Tuesday links

1. Mark Shea misses his pet troll, and is advertising for a new one.  If you have some hostilities and want to work them out by taunting a bunch of Roman Catholics, give it a try!

2. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw” dislikes the word “Warfighter,” and Mark Liberman isn’t sure why.  I have my own theories (here and here.)

3. John Wilkins asks why Darwin’s theories are still controversial, and gives a simple answer.  I suggest a slightly more complex answer.

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Something Brilliant

This was one of the Videos of the Week the other day at Ukulele Hunt, I hope it wins the Nobel Prize for Awesomeness:

 

Wednesday links

Zach Weiner explains very succinctly why it’s so hard to be a pacifist, Eve Tushnet reads about single mothers, John Wilkins doesn’t believe politicians have mandates, some guy named “Zippy Catholic” decides that women’s suffrage and abortion rights are inseparable (and therefore women’s suffrage must go!,) Laura Flanders and Eve Ensler have never talked to each other about their vaginas and don’t plan to start,  this map does a terrific job of encapsulating the results of the 2012 US presidential election, xkcd is hilarious, and Jim Goad can think of ten good reasons not to assassinate Barack Obama.

“The blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things”

“Azathoth,” by “Servant of Entropy”

Three days after the US presidential election, CIA chief David Petraeus stepped down from his post.  In his letter of resignation, General Petraeus confessed that he had carried on an adulterous liaison with a woman named Paula Broadwell.  Ms Broadwell had written a book about him.  The book was titled All In, about which title I will not make any jokes.

Many observers have speculated that there must be more to the story than this.  Surely the head of the most famous and most lavishly funded spy agency in the world could not be ousted simply because of a private indiscretion.  For example, on Counterpunch Bart Gruzalski speculated that the general may have burbled out some state secrets to Ms Broadwell, and that these state secrets may have threatened to damage the reputations of well-connected figures.

Glenn Greenwald analyzes the matter, and points to what I would consider the most chilling explanation of all.  Mr Greenwald points out that General Petraeus, as Director of Central Intelligence and in his previous posts as commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, would seem to have done a great deal that one might consider objectionable:

[I]t is truly remarkable what ends people’s careers in Washington – and what does not end them. As [Michael] Hastings detailed in that interview [broadcast on MSNBC’s Martin Bashir Show on 9 November], Petraeus has left a string of failures and even scandals behind him: a disastrous Iraqi training program, a worsening of the war in Afghanistan since he ran it, the attempt to convert the CIA into principally a para-military force, the series of misleading statements about the Benghazi attack and the revealed large CIA presence in Libya. To that one could add the constant killing of innocent people in the Muslim world without a whiff of due process, transparency or oversight.

Yet none of those issues provokes the slightest concern from our intrepid press corps. His career and reputation could never be damaged, let alone ended, by any of that. Instead, it takes a sex scandal – a revelation that he had carried on a perfectly legal extramarital affair – to force him from power. That is the warped world of Washington. Of all the heinous things the CIA does, the only one that seems to attract the notice or concern of our media is a banal sex scandal. Listening to media coverage, one would think an extramarital affair is the worst thing the CIA ever did, maybe even the only bad thing it ever did (Andrea Mitchell: “an agency that has many things to be proud about: many things to be proud about”).

Perhaps the real reason that General Petraeus resigned was nothing more than meets the eye.  While the directorship of Central Intelligence is a civilian post, the general retains his commission in the US Army, and under Article 134, paragraph 60 of the USA’s the Uniform Code of Military Justice it is a crime for an American soldier of any rank to commit adultery.  It may be the case that the Army prosecutes that crime only occasionally; however, if an officer of General Petraeus’ prominence were to be allowed simply to disregard a long-established and well-known provision of military law, morale in the ranks might well collapse.  So his resignation might have been unavoidable.

Mr Greenwald’s column is well worth reading; his main theme is the extent to which the Washington press corps has come to regard the US military and its senior commanders as figures above reproach.  So for example, when Mr Hastings listed the grounds quoted above for regarding General Petraeus’ recent career as something less than glorious, the ostensibly progressive Martin Bashir hustled him off the air with unseemly haste.  The overall portrait Mr Greenwald paints of the Washington press corps reminds me of C. Wright Mills’ concept of “crackpot realism.”  As Mills explained it on pages 86 through 88 in his 1958 book The Causes of World War Three (as quoted here):

In crackpot realism, a high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands. In fact, the main content of “politics” is now a struggle among men equally expert in practical next steps—which, in summary, make up the thrust toward war—and in great, round, hortatory principles. (p. 86)

. . . The expectation of war solves many problems of the crackpot realists; it also confronts them with many new problems. Yet these, the problems of war, often seem easier to handle. They are out in the open: to produce more, to plan how to kill more of the enemy, to move materials thousands of miles. . . . So instead of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher circles prefer the simplification of known catastrophe. (p. 87)

. . . They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out—except war—which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes they prefer the bright, clear problems of war—as they used to be. For they still believe that “winning” means something, although they never tell us what. (p. 88)

. . . Some men want war for sordid, others for idealistic, reasons; some for personal gain, others for impersonal principle. But most of those who consciously want war and accept it, and so help to create its “inevitability,” want it in order to shift the locus of their problems. (p. 88)

The crackpot realist regards his or her warlike worldview as the only one worth taking seriously for a most understandable reason.  S/he is surrounded by highly competent, impressive people who command great resources and occupy lofty positions within the social order.  The sheer fact that these individuals want a thing makes that thing seem reasonable.  That they constitute an isolated group with interests that are far removed from those of society at large does not seem credible when one is in their presence.  Yet the more impressive such a group is, the more of their wishes it is likely to persuade the public and policymakers to grant.  A group that is as impressive as America’s generals and admirals undoubtedly are will be very likely to press its agenda far beyond what the national interest demands.  Mr Greenwald quotes John Parker’s remarks on this phenomenon:

The career trend of too many Pentagon journalists typically arrives at the same vanishing point: Over time they are co-opted by a combination of awe – interacting so closely with the most powerfully romanticized force of violence in the history of humanity – and the admirable and seductive allure of the sharp, amazingly focused demeanor of highly trained military minds. Top military officers have their s*** together and it’s personally humbling for reporters who’ve never served to witness that kind of impeccable competence. These unspoken factors, not to mention the inner pull of reporters’ innate patriotism, have lured otherwise smart journalists to abandon – justifiably in their minds – their professional obligation to treat all sources equally and skeptically. . . .

Pentagon journalists and informed members of the public would benefit from watching ‘The Selling of the Pentagon’, a 1971 documentary. It details how, in the height of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon sophisticatedly used taxpayer money against taxpayers in an effort to sway their opinions toward the Pentagon’s desires for unlimited war. Forty years later, the techniques of shaping public opinion via media has evolved exponentially. It has reached the point where flipping major journalists is a matter of painting in their personal numbers.

To that, Mr Greenwald adds “That is what makes this media worship of All Things Military not only creepy to behold, but downright dangerous.”

Undoubtedly it does.  But there is more to it than that.  If General Petraeus, high priest and god-king of Washington’s cult of military worship, a man exempt both from the laws that forbid extreme violence and from the rational scrutiny that analyzes the costs and benefits of public policy, can be brought low by what is in the end a conjunction of personal weakness and bureaucratic inertia, then “the sharp, amazingly focused” minds at the helm of the USA’s military establishment have not coalesced into an intelligent policymaking body.  As individuals they are eminently rational; as a group they are a mindless thing.

Warfare and spycraft are endlessly fascinating to adolescent boys; much of the military worship current in the USA is an outgrowth of the fact that many men never outgrow that fascination.  Action movies, thrillers, and war-themed video games form much of the canon of twenty-first century culture; lessons about the rule of law, the value of restraint, and the role of diplomacy find little reinforcement in this canon.  I’ve taken the title of this post from the writer of another sort of story that appeals chiefly to adolescent boys.  H. P. Lovecraft wrote horror stories, eventually uniting them with an elaborate, and to me frankly rather boring, system of mythology.  Still, his description of one figure in that mythology haunts me, and seems perfectly apt as a description of the National Security State and its worshipers:

Before his eyes a kaleidoscopic range of phantasmal images played, all of them dissolving at intervals into the picture of a vast, unplumbed abyss of night wherein whirled suns and worlds of an even profounder blackness. He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.

(from “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1935)

A “flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers… lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.”  That fits the Washington press corps perfectly.  Perhaps I’ll call them that from now on.  Or perhaps I’ll shorten it to “the flopping horde.”

Fatigue. Hypothermia. Death.

Featured in an old Mental Floss list that I stumbled upon a few moments ago, a poster for some movie called Open Water 2:

I’d never heard of Open Water 2; honestly, I’m not sure I’d ever heard of Open Water 1.  But I haven’t been able to stop laughing at the idea of a movie that was evidently marketed under the slogan “Fatigue.  Hypothermia.  Death.”  The funniest part of it is the punctuation.

 

Why didn’t Mitt Romney know he was going to lose?

For a week now, articles, columns, blog posts, and wisecracks have been appearing in their thousands about the fact that former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney seems to have been surprised that he lost the presidential election.  The foremost of these publications so far is Conor Friedersdorf’s post on the Atlantic‘s website, “How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File.”  Also of note are blog posts by Josh Marshall and Claire Potter, a column by Maureen Dowd, and an article on Slate by John Dickerson.

The most quoted section of Mr Friedersdorf’s piece is probably this:

It is easy to close oneself off inside a conservative echo chamber. And right-leaning outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s show are far more intellectually closed than CNN or public radio. If you’re a rank-and-file conservative, you’re probably ready to acknowledge that ideologically friendly media didn’t accurately inform you about Election 2012. Some pundits engaged in wishful thinking; others feigned confidence in hopes that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy; still others decided it was smart to keep telling right-leaning audiences what they wanted to hear.

But guess what?

You haven’t just been misinformed about the horse race. Since the very beginning of the election cycle, conservative media has been failing you. With a few exceptions, they haven’t tried to rigorously tell you the truth, or even to bring you intellectually honest opinion. What they’ve done instead helps to explain why the right failed to triumph in a very winnable election.

Why do you keep putting up with it?

Conservatives were at a disadvantage because Romney supporters like Jennifer Rubin and Hugh Hewitt saw it as their duty to spin constantly for their favored candidate rather than being frank about his strengths and weaknesses. What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election.

Conservatives were at an information disadvantage because so many right-leaning outlets wasted time on stories the rest of America dismissed as nonsense. WorldNetDaily brought you birtherism. Forbes brought you Kenyan anti-colonialism. National Review obsessed about an imaginary rejection of American exceptionalism, misrepresenting an Obama quote in the process, and Andy McCarthy was interviewed widely about his theory that Obama, aka the Drone Warrior in Chief, allied himself with our Islamist enemies in a “Grand Jihad” against America. Seriously?

Mr Dickerson makes the case that Mr Romney himself was among those deluded by right-wing media into the belief that he was likely to win the election by a comfortable margin:

Mitt Romney says he is a numbers guy, but in the end he got the numbers wrong. His campaign was adamant that public polls in the swing states were mistaken. They claimed the pollsters were over-estimating the number of Democrats who would turn out on Election Day. Romney’s campaign was certain that minorities would not show up for Obama in 2012 the way they did in 2008. “It just defied logic,” said a top aide of the idea that Obama could match, let alone exceed, his performance with minorities from the last election. When anyone raised the idea that public polls were showing a close race, the campaign’s pollster said the poll modeling was flawed and everyone moved on. Internally, the campaign’s own polling—tweaked to represent their view of the electorate, with fewer Democrats—showed a steady uptick for Romney since the first debate. Even on the morning of the election, Romney’s senior advisers weren’t close to hedging. They said he was going to win “decisively.” It seemed like spin, but the Boston Globe reports that a fireworks display was already ordered for the victory. Romney and Ryan thought they were going to win, say aides. “We were optimistic. More than just cautiously optimistic,” says one campaign staffer. When Romney lost, “it was like a death in the family.”

Professor Potter draws harsh conclusions from Mr Romney’s apparent belief in his chances:

Peculiarly, since the race was consistently described as tight for most of the month prior to election day, and Obama had been gaining ground in all the states he needed to win, Mitt was entirely unprepared for the possibility that he was not going to be president. According to the HuffPo, Romney was “shellshocked” that he was not winning on Tuesday night, having genuinely believed that voter suppression would work all the major media polls were wrong. Paul Ryan and both wives were also stunned. According to CBS, “Their emotion was visible on their faces when they walked on stage after Romney finished his [concession speech], which Romney had hastily composed, knowing he had to say something….They all were thrust on that stage without understanding what had just happened.”

Let’s underline this: Romney had no concession speech, despite available data demonstrating that he could lose the election. None of the four adults who had planned to run the United States government, and lead the rest of what we used to call the “Free World,” seem to have understood that this outcome was possible. “On the eve of the election,” Daniel Lippman writes,” a number of polling aggregators, including HuffPost‘s Pollster and New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight, showed Obama with a huge statistical advantage over Romney.” And yet, despite the fact that Nate Silver, the boy genius of FiveThirtyEight, is almost never wrong, Romney chose to believe that these polls were just partisan attempts to persuade his supporters to stay home.

This is the outcome of lying: you have no real compass for when other people are telling the truth and you need to pay attention to it.

Ms Dowd echoes this point:

Until now, Republicans and Fox News have excelled at conjuring alternate realities. But this time, they made the mistake of believing their fake world actually existed. As Fox’s Megyn Kelly said to Karl Rove on election night, when he argued against calling Ohio for Obama: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?”

Much of this growing literature seems to be driven by the desire of those who supported the reelection of President Barack Obama to gloat over Mr Romney’s defeat and to make hostile remarks about his party.  Mr Dickerson’s Slate colleague Katherine Goldstein has appealed for a limit to this gloating, but her piece has attracted far fewer readers than his, and there is no end in sight.  Conservatives had raised similar points, speaking from of course different motivations, shorty before the election.  For example, on Election Day Michael Brendan Dougherty provided a list of five points to make in trying to explain Mr Romney’s defeat to Republicans who get their news from Fox and Rush Limbaugh, starting with “Lots of Republican voters died” between 2008 and 2012, and growing more trenchant as it goes.  Political scientists have been wary of entering the fray; political science blog The Monkey Cage has only featured one post that could be construed as part of the discussion, and that was structured as a conventional media-criticism piece, not a jeer of “Hey everybody, look at the dumbass!”

Turning back for a moment, Professor Potter’s remarks struck me as somewhat oversimplified.  So I replied to them.  I wrote:

I agree with most of what you say, but I do want to register one demurrer.   “Mitt was entirely unprepared for the possibility that he was not going to be president… This is the outcome of lying: you have no real compass for when other
people are telling the truth and you need to pay attention to it.”  I often think of George McGovern’s response when he was asked when he realized he was going to lose the 1972 presidential election.  He said the first time the thought entered his head that President Nixon might possibly beat him was about 10 PM on election night.  Granted, Nate Silver wasn’t around then, but there were quite a few polls, and they all turned out to be right.  What kept the senator from taking those polls seriously wasn’t that he was addicted to lies; he was a remarkably honest man, in fact.  Nor did he surround himself with sycophants.

So why did it not enter Senator McGovern’s mind that he could lose, when it was clear to most observers that he was on his way to the short end of an enormous landslide?  I don’t think it really is such a mystery.  If you’re goal is to win a major party’s presidential nomination, it helps to be the sort of person who never for a moment considers the possibility that s/he might fail in anything s/he sets out to do.  Donors who write big checks, activists who give up their free time to volunteer on campaigns, journalists who bet their next promotions on the campaigns they are assigned to cover, and other major players in the political system all want to attach themselves to the eventual winner.  If you’re given to self-doubt and you’re opponent is certain that s/he will win, you are at a disadvantage in the contest to attract the attention of those players.  Besides, major campaigns make extremely heavy demands on the time, energy, and finances of candidates.  If one candidate is doing a realistic cost-benefit analysis while another is proceeding from the never questioned assumption that s/he will win, the first candidate is less likely to meet those demands.

What about Mr Romney?  I would point out, first, that he has enjoyed considerable success throughout his life.  It’s true that he has only won one of the four elections in which he offered himself as a candidate, and that by a narrow margin, but in his years as a businessman he reaped huge profits no matter what he did.  Moreover, as the son of George Romney and a descendant of Parley Pratt, Mr Romney grew up as a sort of crown prince of Mormonism.  All his life he has been surrounded by people who expected great things of him.  It would be very strange indeed if someone coming from that background and going through a career in which hundreds of millions of dollars devolved upon him were not to believe himself to be a man of destiny.

In other words, I agree that Mr Romney’s privileged background and the overall intellectual climate of his party are probably factors in his placid self-assurance.  However, a highly competitive system like those which have produced major-party nominees for US president will select for candidates who exhibit that precisely that quality, and it is hardly a surprise when a nominee is so deeply shaped by it that s/he cannot see defeat coming even when all indications point to it.

I’d also like to add one point to the comment I posted on Professor Potter’s site.  Every candidate who represents a political party is expected to help that party raise money, build organization, and get its voters to the polls.  Even a nominee who is universally regarded as a sure loser will therefore, if s/he is living up to the terms of his or her covenant with the party, campaign until the moment the last ballot is cast.  Few people are interested in giving money, volunteering, or voting for a candidate who says that s/he is unlikely to win.  Imagine your telephone ringing, and a voice on the other end greeting you with: “Hello, I’m Peter Politician, and I’d like to ask you to devote your resources and efforts to my doomed campaign.  As you know, I have no chance of winning this election.  Can I count on your active support?  It will cost you a great deal of inconvenience, and buy you nothing but a share of my inevitable, humiliating defeat.”  I doubt you’d respond very favorably.  Right up to the moment when the candidate delivers his or her concession speech, s/he is telling potential donors, volunteers, and voters that s/he expects to win.  That’s a lot easier to do if you actually believe what you’re saying.

A sensible emptiness

Ever since Alexander Cockburn died in July, Counterpunch, the newsletter he founded and co-edited, has tended to let in more and more academic leftism.  Where a pungent, demotic style once prevailed, the pedantic jargon of reheated Marxism now roams wild.

Despite this sad falling-off, Counterpunch still carries news and comment worth reading.  I’d mention a piece that appeared today on Counterpunch’s website, “Atheism and the Class Problem,” by David Hoelscher.   True, it exhibits several academic vices that would never have survived Cockburn’s blue pencil, but it’s well worth reading nonetheless.

Here’s an interesting paragraph from Mr Hoelscher’s piece:

It is too often overlooked that economics is inextricably mixed up with religion. David Eller, an atheist and anthropologist, helpfully reminds us that the realistic view on this point is the holistic perspective. It sees religion as a component of culture, and as such “integrated” with and “interdependent” on all the other “aspect[s] of culture—its economic system, its kinship practices, its politics, its language, its gender roles, and so on.” It was not for nothing that Max Weber insisted that, in the words of Joel Schalit “the economic order is a reflection of the religious order.” It is no accident, then, that in the face of massive public debt and a wretchedly inadequate social safety net, various levels of ostensibly secular government in the U.S. grant 71 billion dollars in subsidies annually to religious organizations (as calculated by Professor Ryan T. Cragun and his students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega.)

That sounds a bit like Irving Babbitt, who started his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership thus:

According to Mr. Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with the re­lations between capital and labor. In that case, one is tempted to reply, the future will be very superficial. When studied with any degree of thorough­ness, the economic problem will be found to run into the politi­cal problem, the political prob­lem in turn into the philosophi­cal problem, and the philosophi­cal problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Of course, Babbitt’s point was the opposite of Mr Hoelscher’s.  For Babbitt, the most important questions were ethical questions, and the most important function of a social system was the formation of moral character.  Some virtues are best cultivated in conditions of prosperity; for that reason, Babbitt is prepared to grant that economics is worthy of some concern.  For Mr Hoelscher, however, economic inequality is the greatest of evils, and religious institutions are among the forces that sustain that evil.

I’d like to quote another bit of Mr Hoelscher’s, this one consisting of two rather long paragraphs:

Take for instance Noam Chomsky. The New Atheist message, he once told an interviewer, “is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.” If “it is to be even minimally serious” he continued, “the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship” such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism. Shortly after the death of New Atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens in December 2011, Chomsky’s longtime friend, radical scholar Norman Finkelstein, derided Hitchens’ anti-theist provocateuring as “pissing on other people’s mostly innocuous beliefs.” (emphasis mine) Brothers and doctoral psychology students Ben and Bo Winegard, in an erudite article effusively praising Chomsky, argue that the so-called New Atheists are directing their prodigious intellectual firepower at the wrong target. They believe, correctly in my view, that today in the U.S. “The most potent mythology [“even among believers”] is neoliberal nationalism and the most powerful institution is the corporation.” The church, they assert “is no longer an inordinately powerful institution” and thus the New Atheists have “mistakenly dragged a 200 year old corpse into the modern world.”

But religion as a cultural force is not nearly as moribund as the Winegards suggest. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released its latest survey of religious belief, which found that 80 percent of American adults “said they never doubt the existence of God.” How is that possible if religion is so weak? Diane Arellano, program coordinator for the Women’s Leadership Project in Los Angeles (and former student of Sikivu Hutchinson), writes compellingly about how most of the African American and Latina students she works with “come from highly religious backgrounds that discourage any form of questioning about gender roles” and about how it is not particularly unusual for her to learn of a pregnant teen who eschews the option of abortion “because she can’t ‘kill’ God’s creation.” On the political front, Christian “conservatives” are largely devoted to the fascist Republican Party while most liberal religionists are devoted to the plutocratic Democratic Party. In his perceptive book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank offers a convincing explanation for why large numbers of poor and working class people vote Republican and therefore against their own economic self-interest. The basic dynamic is that right-wing political leaders and spokespeople succeed in achieving a “systematic erasure of the economic” from discussions about class and replace it with messages that warn of liberal “elites” bent on undermining mid-American Christian cultural values. Frank’s argument is not a comprehensive explanation for the success of radical corporatism across a wide swath of the country—other important factors, including moral rot inside the Democratic Party, widespread anti-intellectualism (itself in large part an effect of religion), and the sophistication of state propaganda are a large part of the mix as well—but it does capture a substantial part of our political reality.

How is it possible that 80 percent of American adults claim never to doubt the existence of God if religion is so weak?  I can think of an explanation.  In the USA, participation in religious groups has been declining steadily for forty years; for much of that time, so much publicity was given to the growth of the fundamentalist Christian groups that many people seemed not to notice that the mainline Protestant churches were losing more followers than those groups were gaining.  Now the fundamentalists are declining too, and the mainline is still shrinking.  This is not because some atheist campaign has persuaded millions to deny the existence of God; if anything, larger majorities now express agreement with theistic statements than did back in the early 1970s, when over 60% of Americans attended church on a weekly basis.  There is no paradox here; it is easy to say the words that go along with an orthodox belief if you know that no one will ever expect you to adjust your behavior to exemplify that belief.  Mr Hoelscher makes much of the fact that the poor are likelier to say that they hold conservative religious beliefs than are the rich; a fact he does not mention is that the likelihood that a person will participate in a religious group generally varies in direct proportion with that person’s income.  Again, it’s easy to say that you’re orthodox if there’s no one around to hold you to it.

T. C. Frank’s phrase, “systematic erasure of the economic,” got me thinking.  It certainly is true that political discourse in the USA is strangely disengaged from economics and class realities.  I’d say it’s giving the right-wing too much credit to say that they are solely responsible for emptying politics of any direct expression of these concerns.  The various left wings that have come and gone throughout American history have succeeded in convincing virtually everyone in the USA that class divisions are a very bad thing, and that their existence is a reproach to society.  Since the liquidation of class divisions does not seem to be an imminent prospect, that leaves Americans with few options beside denialism and despair.  Among those who are interested, not so much in liquidating all class distinctions, but in countering the worst effects of them and building a sustainable social compact, there might be considerable social activism, as there was in the mid-twentieth century when organized labor was a power on the land.  But those days are past.  Unions are marginal players in American politics today, and nothing has grown up to take their place.  As Mr Hoelscher notes, the Democratic Party and other institutions that are supposed to be vehicles of the center-right are as silent about class division as are their counterparts on the right, and offer the public no means to resist the demands of the super-rich.  Where we might expect conflict, we find a strange absence.

As much as American life has emptied politics of challenges to the power of the financial oligarchy, so too has it emptied religion of challenges to individual moral character.  Theology, doctrine, and myth still waft about in people’s speech and in their minds.  These abstractions are surely the least valuable parts of any religious tradition.  Absent the human connections sustained by common worship, absent the presence of admirable people whose good examples can form the character of those around them, absent the sense of purpose that comes from the feeling that one is a participant in a vast multigenerational enterprise upon which inconceivably important matters depend, it is difficult to see what can come of theology, doctrine, and myth except conflict and needless confusion.  That’s what brought Richard Wilbur’s “A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness” to my mind; in that poem, its title a quote from mystic Thomas Traherne, Mr Wilbur rejects the idea of a placeless sanctity, of a spirit that lives in isolation from the flesh.  It is “the steam of beasts” that is “the spirit’s right oasis,” not the “land of sheer horizon” where “prosperous islands” “shimmer on the brink of absence.”  American life has become too much a matter of absences, its politics a contest of absences, its religion an organized absence, its art a proclamation of eternal, everlasting absence.  It’s high time we turn to presence again.

And they’re off!

So the results are finally in from the 2012 US presidential election, or as it is also known, the first tracking poll for the 2016 US presidential election.

In the last couple of days, I’ve posted a few comments in miscellaneous places making guesses about 2016.  On political science blog The Monkey Cage, I responded to Andrew Gelman’s prediction that the Republican and Democratic nominees in 2016 would be Paul Ryan and Hillary Clinton thus:

The Republicans have a strong history of settling on a presidential nominee early, and defeated vice-presidential candidates need time to put space between themselves and the slough of resentment that follows a loss. So I’d say that Mr Ryan is very unlikely to be the Republican nominee in 2016. The Democrats tend to look for fresh faces and to favor youth; someone like Ms Clinton, who has been a household name for decades, would therefore labor under a disadvantage in a 2016 bid, though her odds would surely not be as long as those confronting Mr Ryan. If I had to guess, I would say a likelier pair of finalists would be Mike Huckabee for the Republicans and Martin O’Malley for the Democrats. I hasten to add emphasis to the words “guess” and “likelier”; I’d be surprised if that were the matchup, just not quite as surprised as I would be to see a Clinton vs Ryan contest.

In response to a post by Daniel Larison on The American Conservative’s website, I expressed the same surmise about Mr Huckabee.
In response to another of Mr Larison’s posts, I explained why I don’t think that the Republicans will be nominating any Mormons for president any time soon.

 

Humanists, Idiots, and the Rest

The other day, Jessica Hagy posted an Indexed comic that made me want to talk about two things:

Regular readers of this site will see the first point coming.  It’s to do with the word “humanist.”  I’ve been greatly influenced by the work of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933,) an American literary scholar who founded a school of thought sometimes known as “The New Humanism.”  In many of his writings, such as 1908’s “What is Humanism?,” Babbitt concerned himself with the definition of the words “humanist” and “humanism”:

The first step in our quest would seem to be to go back to the Latin words (humanus, humanitas) from which all the words of our group are derived. Most of the material we need will be found in a recent and excellent study by M. Gaston Boissier of the ancient meanings of humanitas. From M. Boissier’s paper it would appear that humanitas was from the start a fairly elastic virtue with the Romans, and that the word came to be used rather loosely, so that in a late Latin writer, Aulus Gellius, we find a complaint that it had been turned aside from its true meaning. Humanitas, says Gellius, is incorrectly used to denote a “promiscuous benevolence, what the Greeks call philanthropy,” whereas the word really implies doctrine and discipline, and is applicable not to men in general but only to a select few,—it is, in short, aristocratic and not democratic in its implication (Noctes Atticae, 13.17).

The confusion that Gellius complains of is not only interesting in itself, but closely akin to one that we need to be on guard against to-day. If we are to believe Gellius, the Roman decadence was like our own age in that it tended to make love for one’s fellow men, or altruism, as we call it, do duty for most of the other virtues. It confused humanism with philanthropy. Only our philanthropy has been profoundly modified, as we shall see more fully later, by becoming associated with an idea of which only the barest beginnings can be found in antiquity—the idea of progress.

It was some inkling of the difference between a universal philanthropy and the indoctrinating and disciplining of the individual that led Aulus Gellius to make his protest. Two words were probably needed in his time; they are certainly needed today. A person who has sympathy for mankind in the lump, faith in its future progress, and desire to serve the great cause of this progress, should be called not a humanist, but a humanitarian, and his creed may be designated as humanitarianism. From the present tendency to regard humanism as an abbreviated and convenient form for humanitarianism there must arise every manner of confusion. The humanitarian lays stress almost solely upon breadth of knowledge and sympathy. The poet Schiller, for instance, speaks as a humanitarian and not as a humanist when he would “clasp the millions to his bosom,” and bestow “a kiss upon the whole world.” The humanist is more selective in his caresses. Aulus Gellius, who was a man of somewhat crabbed and pedantic temper, would apparently exclude sympathy almost entirely from his conception of humanitas and confine the meaning to what he calls cura et disciplina; and he cites the authority of Cicero. Cicero, however, seems to have avoided any such one-sided view. Like the admirable humanist that he was, he no doubt knew that what is wanted is not sympathy alone, nor again discipline and selection alone, but a disciplined and selective sympathy. Sympathy without selection becomes flabby, and a selection which is unsympathetic tends to grow disdainful.

Babbitt’s goal in drawing a sharp distinction between “humanist” and “humanitarian” was in part to efface another distinction.  Babbitt was deeply read in many languages, including several ancient languages of India.  He wanted to find a set of ideas that sages writing in every highly literate culture had expressed.  Indeed, he thought he had found such a set of ideas; by a wondrous coincidence, these ideas, the veritable Wisdom of the Ages, corresponded exactly to the ideas he had been expounding since his first publication, an essay called “The Rational Study of the Classics” that stemmed from a lecture he gave when he was Instructor of Latin and Greek at the College of Montana in 1896.  By laying such stress on the difference between, on the one hand, a “Humanist” who studies great literary works of the past and strives to conform his or her will to the ethical teachings that underlie those works, and on the other a “Humanitarian” who does good deeds to benefit others, Babbitt created a space in which to conflate the idea of a person who studies “the humanities” and a person who emphasizes that which all people have in common.  These two meanings would seem to need two words quite as urgently as do the meanings Babbitt found Aulus Gellius discussing, but by lumping them together Babbitt can lay claim to the Great Books of every civilization and enlist them in his campaign to establish a sort of substitute for religion and nationalism.

The second point I want to make is about the words “Idiot” and “Opportunist.”  Say you are a wealthy, powerful person, in a position to advance careers, allocate moneys, make introductions, and do all the things that patrons do for their hangers-on.  From your point of view, it would be foolish not to suspect a person who is showing you kindness of opportunism.  You will be approached by so many people who simply want hat you can give them, and such a large subset of that group will be capable of doing you real harm if you trust them too far, that you would stand to lose a great deal unless you kept your guard up.

At the same time, it would be natural for you to assume that anyone who is unkind to you is an idiot.  You know what you can do for that person.  The things you can do are valued highly by most people; you probably value them more highly than most, or you would not have succeeded in acquiring the power to give them to your favorites.  However, there may be some people who genuinely do not want the things you have to give.  Irving Babbitt is something of an example.  He alienated several presidents of Harvard and virtually all of his faculty colleagues by his strident criticism of the trends in higher education during his day.  Though his students included men plainly destined by birth and talent for the highest positions in American life, he did not cultivate them, instead building a following among bookish men marked out for academic careers at provincial institutions.  It was a matter of sheer chance that any influential people took an interest in him; if not for that chance, doubtless he would have ended up as a shopkeeper in his native Ohio.  Babbitt was no idiot; he simply did not want the things that powerful people had to offer.  Their position may very well have distorted their vision of him, as it generally does distort their vision of people who lack interest in their bounties.

Illegals

On October 15, linguist Neal Whitman wrote a piece on his blog in which he conceded that there are several good reasons to avoid the term “illegal immigrant.”  He cites three of these:

  1. It is politically divisive or inflammatory.
  2. It presumes guilt before due process has been done.
  3. It is inaccurate in characterizing people who entered legally but overstayed their visa, or did not come here of their own accord.

Mr Whitman accepts all of these arguments, and grants that the term “illegal alien” is dehumanizing and should be avoided at all times.  He does register a dissent from a fourth argument, however:

[The phrase “illegal immigrant”] is nonsensical, because illegal refers to acts, not to people.

Mr Whitman categorizes this claim as “just plain silly, and grasping at straws.”  He explains:

When the noun is the agentive form of a verb, and the adjective is the morphological analog of a manner adverb, there is a common, productive rule of semantic composition that gets you to the accepted meaning. Let me illustrate with an example unburdened by controversy. If I were to say, “Sandy is a deep thinker,” it would be willfully obtuse to say, “Hey, wait a minute! People can’t be deep!” If I were to tell you, “Lee is a beautiful dancer,” I could be telling the truth even if Lee’s face, when covered by a paper bag, could still make clocks lose two minutes per hour. In short,

dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker :: immigrates illegally : illegal immigrant

Object to the term illegal immigrant on ethical, political, or legal grounds if you want to. But don’t resort to claiming the term embodies sloppy semantics, when it’s the most natural way to refer to someone who immigrated illegally. That just makes it look like you’ll accept any old argument that favors your side, and weakens the more valid ones.

On October 17, I commented on Mr Whitman’s post as follows:

I have a reservation about “illegal immigrant.” It is a long, awkward expression (six syllables, two lexical items, several highly abstract notions embedded in it,) so people will naturally want to shorten it. And the form to which it always seems to be shortened is “illegal.” As in, “How many illegals are in the USA?” That usage doesn’t exactly invite the full range of opinions as to what our policies should be with regard to immigration. Granted, a phrase like “undocumented worker” also signals a strong preference in the same regard. Using either term suggests that the speaker has set his or her face firmly against one side of the discussion. Perhaps if we as a society declared both expressions off-limits in polite conversation, people would come up with a truly neutral term. Of course, there would always be the danger that one or both of the expressions would sneak back into the language and steel American jaws, but that’s just something we’d have to guard against.*

On October 22, functional linguist Daniel Ginsberg wrote this comment:

Full disclosure: I’m a functional linguist, so I tend to be skeptical of people talking about what “words mean” in the absence of a person who used those words to encode a specific message. Also, I’m pretty far to the left of mainstream in American politics, and I’ve spent years working with immigrants, so you can guess what my personal choice of phrase is.

That said, my intuition is that the problem with “illegal immigrant” isn’t as much in the semantics of adjective-noun compounds as in the associations with the word “illegal.” The top hits of a COCA** search for “illegal [*nn]” are “immigrants, immigration, aliens,” and after that we get into “drugs, weapons, substances, acts, dumping, gambling, arms,” as well as “workers,” which seems to be a euphemism for “immigrants.” Going down the list, other collocates that refer to human beings are always other terms for *ahem* undocumented workers: “residents,” “entrants” (into the U.S.), “population.” The top 100 collocations in COCA don’t show any “illegal” + person pairings except for “illegal immigrants” and synonyms.

So the question becomes, if the language permits “illegal N” to mean “person who did N in an illegal way,” why is N nearly exclusively reserved to signify “immigrate into the United States”? Why isn’t Bernie Madoff an “illegal banker,” or Jack Kevorkian an “illegal doctor,” or Lance Armstrong an “illegal cyclist”?

The CDA*** researcher in me says, we’re making a class of “illegal things” here, that is implicitly expressing an ideology about the nature of illegality. The contents of that class include assault weapons, addictive drugs, the pollution of waterways with industrial runoff, cutting trees on protected land, running a casino out of your basement … and sneaking across the US border because conditions in your home country are so dire that you have no hope for a better life there.

Mr Whitman’s post and the discussion appended to it presaged a news story that broke a few days later.  On October 19, the Associated Press released a statement announcing that it would continue to use the phrase “illegal immigrant” to refer to people who have entered and established residence in the United States without the permission of the legal authorities.  The wire service‘s defense of this decision reads eerily like what Mr Whitman had posted a few days before:

Finally, there’s the concern that “illegal immigrant” offends a person’s dignity by suggesting his very existence is illegal. We don’t read the term this way. We refer routinely to illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors and so forth. Our language simply means that a person is logging, mining, selling, etc., in violation of the law — just as illegal immigrants have immigrated in violation of the law. (Precisely to respect the dignity of people in this situation, the Stylebook warns against such terms as “illegal alien,” “an illegal” or “illegals.”)

The press release goes on to describe circumstances in which the AP would avoid the phrase or add qualifications to it, descriptions which again recall Mr Whitman’s agreement that the first three arguments he cites constitute good reasons for using another expression:

The first thing to note is that “illegal immigrant” is not the only term we use. The Stylebook entry on this subject was modified a year ago to make clear that other wording is always acceptable, including “living in the country without legal permission.”

In fact, there are cases where “illegal immigrant” doesn’t work at all. For instance, if a young man was brought into the country by parents who entered illegally, he didn’t consciously commit any act of “immigration” himself. It’s best to describe such a person as living in the country without legal permission, and then explain his story.

There are also cases where a person’s right to be in the country is currently in legal dispute; in such a case, we can’t yet say the person is here illegally.

But what about the cases where we do write “illegal immigrants”? Why not say “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants,” as some advocates would have it?

To us, these terms obscure the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law. It’s simply a legal reality.

Terms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized” can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork. Many illegal immigrants aren’t “undocumented” at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver’s license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.

Without that right, their presence is illegal. Some say the word is inaccurate, because depending on the situation, they may be violating only civil, not criminal law. But both are laws, and violating any law is an illegal act (we do not say “criminal immigrant”).

Mr Whitman’s blog is titled “Literal-Minded“; its tagline is “Linguistic Commentary from a Guy Who Takes Things Too Literally.”  So when he argues that the rules of English semantics permit a construction like “illegal immigrant,” it is quite believable that his agenda does not go beyond the explication of those rules.  The sheer fact that the phrase is well-formed does not mean that anyone should ever use it, and so his argument is by no means a defense of its use.  He recognizes this; the AP does not.  Its press release offers no defense of the phrase beyond its formal admissibility as a semantic structure, and does not answer any of the objections Mr Whitman had so readily acknowledged.

On October 31, Slate magazine carried a piece by Kerry Howley, associated with the title “Is Saying ‘Illegal Immigrant’ Like Saying ‘Illegal Logger‘?”  Ms Howley reports on the AP’s decision; a photo accompanying the piece carries the caption “Support for undocumented immigrants at the Democratic National Convention. Supporters of illegal loggers never showed.”  Neither Mr Whitman nor the AP had mentioned any particular group or individual that had asked the wire service to discontinue use of the phrase “illegal immigrant”; Ms Howley links to a website associated with the campaign known as “Drop the I Word.”  In response to the AP’s observation that “[t]erms like ‘undocumented’ and ‘unauthorized’ can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork,” Ms Howley argues:

“Illegal” suggests fault with immigrants rather than the system of laws in which they are ensnared. It’s possible that illegal loggers are illegal because of poorly drawn statutes about public land—maybe they’re really freedom loggers—but that’s not the connotation.

“Undocumented” places the burden on the bureaucracy rather than on the moral integrity of any particular person. That’s the correct position in my view, and I reveal prior judgments when I use the word “undocumented” just as restrictionists do when they say “illegal.” What’s bizarre is that the Associated Press, having deemed “undocumented” a loaded term, thinks “illegal” to be perfectly descriptive, sprung from nowhere, privileging no side of the debate. It may be that there is no objective term with which to describe people guilty of being in a particular space without state permission. You have to pick one and own it, which “Drop the I-word” seems to recognize. They suggest you start saying “NAFTA Refugee.”

Here Ms Howley echoes my comment of the 17th, though without my suggestion that we might try to invent a new term that will be neutral.  Of course, I made that suggestion in less than total earnestness- there doesn’t seem to be any great demand for detached, objective discussion of immigration policy, much less for new vocabulary to promote such discussion.  All sides of the debate are driven by people who favor policies which they regard as indispensable to their livelihoods.  In that position, people look at words as weapons with which to fight the enemies who threaten them, not as laboratory equipment with which to gain understanding.  So when you choose your words, you choose your battles.

*None of the subsequent commenters said anything about “steel American jaws,” a line of which I was somewhat proud.  I would have been happy if they had said it made them laugh, but I’m not upset that they didn’t. 

**COCA = the Corpus of Contemporary American English

***CDA = Critical Discourse Analysis