Sunday, May 19, 2024

Edward Said's Marxism by Timothy Brennan

It is reasonable to agree with the Irish poet Seamus Deane that Said was not a Marxist, but only if we recognize the wildly different degrees to which one can be ‘not a Marxist.’ Like other opponents of U.S. foreign policy, Said was at times libeled as a sympathizer with ‘Soviet totalitarianism.’ The charge was absurd, yet it should not go unnoted that many of the intellectuals to whom he was drawn supported the Soviet Union for much of their lives. These included E. P. Thompson, Emile Habibi,  J. D. Bernal, Sadik Al-Azm, and, of course, Gramsci and Lukacs. Even more apt, given his professional interests, was the generation of third world authors who got their start as writing fellows in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other parts of the Soviet bloc. These included his ally and correspondent Ranajit Guha, a historian of South Asia, the Kenyan author and critic Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Palestinian poet laureate and close friend Mahmoud Darwish.

Said had always been clear about rejecting membership in communist organizations for both practical and political reasons. But Soviet realpolitik in the Middle East, although a mixed blessing, inspired communist groups within Arab nationalism generally. It was so interwoven with the politics of everyday life that from a Palestinian perspective it was simply part of the landscape and not at all an alien intrusion. At other times, he pretended incomprehension, implausibly turning down a request to be on the board of a left political organization with which she was affiliated on the grounds that ‘I am most unknowledgeable about Soviet history, and more particularly, the history of Marxism; I would therefore feel like a complete idiot.’

From as early as 1969, Said’s self-positioning vis-à-vis Marxism and his conditional praise for Soviet foreign policy in the Middle East was openly stated. He repeatedly questioned, though, whether a Marxism devised in the West could ever be relevant outside it: ‘I have yet to see –to my mind- a satisfactory translation of Marxism into Arab or Third World terms.’ For all of Arab nationalism’s heroism and rectitude, he once describe it as borrowed and inauthentic and for that reason too ‘inexpensive.’ Arriving already completed elsewhere, it could never feel the impress of a genuinely Arab stamp. So too communism. In the United States, the organizational Left was so bogged down in debates about whether racism or class struggle was more important that it had little to offer the Palestinian struggle, which is one of the chief reasons he never considered formally joining its ranks.

Apart from a brief visit to Poland on his Guggenheim Fellowship in Beirut, he never set foot in a Soviet bloc country, even at the height of his fame, although invitations were extended. On the other hand, he provoked Hitches in a revealing moment of anger: ‘Do you know something I have never done in my political career? I have never publically criticized the Soviet Union  .  .  . The Soviets have never done anything to harm me, or us.’ For all the media outcry against ‘tenured radicals’ and Marxist indoctrination in the university, most of the academic Left distanced itself from Marxism or turned it into a docile lifestyle transgression.  Said was scrupulous about never doing either.

Marxism for Said, at any rate, was always something larger and older than its twentieth-century Soviet and Middle Eastern forms. At its most honorable, it was part of a tradition of the Left that reached back to a time before Marx. His investment in Vico, one could say, was precisely to resurrect an earlier counter-tradition based on giving dignity back to human labor, to the agency of ordinary people making history, to the class struggles that created the first republics, and to the spirit of humanist breadth rejecting narrow specialization and, like Marx, boldly weighing in on political theory and economics in a poetic spirit. In that light, he delightfully invoked the medieval reformer Cola di Rienzo as one of the founders of humanist thought. Rienzo, the son of a washerwoman and a tavern keeper, an avenger of the abuses of noblemen, and a denouncer of aristocrats, was a brilliant rabble-rouser, having steeped himself in the work of the Latin poets and orators in order to use their rhetorical techniques to unify Italy.

Said alluded to other moments of the historical left by way of Rabelais Abbaye Theleme, an anti-authoritarian idyll described in Gargantua and Pantagruel ( 1532), a place where one was able to achieve intellectual and physical fulfilment, free from drudgery and submission to authority. Apart from show the prehistory of Marx’s criticism from below, Said was looking to take humanism out of the hands of self-righteous cultural warriors. He had in mind, among others, Hilton Kramer’s neoconservative journal The New Criterion, for example, whose contributors were busy pontificating about these same classics of ‘Western Civilization” as he was, but for the very different purpose of calling those who exposed the crimes of imperial culture barbarians.

His appraisal of the Left was careful to avoid the balancing act of George Orwell and other self-styled ‘socialists’ whose art was  to elude middlebrow censure by denouncing leftist gods – a formula Said knew well from the late journalism of Hitchens and the writing of Leszek Kolakowski, Conor Cruise O’Brian, and others with whom  he fought bitterly over the years. In piece after piece, we see him running interference for the Left, humanizing communists and Marxist intellectuals by getting others to see them as full members of a collective intellectual  endeavor. Doling out strategic praise for authors he wanted others to read, he promoted a list of broadly social democratic exposes of U.S. foreign policy and the domestic surveillance state. He particularly loved on-the-ground studies of institutional complicity, citing on more than one occasion Frances Stoner Saunders on the cultural Cold War, Nadia Abu el-Haj on the fictions of Israeli archeology, or Carol Gruber’s Mars and Minerva, a study of the ways that universities turned themselves into instruments of the War Department during World War I.

“Traveling Theory,’ one of his most quoted essays, was all about the sapping of intellectual vigor as Marxist concepts like ‘totality’ and ‘reification’ moved away from revolutionary commitments in the actual struggle of parties and movements towards a decontextualized serenity. There are, of course, many instances when Said articulates explicitly liberal rather than Marxist political perspective, not only casting suspicion on abusive governments but finding in the very logic of institutions the threat of a new tyranny. The classically liberal model of the fragile individual pitted against organizations can be seen in “Secular Criticism’ when he singles out the unlikely trio of T. S. Eliot’s Anglican mandarinate, Lukac’s vanguard party, and Freud’s psychoanalytic community for sharing ‘vestiges of the kind of authority associated in the past with filiative order’- that is, for losing all reason and fairness when dealing with those outside its ideological ‘family.’ As in liberal thought generally, the private individual is portrayed as inevitably threatened by the hierarchy of groups, parties, and parliaments.

Hints of this same centrism can be found in his enthusiasm for Gramsci’s contemporary Piero Gobetti, who even inspires a slogan in Culture and Imperialism: ‘the Gobetti factor.’  As a passionate, young literary intellectual, Gobetti represented for Said a detached philosophical erudition placed in the service of mass mobilization. Gobetti, like Gramsci, was a student at the University of Turin whose outlook changed forever after he witnessed the young Gramsci’s skillful role in the Turin labor movement. More than anyone in his generation, Gobetti grasped Gramsci’s lesson that it was vital to connect the South, ‘whose poverty and vast labor pool,’ Said wrote, ‘are inertly vulnerable to northern economic policies and power, with the North that is dependent upon it.’ But, again like Said, he was less radical than Gramsci, in solidarity with the Italian Communist Party but never a member of it. During the fascist period Gobetti found that the only consistent and effective defenders of liberal ideals were the organized Left. In that regard, Said implied, aligning himself with the Left only reluctantly and pragmatically, he was the Gobetti of his time.

Yet this too appeared to be another Comradian mask, for there were many counterexamples. In a sardonic aside he once commented that ‘we liberals’ call a situation complex as ‘a rhetorical signal .  .  .before a lie is to be pronounced or when a grave and immoral complicity with injustice is about to be covered up.’ Although he conceded the influence of Will Rogers-like boldness and clarity of the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, for instance, he was not impressed by his ‘peremptory liberalism’ and hated his America-first politics. Because of his distaste for liberal hypocrisy, close colleagues judged Said ‘basically Marxist,’ although of course not a communist.

On the other hand, while acknowledging Said’s regard for twentieth-century Marxist philosophers, Al-Azm thought ‘the fundamental structures of his analysis .  .  .never Marxist,’ and his Marxism ‘cosmetic.’ Chomsky shared this assessment, challenging anyone to show him where, at any point in Said’s work, Marxism enters as a serious analytic principle. Deirdre Bergson, a close friend who earlier in life had been active in the Trotskyist movements in South Africa, delighted in Said’s confession in his Haverford College commencement speech that he should have studied economics more seriously, but she complained (very inaccurately, it turns out) that he never said a word in any of his works about class.

The attack on Marx in Orientalism seemed for many to settle the issue of Said’s real sympathies. There, in a move that scholars rightly censured, he corralled Marx into the camp of John Stewart Mill as a man convinced of the inferiority of Indians. And yet one had only to look at Said’s alert and prolonged close readings of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte  in ‘On Repetition’ to get the opposite impression. And in the very months that he was writing Orientalism, his support for the German communist was stalwart, and even a little defensive:

It’s been said about Marx that he saw this struggle as something exclusively economic; that’s a serious falsification .  .  . He was perfectly aware that the struggle was materially expressed and economically characterizable, but he was, I think, enormously sensitive to the shaping dialectic, to the intangible but very real figurations, to the internal unisons  and dissonances the struggle produced. That is the difference between him and Hobbes, who saw life as nasty, brutish, and short.


Here, at any rate, Said was clearly accusing bourgeois thought (in the person of Hobbes) of a crude materialism and saying that Marx himself was, among other things, a very early and invaluable cultural critic. What reservations he had seemed designed to encourage third-world intellectuals to free themselves from European icons, no matter how liberatory. And he was eager to show he wanted nothing to do with ‘solidarity before criticism,’ a phrase he often used to express how dangerous it was when allies keep silent about each other’s mistakes in the name of a common cause. Even Marx, he was implying, a giant of liberation and ethical integrity, could not entirely escape Eurocentrism.

His critique of Marxists, interestingly, was frequently from the left. He complained that professors had diminished the revolutionary force of Marxism by turning it into ‘principally a reading technique.’ He was also protective, even agitated, when the core of Marx’s writings were treated ineptly or gutted by the politically enfranchised. In a reader’s report on Geoffrey Hartman’s Criticism in the Wilderness in 1976, for example, he found it unforgivable that the author had ‘swept the whole matter of Marxism and its relationship to Hegelian philosophy out of the room.’ Samuel Huntington’s tribalist creed The Clash of Civilizations (1996) conducted its arguments without any attention to ‘the globalization of capital.’ He quoted Oscar Wilde’s Soul of Man Under Socialism – ‘no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering’ – adding that for that reason agitators are needed to bring it to consciousness.

Especially in Said’s writings on Palestine do the calculations of political economy and the dilemmas of class tensions associated with Marxism play a prominent role. In ‘The Future of Palestine: A Palestinian View,’ he laid out what he flatly called ‘the class role of the intellectual.” Again and again, he zeroes on the weakness of the ‘Arab bourgeoisie,’ which had been unable to create civil society, and so yielded to its intolerable alternative, the ‘national security state’ while assaulting the Arab free marketeers in his late writing for the Middle East newspapers.

It is reasonable to say, then, that Al-Azm and Chomsky were incorrect to think that the economic and sociological tenets of Marxism were never integral to Said’s  analysis. They are, on the contrary, particularly evident in his study on the ground of the Arab private sector in The End of the Peace Process, but not only there. Aghast at the low level of organization and theoretical awareness among the militants in Beirut in 1972, he gave a structural, rather than personal or partisan, explanation of the morass:


[We find] the mode of production and mode of distribution to be respectively, immediate consumption and dispersion. I mean something like this: since the society is essentially a surface, an exterior, it has no memory, no sense of dimension .  .  .This production, paradoxically, is consumption .  .  . You product an idea, a product, a movement, only to have it happen- it lasts only for the consumption .  .  . There is no history.

While engaging its modes of thought and conceptual apparatus, he did, it is true, resist Marxism a well,, but for one reason alone: its partisans had not creatively adapted it.



Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Notes on The Age of Entitlement by Christopher Caldwell


Speaking of the political consequences of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 Caldwell suggests that tempting though it might be to attack discrimination at its root, the cure could wind up worse than the disease, as Leo Strauss warned:

‘The prohibition against every ‘discrimination’ would mean the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between the state and society, the destruction of liberal society.’

When court cases do not arise ‘naturally’ out of a country’s ordinary social frictions but are confected by interested parties, doesn’t the entire tradition of  judicial review lose its legitimacy, Caldwell asked. Today, the ‘staging’ of court cases is such a standard strategy for activist litigators that even many lawyers are unaware that until the 1950s it was widely considered a straightforward species of judicial corruption, and not just in the South.

The Acts that had been intended to normalize  American culture and cure the gothic paranoia of the Southern racial imagination instead wound up nationalizing Southerners  obsession with race and violence, the author asserts.

The polarization that faces Americans in the second decade of the twenty-first century has many causes. Most were long developing economic and social shifts,. The Roe vs Wade decision was an exception. The decision was sloppily argued. It rested on a nonce right to ‘privacy’ established by Griswold vs Connecticut that was only ever invoked for the ulterior purpose of defending abortion.  In countless important privacy cases that have come before the court in the half century since, covering everything from internet surveillance of terrorists to GPS tracking of automobiles, the Griswold/Roe ‘privacy right’ never came up. Brown vs Board of Education may not have been a forensic masterpiece, either, and the line of civil rights cases from Katzenbach to Bakke didn’t exactly shine for its constitutional logic – but powerful political pressures were then bearing down on Americans regarding their historical responsibility for slavery, and these were enough to override majority misgivings. Roe was different. It pronounced on an issue in which Americans were divided, and frozen those divisions in place. It laid down a fundamental moral and even religious order on a fickle and frivolous basis. .  .  .

Feminism was potentially a rich intellectual current. It is close to that part of Western philosophy that, since Rousseau, has speculated on what is ‘natural’ to humans and what has been conferred (or imposes) on them by civilization. The first-wave feminism of the nineteenth century was built on the Bible and the Fourteenth Amendment. Second-wave feminism was a moral work in progress. Happily it had no respect for superstition. Less happily, it cast as superstition any tradition that could not justify itself in one sentence. Very little that passed for sexual common sense in the middle of twentieth century would be standing by the end of it . . .

There is a limit to how hard one can strain against a mythology. Sexuality,  the font of human life, is fickle, mysterious, contingent. It is not always subject to will, to put it mildly, and sometimes seems to blow in like the weather. A mythology that moralizes sex may do something to shelter a delicate flame. It is hard to say exactly what, but there must be a reason that flourishing fertile, creative societies tend to be conservative about sex.

The modern impulse to rationalize human relations undermined conservatism, and threatened to take the ground rules of sexual relations down with it. As early as the 1920s, the English philosopher Bertrand Russell had warned that the establishment of welfare states risked turning not just the economy but everything upside-down, because the state would replace the father as protector and provider. Breaking the traditional family structure might look rational, modern and sensible. Nonetheless, Russel wrote:

‘if this should occur, we must expect a complete breakdown of traditional morality, since there will no longer be any reason why a mother should wish the paternity of her child be indubitable .  . Whether the effect on men would be good or bad, I do not venture to say. It would eliminate from their lives the only emotion equal in importance to sex love. It would make sex love itself more trivial. It would make it far more difficult to take an interest in anything after one’s death. It would make men less active and probably cause them to retire earlier from work. It would diminish their interest in history and their sense of the continuity of historical tradition.’

Here Russell, enthusiast for sexual freedom as he was, was willing to go out on a limb. Citing the ebb of paternal feeling in the Roman empire and among the upper classes in his own time, he warned that an un-superstitious attitude towards family formation would ultimately threaten Western countries with de-sexualization:

‘My belief is, though I put it forward with some hesitation, that the elimination of paternity as a recognized social relation would trend to make men’s emotional life trivial and thin, causing in the end a slowly growing boredom and despair, in which procreation would gradually die out, leaving the human race to be replenished by stocks that had preserved the older convention.’

 .  .  .  . Hyper-sexualization might be a mask worn by de-sexualization. What is thrilling, fulfilling, and functional about sexuality might be wrapped up in the very ‘complexes’ about sexuality that crusaders for sexual freedom and other reformers insist on getting rid of.

For a while, starting in 1963, when Timothy Leary was ejected from Harvard for his ‘demonstrations’ of LSD, drugs were the spiritual solution with which that generation’s protestors were most closely identified. ‘To arrive at the unknown by disordering all the senses,’ as the French poet Arthur Rimbaud put it, was a cause on a par with making love, not war. People used drugs with particular ardor for only  about two decades until, around 1985, the government cracked down on them and young people decided they were not a liberty wort defending. In the years after that, the ‘head’, the ‘stoner’, faded out of the story of the 1960s, like some reprobate who enlivens the early pages of a gothic novel but whom the author loses track of as the action picks up.

Maybe the problem with drugs was that they were an affront to one vital component of countercultural thinking, religious or not: tye idea of purity. Somewhere out there was the ‘real’ America, unspoiled, unexposed to the influence of television and shopping, un-manipulated by politicians. Americans of the sixties and seventies sought out places where the twentieth century had not done its awful work on the national character.


 [ Caldwell uses the example of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974); another good example might be Gary Snyder’s Smokey Bear Sutra (1969), ]

A certain cultural environmentalism was a natural accompaniment of this rural hankering. It was not the mix of science, ethics and politics that we call environmentalism today and which, back then, was only just emerging under the name of ecology.’ It was more a Romantic way of life, in the sense that William Wordsworth (‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her’) was Romantic. Drawing from Western culture’s deep well of ideas about simplicity and authenticity, it was, while it lasted, something you could partake of even in a truck or on a mortorcycle. It meant natural ingredients, home cooking, family values as defined in some past era, folk and country music, all kinds of crafts, the grumpy novels of Edward Abbey, backpacking, and the Whole Earth Catalogue.

[ see ].

The expression ‘American Dream’ is not an ancient one and has had its ups and downs. It was invented only in 1931 by the historian James Truslow Adams and caught on a bit in that decade, only to fall out of fashion in the 1940s. It owes its near-omnipresence in today’s political discourse to two periods when it was very much in fashion, In the seven years between 1963 ( the year King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech and the first Baby Boomers left high school) and the end of the decade, its usage more than doubled. In the seven years between 1986  ( the year the last Baby Boomers left college) and 1993 (the year Bill Clinton, the first Baby Boomer president, took office after twelve years of Reaganism, its usage went up by nearly 50 percent.

Dreams were where Americans lived. An unwillingness to recognize the limits of reality and common sense in any walk of life became the signature of their political rhetoric, of their corporate marketing, and even of their national culture . . .The problem came from how these dreams were to be managed. In social life, questioning limits means not bowing down to anything. In economics, questioning limits means not paying for anything. At first, American Baby Boomers appeared to be doing with little effort what other generations had only managed to do by the sweat of their brows. But that was an illusion. What they were doing was using their generation’s voting power to arrogate future generation’s labor, and trading it to other nations and peoples for labor now. Reaganism meant  Reaganomics. Reaganomics meant debt.

Keynesian economists had believed that higher taxes could make the economy not only fairer but more efficient. Rich people tended to sock their money away as savings. A progressive government could dislodge it via taxes and invest it in big projects, pumping up demand as it did. But this argument became harder to defend after FDR’s infrastructure state gave way to LBJ’s welfare state. ‘Supply-side’ economists now argue, with considerable cogency, that when government collected too much from ‘the rich’, potentially productive concentrations of investment capital were eroded, and spooned back into society in bites of welfare too small to be used for anything but immediate consumption. Tax cuts became the order of the day but spending was not diminished.

Consider affirmative action – unconstitutional under the traditional order, compulsory under the new.- which exacted a steep price from white incumbents in the jobs they held, in the  prospects of career advancement for their children, in their status as citizens. Such a program could be made palatable to white voters only if they could be offered compensating advantages. A government that was going to make an overwhelming majority of voters pay the cost of affirmative action had to keep unemployment low, home values rising, and living standards high. Reaganomics was just a name for governing under a merciless contradiction that no one could admit was there: Civil rights was important enough that people could not be asked to wait for it, but unpopular enough that people could not be asked to pay for it.

Ronald Reagan saved the Great Society in the same way that Franklin Roosevelt is credited by his admirers with having ‘saved capitalism.’ That is, he tamed some of its worst excesses and found the resources to protect his own angry voters from consequences they would otherwise have found intolerable. That is what the tax cuts were for. Each of the two sides that emerged from the battles of the 1960s could comport itself as if it had won. There was no need to raise the taxes of a suburban entrepreneur in order to hire more civil rights enforcement officers at the Department of Education. There was no need to lease out oil-drilling rights in a national park in order to pay for an aircraft carrier. Failing to win a consensus for the revolutions of the 1960s, Washington instead bought off through tax cuts those who stood to lose from them. Americans would delude themselves for decades that there was something natural about this arrangement. It was an age of entitlement.

Using resources taken from future generations, the Baby Boom generation was briefly able to offer a vision of an easy and indulgent lifestyle, convincing enough to draw vast numbers of people to construct it, like the pyramids or the medieval cathedrals or the railroads.

The big problem with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was that it bred inequality. Its role in doing so was as significant as that of other factors more commonly blamed: information technology, world trade, tax cuts. In 1995, the economist George Borjas, writing in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, modeled the actual effects of immigration on Americans. He found that while immigration might have caused an increase in economic activity of $2.1 trillion, virtually all those gains – 98 percent- went to the immigrants themselves. When economists talk about ‘gains’ from immigration to the receiving country, they are talking about the remaining 2 percent – about $50 billion. This 450 billion ‘’surplus’ disguises an extraordinary transfer of income and wealth. Native capitalists gain $566 billion,. Native workers lose $516 billion.

One way of describing mass immigration is as a verdict on the pay structure that had arisen in the West by the 1970s: on trade unions, prevailing-wage laws, defined-benefit pension plans, long vacations, and the power workers had accumulated against their bosses more generally. These had long been, in most people’s minds, excellent things. But Republicans argued that private business, alas, could not afford them, and by the 1980s  they had won the argument. Immigration like outsourcing and tighter regulation of unions, allowed employer to pay less for many kinds of labor. But immigrants came with other huge costs: new schools, new roads, translation (formal and informal), and healthcare for those who could not afford it . Those externalities were absorbed by the public, not the businessmen who benefited from immigration.

Outsourcing was a similar windfall. Sending manufacturing jobs abroad offers consumers all the advantages of heavy industry and none of the pollution.  .  . pollution continued at the same rate, of course; It just involved deforesting Brazil instead of pouring bilge into Lake Erie. And it would be years before people began paying attention to the cost of permanent underemployment outside the country’s globalized cities.. .

If we were judging open immigration and outsourcing not as economic policies but as U.S. aide program’s for the world’s poor, we might consider them successes. But we are not. The cultural change, the race-based constitutional demotions of natives relative to newcomers, the weakening democratic grip of the public on its government as power disappeared into back rooms and courtroom, the staggeringly large distributions of wealth – all these things ensured that immigration would poison American politics right down until the presidential election of 2016. .  .  .


The Reagan administration’s model of deficit financing  was like the business deals that were going on at the same time. Leveraged buy-outs, which spread across the business world in the 1980s, involved borrowing against the assets of a company you didn’t own in order to buy it – at which point the borrowed money could be paid back by a combination of superior efficiencies (which often didn’t materialize) and pitiless sell-offs (which always did).This meant that financiers had to become more like politicians ( or enlist politicians to do their dirty work). They had to tell a story to convince the public they were advancing progress, not stripping assets. The economist and businessman Louis Kelso, who, like Lewis B. Cullman and many others, claimed to be the inventor of leveraged buy-outs, always described his financial innovation as a kind of shareholder democracy. Boardrooms were now the place for ‘activists’ – fighters and crusaders who wanted to earn billons, fix world hunger, or preferably both at the same time.

Up-and-coming businessmen like these were seldom Reaganites. They didn’t appear even to like Reagan. Why should they? Those profiting most in the 1980s were not, as Reagan’s oratory implied, government-hating small-town loners  dreaming big. Nor were they cigar-chomping robber barons, as his detractors would have it. Increasingly, they were highly credentialed people profiting off of financial deregulation and various computer systems that had been developed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the NASA space program. They were not throwbacks to William McKinley’s America but harbingers of Barack Obama’s. They were the sort of people you met at faculty clubs and editorial board meetings. Their idea of what constituted a shining city on a hill was different from the one held by the president who enriched them.

Political engagement and economic stratification came together in an almost official attitude known as snark, a sort of snobbery about other opinions that dismissed them as low-class without going to the trouble of refuting them. Why offer an argument when an eye roll would do? The targets of elite condescension  could be roughly identified as those Americans who made up the Reagan electorate, minus the richest people in it. A new social class was coming into being that had at its disposal both capitalism’s means and progressivism’s sense of righteousness. It would breathe life back into the 1960s projects around race, sex, and global order that had been interrupted by the conservative uprisings of the 1970s.  .  .

‘Political correctness’ became the name for the cultural effect of the basic enforcement powers of civil rights law. Those powers were surprisingly extensive, unexpectedly versatile, able to get beneath the integument of institutions  [through fear of litigation] that conservatives felt they had to defer to. Reagan had won conservatives over to the idea that ‘business’ was the innocent opposite of over-weaning ‘government.’ So what were conservatives supposed to do now that businesses were the hammer of civil rights enforcement, in the forefront of advancing affirmative action and political correctness ?

Corporate leaders, advertisers, and the great majority of the press came to a pragmatic accommodation with what the law required, how it worked, and the euphemisms with which it must be honored. All major corporations, all universities, all major government agencies had departments of personnel or ‘human resources’ – a phrase five times a prevalent in the 1980s as it had been in the 1960s. ‘Chief diversity officers’ and ‘diversity compliance officers,’ working inside companies, carried out functions that resembled those of the Soviet commissars. They would be consulted about whether a board meeting or a company picnic was sufficiently diverse.

The Rainbow curriculum that Joseph Fernandez was advancing in the early 1990s in Queens, for instance, had been laid out by his predecessor, Richard Green, in 1989 as a full-spectrum overthrow of everything in the New York school system, including its personnel. In Green’s words: ‘The commitment to multicultural education will permeate every aspect of educational policy, including counseling programs, assessment and testing, curriculum and instruction, representative staffing at all levels, and teaching materials.’ At a time when political conservatism was alleged to be triumphant, politics came under the dominance of progressive movements that had been marginal the day before yesterday: question in the Western literary canon, arguing that gays ought to be able to marry and adopt, suggesting that people could be citizens of more than one country and so on.. These disparate preoccupations did not spring up simultaneously by coincidence. They were old minoritarian impulses that could now, through the authority of civil rights law, override every barrier that democracy might see to erect against them.

Republicans and others who may have been uneasy that the constitutional baby had been thrown out with the segregationist bathwater consoled themselves with a myth: The ‘good’ civil rights movement that the martyred Martin Luther King Jr. had pursued in the 1960s had, they said, been ‘hijacked’ in the 1970s by a ‘radical’ one of affirmative action, with its quotas and diktats. Once the country came to its senses and rejected this optional, radical regime, it could have its good civil rights regime back. None of that was true.

Affirmative action and political correctness were the twin pillars of the second constitution. The were what civil rights was. They were not temporary. Affirmative action was deduced judicially from the curtailments on freedom of association tat the Civil Rights Act itself had put in place. Political correctness rested on a right to collective dignity extended by sympathetic judges who saw that, without such a right, forcing the races together would more likely occasion humiliation than emancipation. As long as Americans were  frightened of speaking against  civil rights legislation or, later, o being assailed as racists, sexists, homophobes, or xenophobes, their political representatives could resist nothing that presented itself in the name of ‘civil rights’. This meant that conflict, when it eventually came, would be constitutional conflict, with all the gravity that the adjective ‘constitutional’ implies.

[The rest of the book is an account of the winners and losers that resulted from the transformation of the demand for civil rights into the demand for human rights but with out much consideration for the role this has played in the justification for the U.S.’s  hegemonic foreign policies; see ]

Friday, March 29, 2024

The Anthropological Disagreement Between the Bible and Philosophy by Daniel Tanguay

In its simplest expression, the disagreement between Greek philosophy and the Bible has to do with what is, in Leo Strauss’s words, ‘that which supplements or completes morality.’ This search for a supplement to morality presupposes that Jerusalem as well as Athens perceives the insufficiency of morality for leading a complete human life. Morality alone cannot resolve the problem of man’s end. It can acquire a meaning only if it is completed by something that both goes beyond and grounds it. This is why Strauss places the question of the supplement to morality and that of its basis on the same footing. The ultimate  vindication of morality – that is, of obedience to the law- will be furnished at the moment that the supplement to morality is found. Yet the Bible and Greek philosophy respond to the question of the supplement in diametrically opposed manners: whereas for philosophy the supplement is theoria (the contemplative life), for the Bible it is ‘piety, the need for divine mercy or redemption, obedient love.’

Strauss does not think of this opposition in abstract terms. It is an opposition between two ways of life and ways or responding to the most important question for man: ‘How should I live my life?’  With reference to Weber, Strauss summarizes the problem that confronts all men: if they need to know the good in order to live, can men acquire knowledge of the good by means of their natural faculties or must they depend upon a divine revelation in order to obtain this knowledge? Two paths then open before them: that of human or divine guidance. One cannot evade this choice since no synthesis of the two attitudes exists that can pass the test of an honest examination. These two attitudes are fundamentally antagonistic, ‘for both philosophy and the Bible proclaim something as the one needful, as the only thing that ultimately counts, and the one thing needful proclaimed by the Bible is the opposite of that proclaimed by philosophy: a life of obedient love versus a life of free insight.’ To these two opposite attitudes correspond two different ways of life. Philosophy is a way of life to the same extent that a life of obedience to the law is away of life. Strauss thinks that before being a body of doctrines or a collection of positions, philosophy is in fact a mode of life animated by a particular passion: philosophic eros. The philosophers who share this way of life group themselves into a ‘sect’ (the adherents to philosophy’) which, by the very fact of its existence, comes into conflict with other sects. What distinguishes this particular sect from other sects is that each of its members has decided to devote his life to the search for the answer to the question ‘What is the best way of life’ by using only the powers of reason, rather than simply obeying the law given by tradition.

Perhaps nothing can bring out the contrast of these two ways of life better than the human sentiment that lies at their origins. Whereas the beginning of philosophy is wonder, the beginning of wisdom for the Bible is the fear of God. According to Strauss, the philosopher lives beyond fear and trembling, as well as beyond hope. For the philosopher there is no final redemption, no end of evil, no messianic reign – things that all presuppose for their fulfilment the intervention of an omnipotent God who relaxes  the grip of necessity that governs nature. This purely contemplative attitude towards the world also tends to weaken the force of moral demands. This theoretical and contemplative attitude towards the world is in fact a fundamentally  trans-social, trans-political, and, we would dare to say in the spirit of Strauss, a trans-moral attitude. The gaze with which the philosopher looks at the world is a gaze indifferent to the distinction between the beautiful and the ugly, good and evil. More precisely, if he sees the various workings of these ideas, he has for the most part become insensible to their influence: he sees because he masters his heart. He contemplates the reign of necessity within the real, and this contemplation is for him the experience that vindicates his very existence. Strauss, at the very end of a public lecture, revealed almost brutally the meaning of philosophical activity and its amor Dei intellectualis:  ‘we cannot exert our understanding without from time to time understanding something of importance, and this act of understanding may be accompanied by an awareness of our understanding, by the understanding of understanding, by noesis noeseos, and this so high, so pure, so noble an experience that Aristotle could ascribe it to his God. The experience is entirely independent of whether what we understand primarily is pleasing or displeasing, fair or ugly. It leads us to realize that all evils are in a sense necessary if there is to be understanding.’ Philosophy is intrinsically edifying not because it dictates morality, but because it manifests the dignity of the human mind through its contemplative activity. Evil can be understood as a manifestation of natural necessity. Rather than rebelling against evil and suffering, the philosopher perceives all things as if they were manifestations of the necessity or destiny that governs the Whole.

The philosophic attitude thus comes with a certain moral harshness. Strauss recognizes thus fact when he highlights the contrast between the biblical attitude and the philosophic attitude with regard to the poor. While the Bible makes of the poor a synonym from the just. Greek philosophy does not consider poverty a virtue. To the contrary, it seems that the exercise of virtue presupposes economic independence, which is perhaps the image for the independence of heart necessary for the freedom of the mind. Poverty in itself does not have a moral value; it is not glorified by Greek philosophy. Strauss further illustrates this anthropological contrast between the Bible and Greek philosophy by contrasting Greek magnanimity to biblical humility. Magnanimity, as described by Aristotle, seems to be the highest virtue since it concerns man as an individual and not in his relationship to others. The magnanimous man is he who, conscious of his worth, can claim those honors that he knows he deserves. Magnanimity presupposes that man can strive toward virtue and even become virtuous by his own powers. Hence the consciousness of sin, past faults, and remorse, or feelings of shame, are foreign to the genuinely magnanimous man. The feeling of guilt belongs to the tragic or the common man, not to the magnanimous man. Yet it is precisely the feeling of guilt that is at the origin of the two feelings characteristic of religion: fear and pity. Pity is born of the guilt man feels for those he has wounded, and fear is born of the anticipated revenge for the fault committed.

Those feelings that give birth to the fear of God are precisely those that Greek philosophy seeks to eliminate from the heart of the genuinely virtuous man. If tragedy has a cathartic effect, it is indeed by freeing man’s heart from the type of feeling that destroy man’s self-esteem and confidence in his own powers. The fear of God constrains man to look into his own heart so as to test the purity of his motives. For God, the only judge, reads men’s hearts. Yet, according to the opinions of philosophers, God does not concern himself with human beings. Thus man must find the good by relying on his own resources alone. From such a perspective, biblical humility is an unreasonable attitude, indeed, even foolish. It can in fact vindicate itself only if we have assurance that a God, who is king and judge, concerns himself with the general order of the world and, even more, with the particular fate of each individual. Faced with such a God, humility makes sense since no man can claim to vie for sanctity with the one who is the source of all sanctity.


One cannot learn from Greek philosophy the humility necessary to discover the meaning of the words: ‘Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.’ On the contrary, here a man will learn to take more pride in his own intelligence than in regulating his behavior in accord with the Divine Word. For him, the beginning of wisdom is not the fear of a God he does not know, but wonder before a nature that veils and at the same time unveils itself. Strauss illustrates the whole difference that separates the philosophic from the religious attitude. The very model of obedient faith is embodied by Abraham, who, although he does not grasp the meaning of God’s injunction ordering him to sacrifice his son Isaac, obeys the divine command. Socrates’ response to the Delphic Oracle is altogether characteristic of the philosophic attitude. He does not consider Apollo’s judgment, according to which he is the wisest of men, as final. Instead, he seeks to test its validity. He substitutes rational examination of the divine command for blind obedience. This idea of an examination conducted by means of one’s own resources alone indicates the presence of another disagreement that brings the anthropological disagreement to completion. For lack of a better expression, we call this disagreement methodological, by which we mean that Jerusalem and Athens envision reality according to two fundamentally distinct approaches or methods. Of course, we do not mean methods in the modern sense of the term, but rather in the larger sense of away of apprehending reality . . .

We maintain that the fundamental ontological distinction for Strauss was that which separates ‘to be in truth’ from ‘to be by virtue of law or convention.’ It was by recognizing this distinction that philosophy came into the world. The birth of philosophy is contemporaneous with the theoretical emancipation from what is first for man, that is, ‘being by virtue or law or convention.’ Need one spell out that the law here in question  is the political law that is supported by a divine law, or, in other words, the theological-political law that organizes the way of life of each particular city? The moment this given law becomes problematic, philosophy can take flight. The given law can become problematic only if it is judged from a point of view outside itself. This external point of view will be the idea of nature that precedes and overshadows all codes and particular laws.

Before this discovery of nature, the good was identified quite simply with custom or way. Each thing had its way of being: each living being  follows away of behavior; each people or tribe has its way regulated by a set of customs. Each group considers its customs to be supreme. To enhance the dignity of its customs, each group attributes to them a long-ago ancestral origin. Understanding this to be the work of the gods lends even more dignity to the code that expresses the particular way of the group. The ancestral law of the group is therefore also a divine law. The divine law commands obedience and regulates before and all conflicts  with regards to the just and unjust. It is therefore by authority of divine law that the understanding of both what is just and unjust and the correct life are defined. The authority of the law establishes how the first things are to understood as well as the norms of behavior. .  .  .

The first philosophic experience is perplexity at the contradictory character of the character of the divine codes and the calling into the question of the authority that supports them .  .  .

The Bible teaches that God is mindful of man and that man has in faith the experience of the care that God lavishes upon him. God is not blind necessity ruling over nature but a person who concerns himself with the good of his creatures. The authentic religious experience is an entering into dialogue with this God who summons man. Yet is precisely this type of interpretation of the experience of what surpasses man that poses a problem for Greek philosophy . . .the opposition between the biblical conception of God and the Greek philosophic conception of an impersonal reign of necessity is at the theological and metaphysical heart of the conflict between ( to use metaphor) Jerusalem and Athens.(etc.)

[But here’s ‘the hitch': in Strauss’s formulation the opposition between Revelation and Philosophy  in the anthropological and methodological senses is not dialectical, no synthesis can be obtained; philosophy is ‘contaminated’ with religion and religion is ‘contaminated’ with philosophy and this, in Strauss’s view, is what defines the ‘new thinking’ of modernity, as the author writes:]

In the final analysis, it is the impossibility of philosophy to refute the biblical understanding of God that keeps the conflict between Jerusalem and Athens open. The genuine argument against revelation would in effect have to be able to exclude absolutely the hypothesis of the existence of an omnipotent and mysterious God. Yet philosophy has always failed to produce a rational system that would make all of reality transparent, divine action included. Strauss thinks neither Spinoza nor Hegel succeeded in this enterprise.