What it’s about

“In theory, the outcome of elections in the United States reflects, with only minor distortions, the political preferences of the electorate. That’s what representative democracy is supposed to mean. Only it doesn’t work out that way. More precisely: the range of choices over which the American electorate is allowed to exercise its preference is sharply and systematically constrained. Electoral politics is dominated by two major parties, whose programs, to the extent they differ, correspond to the needs and goals of opposing sectors of the business community. The goals and ground rules that all sectors of business agree on constitute the framework of public policy, rarely or never challenged in the electoral arena. Policy proposals that fall outside this framework — i.e., good new ideas from the left — remain invisible and inaudible. This is not a conspiracy theory. Business leaders do not meet in secret to decide how best to delude the public mind and thwart the public will. They don’t need to. In a capitalist democracy, business control over the state is assured structurally. There are two reasons for this. First, since most people are economically vulnerable — they depend on employment rather than on ownership or some other entitlement to survive — the best predictor of their voting behavior is likely to be the state of the economy at election time. Overall, the state of the economy is determined by the level of investment. Since investment decisions in a capitalist economy are made privately, governments must nurture that most delicate of blossoms, ‘investor confidence.’ The second reason for business dominance is that political participation in a mass society costs a lot of money. Voting may be free, but setting the agenda is enormously expensive. To work out and put forth a detailed political program at the national level requires information, organization, and publicity, and all these require cash. Since the only people with spare money are capitalists, they have an effective monopoly on political speech.” – George Scialabba, “Right Turn”

What you can get away with

“There is a difference between a damage caused by continued vibrations of trains which are performing a necessary public service, and a damage caused by a single blast set off on the private property of another. It is such differences which make law not mainly the product of logic, but of experience, social necessity and distribution of the cost of consequences. Our common existence may require the law to hold that damage to property caused by unavoidable vibrations of passing trains is damnum absque injuria whilst to permit one owner, by a blast on his own property to shake down the house of another, requires a rule which recognizes that however free from negligence the first may be the second innocent person should not suffer. The very essence of fairness seems to suggest that if one, in order to obtain a certain type of use or enjoyment of his own property, is compelled to blast, he must, as part of the cost of such use or enjoyment, pay the damages he causes to his innocent neighbor.” – Justice James H. Wolfe, Madsen v. East Jordan Irr. Co.

Apples are not oranges

“The aims of scientific method—predictiveness, universal applicability, logical simplicity, ontological parsimony—cannot be imported into the study of psychology, history, or politics. Individuals and cultures are radically diverse, ineffably deep, infinitely complex. Only imaginative identification, a renunciation of the urge to theoretical mastery, and a yielding to the sheer particularity of things can produce genuine understanding. Even more important than this interpretive pluralism is ethical pluralism. Moral no less than aesthetic values are radically diverse. Both within and among human beings, conflict, or at any rate tension, is inevitable. Compromise is possible, but not perfect harmony.” – George Scialabba, “The Crooked Timber of Humanity”

Freedom isn’t free

“Whatever else liberal democratic societies have had in common, there’s this: they’ve all been rich. The two pillars of liberal ideology—the right to undisturbed enjoyment of one’s property and the right to a fair share of society’s resources, at least enough for a decent subsistence—may be fundamentally inconsistent, but the contradiction has usually remained implicit. There’s generally been enough money around to keep everyone off the streets, except for a minority of desperate or adventurous souls, quickly crushed by the National Guard and the secret police. In a society that makes more promises than it can keep, prosperity is the root of all harmony. When prosperity fails and those promises are called in, choices have to be made.” – George Scialabba, “Liberalism Reconsidered”

Imagine all the people

“Culture and psychology are central to politics. But cultural politics must reckon with our psychic ecology: the sum of our adaptations, over the course of two million years, to infantile dependence, territoriality, scarcity, mortality, and the other hitherto inescapable limits of human existence. We are organisms; we cannot flourish at just any tempo, pressure, or scale. Imagination itself is an evolutionary adaptation, whereby we master a threatening environment when young by binding or investing fantasy within nearby entities – parents, neighborhood, church, ethnic group. These intense primary identifications can and should be gradually left behind, but they cannot be skipped, on pain of shallowness, instability, and – paradoxically – an inability in later life to stand firm against authority. Cultural politics should aim to reform rather than abolish marriage, the family, hierarchy, authority, morality, and law. These institutions and practices evolved to serve essential purposes. They are not purely, or even primarily, strategies of exploitation. To consider them prisons rather than temporary outposts is not radical but superficial, like considering religion and myth mere lies rather than inadequate attempts at explanation. Cultural radicals will sometimes, in fact, need to defend these institutions; i.e., insist that some way be found to achieve their formative or protective purposes. As the global economy and mass culture lay siege to inwardness, plow up our psychic root system, and alter the very grain and contour of our being, conservation increasingly becomes a radical imperative.” – George Scialabba, “Don’t Think, Smile”

You can’t get there from here

“Utopia, then, is in the future. Why is this worth emphasizing? Revolutionists and abolitionists, utopia’s false friends, insist that it can be constructed out of present materials through a heroic act of will. This is to underestimate recklessly the depth and subtlety of the necessary changes and the intricacy and inertia of every moral culture. Utopia is impossible unless, among an overwhelming majority, solidarity and trust are nearly instinctive; responsibility, self-reliance, initiative, honesty, and other civic virtues are practiced much more widely than now; and democratic habits of self-confidence, candor, and tact are far better developed. Channels of communication and public information are as yet rudimentary. And let’s not forget rhetorical skills like wit, fluency, and concision: without a vast improvement in the general level of these, attendance at all the necessary meetings on the way to utopia will result in an epidemic of premature brain death. With all these moral and psychological changes in place, we can make a start on the technical problem – no less complex, probably – of reconciling equity and efficiency in production and distribution. Obviously such drastic and intimate changes, on the requisite scale, without undemocratic coercion or divine intervention, cannot be accomplished in a generation, or probably even in a few generations. Carrying off a general strike may be a fine thing, but creating a new moral ecology is an infinitely more difficult and valuable thing.” – George Scialabba, “The End of Utopia”

Where it is

“To search for a democracy of individual participation, particularly if the goal is to restore the give-and-take of face-to-face relations in the neighborly community, is to swim against the tide of history. The main drift in modern industrial life has been toward expanding scale and complexity, the centralization of power and the growth of hierarchical bureaucracies. Popular revolts against these overwhelming realities have been only sporadically successful, in part be cause the demand for individual autonomy and active participation in public life must sooner or later run up against the desire for stability, privacy, and the material comforts promised by the modern industrial nation-state.” – James Miller, “Democracy is in the streets”

What’s the price on that?

“Critical rationality, as propagated by the Enlightenment and modeled on the natural sciences, has (along with market rationality) undermined the cultural authority of virtually all moral values, norms, customs, and beliefs in virtually all modern societies. The moral foundations of Western culture have been hollowed out. To the question ‘why be good?’ there is now no philosophically compelling answer, even if most people don’t know it yet. The name of this condition is nihilism: the eventual result may be spiritual paralysis or, worse, a war of all against all and of all against nature.” – George Scialabba, “Enlightenment’s Wake”

Divided we stand

“Is it necessary to choose between cosmopolitanism and agrarian populism? Let us hope not. The liberal virtues and the republican virtues are both indispensable. But that does not mean they are, at this moment, equally urgent or equally vulnerable. The apparently irresistible thrust of global capitalism threatens the latter virtues far more than the former, rootedness and psychological integrity far more than mobility and personal growth, perhaps even — to stretch a point — independence and self-reliance more than impartial benevolence. The ‘heroic ideal’ and the ‘tragic sense’: these phrases already sound archaic. But our civilization has not outgrown what they signify; it has merely forgotten. Cultural amnesia is not the same thing as progress.” – George Scialabba, “Cultivating Humanity”

Winter is a-cumin’ in

“If there be no great philosophic idea, if, for the time being, mankind, instead of going through a period of growth, is going through a corresponding process of decay and decomposition from some old, fulfilled, obsolete idea, then what is the good of educating? Decay and decomposition will take their own way. It is impossible to educate for this end, impossible to teach the world how to die away from its achieved, nullified form. The autumn must take place in every individual soul, as well as in all the people, all must die, individually and socially. But education is a process of striving to a new, unanimous being, a whole organic form. But when winter has set in, when the frosts are strangling the leaves off the trees and the birds are silent knots of darkness, how can there be a unanimous movement towards a whole summer of fluorescence? There can be none of this, only submission to the death of this nature, in the winter that has come upon mankind, and a cherishing of the unknown that is unknown for many a day yet, buds that may not open till a far off season comes, when the season of death has passed away.” – D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love

Making sense of it

“Symbolic expression, however forceful, leaves a space between communicator and recipient, a space for contesting, fighting back with one’s own words and images, organizing to oppose whatever action the abhorred speech may incite. Though speech may, and often does, support the structure of domination, whether by lending aid and comfort to the powerful or frightening and discouraging their targets, in leaving room for opposition it falls short of enforcing submission. For this reason the unrestrained clash of ideas, emotions, visions provides a relatively safe model – one workable even in a society marked by serious imbalances of power – of how to handle social conflict, with its attendant fear, anger, and urges to repress, through argument, persuasion, and negotiation (or at worst grim forbearance) rather than coercion. In the annals of human history, even this modest exercise in freedom is a revolutionary development; for the radical democrat it prefigures the extension of freedom to other areas of social life.” – Ellen Willis (quoted by George Scialabba in “The Trouble with Principle”)

The truth you are allowed to tell

“Telling the truth is not just not telling lies about your enemies; it is talking straight to your friends. It means the avoidance of bad faith. What makes this so hard is the politics of solidarity, which applies quite equally on Right and Left. What solidarity politics means is that you have to stay on the same side as this or that group and that therefore you must not say anything which might embarrass that group or which could possibly be of use to its enemies. Crucially, it means observing certain necessary silences and not being right too soon.” – E. G. Johnson, Heroes and Villains

The long way down

“America has no real alternative to continuing imperial decline: the big questions are simply how fast and how peacefully. The problem is that the arms industries will fund any and every Presidential candidate and, whoever wins, those industries will demand to be fed. It is unclear, though, whether Americans at large are willing to accept the sacrifices this may entail. As the American debt grows, the choice will become stark: paying off the debt—or, mare realistically, never paying more than the interest on the debt—will require either large tax increases, or a deep recession, or a huge inflation. The American public will vote for inflation as the least painful solution: somewhere out there in the years to come there is a giant inflation of almost Weimar proportions waiting to happen. But the banks will hate that, as will virtually all the other business interests (including the arms manufacturers) who are full voting members of the American democracy.” – E. G. Johnson, Heroes and Villains

Making America Great Again

“Safe, simple, effective, and relatively cheap ways to increase intelligence and longevity in the American population include mounting the equivalent of the antismoking educational campaign against the high levels of fat, sugar, and salt in our national diet; encouraging physical activity, for example by forcing ourselves, through gasoline taxes and urban rezoning, to walk more, if only to get to public transportation; implementing national health insurance, or at least universal free health care for children under five; and subsidizing public radio and television. Reducing economic insecurity and environmental degradation also offers virtually unlimited opportunities for enhancing our beleaguered selves.” – George Scialabba, “Our Posthuman Future”

 

Not just another word

“What is free speech supposed to be free from? Political and legal restrictions, presumably. But commercial fraud, libel, perjury, declaiming in a stranger’s living room, and shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater are all uncontroversially restricted forms of speech, whose boundaries are nevertheless sometimes contested. Those contests are resolved—and hence the boundaries of ‘free’ speech are determined—legally and politically: not once and for all, through metaphysical discovery, but contingently and revisably, through democratic deliberation.” – George Scialabba, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech”

There doesn’t seem to be a shadow

“The summer would be celebrated by people of every nation in the city. People marauding after work, discontented. Thugs surfing on the sides of cars, flagging. Going into the garbage cans and throwing bottles in the street. Immigrants working, forever working, watching people go by who have days off, time off, while they don’t. Trying to stay cool. Families with five young children going to Dunkin Donuts for a night out together in the air conditioning. The littered floors, the strange lone males reading the newspaper. Cabdrivers and dysfunctional individuals sitting in the window of the all-night Tropical. Messed-up guys with Puerto Rican flag hats talking to waitresses, high-fiving them, saying when do you get off? Spanish girls with Indian blood, slave blood, mopping floors at three a.m. Caribbeans saying we were brought here as slaves from India. We got together with the blacks and threw the British out. Now we listen to dub step. Let me tell you where it’s hot like fire burning. Where the party’s at. Where you can get robbed, stuck, shook, bucked and maybe fucked down on one hundred and ninth going towards Far Rockaway. Where no one’s gonna feel bad for you if you have problems. The Wenzhounese will sit outside in folding chairs in their pajamas on Cromellin Street, talking on the steps, fanning themselves in the gleaming night. The women will be pregnant and still they will be taking out the garbage, collecting bags of recycling, saving little fistfuls of money, little investments that, like children, will turn into something later. But for now, we’ll all have to deal with the heat first—all of us no matter where we’re from.” – Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life

Either way, it just goes on

“He saw the sand going on and on across the continent. The broken palm trees and mud buildings and corrugated steel lean-tos and dead trucks and the domes and spires of the mosques. He could hear the loudspeakers wired by a man who weighed twenty pounds less and looked twenty years older and who was the same age as he was, a goat herder with missing fingers. He heard the static and the ram’s horn and the voices as they spoke together, wearing robes the same color as the landscape, kneeling together, rising together, chanting together. He could see them as if he were watching them through binoculars and the Arabian dusk was coming down. He saw the dim blue sky and smelled the sunbaked human waste and saw the dark forms of his many friends, their gear, their white eyes and very occasional smiles. He tasted the smell of burning tires, hashish, gun oil, animals, coal fire, chicken and rice and Tabasco sauce. The weight of the gear. The tearing down of the body. All the things you complained about. And the thing that was greater—the war itself. It was the one thing. You went outside the wire, and each time, either you died or you did not.” – Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life

We have met the enemy and it is us

“Terror is the most dreaded weapon in the modern age and the Western media is mercilessly using it against their own people. It can add fear and helplessness to the psyche of the people of Europe and the United States. It means what the enemies of the United States cannot do, its media is doing that.” – Osama bin Laden (quoted by Michael Scheuer in Imperial Hubris)

Paranoia strikes deep

“A small Christian subculture in the United States strongly believes in the notion of cosmic war. Believers are splintered into a number of small groups, the largest of which is the Christian Identity movement. According to Christian Identity ideology, the British are descended from ‘Aryan’ northern Israelite tribes who migrated to the British Isles in the wake of the Babylonian conquest of ancient Israel. These Aryans are the true Jews of the Bible. This self-serving myth about the genetic superiority of the British people appeared in England in the nineteenth century and quickly died out there, but not before migrating to the United States. The transplanted version took on anti-Semitic overtones, holding that contemporary Jews, who are assumed to be the descendants of the biblical Jews, are masquerading in that role and may well be the children of Eve and Satan. There are many variations on the core beliefs of the movement, which has now settled in Idaho and also has communities in the southern Midwest. Most adherents believe that mainstream Protestant churches in the United States are unwilling to confront the fraud perpetrated by the Jews, or have secretly been taken over by them. The Catholic Church is also believed to be part of this conspiracy. Identity sympathizers believe that the late nineteenth-century Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purports to disclose the Jewish plan for world domination, is genuine. In pursuit of their goals, the Jews have teamed up, in one or another variation of this story, with the United Nations, the federal government and the Federal Reserve Bank, the Democratic party, Freemasons, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos to thwart the quest of Aryan Christians for liberty and independence. The world is not as it seems: Aryan Christians are the true Jews; the Jews are scheming imposters; ordinary churches are in league with Satan. These convictions are intertwined with an obsession with firearms. In the perilous world inhabited by these Aryans, they will need their weapons to prevent the government from completely subjugating them and enthroning the Jews. Gun control legislation is therefore part of a larger, barely visible conspiracy to enslave white Americans.” – Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror

And the walls came down

“The scriptural emphasis on warfare has armed successive generations with powerful mental images of an embattled world. The community of the faithful is perpetually in crisis or at its edge. When a religious group believes that its identity is fundamentally threatened, it may turn to stories of apocalypse that describe the end of earthly history. In Christian apocalypses, Jesus is not the pacifist messiah of the Gospels, but a man of war. . . . In Christian and Jewish apocalyptic literature—exactly as in the Muslim literature, which is based largely on the earlier-born faiths—the reversal of fortune is a stock theme. The righteous advance from suffering under the murderous rule of a terrible beast to a restored community of believers who enjoy eternal life in the presence of God. The transforming event is the destruction of the beast, followed by the annihilation of Satan and death at the hands of a heavenly figure sent by God. . . . In times of severe social dislocation, political change, and economic upheaval, individuals overwhelmed by radical pessimism may turn to apocalyptic millenarianism. They see the signs that their tradition has identified as portents of the end of time. The tribulation they experience is interpreted as the era of cataclysms that precedes the eruption of a new order and God’s reassertion of his beneficent rule. When these individuals merge into groups and find a charismatic leader, or he finds them, they can be stirred to dramatic action intended to force the end of time and the kingdom of God.” – Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror