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.

Where left and right meet

In the October issue of The American Conservative, Ron Unz asks what high levels of immigration from Latin America to the USA mean for the future of the Republican Party.  Mr Unz, the magazine’s publisher,  disagrees with sometime American Conservative columnist Steve Sailer.  Mr Sailer has argued that as whites become a numerical minority in the USA, they will vote more like other minority groups.  That is to say, all but a small percentage of them will vote for a single party.  The Republican Party already enjoys the support of most white voters; indeed, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote since 1964.  So if Mr Sailer’s prediction comes true, the Republicans will by midcentury routinely receive 80% or more of the white vote.  To support his prediction, Mr Sailer typically refers to the states of the southeast, where throughout most of American history whites have represented the lowest percentage of the overall population and where today vast majorities of whites vote Republican.  Since in the USA whites are likelier to turn out and vote than are most nonwhite groups, and the regions where whites represent the highest percentage of the population are overrepresented in the electoral system, bloc voting by whites could keep Republicans in power for decades after whites become a minority, even that party makes no inroads with any other ethnic group.  Mr Sailer isn’t particularly happy about this scenario; in a piece about the 2010 elections, he wrote “You’d prefer not to live in a country where whites vote like a minority bloc? Me too! But maybe we should have thought about that before putting whites on the long path to minority status through mass immigration.”

In his response to Mr Sailer, Mr Unz points out that the longstanding racial makeup of the southeastern USA is quite different from the situation emerging in the country today.  The southeast has long been populated by a great many whites, many many African Americans, and a tiny smattering of people of other ethnic groups.  By contrast, neither the people coming to the USA from countries to its south nor their descendants born in the States tend to identify strongly as either white or African American.  So if we want to see what the future might hold for the Republicans, Mr Unz suggests we turn to New Mexico and Hawaii, two states whose demographics are similar to those which are likely to prevail nationally if present trends continue.  The good news is that there isn’t much racial tension in New Mexico or Hawaii.  Whites there do not feel embattled, and do not vote as a minority bloc.  What Mr Unz considers bad news is that the Republicans are definitely the second party in each state.   Mr Unz concludes that the Republicans are likely to fade into irrelevance unless steps are taken to reduce immigration. (Steve Sailer replies to Mr Unz here and here.)

What steps does Mr Unz advise to achieve this result?  He does not suggest fortifying the border, or covering the country with armies of immigration officers, or deporting everyone who speaks Spanish, or requiring everyone in the USA to show that their papers are in order every time a policeman needs a way to pass the time.  He proposes instead a substantial increase in the minimum wage, from the current rate of $7.25 per hour to $10 or $12 per hour.  After all, immigrants come here to work, and those who come from countries where the prevailing wage is significantly lower than the prevailing wage in the USA can improve their standards of living and send substantial cash remittances back to their families by accepting jobs at less than the currently prevailing wage.  So it’s no surprise that in recent decades, as immigration to the USA has increased, median wages in the USA have declined.  Set a floor to wages, and you limit the ability of employers to arbitrage wage differences between the USA and the countries to its south.  Mr Unz writes that “The automatic rejoinder to proposals for hiking the minimum wage is that “jobs will be lost.” But in today’s America a huge fraction of jobs at or near the minimum wage are held by immigrants, often illegal ones. Eliminating those jobs is a central goal of the plan, a feature not a bug.”

Mr Unz’ proposal is quite intriguing.  Defenders of high levels of immigration often point to the harsh measures by which anti-immigration laws are enforced and posit a choice between open borders and a police state.  Raising the minimum wage doesn’t play into that trap.  Indeed, by raising the minimum wage and limiting public benefit to legal residents, it might be possible to scrap all other restrictions on immigration.  That would do away, not only with compromises to civil liberties and inter-ethnic harmony, but also with a great many perverse incentives.  Nowadays, immigration laws increase employers’ power over their undocumented workers, so that they dare not complain to legal authorities when employers violate their rights, lest they face deportation.  So policies that would enforce the immigration laws with more deportations actually weaken employees vis a vis employers, thereby further depressing wages.  Do away with the immigration police, raise the minimum wage, and enforce the minimum wage with jail time for employers who underpay, and you reverse that power relation.  Employers who tried to pay less than minimum wage would be subject to blackmail from their employees.  Nor would there be any need for a Canadian-style points system to ensure that only people with needed skills migrate to the country.  If employers are paying high wages to immigrants, that is a surer sign that those immigrants have skills the employers need than are the results of any government evaluation.

That the publisher of a magazine called The American Conservative would argue for a substantial increase in the minimum wage as a way of reducing the number of nonwhites immigrating to the USA suggests that the far right has circled around the political spectrum and found itself occupying the same spot as the center left.  Indeed, elsewhere in the issue this idea is developed explicitly.  An article by Michael Tracey (subscribers only, sorry) carries the title “Ralph Nader’s Grand Alliance: Progressives Find Hope– in Ron Paul.”  The dash in the subhed acknowledges the unlikelihood that the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman would inspire anything but dismay in lefties, but no less distinguished a campaigner for a more egalitarian America than Ralph Nader has spoken out forcefully for a left-right alliance as the logical outcome of the movement in which Dr Paul is a leader.  Mr Tracey writes: “‘Look at the latitude,’ Nader says, referring to the potential for collaboration between libertarians and the left.  ‘Military budget, foreign wars, empire, Patriot Act, corporate welfare- for starters.  When you add it all up, that’s a foundational convergence.  Progressives should do so good.'”

I admire Mr Nader.  I’m glad to say I voted for him for president in 2000, and I wish I’d had the guts to vote for him again in 2004.  But I don’t quite agree with him on this point.  Our difference can be summed up in his use of the word “foundational.”  To me, saying that there is a “foundational convergence” between two groups would suggest that they are pursuing the same goals and using the same standards of judgment.  That clearly is not the case here.  Left-wingers and libertarians may oppose many of the same things, but they are not for any of the sane things.  A traditionalist conservative like Mr Unz may be for an increased minimum wage and a less intrusive immigration police, but his goal is to keep America’s racial demography from changing.  That’s hardly a goal any leftist could endorse.  For my own part, I would be quite happy to see an America with a much larger Latino and Asian population, especially if that meant that the confrontational racial politics that have long characterized the states of the southeast and many cities in the northeast would lose their tension and follow the relatively easygoing path of Hawaii and New Mexico, even at the price of continued growth in income inequality.  Of course, I would much prefer to reduce both racial hostility and income inequality, and there is a limit to the amount of one that I would accept as a price for reducing the other.  I would be very reluctant to endorse any politics that forced a choice between those evils, and I think most left-of-center Americans would be equally reluctant to do so.  That isn’t to say that the left and the “Old Right” of libertarians and antiwar traditionalists are so far apart that cooperation between them is impossible, but their goals and ideological premises are so utterly different that a coalition between them would be doomed unless it were very modest in its ambitions.

Speaking of race relations in the southeastern USA, I should mention that at the moment, The American Conservative‘s website carries a rather beautiful blog posting on that topic from Rod Dreher.  Mr Dreher is responding to a short piece that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic‘s website about white people who refer to African American neighbors of theirs as “our blacks.”

In the same issue, Samuel Goldman’s review of Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right praises Professor Eagleton’s exposition and defense of Karl Marx’ philosophical theories.  Mr Goldman is obviously not a Marxist, but commends Professor Eagleton for putting to rest many canards that his lazier critics have flung at Marx over the years.  On the other hand, Mr Goldman takes very sharp exception to Professor Eagleton’s attempts to defend the economic record of Marxist regimes.  Towards the end of his review, Mr Goldman discusses Professor Eagleton’s analysis of Marx’ place as an inheritor of classical political theory, stretching back to Aristotle.  He points out that this discussion is not original, but that it treads a path through territory very well explored by Alasdair MacIntyre.  Professor MacIntyre is one of my favorites; I’m always glad to see his name.  The magazine published Mr Goldman’s review under the title “Baby Boomers Make Their Marx,” and Mr Goldman does make a few remarks here and there disparaging “the post-1968 left.”  The idea of Professor Eagleton’s book as a generational statement is the main theme of another review of Professor Eagleton’s book, one that was linked on Arts and Letters Daily earlier this week.  That review appeared in Quadrant, an Australian journal that shares a number of contributors with The American Conservative.

Santa Claus and his enemies

(Originally posted 24 December 2008)
Charles Addams

Charles Addams

Scholars ask, where did Santa Claus come from

Thomas Nast Cartoon

Thomas Nast Cartoon

Others ask the same question, and come up with other answers. 


The Atlantic Monthly, May 2009

atlantic-may-2009Recently attempts have been made to launch spacecraft that would sail on the force of photons emanating from the sun.  “Solar sailing” may be a technology that will make it possible to achieve very high speeds, perhaps more than half the speed of light.   An article describes these efforts and the history behind them.  The first place I heard of solar sailing was in a story by Arthur C. Clarke, who according to the article was a major figure in the drive to build them.  Clarke suggested that solar sails might power the first probes intentionally sent to the stars.  The article also mentions the late astrophysicist Thomas Gold, who argued that solar sailing was impossible for the same reasons that perpetual motion machines are impossible.  Once advocates manage to get a sail out of the atmosphere, we should find out whether Gold was right and solar sailing is a physical absurdity, or Clarke was right and it is the royal road to deep space.     

In a review of recent books on the Holocaust, Benjamin Schwarz points out that ordinary Germans knew a great deal about the slaughter of European Jewry as it was going on.  Not only was the genocide too vast to be truly secret, but the leaders of the Nazi regime may actually have wanted a certain degree of knowledge of their worst crimes to leak out:

By establishing the murder of the Jews as an open secret—open enough that awareness of it pervaded society but secret enough that it couldn’t be protested or even openly discussed—the Nazis devilishly nudged the nation into complicity, and further bound the population to its leaders.

Did the German population perceive the killing of the Jews as a crime, or were they so far gone in their anti-semitism that it seemed like a reasonable thing to do?  Apparently a psychologist named Michael Müller-Claudius conducted interviewed senior Nazi party members in 1938 about their attitudes towards Jews.  He found that 5% of these “fully rejected antisemitism,” while another 69% would not admit to being hostile towards Jews.  If even senior Nazis hesitated to embrace their party’s official antisemitism, one would expect the population at large to have very queasy consciences about the Holocaust.  Schwarz closes his piece with discussion of a line by Goebbels, “As for us, we’ve burned our bridges behind us … We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.”  I have no idea whether the Nazi regime really did play this coy game with the German public, but the thought that they might have is the sort of idea I tend to find irresistible.   

Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother writes a piece about Edward Upward, who for a little while in the 1930s was perhaps England’s most influential man of letters.  By the time Upward died this February at the age of 105, he had outlived all the authors on whom he was an influence; certainly his name was not familiar as theirs still are (Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNiece, Cecil Day-Lewis, among others.)  I note the piece here because of its reference to “Upward’s novel Journey to the Border, which was thought of by many as the only English effort at Marxist fiction that was likely to outlast the era in which it was written.”  I might want to read that some day.

La Crisi, by Fabio KoRyu Calabro

This week brings an especially good selection of youtube embeds on Ukulele Hunt.   I’ve had them on in the background as I’ve been working.  This one is especially well-suited to that purpose; a rousing tune, an intense performance, and lyrics that don’t distract me because they’re in Italian. 

The Atlantic Monthly, April 2009


Robert Wright’s “One World, Under God” begins with the assertion that most New Testament scholars now regard the Gospel of Mark as significantly older than the other gosples, perhaps not much newer than the oldest writings in the New Testament, Paul’s letters.  Mark stands out from the other gospels in that the sayings of Jesus recorded there are all quite harsh:

The Jesus in Mark, far from calmly forgiving his killers, seems surprised by the Crucifixion and hardly sanguine about it (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). In Mark, there is no Sermon on the Mount, and so no Beatitudes, and there is no good Samaritan; Jesus’ most salient comment on ethnic relations is to compare a woman to a dog because she isn’t from Israel.

The gentle Jesus meek and mild whom liberal Christians preach and the “great moral teacher” whom moderate secularists and ecumenical-minded non-Christians praise appears in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  If these accounts took shape as long after Mark’s as Wright says they may have done, then it is possible that they were influenced by Paul:

Of course, since Paul was writing after the time of Jesus, it’s been natural to assume he got these ideas from the teachings of Jesus. But when you realize that Jesus utters the word love only twice in the Gospel of Mark—compared with Paul’s using it more than 10 times in a single letter to the Romans—the reverse scenario suggests itself: maybe the Gospel of Mark, which was written not long after the end of Paul’s ministry, largely escaped Pauline influence, and thus left more of the real Jesus intact than Gospels written later, after Paul’s legacy had spread.

This hypothesis cuts against the grain of New Testament criticism, which at least since the Enlightenment has tended to cast Paul as the main figure in an effort to make Jesus seem less like a sweetheart and more like an apocalyptic crank than he really was.  Perhaps the opposite was the case, and it was Paul who invented the idea of Christianity as a religion of boundless good will. 


The Nation, 22 Oct/ 29 Oct/ 5 Nov 2007

Three issues in one posting.

The most notable pieces in both of the October issues were book reviews.  In the 22 October issue, Daniel Lazare reviews Mearsheimer and Walt, concluding that their methodology is incoherent, their assumptions about US foreign policy naively optimistic, and their work as a whole a specimen of “a new form of nativism that sees foreigners and their domestic allies as a big source of America’s problems and believes that the country would be better off if it could eradicate such influences.”  The 29 October issue reviews Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, the latest book by Vthunderlad’s favorite Chalmers Johnson (author of Blowback.)  Stephen Holmes finds Johnson’s comparison of the USA with ancient Rome far-fetched and the concept of “blowback” marred by an “inherent slipperiness.”  These weaknesses, Holmes claims, make it difficult to take Johnson altogether seriously, for all that “Nemesis is a serious contribution to contemporary debates, richly repaying careful study.” 

In the 5 November issue, Alexander Cockburn cites the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore as yet another example of the moral bankruptcy of the Swedish Academy; James Ledbetter hails the publication of a volume of Karl Marx’ columns for the New York Tribune; and Russ Baker and Adam Federman look at one of Hillary Clinton’s more alarming moneymen.

The Nation, October 8, 2007

See the post below for an explanation of what I’m doing.

The cover story is a love letter to Keith Olbermann by Marvin Kitman; several pieces deal with the likely impact of the Iraq war on the 2008 elections.  Alexander Cockburn’s column starts with the arresting sentence “I never thought there’d come a time when, even for a moment, I’d trust Fidel Castro less than a former chairman of the Federal Reserve.” 

The best pieces are in the book reviews.  Ian Hacking considers several books about America’s anti-Darwin movement.  He expounds on Imre Lakatos’ theory of science.  According to that philosopher, Hacking writes, the proper “unit of valuation [in science] was the research program rather than the theory.  A rational program is, he said, ‘progressive’ in that it constantly reacts to counterexamples and difficulties by producing new theories that overcome old hurdles.  When challenged it does not withdraw into some same corner but explains new difficulties with an even riskier, richer, and bolder story about nature.”  Hacking favors Darwinism over fundamentalism not because it is the cut-and-dried, incontrovertible truth that a writer like Richard Dawkins would suggest, but precisely because it is confusing, superficially improbable, full of uncertainty.  Hacking even closes with a feint towards a new kind of argument from design, appealing to Leibniz’ description of a God whose plan calls for combining “the maximum of variety with the minimum of complexity for its fundamental laws” and arguing that a God like that  “would have to be a ‘neo-Darwinian’ who achieves the extraordinary variety of living things by chance.”

J. Hoberman reviews a new study of the Communist-inspired American literature of the World War II era, bringing up some interesting-sounding novels, such as Jews without Money by Mike Gold, I Went to Pit College by Lauren Gilfillan, and The Street by Ann Petry.