Yesterday, my friend Stan Rozenfeld alerted me to a column written by conservative John Podhoretz over at National Review Online, a review of the new movie"Spider-Man 2" entitled"The Best of the Worst." (I see that Franklin Harris mentioned this on July 1. Also, check out Jim Henley's lengthy July blogging on Spider-Man.)
I confess I've not yet seen"Spider-Man 2," though I did enjoy the first film in the series. And I also confess to being a bit of a comic-book geek while growing up, with a collection that included everything from Batman, Superman and Aquaman to Classics Illustrated. In adulthood, I've frequently marveled over the artistry of an Alex Ross or the intellectual complexity of graphic novels, such as Kingdom Come.
Well, Podhoretz doesn't much appreciate this form of expression. A self-confessed “anti-comic-book snob,” he dismisses comics as “the most immature and illiterate of cultural forms,” “the province of powerless boys . . . a cultural embarrassment because the common culture has unthinkingly and stupidly accepted them as an art form.” Podhoretz views this acceptance as the “natural outcome of the youth-worship that took over American culture in the 1960s . . .”
Reading Podhoretz, I almost felt the ghost of psychiatrist Frederick Wertham, who had conducted studies into abnormal behavior in young people and, in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), claimed that American youth had been corrupted through their consumption of comic books, which depicted latent homosexuality (Batman and Robin), fantasies of sadistic joy (Superman), and un-woman-like behavior (Wonder Woman). This eventually prompted Estes Kefauver’s judicial committee to hold congressional hearings in 1954 on the subject of “Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency.”
Podhoretz doesn't go that far. He simply argues that comics are, well, stupid. He ridicules those who revel in the"very potent fantasy outlet" that comics provide,"a comforting outlet for those who feel totally powerless." He's just tired of hearing about
the wonders of supercharged adolescent fantasies as embodied in the comic book. They present archetypes of heroism, focus on the hidden power of the social outcast, yada, yada, yada. At best, we have been told, they are the contemporary version of the Norse sagas. Their fans use terms like"Golden Age" and"Silver Age" to differentiate them, and can go into extraordinary detail about the difference between your Marvel comic and your DC comic.
Podhoretz, not surprisingly the author of Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane, seems to give credence to those who think the Bush people"radiate negativity." In the end, however, he simply confesses that he's just pissed off because he"didn't preserve comic books from the 1960s and 1970s in little clear plastic bags," while his friends did, and now, they've"made thousands of dollars on them by selling them to comic-book stores whose owners and managers always seem to resemble Jabba the Hut—if Jabba the Hut wore a t-shirt with a Metallica logo on it. So maybe I'm a little bitter."
Well, get over yourself, Johnny! As my colleague Aeon Skoble has written, since the 1960s, the comic genre has become a “vehicle for consciousness-raising every bit as much as popular films and television shows." The visual iconography of comics is worth celebrating. The"sequential art" that it constitutes has often provided youth with a projection of the heroic that encapsulates a romantic aesthetic. Scott McCloud, taking a cue from master comics artist Will Eisner, reminds us that the medium is rooted in epic stories, which were pictured on walls among the ancient Egyptians and the pre-Columbians, or in tapestries (e.g., the Bayeux Tapestry), or even in “collage novels” (such as those of Max Ernst).
Moreover, as Paul Buhlemaintains, the increased interest in the impact of comics derives from the fact that “mass culture, from the early moments when we could take it in as children, has affected us.” Since the '60s especially, comics, as an “underground” art form, have encapsulated “resentment toward, and resistance of, authority in all forms,” which has “added up to a barely visible political aesthetic."
That some of this"political aesthetic" has been of a left-wing vintage is undeniable. But there are many libertarian and even Randian messages that are contained in the world of comics (see, for example, the works of Steve Ditko and Frank Miller). Indeed, Ayn Rand's influence on popular comics is something that I will be discussing in a forthcoming article,"The Illustrated Rand," which will appear in the first of two issues of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, celebrating the Rand Centenary in 2004-2005. Heck, even Batman has featured a story that referenced the works of Ludwig von Mises!
And that is the point, of course: You know that ideas are making an impact when they have been filtered through"popular" art forms, including illustrated media, such as comics and cartoons.
Perhaps some people are just so irritated by comics because they sometimes project a youthful heroism and anti-authoritarianism that rubs against the reactionary grain.
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It's not often that we get to call a single baseball game a" classic" in early July. But if it were possible to use that word, it would be the perfect description for last night's thriller between age-old rivals, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The Yanks beat the Sox in the bottom of the 13th inning, 5-4, but not before several remarkable hits and even more remarkable defensive plays, including one in which Yankee captain Derek Jeter saved the game, making a miraculous catch on the left-field line that sent him head-first into the stands. Bloodied and dazed, Jeter walked off the field, but is scheduled to resume play tonight to face the New York Mets in the second weekend of subway series fun.
You can always count on the Yanks and Sox to provide you with intense, stomach-churning baseball moments. Last night was something special.
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In my post,"Academic Curricula: At War with Radical Thinking," I argued that the penchant in higher education toward compartmentalization was undermining the need for integration, for context-keeping, that lies at the heart of all forms of radical, dialectical thinking.
A nice postscript to that blog entry is provided by the following book excerpt, recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In their book, Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience, physicists Georges Charpak and Henri Broch argue:
At every level, society is infected with unscientific thinking, with potentially disastrous consequences. In the space of a few years, the occult has gone from an individual, local craft to an international big business. This growth ... must be stopped because, once belief in the supernatural reaches a certain point, the seriousness of the damage may grow at an accelerating rate.
You can't lead people to accept the grossest errors, the biggest falsehoods, and the least justifiable reasoning without consequences. If you lead people to accept nonsense, you cannot do so without seriously inhibiting their intellectual development, without making them doubt the validity of science and all the values that come from reason. Our era is unfortunately a great example of this because of the magnifying power that the media provide the pseudosciences.
The re-emergence of occult, paranormal, or magical practices has been oddly swift—so rapid, in fact, that one must ask oneself this question: What are the favorable circumstances that have created such a need and have favored, perhaps unwittingly, its growth? For one thing, financial stakes have a great effect on this trend. But maybe the problem is more serious than that. The geneticist Albert Jacquard said it very clearly in his foreword to Incroyable ... mais faux! (by Alain Cuniot):"To transform citizens into passive sheep is the great dream of the powerful. There are many means to this end; poisoning their minds with pseudoscience can be very effective."
And, ultimately, that's what all this is about, isn't it? The trends against systematization, against context-keeping, against integration, are trends against reason, and it is only by undermining reason that the great mass of the citizenry can be turned into"passive sheep."
Try to remember that the next time one of our politicians asks us to follow his lead by an act of faith.
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As the winds of change batter the regimes of the Middle East, from Iraq to Iran—Saddam Hussein himself being arraigned today on charges for" crimes against humanity"—fundamental questions are being raised about the state of Arab culture and politics. Fareed Zakaria has written a thought-provoking article,"Islam, Democracy, and Constitutional Liberalism," in the Spring 2004 issue of Political Science Quarterly. (Zakaria, who initially favored the war in Iraq, has been doing a lot of interesting writing of late; see especially his essay,"Reach Out to the Insurgents," which Justin Raimondo discusses here.)
In the PSQ essay, Zakaria is still wedded to the unfortunate idea that the US has a role to play in the folly that he dubs"a serious long-term project of nation building" in Iraq. But Zakaria puts his finger on the significant obstacles to this project. He writes:
The Arab rulers of the Middle East are autocratic, corrupt, and heavy-handed. But they are still more liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic than those who would likely replace them. Elections in many Arab countries would produce politicians who espouse views that are closer to those of Osama bin Laden than those of Jordan's liberal monarch, King Abdullah. Last year, the emir of Kuwait, with American encouragement, proposed giving women the vote. But the democratically elected Kuwaiti parliament—filled with Islamic fundamentalists—roundly rejected the initiative. Saudi crown prince Abdullah tried something much less dramatic when he proposed that women in Saudi Arabia be allowed to drive. (They are currently forbidden to do so, which means that Saudi Arabia has had to import half a million chauffeurs from places like India and the Philippines.) But the religious conservatives mobilized popular opposition and forced him to back down.
These tendencies, says Zakaria, illustrate the fact that
[t]he Arab world today is trapped between autocratic states and illiberal societies, neither of them fertile ground for liberal democracy. The dangerous dynamic between these two forces has produced a political climate filled with religious extremism and violence. As the state becomes more repressive, opposition within society grows more pernicious, goading the state into further repression. It is the reverse of the historical process in the Western world, where liberalism produced democracy and democracy fueled liberalism. The Arab path has instead produced dictatorship, which has bred terrorism. But terrorism is only the most noted manifestation of this dysfunction, social stagnation, and intellectual bankruptcy.
One could certainly take issue with Zakaria's maxim, especially the belief that"democracy fueled liberalism"—unless one identifies"liberalism" with today's corrupt version of interest-group politics, rather than with yesteryear's classical, laissez-faire ideal. But Zakaria asks a legitimate question:"Why is [the Middle East] region the political basket case of the world?" Railing against those who would use"Islamic,""Middle Eastern," and"Arab" interchangeably, Zakaria argues that the"Arab social structure is deeply authoritarian" across religious, political, social, economic, and even educational-pedagogical spheres. Politically, many regimes in the Arab world embraced a" coarser ideology of military republicanism, state socialism, and Arab nationalism." Zakaria rejects unequivocally the view that poverty breeds terrorism, since too many terrorists emerge from such wealthy oil-rich countries as Saudi Arabia,"the world's largest petroleum exporter." Bin Laden himself"was born into a family worth more than $5 billion."
If anything, the problem is not poverty, but wealth, specifically wealth achieved by what Franz Oppenheimer used to call the"political means." It is wealth achieved by coercive, statist, monopolistic control, in this instance, of"natural resources," whereby the regimes that exercise control over them"tend never to develop, modernize, or gain legitimacy," as Zakaria puts it."Easy money means little economic or political modernization," observes Zakaria. With"no real political parties, no free press and few pathways for dissent," authoritarian Arab societies have fomented the development of dissident Islamic fundamentalist movements, spearheaded by thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb, who used religion as"the language of opposition ... This combination of religion and politics has proven to be combustible." (Not only in the Middle East, I might add, but in the USA as well; I discuss this combustible American constellation in my forthcoming Free Radical essay,"Caught up in the Rapture," which I'll excerpt here in due course.)
The fundamentalists got their biggest break when the Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the pro-US regime of the Shah of Iran. But the most"dangerous game," says Zakaria, is being played by the Saudis. For those of us who have never been fond of the House of Sa'ud, Zakaria reminds us that"the likely alternative to the regime is not Jeffersonian democracy but a Taliban-style theocracy." He explains:
The Saudi regime ... has tried to deflect attention away from its spotty economic and political record by allowing free reign to its most extreme clerics, hoping to gain legitimacy by association. Saudi Arabia's educational system is run by medieval-minded religious bureaucrats. Over the past three decades, the Saudis—mostly through private trusts—have funded religious schools (madrasas) and centers that spread Wahhabism (a rigid, desert variant Islam that is the template for most Islamic fundamentalists) around the world. Saudi-funded madrasas have churned out tens of thousands of half-educated, fanatical Muslims who view the modern world and non-Muslims with great suspicion. America in this world-view is almost always uniquely evil. This exported fundamentalism has infected not just other Arab societies but countries outside the Arab world.
In this sense, the Saudis have emboldened the very forces that are now clamoring to undermine their power. Their"financiers and functionaries" were responsible for bolstering fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed,"[w]ithout Saudi money and men, the Taliban would not have existed, nor would Pakistan have become the hotbed of fundamentalism that it is today." Until or unless the Saudis"do more to end ... governmental and nongovernmental support for extreme Islam, which is now the kingdom's second largest export to the rest of the world," this situation is not likely to change.
Thus, ideological corruptions are mirrored by economic corruptions. Indeed, the Saudi business elites owe their"positions to oil or to connections to the ruling families." Their wealth is derived from"feudalism, not capitalism," and the"political effects remain feudal as well." Zakaria argues persuasively that"[a] genuinely entrepreneurial business class would be the single most important force for change in the Middle East." This is the kind of social institution that is, thankfully, not foreign to Arab culture, which has,"for thousands of years ... been full of traders, merchants, and businessmen." Indeed, observes Zakaria,"[t]he bazaar is probably the oldest institution in the Middle East."
Unfortunately, the Saudi's quasi-feudal, neo-mercantilist regime has been fully encouraged, sanctioned, and legitimated by US foreign policy. Whatever the specific connections between the Bush family and the Saudis—and Michael Moore, Craig Unger, and Kevin Phillips have had a field day speculating about these connections—the truth remains that the United States has had an incestuous relationship with the House of Sa'ud for nearly sixty years. As I wrote in my essay,"A Question of Loyalty":
US corporations engage in joint business ventures with the Saudi government—from petroleum to arms deals—utilizing a whole panoply of statist mechanisms, including the Export-Import Bank. The US is Saudi Arabia's largest investor and trading partner. Historically, the House of Sa'ud's alliance with—and exportation of—intolerant, fanatical Wahhabism has been strengthened by the US-Saudi government partnership with Western oil companies, especially the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), a merger of Esso, Texaco, and Mobil. This is precisely the kind of"pull-peddling" that [Ayn] Rand condemned as"the New Fascism"—a US-Saudi-Big Oil Unholy Trinity that sustains the undemocratic Saudi regime. ...
[That] regime ... depends upon a barbaric network of secret police and sub-human prisons, using the kinds of torture tactics that would have made Saddam proud: routine floggings, rotisserie hangings, amputations, penis blocking, and anal molestations. Such is the"pragmatic" nature of official US government policy, which goes to war for"human rights" in Iraq, while tacitly sanctioning their eradication in Saudi Arabia.
It's this kind of pragmatism that has been the midwife to anti-American terrorism—from US support of the Shah of Iran that led to the establishment of an anti-American Islamic theocracy to US support of the Afghani mujahideen that led to the establishment of an anti-American Taliban.
Eric Margolis extends these points further in his recent discussion of the inner machinery of the US-Saudi relationship. He writes:
Saudi Arabia is a feudal monarchy owned and run by 6,000-7,000 royal princes. ... Saudi Arabia has been a U.S. oil protectorate since the late 1940s under the following arrangement: The royal family supplies cheap oil to the U.S. and its allies Europe and Japan. The billions earned by the Saudis are recycled into U.S. and western financial institutions and commercial projects, or spent on huge amounts of advanced weapons ($9 billion in recent years) the Saudis cannot operate. Saudi arms purchases are used to support friendly American and European politicians in politically sensitive states or regions.
In return, the U.S. supplies the royal family with protection against its own increasingly restive people and covetous neighbours, like Iraq. The small Saudi Army is denied ammunition to prevent it staging the kind of coup that overthrew Iraq's British-run puppet monarch in 1958. A parallel"White Army," composed of loyal Bedouin tribesmen led by U.S."advisers," watches the army. ... [F]ar from being an enemy of the U.S., Saudi Arabia is almost an overseas American state. One-third of the population of 24 million is foreign. Saudi defences, internal security, finance and the oil industry are still run by some 70,000 U.S. and British expatriates. Some eight million Asian workers do the middle management and donkey work. The royal family is intimately linked to Washington's political and money power elite through a network of business and personal connections. The Bush family, and its entourage of Republican military-industrial complex deal makers, has been joined at the hip for two decades with Saudi power princes and their financial frontmen.
Margolis maintains correctly, however, that the Saudi state, as such,"did not finance or abet Osama bin Laden—it tried repeatedly to kill him. Bin Laden's modest funds came from donations by individual Saudis, wealthy and poor alike, who supported his jihad against western domination." What Margolis does not recognize, however, is that the fundamentalist ideology that the House of Sa'ud has long funded and exported is now undermining its very rule. While the failure of the Saudi state at this point in time would be an utter catastrophe, those who would take power—the fanatical fundamentalists among them—are, to borrow a Randian phrase,"the distilled essence of the [Saudi] Establishment's culture ... the embodiment of its soul" and its"personified ideal."
I have long argued that radical social change in the United States depends upon the uprooting of both the politico-economic system and the ideas that nourish it and sustain it. This dynamic is global in its implications, and no less operative in the context of the Saudi monarchy, one of the United States' prime"allies" in the Middle East. Fundamental change is not likely to come through further military intervention, which will only destabilize the region and further empower the fanatics. Ultimately, this is a philosophical and cultural war that must be fought at home and abroad.
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While people on both sides of the political divide continue to argue about such things as gay marriage, hate crimes legislation, sodomy statutes, and so forth, I think it is important to note that the"Gay Pride" parades during the month of June were born of an essentially libertarian historical moment.
On June 27, 1969, 35 years ago this very day, there began a series of riots in Greenwich Village, New York City, outside the famed Stonewall Inn, a gay bar. Bar patrons had had enough with regular police raids on—and legal harassment of—the establishment, and there followed nearly a week of unrest as gays took the streets, yelling"Gay Power," and fighting back the police. The New York Daily News' headline blared:"Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees are Stinging Mad."
The"gay liberation" movement that resulted had been a long time in the making; despite compromises along the way that have been symptomatic of the pressure-group mentality so ingrained in the body politic, the movement has been nothing less than a call for human liberation, one that tells the state to get the hell out of the way, so that people can pursue their own lives and their own personal conceptions of happiness, unencumbered by the regulations and prohibitions of an intrusive government.
Whatever one's views of any of the contentious issues of the day, that principle is one that should be celebrated, regardless of one's sexual orientation.
Today, in New York City, the streets of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan will be festive, but the parade will culminate, as it should, outside the old Stonewall, at 53 Christopher Street. Here's hoping the participants have a gay old time!
The American Film Institute's tribute to the top 100 movie songs of all time was an entertaining special, televised last night on the CBS network. One could quibble with the inclusion or exclusion of this or that song. Indeed, I was very sorry that my favorite Michel Legrand song (with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman),"What are you doing the rest of your life?, from the movie,"The Happy Ending" was totally overlooked ... even in the nominations list! Legrand's masterpiece, which was recently revisited by American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, lost the 1969 Best Song Oscar to"Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" from"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," but it remains one of the classics of the Great American Songbook.
In any event, one certainly cannot quibble with a list that includes everything from Harold Arlen's"Wizard of Oz" perennial,"Over the Rainbow" to Johnny Mandel's"Sandpiper" theme,"The Shadow of Your Smile." Three Cheers to AFI for a poignant trip down memory lane.
For many months now, a debate has raged about the possibility of links between Saddam Hussein's regime and Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. I doubt that this debate will be ended any time soon, but I do think that the evidence offered up till now has been tenuous and speculative at best; if such a formal link had been documented in the days leading up to the US invasion, it would have impacted considerably on my own views of that campaign, even if it would never have altered my opposition to nation building as a foreign policy goal. In this regard, I share much with the 2000 Presidential Campaign Candidate, George W. Bush
In response to a Weekly Standard piece written by Stephen Hayes, who has published a new book on the subject of"The Connection," I've written a number of brief posts (see, for example, here, here and here), and have read a lot of very interesting literature, both pro and con (see, for example, here, here, and here).
I don't think anyone has denied that there were talks between various individuals connected to Al Qaeda and the Ba'athist regime in Iraq. But these talks never materialized into any kind of formal," collaborative relationship," like, say, that between the Taliban and Bin Laden's thugs.
A Hussein regime, in possession of WMDs, and in a" collaborative relationship" with Al Qaeda, would have been a threat to the security of the United States, in my opinion, meriting some kind of action. That Hussein possessed neither WMDs nor a cozy relationship with Bin Laden fortifies further my judgment that this war was an unnecessary and deeply troubling drain on national security resources at a time when Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-ism marches on.
Unfortunately, the situation in Iraq now makes US extrication impossible, practically speaking, insofar as the structural institutionalization of the US presence will not be challenged by either George W. Bush or his potential successor, John Kerry. Worse still, the"magnet theory" has failed: Al Qaeda may have been drawn into Iraq to do battle with the American"infidels," as the Bush administration predicted, but it has not departed from anywhere else on the planet; from Madrid to Riyadh, from Cleveland, Ohio to Brooklyn, New York, its minions continue to conspire. This"War on Terrorism" has many chapters left, and the outcome is by no means certain.
On Friday, as part of a flawless funeral for Ronald Reagan that ended in a touching California sunset awash in Nancy's tears, I have to say that I was very moved by the various eulogies I heard throughout the day. Still, the most pointed political criticism came from Ron Reagan Jr.. I noticed it when he first said it... and I'm glad others are noticing it all over the media:
Dad was also a deeply, unabashedly religious man. But he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians: Wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage. True, after he was shot and nearly killed early in his presidency, he came to believe that God had spared him in order that he might do good. But he accepted that as a responsibility, not a mandate. And there is a profound difference.
Gee, who could Ronnie Jr. be talking about?
One hundred years ago today, the steamboat General Slocum had ended its excursion up the East River on the way to Long Island Sound in a nightmarish blaze that killed more than 1,000 people. It was the City's first Titanic-size disaster, 8 years before that ill-fated North Atlantic vessel hit an iceberg.
Like the Titanic, the tragedy has been immortalized in celluloid. It was"Manhattan Melodrama," the 1934 film directed by Woody S. Van Dyke, that had etched upon the silver screen the fate of General Slocum. That movie was preceded by a 1915 silent depiction,"The Regeneration," director Raoul Walsh's first feature film. More recently,"Fearful Visitation" has debuted, a documentary exploring the nature of the disaster. (A History Channel documentary on General Slocum is scheduled for tomorrow night; it features historian Edward O'Donnell, author of Ship Ablaze.)
The New York Historical Society reminds us that the disaster devastated the city's large German-American community, which had settled on the lower east side, in a section that became known as Kleindeutschland. The steamship had embarked on a day-long excursion, with many women and children of German extraction; a fire began on board as the ship passed Roosevelt Island and quickly consumed the wooden vessel, killing an estimated 1,021 people. New York City had suffered the single greatest day of lives lost prior to the World Trade Center attack.
O'Donnell suggests that the Slocum tragedy slipped into a kind of collective unconscious in the years after World War I and World War II, as mainstream American culture demonized its German citizens. O'Donnell's book, which was published last June, has begun a necessary process of historical recollection. A General Slocum Memorial still stands in Tompkins Square Park.
I think NY Daily News syndicated columnist Zev Chafets must be reading Liberty & Power. A few days after I noted Brother Ray's passing, and our very own Sheldon Richman suggested adding him to Mount Rushmore, Chafets writes that Charles and other trailblazers of the rock 'n' roll revolution,"deserve a Rushmore all their own."
Meanwhile, the tributes keep a comin'. Charles is being featured all over the radio dial, according to News columnist David Hinckley, prompting a few classic lines from R&B singer Ruth Brown. Hinckley tells us that Brown's late pal, jazz singer Billy Eckstine, once said that it is an"ominous sign for a veteran performer ... to have a flurry of his or her songs resurface on the radio. 'He said if they suddenly play more than three of your songs,' Brown muses, 'that means you're dead.'"
Brown also celebrates Charles'"great sense of humor." Hinckely reports:
"I talked to him a few months ago," said Brown."He told me they were making a movie about his life and asked who should play me. I said,"Halle Berry." He said,"Ruth, I ain't that blind."
A Ray Charles memorial is scheduled for this coming Friday.
As the nation remembers its dead from wars past and present on this Memorial Day weekend, and as special attention is being focused on the opening of a National World War II Memorial, I wanted to take a moment to tell you about a man who, not unlike others of his generation, served his country abroad. His name was Salvatore"Sam" Sclafani, first cousin to my Dad, married to my mother's sister, and forever etched in the minds of our family as"Uncle Sam." Born in 1915, Uncle Sam left us ten years ago, having succumbed to prostate cancer. But it was this man who was my earliest inspiration in all matters political; he nourished in me a love of history and politics, and was the guy to whom I dedicated Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.
My Uncle Sam was, without doubt, one of the funniest and most benevolent souls to ever grace this planet. And when you got him to talk about politics, it was like a veritable ride aboard the Coney Island Cyclone, that landmark splintery wooden rollercoaster. He was the most opinionated and outspoken critic of politicians, left, right and center, whom I've ever had the privilege to know and love.
Back in 1976, I interviewed Uncle Sam for a special project I'd done on the veterans of World War II. His comments are as precious today, as they were back then.
He remembered that"day of infamy" in December 1941. His mother labored by the stove, preparing the traditional Sunday home-cooked Italian meal. In the background, the radio played the sounds of a Swing band ... and then, a news flash came that the Japanese had attacked the US military base in Hawaii.
My Uncle had been classified in the army for the draft, but after years of working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he decided to enlist in the navy instead. Several days after his enlistment, he was shipped out to the Great Lakes Military Installation in Waukegan, Illinois, outside Chicago. Like a tale out of a storybook, he married his girlfriend, my Aunt Georgia, the day before he left.
From his hair-scalping at the installation to the strenuous marching, walking, running, rifle and rope exercises, boot-training was a test of his endurance. Even learning to sleep in a hammock—or as Uncle Sam reminisced,"trying to get into them, and involuntarily getting out of them"—was a chore. From Illinois, he was sent to Norfolk, Virginia for further training. He eventually became a part of the Seabees, a relatively new branch of the navy that was similar to the army corps of engineers. In learning the arts of naval engineering, these Seabees were taught everything"from building bridges and laying down airfields in record time, to advanced techniques of camouflage."
From Norfolk, Uncle Sam went on to Pleasantville, California, and then on to the Bremerton Navy Yard in Puget Sound, Washington state, where he participated in the salvage work on the USS Nevada, damaged in the Pearl Harbor raid. As they awaited orders on their next assignment, Uncle Sam's group was split into two: Group 1 was headed south—to Guadalcanal. By the mere accident of being part of Group 2, Uncle Sam ended up in the North Pacific."We then realized," he recalled:"This is it. This isn't playing anymore. We're not training. From here on, everything is real."
Morale was remarkably good on the trip. But there was a common expression on everyone's face, he told me: an expression of suppressed horror, worry, and uncertainty. There was that constant alert for possible enemy aerial or submarine bombardment. While he remained remarkably calm, many of his newfound pals were desperately ill."My comrades wished they had died. Men were throwing-up against bulkheads and walls and fainting on decks. They lost their appetites from terrible fear and severe seasickness."
Ten days after rough riding, the ship neared its destination. A heavy fog descended. And when the land mass came into focus, it looked like the cold, barren surface of a distant planet: no trees, no vegetation, immense mountains of stone and volcanic rock. Uncle Sam wasn't a few minutes on land before an alert signaled an imminent Japanese air attack. An earlier attack that day had destroyed the boats that lay docked around a makeshift pier. Running to take cover, the men passed an enormous hill of greenish-white pine boxes ... coffins waiting for new inhabitants. It was the kind of greeting that sobered the most stubborn among them."A morbid, depressing and unsettling sensation came over me," Uncle Sam said."We were finally aware that we had been sent to the notorious Dutch Harbor in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, the closest US military base to Japan, only 600 miles away." This was a place where temperatures ranged from 12 below to 60 above. At times, many feet of snow would fall. Certain seasons brought 18-hour days, while others brought 18-hour nights. But always, there was a damp, musty fog; for the two years that Uncle Sam was stationed in the Aleutians, he never saw the sun.
Within the first week of their arrival, the new troops faced air attacks, volcanic eruptions, storms, earthquakes, and"horizontal rain," due to"winds that could blow a building across the Hudson River." Those winds, dubbed"Williwaws," were sudden and severe, up to 200 mph. Ironically, it was the difficult climactic conditions that saved Aleutian Island residents from both constant Japanese aerial bombardment and the typical diseases that infected troops stationed in the South Pacific."American pilots remarked that there were better odds in flying 50 missions over Berlin," Uncle Sam would say,"than even one mission over the Aleutian Islands."
He remembered walking along a dirt road, when a light breeze had suddenly transformed into one of those Williwaws. By the time he had hit the deck, the wind had uprooted steel cables, boulders, and a 13-ton patrol bomber on the beach—smacking it up against a mountain. The Seabees' efforts to camouflage their work were not very successful because of these winds."We were forced to build revetments for planes to try to camouflage them with heavy steel-cabled nets. After the first storm, all the nets went flying across the Pacific Ocean and days of work went down the drain."
But the Seabees transformed the rough Alaskan terrain, by literally leveling mountains. After laying down many miles of airfields with heavy metal stripping, the Seabees paved the way for an Aleutian air-force, since land-based bombers were now able to land.
By this time, Uncle Sam had become a Second Class Petty Officer. His days began at 5 am. His meals consisted of passable substitutes, since there were no eggs or milk. Remarkably, he gained 30 lbs. while living in Dutch Harbor. It was weight he desperately needed, as he worked hard on airfield and submarine installations. (He remembered going into one of those primitive subs:"I was qualified for submarine duty," he said,"but they were out of their minds: it was like staying in a narrow coffin, cluttered with levers, wheels, and machinery. I would never have survived!")
When his day of rigorous work was complete, he'd go back to the bunkhouses, which had been built to withstand the wind, the rain, and the war. Fighting his solitude and isolation, he found comfort with his comrades, smoking cigarettes, reminiscing of home, listening to their"Pacific sweetheart" on the radio: Tokyo Rose. Whoever she actually was, Uncle Sam had vivid memories of all the things she told them on the radio."She'd tell us how our girls were cheating on us back home. She would say that we were very stupid to be fighting ... we were going to lose anyway. So we might as well rebel, destroy our superiors, and go home." It gave them a lot of laughs, he said, but it was hard to avoid sobbing, silently, as you listened to the Swing music she played. From the crackling of the radio speaker, came the Big Band sounds of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey; more than anything"Tokyo Rose" had actually said, the use of this great music constituted a form of psychological warfare that infected everyone with homesickness, he said."It would place us in a very depressing state. Some men cried openly."
The men of Dutch Harbor served as a diversionary force in the Battle of Midway. They prepared munitions for the bloody US invasions of Amchitka, Adak, and Attu. They played an active part in the isolation of Kiska, even though they failed to prevent the evacuation of 5100 Japanese troops, who departed in the middle of a fog-heavy July night to return to Paramishiro Harbor.
During his two-year tour of duty, Uncle Sam experienced about six Japanese air bombardments; though the attacks were only seven to eight minutes in duration, they felt like seven to eight hours. A two-hour alert would usually precede an attack, as men would frantically prepare their anti-aircraft positions."We were told to run off the ships and scatter into the hills, where there were fox holes." Men clung to their own hopes for survival, some praying and giving substance to the old adage"there are no atheists in foxholes." You just didn't know if"that next bullet would have your name on it. Then you'd hear the incoming planes." Within seconds, bombs would be dropping, destroying installations, oil tanks, gasoline storage facilities, and piers. Raging infernos and thick, black smoke would engulf the camp."Things flashed quickly through my head," he painfully recalled. He had fears of invading parachutests, naval bombardment,"the end of the world. In one attack, our ship, the Northwestern, was blown into a million pieces as a bomb was dropped down the smokestack. Shrapnel and other fragments went flying, as the explosion echoed through the hills and canyons."
Uncle Sam learned a few things about wars, even"good" wars. He thought it was a joke when some said that the Americans would sell you the noose with which to hang them ... until he realized that scrap metal from Manhattan Els (elevated trains) had been sold to the Japanese and used by them to create their machinery of war. He even remembered going over to a downed Japanese Zero."And on the engine was labeled 'Pratt-Whitney Motors, USA.'"
While he wouldn't have thought twice about shooting another human being in order to survive—"quite frankly," he'd say,"it was either them or us"—he never accepted the notion that he should hate his enemy."We had been taught to hate the enemy for their bombardment of Pearl Harbor, for their cruel and inhumane treatment of our men." But when prisoners were caught,"you'd look at these men, 'our enemy,' and see a reflection of yourself. I felt sorry for them."
In 1944, Company C was reorganized and sent back to San Francisco. As his ship neared the Golden Gate Bridge, Uncle Sam cried"like a baby. It was the most fabulous sight I had ever seen. To be on American soil again, a feeling you can't imagine unless you had been in that situation. And there, on the dock was the American Red Cross—with gallons and gallons of ice-cold milk."
The climactic changes were not friendly to Uncle Sam. He developed a mysterious illness in which his legs swelled, as he lay nearly paralyzed in pain. When it was apparent that he would be in a military hospital for months, he was given an honorable discharge. In May 1944, he finally came home to New York. For months, he had difficulty adjusting. He was immensely uptight and shuddery. He developed a fear of passing overhead planes, a fear that some New Yorkers still have for reasons that my Uncle could never have dreamed. The war had split homes and families, had taken away friends and relatives, and had damaged relationships."You never know if you're going to come back during a war," he stated."But if you have that luck, you can really appreciate what you left behind."
A bolder and more patriotic American you'd be hard pressed to find. But Uncle Sam had had enough with politicians. He had voted for FDR because he was convinced that the President would preserve the peace."The President had said that American boys would not fight on foreign soil. He forgot to add: 'They'd be buried in it.'" For thirty years thereafter, Uncle Sam refused to go into a voting booth.
I come from a family of servicemen. Uncle Sam was fortunate enough to come home and to live a wonderful life, becoming a second father to me, as my own father had passed away when I was 12. But other relatives were not as lucky. My Uncle Frank was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. My Uncle Charlie survived, but was unable to talk about his war experiences for the rest of his life, having lived for years in a German POW camp. Fortunately, my Uncle Al and Uncle Georgie lived to talk about their experiences in the European theater. And my Uncle Tony remained in the army for the rest of his life.
The human cost of war is usually calculated by raw data on battle deaths, casualties, and medical evacuations. But whatever your position on the current war, it is important to remember not only those who died on the battlefield. It is important to remember, to tribute, those who survived as well, those who lived to tell us about the horrors of war, and who did the most patriotic thing imaginable: Building and sustaining their own lives in the aftermath, drawing strength from their love of family, of friends, and for life itself.
I honor their memory.
I've discussed the role of Drugs and Terror and the fact that even with the best of intentions, a US invasion of Afghanistan (which I supported) can lead to unintended consequences of monumental significance. In the aftermath of that invasion, Taliban elements still exist, Bin Laden is still at large, and Afghanistan itself is inching ever closer to becoming a major Middle East Narcostate.
This morning, on"Meet the Press," Tim Russert interviewed Afghanistan President Karzai on the reality of opium production in that country. Russert quotes from the US General Accounting Office.
MR. RUSSERT:"Opium production threatened stability. The illicit international trade in Afghan opiates threatened Afghan's stability during fiscal years 2002-2003. The drug trade provided income for terrorists and warlords fueling the factions that worked against stability and national unity. In 2002, Afghan farmers produced 3,442 metric tons of opium, providing $2.5 billion in trafficking revenue. In 2003 opium production in the country increased to 3,600 metric tons, the second largest harvest in the country's history. Further, heroin laboratories have proliferated in Afghanistan in recent years. As a result of the increased poppy production and in-country heroin production, greater resources were available to Afghan criminal networks and others at odds with the central government. The International Monetary Fund and Afghanistan's minister of Finance have stated that the potential exists for Afghanistan to become a 'narcostate' in which all legitimate institutions are infiltrated by the power and wealth of drug traffickers.'"
PRES. KARZAI: That is quite possible. We have a serious problem because of drugs on our hands. We began to work against drug production three years ago, as soon as we came into government, but the first year of passing the government, we made the mistake. The mistake was that we went and paid farmers in return for destruction. This encouraged everybody else to grow poppies, thinking that if they grow poppies, we will go to destroy it and pay them for it. And if we don't go to destroy it, they will have the poppies. So we made that mistake. And last year we recognized it, and we began to destroy poppies. This year, again, we have gone and destroyed poppies.
But this is not a simple problem. We are talking of a country in which there was 30 years of war, in which there were six years of horrible drought. When I moved into Afghanistan three years ago, I saw with my own eyes an orchard of pomegranates that was turned into poppy fields; that's how serious the problem is. But we recognize and so do the Afghan people that this is a problem that can cause Afghanistan to go into serious danger. This production of poppies supports terrorism. It trivializes the economy. It undermines institution building in Afghanistan. Afghanistan will have to destroy it for the sake of the Afghan people and, also, because of the world.
But we cannot do this alone. We will destroy the poppies, but next year they will come again; therefore there has to be a plan together with the international community to provide alternative livelihood, alternative economy and better reconstruction in Afghanistan on a sustainable manner so that we over time get rid of the problem. The Afghan people don't want it. They know it is illegitimate. Our clergy, our religious community, our tribal chiefs, the government, the institutions are working against it on a daily basis, and we will succeed because we have to succeed.
MR. RUSSERT: But if 80 percent of the 27 million people in Afghanistan live in poverty and the warlords want to maintain their power, why won't the warlords allow opium to be raised because it provides money to the farmers and keeps them in power?
PRES. KARZAI: We began two and a half years ago where there was no government. The institutions were completely destroyed. In two and a half years' time, we have had the bond process. We've had the grand council, the Loya Jirga, to elect a government. We've had the grand council to create a constitution, which we did. We are now going to the next stage, which is elections. This country is moving forward. But this country has problems, too, to overcome, and we will continue to have many, many problems as we keep building ourselves.
Drugs is one of the most serious problems that occur in Afghanistan. Warlordism, as you said, is another serious problem that we have in Afghanistan. We, the Afghan people, want to get rid of them. The common Afghan man and woman that come to see me every day in my office, they ask me to get rid of these difficulties for them, especially the drugs and warlordism. And I hope the international community will stand stronger with us on both these problems.
MR. RUSSERT: But with the warlords and the drug traffickers, but for the United States' government, could you possibly stay in power?
PRES. KARZAI: Without the presence of the United States forces in Afghanistan, without the presence of the international community in Afghanistan, without the presence of the ISAF in Afghanistan, Afghanistan will not be in good shape. That is why the Afghan people keep asking for more of the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan. That is why the Afghan people are asking for the deployment of NATO coalitions. That's why the Afghan people have embraced the arrival of the United States of America in Afghanistan for its liberation, because they know that we need international assistance in order to build our institutions over time, in order to build a national army, in order to build a national police. And before Afghanistan can stand on its own feet, it will be many years from now.
Whatever the validity of taking out the Taliban, because of its ties to Al Qaeda, it is clear that no thought was given to the long-term consequences of US intervention. The complicity of the US in the emergence of a warlord-dominated Narcostate in Afghanistan to"stabilize" that regime is a sobering lesson. The lessons yet to come from"nation building" in Iraq might make the Afghanistan experience pale in comparison.
Just yesterday, while watching the Capitol Rotunda Memorial Service for Ronald Reagan, I was very touched by a stirring rendition of"America the Beautiful" by the Air Force's Singing Sergeants. I remembered being touched like this before upon hearing a very different and deeply soulful rendition by the great Ray Charles.
Another day, another passing. Ray Charles, 73, an American institution, a vocalist and instrumentalist who spanned jazz, pop, gospel, blues, early rock 'n roll, and country, has died.
I'll miss you, Brother Ray.
Like my L&P colleagues, Sheldon Richman and Steven Horwitz, I too have some thoughts about Ronald Reagan, who passed away yesterday (on what was also the 36th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination). There really are no words to convey the pain that a family endures watching the slow deterioration of a loved one due to Alzheimer's disease. My heart goes out to his family for their loss.
I did not vote for Reagan in 1981. So convinced was I of the horrific alternative between a wishy-washy Jimmy Carter and a Moral Majority-beholden Ronald Reagan that I voted for Ed Clark, the Libertarian candidate for President.
But in 1984, I did cast my vote for Reagan because I believed that he had achieved an important ideological shift in the terms of the American political debate. While this shift was aided by other important world figures, as Jonathan Dresner explains, Reagan's convictions and principles, his humor and optimism, enabled him to score a rhetorical victory on behalf of free markets that was unparalleled in the post-New Deal era.
If only his actual legacy had matched his rhetoric ... Indeed, aspects of that legacy were profoundly mixed, and some of his policies have had unfortunate, long-term consequences.
But Ronald Reagan had made fashionable the use of words like"markets,""privatization," and"freedom." By the time, in 1987, when he stood before the Berlin Wall and told Soviet Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to come to the Brandenburg Gate, to"open this gate" and"tear down this wall," it was clear that he had won a crucially important ideological victory on behalf of that"shining city upon a hill."
Whether it was his poignant tribute to the Challenger crew or his much earlier speech about a"rendezvous with destiny," Reagan's words were an inspiration. Indeed, that"Rendezvous with Destiny" speech, given on October 27, 1964 in support of Barry Goldwater's quest for the Presidency, inspires us even today. Why say anything about Reagan when he himself could say it better than almost anyone?
I think it's time we ask ourselves if we still know the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers. ... If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth. And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except to sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man. This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down --- up to a man's age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order --- or down to the ant heap totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course....
[T]he Founding Fathers ... knew that governments don't control things. A government can't control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy. ... No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this Earth....
Somewhere a perversion has taken place. Our natural, inalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment. You and I have the courage to say to our enemies,"There is a price we will not pay." There is a point beyond which they must not advance. ... You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
Got up this morning, in anticipation of a Triple Crown victory for Smarty Jones, and decided to turn on the Today show. Rain, rain, rain in the forecast... should be a very wet racetrack, though that didn't stop Smarty from winning the Kentucky Derby.
In-between reports from Belmont Park, one of Today's news correspondents interviewed Robert D. Ballard, who returns to the Titanic for a National Geographicspecial on Monday evening. Ballard was explaining how the Titanic had been damaged by tourists and salvagers. The correspondent was sad to hear all this, and wondered if this constant salvaging meant that the ship would be"damaged beyond repair."
"Damaged beyond repair"?
This is the shipwrecked Titanic we're talking about, right? Laying splintered at the bottom of the North Atlantic, right?
Ballard was infinitely polite in his response, but the expression on his face was beyond classic.
Anyway: Go Smarty Jones!
Sometimes, it pays to stand up and fight for your principles! As I explained here, the New York Yankees thought they'd replace the sale of Cracker Jacks, at Yankee Stadium, with Crunch 'n Munch. I, along with thousands of other fans, protested this destruction of a noble baseball tradition, immortalized in"Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
Well, Cracker Jacks have returned to The Stadium by popular demand!
A provocative article entitled"Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge," written by Vartan Gregorian, appears in the June 5 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. In this essay, Gregorian gives voice to problems of compartmentalization and fragmentation in the academy that I have long emphasized.
Gregorian is president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and a former president of Brown University and the New York Public Library. He writes:
Today's students fulfill general-education requirements, take specialized courses in their majors, and fill out their schedule with some electives, but while college catalogs euphemistically describe this as a" curriculum," it is rarely more than a collection of courses, devoid of planning, context, and coherence. In fact, mass higher education is heading toward what I call the Home Depot approach to education, where there is no differentiation between consumption and digestion, or between information and learning, and no guidance—or even questioning—about what it means to be an educated and cultured person. Colleges are becoming academic superstores, vast collections of courses, stacked up like sinks and lumber for do-it-yourselfers to try to assemble on their own into a meaningful whole.
The fundamental problem underlying the disjointed curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge itself. Higher education has atomized knowledge by dividing it into disciplines, subdisciplines, and sub-subdisciplines—breaking it up into smaller and smaller unconnected fragments of academic specialization, even as the world looks to colleges for help in integrating and synthesizing the exponential increases in information brought about by technological advances. The trend has serious ramifications. Understanding the nature of knowledge, its unity, its varieties, its limitations, and its uses and abuses is necessary for the success of our democracy. ...
We must reform higher education to reconstruct the unity and value of knowledge. While that may sound esoteric, especially to some outside the academy, it is really just shorthand for saying that the complexity of the world requires us to have a better understanding of the relationships and connections between all fields that intersect and overlap—economics and sociology, law and psychology, business and history, physics and medicine, anthropology and political science.
Gregorian is particularly concerned about the tendency toward"simplistic solutions" for complex problems, because each problem is often constituted by a cluster of problems, and"none ... can be tackled using linear or sequential methods." He goes on:
Yet such systemic thinking has been slow to catch on, even though the pitfalls of specialization have long been acknowledged and discussed. One reason is that, although the process of both growth and fragmentation of knowledge has been under way since the 17th century, it has snowballed in the last century. The scope and the intensity of specialization are such that scholars and scientists have great difficulty in keeping up with the important yet overwhelming amount of scholarly literature related to their subspecialties, not to mention their general disciplines. The triumph of the"monograph" or"scientific investigation" over synthesis has fractured the commonwealth of learning and undermined our sense of commitment to general understanding and integration of knowledge.
None of this is meant to disparage specialization; but specialization without"synthesis and systemic thinking" is a prescription for disaster."Information—of all varieties, all levels of priority, and all without much context—is bombarding us from all directions all the time," Gregorian states. Indeed, those of us familiar with the liberal tradition have long appreciated F. A. Hayek's insight that the increasing complexity of society leads to an ever-increasing dispersal of information and knowledge; this knowledge is essentially dispersed, and reflected in the division and specialization of labor. But, as Gregorian insists,"the same information technologies that have been the driving force behind the explosion of information and its fragmentation also present us with profoundly integrative tools." We can see these tools at work in artificial intelligence, automated information-management systems, and electronic communications networks. Nevertheless, our computers will help us to integrate the data, but they are only as good as their human programmers. Gregorian quotes author and media critic Neil Postman:"The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking."
This is one of the important tasks of higher education, according to Gregorian. To not guide students toward synthesizing the disparate bits of knowledge is a colossal failure,"for history shows that humanity has a craving for wholeness." It's actually far more than a simple craving, however;"wholeness" or integration is a requirement of human cognition. And it is, in my view, a virtual requirement for radical social theorizing. More on that in a moment.
The lack of coherence and integration, claims Gregorian, leads some students to"esoteric ideas, cults, and extremist programs," which seem to provide the systematization that such students lack. This is rule not only by the collective, but also by the"expert," who becomes the leader. In a world of specialized knowledge, too many students defer to such"experts" and"abdicate judgment in favor of others' opinions. Unless we help our students acquire their own identity," Gregorian warns,"they will end up at the mercy of experts—or worse, at the mercy of charlatans posing as experts." Is it any wonder that some will be attracted to militant leaders, who adopt militant ideologies and theologies?
Gregorian urges educators to develop" coherence and integrity in our curricula," and the re-affirmation of a"liberal education ... to integrate learning and provide balance..." He urges multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary learning, where the"interconnectedness" of disciplines is stressed. He suggests the development of teacher training and"the joint appointment of faculty members to several departments." He emphasizes also the connections between"learning" and"doing"—between thought and action: the importance of field study; the integration of theory, application, and experience; the exploration of topics or problems"over a sustained period of time, using multiple approaches to explore and develop responses..."
In recognizing the division and specialization of labor and knowledge as central to the advancement of"the cause of civilization," Gregorian stresses"the creation of a balance between specialists and generalists." Such generalists,"trained in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences ... can help create a common discourse, a common vocabulary among the various disciplines." Ironically,"[s]ince our society respects specialists and suspects generalists," Gregorian cautions,"perhaps the way to solve the shortage of generalists is by creating a new specialty in synthesis and systems." Gregorian cites the words of noted philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset:
The need to create sound synthesis and systemization of knowledge ... will call out a kind of scientific genius which hitherto has existed only as an aberration: the genius of integration. Of necessity, this means specialization, as all creative effort does, but this time, the [person] will be specializing in the construction of the whole.
Gregorian also reminds us of T.S. Eliot's comments on Dante's Inferno, where he suggests"that hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing." That is precisely the kind of hell that the modern curriculum is creating. In the end,
we need to understand where we were, where we are, and where we are going. The challenge for higher education, then, is not the choice between pure research and practical application but, rather, the integration and synthesis of compartmentalized knowledge. On our campuses, we must create an intellectual climate that encourages faculty members and students to make connections among seemingly disparate disciplines, discoveries, events, and trends—and to build bridges among them that benefit the understanding of us all.
What lessons can we draw from Gregorian's essay? Well, it's a lesson I've been teaching for more than twenty years and it is one that speaks to the essence of radical thinking.
It has long been said that to be radical is to grasp things by the root. And yet, those who are characterized as political radicals have been criticized by some for raising"serious questions about basic purpose and meaning in society," as political theorist Harlan Wilson puts it, that seem to lend themselves to"relatively simplistic and highly controlled" answers. For Wilson, those who attempt to go to the"root" assume there are roots and that it is possible to clearly identify"malignant" and"vicious" fundamentals that gloss over"interdependence and overlapping pluralities."
But an appreciation of social complexity must be fundamental to radical social theorizing. To be radical is not to offer canned solutions for context-less problems. It is the ability to examine the roots of social problems from different perspectives and on different levels of generality. It is the ability to situate each social problem within a larger system, across time. In seeking to change a society, we can never do one thing; we need to attack that society's problems across several dimensions. This"art of context-keeping," which is the essence of what I have called"dialectical thinking," is indispensable to radical analysis. As I write in Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism:
A new radicalism is first and foremost a new way of thinking. It demands that we explore the integrated principles, meaning, and promise of liberty. It demands that we ask, and answer, crucial questions about the context of liberty—those complex forces that generate, sustain, and nourish human freedom.
Some of my critics have argued that I've trivialized the nature of dialectics by identifying it with good, critical thinking. But Gregorian's article suggests that the modern curriculum militates against such"good, critical thinking," insofar as"good critical thinking" requires an awareness of context, of systematization and integration. When people are not trained to think systematically—worse: when they are trained to dis-integrate, to fragment, to atomize—they will not be apt to think of problems in their interconnections.
This has implications especially for a political process that institutionalizes ad hoc policy-making. Every piece of legislation is crafted by ad hoc considerations of pork-barreling privilege and interest-group pressure. It is as prevalent in the construction of foreign policy as it is in domestic policy. It is even etched into illusory dreams of"democratic nation-building," which focus on the external imposition of institutions or procedural rules without any appreciation of the complex personal and cultural forces that nourish and sustain them.
Let us be clear: The need for comprehensiveness in political thinking, just like the need for integration in the curriculum, is not a call for that equally illusory"synoptic" perspective that Hayek criticized as a vestige of rationalism. None of us stands like Archimedes from a synoptic vantage point to reconstruct the world in toto. All the more reason to investigate every problem from as many different perspectives and levels of generality as is humanly possible. That is the nature of radical thinking. Human survival depends on it.
"Blowback" is not restricted solely to the area of foreign policy. Even municipalities must deal with the ancient principle that intentional human action will, by necessity, create unintended consequences in a social setting. Especially when that social setting is extended outward to encompass other species ...
Take the New York Rat. Please. The City of New York has forever been unable to control the endless copulating and populating of this rodent. It's gotten so bad in some sections of Manhattan that a gent named Manny Rodriguez, has taken to whacking some of these unlucky critters with his home-made bat. Upper West Siders are cheering this victorious vigilante, nicknamed"M-Rod," for his bat-to-rat alternative to the teams of exterminators and inspectors that are finallyresponding to neighborhood calls for pest control.
Another New York neighborhood has been trying to deal with what many residents term,"rats with wings." The New York Pigeon. Dubbed"Public Enemy No. 2," literally, the pigeons in the Manhattan Bryant Park area have been dropping their droppings on people for years. The City tried to control this, at first, by drugging the poor birds. When pigeons, rather than pigeon-poop, started dropping on people's heads, the City decided to stop its bird-brained narcotics program. Then, the City introduced Fake Owls into Bryant Park, which were supposed to frighten the pigeons away. But these are New York pigeons. They simply started depositing their droppings on the Fake Owls, mocking them, as if to say:"You talkin' to me?"
Then, the City came up with a really brilliant plan: They introduced hawks into Bryant Park. Yes. Real, live hawks. But the hawks didn't touch the pigeons. Instead, one of them swooped down and attacked a helpless Chihuahua, attempting to lift it into the air as it frolicked on the green. People were scurrying and screaming, and dog lovers protested.
So the City has now come up with a Bold New Initiative. City workers are now wrapping Slinkys around tree branches, which hang over sitting areas in Bryant Park. This will, apparently, stop the pigeons from sitting on the branches because it will, apparently, make them"dizzy." They will therefore have to go elsewhere to take care of their lavatory needs. Perhaps the City will install Public Poopers for Pigeons that are as well kept as the People Potties.
Meanwhile, another war looms in the outer boroughs. This one is coming to my Brooklyn neighborhood, which is home to thousands of Green Monk Parakeets. These natives of South America, like other immigrant groups, have settled in my beloved Brooklyn. Don't let their delicate, pretty appearance fool you. They are hard-working and productive, building nests on telephone poles and street lamps. But the phone company is now starting to grumble, and it is only a matter of time before it tries to remove the South American Squatters from their utility poles. Let's just hope they don't introduce Slinkies, Fake Owls, or, to the eternal fear of my dog Blondie, Chihuahua-Hunting Hawks. These Brooklyn Birds are tough; they will make the Manhattan Pigeons look like Chickens. Not to be confused with Chicken-Hawks.
I have a forthcoming article in The Free Radical entitled"Bush Wins!," which I'll be delighted to share with my L&P audience after it is published. The gist of the article is expressed in its conclusion:
Other things being equal, voters are not going to choose Kerry, when they’ve already got in Bush a Republican dedicated to all the conventional Democratic planks: an expanding welfare state, budget deficits, and a war abroad. A long and potentially nasty campaign beckons; the race may center on 17 battleground states that are not yet claimed by either candidate and so much can happen between now and Election Day. But, as of this moment, I still think Bush wins.
Yes, I know: This could be one of those"Dewey Defeats Truman" moments, as I say in my article. But I do find it interesting that in today's NY Times, people from various parts of the political spectrum conclude, as I do, that Bush and Kerry have much more in common than either camp would have you believe. Check out this news item, this Nicholas Kristof Op-Ed piece, and this William Safire essay, all of which point to what Safire calls"the Bush-Kerry Nondebate."