Category: Virtues and Vices

The Marvelous Hazlitt

I have, off and on, been dipping into Hazlitt over the past year.  And my “meaning project” (of which there will be much more anon on this blog) includes (at least in my mind’s eye) a chapter on the “meaning of life,” where the focus is on the many writers–Foucault, Arendt, Agamben, Charles Taylor–who express a hostility to those who try to establish “life” as the supreme value.  Ruskin’s “the only wealth is life” (from Unto this Last, a key text for me) epitomizes those who want to elevate life to that status.

Hazlitt, in the first passage below, offers an early rebuttal to the view that life is a dangerous standard to follow.  He is responding, with more than a little incredulity and irony, to Malthus.  The second passage announces Hazlitt’s allegiance to pluralism.  And the third passage enunciates what we might call the political consequences of a commitment to pluralism. First, that all concentrations of power are to be feared–and avoided.  Power needs to be distributed as widely as possible, since power in one hand is always abused, and because only power can check power.  To deprive some of power is to render them helpless in the face of tyranny.  Second, the abuse of power is worst when it is held by those who are also convinced they possess the sole conception of the good. Pluralism entails modesty–the recognition that many conceptions of the good exist and that I have no right to impose my conception on others.  Fear those who combine absolute conviction in their rectitude with significant power.

I take these various convictions of Hazlitt’s as central tenets of liberalism.  Hazlitt’s writings are exhilarating precisely because he offers a full-throated, eloquent, and passionate articulation of liberal decency, of its hatred of cruelty and tyranny in all its many forms, and its commitment to empowering all to live the life they choose to live.  I have argued previously on this blog that liberalism is not a coherent or systematic ideology.  Rather, I believe liberalism stems from a small set of convictions and intuitions–that then guide its adhoc judgments about the best course of action in various situations and its sense of the most acceptable institutional arrangements in particular historical moments, always open to revision of those judgments and that sense.  More about liberalism to come as well.

From the essay on Malthus (p. 67 in the Penguin Selected Writings):

“The common notions that prevailed on this subject, till our author’s first population-scheme tended to weaken them, were that life is a blessing, and the more people could be maintained in any state in a tolerable degree of health, comfort and decency, the better: that want and misery are not desirable in themselves, that famine is not to be courted for its own sake, that wars, disease and pestilence are not what every friend of his country or his species should pray for in the first place; that vice in its different shapes is a thing that the world could very well do without, and that if it could be rid of altogether, it would be a great gain.  In short, that the object both of the moralist and politician was to diminish as much as possible the quantity of vice and misery existing in the world: without apprehending that by thus effectually introducing more virtue and happiness, more reason and good sense, that be improving the manners of the people, removing pernicious habits and principles of acting, or securing greater plenty, and a greater number of mouths to partake of it, they were doing a disservice to humanity.”

From the essay “Character of Mr. Burke”:

“It is said, I know, that truth is one; but to this I cannot subscribe, for it appears to me that truth is many.  There are as many truths as there are things and causes of actions and contradictory principles at work in society.  In making up an account of good and evil, indeed, the final result must be one way or the other; but the particulars on which that result depends are infinite and various” (57).

From the essay “The French Revolution”:

“[D]o we not see the hold which the love of power and all strong excitement takes of the mind; how it engrosses the faculties, stifles compunction, and deadens the sense of shame, even when it is purely selfish or mischievous, when it does not even pretend to have any good in view, and when we have all the world against us?  What then must be the force and confidence in itself which any such passion, ambition, cruelty, revenge must acquire when it is founded on some lofty and high-sounding principle, patriotism, liberty, resistance to tyrants; when it aims at the public good as its consequence, and is strengthened by the applause of the multitude?  Evil is strong enough in itself; when it has good for its end, it is conscience-proof.  If the common cut-throat who stabs another merely to fill his purse or revenge a private grudge, can hardly be persuaded that he does wrong, and postpones his remorse till long after—he who sheds blood like water, but can contrive to do it with some fine-sounding name on his lips, will be in his own eyes little less than a saint or a martyr.” (93).


Like many liberals, I find it hard to believe in evil simpliciter.   There has to be an explanation, some set of enabling conditions.  It is not only insufficient, but also wrong, to point to something rotten in human nature–and to leave it at that.  Appeals to human nature are like appeals to the “dormative power” lurking within a sleeping pill.  Such appeals simply rename the cause and locate it at a different level than the behavior that cause is meant to explain.

In London, I taught a class on the Blitz.  I don’t think I ever quite managed to convey to the students–or even to take in myself–its full horror.  The romance of the Blitz, along with its mythic resignification as proof of British pluckiness and resolve, has obscured the simple fact of terror rained from the skies.  Please don’t give me the pieties of “indiscriminate” terror and “civilian” populations.  The evil of the mass slaughter of citizen armies is no less; its victims are as fully “innocent,” as fully entitled to exemption from such violence, as the denizens of a city.  But it is the sheer fact of violence that I and my students never fully (it seems to me) grasped.  The mind always slides away from the bald fact of killing to adjoining images, stories, facts, and consoling myths.

In my various readings to teach this course, I read J. B. Pristley’s BBC broadcasts, which ran from 5 June 1940 to 20 October 1940.  Priestley was forced off the air because his forthright–and repeated–calls for a post-war socialist Britain to proved some recompense for the war-time suffering of its population offended the powers-that-be.

The broadcasts also show Priestley struggling to understand Nazi evil–which rhymes with my current perplexity in trying to understand conservatives (who often claim to be Christians) who put children in cages, deny food stamps to the hungry, are outraged by the extension of medical insurance to the less well-off, suppress voter participation, and wink at sexual and financial malfeasance.  Why would anyone ever sign on to that agenda?  Except for the tax cuts, there is not direct benefit to them of treating others so terribly.  Only some kind of pleasure derived from cruelty fits the bill.

Priestley has no better explanations for such evil (and how can we call it be any other, more euphemistic, name?) than most leftists.  But his characterization of the Nazi mindset and the dangers it poses to simple decency resonate with me.

From the broadcast of 23 June 1940:

“Every nation has two faces–a bright face and a dark face.  I had always been ready to love the bright face of Germany which speaks to us of beautiful music, profound philosophy, Gothic romance, young men and maidens wandering through the enchanted forests.  I had been to Germany before the last war, walking from one little inn to another in the Rhineland.  After the war I went back and wrote in praise of the noble Rhine, the wet lilac and the rust-coloured Castle of Heidelberg, the carpets of flowers and the ice-green torrents of the Bavarian Alps.  But after the Nazis came, I went no more.  The bright face had gone, and in its place was the vast dark face with its broken promises and endless deceit, its swaggering Storm Troopers and dreaded Gestapo, its bloodstained basements where youths were hardened by the torture of decent elderly folk–the terror and the shame, not just their shame, but our shame, the shame of the whole watching world, of the concentration camps.

I knew that wherever these over-ambitious, ruthless, neurotic men took their power, security and peace and happiness would vanish.  Unhappy themselves–for what they are can be read in their faces, and plainly heard in their barking or screaming voices–they wish to spread their unhappiness everywhere.  And I believed then–and am convinced now–that if the world had not been half-rotten, over-cynical, despairing, it would have risen at once in its wrath before the great terror machine was completed, and sent these evil men and their young bullies back to their obscure corners, the back rooms of beer houses, and cellars, out of which they crept to try and bring the whole world down to their own dreary back-room gangster level.

Many people are mystified by the existence of so many ‘fifth columnists’ who are ready to work for Nazi-ism outside Germany; but, you see, Nazi-ism is not really a political philosophy, but an attitude of mind–the expression in political life of a certain very unpleasant temperament–of the man who hates Democracy, reasonable argument, tolerance, patience and humorous equality–the man who loves bluster and swagger, uniforms and bodyguards and fast cars, plotting in back rooms, shouting and bullying, taking it out of all the people who have made him feel inferior.  It’s not really a balanced, grown-up attitude of mind at all: it belongs to people who can’t find their way out of adolescence, who remain overgrown, tormenting, cruel schoolboys–middle-aged ‘dead-end kids.’  That’s why the gang spirit is so marked among these Nazis; and it explains, too, why there has always seemed something unhealthy, abnormal, perverted, crawlingly corrupt, about them and all their activities.

And any country that allows itself to be dominated by the Nazis will not only have the German Gestapo crawling everywhere, but will also find itself in the power of all its most unpleasant types–the very people who, for years, have been rotten with unsatisfied vanity, gnawing envy, and haunted by dreams of cruel power.”

To the academic sophisticate (i.e. me), there is much that grates in this passage. (Those cavorting maidens; the simplistic Manichean notion of a bright and a dark face–although that does suggest that “good” is just as mysterious, just as difficult to explain, as “evil.”)

But I do want to hold onto two things (even as I also admire Priestley’s ability to speak passionately and vividly to his wide audience): first, that there is much to love–and that I love–in the United States; it would be foolish indeed to let despair over the current triumph of what is worst in American culture to wipe out a recognition of the resources for a better way.  The hopefulness of MLK (balanced as it was with his deep discouragement at times) is exemplary here.

Second, Priestley reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that the Trumps, McConnells, and Kavanaughs of the world are bullying frauds driven by envy of their moral betters; they cannot acknowledge their own depravity, but reveal their self-hatred again and again.  Not that we should pity them, but that we should fully understand their lust for power is the mask of deficiency.  That lust should never be accorded a minute of respect.

Religion, Sect, Party

Even before quite finishing one behemoth (two chapters to go in Taylor’s A Secular Age), I have started another one, Yuri Slezine’s The House of Government (Princeton UP, 2017).  Surprisingly, they overlap to a fair extent.  Slezine pushes hard on his thesis that Bolshevism is a millennial sect and that its understandings of history and society follow time-worn Biblical plots, especially those found in Exodus and the Book of Revelations.  I find his thesis a bit mechanical and over reductive, an implausible one size fits all.  The strength of his book lies in its details, the multiple stories he can tell about the core figures of the Russian Revolution, not in the explanatory framework that he squeezes all those details into.

But Slezine does offer some general speculations on the nature of religion, sects, and parties that I want to pursue at the moment.  Taylor defines “religious faith in a strong sense . . . by a double criterion: the belief in transcendent reality, on one hand, and the connected aspiration to a transformation that goes beyond ordinary human flourishing on the other” (510).  A fairly substantial component of Taylor’s argument is that most, if not all, people will feel a pull toward those two things; that settling for mundane reality and ordinary flourishing will leave people with a sense of “lack,” a haunting feeling that there must be more.  He considers, very briefly, the idea that secularism entails people simply becoming indifferent to transcendence and some kind of transformation beyond the ordinary—and rejects the possibility that such indifference has—or even could—become common.

He pays more attention to the fact that the existence of a “transcendent reality” has simply become incredible to many people.  But—and this is a major point for him—he insists that the evidence cannot (of science or of anything else) be decisive on this question, or that evidence is even the prime reason for unbelief in the transcendent.  Rather, unbelief is underwritten by an ethos—one of bravely facing up to the facts, of putting aside the childish things of religious faith (the Freudian critique of the “illusion” that is religion).

I am not convinced.  Am I full of contempt for the evangelicals who claim to be Christians, but are such noteworthy examples of non-Christian animus, gleefully dishing out harm to all they deem reprobate even as they accommodate themselves to the thuggery and sexual malpractices of Donald Trump?  Of course.  But Taylor has no truck for the fundamentalists either.  His is the most anodyne of liberal Christianities; he has trouble with the whole idea of hell; basically (without his ever quite coming out and saying so) Taylor’s God does not consign people to eternal damnation.  Instead, hell for Taylor gets associated with sin—both of them understood as the painful alienation from God that results from turning one’s back on the transcendent.  Taylor, in other words, tiptoes away from judgment and punishment—believers aren’t supposed to be judging other humans or inflicting punishment upon them, and he is clearly uneasy with the image of a judging God.  In fact, moralism (rigid rules of conduct) is one of his main enemies in the book.  In its place, he urges us to Aristotelian phronesis, which insists that judgments always be particular, attending to the novelties of the situation at hand.

But back to me.  Aside from my contempt for the evangelicals and their hypocrisies and petty (and not so petty) cruelties to others, do I harbor a Freudian contempt for the believer?  Does my unbelief, the fact that I find the notion that god exists simply incredible (meaning there is no way that how I understand existence has room for a divine being) rest on a self-congratulatory idea of my “maturity” as contrasted to those childish believers?  It doesn’t feel that way.  I find most Christians harmless, and have no beef with practicing Muslims and Jews.  It’s only the fanatics of all religions, but equally the fanatics of godless capitalism, that I abhor.  And I share that sentiment with Taylor.  So I just don’t see that it’s some basic moralistic distinction I make between believers and unbelievers that drives my adoption of unbelief.  It seems much more obvious that my understanding of the world has no place for a god, makes the very idea of a god, if not quite unthinkable (because so many other humans keep insisting there is one), at least unimaginable.  I might as well try to imagine, believe in, a world that contains unicorns.  My “picture” of the world just can’t accommodate a god.

Taylor several times evokes Wittgenstein’s idea of our being held “captive” by a picture.  But Taylor also eschews the notion that some kind of argument (like the classic ones about god’s existence) or some kind of evidence could change the picture of unbelief to one of belief.  He is very much in William James territory.  Basically, his position is that the facts “underdetermine” the choice between belief and unbelief, that materialist science is not conclusive, and so the materialist, as much as the theist, rests his case, in the final analysis, on a leap of faith.  This is the Jamesian “open space” in which we all exist.  And then Taylor seems (without being explicit enough about this) to say that the deciding factor is going to be “experience” (shades of James’s Varieties of Religious Experience), where what follows (in the ways of feelings, motivations, transformations) from making the leap of faith toward a god stands as the confirmation that belief is the right way to go.  It’s the fruits of the relationship to a transcendent that Taylor wants to harvest, that make religious belief valuable in his eyes.

Here’s is where I wish Taylor had paid closer attention to James, particularly the essay “The Will to Believe.”  In that essay, James says that choices have three features: they can be “live or dead” choices, “momentous or trivial” ones, or “forced or avoidable” ones.  On this last one, James identifies the “avoidable” path as the result of indifference.  If I say you must choose between the red or the white wine, you can answer “it’s all the same to me” or I don’t want any wine at all.  You can, in short, avoid making the decision I am asking you to make.  In the case of “live versus dead,” I can ask you whether you believe in Zeus or Zarathustra, and your reply can be “neither of those options is a true possibility for me; nothing in my way of life or my existing set of beliefs allows the question of believing in Zeus to be a real question for me.”  Finally, “momentous/trivial” relates to what I think hangs on the choice; whether or not to have a child is momentous, with huge implications for my life and the life of others; what I choose to eat for dinner tonight is much less momentous, although not without some consequences (for my health, for the environment etc.)

I bring this up because the choice of believing in god is not, at this point in my life, a “live” choice for me.  I have no more substantial grounds or inclination to believe in the Christian god than I do to believe in Zeus.  Furthermore—I am on shakier ground here but think this is true—I don’t find the choice of unbelief momentous.  It is just what I believe: there is no god.  James in that same essay also covers this ground: most of our beliefs are not chosen.  Even though I only have second-hand evidence of the fact (what is reported in books and the historical record), I am not free to believe that Abraham Lincoln never existed or that he was not a President of the US.  I can’t will myself into not believing in his existence.  Well, I feel the same way about god.  I can’t will myself into believing that god exists.  That there is no god is as settled a belief for me as my belief in Abraham Lincoln’s existence.  And I don’t see that very much hangs on those two beliefs.

How can that be, asks the incredulous believer?  But (and, again, I am following James here) I think the believer often has cause and effect backwards.  Pope Francs has just declared capital punishment unacceptable to believing Catholics; Antonia Scalia, a devout Catholic, was an advocate of capital punishment.  So it is hard to see how the belief in god is the source of the conviction about capital punishment.  Something else must motivate the position taken.  Or, at the very least, the fact of believing in god is pretty radically undeterminative; god’s inscrutability is such that humans have to fill in many (most?) of the details.

It’s the same as Taylor’s revisionist views on hell.  Humans keep tweaking their notion of what god wants in order to fit human ideas of what an acceptable god would look like.  Even if you want to dismiss that kind of debunking statement about humans creating the god they can admire/respect, many believers (obviously not fundamentalists) are still going to accept that god’s ways are mysterious and not easily known.  In relation to that mysteriousness, that under-specificity of actual directives, I want to say choosing to believe in god or not doesn’t turn out to be very momentous—at least not in terms of giving us clear moral/ethical guidelines.  Believers have disagreed vehemently about what the implications of their religious beliefs are for actual behavior. Skipping the whole choice, being indifferent to the question of god’s existence (and I think that kind of indifference, not paying much mind to the question of god, is much more common than Taylor thinks it is), doesn’t allow us to escape disagreements about good behavior, but doesn’t handicap us in any significant way from participation in such debates.

I don’t, in fact, think Taylor would disagree about this.  He isn’t at all interested in a moralistic religion—and he is also not committed to the notion that atheists can’t be moral, that their moral convictions and commitments rest on air.   Instead, Taylor argues that the choice is momentous because of the experience–of “deeper” (a word he uses again and again without ever really telling us what is entailed in “deepness”) meanings and a “transformed” relationship to life, the world, others–opens up, makes possible.  Again, the specifics of the transformation are awfully vague.  But the basic idea is clear enough; to those who open themselves up to a relationship to the transcendent, the very terms of life are different—and fuller, more satisfying, and more likely to answer to a spiritual hunger that lurks within us. So I guess Taylor’s advice to me would be: give it a try, see what changes come if you believe in god and try to establish a relationship to him.  I am free, of course, to say “I pass.”  What Taylor finds harder to credit is that my response to his offer could be indifference, a shrug of the shoulders.  He thinks my rejection of his offer must be driven by some animus against the believer and some admiring self-image of myself as a courageous facer of the unpleasant facts of existence.

The funny thing about this is how individualistic it is, how much it hangs on the personal experience that belief generates.  It is one of the key differences between James and John Dewey that James’s vision is pretty relentlessly individualistic, while Dewey is the kind of communitarian critic of liberalism that Taylor has, throughout his long distinguished career, been.  In A Secular Age, however, Taylor is not interested in the community of believers.  Yes, he sees the cultural setting (the “background assumptions” that are a constant in his understanding of how human language and psychology operate) as establishing the very conditions that make unbelief even possible in a “secular age,” but he doesn’t read the consequences of belief/unbelief in a very communal way.  That’s because he has to admit that both believers and unbelievers have committed the same kinds of horrors.  He is very careful not to make the crude Christian argument that unbelievers like Stalin will inevitably kill indiscriminately, as if there wasn’t any blood on Christian hands or as if there have been no secular saints.  So he does not seem to say there is any social pay-off to widespread belief—at least not one we can count on with any kind of assurance.  But he does insist on the personal pay-off.

Here’s where Slezine’s book comes in.  The kind of millennial religion he ascribes to the Bolsheviks is all about communal pay-off; they are looking toward a “transformation” of the world, not of personal selves and experience.  In fact, they are oriented toward a total sacrifice of the personal in the name of that larger transformation.  So it is to the terms of that kind of belief—in the dawning of a new age—that I will turn in my next post.


From Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (Norton, 2011):

‘[Sister Helen] Prejean’s logic rests on the hope that shame, guilt, and even simple embarrassment are still operative principles in American cultural and political life—and that such principles can fairly trump the forces of desensitization and self-justification.  Such a presumption is sorely challenged by the seeming unembarrassability of the military, the government, corporate CEOs, and others repetitively caught in monstrous acts of irresponsibility and malfeasance.  This unembarassability has proved difficult to contend with, as it has had a literally stunning effect on the citizenry.  They ought to be ashamed of themselves! we cry over and over again, to no avail.  But they are not ashamed, and they are not going to become so” (32).

I don’t have much to say to this statement—beyond noting how completely it echoes my own experience and sentiments.  The administration at my university is just about completely non-accountable at this point.  Which made me think that “public shaming” (as I tried to do in the newspaper editorials I wrote about their actions) was the only recourse left.  But they have proved immune to shaming, might even take it as proof that they are doing their “tough jobs” of protecting the university’s interests.

It does not make me feel a sap.  I realize more and more that a certain self-image of integrity is central to my own serenity.  Of course, complacency about one’s self is an ever-present danger.  Pharaseeism afflicts us all.  But I do abide by the rule of “never say no to a student.”  Whatever they ask for, they shall receive—just as the same all-inclusive indulgence is extended to my children.  I have no right, given my job and my salary, to turn students down.  And abiding by that rule is one way I maintain my self-respect.

So the question about the shameless is: where does their self-respect reside?  Where is the line they would not cross, the action they would not permit themselves?  I have always liked what I call “Kant’s rule of publicity”: basically Kant argues in one of his political essays that any action is morally dubious if the agent of that action would prefer it being kept a secret.  We reveal our awareness of an action’s non-morality when we strive to keep it unknown.  (Yes, there is the tradition of keeping benevolent actions a secret—a tradition mostly honored in the breach these days by our publicity-seeking philanthropists—but the existence of this sub-set of good actions needn’t detract from Kant’s larger point.)  The attempt to keep things secret is an acknowledgement of shame and guilt.  But it does seem Nelson is right: when malfeasance is “outed” these days, the impulse is to brave it out, to never show the weakness of admitting guilt or manifesting shame.

And there is the even more gob-smacking pride in offensive behavior, as politicians compete to see who can most vociferously endorse torture and taking food stamps away from the hungry, and CEOs boast about how far they can drive down wages and take away benefits for their workers.  Oh, brave new world!


The world no longer makes sense to me.  Boltanski and Chiapello (in their superb book, The New Spirit of Capitalism [Verso, 2005]) talk about the need for intelligibility and, crucially, insist that intelligibility, which underwrites motivation, must include some standard of justice.  Only such a standard makes judgment possible, thus creating ways to select between possible courses of action and different assessments of people.  Justice is not the only standard.  Efficiency and profit (cost/benefits analysis) are also standards employed in making decisions.  But pure cynicism is very, very rare.  Some notion of justice always acts as a “constraint” upon efficiency and profit.  Pure greed is not a motive many are willing to embrace—and fewer are willing to publicly announce as their sole purpose.  Crucially, Boltanski and Chiapello insist that the standards of justice provide real and effective brakes on capitalism’s search for profit.  It is not true that anything goes.  Some kind of working compromise—one that is intelligible and deemed legitimate—between justice and capitalist exigencies has to be in place.

Just what compromise exists at any given moment varies.  That is the burden of their book.  The think that we have, since 1990 (or so), entered a new “spirit of capitalism,” a new way of understanding (and internalizing) its justificatory bases.  The justification of capitalism is both the  way it publicly explains itself and the source of personal motivation for individual actors.

And here is where I run into my current trouble.  In terms of the academy, the demand of “publish or perish,” and the assignment of status (among other rewards) on those who publish the most, now seems to me insane.  Society is paying for us (the academics) to fill up libraries with books and journals that are mostly not read and which are incredibly redundant.  The only possible justifications that I can see are: 1. You need to seed the field prodigally in order to get the 2-3% of work that represents real advancements of knowledge.  Research is just inherently a very wasteful process, and we should just accept that fact—although it is one that is almost never acknowledged.  And certainly this justification of the whole academic edifice is never offered in public as the primary one.  2. You need to have all that mediocre research in order that educators remain up to date with the advancement of knowledge in their fields.  Since it is important for the educated (i.e. our students) to know what is the current best knowledge, their teachers have to be au currant.

I really don’t see any other convincing account of the whole research apparatus of the universities.  In my field especially, picking over the carcass of Moby Dick seems particularly pointless—even while having students read Moby Dick still seems to me a very good idea.  Which means we have our priorities exactly backwards, emphasizing the “research” over the teaching.

At the societal level, it seems to me that we have entered an age of cynicism that calls Boltanski and Chiapello’s view of justice as a real constraint overly optimistic.  What has been so discouraging about the past year (from the election through to the efforts to repeal Obama-care and alter the tax code to favor the rich and corporations) is that appeals to justice are simply off the table.  “Winning” is enough justification.  We need to make America “more competitive” and we need to insure that we are economically better off and militarily stronger than every other nation.  This looks like fascism because the average citizen is expected to identify with the nation’s “win” even when no benefits of that winning accrue to him.  It’s sacrifice for the average Joe in order to secure the national victory.

Sure, there is some claptrap about freedom and some gestures toward meritocracy.  But they are so obviously claptrap (how is getting cancer a matter of merit, of failed individual effort?; for that matter, what did the laid-off worker do to deserve her fate?) that no one, in this age of cynicism, is taken in.  Rather, it is sauve qui peut and the devil take the hindmost.  And that’s why the world no longer makes sense to me.  Such naked disregard for others, such straight-forward hostility to any notions of justice or of the common good are, quite simply, incredible.  Especially since people, in their face-to-face interactions, don’t act this way.  Yet they vote for politicians whose cynicism and venery, whose lack of commitment to the people they are supposed to serve, are on vivid display every day.

All the polls show that people want government guaranteed health care, want the rich taxed more heavily, want the “dreamers” granted legal status, want sensible gun control.  But then they vote for representatives who refuse to deliver any of those things.  That makes no sense to me.  I don’t understand this world anymore.


“This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men.  He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled.  The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery, the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives.  Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared.  The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.”

This is the opening paragraph of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Elementary Particles (1998).  Let me pair it with a passage from John Berger’s Portraits, from a short piece he wrote about the Fayum portraits in 2000.

“The situation at the end of our century is different.  The future has been, for the moment, downsized, and the past is being made redundant.  Meanwhile the media surround people with an unprecedented number of images, many of which are faces.  The faces harangue ceaselessly by provoking envy, new appetites, ambition, or, occasionally, pity combined with a sense of impotence.  Further, the images of all these faces are processed and selected in order to harangue as noisily as possible, so that one appeal out-pleads and eliminates the next appeal.  And people come to depend upon this impersonal noise as a proof of being alive.”

I just don’t see it.  Do I live in a bubble?  I read about the ravages Facebook is causing for adolescents, or the booming market in plastic surgery, or the frantic search for status and wealth among various social sub-groups.  And I don’t see it in the world I inhabit.  Kiernan and Siobhan’s friends and contemporaries certainly suffer the ills—and anxieties—of economic precariousness and over indebtedness.  But they aren’t unstable consumers, with lives dictated by social (or any other) media.

Yes, the future has been downsized and a sense of impotence about society’s general dysfunction and sheer nastiness reigns.  But the people I know feel very much alive; the scariness of a world out of control is more than enough to keep the nerve ends jangling.

And in their personal lives—their relations to family and friends and colleagues—they are not indifferent and cruel.  Even out in the public spaces of the city, the vibe is infinitely better than it was in the 1970s.  Conviviality is palpable—and can pretty much be counted on in most interactions with strangers.  It is the disjunct between this face-to-face decency and the nastiness of our politics and the on-line shit that is most striking to me.  For the most part, it seems to me people are remarkably resistant to the poison seeping through the system.

But maybe it’s the bubble I occupy, the world of the professional upper middle class.  A word with very few divorces, very little domestic abuse, very little drug and alcohol abuse.  Maybe under the polite veneer, chaos, anger, and horrors lurk.  It would speak of an unbelievable cover-up if such were the case.  I am hardly denying that the opioid epidemic or domestic violence or homophobia or racism exist.

I think what I am trying to say comes down to four claims, all of which I only advance tentatively because I am not by any means convinced I understand what is going on. Here are the claims

  1. Our economics and our politics have become more nasty, but there are strong counter-vailing forces.  Those forces widen the gap between public life (the structure of the imagined, non-face-to-face worlds of commerce and politics and the media) and the concrete face-to-face interactions of everyday life (including in the workplace to a large extent).  That the strain of this gap has not, thus far, led to serious disruptions is surprising to me.  By which, I guess I mean, that the disruptions have only been manifested on the personal level—in domestic violence or drug/alcohol abuse—not in much serious push-back against the inhumanity of corporations treating employees as replaceable parts and subjecting them to increasingly demeaning surveillance.
  2. The impact of the increased nastiness has been felt very unequally. No surprise there since the increased nastiness has been accompanied by huge upsurges in economic inequality.  Where people are doing quite well—as they are in Chapel Hill—the social ills of our time are not very manifest.  But those class differences do not explain the convivial vibe in America’s cities or the declining crime rates.  The “losers” in the next economic regime are, for the most part, still “nice” to others.  It is sort of like Charlie Kruzman’s work on the “missing’ Muslim terrorists; given the hordes of losers, it is striking how few of them adopt the kind of indifference or cruelty toward others that Houellebecq claims is general.
  3. So, one the one hand, I incline to an almost economic determinist viewpoint when it comes to domestic violence and drug/alcohol abuse, thus explaining why certain classes are more afflicted with these ills than others. (Of course, I am only talking general trends here. The economically fortunate can still be alcoholics, and domestic abusers.)  But when it comes to homophobia and racism, I am inclined to say that values other than the economic remain incredibly strong—and perhaps even stronger than—economically driven beliefs and behaviors.  This works both ways.  Residual decency, the considerate ways we interact with others, prove resistant to the prevailing economic modes of relationship.  The economic—for better and for worse—does not carry all before it.
  4. Similarly, let’s no overestimate the effectiveness of media. People have developed all kinds of ways to shut media messages off.  The overload of which Berger speaks is itself a disabling factor.  Everyone has to create a filter against such bombardment.  Confirmation bias suggests that we only hear the messages we are predisposed to hear—which is one way of saying that most messages don’t get through and that the power of messages to change our basic beliefs is severely limited.  Conversion is an astoundingly rare experience.

In sum, I just don’t see that generalizations about the despair of our times—and how they have changed basic behaviors tout court—are credible.  There is more variety out there than such pronouncements credit.  And, frankly, just much more good behavior than they are willing to admit.

Passions, Political and Otherwise

I ended my last post with the observation that the left should be more passionate than the right because the left includes all those being trashed by the current arrangements.

That, of course, is hardly true.  The populist right includes many of the “losers” in contemporary society—and various analyses of their “anger” have been produced over the past three, five, ten years.

It is, however, the passion of the winners that perplexes me.  Where does their anger, vindictiveness, and general nastiness come from?  To cite just current news, what motivates someone who is doing quite well to vote for tax relief for the wealthy but refuse to extend health insurance to poor children?  What story could you possibly tell yourself that would make such an action virtuous?  Partisan passion, the need to get a “win,” overrides all other values (it would seem) in voting for a tax bill that is manifestly, in fact quite absurdly, a bad deal for the country and most of its citizens.  And laziness, the disinclination to do anything that requires a modicum of effort, might explain the inaction on renewing the children health insurance program.

Certainly, the indignant outrage the privileged feel when their privileges are threatened—or when others clamor for access to the same privileges—should not be underestimated.  But the tax bill, after all, is not a response to a threat.  It is just piling more privilege on top of already extreme privilege.  It looks much more like greed than self-protection from the rabble.

Greed, yes, but greed disconnected from any sense of reality.  There is, quite simply, nothing that could be done with that extra money.  You couldn’t spend it all if you had four lifetimes.  Even an idiot as big as Donald Trump, with his basketful of bad business deals, couldn’t spend himself into bankruptcy given the massive amount of money with which he started.

So then the greed seems connected to a different pathology: the comparative sickness that boils down to some male game about having a bigger one than the other guys.  Crude.  But there it is, and Donald Trump is nothing if not crude.  The depressing thought is that there are millions more like him, driven by the same need to dominate through accumulation.

But let’s outsource this discussion to a true misanthrope: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Here is his description of the pathologies of civilized man (the use of “man” is well-advised here).  The source is the long footnote IX in his Discourse on Inequality:

“For man in society, there are very different concerns [then for the savage as Rousseau portrays that mythical figure]; there is, in the first place, the matter of providing for the necessities and then for the superfluities; next come the luxuries, then immense riches, then subjects and slaves; he does not have a moment of respite.  What is most remarkable is that the less natural and urgent his needs, the more his passions grow, and, what is worse, his power to satisfy them, so that after lengthy prosperity, after having swallowed up many treasures and having destroyed many men, my hero will end up by slaughtering everything until he is the sole master of the universe.  Such is, in brief, the moral picture, if not of human life, at least of the secret aspirations in the heart of every civilized man.”

Later in the same footnote, Rousseau writes:

“Luxury, which is impossible to prevent among men who are greedy for their own conveniences and for the consideration of others, soon completes the harm done by societies, and under the pretext of supporting the poor, who need not have been created, it impoverishes all the rest, and sooner or later depopulates the state.”

The illness, in Rousseau’s view, goes back to the loss of self-sufficiency.  Let’s grant that Rousseau’s notion that humans in the state of nature were self-sufficient, had no need of others, is completely absurd.  (Rousseau himself admits that the “the state of nature” describes “a state which no longer exists, which has, perhaps, never existed” [p. 5 in the Norton edition of Rousseau’s Political Writings].) However, even if we are materially dependent on others in order to survive, i.e. if we grant that no person in isolation could actually produce the necessities for sustaining life, that doesn’t necessarily entail our deep psychological dependence on others’ opinions of us.  It is that vulnerability to what others think that is the real poison that Rousseau sees society as introducing.

It is civilized man’s terror of contempt—and his resentful and vengeful—response to perceived contempt that underwrites his fury toward his fellows.

“Anyone who sang or danced the best, who was the most handsome, the strongest, the most skillful, or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded, and this was the first step toward inequality and, at the same time, toward vice.  From these first preferences vanity and contempt were born on the one hand, and shame and envy on the other; and the fermentation caused by these new leavens finally produced compounds fatal to happiness and innocence.  As soon as men had begun to appraise each other and the idea of esteem was formulated in their minds, each claimed a right to it, and it was no longer possible to deny it to anyone with impunity.  In that way, the first duties of civility arose, even among savages, and in that way, every intentional wrong became an open insult, because along with the injury which resulted from it, the offended party saw in it a contempt for his person, which was often more unbearable than the injury itself.  Thus, as each person punished the contempt shown to him by others in proportion to the degree to which he valued himself, vengeance became terrible, and men bloodthirsty and cruel” (p. 38).

The vindictiveness of the tax bill is direct.  The coastal elites and the over-educated (produced by universities) are deliberate targets.  The Republicans know that such people hold them in contempt.  What we might say that Rousseau misses are two additional factors: one, those who seek esteem often can only enjoy it if they also know that are others are being denied their privileges, their marks of status.  This is a game that requires the existence of losers to assure me that I am winner.  All the better for my sense of self-righteousness is those losers can be characterized as lazy, corrupt, immoral etc. (which is where racial stereotypes prove so useful.)

Second, those afflicted with status anxiety of this type don’t only need to punish those who withhold their approbation, but must sycophantically seek out the approval of their betters.  I don’t think we should underestimate the extent to which Republican members of Congress want to be counted among the “real men,” who can be identified as either the party leaders or the rich donors.  Those are the guys with “real power,” the ones who are self-evidently the big winners—and I want to be in with that “in crowd.”

All of this is so crude, so reductionist in a Bourdieu type fashion, that I want to repudiate it even as I articulate it.  Of course, such status anxiety afflicts academic life just as pervasively and perniciously as it does politics or the business world.  But I 1) think lots of other motives are at play, so hate suggesting the search for status is some kind of master motive and 2) am daily impressed with the extent to which people don’t let their lives be ruled by the search for status and have devised any number of ways to be content with their lot, with where they have landed after their struggle to find a foothold in this cruel society of ours.

Which is a way of saying that ambition comes in all sizes.  Lots of people don’t aim very high—and all honor to them.  All the more praise since I am inclined at this point to ascribe the lion’s share of our society’s ills to those with outsized ambition, to those who play the status game with deadly intent.

I have heard businessmen say that “money is only a way of keeping score.”  It’s not really about the money, it’s about proving something else, although they usually fight shy of describing just what that something else is.  What I object to is their insatiable need to run up the score.  When is enough enough?  Especially if it’s a game where the actual money is secondary.

And, finally for today, there is also the question of how you play the game.  If the money reveals your competence, your innovative chops, your managerial skills, OK.  It’s something like an objective scorecard, albeit (can’t we admit this?) an imperfect one.  But if the money comes because you gamed the system, along with buying a few politicians to write in your favorite tax loophole, what exactly is being measured?  Not anything that should win you esteem—unless “sharp practice” is esteem worthy.

Once I start thinking that way, the whole value system, the whole scale on which esteem is measured and won, seems so utterly out of whack, that some fundamental perversity becomes the only explanation.  Maybe Rousseau is right to locate the causes of that perversity in the human animal’s social being.  But the fact that some people do seem immune to the illness makes me suspicious of any claim that the fault lies in our nature or our society, since such general accounts leave the actual perpetrators off the hook.