Redemption and the New Year

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

Yesterday,1 I mentioned an understanding of moral essence, in which

people are born with, or develop in early life, essential moral properties that stay with them for life. Such properties are called “virtues” if they are moral properties, and “vices” if they are immoral properties. The collection of virtues and vices attributed to a person is called that person’s “character.”2

George Lakoff goes on to explain what he calls the metaphor of Moral Essence:

  • If you know how a person has acted, you know what his character is.

  • If you know what a person’s character is, you know how he will act.

  • A person’s basic character is formed by adulthood (or perhaps somewhat earlier).3

Critically, a person’s character is seen as unchanging. Lakoff writes that this “metaphor of Moral Essence is a significant part of our moral repertoire . . . and it is used by liberals and conservatives alike.”4 This justifies an increasingly harsh system of criminal injustice and a writing off of “people who for one reason or other — inability to find a job, old age, disability, racism, sexism, drug addiction — have been unable to cobble together the means to support themselves.”5 Indeed, Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim write that prior to the institution of Social Security, poor people and convicts were often mixed together and treated alike.6

So there is an irony in that on New Year’s Eve, I find myself reading a book a friend lent me—one I should probably add to my library. It’s an old book, dating from the 1950s, Cosmos and History by Mircea Eliade.7 Because chapter two is about what the New Year fairly universally meant to what Eliade calls “archaic” societies.

This apparently is a time of re-creation, the transformation of chaos into order, a time before which people celebrated and were in fact allowed to get a little out of hand because the new year was a new start—a redemption, sometimes accomplished through the driving out of a scapegoat, sometimes recognized with a return of the dead who were then driven out.8

This is a time to remember, but also a time to forgive.

Instead, we have become a very unforgiving society—at least for anyone who is not among the powerful—as our increasingly punitive attitudes towards the poor and those we label as criminal indicate. We might want to think again about that: poverty is on the increase9 and the gap between rich and poor is widening.10 In combination with our treatment of so-called “illegal” immigrants and with our treatment of Muslims, it is in fact not inappropriate to remember Martin Niemoeller’s famous words:

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.11

“They” are in fact coming for more and more of us, as more and more of us are driven to desperation. It is time to start again.

Redemption and retribution, dogs and African-Americans: The tortured case of Michael Vick

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

The controversy over Michael Vick’s rehabilitation begs to be oversimplified. And of course, this is just what has happened. Melissa Harris-Perry offers a more nuanced view than most,1 which is still over-simplistic.

The first, most obvious issue to me is the question of Michael Vick’s moral status. Despite ample evidence of systemic discrimination against people of color and the poor,2 our society tends to treat people who have been convicted of a crime as irredeemable, as if their conviction is a sign of an unmalleable inner criminal essence that justifies a continuing suspicion.3 Those convicted of sex offenses or crimes against children seem particularly vulnerable to this prejudice. And it appears from the Vick case that those convicted of animal abuse may also fall into this category.

Part of this undoubtedly stems from the apparent ineffectiveness of the criminal so-called justice system. Those who are incarcerated often seem to emerge worse than when they went in. Which given the dehumanization of prisoners,4 Peter Kropotkin suggested is just what we should expect.5 Angela Davis argues:

Prisons create the assumption that those who are a threat to our safety and security are behind bars, but in actuality, the techniques of violence, the techniques of terror that are most dangerous, are the ones used within the system itself. . . .

And the violence of slavery, which we assume was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment and afterwards, is very much at work within US prison institutions. And because the prison has been marketed on the global capitalist circuit, we discover these prisons, the US-style prisons now, all over the world, in the Global North as well as the Global South.6

Even with an increasingly punitive “law and order” regime, even as the sociologist Steven Barkan points to even worse overcrowding than before, a vast increase in the number of incarcerated people from before, and for all that, crime rates that are still higher than in many other industrialized countries.7 But,

If harsher punishment does not work, perhaps we could at least keep society safer by imprisoning larger numbers of criminals, especially chronic, hard-core offenders, and keeping them off the streets for longer amounts of time. . . . [This argument] assumes that we can easily identify the chronic offenders who need to be incapacitated. However, it is not clear whether we can accurately identify such offenders and predict their future behavior (Auerhahn 2002). The incapacitation argument also ignores the fact that any extra people we put in prison represent only a small percentage of all offenders, and that they will quickly be replaced on the streets by other offenders. The billions of dollars we would have to spend to house them will thus be largely wasted.8

The continued quest for retribution against Vick, then, must be seen as part of a larger picture in which people who run afoul of a deeply bigoted and flawed system are held responsible for the failures of that system. But there are other aspects to this, as Harris-Perry writes of events on campus where she teaches, that, “Many African American students on campus were deeply offended, hurt and angry about the exhibit’s comparison of animal suffering to the realities of the slave trade and lynching.”9

This is also about a larger prejudice. Harris-Perry refers on one hand to animal suffering, and on the other to “the realities of the slave trade and lynching” suggesting that the latter is somehow more real than the former. In a society that seeks to excuse its continuing consumption of meat and animal products, this might be expected, but Harris-Perry refers to the rationale for slavery:

By defining slaves as animals and then abusing them horribly the American slave system degraded both black people and animals. By equating black people to animals it both asserted the superiority of humans to animals, arrayed some humans (black people) as closer to animals and therefore less human, and implied that all subjugated persons and all animals could be used and abused at the will of those who were more powerful. The effects were pernicious for both black people and for animals.10

Actually, it is likely that even if whites had never enslaved blacks and other people of color, that animal suffering in slaughterhouses, factory farms, and in other places—like the dog fighting rings such as the one in which Vick was implicated—would continue. As one concerned both for civil rights and for animal rights, I would like to link these issues. I cannot, except that they both reflect hierarchical attitudes, in which some living beings assume a privilege to abuse other living beings.

It turns out, however, that blacks also reject the linkage:

Dogs, for example, were used by enslavers to catch, trap and return those who were trying to escape to freedom. Dogs were used to terrorize Civil Rights demonstrators. In short, animals have been weapons used against black bodies and black interests in ways that have deep historical resonace.11

All animals, therefore, must take the fall for some humans’ use of dogs against other humans—a very strange way to assign responsibility that appears to excuse any abuse of dogs (and apparently other animals) as retribution. African-Americans who see the case of Michael Vick as a sign of (mostly white) animal activists’ racism would do well to consider this more carefully.

Misconstruing Moore and Amnesty International: The case against Assange

At last something remotely resembling a coherent response from the other side. Writing for The Nation, Katha Pollitt actually points to a statement from Michael Moore which diminishes the rape charges against Julian Assange:

Appearing on Keith Olbermann’s show after he put up $20,000 to help bail Assange out of a British jail, Swedish rape law expert Michael Moore called the case “a bunch of hooey”: “the condom broke during consensual sex.”1

Alas, this fails to hold up under scrutiny. Moore appeared on Olbermann’s show on December 14. His statement, in context:

Daniel Ellsberg told you about [how governments and corporations go after individuals] last week on how they went after him. This is—we‘ve seen this before. Now, his guilt or innocence of this—I mean, what he said they did. And the lawyer said this today in court in London that what they say he did and the charges, his condom broke during consensual sex. That is not a crime in Britain, and so they‘re making the point how can we—how can we extradite him over this?

This is all a bunch of hooey as far as I‘m concerned. The man at least has a right to be out of prison while awaiting the hearing, and I believe that—and this is why I participate in it. This is why I put up a chunk of the bail money. And, you know, I‘m proud to do it because I think this man and what he‘s doing, and what his group is doing is going to save lives.2

The Guardian article on the leaked Swedish police report that contained the more serious allegations did not appear until the 17th.3 Moore was, at worst, referring to a somewhat less serious version of the accusations as had actually been reported at that time. And it looks to me like he was referring not to the accusations themselves but to the motivations to pursue Assange for these claims and to the decision to deny Assange bail.

It is in the Guardian story, three days after Moore appeared on Olbermann’s show, that we learn that:

[Miss A] told police that she had tried a number of times to reach for a condom but Assange had stopped her by holding her arms and pinning her legs. The statement records Miss A describing how Assange then released her arms and agreed to use a condom, but she told the police that at some stage Assange had “done something” with the condom that resulted in it becoming ripped, and ejaculated without withdrawing.4

It is also in this story that we learn:

Early the next morning, Miss W told police, she had gone to buy breakfast before getting back into bed and falling asleep beside Assange. She had awoken to find him having sex with her, she said, but when she asked whether he was wearing a condom he said no. “According to her statement, she said: ‘You better not have HIV’ and he answered: ‘Of course not,'” but “she couldn’t be bothered to tell him one more time because she had been going on about the condom all night. She had never had unprotected sex before.”5

The issue of consent here remains largely as I wrote on the 21st, certainly not my ideal, but in line with my understanding of what, regrettably, is commonly accepted. It is a form of consent (or the lack thereof) that practically begs to be misunderstood.6 Indeed,

In submissions to the Swedish courts, [Assange’s lawyers] have argued that Miss W took the initiative in contacting Assange, that on her own account she willingly engaged in sexual activity in a cinema and voluntarily took him to her flat where, she agrees, they had consensual sex. They say that she never indicated to Assange that she did not want to have sex with him. They also say that in a text message to a friend, she never suggested she had been raped and claimed only to have been “half asleep”.7

According to the Guardian story, these lawyers also say,

“Both complainants say they did not report him to the police for prosecution but only to require him to have an STD test. However, his Swedish lawyer has been shown evidence of their text messages which indicate that they were concerned to obtain money by going to a tabloid newspaper and were motivated by other matters including a desire for revenge.”8

The Swedish prosecutors’ decision to pursue these allegations might be seen as undermining women’s rights to name what has been done to or with them but Amnesty International also criticizes Finnish practice:

In Finland, a victim of rape or sexual abuse can exercise her “free will” and ask the prosecutor not to prosecute. This opens up the possibility for the perpetrator or others to pressurize the victim to withdraw the charges, with the prosecutor having no means of assessing whether the victim is in fact acting of her own “free will”.

This sends a signal that it is up to the victim to decide whether a crime has been committed.9

There seems to be an inconsistency here between asserting women’s agency in consenting to sex and depriving them of it in naming rape that suggests a need for balance. This is not to deny that under multiple forms of duress, women may fail to name rape. But Assange’s lawyers appeal to a strong possibility that Swedish prosecutors, who had initially dropped the charges against Assange, have now gone overboard in pursuing them.10

Finally, Pollitt challenges a quote in Katrin Axelsson’s letter to the Guardian in which Axelsson wrote, “On 23 April 2010 Carina Hägg and Nalin Pekgul (respectively MP and chairwoman of Social Democratic Women in Sweden) wrote in the Göteborgs-Posten that ‘up to 90% of all reported rapes never get to court. In 2006 six people were convicted of rape though almost 4,000 people were reported’.”11 12 At best, this is cherry-picking. I quoted the entire letter in my previous posting on this topic.13 Pollitt does not address Axelsson’s claim that, “Though Sweden has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe and these have quadrupled in the last 20 years, conviction rates have decreased.”14 Further, she diminishes Amnesty’s harsh assessment of Sweden’s enforcement of rape laws15 by adding parenthetically, “Sweden tracks rape by individual acts, not by number of victims, so its rape rate is lower than it looks.” In fact even the statistics which Pollitt relies upon when she quotes Amnesty International’s Katarina Bergehed saying, “In 2006 there were 3,074 rapes and 227 convictions,” are pretty dismal.16

But I guess when the target is Julian Assange, even that conviction rate is pretty good.

Another endless war

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

It’s the kind of story that seems like more of the same. Yet one more agency involved in empire.

But I’m remembering back to a day when I was a teaching assistant at California State University, East Bay. This particular professor, Robert Terrell, believed it was important to actually think about issues of the day—and probably about three quarters of each class was devoted to a wide-ranging debate. Very often I was on one side, attacking his position from the left. Given that his reputation in the department as being a leftist, I put him in the uncomfortable position of defending somewhat conservative views, and as I got better at this, got to where I could sometimes argue him to a draw.

On this particular day, he was arguing that young people had considerable influence in the political process. To understand what happened next, you have to understand that if students have no voice, his entire pedagogy becomes meaningless because there really is no reason for them to think about things they can do nothing about.

“Why then,” I demanded, “is marijuana still illegal?” It is legal, he retorted, really referring to what is, for the most part, rather lax enforcement. But glossing over that meaning and turning his words against him, I challenged him to test this theory in the lobby of the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and he was none too pleased with having been so cornered.

Those of us who advocate a more sensible drugs policy, that is, a recognition that drugs should be seen as a medical rather than a criminal issue have probably failed to fully reckon with the implications of this story in the New York Times on how deeply embedded the DEA in the mechanisms of empire.1 It should give us pause.

Because just as what Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the military-industrial complex2 has become a major constituency in policy making that has led us to endless war in other lands, the influence of such an apparently large and powerful agency may ensure endless war against our own people.

Of course this latter war manifests in many more ways than the so-called war on drugs. But nonviolent drug offenses account for a large part of a swollen United States prison population. In my own observations, drugs supply an additional anesthetic that Charles Reich failed to account for in The Greening of America when he anticipated that the discrepancy between the fantasy world of riches on television used to pacify the masses and the conditions of many people’s lives could not be sustained.3 (He also failed to anticipate the housing scam and a revivification of what he called Consciousness I—a ferocious individualism embedded in U.S. culture.)

And just as the military-industrial complex entails the armaments industry as well as the Pentagon, the constituency supporting the war on drugs entails the Drug Enforcement Agency, alcohol producers, and a burgeoning prison system. These are all powerful constituencies, growing in power, and forces to think about when you hear about “law and order,” the law passed by mostly wealthy white males against everyone else to preserve social hierarchy.

Schwarzenegger the Constructivist

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

I almost passed over this Associated Press article when I noticed the words, “Then the world’s best known action star, [then-incoming Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger conveyed an image of invincibility, persuading Californians that anything was possible if only they had the right mindset.”1.

In California, we know what happened to that:

“I know how to sell something,” he said then.

As he would come to learn, selling a political idea is one thing. Delivering on it is quite another.2

Though I was appalled by the way that Schwarzenegger came into office, I actually don’t blame him for failing to deliver on his promise to balance the state’s budget. Given the super-majority requirement to pass a budget or to pass tax increases, and the absolute unwillingness of a Republican minority dedicated to “strangling the beast,” to contemplate any tax increases in a budget that was already cut to the bone, the result was inevitable.

But what caught my eye was the notion that with “the right mindset,” that is, thinking the right thoughts, “anything was possible.” For me, this is the link between constructionism and Calvinism.

It is important to be clear about Calvinism so we can be clear about what it aimed for and how it got perverted over the centuries:

The Protestant affirmation of moral discipline and the holy dignity of one’s work in the world seems to have combined with a peculiarity in the Calvinist belief in predestination, whereby the striving (and anxious) Christian, deprived of the Catholic’s recourse to sacramental justification, could find signs of his being among the elect if he could successfully and unceasingly apply himself to disciplined work and his worldly calling. Material productivity was often the fruit of such effort, which, compounded by the Puritan demand for ascetic renunciation of selfish pleasure and frivolous spending, readily lent itself to the accumulation of capital. . . .

Within a few generations, the Protestant work ethic, along with a continued emergence of an assertive and mobile individualism, had played a major role in encouraging the growth of an economically flourishing middle class tied to the rise of capitalism.3

This is, originally anyway, about who goes to heaven. Catholics believed that if you obeyed the hierarchy, you’d go to heaven. For Protestants, it isn’t so clear because each person is a moral agent who has a direct connection available to God through the “unalterable Word of God in the Bible”4 Richard Tarnas, whom I’ve been quoting here, points out how Protestant Reformation elevated the physical realm to the sacred and mastery of that realm to sacred duty.5

So if, in this doctrine, you work hard and you do what the Bible says and you prosper, it is because you are predestined to go to heaven. We can understand “going to heaven” as a form of merit; the rest of this reduces to hard work, faith, obedience, and prosperity. And it just isn’t that hard to see how this gets mixed up and sometimes secularized over a period of centuries to the form we see among conservatives today, which I call neo-Calvinism, where hard work, sometimes faith, obedience, and merit lead to prosperity and the predestination part gets lost entirely.

And that gets simplified further, to the point where Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein claims to the Sunday Times that he is “just a banker ‘doing God’s work’.”6

But there’s more, because the promise of prosperity for everyone who fulfills these terms means that anyone who is not prosperous has failed either to work hard, or to think the right way, or to obey, or in that they lack merit. In other words, anyone who fails does not deserve to succeed and does not deserve the sympathy of the rest of society.

Examined in this light, the conservative value system makes little sense. It assumes unlimited resources on a finite planet—God will provide, as Christians might say—but even in 1840, Proudhon was pointing out that a system of property inherently disenfranchises those who come late.7 So the notion of resource exhaustion was possible even before the U.S. Industrial Revolution, and with it, an awareness that this system asserts a privilege for elders that doomed future generations.

But where I think Tarnas misapprehends is that it isn’t the physical world that gets elevated to the sacred but rather the social, political, and economic systems in which it is even possible to recognize prosperity. These are all social constructions to which constructivists assign undue weight in their understanding of reality.8 And by doing this—at the expense of the physical world—they neglect the environment, just like most conservatives.

To be fair, Schwarzenegger is a little more environmentally conscious than most of his Republican colleagues. He strongly advocated California’s climate change law and defended it against an oil industry initiative to suspend it until unemployment dropped to a rarely seen 5.5 percent.9

But Schwarzenegger’s simplistic notion that the right mindset is all that is needed to solve intractable problems sounds very much like the expectation to think the right thoughts, to believe and to obey, that neo-Calvinism considers essential to prosperity, that allows today’s conservatives to blame the poor. That simplistic notion is also in line with the constructivist understanding that we make our socially constructed realities. And while the latter may be true at the group level, at the individual level and for what Pauline Marie Rosenau referred to as an “obviously existing reality,”10 it just isn’t so.

Constructivism’s Unreality

As I reach yet another Walter Truett Anderson chapter on self,1 I find myself looking over at my cat, Admiral Janeway. She’s asleep on my bed.

This cat reifies personal autonomy for me. Before she came into my life, this was a theoretical, abstract concept. While I had long endorsed the concept, issues of birth control (though I’ve had a vasectomy) and abortion simply are not the existential concerns for me, a man, that they are for women. Police have never interfered in my experiences with recreational drugs. And I was born in that narrow slice of time in recent history where I have had to register neither for the military draft nor for Selective Service. My personal complaints about infringements of personal autonomy are mostly about being required to wear a seat belt (though I acknowledge the safety advantages).

But Admiral Janeway wants to be petted in a particular way. She generally does not want to be picked up. She objects so strenuously to being administered medicines that I cannot even give her the monthly anti-flea drops she’s supposed to have or take her to the veterinarian for regular vaccinations.

She has her own way of bestowing and withholding trust that very effectively conveys to me her sense of betrayal when I violate her rules about her self, her body. And to love this cat is to be deeply wounded when she withdraws.

For Admiral Janeway, there is the reality of the moment, of the rumpled covers on my bed, of my travels from room to room (she often follows, though she may keep her distance from whatever I’m engaged in at the moment). There is also the reality of a neighborhood cat, Montgomery, who has become very aggressive, attacking her, and chasing her from our front yard back in through the cat door we’ve installed in my bedroom window.

And it is very clear to me that Admiral Janeway has an unambiguous sense of self.

It is one thing for constructivists to treat human reality as a social construction. Large parts of it certainly are. I recall Isaac Catt in my graduate-level theory of communication class (which I despised) pointing out that (human) infants learn the difference between self and other. In this light, one can see the brightly colored toys and mobiles that often accompany a baby in its crib as part of a process of training the child to interact with the world in a subject-object relationship—another part is in all the inane cooing, tickling, peek-a-boo playing, and other interactions that people typically engage in with babies.

As we move beyond infancy, our relationships with others become less biological and more social. Yes, parents provide food, clothing, and shelter, but they do in the context of a relationship that is far different from that, say, of a fish who lays a huge number of eggs—and abandons them—on the theory that if enough eggs are laid, a few hatchlings may survive predation to continue the species.

And of course, I provide food, shelter, and as I turn on some heat on a cool winter evening, warmth for Admiral Janeway. But it is hard for me to imagine that these are mere social constructions. She happens to be allergic to most cat food; I can only feed her a particular brand (along with an occasional can of tuna). And the lesson of this goes beyond personal autonomy: some things are good for her to eat; some things are not.

As for me, I am vegan. So I am frequently looking at ingredient labels trying to divine what might be an animal product (this is often extremely difficult to tell). But even setting that aside, as for my cat, there are things that are good for me to eat, and there are things that are not; things that I like to eat, and things I do not.

It’s extremely difficult to discuss these things except in terms of a subject-object relationship. And the physical needs are really real, not merely social constructions.

As we move towards adulthood, we become more enmeshed in political, social, and economic arrangements that are all social constructions—they would not exist in the absence of a social system. In The Future of the Self, Anderson seeks to confuse our interactions in these arrangements with the self, suggesting that we don’t have a single self—either we have no self, or we have many.2

But Admiral Janeway reminds me that there is a real reality, parts of which, delightfully, we share. And while our interactions might be social, Anderson writes,

Abraham Maslow’s famous catalog of human needs is top-heavy with cravings that can only be satisfied in the symbolic universe. People, he said, seek safety (social structure, freedom from anxiety and chaos); belongingness (a place in a group or family); esteem (“a stable firmly based, usually high evaluation of themselves”); and ultimately self-actualization, the fullest expression of potentialities.3

Anderson refers to Maslow’s hierarchy not as a hierarchy or as a pyramid (in which it is most often depicted) but as a “catalog.” He glosses over Maslow’s idea that it is important to satisfy lower level needs—physical needs—before one can aspire to higher level needs.

Fig. 1. Maslow’s Hierarchy4

Admiral Janeway is still asleep on my bed. But she reminds me that to call Maslow’s hierarchy “top-heavy with cravings that can only be satisfied in the symbolic universe” is a gross distortion.

  • 1. Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To be (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).
  • 2. Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self: Exploring the Post-Identity Society (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997).
  • 3. Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, p. 132.
  • 4. J. Finkelstein, “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” October 27, 2006. Retrieved from’s_hierarchy_of_needs.png

Law of the Jungle Education

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

I’m remembering a passage from Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities1:

A lot of wealthy folks in Texas think the schools are doing a sufficiently good job if the kids of poor folks learn enough to cast a vote—just not enough to cast it in their own self-interest. They might think it fine if kids could write and speak—jut not enough to speak in ways that make a dent in public policy. In economic terms, a lot of folks in Alamo Heights would think that Edgewood kids were educated fine if they had all the necessary skills to do their kitchen work and tend their lawns.2

Kozol visited a number of impoverished urban school districts in the course of writing this book. He observed a strong correlation between race and class in education and recounts horror stories of classes meeting in restrooms, roofs that didn’t merely leak but let through torrents of water, and a clear message to children that they aren’t seen as worth the investment. Kozol’s book is now nearly twenty years old but it cannot be said that schools have improved in the interim.

Even though I remain unemployed, I’m giving up the substitute teaching. Why? I wasn’t getting very many assignments, I was having trouble telling from the information the automated substitute teacher calling system offered what I was actually getting into, and most importantly, I connected how I saw kids being treated with the anti-intellectualism that is so prevalent in the United States. That anti-intellectualism is a large part of my problem and I felt that by participating in this system, I was contributing to making it worse.

And it will only get worse. Robert Reich has a disgustingly long list of budget cuts at all levels of education. He writes, “Over the long term, the only way we’re going to raise wages, grow the economy, and improve American competitiveness is by investing in our people — especially their educations.”3 That’s precisely what we aren’t doing—and have not been doing for a very long time.

I have heard stories that whenever troubled Oakland city schools actually come up with a program that starts to make a difference, the rug gets pulled out from under it. Those who tell me these stories believe this is no coincidence, that it is the result of malice.

And while I was attending California State University, East Bay, voters passed a proposition that increased funding for community colleges and for the elite University of California—but left out the State University system, which has absorbed year after year of budget cuts and whose students have faced steadily rising tuitions and fees. Reich is correct when he writes, “Universities have to tame their budgets, especially for student amenities that have nothing to do with education.”4 I don’t know the situation at UC Berkeley, where Reich teaches, but at CSU East Bay, somehow those amenities—fueled by university presidential egos and rationalized with hopes that non-educational experiences would lead to students donating money back to the university after they graduated—continued to develop, at least partly through the Student Association’s acquiescence to administration demands that effectively make student organization money an adjunct to university budgets.

Higher education, the only hope most people have of a life with dignity, is increasingly an exclusively upper class phenomenon. The rich have their own system of education that is insulated from all of this, where opportunity isn’t even just about which Ivy League schools they attend but the social organizations they join at those schools and the very expensive prep schools that specialize in getting students into those universities.5 6

Something else Kozol wrote:

The system has the surface aspects of a meritocracy, but merit in this case is predetermined by conditions that are closely tied to class and race. While some defend it as in theory, “the survival of the fittest,” it is more accurate to call it the survival of the children of the fittest—or of the most favored.7

He was writing of the school system in the South Side of Chicago, but added, “Similar systems exist in every major city.”8 Now it extends throughout education.

  • 1. Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991).
  • 2. Kozol, Savage Inequalities, p. 216.
  • 3. Robert Reich, “The Attack on American Education,” December 22, 2010. Retrieved from Archived at
  • 4. Reich, “The Attack on American Education.”
  • 5. Peter W. Cookson, Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell, “The Vital Link: Prep Schools and Higher Education,” in Thomas M. Shapiro, Ed., Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd Ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  • 6. G. William Domhoff, “The American Upper Class,” in Thomas M. Shapiro, Ed., Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd Ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  • 7. Kozol, Savage Inequalities, p.60.
  • 8. Kozol, Savage Inequalities, p.60.

Gaia, in “hard” science

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

I honestly don’t go looking for conflicts with my professors. But I’m finding it really rather astonishing that one in the Transformative Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies pointed me at these two books by Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To be1 and The Future of the Self.2

Even after a year and a half in the program, I still don’t have a clear idea what Transformative Studies is. Partly, I suspect, that’s because the program itself doesn’t have a clear idea, and certainly it seems some of the thinking has been poorly developed. But one truly good thing about my time in that program has been my exposure to complexity theory. This is the program’s theoretical foundation. We can quibble—or, for that matter, point to more serious matters about how the program has been developed from this base—but the hard cold fact of the matter is that Fritjof Capra makes a powerful and compelling case for this theory.3 You don’t get to just dismiss it out of hand.

So why would this professor point me at books that—as I’ve previously observed4—seem to refer to complexity theory without fully grasping it? This isn’t just a matter of the give and take of ideas—he did this in the same class that introduces complexity theory.

I don’t know. But it suggests that he was more concerned about gaining my sympathy for post-modernism than he was about my understanding of complexity theory. I also have to wonder how he sees Pauline Marie Rosenau’s book, Post-modernism and the Social Sciences.5 Rosenau claims to have intended her book as an even-handed look at post-modernism and its implications for the social sciences. This book was on the pre-reading list (or at least one version of it, anyway) for the program and is in fact a rather devastating critique. But because post-modernists often prefer obscurantism to clarity, I really have very few choices in gaining an understanding of post-modernism.

Anderson, at least, does write with clarity. And as I highlight his fallacies, it is also only fair to point out that sprinkled in his books are also some very apt observations. Those, however, would not include this:

The most recent [noble lie] is the story of Gaia, an ancient Greek myth hoked up anew in the guise of science to make us suitably reverent toward the biosphere. It, too, has a plausible, even in some respects obvious, core — the hypothesis that the biological processes on the earth affect geochemical and climatic conditions and, in effect, maintain the conditions for life. The hypothesis (or theory, as it is now being called) is quite worthy of our attention, and is easily the least important part of what could more accurately be described as the “Gaia phenomenon,” the popular new belief that the earth is a living organism. The Gaia phenomenon rests heavily on myth and metaphor.6

This is a man who either has not read Fritjof Capra or has failed to absorb the content. Nor has he read or absorbed the content of Joanna Macy’s Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory.7 Nor has he read or absorbed the content of Edgar Morin’s On Complexity.8

Capra, Macy, and Morin all explain self-organization, a feature of living organisms in which they find themselves in situations which they adapt to. One of those ways of adaption is to cooperate, to combine, to create something bigger—a larger system. In this way, things that may not themselves be alive become part of a living system. Because this system exhibits emergent properties that cannot be foreseen from the system’s constituents, we are no longer able to abstract the components from the system, or as Morin succinctly puts it, the system is “a whole that cannot be reduced to the sum of its constituent parts.”9

To develop this further, I need to refer back to what I wrote on August 20, 2010:

Macy, I think, does a better job . . . in presenting an ontology of interrelationship that casts a new light on the mind-body relationship not as body producing mind or even the other way around, but as mind and body arising in a mutually dependent relationship. In her view, cause and effect take not a linear form of A causes B, but that of mutual conditioning where A affects B and, crucially, vice versa.

In such a view, mind is not the product of a whole lot of neurons assembled in a brain, but in fact intrinsic to existence. Macy writes that “no intrinsic reason exists for denying subjectivity to animals, plants or even suborganic systems” (p. 150). This also works upwards to “collective forms of consciousness, ‘group heads’ in a family, sect or society” (p. 151).

The reason this makes sense is that self-organization is an essential characteristic for any system, be it that of atoms with particular arrangements of protons, neutrons, electrons, and other subatomic particles; be it that of molecules assembled with particular structures of atoms; be it that of life or of other organizations. All these are structures that arose from and in fact depend upon the dissipation we associate with entropy. And yes, we are to understand thus that order and disorder exist in such a relationship of dependent co-arising, as self-organization channels the disorder into the order we find even on a grander scale with planetary systems and galaxies.10

Now here’s Morin:

To be a subject, doesn’t necessarily mean to be conscious. Neither does it mean to have affect or feelings, even though obviously human subjectivity develops with affect, with feelings. To be “subject” is to put oneself in the center of one’s own world. It is to occupy the space of “I” for oneself.11

Hence, the earth as a living system. Hence, Gaia theory. All grounded in quite “hard” science.

  • 1. Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To be (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).
  • 2. Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self: Exploring the Post-Identity Society (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997).
  • 3. Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1997).
  • 4. David Benfell, “Post-modernism and the pretense of understanding complexity theory,” December 5, 2010. Original at Publicly available at
  • 5. Rosenau, Pauline Marie, Post-modernism and the Social Sciences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992).
  • 6. Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, p. 11.
  • 7. Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1995).
  • 8. Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  • 9. Morin, On Complexity, p. 10.
  • 10. David Benfell, “Complexity Theory and Respect for Trees,” August 20, 2010. Original at Publicly available at
  • 11. Morin, On Complexity, p. 43.

Who do you mean by “we?”

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

One thing about Walter Truett Anderson’s Reality Isn’t What It Used To be1: he’s making absolutely explicit some troubling assumptions that cropped up in his later book, The Future of the Self.2

In the latter book, The Future of the Self, Anderson actually has a decent (but incomplete) treatment of our economic situation in chapter 11. He immediately follows that in chapter 12 with zingers such as:

When young men march out to die on battlefields, as they have by the milions since time immemorial and are still doing today, they are rarely doing it for money—there are lots of easier ways to make a living. They are doing it because they have accepted their country’s noble lies about who and what they are, and who their enemies are.3

Wow. In fact, there seem to be a couple types of people in the enlisted ranks of the military. Some recruits are indeed just as Anderson describes them. In this category, I also include men who join up because their fathers did it and their grandfathers before them did it. But in another category, at the bottom of our long and steep socioeconomic ladder,4 people have to combine several WalMart or McDonald’s level dead end jobs to make a living; joining the military offers comradery, vocational training opportunities, a place to live, health care, food, a little spending money, and—get this—a possibility of promotion.

On the very next page, we see how Anderson is already outdated in The Future of the Self. He writes that people “are less inclined to cling to those group identifications as the final and permanent essence of their selves,”5 as if anybody ever only saw themselves only as a member of their race or their gender or any other group. But paradoxically, the recent “Ground Zero” Mosque controversy6 and the sheer racist venom that conservatives in the United States have expressed towards Barack Obama also shows that we continue to totalize others by group identity, that we are not a post-racial society. And some people actively assert group identities in order to obtain collective rights—which just doesn’t fit in with Anderson’s post-modern utopia—such as indigenous peoples to land and other compensations offered by colonial conquerors.

Anderson in fact disparages indigenous culture as “traditionalist” but fails to recognize that subaltern groups face a range of threats from discrimination to genocide around the world—and not just in what some might style as “those other places.” He does acknowledge that

class is a socially constructed reality, and we see the idea of “proper stations” as a noble lie (i.e., a lie of the nobles) designed to keep subjugated people content with their misery.7

But he claims that status has come to subvert class in many parts of the world, but

Status, although ancient, comes into its own in the postmodern era. . . . It is an open system. Status comes and goes, and few people have any illusions that it is an eternal or even terribly meaningful arrangement.8

I don’t think very many sociologists would agree with him. Certainly not those who specialize in social inequality. And I think most people in the lower and working classes are profoundly aware that there are considerable obstacles to their advancement (and not nearly so many going the other other way, i.e. downwards into even greater destitution).

But mistakes like this are endemic to privileged academics. Indeed Pauline Marie Rosenau observes a critique of some post-modernists that

Post-modern views of reality are reproached for some of the same shortcomings as idealist philosophical conceptions of reality. Critics argue that debate over issues such as the existence of an independent reality are of interest only to post-modernists (and other intellectuals) who, insulated from reality, never personally experience the violence, terror, and degradation prevalent in modern society. They point to the brutal presence of an “obviously existing reality” that solidifies around poverty, starvation, AIDS, drugs, and gang warfare. Only if one’s daily life, daily “lived” reality, is not harsh and unpleasant could one coceive of reality as entirely a mental construction.9

I keep coming back to this paragraph in Rosenau’s work, because for me, critiques of post-modernism keep coming back to this very point. Post-modernists—as Rosenau also points out—deny privilege. And I’m seeing this yet again in Anderson’s Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be. Here he writes, “In the postmodern world we are all required to make choices about our realities” as he goes on to write about all the choices we all have available to us. Excuse me, but I certainly do not have the option to “select a life of experimentation, eternal shopping in the bazaar of culture and subculture.”10

And when Anderson writes that “Today we are all ‘forced to be free’,”11 I am reminded of the discourse about human rights as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,12 as committed to by the United States,13 14 as is arguably legally binding upon the United States under the supremacy of treaties in the Constitution15 and the Ninth Amendment providing for unenumerated rights16 and the discrepancy with the reality of my own existence. Somehow I don’t count. And neither do millions of other people who have lost their jobs, who have been unemployed for long periods of time, or whose jobs do not afford a basic level of dignity. Somehow, apparently, the word “human” in “human rights” doesn’t apply to us.

Constructivism and a multi-faceted “obviously existing reality”: Why post-modernism fails?

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

So I’m on winter break—and apparently permanently unemployed—but never fear, for I have a backlog of books to read so huge that I’ve had to shelve many of the unread books anyway because particularly with a cat prowling about, a stack would be toppled. But there are a few books on my urgent reading list. And it turns out I have another one by Walter Truett Anderson1 to deal with.

Arguably I should have read this one before The Future of the Self, also by this author,2 because in the preface to Reality Isn’t What It Used To be, Anderson gets to the nub of my problem with post-modernists:

On one side are the objectivists, who see the human mind as capable of more or less accurately, more or less impersonally, mirroring external nonhuman reality; on the other side, the constructivists hold that what we call the “real world” is an ever changing social creation.

The constructivists—whose thinking runs close to my own, and to the main themes of this book—say we do not have a “God’s eye” view of nonhuman reality, never have had, never will have. They say we live in a symbolic world, a social reality that many people construct together and yet experience as the objective “real world.” And they tell us the earth is not a single symbolic world, but rather a vast universe of “multiple realities,” because different groups of people construct different stories, and because different languages embody different ways of experiencing life. So, according to the constructivist view, people may have not only different political opinions and religious beliefs, but different ideas of such basic matters as personal identity, time, and space. (pp. x-xi)

One of the very easy ways to build a false dichotomy is to conflate multiple issues, so you can’t just agree on one issue, you have to agree on a whole range of issues. And that’s just what’s happening here:

  • A “God’s eye” view or a partial perspective of reality?

  • A physical reality or a language/symbolic/socially constructed reality?

We can’t just ignore the idea of a “God’s eye” view because it is at the heart of positivism—the dominant paradigm in science since the beginning of the 17th Century.3 But it’s pretty much a no-brainer that we only see what’s immediately around us. What I’m not so clear on from either The Future of the Self or (yet) Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, is whether Anderson recognizes—as feminists most certainly do—how social location affects one’s view of reality, for example, how the privileged can see a world of many more opportunities than can members of subaltern groups.

But where I differ from the constructivists is in their placement of language, symbolism, and social construction at the heart of reality. I agree that this is important, but I draw from complexity theory4 5 6 that the notion of a partial perspective actually mirrors a partial physical reality—entire ecosystems at varying levels of complexity in which each of us and each of our various social groupings fit in. So for me, physical reality is very important, and even though I may not accurately perceive the molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and whatever else that make up reality as I experience it, the features of that reality go beyond symbolism or abstraction; instead, the features of reality are patterns which are as important if not more so than the components which make up those patterns.

Post-modernists’ failure to incorporate the importance of patterns in their thinking was something I spotted in The Future of the Self. While Reality Isn’t What It used To Be is an older book, I’m guessing that it is this profound failure that ultimately leads them to solipsism and undermines their sensitivity to what Pauline Marie Rosenau referred to as an “obviously existing reality” that isn’t abstract, isn’t a fantasy for those who face ongoing existential threats.7

  • 1. Anderson, Walter Truett, Reality Isn’t What It Used To be (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).
  • 2. Anderson, Walter Truett, The Future of the Self: Exploring the Post-Identity Society (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997).
  • 3. Mazlish, Bruce, The Uncertain Sciences, Transaction Ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).
  • 4. Capra, Fritjof, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1997).
  • 5. Macy, Joanna, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1991).
  • 6. Morin, Edgar, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  • 7. Rosenau, Pauline Marie, Post-modernism and the Social Sciences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992).