Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Matt Taibbi on Robin DiAngelo’s ‘Nice Racism’

October 12, 2021

Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragilityhas a new book out called Nice Racism.  Here’s what Matt Taibbi had to say about it:

Nice Racism’s central message is that it’s necessary to stop white people from seeing themselves as distinct people.

“Insisting that every white person is different from every other white person,” DiAngelo writes, “enables us to distance ourselves from the actions of other white people.”

She doesn’t, or maybe she does, see where this logically leads.

If you tell people to abandon their individual identities and think of themselves as a group, they sooner or later will start to behave as a group.

Short of selling anthrax spores or encouraging people to start exploring sexual feelings toward nine-year-olds, is there a worse idea than suggesting—demanding—that people get in touch with their white identity?

Of course there’s nothing wrong with attending a workshop to help you to better understand your unconscious prejudices, or to become more culturally sensitive about people of other races and ethnicities.  

The problem is when we as a society operate on the premises that (1) being racist is a firing offense and (2) everyone is racist until proven otherwise.

Taibbi wrote:

Her books are chock full of overt threats, using the language of the inquisitor.

When she goes through the list of arguments people make in favor of the arguments that they can or should exist beyond race, she concludes ominously, “None of these factors provides immunity.”

The idea that “continually” availing oneself of DiAngeloid antiracist training is a requirement to remain above suspicion is an explicit warning.

No other strategy is permissible; as she puts it, “Niceness is not antiracism.”

LINK

Our Endless Dinner With Robin DiAngelo by Matt Taibbi for TK News.

Rudyard Kipling’s “The man who would be king”

October 5, 2021

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and other stories by Rudyard Kipling

After our reading group read Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s best and best-known novel, we turned to Kipling’s best and best-known short story, “The Man Who Would Be King.”  

John Huston made a good movie of the story in 1975; it’s unusual for an excellent work of written fiction to be made into an excellent movie.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is the story of two adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnahan, both ex-soldiers of the British Indian Army, and how they reached the inaccessible land of Kafiristan (“land of the heathen”) and established themselves as rulers, only to have everything go horribly wrong.

Dravot and Carnahan sign a “contract” to stick together, refrain from indulgence in alcohol or women and “behave with dignity and discretion.”

They establish their power by demonstrating firearms, whose power to kill at a distance seems like magic, and by their ability to drill troops, which makes them a force that can defeat mere mobs of individual fighters.  

The two men are Freemasons, and the local priests decide they are gods because symbols on their Masonic paraphernalia correspond to ancient sacred symbols known only to the priests.

Everything is fine until Dravot decides to take a wife and establish a dynasty.  The people are horrified because they believe a woman who mates with a god will die.  Dravot chooses a beautiful but unwilling woman.  She bites him, and his bleeding shows that he is a man, not a god.

The story shows Kipling’s gifts as a descriptive writer, an observer of human nature and a storyteller, but it also echoes basic themes of literature.  It is a classic story of hubris being clobbered by nemesis.

It is a classic story of the downfall of a ruler who allowed himself to become a tyrant.  So long as Dravot ruled justly, he was all right.  It was the act of tyranny, taking a woman against her will, that led to his downfall.

It is an echo of Genesis, and of myths and legends, of how people are granted everything they could want, provided they observe one simple rule, and how they fail to keep the rule.  In “The Man Who Could Be King,” the simple rule is the contract—the promises to avoid women, and to behave with discretion.

Kipling’s story is said to have been inspired by the exploits of an American adventurer, Josiah Harlan, who in 1839 marched an army into Hazarajat, in the center of Afghanistan, and proclaimed himself the sovereign Prince of Ghor.  

Like Kipling’s characters, he fancied himself a successor to Alexander the Great.  His reign was short-lived; a year later, a British army invaded Afghanistan and replaced his rule.

There also was Sir James Brooke, the white rajah of Sarawak, who established a family dynasty that ruled the northwest coast of Borneo from 1841 to 1946.  But Brooke was granted his authority by the Sultan of Brunei and Harlan also was acting as agent of Dost Mohammed, then ruler of Afghanistan.  Their stories were not Kipling’s story.

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In order to read “The Man Who Would Be King,” I bought a collection of Kipling stories.  I read the other stories, too, and mostly enjoyed them. 

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The real Great Game

September 27, 2021

THE GREAT GAME: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk (1990)

The Great Game was the 19th century cold war between the British Empire and Russian Empire for control of Central Asia.  To generals and statesmen in London and St. Petersburg, it must have seemed like a global game of chess.

Peter Hopkirk, in his book, The Great Game, told the story mainly from the point of view of the chess pieces —agents of empire, British and Russian, venturing alone, sometimes undercover, into territory where their governments could not protect them.

I read this book as a follow-up to reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which was about a young boy being groomed to be a player in the Great Game.  Hopkirk referred to Kim in his book; he said the Mahbub Ali, Hurree Babu and Colonel Creighton characters were based on specific individuals.

Hopkirk gave a clear explanation of the geopolitical background, but his book also can be enjoyed as a series of real-life action-adventure stories.  The careers of some of the British political officers read like fiction.

While still in their twenties, they mastered local languages and customs well enough to disguise themselves as natives and penetrate unknown territory.  They were explorers, map-makers, spies, diplomats and sometimes commanders of troops in the field.

They command admiration—regardless of whether you think the game of empire was worth playing.

Their field of operation was mainly in what later became the Soviet Central Asian republics, but also included the Caucacus, Tibet and Xinjiang.  The Central Asian region historically has been a center of civilization, but in the 19th century, it had been overrun by warlords, bandits and slave traders. Dealing with them was no job for the timid or the trusting.

One political officer, Eldred Pottinger (not an action-hero name!), at the age of 26, was operating undercover in Herat in 1835. A Persian army with Russian advisers attacked and beseiged the city, and Pottinger offered his services to the local ruler.

He soon established himself as an effective and tireless leader. At one point, the besiegers broke through and the Herat commanders panicked, but Pottinger rallied them and drove back the attackers. In negotiations that followed, one of the Persian-Russian demands was that the Herat send Pottinger home.

This was only one of his exploits.  He died at age 32 of a fever.

Hopkirk focused mainly on British agents.  He did justice to Russian agents.  He barely mentioned the “pundits,” native Indian agents, because permanent records were not kept on them.

The pundits were regarded as more expendable than the white agents, but many of them, like Kipling’s fictional Mahbub Ali and Hurree Babu, faithfully served an empire treated them unequally.

In general, there was a high level of competence and realism on both sides. The one big exception was the occupation of Afghanistan in 1839, which replaced its ruler, Dost Mohammed, with a more compliant ruler. General Elphinstone, the commander, allowed his troops to outrage local sensibilities by drinking alcohol and seducing local women, but refused to take reasonable measures for security. The upshot was an evacuation and retreat, in which literally all but one of the 16,000 retreating troops were massacred.

What followed was 20 years of back and forth struggle for control of Afghanistan, which ended with the British inviting Dost Mohammed back.

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Kipling’s Kim and Kipling’s India

September 23, 2021

KIM by Rudyard Kipling (1901) with an introduction and notes by Jeffrey Meyers (2002) 

I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

Rudyard Kipling was a British imperialist.  He believed the British Empire was, for all practical purposes, permanent, and that it was a force for good.  The first belief proved wrong, and there are few who would defend the secondW.

So why read Kipling’s Kim?

Kim is an interesting story about the coming of age of a young boy and his struggle to define his identity.  Like Huckleberry Finn, Kim is often mistaken for a boy’s book because its central character is a boy, but it isn’t. 

Kim is also an idealized but fascinating portrait of the diversity of India, with its varied religions and ethnic groups.

Kim is the first, or one of the first, espionage thrillers, a new genre in which the spy is the hero and not the villain.

And finally, Kim is a work by one of the masters of the English language.

Kipling was, as we newspaper reporters used to say, a great wordsmith.  Anybody who loves writing can benefit from reading his sentences closely and noting his word choices and the rhythm of the sentence.

He is one of the few 20th century writers admired by both critics and the general public

His books of poetry were best-sellers.  Their rollicking rhythms stick in the mind, like Broadway show tunes.  He also wrote novels short stories, including the Mowgli and Just-So stories for children.  Henry James praised his prose style and T.S. Eliot edited an edition of his poetry.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

The hero of Kim is Kimball O’Hara, the orphan son of an Irish ex-soldier and a servant woman.  We meet him at age 13.   Kim has allowed to run wild in the streets of Lahore (now part of Pakistan).  He speaks local languages better than he speaks English, and is so sunburned nobody thinks of him as white.  

He earns money by begging and carrying messages.  The closest thing he has to a mentor is Mahbub Ali, an Afghan horse trader who turns out to be an agent of British intelligence.

As the novel opens, Kim encounters a Tibetan lama and decides to follow him on his religious quest.  They have adventures as they travel along the Great Trunk Road, meeting varied people.  These passages show Kipling’s genius as a descriptive writer, both of people and of the sights and sounds of India.  

He makes contact with his father’s old regiment, which takes him in.  He attends the regimental school briefly, then a Catholic school that serves India’s native Catholics.  These include the Thomas Christians, whose ancestors were supposedly converted by the Apostle Thomas, and mixed-race descendants of Portuguese seamen and traders who came to India in the 16th century—another example of India’s diversity.

Manbub Ali and Colonel Creighton, the secret head of British intelligence in India, are impressed by Kim’s talent for languages, disguise and deception and determine to groom him for a career as an espionage agent.

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Another look at critical race theory

September 21, 2021

CRITICAL RACE THEORY: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, edited by Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas, introduction by Cornell West (1995)

Up until a couple of years ago, hardly any of US Americans outside academia has heard of something called “critical race theory.”   Now public opinion polls show about two-thirds of us have heard of it, and more than one-third think they have a good idea of what it is.  Republicans think it will be a winning issue for them in the 2022 elections and beyond.

Critics blame critical race theory for everything they dislike about affirmative action, cancel culture and Black Lives Matter protests.  Defenders say it mere consists of facing well-established and obvious facts about racism and racial prejudice in the past and present USA.

For the past month, I’ve been reading up on what critical race theorists have to say for themselves.  My latest reading is the 1995 Critical Race Theory anthology, which consists of writings of the founders of the movement.  I admit I read only some of the 27 essays and skimmed the rest.  I have links below to 15 that I have read.

I don’t claim this makes me an expert on a topic to which some have devoted years of study–only that I know more than those who haven’t read anything at all about it.

Critical race theory arose from the disappointment in the results of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.  

After a heroic struggle, in which churches were bombed, protesters were jailed and beaten and some were murdered, African-Americans, with the support of white allies, achieved full civil rights and protection of the law.  And then they found that most of them were as poor and just as unequal as they were before.

Some responded by trying to broaden the struggle to achieve equality for all Americans, and not just black people.  This was the idea of the Poor People’s Campaign planned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. just before his death.  It was the idea behind Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns in 1984 and 1988 and the current Poor People’s Campaign led by the Rev. William J. Barber II

Others decided that African-Americans needed to double down on black interests and black identity, and not worry about white opinion.  Instead of thinking of themselves as citizens who were denied their individual rights, they should think of themselves as part of an oppressed nation, like people under colonial rule.

During this time, there was a movement among legal scholars called critical legal theory.  Critical legal theorists said it was a mistake to look at the law as a quest, however flawed, for justice.  The whole purpose of the law, they said, was to codify and maintain injustice.

The moral was that if you are lawyer, prosecutor or judge who believes in social justice, you need not think about whether the law is being correctly applied.  You should only think how to interpret the law in ways to help the oppressed.

The critical race theorists picked up this idea and applied it to race.  It is not an accident that most of the original critical race theorists were law school professors and published their findings in law journals.  

Their idea was that whole social structure, including the law, is set up to serve the interests of white people and repress black people.   The purpose of critical race studies is to show how this works.

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Derrick Bell’s parables of despair

September 18, 2021

THE DERRICK BELL READER edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic (2005)

I’ve been reading up on critical race theory to prepare for a presentation I’m going to do Sept. 21 at a Zoom meeting at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y.

At the time I agreed to do the presentation, I’d read a college textbook called Critical Race Theory: an Introduction.

I thought I understood the topic reasonably well, although I was turned off by the authors’ rejection of ideas that I hold hear—liberalism, universalism, the possibility of solidarity across racial lines.

Since then I’ve been reading more about the topic, and especially works of the late  Derrick A. Bell Jr., who is considered the father of this school of thought.

Although I haven’t changed my mind about CRT,  I have come to respect Bell and take his ideas and the ideas of his followers more seriously than before. 

Bell had a distinguished career as a civil rights lawyer for the U.S. government and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and a second distinguished career as a law school professor, scholar and writer.

Bell was the first African-American to be a tenured professor at Harvard Law School.  He resigned in 1992 in protest against Harvard’s failure to hire a black woman as a tenured law school professor. 

The video above shows young Barack Obama, then a Harvard law school student, speaking at a protest in support of Prof. Bell.  The video then segues into a review of Bell’s life.

Bell thought that racism is baked into the white American mind.  The only times that African-Americans advance is when these advances benefit elite white people, and such advances are small and temporary.  He said black people should protest racial inequality, not because there is a realistic hope that it will be overcome, but for the sake of self-respect and honor.

Some of the most interesting parts of The Derrick Bell Reader are a series of fantastic stories, or parables, illustrating his ideas and feelings.  They are not proof of anything, but they are windows into his mind.  They are thought experiments.  You are invited to think about them and decide whether you agree.

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The Chronicle of the Space Traders

In this story, extraterrestrials land on the East Coast on Jan. 1 and offer the USA a bargain.  They will provide the means to solve the USA’s international trade, pollution and energy problems.  In return, they ask one thing: the nation’s African-American population.  The country is given 16 days to decide.

There are some objections.  Black Americans are a cheap labor force, but also a market for U.S. business.  More importantly, they serve as a target for the resentments of poor and working-class whites, which might otherwise be targeted a white elites.

But the benefits of the trade to white America outweigh the benefits.  A Constitutional amendment is rushed through, and, on Martin Luther King Day, the USA’s black population leave the country the same way their ancestors arrived, naked and in chains.

Bell said that when he tells this story to his law classes, almost all his students, both black and white, agree that US Americans would make the trade.

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Derrick Bell and the problem with desegregation

August 26, 2021

SILENT COVENANTS: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform by Derrick Bell (2004)

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears college liberal, I thought the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation meant the slow-but-sure end of racism in the USA.

I thought then that simply getting black-and-white children together in the same room day after day would make them recognize their common humanity and bring an end to racial prejudice.

In hindsight, I see how naive that was.  But I wasn’t alone.  The late Derrick Bell, who later became one of the founders of critical race studies, thought the same thing at the time.

His book, Silent Covenants, is about why he changed his mind.  I read it as part of a personal project to understand critical race theory from the viewpoint of its proponents.

As a lawyer for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he pursued many lawsuits based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional.  

But later, after he joined the Harvard Law School faculty, he came to believe he was pursuing a false goal.

He said the desegregation decision was based on a false choice between, on the one hand, sending black children to schools that were separate and inferior and, on the other, on the other, sending them to schools where they were unwanted and in the minority.

Desegregation, when it was implemented, was typically carried out by closing black schools, some of which provided excellent educations and were greatly beloved by students and graduates. 

Desegregation resulted in job losses by black teachers and principals, many of them outstanding educators.

Some 50 years later, Bell wrote, American public schools are still segregated, in practice if not by law, and the educational achievement gap between blacks and whites is as great as it ever was. 

The great mistake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision decision, he wrote, was to pretend that the Constitution is color-blind.

Racism is baked into the structure of American society and the consciousness of white Americans, he wrote; this will never change.

Any apparent progress made by black Americans is the result of a temporary convergence of their needs and the agenda of some group of white people. 

Slavery was abolished in Northern states because white workers there did not want to complete with slave labor.  Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a last-ditch effort to preserve the Union.  The 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were intended to foster Republican political dominance of the South.

When limited civil rights for black people ceased to serve the interests of powerful white people, those rights were wiped off the backboard, Bell wrote.

Judges in the 19th and early 20th centuries held that racism was a fact, which was not created by law and could not be abolished by law, but which the law had to accommodate.

Why, then, did the Supreme Court in 1954 suddenly decide that the Constitution was colorblind?

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Derrick Bell and one little black girl

August 26, 2021

Derrick Bell Jr., a civil rights lawyer and one of the seminal thinkers in critical race theory, wrote a book, Silent Covenants, about the  U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools and why it failed to achieve its purpose.

In 1961, he was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, filing lawsuits calling for desegregation

He was called upon for help by two sisters, Winson and Dovie Hudson, pillars of the community in the all-black town of Harmony, Mississippi. 

Their town’s school, built by the residents themselves in the 1920s with help from Northern philanthropists, had been closed in retaliation for their civil rights activism.

He told them that he would not file a lawsuit to reopen a segregated school, but he would represent them if they were willing to sue to desegregate the county school district.

They agreed.  Several families signed onto the suit.

A bitter struggle followed.  Night-riders fired guns into private homes.  Many of those who signed on to the lawsuit lost their jobs or credit.

But they won.  A federal judge ordered desegregation of Harmony’s schools, starting with the first grade in the fall of 1964.

Just one couple, A.J. Lewis and his wife, Minnie, sent their little daughter, Debra, to the all-white school.  She was accompanied by federal marshals armed with shotguns, who escorted her through a large, hostile crowd.

The next day Mr. Lewis was fired from his job and whites tried to burn down his house.

But the American Friends Service Committee provided some financial aid.  Debra eventually graduated from the local high school, left the area and “held several interesting positions.”  When she died of pneumonia in 2001, the Harmony community erected a memorial in her honor.

Was it worth it?  All this struggle and suffering for just one person?

Years later, Bell met with the Hudson sisters, and said he wondered if he shouldn’t have helped them reopen their school instead of what he did.

“Well, Derrick, I also wondered if that was the best way to go about it,” Winson replied.  “It’s done now.  We made it and we are still moving.”

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Why the U.S. failed to avert the pandemic (2)

July 21, 2021

Like Michael Lewis’s The Premonition, Andy Slavitt’s Preventable is a story of how people in authority disregarded warnings and allowed the COVID-19 virus to gain a foothold in the United States.

But while Lewis described the efforts of a number of far-sighted prophets, Slavitt concentrates on just one—himself.

Slavitt is an interesting figure—a political operator and member of the professional-managerial class, who influences policy, moves back and forth between government and the private sector, but would be unknown to the public except for this book.

He was an investment banker with Goldman Sachs, a consultant for McKinsey & Co., and founder of a company called HealthAllies, and then worked for United Health Group after it acquired HealthAllies. 

He served the Obama administration as head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services from 2014, and was a medical adviser to the Biden administration during its first few months.

His power comes from being embedded in a network of politicians, corporate CEOs, wealthy philanthropists and academics, who all answer his phone calls and listen to what he has to say.

Preventable is about how he tried to alert the public to the danger, while also trying, from behind the scenes, to influence the Trump administration to take action before it was too late.

His book is a good overview of the Trump administration’s pandemic response and of the inadequacies of the American medical care system generally.

Much of the criticism of Trump is based on a knee-jerk response to his vulgar and offensive comments on Twitter and elsewhere, which don’t matter, and on a gullible acceptance of charges of collusion with Russian and Ukrainian leaders, which were either bogus or trivial.

Slavitt did a good job of showing the real problem with Trump, which was his inadequacy as an administrator and leader.  Trump refused to face unpleasant facts.  He thought of policy only in terms of public relations, not in terms of consequences, and he failed to think ahead even about public relations.

He calculated that closings are unpopular and openings are popular, so he shifted responsibilities for closings onto governors of states while positioning himself as the champion of openings.

As damning as Slavitt’s portrait of Trump is, it will not change the minds of Trump’s admirers because of Slavitt’s obvious bias and partisanship. 

The only named persons he holds accountable for the COVID-19 pandemic are Trump supporters, members of Trump’s administration and Donald Trump himself.  Democrats get a free pass.

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Why the U.S. failed to avert the pandemic (1)

July 20, 2021

Michael Lewis’s The Premonition tells stories of Americans who foresaw the danger of a pandemic and created workable plans and technologies to fight it, but in the end were brushed aside.

He throws light on U.S. unpreparedness to deal with pandemic disease and how COVID-19 was allowed to take hold when it could have been eradicated.

The stories of his heroes are oddly inspirational, even though they mostly failed in the end.  Their plans and inventions were usually not tried, or tried too late.  They were like Winston Churchill’s in a world in which he was never called to power and World War Two ended in stalemate.

Lewis’s book leaves off in the spring of 2020 when it became plain that a pandemic was not going to be averted.  Andy Slavitt’s Preventable takes up the story at that point. 

Slavitt’s provided a good overview of the Trump administration’s failures, but I learned little that was new to me.  Lewis’s book is more fragmentary, but his insights are deeper and his writing is much more readable.

The back stories of Lewis’s heroes are as illuminating as their responses to the pandemic.  I’ll just give the highlights of one of them.

Charity Dean was public health officer for Santa Barbara County, California.  In 2013. she was alerted that a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara had symptoms of meningitis B, a rare infectious disease that attacked healthy young people and could kill them in hours.  The test for the disease was inconclusive.

She asked the Centers for Disease Control what to do.  The CDC advised her to do nothing.  She didn’t have enough data.  She ordered the university medical authorities to test any student with a low-grade fever four the disease.  Three tested positive.  The CDC still advised her to do nothing.

Instead she ordered lockdowns of the fraternities and sororities and to gave the 1,200 students a prophylactic (preventive medicine).  Over the objections of the CDC, she thinned out the dormitories by sending some students into hotel rooms, shut down intramural sports and administered a vaccine that had been approved in Europe, but not by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

There were no more cases.  Two years later, the CDC drew up a plan for best practices for an outbreak of meningitis B, which included most of the things Dr. Dean had done.

Another time she was faced with the decision as to what to do about a home for the elderly, which was within the path of a possible mudslide that would kill them all. 

Meteorologists said there was a 20 percent chance of such a mudslide.  The medical director of the home said that maybe 5 percent of the 100 residents were so frail to they would die if they were moved.

Based on those figures, she ordered the evacuation.  Seven of the old people died.  There was no mudslide.

A short time later, Karen Smith, public health director for the state of California, asked Dean to become deputy state public health director. 

Dean asked, Why me?  Smith answered, Because you make decisions.

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Book note: White Supremacy Culture

June 18, 2021

A SELF-CONFESSED WHITE SUPREMACY CULTURE: The Emergence of an Illiberal Left in Unitarian Universalism by Anne Larason Schneider (2019)

In 2017, the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees took the unusual step of declaring that the UUA was part of a “culture of white supremacy,” and declaring that its mission was to root out this culture.

The UUA is, by some definitions, the most liberal religious movement in the USA. So why would its leaders would describe themselves in words formerly applied to neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan?

It makes a little more sense if you realize that “white supremacy culture” is something more vague and insidious than plain white supremacy. White supremacy is an ideology that says that white people have a right to conquer, enslave, drive out or kill off non-white people.

“White supremacy culture” is defined as a set of traits and attitudes that are common to white people, including nice well-meaning white people, and not shared by nonwhite people.

At worst, it is claimed that these attitudes are detrimental to non-white people and maintain white dominance. At best, they exclude non-white people. Either way, the “whiteness” of even well-meaning white people is believed to be harmful, and needs to be overcome.

A Unitarian-Universalist named Anne Larason Schneider, a retired political science professor, took it on herself to research whether there is any basis for belief in white supremacy culture, and such related concepts as white privilege, implicit bias, micro aggression and white fragility. The results are in this book.

She found that the most commonly-used description of white supremacy culture comes from a 2001 article by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. A Google search shows the article is still widely quoted, including by Unitarian Universalists.

Jones and Okun said white supremacy culture is marked by (1) perfectionism, (2) sense of urgency, (3) defensiveness, (4) quantity over quality, (5) worship of the written word, (6) only one right way, (7) paternalism, (8) either/or thinking, (9) power hoarding, (10) fear of open conflict, (11) individualism, (12) “I’m the only one,” (13) progress is bigger and more, (14) objectivity and (15) right to comfort.

One notable thing about the Jones-Okun article is that race, racial groups and racial prejudice are not mentioned except in the title and opening and closing paragraphs. Take them away and it would be a typical critique of business management practices. It is almost as if such a critique had been retitled and repurposed.

Another thing that struck Schneider is how the alleged traits of white people fit in with historic racial stereotypes.

Are white people perfectionists? If so, does that imply that black people, Hispanics and American Indians are sloppy? Do white people have a sense of urgency? If so, does that imply that non-white people are habitually late?

Do white people worship the written word? If so, does that imply non-whites are only semi-literate? Do white people value objectivity? If so, does that imply that non-white people don’t care about facts?

Would non-white people benefit if white people become less individualistic, perfectionist, objective and so on? Schneider said there is no evidence and no logical reason to think so.

The important question is whether there is any reason to think that whites and non-whites are divided along these lines. Or are “power hoarding,” “fear of open conflict,” or belief in “a right to comfort” traits found in all human beings?

Schneider found a survey showing that whites were on average a little more individualistic that blacks, Asians and Hispanics, but only by a few percentage points. Other than that, she found no empirical data either supporting or refuting the essay. It is mere assertion.

Because White Supremacy Culture ideology cannot be defended on rational grounds, it can only defended based on appeals to emotion, attacks on motives and exercise of authority.

One example of this is the campaign against Schneider’s friend, the Rev. Todd Eklof, to whom she devotes a chapter.  This is bad news for Unitarian Universalists who believe in historic principles of freedom, reason and tolerance.

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Book note: The Gadfly Papers

June 17, 2021

THE GADFLY PAPERS: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister by Todd Eklof (2019)

At the 2019 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the Rev. Todd F. Eklof set up a table outside the meeting hall to give away free copies of his new book, The Gadfly Papers.

He was immediately denounced by UUA leaders and barred from the floor of the General Assembly.

This was followed a denunciation in a group letter signed by nearly 500 white UU ministers, plus rebukes from several groups representing UUs of color.

He was officially censured by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association for allegedly causing harm to “people of color, indigenous, trans, disabled and other marginalized communities.”

Later he was removed from UUA ministerial fellowship, an action that in the past has been taken very rarely, and then mainly to ministers guilty of sexual misconduct.

I have been a Unitarian Universalist almost all my adult life.  I was taken aback when I learned about how Eklof was treated.  What originally attracted me to this movement was its emphasis on freedom of conscience and thought.

The UUA has no required religious dogma, only a commitment to Seven Principles.  Earl Morse Wilbur, a leading historian of Unitarianism, said it is defined by its commitment to “freedom, reason and tolerance.”

The joke about Unitarian Universalists is that, coming to a fork in the road, we turned away from the path that led to heaven and chose the one that led to a discussion about heaven.

So what makes Todd Eklof’s book out of bounds for discussion?  To find out, I decided to read it.  I think his book and the response to his book throw light on questions that are of interest to a wider public than just Unitarian Universalists.

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Chapter One. The Coddling of the Unitarian-Universalist Mind: How the Emerging Culture of Safetyism, Identitarianism and Political Correctness Is Reshaping America’s Most Liberal Religion.

Borrowing from the framework in The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, Eklof said the same disturbing ideologies that have been seen on college campuses in recent years are now being manifested in the UUA.

These include “safetyism,” which holds that people should be safe from the expression of threatening ideas, and “identitarianism,” which holds that political mobilization must be based on race, gender, sexuality or other marginalized status.

An example of these attitudes was the reaction to a UUWorld article entitled “After L, G and B.” The author told what she had learned while relating to her daughter’s transgender girlfriend, discussed some of the difficulties faced by transgendered people in the UUA and stressed the importance of getting language right.

Eklof told how the article was greeted by denunciations on the ground that a cisgendered person had no standing to write about the experiences of transgendered people. The President of the UUA issued an apology, which was attached to the internet archive of the article, and the author apologized for her presumption.

Another example he gave was protesters shutting down a workshop on nonviolence communication, given at Liberal Religious Education Directors Association fall conference. The reason for the protest was that the facilitators were white men, and, therefore by definition, representatives of white supremacy and patriarchy.

Eklof mentioned a number of other things, including rewording of a hymn, “Standing on the Side of Love,” on the grounds that it was hurtful to people confined to wheelchairs, and being told his sermons were “too white.”

I might be tempted to think he was exaggerating, if the UUA’s over-reaction tp his book hadn’t proved the truth of what he wrote.

He contrasted these attitudes with words and deeds of great Unitarians of the past, who fought for freedom of conscience and equal rights for all, and for the common good of all.

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Book note: Ida B. Wells’ autobiography

March 30, 2021

Last year Ida B. Wells, a black woman who died in 1931, received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her investigative reporting about lynching.

She lived in a time when white people could not only kill black people with impunity, but commonly turned the killing into a public spectacle.  She was a pioneer and one of the few who reported on this.

Black people deemed guilty of crimes, rather than being put on trial, were hanged, mutilated, burned alive or tortured to death while crowds looked on.  Lynchings were sometimes written up in local newspapers.  Public schools were let out at least once so that children could witness the spectacle.

Wells fearlessly went to the scenes of lynchings and riots in order to get an accurate picture of what really occurred, and her work brought the crime of lynching to the attention of the wider world.

Click to enlarge.

To learn more, I read her autobiography, which recently has been reissued.  She said she wrote it in order to provide a factual record of black struggles, and so there is little in it of her personal reflctions or feelings. She led an interesting life, but wrote about it in very prosaic way. 

Ida B. Wells was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the daughter of slaves and technically a slave herself.  

Her father, James Wells, was the son of a white slave owner and an enslaved black woman. The owner’s wife had no children and, when the owner died, his widow had Wells’ mother stripped naked and whipped. 

Her mother, Elizabeth, was born on a plantation in VIrginia and “sold South.”  She never was able to reconnect with her parents and siblings. Such were the realities of slavery.

Ida B. Wells’ parents were strict and loving, with high standards of personal behavior and a strong sense of independence.  They saw to it that their children got every educational opportunity offered by Reconstruction..

They died in a yellow fever epidemic, along with many of Wells’ siblings, when she was 16.  She went to work as a school teacher, supporting four younger siblings.

Over time she wrote for church publications, realized she had a talent for writing and became a  journalist.  This became a full-time job after she was fired from her teaching job for criticizing conditions in segregated black schools.

While in her 20s, she challenged segregation in a lawsuit, a decade before the Plessy vs. Ferguson legalizing “separate but equal” segregation.  She was traveling on a first-class train ticket, and a train conductor tried to force her to leave the first-class car and go to the smoking car.

She refused and resisted, and it took three men to eject her from the car.  She sued on the grounds she was denied what she paid for, was successful in a lower court and was offered a generous settlement if she would not contest an appeal.  Even though she could really have used the money, she refused, and lost the appeal.

The year 1892 found her in Memphis, Tennessee, the editor and part-owner of a newspaper called the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in Memphis, Tennessee.  It had a wide readership among African-Americans.  Illiterate black people bought it and had it read to them, and it was printed on special pink paper so they could read it.

Three black friends of hers, the owner of the People’s Grocery Store and two employees, were lynched by a mob.  She wrote many articles in protest, supported a boycott of white-owned businesses and advocated that black people leave Memphis for the new territory of Oklahoma, which many did.

She said she had been led to believe that lynching was a response to rape and other violent crime, but she began an investigation into lynchings and found that, as with her friends, they were often provoked by black people competing successfully with white people.

She also found that alleged rape cases were actually consensual relationships between black men and white women.  When she published this in her newspaper, an enraged mob destroyed the newspaper offices and press.  She was out of town at a A.M.E. Church conference at the time, and was warned she would be killed if she tried to come back.

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Revisiting Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’

March 17, 2021

Samuel Butler’s EREWHON (1872) and EREWHON REVISITED (1901) may have been the first dystopian science fiction novel.  It is a literary curiously—broad social satire within a “lost kingdom” adventure story.

I’ve had a copy lying around the house for years, and just recently got around to reading it.  What’s interesting is how what Butler must have thought were the most outrageous parodies of British life of his day are the parts that have the most relevance today.

Butler was what we’d now call a cultural radical and an economic conservative.  He questioned Church of England dogma and Victorian morality, but was all for business enterprise and the British Empire.  His Erewhom novels are what he is most remembered for.

The plot of Erewhon is that an adventurous young Englishman named Higgs, in a British colony much resembling Australia, crosses a mountain range and finds himself in a nation where everything is a kind of mirror-image of how they do things in Britain.

Erewhonians do not feel shame or guilt about moral offenses.  Rather they regard them as Britons do physical ailments, and discuss them just as freely.  If you have “a touch of embezzlement,” you turn to a family “straightener,” who would prescribe a treatment such as a diet of bread and water for a specific number of weekss.

Physical ailments, on the other hand, are regarded as Britons regard moral offenses.  They are known to occur, but they aren’t talked about, and are severely punished when exposed.

Certain Erewhonian reformers suggest leniency for minor illnesses, such as the common cold, while admitting the need for harsh punishment of more severe offenses, such as pneumonia.  But conservatives say this would mean subjecting people to the power of “doctors,” who would be able to interfere in family life.

Erewhonians have called a halt to technological development. Their philosophers have pointed out the parallels to human evolution of the evolution of machinery. 

They point out that machinery has grown more complex, and is being constantly improved through natural selection.  Human beings devote more and more effort to finding fuel and raw materials for machines, and keeping machines in repair.  It would have been only a matter of time, they said, before machines rule.

No doubt Butler was just kidding, but nowadays many people are worried about runaway artificial intelligence and self-replicating machines. 

I read a comment on some Internet thread saying that there are only three real threats to human existence.  They don’t include nuclear war, overpopulation, global warming or a meteor impact because all of these would leave a remnant from which the human race could be reconstituted.

No, these people say, the existential threats are (1) runaway artificial intelligence, (2) extraterrestrial invasion and (3) someone turning off the simulation of reality we’re all living in.  I wonder what Butler would have made of that.

Other Erewhonian philosophers developed a philosophy of animal rights, which Butler no doubt thought a joke, but which foreshadowed the serious animal rights philosophy of today.

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Christopher Lasch and the case against progress

March 8, 2021

The American Dream, as I was taught growing up, is that it is possible for members of every generation, provided they make the effort, to be better off than members of the generation before.

Recently I finished reading THE TRUE AND ONLY HEAVEN: Progress and Its Critics by Christopher Lasch (1991), which argues that all this is an illusion.  He wrote that limitless material progress is not only impossible, but incompatible with the idea of justice.

Lasch, who died in 1994 at the age of 61, was a thinker who didn’t fit any of the usual categories.  A radical in politics and economics, he was a conservative in morals and culture. 

Virtue in the contemporary USA is equated with striving for success, according to Lasch.  Success is defined as improving your economic and social status.  This is not enough to inspire a good society or a good life.

He is nearly forgotten now, but I find his ideas more relevant today than I did during his lifetime.  Most Americans are pessimistic about the future, and with good reason.

Lasch didn’t believe in optimism, which is faith that things are bound to get better.  He believed in hope, which is the unwillingness to give up.

The True and Only Heaven is an intellectual history.  Lasch told how various thinkers, generation by generation, decided it was necessary to subordinate tradition, religion, family loyalty, self-government, patriotism and other moral principles to the goal of increasing moral output with less work.

The book begins with Adam Smith and the idea that free enterprise plus self-interest would ensure ever-increasing material abundance.

Smith did have misgivings, as Lasch noted.  He thought enlightened self-interest was an ignoble motive, compared to patriotism and religious faith. 

He noted that the widening of the market would lead to increasing division of labor.  He predicted assembly-line production, which he saw as degrading.  He also worried about replacement of militias with professional armies, which he saw as leading to a decline of discipline and patriotism.

But Smith was no friend of large corporations, which is his day were almost all government-established monopolies.  His vision was a society of prosperous independent farmers, artisans and shopkeepers.

He famously said that the self-interest of the baker, the brewer and the butcher who provided him with his dinner would be kept within the limits of a baseline middle-class Protestant morality.  As for the rest, he hoped popular education would make up the difference.

Smith’s vision seemed to be realized in the northern United States between the Revolution and the Civil War.  It seemed that any hardworking, thrifty Protestant white man could thrive as a farm owner, shopkeeper or self-employed artisan.  Working for wages was something you only did when you were getting started in life.

After the Civil War, as the USA transformed from an agricultural to an industrial nation, it became apparent that the economy would be dominated by large corporations, and that the majority of American workers would be “hirelings” all their working lives.

This was shocking, at the time.  Many an editorial was written about the equivalence of “wage slavery” and “chattel slavery.” 

But in the end, most people accepted the corporate form of capitalism as the price of continued progress. 

Karl Marx was one of them.  In contrast to the “utopian” socialists, who experimented with alternative ways of organizing society, he thought corporate capitalism was a stage through which civilization had to pass on the way to socialism.

He wrote about how capitalism substituted profit-seeking for all other values—tradition, community, kinship, religion, even the marriage bond. 

But Marx thought that was a good thing in the long run because these older values were obstacles to human liberation, which could be achieved once industrial productivity reached the point of being able to provide abundance for all.

John Maynard Keynes thought the salvation of capitalism required the sacrifice of the core values of capitalism itself—hard work and thrift.  Rather the functioning of the capitalist machine required spending and borrowing in order to maintain consumer demand.

He, too, looked forward to a future of effortless abundance, without, in his case, even the need for revolution.

Material output in the USA, UK and other industrial nations has reached the level that Keynes hoped for.  But here is the result, according to Lasch—

To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light.

This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness … of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence and the pornography of “making it”; our addictive dependence on drugs, “entertainment” and the evening news; our impatience with anything that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially constraints of marital and family ties; our preference for “nonbinding commitments”; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we “impose” our morality on others and thus invite others to “impose” their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction and a deteriorating environment; our inhospitable attitude toward the newcomers born into our midst; our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all.

It didn’t have to be that way, Lasch wrote.  Economic and intellectual elites consciously chose material progress over other values, and opposed those who proposed alternatives.

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Saint Augustine and original sin

February 5, 2021

In his Confessions, St. Augustine sought the truth about himself and his motives, and the truth about the nature of God and His creation. 

What’s interesting to me is that he didn’t see his investigation of subjective truth, about himself, and of objective truth, about the nature of time and free will, as two separate things.  He saw them as different sides of the same thing.

What’s also interesting is that he didn’t see religious revelation as opposed to philosophical reason.  He saw them as mutually reinforcing.

I recently read The Confessions of St. Augustine for a couple of reasons.  One is that I just got finished reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which said fanatic mass movements such as fascism and Bolshevism were imitation religions, and I thought it worthwhile to read an account of actual religious belief.

Another is that there is a move afoot to abolish the teaching of the ancient classics on the grounds that they are irrelevant, and I thought it worthwhile to read an ancient classic to see whether it is relevant or not.

What follows is not a summary of the Confessions, but my personal reaction to it.

The main thing I got out of it was an understanding of how fundamental the doctrine of Original Sin is to Christianity.  This is the idea that sin is something baked into your nature that you can’t get rid of, no matter what you do.

Augustine condemned himself because, as a little baby, he didn’t care about anything except his selfish hunger for his mother’s milk. 

He condemned himself for what most people today would regard a normal desire for career success and for the approval of his peers.

He even criticized himself for being excessive in mourning the death of good friends.  It meant that he may have loved them more than he loved God.

He criticized himself for taking pleasure in the beauties of nature, or of art, unless it was combined with gratitude to God.

One act that particularly tore at him happened when he was a teenage boy.  He was part of a gang that invaded a walled orchard and stole pears.  He thought it was particularly evil because he didn’t need the pears.  He committed the theft because it was forbidden and because of peer pressure, not for the sake of pleasure or benefit to himself.

I have to say there is something to his last point.  I do think there is such a thing as evil, which is hatred of the good.  I think is different from mere badness, which is the inability to resist temptation.  But if this minor act of juvenile delinquency were the worst thing I myself had ever done, I would be well pleased with myself.

I do not see Augustine’s attitude toward sin as a distortion of Christianity.  Just the opposite!

Jesus taught that the great commandment is to love God with your whole heart, soul and mind.  He also taught a second commandment, to love your fellow human beings as yourself.

If you take these commandments literally, they are almost impossible to fulfill, even by people who are extremely spiritual and compassionate.  Who can say that the only thing they care about is God and his love?  Who can say they give other people’s needs the same priority as their own?  By this standard, who can escape sin?

All religions teach the need for atonement for wrongdoing and the need to make restitution to those you have wronged.  But none of them make repentance for sin the center of their religion in the way that Christianity does.

Only a Christian would say sin is inescapable.  Only a Christian would say that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.

One thing wrong with many people today, especially secular liberals, is that they no longer believe in God, except in a vague, metaphorical sense, but they still have a sense of sin. 

Not being Christians, they don’t know how to get rid of it, and this can shape their beliefs in strange ways.

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Rain of Gold: an immigrant saga

December 31, 2020

RAIN OF GOLD by Victor Villaseñor is a novelist’s re-creation of the lives of his  Mexican immigrant parents—their childhoods in Mexico in the early 20th century, their arduous journey to the United States and their lives up to the point of their marriage.

It was published in 1990 after 15 years of research in the USA and Mexico.  I never heard of it until I happened to come across it a few weeks ago in a free book exchange in my neighborhood.

Villaseñor’s parents—his father, the fierce, macho Juan Salvador Villaseñor, a child laborer who became a successful bootlegger, and his mother, the beautiful and good Lupe Gomez—were amazing people whose lives deserve to be recorded.

The stories of their survival, and of how they met, are sagas in themselves. In the telling, Villaseñor gives a detailed, fascinating picture of Mexican and Mexican-American life in the early 20th century. 

What’s especially interesting to me is how his parents resolved the conflict between the Mexican culture based on defense of personal honor  versus the US American culture based on achievement for personal success.

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Juan Salvador was the grandson of Pio Castro, a soldier who fought with Benito Juarez in the 1860s to liberate Mexico from a puppet government established by the French.  Pio Castro then went on to establish a prosperous and free community in the mountains of central Mexico called Los Altos de Jalisco.

But the family was pushed aside during the reign of Porfiro Diaz, and we meet Juan Salvador as an 11-year-old boy, on the road with his mother, brothers and sisters. trying to get to the United States.  They were so poor that, among other things, they ate grain found by young Juan Salvador horse droppings.

By age 13, Juan Salvador was working as an adult for a copper mining company in New Mexico.  He was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for stealing scrap copper.  While he was awaiting trial, he accepted an offer of $500 (more than $50,000 in today’s money) to his family if he pleaded guilty to a murder the rich man’s son had committed.  He was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder.

While on a prison work gang, he was set upon by rapists and nearly killed while resisting.  He escaped from the prison hospital and made his way to Montana, where he worked in copper mines there under a different name.

Still a teenager, he learned from a Greek-Turkish mentor how to play poker for money.  He later became a valued employee at Montana’s biggest and most exclusive whorehouse.

By age 21, he had done well for himself in Montana, but answered an appeal by his sister Luisa to rejoin his family, which had moved to California.  Her message was that individual success is meaningless unless it contributes to the building-up of a family.  

At this time, Prohibition was in effect.  He continued to do well at cards—without cheating, the author emphasized—and made some money smuggling tequila across the border with Mexico.

He found himself in jail, together with a group of other prisoners dominated by two brutal Anglos.  He put down the two thugs, and established a kind of government in the cell, with elected judges and enforcers of order, paid out of a carton of cigarettes he’d brought with thim. 

A middle-aged Mafioso in the cell was impressed by Juan Salvador and made friends with him.  He agreed, for a price, to tell him how to distill whiskey.

At that time, although Juan Salvador had learned his ABCs from a Mexican cook in prison, he was functionally illiterate.  He could not read a newspaper in English or Spanish, nor locate Europe or China on a map. 

Yet he was able to make acceptable whiskey based just on an interview of a single person, and also run a successful business which happened to be outside the law.

I am a college graduate, but such things would have been beyond my ability.

The important thing about Juan Salvador is that although he was a criminal, he was an honorable man.  He didn’t cheat anyone, he didn’t exploit anyone and he kept his word.  His family, friends and neighbors looked up to him.

He carried a gun and, although the author is coy about whether his dad actually killed anyone, he was capable of violence.  Yet he was gentle with his loved ones.  He and his equally violent brother, Domingo, gave absolute respect and obedience to their mother, Dona Margarita.

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A utopian novel of climate change

November 23, 2020

Kim Stanley Robinson is an award-winning science fiction writer whose novels have appeared on the New York Times best-seller list.

His newest novel, THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE, is about the effects of climate change and environmental devastation, but is different from most SF novels on this theme.

Such novels typically are set in a future in which all the bad things we’re being warned about have come true.  In contrast, Robinson’s novel is utopian, not dystopian.  It is about disparate people struggling for decades to achieve a better world and eventually making headway.

It belongs on the same shelf as H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887.

The novel begins in the near future, where an American named Frank May is doing humanitarian aid word in a village in India. A heat wave strikes in the start of the monsoon, combined with a failure of the electrical grid across India.

Robinson tells in grim detail what it would be like to die of inescapable heat and humidity—the humidity preventing sweat from evaporating and cooling you off.

The catastrophe causes the Paris Climate Agreement signatories to meet and consider what to do.  Their only action is to create a subsidiary body with ample funding, but no powers, to advocate for future generations, children and those who have no voice.

The new organization, nicknamed the Ministry for the Future, is headed by an idealistic, middle-aged Irish politician named Mary Murphy, who becomes one of the main viewpoint characters of the novel.

Her team comes to the conclusion that the main barriers to action on climate change are the legal system and perverse economic incentives. 

For example, one principle of economics is the discount rate—the idea that a dollar next year is worth less than a dollar today.  Even a modest discount rate, that $100 next year is only worth $99 now, effectively makes it uneconomic to invest in anything with a payoff more than a few decades away.

The Ministry comes up with ideas for changing this.  The most important one is the “carbon coin.”  It is a currency to be paid to anyone who sequesters a ton of carbon, either by removing it from the atmosphere or preventing it from being burned.  Its value is guaranteed by making it legal tender for payment of carbon taxes.

The world’s bankers aren’t interested.  Not their job, they say.

A terrorist organization called the Children of Kali emerges.  Like the Thugs of old-time India, they worship the goddess of death.  Their program is to kill plutocrats and politicians responsible for heating up the world. 

From that they move on to downing aircraft and sinking ships that burn diesel fuel.  Their weapon of choice is flocks of bird-sized flying killer drones, guided by artificial intelligence.  They are widely dispersed until they converge on their targets, and cannot be defended against.

Ocean and air travel by fossil fuel becomes uneconomic.  A worldwide economic depression results.  But then high-tech dirigibles and sailing ships emerge.  They have battery-powered electric motors, which are charged by photo-electric and piezoelectric materials that cover all surfaces.

So progress comes about, as one character remarks, through a combination of “arbitrage and sabotage.”   Mary Murphy gets her carbon coin, which is a form of block-chained BItcoin, which can be deposited with a guaranteed rate of interest.

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Rod Dreher on the coming soft totalitarianism

November 18, 2020

Communism and Naziism were different from plain old run-of-the-mill tyrannies.  They were totalitarian, not merely authoritarian.

An authoritarian ruler is content with passive obedience.  Silence is enough to buy safety under authoritarian rule.

A totalitarian regime demands active and sincere support, without mental reservations.  Totalitarianism aspires to control not only your outward actions, but your inner thoughts.

The rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s was new and frightening.  But after the defeat of the Axis powers in World War Two and the breakup of the Soviet Union following the Cold War, totalitarianism was seemingly defeated for good.

But the conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher, in his new book, LIVE NOT BY LIES: a Manual for Christian Dissidents, warns of the danger of a new form of totalitarianism.

The danger, in his view, consists of two converging forces: (1) the rise of what’s called “cancel culture” or “political correctness,” which seeks to punish people for unorthodox words and thoughts, and (2) the rise of surveillance technology, which gives the powers that be new tools for tracking down what you’ve said and thought.

You might say both fears are exaggerated.  Where is the equivalent of the Soviet Gulag or the Nazi concentration camps?

Dreher interviewed Christian dissidents who suffered under Communist rule, and they in fact see the seeds of a new totalitarianism in the USA and other Western countries.

It would be a “soft” totalitarianism, enforced by economic pressure and the pressure of public opinion.

People really do fear for their careers if they go on record as saying something unacceptable, even with the best of intentions.  It’s not just Christians or conservatives who suffer.  So do liberals or progressives who make a misstep.

It’s customary nowadays to search social media for things people may have said in the past that’s unacceptable now. 

Meanwhile high-tech companies such as Amazon offer services based on connecting everything in your life to the Internet.  This of course creates a record of everything you do. 

This information is sold to advertisers, marketers, bill collectors, insurance companies, credit rating agencies and anybody else with an interest in knowing about you, and also used to manipulate your mind.

It would be naive to think that your political and religious opinions are excluded from this, or that police and intelligence agencies don’t have access to this information.  We see a preview of what might happen in China’s social credit system.

I recommend Dreher’s book.  His fears are not exaggerated.  In fact, it is even broader than he makes out.  It is not just religious people and conservatives who are targeted.  Anybody of influence who is anti-war or anti-corporate is a target for cancellation.

And this is against a background in which the federal government asserts new powers to start wars, imprison whistleblowers, order assassinations and pressure social media companies to censor all those who depart from the official view.

I do not argue that you should be concerned about these issues rather than Dreher’s issues.  All these things are forces converging on the same outcome.

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The case against race reductionism

November 12, 2020

Why is there still such a big gap in income, wealth and status between white and black Americans?T

There are two prevailing schools of thought.  One holds that this is because whites are the way they are.  Another holds that this is because blacks are the way they are.

The first says that nothing will change until whites get rid of their prejudices.  The other holds that nothing will change until blacks get rid of their self-destructive behavior.

Historian Touré F. Reed, in his new book, TOWARD FREEDOM: The Case Against Race Reductionism, said this kind of thinking is guaranteed to keep things the way they are.

He said we Americans as a nation need to look at other reasons black Americans are lagging behind.  They include:

  • De-industrialization, financialization and offshoring of manufacturing jobs.
  • Factory automation.
  • The decline of labor unions.
  • Cutbacks in public service employment.

These things hurt a majority of Americans, but, for historical reasons, they hurt black Americans the most, Reed wrote.

None of this is changed by scolding liberal white people for their alleged racism or unemployed young black men for their alleged laziness, Reed said.

But why would anybody think differently?  That  is the topic of his book.  It is structured around the thinking of notable activists and thinkers, much like my friend Michael Brown’s new book on intellectuals.  It would make a good companion volume to Brown’s Hope & Scorn.  Whatever you think about the status of intellectuals, ideas do have consequences.

A. Phllip Randolph

Reed begins with A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and his protege, Bayard Rustin, a pacifist and civil rights activist affiliated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

These two black men are a bridge between the 1930s and the 1960s.  They advocated civil rights for African-Americans and economic justice for the multi-racial working class for many decades.

They were supporters of the New Deal, even though many members of the Roosevelt administration were racists, and black Americans did not receive the full benefits to which they were entitled, especially in housing.                                             .

So did a substantial majority of African-American voters, because large numbers did benefit from the Wagner Act, the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Social Security Act, the GI Bill and so on.

And the New Deal cleared the way for the civil rights revolution that was yet to come.

Bayard Rustin

The Committee for Industrial Organization – later the Congress of Industrial Organizations – organized low-wage workers, both black and white.  Many of its tactics, such as the sit-down strike and mass demonstrations, were later adopted by the civil rights movement.

Randolph, by the threat of a mass march on Washington, pressured President Roosevelt into adopting a Fair Employment Practices Code for war industry.  Although the federal FEPC was not enforced, many state governments adopted their own versions after the war and carried out its intent.

If there had not been a National Labor Relations Act, which set a precedent for regulating employer-employee relations, an FEPC might have been dismissed as unconstitutional, Reed noted.

Randolph and Rustin lived long enough to become mentors and supporters of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  Like them, Rev. King regarded civil rights and labor rights as inseparable.  He spoke in union halls almost as often as he did in churches.   When Dr. King was imprisoned in the Birmingham jail, the United Auto Workers bailed him out.

The 1963 March on Washington was a march for both “jobs and justice.”  When King was murdered, he was in Memphis, Tenn., to support a strike of sanitation workers.  He was working on another protest demonstration, a Poor People’s Campaign—a “poor people’s,” not “black people’s,” campaign.

Reed thinks Randolph and Rustin got things right, and so do I.

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Eggheads, experts and elites in U.S. politics

November 4, 2020

My friend Michael J. Brown, an assistant professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology, has written an interesting and important book entitled HOPE & SCORN: Eggheads, Experts and Elites in American Politics.

It consists of profiles of seven leading American intellectuals of the past 70 years, along with sidebars and cameos of many others.  Michael tells how they saw their roles as intellectuals and how they influenced, or failed to influence, American pubic life.

This is a significant topic.  Everybody in politics operates from a basic framework of ideas, whether they’re aware of it or not.  All our ideas and ideals about politics have their origin with some particular person, be that person Aristotle, Malcolm X or someone we’ve never heard of.  

The process by which ideas spread, or fail to spread, from individual thinkers to leaders or a general public is important to understand.

Michael Brown’s book is especially interesting to me because it is a counterpoint to another book I like, Thomas Frank’s The People, No, which is a critique of the “professional managerial class” (a.k.a. eggheads, experts and elites).

I like and agree with Thomas Frank and wish his books were more widely read.  But I have to admit that his latest book, in the interest of brevity and readability, skips over a lot of things and makes sweeping generalizations. 

In contrast, Michael Brown is more interested in exploring his topic and less interested in making a point.  He presents his characters in all their complexity and nuance, and pretty much leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

Another reason the book is interesting to me is that I am in my 80s and have a living memory of the controversies Michael described.

Michael Brown begins his book with the defeat of Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, the original “egghead,” in the 1952 Presidential election.  But was his defeat due to anti-intellectualism?

Consider.  Stevenson’s opponent, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was virtually invincible.  As the former Supreme Commander of the Anglo-American forces in World War Two, he had such prestige that, if he had not chosen to run as a Republican, he could have had the Democratic nomination for the asking.  Stevenson, though honest and capable, did not have a chance.

My teenage bookworm self was impressed with Stevenson’s eloquent, literate self, but I see now that he was a defender of the status quo.  The reform candidate was Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, whose trademark was his corny coonskin cap.  Kefauver fought business monopoly and advocated consumer protection against unsafe products and prescription drugs that didn’t work.  He swept such Democratic primaries as then existed, but the party bosses, including Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, gave the Democratic nomination to Stevenson.

∞∞

I was a college student in the 1950s.  I read and admired The American Political Tradition (1948) and The Age of Reform (1955) by the historian Richard Hofstadter, the first intellectual profiled in Michael’s book. 

The underlying theme of Hofstadter’s books was that the supposedly great champions of the common people in American history were neither as great nor as democratic as commonly thought. 

Thomas Frank sees Hofstadter’s work as the intellectual seed of the backlash against New Deal liberalism and small-p populism.  I did not worry about this at the time because I did not foresee the possibility of any such backlash.

We campus liberals in the 1950s were not concerned about economic justice, because most of us thought of this as a solved problem.  We worried about threats to political and intellectual freedom, as represented by Communism and fascism abroad and McCarthyism and anti-black racism at home. 

These concerns were reflected in Hofstadter’s last book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963).  I never got around to reading it.  It may have been Hofstadter’s best book and the one most relevant to Michael’s study.

Hofstadter thought that two of the main sources of anti-intellectualism in American life were evangelical Protestantism, which values faith and religious experience more than scholarship and theology, and the culture of business, which values practical knowledge over book knowledge.  Over and above that, the idea of democracy is that every person’s judgment carries the same weight as any other’s.

The great need, he thought, was for intellectuals and experts to be protected from outside pressures while they did their work.   His attitude, like my own in that era, was defensive, which is to say, conservative.

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Ivan Illich on what’s wrong with the world

October 16, 2020

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was a Catholic priest and philosopher famous in the 1970s for his criticisms of modern institutions, including compulsory education. modern medicine and most technology.

I read his Tools for Conviviality when it first came out in 1973.  He thought technology should be limited to what he called tools—devices such as sewing machines (my example, not his) that served the needs of households, rather than textile machinery in factories, to which human beings had to adapt themselves’  I thought his ideas interesting but impractical.

Now it seems that our high-tech civilization may not be sustainable, due to global warming, exhaustion of natural resources, and the fragility of complex supply chains, not to mention war and revolution.  So maybe Maybe Illich’s ideas are worth a second look.

On the recommendation of e-mail pen pals, I recently read THE RIVERS NORTH OF THE FUTURE: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley.  It contains a short biography of Illich and a series of interviews by Cayley, a writer and broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., in 1997 and 1999.

This is deep stuff, and I don’t think I fully understand it.  What follows is what I got out of the book, not a summary of what’s in the book.

Illich’s contention was that the modern world is a product of the corruption of Christianity.  The basic ideas of secular liberalism, such as the equal dignity and worth of all persons and the duty of the strong to protect the weak, originated in Christianity, but have become distorted by being torn from their Christian context.

Jesus taught that the two great commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself, Illich wrote.  To illustrate what he meant, he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

A member of a despised group, like a Palestinian Arab in Israel today, helped a stranger, a Jew, who had been beaten, robbed and left by the roadside.  Nobody would have said that the Samaritan was obligated to help. Two high-status members of the Jew’s own community had passed by on the other side.  But the stranger acted as his neighbor.

It was the custom among early Christians to set extra place at the table in case a hungry stranger came by in need of food and shelter.  The stranger could be Jesus–who showed us that God in the form of human flesh. 

Over time Christian villagers set aside separate buildings for the poor.  And then the church came to set rules about giving, such as tithing.  And now we have the modern, impersonal welfare bureaucracy.

So charity has become a matter of following rules and helping organizations.  There are individuals who would do what the Good Samaritan in the parable did, but they are rare and generally regarded as eccentric.

Illich said the corruption of Christianity was in the “criminalization of sin.”  Sin is a breaking of the relationship between a human and God, including the image of God manifested in another human being, he wrote.  But the church came to define sin as a breaking of certain rules.

But given human nature as it is, what would you expect?

Jesus told the people that Moses gave them laws “because of your hardness of heart”—meaning they were not capable of being guided by the law of love.  But are people today any different from what they were 2000 years ago?

Consider what Jesus expected of his Apostles.  Quit your job.  Leave your family.  Give away all your possessions to the poor. Don’t plan for the future; God will take care of you.

Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.  Love even your enemies.  Criticize yourself, not other people.  And if you pretty much do all these things, don’t pat yourself on the back.  Any repentant sinner is just as good as you are.

It is really something that the first generations of Christians were actually able to live at that level of intensity.

It’s not surprising to me that later generations developed a dialed-down version that ordinary people, even people as weak and selfish as I am, could accept.  Even so, in every century, there was a St Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day who tried to live out the original teaching/

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The Father Brown detective stories

September 29, 2020

I greatly enjoyed reading a complete edition of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories., which were published from 1910 through 1936.  I’d read some of them of them before, but now I’ve read the whole canon, except for a couple published after his death.

Like the Sherlock Holmes stories, they have a real or apparent crime, clues to the solution buried in the details of the story and then the solution revealed.  But while Holmes is presented as an eccentric genius, Father Brown is as unassuming little round-faced man whom everybody underestimates.

And while Holmes is a master of arcane knowledge, such as being able to differentiate different types of cigar ash, Father Brown’s deductive powers are based on his knowledge of human nature, and whether a poet, an actress, an Oxford don, an Anglican vicar or some other human type are behaving in character or not.  In one story, the solution hinges on understanding the motivation of a dog.

Father Brown says he understands criminals because he has the ability to tap into the criminal in himself and imagine what the criminal in question would do.  As he explains, “You see, I had murdered them all myself…. I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

It is a kind of spiritual exercise, he says.

Brown’s abilities are shaped by his experience as a priest and confessor.  When asked by Flambeau, a master criminal who has been masquerading as a priest, how he knew of all sorts of criminal “horrors,” Father Brown responds: “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?”

He also states how he knew Flambeau was not really a priest. “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.”

The stories contain rational solutions of the mysteries and explanations of how Brown worked them out.  He always emphasizes rationality.  Some stories poke fun at initially skeptical characters who become convinced of a supernatural explanation for some strange occurrence, but Father Brown easily sees the perfectly ordinary, natural explanation.

He says he is able to see through superstition and fake mysticism precisely because he is familiar with the actual supernatural and true mysticism.

Chesterton’s agenda is to advocate for Christianity and specifically for Catholicism.  He was formally converted to Catholicism in 1922,  He does this not by arguing for Catholicism, but by debunking alternatives to Christianity and by showing Father Brown’s intellectual and moral superiority.  The priest alone of all the characters is more interested in the criminals’ repentance than their punishment

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More about Thomas Frank’s new populism book

September 21, 2020

Democracy Scares, from the Destruction of Bryan to the Abdication of Bernie: Why America Desperately Needs a Second Populist Movement, But Ain’t Gonna Get One by John Siman for Naked Capitalism.

 

Book note: My Travels With a Dead Man

September 7, 2020

My friend Steve Searls has written an intriguing and highly original novel entitled MY TRAVELS WITH A DEAD MAN. 

It reminds me of the SF novels of Philip K. Dick in the way it shows the ambiguous nature of perception and identity.

The protagonist is a half-Japanese young America woman named Jane Takako Wolfsheim, who encounters a mysterious stranger who calls himself Jorge Luis Borges.

They become lovers and go on a strange journey.  As things develop, she sees him variously as a benefactor, a mentor, a protector. a manipulator, a deceiver, a moral monster and a lethal threat. She learns that her Borges is the son of the deceased famous Argentine writer of that name and a time-traveling Viking princess who is very much alive.

She experiences hallucinations, amnesia, false memories and an alternate life in an alternate world.  Along the way she receives oracular advice from the ghost of Basho, a 17th century Japanese poet.

As the novel begins, Jane is weak, passive and naive.  As it progresses, she learns to be assertive, courageous and skeptical, and the ending finds her the mistress of her fate.

I found the novel engrossing.  I kept turning the pages to find out what happened nest and what happened next was usually something i would not have predicted.

Steve has a web site where you can read some of his short fiction, essays and poetry.