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“My mother believed in spontaneous generation. She thought spiders were produced out of balls of dust. My mother was an intelligent woman. Had she been born a couple generations later, I don’t doubt she would have been a successful professional. In the matter of spiders she was simply reasoning from the evidence she had before her: leave some dust alone in a corner for a while (something she never willingly did; she cleaned every day) and you’ll find a spider in it….”
My latest at Eclectica.
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What gets my cranial juices flowing is when two ideas expressed in two different places (usually in books) come together like a couple pieces of wood tongue-in-groove.
I’d like to share the most recent of these experiences with you.
The ancient Greeks used to conduct warfare among themselves in a very gentlemanly, Marquis of Queensbury kind of way. They settled a dispute between city states by sending out a phalanx of heavily armed soldiers (drawn from the higher classes because they had to provide the armor themselves) and have a pitched battle in an open field at an appointed time. Whoever won the battle won the dispute. Casualties only occurred during actual fighting. No gratuitous killing. A surrender meant the violence was over.
Then came the war between Athens and Sparta, the so-called Peloponnesian War that went on for decades and ended with the defeat of Athens. In the second year of that war a plague broke out in Athens, already overcrowded with rural people who were sheltering there from invading Spartans. The illness killed off possibly a third of the population, military and civilian alike.
Athens was not the same afterward. The one man who could hold the city together, Pericles, eventually died himself. Law and order broke down. Citizens began to behave in barbarous fashions. Thucydides, a general who survived the plague and wrote a history of the war, says it was the experience of this lawlessness, the breakdown of civilization, that set the stage for the atrocious way Greeks behaved from then on: ethnic cleansings (a euphemism for the slaughter of entire populations) and other acts of violence that would have been unthinkable in the pre-plague period.
Now, here’s the bit of information that links up neatly with what I’ve already written. European powers from the early years of the nineteenth generally avoided the killing of civilians until the second world war. What happened in between that earlier period and the carnage of the second world war? Hannah Arendt in her The Origins of Totalitarianism makes a good argument that what changed was a result of the colonial polices of some of those powers at the end of the 19th century.
During that period, roughly 1880 to 1914, imperialism became a major political and economic force, as did nationalism (nation-states as is France) as well as ethnically homogeneous if not geographically contained nationalisms (Germans, Slavs.) The victims of this imperialism were the peoples of Africa and Southeast Asia. It was there that nations like Britain, France and Belgium began to practice genocide on a large scale. The Belgians are purported to have killed anywhere between three and fifteen million Congolese. The probable number is about ten million. They and other Europeans did so under the banner of racial superiority, a claim first put forth in an intellectually respectable way by the Frenchman Comte de Gobineau in the early half of the nineteenth century that remained a text for racist ideologies right up through the 1940s.
This kind of slaughter of on a mass scale, Arendt maintains, broke down the veneer of European civilization and paved the way for Nazism, which claimed to be acting as an agent of Evolution by speeding up the survival of the fittest, and for the mass killings of Stalinism, which claimed to be acting on behalf of historical necessity.
Of course, the killing of innocent non-combatants continues right up to the present day. We have euphemisms for it: ethnic cleansing, of course; collateral damage. We carpet-bombed Afghanistan out of pique because that government would not turn over Osama Bin Laden without following due process of law. We destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq in the first Gulf War, and then invaded in 2003 on the false pretext of that nation possessing weapons of mass destruction with intent to use them against us and our allies. The destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, along with conventional bombing, cost the lives of close to a million people, most of them children who died in the 1990s from diseases caused by our destruction of the sanitary systems during the First Gulf War and for the decade afterward — sewage, water purification plants, etc. And, of course, in addition to terror campaigns we supported and funded in the 1980s in Central America, there was the genocide of millions of Southeast Asians during the Vietnam War. Plus other deadly foreign adventures we have undertaken or sponsored.
Our leaders never speak of any of this with any sense of shame or even regret. We certainly don’t hear or read about this behavior as being the result of the breakdown of the “thin veneer of civilization,” as Thucydides spoke of it. We have become inured to these horrors by their horrible precedents in the twentieth century. The bombing of civilian populations during WWII started as a modest tit-for-tat but within a few years had turned into a massive project to incinerate entire cities, culminating with the use of atomic bombs.
That has become for us what war is, a fact of life like carnivorousness. The idea of gentlemen-soldiers settling their disputes by pre-arranged battles that were over in a few hours seems preposterous to us, a laughable dream. Meanwhile, we deplore individual acts of terrorism as if they were the most egregious acts of violence anyone can experience — because it is We who experience them, not They. What an F-15 or a B-52 does does not qualify as terrorism. But what was unthinkable less than two hundred years ago for nation-states is now conventional.
Can we really call ourselves civilized when we behave in this manner? Has not what occurred in ancient Athens due to plague happened to us, that “thin veneer” that made human beings recognize their mutual humanity, been stripped away without our even realizing it?
The moral of my story: Don’t read serious books. You’ll only get depressed.
The obvious answer to that question is that they’re the group who are neither rich nor poor but are sandwiched in between those two, a kind of stabilizing alternative to which the poor or “working class” can aspire to rise to and a safety net for those who have lost greater wealth so they need not fall all the way into poverty. We like to believe a middle class is essential to a democracy because it is they who make up the bulk of a prosperous and supposedly well-educated majority capable of making the kinds of decisions a well-ordered republic requires.
But what is the purpose of such a class beyond the maintenance of a national myth of political rule by a rational majority? Other cultures speak of a bourgeoisie, or more properly a petite bourgeoisie. To Marxists the former is likely to be synonymous with “capitalists,” the class we in American associate with the upper class, the latter with our own middle class. But other societies are also more class-conscious than our own, even rigidly so. Our way of ranking our population is much less fixed, open to free movement certainly in the economic sense and to a much larger extent than other societies in the social sense too.
The original idea of who deserves to be in the ruling, i.e. the bulk, of the voting class was seen in a very different way by the framers of our constitution than it is today. Back then it was exclusively free white landholding men. Today it is any citizen, rich or poor or in-between. But has the function of that voting class, mostly middle-class, changed from the one it served for Madison and Hamilton? And what is its function, if it has any beyond just a sociological and economic designation?
I see historical evidence that shows the purpose of a middle class like our own is crucial to maintaining a buffer between those who hold most of the nation’s wealth and those who possess very little of it. Without such a class the so-called one percent would have to rely upon brute force to keep in line and protect themselves from the so-called lower classes. With the disintegration of our middle class we can see a tendency toward more and more oppressive rule with the militarization of the police and with incarceration on a scale not practiced by any other nation on earth – a lurch toward a new feudalism.
The fact that the police and other governmental agencies obviously protect the privileges of the middle class does not mean they are not there ultimately to protect the interests of the upper class. It’s a function the middle class has performed wherever it has been constituted and allowed to prosper, not just in America. Consider the situation in the slave states of the Caribbean. Without a substantial white population to rely on to keep the large slave population in line, the ruling class had to resort to creating a middle class out of free blacks to serve as a buffer between themselves and those in chains. This is why West Indians tend to be better educated and more self-confident than our own African Americans. More than two hundred years ago Black West Indian men were already receiving the kinds of educations and professional opportunities we have not yet provided for our own descendants of slavery. Even West Indian women could become solid members of the middle class by opening shops and other small businesses.
A similar effort was made in the South to form a buffer, middle class of European-Americans between landowners and African-American indentured servants after the two had repeatedly combined forces against their owners. Only, promises of freedom, land and “whiteness” made to rebellious European-Americans in exchange for their acting as police to previous comrades of African and mixed descent never fully materialized, consigning them permanently to a landless state of poverty with only their “whiteness” to console them. Even so, they remained faithful to their new “race,” protecting their previous masters’ interests as if those interests were their own.
Almost a century ago Walter Lippmann published a well-thought-out book about the American political scene in which he concludes that public opinion – by which he meant the opinion of those that vote – needed to be carefully manipulated by those with the best understanding of what was best for the nation. The possibility of such manipulation, though not new, was at the time greatly enhanced by the advent of the public relations/advertising industry that had just come into its own during the Wilson WWI administration. “Manufacturing consent” has since became part and parcel of how the powerful elite have co-opted the middle class into accepting their, the elite’s, political agenda. Until recently no oppressive security force was required to effect this control as it has been in other nations. The media does the job virtually without coercion from outside, automatically.
The result has been a perfect pas de deux between upper-class moneyed interests and middle-class willingness to serve their masters as long as they are themselves guaranteed a comfortable living standard and access to unlimited upward mobility. If this requires the impoverishment of one-sixth of the population who typically don’t vote in the same percentages as their betters, that’s a trade-off the guilt for which can be ameliorated by token welfare policies or simply by blaming the victims.
My first substantive encounter with the oppressive Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories came several years ago at an event held in the local Dutch Reformed Church here in Brooklyn, New York. Till then, what I knew about Israeli policies and actions in the West Bank and in Gaza had relied heavily on mainstream media reports. But the event that night featured two speakers, both Israelis, one an 18-year-old about to be drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces, the other a middle-aged American who had lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before moving to Israel. The younger man intended to refuse service in the Israeli army and expected to receive a jail sentence in consequence. The older man had already served time in the reserves. The church was mostly full, the pews largely filled with people sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. But a substantial contingent critical of what the speakers had been saying later turned up in the rear of the church and made themselves heard. One woman was especially vocal, shouting “cal-UM-ny! cal-UM-ny!” in an attempt to drown out the speaker. A lone policeman assigned to the event restored order….
A few years back I heard a brief interview on the BBC with the mother of a child who had been sexually abused by a Catholic priest, aired at a time when the church’s sexual abuse scandal was at its height. New revelations were occurring almost every day, entire dioceses were going bankrupt as a consequence of having to pay out millions in compensation to victims, some of them now middle-aged. It wasn’t unusual to hear the voice on the the air of someone who had been sexually molested by clergy, sometimes many years earlier, and had only just come forward. What was very unusual, indeed unique in my experience, was the response this particular mother gave to the BBC presenter when asked how she felt about what had happened to her son.
She said that, as appalling as the physical abuse was, it was nothing in comparison with the psychological trauma he had suffered as a result of the religious “education” he had suffered at the hands of the church.…
…I could do worse than turn to someone who calls themselves a Jewish atheist. Some of them seem to find an easy affinity with the best teachings of Jesus.
Why not? Jesus, the itinerant rabbi, didn’t preach anything that wasn’t preached by the best of his predecessors in ancient Judea. Jesus was as Jewish as Yom Kippur. These Jewish atheists (their own self-designation) are simply acting in the tradition of Isaiah and the other prophets who railed against injustice and hatred and hollow ritual.
But it’s Jesus as often as Isaiah that today’s prophets quote to express how they feel. The most recent example of this I found in a column by Matthew Norman in the British Independent.
“In his last Easter message, the PM reminded us that this is a Christian country. ‘Across Britain, Christians don’t just talk about ‘loving thy neighbour’,” he said. ‘They live it out.’
“As an atheist Jew with no theological training, I may be on weak ground picking a fight with this dedicated churchgoer about what the guy he worships on Sundays meant by
‘loving they neighbour as thyself’. Perhaps Jesus was speaking literally about the person in the next house. The one with the latest model Lexus in the driveway.
“And yet, having attended the church attached to my school four times a week for several years, I have the nagging sense that ‘thy neighbour’ actually meant ‘everyone else’; a vague feeling that when, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said ‘Blessed are the merciful’, the mercy in mind stretches to victims of monstrous civil wars who endure unimaginable horror to give their children a chance at having less gruesome lives.”
Noam Chomsky is also fond of quoting the gospels, citing their “preferential treatment for the poor” and praising Pope John XXIII. (He also doesn’t hesitate to name a more recent pontiff as co-conspirator in the murder of Liberation Theology priests and even a bishop.) I don’t think this affinity for the gospels is because Chomsky was secretly baptized as a newborn by his Irish nursemaid, any more than I believe Matthew Norman’s humaneness is the result of his subjection to four days a week of Christian propaganda during his
formative years. Otherwise the Fundamentalist Christian wet dream of converting “the Jews” would have been accomplished simply by bombarding Jewish neighborhoods with Christian tracts.
What I think is going on is a response that is natural to human beings when they find themselves in a position of freedom from religious cant, whether Christian, Jewish or other, and have a warmly beating heart in their breasts. To be sure, such freedom does not affect everyone this way. There are plenty of atheists who are out-and-out monsters. I just happen to keep coming across the Matthew Normans and Noam Chomskys. Long may they flourish!
“Most good history does this, stands the standard narrative on its head, whether it’s Colin Calloway’s books about American Indians, Ilan Pappe’s revisions of official Israeli history or contemporary accounts of slavery in the American South by Frederick Law Olmsted. Noam Chomsky does it for just about any modern period of American history, and any number of younger journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Max Blumenthal, and Jeremy Scahill, to name just three, are busy correcting the official lies we are fed on a daily basis. It’s a good time for truth….”
My latest at Eclectica.
The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has made some interesting observations about the current status of Muslims in Europe. He says that for 100 years (roughly 1850-1950) Jews were used as the alien threat to the national integrity of newly emerging nations there. Anti-semitism or, as he more accurately calls it, Judeophobia, arose at the same time strong nationalistic movements were coming to a head. The national myths which accompanied those nationalisms (Sand, quoting Ernest Renan among others, would say the myths actually created those national identities) harkened back to a fictional ur-people – Gauls, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons, Romans – from which the present population derives its identity and its peculiar character. Jews, in the mid-19th century seen for the first time as a race rather than just as a religion, did not fit into these narratives. In fact, they provided convenient enemies, threats from within to the purity of the national identity, a “sang impure,” to quote from the Marseillaise.
This fantasy of a homogeneous people played itself out most dramatically in the brutal stupidity of Nazism and other less comprehensive attacks on Jews throughout most of Europe, especially in those more easterly parts of the continent where blood – what we would now call genes – determined which nation-state you belonged to. In the west, France and England for instance, citizenship became a matter of choice rather than birth. But even in the west animus against Jews continued on an unofficial level.
By mid-twentieth century, Sand maintains, this wave of anti-semitism had played itself out. Jews became what they had always been in the West: French, British, Americans who happened to practice a different religion. It’s not that everyone suddenly started loving Jews, but official, state-authorized discrimination against them disappeared. In some places (France and Germany, e.g.) speech hateful of Jews became illegal. The idea in Europe of a “Judeo-Christian” culture took root.
But the notion, however fanciful, of a national bloodline for many people has persisted to this day. Foreigners – North Africans in France, Turks in Germany – have taken the place of Jews as the unassimilated alien, a kind of fifth column whose intentions are suspect at best, terroristic at worst. And, unlike the Jews of the nineteenth century in western Europe, they do not live among other French and Germans but in ghettos, the suburbs of Europe that correspond to America’s “inner cities.” Unassimilated, ill-educated and in France accounting for six times their percentage of the population in the prisons, they are seen as aliens even to the second and third generations. And, simply by the fact of their being Muslim they are associated with violent extremist groups like Al Qaeda, though very few actually become operatives for such organizations.
Ergo Charlie Hebdo, a publication that feels no qualms about degrading everything Muslim, including and especially what Muslims consider sacred. Only French casuistry can make the kind of arguments that have recently been made by and on behalf of that publication, portraying it as an equal-opportunity lampooner that it is only upholding the rights of unfettered speech fought for by the likes of Voltaire. Even a cursory look at the cover cartoons of Charlie Hebdo over the last few years indicates something more (or less) than good-humored, not to say intelligent, satire. And even 3.7 million French marching lockstep and carrying “Je suis Charlie!” signs (led by some of the world’s worst persecutors of free speech) doesn’t negate the despicable Islamophobia displayed in that publication. In fact, those 3.7 million French are proof of the dearth of rational thought, never mind toleration, in that country. Noam Chomsky, well before the Charlie massacre, pointed out that France has a very bad record of freedom of the press. Massive crowds of self-styled liberals marching in defense of massive prejudice and massive bad taste doesn’t prove otherwise.
Popular perception of social phenomenon may be like its understanding of new scientific ideas. It’s said to require fifty years for a new concept like Relativity or Quantum Theory to enter the public consciousness. It’s just about fifty years since state-approved Judeophobia disappeared. How long will it take before we recognize that Islamophobia is just as ignorant and shallow a prejudice as vilification of Jews? Or that it serves a purpose as feral as the one provided by that earlier prejudice? We like to think we are beyond certain types of thinking and behavior. Yet, has anything essential changed about us thanks to the twentieth century’s bloodbaths? Look around. I still see nation-states paying lip service to international law while operating in the same fashion as the worst actors of the last century. I also see my neighbors, by which I mean most of the world, stuck in the same uninformed mindsets as their parents and grandparents, only with different prejudices and rationalizations tailored to conform to the accepted prejudices and rationalizations around them. What we are seeing play out today in Europe looks a lot like the old anti-semitism with a new victim as its scapegoat.
Is this the best we can do? A march to defend the right of high-octane bigots to throw fuel on the fires of an already festering anti-Muslim bigotry in the land that gave us the Enlightenment? Diderot would be outraged. Voltaire, who is indeed in the first rank of those defending the rights of even the most outrageous use of free speech, would be firing off letters to the editor, denouncing Charlie Hebdo. Do we have to make the comparison with what public opinion would have made of a gang of Jews angered by anti-semitic cartoons in Der Stuermer in 1934 storming into the editorial offices with Tommy guns and wasting most of the staff? Would 3.7 million Germans marching the next day to uphold freedom of the press seem as laudable as the march led by that front line of hypocrites and the million people carrying Je suis Charlie signs behind them?
Not a fair comparison? Maybe, maybe not. But don’t kid yourself into thinking something basic has changed about human nature in the last eighty years. Fear of the other still runs as deep as it ever did, as does the herd instinct – even in la belle France.
When I was eleven or twelve years old my parents took a ride out to Levittown on Long Island to visit my mother’s oldest brother Martin, a retired New York City police officer. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, Levittown was then a brand-new community of 17,500 units of lower middle income, no-frills housing, one of several such projects constructed by the Levitt family during the housing boom following the end of the second world war. What I also didn’t realize was that Levittown was for whites only, not segregated by secret covenants but openly so in the public record and in the deeds themselves.
Now, thanks to a study recently published by Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute, I also know that what happened in Levittown was for many decades common practice throughout the United States, sanctioned, indeed encouraged by the Federal Housing Administration inaugurated under the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The FHA mandated that housing developments it stood behind — and for decades most new developments required FHA backing — had to be racially segregated in order to receive federal assistance.
Shocking as this sounds simply as historical fact and moral shame, the consequences of this federal policy, along with similar state and municipal restrictions, are directly related to the present conditions of African Americans, including the recent killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.
Home ownership is the single greatest source of wealth for most Americans. Appreciation in the value of the family residence is the financial springboard from which all the other economic and thence social achievements are made. It provides equity with which to send children to college and also makes available to them a nest egg with which they can purchase homes of their own and continue the cycle of wealth. Homeownership also comes with a tax write-off for interest paid on the mortgage, and interest can ultimately add up to more than the original principal. Renters receive no such tax write-off.
African American income is 60% of white income. African-American wealth is 5% of white wealth. Both those percentages reflect deliberate public federal, state and municipal legislation and policies that were in effect from the early 1930s until very recent times. They also explain, along with other policies and regulations put into effect by cities and states throughout the United States, both North and South, why some neighborhoods are all-white and others all-black. Indeed, Prof. Rothstein maintains that any “mixed-race” neighborhood” is actually a neighborhood in transition, going either from black to white or white to black. New York City, where I live, is reputed to be the most diverse metropolitan area in the United States if not in the world. It is also said to be the most segregated of American cities.
Initially, at the beginning of the 20th century, blacks and whites both lived in the so-called inner cities. Whites were lured out of those inner cities by the promise of affordable, racially homogeneous private housing developments in the suburbs with all the benefits, such as superior educational institutions, that come with that environment. African Americans were left behind, indeed restricted to neighborhoods that quickly deteriorated into ghettos and slums, with all the social disadvantages that come with that environment. Later, when whites rediscovered the positive aspects of city living, African Americans were forced out of their slums to make way for the gentrification process. Today, old suburbs like Ferguson, Missouri – originally white until it became convenient to rehouse urban African-Americans there — have become the new slums, sandwiched in between a white exurb and a white-gentrifying inner city.
In order to preserve the racial and economic superiority first of the suburbs, now of the exurbs, zoning regulations were rewritten to prohibit the alteration of homes in white neighborhoods that would allow less affluent buyers and renters to move into those neighborhoods. Meanwhile, older suburbs into which African-Americans were crowded were rezoned as industrial areas, meaning houses could be subdivided and industry could locate there, insuring that public services like schools would be underfunded and that the same environment that had bred crime in the inner-city slums, whether inhabited by African-Americans, Irish, Jews, Italians or any other group, would provide the same social instability that gave rise to antisocial or even criminal behavior by some in those communities.
Three of my mother’s brothers became New York City police officers. I don’t believe any of them finished high school. They got their jobs because they were white and Irish-American. After twenty years service they could retire with generous pensions. In the meantime their income allowed them to buy modest homes in white suburban communities. Their children enjoyed all the economic and social advantages of growing up in those communities and had career options available to them that their fathers never had, never mind what was available to African American children of that generation.
The airwaves and other media in New York these days are full of self-congratulatory tales of public protests and the usual hand-wringing self-righteousness about “racism.” But racism, at least as we generally understand it, is not at the heart of what happened in Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland and before that to Trayvon Martin in Florida. “Racism,” like “anti-Semitism,” is a word we use all too frequently to avoid more serious thinking. We accept them as givens, we compare them to viruses that inhabit the body politic and its members, like herpes, becoming indolent but then breaking out again with frightening virulence. Rothstein makes reference to the use of the term “de facto segregation,” which is also a misrepresentation of the facts on the ground. Segregation, past and present, is not de facto, it’s de jure. It isn’t the result of a natural antipathy between people of African and non-African descent. Its roots are economic and social and anything but accidental.
For the most part, so-called white people do not react to African-Americans out of racist attitudes, though those attitudes may be very negative and prejudiced as a result of the image portrayed of African Americans in our culture as well as because of valid personal experience. Someone who fears an African American in a situation in which they would not fear someone with a complexion similar to their own is not a racist on that account. Confusing racism with the consequences of deliberate public policy only exacerbates the problem and alienates the very people who most need and are usually willing to entertain a reasonable explanation for how we ended up in this mess.
I don’t see any way out of it short of a massive initiative comparable to the denazification and economic resuscitation of Germany following the second world war. We undertook that project not for altruistic reasons but because we wanted Western Germany as an ally in our confrontation with the Soviet Union. We have no such motivation to make whole our African-American population. We no longer feel the immediacy of the holocaust of slavery. In fact, many among us are tired of what they perceive as an extended effort taken in the best of faith to afford African Americans full civic and social rights. When they see young people rioting on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri even some of the most liberal among us begin to wonder if their efforts were worth it.
This is a reasonable reaction, not racism, to the lies we have been fed by our government, our educational institutions and our media. Because African Americans have not done what the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jewish Eastern Europeans and, more recently, Asians have done — i.e. enter into the mainstream after a period of social marginalization and even demonization — we have come to believe, if only subconsciously, that African Americans are a case apart. Without being racists we have come to accept the same kind of thinking that informs real racism. What we do not take into account, largely because there is a society-wide blackout on the kind of information Mr. Rothstein provides in his study, is that African-American experience in America is indeed a case apart, not because they have failed to respond to the opportunities other groups took advantage of when they became available but because those opportunities never did become available to them thanks to a century of deliberate public policy throughout United States.
(For a concise and striking summary of the Rothstein report, I suggest you listen to this interview conducted with him by Mitch Jeserich at KPFA. It runs about 25 minutes.)