What is the point of having political opinions?

The other day, I saw a rather stinging tweet:

To which I responded:

What I was thinking of there were the op-ed pieces I’ve read in major newspapers focused on one or another high official, with speculation as to what options that official was likely to be considering in the face of some event in the news. Those pieces might be interesting if you are that guy, or if you are likely to succeed that guy in his post, or if that guy is likely to seek your advice. If none of those descriptions applies to you, an interest in pieces like that may expose something embarrassing about your fantasy life. Strangely, not only do papers keep publishing those pieces, but lots of people whom I know personally and regard as otherwise intelligent and well-adjusted avidly share them and enjoy talking about them, both on social media and face-to-face. It makes those conversations more bearable to think of them as “a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy,” so that’s one reason I’m grateful to B. D. Mathews for posting this.

Another reason I’m grateful for the tweet is that it has prompted me to think of ways of having political opinions that do not reduce to the moral equivalent of such a comment. Today I saw something good in the Weekly Standard, if you can imagine such a thing. Ian Marcus Corbin, in an essay prompted by a recent book on Nietzsche and Heidegger, argues that our social-media-driven age has prompted many of us to obsess over political  opinion-having. He concludes: “Politics may be a necessary evil—but talking incessantly about politics and viewing your countrymen solely through a political lens is an evil that we’re actively choosing, day by day. We should stop.”

The phenomenon Mr Corbin discusses is not morally equivalent to a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy; it is much worse. While the existence of pornography as an industry does represent a threat to human dignity, no one comment on such a site is particularly likely to lead anyone to hurt another person, or to degrade anyone, or to lead anyone to betray a trust.  Obsessive political partisanship routinely does lead people to do all of those things, and it makes it harder to repair the damage that follows doing them.

Nietzsche himself gave a good reason for having political opinions. In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote that a population which takes liberal institutions for granted will distinguish itself among the peoples of the world in its uncommon stupidity, a stupidity that no amount of schooling will cure. However!

As long as they are still being fought for, these same institutions produce quite different effects; they then in fact promote freedom mightily.  Viewed more closely, it is war which produces these effects, war for liberal institutions which as war permits the illiberal instincts to endure.  And war is a training in freedom.  For what is freedom?  That one has the will to self-responsibility.  That one preserves the distance which divides us.  That one has become more indifferent to hardship, toil, privation, even to life.  That one is ready to sacrifice men to one’s cause, oneself not excepted.  Freedom means that the manly instincts that delight in war and victory have gained mastery over the other instincts- for example, over the instinct for “happiness”… How is freedom measured, in individuals as in nations?  By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft. (from section 38, as translated by R. J. Hollingdale in the Penguin Classics version)

As usual, Nietzsche expresses himself in an idiom which some will find ridiculous and others will find terrifying. But his point is not so very different from that which a self-consciously civilized man like James Madison makes in that classic of liberal political theory, the tenth Federalist paper. For Madison, it is the adversarial structure of civic life and the mutual jealousies of competing factions within it that make it possible for a community to thrive:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

In a society where governments are formed and dismissed as a result of popular elections, the clash of interests cannot balance itself sufficiently to regulate the state unless large numbers of people attach themselves passionately to political opinions. These opinions may not rest on any very firm rational basis; think for example of the dispute between advocates of the Gold Standard and advocates of Bimetallism that dominated US politics in the late 19th century, a dispute in which neither side espoused a view that can stand up to one moment’s scrutiny from modern economic analysis, but which did as much to revitalize American civic life as did any of the more intelligible debates of other years. It pulled Americans out of an era of backward-looking regionalism to engage with politics on a frank basis of economic class interest. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that as a step towards reality.

I read Mr Corbin’s article, then turned immediately to Counterpunch. While the Weekly Standard is the most reliably pro-war rightist of major US publications, Counterpunch has long been the most reliably anti-war leftist of the same group. These publications are opposites of each other in those ways, and fittingly enough Counterpunch today features an article that is the converse of Mr Corbin’s.  Bruce Levine’s “Another Reason Young Americans Don’t Revolt Against Being Screwed” argues, not that too many people are too focused on political expression, but that too many people are effectively prevented from expressing or even forming political opinions.

The article picks up on an earlier piece of Mr Levine’s called “8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back.” Fight back, that is, against elites who are cheating them of their future. In today’s piece, Mr Levine argues that the internet has given young Americans several more reasons to disengage from politics. First, young people fear that an online indiscretion will haunt them forever, and so refrain from saying anything controversial in any public forum. Rather than quote Mr Levine’s discussion of this fear, I will insert a recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon making the same point:

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Second, they are debilitated by the low self-esteem which their peers inculcate in them by their own relentless self-advertising:

For other young people, their greatest fear is “FoMo”—the fear of missing out—which is intensified on social media where they are constantly bombarded with images of others doing “cool” stuff. One young woman recently told me, “You don’t know how crazy we are. I saw a party on Instagram that looked really cool, and I had FoMo over it, even though I know the guy who posted it always makes parties look cooler than they really are.”

Many young people tell me that the constant barrage of their peers’ self-promotions on social media makes them feel inferior; and low self-esteem—like fear—debilitates the strength to resist. One young man recently explained to me that millennials are always aware of their “digital selves” which can be measured in metrics such as “likes”; and that comparing themselves to others routinely results in low self-esteem. Of course, some young people do attempt rebellion, but effective rebellion, they tell me, requires completely extricating from social media, which would be an extremely radical action.

Third, online political discussion tends to be dominated by the loudest voices, those of self-righteous extremists on each side. Disengaged from everything but the sound of their own voices, these extremists make the internet a space where there is no exchange of ideas or building of community, “only mutual venom.”

Mr Levine thinks that his generation can help to solve these problems:

The Internet technology need not necessarily be a pacifying force as, for example, the Internet was effectively utilized during the Arab spring to foment rebellion and organize resistance. Similarly, some of the other pacifying forces that I originally detailed need not be pacifying. Teachers could inspire resistance against illegitimate authorities rather than indoctrinate compliance to any and all authorities. And my fellow mental health professionals could embrace liberation psychology rather than pathologize and medicate rebellion.

My experience is that young people, in general, are becoming increasingly pained and weakened by multiple oppressive forces, and older people who give a damn about them can help. The 1% will always attempt to seize powerful technologies and institutions to pacify all of us—especially young people. To manage these technologies and institutions, the 1% needs technocrats, administrators, and guards; thus, what would help is what Howard Zinn called a “revolt of the guards.” However, if technicians, teachers, mental health professionals, and other guards never even admit to ourselves our societal role—as guards who maintain the status quo—then we guards will never consider a revolt. Many older people are guards, and they can choose to revolt and help young people gain the strength necessary to resist injustices.

What Mr Levine envisions is at the opposite extreme from “a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy.”  While the current relationship of young Americans to the internet is all too aptly illustrated with the image of the socially isolated figure whose only offering to the world are the thoughts he has while masturbating, the relationship that Mr Levine imagines they might construct if their elders would stop enforcing that isolation and take the lead in opposing it is one that would bring people together to form new communities.

If political opinion-having in the online era is not a community-building activity of the sort Mr Levine has in mind, what purpose does it serve?  Daniel McCarthy makes a case that the appeal of ideologies in not in the quality of their ideas, but in the starkness of the contrast they make with rival groups.

Much of the political discussion I see on social media reminds me of what one might hear listening in on a therapy session.  For example, this photo was much circulated a couple of days ago:

 

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I saw this posted both by Trump supporters, who exulted that their man was the rock on which the waves of Western decline break, and by Trump opponents, who expressed dismay that the US president was behaving like a petulant child. I put it another way in response to a contrast between this photo and another taken a few seconds before made by a right-wing news outlet:

The photo that is valuable is the one that will enable people on each side to see what they want to see.

This almost literal political Rorschach test is not unique. Here is another such, occasioned by reports that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was about to be arrested on charges of sexual assault:

The photo of Mr Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow with Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have been taken in 1999, a year when the phrase “Clinton Derangement Syndrome” was much in the air among Democrats exasperated with the apparent willingness of a certain percentage of the US public to believe absolutely any story, no matter how far-fetched that put the then-president and his family in a negative light. Shortly after Mr Clinton left office, Republicans began shaking their heads about “Bush Derangement Syndrome”; since then we’ve heard about “Obama Derangement Syndrome” and “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” These are real things, and they are complemented by equally delusional behavior from people determined to regard the incumbent US president as somehow good.

That’s where the image of a therapy session comes in. The US presidency is a powerfully evocative symbol. That’s part of the point of it. For example, in 2008 many supporters of Barack Obama hoped that the election of an African-American president would call forth a version of the USA free of the old racial tensions; in 2016, many supporters of Donald Trump hoped, as many of his opponents feared, that his election would call American men to a more assertive masculinity. But as time wears on and those cultural transformations fail to take place, what the symbol actually calls up are the feelings individuals have about male authority figures in their lives. A president of your own party merges with all the images you carry of what might have been or what might yet be in your relationships with powerful men, while a president of the opposing party merges with all the men who’ve let you down. Discussions of presidents therefore rarely maintain any connection to questions of national policy for any length of time.  I suppose those discussions serve a therapeutic purpose for those who engage in them.

 

 

 

Dumb people on your own side

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter lately. This tweet does a lot to explain why:

I’ve found a number of people on Twitter with whom I agree on one issue or another. While I don’t intentionally follow any “dumb people,” most people who tweet more than a few times a day will occasionally say dumb things, and virtually all of them sometimes link to deeply ill-considered articles by others. So that site gives me a regular dose of bad versions of things I believe.

A conversation with John Zmirak

Today on Twitter, I had a little chat with John Zmirak. Dr Zmirak is a Roman Catholic layman who holds strong opinions about more or less everything. I’m always curious how people justify their opinions. In Dr Zmirak’s case, I’m curious by what exactly he has in mind when he appeals to the tradition of the church. In our conversation, I inadvertently put him on the spot so that he wound up presenting himself in a less flattering light than he deserves, but I still think I might want to look the conversation up again. So  here is a link to it.

 

 

Lawrence Dennis and James Burnham

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“America’s Number One intellectual fascist”

Every time I read something about George Orwell, such as this post by Nick Slater that went up the other day, I think of Orwell’s fascination with James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941.)  Orwell was harshly critical of Burnham’s overall position, though he did pick up Burnham’s prediction that the Second World War would end with the division of the earth into three totalitarian superstates as the background of 1984.

What I find intriguing about that prediction, as indeed about the major points on which Orwell focuses his critique, is that all had appeared in print before Burnham published his book. In fact, they had all appeared in the works of one author, Lawrence Dennis. As I described the situation in a comment on a post at The American Conservative three years ago:

Burnham always reminds me of one of his contemporaries, a writer whom he never, to my knowledge, mentioned. That writer is Lawrence Dennis. In The Dynamics of War and Revolution, published in 1940, Dennis predicted the division of the world into precisely the same three spheres of influence that Burnham would predict the following year in The Managerial Revolution.

In his 1932 book Is Capitalism Doomed? and in 1936’s The Coming American Fascism, Dennis developed in depth an economic argument which led him to the conclusion that the future belonged to states in which the great enterprises were nominally owned by private interests and were in some ways subject to fluctuations of markets, but were in the most important things coordinated and subsidized by the state. Again, this idea anticipates the economic views of The Managerial Revolution.For what it’s worth, in the 1960s Lawrence Dennis looked back on his arguments of thirty years before in a book called Operational Thinking for Survival, in which he concluded that he’d been right about pretty much everything.

Burnham’s theory of myth is also anticipated in Dennis’ books from 1932, 1936, and 1940, and was something Dennis enlarged on in his later years. Particularly in The Coming American Fascism, Dennis argues that when the social system he is predicting comes to the USA, it will be impossible for most people to realize that anything has changed, because the outward forms and ritual language of the old order will remain the same. There’s an eerie bit concerning this in The Dynamics of War and Revolution. Dennis predicts that, while the state continues to maintain a body of Constitutional law protesting its reverence for the concept of free speech, it will also prosecute dissidents. I call this eerie, because Dennis predicts that he himself will be among the first dissidents prosecuted. And indeed, in 1944-1945, he, along with George Sylvester Viereck and a bunch of pro-Nazi crackpots, was indeed brought to trial in a federal court on charges of sedition.

That prosecution collapsed, but Dennis remained far outside the realm of the respectable, his writings known to very few. So if it were to, shall we say, slip the mind of a writer to fully acknowledge his indebtedness to Dennis’ work, neither that writer’s editor nor the book’s reviewers would be at all likely to notice the omission.

Burnham’s debt to Dennis was not entirely unobserved at the time. Joseph Hansen, a leading Trotskyist writer and onetime bodyguard to Trotsky, reviewed Burnham’s first two books in the October 1943 issue of The Fourth International writing as follows:

Huse of the University of North Carolina, analyzing Burnham’s latest book in The Southern Economic Journal, July 1943, writes the following as his final paragraph:

“One reproach that might be made against Mr. Burnham is his omission of Lawrence Dennis, a Machiavellian if there ever was one, to whose Dynamics of War and Revolution Mr. Burnham himself seems peculiarly indebted.”

A Deadly Parallel

Who is Lawrence Dennis? – a newcomer to politics might ask. Dennis is an avowed fascist, who advocates fascism for America and who is widely considered as the leading theoretician of self-acknowledged fascism in the United States.

The charge of Mr. Huse is, therefore, a very serious one. Is Huse perhaps committing a Machiavellian slander? Perhaps we can clear up Burnham’s “neutrality” if we go to the trouble of comparing his views with those of Dennis.

Dennis has written three books, Is Capitalism DoomedThe Coming American Fascism, and The Dynamics of War and Revolution. All of them appeared before Burnham’s writings. All of them were written from the viewpoint of a man anxious to set up a fascist dictatorship in the United States.

In his first book (1932) Dennis reached the conclusion that capitalism is doomed. He maintained, however, like Burnham that he was not seeking to make “converts to a new economic faith or plan.” Dennis was interested only in measures to make the “old age” of capitalism “long and pleasant.” His “only dogma” like Burnham’s “is that people must think realistically … about the problems of the world depression.”

In his second book (1936) Dennis gave up hope of measures to preserve democratic capitalism and predicted the inevitable triumph of either communism or fascism, of which he chose the latter. Burnham during this same period chose communism only later to reject it.

On Marxism, Dennis declares:

“I am inclined to find in his (Marx’s) explanation of the existing system and its inevitable course to collapse many flaws in logic and science. (Isn’t this Burnham’s position? – J.H.) I find the idea of a classless, governmentless society of workers enjoying social order and material abundance fantastic and unattainable. (Burnham reached this view later than fascist Dennis – J.H.) It appears unattainable for the reason that social order requires government and administration by a ruling class or power-exercising class which must always be an aristocracy of management, however selected, operating through some set of mechanism of social control, economic as well as political.” (The Coming American Fascism, by Lawrence Dennis, p.7)

Some years after Dennis’s succinct conclusion, Burnham wrote a whole book to explain this same point of fascist theory.

“Incidentally, it is to be remarked and even stressed that Communist Russia, no less than the fascist countries, the billion-dollar capitalist corporation, or the efficient army in the field, meets with extreme thoroughness and rigor these universal imperatives of social order and administrative efficiency.” (Idem, p.7)

These “universal imperatives” have a familiar ring, especially in connection with the question of the class character of the Soviet Union.

Dennis, too, believes society is like a cabbage – only he uses the old-fashioned term “social factors” instead of the modern Machiavellian “forces.”

And here is our old friend human nature in his birthday clothes: According to Dennis, “Human nature has not changed materially under liberal capitalism. The masses have not the intelligence or the humanity, nor the winners the magnanimity, which liberal assumptions have postulated.” (Idem, p.100.) Where did Burnham go to school?

Fascist Dennis entitles one of his chapters, The Inevitability of the Leadership of the Elite. Here are some sample excerpts from this chapter: “Fascism says that the elite, or a small minority, call its members by any term you will, always rule under any system.” Seven years later, Burnham was to write this down as the claim of “Machiavellianism.”

The ground Dennis selects for his view is brutally frank – more frank than Burnham’s ground:

“The central point is that it is useful to think of government and management as being the function of a minority, and that it is not useful to any good social purpose to proceed on the theory that the people or the majority rule.” (Idem, pp.234-5.)

This view is “useful” of course for the establishment of fascism which Dennis advocates. Unlike Burnham, Dennis has a clear goal. For the means to this goal, it is clear he has made a close study of what was efficacious in Italy and Germany.

Dennis even presents Burnham’s arguments – in advance of the clever Burnham – as to why there will aways be a ruling class. First argument: “Civilizations come and go, but the elite go on forever” because of the “limitations and inequalities inherent in human personalities.” (Idem, p.236) Second argument: “The sheer mechanics of administration and management of large numbers of people and the complex instruments of modern civilization” require a ruling class. But in place of “Machiavellianism,” Dennis uses these arguments to advocate fascism.

If the reviewers of Burnham’s book would like a better insight into some of Burnham’s contentions about the Machiavellians as defenders of freedom let them check fascist Dennis. “The elite do rule” but this does not mean that the “elite are subject to no control by the people.” The majority may be organized by an “out-elite” and “replace one set of the elite in power by another.”

“The problem of order and welfare, in the light of the … inevitability of the leadership of the elite or a minority, appears to be largely one of getting the right elite or minority in power…” (Idem, pp. 242-3)

Almost word for word this appears seven years later in Burnham’s book. We don’t believe Burnham consciously plagiarized from Dennis although at times the similarity is so striking as to require an effort of will to keep from becoming a convert to Burnham’s theory about the depravity of human nature.

Dennis continues: “It is one of the merits of fascism, and a part of its appeal, that its leaders do not dissimulate their rule or try to place responsibility for their rule on a phantom of definition and assumption – such as, the majority or the proletariat.” Burnham claims this to be the distinctive merit of “Machiavellianism.”

Dennis ends his book on the problem of the fascist party, its organization and its method of action. He believes the time not yet ripe (1936) and calls only for “preparatory thinking and discussion.”

It is only in this final chapter that we find the main difference between Dennis and Burnham. All other differences are at bottom differences of terminology.

Fascist Forecasts

In 1940, Lawrence Dennis published his third book. All his volumes thus precede Burnham’s and if credit is to be given for development of theory it is customary in the world of science to recognize the first in time. Let us see, therefore, what is rightfully Burnham’s and what Dennis’s – all the while keeping an eye out for any fascist or Machiavellian trickery.

Dennis starts out on a pessimistic note:

“This book is addressed not to the masses but to the elite or to the ruling groups, actual and potential … it will never be read by the masses … it is too rational to appeal to the masses.”

We rub our eyes and proceed.

Now we are in for a shock. Dennis, like Burnham, predicts a new system to replace capitalism. “I am prepared to record definitely and stand on the prediction that capitalism is doomed and socialism will triumph.” But what does Mr. Dennis mean by “socialism”?

“The terms communism (referring to the revolution in Russia), Fascism (referring to the revolution in Italy), Nazism (referring to the revolution in Germany) and the New Deal (referring to the revolution in America) now appear clearly to be each just a local ism. Looking at the entire world situation, one may now say that there is just one revolution and just one significant ism: socialism.”

Dennis’s “socialism” turns out to be identical with Burnham’s “managerial society.” Did Burnham expound this very same thesis with greater brilliance when he called it the “managerial revolution”?

Dennis even has in a nutshell Burnham’s description of the differences in the course followed by the “managerial revolution”:

“Fascism and Nazism, differ from communism mainly in the manner of coming into operation. A vital element of the Fascist and Nazi way of coming to power was the taking of the big business men and middle classes into the socialist camp without resistance and, even with enthusiasm …”

Dennis speaking in the light of the German and Italian experiences explains a lot of things.

“The main purpose of a realistic approach to current problems must be to prepare the minds of the elite minority capable of leadership when the time comes for such leadership. The time is not yet ripe …”

Thank God for that favor. But “The real leaders of the new American revolution will at some stage of the collapse have to sell themselves to a considerable number of people.”

What Next?

Dennis even anticipated books of Burnham’s type. “As the world swaps revolutions and imperialisms” Americans will “take new bearings.” He recommends that they reject Karl Marx and turn to Machiavelli. Again,

“The present ins in the democracies are neither organized nor class conscious. The changed mechanics, after we go to war, will at once work for a clarification of thinking about power by the outs or marginal ins among the elite.”

Burnham began by rejecting the materialist dialectics. In the end he rejected Marxism completely and took a number of the more nervous rabbits along with him in his flight, penning them up in the Workers Party. But Burnham was in such a hurry to get some place that this Workers Party became irksome baggage. He discarded it the way a soldier of fortune discards a trophy of war when it stands in the way of richer loot. He has written feverishly – in his spare time producing two books within two years, one of them creating quite a ripple among the “elite” of the petty bourgeoisie. The theories developed in these two books, while not plagiarized, we trust, from the works of the fascist Lawrence Dennis, at least provide a remarkable demonstration of how great minds run in similar channels.

Hansen’s assertion that Burnham’s works were “not plagiarized, we trust, from the works of the fascist Lawrence Dennis” might be sarcastic. Others have suspected that Burnham plagiarized Dennis’ works wholesale. See page 191, note 8, of Political Reason in the Age of Ideology: Essays in Honor of Raymond Aron edited by Bryan-Paul Frost and Daniel J. Mahoney (Transaction Press, 2007.) where it is stated that not only Burnham, but also E. H. Carr used Dennis’ work without attribution.

It is something of a misfortune that one of the most trenchant statements about the relationship between Burnham’s work and Dennis’ was written  by a figure even more thoroughly stigmatized than Dennis himself. The late Keith Stimely was a far-Right figure, for a time a neo-Nazi, who by the time of his death had become a Satanist. Evidently his goal in life was to shock as many people as possible. At any rate, his essay “Lawrence Dennis and a ‘Frontier Thesis’ for American Capitalism” is quite well-done. The version of it linked here includes a note by the late Sam Francis citing his own argument that Burnham arrived at his conclusions independently of Dennis.

If it was worth George Orwell’s time, and for that matter Joseph Hansen’s, to argue against Burnham’s presentation of Dennis’ ideas, surely it would be worth someone’s time to engage with Dennis’ own works. I would say that Dennis was in many ways a stronger thinker than Burnham. For example, while Burnham did predict that the Axis would be victorious in the Second World War, Dennis argued that fascism would come to the USA as the price of America’s victory in that war. Dennis predicted that this postwar fascism would be called by some name other than “fascism,” and indeed that its exponents would claim to be the archenemies of fascism, but that it would embody the substance of Mussolini’s system. Writing in the 1960s, Dennis saw no reason to renounce this prediction.

 

Popin’ ain’t easy

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(Not the actual pope)

I’ve always been interested in what happens when there’s a disconnect between an elite and the group it is supposed to lead. So the one thing I understood correctly about the 2016 US presidential campaign while it was going on was that the vast majority of Republican primary voters (93% in one survey) wanted to see immigration policy made more restrictive, while most of that party’s senior leaders were committed to initiatives that would make immigration policy less restrictive.  That kind of disconnect is simply not sustainable, not on such an important issue.  So while I did not expect that Donald J. Trump, a.k.a. Don John of Astoria, would win the Republican nomination, I expected him to lose to someone like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or Texas senator Ted Cruz, who would adopt a hard-line restrictionist immigration policy and pass Don John on the right on that issue.

 

Recently I’ve read some articles about Pope Francis that make me wonder if he is not

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(Not actually Jude Law) 

finding himself in a position in the Roman Catholic hierarchy analogous to that which Republican politicians like John Ellis Bush occupied in their party in 2015-2016. Here’s one explaining that many people in the Vatican, and probably most of the younger priests everywhere, are so frustrated with Francis’ way of raising the hopes of progressives that the next conclave might choose a pontiff as ferociously reactionary as the fictional hero of HBO’s absurdist miniseries The Young Pope.  Some say that the pope is excessively loyal to his friends and their friends, including those who are child molesters; some say that he has surrounded himself with a tiny group of intimates, and listens to no one else.

Now let me hasten to say that this question is none of my business, in that I am not and never have been a Roman Catholic.  What brought it to mind was an exchange I had last night and this morning on Twitter with scholar and beagle lover John Zmirak.  Mr Zmirak, a very conservative Roman Catholic, is quite pessimistic about the likely consequences of Francis’ pontificate.  In response to a tweet of his about how some pro-choice advocates had expressed pleasure with the “direction Francis is taking the Catholic Church,” I responded:

He answered:

(I should mention that I habitually refer to the two most recent Roman popes by their original surnames, in part because I’d been aware of Cardinals Ratzinger and Bergoglio for years before they ascended to the papacy, and in part because I am a dyed-in-the-wool republican who dislikes all monarchical pretension. As an Anglican, I rather wish the Roman Catholics would adopt our traditional styles so that I could introduce Francis as “the Most Rev’d Mr Bergoglio” and call him simply “Mr Bergoglio” thereafter, but I doubt they will.)

Mr Zmirak’s reply, and mine:

And his final word:

Mr Zmirak seems to be quite firmly convinced that anything could happen in the immediate aftermath of the next conclave. He knows more about it than I do, and has a personal investment in the topic. All I can offer is uninformed speculation.

Which is precisely what I will now offer.  If Francis is indeed as bad as the articles I’ve linked above suggest, and if the tendencies he represents are as much on the decline on the Roman Catholic Church as the authors of those pieces seem to believe, then I can imagine a scenario in which the conclave that picks his successor will end in a split. If those conditions obtain now, and if they continue to intensify for another 10 or 12 years, then a situation might arise in which a Bergoglian faction might be very strong in the upper reaches of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and very weak everywhere else.

Isolated elites sometimes grow reckless, realizing that they have everything to lose if new leaders should rise within the institutions atop which they so uneasily sit.  Rather than than trying to find common ground with its critics, such an insecure elite might be quick to silence them, making examples of prominent individuals and well-established groups that have not associated themselves with the current leadership.  Rather than allow the circulation of talent that might create rivals whom they could not contain, an insecure elite might try to stifle the normal processes of institutional life.

If that were to happen in the Vatican, then this hypothetical Bergoglian faction might resort to some kind of desperate measures to elect one of their own at the next conclave. If such an effort were successful, and if the desperate measures were irregular enough, anti-Bergoglian conservatives might regard the result as illegitimate, perhaps openly declaring its winner an antipope. If it were to be unsuccessful, the defeated Bergoglians might conclude that they had nowhere to go within the existing structure of the Roman Church, and so they might walk out and declare one of their own to be the true pope.

As I said to Mr Zmirak, it is difficult for me to believe that the situation in Rome has in fact come to so desperate a pass. Surely the bulk of the leadership is going to be committed to trying to make the thing work, whoever the pope is. I don’t even know whether the descriptions of Francis’ troubles that I’ve read are a fair representation of the situation, since they’ve all been brought to my attention by Roman Catholics like Mr Zmirak who are convinced that Francis has gone round the bend and is doing a terrible job. Most of the moderate and liberal Roman Catholics of my acquaintance don’t seem to be spending a lot of time thinking about the papacy right now, except for those who are fans of The Young Pope, and their only opinion about Francis seems to be that he isn’t as handsome as Jude Law.

Christ, Marx, Wood, and Wei

 

fawcettthisperfectdaybyiralevin565About a year ago, I was browsing in a used bookstore and saw an old paperback copy of something I’d never before heard of: This Perfect Day, a dystopian novel by Ira Levin. It looked interesting enough that I paid my 85 cents and took it home.

As soon as I finished it, I started writing a blog post about it. I abandoned that post when I realized that the plot is full of so many ingenious twists, and so much of what gives the book its enduring interest, can be explained only by describing events that take place after the most surprising of those twists, that it would be impossible to review it without ruining the story.

Those who have read the novel will recognize the title of this post as the first line of a rhyme that members of the society depicted in the novel habitually recite:

Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei,

       Led us to this perfect day.

Marx, Wood, Wei and Christ,

       All but Wei were sacrificed.

Wood, Wei, Christ and Marx,

       Gave us lovely schools and parks.

Wei, Christ, Marx and Wood,

       Made us humble, made us good.

Recently two bloggers whom I read regularly both reminded me of This Perfect Day. Regular visitors to this blog know that I like to get all points of view; I’m something of a leftie myself, and to check my biases I read, among others, Peter Hitchens, who is on the right regarding matters of sex and sexuality, and Steve Sailer, who is on the right regarding race and nationality. The other day, Mr Hitchens mentioned that he had read This Perfect Day and thought that it was a much-underappreciated book. I offered a comment saying what I said above, that perhaps the reason it is underappreciated is that it is difficult to review it without giving away too many surprises, and so it hasn’t been widely enough recommended. I suspect Mr Hitchens dislikes the pseudonym “Acilius”; he doesn’t seem inclined to approve my comments, so that one has not appeared at the site. I’m Acilius on so many platforms that it would seem wrong to adopt another pseudonym, and for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere I prefer not to use my legal name. So I suppose I won’t be contributing to his combox.

Today Mr Sailer posted an item about a New York Times story in which was hidden an implicit retraction of some reporting that had previously appeared in the Times; his remarks about it included this sentence:

That’s one of the joys of holding the Megaphone: You can redefine your behavior as Not Fake News in that you gave extremely curious and industrious readers a path to the truth without troubling the majority who like their News Fake.

Now, I am about to give away some of the very cleverest plot twists in This Perfect Day, but so as to ruin the story for as few people as possible, I will put it after the jump.  (more…)

Some good stuff on io9

You, you like whatever it is you like. But me, I think io9 is a pretty good website. For example:

A strongly favorable review of a movie about a young woman who abandons vegetarianism for cannibalism includes this paragraph:

As the film unfolds, Justine slowly becomes more acclimated. She begins to experiment with sexuality and, for some reason, starts to break her diet in really odd ways (namely the human meat thing). This is the one dark mark on Raw. Watching the film, Justine’s turn from hardcore vegetarian to something else comes out of nowhere.  There are a few hints for sure, but the transition is still jarring. Once you get over that, though, is when things go from really good to completely great.

As I say, I don’t know about you. But if I went to see a movie in which the main character begins as a vegetarian and ends as a cannibal, I would be disappointed if there were not some kind of storyline explaining why she made that transition. As in Le Weekend, for example.

Anyway, just as any one person’s culinary tastes may vary within a lifetime, so cinematic tastes vary from person to person. I realize this.

io9 also brings bulletins of astronomy news, many of them written by the estimable Maddie Stone, PhD.  So, here’s an update about geysers on Europa, and here’s one about geological faultlines on Mercury. Anyone sufficiently interested in planetary exploration to find those pieces exciting will be concerned to learn that NASA’s complex at Cape Canaveral is gravely endangered by rising sea-levels. If our current woes are too much of a downer for you, Dr Stone has some hope to offer, in the form of a theory that life might continue to be possible in several corners of the Solar System after the Sun vaporizes the Earth a few thousand million years hence.  So, if life has another 9,000,000,000 years or so to go in the Solar System, surely some relatively agreeable species will pop up along the way between now and then…

It’s hard to have a substantive conversation in the form of a series of Tweets

I had an odd little colloquy this afternoon on Twitter:

I had two things I wanted to say in response to this. First, if I hear someone using the phrase “fundamental racial inferiority,” I will be disinclined to argue against them, not because I am afraid they will be right, but because that phrase is gibberish.  It’s possible to argue that some trait or other that is the result of a genetic endowment specific to one population may be more helpful to members of that population in some environments than in other environments; so for example, a complex of genes that promotes hardiness in cold climates may be a disadvantage in people who carry it if they move to a warmer climate, and vice versa.  To translate that into “fundamental racial inferiority” of one group as opposed to another, you would have to declare that one kind of climate is, in some absolute and transcendent sense, more important than the other, so that adaptation to it would be of greater value than is adaptation to the other.  Since humans live all over the earth’s surface, had already done so for a long time before any existing social institution came into being, and show no signs of leaving any particular climatic zone behind, I don’t think anyone would be likely to declare that adaptation to one climate is more valuable than is adaptation to another, unless that person were looking for an excuse to declare that people adapted for one climate are of lesser worth than are people adapted for that other.

With that first thought in mind, I wrote this:

I should explain to anyone who may not know that Freddie deBoer is an academic who has written on ways that tactics which may originally have been intended as means for antiracists to shut down racist demonstrations have turned into devices that elites use to perpetuate themselves. He wrote a very memorable piece last year in which he told stories about well-to-do white undergraduate students of his who had gone to highly selective private schools and who used antiracist vocabulary to silence and humiliate less affluent students, including students of color, who had not had the training in that lingo that their expensive private schools had given them. He doesn’t say that we shouldn’t shun people who are actually being racist, but that we should not be quick to jump to the conclusion that people are guilty of this serious misconduct.

So I figured I could take it for granted, talking to a PhD with a professional interest in antiracist language, that when I said would not engage outright white supremacists  “on their own terms” that he would know that I would be shifting the terms of engagement. Not that I like to call people names, but the whole point of having words like “racist” or “sexist” or “extremist” or “terrorist” in the language is to terminate conversations, to tell a person that we are not going to talk with them in the way that they seem to want to us to do.   Laboring under that assumption, I may have been a bit confused when Mr deBoer replied thusly:

Along with some other tweets of Mr deBoer’s around the same time, I had a pretty clear idea that he was thinking of IQ variation among racial groups as a topic of study among psychologists and educationists. I’ve been around enough discussions of this topic to have reached the conclusion that it isn’t as scary as it is made out to be. That was the second point I wanted to make, so I decided to drop the thing about how, if someone came up to me and started telling me about the “fundamental racial inferiority” of some population or other, I would give that person the cold shoulder.

Maybe I should have explained what I meant by not wanting to talk with someone who was going on about “fundamental racial inferiority,” because that drew the following response:

And:

I wanted to focus on the point that “These ideas,” the ideas explored by mainstream psychometricians and by journalists like Nick Wade, are not in fact just the same as the ideas we might associate with nineteenth century racial theorists,  and that if you follow them through logically they are just as plausible as underpinning for vigorous affirmative action policies as for anything a white supremacist might like. So I let the “If we ignore this it will go away” line slide, and wrote:

Apparently that didn’t cut much ice. Mr deBoer’s response:

I will admit to finding this response a bit annoying. Here’s someone who has initiated a discussion by declaring that he is so open-minded that he will gladly debate someone who declares that populations can be marked by “fundamental racial inferiority,” and when I dissent from the proposition that this issue is actually at stake in mainstream academic work, he dismisses my case unheard. Further:

So I had to at least offer to clear up the false impression that I wanted to disregard the issue. I responded:

I suppose the best I could have hoped to elicit with that was “You’re not saying we should ignore them, what are you saying?” I didn’t get that. What came instead was:

Now Mr deBoer is a busy fellow, and basically very pleasant. He does discuss a lot of very sensitive topics online and in print, and I’m sure he gets lots of tiresome and abusive electronic communications. So, annoyed as I admit I was with him for implicitly classifying me as worse than the sort of person who is into notions of “fundamental racial inferiority,” I wanted to be gracious about it. So I closed the conversation with:

I leave it to the reader to decide whether I was being obnoxious, though apparently Mr deBoer found me so.

He then tweeted on his main timeline, apparently thinking of me:

So apparently, I really made him mad. I was tempted to respond to that tweet by saying that, if I were the liberal he was thinking of, he misunderstood my point pretty completely, but of course that would only have made it worse, so I left it alone.

 

Broken habits

The last couple of days there has been a lot of discussion about a minor incident on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. A Dominican priest named Jude McPeak, wearing the elaborate white habit his order dons on major occasions, visited campus and was mistaken for a Ku Klux Klansman. Here’s a picture of the gentleman in question:

indiana dominican

The Rev’d Mr Jude McPeak at a salad bar

And here is a picture of a group of Spanish Dominican priests wearing the full habit during a solemn procession in Seville during Holy Week:

129849480-1680x1050

Dominican priests in Seville during Holy Week

 

Perhaps you can see why Indiana University students, not all of whom have spent Holy Week in Seville, mistook the Rev’d Mr McPeak for a member of the terrorist gangs that for several years dominated politics in the state of Indiana and that still have a considerable presence in towns near the I. U. campus.

I offered a comment about this matter in response to a blog post by Rod Dreher today; Mr Dreher hasn’t got round to approving comments yet, so I don’t know if mine will make the cut. Be that as it may, I’ll make the same points here.

Visual symbols, like spoken words, mean what people use them to mean. It is certainly a sad thing that the founders of the Ku Klux Klan copied the Dominican habit for the costume of their group, and that, to Americans, the Klan and its crimes are what that attire brings to mind. At what point does a group of people, entrusted with a symbol that is important to them, admit that abuse of that symbol by others has robbed it of the important, even holy, meaning that it once had for them? I don’t mean to disrespect the Dominicans; I realize that their order has a holy significance in their eyes, and that the connection to its history which the habit represents is precious to them. At a certain point, however, the only responsible thing to do is to acknowledge that the old meaning is lost and to move on.

It’s like an April Fool’s Day story I read in the news some years ago about a Swiss whose family name was Hitler. This man refused to change his name, saying that he had made it his life’s goal to rehabilitate the honor of the name by demonstrating in his own life that not all Hitlers were like the late Chancellor. Trying to salvage the good name of the Hitlers seemed like rather an overly ambitious undertaking.

That story was a joke. But other people are quite earnestly trying to detach from its association with the Nazis a symbol that calls to mind quite as effectively as does the name Hitler the horrors of his regime. The other day I was reading about some Hindu nationalists who have been working to rehabilitate the swastika. After all, people in India had been using it as a symbol of peace and prosperity for centuries before there was any such thing as a Nazi, and today, 71 years after the annihilation of the Nazi regime, India is home to over a billion people and one of the world’s principal civilizations. Nor is it just India; swastikas, also known as fylfots, can be found inscribed in the stonework of churches all over Europe from the millennium and a half when the bent cross was a significant Christian symbol. There’s even a town in Ontario named Swastika.

saint mary's great canfield

Saint Mary’s Church, Great Canfield, Northumbria

In India and neighboring countries, the swastika can still be used without evoking the Third Reich in the minds of most of those who see it. So this young lady, for example, is probably not a Nazi:

fylfot girl

Ready for Diwali

Nor is this one:

sleepy swastika

Ready for Diwali to be over

I don’t believe this gentleman has any desire to recreate the Hitler regime, either:

dalai fylfot

The Dalai Lama

I certainly wouldn’t recommend that all churches everywhere adorned with fylfots should mill them off the walls. But. Outside India, the swastika does bring the Hitler regime to mind. It may not be fair that it does, but it does. So Indian groups abroad do, as a matter of fact, have to be mindful of that association when they use it, and parishes with old church buildings do, as a matter of fact, have to at least put out flyers explaining what’s going on if they decide to keep their fylfots.

Now, if it’s Holy Week in Seville and you see a bunch of guys marching along in white robes with peaked white hoods covering their faces, it is reasonable that you should be expected to know that they are Dominicans. But if it’s southern Indiana, that outfit is a Ku Klux Klan costume and nothing else. It is a terrible shame that those morons were able to rob Dominicans in the USA of that form of their habit, but that is in fact what they have done. At this point, it is simply childish to pretend that it hasn’t happened and to walk around as if people are going to take you for anything else.

I say something about politics and something about religion. No sex or money, though.

I’ve recently been participating in two discussion threads at The American Conservative. In a thread on Noah Millman’s blog, I’ve been laying out a theory that Florida Senator Marco Rubio will either win virtually every state in the Republican Party’s presidential nominating contest, or he won’t win any states at all. It all hinges on whether he can pull an upset win in the Iowa caucuses. My comments are here, here, and here.

In a thread on Rod Dreher’s blog, I’ve been talking about how the request by the “Primates” of the Anglican Communion that the leaders of the Episcopal Church scale back their participation in the Anglican Communion’s policy-making structures raises questions about how we can tell whether formal organizational bonds are helping or harming efforts to unify Christians, and if we decide that a particular structure is doing more harm than good, how we can dissolve it without making matters even worse.  My comments are here and here.

I’m not going to vote for a Republican for president in any case, and I think Mr Rubio would do an especially bad job in the White House.  The fact that I have worked up a theory about his prospects, therefore, just goes to show what a political junkie I am.  The other topic is of more direct personal interest to me, since I am a member of the Episcopal Church, and I find some value in the “Anglican” label.  Still, I discuss that topic also in terms of political strategy.