Category: George Scialabba

Good luck with all thatGood luck with all that

“To make the United States an effective democracy – to shift control over the state from the centers of financial and industrial power, now global in reach, to broadly based, self-financed and self-governing groups of active citizens with only average resources – will take several generations, at least. This is a daunting prospect for just about anyone. “ – George Scialabba, “Farewell, Hitch”

The tired, the poor, the huddled massesThe tired, the poor, the huddled masses

“Who are the poor, and what do they need? 1.1 billion people have less than $1 a day of income. This is officially designated ‘extreme’ poverty. Another 1.6 billion have between $1 and $2 a day; this is ‘moderate’ poverty. This large slice of humankind either cannot, or can just barely, meet their basic needs. Mostly they live in rural isolation or in urban slums, roughly 90 percent of them in three regions: East Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. There has never been any mystery about how to increase a country’s per capita income: simply invest capital in it, using a modicum of good business sense. However, if your citizens don’t have any income left over after meeting their basic needs, then you have no capital to invest in new means of production. And since the old means of production wear out—depreciate—they eventually produce even less income, so you are still further from having the necessary capital. . . . Why are some countries but not others caught in the poverty trap? It is not primarily a matter of Anglo-Saxon propriety or American ingenuity or Confucian dutifulness. Nor is it a matter of African fecklessness. Countries are poor . . . because they are landlocked or resource-poor or afflicted with unfavorable climates or disease ecologies (like the global malaria belt). Above all, they are poor because they have always been poor. Just as economic growth is cumulative and self-sustaining—a virtuous circle—economic stagnation is a vicious circle. This is evident above all in demographics and literacy. Poverty means high child mortality, which means high birth rates, which means both that women will not be educated for the work force (since they must spend the bulk of their lives raising children) and that there will not be enough money to educate all the children (leaving many illiterate). Economic growth invariably lowers birth rates and raises literacy rates.” – George Scialabba, “The End of Poverty”

Living the lieLiving the lie

“It is often said these days that America is a Christian country. If that’s true, then a great many Americans should be worried about their eternal salvation. According to Jesus, when He returns to settle accounts at the Last Judgment, He will separate the sheep from the goats, telling the goats: ‘Go, you damned souls, into the fire. For you saw Me hungry and ragged and homeless and unemployed and uninsured, and you ignored Me.’ And when the goats bleat in self-justification: ‘But, Lord, when did we see You hungry or ragged or homeless or unemployed or uninsured?’ He will answer furiously and unmercifully: ‘When you ignored the poorest of the poor, you ignored Me. Go, now, to Hell.’ It’s right there in Matthew, chapter 25, verses 41 to 46.” – George Scialabba, “The End of Poverty”

This is for the good of allThis is for the good of all

“Every imperial project—in fact, virtually every public undertaking of every modern state—is accompanied by declarations of benevolent intention, more or less frequent and elaborate according to the scale of the undertaking and the degree of skepticism anticipated. These declarations have no evidentiary value. They are part of the manufacture of consent in democratic, and even nondemocratic, societies.” – George Scialabba, “The American Way of Strategy”

I shall wear my trousers rolledI shall wear my trousers rolled

“My problem is: I’m a sheep. I’m afraid a lot. Not on the surface; I lead a quiet life and get through most days without any need to be brave. On the very rare occasions when a smidgen of courage is required, I can usually do the right thing – because I’m worried about what others will think if I don’t and they find out, or because otherwise I’ll obsess guiltily. But I fret nonstop. If I don’t call, will X be offended? If I do call, will X be annoyed? Did I take the right tone with that editor? Do I exercise enough? socialize enough? cerebrate enough? agitate enough? Will I someday regret not being more ambitious? Will I have enough to live on when I’m old? Will I burn in hell forever?” – George Scialabba, “Out of the Fold”

Free loaves at the circus tonightFree loaves at the circus tonight

“The unrestricted movement of capital, the ultima ratio of American foreign and domestic policy, requires weak or corrupt—in any case, acquiescent—governments, since otherwise they might try to improve their bargaining position by combining with other governments and encouraging labor organization. Ineffectual governments and labor unions in turn require a weakening of impulses toward cooperation, solidarity, and citizen initiative. Very helpful toward that end is the redefinition of the good life as a life of continuous and increasing individual consumption—which, since it is a false definition, necessitates unremitting indoctrination by means of advertising. Expanding consumption in turn requires technological innovation, mass production, a population willing to put up with insecure, regimented, and frequently stupefying work (the effects of which are assuaged by entertainments only a little more refined and wholesome than Roman circuses), and the exploitation of resources on a vast scale.” – George Scialabba, “How Bad Is It?”

Take it now and make paymentsTake it now and make payments

“The deepest determinant of contemporary social psychology is not mass unbelief but mass production. Industrialism has decisively undermined the republican ideals of independence, self-sufficiency, and proprietorship—the ‘modest competence’ postulated by early democratic theorists as the basis of civic virtue and civil equality. It is the practice of demanding skills, rather than fragmented and routinized drudgery, that disciplines us and makes mutual respect and sympathy possible. Work that provides scope for the exercise of virtues and talents; a physical, social, and political environment commensurate in scale with our authentic, non-manufactured needs and appetites; and a much greater degree of equality, with fewer status distinctions, and those resting on inner qualities rather than money—these are the requirements of psychic health at present. The alternative is infantilism and authoritarianism, compensated—at least until the earth’s ecology breaks down—by frantic consumption.”  – George Scialabba, “The Wages of Original Sin”

Storm force 7Storm force 7

“What can motivate ordinary men and women to behave decently most of the time and heroically in emergencies? Perhaps it might help to reduce the many temptations to behave otherwise. Chief among these in twenty-first-century America are the relentless sexualization of advertising and entertainment, the pervasive economic insecurity engineered by business and government (especially Republican) policies, and the enfeeblement of civic life entailed by extreme laissez-faire ideology. These things make it harder to maintain dignity or restraint and to trust or care about other people. None of them are necessary consequences of skepticism or intellectual freedom, and some of them are promoted most vigorously by people who loudly proclaim themselves religious.” – George Scialabba, “The Wages of Original Sin”

Something to believe inSomething to believe in

“Prescribing religion in its generic form has become commonplace among social critics, particularly communitarians. They have a point. No society—for that matter, no individual—can flourish without a great deal of trust, devotion, solidarity, and self-discipline. Religion often fosters these things, and not only among co-religionists. But although untrammeled sexual freedom is not a requirement of human flourishing, any more than the untrammeled freedom to accumulate money, untrammeled intellectual freedom most certainly is. Unquestioned authority is not merely undesirable, it is impossible, a contradiction in terms. Authority is what remains after all questions have been asked, all objections posed, all doubts explored. Until then, there is only superstition or cowed silence. Religious orthodoxy, and in particular the theistic hypothesis, has had many centuries to establish its intellectual authority. Its prospects are dwindling. If trust, devotion, and the other requisites of community depend on a general belief in supernatural agencies, then the triumph of the therapeutic is probably permanent.” – George Scialabba, “The Wages of Original Sin”

The bossingsThe bossings

“[Max] Weber conceived charisma as one of three kinds of authority—traditional, charismatic, and bureaucratic—that characterize all organizations, including religious ones. Traditional authority, typical of primitive societies, derives from inertia and aims at continuity. Bureaucratic authority, typical of modern societies, derives from methodical reasoning and aims at efficiency. Charismatic authority is untypical and unpredictable; it derives from a singularly compelling, dynamic figure, seemingly gifted by God, and aims at radical reform or innovation. The charismatic figure arises when a tradition or bureaucracy stagnates, and his legacy is inevitably regularized by his uncharismatic successors.” – George Scialabba, “The Wages of Original Sin”

The popular magicThe popular magic

“The assumption that one cannot be reliably good without God persists in the United States, explicitly or implicitly, to the extent that a declared unbeliever almost certainly cannot be elected to national office. Around half the population identify themselves as born-again Christians and believe in angels, miracles, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the special creation of the Earth within the last ten thousand years. So if (as everyone seems to agree) America is in decline morally, an excess of skeptical rationalism is probably not to blame.” – George Scialabba, “The Wages of Original Sin”

Lingua non-francaLingua non-franca

“Like all complex institutions, markets rest on supporting structures of rules, impartially devised and enforced. That requires politics, preferably democratic politics. And no rules, however well formulated and enforced, can prevent large differences in initial endowments of ability, resources, and information from producing extreme and permanent inequality. That requires redistribution. Public or collective goods—infrastructure, literacy, basic science, clean air—cannot be privately owned and so will not be privately produced. That requires public investment. A viable society requires civic virtue, above all an irreducible minimum of selflessness. Laissez-faire ideology cannot generate, or even comprehend, selflessness.” – George Scialabba, “The Squandering of America”

The world as given (or taken away)The world as given (or taken away)

“The economic turbulence caused by Indochina war expenditures and a sharp rise in oil prices, along with racial and cultural polarization, nourished a conservative backlash. Nixon did not attack the welfare state directly, but he did withdraw the United States from the Bretton Woods agreement. Carter initiated the fateful estrangement of the Democratic Party from its New Deal heritage, which culminated in the Wall Street-dominated Democratic Leadership Council. Ronald Reagan was not elected to dismantle the New Deal and may not even have understood that this was what the rest of his administration was up to. But his large and regressive tax cuts, as well as a cascade of deregulation and non-enforcement, massively increased military spending, and the heavy-handed use of the IMF and World Bank (with an assist from the CIA when necessary) to force a ‘favorable investment climate’ (i.e., low wages and unrestricted capital flows) on the developing world—all these policies began to change America from a middle-class society and mixed economy with countervailing power centers to a sharply unequal, business-dominated society. The Clinton administration increased taxes on the rich and restored a modicum of integrity to the regulatory apparatus. But it also joined the rhetorical assault on ‘big government’ and sponsored considerable deregulation, both on Wall Street and by means of ‘free trade’ agreements, which sought to reduce the leverage of organized labor and democratic governments over American investors. Under the Bush/Cheney administration and the Gingrich/DeLay congress, America degenerated into a thoroughly corrupt plutocracy.” – George Scialabba, “The Squandering of America”

A beautiful dreamA beautiful dream

“Though challenged periodically by labor unions, Populist farmers, and Progressive reformers, business elites dominated American politics from the beginnings of industrialization in the second half of the nineteenth century. But when the economy collapsed in the 1930s, business could no longer stave off substantial regulation; and the collective effort called forth by World War II gave rise to a modicum of social solidarity. The resulting institutions of managed capitalism included labor legislation, unemployment insurance, tuition assistance through the GI Bill, mortgage assistance for first-time home-buyers, Social Security, Medicaid, a fiscal policy aimed at full employment, a structure of mainly reasonable industrial and financial regulations (along with a serious commitment to enforce them), and a decently progressive income tax; internationally, a fixed-rate currency exchange system, limits on financial capital flows, and, in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, instruments of stabilization and reconstruction for national economies in trouble. Together, these policies produced a high level of widely shared economic well-being and security. For a brief, bright interval, capitalism worked properly.” – George Scialabba, “The Squandering of America”

And so it re-beganAnd so it re-began

“It appears that the historical function of neoconservatism was to supply an intellectual rationale for the worst impulses of traditional conservatism. The attack on the welfare state rationalized—in effect if not intention—greed and class privilege. With the same qualification, the attack on affirmative action rationalized racial hostility. The attack on multilateralism and international law has, less ambiguously, rationalized national chauvinism and aggressive tribalism.” – George Scialabba, “The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal”

Fertile soil, sunlight, and adequate water work every timeFertile soil, sunlight, and adequate water work every time

“To a sufficiently sensitive and knowledgeable critic, everything will appear intelligent or unintelligent, skillful or shoddy, graceful or graceless, truthful or mendacious. In each of these pairs, the latter is—not immediately, perhaps, but ultimately, in some measure—a threat to our common life, our res publica. Intellectual virtues are civic virtues; intellectual vices leave the citizens vulnerable to superstition and demagoguery. There is, of course, no more sense in trying to legislate the intellectual virtues than the moral ones. But one can propagate intellectual virtue, first of all by example.” – George Scialabba, “The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal” (emphasis in original)

Just wing itJust wing it

“The hacks of academe (new generation) have put it about that everything is political, especially textual analyses of great literature that reveal, through the application of emancipatory ideology and subversive wordplay, that the past was even less enlightened than the present. Besides allowing critical minnows to patronize artistic whales, this approach frees academic literary intellectuals from having to learn much about history, economics, politics, or how to compose English prose.” – George Scialabba, “The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal”


“Why not lay aside questions of ultimate meaning for as long as there is unnecessary suffering in the world? I don’t mean necessary suffering, like disappointed love or the infirmities of age. I mean wholly unnecessary suffering, like undernourished, illiterate, or malarial children. When there are no more such, then let us begin asking again about the meaning of life and the existence of God.” – George Scialabba, “The Wreck of Western Culture”

Find the cost of freedomFind the cost of freedom

“The burden of freedom, the responsibility of finding—or creating—one’s own purpose and meaning without the guidance of authoritative inherited creeds and values, is too heavy for all but a few. The rest of us cannot endure for long the tensions of uncertainty. We must, at some point, stop questioning, quiet our doubts, turn away from moral and metaphysical inquiry and toward life. Untrammeled skepticism ends in paralysis. That is true of societies as well as individuals. No purely rational justification can be offered for trust and self-sacrifice. But without them, social life is chaos, a war of all against all. Until a few hundred years ago, this problem scarcely existed. The authority of communities and traditions, though often enough evaded or defied, was rarely put in radical question. There were sinners, doubters, even heretics, but dogma and hierarchy, as the foundation of individual morality and social organization, were unchallenged. Then modernity happened. Beginning in fifteenth-century Europe, a critical, experimental, libertarian spirit began to flourish, which came to be known as ‘humanism.’ A crescendo of scientific discoveries, artistic innovations, geographical explorations, and political reforms ensued until, at the end of the eighteenth century, Kant hailed ‘humankind’s emergence from its self-imposed minority’ and baptized it ‘Enlightenment.’ At the same time, the prestige of the sacred and the supernatural, of what the Grand Inquisitor called ‘miracle, mystery, and authority’ and declared indispensable to ordinary people’s happiness, was correspondingly diminished. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, humanism’s luster was tarnished. First came the blight of early industrialization, then colonial brutality, totalitarian repression, and the technologies of extermination in concentration camps and global wars. Even after these horrors passed, in the midst of unprecedented prosperity, an epidemic of spiritual emptiness descended: alienation, consumerism, and the loneliness of mass society. Perhaps, as a minority of modern thinkers have always believed, we cannot live by reason alone. Perhaps modernity is a mistake.” – George Scialabba, “The Wreck of Western Culture”

The times, they been a-changin’The times, they been a-changin’

“Five hundred years ago, slavery was the most natural thing in the world. So was the torture of criminal suspects, convicts, and heretics. So was the virtual ownership—and regular physical chastisement—of women by their fathers or husbands. Most of us (I hope) now abhor these things, but anyone time-traveling back to that era who informed a slaveowner, torturer, or wife-beater that his behavior was shameful would have been met with incomprehension, perhaps even indignation.” – George Scialabba, “The Life You Can Save”

Pricey little fubar, tooPricey little fubar, too

“The invasion of Iraq was initially portrayed as a response to threats to American security. When these were exposed as nonexistent (indeed, fabricated), a new marketing strategy, ‘democracy promotion,’ was devised by the government and eagerly swallowed by a docile intelligentsia. Meanwhile, the occupying forces moved immediately to accomplish the invasion’s real goals: construction of permanent bases for future Middle East military interventions; exploitation of Iraq’s energy resources; and conversion of the country into a wholly unregulated investors’ paradise. It was a perfectly plausible, entirely cold-blooded imperialist project, though unexpectedly, it failed.” – George Scialabba, “Only Words”

Fool me once, shame on youFool me once, shame on you

“So thoroughly did the Soviet and Chinese Communists betray the ideals in whose name they seized power, and so ruthlessly did they silence nearly everyone who protested that betrayal, that the ideals themselves are in danger of being forgotten. But many of the wisest and bravest men and women of the 20th century began by embracing Communism, and some of the century’s best political writing was occasioned by their efforts later in life to understand what, if anything, of that youthful commitment remained valid. The original allegiance of these ex-Communists was not to a party or ideology but to ordinary working people. Facing the harsh, sometimes lethal conditions of early industrialism, workers gradually organized themselves, usually against ferocious opposition from above.” – George Scialabba, “Bitter Spring”