The careers of ghosts

One of Ambrose Bierce’s most famous stories is “The Moonlit Road.”  Three narrators describe the same killing.  The third narrator is the victim, speaking through a medium.  Two of the victim’s remarks suggests that Bierce had worked out some sort of a theory about what it’s like to be a ghost:

Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are unrelated. We know this well, we who have passed into the Realm of Terror, who skulk in eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives, invisible even to ourselves, and one another, yet hiding forlorn in lonely places; yearning for speech with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as fearful of them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is removed, the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the spell — we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave tenderness and sympathy.

A bit later, she elaborates on this:

You think that we are of another world.  No, we have knowledge of no world but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight, no warmth, no music, no laughter, no song of birds, nor any companionship.  O God!  what a thing it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey to apprehension and despair.

A very similar theory seems to inform the lyrics of Lila Burns’ “Young Hearts, Young Minds.”  A contender for “Ukulele Video of the Year” honors at Al Wood’s incomparable Ukulele Hunt,  the song enlists our sympathies for those who are powerless to do anything but “float around town/ just sing out loud goin oo oo oo-oo oo-oo.”  Whether Lila Burns has read Ambrose Bierce or developed her conception of the afterlife independently I don’t know.

While I’m at it, I should mention John Zmirak’s recent Halloween essay.  Who likes Halloween?  Radical traditionalist Catholics, that’s who likes Halloween.  Zmirak expresses a measure of sympathy for anti-Halloween Protestants:

Some homeschooling friends of mine confessed to me that they felt torn over whether or not to let their son dress up and go trick-or-treating; their Protestant friends kept telling them that this holiday was pagan or even Satanic. And given their theology, you can see their point: The souls of the dead are either in Heaven — in which case they’re not walking the earth and need not be appeased, represented, mocked, or even commemorated, depending on which reading you give to the way we Catholics appropriated old pagan customs that marked this time of year– or else they’re in Hell, and not worth remembering.

Only if you believe in Purgatory, Zmirak argues, can you fit earth-haunting ghosts into the world of Christian imagination.  Zmirak gladly claims the Addams family as rad-trad Catholics.  “Indeed, I think I may have spotted several Addamses at the indult parish in New York City…”  He urges devout parents not to dress their little trick-or-treaters as saints, but to give them costumes that display the eerie and frightening parts of life that Halloween is meant to confront.  He does draw the line somewhere, though:

Now, I’m very much in agreement that two-year-old children should not be dressed as Satan. For one thing, it’s a little bit too realistic. Indeed, the fallenness of children, which Augustine bemoaned in his Confessions, is so evident to everyone that garbing the little tykes in the robes of absolute evil seems to overstress the point. Nor do we wish to trivialize the serious, deadly purpose of our infernal enemy — dragging each of us screaming to Hell. If you’re feeling puckish, it’s in much better taste to dress up your kids as Osama bin Laden, Annibale Bugnini, or some other of the Evil One’s lesser minions. If you must dress your boys as saints, choose military martyrs, canonized crusaders, or patriarchs from the Old Testament. One suggestion I made as editor of the Feasts and Seasons section of Faith & Family magazine was this: Dress up your daughters as early Roman martyrs, like Agnes and Agatha, and your sons as the Roman soldiers, gladiators, and lions that sent them to heaven. Stock up on lots of fake blood for the girls’ machine-washable tunics, and let the games begin! (Alas, this idea never saw print.)

Bierce grew up in Ohio in the 1840s and 1850s; his family and neighbors were staunch Calvinists.  One of his sisters was so committed to that faith that she went to Africa as a missionary.  She was never heard from again; many Ohioans thought that she had been eaten by cannibals.  Perhaps she was an inspiration for the cartoons magazines used to run showing pith-helmeted figures in great pots of boiling water.  Bierce himself was alienated from religion; at times he made a show of atheism, at other times he cultivated a reputation for the Satanic.  The God in whom Bierce did not believe was the God of Calvin.  When he turned his imagination to the supernatural, Calvinism would have been his starting point.  Perhaps the isolated, helpless, misunderstood ghosts of Ambrose Bierce and Lila Burns represent a stage in the decay of Calvinist theology, even as the Addams family and other products Zmirak endorses represent the current stage of rad-trad Catholicism.

“I’m not a/an X, but…”

For a while, I’ve been thinking about sentences of the form “I’m not a [label,] but [statement.]”  After some quick searches on LexisNexis and Google, I think I can assign these sentences to two major categories: those which are a way of saying “Please don’t dismiss me after you hear this statement,” and those which are a way of saying “Please don’t dismiss me before you hear this statement.”

1. “Please don’t dismiss me after you hear this statement” sentences seem to break into two major sub-categories.  First, those where the form is “I’m not a [person who is hostile to group X,] but [idea that might be unhelpful to members of group X.]”  Second, those where the form is “I’m not a [person who stands to benefit from policy Y,] but [endorses policy Y.]”

Examples of the form “I’m not a [person who is hostile to group X,] but [idea that might be unhelpful to members of group X]” are not abundant in the results of the simple searches I have done, perhaps because the form has become such a cliché.  So, a Google search for “I’m not a racist, but” draws up many more examples of people denouncing sentences of the form “I’m not a racist, but [associates self with racist idea]” than actual examples of that form.  Among these results are a number of sites devoted to an award-winning book called I’m Not a Racist, But…  Perhaps the form is more common in spoken language than online.  It’s easy to come up with jokes about sentences of this form, jokes making it obvious that the person disclaiming the label is precisely the person for whom the label was invented.  So, this was the top result in my latest Google search for “I’m not an anti-semite, but.”   These jokes in turn have become so familiar that they can themselves be joked about, sometimes in jokes like this where the label does not suggest hostility at all.

The fact that a label shows up between “I’m not a” and “but” can suggest that the speaker believes that s/he would be dismissed if s/he accepted it.  By association with sentences like those above, this might in turn suggest that the label names some form of hostility.  So, “I’m not a feminist, but [endorses basic principle of feminism]” is a form of sentence that annoys people who regard “feminist” as a label to be worn with pride, not least because it may suggest that feminism represents a form of group hostility.

Examples of the form “I’m not a [person who stands to benefit from policy Y,] but [endorses policy Y]” are a bit trickier to find, but do not seem uncommon.  So, the top result for “I’m not rich, but” is this statement opposing taxes on the rich.

2. “Please don’t dismiss me before you hear this statement” seems to be, if anything, the more common meaning for this locution in online text.  Here the meaning seems to be “I’m not a [person qualified to give an expert opinion about this topic,] but [statement which calls for the support of an expert’s opinion.]  The top result for an overall Google search in the form “i’m not a *, but” is at the moment “I’m not a Buddhist, but…,” a list of books about Buddhism on  Not being a Buddhist, the person is not someone we would typically regard as a guide to Buddhism.  S/He acknowledges this, and asks to be heard in spite of it.  And I suppose we’ve all heard sentences that begin with “I’m not a scientist, but…”

Most Americans have heard the line “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”  This was the opening of a widely-ridiculed advertisement that ran on US television in 1986.  As I recall, it was on quite frequently for a good many weeks.  I never found out what they were trying to sell, as the rest of the commercial was always drowned out by the sound of my laughter.  Perhaps what makes that line so very preposterous is that it calls attention to the speech act.  The actor seemed to be saying “I’m not a [person qualified to give an expert opinion about this topic,] but [you obviously don’t care about that, since you’re watching this ad.]”

The return of The American Conservative

It’s been quite a few weeks since the appearance of the October 2010 issue of my favorite “Old Right” read, The American Conservative; I’d begun to fear that it would have no successor.  That particularly bothered me, as people who really should know better had in the interval set out to deny that an anti-militarist Right had ever existed.  Fortunately, the December issue is now up.

Highlights include George Scialabba’s piece on T. S. Eliot’s “revolutionary conservatism,” Justin Raimondo’s analysis of the Obama administration’s devastating impact on the antiwar Left that did so much to elect Mr O, and Bill Kauffman’s argument that the professional classes in the USA do not merely accept rootlessness and social isolation, but that they insist on it as a qualification for membership.  There is of course a heartfelt eulogy for the late Joseph Sobran, full of praise for Sobran’s principled antiwar conservatism, his quick wit, and his deep learning, though a bit skimpy on his rather less appealing habit of hobnobbing with Holocaust-deniers (a habit at least mentioned in this post on the magazine’s website.) 

Stephen Baskerville’s piece about gender-neutral marriage bears the promising title “Divorced from Reality: Don’t Blame Gays for the Decline of Marriage.”  Baskerville argues that “marriage creates fatherhood.”  Unlike Germaine Greer, who argued in The Female Eunuch that women should rise up against marriage in order to revoke “the gift of paternity” that the institution unjustifiably gave men, Baskerville sees in the social creation of paternity the chief justification for marriage.   He opposes gender-neutral marriage, as with much greater vehemence he opposes liberal divorce laws, precisely because such reforms threaten to deprive patriarchy of its charter.

“The economic argument”

Last week there was an xkcd strip that bothered me for three reasons.  Here’s the strip:

Two of the three things that bothered me about it were raised in this comment in the forum, more forcefully than I likely would have done.  So I’ll take the liberty of quoting “woodrobin”:

1. Dowsing is used by oil prospectors, as well as people looking for places to dig water wells. Less often these days, but it’s still used. Does that mean it works? No. Does people not using it mean it doesn’t work? No. Very few people use horses to pull plows, except the Amish and people in developing countries. Does that mean that horses can’t pull plows?

2. Health care cost reduction. That was funnier, taken seriously, than the original joke. When was the last time you ran into a doctor, hospital or insurance company that was interested in cost reduction through treatment? Any treatment, scientific or otherwise? Doctors and hospitals want to make money, and insurance companies have figured out it’s easier to save money by denying coverage for treatment, either in whole by canceling coverage, or in part by excluding anything “experimental” or “unproven.” In other words, it’s cheaper to exclude entire types of health care than to consider or cover them, whether or not they’re quackery notwithstanding.

“woodrobin” goes on to make two more points, about irrational practices that are in fact quite common in financial planning and military operations.

I would add one thing to woodrobin’s point 1, that people who defend dowsing usually claim only that it is a good way of finding water that is near the surface.  Most oil prospecting these days is concerned with deposits that are deep underground, so no method of shallow surveying is going to “make a killing” for anyone in that area.

My third objection hinges on the word “eventually” in the caption.  In the long run, the caption seems to say, market competition tends to eliminate irrational practices.  That may well be true.  However, that long run can be very long indeed, and in the interval those irrational practices can be reinforced by any of a wide variety of social forces.

Moreover, the rationality that competitive markets enforce is not the rationality Plato talked about in The Republic, not a single process that must culminate in a vision of unmixed truth and untainted justice.  Rather, it is the rationality Max Weber had in mind when he said that modern society traps its members in an “iron cage of rationality.”  Economic agents respond to the incentives of the market and develop ever more efficient ways of meeting the demands of other economic agents who have purchasing power.  Whether those demands accord with the sort of truth and justice Plato hoped to discover has nothing to do with it.  The mouseover text on this strip reads “Not to be confused with ‘selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works,’ which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.”  The distinction between making a killing selling financial advice based on astrology to suckers who think astrology works and making a killing selling financial advice based on astrology because astrology really works may have made perfect sense to Plato, but it seems awfully tenuous from the viewpoint of someone like Weber.


A peace movement begins in Afghanistan

Truthout has a report about a movement that started among peace-minded young people in central Afghanistan and that is beginning to attract followers elsewhere.  Here’s a quote:

In the United States, we may find it hard to believe that anything good can actually come out of Afghanistan, or we may have fallen into a trap of thinking that Afghans cannot accomplish anything useful without foreign aid and assistance. I confess that I struggle to live outside the shadow of this narrow-mindedness and ethno-centrism. Certainly, if the scope of our imaginations is limited by CNN and Fox News, we would not be likely to imagine an indigenous peace group forming in Bamiyan Province. But this is exactly what has happened.

More information is available here and here and here.



Philip Weiss’ latest

A powerful cri de coeur from Mondoweiss, titled “The occupation is the Stanley Milgram experiment for American Jews,” turns on this paragraph:

The general U.S. Jewish position is like the Stanley Milgram experiment, the famous Yale study in which paid research subjects were instructed by a researcher to apply higher and higher levels of shock to someone on the other side of a curtain every time he got an answer wrong on a test. And with increasing levels of shock that other subject– who wasn’t really a subject but a confederate of the researcher– howled louder and louder and passed out from pain. Still the students applied the shock. That is the American Jewish community. They hear the Palestinians screaming for 60 years but they have been told by an authority figure that the Palestinians deserve the shocks they are getting– because they are resisters, because they are terrorists, because they are animals, because they are violent, because their women cover themselves, because they live off the land, because they want their houses back, because they don’t have gay rights, because they read the Koran, because they want to return to their homes, because they elected Hamas… on and on the instructor justifies it with lies and bullshit, still the community cranks the dial and ignores the screams.

The Milgram experiment seems to have a powerful resonance for a certain kind of American intellectual.  For example, in his 1999 book The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick suggested that the USA might be a better place if, instead of recurring so often to the Holocaust as the ultimate index of political evil, Americans were in the habit of referring to the findings of the Milgram experiment.  I attended a talk Professor Novick gave in that year; from the podium, he made such a strong claim for the symbolic power of the Milgram experiment that half the Q & A session consisted of expressions of disbelief.  Still, I highly recommend Weiss’ essay, and for that matter Novick’s works.


Pretty in pink?

Yesterday, many US comic strips were loaded with pink in a campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer.  For examples, see the Comics Curmudgeon.  When I read the paper yesterday morning, what all that pink in fact reminded me of was the Financial Times:

Maybe the FT has been on a campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer for all these years, and it has just neglected to tell anyone about it.

Helping others, hurting oneself

In a recent issue of The Nation, Miriam Markowitz reviewed a biography of a remarkable figure named George Price.  The opening paragraph is an attention-grabber:

George Price was born a Jewish half-breed to parents who kept his Semitic side a secret; lived much of his life an aggressive atheist and skeptic of the supernatural; and died a Christian, twice converted, albeit, to his mind, a defeated one. Several years before he abandoned his career in a mission to shelter and comfort homeless alcoholics, he made a number of extraordinary contributions to evolutionary biology, a field in which he had no training. Educated as a chemist, Price had worked previously for the Manhattan Project on uranium enrichment, helped develop radiation therapy for cancer, invented computer-aided design with IBM and dabbled in journalism.

I suppose if your name is Miriam Markowitz you can use phrases like “Jewish half-breed,” though I for one would just as soon you didn’t.

In 1970, Price used a mathematical model rooted in game theory to revise an equation that William D. Hamilton had proposed as a means of analyzing altruistic behavior.  Hamilton and others saw that Price’s equation made it possible to analyze self-sacrificing behavior at many levels of selection at once, and to do so without appealing to notions of group selection.   This last point was especially attractive to Hamilton; as Markowitz explains, “Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness was a riposte to what he considered the naïve and ‘woolly’ group selectionism in vogue until the late 1960s, which explained altruistic behaviors with vague gestures toward ‘the good of the species.'”  Hamilton’s consistent opposition to all forms of group selectionism, be they woolly or threadbare, was one of the reasons Richard Dawkins named him as one who may have been “the greatest Darwinian since Darwin.”   Price’s theoretical work is basic to biological explanations of altruistic behavior; his own personal determination to lead a life of altruism, however, was infinitely less successful.  None of the homeless alcoholics he sought to help took much interest in his ministrations.  Despairing, Price committed suicide in 1974.


What Fred Reed understands

From a column by Fred Reed:

I understand that Americans have no interest in Mexico other than to give jobs to illegals and then complain that they have them. And of course to buy drugs and then complain that Mexicans sell them. But a bit of attention, even of realism, might have its virtues. Afghanistan is somewhere else. Mexico isn’t.”

Liberalism versus Sex

In the USA, it’s customary to divide the political spectrum into liberal and conservative, where “liberal”= “left” and “conservative”=”right.”  This tends to leave Americans perplexed when they hear people in other countries denouncing hypercapitalist economic policies as neoliberal or ultraliberal.  The easiest way I’ve found of explaining this usage to my countrymen is to mention H. G. Wells.   When Wells visited America in 1906, he remarked that the United States lacked two of the three major political parties that existed almost everywhere in Europe.  One of these was a socialist party.  While there was a socialist movement in the USA in 1906, no socialist party was a leading contender for power in national politics.  The other missing party was a conservative party.  Not only was there no major contender for power in the USA that stood for monarchy, an established church, and the traditional relationship between peasant and aristocracy; there was no constituency in American society that could possibly demand such a platform.  The parties that Wells did find in America would in the UK have been represented by the left and right wings of the Liberal Party:

It is not difficult to show for example, that the two great political parties in America represent only one English political party, the middle-class Liberal Party, the party of industrialism and freedom.  There is no Tory Party to represent the feudal system, and no Labor Party… All Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another.  (The Future in America: A Search after Realities, pages 73-74)

Liberalism, in all its forms, holds out the promise of a social order based on reason.  Left liberals, including some who call themselves Greens or Social Democrats, want to reform the public sphere so that rational dialogue among individuals will dominate politics, and through politics rational dialogue will provide a meeting ground where a diverse population can live together peacefully.  Right liberals, including some who call themselves Conservatives or Libertarians, want to reform the economic system so that the rational self-interest of individuals will dominate the marketplace, and through the marketplace rational self-interest will generate an free and orderly society.  In either form, liberalism places its faith in the power of reason.

Such a faith can be very comfortable indeed.  Liberals left and right sometimes annoy their opponents by seeming so “terribly at ease in Zion.”  Even the most complacent liberal, however, can hardly fail to notice that some extremely important areas of human life do not seem to invite reason’s governance.  Among the most obvious examples is sexual behavior.  Decades ago, science fiction writer Robert Sheckley imagined what a perfectly rational lover would be like; in his 1957 story “The Language of Love,” Sheckley presented a character named Jefferson Toms who learned how to make love without compromising reason in any way.  Toms discovers why the species that invented this art went extinct when he finds that no potential lover can tolerate his scrupulously accurate endearments.

Of course, Jefferson Toms’ namesake Thomas Jefferson was at once one of the supreme exponents of the liberal tradition and a man who likely followed his sexual urges to betray every principle that tradition exalted.  When they consider sexual behavior, liberals typically speak of “consent.”  That “consent” is a technical term which has little meaning outside the legal processes where it arose becomes clear when we speculate on what may have happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  As Jefferson’s slave, Hemings could not legally consent to enter a sexual relationship with him, or with anyone else.  The law of a liberal society would thus label any sex act in which she participated as rape.  Hemings may indeed have experienced her encounters with Jefferson as rape.  We certainly don’t know enough to defend him in any way.  But surely it must give us pause to realize that our idea of “consent” implies that none of the billions of human beings who have lived as slaves has ever engaged in a wholesome sex act.  A non-liberal Right might claim that this implication reduces the whole liberal project to absurdity, and throws us back to traditional definitions of social roles, rather than individual self-determination, as the proper standard for judging the moral status of any action, sexual or otherwise.

A non-liberal Left might respond differently, but with equal certitude that it had found a fatal flaw in liberalism.  In our own times, Catharine MacKinnon and the late Andrea Dworkin exposed the shallowness of the notions of “consent” that underpin liberal definitions of rightful sexual behavior.*  Those notions imagine a man and a woman facing each other as equals and deciding, by a rational process, whether they will engage in a particular sex act.  At a minimum, an act can be consensual if and only if both parties are consenting to the same thing.  This in fact never happens, nor can it happen in a patriarchal society.  Wherever men as a group are recognized as dominant and women as a group are labeled as submissive, a man will gain power over women and status among other men if he extorts sex from women, while a woman will pay a price for resisting this extortion.  Because of these facts, men and women make such radically different cost/benefit analyses before agreeing to sex that the parties can never be said to have consented to the same thing.  For this reason, Dworkin wanted to excise the word “consent” from rape laws.