Extraordinary Democratic Delusions

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Just when I was starting to think that The New York Review of Books was not irredeemably idiotic on political issues, they publish an article that is so conspicuously incoherent and outrageously out of touch with the political climate in the U.S. that it’s destined to be anthologized in perpetuity in collections with “Clueless” in the title. The article, “The Party Cannot Hold,” by Michael Tomasky is about the current state of the Democratic party.

The current divide in the Democratic party, writes Tomasky,

is about capitalism—whether it can be reformed and remade to create the kind of broad prosperity the country once knew, but without the sexism and racism of the postwar period, as liberals hope; or whether corporate power is now so great that we are simply beyond that, as the younger socialists would argue, and more radical surgery is called for.

Hmm, he’s right, of course, that there is a faction of the Democratic party that wants to reform capitalism, to remake it to create the kind of broad prosperity the country once knew. The thing is, that faction is the “younger” one. The older, “liberal,” Democrats have concentrated almost all their efforts on getting rid of sexism and racism, laudable goals to be sure, but oddly disconnected in the “liberal” imagination from economic issues.

Tomasky is also correct, of course, that a growing number of people in this country think capitalism in any form is simply morally bankrupt and that we need a new socioeconomic system entirely. Few of these people, however, are registered Democrats. Most of them aren’t even Social Democrats since the overthrow of capitalism hasn’t been a part of the Social Democratic platform since the middle of the last century. Indeed, Wikipedia defines “Social democracy” as “a political, social and economic philosophy that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented economy” (emphasis added).

Tomasky either didn’t do his homework or he is being deliberately disingenuous. His view that Social Democrats are planning the overthrow of capitalism is at variance with how Social Democratic parties actually function in the many capitalists countries of Europe where they are an important political force.

Tomasky points out that Sanders, even if he were elected, would be unable to implement many of the programs that are part of his platform, that the best he’d get in terms of healthcare, for example, would be “a Bidenesque public option,” meaning, I presume, an option such as Biden is advocating for now, because as Americans know too well, politicians almost never deliver on campaign promises. The electorate is nearly always forced to accept some watered-down version of what they’ve been promised, if indeed, they get any version of it at all.

That’s likely part of the reason so many people support Sanders. Few Sanders supporters are so politically naïve that they think once he was in office we’d have universal healthcare. They assume they’d get something less than that. They also assume, however, and history suggests, correctly, that if Biden were elected, they’d get something less than he’s promising as well, which means they’d get…— nothing at all! It’s either idiotic or, once again, disingenuous of Tomasky to suggest that there’s essentially no difference between Sanders’ and Biden’s healthcare plans. Even a child will tell you that something is clearly better than nothing.

Tomasky assumes that only if someone other than Sanders gets the nomination would the left “try to increase its leverage by, for example, running left-wing candidates against a large number of mainstream Democratic House incumbents.” I kid you not, he actually says that. That’s what happens when you don’t pay sufficient attention to what is going on around you. Or perhaps Tomasky is simply being disingenuous yet again and hoping that the average reader of The New York Review of Books hasn’t been following the Sanders campaign and the calls of both Sanders and his supporters for bringing about sweeping political change by running left-wing candidates against a large number of mainstream Democratic House incumbents.

“If Sanders wins the nomination,” writes Tomasky, “it becomes absolutely incumbent upon Democratic establishment figures to get behind him, because a second Trump term is unthinkable. But the reality,” he continues, “is that a number of them won’t.”

Hmm… Why is it that a number of “Democratic establishment figures” would rather have a second term of Trump than even one term of Sanders? That’s not my charge, I feel compelled to remind readers here: It’s Tomasky’s!

Michael Tomasky, editor-in-chief of Democracy, a special correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and a contributing editor for The American Prospect, came right out and admitted that the “Democratic establishment” despite it protestations to the contrary, would rather have a second term of Trump than even one term of a genuine populist such as Sanders!

Why is that? Well, because as Tomasky observes himself earlier in the article, “Democrats have, since the 1990s, gotten themselves far too indebted to certain donor groups, notably Wall Street and the tech industry.” Yes, this is the same Tomasky who began the article in question by characterizing the very same Democrats, whom he believes are in the pocket of Wall Street and the tech industry, as wanting to reform capitalism, to remake it to create the kind of broad prosperity the country once knew.

And people speculated that Biden might be suffering from some kind of dementia!

That’s not the only dotty thing Tomasky says in the article. “In a parliamentary system,” he says, “Biden would be in the main center-left party.” Okay, yeah, maybe, if we suddenly had a parliamentary system in the U.S. In any other country that presently has a parliamentary system Biden would be in the center-right party, if not actually the far-right party.

The view that Sanders supporters are mostly young socialists is delusional. The very same issue of The New York Review of Books includes an excellent article about our current health-care crisis entitled “Left Behind” by Helen Epstein. Epstein explains that substantial numbers of the working poor support Sanders and that “117,000 Pennsylvanians who voted for Sanders in the [2016] primary cast their general election ballots for Trump.” It seems unlikely that all of those 117,000 Pennsylvanians were young socialists.

Tomasky’s world doesn’t even cohere with the world as represented by other contributors to the publication in which his article appears, let alone to the real, concrete world. It exists only in his fevered imagination and the similarly fevered imaginations of other Democrats who delude themselves that they are “centrists” rather than right-wing neoliberals. There are bits and pieces of the truth in Tomasky’s vision of the disunity in the Democratic party but he puts those bits together like a child forcing pieces of a puzzle where they don’t belong.

What Tomasky fails to appreciate is just how mad, in the sense of angry, the average American voter is. Epstein writes that “[i]f you include those who have left the workforce altogether, the U.S. employment rate is almost as high as it was in 1931.” She cites Anne Case and Angus Deaton as observing in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism that “[t]he amount American spend unnecessarily on health care weighs more heavily on our economy… than the Versailles Treaty reparations did on Germans in the 1920s.”

Oh yeah, people are angry. Few people are blaming capitalism as such, but nearly everyone who’s suffering economically appears to be blaming the political establishment, and blaming the Democrats just as much as the Republicans. This is clear from the people interviewed in the 2019 documentary The Corporate Coup d’Etat. These are people who voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary, but who then voted for Trump in the general election. They’re not socialists. They’re just angry. Really angry, and they’re angry at both sides of the political establishment.

Tomasky is worried about the Democratic party breaking apart. Ironically, a Sanders nomination, was probably the last chance the party had to prevent a split.  Biden is simply too much a part of the political establishment to capture the votes of the increasing numbers of people who are unhappy with that establishment.

Tomasky’s whole article appears an ill-conceived attempt to frighten genuine progressives back into the Democratic-party fold. He acknowledges that the party is too beholden to Wall Street and the tech industry, that it has gotten so far away from its populist roots that much of its establishment would rather see Trump back in office than a genuine populist. Yet he concludes the article with the observation that “our [political] system militates against a schism” in the party. No third party, he thinks, could be a significant political force.

Oh yeah? Think again, Tomasky.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the March 12, 2020 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch under the title “Extraordinary Democratic Delusions and the Madness of the Crowd.”)

Determinacy and the Self

That we create ourselves over time as the result of the decisions we make is a widely accepted perception of what has come to be understood as selfhood. We become increasingly concrete over time as we age. A natural inference from this is that there is more to the selves of adults than there is to the selves of children.

And yet, there is a sense in which this increasing concretion represents a diminution of the self. Possibilities fall away like bits of marble giving way to the sculptor’s chisel. In an important sense, we become smaller as we take on a determinate shape.

That’s part of the reason, I believe, that nearly everyone is nostalgic for childhood, independently of whether their childhood was particularly happy. The self of the child is an enormous, almost limitless collection of possibilities, a vast expanse of possibilities in which the imagination of the child luxuriates in a way that the imagination of the adult cannot. Adults fantasize, of course, about becoming rich or famous, or about career changes, about becoming an artist, or musician, or dancer, but these possibilities, if they are genuine, are heavy with the weight of improbability that does not weigh down the imaginings of the child.

There is something godlike in the vastness of the self of the child. We become human, all too human as our selves take shape over time.

The Myth of Sanders’ “Socialism”

IMG_3559Fox News has an all-out frontal assault on Bernie Sanders’ purported “socialism.” It’s a sad statement on the level of ignorance in this country that anyone could take seriously the claim that Sanders is a socialist. What Sanders is advocating is something approaching the social-welfare systems of other economically developed countries and that’s a far cry from the socialism Fox News is using as a boogeyman to frighten conservatives. The “socialism” Fox is decrying is the old-fashioned Stalinist-Maoist kind where all important industries are nationalized, most of the private property of the wealthy is seized by the state, and there are no such things as individual rights and freedoms because the very idea of “individuals” is considered capitalist propaganda.

That kind of socialism is not pretty. I traveled through East Germany before the wall came down and I was horrified by the poverty and misery. I was raised in a liberal household, so I was unprepared for how obviously unhappy most of the people I met there clearly were. You didn’t even have to meet people to learn they were unhappy. You could see it on the faces of people in the street. I was traveling with a group of students who were all on a semester abroad program. Our home base had been West Berlin, but we took an excursion through East Berlin, and then several other cities in East Germany before settling in Vienna for the second half of the semester. We’d been forced to exchange 25 West German marks for 25 East German marks for every day we were going to be in East Germany. We were ecstatic, at first, to learn how cheap everything was in East Germany. We could buy much more with our money there than we had been able to in West Germany.

We learned very quickly, however, that there wasn’t really much to buy. There were few luxury goods and those few were shoddy and of inferior quality. There were books, of course, some books anyway, but they were printed on poor-quality paper and were poorly bound. The clothes were poorly made and decades out of date. The food was bad. Even the beer was bad. I don’t think I have a single souvenir from East Germany.

A few years later, I moved to the purportedly “socialist” state of state of Denmark. The difference between Denmark and East Germany could not have been more striking. First, no one seized the private property of the wealthy in Denmark. In fact, there are quite a few wealthy people in Denmark. Anyone who has ever taken a vacation to Scandinavia will tell you that everything there is very expensive. Food is expensive, clothing is expensive. Restaurants are through-the-roof expensive! I used to marvel when I lived there that anyone had the money to eat out in Denmark. And yet people did. Most the people in Danish restaurants are Danes, not tourists. Most of the people who buy Royal Copenhagen Blue Fluted Half Lace porcelain ($500 a place setting when I wanted to select it as my wedding pattern) are Danish. In fact, everyone in Denmark seems to have some of that porcelain. Where are they getting the money? I used to see Danish women all over the streets of Copenhagen in mink coats. I once saw a woman riding a bike in a mink coat. Stuff is nice in Denmark. Good quality, I mean. Well made. People invest in quality not quantity.

I was friends with a couple when I lived there who were quite well off. The husband was a doctor and the wife had been a nurse but had quit working to raise their daughter. They had a gorgeous house in the suburbs, two cars and a sailboat that slept several people — and the wife had a mink coat. In fact, all my friends who were over thirty were pretty well-heeled. Everyone complained about taxes, of course, just as they do in the U.S., but still, they seemed to live well.

You know how they used to organize trips to Cuba and Nicaragua so people could see how things actually worked in those countries rather than simply relying on anti-communist propaganda? Well, I’m thinking of organizing tours to Denmark for conservatives who’ve been brainwashed to think what Sanders is advocating is something like they had in the former Soviet Union.

Hey people: Go to Denmark. I dare you. Go there as see how people actually live. There’s no shortage of rich people in Denmark and no shortage of privately, or publicly (as in on the stock market, not as in owned by the government) owned companies. The Danish shipping company Mærsk is the largest shipping company in the world and there are lots of other Danish companies that are not owned by the government. In fact, economic mobility is greater in Denmark than it is in the U.S.

Denmark knows that its economic future is its people so it invests heavily in them. And it pays off. People are happy there, and they have nice stuff, unlike in the former Eastern-Block countries. They must be phenomenally productive too because they work fewer hours than we do and everyone has a government mandated six weeks of paid vacation annually and yet they are still quite competitive economically given their small size.

Hmm. Say Sanders were elected and there was suddenly Medicare for all and free higher education at state colleges and universities and a $15 minimum wage? Hmm. The people who would be saved from bankruptcy caused by obscenely high medical bills wouldn’t represent a threat to capitalism as we know it in this country, au contraire. They’d be able to pay their other creditors because they wouldn’t be broke. In fact, they be out there buying more stuff (because that’s what Americans do when they get more money, they buy more stuff).

Medicare for all would also be a boon not only to individuals but to businesses, especially small businesses, because they would no longer have to provide healthcare for their employees. Of course they would have to pay people higher wages, but relief from the burden of providing healthcare would be substantial and those higher wages would enable people to, you know — buy more stuff!

Sanders’ programs, if they were implemented, would represent a revitalization of the consumer engine that drives this economy. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the effect on the economy of students who would no longer be forced to live in their parents’s basements in order to be able to have enough money to pay off their student loans. They too would have money to spend!

The wealthy wouldn’t lose their lock on power if the purportedly “socialist” Sanders won and succeeded in implementing his programs. Charles Petersen observed in an excellent article, entitled “Serfs of Academe,” in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books, that only people with Ph.D.s from one of the few elite universities, most of which are private, have any hope these days of getting a teaching position at a college or university. The same thing goes for getting into an elite law school and going from there to a large New York law firm, etc., etc. Want to be a leader in this culture, well, then, you had better have a degree from one of the Ivies, or the equivalent, and most of those institutions are private. Even if Sanders won, it will continue to be the case, that only the well-healed will be able to afford them.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when one could get ahead with a degree from a state school or even with just a high school diploma. Those days are pretty much gone, though. That’s why anyone who can scrape together enough cash to send their child to a private school does. Everything depends on getting your kid into the best possible college and private prep schools give kids a leg up. When I was a child my parents explained to me that public school was an essential democratic institution. It was important, they explained, that well-educated middle-class and wealthy people not pull their children out of the public schools. It was important, they explained, that children of all classes and backgrounds and income levels mingle. That they learn about one another, form bonds of friendship, that the middle-class parents and wealthy parents could advocate for improvements in the schools that working-class and poor parents might not be able to do because of greater constraints on their time.

One never hears arguments like that anymore though. Now it is every man for himself. Everyone who can puts their kids into private schools to give them that leg up over the kids of parents who cannot afford to do that. Nice, eh? So the kids of the “haves” they get that leg up and the kids of the “have nots,” well, they don’t, and that is not going to change, not even if Sanders gets elected and suddenly state colleges and universities are tuition free. The rich will still be getting their kids into the best schools. They will still be running everything and they will still be handing that power down to their children.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Sanders. Just look at the opposition his centrist assault on our current system has generated. If he suggested anything really radical, such as a government stipend like they have in Denmark for all college and university students, he’d risk being carted off to a mental hospital.

We will be better off if Sanders won and was able to implement his programs. People would be happier. They would be able to go to college, some college anyway, without mortgaging the very future for which they go to college to have in the first place. They would be able to get the medical care and medicine, they need. And, perhaps most importantly for our consumer culture, they would have more money to spend. That’s almost too horrible, apparently, for some people to think about.

Strange isn’t it. We’d clearly all be better off, both materially and emotionally, if Sanders won and was able to implement his programs. Why can’t conservatives see that? Or perhaps they can. Perhaps it’s the thought of people being happy that has them so up in arms. This situation reminds me of what H.L. Menken said of Puritanism. He described it as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” That’s conservatives for you — people tortured by the fear that Americans might actually be made happier.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the March 5, 2020 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch).

A Lesson from the Danes on Immigration

Portrait caricatureDenmark is in the news again because of its purported hostility to immigrants. Brooke Harrington, a sociology professor at Dartmouth, published an op ed in the New York Times in December, with the inflammatory title “I Almost Lost My Career Because I Had the Wrong Passport,” in which she claimed she was nearly carted off to a Danish prison for giving invited guest lectures to the Danish parliament. It appears Danes have tightened up the immigration laws so swiftly recently that even the parliament was unaware it had become illegal for academics from outside the European Union to give guest lectures.

Harrington describes “cowering in the middle of [her] kitchen with [her] 7-year-old son, hoping that the two police officers pounding on the door of [her] Copenhagen apartment would not see [them].”

That detail is somewhat sensationalistic in that Danish police are famously civil and Danish prisons the envy of the world, as Harrington would know as she, like myself, lived in Denmark for eight years. The sensationalism served the purpose of the article, however, because the purpose was to draw an analogy between Denmark and the United States, and to point out how ultimately self-destructive are anti-immigrant policies. Harrington asserts, by way of illustration, that the negative publicity generated by her ordeal was likely the reason Denmark lost its bid to be the new home of the European Medicines Agency, an office of the EU that tests pharmaceuticals.

There are a number of problems, however, with the analogy Harrington draws between Denmark and the U.S. First, while it’s true that Denmark has become less welcoming to immigrants in recent years, the reasons behind this are far more complex than Harrington’s article suggests. The first, and most obvious reason, is that Denmark takes care of it immigrants in ways the U.S. does not. Immigrants benefit from the Danish social-welfare system just as do actual citizens. Denmark is not nearly so wealthy a country as the U.S., however. There is a limit to the number of people the Danes can take care of.

Unlike the United States, Denmark has few jobs for immigrants who have not yet mastered the native language. In fact, there are a limited number of jobs, period in a country of fewer than six million people with an unemployment rate of over 5%. Hence immigrants do not have the same positive role in the Danish economy that they have in the U.S. economy. Yet despite this, Danes have continued to welcome immigrants into their country, and to feed, clothe, and educate them.

“Nearly everyone,” Harrington admits, “from the prime minister who warned in an op-ed about overzealous immigration policy to government officials who tweeted about my case to the Danish police officer who read the charges against me over the phone, expressed regret about the absurdity of the prosecution.” Denmark also swiftly changed the law and dropped all charges against Harrington.

Danes appreciate the respects in which foreigners can enhance Danish culture. Denmark is a very small country, a fact of which every Dane is keenly aware. Danes are eager for the knowledge and experience that foreigners can bring to their culture and to the economy. What most Americans, including apparently Harrington, don’t realize, however, is that Danes are fiercely proud of their culture, a culture that the creeping contagion of globalization has long been eroding. When I moved to Denmark in 1990, nearly every shop, from department stores to grocery stores, was closed from early Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. Weekends, in Danish culture, were for family and friends. Florists were among the few shops that were open on the weekends because flowers were a traditional hostess gift.

Danes have, or at least had, a very easy-going lifestyle. They play, arguably, as much as they work and believe, probably correctly, that that is healthy. They even have federally enforced vacations that are paid for by payroll deductions. A small amount of money is deducted from each paycheck. Sometime early in the year, one receives a form from the government where one is required to record the dates one’s planned vacation. And then, like clockwork, several days before one’s vacation is scheduled to start, a check arrives in the amount that was deducted from one’s salary. This helps to ensure, they believe, that people will actually take a vacation, a practice they feel is absolutely essential to one’s general well being.

Things began to change, however, when 7-Elleven first appeared in Denmark back in the 1990s. They were open longer than other stores. Closing laws gradually changed, so now, if you run out of half and half on Saturday afternoon, you don’t have to make your way across town to the grocery store in the main train station, you can just go down the street.

Copenhagen used to be so peaceful and quiet on the weekends. That has changed. Many other things have changed as well, of course. After Denmark joined the European Union, Danes saw their autonomy gradually eroded as they were forced to bring their laws into line with those of the other EU countries whether they wanted to or not.

Danes are a proud people, with a culture they have reason to be proud of. And yet it is slipping through their fingers. I remember the first time I saw a foreigner speaking fluent Danish on a bus. This is a magnificent country, I thought then to myself. Danes took in foreigners and made them their own. Back then, nearly all the foreigners I encountered in Denmark, with the exception of Americans, spoke fluent Danish. Danish was really the only language one heard in public.

That isn’t true anymore. Denmark is afraid of becoming a multi-ethnic society because they fear their culture can’t sustain it. That is, they fear Danish culture will not continue to exist alongside other cultures but that it will simply be supplanted, eventually, by these other cultures. That may seem an irrational fear. Nearly every country is larger than Denmark, however, and one of the defining characteristics of the Danish psyche is an awareness of just how small Denmark is.

The situation in the U.S. is very different from the situation in Denmark. We don’t have a national culture in the same sense that the Danes do. We were a multi-ethnic society almost from the beginning and that is something of which we are justifiably proud.

We do share something with the Danes, however, and that is a gradual, but apparently relentless diminution in the quality of our lives and an erosion of our autonomy. If you want to see people behave badly, then make them feel threatened. History has tried to teach us that lesson over and over again and we refuse to learn in.

Liberals can sling all the mud they want at people they charge are bigots because they want to close the national doors to foreigners. If you want people to open their doors, though, you have to make sure there’s warmth inside to spare.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the December 6, 2019 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch.)

On “Going Low”

I’m teaching critical reasoning this term. It’s one of my favorite classes because it’s so important. Few things are as empowering as being able to reason well. And yet this skill is also a source of enormous frustration in that it is so rare it’s also rarely appreciated. That is, it takes someone who is good at analyzing arguments to be able to recognize when someone else has actually legitimately won an argument rather than simply pummeled his opponent with a hodgepodge of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric.

I have to explain this to my students. I have to explain to them that reasoning well is actually a rare skill and that people who do not have it will often think they’ve won an argument when they haven’t. You can try, of course, to explain to them what is wrong with their pseudo-argumentation but most people won’t even be able to follow the explanation let alone accept they’ve been beaten in an argument.

This point was driven home to me again recently when I found myself on the receiving end of a hail storm of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric in the “Letters” section of the Times Literary Supplement in response to a critical review I had done of a book, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (Allen Lane, 2019), by one of their regular reviewers, Clare Carlisle.

The first barrage of pseudo argumentation came from Carlise herself who began her letter with the observation that she knew of me only via my “online dissections of other scholars’ work.” Of course I was thrilled to see my blog described this way, but Carlisle clearly did not intend it as a compliment. It was an ad hominem. That is, I am disparaged personally twice in that one sentence. I am purportedly obscure, in that my work has not come to Carlisle’s attention, hence I’m not qualified to comment on her book. Moreover, I’m not a nice person because I “dissect” the work of other scholars (I was actually taught that such dissection was an important part of what scholarship is.)

This ad hominem is followed immediately by a straw man. That is, Carlisle accuses me of being unable to appreciate the unique genre of her book. which is a combination of biography and philosophy. This is a straw man, which is to say a mischaracterization of one’s opponent’s argument, in that my criticism was that the book was in fact a combination of biography and fiction in that Carlisle simply makes up thoughts that she attributes to Kierkegaard without this qualification, and in that she gets some facts wrong.

This straw man is then followed by a claim that is demonstrably false. That is, I had mentioned in my review that the references in the book were incomplete. This charge, claimed Carlisle “is simply false.” Except that it isn’t simply false, as I detailed in a letter in the “Letters” section the following week where I cited by page number four of the many quotations for which she is missing references.

I doubt that Carlisle intentionally lied when she asserted that my charge that the book’s references were incomplete was false. She just didn’t bother to check to see if she might have forgotten to include a reference here or there.

Following immediately upon this falsehood is another straw man. Here, instead of responding to my observation that she had based her claim that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity on a conflation of two distinct Danish terms, she mischaracterizes my criticism as a claim that ambivalence and deep commitment are mutually exclusive and argues that it is possible to be both deeply committed to something and ambivalent about it. This point needs further qualification, of course, in that while it is certainly possible to have these conflicting feelings intermittently with respect to the same object, it is not possible to have them simultaneously with respect to the same object. They are mutually exclusive.

That’s not the point, however. The point is that whether it’s possible to be both ambivalent about something while also being deeply committed to it was entirely irrelevant to my criticism. My criticism was that Carlisle had used Kierkegaard’s pejorative references to “Christendom” to support her claim that he was ambivalent about Christianity when she should have known that Kierkegaard does not use “Christendom” to refer to Christianity. but to a culture that purports to be Christian but is not. I made that point very clear in my review, so it is disingenuous of Carlisle to ignore it and and argue instead against a point I did not make.

Carlisle next accuses me of “grim positivism,” a charge it would appear she does not even properly understand because she advances it against my criticism that her portrait of Kierkegaard is “not new” whereas positivism concerns whether claims have been adequately supported by evidence, not whether they are novel (for more on this charge see “‘Grim Positivism’ vs. Truthiness in Biography”).

Next Carlisle inserts a red herring in that she observes that “the facts of [Kierkegaard’s] life are expertly documented in the recently completed critical edition of his journals and in earlier biographies.” She doesn’t argue, as one might expect, that these other sources support her account of the facts of Kierkegaard’s life, hence her reference to them is a red herring. That is, whether the facts of Kierkegaard’s life have been documented somewhere else is irrelevant to the issue of whether she has gotten them right.

Following on this red herring is another ad hominem. Among the earlier biographies that she asserts, erroneously, have expertly documented the facts of Kierkegaard’s life is “Joakim Garff’s monumental SAK, which Piety has been hounding through the dark tunnels of her blog for years.” Unfortunately, whatever the strengths of Garff’s biography may be, expert documentation is not among them. In fact, some of Garff’s facts were proven by another Danish scholar, Peter Tudvad, to have been wrong. That is not the point, however. The point is that Carlisle invokes non-argumentative rhetoric (“dark tunnels”) to disparage both my character (I am a bully) and a blog that she clearly has not even read because if she had read it, she would realize that of the more than 115 posts, fewer than half a dozen have Garff or SAK as their subject and that one of those is very positive.

Carlisle closes, finally, with the informal fallacy known as the sob story, or appeal to pity, in that she asserts that she found it “rather difficult” to write Philosopher of the Heart, as if the fact that she struggled to produce the book could legitimately be advanced as a defense against substantive criticisms of it.

Carlisle’s letter to the editor of the TLS is, from beginning to end, nothing but informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric. Nowhere does she present a genuine response to any of the substantive criticisms I advanced against her book. What would possess Carlisle, a scholar, to write such a letter?

To return to the point about how few people have well-developed reasoning skills, people sometimes “go low,” so to speak, in their “argumentation” simply out of ignorance, or because they can’t distinguish legitimate arguments from pseudo-arguments. Public discourse in the U.S. is so riddled with informal fallacies, etc., and our educational system is generally so bad that it isn’t surprising that even purportedly educated people in this country often stoop to illegitimate rhetorical tactics to defend their positions.

I’d assumed that the situation was better in the U.K. I have to assume, however, that Carlisle is unaware that her letter is nothing but a collection of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric or she wouldn’t have allowed the TLS to print it. After all, scholars usually want to avoid creating a public record that their reasoning skills are weak. What’s going on, I wonder, with the the teaching of critical thinking in the U.K.? I was subjected to a similar hail storm of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric by another U.K. theologian, Daphne Hampson, a couple of years ago.

But even if Carlisle is unaware just how poor the reasoning in her letter was, she certainly cannot have failed to be aware that it is bad form to cast aspersions on the character of someone simply because she doesn’t like their evaluation of her work.

It’s tempting to conclude that Carlisle is simply very ill-mannered. I have it on good authority, however, that she’s actually ”a very fine person.” How is it possible, then, that a very fine person could behave so very badly?

The answer to that question is contained in the letter itself. Someone has clearly disparaged me to her. By her own admission she does not know me and is unfamiliar with my work. She has not even actually read my blog or she would have known better than to charge that I use it to harass Joakim Garff. No, Carlisle has herself no first-hand knowledge of the blog, or at least had none when she wrote her letter. Someone had simply told her about it, and about me. Someone had slandered me to her, told her that I was a bad person, so she felt entitled to “go low” in her letter to the editor on the basis of that slander.

“Civility is a wonderful thing, when shared among equals,” writes Jennifer Weiner in a recent article in the New York Times entitled ”Why Did It Feel So Good To See Trump Booed? We are supposed to ”go high” she observes, quoting the former First Lady, even when others go low. ”Except,” she continues, ”it turns out, going low feels wonderful. More than that, if feels effective and proper and just.” “When you’re confronted with evil,” she continues, however, “you don’t shake its hand … If booing is incivility, bring it on.”

Carlisle has been led to believe that I am a bad person, so rather than responding to the substance of my criticisms of her book, she has effectively booed me. That doesn’t mean, of course, that she is not generally “a very fine person.” I’ve seen other purportedly very fine people behave similarly toward individuals they thought were undeserving of civility. It’s an ugly sight. It reminds me of pack animals turning on a member of the pack they deem to be weak. It makes me doubt sometimes that there really is a significant difference between human beings and those animals.

If standards of decency and decorum really are reserved for those we deem to merit decent treatment, then we really are no better than those animals and civilization as we like to think of it, is a chimera.

I will close with the very Kierkegaardian point that the way one treats another person should be a reflection of one’s own character, not of the character, or imagined character, of the other.

(This essay originally appeared in the 1 November 2019 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.)

 

 

“Grim Positivism” or Truthiness in Biography

Euro-Cinema-COVER-605x770Clare Carlisle took exception to my review in the Times Literary Supplement of her biography of Kierkegaard (“Alone for dinner” TLS 4 October 2019). She accused me in a letter to the editor in the next edition of being either “unable or unwilling to approach [her] life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, i.e., as a literary work combining biography and philosophy” (“Letters,”, TLS 11 October 2019). I have no objection, however, to combining biography and philosophy. In fact, I can’t imagine a biography of a philosopher that wouldn’t do that. How would it be possible to treat fully the life of a thinker without giving any attention to the character of his or her thought? (You can read my response to Carlisle’s letter here.)

No, what Carlisle objected to was not that I failed to approach her life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, but that I did actually approach it on its own terms and exposed it as flawed on those terms. Carlisle didn’t claim that the book was a combination of biography and historical fiction, but that’s what it, in fact, is in that it invents thoughts that Kierkegaard might plausibly have had and then attributes them to him directly, without this qualification.

Carlisle accuses me of “grim positivism” as if I had an objection to a biographer speculating about the inner life of his or her subject. I have no problem with that, though. My objection was to presenting speculations as fact. If Carlisle had simply prefaced her speculations with qualifications such as “at this point, Kierkegaard might well have been thinking…” or “it is reasonable to suppose that Kierkegaard’s thoughts now turned to…,” etc., etc., I’d have had no problem with them.

The charge of “positivism” is a straw man. Positivism, according to Oxford University Press’s online dictionary, means “A philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism.” I don’t think we should recognize only things that can be scientifically verified or proved with mathematical precision, and I didn’t even imply in my review that I thought such a thing. In fact, it is precisely because of the impossibility of pinning down any historical fact with the precision that is required in the hard sciences that the line between fact and fiction must be rigorously maintained.

Historical facts are established as such not by pinning them down with scientific or mathematical precision, but by showing they are supported by the preponderance of available evidence, all the while laboring to uncover more evidence either to support the existing interpretation of the evidence or to tip the scales in favor of an alternative interpretation.

What Carlisle objected to was not my purported “positivism.” It was not even that I exposed that she had attributed thoughts to Kierkegaard without qualifying that they were mere speculations. The most damning revelation of my review was that there were actually errors in the book that would have been flaws even in a work of historical fiction, to the extent that writers of historical fiction endeavor to get the facts on which they creatively elaborate correct. That is, she not only imputed thoughts to Kierkegaard without qualifying them as speculations, she made claims about him that were demonstrably false according to the generally accepted standards of the verification of historical claims, standards that are far looser than those required by positivism, but which are standards nonetheless.

Charges of “positivism” are the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels —i.e., people whose claims have been exposed as having insufficient evidence to support them. Nothing outside the hard sciences can be proven with scientific or mathematical precision, they point out, so the requirement that a particular claim needs more evidence to support it is portrayed as a misguided demand for the impossible. There’s an enormous difference, however, between a demand that a claim be supported by a preponderance of available evidence and a claim that it should be proven with mathematical precision. To conflate the two is either an expression of disingenuousness, as in the case of the tobacco industry’s repeated denial that there was proof cigarettes caused cancer, or feeblemindedness, as is the case with some, if not all, climate-change deniers.

Does it matter very much whether we ever get a really good biography of Kierkegaard? Probably not. That we endeavor assiduously to maintain the line between fact and fiction, however, no matter how challenging that may be, matters a great deal. If intellectuals abandon that distinction, there is little hope that anyone else will maintain it.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the October 18, 2019 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.)

Educating Ourselves about Violence

IMG_2992I’m at a loss to say whether Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover’s highly-celebrated account of her escape from a fundamentalist, survivalist, home-schooled upbringing in Idaho to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, is a good book. What I can say without hesitation is that it’s a disturbing book. It took me awhile to get through it, actually. I was reading it at night before I went to sleep. I had barely started it when I was overcome one morning by dizziness and nausea as I got out of bed. The feeling subsided as the day wore on, but it returned the next morning, and if anything, was even worse.

I don’t remember now how long it took me to figure out what the problem was, and I still can’t be certain that I was correct. I believe, however, that the problem was that I was reading Westover’s extended and graphic descriptions of serious head injuries just before going to sleep and hence planting the suggestion in my mind that I had suffered a similar injury.

Whether my guess was correct or not, the dizziness and nausea, disappeared when I stopped reading the book. I was afraid to pick it up again and didn’t for a long time.  I wouldn’t have picked it up again except that it was the selection of a reading group I was hoping to join. The thing is, there isn’t much to it but these extended, graphic descriptions of injuries. It is essentially a collection of such descriptions strung together with accounts of Westover’s physical and emotional abuse by various family members, and, toward the end, thin filaments of hope as she gradually extricates herself from a web of nightmarish familial relationships.

The book assaults the reader. I’ve never read anything like it before, and I hope never to read anything like it again. I couldn’t get through even a few pages without feeling as if I had been physically throttled, or worse. Here’s just a brief snippet of the one of the many descriptions of head injuries. The Westover family, at the father’s insistence, had set out after dinner on a twelve-hour drive from Arizona, where they had been visiting, back to their home in Idaho. It isn’t clear how the accident happened, as Westover had fallen asleep.

I looked around. Tyler had twisted his upper body so that he was practically climbing into the backseat, his eyes bulging as he took in every cut, every bruise, every pair of wide eyes. I could see his face but it didn’t look like his face. Blood gushed from his mouth and down his shirt. I closed my eyes, trying to forget the twisted angles of his bloodstained teeth. When I opened them again, it was to check everyone else. Richard was holding his head, a hand over each ear like he was trying to block out a noise. Audrey’s nose was strangely hooked and blood was streaming from it down her arm. Luke was shaking but I couldn’t see any blood. I had a gash on my forearm from where the seat’s frame had caught hold of me” (pp. 50-51.)

….

I don’t know how we got home, or when, … Once inside, I watched Tyler spit streams of crimson down the bathroom sink. His front teeth had smashed into the steering wheel and been displaced, so that they jutted backward toward the roof of his mouth.

Mother was laid on the sofa. She mumbled that the light hurt her eyes. We closed the blinds. She wanted to be in the basement, where there were no windows, so Dad carried her downstairs and I didn’t see her for several hours, not until that evening, when I used a dull flashlight to bring her dinner. When I saw her, I didn’t know her. Both eyes were a deep purple, so deep they looked black, and so swollen I couldn’t tell whether they were open or closed. She called me Audrey [Westover’s sister], even after I corrected her twice.

Mother didn’t come out of the basement for a week. Every day the swelling worsened, the black bruises turned blacker. Every night I was sure her face was as marked and deformed as it was possible for a face to be, but every morning it was somehow darker, more tumid. After a week, when the sun went down, we turned off the lights and Mother came upstairs. She looked as if she had two objects strapped to her forehead, large as apples, black as olives. (pp. 52-53).

There’s a lot more of this stuff. There’s a second car accident under almost identical circumstances, with equally serious injuries described at similar length and in similar detail.

Westover and her brothers are repeatedly injured in their capacity as employees of their father’s scrap metal business and their injuries are described at similar length and in similarly graphic detail. Westover’s father isn’t cavalier about occupational safety. That would be putting it too mildly. He is outright contemptuous of it. He seems, in fact, diabolically to court disaster.

One of Westover’s brothers, and then later, her father, accidentally sets himself on fire. We get extended graphic descriptions of both those injuries as well. Here is just a little snippet:

I don’t remember what I saw when I first looked at my father. I know that when Mother had removed the gauze that morning, she’d found that his ears were so burned, the skin so glutinous, they had fused to the syrupy tissue behind them. When I walked through the back door, the first thing I saw was Mother grasping a butter knife, which she was using to pry my father’s ears from his skull. I can still picture her gripping the knife, her eyes fixed, focused, but where my father should be, there’s an aperture in my memory. (p. 281.)

You think I’m exaggerating when I say the book is little more than such descriptions of injuries. I’m not. There are so many violent incidents in the book it’s impossible to keep track of them. There are car accidents, motorcycle accidents, falls, impalements, immolations, assaults. The variety of accidents and injuries staggers the imagination.

Westover’s father never carried any of the heavy pieces of metal that littered his scrap yard to a sorting bin. He just “chucked” them “with all the strength he had, from wherever he was standing” (71) … . He orders Westover into a bin of scrap iron that he’s about to dump in order that she can help to “settle it” — as he’s dumping it… ! There’s the “Shear” that Westover’s father acquired for cutting large pieces of scrap metal that was so obviously “lethal” that one of Westover’s brothers called it “a death machine”… . There’s the forklift and “old cheese pallet” that Westover’s father insists on using instead of a “man lift with a basket” (157)… .

The book is generally well written. But why write such a thing? Westover can’t possibly have wanted to relive those experiences. Did an editor put her up to larding the book with gore on the assumption that readers would like it? I was happy for her at the end after it was clear that the rest of her life was going to be better than the portion she had shared in her memoir. Yet I found the book as a whole deeply disturbing

Clearly, it resonates with many readers, however. It was a best seller and has catapulted its author to fame and fortune. It was nominated for numerous awards. The New York Times listed it as one of the ten best books of 2018. Time magazine named Westover one of the most influential people of 2019. President Obama included it in his summer reading list.

Part of the reason for the book’s success is undoubtedly that it dovetails so neatly with the liberal-elite world view. Young woman caught in a world of violence, racism, sexism, separatism and religious extremism, extricates herself from these evils through — education!

There isn’t much in the book, however, about Westover’s education, and what there is runs like a parallel narrative that rarely seems to connect in any meaningful way with the story of Westover’s violent and abusive childhood and adolescence. Westover’s story deserves telling. It could have been told, however, in much less graphic detail. A couple of extended descriptions of accidents would have sufficed. An account, for example, of the first car accident could have been followed by “…and then later, there was a second accident.” The fist burn description could have been followed by “…and then later my father also accidentally set himself on fire, only this time, the burns were even worse than those my brother had suffered.”

It is almost as disturbing to me as reading the book itself to realize that, based on the book’s success, the public clearly has a taste for such gore. Of course I’ve known Americans love violence. The whole world knows that. I had naively assumed, however, that intellectuals were in the minority of consumers of violent entertainment.

James Gilligan, a forensic psychiatrist and author of several excellent books on violence, writes in Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic that all the serial killers he has worked with were abused, either emotionally, or physically, or both, as children. This abuse was so severe, he argues, that their only defense was to deaden themselves emotionally. They feel very little. “This absence of feeling,” he writes, “is described consistently by murderers throughout the world and throughout history….Many murderers,” he explains, “find that the only way to feel alive, since they cannot feel anything emotionally, is to feel physical pain. So they attempt to induce such feelings by cutting or otherwise injuring their bodies” (p. 39).

Well, that’s us, isn’t it? That’s the U.S. Our culture is so bullying, so punitive, so insensitive, so inhumane, even for those in its upper echelon, it has reduced our capacity to feel. We use violent entertainment to shock ourselves into feeling something, anything, even fear and revulsion, just to reassure ourselves that we are alive and capable of feeling. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the success of Westover’s relentlessly horrific memoir.

Westover may be a great writer, but Educated is not a great book. There’s too little in it that is edifying and too much that’s profoundly disturbing. Westover was ultimately very lucky. If you persevere through the book, you’ll be happy for her. I can’t recommend you do that, though. My recommendation, contrary to President Obama’s, is that you don’t read the book at all.

If you have a taste for violent reading, read Gilligan, and in particular, his Preventing Violence (Prospects for Tomorrow). There’s plenty of gore there, but lots of humanity and wisdom as well. More importantly, while Westover’s book is an account of how one woman escaped from an intolerably violent environment, Gilligan’s books offer a way out for all of us from our intolerably violent culture.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the August 14, 2019 edition of the online political journal Counterpunch.)