“Racism” Revisited

Once again as I near the end of preparation for the publication of my book I reprint a previous post that will appear in that book. I apologize to those who demand originality — though a few years ago this was an original!

CAN A BOOK BE “RACIST”?
(2/21/13)
I recall having a discussion with a colleague years ago about racism. I accused him of being racist in his grading policies since he graded his minority students more leniently than he did his other students. He objected that this couldn’t be racism, since he was treating the minority students more favorably. I thought that treating his students differently because of their race — regardless of how he treated them — was still racist, that that all students should be held to the same standards. I still think that is right, though I am not nearly so sure as I was at that time. In fact, I am not nearly so sure about many things I was sure of 20 or 30 years ago!
But the question of what constitutes “racism” is a tricky one. Chinua Achebe, the African novelist, wrote a scathing attack on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because Conrad’s narrator, Marlowe, uses the “N” word repeatedly. I have mentioned Achebe’s essay before, but it deserves extended comment.
Achebe insisted that the book was “racist” and that people should not read it for that reason. I published an essay defending Conrad on the grounds that while some books might be called such, this one is not. The fact that the narrator used an offensive term in a novella set in the early part of the twentieth century was simply an accurate depiction of the way people used the word in those days. In addition, it is not clear that Conrad himself can be accused of racism, and his novella certainly didn’t encourage or, worse yet, promote racism.
On the contrary. I argued that if you read the novella carefully you can see that it is the Europeans who are under attack. The native people in the novel are in every way superior to the whites who are there to exploit them and their continent in a greedy attempt to take everything they can profit from– especially, in this case, ivory. We know from reading Conrad’s biography, furthermore, that he was sickened by what he saw when he visited the Congo late in his years with the British merchant navy.
What was happening in Achebe’s case, I felt, was that he was unable to get past Marlowe’s use if the “N” word, which is offensive to the people so designated — now. Out of deference to black people we should assuredly not use a term they find offensive, even though they might use it themselves. The one who is the target certainly is in a position to determine what words are or are not offensive. But it makes no sense to accuse a man who wrote in 1902 of being “racist” if he is using language that was not regarded as offensive at that time. Edith Wharton, among many of her generation, uses the term as well. And there are other terms that were in general use at the time that we now recognize as offensive and it would be a mistake to dismiss those writers out of hand because they weren’t able to determine 50 or 60 years down the road what words would be found offensive by future readers.
One of the common practices in our schools, in so far as any of these books are read at all in the schools, is to substitute acceptable words for the offensive ones, thereby protecting the young from the words that might offend someone even at the cost of altering the nature of the work being read. I am not sure where I come down on this question, because I have such a high regard for great writers and object to any attempt to alter their works. But I am not the one being targeted by the offensive terms, so I don’t really have anything to say about it.
In the end, though, I would prefer if the kids were to read the books as they were written and the teachers used the reading as an opportunity to talk about racism and the language that some find offensive. It seems to me that we are missing out on an excellent educational opportunity. Again.

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Rewards And Such

As one who did time in academe — hard time in fact — I have always wondered why those in charge are so reluctant to give out awards and rewards for exceptional work. Those of us who taught, for example, knew who the hard workers and good teachers were. Everybody knew. But those folks were seldom, if ever, acknowledged in any way  — except by the students who tended to turn the whole thing into a popularity contest. I worked very hard, for example, and when I retired I received a framed certificate signed by the governor of Minnesota (or one of his toadies) thanking me for 37 years of loyal service. It was the same certificate that was handed out to all of us who retired at the same time throughout the state system, including one of my colleagues who taught the same courses with the same syllabi for years — only in the mornings, so he could spend the afternoons in his office downtown making real money. Eventually it occurred to me that this is because a reward draws attention to those few who are rewarded and is resented by those who might feel slighted.

That is to say, in fear that someone will take umbrage at the fact that they were passed by, those who deserve to be noticed are ignored. The sentiment here is clear and in some ways admirable: we should do nothing that makes a person feel bad. I suppose this is why so many who teach are reluctant to fail their students — though a friend of mine who taught in our small school in my town once told me he passed poor students along because he didn’t want to have to teach them again! In any event, the outstanding students and teachers who deserve to be noticed are ignored out of a somewhat distorted sense of justice that leads many to the conclusion that it is a form of discrimination.

But let’s give this a moment’s thought. Discrimination in itself is not a bad thing. We discriminate all the time when we choose the red wine over the white, or the steak over the hamburger, the Rembrandt over the Rockwell, Joseph Conrad over the latest pot-boiler. Discrimination used to be a sign of a well-educated, “discriminating” person. That person can choose good books, music, and art and avoid things that might have little or no real value, things that will surely rot his brain. It was supposed to be a good thing. But now, in our postmodern age, we insist that there is no such thing as a “good” book or a “good” paining or composition. There are just things that are written, painted, and played, things people like. It’s all relative. With the absence of standards and the push to greater equality, including the refusal to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color (or ability), we live in a world awash with confusion about what is and what is not to be selected as worthy of our attention and effort. Anything goes. Words like “great” and “excellent” are no longer allowed in the name of political correctness which insists that it’s all a matter of opinion.

Interestingly enough, this hasn’t happened in athletics. Though there is a push among those connected with youth athletics to avoid keeping score and to give every participant a trophy at the end of the season (!), by and large those few who stand out in sports are recognizes and praised for a job well done. Perhaps this explains the craziness of those in our culture when it comes to collegiate and professional sports. At last, they seem to think, we can point out the outstanding athletes and discuss over a beer (or three) who were the GREAT ones! We don’t have to worry about political correctness, because everyone knows that some athletes are better than others. There are winners and there are losers and in sports we side with the winners and stand by the losers hoping that they will soon become winners — or because they are our sons and daughters.

My point, of course, is that we have a double standard. We are willing to recognize and talk about greatness on sports — and even allow that losing may teach vital lessons — but we refuse to do so in every other walk of life because we might hurt someone’s feelings. It never seems to occur to us that the “hurt” may become a motivator to push the one who fails to be recognized to work harder in order to become recognized sometime later. Losers who hope to become winners, if you will. It applies in sports, and it most assuredly applies in life as well.

A Woman’s Place

In this post I want to play the devil’s advocate, to see if any sense whatever can be made of the conservative position regarding women that would keep them in the home rather than have them compete in a man’s world (as it has come to be called). I repeat: I am playing the devil’s advocate here: I am not committed to this point of view, though I do not find it silly or frivolous — especially when those on this side of the issue can enlist the likes of George Eliot. It is an issue that requires careful and dispassionate thought, not knee-jerk reactions and name-calling.

In her influential book, The Female Eunich, first appearing in  1970, Germaine Greer told the world that:

“Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”

Many have taken this to mean that women should become more like men, aggressive, assertive, even vulgar. But there was another feminist voice that directed the conversation toward a broader interpretation of the preferred role of women while, at the same time, insisting that women should be accorded the same rights as men. That was the voice of the psychologist Carol Gilligan who in 1982 insisted in her book In A Different Voice that women should not seek to imitate men and their ethics of duty and responsibility but, rather, follow their feelings toward an ethics of care, which is more natural to women and allows them to carve out for themselves a healthier and more embracing ethics, a more positive ethics than one based on the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, for example. Gilligan stresses the fact that women naturally feel a sympathy for other humans and should build their ethical system around that. As Gilligan herself put it:

“The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment.”

Thus we have conflicting views within the feminist camp. On the one hand, Greer stresses the need for women to grasp and hold some of the territory men have always claimed for themselves, while Gilligan stresses the differences between men and women and the need to develop a feminine ethics of care. But are these two points of view really so much in conflict? I think not, because each stresses in her own way the need for women to acknowledge their differences while, at the same time, refusing to accept an inferior social role. The problem is in determining what that “inferior” role might be.

For many feminists that inferior role is in the home raising children. Thus, in order to achieve autonomy they must go off to work each day leaving their kids (if they have any) in Day Care and hoping that television doesn’t do too much damage to their children’s psyches. The assumption here is that self-worth is predicated on having a job that pays less than a living wage and fighting against the glass ceiling each day in the hope that at some point women will be paid what they are worth. This is an assumption that will not withstand scrutiny.

People like Lord Acton, a self-proclaimed “Liberal Catholic,” argued against women’s suffrage in Victorian England on the grounds that “in the interest of humanity” taking their place in the hurly-burly of the world outside the home would destroy their essential nature and eliminate the much-needed influence of the woman at home with the children teaching them right from wrong and helping them to grow into responsible adults. This view was echoed in many of Joseph Conrad’s novels as well, since that author regarded women as somehow too “pure” to mix in the world of men without losing their feminine nature entirely — a nature that society as a whole requires in order to achieve and maintain some sort of moral perspective. In Heart of Darkness, for example, Marlowe is reluctant to tell Kurtz’s “intended” how the man deteriorated and became bestial toward the end of his ongoing orgy in Africa for fear that it would disillusion her and make her cynical and hard, like a man.

This is not to say that women are the “weaker sex.” On the contrary, it suggests that they are the stronger sex because the role they play is more basic, and at times more difficult, than the role of provider that is played by the male in the traditional view. Strength is not a matter of what we do but how we do it. Men tend to be aggressive and bellicose and bring those qualities to the competitive job arena; the role of women is to temper that aggression and bring calm to a masculine world — behind the scenes, as it were. But both Conrad and Acton would insist that this role is essential to a healthy society. Surprisingly, George Eliot would agree with Conrad and Acton. In opposing John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 which would have enfranchised women she noted that:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

In saying this, Eliot sided with such other notable women as Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale.  Note that this view doesn’t fly in the face of what Greer and Gilligan are insisting upon, either. Not really. There is no real conflict between the claim, on the one hand, that women should assert themselves as women, demand their rights, and insist that they be recognized as essential to a complex society, and the claim, on the other hand, that if they have children their basic role is in the household (with a room their own as Virginia Woolf would have it) raising those children and helping them achieve adulthood in the face of the undue pressures of a commodified culture, the entertainment industry, and their peers. If the goal is to achieve autonomy, the issue is not what women do, it is what women think of themselves. As Greer herself said, twenty years after the publication her book:

“The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood.”

Autonomy is inner freedom and does not require that women (or men) play specific roles.  The fact that in our society self-worth is predicated on what we do (rather than how we do it) is a mere accident of our capitalistic ethos and should not be the driving force behind basic social choices.

Is it possible (I ask, somewhat facetiously) that the movement to demand that women and men play the same roles in society not only ignores important differences but has weakened the fabric of society and eliminated almost entirely that essential, if often ignored, effect women traditionally had raising the children and taking charge of the household — again, assuming that they have children? To even ask this question in this day and age seems like heresy, but it is worth pondering if we are to penetrate to the causes of the current American malaise: the fact that our society increasingly shows signs of social unrest, political deterioration, and the absence of a moral compass.

At the very least, we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma, devil or no devil.

Conrad’s Art

I take it as given that Joseph Conrad was a consummate artist. He worked at his craft devotedly and somewhat self-consciously. An excess of self-consciousness would have flawed the finished product which, in my view, was seldom if ever flawed. The artist must know when to “let go” and let his or her work have its head. Conrad knew. His novels are beautifully written and filled with insights into the human condition, powerful images, and flowing prose. It beggars belief that this man was writing in his third language — after his native Polish and, later, French. He was convinced that English allowed him to better express the subtleties of language and evoke the most powerful images.

Take the following brief descriptions as an example — selected almost at random from Conrad’s novel Chance:

“As often happens after a grey daybreak the sun had risen in a warm and glorious splendor above the smooth immense gleam of the enlarged estuary. Wisps of mist floated like trails of luminous dust, and in the dazzling reflections of water and vapor, the shores had the murky, semi-transparent darkness of shadows cast mysteriously from below.”

And again:

“It was in the trade winds, at night, under a velvety, bespangled sky, a great multitude of stars watching the shadows of the sea gleaming mysteriously in the wake of the ship; while the leisurely swishing of the water to leeward was like a drowsy comment on her progress.”

Or, finally:

“The night of the town with its strings of lights, rigid, and crossed like a net of flames thrown over the somber immensity of walls, closed round him, with its artificial brilliance overhung by an emphatic blackness, its unnatural animation of a restless, overdriven humanity.

Art requires imagination, not only on the part of the artist, but also of the spectator. Fully appreciating art requires of the spectator a suspension of the critical, discursive faculties and the willingness to embrace the work on its own terms. Conrad worked very hard to present in his novels hints and suggestions that pointed just beyond the words themselves and which demanded of his reader an effort, a willingness to engage the work fully in its own terms. Some have characterized his works as “impressionistic.” As Conrad himself tells us:

“[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts  in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn. . . .

“All art appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret springs of emotion. . . . My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all else, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”

Art cannot be translated. It must be met on its own ground. And to the extent that we are unwilling to make the effort and open ourselves to the wonders that art can make available to us our world shrinks and diminishes. When we mistake mere entertainment for true art, demand that we be allowed to remain passive while the work dulls our senses, we move farther away from that which has the capacity to open to us a world we will otherwise remain blind to throughout our lives. The artist works in three-dimensions and we ignore his or her work at the risk of reducing our world to two dimensions and missing out on what might otherwise allow us to grow and to see and feel things that we must otherwise completely miss.

This is why we read. This is why we listen carefully to music. This is why we visit galleries and concert halls and witness the elegance of human bodies in motion. Conrad knew whereof he spoke, and he spoke of writing as only one of many forms of art. As we gradually become less and less willing to make the effort his words will fall on the ears of increasing numbers of people who will simply not know whereof he speaks. Because, above all else, engaging art fully requires an effort of imagination and in our modern world imagination is held in low esteem, art is regarded as frivolous, we are reluctant to expend effort, and we settle increasingly for mere entertainment as our senses become slowly but surely dulled and our world shrinks accordingly.

Mass Movements

I have been re-reading Eric Hoffer’s excellent book The True Believer. Hoffer was the self-educated longshoreman who wrote notes to himself while at work and later turned them into a best-seller. Eventually he wrote and sold ten books and was quite a sensation for a while. I have always thought him a deep and careful thinker with remarkable scope of mind.

Hoffer wrote about the causes of mass movements and in particular about the mentality of those who follow those movements, the true believers. Joseph Conrad, that extraordinary wordsmith, also wrote about the type in his novel The Secret Agent where he provides the following sketch of these true believers:

“. . .[they exhibit] sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and revolt.”

For Eric Hoffer they are “frustrated,” they feel a sense of hopelessness and despair, they have low self-esteem and long to have their sense of self raised by the strong, charismatic leader of a movement, any movement, who promises them escape from their despair. He was thinking of such people as Hitler and Stalin, but his thoughts have a direct bearing on what is happening in America today where we find the beginnings of a nationalist mass movement (“Make America Great Again”) led by a charismatic leader whom the true believers follow blindly. Several passages are of special interest and I find them worth quoting at length:

“. . . the acrid secretion of the frustrated mind, though composed chiefly of fear and ill will, acts yet as a marvelous slime to cement the embittered and disaffected into one compact whole. Suspicion too is an ingredient of this acrid slime, and it too can act as a unifying agent. . . .

“Mass movements make extensive use of suspicion in their machinery and domination. . . .  Suspicion is given a sharp edge by associating all opposition with the enemy threatening the movement from without. This enemy — the indispensable devil of every mass movement — is omnipresent. . . .

“By elevating dogma above reason, the individual’s intelligence is prevented from becoming self-reliant. . . . Thus people raised in the atmosphere of a mass movement are fashioned into incomplete and dependent human beings even though they have within themselves the making of self-sufficient entities. . . . they will exhibit the peculiarities of people who crave to lose themselves and be rid of an existence that is irrevocably spoiled. . . .

“All active mass movements strive to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. . . . To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason.”

The allegiance of the true believer is to the cause and its leader not to other members of the movement. It is part of the glue that holds the movement together and makes it possible for the leader to demand sacrifices of the members whenever he or she deems it necessary. According to Hoffer the leader himself exhibits:

“. . .audacity and joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature . . . unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness . . . a boundless self-confidence. . .  [ and a determination to engage in] charlatanism [since] there can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of the facts.”

Of major interest in this regard is hatred, which is one of the primary “unifying agents” that holds the mass movement together. Hatred is readily vented by the true believer who loses his individuality in the mass movement, thereby guaranteeing him anonymity. It frees the hater to “bully, lie, torture, murder, and betray without shame and remorse.” Hatred, frequently, is of foreigners who make the “ideal devil,” though it can be anyone who happens to be more successful than the true believer himself.  Mass movements must have a devil to hate; it is more important than having a strong, charismatic leader and a lofty ideal.

What we are seeing in America today has the earmarks of a mass movement aborning.  Signs are already noticeable, especially during the rallies organized to make the group cohesive, where allegiance is sworn to the leader and to his cause and the devil is named and targeted. If the present leader of the movement remains in control, and indeed gains greater control, the movement will begin to show even more fully the signs of a mass movement that Hoffer describes here. Time will tell.

 

Could This Be It?

I think I am finally beginning to understand why so many people have been drawn to Donald Trump, and it is not all about the economy. It has baffled me and I have worked through several possibilities, because I do think it important to know why so many people are willing to follow someone who is obviously a seriously flawed personality. Accordingly, I have enlisted the help of an unlikely source, Arthur Schopenhauer, a nineteenth century philosopher whose book The World As Will And Idea influenced, among others, Joseph Conrad and Sigmund Freud.

Schopenhauer is convinced that the will is the fundamental feature of the human animal, indeed of all animals. As he says in this regard:

“Rather it [the Will] retains everywhere its identical nature and shows itself in the form of great attachment to life, care for the individual of the species, egoism, and regardlessness of all others, together with the emotions that spring from these. Even in the smallest insect the will is present, complete and entire; it wills what it wills as decidedly and completely as a man. The difference lies merely in what it wills, i.e., the motives, which, however, are the affair of the intellect.”

The intellect seeks to control will (which is primary) and sits, according to Schopenhauer, like a lame man on the shoulders of a strong blind man whose direction the lame man seeks to point out — with differing degrees of success. The success of the lame man’s direction depends in large measure on education. As Schopenhauer tells us:

“Knowing. . . has multifarious functions, and never takes place without effort, which is required to fix the attention and make clear the object, and at a higher stage is certainly needed for thinking and deliberation; therefore it is also capable of great improvement through exercise and education.”

It follows from this that if a person fails to educate the intellect he is willful but blind.  He becomes, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “all body and no mind” (referencing Kings). It’s not so much that he will not think; he cannot think. There is clinical evidence in this regard that kids who play with electronic toys these days lose the ability to grasp a hypothetical sentence, among other things: they simply don’t see the connections. Seeing logical connections is central to analysis and synthesis, the basic elements in human thought.

And this is where we can begin to understand the success of a man like Donald Trump who is all will and weak intellect. His minions sense their kinship with this man and they ignore completely the warnings of those who know better, because they cannot grasp what the critics are pointing out; moreover, they fear and suspect anyone who is unlike themselves, especially those who use their minds and can grasp such fundamental distinctions as that between truth and falsity. Those distinctions do not exist for those who are simply the embodiment of pure will. Thus, Trump’s cavalier dismissal of “educated people.”

This may sound harsh and even a little bit self-serving. But consider the strange fascination this man holds for thousands. And consider how easily they dismiss the claims that the man is untrustworthy and a liar — since for them truth is defined by the will, it is whatever the will is drawn to instinctively. Thus, this man appears to them to be “honest,” in that his emotions are on the surface and available to all: he is embodied will.  Observations about the man’s shortcomings do not translate into words that can be comprehended by those who share those same shortcomings.

I have said all along that Trump’s success is an indictment of our educational system, but this goes even deeper. It goes to the fact that thousands of people in this country not only lack an education (and I am not speaking about schooling), but also have felt themselves excluded from the table of those whose reason directs them to goals the uneducated  simply cannot possibly be expected to understand, much less achieve.

Schopenhauer seems to be describing perfectly the man who is our president-elect:

“. . . we find in many men a strong, i.e., decided, resolute, persistent, unbending, wayward, and vehement will, combined with a very weak and incapable understanding, so that every one who has to do with them is thrown into despair, for their will remains inaccessible to all reason and ideas, and is not to be got at, so that it is hidden, as it were, in a sack, out of which it wills blindly.”

Those who “have to do with him” are those who would offer the man advice, not his mindless minions who also follow him (from a distance) “blindly.” We are talking about two distinct types of humans here, though this may sound harsh. There are those who have developed intellect to varying degrees, depending on “experience and education.” And there are those who are more or less the embodiment of will, undirected and filled with anger, hatred, and fear — the emotions that help define will for Schopenhauer. The two types are almost certainly incapable of fully understanding or communicating with one another: reasoning is lost on those with diminished  intellect,  just as those who can reason find it incomprehensible that so many could follow a man like Donald Trump.

Now, to be sure, this analysis leans heavily on the authority of a nineteenth century philosopher whom very few have read or even heard of. But if we take his deliberations as  a starting point we can begin to form a hypothesis that helps us to grasp the nature of human nature and the manifold differences there are among us all — and the fact that a great many people in this country do indeed follow blindly one of their kind who seems to them to be offering them hope and direction.

Repressive Regimes

Josef Theodore Konrad Korzeniowski was born in the Ukraine in 1857 and grew up under Tzarist autocracy. His parents, ardent Polish patriots, died when he was a child, following their exile for anti-Russian activities. Later, Josef became the author Joseph Conrad who wrote mostly stories about the sea based on his own experiences as an English merchant seaman. English became his third language, after Polish and French, and he is one of the best writers I have ever read. But in addition to his sea stories, he wrote two novels about politics and about repressive regimes, of which he had first-hand knowledge (as he did the sea). One of these is Under Western Eyes which examines the “psychology” of Russia in the early part of the twentieth century.  I take a few snippets from that book which are worth reflection as we in this country have undergone a revolution of sorts and seem to be headed for four years, at least, of despotism and distrust, characteristics of the political world familiar to Joseph Conrad, the Russia so admired by our president-elect.

“. . .and still more characteristic of the moral corruption of an oppressed society where the noblest aspirations of humanity, the desire of freedom, an ardent patriotism, the love of justice, the sense of pity, and even the fidelity of simple minds are prostituted to the lusts of hate and fear, the inseparable companions of an uneasy despotism.”

“Calumny is a weapon of our government, too.”

“In Russia, the land of spectral ideas and disembodied aspirations, . . . they turned to autocracy for the peace of their patriotic conscience as a weary unbeliever, touched by grace, turns to the faith of his  fathers for the blessings of spiritual rest.”

“For that is the mark of Russian autocracy and of Russian revolt. In its pride of numbers, in its strange pretensions of sanctity, and in the secret readiness to abase itself in suffering, the spirit of Russia is the spirit of cynicism. It informs the declarations of her statesmen, the theories of her revolutionaries, and the mystic vaticinations of prophets to the point of making freedom look like a form of debauch, and the Christian virtues themselves appear actually indecent.”

“. . .Western ears . . . are not attuned to certain tones of cynicism and cruelty, or moral negation, and even of moral distress already silenced in [Western] Europe.”

“As if anything can be changed! In this world of men nothing can be changed — neither happiness nor misery. They can only be displaced at the cost of corrupted consciences and broken lives — a futile game for arrogant philosophers and sanguinary triflers.”

“It is more difficult to live a life of toil and self-denial than to go out in the street and kill from conviction.”

“Truly, the oppressors of thought which quickens the world, the destroyers of souls which aspire to the perfection of human dignity, they shall be haunted.”

“Life. . . not to be vile must be a revolt — a pitiless protest — all the time.”

“There is not much perspicacity in the world.”

In all, it is a fine piece of work and well worth reading as we contemplate the challenges that lie ahead of us in a country now led by a would-be autocrat surrounded by disciples who have already shown that they share their leader’s intolerance and bigotry and his need to bully and belittle others into following his lead.

 

 

 

Delusions

In Joseph Conrad’s remarkable novel Victory he depicts a man by the name of Schomberg who owns a hotel on an island in the China Sea. He is a truly obnoxious man, large, heavily bearded, sweaty, and overbearing who lords it over his poor wife and anyone he takes offense to. He has become infatuated with a pretty girl who has come with Zangiacomo’s Ladies Orchestra to stay at his hotel and perform for the patrons. Schomberg’s wife is almost as repulsive as he is and he pines after the pretty girl whom the fates have brought to him; in Schomberg’s mind she is responding to his advances; he is winning the poor girl’s heart. He has visions of ridding himself of his wife, selling the hotel and running off with the pretty young girl who will love him all the more for taking her away from the tortuous life of a roaming violin player in an all-girl band. In fact, the young girl finds his advances positively nauseating. Please understand that Schomberg’s fantasies are all of his own making: he is repulsive to the girl who avoids him at every turn. When the girl runs off with a Swede whom Schomberg has already grown to hate, his imaginings take a turn toward total delusion with just a touch of paranoia. He is convinced the Swede tricked the girl somehow and stole her away just as Schomberg was about to triumph. His hatred grows beyond reckoning.

Schomberg is delusional. We can see that now because we see on every side around us a growing number of delusional people who have turned Donald Trump into their political savior, just as Schomberg turned the pretty girl into his personal savior.

In a delightful comic performance on HBO by John Oliver making the rounds on Facebook recently we were treated to the total unmasking of the Trumpet and his followers. A number of Trump’s followers were asked what they saw in the man and why they thought he would make a good president. They noted that he “tells it like it is,” that he is a “successful business person,” he is “tough,” and has “acute business sense.” To each of these claims, the comic destroys the fiction with the bare facts.  A number of his “success” stories are outright failures — such as his ventures into travel, magazines, vodka, steaks [!], and home mortgages at a time when banks were going belly-up due to housing failures. The man is not a successful businessman. In fact he has been bankrupt several times. He is convinced that the Trump label guarantees success, whereas in fact many of his ventures have been miserable failures — which, in every case, he blames on someone else. Fact Check notes that three-fourths of what he says is simply false. But Trump dismisses Fact Check as a “liberal” creation out to destroy him. He tells lies and creates fictions that he passes off as Truth From On High. Finally, he is not tough. He has remarkably thin skin, threatening those who oppose him with grievous bodily harm, law suits, or both. His reaction to criticism borders on paranoia.

The parallel is remarkable. Schomberg’s delusions are  mirrored in the minds and hearts of growing numbers of people in this country who flock to buy the snake oil Donald Trump peddles. They blindly accept his promises that the snake oil will cure all their ills while in fact it is vile smelling and will almost certainly make them sick. The truth is hard to swallow at times. But it is better to hold our nose and swallow it than to swallow the putrid liquid this politician is passing off as a panacea that will cure us all. It will not. It will only make us worse. Much worse.

Predicting The Weather

Consider meteorology for a moment. It’s a pseudo-science in that it tosses around numbers but ultimately depends on intuition. The meteorologist will have several computer models based on a large number of variables and will choose the one the seems to him or her to be most likely. They also like to say things like “The chance of rain is 0% ” which is absurd. In probability theory 0% means that it is logically impossible. Similarly with the suggestion that “there is 100% chance of snow later today.” That would mean it cannot NOT snow, which is also absurd. Meteorology is a pseudo-science. There are many.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch the Weather Channel and see the folks there surrounded by all their elaborate equipment and their L.L. Bean coats telling us with straight faces that there is 0% chance of rain when I know that cannot possibly be the case. But they are pretty people even if they never learned the word “in.” They say things like “It’s raining into Chicago right now,” when we all know that they should say “It is raining in Chicago right now.” The word “into” suggests movement whereas the word “in” suggests place. The Weather Channel folks don’t know that, apparently. But then, they are meteorologists, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t mean they are scientists, or even that they are well educated.

The pseudo sciences draw on probability theory and the notion that if we have numbers to support our claims, then we can call ourselves a “science.” This rests on the indisputable fact that the hard sciences (the REAL sciences) rely heavily on mathematics. I have a good friend who is a physicist and I once asked him what the latest developments in physics were. He answered that there hadn’t been many lately; the physicist must wait for the mathematician to develop the tools for them. But the social (pseudo) sciences abound in numbers convinced that thereby they will pass muster as real science. We are all suckers for numbers. Just think about the polls!

In any event, disciplines like psychology and sociology are pseudo-science because they have nothing more than probability to back them up, and probability theory is a mere shadow of the mathematical calculations on which the physicist and chemist relies. The latter yield certainties, the former not so much. Albert Einstein, for example, knew that his relativity theory was a certainty well before any experiment was devised to verify it. He knew it because the mathematics was correct and that was sufficient of itself. The hard sciences do not rely on probabilities, they rely on exact calculations. Prediction, when it is made, is certain– or as certain as experiments can be when devised by human agents.

In the end, we can still enjoy the pretty people on the Weather Channel with all their state-of-the-art, fancy equipment and their computer models predicting what will happen tomorrow “into” Chicago while, at the same time, we recognize the fact that they are playing at being scientists. It’s just make-believe, like so much on television.

 

 

 

Protecting Feelings

Philosophers are fond of making distinctions. For example, I am careful to point out the difference between “need” and “want” in explaining that many of the things we insist we need are simply things we want. Such distinctions can go a long way toward clarifying our thinking and helping us to see our way through a tangle of words, show the fly the way out of the milk bottle in Wittgenstein’s delightful image. Many years ago Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in which he made a distinction between “use” and “mention.” He noted the vast difference between using a word, say an offensive word, and simply mentioning that same word. Thus if I say “Judy is fat” I am using a word that many people find offensive, especially Judy. If I say “Fred said that Judy is fat” I am merely mentioning the offensive term and the difference is important and fundamental. But we have lost sight of this distinction, especially in academia where political correctness demands that we neither use nor mention offensive terms — words that might possibly be found offensive to someone else.

Some years ago I wrote an article for a professional journal in which I defended Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness against the libel of the novelist and critic Chinua Achebe who insisted that people avoid Conrad’s novella altogether because it and its author are both “racist.”  He made that claim on the grounds that in the novella Conrad plays fast and loose with the word “nigger,” which is almost certainly one of the most offensive terms in our language. My defense was based on the point that when a novelist like Conrad used the term he put it in the mouth of a seaman at the turn of the last century who would most assuredly use the term without giving it a second thought. The novel is not “racist” because Conrad is simply telling a story in which the term is used by his narrator. Conrad himself is simply mentioning that fact. Again, the distinction Russell made is key here. Conrad is not a racist, nor is his novella. His narrator may have been, but the charge cannot be laid at the feet of the novelist.

But, as I have said, this distinction is lost on those who would protect victims from words they might find offensive. And while I respect the motivation that has led us to this point — to protect sensitive people and avoid hurting their feelings — it is clear that the situation has become extreme and is now putting a cramp on communication at so many levels. In addition, of course, everyone now claims to be a victim. It is especially problematic in our colleges and universities where this sensitivity to others’ feelings has become excessive.  As a result, according to a recent (9/15) essay in The Atlantic, “the new political correctness is ruining education.” In addition to ignoring the distinction between use and mention and insisting that any and all uses (or mentions) of certain words must desist (or else!), officials and students themselves in a great many institutions of higher education also wave the red flag at what are called “trigger warnings.”

“For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism and domestic violence can choose to avoid those works which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.”

Now, clearly the motivation of those who call for this sort of avoidance cannot be called into question. But this concern is clearly out of control. Those who would teach are denied the opportunity to free young minds and open them up to the world around them which, unfortunately, is a source of a great deal of discomfort. Clearly, the use of  offensive language is different from the mention of those words that might possibly offend. We need to recall that distinction and move past this sort of censorship, remaining sensitive to others’ feelings, but not so concerned that we cannot say or write what needs to be said and written. However, the Atlantic article notes that concern over political correctness and trigger warnings has created a bleak atmosphere on college campuses across the nation.

“The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [concern over political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe places’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable. And more than [P.C.], this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness.”

And this despite the fact that making young adults “uncomfortable” is precisely what they need in order to become educated persons. As Jerry Seinfeld has noted in refusing to perform on college campuses because of the atmosphere of “vindictive protectiveness,” we need to keep our sense of humor. And we also need to keep our sense of balance before we fall off the edge of an increasingly small platform of politically correct terms that doesn’t allow us to say what needs to be said or read what needs to be read in order to provide students with the education they so desperately require in an increasingly confusing world.