications of the binary contrast, a principle that he calls “bivalance.” This point recalls Jacques Derrida’s postmodernist denunciations of binarism. Evans does not mention Derrida, but it seems that the idea was in the air at the time Evans conceived his book.

To the principle of bivalence, Evans adds to the purported Parmenidean heritage “the universal force of logical necessity” and “the inherent superiority of an impersonal static model of lnoledge and reality” (p. 94). Reverberating down the centuries, as seen in such figures as Leibniz, Frege, and Bertrand Russell, this malign triad has served as the preeminent support of male supremacy. Why should this be so? Surely it cannot simply be that “the Parmenidean myth” has been mainly espoused by men. This would be a rather transparent instance of guilt by association, one that would backfire since Evans is a man. If the adoption of a view by a man or men is sufficient to taint it, then the “Critique of Patriarchal Reason” must be rejected, together with the writings of all those other Western Civ icons.

Evans offers a familiar argument to the effect that absolute objectivity is rarely, if ever achieved. Just so, but we can strive to reduce the subjective element in accordance with striving for truth--something that does actually exist. Much of this subjectivity derives, to be sure, from one's gender, nationality, and social status. In this sense, all knowledge is situated knowledge.

Evans points out, persuasively in my view, that the homosexuality of Ludwig Wittgenstein affected his approach to philosophical problems. By contrast his mentor, Bertrand Russell, thought that homosexuality was the result of bad parenting, and was dismayed when his gay son John came out to him. How did Russell's orientation affect his views? Evans fails to explore this possibility. He is, however, admirably clear about the way the Wittgenstein establishment, fearing that the truth about the Austrian thinker's sexual orientation would damage his standing as a philosopher, attempted to squelch any discussion of the matter.

Evans seems particularly troubled by the either-or aspect of the principle of bivalence. It has, he believes, inflicted on us such pairs as male vs. female and heterosexual vs. homosexual. In these contrasts one pole tends to be viewed as superior to the other. However, if patriarchy is as pervasive as Evans believes, surely it is wily enough to survive without such props, It can find other rationales.

Moreover, a moment's reflection will show that even in ordinary thinking we are not hobbled by any such absolute principle of bivalence. Consider the binary “hot” vs. “cold.” Every sensible person recognizes that there is a spectrum of such thermic states: ice cold is different from cool and warm is not the same as hot.

Still Evans labors on. He thinks that we will be able to shed the sexist shackles of Parmenideanism if we adopt something he calls "gradient logic." This approach (sometimes unfortunately termed Fuzzy Logic) permits one to detect more than two points in a continuum. Yet this ploy has always been available, even to those who have not benefited from a college education, as the sequence cold-cool-warm-hot demonstrates.

Arthur Evans says that it took him nine years to write the book. Since it was published in 1996, the inception would go back to 1987, an interesting point in intellectual history.

Let us turn first to the feminist writer Sandra Harding’s “The Science Question in Feminism” (1986). In the following passage she begins with an interesting observation on a type of metaphor that occurs in some authors of the early modern period. But then she takes us on a wild ride.

“One phenomenon feminist historians have focused on is the rape and torture metaphors in the writings of Sir Francis Bacon and others (e.g. Machiavelli) enthusiastic about the new scientific method. Traditional historians and philosophers have said that these metaphors are irrelevant to the real meanings and referents of scientific concepts held by those who used them and by the public for whom they wrote. But when it comes to regarding nature as a machine, they have quite a different analysis: here, we are told, the metaphor provides the interpretations of Newton's mathematical laws: it directs inquirers to fruitful ways to apply his theory and suggests the appropriate methods of inquiry and the kind of metaphysics the new theory supports. But if we are to believe that mechanistic metaphors were a fundamental component of the explanations the new science provided, why should we believe that the gender metaphors were not? A consistent analysis would lead to the conclusion that understanding nature as a woman indifferent to or even welcoming rape was equally fundamental to the interpretations of these new conceptions of nature and inquiry. Presumably these metaphors, too, had fruitful pragmatic, methodological, and metaphysical consequences for science. In that case, why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton's laws as "Newton's rape manual" as it is to call them "Newton's mechanics"?”

Another example comes from the Belgian Francophone writer Luce Irigaray (“Parler n’est jamais neutre,” 1985).

“Is e=mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possible sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest.”

Now that a quarter of century has passed, these effusions have come to seem quaint. Lengthy as it is (376 double-column pages), Evans' argument emerges as simply a gay-liberation counterpart of these extravagant feminist indictments.

POSTSCRIPT. In fairness I should note that, for a philosophy book, Evans' "Critique" is quite well written. It also contains useful analyses of the achievements of such figures as Gottlob Frege, Willard Van Orman Quine, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Dare one call them seminal? Oh, well.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Alternative bodies of knowledge--an introduction

Many of us have been brought up to believe that the story of scientific progress is just that: the gradual victory of truth over error, so that Copernicus replaced Ptolemy, even as chemistry supplanted alchemy. However the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) has shown that the matter is often more complicated than that.

There are several approaches to SSK. For reasons that will become apparent, this essay will focus on only one of these. The Edinburgh strong program is a branch of the sociology of scientific knowledge, one that is particularly associated with such scholars as David Bloor, Barry Barnes, Harry Collins, Donald A. MacKenzie, and John Henry. Since its emergence in the 1970s, the strong program has been both influential and controversial. As regards its influence, few people active in studying the way science works would doubt the existence of scientific communities, bound together by allegiance to shared paradigms and rules of evidence; their functioning is essential for normal, productive scientific activity. (To be sure, this approach is shared by many who are not associated with Edinburgh University, but the label is convenient.)

We are probably on safe ground in agreeing with the Edinburghers in their reaction against previous sociologies of science, which restricted the application of the discipline to "failed" or "false" theories, such as phrenology or the phlogiston theory of combustion. In this older view, failed theories would be explained by citing the researchers' biases, such as covert political or economic interests. Taking the long view, the failure of such theories was inevitable: they were just wrong.

In this perspective (and by contrast), sociology would be only marginally relevant to successful theories, which came to prevail simply because they had revealed the true facts of nature. For its part, the strong program asserted that both "true" and "false" scientific theories must be treated the same way. So far, so good.

Yet the strong programmers entered more troubled waters when they held that the success of all scientific theories is heavily conditioned by social factors or conditions, such as cultural context and self-interest. This view seems to verge on relativism, a relativism in which truth is regarded as secondary, even unimportant. What matters are institutions, including cliques and interest groups. Sometimes the issue seems to come down simply to this: which theory has the most numerous and forceful body of supporters?

I am far from accepting whole hog this version of SSK. In fact I may even have caricatured it. Perhaps I can be pardoned, though, if I acknowledge that the approach may have something valuable to contribute, for it may help us to understand “alternative forms of knowledge"--such things as the denial of HIV as the cause of AIDS, and the Truthers’ assertion that the fall of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan ten years ago was brought about by a conspiracy involving the US government.

For the purposes of this brief, introductory essay on knowledge pluralism, I will turn to something less momentous: the question of the authorship of the plays and other works commonly ascribed to William Shakespeare. Apart from Will himself, the main rivals for the honor are Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and the Earl of Oxford. In his entertaining new book “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?" James Shapiro shows that supporters of the “other” claimants have included such figures as Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller. In his concluding chapter, Shapiro, who is a professor at Columbia University, sets forth what he regards as pretty conclusive arguments for agreeing with the conventional wisdom that in fact Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. In the earlier chapters of the book, however, the author surveys the reasons why the alternative theories came into being. Their formulation was not a mere matter of caprice, but represented a series of particular outlooks and interests.

While I happily attend almost every performance I can, I am no Shakespeare scholar. What I am wondering, though, is whether the procedure of taking our cues from the Edinburgh version of methodological agnosticism might be further productive of insights about the plays and what we gain from them. That is, we might approach the issue in terms of “as if” (to cite the title of a once-famous German treatise), trying to dismiss from our minds, at least temporarily, the “inevitable” conclusion that the conventional wisdom in this matter of authorship is indubitably correct.

UPDATE (October 27, 2011). Since I wrote this piece a film has come out ("Anonymous") asserting the Oxford theory of Shakespearean authorship. See the thorough debunking by Ron Rosenbaum


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Of zaps and demonstrations

Surfing the net, I came across an old clip from forty years ago. The clip was recorded on one morning when a group of scruffy young men, members of the Gay Activists Alliance, occupied the offices of the Manhattan City Clerk. They were conducting a "zap," demanding an apology for some homophobic remarks the clerk had made. The invaders refused to leave or be quiet. I don't know what happened when the police arrived, but the demonstrators had made their point.

With today's security, no such group would be able even to get into the building.

Yet it is still possible to have demonstrations outside of buildings--or is it? Yesterday (Sept. 17) a coalition of groups turned up in lower Manhattan to occupy Wall Street (the street not the Stock Exchange itself) in what was billed as a US Day of Rage. The event was coordinated by the social media, a facility not available forty ears ago. But little came of the plan. Alerted in advance, the police were easily able to contain the demonstrators, and the event failed.

To be sure, the flash mobs have been able to use social media for their descents into stores. However, these incursions are not social protest, but smash and grab operations for personal gain. What will probably be the outcome are further restrictions on privacy and freedom of movement.

As an old timer, I confess to some nostalgia for the zaps and demos of yore. But it seems that we are living in a different world now. Nineteen-eighty-four has come a little late, but it appears to have come.

UPDATE (Sept. 25). I reproduce a perceptive analysis by David Graeber from today's The Guardian (UK]--

"Why are people occupying Wall Street? Why has the occupation – despite the latest police crackdown – sent out sparks across America, within days, inspiring hundreds of people to send pizzas, money, equipment and, now, to start their own movements called OccupyChicago, OccupyFlorida, in OccupyDenver or OccupyLA?

"There are obvious reasons. We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt. Most, I found, were of working-class or otherwise modest backgrounds, kids who did exactly what they were told they should: studied, got into college, and are now not just being punished for it, but humiliated – faced with a life of being treated as deadbeats, moral reprobates.

I"s it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?

"Just as in Europe, we are seeing the results of colossal social failure. The occupiers are the very sort of people, brimming with ideas, whose energies a healthy society would be marshaling to improve life for everyone. Instead, they are using it to envision ways to bring the whole system down.

"But the ultimate failure here is of imagination. What we are witnessing can also be seen as a demand to finally have a conversation we were all supposed to have back in 2008. There was a moment, after the near-collapse of the world's financial architecture, when anything seemed possible.

"Everything we'd been told for the last decade turned out to be a lie. Markets did not run themselves; creators of financial instruments were not infallible geniuses; and debts did not really need to be repaid – in fact, money itself was revealed to be a political instrument, trillions of dollars of which could be whisked in or out of existence overnight if governments or central banks required it. Even the Economist was running headlines like "Capitalism: Was it a Good Idea?"

"It seemed the time had come to rethink everything: the very nature of markets, money, debt; to ask what an "economy" is actually for. This lasted perhaps two weeks. Then, in one of the most colossal failures of nerve in history, we all collectively clapped our hands over our ears and tried to put things back as close as possible to the way they'd been before.

"Perhaps, it's not surprising. It's becoming increasingly obvious that the real priority of those running the world for the last few decades has not been creating a viable form of capitalism, but rather, convincing us all that the current form of capitalism is the only conceivable economic system, so its flaws are irrelevant. As a result, we're all sitting around dumbfounded as the whole apparatus falls apart.

"What we've learned now is that the economic crisis of the 1970s never really went away. It was fobbed off by cheap credit at home and massive plunder abroad – the latter, in the name of the "third world debt crisis". But the global south fought back. The "alter-globalisation movement", was in the end, successful: the IMF has been driven out of East Asia and Latin America, just as it is now being driven from the Middle East. As a result, the debt crisis has come home to Europe and North America, replete with the exact same approach: declare a financial crisis, appoint supposedly neutral technocrats to manage it, and then engage in an orgy of plunder in the name of "austerity".

"he form of resistance that has emerged looks remarkably similar to the old global justice movement, too: we see the rejection of old-fashioned party politics, the same embrace of radical diversity, the same emphasis on inventing new forms of democracy from below. What's different is largely the target: where in 2000, it was directed at the power of unprecedented new planetary bureaucracies (the WTO, IMF, World Bank, Nafta), institutions with no democratic accountability, which existed only to serve the interests of transnational capital; now, it is at the entire political classes of countries like Greece, Spain and, now, the US – for exactly the same reason. This is why protesters are often hesitant even to issue formal demands, since that might imply recognising the legitimacy of the politicians against whom they are ranged.

"When the history is finally written, though, it's likely all of this tumult – beginning with the Arab Spring – will be remembered as the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire. Thirty years of relentless prioritising of propaganda over substance, and snuffing out anything that might look like a political basis for opposition, might make the prospects for the young protesters look bleak; and it's clear that the rich are determined to seize as large a share of the spoils as remain, tossing a whole generation of young people to the wolves in order to do so. But history is not on their side.

"We might do well to consider the collapse of the European colonial empires. It certainly did not lead to the rich successfully grabbing all the cookies, but to the creation of the modern welfare state. We don't know precisely what will come out of this round. But if the occupiers finally manage to break the 30-year stranglehold that has been placed on the human imagination, as in those first weeks after September 2008, everything will once again be on the table – and the occupiers of Wall Street and other cities around the US will have done us the greatest favour anyone possibly can."


Friday, September 16, 2011

The Solyndra debacle

Recently in the news, the collapse of the Solyndra firm may offer some lessons. Solyndra was a manufacturer of cylindrical panels of CIGS thin-film solar cells based in Fremont, California. The company suspended all operations as of August 2011, leaving behind the United States government as its largest creditor of uncollected debt obligations.

In May 2010 the company was hailed by President Obama in his visit as a model for government investment in green technology. His administration approved a $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra, claiming that it would create 4,000 new jobs. However, due to overseas price pressure coming from China in the period of constructing the new plant, the Fab 2, the company was forced to shut-down the original plant, Fab 1, ultimately reducing staff to approximately 1,000 employees at the time of declaring bankruptcy.

In fact there is a good deal of comparative evidence concerning the fate of government efforts to select and back winners in the field of technology. For a number of years this policy was associated with MITI, a branch of the Japanese government (a ministry in fact) founded in 1949. At first MITI's efforts had some success, though most observers believe that it was the tenacity and determination of Japanese business itself that were responsible for the remarkable rise of the economy in that country. Eventually, in fact, it became clear that MITI was backing more losers than winners. Today, the ministry is defunct.

From this evidence it is clear that we should be wary of these efforts to pick winners in the realm of technology, as they are repeatedly distorted by politics, cronyism, and ideology. In the Solyndra case the ideology is Green. If one slaps the label green on something it automatically becomes wonderful.

In this spirit I hereby declare Dyneslines a quintessentially green site!

POSTSCRIPT. David Frum is one of the few reasonable Republicans left. Here is what he says about green jobs at the Frum Forum.

"[T]he hope expressed by President Obama that the transition to a new energy future can double as a way to preserve the mass production workforce of the mid-20th century seems at best delusive, at worst a cruel hoax – and actually most of the time a distraction from other more immediate and relevant economic problems.

"The president’s talk of green jobs reminds me of how the “Atari Democrats” of the 1980s used to muse that the industrial workforce displaced by the economic changes of the 1970s could find work making semiconductors. The computer industry created millions of new jobs, yes, including some very exciting and well-paid new jobs. But instead of rescuing the embattled blue-collar middle class, the new jobs heaped additional rewards of higher pay and lower prices on the educated and the qualified.

"No predictions from me about the economic and social effects of green energy. But here’s what I would predict: we’re rapidly going to discover that new energy forms will destroy many more energy-sector jobs than they create.

"And we’ll (re)discover for the umpteenth time that the reason government fails as a venture capitalist is that government faces too many and too contradictory goals. Government effort to subsidize “green jobs” will emerge – not as a benefit from the spread of green energy – but as one of the greatest obstacles impeding the spread of green energy.?


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Arthur Evans (1942-2011)

My friend Arthur Evans died on September 11 in San Francisco, where had lived since 1974. A year ago, recognizing that he was in failing health, Arthur wisely composed his own obituary, which I reproduce below.

The Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) was the most vibrant and influential gay organization to emerge in New York City from the turbulent period that followed immediately after the Stonewall events in June of 1969,

A charismatic figure in those days, Arthur Evans was the last survivor of a quartet of men who were most instrumental in founding and sustaining GAA. The others were Arthur Bell, Evans’ lover, a journalist and author; Jim Owles; and Marty Robinson. The last two are perhaps best described as community organizers. Of the four, Arthur Evans particularly excelled in organizing “zaps”--demonstrations in which he assembled groups of activists to confront powerful homophobes in the media and public relations.

Arthur Evans and I got onto a wrong track when I wrote a negative review in Gay Books Bulletin of his 1978 book “Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture.” Since he lived in San Francisco and I in New York, we did not interact much. About five years ago, though, the two of us struck up an Internet friendship. Arthur was aggrieved, and rightly so, that the philosophy department at Columbia University refused to grant him the Ph.D. even though he had written a substantial monograph in the field, the last requirement for the honor (his book “Critique of Patriarchal Reason”). Evans hoped that the degree would allow him to assume a teaching position at a Bay Area College. This was not to be. Arthur was a favorite student of Paul Oskar Kristeller--no mean tribute since Kristeller was one of the great Renaissance scholars of the time. Since I live near the university campus, I invited him to come and stay with me. Together we would try to hold the university’s feet to the fire. For some reason the plan fell through, and I now regret that I didn’t go to see Arthur in his apartment in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

At all events he should be remembered now for his unwavering struggle and his many accomplishments. Here is his own statement..

                 Arthur Evans [1942-2011]

Arthur Evans was a gay activist, writer, and neighborhood activist
who lived at the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets in San
Francisco since 1974. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he played
a pivotal role in the newly emergent gay liberation movement in
New York City.

A few weeks after the famous Stonewall Riot of June 1969 (which he
missed), Evans and his lover, Arthur Bell, joined The Gay
Liberation Front (GLF), a new group that proudly proclaimed itself
to be gay, countercultural, and revolutionary.

Within GLF, Evans and others created a cell called The Radical
Study Group to examine the historical roots of sexism and
homophobia. Many of the participants later became published
authors, including (besides Evans and Bell) John Lauritsen, Larry
Mitchell, and Steve Dansky.

A number of GLF members, including Evans, soon became dissatisfied
with the organization, complaining that it lacked a coherent,
ongoing program of street activism. At the suggestion of GLF
member Jim Owles and Marty Robinson, about twelve people met in
Arthur Bell's Manhattan apartment on December 21, 1969, and
founded The Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). Evans wrote the group's
statement of purpose and much of its constitution.

Acting on the principle that the personal is the political, GAA
held homophobes who were in positions of authority personally
accountable for the consequences of their public policies.
Accordingly, Robinson, Evans, and Owles developed the tactic of
"zaps." These were militant (but non-violent) face-to-face
confrontations with outspoken homophobes in government, business,
and the media. Evans was often arrested in such actions,
participating in disruptions of local business offices, political
headquarters, local TV shows, and the Metropolitan Opera.

In effect, GAA created a stunning new model of gay activism,
highly theatrical while also eminently practical and focused. It
forced the media and the political establishment to take gay
concerns seriously as a struggle for justice. Previously the media
treated gay life as a peripheral freak show. It also inspired gay
people themselves to act unapologetically from a position of gay
pride. This new model of activism inspired other gay groups across
the county, eventually triggering revolutionary improvements in
gay life that continue to this day.

In November 1970, Robinson and Evans, along with Dick Leitsch of
the Mattachine Society, appeared on the Dick Cavette Show. They
were among the first openly gay activists to be prominently
featured as guests on a national TV program.

It was a big change from Evans' earlier days in York, PA, where he
was born on October 12, 1942. His father worked most of his life
on assembly-lines, the last in a chain factory. His mother ran a
small beauty shop out of a front room in the family house.

When Evans graduated from public high school in 1960, he received
a four-year scholarship from the Glatfelter Paper Company in York
County to study chemistry at Brown University in Providence, RI.
While at Brown, Evans and several friends founded the Brown
Freethinkers Society, describing themselves as "militant atheists"
seeking to combat the harmful effects of organized religion.

The group picketed the weekly chapel convocation at Brown, then
required of all students (even though Brown is a secular
institution) and urged students to stand in silent protest during
the compulsory prayer. National wire services picked up the story,
which appeared in a local York newspaper.

As a result, the Glatfelter Paper Company informed Evans that his
scholarship would be canceled. For help, Evans turned to Joseph
Lewis, the elderly millionaire who headed the national
Freethinkers Society. Lewis threatened the paper company with a
highly publicized lawsuit if the scholarship were revoked. The
company relented, the scholarship continued, and Evans changed his
major from chemistry to political science.

Although obstreperous politically, Evans remained closeted
sexually and very lonely, not knowing any other gay person.
Throughout both high school and college, he often thought of
suicide. In 1963, after completing three years at Brown, he read
an article in a national magazine reporting that many
"homosexuals" lived in Greenwich Village in New York City. He
promptly withdrew from Brown and moved to the Village, a change
that he later described it as the best move he ever made in his

In 1963 Evans discovered gay life in Greenwich Village and in 1964
became lovers with Arthur Bell (later a columnist for the Village
Voice). In 1966 he was admitted to City College of New York, which
accepted all his credits from Brown University. He participated in
his first sit-in on May 13, 1966, when a group of students
occupied the administration building of City College in protest
against the college's involvement in the Selective Service System.
A picture of the students, including Evans, appeared the next day
on the front page of The New York Times.

In 1967, after graduating with a B.A. degree from City College,
Evans was admitted into the doctoral program in philosophy at
Columbia University, specializing in ancient Greek philosophy. His
doctoral advisor was Paul Oskar Kristeller, then the world's
leading authority on Renaissance humanist philosophy. Kristeller
had studied under Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger in Germany but
fled to Columbia University after his parents were killed in the

Evans participated in many anti-war protests during these years,
including the celebrated upheaval at Columbia in the spring of
1968. In the same year he also participated in the protests at the
Democratic Convention in Chicago. During this time, the poetry of
Allen Ginsberg had a powerful influence on the formation of his
values. While at Columbia, Evans joined the Student Homophile
League [founded by Robert A. Martin], although he was still closeted.

In 1971 Evans and Bell, by then a columnist for the Village Voice,
separated. Bell later died from diabetic complications in 1984.

By the end of 1971, Evans had become alienated from urban life and
the academic world. With a second lover, Jacob Schraeter, he left
New York in April 1972 to seek a new, countercultural existence in
the countryside.

Using Seattle as a base, Evans, Schraeter, and a third gay man
formed a group called The Weird Sisters Partnership. They bought a
40-acre spread of forest land on a remote mountain in northeastern
Washington State, which they named New Sodom. Evans and Schraeter
lived there in tents during summers.

During winter months in Seattle, Evans continued research that he
had begun in New York on the underlying historical origins of the
counterculture, particularly in regard to its sex. In 1973 he
began publishing some of his findings in a gay journal called
Out and later in Fag Rag. He also wrote a column on the
political strategy of zapping for the Advocate, a national gay

In 1974, Evans and Schraeter moved into an apartment at the corner
of Haight and Ashbury Streets in San Francisco, from which Evans
never moved. Schraeter returned to New York in 1981 and died from
AIDS in 1989.

In the fall of the 1975, Evans formed a new pagan-inspired
spiritual group in San Francisco, the Faery Circle. It combined
countercultural consciousness, gay sensibility, and ceremonial

In 1976 he gave a series of public lectures, entitled "Faeries,"
on his research on the historical origins of the gay
counterculture. In 1978 he published this material in his
ground-breaking book "Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture." It
demonstrated that many of the people accused of "witchcraft" and
"heresy" in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were actually
persecuted because of their sexuality and adherence to ancient
pagan practices.

At this time, Evans also was active in Bay Area Gay Liberation
(BAGL) and the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club, which later
became the vehicle through which Harvey Milk rose to political
prominence. He and his friend Hal Offen opened a small
Volkswagen-repair business, which they named "The Buggery."

In the late 1970s, Evans became upset at the pattern of butch
conformity that was then overtaking gay men in the Castro.
Adopting the nom de plume of "The Red Queen", he distributed a
series of controversial satirical leaflets on the subject. In a
leaflet of 1978, entitled "Afraid You're Not Butch Enough?" he
facetiously referred to the new, butch-conforming men of the
Castro as clones, initiating use of the now widely used term
"Castro clones."

In 1984 Evans directed a production at the Valencia Rose Cabaret
in San Francisco of his own new translation, from the ancient
Greek, of Euripides' play Bakkhai. The hero of Euripides' play is
the Greek god Dionysos, the patron of homosexuality. In 1988, this
translation, together with Evans' commentary on the historical
significance of the play, was published by St. Martin's Press in
New York under the name of The God of Ecstasy.

As AIDS began to spread in 1980s, Evans became active in several
San Francisco groups that later morphed into ACT UP/SF, although
he himself was HIV-negative. With his good friend, the late Hank
Wilson, he was arrested twice while demonstrating against the
drug-maker Burroughs-Wellcome, accusing them of price-gouging, and
once against a local TV station, charging them with defamation of
people with AIDS.

In 1988, Evans began work on a nine-year project on philosophy.
Thanks to a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, it was
published in 1997 as "Critique of Patriarchal Reason" and included
artwork by San Francisco artist Frank Pietronigro.

The book is a monumental overview of Western philosophy from
antiquity to the present. It shows how misogyny and homophobia
have influenced the supposedly objective fields of formal logic,
higher mathematics, and physical science. Evans' former doctoral
adviser at Columbia University, Paul Oskar Kristeller, called the
work "a major contribution to the study of philosophy and its

In recent years, Evans devoted much time to improving neighborhood
safety in the Haight-Ashbury district. As part of that effort, he
penned a series of scathing and funny first-hand reports entitled
"What I Saw at the Supes Today," which he distributed free on the

The reports recount many acts and comments of the city's
Supervisors, often of an embarrassing nature, which the
established media missed. The politicians were not amused, as when
Evans caught Jake McGoldrick and Chris Daly each snarling "Kiss my
ass!" at each other in front of the press box in the board's
ornate chamber. Altogether, the reports run to over a thousand
pages in length and provide a provocative look at the inner
workings of local politics at the time.

In 2010, Evans was instrumental in helping pass Proposition L, the
civil-sidewalks law. In addition to writing his own reports on the
matter, he worked behind the scenes to get favorable coverage in
various newspapers and on TV.

His support for the measure provoked intense criticism from many
of the city's self-styled progressives. To which, he replied:
"Neighborhood safety is a progressive issue. How can we make the
world a better place if we neglect improving our own


Sunday, September 11, 2011

The jargon of "authenticity"

In article in today’s NY Times (Sunday Styles), Stephanie Rosenbloom assembles a collage documenting the recent plague of the adjective “authentic.” Here are a few examples:

TV anchor Anderson Cooper: “in everything I’ve done, I’ve always tried to just be authentic and real.” (Btw, if the Coop is so authentic why can't he make a public acknowledgment that he is . . . GAY?)

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York: “if you fear what people think about you, then you are not being authentic.”

TV anchor Katie Couric: “I think I love to be my authentic self.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton:“I believe in being as authentic as possible.”

As a self-descriptor, the adjective is proliferating on dating sites. The immediate source may be, Rosenbloom avers, the ubiquitous Oprah Winfrey, who popularized the notion of discovering your “authentic self” in the late 1990s after reading Sarah Ban Breathnach’s “Something More.”

However the real source lies in Old Europe. A clue comes from a June statement by Pope Benedict XVI, entitled “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age,” The pontiff said that increasing involvement in online life “inevitably poses questions not only of how to act properly, but also about the authenticity of one’s own being.” He added that “there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”

In fact, authenticity figures importantly in the thinking of the controversial German thinker Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Being authentic is a key aspect, or at least a potentiality of the mysterious Dasein (loosely translated as “existence”). According to one commentator, for Heidegger authentic existence can only come into being when individuals arrive at the realization of who they are and grasp the fact that each human being is a distinctive entity. Once human beings acknowledge that they have their own destiny to fulfill, then their concern with the world will no longer reside in eagerness to do as the masses do, but can become an "authentic" commitment to fulfill their real potential in the world.

An immediate objection arises. How can we know that a person has truly achieved authenticity, whether claimed by him or herself or by someone else? It seems that “authenticity” fails the refutability test. We can never be certain that it is there --or that it is not there. Nonethelesss, the concept turned out to have legs, gaining the support of such luminaries as Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

How in fact can we (so to speak) authenticate a claim of authenticity? Most of the time we must simply rely on the claimant's word for it. When all is said and done, it comes down to a simple assertion: "I'm authentic, and you're not--so there." At all events, Heidegger seems to have been the first to award himself the precious accolade of living authentically. Ipse dixit.

In his own day the idea did not go unchallenged. In "The Jargon of Authenticity" (1973) Theodor Adorno attacked Heidegger's obscurantist use of language, which sought to transform a "bad empirical reality into transcendence." Perhaps it is time to go back to Adorno’s book.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Berlusconi and co.

Some Italian friends have been looking forward eagerly to the disappearance of Berlusconi from office in their country (may that event come soon!). However, I sense a dawning realization in the Peninsula that that will not be the end of their problems. Italy's difficulties are structural, and will persist.

We see something like this personalist approach in liberal tut-tutting about the Republican crazies--Bachmann, Perry, and the rest. To be sure, they could not go soon enough. One day they will though, but that will not signal a new Golden Age for liberalism in this country. Boiler-plate talk aside, the success of modern liberalism depends on liberality--on distributing benefits to union members, minorities, and others who make up the Democratic Party's base. Even if the wealth of the rich were confiscated (which is not likely to happen), the cupboard would soon be bare.

As with Italy our problems are not a matter of personalities; after all they come and go. Our problems are structural. All those jobs that went to Asia are not going back.

Cam we expect truth-telling about this situation? Yes--as soon as pigs learn to fly.

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Thursday, September 08, 2011

The 9/11 blues

Since I retired from the teaching job that kept me (more or less) responsible, and started this blog, I have said many provocative things. Curmudgeonhood, ‘tis I. But now I may be going over the top--though please don’t send in the people with the white coats just yet.

At any rate, here it is. Even though the actual date of 9/11 has not yet come, I am heartily sick of the commemorations that are streaming out of all our media. Maybe foreign newspapers, such as the Times of India (an excellent resource, btw), would offer relief, but I doubt it.

Don’t you know Dynes that thousands of people died there? Well, many people die every second, some of them unjustly. We don’t expect to find that fact being used as an excuse for muzzling honest opinion. But in the vast empire of 9/11 Piety things are different.

With three unnecessary wars, and a meltdown of the economy, the country went seriously off track. We were supposed to be engaged in a vast struggle against Terror, which had “declared war" on us. Instead, with George Bush in the lead--truly the Manchurian Candidate--we came as close to destroying ourselves as we could. 9/11 triggered this process, but we keep on repeating the mistakes made in the last ten years. Now we are supposed to commemorate those ten years as if all we need to do is mourn.

The history of the site in lower Manhattan is both comic and tragic. Only one building is approaching completion, yet it already looks like a ruin, since no one can figure out how to cover over the vast wound in the lower floors.

On September 12 there will be closure (NOT), when two big square pits--holes in the ground--are dedicated. (A wag suggests the two square holes be named "Brad Pitt" and "Michael Pitt." But no matter.)

Here are some pertinent comments from Slate Magazine by the architectural critic Witold Rybczynski, dated Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011.

“At New York's Sept. 11 Memorial, water-filled pits stand where the towers once were. Architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker are credited with the design of the 9/11 memorial in New York City . . . [A]n unintentional third designer is Rudolph Giuliani, who as mayor supported the idea that the World Trade Center site was "hallowed ground" on which nothing should be built. By 2003, when a competition was held for the design of the memorial, the idea that the one-acre footprints of the twin towers should be preserved had hardened into a requirement. And that is what people will see on Sept. 12: two vast water-filled pits where the towers once stood.

“The design of what has turned into a $700 million memorial has been much simplified since the competition, which is all to the good. The underground museum remains, but no longer theatrically looks out through a veil of falling water. The names of the deceased, originally below ground, have been moved to the surface. The pits, 192 feet by 192 feet and 30 feet deep, are lined in black granite—black as death. Water cascades down the four walls and disappears into a square hole in the center of the pool.

“[By comparison with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial,] there is nothing comforting about gazing into the vast pit—-or, rather, two pits—-of the 9/11 memorial, the water endlessly falling and disappearing into a bottomless black hole. The strongest sense I came away with was of hopelessness.”

Rybczynski has some more to say on a more positive note, but the comments reproduced above are the ones that resonated with me.

UPDATE. Tom Engelhardt says it better than I could:

"Let’s Cancel 9/11

Bury the War State's Blank Check at Sea

by Tom Engelhardt, September 09, 2011

"Let’s bag it."

"I’m talking about the tenth anniversary ceremonies for 9/11, and everything that goes with them: the solemn reading of the names of the dead, the tolling of bells, the honoring of first responders, the gathering of presidents, the dedication of the new memorial, the moments of silence. The works.

"Let’s just can it all. Shut down Ground Zero. Lock out the tourists. Close “Reflecting Absence,” the memorial built in the “footprints” of the former towers with its grove of trees, giant pools, and multiple waterfalls before it can be unveiled this Sunday. Discontinue work on the underground National September 11 Museum due to open in 2012. Tear down the Freedom Tower (redubbed 1 World Trade Center after our “freedom” wars went awry), 102 stories of “the most expensive skyscraper ever constructed in the United States.” (Estimated price tag: $3.3 billion.) Eliminate that still-being-constructed, hubris-filled 1,776 feet of building, planned in the heyday of George W. Bush and soaring into the Manhattan sky like a nyaah-nyaah invitation to future terrorists. Dismantle the other three office towers being built there as part of an $11 billion government-sponsored construction program. Let’s get rid of it all. If we had wanted a memorial to 9/11, it would have been more appropriate to leave one of the giant shards of broken tower there untouched.

"Ask yourself this: ten years into the post-9/11 era, haven’t we had enough of ourselves? If we have any respect for history or humanity or decency left, isn’t it time to rip the Band-Aid off the wound, to remove 9/11 from our collective consciousness? No more invocations of those attacks to explain otherwise inexplicable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our oh-so-global war on terror. No more invocations of 9/11 to keep the Pentagon and the national security state flooded with money. No more invocations of 9/11 to justify every encroachment on liberty, every new step in the surveillance of Americans, every advance in pat-downs and wand-downs and strip-downs that keeps fear high and the homeland security state afloat.

"The attacks of September 11, 2001 were in every sense abusive, horrific acts. And the saddest thing is that the victims of those suicidal monstrosities have been misused here ever since under the guise of pious remembrance. This country has become dependent on the dead of 9/11 — who have no way of defending themselves against how they have been used — as an all-purpose explanation for our own goodness and the horrors we’ve visited on others, for the many towers-worth of dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere whose blood is on our hands.

"Isn’t it finally time to go cold turkey? To let go of the dead? Why keep repeating our 9/11 mantra as if it were some kind of old-time religion, when we’ve proven that we, as a nation, can’t handle it — and worse yet, that we don’t deserve it?

"We would have been better off consigning our memories of 9/11 to oblivion, forgetting it all if only we could. We can’t, of course. But we could stop the anniversary remembrances. We could stop invoking 9/11 in every imaginable way so many years later. We could stop using it to make ourselves feel like a far better country than we are. We could, in short, leave the dead in peace and take a good, hard look at ourselves, the living, in the nearest mirror."

See the rest at


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A defective example

There have been many attempts to define poverty on a comparative or world scale. One that is commonly cited is that people who must live on one dollar a day or less are definitely poor. That figure seems pretty convincing, even though a dollar (or its equivalent in rupees) goes farther in Bangla Desh than here in Manhattan. Even so, one would probably need to raise the floor higher. How much higher?

Here cultural factors intrude. Today most people in this country would surely regard absence of some common features of housing, such as indoor plumbing, as a mark of poverty. Yet in the early decades of the last century, my mother's parents lived with only an "earthen loo" (as an English friend tactfully calls it)--an outhouse--in the backyard. Yet they were prosperous cotton farmers in East Texas who owned a piano and a Ford. Their neighbors certainly did not regard them as poor.

As it happens, Adam Smith made a classic contribution to this discussion. First, some background. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he wrote:

"Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favourable, and pain in their unfavourable regard. The reason poverty causes pain is not just because it can leave people feeling hungry, cold and sick, but because it is associated with unfavourable regard."

He goes on to explain:

"The poor man . , , is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow–feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers. He is mortified upon both accounts; for though to be overlooked, and to be disapproved of, are things entirely different, yet as obscurity covers us from the daylight of honour and approbation, to feel that we are taken no notice of, necessarily damps the most agreeable hope, and disappoints the most ardent desire, of human nature. The poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel."

In this way, a person’s possessions function as signals of underlying personal characteristics, characteristics that others regard either favorably or unfavorably.

In the Wealth of Nations he wrote:

"A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct."

The notion that the Greeks and Romans had no linen is a major historical howler. As surviving mummy wrappings show, three thousand years ago the ancient Egyptians were perfectly familiar with the production and use of linen made from flax. From them the industry passed to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Roman togas, for example, were made of wool, but the tunic worn under them--the equivalent of a shirt--was generally of linen.

Without any attempt at verification, this Adam Smith gaffe is now crazily proliferating on the Internet. It is time to call a halt.

Does this error mean that Smith's overall concept is wrong? No, but it suggests that like any other author he should be subject to fact checking.


The three A's: the other side of the coin

From time to time in these pages I have shared segments of my sweeping, acerbic critique of the three Abrahamic religions. When it is not expository (sometimes dully so), the narrative is relentlessly negative. The various parts are collected in my

Yet is this the whole story? Belatedly I have sought to set forth, very briefly, what might be termed the case for the defense, that is, some major positive 3-A contributions. What follows is just a sketch, and additions and comments are welcome.


In, emphasis has fallen on the prescriptive, often repressive aspects of the Abrahamic faiths. These are indeed salient. Still, there is another side of the coin: the creative harvest of these traditions in literature, music, and the visual arts. (There are also significant effects in the sphere of political theory and action, to be discussed at the end.)

The enumeration of the positive contribution requires some qualifications. Laudable as the cultural achievements are, most of them are, to be blunt, in the past tense. Today we cherish them as historical landmarks and not, for the most part, as components of living traditions. The explanations for this decline are complex, but one such reason, surely, is that they depended on a credulous and precritical understanding of the Abrahamic scriptures and the associated institutional structures that enforced them as norms. Then was then, and now is now. Such religion-based cultural endeavors are no longer in synch with the cyberuniverse that has come to dominate the twenty-first century.

In what follows I note, in the briefest possible compass, some salient aspects of this religion-based heritage. First come the cultural contributions, with a brief discussion of political ramifications at the end.

1. Literature. The Hebrew poets of medieval Spain, to take one example, drew upon the imagery and prosody of the Hebrew Bible. Yet prior to modern times, their writings had little impact outside of Jewish circles.

More massive was the impress on literature in Indo-European languages, those in use among Christian peoples. Already in pagan times, Longinus had noted the sublime effect of of one Biblical phrase: "Let there be light." In a different way, Jerome’s translation of the Vulgate introduced a new appreciation of simple, humble discourse, the Sermo Humilis, as Erich Auerbach has shown. Later, this text served as the vehicle for the first great monument of the art of printing, the Gutenberg Bible of 1450-55,

In the evolution of English literature, the King James version of the Bible (1611) ranks as the single most important influence. Three major poems of John Milton (1608-1674)--Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes--revisit Biblical subjects.

Yet the formal properties of the Hebrew Bible were not fully appreciated until the analysis of Bishop Robert Lowth (1710-1787). In 1754 he was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity by Oxford University, for his treatise on Hebrew poetry entitled Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum (On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews). Lowth seems to have been the first modern Bible scholar to have observed the poetic structure of the Psalms and much of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. In Lecture 19 he sets forth the classic statement of parallelism which still today is the most fundamental category for understanding Hebrew poetry. He identifies three forms of parallelism, the synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic (i.e. balance only in the manner of expression without either synonymy or antithesis).

In modern times, the free verse of Walt Whitman stands out as the most influential exemple of dependence on Hebrew poetry--mediated of course by the King James Version.

2. Music. Quite naturally, the liturgy of the synagogue migrated into the monodic early Christian chant. Later, beginning in the twelfth century, Leoninus and his successor Perotinus, both associated with Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, introduced polyphony, a revolutionary achievement.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), arguably the supreme composer of the Western tradition, preeminently composed Christian choral music (his B-minor mass, passions, and cantatas). Hymns and spirituals continue Biblical and Christian themes on the popular level.

Today, the influence of religion is less evident in classical music. Yet two living composers, the Estonian Arvo Pärt and the Englishman John Tevener, have achieved striking effects by returning to older religious modes.

3. Architecture. The emperor Constantine’s adaptation of the Roman basilica type set the course for all subsequent church architecture in the West, a tradition that achieved its highest flowering in the Gothic cathedrals (ca. 1150-1550).

4. Representational arts. In part based on Jewish exemplars, early Christian iconography became the norm for narrative cycles for at least one thousand years. These effects may be seen today in frescoes on church walls, panel paintings, metalwork, and monumental sculpture. Biblical scenes are central to the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and countless other artists.

5. Film. At one time the genre of Biblical films occupied an important place in Hollywood’s array of production. For example, Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben Hur has been filmed at least three times (1907, 1925, and 1959). Probably the supreme example of a religious blockbuster was The Ten Commandments (1956), Cecil B. DeMille’s tour de force.

Twenty years later the mood had decidedly changed, witness Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Based on the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice musical, this entertainment gave a counterculture twist to the genre. This was followed by Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), which was decidedly irreverent. Finally, in 2004 The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s controversial vision of the death of Jesus, seemed to have given new vitality to the genre of religion-themed films, but the effect did not prove lasting.

6. Islam and its arts. During the nineteenth century, Western awareness of Islam was mainly evident in the picturesque canvases of the Orientalist painters. In the following century, however, there was greater appreciation for the nonrepresentational works of the minor arts of Islam as seen in tiles, metalwork, carpets, and other such objects.


There is one other sphere, too vast to be adequately covered here, in which religion has made important positive contributions. That is the area of social change.

I begin with a somewhat remote example, the career of Pope Gregory VII, who died in 1085. Following in the path of some earlier reformers, Gregory confronted head-on the then-urgent problem of imperial domination of the church, and by extension the whole of Western European society. Boldly, he engaged Emperor Henry IV in a fundamental power struggle, with the aim of making the papacy supreme, not the imperial power. The result, fortunately for society, was a kind of compromise in which the principle of separation of powers emerged. Today, the churches have (or should have) withdrawn from institutional participation in public life, but the principle of separation of powers is enshrined in the very structure of United States government.

Another major issue is that of slavery. To be sure, the Bible has been used to defend the practice of chattel slavery. Yet in the latter part of the eighteenth century a group of prelates in England began to call for an end to the slave trade, on the grounds that all individuals are equally children of God. This tradition was picked up and carried further by the Abolitionists in North America. It reemerged later in the civil rights movement, where a major, probably indispensable role was played by Dr. Martin Luther King and other black clergy.


Sunday, September 04, 2011


While I haven't been following it too closely there seems to be an interesting series going on how disagreements over policy issues can end relationships, or even prevent them form forming at all (

In this particular segment a woman reported that while she was attracted to a man named Jack, she could not continue when she learned that he was a pro-lifer, opposed to abortion rights. We all like to believe that we are willing to tolerate a variety of opinions, given the inevitable subjectivity of most of them. It may be though that the abortion issue ("reproductive rights" if you prefer) is, exceptionally, too intimately connected with our core identity to fit this model, but I fear that it is more generally applicable.

Here is an example from my own experience. About a year ago I made contact with a man who had been a close friend a quarter of a century ago, though over the years we had drifted away from each other. B. and I spent the day together, discussing various issues. Then, unfortunately, the topic of the state of Israel came up. B. is not Jewish (though he has a Jewish partner), but he is a fervent Zionist. Even though I am just as critical of the Palestinians as I am of the Israelis, B. could not tolerate my questioning the policies of the Jewish state. This difference proved to be a deal-breaker and he ceased all further contact. I would not have done so over this issue.

Now here is an opposite example. M., a friend until recently, turned out to have a number of far-left opinions. M. is Cuban but, unlike many exiles, is a supporter of the Castro regime. We are both gay, and I brought up the issue of the UMAP camps for the compulsory "reeducation" of homosexuals. M. claimed that these horrendous establishments had only been in existence for two years. I am not sure that this time frame is correct, but assuming that it is, the assertion is no excuse. After all, the Third Reich lasted "only" twelve years. Suppose that it had only lasted two years; that would be bad enough.

Then my Cuban friend launched into singing the praises of Joseph Stalin. He thought that the Gulag was unimportant, and defended the Soviet policy of vandalizing and destroying Russia's heritage of religious art. (This even though M. is studying Spanish colonial art, mainly religious, in Mexico.)

After the occasion (it was a dinner party three years ago) I concluded that the concatenation of absurdities was just too much for me to continue. I have not seen M. since.


Friday, September 02, 2011

"Right to protect"

The foreign policy doctrine known as Right to Protect (R2P) goes back a decade, to discussions at the UN and elsewhere. Essentially, this is the idea that perceived human rights violations in foreign countries trump their national sovereignty. Some advocates go so far as to suggest, that at least for the smaller, more vulnerable nations, national sovereignty no longer exists.

However cloaked it may be in idealism, R2P is a grave threat to the international order. It has served, for example, as the pretext for intervening in Libya. There, as even many advocates acknowledged, the worthy ideal of protecting the civilian population quickly morphed into the goal of regime change, a task that has now apparently been achieved in that North African country.

I take no position on the Libya intervention; at all events that is done now. What concerns me is the use of this experience as a template for ambitious and costly attempts to extend the Pax Americana throughout the world, using "human rights" as a cloak. This strategy is not the same as the neocons' strong-arming, which came such a cropper in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the ultimate effect is the same: regime change.

A number of writers and scholars are active in the cause of propagating the dubious R2P doctrine. Perhaps the most prominent is Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Along with her friend Hillary Clinton, she is a prominent member of the Neo-Wilsonian wing of the Democratic Party. (See my recent piece herein on the origins of Wilsonian interventionism.)

Slaughter also has links with the neocons, In 2004 she observed, chillingly, that "the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough."


Thursday, September 01, 2011


Summer is a time when newspaper columnists, short on time because of vacation, nagging kids and other distractions, decide to dig out old essays that would have been better left unpublished. Such is (I think) David Brooks' effort of August 29 in the NY Times. A luxurious safari trip with his family to Kenya brings to mind a particular expression: "haimish. It’s a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity, and unpretentious conviviality."

Using a phrase that is curiously similar to "the color line," Brooks posits the existence of something he calls the haimish line. Settings and events that are on one side (ostensibly the right side) of this line are comfortable, modest, and pleasantly convivial. On the other side are upscale, hoity-toity, chilly venues in which people are discouraged from being friendly with one another. During his safari, Brooks spent both time on both sides of the line. Yet he doesn't deal with the situation of poor people who must always dwell on the haimish side; they can't afford to traipse off to the other, fancy one--as individuals of his class easily can. In this way there is an element of slumming in his praise of the modest, homey spots. One is reminded of the film "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," in which the wealthy hero opts to spend one night hobnobbing with homeless men at the beach, where he eats garbage. He pronounces the experience wonderful, but he never goes back.

As with so many purportedly distinctive Yiddish terms, haimish is a borrowing from high German, stemming from the noun "Heim," home. The English adjective would be "homey." Why not use this term? But Brooks opts for a cognate that will strike most readers as exotic, and hence the bearer of some special wisdom.

As it happens, German also supplies the antonym: "unheimlich," meaning uncanny, unexpected.

In life we need both the reassurance of particular things, the heimisch/haimish dimension, and also a sense of surprise and the unexpected: unheimlich.


Faithful readers of these pages will note that this latest comment reflects, in the context of my general interest in linguistics, a skepticism regarding the idealization of Yiddish in this country. Let me be honest: could it be that I am flagging these words simply because they are Jewish? Most of them, though, as in this example, are of German origin. Although I have become reasonably proficient in German, a requirement for my academic studies, the language has always retained for me a certain taint, based upon what we learned about National Socialism during and after World War II.

Well, that quirk aside, what is wrong with borrowing words? Much of the standard vocabulary of English is borrowed from French and Latin.

What really concerns me, I think, is the linguistic populism inherent in the wholesale importation of the such words, the idea that the ordinary language of the people contains some great repository of inherent wisdom. Since this country has many ethnic groups, there must be--according to this line of thinking--some unique Irish, Italian, or Hispanic folk wisdom. That is what seems to me uncertain. Almost without exception, our immigrant groups (and I stem from one) came to this country from a culture of poverty. That status meant limited cultural resources, not vast ones.

There is, of course, a contemporary sociological element: many of our most successful figures in the worlds of journalism and entertainment are of Askenazic Jewish heritage. Their achievements are due to merit, without question. If Italian-Americans were prominent in these fields in such numbers, we would expect a profusion of such words as gumbah and agita--and I would be compelled to ask what profound folk wisdom was being transmitted by the importation of this vocabulary. Not much, I fear--certainly very little in comparison to what is found in Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch.

It is an interesting fact that the tapping of this Jewish cultural heritage is limited to one particular segment of the Jewish people, the Ashkenazim. Where is the contribution of Mediterranean (sometimes inaccurately termed Sephardic) Jews? Historically, their achievements have been considerable; one need only think of Maimonides, Spinoza, and Cardozo. Moreover, greater knowledge of classical Hebrew would be useful in understanding Biblical concepts, which remain important in our civilization. King James I, the creator of our most influential version of the Bible, acknowledged this point by actually learning Hebrew and delivering speeches in that language.

Instead of such illumination, we get this plethora of German-Jewish argot terms, many of which, like "heimish" and "mensh," "shonder" and "nosh," have perfectly good English-language equivalents, and are therefore redundant.

NOTE. The concept in social theory known as the “culture of poverty” stems from the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, as seen in his groundbreaking ethnography "Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty" (1959). Lewis argued that although the burdens of poverty are systemic, being imposed upon specific strata of society, they foster the formation of an autonomous subculture as children are socialized into behaviors and attitudes that serve to perpetuate their underclass status.

Clearly this concept has transnational implications. As the various groups subject to the culture of poverty manage, some of them at least, to migrate to more prosperous nations, they nonetheless bring with them many social patterns, including language habits, that have been nurtured at home.

I recently came upon an acknowledgment of this transnational phenomenon in a book first published eighty years ago: Fontamara, a novel by the great Italian writer Ignazio Silone. The little village of Fontamara in the Abruzzi was a specific place, yet the things that occurred there have broader, perhaps universal application: “i contadini poveri, gli uomini che fanno fruttificare la terra e soffrano la fame, i fellahin, i coolies, i peones, i mugic [muzhiks], i cafoni, si somigliano in tutti i paesi del mondo.”

In the novel one of the peasants makes an interesting observation. He says that he had spent several years working as a laborer in Argentina. Out on the Pampa he and his fellow immigrants never had any trouble communicating with the local laborers and the gauchos, even though one group spoke in rudimentary Italian and the other in rudimentary Spanish. Yet when an educated official from the Italian consulate would show up once a week to see how they were doing, the poor immigrants just couldn't communicate with him.