Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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.

∞∞

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.

Reading the short stories of O. Henry today

August 17, 2020

In search of some pleasant reading while waiting for the current crisis to unfold, I picked up a copy of THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF O. HENRY.

O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter, who flourished from 1902 to 1910 and was possibly the USA’s most popular fiction writer in his day.

He was noted for his good-natured interest in people on all levels of society, and his knack for surprise endings.

He wrote more than 600 stories, not all of them of top quality, but his best hold up well.

His two best-known stories are “The Gift of the Magi,” about an impoverished newly-wed in New York looking for money to buy a Christmas present for her husband, and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” about two men who kidnap a hellion of a 10-year-old boy and get more than the bargained for.

I still found the first one still sweet and touching and the second still hilariously funny, even though I knew how they were going to come out.

O. Henry’s stories were not brutally realistic.  Rather his characters reflected regional and ethnic stereotypes—desperadoes along the Texan-Mexico border, penniless ex-plantation owners in the Deep South, feuding clans in the Cumberland mountains of Kentucky and hoboes riding the rails.

His beloved New York was full of rich socialites who fretted about standards of etiquette, genial Irish politicians, policemen and bartenders and struggling shop girls fantasizing about marrying millionaires.

He had a special sympathy for shop girls.  He knew just how much they were paid, how they budgeted to pay for food and rent, and how many meals they had to go without to buy a theater ticket or pretty blouse.

One of his best stories is “A Trimmed Lamp,” about a couple of young women who seek their fortunes in New York.  One gets a job in a ritzy Park Avenue shop; the other gets a higher-paid job in a laundry.

The first thinks taking the lower wage is a fair exchange for the chance to see high society and meet rich young men. But the fate plays a trick on both of them.

“An Unfurnished Room” is about a girl trying to decide whether to go out with a man she despises just for the sake of having a good dinner in a restaurant and an evening’s entertainment.  At the end, the narrator dreams he is in heaven and faces judgment.

The angel Gabriel asks him if he is an employer who paid working girls five or six dollars a week to live on.  No, replies the narrator, “I’m only a fellow that set fire to an orphanage and murdered a blind man for his pennies.”

I don’t think anybody in that era felt insulted about O. Henry’s portrayal of different ethnic and regional types.  Stereotyping is not necessarily malicious; it can be just a crude form of sociology.

Only one of the 38 stories in this collection has an African-American character.  Uncle Caesar in “A Municipal Report” is a carriage driver for hire in Nashville.

He is an ex-slave, but reportedly the grandson of a Congolese king.  He speaks in an exaggeratedly subservient and playing-the-fool manner, which I heard many times in real life in the 1940s and 1950s and which, thankfully, exists no more.  But at times the mask slips and the narrator can see the concealed sense of pride and dignity underneath.

Remarkably, Uncle Caesar murders a white man for justifiable reasons and gets away with it.  This is all right because his motive was to protect a sweet, helpless white woman from her exploitative and abusive husband.

Another short story, “The Last Leaf,” is about a pair of nice young women artists who, it is plainly hinted, are lesbians.  In a couple of respects, O. Henry may have been ahead of this time.

On the other hand, he wrote “A Harlem Tragedy,” in which Mrs. Fink, whose husband is indifferent to her, envies her neighbor, Mrs. Cassidy, because Mr. Cassidy regularly demonstrates his masculinity by beating her up, then shows his affection by making love and buying things that she wants.  Mrs. Fink tries to rouse her husband to violence and passion, with unexpected results.

O. Henry’s stories are a picture of a vanished America, not that America as we see it today, but as Americans of the time saw it.  He called his beloved New York City “Baghdad-on-the-Subway.”   Back then, the name Baghdad evoked thought of Scheherazade and the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, not a violent, devastated war zone

The Best Short Stories of O. Henry is what I would call a good waiting-room book or bathroom book.  The stories were good enough to hold my interest, but not so compelling that I couldn’t bear to put them down.

Populists, plutocrats and the democracy scare

July 21, 2020

Populism: a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.  [Google Dictionary]

A good bit is being written nowadays about the alleged threat of populism.  The word is usually taken to mean an uprising of ignorant and intolerant masses against knowledgeable and responsible powers that be.  Donald Trump is called a populist, but so is Bernie Sanders.

Frank set the record straight in his new book, THE PEOPLE, NO: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, which is just out.  He begins with the original Populists, members of a radical farmer-labor party in the 1890s that briefly threatened the rule of bankers, railroad barons and grain and cotton merchants..

Naturally the plutocrats feared and hated the Populists, Frank wrote.  They said Populism was mob rule, the second coming of the French Revolution.  They said Populism was hatred by the failures and losers of the successful and capable, who deserved to be on top.  In the end, through the power of money, they won.

The core of the opposition to populism was opposition to democracy itself—what Frank called the “democracy scare.”  In The People, No, he traced the history of this opposition.

Frank wrote an excellent book.  It is short, it is easy to read and it covers a lot of ground.  What he wrote is true, important and largely ignored.  He also had a few blind spots and omissions, which I’ll get to.

Right now the USA is on the brink of an economic crisis as great as the ones in the 1890s and 1930s, and today’s economic, political and intellectual elites are failing just as badly as their predecessors did.

There is just as great a need now as there was then for a movement of the common people to take back control of the political and economic system, and just as much of fear of democracy.

The world “populist” is Latin for “of the people.”  The Constitution, the USA’s founding document, begins with the words “We, the people…”   President Abraham Lincoln said the USA stood for “government of the people, for the people and by the people.”  So why does the word “populism” have such a bad name?

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Thomas Piketty on inequality in education

June 5, 2020

In the present-day USA, young people are told they have no economic future unless they have college educations.  Unless their parents are relatively affluent, the only way they can afford tuition is to go into debt—debt that literally can follow them all their lives.

Many of the top jobs in management, academia and government are only open to graduates of prestigious colleges.  So the educational system reinforces inequality.

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty, in his new book Capital and Ideology, shows that this pattern exists across the Western world, including his native France.

It wasn’t always this way, he noted.  During the decades following the Second World War, the progressive and socialist political parties opened up higher education to working people in a way that hadn’t been done before.

Many of the beneficiaries of these programs became leaders of the moderately progressive and socialist parties.  They became what Piketty called the Brahmin Left, an educational elite, which, according to him, lost touch with the wage earners without college degrees.  He said in an interview:

If you look at education policies, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there was a relatively egalitarian platform of investing in primary and secondary education for all and bringing everyone to the end of secondary school. Gradually, in the 1980s and 1990s there was the rise of higher education, but this egalitarian platform has been abandoned in some cases.

There is a lot of hypocrisy in terms of access to universities. I show in the book that if you look at a country like the United States, there is data now available on the relationship between parental income and access to education that shows if your parents are poor, you still have a 25% chance to enter higher education, but when your parents are rich, you have a 95% chance.

Actually, this is understating the impact on equality of opportunity because of course the universities that those with rich parents have access to are not the same as the universities that those with poor parents have access to.

If you look at the amount of education investment, you find that even in a supposedly more egalitarian public system like France, the picture is unequal.

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Thomas Piketty on corporate co-determination

June 5, 2020

I’ve written a good bit about Thomas Piketty’s new book.  Click on the Capital and Ideology tag to read my previous posts about it.  In this post, I’m going to discuss his ideas on corporate governance.

Great corporations typically begin with an individual who has a vision—a Steve Jobs, a Walt Disney, a George Eastman, a Henry Ford, a Soichiro Honda or a Jack Ma.

The drive and creativity of the individuals make the companies what they are.  Over time, though, the companies devolve into authoritarian bureaucracies, little junior watered-down versions of the Soviet Union.

Click to enlarge.  Source: Oxford Law Faculty

The goal of reform would be how to prevent corporate abuse without stifling enterprise and beneficial innovation.  Piketty’s solution is to adopt German-Scandinavian co-determination, under which corporations of a certain size have to allow employees to choose a certain number of corporate directors.

In Germany, according to Piketty,  all firms with more than 2,000 employees must reserve half the seats on their oversight committees to worker representatives.  All firms with 500 to 1,999 employees must reserve a third of their oversight committee seats to worker representatives.  There also are factory committees with union representatives who have a say one work rules and training.

However, in Germany, the oversight committees only supervise day-to-day operations of companies.  Policy is set by directorates, on which workers have no representation.

Other countries reserve one-third of seats for workers on companies of a certain size.  In Sweden, the threshold is 35 employees; in Norway, 50 employees; in Austria, 500 employees.

In April 2018, according to Wikipedia, U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren and Brian Schatz sponsored the Reward Work Act,  which would amend federal legislation to require all companies listed on national stock exchanges to have one-third board representation for workers.  Polls showed majority support among Americans for the measure.

In August 2018, Elizabeth Warren sponsored a new Accountable Capitalism Act that would require 40 percent of the board of directors be elected by employees in federal corporations with taxable incomes over $1 billion.

In Britain, the Bullock Report in 1977, during the Harold Wilson administration, called for co-determination in big businesses based on the formula 2x + y. In this, workers and stockholders would have equal representation on boards of directors, but there would be two government representatives to break a tie.  It never became reality.

In practice, even though workers have a voice, the final authority rests with the owners.  I think there still is a benefit to having worker representatives.

Employees usually know things about how companies operate that the top managers don’t.  This can be valuable in avoiding the Stupidity Paradox, in which layers of bureaucrats demand good news and truthful information doesn’t filter up.

It’s also good for employees, especially union representatives, to have access to the same information that top management has.  Of course all these desirable goals can be thwarted by a sufficiently cunning and authoritarian management.

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Thomas Piketty on equality through taxation

June 4, 2020

Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology is the most comprehensive study I know about the causes of economic inequality.  He gathered a vast amount of data and made sense of it.  To read my comments on his research, click on this, this, this and this.

In the last chapter, he outlined proposals for a “participatory socialism” to make society less unequal.  He saw three main ways to do this: (1) taxation, (2) reform of corporate governance and (3) educational reform.  This post will be about taxation.  I will take up the other two later.

His plan is based on steeply graduated income taxes, inheritance taxes and new taxes on wealth.  These were to be used to finance a wealth endowment of 60 percent of average wealth to every citizen at age 25 and a guaranteed income of 60 percent of average income.

He does not make absolute equality his goal, but he would allow a much narrower band of inequality than exists today.

I’ve long been indignant at the growing extremes of inequality in my country and the abuses of power of the very rich.  Reading Piketty forces me to think about just how much equality I want and how much I would give up to attain it.

Piketty wrote in earlier chapters of Capital and Ideology about how higher taxes have often been the key to greater national power and wealth.

One of history’s mysteries is how it was that European nations could defeat great Asian empires, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire in India or the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty in China, when, prior to the Industrial Revolution, they were equal in wealth and technology to the European nations.  It was the Chinese, for example, who invented gunpowder.

Piketty’s answer is that the Europeans gained an advantage through a higher level of taxation.  Tax revenue across Europe and Asia prior to the modern era was roughly 1 to 2 percent of national income.  This gave a king or emperor enough revenue to reign, but not to exercise tight control over his realm.

This changed in Europe, during the wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, when military competition forced kings to increase their revenues to 8 to 10 percent of national income.

Click to enlarge

The greater revenue enabled kings to become absolute monarchs, exercising almost as much control over their citizens as a 20th century president or prime minister.  It also enabled them to put armies in the field that the Turks, Persians, Indians, Chinese and Japanese could not match.

Western governments’ revenue was bumped up again in the early 20th century, to 30 to 50 percent of national income.  This made possible the total wars of the early 20th century.  But it also gave governments enough money to pay for universal public education, old age pensions, public health and the other services of the welfare state.

This was only tolerable because the Western nations had grown rich enough that their people could give up a big fraction of their incomes to government and still enjoy a high material standard of living.

It would not have been possible in, say, France in the time of Louis XIV.  The taxes he levied to finance his wars reduced the peasantry to misery and, in some cases, starvation (because the nobles enjoyed most of the national income, but paid no taxes).

The same conditions may exist in poor African countries today.  But in rich Western countries, it is technologically and economically feasible to raise taxes revenues to 50 percent of national income, which is necessary for PIketty’s program.

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Piketty’s new book on economic inequality

May 26, 2020

The French economist Thomas Piketty made a big splash with Capital in the 21st Century (published 2013, translated into English 2014).  He showed why, all other things being equal, the rich will get richer and the rest of us will get less.

In different countries in different historical periods, the rate of return on income-producing property exceeded the rate of economic growth.  This was true whether the income-producing property was real estate, government bonds, corporate stocks or something else.

What this meant was that, in the absence of revolution, war or something else that wiped out the value of their assets, the rich would get richer and everybody else would be left behind.

Piketty’s new book, CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY  (published 2019, translated 2020), is more ambitious and complicated.  He thinks it is an even better book that its predecessor and I agree.  It is a great work.

He looked at all the forms that economic inequality has taken in the past few centuries and all the different ways that inequality has been rationalized.  While his earlier book was based mainly on data from France, Great Britain and the United States, the new book tries to be global in scope.

He said it is important to understand not only the forms of economic inequality, but the reasons why people accept them.

His book covers several kinds of “inequality regimes”:

  • “Ternary” societies in which most wealth is controlled by hereditary kings and aristocrats and an established church or religious institution.
  • “Ownership” societies in which property ownership is regarded as a sacred right, superseding everything else.
  • Slave and colonial societies.
  • “Social democratic” societies, which limit the rights of property owners.
  • The hyper-capitalism of today, which is a backlash against social democracy and Communism.

The degree of inequality in any nation or society is not the result of impersonal economic law, he wrote; it is the result of choices that could have been different.  History does not consist of class struggles; it consists of a struggle of ideas and a struggle for justice.

To understand inequality, he wrote, it is necessary to understand the reasons for choices at various “switch points” of history—the French Revolution, the British constitutional crisis of 1911, privatization in Russia after the fall of Communism.

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Book note: Complicity by Iain Banks

May 22, 2020

The late Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) was known for a series of science fiction novels set against the background of a future society called The Culture, in which the mass of humanity lived in artificial habitats moving through interstellar space, watched over by artificial intelligences that protected and provided for them.

Members of The Culture lived indefinitely in comfort and safety and were enabled to engage in any possible activity or indulge in any possible pleasure that did not threaten the whole.

In a world where anything is possible, does anything matter?  What could members of The Culture do that would give their lives meaning or provide a plot for a readable novel?

In Banks’ novels, they engage in diplomacy, espionage and war withe the goal of bringing other sentient beings, human and non-human, into The Culture.

He wrote novels on this theme, which can be enjoyed as action-adventure stories or as portraits of a utopia (or is it a dystopia).  I read a few of them.  I thought the best was the first, Consider Phlebas (1987).  It was enjoyable both as an action-adventure yarn and also as an SF utopia—or is it a dystopia?

He also wrote non-SF novels as plain Iain Banks.  I never got around to reading them until recently, when I picked up a copy of his crime novel Complicity (1993).

The viewpoint character in Complicity is a Scottish newspaper writer named Cameron Colby, who writes a series of exposes of rich and powerful people, based on tips from an anonymous source.

They include an arms merchant, a pornographer, a judge, a corrupt newspaper publisher and an businessman whose negligence killed a thousand people in an industrial accident overseas.

Colby had written that the world would be better off without such people, and a serial killer apparently took him at his word.

The evildoers in high places are killed off one by one in appropriate ways.  The negligent businessman is killed in an explosion.  The corrupt publisher is literally “spiked” [1].  The pornographer is killed in a sexually degrading way.  And so on.

The murders are described in the second person [2] in such an involving way and in such detail that they almost like seem like manuals of instruction.  I almost feel like these chapters should come with a warning that these parts of the novel are for entertainment purposes only and the reader should not try this at home.

Colby is a weak character, addicted to tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, computer games and kinky sex with a married woman. As the murders proceed, he himself becomes a suspect.

He tries to trap the killer and instead himself becomes the killer’s prisoner.  Instead of killing him, the killer tries to justify himself.

You agree that Nazi criminals tried at Nuremberg deserved to die? the killer asks.  You agree these criminals have done more harm than any individual murderer?  You agree they are never going to be brought to justice by legal means, least of all by your journalism?

Well, then?  What have I done wrong?

The killer spares Colby and gives him a chance to turn him in before he makes his getaway.

Complicity is gruesome and sordid.  I don’t recommend it to fans of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers.  But it is compelling and I kept reading to find out what happened next.

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How the U.S. mandated racial segregation

April 30, 2020

I am old enough to remember when black people were barred from living in the suburbs of American cities, including those in the North and West.

 I attributed this to the racism of middle-class white Americans.  Although backed up by the real estate industry and sometimes enforced by mob violence, I saw it as the total result of the racist attitudes of many, many separate individuals.

Most of my liberal white friends did the same.  It was not, so we thought, de jure segregation, imposed by government as in the South, but de facto segregation, the result of uncounted individual decisions.

Richard Rothstein, in THE COLOR OF LAW: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, showed this isn’t so.  Segregation was imposed by the government, including the federal government.

Much of this is a product of the  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. As Rothstein depicted the New Dealers, a majority of them were unapologetic white racists, with a minority of white liberals mostly too timid (there were a few exceptions, such as Eleanor Roosevelt) to object.

He described in great detail how the New Deal excluded black people.  Even though such policies no longer exist, at least not in such blatant form,  their impact continues into the present day.

According to Rothstein, these policies were illegal.  They violated the 5th, 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution.

Therefore, he wrote, the U.S. government owes compensation to the heirs of those whose rights were violated.  Just how you do this is a hard question, for which I don’t think Rothstein has a good answer.  This said, even though I was brought up to admire FDR, I can’t deny the justice of his indictment.

Rothstein’s focus is on housing policy.  President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal made home ownership a new reality for millions of Americans, but U.S. subsidies for homebuilders and home buyers were conditional on racial segregation.

The government, backed by the real estate industry, insisted on racially restrictive covenants, barring black people from better neighborhoods.  Black people could not get Federal Housing Administration loans to buy houses outside all-black neighborhoods.

The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created in 1933 to rescue homeowners in danger of defaulting on their mortgages.  It purchased existing mortgages and refinanced them so that homeowners could afford the payments.

Payments also amortized the mortgages so that the homeowners built up equity in their homes.  If they sold their homes, they’d have something to keep.

In order to assess the risk. the HOLC hired real estate appraisers to assess risk of default of mortgages.  They created maps covering every city in the U.S., with the safest neighborhoods colored green and the riskiest colored red.  Any neighborhood with an African-American living in it was colored red, even if it was a middle-class family with a good credit rating.

Then in 1934, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Housing Administration, which insured 80 percent of the amount of bank mortgages.  But for a homeowner to be eligible for a mortgage, the home had to be in a non-risky neighborhood.

Not only that.  The FHA would not insure any mortgage for a non-white homeowner in a white neighborhood.

During World War Two, the federal government subsidized public housing projects for war workers.  But the projects were racially segregated, with African-Americans getting proportionately few and less desirable places.

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Anti-authoritarianism in a time of pandemic

April 15, 2020

James C. Scott, in his wise and witty book, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, reviews ways we the people would be better off if we were less submissive to authority than we are.

He isn’t a full-fledged anarchist.  He understands the need for government.  That’s why he gives two cheers for anarchism instead of a full three cheers.

But he says the anarchists have a point.  Governments, corporations and other big institutions are more repressive than they need to be, and we the people have given up too much of our self-reliance and self-determination.

I read and liked Two Cheers when it first came out, and later read and liked two of Scott’s weightier books, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed and The Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

I recently read it again, one chapter a month, as part of a philosophy reading group hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek.  We stopped meeting before we finished the book because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing requirements.

The pandemic makes the issues Scott raised all the more important.  In times of pestilence, famine and war, we the people submit to authority as we never would normally, and concede rights that we might or might not get back after the emergency is over.

Alternatively, we have a rational fear of anarchy in the bad sense—a war of all against all for the scarce means of survival.

Here are Scott’s six arguments.

Chapter One: The Uses of Disorder and Charisma

Scott wrote about how anonymous individual defiance of law sets limits to government authority and sometimes is a prelude to revolution.  His examples include desertions from the Confederate army, English poachers violating the nobility’s game laws, armed farmers in the U.S. Midwest stopping foreclosures during the Great Depression, wildcat strikes in the same era and spontaneous civil disobedience of U.S. segregation laws in the 1960s.

He also pointed out how “charismatic” leaders, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt, acquire their popularity by noting carefully how their audiences respond, and adapting their message to their audience.

Scott recommended the practice of “anarchist calisthenics”—harmless disobedience of pointless laws and regulations.  He says this will mentally prepare you to resist actual tyranny if tyranny comes.

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Looking back on the influenza pandemic of 1918

April 8, 2020

Click to enlarge. Source: Our World in Data.

I managed to acquire a copy of THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry before the libraries and bookstores closed.

It tells the story of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the deadliest in history in terms of absolute numbers.

Nobody knows for sure how many died.  The old consensus estimate was 20 million; the new one is 50 million.  Barry believes that the virus killed at least 35 million and probably between 50 and 100 million people.

In the USA, the estimated pandemic death toll was 675,000—more Americans that were killed in battle or died of wounds in all the wars of the 20th century..

One of the worst things about the pandemic is that its highest death rate was among people in their 20s and 30s, the young and healthy whose immune systems over-reacted to the ‘flu virus.

If the highest estimate of the death toll is correct, from one in 10 to one in 12 of the world’s young adults may have died, according to Barry.

The influenza pandemic arose in a world at war, and spread because of the war, just as the coronavirus pandemic spread because of a globalized world economy.

Barry said the first cases of the new influenza were reported rural Haskell County, Kansas, and then in Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas, in March, 1918, where draftees were being trained and readied to be shipped overseas.

A short time later it appeared in Camps Forrest and Greenleaf in Georgia, and rhino in 24 of the 36 U.S. Army camps.  It was reported in Brest, France, a short time after American troops arrived there.  Soon it spread to all the nations and colonies that participated in the war. and then over the whole world.

At first, it was no worse than ordinary influenza—the “grippe,” as people called it.  But a second, deadlier wave arose during the summer, a mutant form of the first.

It killed in frightening ways.  Some turned blue or black, because of lack of oxygen in the blood.  Some spurted blood from their noses and even eyes and ears, for reasons nobody yet understands.

There were some who had air migrate from congested lungs to air pockets under the skin, which made a crackling sound when bodies were turned over.  One nurse said she could never eat Rice Krispies again.

The United States in which the influenza arose was more of a police state that it has ever been, before or since.  When war was declared on April 6, 1917, every American and every American institution was expected to be fully committed to the war effort.

There was a spy network, a propaganda network and a war bond-selling network, all reaching into every American town and neighborhood.

A Food Administration, Fuel Administration, Railroad Administration and War Industries Board had absolute power to carry out their missions.

But there was no Health Administration, only a relatively powerless U.S. Public Health Service.  No federal or state agency had responsibility for fighting the pandemic.  A volunteer organization, the American Red Cross, filled that vacuum, along with municipal health departments, private physicians and a few dedicated scientists.

What federal authority did do was try to protect civilian morale by suppressing news of how bad the pandemic was.

The seriousness of the pandemic was only acknowledged in the last month or two of the war, and that was in the context of charging Germany with waging germ warfare.

Censorship also suppressed news of the pandemic in Britain, France and Germany.  The first news accounts came from Spain, a neutral country.  From this people got the idea that the ‘flu originated in Spain

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Human nature in a time of pestilence

March 25, 2020

I recently read an old paperback copy of Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, which I’ve had on the shelf for decades.  If I ever read it before, I don’t remember..

The novel tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran.  It was published in 1947, but Camus wrote it during the German occupation of France during World War Two.

The novel’s real topic is not so much plague specifically as how people react to catastrophe.  Camus’ view is surprisingly comforting and reassuring.  The novel’s principal characters all rise to the occasion, and the political and social order, although under strain, functions as it should.

The novel begins with mysterious deaths of rats in the city, a sign of plague, but which Oran’s physicians and municipal authorities refuse to take seriously until people start dying.  The public can’t imagine something could happen that would prevent them from living their accustomed lives.

At first the public seeks to maintain a semblance of normal life while the plague rages.  As the death rate increases, the people forget what normal life was like and just deal with the ever-present threat.  Just as they’ve given up hope, the plague fades away, and people try to pick up where they left off, as if it never happened.

The novel’s six main characters show different ways of thinking and coping with catastrophe—what Camus called the Absurd, meaning things and events that have no purpose or meaning in human terms.

Dr. Bernard Rieux is a physician who at first finds it hard to believe the plague is real, but calls on the authorities to take action.  He heads an auxiliary hospital for plague victims and also helps enforce quarantine regulations.

He works long, exhausting hours.  He finds he has to harden his heart in order to do his duty.  When he visits a patient at home and finds the person is infected, he calls for an ambulance to take the person away, despite the pleas of relatives, who understand that they may never see the victim again.  In the later stages, he has to go to patients’ homes accompanied by police

He does not believe in God and denies having any overarching philosophical belief.  He does his job simply because he is a physician and that is his role.  When asked what he believes in, he replies, “human decency.”

Jean Tarroux is a mysterious character who seems to have nothing to do but hang out around town and observe life.  But then he takes the initiative to form volunteer auxiliaries to help fight the plague—for example, by disinfecting houses.

He reveals that he is a former revolutionary—a Communist, if you read between the lines, although this is never spelled out.  He joined the revolutionary cause because of his horror of capital punishment; he left it because the revolutionaries are killers themselves.

He speaks about how human beings carry plague within themselves, which I take to mean most human beings are willing to see other people die in order to save themselves or achieve their goals.

He says the great sin is refusing to speak the truth in plain language.  He says his desire is to find out whether you can be a saint without believing in God.

He is one of the last to die, hanging on to life as long as he can,  but rejecting comforting illusions.

Click to enlarge.

Father Paneloux is a Catholic priest who preaches a sermon about how the plague is God’s judgment on the sins of the people of Oran. Camus, although an atheist, took religious faith seriously and a lot of his philosophy, including this book, is a kind of dialogue with Christianity.

The priest says people ignore God’s commandments and reject his love because they confidently expect to be forgiven, but sometimes God’s patience is exhausted and he lets people suffer what they deserve.

He says God figuratively is standing over the city with a giant flail, which is used to thresh wheat and separate the  nourishing grain from useless chaff.  I find this a powerful image.

I think of the flail in terms of the coronavirus emergency, in which we are see who are the wheat (not just health workers, but grocery clerks, trash collectors, janitors and cleaners, truck drivers) and who are the chaff (hedge fund managers, corporate lobbyists, diversity trainers).

The priest joins the volunteer auxiliary and witnesses the slow, painful death of a child from the plague.  He later preaches another sermon on whether a child’s painful death can be God’s will.

He said that a Christian must believe that everything that happens is God’s will, even if you can’t understand the reason.  This includes the death of a child.  Otherwise you don’t really believe in God.

But he adds that if you accept human suffering and death as God’s will, you must be willing to suffer and die yourself.  Later Father Paneloux himself falls sick and dies painfully, but not from symptoms of the plague.

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Book note: The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

February 26, 2020

When Donald Trump was elected President in 2016, he and his team declined to be briefed on the work of the government they were now in charge of.  This was unprecedented.

His appointees were also contemptuous and willfully ignorant of the work they supposedly supervised.

Michael Lewis, a well-known non-fiction author, took it on himself to get the briefings that Trump declined.  The result is his 2018 book, THE FIFTH RISK.

He showed the harm that Trump administration is doing.  We Americans are at risk of a hollowing out of governmental capability equivalent to the past few decades of hollowing out of manufacturing capability.

But the real interest in the book is his report of work and accomplishments of American public servants.  He shows what we are in danger of losing.  It is a shame, but not unusual, to not value what you have until you are in danger of losing it.

Lewis wrote chapters about the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce, all of which have priorities different from what I thought.

§§§

The Department of Energy, for example, is not devoted to energy in general.  It devotes about half of its $30 billion annual budget goes to maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.  About $2 billion of that goes to tracking down the world’s missing weapons-grade uranium and plutonium before it falls into the wrong hands.

Another one-fourth of the DoE budget goes to cleaning up nuclear sites, including $3 billion a year for the ongoing mess at Hanford, Washington, where the plutonium bomb was developed during World War Two.  The DoE runs 17 national physics research laboratories, such as Brookhaven, Fermi and Oak Ridge and also sponsors research on renewable energy.

Lewis asked John MacWillaims, the former “chief risk officer” for the DoE, to list the five top risks he worried about  The top risk was an accident with nuclear weapons.  Other risks involved North Korean nuclear weapons, the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons and accidents to the electrical grid.

The fifth risk, MacWilliams said, is what he called “program management”—or what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would have called “unknown unknowns.”  These are the risks you don’t know about because you never bothered to find out.

Donald Trump’s first budget eliminated the Department of Energy’s research program on renewable energy, and the largely successful $70 billion loan program for renewable energy startup companies.  It eliminated research on climate change.  It cut funding to national research laboratories so much that they had to lay off thousands of people.  It halved funding on work to protect the national electrical grid from sabotage or natural disaster.

“If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost,” Lewis wrote. “There is an upside to ignorance and a downside to knowledge.  Knowledge makes life messier.”

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