Or, why, once again, we can’t have nice things.
All bad precedents begin as justifiable measures. — Julius Caesar
There is hope. But not for us. – Franz Kafka
“Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man” – Nietzsche
So I have the definitive unluck to encounter this in my daily facebook news feed: A eulogy about the pure and joyful polemic hate of Alexander Cockburn publishes of Counterpunch. (Note I am not linking to Counterpunch because it does not need my traffic.) Jacobin’s Managing Editor, Connor Kilpatrick, waxed-and-waned poetic on Cockburn’s polemics. Now, Kilpatrick, accurately, points out some of the snobbery aimed at the Tea-party which led Cockburn to defend it:
When liberals and lefties dismissed the Tea Party, calling it an inauthentic “astro-turf” operation, Alex was quick to call them on their smugness: “You think the socialist left across America can boast of 647 groups, or of any single group consisting of more than a handful of people?”
Marine Le Pen is a nationalist politician, no anti-Semite, quite reasonably exploiting the intense social discontent in France amid the imposition of the bankers’ austerity programs.
She has gone to the heart of the matter, asserting that monetary union cannot be fudged, that it is incompatible with the French nation-state.
She has won 18 percent of the vote by campaigning to pull France out of the euro and smash the whole project. A recent poll shows only 3 percent of French voters consider immigration the main issue. So logically, Le Pen cannot owe her 18 percent to that issue. The No. 1 issue is employment.
It’s true; things could get ugly. Europe’s politics are being refashioned before our eyes. Greece has 21 percent unemployment, and the Socialist Pasok Party could face near-extinction in the upcoming elections. In Spain, 1 in 4 persons are out of work, and the right-wing prime minister insists on maintaining austerity. As Evans-Pritchard points out, “We forget now, but Germany was heavily indebted to foreigners in 1930, like Spain today. It was the refusal of the creditor powers (U.S. and France) to reliquify the system and slow monetary contraction that pushed Germany over a cliff. The parallels are haunting.”
But there’s another aspect to this habit of flinging the charge of fascism at Europe, and that’s the simple matter of national hypocrisy. The mobs that flooded into the streets to revel in the execution of Osama bin Laden were not exulting in America, land of the free and of constitutional propriety. They were lauding brute, lawless, lethal force. In this year of political conventions we’ll be hearing a lot of tub-thumping about American freedoms, but if there’s any nation in the world that is well on the way to meriting the admittedly vague label of “fascist,” surely it’s the United States.
You will notice that this is the exact same tone and rational as the defense of the tea-party, but with a twist, the people whom Cockburn was defending in the Tea Party are now implied to be fascists.
You will now that Cockburn published Israel Shamir and defended him:
We’ve run a few pieces by Israel Shamir down the years and each time a couple of emails promptly drop into our editorial inbox from dedicated Shamir-haters who seemingly have nothing better to do than surf the internet for Shamir-sightings, then rush forward with routine obloquies. They never vary. To believe them, the man is a blend of all that’s vile, a hospice for prejudice and hate, starting with anti-Semitism and moving forward into complicity with the darkest forces in Russia. I reply to them that co-editor Cockburn has in the course of his long career been falsely accused of innumerable crimes against conscience and enlightenment and so I’m instinctively averse to black-balling a writer on the basis of some charges sloshing around on the internet. What we print – most recently two very useful pieces on Julian Assange – bear no sign of the vile prejudices ascribed to Shamir and have been reports well worth presenting to our readers.
Even though Sharmir published this:
The philosemites of Aaronovitch’s ilk brought incredible calamities to mankind and Jews. They excluded a priori the possible guilt of Captain Dreyfus or Beyliss. Instead of standing aside and allowing justice to take its due course, they created mass hysteria in France and Russia, thus obtaining acquittals but also undermining popular belief in the judicial system. After Dreyfus and Beyliss trials, Jews rose above the law. This caused the backlash of the 1930s, the back-backlash of our days, and will probably cause a back-back-backlash tomorrow.
In a better world, Dreyfusards and Beylissists would be sentenced for contempt of court; for their unspoken axiom was “a Gentile may not judge a Jew.” One should not believe or disbelieve ritual murders. [...]
Jews of our day rarely know they are supposed to eat matzo on Passover, let alone afikoman. They are blissfully unaware of the troublesome legacy of mediaeval Jewry.
Kilpatrick does not even gloss these incidents, merely alluding to Cockburn’s defense of the Tea party, and ends on this:
And it’s in this sense that Alex played what I think was his most valuable role for the left, though as a staunch anti-militarist, he’d probably hate the metaphor: he was like our drill sergeant. He hurled abuse at us — but beautifully stated and almost alway hilarious abuse — from every possible direction. “Oh, maybe if Hillary — SLAP!” “Oh, maybe if I buy organi — SLAP!” “Oh, if only the Democrats — SLAP!” “The Kennedys were the last true — SLAP!” But why was he doing it? Because he was mean? No. Because he wanted us to survive. He wanted us to win.
And honestly, we needed it.
And yet no where in this: “Oh, maybe if we teamed up with the anti-liberal right — SLAP!”
This, my dear readers, is why I have given up hope on the “idea of the left.” For when it condemns one thing one political or moral principle, it excuses a similar ideological offense elsewhere. Both errors, however, remain offenses. If one cannot expect consistency on these matters–to at least mention the contradictions and caveats on these positions–what could one see emerging beyond that.
But then again, what I am to expect from these paper Jacobins, so willing to talk about both the guillotine and social democracy. At the end of the day, the problem is not in a Marxian analysis of economics or ideological situations, or even a Christian one. Alasdair MacIntyre, in a way far more consistent that Cockburn and his eulogists and defenders, pointed out the mutual problems that Marxism and traditional Christianity shared against liberal modernity. If that was what this was based in, I would be more sympathetic, but it is clearly not. If I am being charitable, this is opportunism of the basest form, but if I am not charitable, it is far more dark. On Jacobin, I am sure it is the former, and on Cockburn I do not know.
Marx’s critique of capital does not stand or fall on the hypocrisies of left-wing polemicist and cadres, any more than any religious or ethical or economic claim depends on the actions of its adherents. Truth claims must be dealt with separately, but if I were a religious man I would take these “contradictions” as a sign of the fallen nature of humanity. If I am religious, I am not that kind of religious though and cannot take consolidation in such things: the dark impulses and the human contradictions are not so easily just written off as inevitable. Julius Caesar, in perhaps one of the most self-ironic statements in history, said, Omnia mala exempla ex rebus bonis orta sunt.
Kilpatrick mentions this, but perhaps it should be used against its subject: “There is hope, but none for us.”
With both Kafka and Caesar, truer words are rarely said, or embodied.
The blog has always been a sort of home of my reflections and evolution: It started as an education blog, then as a standard skeptical blog, then morphed into a left-wing political blog, and slowly morphed again into a place for cultural reflections on the limits and problems of modernity. The last few months I left this blog in El Mono Liso capable hands, and his reflections on “the left” and limits of our ecological and spiritual realities, have inspired me to return. El Mono Liso comes from a Catholic background, and I from a more Hebriac one: although I have always been as interested in the ideas in religion as the history of Marxian communists, I have never really set out to explore the links and breakages.
Perhaps it comes from reading too much Carl Schmitt, but the lingering cultures of the various religious communicates seem to continue on in our society and this needs to be more fully explored. This blog’s current incarnation with this name began with exploring various self-identified pagans demographics and critiques of modernity, and we will return to those cultural concepts.
Now that I am editing for the North Star, and doing work on “neo-modernist aesthetics” (which despite the key word is an answer to “modernity” more than a development from it) at Former People, which is the literary sister e-journal to this blog, I think my writings here will be more historical, personal, and theoretical than they were in the past.
But this is a theoretical and meditative on this from an essay I posted in the North Star:
A guiding light is not a map or a program or a set of vocabulary words and rubrics to apply to complicated historical movements. Materialism means dealing with what is here, historical means looking with one eye to the past and another to the possibility of a radically different future.
If we are to understand “materially”–to approach this without take any methodological supernaturalism as given– why this religious impulses and ethics still color our lives and manifest in our relationship to “modernity” as whole, we must admit that they do so, and then be sincere with the implication.
To imagine a radically different culture takes dealing with the material of our current cultures as well as the political and economic trends I observe in other venues.
It is good to be back.
I have started a number of posts contrasting my previous traditional understanding of Christianity with my current project of addressing Christian themes from a politically radical perspective. Here I will do the same, but the subject of this essay will be the Fourth Evangelist and supposed Apocalypse author, St. John. Known as “the Divine” or the “Theologian”, it is traditionally thought that the author of the last canonical Gospel and visionary of the end of the world was “closest to the heart of Jesus” and thus the most mystical author of the New Testament, with perhaps St. Paul being a close second. In the ancient church, for example, John’s Gospel was begun at Eastertide since the new catechumens baptized during the Paschal Vigil were deemed sufficiently purified to listen to those most august opening lines of John’s description of the deeds of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word…”
As I have stated previously, these are pretty stories, but it is too bad that they aren’t true. The fact is that John’s “mystical” passages and his visions of cosmic cataclysm had real world foundations that came out of ancient Israel’s struggle against empire and its most contemporary manifestation of the time: Rome. The two books that I will be reviewing briefly in this essay deal with John’s writings employing similar methodologies and they come to proximate conclusions. The first is Wes Howard-Brook’s and Anthony Gwyther’s book, Unveiling Empire: Revelation Then and Now, which is an attempt to approach the last book of the Christian Bible from a contemporary perspective. The second is José Porfirio Miranda’s doctoral thesis on the themes addressed throughout St. John’s Gospel and Epistles: Being and the Messiah: The Message of St. John. While these works discuss the canonical books in different contexts, both try to place the historical figure of John firmly back on earth: clipping the eagle’s wings, so to speak (the eagle being the symbol of the Fourth Evangelist). However, in the process, they place the emphasis of these books back where it should be: on doing justice to one’s neighbor and struggling against a social order that exploits the many for the sake of the few.
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Three Pieces on Africa
You could say that I am an ungrateful person. When life is best to me, I begin to think of all the things that could go wrong. With a young family, a comfortable home, a job that doesn’t require that I shower afterwards and not before (the true great “American” class divide, according to the late Joe Bageant), I am so far a First World success story. I am by no means at the top of the heap, or even prosperous for that matter. But I don’t have to worry about where my kids’ next meal will come from, whether armed men will come in the night to harm my family, or whether someone will steal my things while I sleep. Like most people in the U.S. imperial polity, I have come to value security and convenience above all things. Perhaps that makes me complicit in the crimes of this country or civilization, I don’t know. But at least I will pay lip service to the idea that the life I lead is not the apex of virtue. People in this country tend to mistake prosperity for godliness. I would like to think that I have enough sense to realize that these two terms, “prosperity” and “godliness”, are diametrical opposites.
The question always arises when I contemplate “First World life”: At what price? What is the price of replacing that gadget that broke, the price of cheap produce at the supermarket, the social price of that piece of jewelry a man just bought for his beloved? Suburbia is perfect for covering up the effort that you don’t see go into the construction of a great thieving empire. Our system works because no one is guilty of anything, and everyone looks innocent. I love my kids, I pay my taxes, I make small talk with my neighbor, I mow my lawn, etc. etc. Some say that city is morally superior, but even there you can withdraw into gentrified enclaves, or into the drugs and distractions that make the city “no place to raise a family”. The hologram goes on, after this commercial break.
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Above: An excerpt from Cristóbal de Morales’s Requiem
On Trayvon Martin: There is no way Trayvon Martin was going to get justice under the bourgeois system. That is not simply because of the direct racism of the incident, but of the structural racism of the law itself. Those “creepy-ass crackers” who are cheering Zimmerman’s acquittal do so because they too would like to be able to pursue suspicious (black) kids in their neighborhoods and shoot them if they deem it necessary. Basically, the undercurrent of U.S. discourse nowadays is basically “every man for himself” (gender exclusive language intentional there), so when the hordes start pouring out of their designated sacrifice zones, it’s “lock and load” time. Race is written all over this, really, as it is in Florida’s murder and manslaughter laws. Except if you’re black, because there you are given the benefit of the doubt that you are a criminal up to no good. U.S. drug incarceration statistics don’t lie in that regard.
Some call it a lynching. Perhaps it was, but more important than the historical parallels are the historical discontinuities. Racism in the United States has now morphed from a scary Cyclops of open bigotry to a grotesque Hydra with a dozen heads, and if you strike at one of them, three more grow. In this case, one white man chased down a black kid with some candy, there was grappling, and the black kid ended up dead. And the non-black man walked away. No one knows what really happened; the only other person who does is six feet underground. That is what structural racism is now in the United States: nobody’s fault. There are victims, but no predators. The inner cities are sacrifice zones, but no one nailed them to the cross. Or rather, no one can be blamed for it, everyone has a good excuse. Industrial jobs can be “more efficiently done” elsewhere, so those in the inner cities who expected to take those jobs are just “excess humanity”. We can’t “discriminate” against people on the basis of color, so when we have a “color blind” basis of admission to university, for example, it’s no one’s fault that the universities don’t reflect the color spectrum of the United States. That’s just how things are, and we can do nothing about it. The same is the case for prisons in inverse proportion, etc. etc. There is an old Catholic saying that what the Devil most wants is for people to think he doesn’t exist. The same is the case with racism, I would argue.
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At the risk of being Freudian, I suspect my radical ideas stem from early childhood experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional family that relied on religious shaming, arbitrary punishment, and abuse both physical and emotional to keep us kids in line. It's a mystery to me that my younger brother has chosen to quite enthusiastically embrace the Pentecostal subculture that I find so often toxic.
With some trepidation, I write yet another essay about liberation theology. I say “trepidation” since I feel that I might be beating a dead horse at this point. After all, I have already put my cards on the table and stated outright that I am not a Christian in even a heretical sense, though I maintain the cultural identity of Catholicism due to sentimental and family ties. The catalyst for this essay comes from such ties. My family is good friends with a group of liberal Catholic laywomen living in a community of common life down the road (basically, nuns). My father-in-law cuts their grass, and they give my children candy whenever we go visit. All of the members there are well into their seventies, and one just made ninety. On the walls of their religious house and chapel are pictures of Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and other icons of progressive Catholicism. They are indeed from another epoch, and they have a library to show for it. I borrowed a few books for them, one of which will be reviewed below. While I wasn’t planning on doing any more essays concerning liberation theology, a new source of books for a person whose book budget is all of zero dollars cannot be passed up. And as I usually only write about things that I have read, I am forced to subject you, the reader, to yet another set of jottings about a subject near and dear to my heart.
The book in question is José Miranda’s Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression. A few words concerning the author are appropriate here, especially since Anglophone readers probably have not have heard of his work. Born in Mexico in 1924, Miranda was ordained a priest in the Jesuit order in Spain in the 1950’s and studied economics at the University of Munster in Germany. His pro-working class activism in northern Mexico in the 1960’s forced him to leave again for Europe to do courses in Biblical Sciences in Rome, for which Marx and the Bible was to be his doctoral thesis. Due to its controversial nature, it was rejected as a doctoral thesis, yet he was later awarded a doctorate in Biblical Studies for another work, Being and the Messiah, which is a reading of the Gospel of John. Miranda returned to Mexico in the 1970’s, only to leave the priesthood and enter academia, notably as a philosopher dialoguing with the likes of Hegel, analytical philosophy, and John Rawls. He died in 2001, and several of his books have been translated into English.
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As I have stated previously, my long intellectual meandering often results in books that I intend to read falling by the wayside. One such book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. When it first came out in 2007, I had every intention of getting to it, but the economic crisis, a move across country, a marriage, two kids, one house, and a job that would make Dilbert blow his brains out got in the way. About a month ago, however, I encountered the book again in my Internet wanderings and realized, “Hey, my local library probably has that book!” And sure enough, it did. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the writing style, which properly communicates Taleb’s curmudgeonry. As an aspiring curmudgeon myself, it was nice to find in Taleb a kindred spirit, though with totally different interests. I too would like to think that I have drunk deep from the wine skins of ancient philosophers, particularly those who were contemplating the “good life” in the face of risk. There was a time when Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other Stoics were my authors of choice. And in the end, I was compelled by one of the main messages of the book, which is how not to be a sucker. Because no one wants to be a sucker.
“Sorry, anarcho-primitivism. It’s not you, it’s me.”
I have the nasty habit of flirting with various ideological tendencies, going through a myriad of variations of each, and seemingly changing colors with each of them like a demented chameleon. The end result is usually the same: I tend to cast them off but keep the good memories from my encounters. This time around, anarcho-primitivism is the victim of unrequited love on my part. Though it has been central to my reflections in the past few months, I am fast coming to the conclusion that as a theoretical framework, it too has some seriously fatal flaws. The catalyst for this decision was my reading of Kevin Tucker’s essays in Species Traitor #4, the most recent and perhaps last edition of that journal. In general, while I found the essays convincing concerning many aspects of the “anti-civ” critique, the ethical foundations and praxis found in these essays were highly tendentious and problematic. If anything, I have concluded that anarcho-primitivism needs much more convincing and eloquent proponents than Kevin Tucker, John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, and the rest. Perhaps it is the occupational hazard of the anarcho-primitivist that no such spokesperson will ever be forthcoming.
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[Injustice] is the great secular and religious which must be wiped out of the world. It is an objective, social fact which must be erased from history. It is a transgression which demands the death of the homo injustus so that the homo justus may be resurrected to new life. It is the denial of God himself, who is just by his very nature. Injustice negates the heart and core of Christianity. By denying the universal brotherhood of God’s children, it denies that God is the father of all human beings. It is both a dogmatic and an existential denial, because the existential affirmation of inequality and injustice gives the lie to any verbal profession of this basic Christian dogma. It is a denial of the first commandment insofar as that commandment was interpreted for us by Jesus Christ; for he made a basic link between it and the second commandment, saying that the two of them summed up the whole of the law.
-Ignacio Ellacuria, Freedom Made Flesh: The Mission of Christ and His Church
To Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga is attributed the saying that the only two absolutes in the world are God and hunger. Of hunger, I am convinced, but I am not convinced of the “God” part. In terms of reading liberation theology, the writers I have read so far have been fairly reticent about telling us what their version of God is. Part of me thinks that they are uncomfortable with the concept. After all, how can we untangle any idea of God from the empires and kingdoms of domination. Even if they would like to posit the primacy of Jesus Crucified, Christ Pantocrator still remains watching us from above: the Lord of the Universe who doesn’t allow a head to fall from your head unless it is his will that this occurs. The main question that one would take away from the dueling absolutes in Casaldaliga’s formulations is that if God is an absolute, why does the other, hunger, exist? There is no satisfactory answer.
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