Thursday, November 19, 2015

Robert Zend: God dead?

 Robert Zend (Hungarian-Canadian writer, 1929 - 1985) wrote a number of poems about God, from an unorthodox perspective, to say the least. Here is one from his book Beyond Labels (Toronto: Hounslow Press, 1982), p. 52.


God has not died,
only his name
        which was confused
        with the sun
        and thunder
        and destiny
        and victory
        and genesis
        and love
        and law
        and wisdom
        and fatherhood
begins to fall apart
        into electricity
        and strategy
        and astronomy
        and historical materialism
        and extrasensory perception
        and psychoanalysis
        and the theory of probability --
only his name

God has not died
because he never lived.

                            January 13, 1967

Monday, October 26, 2015

Joseph Hansen on Marxism, humanism, and Corliss Lamont

Joseph Hansen, "Corliss Lamont on Humanism," International Socialist Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall 1958, pp. 153-155.

I have blogged previously on an ideological contestation that belongs to the dead past, between Marxists and the left liberals who once were prominent in the American humanist movement. I discussed articles written by two anti-Stalinist intellectuals, Paul Mattick, and George Novack, the leading philosopher and intellectual force of the American Trotskyist movement, specifically within the Socialist Workers Party. Joseph Hansen was also a prominent Trotskyist. Here he reviews the 1957 revised edition of Corliss Lamont's The Philosophy of Humanism.

Hansen begins with a positive appraisal of Lamont's political activism and his naturalistic humanist stance. Lamont places Marxists in the ranks of naturalistic humanists. Lamont, however, sees a difference between Marxists and Humanists with respect to democracy, and with a respect to materialism as distinct from naturalism. Materialism tends to emphasize matter more than Nature, thus being more prone to oversimplification and reductionism. Materialism is generally more radical, uncompromising, and militant. Hansen disagrees with Lamont's judgments. Contrary to Stalinism, Hansen finds socialism as the logical outcome of democracy.

Hansen finds the fundamental difference between Marxism and Humanism to be in their approach to human nature and history. Corliss's humanism is founded on a conception of human nature and the struggle between rationality and irrationality. For Marxism, human nature has a plasticity which bends human capacities in certain directions as a product of social and historical development.

While Hansen would presumably wish to avoid the charge of reductionism, he expresses himself in a peculiar way:
The “good” or “evil” effect of forces, circumstances, and struggles is related to their ultimate effect on labor productivity. The pivot is the social structure which is “good” if it corresponds to the development of the technological base, “evil” if it has become antiquated and a brake on technology.
This is unfortunate, but Hansen then emphasizes distinctively human needs beyond the animal needs acknowledged by Humanism. More importantly, Humanism neglects the class struggle, basing its explanatory principles on psychological abstractions, whereas for Marxism "definite classes carry forward at a definite time the interests of humanity as a whole." So now we are back at the crudities that can be found in both Trotskyism and Stalinism.

Interestingly, Hansen differs from Lamont on Franklin Roosevelt's historical 1944 declaration concerning an economic Bill of Rights. While Lamont apparently takes Roosevelt seriously, Hansen sees Roosevelt's speech as deceptive and demagogic. Hansen then discusses the threat of nuclear war, attacking Lamont's illusions about the League of Nations and the United Nations. Only socialism can prevent war and secure survival and peace.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Consolation for intellectuals in a time of despair

In addition to public figures and intellectuals by profession, the planet is dotted with independent scholars and autodidacts who persevere on sheer motivation alone. In the past month I had a conversation with one of them, who sees the political and general prospects for the world as hopeless, as any thinking person would, and wondered whether he should just give up his intellectual and politically motivated work which nobody cares about and which will not have a discernible impact.

I could not give him the usual consolations of traditional religion or New Age pabulum, so I had to think of an alternative. I quickly thought of two authors: Theodor W. Adorno and Jorge Luis Borges.
I zeroed in on the concluding paragraph:
By contrast the uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither signs over his consciousness nor lets himself be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn't break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly and easily satisfied, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation. . . . Open thinking points beyond itself. . . .Whatever has once been thought can be suppressed, forgotten, can vanish. But it cannot be denied that something of it survives. For thinking has the element of the universal. What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others: this confidence accompanies even the most solitary and powerless thought. . . . The happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity. The universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such. Thought is happiness, even where it defines unhappiness: by enunciating it. By this alone happiness reaches into the universal unhappiness. Whoever does not let it atrophy has not resigned.
Justifying an uncompromising intellectual perspective when it goes unappreciated, not just by strangers, but by one's most intimate loved ones, can be stressful. Here is the most relevant rebuttal to the superstitious and the anti-intellectual, as only Adorno can express it:
This comes at the head of what I have dubbed via my twisted sense of humor "Adorno's Best Break-Up Quotes." Need I spell out when and why I would draw on these quotes?

Here is a related take on the same idea:
"Adorno's Best Break-Up Quotes" comprise a significant chunk of my podcast of 5/7/15: "Adorno for Autodidacts," in my series Studies in a Dying Culture under the auspices of Think Twice Radio.

So . . . The first item I used for my friend was the final paragraph of Adorno's essay "Resignation" quoted above. My second source was a short story by Jorge Luis Borges:
In "The Secret Miracle" (summary), the protagonist is sentenced to die by firing squad. He prays to God to be granted one year to fulfill his life's mission, to finish writing an unfinished play. His wish is granted in a surprising way: as he faces the firing squad, at the instant he is to be shot, time freezes. He along with everyone else remains motionless, but he is free to compose and polish his work to perfection, which he finishes mentally in this frozen scene in a year's time.  When his work is complete, the scene comes to life and he is shot to death.

No record of his work will ever be made, no one will know of its existence, and thus he will never receive recognition from the world. But the fact that he was able to complete his work, albeit only in his own mind, made the effort worthwhile.

When I related the Adorno quote and this plot summary, my friend was inspired. This was just what he needed to carry on.

Absorption is happiness. Expression is happiness. Thought is happiness.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

W. E. B. Du Bois on Religion (7): "Divine Discontent"

Kahn, Jonathon S.  Divine discontent: The Religious Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Introduction : Divine discontent as religious faith -- What is pragmatic religious naturalism, and what does it have to do with Du Bois? -- Pragmatic religious naturalism and the binding of The souls of Black folk -- "Love for these people" : racial piety as religious devotion -- Rewriting the American jeremiad : on pluralism, Black nationalism, and a new America -- "Behold the sign of salvation-a noosed rope" : the promise and perils of Du Bois's economies of sacrifice -- Conclusion : Beyond Du Bois : toward a tradition of African American pragmatic religious naturalism.
W. E. B. Du Bois is an improbable candidate for a project in religion. His skepticism of and, even, hostility toward religion is readily established and canonically accepted. Indeed, he spent his career rejecting normative religious commitments to institutions and supernatural beliefs. In this book, Jonathon Kahn offers a fresh and controversial reading of Du Bois that seeks to overturn this view. Kahn contends that the standard treatment of Du Bois turns a deaf ear to his writings. For if we're open to their religious timbre, those writings-from his epoch-making The Souls of Black Folk to his unstudied series of parables that depict the lynching of an African American Christ-reveal a virtual obsession with religion. Du Bois's moral, literary, and political imagination is inhabited by religious rhetoric, concepts and stories. Divine Discontent recovers and introduces readers to the remarkably complex and varied religious world in Du Bois's writings. It's a world of sermons, of religious virtues such as sacrifice and piety, of jeremiads that fight for a black American nation within the larger nation. Unlike other African American religious voices at the time, however, Du Bois's religious orientation is distinctly heterodox-it exists outside the bounds of institutional Christianity. Kahn shows how Du Bois self-consciously marshals religious rhetoric, concepts, typologies, narratives, virtues, and moods in order to challenge traditional Christian worldview in which events function to confirm a divine order. Du Bois's antimetaphysical religious voice, he argues, places him firmly in the American tradition of pragmatic religious naturalism typified by William James. This innovative reading of Du Bois should appeal to scholars of American religion, intellectual history, African American Studies, and philosophy of religion. 
 This is shameless intellectual charlatanism of the worst sort, part of the reactionary turn to religion to which intellectuals have caved or opportunistically joined. In our decaying "postmodern" age, anything goes.

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.