Monday, September 7, 2015

An Attitude Problem A Confusion of Terms And The Triumph of Fiction Over Reality

Considering the power of merely conventional passed down as an attitude to be held and maintained and not to be contradicted by any number of facts on the allegedly liberal mind it is remarkable that a word denoting freedom of thought could still be used to name it.   And in that we can see both the fragility of ideals in the face of habit and a desire to fit in to one's comfort and profit and, also, the power of conventional attitudes to control careless thought.  The "liberalism" of that phrase isn't the liberalism that gave rise to the great reform movements of the past four centuries which bettered lives.  As has been pointed out that liberalism was based in the liberal giving of sustenance to those who lacked the material, social and spiritual means to live at all in many cases and in still far too many to live a decent and morally edifying life.

No, the "liberalism" that replaced that in the usurpation of the word was the late 18th century notion of liberalism which was a mere freeing from restraints, morality among those, which was supposed to release some natural force which would set things aright.  But that was always a daffy notion.  It resulted in anything but the equality that the older liberalism founded on verses in the First and Second testament but, rather, in laissez faire economics and other boons to the rich freed of government oversight, Social Darwinisn and eugenics for the poor.

I have come, in the past dozen or so years, to see the failure to make that distinction as one of the crucial aspects of the failure of liberal politics in the past fifty years, most easily seen in the last years of the life of The Reverend Martin Luther King jr and in the period after his death when his goals of the Blessed Community abandoned for something that had more sciency veneer on it.  What had been built up by those who promoted the earlier, egalitarian liberalism was burdened with the second thing called liberalism but which it had little in common with.*

It was, though, a problem for a lot longer than that.  Yesterday's go round on whether or not "Shakespeare in Love" was a "bio-pic" reminded me of a post I did on one of the most remarkable cases of liberal confusion that hinged exactly on that point, which I'm posting here, today.  That was the identification of Oliver Wendell Holmes jr. as a liberal icon when he was a particularly brutal and savage Social Darwinist, the author of one of the worst legal decisions violating the most basic rights of people on the basis of science and social economics.   The part Broadway and Hollywood played in creating that confusion is, to an extent, unknowable but I would guess the idiotic "bio-pic" The Magnificant Yankee might have played in that is a lot greater than any familiarity with his actual thinking was.  I would guess many more thousands of college degree holding liberals saw that than ever read the Buck v Bell decision and his other thoughts impinging on actual liberal law, social policy and understood its effect in the real world.   Here is what I said on that matter in the post form several years back.

Compared to the "right" of private businesses to do things that could have enormously effects, good or bad, on countless people, including deaths,  Holmes saw the danger of individual people asserted to be "imbeciles"  having a child as more deserving of the most extreme state intervention, even into their bodies with surgery, on the mere prediction that any child they had was of an increased potential to be intellectually or physically deficient.  

Yet Holmes is seen as some kind of great progressive force in the law, primarily, I'd guess, due to his free speech dissents and his usefulness to Franklin Roosevelt at the very end of his life.  There was the movie of the play "The Magnificent Yankee" which only adds weight to the case that historical fiction in the hands of the theater and Hollywood, is best considered to be fiction.  Liberals seem to be suckers for that kind of "history".

As compared to the silly movie  that used a few names from late Elizabethan and Jacobean England to spin a totally fictitious yarn the misunderstanding of Holmes as a liberal hero is really dangerous in political and so real terms.  So the triumph of the conventional thinking that can grow out of that mistaking of fiction for reality, to be passed on as a de rigueur attitude to be held to be a good liberal, is damaging to the very identity of liberals as those who fight for the poor, the destitute, the oppressed the other among us, the least among us.  I understood in my early years of college, when I'd never read a single word of Holmes that I was to think of him as some kind of liberal hero, just as I was to hold any number of other mere attitudes based on nothing but assertions and even the merest implications of what other people said about people and ideas.  In a way the past dozen years has been about finally getting past that junk as so much more of the primary source material that I should have read, that we all should have read has become available for free in its entirety.

In these years of blogging on how the left went wrong, lost its ability to elect people to office who would change the law to improve the real lives of real people whose lives, physically and spiritually, depended on those changes, I've come to see that in a lot of cases the problem lay entirely on those attitudes and seldom on the facts.  One of the most damning was, in fact, one that had been identified a long time ago by our political opponents, that was the charge of snobbery, of believing that the college educated liberal elite loved to believe it was superior to people who had not been to college and who had not absorbed the requisite attitudes of that class of people.  I think that snobbery has been the sword that liberalism fell on, something anyone who was there for the political campaign of 1968 was stupid to not see.   Nixon used the resentment against that trait of so many of the conventional liberals, magnifying it and hanging it around the necks of even the most egalitarian of real liberals.  It took reading the unedited thinking of many thousands of those who considered themselves liberals online to make me see that in that case, we gave them the rope to do that with.  As I've also pointed out, the response of heaping more of that kind of ridicule on those who had supported Nixon in the form of Archie Bunker notably didn't prevent Nixon winning a second term or Reagan and two Bushes interspersed with conservative, laissez-faire style Democrats instead of someone who would revive and extend The New Deal or The Great Society.

It would seem to me that the first thing liberals need to understand to turn that around is what the difference between a real, traditional American liberal is and the laissez-faire substitute is.  The first is butter, the second is trans-fat margarine.  But liberals also need to understand the motives of those who led us down that path, those in the media whose interests always lay more in being able to lie for their profit than to promote a decent, egalitarian society, paying the merest lip-service to that as required in their social milieu of writers who like to be called liberal.   As the conservatives learned, all they needed to do was to give up the purity campaigners to get the media to drop the pretenses. And in allowing the porn industry - whose practices are and always have been an expression of laissez faire economics - the freedom it wanted it gained a lot more than it lost.   Rupert Murdoch, who previously may have been excluded as a soft-core pornographer being allowed to take out American citizenship and to buy a major American media company is the real life proof of what taking that "liberal" position benefited the worst of the far right enormously.  And try pointing out that "liberals" consuming his coarse, degrading, and even fascistic junk are enriching him online to see how discerning a bunch they are.   I've run that experiment on Eschaton, on Hullaballoo  on other blogs, including a couple of blogs I discontinued earlier this year.

I have certainly been guilty of most of what I'm talking about here.  The laziness and self-congratulations that led the left astray are easy and seductive, especially when sold with the full range of PR tactics and appeals to the lowest in us that are characteristic of a successful con job.  It certainly isn't pleasant to realize you have been had and it's your own fault.  But it's necessary for the future success of the program of real liberalism that those things be faced, including the defrocking and defenestration of some of our plaster saints. A lot more than the altered, phonied up bust of Shakespeare will have to go, a lot more.  The great "authorship question" is only really important as a model of how a required conventional attitude can triumph over the factual content of available evidence, the question of whether or not you really believe all people are created equal and endowed by their creator with equal rights and the right to sustenance and respect, that's the real thing.

* I'm coming to wonder if it isn't possible to analyze all of American history to be a struggle between those two "liberalisms" the second one being, actually, a mere variation on conservatism, what I've come to see as more accurately called "liberalish libertarianism".  The 18th century "liberals" who wrote the Constitution set up the necessity of the anti-slavery struggle, the struggle for women's rights and for the rights of workers as opposed to their employers, and universal justice.  We, today, struggle with those who want to reimpose that 18th century liberalism on us through their occult divination of the "original intent" of those liberals and, as I've also pointed out many times, even real liberals are suckers for it when they intone the phrase, "The First Amendment".

The Darwinist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. made what might be the most infamous declaration on eugenics made in the United States, it may be his most well known quote.

Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

The fuller reading of the paragraph, near the end of his decision in the Buck v Bell case, is even worse:

The attack is not upon the procedure, but upon the substantive law. It seems to be contended that in no circumstances could such an order be justified. It certainly is contended that the order cannot be justified upon the existing grounds. The judgment finds the facts that have been recited, and that Carrie Buck

"is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health, and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization,"

and thereupon makes the order. In view of the general declarations of the legislature and the specific findings of the Court, obviously we cannot say as matter of law that the grounds do not exist, and, if they exist, they justify the result. We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

If I had the time, I'd go through Holmes' famous dissents in matters of prior restraint in printed matter, even, as in the Gitlow case, against the restraint of publishing incitements to violent insurrection and revolution, even as Holmes contemplated that sufficiently eloquent incitements might succeed in that incitement.  I see his approval of the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck was a "prior restraint" on her ability to have another child.  Leaving aside Stephen Jay Gould's essay on the case, in which he quite conclusively shows that neither Carrie Buck nor her daughter were, actually, of below normal intelligence,  Holmes clearly saw the danger of her having another child as being a greater danger to "the state" than a possibly successful insurrection overturning the government.   In the Gitlow case, when it was merely the mode of expression and its contents that were at stake, he said:

Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and if believed it is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth. The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker's enthusiasm for the result. Eloquence may set fire to reason. But whatever may be thought of the redundant discourse before us it had no chance of starting a present conflagration. If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.

However, clearly, in Buck v Bell, Holmes considered that people, their right to have children, the right to the ownership of their own body, was less important compared to the right of words.  


It would be possible to go through the decision and make point by point comparisons with what the great Holmes said and what such infamous figures as Galton, Haeckel, and their colleagues now considered less disreputable said and find who Holmes was very likely paraphrasing.  In fact, on the other end of the history of the first eugenics era, the defense of Nazi doctors at Nuremberg cited Holmes' decision as well as other American documents in their defense.  You have to wonder what that felt like for Francis Biddle, the chief judge at those trials, given that he had been Holmes' private secretary.   

His familiarity with Holmes gives Biddle's analysis of the effect that Holmes' thinking and reading a particular credibility that could stand alone as evidence of how he came to decide what he did.  In a series of lectures Biddle gave, which were published in 1960 he said.  

All society rested on the death of men or on the prevention of the lives of a good many. So that when the Chief Justice assigned him the task of writing an opinion upholding the constitutionality 
of a Virginia law for sterilizing imbeciles he felt that he was getting near the first principle of real reform— although of course he didn't mean that the surgeon's knife was the ultimate symbol. 
... He was amused at some of the rhetorical changes in his opinion suggested by his associates, and purposely used "short and rather brutal words for an antithesis," that made them mad. In most cases the difficulty was rather with the writing than with the thinking. To put the case well and from time to time to hint at a vista was the job. . . . 

The vista of which Biddle spoke was provided by Holmes' reading of Charles Darwin.  Biddle continued:

This approach is characteristic of Holmes, and constantly reflected in his opinions— to keep the law fluid and the doors of the mind open. For pedestrian lawyers it was often unsatisfactory— they wanted everything defined and settled and turned into everlasting precedents. 

Darwin's influence was strong on Holmes, and his theory of the survival of those who were fit to survive must have been constantly and passionately discussed in Dr. Holmes's house when 
Wendell was a growing lad and young man. On the Origin of Species had appeared when he was eighteen, and The Descent of Man in 1871, when he was thirty. Darwin led to Herbert Spencer, 
whom Holmes thought dull, with the ideals of a lower middle-class British Philistine, but who, with Darwin, he believed had done more than any other English writer to affect our whole way of thinking about the universe. All his life Holmes held to the survival of the strong, and did not disguise his view that the Sherman Act was a humbug, based on economic ignorance and incompetence, and that the Interstate Commerce Commission was not a fit body to be entrusted with rate making. However, as he said to Pollock, he was so skeptical about our knowledge of the goodness or badness of laws that he had no practical criticism except what the crowd wants. Personally he would bet that the crowd if it knew more wouldn't want what it does. 

Compared to the "right" of private businesses to do things that could have enormously effects, good or bad, on countless people, including deaths,  Holmes saw the danger of individual people asserted to be "imbeciles"  having a child as more deserving of the most extreme state intervention, even into their bodies with surgery, on the mere prediction that any child they had was of an increased potential to be intellectually or physically deficient.  

Yet Holmes is seen as some kind of great progressive force in the law, primarily, I'd guess, due to his free speech dissents and his usefulness to Franklin Roosevelt at the very end of his life.  There was the movie of the play "The Magnificent Yankee" which only adds weight to the case that historical fiction in the hands of the theater and Hollywood, is best considered to be fiction.  Liberals seem to be suckers for that kind of "history".

Since he lived until 1935, Holmes saw eugenics activity in the United States increase enormously after his decision, responsible for the forced and involuntary sterilization of scores of thousands of people.  He also lived to see the rise of fascists in Europe, the Nazis, he lived long enough and could have been quite aware of the Nazis eugenic laws, the first in Germany, in July of 1933, laws which were justified by the Nazis and their supporters by citing the eugenics laws in the United States, both at the beginning and, as mentioned before, after the fall of the Third Reich.  I don't know if he is recorded as ever having said anything about that,  other than his declaration that he felt he was getting at "the first principle of real reform" in his decision, I haven't yet found anything he said in its wake.  I would suspect there is something, I just haven't found it yet.

David A. Hollinger, in an interesting essay, "The Tough-Minded Justice Holmes" gives more insight into what almost certainly influenced Holmes to write his most famous decision.  He notes the influence of Charles Darwin and his circle and how William James tried to broaden his friend, Holmes' views and lead him to be less unquestioningly accepting of them. 

This is not to claim that James developed his categories with Holmes in mind, but there is no doubt that this particular map of intellectual alternatives was suggested to James by a circle of mid-nineteenth-century British secular intellectuals with whom Holmes strongly identified himself and against whom Jame's own career as a philosopher was directed.  The members of this circle were often called “scientific naturalists” or, less helpfully, “positivists”;  they included Herbet Spencer, G. H. Lewes, T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, W.K. Clifford, Henry Buckle and – although his reticence in philosophical and religious matters made his position in this movement ambiguous – the great Charles Darwin Himself.  To James, these “knights of the razor,” as he called them sardonically, were anathema on account of their parochial misunderstanding of science and their extraordinary ability to intimidate people who would prefer to make a more generous view of religious experience and individual volition. While James mocked the pretensions of Popular Science Monthly – the major American medium for the dissemination of the views of this circle, Holmes so rejoiced in its influence that he sent a fan letter to its militant editor, E. L. Youmans.  Holmes celebrated the triumphs of this truly “scientific,” reality-facing, ostentatiously stoic cadre over the sentimentalism he associated with his own father.  While James thought his friend Holmes was making rather a spectacle of himself by representing his marks of toughness the scars worn by the sword-fighting duelists in German universities, Holmes seemed convinced that the battle against sentimentalism was never won. 

The idea that Holmes' "tough-mindedness", an attribute given him by James, could have been reacting to the "sentimentalism" of his father, the poet, is interesting.  It's almost tempting to see Holmes as an example of that turn from 19th century liberalism of the kind that produced the reform movements of abolition, women's rights, temperance, various reforms to protect workers and consumers, etc. into a more "scientific" liberalism that still distorts, denatures and defeats liberals today.  But I think the case is that such denatured liberalism was unable to make the distinction between a mythical, liberal Holmes and the reality of his products.  Is it his "free speech" language that deceives liberals?  Liberals go all soggy when someone says those words.  Free speech, with its potential to incite violent struggle can be seen as a useful motivator of natural selection as much as it is a vital component of liberal reform.  In the hands of the rich and powerful it has that effect, often to the detriment of genuine liberalism, as our freest press ever proves 24/7/365.  In the beginning of his essay, Hollinger points out:

.....that a major folk hero of the liberal intelligentsia is a man who has been plausibly described by Grant Gilmore as “savage, harsh, and cruel, a bitter and lifelong pessimist who saw in the course of human life nothing but a continuing struggle in which the rich and powerful impose their will on the poor and weak.  The two issues are largely distinct from one another, but they do connect through the utility of a “scientific” persona held for proponents of a genuinely secular, de-Christianized liberalism for the public culture of the United States. 

This is what I meant by the wrong turn that liberalism took as it attempted to become more "tough-minded", more "scientific", less "sentimental".  Such liberalism equates whatever is held to be science with hard reality and whatever can be associated with the "sentimental" as being an illusion, including religion, including vast stretches of morality which comprise the genuine substance of liberalism.  This is how it mistakes Holmes for a liberal when he was no such thing, it's how eugenics, the negation of everything that liberalism comprises, came to be associated with liberalism.  

Post Script:  I can't say it any better than the atheist and materialist and friend of Stephen Jay Gould,  Richard Lewontin, did in his Essay:  Billions and Billions of Demons

The struggle for possession of public consciousness between material and mystical explanations of the world is one aspect of the history of the confrontation between elite culture and popular culture. Without that history we cannot understand what was going on in the Little Rock Auditorium in 1964. The debate in Arkansas between a teacher from a Texas fundamentalist college and a Harvard astronomer and University of Chicago biologist was a stage play recapitulating the history of American rural populism. In the first decades of this century there was an immensely active populism among poor southwestern dirt farmers and miners.7 The most widely circulated American socialist journal of the time (The Appeal to Reason!) was published not in New York, but in Girard, Kansas, and in the presidential election of 1912 Eugene Debs got more votes in the poorest rural counties of Texas and Oklahoma than he did in the industrial wards of northern cities. Sentiment was extremely strong against the banks and corporations that held the mortgages and sweated the labor of the rural poor, who felt their lives to be in the power of a distant eastern elite. The only spheres of control that seemed to remain to them were family life, a fundamentalist religion, and local education. 

This sense of an embattled culture was carried from the southwest to California by the migrations of the Okies and Arkies dispossessed from their ruined farms in the 1930s. There was no serious public threat to their religious and family values until well after the Second World War. Evolution, for example, was not part of the regular biology curriculum when I was a student in 1946 in the New York City high schools, nor was it discussed in school textbooks. In consequence there was no organized creationist movement. Then, in the late 1950s, a national project was begun to bring school science curricula up to date. A group of biologists from elite universities together with science teachers from urban schools produced a new uniform set of biology textbooks, whose publication and dissemination were underwritten by the National Science Foundation. An extensive and successful public relations campaign was undertaken to have these books adopted, and suddenly Darwinian evolution was being taught to children everywhere. The elite culture was now extending its domination by attacking the control that families had maintained over the ideological formation of their children. 

Lewontin's is about the most realistic, most informed and most sophisticated analysis of the this struggle in the United States which I've read.

In a struggle that produces far more than its share of ironies, it is remarkable that as the fundamentalist anti-evolutionists who have made the best use of the history of American Eugenics, the eugenics history of Charles Darwin and his inner circle and the waves emanating from them as present day liberals are obsessively protecting the inspiration of eugenics, the lassie-faire capitalist, supporter of the 19th century British class system, anti-contraceptive, racist, flagrant bigot, etc. Charles Darwin on behalf of his science, which is long superseded by better explanations of the fact of evolution. 

How Darwinism became the great cause celebre of liberalism when it has nothing to do with a genuine liberal political agenda and, in the genuine history of Darwinism is antithetical to liberalism, is worth asking.  The separation of church and state is worth supporting but, frankly, if we've got to buy Darwinism to do it, it's not going to lead to liberalism.  I don't think liberalism has to make that deal.  At the very least it should face the real Charles Darwin and throw him off the sled.  Liberal struggle requires that. 

No comments:

Post a Comment