Why W. E. B. Du Bois Still Matters

W. E. B. Du Bois is still important both for what he says about the education of Black people and as that applies to the education all other people as well.

The reputation of W. E. B. Du Bois is firmly established on the basis of his accomplishments as an editor, advocate, and as a sociologist who a hundred years ago produced numerous statistical studies of the conditions of black life. The breadth of his vision and accomplishments is admirably spelled out in David Levering Lewis’s magisterial two volume biography. Du Bois, however, is deeply involved, early in life, as someone who teaches reading to ex-slaves and then is a young professor explaining poetry and literature at Atlanta University, an all Black institution. He is deeply involved in considering what an ethnic education means for a group that is not even as of yet considered to be an ethnic rather than a racial group.

Read More


The underlying context for so many ideas and practices regarding government is territoriality. A government presides over a particular geographical area even if its borders are uncertain, enforcing laws and customs as it sees fit on the people who live in that territory rather than having jurisdiction over people because those persons belong to some group, whether ethnic or religious, whose interests the government sees as its own. That means governments intrude in the lives of nomads who pass through their territory, as well as native Indian tribes whose land has become incorporated into some jurisdiction defined by the government. This idea of territoriality is traced by anthropologists to the time when agriculture became domesticated and so the wealth of a territory was something worth fighting over and so warlords and kings gained power by conquering one territory or another and so gaining access to its cultivated acres. But it might also be the case that warlords took to the domination of territory because that was all they could do, which was something short of commanding the hearts and minds of the inhabitants which were at the disposal of the gods of the local territories if even that, given that religion was ceremonial rather than deep. Moreover, government may have preceded territoriality in that it may not amount to anything more than the warlord deciding he and no one else has the power over life and death, and that he can enforce that on any territory or set of clans that come under his rule even if only temporarily before he moves on to another site. Either way, nations and tribes become identified with their territories more than with their values or customs. America is beautiful from sea to shining sea and a tribe regards its traditional lands as sacred.

Read More


Ambition, which is usually understood as a psychological attribute and so either a virtue or a vice, can also be understood as an inevitable social process, and that shows how enlightening sociology can be.

Ambition can be considered either the desire or the process of moving through your work career so that you wind up better off socially, financially and in terms of accomplishment than when you started out. Most people are, in this sense, ambitious, though we sometimes reserve that as an adjective for people who are particularly ambitious, like Richard II and Macbeth, and do not consider as ambitious those who are ordinarily ambitious, which is to succeed at their jobs or in their careers. Being ambitious is an all but inevitable feeling for people employed or functioning in a society with an even rudimentary division of labor and a social hierarchy that is age graded in that people in such societies enter into their work lives and do things which either move them up or not and so I can say that ambition is not a feeling but a process. You have to show your mettle as a warrior before becoming an Indian chief and people without any ambition are generally regarded as social misfits rather than as people who have chosen not to compete in a race.

Read More

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

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 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

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

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Sovereignty & Its Discontents: Blade runner or H.G. Wells?

The idea of sovereignty has been the prevailing theory of the state for at least a thousand years. It is the idea that the power of government was entrusted by God to kings and then, in the view of seventeenth century political theorists, the locus of power was shifted to officeholders responsible, in some sense, to the will of the people. In all of these cases, government was what the early twentieth century sociologist Max Weber defined it to be: a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence that could be exercised on any matters that came to concern the imagination of the government. First, there was the control of warfare, in that everything else was ruled by custom; then, ever more intrusion into the economy, violence used to enforce economic reforms such as collectivization or the regulation of the sale of bread; then, into ever more intrusion into social structure, so that violence or the threat of violence influences changes in the class structure and even the caste structure of the Jim Crow American South; and then into culture, strictly speaking, as journalists are swept off to gulags or killed. As Hugo Grotius, another seventeenth century savant, elaborated, the relation of nations to one another was one of perpetual war or potential war. Order existed only within the individual nation state. This is a long way from Kant’s Enlightenment vision of a state of perpetual peace ushered in by the gradual consolidation of nations into a giant single state.

Read More