Tilting at Windmills: The Politics of Polarization Against Majorities

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Tilting at Windmills: The Politics of Polarization Against Majorities

A friend of mine sent me an interview with Steve Best, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas who lost his position as department chair, he alleges, for his support of animal rights. In the interview, he denies personal involvement with violence employed by some animal rights advocates, but responds to the extreme violence that is committed against animals in experimentation saying, “The true forces of ethics and justice have involved groups such as the Jewish Resistance, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, the Suffragettes, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. All of them broke the law, destroyed the enemy’s property, or committed violence; they were beaten, jailed, killed, and denounced as extremists or the equivalent of terrorists.”1

I responded to my friend that most people, even if they do not agree, can understand breaking into research labs to liberate animals. This casts humans against animals with animals as victims. What they will not understand are actions such as firebombings of UC Santa Cruz researchers’ personal private property.2 These latter actions will be understood by the public as an attack on humans, casting animals against humans, with humans as victims. My point was that when the dispute polarizes as humans versus animals, animals will lose every time.

Saul Alinsky argues as well for such polarization, justifying means with ends, pointing to the one-sided rhetoric of the anti-Nazi resistance in World War II and even that in the Declaration of Independence. Alinsky’s argument goes a step beyond Best’s in that he countenances a distortion of truth.3 Not all revolutionaries go so far. Paulo Freire writes to the contrary, “it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason. Whoever lacks this trust will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue, reflection, and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiqués, monologues, and instructions.”4

But Alinsky has history on his side, and so Mexican American radicals turned to his tactics in combating the horrendous discrimination they faced.5 I cannot help but wonder if the polarization he advocated contributed to their cynical exploitation by the most notoriously cynical politician of modern times, Richard Nixon, in the 1972 presidential election.6 Now, while Mexican Americans are a voting bloc to be courted, just as Nixon did, except on immigration reform—which affects white privilege—it is hard to see how their concerns are being addressed,7 even as their population in the United States grows at a rate second only to Asians and Pacific Islanders.8

Polarization may have a short term value in motivating activists. But as Freire pointed out, it ultimately disempowers the very people Alinsky sought to advance, just as it makes animals the losers in a contest pitting animals against humans.

1Steve Best, interview by Jason Miller, May 17, 2008, Cyrano’s Journal: Thomas Paine’s Corner, http://www.bestcyrano.org/THOMASPAINE/?p=713 (accessed November 30, 2008).

2Conan Knoll, “Police: UCSC Researchers Targeted in Firebombings This Morning,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 2, 2008, http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_10080054 (accessed November 30, 2008).

3Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1989), 27.

4Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000), 66.

5Manuel G. Gonzales, Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States (Bloomington: Indiana University, 2000), 242; and Armando Navarro, “The Mexican American Youth Organization,” in Zaragosa Vargas, Major Problems in Mexican American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 394.

6Tony Castro, “Gaining the Mexican American Vote in the 1972 Presidential Election,” in Vargas, Major Problems in Mexican American History, 431-438.

7See for example, “McCain: Obama’s Word Cannot Be Trusted,” CNN, June 29, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/06/29/mccain.obama/index.html (accessed November 30, 2008).

8Frank Hobbs and Nicole Stoops, Demographic Trends in the 20th Century, Census Bureau (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2002), http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/censr-4.pdf (accessed November 30, 2008), 80-81.

Taking no prisoners in a Wal-Mart Christmas

Once upon a time, a long time ago, according to Marie Cocco (I certainly don’t remember this):

Well, we were a country in which, if you were working class, you were not feeling betrayed and you didn’t necessarily feel inferior to, say, the people who sold stock on Wall Street. They could only sell stock if you made a product that backed up that stock. This was nothing like those deals in which nobody can tell what’s exchanged except paper and false promises.

Your employer recognized your skills and experience with a healthy, middle-class paycheck. You knew your family’s health was protected by good insurance, that your spouse could rely on a decent pension after you were gone and that your children might win a company scholarship to attend college—or get a job at the plant, an option in which there was no shame.

Of course not everyone had this utopian experience. Women and people of color had a different experience entirely. But at least most of them lived to tell the story.

Now, of course, we live in a world where employers have been devaluing human beings for thirty or more years, ever since the Democratic faction sold out the unions and tried to regain the Southern vote by competing with the Republican faction by equating liberalism with communism and moving as far to the right as fast as they could. The consequences of this are manifest today now that credit is no longer available and people can only spend money they actually have in Christmas shopping.

Pity the poor schmuck who got in their way as Long Island Wal-Mart shoppers broke down the doors to take advantage of a one morning sale. He was trampled to death. Police say they’re examining surveillance videos to try to determined who all stampeded over him “but identifying individual shoppers in Friday’s video may prove difficult.”

Of course the victim doesn’t matter much in this grand scheme of devalued humanity. It is bad enough he was working at Wal-Mart, but he was a “seasonal employee,” low even on that food chain. And with a name like Jdimytai Damour, I’m guessing he wasn’t white and that he might not have been born in the United States. “Other workers were trampled as they tried to rescue the man, and customers stepped over him and became irate when officials said the store was closing because of the death, police and witnesses said.”

An incident like this shows we have internalized our dehumanization. This man’s life wasn’t important. Neither were the lives of those who tried to help him. All that mattered were “advertised sales like a Polaroid 42-inch LCD HDTV for $598 and a DVD of ‘Rush Hour 2’ for $2.”

If we were concerned with humanity, we wouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart, let alone trample a man to death for a television. We would worry about Chinese workers in their sweatshops, working long hours for abysmal wages. We would worry about the Wal-Mart workers in this country, who even with their jobs still must go to the county for general assistance because their wages and health insurance benefits are inexcusably inadequate.

But we don’t care. Damour was just another schmuck like the rest of us, living unworthwhile lives, and for whom death is a relief.

Unions, Unemployment, and the End of a Gilded Age: No Way Out

These are dark days indeed if you’re a unionized employee for one of the Big Three automakers, especially General Motors. You’re facing unemployment and the loss of the few well-paying jobs left in the US economy at a time when unemployment is skyrocketing.

Chart of U.S. Unemployment

But many people throughout the nation don’t seem to care.

“Two-thirds of the American public think autoworkers and their union are highly paid and don’t deserve help,” said industry analyst Maryann Keller of Keller and Associates, a market researcher near New Haven, Conn.

The Big Three CEOs flew separately on private jets.

[GM CEO Rick] Wagoner’s private jet trip to Washington cost his ailing company an estimated $20,000 roundtrip. In comparison, seats on Northwest Airlines flight 2364 from Detroit to Washington were going online for $288 coach and $837 first class. . . .

Ford CEO [Alan] Mulally’s corporate jet is a perk included for both he and his wife as part of his employment contract along with a $28 million salary last year. Mulally actually lives in Seattle, not Detroit. The company jet takes him home and back on weekends.

Mulally made his case Tuesday before the committee saying he’s cut expenses, laid-off workers and closed 17 plants.

“We have also reduced our work force by 51,000 employees in the past three years,” Mulally said.

Yet Ford continues to operate a fleet of eight private jets for its executives. Just Tuesday, one jet was taking Ford brass to Los Angeles, another on a trip to Nebraska, and of course Mulally needed to fly to Washington to testify.

Ford, it should be noted, claims to be in better shape than GM or Chrysler, having cash to last through 2009. But, burning $6 billion per month, the Big Three have asked for a $25 billion bailout, an amount that at that rate would last them on average a little over four months. So it should be no surprise that Congressional leaders want to see a plan by December 2.

One has to admit that at face value, the automakers’ request makes little sense. And while it is regrettable to see unions undermined in an era where that’s all the rage, UAW has served its members poorly:

The ratcheting productivity that allowed for these benefits was good for the bottom line but it meant that the factories continued to be, in [UAW President Walter] Reuther’s words, “gold-plated sweatshops.” The foundry and the assembly line remained an inhuman way to make a living. The common pattern was for workers to sign on, thinking to stay just a few years, but to be seduced by the benefits — and then say to themselves “it’s only 30 years.”

The mind-numbing drudgery, the high injury rates, the heat and smoke and oil in the air led many workers to hit the bottle — and, in one famous case, led black Detroit Chrysler worker James Johnson to pick up a gun and shoot two supervisors and a co-worker. A jury, after a plant tour, found that brutal working conditions and Chrysler’s shop-floor racism had literally driven Johnson insane.

Removed from the daily grind of factory life, however, UAW officials became far more attuned to the gold-plating in the shops than to the sweat. They sought gains they could measure in dollars, and Reuther’s belief in the benefits of technology and productivity kept him from protesting either automation or speedup. Officials came to see themselves as partners with management, truly convinced that “what’s good for GM is good for America,” and for UAW members.

There can be little serious question that the fall of the Big Three would be a disaster for the US economy.

Despite angry opposition to a potential bailout, auto companies contend that if they go bankrupt, there will be huge job losses, not only on factory floors, but also in dealerships and parts suppliers.

It is unclear, however, whether a bailout would solve auto companies’ problems. The carmakers say they need the money to get to the year 2010, when they are due to see big savings from health care cuts and new car models.

“Of course, a lot of Americans feel they have heard this before,” [NPR’s Frank] Langfitt says. “In the meantime, we have too many workers making too many cars for people who aren’t buying them. It looks like there could be a need for more layoffs.”

But “‘One out of 10 jobs in this country are auto-related. Twenty percent of retail sales are auto-related or automobiles, so this is a national problem,’ Levin told NBC’s ‘Meet the Press'” on November 16.

We’ll be losing jobs no matter what the outcome of the automakers’ bailout. We’ll be losing them because people aren’t earning enough in real wages to continue to consume manufacturing output. High wages aren’t the problem here. Low wages are.

Farewell to privacy

Say goodbye to privacy, any privacy ever again. A James Bond fan at the Associated Press gushes, “If only we could be flies on the wall when our enemies are plotting to attack us. Better yet, what if that fly could record voices, transmit video and even fire tiny weapons?”

Let’s remember who “our enemies” are, shall we? The “War on Terror,” clearly not repudiated by the incoming Obama administration, means any of us, especially vegans and especially those who oppose imperialism, can be declared “enemies” at any time and without due process. We can be targets of this technology. And it will only be a matter of time before law enforcement, for whom all poor people are the enemy, will get their hands on this technology.

And I’m sure it will be smart enough not to fly into a bug zapper.

Wal-Mart has won, but not for long

Having profited from, as Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price put it, the impoverishment of “America,” as “free marketers” have done everything possible to reduce wages, transfer their social responsibilities to the poor, and deny they have any environmental responsibilities, “the giant discounter [Wal-Mart] is the only store where hard-squeezed consumers can afford to buy anything, and so it has kept posting sales gains amid the retail bloodbath. ‘This is the kind of environment that Sam Walton built this company for,’ Wal-Mart chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr. told analysts recently.”

But the assumption here is that we can continue a race to the bottom in wages and that consumers will still have any money left over to buy anything. So when Wal-Mart, and chains like it are the only remaining retail outlets, and the only remaining employers, their profits will vanish when people find themselves compelled to simply steal the food they need to eat and the clothes they need to wear.

At that point, we will see money for what it really is, a means for depriving people of their needs and a form of oppression rather than as a medium of exchange.

Oil prices were driven up by speculation

As oil prices plummet, a part of the story of their rise emerges. According to the Wall Street Journal,

Companies varying from refiners to private-equity firms may have an incentive to store real barrels of oil, but few have the money to do so these days. Ever since parts of the financial sector collapsed in September, banks have restricted lending, and the cost of borrowing has risen. The added financing expense is keeping buyers out of the physical market, which in turn has added downward momentum to near-month oil prices.

So speculators have been purchasing oil on credit, and hoarding it to sell at higher prices. Now that this credit is no longer available, they can no longer purchase it to hoard.

Going down

A notice was in my box a few days ago from Lupin management, in which they congratulated themselves on really not very much. It was essentially a self-justification and an appeal for support against declining attendance at a naturist club that has had one good month this year. They’re worried, of course, about the present economic crisis and mentioned that the club was originally founded “in the depths of the Great Depression,” but apart from their own mismanagement, the economy will surely hit the club hard.

There are a bunch of articles on various aspects of the economy that caught my eye today, and to sum them up, it is clear that the economy is going down, hard, with corporate “America” very much appearing to be on the ropes in an economy they have hollowed out in such a way that it is virtually impossible to conceive how consumer spending can rise again. But Bob Herbert almost summed it up well, writing, “The fat cats who placed the entire economy at risk with their greed and manic irresponsibility are trying to lay claim to every last dime in the national Treasury. Meanwhile, we’re nowhere close to an economic recovery program that will help the people who are hurting most.” What he neglects is that there are no dimes left in the national treasury.

We can’t just blame that on the Bush administration. Paul Craig Roberts asks, “If the change President-elect Obama has promised includes a halt to America’s wars of aggression and an end to the rip-off of taxpayers by powerful financial interests, what explains Obama’s choice of foreign and economic policy advisors?” Roberts neglects the lack of dimes in the national treasury as well.

Paul Krugman argues that the problem with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was that it didn’t go far enough. He writes,

FDR did not, in fact, manage to engineer a full economic recovery during his first two terms. This failure is often cited as evidence against Keynesian economics, which says that increased public spending can get a stalled economy moving. But the definitive study of fiscal policy in the ’30s, by the MIT economist E. Cary Brown, reached a very different conclusion: fiscal stimulus was unsuccessful “not because it does not work, but because it was not tried.”

One thing that is clear is that the Bush administration’s top-down approach, which appears likely to be continued in one form or another by the Obama administration, is rapidly being outpaced. The Wall Street Journal reports, but perhaps dares not to measure, the widening conflagration.

The Associated Press reports that the latest plan to help mortgage-holders “focuses on loans Fannie and Freddie own or guarantee. They are the dominant players in the U.S. mortgage market but represent only 20 percent of delinquent loans.” Many of the remaining mortgages have been carved up into securities held by numerous investors, any of whom can prevent restructurings. One would hope they wouldn’t, but a correlation between stupidity and greed should never be underestimated. If too many hold out to try to further minimize their losses, they may force more defaults in either the short or the long term and lose their investments entirely. If some saw the subprime crisis as a tsunami, I wonder what they’ll call what’s coming.

So if you take away financial services and you take away the automotive industry, what is left in this economy? A bunch of fast food joints and Wal-Marts?

Actually, there’s the defense industry, but Roberts writes,

How much more can the government borrow? America’s foreign creditors are asking this question. An official organ of the Chinese ruling party recently called for Asian and European countries to “banish the US dollar from their direct trade relations, relying only on their own currencies.”

“Why,” asks another Chinese publication, “should China help the US to issue debt without end in the belief that the national credit of the US can expand without limit?”

This is a challenge to the status of the US Dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Without that status, and without loans from overseas, more money creation translates directly into inflation, and given the increasing magnitude of the crisis, possibly hyperinflation. The Chinese have made noises before, but for as long as they can hold the yuan relatively stable against the dollar, they can fib about the book value of their vast holdings of US debt and save face. I would not want to be whoever it is that has bought and held all this debt when that exchange rate becomes seriously untenable.

Bloomberg News is reporting that “the Federal Reserve is refusing to identify the recipients of almost $2 trillion of emergency loans from American taxpayers or the troubled assets the central bank is accepting as collateral,” and suing to force disclosure.

“The collateral is not being adequately disclosed, and that’s a big problem,” said Dan Fuss, vice chairman of Boston-based Loomis Sayles & Co., where he co-manages $17 billion in bonds. “In a liquid market, this wouldn’t matter, but we’re not. The market is very nervous and very thin.”

There are two explanations for the Fed’s secrecy: 1) the Fed may be seeking to protect recipients from embarrassment and loss of confidence, or 2) disclosure would damage confidence even more than lack of information. When they say the taxpayer is making these loans, however, they neglect that “the taxpayer” in fact is borrowing the money to cover those loans, from, among others, but significantly, the Chinese. And if they’re afraid to identify the recipients and the collateral for these loans, one has to suspect that it might be because these aren’t an appetizing credit risk.

There’s another problem. The money to pay back all these loans is nowhere in sight. As Herbert writes,

This is no ordinary recession. With brokerage houses, banks and a mammoth multinational insurance company depending on the Treasury for resuscitation, and with automakers like General Motors staring bankruptcy in the face, it has the feel of a monster downturn, a recession on steroids.

Indeed, Reuters reports that “Merrill Lynch & Co Chief Executive John Thain said the global economy is in a deep slowdown and will not recover quickly, and the environment recalls 1929, the advent of the Great Depression.” And here’s something that sounds a lot like what I was hearing before the $700 billion bailout:

The rescue efforts are “evolving in ways that I don’t think anyone anticipated,” said Camden Fine, president and CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a trade group. “Things are just hitting them from every single direction, every day, and I don’t think they know whether to spit or go blind.”

Ideology is clearly a part of the problem. Krugman writes:

Now, there’s a whole intellectual industry, mainly operating out of right-wing think tanks, devoted to propagating the idea that FDR actually made the Depression worse. So it’s important to know that most of what you hear along those lines is based on deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. The New Deal brought real relief to most Americans.

Two articles on the Motley Fool today argue for letting the auto companies go bankrupt, blaming them for high labor costs and outdated products. Among them, Bill Mann writes:

But economic growth only comes when capital is allowed to flow to its most productive uses. I am very sorry, but propping up Detroit’s dinosaurs is not productive. They have destroyed capital for a generation. They have too much debt, they have above-market labor costs, they have shown minimal aptitude at developing automobiles that people want to buy at prices that allow the companies to turn a profit. They are losing to Toyota and Honda (NYSE: HMC). Their parts suppliers are, as a group, collapsing, with Dana Holding Corporation (NYSE: DAN) and Visteon (NYSE: VC) teetering on the precipice.

Funny, nobody accused them of “minimal aptitude” when so many soccer moms were buying SUVs that felt “safe” but sucked gasoline and every yuppie male had to have a Hummer. And those labor costs translate to money in workers’ pockets that can be spent in this economy on products and services. When the auto makers go bankrupt, which might happen even with a haphazard bailout, they’ll take out a huge chunk of this economy’s remaining real production.

Wal-Mart jobs don’t pay rent, they don’t buy houses, they don’t buy cars, and they barely pay any taxes. And if they don’t pay taxes, and they don’t generate the kind of business that pays taxes, there’s no money to pay off all those foreign creditors. Sooner or later, China and other foreign creditors going to figure this out. But Obama’s early picks recall the very Clinton administration that was gung ho on the globalization that has hollowed out the economy, leaving us with all those Wal-Mart jobs.

Herbert argues for jobs, writing, “The naysayers will claim that all of this is too expensive, that we can’t afford it. Where were they when we invaded Iraq? And how do they feel about the staggering amounts being funneled, with nothing like the proper oversight, to the banks and Wall Street?” He’s right, but there’s another part to this. The jobs can’t just be jobs. They have to be well-paying jobs.

Book Review

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Where Lies Truth?  Positivism as the Triumph

of Method over Meaning and Postmodernism as a Bigotry of the Self

Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).

What do you think of the chief philosophers of our gymnasium, who with the stubbornness of a viper, did not want to see the planets . . . ?  In truth, just as he [Odysseus] closed his ears, so they closed their eyes against the light of the truth.  That is monstrous, but it does not astonish me.  For men of this kind think that philosophy is a book, like the Aenid or the Odyssey and that truth is to be sought not in the world and in nature, but in the comparison of texts (as they call it).1

In Misogyny, Jack Holland identifies an authoritarian male preference for pursuits of the mind in opposition to the distractions of the female body in a mind-body dichotomy as a cause for the longstanding and brutal stigmatization of women.2  Also following Plato, conservative theorist Richard Weaver prefers a “metaphysical dream,” where truth lies, and which judges all other knowledge; from this, he derives his “tyrannizing image” at the center of every culture3 which

commands all things, and . . . is open to imaginative but not logical discovery.  It is a focus of value, a law of relationships, an inspiriting vision.  By its nature it sets up rankings and orders; to be near it is to be higher; to be far from it in the sense of not feeling its attraction is to be lower.4

George Lakoff, too, recognized a conservative bias favoring a central set of ideas or values in a metaphor he named as “moral purity”—an essential cultural norm—as supreme and intolerant of multiculturalism.5  So when postmodernists challenge objectivity, they place perception over the objective; when they claim that theory precedes the physical world,6 they shift a locus of understanding from that which is shared among a community to that which is within themselves.  There is cause for alarm that they somehow stigmatize someone, but it is not clear whom, or how.

Bruce Mazlish completes the circle in an historically-based rethinking of scientific method that aims to resolve a dilemma of epistemology in the human sciences and identifies two main visions of truth, the positivist, originating in the natural sciences, and the hermeneutic, originating in the human.  His sweep is grand, beginning with a distinction that becomes important between natural science and human science.  To suggest that natural sciences like physics and chemistry are “cold and calculating, instead of being part of human creativity,” distinguishes them from human sciences, and thus to separate humans from nature, as “somehow a special creation.”7  And yet, this is how we begin, with “the assumption . . . that the two kinds of sciences dealt with radically different phenomena and required radically different methods.”8  But the pull of objectivity is powerful and Mazlish leads us from a thought experiment about a “Martian” scientist who “discovers . . . that human phenomena – the messy details of rules and rituals, belief systems and social practices – are filled with ambiguity and, worst of all, with meanings that pose problems for an imagined objective observer.”9  Human experience, Mazlish is telling us, is impossible to understand objectively; it must be interpreted.10  This inescapable subjectivity is the beginning of the difficulty with positivism.

As Europeans explored the world and confronted humans in other lands as “others,” treating “the Other as [their] object while declining to put [themselves] in the reverse position,”11 Mazlish will argue for an expanding consciousness that also contradicts a postmodernist preeminence of what one already believes.  It will not be enough to see ourselves as others see us;12 by shifting the center away from ourselves—as when bipedalism allowed humans to gaze upwards and see stars,13 as when Copernicus moved the center of the universe away from the Earth,14 and as when colonial administrators recognized that they “needed to understand the intentions of the Others whom they ruled,” compelling anthropologists learn other perspectives15—and finally when we understand that there is no “center,”16 we inevitably broaden our own horizons, taking in ever greater portions of a universe of experience and it is then that we become “perspectival man.”17

Mazlish leads us through a history of positivism that seeks to reconcile the Cartesian, Galilean approaches of mathematics and deduction with Francis Bacon’s approaches of observation and experimentation with Auguste Comte’s view that each science would require its own method to John Locke’s trust in the senses, in statistics, and in a single scientific method applicable to all sciences including the human sciences.  A naïve positivism emerges with a triumph of a unitary method over understanding and even over result.18  We are to believe—apparently on faith—that not only does an objective reality exist, and not only can it be accurately perceived (or interpreted19), but that it must be accurately described.  But while we have no methodological means for dealing with value judgments or authoritarian edicts,20 this method is applicable even to studies that involve human culture.

Mazlish then examines the human species itself and argues that hunter-gatherers are not like “modern” humans; they are human, and yet they are different.  For humans, Mazlish argues, cultural evolution must be recognized on a similar footing with physical evolution21 and we must account for a “shift in the balance between unlearned, genetically determined forms of conduct and learned forms,” the latter being transmitted through symbols, which he understands “to represent the world, physical and social.”  Assuming that a physical existence lies beyond our senses, Mazlish argues that humans could not have survived “if human orientations to reality were fundamentally flawed and their communications full of misunderstandings,”22 but nonetheless that our species has “deep flaws in its view of reality or in the appropriateness of its symbols.”23  It is this flawed perception and this flawed symbol-using capacity that we rely upon in our understanding of the world, and while Mazlish does not make this clear, it is perhaps this that leads to his view of emergent phenomena in which a consequent whole of physical, social, or consciousness systems can not be foreseen from even a complete knowledge of the components in those systems.24  This constitutes yet another attack on positivism, which would expect to yield generalizable results from studies of representative samples.  The issue of madness raises questions as well about a hermeneutic approach, and specifically forms an attack on what I shall assert is its locus of understanding within an individual in postmodernism.25  Mazlish appears to risk at least overgeneralization when he writes that “what [primitive societies] have not had is a developed consciousness, which would allow them to conceive of alternatives to their established beliefs,”26 yet if we consider the perspective of conservatives with which I began this review, we might make a form of this claim even of some people in putatively developed societies.

Mazlish next turns to hermeneutics, returning to a claim that the human sciences are inescapably different from natural sciences.  “[Giambattista] Vico argued for what is now known as hermeneutic rather than positive knowledge” in the human sciences, an interpretive method, known by, used, but not favored by the ancient Greeks who (Plato among them) preferred rationality, and finally coming into its own with Biblical studies, and then beginning in 1819, into general studies of the human psyche.  The word derives from the name of the Greek God Hermes, a messenger; hermeneutics thus relies on a mediation between the source of a message and its receiver, originally between gods and humans, and later between the other and the self, each in its own context.  These contexts must be negotiated; understanding arises from an exchange of perspectives that lead to an understanding of the whole of a communication which in turn leads to an understanding of each of its components.27  This process of understanding, “a continuous shuffling back and forth between text and context,” is the hermeneutic circle.28

This in turn raises the question of representing an author’s intent within a text.  Mazlish pauses only briefly here, considering the possibility of understanding an author better than (s)he understands him or herself, by understanding, first from a different perspective within a social matrix and a culture, which themselves are semiotically interpreted, and second, from an attempt to perceive a disguised “truer reality,” the context within which the author produced a message.29  “A latent danger,” Mazlish writes, “is that such an approach can also go to the extreme of ignoring the author’s intentions entirely,”30 a danger that postmodernists intentionally disregard.31

Of postmodernism, Mazlish writes,

For most postmodernists, everything is a text: books, incarceration practices, scientific findings.  Postmodernism appears to restrict itself, in fact, to a discourse about discourses (although these, admittedly, are about practices).  Interpretation reigns supreme, and none can derive from a central, ordering perspective.  Everything becomes a matter of extreme hermeneutics.32

Yet when Mazlish acknowledges that postmodernism “verges on interpretive nihilism,” and, parenthetically, that “texts for postmodernists, too, must be read as if without an author,”33 messages become what their receivers think they are; a center reappears within the receiver of each message, and we return to a locus more narrow even than that which Mazlish attributed to “primitive societies.”  We speak now not even of a small society’s established beliefs,34 but those of an individual.  Rather than a ritual view of communication which James Carey damns as “directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs,”35 we have the maintenance of the individual in time, not learning, but the reaffirmation of what the self already believes.  I believe it is of postmodernists Mazlish writes in his concluding chapter, “We are drawn into the narcissistic pool by words, by our fixation on our own discourse.  Our symbol-making ability turns upon itself, losing all contact with the external environment for which it has been adaptively devised.”36

With the challenges of madness37 and of “differentiat[ing] a true from a false interpretation, a better from an inferior one,”38 Mazlish concludes of hermeneutics that “some form of public verification seems an essential part of any claim to science, natural or human;” he appeals to “the best features of positivism . . . even in those sciences that are mainly hermeneutical in nature.”39  Because perspectives and interpretations vary, he seeks “the accumulation of more and more interpretations,”40 from which we can ultimately draw causal explanations.41  We should be alert to unintended consequences and to emergent phenomena.  We must understand humans as humans, not as robots subject to positivist manipulation.42  We must understand “that any law in the social sciences is part of a process including prescriptions that fosters change, which may then create new conditions in which that law no longer effectively applies.”43  We should have witnesses, not to replicate experiments or to compare observations, but who are scientists “able to weigh evidence and reason well, even if not about specific technical details, as a preliminary basis for being willing to be persuaded by evidence and theory,”44 but Mazlish does not make clear what the difference is between what he proposes and the current practice of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  He only distinguishes these witnesses from their positivist counterparts in that, if I may so call them, hermeneutic witnesses in their own contexts “seek[] along with others to be rational and to strive for as much objectivity as is humanly possible.”45  They would be members of a scientific community, committed to “an agreement to think and discourse according to the rules of scientific method,”46 but not the unitary method of naïve positivism.47  This method “must adapt itself to the materials being studied and not be seen as a mold to be imposed on all phenomena.”48  And truth is not just the product of consensus, but of a “rational consensus” of these witnesses.49  We cannot neglect that “communication is necessarily unclear and is impeded or enriched by problems inherent in language.”50  We must recognize that “humanity is at least slightly mad, much given to fantasy, subject to erratic bouts of anxiety, and mainly irrational in behavior and thought.  Reason is a straw, or at best a thin plank, stretched across the abyss of human existence.”  Mazlish acknowledges that this community inevitably will fall far short of what he labels the Habermasian ideal; it neglects desire and passion.  “But it may be the best we have.”51  Finally, Mazlish writes that as important as scientific method may be, it is not the only path to truth.  Historical consciousness includes the arts, myth, and religion,52 and progress expands our consciousness, making us quite a different people from those even of not so recent past.53  It is in this consciousness, that he finds truth.

1Galileo, letter to Johannes Kepler, quoted in Hans Blumenberg, The Genesis of the Copernican World, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1987), 658, quoted in Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences, 100.

2Jack Holland, Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006).

3Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 3rd Ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2002), 160-162.

4Richard Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1964), 12, quoted in Foss, Foss, and Trapp, Cultural Perspectives, 162.

5George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd Ed. (University of Chicago, 2002), 92-93, 170, 228.

6Isaac Catt, lecture, Fall 2007, CSU East Bay, Hayward, CA.

7Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences, 11.

8Ibid., 12.

9Ibid., 14-15.

10Ibid., 25.

11Ibid., 29.

12Ibid., 31.

13Ibid., 77.

14Ibid., 103.

15Ibid., 105.


17Ibid., 225.

18Ibid., 55-62.

19Ibid., 95-96.

20Ibid., 37-65.

21Ibid., 67-71.

22Ibid., 72.

23Ibid., 73.  Mazlish’s point stands even if his evidence may be flawed.  He claims that “at any one time in developed societies (where such figures are compiled), 10 percent of the population is in mental asylums, and at least one out of four members of the society will experience a nervous breakdown requiring treatment during the course of his or her life,” but he offers no citation to support this claim (Ibid.).  I found no statistics on asylum occupancy or “nervous breakdowns,” but the United States Surgeon General reports that 15% of the US population uses mental health services in any year and that 28% have diagnosable mental or substance abuse disorders (Surgeon General, “Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General,” US Public Health Service, http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/mentalhealth/chapter2/sec7.html (accessed November 8, 2008)).

24Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences, 73-75.

25Ibid., 107-109.

26Ibid., 77.

27Ibid., 84, 89-91.

28Ibid., 91.

29Ibid., 95, 97, 101.

30Ibid., 95.

31Ibid., 106; and Gary P. Radford, On The Philosophy of Communication (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), 133-153.

32Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences, 106.


34Ibid., 77.

35James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (New York: Routledge, 1992).

36Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences, 229.

37Ibid., 107-109.

38Ibid., 121.

39Ibid., 127.


41Ibid., 128.

42Ibid., 176-187.

43Ibid., 189.

44Ibid., 192.

45Ibid., 194.

46Ibid., 195.

47Ibid., 55-62.

48Ibid., 195-196.

49Ibid., 197.

50Ibid., 214.

51Ibid., 198.

52Ibid., 216.

53Ibid., 217-218, 229.

To the president-elect

Posted on Change.gov:

My adult life has included the time from the Reagan presidency to now. In that time, we have had three (and now, probably, four) economic downturns so severe that job creation did not merely fail to keep up with population growth, but in which the economy shed jobs.

We have been lied to about the economy, using statistics that are manipulated to hide the real pain, casting the underemployed and the long-term unemployed from the numbers as if they weren’t wanting work. “Core inflation” excludes food and energy, as if they were unimportant. What poppycock.

Economists celebrate the business cycle; it weeds out inefficiency, they say, and allows resources, including human beings, to be put to better use. But good jobs have been exported to other countries and what jobs have replaced them pay a third or less. Efficiency, we know, means more money for the rich, and less for everyone else.

The United States of my lifetime is not a land of opportunity, unless you are already wealthy. But for the wealthy, who can transmit their capital to places with the lowest wages and the least regulations and shift it again at a whim, it has been a world of ever-increasing reward. We pretend to reward merit, but workers have not received gains commensurate with their productivity and we have somehow come to believe that upper management really and truly is worth several hundred times the average worker.

Free trade, I keep hearing, has brought prosperity to more people all around the world. More than what, I wonder. I certainly haven’t seen it. Rather, a phrase like “free trade” must be interrogated: “free” for whom? Because it certainly isn’t free for me.

But more fundamental than the economy, I am tired of the lies. Throughout our history, we have killed and been killed for lies, in war after war after war, and for what? So hegemony can maintain a now-sinking standard of living at the expense of the rest of the world? So exceptionalism can perpetuate a myth that the “American way” is the best way for all people in all lands?

But I’m not rich. And I’m not powerful. So it isn’t for me that these benefits accrue. But if I were twenty years younger, it would be me who would be asked to waste my life and my sanity. For a lie in a series of lies.

In this time also, I have had to share the governance of this country with people who are intolerant of others, with people who blame the poor for their own problems, with people who think that the earth is unimportant, with people who think killing and abuse are all right, as long as it isn’t them. I am sick of the hypocrisy.

So President-Elect Obama. You claim to be about change. Change we can believe in, if I recall the slogan correctly. Tell me some truth.

Bullying, Proposition 8, and Hard Times

If there is an argument to be made against anarchism, it is against an assumption that humans fundamentally are empathetic beings who can cooperate in the absence of hierarchy. In Mutual Aid, Peter Kropotkin argues that species best adapted for survival are not those that kill each other off in competition, but those who cooperate to advance mutual interests.

Amid the election results which so many celebrate, California’s proposition 8 passed, meaning the state is now constitutionally forbidden from recognizing same-sex marriages. The proposition is already under challenge in the courts. The ACLU writes:

The petition charges that Proposition 8 is invalid because the initiative process was improperly used in an attempt to undo the constitution’s core commitment to equality for everyone by eliminating a fundamental right from just one group – lesbian and gay Californians. Proposition 8 also improperly attempts to prevent the courts from exercising their essential constitutional role of protecting the equal protection rights of minorities. According to the California Constitution, such radical changes to the organizing principles of state government cannot be made by simple majority vote through the initiative process, but instead must, at a minimum, go through the state legislature first.

Passage of this proposition does not merely reflect an intolerance of difference among human beings; it reflects proponents’ insistence that tolerance for others is intolerance for them, that recognition of others’ rights diminishes their own rights.

But the Federalist Papers reflect an understanding that rights are not needed by majorities who can prevail in any election. Rights exist instead for minorities who will be inevitably outvoted. The rights that James Madison, et al., sought to protect were not those of stigmatized minorities, such as gays, but of property owners who feared a class uprising. Certainly this view of rights in the Papers were not meant to protect the rights of Indians who were being crowded off their land, or the rights of slaves. So a more nuanced view is that we had a hierarchy in which some minority rights were protected and others were disregarded.

This is supposed to have gone away. The fourteenth amendment to the US Constitution forbids “any State” from “deny[ing] to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” But obviously, discrimination still exists, is still legislated, and is even approved in plebiscites.

So the antithesis of empathy, bullying–in which we now learn that bullies are not not simply “cold and unemotional in their aggression,” but are sadistically deriving “pleasure out of seeing someone else in pain”–is a privilege that some of us compete for.

This suggests that there are two kinds of humans. The first might be those that Kropotkin sees as best suited for survival. And the second might be those who have a more primitive view of “survival of the fittest.” And some of us in the first group have acquiesced to a few in the second in order to protect us from the rest in the second. Yet I see no meaningful distinctions amongst members of this second group that can work to the advantage of the first.

Rather, the generosity of the first group aids the second’s survival. And some members of the second group, whom we refer to as a government, exploit our fear of others in that same group to sustain our generosity. This government then hires more people from the second group, whom we call the police, to enforce the rule of law and to maintain social order, that is, to protect the elite from those of the rest of us whose generosity may be exhausted.

We are, by the accounts of all but those who wish for the rest of us to pump up the values of their stock holdings, entering very hard times. My generosity is exhausted.