Friday, September 4, 2009

Yet Another Reason Not to Put Your Finger in Somebody's Mouth


You may know about the recent incident at a California health care rally where a health care reform supporter bit off the pinky finger of a health care reform opponent who was punching him in the face. Although my research hasn't been able to find another example of somebody who bit off somebody else's finger for political reasons, I did find this UPI wire story from the front page of the October 9, 1969 edition of the Anniston Star of Anniston, Alabama.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Julia Child Makes Primordial Soup


Everybody's favorite French Chef was a true advocate for science who had no truck with creationists, nosiree Bob! Enjoy, and bon appetit!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Plot To Blow Up the Statue of Liberty

In 1965, three black militants from a group called the Black Liberation Front conspired to blow up the Statue of Liberty with help from a white Canadian woman in the Quebecois separatist movement who provided them with dynamite. The photo below is a UPI photo of the four bomb plotters from the front page of the February 17, 1965 issue of the Zanesville, Ohio Times-Recorder.


An interesting 1965 article from Time magazine's online archive describes the "Monumental Plot" in further detail. Robert Steele Collier, the ringleader of the plot, got the idea to blow up the Statue of Liberty (which he called "that damned old bitch") after visiting Cuba in the summer of 1964. Another plotter, Walter Augustus Bowe, later convinced the group to blow up the Liberty Bell and the Washington Monument too, after a replica of the Statue of Liberty convinced them they could blow up the statue's head and torch. The group then obtained dynamite from a Quebecois television personality, Michelle Duclos, but the plot was foiled by Ray Wood, an undercover police officer who was in on the plot the whole time.

Two months later, a Quebecois man who had provided dynamite to Michelle Duclos committed suicide in his jail cell by hanging himself with a leather thong attached to his artificial leg. The newspaper story reporting his death is taken from the front page of the April 19, 1965 issue of the Columbus Daily Telegram.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rare Silver Apples Article


Vintage article on the cult electronic psychedelic band, the Silver Apples, from the El Paso Herald-Post in August 1968.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Vintage Article on Julia Child


From p. 18 of the November 20, 1961 issue of the Pasadena Independent. The article mentions that Julia Child and her husband were staying with Julia's father and stepfather in Pasadena and also mentions Julia's performance in "fairytale operas" (!) put on by the Pasadena Junior League when she was younger. Click on the article to get a closer look.

Julie, Julia, & the Red Scare

My wife and I saw the movie Julie & Julia last night, which has some interesting biographical details about Julia Child. I was already aware that Julia Child had worked for the OSS, the World War II spy agency and precursor to the CIA, but I was not aware about how her personal history intersected with McCarthyism and the Red Scare in the United States. I have not yet had a chance to read the Julia Child book, My Life in France, but the blog Strange Culture has a post summarizing how the Cold War, the Red Scare, and the later development of McCarthyism shaped Julia Child's life:
1. The historical story that is nestled into this book is fascinating. It's certainly interesting to see how America's foreign policy following WWII changes and adapts through the administrations of Harry S Truman and Eisenhower through the eyes of Paul and Julia Child. Paul Child's diplomatic role in furthering a presentation of American culture and art through ECA (Economic Cooperation Administration) is interesting as a direct arm of the Marshall plan, yet the lack of promotional opportunities for Paul, the increased emphasis on military expansion, as well as the growing fear that was associated with McCarthyism in the United States really was shown through the life of Paul and Julia and their experiences in Europe as American citizens, especially when Paul gets a surprise trip to Washington DC were he is interrogated.

In addition, the movie Julie & Julia depicts Julia Child and her husband as staunch anti-McCarthyite Democrats who occasionally had disagreements with Julia's father about Joseph McCarthy. Paul Child was even questioned by federal investigators about whether he was a homosexual, a common practice during the McCarthy era, as depicted in the book The Lavender Scare. According to My Life in France, Julia Child's father wrote her a letter that said, "I think it's time you two [Julia Child and her husband] had a vacation at home and got the American idea and forget what the Socialistic element of Europe are trying to sell you."

Another hidden connection between the Red Scare and Julie & Julia can be found in the character of Avis DeVoto, Julia's pen pal who helps get publishers interested in Julia's cookbook. The movie does not emphasize this much, but Avis DeVoto was the wife of the writer, Bernard DeVoto, a New Deal liberal who ran afoul of the FBI before Joseph McCarthy was even elected to the Senate. (It is a point that doesn't get emphasized enough that anti-Communist witch hunts were in effect in the 1940s during the Truman Administration, a few years before Joseph McCarthy got to federal office.) Bernard DeVoto attracted the FBI's attention, because he wrote a column in October 1949 in Harper's Magazine mocking the FBI, titled "Due Notice to the FBI." I highly recommend reading the column, because it has just the right mixture of outrage over the violation of civil liberties lightened with humor and bemusement.

Even more interesting, when you consider Bernard DeVoto's connection to the movie Julie & Julia, is his depiction of how "foodie" behavior used to be viewed as a sign of Communist sympathies by J. Edgar Hoover's agents. In the column "Due Notice to the FBI," DeVoto depicts some of the ridiculous questions FBI agents would ask about their target's food preferences:
Does Harry S. Dewey belong to the Wine and Food Society? The Friends of Escoffier? Has he ever attended a meeting of either group? Does he associate with members of either? Has he even been present at a meeting of any kind, or at a party, at which a member of either was also present? Has he ever read Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste? Does he associate with people who have read it? Has he ever been present at a meeting or a party at which anyone who has read it was also present?

DeVoto also describes how the FBI used nosy neighbors to get information:
But Mr. Craig goes a few doors down the street and interviews Frances Perkins Green, who is a prohibitionist and has suffered from nervous indigestion for many years. She has seen truffles and artichokes and caviar in the Dewey garbage. The Deweys' maid has told Mrs. Green that they have porterhouses much oftener than frankforts, that they always have cocktails and frequently have wine, that sometimes cherries and peaches come all the way from Oregon by mail.

Cherries and peaches from Oregon, oh my! The right wing and its obsession with "latte liberalism" and the food preferences of its ideological opponents will never change, I suppose. Anyhow, the more I read about Bernard DeVoto, the more I like him. For his very funny column about the FBI, the FBI compiled a massive FBI file about him for his trouble. And all this happened, not because DeVoto was a Communist agent or any threat to national security, but because DeVoto simply believed in an America where people should mind their own business about their neighbors. As Devoto said,
I like a country where it's nobody's damn business what magazines anyone reads, what he thinks, whom he has cocktails with. I like a country where we do not have to stuff the chimney against listening ears and where what we say does not go into the FBI files along with a note from S-17 that I may have another wife in California.

It's a message we could do well to listen to today.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More on Reagan's Operation Coffee Cup


Here's a clipping from the November 2, 1966 issue of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown of California evidently made a campaign issue out of how Ronald Reagan used over-the-top rhetoric about totalitarianism in an attempt to squelch the creation of Medicare. Brown eventually lost reelection as governor of California to Ronald Reagan, but when I read the clipping, I am struck by how forcefully Brown was willing to call out alarmist right-wing rhetoric for the total crock of B.S. it was. If only some Congressional Democrats now had similar courage in dealing with right-wing nonsense...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wake Up & Smell the Coffee Cup

The recent right-wing temper tantrum over health care reform bears an interesting resemblance to this 1961 recording, Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine:



The LP was part of Operation Coffee Cup, an early 1960s campaign developed by public relations consultants for the American Medical Association in opposition to the creation of Medicare for seniors. On the LP, Reagan engages in gloom and doom rhetoric, warning his listeners that if they fail stop the creation of Medicare "you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free." Reagan not only warns that the government will command doctors where they can practice medicine, but that in the future, children will have their professions chosen for them by government schools.

Needless to say, Reagan's alarmist predictions turned out to have zero validity. In fact, Medicare has been so unobtrusively integrated into the fabric of American life that health care reform opponents are now engaged in widespread denial that Medicare is a government program. The same reactionary elements who cried socialism in opposition to Medicare in the early 1960s are now wailing against socialism while simultaneously claiming to be defending Medicare. The hypocrisy is galling, of course, but then again, I can see no better illustration of how conservatism consistently fails to accept when its premises have been disproven.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lou Dobbs and Horse Show Hypocrisy

This weekend my wife, my mother, and I went to the New Jersey State Fair. While I was there, I learned that fair included a horse show. According to my farm show brochure, one of the horse show events with the biggest prizes is the $10,000 Lou Dobbs Tonight Show Jumping Hall of Fame Amateur-Owner Classic, named after CNN commentator Lou Dobbs. Now what gets me is that Lou Dobbs claims to be this populist tribune of the middle class, but he obviously has lots of money to throw around on the economically elite hobby of amateur horse raising. According to this gossip column in the Philadelphia Daily News, Lou's daughter Hillary Dobbs won several awards at the Devon Horse Show shortly after finishing her finals at Harvard. Ironically, Hillary won those awards while riding a German pony paid with money that her father earns by bashing immigrants for stealing American jobs! (What happened, Mr. Buy American? American ponies not good enough for your daughter, Lou?)

Lou Dobbs went from being a pioneer of financial journalism on cable news to turning into an anti-immigrant blowhard and bully. Yet, as he gets richer jumping on the anti-immigrant bandwagon, he still funds a subculture of rich amateur horse enthusiasts who rely on illegal immigrant labor. According to Vicky Moon's book, A Sunday Horse: Inside the Grand Prix Show Jumping Circuit, "This melting pot of international equine aficionados does not include the countless numbers of illegal Spanish-speaking immigrants who shovel the 40 tons of poop a day." Yet no matter how much poop those show horses produce, it still doesn't stink as much as the hypocrisy of Lou Dobbs calling for the mass deportation of immigrants who have made his daughter's opulent lifestyle possible.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Henry Ford Funding Hitler


From page 4 of the December 19, 1922 issue of the Bridgeport Telegram.

American Axis: Henry Ford's Nazi Connection


I don't have much to add to this newspaper clipping, other than to mention that it was taken from page 4 of the December 28, 1922 issue of the Fort-Wayne News Sentinel. Evidently, rumors of Henry Ford's financing of Hitler were active as early as the 1920s, when there was simultaneously speculation about Henry Ford running as a candidate for president.

More Vintage Walter Cronkite


Here's another United Press story from Walter Cronkite's days as a correspondent with that wire service. It's dated March 11, 1941, from the Evansville Intelligencer. According to the story, the Czech figure skater Vera Hruba received 2600 marriage proposals after she was temporarily threatened with deportation from the United States. According to Miss Hruba, "I got a letter from a convict in Texas who said he had 14 more days to serve on a 10-year sentence for killing somebody, and that he'd be glad to marry me. Another said that he was 32, good-natured and handsome, but that he thought it was only fair to tell me that he was drunk all the time." For his own part, Cronkite describes Hruba as a "beautiful and shapely girl with a pronounced accent," a description you would most definitely not find most newspapers these days. Cronkite does not provide context about why Hruba fled Czechoslovakia to go the United States, but her Wikipedia entry states that Hitler asked her at the 1936 Olympics to "skate for the swastika." Miss Hruba then told Hitler that she would rather "skate on the swastika." Later on, after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, Hruba adopted the name Vera Ralston and had a brief movie career that lasted from the 1940s to the early 1950s.

Why No USS Bill Clinton?

The blog Lawyers, Guns, & Money has a great post about the politics of naming military warships. It turns out, no big surprise, that most of the military hardware is named after Republicans. Most of the Democrats who have ships named after them were Southern Democrats, typically of the segregationist variety, who are thankfully no longer part of the Democratic coalition. As one of the commenters noted, there isn't even a single warship named after a supporter of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. Before even considering naming an aircraft carrier after Barry Goldwater, we should commission the USS Lyndon Baines Johnson or the USS Bill Clinton first.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

America's Oldest Surviving Slave

Lately, I've been thinking lately about how the process of collective memory works. The older generation creates history. The next generation remembers that history. Then, as the older generation dies off, the history they created slowly fades away until nobody has any living memory of it.

I bring this up, because I find it amazing how close we are historically to the pre-Civil War era of slavery. In fact, the old age and death of most of the survivors of the antebellum slavery era may have been a necessary condition before the civil rights movement finally achieved its major victories in the 1960s.

One way to demonstrate how close we are historically to the institution of slavery is to examine the question of who was the last living African-American who was born a slave. The question may never have a truly definitive answer, because most slaves never had proper birth records. In practice, this meant that there were multiple candidates who claimed to be the last living American slave, but some candidates were more credible than others.

When Charlie Smith of Bartow, Florida died in 1979, he still claimed he was born in Liberia in 1862, then lured into slavery by an illegal slave ship. According to a thesis I found on the Internet, African American Longevity Advantage: Myth or Reality?, however, Mr. Smith's real age at death was closer to 100 or 105, according to marriage and census records. Since Mr. Smith's age would have placed his date of birth approximately sometime between 1874 and 1879, his claim to being a slave fell apart under the scrutiny.

The more plausible claimants to being the oldest slave in the United States were more likely to approach 110 years of age than to claim they were over 130 years old, as Charlie Smith did. In a 1951 issue of a North Carolina newspaper, I found a reference to Alfred Blackburn, who died at the age of 109, as the oldest surviving slave in the state of North Carolina, although not the United States as a whole. In addition, I found a second story from 1966 about a women named Mary Walker from Chattanooga, Tennessee who was certified as "America's oldest student" when she learned to read at the age of approximately 116 years old. According to the article, she outlived a son who died in his nineties, so her claim is definitely the most credible I've seen. Even if she was "merely" 110 years old at the time, it's possible that she would still be the most credible claimant to being the world's oldest slave. In fact, according to this article from a Chattanooga paper that I found on an African-American genealogical bulletin board, Mary Walker even had a family Bible where she recorded the births of her children, which could verify her story.

The last claimant I could find came from an ad I found on Amazon.com for a very rare commemorative booklet that was given out at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Unfortunately, the booklet is no longer for sale, but the old listing states that there was a collage dedicated to Josephus, a man whom the march organizers designated as the "last living slave" in the United States (although Mary Walker was still alive in 1963 as well).

In the final analysis, it may not matter that we don't have a definitive answer about the last surviving slave in the United States. What matters is that there are centenarians who have not only endured centuries of discrimination, but thrived. Perhaps what matters is not who was the oldest surviving slave, but that the oldest slave long outlive the oldest slavemaster.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Blue Dog Origins

The efforts of Blue Dog Democrats at stalling health care reform have inspired me to look into the origins of the Blue Dog caucus. One of the founders of the Blue Dog Democrats was Billy Tauzin, who later became a Republican in 1995, one year after founding the Blue Dog caucus. As if Tauzin's willingness to shift partisan loyalties with the political winds wasn't damning enough, his career after leaving Congress is even more maddening. According to Tauzin's Wikipedia entry,
While recovering from a difficult fight with cancer, on January 3, 2005, the same day he left Congress, Tauzin began work as the head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, a powerful trade group for pharmaceutical companies.

It was reported that they had offered more than $2.5 million per year for his services, outbidding the Motion Picture Association of America, which had offered Tauzin $1 million to lobby for it.
In other words, Tauzin didn't merely sell out to the pharmaceutical industry. He was the pharmaceutical industry. Democrats need to pressure Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Max Baucus (D-MT) to make sure that campaign contributions from the health care industry don't lead those men down a similar career path.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Vintage Shaggs Ad


From the December 18, 1969 issue of the Porstmouth Herald in New Hampshire.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Birth of Psychedelic Music?


In the October 24, 1965 issue of the Oakland Tribune, I found a theater listing with one of the earliest references to the term "psychedelic music" in print. According to the schedule listing, the Open Theatre in Berkeley was planning to host an evening of "psychedelic music" by Malachi and the Jazz Mice, featuring Jeanne Lee. The "Malachi" is probably the same Malachi who released the album Holy Music on Verve Records. Information on the Jazz Mice is rather sketchy, but they appear to be the same group as the Jazz Mice Septet mentioned on this vintage poster. Some more digging on Google reveals that the leader of the Jazz Mice was Ian Underwood, who would later have a long career as a sideman for Frank Zappa. Given Zappa's antipathy to drug use, I wonder what Zappa thought of Underwood's psychedelic musical experimentation before joining the Mothers Invention.

Did Henry Louis Gates Tell a Cop "Yo Mama"?

After the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for allegedly breaking into his own house (?!?), the arresting officer Sgt. James Crowley filed a report claiming that he asked Professor Gates to step outside, at which point Prof. Gates replied "Ya, I'll speak with your mama outside." At first, I thought that the arresting officer was engaging in a little dramatic license (i.e., lying) by adding some street slang to his police report in a shallow attempt to make Gates look like a scary, bad black man.

There's certainly precedent for it. When I used to live in the Philadelphia area, the argument over whether the black nationalist Mumia Abu-Jamal shot the Caucasian police officer Daniel Faulkner was an extremely hot topic. Proponents of Abu-Jamal's guilt and execution often cited Officer Gary Wakshul's testimony that Abu-Jamal said at the hospital, "I shot the m*therf*cker, and I hope he dies." On the other hand, Wakshul's testimony contradicted an earlier report filed by Wakshul himself, which stated "the Negro male made no statement," mostly like because Abu-Jamal was comatose from a bullet wound at the time. In this light, Waskshul's testimony about Abu-Jamal calling a white cop a "m*therf*cker" may have been Wakshul's attempt to put "black street slang" falsely into Mumia Abu-Jamal's mouth in order to sublimininally portray Abu-Jamal as a scary black nationalist cop-killer.

A similar force may have been at work when Sgt. Crowley attributed "I'll speak with your mama outside." to Henry Louis Gates. But then again, is it possible that Henry Louis Gates actually said that? Part of me wants to believe he said that anyway, because I don't necessarily think it reflects badly on him, and I think it would be such a hilarious crotchety and curmudgeonly thing for a professor in his sixties to say to a cop. I mean to say, if you were harassed on your property by a cop, don't you think the cop might deserve a little sassmouth?

Then again, did the reference to "your mama" have anything to do with Henry Louis Gates and his career as a theorist of African-American literary criticism? Gates may be most well-known now for doing Oprah's genealogy, but the book that made his academic reputation was The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, which stressed the importance of African-American vernacular traditions like playing the dozens and insult games involving "yo mama" jokes. As the commenter "mistersquid" noted at Metafilter,
Henry Louis Gates references Clarence Major’s Dictionary of Afro-American Slang, which compares signifyin(g) to the “Dirty Dozens,” “an elaborate game traditionally played by black boys, in which the participants insult each other’s relatives, especially their mothers. The object of the game is to test emotional strength. The first person to give in is the loser” (qtd. in Gates 68).

So, there you have it. Either the cop was "blacking up" his report in order to make a African-American Harvard professor look bad, or Henry Louis Gates was engaging in literary criticism mind games with the cop who tried to arrest him. Either way, it's indicative of the fascination that African-American vernacular English holds for both blacks and whites in this country.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Walter Cronkite as Cub Reporter at Forgotten Tragedy


I went searching in my online newspaper archives for some early newspaper articles by the late, beloved Walter Cronkite. In the process, I found this gem, a 1937 article about an oilfield explosion in Texas that demolished a nearby school and left 425 children dead. The event is known as the New London explosion, one of the biggest disasters of the New Deal era, but almost completely forgotten today (even among "disaster trivia" junkies like myself). What strikes me the most about the article is how well-written the article Walter Cronkite wrote is, even though Cronkite was only a 21-year-old junior reporter at the time. Cronkite was hailed for his gravitas (an overused word if I ever heard one) as an older man, but you can actually see traces of that gravitas when he was only 21. Take these final paragraphs from Cronkite's article:
One hour and 20 minutes after the explosion, a cablegram came from Venezuela, from a father who had entrusted his children to his brother. "Tell me the truth," it said, "Are Bob and Vera safe?"

The brother wanted to reply truthfully, but even today he could not. The children were among the missing, neither listed as dead or injured. Perhaps the next brick pulled from the wreckage would tell."

You may think of Cronkite as just an old talking head on the television, but damn that man could write. Too bad they don't make newspaper men like him any more. As Cronkite later admitted in a 1977 interview, "I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it."

Friday, July 17, 2009

The History of Bias Accusations in Supreme Court Appointments

I just found an article by Alexander Tsesis with some great historical tidbits about accusations of bias in Supreme Court nominations. Some highlights from the article include:

  • When Roger Taney was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the early 19th century, a newspaper editorial "lashed out against "Episcopalians and other Christian sects," for being "alarmed at the idea of making a Catholic, (Mr. Taney,) the Chief Justice of the United States" and conjuring up the chimera "of the Pope’s ruling the conscience of the Chief Justice."

  • When Woodrow Wilson appointed Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, a newspaper accused President Wilson of pandering to "Jewish, pro-German and labor votes."

  • LBJ's appointment of Thurgood Marshall was intended as a move to decrease the popularity of the Black Power movement. Marshall had previously given a speech in 1966 that denounced the movement for "Jim Crow thinking."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Liberals Can Learn from Kirk's Canons of Conservatism

They say that people who do not know the arguments of their opponents do not completely know their own. In this respect, I feel that my engagement with Russell Kirk and his six canons of conservatism has strengthened my appreciation for liberalism. In this respect, I offer the following six "counter-canons" as a defense of liberalism in response to Russell Kirk.

(1) Liberalism should acknowledge that disorder exists in the world, but that human beings have the capacity to bring order to that world. We should humble enough to realize that nobody can know everything there is to know in the universe, but we should also encourage the accumulation of more knowledge, rather than wallow in our relative ignorance. The acquisition of knowledge by a society is a collective endeavor in which all members of society should participate, instead of limiting our knowledge to what the people at the top of an arbitrary social hierarchy can see. Evil exists in the world, but we must use our reason to figure how to combat that evil, instead of letting dualistic black vs. white thinking to give us a pretext to become evil ourselves.

(2) The increase of equality in a society should co-exist with the expansion of diversity and pluralism. Human beings have the capacity to use logic to make a better society, but our use of logic should be tempered by warmth and empathy. We can enjoy the diverse traditions of older, less equal societies, but that does not mean we have to accept all aspects of the society that produced those traditions.

(3) Civilization requires self-control, but humans are more likely to learn self-control if they are treated with equality and dignity, instead of thrown to the mercies of a punitive hierarchical society.

(4) Private property can promote autonomy and help preserve freedom, but it is insufficient by itself to make a free society. Social stability and economic efficiency is more likely to develop when large numbers of people have the opportunity to have property of their own than when all property is concentrated in the hands of a few. Some economic inequality might be tolerable, but only if it improves the condition of the least well-off members of society.

(5) The best method for solving societal problems is to look at the examples that both scientific models and historical models provide, while still encouraging all members of society to participating in problem-solving and the generation of new knowledge. If scientific models are too abstract to apply to real life, we still have history to rely on, but unlike the "tradition" embraced by conservatives, history has the added benefit of being true.

(6) Whenever we contemplate social change, we must always contemplate how fast we are willing to have that change occur and how the speed of change influences our adjustment to that change. What matters most is how we adjust to change, whether we do so rationally, empathetically, and without violence. If the demands of rationality, empathy, and social tranquility it, in some cases, the preservation of society will require an acceleration in the rate of social change.

Refuting the Canons of Conservatism, Part VI

Russell Kirk's sixth canon of conservatism states:
Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.

This canon of conservatism touches on the age-old question about what is the proper speed of social change.

Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.

This sentence hints at the conservative fear of "revolution," especially revolution on the model of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Although the French and Russian Revolution were especially bloody examples of revolution, the intrinsic trait of "revolution" is not violence, but the speed of change. In other words, "revolution" refers to extremely rapid social change, in contrast to "evolution," which refers to slow, methodical social change. The fear that "hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress" is the fear that excessively speedy changes may end up destroying more than they create.

There is nothing wrong with opposing unnecessary socially destructive change, but conservatives haven't successfully proven that they are the best people to deal with change. Conservatives are especially wrongheaded when it comes to gradual changes that undermine the hierarchical ordering of society. At first glance, conservatives should have nothing to object to. As long as the hierarchical ordering of society is undermined by gradual change and not "hasty innovation," why should conservatives see any harm? But the problem is that conservatives do seem harm in it, because they are obsessed with Godly order and a hierarchically ordered conception of society. If Godly order and hierarchical society is at issue, conservatives will blithely disregard there fear of "hasty innovation" and use whatever innovations they can find to help get society back to a more unequal state. Conservatives claim to oppose rapid changes that lead to destruction, but they don't really mean it. Conservative counterrevolution can be just as destructive as radical revolution, if the great masses of people are not given the opportunity to peacefully adapt to the change.

Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.

At this point, Kirk accepts the inevitability of social change, but argues that the change should only be implemented with the goal of "social preservation." The problem is that "social preservation" is not necessarily preserved by statesmen "taking Providence into his calculations," as Kirk advises. (And don't forget that Kirk refers to "statesmen," not leaders of both genders. This is not an oversight.)

If a statesman is a conservative in the mode of Russell Kirk and "takes Providence into his caluclations," he will assume (as mentioned in the first canon of conservatism) that God has ordered the universe and that this order must be hierarchical (as assumed in the third canon of conservatism). As shown in Part I, the assumption that God has ordered the universe will often lead to the persecution of groups associated with social change for being un-Godly. As shown in Part III, the assumption that civilization requires hierarchical orders can easily be used as justification for the strong abusing the weak. Thus, the hypothetical conservative statesman will not produce the peaceful adjustment to gradual change, but instead will react to change with the persecution of society's weakest members.

Refuting the Canons of Conservatism, Part V

Kirk's fifth canon of conservatism states:
Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

The first sentence gets at the source of the anti-scientific bias that lies at the heart of conservative philosophy.

Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.

This sentence summarizes the conservative critique that liberal reformers want to change society based on abstract, pseudoscientific models that bear little relationship to reality. The problem is that conservatives want to replace systematic, scientific methods for finding truth with "custom, convention, and old prescription." Some conventions are useful and should be preserved, but other customs and conventions are rooted in widely believed falsehoods. We may reject science when it becomes excessively abstract, but that does not mean we should replace it with old customs that might be based on a foundation of lies.

The problem with conservatism is that it mistakes traditions for historical truths. Instead of basing our actions on tradition, we should base our actions in history, which unlike tradition, has the added attraction of being true.

Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

Old traditions and customs cannot necessarily guarantee control over a man's anarchic impulses especially if those traditions are rooted hiearchical ideals that justify the mistreatment of the weak by the strong. As already discussed in Part III, a hierarchical society does not necessarily lead to a civilized society. In fact, it may lead to the exact opposite, because a hierarchical society does not respect the need for an equality of self-control among citizens. Instead, these hierarchical societies always seem to leave an opportunity for the people at the top to "take liberties" with the people at the bottom.

The other conservative argument is that liberal reformers with their abstract designs for making society have an insatiable "lust for power" that can only be restrained by custom. The problem with this argument is that not all traditions are true. As the book the Invention of Tradition indicates, we often do not know if a tradition is genuinely truthful or not. Some traditions were purely invented by people in the past who found the traditions useful at the time. The fact that a fake tradition was once useful for people in the past does not mean that we should retain it now, and it certainly does not possess any magical power to ward off people's "lust for power." The United States is lucky that its traditions, such as checks-and-balances, have successfully limited the "lust for power," but not all societies can make the same claim (e.g., German political traditions before the Nazi era).

Refuting the Canons of Conservatism, Part IV

Russell Kirk's fourth canon of conservatism states:
Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

The first sentence focuses on the implications that a society's system of property rights has for the amount of political freedoms in that society:

Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked:

Private property can provide human beings with the wherewithal and resources to exercise their freedoms in even the most unfree societies. There is nothing wrong with conservatives insisting this. After all, what is freedom of the press if the government won't let you buy paper or a printing press? On the other hand, conservatives are mistaken, because they often make the assumption that private property can cause the growth of political freedom all by itself. There are many societies in both the past (e.g., the South before the Civil War, medieval Europe) and the present (e.g., the authoritarian government of Singapore) that have given wide latitude to property owners, yet still remain unfree for a majority of their citizens. Private property may be necessary for the exercise of freedom, but it is not sufficient to make a free society on its own.

...separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.

The philosophy associating regulation of private property with Leviathan government is the source of the extreme laissez-faire conservative point of view that even the most minor economic regulations (e.g., zoning laws) or government enterprises (e.g., the post office) will lead to a downward slide into totalitarian government. The only problem with this claim is that conservatives are notoriously fuzzy in explaining how regulation of private property would lead totalitarian government, at the same time that they ignore the many examples of authoritarian governments (e.g., Nazi Germany) that still respected private property. (In fact, the Nazi regime actually increased privatization of state-owned enterprises, when compared to the semi-democratic Weimar Republic it replaced. In addition, when the Nazis expropriated the property of Jews, they returned much of it to the public as private property, as the book Hitler's Willing Beneficiaries indicates.)

Another counterexample to conservative claims about private property would be primitive indigenous societies, where property is held collectively instead of individually. Conservatives may not want the "freedom" of living in primitive conditions, but most of these primitive societies are not sufficiently developed to create a Leviathan government of the kind that more modern societies are capable of producing. Instead, in practice, the conservative insistence on property rights as a guarantor of freedom and civilization has historically been used to justify the seizure of lands from indigenous societies (e.g., the theft of land from the American Indians), because those indigenous people did not have the "correct" system of property rights.

Conservatives are correct that private property allows individuals to exercise their autonomy vis-a-vis their government, but they neglect how the distribution of private property influences relationships between individuals with and without property. Since conservatives are generally unconcerned with the distribution of private property (as long as private property stays "private"), they make no moral or political distinction between a society in which all property is monopolized by one person vs. a society where many different types of people have many different types of property. Conservatives make no distinction between those two types of social arrangements, but liberals understand that the latter type of society is more likely to achieve justice, harmony, and social stability.

Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

The reference to "levelling" is extremely similar to the insistence in Kirk's third canon of conservatism that increasing equality leads to "equality of servitude." The relevant historical reference is a political movement from 16th century England called the Levellers. Although Oliver Cromwell accused the Levellers of wanting to reduce everyone to the same level of poverty, in reality, the Levellers were primarily a political movement focused on religious toleration and expanding the right to vote, not economic issues. Like Russell Kirk, Oliver Cromwell used fear and exaggerated claims about his opponents in the attempt to squelch a movement for the expansion of equality.

Now that we know the historical context, we must ask, "Is it true?" The comparative experience of the United States and Europe suggests that the answer is No. Economic researchers have shown that societies with a high degree of economic equality are often more economically efficient than unequal societies, not less. When resources are only in the hands of a limited few, the people at the bottom of the economic hierarchy will not have the opportunities to develop their talents and abilities in a manner that contributes to the economy. When resources are widely distributed to people at many different income levels, the economic contributions made by people at the bottom of the hierarchy will increase, because they now finally have the resources to make something of themselves.

An excellent answer for balancing the concerns of economic equity and economic efficiency comes from the philosophy of John Rawls. John Rawls acknowledges that some inequality may be necessary, but only if the inequality leads to everybody in society being better off than they otherwise would have been. Rawls refers to this as the maximin criterion, whereby the goal is to "maximize" the welfare of the people at the "minimum" bottom position in the social and economic hierarchy. In this respect, the liberal maximin principle reflects the Biblical injunction that "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

Refuting the Canons of Conservatism, Part III

Russell Kirk's third canon of conservatism states:

Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society." With reason, conservatives have been called "the party of order." If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

Let's break down the quote again.

Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society."

As this quote indicates, conservatives believe that hiearchically ordered societies are more civilized than societies that are less hierarchical. The original source of this philosophy comes from an idea that dates back all the way to the ancient Greeks, the Great Chain of Being. The basic idea behind the Great Chain of Being is that God has created the universe in a hierarchical order (which is also consistent with Kirk's first canon of conservatism) and that God has ranked all the animals and creatures of the universe within that hierarchical order. Even among humans, the philosophy of the Great Chain of Being insists that all humanity has been placed by God within a linear upward hierarchy, with the lowliest people at the bottom and society's most powerful people at the top (where they allegedly sit closer to God).

The problem with the Great Chain of Being as a model for organizing society is that it doesn't accurately describe either the biological or the social world. Since the early 19th century and the discoveries of the biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, we now know that the better scientific model for describing the animal kingdom is not an unbroken hierarchical linear chain, but a tree with different animal species represented by offshoots on different limbs and branches. Neither God nor Mother Nature nor Darwinian evolution wastes time wondering whether a badger or a walrus places higher in some mythical Great Chain of Being. And if the Great Chain of Being doesn't work as a model for the natural world, its applicability to the social world is also doubtful.

In addition, we know from history that hierarchical societies are not necessarily more civilized. As the sociologist Norbert Elias has shown in his work, The Civilizing Process, civilization is a long, gradual process whereby people learn to gain control over their own natural impulses. Historically speaking, hierarchical societies have often been physically punitive societies (e.g., the American South under slavery, Spain under the Spanish Inquisition) that punish people with the whip, the rack, and the thumbscrew. These punishments are effective at inflicting pain, but they do nothing to teach improved self-control. Once the punishment is removed, the victim is free to lose control once again.

We also know historically that the leaders of aristocratic societies could often be characterized by decadence and a definite lack of self-control, because there were no checks and balances, nobody above them in the hierarchy, to place a check on their power. Think of the aristocrats of Restoration-era England. Think of the slaveowning aristocrats of the antebellum South who harassed white servants and female slaves alike. Even Thomas Jefferson couldn't keep his hands off Sally Hemings. Conservatives like to claim that hierarchical order leads to a more civilized society, but in reality, it simply allows our era's version of the aristocracy to run amok without consequence.

Another problem with the conservative insistence on hierarchally ordered societies is that hierarchical societies are inefficient for the production and circulation of new knowledge. Conservatives are correct to insist on humility. There is much that civilization has learned about the social and natural world, but there is also much that we do not know. The problem is that conservatism makes it more difficult to build upon what we do know. Everyone's perspective of the world has flaws in it. Everyone's perspective of the world is incomplete. The only way that humanity as a whole can learn more about its own world is if it respects the knowledge contributed by everyone, not simply the people at the top of an arbitrary social hierarchy.

With reason, conservatives have been called "the party of order."

Another major flaw in the reasoning behind conservative philosophy is that conservatives conflate two conceptually distinct meanings of the word "order." One meaning of "order" refers to the placement of people or things into different places or positions. Conservatives want to insist that "order" should be hierarchical, but objects can be arranged in an "order" without necessarily placing them in a hierarchy. (For example, if you "order" your living room, you don't necessarily worry about what hierarchical status your armchair has in relation to your sofa.) Another meaning of "order" refers to social tranquility and freedom from violence and disruption. What conservatives do is simply assert that these two definitions of "order" have a causal connection to one another, because the word that refers to both concepts is the same. As we have shown above, this reasoning is flawed, because historical examples have shown (e.g., the antebellum South, Spain under the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany) that societies can be highly ordered in the hierarchical sense yet still subject people to death and destruction. Playing games with word definition is no substitute for historical argument, and it is no basis for a political philosophy either.

If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum.

Once again, this blanket statement is refuted by numerous historical examples. You need merely look at all the societies that have transitioned successfully from monarchy to democracy. Monarchy in Europe persisted for millennia, based on a divine right of kings rooted in the very same idea of "natural distinction" praised by Kirk. Yet when these monarchies collapsed (as in Italy after World War II) or gradually lost their power (as in modern-day Great Britain), these societies did not become more oligarchical, but rather they became more democratic. Kirk claims to be concerned that oligarchy will develop, but the real conservative fear is that democracy will flourish.

Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

The reference to "equality of servitude" comes from 18th century historian Edward Gibbon's The Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon stated, "The Romans had aspired to be equal; they were levelled by the equality of servitude." Conservatives love to cite Edward Gibbon, because he has so many juicy quotes heralding the collapse of society, even though almost no respectable academic historian would quote Gibbon without mentioning the centuries of historical research that has since superseded him. For example, Gibbon argued that Roman laws encouraging social equality had forced aristocrats into a position of servitude in an increasingly autocratic Roman Empire. In reality, according to an essay by James Howard-Johnston in the book Edward Gibbon and Empire, aristocrats still had considerable political power during the decline of the Roman Empire. According Howard-Johnston, Gibbon went "far astray" from the historical record on this point, and he had little knowledge (that later historians would have) about how Roman law shaped the social relationships between powerful aristocratic families and the rest of the Roman population.

A related argument is that laws to reduce social inequality lead to an "equality of boredom." This is related to Kirk's argument for a "conservatism of enjoyment," based in the aesthetic contemplation of old social traditions. Or, to put it more simply, Kirk views equality as more boring than inequality and disfavors it on aesthetic grounds. The problem with this argument is that Kirk underestimates the ability of human beings to compartmentalize. We can aesthetically enjoy some of the products of old social traditions (e.g., Chartres cathedral, the Egyptian pyramids), but that still does not oblige us to revive the hierarchical and punitive societies that made those products.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Refuting the Canons of Conservatism, Part II

The second of Russell Kirk's six canons of conservatism identifies the second major component of conservative ideology as follows:

Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society. This prejudice has been called "the conservatism of enjoyment"--a sense that life is worth living, according to Walter Bagehot "the proper source of an animated conservatism."

Like my previous post, I will focus on interpreting each sentence in order to make this philosophical statement less intimidating.

Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems

The major contrast highlighted in this statement is between the "variety and mystery of human existence" and "narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims." To put the contrast in simpler terms, the conservative philosophical argument claims that the pursuit of greater equality (what Kirk calls "egalitarianism") leads to a society of "narrowing uniformity" in which everyone is pressured to be the same. Historical experience shows that this is not true. In the United States, equality has increased over time, with the expansion of civil rights to previously unrepresented groups, such as Native Americans, blacks, and women. At the same time, this increase in equality has not led to blandness and uniformity, but rather this has made our society more pluralistic and diverse. Instead of limiting themselves to meat and potatoes, the citizen of an increasingly egalitarian American society has the option of choosing anything from chow mein to soul food to burritos. Instead of the monochromatic gray flannel suit of the pre-civil-rights era of the 1950s, our egalitarian American society has become more colorful, not less. Conservatives claim to defend the "variety and mystery" in life, yet somehow when increasing multiculturalism and diversity create new forms of "variety and mystery" in our lives, the conservatives are typically multiculturalism's most steadfast opponents.

Another argument hidden in the previous sentence is the belief that increasing equality (i.e., "egalitarianism") promotes narrow "utilitarian aims." In other words, this conservative philosophical position argues that greater equality leads to a distressingly utilitarian society that judges people according to usefulness, not their inherent worth as human beings. Again, this argument does not hold up when contrasted against historical examples. When American society was at its most unequal, it tolerated both the slavery of African-Americans and the genocide of Native Americans. In both slavery and Indian genocide, an inegalitarian society denied the inherent worth and dignity of human beings for utilitarian reasons. Enslaved African-Americans were judged based on their ability to pick cotton or plow fields, not for their value as human beings. Similarly, Native Americans were murdered through a program of systematic genocide, because settlers considered Indian tribal lands more valuable than the people who originally lived on them. If anything, increasing equality in American society has forced everyone to confer worth on a greater array of people than when society had less equality.

conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society.

Robert Graves is best known for the book, I, Claudius, and his memoir of World War I, Goodbye to All That, but the reference to "Logicalism" comes from a science fiction novel Graves wrote called Watch the North Wind. The book is now out of print, but Russell Kirk discusses Robert Graves and Logicalism at length in a lecture he gave entitled Civilization Without Religion?:
The author of my parable, however, is not Chesterton, but a quite different writer, the late Robert Graves, whom I once visited in Mallorca I have in mind Graves's romance Seven Days in New Crete-published in America under the title Watch the North Wind Rise.

In that highly readable romance of a possible future, we are told that by the close of the "Late Christian epoch" the world will have fallen altogether, after a catastrophic war and devastation, under a collectivistic domination, a variant of Communism. Religion, the moral imagination, and nearly everything that makes life worth living have been virtually extirpated by ideology and nuclear war. A system of thought and government called Logicalism, "pantisocratic economics divorced from any religious or national theory," rules the world-for a brief time.

In Graves's words:

Logicalism, hinged on international science, ushered in a gloomy and anti-poetic age. It lasted only a generation or two and ended with a grand defeatism, a sense of perfect futility, that slowly crept over the directors and managers of the regime. The common man had triumphed over his spiritual betters at last, but what was to follow? To what could he look forward with either hope or fear? By the abolition of sovereign states and the disarming of even the police forces, war had become impossible. No one who cherished any religious beliefs whatever, or was interested in sport, poetry, or the arts, was allowed to hold a position of public responsibility. "Ice-cold logic" was the most valued civic quality, and those who could not pretend to it were held of no account. Science continued laboriously to expand its over-large corpus of information, and the subjects of research grew more and more beautifully remote and abstract; yet the scientific obsession, so strong at the beginning of the third millennium A. D., was on the wane. Logicalist officials who were neither defeatist nor secretly religious and who kept their noses to the grindstone from a sense of duty, fell prey to colobromania, a mental disturbance....

Rates of abortion and infanticide, of suicide, and other indices of social boredom rise with terrifying speed under this Logicalist regime. Gangs of young people go about robbing, beating, and murdering, for the sake of excitement. It appears that the human race will become extinct if such tendencies continue; for men and women find life not worth living under such a domination. The deeper longings of humanity have been outraged, so that the soul and the state stagger on the verge of final darkness. But in this crisis an Israeli Sophocrat writes a book called A Critique of Utopias, in which he examines seventy Utopian writings, from Plato to Aldous Huxley. "We must retrace our steps," he concludes, "or perish." Only by the resurrection of religious faith, the Sophocrats discover, can mankind be kept from total destruction; and that religion, as Graves describes it in his romance, springs from the primitive soil of myth and symbol.

Graves really is writing about our own age, not of some remote future: of life in today's United States and today's Soviet Union. He is saying that culture arises from the cult; and that when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order rests upon the spiritual order.

For the moment, let's put aside questions about the applicability and advisability of using an out-of-print science fiction novel as a guidebook for designing society. Kirk's basic idea is that, if a society relies excessively on logic and rationality, it will become "anti-poetic" and anything that doesn't have a "rational" value (such as arts or sports or religion) will wither and die. Part of Kirk's fallacy is that he assumes that logic must be cold and impersonal. As feminist philosophers, such as Martha Nussbaum, have argued, the idea that rationality and logic must be "cold" is based on cultural stereotypes about "cold" masculine emotions, which were used to link rationality with masculinity. In reality, logic can function perfectly well in conjunction with emotional warmth and empathy, whether that empathy is expressed by men or by women. The only reason that empathy and logic are often considered mutually exclusive is due to the flawed sexist assumption that "feminine" empathy cannot coexist with rationality.

On the other hand, even if we grant Kirk's assumption that logic is cold and unemotional, we cannot assume that logic destroys the poetic aspects of life. Logic has given us physics, biology, and chemistry, the sciences that have provided us with modern conveniences of life. As a result of these modern conveniences, human beings actually have more space in their lives for arts, sports, poetry, religion etc., instead of whiling away their hours toiling in the dirt for the tiniest scraps of subsistence living.

This prejudice has been called "the conservatism of enjoyment"--a sense that life is worth living, according to Walter Bagehot "the proper source of an animated conservatism.

Tracking down the sources of Russell Kirk's literary allusions can be a full-time job. The constant quotations to the canons of Western literature serve the same purpose in intimidating his secular readers that Biblical quotations do for a more religious readership. In this case, the quotations come from Walter Bagehot, a British essayist of the late Victorian era who was also a fervent cheerleader of the British Conservative party. Here is the relevant source of the term, "the proper source of an animated conservatism."

The political sentiment is part of the character; the essence of Toryism is enjoyment. Talk of the ways of spreading a wholesome Conservatism throughout this country! Give painful lectures, distribute weary tracts (and perhaps this is as well, — you may be able to give an argumentative answer to a few objections, you may diffuse a distinct notion of the dignified dullness of politics); but as far as communicating and establishing your creed are concerned, try a little pleasure. The way to keep up old customs is, to enjoy old customs; the way to be satisfied with the present state of things is, to enjoy that state of things. Over the "Cavalier" mind this world passes with a thrill of delight; there is an exultation in a daily event, zest in the "regular thing," joy at an old feast. Sir Walter Scott is an example of this: every habit and practice of old Scotland was inseparably in his mind associated with genial enjoyment; to propose to touch one of her institutions, to abolish one of those practices, was to touch a personal pleasure,— a point on which his mind reposed, a thing of memory and hope. So long as this world is this world, will a buoyant life bo the proper source of an animated Conservatism.

Bagehot argues that the most effective way to spread conservatism is not "painful lectures," "weary tracts," or "the dignified dullness of politics," but to encourage people to find pleasure in experiencing old customs. The problem with this principle is that some customs (slavery, for example) were built for the enjoyment of one group at the expense of another. I do not know if Bagehot or Kirk would acknowledge this flaw, but if they did, they could come back with this counterargument. Even if some groups suffer from another person's enjoyment of a custom, these customs are embedded in a web of other customs that cannot be separated from one another without destroying all of the customs at once. Again, this counterargument does not hold up to historical evidence. I can enjoy the awe-inspiring beauty of a medieval European building like Chartres Cathedral, yet still deplore the medieval feudalism that built it. I can enjoy the smell of magnolia trees on a Southern plantation, yet deplore the system of slavery that created it.

In fact, there is no evidence that conservatives make better preservationists of the world's cultural legacy than liberals do. If we go back to Part I of this series, you will remember that conservatives believe in a model of Godly order that can be used to justify violence against people and things that are labeled as disordered or un-Godly. When Muslims during the Crusades destroyed the library at Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, they did so because they wanted to keep their culture from being disordered by un-Godly, non-Islamic influences. When Girolamo Savonarola and other Catholic officials burned precious paintings and harpsichords during the Counterreformation in the 15th century (as part of the original "bonfire of the vanities"), they did so because they wanted to ward off un-Godly, non-Catholic influences. Chartres Cathedral is still here for the world to see, but we don't need to oppress the serfs in order to enjoy it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Refuting the Canons of Conservatism, Part I

When I go to the Politics section of my local bookstore, I find a major difference between the books aimed at liberals and those aimed at conservatives. The liberal books typically focus on critiquing conservative politicians or critiquing the results of this or that conservative policy. The conservative books, on the other hand, often focus on critiquing liberalism as a whole: Michael Savage's Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder, Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism, Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, etc. etc. Although I view most of these conservative books as a blight on public discourse, they highlight the effectiveness of critiquing your opponents' entire ideological system of beliefs, instead of engaging in ad hoc criticism of this or that policy. In this spirit, I have decided to look at the philosophical core of what conservatism really is and focus on how to refute conservatism as a system, instead of merely a random collection of policies and personalities.

The best and most succinct summation I could find of traditionalist conservative views is found in Russell Kirk's book, The Conservative Mind. In the introduction to this book, Kirk lays out what may be called the Six Canons of Conservatism, a series of six short statements explaining the core of traditionalist conservative ideology. By focusing on these six canons, I aim to refute the fallacies of conservatism, explain why conservative leads to negative consequences, and illustrate what liberals can learn by taking conservative ideology seriously.

In this blog post, I begin by critiquing the first of Russell Kirk's six canons of conservatism. Subsequent blog posts in series will be devoted to refuting the other five canons.

Russell Kirk identifies the first canon of conservatism as follows:

Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs. ‘Every Tory is a realist,’ says Keith Feiling: ‘he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man’s philosophy cannot plumb or fathom.’ True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.


Conservative rhetorical strategy often uses complex, flowery, and high-flown rhetoric to mask the nature of the real world and intimidate potential ideological opponents. To make Russell Kirk's first canon of conservatism less intimidating to the reader, I will critique the canon one sentence at a time.

Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.

The references to "transcendent order" and "natural law" are typical of secular conservatives who want to appeal to a higher supernatural authority, but who personally don't have much comfort with "God talk" themselves. Belief in God doesn't necessarily make somebody a conservative, but what kind of God do conservatives believe in? If Kirk is correct, then conservatives not only believe in God (or some other similarly "transcendent" being), but they assume that God has a role in establishing "law" and "order" over the world. (In this view, the conservative God becomes akin to a sheriff of the cosmos.) The order created by God does not merely influence humanity on the level of individual conscience, but "rules society as well as conscience."

But if God rules society, how do we know who should rule on God's behalf? In the history of all the major world religions, God moves farther and farther away from the people who worship him. In Judaism, Yahweh has always been distant, and the Messiah is yet to come. In Christianity, Jesus was crucified, rose from the dead, then ascended into heaven in the 1st century AD. In Islam, Muhammad ascended into heaven in the 7th century AD. Believers guide themselves according to the Talmud, the Bible, or the Koran, but in many situations, believers cannot agree on the basic question, "What does God want?" And if God is not issuing any clarifications about his desires, then the potential for demagogues claiming to speak on God's behalf becomes much too great.

Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.

What does it mean to say that all political problems are religious problems? The previous sentence emphasizes that God creates order in the universe. If all political problems are religious problems, then challenges to the political order must be viewed as challenges to the order created by God. According to this version of conservatism, anyone who challenges any aspect of the current political order is not merely impractical or wrongheaded, but evil for committing disobedience against God.

By linking the political order with the supernatural order created by God, conservatives promote both dualism and demonization. Eventually, conservatives begin to believe that they are on the side of the angels, and everybody else is in league with the devil. (For some conservatives, this belief is metaphorical rather than literal, but the consequences are often the same.)

One consequence of this dualistic view of humanity is an increased level of violence in society. According to the sociologist Gary Jensen, in the article Religious Cosmologies and Homicide Rates Among Nations, nations with high percentages of people who adhere to dualistic religious beliefs have higher rates of homicide than nations where the population has more non-dualistic beliefs. To be specific, if a nation had a high percentage of people who believed strongly in the existence of both God and the Devil, then the nation also tended to have a high rate of homicide. By contrast, societies with non-dualistic religious beliefs (i.e., nations with a high percentage of people believing in God, but only weak belief in the devil) had low homicide rates. By characterizing political problems as religious problems, conservatives thereby encourage people to go out hunting for metaphorical devils and demons, thus making it more acceptable to settle political problems through violence.

In addition, Kirk's canon of conservatism suggests that conservatives have a problem reconciling the existence of a God-ordained social order with the presence of evil in the world. If God is intimately involved with how our society structures its political order, then why is there so much evil in the world? Doesn't the existence of evil imply that the world that God created is "disordered" rather than "ordered," as the conservatives believe it to be? Perhaps God left the political sphere of humanity in disorder on purpose, just to test how humans would exercise their free will on the political system. If that is the case, then conservatism will lead to nothing more than the demonization and persecution of people for violating order where no order exists. We know conservatives accept the existence of evil, because otherwise they would not have such a dualistic conception of the world. But if evil is all around us, how can we be so sure that there is order? And even if we had no doubt that God has created an order for us, how can we be so sure how God wants us to punish those who violate it?

A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs.

Here's where Russell Kirk gets into the conservative rhetorical strategy of using intimidating high culture literary allusions (a strategy mastered by William F. Buckley) to scare off potential ideological opponents. The reference to "what Coleridge called Understanding" is a reference to Aids to Reflection, an 1839 philosophical work by the 19th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In this work, Coleridge distinguishes between two modes of thought he calls "the Reason" and "the Understanding." Coleridge defined the Understanding as "faculty judging by the senses". In other words, the Understanding refers to the human ability to think and learn by gathering information through the five senses. But if that's how Coleridge defines Understanding, how did he define Reason? According to Coleridge, the Reason is rooted in "eternal truth", while the Understanding is "a mere conclusion from a generalization of a great number of facts." As an example of an "eternal truth," Coleridge cited
the assurance which you have that the two sides of any triangle are greater than the third. This demonstrated of one triangle is seen to be eternally true of all imaginable triangles. This is the truth perceived at once by the reason, wholly independently of experience. It is and must ever be so, multiply and vary the shapes and sizes of triangles as you may.


At this point, Coleridge and Kirk's distinction between the Reason and the Understanding can get hazy. Evidently, the conservative upholds "the Reason," which is rooted in "eternal truth," whereas the liberal upholds a more limited, "narrowly rational" Understanding. But is "eternal truth" merely limited to logical truisms (such as geometrical laws about triangles), or is "eternal truth" something more religious and metaphysical?

Clearly, human beings engage in many different modes of thinking and reasoning. Humans do not limit themselves to "the Understanding" that their five senses can give them. Humans must also deal with abstract concepts and beliefs and hopes and ideals and figments of their imagination, which you can view as proof of the existence of a higher metaphysical "Reason" if you like. On the other hand, the existence of a metaphysical force of "Reason" as part of human thought holds no implications for how society should be designed or ordered. You can have abstract logical laws of mathematics and science that humans can't see, but that doesn't mean that God has mathematical or scientific laws for designing how society should be ordered. Narrow rationality might not satisfy all of humanity's needs, but conservatives trying to implement a nonexistent Godly order on earth won't accomplish that goal either.

‘Every Tory is a realist,’ says Keith Feiling: ‘he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man’s philosophy cannot plumb or fathom.’

Conservatives correctly understand that humanity's capacity for reasoning is finite and limited, but that does not mean that those limitations should be celebrated. (It is in this respect that conservatism can fall down a slippery slope into the celebration of willful ignorance.) Yes, there may be "great forces in heaven and earth" that humans cannot understand, but that does not mean those forces should be treated equally. Even if we assume "great forces in heaven" cannot be understood by humanity, we cannot make the same assumption about "great forces" here on Earth.

As Freud argued in Civilization and Its Discontents, the process of civilization is a process where humanity uses its collective brainpower to extend the reach of its five senses. We use the microscope and the telescope to see where the naked eye cannot. We use the microphone and the tape recorder to hear what the human ear cannot. We use the computer to transcend the storage capacity limitations of our own brains. Don't celebrate humanity's limitations for placing humanity closer to God. Celebrate the ability of humanity to find new limitations to transcend. Yes, there are "great forces" on Earth, but that does not mean we shouldn't try to understand them.

True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.

What does Russell Kirk mean by a "community of souls"? According to Kirk's statement of Ten Conservative Principles from his book, The Politics of Prudence, "the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls." The obvious objection here is that Kirk's comparison of society to a "community of souls" or a "spiritual corporation" has theocratic overtones that threaten the exercise of religious freedom, but additional objections also remain. If it is the purpose of politics to "apprehend" God's justice, how can we do any "apprehending" if we are supposed to assume that man's reason is unable to comprehend the "great forces of heaven and earth"?

It is here that the core beliefs of conservatism run into major epistemological problems. On the one hand, human beings must "apprehend" the God-ordained design for society. Yet somehow on the other hand, human beings are too dumb as a species to understand either the universe or its Creator. Unless, that is, some people are more able to comprehend "the great forces of heaven and earth" than others. It is the consequences of this belief that I will examine later in this blog series.

Mark Sanford, King David, and The Trust You Cannot Trust

Fitsnews.com has an interesting post about how South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford compared himself to the adulterous King David from the Bible in his public confession about his own recent marital peccadilloes. Sanford said,

I remain committed to rebuilding the trust that has been committed to me over the next 18 months, and it is my hope that I am able to follow the example set by David in Bible - who after his fall from grace humbly refocused on the work at hand. By doing so, I will ultimately better serve in every area of my life, and I am committed to doing so.


Notice the language about "the trust that has been committed to me." According to Fitsnews.com, The Trust Committed to Me is also the title of a book that Mark Sanford wrote when he was a member of the U.S. Congress. (Take a look at the book cover photo Sanford uses to beef up his family man bona fides.)

Now that Sanford's King David references have already primed me to look for Biblical references, I've learned that "the trust committed to me" is a reference to 1 Corinthians 9:17 in the New International Version of the Bible. The relevant Biblical verse says:

If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.


By using the phrase "the trust committed to me," Sanford is using a Biblical reference to portray his decision to continue as governor as involuntary. In other words, "It's not me who wants to continue as governor. God wants me to."



The disturbing implications of Sanford's King David mentality are best explained by the author Jeff Sharlet on a recent broadcast of Fresh Air. When asked about why Sanford referred to King David in his speech divulging his adulterous relationship, Sharlet put it in the context of Mark Sanford's membership in the elite Christian Right group, The Fellowship, also known as the C Street group (because of its location in Washington, DC). According to Sharlet, Doug Coe, the leader of the Fellowship, once told his followers in the Fellowship that King David was a horribly immoral man, but that King David had attained greatness, because he was chosen by God. Sanford's behavior and language after the disclosure of his affair suggests that he similarly feels he is chosen by God.

Interestingly, Richard Silverstein's Tikun Olam blog has the best retort to Mark Sanford. If Mark Sanford is King David, doesn't that make his Argentinian "mistress" his Bathsheba? If that's the case, shouldn't Sanford pair off with his Bathsheba, as King David of the Bible did, instead of using his estranged wife to revitalize his family values credentials?

The Top Ten of War Propaganda

Oxford University Press has a blog post advertising the new book, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq. The highlight is the following top ten list of themes found in pro-war propaganda:

10. WE FIGHT TO STOP ANOTHER HITLER. There was only one Hitler, but he
lives on in wartime propaganda since World War II.

9. WE FIGHT OVER THERE SO WE DON’T HAVE TO FIGHT HERE. In this message, America typically is portrayed as a pastoral land of small towns, not as an urban, industrialized superpower.

8. WE FIGHT CLEAN WARS WITH SUPERIOR TECHNOLOGY. This message suggests that U.S. troops will not be in much danger, nor will innocent civilians be killed in what is projected to be a quick and decisive conflict.

7. WE FIGHT TO PROTECT WOMEN AND CHILDREN. A traditional theme of war propaganda since ancient times, it is accompanied by compelling visuals and heartrending stories.

6. WE FIGHT BRUTISH, FANATICAL ENEMIES. Another classic, it dehumanizes enemy fighters.

5. WE FIGHT TO UNITE THE NATION. Here war is shown to heal old wounds and unify the divisions caused by the Civil War, class conflict, racial and ethnic differences, or past failures such as the Vietnam War.

4. WE FIGHT FOR THE FLAG AND THE REPUBLIC FOR WHICH IT STANDS. The trend has been to emphasize the flag over the republic. The more flags on display, the less likely the people’s elected representatives will debate foreign policy or exercise their power to declare war.

3. WE FIGHT TO LIBERATE THE OPPRESSED. When the oppressed resist U.S. help, they appear ungrateful and in need of American guidance especially if they have valuable resources.

2. WE FIGHT TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE. During the Philippine War, for example, this message advised that Uncle Sam knew what was best for the little brown brothers.

1. WE FIGHT TO PROTECT THE AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE. Although the American way of life stands for peace, it requires a lot of fighting.

Can anyone think of a theme of war propaganda not covered by these ten themes? The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Michael Jackson, Finger 5, and the Aquatots

The recent death of Michael Jackson has naturally sparked a lot of discussion about his influence on pop music, but most of the discussion has focused on the influence of Thriller, instead of how influential the Jackson 5 were. One sign of the massive of influence of the Jackson 5 was the massive number of families in the 1970s who tried to find a similar goldmine in the hopes of turning their children into a pop group. The phenomenon was so widespread that it even reached Japan, with the mid-70s heyday of the Jackson 5 soundalike group, Finger 5. Here's a catchy video of their big hit Love Call 6700:



Like the Jackson 5, Finger 5's appeal hinged on puppyishly seductive lyrics being sung by a prepubescent male lead singer whose voice hadn't even changed yet. According to a recent comment post on Metafilter about Finger 5, the group broke up shortly after the group's manager unsuccessfully tried to convince the 13-year-old lead singer to take hormone shots to prolong his ability to sing soprano. If not taking hormone shots is enough to make a 13-year-old an entertainment industry has-been, Michael Jackson's self-mutilation and body modification suddenly becomes more understandable.

Unfortunately, that's not the worst historical example of child exploitation for entertainment value that can be found on the Internet. According to true crime writer Johnny Marr, one of the most notorious child abuse cases of the 1950s was The Aquatots, a high-diving act that featured two preschoolers under the age of 6. Marr writes,
Back home in Miami, the Aquatots returned to their usual routine of training and performing until a tragedy in 1953 exposed the dark underside of parental ambition. Kathy, now five, was practicing dives from the 33-foot tower under her father's supervision. A particularly difficult one ended in a brutal bellyflop and Papa Tongay decided that was enough diving for the day. Besides, it was time for swimming practice. He took Kathy to another pool to swim some laps. Even after she vomited her lunch, he forced his badly-bruised, tearful daughter to swim a short workout. It would be her last. She died the next day from a ruptured intestine and internal bleeding.

Police suspected Tongay of beating Kathy to death. His heavy-handed coaching was a local legend. Aquatots training sessions had been banned at several hotel pools after guests complained about a little girl crying, "Please, Daddy, don't make me swim anymore." But after grisly testimony about the dangers of platform diving, Tongay got off with 10 years for manslaughter. He was later declared insane and committed to the state mental hospital.