The Pandemic and Changes in Thinking

Covid-19 has thrown a stick of ideological dynamite into my social media feeds, and I’m still looking at all the debris and trying to make sense of it. Never before have I seen, from people who I’d previously thought of, even dismissed as, liberals, so much contempt, disdain, and outright hatred for capitalism itself. I’m seeing this from the most unexpected sources. To be sure, there are plenty of comments that are relatively tame—people pointing out the importance of grocery store workers, delivery drivers and others who actually do the work that keeps society functioning. But a surprising number have taken longer steps, questioning or even attacking capitalism itself—that is, a system in which profit for a few individuals is prioritized over human lives.

And yet, for many of these people, illusions remain in the Democratic Party. To them, the fault lies entirely with Republicans, as if things would be materially different with a Democratic administration. But their own expressed opinions contradict this.

Let me make it plain: To be an office holder, Democrat, Republican, or Independent, requires swearing an oath to “uphold and defend the Constitution,” which means an oath to defend private property in the means of production, which means defending the system that is now openly proclaiming private profit of more value than human life. It matters nothing if some particular politician says, “human life is more important than profit” if that politician then supports a system that places profit over human life; that merely means that particular politician is either foolish, or (more likely), duplicitous.

And so the difference between Republicans admitting profit matters more, and Democrats claiming human lives matter more while continuing to support a system that says the opposite is, in practice, no difference at all.

The antidote for capitalist barbarism is socialism, and the path to socialism does not go through a capitalist politician who claims to be “nicer.” If a person or political party supports private property in the means of production, that puts that person, whatever rhetoric accompanies this support, on the side of Wall Street, and against those who, as more and more people are observing, are actually necessary for society to function—that is, the overwhelming mass of humanity.

Agree, or disagree. What cannot be argued is that the pandemic is causing major shifts in the thinking of millions of people, and these shifts are not inclining them to support capitalism. However much one is inundated with propaganda insisting our only way to change things is through the ballot box, and the only choices there are D or R, and thus we must accept capitalism as permanent, the experience of millions upon millions is convincing them that such a “choice” is intolerable.

Lincoln and the Coronavirus — A Parable

One of my favorites of the stories Lincoln used to tell is the one about the farmer who had a magnificent old oak of which he was terribly proud. One day, while looking at it, he saw a squirrel appear to vanish into it.  He went out to take a look, and, thanks to the squirrel, discovered the whole tree was rotten, hollow, and needed to be cut down. He said, “Damn that squirrel anyway.”

Supporters of capitalism are saying, “Damn that coronavirus anyway.”


Woody Allen: Issues and Principles

This is the sort of post that costs me vast numbers of Twitter followers, so if that’s going to happen, I want to at least see if I can express my position clearly.  I’m not going to review the case; if you want to know what it’s about, google “Woody Allen  Hachette Book Group.”

1) Presumption of innocence in the courts is the legal reflection of the principle that we need to be certain someone is guilty before inflicting punishment, that, “it is better 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished.” The principle pre-dates its legal reflection, which, in Western society, we can find in sixth Century Rome, as well as both Talmudic and Islamic law. The principle has always been fought for by the oppressed, and for good reason: it is the oppressed who are most vulnerable, and most likely to be abused both by the legal system and bourgeois public opinion. Those who want to chuck the presumption of innocence, whether in law or in the public arena,* are doing the work of the oppressors.

2. In this case, it goes beyond presumption of innocence, however, because the innocence has been demonstrated. Two separate investigations into Mr. Allen have determined there are no grounds for the accusation.

3. Those who triumphantly cry that this isn’t a legal matter never take the next obvious step: no, it is a matter of media. In other words, the case is being tried in The New York Times and The Washington Post, who are under no legal obligation to fairness. If you accept that an individual should face punishment for what appears in the Times, are you prepared to face punishment for what appears on Fox News? Maybe it would be better if we just didn’t go there.

4. One of the problems we face today is the immense power of corporate finance to determine access to information. Exerting pressure on a major capitalist institution to exercise more control—whether by demanding Facebook give itself the job of determining what is true, or by demanding publishers respond to political pressure in what they publish—is pushing in exactly the wrong direction, and the odds that this will be turned against the most easily silenced groups approach 100%. Please, think things through.

5. Even were we to presume guilty until proven innocent, and even if we ignore that the investigation showed no grounds for the accusation, by denying the individual a public platform after trying that individual by public media, you are denying the individual the opportunity to prove innocence.  If you support that, the word “justice” ought to stick in your craw.

6. And even aside from all of that, it is always the right-wing who says, “I don’t like your opinion, or what you’ve done, so I will target your career or livelihood.” On the left**, we believe every human being has the right to a career. To work to harm someone’s livelihood is both morally repugnant and tactically foolhardy, as we are a million times more vulnerable to such attacks than our enemies.   I’m sure Mr. Allen is well-to-do, and this will not damage him financially; will this be true of the next person who, after this precedent, is denied publication because of a scurrilous accusation? Will this be true of you if someone goes on the internet and claims you have done something repugnant?


*I should add that, given the media’s profound effect on jury pools (see the history of racism in the US), these are not as completely separate as I’m making them sound.

** This has caused some confusion. To clarify, I’m talking about what is traditional on the left, not the current crop of pseudo-left posers, who I have a lot of trouble considering leftists.

Selections from an Historian’s Diary

Nov 22: Talked to Bob today, and, wouldn’t you know it, he brought up that goddamn 1619 thing again. It’s all anyone wants to talk about. No, I will NOT commit career suicide. Let the rest of them fight it out.

Nov 30: Christmas party at Christine’s. Guess what EVERYONE WANTS ME TO WRITE ABOUT????  Maybe I’ll move to Tibet and become a monk.

Dec 2: Talked to my mother today. Guess what SHE had on her mind? Et Tu, mater? You’d think she, at least, would understand. If I attack the 1619 Project, the internet falls on my head, we probably lose funding, and the University puts me on the Volleyball Recruitment Committee forever.  If I defend the project, I lose all credibility as an historian.

Dec 5: Okay, no, I can do this. I’m the editor of a renowned historical journal. I’ve got mad skills.  I just need a kind of flippant, “what’s all the fuss about?” attitude, shade a few things, make a few implications.  I mean, it isn’t ignoring history, right? It’s emphasizing other things in history. Like, I’m not denying the Abolition movement existed, I just don’t happen to be talking about it in this case. Yeah.  And, oh!  I’ll make it all about me.  I’ll talk about my feelings!  The neolibs love it when people talk about their feelings, and the Trotskyists are going to hate me anyway.

Dec 8: I need to hit just the right tone on the title.  It has to be dismissive, like, “Oh, here’s this big kerfuffle about nothing,” but I can’t actually, you know, say that.

Dec 10: Started on the editorial, and it’s going all right. I gotta kinda pat myself on the back for the New York memorial bit. The neolibs will take it as saying, “see, no one in the North cared about slavery!” and people who know history can’t argue, because, hey, all I’m doing is stating what’s on the memorial. Damn I’m good.

Dec 13: Back to the editorial again. Ugh. I wonder if I can get away with pretending that the Project is saying things everyone already knew? Can I count on no one examining that too closely? Because that would make everything easier. Gonna take a shot at it.  Worst case, well, hey, I got tenure.

Jan 3: Brainstorm! If I just ignore Reed, I can say the WSWS only interviewed white people!  Now if that isn’t scoring points, what is? I just need to find a respected black historian—a black woman would be best—who they haven’t interviewed, and I can imply they didn’t ask her.  Fields will work.

Jan 4: This business of sounding like you’re saying something without actually saying anything isn’t easy at first, but it’s coming along.  Phrases like, “central to the experience of” are really useful, because what does that actually mean, right?

Jan 5: Trying to the do the summary of the WSWS position, and it’s a pain the you-know-what. If I get it wrong, I discredit myself, but if I don’t hit the right condescending tone, I’ll piss off the neolibs. And all the world knows what happens to an academic who pisses off the neolibs.

Jan 6: I have to admit I feel kinda bad about taking that cheap shot at Wood. But omelet, eggs.

Jan 7: OH! I’m going to say I’m befuddled.  Wait,  baffled?  Something like that.  Anyway, gonna say I don’t understand why there’s all the hostility to the Project! Ha ha! That way I can say it’s reasonable history without actually lying! Well, only lying a little bit.

Jan 8: Almost done.  All I need is a quote from Fredrick Douglass that implies Lincoln was a racist, and I’m there. Should be easy enough to find.

Jan 9: Dammit.

Jan 10: Dammit.

Jan 11:Well God DAMMIT.

Jan 12: What the?

Jan 13: Jesus, Fred. Help a guy out, will you?

Jan 14: BINGO.  Snip away the context, and I’ve got it! Ready for press!

Jan 16: Dammit, they interviewed another black historian. Why are they doing this to me? Well, never mind.  What’s done is done.

Jan 23: Welp, here we go.

Jan 31: WSWS responded. Currently, tickets to Tibet are running around around $1200.  I can do that.

Criticizing the Critics

Back in the early 50s, when fear of Communism was becoming pathological among broad layers of the middle class intelligentsia, science fiction was flooded with stories about the evils of group minds, or hive minds.  Theodore Sturgeon had a response to this: it is called More Than Human and it is a brilliant work that is a delight as a story, fascinating in its examination of what it means to be human, and insightful in its response to the then-present paranoia.

Art exists for many purposes, and does many things. At the simplest level, it can give us a brain relaxation, the way a few minutes of rest can relax our bodies. At its most profound level, it can reveal to us important aspects of how life works, of what it means to be human.  It can do none of those things when social pressure or puritanical moral outrage is permitted to decide who can say what.

Anyone who reads any story is free to express an opinion about it, and its moral or political aspect is at least as important and worth discussing as its craft.  Where I have a problem is with the deep, profound sense of entitlement that accompanies certain forms and subjects of criticism, that carry the implication, “you must hear me.”

Let us be clear: If you are saying, “You shouldn’t create art that hurts me,” you are, for all practical purposes, saying, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt me” which is but to say, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt someone who is vulnerable,” which, given that nearly everyone is vulnerable in some way, becomes, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt someone,” which in turn, reduces itself to, “You shouldn’t create art that deals with more than trivialities.”

No, I am not exaggerating.   Based on five years of teaching at Viable Paradise writers workshop, and considerably more years helping to run craft-oriented conventions, I can testify that we live in an era in which a great deal of what defines writers—especially new writers—is fear.  “What if someone says I shouldn’t have written about that kind of character?  What if someone says I should have written about that kind of character?  What if someone says I wrote about that sort of character in an objectionable way?”  We have learned—we have had it amply demonstrated—that anyone who is determined enough to take offense can claim the moral high ground and generate enough internet outrage to crush the spirit of new writers, and in the process keep many in a state of terror lest they be the next victim.  It should be obvious that the newer and more insecure the writer is, the greater effect this fear will have.

Even state-sponsored censorship by overt tyrannies rarely creates the sort of terror that the threat of the Internet Outrage Machine does.  It is utterly toxic and destructive to art.

So, then, what is the answer?  One cannot say, “You have no right to express your opinion of someone’s work if it might hurt the writers’ feelings.”  In the long run, that is also destructive; criticism is a part of how we struggle to find our way from craft to art.

I don’t have an answer, I can only make a few points: first, when the Internet Outrage Machine is gearing up, stay out; if you’re part of the mob, you’re helping to make things worse.  Second, insist on, demand the right of the artist to create freely, and without fear, especially if the creation is something you object to. Third, remember that criticizing a work of fiction based on its failures of technique, or on what you consider its moral or political failings, are identical in the sense that under no circumstances, whoever you are, do you have a special right to insist your voice be heard, especially by the author.  Last, if the substance if your criticism is, “A story shouldn’t say such things,” then we will all be better served by you working to write something that enters into a dialog with it; “a story shouldn’t say such things” should sound a warning tocsin in your head.