Posts from ‘Meta’

Sep
15

From time to time there are things on the news that make me yell at my television because they are so outrageous or because the media have so spun the wrong narrative that it is brainwashing the public. Cases in point:

In a photo op I watched on CBS news Trump was  handing out sandwiches or something to hurricane victims when a middle aged white man contrasted Trump’s behavior in coming out to help with Obama’s who was golfing during the last hurricane. This of course is keeping with the internet memes which show a picture of Trump helping compared with a picture of Obama playing golf. The news commentators allowed this to stand without correcting this mistaken view. There are plenty of media photos of Obama comforting victims in the aftermath of natural disasters so it would have been easy to show that this is untrue. They let this man’s untrue statement stand. I also have not heard them correcting Trump supporters who say that as president he did not visit the victims of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation when he was years away from being president at the time. I know the media cannot go around correcting every ignorant thing uttered by Trump supporters, but at least they can combat the worst of them especially when they occur during their broadcasts. When they do not, they become complicit in the spread of misinformation that it is their duty to correct.

I also yelled at my TV when an open microphone caught Sen, Chuck Schumer (D- N.Y.) saying he thought Trump liked Democrats and specifically liked him. He sounded like the unpopular person at the school dance who is so grateful that someone has paid attention to him or her that he or she mistakes that for affection. Time again again Trump has shown that he cares only for himself and those who fawn around him. He will say anything to get what he wants from you by lying to your face and then stabbing you in the back. Just ask Jeff Sessions. Sen. Schumer he is only trying to metaphorically get in your pants and get what he wants from you. He no more “likes” you than a rabid dog can. I do not recommend snuggling with one. “Dealing” in politics is common but you must have two “partners” who are honest and trustworthy to do it. You do not.

I also yelled at my TV at the news just this morning about a cop in St. Louis literally getting away with the murder of a black man. I guess there is such a thing as outrage overload. This has become so commonplace that it is difficult to muster anger about it. It is the norm and what I now expect to happen in these cases all the time. Until whites muster enough concern about police over-reach as about Colin Kapernick, this will just go on and on. As Ella Baker told us “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” Job security.

Finally I yell at my TV whenever some pundit or another points to a Trump weakness which they feel might lead to the end of his presidency before 2020. This may be disillusionment among his base, rebellion from moderates in the Republican Congress, Mueller’s obstruction and Russian election influence investigations, or Democratic victories in state elections in areas where Trump drew support. This is just wishful thinking by progressives or liberals. Nowhere are clear enough signs that we can expect one of these deus ex machina (intervention from on high) solutions to end his presidency in the light of the massive outpouring of support by his voters. Unless Democrats can field appealing candidates for national offices none of that is going to matter. With only a few exceptions that does not appear to be happening. Democrats including Hillary Clinton show no understanding of why they lost. They cannot just continue business as usual or just try to win back the white working class in order to win elections. Trump’s victory is a watershed showing that drinking from the same trough as the Republicans, playing identity politics, and giving us the same old retreads will not generate the support needed to win. Even pointing out the lies and telling the truth does not seem to work.

Yelling at my TV as the indignities mount up does not seem to help anyone but me. Thank you for letting me rant at you. Perhaps you can do something to change where we are.

Jul
11

Out of the blue my friend asked me “What do you think of faith and epistemology?” He was an old friend who I hadn’t seen in a few years and we were having a pleasant lunch together. In his youth he had earned a master’s degree in philosophy before turning to a 35 year career as a middle and high school teacher. We were both seeking to exercise our intellectual chops as we hadn’t done so for a while. By faith he meant belief system and by epistemology he meant an investigation of our knowledge of what is true or false. A few months back I had written in this blog about the connection between belief systems and ethics or morality. I had said at that time that our belief system corresponds with our sense of right and wrong. We either choose a belief system based on our sense of right and wrong or a sense of right or wrong based on our belief system. He was asking a different question. How does our belief system relate to our sense of true and false not right and wrong?

I recently read a science fiction novel called The Three Body Problem which is very good and the beginning of a trilogy. The first couple of chapters are set during China’s cultural revolution in which ideology was used to determine whether one accepted the laws of physics or not. The effect is terrifying. Uneducated people were deciding that this or that law of physics should be rejected because it had been discovered by a capitalist or that physics teachers should be disbelieved, rejected, humiliated or literally killed because they were “too bourgeois.” In this instance the ideology was communism but it could have been any ideology. It could have been a religion like Christianity or Islam or a different political ideology like liberalism, conservatism, or libertarianism. Some of the characters in the novel and some of the events in the novel are set in motion by this beginning. Even as the novel careens in a very different direction it is that early picture of ideology (faith) determining what you believe to be true or false (epistemology) that haunts me.

There has been much talk lately about how facts and science are only accepted if they support our ideology. Political positions have become more dogged and harder to change if they can be changed at all. People are talking past each other so that no real “discussion” takes place. All of these are symptoms of faith (belief system) determining what we accept as true knowledge (epistemology.) Some have attributed this human nature, to a primitive tribalism, and how humans have always interacted with the world around them. That is nonsense. I have spent most of my adult life either lessening the hold that my belief systems have on my evaluation of knowledge or teaching others to do so.  I have seen others do so albeit in the specialized environment of the classroom and the college setting, but they have been able to do it nonetheless. Such hardening of the brain paths is not an inherent human trait. It is a choice.

Not to get all Marxian on your ass, but it is the current economic position of people, the growing inequality of late stage capitalism, and the power relationships that result from them that has led to what seems like a tighter relationship between faith and epistemology. As the survival stakes have gotten higher the relationship between what people believe and what they accept as “fact” has gotten stronger. This obscures the relationships between economics, politics, and real life. It is only by realizing that what is true is not only what our belief systems tell us is true, that there is any hope of getting to this underlying relationship.

Take for example the Republican faith that tax cuts for the wealthy are the key to unleashing funds that business will use to expand. Nowhere in our history has this proven to be the case. By any measure you want to use, number of jobs, income of the middle class, total funds invested, this tactic has proven untrue time and time again. Yet it is such an article of faith in their belief system that they are willing to deprive 22 million people of health insurance to achieve it. It is true that many of them have a vested interest in these cuts (e.g. campaign contributions, personal investments, etc.) but they rationalize it to themselves with their belief system. That belief system enables them to ignore inconvenient facts like it doesn’t work and find “facts” that say it does.

Let me be clear about what I am saying here. Having faith is not the problem. The problem is allowing that faith to blind you to facts. Open your mind to a realistic view of what’s around you. You might be surprised at what you find.

Jan
13

To be honest I have always been ambivalent about Martin Luther King Day. It’s not because I didn’t think he was a great man. If anyone in my lifetime deserves an American holiday it is surely this man. There are two things though that bother me about the holiday. First, it reduces the civil rights movement to the actions of one man when it really wasn’t. This is of course in line with the American myth that it is only great people who move American history. The civil rights struggle, as probably every other event in American history, was very different from this. It was the result of ordinary people, performing ordinary acts with courage and determination. It wasn’t just Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama but hundreds of people who walked, hitchhiked, and carpooled every day for a year to boycott a bus system which made them sit in the back of the bus. It was children from six-year-olds to teenagers who desegregated schools by walking past mobs with faces contorted by hatred, people who spit on them, and many who yelled vile things. It was college students who sat in Woolworth lunch counters while crowds of people shouted epithets and poured condiments over them. It was freedom riders who rode buses and were beaten, shot at, arrested, and jailed for the simple act of riding a bus or trying to use a restroom or waiting area. It was people trying to walk across a bridge or along a road, but risking physical harm or death to do so. Ordinary people doing ordinary things with courage and determination. These as much as Dr. King are the real heroes of the civil rights movement and should get the honor and respect due them.

My second complaint about the holiday is that it has allowed Dr. King’s legacy to be controlled by politicians and mainstream media who have turned him into something he wasn’t. Nostalgia always turns the past into what suits the needs of the present and this has been especially the case with King. As the Broadway play Hamilton tells us, history is not just who lived and who died, but who tells your story. Note the story they tell on this day. Martin Luther King was a highly principled man who exposed the segregation which black people had to endure and led marches to bring about change. All this of course is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, MLK was a spokesperson who preached nonviolence in the fight against racism and intolerance. There were some who were not nonviolent, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers come to mind, and they were an important part of the story. King’s memory is used to discredit them. Yes, the civil rights movement ultimately reached its apex in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1966. Racism however goes far deeper than what these remedies address.

In the last few years of his life King realized this too and turned his attention to the antiwar movement, income inequality and other ethnic groups. He saw that the growing defense budget was taking needed money from the social programs he supported. He saw that his vision of nonviolence needed to be extended to foreign affairs. He noticed that the hard-won gains in desegregation meant little if income inequality prevented people of color from having access to them. He heard the cries of police brutality and economic pain that his black critics were expressing. At the time of his death he was speaking out against the Vietnam War, he was planning a poor people’s demonstration in Washington, and he was bringing the media circus which followed him to a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis. In a speech delivered only months before he was killed he said,

it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

This side of King was less popular with the mainstream and is too often left out of the narrative that is told today.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached concern for others and standing up for what you believe is right, but he did more than that. He espoused the creation of a beloved community in which there would be no poverty because society would support all at a basic level of existence; there would be no racism because each would see the other as a brother or sister; there would be no war, not because people would live without conflicts, but because they would find non-violent ways to settle them. This beloved community was not some pie in the sky utopia for King, but an achievable goal if enough people adopted his belief in nonviolence.

King never thought that most people would support him because they were people of high moral character. As an African novel puts it “the beautiful ones are not yet born.” He undoubtedly thought that some would, but he also knew that others would support him only if they understood that their own self-interest would be enhanced if they did. It was part of his method to convince them that it would.

So, on his day let’s honor the real Martin Luther King Jr. and not some character that has been made up.

Jun
05

Soul Man

Posted by Randy in Meta

Keep in mind that I am an historian not a fortune teller and I am writing this before the final primaries and the convention. Maybe one of the Republicans wild punches will land and Hillary will be disqualified as a candidate;  maybe Bernie’s followers’ fantasy of the superdelegates becoming convinced that only Bernie can beat Trump, comes true. However,  Hillary’s march to the nomination seems to me the most likely scenario. I believe Bernie will ultimately endorse Hillary when she wins the nomination and I am not afraid of him dividing the party with a third party run. His followers are a different story. I can see them sitting out if she becomes the Democratic candidate and either allowing Trump to win or at least making me sweat on election night. Why then do I encourage Bernie to keep fighting? It is not about getting good sounding yet ultimately meaningless planks in the platform although I wish Cornell West the best of luck. The Democratic party has lost its way and become just as much of a tool of the 1% as the Republicans although of a slightly different flavor. This has left the middle class, progressives, people of color, single mothers, idealistic youth, and the poor, all disenfranchised. Many have pinned their hopes on Bernie as an agent to change this. To them the failure of Bernie’s campaign to achieve the nomination is seen as a loss that signals the failure of his “revolution.” I see it as a first step. Let us admit that to truly transform the Democratic Party is going to take time. Just as the insurgent campaign of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 begot the nomination for George McGovern in 1972. It was the disastrous loss of McGovern in 1972 that eventually led to today’s counter revolution of superdelegates who will protect Hillary. The country was a different place and not ready for McGovern or progressive ideas in 1972. It will take some preparation before they will be ready in the future.

The situation today is quite different. The electorate is changing not only in the demographic emergence of more voters of color, but in the rejection of politics as usual that Trump’s emergence has revealed. Right now what we are seeing is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. I see Bernie not as the “Savior” but as John the Baptist readying the party for a “Savior” who is yet to come. His “revolution” rhetoric and progressive ideas are a preparation for the future. If HRC is elected we have seen that her “pragmatism” is simply a response to which way the wind is blowing. We need to ensure that the wind is a progressive one. I heard Eugene McCarthy speak many years after his retirement from politics and he said that the best candidate may be an opponent who could change. HRC is certainly that. Trump is that too, but I worry that if he is elected there may not be a presidential election in 2020. If Bernie loses the nomination he needs to ensure that he has enough delegates to help sway the inner workings of the party toward a progressive future. The ultimate importance of this next election cycle or two may be the election of progressive candidates to Congress. If we compare national opinion polls to the voting of elected officials we see a disconnect. For example, a majority of Americans support some kind of gun control yet the conservative Congress opposes even modest measures. We need to have a Congress more in touch with what Americans want and will support. Whatever their faults the Republicans have been successful in convincing the middle class to vote for them usually by scapegoating someone else. I think that if we see the ideas that Bernie has put forth translated into ideas that the electorate will support we will see his “revolution” transform into real reform.

Feb
08

There has been so much internet talk about the fact that at last Saturday’s GOP debate in New Hampshire Sen. Marco Rubio repeated himself four times, but there hasn’t been enough talk about what he actually said. Here is what he said:

But I would add this. Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world. We don’t want to be like the rest of the world, we want to be the United States of America. And when I’m elected president, this will become once again, the single greatest nation in the history of the world, not the disaster Barack Obama has imposed upon us. …We have to understand what we’re going through here. We are not facing a president that doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows what he is doing. That’s why he’s done the things he’s done. That’s why we have a president that passed Obamacare and the stimulus. All this damage that he’s done to America is deliberate. This is a president that’s trying to redefine this country.

He said that President Obama is trying to make us too much like other countries with health care for all and government stimulating the economy. Obama also wants free community college, more renewable energy, less income inequality, fewer police shooting black youths, and more humanitarian immigration policies. Why does Rubio say we should oppose these things? Not because they are necessarily bad but because they would make us more like the rest of the world and less American. Obama is trying to make us one of those countries that has free health care, better education, less economic inequality, and lives up to its creed or justice and liberty for all. Obama is trying to redefine this country. That bastard.

Rubio wants us to remain low on the list of developed countries on how well we do those things because that is who we are. He has no suggestions of how we could get better but urges us to accept our poor performances as part of our identity.

I actually see what he said as a testimonial to Obama and the reason one should vote for the eventual Democratic candidate rather than whoever the GOP nominates: the blowhard, Eddie Munster, the boy in the bubble, or the fat cats’ nominee.

Dec
31

As one ages New Year’s Eve rituals get more and more constricted.  At first you get tired of spending your New Year’s Eve in public places among strangers so you restrict yourself to private parties with friends. Eventually you wind up spending it at home among family and eventually just in front of the television. You end up realizing that time zones are artificial inventions so you don’t have to stay up until midnight. Whenever you go to bed it has become a new year somewhere and upon awaking you will find it has become one for you. This is not an inevitable straight line progression; everyone goes through it in their own unique way. I bet however that everyone has gone through each stage at some point in his or her life. At one point in my teens I even went to Times Square to watch the ball drop.  This was neither as memorable nor as enjoyable as it was cracked up to be. For the last few years I have restricted myself to television watching and early bed times.  This brings me to the real subject of this essay: televised New Year’s Eve shows. When I was a kid the only thing on New Year’s Eve was Guy Lombardo. A mummified man who came out once a year to play music that was decades out of date with an orchestra that was stunningly un-hip. He was eventually replaced by the perpetually young looking Dick Clark whose “Rockin’ New Years Eve” promised to be a music show for the rest of us. It proved to be about ten years out of date but an accurate barometer of how youth culture was mis-perceived by mainstream culture. It has since become as much of an institution as Guy Lombardo and has fossilized as well. The transfer of the institution to Ryan Seacrest and the pale imitators like Carson Daly are just signs of this fossilzation. The institution has become a recap of what became popular in pop music culture that year.

For the last few years I have satisfied my longing for a counter cultural New Year’s Eve television experience by watching CNN. That’s right I said CNN. It is hosted by Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper in a morality play whose depths go on and on. In this play Griffin portrays the forces of chaos being barely contained by the uptight Cooper. Now think about that for a moment. The establishment is being represented by a gay Vanderbilt heir while the counter culture is being represented by a straight white woman who is an icon in the gay community. She has built a career out of taking down popular cultural figures in the Joan Rivers’ “Can we talk?” confessional mode. He has built a career not by denying his sexuality but by ignoring that it makes a difference. Talk about an inversion of roles.  It is all an act of course.  She is not really an agent of chaos but a skilled performer who knows exactly how far to push and what lines not to cross. He is not as establishment as he could be and she taunts, cajoles and brings out the sides of him that he works so hard to suppress. The moments of his laughter, embarrassment, and discomfort offer glimpses into the man behind the straitlaced persona.

I could go on about this morality play, but that is not all the program offers. CNN doesn’t have much money to put into the show and it does not try to compete by providing performances like the others.  It is however  broadcasting from the same spot so it can show you far off shots of the Ryan Seacrest and other network shows. Some of the guest on those other shows occasionally come over for interviews before or after their performances. Griffin uses those interviews and long shots to offer meta-criticism of the other shows which highlights both their artificiality and how much more money the networks have to spend. What CNN has used its money for is to have its correspondents report from locations they feel have interesting (read unusual) New Year’s Eve celebrations. These celebrations have ranged from odd local ones to a Miami one in which a drag queen is lowered at midnight in a giant high heeled slipper to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” which has become a stereotyped anthem of the gay community.

Let’s face it mainstream New Year’s Eve television programming will never really be counter cultural. We won’t see indie bands, hard core hip hop or political stuff. Even an ironic hipster viewing of the Ryan Seacrest ilk is not enough. At least on the CNN broadcast we can see how the mainstream can change if only to misrepresent the margins.

Aug
05

Although the Senate has rebuffed the first attempt to fast track defunding Planned Parenthood, there will be more attempts.  The Republican controlled New Hampshire state government has already done so. There is more sound than light in the recent opposition of anti-abortion advocates to the edited secret tapes of Planned Parenthood officials. I would no more accept those tapes as proof that PP was responsible for wrongdoing than I would accept Jurassic World as proof that dinosaurs exist. Let’s try to clear up the issues.

  1. Defunding PP will not stop abortions. The information that PP provides about abortion is freely available on the internet.  If anything their counseling on contraception and that abortion is only one of the options available to women and couples, cuts down on abortions.
  2. Planned Parenthood cannot use federal money to fund abortions.  There is a federal law against that.  If PP did then someone could bring a court case against them.
  3. Planned Parenthood does not sell fetus parts for money. As a non profit with limited funds it only gets reimbursed for its handling fees when their clients legally donate their fetus parts for scientific research. Scientific research I might add that has saved lives and led to better treatment of all
  4. The federal funds that PP does receive are used to provide its clients among whom the poor are overrepresented. A denial of federal funds would disproportionately affect the poor and the health services available to them.
  5. According to NPR 97% of PP funding goes into things other than “abortion services.”
  6. Defunding Planned Parenthood is not an issue about abortion but about federal funding of women’s health care. It is an attempt to use abortion as a wedge issue to curtail federal spending. One Republican candidate (Jeb!) has already said publicly that we are spending too much on women’s issues.
  7. The Republican senators who are leading this charge know or should know all of the above, but are playing the anti-abortion advocates like a fiddle for their own political advantage. It is using them to stir up the Republican base. It is a calculated, hypocritical, and cynical move that turns sincere anti abortion advocates into political pawns.

No matter what your stand on abortion you need to see this attack on Planned Parenthood for what it is: a callous political move rather than an attack on abortion.

 

Jul
15

In an interview with a New Hampshire newspaper Jeb Bush, Republican candidate for president, criticized Obama’s foreign policy for taking a “nuanced approach – where it’s all kind of so sophisticated it makes no sense, you know what I’m saying? Big-syllable words and lots of fancy conferences and meetings – but we’re not leading, that creates chaos, it creates a more dangerous world.” This anti-intellectualism is of course a pose.  Bush went to that most fancy and intellectual prep school Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and is a college graduate. Yet he feels that he must dumb himself down (and that is saying something for a member of the Bush family) in order to appeal to those he wants to vote for him. If that is not an insult to the American people I don’t know what is. It is moreover a statement that says that the rest of the world is as dumb as he assumes the American electorate to be. It is an appeal to get away from Obama’s “nuanced” approach to foreign policy and back to the old American foreign policy of being a bull in a china shop wielding American lives and money as a club.

Unlike others among the Republican presidential candidates Bush is not a lawyer.  His diplomatic experience is limited to teaching classes in Mexico as a high school student, speaking Spanish and marrying a Mexican woman. He feels and wants to convince us that his experience as a wealthy real estate developer and former governor of Florida is exactly what this country needs in its leadership. There are other Republican candidates with gubernatorial experience and others with much more public service experience than Bush.  If real estate development experience is a prerequisite then Trump has even more than Bush and we can see where that leads. Why then should people vote for Bush? Yes his family name recognition makes him a front runner and he has managed to raise money from the Republican fat cats, but why does he say we should vote for him? We should vote for him because he is less nuanced, doesn’t use as many three syllable words and doesn’t have as many meetings on foreign policy.

This is horrifying. We should all want our leaders to have a nuanced foreign policy, use whatever words necessary, and have as many meetings as it takes to avoid sending our troops off to war or to keep from sending our money abroad. The idea that the people who are working on our behalf should be “dumber” or less skilled is certainly an odd one. I for one want them to be better than that and as good as they can be. We should want our diplomats to be as much better than us at “diplomatting” as our soldiers are better than us at fighting.

I have hope that our electorate is better than this and there are enough voters to see the hypocrisy of Bush’s attempts to portray himself as one of the people. I hope we have learned our lesson about the last Bush we elected and will not fall for this again.  Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me.

 

Dec
22

The news: Two police officers were shot to death by a black man claiming it was in retaliation for the police murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. This is a tragedy clear and simple and my heart goes out to the families of the two police officers.  However it is not the media nor President Obama nor the mayor of New York that is to blame as the Police Benevolent Society official and probably many police officers claim. It is the fault of one insane man who wanted to go out by making a splash.  The issue of police over-reaction and brutality must not be subsumed by this tragedy. The right to protest nor any media coverage of it should not be affected no matter how conservatives will spin it. Last summer two whites killed police officers in Las Vegas, but there was no thought that all whites should be looked on suspiciously as a result.  There should be no police, media or public reaction that this incident proves black males are inherently violent. Put another way  if a white cop killing a black man does not prove that cops are violent, then a black man killing a cop doesn’t prove that blacks are inherently violent. Unfortunately that is the lesson some folks will take from this.   In political debate people too often take whatever happens as confirmation for whatever political or social prejudice one has. Some police and some whites will take this as proof of the inherent violence of the communities that people of color inhabit and will try to use it to justify a continuation of heavy handed tactics. They should realize that it is these heavy handed tactics that are contributing to their danger instead of blaming the mayor, the president, protesters, and anyone else that calls them on it. The community support that would have warned them that such a gunman was stalking them must be painstakingly built for policeman’s own safety as well as the community.

Those who blame the media or the politicians have learned nothing and they will not become safer through this reaction. Increased safety should be their goal. Avoiding the things that lead to a rupture with their communities rather than fighting publicity and reaction to police behavior, is the way out of this quagmire.  Doing what they have been doing will not make them safer. What the protesters and critics are doing is pointing the way to safer policing for both the police and the community by showing them the behavior that is counter productive. If they will listen rather than reacting with knee-jerk defensiveness they will become safer in an inherently dangerous job. The real tragedy is if we do not learn from this senseless act.  Then the sacrifice of these two officers and their families will be in vain.

Sep
18

In response to the Facebook challenge to list ten books that were important to me I want to briefly add some to the list of those I have already mentioned

Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon.  It turned me around on the psychological effects of colonialism and made me realize how much like African colonialism the situation of African Americans was.

“Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.” …“Two centuries ago, a former European colony decided to catch up with Europe. It succeeded so well that the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness, and the inhumanity of Europe have grown to appalling dimensions.” … “A government or a party gets the people it deserves and sooner or later a people gets the government it deserves.” … “To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.” 

Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. DuBois. It made me realize how lyrical and poetic memoir, sociology, history, politics and even musicology could be in the right hands. Its most famous quote:

“the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro… two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

The Interpretation of Cultures by Clifford Geertz. It contains an essay called “Religion as a Cultural System,” which looks at systems of belief as solutions to fundamental problems of existence. I used that essay several times in class to mixed success. Many students were fervent believers in some religion and viewed an attempt to see belief systems as solutions to problems as an atheistic heresy rather than a process of thought. For others the act of thinking about thinking just gave them a headache. Admittedly Geertz is not the easiest thing to read.  Here is a sample:

sacred symbols function to synthesize a people’s ethos–the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood –and their world view–the picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order. In religious belief and practice a group’s ethos is rendered intellectually reasonable by being shown to represent a way of life ideally adapted to the actual state of affairs the world view describes, while the world view is rendered emotionally convincing by being presented as an image of an actual state of affairs peculiarly well-arranged to accommodate such a way of life. This confrontation and mutual confirmation has two fundamental effects. On the one hand, it objectivizes moral and aesthetic preferences by depicting them as the imposed conditions of life implicit in a world with a particular structure, as mere common sense given the unalterable shape of reality. On the other, it supports these received beliefs about the world’s body by invoking deeply felt moral and aesthetic sentiments as experiential evidence for their truth. Religious symbols formulate a basic congruence between a particular style of life and a specific (if, most often, implicit) metaphysic, and in so doing sustain each with the borrowed authority of the other.”

For people who are inside a belief system apparently talking about it in a “meta” way is a difficult thing to do because they think it implies that the “reality” the belief system  describes isn’t real. I never took this to be Geertz’s point but other folks did. Perhaps it was because it implied that other realities and religions were also valid.

That’s enough to ponder.