Just Some Facts

Dr. Samuel Johnson to the podium! “Of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason.” (Rasselas, the conclusion of the episode of the mad astronomer.)

I’m not concerned about going mad, which was a constant fear of Dr. Johnson’s. I’m worried about collective reason and the fragility of our ability to find out what is really going on in the world and to devise means of responding. For that’s what’s at stake with the whole “post-truth” thing and the attack on educated people and institutions as being an “élite” with self-serving aims. People without experience of advanced education don’t know how it works. They think it’s like sales talk: arm-waving, smoke and mirrors. Just, like, your opinion, man. Etc. And if those are the terms, who can blame them for being skeptical?

But those aren’t really the terms. Peer-reviewed scholarship is the best means we have of understanding history, biology, geology, physics, and culture. This is not to affirm that it is infallible; infallibility isn’t what it’s about. Rather, the institutions of scholarship devised since the Royal Society began meeting in the middle seventeenth century are designed to gainsay any claim to authority by Fearless Leaders or Thought Leaders of any kind. That’s what “nullius in verba,” the Society’s motto, means– “we don’t take anybody’s word for it.”

Reason is not maintained by isolated Cartesians sitting in heated rooms (or unheated attics for that matter). It requires publicly accessible institutions where the rule is that anyone is allowed to speak as long as the basis of speaking is facts and reason. That rule permits us to keep the best of what’s been discovered, as long as it hasn’t been rebutted, and to make room for innovations, however shocking.

Business, however, likes to secure monopolies, and tyrannies brook no rivals.

The fantasy of the power to create truth– you remember the bit in the interview a few years ago about that? “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. … We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Those words seemed to me a damning enough condemnation of the fool who said them, but in many other minds, they represent a maximum desideratum. (Like the quip about pussy-grabbing.)

So I am not too happy about the bossy voluntarists and anti-science people who are propelling themselves into positions from which they can do damage to the American economy of knowledge creation. (The envy of the world, need I say? And suffering from the usual condition of the prophet in its own country.) Wile E. Coyote can tell you a few things about what it’s like to go post-truth. Unfortunately, the mistakes made by this gang of post-truthers are going to fall back on all of us. We need to resist them in whatever way we can.

So, before we all get hysterical about the future, a few facts.

  1. The majority of the country did not vote for Trump. So hold off on all those ethnographies of poor whites and the left-behinds of globalization. The breakdown is: about half of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote at all (so blame them if you want to blame somebody); under a quarter voted for Clinton; even fewer than that voted for Trump, but with razor-thin margins in a few strategic states that counted big in the Electoral College; and a small percentage for the third-party candidates. So talk of a “mandate” is definitely misplaced. (That will not moderate the behavior of the people who think they have the Electoral College majority, though– they are going all-out with their most extreme nutcase people and policies.)
  2. Those who did vote Trump were, in part, the meth-addicted denizens of food-stamp counties, but also religious fundamentalists, Gamergaters and wealthy people just looking for another tax cut. It’s a funny alliance of people with little in common but resentment and a desire for power. You won’t find much in the way of principles here. Therefore, don’t ascribe an ideology where none is proven– and above all, don’t suppose that it’s a coherent, overarching ideology.
  3. Certain institutions can serve as a brake on radical policy change. The Constitution exists for a reason (there are more amendments than the Second); the courts will have their word to say, whatever happens to the Supremes; even the markets are invested in the rule of law and the stability of contracts, and the class of people owning property is much larger than in your usual kleptocracy. Don’t assume that whatever comes out of the mouth of Trumputin is what is going to happen. And donate to the civil-society institutions that have been protecting the Bill of Rights since long before your time. They will put the money to good use.
  4. This sort of thing has happened before. Read the testimony. I was lucky to find Victor Klemperer’s Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten, two volumes, in the Seminary Coop the other day. A fellow academic, a philologist, chronicling the erosion of language and reality-testing over the twelve years of the third Reich. You can take heart from the survival of such a document. (Plus, it’s printed on paper, and when I open it, it doesn’t spy on me.)

There will be a price for protecting reason and equality. Know that. People from Eastern Europe have been through this before. Some gave up; some didn’t. Be as honorable as you can. Denounce the flux of false news and the sudden respectability of racism, scapegoating and paranoia. Find people who share your values and be ready to disregard some issues (no two people agree about everything) while joining with them to rebuild the conditions for a fact-based, democratic political order.

That’s all I have for the moment.


The Antidote

In Washington DC with my three small boys. Breakfast dispatched, and it’s off to Air & Space! Where else, you may ask. It was a sunny, mild day on the National Mall, a barker sold my six-year-old a baseball cap, and soon we were looking at rockets, spy planes, biplanes, jets and telescopes.

And any visit to a big science museum requires an Imax. The thing on offer was “Journey to Space.” The little guys were restless and the 3-D glasses kept falling off. I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted: it was like a trance. Long perspectives on mountains, coastlines, lit-up cities at night, from an aerial and then from a space perspective. Teams of engineers working together on making things go: folks who understand the concepts of truth, consistency, operability and experiment. Teams of astronauts floating around in space, running experiments, exercising, having a laugh. Handshakes and hugs between members of different national astronaut teams: in space, it doesn’t matter what country you’re from, human company is rare and precious. The weightlessness of the bodies and the omnidirectionality of the corridors inside the ISS (up and down are matters of convention) matched the mannerisms of the men and women sharing the craft: cheerful, competent, tolerant, non-hierarchical, task-focused people.

I’m one of those Americans whose belief in this country is aspirational: my patriotism connects with a set of ideals and not with “my country right or wrong.” Knowing how massively we have failed, over time, to honor high-sounding commitments, I can’t imagine living in a self-congratulatory narrative about “the greatest country on earth” that depends on obliterating memories of slavery, murder, genocide, fraud, and theft. Even the space program, I know, was cooked up out of military objectives and public relations. We need to know ugly history. The uglier, the better for our morals. But watching crews of science-minded people creating amazing adventures for our whole species, with indifference to the race, gender or income of the scientific talent brought to bear, allowed me to forget for a few minutes of blissful relief the ignorance, resentment, bigotry and sheer non-fact-based screaming that seem to have overtaken “the American way.”

A few hours later, it comes to me that a Miltonic Satan would look on that pragmatic, inquisitive, open-minded, multinational group in zero-gravity not with admiration but with envious resentment, and find satisfaction in the explosions that killed fourteen members of that “élite.”


Credunt quia absurdum

A sensible analysis of the disposing conditions to a certain voting pathology. Lofton gets to the point without invoking trailer parks, missing teeth or deer carcasses.






Do you think that wife-beating, gay-baiting and race-raging are what make a Real Man Real?

Or do you find that a Real Man, by definition, despises and combats such activities?

If you answered yes to the first question, you must be a Trump supporter.

If you answered no to the first question and yes to the second one, congratulations, you are a normal person.

Hold onto that insight.


The Ex-Files

It’s one of the most famous Gotcha! moments in the history of the social sciences. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) presented language, economy, and kinship as variants on the same logical “structures”: the exchange of messages, the exchange of goods, the exchange of women. Women might suspect something strange was going on with their transformation into analogues of messages or objects, with men doing all the exchanging, but Simone de Beauvoir reviewed the book graciously and added: “although a woman is something other than a sign, she is nonetheless, like language, something that is exchanged.” Then Gayle Rubin questioned the objectivity of Lévi-Strauss’s description, making it complicit with the objectification of women (“The Traffic in Women,” 1975). Levi-Strauss’s feminist cred was not augmented by the fact that, as Jean-Pierre Mileur observes, in Tristes Tropiques (1955) it is “only after around three hundred pages” that Lévi-Strauss “gets around to mentioning that his wife accompanied him on his expeditions– and then to say that she fell ill and he had to leave her behind.”

What a dreadful pig, you may be saying. But another piece of the puzzle emerges from Emmanuelle Loyer’s biography (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paris: Flammarion, 2016). Lévi-Strauss wrote Tristes Tropiques at top speed during several months in 1955, typing up his reflections and old notes with constant advice, input and critical reading from his wife Monique, who received every batch of thirty pages fresh from the machine and returned them with interleaved commentary (Loyer, 415-17). A partner in dialogue. But the “wife” who fleetingly and belatedly appears, like a suppressed excuse, in TT is not Monique but the first wife, Dina. Could it be that an unwillingness to dwell on his ex and the collapse of his first marriage in this sustained communication with his second wife accounts for Dina’s near-invisibility? If a marriage is an exchange of women between groups of men, already a scandalous idea, the exchange of a woman (or of a sign representing her) between a man and a woman must be so complicated a matter that it can hardly be allowed to happen. In the fuller account of the book’s composition, it’s not that women are invisible, it’s that one woman is a topic that the male narrator would like to avoid in his address to another woman. The two women are thus both out of the frame–but in two different ways and for two different reasons. The invisible omnipresence of the one explains the near-invisibility and near-absence of the other.


No Such Thing as Offshore

A recent interview with Nancy Fraser points up the “crisis of care” in societies like our own.

It’s assumed that there will always be sufficient energies to sustain the social connections on which economic production, and society more generally, depend. This is very similar to the way that nature is treated in capitalist societies, as an infinite reservoir from which we can take as much as we want and into which we can dump any amount of waste. In fact, neither nature nor social reproductive capacities are infinite; both of them can be stretched to the breaking point. Many people already appreciate this in the case of nature, and we are starting to understand it as well in the case of “care.”

The controversial bit is where Fraser says,

But there’s still a deep and disturbing question about what role feminism has played in all of this. Feminists rejected the ideal of the family wage as an institutionalization of female dependency—and rightly so. But we did so at just the moment when the relocation of manufacturing kicked the bucket out from under the idea economically. In another world, feminism and shifts in industry might not have reinforced one another, but in this world they did.

What I would like to worry is the proximity of “relocation” and “in another world.” Of course by “another world” Fraser means “in another possible world,” calling on a Leibnizian or Wheelerian imaginary of differently branching causal series, but there’s an overtone in “relocation” that suggests where the space of the “we” lies.

Given the acuteness of this crisis of social reproduction, it would be utopian, in the bad sense, for the left not to be focusing on this. The idea that we could somehow bring back manufacturing, that’s what’s utopian—again, in the bad sense. Unlike the idea that you could build a society that assumes every adult is a person with primary care responsibilities, community engagements, and social commitments.

Bring it “back”? Shorthand for “bring it back from China and other low-wage places.” It would be good to investigate what kinds of “crises of care” people are undergoing in the places where manufacturing has certainly not taken a vacation–and where it is often women who are doing the manufacturing, not for a very heavy wage. Fraser isn’t negligent: her answers in the interview often come back to the plight of people in the countries where financial capital is not domesticated. But perhaps as an effect of this being an election year, when our minds are concentrated on the issues that keep being mentioned, often to the accompaniment of a wagging finger, I think Fraser’s good universalism could be spread a little more thickly.


Can You Follow The Numbers for me please?

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda gave a talk the other day at Yale. I’m far from discounting the good that Kagame has been able to do in heading up a government with a low corruption index and efficient ministries, with visible effects in raising the level of access to health care, in fostering an economy that feeds and houses Rwandans, in standing athwart any attempts to reawaken the genocidal rages of 1993-4– and yes, I know that this was accomplished by ensuring ‘political stability,’ to use a technical term for a monopoly on power. I don’t much like this form of stability, accompanied as it is by repression (in whatever degree– a lesser degree in Rwanda’s case than in most of its neighbors’). But if the alternative is civil war upon civil war, then let’s not condemn Kagame’s government too harshly for doing what they thought was necessary. Obviously in an ideal world, multi-party democracy would flourish and no one would be put at any kind of risk for articulating an opinion or running for office.

I’m not writing to excuse Kagame (though the protestors who turned up at his talk might think so), however. I’m writing to suggest that we examine critically one of the claims he made, which may have struck you as self-serving. President Kagame held that his government’s human rights record is really no one else’s business, and that HR organizations are swimming in the wake of old-fashioned colonialism.

When it comes to Africa especially there is a great deal of continuity with certain negative assumptions widely shared across governments, media, and academia, not only in this country but more generally. … I can hardly blame you, students and others, for being sometimes confused as to what is true about Rwanda or Africa. The manner in which you receive information, and have it validated, is designed to sow confusion and not build understanding…. There is a culture of making up one’s mind about Africa by borrowing assumptions, prejudices, and judgements, from trusted intermediaries, who, by the way, tend to look the same, as you may have noticed.

“The same”– i.e., white, I suppose.

For centuries, the West has preferred to relate to Africa and similar places from a position of moral superiority. There is a word for this, which I won’t use, to avoid unnecessary distraction. But let’s agree that it reveals a stunning failure of moral imagination and human empathy, apparently so profoundly embedded that it requires no further justification, even as it implicitly guides both foreign policy and higher education.

The word must have been “colonialism”– as you see, I said it already. Now the argument that only Africans are reliable sources of information, or have a right to an opinion on Africa, isn’t a good one, and if applied more broadly would be fatal to any international cooperation. It sounds self-serving. And hearers sensitive to possibilities may worry that this betokens a readiness to continue running Rwanda without the inconveniences of democracy, à la Mugabe. This is certainly worth worrying about in any situation where someone has power and might not relinquish it.

But the argument that those who are interested in human rights in Africa are leading some kind of expeditionary corps of journalists and activists, hoping to dominate and control Africa, might be tested empirically, rather than just thrown out as an emotional ploy. Someone with access to databases of charitable and political giving could, I think, easily answer the following question:

— What percentage of those who contribute to international human-rights organizations (e.g., Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch) also contribute to free-speech or human-rights organizations in their home country (e.g., for US citizens, the ACLU, NESRI, the Innocence Project, the Heartland Foundation, and so on)? What’s the dollar ratio between international and domestic giving?

If it turns out the donors are primarily interested in human-rights activism abroad, that shows us that HR organizations need to think about their priorities. If it turns out that the donors are trying to repair injustices both at home and abroad, then I say hooray for them and let’s have more of this. Because, unfortunately, a national border doesn’t keep abuse out and justice in.



Yes, my fellow Americans, it’s time to mount a vast public campaign to raise awareness of the illegitimacy of tattoo-removal services. Didn’t you know that a tattoo is supposed to be permanent? If people can just go and get their tattoos removed, what is the meaning of having a tattoo in the first place? An insincere, non-binding tattoo must be the most abject thing on earth. No wonder public morals have declined! And those poorly sourced Chinese characters you’ve repented of, those political slogans that you’ve realized were spelled incorrectly, those cartoon characters and commercial brands you’ve grown out of– well, if life has given you bad tattoos, turn them into lemonade! There must be consequences; the individual’s history must be legible and indelible. Five years’ imprisonment for the person seeking to have their tattoos removed; life behind bars for any individual procuring, facilitating, or offering to perform tattoo removal. For tats are, by definition, forever.

Get this on the ballot in referendum-friendly states, bribe a few congresspeople, go on the talk shows frothing at the mouth, and while the frenzy is at its peak, slip in a repeal of Citizens United and a real single-payer health system. Thanks.


App Locally

There’s been some grumbling on the web about neighborhood information services such as NextDoor — the gravamen is that such services are inherently racist, or foster racism.

There’s a solution. Move to a different neighborhood. I live on the South Side of Chicago and while I wouldn’t call the NextDoor service here spellbinding, you don’t see messages from people freaking out because they saw a black person drive by. The astonishing reason behind this is that 80 percent of the people in the neighborhood are themselves black. Instead, you have requests for information about house painters and dog walkers, announcements of festivals, complaints about noise, calls to pester the alderman about this or that traffic issue. Normal people dealing with normal stuff. Some lifestyle scuffles, but Pantone numbers don’t enter into it.

It’s not the apps that “have a racism problem.” It’s the composition of the neighborhoods. Do something about that before you blame the software designers. Or have the apps become the reality itself?



Further to the Man who Forgot Words

At the aquarium the other day, a perfectly warm-and-fuzzy slide show meant to raise the public’s ecological awareness was prefaced with the title screen:


Now of course I know what they wanted to do: harness two slogans that people normally respond to in push-button, sleepwalking fashion, “one world” evoking those feelings of kinship with animals and nature, “making a difference” prompting us to get out our checkbooks and do something for the human-created organizations that are supposed to protect bits of nature. But having spent months reading the wrong kind of books, I couldn’t help thinking that if you are all about “One World,” “making a difference” must be the beginning of the downhill trend. If Laozi had been on that advertising account team, “One World: Stop Making Those Differences” or “Unmake a Difference” might have been the more consistent message (but then, who would have written checks?).


The Better Angels

On Sunday, September 11, 2016, it will be the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Sad to say, the terrorists did win. Not only did they demolish a piece of historic New York real estate, and kill three thousand people, but they also paved the way for America increasingly to resemble the autocratic Wahabiite kingdom from which they came. We saw it in the PATRIOT Act, and all the succeeding reauthorizations and expansions, which made it licit for not only the Three Letter Agencies, but local police, to delve into your past and present communications and interactions. We saw it in the retargeting of the Two Minute Hate away from the dimly remembered Communists and towards Muslims. We saw two unjustifiable and costly wars, and some less-documented quasi-wars, none of which made us in any way safer, and served primarily as a vehicle for turning our soldiers into mental patients. Our conduct of the first Gulf War led to the birth of ISIS, as all of Saddam’s generals and bureaucrats, barred by Rumsfeld from participation in the occupation government, needed jobs, and ISIS provided them. Our nominal “victory” — the assassination of Saddam Hussein captured live on video so that Obama and Clinton could view it in the Situation Room like tonight’s Netflix movie — led to no pause in our drone-enhanced military endeavors. And finally, let us not forget extraordinary renditions, “black sites,” intentionally inflicted US torture, at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib — hooded figures, stress positions, sexual humiliation, waterboarding — that told the world that, yes, the Geneva Conventions were so much meaningless paper. So the terrorists did win. Their acts corrupted our essential nature, but we did have a choice, in the middle of our patriotism and jingoism, to preserve it. Some told us to do just that, and we rejected them, calling them unpatriotic and sympathetic to the enemy.

Now, fifteen years and $4 trillion later, are we doing any better? What have we gained? What are we celebrating? Our 33,000 military deaths, the 1 million Iraqis and Afghans killed as “collateral damage,” some new, symbolic real estate?

Despite the Kissinger-like Machtpolitik which will probably be emanating from Washington only a couple of months from now. I would say that we should bring the troops home. Spend a couple of trillion dollars on them for their mental health. Leave Afghanistan for the Taliban; we tried bribing the Afghans into democracy, and it was like feeding $100 bills into a shredder. Leave the Syrians, the YPG, ISIS, and the Taliban to work things out; they could hardly be worse than they are today. If Russia gets a toehold in the Middle East, just remember that we have had our toehold for over six decades, in Saudi Arabia and Israel, and think of where that has gotten us.

This Sunday, exceptional America will be celebrated with processions of men in uniform, candlelight vigils, and NYFD T-shirts. We are mourning the loss of our buildings and our people. We cannot see that we have lost what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” and we do not know where they have flown.