When The Beatles Sang About Killing Women

Move over, Johnny Cash and “Cocaine Blues.” Sure, “Early one mornin’ while making the rounds / I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down… Shot her down because she made me slow / I thought I was her daddy but she had five more” are often the first lyrics one thinks of when considering the violent end of the toxic masculinity spectrum in white people music. (Is this not something you ponder? Confront more white folk who somehow only see these things in black music, you’ll get there.) But The Beatles took things to just as dark a place.

Enter “Run For Your Life” from their 1965 album Rubber Soul, a song as catchy as it is chilling: “You better run for your life if you can, little girl / Hide your head in the sand, little girl / Catch you with another man / That’s the end.” Jesus. It’s jarring, the cuddly “All You Need Is Love” boy band singing “Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man” and “Let this be a sermon / I mean everything I’ve said / Baby, I’m determined / And I’d rather see you dead.” But jealous male violence in fact showed up in other Beatles songs as well, and in the real world, with the self-admitted abusive acts and attitudes of John Lennon, later regretted but no less horrific for it.

This awfulness ensured The Beatles would be viewed by many of posterity as a contradictory element, with proto-feminist themes and ideas of the 1960s taking root in their music alongside possessive, murderous sexism. That is, if these things are noticed at all.

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With Afghanistan, Biden Was in the ‘Nation-building Trap.’ And He Did Well.

You’ve done it. You have bombed, invaded, and occupied an oppressive State into a constitutional democracy, human rights and all. Now there is only one thing left to do: attempt to leave — and hope you are not snared in the nation-building trap.

Biden suffered much criticism over the chaotic events in Afghanistan in August 2021, such as the masses of fleeing Afghans crowding the airport in Kabul and clinging to U.S. military planes, the American citizens left behind, and more, all as the country fell to the Taliban. Yet Biden was in a dilemma, in the 16th century sense of the term: a choice between two terrible options. That’s the nation-building trap: if your nation-building project collapses after or as you leave, do you go back in and fight a bloody war a second time, or do you remain at home? You can 1) spend more blood, treasure, and years reestablishing the democracy and making sure the first war was not in vain, but risk being in the exact same situation down the road when you again attempt to leave. Or 2) refuse to sacrifice any more lives (including those of civilians) or resources, refrain from further war, and watch oppression return on the ruins of your project. This is a horrific choice to make, and no matter what you would choose there should be at least some sympathy for those who might choose the other.

Such a potentiality should make us question war and nation-building, a point to which we will return. But here it is important to recognize that the August chaos was inherent in the nation-building trap. Biden had that dilemma to face, and his decision came with unavoidable tangential consequences. For example, the choice, as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan, could be reframed as 1) send troops back in, go back to war, and prevent a huge crowd at the airport and a frantic evacuation, or 2) remain committed to withdraw, end the war, but accept that there would be chaos as civilians tried to get out of the country. Again, dismal options.

This may seem too binary, but the timeline of events appears to support it. With a withdraw deadline of August 31, the Taliban offensive began in early May. By early July, the U.S. had left its last military base, marking the withdraw as “effectively finished” (this is a detail often forgotten). Military forces only remained in places like the U.S. embassy in Kabul. In other words, from early May to early July, the Taliban made serious advances against the Afghan army, but the rapid fall of the nation occurred after the U.S. and NATO withdraw — with some Afghan soldiers fighting valiantly, others giving up without a shot. There are countless analyses regarding why the much larger, U.S.-trained and -armed force collapsed so quickly. U.S. military commanders point to our errors like: “U.S. military officials trained Afghan forces to be too dependent on advanced technology; they did not appreciate the extent of corruption among local leaders; and they didn’t anticipate how badly the Afghan government would be demoralized by the U.S. withdrawal.” In any event, one can look at either May-June (when U.S. forces were departing and Taliban forces were advancing) or July-August (when U.S. forces were gone and the Taliban swallowed the nation in days) as the key decision-making moment(s). Biden had to decide whether to reverse the withdraw, send troops back in to help the Afghan forces retake lost districts (and thus avoid the chaos of a rush to the airport and U.S. citizens left behind), or hold firm to the decision to end the war (and accept the inevitability of turmoil). Many will argue he should have chosen option one, and that’s an understandable position. Even if you had to fight for another 20 years, and all the death and maiming that comes with it, and face the same potential scenario when you try to withdraw in 2041, some would support it. But for those who desired an end to war, it makes little sense to criticize Biden for the airport nightmare, or the Taliban takeover or American citizens being left behind (more on that below). “I supported withdraw but not the way it was done” is almost incomprehensible. In the context of that moment, all those things were interconnected. In summer 2021, only extending and broadening the war could have prevented those events. It’s the nation-building trap — it threatens to keep you at war forever.

The idea that Biden deserves a pass on the American citizens unable to be evacuated in time may draw special ire. Yes, one may think, maybe ending the war in summer 2021 brought an inevitable Taliban takeover (one can’t force the Afghan army to fight, and maybe we shouldn’t fight a war “Afghan forces are not willing to fight themselves,” as Biden put it) and a rush to flee the nation, but surely the U.S. could have done more to get U.S. citizens (and military allies such as translators) out of Afghanistan long before the withdraw began. This deserves some questioning as well — and as painful as it is to admit, the situation involved risky personal decisions, gambles that did not pay off. Truly, it was no secret that U.S. forces would be leaving Afghanistan in summer 2021. This was announced in late February 2020, when Trump signed a deal with the Taliban that would end hostilities and mark a withdraw date. U.S. citizens (most dual citizens) and allies had over a year to leave Afghanistan, and the State Department contacted U.S. citizens 19 times to alert them of the potential risks and offer to get them out, according to the president and the secretary of state. Thousands who chose to stay changed their minds as the Taliban advance continued. One needn’t be an absolutist here. It is possible some Americans fell through the cracks, or that military allies were given short shrift. And certainly, countless Afghan citizens had not the means or finances to leave the nation. Not everyone who wished to emigrate over that year could do so. Yet given that the withdraw date was known and U.S. citizens were given the opportunity to get out, some blame must necessarily be placed on those who wanted to stay despite the potential for danger — until, that is, the potential became actual.

Biden deserves harsh criticism, instead, for making stupid promises, for instance that there would be no chaotic withdraw. The world is too unpredictable for that. Further, for a drone strike that blew up children before the last plane departed. And for apparently lying about his generals’ push to keep 2,500 troops in the country.

That is a good segue for a few final thoughts. The first revolves around the question: “Regardless of the ethics of launching a nation-building war, is keeping 2,500 troops in the country, hypothetically forever, the moral thing to do to prevent a collapse into authoritarianism or theocracy?” Even if one opposed and condemned the invasion as immoral, once that bell has been rung it cannot be undone, and we’re thus forced to consider the ethics of how to act in a new, ugly situation. Isn’t 2,500 troops a “small price to pay” to preserve a nascent democracy and ensure a bloody war was not for nothing? That is a tempting position, and again one can have sympathy for it even if disagreeing, favoring full retreat. The counterargument is that choosing to leave a small force may preserve the nation-building project but it also incites terrorism against the U.S. We know that 9/11 was seen by Al-Qaeda as revenge for U.S. wars and military presences in Muslim lands, and the War on Terror has only caused more religious radicalization and deadly terrorist revenge, in an endless cycle of violence that should be obvious to anyone over age three. So here we see another dilemma: leave, risk a Taliban takeover, but (begin to) extricate yourself from the cycle of violence…or stay, protect the democracy, but invite more violence against Americans. This of course strays dangerously close to asking who is more valuable, human beings in Country X or Country Y, that old, disgusting patriotism or nationalism. But this writer detests war and nation-building and imperialism and the casualties at our own hands (our War on Terror is directly responsible for the deaths of nearly 1 million people), and supports breaking the cycle immediately. That entails total withdraw and living with the risk of the nation-building endeavor falling apart.

None of this is to say that nation-building cannot be successful in theory or always fails in practice. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, which like that of Afghanistan I condemn bitterly, ended a dictatorship; eighteen years later a democracy nearly broken by corruption, security problems, and the lack of enforcement of personal rights stands in its place, a flawed but modest step in the right direction. However, we cannot deny that attempting to invade and occupy a nation into a democracy carries a high risk of failure. For all the blood spilled — ours and our victims’ — the effort can easily end in disaster. War and new institutions and laws hardly address root causes of national problems that can tear a new country apart, such as religious extremism, longstanding ethnic conflict, and so on. It may in fact make such things worse. This fact should make us question the wisdom of nation-building. As discussed, you can “stay until the nation is ready,” which may mean generations. Then when you leave, the new nation may still collapse, not being as ready as you thought. Thus a senseless waste of lives and treasure. Further, why do we never take things to their logical conclusion? Why tackle one or two brutal regimes and not all the others? If we honestly wanted to use war to try to bring liberty and democracy to others, the U.S. would have to bomb and occupy nearly half the world. Actually “spreading freedom around the globe” and “staying till the job’s done” means wars of decades or centuries, occupations of almost entire continents, countless millions dead. Why do ordinary Americans support a small-scale project, but are horrified at the thought of a large-scale one? That is a little hint that what you are doing needs to be rethought.

Biden — surprisingly, admirably steadfast in his decision despite potential personal political consequences — uttered shocking words to the United States populace: “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” Let’s hope that is true.

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Hegemony and History

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, writing in the early 1930s while imprisoned by the Mussolini government, theorized that ruling classes grew entrenched through a process called cultural hegemony, the successful propagation of values and norms, which when accepted by the lower classes produced passivity and thus the continuation of domination and exploitation from above. An ideology became hegemonic when it found support from historical blocs, alliances of social groups (classes, religions, families, and so on) — meaning broad, diverse acceptance of ideas that served the interests of the bourgeoisie in a capitalist society and freed the ruling class from some of the burden of using outright force. This paper argues that Gramsci’s theory is useful for historians because its conception of “divided consciousness” offers a framework for understanding why individuals failed to act in ways that aligned with their own material interests or acted for the benefit of oppressive forces. Note this offering characterizes cultural hegemony as a whole, but it is divided consciousness that permits hegemony to function. Rather than a terminus a quo, however, divided consciousness can be seen as created, at least partially, by hegemony andas responsible for ultimate hegemonic success — a mutually reinforcing system. The individual mind and what occurs within it is the necessary starting point for understanding how domineering culture spreads and why members of social groups act in ways that puzzle later historians.

Divided (or contradictory) consciousness, according to Gramsci, was a phenomenon in which individuals believed both hegemonic ideology and contrary ideas based on their own lived experiences. Cultural hegemony pushed such ideas out of the bounds of rational discussion concerning what a decent society should look like. Historian T.J. Jackson Lears, summarizing sociologist Michael Mann, wrote that hegemony ensured “values rooted in the workers’ everyday experience lacked legitimacy… [W]orking class people tend to embrace dominant values as abstract propositions but often grow skeptical as the values are applied to their everyday lives. They endorse the idea that everyone has an equal chance of success in America but deny it when asked to compare themselves with the lawyer or businessman down the street.”[1] In other words, what individuals knew to be true from simply functioning in society was not readily applied to the nature of the overall society; some barrier, created at least in part by the process of hegemony, existed. Lears further noted the evidence from sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathon Cobb, whose subaltern interviewees “could not escape the effect of dominant values” despite also holding contradictory ones, as “they deemed their class inferiority a sign of personal failure, even as many realized they had been constrained by class origins that they could not control.”[2] A garbage collector knew the fact that he was not taught to read properly was not his fault, yet blamed himself for his position in society.[3] The result of this contradiction, Gramsci observed, was often passivity, consent to oppressive systems.[4] If one could not translate and contrast personal truths to the operation of social systems, political action was less likely.

To understand how divided consciousness, for Gramsci, was achieved, it is necessary to consider the breadth of the instruments that propagated dominant culture. Historian Robert Gray, studying how the bourgeoisie achieved hegemony in Victorian Britain, wrote that hegemonic culture could spread not only through the state — hegemonic groups were not necessarily governing groups, though there was often overlap[5] — but through any human institutions and interactions: “the political and ideological are present in all social relations.”[6] Everything in Karl Marx’s “superstructure” could imbue individuals and historical blocs with domineering ideas: art, media, politics, religion, education, and so on. Gray wrote that British workers in the era of industrialization of course had to be pushed into “habituation” of the new and brutal wage-labor system by the workplace itself, but also through “poor law reform, the beginnings of elementary education, religious evangelism, propaganda against dangerous ‘economic heresies,’ the fostering of more acceptable expressions of working-class self help (friendly societies, co-ops, etc.), and of safe forms of ‘rational recreation.’”[7] The bourgeoisie, then, used many social avenues to manufacture consent, including legal reform that could placate workers. Some activities were acceptable under the new system (joining friendly societies or trade unions) to keep more radical activities out of bounds.[8] It was also valuable to create an abstract enemy, a “social danger” for the masses to fear.[9] So without an embrace of the dominant values and norms of industrial capitalism, there would be economic disaster, scarcity, loosening morals, the ruination of family, and more.[10] The consciousness was therefore under assault by the dominant culture from all directions, heavy competition for values derived from lived experience, despite the latter’s tangibility. In macro, Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, to quote historian David Arnold, “held that popular ideas had as much historical weight or energy as purely material forces” or even “greater prominence.”[11] In micro, it can be derived, things work the same in the individual mind, with popular ideas as powerful as personal experience, and thus the presence of divided consciousness.

The concept of contradictory consciousness helps historians answer compelling questions and solve problems. Arnold notes Gramsci’s questions: “What historically had kept the peasants [of Italy] in subordination to the dominant classes? Why had they failed to overthrow their rulers and to establish a hegemony of their own?”[12] Contextually, why wasn’t the peasantry more like the industrial proletariat — the more rebellious, presumed leader of the revolution against capitalism?[13] The passivity wrought from divided consciousness provided an answer. While there were “glimmers” of class consciousness — that is, the application of lived experience to what social systems should be, and the growth of class-centered ideas aimed at ending exploitation — the Italian peasants “largely participated in their own subordination by subscribing to hegemonic values, by accepting, admiring, and even seeking to emulate many of the attributes of the superordinate classes.”[14] Their desires, having “little internal consistency or cohesion,” even allowed the ruling class to make soldiers of peasants,[15] meaning active participation in maintaining oppressive power structures. Likewise, Lears commented on the work of political theorist Lawrence Goodwyn and the question of why the Populist movement in the late nineteenth century United States largely failed. While not claiming hegemony as the only cause, Lears argued that the democratic movement was most successful in parts of the nation with democratic traditions, where such norms were already within the bounds of acceptable discussion.[16] Where they were not, where elites had more decision-making control, the “received culture” was more popular, with domination seeming more natural and inevitable.[17] Similarly, Arnold’s historiographical review of the Indian peasantry found that greater autonomy (self-organization to pursue vital interests) of subaltern groups meant hegemony was much harder to establish, with “Gandhi [coming] closest to securing the ‘consent’ of the peasantry for middle-class ideological and political leadership,” but the bourgeoisie failing to do the same.[18] Traditions and cultural realities could limit hegemonic possibilities; it’s just as important to historians to understand why something does not work out as it is to comprehend why something does. As a final example, historian Eugene Genovese found that American slaves demonstrated both resistance to and appropriation of the culture of masters, both in the interest of survival, with appropriation inadvertently reinforcing hegemony and the dominant views and norms.[19] This can help answer questions regarding why slave rebellions took place in some contexts but not others, or even why more did not occur — though, again, acceptance of Gramscian theory does not require ruling out all causal explanations beyond cultural hegemony and divided consciousness. After all, Gramsci himself favored nuance, with coexisting consent and coercion, consciousness of class or lived experience mixing with beliefs of oppressors coming from above, and so on.

The challenge of hegemonic theory and contradictory consciousness relates to parsing out aforementioned causes. Gray almost summed it up when he wrote, “[N]or should behavior that apparently corresponds to dominant ideology be read at face value as a direct product of ruling class influence.”[20] Here he was arguing that dominant culture was often imparted in indirect ways, not through intentionality of the ruling class or programs of social control.[21] But one could argue: “Behavior that apparently corresponds to dominant ideology cannot be read at face value as a product of divided consciousness and hegemony.” It is a problem of interpretation, and it can be difficult for historians to parse out divided consciousness or cultural hegemony from other historical causes and show which has more explanatory value. When commenting on the failure of the Populist movement, Lears mentioned “stolen elections, race-baiting demagogues,” and other events and actors with causal value.[22] How much weight should be given to dominant ideology and how much to stolen elections? This interpretive nature can appear to weaken the usefulness of Gramsci’s model. Historians have developed potential solutions. For instance, as Lears wrote, “[O]ne way to falsify the hypothesis of hegemony is to demonstrate the existence of genuinely pluralistic debate; one way to substantiate it is to discover what was left out of public debate and to account historically for those silences.”[23] If there was public discussion of a wide range of ideas, many running counter to the interests of dominant groups, the case for hegemony is weaker; if public discussion centered around a narrow slate of ideas that served obvious interests, the case is stronger. A stolen election may be assigned less casual value, and cultural hegemony more, if there existed restricted public debate. However, the best evidence for hegemony may remain the psychoanalysis of individuals, as seen above, that demonstrate some level of divided consciousness. Even in demonstrability, contradictory consciousness is key to Gramsci’s overall theory. A stolen election may earn less casual value if such insightful individual interviews can be submitted as evidence.  

In sum, for Gramscian thinkers divided consciousness is a demonstrable phenomenon that powers (and is powered by) hegemony and the acceptance of ruling class norms and beliefs. While likely not the only cause of passivity to subjugation, it offers historians an explanation as to why individuals do not act in their own best interests that can be explored, given causal weight, falsified, or verified (to degrees) in various contexts. Indeed, Gramsci’s theory is powerful in that it has much utility for historians whether true or misguided.

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[1] T.J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 (June 1985): 577.

[2] Ibid, 577-578.

[3] Ibid, 578.

[4] Ibid, 569.

[5] Robert Gray, “Bourgeois Hegemony in Victorian Britain,” in Tony Bennet, ed., Culture, Ideology and Social Process: A Reader (London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1981), 240.

[6] Ibid, 244.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 246.

[9] Ibid, 245.

[10] Ibid.

[11] David Arnold, “Gramsci and the Peasant Subalternity in India,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 11, no. 4 (1984):158.

[12] Ibid, 157.

[13] Ibid, 157.

[14] Ibid, 159.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lears, “Hegemony,” 576-577.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Arnold, “India,” 172.

[19] Lears, “Hegemony,” 574.

[20] Gray, “Britain,” 246.

[21] Ibid, 245-246.

[22] Ibid, 276.

[23] Lears, “Hegemony,” 586.

20% of Americans Are Former Christians

It’s relatively well-known that religion in this country is declining, with 26% of Americans now describing themselves as nonreligious (9% adorning the atheist or agnostic label, 17% saying they are “nothing in particular”). Less discussed is where these growing numbers come from and just how much “faith switching” happens here.

For example, about 20% of citizens are former Christians, one in every five people you pass on the street. Where these individuals go isn’t a foregone conclusion — at times it’s to Islam (77% of new converts used to be Christians), Hinduism, or other faiths (“Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population,” the Pew Research Center reports). But mostly it’s to the “none” category, which has thus risen dramatically and is the fastest-growing affiliation. In a majority-Christian country that is rapidly secularizing, all this makes sense. (For context, 34% of Americans — one in three people — have abandoned the belief system in which they were raised, this group including atheists, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, everyone. 4% of Americans used to be nonreligious but are now people of faith.)

While Islam is able to gain new converts at about the same rate it loses members, thus keeping Islam’s numbers steady (similar to Hinduism and Judaism), Christianity loses far more adherents than it brings in, and is therefore seeing a significant decline (77% to 65% of Americans in just 10 years):

19.2% of all adults…no longer identify with Christianity. Far fewer Americans (4.2% of all adults) have converted to Christianity after having been raised in another faith or with no religious affiliation. Overall, there are more than four former Christians for every convert to Christianity.

This statistic holds true for all religions, as well: “For every person who has left the unaffiliated and now identifies with a religious group more than four people have joined the ranks of the religious ‘nones.'”

This is so even though kids raised to be unaffiliated are somewhat less likely to remain unaffiliated! 53% of Americans raised nonreligious remain so. This is better than the 45% of mainstream protestants who stick with their beliefs, but worse than the 59% of Catholics or 65% of evangelical protestants. (Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism again beat everyone — one shouldn’t argue that high retention rates, or big numbers, prove beliefs true, nor low ones false.) Yet it is simply the case that there are currently many more religious people to change their minds than there are skeptics to change theirs:

The low retention rate of the religiously unaffiliated may seem paradoxical, since they ultimately obtain bigger gains through religious switching than any other tradition. Despite the fact that nearly half of those raised unaffiliated wind up identifying with a religion as adults, “nones” are able to grow through religious switching because people switching into the unaffiliated category far outnumber those leaving the category.

Overall, this knowledge is valuable because the growing numbers of atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated are occasionally seen as coming out of nowhere, rather than out of Christianity itself. (And out of other faiths, to far lesser degrees: Muslims are 1% of the population, Jews 2%.) As if a few dangerous, free-thinking families were suddenly having drastically more children, or a massive influx of atheistic immigrants was pouring into the U.S., skewing the percentages. Rather, the 26% of Americans who are nonreligious is comprised of much of the 20% of Americans who have abandoned Christianity. The call’s coming from inside the church.

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How Should History Be Taught?

Debate currently rages over how to teach history in American public schools. Should the abyss of racism receive full attention? Should we teach our children that the United States is benevolent in its wars and use of military power — did we not bring down Nazi Germany? Is the nation fundamentally good based on its history, worthy of flying the flag, or is it responsible for so many horrors that an ethical person would keep the flag in the closet or burn it in the streets? Left and Right and everyone in between have different, contradictory perspectives, but to ban and censor is not ideal. Examining the full spectrum of views will help students understand the world they inhabit and the field of history itself.

While there was once an imagining of objectivity, historians now typically understand the true nature of their work. “Through the end of the twentieth century,” Sarah Maza writes in Thinking About History, “the ideal of historical objectivity was undermined from within the historical community… The more different perspectives on history accumulated, the harder it became to believe that any historian, however honest and well-intentioned, could tell the story of the past from a position of Olympian detachment, untainted by class, gender, racial, national, and other biases.” Selecting and rejecting sources involves interpretation and subconsciously bent decisions. Historians looking at the same sources will have different interpretations of meaning, which leads to fierce debates in scholarly journals. Teachers are not value-neutral either. All this is taken for granted. “It is impossible to imagine,” Maza writes, “going back to a time when historians imagined that their task involved bowing down before ‘the sovereignty of sources.'” They understand it’s more complex than that: “The history of the American Great Plains in the nineteenth century has been told as a tale of progress, tragedy, or triumph over adversity,” depending on the sources one is looking at and how meaning is derived from them.

But this is a positive thing. It gives us a fuller picture of the past, understanding the experiences of all actors. “History is always someone’s story, layered over and likely at odds with someone else’s: to recognize this does not make our chronicles of the past less reliable, but more varied, deeper, and more truthful.” It also makes us think critically — what interpretation makes the most sense to us, given the evidence offered? Why is the evidence reliable?

If historians understand this, why shouldn’t students? Young people should be taught that while historical truth exists, any presentation of historical truth — a history book, say — was affected by human action and sentiment. This is a reality that those on the Left and Right should be able to acknowledge. Given this fact, and that both sides are after the same goal, to teach students the truth, the only sensible path forward is to offer students multiple interpretations. Read A Patriot’s History of the United States (Schweikart, Allen) and A People’s History of the United States (Zinn). There are equivalent versions of these types of texts for elementary and middle schoolers. Read about why World War II was “The Good War” in your typical textbook, alongside Horrible Histories: Woeful Second World War. Have students read history by conservatives in awe of a greatest country in the whole wide world, as well as by liberals fiercely critical of the nation and many of its people for keeping liberty and democracy exclusively for some for far longer than many other countries. They can study top-down history (great rulers, generals, and leaders drive change) and bottom-up social history (ordinary people coming together drives change). Or compare primary sources from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth demanding or opposing women’s rights. Why not? This gives students a broader view of the past, shows them why arguments and debates over history exist, and helps them understand modern political ideologies.

Most importantly, as noted, it helps students think critically. Many a teacher has said, “I don’t want to teach students what to think, but rather how to think.” This doesn’t seem possible without exploring varying perspectives and asking which one a young person finds most convincing and why. One can’t truly practice the art of thinking without one’s views being challenged, being forced to justify the maintenance of a perspective or a deviation based on newly acquired knowledge. Further, older students can go beyond different analyses of history and play around with source theories: what standard should there be to determine if a primary source is trustworthy? Can you take your standard, apply it to the sources of these two views, and determine which is more solid by your metric? There is much critical thinking to be done, and it makes for a more interesting time for young people.

Not only does teaching history in this way reflect the professional discipline, and greatly expand student knowledge and thought, it aligns with the nature of public schools, or with what the general philosophy of public schools should be. The bent of a history classroom, or the history segment of the day in the youngest grades, is determined by the teacher, but also by the books, curricula, and standards approved or required by the district, the regulations of the state, and so forth. So liberal teachers, districts, and states go their way and conservative teachers, districts, and states go theirs. But who is the public school classroom for, exactly? It’s for everyone — which necessitates some kind of openness to a broad range of perspectives (public universities are the same way, as I’ve written elsewhere).

This may be upsetting and sensible at the same time. On the one hand, “I don’t want my kid, or other kids, hearing false, dangerous ideas from the other side.” On the other, “It would be great for my kid, and other kids, to be exposed to this perspective when it so often is excluded from the classroom.” Everyone is happy, no one is happy. Likely more the latter. First, how can anyone favor bringing materials full of falsities into a history class? Again, anyone who favors critical thinking. Make that part of the study — look at the 1619 Project and the 1776 Report together, and explore why either side finds the other in error. Second, how far do you go? What extreme views will be dignified with attention? Is one to bring in Holocaust deniers and square their arguments up against the evidence for the genocide? Personally, this writer would support that: what an incredible exercise in evaluating and comparing the quantity and quality of evidence (and “evidence”). Perhaps others will disagree. But none of this means there can’t be reasonable limits to presented views. If an interpretation or idea is too fringe, it may be a waste of time to explore it. There is finite time in a class period and in a school year. The teacher, district, and so on will have to make the (subjective) choice (no one said this was a perfect system) to leave some things out and focus on bigger divides. If Holocaust denial is still relatively rare, controversy over whether the Civil War occurred due to slavery is not.

Who, exactly, is afraid of pitting their lens of history against that of another? Probably he who is afraid his sacred interpretation will be severely undermined, she who knows her position is not strong. If you’re confident your interpretation is truthful, backed by solid evidence, you welcome all challengers. Even if another viewpoint makes students think in new ways, even pulling them away from your lens, you know the latter imparted important knowledge and made an impression. As the author of a book on racism used in high schools and colleges, what do I have to fear when some conservative writes a book about how things really weren’t so bad for black Kansas Citians over the past two centuries? By all means, read both books, think for yourself, decide which thesis makes the most sense to you based on the sources — or create a synthesis of your own. The imaginary conservative author should likewise have no qualms about such an arrangement.

I have thus far remained fairly even-handed, because Leftists and right-wingers can become equally outraged over very different things. But here I will wonder whether the Right would have more anxiety over a multiple-interpretation study specifically. Once a student has learned of the darkness of American history, it is often more difficult to be a full-throated, flag-worshiping patriot. This risk will drive some conservatives berserk. Is the Leftist parent equally concerned that a positive, patriotic perspective on our past alongside a Zinnian version will turn her child into someone less critical, more favorable to the State, even downplaying the darkness? I’m not sure if the Leftist is as worried about that. My intuition, having personally been on both sides of the aisle, is that the risk would be more disturbing for conservatives — the horrors still horrify despite unrelated positive happenings, but the view of the U.S. as the unequivocal good guy is quickly eroded forever. Hopefully I am wrong and that is the mere bias of a current mindset talking. Either way, this pedagogy, the great compromise, is the right thing to do, for the reasons outlined above.

In conclusion, we must teach students the truth — and Americans will never fully agree on what that is, but the closest one could hope for is that this nation and its people have done horrific things as well as positive things. Teaching both is honest and important, and that’s what students will see when they examine different authors and documents. In my recent review of a history text, I wrote that the Left “shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging, for instance, that the U.S. Constitution was a strong step forward for representative democracy, secular government, and personal rights, despite the obvious exclusivity, compared to Europe’s systems.” Nor should one deny the genuine American interest in rescuing Europe and Asia from totalitarianism during World War II. And then there’s inventions, art, scientific discoveries, music, and many other things. The truth rests in nuance, as one might expect. James Baldwin said that American history is “more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” (What nation does not have both horrors and wonderful things in its history? Where would philosophy be without the German greats?) I’ve at times envisioned writing a history of the U.S. through a “hypocrisy” interpretation, but it works the same under a “mixed bag” framing: religious dissenters coming to the New World for more freedom and immediately crushing religious dissenters, the men who spoke of liberty and equality who owned slaves, fighting the Nazi master race with a segregated army, supporting democracy in some cases but destroying it in others, and so on. All countries have done good and bad things.

That is a concept the youngest children — and the oldest adults — can understand.

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Big Government Programs Actually Prevent Totalitarianism

There is often much screaming among conservatives that big government programs — new ones like universal healthcare, universal college education, or guaranteed work, and long-established ones like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare — somehow lead to dictatorship. There is, naturally, no actual evidence for this. The imagined correlation is justified with nothing beyond “that’s socialism, which always becomes totalitarianism,” ignorance already addressed. The experience of advanced democracies around the world, and indeed the U.S. itself, suggests big government programs, run by big departments with big budgets and big staffs helping tens of millions of citizens, can happily coexist alongside elected governing bodies and presidents, constitutions, and human rights, as one would expect.

Threats to democracy come from elsewhere — but what’s interesting to consider is how conservatives have things completely backward. Big government programs — the demonstration that one’s democracy is a government “for the people,” existing to meet citizen needs and desires — are key to beating back the real threats to a republic.

In a recent interview with The Nation, Bernie Sanders touched on this:

“Why it is imperative that we address these issues today is not only because of the issues themselves—because families should not have to spend a huge proportion of their income on child care or sending their kid to college—but because we have got to address the reality that a very significant and growing number of Americans no longer have faith that their government is concerned about their needs,” says the senator. “This takes us to the whole threat of Trumpism and the attacks on democracy. If you are a worker who is working for lower wages today than you did 20 years ago, if you can’t afford to send your kid to college, etc., and if you see the very, very richest people in this country becoming phenomenally rich, you are asking yourself, ‘Who controls the government, and does the government care about my suffering and the problems of my family?’”

Sanders argues that restoring faith in government as a force for good is the most effective way to counter threats to democracy.

And he’s right. Empirical evidence suggests economic crises erode the rule of law and faith in representative democracy. Depressions are not the only force that pushes in this direction, but they are significant and at times a killing blow to democratic systems. Unemployment, low wages, a rising cost of living — hardship and poverty, in other words — drive citizens toward extreme parties and voices, including authoritarians. Such leaders are then elected to office, and begin to dismantle democracy with support of much of the population. Europe in the 1930s is the oft-cited example, but the same has been seen after the global recession beginning in 2008, with disturbing outgrowths of recent declining trust in democracy: the success of politicians with demagogic and anti-democratic bents like Trump, hysteria over fictional stolen elections that threatens to keep unelected people in office, and dangerous far-right parties making gains in Europe. The Eurozone and austerity crisis, the COVID-induced economic turmoil, and more have produced similar concerns.

What about the reverse? If economic disaster harms devotion to real democracy and politicians who believe in it, does the welfare state increase support for and faith in democracy? Studies also suggest this is so. Government tackling poverty through social programs increases satisfaction with democratic systems! The perception that inequality is rising and welfare isn’t doing enough to address it does the exact opposite. A helping hand increases happiness, and is expected from democracies, inherently linking favorability views on republics and redistribution. If we wish to inoculate the citizenry against authoritarian candidates and anti-democratic practices within established government, shoring up loyalty to democracy through big government programs is crucial.

It is as Sanders said: the most important thing for the government to do to strengthen our democracy and even heal polarization (“Maybe the Democrats putting $300 per child per month in my bank account aren’t so evil”), is simply to help people. To work for and serve all. Healthcare, education, income support, jobs…such services help those on the Right, Left, and everyone in between. This should be done whether there is economic bust or boom. People hold fast to democracy, a government of and by the people, when it is clearly a government for the people. If we lose the latter, so too the former.

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COVID Proved Social Conditions Largely Determine Our Health

In the past year, it has been heavily impressed upon Kansas Citians that one’s health is to a significant degree determined by factors beyond one’s control. The COVID-19 era is a key moment to further break down the reactionary notion that personal health choices are all that stands between an individual and optimal physical and mental well-being. It’s broadened our understanding of how health is also a product of social conditions.

The first and most elementary fact to note is that viruses, while often focusing on vulnerable populations such as the elderly, are not often entirely discriminatory. They end the lives of the young and healthy as well. Regardless of one’s habits of eating, exercise, or not smoking, random exposure to illnesses new or old as one shops for groceries or rides in an Uber helps introduce the point: The environment often makes a mockery of our personal choices, as important as those are.

The family you are born into, where you grow up, and other factors beyond your control — and often your own awareness — have a large impact on your development and health as a child, which in turn impacts your health as an adult. (And the environment you happen to be in continues to affect you.) Poverty, extremely stressful on the mind and body in many ways, is the ultimate destructive circumstance for children and adults alike. Take the disturbing life expectancy differences between the poor and the better-off, for instance. In Kansas City’s poorest ZIP codes, which are disproportionately black, you can expect to live 18 fewer years on average compared to our richest, whitest ZIP codes, as Flatland reported on June 22. Poor families are less likely to have health care offered by an employer or be able to afford it themselves. They live in social conditions that include more violence or worse air and water pollution. They can at times only afford housing owned by negligent landlords slow to take care of mold, and cope with a million other factors.

During the pandemic, what serious observers of the social determinants of health predicted came true: Black Kansas Citians were hammered by COVID-19. Here we feel, today, the cold touch of slavery and Jim Crow, which birthed disproportionate poverty, which nurtured worse health, which resulted in Black Kansas Citians being more likely to catch coronavirus and die from it, as The Star reported even in the early stages of the pandemic. Worse still, on Feb. 24, the paper noted that richer, whiter ZIP codes — the areas of less urgent need — were getting disproportionately more vaccines than poorer areas with more Black residents. The vaccines were first shipped by the state to health centers that were convenient for some but distant from others.

Imagine history and race playing a role in your health, how soon you could get a shot. Imagine transportation options and where you live being factors. Likewise, imagine the kind of job you have doing the same: Lower-income workers are more likely to have front-line jobs at restaurants and grocery stores, where you can catch the virus. The privileged, better-off often work from home.

Whether it is drinking water you don’t know is unsafe or working at a job that requires much human contact during a pandemic, the determinants of health stretch far beyond exercising, eating right, and choosing not to smoke. To reflect on this fact is to understand a moral duty. If social conditions affect the health of individuals and families, it is urgent to change social conditions — to build a decent society, one without poverty and the many horrors that flow from it.

In this moment, one important way to help move toward this goal is to urge the U.S. House to pass the reconciliation budget that just passed the Senate, to extend the direct child tax credit payments to families, boldly expand education and health care, and more. Onward, a better world awaits.

This article first appeared in The Kansas City Star: https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/readers-opinion/guest-commentary/article253638658.html

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Proof God is a Liberal Atheist

Sometimes natural disasters are presented as proof of God’s judgement, as when George Floyd’s mural is struck by lightning or hurricanes arrive because of the gays. God exists, and he’s an angry conservative. Naturally, this line of thinking is dreadful, as the weather also provides clear signs God is a Leftist and a nonbeliever.

What else could one make of God sending lighting to burn down statues of Jesus, such as the King of Kings statue in Monroe, Ohio? Or to chip off Jesus’ thumb? Or to strike Jesus-actor Jim Caviezel while he was filming the Sermon on the Mount scene in The Passion of the Christ? What of the bible camps destroyed by wildfires? The solitary crosses in the middle of nowhere erased by flame, or those on church steeples eradicated by lightning? These incredible signs can be interpreted any way you like — that’s the fun of making stuff up. God prefers statues of Christ smaller than 62 feet, he doesn’t like Caviezel’s acting, the camp kids didn’t pray long enough, these were all just innocent weather events with no supernatural power or mind behind them, like lightning or fire scorching an empty field or a tree in the woods, and so forth. Perhaps God doesn’t want you to be a Christian, he wants you to be a traditional omnist, recognizing the truth of all religions, not taking a side with one faction. Perhaps he wants you to be an atheist because he’s a big joker and only skeptics get into heaven. Perhaps the Judeo-Christian god does not exist, and Allah or Zeus is displaying his wrath against a false faith. That’s the problem with taking natural disasters and assigning meaning and interpretation as proof of something — other people can do it too, and their interpretation, their “proof,” is just as solid (read: worthless) as your own. No critical thinker would engage in this sort of argumentation.

Not only do such remarkable miracles prove God is anti-Christian, others clearly reveal he’s a liberal, and with a delightful sense of humor to boot. How else to explain the pastor who declared natural disasters to be God’s punishment for homosexuality seeing his house destroyed by flood? Was the pastor secretly gay? Or just collateral damage, an innocent bystander, in God’s wrathful fit against LGBTQ people? No, most obviously, God was telling him to cut it out: God has no problem with homosexuality. This is like the pastor who thought COVID was brought about by sex outside marriage and then died from the virus: it wasn’t that the preacher was right, falling victim to a plague caused by others, it’s that God has no issues with premarital intercourse and thus did not send a calamity as retribution. Even more amazingly, religious conservatives like Anita Bryant once blamed a California drought on gays, but the dry spell ended, it began to rain, the day after Harvey Milk, a gay icon, was elected to San Francisco office. What a sign! Same for when an Alabama cop was struck by lightning a week after the Alabama house passed a restrictive bill against Black Lives Matter protests and while the Alabama senate was considering doing the same. And wasn’t the U.S. hit by COVID, double-hurricanes, and murder hornets soon after Trump was acquitted by the GOP-led Senate in early 2020? That can’t be a coincidence. Hurricanes, by the way, tend to hit southern conservative states of high religiosity — perhaps that doesn’t have anything to do with U.S. history and proximity to the gulf, but rather it’s punishment for rightwing policies, not queerness and abortion. Finally, recall when a Focus on the Family director asked everyone to pray for rain during the Democratic National Convention in 2008 so God sent a hurricane to disrupt the Republican National Convention? Finding signs and proof that God is a liberal isn’t difficult, given how weather functions.

Although, admittedly, the stories proving God is a leftwing, anti-religious fellow are not as common, given that it’s mostly religious conservatives who turn off their thinking caps, see providence behind every tornado, and write stories about it. When the Left or skeptics do this, it’s usually tongue-in-cheek, as with here.

Now, it’s true that some events and their interpretations align better with what’s in holy books. The gods of the bible and Qur’an want you to be a believer, not an atheist. Other things rely on human interpretation and choosing which parts of the book to take seriously: is gay marriage intolerable because being gay is an abomination, or just fine because we are to love one another and do unto others? Yet degree of alignment doesn’t actually make a claim that X disaster is proof of God or Allah and his rightwing judgement more convincing. The holy books could easily be fictional, as bad as the weather at proving a deity exists and revealing what its values are. Thus, one is free to imagine any supernatural being one wishes, and ascribe any values to him or her based on natural disasters. Any idea is just as valid as the next.

The point is made. Not only can a weather event be interpreted in countless ways (was the George Floyd mural struck because God is racist, because he heartlessly approves of Floyd’s murder, because he dislikes the Black Lives Matter movement in general, because he finds street art tacky, and so on), but it’s also obvious that various weather events will give contradictory messages about what the higher power believes and favors. The faithful can see and believe any sign they like, but bad arguments garner few converts.

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Is Time the Only Cure for COVID Foolishness?

As August 2021 began, 50% of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated against COVID-19, over 165 million people. There have been 615,000 confirmed deaths — the actual number, given the national excess mortality rate since the start of 2020, is likely double official figures. Over a 12-month period, since last August, 2.5 million people were hospitalized, many leaving with lasting medical problems. All the while, protests and foaming at the mouth over mask and vaccine mandates continue; half the population has refused or delayed the vaccine, this group disproportionately (+20%) Republican.

Attempting to convince the conspiracy theorists, bullheaded conservatives, and those concerned over how (historically) fast the vaccine breakthrough occurred is of course still the moral and pressing thing to do. This piece isn’t an exercise in fatalism, despite its headline. However, great frustration exists: if the hesitant haven’t been convinced by now, what will move the needle? With over a year and a half to absorb the dangers of COVID, deadly and otherwise, and eight months to observe a vaccine rollout that has given 1.2 billion people globally highly effective protection, with only an infinitesimally small percentage seeing any side effects (similar to everyday meds), what could possibly be said to convince someone to finally listen to the world’s medical and scientific consensus, to listen to reason? People have been given a chance to compare the disease to the shots (the unvaccinated are 25 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID and 24 times more likely to die, with nearly all [97, 98, 99%] of COVID deaths now among the unprotected population), but that requires a trust in the expert consensus and data and trials and peer-reviewed research and all those things that make American stomachs churn. Giving people accurate information and sources can even make them less likely to see the light! There is, for some bizarre reason, more comfort and trust in the rogue doctor peddling unfounded nonsense on YouTube.

It may be of some comfort then to recognize that the insanity will surely decrease as time goes on. It’s already occurring. The most powerful answer to “what will move the needle?” is “personal impact” — as time passes, more people will know someone hospitalized or wiped from existence by the disease, and also know someone who has been vaccinated and is completely fine. There will be more family members who get the vaccine behind your back and more friends and acquaintances you’ll see online or in the media expressing deep regret from their ICU hospital beds. You may even be hospitalized yourself. Such things will make a difference. States currently hit hardest by the Delta variant and seeing overall cases skyrocket — the less vaccinated states — are also witnessing increases in vaccination rates. Even conservative media outlets and voices are breaking under the weight of reason, finally beginning to promote the vaccine and changing viewers’ minds, while naturally remaining in Absurdsville by pretending their anti-inoculation hysteria never occurred and blaming Democrats for vaccine hesitancy. Eventually, falsities and mad beliefs yield to science and reason, as we’ve seen throughout history. True, many will never change their minds, and will go to their deaths (likely untimely) believing COVID to be a hoax, or exaggerated, or less risky than a vaccine. But others will yield, shaken to the core by loved ones lost to the virus (one-fourth to one-third of citizens at least know someone who died already) or vaccinated without becoming a zombie, or even by growing ill themselves.

To say more time is needed to end the foolishness is, admittedly, in part to say more illness and death are needed. As stated, the more people a hesitant person knows who have grown ill or died, the more likely the hesitant person is to get his or her shots. A terrible thing to say, yet true. That is why we cannot rest, letting time work on its own. We must continue trying to convince people, through example, empathy (it’s often not logic that changes minds, but love), hand-holding, and other methods offered by psychologists. Lives can be saved. And to convince someone to get vaccinated is not only to protect them and others against COVID, it suddenly creates a person in someone else’s inner circle who has received the shots, perhaps helping the behavior spread. Both us and Father Time can make sure hesitant folk know more people who have been vaccinated, the more pleasant piece of time’s function.

Hopefully, our experience with coronavirus will prepare us for more deadly pandemics in the future, in terms of our behavior, healthcare systems, epidemiology, and more. As bad as COVID-19 is, as bad as Delta is, humanity was exceptionally lucky. The disease could have been far deadlier, far more contagious; the vaccine could have taken much longer, and been less effective. We’ve seen four million deaths worldwide, but even with this virus evolving and worsening, we’ll likely see nothing like the 50 million dead from the 1918 pandemic. Some see the rebellion against masks, lockdowns, and vaccines as a frightening sign: such insanity will spell absolute catastrophe when a deadlier virus comes around. This writer has always suspected (perhaps only hoped) that view to be a bit backward. A deadlier virus would likely mean less rebellion (as would a virus you could see on other people, something more visually horrifying like leprosy). It’s the relative tameness of COVID that allows for the high degree of madness. Admittedly, there was anti-mask resistance during the 1918 crisis, but there could be a correlation nonetheless between the seriousness of the epidemic and the willingness to engage in suicidal foolishness. That aligns with this idea that the more people you lose in your inner circle the more likely you are to give in and visit your local health clinic. Let’s hope science and reason reduce the opportunities to test this correlation hypothesis.

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Famous Bands That Sang About Kansas City

One’s city pride quickly swells upon perusing Spotify for songs about Kansas City. There’s much to hear, from the gems of local talent (“Get Out – The KC Streetcar Song,” Kemet the Phantom) to the fantastic artists from afar (“Train From Kansas City,” Neko Case) to the biggest names in music history:

The Beatles sang of Kansas City beginning in 1961 with “Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” which they took from Little Richard’s work of the late 1950s, itself a version of the 1952 classic “Kansas City” by Leiber and Stoller (“I’m going to Kansas City / Kansas City here I come…”). Other famous musicians to record Leiber and Stoller’s song include Willie Nelson, James Brown, and Sammie Davis Jr.

Frank Zappa performed the “Kansas City Shuffle.” Van Morrison had “The Eternal Kansas City”: “Dig your Charlie Parker / Basie and Young.” Yusuf (Cat Stevens) sang “18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare).” Clearly, and sadly, he did not have a pleasant stay.

Jefferson Airplane was “gonna move to Kansas City”; for Rogers and Hammerstein, in their 1943 musical Oklahoma!, everything was “up to date in Kansas City.” More recently, The New Basement Tapes, The Mowgli’s, and of course Tech N9ne have joined in.

I have created a public playlist on Spotify of four hours of songs about KC. It has a bit of everything, from the jazz and blues of yesteryear to the folk and Americana and hip hop of today. It includes famous artists and the obscure, and everyone in between, with some repeats so one can hear different artists tackle the same song. “Kansas City Hornpipe” by Fred Morrison and “Kansas City, Missouri” by Humbird are particularly enjoyable. Some songs, naturally, are better than others, but the most subpar or campy of Spotify’s selection have been excluded (many local artists go nowhere for a reason). Finally, and unfortunately, one of the best hip hop songs about the city, Center of Attention’s “Straight Outta Kauffman,” is not available on Spotify, so it must be listened to elsewhere.

Find some of that “Kansas City wine” (Leiber and Stoller) and enjoy.

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If Your Explanation Implies There’s Something Wrong With Black People, It’s Racist

Conservative whites who consider themselves respectable typically do not use the explicitly racist causal explanations behind higher rates of black poverty, violent crime, academic struggle, and so on. Ideas of blacks being naturally lazier, more aggressive or deviant, and less intelligent than white people are largely unspeakable today. Instead, these things are simply implied, wrapped in more palatable or comfortable language so one can go about the day guilt-free. This isn’t always conscious. It’s startling to realize that such whites, probably in most cases from what this writer has observed, do not realize their beliefs imply racist things. This is simply cognitive dissonance; it’s people believing with every fiber of their being that they are not racist, and therefore any explanation they believe cannot be racist, no matter how obviously it actually is to observers.

A few examples:

The problem is black culture. You don’t want to say there’s something wrong with black people. Instead, say there’s something wrong with black culture! This black culture is one of violence and revenge, of getting hooked on welfare instead of looking for work, of fathers abandoning mothers and children to create broken, single-parent homes, and so on. But obviously, to say there’s something wrong with black culture is to say there is something wrong with black people. Where, after all, did this “culture” come from? To respectable conservative whites, who should always be asked that very question immediately, it comes from black people themselves. Such whites won’t include an educated explanation of how history, environment/social conditions, and public policies produce “culture” — how recent American history birthed disproportionate poverty, how poverty breeds violence and necessitates welfare use, how a government’s racist War on Drugs and the crimes and violent deaths bred by that very poverty might mean more families without fathers. They surely won’t point out, as a nice comparison, that the white American culture of yesteryear that placed the age of sexual consent for girls at 10 years old, or a white European culture of executing those who questioned the Christian faith, obviously did not stem from whiteness itself, having nothing to do with caucasian ethnicity — so what does “black culture” have to do with blackness? Are these not human beings behaving in predictable ways to the poverty of the place or the theology of the time? People who think in such rational ways wouldn’t use the “problem is black culture” line in the first place. Nay, it is black folk themselves that create this culture, meaning something is terribly wrong with the race, with blacks as people, something linked to biology and genetics — as uncomfortable as that will be for some whites to hear, it is the corner they have readily backed themselves into. After all, white people do not have this “culture.” Why? Are whites superior?

It’s all about personal choice. Another popular one. The problem is black people are making the wrong choices. They have free will, why don’t they choose peace over violence, choose to look harder for a job or a higher-paying gig, study harder in school, just go to college? The response is again painfully obvious. If racial discrepancies all just boil down to personal choices, this is simply to say that blacks make worse personal choices than white people. This is so self-evident that the temptation to throw this article right in the garbage is overwhelming. To whites, blacks are making choices they wouldn’t personally make. There is no consideration of how environment can affect you. Take whether or not you flunk out of college. You hardly choose where or the family into which you are born, and growing up in a poor home affects your mental and physical development, typically resulting in worse academic performance than if you’d been born into a wealthy family; likewise, children don’t choose where they are educated: wealthy families can afford the best private schools and SAT tutoring, black public schools are more poorly funded than white public schools, and so on. Such things affect your ability to graduate college, or even gain admission. Nor is it considered how environment impacts your decisions themselves. For instance, witnessing violence as a child makes you more likely to engage in it, to choose to engage in it. Nor is there a thought to how social settings affect the choices you’ll even face in your life — if you live in a wealthy area without much crime, for instance, you are less likely to experience peer pressure from a friend to commit an illegal act (just as you’re less likely to see violence and thus engage in it later). One can be more successful in life with fewer opportunities to make bad choices in the first place! But none of that can be envisioned. For respectable conservative whites, there is something wrong with black people, something defective about their decision-making or moral character. White people, in contrast, make better choices, the right choices, and are thus wealthier, safer, better educated, families intact. Again, the implication of inferiority is front and center.

Good parenting is really the key. It all comes down to parenting. If black parents stuck together, emphasized to their kids the importance of education, a hard work ethic, the family unit, and turning the other cheek, all these racial disparities could come to an end. The disgusting implications are no doubt clear to the reader already, meaning we need not tarry here. To pin social problems on poor parenting, without any consideration of outside factors, is to simply say black humans are inherently worse parents than white humans. Whatever the problem with black moms and dads, white ones are happily immune.

These implications must be exposed whenever one hears them, and the conversation turned away from race and biology and toward history and socio-economics. Toward the truth.

The racial wealth gap in the United States was birthed by the horrors done to blacks: slavery meant black people, apart from some freemen, started with nothing in 1865, whereas whites began wealth accumulation centuries before, a colossal wealth gap; Jim Crow oppression meant another century of being paid lower wages, denied even menial employment and certainly high-paying jobs, hired last and fired first, kept out of universities, denied home loans or offered worse terms, taught in poorly funded schools, kept out of high-value neighborhoods through violence and racial covenants, and more; studies show that even today racism still affects wealth accumulation in significant ways. By studying history in a serious manner, we begin to understand why the racial wealth gap exists and why it has not yet closed — not because there’s something defective about black people, but because, beyond today’s challenges with racism, there simply has not been enough time for it to close. People who lived through the Jim Crow era, some mere grandchildren of slaves, are still alive today. This is hardly ancient history; it’s two or three generations.

The poverty that persists does to blacks what it does to human beings of all races. It exacerbates crime (not only theft or the drug trade as ways of earning more income, but from the stress in puts on the brain, equivalent to sleep deprivation, causing people to act in ways they simply would not have had they been in more affluent settings), it hurts the performance of students, it leads to more men confined to the cell or the coffin and thus not at home, and other challenges. Bad public policies, from city underinvestment in the black parts of town to the War on Drugs, make things worse. It is right to be a good parent, to make wise choices, and to value a positive culture — but for whites to imagine that some abandonment of these things by our black neighbors is the root cause of racial disparities, with no discussion of history and social conditions and how they persist and affect human beings, is racist and rotten to the core. Respectable conservative whites (and some black conservatives who focus exclusively on parenting, choices, and culture) may not notice or be conscious of such implications, but this can be made temporary.

If we consider ourselves to be moral creatures, it is our responsibility to give these rosier modern framings of old racist ideas no quarter.

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Were Hitler and the Nazis Socialists? Only Kind Of

How socialist were the National Socialists?

We know there will be times when an organization or national name doesn’t tell the whole story. As Jacobin writes, how democratic is the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea? It’s hardly a republic either. (Hitler once asked, “Is there a truer form of Democracy” than the Reich — dictators, apparently, misuse terms.) Or look to the Likud, the National Liberals, one of Israel’s major conservative parties. And if the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were Christians, do they represent Christianity at large? So let us examine the Nazis and see if they fall into this category.

The first task, as always, is to define socialism. Like today, “socialism” and “communism” were used by some in the early 20th century to mean the same thing (communism) and by others to mean different things. As a poet from the 1880s put it, there are indeed “two socialisms”: the one where the workers own their workplaces and the one where the government owns the workplaces. We must remember these different term uses, but to make it easy we will simply be open to both: “Were the Nazis socialists?” can therefore mean either. There is more to it than that, of course, such as direct democracy and large government programs. But these additions are not sufficient qualifiers. There will be whining that the Nazi regime had large government programs and thus it was socialist, but if that’s the criteria then so were all the nations fighting the Nazis, including the U.S. (remember our huge public jobs programs and Social Security Act of the era?). Advanced societies tend to have sizable State services — and you can have these things without being truly socialist. If one has even a minimal understanding of socialist thought and history, then the conclusion that no country can earnestly be called socialist without worker or State ownership of business is hardly controversial. To speak of socialism was to speak of the elimination of private ownership of the means of production (called “private property,” businesses), with transfer of ownership away from capitalists to one of the two aforementioned bodies.

The German Workers Party, founded in 1919 in Munich by Anton Drexler and renamed the National Socialist German Workers Party in 1920, included actual socialists. Gregor and Otto Strasser, for instance, supported nationalization of industry — it’s simply not accurate to say the rhetoric of ending capitalism, building socialism, of revolution, workers, class, exploitation, and so on was solely propaganda. It was a mix of honest belief and empty propagandistic promises to attract voters in a time of extreme poverty and economic crisis, all depending on which Nazi was using it, as we will see. Socialists can be anti-semites, racists, patriots, and authoritarians, just like non-socialists and people of other belief systems. (I’ve written more elsewhere about the separability of ideologies and horrific things, if interested, typically using socialism and Christianity as examples. The response to “Nazis were socialists, so socialism is pure evil” is of course “Nazis were also Christians — Germany was an extremely religious nation — so is Christianity also pure evil? If the Nazis distorted Christianity, changing what it fundamentally was with their ‘Positive Christianity,’ advocated for in the Nazi platform, is true Christianity to be abandoned alongside true socialism if that has been distorted as well?”)

The meaning of socialism was distorted by Hitler and other party members. To Hitler, socialism meant the common weal, the common good for a community. While rhetorically familiar, this was divorced from ideas of worker or State ownership of the means of production. In a 1923 interview with The Guardian‘s George Sylvester Viereck, Hitler made this clear. After vowing to end Bolshevism (communism), Hitler got the key question:

“Why,” I asked Hitler, “do you call yourself a National Socialist, since your party programme is the very antithesis of that commonly accredited to socialism?”

“Socialism,” he retorted, putting down his cup of tea, pugnaciously, “is the science of dealing with the common weal. Communism is not Socialism. Marxism is not Socialism. The Marxians have stolen the term and confused its meaning. I shall take Socialism away from the Socialists.

“Socialism is an ancient Aryan, Germanic institution. Our German ancestors held certain lands in common. They cultivated the idea of the common weal. Marxism has no right to disguise itself as socialism. Socialism, unlike Marxism, does not repudiate private property. Unlike Marxism, it involves no negation of personality, and unlike Marxism, it is patriotic.

“We might have called ourselves the Liberal Party. We chose to call ourselves the National Socialists. We are not internationalists. Our socialism is national. We demand the fulfilment of the just claims of the productive classes by the state on the basis of race solidarity. To us state and race are one.”

Hitler’s socialism, then, had to do with the common good of one race, united as a nation around ancestral Aryan land and identity. What socialism meant to Hitler and other Nazis can only be understood through the lens of racial purity and extreme nationalism. They come first, forming the colander, and everything else is filtered through. In the same way, what Christianity meant to Hitler was fully shaped by these obsessions: it was a false religion invented by the Jews (who Jesus fought!), but could at the same time be used to justify their destruction. Bolshevism was likewise labeled a sinister Jewish creation (was not Marx ethnically Jewish?): “The Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of Nature…” Further, when Hitler criticized capitalists, it was often specific: Germany needed “delivery from the Jewish capitalist shackles,” the Jews being to blame for economic problems. A consumed conspiratorial bigot, and often contradictory and nonsensical, he would attack both sides of any issue if they smacked to him of Judaism. But we see Hitler’s agreement that National Socialism was the “antithesis of that commonly accredited to socialism”: there would still be private property, private ownership of the means of production; the internationalism and the racial diversity and tolerance at times preached by other socialists would be rejected. (So would class conflict: “National Socialism always bears in mind the interests of the people as a whole and not the interests of one class or another.”) Racial supremacy and the worship of country — elements of the new fascism, and the latter a typical element of the Right, not traditional socialism — were in order. (If these things were socialism, then again the nations fighting Germany were socialist: Jim Crow laws in America were used as models by Nazi planners, there existed devotion to American exceptionalism and greatness, and so forth.)

Hitler often repeated his view. On May 21, 1935:

National Socialism is a doctrine that has reference exclusively to the German people. Bolshevism lays stress on international mission. We National Socialists believe a man can, in the long run, be happy only among his own people… We National Socialists see in private property a higher level of human economic development that according to the differences in performance controls the management of what has been accomplished enabling and guaranteeing the advantage of a higher standard of living for everyone. Bolshevism destroys not only private property but also private initiative and the readiness to shoulder responsibility.

In a December 28, 1938 speech he declared:

A Socialist is one who serves the common good without giving up his individuality or personality or the product of his personal efficiency. Our adopted term ‘Socialist’ has nothing to do with Marxian Socialism. Marxism is anti-property; true socialism is not. Marxism places no value on the individual or the individual effort, or efficiency; true Socialism values the individual and encourages him in individual efficiency, at the same time holding that his interests as an individual must be in consonance with those of the community.

He who believed in “Germany, people and land — that man is a Socialist.” Otto Strasser, in his 1940 book Hitler and I, wrote that Hitler told him in 1930 that the revolution would be racial, not economic; that democracy should not be brought into the economic sphere; and that large corporations should be left alone; to which Strasser replied, “If you wish to preserve the capitalist regime, Herr Hitler, you have no right to talk of socialism. For our supporters are socialists, and your programme demands the socialisation of private enterprise.” Hitler responded:

That word ‘socialism’ is the trouble… I have never said that all enterprises should be socialised. On the contrary, I have maintained that we might socialise enterprises prejudicial to the interests of the nation. Unless they were so guilty, I should consider it a crime to destroy essential elements in our economic life… There is only one economic system, and that is responsibility and authority on the part of directors and executives. That is how it has been for thousands of years, and that is how it will always be. Profit-sharing and the workers’ right to be consulted are Marxist principles. I consider that the right to exercise influence on private enterprise should be conceded only to the state, directed by the superior class… The capitalists have worked their way to the top through their capacity, and on the basis of this selection, which again only proves their higher race, they have a right to lead. Now you want an incapable government council or works council, which has no notion of anything, to have a say; no leader in economic life would tolerate it.

Otto Strasser and his brother grew disillusioned that the party wasn’t pursuing actual socialism, and upset that Hitler supported and worked with big business, industrialists, capitalists, German princes. Otto was expelled from the party in 1930. Gregor resigned two years later.

The referenced National Socialist Program, or 25-point Plan, of 1920 demanded the “nationalization of all enterprises (already) converted into corporations (trusts),” “profit-sharing in large enterprises,” “communalization of the large department stores, which are to be leased at low rates to small tradesmen,” and nationalization “of land for public purposes.” Hitler clarified that since “the NSDAP stands on the platform of private ownership,” the nationalization of land for public use “concerns only the creation of legal opportunities to expropriate if necessary, land which has been illegally acquired or is not administered from the view-point of the national welfare. This is directed primarily against the Jewish land-speculation companies.” Large department stores were largely Jewish-run. And above we saw Hitler’s resistance to profit-sharing. Further, nationalization of businesses would be limited, as noted, to trusts. It could be that the disproportionately strong representation of Jews in ownership of big German companies played a role here, too. Now, a “secret” interview with Hitler that some scholars suspect is a forgery contains the quote: “Point No. 13 in that programme demands the nationalisation of all public companies, in other words socialisation, or what is known here as socialism,” yet even this limits the promise to publicly traded companies, and Hitler goes on, tellingly, to speak of “owners” and their “possessions,” “property owners,” “the bourgeoisie,” etc. that, while “controlled” by the State, plainly exist independently of it in his socialist vision. Nevertheless, the program has a socialist flair, making Otto Strasser’s comment in 1930 comprehensible, yet its timidity vis-à-vis economics (compare it to the German communist party’s platform of 1932) and its embrace of nationalism and rejection of internationalism would understandably make some ask the question George Sylvester Viereck did in 1923.

This socialist tinge, apart from attacks on Jewish businesses, was forgotten when the Nazis came to power. Historian Karl Bracher said such things to Hitler were “little more than an effective, persuasive propaganda weapon for mobilizing and manipulating the masses. Once it had brought him to power, it became pure decoration: ‘unalterable,’ yet unrealized in its demands for nationalization and expropriation, for land reform…” Indeed, while other Western nations were bringing businesses under State control to combat the Depression, the Nazis in the 1930s ran a program of privatization. Many firms and sectors were handed back to the private sphere. The Nazis valued private ownership for its efficiency. The German economy was State-directed in the sense that the government made purchases, contracting with private firms to produce commodities, such as armaments, and regulated business in many ways, as advanced nations often do, including the U.S. Historian Ian Kershaw wrote: “Hitler was never a socialist. But although he upheld private property, individual entrepreneurship, and economic competition, and disapproved of trade unions and workers’ interference in the freedom of owners and managers to run their concerns, the state, not the market, would determine the shape of economic development. Capitalism was, therefore, left in place. But in operation it was turned into an adjunct of the state.” While the regime incentivized business and regulated it, especially in preparation for war, intervening to keep entities aligned with State goals and ideology, “there occurred hardly any nationalizations of private firms during the Third Reich. In addition, there were few enterprises newly created as state-run firms,” summarized Christoph Buchheim and Jonas Scherner in The Journal of Economic History. Companies retained their independence and autonomy: they still “had ample scope to follow their own production plans… The state normally did not use power to secure the unconditional support of industry,” but rather offered attractive contracts. Socialism cannot simply be regulation of and incentives for private companies, to meet national goals — again, this is what non-socialist states do every day (and the U.S. war economy had plenty of centrally planned production goals and quotas, contracts, regulations, rationing, and even government takeovers).

The betrayal of the program was noticed at the time. A 1940 report said that:

Economic planks of the “unalterable program” on the basis of which the National Socialists campaigned before they came to power in 1933 were designed to win the support of as many disgruntled voters as possible rather than to present a coordinated plan for a new economic system. Within the party there has always been, and there still is, serious disagreement about the extent to which the “socialist” part of the party’s title is to be applied… The planks calling for expropriation have been least honored in the fulfillment of this platform; in practice, the economic reorganizations undertaken by the Nazis have followed a very different pattern from the one which was originally projected.

That pattern was tighter regulation, generous contracts, economic recovery programs for ordinary people, and so on, though the occasional State takeover did occur. All this makes sense given what we’ve seen. The Nazis weren’t interested in the socialism of the Marxists, the communists. Hitler, in his words, rejected “the false notion that the economic system could exist and operate entirely freely and entirely outside of any control or supervision on the part of the State,” but business ultimately belonged to the capitalists.

The Bramberg Conference of 1926 was a key moment for the direction of the Nazi Party: would it go in an earnestly socialist direction or simply use this new, diluted version Hitler was fond of? There were ideological divisions that had to be addressed. Hitler, as party leader since 1921 and with the conference officially establishing Fuhrerprinzip (absolute power of the party leader), was likely to win from the beginning. Gregor Strasser led the push at this convening of Nazi leaders for socialist policies, backed by others from Germany’s northern urban, industrial areas. Leaders from the rural south stood opposed; they wanted to instead lean into nationalism, populism, racialism. One such policy was the seizing of the estates of rich nobles, the landed princes — did the National Socialist Program not say land could be expropriated for the common good? “The law must remain the law for aristocrats as well,” Hitler said. “No questioning of private property!” This was communism, that old Jewish plot. Hitler made sure the idea, being pursued at the time by the social democratic and communist parties, died in its cradle. “For us there are today no princes, only Germans,” he said. “We stand on the basis of the law, and will not give a Jewish system of exploitation a legal pretext for the complete plundering of our people.” Again, the rejection of the class war and overthrow of the rich inherent to socialism and instead a simple focus on the Jews — Hitler was “replacing class with race,” as one historian put it, swapping out “the usual terms of socialist ideology.” Hitler was “a reactionary,” Joseph Goebbels realized. After this, Strasser backed off, and the socialist push in the party was quelled.

Similar to State ownership, while the German Workers Party in 1919 spoke of worker cooperatives — worker ownership — the Nazis had no actual interest in this, in fact making cooperative entities targets to be destroyed in Germany and conquered nations because they smacked of Marxism. A dictatorship isn’t going to give ordinary people power.

Outside observers continued to mock Hitler’s socialism — this isn’t simply a tactic of an embarrassed American Left today. As we’ve seen, people of the era noticed the meaning was changed and watched how the Nazis acted when in power. For Leon Trotsky, an actual communist-style socialist writing in 1934, Nazi “socialism” was always in derisive quotation marks. “The Nazis required the programme in order to assume the power; but power serves Hitler not all for the purpose of fulfilling the programme,” with “the social system untouched,” the “class nature” and competition of capitalism alive and well. Stalin said in 1936, “The foundation of [Soviet] society is public property: state, i.e., national, and also co-operative, collective farm property. Neither Italian fascism nor German National-‘Socialism’ has anything in common with such a society. Primarily, this is because the private ownership of the factories and works, of the land, the banks, transport, etc., has remained intact, and, therefore, capitalism remains in full force in Germany and in Italy.”

When one considers how actual socialists were treated under the Reich, the point is driven home.

Communist and social democratic politicians were purged from the legislature and imprisoned. Dachau, the first concentration camp, first held political enemies such as socialists. In an article in The Guardian from March 21, 1933, the president of the Munich police said, “Communists, ‘Marxists’ and Reichsbanner [social democratic] leaders” would be imprisoned there. The next year reports of the horrid conditions inside emerged, such as that in The New Republic, likewise noting the “Social Democrats, Socialist Workers’ party members,” and others held within. Part of the impetus for the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, in which Hitler had Nazi Party members killed, was too much talk of workers, actual socialism, anti-capitalist ideas. Gregor Strasser was murdered that night. Otto fled for his life.

There is a famous saying that is in fact authentic. Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller of Germany often said various versions of the following after the war:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

One might wonder why the socialists would be coming for the socialists. But if this new socialism simply had to do with race and land, opposing State or worker ownership, it begins to make sense. You have to take care of ideological opponents, whether through a conference or a concentration camp. In response, communists and socialists took part in the valiant resistance to Nazism in Germany and throughout Europe.

The recent articles offering a Yes or No answer to the question “Were Hitler and the Nazis Socialists?” are far too simplistic. Honest history can’t always be captured in a word. Here is an attempt to do so in a paragraph:

Foundationally, socialists wanted either worker ownership of workplaces or government ownership of workplaces, the removal of capitalists. The Nazi Party had actual socialists. But over time they grew frustrated that the party wasn’t pursuing socialism; some left. Other members, including party leader Adolf Hitler, opposed actual socialism, and changed the definition of socialism to simply mean unity of the Aryan race and its collective flourishing. True to this, when he seized power, Hitler did not implement socialism, leaving capitalists in place, and instead crushed those speaking of actual socialism.

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Faith and Intelligence

Atheists and agnostics are sometimes accused of seeing themselves as more intelligent than people of faith. Which begs the question: as a former believer, do I consider myself to be smarter now that I am a freethinker? In a sense yes, in that I’ve gained knowledge I did not possess before and have developed critical thinking skills that I likewise used to lack. It feels like learning an instrument, in fact a good analogy. People who learn the violin are from one perspective smarter than they were before, with new knowledge and abilities, a brain rewired, and indeed smarter than me, and others, in that respect. But this is a rather informal meaning of intelligence. Virtually anyone can learn the violin, and virtually anyone can find the knowledge and skills I did. Now we’re talking about capacity. We’ve entered the more formal definition of intelligence, under which the answer is obviously no, I’m not smarter than my old self or believers. So the answer is yes and no, as is often the case with variable meanings.

Consider this in detail. There are many definitions of “intelligence” (“smart” can simply be used as a synonym). The formal definition of intelligence generally has to do with the ability or capacity to gain knowledge and skills. You wouldn’t grow in intelligence by gaining knowledge and skills, but rather by somehow expanding the capacity to do so in the first place. (Granted, it could well be that doing the former does impact the latter, a virtuous cycle.) The human and the ape have different capacities, a sizable intelligence gap. Humans have differences too, in terms of genetic predispositions granted by the birth lottery and environmental factors. An ape won’t get far on the violin, and some humans will struggle more, or less, than others to learn it. Human beings have greater or weaker baseline capacities in various areas, different intelligence levels, but most can learn the basics (the idea that enough practice can make anyone advanced or expert has been thoroughly blown up). So under the formal framework, the believer and the skeptic have roughly the same intelligence on average, with the same ability to discover certain knowledge and develop certain skills — whether that ever happens is a separate question entirely, coming down to luck, life experiences, environment, and so on. While studies have often found that religiosity correlates with lower IQ, the difference is very small, with possible causes ranging from autistic persons helping tip the scales for the non-religious to people of faith relying too much on intuition rather than logic or reason when problem-solving, a problem of “behavioral biases rather than impaired general intelligence” — and behavior can be changed, very different than capacity. If this latter hypothesis is true, it would be like giving a violin proficiency test to both violin students and non-students and marveling that the non-students underperformed. Had my logic and reasoning been tested before my transition from pious to dubious, I suspect it would have been lower than today, as I learned many critical thinking skills during and after, but this is not about capacity; it’s just learning anyone can do. Under the more serious definition of intelligence, I don’t believe I’m smarter than my former self or the faithful.

But now we can work under the informal, colloquial meaning, where growing intelligence simply has something to do with a growing base of knowledge and new skill sets. Do we not often say “He’s really smart” of someone who knows copious facts about astronomy or history? Don’t we consider a woman highly intelligent who speaks multiple languages, or is a blazingly fast coder? When we suspect that if we devoted the same time and energy to those things, we could probably hold our own? (Rightly or wrongly, as noted. Either way, we often don’t think as much about capacity as simple acquisition.) This writer, at least, sometimes uses these flattering terms to describe possession of much information or foreign abilities.

In that sense, I certainly believe I’m smarter than I used to be. I realize how insulting that sounds, given that the natural extension is that I consider myself smarter than religious persons. But I don’t know how unique that is. When the weak Christian becomes a strong Christian through reading and thinking and conversing, she may consider herself smarter than before — perhaps even more knowledgable and a more sensible thinker than an atheist! In other words, more intelligent than a nonbeliever (wouldn’t you have to be a fool to think existence, the universe, is possible without a creator being?). When a man learns vast amounts about aerophysics, he sees himself as smarter than before and by extension others on this topic; when he masters the skill of building planes that fly, the same. If intelligence simply means more knowledgable about or skilled at something, everyone thinks they’re smarter than their past selves and by extension other people, with, obviously, many clashing and contradictory opinions between individuals (the Christian and the atheist both thinking they are more knowledgable, for instance).

Some examples are in order from my personal growth, just to illuminate my perspective better. I’ll offer two. I used to believe that, among other reasons, the gospels could be trusted as being entirely factual because they were written 30-40 years after the alleged miraculous events they describe (at least, Mark was; the others were later). “Too soon after to be fictional.” But then I learned something. Other religions, which I disbelieved, had much shorter timespans between supposed events and written accounts! Made-up nonsense about what happened on Day X to Person A was being written about and earnestly believed just a year or two later, in some cases just a day or two later — birthing new religions and stories still believed today! That was just the way humans operated; it’s never too soon for fictions, things can be invented and spread immediately, never to be tamped down. So, I’d gained knowledge. I felt more intelligent because of this — even embarrassed at my old ways of thinking. Not right away, but eventually. How could anyone learn this and not change their way of thinking accordingly, realizing that this argument for the gospels’ trustworthiness is simply dreadful and should be retired?

Since the first example was in the knowledge category, the second can concern critical thinking skills, and is neatly paired with the first. I used to suppose that it was sensible to believe in the gospels (and of course God) because they could not be disproved. After all, why not? If you can’t disprove them, they could be true. So why not continue to believe the gospels to be full of truths rather than fictions, as you’ve been raised or long held? Eventually I started thinking more critically, more clearly. This was the argument from ignorance fallacy: if something hasn’t been disproved that’s reason to suppose there’s truth to it. It’s rather irrational — there are a million stories from all human religions that cannot be disproved…therefore it’s reasonable to think they are true? You can’t disprove that the Greek gods formed Mount Olympus, that Allah or Thor exists, that the god Krishna spoke with Arjuna as described in the Bhagavad Gita, or that we’re living in a simulation. The ocean of unprovable things is infinite and of course highly contradictory, with many sets of things that cannot both or all be true. There are too many fictions in this ocean — you may believe in one of them. To only apply the argument from ignorance to your own faith, to believe that the gospels are true because they cannot be disproved but not all these other things for the precise same reason, is simple bias. Mightn’t it be more sensible to believe that which can be proven, rather than what cannot be disproven? That would be, in stark contrast, a solid justification. Now on the other side of the gulf, I can barely understand how I ever thought in such fallacious ways. But better, more logical ways of thinking I simply developed over time, and as with the development of any skill I can’t help but feel more intelligent because of it.

One does regret how derogatory this may seem to many readers. Yet it is impossible to avoid. I consider myself more intelligent than I used to be because I have knowledge I did not possess before and ways of thinking I consider better than prior ones. By extension, it seems I have to consider myself more intelligent, in this area, than those who, like my past self, do not possess that knowledge or those habits of critical thinking. However (and apologies for growing repetitive, it stems from a desire not to offend too much), this is no different than any person who uses the informal meaning of intelligence in any context. If you use that definition, and believe yourself to be more knowledge of the contents of the bible or biology, or more skilled at mathematics or reading people, than before or compared to others, you consider yourself smarter than other people, in those areas but not necessarily in others. If you instead use the formal definition of intelligence, regarding the mere capacity to gain knowledge and develop skills, then you’d say you’re not actually smarter than others (as they could simply do as you have done) or at least not necessarily or only possibly smarter (again, there are differences in capacities between human beings; some will be naturally better at mathematics no matter how hard others practice). In this latter sense, I’m again compelled in my answer: I essentially have to say I’m not smarter than my former self or current believers who think as I once did.

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Review: ‘A History of the American People’

At times I read books from the other side of the political spectrum, and conservative Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People (1998) was the latest.

This was mostly a decent book, and Johnson deserves credit for various inclusions: a look at how British democracy influenced American colonial democracy, the full influence of religion on early American society, Jefferson’s racism, U.S. persecution of socialists and Wobblies during World War I, how the Democratic Party was made up of southern conservatives and northern progressives for a long time, and more.

However, in addition to (and in alignment with) being a top-down, “Great Men,” traditionalist history, the work dodges the darkness of our national story in significant ways. That’s the only way, after all, you can say things like Americans are “sometimes wrong-headed but always generous” (a blatant contradiction — go ask the Japanese in the camps about generosity) or “The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures” (what a wonderful adventure black people had in this country). It’s the pitfall of conservative, patriotic histories — if you want the U.S. to be the greatest country ever, our horrors must necessarily be downplayed.

Thus, black Americans don’t get much coverage until the Civil War, whereas Native Americans aren’t really worth discussing before or after the Trail of Tears era. Shockingly, in this history the internment of the Japanese never occurred. It’s simply not mentioned! Johnson offers a rosy view of what the U.S. did in Vietnam, believing that we should have inflicted more vigorous violence on both Vietnam and Cuba. Poverty doesn’t get much attention. The Founding Fathers’ expressions of protecting their own wealth, class interests, and aristocratic power when designing our democracy naturally go unmentioned. Likewise, American attacks on other countries are always from a place of benevolence and good intentions, rather than, as they often were in actuality, for economic or business interests, to maintain global power, or to seize land and resources. To Johnson, the U.S. had “one” imperialist adventure, its war with Spain — this incredible statement was made not long after his outline of the U.S. invasion of Mexico to expand its borders to the Pacific.

Other events and people given short shrift include LGBTQ Americans, non-European immigrants, and the abolitionist movement — until the end of the book when the modern pro-life movement is compared to it in approving fashion. The labor and feminist movements aren’t worth mentioning for their crucial successes, or intersectional solidarity in some places, only for their racism in others. Johnson is rather sympathetic of Richard Nixon, and somehow describes his downfall with no mention of Nixon’s attempts, recorded on White House tapes, to obstruct the Watergate investigation — the discovery of which led to his resignation. If anything, the book is a valuable study on how bias, in serious history and journalism, usually manifests itself in the sin of omission, conscious or no, rather than outright falsities, conscious or no (not that conservatives are the only ones who do this, of course; the Left, which can take the opposite approach and downplay positive happenings in American history, shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging, for instance, that the U.S. Constitution was a strong step forward for representative democracy, secular government, and personal rights, despite the obvious exclusivity, compared to Europe’s systems).

Things really start to go off the rails with this book in the 1960s and later, when America loses its way and becomes not-great (something slavery and women as second-class citizens could somehow never cause), with much whining about welfare, academia, political correctness, and the media (he truly should have read Manufacturing Consent before propagating the myth that the liberal media turned everyone against the war in Vietnam). Affirmative action receives special attention and passion, far more than slavery or Jim Crow, and Johnson proves particularly thick-skulled on other matters of race (Malcolm X is a “black racist,” slang and rap are super dangerous, no socio-economic and historical causes are mentioned that could illuminate highlighted racial discrepancies, and so on). Cringingly blaming the 1960-1990 crime wave on a less religious society, one wonders what Johnson would make of the dramatic decrease in crime from the 1990s to today, occurring as the percentage of religious Americans continues to plunge — a good lesson on false causation.

All this may not sound at all like a “mostly decent” book, but I did enjoy reading most of it, and — despite the serious flaws outlined here, some unforgivable — most of the information in the space of 1,000 pages was accurate and interesting. It served as a good refresher on many of the major people and events in U.S. history, a look at the perspective of the other side, a prompt for thinking about bias (omission vs. inaccuracy, subconscious vs. conscious), and a reminder of who and what are left out of history — and why.

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Woke Cancel Culture Through the Lens of Reason

What follows are a few thoughts on how to view wokeism and cancel culture with nuance:

Two Basic Principles (or, Too Much of a Good Thing)

There are two principles that first spring to mind when considering cancel culture. First, reason and ethics, to this writer, suggest that social consequences are a good thing. There are certain words and actions that one in a free society would certainly not wish to result in fines, community service, imprisonment, or execution by government, but are deserving of proportional and reasonable punishments by private actors, ordinary people. It is right that someone who uses a racial slur loses their job or show or social media account. A decent person and decent society wants there to be social consequences for immoral actions, because it discourages such actions and helps build a better world. One can believe in this while also supporting free speech rights and the First Amendment, which obviously have to do with how the government responds to what you say and do, not private persons and entities.

The second principle acknowledges that there will be many cases where social consequences are not proportional or reasonable, where things go too far and people, Right and Left, are crushed for rather minor offenses. It’s difficult to think of many social trends or ideological movements that did not go overboard in some fashion, after all. There are simply some circumstances where there was an overreaction to words and deeds, where mercy should have been the course rather than retribution. (Especially worthy of consideration: was the perpetrator young at the time of the crime, with an underdeveloped brain? Was the offense in the past, giving someone time to change and grow, to regret it?) Readers will disagree over which specific cases fall into this category, but surely most will agree with the general principle, simply that overreaction in fact occurs. I can’t be the only Leftist who both nods approvingly in some cases and in others thinks, “She didn’t deserve that” or “My, what a disproportionate response.” Stupid acts might deserve a different response than racist ones, dumb ideas a different tack than dangerous ones, and so on. It might be added that overreactions not only punish others improperly, but also encourage forced, insincere apologies — somewhat reminiscent of the adage than you shouldn’t make faith a requirement of holding office, as you’ll only end up with performative religiosity.

Acknowledging and pondering both these principles is important.

“Free Speech” Only Concerns Government-Citizen Interaction

Again, in most cases, the phrase “free speech” is basically irrelevant to the cancel culture conversation. It’s worth emphasizing. Businesses and individuals — social media companies, workplaces, show venues, a virtual friend who blocks you or deletes your comment — have every right to de-platform, cancel, censor, and fire. The whining about someone’s “free speech” being violated when they’re cancelled is sophomoric and ignorant — the First Amendment and free speech rights are about whether the government will punish you, not non-government actors.

Which makes sense, for an employer or individual could just as easily be said to have the “free speech right” to fire or cancel you — why is your “free speech right” mightier than theirs?

Public universities and government workplaces, a bit different, are discussed below.

Why is the Left at Each Other’s Throats?

At times the national conversation is about the left-wing mob coming for conservatives, but we know it comes for its own with just as much enthusiasm. Maybe more, some special drive to purge bad ideas and practices from our own house. Few involved in left-wing advocacy of some kind haven’t found themselves in the circular firing squad, whether firing or getting blasted — most of us have probably experienced both. It’s a race to be the most woke, and can lead to a lot of nastiness.

What produces this? Largely pure motives, for if there’s a path that’s more tolerant, more just, that will build a better future, we want others to see and take it. It’s a deep desire to do what’s right and get others to do the same. (That the pursuit of certain kinds of tolerance [racial, gender, etc.] would lead to ideological intolerance has been called ironic or hypocritical, but seems, while it can go too far at times, more natural and inevitable — there’s no ending separate drinking fountains without crushing the segregationist’s ideology.)

But perhaps the inner turmoil also comes from troublesome ideas of group monolithic thinking, plus a desperate desire for there to be one right answer when there isn’t one. Because we sometimes look at impacted groups as comprised of members all thinking the same way, or enough thinking the same way, there is therefore one right answer and anyone who questions it should be trampled on. For example, you could use “person with autism” (person-first language) rather than “autistic person” (identity-first language) and fall under attack for not being woke enough. Identity-first language is more popular among the impacted group members, and the common practice with language among non-impacted persons is to defer to majority opinions. But majority opinions aren’t strictly “right” — to say this is of course to say the minority of the impacted group members are simply wrong. Who would have the arrogance and audacity to say this? It’s simply different opinions, diversity of thought. (Language and semantics are minefields on the Left, but also varying policy ideas.) There’s nothing wrong with deferring to majority opinion, but if we were not so focused on there being one right answer, if we didn’t view groups as single-minded or single-minded enough, we would be much more tolerant of people’s “mistakes” and less likely to stoop to nastiness. We’d respect and explore and perhaps even celebrate different views within our side of the political spectrum. It’s worth adding that we go just as crazy when the majority impacted group opinion is against an idea. It may be more woke, for example, to support police abolition or smaller police presences in black neighborhoods, but 81% of black Americans don’t want the police going anywhere, so the majority argument won’t always help a case. Instead of condemning someone who isn’t on board with such policies as not caring enough about racial justice, not being woke enough, being dead wrong, we should again remember there is great diversity of thought out there and many ideas, many possible right answers beyond our own, to consider and discuss with civility. One suspects that few individuals, if intellectually honest, would always support the most radical or woke policy posited (more likely, you’ll disagree with something), so more tolerance and humility is appropriate.

The same should be shown toward many in the middle and on the Right as well. Some deserve a thrashing. Others don’t.

The University Onus

One hardly envies the position college administrators find themselves in, pulled between the idea that a true place of learning should include diverse and dissenting opinions, the desire to punish and prevent hate speech or awful behaviors, the interest in responding to student demands, and the knowledge that the loudest, best organized demands are at times themselves minority opinions, not representative.

Private universities are like private businesses, in that there’s no real argument against them cancelling as they please.

But public universities, owned by the states, have a special responsibility to protect a wide range of opinion, from faculty, students, guest speakers, and more, as I’ve written elsewhere. As much as this writer loves seeing the power of student organizing and protest, and the capitulation to that power by decision-makers at the top, public colleges should take a harder line in many cases to defend views or actions that are deemed offensive, in order to keep these spaces open to ideological diversity and not drive away students who could very much benefit from being in an environment with people of different classes, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and politics. Similar to the above, that is a sensible general principle. There will of course be circumstances where words and deeds should be crushed, cancellation swift and terrible. Where that line is, again, is a matter of disagreement. But the principle is simply that public colleges should save firings, censorship, cancellation, suspension, and expulsion for more extreme cases than is current practice. The same for other public entities and public workplaces. Such spaces are linked to the government, which actually does bring the First Amendment and other free speech rights into the conversation, and therefore there exists a special onus to allow broader ranges of views.

Cancel Culture Isn’t New — It’s Just the Left’s Turn

If you look at the surveys that have been conducted, two things become clear: 1) support for cancel culture is higher on the Left, but 2) it’s also a problem on the Right.

50% of staunch progressives “would support firing a business executive who personally donated to Donald Trump’s campaign,” vs. 36% of staunch conservatives who “would support firing Biden donors.” Republicans are much more worried about their beliefs costing them their jobs (though a quarter of Democrats worry, too), conservatives are drastically more afraid to share opinions (nearly 80%, vs. just over 40% for strong liberals), and only in the “strong liberal” camp does a majority (58%) feel free to speak its mind without offending others (liberals 48%, conservatives 23%). While almost 100% of the most conservative Americans see political correctness as a problem, 30% of the most progressive Americans agree, not an insignificant figure (overall, 80% of citizens agree). There’s some common ground here.

While the Left is clearly leading modern cancel culture, it’s important to note that conservatives often play by the same rules, despite rhetoric about how they are the true defenders of “free speech.” If Kaepernick kneels for the anthem, he should be fired. If a company (Nike, Gillette, Target, NASCAR, Keurig, MLB, Delta, etc.) gets political on the wrong side of the spectrum, boycott it and destroy your possessions, while Republican officials legislate punishment. If Republican Liz Cheney denounces Trump’s lies, remove her from her leadership post. Rage over and demand cancellation of Ellen, Beyonce, Jane Fonda, Samantha Bee, Kathy Griffin, Michelle Wolf, and Bill Maher for using their free speech. Obviously, no one called for more firings for views he didn’t like than Trump. If the Dixie Chicks criticize the invasion of Iraq, wipe them from the airways, destroy their CDs. Thomas Hitchner recently put together an important piece on conservative censorship and cancellation during the post-9/11 orgy of patriotism, for those interested.

More importantly, when we place this phenomenon of study in the context of history, we come to suspect that rather than being something special to the Left (or naturally more powerful on the Left, because liberals hate free speech and so on), cancel culture seems to be, predictably, led by the strongest cultural and political ideology of the moment. When the U.S. was more conservative, it was the Right that was leading the charge to ensure people with dissenting views were fired, censored, and so on. The hammer, rather than wielded by the far Left, came down on it.

You could look to the socialists and radicals, like Eugene Debs, who were literally imprisoned for speaking out against World War I, but more recently the McCarthy era after World War II, when government workers, literary figures, media anchors, and Hollywood writers, actors, and filmmakers accused of socialist or communist sympathies were hunted down and fired, blacklisted, slandered, imprisoned for refusing to answer questions at the witch trials, and so forth, as discussed in A History of the American People by conservative Paul Johnson. The Red Scare was in many ways far worse than modern cancel culture — it wasn’t simply the mob that came for you, it was the mob and the government. However, lest anyone think this was just Republican Big Government run amok rather than a cultural craze working in concert, recall that it was the movie studios doing the actual firing and blacklisting, the universities letting faculty go, LOOK and other magazines reprinting Army “How to Spot a Communist” propaganda, ordinary people pushing and marching and rallying against communism, etc.

All this overlapped, as leftwing economic philosophies usually do, with the fight for racial justice. Kali Holloway writes for The Nation:

There was also [black socialist] Paul Robeson, who had his passport revoked by the US State Department for his political beliefs and was forced to spend more than a decade living abroad. Racism and red-scare hysteria also canceled the acting career of Canada Lee, who was blacklisted from movies and died broke in 1952 at the age of 45. The [anti-segregationist] song “Mississippi Goddam” got Nina Simone banned from the radio and much of the American South, and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics essentially hounded Billie Holiday to death for the sin of stubbornly refusing to stop performing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.”

Connectedly, there was the Lavender Scare, a purge of gays and suspected gays from government and private workplaces. 5,000-10,000 people lost their jobs:

“It’s important to remember that the Cold War was perceived as a kind of moral crusade,” says [historian David K.] Johnson, whose 2004 book The Lavender Scare popularized the phrase and is widely regarded as the first major historical examination of the policy and its impact. The political and moral fears about alleged subversives became intertwined with a backlash against homosexuality, as gay and lesbian culture had grown in visibility in the post-war years. The Lavender Scare tied these notions together, conflating gay people with communists and alleging they could not be trusted with government secrets and labelling them as security risks, even though there was no evidence to prove this.

The 1950s was a difficult era for the Left and its civil rights advocates, class warriors, and gay liberators, with persecution and censorship the norm. More conservative times, a stronger conservative cancel culture. This did not end in this decade, of course (one of my own heroes, Howard Zinn, was fired from Spelman College in 1963 for his civil rights activism), but soon a long transition began. Paul Johnson mused:

The significant fact about McCarthyism, seen in retrospect, was that it was the last occasion, in the 20th century, when the hysterical pressure on the American people to conform came from the right of the political spectrum, and when the witchhunt was organized by conservative elements. Thereafter the hunters became the hunted.

While, as we saw, the Right are still often hunters as well, and therefore we see much hypocrisy today, there is some truth to this statement, as from the 1960s and ’70s the nation began slowly liberalizing. Individuals increasingly embraced liberalism, as did some institutions, like academia, the media, and Hollywood (others, such as the church, military, and law enforcement remain quite conservative). The U.S. is still growing increasingly liberal, more favoring New Deal policies, for example, even though more Americans still identify as conservative:

Since 1992, the percentage of Americans identifying as liberal has risen from 17% then to 26% today. This has been mostly offset by a shrinking percentage of moderates, from 43% to 35%. Meanwhile, from 1993 to 2016 the percentage conservative was consistently between 36% and 40%, before dipping to 35% in 2017 and holding at that level in 2018.

On top of this, the invention and growth of social media since the mid-2000s has dramatically changed the way public anger coalesces and is heard — and greatly increased its power.

So the Left has grown in strength at the same time as technology that can amplify and expand cancel culture, a convergence that is both fortunate and unfortunate — respectively, for those who deserve harsh social consequences and for those who do not.

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The Great Debate Over Robert Owen’s Five Fundamental Facts

In the early 1830s, British social reformer Robert Owen, called the “Founder of Socialism”[1] by contemporaries, brought forth his “Five Fundamental Facts” on human nature and ignited in London and elsewhere a dramatic debate — in the literal sense of fiery public discussions, as well as in books, pamphlets, and other works. While the five facts are cited in the extant literature on Owen and his utopian movement, a full exploration of the controversy is lacking, which is unfortunate for a moment that left such an impression on witnesses and participants. Famous secularist and editor George Jacob Holyoake, at the end of his life in 1906, wrote, “Human nature in England was never so tried as it was during the first five years” after Owen’s writings, when these five facts “were discussed in every town in the kingdom. When a future generation has courage to look into this unprecedented code as one of the curiosities of propagandism, it will find many sensible and wholesome propositions, which nobody now disputes, and sentiments of toleration and practical objects of wise import.”[2]

The discourse continued into the 1840s, but its intensity lessened, and thus we will focus our attention on its decade of origin. This work will add to scholarship a little-explored subject, and argue that the great debate transcended common ideological divisions, not simply pitting socialist against anti-socialist and freethinker against believer, but freethinker against freethinker and socialist against socialist as well. The debate was nuanced and complex, and makes for a fascinating study of intellectual history in Victorian Britain, an overlooked piece of the Western discourse on free will going back to the ancient Greek philosophers and nature-nurture stirred up by John Locke and René Descartes in the 17th century.

The limited historiography of the “Five Fundamental Facts” recognizes their significance. J.F.C. Harrison of the University of Sussex wrote that Owen, in his “confidence in the discoverability of laws governing human action,” thought as immutable as physical laws, in fact “provided the beginnings of behavioural science.”[3] Indeed, “in an unsophisticated form, and without the conceptual tools of later social psychology, Owen had hit upon the crucial role of character structure in the social process.”[4] Further, Nanette Whitbread wrote that the school Owen founded to put his five facts into action and change human nature, the New Lanark Infant School, could “be justly described as the first in the developmental tradition of primary education.”[5] However, the facts are normally mentioned only in passing — works on Owen and his movement that make no mention of them at all are not unusual — and for anything close to an exploration of the debate surrounding them one must turn to brief outlines in works like Robert Owen: A Biography by Frank Podmore, not an historian at all, but rather a parapsychologist and a founder of the Fabian Society.[6]

Robert Owen, to quote The Morning Post in 1836, was “alternately venerated as an apostle, ridiculed as a quack, looked up to and followed as the founder of a new philosophy, contemned as a visionary enthusiast, denounced as a revolutionary adventurer.”[7] He was born in Wales in 1771, and as a young man came to manage a large textile mill in Manchester and then buy one in New Lanark, Scotland. Influenced by the conditions of the working poor and the ideas of the Enlightenment, and as a prosperous man, he engaged in writing, advocacy, and philanthropy for better working conditions and early childhood education in Britain after the turn of the century. Adopting a philosophy of cooperative, communal economics, Owen purchased an American town, New Harmony in Indiana, in 1825 and ran a utopian experiment, inspiring many more across the U.S. and elsewhere, that was ultimately unsuccessful. He returned home in 1828, living in London and continuing to write and lecture for broad social change.

Soon Owen brought forth his Outline of the Rational System of Society, in circulation as early as 1832 — and by 1836 “too well known to make it requisite now to repeat,” as a Mr. Alger put it in the Owenite weekly New Moral World.[8] The Home Colonisation Society in London, an organization promoting the formation of utopian communities with “good, practical education” and “permanent beneficial employment” for all, without the “present competitive arrangements of society,” was just one of the work’s many publishers.[9] Owen, not one for modesty, declared it developed “the First Principles of the Science of Human Nature” and constituted “the only effectual Remedy for the Evils experienced by the Population of the world,” addressing human society’s “moral and physical Evils, by removing the Causes which produce them.”[10]

The text from the Home Colonisation Society began with Owen’s “Five Fundamental Facts,” the key to his rational system and therefore the prime target of later criticism.[11] They assert:

1st. That man is a compound being, whose character is formed of his constitution or organization at birth, and of the effects of external circumstances upon it from birth to death; such original organization and external influences continually acting and re-acting each upon the other.

2d. That man is compelled by his original constitution to receive his feelings and his convictions independently of his will.

3d. That his feelings, or his convictions, or both of them united, create the motive to action called the will, which stimulates him to act, and decides his actions.  

4th. That the organization of no two human beings is ever precisely similar at birth; nor can art subsequently form any two individuals, from infancy to maturity, to be precisely similar.

5th. That, nevertheless, the constitution of every infant, except in the case of organic disease, is capable of being formed into a very inferior, or a very superior, being, according to the qualities of the external circumstances allowed to influence that constitution from birth.[12]

As crucial as Owen’s five facts were to the subsequent arguments, he offered no defense of them in the short Society pamphlet, stating them, perhaps expectedly, as fact and immediately proceeding to build upon them, offering twenty points comprising “The Fundamental Laws of Human Nature.” Here again he explained that the character of an individual was malleable according to the environment and society in which he or she developed and existed — and how by building a superior society humanity could allow its members to flourish and maximize well-being. This was the materialism of the early socialists. That section was followed by “The Conditions Requisite for Human Happiness,” “The Principles and Practice of the Rational Religion,” “The Elements of the Science of Society,” and finally a constitution for a new civilization.

This paper will not explore Owen’s specific utopian designs in detail, but at a glance the rational society offered a government focused on human happiness, with free speech, equality for persons of all religions, education for all, gender equality, communal property, a mix of direct and representative democracy, the replacement of the family unit with the larger community structure, an end to punishments, and more. Overall, the needs of all would be provided for collectively, and work would be done collectively — the termination of “ignorance, poverty, individual competition…and national wars” was in reach.[13] Happier people were thought better people — by creating a socialist society, addressing human needs and happiness, “remodelling the character of man” was possible.[14] The five facts aimed to demonstrate this. While this pamphlet and others were brief, in The Book of the New Moral World, Owen devoted a chapter to justifying and explaining each of the five facts, and wrote of them in other publications as well. In that work he clarified, for instance, that it was an “erroneous supposition that the will is free,” an implication of the second and third facts.[15]

The reaction? As Holyoake wrote, in a front-page piece in The Oracle of Reason, “Political economists have run wild, immaculate bishops raved, and parsons have been convulsed at [Owen’s] communities and five facts.”[16] The facts, to many of the pious, smacked of the determinism rejected by their Christian sects. An anonymous letter on the front page of a later edition of the same publication laid out a view held by both Christians and freethinkers: “‘Man’s character is formed for him and not by him’ — therefore, all the religions of the world are false, is the sum and substance of the moral philosophy of R. Owen.”[17] With biological inheritances and environmental influences birthing one’s “feelings and convictions,” one’s “character,” free will was put into question. What moral culpability did human beings then have for their actions, and how could an individual truly be said to make a “choice” to believe or follow religious doctrine? Any religion that rested on free will would be contradictory to reality, and thus untrue. But, the anonymous writer noted, Calvinists and other determinists were safer — they believed in “supernatural” causes that formed one’s character, thus it would be disingenuous to say “all the religions of the world” were fiction, solely on the grounds that individuals did not have mastery over who they were.

The writer then offered further nuance and assistance to ideological opponents (he or she was clearly a freethinker, not only given the journal read and written to but also revealed by lines such as: “But what care religionists for justice in this world or the next? If they cared anything about ‘justice,’ and knew what the word meant, they would have long ere this abandoned the doctrine of an eternal hell”).[18] It was pointed out that “original sin” was found in non-deterministic and deterministic Christian sects alike — a formation of character before birth. “How then can the ‘five facts’ refute all religions…?”[19] If human beings were, from the universal or at least near-universal Christian point of view, shaped by supernatural forces beyond their control after Adam and Eve’s storied betrayal, it was a non sequitur, in the anonymous author’s mind, to say the molding of character invalidated common religions. Here we see an introduction to the complex ways the British of the Victorian era approached the debate.

Yet others were not always so gracious. In 1836, The Monthly Review wrote that “No one doubts the sincerity of Mr. Owen” and his desire to “create a world of happiness,” but “no man who takes for his guides common observation, and common sense — much more, that no person who has studied and who confides in the doctrines of the Bible, can ever become a convert to his views.”[20] The five facts were “intangible” and “obscure,” the arguments “bold, unauthorised, unsupported, ridiculous,” the vision for society as a whole “fanciful, impractical, and irreligious.”[21] How was it, the periodical asked, that these views could be “demonstrably true” yet had “never found acceptance with the mass of sober intelligent thinkers,” only the “paltry, insignificant, uninfluential, and ridiculed class of people” that were the Owenites, and Owen himself, who was “incompetent”?[22] The writer (or writers) further resented how Owen centered himself as something of a savior figure. Ridding the world of evil could be “accomplished by one whose soul like a mirror was to receive and reflect the whole truth and light which concerned the happiness of the world — and I, Robert Owen, am that mirror” — and did not the New Testament already serve the purpose of outlining the path to a more moral and happier world?[23] Overall, it was a scathing attack, an example of the hardline Christian view.

The January 1838 volume of The Christian Teacher, published to “uphold the religion of the New Testament, in contradistinction to the religion of creeds and parties,” included a writing by H. Clarke of Chorley.[24] To him the facts were “inconsistent and fallacious”: facts one, two, and four contradicted the fifth.[25] The first, second, and fourth facts established that a “man’s self” at birth “has at least something to do with forming his character,” but then the fifth established that “by the influence of external circumstances alone, any being” could be transformed into a “superior being.”[26] To Clarke, the facts at first emphasized that one’s biological constitution played a sizable, seemingly co-equal, role in forming one’s character — then the fifth fact threw all that out the window. If anyone could be made into a superior being, just via environment, what sense did it make to say that biology had any effect whatsoever on an individual’s nature?

Owen did seem to view circumstances as the predominant power. Though he firmly believed there existed, as he wrote, a “decided and palatable difference between [infants] at birth” due to biology, he indeed believed in bold, universal results: “selfishness…will cease to exist” alongside “all motives to individual pride and vanity,” and as “all shall be trained, from infancy, to be rational,” a humanity of “superior beings physically, intellectually, and morally” could arise.[27] Clarke was not alone in this critique. J.R. Beard wrote something similar in The Religion of Jesus Christ Defended from the Assaults of Owenism, which further held the common blank slate view of human nature (“at birth there is no mental or moral development”), meaning environment was all that was left: “What is this but to make ‘external circumstances’ the sole creator of the lot of man?”[28]

Clarke further took issue with what he viewed as the contradictory or hypocritical language of the Owenites. “So I learn from the votaries of Owenism…man’s feelings and convictions are forced upon him irrespective of his will, it is [therefore] the extreme of folly to ask a man to believe this or that.”[29] The Christian believed in belief, but “Owenism denies that man can believe as he pleases…yet strange to tell, almost the first question asked by an Owenite is, ‘Do you believe Mr. Owen’s five fundamental facts?’”[30] Belief in the five facts, Clarke pointed out, was required to be a member of Owen’s association, which an “Appendix to the Laws and Regulations” of the association printed in The New Moral World in 1836 made clear.[31] If one’s convictions were formed against one’s will, what sense did it make to ask after or require beliefs? Clarke’s own beliefs, one should note, while against Owen’s views of human nature, were not necessarily hostile to socialism. He prefered “Christ to Mr. Owen, Christian Socialism to the five-fact-socialism.”[32]

There were some who saw a distinction between the value of Owen’s theories on human nature and that of his planned civilization. In 1836, The Morning Post found Owen, in his Book of the New Moral World, to be “radical” and “destructive,” wanting to dissolve civilization and remake it; the idea that humanity had for millenia been living in systems contrary to their own nature and happiness was “almost incredible.”[33] But the Post came from a more philosophical position and background than theological (“the Millenium [is] about as probable a consummation as the ‘Rational System’”).[34] Owen had therefore “displayed considerable acuteness and ability” regarding “metaphysical discussions,” making the book worth a read for ontologists and those who enjoyed a “‘keen encounter of the wit.’”[35]

As we saw with the anonymous writer in The Oracle of Reason, the five facts divided not only freethinkers and Christians, but also freethinkers as a group. There was too much intellectual diversity for consensus. For example, Charles Southwell, who was “rapidly becoming one of the most popular freethought lecturers in London,” debated Owen’s facts with well-known atheist Richard Carlile in Lambeth, a borough of south London.[36] The room “was crowded to suffocation, and hundreds retired unable to attain admittance. The discussion lasted two nights, and was conducted with talent and good feeling by both parties.”[37] Southwell defended the facts, while Carlile went on the offensive against them. 

The agnostic Lloyd Jones, journalist and friend of Owen, had much to say of Richard Carlile’s lectures on this topic.[38] In A Reply to Mr. R. Carlile’s Objections to the Five Fundamental Facts as Laid Down by Mr. Owen, Jones remarked that Carlile had called Owen’s Book of the New Moral World a “book of blunders” during his talk on November 27, 1837, but the audience “certainly could not avoid observing the multitudinous blunders committed by yourself, in endeavouring to prove it such.”[39] Carlile, according to Jones, insisted that individuals had much more power to steel themselves against circumstances and environments than Owen was letting on, throwing facts one and two into doubt. This is all rather one-sided, as Jones did not even bother to quote Carlile directly, but instead wrote, “You tell us we have a power to adopt or reject [convictions and feelings]: you have not given us your reasons for so saying; in fact, you did not condescend to reason upon any of the subjects broached during the evening’s discussion.”[40] Carlile should “try the question… Can you, by a voluntary action of your mind, believe that to be true which you now consider to be false; — or believe that to be false which you now consider true?… Certainly not.”[41] Jones also defended the idea that conviction and will were distinct, rather than one and the same as Carlile insisted.[42]

For the socialists, many of them of course Owenites anyway, there was much acceptance of the five facts. James Pate, for the Socialists of Padiham, wrote that an Owenite named Mr. Fleming came to their organization and, to a full house of about 300 people, “proved, in a plain yet forcible manner, the truth of the five fundamental facts; and…showed how little difficulty there would be in the practical application of Mr. Owen’s views to all classes of society.”[43] The audience was “so fully convinced” that few “dared venture to question any remarks.”[44] But here divergent thoughts existed too, as we saw with H. Clarke. The branches of religious socialism and secular socialism made for varying thoughts on human nature among the radicals, or simply those sympathetic to or not offended by the idea of socialism. Frederick Lees, for instance, secretary of the British Association for the Suppression of Intemperance, castigated the “infidelity” of Owenism and his five facts but had little to say of socialism, save that it was a front for the former: “In the fair name of Socialism, and in the mask of friendship, Judas like, she [untruth, especially as related to infidelity] seeks to ensnare and betray.”[45] Owen’s followers, while they professed to desire the “establishment of a ‘SOCIAL COMMUNITY,’ their chief and greatest object is the ascendancy of an ‘INFIDEL CREED.’”[46] Lees, striking a sympathetic note once more, added that Owenites should “dissolve the forced and arbitrary union between their absurd and infidel metaphysics, and the practical or working part of Socialism, which association of the two excites the rightful opposition of all lovers of christian truth…”[47]

For a forceful defense of religious socialism, take T.H. Hudson’s lengthy work Christian Socialism, Explained and Enforced, and Compared with Infidel Fellowship: Especially, as Propounded by Robert Owen, Esq., and His Disciples. It was up to “the Christian Religion to secure true socialism,” whereas Owen’s views were “more likely to serve the purposes of the Prince of darkness.”[48] Hudson spent one chapter, about forty pages, attacking the five facts, followed by three chapters, over 120 pages, advocating for Christian Socialism. The five facts were “based on the false assumptions, that man is good by nature” and were “decidedly irreligious.”[49] Hudson lambasted the “disguised atheism” of the first fact: it did not mention God as man’s creator, nor his spirit or soul, and left him helpless before nature, without free will.[50] The “infidel Socialist,” in believing facts two and three, deepened trust in fatalism and the irresponsibility of individuals, but also fell for a “gross contradiction.”[51] Hudson pointed out that the second fact established feelings and convictions were received independently of one’s will, yet the third fact stated the will was made up of, created by, one’s feelings and convictions.[52] Initially presented as distinct phenomena, subsequently as a unified phenomenon. J.R. Beard echoed this: it would have been better to say feelings and convictions were received “anteriorly ‘to his will’; for it is obviously his notion that man’s will is not independent, but the result, the creation of his feelings and convictions.”[53]

Like the atheist Carlile, Hudson thought one could put up “resistance” to external influences, could decide whether to “receive” or reject feelings and convictions — an exercise in willpower, which was thus independent of and prior to feelings and convictions; a person was not a “slave to circumstances.”[54] This was a refrain of Owen’s critics, with the added element at times of the impossibility of personal change under Owen’s theory (indeed the impossibility that changing circumstances could change people). For instance, Minister John Eustace Giles, in Socialism, as a Religious Theory, Irrational and Absurd (1839), based on his lectures in Leeds, wondered how Owen could believe that “‘man is the creature of circumstances’” yet “professes to have become wise” — did that not show Owen had “resisted” circumstances?[55] Did not this, plus Owen’s desire to “change the condition of the world…thus shew that while man is the creature of circumstances, circumstances are the creatures of man”?[56] After focusing on semantics and perceived ambiguities in the fourth fact, but not closed to the possibility it was a simple truism, Hudson saw the improvement of individuals in the fifth fact true but was insulted that Christianity, no longer “being alienated from God” and addressing humanity’s “depraved nature,” was not thought necessary to this improvement alongside changing environments.[57] Indeed, most egregious was the Owenite belief that people were fundamentally good.[58]

Whether due to varying personal beliefs or simply varying cautions about driving away potential converts in a pious age, the actual presentation of the fundamental facts as irreligious was not consistent. Lloyd Jones, in an 1839 debate over whether socialism was atheistic with Mr. Troup, editor of The Montrose Review, asked some variant of “Where is the Atheism here?” after reading each of the five facts.[59] Whereas Owen, also an unbeliever, in an 1837 debate with Rev. J.H. Roebuck of Manchester, called religions “geographical insanities” that could be wiped away by the five facts.[60] “Mr. Roebuck stated…that the two systems for which we contend are opposed to each other, and that both, therefore, cannot be true. Herein we perfectly agree.”[61] The national discourse so intertwined the facts and the question of God that a person, on either side of the debate, could not help but assume that one would accompany the other. When a debate on “the mystery of God” was proposed to Owenite J. Smith in January 1837, “the challenge was [mis]understood by myself and all our friends, to be the discussion of the five fundamental facts.”[62]

Overall, perhaps Robert Owen’s facts flustered the religious and irreligious, and socialists and anti-socialists alike, because they were simply so counterintuitive — not to mention theoretical, without contemporary science to back them up. Owen wrote, in The Book of the New Moral World, for instance: “Man is not, therefore, to be made a being of a superior order by teaching him that he is responsible for his will and his actions.”[63] Such blunt statements turned on its head what many, across ideologies, judged common sense. Owen’s ideas were “contrary to common sense” for Hudson, Christian socialist, in the same way they were “opposed to the common sense of mankind” for Giles, anti-socialist.[64] Would not teaching individual moral responsibility enable personal change and create a better society? Not so for Owen. The will was formed by circumstances — thus true personal change came about by purposefully changing environments. Create a better society first, and the positive personal change would follow. These were, according to Owen, “the laws of nature respecting man, individually, and the science of society,” and few posited laws of nature, proven or otherwise, do not provoke intense philosophical debate.[65]

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[1] J. Eustace Giles, Socialism, as a Religious Theory, Irrational and Absurd: the First of Three Lectures on Socialism (as Propounded by Robert Owen and Others) Delivered in the Baptist Chapel South-Parade, Leeds, September 23, 1838 (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., Ward & Co., G. Wightman, 1838), 4, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiuo.ark:/13960/t63560551&view=1up&seq=10&q1=founder.

[2] George Jacob Holyoake, The History of Co-operation (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1906), 1:147.

[3] J.F.C. Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 66.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nanette Whitbread, The Evolution of the Nursery-infant School: A History of Infant and Nursery Education in Britain, 1800-1970 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), 39:9-10.

[6] Frank Podmore, Robert Owen: A Biography (London: Hutchinson & CO, 1906), 481-482, 499-502.

[7] The Morning Post, September 14, 1836, cited in “The Book of the New Moral World,” The New Moral World (Manchester: Abel Heywood, 1836-7), 3:6, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31970026956075&view=1up&seq=18&size=125&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[8] The Westminster Review (London: Robert Heward, 1832), 26:317, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433096159896&view=1up&seq=329&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22; The New Moral World (London: Thomas Stagg, 1836), 2:62, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31970026956117&view=1up&seq=74&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[9] Robert Owen, Outline of the Rational System of Society (London: Home Colonization Society, 1841), 2, retrieved fromhttps://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hnsp9t&view=1up&seq=6.

[10] Ibid, 1.

[11] This was explicitly stated by critics. Dismantle the five facts and the rest of the system goes down with it. See T.H. Hudson, Christian Socialism, Explained and Enforced, and Compared with Infidel Fellowship, Especially, As Propounded by Robert Owen, Esq., and His Disciples (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1839), 52, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433075925721&view=1up&seq=62&q1=%22fundamental%20facts%22.

[12] Owen, Outline, 3.

[13] Ibid, 14.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Robert Owen, The Book of the New Moral World (London: Richard Taylor, 1836), 17, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015003883991&view=1up&seq=47&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[16] The Oracle of Reason (London: Thomas Paterson, 1842), 1:113, retrieved from https://archive.org/details/oracleofreasonor01lond/page/112/mode/2up?q=five+facts.

[17] Ibid, 161.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The Monthly Review (London: G. Henderson, 1836), 3:62, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.319510028065374&view=1up&seq=80&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[21] Ibid, 62, 67-68.

[22] Ibid, 63.

[23] Ibid, 62-63.

[24] The Christian Teacher and Chronicle of Beneficence (London: Charles Fox, 1838), 4:219, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.ah6jrz&view=1up&seq=255&q1=%22five%20facts%22.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid, 220.

[27] Owen, Book, 22-24.

[28] J.R. Beard, The Religion of Jesus Christ Defended from the Assaults of Owenism (London: Simpkin, Marshall and Company, 1839), 233, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hnmy5r&view=1up&seq=243&q1=%22second%20fact%22.

[29] Christian Teacher, 220.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid, 220; New Moral World, 2:261.

[32] Christian Teacher, 220.

[33] New Moral World, 3:6.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974), 69.

[37] The New Moral World (Leeds: Joshua Hobson, 1839), 6:957, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31970026956133&view=1up&seq=361&size=125&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[38] Regarding Jones’ agnosticism, see: Report of the Discussion betwixt Mr Troup, Editor of the Montrose Review, on the part of the Philalethean Society, and Mr Lloyd Jones, of Glasgow, on the part of the Socialists, in the Watt Institution Hall, Dundee on the propositions, I That Socialism is Atheistical; and II That Atheism is Incredible and Absurd (Dundee: James Chalmers & Alexander Reid, 1839), retrieved from shorturl.at/pvxM1.

[39] Lloyd Jones, A Reply to Mr. Carlile’s Objections to the Five Fundamental Facts as Laid Down by Mr. Owen (Manchester: A. Heywood, 1837), 4, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89097121669&view=1up&seq=12&q1=%22five%20fundamental%20facts%22.

[40] Ibid, 9.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid, 10-11.

[43] New Moral World, 3:380.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Frederick R. Lees, Owenism Dissected: A Calm Examination of the Fundamental Principles of Robert Owen’s Misnamed “Rational System” (Leeds: W.H. Walker, 1838), 7, retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112054157646&view=1up&seq=7&q1=%22socialism%22.

[46] Ibid, 16.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Hudson, Christian Socialism, 4, 13.

[49] Ibid, 50-51.

[50] Ibid, 53-63.

[51] Ibid, 63-64, 66.

[52] Ibid, 66.

[53] Beard, Religion, 234.

[54] Hudson, Christian Socialism, 65-66.

[55] Giles, Socialism, 7.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Hudson, Christian Socialism, 72-81, 87-88.

[58] Ibid, 89.

[59] Report of the Discussion, 12.

[60] Public Discussion, between Robert Owen, Late of New Lanark, and the Rev. J.H. Roebuck, of Manchester (Manchester: A. Heywood, 1837), 106-107, retrieved fromhttps://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.c080961126&view=1up&seq=111&q1=%22fundamental%20facts%22.

[61] Ibid, 107.

[62] New Moral World, 3:122.

[63] Owen, Book, 20.

[64] Hudson, Christian Socialism, 65; Giles, Socialism, 36.

[65] Owen, Book, 20.

On the Spring-Stone Debate

While finding a decisive victor in debates on semantics and historical interpretation often proves difficult, in the lively clash between historians David Spring and Lawrence Stone on social mobility into Britain’s landed elite, the former presented the strongest case. The discourse, of the mid-1980s, centered around the questions of how to define “open” when considering how open the upper echelon was to newcomers from 1540-1880 and, most importantly, to newcomers who came from the business world. On both counts, Spring offered a more compelling perspective on how one should regard the historical evidence and data Stone collected in his work An Open Elite? Namely, that it was reasonable to call the landed elite open to members of lower strata, including business leaders.

The debate quickly obfuscated lines between the two questions. In his review of An Open Elite?, Spring noted that Stone showed a growth in elite families from 1540-1879, beginning with forty and seeing 480 join them, though not all permanently. Further, “Stone shows that regularly one-fifth of elite families were newcomers.”[1] In his reply, Stone declined to explore the “openness” of a twenty percent entry rate because it was, allegedly, irrelevant to his purpose: he was only interested in the entry of businessmen like merchants, speculators, financiers, and manufacturers, who did not come from the gentry, the relatively well-off stratum knocking at the gate of the landed elite. Spring “failed to distinguish between openness to new men, almost all from genteel families, who made a fortune in the law, the army, the administration or politics…and openness to access by successful men of business, mostly of low social origins.”[2]

True, Stone made clear who and what he was looking at in An Open Elite?: the “self-made men,” the “upward mobility by successful men of business,” and so on, but leaned into, rather than brushed aside or contradicted, the idea of general social immobility.[3] For instance, observe the positioning of: “When analysed with care…the actual volume of social mobility has turned out to be far less than might have been expected. Moreover, those who did move up were rarely successful men of business.”[4] The notion of the landed elite being closed off in general was presented, followed by the specific concern about businessmen. Stone went beyond business many times (for instance: “the degree of mere gentry penetration up into the elite was far smaller than the earlier calculations would indicate”[5]), positing that not only was the landed elite closed to businessmen but also universally, making his protestations against Spring rather disingenuous. Stone insisted to Spring that an open elite specifically meant, to historians and economists, a ruling class open to businessmen, not to all, but Stone himself opened the door to the question of whether the landed elite was accessible to everyone by answering nay in his book. Therefore, the question was admissible, or fair game, in the debate, and Spring was there to provide a more convincing answer. A group comprised of twenty percent newcomers from below, to most reasonable persons, could be described as relatively open. Even more so with the sons of newcomers added in: the landed elite was typically one-third newcomers and sons of newcomers, as Spring pointed out. Though it should be noted both scholars highlighted the challenge of using quantitative data to answer such historical questions. The collection and publication of such numbers is highly important, but it hardly ends the discussion — the question of openness persists, and any answer is inherently subjective.

However, it was the second point of contention where Spring proved most perceptive. He pointed out that while the gentry constituted 181 entrants into the landed elite during the observed centuries, those involved in business were not far behind, with 157, according to Stone’s data. This dwarfed the seventy-two from politics and seventy from the law. As Spring wrote, Stone’s quantitative tables conflicted with his text. Stone wrote in An Open Elite? that “most of the newcomers were rising parish gentry or office-holders or lawyers, men from backgrounds not too dissimilar to those of the existing county elite. Only a small handful of very rich merchants succeeded in buying their way into the elite…”[6] Clearly, even with different backgrounds, businessmen were in fact more successful at entering the landed elite than politicians and lawyers in the three counties Stone studied. What followed a few lines down in the book from Stone’s selected words made far more sense when considering the data: businessmen comprised “only a third of all purchasers…”[7] The use of “only” was perhaps rather biased, but, more significantly, one-third aligned not with the idea of a “small handful,” but of 157 new entrants — a third business entrants, a bit more than a third gentry, and a bit less than a third lawyers, politicians, and so on. Spring could have stressed the absurdity, in this context, of the phrase “only a third,” but was sure to highlight the statistic in his rejoinder, where he drove home the basic facts of Stone’s findings and reiterated that the landed elite was about as open to businessmen as others. Here is where quantitative data truly shines in history, for you can compare numbers against each other. The question of whether a single given number or percentage is big or small is messy and subjective, but whether one number is larger than another is not, and provides clarity regarding issues like whether businessmen had some special difficulty accessing Britain’s landed elite.

Stone failed to respond directly to this point, a key moment that weakened his case, but instead sidetracked into issues concerning permanence of newcomers and by-county versus global perspectives on the data, areas he explored earlier in his response, now awkwardly grafted on to Spring’s latest argument. Yet the reader is largely left to pick up on what is being implied, based on Stone’s earlier comments on said issues. He noted that only twenty-five businessmen of the 157 came from the two counties distant from London, seemingly implying that Hertfordshire, the London-area county, had tipped the scales. Merchants and others were not as likely to rise into the landed elite in more rural areas. What relevance that had is an open question — it seemed more a truism than an argument against Spring’s point, as London was a center for business, and thus that result was perhaps expected. Regardless, he did not elaborate. The adjacent implication was that Spring was again seeing “everything from a global point of view which has no meaning in reality, and nothing from the point of view of the individual counties.”[8] In the debate, Stone often cautioned that it made sense to look at counties individually, as they could be radically distinct — one should not simply look at the aggregated data. But Stone’s inherent problem, in his attempt at a rebuttal, was that he was using the global figures to make his overall case. He took three counties and lifted them up to represent a relatively closed elite in Britain as a whole. It would not do to now brush aside one county or focus heavily on another to bolster an argument. Spring, in a footnote, wrote something similar, urging Stone to avoid “making generalizations on the basis of one county. [Your] three counties were chosen as together a sample of the nation.”[9] To imply, as Stone did, that London could be ignored as some kind of anomaly contradicted his entire project.

Stone’s dodge into the permanence of entrants was likewise not a serious response to Spring’s observation that business-oriented newcomers nearly rivaled those from the gentry and far outpaced lawyers and politicians. He wrote that “of the 132 business purchasers in Hertfordshire, only 68 settled in for more than a generation…”[10] The transient nature of newcomers arose elsewhere in the debate as well. Here Stone moved the goalposts slightly: instead of mere entrants into the landed elite, look at who managed to remain. Only “4% out of 2246 owners” in the three counties over these 340 years were permanent newcomers from the business world.[11] It was implied these numbers were both insignificant and special to businesspersons. Yet footnote five, that associated with the statistic, undercut Stone’s point. Here he admitted Spring correctly observed that politicians and officeholders were forced to sell their county seats, their magnificent mansions, and abandon the landed elite, as defined by Stone, at nearly the same rate as businessmen, at least in Hertfordshire. Indeed, it was odd Stone crafted this response, given Spring’s earlier dismantling of the issue. The significance of Stone’s rebuttal was therefore unclear. If only sixty-eight businessmen lasted more than a generation, how did that compare to lawyers, office-holders, and the gentry? Likewise, if four percent of businessmen established permanent generational residence among the landed elite, what percentages did other groups earn? Again, Stone did not elaborate. But from his admission and what Spring calculated, it seems unlikely Stone’s numbers, when put in context, would help his case. Even more than the aggregate versus county comment, this was a non-answer.

The debate would conclude with a non-answer as well. There was of course more to the discussion — it should be noted Stone put up an impressive defense of the selection of his counties and the inability to include more, in response to Spring questioning how representative they truly were — but Spring clearly showed, using Stone’s own evidence, that the landed elite was what a reasonable person could call open to outsiders in general and businessmen in particular, contradicting Stone’s positions on both in An Open Elite? Stone may have recognized this, given the paucity of counterpoints in his “Non-Rebuttal.” Spring would, in Stone’s view, “fail altogether to deal in specific details with the arguments used in my Reply,” and therefore “there is nothing to rebut.”[12] While it is true that Spring, in his rejoinder, did not address all of Stone’s points, he did focus tightly on the main ideas discussed in the debate and this paper. So, as further evidence that Spring constructed the better case, Stone declined to return to Spring’s specific and central arguments about his own data. He pointed instead to other research that more generally supported the idea of a closed elite. Stone may have issued a “non-rebuttal” not because Spring had ignored various points, but rather because he had stuck to the main ones, and there was little to be said in response.

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[1] Eileen Spring and David Spring, “The English Landed Elite, 1540-1879: A Review,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 152.

[2] Lawrence Stone, “Spring Back,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 168.

[3] Lawrence Stone, An Open Elite? England 1540-1880, abridged edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 3-4.

[4] Ibid, 283.

[5] Ibid, 130.

[6] Ibid, 283.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stone, “Spring Back,” 169.

[9] Spring, “A Review,” 154.

[10] Stone, “Spring Back,” 171.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lawrence Stone, “A Non-Rebuttal,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 3 (Autumn 1985): 396. For Spring’s rejoinder, see Eileen Spring and David Spring, “The English Landed Elite, 1540-1879: A Rejoinder,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 3 (Autumn 1985): 393-396.

Did Evolution Make it Difficult for Humans to Understand Evolution?

It’s well known that people are dreadful at comprehending and visualizing large numbers, such as a million or billion. This is understandable in terms of our development as a species, as grasping the tiny numbers of, say, your clan compared to a rival one you’re about to be in conflict with, or understanding amounts of resources like food and game in particular places, would aid survival (pace George Dvorsky). But there was little evolutionary reason to adeptly process a million of something, intuitively knowing the difference between a million and a billion as easily as we do four versus six. A two second difference, for instance, we get — but few intuitively sense a million seconds is about 11 days and a billion seconds 31 years (making for widespread shock on social media).

As anthropologist Caleb Everett, who pointed out a word for “million” did not even appear until the 14th century, put it, “It makes sense that we as a species would evolve capacities that are naturally good at discriminating small quantities and naturally poor at discriminating large quantities.”

Evolution, therefore, made it difficult to understand evolution, which deals with slight changes to species over vast periods of time, resulting in dramatic differences (see Yes, Evolution Has Been Proven). It took 16 million years for Canthumeryx, with a look and size similar to a deer, to evolve into, among other new species, the 18-foot-tall giraffe. It took 250 million years for the first land creatures to finally have descendants that could fly. It stands to reason that such statements seem incredible to many people not only due to old religious tales they support that evidence does not but also because it’s hard to grasp how much time that actually constitutes. Perhaps it would be easier to comprehend and visualize how small genetic changes between parent creatures and offspring could add up, eventually resulting in descendants that look nothing like ancient ancestors, if we could better comprehend and visualize the timeframes, the big numbers, in which evolution operates. 16 million years is a long time — long enough.

This is hardly the first time it’s been suggested that its massive timescales make evolution tough to envision and accept, but it’s interesting to think about how this fact connects to our own evolutionary history and survival needs.

Just one of those wonderful oddities of life.

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Suicide is (Often?) Immoral

Suicide as an immoral act is typically a viewpoint of the religious — it’s a sin against God, “thou shalt not kill,” and so on. For those free of religion, and of course some who aren’t, ethics are commonly based on what does harm to others, not yourself or deities — under this framework, the conclusion that suicide is immoral in many circumstances is difficult to avoid.

A sensible ethical philosophy considers physical harm and psychological harm. These harms can be actual (known consequences) or potential (possible or unknown consequences). The actual harm of, say, shooting a stranger in the heart is that person’s suffering and death. The potential harm on top of that is wide-ranging: if the stranger had kids it could be their emotional agony, for instance. The shooter simply would not know. Most suicides will entail these sorts of things.

First, most suicides will bring massive psychological harm, lasting many years, to family and friends. Were I to commit suicide, this would be a known consequence, known to me beforehand. Given my personal ethics, aligning with those described above, the act would then necessarily be unethical, would it not? This seems to hold true, in my view, even given my lifelong depression (I am no stranger to visualizations of self-termination and its aftermath, though fortunately with more morbid curiosity than seriousness to date; medication is highly useful and recommended). One can suffer and, by finding relief in nonexistence, cause suffering. As a saying goes, “Suicide doesn’t end the pain, it simply passes it to someone else.” Perhaps the more intense my mental suffering, the less unethical the act (more on this in a moment), but given that the act will cause serious pain to others whether my suffering be mild or extreme, it appears from the outset to be immoral to some degree.

Second, there’s the potential harms, always trickier. There are many unknowns that could result from taking my own life. The potential harms could be more extreme psychological harms, a family member driven to severe depression or madness or alcoholism. (In reality, psychological harms are physical harms — consciousness is a byproduct of brain matter — and vice versa, so stress on one affects the other.) But they could be physical as well. Suicide, we know, is contagious. Taking my own life could inspire others to do the same. Not only could I be responsible for contributing, even indirectly, to the death of another person, I would also have a hand in all the actual and potential harms that result from his or her death! It’s a growing moral burden.

Of course, all ethics are situational. This is accepted by just about everyone — it’s why killing in self-defense seems less wrong than killing in cold blood, or why completely accidental killings seem less unethical than purposeful ones. These things can even seem ethically neutral. So there will always be circumstances that change the moral calculus. One questions if old age alone is enough (one of your parents or grandparents taking their own lives would surely be about as traumatic as anyone else), but intense suffering from age or disease could make the act less unethical, in the same way deeper and deeper levels of depression may do the same. Again, less unethical is used here. Can the act reach an ethically neutral place? The key may simply be the perceptions and emotions of others. Perhaps with worsening disease, decay, or depression, a person’s suicide would be less painful to friends and family. It would be hard to lose someone in that way, but, as we often hear when someone passes away of natural but terrible causes, “She’s not suffering anymore.” Perhaps at some point the scale is tipped, with too much agony for the individual weighing down one side and too much understanding from friends and family lifting up the other. One is certainly able to visualize this — no one wants their loved ones to suffer, and the end of their suffering can be a relief as well as a sorrow, constituting a reduction in actual harm — and this is no doubt reality in various cases. This writing simply posits that not all suicides will fall into that category (many are unexpected), and, while a distinguishing line may be frequently impossible to see or determine, the suicides outside it are morally questionable due to the ensuing harm.

If all this is nonsense, and such sympathetic understanding of intense suffering brings no lesser amount of harm to loved ones, then we’re in trouble, for how else can the act break free from that immoral place, for those operating under the moral framework that causing harm is wrong?

It should also be noted that the rare individuals without any real friends or family seem to have less moral culpability here. And perhaps admitted plans and assisted suicide diminish the immorality of the act, regardless of the extent of your suffering — if you tell your loved ones in advance you are leaving, if they are there by your side in the hospital to say goodbye, isn’t that less traumatizing and painful than a sudden, unexpected event, with your body found cold in your apartment? In these cases, however, the potential harms, while some may be diminished in likelihood alongside the actual, still abound. A news report on your case could still inspire someone else to commit suicide. One simply cannot predict the future, all the effects of your cause.

As a final thought, it’s difficult not to see some contradiction in believing in suicide prevention, encouraging those you know or those you don’t not to end their lives, and believing suicide to be ethically neutral or permissible. If it’s ethically neutral, why bother? If you don’t want someone to commit suicide, it’s because you believe they have value, whether inherent or simply to others (whether one can have inherent value without a deity is for another day). And destroying that value, bringing all that pain to others or eliminating all of the individual’s potential positive experiences and interactions, is considered wrong, undesirable. Immorality and prevention go hand-in-hand. But with folks who are suffering we let go of prevention, even advocating for assisted suicide, because only in those cases do we begin to consider suicide ethically neutral or permissible.

In sum, one finds oneself believing that if causing harm to others is wrong, and suicide causes harm to others, suicide must in some general sense be wrong — but acknowledging that there must be specific cases and circumstances where suicide is less wrong, approaching ethical neutrality, or even breaking into it.

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Expanding the Supreme Court is a Terrible Idea

Expanding the Supreme Court would be disastrous. We hardly want an arms race in which the party that controls Congress and the White House expands the Court to achieve a majority. It may feel good when the Democrats do it, but it won’t when it’s the Republicans’ turn. 

The problem with the Court is that the system of unwritten rules, of the “gentlemen’s agreement,” is completely breaking down. There have been expansions and nomination fights or shenanigans before in U.S. history, but generally when a justice died or retired a Senate controlled by Party A would grudgingly approve a new justice nominated by a president of Party B — because eventually the situation would be reversed, and you wanted and expected the other party to show you the same courtesy. It was reciprocal altruism. It all seemed fair enough, because apart from a strategic retirement, it was random luck — who knew when a justice would die? 

The age of unwritten rules is over. The political climate is far too polarized and hostile to allow functionality under such a system. When Antonin Scalia died, Obama should have been able to install Merrick Garland on the Court — Mitch McConnell and the GOP Senate infamously wouldn’t even hold a vote, much less vote Garland down, for nearly 300 days. They simply delayed until a new Republican president could install Neil Gorsuch. Democrats attempted to block this appointment, as well as Kavanaugh (replacing the retiring Kennedy) and Barrett (replacing the passed Ginsburg). The Democrats criticized the Barrett case for occurring too close to an election, mere weeks away, the same line the GOP had used with Garland, and conservatives no doubt saw the investigation into Kavanaugh as an obstructionist hit job akin to the Garland case. But it was entirely fair for Trump to replace Kennedy and Ginsberg, as it was fair for Obama to replace Garland. That’s how it’s supposed to work. But that’s history — and now, with Democrats moving forward on expansion, things are deteriorating further.

This has been a change building over a couple decades. Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett received just four Democratic votes. The justices Obama was able to install, Kagan and Sotomayor, received 14 Republican votes. George W. Bush’s Alito and Roberts received 26 Democratic votes. Clinton’s Breyer and Ginsburg received 74 Republican votes. George H.W. Bush’s nominees, Souter and Thomas, won over 57 Democrats. When Ronald Reagan nominated Kennedy, more Democrats voted yes than Republicans, 51-46! Reagan’s nominees (Kennedy, Scalia, Rehnquist, O’Connor) won 159 Democratic votes, versus 199 Republican. Times have certainly changed. Partisanship has poisoned the well, and obstruction and expansion are the result.

Some people defend the new normal, correctly noting the Constitution simply allows the president to nominate and the Senate to confirm or deny. Those are the written rules, so that’s all that matters. And that’s the problem, the systemic flaw. It’s why you can obstruct and expand and break everything, make it all inoperable. And with reciprocal altruism, fairness, and bipartisanship out the window, it’s not hard to imagine things getting worse. If a party could deny a vote on a nominee for the better part of a year (shrinking the Court to eight, one notices, which can be advantageous), could it do so longer? Delaying for years, perhaps four or eight? Why not, there are no rules against it. Years of obstruction would become years of 4-4 votes on the Court, a completely neutered branch of government, checks and balances be damned. Or, if each party packs the Court when it’s in power, we’ll have an ever-growing Court, a major problem. The judiciary automatically aligning with the party that also controls Congress and the White House is again the serious weakening of a check and balance. Democrats may want a stable, liberal Court around some day to strike down rightwing initiatives coming out of Congress and the Oval Office. True, an expanding Court will hurt and help parties equally, and parties won’t always be able to expand, but for any person who sees value in real checks on legislative and executive power, this is a poor idea. All the same can be said for obstruction.

Here is a better idea. The Constitution should be amended to reflect the new realities of American politics. This is to preserve functionality and meaningful checks and balances, though admittedly the only way to save the latter may be to undercut it in a smaller way elsewhere. The Court should permanently be set at nine justices, doing away with expansions. Election year appointments should be codified as obviously fine. The selection of a new justice must pass to one decision-making body: the president, the Senate, the House, or a popular vote by the citizenry. True, doing away with a nomination by one body and confirmation by another itself abolishes a check on power, but this may be the only way to avoid the obstruction, the tied Court, the total gridlock until a new party wins the presidency. It may be a fair tradeoff, sacrificing a smaller check for a more significant one. However, this change could be accompanied by much-discussed term limits, say 16, 20, or 24 years, for justices. So while only one body could appoint, the appointment would not last extraordinary lengths of time.

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Review: ‘The Language of God’

I recently read The Language of God. Every once in a while I read something from the other side of the religious or political divide, typically the popular books that arise in conversation. This one interested me because it was written by a serious scientist, geneticist Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. I wanted to see how it would differ from others I read (Lewis, Strobel, Zacharias, McDowell, Little, Haught, and so forth).

You have to give Collins credit for his full embrace of the discoveries of human science. He includes a long, enthusiastic defense of evolution, dismantles the “irreducible complexity” myth, and the science he cites is largely accurate (the glaring exception being his assertion that humans are the only creatures that help each other when there’s no benefit or reward for doing so, an idea ethology has entirely blown up). He also dismisses Paley’s dreadful “Watchmaker” analogy, sternly warns against the equally unwise “God of the Gaps” argument (lack of scientific knowledge = evidence for God), stands against literal interpretations of the bible, and (properly) discourages skeptics from claiming evolution literally disproves a higher power. Some of this is different compared to the other writers above, and unexpected.

Unfortunately, Collins engages in many of the same practices the other authors do: unproven or even false premises that lead to total argumental collapse (there’s zero evidence that deep down inside all humans have the same ideas of right and wrong, if only we would listen to the “whisper” of the Judeo-Christian deity), argument by analogy, and other logical fallacies. Incredibly, he even uses the “God of the Gaps” argument, not even 20 pages before his serious warning against it (we don’t know what came before the Big Bang, what caused it, whether multiple universes exist, whether our one universe bangs and crunches ad infinitum…therefore God is real). The existence of existence is important to think about, and perhaps we do have a higher power to thank, but our lack of scientific knowledge isn’t “evidence for belief,” as the subtitle puts it. It’s “nonevidence” for belief. It’s “God of the Gaps.” The possibility of God being fictional remains, as large as ever. Overall, Collins doesn’t carry over principles very well, seeing the weakness of analogy, “God of the Gaps,” and literal biblical interpretations but using them anyway (it is possible Genesis has untruths, but of course not the gospels). Weird, contradictory stuff.

Overall, the gist of the book is “Here are amazing discoveries of science, but you can still believe in God and that humans are discovering God’s design.” Which is fine. While trust in science forces the abandonment of literal interpretations of ancient texts (first man from dirt, first woman from rib, birds being on earth before land animals, etc.), faith and science living in harmony isn’t that hard. You say “God did it that way” and move on. Evolution was God’s plan, and so forth. That’s really all the chapters build toward (Part 2, the science-y part, has three chapters: the origins of the universe chapter builds toward the “We don’t know, therefore God” argument, while the life on Earth and human genome chapters conclude with no argument at all, just the suggestion that “God did it that way.” I found this unsettling. In any case, “evidence for belief” wasn’t an accurate subtitle, as expected).

Finally, I was disappointed Collins didn’t dive deeper into his conversion to the faith, a subject that always interests me. He cites just one (poor) argument from C.S. Lewis that caused him to change his mind about everything, the right and wrong proposition mentioned above. I would have liked more of his story.

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A More Plausible God

Sometimes I worry I will burn in hell for not following the One True Religion. This lasts about two minutes, however. That’s all the time it takes to recall how unlikely — insane even — the idea seems.

If we assume that a deity or deities exist, it seems more reasonable to assume there is no punishment (of a miserable, torturous nature anyway) for non-belief. It’s simply a question of how likely it is that a higher power would be an immoral monster or a total madman. Whichever the One True Religion is, throughout history countless millions (almost without question billions) have been born, lived, and died without ever hearing about it. Even today, as Daniel Dennett points out in Breaking the Spell, “whichever religion is yours, there are more people in the world who don’t share it than who do.” There may be two billion Christians or Muslims, but the global population is nearly eight billion, and plenty in remote parts of the world won’t hear of either, and still more won’t ever be proselytized to or decide to study them (after all, how many Christians would undertake a serious, thoughtful study of Shenism, Sikhism, Santería, or Zoroastrianism, or grow beyond the most minimal understandings of major faiths like Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism?). The idea that a god would bring eternal suffering to such people is mind-boggling. It would have to be evil or insane. But that’s the deity described in various religions — an honest description, not a dogmatic one about how this God is one of love, justice, and forgiveness. Yet if a supernatural being of superior intellect and power exists, it’s likely a little more reasonable than that. If there’s a wager to be made (better than that faulty Pascal’s Wager), it’s that if a god or gods exist they’d be more moral and sensible than sending people off to be tortured for something they had no control over. Perhaps instead all people reach paradise regardless of belief, or there is no afterlife for some, or no afterlife for any of us, or some go to a place that isn’t paradise but not uncomfortable, or it’s all determined by one’s deeds, not beliefs. Who knows? There are countless options far more moral!

Careful readers will notice there’s a bit of an assumption there. When I was young and devout, I used to imagine the Judeo-Christian God found a way to make sure every person across the globe heard about him — and, after the resurrection, Jesus. People would read about them, someone would speak of them, or God would appear or make himself known in some fashion, to cover those in secluded and faraway places. If a deity exists, we assume it has the power to do this, so the above assumes it’s refraining — that could be a critical error. All true. Yet that may not ease the being’s moral culpability much. Suppose you go through your life and suddenly hear of Shenism — you saw it mentioned in an article somewhere. You read the article, but didn’t study the religion. You didn’t think to, you have your own religion you’re sure is true, you’re busy and forgot, you prefer learning about other things, and so on. Missing your moment, do you deserve eternal punishment? Have you “made your choice”? Let’s go further and imagine God ensures every human being receives enough knowledge about the One True Religion to make an “informed choice.” Suppose you learn about Islam in school, or have a Muslim co-worker. You hear all about the faith — you even study it on your own, earnestly. But you’re just not convinced, the evidence and reasoning don’t seem strong enough — no, thank you. You’ll stick to Christianity or atheism or Hinduism or whatever, inadvertently rejecting the One True Religion, sealing your fate. If this is how affairs are arranged, billions aren’t persuaded and will burn. Some people will be swayed, maybe everyone who gets a flashy visit from God himself will convert, but the vast majority of humanity is toast. (And surely not all those billions recognized the One True Religion as true but ignored it for sinful, selfish reasons — I can hear that ludicrous line coming from the Christians.) So, do you deserve hell? Because what you heard or read didn’t convince you? Did you “make your choice”? One could phrase it that way, but do you really choose to believe something is true? Or do you simply believe it’s true? In any case, what kind of being would torture good people for eternity because they weren’t convinced of something? Being unpersuaded…that’s your sin! Now burn. It would again probably have to be an immoral monster or a total madman.

So if it seems plausible that a deity is more likely to be a moral and sensible being, who wouldn’t issue everlasting damnation on people who didn’t hear about her or simply weren’t convinced by the evidence and reasoning available and presented, there isn’t too much work remaining. God is clearly a reasonable fellow, and in that light special cases can be considered. What of apostates? Perhaps you belonged to the One True Religion and left it. This is too similar to the above musings to warrant much discussion — if you can be forgiven for not being convinced, mightn’t you also be forgiven for no longer being convinced? But what of atheists and agnostics who don’t follow any faith? Same story, that’s simply not being convinced of something. If the gods are moral and sensible enough to not torture someone unconvinced by the One True Religion, why would they torture someone unconvinced by the One True Religion and all false ones? This is why my worry, as both apostate and atheist, dissipates quickly. If God exists, he’s probably good enough to not do X, and if he’s good enough to not do X he’s probably good enough to not do Y.

This could all be wrong, of course. It could be that a higher power exists and he’s simply a tyrant, completely immoral and irrational in word and deed, shipping people to hell regardless of whether they’ve heard of him, regardless of how bad the “evidence” is. (Or only tormenting atheists and apostates!) We should sincerely hope the Judeo-Christian god, for instance, doesn’t exist or is at least radically different than advertised in holy books (he has a long history of choosing less moral options and even punishing people for things they had no control over, such as the sins of the father). Or it could be the deity is mad and wicked in the opposite way. It may have been former pastor Dan Barker who wrote that a god who only lets atheists and agnostics into paradise, as a reward for thinking critically, while letting believers burn, could easily exist. Humorous, yet entirely possible (the “evidence” for each is of comparable quality). Millions of gods could be and have been theorized. But it makes some sense to suppose a higher power would be moral, because it presumably created us, and we have a moral outrage about all this, at least in modern times: most people, even many believers, are horrified at the thought of billions being tortured forever because they believed differently through no real fault of their own. We would figure out “options far more moral,” like those above, if given the power. Wouldn’t the creator be more moral, more loving and forgiving, than the created? Can mortals really surpass the gods in ethical development, in an interest in fairness and minimizing harm? Regardless, in sum, it’s simply up to us to decide if it’s most plausible that an existent deity would be good and sane — if so, damning the vast majority of humanity to hell for not knowing about, studying, or being convinced of the One True Religion seems highly implausible.

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How to Write and Publish a Book (Odds Included)

My experience with writing books and finding publishers is extremely limited, but a few early insights might make it easier for others interested in doing the same. The following, it should be noted, relates to nonfiction works — the only world I know — but most of it could probably be applied to novels.

First, write your book. Take as much or as little time as needed. I cranked out the first draft of Racism in Kansas City in four months and promptly began sending it out to publishers (April 2014). Why America Needs Socialism I wrote off and on for six years, at the end throwing everything out (300 pages) and starting over (though making much use of old material), finishing a new version in five months. Just make your work the absolute best it can be, in terms of content and proper grammar. But you can reach out to certain publishers before your manuscript is wholly finished. Pay attention to the submission guidelines, but for most publishers it’s not a big deal (many ask you to explain how much of the work is complete and how long it will take you to finish). I feel safest having the manuscript done, and it would likely be risky to reach out if you didn’t have over half the piece written — your proposal to publishers will include sample chapters, and if they like those they will ask for more: the whole manuscript thus far.

You’ll scour the internet for publishers who print books like yours and who accept unsolicited materials, meaning you can contact them instead of a literary agent. If you want the big houses like Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, or HarperCollins, you’ll need an agent, and I have no experience with that and thus have no advice. But a million small- and medium-sized publishers exist that will accept unsolicited queries from you, including significant places like Harvard University Press or Oxford University Press.

Following the firm’s guidelines on its website, you’ll generally email a book proposal, which offers an overview, target audience, table of contents, analysis of competing titles, author information, timeline, and sample chapter. If there’s no interest you won’t usually get a reply, but if there is you’ll be asked for the manuscript. It’s an easy process, there’s simply much competition and varying editor interests and needs, so you have to do it in volume. Keep finding houses and sending emails until you’re successful. From March to May 2018, I sent a proposal for Why America Needs Socialism to 91 publishers. Eight (about 9%) requested the full manuscript, and two (about 2%) wanted to publish it. The terms of the first offer were unfavorable (walk away if you have to), but by September, after seven months of searching, a home for the book was secured, Ig Publishing in New York City.

The same technique and persistence is required when seeking blurbs of praise for the back cover and promotional materials. You simply find ways to call or email a dozen or so other authors and prominent people, explain your book and publisher, and then four of them accept your manuscript and agree to write a sentence of praise if they like it (or write a foreword, or peer review it, or whatever you seek). It is very convenient for nonfiction authors that so many of the folks you’d want to review your book are university professors. You simply find Cornel West’s email address on Harvard’s faculty page. Similarly, you shotgun emails to publications when the book comes out and ask them to review it. I sent a query to 58 magazines, papers, journals, and websites I thought would be interested in reviewing Why America Needs Socialism, offering to send a copy. Seven (12%) asked for the book to do a review; two others invited me to write a piece on the work myself for their publications.

I didn’t keep such careful records of my Racism in Kansas City journey, but after I began submitting proposals it took three months to find a publisher who agreed to publish the work — temporarily. I made the mistake of working for 10 months with a publisher without a contract. At times, publishers will ask you to made revisions before signing a contract, a big gamble (that I wasn’t even really aware of at the time). This publisher backed out due to the national conversation on race sparked by Mike Brown’s death and subsequent events through late 2014 and early 2015, which was seemingly counter-intuitive for a publisher, but they were more used to tame local histories than what I had produced, a history of extreme violence and subjugation. So the search continued.

Writing a local story, at least a nonfiction work, certainly limits your house options. There are some, like the above, that are out-of-state that will take interest, but generally your best bet lies with the local presses. And unfortunately, there aren’t many of them where I reside. The University of Missouri Press was shutting down, the University Press of Kansas (KU) wanted me to make revisions before they would decide — and I wasn’t looking to repeat a mistake. I didn’t approach every Kansas City-area publisher, but rather, feeling the pressure of much wasted time, decided to stop looking for a house and instead to self-publish (with Mission Point Press, run by the former head of Kansas City Star Books).

A traditional publisher pays all the costs associated with the book and you get an advance and a small royalty from each copy sold. (With Ig Publishing, I gave up an advance for a larger royalty — a worthwhile option if the book sells well.) With self-publishing, everything is in reverse: you pay a “nontraditional publisher” to birth the book — editing, cover design, maybe marketing and distribution — and you keep most of the profit from each copy sold (not all, as someone is printing it). There’s also the option of skipping a nontraditional publisher altogether and doing everything yourself, working only with a printer. A traditional house is the big prize for a writer, because it offers that coveted validation — a firm accepted your piece instead of rejecting it, like it rejected all those other authors. It’s about prestige and pride, and not having to say “Well…” after someone calls you a published author. But self-publishing can give you more control over the final product, in some circumstances more money over time, and it works well for a local book (it’s Kansas City readers and bookstores that want a book on Kansas City, so I don’t have to worry about marketing and distribution in other cities).

The whole process is an incredible adventure: the intense learning process of researching and writing, the obsession, the hunt for and exhilaration over a publisher, the dance and give-and-take with editors who see needed changes (“murder your darlings”), the thousands of footnotes you format (kidding, it’s hell), finding key individuals to write a foreword or advanced praise, getting that first proof in the mail, releasing and marketing your work, winning coverage and reviews in the press, giving book talks and interviews, hearing a reader say how much what you created meant to him, learning your book is a classroom text, being cited by other authors or asked to give advanced praise yourself, being recognized by strangers, seeing your work in libraries and bookstores across the city, and the country, and even the world.

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Christianity and Socialism Both Inspired Murderous Governments and Tyrants. Should We Abandon Both?

It is often argued that because the ideas of Marx and socialistic thinkers were the ideologies of ruthless people like Stalin and states like the Soviet Union, such ideas are dangerous and must be abandoned. What’s interesting to consider is that the same could be said of Christianity and other belief systems held dear by many who make such arguments.

After all, Europe (and later the New World) was dominated by Christian states from the time of the late Roman Empire under Constantine and some 1,500 years thereafter, only weakening before secularism beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries. These states were ruled by Christian monarchs, often dictators with absolute power, many quite murderous indeed. Even when kings and queens were reined in by constitutions and power sharing with parliaments, the terrors continued. Nonbelievers, people of other faiths, and Christians that questioned or defied official doctrine, including many scientists, were exiled, imprisoned, tortured, maimed, or executed. It was a nasty business, from being sawed in half, groin to skull, to being burned alive. Wars against nations of other religions or other denominations of Christianity killed millions. This history was explored in When Christianity Was as Violent as Islam, so the reader is referred there for study. As hard as it may be for Christians to hear, these were governments and rulers that used indoctrination, fear, force, and murder against their own citizens to maintain and protect Christianity and its hold over nation-states. Kings and queens and officials at all levels of government believed fervently in Christianity and, as with religious leaders, weren’t afraid to mercilessly crush threats to it, no matter how small. If that sounds similar to what occurred in the Soviet Union and elsewhere with socialist ideology, it probably should.

One can imagine the protestations from the faithful. Something about how socialism led to more deaths, in a shorter timeframe, and in the modern age rather than more backward times. “So you see, socialism was way worse!” Perhaps the radical would then point out that, at least as of this moment, Christianity had a far longer reign of terror, about 1,500 years — while the first country calling itself “socialist” was only birthed a century ago. It might also be argued that there have been more oppressive states that called themselves Christian than called themselves socialist — recall that Christianity dominated Europe, the Americas, and other places (and with such a great length of time comes many new states). A full tally, actual careful study, would be necessary. Same for questions about “Well, the percentage of socialist nations that went bad is way higher than the percentage of Christian countries that went bad, therefore –” And on and on. The argument over what state ideology was worse seems somewhat pointless, however. Suppose it was conceded that socialism was indeed worse. That doesn’t erase the fact that these belief systems, with their tentacles around rulers and regimes, both inspired terrible crimes. That leaves the central question to consider: If we look at history and see that a belief system has caused great horrors, should we abandon that belief system and encourage others to do the same?

Here the Christian and the socialist may find some common ground, both supposing no. But the answer is more likely to be no for my belief system, yes for yours. Things then devolve into arguments over differences, real or perceived, between the ideologies. The Christian may focus on what we could call the beginning and the end of ideologies, a view that 1) the origins of a belief system and 2) the modern relationship to state power are what matter most to this question of whether a belief system that has caused much horror should be forgotten.

The discussion might go something like:

“Christianity’s founding texts call for love and peace, whereas Marx saw necessary a violent revolution against monarchs and capitalists!”

“Well, that didn’t seem to stop Christian governments and rulers from engaging in their own violence and oppression, did it?”

“It’s one thing to take something originally pure and twist it, do evil with it. But socialism started with a document approving of violence.”

“You know socialism existed before Marx’s writings, right? Before he left boyhood? He later refined and popularized it, but didn’t invent it (and many who advocated for it before him were Christians). And recall that the New Testament isn’t too kind to women, gays, and slaves, justifying much oppression and many atrocities throughout history. Also, wasn’t the U.S. birthed in violent revolution against the powerful? Marx’s writings and 1770s American writings like the Declaration and Paine’s works sound pretty similar, if you bother to read them. Calls for revolution are sometimes justified, even to you.”

And:

“Many Christians don’t want an officially Christian country anymore. Church and state can be separate; we just want religious freedom. But socialists want an officially socialist country. You can’t separate socialism from government. Not in the way we’ve separated Christianity from government.”

“True, that is a difference. Government structure, law, and services are integral to socialism.”

While the first point doesn’t have much significance, the second point is a good one, an interesting one. It highlights the fundamental difference between the ideologies. You can separate Christianity from government, or Islam from government, but you can’t do so with socialism (however defined), any more than you could separate monarchism or representative democracy from government. A reasonable person could perhaps argue that a belief system with past horrors should be put to rest if it cannot be separated from power. But surely it’s not a line as clear as that; it only widens the discussion. The reader may fully support representative democracy, but it has caused many terrors as well, from the election of the Nazis to the 3 million civilians the U.S. killed in Vietnam. Should belief in representative democracy be abandoned on those grounds? The reader may likewise support the military and patriotism, both difficult to separate from government, both with very dark histories in our own country and others. And so on. (Conversely, philosophies that can be separated from state power are still capable of great evil, such as free market capitalism, or Islamic and Christian terror sects.)

Perhaps the real question, then, is can ideologies, whether or not they can meaningfully exist outside the political system, successfully cleanse themselves of their sins, or, rather, separate the wheat from the chaff? Can we reject the more virulent strains of belief systems and the people who follow them, leaving only (or mostly) the better angels of their natures?

Christians rightly understand that Christianity can be divorced from violence and oppression, even if it wasn’t in certain times, places, and people — and isn’t in a few places and people today. They understand that the problems Christianity attempts to solve, the missions of the faith, could be addressed in many ways, some more ethical than others. If one’s concern is that souls in other lands are lost and must be saved, Christians could engage in bloody conquest and forced conversion, as of course happened in history, or instead peaceful missionary work. Different people have different ethics (especially in different times, societies, and institutions) and will go about addressing problems and goals differently. It’s that simple. Importantly, Christians also understand that one method doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. The slippery slope fallacy isn’t one you usually hear in this context: no Christian thinks peaceful missionary work automatically leads to violent, repressive methods of bringing people into the faith. They know that the things they care about — belief in Christ’s divinity and resurrection, a relationship with the deity, a right way of living based on scriptures — can be imparted to others without it leading to tyranny and mass murder. Despite an ugly history, we all know this to be so.

Socialism, with terrible things done in its name as well, is a similar story. The ideology had its proponents willing to use terror, but it had even more peaceful advocates, from those famous on the Left like Eugene Debs, Dorothy Day, and Bertrand Russell to those famous to all, documented in Why America Needs Socialism: The Argument from Martin Luther King, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, and Other Great Thinkers. (And don’t forget the peaceful Christian Socialists!) The things socialists care about — workers owning and running their workplaces, universal government programs to meet human needs, prosperity for all, people’s control over government — can be fought for and implemented without violence and subjugation. (This of course leaves out the debate concerning what socialism is and how it differs from communism and other ideologies, but that has been handled elsewhere and it seems reasonable to put that aside, as we’re also excluding the discussion of what “true Christianity” is, whether true Christianity involves top-down oppression and terror or bottom-up peace and love, whether it’s Catholicism or a sect of Protestantism, etc.) The societal changes socialists push for have already been achieved, in ways large and small, without horrors all over the world, from worker cooperatives to systems of direct democracy to universal healthcare and education, public work programs guaranteeing jobs, and Universal Basic Income (see Why America Needs Socialism). These incredible reforms have occurred in democratic, free societies, with no signs of Stalinism on the horizon. The slippery slope fallacy is constantly applied to socialism and basically any progressive policy (remember, racial integration is communism), but it doesn’t have any more merit than when it is applied to Christianity. Those who insist that leaders and governments set out to implement these types of positive socialistic reforms but then everything slid into dictatorship and awfulness as a result basically have no understanding of history, they’re just completely divorced from historical knowledge. Generally, when you actually study how nations turned communist, you see that a Marxist group, party, or person already deeply authoritarian achieved power and then ruled, expectedly, in an authoritarian manner, implementing policies that sometimes resemble what modern socialists call for but often do not (for example, worker ownership of the workplace is incompatible with government ownership of the workplace; direct democratic decision-making is incompatible with authoritarian control; and so forth). It’s authoritarians who are most likely to use violence in the first place; anti-authoritarians generally try to find peaceful means of creating change, if possible. So not only do we see how the reforms socialists desire are being won around the world today without death and destruction, a serious study of history shows that those reforms don’t lead to such things, but rather it’s a matter of groups and persons with violent or oppressive tendencies gaining power and acting predictably, just like when a Christian or Christian group with violent and oppressive tendencies gains power, past or present. The missions of socialism, as with Christianity, can be achieved in ethical ways.

Knowing Christianity and socialism, despite brutal pasts, can operate in today’s world in positive, peaceful ways, knowing that ideologies, people, and societies can change over time for the better, one sees little reason to abandon either based solely on their histories. A Christian may reject socialism on its own merits, opposing, for example, worker ownership of workplaces (or, if thinking more of communism, government ownership of workplaces); likewise, a socialist may reject Christianity on its own merits, disliking, say, beliefs unsupported by quality evidence. But to reject an ideology because of its history of violence surely necessitates rejecting your own; and to give your own a pass because it can exist benignly surely necessitates extending the same generosity to others. Remember, dear reader, the words of Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael):

You don’t judge Christianity by Christians. You don’t judge socialism by socialists. You judge Christianity by its principles irrespective of Christians. You judge socialism by its principles irrespective of those who call themselves socialists. Where’s the confusion?

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Saving Dr. King and Others From the Capitalist “Memory Hole”

The socialist press around the world will mark January 18, 2021, with celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fervent rejection of capitalism and resounding advocacy for socialism, in an attempt to rescue his political and economic philosophy from George Orwell’s “memory hole.” This was the chute in 1984 where embarrassing truths were sent to their destruction. Mainstream media outlets will remember Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, but forget that he also said, “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together.”

But Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is also a fine opportunity for the left press to note that King belongs to a pantheon of famous historical who were, to the surprise of many admirers, committed socialists. King questioned the “captains of industry” and their ownership over the workplace, the means of production (“Who owns the oil?… Who owns the iron ore?”), and believed “something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” Other celebrated heroes believed the same and were likewise very public about their views – and, like King, their words and work in support of socialism, as they each understood it, have been erased from historical memory.

Orwell was sucked down a memory hole, too. Remembered today primarily for his critiques of the communist Soviet Union in 1984 and Animal Farm, he was a self-described democratic socialist who spent time in Spanish radical communities, saw capitalist society as “the robbers and the robbed,” and wrote that

Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.

Helen Keller’s story ends in the popular imagination when she is a young girl, first learning to communicate through sign language and later speech and writing. But as an adult, Keller was a fiery radical, pushing for peace, disability rights, and socialism. She wrote, “It is the labor of the poor and ignorant that makes others refined and comfortable.” While capitalism is the few growing rich off the labor of the many, “socialism is the ideal cause.” Keller went on to write: “How did I become a socialist? By reading… If I ever contribute to the Socialist movement the book that I sometimes dream of, I know what I shall name it: Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.”

The socialism of a certain famous physicist is often lost under the weight of gravity, space, and time. Albert Einstein insisted on “the establishment of a socialist economy,” criticizing how institutions function under capitalism, how “private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education).” He continued: 

[The] crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career… The education of the individual [under socialism], in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Mohandas Gandhi, with his commitment to nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience in British-occupied India, was an inspiration for King. But the two also shared a commitment to socialism. Gandhi connected these ideas, insisting that socialism must be built up from nonviolent noncooperation against the capitalists. “There would be no exploitation if people refuse to obey the exploiter. But self comes in and we hug the chains that bind us. This must cease.” He envisioned a unique socialism for India and a nonviolent pathway to bringing it about, writing, “This socialism is as pure as crystal. It, therefore, requires crystal-like means to achieve it.”

The list of famous historical figures goes on and on: Langston Hughes, Ella Baker, H.G. Wells, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Angela Davis, Pablo Picasso, Nelson Mandela. They ranged from democratic socialists to communists, but all believed we could do better than capitalism, that we could in fact build a better world. They agreed with King’s other dream.

“These are revolutionary times,” King declared. “All over the globe, men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born.”

Let socialists spend the 2021 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day excavating not only King’s radicalism, but the radicalism of so many like him.

This article first appeared in The Democratic Left: https://www.dsausa.org/democratic-left/saving-martin-luther-king-jr-and-others-from-the-capitalist-memory-hole/

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We Just Witnessed How Democracy Ends

In early December, a month after the election was called, after all “disputed” states had certified Biden’s victory (Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania), with some certifying a second time after recounts, after 40-odd lawsuits from Trump, Republican officials, and conservative voters had failed miserably in the American courts, the insanity continued: about 20 Republican states (with 106 Republican members of the House) sued to stop electors from casting their votes for Biden; only 27 of 249 Republican congresspersons would acknowledge Biden’s victory. Rightwing media played along. A GOP state legislator and plenty of ordinary citizens pushed for Trump to simply use the military to stay in power.

At this time, with his legal front collapsing, the president turned to Congress, the state legislatures, and the Electoral College. Trump actually pushed for the Georgia legislature to replace the state’s 16 electors (members of the 2020 Electoral College, who were set to be Biden supporters after Georgia certified Biden’s win weeks prior) with Trump supporters! Without any ruling from a court or state in support, absurd imaginings and lies about mass voter fraud were to be used to justify simply handing the state to Trump — a truly frightening attack on the democratic process. Officials in other battleground states got phone calls about what their legislatures could do to subvert election results as well (state secretaries later being asked to “recalculate” and told things like “I just want to find 11,780 votes”). And it was theoretically possible for this to work, if the right circumstance presented itself. ProPublica wrote that

the Trump side’s legislature theory has some basis in fact. Article II of the U.S. Constitution holds that “each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors” to vote for president as a member of the Electoral College. In the early days of the republic, some legislatures chose electors directly or vested that power in other state officials. Today, every state allocates presidential electors by popular vote…

As far as the Constitution is concerned, there’s nothing to stop a state legislature from reclaiming that power for itself, at least prospectively. Separately, a federal law, the Electoral Count Act of 1887, provides that whenever a state “has failed to make a choice” in a presidential election, electors can be chosen “in such a manner as the legislature of such State may direct.”

Putting aside how a battle between certified election results and misguided screams of election fraud might be construed as a “failure to make a choice” by a Trumpian judge somewhere, the door is open for state legislatures to return to the days of divorcing electors from the popular vote. The challenge, as this report went on to say, is that in these battleground states, the popular vote-elector connection “is enshrined in the state constitution, the state’s election code or both,” which means that change was only impossible in the moment because a party would need dominant political power in these states to change the constitutions and election codes — needing a GOP governor, control of or supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, even the passing of a citizens’ vote on the matter, depending on the state. Republican officials, if willing to pursue this (and true, not all would be), couldn’t act at that particular moment in history because success was a political impossibility. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, for instance, had Democratic governors and enough legislators to prevent a supermajority veto override. But it isn’t difficult to envision a parallel universe or future election within our own reality where a couple states are red enough to reclaim the power to appoint electors and do so, returning someone like Trump to office and making voting in their states completely meaningless.

In the exact same vein, House Republicans laid plans to challenge and throw out electors in January. (Republicans even sued Mike Pence in a bizarre attempt to make the courts grant him the sole right to decide which electoral votes count! Rasmussen, the right-leaning polling institution, liked this idea, favorably lifting up a (false) quote by Stalin saying something evil in support of Pence throwing out votes.) This was theoretically possible, too. Per the procedures, if a House rep and senator together challenge a state’s slate of electors, the Congress as a whole must vote on whether to confirm or dismiss the electors. Like the state legislature intervention, this was sure to fail only due to fortunate political circumstances. The Independent wrote, “There’s no way that a majority of Congress would vote to throw out Biden’s electors. Democrats control the House, so that’s an impossibility. In the Senate, there are enough Republicans who have already acknowledged Biden’s win (Romney, Murkowski, Collins and Toomey, to name just a few) to vote with Democrats.” Would things have gone differently had the GOP controlled both houses?

All that would be needed for success after such acts are judges to go along with them. Given that such changes are not unconstitutional, final success is imaginable, whether in the lower courts or in the Supreme Court, where such things would surely end up. It’s encouraging to see, both recently and during Trump’s term, that the judicial system has remained strong, continuing to function within normal parameters while the rest of the nation went mad. In late 2020, Trump and rightwing efforts to have citizen votes disqualified and other disgusting moves based on fraud claims were tossed out of the courtrooms due to things like lack of something called “evidence.” Even the rightwing Supreme Court, with three Trump appointees, refused to get involved in and shot down Trump’s nonsense (much like Trump’s own Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security). Yet we waited with bated breath to see if this would be so. It could have gone the other way — votes thrown out despite the lack of evidence, such decisions upheld by higher courts, results overturned. That’s all it would have taken this time — forget changing how electors are chosen or Congress rejecting them! If QAnon types can make it into Congress, if people like Trump can receive such loyalty from the congresspersons who approve Supreme Court justices and other judges, if someone like Trump can win the White House and be in a position to nominate justices, the idea of the absurdity seeping into the judicial system doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Like other presidents, Trump appointed hundreds of federal judges. And if that seems possible — the courts tolerating bad cases brought before them — then the courts ruling that states can return to anti-democratic systems of old eras or tolerating a purge of rightful electors seems possible, too. Any course makes citizen voting a sham.

The only bulwark to the overturning of a fair election and the end of American democracy was basically luck, comprising, before January 6 at any rate: 1) a small group of Republican officials being unable to act, and/or 2) a small group of judges being unwilling to act. It isn’t that hard to imagine a different circumstance that would have allowed state legislators or Congress to terminate democracy and/or seen the Trumpian insanity infecting judges like it has voters and elected officials. In this sense, we simply got extremely lucky. And it’s worth reiterating that Number 1 needn’t even be in the picture — all you need is enough judges (and jurists) to go along with the foolishness Trump and the GOP brought into the courtroom and real democracy is finished.

(If interested to know exactly how many people would be required to unjustly hand a battleground state to the loser, the answer is 20. This includes a U.S. district judge and jury, a majority of an appellate court, and a majority of the Supreme Court. This number drops to just eight if the district court somehow sees a bench trial, without a jury. But at most, the sanity of just 20 people stands between democracy and chaos in each state. In this election, one state, any of the battleground states, would not have been enough to seize the Electoral College, you would have needed three of them. Meaning at most five Supreme Court justices and 45 judges and jurors. In this sense, this election was far more secure than some future election that hinges on one state.)

Then on January 6, we noticed that our luck was comprised of something else. It also included 3) a military that, like our justice system, hadn’t lost its mind yet. More on that momentarily.

When January 6 arrived, and it was time for Congress to count and confirm the Electoral College votes, GOP House reps and senators indeed came together to object to electors, forcing votes from both houses of Congress on elector acceptance. Then a Trumpian mob, sizably armed, overwhelmed the police and broke into the Capitol building to “Stop the Steal,” leaving five people dead and IEDs needing disarming — another little hint at what a coup, of a very different sort, might look and feel like. Though a few Republicans changed their minds, and plans to contest other states were scrapped, 147 Republican congresspersons still voted to sustain objections to the electors of Arizona and Pennsylvania! They sought to not confirm the electoral votes of disputed states until an “election audit” was conducted. Long after the courts (59 cases lost by then), the states (some Republican), and Trump’s own government departments had said the election was free and fair, and after they saw how Trump’s lies could lead directly to deadly violence, Republicans continued playing along, encouraging the continued belief in falsities and risking further chaos. They comprised 65% of GOP House members and 15% of GOP senators. This time, fortunately, there wasn’t enough congressional support to reject electoral votes. Perhaps next time there will be — and a judicial system willing to tolerate such a travesty.

Recent times have been a true education in how a democracy can implode. It can do so without democratic processes, requiring a dear leader spewing lies, enough of the populace to believe those lies, enough of the most devout to take violent action, and military involvement or inaction. If armed supporters storm and seize the Capitol and other places of power then it doesn’t really matter what the courts say, but this only ultimately works if the military does it or acquiesces to it. While the January 6 mob included active soldiers and veterans, this had no support from the branches, instead condemnation and protective response. This was ideal, but next time we may not be so fortunate. But the end of the great experiment can also happen through democratic processes. Democratic systems can eliminate democracy. Other free nations have seen democracy legislated away just as they have seen military coups. You need a dear leader spewing lies to justify acts that would keep him in charge, enough of the populace to believe those lies, enough of the dear leader’s party to go along with those lies and acts for power reasons (holding on to branches of government), and enough judges to tolerate such lies and approve, legitimize, such acts. We can count our lucky stars we did not see the last one this time, but it was frightening to witness the first three.

Trump’s conspiracy theories about voter fraud began long before the election (laying the groundwork to question the election’s integrity, only if he lost) and continued long after. Polls suggested eight or nine of every ten Trump voters believed Biden’s victory wasn’t legitimate; about half of Republicans agreed. So many Republican politicians stayed silent or played along with Trump’s voter fraud claims, cementing distrust in the democratic process and encouraging the spread of misinformation, which, like Trump’s actions, increased political division, the potential for violence, and the odds of overturning a fair election. As with voter suppression, gerrymandering, denying justice confirmation votes, and much else, it is clear that power is more important than democracy to many Republicans. Anything to keep the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court. You can’t stand up to the Madman and the Masses. The Masses adore the Madman, and you can’t lose their votes (or, if an earnest supporter, go against your dear leader). Some politicians may even fear for their safety.

It was frightening to realize that democracy really does rest, precariously, on the truth. On human recognition of reality, on sensible standards of evidence, on reason. It’s misinformation and gullibility that can end the democratic experiment, whether by coup or democratic mechanisms.

What would happen next? First, tens of millions of Americans would celebrate. They wouldn’t be cheering the literal end of democracy, they would be cheering its salvation, because to them fraud had been overcome. So a sizable portion of the population would exist in a delusional state, completely disconnected from reality, which could mean a relatively stable system, like other countries that drifted from democracy. Perhaps the nation simply continues on, in a new form where elections are shams — opening the door to further authoritarianism. Despite much earnest sentiment toward and celebration of democracy, there is a troubling popularity of authoritarianism among Trump voters and to a lesser extent Americans as a whole. Unless the rest of the nation became completely ungovernable, whether in the form of nationwide strikes and mass civil disobedience or the actual violence that the typically hyperbolic prophets of “civil war” predict, there may be few alternatives to a nation in a new form. Considering Congress would need high Republican support to remove a president, or considering Congress would be neutered by the military, an effective governmental response seems almost impossible.

We truly witnessed an incredible moment in U.S. history. It’s one thing to read about nations going over the cliff, and another to see the cliff approaching before your very eyes. Reflecting the rise of authoritarians elsewhere in history, Trump reached the highest office using demagoguery (demonizing Mexicans and illegal immigrants, Muslims, China, the media, and other existential threats) and nationalism (promising to crush these existential threats and restore American greatness). The prejudiced masses loved it. As president his worst policies not only acted upon his demagoguery, with crackdowns on all legal immigration, Muslim immigrants, and illegal immigrants, he also consistently gave the finger to democratic and legal processes, such as ordering people to ignore subpoenas, declaring a national emergency to bypass congressional power and get his wall built, obstruction of justice (even a Republican senator voted to convict him of this), and so on. Then, at the end, Trump sought to stay in office through lies and a backstabbing of democracy, the overturning of a fair vote. And even in all this, we were extremely lucky — not only that the judicial and military systems remained strong (it was interesting to see how unelected authorities can protect democracy, highlighting the importance of some unelected power in a system of checks and balances), but that Trump was always more doofus than dictator, without much of a political ideology beyond “me, me, me.” Next time we may not be so fortunate. America didn’t go over the cliff this time, but we must work to ensure we never approach it again.

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The Toolbox of Social Change

After reading one of my books, folks who aren’t involved in social movements often ask, in private or at public talks, “What can we do?” So distraught by horrors past and present, people feel helpless and overwhelmed, and want to know how we build that better world — how does one join a social movement, exactly? I often say it’s easy to feel powerless before all the daunting obstacles — and no matter how involved you get, you typically feel you’re not doing enough. Perhaps even the most famous activists and leaders felt that way. Fortunately, I continue, if you look at history it becomes clear that social change isn’t just about one person doing a lot. It’s about countless people doing just a little bit. Howard Zinn said, “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” And he was right, as we’ve seen. Whatever challenges we face today, those who came before us faced even greater terrors — and they won, because growing numbers of ordinary people decided to act, decided to organize, to put pressure on the economically and politically powerful. I then list (some of) the tools in the toolbox of social change, which I have reproduced below so I can pass them along in written form.

The list roughly and imperfectly goes from smaller, less powerful tools to larger, more powerful ones. The first nine are largely done “together alone,” while the last nine are mostly in the realm of true organizing and collective action. Yet all are of extreme importance in building a more decent society. (It ignores, perhaps rightly, the sentiments of some comrades that there should be no participation in current electoral systems, instead favoring using all possible tools at one’s disposal.) This is in no way a comprehensive list (writing books is hopefully on this spectrum somewhere, alongside many other things), but it is enough to get the curious started.

 

Talk to people

Post on social media

Submit editorials / earn media attention

Sign petitions

Call / email / write the powerful

Donate to candidates

Donate to organizations

Vote for candidates

Vote for policy initiatives

Volunteer for candidates (phonebank / canvass / register or drive voters)

Volunteer for policy initiative campaigns (phonebank / canvass / register or drive voters)

Run for office

Join an organization

Launch a policy initiative campaign (from petition to ballot)

March / protest / picket (at a place of power)

Boycott (organized refusal to buy or participate)

Strike (organized refusal to return to work or school)

Sit-in / civil disobedience / disruption (organized, nonviolent refusal to leave a place of power, cooperate, or obey the law; acceptance of arrest)

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The Psychology of Pet Ownership

For years now, exhaustive psychological research and studies have concluded that a wealth of medical benefits exists for the individual who owns a pet. According to Abnormal Psychology (Comer, 2010), “social support of various kinds helps reduce or prevent depression. Indeed, the companionship and warmth of dogs and other pets have been found to prevent loneliness and isolation and, in turn, to help alleviate or prevent depression” (p. 260). Without companionship, people are far more likely fall into depression when life presents increased stress. An article in Natural Health summarizes the medical advantages of pet ownership by saying, “researchers have discovered that owning a pet can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol; lower triglyceride levels; lessen stress; result in fewer doctor visits; and alleviate depression” (Hynes, 2005). Additionally, Hynes explains, “Infants who live in a household with dogs are less likely to develop allergies later in life, not only to animals but also to other common allergens.”

While immune system adaptation explains allergy prevention, a pet’s gift of reducing depression is multilayered. One of the most important components is touch therapy. The physical contact of petting a cat or dog provides a calming effect, comforting the owner and fighting off stress. The New York Times reports pets “provide a socially acceptable outlet for the need for physical contact. Men have been observed to touch their pets as often and as lovingly as women do” (1982). Physical touch in infancy is vital to normal brain development, and the need for contact continues into adulthood as a way to ease tension, express love, and feel loved. 

Another aspect of this phenomenon is unconditional love. Pets can provide people with love that is difficult or sometimes impossible to find from another person. In the article Pets for Depression and Health, Alan Entin, PhD, says unconditional love explains everything. “When you are feeling down and out, the puppy just starts licking you, being with you, saying with his eyes, ‘You are the greatest.’ When an animal is giving you that kind of attention, you can’t help but respond by improving your mood and playing with it” (Doheny, 2010). Pets are often the only source of true unconditional love a man or woman can find, and the feeling of being adored improves mood and self-confidence.

Not everyone is a pet person, which is why owning a pet will not be efficacious for everyone. Indeed, people who are already so depressed they cannot even take care of themselves will not see improvements. However, those who do take on the responsibility of owning a cat, dog, or any other little creature, will see reduced depression simply because they are responsible for another living being’s life. In an article in Reader’s Digest, Dr. Yokoyama Akimitsu, head of Kyosai Tachikawa Hospital’s psychiatric unit, says pets help by “creating a feeling of being needed” (2000). This need, this calling to take care of the pet, will give the owner a sense of importance and purpose. It also provides a distraction from one’s life problems. These elements work in concert to battle depression. 

Owning a pet also results in increased exercise and social contact with people. According to Elizabeth Scott, M.S., in her 2007 article How Owning a Dog or Cat Reduces Stress, dog owners spend more time walking than non-owners in urban settings. Exercise is known to burn stress. Furthermore, Scott says, “When we’re out walking, having a dog with us can make us more approachable and give people a reason to stop and talk, thereby increasing the number of people we meet, giving us an opportunity to increase our network of friends and acquaintances, which also has great stress management benefits.” Increased exercise will also lead to an improved sense of well-being due to endorphins released in the brain, and better sleep.

Finally, owning a pet simply staves off loneliness. Scott says, “They could be the best antidote to loneliness. In fact, research shows that nursing home residents reported less loneliness when visited by dogs than when they spent time with other people” (2007). Just by being there for their owners, pets eliminate feelings of isolation and sadness. They can serve as companions and friends to anyone suffering from mild or moderate depression.

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References

Brody, J. E. (1982, August 11). Owning a Pet Can Have Therapeutic Value. In The New York Times. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/1982/08/11/garden/owning-a-pet-can-have-therapeutic-value.html?scp=1&sq=1982%20pets&st=cse

Comer, R. J.  (2010). Abnormal Psychology (7th Ed.). New York: Worth Publishers

Doheny, K. (2010, August 18). Pets for Depression and Health. In WebMD. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from http://www.webmd.com/depression/recognizing-depression-symptoms/pets-depression

Hynes, A. (2005, March). The Healing Power of Animals. In CBS Money Watch. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NAH/is_3_35/ai_n9775602/

Scott, E. (2007, November 1). How Owning a Dog or Cat Can Reduce Stress. In About.com. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from http://stress.about.com/od/lowstresslifestyle/a/petsandstress.htm

Williams, M. (2000, August). Healing Power of Pets. In Reader’s Digest. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from http://www.drmartinwilliams.com/healingpets/healingpets.html

A Religious War

The Taiping Revolution was a devastating conflict, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of people, between a growing Christian sect under Hong Xiuquan and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government. While the political forces within Hong’s “God Worshipers” wanted to solve the internal turmoil in China, and certainly influenced events, the Taiping Rebellion was a religious war. It was more the influence of the West, not the problems at home, that prompted the violence. While many revolutions had occurred before this with no Christian influence, examining the viewpoint of God’s Worshipers and the viewpoint of Qing militia leader Zeng Guofan will make it exceedingly clear that without the influence of Western religion, the Taiping Rebellion never would have occurred. 

From the point of view of Hong Xiuquan, religion was at the heart of everything he did. The origins of his faith and his individual actions immediately after his conversion explain his later choices and those of his followers during the rebellion. According to Schoppa, Hong had a vision he was vanquishing demons throughout the universe, under orders from men whom Hong later determined to be God and Jesus Christ. Hong believed that Christ was his older brother and Hong was thus “God’s Chinese son” (71). Hong studied Liang Fa’s “Good Works to Exhort the Age,” which we examined during our discussion. Liang Fa emphasized that his conversion stemmed partly from the need to be pardoned of sin and partly from a desire to do good deeds to combat evil and eradicate it from his life (Cheng, Lestz 135). Reading Liang’s writings after the life-changing vision brought Hong to Christianity. It is essential to note that, as Schoppa puts it, “In his comprehension of the vision, Hong did not immediately see any political import” (71). All Hong was concerned about at this point was faith, not the Manchu overlords. He was so impassioned he would “antagonize his community by destroying statues of gods in the local temple” (Schoppa 71). What Hong would have done with his life had he not become a Christian is impossible to say. He had repeatedly failed the civil service examination; perhaps he would have had to take up farming like his father (Schoppa 71).

Instead, he formed the God Worshipping Society. According to Schoppa, certain groups that joined declared the demons in Hong’s vision were the Manchu, and had to be vanquished (72). It was outside influences that politicized Hong’s beliefs. Yet even through the politicization one will see that at the heart of the matter is religion. The very society Hong wished to create was based on Christian ideals. Equality of men and women led to both sexes receiving equal land in Hong’s 1853 land system, the faith’s sense of community led to family units with shared treasuries, and church was required on the Sabbath day and for wedding ceremonies (Schoppa 73). Christianity brought about the outlawing of much urban vice as well, such as drinking or adultery. One might argue that behind all these Christian ideological policies were long-held Confucian beliefs. As we saw in “Qian Yong on Popular Religion,” eradicating gambling, prostitution, drugs, etc. was just as important to the elites and literati (those who have passed the examination) as it was to Hong (Cheng, Lestz 129-131). While there were heavy indeed Confucian influences on Hong’s teachings (evidenced by their Ten Commandments and the proceeding odes found in “The Crisis Within”), Schoppa makes it clear that “the Taiping Revolution was a potent threat to the traditional Chinese Confucian system” because it provided people with a personal God rather than simply the force of nature, Heaven (75). The social policies that emerged from Hong’s Christian ideals, like family units and laws governing morality led Schoppa to declare, “It is little wonder that some Chinese…might have begun to feel their cultural identity and that of China threatened by the Heavenly Kingdom” (76). The point is, Hong never would have become a leader of the God Worshippers had Western Christianity not entered his life, and even after his growing group decided to overthrow the Manchu, the system of life they were fighting for and hoping to establish was founded on Christian beliefs. Just as Hong smashed down idols in his hometown after his conversion, so everywhere the God Worshippers advanced they destroyed Confucian relics, temples, and alters (Cheng, Lestz 148). The passion of Hong became the passion of all. 

It was also the opinion of the Manchu government that this was a religious war. As the God Worshippers grew in number, Schoppa writes, “The Qing government recognized the threat as serious: A Christian cult had militarized and was now forming an army” (72). Right away, the Manchu identified this as a religious rebellion. “It was the Taiping ideology and its political, social, and economic systems making up the Taiping Revolution that posed the most serious threat to the regime” (Schoppa 73). This new threat prompted the Qing to order Zeng Guofan to create militia and destroy the Taipings. “The Crisis Within” contains his “Proclamation Against the Bandits of Guangdong and Guangxi” from 1854. Aside from calling attention to the barbarism of the rebels, Zeng writes with disgust about Christianity and its “bogus” ruler and chief ministers. He mocks their sense of brotherhood, the teachings of Christ, and the New Testament (Cheng, Lestz 147). Zeng declares, “This is not just a crisis for our [Qing] dynasty, but the most extraordinary crisis of all time for the Confucian teachings, which is why our Confucius and Mencius are weeping bitterly in the nether world.” Then, in regards to the destruction of Confucian temples and statues, Zeng proclaims that the ghosts and spirits have been insulted and want revenge, and it is imperative that the Qing government enacts it (Cheng, Lestz 148). This rhetoric is not concerning politics and government, Manchu or anti-Manchu. Zeng makes it obvious what he aims to destroy and why. He views the rebellion as an affront to Confucianism. The Christians, he believes, must be struck down. 

With the leader’s life defined by Christianity, with a rebellious sect’s social structure based heavily on Christianity, with the continued destruction of Confucian works in the name of Christianity, and with the government’s aim to crush the rebellion in the name of Confucius and Mencius, can anyone rationally argue that the Taiping Rebellion was not a religious war? A consensus should now be reached! The rebellion’s brutality and devastation is a tragedy when one considers the similar teachings of both sides of the conflict, the Confucian call for peaceful mediation of conflicts and the Christian commandment not to kill. 

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Reference List

Pei-kai Cheng and Michael Lestz, and Jonathan D. Spence, eds., The Search for Modern China, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 128-149.

R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and its Past (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 71-76.