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Need a quick refresher? Poof, here it is. :>

I do like reading Aeon magazine.  In his essay Jeremy Adelman describes some of the competing historical narratives.  I like that his arguments intersect with another venerated historian, Ronald Wright conclusions’ about civilizations and their paths toward modernity.  Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress dovetails nicely with the thesis of Adelman’s essay.

“The real failure then of that financial mayhem was that its makers couldn’t see how their heroic story of decontrolled Homo pecuniaria was responsible for the crisis – and instead compelled bystanders and taxpayers to pay the price.

The beneficiaries of the doomsday narratives have been snarling nativists and populists, propped up by Fox News sages such as Jonah Goldberg and Yuval Levin who champion the old decline story: a dirge for ‘Western’ civilisation. The New YorkTimes’ David Brooks weeps about America’s inescapable demise. For Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, there is only one, stark, self-serving choice: cosmopolitan catastrophe or rescue, with themselves as uniquely mandated to liberate us from an apocalypse designed by global plutocrats. Meanwhile, liberals and cosmopolitans feud over whom to blame – thereby further fuelling the crisis consensus.

It’s important to recognise one of the catastrophist’s rhetorical moves. Stories of doom thrive on turning a tension into an incompatibility. A tension implies two forces at odds – like hot and cold, like price stability and jobs, like helping strangers and assisting neighbours; while they pull in different directions, they can be mixed. Earlier big narratives used to explain choices in terms of tension and unstable compromise. In the 1950s and ’60s, debates focused on how much the developing world could advance while being part of a wider global economy. A decade later, the tension was how to co-manage a troubled global commons.

Nowadays, the chorus of catastrophe presents differences as intractable and incompatible, the choice between them zero-sum. It’s globalism or ‘nation first’, jobs or climate, friend or foe. The model is simple: earlier leaders muddled, dithered, compromised and mixed. In their efforts to avoid hard decisions, they led the nation to the edge of disaster.

Pessimism helped exorcise post-1989 triumphalism; Piketty and Tooze are right about structural features of inequality and how the makers of catastrophe became its beneficiaries. But we also need to see how the consensus of catastrophe that straddles the ideological spectrum – but grows more dire and menacing as one approaches the extremes – favours the politics of the strong man glaring down the nation-doubters.

The alternative is not to be wistful about flat-world narratives that find solace in technical panaceas and market fundamentalisms; the last thing we need is a return to the comforts of lean-in fairy tales that rely on facile responses to a complicated world. To learn from collapses and extinctions, and prevent more of them, we need to recover our command over complex storytelling, to think of tensions instead of incompatibilities, to allow choices and alternatives, mixtures and ambiguities, instability and learning, to counter the false certainties of the abyss. If we don’t, it really will be too late for many people and species.”

Both Wright and Adelman champion a rational and reasoned approach to altering the self-destructive paths we’ve chosen collectively as civilizations on earth.  It is unfortunate, as Adelman notes, that the current political climate seems very well defended against the nuanced and complex solutions necessary to alter the calamitous course of our civilization.

 

“The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us. It is only the cheerful light of confidence and security which keeps this evil genius down… If confidence and security were to disappear, don’t think that he would not be waiting to take their place. “

-George Kennan (1947).

Aeon magazine is just a grand cornucopia of interesting facts. My knowledge of medieval sexual practices has been doubled if not trebled by just reading the one article I’ve quoted here. :)

It is fascinating how well we actually did without the scientific method to back up our ‘facts’/ Admittedly there is some wack-a-loonery to be had when it came to medieval medicine, but sometimes they got it right (for the wrong reasons usually though).  Katherine Harvey writes:

    “Although the most famous cases of death by celibacy relate to male clerics, women were, in their own way, equally vulnerable to this medical problem. According to contemporary medical theory, both sexes produced seed that was necessary for conception – and just like semen, the female seed needed to be expelled from the body during regular sexual intercourse. In a woman who was not sexually active, the seed would be retained within her body; as it built up, it would cause suffocation of the womb. The symptoms of this condition included fainting and shortness of breath, and in the most serious cases it could be fatal. For women, as for men, the best way to avoid death by celibacy was to get married and have regular, Church-sanctioned intercourse with one’s spouse. If this was not possible, there were a range of useful remedies, including restricted diets and vinegar suppositories. Some physicians, however, recommended a rather startling alternative: masturbation.

    Unsurprisingly, the medieval Church took a rather dim view of this practice: most medieval penitentials (handbooks for confessors) identified masturbation as a sin, and imposed heavy penances for it – typically around 30 days of fasting, but sometimes as much as two years. On the other hand, masturbation was usually placed towards the bottom of the hierarchy of sexual sins, and confessors were permitted to make some allowance for those (including unmarried youths) who lacked another outlet for their desires. This caveat reflects the Church’s awareness of contemporary medical teachings: it was impossible to ignore the fact that medical authorities from Galen onwards had recommended masturbation as a form of preventative medicine for both men and women.

    Later medieval physicians were rarely as explicit as Galen and other ancients. Late medieval medical books rarely mentioned male masturbation. For women lacking regular sexual relations, they offered a variety of treatments, including, stimulation of the genitals (either by the patient or by a medical professional). Such treatments were particularly suitable for women who were suffering from suffocation of the womb. If such a woman could not marry (for example, because she was a nun), and if her life was in genuine danger, then genital massage might be the only solution, and could even be performed without sin. The 14th-century English physician John of Gaddesden thought that such a woman should try to cure her condition through exercise, foreign travel and medication. But ‘if she has a fainting fit, the midwife should insert a finger covered with oil of lily, laurel or spikenard into her womb, and move it vigorously about’.”

It must have been quite the controversy as the medical solution meant you were going to hell.  It makes me glad that we can now laugh at people who use terms like “the devil’s doorbell” earnestly. :)

 

In Defying Hitler, Sebastion Haffner’s disturbing 1939 memoir chronicling the rise of Nazism, the author, a law candidate, describes the insidious day-to-day changes in attitudes, beliefs, politics, and prejudices that began, for Germans, the slow descent into a “trap of comradeship” in which this culture of cruelty flourished as many of them become “owned by it”.  “Comradeship” as the Nazis meant it, became a “narcotic” that the people were introduced to from the earliest age, through the Hitler Youth movement (Hitlerjugend), the SA, military service, and involvement with thousand of camps and clubs. In this way, it destroyed their sense of personal responsibility and became a means for the process of dehumanization:

‘It is even worse that comradeship relieves men of responsibility for their actions, before themselves, before God, before their conscience.  They do what their comrades do.  They have no choice.  They have no time for thought (except when they unfortunately wake up at night).  Their comrades are their conscience and give absolution for everything, provided that do what everybody else does.’

Haffner goes on to describe how this comradeship, in just a few weeks at camp, molded a group of intellectual, educated men into an “unthinking, indifferent, irresponsible mass” in which bigoted, derogatory, and hateful comments “were commonplace, went unanswered and set the intellectual tone.”  The Nazis used a variety of psychological stimulations and manipulations to this end, such as slogans, flags, uniforms, Sieg Heils, marching columns, banners, and songs, to help create a dangerous, mindless “group think.”  One of the most disturbing aspects of this comradeship was how the men in the camp began to behave as a collective entity, who “instinctively ignored or belittled anything that could disturb our collective self-satisfaction.  A German Reich in microcosm.”  This collectivity is the “and” in Arthur Eddington’s mathematical formula.  The bullies and the bystanders become a deadly combination that is more than the sum of its parts.

[…]

 

In all three genocides [Armenian, Jewish, Tutsi], it was found that if one person (or small group of dedicated people) refused to go along with the genocidaires, some others who were potential witnesses actually became witnesses, defenders, and/or resisters themselves.  This group readily admitted that if it were not for those who took the lead in desisting, they probably not would have had the courage to do so themselves.  In his research in “atrocity producing situations,” Robert J. Lifton came to the conclusion, “There’s no inherent human nature that requires us to kill or maim…  We have the potential for precisely that behaviour of the Nazis …or of some kind of more altruistic or cooperative behaviour,  We can go either way.  And I think that confronting these extreme situations is itself an act of hope because in doing that, we are implying and saying that there is an alternative.  We can do better. ”

 

‘It is immensely moving when a mature man [or woman] – no matter whether young or old in years- is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul.  He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere reaches a point where he says: “Here I stand; I can do no other.”  That is something genuinely human and moving.   [Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation]

-Barbara Coloroso.  Extraordinary Evil – A Brief History of Genocide.   pp. 85 – 87

 

Barbara Coloroso has done exemplary work in writing “Extraordinary Evil – A Brief History of Genocide”.   Second time around on this book, now going low and slow to really get down with the text and understand what she is saying.  I wanted to share some of the passages that resonated with me.

A Jewish officer in the US Army during World War II, Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum wrote about a young Jewish boy he found near death in Ohrdruff, a concentration camp annexed to Buchenwald.  The young boy requested bread and then broke down sobbing as he spoke of his murdered family:

After about fifteen minuets of bitter sobbing, the sixteen-year-old boy suddenly looked at me and asked whether I could teach him how to do teshuvah [repent].  I was taken aback by his question and tried to comfort him.  “After the stretch in hell you’ve been through, you don’t need worry about doing teshuvah.  Your slate is clean.  Your slate is clean.  You’re alive, and you have to get a hold of yourself and stop worrying about doing teshuvah,” I told him.  But my words had no effect.  I could not convince him.  He kept insisting: “Ich vill tuhn teshuvah – I want to do teshuvahIch muz tuhn teshuva – I must do teshuvah.”

Finally, I asked him, “Why must you do teshuvah?” in the hope that talking would enable him to let go of some of the pain I saw in his eyes.  He pointed out the window and asked if I saw the gallows.  Satisfied that I did, he began his story:

“Two months ago one of the prisoners escaped…the camp commandant was furious about the escape and demanded to know the identify of the escaped prisoner.  No one could provide him with the information he was seeking… In his fury, the commandant decided to play a sadistic game with us.  He demanded that any pairs of brothers, or fathers and sons, step forward.  We were terrified of what he might do if we did not comply.  My father and I step forward.

They placed my father on a stool under those gallows and tied a noose around my father’s neck, the commandant cocked his Luger, placed it at my temple, and hissed, “If you or your father doesn’t tell me who escaped, you are going to kick that stool out from under your father.”  I looked at my father and told him, “Zorgst sich nit – Don’t worry, Tatte, I won’t do it.”  But my father answered me, “My son, you have to do it.  He’s got a gun to your head and he’s going to kill you if you don’t, and then he will kick the chair out from under me and we’ll both be gone.  This way at least there’s a chance you’ll survive.  But if you don’t, we’ll both be killed.”

Tatte, nein, ich vell dos nit tuhn – I will not do it.  Ich hab nit fargessen kibbud av – I didn’t forget kibbud av [honouring one’s father].”

Instead of being comforted by words, my father suddenly screamed at me: “You talk about kibbud av, I’m ordering you to kick that stool.  That is your father’s command.”

 

Nein, Tatte, nein – No, father, I won’t.

But my father only got angrier, know that if I didn’t obey he would see his son murdered in front of him.  “You talk about kibbud av v’eim [honouring one’s father and mother],” he shouted.  “This is your father’s last order to you.  Listen to me! Kick the chair!”

I was so frightened and confused hearing my father screaming at me that I kicked the chair and watched as my father’s neck snapped in the noose.

 

His story over, the boy looked at me… as my own tears flowed freely, and asked, “Now, you tell me.  Do I have to do teshuvah?”

 

Barbara Coloroso. Extraordinary Evil – A Brief History of Genocide. pp. 93 – 95.

 

 

Long read, the rest is under the fold.

 

“I would like to explain to you the method that the Black Panther Party used to arrive at our ideological position, and more than that, I would like to give to you a framework or a process of thinking that might help us solve the problems and the contradictions that exist today. Before we approach the problem we must get a clear picture of what is really going on; a clear image divorced from the attitudes and emotions that we usually project into a situation. We must be as objective as possible without accepting dogma, letting the facts speak for themselves. But we will not remain totally objective; we will become subjective in the application of the knowledge received from the external world. We will use the scientific method to acquire this knowledge, but we will openly acknowledge our ultimately subjectivity. Once we apply knowledge in order to will a certain outcome our objectivity ends and our subjectivity begins. We call this integrating theory with practice, and this is what the Black Panther Party is all about.

In order to understand a group of forces operating at the same time, science developed what is called the scientific method. One of the characteristics or properties of this method is disinterest. Not uninterest, but disinterest: no special interest in the outcome. In other words, the scientist does not promote an outcome, he just collects the facts. Nevertheless, in acquiring the facts he must begin with a basic premise. Most basic premises stem from a set of assumptions because it is very difficult to test a first premise without these assumptions. After an agreement is reached on certain assumptions, an intelligent argument can follow, for then logic and consistency are all that is required to reach a valid conclusion.

Tonight I ask you to assume that an external world exists. An external world that exists independently of us. The second assumption i would like for you to make is that things are in a constant state of change, transformation, or flux. With agreement on these two assumption we can go on with our discussion.

The scientific method relies heavily on empiricism. But the problem with empiricism is that it tells you very little about the future; it tells you only about the past, about information which you have already discovered through observation and experience. It always refers to past experience.

Long after the rules of empirical knowledge had been ascertained, a man by the name of Karl Marx integrated these rules with a theory developed by Immanuel Kant called rationale. Kant called his process of reasoning pure reason because it did not depend on the external world. Instead it only depended on consistency in manipulating symbols in order to come up with a conclusion based upon reason. For example, in this sentence “If the sky is above my head when I turn my head upwards, I will see the sky” there is nothing wrong with the conclusion. As a matter of fact, it is accurate. But I haven’t said anything about the existence of the sky. I said “if.” With rationale we are not dependent upon the external world. With empiricism we can tell very little about the future. So what will we do? What Marx did. In order to understand what was happening in the world Marx found it necessary to integrate rationale with empiricism. He called his concept dialectical materialism. If, like Marx, we integrate these two concepts or these two ways of thinking, not only are we in touch with the world outside us but we can also explain the constant state of transformation. Therefore, we can also make some predictions about the outcome of certain social phenomena that is not only in constant change but also in conflict.

Marx, as a social scientist, criticized other social scientists for attempting to explain phenomena, or one phenomenon, by taking it out of its environment, isolating it, putting it into a category, and not acknowledging the fact that once it was taken out of its environment the phenomenon was transformed. For example, if in a discipline such as sociology we study the activity of groups–how they hold together and why they fell apart–without understanding everything else related to that group, we may arrive at a false conclusion about the nature of the group. What Marx attempted to do was to develop a way of thinking that would explain phenomena realistically.

In the physical world, when forces collide they are transformed. When atoms collide, in physics, they divide into electrons, protons, and neutrons, if I remember correctly. What happened to the atom? It was transformed. In the social world a similar thing happens. We can apply the same principle. When two cultures collide a process or condition occurs which the sociologists call acculturation: the modification of cultures as a result of their contact with each other. Marx called the collision of social forces or classes a contradiction. In the physical world, when forces collide we sometimes call it just that–a collision. For example, when two cars meet head on, trying to occupy the same space at the same time, both are transformed. Sometimes other things happen. Had those two cars been turned back to back and sped off in opposite directions they would not be a contradiction; they would be contrary, covering different spaces at different times. Sometimes when people meet they argue and misunderstand each other because they think they are having a contradiction when they are only being contrary. For example, I can say the wall is ten feet tall and you can say the wall is red, and we can argue all day thinking we are having a contradiction when actually we are only being contrary. When people argue, when one offers a thesis and the other offers an anti-thesis, we say there is a contradiction and hope that if we argue long enough, provided that we agree on one premise, we can have some kind of synthesis. Tonight, I hope I can have some form of agreement or synthesis with those who have criticized the Black Panther Party.

I think that the mistake is either that some people have taken the apparent as the actual fact in spite of their claims of scholarly research and following the discipline of dialectical materialism. They fail to search deeper, as the scientist is required to do, to get beyond the apparent and come up with the more significant. Let me explain how this relates to the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party is a Marxist-Leninist party because we follow the dialectical method and we also integrate theory with practice. We are not mechanical Marxists and we are not historical materialists. Some people think they are Marxists when actually they are following the thoughts of Hegel. Some people think they are Marxist-Leninists but they refuse to be creative, and are, therefore, tied to the past. They are tied to a rhetoric that does not apply to the present set of conditions. They are tied to a set of thoughts that approaches dogma–what we call flunkyism.

Marx attempted to set up a framework which could be applied to a number of conditions. And in applying this framework we cannot be afraid of the outcome because things change and we must be willing to acknowledge that change because we are objective. If we are using the method of dialectical materialism we don’t expect to find anything the same even one minute later because “one minute later” is history. If things are in a constant state of change, we cannot expect them to be the same. Words used to describe old phenomena may be useless to describe the new. And if we use the old words to describe then new events we run the risk of confusing people and misleading them into thinking that things are static.

 

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