Saturday, October 4, 2014

William R. Jones, Jr. on Black liberation theology: Mao, Martin, or Malcolm?

This is an old essay. I see no indication of an earlier publication, so perhaps this is the first time it appeared; on the other hand, the subject matter suggests it was written at least a decade earlier:

Jones, William R. "Liberation Strategies in Black Theology: Mao, Martin, or Malcolm?", in Philosophy Born of Struggle: Anthology of Afro-American Philosophy from 1917, edited by Leonard Harris (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1983). pp. 229-241.

This concern belongs to an earlier era, but given the key role that Jones played in countering black liberation theology from within and furthering black participation in the philosophy profession, this is worth revisiting if only for the limitations of Jones's perspective, which Stephen Ferguson correctly characterized as Feuerbachian.

Jones triangulates the three key figures on their attitude to violence. Mao and Martin Luther King, Jr. are polar opposites: Mao claims that power grows out of the barrel of a gun and thus violence is the only means to fundamental change, while King categorically eschews violence as counter-productive. Malcolm X's formulation "by any means necessary" avoids either of these extremes: Malcolm advocates violence for self-defense or when all other means are exhausted, but not as a first principle.

Jones finds that black liberation theology has gravitated away from both King and Mao and has veered closer to Malcolm X. But he doesn't say anything further about black theology, as the real purpose of this article is to criticize King.

It is obvious to the average person, I would think, that all other things being equal, Malcolm's position would be the most rational and aligned with the real world. If a philosophical position on violence were the only thing that distinguished these three figures, Jones would have a good argument. But their overall political positions and relation to their own traditions differ in several ways, such that Jones's comparison ends up being superficial. We don't even learn what differentiates King's orientation from the asceticism and social backwardness of Gandhi, or Mao's vulgar nationalistic version of class struggle from the intellectual depth of Marx. Nor do we gain any knowledge about the rest of Malcolm X's politics and what he learned once he separated himself from Elijah Muhammed's petit bourgeois fascist religious cult.

A deeper analysis of King's politics might also give additional insight into what differentiates King's universalist radical Christianity from the parochial vision of the black liberation theology of James Cone et al ideologically aligned with the black power movement. King's ideological illusions aside, there is one key aspect of King's political strategy overlooked here. Once the initial legislation was passed putting an end to legal Jim Crow in the South, King turned to the intractable problems of de facto institutional racism in the rest of the country, also implicated in the perpetuation of poverty. King realized that he had to tackle the entire institutional structure of American society, rather than to carve out a petit bourgeois enclave within the black ghetto. King took a bullet for black garbagemen; at the same time King was in the process of organizing a pan-racial Poor People's Campaign

To overlook this superior aspect of King's social vision over the parochialism of black nationalism (which should not be equated with "black power" as an abstract concept) is to do a major injustice to any evaluation of political actors of the 1960s. If one wishes to pursue a critique of King's politics, the proper focal point would not be his religiously-inflected pacifism, but the perspectives for the Poor People's Campaign and what it could or could not lead to.  But now back to Jones.

Jones quotes from King's Gandhi-inspired philosophy of nonviolence, for example, by allowing violence to be inflicted on oneself refusing to strike back, one eventually shames the perpetrator. Jones convincingly demonstrates that this is nonsense, as well as the argument that a violent defensive response to violence can only perpetuate a cycle of violence. There is another aspect of a nonviolent strategy that Jones fails to consider, which is not the effect of nonviolence on one's direct oppressors, but on public opinion. (A historical fact once forgotten but recently brought to public attention in at least one new book: that many of the very same people involved in nonviolent public demonstrations had their guns ready at home to defend themselves against racist assaults.) If the public also has no conscience, then of course the situation becomes even more difficult.

The substance of Jones's case against the philosophy (call it metaphysics) of nonviolence begins on page 236. The ridiculousness of Gandhi's argument becomes evident, for example, in its practical refutation by the example of Nazi Germany. The Gandhian perspective ignores the fact that when the oppressor has classified different groups into the human and the subhuman, no appeal to conscience is possible (237). Another crucial defect of Gandhianism is its focus on the psychological, which overlooks the material imbalance of power. Violence can only be understood when contextualized, which involves configurations of power (238). Jones also points out the selective reception of King's views and the rejection of King's philosophy when it came to criticizing the Vietnam War (239). Jones also points out that King failed where Gandhi succeeded because black Americans constitute a minority, the reverse of the situation in India (235).

The black theologians' reaction against King is related to King's notion of Christian self-sacrificing love connected with his philosophy of nonviolence, which by the late 1960s was seen as ineffective.
In this essay Jones stops here, rather than proceeding onward to reject all theology as obscurantist. Elsewhere in Jones's work we learn that he is a religious humanist rather than an atheist per se, and his war against the (liberation) theology of revealed religion takes the form of an immanent critique using theodicy, or the problem of evil, as a linchpin, hence the key question embodied in the title of his book, Is God a White Racist?. It is also worth noting that Jones treats "white society" as a concept, rather than developing a social theory that would root white supremacy as a ruling class formation having grown out of the institutionalization of slavery as a foundation of the power and wealth of the emerging bourgeoisie. Again, Stephen Ferguson is the only aficionado of Jones who has recognized Jones's position as essentially Feuerbachian, opposing ideology within the realm of ideology without grounding it in a social theory.

Jones to his credit does take into account the other aspect of King's political philosophy: King acknowledges the validity of the exercise of power; nonviolent resistance does not appeal to conscience alone; it succeeds by making existing society ungovernable (234-235). In the footnotes (240-241), Jones quotes King emphasizing the exercise of power beyond the tactics of moral suasion. While some look at this as a later alteration of King's initial position, Jones rejects this interpretation. Quoting Vincent Harding, Jones maintains that King never fully incorporated an analysis of power into his thought, hence never crossed over into the terrain of "black power". Perhaps, but one might question to what extent the advocates of black power were able to craft an effective political strategy given the constraints of being a minority basing themselves in the ghetto facing the overwhelming might of police state violence. Ultimately, who had the more realistic and more profound political vision?



Thursday, August 7, 2014

Martin Gardner & the mathematics of joy

The Martin Gardner Home Site continues to expand in the year of the Martin Gardner Centennial 1914-2014. You can follow the Twitter account for constant updates on all things Martin Gardner. I checked up on Martin Gardner's Puzzle Books. Then I wrote the following.

I think a number of these puzzle books are not present in my Martin Gardner collection. I get a lot of input on MG as this is his centennial year. Of course, he is known for his contributions to the skeptics movement as well as his expertise as a magician and his annotated publications of classic works, but it is still his role in the area of mathematical recreations and popularization that garners the lion's share of devotion. Though an amateur without professional credentials or expertise, professional mathematicians consider him one of the most important mathematical figures of the 20th century.

I thought about this in conjunction with just having watched a video of Sonny Rollins explaining why jazz matters, in the wake of a New Yorker spoof of jazz published under his name without permission. It is interesting, and important I think, that Martin Gardner has had the impact he has, considering how many people find mathematics a dry subject. The key to this is that he not only educated people, not only provided them with intellectual stimulation, but he made them happy! He made me happy. The constant factor in everyone's tributes to him is . . . joy!

When I ponder this, I am very moved. These things matter.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

William Sanders Scarborough, reason, & the anti-racist struggle

There is an incredible history of Black American intellectuals, stretching back to the era of slavery, and of outstanding intellectual achievement against overwhelming odds. Intertwined with this history is a history of Black American scholars of the Greek and Roman classics, who pursued and transmitted their expertise, took on administrative functions in higher education, and as writers and activists pursued the goal of racial equality. It is a noble and inspiring history.

One such pioneer was William Sanders Scarborough (1852-1926). I will have more to say about him and the larger tradition later on. (For now, see another post: William Sanders Scarborough & Volapük in the Black Press.) Here is an excerpt from Scarborough's essay opposing the prevailing superstition of  "Race Integrity" (i.e. racial purity and superiority).
This age is regarded as one of great enlightenment. Yet With all its knowledge, there is a vast deal of ignorance or wilful blindness manifested along some lines. This state is born of many things, but when based upon traditional ideas, deep rooted, not only in error, but in prejudice and malice, there we find the most insensate manifestations.

Cherished beliefs, no matter upon what founded, have always resulted in rearing idols to be worshiped. Before such icons the world has bowed again and again. Religion has had its share of them, but the religious world also raised idol-breakers—the Iconoclasts who set to work in the eighth and ninth centuries to shatter them as did the Protestants in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century Dogmas have crept into every phase of human life and endeavor, and no doubt will continue to do so, while mankind exists with its passions, its prejudices and its weaknesses, its preconceived notions and its obstinacy; so the labors of the Iconoclast have been and will be demanded for the sake of progress.

Among the multitude of cherished superstitions to which world-masses cling at one time or another, there are none more erroneous, more mischievous than that included under the unctuous expression, “Race Integrity.” Here is heroic, legitimate work for the Iconoclast. Here his labors are an absolute necessity. But we are aware that to lay hands upon this idol, to tear it from its place, will covenant profaning the holy altar itself; that there are those who, viewing such an act, will fear that punishment to follow that overtook Uzziah when he sought simply to steady the ark on the memorable journey from Kirjathjearim. There is no doubt whether that if the ranting Dixons and Tilmans and Vardamans and men of that ilk could become avenging fates, any one who dared attempt to shatter this idol would suffer instant annihilation.

But in the progress of civilization those who would overthrow cherished superstitions have had to suffer. Galileo’s idea of the world systems ran counter to set theories, and under awful penalties he had to recant, though he whispered under his breath “E pur si muove.” “It moves for all that.” Luther, Cranmer, Latimer and countless other martyrs have suffered when seeking to pull the bandage from eyes so long blinded, and let in the light of truth. Today no one disputes Galileo’s claim; and theological freedom of thought and expression agrees with Luther and others of his school.

These men had to suffer I say; but they did good service and accepted the stake, or dungeon, or ban, bravely for the sake of truth. They shattered falsity; and the Iconoclast of today will render equally good service in dissipating the errors of the present, none of which, I repeat, is worse than the hydra-headed dogma that masquerades under the alluring title of Race Integrity—the one of all of Errors’ vile brood, most fitly designed to perpetuate race discrimination, race hatred and race conflict.

To the task of an Iconoclast I propose to devote this article, with the postulate that there is no such thing as “Race Integrity.”

SOURCE: Scarborough, William Sanders. “Race Integrity,” in The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader, edited by Michele Valerie Ronnick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 473-481. Above excerpt from beginning of article, pp. 473-474. Original publication: Voice of the Negro 4, no. 4 (1907): 197-202.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Social class & the atheist movement (2)

My previous post was heavy on the abstract and conceptual. More needs to be said about David Hoelscher's essay Atheism and the Class Problem (Counterpunch, November 07, 2012). Hoelscher explodes the pretensions of 'social justice' atheists in a more thorough fashion than I have seen anywhere else.

Hoelscher prefaces his essay with a quote from Marx's Capital, which expresses the essence of the Marxian view:
The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature. 
For more, see my web page Karl Marx on Religion: Sources & Quotations.

Hoelscher convincingly demonstrates that the Atheist Plus "movement" and Richard Carrier specifically have not the slightest understanding of class inequality and include the issue of poverty at most as an afterthought. On the other hand, atheists who do emphasize the class issue, like Michael Parenti, are ignored. Hoelscher makes light of Greg Epstein, who "holds the odd and unfortunate title of “Humanist Chaplain” at Harvard University"and whose book Good Without God curiously omits the issue of poverty and class oppression.Yet religion and economics are inseparable, and a staggering percentage of the world's population is condemned to poverty.

Hoelscher also refutes the notion that the “secularization thesis” has been decisively refuted by the likes of Rodney Stark and Alister McGrath .

Hoelscher wants to account for this flagrant blindness. He attributes it to classism. But he doesn't limit his criticism to atheists lacking in class consciousness. He also indicts leftists who dismiss religion as being a problem at all, for example Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, the Marxist literary theorist and apologist for religion Terry Eagleton, and left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn. The popular philosopher-mediocrity Alain de Botton also gets a comeuppance. Sam Harris gets the analytical thrashing he deserves. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's reactionary politics are also noted.

Richard Carrier gets taken apart a second time, this time for his praise of Obama, whose anti-working class presidency is treated at length. 

Hoelscher reminds us via a speech by Barbara Ehrenreich, "that there is a vast and largely forgotten tradition of blue collar atheism in America, usually called freethought, in the nineteenth century . . . " There is no such talk about the working class today. Haven't I been saying this for years? Thank you.



Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Social class & the atheist movement (1)

As I do not regularly follow the blogosphere, I missed out on this article, which I was informed of only last week:

Counterpunched: We Have No Theory of Power by James Croft, Temple of the Future, December 20, 2012

Since I make a weak effort at best at publicizing my podcasts, I am surprised to find this:
The freethought movement has recently come in for a barrage of criticism, but not from the usual sources: in the past few months we’ve been battered from the left. It’s one thing to be attacked by right-wing fundamentalists and Fox News pundits – I expect that - but when columnists in the leftist political newsletter Counterpunch and radical Marxists like Ralph Dumain start throwing punches, I’m caught off-guard.

Perhaps this is why so many of their blows land: the movement does have a problem with sexism (as Jeff Sparrow contends), it does tend to overlook issues of economic justice (as David Hoelscher avers, twice - and I’m as guilty of this as anyone, something I’ll address in future posts), and it hasn’t grappled sufficiently with critical theory (as Ralph Dumain argues).
Apparently, one of my punches thrown in a vacuum landed somewhere, and is part of a barrage of criticism. Odd, given how peripheral I am to the entire atheist/humanist/skeptics movement. I suspect that David Hoelscher is hardly a household word, either, though I may have read his insightful essay Atheism and the Class Problem when it appeared.

Croft admits that the humanist movement is "ill-equipped to fend-off challenges from the left" and that "we have no theory of power". This is an odd way of formulating the problem. But then he addresses the basis of my ideological critique:
Dumain thinks similarly [to someone named Sparrow], arguing that “the atheist – humanist – skeptical movement, particularly in the USA…addresses only one half of the cognitive sources of irrationality of the modern world, and is ill-equipped to grapple with the secular forms of unreason, which can be denoted by the term “ideology”.” 
Similarly, the atheist/humanist movement has failed to address the structural critique that Hoelscher emphasizes.

To his credit, Croft addresses the intellectual deficiencies of celebrated humanist intellectuals like Corliss Lamont, Paul Kurtz, and Richard Norman. Lamont was involved in a number of progressive causes, reflecting the left-liberal orientation of leading humanists who publicly coalesced in the 1930s. In terms of general principles, humanism offered a strategic point of departure, but as a total world view has always been anemic. (Roy Wood Sellars, principal author of the first Humanist Manifesto, is in my opinion the most outstanding figure of classic American philosophy, but he developed his "critical realism" entirely separately from organized Humanism.)  I was a student of Kurtz 40 years ago: to me he was a mediocre representative of Cold War liberalism rendered irrelevant by the political radicalism (however deficient) of the time, including that of the student movement. His version of social liberalism is now as dead and forgotten as American liberalism itself. But Kurtz, coming from his generational perspective, having grown up in more radical times, possessed the intellectual frame of reference to concede, as not a single public advocate of "social justice" atheism would today, that "Marx was no doubt the greatest humanist thinker of the nineteenth century".

Croft is also laudably aware of the critique of irrationality in a social/historical vacuum.
The major New Atheist authors tend to criticize religion (rightly) as a sort of cognitive error or collective mistake – a “delusion” or a “spell” which must be broken – whilst mainly avoiding the ways in which religion is reinforced and propagated by societal institutions and social practices. Perhaps predictably, when they bring their intellectual backgrounds to bear on the topic, what you get are evolutionary, philosophical and, to some extent, political explorations of religion, none of which fully address its sociological aspects.
This freethought tendency, I argue, is linked to another: the tendency to focus our critical gaze on the individual, rather than the group or community. When racism, sexism, homophobia and other systematic forms of oppression are discussed, it is often in service of the reform of individuals rather than the melioration of social conditions and institutions which shape individuals in the first place.
One manifestation of this phenomenon is the omnipresence of the noxious abuse of the notion of "privilege," a concept originated decades ago by hard core Marxists who saw structural racism as key to ruling class power and who sought to intervene practically in the labor movement to the benefit of all concerned, now reduced to manipulative personalization and guilt-tripping of one group of middle class professionals by other middle class professionals who represent nobody.

Add to this the general atmosphere of superficial branding and self-promotion that permeates the age of cyber-mediated social interactivity. The ahistorical, shallow sloganeering embodied in the pseudo-concept of Atheism Plus is emblematic of our time. Richard Carrier's vicious rant, The New Atheism +, is characteristic. Following complaints that he lumped in Marxists with "Neonazis and anarchists and UFO cults and churches and right wing think tanks", Carrier removed Marxists from this grouping. Elsewhere he dismisses Marx and thus renders himself dismissible in return. Here his rant has a twofold character: one is a rejection of unacceptable behavior within atheist groupings (such as the unconscionable harassment, threats, and defamation of women), the other is drawing a line in the sand between social justice atheists and the rest of the atheist community. Several people have protested both the branding (what's wrong with "humanism"?) and the rigid us-vs.-them mentality. The shallow posturing of Atheism Plus may suit those accustomed to internecine blog/Twitter/YouTube/Facebook wars, but it succeeds only in supplementing one turn-off with another. There is certain behavior that is intolerable within any contemporary formal or even informal organization. Atheism Plus fails, though, to address intelligently the relationship between advocates of various causes and the core basis of secularist/atheist/etc. organizations.

Croft promises to follow up in future posts. I shall have to look into this. This post was well crafted.

As I am apparently a batterer from the left, it might be expected that I am a crusader for the reform of atheist organizations. But I have limited myself to a critique of the ideological parameters of the movement. It makes perfect sense for those with more encompassing political agendas to form their own institutions. In fact, since black atheists began to spring up en masse seemingly out of nowhere a few years ago, several enterprising individuals have formed their own networks, radio shows, social service programs, organizations, etc. Some have cordial or even productive relationships with mainstream organizations, others go their own way, one insists on demagogically race-baiting the whole movement in the most public way possible. But however legitimate one's dissatisfactions may be, there remains the question of what one should legitimately and realistically expect from the mainstream umbrella organizations, or from any single-issue movement, as all movements in the U.S. political context are constrained to be.

One must first acknowledge that atheism is a bourgeois movement, and will remain so no matter how one attempts to combine it with some other perspective. This is not necessarily meant as a pejorative: it's an ineluctable objective fact. One can operate outside this purview only intellectually; the most effect one can practically hope to have is to alter the intellectual culture of the movement, and even then one moves within constraints. Combining atheism with a feminist or black perspective may broaden the referential base and maybe even the practical activity of the movement, but intellectually it does not advance beyond the ideological perspective of a bourgeois movement. No number of pluses can do this. And there's nothing wrong with being an honest delimited reform movement that doesn't pretend to be something it cannot be.

Aside from issues of unethical behavior, and the more obvious issues of inclusion and tokenism, one can expect only so much from a national organization unless its mission statement encompasses or implies something it is failing to do. The central issues would be the allocation of resources and the governance of specific organizations. As an outsider I am liable to misfire intervening in public controversies, let alone in commenting on the governance and use of resources. Any complaints I have heard are technically hearsay and I cannot competently comment on them. (Because of the people I know, all such complaints I have heard have come from black atheists, but they do not in every case involve specifically black issues.) Presumably the mainstream organizations, even without noticeably altering their missions, could improve the intelligent direction of their efforts.

There remain constraints here as there are in any single-issue movement. The dictionary definitions of "atheism", "humanism" etc. notwithstanding, there is a spread of political opinion in every grouping. Imagine what would happen to the financial base of any of these organizations if the libertarians--who are the greatest enemies of progressive politics--were ejected. And, as obnoxious and lopsided as celebrity atheism is, well-connected celebrities are poles of attraction and presumably generate revenue as well as spread the message of atheist/etc. organizations to large numbers of people.

Any group maneuvering within the strict limitations of the American public sphere can only do so much, given the severity of the constraints. And it may be too much to demand the movement broaden its scope of instrumental action to encompass what only a different political movement can really address. (Prior to the McCarthy era, working class freethinkers had their own institutions, apart from any national umbrella institution--a historical fact forgotten along with the working class itself.)

For these reasons I have confined myself to an ideological critique. Involving oneself in the strategic social/political space of "atheist", "humanist", or "skeptic" is one thing, but making a total intellectual or political identity out of any of these, even combined with some other sectoral identity (feminist atheist, black skeptic, etc.) ends up at best formulating a more refined form of ideological self-deception.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Albrecht Dürer, Sprouts, Martin Gardner


"The triumph of melancholy: 500 years of Dürer's most enigmatic print" by Karl Galle, The Guardian, 16 May 2014


 "As mathematicians meet in New York to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Dürer's print Melencolia, Karl Galle asks whether it is a depiction of despairing genius or of scholarly optimism"

Martin Gardner is not mentioned in this article,  but this event is right up his alley. I was introduced to many interesting cultural artifacts via Martin Gardner, including this one.


I was introduced to John Horton Conway's game of Sprouts with the July 1967 issue of Scientific American, the first issue I ever bought and my introduction to Martin Gardner's "Mathematical Games" column. If you follow the links from the Wikipedia page, you will see how much progress has been made in the mathematical analysis of the game. It is a simple yet fascinating pencil-and-paper game. This is but one of my many debts to Martin Gardner.


Friday, May 30, 2014

Spinoza, distributed rootless cosmopolitan

I have written about or documented Spinoza-related materials in various cyberlocales (this one included), and it occurs to me I should link to the relevant pages on my own sites at least, because I was not certain where to place this link to an insightful document on Spinoza's rootless cosmopolitanism:

Baruch-Benedictus: From uprooted roots to root-independent ideas? by Marcelo Dascal

This essay can be compared to Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza, which was published at or near the beginning of a popular Spinoza revival of recent years. I wrote about this elsewhere, engaged Goldstein personally on the book talk circuit, and in an online forum. I do not recall where, offhand.  However, I began my blogging about Spinoza with . . . .

Rebecca Goldstein on the 350th Anniversary of the Excommunication of Baruch Spinoza

I followed this up with:
Newer entries show up in the current version of my Studies in a Dying Culture blog under the rubric Spinoza. The entries to date are:
There are a number of Spinoza pages on my main web site. Regardless of subject matter, they all (and also external web pages) can be accessed via my bibliography:

Spinoza & Marxism (with Basic Spinoza Web Guide)