Philosophy Should Care about the Filthy, Excessive and Unclean

Thomas White | Aeon Ideas

Philosophy traditionally has been about ‘higher’ questions: what is knowledge? What is the meaning of justice? What is the nature of ultimate reality? These questions soar above the petty concerns of the everyday and reach towards a realm of pure ideas. But can the ‘unclean’ – dirt, mud, bodily wastes, the grime of existence – be relevant to the philosopher’s quest for wisdom and the truth? Philosophers don’t often discuss filth and all its disgusting variations, but investigating the unclean turns out to be as useful an exercise as examining the highest ideals of justice, morality and metaphysics.

In his dialogue Parmenides, Plato gives us an inkling of the significance of philosophising about the unclean, which he names ‘undignified objects’, such as hair, mud and dirt. The young Socrates, at this stage but an entry-level philosopher, is discussing the foundations of reality with the venerable Parmenides. While this encounter between these philosophers about ‘undignified objects’ is brief, it is profound, for it shows how insightful thinkers use digressions and marginal comments to demonstrate that not everything is as clearcut as system-builders – including even Plato – might think.

Parmenides quizzes Socrates about whether the theory of ideal forms – the argument that particular material objects have correlated ideal patterns, which are the perfect forms of the imperfect things – can include mud and dirt. Can there be a perfect form of filth? Taken aback, Socrates confesses that he is troubled by this point because it seems to lead to nonsense: ‘perfect filth’ is contradictory. Instead, Socrates prefers to return to discussing the higher ideals of ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’. Confronted by Parmenides with the unseemly facts of mud and dirt, he takes refuge in the beautiful – unlike Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical novel Nausea (1938), who, in confronting the ugly facticity of the world, obtains a glimpse of actual, albeit repugnant, reality.

Socrates’ puzzlement at how to explain the very lowest (dirt, mud) in terms of the very highest (ideal forms) suggests the limitations of the dualistic, two-world theory that has formed the basis of several millennia of Western thought. The unclean’s ‘undignified objects’ represent a kind of outer twilight zone – a metaphysical no-man’s land – that eludes overarching theories about the meaning of reality. The very resistance of filth’s inclusion into a master philosophical system serves as a cautionary note, and a lesson in Socratic humility, warning the ambitious and overeager intellectual to slow down. Do not try to assimilate every aspect of our diverse experience into grand explanatory narratives. The unclean’s raw existence is a great intractable that rudely interrupts a philosopher’s thinking when it fails to fit neatly into the theory of forms, thus forcing the philosopher to curb hasty, ambitious generalisations, and think even harder and more clearly. (The classicist Edith Hamilton, in her introductory notes to Parmenides, suggests that Plato attacked his own theory of Platonic ideas in order to know the truth, not to defend his own preconceived views.)

Parmenides’ concerns about the limits of the theory of forms presages the empiricist Francis Bacon. In Novum Organum (1620), he argued similarly for the limits of intellectual speculation, and about the dangers of creating idols out of promiscuously generated philosophical systems by exceeding speculative boundaries:

The understanding must also be cautioned against the intemperance of systems, so far as regards its giving or withholding its assent; for such intemperance appears to fix and perpetuate idols, so as to leave no means of removing them.

In our own day, Slavoj Žižek in his book Disparities (2016) echoes the Parmenidean point about how the unclean can disrupt our comfortable theories about reality: ‘[S]hit remains an excess which does not fit our daily reality.’ An experience of disgust in the presence of the filthy and unclean disturbs our sense of systems and order, causing a ‘disintegration’ of our metaphysical understanding of reality, ‘the very ontological coordinates which enable [us] to locate an object “out there”.’

Like Plato, Žižek uses allusions to the unclean to alert the reader to how repugnant, discordant facts can undercut a particular vision of reality. He also expands the use of the metaphor of filth to call our attention to something else closer to his heart: the failings of our modern political discourse. Bacon warned us of intellectual intemperance, but Žižek uses references to the unclean to warn us of modern political intemperance. In the cases of Plato, Bacon and Žižek, the philosophical issue raised is about boundaries and the implications of transgressing them.

In the unclean, Žižek finds the ultimate metaphor for the dumbing down of political thought and speech, a way of understanding the collapse of modern political discourse – itself an echo of Plato’s critique of the false, that is, ‘sophistical’ use of political language – in which ‘public vulgarity’ is used without shame.

He begins his argument with a scene from a surreal film from 1974 in which people at a dinner party defecate in public:

We probably all remember the scene from Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper: ‘Where is that place, you know?,’ and sneak away to a small room in the back.

Political figures today, Žižek argues, are committing the verbal equivalent of this public defecation. They are violating traditional, unwritten rules and boundaries that are used to guide public conduct by making outrageous statements that were once taboo. ‘They are a clear sign of the regression of our public sphere,’ he writes in Newsweek in 2016. ‘Accusations and ideas that were till now confined to the obscure underworld of racist obscenity are now gaining a foothold in official discourse.’ And citing Georg Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit – the ‘the thick background of (unwritten) rules of social life … that tell us what we can and cannot do’, Žižek further observes that ‘These [unwritten] rules are disintegrating today: what was a couple of decades ago simply unsayable in a public debate can now be pronounced with impunity.’

A discharge of verbal political filth has changed the public sphere into a kind of collective public toilet for language users – lurid speeches full of nasty ignorance, blatant vulgarity and raw prejudice. Plato and Žižek, with some tacit support from Bacon, use the notion of the unclean in similar ways to offer, implicitly, practical advice about how humans should conduct themselves: be wary of intemperately overstepping limits by chasing overweening ambitions, whether intellectual or political, which soil clear thinking and logic, and/or corrupt language, politics and ethics. Discussions of lowly filth, and all of its disgusting variations, are not merely the province of vulgarians, but seem to offer life lessons for everyone, not just philosophers.Aeon counter – do not remove


Thomas White is a Wiley Journal contributing author, whose philosophical and theological writings have appeared in print and online.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

To Avoid Moral Failure, Don’t See People as Sherlock Does

sherlock-holmes

Suspicious minds; William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes (right) and Bruce McRae as Dr John Watson in the play Sherlock Holmes (c1900). Courtesy Wikimedia

Rima Basu | Aeon Ideas

If we’re the kind of people who care both about not being racist, and also about basing our beliefs on the evidence that we have, then the world presents us with a challenge. The world is pretty racist. It shouldn’t be surprising then that sometimes it seems as if the evidence is stacked in favour of some racist belief. For example, it’s racist to assume that someone’s a staff member on the basis of his skin colour. But what if it’s the case that, because of historical patterns of discrimination, the members of staff with whom you interact are predominantly of one race? When the late John Hope Franklin, professor of history at Duke University in North Carolina, hosted a dinner party at his private club in Washington, DC in 1995, he was mistaken as a member of staff. Did the woman who did so do something wrong? Yes. It was indeed racist of her, even though Franklin was, since 1962, that club’s first black member.

To begin with, we don’t relate to people in the same way that we relate to objects. Human beings are different in an important way. In the world, there are things – tables, chairs, desks and other objects that aren’t furniture – and we try our best to understand how this world works. We ask why plants grow when watered, why dogs give birth to dogs and never to cats, and so on. But when it comes to people, ‘we have a different way of going on, though it is hard to capture just what that is’, as Rae Langton, now professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, put it so nicely in 1991.

Once you accept this general intuition, you might begin to wonder how can we capture that different way in which we ought to relate to others. To do this, first we must recognise that, as Langton goes on to write, ‘we don’t simply observe people as we might observe planets, we don’t simply treat them as things to be sought out when they can be of use to us, and avoid when they are a nuisance. We are, as [the British philosopher P F] Strawson says, involved.’

This way of being involved has been played out in many different ways, but here’s the basic thought: being involved is thinking that others’ attitudes and intentions towards us are important in a special way, and that our treatment of others should reflect that importance. We are, each of us, in virtue of being social beings, vulnerable. We depend upon others for our self-esteem and self-respect.

For example, we each think of ourselves as having a variety of more or less stable characteristics, from marginal ones such as being born on a Friday to central ones such as being a philosopher or a spouse. The more central self-descriptions are important to our sense of self-worth, to our self-understanding, and they constitute our sense of identity. When these central self-descriptions are ignored by others in favour of expectations on the basis of our race, gender or sexual orientation, we’re wronged. Perhaps our self-worth shouldn’t be based on something so fragile, but not only are we all-too-human, these self-descriptions also allow us to understand who we are and where we stand in the world.

This thought is echoed in the American sociologist and civil rights activist W E B DuBois’s concept of double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), DuBois notes a common feeling: ‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’.

When you believe that John Hope Franklin must be a staff member rather than a club member, you’ve made predictions of him and observed him in the same way that one might observe the planets. Our private thoughts can wrong other people. When someone forms beliefs about you in this predictive way, they fail to see you, they fail to interact with you as a person. This is not only upsetting. It is a moral failing.

The English philosopher W K Clifford argued in 1877 that we were morally criticisable if our beliefs weren’t formed in the right way. He warned that we have a duty to humanity to never believe on the basis of insufficient evidence because to do so would be to put society at risk. As we look at the world around us and the epistemic crisis in which we find ourselves, we see what happens when Clifford’s imperative is ignored. And if we combine Clifford’s warning with DuBois’s and Langton’s observations, it becomes clear that, for our belief-forming practices, the stakes aren’t just high because we depend on one another for knowledge – the stakes are also high because we depend on one another for respect and dignity.

Consider how upset Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters get with Sherlock Holmes for the beliefs this fictional detective forms about them. Without fail, the people whom Holmes encounters find the way he forms beliefs about others to be insulting. Sometimes it’s because it is a negative belief. Often, however, the belief is mundane: eg, what they ate on the train or which shoe they put on first in the morning. There’s something improper about the way that Holmes relates to other human beings. Holmes’s failure to relate is not just a matter of his actions or his words (though sometimes it is also that), but what really rubs us up the wrong way is that Holmes observes us all as objects to be studied, predicted and managed. He doesn’t relate to us as human beings.

Maybe in an ideal world, what goes on inside our heads wouldn’t matter. But just as the personal is the political, our private thoughts aren’t really only our own. If a man believes of every woman he meets: ‘She’s someone I can sleep with,’ it’s no excuse that he never acts on the belief or reveals the belief to others. He has objectified her and failed to relate to her as a human being, and he has done so in a world in which women are routinely objectified and made to feel less-than.

This kind of indifference to the effect one has on others is morally criticisable. It has always struck me as odd that everyone grants that our actions and words are apt for moral critique, but once we enter the realm of thought we’re off the hook. Our beliefs about others matter. We care what others think of us.

When we mistake a person of colour for a staff member, that challenges this person’s central self-descriptions, the descriptions from which he draws his sense of self-worth. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with being a staff member, but if your reason for thinking that someone is staff is tied not only to something he has no control over (his skin colour) but also to a history of oppression (being denied access to more prestigious forms of employment), then that should give you pause.

The facts might not be racist, but the facts that we often rely on can be the result of racism, including racist institutions and policies. So when forming beliefs using evidence that is a result of racist history, we are accountable for failing to show more care and for believing so easily that someone is a staff member. Precisely what is owed can vary along a number of dimensions, but nonetheless we can recognise that some extra care with our beliefs is owed along these lines. We owe each other not only better actions and better words, but also better thoughts.Aeon counter – do not remove


Rima Basu is an assistant professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California. Her work has been published in Philosophical Studies, among others.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Ibn Tufayl and the Story of the Feral Child of Philosophy

scholar-in-garden

Album folio fragment with scholar in a garden. Attributed to Muhammad Ali 1610-15. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Marwa Elshakry & Murad Idris | Aeon Ideas

Ibn Tufayl, a 12th-century Andalusian, fashioned the feral child in philosophy. His story Hayy ibn Yaqzan is the tale of a child raised by a doe on an unnamed Indian Ocean island. Hayy ibn Yaqzan (literally ‘Living Son of Awakeness’) reaches a state of perfect, ecstatic understanding of the world. A meditation on the possibilities (and pitfalls) of the quest for the good life, Hayy offers not one, but two ‘utopias’: a eutopia (εὖ ‘good’, τόπος ‘place’) of the mind in perfect isolation, and an ethical community under the rule of law. Each has a version of human happiness. Ibn Tufayl pits them against each other, but each unfolds ‘no where’ (οὐ ‘not’, τόπος ‘place’) in the world.

Ibn Tufayl begins with a vision of humanity isolated from society and politics. (Modern European political theorists who employed this literary device called it ‘the state of nature’.) He introduces Hayy by speculating about his origin. Whether Hayy was placed in a basket by his mother to sail through the waters of life (like Moses) or born by spontaneous generation on the island is irrelevant, Ibn Tufayl says. His divine station remains the same, as does much of his life, spent in the company only of animals. Later philosophers held that society elevates humanity from its natural animal state to an advanced, civilised one. Ibn Tufayl took a different view. He maintained that humans can be perfected only outside society, through a progress of the soul, not the species.

In contrast to Thomas Hobbes’s view that ‘man is a wolf to man’, Hayy’s island has no wolves. It proves easy enough for him to fend off other creatures by waving sticks at them or donning terrifying costumes of hides and feathers. For Hobbes, the fear of violent death is the origin of the social contract and the apologia for the state; but Hayy’s first encounter with fear of death is when his doe-mother dies. Desperate to revive her, Hayy dissects her heart only to find one of its chambers is empty. The coroner-turned-theologian concludes that what he loved in his mother no longer resides in her body. Death therefore was the first lesson of metaphysics, not politics.

Hayy then observes the island’s plants and animals. He meditates upon the idea of an elemental, ‘vital spirit’ upon discovering fire. Pondering the plurality of matter leads him to conclude that it must originate from a singular, non-corporeal source or First Cause. He notes the perfect motion of the celestial spheres and begins a series of ascetic exercises (such as spinning until dizzy) to emulate this hidden, universal order. By the age of 50, he retreats from the physical world, meditating in his cave until, finally, he attains a state of ecstatic illumination. Reason, for Ibn Tufayl, is thus no absolute guide to Truth.

The difference between Hayy’s ecstatic journeys of the mind and later rationalist political thought is the role of reason. Yet many later modern European commentaries or translations of Hayy confuse this by framing the allegory in terms of reason. In 1671, Edward Pococke entitled his Latin translation The Self-Taught Philosopher: In Which It Is Demonstrated How Human Reason Can Ascend from Contemplation of the Inferior to Knowledge of the Superior. In 1708, Simon Ockley’s English translation was The Improvement of Human Reason, and it too emphasised reason’s capacity to attain ‘knowledge of God’. For Ibn Tufayl, however, true knowledge of God and the world – as a eutopia for the ‘mind’ (or soul) – could come only through perfect contemplative intuition, not absolute rational thought.

This is Ibn Tufayl’s first utopia: an uninhabited island where a feral philosopher retreats to a cave to reach ecstasy through contemplation and withdrawal from the world. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would be impressed: ‘Flee, my friend, into your solitude!’

The rest of the allegory introduces the problem of communal life and a second utopia. After Hayy achieves his perfect condition, an ascetic is shipwrecked on his island. Hayy is surprised to discover another being who so resembles him. Curiosity leads him to befriend the wanderer, Absal. Absal teaches Hayy language, and describes the mores of his own island’s law-abiding people. The two men determine that the islanders’ religion is a lesser version of the Truth that Hayy discovered, shrouded in symbols and parables. Hayy is driven by compassion to teach them the Truth. They travel to Absal’s home.

The encounter is disastrous. Absal’s islanders feel compelled by their ethical principles of hospitality towards foreigners, friendship with Absal, and association with all people to welcome Hayy. But soon Hayy’s constant attempts to preach irritate them. Hayy realises that they are incapable of understanding. They are driven by satisfactions of the body, not the mind. There can be no perfect society because not everyone can achieve a state of perfection in their soul. Illumination is possible only for the select, in accordance with a sacred order, or a hieros archein. (This hierarchy of being and knowing is a fundamental message of neo-Platonism.) Hayy concludes that persuading people away from their ‘natural’ stations would only corrupt them further. The laws that the ‘masses’ venerate, be they revealed or reasoned, he decides, are their only chance to achieve a good life.

The islanders’ ideals – lawfulness, hospitality, friendship, association – might seem reasonable, but these too exist ‘no where’ in the world. Hence their dilemma: either they adhere to these and endure Hayy’s criticisms, or violate them by shunning him. This is a radical critique of the law and its ethical principles: they are normatively necessary for social life yet inherently contradictory and impossible. It’s a sly reproach of political life, one whose bite endures. Like the islanders, we follow principles that can undermine themselves. To be hospitable, we must be open to the stranger who violates hospitality. To be democratic, we must include those who are antidemocratic. To be worldly, our encounters with other people must be opportunities to learn from them, not just about them.

In the end, Hayy returns to his island with Absal, where they enjoy a life of ecstatic contemplation unto death. They abandon the search for a perfect society of laws. Their eutopia is the quest of the mind left unto itself, beyond the imperfections of language, law and ethics – perhaps beyond even life itself.

The islanders offer a less obvious lesson: our ideals and principles undermine themselves, but this is itself necessary for political life. For an island of pure ethics and law is an impossible utopia. Perhaps, like Ibn Tufayl, all we can say on the search for happiness is (quoting Al-Ghazali):

It was – what it was is harder to say.
Think the best, but don’t make me describe it away.

After all, we don’t know what happened to Hayy and Absal after their deaths – or to the islanders after they left.Aeon counter – do not remove

Marwa Elshakry & Murad Idris

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Reach out, listen, be patient. Good arguments can stop extremism

coming-together

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong | Aeon Ideas

Many of my best friends think that some of my deeply held beliefs about important issues are obviously false or even nonsense. Sometimes, they tell me so to my face. How can we still be friends? Part of the answer is that these friends and I are philosophers, and philosophers learn how to deal with positions on the edge of sanity. In addition, I explain and give arguments for my claims, and they patiently listen and reply with arguments of their own against my – and for their – stances. By exchanging reasons in the form of arguments, we show each other respect and come to understand each other better.

Philosophers are weird, so this kind of civil disagreement still might seem impossible among ordinary folk. However, some stories give hope and show how to overcome high barriers.

One famous example involved Ann Atwater and C P Ellis in my home town of Durham, North Carolina; it is described in Osha Gray Davidson’s book The Best of Enemies (1996) and a forthcoming movie. Atwater was a single, poor, black parent who led Operation Breakthrough, which tried to improve local black neighbourhoods. Ellis was an equally poor but white parent who was proud to be Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan. They could not have started further apart. At first, Ellis brought a gun and henchmen to town meetings in black neighbourhoods. Atwater once lurched toward Ellis with a knife and had to be held back by her friends.

Despite their mutual hatred, when courts ordered Durham to integrate their public schools, Atwater and Ellis were pressured into co-chairing a charrette – a series of public discussions that lasted eight hours per day for 10 days in July 1971 – about how to implement integration. To plan their ordeal, they met and began by asking questions, answering with reasons, and listening to each other. Atwater asked Ellis why he opposed integration. He replied that mainly he wanted his children to get a good education, but integration would ruin their schools. Atwater was probably tempted to scream at him, call him a racist, and walk off in a huff. But she didn’t. Instead, she listened and said that she also wanted his children – as well as hers – to get a good education. Then Ellis asked Atwater why she worked so hard to improve housing for blacks. She replied that she wanted her friends to have better homes and better lives. He wanted the same for his friends.

When each listened to the other’s reasons, they realised that they shared the same basic values. Both loved their children and wanted decent lives for their communities. As Ellis later put it: ‘I used to think that Ann Atwater was the meanest black woman I’d ever seen in my life … But, you know, her and I got together one day for an hour or two and talked. And she is trying to help her people like I’m trying to help my people.’ After realising their common ground, they were able to work together to integrate Durham schools peacefully. In large part, they succeeded.

None of this happened quickly or easily. Their heated discussions lasted 10 long days in the charrette. They could not have afforded to leave their jobs for so long if their employers (including Duke University, where Ellis worked in maintenance) had not granted them time off with pay. They were also exceptional individuals who had strong incentives to work together as well as many personal virtues, including intelligence and patience. Still, such cases prove that sometimes sworn enemies can become close friends and can accomplish a great deal for their communities.

Why can’t liberals and conservatives do the same today? Admittedly, extremists on both sides of the current political scene often hide in their echo chambers and homogeneous neighbourhoods. They never listen to the other side. When they do venture out, the level of rhetoric on the internet is abysmal. Trolls resort to slogans, name-calling and jokes. When they do bother to give arguments, their arguments often simply justify what suits their feelings and signals tribal alliances.

The spread of bad arguments is undeniable but not inevitable. Rare but valuable examples such as Atwater and Ellis show us how we can use philosophical tools to reduce political polarisation.

The first step is to reach out. Philosophers go to conferences to find critics who can help them improve their theories. Similarly, Atwater and Ellis arranged meetings with each other in order to figure out how to work together in the charrette. All of us need to recognise the value of listening carefully and charitably to opponents. Then we need to go to the trouble of talking with those opponents, even if it means leaving our comfortable neighbourhoods or favourite websites.

Second, we need to ask questions. Since Socrates, philosophers have been known as much for their questions as for their answers. And if Atwater and Ellis had not asked each other questions, they never would have learned that what they both cared about the most was their children and alleviating the frustrations of poverty. By asking the right questions in the right way, we can often discover shared values or at least avoid misunderstanding opponents.

Third, we need to be patient. Philosophers teach courses for months on a single issue. Similarly, Atwater and Ellis spent 10 days in a public charrette before they finally came to understand and appreciate each other. They also welcomed other members of the community to talk as long as they wanted, just as good teachers include conflicting perspectives and bring all students into the conversation. Today, we need to slow down and fight the tendency to exclude competing views or to interrupt and retort with quick quips and slogans that demean opponents.

Fourth, we need to give arguments. Philosophers typically recognise that they owe reasons for their claims. Similarly, Atwater and Ellis did not simply announce their positions. They referred to the concrete needs of their children and their communities in order to explain why they held their positions. On controversial issues, neither side is obvious enough to escape demands for evidence and reasons, which are presented in the form of arguments.

None of these steps is easy or quick, but books and online courses on reasoning – especially in philosophy – are available to teach us how to appreciate and develop arguments. We can also learn through practice by reaching out, asking questions, being patient, and giving arguments in our everyday lives.

We still cannot reach everyone. Even the best arguments sometimes fall on deaf ears. But we should not generalise hastily to the conclusion that arguments always fail. Moderates are often open to reason on both sides. So are those all-too-rare exemplars who admit that they (like most of us) do not know which position to hold on complex moral and political issues.

Two lessons emerge. First, we should not give up on trying to reach extremists, such as Atwater and Ellis, despite how hard it is. Second, it is easier to reach moderates, so it usually makes sense to try reasoning with them first. Practising on more receptive audiences can help us improve our arguments as well as our skills in presenting arguments. These lessons will enable us to do our part to shrink the polarisation that stunts our societies and our lives.Aeon counter – do not remove

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

What makes People distrust Science?

square-stationary-earth

A Map of the Square and Stationary Earth by Professor Orlando Ferguson, South Dakota, 1893. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Bastiaan T Rutjens | Aeon Ideas

Today, there is a crisis of trust in science. Many people – including politicians and, yes, even presidents – publicly express doubts about the validity of scientific findings. Meanwhile, scientific institutions and journals express their concerns about the public’s increasing distrust in science. How is it possible that science, the products of which permeate our everyday lives, making them in many ways more comfortable, elicits such negative attitudes among a substantial part of the population? Understanding why people distrust science will go a long way towards understanding what needs to be done for people to take science seriously.

Political ideology is seen by many researchers as the main culprit of science skepticism. The sociologist Gordon Gauchat has shown that political conservatives in the United States have become more distrusting of science, a trend that started in the 1970s. And a swath of recent research conducted by social and political psychologists has consistently shown that climate-change skepticism in particular is typically found among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum. However, there is more to science skepticism than just political ideology.

The same research that has observed the effects of political ideology on attitudes towards climate change has also found that political ideology is not that predictive of skepticism about other controversial research topics. Work by the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, as well as research led by the psychologist Sydney Scott, observed no relation between political ideology and attitudes toward genetic modification. Lewandowsky also found no clear relation between political conservatism and vaccine skepticism.

So there is more that underlies science skepticism than just political conservatism. But what? It is important to systematically map which factors do and do not contribute to science skepticism and science (dis)trust in order to provide more precise explanations for why a growing number of individuals reject the notion of anthropogenic climate change, or fear that eating genetically modified products is dangerous, or believe that vaccines cause autism.

My colleagues and I recently published a set of studies that investigated science trust and science skepticism. One of the take-home messages of our research is that it is crucial not to lump various forms of science skepticism together. And although we were certainly not the first to look beyond political ideology, we did note two important lacunae in the literature. First, religiosity has so far been curiously under-researched as a precursor to science skepticism, perhaps because political ideology commanded so much attention. Second, current research lacks a systematic investigation into various forms of skepticism, alongside more general measures of trust in science. We attempted to correct both oversights.

People can be skeptical or distrusting of science for different reasons, whether it is about one specific finding from one discipline (for example, ‘The climate is not warming, but I believe in evolution’), or about science in general (‘Science is just one of many opinions’). We identified four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables tend to intercorrelate – in some cases quite strongly – which means that they are potentially confounded. To illustrate, an observed relation between political conservatism and trust in science might in reality be caused by another variable, for example religiosity. When not measuring all constructs simultaneously, it is hard to properly assess what the predictive value of each of these is.

So, we investigated the heterogeneity of science skepticism among samples of North American participants (a large-scale cross-national study of science skepticism in Europe and beyond will follow). We provided participants with statements about climate change (eg, ‘Human CO2 emissions cause climate change’), genetic modification (eg, ‘GM of foods is a safe and reliable technology’), and vaccination (eg, ‘I believe that vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits of vaccination for children’). Participants could indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with these statements. We also measured participants’ general faith in science, and included a task in which they could indicate how much federal money should be spent on science, compared with various other domains. We assessed the impact of political ideology, religiosity, moral concerns and science knowledge (measured with a science literacy test, consisting of true or false items such as ‘All radioactivity is made by humans’, and ‘The centre of the Earth is very hot’) on participants’ responses to these various measures.

Political ideology did not play a meaningful role when it came to most of our measures. The only form of science skepticism that was consistently more pronounced among the politically conservative respondents in our studies was, not surprisingly, climate-change skepticism. But what about the other forms of skepticism, or skepticism of science generally?

Skepticism about genetic modification was not related to political ideology or religious beliefs, though it did correlate with science knowledge: the worse people did on the scientific literacy test, the more skeptical they were about the safety of genetically modified food. Vaccine skepticism also had no relation to political ideology, but it was strongest among religious participants, with a particular relation to moral concerns about the naturalness of vaccination.

Moving beyond domain-specific skepticism, what did we observe about a general trust in science, and the willingness to support science more broadly? The results were quite clear: trust in science was by far the lowest among the religious. In particular, religious orthodoxy was a strong negative predictor of faith in science and the orthodox participants were also the least positive about investing federal money in science. But notice here again political ideology did not contribute any meaningful variance over and beyond religiosity.

From these studies there are a couple of lessons to be learned about the current crisis of faith that plagues science. Science skepticism is quite diverse. Further, distrust of science is not really that much about political ideology, with the exception of climate-change skepticism, which is consistently found to be politically driven. Additionally, these results suggest that science skepticism cannot simply be remedied by increasing people’s knowledge about science. The impact of scientific literacy on science skepticism, trust in science, and willingness to support science was minor, save for the case of genetic modification. Some people are reluctant to accept particular scientific findings, for various reasons. When the aim is to combat skepticism and increase trust in science, a good starting point is to acknowledge that science skepticism comes in many forms.Aeon counter – do not remove

Bastiaan T Rutjens

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

Why Religion is not Going Away and Science will not Destroy It

church-holy-saviour-istanbul

At the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Istanbul. Photo by Guillen Perez/Flickr

Peter Harrison | Aeon Ideas


In 1966, just over 50 years ago, the distinguished Canadian-born anthropologist Anthony Wallace confidently predicted the global demise of religion at the hands of an advancing science: ‘belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge’. Wallace’s vision was not exceptional. On the contrary, the modern social sciences, which took shape in 19th-century western Europe, took their own recent historical experience of secularisation as a universal model. An assumption lay at the core of the social sciences, either presuming or sometimes predicting that all cultures would eventually converge on something roughly approximating secular, Western, liberal democracy. Then something closer to the opposite happened.

Not only has secularism failed to continue its steady global march but countries as varied as Iran, India, Israel, Algeria and Turkey have either had their secular governments replaced by religious ones, or have seen the rise of influential religious nationalist movements. Secularisation, as predicted by the social sciences, has failed.

To be sure, this failure is not unqualified. Many Western countries continue to witness decline in religious belief and practice. The most recent census data released in Australia, for example, shows that 30 per cent of the population identify as having ‘no religion’, and that this percentage is increasing. International surveys confirm comparatively low levels of religious commitment in western Europe and Australasia. Even the United States, a long-time source of embarrassment for the secularisation thesis, has seen a rise in unbelief. The percentage of atheists in the US now sits at an all-time high (if ‘high’ is the right word) of around 3 per cent. Yet, for all that, globally, the total number of people who consider themselves to be religious remains high, and demographic trends suggest that the overall pattern for the immediate future will be one of religious growth. But this isn’t the only failure of the secularisation thesis.

Scientists, intellectuals and social scientists expected that the spread of modern science would drive secularisation – that science would be a secularising force. But that simply hasn’t been the case. If we look at those societies where religion remains vibrant, their key common features are less to do with science, and more to do with feelings of existential security and protection from some of the basic uncertainties of life in the form of public goods. A social safety net might be correlated with scientific advances but only loosely, and again the case of the US is instructive. The US is arguably the most scientifically and technologically advanced society in the world, and yet at the same time the most religious of Western societies. As the British sociologist David Martin concluded in The Future of Christianity (2011): ‘There is no consistent relation between the degree of scientific advance and a reduced profile of religious influence, belief and practice.’

The story of science and secularisation becomes even more intriguing when we consider those societies that have witnessed significant reactions against secularist agendas. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed secular and scientific ideals, and enlisted scientific education in the project of modernisation. Nehru was confident that Hindu visions of a Vedic past and Muslim dreams of an Islamic theocracy would both succumb to the inexorable historical march of secularisation. ‘There is only one-way traffic in Time,’ he declared. But as the subsequent rise of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism adequately attests, Nehru was wrong. Moreover, the association of science with a secularising agenda has backfired, with science becoming a collateral casualty of resistance to secularism.

Turkey provides an even more revealing case. Like most pioneering nationalists, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was a committed secularist. Atatürk believed that science was destined to displace religion. In order to make sure that Turkey was on the right side of history, he gave science, in particular evolutionary biology, a central place in the state education system of the fledgling Turkish republic. As a result, evolution came to be associated with Atatürk’s entire political programme, including secularism. Islamist parties in Turkey, seeking to counter the secularist ideals of the nation’s founders, have also attacked the teaching of evolution. For them, evolution is associated with secular materialism. This sentiment culminated in the decision this June to remove the teaching of evolution from the high-school classroom. Again, science has become a victim of guilt by association.

The US represents a different cultural context, where it might seem that the key issue is a conflict between literal readings of Genesis and key features of evolutionary history. But in fact, much of the creationist discourse centres on moral values. In the US case too, we see anti-evolutionism motivated at least in part by the assumption that evolutionary theory is a stalking horse for secular materialism and its attendant moral commitments. As in India and Turkey, secularism is actually hurting science.

In brief, global secularisation is not inevitable and, when it does happen, it is not caused by science. Further, when the attempt is made to use science to advance secularism, the results can damage science. The thesis that ‘science causes secularisation’ simply fails the empirical test, and enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy. The science and secularism pairing is so awkward that it raises the question: why did anyone think otherwise?

Historically, two related sources advanced the idea that science would displace religion. First, 19th-century progressivist conceptions of history, particularly associated with the French philosopher Auguste Comte, held to a theory of history in which societies pass through three stages – religious, metaphysical and scientific (or ‘positive’). Comte coined the term ‘sociology’ and he wanted to diminish the social influence of religion and replace it with a new science of society. Comte’s influence extended to the ‘young Turks’ and Atatürk.

The 19th century also witnessed the inception of the ‘conflict model’ of science and religion. This was the view that history can be understood in terms of a ‘conflict between two epochs in the evolution of human thought – the theological and the scientific’. This description comes from Andrew Dickson White’s influential A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), the title of which nicely encapsulates its author’s general theory. White’s work, as well as John William Draper’s earlier History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), firmly established the conflict thesis as the default way of thinking about the historical relations between science and religion. Both works were translated into multiple languages. Draper’s History went through more than 50 printings in the US alone, was translated into 20 languages and, notably, became a bestseller in the late Ottoman empire, where it informed Atatürk’s understanding that progress meant science superseding religion.

Today, people are less confident that history moves through a series of set stages toward a single destination. Nor, despite its popular persistence, do most historians of science support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.

The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.

So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Harrison

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Philosophy Primary Sources II

library

This post will serve as Part II of Philosophy Primary Sources and a supplement to Primary Sources & Encyclopedias (check out the Links section for even more research sources). There are certain books that are essential to an education about the human condition of which I believe should be available for free and with easy access to everybody. This list is more comprehensive and nuanced than the previous list, as it includes books that hold cultural significance in various fields of study. Each book on this list is in PDF format. I have organized them by topic (many topics intersect) and the last name of the author.


Philosophy

The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt

Language, Truth, and Logic by A.J. Ayer

The Problem of Knowledge by A.J. Ayer

Selected Writings of Jean Baudrillard

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir

Matter and Memory by Henri Bergson

An Introduction to Metaphysics by Henri Bergson

I and Thou by Martin Buber

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus

The Rebel by Albert Camus

Language and Mind by Noam Chomsky

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Nietzsche and Philosophy by Gilles Deleuze

What is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

Speech and Phenomena & Other Essays by Jacques Derrida

Dissemination by Jacques Derrida

In Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus

The Vocation of Man by Johann Gottlieb Fichte

The Science of Knowledge by Johann Gottlieb Fichte

The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language by Michel Foucault

Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger

The Question Concerning Technology & Other Essays by Martin Heidegger

What is Metaphysics? by Martin Heidegger

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

Logical Investigations by Edmund Husserl

Reason and Existenz by Karl Jaspers

Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard

The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard

Philosophical Fragments by Søren Kierkegaard

Last Writings: Nothingness and the Religious Worldview by Nishida Kitarō

The Levinas Reader edited by Sáun Hand

The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard

Essays of Michel de Montaigne

On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

The Portable Nietzsche edited by Walter Kaufmann

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism by Keiji Nishitani

Philosophical Explanations by Robert Nozick

Man Has No Nature by José Ortega y Gasset

The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine

Pensées by Blaise Pascal

The Morals of Plutarch

The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty

The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Free Thought & Official Propaganda by Bertrand Russell

In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

Mysticism and Logic: And Other Essays by Bertrand Russell

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre

The World as Will and Representation – Vol. 1 by Arthur Schopenhauer

The World as Will and Representation – Vol. 2 by Arthur Schopenhauer

The Basis of Morality by Arthur Schopenhauer

My View of the World (Excerpt) by Erwin Schrödinger

Athens and Jerusalem by Lev Shestov

The Ego and His Own by Max Stirner

The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich

The Eternal Now by Paul Tillich

Weak Thought edited by Gianni Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein


Science

The Essays of Francis Bacon

The New Organon by Francis Bacon

The Grounds for and Excellence of the Corpuscular or Mechanical Philosophy by Robert Boyle

On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (Dedication) by Nicolaus Copernicus

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Principles of Quantum Mechanics by Paul Dirac

Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein

The Assayer by Galileo Galilei

Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science by Werner Heisenberg

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

Treatise on Light by Christiaan Huygens

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

The Copernican Revolution by Thomas Kuhn

The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Sir Isaac Newton

Science and Hypothesis by Henri Poincaré

What is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger

Mind and Matter by Erwin Schrödinger

The Physics of the Healing by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna)


Psychology

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud

The Principles of Psychology: Volume I by William James

The Principles of Psychology: Volume II by William James

Man and his Symbols by Carl Jung

Memories, Dreams, Reflection by Carl Jung

Écrits by Jacques Lacan

Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences by Abraham Maslow

Cognitive Psychology by Ulric Neisser

Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner

Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom


Literature

The Tragedies of Aeschylus

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Euripides: Ion, Hippolytus, Medea, & Alcestis

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Iliad of Homer

The Odyssey of Homer

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka

Paradise Lost by John Milton

1984 by George Orwell

Animal Farm by George Orwell

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

The Tragedies of Sophocles

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Candide by Voltaire

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Note: Planet Publish hosts a vast selection of literature in PDF format available for free.


Religious

A Study of Dōgen by Masao Abe

Deliverance from Error by Al-Ghazali

The Incoherence of the Philosophers by Al-Ghazali

The Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas

The Teaching of Buddha

Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin

The Analects of Confucius

The Vedas compiled by the Dharmic Scriptures Team

On Divine Names & Mystical Theology by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

The Shōbōgenzō: Volume I by Eihei Dōgen

The Shōbōgenzō: Volume II by Eihei Dōgen

The Shōbōgenzō: Volume III by Eihei Dōgen

The Shōbōgenzō: Volume IV by Eihei Dōgen

Dōgen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Kōroku

The Tibetan Book of the Dead edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz

The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach

Christian Apologetics by Norman Geisler

Philosophy of Religion by Norman Geisler

The Principia Discordia by Greg Hill and Kerry Wendell Thornley

The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley

The Guide for the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides

The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna

On Buddhism by Keiji Nishitani

The Upanishads translated by Swami Paramananda

On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy by Ibn Rushd (Averroes)

The Incoherence of the Incoherence by Ibn Rushd (Averroes)

Forgotten Truth by Huston Smith

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki

The Bhagavad Gita translated by Shri Purohit Swami

The New Being by Paul Tillich

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

Note: Internet Sacred Text Archive hosts an archive of online books about religion, mythology, folklore and the esoteric (including the writings of the early church fathers).


Historical

World History: Patterns of Interaction by Beck, et al.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume I by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume II by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume III by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume IV by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume V by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume VI by Edward Gibbon

The Histories of Herodotus

I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr.

The History of Rome by Titus Livius

The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler

The Annals of Tacitus

The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

Note: Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive are excellent sources of historical writings and much more. Ancient Greek and Roman histories can be found at Loebolus.


Important Historical Documents

Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of Liberties)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Code of Hammurabi

Note: OurDocuments.gov hosts a list of 100 milestone documents, compiled by the National Archives and Records Administration, and drawn primarily from its nationwide holdings. The documents chronicle United States history from 1776 to 1965.


Political & Social Theory

On the Reproduction of Capitalism by Louis Althusser

An Introduction to The Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham

Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky

Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault

Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault

The Theory of Communicative Action by Jürgen Habermas

Between Facts and Norms by Jürgen Habermas

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno

The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes

Structural Anthropology by Claude Lévi-Strauss

The Savage Mind by Claude Lévi-Strauss

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

Capital: Critique of Political Economy, Volume I by Karl Marx

Capital: Critique of Political Economy, Volume II by Karl Marx

Capital: Critique of Political Economy, Volume III by Karl Marx

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by Karl Marx

The German Ideology by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

Areopagitica by John Milton

The Spirit of Laws by Montesquieu

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

Émile, or Concerning Education by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Writings of Leon Trotsky

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber


Check out the Links Section for more sources of primary texts and general research.

Plutonomy and the Precariat

Day_12_Occupy_Wall_Street_September_28_2011_Shankbone_33

05/08/2012 08:44 am 08:44:21 | Updated Jul 08, 2012

Noam Chomsky

Institute Professor emeritus, MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy; Author, ‘Who Rules the World?’

On the History of the U.S. Economy in Decline

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

The Occupy movement has been an extremely exciting development. Unprecedented, in fact. There’s never been anything like it that I can think of.  If the bonds and associations it has established can be sustained through a long, dark period ahead — because victory won’t come quickly — it could prove a significant moment in American history.

The fact that the Occupy movement is unprecedented is quite appropriate. After all, it’s an unprecedented era and has been so since the 1970s, which marked a major turning point in American history. For centuries, since the country began, it had been a developing society, and not always in very pretty ways. That’s another story, but the general progress was toward wealth, industrialization, development, and hope. There was a pretty constant expectation that it was going to go on like this. That was true even in very dark times.

I’m just old enough to remember the Great Depression. After the first few years, by the mid-1930s — although the situation was objectively much harsher than it is today — nevertheless, the spirit was quite different. There was a sense that “we’re gonna get out of it,” even among unemployed people, including a lot of my relatives, a sense that “it will get better.”

There was militant labor union organizing going on, especially from the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). It was getting to the point of sit-down strikes, which are frightening to the business world — you could see it in the business press at the time — because a sit-down strike is just a step before taking over the factory and running it yourself. The idea of worker takeovers is something which is, incidentally, very much on the agenda today, and we should keep it in mind. Also New Deal legislation was beginning to come in as a result of popular pressure. Despite the hard times, there was a sense that, somehow, “we’re gonna get out of it.”

It’s quite different now. For many people in the United States, there’s a pervasive sense of hopelessness, sometimes despair. I think it’s quite new in American history. And it has an objective basis.

On the Working Class

In the 1930s, unemployed working people could anticipate that their jobs would come back. If you’re a worker in manufacturing today — the current level of unemployment there is approximately like the Depression — and current tendencies persist, those jobs aren’t going to come back.

The change took place in the 1970s. There are a lot of reasons for it. One of the underlying factors, discussed mainly by economic historian Robert Brenner, was the falling rate of profit in manufacturing. There were other factors. It led to major changes in the economy — a reversal of several hundred years of progress towards industrialization and development that turned into a process of de-industrialization and de-development. Of course, manufacturing production continued overseas very profitably, but it’s no good for the work force.

Along with that came a significant shift of the economy from productive enterprise — producing things people need or could use — to financial manipulation. The financialization of the economy really took off at that time.

On Banks

Before the 1970s, banks were banks. They did what banks were supposed to do in a state capitalist economy: they took unused funds from your bank account, for example, and transferred them to some potentially useful purpose like helping a family buy a home or send a kid to college. That changed dramatically in the 1970s. Until then, there had been no financial crises since the Great Depression. The 1950s and 1960s had been a period of enormous growth, the highest in American history, maybe in economic history.

And it was egalitarian.  The lowest quintile did about as well as the highest quintile. Lots of people moved into reasonable lifestyles — what’s called the “middle class” here, the “working class” in other countries — but it was real.  And the 1960s accelerated it. The activism of those years, after a pretty dismal decade, really civilized the country in lots of ways that are permanent.

When the 1970s came along, there were sudden and sharp changes: de-industrialization, the off-shoring of production, and the shift to financial institutions, which grew enormously. I should say that, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was also the development of what several decades later became the high-tech economy: computers, the Internet, the IT Revolution developed substantially in the state sector.

The developments that took place during the 1970s set off a vicious cycle. It led to the concentration of wealth increasingly in the hands of the financial sector. This doesn’t benefit the economy — it probably harms it and society — but it did lead to a tremendous concentration of wealth.

On Politics and Money

Concentration of wealth yields concentration of political power. And concentration of political power gives rise to legislation that increases and accelerates the cycle. The legislation, essentially bipartisan, drives new fiscal policies and tax changes, as well as the rules of corporate governance and deregulation. Alongside this began a sharp rise in the costs of elections, which drove the political parties even deeper into the pockets of the corporate sector.

The parties dissolved in many ways. It used to be that if a person in Congress hoped for a position such as a committee chair, he or she got it mainly through seniority and service. Within a couple of years, they started having to put money into the party coffers in order to get ahead, a topic studied mainly by Tom Ferguson. That just drove the whole system even deeper into the pockets of the corporate sector (increasingly the financial sector).

This cycle resulted in a tremendous concentration of wealth, mainly in the top tenth of one percent of the population. Meanwhile, it opened a period of stagnation or even decline for the majority of the population. People got by, but by artificial means such as longer working hours, high rates of borrowing and debt, and reliance on asset inflation like the recent housing bubble. Pretty soon those working hours were much higher in the United States than in other industrial countries like Japan and various places in Europe. So there was a period of stagnation and decline for the majority alongside a period of sharp concentration of wealth. The political system began to dissolve.

There has always been a gap between public policy and public will, but it just grew astronomically. You can see it right now, in fact.  Take a look at the big topic in Washington that everyone concentrates on: the deficit. For the public, correctly, the deficit is not regarded as much of an issue. And it isn’t really much of an issue. The issue is joblessness. There’s a deficit commission but no joblessness commission. As far as the deficit is concerned, the public has opinions. Take a look at the polls. The public overwhelmingly supports higher taxes on the wealthy, which have declined sharply in this period of stagnation and decline, and the preservation of limited social benefits.

The outcome of the deficit commission is probably going to be the opposite. The Occupy movements could provide a mass base for trying to avert what amounts to a dagger pointed at the heart of the country.

Plutonomy and the Precariat

For the general population, the 99% in the imagery of the Occupy movement, it’s been pretty harsh — and it could get worse. This could be a period of irreversible decline. For the 1% and even less — the .1% — it’s just fine. They are richer than ever, more powerful than ever, controlling the political system, disregarding the public. And if it can continue, as far as they’re concerned, sure, why not?

Take, for example, Citigroup. For decades, Citigroup has been one of the most corrupt of the major investment banking corporations, repeatedly bailed out by the taxpayer, starting in the early Reagan years and now once again. I won’t run through the corruption, but it’s pretty astonishing.

In 2005, Citigroup came out with a brochure for investors called “Plutonomy: Buying Luxury, Explaining Global Imbalances.” It urged investors to put money into a “plutonomy index.” The brochure says, “The World is dividing into two blocs — the Plutonomy and the rest.”

Plutonomy refers to the rich, those who buy luxury goods and so on, and that’s where the action is. They claimed that their plutonomy index was way outperforming the stock market. As for the rest, we set them adrift. We don’t really care about them. We don’t really need them. They have to be around to provide a powerful state, which will protect us and bail us out when we get into trouble, but other than that they essentially have no function. These days they’re sometimes called the “precariat” — people who live a precarious existence at the periphery of society. Only it’s not the periphery anymore. It’s becoming a very substantial part of society in the United States and indeed elsewhere. And this is considered a good thing.

So, for example, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, at the time when he was still “Saint Alan” — hailed by the economics profession as one of the greatest economists of all time (this was before the crash for which he was substantially responsible) — was testifying to Congress in the Clinton years, and he explained the wonders of the great economy that he was supervising. He said a lot of its success was based substantially on what he called “growing worker insecurity.” If working people are insecure, if they’re part of the precariat, living precarious existences, they’re not going to make demands, they’re not going to try to get better wages, they won’t get improved benefits. We can kick ’em out, if we don’t need ’em. And that’s what’s called a “healthy” economy, technically speaking. And he was highly praised for this, greatly admired.

So the world is now indeed splitting into a plutonomy and a precariat — in the imagery of the Occupy movement, the 1% and the 99%. Not literal numbers, but the right picture. Now, the plutonomy is where the action is and it could continue like this.

If it does, the historic reversal that began in the 1970s could become irreversible. That’s where we’re heading. And the Occupy movement is the first real, major, popular reaction that could avert this. But it’s going to be necessary to face the fact that it’s a long, hard struggle. You don’t win victories tomorrow. You have to form the structures that will be sustained, that will go on through hard times and can win major victories. And there are a lot of things that can be done.

Toward Worker Takeover

I mentioned before that, in the 1930s, one of the most effective actions was the sit-down strike. And the reason is simple: that’s just a step before the takeover of an industry.

Through the 1970s, as the decline was setting in, there were some important events that took place.  In 1977, U.S. Steel decided to close one of its major facilities in Youngstown, Ohio. Instead of just walking away, the workforce and the community decided to get together and buy it from the company, hand it over to the work force, and turn it into a worker-run, worker-managed facility. They didn’t win. But with enough popular support, they could have won.  It’s a topic that Gar Alperovitz and Staughton Lynd, the lawyer for the workers and community, have discussed in detail.

It was a partial victory because, even though they lost, it set off other efforts. And now, throughout Ohio, and in other places, there’s a scattering of hundreds, maybe thousands, of sometimes not-so-small worker/community-owned industries that could become worker-managed. And that’s the basis for a real revolution. That’s how it takes place.

In one of the suburbs of Boston, about a year ago, something similar happened. A multinational decided to close down a profitable, functioning facility carrying out some high-tech manufacturing. Evidently, it just wasn’t profitable enough for them. The workforce and the union offered to buy it, take it over, and run it themselves. The multinational decided to close it down instead, probably for reasons of class-consciousness. I don’t think they want things like this to happen. If there had been enough popular support, if there had been something like the Occupy movement that could have gotten involved, they might have succeeded.

And there are other things going on like that. In fact, some of them are major. Not long ago, President Barack Obama took over the auto industry, which was basically owned by the public. And there were a number of things that could have been done. One was what was done: reconstitute it so that it could be handed back to the ownership, or very similar ownership, and continue on its traditional path.

The other possibility was to hand it over to the workforce — which owned it anyway — turn it into a worker-owned, worker-managed major industrial system that’s a big part of the economy, and have it produce things that people need. And there’s a lot that we need.

We all know or should know that the United States is extremely backward globally in high-speed transportation, and it’s very serious. It not only affects people’s lives, but the economy.  In that regard, here’s a personal story. I happened to be giving talks in France a couple of months ago and had to take a train from Avignon in southern France to Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, the same distance as from Washington, DC, to Boston. It took two hours.  I don’t know if you’ve ever taken the train from Washington to Boston, but it’s operating at about the same speed it was 60 years ago when my wife and I first took it. It’s a scandal.

It could be done here as it’s been done in Europe. They had the capacity to do it, the skilled work force. It would have taken a little popular support, but it could have made a major change in the economy.

Just to make it more surreal, while this option was being avoided, the Obama administration was sending its transportation secretary to Spain to get contracts for developing high-speed rail for the United States, which could have been done right in the rust belt, which is being closed down. There are no economic reasons why this can’t happen. These are class reasons, and reflect the lack of popular political mobilization. Things like this continue.

Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons

I’ve kept to domestic issues, but there are two dangerous developments in the international arena, which are a kind of shadow that hangs over everything we’ve discussed. There are, for the first time in human history, real threats to the decent survival of the species.

One has been hanging around since 1945. It’s kind of a miracle that we’ve escaped it. That’s the threat of nuclear war and nuclear weapons. Though it isn’t being much discussed, that threat is, in fact, being escalated by the policies of this administration and its allies. And something has to be done about that or we’re in real trouble.

The other, of course, is environmental catastrophe. Practically every country in the world is taking at least halting steps towards trying to do something about it. The United States is also taking steps, mainly to accelerate the threat.  It is the only major country that is not only not doing something constructive to protect the environment, it’s not even climbing on the train. In some ways, it’s pulling it backwards.

And this is connected to a huge propaganda system, proudly and openly declared by the business world, to try to convince people that climate change is just a liberal hoax. “Why pay attention to these scientists?”

We’re really regressing back to the dark ages. It’s not a joke.  And if that’s happening in the most powerful, richest country in history, then this catastrophe isn’t going to be averted — and in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter. Something has to be done about it very soon in a dedicated, sustained way.

It’s not going to be easy to proceed. There are going to be barriers, difficulties, hardships, failures.  It’s inevitable. But unless the spirit of the last year, here and elsewhere in the country and around the globe, continues to grow and becomes a major force in the social and political world, the chances for a decent future are not very high.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.  A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of numerous best-selling political works, most recently, Hopes and Prospects, Making the Future, and Occupy, published by Zuccotti Park Press, from which this speech, given last October, is excerpted and adapted. His web site is www.chomsky.info.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

Source: Huffington Post

See Also

Occupy (Occupied Media Pamphlet Series) by Noam Chomsky

Occupy (book) on Wikipedia

“Precariat” (Wikipedia)

Critical Voter

critical voter

Critical Voter: Using the Next Election to Make Yourself (and Your Kids) Smarter

Get it for free on July 12 and July 19!

Why waste the next election feeling suckered, ignored or manipulated when you can follow the simple lessons in this book to become a member of the most fearsome of all demographics: the free and truly independent critical thinker.

Critical Voter, the new book by writer and educational researcher Jonathan Haber, provides easy-to-follow explanations, illustrated with examples from presidential campaign politics, to show you how to:

* Decode arguments to understand what people (including presidential candidates) are really trying to convince you to believe
* Understand when persuasive language is being used to push you one way or another, as well as how to master the persuaders’ techniques to get people to do what you want
* Identify and overcome biases (especially the ones that are holding you back)
* See past what the media is telling you
* Make the Internet your servant for discovering the truth

From Cicero to Mr. Spock, from Aristotle’s logic to the latest work of cognitive science, Critical Voter applies 2500 years of practical advice to today’s news headlines to help you learn to think clearly, communicate convincingly, and live a more successful and happier life.

About the Author

Jonathan Haber is an educational researcher, writer and recovering entrepreneur working in the field of technology-enabled learning and teacher education. His Degree of Freedom One Year BA project, which involved trying to learn the equivalent of a BA in just twelve months using only Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other forms of free learning, has been featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal and other major media sources. His writing on education-related topics has also appeared in Slate, EdSurge and other publications.

http://criticalvoter.com/

Constitutional Idolatry?

Political Fundamentalism is the continuation of the Inquisition, adapting to a changing world in an attempt to prevent the world itself from adapting to changing circumstances and insights, creating an obstruction to the continuation of the growth and application of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

– Steve Harvey

political idol


Thomas Jefferson to James Madison

6 Sept. 1789Papers 15:392–97

I sit down to write to you without knowing by what occasion I shall send my letter. I do it because a subject comes into my head which I would wish to develope a little more than is practicable in the hurry of the moment of making up general dispatches.

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. The course of reflection in which we are immersed here on the elementary principles of society has presented this question to my mind; and that no such obligation can be so transmitted I think very capable of proof.–I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living”: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of it’s lands in severality, it will be taken by the first occupants. These will generally be the wife and children of the decedent. If they have formed rules of appropriation, those rules may give it to the wife and children, or to some one of them, or to the legatee of the deceased. So they may give it to his creditor. But the child, the legatee, or creditor takes it, not by any natural right, but by a law of the society of which they are members, and to which they are subject. Then no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the paiment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might, during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, which would be the reverse of our principle.

What is true of every member of the society individually, is true of them all collectively, since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals.–To keep our ideas clear when applying them to a multitude, let us suppose a whole generation of men to be born on the same day, to attain mature age on the same day, and to die on the same day, leaving a succeeding generation in the moment of attaining their mature age all together. Let the ripe age be supposed of 21. years, and their period of life 34. years more, that being the average term given by the bills of mortality to persons who have already attained 21. years of age. Each successive generation would, in this way, come on, and go off the stage at a fixed moment, as individuals do now. Then I say the earth belongs to each of these generations, during it’s course, fully, and in their own right. The 2d. generation receives it clear of the debts and incumberances of the 1st. the 3d of the 2d. and so on. For if the 1st. could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not the living generation. Then no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of it’s own existence. At 21. years of age they may bind themselves and their lands for 34. years to come: at 22. for 33: at 23. for 32. and at 54. for one year only; because these are the terms of life which remain to them at those respective epochs.–But a material difference must be noted between the succession of an individual, and that of a whole generation. Individuals are parts only of a society, subject to the laws of the whole. These laws may appropriate the portion of land occupied by a decedent to his creditor rather than to any other, or to his child on condition he satisfies the creditor. But when a whole generation, that is, the whole society dies, as in the case we have supposed, and another generation or society succeeds, this forms a whole, and there is no superior who can give their territory to a third society, who may have lent money to their predecessors beyond their faculties of paying.

What is true of a generation all arriving to self-government on the same day, and dying all on the same day, is true of those in a constant course of decay and renewal, with this only difference. A generation coming in and going out entire, as in the first case, would have a right in the 1st. year of their self-dominion to contract a debt for 33. years, in the 10th. for 24. in the 20th. for 14. in the 30th. for 4. whereas generations, changing daily by daily deaths and births, have one constant term, beginning at the date of their contract, and ending when a majority of those of full age at that date shall be dead. The length of that term may be estimated from the tables of mortality, corrected by the circumstances of climate, occupation &c. peculiar to the country of the contractors. Take, for instance, the table of M. de Buffon wherein he states 23,994 deaths, and the ages at which they happened. Suppose a society in which 23,994 persons are born every year, and live to the ages stated in this table. The conditions of that society will be as follows. 1st. It will consist constantly of 617,703. persons of all ages. 21y. Of those living at any one instant of time, one half will be dead in 24. years 8. months. 3dly. 1[8],675 will arrive every year at the age of 21. years complete. 41y. It will constantly have 348,417 persons of all ages above 21. years. 5ly. And the half of those of 21. years and upwards living at any one instant of time will be dead in 18. years 8. months, or say 19. years as the nearest integral number. Then 19. years is the term beyond which neither the representatives of a nation, nor even the whole nation itself assembled, can validly extend a debt.

To render this conclusion palpable by example, suppose that Louis XIV. and XV. had contracted debts in the name of the French nation to the amount of 10,000 milliards of livres, and that the whole had been contracted in Genoa. The interest of this sum would be 500. milliards, which is said to be the whole rent roll or nett proceeds of the territory of France. Must the present generation of men have retired from the territory in which nature produced them, and ceded it to the Genoese creditors? No. They have the same rights over the soil on which they were produced, as the preceding generations had. They derive these rights not from their predecessors, but from nature. They then and their soil are by nature clear of the debts of their predecessors.

Again suppose Louis XV. and his cotemporary generation had said to the money-lenders of Genoa, give us money that we may eat, drink, and be merry in our day; and on condition you will demand no interest till the end of 19. years you shall then for ever after receive an annual interest of 125/8 per cent. The money is lent on these conditions, is divided among the living, eaten, drank, and squandered. Would the present generation be obliged to apply the produce of the earth and of their labour to replace their dissipations? Not at all.

I suppose that the recieved opinion, that the public debts of one generation devolve on the next, has been suggested by our seeing habitually in private life that he who succeeds to lands is required to pay the debts of his ancestor or testator: without considering that this requisition is municipal only, not moral; flowing from the will of the society, which has found it convenient to appropriate lands, become vacant by the death of their occupant, on the condition of a paiment of his debts: but that between society and society, or generation and generation, there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature. We seem not to have percieved that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independant nation to another.

The interest of the national debt of France being in fact but a two thousandth part of it’s rent roll, the paiment of it is practicable enough: and so becomes a question merely of honor, or of expediency. But with respect to future debts, would it not be wise and just for that nation to declare, in the constitution they are forming, that neither the legislature, nor the nation itself, can validly contract more debt than they may pay within their own age, or within the term of 19. years? And that all future contracts will be deemed void as to what shall remain unpaid at the end of 19. years from their date? This would put the lenders, and the borrowers also, on their guard. By reducing too the faculty of borrowing within it’s natural limits, it would bridle the spirit of war, to which too free a course has been procured by the inattention of money-lenders to this law of nature, that succeeding generations are not responsible for the preceding.

On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.–It may be said that the succeeding generation exercising in fact the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law has been expressly limited to 19 years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be indeed if every form of government were so perfectly contrived that the will of the majority could always be obtained fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves. Their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents: and other impediments arise so as to prove to every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.

This principle that the earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead, is of very extensive application and consequences, in every country, and most especially in France. It enters into the resolution of the questions Whether the nation may change the descent of lands holden in tail? Whether they may change the appropriation of lands given antiently to the church, to hospitals, colleges, orders of chivalry, and otherwise in perpetuity? Whether they may abolish the charges and privileges attached on lands, including the whole catalogue ecclesiastical and feudal? It goes to hereditary offices, authorities and jurisdictions; to hereditary orders, distinctions and appellations; to perpetual monopolies in commerce, the arts and sciences; with a long train of et ceteras: and it renders the question of reimbursement a question of generosity and not of right. In all these cases, the legislature of the day could authorize such appropriations and establishments for their own time, but no longer; and the present holders, even where they, or their ancestors, have purchased, are in the case of bonâ fide purchasers of what the seller had no right to convey.

Turn this subject in your mind, my dear Sir, and particularly as to the power of contracting debts; and develope it with that perspicuity and cogent logic so peculiarly yours. Your station in the councils of our country gives you an opportunity of producing it to public consideration, of forcing it into discussion. At first blush it may be rallied, as a theoretical speculation: but examination will prove it to be solid and salutary. It would furnish matter for a fine preamble to our first law for appropriating the public revenue; and it will exclude at the threshold of our new government the contagious and ruinous errors of this quarter of the globe, which have armed despots with means, not sanctioned by nature, for binding in chains their fellow men. We have already given in example one effectual check to the Dog of war by transferring the power of letting him loose from the Executive to the Legislative body, from those who are to spend to those who are to pay. I should be pleased to see this second obstacle held out by us also in the first instance. No nation can make a declaration against the validity of long-contracted debts so disinterestedly as we, since we do not owe a shilling which may not be paid with ease, principal and interest, within the time of our own lives.–Establish the principle also in the new law to be passed for protecting copyrights and new inventions, by securing the exclusive right for 19. instead of 14. years. Besides familiarising us to this term, it will be an instance the more of our taking reason for our guide, instead of English precedent, the habit of which fetters us with all the political heresies of a nation equally remarkeable for it’s early excitement from some errors, and long slumbering under others.

. . . . .

Federalist No. 49

Method of Guarding Against the Encroachments of Any One Department of Government by Appealing to the People Through a Convention
From the New York Packet.
Tuesday, February 5, 1788.

Author: Alexander Hamilton or James Madison

To the People of the State of New York:

THE author of the “Notes on the State of Virginia,” quoted in the last paper, has subjoined to that valuable work the draught of a constitution, which had been prepared in order to be laid before a convention, expected to be called in 1783, by the legislature, for the establishment of a constitution for that commonwealth. The plan, like every thing from the same pen, marks a turn of thinking, original, comprehensive, and accurate; and is the more worthy of attention as it equally displays a fervent attachment to republican government and an enlightened view of the dangerous propensities against which it ought to be guarded.

One of the precautions which he proposes, and on which he appears ultimately to rely as a palladium to the weaker departments of power against the invasions of the stronger, is perhaps altogether his own, and as it immediately relates to the subject of our present inquiry, ought not to be overlooked. His proposition is, “that whenever any two of the three branches of government shall concur in opinion, each by the voices of two thirds of their whole number, that a convention is necessary for altering the constitution, or CORRECTING BREACHES OF IT, a convention shall be called for the purpose. “As the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived, it seems strictly consonant to the republican theory, to recur to the same original authority, not only whenever it may be necessary to enlarge, diminish, or new-model the powers of the government, but also whenever any one of the departments may commit encroachments on the chartered authorities of the others. The several departments being perfectly co-ordinate by the terms of their common commission, none of them, it is evident, can pretend to an exclusive or superior right of settling the boundaries between their respective powers; and how are the encroachments of the stronger to be prevented, or the wrongs of the weaker to be redressed, without an appeal to the people themselves, who, as the grantors of the commissions, can alone declare its true meaning, and enforce its observance? There is certainly great force in this reasoning, and it must be allowed to prove that a constitutional road to the decision of the people ought to be marked out and kept open, for certain great and extraordinary occasions. But there appear to be insuperable objections against the proposed recurrence to the people, as a provision in all cases for keeping the several departments of power within their constitutional limits. In the first place, the provision does not reach the case of a combination of two of the departments against the third. If the legislative authority, which possesses so many means of operating on the motives of the other departments, should be able to gain to its interest either of the others, or even one third of its members, the remaining department could derive no advantage from its remedial provision. I do not dwell, however, on this objection, because it may be thought to be rather against the modification of the principle, than against the principle itself. In the next place, it may be considered as an objection inherent in the principle, that as every appeal to the people would carry an implication of some defect in the government, frequent appeals would, in a great measure, deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on every thing, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability. If it be true that all governments rest on opinion, it is no less true that the strength of opinion in each individual, and its practical influence on his conduct, depend much on the number which he supposes to have entertained the same opinion. The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated. When the examples which fortify opinion are ANCIENT as well as NUMEROUS, they are known to have a double effect. In a nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato. And in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side. The danger of disturbing the public tranquillity by interesting too strongly the public passions, is a still more serious objection against a frequent reference of constitutional questions to the decision of the whole society. Notwithstanding the success which has attended the revisions of our established forms of government, and which does so much honor to the virtue and intelligence of the people of America, it must be confessed that the experiments are of too ticklish a nature to be unnecessarily multiplied. We are to recollect that all the existing constitutions were formed in the midst of a danger which repressed the passions most unfriendly to order and concord; of an enthusiastic confidence of the people in their patriotic leaders, which stifled the ordinary diversity of opinions on great national questions; of a universal ardor for new and opposite forms, produced by a universal resentment and indignation against the ancient government; and whilst no spirit of party connected with the changes to be made, or the abuses to be reformed, could mingle its leaven in the operation. The future situations in which we must expect to be usually placed, do not present any equivalent security against the danger which is apprehended. But the greatest objection of all is, that the decisions which would probably result from such appeals would not answer the purpose of maintaining the constitutional equilibrium of the government. We have seen that the tendency of republican governments is to an aggrandizement of the legislative at the expense of the other departments. The appeals to the people, therefore, would usually be made by the executive and judiciary departments. But whether made by one side or the other, would each side enjoy equal advantages on the trial? Let us view their different situations. The members of the executive and judiciary departments are few in number, and can be personally known to a small part only of the people. The latter, by the mode of their appointment, as well as by the nature and permanency of it, are too far removed from the people to share much in their prepossessions. The former are generally the objects of jealousy, and their administration is always liable to be discolored and rendered unpopular. The members of the legislative department, on the other hand, are numberous. They are distributed and dwell among the people at large. Their connections of blood, of friendship, and of acquaintance embrace a great proportion of the most influential part of the society. The nature of their public trust implies a personal influence among the people, and that they are more immediately the confidential guardians of the rights and liberties of the people. With these advantages, it can hardly be supposed that the adverse party would have an equal chance for a favorable issue. But the legislative party would not only be able to plead their cause most successfully with the people. They would probably be constituted themselves the judges.

The same influence which had gained them an election into the legislature, would gain them a seat in the convention. If this should not be the case with all, it would probably be the case with many, and pretty certainly with those leading characters, on whom every thing depends in such bodies. The convention, in short, would be composed chiefly of men who had been, who actually were, or who expected to be, members of the department whose conduct was arraigned. They would consequently be parties to the very question to be decided by them. It might, however, sometimes happen, that appeals would be made under circumstances less adverse to the executive and judiciary departments. The usurpations of the legislature might be so flagrant and so sudden, as to admit of no specious coloring. A strong party among themselves might take side with the other branches. The executive power might be in the hands of a peculiar favorite of the people. In such a posture of things, the public decision might be less swayed by prepossessions in favor of the legislative party. But still it could never be expected to turn on the true merits of the question. It would inevitably be connected with the spirit of pre-existing parties, or of parties springing out of the question itself. It would be connected with persons of distinguished character and extensive influence in the community. It would be pronounced by the very men who had been agents in, or opponents of, the measures to which the decision would relate. The PASSIONS, therefore, not the REASON, of the public would sit in judgment. But it is the reason, alone, of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government. The passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government.

We found in the last paper, that mere declarations in the written constitution are not sufficient to restrain the several departments within their legal rights. It appears in this, that occasional appeals to the people would be neither a proper nor an effectual provision for that purpose. How far the provisions of a different nature contained in the plan above quoted might be adequate, I do not examine. Some of them are unquestionably founded on sound political principles, and all of them are framed with singular ingenuity and precision.

PUBLIUS.

. . . . .

A subject comes into my head as well. Should we idolize the founding fathers? Would they recognize this country after so much has evolved? Should we rewrite the foundational documents of our nation based on this evolution? Have the basic principles of nature changed since the 18th century? Do we need a new John Locke and Adam Smith? I dare not take these questions or their answers lightly. I shrink from the daunting task.

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.

– John Adams

See Also

Preliminary Warnings on ‘Constitutional’ Idolatry

Idolatry in Constitutional Interpretation

Our Constitution is Outdated and Broken