On Political Bullying and the Hell of Knee-Jerk Feminism

Portrait caricatureI understand Bernie Sanders has a huge flock of male chauvinist supporters. That seems implausible, doesn’t it? I’m not disputing that someone is posting offensive sexist responses to comments by Clinton supporters on various websites. What I’m skeptical of is the claim that such comments are coming from Sanders’ supporters. I’m not saying there is no such thing as a genuine leftist who is also sexist. They exist. The British are particularly prone to this personality disorder. I doubt, however, that there are many British who are all that involved in online debates among the supporters of various candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in the U.S.

The purported “Bernie Bros” movement is about as plausible as a group called “Vegans for Trump.” In fact, “Bernie bros” sounds very much like an invention of some public relations firm hired by the Clinton campaign. You remember the public relations industry, the people who invented equally implausible fake “grassroots” groups such as the “National Smokers Alliance,” “a supposedly independent organization of individual smokers which claimed that bans on smoking in public places infringed on basic American freedoms” (Trust Us, We’re Experts, p. 239), and the “Wise Use” movement, a fake grassroots group opposed to environmentalism (Trust Us, We’re Experts, p. 20).

The Bernie Bros have been charged with “mansplaining” political issues to Clinton supporters. It wasn’t clear to me, at first, what “mansplaining” was, so I looked it up. It’s apparently a type of explanation that is condescending or patronizing, typically made by a man to a woman whom he assumes may have difficulty understanding what he is trying to say because she is, well, a woman. Now that, of course, is bad. From what I have been able to gather, however, the “mansplaining” of Sanders’ supporters is characterized not by condescension or contempt, but by factual references and valid inferences. That is, Bernie Bro “mansplainers” use sound arguments as rhetorical clubs to beat down the specious arguments of people who claim that the facts, and the valid inferences that can be drawn from them, are not relevant to the issue of Clinton’s fitness to hold the highest office in the land.

I have to tell you that, as a woman, I take offense at the implication that sound arguments are somehow inherently masculine and that using them to defend one’s political position constitutes a type of bullying. It can indeed be humiliating to have one’s errors in reasoning publicly exposed, and I have a certain sympathy for the plight of Clinton supporters for whom this ordeal must seem unrelenting. No one is forcing them to go to the barricades, however, for someone whose record makes her effectively indefensible.

Polls suggest that Clinton’s main supporters are older women. That makes me wonder whether the teaching of critical reasoning is a relatively recent pedagogical development. Learning to recognize fallacious arguments and non-argumentative rhetoric, takes some training (see philosopher Stephen Stich’s “Could Man Be An Irrational Animal”, Synthese 64 [1985] 115-135”). Perhaps many older women failed to receive that training.

Madeleine Albright appears, in any case, never to have taken a first-year critical reasoning course. Albright rebuked female Sanders supporters at a rally for Clinton in New Hampshire. She reminded everyone that the battle for gender equality had not yet been won, that there was still much work to be done before it would be, and that part of that work involved supporting Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. “Just remember,” she concluded, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

Really, Madeleine? Do you really think women should support other women simply because they are women? Where would you draw the line? Should women always support other women who seek political office, not matter what their views? Should all the women in the U.K. have supported Margaret Thatcher, simply because she was a woman, even if they disagreed with her conservative views? So women don’t get the same freedom of choice as men do? They don’t get to vote their consciences? And if they dare to do that, they’re bad people?

That sort of effort at persuasion is, in fact, a very specific form of informal fallacy known as “peer pressure,” which is itself one of a family of informal fallacies referred to as “appeals to emotion.” When you can’t get people to agree with your position on its merits, just try making them feel really bad about disagreeing with you. So instead of Clinton supporters attempting to use sound reasoning to persuade women that Clinton is the better Democratic candidate, they hurl invectives at them such as “You’re betraying women!” or better yet: “You’re going to hell!”

Really, Madeleine? Do you really think this generation of educated young women is going to be taken in by such transparently underhanded rhetorical tactics as that? Really, Hillary? You’re not going to denounce that kind of tactic?

If you want an example of bullying, there it is.

There was a time, way back in the early days of feminism, when some cognitively challenged feminist scholars argued that logic was inherently masculine, that while men made decisions based on reasoning and logic, women made them based on intuitions and emotions and that this was an equally valid way of making decisions (see, for example Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice). Fortunately, this view has few followers nowadays. Years of increased access for women to high-quality education has made it glaringly obvious that men do not have a monopoly on rationality and that the whole logic versus emotions view of reasoning was itself a false dichotomy based on an inadequate understanding of the complexity of rational thought.

Albright is right, of course, in her observation that women’s fight to “climb the ladder” of equality with men is not done. Bullying them to vote for a candidate against their own better judgement is hardly going to advance that cause, however. The Clinton campaign’s knee-jerk “feminism” is creating a hell of its own, and not just for women who refuse to jump on the Clinton bandwagon, but for all women, because it will only confirm in the minds of horrified onlookers that women are not actually so rational as they claim and hence will set the whole feminist movement back decades.

(This piece originally appeared in the 26 February 2016 issue of Counterpunch.)

On Political “Realism”

Portrait caricatureI have a lot of liberal friends who like the ideas of universal healthcare, a living minimum wage, and free higher education, but who support Clinton, rather than Sanders because they think she is more “realistic.” I’m talking about educated people, people who have spent time in countries that have these things and so have first-hand knowledge of their feasibility. Someday, these people tell me, someday we will have these things, but the country is not ready for them yet. They argue that they are being “realistic.” I would argue, however, that they’re not being realistic; they’re being idiotic. That is, their position isn’t even coherent.

Now the cynic, the cynic has a coherent position. It’s not one I like, but it’s coherent anyway. The cynic thinks everyone is stupid. The cynic says Americans will never be ready for such things because they’re mean spirited as well as stupid. They don’t want other people to have decent lives, they want people to suffer, they want it so much that they will allow that desire to override their own individual self-interest, if they only realized that the programs they opposed were in their interest.

Most people don’t realize the social programs they oppose are in their own interest and not simply the interest of masses of spectral “freeloaders,” but even if they did, the cynic explains, they wouldn’t support them because they get so much pleasure from seeing other people suffer that in their own perverse utilitarian calculations, that pleasure outweighs the pain caused to themselves by the absence of such programs.

I told you it was an unattractive position. It is at least coherent, though, in contrast to the position of many Clinton supporters. As a philosopher, I feel compelled to point out that if a person wants to achieve some goal, then he or she must take action to bring about that goal. Assuming one will achieve it without having to work for it, amounts to the view that it will happen all by itself, and that violates the principle of sufficient reason, which is the assertion that nothing happens for no reason. When the goals in question are things such as universal healthcare, a living minimum wage, and free higher education, then the action required of the person who desires to bring these things about, is that he or she vote for politicians who promise to work for them.

Believing that one day we will get a single-payer healthcare system, a living minimum wage, and free higher education even though people who like the idea of such programs are unwilling to vote for candidates who support them is not simply unrealistic – its fantastical! It’s a kind of supernaturalism, like the belief in Santa Claus. Clinton won’t support such things, no mainstream Democratic political candidate will support them, but we’ll get them one day anyway? How? Via the agency of the Good Healthcare Fairy? Santa Living Minimum Wage? The Free Higher Education Bunny?

Is Sanders’ problem that he doesn’t have a flowing white beard and flaming hair? Would Clinton supporters who profess to be liberals then recognize in Sanders the messiah for whom they appear to be waiting, the politician who will not have to fight an intractable Congress, but will be able to command it to do his bidding, like Charleton Heston commanding the waters of the Red Sea to part?

Wow, talk about “unrealistic”; that’s outright delusional. Why isn’t Richard Dawkins going after these people? They’re every bit as irrational as religious fundamentalists, if not more so. There’s a kind of bizarre logic to fundamentalism, but I don’t see any logic at all to the position of most Clinton supporters, except, that is, for the ones who are Republicans and who view Clinton as the best of a sorry field of political conservatives.

It’s hard to tell exactly what has gone wrong with the higher cognitive functions of Clinton supporters (the ones who purport to be liberal, I mean). Does the irrationality stem from an inherent inability to see the incoherencies in their own position? Or does it stem from a fear that if they actually support Sanders and he doesn’t win (either the nomination or the presidency, it doesn’t matter), that people will laugh at them? There is hardly anything more shameful in the U.S., after all, than losing. Even cheating is smiled at indulgently if the cheater can manage to win.

Winning is everything. It doesn’t matter that an enormously persuasive case has already been made that Sanders would have a much greater chance than Clinton of actually winning the presidential election, there is still a chance he might not. On the other hand, you can’t really lose if you support Clinton (except in the eyes of people who actually know how to think), because even if she loses you can always claim it was because of sexism!

That’s what happens when politics becomes so partisan that it’s indistinguishable from a sporting event. But then I’m not being fair to sports. I know die-hard fans of particular sports teams who are capable of acknowledging when their teams are performing badly, as well as of analyzing why and what they need to do to improve.

So there we are, either Clinton supporters are cowards, people whose self esteem is so low that they will allow their fear of being laughed at to override their higher cognitive functions, or they’re irredeemably stupid and are incapable of seeing the incoherence in voting for someone who opposes things they profess to want, while persisting in believing that we will one day get these things anyway, without having to vote for a candidate who promises them.

It’s rare that the realism of purported “idealism” stands out so clearly as it does in this election. If people want things such as a single-payer healthcare system, a living minimum wage, and free higher education, then they’re going to have to vote for candidates who support them, rather than for candidates who oppose them. It’s as simple as that.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in Counterpunch, on 22 February 2016.)

 

 

On Wasting Your Vote

Portrait caricatureA disturbing number of Americans are going to end up wasting their votes in this next election. They’re unhappy with the status quo, but instead of changing it, they’re only going to reinforce it. I’m not talking about democrats who are planning to vote third-party. I’m talking about democrats who don’t really like Clinton’s pseudo-progressive platform, but who are so afraid Sanders can’t win that they’re going to vote for Clinton anyway and justify that vote by invoking “the lesser of the two evils” argument. That is, they’re going to defend their support of Clinton on the grounds that even though there’s a lot they don’t like about her, she’d be better than a Republican president.

It is not at all clear, however, that Sanders couldn’t win. A recent article in Counterpunch makes a devastatingly good argument that, in fact, Sanders is our only chance of getting a democrat in the White House this time around. But even if that weren’t true, it’s time someone pointed out that the invocation of the “lesser of two evils argument” to defend otherwise indefensible political choices is profoundly misguided. It is precisely such reasoning that has driven us relentlessly into our current position between a rock and a hard place.

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that the greatest invention in human history was compound interest. I beg to differ. I think it’s the “lesser of two evils” argument. It’s brilliant. Give people two options, neither of which they find appealing, convince them that a third option, a genuinely attractive one, is just not practicable and that they must thus choose between the bad and the worse, and you’ll be able to get them to choose something they would never otherwise choose.

You can get people to do anything that way. You start by offering them a choice between something that is just marginally unpleasant and something that is really repellent. Once you’ve gotten them to choose the marginally unpleasant, you raise the bar (just a little mind you, you don’t want them to catch on to what you’re doing). Now you offer them a choice between something to which they have really strong objections and something that is deeply offensive. Most people, of course, will choose the former, if they think it’s either that or the latter. Now you offer people who’ve become inured to living under objectionable conditions a choice between even worse conditions and something that is truly unthinkable. It’s not mystery what they will choose.

There’s been a lot of angry posturing from Americans who think of themselves as progressive about how the purported political center in this country has been moving inexorably to the right, yet it’s these very people who are directly responsible for the shift. If you vote for a candidate who’s farther right than you would prefer, well, then you’re shifting the political “center” to the right. Republicans aren’t responsible for the increasingly conservative face of the democratic party. Democrats are responsible for it. Democrats keep racing to the polls like lemmings being chased by the boogeyman.

“This is not the election to vote for real change” runs the Democratic refrain. We’re in a crisis! We must do whatever it takes to ensure that the republicans don’t get in office even if that means voting for a democrat whose policies we don’t really like and which are only marginally distinguishable from those of the Republican candidate. That “margin” is important, we’re reminded again and again. That little difference is going to make all the difference.

Even if that were true, which it ought to be clear by now it is not (see Bart Gruzalski’s “Jill Stein and the 99 Percent”), it would still offer a very poor justification for voting for a candidate one doesn’t really like. Why? Because it is an expression of short-term thinking. Thomas Hobbes argued that privileging short-term over long-term goals was irrational, and yet that’s what we’ve been doing in this country for as long as I can remember. Americans are notoriously short-term oriented. As Luc Sante noted in a piece in the New York Review of Books, America is “the country of the perpetual present tense.” Perhaps that’s part of the anti-intellectualism that Richard Hofstadter wrote about. “Just keep the republicans out of office for this election!” we’re always commanded. “We can worry about real change later!”

Of course anyone who stopped to think about it ought to realize that that mythical “later” is never going to come. With the notable exception of Sanders, our choices have been getting worse not better, and if we keep invoking the “lesser of the two evils” to justify them, we are in effect, digging our own graves.

God is not going to deliver to us from the clouds the candidate of our dreams, the candidate who despite his or her wildly populist views somehow manages to win over the corporate powers we have allowed, through our own incorrigible stupidity, to control the political process in this country. If we are ever going to see real political change of the sort progressives purport to want, then we are going to have to be brave enough to risk losing an election. Which shouldn’t require all that much bravery when one thinks about it, because real progressives have been losing elections for as long as anyone can remember in that the democrats haven’t been genuinely progressive for as long as anyone can remember.

If you vote for Clinton in the primary because you think of yourself as progressive and you fear Sanders is un-electable, think again. You are wasting your vote because what you are actually saying is that you are willing to support a candidate who is not really progressive, that the Democrats can continue their relentless march to the right and that you will back them all the way. That is, if you vote for Clinton because you say you are progressive, you are saying one thing and doing another. But actions, as everyone knows, speak louder than words. You can go on posturing about how progressive you are, but if you vote for Clinton that posturing is empty.

If we are ever going to see real progressive political change in this country we have to brave enough to openly risk defeat, and we have to have faith that our fellow progressives will be similarly brave. William James makes this point very eloquently in his essay “The Will to Believe.” “A social organism,” he wrote,

of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.

Progressive political change will never be a fact unless we have faith in its coming, unless we have faith that others will back us up when we refuse to be forced to vote yet again for a candidate we do not like.

I, for one, abhor cowardice. I’m not going to be intimidated into voting for a candidate I don’t like by threats of the “greater evil.” I am going to vote for the candidate whose platform I actually endorse. Even if my candidate doesn’t win the election, my vote will count for something and not merely in the sense that it will allow me to preserve my self respect. I’m not afraid of being condemned as naively optimistic. Without such optimism we’d never have had democracy in the first place. Democracy, one of the crowning achievements of human history, is precisely the product of the courage to act on one’s conscience and that faith that others will do so as well. If we’ve lost those things, then we will get the president we deserve.

(An earlier version of this piece appear in the October 12, 2012 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

On Greatness

Pelikan 100For the first time in 37 years, we have a Triple-Crown winner. American Pharaoh didn’t win by a nose. He won by five and a half lengths! It was thrilling to watch him pull away from a group comprised of the fastest horses on the planet, to see him establish a lead that it was increasingly clear would be impossible for any of the other horses to overcome. It was an elevating spectacle. Joe Draper, wrote in The New York Times that “[t]he fans in a capacity crowd strained on their tiptoes and let our a roar from deep in their souls. It was going to end, finally – this 37-year search for a great racehorse.”

That’s right, he said the fans let out a roar “from deep in their souls.” Many cried. Toward the end of that same story he refers to American Pharaoh’s run as “ethereal.” The spectacle of greatness is always edifying because there is something sublime about it. We know this, all of us. We know it innately. We are always on the lookout for greatness, just as all mammals, as social creatures, are always on the lookout for individuals to follow, individuals who can lead them, even when they have no idea of where they might be going. This is the source of the cult of personality that seems to hold sway, to some extent anyway, in even the most egalitarian of societies.

It’s easier for us to admit that some animals are superior to others than to admit that some people are. American Pharaoh is superior to all other race horses. Seabiscuit, though not a Triple-Crown winner, was superior in his time as well, not just in speed, but in endurance and intelligence.

The rhetoric of democracy leaves little room, however, for the idea that some people might be superior to other people. Even the suggestion is frightening, conjuring up as it does, thoughts of the bad old days of slavery, of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and of other genocidal movements around the world.

“We hold these truths to be self evident,” reads Declaration of Independence, which then goes on to describe the purported inherent equality of all human beings (or at least all “men”) as chief among these self-evident truths. And yet all human beings are not equal, not even at the moment, so to speak, of their creation. It isn’t just nurture that accounts for differences among human beings, though my suspicion is that it accounts for most of them. Nature has her say as well. Some people are more beautiful than other people, some faster, some smarter or more talented in one way or another, some people are even kinder or more tolerant by nature than others. Parents who are honest will admit that many of these differences appear to be present from birth.

Why is it hard for us to admit that some people are superior to other people? Is it because we’re afraid to awaken the sleeping monster of exploitation that so often lives parasitically on this truth? That’s part of it, I believe. Religion can prevent such exploitation, however, even while acknowledging inherent differences among human beings, on the grounds that we are all God’s creatures and hence have, despite our differences, equal claim to dignity as such.

Even secular humanism can protect people from the exploitation that can come with the recognition that some people are superior to other people on the grounds that no rational, or even merely sentient, creature should ever be treated merely as a means to the ends of others.

The real source, I believe, of our failure to openly acknowledge that all human beings are not, in fact, equal comes not from fear of the evil consequences of such an acknowledgement, but from fear of the good ones. Kierkegaard talks about that, about the fear of what Plato called “the Good.” We all have it to some extent or other.

There is a relentlessly leveling dynamic in contemporary Western culture, a desire to tear down, to discredit anyone who dares to rise above the fray. Danes call this Janteloven, or the law of Jante, which can be summed up as: No one should have the temerity to think he is any better than anyone else.

This leveling tendency masquerades as a progressive force, yet it is anything but. The spectacle of greatness is sublime. It elevates us above our petty egoisms, confronts us with the fact that there is something larger and more important than our paltry, individual selves. And this, my friends, is a dangerous, dangerous truth that what I will unfashionably call “the forces of darkness” would rather keep hidden from us.

To glimpse this truth is life changing. Those whose lives are illuminated by it are not compulsive consumers. They are not petty, envious of neighbors, neurotically fearful of perceived enemies. They support the development of human potential, not retributive systems of justice and endless war.

Egalitarianism can be a force for positive social change, but all too often it is a lie designed to keep us down. We need heroes. Martin Luther King may have had his faults, but he was still better than the rest of us, and so, I submit, is Noam Chomsky. There are lots of these superior people. They have always been with us and, thankfully, they always will be. Our lives, and society as a whole, would be made better if we were allowed to openly acknowledge them as such, to celebrate them, to let out a roar at the spectacle of them – from deep within our souls.

(This article originally appeared in the 9 June 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

On the Demise of the Professoriate

Portrait caricatureMichael Schwalbe’s recent article in Counterpunch, The Twilight of the Professors,” paints a rather darker picture of the future of the professoriate than I believe is warranted. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say, paints a somewhat misleading picture of the dynamics behind the demise of the professoriate as a positive force for social and political progress.

Schwalbe is correct that the “tightening of the academic job market has intensified competition for the tenure-track jobs that remain.” He’s also correct that it is prudent for graduate students to focus their efforts on publishing in academic journals rather than in media more accessible to a general readership. Hasn’t that always been the case, though? The problem, I submit, with academic journals is not so much that their intended audience is academics as it is that most of these journals just aren’t very good. The pressure on academics is not merely to publish in academic journals, but also to edit them with the result that there are now too many of them and too many of questionable quality. Almost anyone can get published in an academic journal nowadays, but much of the material that is published in them, as Alan Sokal demonstrated to devastating effect back in 1996, is gibberish.

The situation is not much better with academic presses than with scholarly journals. Even some of the top presses are publishing material that would never have seen the light of day in earlier periods when there was greater quality control. Nearly all the emphasis in academia these days, as in the larger society, is on quantity rather than quality. Academic presses, such as Lexington Books, send out mass emails to academics, effectively trawling for book proposals. I spoke about this problem recently with a representative from the more selective German publisher Springer. “These guys are just publishing too much,” he said, smiling in a conspiratorial way.

No one can keep up with which among the proliferating academic journals and presses are actually any good, so emphasis tends to be placed on the quantity of publications a scholar can amass rather than on their quality. This means, of course, that the savvy self promoter with little of any real value to contribute to the life of the mind can more easily carve out an academic career now than can a genuine intellectual who would have actual scruples about dressing up old insights as new ones, as well as against publishing what is effectively the same article over and over again.

The problem is not that academic journals are in principle of no popular value so much as it is that most academic journals these days are in fact of no popular value because there are just too damn many of them and most of them are no damn good. Hardly anyone actually reads them, even among academics.

It may be true, as Schwalbe observes, that graduate students are advised to craft Facebook pages and Tweets “with the concerns of prospective employers in mind,” but what does that mean? The prospective employers in questions are other scholars, not university administrators. There are too many demands on the time of most university administrators for them to scrutinize the Facebook pages and Tweets of all the scholars who earn the department hiring committee’s seal of approval. The problem, I believe, is less that hiring committees are on the lookout for political radicals as it is that they’re too often on the lookout for people who are going to show them up. Few people are possessed of such high self esteem that they are comfortable in the company of someone they suspect might actually be smarter than they are, and academics are no exception.

The growing ranks of “contingently employed” academics “is further conservatizing” charges Schwalbe. The argument that such faculty will censor their writing in order not to offend their employers sounds good in the abstract, but as is so often the case with arguments that are internally coherent, it doesn’t correspond to the facts. Some particularly fearful and feeble-minded underemployed academics may do this, but it doesn’t take long for contingent faculty to realize that most of the tenured faculty in their own departments, to say nothing of university administrators, don’t even know who they are, let alone what they are writing.

Contingently employed academics represent a growing army of educated, literate, yet grossly underpaid workers. Such a population is the ideal breeding ground for political radicalism and, indeed, some are beginning to unionize.

Demands for grant getting, as Schwalbe observes, undeniably slant research in the sciences in the corporate direction. But, most leftist public intellectuals have traditionally come from the humanities rather than the sciences.

The real threat, I believe, to the professoriate as a force for positive social and political change, comes not so much from the factors Schwalbe mentions as from things more deeply rooted in American culture such as egoism and anti-intellectualism. The egoism that is fostered by so much in American culture keeps many academics from making what appear on a superficial level to be personal sacrifices even for the good of their students, let alone for the good of society more generally (I say “on a superficial level” because faculty who make such “sacrifices” are rewarded many times over by the satisfaction of actually bettering the lives of their students and, in that way, of humanity more generally). Tenured faculty have a responsibility to help their students develop the critical, analytical and communicative skills that are essential to actualizing the distinctively human potential for self determination, but too many abdicate this responsibility because of the time and effort required to live up to it.

The professoriate is almost universally opposed to assessment. I have never been an opponent of it however. I’m well aware, of course, that it can be abused, but it has become increasingly clear to me that at least one reason so many academics are opposed to it is that it would reveal that they are not, in fact, teaching their students much.

Some effort at assessment of student learning in the humanities could be a vehicle of revolutionary change in that it would put pressure on tenured faculty actually to teach students something, and would expose that the working conditions of many contingent faculty are such that requiring this of them is like asking them to make bricks without straw.

Assessment could be a force for radical social and political change in that implemented properly, it would make all too clear both how decades of the dismantling of the K-12 system of public education and the analogous onslaught on the funding of higher education have not simply resulted in a generation of less-than-excellent sheep, but also, as Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker argue in Thinking for a Living: Education and the Wealth of Nations (Basic Books, 1993), threaten the social and economic future of this country. In fact, assessment in higher education could have such a profoundly progressive effect that if I didn’t know better, I’d think the movement against it was a conservative plot.

It isn’t a conservative plot, though, unless conservatives are far more devious than most of us imagine and their whole sustained attack on education in general was originally designed to produce an academic job market that was so neurotically competitive it would gradually weed out academics committed to anything other than the advancement of their own, individual careers.

It’s counter productive to demonize university administrators. There are some bad ones, of course, and their salaries, like the salaries of their corporate equivalents, need to be brought back into line with those of the individuals they supervise. It’s not university administrators, however, as Schwalbe claims, who are responsible for the purported decline in leftist intellectuals, but scarcity conditions in the academic job market that are ultimately traceable back to American egoism and anti-intellectualism. But American egoism and anti-intellectualism are problems that are far less easily solved than the largely phantom “conservatizing trends” in higher education that Schwalbe discusses in his article.

(This piece originally appeared in the 8 June 2015 edition of Counterpunch under the title “The Real Threat to the American Proefssoriate.”)

On Collective Guilt

Ruth_Andreas-TitelWe can’t leave the Holocaust alone. That might be a good thing if we had the courage to view it honestly. We don’t though. We insist that it’s a puzzle we continue to try to solve, ostensibly so that we will know where to place blame, and in that way also know how to ensure that it will never happen again. We refuse, however, to place blame where it really belongs and so we keep turning it over and over, searching for something we will never find.

Why the Germans? Why the Jews? are questions that Götz Aly takes up in a new book the title of which begins with these questions (Metropolitan Books, 2014). Aly’s theory, not particularly novel, is that the social and economic advances made possible for Jews in Germany as a result of a series of legal reforms in the various German states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made them objects of envy. “Not all Nazi voters,” acknowledges Christopher R. Browning in a review of Aly’s book, “were anti-Semitic, but they at least tolerated Nazi anti-Semitism” (“How Envy of Jews Lay Behind It,” The New York Review of Books, January 8, 2015).

“But how to explain,” Browning continues, “this ‘moral insensibility’ and ‘moral torpor’ of 1933-1944, which underpinned the ‘criminal collaboration’ between the German people and the Nazi regime?” The answer Aly offered first in Hitler’s Beneficiaries (Metropolitan Books, 2005), was material gain. Aly’s new work supplements the motive of material gain with a “new morality” involving race theory that would justify such collaboration.

Many Germans remained unconvinced, however, by the new race theory. Many Germans were, in fact, untroubled by the legal reforms that had made possible the flowering of the Jewish middle class. Many Germans had even championed these reforms.

What happened to those people?

The journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, who lived in Berlin during the war, gives us some insight into what happened to them in the diary she kept from 1938-1945. Initially, at least, they were not helping the Nazis. Her entry for Nov 10, 1938, the day after the infamous Kristallnacht,“ gives moving testament to that fact. At half past nine in the morning Andreas-Friedrich took a bus to her office. “The bus conductor looks at me,” she writes,

as if he had something important to say, but then just shakes his head, and looks away guiltily. My fellow passengers don’t look up at all. Everyone’s expression seems somehow to be asking forgiveness. The Kurfürstendamm is a sea of broken glass. At the corner of Fasanenstraße people are gathering–a mute mass looking in dismay at the synagogue, whose dome is hidden in a cloud of smoke.

            ‘A damn shame!’ a man beside me whispers … [W]e all feel that we are brothers as we sit here in the bus ready to die of shame. Brothers in shame; comrades in humiliation” (Berlin Underground 1938-1945 [Paragon House, 1989).

When she gets to the office, her editor, whom she observes, was “rumored to have a tinge of Nazism, ” says “one doesn’t dare look people in the eye anymore” (21).

“They’ve dragged all them all away–all the Jewish men they could get hold of,” begins her entry for the next day.

Only those who were warned in time have escaped the raid. Thank Heavens, a good many were warned. Hundreds managed to disappear at the houses of friends; hundreds sought shelter with strangers and found it. One little seamstress took in two Jewish fugitives; she didn’t even know their names or where they came from. Workingmen in the Frankfurter Allee brought back to the Jewish shop-owners the merchandise that was scattered over the street. They didn’t say a word, just tugged sheepishly at their caps. The chief surgeon of a hospital is hiding a wounded rabbi in the back room from the bloodhounds of the Gestapo.

            While the SS was raging, innumerable fellow Germans were ready to die of pity and shame” (p. 25).

The next line of the translation reads “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” If one goes to the original German edition of the diaries, however, the text continues

Women are dashing about the city today with mysterious bundles under their arms, meeting one another on street corners: Shaving articles for Doctor Weißmann. A clean shirt for Fritz Levy, night things for Jochen Cohn. One tries, as much as possible, to look after those in hiding. It isn’t advisable for them to come out of hiding yet. What happened yesterday could continue today (Der Schattenmann [The Shadow Man], Suhrkamp, 2nd ed. 2012, p. 38).

Then comes the line “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” There is no ellipsis to indicate material was omitted. One could argue it doesn’t matter because what makes it into the translation makes clear that the general reaction of Berliners to Kristallnacht was one of horror. Still, the omitted material makes even clearer how widespread among gentiles was sympathy for the plight of the Jews.

Interesting, eh? People running about the city collecting the necessary articles for friends, and in some cases even strangers, they’re protecting. Jews being given shelter by countless German gentiles. Workmen returning to Jewish shop-owners merchandise that had been scattered on the street. What happened to those countless Germans who were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, to those countless “brothers in shame”?

What do you think happened to them? What happens to people who try to help others as it becomes increasingly clear what such assistance might eventually cost them? Some continue, despite the danger, some go into resistance groups such as “Uncle Emil,“ the one with which Andreas-Friedrich became associated, but most do not.

Andreas-Friedrich “looks lovingly” at the man who whispers “A damn shame!” at the sight of the burning synagogue.

“It occurs to me,” she writes, “that this is ”really the time to call your neighbor ‘brother.’ But I don’t do it. One never does; one just thinks it. And if you really do pluck up the courage for a running start, in the end you just ask, ‘Pardon me, could you tell me the time?’ And then you are instantly ashamed of being such a coward” (p. 19).

Why couldn’t she do it? Why couldn’t she acknowledge to the man that she also condemned what had happened the night before? Why couldn’t any of the people on the bus who were hanging their heads in shame, in silent shame? Why doesn’t one do it?

Years ago I saw a nature program that focused on a litter of wolf cubs. There were three cubs in the den. One emerged, however, days before the other two. He was bold, he was courageous. He was eager to explore the outside world. Ah, I thought to myself, he will be the alpha wolf. He will grow up to be the leader.

One day, though, the brave little cub came home from his explorations with an injured foot. He left again the next day, undaunted by his grisly experience of the day before, but that evening, he did not return. He never returned again. Who knows what had gotten him, but something clearly had.

Several more days passed after the disappearance of the first little cub before the two remaining ones peeked out, trembling, bodies pressed together, from the mouth of the little den. Another day still passed before they had the courage actually to emerge fully from the shelter of their home.

And suddenly I understood why human beings are such a miserable craven lot. Natural selection has ensured that cowardly individuals have a higher survival rate than courageous ones. They live longer, produce more offspring. So it isn’t our fault, really, that we’re such a miserable, craven lot. It’s in our genes.

And yet it is our fault because cowardice isn’t the only thing that’s in our genes. We have somehow also evolved a conscience. We know, as Aristotle expressed it in the Nicomachean Ethics, that there are things we ought rather to “face death” than do (Book III 1). And yet few of us have the courage to face death to do the right thing. Few of us even have the courage to say “brother” to another who affirms the values we purport to hold dear.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the February 16th issue of The New Yorker that the Germans “failed miserably” to draw a line between the innocent and the guilty after the war. She writes, in fact, that to say they “failed miserably” would be “generous” (“The Last Trial”). That’s true, of course, though in a different sense, I think, than the one Kolbert meant, because the line, drawn properly, would encircle us all, all except for the few whose willingness to martyr themselves to do the right thing places them not outside the group, but above it.

We are all guilty of the cravenness that paved the way for the Holocaust, the glass through which we keep seeing darkly, which we keep turning over and over in a vain attempt to escape our own reflection. If we had the courage to recognize ourselves in it, then perhaps we could learn from it. But courage, sadly, is precisely what we lack.

(This piece is dedicated to my dear friend and German tutor of many years, Ebba Mørkeberg 1924-2014.  It originally appeared in the of Feb 17, 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

Material Culture

I like things. I’ve always been like that. I’m acquisitive. I have so much stuff that I routinely have to go through it get rid of some of it. I used to feel guilty about my acquisitive tendency, but I’ve become reconciled to it in the last few years.

My desk

I’m fascinated by things. I don’t remember when I first started haunting thrift stores, junk shops, salvage places, but I know that I was very young. There was something compelling to me about things that were old, things that had been so well made that they’d survived when shoddier things would have to have been thrown away, something fascinating about what time, and much handling, does to things. I liked the sheer variety of utilitarian things because they seemed to me to be a concrete expression of the ephemera of human experience, of the daily grind of, for example, working in an office. I like old office supplies, the heavy old Royal typewriters like the one my father used when I was a child, old staplers, hole punches, mechanical pencils. I wonder, always, whether the offices where these things were once so useful still exist, if people are still working there, or if perhaps they’ve been torn down.

I especially like old fountain pens. This is partly, I think, because I write so much and partly because I come from a family of writers. I’ve used a fountain pen for as long as I can remember and have been collecting them for at least twenty years. When I say “collecting,” I don’t mean that I’m stockpiling rare and expensive pens. Firstly, I don’t have the money to do that. Secondly, I buy pens to write with, not to look at.

I’ll go through long periods where I won’t buy any pens, but then I’ll start buying them again. Not many, just one or two. I couldn’t afford to buy more than that because they’re not cheap. In the beginning, I told myself that I was searching for the perfect pen and that when I found it, I’d stop buying pens. But I could never content myself with a single pen for long, no matter how nice it was. You might think that perhaps my standards are too high. It isn’t that, though. I love all my pens (the ones I have kept, anyway; the others I sell). It’s not that I become disappointed with the pens I have. It’s that I want more. I crave variety.

I’ve bought and sold many pens online. I’d never been to a pen show, though, until last weekend when there was one in Philadelphia, where I live. I didn’t need any new pens, of course, but I did need work done on a couple of pens I already had, and I needed someone to show me how to fill my Parker Vacumatic. The Vacumatic has a unique filling system that is not used anymore and is difficult to figure out. I knew there would be someone at the show who could explain it to me, so I packed up my Parker and headed for the Sheraton on 17th Street where the show was being held.

It seemed everyone in the pen world was there. There were lots of dealers selling both new and vintage pens, along with other writing equipment and arcane sorts of office supplies and pen ephemera. I was in heaven! I caught just a snippet of a conversation as I was wandering from one table to another. One of the dealers was talking to a customer:

“You have to have passion for something,” he said. “Passion is what makes life worth living!”

I suspect everyone there would have agreed. Most of the interest was in the old pens, the ones that had seen lots of use but which had been so magnificently conceived and constructed that they now, almost a century later in some cases, could still be used.

The biggest attractions at most pen shows, though, are not the pens. Anything can be bought online now, even the oldest eyedropper pens from the nineteenth century. No, the biggest attractions are the nibmeisters, the guys who repair old pens and, in particular, custom grind nibs. They can take a medium point and grind it down to a fine, put an angle on it for what is called an “oblique” nib, turn it into a “stub” or an “italic.” You don’t have to go to a show to get a custom-ground nib. You can mail a pen off to be reground. That takes a while, though (sometimes months), and, more importantly, you might not be entirely happy with the results. The nib might be too fine, or it might be scratchy. You won’t know, though, until the pen comes back, and if you aren’t entirely happy with the regrind, you’ll either have to settle for less than what you wanted or pop it back in the mail again and endure another long wait. If you get a nib ground at a show, on the other hand, you can sit there while the work is being done. You can try it out and give it back immediately to the nibmeister for an adjustment if you aren’t entirely happy with it.

I had a nib I wanted worked on. I’d started collecting Pelikan pens. I love Pelikans for several reasons. First, they hold more ink than most other pens, and second, they feel very good in the hand. Third, they have what are called “responsive nibs,” meaning nibs that give somewhat if pressure is applied to them so they feel just a little like how old quill pens must have felt. Their nibs tend to be a slightly broader, however, than the nibs on the pens I was used to, so I had brought my latest Pelikan to see if something could be done to it to give it a crisper line. I asked James Baer, of Monomoy Vintage Pen in Newton, MA. He’d shown me how to fill my Parker Vacumatic, so I thought he might also be able to help me with my nib. Unfortunately, he wasn’t doing any grinding at the show. He directed me instead to a young man named Tim Girdler sitting just a few tables away.

I had to put my name on a waiting list and then wander around the show until my turn came.

“What do you want?” he asked like a cook at a lunch counter. I had a Pelikan, I explained.  It had a “fine” point, but I’d started with Japanese pens and their “fines” were much finer so the Pelikan seemed a little “blobby” to me. I told him that I’d like him to put a slight slant on the nib, to make it into an “oblique” because I knew that would give me a crisper line.

He asked me to write something so he could see how I wrote, the angle at which I held the pen. After I did a little writing sample for him, he said he didn’t think that an oblique was really what I wanted.

“Let me try something,” he said. He took the pen and began to rub the nib on a little piece of emery paper.

“Now try it,” he said as he handed it back to me.

It was better, but still not what I wanted, so I gave it back to him and he got out his little motorized grinding stone so that he could work more aggressively on it than the emery paper would allow.

“How’s this?” he said eventually, and then added “you’re going to hate it.” I knew why he’d added that. He’d flattened out the nib like a stub, but he hadn’t bothered to smooth it yet. He wanted to see if I liked the line quality of the new grind before he put in all the effort to make it write smoothly.

He was right, I did hate it. And yet, and yet, it had just the line quality I’d been looking for. The only problem was that it was scratchy, but I knew that was fixable.

“I like it!” I exclaimed, a smile spreading across my face, “except, of course, for the fact that it is very scratchy.” I gave it back to him and he went to work on it again with the emery paper.

When he finally gave it back to me it was perfect. I mean it was really perfect! It had exactly the line quality I wanted, and it wrote very smoothly. He cautioned me that it would never write quite so smoothly as a regular nib. That’s the thing about italic nibs, he explained, they aren’t scratchy if they’re ground properly, but they aren’t so smooth as a standard nib either. There’s a sweet spot on them, he explained. You have to hold the pen at exactly the right angle or you’ll get a little drag. A standard nib is more forgiving, but it’s also less distinctive.

He said I had sixty days, or something like that, during which I could still have adjustments made, so I took his card, just in case. I’d heard him say to the person before me that he’d been a seminary student. I was surprised, though, when I looked at his card, to read “Tim Girdler Pens: Ministering Through the Perfect Pen.” He had made my life better, I realized, through the work he’d done on my pen, through the concern he’d shown for what I wanted.

I’m so happy with with my “new” pen, I’m just writing and writing, so happy now to have my pen just the way I want it. Passion is indeed what makes life worth living. Tim Girdler has it. It must have taken him years to become so skilled as he is now, skilled at something that he must always have known would never be in great demand. Tim Girdler has passion and he uses it to make people’s lives better. He isn’t the only pen person who cares for more than his own material wellbeing. Rick Propas, of “The PENguin Fountain Pens,” once offered to send me a whole tray of pens to practice repairing–for nothing, just because he could tell I shared his passion. I’d never met him either, but only corresponded with him via email.

Passion is part of what attracts me to things. You can see it in the design of things, in how they’re finished, in the attention to detail. You can see, in things, the shape of human aspirations. There’s a humanity that pervades things made by human beings for human purposes. This is even more evident, I think, in things that have been used. That’s why I like the patina of use. It shows the humanity of the thing, or the humanity that clings to it. I can’t get enough of that, or enough of the things that speak in that way of other peoples lives.

So I keep buying things, especially old pens. There’s a line I love in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy, who has just learned he’s dying of cancer, is talking to his son about mortality. “The human animal,” he explains, “is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!”

I wonder if it isn’t life everlasting that I’m looking for. I feel sometimes, when I’m trawling through other people’s discarded possessions, or sitting at my desk surrounded by things I know once belonged to people now long dead, that life everlasting is what I have in my things. It’s as if I’ve taken the lives of these other people up into my own, as if, in that way, I’ve created a timeless connection between us, a timelessness that is a little eternity of its own.

(This essay originally appeared in Counterpunch under the title “Living in a Material World.”