Monday, May 29, 2017

Mercilessness by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson is the director of The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, working on appeals for those condemned to death, juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences, and women jailed under laws that criminalize bad parenting or the murder of abusive husbands  and partners. The book exposes the mercilessness of the judicial system in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and in the U.S. generally. He portrays the sense of helplessness, injustice, dread and plain terror experienced by African American communities when their members are  accused, incarcerated and/or executed without evidence and with few opportunities for appeal. He also describes the courage and resilience of folks suffering  almost unimaginably horrible conditions of poverty and repression; their capacity to maintain hope and to find redemption in understanding, and mercy. He describes the brutal futility of American prisons in the age of mass incarceration.

In perpetuating these injustices politicians, prosecutors, judges, prison officials and guards all seem to be operating in line with public sympathy and the will of the voters. But one aspect of the scenes and events that struck me forcefully was the passivity, unwarranted trust and sense of helpless subordination that characterized southern white society’s relationship to their  superiors. African Americans suffered the most under this hierarchal social system, but all seemed afflicted to one degree or another, to whatever degree they imagined they were free or self-determining. It was “only a pawn in their game” , a situation which Stevenson could have discussed at greater length, or drawn more vividly, in my opinion.

The book didn’t seem to me particularly  well written though what is to be expected from someone with a mainly legal education who life was so massively devoted to  work for thousands of individual clients ensnared in a harsh and insensitive judicial system? If he wants to describe events and his reactions to them over the course of thirty years in ways  that ordinary human memory would seem naturally unable to support, who can justly gainsay him?

Here is the passage where Stevenson gets closest to what might be said to underpin Justice in the best possible sense. See

 Paul Farmer, the renown physician who spent his life trying to cure the world’s sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something the writer Thomas Merton said: we are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’s always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we are  shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and ,as a result, deny our own humanity . . .there is no wholeness outside our reciprocal humanity.

Is it really a question  of imperfection, of ‘shared’ experience’ or such a stark- one way or the other- choice?  Isn’t ‘brokenness’ a bit of a cop out, short-hand for something more complex and disarming?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Peretz by Ruth R. Wisse

I.L.Peretz (b 1852) dominated Jewish literary life in Warsaw almost from the moment he settled there until his death on the fifth day of Passover, April 3, 1915, his influence radiating outward from the Polish capital to growing centers of Jewish settlement worldwide. . . .

Once the premise of Jewish election was exposed to the beysmedresh, the study house of European culture, many disillusioned youngsters turned their intelligence against the way of life to which it had been consecrated, and tried to liberate themselves simultaneously from an onerous code of behavior and from a despised people. The political handicap of the Jews meant that intellectual realignment with Christian civilization –which was in  any case itself turning secular – also became the key to tangible social and economic temptation.

Peretz  understood the temptation. In his own native city  of Zamosc, along with genuine Jewish reformers, there were converts and highly assimilated Jews, like the well-to do father of Rosa Luxemburg. When Rosa, almost twenty years Peretz’s junior, helped to found the Social Democratic Party of Poland, she advertised her lack of interest in Jews through a Marxist program strenuously opposed to Jewish peoplehood, and to any notion of a Jewish national culture. Peretz was later to write about  ‘the paths that led away from Jewishness,” which attracted those who wanted to revolutionize society as well as those who aspired to rise in it.

Through out the 1890s  Peretz was involved with socialist politics. His stories and publications were credited with bringing many young Jews into the ranks of the emerging socialist movement . . .but, despite his wholehearted sympathy for the oppressed, Peretz was not satisfied by the ideological prescriptions for the reordering of society. No sooner did the Jewish political parties begin to crystallize and to turn their vague protests and aspirations into fixed party platforms than he rebelled against their materialist constraints, and in the dialectical pattern that characterized both his life and work, came to the rescue of the threatened spiritual values. Attracted as he was by some of the egalitarian and liberal aspirations of socialism, he feared that the systematic reapportionment of wealth would stifle individuality and encroach on the freedom of the creative spirit. The rule of the many could become even more oppressive than the rule of the few. He wrote to the movement after the abortive revolution of 1905 had shown the strength of the revolutionary cadres:

I worry that as victors you may become the bureaucracy, apportioning to each his morsel as to inmates in a poor house, allotting work like a sentence of hard labor. You will destroy that creator of new worlds- the human spirit. You will plug up the purest well of human happiness – initiative- the force that is able to pit a single human life against thousands. You will mechanize life .  .  . you will be occupied with regulations . . .no stomach will be empty, yet the mind will be famished.

These fears were sharpened by his concern for the creative vitality of the Jews, because if human needs could be satisfied through the redistribution of wealth alone, why shouldn’t  a  speed up the process by dissolving his particular identity? Peretz was far from persuaded by the necessity of class conflict, and unwilling to assist in the dissolution of the Jews towards any such higher end. In 1899 he was arrested and briefly imprisoned for anti-tsarist activity, but at the very moment when he was enshrined as a political martyr, he used some of his time in prison to write neoromantic tales extolling the glories of the Jewish spirit. And despite the swell of criticism that they aroused among some of the younger revolutionaries, these modern folktales and retold Hasidic stories became his most popular works.

Hasidic tales were nothing new. The inspirational religious leaders of what came to be known as the Hasidic movement had used the miracle tale and the exemplum to inspire faith and piety in their followers, who, in turn, traded stories about the virtues and miracles of their respective rebbes and zaddikim. Thus, as Hasidism swept Poland in the late eighteenth century, it generated a vast fund of legends and music. But a century later these same Hasidim and their charismatic leaders had come to represent for the modernizing Jews the embodiment of everything most corrupt and reactionary in Jewish life. Reformist writers, including  Peretz himself, had mocked the corruption that was known to infect the courts of the rabbis and the attribution to these faith healers of supernatural powers. In fact, in his political essays and news columns Peretz never ceased to criticize the Hasidim for their fundamentalist beliefs and their resistance to change.

Now, however, along with this critical view, Peretz was among the first to recognize in the ideals of the early Hasidic masters, and in the web of legends that had been spun about them, models of spiritual independence that the Jews of his time were otherwise lacking. All around him in Warsaw and in Poland he observed the pace of linguistic adaptation ton Russian and Polish at the expense of Yiddish and Hebrew, the flight of the young to America – or to Palestine or Argentina – and the recklessness with which a new generation was quitting what centuries of Jewish civilization had so painstakingly, and at such sacrifice accumulated. Like an engineer who has tried to stoke a recalcitrant engine, only to see it hurtling down an incline out of control, Peretz tried to retard it, then at least to warn against its runaway abandon.

Despite a superficial similarity to their Hasidic sources, Peretz’s stories present the familiar material from a modern perspective. “If Not Higher,” one of the earliest and perhaps the most famous of the neo-Hasidic stories, is told by a skeptical Jew from Lithuania who is so eager to disprove local legends about the rabbi Of Nemirov that he hides under his bed to check things out for himself. The rabbi’s Hasidic followers believe that when he disappears every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper, he ascends to heaven  to plead on their behalf with God. The skeptical sleuth discovers that the rabbi is assuming the disguise of a woodcutter in order to perform anonymous acts of charity. He becomes the rabbi’s disciple, and thereafter, if anyone speaks of the holy man’s ascent to heaven, he softly adds, “if not higher.”

If faith in the Jewish God was no longer possible, Peretz expected Jews to continue to honor the exalted moral tradition that derived from faith. Somewhat like the Lithuanian in the story, he tracked the faithful, persuaded that their human values were on the one hand superior to the religious impulse that had shaped them, yet on the other hand superior to values that could be arrived at through reason alone. The pointed conclusion to the story attributes a “higher value” to earthly goodness than to its heavenly inspiration, but without repudiating the power of that inspiration. Peretz had come to the paradoxical conclusion that in order to improve the material lot of the Jews he would have to continue to nurture their spiritual-religious heritage. 

The passion for folklore was already highly developed in Poland, where it also served as a kind of substitute for national autonomy. In addition to nostalgia for folk culture that was characteristic of every industrializing society, subject minorities like the Poles of the Jews could use their folk sources to express the will to national resurgence.  Inspired by the work of Polish ethnographers  (some of whom appreciated the Jewish component of Polish lore), Peretz determined to gather every kind of Jewish folk expression and to instill in his followers an appreciation of their native culture. When aspiring writers came to see him with the first samples of their work, he would question them about their background, ask them to sing the songs and tell the stories of their homes, encourage them to collect all they could. In this way he accumulated material for his own writing and directed them to where Jewish inspiration might be found. .  .  .

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Reach of Our Mercy by James Forman Jr.

Marijuana decriminalization is an important victory. Sandra Dozier, who lost her job at FedEx when she was arrested after a pretext (‘stop and frisk’) traffic stop with $20 worth of marijuana in her glove compartment, can attest to why it matters. So can thousands of others. But the victory is also a cautionary tale about the limits of recent criminal justice reform efforts.

First, as a percentage of our nation’s incarcerated population, those possessing small amounts of marijuana barely register. For every ten thousand people behind bars in America, only six are there because of marijuana possession. A greater concern is that criminal justice reformers increasingly separation “non-violent drug offenders”  including those convicted of marijuana possession- from “violent criminals.”* In this view, nonviolent drug offenders are worthy of compassion and a chance to redeem themselves; violent offenders, by contrast, deserve what they get.

During his second term President Barack Obama became the most prominent proponent of what we might call nonviolent-offenders. In 2015, Obama outlined his final criminal justice reform agenda in a widely anticipated speech to the NAACP’s annual convention. He divided the world of criminal defendants into two groups. First, there are the nonviolent drug offenders, whose incarceration, the president said, is the real reason our prison population is so high.” Obama argued that the current system punishes these offenders too severely: “If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. But you don’t owe twenty years. You don’t owe a life sentence.”

Obama contrasted the nonviolent offenders with another group: “violent criminals,” who, he said, “need to be in jail.” Who are these people? “Murders, predators, rapists, gang leaders, drug kingpins – we need some of those folks behind bars.” In the press conference the next day, explaining why his efforts to reduce mandatory minimum sentences was limited to “nonviolent drug offenses,” Obama remarked, “I tend not to have a lot of sympathy when it comes to violent crime.”

Obama’s choice to limit criminal justice reform to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders is a common one among elected officials – including African-American elected officials. At the federal level, black members of the House of Representatives rallied around the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, whose stated goal was to reduce mandatory minimums for certain low-level drug offenders while “ensuring that serious violent felons do not get out early.” At the state and local level, African American prosecutors such as California’s Kamala Harris, Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby, and Philadelphia’s Seth Williams all built reform around nonviolent criminals. Defenders of this approach to reform are sometimes silent about who is being left opt. Other times they enlist violent offenders as a bogeyman, suggesting that leniency for nonviolent offenders will create space to lock up the violent ones for longer. As Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio said, “Our current system severely punishes nonviolent offenders while granting violent criminals freedom and unfettered opportunities to menace our communities.” The nonviolent-offenders-only perspective is understandable, and broadly popular. But basing criminal justice reform on leniency for nonviolent drug offenders reinforces a deeply problematic narrative.

First, consider the numbers. America’s incarceration rates for nonviolent drug offenders are unprecedented and morally outrageous, but they are not “the real reason our prison population is so high.” Roughly 20 percent of America’s  prisoners are in prison on drug charges. As a result, even if we decided today to unlock the prison door of every single American behind bars on a drug offense, tomorrow morning we’d wake up to a country that still had the world’s largest prison population.

And to be clear, when advocates speak of “non-violent drug offenders” they are not talking about all, or even most, of the five hundred thousand incarcerated on drug offenses. As we saw in chapter 5, the drug trade –especially during the crack era- was extraordinarily violent. Some of the people involved had no connection to violence, but it wasn’t easy –pacifists didn’t survive for long. In arguing for mercy and compassion for nonviolent drug offenders, and only for them, advocates are pursuing an approach that excludes not just the majority of offenders, but even a majority of incarcerated drug offenders.

The narrow scope of this style of reform was confirmed b the Department of Justice’s 2014 clemency initiative. Attorney General Eric Holder** made headlines when he announced that the Justice Department would consider recommending that the president commute some of the extraordinary long sentences given to people convicted of drug crimes, mostly from the late 1980s and 1990s. Holder’s initiative was welcome news –the sentences it would target were indeed much too long, and because crack offenses were penalized more harshly than powder cocaine offenses, African Americans suffered the most. But the guidelines were quite restricted. Eligibility was limited to federal prisoners who had already served 10 years, had no significant criminal history, were ‘nonviolent low-level” offenders, and had “no history of violence prior to  or during their current term of imprisonment.” In excluding anybody with a history of violence, the Justice Department rendered most federal prisoners ineligible for clemency.

Defenders of the non-violent-offenders-only approach suggest that it is just a start. Reform must begin with nonviolent offenders, they say, but others might benefit later. President Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarret, suggested as much when, in 2016, she told NPR, “if we can begin with nonviolent  drug offenders, it’s an important first step. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t come back if research indicated that we should tailor other parts of our judicial system. But let’s start with where we have consensus and move forward and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

I am sympathetic to this perspective – and not only because of the political realities Jarret cites. I have described mass incarceration as the result of a series of small decisions, made over time, by a disparate group of actors ( and driven by popular demand in white and African-American communities). If that is correct, mass incarceration will likely have to be undone in the same way. So it makes sense for advocates to start with the least culpable or threatening individuals.

But criminal justice reform’s first step could easily become its last. To see how, look no further than the president’s own language. When Obama declared that he has “no sympathy” or “no tolerance”: for those who have committed violent offenses, he effectively marked this larger group of violent offenders as permanently out-of-bounds. Such talk draws no distinction and admits no exceptions. It allows for no individual consideration of the violent offense. The context, the story, the mitigating factors- none of it matters. Any act of violence in your past casts you as undeserving forever.

Obama should have understood the flaw in this approach. He frequently cited The Wire, David Simon’s account of the crack years in Baltimore, as one of his favorite television shows, and in 2015 he invited Simon to the White House to discuss criminal justice issues. But The Wire would seem an odd choice for a president espousing the nonviolent-offenders-only approach to reform. Other than Bubbles the heroin addict, none of the show’s main characters would have been eligible for clemency under the Department of Justices guidelines. Yet despite the show’s rampant violence, most viewers, including apparently Obama himself, don’t think of the show as being primarily about a bunch of ruthless thugs. Why not? Because their violent acts are not the only thing we know about them. We know them fully, as people, not just by their charge sheets or criminal records. Obama said as much, telling Simon, “But part of the challenge of criminal justice reform is going to be making sure, number one, that we humanize what so often on the local news is just a bunch of shadowy characters, and tell their stories. And that’s where you’re the work you’ve done has been so important.”

Just so. And other defenders of the nonviolent-offenders- only approach would do well to remember the point.  People who have committed a violent offense make up 53 percent of the nation’s state prisoners and of those, more are incarcerated for robbery than any other. But the labeling “violent offender,” tossed out to describe a shadowy group for whom we are supposed to have no sympathy, encourages us to overlook their individual stories. It encourages us to separate those other people – the ones who did something violent, the ones who belong in cages – from the rest of us. It leads us, as Bryan Anderson has written , to define people by the worse thing they have ever done. *** And it ensures that we will never get close to resolving the human rights crisis that is 2.2 million Americans behind bars.

* this was a distinction rarely made  during the height of the anti-drug crusade in D.C.  City officials, Police and journalists had similar views, as Juan Williams wrote in the Washington Post, they saw the drug trade’s occupation of public space as a form of violence in itself. Dealers and users were seen as directly responsible for crimes like murder, rape, robbery and felonious assault. Jessie Jackson equated drug dealers with Klansman- “No one has the right to kill our children”- besides calling them traitors to their race. The distinction was practically unthinkable in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

**As  U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Holder initiated Operation Ceasefire which stopped cars, searched cars and seized guns- the motor equivalent of ‘Stop and Frisk.” Any pretext was sufficient to  stop and search cars. About  1 out of twenty to 1 out of 100 hundred stop and searches (not conducted in predominantly white neighborhoods and rarely in affluent black neighborhoods) found guns, but lots of people ended up getting bust for possession of drugs, and other offices.  Operation Ceasefire sent plenty of poor blacks to jail and ruined their chances for work but didn’t reduce gun violence in D.C.

***Byron Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Enlightenment Goes East by Ruth Von Bernuth


Let me begin with a Chelm story I heard from the eminent scholar of Old Yiddish Chava Turniansky. She tells of visiting Communist Poland in 1984 with a number of other Israeli scholars. Their route took them through Chelm, a city of around sixty thousand today. Chelm lies in the far eastern part of the modern Polish State, near the Ukrainian border. The Israeli scholars, like so many other Jews intimately familiar with tales of the “wise men” of Chelm, were excited to find themselves in a place of such Jewish cultural renown. When they spotted a kiosk open for business and selling this and that, they all rushed over to it, hoping to find something identifiably local to bring home.

No sooner had the Israelis lined up in front of the little store than growing numbers of Chelmites began converging on the spot, lining up behind the visitors, certain that some rarely available commodity had become available. This was logical enough, because that is what a long line always means in the Eastern Bloc. The discovery that the visitors were queuing up for nothing more useful than random local objects was likely not just disappointing but bewildering, since in non-Jewish Polish culture, Chelm as a town of fools is unknown. The “wise men” have yet to be celebrated of exploited in postwar Chelm.

This incident symbolizes the vey different meaning that Chelm has for Poles and for Jews. Among Catholic Poles, Chelm is known as a Marian pilgrimage site, while among Jews, it has played the role of the foolish shtetl par excellence since the end of the nineteenth century. The tales of its so-called wise men, a sprawling repertoire of stories about the intellectual limitations of the perennially foolish residents of this venerable Jewish town, have come to constitute the best-known folktale tradition of eastern European Jewry.

What accounts for the singular Jewish association of Chelm with folly? The question has been asked before, and answered this way: When God created the world, he sent out an angel with a bag of foolish souls and orders to distribute them evenly all over the world – one fool per town. But the bag tore, and all the foolish souls spilled out on the same spot. These souls built a settlement where they landed, and that settlement became the town known as Chelm.

This version of events may have an age-old appearance, but it is not to be found before 1917. Moreover, there is no documented association between the Jews of Chelm, and foolishness before Ayzik Metyer Dik’s  1972 Yiddish novel  Di orkhim fun Duratshesok (‘The Visitors in Foolstown’). Nor is there any mention of the “Fools of Chelm” before 1873. When that phrase does make its debut it is not in a Jewish source but in Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander’s dictionary of German expressions. However, the culturally and linguistically convoluted roots of the Chelm Yiddish folktale repertoire stretch back far past the nineteenth century to, at least, the late Middle Ages.  Most importantly, the core stories of Chelm are not original to Chelm. They derive from an early modern German source, the famous Schildburgerbuch of 1598. . . .

This book analyzes the connections between the German and Yiddish traditions and, in doing so, challenges previous assumptions that the tales were simply transferred from the German via an Old Yiddish translation to Modern Yiddish. It demonstrates the long process of exchange between German and Yiddish literatures, from late medieval popular novels through Enlightenment texts down to ethnographic  writings of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century It shows  early modern literature exerting a lasting effect on later modern literary production.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

In 1789, the German man of letters Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813) published in his influential literary journal Der Tetsche Merker (The German Mercury) an article containing his contribution to the endlessly discussed question of the moment, “What is  Enlightenment?” According to him, the answer “is known to everyone who, having eyes to see, has learned to recognize the difference between light and dark, day and night.”

Wieland goes on to explain that light is a metaphor for the light of reason, which helps distinguish between “true and false, good and evil.” Thus, the author warns of “anyone who wants to give us black for white, or wants to pay with counterfeit money, or wants to conjure up ghosts, or (though this is very innocent in itself) whoever likes to follow whims, build castles in the air, or takes trips to the land of Cockaigne or the Happy Islands.” His parenthetical concession, that irrationality “is very innocent itself,” contradicts everything else he says here and offers a broad hint of subversive intent. That his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” is meant as a parody of the simplistic and hackneyed answers of the period becomes clear from one word that he uses in his title, or rather from one word that he does not use but decorously represents with an ellipsis ; Ein paar Goldkorner aus-Makulatur oder Sechs Antworten auf sechs Fragen” ( A couple of gold nuggets from the . . . paper, or six answers to six questions). .  . the contents of this article came to him when he spotted ‘six questions about the Enlightenment” on a piece of printer’s waste, a print shop’s discarded wastes or remainders, often repurposed as toilet paper- which his  faux scruples prevent him spelling out. It is as if he were saying, in the roundabout manner of the day, that the outhouse is where many of the far too many pamphlets on the nature of Enlightenment belong. It is also as if he were saying that the thoughts he is about to express on the subject might well belong there as well.

The fiction with which Wieland frames his book does not mean that he is entirely opposed to the Enlightenment. On the contrary, he is among the leading figures of the movement, to which he made a, substantial contributions as author, translator, and editor of a leading journal. But Wieland is a self-critical thinker who, by setting the action of “A couple of Gold Nuggets” in a restroom, transforms it into an ambiguous essay in which the Enlightenment is simultaneously celebrated and criticized. Given this sensibility, it is not surprising that Wieland, like many other writers of the Enlightenment, was interested in the German Schildburgerbuch, another book that is full of ambiguity vis-à-vis wisdom and folly, reason and unreason, seriousness and laughter.

[Folly can only exist in relation to its opposite, or, as Foucault concluded, folly and reason enter a “perpetually reversible relationship which implies that all madness- folie – has its own reason by which it is judged and mastered, and reason has its madness in which it finds its own derisory truth.”]

The German Enlightenment made considerable use of  the Schildburgerbuch. Wieland’s own History of the Abderites  can be understood as a reworked Schildburgerbuch. ‘Abderite’ is a synonym for fool. Abdera was a real place, a city in ancient Thrace, whose inhabitants are single out in some classical Greek and Latin sources for their folly. . .

The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites share a similar concept of folly. In both, foolishness is a matter of faulty reasoning leading to wrong conclusions as to how to solve problems. “The Abderites never lacked ideas.” Wieland says, “but rarely were their ideas suited to the situation to which they were applied, a fact that did not occur to them until the occasion was past.” The Schildburgers are the same: if they do finally see sense, it will be too late – although “too late” is a concept they have trouble grasping, as evident in the story of townsfolk who fell some trees on a hill and cart them down in wagons. Told that it would have been easier to roll the logs downhill, they cart them back up the hill so they can properly roll them down.

In addition, the Schildburgers and Wieland’s Abderites share the fallacy that performing well in one field predicts excellent performance in another. Thus, the Schildburgers elect the swineherd as mayor because he, or his wife, can keep a rhyme going longer than any of the other candidates. Almost identically, the Abderites elect the best singer in town as their Nomophylax (guardian of the laws).

The narrators of both the Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites are “unreliable narrators”, providing readers with conflicting information, deceiving them, and sometimes addressing them as if they had a long-standing acquaintance. All this is done with a disorientating effect, so the reader is frequently forced to wonder which parts of the text are meant as true and which as false, which are meant to make sense and which nonsense, who is wise and who foolish.

Both authors also use the narrator to create confusion about their sources. The narrator of the Schildburgerbuch first claims that he is transmitting an oral account, then complains about the wormholes in the manuscript source, while Wieland’s narrator apologizes for being unable to provide all the details of the controversy over Democritus’s disputed insanity “because the records of the entire case were long ago devoured by mice.”

The History of the Abderites not only parallels the account in the Schildburgerbuch of the decline and fall of the city. It also exactly parallels the consequence of the fall of the city  as described in the Schildburgerbuch, with the departure and dispersal of the town’s foolish inhabitants and the resulting spread of folly throughout the world. The Schildburgerbuch ends with the warning that folly can be transmitted by heredity or contagion. Wieland’s “Key to the History of the Abderites” concludes by asserting that “the History of the Abderites  can . . justly be regarded as one of the truest and most reliable mirrors, and, just for that reason, a faithful one, in which moderns can look at their countenance and, if they only wish to be honest with themselves, can discover in what respect they resemble their ancestors” ( i.e., the Abderites)

The mirror, which lets people see who they are, as a first step towards wisdom, is a metaphor that Sebastian Brant famously used in his Ship of Fools, a book that he referred o as a Narrenspiegel, a fool’s mirror. The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites both see folly as a part of human nature. And they see wisdom, therefore, as something “unnatural”,  something to be achieved and something requiring continuous attention to maintain. This sentiment is summed up in the quotation from Horace that concludes the “Key to the History of the Abderites: Sapienta prima est stultitia caruissee, the beginning of wisdom is to have eschewed folly.

The mirror is one of the principal symbols used in the texts and images of early modern foolish culture. It is found, for example, on the façade of the town hall in Nordlingen, held up to the observers in the sculpture of a fool, which bears the caption, “That makes two of us”. As Brant and the author of the Schildburgerbuch and Wieland believe, the boundaries between Schildburghers or Abderites and the inhabitants of “normal “ towns, and between the fools in the text and the reader of the books, is fuzzy.

The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites agree that wisdom is a treasure that needs careful preservation. Wieland modernizes the discourse on folly, and he also introduces a new type of person in his narrative: the exceptional individual who seems to possess just the right degree of self-awareness, for example, Democritus and Hippocrates. They are characterized as authentic ages, or “cosmopolitans” as Wieland calls them, creating with the History of the Abderites a new concept of cosmopolitanism in European discourse. The cosmopolitans belong to an ancient order to which Wieland devotes an entire chapter in the second book of the History of the Abderites. This invisible society is so secretive that hardly anything is known about it except that, though its members have neither a constitution, nor symbols, nor solemn rites, they maintain a stronger solidarity among themselves than any other order or fraternity in the world. Cosmopolitans are citizens of the world who recognize one another regardless of differing ethnic or religious backgrounds. Their main aim is to promote “the perfection of the whole.” This idea of the cosmopolitan surrounded by a foolish world proves so appealing to the aficionados of the Jewish Enlightenment that they identify with it strongly and adopt Abdera as their model foolish society that, as we shall see, finally evolves into Chelm.

Wieland’s book was read in Germany as a parody of the mentality of small-town Germany in general, but it was widely believed, too, to be a parody of one or another town in particular, despite the author’s denial. The maskilim, however, found it all too easy to identify with the persecuted philosopher Democritus and to identify  the persecuting Abderites  with the narrow-minded small-town Jewish communities of eastern Europe: the dogmatic community rabbis, irrational Hasidic rebbes and their credulous followers, and even differently enlightened maskilic rivals. This is the background against which the first tales of the wise men of Chelm emerge.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Is there anything to discuss? by Frank Ramsey

Science, history, and politics are not suited for discussion except by experts. Others are simply in the position of requiring more information, and, till they have acquired all available information, cannot do anything but accept on authority the opinions of those better qualified. Then there is philosophy; this, too, has become too technical for the layman. Besides this disadvantage, the conclusion of the greatest modern philosopher is that there is no such subject as philosophy; that it is an activity, not a doctrine; and that instead of answering questions, it aims merely at curing headaches. It might be thought that, apart from this technical philosophy whose center is logic, there was a sort of popular philosophy which dealt with such subjects as the relation of man to nature, and the meaning of morality. But any attempt to treat such subjects seriously reduces them to questions either of science or of technical philosophy, or results more immediately in perceiving them to be nonsensical . . .

I think we rarely, if ever discuss fundamental psychological questions, but far more often simply compare our several experiences, which is not a form of discussing. I think we realize too little how often our arguments are of the form: - A: “I went to Grantchester this afternoon.” B: Not I didn’t.” Another thing we often do is to discuss what sort of people or behavior we feel admiration for or are ashamed of. E.g. when we discuss constancy of affection it consists in A saying he would feel guilty if he weren’t constant, B saying he wouldn’t feel guilty in the least. But that, although a pleasant way of passing the time, is not discussing anything what ever, but simply comparing notes.

Genuine psychology, on the other hand, is a science of which most of us know far too little for it to become us to venture an opinion.

Lastly, there is aesthetics, including literature. This always excites us far more than anything else; but we really don’t discuss it much. Our arguments are so feeble; we are still at the stage of “What drives fat oxen must himself be fat”, and have very little to say about the psychological problems of which aesthetics really consists, e.g. why certain combinations of colors gives us such peculiar feelings. What we really like doing is again to compare our experience; a practice which in this case is peculiarly profitable because the critic can point out things to other people to which, if they attend, they will obtain feelings which they value which the failed to observe otherwise. We do not and cannot discuss whether one work of art is better than another; we merely compare the feeling it gives.

I conclude that there is really nothing to discuss; and this conclusion corresponds to a feeling  I have about ordinary conversation also. It is a relatively new phenomena which has arisen from two causes which have operated gradually through the nineteenth century. One is the advance of science, the other the decay of religion, which have resulted in all the old general questions as becoming either technical or ridiculous. This process in the development of civilization we have each of us have to repeat in ourselves. I, for instance, came up as a freshman enjoying conversation and argument more than anything else in the world; but I have gradually come to regard it as of less and less  importance, because there never seems to be anything to talk about except shop and people’s private lives, neither of which is suited for general conversation .  .  .

If I was to write a Weltanschauung I should call it not “What I believe” but “What I feel.” This is connected with Wittgenstein’s view that philosophy does not give us beliefs, but merely relieves feelings of intellectual discomfort. Also, if I were to quarrel with Russell’s lecture [ What I believe], it would not be with what he believed but the indications it gave us as to what he felt. Not that one can really quarrel with a man’s feelings; one can only have different feelings oneself, and perhaps also regard one’s  own as more admirable or more conducive to a happy life. From this point of view, that it is a matter not of fact but of feeling, I shall conclude by some remarks on things in general, or as I would rather say, not things but life in general.

Where I seem to differ from my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be larger, but they cannot think of love; and these are qualities which impress me more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone(238 lbs.).

My picture of the world is drawn in perspective and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are as small as three-penny bits. I don’t believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; by that is still a long time off still and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn’t. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me but depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one’s activities.

Quoted from The Foundation of Mathematics in  Essays in Biography by John Maynard Keynes, Palgrave/ Macmillan, 2010. First published 28 February 1925

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Rhetoric and the Constitution of Social Relations by Michael Herzfeld

The core of social poetics [generally: ‘the creative presentation of the individual self’] is to treat essentialism as a social strategy. This deliberately reverses the goal of most essentializing, which is to turn happenstance into the permanent and the inevitable.  .  . [with respect to the analysis of social poetics] the concept of rhetoric, in particular, conjures up a hostof misunderstandings. Its use implies that there is a clear demarcation between the rhetorical and the real: figurative devices are in some ontological sense less real than literal language. Yet we can see that this is misleading, especially from the perspective of social context. The notion of literality is a truth claim; it is made in order to persuade. It is itself rhetorical. Literality is a claim to represent – indeed, to be – the unmediated truth.

The success of literalizing strategies is all around us, resulting in a devaluation of the very phenomena that makes it possible: rhetoric. Calling another’s performance rhetorical is a denial of its truthfulness. As such, it carries a strongly pejorative moral tone- further evidence of its strategic character (and its capacity to essentialize an implicit reality) if we still need to be convinced. In ordinary usage, the term implies pretension, bombast, even deliberate dishonesty. As a result, the social sciences have generally treated rhetoric as epiphenomenal to a real world to which it blocks access. Yet the the consequent refusal to take rhetoric seriously is symptomatic of precisely what rhetoric does best: it backgrounds its own rhetoricity. Thus, all claims that social science should be free of rhetoric, that it should make modesty its watchword, may be as rhetorical and immodest as anything they oppose. They suffer from the ultimate  epistemological self-deception, the illusion of pure, direct, unmediated knowledge.

A social poetics treats all social interaction, not only as employing rhetoric, but also as rhetorical in its own right. That verbal rhetoric plays an important part in channeling and shaping social relations has long been recognized. But I want to argue something more radical: that the entirety of social interaction – not just the linguistic and quasi-linguistic aspects – is rhetorical.

[Rhetoric is the agency of all social relations- termed by the author ‘ poetics’; as the ‘literal’ ‘unmediated truth’ is simply another rhetorical strategy)

The issue is not usefully approached through some new subfield of ‘the anthropology of rhetoric” First, that label still carries heavily  verbocentric assumptions. Second, rhetoric is not an inert, cultural phenomena, but the source of social continuity and change in all areas of social life. Third, and consequently, it is important not to separate rhetoric from the material world to which, as a causative agent, it belongs. A rhetorical perspective on social life can plausibly be claimed as more attentive to the traditional concerns of materialists with causation than approaches that insist on (literalistically) separating physical objects and economic relations from expressive forms.

Thus, I prefer the term “social poetics”. The very name poetics conjures up an automatic series of misunderstandings,. These, I suggest, can somewhat mischievously be turned to analytic advantages. A reviewer for the New York Times Review of Books, noting a sudden vogue for the term poetics in the titles of works in the social sciences (including my own The Poetics of Manhood), was moved to observe that, while this development was no doubt well and good in its own way, social life was full of nastiness as well, so that we should not insist on its ‘poetry to the exclusion of all else:

The passion for poetics sounds like a welcoming of feelings, especially irrational ones – something therapists have taught us to desire . . . We want analytic books about our lives to be romantic, sensitive, soulful. We should like to live with a poet’s license,. While there is no harm in this, we do have to be careful. As Roland Barthes said, it is not enough to misname things in order to poeticize them.                   [Broyard 1986:15]

Indeed not. But Broyard did just that, by confusing the technical category of poetics with a romantic version of poetry – the best-known realization of poetic principles, perhaps, but by no means the only one.

Such condescending reactions, moreover, cultivate and exploit popular positivism, which would assume that anything redolent of “poetry” must be ultimately trivial or at least epiphenomenal. But that is an ignorance stance. Poetics, a term derived from the Greek word for action (poieo), is an analytic approach to the uses of rhetorical form. It is not a romantic term at all, nor is its usefulness restricted to language (and even then it is not confined to verse). The ease with which a distinguished literary critic fell (or jumped) into the semantic trap of confusing poetics with poetry nevertheless serves an extremely useful purpose here: it suggests the evasiveness of the phenomena itself. What I am describing ass the poetics of social life has an extraordinary capacity to recede from our awareness. Skilled social performers are not necessarily dramatic or even particularly impressive; on the contrary, some of the most effective performances are among the least  palpable. The evocation of a grand model  works best when it is not considered too obvious, except, of course in cultures where dramatic self-presentation  is normatively inflected with an unambiguously high moral tone.

Poetics means action, and restoring that etymological awareness would also more effectively integrate the study of language into an understanding of the role of rhetoric in shaping and creating social relations.

Cultural Intimacy; Social Poetics and the Real Life of States, Societies, and Institutions by Michael Herzfeld, Routledge, Third Edition, 2016

Monday, May 1, 2017

Tolerance Discourse by Wendy Brown

In the modern West, a liberal discourse of tolerance distinguishes “free” societies from “fundamentalist” ones, the “civilized” from the “barbaric,” and the individualized from the organicist or collectivized. These pairs are not synonymous, are not governed precisely the same way by tolerance discourse, and do not call up precisely the same response from that discourse. Yet, they do assist in each other’s constitution and in the constitution of the West  and its Other. Whenever one pair of terms is present, it works metonymically to imply the others, in part because these pairs are popularly  considered to have an organic association with one another in the world. Thus the production and valorization of the sovereign individual are understood as critical in keeping barbarism at bay, just as fundamentalism is understood as a breeding ground of barbarism, and individuality is what fundamentalism is presumed to attenuate if not deny. But there is a consequential ruse in the association of liberal autonomy, tolerance, secularism, and civilization on the one hand, and the association of group identity, fundamentalism, and barbarism on the other. This chapter seeks to track the operations of that ruse.

Tolerance as a political practice is always conferred by the dominant, it is always a certain expression of domination even as it offers protection or incorporation to the less powerful, and tolerance as an individual virtue has an asymmetrical structure. The ethical bearing of tolerance is high-minded, while the object of such high-mindedness is inevitably figured as something more lowly. Even as the outlandish, wrong-headed, or literal outlaw is licensed or suffered through tolerance, the voice in which tolerance is proffered contrasts starkly with the qualities attributed to its object. The pronouncement  “I am a tolerant man” conjures seemliness, propriety, forbearance, magnanimity, cosmopolitanism, universality, and the large view, while those for whom tolerance is required take their shape as improper, indecorous, urgent, narrow, particular, and often ungenerous  or at least lacking in perspective. Liberals who philosophize about tolerance almost always write about coping with what they cannot imagine themselves to be; they identify with the aristocrat holding his nose in the agora, not with the stench.

Historically, and philosophically, tolerance is rarely argued for as an entitlement, a right, or a naturally egalitarian good in the ways that liberty generally is. Rather, one pleads for tolerance as an incorporative practice that promises to keep the peace through such incorporation. And so the subterranean yearning for tolerance –for a universally practiced moderation that does not exist, a humanity so civilized that it would not require the virtue of tolerance –sits uneasily with the normative aspect of tolerance that reaffirms the characterological superiority of the tolerant over the tolerated.

Attention to the rhetorical aspects of tolerance suggests that it is not simply asymmetrical across lines of power but carries caste, class, and civilizational airs with it in its work. The dual function of civilizational discourse, marking in general what counts as “civilized” and conferring superiority on the West, produces tolerance itself in two distinct, if intersecting, power functions: as part of what defines the superiority of Western civilization, and as that which marks certain non-Western practices or regimes as intolerable. Together, these operations of tolerance discourse in a civilizational frame legitimize liberal polities’ illiberal treatments of selected practices, peoples, and states. They sanction illiberal aggression towards what is marked as intolerable without tarring the ‘civilized’ status of the aggressor.