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 relentless 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.)

 

On Biblical Inerrancy

Greek text of RomansThe United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States , voted on voted on Tuesday, February 26th, to affirm its official stance that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not all Methodists agree with this view, of course, as is detailed in an article on the vote in The New York Times. Many do, though, hence the outcome of the vote. And Methodists are not the only “Christians” who consider homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. People who hold this view usually justify it by pointing to specific passages in the New Testament that appear to support it. The question is: Does the New Testament unequivocally condemn homosexuality?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Bible is inerrant. What are the implications of that? That means, it would appear, that the Bible can’t be wrong in either descriptive or prescriptive terms. What does it mean, though, to be “right” in those terms? Is the primary purpose of historical narrative to present an accurate reconstruction of past events, or is it to guide readers, or listeners, to teach them something about human folly, human weakness and frailty, with the aim of making humanity’s future better than its past? Is an “accurate” historical narrative one that gets the facts right or one that presents them in a way that will be optimally instructive?

My concern here is not so much with the descriptive nature of biblical narrative as with its prescriptive nature. People who believe in biblical inerrancy often do so because they believe the Bible is God’s speaking directly to humanity and that that message contains rules for how we are to behave. Even if it were the case that the Bible was God speaking directly to humanity, it would not solve the problem of determining what God meant in a particular instance because all communication is meaningful as such only after it has been interpreted, and any interpretation undertaken by people who are assumed to be marred by sin is going to be problematic. “Love your neighbor” seems fairly uncomplicated and yet for some people that means forcing their neighbor to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, while for other people it means positively assisting their neighbor in his efforts to stand on his own.

The idea, however, that the Bible is God speaking directly to humanity is foolishness. God speaking directly would be God speaking directly and not to some specific people who are then tasked with recording the divine message and passing it on to the rest of humanity. The Bible is, by definition, God speaking indirectly to humanity through the agency of specific individuals (and many more individuals, it appears now, than was originally supposed). That, in itself, does not mean the Bible cannot be inerrant, but it does complicate the task of determining what God’s message is.

Add to this the fact that much, if not all of the Bible was undisputedly written long after the events it records and in many instances in a language other than that of its source. Jesus communicated with his followers in Aramaic, so even ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ώς σεαυτόν, let alone “love your neighbor as yourself,” are not Jesus’s original words. Imagine for yourself the potential for alteration that is unavoidably associated with the translation of a message from one language to another and then the passing down of that translation orally from one generation to another for thirty, forty, fifty, or even a hundred years before it is actually written down. Anyone who has ever played a game of “Telephone” knows how badly a message can be mangled even over the course of a single evening, to say nothing of a period that transcends a generation.

Add to that the fact that it is now clear, as Bart Ehrman and others have argued, that portions of the texts of the New Testament were not merely inadvertently changed when, of necessity, they were copied by hand, but deliberately changed to make them more unequivocally reflect evolving church doctrine. Such a practice might seem sinister at first, but it is merely a result of the fact that even the earliest copyists of the writings that eventually became the New Testament realized that the texts they had inherited were themselves interpretations, products of other human hands, inevitably marred by mistakes and misinterpretations that they, with their changes, endeavored to put right.

Paul is now widely believed by scholars not to have said that women shouldn’t preach, that that injunction appeared in a letter that he didn’t even write, but which was erroneously attributed to him. In fact, quite a number of writings that have traditionally been attributed to Paul are now widely believed not to have been written by Paul but by later adherents to the new Christian faith.

But assume, for the sake of argument, that we have the original texts of the New Testament in their pristine and unadulterated form. Even that would not relieve of us the burden of interpretation. Even that would not eliminate all possibility of error in our interpretations. Take, for example, Matthew 13:12: “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Revised Standard Version).

To him who has what? What does that passage mean? Is it a reference to how wretched is humanity that it would so order itself that the rich get would get richer and the poor get poorer? That’s how Billie Holiday interpreted it. Does it refer to love, so that it means the more love a person has, the more love that person will receive? That’s how I used to like to think of that passage. It makes sense to me that loving people would tend to be more loved than those who were less loving.

But then one day I became curious and decided to find out what the Greek term was that was translated as “has” in that passage and learned to my surprise that among the many meanings of that term, ἔχω, listed in the online edition of the Liddell-Scott dictionary of ancient Greek, was “to possess mentally, understand.” So the passage might actually mean something like “to him who understands more understanding will be given,” etc.

That meaning actually fits best both with what appears to be the meaning of the preceding passage where Jesus talks about the importance of having “ears” to hear his message, as well as with the line that immediately precedes it (i.e., Matthew 13:11) where Jesus says to his disciples “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” That is, because they understand Jesus’s basic message, they will understand his individual parables and hence gain more understanding with each new parable.

Of course it is possible that the passage means all three of these things at once. That’s part of what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard referred to as “the genius of language,” that the same combination of words can have multiple meanings.

What, to pick a passage that is more apposite to the recent decision of the leaders of the United Methodist Church to continue to condemn homosexuality, is the meaning of Romans 1:26-27.

Therefore God gave them to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The Oxford Annotated Bible says

[a]lthough widely read today as a reference to homosexuality, the language of ‘unnatural’ intercourse was more often used in Paul’s day to denote not the orientation of sexual desire but its immoderate indulgence, which was believed to weaken the body (the due penalty).

That makes sense because it sounds like the Greek position more generally, or at least the position of many Greek philosophers and Paul was an admirer of Greek philosophy. Passion, they believed, was suspect because it led to excess and excess is generally bad. Moderation, the Greeks believed, was to be aimed at in all things.

So what does the passage mean? Does it refer damningly to a lack of restraint? Does it mean that excessive indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh is “unnatural” and “shameless”? Does it mean such unrestrained physical passion is bad. Or does it mean only heterosexuality is pleasing to God?

I’m inclined to the former interpretation because a lack of restraint and excessive indulgence in almost anything tends to be self destructive. God’s creatures have a sacred duty to preserve and protect themselves. The main crime, according to Paul, of the people to whom Romans 1:26-27 refers was that they had turned away from God. They did not see themselves as God’s creatures. “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking” (Romans 1:21).

A creator that loves its creatures would not want them to engage in self-destructive behavior. By the same token, however, a creator that is defined as love would presumably approve of the love its creatures had for one another. It seems not only bizarrely arbitrary, but directly counter to what most people like to think of as the core message of Christianity that God would condemn love because it was directed at a purportedly inappropriate object. Such a view doesn’t seem divine. It seems, on the contrary, all too human.

Unfortunately, much of what goes by the name “love” is not genuine love, but actually the instrumentalizing of one person by another, the use of one person merely as a means to another person’s sensuous or egoistical gratification. But that sad practice has no direct relation to sexual orientation. It is as pervasive in heterosexual relationships as in every other purportedly loving relationship including those between friends, siblings, and even parents and children.

Of course it is possible that Paul really did mean to condemn homosexuality as such. Human beings throughout history have condemned certain things as “deviant” simply because they were not the norm. That is the origin of the pejorative connotations of “sinister,” a Latin word that simply means “left.” There was a time when purportedly good, God-fearing Christians believed left-handed people were in league with Lucifer.

Fortunately, few Christians believe that now. They abandoned that view, presumably, because someone actually thought about it a little and decided that it would be inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings to condemn people simply because they were different.

So if Paul actually meant to condemn homosexuality as such rather than simply to condemn unrestrained physical passion, that would appear to be a place where he erred in his understanding of Jesus’s teaching. We don’t have to assume that’s what he meant, though, at least not in that passage. It isn’t actually all that clear what he meant. We have to try to figure that out for ourselves.

Even for those who believe in biblical inerrancy, the Bible is very far from a comprehensive set of specific rules for how to live. Human existence is just too complex; novel situations are constantly springing up. No set of rules for how to live can cover every conceivable situation. What is needed in order to give human beings instruction in how to live are not specific rules, but general ones.

“Christian revelation was intended,” asserted John Stuart Mill way back in the nineteenth century (Utilitarianism, chapter 2) “to inform the hearts and minds of mankind with a spirit which should enable them to find for themselves what is right, and incline them to do it when found, rather than to tell them, except in a very general way, what it is.”

I’m inclined, sometimes, to think of Biblical inerrancy as consisting in the inexorable quality of scripture to reveal what lies deepest in people. My mother, whose parents were both ministers in the Assemblies of God church, once said that in her experience religion made good people better and bad people worse.

Don’t be quick to judge the meaning of scripture. Even if the truth is always there somewhere its substance is arguably rarely obvious. One must look deeply into any text in order to divine its true meaning and nowhere is this more true than with the Bible, hence James’s admonition that one must “persevere” when attempting to understand it (James 1:25). Even people who believe in biblical inerrancy must look long and hard into the “mirror” of the New Testament if they want to divine God’s message to humanity there.

So look long and hard into the mirror of what you assume to be God’s word. If what is reflected back to you is anger and condemnation, then look again. Look again and keep looking.

Persevere in your looking until what is reflected back to you is love.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the March 11, 2019 edition of Counterpunch under the title “On Biblical Inerrancy: Some Reflections for United Methodists and Other “Christians.”)

 

 

 

 

Reading Plato in the Age of the Oligarchs

Sachs' Republic coverPlato has a bad reputation in many circles because his most famous work, the Republic, appears to defend all sorts of ideas that are unpalatable to most contemporary readers, ideas such as that people need to be protected from the truth, that large-scale censorship and even the deliberate dissemination of false and misleading information by governments is defensible as a means of ensuring order in a society. I believe, however, as I have argued elsewhere, that such a view of Plato is mistaken.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the positive value of a liberal arts education. I couldn’t agree more. There is much we could learn, for example, from Plato’s Republic. Despite the fact that it disparages what it calls “democracy,” the democracy it describes is not one that I believe would be recognizable as such to any Enlightenment thinker. More importantly for the purposes of the present reflections, the Republic takes nearly as dim a view of societies that value money above everything else. Such societies are generally referred to as “plutocracies,” which literally means “government by the wealthy.” Interestingly, however, Plato calls them “oligarchies” which means “government by the few,” because he believes that societies that value money above everything else will inevitably end up concentrating the wealth in the hands of a very small number of people.

I love teaching the Republic for many reasons. It is a beautiful and deeply moving book. One of the things that makes it such a joy to teach, though, is how it engages students. The city on which the book focuses is what Socrates calls an aristocracy, or “government by the best individuals.” Even this city, he acknowledges, however, in Book VIII, will inevitably succumb to a process of dissolution into a series of increasingly degenerate states, first to a timocracy, or “government in which love of honor is the ruling principle,” then to an oligarchy, which values money above everything else, from there to a democracy, which according to Socrates, values nothing at all except freedom from restraint, and finally, to a tyranny.

Students need no coaching in where to place the U.S. on this sad trajectory of political decline. They zero in on oligarchy every time, despite the fact that most of them have been raised to think of the U.S. as a democracy. Young people are a lot smarter than we tend to give them credit for being and they have little tolerance for people who value money above everything else.

I made an important discovery recently that relates to this issue, thanks to one of my students. It concerns a problem in several translations of the Republic, including Allan Bloom’s, which is considered by many scholars to be the best.

There is a personality type, asserts Socrates, that corresponds to each type of political regime. The oligarchical personality type, that is, the personality type that values money above everything else, appears to be just. He isn’t really just, though, according to Socrates. He simply needs to maintain a reputation for being just for the purposes of contractual relations, but he does this, Socrates explains, by

forcibly holding down bad desires, which are there, with some decent part of himself. He holds them down not by persuading them that they had “better not” nor by taming them with argument, but by necessity and fear. (554c7-d).

One of my students remarked that it was strange Socrates would say that the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires with some “decent” part of himself, but that despite that, he wasn’t really just, but only appeared to be just. The student wanted to know what the Greek term was that was translated as “decent.”

I looked it up. The Greek expression Plato uses in the passage where Socrates talks about how the the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires “with some decent part of himself” is ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The relevant term is ἐπιεικεῖ. It means “fitting,” “meet,” or “suitable” according to Liddell-Scott, the standard dictionary for translating ancient Greek into contemporary English. It’s related to ὲπιείκεια, which means “reasonableness,” “fairness,” or “equity.”

My student was right, though, to point out that there was a problem with describing the part of the oligarchical man that holds down his bad desires as “decent.” Neither Bloom’s “decent part of himself” nor Shorey’s “better element in himself” coheres well with the point Socrates is making in the passage because the oligarchical man isn’t trying to be good. He isn’t genuinely virtuous, but only appears to be virtuous. He holds down his evil desires, according to Socrates, out of “fear,” not because he wants to be good, but because he is afraid that by giving in to those desires, he’ll get a bad reputation and no one will want to do business with him.

It isn’t any “decent” part, or “better element,” of the oligarchical man through which he restrains his evil desires. He has a desire to seem (δοκέω) just, not to be just. The desire to seem just isn’t actually a good desire. That is, it doesn’t have any positive moral worth, hence the reference to his “other evil desires” (my emphasis). Bloom omits the “other” (ἄλλας) when he refers to the oligarchical man’s holding down his “bad desires” (κακὰς ἐπιθυμίας). This omission encourages the view that there is something morally praiseworthy in the oligarchical man that is responsible for his good reputation. There isn’t.

Paul Shorey’s Loeb Classical Library version of the Republic translates this passage as “he, by some better element in himself forcibly keeps down other evil desires dwelling within.” It looks like Shorey was aware, however, that it isn’t actually anything morally positive, or “decent,” in the oligarchical man that holds down his “bad desires,” because he has a note in which he writes that “ἐπιεικεῖ is here used generally, and not in its special sense of ‘sweet reasonableness’.”

It appears ἐπιεικεῖ is being used here in the purely prudential sense of “fitting.” That is, the oligarchical man holds down some bad, or evil, desires in order more effectively to serve his evil desire to seem just. What holds down those other “evil desires” is whatever it is in him that is, in fact, capable of doing this. It isn’t some morally praiseworthy part of himself. So why have so many scholars chosen to translate it with English terms that have positive moral or ethical connotations? Such translations actually make the passage harder to understand.

The new Loeb Classical Library version of the Republic by Chris Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy has the oligarchical man using “some element of fairness within himself” to restrain his “other wrong desires.” That’s perhaps no worse than Shorey’s translation. Unfortunately, unlike Shorey, they fail to alert the reader to what is problematic in translating ἐπιεικεῖ with a morally positive expression such as “element of fairness,” so in that sense, the new Loeb Republic is a step backward.

Benjamin Jowett’s translation “has enforced virtue,” where Bloom has “decent part of himself” and that is actually better than either Bloom’s or either of the Loeb translations. The best translation of this passage, however, that I have found is, I believe, Joe Sachs’. Sachs has “quasi-decent constraint over himself” for ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The qualification “quasi” is important because it makes clear, as none of the other translations does, that the constraint the oligarchical man exercises over himself only seems to be “decent.”

I haven’t used Sachs translation before, but I am going to consider using it the next time I teach the Republic. It may not be uniformly better than other translations, but it definitely seems deserving of a closer look.

It’s tempting to think that works that have already been translated many times probably don’t need to be translated anew. In fact, however, no translation is ever perfect. Language changes over time, and that translators have their own particular biases. It is therefore a good idea to re-translate important works at regular intervals, just to make sure that the language of the translation is keeping up with contemporary usage and that any bias that may have influenced earlier translations is corrected for.

Clearly Plato’s Republic deserves to be repeatedly re-translated. There is a great deal of wisdom in it, including insight into the moral bankruptcy, on both an individual and a collective level, of valuing money above everything else.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2018 issue of Counterpunch)

 

Reflections on “Reflections from a Hashtag”

I was sexually harassed by one of my professors in graduate school. He was the director of the graduate program and was known to host parties at his apartment for the graduate students. I assumed, when he invited me to his apartment for “dinner,” that the “dinner” in question was such an event.

I was wrong. I was the only guest for what had clearly been conceived as a romantic dinner. There was filet mignon wrapped in bacon and an excellent cabernet. I was surprised to find myself the object of such attentions, but I wasn’t frightened, not at first, anyway. The professor in question, let’s call him Professor H. (H. for “harasser”), was only a few years older than I was. We were both young and unattached. Unfortunately, though I was flattered by his interest, I didn’t reciprocate it. I tried to communicate this to him in a way that would minimize his hurt and embarrassment. He was a hard man to put off though. The evening ended, I kid you not, with his literally chasing me around the dining table. He kept moving uncomfortably close to me and I kept moving away, around and around the dining table until, finally, he seemed to get the point.

When he realized, or appeared to realize, anyway, that I was not simply playing hard-to-get, he told me that he appreciated my honesty and that what was most important to him was that we continued to have a positive professional relationship. And we did continue to have a positive professional relationship, at least for the next couple of weeks.

“Whew, dodged that bullet,” I thought to myself gratefully.

But then, things changed. He suddenly became openly hostile toward me. He would publicly disparage everything I said, both in class and outside of it. He once spent an entire class arguing to the other students present that a remark I had made in relation to what is known in philosophy as “personal identity theory” demonstrated beyond all doubt that I was an irredeemable idiot.

Professor H.’s behavior toward me became increasingly hostile as the weeks passed. Finally, the lone tenured woman in the department approached me privately and explained that she knew what was going on. She had been a victim of Professor H. herself. It was very important, she explained to me, that I complain to the chair of the department because Professor H. was disparaging me to other faculty to such an extent that I was in danger of losing my funding.

So I dutifully complained to the chair. I will never forget his first words.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” he said, “Professor H. has been warned about this.”

By that time, I knew Professor H. had a history. I just didn’t know how extensive it was. It seemed he used the graduate program as his personal dating pool. He’d started doing that, actually, even before he’d become the director of the graduate program. His behavior was so conspicuous that a group of graduate students had actually protested his appointment as director.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” the chair said. “You don’t want to make a formal complaint against him, though,” he continued, “because that would hurt his career.”

I’m not a vindictive person. It seemed to me that Professor H. was not really evil, but simply incredibly emotionally immature. I didn’t want to hurt his career (though in retrospect, I doubt very much that a formal complaint against him would have had that effect). I just wanted him to leave me alone. I wanted to have my work evaluated fairly. The chair said he would talk to Professor H., and I’m sure he did, because my funding was not revoked.

I never again enjoyed the favor, in an academic sense, I mean, of any of my professors. When I’d first arrived in the program, I’d been feted as if I were some kind of celebrity. All the professors welcomed me, commented favorably on my work, invited me to their homes, etc. Not after I had gone to the chair about Professor H., though. No one was openly hostile, the way Professor H. had been, but everyone was decidedly cool. I was grudgingly given passing grades (one of my papers from this period was later published, in the same form in which I had submitted it for a grade, and then reprinted both in English and in Chinese and Russian translations, in an anthology and a textbook). The same well-intentioned female professor again approached me privately, however, and explained to me that I should not solicit letters of recommendation from any of the faculty in my own program, that I would have to rely on what she knew was my growing list of professional contacts outside my program when it came time for me to look for a job.

Thanks to the practice of blind reviewing, which involves concealing the identity of the author of a scholarly paper when it is submitted to referees for judgment concerning whether it should be published, I was able to begin publishing scholarly articles while still a student and to build, gradually, a reputation that made it possible for me to obtain a Fulbright fellowship and then, finally, a tenure-track job.

It was a long, hard slog, though. The job market back then was no better than it is now. Philosophy is a notoriously sexist discipline and a job candidate, man or woman, who cannot present letters of recommendation from any of the faculty of their degree-granting institution is automatically thought of as suspect.

I labored mightily for years to become the best possible scholar, and amassed an impressive collection of publications, and yet I still regard it as something of a miracle that I was able to secure a tenure-track position, to get tenure, and finally, to be promoted to full “Professor.” I knew I would have to work as if my life depended on it, so I did. It seemed pointless to reflect on how unfair it was that I did not enjoy the patronage of a powerful professor that is more often than not the decisive factor in opening the door to a tenure-track position for a newly-minted Ph.D. in philosophy. That was my lot, so I tried to make the best of it.

I spent a great deal of time, however, trying to figure out how things could ever go so terribly wrong as they had for me. Why hadn’t Professor H. been read the riot act immediately after his first transgression? Why hadn’t the proverbial fear of God been placed in him by so that he would at least have been discreet, even if he’d been a victim of satyriasis and unable actually to stop himself?[1] Professor H. wasn’t the only professor in that department who abused his authority to initiate sexual liaisons with female graduate students. Not everyone did it, but many did, and those who didn’t, viewed the antics of the others as a spectator sport.

This all came rushing back to me when I read Jian Ghomeshi’s “Reflections from a Hashtag” in the New York Review of Books (October 11, 2018). Ghomeshi was a prominent Canadian broadcaster who lost his job and was publicly vilified after he was accused of sexual harassment and assault.

“When a well-known fellow broadcaster saw me with a twenty-something date at a film festival event in Toronto,” writes Jian Ghomeshi, who was then thirty-nine, “he left a voice mail saying, ‘Dude, you are the king!’ I basked in his praise,” Ghomeshi continues, “He’d never called me before and never mentioned my work; the real message was the women I was with were the true gauge of success” (p. 29).

That was the way Professor H. was viewed. He was “the king!” He eventually left the university in question and moved to another university where he continued to harass female students until one of them finally sued.

I haven’t mentioned Professor H.’s name because singling him out for blame is now pointless. You could figure out who he was, of course, if you wanted to do a little research. The purpose of my recounting these events, however, is to make clear that harassment and abuse of women is a systemic problem. It goes on for one very simple and straightforward reason: It is allowed to go on. This is partly because of what Ghomeshi correctly identifies as a “systemic culture of unhealthy masculinity” (p. 30) that leads many men not merely to derive pleasure from harassing and abusing women, but to derive pleasure from the spectacle of it.

There is more to the problem than that, though. There is what I call “the first-stone problem.” Ghomeshi writes that many male acquaintances furtively commiserated with him. “What happened to you,” they wrote, “could have been me.” People are naturally reluctant to point fingers at one another for fear of having fingers pointed back at them. Most people are not sexual predators, but there aren’t many people who don’t have something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of, something they don’t want paraded before the general public. This makes people naturally reluctant to call out the bad behavior of others.

“Professor H. didn’t mean to harass you,” the chair explained to me. “He didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable or threatened, or to coerce you into a sexual relationship.” (I’m paraphrasing now, of course, because the conversation took place many years ago and only his first words remain indelibly marked on my memory.) “He’s just emotionally immature. He reacts badly when things don’t go the way he wants them to.”

I think that was a pretty accurate depiction of Professor H.’s character. He wasn’t a bad guy. He just had an unfortunate habit of behaving badly, very badly under certain circumstances. Philosophers distinguish, however, between explanation and justification. Professor H.’s emotional immaturity explained his bad behavior, but it didn’t justify it. Bad behavior should never be tolerated just because the person engaging it isn’t normally a bad person. People need to be called on their behavior, and judgment about their character, reserved for a higher power. Unless, of course, they are being considered for a position of such authority that the question of their character, however ultimately undecidable, becomes crucially relevant.

People are so social that they tend to respond more or less appropriately to censure, even private censure, to say nothing of public censure, by someone in a position of authority. If people are called on their inappropriate behavior, unless they are serious sociopaths, they will usually, at least eventually, stop engaging in it.

Aristotle figured this out long ago (if Plato hadn’t actually figured it out before him). If you want people to behave in certain ways, he wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics (Books I and II), then the culture needs to reinforce that kind of behavior. And if there are ways you don’t want them to behave, then the culture needs to send a clear message to that effect as well.

We need, without exception, to hold individuals responsible for behaviors that violate norms of what we, as a culture, collectively feel is right. We are deluding ourselves, however, if we think that by targeting individuals in this way we are dealing effectively with what is clearly a systemic problem. It may give the impression we are doing something about the problem, but all the while, the problem waxes and thrives.

 

[1] Discretion is actually very important. One of the problems of the conspicuous abuse of authority to initiate sexual relationships with students is that it makes other students feel vulnerable. Not only does it create anxiety. It can lead students to think that they would be well advised to initiate such relationships themselves simply to make sure that they have a protector.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 1 October 2018 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.

On Speaking Small Truths to Power

Scan 4I inherited my father’s papers after his death. I’ve been going through them, slowly, in an attempt to put them into some kind of order. My father was a journalist for most of his professional life, so his papers consist mainly of old newspaper pieces, news articles, examples from a column he had for a while called Humble Pie, and then masses of editorials from late in his career when he had become an editorial writer.

I think my father always wanted to be an editorial writer. He had to work his way up to that, though. He actually began his journalistic career as a sports writer. I haven’t found any of those articles, but I did come across a mysterious letter from 1962 that referred to one of them. The letter was from the city clerk of the city of Madison, IL. “Your column in the March 19th issue of the Evening Journal,” it reads

left a profound effect upon the officials of the City of Madison, Illinois and all loyal Madison High Basketball fans. Newspapers are generally inclined, like so many of us, to soft pedal certain controversial issues. Such was not, however, the way in which your article was written. Its frankness, while it did not give Madison a victory against Belleville, certainly brought to light the handicap to which our team was subjected.

It is therefore with the utmost sincerity and humility that I, as City Clerk, extend to you on behalf of the City Officials and citizens of the City of Madison, Illinois a thank you for a fine job of honest reporting and impartial journalism.

Very truly yours,

Percy Lux

City Clerk

Madison, Illinois

What, I wondered could have prompted such a letter? What was the “controversial issue”? Articles on the sports page don’t generally have a “profound effect” on readers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the article among my father’s papers. Fortunately, I had the date and the name of the newspaper in which it appeared, so, with the help of Debbie Ross and Teri Barnett, of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, I was able to get a copy.

“The Illinois High School Association has been accused of high-handed and autocratic conduct many times,” my father’s article begins. “But its incredible blunder in assigning Fred Gibson of Centralia as one of the officials in the Granite City Sectional Tournament last week will long rank in the minds of many area basketball fans as the rankest kind of injustice to Madison High School.”

Let me set the scene. Madison High School’s basketball team was scheduled to face off against Belleville High School’s team in the Granite City Sectional, part of the first round of the Illinois State High School Basketball Championships. Centralia, which had long had one of the best high school basketball teams in Illinois, was favored win its sectional game and hence to face off against the winner of the Granite City Sectional. Centralia thus had an obvious interest in the outcome of the latter game. Madison was unbeaten, but Belleville was not. So they would naturally rather face Belleville than Madison, which means they must have hoped the long-shot Belleville would win.

Fred Gibson, the man referred to in my father’s article, was, again, from Centralia. Moreover, Gibson was known to be hard on the type of “aggressive, pressing defense” employed by Madison.

“Coaches of teams involved in tournament play,” my father wrote “each list a number of officials who might be assigned to work that tournament. As nearly as possible the IHSA tries to assign to a particular tournament the two officials who received the highest ranking.” Madison’s coach had understandably rated Gibson “as low as possible” on his list of officials for the Granite City Sectional. According to the article, the assistant to the executive secretary of the IHSA had assured the coach, Madison’s principal, and a Madison High School board member, that Gibson “would not work on any game involving Madison.”

Despite these assurances, however, Gibson was selected to officiate at the Granite City Sectional, the game that would determine who his own home team would face in the next round of the state high school basketball championship.

The game did not go well for Madison. Gibson, true to form, was hard on them, with the result that their all-stater Don Freeman was “out nearly half of the game.” Madison couldn’t overcome this handicap and eventually lost.

The reaction of Centralia’s players, when they received the news of Madison’s defeat, was reportedly euphoric. According to one observer “[t]hose kids cheered like they had won the state championship.” And, indeed, they did go on to beat Belleville in the next round of the tournament.

There is no accusation in the article of foul play on the part of Referee Gibson. The charge is rather that because of Gibson’s obvious conflict of interest, the IHSA had behaved badly in picking him to officiate that game.

“Officials,” my father wrote, “like Caesar’s wife, must avoid the appearance of evil, and Gibson, a Centralia official, is not the proper man to assign to a tournament where Centralia has a consuming interest in the outcome of the tournament.”

High School basketball is to Illinois almost what high school football is to Texas. And nowhere, it appears, is it more important than at Centralia. “For nearly 70 years,” observes Robert Bittner in an article from 2004, “the Centralia Orphans have been the ‘winningest’ high school boys basketball team in the United States.” Predominantly-white Centralia had been on a more than 30-year-long winning streak by 1962 when it feared facing off against the more racially-mixed Madison. Fortunately for Centralia, the IHSA helped to ensure that those fears were not realized.

So what was the controversial issue? Was it simply that the IHSA may have been biased in favor of Centralia and may have allowed that bias to influence its selection of Gibson to officiate at the Granite City Sectional? Or could it have been even more sinister? Could the bias have stemmed from racial prejudice? I doubt there is anyone around anymore who could answer that question.

What is clear is that Madison felt cheated, and its city officials were moved that someone had the courage to make their case in print. They weren’t just moved. They were “profound[ly]” affected.

It is a small thing, a basketball game. It isn’t a small thing, though, to feel one has been cheated. Such feelings can fester for years, souring a person’s view of human nature and society. Enough such injustices, or perceived injustices, small though they may be, can eventually make it impossible for a person to be truly happy. People are profoundly social and cannot realize their full potential for happiness except as individual elements in a web of relationships that form a harmonious and mutually supportive community. A persistent lack of faith and trust in others makes for an unhappy life.

I think my father understood that, and that’s why he kept the letter from Madison’s City Officials. He went on to speak larger truths to larger powers and was often in trouble with his editors, first because of his involvement in the civil rights movement, and later because of his views on the conflict in the Middle East. I think he understood, however, that no injustice is so small that it doesn’t rankle, doesn’t pollute the psyche of its victim.

Who would have thought that an article about a high school basketball game could be so important?

 

(I would like to thank Debbie Ross and Teri Barnett of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, both for helping me to locate my father’s article and for sending me a copy it. An earlier version of this article appeared in the 20 June 2018 issue of Counterpunch.)