Inevitability in Foreign Affairs

The possibility of negotiations between the United States and North Korea over the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a good opportunity to review some basic wisdom about foreign policy and so avoid a debate about whether Trump should be given credit for having initiated this opening because of his bluster or whether he should be blamed for having a State Department that may not be up to the task of carrying out the negotiations. Bits of wisdom are that rather than knowledge because they cannot be put to the test through experiment. You can’t run history as a controlled experiment, but you can make a case that one adage about foreign policy seems more trustworthy than another. The wisdom in question is that most foreign policy decisions are inevitable because of the nature of the geopolitical circumstances. You can delay them, as when Wilson delayed entry into World War I when TR, if he had been elected in 1912, would have more quickly gotten into the war, even though that would have meant many more American casualties, though it probably would also have forestalled the rise of Communism and Fascism. The best a leader can do, in Obama’s memorable injunction, is not do anything stupid, such as get us into a needless war in Iraq. Just go with the inevitable and don’t do anything else. The alternative wisdom is that supplied by George Kennan who, in his classic book “American Diplomacy”, argued that clever diplomatists can come up with a formula whereby a treaty can be constructed which redirects history. That wisdom was belied in Kennan’s own time when no one, not even George Marshall, could figure out a way to negotiate with the Russians or the Chinese and so we had to settle in for a Cold War whereby, as Kennan himself predicted, we would outlast them, though what would follow the Soviet Union, and which Kennan had not predicted, would be a return to the usual Russian situation of rule by an autocrat who would, as Soviet dictators previously had, also rattle his missiles, rather than some more modern regime. So let me defend the Obama principle of yielding only to the inevitable.

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Default Philosophers

A default philosophy is a system of philosophy that claim to do no more than describe things as they are rather than offer a system that offers an alteration of our perception of the world by eliminating concepts which are ordinary in human discourse or add concepts noone before had thought necessary. Such philosophies can serve as defaults in the sense that they are the ones that can be gone back to as reliable and basic when philosophies with an ax to grind, a point of view to expound so as to create a new vision of the metaphysical universe, one not previously crafted. Aristotle and, I think, David Hume, and perhaps Kant, are of that first kind in that they offer a bottom line of accurate description without the intrusion of their own special views, while Spinoza is a philosopher of the second kind in that he finds no need, in his very comprehensive philosophy, ever to invoke the concept of justice, and therefore shows how you can account for the world without it, which is as much as to say that there is no such thing as justice. Freud, if he is to be considered among the ranks of philosophers, does his work by including a new concept, that of the unconscious, as necessary for the understanding of human life, and the bulk of his work is to show that this uncharted territory is not only there but how it works. Twentieth Century eliminators, as they might be called, include Gilbert Ryle, who says, contrary to all sense, that there is no such thing as subjectivity, and Wittgenstein, who gets rid of thinking that much of speech is about propositions, however much that may impoverish or, depending on your viewpoint, liberate language.

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Stories Within Stories

Roland Wulbert said to me the other day, in a casual manner that belied the profundity of his remark, that literary critics use bits of a story they are analyzing to construct another story, which is what they are really up to. That observation strikes me as being true of even the greatest of literary criticism, though not necessarily true of literary theory, as that goes back to Aristotle, who did indeed try to capture what literature did as opposed to making what he would of the text before him. Contrary to some opinion, Aristotle did not distort Oedipus Rex into being something it was not, which was a tragedy as that was defined by Aristotle. It was a tragedy because literary theory had invented the category into which the play fit. Rather, what Wulbert is talking about is one way in which criticism cannot be true to its text. It just about always just generates another story. That is different from the usual reason why criticism is inevitably a reading into or a falsification of a text, which is that criticism is discursive prose, while texts are usually a different kind of thing altogether-- a narrative or a poem-- and so there are different media being employed, just as is the case when an art critic puts a painting into words when a painting, after all, is not a set of words but an image. You can tell students to describe a painting in words but that is not the same thing as what the painting is, which is something to look at, which has a “look” only in the sense that it generates a mood. A consideration of an exemplar of great literary criticism shows why Wulbert is correct.


Consider Erich Auerbach’s “Odysseus’ Scar”. Auerbach takes two of the greatest works of world literature, Homer’s Odyssey and the Genesis story of  Abraham and Isaac, and turns them into a story about two different civilizations, two different ways of apprehending reality. It is fair to say that he provides a story rather than merely an analysis because he proceeds in the way the prose of an essay can become like a story because it creates, in its course, suspense that is then released, that sequence to be regarded as and in fact to be pleasurable. First, Auerbach provides the reader with the world as that seems from Homer’s point of view by focussing down on when his old nurse recognizes a stranger to be Odysseus in disguise because she observes a scar he had as a child. Rather than this just a single fact or a coincidental discovery that the author uses to move the narrative on, it is a set up for Auerbach to comment on the simultaneity of the current event and the time when the scar originated, an amalgam of the present and of memory, and so to allow Auerbach to describe Homeric culture as one in which the background of events, and this extends to setting as well as to memories, informs what is happening downstage, as it were, for the attention of the audience. That is a very satisfying conclusion to arrive at, which is an understanding of how narrative in the West works its way by making the past present.


But then the reader must not relax too long with the satisfaction of this resolution. Rather, the reader is immediately moved into a new kind of suspense. What, in the light of what has just been resolved, will Auerbach do with the Genesis story? He immediately unsettles his reader by saying that this second story has nothing to do with the conventions that underlie the Odysseus story. So how can it be a story at all? This is a question which remains troubling to those so taken with the Western kind of story telling that they do not know what to make of the short narratives of Genesis which are so bereft of description. Auerbach suggests that such an impulse is correct. This is a different kind of story telling. It does not refer to motives, however much those can be read into or presumed to be there as inferences from what the characters do. So these are stories without introspection as well as without detail about the setting, which is very far from the rich description of the house and household to which Odysseus had returned. Nothing is said of the journey Abraham and Isaac take to the altar, only that Isaac queries why they have not taken a sacrifice with them and is told by his father that God will provide, to which Isaac says nothing, the reader left to infer whether Isaac was naive or whether he understood what was going on and had already submitted to his fate. This is a very different kind of reading that a reader has to do with Homer. There, the reader luxuriates in the detail, in the reader’s own knowledge of what is going on and how the pieces of the setting fall into place in the narrative, while here in Genesis the reader is forced to speculate, to surmise, about what is going on. How can this be the same sort of literary satisfaction that supposedly comes from any work of world literature?


Auerbach breaks the suspense, resolves the tension, by introducing another concept, which is the temporality of this Genesis story (and by implication, other Genesis stories). What you learn from a Genesis story is what comes first and what comes next and what comes after that. The sequence of events in time provides the ability to infer meaning, just as the simultaneity of time had allowed meaning to be inferred in Homer. And so, Auerbach concludes, this is a very different kind of consciousness, the one that created Genesis, and yet it meets what might be considered an even more abstract standard for art, which is that it provides for ever afterwards memorable images and meanings. And, I might add, an insight into this god from the Asian coast who is as invisible as time itself and who creates events that occur within time, as memorable events, like the exodus, rather than having an existence as a spirit of place or of an emotion, thereby hovering over human events rather than intruding in them, though, of course, it must also be said that the Greek gods do also intrude sometimes into the lives of people, though it seems to me that they do that as a way to move along a plot, such as when Artemis develops a grudge against Agamemnon and that lets loose the series of events which describe the ways the House of Atreus is always undermining itself, that, rather than the initiating incident, becoming the burden of the playwright’s work, that revealing so much about human nature, the playwright not very much concerned about trying to reveal the nature of the gods . And so Auerbach creates a great bit of criticism because if his readers follow his story they will be awed by how far they have come in understanding not only Western and Hebraic literature but the nature of literature itself. They can see themselves growing.


Now it is to be remembered that the Odyssey is not about simultaneity any more than the story of Abraham and Isaac is about temporality. Rather, the term “about” means of direct and apparent concern, not import. “About” is whatever it is that drives the plot, what are the parameters of the plot, rather than what meaning is to be drawn from the plot. In the case of the Odyssey, “about” means the story of the return home of a war veteran, he undergoing the kinds of experiences that veterans undergo: untoward adventures with the cyclops: dalliances with women outside the bonds of marriage, with the lotus eaters or Circe, whether to forget the past or to taste again a bit of challenge and adventure; greeting and parting with old comrades in arms, such as Menelaus; and then, finally, reuniting with his family and reconstructing his relations with them. Similarly, the Abraham and Isaac story is about obedience to God, even, if one wishes to press it, what that term “obedience” means, something that has been argued about with regard to that story for millenia. But the Odyssey is not a reverie about how literature is related to life as it is nor is the Abraham and Isaac story. That is the invention of the critic, of Auerbach, and so we need to give him credit for an imaginative leap while he seems to occupy the much humbler role of commentator.


Well, we should know by now that commentators, whether within the Talmud or among the Church Fathers, are not ciphers but simply use this vehicle, the literary form of the commentary, to engage in vast and sweeping acts of reinterpretation that turn our heads around if we can bear the insult to our usual understanding of the texts upon which they comment and so they, in their way, become commentators on life every bit as much as the texts upon which they comment already have that station as ways to take note of life from a different angle than we would ordinarily use. In our own time, the role of commentator has been reduced to that of the literary critic, a somewhat superfluous sub-genre of literary and academic life, which could be revivified perhaps only if the texts on which commentaries are constructed are taken to be part of a necessary canon, which was the case with Homer, the Bible, and for a while, from the Nineteenth through the last parts of the Twentieth Century, a designated group of secular and religious literature that college students were expected to learn, but apparently that is no longer the case, students preoccupied with science and engineering and computer studies rather than with literature, and who knows what will follow from that fact.

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The Falseness of "Black Panther"

Cartoons and science fiction share in common that they don’t have to explain how scientific things work; all they have to do is show an arrangement of things that seems to be pleasant. So we did not know the mechanism by which Dick Tracy’s radio-wristwatch, and then his tv-wristwatch worked; we only had to contemplate how nice it would be if there were such things, which indeed came to fruition with the smartphone. But cartoons and science fiction are very detailed in the ways they spell out the social world in which that new science is set. Asimov spelled out very clearly in his Foundation series how Trantor took over the galaxy, moving from being the only planet that could guarantee the safety of its embassies to being a planet that ruled a galaxy wide empire and that imported goods from everywhere. The same is true of Robert Heinlein who imagines a system of world wide representative democracy in "Double Star"S, complete with a titular head from a royal house that originated in the Low Countries. Heinlein also spells out in "Starship Trooper" a world nation where citizenship is conferred only on people who have served in the military, a fascistic note that is the case in much of Heinlein and other science fiction writers who also emphasize the role of the strong man as leader and the military as the backbone of society. So it is not surprising that "Black Panther", which is a movie based on a comic book and is about a superhero who emerges from a futuristic black city in Africa that is unknown to the outside world, offers this same combination of unexplained gadgetry and fascistic government. The main reason to find fault with this entertainment, whose pretensions at explaining the way the social world works are not to be taken seriously except by social commentators like me because the preteen audience for which it is designed (there is not even a hint of sex) will not care about those meanings, is that they are contrary to my sense of the burden of African American history.

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Ma and Pa Stores

When economists talk of small business, they usually mean those with fifty to five hundred employees, which means something from an auto dealership to a machine shop to an independent department store. So when economic pundits tell small business people to be creative in handling their payrolls, they mean that cash flow can be difficult in a small business but payrolls still have to be met and so owners should go back to their financial backers, which can mean family members or local banks, to help them deal with a crisis. Even a smaller business, such as a three store supermarket chain, may have to make use of this expedient. But truly small businesses, which are ones with less than ten employees, and sometimes just a delivery boy and a stockman, are in a more serious permanent crisis. They don’t have much of a payroll to meet; what they have to do is pay the rent and the bills to their suppliers just to stay open at all. These businesses are, generically speaking, mom and pop outfits, and take up storefronts all up and down a business thoroughfare. They include minimarts, bodegas, 99 cent stores, nail spas, independent pharmacies, and other places where success means that enough people have stepped over the threshold to make the small purchases that will add up to meet the bills and leave something over for the store owner who is also the store operator. A way to understand such places is to put the economics of these businesses into the context of the social structure of the lives of their owners rather than look at them only as organizations which are more or less efficient ways to convey merchandise to the public than are big box stores or franchises or e-commerce.

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Minimal Stories

Here is an exercise in literary theory.

Here is a straightforward question whose answer remains unsatisfactory even after millenia of consideration: what is a story? Clearly, a story is a less general form of communication than a narrative, which is a set of sentences which are related to one another in a time sequence. The art of narrative requires making some connection between the sentences so that they make some sort of sense in relation to one another, whether that consists of a list, such as the residents of a neighborhood, or a logical inference of effect from cause. Story requires something more than a sense of connectedness. It requires, to use Aristotle’s terms, a beginning a middle and an end or, to put it another way, a sense of exposition, climax and completion. A story therefore always involves suspense and the release of suspense, and not having these leaves disappointed the person hearing or reading the story. Supposedly, a great actor could read the telephone book and keep an audience enrapt but that is only because the actor would be able to bring suspense and release to the nuanced reading of any name. Sometimes the actor might pause over syllables, sometimes he or she might find a metre in a name, sometimes the actor could vary pitch or emotion. But mostly a telephone book is only a list and not even a narrative because the listing is alphabetical, which is a way of being arbitrary rather than a way of constructing a narrative whose sequential unfolding is meaningful, as when the list of begats in Genesis or elsewhere result in David or some other prominent figure.

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Priests, Police and Psychiatrists

An institution of social control is a set of organizations that have the specific societal purpose of ensuring that people obey the rules and regulations and customs of a society or some institution within it. The umpires are the social control agency in a baseball game though baseball itself is a leisure activity, with all that entails in the way of allowing people of different social classes to share the same experience, even if, metaphorically, we can say that baseball contributes to the social order of society because it gives people an escape valve so that they can root for the underdog without that sentiment having any consequences. Institutions of social control exist as part of most modern, complex bureaucracies, and go under a variety of names: Internal Affairs, Human Resources, Inspector General. These adjuncts make it possible for the larger organization to go about pursuing their main purposes. In this light, it is only by way of metaphor that we can treat the IRS as an institution of social control, even if it does supervise economic activity, because its main goal is to collect revenue. Similarly, the main goal of education as an institution is to help children fit into adult roles by improving their ability to make use of whatever cognitive capacities they may have, not to serve as a boot camp for adult servility.

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The Budget Deal

Well, something really did happen on the way to the Mueller Report. Congress struck a budget deal that is a mini-version of the grand bargain Democrats are always all too willing to cut with Republicans, but this time it worked and is likely to have positive consequences and set the scene for other constructive legislative initiatives, though not at least until the congressional elections this November. The budget deal has been much criticized. People on the Right say that it does away with any shambles of the idea that Conservatives are interested in fiscal austerity, and people on the left suggest that the deal just shows what hypocrites are the deficit hawks, who now show themselves willing to bust the budget just so long as they have very recently taken care of the need to give tax cuts to their financial backers. Consider, instead, what the budget deal does accomplish in the way of re-introducing some rationality into the budget process.

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A Biblical Story: Jacob's Two Marriages

By the standards of Genesis, the story of Jacob and his two marriages, first to Leah, and then to Rachel, with Leah remaining as his wife, is told at a leisurely pace. It covers Genesis 29-Genesis 31 and is detailed in its incidents, borrowing for a narrative the practice of the chronicle sections of Genesis and so recounts the names of his children by both of his wives and those of his children borne by the handmaidens of his wives. That is much longer than the story of Abraham, who also has to deal with both a wife and a handmaiden and the children born to them, which is dealt with in a much briefer narrative, Genesis 21, even though the span of time is the same in each story: about a generation. The reason for the slower and more stately telling of Jacob’s family story is, I think, because the author is trying to convey a sense of how it takes time for familial relationships to change, and there is much merit in the wisdom being offered, even if we must apply it today to a world without polygamy and where people by and large don’t marry their first cousins. It also may be that the story of Jacob and his marriages is a reworking of a story that appears just a short time earlier in Genesis 24. That is the story of how Isaac met his wife. It has some of the same plot motifs, such as meeting at a well. But the earlier story has been simplified in that the servant delivering the offer has been dropped even though that adds a nice “Beowulf”-like set of repetitions. The loss of the literary mannerisms suggests that the author or editor of the later story was striving for a simplicity of storytelling that would allow the poignancy of the story to come through.

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The Autonomy of Field Commanders

The field commanders of armies are notoriously unreliable. In fact, the Romans forbade them from sending their armies across the Rubicon lest they try to overthrow the government. Troops were, until recently, more loyal to their commanders than they were to their polity, perhaps because it was the military units that enforced military discipline. You could be killed for insubordination. That was the power over you, not the politicians in Rome. What is remarkable and surprising, however, is that the autonomy of field commanders to do what they wanted with their troops lasted until recent times-- the First World War, I would say. This is partly because armies in the past relied on their own supplies and the funds provided to them to keep them in the field. But twentieth century armies had come to rely on supplies of oil and munitions and tanks supplied for them by their various defense ministries and so were no longer autonomous. How this balance of field command and high command alters over the past two hundred years explains a lot about the wars fought during that time period.

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Charity is an Outdated Idea

There are fewer beggars on the streets of New York than there used to be but you run into them everyday on the subway and sitting on cardboard in the streets with signs announcing what led them to beg: illness, PTSS, a dog that needed to be fed. People are likely to identify some beggars as more deserving of charity than others, and so the moral question of whether to give becomes complicated. If we are more likely to give our handouts to those beggars who look most nearly like ordinary people, and so evoke sym[athy, then charity is given for our own well being because it has become possible to identify with one of God’s less fortunate creatures by having overcome only a minimum of disgust or disquiet because this person seems capable of becoming even more like us. On the other hand, if handouts are more likely to be given to those who look most needy, then the giver is perversely catering to his sense of disgust because he rewards those who are most grotesque and so gives tacit approval to those people who maim themselves or appear maimed or drag along children to increase their take.

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A Primer on Liberalism & Conservatism

Recent books have suggested that Liberalism is on the wane or is confused in its beliefs or was a movement of the moment that lasted from 1932 through 1968. I want to suggest, to the contrary, that Liberalism is one of the political philosophies that emerged in Early Modern Europe as a way to find a basis for authority and the way to organize the self that is different from the one that is provided by the Christian Church, which offers as its answers to these questions God-inspired monarchical leadership and a sense of people as being flawed by original sin but saved through the intervention of Christ. The alternative to Liberalism is a philosophy that emerged at the same time: Conservatism. These two philosophies continue to stand as the two alternatives, whatever are the short term successes and setbacks for each of them, and it does not seem to me that either of them will be soon supplanted by a very different understanding of what people really are.

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The Shutdown

Well, I thought that something important might have really happened on our way to the Mueller Report: the shutdown of the federal government because the Congress and the President couldn’t agree on a bill to fund the government. But Chuck Schumer decided he would prefer a shaky promise from Mitch McConnell to anything Trump might say, and so backed down. And it is not surprising that Schumer offered to build Trump’s wall in exchange for a deal on the Dreamers. Democrats are prone to think they can arrive at some grand bargain with Republicans if they put something they care about on the table. Remember that Obama wanted to create a grand bargain with Boehner which would have included entitlement reforms. Democrats are willing to sacrifice their interests to get the government functioning again, but Republicans are not, and the Republican wisdom, as that is verified by election results, is that the American people don’t care if the government functions (so long as nothing changes in their own lives). So a shutdown seemed like a dynamite blast to shake the government loose, and so people like me, who opposed the last government shutdown, were in favor of it. Do something.

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Carrying Charges

Not too long ago, commentators were saying that some people voted for Trump because they were economically pressed in that wages were stagnating, this assessment based on national wage figures. That is an economic change of which people may not be aware, but which will somehow go into their calculations of how well off they are. Somehow, voters have a sense of how only statistically significant increases or decreases in wages impinged on their own lives and respond accordingly. That is not very plausible and it is a factor in life that, one would presume, would be easily enough washed out by cultural issues like abortion or thinking that coastal people are condescending towards middle Americans. At this moment, however, a very different economic logic is being pursued by commentators trying to forecast the impact of the Trump tax bill. It may not do much good for the country, this giving away of a trillion dollars to rich people without any requirement that they invest it in productive ways, but it will put a thousand dollars or so in the pockets of many of the middle class and that is something concrete, a real if small gain, and so may lead them to stick with Trump. Note the difference between the two argument: in the first case, there is an incremental change in people’s disposable income as a result of a lack of increase in paychecks, a change of which people may not be aware, but which will somehow go into their calculations of how well off they are, and in the second case, there is an increase in take home pay because of a decrease in payroll deductions and people will be aware of this change even though it is not very sizable. I want to apply this second kind of logic, of what people know as a change in their own lives, to addressing the first question, which is why people feel squeezed, and so dispense with any need for economic metaphysics.

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The Nominal Role of the Politician

George Orwell got it all wrong in his famous essay “Shooting An Elephant” when he says that people wanted him to exercise his authority as a policeman in India and shoot an elephant. Orwell says the locals did so because they identified authority with the English. Rather, I would say, they wanted him to assume authority so that the elephant would get shot. He would make the decision, take the risk, get the job done, and take the blame should he mess up. Otherwise, there would have been no end of haggling about who should be appointed to do the job or whether it should be done by a committee. His title was an excuse to do what had to be done, and he had considerable discretion, as all bosses do, about what that title required him to do. Any boss can follow his personality and be more or less aggressive in the policies he asks his subordinates to administer or in how he responds to the demands of clientele. Orwell could have pooh-poohed the request or referred it to local game officials.

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Standby & Operating Institutions

All organizations, and not just governments, are either standby or operating institutions, or some combination of the two, and an important basis for the division between conservatives and liberals, a distinction that goes back to the French Revolution or before, and is part of the fabric of the modern world, rests on whether government should be primarily one or the other. This is just one of the underlying and overlapping emotions and ideas that give rise to the chasm between conservatives and liberals. Another, well elaborated by Karl Mannheim about one hundred years ago, is the distinction between those who look backwards to a golden age and those who look forward to a utopia as the focus of their political imaginations. Both ideas are creatures of the imagination but both also have very different consequences. A traditionalist mind finds conventional morality and politics preferable to what seem to be the hopeless dreams of the Utopian, even though what a utopian predicts will often come true, as happened in the United States, for example, when African Americans went from being a caste to an ethnic group in two generations, from the time miscegenation was made legal to the time a mixed race person was elected President.

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Gender Prejudice & Sexual Harassment

Since I assume, with everyone else, and as data indicates, that women are on average smarter than men (they, for example, do better at school) and more interested in explicating personal relationships than are men, it is amazing that during the current frenzy over sexual harassment, the distinction between that and gender prejudice is obscured or neglected, which is evidence, I take it, that we are indeed in the midst of a frenzy, when an entire gender has lost its mind, something that they will recover, hopefully, before too much time has passed--say, by the end of the decade or a few years after that. So in the hope of getting things right, I will reiterate the distinction and apply it to present circumstances. But my hopes of alleviating the frenzy are dim because the basis of the frenzy is so emotionally deeply seated in the psyches of the two sexes.

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Freud & Sexual Harassment

Sigmund Freud was a major intellectual force from the Thirties through the Seventies, so much so that humanistic intellectuals during the time when I became exposed to cultural developments, the Fifties and Sixties, were deeply into the question of how to reconcile Freud and Marx, those two great explorers into the science of society, those humanistic intellectuals blissfully unaware that there were other savants, like Weber and Parsons, who also had to be reckoned with. Freud went into decline after it became clear that his method of cure, talking to people at great length, was not reliable and also very expensive, and that, as Grunwald showed, rigorous scientific experimentation did not justify Freud’s theories. Moreover, cheaper and more effective cures and mitigations of mental troubles could be accomplished through drugs. Better living through chemistry. Nowadays, Freud seems additionally discredited by the claims of people like Frederick Crews that his case studies were fraudulent reports and that Freud was himself not a very nice man, the latter charge obvious to anyone who defended the great man’s theories, whatever his shortcomings as a person, given that he two timed his wife, dismissed as worthless most of those who broke with him (though not Jung, whom he thought went on to do good work) or how cruel he was to his daughter, subjecting her to psychoanalysis with her own father. But put that all aside. There is still something to be said for his insights, which do capture the feel of the underground life we all lead with regard to our sexuality and these insights even illuminate the present public controversy concerning sexual harassment.

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