NYC Test High Schools

Mayor Bill De Blasio is once again pushing a plan to eliminate a single test as the basis for admission to New York City’s elite academic high schools. Such a plan has failed in the past because so many State Senators and Assembly people attended those high schools and remember them fondly. That may change this time around because more and more legislators were on the outside looking in and don’t understand why white and Asian students should get the overwhelming number of seats. It doesn’t seem equal or fair or just. Without taking sides on the dispute, but not leaving the issue to whether people do or do not remember their high school experience fondly, I would like to review the concepts that have been rolled out and help to restore them from being the cliches they have become in educational discourse to being legitimate terms of analysis.

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The North Korea Deal

Some Presidents and diplomats think that the panoply of summit meetings distract from the hard negotiations that take place there and so they arrange for extended stays at isolated spots so that participants can dig into details and come to compromises. Carter used Camp David, Clinton also used Camp David, and Roger Holbrooke used Dayton Air Force Base. Carter and Holbrooke were successful and Clinton was not. Churchill, for his part, regarded panoply as an essential part of what was to be undertaken. Famously, he arranged for the hymns at the Anglican Church service he held on the deck of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales when Roosevelt and Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland in 1940 to issue their proclamation of the Four Freedoms to be the same hymns that FDR might have heard at Groton when he went to school there. The purpose was to build a sense of solidarity between the two nations by showing their intimate connections with one another. Churchill fills many pages of his memoir about World War II with the toasts presented at international meetings. That was not just to fill space or to use whatever in the archives was available but to provide his sense that the toasts, in some complicated way, spelled out what the toasters really thought about their allies and what they really thought the alliances could accomplish. Trump is different or, to modify Marx, anything serious shows up sooner or later as farce. Trump likes the panoply for its own sake because he thinks that is the substance of any agreement, and so he has a win-win situation in his Singapore meeting with Kim Jong Un in that whether he walked away from it saying it had failed or, as he hoped, walked away from it proclaiming it a great victory, which he did, it would play well in America with his base and beyond, Democrats not knowing what to say to an agreement without substance, not that it mattered, in that Trump seemed confused about whether the final document did or did not refer to verification of nuclear disarmament, because he knew that denuclearization was not at the heart of the agreement, which was, rather, that the United States would normalize relations with North Korea, welcome it into the world community, never mind its nuclear weapons or its human rights abuses. And that was a very good deal indeed, no matter that critics are caught flat footed wondering what North Korea gave up in the immediate or near future in exchange for being welcomed into the world community and having some of its own security needs addressed, such as the elimination of joint US-ROK military exercises.

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Authority and Authoritarianism

Authority and authoritarianism are difficult concepts to sort out, and the device of four fold tables, once popular in sociology, can help in doing that.

Authority is the sense that being subordinate is the fitting and proper way to feel and behave, whatever the consequences. Indeed, subordination can be perceived as the only way it is possible to feel and behave in that there is no way to live without having an authority to govern one’s life, whether that is the authority of God or a government or an ethical code. Kierkegaard, of course, is the exemplar of the thinker who places such authority in God, His authority beyond the moral plane in that one should even be willing to sacrifice one’s own son if God demands it. Governments provide an authority that is like that, though they reserve only to wars as the times to demand ultimate sacrifices, governments most of the time treated by their citizens and subjects as perhaps beneficial authorities or as troublesome nuisances. Mostly, Constitutional documents are ones which are cited when one of their provisions are in dispute, but it can be said, in the United States, that the ideas of due process and equality before the law make up a set of common concerns that are of interest to most citizens. Kant is the one who most clearly posits a moral code as the ultimate authority in that the introduction of the word “should” into a sentence is sufficient excuse to demand all of the sacrifices required of a believer: to turn one’s friend into the police, to treat someone with disdain as an evil doer, to guide one in everyday undertakings. Far from being a proponent of a common sense allegiance to practical morality, such as when one is advised to do what the job dictates rather than decide to assume responsibilities for which an employee or a person may not know enough about to carry out successfully despite all good intentions, Kantianism can lead to an absolutism that says “I was just doing my job” or “Mine is to obey and not know the reason why”, although to give Kant his due, he did not have to contemplate how to morally act in Hitler’s world even if he had the historical example of Calvin’s Geneva before him. Kant didn’t think an authority would be unreasonably cruel.

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Lies and Trust

Most of the things Trump does as President are not likely to outlast him. Tax bills go in one direction under Republican Administrations and then go in the other direction under Democratic Administrations. Environmental regulations can be rolled back even as some of the changes do not even get implemented because Scott Pruitt’s EPA staff is so inept. The Federal Judiciary will, however, be impacted for a generation, but who cares how the North Korea negotiations go? They won’t move the yardstick very far no matter what happens and the next Administration can start all over again. The Europeans know that they can just outlast this Administration and the long term, bipartisan policy towards Europe will be back in place. What has changed, however, are some basic perceptions about the political culture, and I want to talk about two of those, one which is very overt and discussed, and the other not so.

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Second Half of Twentieth Century American Fiction

It is sad to sum up a lifetime of reading contemporary American fiction, as if that came anywhere near to summing up a life or the meaning that was found in it, but here goes.

Philip Roth, who died just the other day, made a big splash when his first book, the collection of short stories, "Goodbye Columbus", appeared when I was an undergraduate. All the young literary people I knew were much taken with him and not just because he was so clearly a Jewish writer. We also had Malamud and Bellow and the still then insufficiently appreciated I. B. Singer, who was the best of the lot. But we stayed with Roth because he delivered the goods-- at least his goods: his preoccupation with the lives of Jews, sex, the nature of irony, all of which seemed very repetitious until now, just this past year, when the tumescence of males has to be defended rather than, as in Roth’s day, merely recognized to be thought shocking. The themes of his late novels as in "The Human Stain" and "Everyman", become so much more universal. Often overlooked as a piece of serious literature is Roth’s “The Plot to Undermine America”, which is treated by critics as a polemic alternative history of the sort Sinclair Lewis fashioned in “It Could happen Here”, but is in fact a work which shows how welcoming America is to its Jewish residents, the Irish Newark Police Chief comforting Roth’s mother during the worst of an anti-Jewish riot by telling her that he would protect her by giving her special police protection. It is she who turns away at the door during that riot her own sister who had sided with Lindbergh as President and whose husband had set up CCC like camps for Jewish youth so as to assimilate them into American society. But Roth’s mother sees all this as malign intent against the Jews, while Roth the author sees it as non-threatening, and the demented Philip, the narrator, reflects his mother’s view, his breakdown not healed until 1963 when the alternative history becomes united with actual history on the date of JFK’s assassination. As if who is in the right is not made clear by Roth’s mother turning away her own sister at the time of the rioting. So much for blood being thicker than ideology. Would a German Jew have turned away on Kristallnacht a sister who had gone all secular? So the book is an exploration of how fantasies can turn malignant, and yet that still does not leave it as a major achievement, which is to invest the reader in a fantasy, malignant or not, from which it is not easy to awake, as is the case in Kafka and Mann and Faulkner.

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Harvey Weinstein

There are three reasons why I am indifferent to the fate of Harvey Weinstein, a man even his defense lawyer has already stipulated is gross and manipulative. The first reason is that I have opposed the #metoo movement because it was interested only in making angry denunciations of people it regarded as guilty of a number of sex offenses that ranged from the relatively innocuous to outright rape. Well, here, finally, we have someone in the dock and I have confidence that Cy Vance’s office did not bring these charges lightly, though that cannot be said of District Attorney offices throughout the country, especially when the aggrieved parties are African-American. The defendant will have a chance to face his accusers for specific crimes. The jury will have to sort out whether Weinstein’s entreaties were a negotiation to bring about a deal where services were exchanged or whether it was intimidation that constituted sexual contact without consent. I don’t know how the trial will turn out.

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What A Classicist Discovers

Classicists are awesome. Those that I know personally and those whom I have read are the smartest and most widely read people I know. They have mastered languages and history and literary criticism and whatever other fields of scholarship and social science that come to interest them. Well known classicists apply these skills far beyond the subject matter of the ancient world. Norman O. Brown became expert in psychoanalytic theory and Gary Wills has written very freshly about both the Gettysburg Address and The Declaration of Independence. Classics remains the hardest of the liberal arts, harder even then philosophy, in that classicists know ancient philosophy, and harder than history and English and the Romance languages, classicists also having to know the related disciplines of politics and art history, and classics is certainly harder than the social sciences, my own field of sociology coming out at or near the bottom of the pecking order. And so I picked up Mary Beard’s book “Confronting the Classics” with high expectations. She is a renowned classicist of this generation and I had very much admired another of her books, “SPQR”, which is a history of Rome, for its clear style and judicious appraisal of its materials and I thought that this book, which is a collection of essay-reviews, would give me an idea of how a classicist fits into her field and of the give and take of scholarly controversy in the field. The book does have her sprighty style and makes use of her vast knowledge of literature up to the present time, but it was disappointing because, to put it bluntly, the issues that she sees as concerning classical scholarship yield very little in the way of results and are resolved mainly by rhetorical flourish. Is the day to day work of classicists really such small beer?

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Universal Roles

Writers and social scientists have always given thought to the sequence of roles that dominate a person’s life and putatively apply to any and all people and so constitute “the ages of man”. Good role theorists that most of them are, they each pick out one or more salient circumstances of each stage that may be obvious but also illuminate the psychological dimensions of that stage as well as its overall meaning. Sophocles, in his riddle of the Sphinx, saw only three stages but his characterization is perhaps still the best in that it is the most minimalist: people crawl on all four as babies; walk erect as adults; and use a cane in old age. Physical frailty characterizes both the last and the first of these stages and so makes the Sophoclean sense of life very sad. Shakespeare thought there were seven stages and he characterized them, in his own vivid way, by a circumstance, an emotion, and an activity. Schoolboys head off to school with their satchels; they are unwilling to do so and whine about it; and they go to school anyway. Soldiers curse a lot, are jealous of their reputations and remain brave even while “in the cannon’s mouth”. All seven stages are portrayed in the most benign way and that suggests that Jacques is speaking in the mood of Arden rather than with the malevolence that Shakespeare usually ascribes to the human condition. That means that one should presume an expositor of universal human roles is not to be trusted, even the present author, whose descriptions are underlain with a sense of the isolation of each human being from other human beings. Erik Erikson, who  saw there to be eight stages of psychosocial development, based his view on the basic Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. He thought that the fundamental stage of human life was the first one, when an infant sensed that he could trust the outside world to be stable and reliable. Basic trust is a form of faith. But Erikson’s idea is also based on a deep insight into what are the circumstances a baby has to manage from the baby’s point of view: the problems of nourishment and comfort. A later stage in Erikson’s schema concerns the ability to engage in a meaningful conjugal relationship, which means having to develop a capacity for intimacy rather than isolation and that challenge is certainly a version of charity. A yet later stage, that of generativity, concerns how a person can take advantage of opportunities to do productive work during one’s adult years, and that is a version of hope.

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Zones of Identity

Zones of identity are the aspects of the immediate social world that a person identifies with so strongly that the person does not feel complete without it or them. So a person is not fully that without something that is outside his brain, and so there is no getting around the fact that the social sphere is every bit as real as the psychological one, much less the neurological one, even if, obviously, a person might survive without one or another zone of identity, however diminished a life it would be, but it would also be difficult to conceptualize what a person would be without some one or another zone of identity, whether that is occupational or the comfort of having a family hearth to return to at the end of the day, that being the place where one is truly “oneself”.

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A Primer on the Family

Here is a primer on the sociology of the family. It departs from my other primers in that some of my definitions are controversial rather than simply the collected wisdom of the field as I express that in terms of role theory. I say this by way of introduction because I always promised my students, when I was teaching, that I would tell them when I was presenting a consensus of thought within the discipline or presenting a controversial issue or even just presenting my own view of the matter being discussed.

A family is a social arrangement whereby members share intimate activities or activities made intimate by taking place only or largely only within the family. So families share meals, share finances, share concerns for the welfare of other members of the family, and aid one another in crises, and the mother and father in the family also share a bed. In these ways, the family is a locus of feeling and community, given that a community is a set of families or maybe even just a set of people that share aspects of life in common, such as wheat fields or a church or a sense of identity. Communities, like families, thereby become the focus of deep emotions. In these modern times, families and communities are at odds with one another because the two loyalties conflict with one another rather than reinforce one another. The family is a nuclear unit in that its members go out into the world to make a living or to seek provisions or social nurture and so the views and interests of the family can conflict with the realm of the church or  the heartless economic world. Moreover, many of the prerogatives of the family have been usurped by the community at large. Education is delegated to the school system; medical care to the hospital system; an income to the office or factory. Indeed, all that seems left to the family is making decisions having to do with the health of its members in that final decisions about ending care for a terminal patient are left to family members, though the state is sufficiently intrusive that it is now the law that a parent seek medical assistance for an ailing child. Families are no longer free to do what they like even after the bond of making a family has been accomplished through a marriage ceremony, and yet it falls to a family to supervise the final days of a loved one or (to the mother alone) what is to be done about a problematic or unwanted foetus.

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The Industrial Revolution

A first cut at explaining how historians do their job is that they find what they look for in that they tell the story they are prepared to tell by their overall viewpoint, whatever the facts may be that might lead to a contrary interpretation. But a deeper appreciation puts historians on firmer ground. They make reference to age old or even newly crafted emotions as the objective explanations for what people do, either individually or collectively. Anger, for example, is dangerous because it can take on any object, whether a political opponent, a minority group, or a nation. People came to hate Caesar; Hitler and the Nazis hated the Jews; and Americans actually considered whether, as a nation, it was better to be dead than Red. Historical explanations are therefore not mere matters of opinion or reducible to economic interests or moral beliefs. They are based on the particular emotion or combination of emotions that a historian thinks or feels drive human nature. To demonstrate that point, let us take a standard historical problem, that of the Industrial Revolution, which is indeed seen as a matter of economic interests and the conflicting moral interests of the capitalists and the working class, and see what historians usually make of it and what they make of it when they are at their best.

There are, at the least, three ways in which historians describe the Industrial Revolution. They can, first of all, provide a history of machines used in manufacture, which is the way it is usually done in high school textbooks. There was Newcomen’s steam engine, as that was modified by James Watt, and which became used first in mines, and then to power early locomotives. There was also the development of the telegraph and the telephone which enabled railroads to coordinate schedules and manpower over long distances, and then the Bessemer furnace, hot enough to make the steel cable that went into the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and then refrigeration, which allowed New Zealand to become the meat farm for Great Britain, and what is at least by way of metaphor “a machine”: the assembly line, as that was pioneered by Eli Whitney and perfected by Henry Ford. This is not a simple minded approach to the development of the Industrial Revolution. Technological development is an autonomous process, later inventions building on earlier ones and not dependant on external influences such as politics or culture, at least once the process gets started. Automobiles were being simultaneously developed in the last third of the Nineteenth Century in Germany and in France with the Americans only a little bit behind. The question was how to create a small explosion inside a piston so that it would rotate a shaft rather than blow up the entire piston. Everyone was taking a try at it. This theory of autonomous development is the same one Whitehead applied to mathematics. What will happen next is plainly clear and a number of people will come up with the same solution, as when both Leibniz and Newton developed the calculus. That is why Whitehead thought mathematics the queen of the sciences: it got at truth rather than at the truths which were merely opinions generated in one or another culture.

A second approach to the development of the Industrial Revolution is to look at the invention not of machines but of those social institutions which are necessary for the Industrial Revolution to take place at all or for it to make substantial progress. We can begin with the stabilization of the currency, which occurred in England at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century when John Locke was Chancellor of the Mint. Another condition and stage of industrialism was the development of family capitalism, which resulted from the profits from agricultural surpluses being invested in breweries and profits from banking getting invested in factories. Another development was the creation by Parliament of individual charters for corporations such as the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company, and then, at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, of general incorporation laws in places like Delaware that allowed family businesses, such as that of the Duponts, to raise great amounts of capital for their enterprises, and then for a business oriented United States Supreme Court to allow corporations to discipline their workers by paying poor wages, providing poor working conditions, and restricting the ability of workers to organize, a pattern that prevailed until a more mature capitalism was able to deal with labor unions. There had also been established every place where industry took root a free labor market, that exemplified by the English Poor Law of 1834 which required the unemployed in England to go to workhouses and thereby made of unemployment a crime. That set of developments has been very ably described in any number of books. Alfred Chandler’s “The Visible Hand” and John Davies’ “Corporations” are two that come readily to mind.

A third approach is to examine how the Industrial Revolution is part and parcel of the rearrangement of social groupings. It begins with capitalists handing out wool to be turned into cloth by peasants working at home in what were called “cottage industries”. It proceeds to peasants leaving their villages to work at factories set up in cities, the once peasants now an urban proletariat in that they work away from home rather than tend to their crops close to home. More important than that is the fact that the proletariat are dependant on cash payments for hours worked, every member of the family, women and children, trudging off to the factory so as to collectively earn enough to feed a family. Notable books reflecting that sociological approach are J. L. Hammond, “The Town Laborer” and Neil Smelser, “Social Change in the Industrial Revolution”.

So what does this add up to? Each style of history attends to its own concerns, which means looking at the process through the eyes of a different set of protagonists: the inventors, the capitalists, the workers. All of these interpretations are true in that they provide converging accounts of what happened even as the emotions which the participants feel seem quite distinctive. The inventors are innovators and so heroes; the capitalists are selfish in the way all economic rationalism is selfish, and so qualify as villains or as unappreciated heroes; the workers are victims in that they are batted around by the forces of history and so to be pitied and made into causes for outrage. Take your pick. There is no history, only points of view on history, the historian choosing a satisfying narrative frame whereby to introduce his information. You read the historian for his facts and maybe even for his take on his facts rather than to learn a true or full account of what happened because that, according to modern canons of historical investigation, is impossible in that every historian is a product of his times and so will notice the things he is likely to notice, like the injustice of slavery as that is demonstrated in floggings and the separation of families, and will use the concepts of his age to explain slavery, whether as an antiquated and purposeless institution now that wage labor had replaced it, which was the view of William Graham Sumner, or the contrary view, supplied half a century later by Eugene Genovese, that slavery was a form of capitalism in that the Southern plantations were a kind of factory, and that Jim Crow was worse than slavery had been because it did away with the traditional protections available under slavery as to food and shelter and replaced it with the callous exploitation available in the sharecropper system where inferior caste is even more powerful a force for the subordination of a group than was slavery.

The issue of historical objectivity is even more fraught if the historian is out to explain rather than to describe history. The problem for description is to decide which factors or variables are to be considered as well as to be judicious about the inferences which are drawn from the available facts. The problem of explanation has to do with establishing causation when you do not have significant comparable instances. Efforts at comparative history are no more than the drawing of analogies in that while American slavery has some similarities to South African Apartheid, they are very different in character and apply to very different stages of social and economic development. For one thing, the American Civil War was fought less than two generations after England had abolished slavery and at the same time that Russia abolished serfdom, while Apartheid was a system introduced only after World War Two and so was a retrogressive measure. It does make sense to use these two cases as examples of more general principles having to do with race relations, such as the fact that social barriers go along with residential and economic segregation. But that would then be the finding, one applicable as well to the ancient Hebrews in Egypt, and so an example of sociological rather than historical thinking, which aims to tell a story of a particular place with its own distinct set of circumstances. Indeed, Max Weber was caught up short in his attempt to demonstrate what he sensed to be true which was that the Protestant Ethic had played a very significant role in the development of capitalism in general and in the Industrial Revolution in particular. He had only one case to work with in that nowhere outside of Europe had capitalism developed independently of European influence. All he could come up with was circumstantial evidence, such as the fact that Catholics in Germany studied the humanities while Protestant students studied science, which is rather a weak basis for proclaiming he had discovered what had been the engine of the Western world.

Despite their best efforts, such as by David Landes in his “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”, no historian has done a better job at explaining the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution than did Weber in that, Landes included, no one can do better than supply multiple causes for this singular event. There is, however, a general description of what happens under capitalism, which is to say, that provides a feel for life as it is lived in the industrial system. That is the theory propounded by Karl Marx, which is that labor had been turned into a commodity by the capitalist world, labor no longer a customary activity, like planting and harvesting grain, but something measured in units of time and compensated with money for time served. The worker might resent but almost certainly sensed that his time was not his own. Marx had, in effect, invented a new emotion, that of alienation, which borrowed from the Enlightenment idea that land could become alienated, which means sold, and the equally Enlightenment idea that rights were unalienable, and so not to be abridged, to describe the Romantic trope of a self sundered in two, one alienated from the other, the capacity of people to be engaged with their work subsumed to the sense that work was a waste of time, redeemed and put up with only to secure wages.

Marx’s invention is extraordinary, even for a theorist. He is resorting not to an emotion that is listed by Aristotle, whose list we might consider an exhaustive list of “usual” emotions, but coming up with something new whose invocation still creates incredulity among those who say you can’t explain things by inventing a new kind of emotion to serve as an ad hoc description but can only use the tried and true ones, the eternal ones. Marx knows well enough that he is on fresh ground and so he supplies an objective definition of the conditions under which this emotion occurs. People are dissociated from their work and so selves became split apart when the work is, among other things, repetitive and undemanding of intellectual skill. A file clerk does alienated work, while a doctor does not. Moreover, a person may feel alienated but may not even be self-conscious about this feeling. Alienation is therefore something not easily measured in public opinion polls or focus groups. Yet, alienation is such a profound psychological idea that it has ever since Marx been entered into the lexicon of everyday life.

Marx’s concept suggests that, in general, a satisfactory objective description of history resides in reducing it to the play of one or more of the emotions that have been around since people became people. Capitalists are motivated by greed as people in Machiavelli’s description of history are motivated by the struggle for power and the characters in Thucydides by the needs of the state and Macaulay's people motivated by the social customs and beliefs of their period. Not all historians are able to use the full range of colors on the palette of emotions. David Hume is exceptional in his multi-volume “History of England”. He is able to provide so many different emotions to the people who surround and cause the execution of Charles I that the characters seem to be acting out of their own free will than as instruments of history. But we prize historians for the emotions they do manage to deploy, Parkman notably good at portraying bravery, Schlesinger for the level of political ideas that his politicians are able to appreciate, Braudel having such comprehensive knowledge that the salt trade becomes for him a capitalist enterprise rather than a traditional activity.

Now Marx may have overplayed his hand as his followers further down the line certainly did, arguing that alienation led, eventually, to borrow Horkheimer's phrase, to “the eclipse of reason”. But that may be just the result of the fact that Marx, after all, was writing in the middle of Nineteenth Century and so did not have to keep up with later developments in capitalist structure. It was E. M. Forster who would show, at the turn of the new century, that social class was no longer a matter of just how you made your money but also of the customs and level of education with which people of different social classes pursued their lives. The Schlegel sisters in “Howards End” were not just outliers because they had some money but not all that much; they were outliers because they were far more educated than most people and so subject to the intellectual fads of the time, such as a concern for the poor or merely the lower middle class. That was their social psychology, and it is indeed our own, people voting not on the basis of their economic interests but on the basis for their fancies and their anger.

The Spirit of Totalitarianism


Polls say that only about one fifth of the nation is now aware of the Holocaust. This is probably just as well because it is just too awful an experience in human history to dwell upon and because the slogan of the survivors, “Never again!”, now appropriated for the worthy cause of gun control, had not deterred subsequent genocides. For my part, I cannot get away from the Holocaust and perhaps the Second World War will remain alive for as long as any in my generation, born in World War II, remain alive. I vividly remember as a five year old playing with my toys underneath a table while the adults (and me too) saw the British newsreels of bulldozers moving thousands of corpses that they deposited into deep trenches that would be covered with lime and then earth. The banquet was organized by those who had survived and those who had come over before the war from the Polish city of their birth, and a lot of people were in tears. Who needs such memories? But I am concerned with how quickly we lose a sense of the desperation of those outside the totalitarian regimes of the time and the sense of absolute horror that I  and so many Americans supposed permeated life within those regimes. In our time, when totalitarianism is restricted to North Korea, what with its slavish love of its leader, and China and Russia now just ordinary authoritarian regimes, concerned more with securing their leaders than making their entire populations miserable, how are we to get a sense of those times?

One try was the recent movie “The Death of Stalin”, which struck me as off the mark because it made its audience laugh at the terror even high ranking Kremlin leaders felt that a new development would put them in line for death. What if Stalin recovered? Who would take the fall for the leadership having made any preparation at all for a succession? They all hate Stalin but have gone along with him. That is played as farce but it is a cold porridge we are asked to swallow. Totalitarianism is not easily played as farce and that led me to think, for the first time, that Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” was a real accomplishment because it contextualized its satirization of the Third Reich with a stereotypical tale of Jewish swindlers out to take money away from aging widows just too happy to cooperate in exchange for sexual favors and by the use of a woman secretary straight out of an old time burlesque routine. But the takeoff on Hitler was so over the top that it had little bite, as was also the case with Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, who treats Hitler as a clown. Lubitsch's “To Be Or Not To Be” is much superior in that Jack Benny and the other actors play the clowns and the Nazis are the sinister forces that they have to manipulate. How to grab hold of the sinister, to make it come alive?

A recent documentary, “Hitler’s Hollywood” also fails to do the job. It consists of very brief excerpts from many of the comedies, historical dramas, and musicals produced under Joseph Goebbels for the benefit of the Third Reich and claims that the films show a fascination with death and with surrender to the collective will that is characteristic of Naziism, this based on some quotes from Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, as those authorities are backed up by critics of an earlier generation, such as Siegfried Kracauer. But the narrator does not look attentively at any of the films or seem to know much about film or literary history. The theme of the beautiful death is there in Wagner and, before that, in Goethe; it is a cliche of Romantic literature. The tango sequence in one film is very similar in choreography and staging to a scene in “Gold Diggers of 1936”, a Warner Brothers musical, and so may be a characteristic of filmmaking that decade rather than an expression of German or Nazi consciousness. The narrator says that the film industry was “a dream factory” for Naziism, when that is the exact term used by Hortense Powderhouse to describe what Hollywood, USA was doing at the same time.

Looking at even these brief excerpts allows drawing a very different conclusion from the one provided by the narrator. The Nazis were depicting what they thought was a conception of the wholesomeness of German life as that was threatened by the international Jewish-English conspiracy. Women are glorified as healthy and robust in their beauty, as are the young men who are seen washing up before donning their uniforms in Leni Richenfeld’s “Triumph of the Will” so that they can march to the stadium and listen to the Fuhrer’s oration. Politics grows from fitness and grace and morality, or so is the story to be told. Even there, the story is not far off the Hollywood tropes of the time, what with G. I. Joe conquering Nazi aristocrats and technology and skulduggery with common sense and practical intelligence as well as women who prove to be plucky and serious minded. It is the times, not the nation, at work here, everywhere in the Western world.

Then how can we get hold of the reality of totalitarian evil? My suggestion is that history and memoirs provide the best avenue into the heart of this darkness. Hannah Arendt, for all her virtues, was too apocalyptic in her pronouncements, claiming as she did that totalitarianism was a new thing under the sun, a form of evil different from what evil had been before, when it was just an intensification, an excess, of the evil that could also be found in Calvin’s Geneva or the Spanish Inquisition or the medieval war of Innocent III against the Albigensians. The Nazis adopted very pedestrian techniques to give them control over everything going on in their societies, and that provides the most satisfactory meaning for Arendt’s famous phrase “The banality of evil”: evil operates through simple rather than Wagnerian gestures, even if, collectively, those measures add up to a gotterdammerung.  

Victor Klemperer, in his memoirs of his time as a dispossessed professor in Germany from the beginning to the end of the Third Reich, always thinking even at the beginning that the regime did not have long to last, documents how society operated. As soon as the Nazis gained power, one of them had to be present at every departmental faculty meeting at every university. That was the effective end of academic freedom, right there at the beginning. The fear settled in very quickly. And the organization of German society remained to the very end. Klemperer was only able to get out of showing properly granted identity papers to the still functioning governmental bureaucracy when he could claim, with a good deal of plausibility, that his records had been lost because of the firebombing of Dresden. And we know from other sources that firing squads for deserters were still being carried out as the Soviet troops were entering Berlin. The determination to maintain social order is astonishing and even morally praiseworthy. There is no descent into anarchy but simply a change of who is in charge.

I remember reading as a teenager Eugen Kogon’s “The Theory and Practice of Hell”, published in 1950, which was an early spelling out of how extermination camps functioned, down to the most grisly details. It was far more shocking that either Elie Wiesel's “Night”, which is now considered suitable assigned reading for high school students, or Primo Levi’s “Death at Auschwitz”, which fulfills its author’s Dantesque ambition to report back what Hell was like. So we have two extremes: the Arendt view that the concentration camps were an epitome of what life was like in the Germany of the Third Reich, the concentration camps the true heart of the regime, and the view, as displayed in Goebbels's movies, that this was an authoritarian regime dedicated to truth, wholesome beauty and material progress, one supported by the vast majority of its population, that was brutal only towards its essential enemies. The Goebbels view remained plausible perhaps until the the first Thousand Bomber Raid by the RAF on Cologne in May of l942 or perhaps until the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 or perhaps until the landing in Normandy in 1944 had become secure, any of those events making clear that the defeat of Germany was unavoidable unless it developed an atomic bomb in time, which it could not, just having jet planes not enough to turn the tide of battle. That the society carried on even after these three dates is a tribute to the German people, given how difficult it was to work up a political resistance. Germans did what the British government would have advised its subjects to do if Britain were invaded: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. I wonder if the citizens of the United States would have acted in so organized a fashion under similar circumstances.

Some evidence that evil during the Third Reich was ordinary and everyday and absorbed into the ordinary round of life, that another meaning for that incisive phrase, “the banality of evil”, is supplied in Milton Mayer’s  “They Thought They Were Free”, first published in 1955. The author interviewed ten Germans soon after the war and expected to find the same surrender to evil that Theodor Adorno and others in the Frankfurt School who had by that time returned from their exile in America expected to find: brains so curdled by Nazi propaganda that they could no longer tell right from wrong. But what he finds, though I am not at all sure he realized this, was support of the opposite hypothesis. His Germans, all former Nazis, regarded themselves as anti-Semites still, but claimed that they had no social hatred for the Jews; it was just that you couldn’t trust them when it came to money and they felt sure that the Jews who had been deported had been compensated for their financial loses. Mayer thought the anti-Semitism was what held the Nazis together, in that the Nazis were action first and thought a long time later and so never had a well worked out ideology, which is a point with which I disagree, the classification and eugenics and theory of race very well worked out by Nazi theorists.

My reading of the interviews is that anti-Semitism was a side issue, even if recounting after the war what had happened to Jewish relatives or to their own sense of themselves as Christians was heart-wrenching. It was so easy to maintain a surface conformity. A high school literature teacher knew not to teach “Julius Caesar” or “Hamlet”, which were, after all, about rebellion against the state, but there was no trouble with “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”, and you could even act bravely by reminding the class that Mendelsohn was a Jew. “The German Spirit”, as it was called, did not need a list of censored books because teachers knew how to censor themselves by avoiding books that spoke in favor of rebellion against the state, and as one informant put it, that is banned in America too. So you could survive if you were careful, which meant guarded in the expression of opinion, so your personal defeat was only moral and psychological, to be reflected upon, years later, in the safety of a Nazi failure that had been forced on the German people from the outside. Life could be ordinary if you did not distance yourself from it with a moral compass.

When a March is a Movement

A social movement is an attempt to change the hearts and minds of the population as a whole in the service of aiding the interests of one group within the population. The Civil Rights Movement was successful at doing so by taking the high moral ground. The clean cut young people who were marched off to jail or hosed by police were superior in their ideals and aspirations to the white policemen and sheriffs who were their tormentors. That changed the narrative about white-Black relations in the South from being the one that had for generations been used by those who supported segregation, which was that black people were an unruly lot given to low morals and drunkenness and liable to violate white womanhood and nowhere near ready to have voting rights or be otherwise integrated into white society. The new narrative was that it was the black protesters who were middle class and appealing to law rather than the kind of order that was established by Bull Connors. There were a number of devices that were used to carry out this purpose and those included a charismatic leader, a legislative agenda, a distinctive means of demonstrating their convictions (which was, in this case, both marches of a previously unprecedented scope and sit ins) and an ideology (which was, in this case, that black people were people and so not an inferior social caste). Let us apply this analysis to recent protests against gun violence that were set off by the Parkland, Florida shootings.

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Harmless Pleasures

“Harmless pleasures” is a conventional phrase for the description of activities that are satisfying without imposing any harm on anyone. Hobbies such as stamp collecting or raising roses or following the fortunes of a baseball team are considered harmless pleasures, that taken as a term of praise given how many awful things happen in the world. Harmless pleasures are to be indulged because human action could also be malicious and destructive. Its companion term is “guilty pleasures” which are also for the most part minor but do carry at least some threat of doing some damage, probably in the long run, to the person indulging in them. Examples of these would be eating chocolates, which make you fat and raise your cholesterol levels but taste so good; enjoying pornography, which appeals to the male desire to look at naked female bodies but may weaken one’s appreciation for the personhood behind the body; or following gossip columns so as to be in the know about celebrities but also encourage a disrespect for the privacy of a person. Guilty pleasures won’t do much damage to your soul or your body but they address an indulgent side of yourself and so are, in some way, sinful. Smoking, however, has been moved in the past fifty years from being a guilty pleasure to being an out and out evil in that the practice is very highly correlated with the development of lung cancer and other diseases. The tricky issue are those cases where it is not at all clear whether a pleasure is harmless or guilty or downright bad. Clarifying the status of some test cases will allow elaborating what are the criteria by which a harmless or guilty pleasure turns into something else, something downright unacceptable. What are the additional circumstances which turn a harmless or guilty pleasure into something more momentous: a tragedy or a comedy or a history or a romance, to use Shakespeare’s categories?

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The Question of Pilate's Guilt

Sometimes questions you had not thought to ask just leap out at you and sometimes they are prompted by the reading of a text new to you. That happened with me this week with regard to the question of what it meant that Pontius Pilate washed his hands of responsibility for the execution of Jesus. Washing your hands of a matter meant to me that the person doing the washing was unconcerned about the collateral damage that might result from a bargain fulfilled. Pilate did what the Elders wanted so as to maintain their political support and so was indifferent to whether Jesus was especially holy or even  the Messiah. How could he be indifferent to that? The event is a metaphor for the utmost cynicism. I had become so used to thinking of the event as a metaphor, that I had not focussed on the act itself until I came across a reference, in Bart Erdman’s "Lost Christianities", to an apocryphal gospel, "The Gospel of Peter", where Pilate washes his hands but the Jewish elders who met with him refused to. What could this mean? So let us engage in a bit of speculation about the significance of Pilate’s action.

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Compassion

Virtues and vices are supposed to be universal, which means that they apply at all times and in all circumstances. That is what Kant meant when he spoke of honesty. You are supposed to tell the truth even if a policeman is at the door asking you for the whereabouts of a friend. You never know but that the inquiry is harmless. I guess Kant never met a Nazi stormtrooper but the point that Kant was trying to make was that a virtue applies even in hard cases. The same is true of what the Catholics call the seven deadly sins. Gluttony is bad even if everybody has to eat to keep alive because gluttony refers to an obsession with eating and so would apply to present day people who let themselves go as well as to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who had a weight problem. In similar fashion, lust is and always was a vice in that it doesn’t refer to appetites fulfilled within marriage so long as the conjugal relation is clothed in modesty and darkness; it applies, rather, to people who have no respect for custom and are insatiable, whether that is cloaked by marriage or not. As a sociologist, however, I am uncomfortable with such categorical assertions. I look to make comparisons of situations in which a virtue or a vice seems to be that as opposed to situations in which a virtue or a vice appears to be the opposite of what it is usually taken to be. I want to consider the virtue of compassion in that light. What are the circumstances under which it makes sense to feel compassion and what are the circumstances under which compassion changes from being a virtue into being a vice? A lot of morality, as well as the central question of Christian theology, which is the status of Jesus, hangs on what compassion is.

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The Fickleness of Women

Cosi Fan Tutte is one of a triptych of operas wherein Mozart (and de Ponte, his librettist) deal with the way sexual relations are connected to the question of liberty. The other two, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, are concerned with the way aristocrats can have their way with women, and the two operas take the side of women, they to be treated more as equals rather than as objects of pleasure for the powerful, and so the two operas favor a revolution in morals that may require a political revolution, while Cosi inquires into the love between people who are social equals and so is about the universal characteristics of the sexes, what men and women are by their natures. In that, it joins with those other pre-revolutionary works, such as Dangerous Connections and Manon Lescaut, which use personal relations to reveal what an enlightened world would or would not be like and how sexual freedom points to what freedom in general means.

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Trump's Exit

The noose seems to be tightening and so it makes sense to review where we stand and how things might unfold. As MSNBC panelists would seem to imagine it, President Trump is so unhinged that he will be taken out of the White House under sedation and strapped onto a gurney when the Mueller Report makes clear the extent of his connections with the Russians. That would obviate the need for impeachment proceedings because grounds for invoking the Twenty Fifth Amendment on Presidential incapacity will be abundantly clear. The commentators base their views of Trump’s state of mind on what their White House sources tell them about how Trump blows up and that he changes his mind all the time and that there are fewer and fewer people around him who can tell him anything resembling the truth. The latest evidence of this is that he congratulated Putin on his phony electoral victory even though his national security staff had explicitly left a note for him all in caps not to do so. And only the high level national security staff would have been in a position to leak that story. So it seems reasonable to think that the White House is in chaos.

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