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.)

 

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.)

On The Presence of Things

IMG_1991My father died in January and his death has forced me to face a question for which I still have no answer. The issue is the relation of the psyche, or what I will call the “spirit,” to the material world. Since Plato, we’ve tended to think of human beings as defined more by their minds than by their bodies. This view is probably most pronounced among religious people, for whom the material world, including our physical bodies, are encumbrances from which we will one day be liberated. Our attachment to material things, or to physical reality more generally, is viewed as a kind of disease of which we cannot help but long to be cured.

Strive as we might, though, it appears we cannot be cured of it. When a person we love dies, we are almost never content simply to commune with their spirit, or to remember them in our thoughts. We crave relics that testify to their earlier physical reality, their tangibility.

When my father died, I took on the task of clearing out his apartment. This was not merely to help my siblings, but because I wanted to be among his things. It was comforting. In the beginning, when the apartment was just as he left it, it seemed almost as if he were still alive, as if he had just stepped out and might walk through the door any minute. I knew he wouldn’t, of course, but there was something comforting in the fact that his home was still there, just as he had arranged it. It was a physical expression of who he was and it gave him a physical presence even though he could no longer be physically present himself. As the days passed, though, and the apartment was gradually emptied as things were boxed to be shipped or given away, it became excruciatingly painful, like witnessing a wasting away of flesh.

I had difficulty parting with anything and, in fact, I kept many of my father’s things, things I know I will probably never use. Some things, such as the little metal box my sisters and I had bought him when we were children, and which he always used to store his cuff links, I have kept purely as mementos. That box sits now on my own dresser. I open it periodically and examine its contents. There’s nothing in it of any value, only a few pairs of cuff links, and some screws and safety pins, but looking at my father’s things makes me feel closer to him somehow.

My father was a writer. I also have his papers. It isn’t just the thoughts expressed in them, though, that are important to me. I’m attached to the papers themselves, to the faded and dirty typescript of his unpublished novel, to the yellowed copies of his newspaper articles. I’m scanning everything to preserve it and so I can share it with the rest of my family. If I were “prudent” I’d dispose of the originals once the process is complete. I don’t have a lot of storage space. I won’t dispose of the originals, though. I debated doing that and that debate is what prompted these reflections.

Religious people often think that contempt for the material world is supported by scripture. I suppose it is, at least to a certain extent, or in a certain respect. And yet, Genesis has God looking on physical creation and pronouncing it “good.”

Most contemporary philosophers are materialists of some sort. That is, they don’t believe in the non-material “mind” the way Plato did. And yet, the difficulties of reducing inherently subjective mental phenomena to inherently objective neurobiological phenomena, as Tom Nagel famously showed in his now classic article “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” appear intractable. The philosopher John Searle is as uncomfortable as are most contemporary philosophers with what is called “substance dualism,” or the view that reality comprises both physical and non-physical substances. To his credit, however, he is unwilling to ignore the difficulties of what is known as “mind-brain reductionism.” Even if you can map all mental phenomena, such as the joy one feels on being in the company of a loved one, onto neurobiological phenomena, you can’t actually completely “reduce” the former to the latter. Something is lost when you do that. We can all see, in principle anyway, the neurobiological phenomena, but we don’t experience the joy they represent. The experience itself is lost in the reduction.

Searle wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to acknowledge the intractability of the problems associated with mind-brain reductionism while at the same time avoiding the stigma of substance dualism. His answer is a new kind of substance monism –– not materialism, but “physicalism.” He believes that materialists operate with a very crude understanding of what it meant for something to be physical, an understanding that had remained essentially unchanged since the Enlightenment. People in the Enlightenment thought they knew what physical substance was. It was solid. It had extension, etc., etc. Searle argues, however, that since the advent of quantum theory we can no longer claim to have a good grasp of what a physical object is, that all of physical reality had become profoundly mysterious.

Perhaps all of reality is one substance, one substance pronounced “good” by God. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to things, to the things that have meant something to us in our lives, such as toys from childhood, awards we have won, things we’ve created with our own hands, or gifts from those we love. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to the things that meant something to those people, even if that meaning was merely utilitarian. Perhaps it is because our things are a physical extension of our selves. Perhaps we feel diminished when we lose something because we are diminished. The artist Al Gury lost nearly everything he had in a fire recently. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. Memories cannot substitute for the actual physical presence of one’s things. Memory is important, of course. If you couldn’t remember the meaning a thing had for you, then its physical presence would be meaningless. The presence of the thing adds depth, though, to one’s experience of the memory of its significance.

Even more mysterious, I think, is the fact that it is enormously important that the thing in question is the original. A facsimile of a treasured object does not elicit the same depth of emotional response, the same feeling of connection with the past, that the original does. This isn’t a physical property of the object, of course. We can be fooled when some cherished object is broken and then surreptitiously replaced. If we find out this happened, though, we’re disappointed. We want the original. A facsimile is better than memory alone, but it is not the same as the original. Why? Perhaps Searle’s insight holds the answer. Perhaps, if he is right that all of reality is made up of one substance, then it makes a difference whether one has the right bits of it. A facsimile is less “right” than the original.

My father’s things are now spread about my house. His cuff-link box is on my dresser. His books are on my bookshelves. His pictures are on my walls, and the hutch that he made is in my kitchen. I look at these things as I move about the house, and I feel closer to him. Religion, with the exception, to a certain extent anyway, of Catholicism, has tended to discredit this feeling. That is, religion has tended to give spiritual significance to only the non-material, to our memories of those we have lost rather than to their things and the meaning those things have for us. This does a disservice I would argue, however, to human beings, because human beings are physical beings who cannot help but have a deep emotional attachment to physical reality. It does a disservice to creation as well, because physical reality, whatever it ultimately is, is a part of reality, even if, perhaps, it is not the whole of it.

I am taking careful care of my father’s things, and this act of caring for them is comforting. It is, in a strange way, almost as if I am caring for him. It isn’t just his things that have come, since his death, to command my attention. I’m so grateful for the fact that my father existed, that he was a part of physical reality, that I am trying to be a better steward of the whole of it, and that has been enormously comforting as well, though I am still uncertain concerning how best to articulate why.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the  March 7, 2018 issue of Counterpunch. I’m indebted to the editor, Jeff St. Clair, for his excellent suggestion of a title. I am indebted, as well, to a reader, Henry Galmish, for reminding me that Catholicism is better than Protestantism at recognizing the spiritual significance of material reality.)

A Cure for Academic Bullying

Portrait caricatureWorkplace bullying is an increasing problem. Books are being written about it, and there is even a Workplace Bullying Institute. The problem isn’t restricted to the business world. Books such as Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, Bully in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education, and Workplace Bullying in Higher Education suggest that bullying is a particular problem among academics.

Unfortunately, academic bullying is often allowed to go on unchecked. That’s just how academics are, people think. What can you expect? It’s hard to control tenured faculty, administrators argue, because there is little you can do to discipline them.

Rot starts from the top, though. The failure of administrators to curb academic bullying and other forms of professional misconduct on the part of faculty is the reason academic departments become dysfunctional. Faculty harass and bully one another with impunity. Distressed administrators have even been known to reward trouble makers in a misguided attempt to win their goodwill, not realizing that the trouble makers see such gestures as a sign of weakness and a green light to cause even more trouble.

Bullying can sometimes take such unequivocal forms as yelling at and or publicly disparaging the victim, but micro-aggressions are the bully’s trademark because there are innumerable opportunities for them and because no single micro-aggression ever appears sufficiently heinous to warrant disciplinary action. Micro-aggressions include such things as a consistently condescending tone of voice on the part of the bully toward her target, repeatedly interrupting the target when she attempts to make a point in a department or committee meeting, laughing or making faces or whispering to colleagues when the target speaks and failing to respect the target’s authority as a committee chair, program director, or academic advisor. (More examples of bullying are listed in an article entitled “Tackling the Menace of Workplace Bullying” on the website Law Crossing.)

People usually try to ignore micro-aggressions. Sometimes they even worry they’ve imagined them. People don’t expect to be relentlessly taunted and goaded. Human beings are social creatures and evidence suggest that their default position relative to others is trust (see, for example, Louis Quéré, “The Cognitive and Normative Structure of Trust,” and Guido Möllering, “The Nature of Trust: From Georg Simmel to a Theory of Expectation, Interpretation and Suspension”).

That people are social creatures and, all other things being equal, generally decent, kind, sympathetic and empathetic toward those with whom their lives bring them into contact holds, I believe, the key to controlling academic bullies, and any other kind of bully for that matter. People don’t like bullies. Since all human beings, as social creatures, want to be liked, bullies can be controlled, to a large extent anyway, if not entirely, by simple public condemnation of their behavior. Someone in a position of authority has to make it clear that the offending behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Academic departments, like other professional communities, become toxic when people in positions of authority are reluctant to do this.

The absence of an open condemnation of unacceptable behavior makes people fearful that if they express disapproval of such behavior, they’ll draw the attention of the bully and become her next victim. Worse, rather than expressing disapproval, many people will try to ingratiate themselves with the bully in order to insulate themselves from attack, hence rewarding the bully socially for her bullying behavior.

A bully whose behavior is positively reinforced by frightened colleagues quickly becomes out of control. There are ways, however, to discipline faculty, even tenured ones. They can be denied authority on committees, excluded from departmental social functions and given teaching schedules that effectively isolate them from the rest of the faculty. In extreme cases they can be excluded from serving on committees, assigned undesirable courses, have their teaching loads increased and be denied promotion and sabbatical leave.

Ideally, a code of professional conduct that clearly indicates what sorts of behavior are considered unacceptable would become part of the bylaws of the department, college, and or university. This code can then be referred to when taking disciplinary action. Such a code isn’t necessary, however, for disciplining academics for bullying and other forms of professional misconduct. There are myriad ways chairs and other upper-level administrators can make clear to faculty that they will not tolerate unacceptable behavior.

The safest and most effective way to discipline faculty, however, is simply to openly condemn bad behavior. A statement by the chair at a department meeting that harassing and badgering colleagues, raising one’s voice at a colleague, rolling one’s eyes, or making a face when a colleague is speaking, are all unacceptable, can have a dramatic effect because everyone will know at precisely whom these remarks are aimed. Few things are so humiliating for an adult as to have it pointed out publicly that she is behaving chronically like an ill-mannered child. It’s humiliating, and human beings, being social creatures, are sensitive to public humiliation.

A subtle wave of relief will ripple through those present at the meeting because they will feel that finally, there is something they can do when they are the victims of bullying by colleagues: they can complain to the chair. A wave of relief will ripple through the faculty and people will begin, gradually, to band together against the bully or bullies.

I’ve spoken so far only about the general harassment and bullying of colleagues. Everything I have said about that, however, is equally true of other forms of unacceptable professional behavior, such as sexual harassment. There have been several highly publicized cases of sexual harassment among academics in recent years. Emphasis has tended to be placed on the harassers themselves. The problem I believe, however, is less the individuals than what would appear to be a lack of moral leadership in the environments that have allowed the harassment to take place. It isn’t difficult to communicate to a colleague that that sort of behavior is unacceptable. It it continues over a period of weeks, months, or even years, it’s because those in authority have decided to look the other way.

A department chair needs to have the courage to publicly condemn unacceptable behavior and upper-level administrators such as the dean of the relevant college need to support the chair in such condemnations. I have seen firsthand the effect that strong moral leadership can have on a department and the effect that the absence of such leadership can have.

Few people, it seems to me, understand the nature of moral authority. A moral leader is not a “nice” person in the sense in which people generally understand that term. A moral leader is not someone who tries to look the other way when people behave badly, or endeavors always to interpret malevolent behavior in a way that makes it appear benign. Sometimes people’s behavior is conspicuously ill intentioned and interpreting it in any other way can have disastrous consequences.

Plato addresses this problem in an early examination of what constitutes just behavior in his Republic. “[E]veryone would surely say,” observes Socrates, “that if a man takes weapons from a friend when the latter is of sound mind, and the friend demands them back when he is mad, one shouldn’t give back such things, and the man who gave them back would not be just” (Republic, 331 c-d). Giving back the weapons wouldn’t be just, of course, because the the “mad” man is going to use them for malevolent purposes and may do things that he will likely later regret himself when he has recovered his sanity.

People are sometimes ill intentioned and it is not a kindness toward anyone to fail to acknowledge that. Certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, however, quite independently of the intentions behind them. The reluctance to recognize unacceptable behavior as such is not equivalent to being “nice.” It is cowardice and people in positions of authority who suffer from this conflation of decency and cowardice can wreak untold damage on those over whom they have authority.

A moral leader is not necessarily perfect. No human being, after all, is perfect. A moral leader is not necessarily a warm, effusive person, not necessarily outgoing or gregarious. A moral leader may lack a sense of humor. There are numerous other personal flaws from which they may suffer. What makes a moral leader, or what gives a person moral authority, is that they exhibit an unwavering commitment to decency and fairness, that they openly and unequivocally condemn unacceptable behavior while at the same time, continuing to evince respect for those who engage in it.

That is, unacceptable behavior must be quickly an unequivocally condemned. It is important to appreciate, however, that only the behavior should be condemned, not the people who engage in it. Anyone can behave badly, at least occasionally, and an environment where harassment and bullying have become the rule rather than the exception encourages people who would not otherwise behave in such a way, to do so as a form of self defense.

A moral leader is someone who can make clear, both that certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, and that they expect even those who engage in them habitually are capable of reforming themselves. People need to feel that they can redeem themselves when they’ve behaved badly. A moral leader is someone who makes clear that they believe everyone under their authority is perfectly capable of behaving properly and that only such behavior is acceptable.

A moral leader has to have the courage to condemn unacceptable behavior, knowing that doing so will expose their own behavior to closer scrutiny than most people are comfortable with. It takes a lot of courage to throw the first stone, so to speak, particularly since none of us is without sin. A moral leader has to have that courage, however, or we are all lost.

(This piece originally appeared in May 2, 2017 issue of Counterpunch under the title “Academic Bullying and the Vacuum of Moral Leadership in the Academy.”)

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.)

When Bad Things Happen to Good Academics

I wonder sometimes what makes people go bad. There doesn’t seem to be any logic to it. James Gilligan, a forensic psychiatrist who has worked with serial killers, writes that nearly all of them have been abused as children. That makes sense to me. I’m inclined to think that people are like other animals, that if they get what they need when they’re young, they grow up to be well- adjusted members of their species. We know how to make an animal, a dog for example, vicious: simply mistreat it. My understanding is that that works on pretty much any animal. If it gets what it needs when it’s young, it will turn out to be a fine adult. If it doesn’t it won’t, it’s that simple.

I like this view, not simply because it’s humane, but also because it’s optimistic. It gives us a formula for wiping out cruelty and intolerance. We just need to work to ensure that people get what they need. We need to make sure that parents don’t have so many financial worries that they cannot be sufficiently attentive to their children, or worse, that they end up taking out their stress on their children. We need to make sure that every person, every job, is accorded respect, that people are treated with dignity, etc., etc., and eventually cruelty and inhumanity will become things of the past. That’s a tall order, of course, and perhaps it’s idealistic, but it’s something to aim at anyway. There was a time when people said things such as poverty and hunger could never be wiped out. But we’ve made great strides in eliminating them, and have even eliminated them completely in parts of the world. It’s widely believed now to be a question of will, not of practical possibility. If we want to eliminate poverty and hunger, we can.

I like to think that the same thing is true with cravenness and cruelty (meaning that it can be wiped out if we have the will to do so) and generally, I do believe it. But sometimes I’m confronted with examples of what seems to be completely gratuitous and inexplicable viciousness from people whose lives to all outward appearances anyway, would seem to be pretty cushy, people who give no evidence (no other evidence anyway) of having been abused as children. The mystery of why some people go bad gives me a certain sympathy with John Calvin, and others who believe in predestination, or the view that some people are just inherently bad. I don’t really believe that, but in my weaker moments, I wonder if it might not be true.

There are just so many variables. Is it not enough to have loving and attentive parents? Can having been picked last for a team in gym class cause a wound that festers for years leading finally to generalized suspicion and paranoia as an adult? Can one slight on the playground explain a vicious and unprovoked attack on a colleague years later?

My mother once said that in her experience, religion made good people better and bad people worse. (Both her parents were ministers in the Assemblies of God church.) The same thing, sadly, seems to be true of academia. I don’t believe there is a better life than that of a tenured academic. Hardly ever in human experience are the stars aligned so perfectly as they are in the lives of tenured academics. Teaching of any sort is fulfilling but most teaching doesn’t come with the job security and other material benefits routinely accorded to the tenured academic. To be paid to teach, not to mention to read, and write, well, it’s like winning the lottery.

I had some wonderful teachers when I was in college. This led me to believe that teachers were, in general, not simply wiser and more learned than the average person, but also kinder, more considerate, more understanding and tolerant. This made sense to me because they had what appeared to be wonderful jobs. How could anyone not be happy with such a life, I asked myself, and how could anyone who was happy fail to be anything but nice?

Since then, however, I have learned that two kinds of people enter academia: (1) well adjusted people, people who are basically kind and decent, sympathetic and empathetic, people who love to read and sometimes (though not always) also to write, people who like people in general and like to think that in their own small way they are doing something to better the human condition, and (2) maladjusted people who like to use their learning as a club with which they can intimidate others, people who suffer from varying degrees of paranoia, people possessed of a messianic zeal to single-handedly save humanity from what in their fevered imaginations they believe to be the ravages inflicted on it by the forces of evil they take to be embodied in the form of despised colleagues, people who spend more time plotting to undermine and even publicly humiliate these colleagues than they spend on teaching.

There is almost no way to check the damage the latter sort of academic can cause once he or she becomes tenured. They sit plotting and poisoning the air in their departments until they retire, and they do not generally retire until very late in life because they thrive on conflict, a kind of conflict that it is hard to find outside a professional context. When, as sometimes happens, I’m confronted with the spectacle of the damage such people can do, the havoc they can wreak in an otherwise harmonious community of scholars, the pain they can cause to colleagues for whom they have conceived a pathological dislike, I have a certain sympathy with the anti-academic element in our vociferously anti-intellectual society. Academics are not really the plague that they are increasingly represented as being, but there is, lamentably, a sizable contingent that gives the rest of us a bad name.