Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gender & race wars in the secular movement (1)

As a peripheral observer of the atheist/ humanist/ skeptics/ secularist movement, who only intermittently keeps up with goings-on in the movement and hardly ever reads the relevant blogs, I find my sense of reality challenged by the controversies raging within it, mostly over women's issues but also over racial issues, and of course the two combined. I have always found this movement (in the USA at least) so shallow that I cannot take seriously the terms of these debates, as the very people dissenting from the prevailing order of this movement are interested in claiming an identity in it, and this identity is something I don't believe in in the first place.

To claim oneself as a feminist skeptic or a black skeptic, for instance, to me means in the first place that however one redefines the issues, one has already accepted not only the labels but the tacit conceptual basis for these labels. While I do take seriously the issue of harassment and character defamation of women in the secular movement, I do not take so seriously the framing of the ideological issues within it. Its fundamental premises are bourgeois. This may not be so obvious because the dissenters represent or claim to represent progressive causes. However, the ideological basis of these causes and their relation to the context in which they operate changes over time.

It is difficult to see this because Americans have to confront two historical breaks which have instituted our historical amnesia: McCarthyism and Reaganism.  I gave the briefest outline of how this affects the tacit ideological underpinnings of the explicit ideological assertions of the humanist movement, in my previous post, John Shook & the banality of humanism's dead liberalism. I will quote just one paragraph, in which I distinguish the left liberals/soft socialists of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto from today's "liberals":
 All of these people were products of a different era from the generations that produced the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and '70s. In addition to class-based agitation, this period foregrounded the new social movements--black civil rights & black power (along with other mushrooming ethnic movements), feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, etc.  What survives of all this, however, is predicated on the destruction of the old social liberalism that was undergirded by the labor movement.  Hence what passes for liberalism now is not class-based social equality, but the equal right of members of marginalized groups to participate at all levels of class exploitation. Our black president is the logical outcome of this historical trend.
You can read the rest yourself. What I need to add is that the movements of the 1960's and '70s cannot simply be isolated as black, women's, gay, etc. movements. There existed an entire spectrum of political positions associated with each of these movements. And social class was alive as an issue in a different way than it is today, as the old social liberalism (welfare state capitalism cum industrial trade unionism) is dead as a political force. Hence the notion of what it means to be progressive today hinges on fighting the right-wing assault based on their "cultural issues": defending women's rights, black voting rights, the status of Latinos, etc. Of course there is also a battle on defending public service unions and the social safety net. Nevertheless, the framing of the battles on behalf of marginalized and discriminated-against groups is shaped by the overall political context of today.

What remains of the consideration of class is encompassed in the left bourgeois notion of intersectionality and the childish deployment of the concept of privilege. Study of the intersections of race and class and gender and class goes back a long way, but the framing of these issues is a result of the combination of progress and regress since the end of the 1970s: increased consciousness of the issues raised by the new social movements combined with the eclipse of class politics. As for privilege, this notion grew out of the radical '60s in the context of left-wing organizing confronting the labor movement. The concept is now reduced to privileged middle class professionals baiting ostensibly more privileged middle class professionals.

As for the actual marginalization of various groups within secularist etc organizations, others will have to testify. However, the situation is complicated not only by the gatekeeping practices of organizations, conference organizers, etc., and by explicit positions taken by public figures, but by the atmosphere of the blogosphere, social networking, and cyberspace generally. As for the debaters who are recognized public figures, to what extent are the debates artifacts of competing self-promoters as superficial in their pronouncements as their opponents? How much of the alleged "war on women" actually concerns the recognizable organized secularist etc. movement and how much the free-for-all of commenters on blogs and social networks and YouTube wars? The fact that harassment and character assassination should exist at all and must be endured or fought is itself depressing.  Why not just attack someone's half-baked ideas when the occasion arises, if that is what is really at stake, and leave it at that?

The freethought community, on matters of social/political thinking, is as shallow as the rest of American society. Social issues should certainly not be silenced or discouraged, but that doesn't mean everyone who brings them up is a genius. We live in a media-saturated environment in which everyone reacts to everything. but unfortunately superficiality dominates all discussions. It is typical of argument in America: he said-she said. Who wants to participate in such discussions ad nauseam?

Friday, January 25, 2013

John Shook & the banality of humanism's dead liberalism

“Humanism at its core, at the heart of its ethical project, is the statement of a difficult problem, and not an elitist ideology offering simple platitudes.”

— John Shook, “With Liberty & Justice for All,” Humanist, January / February 2013

But actually, humanism in the USA intellectually really is little more than a collection of platitudes, and John Shook's essay demonstrates this.

When the first Humanist Manifesto was issued in 1933, capitalism was awash in its worst crisis, fascism menaced the world, Stalinism was the major alternative as a global political force, and Roosevelt's New Deal was about to be born to rescue American capitalism from the other two alternatives. In this context, the left-liberal and soft socialist declarations of humanism in the USA meant something, even without a political force to back it up. The 14th principle reads:
The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.
The actual political force bringing about whatever possibilities of this being realized in the USA came from the burgeoning American industrial labor movement, with the major participation of its Communist and other left contingents. Social liberalism in the USA, more or less corresponding to what is known as social democracy in more civilized countries, became a reality for the first time.

Some of the leading humanist intellectuals were players in various reform movements. Philosophically, the works of such people as Corliss Lamont are not terribly sophisticated or interesting, though Lamont himself was active in peace and justice movements. John Dewey is the closest thing American humanists have as a philosophical patron saint. Nevertheless, one has to pursue his philosophical works beyond A Common Faith and beyond the literature proper to the humanist movement itself. The second most (undeservedly) honored philosophical personage in American humanism is Sidney Hook, but the anti-communist Hook, not the Hook who was one of the foremost among the few Marxist philosophers in the English-speaking world in the 1930s. The principle author of the draft of the 1933 Manifesto was Roy Wood Sellars, my favorite among the classic (pre-World War II) American philosophers and a man of the left, but his philosophical works are not really counted in the literature of American humanism.

All of these people were products of a different era from the generations that produced the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and '70s. In addition to class-based agitation, this period foregrounded the new social movements--black civil rights & black power (along with other mushrooming ethnic movements), feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, etc.  What survives of all this, however, is predicated on the destruction of the old social liberalism that was undergirded by the labor movement.  Hence what passes for liberalism now is not class-based social equality, but the equal right of members of marginalized groups to participate at all levels of class exploitation. Our black president is the logical outcome of this historical trend.

Of course, many people attached to this new liberalism in a neoliberal (i.e. the new era of unregulated capitalism) era also have an interest in class-based justice, but generational turnover combined with historical amnesia have obscured how far to the right the political order, including the empty liberal gesturing of the Democratic Party, has been pulled.

This is the social environment in which the "new atheism" and the surge of activity overall in the atheist/humanist/skeptics is functioning. What do the ideologues of "humanism," who promise to offer more than mere "atheism," have to offer to explain world developments over the past 60 years or so and what concepts do they put forward to point the way out of the current political impasse, if impasse they even see?

John Shook's vacuous essay gives us a demonstration of the overall ideological backwardness of the atheist/humanist/skeptics movements. Shook enunciates the principles of the now-dead social liberalism:
As an ethical stance, humanism focuses on the individual and at the same time concerns itself with society; both commitments must remain bonded in mutual support, otherwise humanism makes no sense. History attests to the dangers of pursuing one to the detriment of the other, producing anti-humanist results. Societies that prioritize private liberty to excess, that let individuals accumulate all the powers they can, find that vast inequalities emerge. Those inequalities congeal into hierarchical social classes and rigid castes and severely restrict freedom of opportunity for all but the privileged and wealthy. On the other hand, societies that prioritize social justice too heavily, trying to equalize everyone’s wealth and status, find that vital initiative gets crushed beyond consolation. Where bureaucracy dictates investment and commerce, creativity goes unrewarded and opportunity is wasted.
Had Shook been more forthcoming, he would have stated this as a contest between capitalism and socialism. However, characterizing the problem with self-proclaimed socialist countries as those who "prioritize social justice too heavily" is not saying much about the provenance, history, and organization of such societies and to what extent the intent of their leaders is anymore geared toward social equality than ours is to democracy and the dignity of the individual. A simple balancing act between the abstractions of liberty and equality tells us nothing about the actual basis on which the class structure of any society is based. Bourgeois liberals and conservatives alike justify their positions on the basis of the same abstractions.  And in this fake balancing act, the actual mechanisms of capitalist exploitation are safely hidden.

Furthermore, there is no accounting for the extent to which any balance towards social justice was actually achieved and why it is being taken away now. Social liberalism has been politically dead in the USA for three decades at least. Not only does Shook regurgitate platitudes, but platitudes that are utterly useless given the irreversible shift to the right of the entire American political system.

Let us continue:
Balancing liberty and justice in healthy proportions is wiser than naively supposing that both can be maximized simultaneously. Human potential is too fragile and precious to abandon it to the caprice of private liberty or to entrust it to the rules of social justice. The individual needs freedoms within a supportive society, while society needs individuals to support the whole.
The first sentence is drivel. The principled enunciated in the rest of the passage were those of the Marxist humanists of the Yugoslav Praxis School with whom Paul Kurtz once dialogued and from whom he learned nothing. And while that school went down with Yugoslavia, Shook has nothing to say to compare to what these philosophers strove for.

Shook enunciates three general principles of the interdependency of individuality and sociality and then launches into a precis of the evolution of moral habits and responsibilities from primitive tribal organization on and the emergence of humanism within various civilizations. However, the master concepts of "culture" and "ethics" do not constitute a remotely usable basis for social theory.

Shook continues:
The only reasonable humanism trying to gradually improve people’s lives is one that starts with actual people as they really are, culture and all. Humanism opposes tribalism in any form, but it can’t stand aloof from culture itself, especially because many cultures are helpful repositories of humanistic wisdom with proven practical value.
This is worse than useless as social analysis. And not the word "gradually." An utterly useless liberalism that has no teeth in confronting the world in which we actually live. A reincarnated Dewey a century on is worthless, whereas the original Dewey performed at least some function for a burgeoning progressive liberalism. With Shook the keyword is "reform" repeated over and over against utopian schemes, i.e. a code word for "revolution" or "radicalism" or "socialism," which are in essence ruled out of court as anti-humanist. Shook wants to be a good liberal, but he has nothing to offer in the fashion of the good liberals of yesteryear.

The intellectual basis of humanism was always fairly thin, but as a strategic rallying point around a complex of issues it served a purpose. It still does as long as the participants in such a movement understand that it represents an alliance rather than a unity of social principles and that such a skeletal set of principles cannot serve as the basis for a complete social philosophy or world view.  Bourgeois liberals pride themselves on being the very embodiment of reason, but they are no such a thing. They are intellectually and ideologically underdeveloped, and thus the identity they claim in the end is just one more ideology to be overcome.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Life of Pi (film)

Saw the movie (spoiler alert:) Life of Pi yesterday afternoon. It was visually stunning. The acting was superb. The two-hour narrative was compelling, though I grew impatient with the long sojourn in the Pacific Ocean, which took up at least half the movie. As a film, it is definitely worth seeing. I have not read the novel.

However, thematically I have a big problem with it. For its major theme is belief vs reason, and while it gives reason some props, and preserves ambiguity, belief ends up having the upper hand.

The film is enacted mostly in flashbacks. Pi's story is supposed to convince a skeptical journalist of the existence of God. Pi himself as a young man develops a belief system in which he is a combination, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. (Later in life, as a scholar, he develops an interest in Judaism.) His brothers mock him for adopting several religions at once; his father, however, is a rationalist and skeptic, warning Pi not to be fooled by the pageantry of religious ceremonies as they distract from the darkness underlying all religion. Pi, raised in a zoo, develops an early empathy with animals, and even tries to develop a rapport with a tiger named Richard Parker, who eventually becomes the second most important character in the tale.  But Pi's father warns him not to project his own human emotions onto the tiger, giving him a graphic demonstration of what tigers as predators are really like.

Later on (spoiler alert) Pi spends half the movie trapped on a lifeboat with the tiger Richard Parker. This goes on a bit too long, and though not boring, could tax the patience of a viewer who rejects the basic premise of the narrative, which involves a paradoxical symbiosis between man and tiger.

The story Pi tells about this sojourn on the Pacific is so incredible that the question arises at the end whether, without corroborating evidence, it can be believed, or for that matter, an alternative story that Pi makes up.  And this is related to belief in God.

Pi does in the end give credit to his rationalist father for teaching him the survival skills necessary to deal with the tiger.  So in the spirit of eclectic liberal tolerance, rationalism too occupies a place of honor, even if in the end a subordinate one, in the pantheon of religious pluralism.

The emphasis on the believability and desirability of one possible narrative among others on the basis of congeniality alone strikes me as decidedly postmodern and consonant with the liberal religiosity congenial to the upper middle class, with an inherent appeal to a middle class middlebrow or art film audience. These people are suckers for Pi's eclectic spirituality. I do not like this.

Given the foregrounding of Pi's relationship with animals, particularly the tiger, I thought at first that the spirit of the film was essentially pantheistic, but the violence of nature is not soft-pedaled. Pi constantly invokes God, which inevitably points to theism, despite the misguided, unrealistic empathy with the tiger, who has to be tamed anyway.

I also have a problem I have with the essentially individualistic character of spirituality, common among religious people irrespective of education and class, but obnoxious in a special way in bourgeois spirituality. It doesn't matter how many people suffer as long as one person is miraculously spared. The faith of the lone survivor is always vindicated in this world view. But the universe is not your friend, and even if by chance it seems to act that way upon occasion, it surely ain't everybody's friend.

The unbelievable fantasy dimension of the narrative (the ocean odyssey) is irritating even though clever, and its framing in the context of belief in the existence of God is really a waste of the imagination deployed in concocting this tale. And the beautiful visual imagery, reflecting the exquisitely developed technology now at the filmmaker's disposal, reflects the disparity between our advanced technological capability and the constriction of our ideological universe.

I wrote most of the above review upon arriving home yesterday, before I discovered this article:

Life of Pi author Martel hears from Obama, Winnipeg Free Press, 04/8/2010

According to the article, the author received a letter of praise from President Obama. Read attentively what Obama wrote, and tell me this does not confirm my analysis to a 'T'. It's fitting to contemplate this amidst all the fakery of today's presidential inauguration:
"My daughter and I just finished reading Life of Pi together. Both of us agreed we prefer the story with animals. It is a lovely book -- an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling. Thank you." 
I can't think of a more fitting basis on which to condemn this story.

Globalization of obscurantism (2)

I have alternated posts on this topic on this blog and on my Studies in a Dying Culture blog.  The latest post on the latter blog is:

Globalization of obscurantist philosophy

There I lay out the underlying logic of this trend, with specific current examples.

Two other principle general entry points into this topic are:

Ethnoepistemology (Studies in a Dying Culture)

Globalization of obscurantism (this blog)

The most generic keywords on which to search this topic are ‘globalization’, ‘ethnophilosophy’, ‘postmodernism’, and ‘liberalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’. But any post on non-western philosophy is likely to be relevant, the most numerous being ‘Asian philosophy’ or ‘Chinese philosophy’, but also any philosophy related to India, but see also ‘American philosophy’ and ‘Native American philosophy’. Also 'Eurocentrism' and 'pluralism' are relevant keywords.

Norm Allen on humanism, politics, Malcolm X

"On Conceptions of Humanism, Freethought, Atheism, Rationalism, Skepticism, etc."
By Norm R. Allen Jr., December 21, 2012

Although Norm's argument that there is no necessary correlation between nontheism & political positions is correct, there are further implications, in that "humanism" too is almost politically meaningless though it promises more, in a strictly definitional sense, than "atheism". This is true for "secular humanism", all of its manifestos and affirmations notwithstanding, and a fortiori for religious humanism, which stretches the meaning to unlimited flexibility and hence virtual meaninglessness.

Norm recognizes the entire political spectrum that nontheists occupy. Among black atheists, he singles out the group of nationalist bigots (my designation) Black Atheists of Atlanta.  He did not mention other black nontheists who do not only advocate a tie to social justice issues but demagogically presume they represent black atheism as a whole in contraposition to white atheism. But black atheists, however the percentages may be skewed, also span the spectrum of political philosophies.

Back to Norm: Groups that couple a primary interest in atheism (or any of its synonyms) with a specific political philosophy should label themselves clearly reflecting their position. But also, there are nontheists who engage their social justice issues in other organizations and don't wish to narrow the common agenda of nontheists & secularists by tying down that movement to a specific political orientation.

The term "humanism' brings with it a source of confusion not found in the other terms:
Many humanists focus primarily on atheism, freethought, and rationalism. However, politically, they rend to be liberal or progressive. This causes much consternation among conservatives, libertarians and others that attend humanist gatherings. Yet unlike most of the other terms that non-theists use to describe themselves, humanism means a belief in humanity, and implies caring and concern for human beings, which usually translates into support for progressive social, political and economic programs. Conservatives, libertarians, and others might want to exercise caution when considering becoming involved with a humanist organization.
Perhaps a statistically oriented survey will bear out this generalization. However, many nontheists are not very discriminating about the labels or organizations they affiliate with or consider themselves humanists no matter how reactionary their politics. And the good liberals are not necessarily so discriminating either when choosing their heroes.

The problem is that the intellectual basis of the humanist movement is basically identical to that of any of the other labels used, and is so threadbare that it can't nail down anything more specific than general abstract principles, or platitudes. As a rule, humanism articulates certain general principles of liberal democracy, which are compatible with a range of political positions from capitalist libertarianism to Marxist humanism. (And this is not to take into account hypocrisy whatever the position taken.) This flexibility allows "humanism" to be a strategic focal point for organization and agitation in a variety of contexts, and for strategic alliances. But this does not make "humanism" a complete philosophy or world view. Not to see this is to fail to recognize that "humanism" essentially functions ideologically in the pejorative sense, that its proponents do not understand the deep structure of their own ideas.  For historical amplification, consult my podcast Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology (11/17/12).

So whatever your conviction is as to what constitutes a true humanism, whether it be Barry Seidman's anarchosyndalism, which is as analytically vacuous and platitudinous as humanist liberalism, or something else, your efforts at hijacking the concept of humanism in general will be futile.

The threadbare intellectual character of the humanist movement in the USA can be seen in another essay:

MALCOLM X FROM A BLACK HUMANIST VIEW By Norm R. Allen Jr., September 10, 2011

. . . which contains this preposterous assertion: "As far as Black leaders of national renown go, Malcolm seems to have been the leading critical thinker."

This is not only nonsense with respect to the entire history of black American political thought, but also with respect to Malcolm's contemporaries. I am reminded of a remark C.L.R. James once made when questioned about Malcolm X, responding that the person who really matters is Paul Robeson.  This remark implies a whole lot more than it says, for it points to a larger historical perspective lacking among Americans, black Americans included, as James asserted in another speech.

Malcolm X emerged in a political vacuum created by the silencing of the infinitely more sophisticated black left in the McCarthy era. Malcolm trashed mainstream American liberalism not from the left but from the right. One can focus on the more intelligent components of his speeches, but his defamation of the civil rights movement coupled with his alternative separatist fantasy bespeaks a decidedly inferior politics. A disciple of Elijah Muhammed's fascist religious cult, Malcolm could only be considered a critical thinker in a limited sense. Malcolm's world view could only be considered compatible with humanism in the last year of Malcolm's life when he renounced the Nation of Islam and refused to make authoritarianism and racialism the basis of his political world view (though he became an orthodox Muslim).

Norm to be sure is no blind hero-worshipper. Yet a critical evaluation of Malcolm demands more than a criticism of his sexism, the blandest, easiest, and most politically correct criticism to make. As for critical thinking, I've argued elsewhere that there is only critical thinking in particular, not critical thinking in general, and that "critical thinking" is selective and content-driven. See my bibliography Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking: A Guide.

Philosophically, "humanism" has always been quite feeble though its platitudes are salutary. Here we have further confirmation of this philosophical anemia.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

3 takes on critical thinking

As I have noted before, I have a problem with the theory and practice of critical thinking. From my web guide and links you will be able to see why:

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking: A Guide

Now here are some recently encountered examples of the problem:

(1) For a Better Society, Teach Philosophy in High Schools by Michael Shammas, The Huffington Post, 12/26/2012

This piece of airheaded fluff disproves the author's thesis. It's typical of a spineless formal liberalism that in fact commits itself to nothing other than the image of its own niceness. It is the clueless bourgeois ideology of an "open-mindedness" that means nothing, and an especially stupid specimen of it.

But since we are on the subject, you should know there is a whole literature on teaching philosophy in the classroom from early childhood on up. See the section on Philosophy for Children in my 'Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional: A Bibliography in Progress'.

(2) Five Critical Thinkers on Television by Breanne Harris, Critical Thinkers, July 26, 2010

Aside from this post being fluff, this web site is a representative of an entrepreneurial/consulting outfit, and the spin as well as the limits of the application of 'critical thinking' in an entrepreneurial setting should be evident. Bourgeois professionals are not prone to turning critical thinking on themselves except in that pseudo-detached fashion outlined in the first example. The exception I suppose is that small corner of left-liberal academia preoccupied by reflexivity, which translates into the politics of guilt.

(3) Educational Objective: Critical Thinking Skills, Ruthless Criticism

This little article is in a whole different category, as is this far left web site. The problem with several articles on this site is that there is no mediating analysis between the abstract concepts under review and the particulars of a political/social configuration in a way that would give us more than generalities.

If you read this article carefully, you should see that its critique applies to the tacit ideologies of the first two examples, especially the first. I do not find this to be an adequate critique, but it contains essential elements of a critique of 'critical thinking' that dovetails with my own.

The first point in this criticism relates to the educational emphasis on the critical subject, i.e. self-criticism. While the student is urged to be self-critical, where does one find the discussion of the objects that one can or should or cannot or should not be critical of? The sense of neutrality, of even-handedness and the avoidance of partisanship, is mocked, as it deserves.

The second admonition of the educational ideology of critical thinking, is skepticism. Again, there is an implicit critique of the formalism by which one can subjectively approach any topic with a skeptical point of view without actually knowing anything one way or the other. Note the criticism of the indifference to content.

Third, there is a criticism of relativization, that is, of the posture of modesty, which I presume to be an aspect of the posture of even-handedness and impartiality which is presumed to be ethically superior to 'ideology', extremism, partisanship.

Fourthly, there is a criticism of the presumption that there is a general critical capacity that needs only be awakened. This criticism and article ends most aptly, pooh-poohing "the possibility of criticizing something specific is supposed to exist in abstraction from each specific criticism, namely in the individual and not in what he has to criticize."

Such critiques of critical thinking seem to be very rare, at least in this part of the world. All these points are good ones, but the argument is far too adumbrated: without further exposition, the reader is likely to fail to grasp these points and to fill in the missing pieces of the argument as well as its necessary correlative overall structure.  This does nevertheless add something to my critique of the formalist, approach endemic to the critical thinking industry, without degenerating to postmodernist irrationalism.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Karel Kosík on the relation between past & present in cultural development

"The historical stages in the development of humanity are not empty forms from which life has evaporated because humanity has reached higher forms of development, but rather, through man's creative activity—praxis—are constantly being integrated into the present. The part concentrated in the present (in the dialectical sense, "superseded") creates human nature, that "substance" which includes both objectivity and subjectivity, both material relations and objectivized forces and the ability to "see" the world and explain it through various modes of subjectivity, that is, scientifically, artistically, philosophically, politically, etc."

— Karel Kosík, Dialectics of the Concrete

Still trying to fathom the implications of this statement.

Unresolved duality in Richard Hofstadter's historical method

Written April 2, 2011 at 7:52 pm 

Here's a telling clue:
Since Julius W. Pratt published his Expansionists of 1898 in 1936, it has been obvious that any interpretation of America's entry upon the paths of imperialism in the nineties in terms of rational economic motives would not fit the facts, and that a historian who approached the event with preconceptions no more supple than those, say, of Lenin's Imperialism would be helpless. This is not to say that markets and investments have no bearing; they do, but there are features of the situation that they do not explain at all. Insofar as the economic factor was important, it can be better studied by looking at the relation between the depression, the public mood, and the political system.

SOURCE: Hofstadter, Richard. “Cuba, the Philippines, and Manifest Destiny,” in: The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays; foreword by Sean Wilentz (New York: Vintage Books, 2008; 1st ed.: New York: Knopf, 1965), p. 183.

Lenin understood imperialism much better than Hofstadter, who, in the second paragraph, on the causes of the Spanish-American War, states: "The most striking thing about that war was that it originated not in imperialist ambition but in popular humanitarianism." (p. 145)  This follows upon an even more naive first paragraph, to the effect of: how could Americans do such a thing as engage in foreign conquest? This is quite revealing of an inherent flaw in American liberal and progressive historiography. As Hofstadter rebelled against the economism of Charles Beard and co. that prevailed in his youth, he was left with a curious dualism (or should I say, pluralism?) of material and ideal causes. Obviously, he learned nothing from the Marxism of the 1930s, but thanks to the economism of the dominant Soviet Marxism, it too suffered from a comparable flaw of suppressing theoretical comprehension of the ideological and even irrational subjective dimension of experience which itself is rooted in the objectivity of social relations. So, akin to the banality in John Dewey's view of society, Hofstadter leaves us with a multiplicity of factors rather than an integrated conception of structure. It's a shame, because the empirical depth in which Hofstadter engages in American political history is quite instructive concerning the configuration of America's entire pathological history.

Civil Rights Movement Concert at the White House (2010)

Written February 11, 2010 at 9:14 pm 

Just watched the White House musical tribute to the Civil Rights movement. The musical performances were quite uneven, and here I'm referring not to musical technique, but to emotional authenticity. The absolute worst offender was Yolanda Adams, who was consistently and absolutely emotionally fraudulent. Natalie Cole also messed up with lack of emotional backing for the song she sang. And this was true of some of Jennifer Hudson's singing. Just as bad was much of the musical accompaniment. I can't stand smooth jazz, or airy electric piano, or lightweight contrived panty music. If you're going to sing about civil rights, or anything with substance, sing it and play like you're actually feeling the message of the song. Or shut the fuck up.


Here's the whole awful event, courtesy of PBS:

In Performance at The White House A Celebration of Music From the Civil Rights Movement

Freethinker: a question of definition & taxonomy

Written September 23, 2010 at 2:31 am
A discussion is now in progress [Were Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes Freethinkers?: You be the judge] as to who is to be classified as a "freethinker". There are standard dictionary definitions, but the implications are hardly unambiguous. Here are some links that delve further into the implications of this term.

"Freethought Revival" / Susan Jacoby

Is "Freethinker" Synonymous with Nontheist?
Jeffery Jay Lowder

Rationalism  - It's Meaning and Implications
By Aparthib Zaman

Different Drummers: Nonconforming Thinkers in History.
Teacher Resource Section: Freethought and Religious Liberty:A Primer for Teachers

I am not satisfied with any of these approaches. My inclination is to tailor my taxonomy historically rather than to apply a single taxonomy to all times & places. By this I mean I see freethought as a historical cone, that takes in a wider spectrum in the past and excludes more and more unacceptable positions as we approach the present. But I have doubts that I can apply this principle authoritatively.

[See also:] Freethought by Amnon H Eden


Written November 6, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Just watched AVATAR on HBO. Much better than I anticipated. Usually I don't care much about special effects, but I was impressed by the world Cameron created, esp. the flora & fauna.

The contrast between two ways of life was striking, but since I don't like nature, or primitive clan social organization, I can't identify with the Nav'i.

There are some aspects of the plot line, & esp. the final battle, I don't find convincing. I don't believe the Nav'i could have won.

Thematically, the fact that the two worlds of technology & virtually unmediated relationship to nature (except for minimal technology like knives & bows & arrows) never are synthesized into a more comprehensive picture, is a failing of the movie, which ends up romanticizing the primitive, a singularly unimaginative resolution of the conflict. It's like high tech "Dances with Wolves".

Exploration of the world of Pandora remains the most interesting thing about the film, more interesting to me than the actual conflict that drives it, which is quite formulaic. The concept of the Avatar is decently handled. I imagine the Nav'i language will be of interest to conlangers.

Adorno on monotheism, idolatry, transcendence, & higher-order superstition

" . . . the assumption of a non-sensory egoity – which as existence, contrary to its own definition, is nonetheless to manifest itself in space and time. … this is where the idea of truth takes us. … one who believes in God hence cannot believe in God … If once upon a time the ban on images extended to pronouncing the name, now the ban itself has in this guise come to evoke suspicions of superstition."

-- Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

I'll have to dig up the context of this quote to verify that it means what I think it means. I found it in a dodgy article by Albrecht Wellmer, in the midst of a discussion of "messianic materialism", transcendence, and Hegelian reconciliation. When I originally reviewed it, I cited this quote to repudiate those who are now attempting to recuperate Adorno and critical theory in general for religion. While I don't recall the argument, I originally wrote that "Still, Adorno wishes to preserve what transcendence originally promised (reconciliation)", insisting that "Adorno's messianism is resolutely this-worldly." I have my doubts about this label "messianism", but Jewish critical theorists such as Benjamin, Fromm, Horkheimer, and Adorno, played with this concept without endorsing religion.

Barbara Ehrenreich vs 'positive thinking'

Thank goodness Barbara Ehrenreich has written about a subject that has been grinding my gears for several years, the self-help industry and above all the odious ideology of 'positive thinking', i.e. the logic of laissez faire capitalism elevated to the supramundane level of metaphyics. While to some extent personal optimism can be a motivator to overcome the most egregious of obstacles, as the basis for a world view it is obscene. What personally gets you over is not the basis for the whole cosmos, and the universe is not everybody's friend, not yours either.

As usual, Adorno expresses the issue better than anyone:

Adorno on Truth, Survival, Consolation & Freedom of Thought

But back to Barbara. She's written a whole book on the subject:

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (2009)

I wouldn't call this "utterly original" as I've had exactly the same thoughts for years, but I also have not seen these thoughts expressed elsewhere in print. There are links to videos and other material on her site, but let me point out this essay:

Pathologies of hope by Barbara Ehrenreich, Harper's Magazine, February 1, 2007

But here is another video for your perusal. Barbara's talk is good, the comments not so much:

RSA Animate - Smile or Die