Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Paul Theroux in the Deep South

August 14, 2017

At the age of 74, novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux toured the Deep South in 2012 and 2013.   It was research for his first travel book on his own country.  What he found was “kindness, generosity, a welcome.”

Back home in Cape Cod, he wrote, a stranger would look away if he tried to make eye contact.   In the South, a stranger would be likely to say “hello”.    Strangers, black and white, were quick to offer help and advice, even without his asking for it.

He greatly driving back roads in the South.  He enjoyed Southern cooking and the music in Pentecostal churches.  He made more trips than he originally planned.

But he was shocked by the dire poverty in regions such as the Mississippi Delta, which reminded him of what he saw traveling in Africa.

The difference was that, in Africa, he frequently came across American missionaries, philanthropists and foreign aid workers trying to alleviate poverty.   Poor Southern communities, in his view, are own their own, so far as American corporate executives, politicians and philanthropists are concerned.

I read Theroux’s travel book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads (2015) as a followup to the writings of David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard on the origins of American regional cultures.

Theroux skipped big cities such as Atlanta, which he said are little different from Northern cities, nor what he called the Old Magnolia South, the South of horse farms, historic preservation and gracious living.  He did not interview prominent politicians or anybody whose name I’d heard before.

Instead he concentrated on the small towns and back roads, and talked to people he met in diners, churches and gun shows.

The bulk of the book consists of reports of conversations, with roughly equal numbers of whites and blacks.   In most cases, he did not specify the race of the person he was talking to, and I somethings had to read quite a few paragraphs before I could deduce the race from context—which, significantly, I always could do.

Many Southern white people think Northerners see them caricatures, based on how they’re depicted on television and in the movies.   One man told Theroux he gave up watching television because he is tired of programs that only show a smart black man and a stupid white man.

Theroux thinks a certain type of Southern regional writer is partly responsible for this stereotype.   Writers such as Erskine Caldwell, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and others depicted poor Southern white people as freaks—albinos, hunchbacks, 12-year-old brides, colorful con men and generates.

Not that their tall tales have no merit as stand-alone works of literature, but their approach was a way of not dealing with segregation, chain gangs, sharecroppers and lynchings, Theroux wrote.   Only a few white Southerners wrote about everyday life in the rural South in the kind of way that Anton Chekhov wrote about the frustrations of life in rural Russia.

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The significance of regionalism in U.S. politics

August 4, 2017

Updated 8/5/2017

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Two things I came to realize from reading Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America are how much the various regional cultures have changed over time, but how they still have preserved their separate identities.

One of the most interesting parts of his book is his account of how the various regions were changed by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, but in different ways.

The four Southern regions (Tidewater, Deep South, Greater Appalachia, New France) gave up their resistance to legal equality for African-Americans.  The white political establishment in, for example, North Carolina opposes a reform movement of African-Americans and their white allies, but this is done through normal political maneuvering, not murder and terrorism.   This is a revolutionary change.

Spanish-speaking people in the Southwest (El Norte) and French-speaking people in Quebec (New France) changed from being politically passive and oriented toward tradition to being politically active and oriented toward the future.   I think these changes were set in motion by the new thinking of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.

The “youth revolution” in attitudes toward drug use, military service and sexual morality—”acid, amnesty and abortion”—was limited to the Pacific Coast (the Left Coast), the Northeast (Yankeedom and New Netherland), Woodard wrote.

This, too, was a revolutionary change.   A hundred years ago, you could get arrested as a pornographer in Boston for distributing information on birth control.  Now Boston is a stronghold of Planned Parenthood.

Woodard overlooked another transformative 1960s movement—the new conservative movement represented by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.   The Far West was once the scene of violent labor strikes with battles between armed workers and company police.   Now there are confrontations  between armed private militias and the federal government.

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Is Canada a nation?

August 3, 2017

In this post, I consider two authors who argue that Canada is not a nation.

Click to enlage. Source: Cyrus Dahmubed

Joel Garreau, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote back in 1981 that the USA and Canada were not actually nations.

He claimed that their territories were actually divided among The Nine Nations of North America (shown in the left map above), of which only Quebec was wholly contained within the jurisdiction of Canada and Dixie within the United States.

His conclusions were based on travels and interviews in the late 1970s, and he concluded that there really were six Canadian nations, all but one of which had a metropolis in the United States.  They were:

  • New England (Boston), the U.S. New England states and the Canadian maritime provinces.
  • Quebec (Montreal), the actual province of Quebec.
  • The Foundry (Detroit), the industrial region north and south of the Great Lakes and including the U.S. Middle Atlantic States.
  • The Breadbasket (Kansas City), the agricultural U.S. Great Plains and the Canadian prairie provinces.
  • The Empty Quarter (Denver), the thinly populated, mineral-rich Rocky Mountain states and provinces and the Canadian north.
  • Ecotopia (San Francisco), the Pacific-facing region from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska.

Americans and Canadians within these areas, Garreau argued, had more in common with each other, economically and culturally, than they did with U.S. and Canadian citizens in other regions.

Colin Woodard made the same argument 30 years later in American Nations: a History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America, except that, unlike Garreau, he defined all of his “nations” except the Far West based on their cultural inheritance rather than economics and geography.

He divided Canada into six “nations”, at least four of which overlap with the United States.   They are:

  • First Nation, the newly autonomous American Indian nations in the Canadian North.
  • New France, the heirs of the original French settlers.
  • Yankeedom, roughly corresponding on the Canadian side to Garreau’s New England.
  • Midlands, which I will discuss below.
  • The Far West, roughly corresponding to Garreau’s Empty Quarter
  • The Left Coast, roughly corresponding to Garreau’s Ecotopia.

Woodard, who lives in Maine, described the sense of unity between New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces.  The Canadian Maritimes were settled from New England, he wrote, and Yankees and Maritimers were reluctant to fight each other during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

The provinces of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and New Brunswick were created after the Revolutionary War to provide a refuge for defeated Loyalists after the American Revolution.   Most of those Loyalists, according to Woodard, were pro-British fighters, neutral merchants and farmers and Quaker pacifists from the New York City and Philadelphia regions.

Some of them were loyal to the British crown.   Others were attracted by the offer of free land in Ontario—a forerunner of the U.S. Homestead Act.

British, Scots and Irish settlers came in larger numbers to the Maritimes and Ontario, but, according to Woodard, the settlers from the U.S. Midlands came first and it was they who set the tone for the culture.   That is why his hypothetical Midlands region has such a strange, looping shape.

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Is the American South a nation?

August 1, 2017

What is a nation?  In my opinion, a nation is a group of people who wish to live under an independent sovereign government and whose primary loyalty is to each other.

By that definition, are any of the regional cultures in Colin Woodard’s American Nations nations?

Some North American Indian nations fit that definition.   The French-speaking people of Quebec are a nation; they have achieved virtual sovereignty within the Canadian state.   A certain number of African-Americans and of Mexican-Americans think of themselves as a separate nation.

Woodard described early secessionist attempts in the trans-Appalachian West and talk of secession of New England during the War of 1812, but none of them every came to anything.   There is talk today of secession in California, Texas and other states, but also highly unlikely to come to anything.

The only region within the United States that ever made a sustained struggle to be an independent nation is the American South.

Originally the South, according to Woodard, was not one unified region, nor even two (the mountain and lowland South), but three (which he calls Tidewater, the Deep South and Greater Appalachia).

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The difference between Tidewater and the Deep South is that the first is that the Chesapeake Bay region was settled by Cavaliers from southern England, who hoped to reproduce British aristocratic rule as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries, and South Carolina was settled by planters from the British colony of Barbados, who intended to establish the slave society of the West Indian sugar islands.

Slavery in the two regions was very different.   The first Africans imported by the Tidewater plantation owners were indentured servants, who had a legal right to freedom after they served their indenture.   Race slavery was introduced only later.

This explains something that puzzled me.   I learned in a biography of Harriet Tubman, who was enslaved in my home state of Maryland, that Maryland in those days had the highest proportion of free black people of any American state.

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Later a fellow Marylander, who visited Liberia in his youth as a merchant seaman, said he was astonished at the number of Maryland place names and family names he saw there.

Where did those free Maryland black people come from?

The free black people in Maryland, and the African-American colonists of Virginia, were the descendants of the indentured servants.   Their presence in Maryland and Virginia meant that, even though free black people lacked virtually any legal rights, they still were not quite reduced to the status of livestock.

In contrast, the slave culture of the Spanish, French and British colonies in the West Indies was more like the Soviet Gulag or the Nazi forced labor camps than it was like serfdom in 16th and 17th century Europe.

The West Indian sugar plantations were strictly commercial operations, controlled by a tiny minority of white people, who used terror, torture and the threat of death and mutilation to try to keep slaves under control.   Slaves died at such a rate that the planters needed a continual supply of new slaves to keep operating.

Slavery in South Carolina and the rest of the Deep South was not quite as bad as that, but it was bad enough.   Slaves in Virginia and Kentucky feared being sold down the river to South Carolina and the Gulf states.   But slave owners in the Deep South threatened slaves with being sent to Cuba, which was even worse.

I don’t, of course, intend to justify slavery in any form.  Any time one group of people has absolute power over another, you will reproduce the Stanford prison experiment.

Neither to I intend to imply that Southern white people were all demons or that Northern white people were angels.

Woodard pointed out that there was a time when there were more African slaves in Dutch New Amsterdam than in the region from Maryland to Georgia.   Much of the African slave  trade operated out of Newport, Rhode Island, from which Yankee skippers took trade goods to west Africa, then slaves to the West Indies and then rum back to New England.    The whole newly independent USA  was involved in slavery, not just the South.

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Is the USA one nation, indivisible?

July 29, 2017

Updated 7/5/2017

Colin Woodard, a journalist and historian, claims that the United States of America is not a unified nation, but an arena of struggle among separate and distinct regional cultures.

For more than 250 years, he wrote, American history has been shaped by the basic conflict between regions he calls Yankeedom and Deep South, and the shifting alliances among the other regions.

Canada, too, is shaped by regional identity.   In fact, neither the United States nor Canada is a unified nation at all, according to Woodard; the real nations of North America are the 11 regional cultures, which are as follows:

  • Yankeedom, heirs of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.
  • New Netherland, heirs of the tolerant, commercial Dutch culture of New Amsterdam.
  • Midlands, heirs of the tolerant culture established by Quakers in the Delaware Bay.
  • Tidewater, heirs of the aristocratic culture established by Cavaliers around the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Greater Appalachia, heirs of the original settlers of the Appalachian back country
  • The Deep South, heirs of English West Indian slave owners who settled in South Carolina
  • The Left Coast, heirs of New England Yankees who settled the Pacific Northwest.
  • The Far West, heirs of the varied pioneers who settled this harsh region.
  • El Norte, heirs of the original Spanish settlers of northern Mexico and the American Southwest.
  • New France, heirs of the original French-Canadian settlers and their Cajun cousins.
  • First Nation, heirs of indigenous peoples of the Far North.

I recently finished reading his book, American Nations: the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011), on the recommendation of my friend, Janus Mary Jones.

I think the regional rivalries he described are real.  I learned things I hadn’t known.  But I think he errs in trying to interpret American history exclusively in terms of regional conflict.

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Albion’s seed in Appalachia

July 22, 2017

The hardscrabble people of northern England, the Scottish lowlands and Ulster were cannon fodder for the English-Scottish and English-Irish border wars.

They were uncouth, fierce, stubborn and rebellious, and hard to get along with.

When the border wars ended, they were encouraged to leave for colonial America.  Once here, they were encouraged to leave the coastal settlements for the Appalachian back country.

David Hackett Fischer, in Albion’s Seed, wrote that they were the last of the four great British migrations whose folkways became the basis of American regional cultures.

Fischer stated that each of the folkways had its own concept of freedom.   The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay believed in ordered freedom, the right of communities to live by God’s will and their own laws.  The Cavaliers of tidewater Virginia believed in hegemonic freedom, the power to rule and not be ruled.   The Quakers of the Delaware Bay believed in reciprocal freedom, the duty to allow others all the freedoms you want for yourself.

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The Appalachian backwoodsmen believed in natural liberty, the right to live as you wish without interference by others.   They found this liberty in America and felt at home here.   They and their descendants, when asked their ancestry, are the most likely to merely answer “American.”

Their desire for natural liberty put them in the forefront of the American westward movement.   Kentucky and Tennessee became states before Ohio and Alabama were barely settled from New England and the deep South.

They provide our image of the pioneer West.   Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and Kit Carson were products of the Appalachian culture.

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Together with the indentured laborers of the Deep South, they also provide our image of poor white people.

And more recently, they provide our image of right-wing, gun-loving, evolution-denying, diversity-hating supporters of Donald Trump.   This latter image, while not completely false, ignores a lot of history

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Albion’s seed in Quaker Pennsylvania

July 21, 2017

David Hackett Fischer argued in Albion’s Seed that the United States is the product of four relatively small groups of migrants to the 17th and 18th century Atlantic seaboard.

The first wave, John Winthrop’s Puritans, established a repressive theocracy in Massachusetts Bay.   The second, Sir William Berkeley’s Cavaliers, established a haughty and repressive aristocracy in tidewater Virginia.

But the third wave, William Penn’s Quakers, established a community around the Delaware Bay based on values that most 21st century Americans could accept.

Quakers believed that all human beings possess an Inner Light which enables them to establish a relationship with God.   They lacked the Puritan sense of sin and the Cavalier sense of hierarchy.

The Quakers opposed war, opposed artificial distinctions among human beings and opposed religious persecution.   They did not weigh down their children with a sense of sin, like the Puritans, nor encourage self-centered pride, like the Cavaliers.   They came the closest of any of the colonists to practicing social equality and equality within marriage.

Many were prosperous and sophisticated merchants—aided by the Quaker reputation for honesty and fair dealing and by the Quaker practice of lending money to each other at zero or low-interest

Like the Puritans, they were extremely austere and enforced strict standards of behavior within their group.   But their method of enforcement was shunning—not the whipping post or the stocks.

Pacifism and toleration are not good memes for staying in power, and the Quakers in a few generations lost positions of power in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.   But they continued to influence the general American culture.

They were the first and foremost opponents of slavery and advocates of women’s rights in the early 19th century USA.   In all of the great New England movements for humanitarian reform, whether regarding prison inmates, the insane or even animals, the Quakers were there first.

I don’t, however, see the Quakers as the founders of a regional culture—unlike the New England Puritans, Virginia Cavaliers and Appalachian borderers.

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Albion’s seed in the South

July 20, 2017

The Cavalier settlers of tidewater Virginia were noted for their strong sense of rank—much more so than the Puritans, Quakers or Apppalachian borderers.   That is a heritage that continues today.

Rank in the old army sense of “rank has its privileges”.   Rank in the sense of expecting men to take off their hats and women to curtsey in your presence.   Rank based not just on wealth and power, but on hereditary privilege.

This was idea behind the 17th and 18th century English class system, based on the idea of the “great chain of being.”  God was at the top, then the King who ruled by divine right, then the different ranks of aristocrats, yeomen and tenants.

David Hackett Fischer wrote in Albion’s Seed that the early Virginia settlers, of all the North American colonists, were the strongest royalists and the most committed to aristocratic privilege.

The Quakers at the other extreme were persecuted because they refused to recognize  rank.   They refused to call people “mister” or “your excellency” or anything but “friend.”

The Appalachian borderers talked to each other as if they were equals, but they respected wealth and power men who were strong enough to acquire it and hold on to it.

The Puritans abbreviated the English order of rank.   They didn’t have hereditary aristocrats, and they didn’t allow any members of their communities to sink into absolute poverty.  But the “meaner sort” were expected to take off their hats and show deference to the “better sort.”

But the Virginia Cavaliers, whose families warred with the Puritans back in Britain, imported the English rank system in all its glory.    Fischer said the Virginians believed in what he called “hegemonic freedom.”   The idea is that you are free to the extent that you have power over other people and nobody has power over you.

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How four of Albion’s seeds sprouted in America

July 17, 2017

A New Englander once told me about traveling in the South, and stopping at a convenience store to ask for directions.  Even though there was a long line of people waiting to be served, the clerk came out from behind the counter and did everything she could to make sure the traveler was properly oriented.

The waiting customers did not resent this.  Instead they joined in and tried to assist the clerk.   A New England clerk would not have done this, my acquaintance said.  It is not that the New Englander would have been less concerned.  It is just that a Southerner would regard hospitality to a stranger as the first obligation, and a New Englander, equally kind, would have made sure that customers were served.

We Americans are very conscious of our regional differences.  I wonder if they’re apparent to foreigners.

We have sayings, such as: If you introduce yourself to New Englanders, they’ll ask where you went to school; to New Yorkers, they’ll ask what you do for a living; to Southerners, they’ll ask what church you attend; to Minnesotans, they’ll not ask personal questions of a stranger because that’s impolite.

Recently my friend Janus Mary Jones lent me a copy of ALBION’S SEED: Four Regional English Folkways in America, a fascinating 1986 book by a historian named David Hackett Fischer, which attempts to explain American regional differences in terms of colonial origins.

Fischer made the bold claim that the seeds of present-day American culture were planted by four relatively small groups of migrants from different regions of England at certain periods of history, and that American history is largely the flowering of these seeds.

The four groups of migrants were:

  • 21,000 Puritans who left East Anglia for Massachusetts Bay in 1621-1640.
  • 45,000 Cavaliers and their servants who left southern and western England for tidewater Virginia in 1642-1675.
  • 23,000 Quakers who left the English Midlands, along with German Pietist allies, for the Delaware Valley in 1675-1713.
  • 250,000 borderers who left northern England, the Scottish lowlands and northern Ireland for the Appalachia backcountry in 1717-1773,

Although few in number originally, these colonists multiplied and spread, Fischer wrote, and they established the cultural frameworks to which later migrants had to adapt.

These cultures were very different from each other and also very stereotypical, Fischer wrote.   The Puritans were very puritanical, the Cavaliers were very haughty and aristocratic, the Quakers were very plain and peaceful and the Appalachian borderers were very rebellious and violent.   None of these qualities originated in North America.  They all had roots in their British places of origin.

A blogger named Scott Alexander has written an informative and readable revew describing these four cultures.  Rather than try to summarize, excerpt or improve on what Alexander wrote, I will just link to his post.

I think the impact of these four original settlements was important, but I don’t want to exaggerate.   Present-day Americans have more in common with each other than we do with 17th and 18th century Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers or Appalachian backwoodsmen.

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The vested interests in organizational stupidity

July 12, 2017

Supposedly we Americans live in a “knowledge economy,” in which the source of wealth is neither financial capital, physical plants or natural resources, but the knowledge, expertise and intelligence of individual human beings.   We have a whole industry called “information technology.”

But although employers require ever-higher levels of academic credentials, this is not reflected in the work itself.   College graduates wind up doing work that high school graduates once did, and high school graduates do work that school dropouts once did.

In the early 20th century, businesses adopted a practice called Taylorism—resolving factory work into the simplest, most basic, mindless human motions.  Now we have McDonaldization—resolving service work into the following of simple checklists.

Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, in their 2016 book, THE STUPIDITY PARADOX: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work, attribute this to the tendency of organizations to suppress critical thinking because of their need for obedience to orders and smooth internal functioning.

What they write is true as far as it goes, but organizational stupidity is more than a simple mistake in setting priorities.   Organizational stupidity is maintained by powerful vested interests.

Knowledge Is Power

Knowledge is power.  If I am a supervisor and my subordinate is more knowledgeable and competent than I am, that diminishes my power.   What college graduate, fresh out of business school, wants to be contradicted by some grouchy old skilled craftsman, who has less schooling but may know more than he does?

Harry Braverman, in Labor and Monopoly Power and David Noble, in America by Design and Forces of Production, described the de-skilling of the American work force and the development of technologies devoted to increasing command and control by management rather than increasing productivity as such.

The more knowledgeable and skilled a worker is, the more power the worker has in relation to the employer, both as an individual and as a member of a labor union.   So knowledge and skills aren’t necessarily wanted except where they are indispensable.

A friend of mine who went back to school in mid-life to get an advanced degree in his specialty discovered that employers did not want his new skills.  What they wanted, he said, was “a jack of all trades who would work cheap.”   Employers see more benefit in having replaceable workers than in having  productive workers.

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The theory and practice of functional stupidity

July 12, 2017

You need to be remarkably intelligent to be functionally stupid.
==Mats Alvesson & André Spicer, The Stupidity Paradox

A higher percentage of Americans than ever before have advanced college degrees.  I.Q. test scores are higher in every generation, a phenomenon called the Flynn Effect.   Information technology is a major industry, and we talk about our “knowledge economy.”

So why do corporations and other big organizations do so many stupid things?

Two management experts, Mats Alvesson and André Spicer, say that the explanation is what they call “functional stupidity”—which is “the inability and /or unwillingness to use cognitive and reflexive capability in anything other than narrow or circumspect ways.”

No big organization could function efficiently if everybody in it thought critically and independently about everything they did.    The whole point of hierarchy is to enable obedience to orders on a large scale..

In a hierarchy, employees have to teach themselves to focus on their own jobs and not worry about the big picture.   Otherwise the organization wouldn’t function smoothly.

Functional stupidity reduces conflict, soothes anxiety, improves morale and increases self-esteem.   The problem is when the organization is blind-sided by reality.

The philosopher John Dewey said that all human action is the result of impulse, habit or reasoning.   It is not humanly possible to reason out every single aspect of life, according to Dewey.   We turn to reason  when our habitual ways of acting or thinking fail us.   Why do people in big organizations so often fail to turn to reason before it is too late?

In their 2016 book, THE STUPIDITY PARADOX: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work, Mats Alvesson and André Spicer identify five categories of functional stupidity.

Leadership-Induced Stupidity

 In contemporary organizations, it’s thought that the duty of an executive is not only to manage, but to inspire.   Leaders are supposed to be “change agents.”  But change can be either good or bad, depending on circumstances.  Adolf Hitler, after all, was a transformational leader.

Executives can waste their time engaging in what they think is inspirational leadership to the detriment of their tasks as managers— budgeting, assigning work, quality control, employee evaluation and so on.   Most employees, according to Alvesson and Spicer, don’t want leadership.  They just want to be left alone to do their jobs.

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Steven Pinker on moral fiction

July 9, 2017

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Source: New York Times.

Book note: The Making of Global Capitalism

May 30, 2017

International financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have come to be a kind of world government, dictating policy to supposedly sovereign governments.

I recently read a book, The Making of Global Capitalism (2012) by two Canadian leftists named Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, on how this came about.   I thank my friend Tim Mullins for recommending it.

It’s quite a story.  It is not well understood.

The first part of the story is the U.S. New Deal.   President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress gave the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve System the authority they needed to stabilize the crumbling U.S. financial and banking system.

The second part is the 30 years following World War Two.   Under the leadership of the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve, international financial institutions were created that duplicated the U.S. system.  They presided over the era of greatest peace and prosperity that North Americans and Europeans had ever since.

The third part is what happened after that.  The world’s financial system endures a series of ever-greater financial crises.   To deal with them, international financial  institutions demand the surrender of gains made by American and European workers and the middle class in the earlier era.

The irony is that a financial governing structure created by American power is now stronger than ever, while the actual American economy is rotting away beneath it.

Panitch and Gindin described in great detail how this happened, step-by-step,.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with democracy

May 24, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, in her new book, The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on the Moral Panic of Our Time, claimed that the election of Donald Trump reflects fundamental flaws in human nature and in the very ideas of democracy, free speech and freedom of the press.

Brooke Gladstone

To her credit, she doesn’t take her argument to its logical conclusion, which would be to empower gatekeepers to filter the news and opinions available so the rest of us aren’t exposed to anything the gatekeepers consider fake.

Many others, in fact, do go that far, so I will try to sum up her argument and then engage it.   Here’s her argument:

  • Truth is subjective Everybody lives in their own unique reality.   Since our ability to understand is limited, we make decisions based on stereotypes.   All human beings are emotionally committed to stereotypes and experimental psychology shows that our brains react negatively to whatever challenges our stereotype.
  • Knowledge of facts is not enough Any given set of facts is subject to multiple interpretations.  We the people filter facts according to own various assumptions and biases.
  • Appealing lies beat inconvenient truths John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill claimed defended free speech by claiming that truth would defeat falsehood in a free and open encounter.  This is bogus.   We the people don’t have access to full information about important public issues, nor the time or ability to evaluate it if we did.
  • Democracies foster demagoguesSince we the people cannot make rational decisions, we tend to prefer demagogues who offer us appealing fantasies rather than intellectuals who tell us inconvenient truths.

Here’s my answer.

The expression that “truth is subjective” or “we all live in different realities” is highly pernicious.

It’s true that we all have our own unique experience of reality.  As Gladstone notes, humans can’t imagine what it is like to experience the world as a bat or a bloodhound does.  But a human, a bat and a bloodhound all live in the same actual world.  We are all burned by fire and drown in water.   If our perceived reality is wrong, the real reality will sooner or later catch up with us.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with reality

May 23, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, a broadcaster and media critic, has written a provocative 87-page book about Donald Trump and his challenge to the concept of objective truth.

Trump has given us a constant stream of assertions—Obama was born in Kenya, Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11, millions voted illegally in the 2016 elections–without facts to back them up.

That is, as she wrote, a challenge to the basis premise of democracy, which is that we the people have the ability to make good choices as to who will represent us.

But what if we don’t have a good basis for making a choice?  What if the very possibility of making a rational fact-based choice is called in question?

We normally assume that both sides have some basis for what they say and that our job is to choose the one who makes the best case.   But Donald Trump just says things without bothering to make an argument?

How can the casual newspaper reader, TV watcher and social media user evaluate this?

∞∞∞

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt made a distinction between liars (people who knowingly make false statements for a reason) and bullshitters (people who don’t know or care whether what they say is true or not).

It’s not just Trump.   The whole flood of charges regarding Trump and Russia seems very—for want of a better word—Trumpian.  Every day there’s something new and nothing is ever proved.

The distinction between lies and bullshit applies here.  I don’t think anybody is knowingly making false statements about Trump and friends.  I think many of them just don’t care one way or the other.

On the other hand, the consequences for revealing unwelcome truths can be severe—Chelsea Manning seven years in prison, Edward Snowden a fugitive from U.S. law, Julian Assange confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

I’ve had people tell me that Assange should not have published information unfavorable to Hillary Clinton unless he had information equally unfavorable Donald Trump to publish.

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Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’

May 17, 2017

A Man for All Seasons is a play about Sir Thomas More, a scholar, humanist, statesman and devoted husband and father, who also was a hero who went to his death rather than swear to a false statement.

It may be my favorite play.  Offhand I can’t think of one I like better.  It was first performed in London in 1960.

I saw it in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s.  Recently I took part in a reading of it organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The things I liked and admired about the play are its language and characters; its staging and lighting, which gave it a timeless relevancy; and its non-banal affirmation of human dignity and integrity.

More was beheaded on the order of King Henry VIII for his refusal to affirm that the Pope was wrong in refusing him permission to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

The play is about More’s struggle to find a way to stay alive without sacrificing his integrity, and his final decision to choose integrity over life.

There is a passage I particularly like about the rule of law—the principle that nobody is above the duty to obey the law and nobody is below the right to protection of the law.

   WILLIAM ROPER:  Arrest him.
    SIR THOMAS MORE: For what? ……
    MARGARET MORE: Father, that man’s bad
    THOMAS MORE: There’s no law against that.
    ROPER: There is!  God’s law!
    THOMAS MORE: Then God can arrest him……
    ALICE MORE (exasperated): While you talk, he’s gone.
    THOMAS MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law.
    ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law.
    THOMAS MORE Yes.  What would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    ROPER:  I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    THOMAS MORE (roused and excited)  Oh? (advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil himself turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (he leaves him)
    This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (quietly) Yes, I’d give the Devil himself the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Here is another passage I like.

     SIR THOMAS MORE: … If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes.
     But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all, why then perhaps we must stand fast a little… .

 In the play, there are two opponents to More’s point of view.

One is Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless Machiavellian power-worshiper, who is tasked with the mission of forcing More to give him or, failing that, providing a justification for sending him to his death.

The other is a figure that Bolt calls the Common Man, an actor who introduces each scene and also plays the part of More’s servant, a boatman, a jailer, a juryman and, in the last scene, the headsman.

He represents the common sense view of the ordinary person, who tries to stay out of trouble and who goes along to get along.

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An SF writer’s diagnosis and cure for capitalism

April 27, 2017

In the opening of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new SF novel, New York 2140, two unemployed financial software engineers known as Mutt and Jeff—unemployed because they refuse to design a possibly illegal program for high-speed trading—contemplate a flooded lower Manhattan from atop the former Metropolitan Life building.

One of them says he has figured out what’s wrong with capitalism.

The basic problem with capitalism, he says, is that the forces of the market forces producers to sell products below cost.

How can you sell below cost and survive?  By offloading your costs onto someone else—onto customers, onto neighbors, onto taxpayers, onto the wider community and onto future generations.

This enables an individual enterprise to survive (sometimes), but, in the long run, leads human society into bankruptcy.

In the novel, global warming has taken place, sea levels have risen and lower Manhattan is under water.  Skyscrapers such as the Met Life building are still survive amid a kind of new Venice.  Uptown Manhattan is 50 feet higher in elevation, and is dry.  In the middle is a tidal zone, where the poor and homeless congregate.

Some environmental problems have been solved, or at least are being coped with.  Gasoline, jet fuel and other fossil fuels no longer exist.  Air travel is by dirigible, ocean travel is by sailing ship and land vehicles are electric.   But the financial structure and distribution of income are more or less like they are now.

New skyscrapers—”superscrapers”—in uptown are owned by the world’s wealthy elite, as investments or as one of multiple homes, and are often vacant.

A hurricane late in the novel leaves many homeless.  They try to storm the vacant uptown towers, and are turned back by private security forces, who outgun the New York Police Department.

Rather than attempt a violent revolutionary overthrow, the common people attempt a political and economic jujitsu.

They join in a nationwide debt strike.  On a given day, they stop paying their mortgages, student loans and credit card balances.  The financial system is go highly leveraged with debt upon debt that it comes crashing down, just as in 2008.   So the financiers go to Washington for another bailout, just as they did then.

But this time, the President and Federal Reserve Chairman, who are in on the plan, act differently.  They tell the banks and investment companies that they would be bailed out only on one condition—that the government be given stock of equal value to the bailout, as was done in the bailout of General Motors.   Those who refuse this deal are allowed to fail.

Now the federal government has the authority to force the banks to act as public utilities.  And the huge profits that once flowed to the financial elite now flow to Washington, which makes it possible to adequately fund public education, infrastructure improvement, scientific research and all the other things the country needs.

And so the American people live happily—not ever after and not completely, but for a while.

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A culture of honor, violence and poverty

April 5, 2017

Ex-Senator James Webb wrote a book, Born Fighting, (which I haven’t read) about the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachia plateau.  If it hadn’t been taken, it would have made a good title for C.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Trouble.

Appalachian mountaineers were the product of a culture of honor which also was a culture of violence.   They believed in standing by their word and by family friends and family; they believed in never showing fear, never backing down and always avenging in any insult or injury.

These values enabled them to survive in the lawless Kentucky wilderness frontier.   Vance in his book argues that this same heritage is inadequate to help them survive in a declining industrial America.

The book is worth reading because his experiences and family history show how patterns of behavior that can trap people in poverty and misery, and also ways of breaking out of of those patterns.

He grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but his family roots are in Jackson, Kentucky—in “bloody Breathitt” county, known for its feuds.  His maternal grandparents, Jim Vance, then aged 16, and Bonnie Blanton, then 13 and pregnant, fled Kentucky for Ohio in 1950, and eventually settled down in Middletown.

At the age of 12, his grandmother shot a cattle thief and would have finished him off if somebody hadn’t stopped her.

Once she told C.D.’s grandfather that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him.  He did come home drunk once again, and, a woman of her word, she doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.  Remarkably he escaped with only minor injuries and this did not destroy their relationship.

She once warned C.D. that if he continued to hang out with a classmate who smoked marijuana, she would run over the classmate with her car.  He found that a credible threat.

His grandmother and her husband, who never went anywhere without loaded guns in their pockets or under their car seats, flouted conventions of middle-class behavior.  But they were honest, hard-working and self-reliant; they were able to look out for themselves and their loved ones.

Not so C.D.’s drug-addicted mother.  His life with her and a succession of men in her life was one of unremitting emotional violence.  Here’s what he said he learned at home about marital relationships:

Never speak in a reasonable volume when screaming will do.  If the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first.  Always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner.  If all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you.

His childhood left him with permanent scars.  He said he still has to struggle to escape the conditioning to immediately retaliate for any affront, no matter what the consequences.   He reminds me of the black writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his accounts of growing up in violent inner-city Baltimore.

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The case against the Internet

March 29, 2017

Double click to enlarge. Source: Visual Capitalist.

Andrew Keen’s book, The Internet Is Not The Answer (2015), which I recently finished reading, is a good antidote to cyber-utopians such as Kevin Kelly.

Keen says the Internet is shaping society in ways we the people don’t understand.  Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but all are out of control.

Like Kelly, he writes about technology as if it were an autonomous force, shaped by its own internal dynamic rather than by human decisions.  Unlike Kelly, he thinks this is a bad thing, not a good thing.

He does not, of course, deny that the Internet has made life easier in many ways, especially for writers.   But that is not the whole story.  He claims that—

  • The Internet is a job-destroyer.
  • The Internet enables business monopoly
  • The Internet enables surveillance and invasion of privacy.
  • The Internet enables anonymous harassment and bullying.
  • The Internet enables intellectual property theft

Keen quotes Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “We shape our tools, then our tools shape us.”

What he doesn’t quite understand is that the “we” who shape the tools is not the same as the “us” who are shaped by them.

Or to use Marxist lingo, what matters is who owns the means of production.

Technology serves the needs and desires of those who own it.  Technological advances generally serve the needs and desires of those who fund it.

Advances in technology that benefit the elite often serve the general good as well, but there is no economic or social law that guarantees this.   This is as true of the Internet as it is of everything else.

Let me look at his claims one by one—

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Why and how Britannia ruled the waves

March 16, 2017

One hundred years ago, the British Empire and Commonwealth comprised one-fourth of humanity.   There were British colonies on every continent, and nations on every continent with whom Britain was their greatest trading partner.

Yet this power was largely an illusion.   Britain no longer had the industrial and financial power to maintain a global empire and, 50 years later, it was no longer a world power.

Today the United States is seemingly as supreme as Great Britain was then.   The USA has more than 800 military bases in 160 countries; it can project its military power to places as far from home as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet this, too, is largely an illusion.   Our American industrial and economic power is as hollow now as Britain’s was back then.  I don’t think it will take as long as 50 years for this to become apparent.

A few weeks ago, I happened to pick up Paul M. Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976, 1983) in a second-hand bookstore.  Kennedy has a deep understanding of the relationship between military power, economic power, technology and geopolitics, and the ability to explain complex matters clearly.

His book is fascinating for itself, and for its implications for American power.   His story begins in the 16th century, when England depended on sea power, diplomacy and a balance of power to preserve its independence from the powerful Spanish Empire and French Kingdom.   The English Navy was under-financed and under-paid; it used privateers and buccaneers as a kind of guerrilla navy.

In the 17th century, Britain was torn by internal conflict, including a full-scale Civil War.   The British avoided conflict with France and Spain, the great European powers, but built up their merchant marine and fought three wars with the Dutch for rule of the seas.

The British established naval bases worldwide and founded colonies in North America.  Maritime commerce became a source of national wealth and power.   By the end of the century, Britain had subdued Scotland and Ireland, and overcome its internal religious divisions.

Theaters of Britain’s war with France, 1754-1763

From 1689 to 1815, Britain fought a succession of wars against France, all of which (except the French-backed U.S. War of Independence) left Britain richer and more powerful and at the point of becoming the world’s only global power.

The growing British merchant marine added not only to Britain’s wealth, but her number of seamen and access to naval stores.  Wars on French commerce enriched British merchants and shipowners.  Victories added to her colonies and naval bases.   Britain’s new wealth, plus its commercial spirit and resources of coal and iron, gave rise to industrial revolution.

In the 19th century, British supremacy at sea was unchallenged.  There was a kind of naval-industrial complex.  The British Navy created a market for the shipbuilding industry, iron industry (for cannon) and other products, and spurred industrial innovation.

As the first industrial nation, Britain was for a time the workshop of the world.   Industrial power reinforced sea power, and sea power helped open markets for the products of British industry.

During all this time, as Kennedy noted, Britain never tried to dominate the continent of Europe, and could not have done so if it tried.  Instead it tried to maintain a balance of power among the great European countries.    The British could not avoid fighting in Europe, but were unable to win without the support of allies, often financially subsidized allies.

The 19th century British tried to make their world empire acceptable to other European nations.   The British Navy suppressed piracy and the African slave trade (which had been a big source of British wealth in previous centuries).   It financed scientific expeditions, laid oceanic telegraph cables and public navigational charts–all to public benefit.

But in the middle of the 19th century, technological developments shifted the advantage from sea power to land power.

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Bertrand Russell’s shortest book

March 4, 2017

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Click on HISTORY OF THE WORLD in epitome (for use in Martian infant schools), and scroll down, to read the text and illustrations.

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Ancient Greece and the meaning of democracy

February 22, 2017

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What is democracy?  Does democracy consist of free elections?  Is democracy based on inalienable human rights?  Is a democracy a government of laws and not of men?  Does democracy require political parties, checks and balances and separation of church and state?

The classicist Paul Cartledge pointed out in his new book, DEMOCRACY: A Life (2016), that ancient Athens and the other Greek city-states lacked all these things.   Yet, he argued, it was they who best represented the ideal of democracy and we Americans and British who have fallen away from it.

Democracy in ancient Greece had a complicated history.  Cartledge derived from the fragmentary historical record how the common people over time wrested power from kings, aristocrats and the rich.

At the high tide of democracy, the main governing bodies were Assemblies were chosen at random, by lot, as juries are today.

The Athenian Assembly had a membership of up to 5,000 to 6,000, chosen from a citizenry of about 30,000, and they all met for important decisions.

The Assembly met almost continuously; it passed laws, set policy, tried important legal cases and decided on whether to exile (ostracize) troublesome citizens and politicians.

The Assembly did elect an administrative Council of 500 as well as generals and treasurers.  Other governmental positions, including juries for minor cases, were chosen by lot.

There was no bright line dividing the legislative, executive and judicial function.   An Athenian citizen might propose a military action in the Assembly one day and be named to command the troops to carry out that action.

There was virtually no limit to the power of the Assembly.  You could call it a tyranny of the majority.  You could even call it a dictatorship of the proletariat.

But you couldn’t deny that the people of Athens and the other democratic Greek cities ruled themselves in a way that contemporary Americans and Britishers don’t come close to doing.

Aristotle defined democracy as the rule of the poor (meaning workers) and oligarchy as the rule of the rich (meaning property-owners who don’t do manual labor).   Any Athenian in the time of Pericles would call the modern USA and UK oligarchies, based on the influence of the rich on public policy and the lack of participation by the mass of the citizenry.

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Steve Bannon’s wars, at home and abroad

February 13, 2017

Steve Bannon is President Trump’s most trusted adviser.   He is the second most powerful person in the Trump administration.

He is guided by a dangerously wrong philosophy.

He thinks that Judeo-Christian civilization is at war with the Moslem world abroad, and with secularists and Muslims at home.

He expects a shooting war with China and as well as a shooting war in the Middle East.

He sees himself as part of a global nationalist movement that includes the United Kingdom Independence Party, the National Front in France and similar movements across Europe.

He has expressed admiration for Lenin and Karl Rove, and has compared himself to Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.

Trump owes him.  He and Jared Kushner, through their skilled use of data mining and social media, are responsible for Trump’s victory in the 2016 Election.

His idea that Americans are engaged in both a civil war and a global war could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

∞∞∞

Steve Bannon, born in 1953, has had a varied career as U.S. Naval officer, mergers and acquisitions specialist for Goldman Sachs, and executive producer in Hollywood.  He has degrees from Virginia Tech, Georgetown University and Harvard University.

He was a little-known but influential figure even before he joined the Trump campaign.  Among his films are documentaries on Ronald Reagan, Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin and an expose of Occupy Wall Street.  He was on the board of directors of Breitbart News and became executive chair when founder Andrew Breitbart died in 2012.  Another Bannon organization sponsored opposition research on Hillary Clinton which resulted in the book, Clinton Cash, and many articles in mainstream newspapers about the Clintons’ conflicts of interest.

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The revolutionary power of early Christianity

January 25, 2017

QUO VADIS by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896)  tells a story of the coming of Christianity to Rome in the time of Nero.  It depicts the discontinuity between Christianity and the Greco-Roman pagan world, and what happens when people actually live by the Sermon on the Mount.

This would be a revolutionary moral change today.   It was an even more revolutionary change then.

quovadis41daeylwxl-_ac_ul320_sr224320_Unlike in Christianity, worship of the Greco-Roman gods had nothing to do with morality nor with hope and heaven.   The pagan gods were regarded as powerful supernatural beings who had to be appeased with worship and animal sacrifice for the sake of one’s family or one’s city or nation, but who otherwise did not care about you.

Many of the Roman upper classes had come to believe that religion was a useful superstition for keeping the common people contented.

This had nothing to do with leading a virtuous life, which was the province of philosophy, and only a select few were followers of philosophy.

Christianity represented a moral revolution.  St. Paul, St. Peter and the Christians depicted in this novel practiced universal love, unconditional forgiveness and the sharing of all wealth and property—something unprecedented in any mass movement.

The Christian missionaries taught that in the Kingdom of God, there was no distinction between rich and poor, free and slave, man and woman or Roman, Greek or Jew.  They created communities whereby poor people could band together and provide for their own needs, independently of the oppressive and indifferent Roman state.   The collision of the pagan and Christian view of life is the subject of this novel.

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400 years of poor white people in America

January 17, 2017

When I was a boy in western Maryland in the 1940s, I sometimes heard people say things like, “The Negroes aren’t so bad, compared to the poor white trash.”

The underlying meaning was that it was part of the nature of things for black people to be poor and marginalized, but there was something deeply wrong with white people who let themselves sink to the same status.

9whitetrash-iisenberg780670785971I just finished reading a book, WHITE TRASH: the untold 400-year history of class in America by Nancy Isenberg (2016), that tells how these attitudes go back literally to the first settlements at Plymouth Rock, Jamestown and before, and persist today.

Today’s poor rural Southern white people of today may literally be lineal descendants of the convicts, debtors, beggars, orphans, homeless vagrants and unemployed vagrants who were shipped to England’s North American colonies in the 17th century.

Many were victims of the enclosure movement, in which wealthy landowners privatized common lands formerly used by small or tenant farmers, leaving them without an obvious means of livelihood.  These displaced poor people were regarded as useless—much as workers replaced by automation are regarded by economists and corporate executives today.

The prevailing attitude then was that families were “the better sort” or “the meaner sort,” that they were “well-bred” or “ill-bred”.   Today we think of “good breeding” as applied to individual persons as meaning the person has been taught the proper way to behave.   Back then, roughneck poor people were regarded as inherently inferior.

Our American tradition is that the seeds of our nation were planted by freedom-seeking New England Puritans and adventurous Virginia Cavaliers.  This is true, but only a half-truth.    The ships that brought them to the New World also brought penniless, landless English poor people, who were regarded as surplus population.

What set the English poor white colonists apart was that they were not given land.  They were intended to be servants and field workers.  When black African slaves turned out to be more efficient and exploitable workers than indentured English servants, they lost even this role.

Even so some of the poor whites acquired property and a measure of social status.   White Trash is about the descendants of the ones that didn’t.

They fled to the western frontier of settlement.   But the wealthy and well-connected had already obtained title to most of the frontier land.  Poor whites became squatters.  They contended that clearing, improving and planting land gave them the right to have it; title-holders disagreed.  This was the source of much conflict both in the colonies and the newly-independent United States.

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