Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Education of An Educator by Theodore R. Sizer



I didn't want to meet Judson Shaplin. He was then – in 1956 – Associate Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and czar of the university's Masters of Arts in Teaching program. Actually, I wanted an M.A. Degree in history but could not qualify for admission as I had, prior to two years in the Army, majored in English at Yale. Now, a teacher in a private school, I wanted to shift fields, an unacceptable decision for Harvard's history department. My sister Alice, a Cambridge resident, pushed me towards Jud and an MAT. He had just won election to Cambridge's School Committee as a reform candidate, and Alice knew him as a bright new light in an old college town.

I slunk into his dilapidated old Lawrence Hall office oozing (I'm sure) preppy arrogance. Education schools? “Certification” for public school teaching? Taking courses in Methodology and How to Teach Reading to Snotty Little Kids? Nice Yalies didn't consort with such things.

Without preliminaries, Shaplin took me apart. It was clear that he admired neither Ivy arrogance nor preppiness, that there was a job to do in public education and that he'd admit me on the spot if I forthwith tried to shed my snobbery and if I had enough stamina to take a 150 percent academic load, including eight history courses (in that very department which had earlier spurned my Cleanth Brooks-sharpened Lit Crit skills). I joined up, probably because I believed this to be the only way of stifling his scorn. My abrupt decision may have startled my wife. It surely amused my sister.

I had Jud in class, an old certification chestnut, “Education B-6: The American School.” Lectures were held in the Mallincrodt Chemistry Building, Shaplin presiding behind a gassy table. Pipe tobacco littered his rumpled suits; he was ever fussing with, tamping and misplacing a series of foul pipes. He was out of shape; his belt strained.
 His course didn't. We graduate students – virtually all still at least closet snobs- contemptuously expected lectures on Classroom Management and The Making of the Daily Schedule. Instead we got an ill-organized jumble of provocative speculations on issues that were then in few education textbooks. The poor ( we read Allison Davis). Race ( Gunner Myrdal and the Brown decision). The pros and cons of federal aid to the schools. Teacher unions ( he imported Myron Lieberman to talk to us). And back to social class (we now read MiddletownElmtownGrowing Up in River City.) The public schools were public; the poor were welcome there. Even though these schools ill-served poor kids today, they might serve them better tomorrow – that is, as long as the likes of us cared. We were an elite social status; Shaplin would have us be a meritocratic elite, or at least a part of an elite corps that would serve the public interest. To worry even for a moment over how such a commitment would be viewed by our mid 50s Ivy peers was contemptible.

These were odd views for Harvard. Yes, one could respectably study the poor and the political process. But labor with them? Run for public office? Work the ethnic halls, churches and bars for votes? Teach in city schools. Indeed, even like the hoi polloi?

His course, like the man, was a triumph of personality over plan, of intelligent passion over academicism. It bespoke Jud's origin. His father, who died early, was a usually unemployed Pennsylvania miner [ a H.S. Principal actually- J.S.]. His mother struggled, failed. Jud was shipped off to Girard College in Philadelphia, a sanctuary for poor white orphan boys. His volcanic energy and smarts vaulted him from there to a Harvard College scholarship. He majored in physical anthropology, earning a summa. Graduate school with a PhD in social relations [clinical psychology, actually- J.S.] followed: there he displayed energy, restless intelligence, and a deep anger. He had to be at Harvard because he hated a part of it so ferociously. And loved a part with passion, to. He labored in the college dean's office. He married a professor's daughter.

After a year of teaching, I returned to Harvard for a PhD and worked for Jud. We argued often, as friends, seated in chairs in his office or home. He always won, however long the discussion took, jamming the stem of some grubby pipe viciously into his shoe, rattling off the latest statistics gathered by his left-leaning social scientist friends. His course, in which I now became a teaching fellow, continued in its seemingly incoherent but stimulating form. He tolerated my issuance of weekly reading lists, but pointedly ignored them. Chaos reigned in the MAT program too – a chaos caused by honoring of substance over process, ideas over procedure. He would get his Jeffersonian elite, and they would care about The Public, all of it. If toward this end one made decisions about people on the spot, then procedures be damned.

Kennedy's election was further galvanizing. Jud led Harvard into the Peace Corps; the world's poor were added to those of America. Nigerian notables found their way to his Upland Road living room (Judd was surprised, however, and disappointed by their aristocratic airs.) Washington had him regularly on the phone. The anger and the optimism reach their zeniths.

Jusds boss,Francis Keppel, left Harvard in 1962 to join the Kennedy Administration. Shaplin became Acting Dean. He wanted the top post, his shoes started to shine, a comb was used; he got organized. He didn't get the job. In due course, I, his Yalie flunkie did.

Jud moved to Washington University in Missouri. Soon there was less fire, less optimism. He welcomed me to St. Louis, gave me counsel. We argued; he still always won. His advice was as right as the pungency, the blunt assurance, of his manner of talk. The old indifference to appearances still sparkled. So the Arts and Sciences professors mock Education. Let 'em mock! What you're doing is more important than what they're doing, so ignore their sherry party snobbishness. Schooling is the way up for orphaned sons of impoverished mining families. That is your cause. Don't let any pseudo-aristocratic academic pomposities deter you. Don't romanticize the poor (poverty isn't pretty), and don't forget them either. Be inventive on their behalf. Understand, he'd argue, what social class is all about. Don't entangle yourself in the details of red tape, those procedural deities that give elite institutions excuses for inactivity. Believe, and act.

Jud Shaplin died years ago, in great pain ([peacefully, actually -J.S.], from kidney disease. But up until his last illness he enjoyed our arguments. He didn't appear to resent me, the newly-minted Harvard Education Dean, probably because my admiration of his principled activism and sensible impatience was so transparent. He knew I believed his anger to be justified, an ultimately constructive force for democratic ends.

No little kid should have to suffer what little Jud had suffered. One had first to understand this; one would then become angry about it; once thus moved to action, to correct it. Energetic, informed good intentions could lead to reform. Anger, ironically, gave birth to optimism.



Washington Post Educational Review, 20 April, 1986

Religions of Lament by Elias Canetti


The face of the earth has been changed by the religions of lament and, in Christianity, they have attained a kind of universal validity.  What is it then which has endowed them with their power of resistance?  What is it that has procured for these religions originating in lament their peculiar persistence during millennia?

The legend around which they form is that of a man or a god who perishes unjustly. It is always the story of a pursuit, a hunt, or a baiting, and there may   also be an unjust trial. In the case of a hunt, the wrong creature will have been struck down, the foremost hunter instead of the animal which is being pursued.  This animal, in a kind of reversal, may have attacked the hunter and wounded him fatally, as in the story of Adonis and the boar.  This is the one death which should not have taken place, and the grief it arouses is beyond all measure.

It may be that a Goddess loves and laments the victim, as Aphrodite Adonis. In her Babylonian shape the goddess’s name is Ishtar, and Tammuz is the beautiful dead youth. Among the Phrygians it is the mother goddess Cybele who grieves for Attis, her young lover. In Egypt it is Isis who has lost her husband Osiris. But it can also happen – and this is the later and no longer mythical case – that a group of relatives and disciples lament the dead, as they do Jesus, or Husain, the Grandson of the Prophet and the true martyr of the Shiites.

The hunt, or pursuit, is pictured in all its details; it is a precise   story, very concrete and personal. Blood always flows; even in the most humane of all Passions, that of Christ himself, we find wounds and blood. Each of the things which compose the Passion is felt to be unjust; the further removed from mythical times, the stronger becomes the tendency to prolong the passion and to fill it out with human details. The hunt, or baiting, is always experienced from the point of view of the victim.

Around his end a lamenting pack forms, but the lament has a particular tone; the dead man has died for the sake of the people who mourn him.  Whether he was their great hunter, or had another and higher value for them, he was their savior. His preciousness is stressed in every possible way; it is he, above all that should not have died.  His death is not recognized by the mourners. They want him alive again.

It begins with the few faithful who stand beneath the cross; they are the kernel of the lament.  At the first Whitsuntide there were possibly 600 Christians; at the time of the Emperor Constantine about 10 million.  But the core of the religion remains the same; it is the lament. Why is it that so many join the lament?  What is its attraction? What does it give people?

To all those who join it the same thing happens: a hunting or baiting pack expiates its guilt by becoming a lamenting pack.  Men lived as pursuers and as such, in their own fashion, they continue to live.  They seek alien flesh, and cut into it, feeding on the torment of weaker creatures; the glazing eye of the victim is mirrored in their eyes, and that last cry they delight in is indelibly recorded in their soul. Most of them perhaps do not divine that, while they feed their bodies, they also feed the darkness within themselves.  But their guilt and fear grow ceaselessly, and, without knowing it, they long for deliverance. Thus they attach themselves to one who will die for them and, in lamenting him, they feel   themselves as persecuted. Whatever they have done, however they have raged, for this moment they are aligned with suffering.  It is a sudden change of side with far-reaching consequences. It frees them from the accumulated guilt of killing and from fear that death will strike at them too. All that they have done to others, another takes on himself; by attaching themselves to him, faithfully and without reserve, they hope to escape vengeance.

Thus it appears that religions of lament will continue to be indispensable to the psychic economy of men for as long as they remain unable to renounce the killing pack.

Crowds and Power, " The Pack and Religion"; (1960)

England, An Island by Elias Canetti


During the War, more than fifty years ago now, it was England's salvation that it was an island. It was still an island, and that asset, a colossal advantage, has been frittered away.

Today, it is what's left over from a government whose one and only prescription for everything was selfishness. People felt proud of the fact, as though it were kind of a revelation, and horde of men (and women) in pinstripes swarmed over the land, calling themselves businessmen or executives, and sought to plunder the country, just as once the country had sought to plunder the rest of the  world.  England decided it would loot itself, and engaged an army of yuppies for that end.  As a paradise, but one to be had here and now, everyone was promised their own house.  People got busy, and, in quite un-English haste, made their piles.  The state proudly declared it would no longer provide for anything, because everyone was to provide for themselves, and who goes around cleaning other people’s streets? The hypocrisy, which was actually the mortar that held English society together, fell away.  In seemingly no  time at all, the universal slogan was to look after number one, and devil take the hindmost.  It was shown – I say this with incredulity – that selfishness was every bit as much worth preaching as selflessness.

The supreme teacher in the country was a woman who tirelessly rejected whatever was done for other people.  For other people, everything was too expensive; for oneself, nothing was.  Water, air, light, were turned into businesses, to flourish or fail; usually they failed. A small war was started on the other side of the globe, to remind the waves they were Britannia’s. The person of Churchill was invoked, and the danger in which England had found itself not so many years ago; and what made it all still more effective was the fact that these tough decisions were taken by a woman who was married to a simple (in every sense) millionaire.  He had settled for too little, she hadn’t. He kept to the shadows, and didn’t get in the way.  Because of her, the cities collapsed into disgusting squalor. The schools rotted, so that children might learn to trust instead to their own acumen and hard-heartedness .Since every man is inclined to meanness, and only restrains himself with some difficulty, English humanity now felt a huge sense of relief, because all at once they were permitted to be as mean as any other people, and receive the highest praise for it on top of that.

I was permitted to live though this time, and see my best friends warped.  They came from nurseries that any citizen of any country in the world would have licked their lips to have been at.  To them, a governess, who played the opposite of the games they were raised to play, was a boon.  Suddenly, you were supposed to be all the disgusting things that a man naturally is, but has had to renounce. The relief must have been incredible, and all that was left of the old hypocrisy was a show of pretense towards me.  There were of course others, and not the worst, who showed themselves to me the way they really were.  They knew what I thought, and respected it.  I have nothing to accuse them of, beyond their noxious human nature, of which I myself stand accused just as much.  But I am angry at others who were dearer to me, sensitive, delicate beings among them, poets and authors, or at least writers, who, for a time of ten years or more, worshipped that idol from the days of slavery, and in my presence continued to use all the language of philanthropy…

 Written in 1991`-93

On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life


Let us take the simplest and most frequent example.  Think of artless and feebly artistic natures girded and armed by monumental history of art and artists: against whom will they now direct their weapons?  Against their traditional enemies, the strong artistic spirits, namely against those who alone are capable of learning truly, that is, for the sake of life, from that history and of putting what they have learned into higher practice.  It is their path which is obstructed and their air which is darkened when one dances idolatrously and diligently round a half understood monument of some great past, as though to say, “See, this is true and real art: what do you care about aspiring newcomers!”  Apparently this dancing swarm even has a monopoly on “good taste”: for the creator has always been at a disadvantage to him who openly looked on without even trying his hand; as at all times the armchair politician has been wiser, more just and judicious than the governing statesman.

Furthermore, if the use of the popular vote and numerical majorities were transferred to the realm of art and the artist required to defend himself before a forum of the aesthetically inactive, you may bet your life that he would be condemned: not despite, but just because of the fact that his judges have solemnly proclaimed the canon of monumental art (that is, according to a given explanation, of art which has at all times “produced an effect’). While for all art which is not yet monumental because still contemporary they lack first, any need, second, any genuine inclination, third, just that authority of history.

On the other hand their instinct tells them that art may be beaten to death with art: the monumental art must definitely not be produced again, and what happens to have the authority of monumentality from the past is just the right preventative.  This is how the connoisseurs are because they wish to eliminate art altogether; they give the appearance of physicians while their real intention is to dispense poisons; so they cultivate their tongue and their taste in order to explain fastidiously why they so insistently decline whatever nourishing artistic fare is offered them.  For they do not want something great to be produced: their expedient is to say “see, the great already exists!”  In truth they care as little about existing greatness as about greatness in the making: to that their life bears witness.

Monumental history is the disguise in which their hatred of the mighty and the great of their time parades as satisfied admiration of the mighty and great of past ages. Cloaked in this disguise they turn the proper sense of monumental history into its opposite; whether they know it clearly or not, at any rate they act as though their motto were: let the dead bury the living.- Friedrich Nietzsche

Living Wage by Walter Lippmann


"Wouldn't it be absurd to assume that minimum wage legislation is a kind of omnibus for paradise. To fix a 'living standard' would be a great advance over what we have, but by every civilized criterion it is a grudging and miserable thing.  In those moments of lucidity when we forget our hesitation before brute obstruction, it sees like a kind of madness that we should have to argue and scrape in order that we may secure to millions of women enough income to "live." If we had not witnessed whole nations glowering at each other all winter from holes in the mud, it would be hard to believe that America with all its riches could still be primitive enough to grunt and protest at a living wage, mind you; not a wage so its women can live well, not enough to make life a rich and welcome experience, but just enough to secure existence amid drudgery in grey boarding-houses and cheap restaurants.

We may fail to secure that.  As far as the press is concerned, the issue hardly exists. It lies at the moment stifled in platitudes and half-truths about "not hurting business." From the little comment there is, we might think that a business was sound if it rested on the degradation of its labor; might think that businessmen were a lot of jumpy neurotics ready to shrivel up and burst into tears at a proposal to increase their wages bill a penny or two on the dollar; might think, from the exclamations of Mr. Brown and his friend Smith, that a campaign against sweating would do no less than ruin the country.

But you cannot ruin a country by conserving its life. You can ruin a country only by stupidity, waste and greed."

March 27, 1915

The Advisor by Czeslaw Milosz


Well, it is true that the landscape changed a little, for a lot.
We have factories now and waste tanks where the forests were.
As we approach the river-mouth we hold our noses:
A current of oil and chlorine and methyl compounds.
A huge stain of synthetic colour poisons the fish of the sea.
Where the rushes grew, fringing the sea shore,
Are rusted and smashed machines, ashes, bricks.
We used to read in the ancient poets the scents of the earth,
And grasshoppers; now we take pains to avoid the fields,
And pedal as fast as we can through the chemical zone of the farmer.
The insect, the bird, are wiped out. Far away, a bored man
Drags dust with his tractor, umbrella against the sun.
But what do we regret? The tiger? The shark?
– It may be the case that when Adam awoke in the garden
The beasts licked the air, were yawning and friendly
While the scorpion’s tail was lashed to his back, fangs
Were only a figure, and the red-backed shrike,
Later, much later, named Lanius collurio,
Did not impale grubs on the spikes of blackthorn.
However, apart from and after that moment, our knowledge
Of Nature is not in its favour; our own was no worse.
And so, I beg you, no more of these lamentations.



Translated by Andrew McCulloch  and James Shearing (2004)

The True Enemies of Freedom


Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it compromises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few,. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of the state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.  No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.- James Madison


In my present condition I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism: the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.  Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves a much higher consideration. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch which the have not honestly earned.  Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.- Abraham Lincoln

It is time for the public to hear that the giant evil; and danger in this country, the danger that transcends all others, is the vast wealth owned or controlled by a few persons. Money is power. In Congress, in state legislatures, in city councils, in the courts, in the political conventions, in the press, in the pulpit, in the circles of the educated and talented, its influence is growing greater and greater. Excessive wealth in the hands of a few means extreme poverty, ignorance, vice, wretchedness as the lot of the many. This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government by the corporations, of the corporations, and for the corporations.- Rutherford B. Hayes

In Praise of Chassidic Folly

And reason—what of reason? Does the Chassidic advocacy of holy folly entail an hysterical leap into the irrational? Far from it.

 “Make me not the reproach of fools!” (Psalms 39:8)

Now this is not the place to summarize, much less givean account, of what Western philosophers since Immanuel Kant have developed from various angles as the critique of reason. Suffice it to say that,since the sun of the Enlightenment began to set at the end of the 19thcentury, when the application of reason in the sciences was just beginning to pick up speed, reason in its broadest parameters has no longer been regarded as the only, or even the exemplary, means of access to the truth. As Hamlet warns his best friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This “more” embodies the critical point of the Chassidic critique of reason, namely that reason is not wrong—reason is just not enough. There is more.

Like the Maccabee resistance to the spiritual empirethat Alexander built on Aristotle’s ideals, what the Chassidic doctrine of holy folly is suspicious of, in other words, is the hegemony of reason,reason as a totalitarian intellectual regime, wherein the Torah is submitted to a reductionism in which only the rational and sensible precepts ofthe Torah pass muster, and everything else must be discarded as nonsense. In this regime, by the same token, the temperature of a Jew’s passionate love for G‑d’s Torah is humbled by reason’s supercilious gaze, lowered to a cool, dispassionate, scientific,all-too-sensible approach to truth.

What the Chassidic doctrine of holy folly is suspicious of, in other words, is the hegemony of reason.

If the nostalgic reluctance to loosen the hegemony of reason, which still holds some Western academic minds enshackled, has been thrown off by the best Western philosophers of the last century, the academic training of the mind’s eye, the discipline that trains the mind to see with its own intellectual vision,holds it back from practising a certain self-nullification that would allow it to share, periscopically, as it were, in the vision of an eye above the mind.The latter praxis belongs to the discipline of Chassidic thought.

Commentary on the work Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohnby Michael Kigel  

Nikolai Berdyaev



'What one need to do at every moment of one's life is to put an end to the old world and to begin a new world.'


In 1920, Berdiaev became professor of philosophy at the University of Moscow, although he had no academic credentials. In the same year, he was accused of participating in a conspiracy against the government; he was arrested and jailed. It seems that the feared head of the ChekaFelix Dzerzhinsky, came in person to interrogate him, and that Berdyaev gave his interrogator a solid dressing-down on the problems with Bolshevism. Berdyaev's prior record of revolutionary activity seems to have saved him from prolonged detention, as his friend Lev Kamenev was present at the interrogation.

Nobelit Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book The Gulag Archipelago (published in 1973) recounts the incident as follows:

[Berdyaev] was arrested twice; he was taken in 1922 for a midnight interrogation with Dzerjinsky; Kamenev was also there. [...] But Berdyaev did not humiliate himself, he did not beg, he firmly professed the moral and religious principles by virtue of which he did not adhere to the party in power; and not only did they judge that there was no point in putting him on trial, but he was freed. Now there is a man who had a "point of view"![4]

The Soviet authorities eventually expelled Berdyaev from the RSFSR in September 1922. He became one of a carefully selected group of some 160 prominent writers, scholars, and intellectuals whose ideas the Bolshevik government found objectionable, and who were sent into exile on the so-called "philosophers' ship". Overall, these expellees supported neither the Czarist régime nor the Bolsheviks, preferring less autocratic forms of government. They included those who argued for personal liberty, spiritual development, Christian ethics, and a pathway informed by reason and guided by faith.

At first Berdyaev and other émigrés went to Berlin, where Berdyaev founded an academy of philosophy and religion. But economic and political conditions in Weimar Germany caused him and his wife to move to Paris in 1923. He transferred his academy there, and taught, lectured, and wrote, working for an exchange of ideas with the French intellectual community.

During the German occupation of France, Berdyaev continued to write books that were published after the war—some of them after his death. In the years that he spent in France, Berdyaev wrote fifteen books, including most of his most important works. He died at his writing desk in his home in Clamart, near Paris, in March 1948.

Geopolitical Realism by Tony Judt



This is the problem with geopolitical realism, especially when it is practiced with distain for domestic constraints. You begin with a reasonable-sounding worldliness, of the kind articulated by Metternich and quoted admiringly by Henry Kissinger: "Little given to abstract ideas, we accept things as they are and attempt to the the maximum not our ability to protect ourselves against delusions about reality." You then find yourself allying with disreputable foreign rulers on the 'realist' grounds that they are the people with whom you have to do business, forgetting that in doings you have deprived yourself of any political leverage over them, because the one thing that matters the most to them - how they get and keep power over their subjects - is of no interest to you. And at the last,you are thus reduced to cynicism about the outcomes not just of their actions but of your own.

Thus, as William Bundy pointed out in his book (The Tangled Web), some of the most vaunted achievements of 'realist' foreign policy turn out to be bogus. Kissinger and Nixon could hardly have been unaware, he concludes, that the Paris settlement of 1973 that 'ended' the Vietnam War was a mirage, its clauses and safeguards 'toothless.' It looked only to the short-term political advantage,with no vision or strategy for handling the longer-term fallout.Their unstinting support for the Shah of Iran was similarly disastrous- first joining him in misleading promises to the Kurds in order to bring pressure on Iran's western neighbor, Iraq, then abandoning those same Kurds to a bloody fate, and finally bonding the image and power of the U.S. to an increasingly indefensible regime in Tehran. Like so much else about the foreign dealings of the Nixon era- AND OUR OWN the bill fell later: in 1975 in Vietnam and Cambodia,in 1979-80 in Iran. And in each case the interests of the United States were among the first victims.

This is the point: in a constitutionally ordered state where laws are derived from broad principles of right and wrong and where those principles are enshrined in a protected by agreed procedures and practices, it can never be in the long-term interests of the state or its citizens to flout those procedures at home or associate too closely with the enemies of your founding ideals.

The rhetoric of Gladstone's attacks on Disraeli in 1880 is dated,but his theme is unmistakable and familiar:

" Abroad the government the government has strained, if they have not endangered, the prerogative by gross misuse and have weakened the Empire by needless wars, unprofitable extensions and unwise engagements and have dishonored it in the eyes of Europe and the world. Disraeli's brazen unconcern for the behavior of its friends, or for the interests of others, especially small nations, are inimical to Britain's long-term interests. If British interests were accepted as 'the sole measure of right and wrong then the same logic might logically readopted by any other country, and the result would be international anarchy."

Ibn Khaldun and Democracy by Anne Norton


 (Zuckerberg is reading a mistranslationof the Muqaddimah. Ibn Khaldun, of course, has long been favored by rightwingers in capitalist countries because he wrote that lower taxation increases incentives for productivity and prosperity. Even Ronald Reagan cited Ibn Khaldun.)

 But for Ibn Khaldun, individualism and the commons are not opposed.Those who live on the frontier are more self-reliant (because they must be) and more committed to the common good (because they must be). Individuals are more individual: more self-reliant,more independent,more able to provide for themselves.They are likely to be stronger and braver. The harsh circumstances in which they live have obliged them to learn courage, steadfastness and fortitude.But their individual strength does not keep them apart. It draws them together.  The same harsh circumstances that teach them strength and courage also teach them trust.The idea that a common experience of danger and hardship draws them together is a common one. Soldiers who serve together come to see themselves as a band of brothers. Settlers on a windswept,barren plain learn to work together to protect their farms.

Derrida saw friendship as a luxury good.Ibn Khalun recognized it as a necessity.Derrida's late account of democracy figured as a place where enemies meet: the turn of a wheel that raises some and others down,perhaps beneath it. Wendy Brown observed how foreign this is to democracy. This is precisely what democracy would not be: not outside,not unilateral,not over,not a matter of "winning out over." Democracy is, on the contrary, ruling together, ruling and being ruled in turn. Democracies are manifold, many-sided. There are many sides to any question and many sides contesting. Democracy has many dimensions, and on each dimension one may win or lose, and one will rule and be ruled in turn.Opposition is not enmity.Or perhaps it is.

Perhaps democracies have made enmity their own. Perhaps democracies have the power to tame enmity. Tyrants, as philosophers from Xenophon to Arendt have recognized, live in constant fear of opposition. They see enemies everywhere. They live in fear. They live by fear. Their safety depends on making their enemies fear them, and everyone is their enemy. Fear spreads, and such regimes end eating their own. 

In democracies, enmity is made ordinary. Democrats live with the enemy. We argue with our enemies in our homes and at work, we hear them on the radio and watch them on television. We see their bogs. We campaign against them, write against them. We hate them and we know they may win: in this debate, this bill, this law. We set our hearts and lives against them. When they win, we submit.

Whether we win or lose, we do not fear them. Or,more precisely, we have learned to govern out fears. Enmity is not easily domesticated. When domesticated, it may still show its claws. We can hear the gunfire in the parking lot of an Arizona grocery. We can see the aborted fetus. We can see the bullets hit the suspect. We live -all of us with our enemies as with our friends.We live with danger.

Democracy is a hard discipline. Democrats are required to live surrounded by enemies and opponents.They are require to walk among their enemies without fear. Democracy is rooted in courage: in wild recess courage and in steadfast endurance. The marchers who faced fire hoses and dogs on the bridged at Selma,who stood steadfast on bridges over the Nile as the water cannons mowed them down, called us to witness their title to democracy. They had the courage to act when there was no hope. When Egyptians took to the streets in late January of 2011, they acted against the prevailing wisdom and their wholly rational fears. Marchers filled the streets, moving like a river through the city, cling forth democracy, calling forth a free people, "shaab hurri".

The people of these revolutions reminded us of the virtue of democracy. Democracy depends on daring, on that wild reckless courage that defies insurmountable odds (the odds are always against democracy) and prompts people to sail forth into an unknown, unknowable future. democracy depends on fortitude, on steadfastness, on the ability to endure hardship. Democracy relies not only on  the courage one sees during a daring act, but on the courage that enables people to endure war cannot be endured, to face what cannot be faced, to stand up and begin again.

Roland Barthes and the Insurrections of May 1968


"Roland Barthes recognized that the nature of the discourse and the events in France  gave a completely new power to the spoken word and the taking of power by the spoken word. May 1968 was the historical consummation of a process of mass communication based both on the media and the immediate, on the message and the ephemeral, on unreflective imagination and the need for mastery. Barthes was merely denouncing an anti-intellectualism that he had rejected ever since the polemics around his controversial  On Racine that did indeed threaten any possible cultural critique. “There is an intellectual Poujadism* that is always possible: a brutal distrust of language, a dismissal of forms that are always considered sophistical, the accusation of “jargon”, the rejection of writing, etc.’ In saying this, he was repeating his position against the arrogance of the spoken word. His disaffection for theater, earlier in the 1960s, was already evidence of a similar difficulty with the spoken word that was always, when it was imposed and violent, on the side of the law. Yet again, he contrasted it with the polysemia of writing, where everything always needs to be invented: writing alone can be the site of a real revolution.

This is a leitmotif in Barthes’ work: it expresses his disdain for the spontaneity of events and his conviction that a written text - not as a transcription of the spoken word, but as a reflection of the plurality of meaning – could bring together the cultural and the political. “We will regard as suspect any eviction of writing, any systematic primacy of speech, because, whatever the revolutionary alibi, both tend to preserve the old symbolic system and refuse to link its revolution to that of society. As cultural capitalism has merely strengthened its grip since Barthes wrote these lines, we can simply point out how acute his analysis was.

The other point on which Barthes proved to be a real visionary was the advent of technocracy as a moment in capitalism less concerned with human labor than with the profitability of science.In his lecture of 21 November 1968, he said: “The present day is certainly a turning point or at least a significantly new emphasis. How are we to define it? The conjunction or confluence of an ideology and a politics: an ideology, that of the human sciences, and a technocratic politics. The objective alliance between the human sciences and technology risks invading our schools, with its technological demands (research, specialization, qualification) shared by bodies and assemblies set up in May (the document of the reform committee: ‘Cutting-edge or very specialized sectors,’ etc.). Elsewhere, he pointed out how the slogans of ’68 on the university system, if they were assembled like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, form an image which ‘resembled the contemporary American university.’ This denunciation of everything that sacrificed culture to efficiency is such an accurate projection of the university system as we find it now that we cannot accuse Barthes of having adopted a reactionary attitude in 1968. It was always in the name of the same principles that he established his line of behavior. While his relation to writing included the possibility of contradiction, in the name of plurality and the fragmentation of meaning, his political behavior and the reasons for his rejections or his denunciations did not alter."

* The movement's "common man" populism led to antiparliamentarism (Poujade called the National Assembly "the biggest brothel in Paris" and the deputies a "pile of rubbish" and "pederasts"), a strong anti-intellectualism (Poujade denounced the graduates from the École Polytechnique as the main culprits for the woes of 1950s France and boasted that he had no book learning), xenophobia, and antisemitism especially aimed against Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France (claiming "Mendès is French only as the word added to his name"), who was perceived as responsible for the loss of Indochina. Poujadism also supported the cause of French Algeria.
   Tiphaine Samoyault in Barthes, A Biography


Roland Barthes in China [ Traveling with the French Maoists]


This is one of the more revealing passages in Tiphaine Samoyault’s biography of Barthes; of the inner life of the man.

“Barthes was quite aware of the slightly comical aspect of their tour (1974), which sometimes seemed like Tintin in the Land of the Soviets - as some of Barthe’s ironic comments point out: Tel Quel and its friends are applauded in the factories of China’ [ though not so much in France]. All these constraints made it impossible to gain any real understanding of the country: “It’s the continual presence, smooth as a tablecloth, of Agency officials that blocks, forbids censors rules out the possibility of Surprise, the Incident, the Haiku.” For the first time, no doubt, even if this had happened on other journeys, such as to the United States (but not so drastically), travel was not a way of freeing him from the burden of everyday life. It did not provide him with the reservoir of things he could write about which the fascinated observation of foreignness could comprise. The weight of ready-made phrases, of a fossilized discourse, of what Barthes called the “bricks” of ideological discourse, literally wall up Being, life, the gaze. The only escape, where possible, lies in day-dreaming, in drifting thoughts, in the pencil as it sketches, and in desire when  it fleetingly awakens. Usually, when he was traveling, Barthes was most captivated by chance encounters, by places where his desire led him.

In China Barthes suffered from never being in contact with other people’s bodies. ‘And what can you know about a people, if you don’t know their sex?’ The claustrophobia lay in a huge repression of sexality, one that he found frustrating and incomprehensible. On his return, he opened up to his students about this experience: ‘The body does not seem to be thinking about itself, projecting itself, deciding this or that; there is no role for the body, no hysteria.’ This sense of closure could only be overcome if the usual hermeneutics was turned upside down: bodies, perhaps, were not there to signify anything, nor were differences meant to appear. In the absence of the main signifier (the religious) and of the direct signifier (Eros), the absence of any point of contact and the silence of meaning meaning led to a purely phenomenological reading of what he saw. Since it was not possible to interpret things, he needed to be content with noting behavior, little rituals, surfaces appearances.

In spite of this, there are a few fragile moments of escape in the Travels that set it apart from the notorious report in which Barthes tried to impose some form on his impressions, ‘Alors, la Chine?’ These are moments when individual impulses makes themselves known, when the traveler stand out from the group, when his own thoughts are freed from mere ideas. There are sallies of wit that interrupt the boredom; Barthes sometimes senses the resistance of the Chinese to the prevailing uniformity (in a hairstyle, demeanor); there are times when you would like to see something  if you do not succeed -for Barthes was desperately seeking signifiers, but he found only a few, and those he did find (such as children) soon turned out to be void of interest (’I had initially classified the children among the few signifiers, but now they strike me as a real bore.’)  Fashion is more or less completely absent, as in any color, and the tea is insipid. Only the ideograms and the food attract his attention; and the poppies of Luo-Yang, and the tigers in the Nanjing Zoo.

He loves the profusion of dishes, their spices, they way they are set out, the cutting up of the meat and the filling of the fish. He loves listing what he has eaten . . . While he is aghast at the socialist realist paintings  he is shown, he loves the calligraphy and procures several specimens. Indeed, he contemplates a piece of calligraphy by Mao, he compares it to his own painting: ‘utterly elegant (grassy calligraphy), cursive, impatient, and spacious. Reflections on the ‘frame’; my paintings: also calligraphic blocks; it’s not a scene cut out, it’s a block moving forward.’  His purchases corresponded to the few times when he grew enthusiastic. On their arrival in China, he suggested to his friends that they buy Mao suits, which they had tailor made, and in which they would appear in Pars. The rest of the time he was overwhelmed by fatigue and indifference - ‘Sometimes, I enjoy not being interested’ - when it is not pure distress, a rejection of the whole country or the sense of being at a loss that affected his system and mode of expression: ‘All these notes will probably attest to the failure, in this country, of my writing (in comparison to Japan).  In fact, I can’t find anything to note down, to enumerate, to classify. Plynet referred several times in his travel notes to the position adopted by Barthes, always a bit aloof. On he day they visited the Ming tombs, ‘RB stayed in the bus’; in the train to Nanjing, ‘RB sits apart and reads Bouvard and Pecuchet, JK is working on her Chinese, Ph S is playing xiangqi (Chinese chess) with our guide’; and, during a debate between ideologues: ‘RB who seems to be following this discussion distantly states at us like a fish staring at an apple.’ His relief, when they left Beijing on 4 May, was as great as the burden from which he at last felt free. ’Ouf’ he said in Francois Wahl’s ear as the plane started to taxi.”

So far so good,  Samoyault provides keen insight into Barthes’ character, what interests him, how and where his attention his drawn, his engagement with life, but then she writes that  ‘Barthes followed a position he had thought about at length and chose assent to the country rather than distance. This was an ethical choice, but in this case it did not suit an overall political situation in which China and its people were alienated. In Barthes’ texts, in spite of his reservations, no threat was seen to be hanging over the country, there was no death to  be deplored: ‘ Another word comes to mind, a more accurate one: China is peaceful.’ “In those days,” she writes, “ intellectuals took up such radical and sharply defined positions that people were often reduced to ‘choosing their camps’ instead of reflelecting on problems in a more nuanced way. However, it was possible to have more qualified positions, as some of them demonstrated. The truth about the Cultural Revolution had alread been partly disclosed, and that there were many accounts that could have alerted Barthes or led him to seek another truth. In 1971, Smon Leys had already published The Chairman’s New Clothes, in which he spoke of the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Cultural Revolution. Samoyault concludes: “This moment of direct conformation with history was,  yet again, a missed opportunity for Barthes.”

Well, yes. 100s of thousands of lives were lost, many remain uncounted; horrendous battles and massacres- even descent into the abyss  of cannibalism- unimaginable shifts in ‘official lines’  during which no one could remain ‘neutral’ or silent.  One day this, the next its opposite. But in no way were all these lives ‘innocent’ any more than the mass of Americans  or those designated to represent them are innocent of the political cataclysms that are shaking their country today. At that moment in history, however, in consideration of all that occurred since the Revolutions, the degeneration of the Party, the obstacles he faced, it is actually difficult to discern what else Chairman Mao might have done to secure lasting and effective government in so vast a country. Retrospectively one could imagine that the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution created an opening for better things to come and that recognition helps to explain the ambiguity with which many Chinese regard Mao to this day.

In China Barthes was out of place, out of time (‘no country for an old man), at least not for his sort; that moment  was beyond his interpretative grasp, not even in the fragments, random molecules, brokenness, rupture and cross-fertilizations  with which he customarily concerned himself. I read “China is peaceful’ in that sense, the eye of storm.





Theory of the Leisure Class






To tell truth I always had trouble connecting with this book, its kind of abstract and the way he talks about 'primitive' and 'barbarian' people seemed a bit presumptuous or al least out of sync with the way most of the other academics I was reading talk about such things- of course certain tag lines like 'conspicuous consumption' fit right in with the discourse of the late sixties- but it still remained difficult to follow his argument all the way through because he reels it out in a very extensive fashion rather than in a 'bullet point' way.
Well, lately, I hauled the thing from the dusty shelf were it has rested waiting for a more propitious time these past 30 years and started giving it another go. When he talks about the 'predatory classes' that struck a stronger note with me then ever before but I was still scratching my head- what precise point of view was he assuming, what rock in the stream was he standing on as he cast his line? Then it dawned on me.
He's like the ambassador from an alien world who has spent much time observing us humans over the whole period of historic time and is giving a report to a study group of an intergalactic council which includes many individuals who have either accompanied him on his investigation or conducted their own independently. He mounts almost no political engagements with earthly beings themselves, his 'moral tone' is primarily of the ironic type. He's not even pushing 'a policy' for the council, like say, ' 'The situation is so hopeless down there, we should just nuke em and be done with it, or , yes they are obviously in the thrall of the more primitive sorts of instincts but things might soon evolve in a more favorable direction. As complicated and dire as the situation seems, he simply endeavors to 'tell it like it is' with the least flourish as possible, and without pudding-headed self-congratulations, or projections of his own superiority as you might find in a character like Dr. Spock.

In Veblen's view the most significant mediator between  somewhat distinct schemes of social salvation (both founded upon a predatory animus never-the-less) is what he calls 'the instinct of workmanship',a natural aversion to waste one's time and industrial inefficiency. As an attribute to be emulated, however, the instinct of workmanship has its greatest force only in small, immobile populations where material honorifics (wealth) are relatively equal.Otherwise standards of decency and the means to self-complatency are founded on invidious comparisons of pecuniary status, that is what we use to call 'keeping up with the Jones' or rather surpassing the Jones' even where the obstacles, resistances and dire consequences of doing so are very high.

"As increased industrial efficiency makes it possible to procure the means of livelihood with less labor, the energies of the industrial members of the community are bent to the compassing of a higher result in conspicuous consumption, rather than slackened to a more comfortable pace. The strain is not lightened as industrial efficient increases and makes a lighter strain possible, but the increment of output is turned to use to meet this want, which is indefinitely expandable, after the manner commonly imputed in economic theory to higher or spiritual wants. It is owing chiefly to the presences of this element in the standard of living that J.S. Mill was able to say that "hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being."

It's clear to me that in the chapter titled "The Conservation of Archaic Traits' Veblen makes a parody out of the racial theories so popular in his time. The three main ethnic types he identifies the 'dolichcephalc-blond', the brachycephalic-brunette' and 'The Mediterranean' all possess similar traits which are portioned out to different degrees in adaptation to the development of the institutions of the society in which they live. Genetic determinations in his book largely concern physical stature- different 'bone intensities' between the sexes which, however, do not irrevocably determine the position or status of women in society which is actually the result of predation and the mechanism of pecuniary interest that characterize the leisure class. Some individuals might possesses a physical superiority which makes them better fitted for 'barbarian' practice but also for the role of industrial worker though the traits of such groups are quite different.

In his discussion of various ethnic groups an astute reader can easily see to whom he is referring- the peaceful Menomites and industrious German farmers. the Scot-Irish frontier settlers, the Glascow businessmen, the common Irish, the Jews and the English whom he always identifies as the chief predatory type, the 'blond' denoting the Viking-like proclivities of that class of people. The distinctions apparent in the different groupings of the Native inhabitants of the 'Occidental' hemisphere are also analogized. The parody and abstract typology are clearly intended to avoid any direct confrontation with the 'extreme chauvinistic nationalism' of his time which continue to exist in our own and was a relatively successful tactic; though he was fired from many positions at universities, he alway managed to get another somewhere.

Devout Observances of the Leisure Class
It is easily seen that the devout observances characteristic of the leisure classes in Veblen's time have been to some lesser and greater degrees transferred to the News and Political Parties, despite the forward development of scientific skepticism- greater attention away from animistic and anthropomorphic belief and habits of mind towards material cause and effect characteristic of advance industrial society-as exampled in the comments on PBS Newshour Facebook page, a large proportion of which are genuflectuary in character: expressions of devout confidence in what they have been told with very little critical content, and clearly reflective  of the habitual sense of personal status- a relation of mastery and subserviance which fits into 'the industrial scheme of predatory and quasi-peaceful culture'

The same holds true for the fans of other News media- The NYTimes, Fox, CNN-the differences in style being analogous to the variety churches and sects of Veblen's time.The same holds true for the Political Parties, the principle figures in them as well as government officials in general, who often attain a status of 'near divinity', whose practices are riddled with devout , repetitive ceremonies and the usual (though often formal only) expectation of personal austerity and moral probity which in the past was as accorded members of the priesthood or clergy whose sermons and discourses are of an un-intellectual  or anti-intellectual character.

"The guiding habits of thought of a devout person move on the plane of the archaic scheme of life which has outlived much of its usefulness for the economic exstgencies of the collective life today. In so far as the economic organization fits the extingencies of the collective life today, it has outlived the regime of status and has no use and no place for a relation of personal subserviency. So far as concerns the economic efficiency of the community, the sentiment of personal fealty, the general (predatory) habit of mind of which that sentiment is an expression, are survivals which cumber the ground and hinder inadequate adjustment to the existing situation."

"The habit of mind which best lends itself to the purposes of a peaceable, industrial community, is that matter-of-fact temper which recognizes the value of material facts simply as opaque items in a mechanical sequence. It is a frame of mind which does not instinctvely impute an animistic propensity to things ( it is not interested in 'games of chance'), nor resort to preternatural intervention as an explanation of perplexing phenomena ( God's special love for America) nor depend on an unseen hand to shape the course of events to human use ( e.g. being convinced that the Presidents 'messaging' has a decisive impact on the problems of inequality and bigotry). To meet the requirements of the highest economic efficiency under modern conditions (global warming etc), the world process must habitually be apprehended in terms quantitative, dispassionate force and sequence."


 Veblen identifies certain traits that are initially present yet alien to the devout life in its animistic and anthropomorphic stages in the barbarian and quasi-peaceful , largely predatory economy that later develop into non- invidious interests compatible with an advanced modern economy.

Survivals  of Non-Invidious Interests in the Devout Observances of the Leisure Class

Among the alien motives which effect the devout scheme in its later stages are charity and socal good fellowship or conviviality; the various expressions of the sense of human solidarity and sympathy, together with non-reverent sense of aesthetic congruity with the environment mostly derived from the ancient habit of purposeful activity so inimical to the invidious and predatory schemes of the leisure classes. These motives can sometimes be identified as a disapproval of the futility and waste of human life, activities that only serve individual gain at the cost of the collectivity or other social groups and marked by a tendency to depreciate the infliction of pain as well as discredit marauding enterprises. Veblen characterizes these benevolent motives or traits as proto-anthropoid, reversions to a cultural stage that may be possibly characterized as sub-human.

" So far as concerns the chance of survival of individuals endowed with an exceptionally large share of these primitive states, the sheltered position of this class favors its members directly by withdrawing them from the pecuniary struggle; but indirectly, through the leisure class canons of conspicuous waste of goods and effort, the institutions of a leisure class lessens the chance of survival of such individuals in the entire population.

The 'decent' requirements of waste absorb the surplus energy of the population in an invidious struggle that leaves no margin for the non-invidious expressions. The canons of what is regarded as a decent life in the leisure class are an elaboration of of the predatory principle of invidious comparison and they accordingly act consistently to inhibit all non-invidious effort and to inculcate the self-regarding attitude."

Reading Theory of the Leisure Class and interacting with my professorial friends on Facebook got me wondering if searching for historical analogues is most fruitful in the historiographical sense, whether in light of new perspectives and unearthed evidences the theories and explanations of past historians can now be said to 'hold water'- or how far they do or don't- whereas contemporary events are unique to such extent that they don't much resemble what happened 'eons ago' or whenever (say the 'lessons of Watergate' in regard to Mr. Trump) and tell very little about how we should proceed today with any real cogency, however entertaining they often are ( they certainly inspire people to read books they might not have otherwise). For example, some general ideas in circulation today may seem reproduce those that have circulated in the past- 'freedom' ,'brotherhood', 'charity', entepenuerialship' etc- even stated in sentences in exactly the same way- but have a very different meaning and significance in contemporary debate and inspire people to act in ways that would be inimical to the intentions to those who used and acted upon those words in the past. Self-regard inspires us to believe that by stint of great effort and loads of experience  certain principles of natural law do indeed inhere in the in conduct of human affairs on this planet and they provide reliable guides the the course of events in our day, if only the human mind were a natural thing!. However, being largely ignorant of the past or holding tenaciously to the fallacies about the past promoted by various 'experts', pundits and politicians is not wanted either so my wonderings do have the aspect of a leaky boat.