Atheo-Scientism at Twenty

The Atheo-Scientific Argument

Science is the only way to know anything about the world, or flipped, what we can reliably know about the world is made possible through science.

It is hard to quarrel with that. If you define the world as the quantum of what we see and experience around us, then the information we receive and process is best understood using a scientific model which depends on observation, tests, corroboration of evidence, and conclusions based on experimental outcomes. The scientific revolution that began just before the 18th century and continues in our time is the greatest cultural revolution since Neolithic times.

But problems rush in to drown our enthusiasm. Even if I mean by “science” the amalgam of natural, physical and theoretical disciplines that describe and predict the way nature works, how things behave, how life was formed and how it exists, I am still fifty-cents short of describing the totality of how human beings experience the world. That is because radical empiricists and scientific naturalists often fail to acknowledge a reality beyond the testable reality of the physical sciences. They do this for the best of reasons, being suspicious that free-range imaginary worlds–like the worlds and heavens religion created in the ancient period–distract people from understanding the models of the world and cosmic origins that science has described in the last century.

There is no doubt that the naturalist position towards stubbornly ignorant “world views” that are rooted in mythology and religious legend is justified. But it is not a legitimate step from that concern to the conclusion that the physical world provides the sum total of reality that human beings experience in their lives, or that a meaningful life could be lived if it were limited to that knowledge alone.


Part of the problem is that “the world” does not mean the same thing for scientists and – let’s say – philosophers, historians, or poets. And it may mean something still different for cosmologists and theologians. I am not saying that these worlds inhabit or possess the same reality; I am simply saying that the use of the word “world” to mean only the physical world, which we regard as coterminous with experience, is only one possible meaning of the term. If one begins with the assumption that the physical world “specifies” the meaning of the term it would be permissible to conclude that anyone who possesses special knowledge of this world is in a privileged position compared to those who do not possess such knowledge. That, in essence, is the position of atheo-scientism—or to use the more familiar name, scientific naturalism. Scientists are the priests and wizards of the modern period, presiding over the disenchantment and demystification of the cosmos.

This is not a small thing to mention. The given world, the world we experience as physical reality, is to a certain extent taken for granted by human beings–“like the air we breathe”. It is the job of scientists to explain it to us and help us to understand it for ourselves. When a scientist says (as Krauss often does) he is an “empiricist” he means that the experienced–or to use a 18th century formulation– experimental world–is the only world he recognizes as giving us knowledge. Thus by a simple solipsism a world that doesn’t give us knowledge could not exist. A good place to begin defining world then is with the question whether or what kind of knowledge it provides.

In fact, the physical world does not give us theorems or laws: those things derive ultimately from the same rational mechanism that permits us to interpret any kind of experience, from smelling gardenias to fighting a war. The physical world is the world that makes physical existence possible, sustainable. It neither explains that existence nor requires the laws we impose on it for its interpretation. In fact until the last three hundred years we survived with very little understanding of the physical world. The understanding we have come to possess is the product of observation, experience, and imagination. The biological and physical sciences are human constructs that arise from the human need for explanation: they are not the physical reality itself.

It has been a common mistake of scientific naturalists to think that the physical reality which science describes is superior to any other form of knowledge or, indeed, excludes other forms of knowledge, by conflating the reality with its description. In philosophical terms, it holds that a scientific description of a phenomenon explains all we can meaningfully say about it. Naturalism is to the physical world what pantheism is to religion: it objectifies knowledge in the elements of inquiry so that knowledge itself becomes merely the explication or amplification of physical observation.

Naturalism says that what we know about this world is limited to the evidence of what we can see and test. “We” in this case means human beings who are uniquely equipped to solve complex problems and reach conclusions based on evidence–which may be physical– and inference, which must be logical–the faculty which since ancient times has been referred to as “reason”. The operations of this faculty can be observed in its effects, but reason itself is a metaphysical construct, not a physical one. That is to say it is not the sum total of functioning brains applying themselves to problems. As Kurt Koffka once said of the Gestalt, The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The whole is other than the sum of its parts.

Despite our physical and genetic resemblance to other animals, only human beings have a certain conscious control over the physical world through the use of reason (including language and abstract representational systems) and methods and products that derive from it—like computers. We build dams; we put out fires (and cause them), we know when to evacuate an island ahead of a typhoon and how to annihilate cities with nuclear weapons. But if this is so, then we have moved a step beyond the raw world of experience (the world, in a sense, happening to us) to a meta-world of interpretation and explanation which exists intellectually but not physically: us happening to the world. The act of explanation creates a different world of causes and effects and origins (and postulation) which is unique to our species.


We can at least imagine ourselves to transcend this world because we can understand and manipulate it. We can even associate knowledge and understanding of it with mastery and control. We can imagine a being who transcends it and created it, primarily because we have never encountered “being” that is not in some sense, conditional, contingent, or caused. Even the universe, which is physically vastly greater than us. can be conceptually transcended, if in fact we are not limited to defining reality to the physical universe. Augustine, the Christian mystics, Descartes, Einstein, and Planck have all done this, in different ways for different reasons. Religion is only the primitive form of the assertion of transcendence through postulating a being (God) or beings (avatars) and processes (karmic or apocalyptic cycles) that explain the universe.

Religion is the source of our idea of being, eternity, and infinity, though none of these things is purely physical or has ever been tested, and can only therefore exist conceptually. As an explanation of the physical world religion, in the broad sense of the term, commonly resorts to myth, symbol and ritual—to the irrational—rather than to description.

From the naturalistic standpoint, religion has nothing to say about the natural world that would constitute “knowledge.”


Limiting the definition of “world” to the physical reality we experience is a form of reductionism, and the kind of scientific naturalism that Krauss and the atheo-scientists subscribe to is reductivist: it claims a kind of epistemological sovereignty over knowledge because it limits knowledge to its definition of the world.

But not all knowledge is knowledge of the physical word. There are serious and fatal problems in assuming that it is, as not only artists and philosophers might rush in to say, but even theoretical physicists who don’t share Krauss’s naïve understanding of what counts for knowledge. The worlds of poets, mathematicians, artists, architects, economists, musicians, philosophers and religious people are also unique to our species. The products of culture they generate are not necessarily physical, yet they constitute a crucial part of human experience, not merely an extension of the physical world. A musical composition, a design for a bridge or museum, a mathematical theorem, and a new model for cosmic beginnings can be instantiated on paper and in space, but their physical reality is (to use Aristotle’s’ language) accidental to what they are essentially, substantially. Substantially their form exists in human imagination and intelligence, where most of what we see around us in daily life (that isn’t rooted in the earth or forming its boundaries and mountains) exists. The physical world as described by the laws of physics and chemistry does not account for these extended worlds, nor are they necessitated by it. They are the products and expressions and preservers of human knowledge which tradition calls “civilization.”

Et Invisibilium

There are a great many things that we know that we cannot see or test. In medieval logic, this division was thought to exist as a division between “truths” or principles which were known a posteriori (by accumulation of experimental evidence) or a priori, known by reason, as for example the truths and axioms of mathematics. Mathematics was never seen as being a branch of knowledge because it allowed you to measure for living room curtains or calculate the distance to the sun, but because it could be used to express relationships and model between physical realities and abstract or imaginary ones, just as language permitted us to speak in ever more specific ways about existential, social and psychological realities. It is one of the most cloying issues for the naturalists to acknowledge that mathematics, the indispensable language of science, is not based on empirical but, as John von Neumann argues, intellectual and even aesthetic models.

These thought worlds were not physical, but they were nonetheless real. And even a physiological model of how they are constructed does not make them real in the sense the physical world is real to us. For one thing, the physical world expresses itself more or less univocally (in constants) to every person. Other worlds present themselves in various ways to groups or even individuals, while the general public may never experience them at all. The world of Quantum physics and cosmology in fact is that kind of world, despite the claim that it is rooted in empirics. As George Ellis has commented, “Amazing fine tuning occurs in the laws that make this [complexity] possible. Realization of the complexity of what is accomplished makes it very difficult not to use the word ‘miraculous’ without taking a stand as to the ontological status of the word.”

To put it slightly differently, science is unsurpassed in its ability to explain the elements and operations of the external world. But even with advances in neuroscience and the relegation of certain debates (mind-body dualism for example) to the attic of metaphysics, science has no special role to play in describing thought worlds and non-empirical reality. Moreover, we need thought worlds to exist. It is where Einstein and Bach and Shakespeare lived; indeed, many scientists live there as well. Except for the tautology, “Culture is what people make,” there is no unitary explanation for why we make it, just as in religion there is no explanation for why God makes the world and why in quantum physics there is no (convincing) reason, absent an eccentric definition of nothing, as to why there should be something.

There is nothing in our experience of the world to suggest that the physical world is the terminus of our experience and cognition. In fact, the progress of science itself will likely render scientific naturalism and its reductive tendencies obsolete. To develop a complete model of the way in which human beings experience and interpret the world, naturalists must reject the twentieth century model that science is the world explaining itself to us in a special language. The model itself eerily echoes the one promoted by Egyptian and Canaanite priests in the 1st millennium BCE. Instead, they must look more closely at extended worlds, imagined worlds, and non-physical reality which have provided both knowledge and meaning necessary for human and cultural survival and progress. We have really just begun to explore these worlds and do not possess a sufficient calculus or language for the study, but as learning progresses, the fate of the atheo-scientist, secure on his island of experimental knowledge, is unclear.


The existence of imagined worlds is not the same as the existence of imaginary worlds or virtual worlds: since the time of the ancients, it has been possible to construct utopias and dystopias, heavens and hells (their religious equivalents), to furnish and populate them and give them laws and geography.

Plato’s Atlantis—a fiction from the start–was the model for More’s Utopia; Vergil’s underworld, through Dante’s use of its architecture, becomes one of half a dozen models of the mediaeval Christian hell. The Christian heaven is more elusive; but the Islamic paradise is described in fulsome detail both in the Qur’an and in other writings, like that of al-Bukhari, and ultimately derives from pre-Islamic poetry and cults like the Sabaens.

These imaginary worlds are fantasies, strategies and illusions. Their “reality” is limited to the psychological context in which they occur. They are not objects of knowledge but products of religious tradition, much of it inconsistent. No reasonable person, religious or otherwise, should have any issue with a naturalist critique of imaginary worlds. They are clear examples of projected wishes, dreams and desires usually clumsily configured in terms of mansions, opulence, gold, and sexual delight—or the deprivation of these things in a place of everlasting suffering.

“… there will be there all that the souls could desire, all that the eyes could delight in …” (Quran 43:71)
“Eat and drink at ease for that which you have sent forth (good deeds) in days past!” (Quran 69:24)
“… They will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they will wear green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade. They will recline therein on raised thrones. How good [is] the recompense! How beautiful a couch [is there] to recline on!” (Quran 18:31)

“They will never fall ill, blow their noses or spit.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

It wasn’t too long before philosophers caught on to the fact that the human imagination unconstrained by reality is capable of producing visions on demand. Coincidentally, though the history of Renaissance art may seem to belie this, not much was added to the theological description of Hell and Heaven after the Middle Ages, and it was the raw physicality, the this-worldliness, of these doctrines that made belief in reward and punishment a growing embarrassment for the Church after the sixteenth century. The more we know about consciousness and cognitive states, the more we know why this is true. Wishful thinking can create Wonderland, life on Mars, parallel universes, and the Islamic Paradise. Without the ability to we would be limited to the reality presented to us by the physical world—a world in which we see suffering, destruction, and our own death.

Moreover, some imaginary worlds are cosmologies while others are not. The Genesis story is not a cosmology, except in the minds of Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. Formally, it is an etiological myth about creation that was probably sung by Hebrew priests once a year to celebrate the winter solstice, the end and new beginning of the primitive astronomical year. It is not a story about “heaven” as a dwelling place of God because in the story god pre-exists it and makes it. It is an early, ritualized account of physical beginning that is scientifically wrong but historically interesting.

Moreover, in most ancient Near Eastern religions, heaven and hell do not exist as eternal abodes: the ancient Hebrews did not regard either immortality or heaven as appropriate fates for mortals—only the gods, or God, were fit to possess eternal life.

In fact, one of the characteristics of mythological expressions of religious ideas is that they are normally fluctuating, inconsistent, and even contradictory over time.

Atheo-scientists have habitually ignored the rich store of information made available in the last two centuries from the historical study of religion in favor of a trivial focus on what modern believers believe. This fact has made it embarrassingly easy for them to attack a kind of religious straw man concocted of their own assumptions about what religion is, what “typical” religious people believe, and what forms of irrational behavior religious books and doctrines drive people to.

This war between atheo-science and yahoo religion is made possible because both sides adhere to literal interpretations of ancient texts and their mythical view of the world, the believer putting his physically specific non-existent world into competition with the existing physical world as though both were plausible descriptions of reality: the result is the twin ignorance and parallel literalism of the uninformed believer and the unknowledgeable “scientific” observer. This is especially true when the atheo-scientists join other atheists in lampooning the contents of a 2500 year old religious anthology for its “violent” content, on the assumption that the generality of modern believers follow its rules and believe its stories at face value. In its present deadlocked state, and with the foremost atheo-scientists saying they have nothing to learn from the study of history, philosophy and theology, the entire controversy is little more than a slanging match performed on a wobbly stage of badly constructed premises.

The medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury, replying to a minor empiricist named Guanilo of Marmoutiers, asks his readers to distinguish between a “perfect desert island” we know by report and one that exists only in the mind. For him, true knowledge consists of something existing not merely in the mind, but in the mind as well as in reality and given the weird contours of medieval philosophy an island which exists only by report or in the mind is less “perfect” than one which exists in reality. God (he argues) cannot be thought not to exist (a) because it is the greatest being that can be thought to exist (unlike a paradise island), and (b) any lesser not-necessarily existing thing would be contingent for its existence on a previous necessarily existing being. Anselm’s arguments have been fodder for undergraduate philosophy and theology for almost a millennium but the key thing is that he regards existence as a kind of “perfection” added to something which can simply be conceived or imagined in the mind. For an empiricist like Guanilo a thing that can be conceived but does not exist is not in any sense “knowledge” because (physical) reality provides the control for truth. For Anselm, working on an ancient stoic principle, a thing exists in the mind before it exists in reality, a phenomenon the stoics associated with idea of logos: the unspoken or thought word (logos endiathetos) and the expressed word that exists as a sentence or piece of writing, a theory, a museum, (logos prophorikos). In the extended world, something must always exist in the mind in an unexpressed way before it exists in a real way. The child is father of the man; in the beginning was the word.

Without becoming overly technical, it is this important ancient critique of empiricism that modern naturalist scientists like Krauss and Dawkins and their followers have simply lost, have never encountered—or don’t understand. If it is true that the physical world is the font of all that counts for knowledge then anyone who understands that world and the languages through which is mysteries are communicated “knows” more than someone who doesn’t. And clearly, someone who spends his time lost in the imaginary worlds of religious fantasy—in Heaven or Valhalla or Armageddon—is farthest away from knowledge.

But as we have seen, the physical world is simply the launching pad for other worlds of knowledge that constitute essential components of human experience, providing  pleasure, meaning and value extensive of the natural world, imagined worlds, and internal worlds. The study and apprehension of these worlds is at least as important as a solid knowledge of the physical and biological sciences,.

In a variety of unguarded moments Krauss has said “What contribution to knowledge has Philosophy made in the last 500 years?” Dawkins is famous for saying that theology is an empty box and has no business being studied as an academic discipline. In a hundred venues in universities and colleges they have repeated this absurdity in front of impressionable audiences of undergraduates who have come to hear a serious discussion of why science trumps religion.

It is almost impossible to know where to begin answering throwaway lines contrived to be brave and unarguable but brimming with the same level of anti-intellectual incuriosity that characterizes regressive religious thought.

The easiest way to answer the challenge is with counter-questions:

What contribution have the physical sciences made to better understandings of society, social justice, the nature of human personhood and equality, the nature and role of political systems?

What has physical science done to enhance the cultural world of the species? What equivalent to music and art, books and writing systems, mechanisms for the preservation of knowledge and the transmission of learning?

Religion created the universities—not science. What discussions of meaning and value and critiques of political systems has science produced? What essential questions about human nature and the nature of reality, equivalent to those raised in the philosophy and theology of Duns Scotus, Meister Eckhart, Adorno, Richard Rorty and Michael Waltzer.

What contribution did physical science make to the anatomy of the soul, the self, the psyche, the mind. What is the physicist’s model of holistic education?

What meditations on suffering, love, meaning, absurdity has science produced? Where is Yeats meditating on old age and beauty, Eliot on alienation and modernity, Neruda on the impossibility of love and tranquility?

Did science humanize our physical spaces, create our laws, or raise the questions that made life (including economic) life in community possible?

Was science at the forefront of battles for racial, gender and sexual equality, care for the young, the elderly, the vulnerable?

Where in science is the appreciation of human form and social space—we know its appreciation of the galaxies—the ideas of goodness, justice, and beauty itself? For that matter, where is science’s poetic self-reflection and analysis, and what concretely has it contributed to the philosophy of religion except hastily constructed polemic and screed?

If the answer of atheo-science is that their role is more limited, their purview more specific and the range of their competence more targeted, no one will quibble. It is only when you ask questions about the merit of these “other worlds” and their contribution to human knowledge that people have an obligation to call you out for ignorance, arrogance and sloppy thinking.

John, The God Bearer

The Priest of Zoroaster wrote in his book:

You see the fire was there
at the beginning
And shows that the light-divisible, is eternal.
The Christians know this;
for they were followers
From the beginning,
their path was ours.

They stole the fire from Antioch
and said it was their savior–
And now their bishops betray our priests,
even make Our priests bishops
in their temples where the fire
Still burns,
burns at their altars,
The fire that was there
At the beginning
Showing the light is the light
Of truth from the beginning,
devouring the darkness.

Our truth was their truth
in the beginning
In Syria, in Ephesus
where we anointed John
(Who was not the light)
And he anointed Jesu
who bore the light and died
A priest of the light,
Killed by Jews
who hate the light.
So many have died to kill the light.

Why do so many suffer for the truth?
For what hey cannot understand
from their many books:
the fire destroys the books
and becomes stronger
with every swallow.
But John’s book says
what our Prophet has said:
The light shone in the darkness,
and the darkness
Comprehended it not.
The word made flesh,
that dwelt among us
and dwells among us still.

The New Oxonian

Has been around the blogosphere since 2009. It has been written in Ithaca, Lahore, Khartoum, Beijing and from my island pile on the coast of Maine. Against my better judgement but by my editors’ insistence it has recently become I cannot hide.

The essays (some of then anyway) have been commissioned for publication and two of my best (unpaid) friends and I are indexing them by subject for an essay collection to be published in 2024. I was thinking of calling the collection “Tales of Hoffmann” but superficial research reveals the title has been taken.

Because they are stitches in time, no editing will be done. They speak for when they were written–passing fancies, issues and [people no longer relevant, some dead, some like those characters ion the Beatles’ “In My Life,” people I once loved, ex-presidents on their way to prion.

Here you will find digressions and polemic, analysis and poetry, essays and assessment. My current gripe is good Pope Francis, the enemy of aesthetics and cultural heritage, who actually had the nerve to follow Professor Ratzinger to Peter’s chair and sit in it. The eternal Jesuit. The moral nimby, enemy of smart and sarcastic people like Voltaire and James Joyce, for all time.

Please read the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes before you come to the lecture.

A Poem Rumi Never Wrote

A Girl, Almost

(Rainer Maria Rilke)

It was almost a girl that sprang forth
from this perfect mix of song and lyre
and glowed through her veil like flashes of spring
and made herself a bed within my ear.

And slept in me. And everything was her sleep:
the trees I saw above me, the unhidden
pathways, the soft meadow I could feel,
and every wonder she gave me to love.

She slept the world. O, Singing God, how then
did you perfect her, so that she never hoped
to be awake? See, she awoke and rose and slept.

Where is her death? Or might you still fashion
some theme before your song itself dissolves?
Where does she sink, out of me . . . A girl, almost.

English Translation (c) 2022, R. Joseph Hoffmann

Und fast ein Mädchen wars und ging hervor
aus diesem einigen Glück von Sang und Leier
und glänzte klar durch ihre Frühlingsschleier
und machte sich ein Bett in meinem Ohr.

Und schlief in mir. Und alles war ihr Schlaf.
Die Bäume, die ich je bewundert, diese
fühlbare Ferne, die gefühlte Wiese
und jedes Staunen, das mich selbst betraf.

Sie schlief die Welt. Singender Gott, wie hast
du sie vollendet, daß sie nicht begehrte,
erst wach zu sein? Sieh, sie erstand und schlief.

Wo ist ihr Tod? O, wirst du dies Motiv
erfinden noch, eh sich dein Lied verzehrte?—
Wo sinkt sie hin aus mir?… Ein Mädchen fast….

Culture and Anarchy: America 2022

Mathew Arnold, “Culture and Anarchy”

I was a third year graduate student when I discovered Mathew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, in a lecture course called, sparsely, “Victorian Prose.” Here we were dutifully dragged through selections by Carlyle, Macaulay, Gibbon, and Turner, by a lecturer so prosaic himself that he made sometimes dryasdust writing glitter by contrast.

In those days we were permitted to follow almost any lecture in the term list without formal enrollment, so we would park (or ram) our rusting bikes in the nearest rack, secure it with a cable lock, toddle into Schools in our absurdly intermediate length “advanced Student” gowns (Oxford did not like the term postgraduate, yet) and take a seat on usually uncrowded bum-polished wooden benches.

Dr. Woodward (not a real name) appeared promptly seven minutes after the class should have begun and asked us to open the text to the essay or tract (as Newman was there, too) of the day, which we did , and unassisted by PPT or whiteboard , began our journey backward to the silver t age of British prose.

Later in my life I would return to Oxford as a senior lecturer at Westminster College, a former teacher’s college located on Harcourt Hill above Oxford, in Hinksey where Arnold would sometimes ramble and record his thoughts about the city itself, its dreaming spires and impossible drams, gypsy scholars and Boars of the swine sort, and, to make a living, return to the work of examining the local schools serviced by the graduates of my college.

Arnold wrote rapidly and extensively about the social and literary habits of his day and, like his father, the great educationist Thomas Arnold, reformer of Rugby School, has a thing or two to say about education and the role of “taste” in the sapping of true culture.

Lots of Victorians were obsessed with the question of taste. In Dickens’ Hard Times he deplores the manners of Mr Gradgrind, a dull headteacher who regards floral wall paper an offense against the good taste of plain old-fashioned coverings. The reason: Flowers do not grow on walls.

I spent a lot of time that term worrying about their debates, these Victorians, their worries, their aesthetics, their critiques of the aureate style, their divisions of culture into high, low and mediocre castes.

But no one had more to say on the subject of taste than Arnold, unless it was Thackeray and he said it in long, unfinishsable works of fiction.

When one reads Culture and Anarchy today we get the impression he was just another fusty Oxomian But like Lionel Trilling, one of his greatest fans, it is easy to miss Arnold’s originality and “greatness”– a very Victorian concept , from Carlyle, until you have lived a while longer.

Now that I have lived a while longer, and being mindful of his shortcomings, I have come to appreciate Arnold as a cultural prophet and perhaps the most prophetic until the post-World War II appearance of Adorno’s Culture Industry. Arnold was doing the same sort of thing, was concerned about the same sort of industrialization of taste to satisfy the minimal requirement s of the rising middle class with its new purchasing power and affection for standardization of goods and services.

His most cogent observations about society come in three chapters of his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy—Chapter One: “Sweetness and Light,” Chapter Three: “Barbarians, Philistines, Populace,” and Chapter Four: “Hellenism and Hebraism.”

Of these, Chapter Three is the best introduction to Arnold the social critic. For the author of “Dover Beach” everything depends on accepting his literary-critical caste system. In it he identifies three divisions, the Aristocracy, whom he terms the Barbarians; the middle class–the Philistines–and the working class, the Populace.

Arnold’s ironic hierarchy is not a hierarchy of value but a critique of all three groups: all three reduce themselves to the stereotypical interests of their class, slaves of who they are but driven by aspirations of who they want to be . They are not stereotyped or controlled by more powerful forces or explained, as by the Marxists by the fraught relationship between workers and owners. They are instead the members of self-fulfilling categories and prisoners of taste, lacking the judgement to alter their habits and their position. They are “devoid of facts, judgement and standards of taste” (which he weirdly enough sees as canonical) and prefer their own kind of bathos-– their own emotional matrix, appropriate to their own social or political self-image.

For Arnold the aristocracy was a world of inherited money, great houses, royal connections at the top and loyal servants at the bottom. There was no precise equivalent for this structure in America, even in nineteenth century Boston or Philadelphia. But Arnold thinks the assumed superiority of the British gentry and polite classes is nothing more than a decadent defense of privilege, civilized thuggery with its roots in the barbarism of the middle ages.

The Philistines (the word is his own invention and not a biblical reference) are the rising merchant and ownership class—not so much the owners of the means of production, as in 19th-century England, but today the higher-earning professionals in an information economy. Arnold sees this class especially represented in American society where the aristocracy hardly exists at all and the Populace, as Steinbeck once observed, live on in dreams of one day of being rich and thus become permanent candidates for a higher class.

In his onw terms, Arnold saw the populace as the low-paid and unskilled workers, America’s nineteenth century huddled masses and both field and industrial wage slaves– today perhaps the working poor.

However you slice the distinctions, America to Arnold is the land of the Philistines, and the term became associated with the sort of culture that emerges when our “best selves” have been squandered on the ordinary, the prosaic, the dull and unchallenging– above all, the uncritical. This word is a powerful totem for Arnold who sees the life and function of the critic as being fundamentally different from a life of practice. A critic he claimed in a famous article in the Fortnightly Review must stay out of the realm of practice or he will lose his power to affect change, desirable change, in society.

A university man himself, Arnold does not see university education as the way to achieve critical perspective. It is one of the quirks of British society of the mid- nineteenth century that education was not the up-and-out solution to the problems of critical perspective or taste, not a normal means for upgrading the social condition of ordinary Englishmen. It would remain, as a commodity for changing status, largely inaccessible to the people Arnold often calls hoi polloi. Writers like Ruskin felt otherwise, but at the core Arnold remained an elitist whose complaints about the yawpishness of the Barbarians and the Philistine wallowing in low culture were not cries for social-aesthetic improvement but a bystander’s lament on the way things are. Arnold was an ardent Biblicist: his voice has more in common with the prophets than with other literary figures of his own time. England is an unrepentant, sectarian Israel and he has been sent to scold her and set her straight.

For all his complaining about bad taste and Philistinism and the mediocrity of the masses (a situation Adorno many years later would blame on the industrialization of culture by money craven capitalists’) there is without doubt a strain of intolerance in Arnohd’s critique.

In culture, using the French Academy as his model, he laments the absence of an equivalent central governing body that would guard and teach “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” “There is something to be said for setting cultural standards, especially when we consider how market-driven and niche-oriented our society has become—more about maximizing profits than inspiring quality and creativity,” wrote a commentator in 2013. But the prestigious literary organizations that do exist made no pretense of serving the population at large. Arnold’s hankering after a French style solution found its voice later in European Fascism and Communism–that is to say in political remedies for matters of taste and creativity. Short of an Academic solution, and not seeing the universities as means of social change, Arnold puts language and literature in the hands of cultural watchdogs empowered by the state to promote and safeguard “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” a principle that today seems less revolutionary than naïve and mildly dangerous.

At the same time Arnold recognizes that in other realms of life the inability of the masses to change willingly or rise in feeling and thought to the demands of a crisis is a special social hazard. People without the critical sense to use language and understand the “things” of culture run the risk of being duped by religionists and politicians. They are, to use his phrase “blind to the light” of religion and prefer its comforting sweetness . “If the followers of a doctrine are really dupes, or worse, and its promulgators are really fanatics, or worse,” he writes, “it gives the doctrine no seriousness or authority the more that there should be found 200,000 souls,—200,000 of the innumerable multitude with a natural taste for the bathos,—to hold it, and 20,000 rifles to defend it.”

So too in politics, which in the land of the Philistines is the twin sister of religion  Politicians address voters “with so much flattering and coaxing, that they [the public] shall not suspect their ignorance and prejudices to be anything very unlike right reason, or their natural taste for the bathos to differ much from a relish for the sublime.” Politicians, in other words, say what lends comfort to their constituencies, rather than what supports their best selves. And yet, because what the people demand is the bathos that serves their self interest, the religionist and the politician must cloak their sermons and speeches in whatever language it takes to coax, comfort, and lead away from the truth.

While this manipulation has short term success for the purveyors of bathos, its long term effects are catastrophic — anarchy first, and the death of a civilization second. Nowhere he felt is this condition more obvious (he wrote in 1869), than in America.

Arnold blames the press for encouraging this state of affairs. Newspapers, he writes, deal in bathos under the assumption that we shall “by the mercy of Providence, and by a kind of natural tendency of things, come in due time to relish and follow right reason.” More simply, the press indulges our lowest tastes while assuming that higher ones will somehow emerge when needed. He says, there exist “a certain number of aliens, if we may so call them,—persons who are mainly led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection; and that this number is capable of being diminished or augmented.” And so for the great Critic of bad taste and habits, the solution is not to be found in any social mechanism but in the leaven–that small number of aliens–of the uncomfortable who defy class in favour of the general good, the general welfare. –Rousseau, thou shoulds’t have been living at that hour.

Neanderthal Death and Dying

I was just reading an article about Neanderthals burying their dead, a practice which will further humanize them and cause us to see them not as higher apes but close cousins.

The idea that something so like us lived in our own era and became extinct, like Barbary Lions and Arctic camels, should be troubling for us, because it points not just to survival as an iron law of nature, but to the fact that like any other animal species we are subject to the vicissitudes of cultural and environmental change. In the death of Neanderthal we confront the general mortality of our own race. And though we shall never know, we may also confront the murderous superiority of human intelligence over theirs. Homo sapiens sapiens might have warred them to extinction, or they may simply have succumbed to disease or demographic decline.

We are more comfortable exploring the outreaches of space and the depth of the oceans for possible and unusual life forms than we are with probing the depths of the self because such activity distracts us from our own puny and limited existence.

There is nothing new about saying this; Freud would say it is just a spin on his theory of “substitutionary satisfaction,” except that instead of locating satisfaction in the arts and merchandisable skills that define civilization, as he tended to do, it locates it specifically in the objects we choose for scientific investigation: the outer world—the world external to the self. The inner world, now being dramatically explored by studies in cognition and neuroscience is more putative, perhaps even more real for certain people than for others. We have to acknowledge that the inner life of a stockbroker and the inner life of a classical musician or philosopher are different not just as a matter of preference or taste but as matter of fundamental interpretation and meaning. The world in which we become the object of our own thought is fraught with difficulty, not least of which is the ancient problem of how to define the self.

You may recall this famous passage from Hobbes,describing earliest human history before “governments” were formed:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In other words, it is remarkable that we survived at all, perhaps more so that the instinctive drive for survival has stretched our intelligence to devise new ways to ensure our persistence, and in some ways, our progress. Hobbes would define progress, as men of the Enlightenment would, as the removal of the “natural condition” of continual fear, and danger, of violent death–and just as important, the birth of societies that extend our life and our dominion over nature. An astounding number of our contemporaries still define progress in that way.

Still, whatever collective progress is, at the end of it is death. Not death as Neanderthal may have experienced it—the gradual but no doubt perceptible diminution of creatures who looked like them down to the last half dozen on the face of the earth. But individual death.

Freud had a few thoughts on this in a 1915 treatise called Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, written a few months after the outbreak of the Great War. In that treatise Freud lets his imagination range more freely than usual, speculating about everything from cognition to the unconscious to polyarchy (constant, universal warfare)to the psychological foundations for burying the dead.

Like Freud or lump him, his thoughts never fail to arouse the suspicion of truth: Do we bury our dead because they attract animals and flies, begin to smell bad, or because we want them safely under the ground where they cannot remind us of our fate and torment us through their jinns? Is (as Hobbes suggests) the natural state of mankind war and the artificial state (as Freud argues) peace and civilization? Is religion a contract between these two extremes, a denial of death through harnessing violence (taboos, laws) in the name of deferred life after death?

Is the ritual violence that we sublimate in religious practices such as the Eucharist and circumcision and even the ideological form of jihad a reminder of our essentially hateful and violent natures? How do we survive, as creatures torn between the need to make love and the reality of decay? Can we even imagine our death?

“We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators. The school of psychoanalysis could thus assert that at bottom no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.”

Or is this too outrageous a simplification of the complex reality we live as human beings? Was Neanderthal more in touch with basic impulses that define an essential humanity, a kind of lost reality that civilization, art, music, science, and literature have taken from us?

Wilfrid Owen asks the question poetically about the general violence of war and the meaning of death, the same war Freud was responding to as a psychoanalyst three years earlier:

“Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?” (“Futility,”1918)

Remembrance Day

Like many Germans of his day my grandfather was a Nazi.  He did not talk about it, and I was not interested in hearing. My choicest memory of him is that he would take me almost each afternoon to a local ice cream shop for an Eskimo Pie. Therefore he was the kindest, best and most lovable man in the world. My father, by contrast, would sometimes tell him not to fill me up with sugar before dinner. Therefore he was the worst, beastliest, and cruelest man God had ever created, though he was never a Nazi.

Everything that comes through America ends up ice cream, I learned later in life. Especially our view of history. I preferred chocolate. My father liked butter crunch, which I came later to appreciate, too. There is nothing like having a taste of something to end disputation and encourage wisdom. This includes rutabaga but not cherry tomatoes.

After his funeral, I was told stories about my grandfather.   He was considered too old to fight in the German army at the start of the war, but by the end men of sixty and boys of 14 were taken, some conscripted. 

Only twenty years before 1948, Germany had been humiliated by the combined powers of  the west and Russia,  beginning with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia, a Russian ally. Via St Petersburg, the Russian Empire sent an ultimatum to Vienna warning Austria-Hungary not to attack Serbia. They did it anyway . So many wars are started with angry letters and missed messages.   

After the end of that war, when my grandfather had been a very young man, Germany was made to pay a heavy price–lost most of its few colonies, was forced to pay reparations to richer countries, and became associated with aggression, racial hubris, double dealing and later genocide. By 1929, the Germans recognized that they had been humiliated and were spoiling for justice. Justice is a funny word. Sometimes it means vengeance.

I grew up thinking, even as an ethnic German, that these traits were quite exceptional. –And exceptionally evil. If Germany and Germans exemplified them in a special way, then the conquerors of Germany must be benevolent, generous, democratic, freedom loving heroes. 

I was 13 when I heard–or remember hearing and seeing in a newspaper– the name Viet Nam for the first time, a bit older when the My Lai massacre occurred. My father was determined I should not go overseas, as we were now in the United States, like many other Germans who abandoned the old world for Kennedy’s new frontier (Ich bin [ein] Berliner].

 I was in university when villages were napalmed to drive the Viet Cong from their houses and villages, while their forests were defoliated, while they died of gas which the Pentagon said was not poisonous because it was designed to kill jungles not people, not babies.

The cold war dragged on, too. Facilitated by two great nuclear shields made up of earth- destroying missiles. Berlin became a patchwork of four parts called sectors. Blacks were clubbed into submission throughout the American south, and when I was at Harvard bricks and bottles were hurtled by Bostonians at little “negro” children in pressed white shirts and crisp pinafores, being transported to white-majority schools.  Benevolent, generous freedom loving heroes.

In my lengthening life, it has not changed. Russia is celebrating its national patriotic days along with its ex-Soviet republics as its troops shoot to kill and mutilate their ethnic and linguistic cousins in peaceful Ukrainian cities. Fair minded America, having left Afghanistan to chaos after twenty years of false promises, now plots to strip its women of the right to accept or reject an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.

And these words ring in my ears, these words of the Psalmist (quoted by St Paul) in his verdict on humanity, too often fused to make sluggish Christians feel awful about their moral habits and get them back to the church, the font of salvation: “What then? Are we any better? Not at all. For we have already made the charge that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one. 11There is no one who understands, no one who seeks the good.” (Romans 3; Psalm 53)

Patriotism is not a bad thing in small doses.  Likewise, being a Muslim, or Christian or a Jew whether by birth or choice–not bad at all,   As long as we realize it confers no special grace, no special rectitude, no better chance of possessing the truth or being on the right side of moral questions. 

We have come a long way since Germany could be seen as the normative Worst Case in human history.  These of us who learned our Latin and Greek were never taught that Greeks were savage fighters and Romans beasts to their enemies—think of crucifixion as a “normal” punishment for political dissent or free speech.

My grandfather did not tell war stories because he thought they were unimportant. I would learn my own lessons, only he hoped not from learning about his close calls and moments of danger and glory.    And that is the danger of Memorial Days, Victory Days, and Hero Days. In honoring our war dead and wounded and survivors we also elevate war as a solution and something noble. We are encouraged to think that there are degrees of perfection in the pursuit of war, though every page of history tells us this is a lie–and history is the judge, not the glory of the battle  And no country is any better that any other in this act:   “There is no one righteous, not even one. There is not one who understands.”


The Security Theory: Deconstructing Greatness

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he takes the stage for a campaign town hall meeting in DerryOn November 8, 2016 77,000 Americans spread over three states voted to make Donald Trump the 45th  president of the United States.

We know for certain that fraud was involved in this outcome–vote tampering, and  voter manipulation, by the Government of Russia.

The real question is why a modern democracy would rely on an outdated and absurd system to choose its leader, especially since the system had failed recently, in the 2000 election that saw Al Gore win the popular vote, and George W Bush win the electoral college  by a few hundred ballots cast in Florida.  Hillary Clinton, according to the final electoral tally, won 227 electoral votes, Donald Trump 304. –Big ticket states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania fell to Trump, while more than 3,000,000 (twice the population of Northern Ireland) Americans were effectively shut out of the process by a useless eighteenth century stratagem.  Resistance was futile and soon quelled–except Trump whose quivering attention shifted to the popular vote “anomaly” and the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

Whenever the Constitution is proved defective, after faint cries for its amendment, the American masses settle down into their molten complacency with scarcely a bubble hitting the surface. The last generally effective activism that managed to achieve a groundswell of popular support was the American Revolution, and even that required a “congress” for approval and British-averse French and Germans for a successful conclusion.  In general Americans do not like revolution–the Civil War was not a popular war, nor was World War I, Korea or Vietnam, and in all cases conscription had to be used to get men to fight them.  This is because wars are often complicated, involve a knowledge of geography beyond Missouri, and people who. unreasonably, do not speak the American language.

Ours wars on foreign soil have meant boys from  “plain” backgrounds being hied off to increasingly exotic locations to fight for ideas they did not understand, for leaders they had not (necessarily) chosen, in places they had never heard of.  That tradition continues today in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and by proxy in places like Yemen and South Korea.

Unlike the making of the British Empire, The American way of war has not created a class of worldly-wise, curious women and men interested in foreign cultures, geography, or history.  It has created a gaggle of ignorant tourist-soldiers and their families who return from war (or “action”) with jobs unfinished and goals unreached–sometimes scarred or mentally damaged for life. It has led  to an ever-broadening understanding of how wide the protective boundary of homeland security needs to be spread to guarantee Americans a peaceful night’s sleep.   A capricious and crooked leader knows this, and makes security his cudgel against popular opinion of his leadership.

America became a world power only in the twentieth century–really only after 1945 when the the rationale of global domination, British style, was démodé.  Having just fought a war over the purveyors of conquest and territorial expansion, America could not risk being seen as one.  Instead, for all he world to see (and with the Soviets espousing a socialist text of the same playbook) America’s justification for international supremacy would be to protect American values, at home and abroad.  Truth, justice, democracy (liberty had become dangerous and not sufficiently vague) were touted as quintessentially American.  How different from the oppression, atheism, and  totalitarianism being peddled by the enemy. It was a world of easy choices and clear moral vision.

Of course this world never existed except in the minds of American policy makers and arms manufacturers and war-related research in the late twentieth century.  The defense of our power grabbing, with sometimes nervous or recalcitrant allies looking on,  was to convince the people that Asian expansionism was cancerous and evil, while America’s was protective, benign and defensive.   The goal was always security.  Protect our country; protect the flag; the Bible, the Constitution- -originally written in the English of the golden age when men were men and women were pretty.  The uncrowned deity of the era was Superman, who, though from Krypton, was a Christian.

Since the end of the Cold War  (or what can be called the explicit form of US-Asia antinomy) the job of conservative, formerly anti-Communist  leaders and arms mongers has been to convince people that there is no homeland unless we can take preemptive action against potential enemies.  Any softening or weakening of this now sacred philosophy is not compatible with the doctrine of American Exceptionalism, a philosophy deriving from the gritty, quasi religious fever of the 19th century when Americans were determined to rule a continent no matter who occupied the land before or what rival powers–Britain, France, Spain–once claimed it.  Anti-Europeanism by former Europeans and a general xenophobia towards strangers in their midst (The Creature Walks Among Us, 1958) was a part of the script.

It’s true of course that America lumbered into its security obsession.  It did not plan it.  It extended from King Philip’s War in Connecticut  (1675) which unfolded before the colonies became confederated, right through to the annexation of the Pacific territories “liberated” from Japan or former colonial powers in 1945. It always involved land, resources, and labour.

America had no explicit “theory” of supremacy along racial lines such as the Communist Chinese, the samurai Japanese, the Empire-defending British,  or race-puritan Germans had.  All of that was subsumed under a more general, inclusivist nomen called The American People, theoretically indifferent to race, class, social status, or religion.  But in fact tied to ideals and documents synonymous with landowning 18th century Englishmen and made available to others only through the  noblesse oblige and “consent of the governed.”  These people just happened to be white, protestant and wealthy, and there is no evidence that they wanted any of their earthly Eden to change.

“America” accepted certain vague eighteenth century notions about human nature and the rights of man from Locke and Rousseau, but these ideas were metaphysical as much as political and difficult to legislate.  The incipient weakness of the American Constitution in the Age of Post-Reason shows not only how imperfect the efforts at a more perfect Union have proved over two and a half centuries, but how flawed they were at conception.

Fundamentally, the Constitution was about regularity, law, order and security which reigned where once kings had been the guarantors of all four: the dignity of man, in a general sense was implied, or affirmed, but was not made explicit.   And the messy amendment process that followed the eighteenth century shows how difficult it was to translate noble ideas  into law after the death of the last idealist in 1821.  What survived out of the mess was the belief that the country should be secure, which was a way of avoiding thornier disputes about the rights and nature of man  and shifting the focus to the questions of unity and security in a nation being torn apart by factionalism within its borders.

This historical preface may seem  off the mark. But it isn’t.  The survival of We the People may seem “self evidently” important.  It entails the question of national security, indeed raises the question What does it mean to be secure?

In the case of America, security became after the nineteenth century the raison d’etre of homestyle politics.  Up until the election of Lincoln in 1860, it was the theme of most public rhetoric.  Liberty and Union.  The fear of the civil warriors on both sides was that Europe would repossess a weakened America.  That did not happen, but the obsession with American security did not fade away. It intensified.

We live in the shadow of that obsession.  Throughout the last century and especially now, security–empty of content or telos–has become the bugle call that every soldier in uniform and every flag-hugging patriot, and above all every candidate for office, is supposed to heed.  It is for the nation what belief in a master race, or the supremacy of British law, or the infallibility of popes were in other times.

Elements of racism and national hubris are deeply embedded in the  American belief that securing the homeland is supremely the business of the people because it is a defense of what is best in the world.  It has always been this way, since before the days of Manifest Destiny to the thorn ridden way of the Trail of Tears to the the era of “redeemer nation” and African American efforts to reach the domestic promised land instead of a moist grave in the coloured cemetery.

Security theory obviously has its entailments:

If security means to secure the Exceptional Nation, then it begins at home: with the right to bear arms, or assault weapons, because the defense of liberty is the first fortress against tyranny.  The Second Amendment which lost all justification after the end of the Revolutionary era found new life in the late twentieth century: calls for its repeal have been replaced by its glorification by some citizens.

It means unbridled funding of the “military industrial complex”–that gorgon which a Republican president warned of in 1959, and has proved its insatiable appetite for money and lives ever since.

It means “taking the battle to the enemy before they can take it to us” in distant countries like Iraq–and Iran, or anywhere else where US “interests” are involved.

Given the right demagogue–one to whom the Security defense is decisive–it means invading a stable country like Iraq to depose a leader , or Syria, or perhaps Iran.  It can also means friending a reprehensible regime, such as Saudi Arabia, for its strategic location or dependability as a purchaser of American weapon systems.

It means building walls between peaceful neighbors.

It means having the best equipped army in the world, whatever the cost–new branches of the military–space soldiers and space battleships. Security means preemption.

It means closing the gates to the Sweet Land of Liberty.  The world is dangerous–the Security Theory runs:  Yes, people of different races, religions, and tongues founded America and “made it Great”.  But now that it is great, we don’t need people from all over the place coming to get a piece of the pie.  Immigration must be curtailed.  There is not enough for everyone.  Lists of the people and countries who are eligible for membership in the New America have to be established, adhered to.  Some people can’t come at all. Ever.

When in the course of human events the Security Theory becomes dominant, times make the leader.  In the case of America 2020,  Donald Trump is that man.  He brings a wizened vision derived from his background in Manhattan real estate, a metaphor for lives of anxiety and insecurity.  America the Gated City.  A land defined by walls, identity cards, membership, vetting.  A land shared by the the people who make money, the people who contribute to its material success (in ways wealthy people can understand) and the people who cut the grass, or take care of their kids.

Allies are for cowards and suckers.  When has America ever been made secure by friends? No entangling alliances.  Now if allies want to buy into our security, that’s a different story.





One Man’s Terrorist

President Trump Holds Joint Press Conference With Japanese PM Shinzo Abe The mob- style  killing of General Qassem Soleimani, at the direction of a vacationing President of the United States, has evinced three predictable reactions:

In the Middle East, especially in Iran and its Shi’a neighbours, outrage that soon mutated into the ghastly 1979 revolutionary chorus “Death to America’.

Among America’s allies, expressions of confusion and whispered condemnation. In France, which still reveres the spirit of Rousseau and reason, these whispers were audible, but they came from all around.

And in the United States, a spectrum of opinion that mirrored Trump’s turbulent standing in the polls. The military and intelligence crumblies, powdered up for appearances on CNN, FOX, and (even) MSNBC seemed weirdly unanimous: Bad man, Good that he’s gone, Questionable timing. Being purveyors of catastrophe and disaster, the only questions were, What’s next? When?” Will is be awful? Consensus: Revenge. When Iran decides. Yes.


The anti-Trump coalition, somewhat flustered that this deliberate act of distraction takes the focus away from a looming impeachment pre-game show, moaned that that this was–a deliberate act of distraction. A few (very few) astute souls like Barbara Slavin were savvy enough to call the action “stunningly stupid and counterproductive.” And the liberal cognoscenti, behind ivory doors, rumbled that the “hit” (Pentagon and gangsta-speak) should be added to the abuse of power article now pending in Congress. (It should.)

All of these reactions come with reasons. Except from the basest of Trump’s base who believe with an urgency approaching rapture that Trump is a strong president who was not afraid to take the tough decisions when duty called and circumstances warranted. Seizing on their behavioral cue to boo, cheer and bark for a biscuit, Trump assured them and masses of the Undecided that, indeed, circumstances warranted: American lives were in danger. Now as never before. The world has never seem anything like this. This was done to stop war, not start one. Unbelievable The butcher is dead and Americans live! (Applause.)


The Trump faithful in other words, will regard all dissent as sedition– a typical case of their liberal pussyfooting attitude to guns and baby-killing–their tree-hugging, flag-hating, immigrant-loving more-of-the-sameness.

Trump has encouraged them to think for three years that anyone who exhibits any of these traits hates America and has no right to be here, or to vote. We know that unless daddy drops the remote the tube is permanently tethered to FOX news and that FOX news is saying that Trump is just about the bravest man alive, maybe ever.

I don’t remember a time when America has been looking at the same object or event in two such conflicting ways.

Our “normal” like and dislike of past presidents has become unfixably riven in the last generation. Expectations have become apocalyptic and messianic. A lot of people hated Bush, at least after his Weapons of Mass Destruction fiasco (of which this is a result). A lot of people hated Obama–for one reason: Because he was the visible reminder that the colour of America is changing, and with it the colour of American attitudes towards social issues.

The calculation of the Trumps and Trump-worshipers was simple. America cannot both be the land of opportunity and the land of freedom and Justice for all. So let it be the land of opportunity for those who know how to work it. That’s justice, isn’t it? Obama being the most visible reminder of an “alternative vision,” his legacy had to be be shredded. That includes his halting and (as some saw it) over-cautious approach to the Middle East crises. It made it easier for Trump to bravely go where no one had gone before.

Trump’s performance is not trackable, which makes media attempts to chart it risible. He has no consistent or discernible policies. He lives to surprise, even himself. His lies are gratuitous, personal– detached both from reality and strategy. They are not about politics but himself within a political matrix, just as before his election they were about himself in a business framework. Once he wanted to be the richest and most influential man alive. Now he wants to be the most powerful, the Best (be Best?) president of all time. He thinks the way to achieve that is to be, at least for his disciples, the tough guy he once played on TV. He disdains “intelligence” when it reflects badly on him (e.g., election meddling) and eats it up when, as now, it serves his needs.

To be a hero, he has to make all other presidents look puny –above all his relatively popular game-changing predecessor. For Trump, the fact that his predecessors “passed” on chances to kill Qassem Soleimani shows they were weak, double-minded losers. He did not take much persuading to murder the man who seemed to personify the threat (he feels) all Americans fear most: the creeping Brown terror that approaches us from the south, spoils our “rat infested” cities, changes voting demographics in favour of public freeloaders, takes jobs away from real Americans, and captures, terrorizes and threatens us abroad. If you want the whole of Trump’s philosophy in a nutshell, it is in his impromptu reference to “shithole countries” in a 2017 cabinet meeting and his off-the- cuff remark that he would like to see more Norwegian immigration to the United States.

If he were a shock radio host and not their client, Trump’s remark could be labeled spam and left to self destruct in 30 days, or long before, given the attention deficit of most citizens. But he is not. He is the President of an important country. And he thinks that his map (which exists nowhere but as a series of illogical opinions and ungrounded harangues against his personal hatreds) will lead to the slogan on his red cap. War with Iran is a destination, maybe now a gateway, on that map. It has probably been a destination since his presidency began or at least a contingency in case of trouble.

So why is the killing of Qassem Soleimani different from all the other swill he has swilled in the last three years?

It is different for three reasons.

The most obvious (obvious because even media heads are saying it) is that despite megaphone shouts to the contrary this was not the “elimination” of a terrorist. There is no equivalency between killing an extra-statal (freelance) actor and the legitimate chief officer of a sovereign nation-state. In rhetoric this fallacy is usually called “false analogy” and incorporates a number of sub-fallacies, such as oversimplification (dicto simpliciter): It relies on the false assumption that because two things are alike in one or more respects, they are necessarily alike in other or all respects. Thus, if religion-related terrorism has been an especially persistent problem in the Middle East anyone associated with terrorist-related death, especially the deaths of Americans sent to deal with the problem, is a terrorist, not a “legitimate” actor.

This way of thinking has been the one used most vigorously by the Trump administration and now the Pentagon to justify the the killing of Soleimani: he killed others–including Americans–and thus is subject to being killed himself. The spin-off is the rationale that his killing, even if it leads to more deaths, was done to prevent conflict and death, a rationale so specious and illiterate that is can be classified as sub-fallacious. As Barbara Slavin tweeted on 3rd January 2020 (@barbaraslavin1) “By what legal authority can US forces kill the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Does @realDonaldTrump realize the import of this?”

No, and yes. His ordering the murder means that Trump gave in to advice that since the United States had declared the legitimate army of Iran (including al Quds) a “terrorist” organization, there would be nothing wrong in treating a senior commander in that organization in the same way bin Laden and al-Baghdadi (and others) were treated. Except of course , the “real” terrorists were not representative of any nation or military force recognized in international law, or by the United Nations, or in international treaties such as the Geneva Convention.  Mr Trump’s fiat that Soleimani was a terrorist if accepted makes every soldier fighting for his country a terrorist; a general commanding and strategising on behalf of his troops might be captured, arrested, tried.  But he cannot be made illegitimate by the edict of his enemy.

As legal constraints even when they are Constitutional, mean nothing to Trump, it is hardly likely he would be deterred by something as amorphous as “international law.” The fact remains, the killing is illegal. That fact alone would have been enough to constrain a conscientious president. Even the fate of Saddam Hussein following the disastrously expensive invasion of Iraq in 2002 was decided not by a US bullet to his head but by an Iraqi tribunal.

Soleimani, moreover, was a hero in the war against terror, especially in Iran where he got full credit for defending his homeland. But his contributions were also known to other members of what we like to call the “US-Led Coalition” in Iraq.

Without ever embracing the United States’ political designs on the Middle east, he was a pragmatist who realized that ISIS–the offspring of American adventurism–was a thing that has to be dealt with it. In that battle, the Kurds could be useful; the Syrians? — too occupied, too divided, and too stretched to be entirely useful, the Iraqi forces too cowardly.

A strategic arrangement with the US and Kurds was the only way. In March of 2015, Haaretz beamed:

“Soleimani is overseeing much of his country’s war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Lebanon, and is commanding the Shiite militias who have chalked up most of the victories in Iraq. So long as Americas declared objective is to wage war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and not against Syrian President Bashar Assad – Soleimani is an American ally, and not for the first time… Several times Soleimani has accused Assad of faulty management of the war, and he claims that Syrian army commanders aren’t prepared to heed his advice. ‘If I had one division of Iranian Basij forces, I could conquer Syria’, he said in one of his public statements”.

Third, only four years ago, Qassem Soleimani was universally, if quietly among American operatives, regarded as the key player–not only in the success of efforts to eliminate ISIS. He also came loaded with fair criticisms of the Syrian regime’s inability to contain the threat. His advice had been sought in outlining the boundaries of post-US-Invasion Iraq. At America’s request, he also instructed the al-Mahdi forces led by separatist Shiite leader Muqtada a-Sadr to stop attacking American targets in Baghdad, and indirectly coordinated the establishment of Nouri al-Maliki’s government in 2003, personally. choosing members of the interim Council. He was the chief arbitrator in organizing military operations involving Kurdish, Iraqi and Iranian-trained militias against the ISIS armies. Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador in Iraq, told The New Yorker in an interview that the names of the candidates for interim prime minister were presented in a way that would assure Soleimani’s consent.

A Sinister Outcome

Trump has eliminated the key player in regional efforts to contain and eradicate the threat of ISIS-style extremism, now widely regarded as resurgent after the assassination of its Imam.  It has even been suggested that Trump was despondent that the killing of Baghdadi did not receive the attention it deserved and was overshadowed by stories about his impeachment.

The question remains, Why? Half an answer is, to create noise. Trump needs to create a blizzard in Washington to shift the focus from his crimes and abuses of power. Trump is relying on low-information voters, Christian and Jewish Zionists, other evangelicals, and wealthy Trump-backers who may be smart enough to see through his antics but not virtuous enough to oppose them.

Secondly, Soleimani was not a difficult target. He was not discovered living in disguise in Pakistan, hiding in a hole in Tikrit, or scrambling through a cave in western Syria. Part of the shock of this killing is that is was so public, so cowardly and (apparently) so reckless. But that is a viewer reaction, not the while story.  Trump did not act alone.  He acted on advice from some–not the best or brightest–members of his national security and military team to activate plans long on the John Bolton to-do list.

Qassem Soleimani was a soldier, an organizer, a saboteur, and a statesman. If there is a Pentagon plan to destabilize Iran and start a shooting war–as Trump repeatedly threatens in his increasingly deranged tweets, the best way to make it happen is to chop off the head of Iran’s indispensable military leader. Soleimani was in a position to do the most damage to American forces in the event of a full-scale war, initiated by a president desperately clinging to power and badly in need of a victory. It would be the fulfillment of the Bolton Scenario, perhaps even a ransom paid to Bolton for his silence or dissimulation if he is called to testify against Trump in an impeachment trial. In the long run, this is the most plausible explanation for implausible and rash action–not saving lives, but saving his job

It is also the saddest and most unvirtuous episode in the history of the American presidency. Murder most foul.

R Joseph Hoffmann 1/5/2020

The Noose on the Liberty Tree

The catalogue of Mr Trump’s offenses against moral decency, truth, history, international order, and law is now so massive that attention has to turn to another question.  What sort of tree produces fruit like this?

My friends remind me that we are superior to the bloated, gun-toting troglodytes who belong to his cult because we did not vote for this mephitic creep to be president. Fair enough. A vote is (or can be) a moral judgement, and there are plenty of people who used the word “unfit” to describe Mr Trump long before he erased any doubt in that respect.  Hillary Clinton, to name one.  In the last year especially, the kindest word that has been mainstreamed in the media to describe him,  after some early hesitation, is “Liar.”

Yet Donald J.Trump, with his loose lips and looser suits  fell from the same Liberty Tree that gives us freedom of speech and press, and also gives us the right to bear arms–apparently even to carry assault weapons–and to say terrible and ugly things about people and groups we don’t like. Once you unchain Lady Liberty, she goes wheresoever she wants.

Yet even if the words beneath her feet are welcoming, she has had a less sanguine look on many occasions. She was dedicated (1886) only four years after the China Exclusion Act (1882) barred any immigrants from that country entering the United States–this reward after decades of Chinese labour was exploited to build the transcontinental railroad. The Act was not repealed until after the Second World War.  She turned away ships full of Jewish refugees towards South America, and back to Europe; stared blankly with passive acquiescence while Japanese at the other side of the continent were thrown into detention camps.  And this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the denial of civil rights to the children and grandchildren of slaves, or the disenfranchisement of women for a quarter century after she was dedicated.

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While things are bad  again, with Muslim bans and the detention of children, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this Lady has showered liberty and justice on all at all times.  That process has been intermittent and at times painful. What strikes our liberal crowd between the eyes is our idea that liberty moves slowly and only forward–the idea we thought was incipient in the belief in “a more perfect union.”  The advent of Donald Trump, for the fist time in my life, makes her direction uncertain, even reversible. The last time I can remember experiencing such dislocation was the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the first time (though I was a kid)  I realized that the people who disagreed with me could also be armed and dangerous.

Liberty was already nascent in the Revolution, in its challenge to monarchical authority and “freedom” from taxation.  A man who owned property, including slaves, had a right to defend it. Land ownership had been a problem from the time of King Philip’s (Pokunoket chief Metacom’s) War (1675-1676) and the slaughter of tribes allied to the Narraganset Indians, who saw land as land and private property as an English idea. The conceptual shift from seeing “Indians” as rightful possessors of land to being squatters and interlopers on land belonging to the United States was abetted by the fact that the native Americans themselves had a more dynamic understanding of the ground they lived on.  It made these insiders, in later centuries, the first “outsider” problem confronted by the federal government.

There would be many others:  To read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States  or a little of Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror is to understand that although we are a nation of immigrants, our pot did not melt all the ingredients equally or successfully.  The white protestant Boston lawyers and Virginia planters who founded the Republic established it on principles of property ownership being a requirement of the right to vote. The Civil War did not solve a problem or repair injury: it froze it in its time to come unstuck later.  We are still experiencing the effects of that cataclysm, with every pulling down of a Confederate general’s memorial or banning of the Stars and Bars being declaimed by a vocal minority as an affront against their liberty.  Speeches like the one Trump made at Charlottesville encourage this kind of “equivalency thinking.”

Yet to the extent history is juridical, there should be no equivalence between right and wrong. The defeat of the south included the defeat of an inhuman and detestable institution, slavery.  No American president since the Civil War has given moral equivalence to the side that defended it, until now.

Discussions of free speech, private property, the acquisition of wealth and the right to defend it with armed force have been with us from the beginning–long before America was the United States after 1789. Every ardent Trump supporter could move easily from a good-citizen-position of being in favor of increased military spending to joining a regional militia if that army was instructed by a president to disarm them.  An Oklahoma farm-worker can shift from being an aggrieved white man to a states-rights Klan member with just a little provocation and tough talk from six locked and loaded buddies. The racialist, anti-education, rural poor outcasts of Reconstruction did not simply die away  or get reborn in the twentieth century under the heavy foot of progressive liberalism. They have been here all along.  Mr Trump, to these people, is the voice of Liberty.  It’s why even his most noxious acts–like hugging an American flag–and his oiliest jingoism–America First– light fires of patriotic fervor in the hearts of the “oppressed.” They are the living relics of the failure of Reconstruction and one hundred fifty years of segregation.

To the sons of liberty who populate Trump’s rallies with their underachieving kids,  this right to armed protection is enshrined in the Second Amendment. And we need to be clear about this: The Second Amendment isn’t just about guns. That it is is the assumption of those of us, including me, who don’t like guns or the kind of people they’re often attached to.  The Second Amendment is about defending a worldview, a particular vision of America as being right in the world only when it is white.  This principle is as central to its  defenders as the First Amendment is to the rest of us.  Perhaps this is just a reflection of the fact that there are two ways to win an argument–by speech or by force.

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In 1776 and 1863 the cry of the oppressed was liberty:  the colonists from foreign sovereignty; the slaves from their owners; the rebels from fealty to a national experiment which was still being tested.  Franklin frets over its experimental nature in his “alleged” response to Mrs Powel.  Lincoln refers to its provisional nature in his address at Gettysburg. To be fair, Liberty was a popular battle cry in Europe as well.    But those are faraway dates, and for most Americans–so great is our ignorance of American history and the context of modern discussion– there  is nothing in reality or modern experience to pin them to.

For the founders and for Lincoln, the opposite of liberty was not slavery but unity.  How can you have a state, the French writer Rousseau wondered throughout our formative century, when every man’s liberty must be regarded equally but the state must pull together as one, through the willing cession of some “natural rights” needed for the harmonious function of the whole, according to what he called the “General Will.”   For Rousseau and the founders, the General Will was never meant to be equated with the democratically ascertained opinion of the people. It is not the will of the majority. It is definitely not popular opinion. It is rather what most reasonable people, over time, would want under the best of circumstances.  And while the founders got that point (Rousseau died in 1782, before the French Revolution), later generations did not.

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But this is where comparisons to the past must end.  Because we have never had a president less in touch with the history of the Republic and the function of liberty in its construction than this one.  To be blunt, we have never had to confront, as our recent ancestors did, the threat of the dissolution of the union.  We are the imperfect product of our founding crisis, our civil war and Reconstruction, our booms and busts, world wars, social equality movements, and especially our becoming an equal ally of other nations.  Each of these had something to do with the nature of liberty–in the old language, the rights of free “men.”  But liberty is not a disposition. Ask a Chinese citizen what she considers the indispensable condition for a well-ordered state and she will say social harmony, not liberty. Ask a fascist and he will say obedience or loyalty to the state and its rulers.  Jefferson once said that he didn’t mind having agnostics as worthy citizens of the Republic because what they believed neither “picked his pocket nor broke his bones.”  Can we reform that to say,  a Muslim woman wearing a veil does not restrict my liberty to believe as I choose?   What can be so offensive about the outward expression of a belief I am not required to share?  What is offensive is that laws and bans should be enacted to prevent such expressions.  That is the real threat to liberty. We believe that social harmony comes from conscience exercised through the rule of law, not simply the supremacy of the state.  We believe that justice comes from the belief that no one is above the law, not from obedience to the ruler.

The greater danger–and this notion has been virtually catechetical since the eighteenth century in America–is to curtail liberty based on what people believe,  how they look, or where they come from,  how much they earn, who they love, or how healthy they are. Every political decision of my lifetime that amounted to progress has been based on an enlargement of liberty and freedom for all groups and classes.  Every failed project and embarrassing moment has come from attempts to limit it.

To put it starkly: Liberty is normative in America.  It is organic.  But anything that is injurious to liberty–intolerance, racism, sexual bigotry, religious hate–is an affront to freedom.  We are, to quote the axiom, “always free but not always free to do what we want.”  An act of absolute liberty that offends, limits, excludes, humiliates or harms is not an exercise of executive privilege or personal rights but an offense against human values.

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We are now being tested not by ordinary events, which are organic to the nature of democracy,  but by the election of a leader who does not know where he stands in relation to any of the crises and tests the republic has endured.  He is not the Voice of Liberty. His mawkish patriotism is for sale to regimes who prefer totalitarianism to freedom. He has declared the press the enemy of the people.  He has manipulated religious opinion with the glaring hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  He cannot make decisions based on historical knowledge, nor geographical and cultural context, because he is ignorant of both. He cannot tell the truth, in any domain, but relies on hysterical approval of falsehood and exaggeration.  He regards America as wealth-accumulating entity driven by greed, supported by a war industry, and in a state of perpetual economic war with foes and allies.

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So we could ask: since Trump is actually a page, or at least a paragraph, in  this checkered story, why single him out for special blame.  America, after all, is still (charitably)  a Great Experiment.  Though he looks like bad fruit this son of an unskilled Scottish chambermaid, grandson of a draft-dodging, brothel-owning refugee from Germany, via the great Northwest and Canada, husband of two east European buccaneer wives,  and friend to beauty pageant, porn star and Playboy models everywhere,  is now a part of the American story.  To some people in the Heartland, he is the prince of liberty and the exemplification of a certain kind of “freedom.” To most Americans, he is Mammon.

I’m going to end this screed with a series of questions–for which I thank not Rousseau but his nineteenth century protege John Stuart Mill who also wrote a famous essay On Liberty.

For Rousseau, liberty, is the “immunity from arbitrary exercise of authority; political independence.” natural liberty being the freedom to pursue one’s own desires and civil liberty being the freedom to pursue the General Will.  Only when he gets to chapter four of his massive “essay” does Mill take up the question of whether the state has the right to exercise control over liberty.  “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”  But as we ponder the implications of that assertion, each in her or his way, let me pose the daunting questions raised by Mill’s and Rousseau’s inquiry into the nature of liberty:

  1.  Does the state have the right to regulate gun ownership, as a predicate of its obligation to minimize harm?
  2. Is it the right of parents to deny education to a child to preserve their freedom of decision?
  3. As a laborer owns his body and his labour, is it not the case that the pregnant woman owns her own body and should be granted total freedom in deciding matters pertaining solely to her?
  4. Can the state restrict the lawful entry of people into a given territory when there is no evidence harm will come of their entry but certain that harm will come to them if they are denied entry?
  5.  Does a rich state have an obligation to provide for the health and well-being of all of its citizens?
  6. Obversely, if it is illegal for a parent to withhold medical treatment to a sick child, from where does the state derive the right to withhold medical care to its general population?
  7. Does an individual have the right to defy the state in cases where his participation in its activities would cause harm to others?

I venture to say that the President of the United States has not thought about any of these questions, nor read Mill, Rousseau or Jefferson, or the United States Constitution, let alone the massive debates contained in The Federalist Papers–the first recorded debates in the history of a fledgling democracy about the philosophical  grounds of its Constitution. He might say to this, “So what. Why should I read when I can rely on my very good brain for the answers.”  This question has already been answered.

Many early depictions of the Liberty Tree show a noose dangling from one of its branches.  The message was unmistakable.  The true sons and daughters of liberty will punish traitors and tyrants.  Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper.