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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

America's Golgotha

I've been meditating the opening in Montgomery, Alabama of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice otherwise known as the Lynch Museum. Bernie and I are resolved to make a pilgrimage to what I feel is America's Golgotha Shrine.

Here are 4,308 stories of black men, women, and children tortured and hung. Stories that affect thousands more of their friends, neighbors, relatives, and descendants. And hundreds of thousands of white people and their descendants up to this very day.

The myth is that the white people who perpetrated these acts were ignorant, red necked, white trash. But the truth is that whole towns would participate in the burnings, torture, and hangings including the mayors, the bankers, businessmen, the educated elite with their wives and children. Most were church-going, born-again Christians as were the black victims of their sadism.

I meditate on the cruelty in my race that makes this possible. I do not mean the white, Aryan, or Nordic race for those are just fictions of a pre-historic, pre-scientific white-supremacist imagination. I mean the human race. I mean us, me.

There are lots of theories. Some are rooted in religious doctrines of evil--original sin, fallen angels, Satan, Pandora's Box, hubris against the gods, the absence of the sacred. Some explanations are from science: genetic struggle for life, the formation of tribes with fear of strangers, competition for mates and territory, dread of the unknown. Black people and their liberation were considered a threat to a very insecure white population who desired to keep their dominance by keeping black people "in their place." But does this explain the hatred and the cruelty? Of slavery, torture, and genocide.

Many of our contemporaries want to avoid the questions that the memorial experience raises. Let "sleeping dogs lie." they say. Bringing all this up will just cause more resentment by revealing the resentment that is already there. Let's just learn to get along.

The role of Christianity and religion in general is on trial in the memorial. Religion in its summit is in the golden rule of compassion, the teaching of the universality of humankind, the understanding that all humanity has a common source that bestows dignity on every person. The prophets and luminaries of all the great religions taught this, including Jesus of Nazareth. But those who proclaimed him the Christ and Son of God, e.g. the Christians, were perpetrators of Jim Crow and lynching.

Christianity has been a rationalization for horrendous acts against humanity both by its celebration of victimhood and by its doctrine of forgiveness and reconciliation. It makes Jesus, its priest, prophet, and king, the exemplar of acceptance of the passive role of Victim in order to provide forgiveness to the perpetrators of gross injustice. "Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do!" The drama is between an angry Father Yahweh and an equal-in-power Son who can be sacrificed to appease God. This interpretation, based in metaphysics, came later as Christianity was becoming Christendom replacing Roman domination to sustain the new order.

Relying on documents of the times, historians conjecture that Jesus was killed at the delicate time of the Jewish Passover that celebrated the liberation of slaves from Egypt. Roman soldiers crucified hundreds of dissidents who broke the rules of Rome and littered the road with hung bodies in order to confirm the rule of the Romans and their patronized priests. Jesus hung with the multitudes of criminals who were left to be stripped and eaten by animals as a warning to others. 

Early followers of Jesus using the symbols of their culture considered him a messenger from the God who had led the ancient Israelites from the hands of Pharaoh and made him a god in competition to the god, Caesar. The early gatherings would make him present by reciting memories that were as they broke bread together. In their story, they placed his death with others on the hill of Golgotha, a shrine to his death and resurrection.

Only later would the doctrine of the Triune God make Jesus into a supernatural entity in a supernatural place. A myth embracing numerous superstitions that would vindicate Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire with its hierarchical patronage system. This marked the passage of Christianity into Christendom from which it would never recover except in small renewal moments.

My account is considered heresy today. In medieval times, I would be anathematized or rejected from the official Church and turned over to the Inquisition for correction, punishment, or death. I reject the Christianity that has become Christendom, that protects and even rationalizes the practice of torture and murder of those who critique and thus threaten the established way of life, thinking, and behavior. As were those black men and women, tortured and murdered, because they were seen as thinking and acting in ways, that threated dominant white morality.

I reject Christianity as thought and practiced by triumphalist Catholics, Protestant fundamentalists, and Christian evangelicals who have embraced white supremacy, American exceptionalism, and narrow nationalism. I reject any religion that accepts itself above criticism, as ultimate word, and promoting peace and stability without equity and power. 

Although I reject Christianity, I remain a companion of Jesus before they anointed him as a god. I stand with him who is elevated with all who were lynched. Our pilgrimage to the American Golgotha in Montgomery will be our way to remember the thousands of victims, perpetrators, and descendants who sanctify this land in the hopes for a resurrection of equity, justice, and power for our human race

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Liberalism and Loneliness

Two articles: one from the Times, another from the Post give me some insight into our situation.

One describes the failure of the liberal mind stemming from Hobbes and Locke through Jefferson and Madison through which we have put individual life, liberty, and happiness over public life, liberty, and happiness. This according to the author explains why the US is highest among nations on the unhappiness, suicide, pain, and loneliness scales for which she cites many individual studies. This article had me return to Reisman's 1950s study of The Lonely Crowd.

The other describes the Hungary, Poland, and US turn to authoritarian leaders who champion nationalism, religious purity, single party control, true doctrine and who create enemies of the "other" and disdain the cosmopolitan tendency of a United Europe, the United Nations, and inclusive immigration policy.  These leaders have seen that free market national capitalism is not necessarily linked to liberal democracy and find it more advantageous to adopt the former over the latter.

And so liberalism is under fire. Libertarians find no home in a political party that wants to achieve national unity through cultural identity. Democratic republicans find no home in a political party that wants to achieve global order and stability through economic growth.

Liberalism on the right advances the free market but often neglects the market's control by oligarchs and plutocrats. Liberalism on the left advances the dignity and rights of every person but often neglects the corresponding responsibility of every person to the good of the whole. The Liberal (GHW Bush's L-word) becomes the enemy of both right and left.

But perhaps liberalism's enemy is itself when it does not recognize it's limits. Free markets and free beliefs can only be achieved within boundaries, that is, in spaces of freedom, i.e. public space, defined by citizens. Politics, through which people engage in speech and action, set the boundaries of both the economy and culture, regulating the economic and cultural institutions so that no one is denied the means of livelihood, no one is harmed by intolerance, and everyone is part of the action.

Setting those boundaries is tricky business. While people may choose to opt in or out of the race for personal and family wealth and while people may choose whom they love, worship, believe, citizens can not opt out of the responsibility to determine and shape their public space. For that is the essence of citizenship. It is also the essence of freedom and power. It cannot be handed over to a CEO, a salesman, or a fixer.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Depression 2018

Il pleure dans mon cœur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon cœur ?

            --Paul Verlaine 1844-1896

In my translations, I find the poet connecting the rain over the city to the gloom he feels in his soul and wondering what it is, where it comes from, and why. He links the spirit of his body with the spirit of the polis.  The personal soul and the public soul.

It rains in my heart
As it rains o’er the town
What is this melancholy
That pierces my heart

Clouds over the city
Mirror the gloom in my soul.
Whence comes this self-pity,
That infects humanity whole.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why its politics, not the economy, Stupid!

What makes the Great American Depression of 2017 political?

I contend that our present national depression is political, rather than economic or cultural or individual, because this depression results from the depletion of public space. Individuals, even groups of them, religions and other cultural phenomena, and the neoliberal capitalist economy may persist and, for some, thrive. Many of us attain private happiness, e.g. pleasure through the Sirens' songs or the odors of the lotus fields, but we do not have public happiness, which includes a sense of engagement and meaning in relation to a higher power beyond our individual satisfaction. 


Positive psychologist Martin Seligman claims that there are three levels of happiness: 1) Pleasure—the “feel good for now” happiness of consumption represented by wealth, sex, health, fun, food and drink (measured by amount of money).  2) Engagement with others, friendship, relationships, and approval of others. 3)Meaning— experience of having purpose which is the sense of being in touch or aligned with a higher power. He is drawing upon Abraham Mazlow’s hierarchy of human needs which starts from what is necessary to sustain life and is completed in “self-actualization,” the fulfillment of the full potential of the person

This is an insightful tool and model for positive psychologists to employ when treating individuals struck with the mental illness of debilitating sadness or clinical depression, an illness that is spreading geometrically like a contagion in modern society. But this diagnosis misses an important distinction that underlies a fundamental dimension in human existence.  That distinction is “public” and “private.” 

Private happiness takes place in the household (or “economy” in classical Greek). The economy is the realm of production and consumption with pleasure measured by the accumulation of wealth. The engagement with others occurs and is defined by levels of authority or class. Its meaning is expressed in a culture that values individual achievement of wealth through tribal religions with household gods and through an education that fosters the rise from poorer, more dependent classes to wealthier, more dominant classes.   

Hannah Arendt maintains that the “pursuit of happiness” in Jefferson's Declaration means public, over private, happiness. Its pleasure comes not from consumption of material goods, but from achievement of public good. Public happiness happens in the engagement with others as equals in creating publics and extending the public realm. It enjoys the meaning discovered and constructed through the free inquiry, speech, and action of engaged citizens.  

We live and act in space-time. Some very learned scientists and philosophers would argue that both space and time are constructions of the human organism’s interaction with its environment. That is, they are products of our existence in the universe. There is in human being a tension that is time—the before and the-yet-to-come in the experience of being now. And there is in human being a tension that is space—the back-there and the over-there experience of being here.

And there is a tension between space and time in which the human journey from past to future is both private and public. There is no private without public. No privacy without publicity. And vice versa. Notice how the lessening of the democratic commons is also a lessening of privacy through autocracy. 

There are two dimensions of human being. Two sides of the proverbial coin of the realm. The private realm of living (economy) and the public realm of action (politics). Liberty, the absence of the necessity to be occupied in pursuit of life’s needs in the private realm is one thing. Freedom, the capacity to participate fully in the creation of public space is something else. Liberty is freedom from. Freedom is liberty for

The liberty to pursue private happiness has temporal primacy as does biological life. It comes first in time. Freedom for public happiness through action is first in space. Freedom has primacy ontololgically, i.e. in order of importance for us as human beings. The private realm is the place of power over. The public realm is the place of power with

There is both biography and history; and they are interconnected. My journey from life to death is a part of the story of the community, the nation, and the universe. 

I personally cannot be totally free until all my fellow travelers are free. My worth is deeply connected to the worth of humankind. My personal peace requires social justice.

All this is saying that private happiness can never be achieved fully unless there is public happiness. 

My sense of helplessness, unworthiness, ennui, insignificance is interdependent with others. My private personal happiness requires public interpersonal happiness. 

Life and the fulfilment of its needs, liberty to engage with others voluntarily, and the pursuit of public happiness in freedom. These are our rights and responsibilities in being human.

To overcome our political depression requires a reckoning with our social habits or institutions that pull us down. Especially the disorder that makes private happiness measured by individual wealth the goal of our social order and the measure of its success. This is the disorder of subjecting politics to economy, of making our community and its governance dependent on private prosperity which in the America today is the domination and destruction of democracy by neoliberal economics or American capitalism.

The confusion between liberty (free from) and freedom (free for) explains the new anti-democrats who have arisen today. For they teach that, when decisions are made, and the social order is constructed democratically, people will be bound by limits and regulations and so lack liberty. But democracy is exactly that space where all persons shape the social order to limit liberty. For it is only within limits that all can be equal and free. Even the commons, the space of freedom, the public has boundaries without which there is no freedom. A free state is also a rule of law. 

Liberty for autocrats, usually the rich and would-be rich, abounds in a social order dominated by a liberal economy, i.e. a plutocracy. Freedom abounds in a social order governed by all who see each other as equals with dignity by nature rather than by race, religion, status, or class. That is a democratic republic.

How can we enjoy both liberty and freedom in our situation in America today?  How can we reclaim democracy and resist autocracy? Those are the same questions. 

To cure our political depression, we accept that democracy is threatened. Rich persons and large corporations reign and sell their agenda to us the public who are being reduced to individual consumers. According to the rulers, the measure of success is the quantity of production and consumption, the worth of the dollar and of stocks, and the ability to force this agenda on the rest of the world. We confront the plutocrats who engage in economic and cultural wars to distract us from our political depression.

To cure our political depression, we acknowledge our responsibility for this situation. We realize that we in concert have the power to change this. To change our addiction to wealth, we rely on our higher power which is the assembly of free citizens in an open and just society. We resist the plutocratic, anti-democratic forces of the Republic for which we stand. We renew and reassert our democratic principles and institutions.  As Jefferson advised, democratic rebellion is the responsibility of each generation. 


Finally, to answer the culturalists (Bell, Marcuse,DuPuy) who have correctly probed the absence of the sacred and the permanence of values in a one-dimensional consumer society shaped by capitalism, we can reaffirm the sacred not in private devotion to some god in the sky, but in the restoration of public space, the place of power and freedom, where persons in concert, assuming each other’s dignity and equality, act together to progressively transcend the limits of knowledge and freedom for all.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

One of the signs of the American depression is the opioid epidemic. Just read the most insightful article "The Poison We Pick” by Andrew Sullivan in the New York Magazine. “Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many. Until we resolve these deeper social, cultural, and psychological problems, until we discover a new meaning or reimagine our old religion or reinvent our way of life, the poppy will flourish.”

He refers to sociologist Daniel Bell’s 32-year-old book 32, “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism,” where he teaches that the American culture is now well adapted to the principles and goals of the American economy: the mastering of nature, the accumulation of wealth, unlimited growth, and the commodification of producers and consumers. The American culture spreading throughout the world has become one-dimensional without a sense of the sacred.  Bell was in sync with Marcuse and Adorno of the Frankfurt School describing the loss of permanent values that causes the ennui and angst of a “post-industrial society.”

Bell, reaching back to the first sociologist Max Weber, identified the three major components of society: culture, economy, and politics and then attributed the woes of modern society to the “disjunction” among them. For Bell a diseased culture adapting to capitalism and lacking an enduring belief was the chief culprit. He named this culture, as did many others, “modernism” or, in its advanced form, “post-modernism.”  This culture was marked by the triumph of the rational over faith, the secular over the sacred, the material of the spiritual.  In modern art, religion, philosophy, and even science—all constituents of modern culture—anything goes.  All things are permitted as long as they are accepted by the masses.  That is, as long as they sell.

I certainly agree with much of what Bell and the Frankfurt philosophers were describing and even prescribing. I also think it is important to understand the distinction and relationships among culture, economy, and politics.  However, I disagree with the primacy he places on culture.  Bell describes himself as a cultural conservative, an economic socialist, and a political liberal.  I describe myself as a cultural liberal or even libertarian, an economic socialist, and a political conservative in the democratic republican tradition. While Bell would attempt to preserve cultural ideas and institutions, I want them all challenged and transcended.  However, in politics, especially now, I devote myself to the conserving of democratic republican ideas and institutions.