Coincidence and Cause

Coincidence and cause are supposed to be polar opposites. Coincidence refers to events that are not connected to one another and cause refers to events where one is a necessary precursor to the other. Sometimes what seem to be coincidences are moved up into being causes. I would suggest to students that sunspots, which might seem unrelated to the course of human events, may in fact have been the cause of the modern world in that they led to what was called the first part of the Little Ice Age which lasted in Europe from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, and that the recovery from that, which led to longer growing seasons and crops grown at higher elevations, and the cessation of the illnesses that had lingered in cold and misty Europe during the cold period, as well as the efficiencies in farming made necessary by a cold climate, allowed a prosperous Europe to emerge, even if that movement was seconded by the intellectual and technical developments from the fifteenth century onward. So coincidence can be reclaimed as cause, though the two remain objective matters. I want to challenge that view and suggest that the difference between the two has to do with how the story of intersecting events is cast: if there is some dramatic conversion of events so that one casts light on the meaning of the other, then the events will be seen in terms of cause rather than coincidence. Let us review the issues so as to see that how we resolve this problem has a bearing on how we regard contemporary issues having to do with history and society.

Read More

Has Trump Committed Treason?

Is there enough evidence out there to support the claim that Trump has already committed treason? That depends on whether you take a legal or a political approach to the question. If you take a legal approach, where it is necessary to provide evidence for the elements of a crime, such a determination is perhaps premature in that Mueller is developing the evidence that is relevant to the question. But if you take a political approach, which means to judge actions by their fruits rather than their motives, then we already know that the federal government cannot trust secret information to the President because he is likely to leak it to the Russians whether inadvertently or by design, something he has done in the past. He told the Russian ambassador of intelligence we had gotten from the Israelis and we have no idea what he said to Putin in Helsinki.

Read More

Free Speech

The issues surrounding the doctrine of free speech are long standing even if the current debate, as it involves what to do with the Internet, and how foreign powers tried to influence the American election in 2016, raises some new wrinkles. Both Plato and, for most of its history, the Catholic Church, favored the view that the right of free speech was limited in that ignorance or untruth did not have the same standing as truth and could lead people into error. It was therefore necessary for authorities to limit what people could be exposed to. The Catholic Board of National Review gives its imprimatur to wholesome films that are tastefully done even if they deal with difficult material. That, I suppose, is about as good as censorship can get. Morning Joe supports this view because he believes that Alex Jones’ view that the Sandy Hill shootings were staged is too unbelievable to warrant public attention. By those lights, however, Donald Trump would have been barred from having his views on the airwaves because he furthered the Birther controversy which was also just ridiculous. That would have been a serious infringement on the right of voters to select any primary candidate they care to.  On the other side are the Founding Fathers, and various liberal theorists such as John Stuart Mill, who hold free speech as itself of the highest priority in that any limitations on it, short of libel, are likely to interfere in the political process and, even more important, in the feeling of individual liberty, which is always thwarted by the values of the community. So free speech is an unending battle between the forces backing freedom of conscience and those siding with tradition. How do these perennial doctrines fare in the present communications environment?

Read More

Time in Literature

Fiction is only sometimes an attempt to present a straightforward presentation of a story from beginning to end, which is what we would be led to believe by Aristotle’s dictum that stories have beginnings, middles and ends. To the contrary, writers tell their stories by wandering around between what is presumably past, current and future, each with their own way of doing this, and that in part is what makes their storytelling into an art, something controlled by the artist, So a story may have a beginning, middle and an end, but the telling of it is in the hands of the storyteller. Let us consider some of the ways authors do this.

Read More

Democratic Socialism

Democratic Socialism is the political philosophy that believes that you can combine an elected government that fully protects civil liberties with the nationalization of the means of production so that you produce a society which provides for the welfare of all its citizens. Such a government was put in place by the Labor Party in Great Britain after the Second World War. Deeply committed to democratic practices, they nevertheless created government ownership of the coal and steel industries, the railroads, and medicine. These reforms were largely turned back by Margaret Thatcher, leaving only the National Health Service and a university system that had been remodeled into a meritocracy where the government paid tuition to whatever level institution a student was qualified to attend. So nationalization was not of the industries key to the economy but of those services which, over the course of the post-war years, were taken to be a matter of right rather than a luxury purchase, like a fine car, which the consumer might care to buy if the consumer could afford it. In the United States, fair wages and fair working conditions were not instituted by the government. The New Deal left that to collective bargaining, that generally jimcracked system of negotiation which worked because it was cheaper for employers to negotiate than face strikes. Collective bargaining was therefore successful for the American coal, steel, and automobile industries.

Read More

Museums of Agony

The Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is an impressive presence. I wondered how those who commissioned it had decided on the final design given that so many very different designs had been rejected in favor of this layered latticework of upturned terraces, and with whether the architecture would seem dated in a generation or so. The actual collection, covering the origins of slavery up through Jim Crow and the Second Reconstruction, begins in the deep basement, reached through an elevator, and then the visitor moves up in space as he or she approaches the present. I was impressed by the ability of the museum to move along its crowds, still quite large now that it is more than a year since the museum opened. I was also impressed by the various guards who were very helpful in assisting visitors, which is very different from the guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they are likely as not to give you incorrect information about how to proceed to a room you want to visit. I was less impressed, however, by the narrative supplied by the placards that accompanied the artifacts, dioramas and other illustrations for the history of black slavery in the United States.

Read More

Literary Concision

Writers are often praised for being concise. Their sentences lack flab and are full of information and comparisons. Their plots get started right away without buildup or much preparation and various plot elements overlap so that the story or play or novel is at once an allegory, an insight into character and motivation, and also casts light on the society being observed. That is certainly the case with the sprawling novels of the English Nineteenth Century, where you learn from Dickens that Peter Dombey is at once imperious and weak, too readily the tool of his assistant and that tells you how an English law firm of the time works as well as how that will get in the way of the hero and heroine of the novel.

Concision, however, is not just a virtue demonstrated by a good writer. Rather, concision is implicit in all story telling which is, after all, the telling of events in a sequence which may not at all be the sequence in which the events described are purported to happen and where material not regarded as necessary to the telling of the tale is left out. You don’t depict every time a businessman has coffee or takes a bathroom break but deal with relating what you are trying to describe about business. An author also has to deal with the inevitable longueurs that occur in real life, nothing much happening until the next event important to telling the story. So days may go on before a break in a murder mystery a screenwriter is unfolding and that will be dealt with in a quick cut. News organizations face similar problems in telling their own stories. There may be an announcement by the Justice Department about the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in American elections, and then the news media will spend a few days or a week milking whatever is announced or turning to something else, like a cave disaster, to fill their airtime before returning to the main story when something new is anticipated or is revealed. News programming is a constant fight to make news into a story. In fact, the reader relies so heavily on the author to do his job properly that when there is a description or an interlude that is included that seems merely comical, as when Bloom goes to an outhouse in “Ulysses”, the reader has to ask himself what that incident signifies, for why else would it be included? The sophisticated reader is well trained in what he or she has to bring to the reading of a story. But there are very different ways in which authors handle concision and that is what I want to discuss.

Read More

False Election Wisdom

As the midterms approach, and there are even hints about what the next Presidential election will be about, such as that Elizabeth Warren will make a run for it, commentators come up with a lot of conventional wisdom to frame their remarks about breaking news. I want to point out that these are largely shibboleths that don’t stand the weight of analysis, while there are other generalizations, such as the idea that midterms favor the out-party, that do, because those can be backed up with statistics and case studies while the shibboleths are mostly just faulty phraseology for what is not there. Let us look at a few of these cliches that pass for political wisdom.

Read More

The Free Will of Balaam's Ass

Naive readers often claim that story tellers should just summarize the point they want to make in a few sentences rather than dress it up in a story where the reader has to do the work of extracting meaning. The answer to that is that most of the time writers are doing other things than making particular points. They are describing the customs of a society or giving you a sense of a particular character or showing how dialogue advances or impedes people understanding one another. They are rarely making philosophical points and the ones who do, like Saul Bellow or other writers of the midcentury, will simply pause in the story to tell the reader what is on his or her mind. For the most part, writers will use their learning to give their descriptions greater detail rather than the other way around, use the detail to help make an abstract point. That was certainly true of Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, “Joseph and His Brothers”. Mann was steeped in all the Biblical scholarship of his time and that allowed him to create a story where the reader is enveloped in the ritualistic culture of the ancient Middle East and sees striking characters in actions detailed enough so that the reader gets a sense of how their minds work and the reader can draw from that the observation that in some ways all people whatever the age think alike while also thinking differently. That moral is drawn by the reader as a way to organize the material in hand rather than the purpose of the author, which is to describe what life is like. But there are exceptions, times when authors are indeed trying to give you a handle on a philosophical question. One of these is the story of Balaam and his ass, told in the Book of Numbers 21-23, where the author seems intent on resolving a philosophical dilemma, which is the nature of free will, even though, for the most part, the Old Testament is not given over to metaphysical speculation but, rather, avoids it.

Read More

Religious Heroism

Heroism, so I have been told by real heroes, such as Medal of Honor winners, is neither planned nor done out of an excess of courage, but seems either a fluke or inevitable, people only doing what they do naturally, and so the title of “hero” is worn begrudgingly. I want to call attention to a minor form of heroism of my own, one that did not put my life but only my soul at risk, which happened when I was a teenager, and so at a time when I would be wont to take risks for no reason, only later to understand the reasons why. It was my youthful religious rebellion, which is a time honored story and my own might seem a naive one to people with better religious training than I had acquired at the time.

Read More

The Kavanaugh Confirmation

Well, despite my prediction otherwise, it now seems that something important is about to take place in politics before Mueller weighs in with his report and totally upsets the Washington apple cart. That is the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. This time, both parties are spoiling for a fight and will engage with one another and that may result in confrontations over ideas of the sort we haven’t seen in a while. That is because both parties see important issues at stake and because side thinks that  the public will side with them. The Republicans are on the brink of having a majority conservative court for a generation or two and believe that the voters will side with them in the midterms because the Court is so important to their base and this will lead the voters to not concentrate so much on making the midterms a referendum on Trump’s character. The Democrats believe that what is at stake are abortion rights and health insurance and that the voters, particularly women, will turn out in force if they believe those rights to be threatened. So it will be a gloves off confirmation hearing, no beating about the bush, however much recent confirmation hearings allowed nominees to get off the hook by claiming that they cannot opine on any matters that may appear before the Court and so have made the Senate settle for anodyne descriptions of cases from the past and what the nominees wish to present as the way judges settle cases. That way they avoided the disaster that occured with Justice Bork, where he was penalized for actually getting into substance about his own jurisprudence. I think he got the best of the argument but it also led Senators to side against him under the excuse that he was too proud of his legal acumen. A nominee is supposed to be both brilliant and modest.

Read More

Cultural Circles

I maintain my friendships with the people I knew first as the friends of my wife but to whom, over the years, I also became close. I like them for themselves alone, and not just because they were originally my wife’s friends, but it would be less than truthful not to say that part of my current relationship with them is to preserve a part of my life that is now over. These were the circle of friends I shared with my wife and so being with them brings back that long part of my life when we were all together, now my dead wife just an absent member of the circle. I am sure they feel the same way. I suppose that part of being old is declining health or no longer having career ambitions or other sources of stress, but part of it is also being left with a leftover life to live after the magic circle of people who hung together for a long period of time has been broken. Cultural circles are also like that. What were once called people to whom we were only vicariously related also make up sets of people who belong together, that circle inhabiting an era that exists beyond a particular individual and where the characteristics of the cultural circle can be treated as providing some of the characteristics of that era.



Read More

The Stability of Electoral Politics

The Enlightenment thinkers, whose ideas were put into practice during the Age of Democratic Revolutions at the end of the Eighteenth and the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, believed that elections could replace hereditary monarchy as a principle of stable and peaceful succession of governmental regimes. Rousseau thought there should be elections every year, a thought shared much later by the English Chartists of 1848, who wanted an annual Parliament. This idea of how to avoid the succession crises of the Roman Empire or of what to do if a king did not have legitimate offspring, which had led to general wars involving all the major European powers, or if the King had become so obnoxious that his people could no longer put up with him, was a radical idea in at least three ways. First, it meant that the life of a regime would be rather short: four years in the American system, and so long as the Prime Minister could command a majority in a Parliament subject to frequent elections, no Long Parliament, such as had kept Charles I in power, any longer allowed. How could such a short term regime build up the expertise in its leadership or its ministries so that experienced people could cope with a crisis? In an electoral system, as we who observe the political scene well know, you are up for reelection just as you are getting the hang of the thing. Thomas Jefferson confronted this problem when he said that you could train enough “natural aristocrats” so that they could manage the government. Second, elections are a rather cumbersome device. It requires gathering people at polling stations, examining their credentials and certifying the results, all of which might lead to unrest. The Founding Fathers left the governance of elections to the states while the number of seats each state would be granted in the House of Representatives was decided by a decennial census, science replacing the judgments that had led to rotten boroughs in England, where places which had lost their populations were still represented in Parliament because Parlament had long ago granted representation to those places. And, third, you are trusting to the people to make these very crucial judgments, people not as well educated as, for the most part, the people that were elected to represent them. It would have made people considering the prospects of democratic elections think that the experiment could not last very long-- and yet it has lasted more than two hundred years, and elections as the way to legitimize a ruler are respected largely everywhere, even in Russia. Putin may rig his elections but he stands for them and is somewhat concerned about public opinion, which is why he presents himself as a macho man, which is more than can be said for the leaders of China and North Korea. Why has government through elections proven to be so reliable in keeping succession orderly even if the choices made by the electorate are not always wise?

Read More

Political Update

It is time to review the bidding on domestic and international political events. More than a year ago, I predicted that nothing much would happen until the Mueller Report, which at that time was expected in a few months. It has been a long while since then but I think that, on the whole, my prediction remains sound despite the events of the past few weeks, including the separation of children from their families at the Mexican border, which does much to besmirch the reputation of the United States, but is not nearly as bad as the things that were expected to happen under Trump when Trump was first elected.

Read More

The Activity of Conversation

When I was a child and went to visit relatives with my parents, I thought how fortunate I was to be a child because I could go off to play in the room of my relative’s child, and use his toys as well as the ones I had brought with me, while the adults spent their time in the living room just talking. I was not aware of the activity of conversation and what were its rewards. That had to wait until I was slightly older when I would sit on the stoop outside my apartment building and go over what my friends and I had seen on television or what we knew about girls. It is worth pondering conversation as an essential human activity and how it is structured. I will leave to others, such as Roland Wulbert, the question of how we are able to exchange utterances so that they add up to something meaningful.

Read More

The Stratification of Illness and Disability

One way to see illness and disability as topics for sociology is to see them as mediated through culture, and so, let us say, some groups report more symptoms or different ones than does another group, or researchers point out that primitive peoples saw epileptics (and gays) as people inspirited by the gods. Another way to address the issue of the social context of illness and disability is to think of illness and disability as part of the universal human condition. People's selves (or souls) inhabit a body on which they depend and sometimes those bodies fail them, either temporarily or chronically or terminally. How do people deal with the fact that there are periods of time when they cannot carry out their normal round of life? Sick and disabled people are deviant in that they cannot meet their other responsibilities. We excuse them with sick days or time off to lay in bed until they recover if their ailment is temporary, which is usually the case with infectious diseases. We make accommodations, such as wheelchair ramps, for people who have chronic or permanent problems. We supply philosophical or religious surcease for those who are terminally ill, and then we remove their remains from sight according to legally binding rituals like death certificates and socially mandated ceremonies such as funerals. Illness and disability are therefore conditions to be managed. As Goffman pointed out, a person with a colostomy will try to hide the fact and so not offend people by smelling bad. Blind people and the wheelchair bound, Goffman also noted, will call attention to their condition so as to set the non-ill and non-disabled at ease in dealing with them. Hospitals and nursing homes are places to send the ill so as to treat them but also so as to get them out of the way, hospitals originally places to send people so they could die out of sight.

Read More

Illegal Immigrant Children

The separation of children from their parents has quickly replaced the North Korea deal as the story of the day, even as Trump brushes aside as a technicality the question of when North Korea disarms. Reporters had not sufficiently updated themselves on the new story so that they could do little more than express outrage when the Secretary of Homeland Security appeared before them three days ago. Nor did they pick up on what she said, which was devastating. She said people accompanying children would only be arrested if they could not prove they were the parents of the children. Did it not occur to the reporters to ask how that was supposed to be accomplished? Even a birth certificate would not do because those usually do not have photographs as if the photograph of a two or three day old baby looks like the two or four year old being presented at the border. A previous official, who had served in the Obama Administration, said you could see who were parents by how they interacted with the children and that was good enough for him. So what did the Secretary mean by “proof”? Moreover, she added, people who wanted to present themselves for asylum ought to present themselves at ports of entry, which means everyone who crossed elsewhere would not have to be treated as asylum seekers and so could be arrested. She went on to say that crossing the border illegally was a crime according to federal law, and so people violating it can be arrested and their children separated from them. But it is a misdemeanor rather than a felony and so such draconian measures are not required.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More