From Class to Identity: The Cultural Turn in the Left Thought Collective (1950s-1980s)

Class to Culture

Ideologies never die, they metamorphose and are reborn in a new form just when they are thought buried forever.

– Pascal Bruckner, French philosopher and writer (2006)

In 2010, sociology professor Rick Fantasia, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, struggled to explain the results of US Congress elections that were disastrous to democrats and that, at that time, brought a majority to the republicans.  Fantasia was part of a Social Forum, a 15,000-strong army of left activists who gathered in Detroit, Michigan.  Observing this convention, he noted that most people who arrived at this convention mostly represented various minority organizations that were either involved into identity politics or represented immigrant workers.  Fantasia also noted a heavy presence of countercultural and environmentalist elements, including New Age seekers.  At the same time, the activist scholar pointed out that one important element was missing: working-class people, especially white workers.  With frustration, Fantasia noted that there were only a few white working-class people: “The whites were mostly educated members of the middle class, organizers, activists, representatives of philanthropic organizations and academics.” The described gathering and the expressed concern were a microcosm that reflected the shift in the entire ideology and the social base of the current Western left for the past fifty years.

What worried Fantasia was not some aberration or a temporary flaw in the left strategy and tactics. In fact, this was the result of a natural evolution of the left mainstream.  Since the 1960s, it drifted away from concerns about an economic growth and class-based politics, which were associated with the old left.  Instead, the left began shifting toward culture, race, and identity issues as well as environmentalism.  This metamorphosis is sometimes labeled by a loose umbrella expression the “cultural turn.” On the level of ideas, this turn is usually associated with the emergence of the often-mentioned post-modernism and includes several intellectual trends and political practices that developed in the wake of traditional socialism that was heavily informed by Marxism.  The most important among these trends are post-colonial studies, critical theory, feminism, multiculturalism, and political correctness.   Some authors on the right refer to all this by an umbrella term “Cultural Marxism” – a pejorative expression that serves to point to genetic links between the current cultural left and the old Marxism-driven left.

This essay explores the sources of the cultural turn among the left and the development of their passion for identity matters, which resulted in the phenomenon pinpointed by Fantasia.  Although there have been tons of writings about the cultural left and the origin of their woke culture, our intellectual mainstream is still dominated by the following popular notions.  On the right, it is a widespread conviction that evil “Cultural Marxism,” primarily through the malicious activities of the Frankfurt School, set out to erode the Western civilization.  In the meantime, the easily triggered left have been ascribing any critique of PC thought collective and its “sacred cows” of race and gender to the evil forces of fascism and racism. If we “deconstruct” the history of the left’s gradual evolution toward culture and identity, we might problematize both approaches and tone down the heated debates around that issue.  Moreover, the understanding of the gradual evolution of the contemporary left from economic determinism and fixation on the proletariat to the privileging of culture, identity, and lifestyles will help us understand better how and why literally every aspect of human life became politicized in the eyes of the current left.  In other words, the history of the cultural turn will shed more light on the origin of the popular left meme that personal is political. 

The goal of this essay is to paint a bigger picture by showing that, besides the often-mentioned Frankfurt School, there were other essential sources that fomented the cultural or identitarian turn on the left.  Thus, to understand the formation of this turn, on needs to address the significance of the year 1956 and celebrity sociology W. Right Mills’ crusade against “Victorian Marxism.”  We also need to bring up the writings of C.L.R. James, William Dubois, France Fanon who were the first to refurbish popular Marxism’s memes (the proletariat, class domination and oppression, the new man, false consciousness, and center-periphery) and its Eurocentric nature along racial and non-Western lines.  Most important, one needs to examine the activities of British group of communist historians, Birmingham Institute of Cultural Studies, and New Left Review.  Without them, it will be hard to understand the historical role of the 1960s-1970s’ New Left, which acted as an intellectual bridge between old economic- and class-based Marxism and current cultural left that is heavily steeped in identity politics.

How Do We Call It? Critical Cultural Theory, Cultural Marxism, and the Identitarian Left

In existing debates about the cultural turn, the term “Cultural Marxism” has aroused most controversy.  Current identity-oriented progressive writers and scholars do not like this expression. Their favorite term of choice is Critical Theory and the host of expressions derived from it: Critical Cultural Theory, Critical Racial Theory, Critical Legal Studies and so forth.  However, earlier left authors did not see any problems with “Cultural Marxism.”  In fact, between the 1970s and the 1990s, they pointed that this very expression captured well the essence of the socialist ideology that was undergoing an adjustment to the new times. For example, in his “British Cultural Marxism”(1991) Ioan Davis and Dennis Dworkin in his Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies (1997) did not see any problems in using that expression. As late as 2004, progressive scholar Douglas Kellner about “Cultural Marxism and Cultural Studies.”

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The most aggressive among current cultural left, especially journalists who did not take time to explore the history of Marxism and neo-Marxism, have been quick to label Cultural Marxism as a hate taboo term that promotes fascist, Nazi, and anti-Semitic ideas.  Using such smear metaphors, they want to intellectually link all critics of the identitarian left on the right to Hitler’s propaganda workers who had talked about “Cultural Bolshevism.”  Moreover, downplaying the historical links between pre-1960s “scientific socialism” and the current cultural left, some identity-oriented left authors have claimed that they in fact moved beyond Marxism and that they are not Marxists anymore.

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In their turn, many among traditional Marxist leftists, who still try to stick to the class-based approach, agree that the cultural left have nothing to do with Marxism.  These “traditionalists” label their wayward cultural comrades as traitors to the cause and dismiss them as “bad Marxists”. Several scholars (historian Paul Gottfried and philosopher Helen Pluckrose), who are critical of both traditional Marxism and the current identitarian left, too have argued against using the expression Cultural Marxism.  Correctly stressing that the post-Marxist left stopped prioritizing economic determinism and class and assimilated ideas from outside of Marxism, Gottfried and Pluckrose have stressed that the current cultural left hardly have any links to Marxism.

Several conservative authors (e. g. Kerry Bolton and Jeffrey D. Breshears), who generalized about Cultural Marxism, have come to view it as a grand conspiracy on the part of the left.  They have portrayed it to as a sinister plan masterminded by the so-called Frankfurt School that allegedly sought to uproot Western civilization and Christianity.  The most grotesque versions of the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory link it exclusively to the activities of German-Jewish scholars (who had indeed dominated the Frankfurt School (see Benjamin Ivry, Deconstructing the Jewishness of the Frankfurt School(2015). That theory goes as follows. A group of mostly Jewish intellectuals, who were part of radical socialist and communist forces in the 1920s’ Germany, were upset about the failure of the 1917 Communist revolution in Europe and decided to modify the Marxist-Leninist project of world revolution by mixing Marx and Freud.

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Their goal was to smash capitalism not through the cultivation of the working-class indignation but through undermining Western culture and civilization (traditional family, gender hierarchies, and sexual norms).  In the 1930s, being kicked out by national socialists from Germany, the Frankfurt School cabal moved to the United States, where it became the “Trojan horses” of the radical left, setting out to undermine the culture and values of the United States – the economic and political hub of the Western civilization. One of the major proponents of this view has been writer William Lind (“The Roots of Political Correctness,” 2009), who in fact was instrumental in popularizing the expression “Cultural Marxism.” It is mostly by drawing on his writings that the left journalists came up with the argument that this expression serves as an anti-Semitic dog whistle.

While authors like Lind singled out the Frankfurt School to be demonized as the major intellectual culprit, left authors, who have been peddling so-called neoliberalism, became similarly obsessed with searching for the shadow of the Mont Perelin society in any movement that advocated free market and individual liberty.  The irony of the situation is that both pejorative memes “Cultural Marxism” and “neoliberalism” do describe social trends that have been unfolding in society.  They are not the products of the grand conspiracies but reflect what has been going on in the intellectual culture and on the ground among various segments of society.  Incidentally, several scholars (Keith PrestonAlexander Zubatov, Allen Mendenhall, and Dominic Green) have recently explored the content of Cultural Marxism, trying to separate the conspiracy elements from actual intellectual links between Marxism of old and the current cultural left. Although I believe that this term can be useful especially when we need to stress the continuity between the old Marxian socialism and the present day cultural left, who operate with many ideological pillars inherited from the old creed (e.g. oppression/domination narrative, false consciousness and so forth), it indeed might be too narrow. So, I personally prefer to use such broad definitions as the “cultural left” and “identitarian left.”

Behind the rise of the cultural left, there stood a large thought collective that did reflect genuine concerns of various segments of the left and social movements.  The writings of the Frankfurt scholars, who both analyzed Western society and did issue utopian suggestions about how to transform it, were marginal until the 1960s.  Their scholarship, which helped to shift the left’s priorities from class to identity and culture, would have remained marginal had it not been for wide and vocal audiences that for various reasons picked up and consumed them. To summarize, the “Frankfurters” were not a sinister alien cabal that was preying on Judeo-Christian civilization with the sole purpose to destroy it.  One can describe their effect on society by an old saying: when a student is ready, a teacher comes.  In the 1960s and the 1970s, their ideas, which had earlier been marginal, suddenly began to resonate with thousands of progressives in the West and beyond.  Such “Frankfurters” as Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Theodore Adorno (1903-1969), and Erich Fromm (1900-1980) described the development of mass consumer society, patriarchic family, the effects of propaganda on masses, criticized industrial society, and Western mass culture, frequently issuing sweeping condemnation of the entire “soulless” Western civilization.

The reason these ideas came in vogue was simply because, by the 1960s, the West and the rest of the world experienced profound socio-economic changes: the decline of traditional working class and the rise of intellectual professions, the massive involvement of women into all spheres of life and the end of the male-oriented societal ethic, which until the 1960s had been considered normal, the emergence of new technologies, an industrial pollution, and concerns about how to better handle an economic growth.  Furthermore, the world saw the rise of Third World national liberation movements, the collapse of old colonial empires, and the emergence of minority movements in Western countries. Finally, the Soviet Union, which for a large portion of the left earlier had been the great new hope, lost its image as the ultimate socialist utopia.  Facing those changes, the old left began to crumble. There was a need to refurbish the left ideology and identity. In the 1960s and the 1970s, during student anti-war movements, the rise of Third World national liberation movements, civil rights protests among the people of “color,” the expansion of women and gays rights movements, the ideas disseminated by the above-mentioned intellectual “power centers” of the left resonated well with thousands of protesters. One cannot simply dismiss these collectives and their ideas as something imposed from above on the “innocent populace.” 

Toward “Socialist Humanism” and Away from Traditional Marxism (1956 and beyond)

1956 was a pivotal year for the socialist thought collective.  This was the year when the Soviet nomenklatura elite partially exposed Stalinism, trying to polish the tainted image of socialism.  The communist bureaucracy was tired of living in a constant fear, and, after the death of Stalin, it sought to secure its privileges and to somehow reform communism to make it more appealing.  During the same year, taking advantage of the limited destalinization, people of Hungary openly rose in an anti-communist revolt against the Soviets.  The suppression of the Budapest rebels by the Soviet tanks was a devastating blow at the moral of the millions of left idealists around the world who still believed that the Soviet Union was acting on the side of the forces of light.  There was a growing frustration with the Soviet model of socialism that was tied to a total nationalization and centralized planning. Moscow was rapidly losing its status as the utopian place.  It was natural that the year of 1956 signaled the emergence of the so-called New Left who sought to disentangle themselves from the Soviet experience.

In the meantime, the working-class people in the West dramatically improved their living conditions and did nor express any desire to go to barricades to battle capitalism.  Social democrats were shedding the last vestiges of Marxism, and communist parties were increasingly losing their membership.  For example, the French Communist Party, one of the largest pro-Soviet left movements in the West, which had 320,000 members in 1956, by 1962 shrank down to 225,000.  Similarly, pro-Soviet Communist Party USA, which had between 75,000 to 80,000 members in 1945, declined to fewer than 3,000 in 1958. It was not the expected immiseration of working-class masses but an increased prosperity, bourgeois culture, and boredom that became a great challenge.  The left, especially their radical wing, were poised to turn into rebels without a cause.  The major character from John Osborn play (1956) expressed it best when he uttered a phrase that became classic: “There aren’t any good, brave causes left.” In 1960, Raymond Williams (1921-1988), an influential UK socialist novelist and theoretician,  admitted that not only the Marxist prophecy about the immanent collapse of capitalism failed but also the entire hubris of traditional Marxism was under threat: “The Marxist claim to special insight into these matters of life and death of an economic system makes concessions of error less easy.”

There was not much to gain for the left by sticking to the economic playing field, where “rotten” capitalism was improving people’s living standards and securing an economic growth. Those who wanted to keep radical left agenda alive had to rekindle the traditional left subculture. The Trotskyites, cosmopolitan Marxist-Leninist heretics, who were the victims of vicious political assaults from their Stalinist rivals, did arouse a sympathy among dissident communists who were seeking a socialist alternative beyond the Soviet experience.  After all, the Trotskyites were the first to struggle to preserve the radical elan of the Marxist creed, while simultaneously attacking both capitalism and Stalinism.  Yet, with their old and worn out mantra about the primacy of an economic basis, vanguard party, and false claims about an increasing misery of the industrial working class, they were out of touch with reality.  The Trotskyites simply appeared as reenactors of the bygone era and could not generate any visible support among workers, quickly degenerating into an esoteric intellectual sect.

Cornelius Castoriadis, a prominent left theoretician, captured well the whole dilemma faced by the left who were frustrated about the proletariat that failed to fulfill its prophetic mission: “The proof of the truth of the Scriptures is Revelation; and the proof that there has been Revelation is that the Scriptures say so.  This is a self-confirming system. In fact, it is true that Marx’s work, in its spirit and its very intention, stands and falls along with the following assertion: The proletariat, as it manifests itself as the revolutionary class that is on the point of changing the world. If such is not the case – as it is not – Marx’s work becomes again what in reality it always was, a (difficult, obscure, and deeply ambiguous) attempt to think society and history from the perspective of their revolutionary transformation – and we have to resume everything starting from our own situation, which certainly includes both Marx himself and the history of the proletariat as a component.”  Issues that became more relevant by the 1960s were the US war in Vietnam, the rise of Third World anticolonial movements, civil rights struggle, and women liberation.  Traditional working-class issues became less irrelevant, whereas the issues of race, gender, and culture that earlier had occupied a marginal place on the left’s agenda, now were coming to the forefront.  The mainstream radical left had to rethink their creed and agenda and customize it to the changes.

In contrast, by the 1960s, Moscow, which had billed itself as Red Jerusalem and the vital center of left radicals appeared as conservative, oppressive and ideologically suffocating.  In the 1930s and the 1940s, the sympathetic left somehow could excuse Stalin’s socialism along with its police state, terror, and labor concentration camps as a temporary mobilization scheme that was needed to successfully fight fascism and railroad backward Russia into the radiant world of modernity.  Yet, after 1956, it became harder to justify the continuation of that politically correct line.  For example, in response to Soviet defector Victor Kravchenko’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes in 1946, European communists and their fellow travelers still felt no shame in dismissing the existence of  GULAG concentration camps as fake news, and large segments of public swallowed it. Yet, ten years later, when Stalin’s heir Nikita Khrushchev himself indirectly revealed the brutal reality of Soviet communism, the cannibalistic nature of the Bolshevik-made regime was impossible to deny.  Without wishing this, the Soviets, who themselves denounced Stalin, the “red pope” of communism, made a huge crack in the entire building of the socialist faith. 1956 produced thousands of apostates.  Several of them released a volume of their testimonies with a revealing title God That Failed.

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Since 1956, to dissociate themselves from the Soviet brand of socialism, the Western left sought to humanize Marxism. Hence, a natural shift away from economic determinism and economic efficiency toward the issues of culture and identity. Later, this trend manifested itself in the emergence of such contemporary memes as “socialism with a human face,” “democratic socialism,” “socialist humanism,” and “Marxism-Humanism.”   A Jamaican-born UK Marxist sociologist Stuart Hall, one of the fountainheads of the cultural turn on the left, remembered that he and his comrades wanted to find a new political space through the rejection of both Western social democracy and Stalinism. The expression “Stalinism” became an important euphemism for those among the radical left, who wished to exorcise Stalin from communism and socialism, but who simultaneously wanted to preserve the reputation of these two sacred words untarnished.

“Sense of Classlessness” and British Cultural Studies, 1950s-1970s

One of the major trailblazers of the drift toward humanized Marxism and culture and away from economic determinism was a dissident group of British Marxist intellectuals who were later labelled as the New Left. Several of them came from so-called Communist Party Historians Group that was set up within the British Communist Party in 1946. Others were communist fellow travelers or independent Marxists.  At the end of the 1950s, when the Moscow commanding heights began to question Stalin’s infallibility, these historians, sociologists, and literary scholars either quit on the party or drifted away from traditional Marxism-Leninism, challenging its Stalinist theory and practice.  These dissident intellectuals included such prominent figures as E. P. Thompson (1924-1993), Herbert Hoggart (1918-2014), Christopher Hill (1912-1996), Raymond Williams (1921-1988), Christopher Hill (1912-2003) Stuart Hall (1932-2014), Raphael Samuel, (1934-1996), John Saville (1916-2009), Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), George Rudé (1910-1993) Rodney Hilton (1916-2002).  Several of them (Hall, Hobsbawm, Hoggart, Thompson, and Williams) had a profound impact on Western social scholarship, especially in English-speaking countries. For example, Hall and Williams literally laid the foundations of current cultural studies. In their turn, Thompson and Hobsbawm had a huge impact on history scholarship, helping to shift its mainstream direction toward writing about the past “from below.”

These New Left dissidents began to question the old Marxist notion that the end of capitalism was linked to the increasing immiseration and economic degradation of the proletariat.  Instead, they started arguing that the need for socialism was arising from the bourgeois affluence and consumerism. Furthermore, these ex-communists cracked the traditional Marxist conviction that economic class interests conditioned politics, social life, people mindsets, and culture.  Gradually shedding off economic determinism, these left scholars who had invested their whole careers into “scientific socialism,” found a new outlet to continue their intellectual pursuits – retrieval of the popular culture of working-class people.

Their intellectual quest eventually gave rise to New Left Review.  Launched in 1960, it became the major periodical of the Western New Left.  In fact, the very expression “the New Left” originated from a collective that congregated around this journal and that was hanging in and around the Partisan Coffee House in Soho, a bohemian area of London, and the Birmingham Institute of Cultural Studies. Searching for a new identity, the New Left changed the very concept of political, moving away from the traditional left “sacred sites” such a factory and a trade union to the realm of labor culture, folklore, lifestyles, and individual behavior.  Hall, who was part of this ideological collective, noted that he and his comrades were looking for a better place to ground their radical socialism. Incidentally, one of his speculative essays carried a characteristic title “A Sense of Classlessness.” Hall specified that the major way for him and his comrades to anchor themselves was politicizing various issues surrounding college life, high schools, movie theaters, art and other walks of life and institutions.  Jumping ahead, I want to stress that for the current cultural left politicizing the issues of lifestyle is one of the major ways of sustaining their identity.  Hall defined the New Left ideological search as “the proliferation of potential sites of social conflict and constituencies for change.” The famous slogan of radical feminism “the personal is political” captured well the essence of that quest.  Overall, as Hall stressed, all kinds of issues, including personal troubles and complaints could be amplified and opened to politicization.

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Trying to downplay the old mantra about how economy conditioned the minds of proletarians, these anti-Stalinist dissidents shifted attention to learning about the wisdom of working class by exploring its culture and folklore.  One of the first timid steps was made by Thompson, a professional historian and one of those communist dissidents.  Although Thompson continued to romanticize the labor as the ultimate savior of humankind from capitalism, the scholar nevertheless admitted that the cause of the intellectual bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism was its economic determinism.  Drawing on Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852)one of a few foundational texts in classical Marxism that did recognize a relative autonomy of political culture, Thompson invited to pay more attention to the spontaneous agency of people over the working of invisible natural laws.  Simultaneously, he criticized contemporary Marxism for downplaying moral and ethical issues. Thompson is mostly known for multiple editions of his The Making of the English Working Class (1963) that became a staple reading in history and humanities courses throughout English-speaking world.  In this book, he drew attention to the radical culture of English labor.

Williams, political scientist and literary scholar who belonged to the same collective, moved far further toward embracing a cultural approach to the proletarian “chosen people.”  Formally remaining a member of the British Communist Party, in the 1950s, Williams gradually drifted away from it toward the Labour (social democratic) platform.  Unlike Thompson, who was still trapped within the old Marxist bubble, Williams went full ahead in fomenting the cultural shift in Western Marxism and one of the most influential thinkers for the entire Anglo-American left social scholarship community. Moreover, to dramatize his opposition to the economic materialism and determinism of traditional Marxism, Williams labelled his method as “cultural materialism”Marxist-oriented anthropologists, many of whom too were ditching the economic determinism in the 1960s, simultaneously peddled a similar notion in their scholarship.  Because of Williams’ aggressive media presence, his ideas about the working-class culture and group identity trickled down into Western humanities, where later they were used as a methodological blueprint for feminist, racial, gay, and queer theories.

To legitimize the cultural shift, the dissidents had to appeal to the authority of foundational Marxist texts and use relevant quotes from its founders.   Just as their Soviet counterparts who, when partially cleansing the house of Stalinism, turned to Marx and Lenin, the Western New Left had their intellectual “Reformation” by invoking the early writings of Marx.  Besides such writings as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, they particularly became interested in so-called Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), vague and abstract notes made by young Marx about humanism and alienation.  Excavated and published by Bolshevik scholars in Moscow in the 1920s, those notes appeared to contemporary radical socialists as irrelevant: they did not yet contain the famous pillars of Marxist “science” such as surplus value, the primacy of economic basis, socio-economic formations, and the salvational role of working class.  In the wake of the 1917 revolution, being busy with class battles and ready to harness the “laws of history” in order to usher in the radiant communist future, Bolsheviks and their radical left allies in other countries did not pay much attention to those manuscripts, considering them raw speculations of the great mind in its infancy.  Yet, during the unfolding New Left revisionism, which aimed to mute economic determinism and the Stalinist totalitarianism, amplifying instead the significance of the human being, culture, and identity, those vague notes suddenly became relevant and “mature.” What especially resonated with the British dissident Marxists and the New Left in general was Marx’s generalizations about alienation of human beings in modern Western society.

The ultimate task was to revise the traditional Marxist canon, which preached that economic basis conditioned political and cultural “superstructure,” and to place instead an emphasis on the “superstructure.” In his Culture and Society (1960), Williams furnished relevant quotations from the writings of Marx and Engels to make a case that the cultural superstructure should not be reduced to the economic basis.  Instead of old speculations about the economic conditions of the working class in England, the historian was on the quest for the traditional working-class culture, which he romanticized as organic, wholesome, and authentic.  Moreover, Williams sought to separate it from “artificial” bourgeois mass culture.  A sympathetic contemporary aptly remarked that the intellectual quest of Williams and his New Left colleagues who sought to pinpoint an “authentic” proletarian culture was an attempt to merge “imaginative literature and socialist humanism.”

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Marxist sociologist Hoggart, who founded the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1964, too portrayed the idealized working-class culture as organic and natural, contrasting it to the “non-authentic” bourgeois culture.  According to Hoggart, mass bourgeois culture was undermining and phasing traditional and wholesome working-class ways.  It was natural that Williams and Hoggart, who celebrated the bygone traditional labor culture, became drawn to Romantic poets and writers who celebrated Merry Ole England.  In fact, their intellectual speculations surprisingly resembled dismissive rants of conservative critics regarding modern British culture.  Irving How, a walk away American Trotskyite and socialist sceptic who was observing these cultural speculations of his English  comrades, could not resist making a comment: “I suspect that in their stress upon the working-class neighborhood and its indigenous culture men like Williams and Hoggart are turning to something that is fast slipping away.”

Another prominent member the same group of dissident Marxists historian Hobsbawm, whose books became must read in many history and anthropology courses, gives us an example of a true-believer who was literally tormented by the idea of how and where to find a “class-savior” at that age of “classlessness.” Unlike his wayward comrades such as Thompson, Hobsbawm, chose to remain in the British Communist party.  Moreover, at the turn of the 1950s, still infested with the idealism about the proletariat as the ultimate victim-savior, the historian put his two cents in the famous debate about the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the living conditions of the working class in England.  In the spirit of classical Marxism, Hobsbawm was trying to argue that by 1800 the life of the factory laborer had become miserable if compared with the preindustrial Britain.  By the way, it was the very same debate that also produced collective volume Capitalism and Historians (1954), in which F. A. Hayek and his colleagues challenged arguments of Hobsbawm, Thompson and the like, arguing that the living condition of workers had significantly improved.  In the end of the 1950s, being unable to operate on the familiar economic playground of classical Marxism, Hobsbawm slowly began to drift toward new “pastures” in the Third World.  At the turn of the 1960s, he took several trips to Latin America, exploring revolutionary movements in that part of the world, falling for Cuba and engaging Peruvian peasants into talks about the level of their oppression.  At some point, Hobsbawm became so excited about the revolutionary potential of Latin America that he defined it as the engine of the future socialist revolution.

In 1959, he published Primitive Rebels.  This book that became a runaway bestseller in the English-speaking world was also translated in all major European and Asian languages.  In fact, the enthusiastic reception of the text demonstrated that he did tap in the popular longing among the left to find new “chosen ones” to letch on.  Although the current identitarian left will find that title too patronizing and Eurocentric, Primitive Rebels did clear the ground for the cultural turn in the general shift away from the proletariat.  The book represented a history account that romanticized people whom Hobsbawm defined as social and noble bandits, from English Robin Hood types and Sicilian mafia to peasant communism in Italy and Ukraine and Spanish anarchists of the 1910s-1930s.  The indirect message of the book was that all those segments fomented a spontaneous social justice by undermining oppressive systems.  In fact, the most recent American paperback edition of the book has been advertised as a timeless text that would be relevant to Black Lives Matter activists who sought to protect black ghettos from alleged police brutality.

Those independent New Left, who were not constrained by ties to the communist movement like Hobsbawm, went further and began to completely debunk the role of workers as the “chosen people” destined to save the world from capitalism. In 1960, American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962), an emerging intellectual guru of the New Left, openly challenged the “labor metaphysic” of the old comrades.  He scorned the romancing of the proletariat as “Victorian Marxism” and a survival of the past. Trying to fill the old Marxist clichés with a new content, the sociologist insisted that in the new “post-industrial” conditions, the true catalyst of revolutionary changes would be the intellectuals in the West, Soviet bloc countries, and the Third World.  People like Thompson, who continued to believe in the proletarian class struggle, were confused and upset about such flamboyant attack on the sacred pillar of Marxism.  On the one hand, they wanted to exorcise Stalinism and economic determinism from “scientific socialism.” Yet, on the other hand, they were too attached to the old ideological meme of proletarians as the “chosen people” to simply cast aside this foundational stone of the Marxist theology. Still, blended with “racialized Marxism” of Dubois, James, and Fanon, Mills’ heretical ideas, Thompson, Hoggart, and Williams and Hobsbawm scholarship opened doors to the emergence of the identitarian left.

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C.L.R. James, William Dubois, Frantz Fanon, and the “Curse” of the Western Civilization

Moving further away from the sacred pillars and sites of traditional Marxism (a factory, economic growth, the working class, and the Soviet Union), such activist intellectuals as Hall became known as the New Left.  From the economic critique of capitalism, which did not make sense at the time when this very capitalism improved workers’ living standards, the New Left gradually began to take on the Western civilization in general, bourgeois life-styles and culture, embracing the Third World and non-Western cultures.  The slowdown of class battles and sluggish radical socialist activism in the West contrasted with the great awakening in the Third World, where emerging national liberation movements challenged European colonialism. Cast against the “dormant” and “corrupted” Western working-class, the Third World appeared to the New Left as the potential hub revolutionary activism.

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It was increasingly clear that the Europe-centered old left hardly had anything to offer in the new socio-political circumstances. Hall remembered, “I was troubled by the failure of Orthodox Marxism to deal adequately with either ‘Third World’ issues of race and ethnicity, and questions of racism, or with literature and culture.” Another Caribbean expat and his French counterpart Aime Cesaire, a budding New Left intellectual from Martinique, declared his resignation from the French Communist Party, rebuking Eurocentric paternalism of the communists.

To be exact, there were already several major writers on the left who had inaugurated this drift away from the West toward the Third World, culture, and identity matters.  In fact, Vladimir Lenin, one of the giants of the radical left, had opened a space for the cultural rereading of Marxism by endorsing the anti-colonial resistance as the European proletariat’s ally and pointing to the commonality of interests between the European “wretched of the earth” and the colonized people.  Moreover, feeling the need to placate various local nationalisms in the emerging Soviet Union and to win allies in the non-Western colonial periphery, Lenin drew a distinction between “bad” regressive nationalism of the bourgeois West and “good” progressive nationalism of the colonial periphery. Without wishing it, Lenin made a crack in classical Marxism that had taught that colonialism had been progressive because it had brought industry to the undeveloped parts of the world.  Earlier, it was assumed that boosting the expansion of capitalism sped up the formation of the proletariat – capitalism’s gravedigger – and the movement toward the radiant communist future.

Among the influential early voices that triggered the identitarian revision of Marxism was W. E. B. Dubois (1868-1963), an African American social scholar, nationalist, Soviet fellow-traveler, and a convert to communism at the end of his life.  The other one was C.L. R. James (1901-1989), an independent Marxist novelist and theoretician from a British Caribbean colony of Trinidad. The third was Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), yet another Caribbean-born black intellectual from the French-owned island of Martinique, who was instrumental in merging Marxism, Pan-Africanism, and Third World nationalism.  Since the 1960s, the New Left and their successors among the cultural left have been holding all three in a high esteem.  In fact, in academia there grew entire publication industry around those personalities.

Early in his career, along with socialism, Dubois absorbed then popular race and “folk soul” ideas when he was studying in Germany between 1892-1894, applying them to his budding Black nationalism.  In his 1897 “The Conservation of Races,” Dubois called for the cultural unity of the “Black race” to replicate the efforts of the Teutons, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, Latins, Semites, Hindu, and Mongolians who were busy, as he explained, consolidating their own civilizations.  Dubois viewed the American blacks as the enlightened vanguard of the black race that was to perform that job of consolidation.  He envisioned such racial solidarity as a counterweight to the contemporary domination of the “whiteness of the Teutonic” and their soulless civilization that was fixated on individualism and economic enterprise. Very much like his racially-conscious Germanic contemporaries, who lamented the degradation of the Aryan soul by corrupt forces of modern industry and commerce, Dubois generalized about the bourgeois civilization of the West corrupting Africa – the primal and vital center of the black race.

In his Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Negro (1915), he spoke in favor of segregating “black culture” from “white civilization” and speculated about an abstract black soul, race, and culture devoid of any local and linguistic differences.  In fact, later in 1934, Dubois severed his connections with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that was working to eliminate racial segregation in the United States because the organization’s activities contradicted the racial utopia he contemplated. Interestingly, in his novel Dark Princess (1928), Dubois portrayed the Atlas Shrugged-type society of non-white expatriates who formed the Great Council of the Darker Peoples.  Represented by “dark” superheroes, that society was planning to take over and engineer a happy future on the planet after white institutions collapsed.

Dubois relied on European romantic memes of the noble savage (collectivist, generous, wholesome, happy, simple), which he applied to all blacks as a race.  Also, drawing on his parochial experience as a black American, the writer singled out race as the central factor in the world history, and slavery as the experience that defined not only the past history but also conditioned future behavior of his “tribe.”  Dubois assumed that the sheer presence of “black blood” in an American automatically made such a person a carrier of the “soul experience” of being a slave; incidentally, none of Dubois ancestors had been in bondage.  Dubois welcomed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that he considered as a scorching wind that was to cleanse the modern world, washing away bourgeois civilization.  Since the Soviet Union crusaded against the West, he automatically viewed that country as an ally: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  By 1935, Dubois came to conclusion that the Soviets would destroy the “rotten” Western civilization and help to construct a new non-Western cultural order.  The writer praised Stalin as a great liberator, and the 1956 revelations of the Soviet crimes did not shatter this conviction.   Reflecting contemporary political preferences of Third World anti-colonial leaders and spokespeople, he called the Soviet Union and China the shining models of the future.  His conversion to communism and subsequent move to Ghana in 1961, where he became a senior advisor to Kwame Nkrumah, the head of the country who claimed building socialism, was symbolic. Here on the African soil, his black nationalism, which was saturated with romantic memes of European primitivism, met Marxian socialism. There is no need to stress that Dubois writings has been a must read in many humanities and social science courses across Western academia since at least the 1970s.

The evolution of C.L.R James, who became another must reference for Western social scholarship, moved in a reverse direction, although the result was essentially the same.  From early on, in the 1930s and the 1940s, he prophesized his loyalty to Marxism. Yet, gradually, James began to play down class exploitation, amplifying the significance of racial and colonial oppression.  It was natural because these issues were personally more relevant to him than far-away class battles in distant and alien Europe.  James at first embraced anti-Stalinist Trotskyite version of communism and its prophecy of the world revolution.  Yet, later, driven by anti-colonial concerns and by a desire to identify a new reliable revolutionary force to act as a surrogate proletariat, he shifted his attention to the Third World.

clrjames

Essentially, both Dubois and James were refurbishing the classic Eurocentric prophecy of Marxism along the Third World lines. Marx had welcomed colonialism as a progressive system that was sucking underdeveloped areas into the global commodity economy, pushing the world closer to capitalism and creating an economic basis for a leap into the radiant communist future.  For him, slavery was an archaic mode of production that, at the dawn of human history, had boosted economic development and then perished, giving rise to more progressive stages of human evolution such as feudalism and then capitalism. According to the founder, slavery survived in some backward areas of the globe (US South, Latin America, Africa) that did not catch up yet with the industrial West.  In contrast, James and Dubois argued that slavery was not a vestige of the bygone socio-economic formation, but, more than the exploitation of European proletariat, was an essential part of modern capitalism.

They insisted that slavery and exploitation of colonies were the vital resource that made possible the rise of capitalism.  Moreover, they became convinced that the entire Western prosperity was accomplished at the expense of non-Western people.  Again, in contrast to Marx who viewed capitalism as a progressive stage on the way to communism, James and Dubois began to argue that capitalism was not a progressive but a regressive system – a European cultural institution imposed on the rest of the world for the purposes of exploitation.  It is notable that, when singling out two pivotal books that had affected his worldview, besides Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (1932) James mentioned The Decline of the West (1918) by Oswald Spengler. The latter text, which was saturated with a deep pessimism, prophesized the decline of the Western civilization.  Incidentally, Spengler too greatly affected Dubois who began taking for granted that the West was in perpetual decline.  Both found in the German philosopher’s text what they were looking for: a radical criticism of the entire Western civilization.

The crucial role in shifting Marxism toward race and identity issues belonged to Fanon, a popular anticolonial writer whose landmark text The Wretched of the Earth (1961) became a book of choice for the whole generation of the Third World national liberation activists in the 1960s-1970s.  Fanon’s bashing of the West also won him numerous disciples in the countercultural circles and among the New Left in Europe and the United States.  As Kalter reminds to us, since the 1980s, assimilated by the academic left (post-colonial studies and critical race theory) into educational system and media, his writings later became an important intellectual fountainhead for identity studies and identity politics.

A psychotherapist by profession, Fanon was a French-speaking intellectual who took part in the Second World War and then in the Algerian War of independence (1954-1962).  In his writings, he focused not on economic liberation but on the cultural and psychological decolonization of the Third World.  Drawing on Marxist class clichés, Fanon revised them along racial lines: “You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” Fanon insisted that the colonial periphery became the mentally  imperiled by Western values, which natives needed to shed off because these were “white values”: “Come, comrades, the European game is finally over, we must look for something else. Let is not imitate Europe. Let us endeavor to invent a man in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving.” In his view, Europe was deadly sick and the keys to the  liberation of humanity were in the hands of the Third World that was destined to shape the New Man; incidentally, the latter meme also originated from Marxism.  Fanon’s friend Jean-Paul Sartre, a famous French philosopher and Soviet apologist, felt happy that “the most ardent poets of negritude are at the same time militant Marxists.” Yet, repeating the mantra of the old left, Sartre said that the mingling race with that class was “not a conclusion” but a transitional stop on the way to a greater color-blind commonwealth.  When Fanon read these Sartre’s words, he felt utterly offended as if he was robbed of his identity.  Contrary to what his philosopher friend believed, for Fanon, “racialized Marxism” was the conclusion.

declne of the west

Traumatized by the brutalities of the French he witnessed during the Algerian liberation war, Fanon insisted that nothing connected the colonizers and the colonized except racist violence. Ignoring the multitude of social, economic, and cultural relations in the contemporary colonial and post-colonial periphery, he argued that “the colonial world is a Manichean world.”  In his irreconcilable “black and white” world, oppressed victims held the ultimate truth because of their sheer status of being colonized people.  To Fanon, morality and truth were relative.  They depended on how well these two things served a liberation cause.  This included lying and committing violence, provided these vices served a good cause.  Stressing that truth was a matter of political expediency, he wrote, “Truth is that which hurries on the break-up of the colonialist regime; it is that which promotes the emergence of the nation; it is all that protects natives, and ruins foreigners.  In this colonialist context there is not truthful behavior: and the good is quite simply that which is evil to ‘them’.”

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To overcome their oppressive state, the colonized had to take the place of their masters by resorting to a redemptive violence.  The natives, who wasted their energy in mutual tribal conflicts and indulged into ecstatic tribal dances, were to channel their energy into the anti-colonial violence against whites. In fact, violence occupied an important place in the entire Fanon’s liberation philosophy.  In The Wretched of the Earth (1961), he romanticized violence and attributed to it pedagogical value: “Violence alone, violence committed by the people, violence organized and educated by its leaders, makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them.””  Fanon viewed violence not only as a tool of liberation and education but also as a powerful vehicle of a nation-building and racial consolidation.  In the process of their struggle, oppressed natives were expected to nourish the sense of a unified collective: “Individualism is the first to disappear,” and “the community triumphs.”

Using Marxist class categories and simultaneously filling them with a new content, Fanon argued that in undeveloped colonial countries the only revolutionary class was peasants. These rural masses carried armed struggle from the countryside into cities.  This meant that the class that was to liberate the colonial periphery and the rest of humankind from capitalism was not industrial workers (proletarians) but the Third World peasantry.  With such a view, Fanon naturally came to idealize Third World peasant collectives as the cradle of the ideal human commonwealth.  Invoking the romantic meme of European primitivism, he contrasted “evil” Western individualism with the “noble” African culture of collectivism represented by village councils, people’s committees.  According to Fanon, the anti-colonial struggle was to rekindle and strengthen those collectives.  Moreover, a solidarity nourished during an anti-colonial war was to heal a corrupt indigenous bourgeoise – the creature of the West. Through its involvement into the common anti-colonial movement, this bourgeoise would reunite itself with its indigenous soil, merging with common into a united Gemeinschaft-type people’s community.

noble savage

Out of anti-colonial sentiments of such Third World intellectuals as Fanon and their colleagues from Western countries, there grew natural animosity to the West, which was responsible for colonialism, and the idealization of non-Western societies as the holders of a revolutionary potential and better forms of life. The fact that in the 1950s and the 1960s, the West was involved into two bloody colonial wars (France in Algeria, and the United States in Vietnam) amplified those sentiments.  As a result, since the 1960s, for the left, the major existential enemy was shifting from capitalism as an economic system to Western civilization that was associated with colonialism, consumerism, and moral decay.  In 1966, writer Susan Sontag conveyed well that negative attitude, which was becoming part of the intellectual mainstream, by saying that the white West was the “cancer of human history.”

cancer

 

There was now much talk on the left about humans being enslaved and alienated by the technology-driven individualistic civilization of the West and less talk about an economic growth, progress, and capitalism robbing workers of a surplus value.  In fact, economic progress became a curse phrase.  The idealization of the non-Western, tribal, and the primitive became a natural intellectual offshoot of such ideological pursuits.  Reflecting on the cultural turn that was launched in the 1960s, Marxist sociologist Harold Bershady stressed that this trend carried obvious reactionary notions: “It was a kind of left-wing conservatism.” Gradually ditching the failed argument of the old left, who had insisted that capitalism had been profoundly inefficient and could not provide material affluence, the New Left were switching to the moral and cultural critique of that very affluence that now was declared a major vice.  Sontag again spelled out this message in her flamboyant style: “America is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of productivity which inundates the country with increasingly unnecessary commodities”; in an ironic twist, such utterances turned out to be Freudian slips: the writer died from cancer.

Ayn Rand, a rising countercultural icon on the right who, in contrast to the Marxist ultimate proletarian “savior,” invented her own version of a “noble savage” in a form of heroic capitalist “savior” entrepreneur, responded to those sentiments with a loaded sarcasm: “The old-line Marxists used to claim that a single modern factory could produce enough shoes to provide for the whole population of the world and that nothing but capitalism prevented it. When they discovered the facts of reality involved, they declared that going barefoot is superior to wearing shoes.” Among others, unnecessary commodities included TV sets, comics magazines, soap operas, the variety of household items. Incidentally, in the 1970s and the 1980s, such romantic neo-primitivist attitudes helped the left to find a common ground with environmentalists who began to preach an apocalyptic vision of the global collapse of natural habitat if not arrested by massive government regulations.

Conclusions

The frustration with the economic growth and the incorporation of the non-Western ones and radical environmentalism into the socialist agenda was a natural offshoot of the “going primitive” trend that looked beyond Europe and North America for major revolutionary hubs.  Exorcising the proletarian messiah class from the popular Marxian socialism and moving toward identity and the idealization of non-Western “others” was not a straight-forward process. In the 1960s-1970s, among the New Left, communist dissidents, and Trotskyite fossils, there was still a desire lingering on to somehow continue the revolutionary elan of the proletariat.  At the same time, among those elements one could detect the growing trend toward romancing the working-class culture and its “organic” anti-bourgeois ways.   The Birmingham School of Cultural Studies and dissenting communist historians such as E. P. Thompson, who aspired to cleanse Marxist theory from economic determinism and who elevated the proletarian culture and consciousness, prepared a fertile intellectual ground for the later cultural turn in the left thought collective. 

Before the current left completely ditched the working class from the pedestal and developed a an “acute identity syndrome,” the New Left segment acted as an intellectual bridge between classical Marxian socialists and the current identitarian left.  In the 1960s and the 1970s, the New Left gradually transferred the metaphysical characteristics ascribed to the proletariat to the non-Western “others,” domestic people of “color,” chronically unemployed, social deviants, women, and gays. Communist bohemian historian Hobsbawm with his bookish “social bandits” and his attempts to probe Latin American peasants for their revolutionary potential is an excellent snapshot of how that process was unfolding.

Just like the proletariat of the old, the new victim groups were thought to become the oppressed redeemers – the new “noble savages” of the left.  On the one hand, such revision of traditional Marxism gave an opportunity to the New Left to disentangle themselves from the Old Left.  Yet, on the other hand, this very revisionism allowed them to continue the familiar Marxist tradition in the new intellectual garb. The new groups designated to the role of the oppressed ones were lumped together in an abstract category of the poor and disadvantaged.  In the same manner, old Marxism generalized about the proletariat as a homogenous impoverished class, downplaying ethnic, religious, and economic differences within this group.

In the 1960s, the most passionate New Left revisionists who became hooked on the Mills’ message of bashing the “Victorian Marxism” cast the newly found surrogates into authentic, uncorrupt and holistic people, the caretakers of the egalitarian ethics and natural goodness. Thus, in a religious-like manner, New Left activist Casey Hayden, the spouse of famous Tom Hayden, described her feelings about the new “chosen ones”: “We believed that the last should be the first, and not only should be the first, but in fact were first in our value system. They were first because they were redeemed already, purified by their suffering, and they could therefore take the lead in the redemption of us all.” Another New Left writer characteristically titled his book about “unspoiled” and “authentic” rural blacks in Mississippi A Prophetic Minority (1966).

Those conservative and libertarian authors who are fixated on the Frankfurt School have failed to pinpoint the variety of intellectual fountainheads that contributed to the cultural turn.  So have those in the current left mainstream who downplay their genetic links with Marxian socialism. Besides the Frankfurt School, there were other essential intellectual sources on which the left heavily drew when refurbishing their political religion in the 1960s and the 1970s.  This essay has highlighted the role of the British “cultural Marxists” as well as their intellectual predecessors and contemporaries who “racialized” Marxism.  Moreover, because of the worldwide hegemony of English language, the writings of C.L.R. James and William Dubois, popular translations of Frantz Fanon, and British Cultural Studies along with New Left Review played more important role in fomenting the cultural turn than the often-spoken Frankfurt School.  In fact, it was NLR that popularized “frankfurters’” writings that regular educated readers had a hard time to digest. 

The names and schools profiled in this essay do not exhaust other potent sources of the cultural left, which still await their comprehensive study.  For example, a future researcher cannot bypass secularized Protestantism of northern Europe and North America and its links with the current woke culture.  It is impossible to reduce the virulent and aggressive moralism of the current secular social justice warriors, the Unitarian Universalist movement, and several other progressive Protestant denominations in the United States to the intellectual evolution of Marxian socialism in the direction of identity matters.  Although many of the above-mentioned elements have been feeding on the New Left neo-Marxist writings, they obviously drew too on the secularized Puritan tradition that, according to famous H. L. Mencken, had been always haunted by the “fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”  In Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Towards a Secular Theocracy (1992), Paul Gottfried briefly outlined how via the social gospel tradition, radical Puritanism of some Protestant denominations gradually mutated into virulent cultural moralism and how in the current “theology” of the left, the old Christian concept of sin and salvation became replaced with sensitivity training and social therapy sessions. Most important, we need to keep in mind that British Cultural Studies, dissenting Marxist intellectuals who idealized working class anti-bourgeois culture, Mills and the American New Left, the Frankfurt School, and the latter-day social justice “evangelicals” cross-fertilized each other, spearheading what later produced the identitarian woke tradition, which currently represents the progressive mainstream.

This is a preprint of a forthcoming book chapter to be published in Proceedings of Topical Issues in International Political Geography, edited by Radomir Bolgov and others (Springer, 2021)

The Knife is Coming

From yesterday’s (Nov. 11 2017) Wall Street Journal, P. 1:

Top brass at advertising giant Interpublic Group of Cos. told its 20,000 US employees last week they had until year’s end to complete sexual-harassment training. The session quizzes employees on what to do when a co-worker discusses weekend sexual exploits at work or when a colleague comes on to a colleague’s girlfriend after hours […]

“Women are crucial to our business,” says Mr Roth [CEO]. “We need our environment to be safe for all.”

(All boldings mine.)

Let me put the two statements together for you in a familiar television-like form.

John, Mary, and Peter work together in the same office. One day, they go out together for drinks after work. Jane, John’s girlfriend – who works elsewhere – joins them. Peter flirts with Jane (JANE); he even slip her his cell-phone number. Mary (MARY) feels unsafe.

It’s bat shit crazy. Is there no limit to the absurdities we will listen too peacefully?

If a man can create an unsafe work environment for a female colleague by hitting on another woman employed somewhere else and who welcomes the advances, is there any limit to what constitutes sexual harassment?

How about Mark looks at Jeanne – whom he does not know – at the bus stop, and Mark’s coworker, Jennifer catches his look and feels unsafe?

Will anyone shout: “Absurd”?

Myself, I don’t see just absurdity here. Since the Weinstein explosion less than two months ago (but still no lawsuit to tell us what really happened, if anything), I have begun to discern an attempted mass castration. If there is nothing men can do to stop from being sexual harassers who make women feel unsafe – even indirectly, as in the example above – it’s the fact of being a man itself that is offensive and that needs to be repressed. The knife is coming, ladies and gentlemen!

The most disturbing and the most worrisome aspect of all this mass movement is the lack of backbone demonstrated by many male decision-makers, such as Mr Roth, in this story, who hardly needs the operation, by the way.

Not far behind, is the passivity – so far – of rational women who stand to lose a great deal of peace of mind and other benefits, to the extent that the mass surgical intervention succeeds.

Note that I am not hinting at conspiracy. With the powerful domination of a few newspapers and of fewer TV channels, with the effectiveness of the social media, conventional conspiracies have become obsolete. Throw wet garbage and see if it sticks. If it does not, you and your actions will have been forgotten tomorrow anyway. Some harm done; no price to pay!

What needs to be done? Fight back. Denounce every crazy statement. Affirm rationality. Be ready for a little temporary social exclusion. You will soon find that most people are on your side. They just couldn’t believe what they saw and heard until you gave them a shout-out.

Tour d’Amerique

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


At eighteen, I spent one year in California. At the end of the school year, my group of “exchange students” was treated to a country-wide bus tour.

A big patch of attitudinal European-ness was stripped off me during the summer bus trip. I was in Virginia, the guest of a big-shot Washington lawyer. His family had a spacious, sprawling but elegant house on top of a hill, surrounded by white-painted horse corrals. We had dinner in silverware and crystal, served by a quiet black lady in a white uniform. The lawyer’s two sons, who were my age, lingered outside with me after dinner, smoking cigarettes. We were having an interesting conversation because they were curious about California and Europe, both. Nevertheless, around eleven, the guys announced that they had to turn in. “Why so soon?” I asked. “We have to get up at four.” “What do you do so early?” “In the summer, we have a garbage route; it pays really well.”

I am positive that no son of a rich French lawyer ever worked with his hands in the garbage industry, at any time in French history. Sorry for the cliché, but that brief exchange transformed me. It was a starting point to my turning me into a different person, more adaptable and more capable of the resourcefulness that my subsequent life demanded.

Musings About Statism and Cultural Production

I have not fed this blog for a while. First, I am lazy. Second, I am finishing a serious writing endeavor. It’s entitled: “Indecent Stories for Decent Women: Poaching.” You can just imagine what it’s about. Third, I have a critical project in mind and I am not sure I want to dive into it. The problem is that I think it needs to be done and I don’t see who else can do it. Yet, I hesitate because it could easily consume weeks. The topic below.

I spend a lot of time watching  TV5, the international French language channel. I watch movies including old ones, some from countries other than France; I take in the news and also documentaries. In addition, I read a centrist French newspaper on-line pretty much every day. I look at Le Monde when needed although I detest that French version of the New York Times. I read novels in French haphasardly, according to what the tide brings in. Every so often, at completely unpredictable intervals, I find old to very old French classics at Logo, the excellent local used books store.

There are three recurrent shows I like on TV5. Plus, some of the network’s offerings from bilingual African countries are novel. I dislike pretty much everything else there. One might ask why I submit to this regime of daily torture. The answer is that  I am engaged in a mental parallel study of  cultures. There are millions of bilingual immigrants who could do the same but few have the leisure, or the mental equipment, or perhaps, the inclination to become involved in such an amorphous task. One problem I have is that I don’t know who else is interested in the results of my cogitations.

My astonishing dislike of contemporary French culture is my starting point, of course. My mind runs on two explanatory tracks about this. The first track, fairly anodyne, is simply that I am paying the price of age. I am sick of seeing the same mediocre movie over and over. This is not just about French culture: If I read another daily paper article about the dilemma of American middle-class women who are forced to chose between children and career, I will scream (scream like a girl, that is). This detestation applies especially hard to French culture however, I think. This is subjective, of course, but I believe French culture has accomplished just about nothing in thirty years. It has retreated concretely in several areas.

The second track is the potential relationship between statism and cultural production. France is a good example of a statist society where, at any one time, out of one hundred euros, sixty are in the hands of some government entity or other. I have the intuition that the French have been paying for their cradle-to-grave welfare state with tremendous cultural sterility.

Speaking of that second track, specifically, I have several concerns. First I don’t know if it has already been done extensively and the fact just escaped my attention. Second, I am not sure if anyone would care if the relationship I posit existed. Third, there is a possibility that my specific access to French cultural production gives me a bad sample of what’s really going on there.

I have dealt with these second track issues before. I will give the references soon.

Facts vs Narrative: American Peronismo

Anyone who has written anything other than an accident report, maybe even only three letters to his mother, knows or guesses the following: facts often interfere with the quality of a narrative. Only very great writers manage to incorporate all the relevant facts without damaging the beauty of their narratives. Or, they make up facts that will fit without damage into their narrative. I am thinking of Mark Twain among a few others. But that’s in mostly fiction writing, intended as fiction and perceived as such by the reader. The other option is to leave out all the hard facts to the benefit of narrative beauty and then, you have poetry!

Writers in genres other than fiction – old-school journalists, for example – face the same issue, the same dilemma. While they wish to communicate facts, they understand that an attractive narrative helps them in their task. If nothing else, an enthralling story, does keep the reader, and the listener awake; even merely a pleasantly told story Only the un-gifted who face what they think is a captive audience (no such thing, I think) abandon narrative altogether. They insist on bullet points of facts, a method that seldom achieves much of anything, or anything lasting, I believe.

There is thus another, more subtle reason to craft one’s narrative when transmitting facts, a reason to which I just alluded: Facts embedded in a good narrative are retained longer than facts thrown out at random.

Form really matters when you tell others things you believe they ought to know. But facts are often undisciplined, they often refuse to be choreographed into the opera you wish to stage.

Every writer of other than fiction faces the same issue although more or less frequently. The issue is this: what to do with facts that injure an attractive feature, or the whole integrity of the narrative to which it belongs, like this:

“Dear Mom and Dad: I really, really enjoy Camp Iroquois. In the morning, with have this huge breakfast outside with huge omelets and as much bacon as we can eat plus pancakes with syrup and jam. Then, we wash a little and sometimes the counselors make us brush our teeth and we throw wet towels at each other. After that we, play baseball or touch football until noon. (Don’t worry, Mom, I am wearing my cap and lots of sunscreen.) After games, we all have barbecued lunch with hot dogs and lots of relish and cold coke. And then, we rest under a big tree and a counselor reads us adventure stories. After the story, we go and bathe naked in the pond that’s very close. Just the other day, I went to the pond early by myself and I slipped into water that reached above my head. You couldn’t see anything underwater and there was lots of mud at the bottom. So, I forgot that I could swim a little and I swallowed some pond water. Fortunately, Counselor John, the tall one I told you about was just walking by the other side of the pond. He ran and he pulled me out just in time. I coughed a lot of brown water but I guess I am fine, now, so, don’t worry. And, Mom, don’t worry about the laundry either because we hardly wear any clothes most of the time. Plus, I have found a way to make my underwear last for more than one day by just turning it inside out. Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that right after diner, every night, the counselors make a big bonfire and we sing songs until we feel tired and we have to walk to our tents to sleep.

So, Mom, and Dad, you see, I am having a great time at camp so, don’t fret about me.

Your son, Peter.”

You see the problem? The narrative of a happy kid whose parents need not worry about a thing would be improved by the removal of the near-drowning episode. If the child were wise beyond his years, he would leave it out, right?

The same problem arises with every political narrative, including the long-flowing narratives that serve as action guides by default for political parties and for political currents:

Do you tell a good story on an ongoing basis or do you include the relevant facts even if they interfere with its flow?

It seems to me that there is a major difference between political left and right in their willingness to worsen the narrative with facts. I may be wrong. I will listen to criticism and to contradictions. If my perception is correct however this preference for the narrative explains a great deal. It explains the fact that the left everywhere is inured to its own failures and to the success of its adversaries. Curiously, it explains why there is such a preponderance of leftists in practically all the arts, from Hollywood to French singers.

This preference for form over fact even explains the continuing puzzle that is the country of Argentina. I explain: There is no reason why Argentina is not Canada, as prosperous as Canada or nearly so. In fact, three times in one hundred years, the Argentinean standard of living nearly equaled that of Canada. Each time, it was after an important conflict elsewhere. Each time, Argentinians squandered their wealth; each time, they allowed themselves to fall back into poverty instead of taking off and out of underdevelopment for good.

The current government in Buenos Aires is the third iteration of a populist movement called “Peronismo.” The movement is based on a good story: a benevolent, and originally elected dictator, distributes the unjustly acquired wealth of the insolent rich to the poor to the “descamisados,” to those who don’t even have a shirt on their back. Sure the process, is sometimes a little messy but it does not matter; it’s the intention and the goal that matter. And if you stop the clock at any time during the re-distribution process, you will easily find poor families that are better off this year than they were last year.

Peronismo promises to create social justice and a decent life without the rigors and the discipline of communism, for example. The first two times, Peronist regimes ended in economic disaster, the second time, also in a brutal, murderous military dictatorship that lasted for seven years. The current Peronist regime recently had to assassinate a prosecutor in his home because he was about to splash the presidency bloody with a precise, well documented tale of murder and corruption in high places. (Argentina is not a stereotypical Latin American dictatorship however; the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was properly elected .)

The thing, when you talk to Argentinians of the middle class is how civilized they are, how courteous, how well educated, how well informed, (much better informed that middle class Americans in general, if you ask me). And they speak a beautiful Spanish that bears lightly the faint echo of the millions of Italians that form the bulk of Argentina’s population. And their songsters and their singers are second to none. I am listening to Mercedes Sosa as I write, whose “Gracias a la vida” would make me shed tears if I could shed tears. Before her there was Atahualpa Yupánqui, a singer and poet of the poor much better than any country music singer I know (and I know many). Even Buenos Aires pimps invented the tango which is more than you can say about pimps anywhere else. And then, there is that gaucho sitting on his skinny horse sipping hierba mate from a silver tube in a gourd. He always looked to me like a more authentic version of Western movie cowboys because he is not that well groomed, if truth be told; he is just more manly.

In brief, Argentina, the nation, has an excellent narrative. It’s all the better because it is not spoiled, it does not contain disturbing facts: Destiny and history favored Argentinians from the beginning but they are poor most of the time. (Currently, the country has a GDP (PPP) per capita of $19,000, against Korea’s $33,000, a country that had nothing in 1955, and $53,000 for the US – CIA Fact Book) Argentines always dive into poverty for the same reason: They insist that dividing into twenty a pie intended for six will be just fine. They give no attention to the requisites for baking a bigger pie. They are quick to endorse concrete injustices committed in the name of abstract justice. (After all, the expressed wish of the sovereign people must take precedence over constitutional formalities.) If all these obvious historical facts were woven into it, the narrative would not be nearly as attractive; it would be disfigured. It might be disturbing enough to force them to pay attention and begin fixing what’s wrong with their society at last.

It seems to me that a preference for the flow, the coherence of a narrative over the inclusion of relevant facts is commonplace but I think it’s routine among the tribes of the left.* Communism killed at least 100 million people. Yes but it fought injustice. Cubans lead miserable lives in Cuba; those who fled with the shirts on their back are twice richer than those who stayed, after only a couple of years parking cars in Miami. Yes, but the Cuban revolution was deserving of a great movie and it ended by providing free medical care for everyone. That is justice.

Even worse, the US is an international bully variously attacking other, weaker countries for their oil or to force them to adopt institutions they don’t like. A sense of decency requires that Americans stop the bullying.

In the US, the Democratic Party, propelled by its energetic left wing, often garners the extra votes it needs to win – beyond the obligatory black votes, union votes and teachers’ votes – by telling a good story: It’s the party holding the fort against the “war on women,” it’s the party of the little guy; it’s the party of the perpetually racially oppressed, of those oppressed merely because of their sexual preference, even of the newly oppressed “middle class.” Its narrative tugs at your heart strings unless you are very critical and very well informed. It’s a narrative that is squarely opposed to facts. Here are some facts that would change the liberal American story’s face, if they were allowed into that story:

  • The War on Poverty may have been a good idea originally. Fifty years later later, we are allowed to take stock. There is no reason to believe it was a success. There are reasons to think it was a failure.
  • The death rate of young black Americans is stupendous. Few die at the hands of police however. Mostly, they kill one another and they succumb to drug overdoses.
  • At any one time, at least half of American adults are opposed to abortion on demand. A high proportion of these think it’s murder plain and simple.
  • There is no evidence that, on the average, women earn less money than comparably situated men. There is a law forbidding this and there is no evidence that it’s often violated.
  • Out-of-wedlock birth is highly correlated with poverty for all social and racial groups.
  • The thesis that human activities (industrial, cars) are causing a rapid rise in global temperature that will cause catastrophes for the environment and, eventually for humans, that thesis is not well established, if it is established at all. Evidence against as a well as evidence in support is amassing quickly.
  • When the US does not act as a world policeman, unspeakable horrors multiply.

I could go on and on, obviously. Liberals don’t want to include these basic facts in their narrative of injustice and of oppression, domestic and international because it would simply destroy it. Absent the narrative, they would lose almost all elections. That’s why it matters to contradict tirelessly with facts the fairy tale in reverse tirelessly propagated by the left and by media now mostly at its beck and call.

Under the guidance of the Democratic Party (today’s Democratic Party), America would become another Argentina. The Democratic Party is not “socialist” as old Republicans are fond to grumble. (“Socialism” is a word that has lost any fixed meaning. It may never have had one. Perhaps, it was always only an incantation.) The Democratic Party is Peronist. Peronism is a form of soft, self-indulgent fascism that drags everyone except the dictator’s buddies into poverty. (See my short essay on fascism on this blog: “Fascism Explained.”)

* Here is an example of a conservative narrative that would be spoiled by relevant facts. Conservative media heads keep repeating that the first thing to do to solve the problem of illegal immigration, is to “secure the border.” Let’s not kid ourselves, they mean the southern border of the US, the border with Mexico. Missing from this concise and manly, energetic-sounding narrative:

The fact that most illegal immigrants today do not come from Mexico, or from elsewhere in Latin America.

The fact that those who do come from south of the Rio Grande don’t actually swim across that river or trudge in the desert at night but that they drive in and fly in and then, overstay their visa.

The fact that arrests of illegal aliens where they are easy to catch, at places of work that concentrate them such as slaughter houses, the fact the number of such arrests is tiny, year after year. (I mean that this requires an explanation.)

The fact that illegal immigrants who are arrested and who, under the law, are supposed to be deported by priority, criminals, often get to stay, mysteriously.

All these facts who detract from the “secure the border” narrative for the simple reason that none of facts above would be altered if the National Guard stood right on the border with Mexico elbow to elbow, fingers on the trigger of their machine guns.

What is a nation?

This is a reply to Brandon’s latest post. I offer similar thoughts to the below post in my post about ethnicity.

I agree with Brandon that in discussing things we should not limit ourselves to thinking in terms of states. We must consider, as Brandon puts it, both supra and sub states. We must also recall that states are much more fluid than we usually consider them.

When discussing international relations I attempt to get my conversation partners to agree that:

(1) National borders are not stable and,

(2) National identity is more fiction than reality.

The first is easily confirmed by looking at historical maps. Here is a map of the Levant/Greater Middle East in 14th century BC, in 830 BC, in 634 AD, in 1135 AD, and in 1900 AD.

Egypt and Persia are the only two entities that are present in some form or another throughout this time span, and even then their respective borders have fluctuated with only a few core regions being stable. I have yet to find someone who disagrees with the first point.

The second point is harder to get people to concede. We often think of ourselves as a given national identity and find it difficult to imagine that our nation did not exist since the beginning, or at least as far back as imaginable. Most nations have a foundation epic that makes little sense when seriously scrutinized.

Take for example American national identity. Three hundred million plus souls imagine themselves as ‘American’, but what exactly does that mean?

American identity cannot be equated with a specific phenotype; i.e. Americans are not all blue eyed blond people of English descent. In colonial days blacks outnumbered whites in several regions. Today whites in the Mid-Atlantic states are bronze skinned due to the dominance of Mediterranean descent there. The southwest is filled with “Hispanics” who overwhelming self-identify as white but are not considered really white, hence the curious demographic term “non-Hispanic white.” Even in the cradle of the American revolution, Massachusetts, the largest ancestry group is the Irish not English. The only state that is predominantly of English descent is Utah.

Among whites there is constant tension over who was really white and who is a “white negro.” Germans, who are today the largest ancestry group in the US, were the first ‘white’ subgroup to have to fight to prove that they were really white. The Irish, Italians, and others of European descent all had to fight for inclusion into the ‘white’ group. Today Hispanics and Asians are both vying for inclusion.

The revolutionary war serves as the US’ de facto national epic and the leaders of the rebellion are treated (and on occasion sculpted) as demi-gods. Yet the popular image of the revolution is more fiction than reality. Americans paid very little in tax relative to residents of the British isles. George Washington was a horrible military strategist. The founding fathers were not fighting to ensure liberty for the common man – they were fighting to shift control of government from elites in London to elites in Philadelphia. To be sure there were a few true revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine, who were involved in the hope of genuinely reforming government. For every Paine, though, there were a dozen Hamiltons who wanted to preserve the British Empire, just without the British.

‘American’, in so far as it is an ethnic label, is non-stationary and continually evolving. I would not be amazed if the American label went extinct and was replaced with other labels in the future. Perhaps the Pacific Northwest will become inhabited by Cascadians in the future?

None of this is unique to the American moniker. It is easy to pick on the United States since it is a young nation, but most nations are just as fluid and nonsensical.

What does it mean to be British? Turkish? Austrian? Spanish?

Were the inhabitants of the British isles prior to the Norman invasion British?

The Byzantine Empire was only recently destroyed and many of its inhabitants inter married with Turkic migrants. The Ottomans gave themselves the title of Roman Emperor, “Kayser-i Rum.” A friend of mine jokingly calls Turks “Anatolian Greeks.”

‘Austrian’ as a national identity is arguably younger than the American moniker. Prior to the disestablishment of the Hapsburg Empire in WW1 there was no independent Austrian geopolitical entity. Austria was a constituent member of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburg crown lands, the Austrian Empire, and Austria-Hungary before finally becoming simply Austria following WW1. Austrians are as culturally distinct from other Germans as Bavarians or Swabians are. Why then are Austrians a national group, but the latter two aren’t?

The Iberian peninsula has been under Muslim control (700s~1600s) longer than it has been under a united Spain. Spaniards continue to have significant traces of Arab/Berber genetic material. Despite the actions of Franco, Spanish (or “Castilian”) is not the sole language used in the country. Several million in the country’s northeast wish to cease being Spanish altogether in order to form an independent Catalan.

What is a nation? I argue that it is a group label that is invented and sustained in so far as it serves to further the goals of elites. Within an individual’s lifetime they appear unchanging, but from a historical perspective they are fluid and are frequently created, killed, or reborn as needed. When conversing about geopolitics we cannot ignore national identity, but we must keep in mind that in the long run nationality can be, and is, molded to suit political goals.

Should the Italian PM support the Democrats?

I don’t care for the Israeli government. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t care for Palestine government either. I have a particular distaste for Israeli politics in my heart though.

Israel has some points to its favor; it is one of the few countries in the near east with a relatively liberal domestic policy towards its citizens. Its economic freedom is also relatively high. The country gets bonus points for its law of return which has granted an easy pathway to citizenship.

The country is far from perfect though. Its liberal domestic policy does not extend to its non-citizens. Defenders of Israels are correct to point out that Arabs are free to become citizens, but it cannot be overlooked that a considerable number of resident Arabs/Palestinians are non-citizens. Nor can it be overlooked that its military and religious institutions play a strong role in civic life.

Israel is by most accounts a ‘middle’ country. It has liberal market-based institutions, but it still has plenty of areas for reform. Non-citizens must be recognized to have the same human rights as citizens. Military conscription must be ended. The state must cut ties with religious figures and be truly secular.

One of my biggest concerns over Israel though is that it continually attempts to treat American Jews as de facto Israeli citizens. I was reminded of this while reading the Washington Post and seeing that one of its articles was about the Israeli prime minister favoring the Republican Party. The author seems to believe that the Israeli PM should support the Democrats, whom American Jews overwhelming support.

This is of course silly. Should the Italian PM support the Democrats? American Catholics are Democrats after all. The Italian PM however acts in the interests of his state, not Catholics. Roman Catholics may have a special connection to the Vatican and Italy, but this connection is religious not civic. Alternatively, does Saudi Arabia have any reason to support Muslims in American politics? Again no – the Saudi King is a temporal power not a religious one.

Israel contains several religious sites of importance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims but that’s it. The Israeli government has no mandate from heaven to rule over the world’s Jews. It is unclear as such why the interests of American Jews or the Israeli should be treated as interchangeable. American Jews may be Jews, but they are foremost Americans. Likewise American Catholics or American Muslims are Americans first.

The United States is a country that thrives on diversity and tolerance. One can be a Mormon, Muslim, or Atheist and still be an American. One can style themselves a “Russian-American” and still be an American. The United States however needs a unifying force for this system to work. Some believe that this unifying force should be a common language or religion, but I disagree.  Liberty, not the English language or Christianity, is what defines an American. 

I urge as such for American Jews to reject any temptation to consider themselves de facto Israeli citizens. American Jews owe no fealty to the Israeli government and it in turn owes American Jews no fealty. If one wishes to be an Israeli by all means migrate there. Similarly if there is anyone out there who wishes to become an American I more than welcome you to come. Open borders and all that jazz.

Could the social sciences benefit from being synthesized?

This past month a paper Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion, and Yann Algan by on the ‘Superiority of Economists‘ has made the rounds around the webs. Our own Brandon has made note of it before. I have given the paper some thought and cannot help but wonder if the social sciences could not benefit from being synthesized into a unified discipline.

Some background: I have been studying economics for a little under half a decade now. By all means I’m a new-born chicken, but I have been around long enough to have grown a distaste for certain elements of the dismal science. In particular I am disturbed by the insular nature of economists; relatively few seem interested in dropping by the History or Political Science departments next door to see what they’re working on. I cannot help but feel this insular nature will be economic’s undoing.

It should be no surprise that I hope to enter CalTech’s Social Science program for my PhD studies. The university is famed for its interdisciplinary nature and its social science program is no different. Its students are steeped in a core composed of microeconomics, statistics, and the other social sciences. For a while the New School in New York City offered a similar program.

I am sure there would be those who would object to synthesizing the social sciences into a unified discipline. Sociology and Economics might be more easily combined (as they were by folks such as Gary Becker) than Economics and Anthropology.

I am eager to hear other’s thoughts on this. Is the gap between the social sciences too large for them to be unified? Is unification even desirable? Should we content ourselves with an annual holiday dinner where we make fun of our common enemy?

Global Junk Science: a Small Window

I meet two young traveling Frenchmen at the coffee shop. I like the new French more than I liked the old. For one thing, they tend to know English fairly well. This helps them shed the monumental French parochialism (“provincialisme,” in French). Perhaps as a consequence, they are generally more friendly than the previous generations of French people I have known. And, by the way, I wish I had the power to end a tenacious legend once for all: It is not the case that the French “hate Americans.” They just don’t like anyone very much; they are not cordial to any strangers. I feel a glacial wind blow all over me whenever I land in France, that’s although my French is perfect, by the way.

OK, that was a digression. I was also well disposed toward these two young French men because they reminded me of me: It’s true that I itched-hiked across the country and back, at their age. One of them is helping his mother with two restaurants, one on the Riviera, one in Strasbourg; the latter is called, “le globe-trotter.” I like that. The other French guy, age 22, is studying engineering, engineering of “sustainable energy,” he specifies.

I am a weak man, I have trouble with temptation; I can’t resist this one, of course.

Why sustainable, I ask. Isn’t it true that we have more proven reserves of petroleum than ever before?

He readily assents but, he asserts, petroleum is very bad for the environment.

Interestingly, that young man is not especially eager to tell me about climate change. Instead, he affirms that the burning of fossil fuels causes holes in the ozone layer with deadly consequences for humans. This sounds like deja vu (as we say in English), something from ten years ago, but what do I know? It’s possible that the problem has come back and that I am not aware of it. I make a note to check into it.

What kind of alternative power producing methods do you favor? I ask him further. I am eager to avoid discussions of solar power because I live in Santa Cruz where I get more info about the topic than I can begin to digest, including a solid dose of mendaciousness.

Let me sum up my non-dogmatic position about solar power. First, I recently disconnected my old passive solar water pre-heating system because it did more harm than good. Perhaps, a better person, a more virtuous person (I was going to say a more pious person) would have obtained better results from it than I did. Me, I don’t have the time or the patience; I have many unimportant things to do. Second, every time I ask for estimates about installing a modern solar heating or electricity producing system in my house, I am forced to realize that amortizing it would take thirty years. It’s not worth the bother. Perhaps, if I were a twenty year-old home owner. Perhaps if I put a little religious zeal behind the project. Third, I think solar power is wonderful doing what it’s currently doing all over America. I mean providing power for emergency telephones on highways and keeping boat batteries charged during long lulls in boat use.

Incidentally, reliance on solar power in poor countries such as India is another topic altogether. I said nothing about it this time

More incidentally, my skepticism is not of the same nature as the faith of many solar advocates. It’s no symmetrical to it. I don’t “believe” that solar power is worthless. All it would take would be a single good technical innovation in solar energy production to erase my skepticism. It would not take a profound experience of the kind St Paul experienced on the way to Damascus, for example. If I became converted, I would still be the same person, with all the same few virtues and, I hope, the same vices.

What sustainable technologies do you favor? I ask the young man pretend-innocently.

Tide-activated power plants, he answers simply.

It turns out I have some familiarity with the topic. I lived near the first one ever built anywhere. It was in France, inaugurated in the early sixties. I skin dived and speared fished and collected shellfish both upstream and downstream of it. I have no objection to this technology. Forty years later, we know it does not do any serious damage to anything. Even sailors have become used to it. There is even a certain elegant simplicity in its design: Tide comes up, turbines activate, water comes back down, turbines activate again. That first tidal dam doubles as a bridge that was needed at that spot anyway. No problem, as far as I am concerned. I am pretty sure the tidal power technology must have improved in fifty years; it should have, yet….

I ask the engineering student: Why are there only four in the whole world? Does this indicate something wrong, impractical, uneconomical, or something with this technology?

No, he states with perfect self-assurance but with courtesy, you must be wrong; there are thousands of them worldwide.

So, if I looked, I reply, I would easily find hundreds of tide-powered plants?

Absolutely, he affirms.

I go home and I do the obvious, the easiest thing: I look it up in Wikipedia. I was wrong, it turns out; there aren’t only four tidal plants in the world in actual operation, there are eight (8). I was wrong by fifty percent or one hundred per cent depending how you count.

Then I turn to the Wikipedia entry on “ozone hole.”

It has an unfinished look. It seems much like a work in progress or perhaps, a work abandoned in mid-course . The only citation in anything resembling a scholarly journal dates back to 1985. It’s side by side with references to the Huffington Post and even to Mother Jones. There is also in the entry interesting and reasonable speculation about nefarious indirect effects of ozone depletion on melanoma (skin cancer). There is no real health study, not even a crude one.

My young French interlocutor seems wrong here too.

Is it possible that the a deeper search would shore up more sturdily the case for ozone depletion and human health? It’s possible. I think it’s frankly unlikely. There are enough English speakers on the globe interested in such issues for the Wiki entry to be reasonably well updated.

How about the tidal plants? Could there be many more? My answer is a resounding “No.” Power plants are easy to count and hard to miss. Perhaps Wikipedia is much out of date, perhaps there are twice more than it indicates. That would be sixteen (16). That is still a tiny number. My original question remains intact: What’s wrong with this superficially appealing technology?

Why did I find out in my conversation with this young hands-on environmental activist and through its follow-up?

1 The French educational system (or his particular engineering school) is very bad;

2 He does not care about facts. He does not care enough to check with ten keystrokes something important to him. Sounds familiar?

You decide.

Climate Change and the First Amendment

Like nearly everyone in the world, I don’t have the training to judge directly the pronouncements of organizations that affirm that there is:

a) Serious temperature rise on a global scale (“global warming”).

b) That it is caused by human activity (such as burning fossil fuels or keeping too many belching cattle).

c) That human beings must quickly reverse manufacturing growth and driving (and growth in cattle) or suffer devastating consequences.

Instead, I have to rely on indirect evidence to judge the claims of specialists and to decide what the appropriate action would be (including deliberate inaction). This is not a new situation. We all do this all the time. So, I am unable to assess the talent of the surgeon who is going to open up my chest but I can sure smell the booze on his breath and make the logical jump that it’s not good news. Similarly, I know little about the care of automobile engines but when I see a car mechanic banging on an engine with the back of a screwdriver, I am alerted.

The quality of specialists is not the only way indirectly to gauge the quality of a viewpoint. It’s also legitimate to infer the seriousness of a claim by assessing the quality of its believers. Thus, I am leery of so-called “alternative medicine” and other “informal” health perspectives because many of their proponents seem to live in la-la Land in matters other than health. And if marathon runners kept falling dead at 39, I would have good reason to wonder if running is that good for you. (I said “if.”) If the proponents of Chinese traditional medicine turned out to be sick all the time, I would have to think twice (thrice) about its merits. (I know, there is a causation issue in this sentence. It’s not a solution; it’s part of the problem.)

The quality of its followers say something about the credibility of a creed, I believe.

Here is an anecdote about the credibility of climate change proponents, “ccprops.” It’s only an anecdote. It may be isolated. It may represent no one but those involved. Or, it may sound familiar. Think!

I live in the Green People’s Socialist Republic of Santa Cruz. My wife and I may be the only residents with anti-Obama bumper stickers. (There is a good chance we only get away with it because leftists can’t spell: “Obamination,” mine says.) Those residents who are not greenies or leftists of some kind tend to observe a discreet silence. The voice of rationalists like me who oppose big government and the myths that support it is muffled to the point of being mostly inaudible. I am not saying that I am a victim; I am suggesting a minor degree of heroism.

One ordinary day, I am peacefully drinking coffee at my downtown coffee shop. My daughter and my five-year old grand-daughter are with me. There is a demonstration on the other side of the street, yards away, of about 200 people, most young, a few of retirement age. They have placards and they sing slogans against pipelines, all pipelines, against global warming, for the environment. I notice that some of them wear what I think is a fairly witty t-shirt sign: “Don’t frack your mother.” The usual collection of Mother-Earth loving catastroph-tropic semi-educated Santa Cruz crowd, I think.

When the demonstration disperses because of rain (the environment does not cooperate), a group of five demonstrators comes to sit under an umbrella of my coffee shop. After a while, they start making ingratiating noises toward my attractive, impossibly cute grand-daughter. I tell them in a calm voice that they may not talk to the child because I think they carry a bad, morally objectionable message.

I am just tired of letting my enemies go unchallenged. I believe they have enough influence collectively to sap what’s left of the economic life of California. They are precisely endangering my grand-daughter’s future with their anti-economic mindless message. There is no reason to waste an opportunity to show some unkindness here.

They are stupefied. This is Santa Cruz, California, after all. It’s one of the world centers of foo-foo-headedness. By locals standards, these people are 100% virtuous. More importantly, in their parochial minds, they are 100% right. They have never encountered hostility before, not even opposition. No one has ever treated them that way. They did not know anyone actually could, even legally. They kind of believe that the First Amendment protects them against criticism. They don’t know that it only enjoins the government. (“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….”) They don’t know that the First does not guarantee against a private person making you cry with unkind comments. Nowhere does the First say or suggest: “Dr D shall not say hurtful things to silly Luddite greenies.”

Many young people are in the same state of ignorance nowadays. It may be because they don’t read much. It may be because they believe wrongly that they already know the Constitution. It’s the result of many years of left liberal education that is both biased and lazy. Even a friend of mine accuses me of “starting a fight.” I did no such thing. I was peacefully drinking my coffee while reading the WSJ. A bunch of strangers began yelling empty and offensive slogans near my face and I replied very moderately. “But they have a right….” Of course, they have a right; I did not say otherwise. I only instructed them to not speak to the child for whom I am responsible. I told them why in a brief and moderate way.

Immediately, the demonstrators start using religious-sounding language: You are “deniers” they say. Boy, that hurts! Boy, I am glad there is not much firewood handy! (I am not that stupid. I know well that they are trying to compare me to with theory of evolution “deniers.”)

A  frumpy woman in her forties presents herself as an expert because she is making a documentary on climate change, she says. This leaves me cold. Santa Cruz is full of self-declared, self-admiring artists. (I know this for sure, I am one.) I am thinking that if I worked on a movie about human female sexuality it would be no evidence that I know anything on the topic. Am I right?

For some mysterious reason, the film-making housewife insists on treating me as if I were a born-again Christian. Again, I have no idea what she would have done that. I don’t look the part in any way. I am sure I don’t act Christian, whatever that may be. I am absolutely certain I did not say anything leading to that kind of identification. I am an atheist of the calm, non-militant kind. Religion is not at the forefront of my preoccupations except sometimes, the silly Earth worshiping of her gang, precisely. As I said, the madness is close to the surface. The woman appears a little strange, a little twisted.

Temperatures have already risen by 1.4 degrees – the woman experts asserts in a loud voice.

Centigrade or Fahrenheit – I ask?

Yes – she says.

I ask again.

I don’t know – she brushes off my question.

In how long – I ask viciously – in what period?

I don’t know, she says with disarming honesty.

I am under the impression that her ignorance about the things she, herself, chose to evoke does not trouble her a bit.

Are you smarter than the 95.5% of scientists who believe in climate change – she challenges me with finality?

I refrain from answering out of humility. (Could well be that I am; I wouldn’t be that surprised; depends what you call a scientist; I have been reading for more than a half century; I read well; I retain better than most – not better than most at Harvard, better than most in the street. I went to an excellent or maybe just good graduate school, etc.) Also, I was seized like an overworked engine by this affirmation. I have encountered it for years with some variations in digits. I will just make again the obvious point the statement calls for:

If it were true that 95.5 % of scientists believed that there was man-made global warming that will have disastrous consequences, if it were true in reality, how in the world would anyone know this? Has there been a worldwide poll with strict definitions of who is a “scientist”? Was it conducted according to all the known intricate rules of polling including careful, neutral wording? What qualified pollster organization accomplished such a big difficult task? Why isn’t the pollster bragging about it? 95.5% is obviously a bogus number some one made up years ago and that keeps being repeated by believers. Its precision itself cries out, “Phony.” People who assert it are asserting that they don’t know what they are talking about, that they lack ordinary criticality. They are asking to not be believed.

The woman is joined by two younger people who appear to be her children. (Craziness might be hereditary.) A young man of about twenty is using the F word loudly five feet from my grand-daughter they all thought so cute three minutes ago. I am not a prude; I am not especially clean talking but there is no chance, zero chance that I would use such language in the presence of a small child. These people are insane. I don’t mean this figuratively. I mean literally. I mean that if they showed the same loud zeal in connection with say, parking, or house painting, they would risk being institutionalized.

In addition to factual waywardness and bad logic ccprops demonstrate their moral blindness in small ways as well as in big ones. They insist on their right to kill birds, for instance, including the legally protected bald eagle, in order to continue installing wind mills that contribute essentially nothing to the resolution of the imaginary problem of global warming (WSJ 10/11/13 “Fighting Climate Change by killing Eagles,” Robert Bryce.)

I listen to them calling the local talk shows. (I used to have a local talk show radio program myself.) They sound insane even if they are right. Most callers of talk shows are perfectly reasonable. Left-oriented ccprops are of a feather with rightists Bildeberg conspirators. Why do both kinds of callers sound regretful that it’s not yet technically feasible to murder over the airways?

Notice what I am not doing: They can go on demonstrating their irrationality, their lack of trustworthiness, their ignorance. It’s protected by the First Amendment. I will continue to try to make them cry every chance I get. It’s protected too.

Про некоторые стереотипы мышления

Всем привет. Давно я тут ничего не писал: новая работа и тотальная нехватка времени даже на некоторые домашние дела оставила проект NOL далеко позади,в  самом хвосте моего списка дел. Но вот, наконец, я слегка разгрузил свое расписание, и вновь готовь писать свои мысли и наблюдения о жизни России и всех сопутствующих проблемах.

Сегодня речь пойдет о стереотипах мышления и “врожденной злости” некоторых категорий граждан по отношению к различным национальностям и меньшинствам, проживающих на территории нашей необъятной страны. Вот сколько лет живу – до сих пор не могу понять этих стереотипов. Одно дело, когда заходит речь о “гостях из дружественных республик”, которые порой не умеют вести себя в чужой стране и вообще всячески пытаются насадить нам свой образ жизни. Здесь, в общем, уместна если не ненависть, злоба и агрессия – то по крайней мере “усталость и раздражение”. Однако большинство тех, кто открыто выступает против приезжих – сами вечером идут на рынок и покупают у них овощи и фрукты, нанимают их для выполнения ремонта в квартире. Кто мешает бойкотировать? Правильно, у них дешевле. А желание сэкономить в нашей крови.

Другой разговор – всякие меньшинства, которые и так постоянно в обиде. Несколько дней назад у меня состоялся весьма долгий и интересный разговор с незнакомцем в интернете, который, несмотря на возраст и в общем-то грамотную речь и определенный кругозор, свято верил, что, например, гомосексуализм можно “вылечить”.  Из разговора я понял, что у некоторых людей нетерпимость базируется исключительно на каких-то дремучих пещерных предрассудках и банальном незнании теории. Как и полагается любой настоящей тайне, предрассудки сами себя отлично охраняют, блокируя всю новую и важную информацию, и полагаясь на фразу “мне бабушка сказала, что геев можно вылечить”.

Говорят, что “в России две беды: дураки и дороги”. Но я хочу слегка преобразовать эту поговорку: “в России две беды. Дураки – и предрассудки”. Интересен факт, что чем больше человек активно во что-то верит, тем больше у них шансов обратить в свою веру остальное адекватное население. Так, любая глупость, сказанная по телевизору, воспринимается как истина.

Мне вот интересно, как борются с предрассудками среди населения в других странах?

La mauvaise foi

Le mensonge adulte me fascine depuis longtemps. Le mensonge collectif m’intrigue particulièrement. La mauvaise foi de tout un groupe, toute une caste ne cesse de m’étonner. Pourtant, Jean-Paul Sartre l’avait bien analysée (avant d’en donner lui-même des exemples inoubliables).

Je commente quelquefois sur ce blog l’indifférence aux faits que je rencontre souvent dans les medias français. (Voir: “Un Menteur bien français”) Un ami parisien, avocat et réalisateur talentueux de documentaires (avec beaucoup de coeur) m’écrit sa colère sur le même sujet. Mon ami se place à gauche (à mon avis, seulement, “l’option défaut” – une autre histoire) tandis que je suis un conservateur “anglo-saxon” classique (pas nationaliste, pas gaulliste, pas religieux). Voici, ci-dessous, son texte retouché seulement un petit peu pour protéger quelques susceptibilités particulières. L’écriture y est celle qu’on trouve dans un courriel (“maille” en Franglais) expédié rapidement a un ami. – JD

Parlant des journalistes français en général:

En attendant aussi, je pense que la journaliste (de la télévision), Madame X, comme 90% des journalistes (français en tout cas) sont bien trop fainéants pour faire leur travail. En l’occurrence vérifier l’information, ce qui est le B-A BA de leur métier.

..et en plus ( ceci allant souvent avec cela), ils sont d’une incroyable prétention (suffisance, arrogance, plein d’autres mots me viennent à l’esprit les concernant).

Sur plusieurs sujets, j’ai moi-même fait l’expérience de leur nullité.

Par exemple, sans doute as-tu suivi l’affaire Cahuzac, ce ministre du budget qui a planqué du fric ã l’étranger et qui a nié jusqu’au bout, quitte à mentir de la tribune de l’Assemblée Nationale.

Un seul journal, sur le web, Mediapart a sorti l’info. Son patron Edwy Plenel a été traîné dans la boue par tous les autres journalistes et, notamment, les stars de la télé. Pourtant Edwy Plenel n’avait qu’un mot à la bouche à leur adresse: “faites votre travail”.

Autre exemple beaucoup plus grave encore: l’affaire Al Dura, du nom de ce gamin qui se serait fait buter dans les bras de son père par l’armée israélienne, pris dans des tirs croisés à un carrefour de Gaza. Il se trouve que le seul mec, au départ, et qui se bat seul depuis plus de 10 ans, pour expliquer au monde que c’est une mise en scène, est l’ami d’un ami, Philippe Karsenty. Un jour je suis allé l’écouter, il faisait une conférence sur le sujet. Il a montré les rushes qu’il avait réussi à soutirer à France 2, la seule chaîne qui ait, à l’époque, diffusé ces images. Et là, on voyait comment les faits avaient été mis en scène par les Palestiniens et comment l’enfant bougeait à la fin des rushes; comment surtout, on le voyait prendre dans sa poche un bout de tissu rouge, le placer au niveau de sa poitrine et faire le mort. Je t’assure que ces images, que j’ai vu, sont incroyables.

Le journaliste de france 2 est une sommité, Charles Enderlin. Ce jour là, il n’était pas sur place. Il a fait fait confiance à l’un des cameramen avec lesquels il a l’habitude de travailler, un Palestinien. Et il s’est fait manipuler. France 2 a soutenu, soutient, son journaliste. À intenté toute une série de procès à mon pote… Qui les a tous gagnés. Pourtant impossible d’obtenir de mea culpa de la chaîne qui continue les procédures.

Et, impossible, pour moi, d’aider ce mec depuis toute ces années. Ma nana, de 2005 à 2010, était est grand reporter au Nouvel Obs (dont Jean Daniel a pris l’initiative de lancer une pétition de soutien à Charles Enderlin).  Je lui ai proposés plusieurs fois de rencontrer Karsenty. NIET. À la fin, je crois que le commencement de la fin,avec elle, date d’une engueulade à ce sujet: “Karsenty était un psychopathe à moitié facho, un abruti qui avait le malheur d’être très à droite, maire adjoint de Neuilly, proche de Sarkozy, et moi un imbécile qui ne méritait pas d’autre explication de son refus”. À un point, citant un de nos copains communs, grand Reporter à Telerama, elle s’est exclamée qu’il avait fait une super enquête qui prouvait ses dires que Karsenty était un taré.

Je me suis procuré l’article du copain dans Telerama… Pas
une fois la parole n’était donné à Karsenty. Alors, j’ai demandé a ce dernier… Et tu t’en doutes déjà, inutile de prolonger le suspense, jamais il n’a rencontré le grand reporter de Telerama qui l’a pourtant assassiné dans son article.

Pire encore sur ce même sujet. J’en ai parlé à mon amie Annick Cojean. Je l’adore et elle est sûrement une des journalistes françaises les plus respectée par ses pairs en France ( grand reporter au Monde, prix Albert Londres et présidente de ce prix), comme dans le monde ( elle est l’auteure de ce best seller mondial, “les proies” en français, sur le harem de khadafi et traduits en plusieurs langues). Elle m’a expliqué qu’une journaliste, également prix Albert Londres, Catherine Gentile, de TF1, avait expliqué au conseil d’administration du prix, qu’elle connaissait vraiment bien Enderlin, que c’était un très grand journaliste et qu’il ne pouvait pas avoir été manipulé et que le cas échéant, il aurait fait acte de contrition. Et, en plus, dixit, “elle avait tout checké, le gosse était bien mort dans les conditions que l’on sait. Elle avait fait l’enquête”.

Très bien. Ai-je dit.  Puis: “Avait-elle rencontré Karsenty”? Renseignements pris par Annick… Tu te doutes de la réponse, Non évidemment.

Annick voulait-elle le rencontrer… Tu te doutes de la réponse ( quoique quelque peu embarrassée).

Et pourquoi, je te raconte tout ça? Et bien, parce qu’enfin, Israël bouge et a décidé de publier les rapports sur l’enquête que l’emmerdeur de Karsenty l’a contrainte de mener et qui conclut que l’enfant n’est très certainement pas mort comme le montrent les images de France 2 et que Karsenty a très certainement raison.

Si tu veux, je t’envoie le lien de l’article. Ça me fait plaisir pour Karsenty…. qui a été traîné dans la boue depuis toute ces années. J’espère qu’on va, enfin, le prendre au sérieux et vérifier ce qu’il avance. Dommage qu’il ne soit pas journaliste… Il serait sûrement le prochain lauréat du prix… Albert Londres!

Commentaires?

America and Firearms (Explained to Overseas Readers)

The other day, I am watching the news on TV5, the international French language network. I am doing this to get away from the spectacle of the impending economic disaster in the US where I live. This is shortly after the massacre of school children in Connecticut. One item draws my attention: The cute, airhead French female announcer (or “anchorette”) states that last year about 28,000 people in the US lost their lives to guns.

Here we go again, I think. More half-assed information that is worse than no information at all. I have witnessed European media disseminating misleading information about the US for more than forty years. This time again, I have to intervene to help overseas of observers of the international scene who want to know about reality and who might happen to read this blog.

I can’t tell you how often I have witnessed the following: European commentators making sarcastic, superior comments about some American event or custom, or some American way of doing things and then, their society adopting uncritically the same American event, or custom, or way of doing things ten years later, or even later. Right now, for example, I would bet you anything that one of the novelties on French radio is 1990s American popular music. That would be especially true on the channel that calls itself without batting an eye-lash, “France culture.”

The tendency of Europeans to copycat the United States is so pronounced that it even affects social pathologies, the last thing you should want to imitate. Accordingly, it seems that the French expression for “serial killer” is: “serial killer.” N.S. ! (Would I make this up?) Continue reading

Race and Ethnicity

My Facebook friend, VXA who is a disgruntled Afghan immigrant but quite smart some of the time asks this question: What’s the difference between race and ethnicity?

I am a sociologist by trade and I think I know the answer.

Both are vague terms. Race is a well established habit to classify people according to certain selected physical characteristics. The physical features are selected generally according to their usefulness within a given social agenda. Thus the presence or absence of  hair on the second knuckle of the index finger never is selected because it’s not useful. Skin color and hair shape often are because they allow for quick classification.  Medieval Europeans had no category “negro.” They would describe people in physical terms without assigning them to a  social category “Du Guesclin, the Marshall, was very dark of skin and hair.” It turns out that famous French historical figure was probably a man of some African blood. He would have been considered “colored” in Georgia in 1850. Same goes for Pushkin, the Russian national poet. Continue reading

Organic Food and Red Herrings

I use my editor’s privilege to respond here to Ryan MH’s argument in the piece entitled: “The Cost of Organic Food: An Exchange.” I do this for the sake of clarity alone. Ryan has unfettered access to this blog.

Let me begin by stating that I congratulate myself for having elicited a serviceable and seemingly complete definition of “organic” from Ryan. This is the first time someone give me a definition, in my whole life!

Ryan MH is all over the place  to such an extent that I felt like crying in my turn as I read. So, let me specify what I am interested in.

The issue of the high cost of organic food only matters to me because I believe that it is not different from a health standpoint from non-organic food grown in this country. I think it has no merits for the consumer except in his head.

I am focusing on the portion of the organic definition that had to do with the genetic modification of organisms by methods others than the traditional methods of artificial, guided, purposeful selection and hybridization by sex methods and such. This means pretty much methods that existed before World War Two.

Ryan said in my presence that  foods modified by new methods (“genetically modified” except that these terms have no meaning.), that such food have adverse effects on human health.

If Ryan MH did not say this or something identical, for practical purposes, I have no discussion with him. I must have misunderstood him and I apologize for wasting his time and yours. Continue reading