Saturday, August 13, 2016

josh marshall, national character, and where our wisdom comes from

I’m very familiar with the kind of barfly thumbnail sketch that sums up whole peoples. It is a hard vice to suppress. I do it. The English this, the French that. In the last couple days, one of those sketches, this one of the knout-lovin’ Russians, was twitted by Josh Marshall, a Clintonite liberal. He was attacked for it, and instead of saying I’m just tweating, he dug in and defended himself as a deep cultural observer of the Russians.
My Dad used to do the same thing, although I think he had more excuse, having grown up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Syracuse NY in the 30s and 40s, when folk wisdom about different national characters was unquestioned.
The Marshall twitterstorm reminded me of something I wrote in the early Bush era. Here it is.

Hume, Huxley, and war

The importance of distance should never be under-estimated. Heidegger, whose defense of Nazi-ism is well known, is continually being rediscovered (surprise) as the rotten bug under the rug of continental philosophy; that Derrida relies so much upon his work has been discussed in the terms one would usually reserve for talking about hiring Typhoid Mary to cook the cutlets in some local dinner. Yet who cares that David Hume, the surely one of the roots of English philosophy and its rather sterile offshoot, analytic philosophy, had, shall we say, rather dim views about blacks during a period in which the trade in black flesh (and the attendant destruction of African culture) was at its height? LI was pondering this while reading, yesterday, Thomas Huxley’s excellent Victorian study of Hume. Huxley himself is rather impatient with the “nonsense” that is usually ground out about race and national character. We like Huxley for that. We like Huxley for his reasons for embracing Darwinism. And more than that - we actually like Hume. But we have to admit that Hume admitted to the inroads of prejudice in spite of his philosophical degree zero, his wariness in the presence of generalizations. Here is what Hume has to say about race:

"I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation.... Such a uniform and constant difference [between the negroes and the whites] could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.... In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly."

This was from his essays, which Huxley justly celebrates. On the whole, Hume’s essays are under-appreciated today, except by libertarians and fans of Adam Smith. That’s because, before Adam Smith, Hume put into theoretical language a lot of what we now consider the foundations of classical political economy.

It is hard to swallow apercu like the above, however. One’s inclination is to think that such thoughts have no influence, really, on, say, Hume’s epistemology. Perhaps this says something about the success of analytic philosophy in convincing its constituency that philosophy consists of isolated areas of focus - epistemology, ontology, ethics, etc. - which are logically separated from each other. Really, though, I think it is that we – or at least “we” whites - are far enough away from the slave trade, as opposed to the Holocaust, not to feel it in the skin, like some old war wound. But it is an old war wound, nonetheless. A hole in the side of the world.

Analytic philosophers -- and, even more, the incompetent commentators on philosophy in the popular press -- are much more eager to discuss the influence of Heidegger’s Nazi-ism on his ontology than they are to bracket it, and discuss the ontology alone. We are being a little unfair: Hume never claimed that his epistemology was interwoven with his racism, as Heidegger claimed that his encounter with Seyn was interwoven with Hitler. Still, frankly owning up to a belief in black inferiority, especially during a time when Scottish merchants were making a pretty penny in selling blacks on the theory of that inferiority, should raise some questions about Mr. Hume. However, I doubt they ever will.

The tremendous influence of this contempt for a ‘lower’ race has never, really, been traced to its most extreme ends in all the branches of our history.   But when we hear casual remarks about the war of civilizations, and about ‘reforming’ the Islamic world, we have to wonder whether the speakers have any acquaintance with western civilization, besides driving in its huge cars and admiring its overpasses and malls. We live on a very thin crust of liberalism. It is about forty years old – a little younger than me. That the inheritors of the most vigorous opponents of the liberal mindset - the people who opposed civil rights for blacks, women, and the working class for the better part of American history, those who defended lynch law, laws to break up unions, and opposed giving women legal equality with men -  now casually claim this as their heritage and their sanction for making war on the benighted has to be an irony worthy of one of Hardy’s poems. No, ‘we’ are enmeshed in the dark ignorance in the belly of the beast still. It takes centuries to get through Moloch.   

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

trump and the racism of the 1 percent

Jon Stewart did a funny bit on the Stephen Colbert show – the Tonight show – during the Republican convention. He showed a collage of Fox news footage. In one piece, one of the Fox talking heads said that Trump was a “working class billionaire”. Stewart pulled the deadpan face and said, no. The audience laughed.
The joke, however, this campaign is on us. For as the press has infinitely analyzed Trump’s campaign, it has focused very much on the racist working class folk who support Trump. It has focused not at all on the 1 percent class, into which Trump was born, and where he has spent his whole life. It is as if his racial attitudes came to him during that brief period when he was kidnapped and held in a neo-Nazi mobile home.
What is it about that 1 percent? Remember that it is almost 96 percent white – the superclass is the whitest class in the nation. Remember, too, that it is the most ardent Republican voting class in the country. And one can cunclude that… oh, look over there, some fat white construction worker is holding a confederate flag!
The racism of the upper class is never, ever the focus of newspaper article or thumbsucker pieces. So much is it ignored that it is as if it doesn’t exist. If it does exist, then perhaps one should ask questions about that class – but to do that is to impugn, even tacitly, the owners of the media. So … look over there, some fat white woman who works at Walmart is showing a confederate flag!
The focus will always be on the mobile home crowd. The crowd that owns summer homes in the Hamptons and winter homes in Palm Springs, that goes to almost exclusively white clubs and presides over white corporate boards, they get a pass. The leaner-inners, the CEOs, the Quants at the Hedge fund, the numerous, numerous heirs of the 100 great American fortunes as they were listed in the 1940s – our meritocrats, our best and the brightest! – are not even slightly questioned when one of their number goes around talking about Mexican rapists and black thugs. Nobody so far as I have seen goes to seek out the opinions on race and gender at the Mar-a-Lago club. When George Saunders reported on Trump supporters for New Yorker, he confine himself to those in the crowds listening to him. Doubtless it is much harder to interview members of the various Palm Beach clubs.
When Beyonce says, in Formation,  "You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making / 'Cause I slay / I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making", there’s a certain pathos to the phrase. No white singer would say, you might just be the white Bill Gates. Although African Americans make up 12.2 percent of the population, they make up 1.4 percent of the wealthiest 1 percent. This, this is no accident.
So, the next time you hear a funny joke about Trump’s racist followers, remember, the jokes on us. Cause his people rule us.      


Sunday, August 07, 2016

My problematic liberalism

Although I try, most of the time, to be a good American liberal, there is only so much I can take before the un-American Marxist in my soul shows up and mugs my cut-out.
For instance: lately I’ve been noticing a meme that has migrated from Romney’s campaign into the analysis of good liberals. We all remember, I hope, the makers and the takers. According to a speech Romney made to some halfwit club of greedheads, in the US, 47 percent were on the dole, of one type or another – takers. Which left only 52 percent makers. Romney didn’t even have to wink to imply that of that 52 percent, a good 90 percent were losers.
When a film of this warm encounter between Romney and his deepest admirers surfaced, he obfuscated it all. But good liberals served up the incident as an x ray into what Romney really thought.
That was then. Lately, I’ve noticed that “populism” or whatever it is called is being hauled over the coals by true liberals, dismayed by the way the plebes have not been following the program. Two instances really attracted my attention.
One was a very well publicized report by George Saunders on the Trump campaign. Saunders, tossing aside any economic explanation of discontent as too much blah blah blah, made a heartfelt comparison between those discontented with the state of things in America and himself as an engineering student. In his account, he was not a very good engineering student. So he compensated by blasting better engineering students and generally not recognizing that he just wasn’t good enough.
“In college, I was a budding Republican, an Ayn Rand acolyte. I voted for Reagan. I’d been a bad student in high school and now, in engineering school, felt (and was) academically outgunned, way behind the curve. In that state, I constructed a world view in which I was not behind the curve but ahead of it. I conjured up a set of hazy villains, who were, I can see now, externalized manifestations, imaginary versions of those who were leaving me behind; i.e., my better-prepared, more sophisticated fellow-students. They were, yes, smarter and sharper than I was (as indicated by the tests on which they were always creaming me), but I was . . . what was I? Uh, tougher, more resilient, more able to get down and dirty as needed. I distinctly remember the feeling of casting about for some world view in which my shortfall somehow constituted a hidden noble advantage.
Of course, now, now George Saunders isn’t a Ayn Rand acolyte, but a man of liberal sentiments who, of course, recognizes that some people – the people ahead of the curve, apparently – just merit their positions, and we can recognize that while all doing our best to make sure our kids go to Ivy League schools or something. We can lean in, that is it, that’s what we can do. As for the rest, they can watch their tacky tv or something. In fact, perhaps we can call the ahead of the curve group makers, and the others takers… But since Saunders is now firmly liberal, and he’s writing for the firmly liberal New Yorker,  he isn’t going to go that far explicitly.  What he does do is the Clinton watusi about how this is already a great country and shouldn’t we be unified? And doesn’t it depress us that a lot of angry people haven’t given up their sophomoric idea that they deserve better? Of course, this all plugs into Unity, a description of collective agreement that  has somehow transmorgified into some kind of liberal virtue in the last couple of years.  

A more straightforward Romneyism comes overseas from the LRB. John Lancester is lamenting Brexit, and he comes, reluctantly, to the core of the thing, the people who voted for Brexit:

“The people in the rich parts of the country pay the taxes which support the poor parts. If I had to pick a single fact which has played no role in political discourse but which sums up the current position of the UK, it would be that most people in the UK receive more from the state, in direct cash transfers and in benefits such as health and education, than they contribute to it. The numbers are eerily similar to the referendum outcome: 48 per cent net contributors, 52 per cent net recipients.

This did make me wonder whether it was the rich parts or the poor parts who benefited from the  1, 162 billion  pounds of government outlay for the banks – that's a trillion some for you pikers out there - but I realize that this is still only cheap liberalism. The unrepentant Marxist in me remembered something that is now deeply unpopular to even mention. It is called the level of exploitation. It is the theory that wealth is not the product of management or of clever bets in the stock market. Rather it is the cumulative effect of  the labor of the workers. It is even, according to this theory, the surplus labor value – the amount taken from the worker by capital – that supports the entire structure of capital.
Silly silly silly of course. And yet, without that theory, what you get, eventually, is Romneyism.
And I’m one of those people who are in the just say no to Romneyism camp, even if it comes from various rich journalists and writers who are totally out there for, say, transgender rights. Cause I’m remembering that transgender folks, like everybody else, work. And the majority of them work for the man, and are skinned by the man.

Remembering the real source of productivity and of wealth is a very hard thing to do when it is a truth universally denied in the mainstream press. Nevertheless, I’m for remembering it.  

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...