- The guilty pleasures of studying Western Civilization LD Burnett, S-USIH Blog
- China’s new philosopher: Not Marx, nor Hayek or Smith, but Carl Schmitt Chris Buckley, NY Times
- The color of colonialism is now green Carl & Fjellheim, Al-Jazeera
- The right kind of reparations (for slavery) James Hankins, Law & Liberty
I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.
The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.
In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.
However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.
And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.
Three Additional readings:
Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.
Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.
Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.
Is polarization a threat to democracy and what is the liberal position on this?
As I pointed out in Degrees of Freedom, most liberals have a preference for democracy. Modern-day democracy – with universal suffrage, a representative parliament, and elected officials – has been developed over the course of the twentieth century. The idea has its roots in antiquity, the Italian city states of the Renaissance, and several forms for shared political decision-making in Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and England. Democracy is not a liberal “invention,” but the term ‘liberal democracy’ has taken firm root. This is true because modern democracy is based on liberal ideas, such as the principle of “one man, one vote,” protection of the classical rights of man, peaceful change of political leadership, and other rules that characterize the constitutional state.
Remarkably, the majority of liberals embraced the idea of democracy only late in the nineteenth century. They also saw dangers of majority decision making to individual liberty, as Alexis de Tocqueville famously pointed out in Democracy in America. Still, to liberals democracy is better than alternatives, such as autocracy or absolute monarchy. This is not unlike Sir Winston Churchill’s quip “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Yet there is a bit more to it for liberals. It is has proven to be a method that provides a decent, if imperfect, guarantee for the protection of individual freedom and the peaceful change of government.
Of course there is ample room for discussion inside and beyond academia about numerous different issues, such as the proper rules of democracy, different forms of democracy, the role of constitutions in democracy, whether referenda are a threat or a useful addition to representative democratic government, the roles of parties, party systems, and political leaders, et cetera. These are not the topic here.
In the context of the election of President Trump, but also before that, both inside and outside the US, there is a wide debate on the alleged polarization in society. By this is meant the hardening of standpoints of (often) two large opposing groups in society, who do not want to cooperate to solve the issues of the day, but instead do everything they can to oppose the other side. Consensus seeking is a swear word for those polarized groups, and a sign of weakness.
There appears less consensus on a number of issues now than in the past. Yet this is a questionable assumption. In the US it has been going on for a long time now, certainly in the ethical and immaterial area, think about abortion, the role of the church in society, or freedom of speech of radical groups. Yet most (Western) societies have been polarized in the past along other lines, like the socialist-liberal divide, the liberalization of societies in the 1960s and 1970s, or more recent debates about Islam and integration. Current commentators claim something radically different is going on today. But I doubt it, it seems just a lack of historical awareness on their side. I can’t wait for some decent academic research into this, including historical comparisons.
As a side note: a different but far more problematic example of polarization is gerrymandering (changing the borders of legislative districts to favour a certain party). This has been going on for decades and can be seen as using legal procedures to rob people not of their actual voting rights, but of their meaningful voting rights. Curiously, this does not figure prominently in the current debates…
The (classical) liberal position on polarization is simple. Fighting for, or opposing a certain viewpoint, is just a matter of individual right to free speech. This also includes using law and legislation, existing procedures, et cetera. The most important thing is that in the act of polarizing there cannot be a threat to another person’s individual liberty, including the classical rights to life, free speech, and free association, among others. Of course, not all is black and white, but on the whole, if these rules are respected I fail to see how polarization is threat to democracy, or why polarization cannot be aligned with liberalism.
Opponents of gay marriage might have trouble explaining this one, at least in the free world.
Too many shadows whispering voices. Faces on posters too many choices. If when why what how much have you got…
- Liberals don’t know much about conservative history Geoffrey Kabaservice, Politico
- The American right wing Arnold Kling, askblog
- In defense of endless war Christopher Hitchens, Slate
- Remembering the French war in Afghanistan Olivier Schmitt, War on the Rocks
On August 17, 2018, the BBC published an article titled “Behind the exodus from US state schools.” After taking the usual swipes at religion and political conservatism, the real reason for the haemorrhage became evident in the personal testimony collected from an example mother who withdrew her children from the public school in favour of a charter school:
I once asked our public school music teacher, “Why introduce Britney Spears when you could introduce Beethoven,” says Ms. Helmi, who vouches for the benefits to her daughters of a more classical education.
“One of my favourite scenes at the school is seeing a high-schooler playing with a younger sibling and then discussing whether a quote was from Aristotle or Socrates.”
The academic and intellectual problems with the state school system and curriculum are perfectly encapsulated in the quote. The hierarchy of values is lost, not only lost but banished. This is very important to understand in the process of trying to safeguard liberty: the progenitors of liberty are not allowed into the places that claim to incubate the supposed future guardians of that liberty.
In addition to any issues concerning academic curricula, there is the problem of investment. One of the primary problems I see today, especially as someone who is frequently asked to give advice on application components, such as résumés and cover letters/statements of purpose, is a sense of entitlement vis-à-vis institutional education and the individual; it is a sense of having a right to acceptance/admission to institutions and career fields of choice. In my view, the entitlement stems from either a lack of a sense of investment or perhaps a sense of failed investment.
On the one hand as E.S. Savas effectively argued in his book Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships, if the state insists on being involved in education and funding institutions with tax dollars, then the taxpayers have a right to expect to profit from, i.e. have a reasonable expectation that their children may be admitted to and attend, public institutions – it’s the parents’ money after all. On the other hand, the state schools are a centralized system and as such in ill-adapted to adjustment, flexibility, or personal goals. And if all taxpayers have a right to attend a state-funded institution, such places can be neither fully competitive nor meritocratic. Additionally, Savas’ argument serves as a reminder that state schooling is a manifestation of welfarism via democratic socialism and monetary redistribution through taxation.
That wise investing grants dividends is a truth most people freely recognize when discussing money; when applied to humans, people start to seek caveats. Every year, the BBC runs a series on 100- “fill-in-the-blank” people – it is very similar to Forbes’ lists of 30 under 30, top 100 self-made millionaires, richest people, etc. Featured on the BBC list for 2017 was a young woman named Camille Eddy, who at age 23 was already a robotics specialist in Silicon Valley and was working to move to NASA. Miss Eddy’s article begins with a quote: “Home-schooling helped me break the glass ceiling.” Here is what Eddy had to say about the difference between home and institutional schooling based on her own experience:
I was home-schooled from 1stgrade to high school graduation by my mum. My sister was about to start kindergarten, and she wanted to invest time in us and be around. She’s a really smart lady and felt she could do it.
Regarding curriculum choices, progress, and goals:
My mum would look at how we did that year and if we didn’t completely understand a subject she would just repeat the year. She focused on mastery rather than achievement. I was able to make that journey on my own time.
And the focus on mastery rather than achievement meant that the latter came naturally; Eddy tested into Calculus I her first year at university. Concerning socialization and community – two things the public schools pretend to offer when confronted with the fact that their intellectual product is inferior, and their graduates do not achieve as much:
Another advantage was social learning. Because we were with mum wherever she went we met a lot of people. From young to old, I was able to converse well with anyone. We had many friends in church, our home-school community groups, and even had international pen pals.
When I got to college I felt I was more apt to jump into leadership and talk in front of people because I was socially savvy.
On why she was able to “find her passion” and be an interesting, high-achieving person:
And I had a lot of time to dream of all the things I could be. I would often finish school work and be out designing or engineering gadgets and inventions. I did a lot of discovery during those home-school years, through documentaries, books, or trying new things.
In the final twist to the plot, Camille Eddy, an African-American, was raised by a single mother in what she unironically describes as a “smaller town in the US” where the “cost of living was not so high.” What Eddy’s story can be distilled to is a parent who recognized that the public institutions were not enough and directly addressed the problem. All of her success, as she freely acknowledges, came from her mother’s decision and efforts. In the interest of full honesty, I should state that I and my siblings were home-schooled from 1stgrade through high school by parents who wanted a full classical education that allowed for personal growth and investment in the individual, so I am a strong advocate for independent schooling.
There is a divide, illustrated by Eddy’s story, created by the concept of investment. When Camille Eddy described her mother as wanting “to invest time in us and be around,” she was simply reporting her mother’s attitude and motivation. However, for those who aspire to have, or for their children to attain, Eddy’s achievements and success, her words are a reproach. What these people hear instead is, “my mother cared more about me than yours cared about you,” or “my mother did more for her children than you have done for yours.” With statements like Eddy’s, the onus of responsibility for a successful outcome shifts from state institutions to the individual. The responsibility always lay with the individual, especially vis-à-vis public education since it was designed at the outset to only accommodate the lowest common denominator, but, as philosopher Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind,witnessed, ignoring this truth became an overarching American trait.
There are other solutions that don’t involve cutting the public school out completely. For example: Dr. Ben Carson’s a single-, working-mother, who needed the public school, if only as a babysitter, threw out the TV and mandated that he and his brother go to the library and read. As a musician, I know many people who attended public school simply to obtain the requisite diploma for conservatory enrollment but maintain that their real educations occurred in their private preparation – music training, especially for the conservatory level, is inherently an individualistic, private pursuit. But all the solutions start with recognizing that the public schools are inadequate, and that most who have gone out and made a success of life in the bigger world normally had parents who broke them out of the state school mould. In the case of Dr. Carson’s mother, she did not confuse the babysitter (public school) with the educator (herself as the parent).
The casual expectation that the babysitter can also educate is part of the entitlement mentality toward education that is pervasive in American society. The mentality is rather new. Allan Bloom described watching it take hold, and he fingered the Silent Generation – those born after 1920 who fought in World War II; their primary historical distinction was their comparative lack of education due to growing up during the Great Depression and their lack of political and cultural involvement, hence the moniker “silent”– as having raised their children (the Baby Boomers) to believe that high school graduation conferred knowledge and rights. As a boy Bloom had had to fight with his parents in order to be allowed to attend a preparatory school and then University of Chicago, so he later understandably found the entitlement mentality of his Boomer and Generation X students infuriating and offensive. The mental “closing” alluded to in Bloom’s title was the resolute refusal of the post-War generations either to recognize or to address the fact that their state-provided educations had left them woefully unprepared and uninformed.
To close, I have chosen a paraphrase of social historian Neil Howe regarding the Silent Generation, stagnation, and mid-life crises:
Their [Gen X’s] parents – the “Silent Generation” – originated the stereotypical midlife breakdown, and they came of age, and fell apart, in a very different world. Generally stable and solvent, they headed confidently into adult lives about the time they were handed high school diplomas, and married not long after that. You see it in Updike’s Rabbit books – they gave up their freedom early, for what they expected to be decades of stability.
Implicit to the description of the Silent Generation is the idea, expressed with the word “handed,” that they did not earn the laurels on which they built their futures. They took an entitlement, one which failed them. There is little intrinsic difference between stability and security; it is the same for freedom and liberty. History demonstrates that humans tend to sacrifice liberty for security. Branching out from education, while continuing to use it as a marker, we will look next at the erosive social effect entitlements have upon liberty and its pursuit.
Apparently to be part of the “Greatest Generation,” a person had to have been born before or during World War I because, according to Howe, the Greatest Generation were the heroes – hero is one of the mental archetypes Howe developed in his Strauss-Howe generational theory – who engineered the Allied victory; the Silent Generation were just cogs in the machine and lacked the knowledge, maturity, and experience to achieve victory.
- Why the West is Suicidal Daniel McCarthy, Modern Age
- US Constitution requires congressional authorization for war Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
- When autarky becomes the only solution Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
- Revolution, Lightning, and the People’s Will Kevin Duong, Public Domain Review
A certain group claims to represent the middle class. It wants to nationalize one fifth of the economy. It refuses to accept the results of an election it lost, and claims its loss was the result of a conspiracy. Before losing, it uses the police unlawfully to try and smear its opponents. It’s obsessed with race. It interferes grossly with freedom of speech in universities, including with goons threatening speakers with a different viewpoint. Some of its main newspapers demand that a public document not become public. Its leaders publicly threaten the duly elected head of the executive branch. The group tries to combat moral decadence by destroying works of art. It is especially adamant against works of art that remind the nation of its historical past. Sounds familiar?
The University of New Mexico is under fire to change its seal. The current seal depicts two Spanish conquistadors. This is part of a wider movement asking for universities to remove controversial symbols. This includes calls to rename Calhoun College at Yale, remove Wilson imagery at Princeton, or change the Harvard Law School Crest. This movement is not exclusive to the US. Similar calls are being made to remove perceived symbols of colonialism in South Africa and elsewhere. Nor are these calls exclusive to the political left. Conservatives at my alma mater want to get rid of a Che Guevara mural.
I for one am against these calls.
I am against these calls on the basis that I do not feel college campuses should be safe spaces. Students should be exposed to ideas they may found troubling in college. Students need not embrace these ideas. I am not making the case that we should re-institute slavery or attack the nearest Indian reservation. Students are free to, and I hope, reject these ideas but they should be exposed to them if only so they know their weaknesses.
More importantly though I feel that it whitewashes history. I am against these calls for the same reason I dislike seeing whites celebrate Native American Day. Removing symbols of colonialism or observing an indigenous people’s day are good symbols that efforts are underway to correct historical injustices. However in practice they are a way for people to pat themselves on the back for being socially progressive and little else.
There are many things that could be done to improve the welfare of Indians, but few have the drive to carry them out. Why should they? Instead of changing bad public policy they can get rid of a seal or statue and think they’ve done their part. If they’re particularly lazy they can change their facebook display image to include a rainbow or French flag. Symbols of colonialism should be kept and used to remind people that historical injustices continue to be propagated.
In the specific case of the UNM seal I am concerned that it is too easy for attacks against Spanish conquistadors to be turned into general attacks against the Columbian exchange. The enslavement and massacre of Indians was awful. However it is difficult, especially since I am a mestizo, to believe that the interaction between the two worlds was ultimately for the worse. To the contrary the exchange made the world richer.
Pizza is a prime example of this. Pizza could not exist prior to the Columbian exchange. Europeans lacked tomatoes and native Americans lacked wheat. The first pizza was made in Italy, but even then what most of us think of pizza has its roots in New York City. Pizza is a mestizo, half European half American. If UNM does change its seal it should consider having a native and conquistador sharing a slice.
Has there ever been a Holocaust in the Middle East?
Pogroms were an annual affair in Russia, and we all know how much Christian Spain loved its Jews. The Holocaust was horrific.
I also realize that anti-Semitism is rampant in the Middle East. Some of this is because of Israel, and some may be because some imams interpret the Koran to be anti-Semitic, but there’s never been any kind of mass murder committed by Muslims against Jews in the Middle East on the scale that has occurred in the West.
Is this because the West was industrialized and therefore had better access to technology with which to kill large amounts of people? Is it because the structure of states in the West made it easier to run roughshod over the liberties of minorities? These are the only two explanations that I can think of that make any sense. The second of the two possibilities seems like an especially weak option, given the amount of carnage post-colonial states have managed to produce (though, in a paradox, it is often minorities that do the killing and oppressing in these post-colonial states, rather than majorities; maybe this helps to explain why there has never been a Holocaust in the Middle East…).
The first possibility is reasonable enough, but since most of the states in the Middle East that are rich enough to “test” this hypothesis have expelled the Jews from their territories, it’s virtually impossible to know.
I am simplifying things here, I realize. I want to give this much more thought (and I have been), but I think that, given the toxic climate in the public sphere concerning Islam, it’s important to point out the obvious.
Exploring the countercultural 1960s and the origin of Western New Age, one cannot bypass Carlos Castaneda. He became a celebrity writer because of his bestselling book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that was published by the University of California Press in 1968. The book was written in a genre of free-style dialogues between a Native American shaman named Don Juan Matus and Castaneda himself, who claimed that he worked with Don Juan for many years. The Teachings describes how Castaneda learned to use three hallucinogenic plants: peyote, jimson weed, and psychedelic mushrooms. After ingesting these substances, Castaneda went through mind transformations and learned that there were other realities besides the ordinary one. Later, it was revealed that he made up the whole experience, but this never affected his popularity.
Of course, a book like this was well-tuned to the then-popular hallucinogenic subculture, and the link between Castaneda’s text and the psychedelic ‘60s is the most common explanation of his popularity. Yet I want to argue that this is a very narrow view, which does not explain why Castaneda’s follow up books, which had nothing to do with psychedelics, continued to enjoy popularity well into the 1990s. In fact, by the early 1980s, Castaneda became so paranoid about hallucinogens that he forced his girlfriend to undergo drug tests before allowing her to sleep with him. I also argue that viewing Castaneda exclusively as one of the spearheads of the New Age does not explain much either. The appeal of his texts went far beyond the New Age. In the 1970s and the 1980s, for example, his books were frequently assigned as conventional course readings in anthropology, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and humanities classes.
Let me start with some biographical details. Castaneda was born Carlos Arana in Peru to a middle class family and moved to the United States in 1951. He tried to enter the world of art but failed. Then, for a while, he worked as a salesman while simultaneously taking classes in creative writing before eventually enrolling in the anthropology graduate program at UCLA.
Originally Castaneda did not care about hallucinogens and the emerging hippie culture, but eventually UCLA (and the broader California environment), which was saturated at that time with various counterculture and unchurched spirituality projects, made him choose a sexy topic: the use of psychedelics in a tribal setting. The book which made him famous, The Teachings of Don Juan, originated from a course paper on “power plants” and from his follow-up Master’s thesis. I want to stress that both papers were essentially attempts to find a short-cut to satisfy the requirements of his professors. His first professor, an anthropologist, invited those students who wanted to get an automatic “A” to find and interview an authentic Indian. Despite a few random contacts, Castaneda could not produce any consistent narrative, and had to invent his interview. This was the origin of his Don Juan character. Then he followed requirements of his advisor, Harold Garfinkel, a big name in sociology at that time and one of the forerunners of postmodernism. Garfinkel made it explicitly clear to Castaneda that he did not want him to classify and analyze his experiences with Don Juan scientifically.
What Garfinkel wanted was a free-style and detailed description of his work with the indigenous shaman as it was and without any interpretation. Thus it was through collective efforts that Castaneda produced a text that by chance caught the attention of the university press as a potential bestseller. Essentially, Castaneda took to the extreme incentives provided to him by his professors and by the surrounding subculture. He internalized these incentives by composing a fictional text, which he peddled as authentic anthropological research. It is interesting to note that in 1998, just before he died, Castaneda made the following mischievous remark in his introduction to the last anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan: “I dove into my field work so deeply that I am sure that in the end, I disappointed the very people who were sponsoring me.”
The popularity of the first book gave rise to the whole Don Juan sequel, which made Castaneda an anthropology and counterculture star. The combined print run of his books translated in 17 languages reached 28 million copies. And, as I mentioned above, despite the revelations that his Don Juan was a completely fabricated character, the popularity of his books was increasing throughout the 1970s. In fact, to this present day, libraries frequently catalogue his books as non-fiction.
It seems that Castaneda’s appeal had something to do with overall trends in Western culture, which made his text resonate so well with millions of his readers. For this reason, I want to highlight the general ideological relevance of Castaneda’s books for the Western zeitgeist (spirit of the time) at its critical juncture in the 1960s and the 1970s. Various authors who wrote about Castaneda never mentioned this obvious fact, including his most complete biography by French writer Christophe Bourseiller, Carlos Castaneda: La vérité du mensonge (2005). So exploring the ideological relevance of the Don Juan books will be my small contribution to Castanediana.
To be specific, I want to point to two themes that go through all his books. First, he hammered in the minds of his readers the message of radical subjectivism, which in our day it is considered by some a conventional wisdom: What we call truth is always socially constructed. Don Juan, who in later books began speaking as a philosophy professor, repeatedly instructed Carlos that so-called reality was a fiction and a projection of our own cultural and individual experiences, and instead of so-called objective reality, we need to talk about multiple realities. In an interview for Time magazine, Castaneda stressed that the key lesson Don Juan taught him was “to understand that the world of common-sense reality is a product of social consensus.” Castaneda also stressed the role of an observer in shaping his or her reality and the significance of text in Western culture. In other words, he was promoting what later became the hallmark of so-called postmodern mindset.
Second, fictional dialogues between the “indigenous man” Don Juan, whom Castaneda portrayed as the vessel of wisdom, and Castaneda, a “stupid Western man,” contained another message: remove your Western blinders and learn from the non-Western ones. Such privileging of non-Western “wisdom” resonated very well with Western intellectuals who felt justified frustration about the hegemony of positivism and Western knowledge in general and who looked for an intellectual antidote to that dominance. By the 1990s, this attitude mutated into what Slavoj Zizek neatly labelled the “multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation,” which now represents one of the ideological pillars of Western welfare-warfare capitalism.
At the end of the 1970s, several critics tried to debunk Castaneda. They were able to prove that his books were the product of creative imagination and intensive readings of anthropological and travel literature. These critics correctly pointed out that Castaneda misrepresented particular indigenous cultures and landscapes. Besides, they stressed that his books were not written in a scientific manner. Ironically, this latter criticism did not find any responsive audiences precisely because social scholarship was moving away from positivism. Moreover, one of these critics, anthropologist Jay Fikes, who wrote a special book exposing Castaneda’s hoax, became a persona non grata in the anthropology field within the United States. Nobody wanted to write a reference for him, and he had to move to Turkey to find an academic position.
What critics like Fikes could not grasp was the fact that the Castaneda texts perfectly fit the emerging post-modernist thinking that was winning over the minds of many Western intellectuals who sought to break away from dominant positivism, rationalism, and grand all-explaining paradigms. To them, an antidote to this was a shift toward the subjective, individual, and spontaneous. The idealization and celebration of non-Western knowledge and non-Western cultures in general, which currently represents a powerful ideological trend in Western Europe and North America, became an important part of this intellectual revolt against the modern world. I am sure all of you know that anthropology authorities such as Clifford Geertz (until recently one of the major gurus of Western humanities), Victor Turner, and Claude Lévi-Strauss were inviting others to view any cultural knowledge as valid and eventually erased the border between literature and science. They also showed that scholarship can be constructed as art. Castaneda critics could not see that his texts only reflected what was already in the air.
The person who heavily affected the “production” of the first Don Juan book, which was Castaneda’s revised Master’s thesis, was the above-mentioned sociologist Garfinkel. As early as the 1950s, Garfinkel came up with ideas that contributed to the formation of the post-modern mind. I am talking here about his ethnomethodology. This school of thought did not see the social world as an objective reality but as something that individuals build and rebuild in their thoughts and actions. Garfinkel argued that what we call truth was individually constructed. Sometimes, he also called this approach “people’s sociology.” He stressed that a scholar should set aside traditional scientific tools and should simply narrate human experiences as they were in all details and spontaneity. Again, today, for many, this line of thinking is conventional wisdom, but in the 1950s and the 1960s it was revolutionary. Incidentally, for Castaneda it took time to figure out what Garfinkel needed from him before he rid his text of the vestiges of “positive science.” To be exact, Castaneda could not completely get rid of this “science” in his first bestselling book. In addition to the free-flowing and easy-to-read spontaneous dialogues with Don Juan, Castaneda attached to the text an appendix; a boring meaningless read that he titled “Structural Analysis.” In his later books, such rudiments of positivism totally disappeared.
When Castaneda was writing his Master’s thesis, Garfinkel made him revise the text three times. The advisor wanted to make sure that Castaneda would relate his spiritual experiences instead of explaining them. Originally, when Castaneda presented to Garfinkel his paper about a peyote session with Don Juan, the text was formatted as a scientific analysis of his own visions. The professor, as Castaneda remembered, rebuked him, “Don’t explain to me. You are nobody. Just give it to me straight and in detail, the way it happened. The richness of detail is the whole story of membership.” Castaneda spent several years revising his thesis and then had to revise it again because Garfinkel did not like that the student slipped into explaining Don Juan psychologically. Trying to be a good student, Castaneda embraced the advice of his senior colleague. So the final product was a beautiful text that was full of dialogues, rich in detail, and, most importantly, came straight from the “field.”
I interviewed some of Castaneda’s classmates and other scholars who became fascinated with his books at the turn of the 1970s. Many of them had no illusions about the authenticity of Don Juan. Still, they argued that the whole message was very much needed at that time. A quote from Douglas Sharon, one of Castaneda’s acquaintance, is illustrative in this regard. In his conversation with me, Sharon stressed:
“In spite of the fact that his work might be a fiction, the approach he was taking—validating the native point of view—was badly needed in anthropology, and, as a matter of fact, I felt it was a helping corrective for the so-called scientific objectivity that we were taking into the field with us.”
I want to mention in conclusion that Castaneda not only promoted the postmodern approach in his novels but also tried to live it. Before the age of Facebook and online forums, Castaneda, with a group of his followers, became involved in an exciting game of identity change. They came to enjoy confusing those around them by blurring and constantly changing their names and life stories. For example, people in his circle shredded their birth certificates and made new ones. They also performed mock wedding ceremonies to make fun of conventional reality. To those who might have had questions about this “post-modernist” game, Castaneda reminded: “We’re all nothing but bags of stories.”