An atypically typical campaign season

Click on the image for source article at PBS dot org.

It looks like the the principal candidates in next year’s election for US president will be Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.  An election between the wife of one former president and the son and brother of two others does make one wonder how the two parties can call themselves “democratic” and “republican” when “restorationist” and “hereditarian” would seem more fitting.

Also, the last time the USA had a Clinton/ Bush presidential contest eccentric billionaire H. Ross Perot ran an independent campaign that attracted many millions of votes.  Maybe this time Mr Perot’s son will throw his hat into the ring.  He has made himself even richer than his father, and seems to be just as peculiar.

Mr Bush faces a large number of challengers for his party’s nomination, while Ms Clinton has so far drawn only token opposition on her side of the ballot.  It occurs to me that it is strange that it isn’t always that way.  Both the Democrats and the Republicans nominate the early favorite virtually every time.  The only two Democrats in recent decades to win the nomination without having been the early favorite were Barack Obama, who was at least a clear second to Ms Clinton in the early stages of the 2008 race, and James “Jimmy” Carter, who in 1976 triumphed over a field that never had a clear front-runner.  And the last Republican to emerge as a true surprise nominee was Wendell Willkie in 1940.

One of the ways to become the early favorite in the Republican contest is to place or show in the previous contest.  Five of the last six Republican nominees- Willard M. Romney, John McCain, Robert Dole, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan- had all finished close behind the eventual nominee in the last open contest before they were themselves bore the party’s standard.  For their part, the Democrats take comparatively little note of losing candidates for their nomination.  The last five Democrats in recent decades to capture their party’s nod after an unsuccessful first try have been Albert Gore, who after his 1988 attempt had served two terms as vice president; George McGovern, whose 1968 bid as a placeholder for the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy really shouldn’t count; Hubert Humphrey, who had been elected vice president in 1964 after his failed bid in 1960; Alfred Smith, who came back from losing the nomination at the 1924 Democratic convention to lead the Democrats into a landslide defeat in 1928; and the only winner in the whole bunch, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, who received a few votes at the 1908 Democratic convention, then won the nomination and the presidency in 1912.

In 2004 and 2008, the Democratic nominee chose one of his rivals as his vice-presidential running mate.  As Messrs Gore and Humphrey showed, election to the vice presidency is a path to front-runner status in the presidential race.  However, the last time before 2004 that a losing candidate for that year’s Democratic nomination was chosen to run for vice president was 1960, when John Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who led the US Senate.  And the last time before that was 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt chose John “Cactus Jack” Garner, a Texan who led the US House of Representatives.  The dozens of losing candidates for the Democratic nominations before 2004 who controlled neither a chamber of Congress nor Texas’ electoral votes generally emerged from the experience with little to show for it except the disappointment of their supporters and a heavy load of personal debt.

Looking at that record, ambitious Democrats have virtually no incentive to run for president unless they begin at the head of the pack, while ambitious Republicans have a great deal of incentive to run even if they look weak at the beginning of the race.  Granted, beyond a certain age that incentive fades; while there is probably some slim chance that former New York governor George Pataki, for example, might pick up enough momentum to emerge as Mr Bush’s main rival in the closing stages of the nomination race,  the reward for doing that would be a chance of becoming the front-running candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020 or 2024, when Mr Pataki will be 75 or 79 years old.  It seems unlikely that even a very strong performance in the 2016 primaries would convince the Republicans to rally around such an elderly candidate.  Granted, Messrs Dole and McCain were both in their mid-70s when they were nominated, and as Adlai Stevenson said, “Once a man has been x-rayed for the presidency, he stays radioactive for life.”  So it wouldn’t be surprising if Mr Pataki were to run in earnest.

I’m puzzled by today’s xkcd

Here’s today’s xkcd:

My hobby: Pretending to miss the sarcasm when people show off their lack of interest in football by talking about

It’s true that not knowing much about sports is culturally isolating, far more so than not knowing much about meteorology or space probes.  In the USA, where xkcd creator Randall Munroe and I both live, ignorance of American football* is more isolating than ignorance of meteorology and space probes even among faculty and students of universities with departments of meteorology and aerospace, as witness the relative pay scales and promotion schedules of football coaches and professors of those subjects.

Considering how much money and power are put into promoting football in the USA, it is simply absurd to claim that football fans are vulnerable to some kind of power that an individual acquires by not caring about the sport.  Whether or not you care about football, if you live in the USA you have no choice but to pay taxes that subsidize football, to seek employment in businesses managed by people whose small talk consists largely of discussions of football, to receive news and entertainment through media outlets that are saturated with football, and to be educated in schools where football is enshrined as the supreme collective experience.

Indeed, Americans are so heavily incentivized to like football, and football games are so intensively covered by US media, that I find it hard to believe that there are a great many people in the USA who haven’t tried to like football.  I suspect most Americans who dislike football simply find it impossible to overcome the stupefying tedium of watching a bunch of costumed men standing around doing nothing for hours at a time, and that most who complain about football or mock football fans resent the power that football has in American social life.

I would hasten to add that the experience of playing football isn’t dominated by the 90% of the time that players spend standing around doing nothing.  I have far more vivid memories from my high school days of the 9% of the time that players spend striking and holding poses in formation.  I remember the many times I was called off-sides, which in football means that a player is posing incorrectly.  While from the spectator’s perspective football is like staring at people milling about at a bus station, from the player’s perspective it is much more like being a fashion model.

There is so little action of any kind in an American football game that I cannot help but be suspicious of the reports one hears about the rates at which players suffer head injuries.  I find it particularly incredible that the almost perfectly immobile players of the National Football League can all suffer concussions during their games.  Perhaps they all sustain heavy blows to the head before coming onto the field, and that’s why they do so little during the game.

A blog post today by Rod Dreher reminds me of a hypothesis of mine about how football became so popular in the USA in the twentieth century.  Dreher quotes and comments on a conversation between Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis about how financial institutions and financial markets are able to exercise enormous power without much public scrutiny simply because their operations strike most people, including most reporters and certainly most politicians, as intolerably dull.  I suspect that the average American is aware of the fact that a high threshold for boredom is key to gaining wealth, power, and high status in our society, and that as this awareness grew in the last century football, the most boring of sports, crowded out boxing, horse racing, and ultimately even baseball to become not only the king of American sports, but the lingua franca of social interaction in corporate America.

*Hereinafter referred to simply as “football,” because this post is all about conditions within the USA.

If there is a point in a task when an interruption will result in disaster, assume that you will be interrupted at that point

Suppose a man hasn’t shaved in a very long time.  He decides to get rid of his facial hair, so he digs out his old electric shaver.  This is the only shaving tool he has, and it is not in good shape.  Still, it starts when he plugs it in.

So he goes to work.  Even though the shaver is clearly damaged and his whiskers are very long, it’s getting the job done.  He shaves his face first.  Then he shaves the top of his neck.  Then he shaves a path down the middle of his throat.  Then it breaks.  There’s no fixing it, and there’s no one else in the house he can ask to go buy him a replacement.

He goers to the store himself.  In the olden days, this would have been a potential embarrassment, if by some chance he had seen someone he knew.  Still, it would have been between him and that person.  The most the person could have done to make it worse was to describe it to other people, and the description would be less likely to call a visual image to mind than to raise the question of what happened.  The answer to that question would dissipate the embarrassment pretty quickly.

That was in the olden days.  Now people carry camera phones and post to social media.  So, our guy could end up like this:

I don’t know who this guy is, and have no idea how he came to look like that.  But the story above is the only explanation I can think of that doesn’t involve a lifestyle commitment to Seussical the Musical.  And it makes me glad that I shave my neck first.  Indeed, I sometimes think of the adage “If there is a point in a task when interruption will result in disaster, assume that you will be interrupted at that point” as Neckbeard’s Law.

I’ve searched for this adage online, but have so far found nothing.  There are a number of books with “Murphy’s Law” in their titles; perhaps one of those books would have a form of it.  And I find that there is a field called “Interruption Science” which consists entirely of studies about what happens when people are interrupted during tasks.  So if I wanted to christen it “Acilius’ Law” and gain worldwide fame, I’d start by looking in journals that publish research in Interruption Science and, if I couldn’t find any article there in which the adage was already named for someone else, proceed on to those Murphy’s Law collections.

The Mosley Shuffle

I’ve recently been rereading Robert Skidelsky’s 1975 biography of Oswald Mosley.  Robert Skidelsky* tells a tale the ancient Greeks would have recognized as tragedy in the strictest sense of the term, the story of a man of the rarest gifts brought shockingly low by his own insatiable vanity.  To think that a man as talented and as dashing as Mosley should have welcomed Adolf Hitler as the guest of honor at his wedding and should almost single-handedly have conjured up a significant anti-Semitic movement in England is to realize that a man whose capacities are such that he might have become a very great historical figure may in the end make of himself an absolute jackass.

What brought me back to the story of Mosley was a video that I saw on YouTube several weeks ago.  It is Mosley’s November 1967 appearance on the David Frost Programme.  In Mosley’s time, and indeed until quite recently, the ability to see hecklers off was an essential part of success in British political oratory.  Mosley was apparently quite good at this from the beginning of his political career in the early 1920’s.  After giving over 200 speeches a year throughout the 1930’s, encountering hecklers on the vast majority of those occasions, he was as good at handling hecklers as anyone could be.  It was to Mosley’s advantage, then, that the audience was quite hostile to him (well, what audience wouldn’t have been, by that time?)  It was an even greater advantage that the lead heckler, Solly Kaye, had been a frequent antagonist of Mosley’s in the 1930’s, so that Mosley knew exactly what to expect from him.  After the showdown between Kaye and Mosley in the first half of the program, one rather has the uneasy feeling that Mosley is going to come out a clear winner.  Frost appears to have felt that way, as he resorts to a rather frantic attempt to remind people that the amiable fellow sitting across from him is after all Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists and one of the undoubted villains of the century.

In that interview, embedded below, Mosley executes what I think of as “the Mosley Shuffle.” At the 27 minute mark, Frost asks Mosley whether he thinks Hitler, if he had survived the war, ought to have been tried for and convicted of war crimes.  Mosley says yes, that the killing of defenseless prisoners is a crime under any system of laws and so the murder of massive numbers of Jews in concentration camps should have brought Hitler and his top men into court.  At the 28 minute mark, he throws in a curious aside about that particular mass murder: “while I don’t think nearly so many were killed as were supposed to be killed, that doesn’t matter- that doesn’t matter- because any crime, the killing of any defenseless prisoner, is a crime and everybody must detest it.”  At the 33 minute mark, he acknowledges that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, then immediately blames Jews collectively for starting World War Two (“They made the greatest mistake they ever made when they produced that war,”) without which the Holocaust would not have been possible.

I call it the Mosley Shuffle because it does seem like a dance.  A step forward (the mass murders of Jews in the Nazi concentration camps were a crime that should have been punished,) a step backward (“I don’t think nearly so many were killed as were supposed to be killed,”) a step to the left (“that doesn’t matter- that doesn’t matter.”)  A step forward (it was 6 million after all,) a step backward (world Jewry was to blame for the war,) a step to the right (all of those Jews would still be alive and included within Mosley’s “Europe a Nation” project if Britain and France had listened to Mosley and taken a pro-German line in the 30’s.)  Considering Mosley’s association with Hitler, it’s difficult not to think of this:

I think I understand why Mosley would perform this unbecoming rhetorical box-step.  He was still trying to revive his political career in 1967; in the previous year’s general election, he and two colleagues from his Union Movement stood for parliament, receiving an average of 3.7% of the vote.  Mosley takes great pains in the last minutes of the program to ensure Frost repeats that figure correctly, then tells Frost that it is almost exactly double what the Nazi Party received in the German elections five years before Hitler came to power.  That prompts Frost to ask if Mosley still expects someday to come to power, and the program ends before Mosley can finish his answer.

Given his background, any revival of Mosley’s political prospects would have had to begin on the far right, with him consolidating their support, then expanding from that base to reach into the mainstream in a time of crisis.  By the late 60’s, many activists on the far right busied themselves with Holocaust denial, so if Mosley were to reemerge as their leader he had to leave some space in his platform for that noxious pastime.  On the other hand, people in general resent insults, and Holocaust denial is an aggressive insult to the intelligence of the average or even the quite substantially below-average voter.   So it must have been difficult to imagine a movement that allowed itself to be widely identified with Holocaust denial could expand beyond the fringes under any circumstances.   Therefore, Mosley could hope to reconnect with the mainstream only if he kept the denialists at arm’s length.

Yesterday I stumbled upon some writings by a spiritual heir of Mosley’s, a man named David Cole.  Mr Cole writes for Taki’s Magazine, an always-lively, rarely lovely far right publication.  Taki’s is quite undiscriminating in one sense; anyone who can write amusingly is likely to be accepted as a contributor, no matter how scandalous his or her background may be.  Mr Cole is a spectacular example of this; in 2013, after 15 years of working in Hollywood making Holocaust-related documentaries and promoting pro-Israel groups under the name “David Stein,” he was dramatically unmasked as a man who spent several years ending in the mid-1990s promoting a theory that the Holocaust ended in 1943, killing 4 million rather than 6 million Jews, none of them in gas chambers at Auschwitz.  Mr Cole gives two reasons for his retirement from the field of Holocaust minimization.  First, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing made him think twice about the sort of people whose support he was attracting.  And second, the Jewish Defense League offered a $25,000 bounty for his assassination.  When “David Stein” was exposed as David Cole, Mr Cole said that he still believed the stuff he’d peddled back in the 90’s.

Mr Cole’s article for Taki’s is a very amusing piece making fun of the media for hailing every re-editing and re-release of Holocaust-related footage as “a never before seen film.”  Mr Cole says that it was precisely this habit that made it possible for “David Stein” to establish himself in Hollywood as a Holocaust documentarian when he cleaned up some public domain footage of the Nuremberg trials and stamped his copyright on the result.  When Mr Cole describes his ability to get in on this racket, one remembers the old joke, “There’s no business like Shoah business…”

On his blog, Counter-Contempt, Mr Cole gives some examples that suggest the kind of thing he put out in the pre-“David Stein” era.  I was particularly intrigued by a post titled “My Unintentionally Negative Impact on Holocaust Revisionism,” he attacks one denialist after another, ridiculing their arguments and slamming their personalities, declaring that only an idiot could doubt that the Nazis murdered 4 million Jews.  Now 6 million, that he won’t accept.  His final paragraph is “Not everything in life has clearly defined, easily identifiable sides. This does. Revisionist or denier. Pick a side.”

The list of “revisionists” Mr Cole presents is “David Irving,** Mark Weber, and your humble author.”  This seems to be a complete census of the breed, at least of its living representatives as Mr Cole recognizes them.  The various “deniers” Mr Cole describes in this piece he summarizes (evidently with no more than simple justice) as “one man totally uninterested in history, another who forms his opinions based on who accepts or turns down his dinner invitations, another who is a self-described delusional psychotic, and finally a man capable of making the most sweeping statement possible while never bothering to read up on one of the most vital episodes of the period.”  Directed to “pick a side” between these alternatives, I feel like the would-be immigrant to the USA who was asked “Do you advocate the overthrow of the US government by violence or by subversion?”  He thought about it for a moment, then answered “By subversion.”

If we can identify the motive behind Mosley’s box-step, what motivates Mr Cole to perform his wild tarantella?  He doesn’t seem to have any master plan that will culminate in the building of a political force, as Mosley did.  Mr Cole seems to be in search of a small-time racket, the equivalent of running a three-card Monte game on a street corner.

Mr Cole seems to trade on the fact that he is Jewish by ethnicity, as this screen cap from his 1994 appearance on the Phil Donahue show would indicate:

Jewish Holocaust denier seems like a small niche, but I doubt there is much competition to fill it.

The passive-aggressive approach of at once conceding, indeed forcefully arguing, that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews, then making rather less impressive arguments to depress the number of millions significantly below the generally accepted figure, may fit the idea that Mr Cole aspires to be a two-bit operator.  While a highly ambitious figure like Mosley took care not to alienate any of the people he needed to achieve his [evil!] plan, Mr Cole seems to go out of his way to alienate as many people as he can.  He is clearly an intelligent fellow, so presumably this means that his plan does not require the support of any particular person or any particular constituency.  A three-card Monte dealer can get by with any two or three confederates to act as lookout and to lure marks in by pretending to be gamblers winning at the game, but a bigger time scam artist needs particular people and a large number of them.

Perhaps that in turn explains why an intelligent man with Mr Cole’s apparent talent for self-promotion wants to become the equivalent of a three-card Monte dealer.  He wants the independence they have.  At a moment’s notice, the three-card Monte dealer can disappear into the night and set up again in a different location.  That Mr Cole dropped out of sight and reinvented himself under an alias, playing another con game built around the same topic that underpinned his original dodge, sounds like something that a man would do who would rather be highly independent than have a broad scope of action.

*Usually on this blog I refer to living people by courtesy titles or professional honorifics, but I find the British aristocracy so preposterous an anachronism that I cannot bring myself to call Robert Skidelsky “Lord Skidelsky.”  Nor would I refer to Oswald Mosley by his title as “Sir Oswald Mosley, 6th Baronet of Ancoats.”  Since Robert Skidelsky does have that title, though, I don’t think I can call him “Mr Skidelsky” or “Professor Skidelsky.”  That’s why I’m stuck with his full name.

**To the extent that Mr Cole associates with Mr Irving, he is a bit more than just a spiritual heir of Oswald Mosley.  In 1961, as a student at University College London, Mr Irving seconded Oswald Mosley in a public debate about immigration.  So Mr Cole appears to have an acquaintance in common with Mosley.

What’s happening in northern Nigeria?

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office put out this map of Nigeria a couple of weeks ago

What’s happening in northern Nigeria? Eric Draitser, founder of the website Stop Imperialism, seems to have an answer, and he shares it with readers of Counterpunch in this, the first of a series of articles he promises to contribute there.

Mr Draitser lists three major factors that have made the rise of Boko Haram possible:

First, there is Nigeria’s domestic politics, and the issue of Boko Haram and the perception of the government and opposition’s responsibility for the chaos it has wreaked.  With elections scheduled to take place in February, Boko Haram and national security have, quite understandably, become dominant issues in the public mind.  The mutual finger-pointing and accusations provide an important backdrop for understanding how Boko Haram fits both into the public discourse, and into the strategies of political networks behind the scenes in Nigeria, and the region more broadly.

Second is the all-important regional political and economic chessboard. In West Africa – an area rich in strategic resources – there are a few interested parties who stand to gain from Boko Haram’s ongoing attacks which amount to a destabilization of the entire Nigerian state.  Nigeria’s neighbor Chad has recently come under heavy scrutiny from Nigeria’s military apparatus for its purported role in financing and facilitating Boko Haram’s expansion. Chad sees in Nigeria potential oil profits as it expands its own oil extraction capabilities throughout the Chad Basin – a geographical region that includes significant territory in Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger.  Of course, major oil companies, not to mention powerful western nations such as France, have a vested interest in maintaining their profits from West African oil. 

Finally and, perhaps most importantly, is the continental and global perspective.  Nigeria, as Africa’s most dynamic economy, presents major opportunities and challenges for key global powers.  For China, Nigeria represents one of its principal investment footholds in Africa. A key trading partner for Beijing, Nigeria has increasingly been moving out of the direct orbit of the West, transforming it from a reliable, if subservient, Western ally, into an obstacle to be overcome.  Coinciding with these developments has been the continually expanding US military presence throughout Africa, one that is increasingly concentrated in West Africa, though without much media fanfare aside from the Ebola story.

Mr Draitser goes on to explain how the destruction of the Gadhafi regime in Libya destabilized the whole region to the north and east of Nigeria, transforming Chad from a subordinate player in North African politics into a revisionist power.

Compare with the FCO map above

Mr Draitser’s piece is the single most illuminating thing I have found about the situation in Nigeria, and I am very glad to have seen it.  I do feel constrained to quote from something I read the same day, a blog post in which Rod Dreher, referring to discussions of conflicts in the Muslim world, including northern Nigeria, complains that “most people on the secular Left simply do not understand how religion works.”  That isn’t to say that we have to take the actors in these conflicts at their word when they claim that their motives are entirely religious, and certainly the conflict in Nigeria would not be possible without the economic and geopolitical facts on which Mr Draitser focuses.  What I suspect is simply this, that it is a mistake to leave religion out altogether when we are analyzing a situation like this.

Be that as it may, I very much look forward to Mr Draitser’s next installment.  He refers to a forthcoming “Part Two”; I hope there will also be a Part Three, Part Four, and as many other parts as he can manage.

The Nation, 2 February 2012

Art by Doug Chayka

Several interesting things in the 2 February edition of The Nation magazine.

Gary Younge predicts that the January 2015 massacres in Paris will strengthen France’s far right Front National.  I suspect that the opposite will in fact be the case.  The way I read opinion surveys like this one, France is like other Western European countries in that about a third of the electorate wants to alter immigration policy radically, either to stop immigration altogether or to eliminate all restrictions on it, while about two thirds of the electorate wants some or other kind of reform that will welcome a steady flow of law-abiding skilled immigrants, encourage immigrants to assimilate to the established norms of society, and keep as many criminals and other troublesome individuals outside the borders as possible.  These have long been the familiar goals of immigration policy everywhere, and I very much doubt that the mainstream parties will have any real difficulty finding ways to promote them once it becomes clear that the alternative is to start losing important elections to the Front National. Once the mainstream parties come up with something helpful to say about immigration, law and order, and similar issues, the Front’s level of support will recede, leaving its core of chronic sore-heads high and dry.

Stuart Klawans reviews a number of recent films, including The Interview.  I myself will never forgive actor Seth Rogen for the 2011 Green Hornet movie, but Mr Klawans praises Mr Rogen’s character in The Interview as the embodiment of what the world most likes about the USA:

The Interview is about a gossipy TV talk-show and the universal contempt that adheres to its host and producer, both of whom imagine that they will become respectable if they can secure an interview with Kim Jong-un. Being half-wits at best (the host’s capacity is perhaps closer to one-quarter), the characters fail to understand that Kim grants them an interview precisely because they’re imbeciles, whom he can easily manipulate. The CIA recruits them to assassinate Kim for pretty much the same reason—because they’re expendable dopes, who might as well be sent to their deaths.

At no point in the movie do James Franco (as the host) and Rogen (as the producer) violate this premise by winking at the audience or appealing for sympathy, even when they achieve their unlikely triumph. All they do is invite derision—buckets and buckets of it—for being professionally blinkered, emptily ambitious, chronically intoxicated, crudely chauvinistic, indiscriminately horny.

And you mock them for it—hypocrite voyeur, leur semblable, leur frère! Who do you think we are, a nation of Leon Wieseltiers? If we were, let me tell you, the world would not love us as it does. On that point, The Interview is absolutely clear and correct. We are indeed hated, as reflected in the anti-American ditty that begins the film, with lyrics that no venerable journal of opinion could reprint. But we are also adored, as the real Kim Jong-un adores Dennis Rodman, for the exact same lavish vulgarity that Franco and Rogen embody, and that can be preferable to the stern, manly virtues (I refer you to American Sniper) that so often win us the enmity of other people.

As Brody wrote, The Interview confronts the possibility that Americans might need to use deadly force, perhaps even pre-emptively, in their own defense. But the film does more. At a time when respect for military professionalism has become almost worshipful, The Interview might remind us that our army used to make do with grousing, goldbricking conscripts—people whom we are now pleased to call the Greatest Generation, but who were disdained in wartime England as “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

Let us never forget that Hitler was defeated by the likes of James Franco and Seth Rogen. That’s the best laugh of all.

I’m sure the conscript soldiers of the allied forces in World War Two did their share of grousing and goldbricking, though if they hadn’t from time to time risen to “the stern, manly virtues” of which their officers and NCOs so fondly dreamed them capable the world would be a much drearier place today.

Anyway, Hitler is a bit miscast in his cameo appearance at the end.  For all that he preached the stern, manly virtues, Hitler himself rarely exemplified them.  Between his time lounging about the streets of Vienna under the rather ludicrous delusion that he was a budding artiste and his latter days sleeping into the afternoon and sitting up through the night watching movies in his private screening room while others fought in his name, virtually the only time Hitler practiced the demanding code he would so famously preach was when he was himself a conscript soldier in the trenches in the First World War.  And that service, though it earned him two Iron Crosses (one of them First Class,) had its match and more than its match in the service of many hundreds of thousands of other common soldiers in the armies of that planetary conflict.

Indeed, it may have been precisely Hitler’s ordinariness that made his political career such an extraordinary success.  A man somewhat below average height, tending to overweight, a face utterly forgettable except for a most unfortunate mustache, originating from the middlemost of the middle classes, a failure in every youthful pursuit, devoid of originality in any avenue of thought, Hitler had no notable characteristic that would distinguish him from anyone else.  As a cipher, he was the perfect choice to symbolize a whole generation.  As Wolfgang Schivelbusch suggests in his book The Culture of Defeat (Picador, 2004, pages 235-239,) Germans in the period following the First World War had an urgent need for such a symbolic figure. The nations that sent their young men to the trenches were wracked with guilt at the slaughter.  Nothing about Hitler prevented Germans from identifying him with the war dead collectively and individually.  While most families, looking at a man with a truly impressive war record like Hermann Goering or Benito Mussolini or Oswald Mosley, or later on Leon Degrelle, might find it hard to believe that their own dead son or brother had acted so heroically, Hitler’s achievements as a regimental dispatch runner were a drama that would plausible with virtually any able-bodied soldier in the leading role. His lack of any dashing qualities made Hitler not only a blank screen, but a sacramental object.  Channeling their guilt through the figure of Hitler, the Germans developed a civic religion that made it possible for them to accept the horrific realities of the industrial age as they were revealed in the mass killing on the Western Front.

As it turned out, devotion to Hitler was not an altogether successful means of purging Germany of national guilt.  Since 1945, the usual theme of German efforts to work through the guilt that is Hitler’s legacy has been ostentatious renunciation of the stern, manly virtues.  Germans and other Europeans who sympathize with those efforts make up a sizable percentage of the people whose enmity Americans might earn by occasionally celebrating those virtues.  This civic religion has gone seventy years without starting a world war or committing genocide, so it must be ranked higher than its immediate predecessor, but “preferable to Naziism” is rather a low standard to meet.

The meaning of life (seriously- well, almost seriously)

Mother and son

A year or so ago a friend of mine asked me a series of questions, to each of which I happened to know the answer.  After I’d told her everything she wanted to know about whatever trivial subject she was asking about (it must have been a trivial subject for me to have had all the answers,) she asked, “okay, what’s the meaning of life?”  I laughed.  She pressed me on it.  I decided to play along.

My wife, Mrs Acilius, has cerebral palsy that affects her arms and legs in a big way, but her cognitive abilities hardly at all.  So a wheelchair and a trained dog can fill in for everything she needs to make her way in life as an independent person with a professional career.  At about the time my friend insisted that I craft an answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?,” I’d been spending more time than usual involved with her dog and his training, and was thinking that there might be some kind of deep cosmic significance in it.  So I took a shot at the question based on that.

Maybe, I said, it’s something to do with a reciprocity between care and need.  Mrs Acilius’ relationship with her dog has a meaning to her that a relationship with a human whom she or some social services agency paid to perform the same tasks wouldn’t have.  She and the dog both need each other and both care for each other.  A paid human attendant might need a job, but might not need her; she might need the help the attendant provided, but might not need the attendant.  In other words, the need that goes toward making a relationship meaningful isn’t just what the parties in it need from each other, but that they need each other.  And what completes that meaning is that those who need each other care for each other.

This came back to mind this afternoon as I was reading an article on 3 Quarks Daily about the value of children’s lives relative to other people’s lives.  The author, Thomas Rodham Wells, tries to fit children into a utilitarian moral scheme where they are “special, but not particularly important.”  I am not a utilitarian, for many reasons, some of which I explain here.  I do think that Mr Wells’ article is well worth reading, not only because he is a most sophisticated utilitarian, but also because his article can help to flesh out the idea that the meaning of life can be found in a relationship between care and need.

For Mr Wells, children are special because of their extreme neediness:

Children are special in one particular, their extreme neediness. They have quite specific often urgent needs that only suitably motivated adults can meet, and the younger they are, the greater their neediness. That makes children’s care and protection a moral priority in any civilised society – there are lots of things that aren’t as important and should give rightly way to meeting children’s needs. As a result, children create multiple obligations upon their care-givers, as well second-order obligations on society in general, to ensure those needs are met.

Yet the fact that you should give way to an ambulance attending an emergency doesn’t mean that the person in the ambulance is more important than you; only that her needs right now are more important than you getting to work on time. Likewise, the immanence of children’s neediness should often determine how we rank the priorities of actions we want to do, such as interrupting a movie to attend to a baby’s cries.

However, the special priority neediness confers on children’s needs is not to be confused with extraordinary value.  Indeed, children are, other things being equal, less valuable than are adults:

People’s lives get more valuable as they ‘grow up’ because part of growing up is having more life to live. The greatest part of the value of a human life, as opposed to that of a merely sentient animal like a mouse, relates to the development of personhood. Persons are what children are supposed to grow up to become. Persons are able to relate to themselves in a forward and backward looking fashion, to tell a story about where they have come from and where they are going, to determine how they should live, and so on. Persons are able to relate to other persons as independent equals, to explain and justify themselves, to make and keep promises, and so on. Personhood in this sense normally rises over the course of a life, peaking generally around the mid 50s, the traditional prime of life, before beginning to decline again.

The trouble with our attitude to children is that the less like this idea of a person they are the more valuable children’s lives are supposed to be. The younger and more inchoate their minds and the shallower their ability to relate to themselves, others, or the world the more important they are held to be and the greater the tragedy if one should die. Of course I don’t deny that the death of a child is a tragedy for her parents, I’m quite convinced of the depth of their anguish. But the fact of their grief that doesn’t address the issue of relative value. Is it really the case that the death of a baby is an objectively worse thing to happen in this world than the death of a toddler than the death of a teenager than the death of that middle-aged accountant?

The death of an adult person is a tragedy because a sophisticated unique consciousness has been lost; a life in progress, of plans and ideals and relationships with other persons, has been broken off. The death of a young child, is also a tragedy, but it seems a comparatively one-sided one, the loss of an tremendously important part of her parents’ lives.

I suspect that the idea that lives are to be valued because of their narrative content is more defensible than the idea that actions are to be valued because of their net contribution to the amount of pleasure (minus pain) in the world, and so I say that Mr Wells’ utilitarianism is more sophisticated than is the garden variety of that school.  Still, like other utilitarians he ends up putting lives in order by the rank of their worthiness to live.  In the Book of Genesis, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob specializes in this sort of ranking and presumably carries it out according to some rational plan, but I think it is safe to say that the job of the God of Genesis is unlikely to come open any time soon.  Failing that, the only scenarios in which it is at all necessary to rank particular lives by worthiness of life that are at all likely to befall any of Mr Wells’ readers may be battlefield cases where time is extremely short and highly-developed ethical codes are of little use.

Still, reciprocity of need and care, the potential for such reciprocity, need for a person rather than for anything one might get from that person, these are all narrative concepts, and all involve the kind of growth and strength upon which Mr Wells places such a premium.  Even a utilitarianism much cruder than his, which would be blind to these concepts, would still highlight the requirement that the needy person also have the ability to answer the other’s need for such a relation to have importance.

One of the weaknesses with the idea that The Meaning of Life is to be found in a reciprocal relationship between need and care is that people’s actual experience of moral reasoning in cultures around the world has many more than one dimension.  Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has recently attracted a good deal of attention with a model of what people are actually talking about when they talk about right and wrong, a model that operates on 6 dimensions.  One of these dimensions, an axis running from care to harm, is predominant in the thinking of many in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) circles.  Indeed, classical utilitarians do not recognize any other component to morality than care and harm.  Looking beyond the WEIRD world, though, we find that, while humans in all times and places tend to agree that it is usually good to care for others and bad to harm them, they also place great importance on other concerns as well.  Professor Haidt arranges these other concerns in five further dimensions of moral reasoning: loyalty vs betrayal, sanctity vs degradation, fairness vs cheating, liberty vs oppression, and authority vs subversion.

To go back to the example of my wife and her service dog, I think we can bring all of these dimensions to bear in explaining the superiority of a canine companion over a human employee.  Compare the direction of loyalty in the relationship between dog and handler with the direction of loyalty in the relationship between client and employee.  Dog and handler are loyal to each other.  Unless something has gone very far wrong, that loyalty is typically deep and untroubled.  Between client and employee, however, there is a complex network of competing loyalties.  The client and employee may or may not develop a loyalty to each other.  The employee, however, must also be loyal to whoever is paying his or her wages, who may be the client, but more likely is a social services agency, an insurance company, etc.  And in a capitalist economy, an employee cannot avoid being both cheated and oppressed unless s/he throws aside all loyalty to his or her employer and clients when negotiating wages and conditions of employment.  That isn’t to deny that this suspension of loyalty, like the suspension of disbelief when watching a play, can sometimes in the long run strengthen what was once suspended, but the sheer complexity of loyalty as a phenomenon within the marketplace does mean participants in the marketplace have a harder time building up loyalty as a virtue than they do when participating in other institutions.

In the matter of sanctity vs degradation, the reciprocity of care and need that the dog offers the handler brings sanctity into settings where a client and a human attendant might have to make a special effort to avoid degradation.  Sometimes a dog helps a handler to dress and undress, to bathe, and to do other things during which the handler is exposed and vulnerable.  The handler does the same for the dog, and the dog looks to the handler for every need.  Therefore there is nothing degrading about receiving such service.  Human attendants are usually trained to be respectful and inclined to be so, but even so, there is something demoralizing about the helplessness one feels when asking for help from someone to whom one can offer no comparable help in return.  Again, a qualified professional with the average amount of human compassion will minimize that demoralization, but some trace of it is always there.  With the dog, you are building a loving relationship in which both canine and human find something that can only be called sanctity.

As for fairness vs cheating and liberty vs oppression, the dog avoids the problems inherent in an adversarial economic system to which I alluded above.  This is especially the case in a program like that which has provided Mrs Acilius with her current service dog and both of his predecessors, Canine Companions for Independence.  CCI is funded by donations and operated largely by volunteers; clients pay only their own personal expenses.  Of course, it functions within the USA’s economic system, so it isn’t altogether a utopian scheme.  For all that Mrs Acilius is given to telling her dogs that they are “angels from heaven,” they are in fact bred and trained using wealth produced in our capitalist system, with all its characteristic virtues and vices.  But I would say that CCI’s philanthropic structure maximizes those virtues and minimizes the accompanying vices.

As it does with loyalty and betrayal, the market introduces complexity into the experiences of authority and subversion.  So an employee is under the authority of an employer and sometimes under the authority of the client, but occasionally is required to give the client direction.  This need not be an especially frustrating complex of roles, but it does make it difficult to see how there can be any great moral significance in any particular phase of it.  The relationship between dog and handler, however, is one in which the lines of authority are crystal clear.  And it is the mutual need and mutual care that keeps those lines of authority functioning.

So maybe my response to my friend wasn’t quite as silly as any response to the question “What is the meaning of life?” must initially sound.  I’m not planning to work it up into a scholarly project of any sort, because I’m not actually the sort of person who wants to have an answer to that question, but I’ve posted it here for what it’s worth.

Martin Luther King Day, 2015

Last week, National Public Radio reported on a study by Indiana University professor Sara Konrath and others.  Professor Konrath and her co-authors showed that, while Americans of all races think warmer thoughts about African Americans in general on Martin Luther King Day than they do the rest of the year, their opinion of General Colin Powell and President Barack Obama goes down on that day.  Professor Konrath’s theory is that this is because Mr Powell and Mr O are prominent male African American leaders, and Dr King was a prominent male African American leader, so we compare them to him on that day.  Since Dr King is presented on his birthday as a saint of America’s civic religion, that sets an impossible standard for any living person to meet, and they look bad by contrast.

I am sure there is much truth in Professor Konrath’s theory.  At the same time, I would point out that Messrs. Powell and Obama are particularly ill-chosen as comparisons with Dr King.  Dr King was a thoroughgoing pacifist, while Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 war against Iraq and Secretary of State during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  And Barack Obama is one of the most warlike US presidents ever, responsible for ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, for injecting the US into wars in Libya and Syria, and for sponsoring a coup in Honduras that constituted an act of aggressive war against that country, among many other acts of extreme violence.  If people actually listen to Dr King’s message on the day America sets aside to remember him, one would expect their opinion of warlords like Mr Powell and Mr O to be very low indeed.

In honor of this MLK Day, I’d like to post this statement of Dr King’s on the power of nonviolence:

Weak Russia, Reckless Germany

Valentin Serov’s painting of Alexander Nevsky’s triumphal entry into Pskov after defeating the Livonian knights

From the rate at which great errors are repeated, it doesn’t seem that people have much capacity to learn from history.  Look at Germany and Russia.  You’d think that the defeat of the Livonian knights by Alexander Nevsky in 1242 would have taught the Germans that the wisest policy at moments when Russia is weak is not to throw all caution aside and push eastward as hard as possible.  Yet that is precisely what Germany, in all its political incarnations, has done in the centuries since, every time Russia looks vulnerable.  Always before this has resulted in disaster; I don’t see any reason to doubt that the current push to annex Ukraine to the European Union will result in yet another disaster.

I realize that, since Germany is for various geopolitical reasons bound to dominate Europe, it is to be celebrated that its dominion takes the form of the EU.  Certainly the EU is in every way a vast improvement over its predecessor, the SS.  I don’t fault Europeans for accepting EU membership as the best deal Germany is ever going to give them.  And as an American, I don’t fault the USA’s leaders for realizing that our country’s economic and other interests require close relations with Germany and its satellites and maintaining an alliance with them in the form of NATO.  But I do wish that the other EU states and the USA would use their influence to restrain the Germans before their recklessness in the east again plunges us into a planetary war.

Blasphemy in America

Many in the West have spent the week and a half since the shootings in the offices of Charlie Hebdo rehearsing the same conversations about Islam and the concept of blasphemy that have been cropping up regularly since 14 February 1989.  One theme that appears with regularity in these conversations is that the elite culture of the West has been generating a continual flow of extreme blasphemy, mostly directed at Christianity and its symbols, for over two centuries.

I think this is true, but I haven’t recently seen what I think is the obvious conclusion to draw from this fact.  As a result of all the anti-religious talk and imagery that has been booming out since the Enlightenment, the educated classes in Western countries are divided into two large categories: nonbelievers, for whom “blasphemy” is a word that cannot have any meaning; and believers whose faith has survived so much mockery and insult that they cannot seriously suppose that any further blasphemy will pose an urgent threat to anything that needs preserving.  Neither category can sympathize with the demand for prohibition of blasphemy that emanates from the Muslim world, as embodied for example in the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s tireless advocacy of an International Convention Against Blasphemy, much less with the extreme violence that marginal figures like the gunmen in Paris employ to penalize blasphemy.

If freedom of thought is necessarily “freedom for the thought we hate,” and we in the West, believers and unbelievers alike, do not in fact hate blasphemy (though believers certainly dislike it, and nonbelievers can often see harm in it,) then it is no wonder that phrases like “free speech” and “freedom of expression” have come to sound like dirty words to many who live in societies which have not experienced hundreds of years of irreligion.


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