Thursday, December 20, 2012

They Don’t Owe Us, We Owe Them

Whatever their actual motives, when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil made their celebrated deal to save Social Security, what they actually set in motion was a slow motion raid on the nation’s pension system. The increase in the payroll tax did not pay for current benefits; instead, it kept the Federal budget afloat during an era of lower and lower tax rates on the higher brackets. The net effect was a transfer of wealth and income from bottom to top. The deal didn’t even safeguard the long term health of the system because those who have always despised it have never counted the Federal bonds the system have accumulated during the long period of surplus as a legitimate investment.  Now that we face the prospect that some of the accrued savings may actually have to be paid back at some point, we’re hearing anguished screams. Hence the calls for raising the retirement age and lowering benefits by fudging the inflation adjustment.

What’s going on is not so different from what often happens in the private sector when CEOs and CFOs figure out ways of getting their hands on pension funds and using them to finance enormous executive pay packages just before their companies go bankrupt. Or what is happening in many state and local government systems where pension benefits that were negotiated in lieu of pay hikes never get paid out, presumably because a deal's a deal doesn’t count when the deal’s with a labor union. The sanctity of contracts only applies between parties of comparable power: otherwise, a contract is just another treaty with the Indians.

The peculiar thing about the current proposals to weaken Social Security is that they don’t make economic sense, at least if, perhaps quaintly, you think that the point of economic policy is not merely to increase inequality.  Lowering the incomes of retirees is bad for the economy in a period of inadequate demand; and raising the retirement age has the effect of increasing the pool of unemployed people at just the wrong time, with the predictable effect of lowering wages—when Social Security was first proposed, one of the arguments in its favor was that it would take many people out of the labor pool. Far from representing an unsustainable fiscal indulgence, the current system is already stingy beyond reason. Wonky debates about the best way to make it even stingier simply reinforce the false premises upon which our politics are currently constructed.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Default and Defeat

You can and, indeed, must compromise with people who disagree with you about the best way to accomplish shared goals. The problem with accommodation comes when core principles are at issue. The current depressing debate about changing the way that inflation is accounted for in Social Security is a case in point. The argument here isn't about ways and means. Technocratic debates about econometrics are beside the point, though they wouldn’t be in a less polarized political situation. The plain fact is that Republicans want to destroy Social Security, and switching to chained CPI is simply an incremental step in that direction. A legitimate compromise would be between measures that make Social Security more generous and others that tend in the opposite direction. As it is, the only options on the table are more or less drastic ways to weaken the system and make it less popular. Under these circumstances, compromise is inevitably defeat.

Policy wonks often make the mistake of evaluating particular measures as if they existed in isolation and weren't part of a larger struggle. In the long run, what matters are values. So far the Republicans have been successful in framing the Social Security and Medicare debate as if these programs were embarrassing legacies from a bygone era instead of concrete embodiments of a national will to ensure a decent life for everybody who plays by the rules. The sad fact is that a great many establishment Democrats actually share the Republican view of things or have decided, as perhaps Obama has, that the majority of the Americans can't really have rights because they don't really have power.  Since the government hasn’t been of the people or by the people for quite a while now, it’s a little unrealistic to expect it to be for the people.

A Stretch?

According to Suetonius, the emperor Caligula wished that the Roman people had only one neck. I’m less demanding than “Little Boots.” Reading the latest news about how the Feds were fining UBS $1.5 billion for rate fixing, I found myself wishing that the corporations who crashed the economy had at least one neck. The regulators probably give each other high fives over the giant fines they impose, but the actual perpetrators escape responsibility when the fictional person of the corporation and the stock holders get flogged.  

The Occupy Wall Street folks bitch about corporatism, but it seems to me that this diagnosis is wrong. It isn’t the legal person of the corporation that commits the crimes; but the group of individuals who control corporations, usually the CEOs and their henchmen. The limited liability that the official owners of corporations enjoy is not the fundamental problem—the greatest malefactors don’t necessarily have much of a stake in the companies they rip off in the course of ripping us off.  Plutocracy and its abuses are not about fictional persons but about real persons with real necks.  The limited liability that keeps these necks safe is not a legal loophole, but the political and cultural power of wealth concentrated in a few absurdly rich families.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


The American system of checks and balances works best when inaction is not a bad thing, in other words, when the basic situation is not changing too quickly. All the committees, all the branches of government, the filibusters, the courts, and the rest prevent us from going off half cocked. When real emergencies arise, however, the bias towards stasis built into the Constitution hurts us. In fact, our system is so ill suited to dealing with new conditions that it even fails to deal with slowly developing trends. Inequality has been increasing for decades now, for example; but our tax laws and spending practices have, if anything, exacerbated what is now a highly toxic situation; and it’s hard to imagine the Republican party permitting measures that would seriously curb, let alone reverse, the relentless growth of privilege. The current Constitution gives even a relatively small minority the power of veto.

There is another problem with the design of our government. One would like to believe that the struggle between interests and points of view would lead to a compromise that is better than the original proposals of either side. At this point, however, it requires so drastic an effort to do anything whatsoever that compromises are likely to be worse than anything either side would have done had it the sole power to chose. When the economy needs stimulus, for example, what we get is likely to be heavily loaded with tax cuts because the Conservatives are determined to prevent government spending unless it is for weapons or subsidies to their wealth supporters. Unfortunately, we not only need stimulus, we badly need investments in infrastructure and schools and other things and we also need to preserve adequate sources of revenues for the legitimate functions of government. The cumulative effect of forty years of compromise, of dealing with everything by tax cuts has left us with fewer options and a dilapidated, downright shoddy nation. Similarly, we obviously have needed to renovate our health care system for a long time now, not only because health care costs will break the budget in the long run but because the huge inefficiency of our current system is making us less and less competitive with every other industrialized country. The intransigence of the Republicans makes a straightforward solution to this problem impossible. Ergo we find ourselves with the mare’s nest of Obamacare, a make-do that is not only unnecessarily complex and incomplete but has been loaded with absurd provisions that the other side insisted upon in the name of a compromise, though none of them voted for the final bill. Their whole point was always to sabotage the effort.

Another example: Out here in California, a desperate struggle is under way to prevent the building of a high-speed rail line between the Bay area and L.A. It’s not that you can’t come up with arguments against the line, though I personally think that such a project is worth it on the merits. I don’t doubt that there are many other transportation projects that are more important to undertake. In an era of rising gas prices, for example, the sorry state of transportation inside cities is truly deplorable. The critics of high-speed rail aren’t about to trade it in for better buses for politically irrelevant people, however. Like Polish noblemen, they just want to say no. If we’re going to do anything, it has to be something spectacular like bullet trains. Nothing incremental can move the seized-up machinery of state government.  As with the country as a whole, the options seem to be permanent constipation or explosive diarrhea.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Philosophical Anthropology 101

A man who everybody thought was a widower gathered his many children together when the youngest reached the age of 18. “I felt that I had to let you all know a secret I’ve been keeping since your mother died. Your mother and I were never married.” The sons and daughters were aghast and began to upbraid their Dad, “How could you have done this?” After a while, though, the youngest boy stood up and said, “I don’t know what the rest of you bastards are going to do. I’m going to the movies.”

Humanae Vitae

I ran across an anecdote in the Saturnalia of Macrobius that was weirdly apropos of contemporary controversies—I knew there had to be some reason I was reading this ancient monument to terminal pedantry. Anyhow, the story runs like this. The daughter of Marcus Popilius had a pretty bad reputation. When somebody tried to make a point by asking her why the females of other animals only sought a mate when they wanted to get pregnant, she replied “that’s because they are animals.”

And here’s the application:

The old debate about the function of the female orgasm flared up recently. The scientific interest in the question revolves around its implications for evolutionary theory, specifically, the issue of whether every character of an organism should be seen as an adaptation or, at a minimum, whether biologists should always presume that every character is adaptive until proven wrong. Although the dispute is much older, its recent salience dates back to an influential paper “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm” by Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, which argued that many features of living organisms are the side effects of other characters that are adaptive and only become adaptive themselves, if they ever do, after the fact. Actual spandrels, the spaces between two arches or an arch and its rectangular frame, came to be used as decorated surfaces in churches and other buildings; but the buildings weren’t designed to create such surfaces. Analogously, some features of organisms aren’t selected for, but are simply consequences of features that are selected; and, if they end up serving some purpose after the fact, they are, to use the jargon, exaptations rather than adaptations. In many cases, however, they are about as useful as tits on a boar pig. 

The strictly scientific question is whether the female orgasm is a spandrel—“a fantastic bonus”—or is there some reason that natural selection might account for its (sporadic) occurrence in human women? The debate is extremely interesting and involves some central issues of the philosophy of science. It has certainly provided an opportunity for creative hypothesis creation on the part of the panadoptationists who invoke sperm suck-up and other equally ingenious or far fetched functions for the orgasm. My interest here is not scientific, however. I wonder what are the non-scientific, perhaps even unconscious reasons, that account for why people either readily accept or noisily reject the fantastic-bonus account of female organism.

I may be speculating at a sperm-suck up level to suggest this, but it seems to me that a lot of people don’t like the spandrel version because for them the legitimacy of enjoying sex needs the blessing of natural selection, which serves in this instance as a substitute for a moral legislator. Long before Spinoza, people sometimes referred to God as Nature; and Nature (with a capital N) is still imagined in a theological way even though natural selection (with a small n) is not a teleological principle but an explanation of why a teleological principle is unnecessary. On the other side, some people probably like the spandrel version because they don’t deify nature and are perfectly happy if the female orgasm is a $20 bill they found on the sidewalk. From this point of view, it is profoundly human to make something meaningful out of what doesn’t mean anything at all in itself.  The human thing is a city that floats in the clouds.

Another application:  When Sandra Fluke testified in favor of covering birth control in health insurance, she brought down a really remarkable storm of slander and libel on her head. Although the level of civility may have differed between the spokesmen of the Catholic church and Rush Limbaugh, the rationale of Fluke’s critics was identical: contraception is always dubious because the function of sex, at least for women, is reproduction. The economic argument against Fluke was not central, though the Conservatives did falsely claim that Fluke wanted the government to pay for contraception. For them, to enjoy sex while frustrating its natural purpose is perverse even if you’re paying for your own birth control pills. To allow such things to be part of your health insurance is a public endorsement of fundamental immorality.

In fact, Nature has no purposes and lays down no laws. To understand the world rightly, it is even more necessary to be an atheist about Nature than about God. We cooked up all our customs and rules, so that a sex-negative morality is quite as artificial as a sex-positive one. The difference is simply that an ethic that eschews pleasure, equality, and sociability is rather unintelligent.

The Existentialists sometimes made this point in a misleading way. It is perfectly true that our inheritance from that careless mother, evolution, strongly constrains our choices, just as the physical properties of marble and paint constrain the artist. As the bricoleurs of our own desires, we tinker with the bits and pieces we find in ourselves. Since these biological raw materials developed under the influence of natural selection, they often have a continuing tendency to improve our general fitness. Nevertheless, “Thou shalt maximize the number of thy viable offspring!” is no less arbitrary a commandment as “Thou shall have no other Gods but me!”  In any case, the exemplary product of radical human freedom is not the individual and stupid act of a Raskalnikov, but the intelligent and cooperative creation of a civilization.  Sartrean cheap thrill aside, we aren’t condemned to freedom. We won the lottery on that one.

We also drastically underestimate the possibilities. When people talk about human freedom, they sometimes seem to imply that individual choice is only about the selection of means because we have no control over the ends. We want what we want. With Christmas coming up, however, you’d think that at least the philosophers who are parents would notice how much time they spend teaching their children how to identify their own desires. You have to learn how to want and not just what you want for lunch. Self-fashioning is as much or more about selecting and elaborating goals as picking out the route to your objective; and this is especially true in terms of our sexual selves. 

Perhaps the deepest objection that traditional religionists have to non-procreative sex is that it exemplifies a dimension of freedom that people, especially female people, are not supposed to have.* What makes free female sexuality particularly threatening is that women can use it to modulate their relationship with men. The polemicists rant about hookup culture, but the scarier outcome is the emergence of a much more egalitarian and stable form of marriage that is prevalent among well-educated folks, at least in the blue states.    


*Thomas Laqueur made a similar point about self love in his book Solitary Sex: a Cultural History of Masturbation—according to Laqueur, what upset the moralists was not so much the prospect of biological decadence and hairy palms as the interior liberty opened up by sexual fantasy. There just isn’t any way to censor the programming that appears on the thinking man’s television.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Give an Example of Defeat

I expect that an objective observer of the last 40 years would come to the following conclusion: Conservative parties have won most of the battles in the U.S. and Europe on economic matters as is witnessed by their successes in lowering the tax rates of the wealthy, deregulating markets, and curbing unions. Though challenged by recent events, neoliberalism remains the dominate framework for policy on both sides of the Atlantic, which is why the Americans are arguing about the debt when their obvious problem is unemployment. The mass of conservatives don't feel like they're winning, however. What queers their triumph is that the victories on economic issues have been accompanied by a long string of defeats on social and cultural issues. The right lost on civil rights, lost on feminism, lost on abortion, lost on gay rights, and lost on many other issues. Moreover, while only a small fraction of the right actually benefited from the movement's economic triumphs, many more of them have experienced the cultural changes of the recent past as personal defeats.  

The outside observer might also suggest that conservative disappointment has another, deeper root: Conservative economic policies have unfavorable consequences for the bulk of the population, including the part of the population that is itself conservative. When measures that increase economic inequality and depress wages have their predictable effects, true believers conclude that the problem is that the economic policies put in place by Republican administrations aren't conservative enough or aren't conservative at all—hence the perception that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the liberals are tremendously powerful, control the media, call the shots, etc. If only a real Conservative took power, not a crypto-leftist like Bush or a wimp like Romney! If only we had a true free market system!

What we have here, the observer might conclude, is an instance of recurring pattern among extreme groups left or right. The failure of a policy to make things better doesn't make the revolutionaries give up their theories. Instead, they try to apply them with greater stringency. Endlessly cutting taxes and government spending may not be as drastic as beheading more aristocrats or killing more kulaks or invading yet another country, but the same psychological mechanism is at work in all these escalations and the program is always self defeating. Eventually you invade Russia...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Another Attempt to be Fair

Obviously a great many powerful people have an interest in preventing a rise in the tax rate for the very wealthy, but interest doesn't explain all the opposition. It’s important to recognize that much of the passion on the right reflects principled belief. Opposition to tax reform, indeed opposition to the very idea of a graduated income tax, follows inevitably from an absolutist view of property rights. By the lights of that way of thinking, taking 38% of income over $250,000 a year instead of 36% is just as bad as stealing somebody's horse. What makes the right wing even more strident about all this is the meta belief that the validity of their way of thinking is self evident so that anybody who disagrees is either feeble minded or evil—a whiff of John Calvin hangs in the air around many a conservative, especially the Southern ones.

The idea that property is a social construction, that what's mine is mine because the rest of you agree to recognize that it's mine, is worse than newfangled rubbish or recycled Marxism. For many conservatives, it's utterly alien, the ideology of Cthulhu. I think you can complain that the outlook of the right is both ahistorical and unrealistic—capitalism just doesn't work without some mechanism of redistribution—but it's neither fair nor useful to chalk up all the opposition to self-interest.  

By the way, if I’m right about all this, it follows that the Republicans we can do business with are most likely to be those for whom opposition to changing the tax code is simply an exercise of greed. You can reason with the insincere.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Futility of Voting?

Before the elections, various people, mostly disgruntled left-liberals, wrote Internet pieces suggesting that voting was pointless since a single vote meant nothing and, anyhow, Obama wasn’t all that different than Romney.  Now I appreciate the arithmetic. As a proportion of the population, I should have a right to 0.000000003333% of a say in national affairs; but even if you make a correction for the enormous number of people who read this blog—almost 5,000 over ten years—I don’t have a claim for much more than 0.0000083333% of the available political juice.  But I disagree with the counsels of despair, because there are people whose vote did matter and mattered a very great deal.

The fundamental reason that Republican-leaning pundits got the election wrong, bias and sheer innumeracy aside, was their considerable underestimation of the political participation rate of blacks, Hispanics, and young voters.  I’ve been involved in many political campaigns over the years and know how difficult it is to get a college student to even remember that it’s election day, let alone to vote; but, the fact is, this year, college students did vote and so did members of supposedly apolitical America’s minorities.  I expect they are going to notice the consequences as even the crustiest Republicans recognize electoral facts and your relatives don’t get deported and you get a break on your student loans and your grandmother doesn’t have to eat dog food. The rules are changing. It’s a different country if the whole population votes.  As the Chinese say, the journey of a thousand Li begins with a single step. Yep, and the rectification of national politics begins with a single yank of a lever.

Monday, November 12, 2012

CEOs and Pigeons

Anybody who has met a fair number of extremely wealthy people knows that they are a motley crew. They certainly aren’t all especially intelligent, stunningly attractive, or obviously charismatic, which is hardly surprising considering that the various ways that people find themselves on top of the world. Obviously having specific talents or personal characteristics, such as a knack for marketing, relentless drive, or utter ruthlessness, account for some great fortunes; but the great game of the world is largely a lottery. The economic system is set up to separate out a very small fraction of the population and reward it willy-nilly with absurdly great prizes. The victors in this rule-less contest do not see it that way, of course, in part because there is a large industry devoted to coming up with some moral or philosophical justification for the outcome as if anybody could be good enough at anything to deserve $46 billion.

What occurs naturally in our system is not so different from the process by which landed estates grew larger and larger in pre-capitalist societies. If you run computer simulations of the evolution of land distribution under the circumstances of the Roman Empire or the Ancien Regime, you’ll see the number of properties shrink as their size increases. Economies of scale and the automatic political power that go along with owning huge pieces of property lead to more and more accumulation of property. Whose crest adorns the castle wall may be a matter of chance or talent, but it’s as sure that somebody will rule the thousands of acres as that the poets will write caressing prefaces to these honey lords. By the same token, it was pretty much written in the stars that somebody would end up with their name on emerging natural monopolies in telecommunications, computer retailing, or hypermarkets. What the goddess Fortuna once gifted the Hapsburgs or the Hohenzollerns she now bestows on new princes, some of whom, inevitably, are idiot princes.

Maybe the gormlessness so many of our moguls showed during the recent political season can be explained by the natural response of animals to random rewards. If you drop food pellets into a pigeon cage at irregular intervals, the pigeons will come to the conclusion that whatever they happen to have been doing at the time was the cause of their good fortune. They caper or coo or bounce up and down on one foot. That’s how you create superstitious pigeons. You make billionaires superstitious by encouraging them to think that their personal characteristics are the reason/explanation of their standing in the world. That’s how you create Donald Trumps.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Other Antisemitism

Conservative cheerleading for Israel makes a peculiar impression on those of us with a historical memory because antisemitism was a hallmark of American conservativism until Hitler made it odious. The solution of the puzzle is not that difficult, however. The right is still largely antisemetic, but the antisemitism it has embraced reflects the hatred that Israeli Zionists display towards non-Zionist Jews, those faithless internationalists who put universal human values above blood and nation. Neocons could save themselves some time and bother by simply translating the relevant passages of Mein Kampf and adapting them for use in their denunciations of “liberal Jews.”

By the way, to anticipate an obvious criticism, the emergence of Zionist antisemitism certainly doesn’t mean that the old fashion, garden variety antisemitism has disappeared from the world as anybody who has ever seen Hamas propaganda knows very well. It’s also important to note that criticizing Israel doesn’t imply you admire Israel’s local adversaries or endorse their policies, anymore than recognizing that current Israeli policy is gradually putting that state in an untenable position means that you want to see the Israelis driven into the sea. In politics, it is very important to realize that the enemy of your enemy is probably also a dick.

These thoughts were inspired from some remarks of Slavoj Zizek's. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Argumentum Ad

Conservatives insist that welfare programs sap initiative and corrupt society: the dole (to use the old word for it) is poison. If so, the poor can be thankful that these days the drug is only distributed in homeopathic doses. But that’s the government’s welfare program. There is another form of welfare, a private system that really does create a dependency problem and its administered on a mass basis for many hours every day.  I refer, of course, to advertising. In exchange for purportedly free entertainment and news, business interests get the right to marinate the public in propaganda. For some reason, the Conservatives never denounce the bad effects of this kind of welfare, though it has obviously created a culture of dependency with far reaching consequences, especially for public health.

I suppose I could be taxed with hypocrisy for suggesting that there might be something problematic about advertising. I’ve written hundreds of ads and never lost a moment’s sleep worrying about the morality of doing so. In my defense, the ads I wrote were attempts to get customers to buy the product of my company rather than that of another. The consumers of scientific software are going to use some program or other to do linear programming, and you sell to such knowledgeable folks by efficiently informing them what your product actually does. Even in the pages of technical journals, sex and sizzle help—hence my long and unavailing campaign to get Scientific American to put out a swimsuit issue—but it’s the specs that close the deal. Most of the ads that pay for freebee television shows aren’t like that. They don’t inform people about a product that will satisfy a need; they seek to create a demand. You don’t sell Camels; you sell smoking. Too bad the Seven Deadly Sins don’t pay for the ads directly. It would make things clearer.

Now a case can certainly be made for the private welfare system called advertising, just as a case can be made for public welfare. Like most features of the real world, both of these institutions are sometimes beneficial and sometimes not. Long before Keynes, advertising was stimulating economic growth by the creation of artificial demand; and absent advertising, it is hard to believe that a system built on gluttony, lust, and vanity could endure. The economic historians point out that it was the desire for a host of unnecessary luxuries that set off what they call the Industrious Revolution that preceded and made possible the subsequent Industrial Revolution. Eighteenth Century ad execs were responsible for much of that, even paying poets to insert puffs for various commercial products into their epics.

O! she was perfect past all parallel
Of any modern female saint's comparison;
So far above the cunning powers of hell,       
Her guardian angel had given up his garrison
Even her minutest motions went as well
As those of the best time-piece made by Harrison:
In virtues nothing earthly could surpass her,     
Save thine 'incomparable oil,' Macassar!

I confess that I’m not puritan enough to want to live in a world without fripperies.  Nevertheless, although I’m spoiled by the free candy of the commercial welfare system myself, I’d like to think that I’m a rational enough hedonist not to reach for that last little wafer. I wish we were more aware of the downsides of the system. We used to be more aware of the problems. You can laugh the quaintness of the world of the 50s and 60s, but at least they had Mad in the era of Mad Men. A sustained critique of advertising now is hard to image. Who would sponsor it?

Sunday, November 04, 2012



With the election coming up Tuesday, I thought it would be a good time to write down some thoughts I’ve had for a long time about mythology—actually, heavy drinking seems even more appropriate, but I’ve been advised to lay off the hard stuff.

Most explanations of mythology that I’ve encountered treat it as a form of allegory as if the Gods, heroes, talking animals, and all the rest were simply animated hieroglyphics that convey a moral or theological message in pictures instead of concepts.  Why it is necessary to spin tales of sneaky serpents or thunder gods to get us to eat our spinach or understand the weather is not clear. There’s another problem with the allegory theory: there are, after all, literary works that are clearly allegories in an unambiguous sense. The Fairy Queen, Piers Plowman, and Pilgrim’s Progress come to mind.  These works have their charm, but the pleasure and fascination of myth is rather different.

What beguiles us in myths is precisely the fact that they can’t really be explicated in literal terms the way that a pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins boils down to Aristotelian ethics. As Levi-Strauss insisted sixty years ago, the only interpretation of a myth is another myth. Unlike philosophical, scientific, and even theological discourse, myth operates on a single surface, albeit a surface with a twisted topology.  Since there is only a single sheet, it is impossible to ever nail things down. The this world and the other world of modern religions, the reality and appearance of the idealists, the words and the things of the linguists, and the other contrasting dimensions of various non-mythic forms of thought make possible a kind of dual-entry bookkeeping because they provide two separate registers that can be correlated. Myth doesn’t do that. Dreamtime is always just another part of the forest.

Everyone has been denouncing the indeterminacy and pluralism of myth for millennia, presumably in the name of avoiding irrationality. Personally, I agree with William James that it is mostly a matter of taste whether you like your irrationality spread out through the world or you’d rather gather it together in one tight bouquet in the form of God, the labor theory of value, or the definitive symmetry break of the Big Bang. It isn’t obviously right to opt for either methodological or metaphysical monism over theoretical or practical polytheism. After all, the determination to get to the bottom of things not only makes the assumption that things have a bottom, but implies that fundaments are fundamental. The war on mythology invokes its own myth, the very potent myth I used to call the myth of mythology, namely the presumption that things are explained by their origins.*

The bias in favor of a single explanation is not merely personal, of course. It defines a big swatch of civilization. I remember the bemused look I got back in the eighth grade when I asked Mr. Masters why, in its account of Ikhnaton, our world history textbook obviously presumed that monotheism was progress. After all, if it turned out there weren’t any gods at all, why did it make a difference how many gods there weren’t? The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend raised a similar point about how traditional histories of philosophy lionize the rationalism of Xenophanes, a poet who made fun of poetry with its tales of the battles fought with titans and giants and promoted an austere theology in which God “alone is the greatest, the greatest of gods and of men, not resembling the mortals, neither in shape nor in insight.”  This is an advance, why? If a god, even the God, is going to have purposes, which is something that only makes sense for animals to have, why shouldn’t he have girl friends that turn into trees or at least a belly button? (I admit that last bit isn’t exactly Feyerabend’s way of putting things.)

Christianity has always had a special relationship with philosophy since Greek philosophy is one of the basic ingredients that went into its original recipe, the other three being Jewish prophesy, Roman political organization, and the marketing methods of Near Eastern religious entrepreneurship. Because it does have an essential link to philosophy, it is quite possible to interpret Christianity as an anti-mythological or even anti-religious or atheistic religion and many of its critics and some of its friends have been making this point from the time of Celsus to that of Slavoj Zizek. Nevertheless, Christianity does have a real mythology, and making your peace with mythology has the advantage of making it possible to dispense with incredibly boring arguments about natural theology in favor of perceiving the power of the stories that underlie it. Hegel’s version of Christianity, with its emphasis on the theme of mediation, provides a mythological gloss on the religion’s mythology. So does the Marxist tradition, which is why I sometimes think of it as the fourth great Abraham religion. What I really want, however, is something a bit more anthropological. I’d like to raise Levi-Strauss from the dead and compel the resulting zombie to produce a fifth volume of the Introduction to the Science of Mythology.

The very first myth in the Raw and the Cooked, M1, is the tale of the Bird Nester, which tells of the rape of a woman by her son. The father detects the crime and, after a long series of attempts at revenge, apparently succeeds. During what is supposed to be a hunt for macaws, he manages to strand the boy half way up a cliff where he clings suspended by a rod and is eventually assailed by vultures that devour his buttocks. Though apparently hors de combat, the bird nester recovers by molding himself an artificial behind from pounded tubers; and eventually returns to his people where he kills his father and throws the body into a lake where carnivorous fish devour most of it. The lungs float to the surface where they become aquatic plants.

The attentive reader will perhaps note the parallels with a myth from another, rather distant tribe, though there are differences that obscure the similarity of the armature of the tales. Instead of the son raping the mother, for example, in M814** it is a spirit father that impregnates the mother and engenders the son, though, since the son turns out to be co-substantial with the father, it could be argued that he also had sex with his mother. In both myths, the son is suspended between heaven and earth, undergoes a long ordeal, and apparently dies only to return after an interval. In M1, the son returns to revenge himself and establish justice. In M814 he returns to grant mercy. In the M1, the son kills the father and turns him into aquatic vegetation. In the M814, the father allows the son to die and, as a result, to transform into a persistent spirit. To fully explicate the nexus between these stories, it would be necessary to bring in other myths and explore, in particular, the contrasts, parallels, and echoes between them and the tale of the Garden of Eden and the saga of Prometheus. One would also need somebody with more patience and erudition than me. That’s why we need an angel to roll away the stone at Claude’s tomb.

*Hence the many arguments that are formally similar to the Cosmological argument for the existence of God and do not manage to get beyond myth but merely present its generating contradiction in a concentrated form. Which is to say that such arguments all turn out to be instances of the Asparagus fallacy. Note the parallel between

Everything has a cause, but that would lead to an infinite regress. Therefore at least one thing doesn’t have a cause.


I’m glad I don’t like asparagus because if I liked it, I’d eat it and I can’t stand it.

What we have here is begging the question played backwards. The conclusion is not a more or less disguised version of the premise, but its denial.

** The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Friday, October 26, 2012

Compare and Contrast?

I’ve been trying to get my mind off America’s ideological wars by reading Maurice Godellier’s highly technical anthropological treatise the Metamorphosis of Kinship.  Unfortunately, everything is implicated in everything else. As I pointed out a long time ago, reality isn’t consistent; but it is stringy. Godelier’s expose of the ideas and practices of the Baruya, the New Guinea tribe he studied as a young ethnographer, turn out to be highly relevant to understanding the right-to-life debate in the United States. There is no escape.

The Baruya theory of human reproduction serves as the justification if not the inspiration of their social system. It holds that the child is produced by the semen of the male with the help of the Sun god, who contributes a spiritual element.  Women, on the other hand, have a strictly supporting role, as befits creatures regarded with scorn and sometimes fear. The Baruya place an enormously high value on semen. It not only creates life, but also has other uses. Baruya boys leave their family hut at nine or ten and live together in a communal dwelling with other boys until they are initiated into adulthood and marry. During that period, they younger males are made to drink the semen of the older boys in order to imbibe the masculinity they need to deal with the dangerous business of interacting with females—the crucial factor is that the semen donors must have never come in contact with women themselves. After marriage, men do not have intercourse with their wives until the walls of their shared dwelling get covered with soot. Instead, in lieu of vaginal sex, the wives fellate the husbands and drink their semen in order to build up a store of mother’s milk. (Godelier does not mention whether it was permissible for a twelve-year old boy or a woman to spit under certain circumstances or what the Sun god’s role was in such cases.)

The Baruya sexual ideology may seem extreme, but their sacred biology is really no crazier than the ideas of the right-to-lifers. For that matter, a worshipful attitude towards semen is not really foreign to the West and not just because for the Catholic Church every sperm is sacred. The Aristotelian theory of reproduction comes pretty close to the Baruya version; and the Koran is full of language that suggest that although Allah introduces the soul into the embryo, the body is formed from a drop of semen.  Of course the right-to-lifers don’t believe that the semen does the whole job—they have a different fetish—but their developmental biology is every bit as ideological. Although most of them avoid using the word “soul,” their assertion that “personhood” arrives with the formation of zygote amounts to essentially the same thing. “Personhood” is undetectable in a fertilized egg as the body of Christ is in a consecrated wafer. It is, in their usage, a theological idea; and the demand to outlaw abortion that it justifies is simply an attempt to end the separation of church and state and establish a religion by government action.

I am now going to violate one of the cardinal rules of the age and point out something that everybody knows: Contemporary developmental biology is roughly true, and theological biology is merely false.  Treating an early-stage embryo as a person is not a great deal different from asserting that the Earth is 6,000 years old and requires an equivalent sacrifice of the intellect. Educated people know that human development is a process, and that there is no absolute point of demarcation on the continuum that separates the zygote, which is obviously not a person in any way and a six-month old baby, which just as obviously is. I admit that there is something uncanny about this fact, this scandal of epigenesis; and it makes us very uncomfortable much as it is difficult to watch dying person slowly cease to be a human being. Since the facts are the facts, however, the best thing we can do is come up with reasonable laws that recognize that ending a pregnancy in ten weeks is a simply different act than infanticide or the late-term abortion of a viable fetus. 

I don’t know how the Baruya came to have their ideas about conception. According to Godelier, neighboring tribes, even tribes that speak much the same language, have very different concepts and practices; and the Baruya tribe itself is only a couple of hundred years old.  What does seem clear is that sacrality of semen goes along with an extreme version of male domination, also a specialty of the Baruya. Thus, to mention only one telling example, in Baruya country there are, or were before the outside world began to interfere, two trails to every destination, a higher trail for the men and a lower trail for the women. One can imagine that the reproductive theories of the Baruya are super structural reflexes of an underlying infrastructural reality, but it seems more likely to me that the theory of the magic power of sperm was actually one of the means by which the sociological reality of Baruya society was created. By the same token, the fantasy biology of the right-to-lifers is not just a part of an ancient and impressively consistent moral tradition but a way of subjugating women in the here and now. Like most Fundamentalist notions, it is in fact an innovation. In the traditional view of Jews, Catholics, and Muslims, the soul enters the fetus at quickening. Until then, to use an expression of the rabbis, it is merely a limb of the woman. Like the idea that it is obligatory to go down on your older brother, the idea that abortion is always a sin is the bright idea of some guys who want to change the status quo in their favor.    

Thursday, October 18, 2012

I’m Tired—The Madeline Kahn School of Hermeneutics

A second Federal appeals court, this one in New York, has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and probably thereby set off another argument about interpreting the Constitution in the subterranean darkness of various Internet comment threads. I don’t propose to go there, literally or figuratively; but maybe this is a good time to dust off a meta thought I’ve had for some time that it is more or less apropos.

While the lawyers are not going to give up debating every social and political issue of the day in terms of its relationship to the Constitution—that’s what they do for a living, after all—the rest of us may be finally giving up the game of assuming the special wisdom, if not sacrality, of that document.

Any tradition based on a text has the same problem. Whether you’re a Mormon, a psychoanalyst, or a votary of Ayn Rand, you always have a choice. Even people of the most cadaver-like loyalty to the cause inevitably end up expressing their own ideas about modern problems if only because the Book didn’t cover that or because the obvious literal meaning of the Book has intolerable implications.  To defend your version of truth, you can either resort to more or less heroic exercises of interpretation and claim that you simply are returning to the true meaning of scripture or you can simply admit that the Book is, after all, a book. 

It isn’t necessarily a bad idea to opt for the first choice and reduce all legitimate thought to commentary. As the history of religion and philosophy amply demonstrate, such a strategy does not preclude creativity of the highest order. In fact, some of the most original, not to say loopy, thinking has been promoted under the slogan of back to the sources—Lacan is just Freud properly understood; Althusser is merely a close reading of Marx; the humane religion of the rabbis really is the truth of bloodthirsty Torah; the first Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t rule out punishing people for blasphemy; of course the New Testament provides a basis for infant baptism, etc.  The game gets stale at times, however; and even if its obvious fictiveness doesn’t bother you, it becomes simply exhausting. You have to give it up.* In the current political instance, you stop regarding the Constitution with absurd reverence or, at a minimum, admit that torturing it into permitting decent political institutions is a merely formal exercise.

One last note: there is an inverse to the issue of how to deal with sacred texts, for there are a class of texts that are canonically diabolical or anti-sacred. Thus the way that most academics refer to Marx’s writings is the mirror image of how the sages approached the Torah. One does not agree with other books and authors—who agrees with anybody about much, after all—but it is somehow necessary to endlessly assure everybody that you are aware of how wrong Marx is. By contrast, though I certainly don’t agree with Locke’s ideas on substance or religious toleration, I don’t find a need to cross myself when I cite him. Marx is wrong in a way that is different from ordinary wrongness, much as for a Muslim, the Koran is right in a way that is different from ordinary rightness. Maybe if we dispense with the worship of Bibles and Constitutions, we can dispense with the ritual denunciation of dangerous tomes and just read them (or not) as they turn out to be relevant or irrelevant.

*An alternative is to make fun of it. Free thinkers can make fun of tradition by producing their own commentary literature on sacred texts and lampooning the absurdities of interpretation. This was a common approach in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Pierre Bayle, the Stephen Colbert of his times, discussed all the embarrassing parts of the Bible with deadly seriousness. The pages of his Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695) are even laid out like a Talmud with tiny sections of text crowded out by commentaries and subcommentaries.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Last Man Standing Turn Out the Lights

I don’t know if it counts as an instance of the wisdom of crowds, but some trends in popular culture do seem to amount to a general conclusion about our situation, almost as if the fads and crazes amount to an act of perception on the part of the hive mind. What set off this thought is a quick trip through the television listing wherein one finds, for the umpteenth year in a row, a host of televised contests, reality shows, and movies that all have the same general format. Whether they involve survival on an island or cooking or modeling or set design or makeup or dancing or singing or getting married, the format of nearly every show is the same as the plot of the Hunger Games. One by one, the contestants are winnowed down until only one individual or team remains. The contest is far less about winning than about avoiding loss. The lingering camera shots are on the losers. The winner is merely a formal necessity of the grammar of the contest and only appears for a few minutes at the end of the hour or even the season. Sometimes the credits are already rolling over the happy faces as they take their brief bow at the end. Obviously, the winners aren’t as interesting as the losers. The moment of triumph is the anticlimax: the disappointment and degradation of the losers is the substance.

Framing contests in this way is not a given, and television contest shows of older vintage do not.  The contestants on Jeopardy or Iron Chief or even Wheel of Fortune try to win. There are losers on these shows; but the focus is not on them; and they are treated very differently. Of course, cross-culturally, not even an emphasis on victory is a given. David Pace, a historian of anthropology, tells me that in many societies contests are played until the score is tied and wonders why this seems odd to us. Even if it does seem odd to us as heirs to the old Greek imperative that one must strive to out do the others, it remains true that our attitudes about victory are a matter of culture. In any case, the recent framing of competition that we see on the tube, goes a long way beyond a general obsession with competition. I think it reflects a specific and quite recent economic and, one might even say, spiritual situation.

Although the top prizes in the economic game are absurdly great, very few of us are even entered in that lottery. For most of us, the prize pool has shrunk over the last 40 years or, and this is what matters as far as the mood of country is concerned, it is perceived to be shrinking, hence, the compulsion to stage and restage simulacra of what is apparently a nation-wide game of musical chairs. Americans know that they have to make alliances with one another in order to survive; but they also believe, perhaps falsely, in the necessity of eventual treachery in a world without enough for everybody. Complicated debates about health policy aside, much of the opposition to universal health care is based on the simple thought that anything the other guys get will be at my cost. Ergo, get your hands off my Medicare!

There’s a deeper mechanisms at work as well. Winning or at least not losing is a value that survives the bankruptcy of other values. To put things crudely, the contest is a way of changing the subject in the absence of a sense of what your life is for. As a people, we could declare peace, after all, and build a society in which the goal was not a level playing field for an endless protracted conflict but the general health and welfare of the inhabitants of North America. Apparently this outcome is too terrible to contemplate. People not only chose to watch Chopped! They chose to live it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Where is Fancy Bred?

You don’t have to be some sort of postmodernist to recognize that we frequently mistake linguistic conventions for objective facts about the universe. For example, we normally speak of facing the future; but it would be more sensible to claim, as some peoples do, that we are backing into the future. After all, everything we can know or perceive, as opposed to make guesses about, is in the past; and our constant stumbling would be more understandable if we adopted the metaphor of walking backwards to tomorrow. Whichever way we imagine our orientation in time, however, the choice is linguistic, not a matter of adopting a different physics. Nevertheless, such choices can have existential consequences.

Consider how we speak about sexual desire. When I say I desire a woman, the normal interpretation, at least among my kind of people, is that the desire, though inspired by her, is something that belongs to me, something I’m responsible for. There is nothing inevitable about this way of putting it. Old poems sometimes personify desire and treat it as one of the properties of the desired person, a fact about them. “Desire glowed in her lovely face.” On this view, one can no more choose not to perceive and feel this desire than one can choose not to see that an apple is red; and if the lover makes a fool of himself over the beloved or even acts in some seriously wrong way, the fault is not his, any more than it’s the nail’s fault to be attracted to a magnet.  In speaking in this fashion, the troubadour is merely working a variation on the eternal complaint of the misogynists. After all, priests and philosophers have been blaming women for being desirable for several thousand years now as if women had a singular responsibility for the bridle their attractiveness puts on masculine freedom. This rationale, which I suspect underlies the resentment of women by traditionalist Jews, Christians, and Muslims, continues to be widely in evidence in the modern world and, if it sometimes seems ridiculous, causes a tremendous amount of hurt. Of course it is possible to construe this attack on women as an instance of projection; but the matter can’t be settled scientifically because the location of desire is not a natural fact but an ethical choice, albeit one that the culture we are born into usually makes for us. Taking responsibility for your own behavior isn’t a recognition of a truth, it’s a matter of doing the right thing, which is something different. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Separating Out

Before the great realignment of the 60s and 70s, the two worst segments of American society, the Southerners and the plutocrats, were in opposite parties. Now the racism and ignorance of the former has joined with the egotism and relentless greed of the latter to produce today’s GOP.  This bad outcome has been clear for some time, but perhaps it is less obvious that something similar has taken place in the area of religion. In the past, both the Protestant and Catholic denominations were a mixed bag of progressive and retrogressive tendencies, but the current religious scene features two dueling ecumenical groups. The religious split that matters in contemporary America is no longer between denominations but between right wing and liberal religiosity. We were far better off when the Southern Baptists were still denouncing the Jews and the Papists. Now that the authoritarian and obscurantist strains of all faiths have drained into the lowest swamp of the American spiritual landscape, rational believers and unbelievers alike have to confront a monster holy army.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Road Limericks

On a long drive to Los Angeles I got bored enough to compose some limericks in my head. I suppose this exercise in free association reveals something about me; but since it was random things I saw out the windshield that inspired these stinkers, maybe I was actually psychoanalyzing I-5.  Hegel claimed that the sciences and other human institutions constituted what he called Objective Reason. This is my contribution to Objective Nonsense.  

Said an auto mechanic in Texas
As he sexually assaulted a Lexus,
“I don’t mean to hurt her
Catalytic converter;
But, damn! That’s the gadget that checks us.

I confess I’m nonplussed for the nonce.
I’ve forgotten the meaning of sconce.
I believe that “soigné’”
Means “billboard” in L.A.
And guess that a “prelate’s” a ponce.

“My dreams have evolved, “ he said jovially,
“In lieu of evening with Bovary,
I’d bugger Gumby
In the back of a Humvee
While whistling Donna e mobile.

The governing rules are cuckoo
From Peoria down to Peru.
It makes scarcely a ripple
When a man bares a nipple,
But the feminine tit is taboo.

There’s a winsome young lady in Dallas
Who’s the cure for a flexible phallus.
I don’t mean to nag you,
But you won’t need Viagra
If ever you chance to see Alice.

I disdain ordinary disease.
It’s recherché ailments for me:
Or a prurient interest in bees.

“You gals should be grateful,” said Fritz,
Repeating one of his favorite bits,
“As I’ve told you all oft,
Your bras would fall off
If God hadn’t given you tits. “

Though it’s proving a difficult sell,
Reagan’s trying to privatize Hell.
Each bankrupt corporation
Once found in our nation
Is lobbying Satan as well.

No one’s happy about senility
With its various over-the-Hillites,
Yet I find that Alzheimer’s
Much worse for us rhymers
Who are stumped at the end of the verse.