Sunday, May 30, 2010
Wernher Von Braun was the son of the Prussian (Junker) aristocrat who was the Minister of Agriculture in the last government of the Weimar Republic. As such he proved to be a valuable asset to the small circle of Lumpen-proletariat rocket enthusiasts who, at the time, had managed to obtain free space in a German Army ammunition dump near Berlin to carry on their few unpromising experiments in jet propulsion. Although he had limited scientific qualifications for the task he lent an air of sophistication and class to the endeavor and turned out to be a very successful manager and public relations man, helping to sell the project to higher-ups in the German Armed forces and the Nazi hierarchy including Himmler and Hitler. He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and later, when the conquest of Europe began to falter and such actions became necessary to survive the in-fighting at the top levels of the ruling elite, the S.S. He became “technical director” of the first large scale rocket testing facilities at Penemunde by the Baltic sea. He performed the same role at the Mittelbau-Dora slave labor factory where the Nazis started producing their V-2 (V-4) rockets which were rained down on London, killing several thousand people but proved, in the end, to have been a big waste of resources with virtually no strategic effect.
Of course the slaves at Dora died in their thousands from malnutrition, disease, beatings and executions. Eventually the factory built their own crematoria to handle the bodies. Just before the end of the war, as the allies approached, most survivors were shipped off to the gas chambers or burned alive on site. Some survived to tell of Wernher von Braun's direct personal involvement in these affairs. Never-the-less, by that time Von Braun and a select group of his scientists had fled and managed to surrender themselves to American forces. Again, Wernher Von Braun's salesmanship served him well. He managed to convince the Americans that he was a pure scientist primarily interested in space travel who had not been able to avoid helping the Nazis with their weapons programs. He was brought to the United States to work on the Americans post-war weapons and then their space program, never being asked to give any testimony at the War Crimes Trials held in connection with the Dora slave labor camp.
In America he played a role very similar to the one he had in Nazi Germany: a technical manager, gadfly, purveyor of “idea-bubbles” and public relations impresario. Since he didn't play much of a role in the science of rocketry itself - in terms of theory, mathematics or manufacture- (picking up the words of the author):
Having a lot of time on his hands, he wrote a science-fiction novel of nearly 500 manuscript pages. The novel, titled “Mars Project”- in which seventy passengers go to Mars in ten spaceships after the West defeats the East with atom bombs dropped from an orbiting space station- was an amateurish brick of 1920s space-travel fantasies and 1930s Nazi propaganda about the Bolshevik menace. It is safe to say that the many New York editors who turned it down could not appreciate how well it expressed a dream of what an unspoiled Peenemunde might have accomplished had Hitler fought the ultimate war of annihilation against the Asian hordes. Von Braun would eventually sell the rights to a German publisher, which had it rewritten by a Luftwaffe veteran and illustrated with Frau in Mond-style pictures.
In 1952, however, he began an enormously successful sideline as a popularizer of the American“space” program with a series of lavishly illustrated articles- pre-screened by the Defense Department, like all his writings- in Collier's magazine that let loose the same flights of imagination he had released among his American captors at Garmisch- Partenkirchen, now amplified by the power of American advertising. The vivid full-color pictures of manned spacecraft, lunar and planetary exploration, and giant wheel-shaped orbital stations, with breathless commentary, struck a nerve of pleasure in the American public similar to what a later generation would experience at Star Wars movies, propelling von Braun into the heavens of mass media promotion.
The Collier's phenomena led to similarly cathartic appearances in 1955 and 1957 on Walt Disney's popular television shows that promoted “Tomorrowland” at the Disney theme park. On November 30, 1956, he appeared on the comedian Steve Allen's popular television show. Fan mail inundated his office, much of it answered in colloquial English by a public affair assistant, though von Braun was a sponge for American slang. On March 13, 1958, he and his wife Maria dined with Washington socialite Perle Merta, the famous “ hostess with the mostess”. Had nothing else ever happened to von Braun in America, the Collier's and Disney exposure would have cemented him in the minds of the baby-boomers in the way that Luke Skywalker took hold of mass consciousness a generation later. The illustrations and animated images were pseudo- scientific, but they helped to sell and adventure to a gullible or skeptical audience. Von Braun had done it all before, of course.
When Russia but Sputnik into orbit, Wernher von Braun's Jupiter-C put Explorer I up there right along with it, vaulting him from a mere TV-star to a national hero. Some matters remained sensitive, however. In December of 1958, an assistant answered a query from a researchers at the University of Texas about whether von Braun had ever been a member of the Nazi Party with a curt denial: “In answer to your question, Dr. von Braun was not a Nazi.”
At any rate, the satellite contest convinced Ike that the nation should have a civilian space agency, which became von Braun's first non-military employer. Though the Soviets scored another goal when they launched the first man into space on April 12, 1962, it was von Braun's reliable Redstone that answered for the home team on May 5. The young President Kennedy then decided to go for broke. From these Olympian heights, von Braun would not descend until after the moon was covered with boot prints. The past was erased. Nothing else mattered. He was the prophet of the Space age.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
In 1961, at the age of 19, Wilbert Rideau - guilty of manslaughter in the aftermath of a botched robbery - was convicted of first degree murder by an all-white, all-male jury in Calcasiu Parish Louisiana. Ten years later, his death sentence was commuted to life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Rideau became editor of the the prison news magazine The Angolite, and was instrumental in transforming it into the best prison publication in the country, publishing exposes on prison violence, segregation, and sexual slavery.
Although ten years and six months had been the understood length of a life sentence in Louisiana for half a century, Rideau discovered that many murderers had been made eligible for parole after serving a third of that and were eligible to be discharged without parole after serving half of it. Furthermore, searching the records at the office of the Secretary of State in 1990, Linda LaBranche, an investigator for the state board of ethics at the time and subsequently his wife, found that of the more than five hundred executive clemencies granted to murderers since 1962, the year Rideau was convicted, none had served as much time as he. Of thirty-one convicted murderers who had entered the gates of Angola in that year six carried death sentences; the other twenty-five, life sentences. By 1990 all had been freed except Rideau.
Linda LaBranche also discovered that up until 1976 Calcasieu Parish, where Rideau was convicted, had sentenced to death every black man convicted of killing a white, the highest rate ever documented in America. Whites who murdered whites received the death penalty 23.3 percent of the time; blacks who murdered blacks, 10.4 percent of the time. Convicted murderers from Calcasieu who had been released since 1961 had spent an average of 12 years behind bars; no black convicted of murdering a white had ever been granted clemency and freed. Rideau was imprisoned longer than any offender in the recorded history of the Parish.
During the forty years he spent there conditions at Angola State varied according to the reigning political regimes, constantly changing laws and personnel both in the Department of Corrections and the prison itself... (here I pick up the story in the author's own words)
In 1999 the outside world no longer had any way of knowing the truth of what was happening inside Angola. Under the policies put in place by Commissioner Elayn Hunt and Warden Paul Phelps in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice nearly a quarter of a century before, inmates had confidential telephone and mail communications with outside media, as a check against the total and arbitrary power wielded by their keepers. That was abolished. The Angolite's role of ferreting out and exposing problems, or simply providing factual information, had in effect ended. The only information coming out of Angola was what warden Burl Cain wanted the public to know, and there was no way for anybody to check its accuracy.
I knew, as I knew at The Angolite's difficult birth twenty-three years before, that I had to tread carefully because I was no good to anyone if I didn't survive. But life without the real meaning journalism had allowed me to weave into my prison existence was tedious. There was little to look forward to. At the end of the day, I locked up the office, walked back to the dorm, and said to myself, I've got to get out of here. I lived from one Sunday to the next, desperate for Linda's visit. I clung to the hope that the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals would reverse the State Courts recent ruling denying me a new trial. It finally came on December 22 but I was to remain in Angola while the State appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Word came at 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday in July of 2001. I had been re-indicted and would be returned to Calcasieu Parish for another trial. I arose at 4:00 a.m. the next morning. I showered and shaved, then woke my friends to break the news. No one knew what to say. All the men understood the difference between local jails and Angola. They knew, as I did, that I was headed into the worse stretch of time in my entire forty years of incarceration, worse even then death row. Local jails, for the most part, are full of untamed testosterone-charged youngsters. They're designed to be temporary holding stations for those waiting trial or those serving short sentences. The court cases of prisoners in these jails are often stalled and they have little opportunity to speak to any attorney. The DA's and judges know that, at some point, even if innocent, prisoners are going to come around, get tired of sitting around and accept whatever plea bargain is offered. It is rare for anybody except those charged with murder to get a trial.
A prison like Angola is a place where inmates live for a long time, and as a result, it is a community with its own culture and with a responsible inmate power structure, social and recreational activities, sports teams, religious organizations, self-help clubs, legal representation, and even health care. Jails have none of this: Life in jail is idleness overlaid with chaos.
The assistant warden of the Main Prison arrived about 7:00 a.m. As an easy going and decent man, he assumed a confidential tone: “The people coming to get you are hateful. They've been fighting you a long time, and they won't turn the past loose. They are going to put you in chains and probably try to humiliate or hurt you in different ways. To them you are just a low-life prisoner, not a human being. You need to be prepared not to let them beat you down. You're stronger than that. I'm hoping you win this, and they don't send you back to Angola but we're keeping your bed and everything open just in case”. I appreciated the kindness but realized, of course, that he expected me to return to Angola in no time. Later I realized that if I were re-convicted I would be sent to Wade Correctional Center, a small prison in the northern part of the state where high-profile prisoners are sent to live in solitary cells for their own safety. Life there is very hard, with little in the way of clubs, activities and the kind of opportunities to learn and grow that are part of the Angola world. This became a crushing weight on me during the four years of the retrial process.
The deputy sheriff from Calcasieu Parish arrived. Though I had often traveled through-out the State on lecture tours restrained only by the presence of an unarmed guard, he put shackles on my ankles, a chain around my waste to which he attached handcuffs, and the dreaded iron box affixed between my wrists designed to prevent escape artists from picking their locks. The box tightened the chain on the handcuffs. They bit into my wrists. Along with four armed guards and a police car following we drove in a van all the way to Lake Charles, two hundred miles away, without exchanging a single word.
After an abnormally prolonged period in solitary confinement I was finally placed among the jail's general population. Unlike the harsh and barren lock-up of forty years earlier this jail at least had a cable TV, a chest for ice and cold water, reading material and a fledgling literacy and GED program. There were pay phones located everywhere for inmates to use at usurious prices and a commissary where inmates could purchase small radios, cheap clothing, seasoning for food and unhealthy snacks at rip-off prices.
When I was jailed forty years ago, a substantial percentage of the detainees were unable to read or write and many more did so only with great difficulty. Today's inmates are better schooled but more stupid. Most are drop-outs who travel in marginal orbits with few perceived options in life. They spend their time telling a retelling street experiences, talking about the personalities who populate their small worlds, and play cards, chess, or dominoes. They neither watch nor read the news. Their TV fare is a diet of sports, violent action movies, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, Saturday-morning kiddie cartoons, and Discovery Channel documentaries that show violent animal behavior. Some listen endlessly to rap music, their heads bobbing like corks in running water, or dance by themselves in a corner. Others engage in boisterous horseplay or argue over petty things. Their power to reason with others is almost non-existent, and the loud disputes that often end in threats stem from an inability to explain their point of view to those who don't understand. Crippled by rap slang and a deficient sense of cause and effect, they simply repeat themselves over and over, getting louder and louder, until one of the frustrated frustrated speakers turns to non-participants in search of agreement or begins to issue threats, raising his voice to dominate and drown out the point of view he's unable to win over.
It was painful for me to look at these street-wise weeds, these outcasts and misfits. I knew only too well that they do not care about a world that does not value them. This makes them walking time bombs.
I was fortunate, however, that my history made me a living legend in the jail. Returning to Calcasieu after a thirty year absence, I was at once both a heroic larger-than-life figure and a martyr, generating admiration, sympathy, and respect among many, especially blacks. I soon settled down in the dorm and began listening to the inmates' problems and cases, though I'd heard it all before. I was able to help some of the inmates with their cases. After some months I was given an office right outside my dorm where I could try to facilitate solutions for legitimate problems and which served as a quiet haven away from the constant cacophony of TV and jive in the dorm.
Being allowed visits from a religious adviser I eventually made contact Rev. J.L. Franklin the pastor of the Bethal Metropolitan Baptist Fellowship Church in Lake Charles. He was a throwback to the ministers of the civil rights days, who took leadership on social and civic matters as part of their duties to their parishioners. He was deeply concerned about the poor quality of education in the black schools of Lake Charles. I urged him to run for a seat on the predominantly white school board. He knew nothing about politics, so I ran his campaign. He unseated the entrenched incumbent and immediately stated working to improve schools, as well as becoming vocal about other local social issues, most often those concerning racial divisions and inequalities. He visited me two or three times a week and he came to call me “The Professor”. We became fast friends though even after I was released for “time served” on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, 2005 - owing to the lasting animosity of the community- I could never safely return to Lake Charles again.
Two months after my release- floating along carefree on the good will and generosity of my friends and loved ones, Judge David Richie reentered my life. He charged me nearly $127,000 in court costs. He decreed that despite having declared me indigent, I am to pay for the cost of my fourth trial because it was I who requested it. The fact that I did so because I was serving an unconstitutional sentence flowing from an unconstitutional trial was immaterial, as was the fact that I served forty-four years in prison on a sentence that was dischargeable in ten and half. Nobody was talking about reimbursing me. Someone even wrote a letter to the Lake Charles newspaper and suggested that I should reimburse the state for the cost of my room and board all those extra years that they housed and fed me. The fact that no other criminal defendant in Louisiana history has ever been assessed the cost of his trial was not lost on Judge Richie. He simply asserted that he was not bound by what other judges have or have not done. He claimed to have the power to make me pay for the salaries of the sheriff's deputies who stood guard in the courtroom, the cost of transporting, housing, and feeding the jury that freed me; the cost of putting him and his staff up at a nice Monroe hotel during jury selection and feeding them at the city's best restaurant.
After months of anxiety and facing appeals that could last for years, I hired an attorney and got myself declared bankrupt and free of debt while still retaining $4,500 I received as a settlement. from Time magazine for the years they gave reprint permission for an article I once wrote for them. Thus, I was able to contribute money to household expenses and sleep well I night while writing this book.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o was a school boy in Kenya during World War II and the struggle for independence that followed. His father was a wealthy herdsman with four wives of which Ngugi's mother was the third and so Ngugi had many siblings one of whom- “Good Wallace” was a Mau Mau guerrilla but another a soldier in the colonial Home Guard. During the period immediately following the War Ngugi's father lost the best portions of his grazing lands and then his herd was destroyed by disease. He became embittered and began beating Ngugi's mother who then returned to her father's home to which Ngugi was also sent shortly thereafter. Ngugi's grandfather was an important clan chief with many wives and social obligations so Ggugi had to complete his early education in the impoverished circumstances of a single- parent household. Never-the-less, he passed his exams with flying colors and was accepted into the best high school in Kenya at the time. This was in 1954, when General Giap defeated the French forces in Indochina at Dien Bien Pu and President Eisenhower, following 'something called Brown vs the Board of Education', ordered the end of segregation of schools in America. Here Ngugi describes how he became informed about the public events of his childhood.
For me the trial of Jomo Kenyatta was a vast oral performance narrated and directed with the ease and authority of an eyewitness. I presume that Ngandi had to read between the lines of the white-owned newspapers and government radio, enriching what he could glean here and there with creative interpretation and his conviction that Kenyatta would win. This more than anything helped his listeners to willingly suspend all disbelief.
Ngandi had never been to Kapenguria, or any part of Turkana, but began by setting the scene: a couple of shops, a narrow dusty road, a dilapidated schoolhouse turned into a courtroom in a vast arid land of stunted grass, cactus, a thorn tree here and there, and herdsmen with their goats and cows, who suddenly look up to see cars, armed police, white police they had not seen before, come and go, every day for weeks and months.
He introduces the cast of international and local players. Heading the cast is one who is actually absent: Mbiyu Koinange – the brilliant mind that once organized Kenya's own Teachers' College at Githunguri- the genius behind the formidable cast of defense lawyers, aided, no doubt, by his old friends Fenner Brockway and others of the British Labor Party. D.N. Pritt, the lead defense attorney is no ordinary lawyer; he is QC, Queen's Counsel, which means that he advises the head of the British Empire, Ngandi explains, strongly hinting that the queen may not have been very pleased with Governor Baring's hasty act of arresting Kenyatta.
Other members of the defense team have come from all parts of the empire, including Dudley Thompson from Jamaica and H.O. Davies from Nigeria. Others from all corners of the world have been denied entry at the airport in their attempt to work with the local lawyers. Jawaharlal Nehru himself, the prime minister of India, has sent Chaman Lall, a member of parliament. This is a very significant contribution to Ngandi's certainty of victory. Led by Gandhi and Nehru, the Indian people demanded their independence. Just like our people are doing now, led by Jomo Kenyatta and Mbiyu Koinange. They got theirs in 1947, Ngandi continues with his infectious optimism, there is no reason we should not get ours. Gandhi fought the British with truth; Kenyatta will smite the British Empire with his call for justice.
Ngandi tells the story of India's long relationship to Kenya. Against demurring voices, for his listeners have not seen any local Indian involved in public affairs or take up any of the the burdens of colonial rule, Ngandi talks positively about the Indian contribution to the Kenya struggle and cites case after case. Every worker's strike from Harry Thuku's times to 1947 had had Indian support, Ngandi asserts.
From Ngandi's lips, the trial of Jomo Kenyatta becomes geography, history, politics, civics, and above all myth. In his retelling, the places mentioned in the trial- Manchester, Moscow, Denmark- become huge a fictional territory in which Ngundi engages the inhabitants, sometimes in embrace, sometimes in fury. He takes sides in the struggle between his characters. He has nothing but contempt for Thacker, an old settler, retrieved from the dump yard of retirement to sit, on behalf of the settler community, in judgment of a nationalist. Having already made up his mind, Thacker does not even pretend to listen to the evidence: Instead he plays with his glasses, nods off, occasionally waking up to say no to motions by the defense and yes to those by the prosecution. Ngandi argues with the prosecutor and his witnesses. Louis Leaky, the court interpreter, arouses in him genuine anger. He grew up among us, befriended the Koinange family. Mbiyu was best man at his wedding to Mary. He is a spy, a “hawk”, a Trojan horse.
His real ire is mostly directed at the African witnesses for the prosecution. How can any African ever agree to testify against his own people? But now and then he tempers his anger by saying, Lord forgive them for they know not what they are doing.
Ngandi's representation of things seen and yet unseen, repeated over many days, helps replace the gloom of despair with the glow of hope. Looked at from every conceivable angle, the case for Kenyatta's release will prevail. In time I come to share the same certainty: Kenyatta and the rest of the Kapenguria Six, as the defendants have been dubbed, shall win.
So when, on April 8, 1953, it emerges that Kenyatta and the others have been found guilty and sentenced to seven years of hard labor, my heart fell. What went wrong? Bewildered I turn Ngandi, as if questioning his authority as a storyteller.
But Ngandi is not daunted. Listen carefully to Kenyatta's words in the court; “Our activities have been against the injustices suffered by the African people as human beings... What we have done, and what we shall continue to do, is to demand the rights of the African people as human beings..” Do you think he was talking to the Prosecutor or Judge? What would be the point? His words are a signal to Mbiyu and Kimanthi to continue and intensify the struggle. He will be free for greater glory; Remember that Kenyatta's friend Kwame Nkrumah came from prison when he became Prime Minister of the Gold Coast only a year ago. PG, prison graduate, he called himself. And Nehru? Was he not a prison graduate?
I also note how in time the main characters in his story change. It is now Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, his generals, their guerrilla army, who are the movers of history. To lull skeptical eyes and ears Ngandi tells the story of how Dedan Kimathi once disguised himself as a white police officer and went to dine with the governor, how he can crawl on his belly for miles and miles; how he makes enemies think they have seen him, but before they can pull out their guns they don't see him, they see a leopard glaring at them before leaping into the bush.
Black Americans have already been involved in our fight, Ngundi insists. He mentions Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, W.E.B. DuBois and the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester. Ralph Bunche, a big man in the United Nations, was Chief Koinange's best friend.
I am amazed by the extent of Ngandi's knowledge- Githunguri must have been a really good college- and even more so by how freely Ngandi can move from the natural to the supernatural and back without batting an eyelid. Fact or fiction or both, he makes sense of it all, in his matter-of-fact tone and with his occasional irony, not to mention whistling to himself.
Years later, in my novel Weep Not, Child I would give to the young fictional Njoroge an aura of fact and rumor, certainty and doubt, despair and hope, but I am not sure if I was truly able to capture the intricate web of the mundane and the dramatic, the surreal normality living under extraordinary times in a country at war. In the facts and rumors of the trial and imprisonment of Jomo Kenyatta and the heroic exploits of Dedan Kimathi, the real and the surreal were one. Perhaps it is myth as much as fact that keeps dreams alive even in times of war.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Trotsky and the Wild Orchids (1992)
Reprinted from Philosophy and Social Hope (Penguin Books, 1999).
 If there is anything to the idea that the best intellectual position is one which is attacked with equal vigour from the political right and the political left, then I am in good shape. I am often cited by conservative culture warriors as one of the relativistic, irrationalist, deconstructing, sneering, smirking intellectuals whose writings are weakening the moral fibre of the young. Neal Kozody, writing in the monthly bulletin of the Committee for the Free World, an organization known for its vigilance against symptoms of moral weakness, denounces my 'cynical and nihilistic view' and says 'it is not enough for him [Rorty] that American students should be merely mindless; he would have them positively mobilized for mindlessness'. Richard Neuhaus, a theologian who doubts that atheists can be good American citizens, says that the 'ironist vocabulary' I advocate 'can neither provide a public language for the citizens of a democracy, nor contend intellectually against the enemies of democracy, nor transmit the reasons for democracy to the next generation'. My criticisms of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind led Harvey Mansfield - recently appointed by President Bush to the National Council for the Humanities - to say that I have 'given up on America' and that I 'manage to diminish even Dewey'. (Mansfield recently described Dewey as a 'medium-sized malefactor'.) His colleague on the council, my fellow philosopher John Searle, thinks that standards can only be restored to American higher education if people abandon the views on truth, knowledge and objectivity that I do my best to inculcate.
Yet Sheldon Wolin, speaking from the left, sees a lot of similarity between me and Allan Bloom: both of us, he says, are intellectual snobs who care only about the leisured, cultured elite to which we belong. Neither of us has anything to say to blacks, or to other groups who have been shunted aside by American society. Wolin’s view is echoed by Terry Eagleton, Britain's leading Marxist thinker. Eagleton says that 'in [Rorty's] ideal society the intellectuals will be "ironists", practising a suitably cavalier, laid-back attitude to their own belief, while the masses, for whom such self-ironizing might prove too subversive a weapon, will continue to salute the flag and take life seriously'. Der Spiegel said that I 'attempt to make the yuppie regression look good'. Jonathan Culler, one of Derrida's chief disciples and expositors, says that my version of pragmatism 'seems altogether appropriate to the age of Reagan'. Richard Bernstein says that my views are 'little more than an ideological apologia for an old-fashioned version of Cold War liberalism dressed up in fashionable "post-modem" discourse'. The left's favourite word for me is 'complacent', just as the right's is 'irresponsible'.
The left's hostility is partially explained by the fact that most people who admire Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida as much as I do - most of the people who either classify themselves as 'postmodernist' or (like me) find themselves thus classified willynilly - participate in what Jonathan Yardley has called the 'America Sucks Sweepstakes'. Participants in this event compete to find better, bitterer ways of describing the United States. They see our country as embodying everything that is wrong with the rich post-Enlightenment West. They see ours as what Foucault called a 'disciplinary society', dominated by an odious ethos of'liberal individualism', an ethos which produces racism, sexism, consumerism and Republican presidents. By contrast, I see America pretty much as Whitman and Dewey did, as opening a prospect on illimitable democratic vistas. I think that our country - despite its past and present atrocities and vices, and despite its continuing eagerness to elect fools and knaves to high office - is a good example of the best kind of society so far invented.
The right's hostility is largely explained by the fact that rightist thinkers don't think that it is enough just to prefer democratic societies. One also has to believe that they are Objectively Good, that the institutions of such societies are grounded in Rational First Principles Especially if one teaches philosophy, as I do, one is expected to tell  the young that their society is not just one of the better ones so far contrived, but one which embodies Truth and Reason. Refusal to say this sort of thing counts as the 'treason of the clerks' - as an abdication of professional and moral responsibility. My own philosophical views - views I share with Nietzsche and Dewey - forbid me to say this kind of thing. I do not have much use for notions like 'objective value' and 'objective truth'. I think that the so-called postmodernists are right in most of their criticisms of traditional philosophical talk about 'reason'. So my philosophical views offend the right as much as my political preferences offend the left.
I am sometimes told, by critics from both ends of the political spectrum, that my views are so weird as to be merely frivolous. They suspect that I will say anything to get a gasp, that I am just amusing myself by contradicting everybody else. This hurts. So I have tried, in what follows, to say something about how I got into my present position - how I got into philosophy, and then found myself unable to use philosophy for the purpose I had originally had in mind. Perhaps this bit of autobiography will make clear that, even if my views about the relation of philosophy and politics are odd, they were not adopted for frivolous reasons.
When I was 12, the most salient books on my parents' shelves were two red-bound volumes, The Case of Leon Trotsky and Not Guilty. These made up the report of the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Moscow Trials. I never read them with the wide-eyed fascination I brought to books like Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, but I thought of them in the way in which other children thought of their family's Bible: they were books that radiated redemptive truth and moral splendour. If I were a really good boy, I would say to myself, I should have read not only the Dewey Commission reports, but also Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, a book I started many times but never managed to finish. For in the 1940s, the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by Stalin were, for me, what the Incarnation and its betrayal by the Catholics had been to precocious little Lutherans 400 years before.
My father had almost, but not quite, accompanied John Dewey to  Mexico as PR man for the Commission of Inquiry which Dewey chaired. Having broken with the American Communist Party in 1932, my parents had been classified by the Daily Worker as Trotskyites', and they more or less accepted the description. When Trotsky was assassinated in 1940, one of his secretaries, John Frank, hoped that the GPU would not think to look for him in the remote little village on the Delaware river where we were living. Using a pseudonym, he was our guest in Flatbrookville for some months. I was warned not to disclose his real identity, though it is doubtful that my schoolmates at Walpack Elementary would have been interested in my indiscretions.
I grew up knowing that all decent people were, if not Trotskyites, at least socialists. I also knew that Stalin had ordered not only Trotsky's assassination but also Kirov's, Ehrlich's, Alter's and Carlo Tresca's. (Tresca, gunned down on the streets of New York, had been a family friend.) I knew that poor people would always be oppressed until capitalism was overcome. Working as an unpaid office boy during my twelfth winter, I carried drafts of press releases from the Workers' Defense League office offGramercy Park (where my parents worked) to Norman Thomas's (the Socialist Party's candidate for president) house around the comer, and also to A. Philip Randolph's office at the Brotherhood of Pullman Car Porters on i25th Street. On the subway, I would read the documents I was carrying. They told me a lot about what factory owners did to union organizers, plantation owners to sharecroppers, and the white locomotive engineers' union to the coloured firemen (whose jobs white men wanted, now that diesel engines were replacing coal-fired steam engines). So, at 12, I knew that the point of being human was to spend one's life fighting social injustice.
But I also had private, weird, snobbish, incommunicable interests. In earlier years these had been in Tibet. I had sent the newly enthroned Dalai Lama a present, accompanied by warm congratulations to a fellow eight-year-old who had made good. A few years later, when my parents began dividing their time between the Chelsea Hotel and the mountains of north-west New Jersey, these interests switched to orchids. Some 40 species of wild orchids occur in those mountains, and I eventually found 17 of them. Wild orchids are uncommon, and  rather hard to spot. I prided myself enormously on being the only person around who knew where they grew, their Latin names and their blooming times. When in New York, I would go to the 42nd Street public library to reread a nineteenth-century volume on the botany of the orchids of the eastern U S.
I was not quite sure why those orchids were so important, but I was convinced that they were. I was sure that our noble, pure, chaste, North American wild orchids were morally superior to the showy, hybridized, tropical orchids displayed in florists' shops. I was also convinced that there was a deep significance in the fact that the orchids are the latest and most complex plants to have been developed in the course of evolution. Looking back, I suspect that there was a lot of sublimated sexuality involved (orchids being a notoriously sexy sort of flower), and that my desire to learn all there was to know about orchids was linked to my desire to understand all the hard words in Krafit-Ebing.
I was uneasily aware, however, that there was something a bit dubious about this esotericism - this interest in socially useless flowers. I had read (in the vast amount of spare time given to a clever, snotty, nerdy only child) bits of Marius the Epicurean and also bits of Marxist criticisms of Pater's aestheticism. I was afraid that Trotsky (whose Literature and Revolution I had nibbled at) would not have approved of my interest in orchids.
At fifteen I escaped from the bullies who regularly beat me up on the playground of my high school (bullies who, I assumed, would somehow wither away once capitalism had been overcome) by going off to the so-called Hutchins College of the University of Chicago. (This was the institution immortalized by A.J. Liebling as 'the biggest collection of juvenile neurotics since the Children's Crusade'.) Insofar as I had any project in mind, it was to reconcile Trotsky and the orchids. I wanted to find some intellectual or aesthetic framework which would let me - in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats - 'hold reality and justice in a single vision'. By reality I meant more or less, the Wordsworthian moments in which, in the woods around Flatbrookville (and especially in the presence of certain coralroot orchids, and of the smaller yellow lady slipper), I had felt  touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance. By justice I meant what Norman Thomas and Trotsky both stood for, the liberation of the weak from the strong. I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity - a nerd recluse and a fighter for justice. I was very confused, but reasonably sure that at Chicago I would find out how grown-ups managed to work the trick I had in mind.
When I got to Chicago (in 1946), I found that Hutchins, together with his friends Mortimer Adler and Richard McKeon (the villain of Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), had enveloped much of the University of Chicago in a neo-Aristotelian mystique. The most frequent target of their sneers was John Dewey's pragmatism. That pragmatism was the philosophy of my parents' friend Sidney Hook, as well as the unofficial philosophy of most of the other New York intellectuals who had given up on dialectical materialism. But according to Hutchins and Adier, pragmatism was vulgar, 'relativistic', and self-refuting. As they pointed out over and over again, Dewey had absolutes. To say, as Dewey did, that 'growth itself is the only moral end', left one without a criterion for growth, and thus with no way refute Hitler's suggestion that Germany had 'grown' under his rule. To say that truth is what works is to reduce the quest for truth to the quest for power. Only an appeal to something eternal, absolute, and good - like the God of St Thomas, or the 'nature of human beings' described by Aristotle - would permit one to answer the Nazis, to justify one's choice of social democracy over fascism.
This quest for stable absolutes was common to the neo-Thomist and to Leo Strauss, the teacher who attracted the best of the Chicago students (including my classmate Allan Bloom). The Chicago faculty was dotted with awesomely learned refugees from Hitler, of which Strauss was the most revered. All of them seemed to agree that something deeper and weightier than Dewey was needed if one was to explain why it would be better to be dead than to be a Nazi. This sounded pretty good to my 15-year-old ears. For moral and philosophical absolutes sounded a bit like my beloved orchids - numinous, hard to find, known only to a chosen few. Further, since Dewey was a hero to all the people among whom I had grown up, scorning  Dewey was a convenient form of adolescent revolt. The only question was whether this scorn should take a religious or a philosophical form, and how it might be combined with striving for social justice.
Like many of my classmates at Chicago, I knew lots of T. S. Eliot by heart. I was attracted by Eliot's suggestions that only committed Christians (and perhaps only Anglo-Catholics) could overcome their unhealthy preoccupation with their private obsessions, and so serve their fellow humans with proper humility. But a prideful inability to believe what I was saying when I recited the General Confession gradually led me to give up on my awkward attempts to get religion. So I fell back on absolutist philosophy.
I read through Plato during my fifteenth summer, and convinced myself that Socrates was right - virtue was knowledge. That claim was music to my ears, for I had doubts about my own moral character and a suspicion that my only gifts were intellectual ones. Besides, Socrates had to be right, for only then could one hold reality and justice in a single vision. Only if he were right could one hope to be both as good as the best Christians (such as Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, whom I could not - and still cannot - decide whether to envy or despise) and as learned and clever as Strauss and his students. So I decided to major in philosophy. I figured that if I became a philosopher I might get to the top of Plato's 'divided line' - the place 'beyond hypotheses' where the full sunshine of Truth irradiates the purified soul of the wise and good: an Elysian field dotted with immaterial orchids. It seemed obvious to me that getting to such a place was what everybody with any brains really wanted. It also seemed clear that Platonism had all the advantages of religion, without requiring the humility which Christianity demanded, and of which I was apparently incapable.
For all these reasons, I wanted very much to be some kind of Platonist, and from 15 to 20 I did my best. But it didn't pan out. I could never figure out whether the Platonic philosopher was aiming at the ability to offer irrefutable argument - argument which rendered him able to convince anyone he encountered of what he believed (the sort of thing Ivan Karamazov was good at) - or instead was aiming  at a sort of incommunicable, private bliss (the sort of thing his brother Alyosha seemed to possess). The first goal is to achieve argumentative power over others - e.g., to become able to convince bullies that they should not beat one up, or to convince rich capitalists that they must cede their power to a cooperative, egalitarian commonwealth. The second goal is to enter a state in which all your own doubts are stilled, but in which you no longer wish to argue. Both goals seemed desirable, but I could not see how they could be fitted together.
At the same time as I was worrying about this tension within Platonism - and within any form of what Dewey had called 'the quest for certainty' -I was also worrying about the familiar problem of how one could possibly get a noncircular justification of any debatable stand on any important issue. The more philosophers I read, the clearer it seemed that each of them could carry their views back to first principles which were incompatible with the first principles of their opponents, and that none of them ever got to that fabled place 'beyond hypotheses'. There seemed to be nothing like a neutral standpoint from which these alternative first principles could be evaluated. But if there were no such standpoint, then the whole idea of 'rational certainty', and the whole Socratic-Platonic idea of replacing passion by reason, seemed not to make much sense.
Eventually I got over the worry about circular argumentation by deciding that the test of philosophical truth was overall coherence, rather than deducibility from unquestioned first principles. But this didn't help much. For coherence is a matter of avoiding contradictions, and St Thomas's advice, 'When you meet a contradiction, make a distinction,' makes that pretty easy. As far as I could see, philosophical talent was largely a matter of proliferating as many distinctions as were needed to wriggle out of a dialectical comer. More generally, it was a matter, when trapped in such a comer, of redescribing the nearby intellectual terrain in such a way that the terms used by one's opponent would seem irrelevant, or question-begging, or jejune. I turned out to have a flair for such redescription. But I became less and less certain that developing this skill was going to make me either wise or virtuous.
Since that initial disillusion (which climaxed about the time I left  Chicago to get a Ph.D. in philosophy at Yale), I have spent 40 years looking for a coherent and convincing way of formulating my worries about what, if anything, philosophy is good for. My starting point was the discovery of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, a book which I read as saying: granted that philosophy is just a matter of out-redescribing the last philosopher, the cunning of reason can make use even of this sort of competition. It can use it to weave the conceptual fabric of a freer, better, more just society. If philosophy can be, at best, only what Hegel called 'its time held in thought', still, that might be enough. For by thus holding one's time, one might do what Marx wanted done - change the world. So even if there were no such thing as 'understanding the world' in the Platonic sense - an understanding from a position outside of time and history - perhaps there was still a social use for my talents, and for the study of philosophy.
For quite a while after I read Hegel, I thought that the two greatest achievements of the species to which I belonged were The Phenomenology of Spirit and Remembrance of Things Past (the book which took the place of the wild orchids once I left Flatbrookville for Chicago). Proust's ability to weave intellectual and social snobbery together with the hawthorns around Combray, his grandmother's selfless love, Odette's orchidaceous embraces of Swann and Jupien's of Charlus, and with everything else he encountered - to give each of these its due without feeling the need to bundle them together with the help of a religious faith or a philosophical theory - seemed to me as astonishing as Hegel's ability to throw himself successively into empiricism, Greek tragedy, Stoicism, Christianity and Newtonian physics, and to emerge from each, ready and eager for something completely different. It was the cheerful commitment to irreducible temporality which Hegel and Proust shared - the specifically anti-Platonic element in their work - that seemed so wonderful. They both seemed able to weave everything they encountered into a narrative without asking that that narrative have a moral, and without asking how that narrative would appear under the aspect of eternity.
About 20 years or so after I decided that the young Hegel's willingness to stop trying for eternity, and just be the child of his time, was  the appropriate response to disillusionment with Plato, I found myself being led back to Dewey. Dewey now seemed to me a philosopher who had learned all that Hegel had to teach about how to eschew certainty and eternity, while immunizing himself against pantheism by taking Darwin seriously. This rediscovery of Dewey coincided with my first encounter with Derrida (which I owe to Jonathan Arac, my colleague at Princeton). Derrida led me back to Heidegger, and I was struck by the resemblances between Dewey's, Wittgenstein's and Heidegger's criticisms of Cartesianism. Suddenly things began to come together. I thought I saw a way to blend a criticism of the Cartesian tradition with the quasi-Hegelian historicism of Michel Foucault, lan Hacking and Alasdair Maclntyre. I thought that I could fit all these into a quasi-Heideggerian story about the tensions within Platonism.
The result of this small epiphany was a book called Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Though disliked by most of my fellow philosophy professors, this book had enough success among nonphilosophers to give me a self-confidence I had previously lacked. But Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature did not do much for my adolescent ambitions. The topics it treated - the mind-body problem, controversies in the philosophy of language about truth and meaning, Kuhnian philosophy of science - were pretty remote from both Trotsky and the orchids. I had gotten back on good terms with Dewey; I had articulated my historicist anti-Platonism; I had finally figured out what I thought about the direction and value of current movements in analytic philosophy; I had sorted out most of the philosophers whom I had read. But I had not spoken to any of the questions which got me started reading philosophers in the first place. I was no closer to the single vision which, 30 years back, I had gone to college to get.
As I tried to figure out what had gone wrong, I gradually decided :hat the whole idea of holding reality and justice in a single vision had leen a mistake - that a pursuit of such a vision had been precisely what led Plato astray. More specifically, I decided that only religion - only a nonargumentative faith in a surrogate parent who, unlike my real parent, embodied love, power and justice in equal measure – could do the trick Plato wanted done. Since I couldn’t imagine becoming religious, and indeed had gotten more and more raucously  secularist, I decided that the hope of getting a single vision by becoming a philosopher had been a self-deceptive atheist's way out. So I decided to write a book about what intellectual life might be like if one could manage to give up the Platonic attempt to hold reality and justice in a single vision.
That book - Contingency, Irony and Solidarity - argues that there is no need to weave one's personal equivalent of Trotsky and one's personal equivalent of my wild orchids together. Rather, one should try to abjure the temptation to tie in one's moral responsibilities to other people with one's relation to whatever idiosyncratic things or persons one loves with all one's heart and soul and mind (or, if you like, the things or persons one is obsessed with). The two will, for some people, coincide - as they do in those lucky Christians for whom the love of God and of other human beings are inseparable, or revolutionaries
who are moved by nothing save the thought of social justice. But they need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so. So, for example, Jean-Paul Sartre seemed to me right when he denounced Kant's self-deceptive quest for certainty, but wrong when he denounced Proust as a useless bourgeois wimp, a man whose life and writings were equally irrelevant to the only thing that really mattered, the struggle to overthrow capitalism.
Proust's life and work were, in fact, irrelevant to that struggle. But that is a silly reason to despise Proust. It is as wrong-headed as Savonarola's contempt for the works of art he called 'vanities'. Singlemindedness of this Sartrean or Savonarolan sort is the quest for purity of heart - the attempt to will one thing - gone rancid. It is the attempt to see yourself as an incarnation of something larger than yourself (the Movement, Reason, the Good, the Holy) rather than accepting your finitude. The latter means, among other things, accepting that what matters most to you may well be something that may never matter much to most people. Your equivalent of my orchids may always seem merely weird, merely idiosyncratic, to practically everybody else. But that is no reason to be ashamed of, or downgrade, or try to slough off, your Wordsworthian moments, your lover, your family, your pet, your favourite lines of verse, or your quaint religious faith. There is nothing sacred about universality which makes the shared  Automatically better than the unshared. There is no automatic privilege of what you can get everybody to agree to (the universal) over what you cannot (the idiosyncratic).
This means that the fact that you have obligations to other people (not to bully them, to join them in overthrowing tyrants, to feed them when they are hungry) does not entail that what you share with other people is more important than anything else. What you share with them, when you are aware of such moral obligations, is not, I argued in Contingency, 'rationality' or 'human nature' or 'the fatherhood of God' or 'a knowledge of the Moral Law', or anything other than ability to sympathize with the pain of others. There is no particular reason to expect that your sensitivity to that pain, and your idiosyncratic loves, are going to fit within one big overall account of how everything hangs together. There is, in short, not much reason to hope for the sort of single vision that I went to college hoping to get.
So much for how I came to the views I currently hold. As I said earlier, most people find these views repellent. My Contingency book got a couple of good reviews, but these were vastly outnumbered by reviews which said that the book was frivolous, confused and irresponsible. The gist of the criticisms I get from both left and right is pretty much the same as the gist of the criticisms aimed at Dewey by the Thomists, the Straussians and the Marxists, back in me 1930s and 1940s. Dewey thought, as I now do, that there was nothing bigger, more permanent and more reliable, behind our sense of moral obligation to those in pain than a certain contingent historical phenomenon - the gradual spread of the sense that the pain of others matters, regardless of whether they are of the same family, tribe, color, religion, nation or intelligence as oneself. This idea, Dewey thought, cannot be shown to be true by science, or religion or philosophy - at least if 'shown to be true' means 'capable of being made evident to anyone, regardless of background'. It can only be made evident to people whom it is not too late to acculturate into our own particular, late-blooming, historically contingent form of life.
This Dewey claim entails a picture of human beings as children of their time and place, without any significant metaphysical or biological  limits on their plasticity. It means that a sense of moral obligation is a matter of conditioning rather than of insight. It also entails that the notion of insight (in any area, physics as well as ethics) as a glimpse of what is there, apart from any human needs and desires, cannot be made coherent. As William James put it, 'The trail of the human serpent is over all.' More specifically, our conscience and our aesthetic taste are, equally, products of the cultural environment in which we grew up. We decent, liberal humanitarian types (representatives of the moral community to which both my reviewers and I belong) are just luckier, not more insightful, than the bullies with whom we struggle.'
This view is often referred to dismissively as 'cultural relativism'. But it is not relativistic, if that means saying that every moral view is as good as every other. Our moral view is, I firmly believe, much better than any competing view, even though there are a lot of people whom you will never be able to convert to it. It is one thing to say, falsely, that there is nothing to choose between us and the Nazis. It is another thing to say, correctly, that there is no neutral, common ground to which an experienced Nazi philosopher and I can repair in order to argue out our differences. That Nazi and I will always strike one another as begging all the crucial questions, arguing in circles.
Socrates and Plato suggested that if we tried hard enough we should find beliefs which everybody found intuitively plausible, and that among these would be moral beliefs whose implications, when clearly realized, would make us virtuous as well as knowledgeable. To thinkers like Allan Bloom (on the Straussian side) and Terry Eagleton (on the Marxist side), there just must be such beliefs - unwobbling pivots that determine the answer to the question: Which moral or political alternative is objectively valid? For Deweyan pragmatists like me, history and anthropology are enough to show that there are no unwobbling pivots, and that seeking objectivity is just a matter of getting as much inter-subjective agreement as you can manage.
Nothing much has changed in philosophical debates about whether objectivity is more than inter-subjectivity since the time I went to college - or, for that matter, since the time Hegel went to seminary. Nowadays we philosophers talk about 'moral language' instead of 'moral experience', and about 'contextualist theories of reference'  rather than about 'the relation between subject and object'. But this is just froth on the surface. My reasons for turning away from the anti-Deweyan views I imbibed at Chicago are pretty much the same reasons Dewey had for turning away from evangelical Christianity and from the neo-Hegelian pantheism which he embraced in his 20s. They are also pretty much the reasons which led Hegel to turn away from Kant, and to decide that both God and the Moral Law had to be temporalized and historicized to be believable. I do not think that I have more insight into the debates about our need for 'absolutes' than I had when I was 20, despite all the books I have read and arguments I have had in the intervening 40 years. All those years of reading and arguing did was to let me spell out my disillusionment with Plato - my conviction that philosophy was no help in dealing with Nazis and other bullies - in more detail, and to a variety of different audiences.
At the moment there are two cultural wars being waged in the United States. The first is the one described in detail by my colleague James Davison Hunter in his comprehensive and informative Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. This war - between the people Hunter calls 'progressivists' and those he calls 'orthodox' - is important. It will decide whether our country continues along the trajectory defined by the Bill of Rights, the Reconstruction Amendments, the building of the land-grant colleges, female suffrage, the New Deal, Brown v. Board of Education, the building of the community colleges, Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation, the feminist movement, and the gay rights movement. Continuing along this trajectory would mean that America might continue to set an example of increasing tolerance and increasing equality. But it may be that this trajectory could be continued only while Americans' average real income continued to rise. So 1973 may have been the beginning of the end: the end both of rising economic expectations and of the political consensus that emerged from the New Deal. The future of American politics may be just a series of increasingly blatant and increasingly successful variations on the Willie Horton spots. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here may become an increasingly plausible scenario. Unlike Hunter, I feel no  need to be judicious and balanced in my attitude toward the two sides this first sort of culture war. I see the 'orthodox' (the people who think that hounding gays out of the military promotes traditional family values) as the same honest, decent, blinkered, disastrous people who voted for Hitler in 1933. I see the 'progressivists' as defining the only America I care about.
The second cultural war is being waged in magazines like Critical Inquiry and Salmagundi, magazines with high subscription rates and low circulations. It is between those who see modern liberal society as vitally flawed (the people handily lumped together as 'postmodernists') and typical left-wing Democrat professors like myself, people who see ours as a society in which technology and democratic institutions can, with luck, collaborate to increase equality and decrease suffering. This war is not very important. Despite the conservative columnists who pretend to view with alarm a vast conspiracy (encompassing both the postmodernists and the pragmatists) to politicize the humanities and corrupt the youth, this war is just a tiny little dispute within what Hunter calls the 'progressivist' ranks.
People on the postmodernist side of this dispute tend to share Noam Chomsky's view of the United States as run by a corrupt elite which aims at enriching itself by immiserating the Third World. From that perspective, our country is not so much in danger of slipping into fascism as it is a country which has always been quasi-fascist. These people typically think that nothing will change unless we get rid of humanism', 'liberal individualism', and 'technologism'. People like me see nothing wrong with any of these -isms, nor with the political and moral heritage of the Enlightenment - with the least common denominator of Mill and Marx, Trotsky and Whitman, William James and Vaclav Havel. Typically, we Deweyans are sentimentally patriotic about America - willing to grant that it could slide into fascism at any time, but proud of its past and guardedly hopeful about its future.
Most people on my side of this second, tiny, upmarket cultural war have, in the light of the history of nationalized enterprises and central planning in central and eastern Europe, given up on socialism. We are willing to grant that welfare state capitalism is the best we can hope for. Most of us who were brought up Trotskyite now feel forced  to admit that Lenin and Trotsky did more harm than good, and that Kerensky has gotten a bum rap for the past 70 years. But we see ourselves as still faithful to everything that was good in the socialist movement. Those on the other side, however, still insist that nothing will change unless there is some sort of total revolution. Postmodernists who consider themselves post-Marxists still want to preserve the sort of purity of heart which Lenin feared he might lose if he listened to too much Beethoven.
I am distrusted by both the 'orthodox' side in the important war and the 'postmodern' side in the unimportant one, because I think that the 'postmoderns' are philosophically right though politically silly, and that the 'orthodox' are philosophically wrong as well as politically dangerous. Unlike both the orthodox and the postmoderns, I do not think that you can tell much about the worth of a philosopher's views on topics such as truth, objectivity and the possibility of a single vision by discovering his politics, or his irrelevance to politics. So I do not think it counts in favour of Dewey's pragmatic view of truth that he was a fervent social democrat, nor against Heidegger's criticism of Platonic notions of objectivity that he was a Nazi, nor against Derrida's view of linguistic meaning that his most influential American ally, Paul de Man, wrote a couple of anti-Semitic articles when he was young. The idea that you can evaluate a writer's philosophical views by reference to their political utility seems to me a version of the bad Platonic-Straussian idea that we cannot have justice until philosophers become kings or kings philosophers.
Both the orthodox and the postmoderns still want a tight connection between people's politics and their views on large theoretical (theological, metaphysical, epistemological, metaphilosophical) matters. Some postmodernists who initially took my enthusiasm for Derrida to mean that I must be on their political side decided, after discovering that my politics were pretty much those of Hubert Humphrey, that I must have sold out. The orthodox tend to think that people who, like the postmodernists and me, believe neither in God nor in some suitable substitute, should think that everything is permitted, that everybody can do what they like. So they tell us that we are either inconsistent or self-deceptive in putting forward our moral or political views.
 I take this near unanimity among my critics to show that most people - even a lot of purportedly liberated postmodernists – still hanker for something like what I wanted when I was 15: a way of holding reality and justice in a single vision. More specifically, they want to unite their sense of moral and political responsibility with a grasp of the ultimate determinants of our fate. They want to see love, power and justice as coming together deep down in the nature of things, or in the human soul, or in the structure of language, or somewhere. They want some sort of guarantee that their intellectual acuity, and those special ecstatic moments which that acuity sometimes affords, are of some relevance to their moral convictions. They still think that virtue and knowledge are somehow linked - that being right about philosophical matters is important for right action. I think this is important only occasionally and incidentally.
I do not, however, want to argue that philosophy is socially useless. Had there been no Plato, the Christians would have had a harder time selling the idea that all God really wanted from us was fraternal love. Had there been no Kant, the nineteenth century would have had a harder time reconciling Christian ethics with Darwin's story about the descent of man. Had there been no Darwin, it would have 3een harder for Whitman and Dewey to detach the Americans from their belief that they were God's chosen people, to get them to start standing on their own feet. Had there been no Dewey and no Sidney Hook, American intellectual leftists of the 1930S would have been as buffaloed by the Marxists as were their counterparts in France and in Latin America. Ideas do, indeed, have consequences.
But the fact that ideas have consequences does not mean that we philosophers, we specialists in ideas, are in a key position. We are not here to provide principles or foundations or deep theoretical diagnoses, or a synoptic vision. When I am asked (as, alas, I often am) what I take contemporary philosophy's 'mission' or 'task' to be, I get tonguetied. The best I can do is to stammer that we philosophy professors are people who have a certain familiarity with a certain intellectual tradition, as chemists have a certain familiarity with what happens when you mix various substances together. We can offer some advice about what will happen when you try to combine or to  separate certain ideas, on the basis of our knowledge of the results of past experiments. By doing so, we may be able to help you hold your time in thought. But we are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is 'rational and objective' rather than 'just' a result of how you were brought up.
There are still, as C. S. Peirce put it, 'philosophical slop-shops on every corner' which will provide such confirmation. But there is a price. To pay the price you have to turn your back on intellectual history and on what Milan Kundera calls 'the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood . . . the wisdom of the novel'. You risk losing the sense of finitude, and the tolerance, which result from realizing how very many synoptic visions there have been, and how little argument can do to help you choose among them. Despite my relatively early disillusionment with Platonism, I am very glad that I spent all those years reading philosophy books. For I learned something that still seems very important: to distrust the intellectual snobbery which originally led me to read them. If I had not read all those books, I might never have been able to stop looking for what Derrida calls 'a full presence beyond the reach of play', for a luminous, self-justifying, self-sufficient synoptic vision.
By now I am pretty sure that looking for such a presence and such a vision is a bad idea. The main trouble is that you might succeed and your success might let you imagine that you have something more to rely on than the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings. The democratic community of Dewey's dreams is a community in which nobody imagines that. It is a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters. The actually existing approximations to such a fully democratic, fully secular community now seem to me the greatest achievements of our species. In comparison, even Hegel's and Proust's books seem optional, orchidaceous extras.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Born in Iran, raised in Oklahoma, assistant professor of creative writing at U.C. Riverside, the author makes the point that there are no earthly winners or losers in a Cosmic War . “In all of Osama bin Laden's writings, speeches and declarations,” for example, "no attempt is ever made to to provide anything akin to a social program. There are no proposals, no policies, no plans, nothing except this hazy commitment, embedded in Al Qaida's constitution, to 'establish the truth, and get rid of evil.” Unformed and indeterminate as these objectives might be, the Jihadists know they are impossible to achieve in this life. They know that they are unable to seize control over the Arab and Muslim world , defeat the United States, erase national borders , establish a worldwide Caliphate or “wipe Israel off the map.” Their Cosmic War completely transcends this world, which is what their zealous devotion to martyrdom is all about; self-sanctification in the eyes of God. All the 'real' action takes place in heaven between the personal faith of the believer and God.
There isn't much Islam in the Global Jihad. Osama bin Laden, Ayam Zawahiri and their collaborators are very poor and ignorant scholars. At best they base their interpretation of the Qur'an on the works of the 14th century anti-Mongol legal theorist ibn Taymiyyah of the Hanbali school of Islamic Law and the practice of takfir which places all authority to distinguish between “light and darkness”, “good and evil”, in the hands of individual believers. Under this rubric they justify their hostility to all the established institutions of Islam and Schools of Jurisprudence in the world today, declaring them to be “unbelievers” . If you are not with the Global Jihadists, you are against them and deserving of death. They reject and are rejected by all the nationalist Islamist groups with specific social agendas like Hamas, Hizbollah , the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood. When not simply uneducated, low-class criminal gangs, as in Iraq, their minions- the perpetrators of 9/11., the 7/7 subway and the Madrid bombers- were completely alienated from the Mosques and Imams with whom they were only loosely associated in the first place; marginal groups with little backing from any intensely organized global network beyond a few proselytizing internet sites.
The power of the Global Jihadist movement is such that you have less of a chance of being injured or killed by them than being struck by lightening.
Leaving aside the author's socio-economic explanations for the rise of the Global Jihadist movement, which appear somewhat self-contradictory, his comparisons to the Zealots of Israel in the early days of the Roman Empire, or the Gush Emunim of today, his account of evangelical fundamentalism in America may help explain why many of our fellow citizens seem so eager to fight and win the Cosmic War on Terror.
Ultimately, the term “evangelical” is a self-designation, one that, according to the polls nearly half of all Americans apply to themselves. There are, however, a few common traits that unite this kaleidoscopic collection of Christians under a single collective identity. The first is an uncompromising adherence to a set of fundamental doctrines that include belief in the literalism and inerrancy of the Bible; emphasis on the unmediated relationship with Jesus Christ; a zealous devotion to the conversion of others; and a cosmic worldview in which, to quote George Marsden, “the universe is divided into two - -the moral and the immoral, the forces of light and darkness. Though such beliefs exist in one form or another in many Christian denominations, what distinguishes the evangelical movement is the conviction that these doctrines, when adopted rigidly and as a whole, result in a kind of spiritual rebirth, a salvation that belongs only to those who have been “born again.”
Beyond belief in these doctrines, however, what most distinguishes evangelicals as a single community of faith is their overwhelming sense of feeling under siege. This is a reactionary movement that has, from its inception, thrived on tension and conflict, not just in its interactions with the secular world but also, and perhaps more often, in its confrontations with other Christian sects and denominations. There exists in this movement a socially constructed atmosphere of crisis, conflict, and threat derived from the perception that, as those who have been “born again”, evangelicals have inherited God's covenant from Israel. They are the new chosen people, and like the Israelites of old, they must forever be tested by God and despised by the world.
In the United States, where there are more than one hundred million evangelicals and nearly one thousand mega-churches ( each with more than two thousand members), where in 2004 almost half of the Senate and a third of the House of Representatives were given an approval rating of 80 to 100 percent by evangelical watch groups, and where, until recently, the president and a great many members of his cabinet and staff were practicing evangelicals, a constant lament of evangelical leaders such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention is that the rights of evangelicals are being trampled upon because, for instance, they are not allowed to have prayers in public schools or post the Ten Commandments on government property. As the sociologist Christian Smith has noted, the evangelical movement's vibrancy, its ability to sustain a distinctive religious subculture, is owed precisely to this constructed sense of siege. Without it the movement would “lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless.”
Just as vital to the vigor of the evangelical movement in America is its fervent religious nationalism- the conviction that the United States is a “Christian nation” appointed by God to establish Christian values throughout the world- the cross and the flag bleeding into a single national emblem. A few evangelical groups, such as Wallbuilders, Battle Cry, the Coalition on Revival, the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and the Family Resource Council, even talk of replacing the Constitution with the bible and civil law with the law of God.
In the cosmic worldview of American evangelicalism, the United States has been elevated to sacred status. America's national success serves as confirmation of God's blessing; America's enemies are God's enemies. In the evangelical imagination, America's wars are not merely conflicts between armies and nations.; they are, rather, cosmic battles between the forces of good, represented by America, and the forces of evil, represented by America's enemies.
To demonstrate this last point the author quotes many different individuals: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, John Hagee, George W. Bush, Gregory Boyd, Mike Evans, Charles Stanley, Lieutenant General William G. Boykin ( of Faith Force Multiplier), General Robert Caslen. He notes the mission of the Christian Embassy to convert high ranking diplomats and military officers to evangelical Christianity, especially at the Air force Academy in Colorado Springs where it is ably assisted by Ted Haggard's New Life Church, James Dobson's Focus on Family and Scott Blom's Campus Crusade for Christ. He notes the initiatives of such groups to use American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to convert Muslims to evangelical Christianity, which violates the U.S. Military code of conduct.
Contemporary evangelicalism seems to have absorbed the idea that warfare can be a valid expression of Christian faith. According to the preeminent scholar of American evangelicalism, George Marsden, evangelicals are far more likely than other Americans to sanction and support war. This has certainly been the case when it comes to the War on Terror- an infinite (Cosmic) endeavor in which there can never be either victory or defeat, conquest or surrender, and is simply the means by which all peoples conduct war. At any rate, a survey of the twenty-four fastest growing evangelical churches in the Pacific Northwest in 2004 revealed overwhelming enthusiasm for America's campaign in Iraq: out of nearly three hundred clergy and lay leaders only fifteen failed to express unqualified support for the war. Two years later, when approval of the war was at an all-time low in almost every other sector in American society, another survey concluded that 60 percent of evangelicals in the U.S. continued to support the war in Iraq.
The United State's conduct in both Iraq and Afghanistan – the evangelizing soldiers, the humiliation of Muslim prisoners forced to eat pork and curse Muhammad, the Crusader rhetoric of the military officers and political leaders – has not only validated the Jihadist arguments that these wars are “a new Crusader campaign for the Islamic world” conducted by “the Devil's army”, it has provided Jihadists with the opportunity to successfully present themselves as the last line of defense against the forces that seek to “annihilate Islam”.
The author's formulation of this last point, however, is somewhat contradictory. The Global Jihadists actually don't gain much from their presentation of themselves as 'the last line of defense'. Strength goes to national resistance movements: the Sunni's in Iraq, the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan and their brothers in Pakistan, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbollah which today celebrates the tenth anniversary of the withdrawal of the IDF from their home in Lebanon.
In his epilogue the author allows that, as a consequences of his speeches alone, President Obama's may have placed himself between the two imaginary worlds of the Muslim and Christian Jihadists and be a “bridge linking Islam and the West together as one civilization.” My personal feeling is that action speaks louder than words.
“How To Win a Cosmic War; God, Globalization and the End of The War on Terror” by Reza Aslan; Random House, N.Y., 2009.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
A obstetrician, mother four children ( the youngest of whom was born in Bethlehem ) and wife of a U.N diplomat, the author lived in East Jerusalem in a Palestinian hamlet near the top of the Forest of Peace on the Hill of Evil Council, within sight of the Dome of the Rock, during the time of the Second Intifada ( 2001-2005).
The year 2000, when we arrived in Jerusalem, was a key moment. Peace, however fictional, still seemed realizable. The situation was simmering but had not yet blown up, exposing fully the failure-myths of Oslo. We walked into it a month before the situation declared itself at crisis point, and watched flurries of last-minute attempts to respond before the die-hards and extremists at home took hold. What I had done was witness one dramatic chapter in an ongoing process. Like so many others, I had thought I was seeing something new, and I thought I would see things change, but I was wrong on both counts.
As long as it remains easier to reach heaven than the end of the street – or field, or school, or hospital, or the next-door village, let alone Jerusalem, the City of God – then no security measure yet devised will stop people seeking a gruesome shortcut to end their hell on earth. There can be no peace without justice. A willingness to make peace exists. It's real, but drowned out.
Her family faced real dangers, her husband from the IDF during the course of his negotiations with the Palestinian authorities and Hamas. A Palestinian blew himself up at the entrance to their children's school, the author happened to be late arriving that day. They experienced the closures, checkpoints, the harassments of everyday life in the Occupied Territories and witnessed the devastating consequences of war on the lives and livelihoods of the Jews and Arabs of the land of Israel. Since so much of the carnage and human waste is filtered-out by the American press or simply denied by the government of Israel (“It didn't happen') it is tempting to use this opportunity to convey a more complete and detailed version of the truth but this is practically impossible within the limited confines of a blog like this. I will have to be content to reproduce the following passage.
"Israelis were stunned when, in December 2003, thirteen elite Sayeret Matkal commandos wrote to the prime minister saying they could no longer participate in Israel's oppression of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. They wrote “out of a deep sense of foreboding for the future of Israel as a democratic Zionist, and Jewish state.” The army responded: the soldiers should be dismissed or jailed. Israelis, horrified to see members of such a prestigious unit challenging the accepted line, sent them waves of hate mail, abuse, and even death threats. A well-known former Sayeret Matkal member, Binyamin Netanyahu, objected that refusing to serve would lead to the country falling apart. One of the commandos responded, “If a plane is going to crash, you can jump out or you can try and prevent it from crashing. That is how we feel about the state of Israel.”
Not long after the thirteen commandos wrote their letter, a serving IDF officer resigned after Israeli soldiers opened fired on unarmed protesters who were demonstrating against the Security Barrier. Among those injured was an Israeli civilian, Gil Naamati, who nearly bleed to death. Lieutenant Colonel Eitan Ronel wrote: “A country in which the army disperses demonstrations of its citizens with live gunfire is not a democratic country... I saw this deterioration, stage after stage: the blind eye that was turned to the abuse of detainees in violation of the army's orders... to soldiers' gunfire on unarmed Palestinian civilians...the settlers unlawful behavior toward Palestinian civilians; the oppression of the population; the roadblocks; the curfews, the closure; the blind eye the army turned towards humiliation and abuse; the searches and arrests; the use of live fire against children and unarmed people... This is an educational, ethical, and moral failure.”
In November 2003, the Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, astonished the government by contradicting the official line on checkpoints when he declared that “restrictions on the movement of Palestinians are counterproductive, generating greater hatred of the occupying army” and strengthening terrorist organizations.
But when four ex-directors of the Shin Bet security service - Yaakov Perry, Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, and Carmi Gillon – gave an interview to the major Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronoth, Sharon took notice. His later volte-face on withdrawal from settlements – the unilateral “disengagement” plan of 2005- was partially attributed to many Israelis speaking out, but particularly to these four. Together, the four men, with their unparalleled knowledge and experience, decried the failure of the Israeli government to deliver on peace and urged ending the occupation by the dismantling settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Shalom said, “We must once and for all admit there is another side, that it has feelings, that it is suffering and that we are behaving disgracefully.” The Israeli preoccupation with preventing terror,” he said,” is not a mistake. It is an excuse. An excuse for doing nothing.”
Sharon dismantled the settlements in Gaza but it has become a prison that, in Israel and America, one cannot safely call a “concentration camp.” The expansion of settlement on the West Bank continues. The main effect of the obscene security wall is to expand Israeli control and ruin the prospects of a peaceful solution. In her epilogue the author represents, on the basis of his speeches, that the election of Obama as President represents new hope for a long-lasting peaceful resolution to the problem of Palestine. Yet it still remains doubtful that the American government is willing or able to take effective action along these lines.
Friday, May 21, 2010
This book is an analysis of New Zealand Anthropologist Derek Freeman's critique of Margaret Mead's best selling work Coming of Age in Samoa (1924), The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983), which became a media sensation for a short time, fueling controversial discussions on such outlets as The Phil Donahue Show, and has remained a focus of debate in the social sciences in general ever since.
Freeman's book was about how Samoa was puritanical and sexually restrictive rather than sexually permissive, as Mead described it. According to Freeman, Samoa was not a tropical paradise with islanders engaging in casual sex under the palms; instead, it was a repressive culture riddled with conflict, aggression and rape. In contrast to Mead's portrayal of a relatively conflict -free adolescence, Freeman contended that Samoa adolescence was a time of storm and stress. Freeman's book was also about the nature-nurture debate and whether Mead's emphasis on culture, as opposed to biology was warranted. Mead had noted that while puberty was a universal biological process, it did not lead inevitably to a period of adolescent turmoil in Samoa, as she thought it had in America. For Mead, this demonstrated the importance of culture in shaping human behavior. For Freeman, however, adolescence in Samoa was difficult, just as he believed it was everywhere. He thus criticized Mead for being an “absolute” cultural determinist and for ignoring biology completely.
In the early 1980s the nature-nurture debate was of great interest, one of the issues in the emerging American “culture wars,” with conservative social commentators weighing in on the side of “nature” and criticizing those like Mead who were on the side of “culture.” Freeman's critique of Mead tarnished Mead's reputation not merely as an anthropologist but as a public figure, a feminist and a liberal, one of the great icons of popular culture in America during the 60s and 70s.
In the first place, Mr. Shankman points out, Coming of Age in Samoa was never intended as a scholarly report of Margaret Mead's early and brief field work in Samoa . The simplistic, non-historical, 'exaggerated' narratives found in Coming of Age was meant to arouse public interest in the emerging field of Anthropolgy and were not characteristic of her academic publications on the same subject. It was a self-consciously commercial enterprise which left her exposed to criticism both from within her profession and from the public at large.
There are many different angles from which to consider this lasting controversy, but perhaps it is most important to point out the following:
Margaret Mead and her colleagues Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict did agree that culture mattered. They were “cultural determinists”. At the time is was almost a revolutionary idea. In the early twentieth century, race was the common explanation for cultural difference. Racial superiority and inferiority were assumed to explain differences in technology, social organization, and religion. If these differences were fixed and unchangeable because they were allegedly rooted in race and biology, then theories about “the master race” and other totalitarian ideologies were more acceptable. Indeed, eugenics and ideas about sterilization of the “unfit” were popular throughout Europe and America in the 1920s. Totalitarian solutions based on racial classifications of “inferior” and “superior” populations were just around the corner. Boas, Benedict and Mead played a major role in moving America away from thinking about human differences in terms of race and towards thinking about them in terms of culture. But this hardly made them “cultural determinists” as Derek Freedman alleged and tried to prove by using limited selections of their works , and incomplete quotations out of context.
Boas, Benedict and Mead simply argued that cultural differences could not be explained by biology alone. The human ability to learn and symbolize allowed for cultural differences, and these differences cannot be explained exclusively by biology and evolution.. Some cultures practiced infanticide, while others did not; some worshiped gods that were world redeemers, while others worshiped gods that were world destroyers; some cultures were egalitarian, while others were highly stratified; and in some cultures, adolescence was more stressful than others. How could a human nature per se explain these variations? “Culture determinists” ( otherwise often referred to as “moral relativists”) were not actually denying that biology was important; rather, the argued that it was not destiny.
In regards this founding principle of Anthropolgy itself, surprisingly enough, Derek Freeman was in complete agreement with Margaret Mead. For a number of reasons including his upbringing, experience, approach to the field work he also did in Samoa - the findings he chose to emphasize -and perhaps as well as a consequence of professional jealousy he came to believe that Mead and many others did not. We will never understand completely what motivated him to attack Mead in the way he did until his confidential diaries are published. Some of his criticism of Mead's work were justified and are accepted today, others were bizarre and simply defamatory.
Even a brief narrative of Margaret Mead's life makes it clear why she could become the object of disdain and ridicule for the conservative proponents of culture war in America. She was married three times , carried on numerous and bi-sexual affairs, advocated free love, contraception, feminism, racial equality as well as federal government intervention in education and family life.
From the beginning of her career Margaret Mead was unique among American anthropologists in giving priority to studies that could inform our everyday lives. In writing about Samoa she was also writing about America, recognizing the cultural and political cross-currents of the post World War I era. Mead was aware that the late 1920s were a time of youth a hope- she went to college at Barnard in NYC were art, poetry, literature, music, psychoanalysis, the bohemian and the avant-garde were everywhere- but also a time of self-criticism and despair. Mead knew of the simmering issues at home and the rising totalitarianism abroad. For her, anthropology was ideally suited to the understanding of these contemporary issues. As she stated just prior to the publication of Coming of Age in Samoa:" By the study and analysis of the diverse solutions to the problems that confront us today, it is possible to make a more reasoned judgment of the needs of our own society.” Mead set her agenda accordingly and lived by it for the rest of her life.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Honorable Violet Gibson ( 1876-1956), daughter of the Anglo-Irish Lord Chancellor of Ireland, as a young woman, the consort of Royalty. Never-the-less, her education was circumscribed by domestic intent, to be passive helpmate of her prospective husband and bearer of many children; her upbringing conducted in the blaring light of Victorian social convention in which she was presumed to have no legitimate, private thoughts or ambitions of her own. Her thoughts on the matter in diaries and letters reflected the feelings of many women of the era, most notably Virginia Woolf. Rebelling from the Christian Science orientation of her immediate family, Violet turned to Theosophy, Anthroposophy, associated with various international women's suffrage alliances but eventually converted to Roman Catholicism and the veneration of self-mortifying female saints. This did not deter her from a keen and personal interest in public affairs and the progress of political and social reform in Ireland, England and Europe in general. In 1926 God told her to assassinate the dictator Benito Mussolini , who at that time was the toast of her own government - “just the person to set Italy right”- and The New York Times as well.
Her first shot glanced off the bridge of Mussolini's nose, her second shot misfired. Her ammunition was old. Acquitted on the grounds of insanity she was eventually deported and confined to St. Andrew's Hospital for Mental Diseases for the rest of her life, not an uncommon fate for 'disturbed' and 'difficult' individuals in those times including the daughter of James Joyce and, incredibly, several members of the Royal Family itself, some of who lived for decades after having been officially declared dead.
By midafternoon, just as the first interview with Violet was being concluded, Mussolini was back in his Lancia, still wearing the big plaster across his nose, heading for Palazzo Littorio, her designated assassination site. As scheduled, he appeared at the presentation of the provincial secretaries to the new directorate of the National Fascist Party, where he told them, “The Party must fascistize the nation from top to bottom and from bottom to top.”
Facistizzare- the clunking awfulness of the verb, the hissing sibilants pitched to a menace. What exactly does it mean? Does meaning matter, when Mussolini's every word is set to detonate euphoria, when a mere flick of his hand is enough to redesign the whole composition of the crowd? Wooing and winning. The applause tumbles like falling masonry. Il Duce lives, God save Il Duce! God preserve Italy's glittering destiny.
“The crowd loves strong men”, Mussolini once said. “The crowd is like a woman... Everything turns upon one's ability to control it.” Much of his crowd theory derived from the French writer Gustave Le Bon's Pychologie des foules (1865), which argued that crowds do not like kindly masters, but tyrants who oppress them; they trample down despots only when those despots have lost their strength and no longer inspire fear. Crowds, according to Le Bon, have conservative instincts, a fetish-like respect for traditions, and an unconscious horror of novelties that could change their way of life. They are not influenced by reason and their arguments are always of an inferior order.
Le Bon's theory has not survived the scorn of sociologists, but in 1921 Freud devoted several pages to it and called it a “brilliant” description of the collective mind (Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego). “Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act,” explains Umberto Eco, 'they are only called upon to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.”
When later that evening a crowd assembles outside Mussolini office at Palazzo Chigi, he emerges onto a balcony to address them. He wishes to show them, he says, that the ring of his voice has not changed one atom, and that the beat of his heart has not quickened. He thanks them for their spontaneous displays of enthusiasm and calls them to maintain discipline in the true fascist style. “No danger threatens the regime,” he bellows. Cries of “The foreigner! The foreigner!” rise up from below. “This danger, too, we shall face,” he replies. “I am one of your generation. That means that I am the newest sort of Italian, one who is never thrown by events, but rather always proceeds straight down the road assigned by destiny.” In a dramatic peroration, soon adopted as one of the slogans of the regime, he urges the need for all to “live dangerously. Indeed, I say to you like an old soldier: 'If I advance, follow me.” There was a second part to this lapidary sentence - “If I retreat, kill me”- which would come to pass in due time. Then, “If I die, avenge me.” “La forca, la forca!” ( the gallows, the gallows!) comes the answer.... For those involved- Il Duce and the people- the experience was not one of stand-up comedy but of sacramental Union.
Back at the Mantellate prison, Violet is taken to a cell, consisting of an iron bedstead, clothes stand, chamber pot, table, aluminum plate, a cup, wooden cutlery, a jug of drinking water, and a washbasin. “It is better not to lay up possessions,” she had written in her notebook, and her only request is for a crucifix, before which she prays on her knees for several hours. She then eats a meal and falls into a deep sleep, according to the nuns who have been instructed to watch her all night.
All over Italy, God is thanked. In the churches Te Deum ceremonies are held to celebrate Mussolini's miraculous escape. In Venice, the bells of St. Mark's are rung in sign of thanksgiving. The fact that he has shed his blood on the most ancient of Roman sites does not interfere with an interpretation of the event as a contemporary Calvary. From the Vatican, Pius XI has dispatched Cardinal Merry del Val to tell Mussolini in person that he is “clearly protected by God.” A strange God, this, who tells Violet Gibson to shoot Mussolini and then instructs the bullet not to kill him.
In Rome, expressions of worshipful adoration pour forth. A letter from Clara Petacci, aged fourteen, 8 April, 1926:
“Duce, my most beloved Duce, our life, our hope, our glory- how can there be a soul so wicked to try to deprive our beautiful Italy of her glittering destiny? Oh Duce, why wasn't I there? Why wasn't
I able to strangle that woman assassin who wounded our Divine being... Duce, I would so love to rest my head on your chest, so that I might hear the living beats of Your great heart ...When I heard the news, I thought I would die because I love you deeply, like a little Fascist of the first hour...me, a small but ardent Fascist, with my favorite motto which sums up the love that my young feels for you: Duce, I offer my life to you!”
Unlike most schoolgirls, Clara Petacci will experience the realization of her heart-swelling fantasy. Six years after writing this letter, when she was just twenty, she will become Il Duce's lover. A decade later – after the premature deaths of one million Italians- on 28 April 1943, she offers up her life for him: slammed against a wall and shot. Her corpse is transported alongside her lover's to the Esso gas station at Paizzale Loreto in Milan- his head resting on her breast- before being strung up by the heels. Clara Petacci, the little Fascist, hanging like a prosciutto.
Violet Gibson died, 2 May, 1956, at 12:45 a.m. “She did not have much suffering and her passing was a peaceful one' Dr. Tennent wrote to the new Lord Ashbourne who had assumed the role of legal petitioner for her continued confinement at St. Andrews. There were, he added, “no matters outstanding with the accounting department.” When the National Health Service agreed to assume the financial burden of her care several years previously, she had lost the privilege of a private room and moved to a public ward. But even in death, her wishes- the disposal of her estate, her body, and her memory- were denied. Violet left money for a Requiem Mass at the Catholic cathedral of Northhampton but it was given in the far humbler surroundings of St. Gregory's, a local Catholic Church. She requested to be buried in the Catholic party of the Cemetery at St. Andrew's “with all the rights of the Catholic Mass." She was in fact interred at Kingsthorpe Cemetery, a dreary expanse of flatland butting up against a noisy through street of Northhampton.
There was no public announcement of Violet's death. There was no friend, no member of the family present at the burial. In her will, Violet set had set aside one hundred pounds for the erection of a gravestone. In this, as in everything else, she was short-changed. Above her grave, plot number 12411, is a bland cross in cheap gray quarry stone. It's inscription- “Violet Gibson, 1876-1956” is equally parsimonious: the punctuation is highly unusual, the result of the stonecutter following Ashbourne's text, which was communicated by telegram. Nothing follows the comma on Violet's gravestone, except the dates of her birth and death. Full Stop. Set in Stone. Her extraordinary story lies between the comma and the period.
The Honorable Violet Gibson deserved better.