Impotence of Ideas

There is a famous saying: The pen is mightier than the sword. It is a self-serving adage, giving intellectuals greater importance than they really have.

Ideas do have some power, but these are ideas which are promulgated by tradition and propaganda. But even such ideas are no match for the private ideas of a dictator who has at his disposal a sword — money, weapons, police, and soldiers.

A current example of the impotence of ideas is the worldwide protests against the Iraq War on Feb 15, 2003. Here is an article about this:

Paul Blumenthal, “The Largest Protest Ever Was 15 Years Ago. The Iraq War Isn’t Over. What Happened? Can anti-war protesters claim any success?” Huffpost, March 17, 209

And here is a video about the Iraq war protests around the world, Feb 15, 2003:

How a student mob took over Evergreen State College in 2017

Bret Weinstein and his wife Heather Heyting after refusing to leave the campus on the controversial “Day of Absence,” resigned with a settlement with Evergreen State College in 2017. Here is a three-part documentary about the affair:

Part 1:Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying & the Evergreen Equity Council

Part 2: Teaching to Transgress

Part 3: The Hunted Individual

After watching the three videos about what happened at Evergreen State College in 2017, I have made the following judgment. Although the focus is on the dismissal of Heather Heyting and Bret Weinstein from the college, it is more like a study of how a mob is allowed to take control of a college.

What Bret Weinstein did at Evergreen by not participating on the “Day of Absence” was equivalent to striking a match in standing conditions which caused the match to burn.

What were these standing conditions? A college is a business enterprise (corporation). It has a board of trustees, a CEO, managers, and workers. And it has a clientele — the students. Everyone who works at the college is relying on their job for a livelihood (self-preservation).

The culmination of a student mob taking over was initiated by the new President, George Bridges, who was hired in 2015. He introduced a policy statement for the college to recognizing a phenomenon called “Racism,” and a school policy formulated by an Equity Council to fight against this Racism. Part of this policy required a contractual yearly written self-evaluation of racism by each white faculty member. There was also a policy of requiring some kind of “equity” justification for hiring new teachers. This policy was voted on openly by the faculty senate. And the majority — probably out of fear for losing their jobs — voted in favor.

As events progressed, it was evident that the white faculty had to submit to the wishes of student mobs. In fact the students were allowed by the President to take control of speech. The main one was a censorship (by booing, disruption, and silencing) as based on the assumption that to criticallly examine racism is Racism. Students were also allowed by the President to take physical control of buildings to the extant that faculty were in effect hostages.

Evergreen also had a tradition of a “The Day of Absence” on which black students and faculty were encouraged not to attend the college. In 2017, this holiday was switched to asking white teachers to absent themselves from the college. One white teacher, Bret Weinstein, refused, and held a class on this day.

A group of students — both students of color and white — confronted him outside his classroom and clamored for his dismissal. And as time progressed, it became something like a lynching mob. And the security personnel were ordered by the the President to stand down. In consequence Bret Weinstein had to go into hiding. And finally a settlement was reached with Bret Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying for their dismissal.

Comment: A school should be a place for the critical examination of everything, including the nature of what is called “racism.” And a critical discussion is not a free for all shouting. There must be some kind of procedural rules. In the case of Evergreen State College, the President made a fundamental mistake of taking an institutional stance against what he understood as “racism.” He further aggravated the situation by letting students control meetings, and not allowing security to intervene when necessary. This breakdown of institutional control has resulted in a drop of student enrollment and the failure of the college to currently find a successor President.

Beware of Cognitive Shortcuts

I am still sort of stupefied by Bertrand Russell’s claim that Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau. And if one does not critically think about it, and takes Russell as a wise authority, one may be apt to repeat this claim as a dogma.

This has led me to reflect on how ideas become dogmas, i.e., as assumed truths. And if you start thinking about this, there are all sorts of mental cobwebs produced by Abstractions, Chants, Slogans, Maxims, Heuristics, Stereotypes and other Cognitive Biases. And there is enough here to think about to fit a few books. And there are many such books — just do a Google search for “cognitive biases books.”

The main users of these mental manipulation techniques are those with something to sell. We know their products as propaganda and advertisement. The first book that brought this phenomenon to my attention was by Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957. And then there was the book by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 1988.

The most successful books of dogmas are, of course, religious books. For Europeans this is the Bible with its Christian companions like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But in the heyday of the Inquisition and the burnings of heretics, there is no greater book of evil dogmas than the Malleus Maleficarum (1489), which gave instructions how to identify, interrogate, prosecute, and execute witches.

But books like those of Rousseau and Locke (and of most intellectuals) do not have the same function as a procedural manual for a Catholic inquisitor. And I am confident that Russell is totally wrong that “Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau; Roosevelt and Churchill of Locke.”

For example, here is a BBC video on Churchill’s policy in India.

The Social Contract Refurbished

What is it to refurbish some item? Using my computer as an example of refurbishment, I did the following with my computer. The computer’s power supply failed; I replaced it with a 500w Termaltake. I had 2GB of memory; I upgrade to 8GB. My operating system was on a Hard Disk; I switched to an 240 GB Solid State Drive (SSD). In other words, to refurbish is to replace failed parts and to enhance or upgrade other parts.

Instead of starting with some imagined state of nature, I want to start with evolutionary theory and anthropology. From evolutionary theory humans have evolved from some common ancestor with chimps. And since chimps are social so were our ancestors. Moreover, human languages are social products and reflect — to use Wittgenstein’S phrase — a form of life.

Reflecting on anthropological findings, it is reasonable to generalize that humans are tribal animals. As such, they have always lived in a rule-guided manner, which are called customs and mores. And from an external perspective tribal life can be characterized by conformity. If we wish, we can characterize this conformity as tacit or implicit consent. Karl Popper called this state of affairs “tribalism” in a disparaging manner because this form of life, he thought, did not allow for pluralism and criticism. This may very well be true about particular matters, such as religion. But I am sure that there must have been some disagreements about where to go foraging or modes of hunting and with which tools or weapons, and which person was worthy of consultation, or even about which plants to avoid as poisonous or unhealthy.

John Locke, as everyone else, agrees that the primary concern of a normal human being is self-preservation. And self-preservation is better secured within a group. And what preserves life is air, water, food, temperature, and shelter. And as Rousseau put it, whoever wills an end; wills the means. And the means to satisfy the above needs is access to subsistence territory. So, if we wish to use such language, there is a tacit agreement that everyone in the tribe is allowed (is permitted, has a right) to access this subsistence territory. John Locke also stresses the rule that everyone is permitted to take from nature whatever one needs as long as there is as much left for everyone else. But, appealing to anthropological finding, not only is this permitted (a right), but there also prevail customs of gift giving and sharing (or, as Kropotkin put it: “mutual aid.”)

As to interpersonal conduct or morals, intratribal conduct can be summarized by the Christian rule: do unto others as you would them do unto you. Tribes live not merely by a negative rule: No person x is allowed to harm another person y (except for self-defense or the defense of others), but also by a positive rule to be of help to others.

What I have said above captures the meaning of what Rousseau means by a General Will. If the people of a tribe were asked to vote whether all the above is acceptable, they would agree. And such a vote would be the Will of All. The General Will is the set of necessary conditions for the preservation of human life in a social context. But this necessity is a factual matter; not a matter of choice and voting.

In summary, in a previous blog, I described primitive tribes by three characteristics: Anarchism, Socialism, and Communism.

The historical purpose of an appeal to a Social Contract is to justify or legitimize a State. Here the matter was muddled by an ambiguous use of the word “government.” In the sense of appealing to authorities for guidance and decision making, tribes resort to different procedures and persons. So, in this sense they are governed.

But States have a different form of government which is historically, for the most part, centralized in a single individual — though Rome and Sparta vested power in two individuals. So, historically, the Social Contract was a juridical fiction for justifying monarchy.

So, we can view a social contract theory in the following manner. If a State of any sort is to be justified then it would have to arise from the common consent of all the members.

But, in fact, all States are illegitimate because none of them arose by a Social Contract, as David Hume pointed out. States arose by conquest, by force; not by free consent. This is the sociological theory of the State as argued for by Franz Oppenheimer in his book, The State.

A Challenge for Political Philosophers

In a previous blog, Bertrand Russell’s bullshit interpretation of Jean Jacques Rousseau, I expressed puzzlement how it is possible to claim that Hitler is the outcome of Rousseau.

Here I want to introduce a different puzzle.

Consider the following passages, and footnotes in D. G. Ritchie, “Chapter 7. Contributions to the History of the Social Contract Theory,” in Darwin and Hegel with Other Philosophical Studies (1893), (pp. 196-226); p. 206:

As we have seen, Locke quotes King James I. about the “paction” between king and people; but the original compact on which he basis civil government is, just as with Hobbes and with Rousseau, a compact between individual and individual, not between king (or whatever else may be the government) and people.

“Whosoever [he says] out of a state of nature unite into a community must be understood to give up all the power necessary to the ends for which they unite into society, to the majority of the community, unless they expressly agreed in any number greater than the majority. And this is done by barely agreeing to unite into one political society, which is all the compact that is, or needs be, between the individuals that enter into or make up a commonwealth.”2[2 Treatise of Civil Government, II., § 99. In a footnote in the English translation of Bluntschli’s Theory of the State (Oxford, 1885), p. 276 — a footnote for which I am responsible — I followed the usual fashion of contrasting Locke and Rousseau. Further study of Locke has convinced me that there is no essential difference between them in this matter. The error has been avoided in the second edition (1892); see p. 294.”

Later, pp. 215-216, Ritchie writes:

Milton’s own theory is expounded earlier in his treatise :

“ No man who knows aught can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God Himself, and were, by privilege above all creatures, born to command and not to obey; and that they lived so, till from the root of Adam’s transgression falling among themselves to do. wrong and violence, and foreseeing that such courses must needs tend to the destruction of them all, they agreed by common league to bind each other from mutual injury and jointly to defend themselves against any that gave disturbance or opposition to such agreement. . . . The power of kings and magistrates is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people to the common good of them all, to whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them without a violation of their natural birthright.”1 [1 For the term “birthright” in this connection, cf. Clarke Papers, pp. lc, lxi., 322-325.]

This is precisely Locke’s theory; expressed in Milton’s impassioned language, it reveals its identity with the theory of Rousseau. Milton, like Locke, gives the theory a setting of Biblical history. Remove this setting, and we have the theory as it appears in Rousseau.

Ok, you may ask “What’s your point?”

My point is that according to Ritchie, the positions of Locke and Rousseau (as concerns the main points) are the same. But Russell wrote: “Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau; Roosevelt and Churchill of Locke.”

So, evidently Russell must be in disagreement with Ritchie that the positions of Locke and Rousseau (as concerns the main points) are the same. Who is right?

If Ritchie is right, then Russell’s position becomes that Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill are the outcome of Locke/Rousseau.

My own position is that it is not clear to me what it means to say that x is the outcome of y; i.e., understood as x’s views are the outcome of y’s views.

“The sin of the academic is that he takes so long in coming to the point.”

This was written by Michael Oakeshott in “Political Education,” Philosophy, Politics and Society, First Series, ed. Peter Laslett, 1967, who himself took too long to make his point.

See also: I like to read axiomatized versions of books

Bullshit as Unclarity

Practicing Safe Philosophy

In my last blog I wrote about political correctness. Here I want to reflect on the timidity of philosophers, and how they sacrifice their integrity for the sake of a job. Many years ago I wrote a piece which reflected my personal predicament of having accepted a teaching position at a women’s Catholic college. It is titled, Beware of the Handmaid Scorned, 1995. The predicament is that a fundamental problem of philosophy is whether there is a justification for any religious belief. And if one pursues this question too eagerly, one gets fired.

In secular colleges and universities, there are analogous perilous pursuits. Well, we know that in the United States there was a Red Scare, with two periods: the First Red Scare (1918-1920), followed by a Second Red Scare (1947-1957), also know as McCartyism. These Red Scares led to loss of jobs, imprisonment, and deportations.

In 1967, Noam Chomsky published an article, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,”, which is “to speak the truth and expose lies” of governments.

But for a political philosopher there is a more fundamental question: Is any form of a centralized government, i.e., a State, legitimate?

A political philosopher can evade this question by simply doing a sort of literary analysis of some historical political philosopher, and refrain from giving their own considered answer. As an example of this evasion, I came across a video by Tamar Gendler, Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, and Chair of the Philosophy Department, Yale University, whose video exemplifies this safe academic approach. Her lecture is titled: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Politics.

Both Rawls and Nozick assume the kind of liberal democracy we have in the United States, and their disagreement is over policies of such a government. Rawls is for a welfare state. Nozick is against a welfare state. But the fundamental question which was raised by Rousseau as to the legitimacy of a State is side-stepped.

Instead of beginning with Rawls or Nozick, I think it is more appropriate (though not as safe) to begin with Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism (1970),

Here is a 2008 audio interview with Wolff on anarchism: Doing without a ruler: in defense of anarchism

Political Correctness in Academia

Academics — just as policeman, soldiers, politicians — will do whatever it takes to keep their jobs. If they stray, they get fired or are denied tenure, as illustrated below.

I became aware of this censorship in academia by sheer accident in 1973. I was heading towards Key West in my VW camping bus, and on the way I stopped by the University of Florida where I came across a news item that a philosopher was in court fighting his firing. I had forgotten his name, but I do remember that he was a Marxist who spoke his mind in an unvarnished fashion. I stayed to listen to the testimony of the president and others. But I did not stay to find out the outcome of these hearings. But searching the internet, I have found out that the philosopher was Kenneth A. Megill, who appealed a denial of tenure by President Stephen C. O’Connell. I found the following court ruling: Dr. Kenneth A. MEGILL, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. BOARD OF REGENTS OF the STATE OF FLORIDA et al., Defendants-Appellees.

I remember other such cases. The one that sticks in my mind was the dismissal of Saul Kripke. At the time I heard of this, I was — let us say — bewildered: Saul Kripke??? Again, scouring the internet, I found this informative piece: Israel Shenker, “Rockefeller University Hit by Storm Over Tenure,” Sept. 26, 1976. Reading the piece, I discover that a whole group of other eminent philosophers had to find employment elsewhere.

Other cases of professors being fired — the euphemism is non-reappointment — or denied tenure which come to mind, are that of Howard Zinn who was dismissed from Spelman College in 1963 for supporting student protests as an act of insubordination.

The case of Norman Finkelstein was especially disconcerting to me, and I wrote a big analytical piece about it: Norman Finkelstein, DePaul, and U.S. Academia: Reductio Ad Absurdum of Centralized Universities, July 23, 2007.

There is a short clip of me here, identified as Philosophy Teacher, Wright College, Chicago, offering my two bits :

Professor Finkelstein’s DePaul Farwell, Sept. 5. 2007:

Below is a full-documentary about Norman Finkelstein:

American Radical: The trials of Norman Finkelstein [2009]

Ward Churchill, a tenured professor, was fired from the University of Colorado in 2007 on alleged plagiarism charges but really for claiming in an article and a book that the 9/11/2001 attack against the World Trade Center was — to use Chalmers Johnson’s CIA word — a “blowback” for the U.S. policies in the Middle East. Churchill took the wrongfull dismissal case to a court, and won; but was not reinstated. The controversial article was “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,”, Sept. 12, 2001, and the book was On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality, 2003.

Below is Megyn Kelly’s commentary and interview with Ward Churchill in 2014.

There is also the case of David Graeber whose contract was not renewed at Yale. Below is a link to an interview with Graeber about this affair.

Joshua Frank, “David Graeber is Gone: Revisiting His Wrongful Termination from Yale,” Counterpunch, September 4, 2020.

The whole issue of censorship in America has recently been put on film: No Safe Spaces