Friday, December 23, 2011

Corey Robin: "The Reactionary Mind": a subject I have personal experience with

Author: Corey Robin
Title: “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

Publication: 2011: London, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-979354-7, 290 pages, hardcover, Introduction, Conclusion, two parts, eleven chapters

Amazon link is here

I mentioned this book (which is a bit expensive) on my main blog Dec. 9, with particular respect to the idea of personal agency. That is, the notion that “someone like me”, an outlier, speaks for himself and draws attention, and separates or precipitates out from authority, insoluble, unreachable by it. 

The author, a CUNY political science professor, has pretty well explained a line of thought I have been examining all my life, and that I thought I had nailed in my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book (1997), but indeed my own understanding of it has somewhat unraveled since then.

The two parts of the book are titled “Profiles in Reaction” (don’t confuse with JFK’s “Profiles in Courage”, which I had to read in high school history) and “Virtues of Violence”, but his line of argument is fluid (rather like a Dutch Defense in chess without the Stonewall)  and the two movements (rather like an Op. 111) overlap. 

Here’s the gist of his argument.  Conservatism resents the loss of authority it has over subordinates.  In its sense of loss, it can generate a real fight.  But conservatism, even during “Republicrat” Bill Clinton’s 90s, has become so successful that it has lost its energy. It needs the fight, it needs its objects of derision.  (Hence, libertarianism dies away in morendo.)

Throughout most of human history, social position, wealth, and political authority have largely been “inherited”.   But as conservatives, ironically spurred by the Left, perhaps, take hold of the moral vacuum of such a situation, they invent a new way of thinking: authority is to be generated by meritocracy.  Some of the notion of merit can be expressed in money, in terms of financial success.  But some of it consists of proving your intrinsic worth, of going through your rites of passage.  My name for this idea has been “pay your bills, pay your dues”. 
There is something insufficient about believing that self-worth (and subsequent responsibility and “authority”) is every completely “earned”.  Yup, it’s like the Bible’s (Jesus’s) “man shall not live by bread alone”.  Society is an ongoing community, and no personal achievement would mean anything without if, if others didn’t benefit concretely, tangibly. So one needs a connection to what came before and what comes after – call it “sustainability”.  The radical Left used to call this idea something like “the will of the People”.  But even “The People” will need a political hierarchy.  Generally, history has shown (and Robin is not willing to admit) that the tyrants on the Left are just as corrupt (and brutal) as those on the Right.  Look at North Korea.

So, concepts like "freedom" and "equality" become Janus-faced.  Robin points out that the reactionary sees "freedom" in terms of one's right to maintain a station in life of superiority to others.  
The best way for me to give a more comprehensive assessment of the book is to wall through what I think he is saying in terms of my own experience. And I must admit, I have trouble closing a perfectly logical circle. 
Growing up in the 50s, I was a bit of the “sissy boy”. Yup, you know where this is headed.  I quickly showed an aptitude for piano and music and, after a rocky episode in grade school, suddenly was quite verbal. I liked the idea of attracting attention with my own artistic efforts. But I found that others (starting with my father, and then teachers, etc.) were demanding tribute, in terms of performing according to the expectations of gender complementarity.  (“Girls first!”)  I came of age during the time of the military draft – and student deferments.   It seemed as though “doing your part” – which included sharing risks – was the prime moral imperative.  In a world governed by external threats (Robin’s “national security” paradigm) and the demands of nature – in a time when women took real risks in just having kids – it was essential that everyone did his part just so there could exist a future. If you could not do your part because you weren't physically competitive (according to gender), you were regarded as dependent on or potentially a hazardous cargo for the "group", so you had to do what the more "able" people told you to do.  That was the "logic" of it.
Then, of course, came the issue of homosexuality.  I’ve detailed this difficult period in my college years and early adulthood (and the irony of my own “successful” military service) elsewhere, as in my own books.  But in review, it’s really striking to me now that my declaration of latent homosexuality as a freshman in college (let alone any practice of it) would seem like a greater “wrong” than its inverse, causing a baby to be born out of wedlock.  True, I was (am) an only child.  My statement probably sounded like a death sentence for my family, a repudiation of the permanence of my parents’ marriage (even if they did enjoy 45 years together until my father’s death in 1986).  
Robin has a chapter, the next to last, “Potomac Fever”, on the anti-gay witch-hunts of the period of McCarthyism, defying all logical explanation to the modern person.  (He briefly continues the discussion into an account of the military gay ban, now finally repealed.)  Homosexuality had become a proxy for Communism and even treason, an idea that seems “grotesque” today, as he writes, quoting H.L.A. Hart criticizing the collectivist “moral philosophy” of Patrick Devlin.  But this way of thinking still seems to animate anti-gay thinking in parts of the world today, especially in Islam and in countries like Uganda.  The Vatican is well known for pressing the view that sexuality must come with the price of exposure to (or “openness to”) the future intimacies as risks of procreation. (The Catholic priesthood can hardly live up to its own teachings.)  In a broad view, one can see how sustainability (and now, population demographics) raises the idea that everyone must have a personal stake in those who will follow before being listened to. 
One interesting aspect of homosexuality, at least in my experience, was its irony, or upward affiliation. I became concerned with “who” was indeed the “ideal man” or Nietzchean or Rand-like hero, and what attributes such a hero must exhibit (and not lose – say, remain perfect forever, become an angel and violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics – entropy – and you don’t have to reproduce, or run the risks of procreation – which drag the idea man down – when it is really age and time that do so – and it’s a shared future – progeny—that make a sexually continuous lasting marriage possible. (Okay—we can get into the findings that fatherhood reduces a man’s hormones – but so will age.)

When I grew up, "morality" definitely invoked a double standard. It was about much more than taking responsibility for individual "choices" (like causing a pregnancy).  It meant readying oneself to live as part of a social structure, and to share responsibility for other generations -- first by having the capability to do so (according to gender) and then following through.  Life really wasn't just about "choice" or "personal expression".  Parents had both the power and responsibility to bring their children up to both continue their families and live in a community.  But of course all of this idea (that you can state moral rules at all) presumes that society is good enough for individual moral behavior to be meaningful.  So I have to presume that the world I grew up in, while in many ways "unfair" and "flawed", as still better than most other societies that had preceded it. 
Here is where my closed circle finds a kink – the search for the “ideal man” implies an obsession with authority, and a desire to see the “best people” in charge of everyone else – bringing back the “conservative” ideas that oppressed me.  I do remember resenting the idea that my father and others did some things “just for authority” with no other rational purpose. I was to be subjugated. But meet the ideal 21-year-old, I would want to be subjugated, and find it exciting. There’s another unpleasant corollary. Yup, as my Fort Eustis (Useless) Army buddies said, my perfect Ocelot could develop clay feet some day (or balding legs).  But it’s more that I would become cut off from emotion or feeling for the imperfect, for “people as people” (as my father would say, during all the psychiatric mess of the early 1960s).  I would refuse to give people feeling when they genuinely needed it.  There would develop not just a healthy aloofness and impartiality but a coldness, a deletion of empathy. That’s harder to take today than it was fifteen years ago, before 9/11 and then all the recessionary hardships hit the media. 
Robin talks about upward affiliation (a favorite term of socially conservative writer George Gilder when he wrote “Men and Marriage” in the 1980s with a more general term, “sublimity”.  We admire those who can harm or destroy us (I could be more explicit with a word starting with the “failing grade” letter). We lose respect for those who no longer can challenge us.  (I suspect that in giving his own college students essay exams, he asks them to discuss the concept, particularly with respect to Edmund Burke.)   
He also has a chapter where he critiques Ayn Rand. He really doesn’t have much use for her, and calls her work “kitsch”. As to a thinking she was both a novelist and philosopher, she was “neither”.  (That’s been said about me as neither a conservative nor libertarian.) In fact, check out this piece on AlterNet by Bruce E. Levine, “How Ayn Rand seduced generations of young men and helped make the U.S. into a selfish, greedy nation”, link here.

Robin maps all this into our experience of national security in an expected way. He notes that after 9/11, it was no longer easy to mobilize the population into organized shared sacrifice.  But I can remember that resumption of the draft was proposed , not just by Charles Rangel (because it was the poor and minorities who enlisted and bore the risks of American policy) but by Charles Moskos, who found in 9/11 a good reason to drop the military gay ban. (Moskos actually emailed me in late 2001, “Gays must come out for conscription; then the ban would be lifted. “  Moskos, remember, had been one of the authors of “don’t ask don’t tell”.) Robin points out that the majority of us are made to feel more secure by bargaining away the rights of the politically weak and vulnerable. 
I close this review with a quote from someone who misread some of my own writings (Chapter 4 in my 2002 book “Do Ask Do Tell: When Liberty Is Stressed”) and made these angry comments to me in an email about six years ago:
The war on terrorism is the war for *FREEDOM*, and compromises of our liberty are much more our casualties in that war more than any one (or thousand) person's death. Tolerance, privacy and protection of the civil rights of whoever is touched by our country's laws should be (and WAS, before Bush) our most sacred trust. Laws that do not protect the right of the individual, as a rule, oppress the rights of the many. By letting terrorists make us change our lives and laws to make ourselves less free, we concede defeat to them. 
“How many women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq have died for the sins of a few dozen terrorists (assuming it was not a false flag operation by the Bush administration)? There is no question that tens of thousands of civilians have died from acts of violence--that many deaths have been documented and corroborated by multiple press reports of western media--and it appears to be hundreds of thousands have died due to violence, disease and the general disruption that comes from living in a war zone... Saddam is a terrible man who killed hundreds of his own citizens. He used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of thousands or millions of Iranians. We have descended upon Iraq like a plague, causing the death of one in thirty-five. Is that part of the price that you are willing to pay for your security from terrorism? Would Christ say that your security was more important than peace? 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Time offers "Special Ops: The Hidden World of America's Toughest Warrirors"

When you’re in a local supermarket you may see a notebook-sized booklet from Time, “Special Ops: The Hidden World of America’s Toughest Warriors”, by Jim Frederick, with an introduction by Bob Kerrey, 96 pages, very heavily illustrated, nine chapters.
The book opens with a detailed account of the hit on Osama bin Laden the night of May 1, 2011, with “Operation Crankshaft”.  It ends with an epilogue on how a special warrior can even had a normal family life.  There are many inserts, such as on p 31, Ryan Zinke writes “How the SEALs trained me for life”. 
The most interesting part is the discussion of the grueling training (not only the well-known survival escape-and-evasion where you live off the land, but also preparation for extreme rendition, and exposure to things normally unhealthful, such as extended periods of high-pitched loud noise. The physical fitness requirements would of course be extreme (most of all the swimming and underwater tests  -- the photo on p. 27 is certainly appealing), but there probably are civilians who could pass them.  It is amazing how well some men survive these.  (I didn’t see women discussed.) How would professional athletes (football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey) players match up against Special Forces requirements?  How would very fit actors (Taylor Lautner or Ashton Kutcher come to mind)?  Probably they could pass most of them.  Even some musicians (classical performers, singers) say that they have to remain extraordinarily fit.  (Kutcher played a Coast Guard rescue swimmer in the 2006 film “The Guardian” from Touchstone.)

There is, on p. 55, a Chain of Command Chart, listing the Army Special Operations Command, the Air Force Special Operations Command (including "The Green Berets" – yes, a John Wayne movie in 1968, Warner Brothers), the Naval Special Warfare Command (SEALS  -- “Navy Seals” was a 1990 Orion film with Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn), the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, and the Joint Special Forces Command (in red).  The combined Delta Force selection and training is kept quite secret.
Oh – the head shots are on p. 5.  A few of them are “cute”.  Any entry into Metro Weekly’s contest? 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Marc Kaufman: "First Contact": the case for abundant extraterrestrial and probably intelligent life

Author: Marc Kaufman

Title: "First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth"

Publication: 2011, New York, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-4391-0900-7, 213 pages, hardcover, indexed, 10 chapters.

Amazon link

Kaufman makes a good case the hope that there is intelligent life besides us within striking distance, probably in our galaxy, maybe out galactic neighborhood, and certainly the Universe, and certainly in a Universe.  In the end, he does answer “anthropic” or “Rare Earther” arguments that the Earth as a habitat for us is fortuitous indeed.  

The range of possibilities is quite large. But Kaufman spends most of his book on concrete evidence within our own solar system. He spends a lot of space on Mars, going back to the 1976 landings, as well as discussing the Mars Meteorite. He discusses extremophiles on Earth, including the organisms in Mono Lake that substitute arsenic for phosphorus.  I would like for him to have spent more space on Europa and Titan. 

The news media has made a lot recently of the discovery of planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” around a star similar to our Sun about 600 light years away. But the large distance to that example raises the question why we don’t have more of them in the 30-50 light year range.  (That particular planet may still be too large, and much hotter deeper in the atmosphere, if thick.)   Most stars likely to have stable planets are small stable M Stars, which would have been around long enough to give life time to develop (such as Gliese – the G planet is still in dispute).  Planets around these stars usually have one side facing their suns because of tidal lock.  This does not preclude intelligent life, and, science fiction writers could have fun describing the politics of an “annular” civilization on such a planet.  Do all advanced civilizations have money for exchange?

The New York Times series on the Goldilocks Problem dates to Dec 3 and is here.

I think there is something to the idea that life develops as a way to counteract entropy.  A conscious being with Free Will and the requirement to absorb the consequences of its actions would be the ultimate challenge to entropy.  So “nature” might have an incentive to let this develop where possible. The universe may be relatively new in developing advanced civilizations; ours may be an early one with many more to follow over billions of years.  The “soul” or element of Free Will, may be an “object” in physics, somehow related to thermodynamics, that cannot be destroyed and somehow persists, to reappear in other civilizations – maybe in other universes through black hole wormholes.  Maybe the Law of Karma applies, and the Afterlife, in that sense, is real.  It’s hard to see how a being in one universe becomes permanent and immortal – either an Angel (locked in physical perfection, like what you want to see on a disco floor) or a Christ figure – without violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics (hence we need biological reproduction).  But maybe there is some mechanism.  Does the birth of stars and galaxies and new solar systems represent some sort of anti-entropy process that is somehow self-conscious and alive?   Are souls somehow processed by Black Holes after death?

I sometimes wonder if artistic works, especially musical compositions, have a consciousness of their own that survives forever.  Because music is based on universal mathematical relationships, a Beethoven sonata would work for sentient aural beings on any world. 

There is something interesting about conventional religion: it’s insistence on only one specially created World, and yet Heaven and Hell (and maybe Purgatory) that by logic must be specific extraterrestrial places (even if in other universes).  

Here’s Marc Kaufman’s lecture at Authors at Google (46 min), May 27, 2011.

I did see "Contact", directed by Robert Zemeckis, on July 11, 1997, the day of publication of my first book, with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. I remember the discovery of the signal, the code, the trillion dollar machine (which explodes once), and the travel to the other planet.  I also remember David Bowie as "The Man Who Fell to Earth".  While in Minnesota, I met Timothy Johnson, director of "Six Days in Roswell".

What would happen politically on Day One after "Official Contact"? 

Wikipedia attribution link for Mono Lake picture my last visit, 1985, also a couple of visits in the 70s.   I’ll do it again. US 395 is cool, one of my favorite highways.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Matthew Connelly: "Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population" (review)

Author: Matthew Connelly, Professor of History at Columbia University, New York NY.

Title: “Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population”.

Publication: Belpnap Press, Harvard University Press, 2008;  ISBN 978-0-674-02423-6 paper, 520 pages, heavily indexed; major text ends on on 384; Introduction, nine chapters, Conclusion. 

I had been under the impression that the book is new, but it was originally published in hardcover in 2008 and in paper in 2010. 

The author gives a textbook-like detailed account of the population issues in modern history. He notes that many nations, at different times, have promoted increasing population, imposing a responsibility on adults (especially married women) to bear children and on men to sire them, that goes beyond even the idea that people have personal rights to make reproductive choices at all.  But much of the time, in the past century and a half, there have been many organized efforts to reduce birthrates, particularly among poor populations and in less developed parts of the world.   Connelly covers many attempts at eugenics (not at all limited to Nazi Germany), and the more “modern” history of China’s one-child-per-family policy.

These efforts have sometimes contradicted earlier moral teachings against contraception, let alone abortion. The author gives an interesting history of the legal problems France faced when it incorporated north African areas (Algeria) as part of its sovereign territory, because it suddenly wanted to control Muslim reproduction within its legal framework. 

He also notes that at times, some moral interests have drawn little or no difference between contraception (or avoidance of having children deliberately) and abortion or euthanasia (p 148). The teachings of the Catholic Church figure in, as the Vatican has always presumed one has an intrinsic responsibility to participate in raising a new generation, by parentage if possible (unless one took a vow of celibacy/abstinence and poverty). 

The author, in a few places, notes the possible coincidence of arguments concerning equal rights for homosexuals with the aims of population control. 

In his conclusion, Connelly notices the subtleties of today’s arguments about population. Having already noted that fertility rates in many parts of the world (even the developing world) starting slowing in the 60s, he goes on to note that wealthier nations have been shocked to discover the difficulties they will have supporting aging populations with fewer children.  He soft-pedals the obvious potential political problems:  If western nations see an increase in immigrants (especially Muslims) with higher birthrates and a lower standard of living, western freedoms as we know them could be at eventual risk. So most European countries (much more than the US) have offered parents special benefits (which the childless would potentially pay for).  In a few cases, like Singapore, countries have tried to encourage only those with more education to have more children.

Connelly notes that lowering the growth of population does not directly reduce the strain on the environment.  Families may be smaller, but more people may live and consume resources alone; there could be fewer people but more households.  People may become dependent on hiring services from those who have more children.   In the end, Connelly supports a rather libertarian position on birth issues.   Political attempts to control the reproductive behaviors of other people through coercion just won’t work in the long run, he argues. 

Here is Connelly’s own web page for the book. 

The author appears in this YouTube Cross Talk by Russia Today.