Dream Diary: “Mailer”

On an October evening in Massachusetts, Norman Mailer sat down at his typewriter and, with a few short paragraphs, defined an entire school of criticism that would remain dominant for half a century.

I awaken on my sofa. All of the windows in the house are open, and I forget if they have screens. I sense that someone has entered during my nap, that I hear a noise coming from the hall. It was not dark when I dozed off, but it is dark now. I stand up and stretch, my fear beginning to well.

The evidence of Mailer’s gift, of course, was that he himself never returned to the style that would make him famous. A few short paragraphs, a pagelong manifesto written hastily in the scope of an evening at the age of 26, then he would spend the rest of his career moving in and out of other styles. But in a single piece of criticism, Mailer had written paragraphs so electric, sentences so crystalline and bold, that he would never be matched, or even approached, by any of the ten thousand imitators that were to come.

I walk down the hall. All of the lights are on but there are shadows, in which something could easily lurk. I am starting to panic. In the kitchen, there are three windows, all open wide to the night sky. Not even pausing to see if they have screens, or if the screens are intact, I pull each of them shut. I dart through the house, closing every window. But with every one I close, I only seem to grow more afraid.

The most fitting aspect of all, perhaps, was Mailer’s chosen appellation for that dazzling voice, the one he spoke in for a single page and then never again. He wryly called it “The New Escapism.” And truly, he could not fully realize how well it applied. For what is striking, reading those five hundred words again, fifty years after they were written, is the feeling that one is having one’s very own thoughts gathered up by a burglar and ferreted away. That one is running about, frantically closing windows, but that Mailer has taken one’s every original thought, and condensed it into a single word or phrase. This brings along with it a certain fear; the fear that if one does not stop Mailer before the sixth paragraph, he will have made all further thought irrelevent; the very reason for mankind’s continued production will have vanished. Perhaps we should be greatly relieved, then, that he restrained himself from ever speaking again in this singular voice.

I notice a flash in the corner of the study; something bolts for the window. It is the last one open, and I am at it within seconds. I slam it down hard, but it is too late. Down the path I see a shimmer, and I can just make out the faint outline of Norman Mailer, bounding away and grinning.

Nope, Still Not Socialism

I recently added myself to the ranks of those pointing out that Bernie Sanders, despite calling himself a socialist, is not voicing socialist principles. Socialism is antagonistic to capitalism, whereas Bernie Sanders believes in a regulated form of capitalism on the Nordic model. I am one among many to make this point, though I also forcefully insisted that this means Bernie Sanders must either be unaware of the definition of socialism or lying about it.

Now, the liberal Columbia historian Eric Foner has written an article in The Nation, in which he offers Bernie Sanders some advice as to how to talk about socialism. Ostensibly, Foner agrees with Sanders’s socialist critics, saying that when Bernie Sanders defines “democratic socialism,” he should not simply say the word “Sweden” over and over, but should look to the tradition of real American radicals such as the Indiana socialist Eugene V. Debs. Foner points out that we have a long tradition of uncompromising left-wing politics in America, from Tom Paine to the abolitionist movement to the Populism of the early 20th Century.

But, oh dear: even though he is ostensibly encouraging Sanders to embrace actual socialists, when Foner goes to define it he literally uses the Sanders definition, in which socialism is a more egalitarian form of capitalism. Here’s what Foner says:

As to socialism, the term today refers not to a blueprint for a future society but to the need to rein in the excesses of capitalism, evident all around us, to empower ordinary people in a political system verging on plutocracy, and to develop policies that make opportunity real for the millions of Americans for whom it is not. This is what it meant in the days of Eugene V. Debs, the great labor leader and Socialist candidate for president who won almost a million votes in 1912. Debs spoke the language of what he called “political equality and economic freedom.” But equally important, as Debs emphasized, socialism is as much a moral idea as an economic one—the conviction that vast inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity are simply wrong and that ordinary people, using political power, can produce far-reaching change. It was Debs’s moral fervor as much as his specific program that made him beloved by millions of Americans.

Now, here’s the sort of rhetoric that Bernie Sanders uses already:

If we are honest in striving to be a moral and just society, it is imperative that we have the courage to stand with the poor, to stand with working people and when necessary, take on very powerful and wealthy people whose greed, in my view, is doing this country enormous harm.” – from speech at Liberty University

Today, we live in the richest country in the history of the world, but that reality means little because much of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals. The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time. – from BernieSanders.com

It’s already exactly the sort of thing Foner is suggesting; it’s virtually indistinguishable. So Foner is not in fact asking Sanders to newly embrace the beliefs of the great American radicals. In fact, literally all Foner is asking for is more references to William Jennings Bryan instead of Norway. It’s just pure nationalism; Foner is not suggesting a more uncompromsing set of principles, but simply giving practical political advice. Foner thinks it’s good strategy to draw on American figures, since American politicians should be wary about praising Scandanavia, due to the longstanding national suspicion that everything European is vaguely bland and effete.

Lest anyone be snookered into thinking Foner is correct in viewing Eugene Debs as somehow sharing Sanders’s view of socialism as a friendlier form of capitalism, let me now call to the stand: Mr. Eugene V. Debs, who administered a ruthless thrashing to the Foners/Sanderses of his own time:

These people, mostly honest, imagine themselves Socialists — that is, in a mild, not a malignant form. They have decided that there is no class struggle, and now they propose to determine whether or not to organize a new party — that is to say, whether or not capitalism will abolish itself. If a new party should be decided upon, it must not be partisan. Can any sane person conceive of such a monstrosity? Think of the wolf and the lamb in loving embrace, the fox and the pullet dancing a two-step and the lion and the ox scouting the class-conscious doctrine over peaches and cream, while the ass mused, “I have long been waiting for this party of ‘all the people.’” Socialism was born of the class antagonisms of capitalist society, without which it would never have been heard of; and in the present state of its development it is a struggle of the working class to free themselves from their capitalist exploiters by wresting from them the tools with which modern work is done. This conflict for mastery of the tools is necessarily a class conflict. It can be nothing else, and only he is a Socialist who perceives clearly the nature of the struggle and takes his stand squarely and uncompromisingly with the working class in the struggle which can end only with the utter annihilation of the capitalist system and the total abolition of class rule. We count every one against us who is not with us and opposed to the capitalist class, especially those “reformers” of chicken hearts who are for everybody, especially themselves, and against nobody. While I believe that most of these “reformers” are honest and well-meaning, I know that some of them, by no means inconspicuous, are charlatans and frauds. They are the representatives of middle class interests, and the shrewd old politicians of the capitalist parties are not slow to perceive and take advantage of their influence. They are “Socialists” for no other purpose than to emasculate Socialism. Beaten in the capitalist game by better shufflers, dealers, and players, they have turned “reformers” and are playing that for what there is in it. They were failures as preaches and lawyers and politicians and capitalists. In their new role as “reformers” they dare not offend the capitalist exploiters, for their revenue depends upon their treason to the exploited slaves over whom they mourn dolefully and shed crocodile tears. I respect the honest effort of any man or set of men, however misguided, to better social conditions, but I have no patience with the frauds and quacks who wear the masks of meekness and in the name of “brotherhood” betray their trusting victims to the class that robs them without pity and riots in the proceeds without shame.

Is it worth my pointing out that by portraying Debs as a mere “opponent of inequality” and supporter of “political equality and economic freedom,” Foner is abrogating his duty as a historian? That when he says a gentle respect for equality “is what [socialism] meant in the days of Eugene V. Debs” he is telling a massive fib? That he is almost certainly distorting the historical record of Debs’s views because doing so will advance Foner’s own liberal political beliefs? Is it worth pointing out the unbelievable irony of him attempting to use Debs’s legacy to further precisely the kind of reformist politics that Debs himself explicitly denounced in the strongest possible terms? 

Let me conclude with some true statements, amid this thicket of confusion over socialism that liberals seem to be exerting considerable effort to create. Eugene V. Debs was a socialist. Socialism means an end to capitalism. Bernie Sanders does not want to end capitalism. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist. Eric Foner does not want to end capitalism. Eric Foner is not a socialist. Eric Foner either doesn’t understand Eugene V. Debs, or is intentionally downplaying Debs’s radicalism for political purposes. And the most incontrovertible fact of all: with every additional sentence Eric Foner writes about Eugene V. Debs, Debs rotates in his grave with ever-increasing velocity.

The Dumbest Email I Have Ever Received

For some reason, when you have a blog, strangers often send you emails to argue with you. (Predictably, every single one of these strangers is male. Also, if you do not reply to these emails, the strangers sometimes send follow-up emails chastising you for your rudeness.) Many of these make me grumpy, if only because the strangers instantly launch into the harangue and never try to introduce themselves or offer to meet for lunch. But sometimes I am glad to receive them, such as when I receive a piece of correspondence of such breathtaking idiocy that it can provide me with a source of self-satisfied mirth for the entire rest of the day.

Two days ago, the amusingness reached a new all-time high, with an email from a man who described himself as an “Objectivist” (Uh-oh.) Our correspondent took issue with an argument I made about capitalism and individualism, in which I recommended providing a universal basic income, so that the creative geniuses (such as Prof. Longhair, Buddy Holly, and Brian Wilson) who have had to compromise their art for financial reasons would be free to more fully carry out their visions.

Our objectivist, however, not only disapproved of requiring a basic income, but said that:

This is quite literally slavery.  You are advocating for the literal enslavement of those who are judged non-geniuses, in order that the material needs of geniuses be provided for.

Naturally, this puzzled me, since I did not remember coming out in favor of enslavement in the post. But I double-checked to make sure. Sure enough, all I had said was that we ought to provide everyone with a basic income. It was thus easy enough to reply to my objectivist friend, through the clever two-part argument “(1) No, it isnt. (2) No, I’m not.”

Surprisingly enough, he did not feel his position to be devastated. He emailed me again (they always do) and clarified that the reason I was advocating slavery was that I was advocating something that would be funded by compulsory taxation, and:

If you’re talking about *compulsory* taxation then yes, you’re talking about enforced slavery. The essence of slavery is that someone is forced to work without profit to themselves – it matters not whether you appropriate the fruits of their labour beforehand, or afterwards.

Now, one preliminary point is that I didn’t speak of compulsory taxation, for the simple reason that I think people should help each other out voluntarily; my preferred plan is for the rich to all realize they are monsters and surrender their wealth so it can be put to good use.

But look at this argument! Look at it! Every single tax is morally indistinguishable from slavery. Thus nearly everyone in the United States, and around the world, is presently enslaved. It’s not my basic income proposal that’s slavery, it’s literally anything ever funded by taxes.

By the way, just so we’re clear where the flaw is here: when you are enslaved, you can be punished or killed for not working. When you are taxed, nobody punishes or kills you for not working. Crucial distinction. My correspondent says this is meaningless, because everyone has to work in order to live, so taxes are unavoidable. This is hilarious, because my basic income proposal is precisely so that they don’t have to work in order to live. Thus, as my correspondent implicitly acknowledges, capitalism is slavery, because only under capitalism must we work or die.

Now, look, it’s not worth paying even a second’s more attention to the argument here. As I say, this really is the dumbest email I have ever received. But it’s worth examining as a documentary exhibit of one of the most dangerous tendencies in libertarian thinking: the belief that property and personhood are the same thing. A lot of free-market libertarians insist that one’s property is an extension of one’s self, and that to harm someone’s property is tantamount to harming them. But see where this leads you. It leads you to believing that filling out your tax returns is exactly the same being mercilessly whipped every day of your life by an overseer. This kind of thinking makes me furious, because of the way it trivializes what slavery actually is. Slavery is a condition in which the individual’s body is in the complete control of others. One has no freedom of movement, no access to knowledge, and is the subject of relentless violence. Let’s remember that being a slave meant being beaten, burned, and murdered. That it meant toiling in brutal heat for the entire duration of your life, and it meant total subjection to the will of someone who despised you and thought you an animal. That it meant having your children seized and sold, having your spouse raped, or being raped yourself.

So when free market types make these fatuous arguments about how giving up a percentage of their income so that poor people can have health care is slavery, let’s make sure they are treated with the disgust they deserve. Making this argument is equivalent to Holocaust denial; by trivializing the brutality of slavery, and comparing to the condition of 21st-century rich white men, it falsifies history and absolves an unforgivable crime. Anyone who dares to make this argument, which is false, offensive, and poisonous, should be treated with the same degree of credibility as Ernst Zundel or Robert Faurisson. If you argue that taxes are slavery, you are lying about what slavery is. Libertarians should be extremely worried that a position morally tantamount to Holocaust denial is alive and well in their communities.

Why I Am Not The Khmer Rouge

Recently I wrote an article abstract on the Social Science Research Network that people rather liked. The paper, which as of right now does not exist (to the disappointment of the many people who emailed me asking for a PDF) is entitled “Can Philosophy Be Justified In A Time Of Crisis?” and is summarized as follows:

In this paper, I take the position that a large portion of contemporary academic work is an appalling waste of human intelligence that cannot be justified under any mainstream normative ethics. Part I builds a four-step argument for why this is the case, while Part II responds to arguments for the contrary position offered in Cass Sunstein’s “In Defense of Law Reviews.” First, in Part I(A), I make the case that there is a large crisis of suffering in the world today. (Part I does not take me very long.) In Part I(B), I assess various theories of “the role of the intellectual,” concluding that the only role for the intellectual is for the intellectual to cease to exist. In Part I(C), I assess the contemporary state of the academy, showing that, contrary to the theory advanced in Part I(B), many intellectuals insist on continuing to exist. In Part I(D), I propose a new path forward, whereby present-day intellectuals take on a useful social function by spreading truths that help to alleviate the crisis of suffering outlined in Part I(A).

This managed to attract the attention of Charles Murray (of Bell Curve infamy), who called it “the best academic abstract I have read in years” though said he suspected the full paper was “leftist pap.” One interesting aspect of the Murray response is that nothing in the abstract advocates or suggests any kind of leftist politics, other than the suggestion that human beings ought to oppose the existence of suffering. And if the contemporary right believes “suffering is bad” to be some kind of soupy left-wing precept, this doesn’t do much to undermine the left’s view that conservatism is a philosophy of unqualified pitiless evil.

One response to the abstract I found surprising was the allegation that my thesis paralled the fundamental beliefs of Pol Pot. This was mentioned on Twitter and in some online comments. The Khmer Rouge were known for the mass extermination of all perceived “intellectuals,” eventually taking it to the extreme of murdering anyone wearing glasses. (With certain exceptions, of course; Pol Pot had been known to occasionally sport a pair of spectacles.) But despite the infamous Khmer contempt for intellectualism, the comparison did rather surprise me. Is it worth pointing out the difference between responding to a problem by advocating self-improvement and responding to a problem by exterminating everybody involved? Evidently it is. Stalin and I could both think Russia needs industrializing, but the difference between his plan for getting it done and my own would be several million corpses.

Perhaps, though, it is worth heeding the caution. Anti-intellectualism is just prejudice against nerds. The problem with the Khmers was not just their bloody policy solution, but their hatred of professors to begin with. Perhaps. But I think there’s hating professors, and there’s hating professors. The Khmers viewed all learning with suspicion; they were at wore with knowledge itself. I, on the other hand, love knowledge, and think the academy is largely its enemy. I don’t want to eliminate learning, what I want to eliminate is intellectualism, i.e. useless pontificating. I believe that if knowledge is not put toward a purpose, then it’s no more valuable than my counting the number of bubbles on a piece of bubble wrap.

This was missed, not just by the the “Pol Pot”-shouting nutcases but by a lot of the abstract’s viewers, that I was attempting to reorient the pursuit of knowledge rather than getting rid of it. A lot of people said “Why did you write this paper if you hate academic papers?” (And I did make a couple of self-deprecating jokes about that supposed irony myself.) But those people didn’t read what I wrote; there was no irony or hypocrisy. I advocated that knowledge should be made with “useful social functions” in mind, oriented toward the relief of suffering. So if I believe that by writing something exhorting my colleagues to start being useful, I will be improving our chances of reducing suffering, then I am clearly justified in writing the paper even under my own theory. Of course, people thought that by saying intellectuals should cease to exist I meant scholars should cease to exist, but this precisely proves the point that they are incapable of imagining a world in which scholarship is not mere intellectualism, and they cannot disentangle wisdom from intellectualism.

Nobody Believes In The Rule of Law

For some time, all sorts of people have professed to believe in something called “the rule of law.” They mean different things by this; some refer merely to the equal application of the law to all people, others believe that this principle means even unjust laws must be enforced. But the concept of the “rule of law” came to life vividly recently, when a Kentucky court clerk defied the Supreme Court’s requirement that marriages be issued to same-sex couples. For this, she was given some time in jail for contempt of court, as well as a meeting with the Pope.

When this happened, many liberals (who do not agree with this clerk about same-sex marriage) began to justify the clerk’s jailing on the grounds that she had violated the law, specifically her oath of office. At Esquire, Charles Pierce talked about the importance of oaths, and Noah Feldman did the same at Bloomberg View. This made many conservatives rightly guffaw, noting that they had never heard liberals praise uncompromising enforcement of the law (and imprisonment!) before that moment.

These conservatives were correct. Liberals wanted to see the clerk jailed because she was standing in the way of same-sex marriage, which they believe people are morally entitled to. But nobody really believes in the “rule of law” or the unbreakable sanctity of oaths. As the conservatives pointed out, liberals are perfectly okay with the violation of laws when it comes to sanctuary cities defying federal immigration laws. (Jonathan Adler of the Washington Post desperately insisted there was a difference, saying that under the Constitution, the federal government cannot require local governments to enforce federal law. But Adler should answer the question of, if the Constituion did require local governments to follow federal law, he would then believe San Francisco completely wrong in refusing to chuck immigrants out.)

Nobody believes in the rule of law absolutely. Or, at least, hardly anybody does. Nobody would believe that the Nuremberg Laws, assuming they were lawfully imposed, should be enforced. There is always a scenario in which people can imagine justifying civil disobedience (if a law was passed requiring me to murder my best friend, everyone who professes a belief in the rule of law would also come up with an explanation for why it was acceptable to refuse.) Okay, but what about oaths? When the clerk defied her oath to uphold the law, veryone on the left suddenly started issuing sanctimonious paens to the inviolability of the great Oath Of Office. Those who defy their oaths belong in jail.

For people like Noah Feldman, this is not an especially unforgiving principle, since one can always resign rather than uphold the oath. If you stay, you’ve got to abide by your oath; if you don’t want to enforce the laws, you don’t belong in a job where you have to enforce the laws.

But again, let’s see if that principle always holds. Say I am a judge in a dystopian state. A law is passed saying that, due to the state’s ongoing difficulties in stemming population growth, all orphans are to be collected and disposed of. As a judge, it is my job to enforce this law; orphans are brought before me, my job is to find them guilty of remaining alive in violation of the law (which they are), and to order their death sentences.

Or at least, that is my “job” as far as the letter of the law goes. In reality, I know that I could perfectly well get away with setting the orphans free and pretending they never came into my courtroom. This would be in complete violation of my oath, since the law explicitly says I cannot do this, and I have sworn to uphold the law. But I could do it, and I could save the lives of many orphans.

Now, I’m sure Noah Feldman and Charles Pierce do not believe I should order the orphans killed. (In fact, I asked Prof. Feldman whether he agreed with Justice Antonin Scalia’s position that judges who oppose the death penalty should resign. Prof. Feldman said that he did, if they felt that carrying out the law would fundamentally conflict with their moral principles.) The question, then, is whether I am duty-bound to resign (and simply let someone else send the orphans to their deaths instead of me), or whether I should defy my oath and save the orphans.

I am actually not sure how many people would say I should resign. But I think that resignation, in this instance, is clearly an immoral alternative; the consequences of my act are no different than if I had given the death sentences myself, and I’m refusing to stop a series of murders that I could easily have prevented at no cost to myself, all because I feel wedded to the oath. My hypothesis is that in the extreme case, most people would agree with me. A judge in Nazi Germany, if they know they can save Jews, should save Jews. Their oath is trivial when set against this harm.

But if it’s true that we all mostly agree that there are circumstances in which a law could be so brutal and unjust that one would be justified in defying one’s oath of office in order to mitigate its unjust consequences, the whole rule of law edifice has collapsed. Because now it’s just about drawing a line between when an issue is so important that the oath doesn’t matter, and when it isn’t. And it’s because liberals think same-sex marriage is a good thing that they believe the oath takes priority, not because they think an oath must always be upheld no matter what.

Now, I agree that the clerk should have given the same-sex marriage licenses. But my view has nothing whatsoever to do with the “rule of law” and the oath of office; I simply believe that the clerk is homophobic, and that discrimination against gay people is wrong and therefore should not be done. And I believe that in order to keep discrimination against gay people from happening, a state is sometimes justified in using force (although I would suggest that other alternatives be tried first.)

But I will never say that I believe the clerk’s job was to uphold her oath. That’s because I know there are circumstances where I would feel justified in defying an oath of office in order to avert a heinous consequence. And if I believe that, then I cannot have an absolute insistence on oaths; I must measure whether the reason for defying the oath is itself a morally sound one. Liberals don’t believe the clerk’s reason fit in that category, but that is a substantive moral determination rather than a procedural one. Defying an oath is wrong, if one is defying it in order to discriminate against gay people. Defying an oath is not wrong, if one is defying it in order to save a life. (“But,” I hear the critic squeal, “there is a difference between the justice of disobeying and the justice of punishing the disobeyer. It was nevertheless just to punish the clerk, regardless of the morality behind the defiance. Alright. But you’d better not be queasy at all about MLK; I want to hear you say “It was just to imprison Martin Luther King for parading without a permit.” And if you come up with some reason why that law wasn’t legitimate to begin with, you’d still better be fine with taking the principle to its extreme. “It would be just for Stalin to execute a judge who refused to carry out a purge, if the law required this punishment.” And if you are unwilling to say this, a distinction must be drawn as to why the enforcement is just in the one instance and unjust in the other.)

Bernie Sanders Either Doesn’t Know What Socialism Is or Is Lying About It

I am far from the first to make this point. But I would like to make it strongly and clearly, because very few on the left seem willing to. Based on Senator Bernie Sanders’s public statements, one of the following things must be true: (1) Bernie Sanders is unaware of the definition of socialism or (2) Bernie Sanders is fully aware of the definition of socialism, and is lying about it.

Bernie Sanders’s self-identification as a “democratic socialist” has caused a large amount of bafflement in the press. NPR, the Washington Post, and PolitiFact have all tried to figure out what he means by adopting this label. Of course, it shouldn’t be difficult to understand the term, because democratic socialism is not a complicated concept: it combines a socialist economic system with democratic decisionmaking, i.e. while the means of production are socially owned, they are not controlled in a top-down hierarchical fashion, but through the democratic participation of all.

The trouble is that when Bernie Sanders is asked the definition of “democratic socialism,” he describes something that is nothing like this. He says, instead, that:

“What democratic socialism means to me is having a government which represents all people, rather than just the wealthiest people, which is most often the case right now in this country.”

Well, that’s what all Democrats say, isn’t it? Would you find any Democrat who disagreed with that statement? In fact, would Rand Paul even disagree with that statement?

Being any sort of socialist requires much more than a vague belief in equal opportunity, as The American Conservative‘s Samuel Goldman clearly (and exasperatedly) explained over the summer:

Historically, the essential feature of socialism is the demand for public ownership or direct government control of major sectors of the economy. A bit more abstractly, socialists have aimed to eliminate considerations of profit from as many areas of life as possible. They used to the describe this goal as “revolution”, which didn’t necessarily mean violence.

Now, let’s be clear: Bernie Sanders is not asking for public ownership of the major sectors of the economy. He would steadfastly deny that he opposes the existence of the profit motive. He has defined his version of what “socialism” is, many times, saying that it means simply that:

the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. 

This is the standard progressive Democratic party line. It does not vary from it even slightly. Socialism is a revolutionary ideology that involves fundamentally changing the type of economy that exists. This ain’t that.

“Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word,” Bernie says when asked if he is backing away from the word socialism. Well, no, nobody thinks he’s afraid of the word. But he’s definitely afraid of socialism itself, or he wouldn’t immediately redefine it every time he mentions it.

Amusingly enough, the Wikipedia entry on Democratic Socialism even discusses the Bernie Fallacy:

“democratic socialism” is sometimes improperly used as a synonym for social democracy, where “social democracy” usually refers to support for political democracy, regulation of the capitalist economy, and a welfare state.

Well, there you have it. He’s not a socialist. Or a democratic socialist. Josh Barro of the New York Times recently came to the same conclusion, saying:

The weirdest thing about this fight is that Mr. Sanders, a Vermont senator, is not really a socialist. Or at least, if he is a socialist, he is also, at the same time, a capitalist.

So pretty much everybody has realized now that Bernie’s “democratic socialism” is the phrase he uses for Nordic-style social democracy. Consider me added to the chorus. But let me add a point that people on the left seem reluctant to admit: this leads to the logical conclusion that Bernie Sanders either has no idea what the thing he says he is actually is, or is lying about it. Of all people, Jonah Goldberg of the National Review has got this one right, saying that if socialism doesn’t mean social democracy, Bernie must either be a fool or a liar. Unfortunately for the left, that’s absolutely the case.

Dream Diary: “The Trenches”

“But why did you spend so much time and money digging trenches for us to take the exam in, when you could have built us each an air-conditioned booth?” I asked.

“You don’t like the trenches?” came the reply.

When I accidentally filled out the answers to Section 1 on the bubble-sheet reserved for Section 2, I immediately blamed the trench.

What Concerns Me About Literature

Literature is important and all that. But my God, do authors sometimes say some worrying things. Witness the following, from Elie Wiesel’s introduction to an essay collection:

What are you writing?” the Rebbe asked. “Stories,” I said. He wanted to know what kind of stories: true stories. “About people you knew?” Yes, about people I might have known. “About things that happened?” Yes, about things that happened or could have happened. “But they did not?” No, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end. The Rebbe leaned forward as if to measure me up and said with more sorrow than anger: That means you are writing lies! I did not answer immediately. The scolded child within me had nothing to say in his defense. Yet, I had to justify myself: “Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are – although they never occurred.” – from Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time, p. viii.

Now, whatever one may think of truth, to me that last sentence is one of the least true things ever said. It sounds nice. It’s not the case. The truth is what happened, and what did not happen is not true. Now, you might say that some ways of describing what happened do not correctly approach the truth of what happened, and I believe that. But that is not a question of whether events took place, but how events are represented. We can say that “one needs fiction to capture the truth of the Holocaust,” and that is a reasonable statement, for it may be that simple factual descriptions and memoirs will never enable us to adequately appreciate the event. Saying events happened but were not true, however, is not the same thing.

It’s especially alarming that Elie Wiesel has taken this attitude, because he has been one of the foremost people, if not the foremost, in charge of preserving the memory of the Holocaust and not allowing history to be falsified. If you find yourself in that role, you can not make statements suggesting that everything is open to interpretation and sometimes false things are true and truth things are false. To do so is completely irresponsible. Historical atrocities are so easily forgotten, and in the case of the Holocaust, there is an active movement to wipe away the truth. Thus it is the responsibility of all who know to insist loudly that there are facts, there is what happened, and that these things are not a matter of opinion, but a matter of record. When Elie Wiesel goes about suggesting that even the things he says are true might not have actually occurred, he gives needless ammunition to Holocaust deniers. It’s one thing to say “I write stories, not all stories are true, but they are nevertheless important for our understanding of truth.” It’s another to basically admit that you are willing to call things true that never happened. Now, maybe you think Wiesel is doing the former. But in that case, he is nevertheless being irresponsible. You need to be very careful with your language here. There are too many lies told about the Holocaust, and the last thing we need is for anyone to think that the event’s most powerful documenters do not especially value the difference between things that happened and things that did not.

Personally, I think writing Holocaust fiction, or quasi-fiction/semi-memoir, is unwise to begin with. No matter how important and powerful Night may be, I think for an event where the clarity of our memory is so important, Wiesel should not have taken the “only fiction reveals the true nature of things” approach. But I am not really interested in Night itself, because that way of writing is defensible even if debatable. What is important is that if you write like that, and are also looked to as an authority for telling the story of what happened, you do not say things that suggest you would be willing to fabricate an event if you felt as if it made some larger, truer point. This may not be of much consequence for other events where the stakes are not so high. But this is the Holocaust, where we must constantly fight to preserve the record of what was done.

Literature is important, yes. But the rabbi was right to be horrified when he heard Wiesel speak so casually about the difference between truth and falsehood. Nobody should be given the ability to deny that what happened during the Holocaust happened, yet Wiesel both scuppers his own authority as a source, and puts forth a principle that allows the factual realities of the Holocaust to be treated secondarily to whatever subjective fictions anyone happens to prefer.

You’re Allowed to Use Examples, Part II

A Duke sociologist has a new paper out on the subject of “nuance.” He comes out strongly against it (to see just how strongly, have a read of it). The paper is infuriating. Not because it’s wrong, since its argument is absolutely right and I agree with every word of it. And also not because he says he’s against nuance, but then immediately qualifies by saying that he’s actually not against nuance but rather a particular kind of abstraction that he has called nuance, and that while his critics might be tempted to scoff that this distinction is itself a nuance thereby making him a hypocrite, he is not in fact a hypocrite because as he as already stated clearly, he’s not against nuance per se but this other made-up variety, and since the distinction itself is nuance per se and not nuance of his particular imagined sort, he is ipso facto not a hypocrite. No, that’s not why it’s infuriating.

It’s infuriating because after 11 tightly-written pages denouncing the tendency of sociology toward abstraction and needless distinction, he says the following:

I could have made my case by picking out some egregious examples of overly-nuanced theory and then spent my time ridiculing them. But I deliberately chose not to curse at anyone in particular, and avoided getting into personal fights… Instead, I invite you to spend some time in the theory literature…

Meaning: I could have used examples in order to support my argument, but instead I have not. If you would like to know why I am right, you the reader must go and prove my case for me.

Now, let’s leave aside the fact that an “invitation to spend some time in the theory literature” is rather like being invited to an evening of having scalding-hot forks thrust into one’s testicles. One of the most remarkable things about this is the supposition that to use examples would be needlessly “personal” and would create “fights.” This, it seems to me, and not “nuance,” is the true mark of a failing discipline. If proposing strong criticisms constitutes of someone’s work constitutes an unnecessary personal attack, the prerequisites of the scientific enterprise are in bad shape indeed. This author, Prof. Healy, feels as if it would somehow be low and petty for him to “ridicule” somebody’s work. It’s striking that he feels ridicule is the only option, as if serious criticism of someone’s methods is inherently making fun of them. 

All very concerning. You are allowed to, and must, use examples in your arguments. You can’t get away with thunderously denouncing an entire perceived category of scholarship, without giving some proof that what you are talking about exists in the first place. Not to do so is not politeness and courtesy to your colleagues, it is cowardice and a failure of argumentative rigor. (Although Prof. Healy should note that I do not mean that personally and would never wish to pick a fight.)

A Case Study in Academic Failure

Here is an article abstract from a scholarly journal, which I like because I think it captures many of the worst aspects of both contemporary leftism and contemporary academic writing:

In this paper, I read Trayvon Martin’s murder at the hands of George Zimmerman and the ensuing debates surrounding Stand Your Ground law through Frantz Fanon’s critical reformulation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. For Fanon, the unacknowledged reciprocity of Hegel’s dialectic obscures the sub-ontological realm—to which Fanon and Martin alike were condemned—and Fanon’s concept of comparaison sheds further light on Zimmerman’s motivations as a liminally racialized subject. I argue that it is precisely by questioning the circularity of Hegel’s formulation—in which to stand one’s ground is to claim what one already has access to—and by diagnosing what lies beneath that ground that we can avoid mistaking the legal symptom for the underlying ailment and craft strategies for resisting white supremacy in the present.

I am sure that, for many, the reasons for recoiling at this sort of thing will be self-evident. But since some people write this stuff (if not read it), presumably some people would also think “What’s so wrong with that?” at seeing a sample of it. Also, my own distastes are uniquely personal, so let me list why I myself react with unmitigated horror followed by despair:

  • Hegel – Anytime Hegel is mentioned, nothing clear is going to be said.
  • Being relevant without actually being relevant – The author is clearly concerned with racial injustice. The author wishes to develop “strategies for resisting white supremacy” (in the present, no less!) According to this person’s faculty webpage, the author “encourages students to leave behind the realm of pure theory and enter instead into rich conversation with the empirical and everyday world.” And yet, this engagement with the real world, this abandonment of “pure theory,” simply involves taking the same theory and slathering it atop current events. The author wants to make a difference, but believes that actual political gains can be made through the correct application of Hegelian analysis. The author wishes to produce something relevant for stopping a wrong, and yet produces something that can have no conceivable effect on stopping that wrong.
  • Dialectic – See above re: Hegel. Anytime dialectic is mentioned, unless it is as a synonym for “dialogue” (in which case “dialogue” should be used instead), nothing clear is going to be said.
  • “mistaking symptom for ailment” – Cliché. Personal pet peeve.
  • Liminal, sub-ontological, reciprocity – Terms at too high a level of abstraction, or with too little precision, to have useful meaning. “But wait,” you say, “you are only judging by the abstract. Perhaps you should read the article, and they will be defined and specified.” Good point. I have just checked the article. They are neither defined nor specified.
  • comparaison – This is a French word, meaning “comparison.” But the author does not translate the word. Instead, the author italicizes it and leaves it in the original. These seems to me one of the more ludicrous examples of deploying foreign words in ordder to seem intelligent. Here we have an almost perfect cognate, but the author would have us believe that that extra “a” makes all the difference, and that Fanon’s idea of “comparaison” was so far different from our own word “comparison” that we must use the original if we are to do him justice. I object to this. (Of course, I also object to all of the philosophers who have loudly insisted on “ressentiment” as importantly distinct from “resentment,” so I might just be an idiot.)
  • As far as I can understand, the actual theory about the sub-ontological realm – As far as I can grasp it, I think I actually object to part of this author’s thesis. The author says that Fanon and Martin “alike were condemned” to the realm of sub-ontology, which as far as I can tell, means that black people do not really “exist.” In another abstract, the same author discusses “the violent self-assertion and public appearance of colonized and racialized non-beings which creates the necessary groundwork for their entry into being.” Thus, because the process of colonization and racialization strips one of one’s humanity, people subjugated by race do not properly exist until they successfully assert themselves through violence. This is not a position I find sympathetic or well-founded; I don’t share the opinion that one’s very being or non-being is defined by one’s place in a racial hierarchy. But my complaint in this respect is probably unfair to the author, since he is simply borrowing Fanon’s (Hegel-derived, as I understand it) premise that “[m]an is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him.” (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 216) So I believe that both Fanon and the author have bad conceptions of existence and humanity. Why on earth would we define being human the way Fanon does? Fanon’s own statements in support of the position are non sequiturs (“As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, that other will remain the theme of his actions.” What does it even mean for actions to have themes?) So, yes, the author gets partial blame for the article, Hegel gets some other portion of it, and Fanon gets a sliver as well, although at least Fanon was a doctor and tried to do some good with his life.

Now, a hypothetical critic may here come back at me: “You are relying an awful lot on the author’s abstracts. Abstracts are not articles, be fair!” Ah, yes, I know. But (1) most of the time if an abstract sounds dreadful, the article will be worse, and (2) even though the author is a staunch leftist committed to destroying privilege, his articles are still locked behind a paywall in an expensive limited-access journal, and I can’t get to them. So I was working with what I had when I first jotted down my list.

But I did actually manage ultimately to find full access to the Trayvon Martin article. I did not get very far through it before giving up. Would you like to know how it begins? First, it describes the rainy night on which Martin was shot. Then we get:

Were it not for the drizzling rain and strange choice of weaponry, this confrontation might evoke the abstract world of G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectic of lordship and bondage in which one “self-consciousness” is confronted by another, with each holding the key to the other’s full recognition. But as powerful as the Hegelian framework might seem…

Now when I, as the reader, see the assertion that were it not for the rain, Hegel’s dialectic might be evoked, I must ask myself “Might it? Might it really?” (And why does the rain make all the difference?) And when I see the statement “But powerful as Hegel’s framework might seem” I reply the same way. If I am being honest, I have to think that it very much might not.

[Update: It has come to my attention that some people do not believe this could be an actual article. I had hoped to spare the author the embarrassment of being identified as having written it, but the necessity of proving that I am not engaged in an elaborate act of parody demands that I reveal my source. Here.]