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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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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Inevitability in Foreign Affairs

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

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Default Philosophers

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

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Stories Within Stories

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


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


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


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


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


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

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The Falseness of "Black Panther"

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

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Ma and Pa Stores

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

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Minimal Stories

Here is an exercise in literary theory.

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

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Priests, Police and Psychiatrists

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

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The Budget Deal

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

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A Biblical Story: Jacob's Two Marriages

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

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The Autonomy of Field Commanders

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

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Charity is an Outdated Idea

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

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A Primer on Liberalism & Conservatism

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

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