I wasn’t surprised to learn, thanks to Edward Snowden, that Uncle Sam is looking over all our shoulders. I felt him sitting on mine just because the possibility was obvious, as a piece of technical progress: whereas letters sent through the post could only be snooped on through human drudgery (as happened systematically in the GDR), electronic data storage permits total transparency at the click of a gigabyte. Whatever is possible will be done, certainly is already being done. That is why the negative freedoms guaranteed under the rule of law are important for everybody — even the “innocent”. First, the path is very short from the abrogation of abstract principles such as habeas corpus to the concrete suffering of the unjustly incarcerated. The virtue of a policeman lies not in his character or judgement but in the limits of what is permitted to him by his role. People do what they can get away with, and that is why there are rules; especially for those who enforce them. Still, one imagines suspects get beaten up in the back of the van. Secondly, the category of the innocent can shrink very rapidly (McCarthy) and is already narrow enough to be uncomfortable for some.

I share the liberal outrage and trepidation at the US’s abuse of power, but surely the horse has bolted. The question seems to me to be: how humanity can live with the possibility of total surveillance without being crushed by it — just as, to change the subject, it is inevitable there will be transgenic animals and people, and the island of Dr. Moreau will be filled with monsters. What then?


Only the devil says theory is grey and dull. Theory gives form — shape, elasticity, cohesion, balance, in short, sexiness — to our Lebenswelt, and the wrong theory leads directly to a quivering, bleeding heap of jelly, as sure as water flows downhill. The erosion of habeas corpus, for instance, finds immediate expression in the miserable indignity of incarceration without remedy as the visible side of one single debased pewter coin of the realm. It’s difficult to get theory right, in other words, it is an imperfect and perennially provisional product of all-too-human ingenuity; but we feel the results in the most intimate part of our being, even if we are not actually tortured or otherwise officially abused ourselves. My recent posts on political questions, and also a while ago about the importance of education as a vehicle for humane values that cannot be reduced to vocational training, approach from various angles the theoretical question of what it is to be a man — of the vocation of man. The unity of literature and ethics is their intersection in the human condition.

This is supposed to be a literary blog but let’s not be too strict. The other day I quoted Chomsky to the effect that race is a red herring. To put it differently, race can be reduced to class: for political questions, or better, for questions of social justice. It is also a marker for cultural differences, but those are ours to make of what we will. What is so unappealing about racism (apart from the disadvantages for its victims) is its mean, narrow view of “us” as well as them, as if what gives us value were something so superficial, never mind muddled. That high-minded talk about the inability of different people to get on envisages instead an oppressive, dull sameness where other kinds of intolerance must flourish. At its heart is a stunted image of human worth. Is that true of all kinds of intolerance? Such a general theory of intolerance is expressed on a practical level in the thought that intolerance does not oppress just its victims.

A recent murder in America has stirred up some old racist debates. Black people apparently score lower on average in IQ tests. Although such tests purport to measure an innate quality, the impact generations of inequality might nonetheless have is obvious. In this badly sourced quote from Wikipedia, Noam Chomsky drily brushes all that aside:

a correlation between race and mean I.Q. (were this shown to exist) entails no social consequences except in a racist society in which each individual is assigned to a racial category and dealt with not as an individual in his own right, but as a representative of this category […] In a non-racist society, the category of race would be of no greater significance [than height]. The mean I.Q. of individuals of a certain racial background is irrelevant to the situation of a particular individual, who is what he is.

The “debate” between left and right is about whether the state should intervene to ameliorate social disadvantage … or just not bother because blacks are born disadvantaged. Is the only reason we (“we”) might want to better the condition of the underclass … to protect ourselves against them?

There are two reifications in play, that of IQ itself, and the category of race; Chomsky hits the nail on the head by saying the latter is a red herring — unless the actual axe we have to grind is race itself, in which case no support is to be had from such tests, even if they held their own water.

I had to reread those sentences several times before the penny dropped.

I posted a while back about “merely practical arguments”, for instance in opposition to the death penalty, that don’t express the essential grounds of the conviction they buttress. The importance of Classics is another example; it may be true that studying Latin helps you learn French or even write better English, but the heart of the matter is fostering a link with our classical tradition, precisely as a value more humane than mere utility (“… it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone”, Luke 4:4 = Deut. 8:3). Or take gay rights. It is frequently argued that because people cannot control their sexual orientation, it is unfair to persecute them for it, but wouldn’t it be unfair even if they could? Further, the discomfort aroused by sexual deviance (I use the word in its sociological sense) is an indication that homosexuality or other non-heterosexual preferences really do subvert norms guiding gender roles; however, maybe that is no bad thing. “Normality” can be crushing, and homophobia (what a crowbar of a word) is at least as much the result of anxiety about maintaining the prevailing order without illuminating its darker corners as it is a matter of active, prurient intolerance. A fourth example: the euthanasia debate is full of “hard cases”, but its core is the notion of human dignity and its meaning. However, there is an inherent connection between the shift in this notion and the advances in medicine that cause the kind of suffering we wouldn’t submit our pets to: materialism in a metaphysical sense has engendered a vulgar, fetishistic cultivation of the body, with mere health as the summum bonum; the practical problem expresses a tension between health conceived, technologically, as bare, skeletal survival, and the glistening, radiant ideal of the aerobics class. Verweile doch, du bist so schön! In all these cases, I suggest that what appear at first sight to be extrinsic, rhetorical arguments may well have a subterranean connection with the heart of the matter, even in cases where more clarity of thought is needed. And that must be a sign that the principles at stake are a good reflection of the concrete reality they abstract from — in other words, you would expect the principles to be embodied in real, practical instances. To return to the death penalty, the conviction of the innocent may only be part of its inhumanity, but it is a large one and not different in kind from that of the execution of the guilty. Once convinced of the unacceptability of the former, most people are likely in time to reject the latter. That is, they will already oppose all executions because it is impossible to tell the difference; the priority given to the sanctity of life over the need for retribution is based on the same principle in both cases, and once admitted at all, it will probably take root and flourish.

Wikipedia, which is what passes for a library in Apipucos, tells me that both St. Paul and Shakespeare are looking back to Aesop’s The Belly and the Members (no doubt available on Project Gutenberg, or Perseus for it in Greek). It seems there has been a reversal of polarity: individualism was the language of rebellio, solidarity was the supposed virtue of the status quo. Two thousand years ago, nobody thought of equality — the cry of the oppressed was just for more for them.

Now clearly, equality as such cannot be a practical aim, because it could only be attained by interference that would preclude other essential freedoms; it needs to be translated into a Kantian regulatory ideal of fairness if it is to make political sense, perhaps along the lines of Rawls. To put it another way, we shouldn’t lose sight of the raw greed and narrow self-interest behind claims that owe their sole legitimacy to a larger perspective of social solidarity. Nose and face both must get their due.

A recent piece in the New York Review of Books by Mark Lilla distinguishes between the conservative — liberal polarity and that between revolution and reaction; Lilla then contrasts the “restorative” reactionary impulse with the new American pereat mundus apocalyptic. Left and right remain useful tribal categories, but they are poor analytical tools. For conservatism, society is ontologically prior to the individual, but liberalism is plural and progressive. In practical mainstream politics, we are all liberals now, to the temperate right or left of some sane gradualist centre. The revolutionary and reactionary attitudes are about history not society. Restorative reactionaries want to turn back the clock. “Redemptive” reaction, recognising the impossibility of a return to the status quo ante, seeks a cleansing by fire to prepare the way for the phoenix. This is a bit like fascism, which was a new broom that wasted no time on nostalgia. What the two have in common is hatred of the corrupt, fallen present.

Lilla, watching the Republicans, sees this as new, and perhaps it is new in mainstream US politics, but the material has been available for a long time. Think of a film like “Terminator II”, where the mother of the saviour John Connor bides her time till the nuclear apocalypse husbanding her cache of semi-automatic weapons in the desert. Scorching the earth isn’t a coherent political programme until the earth has already been scorched, when it is a way of transforming the most feared possible outcome into an opportunity. Now, it serves to take the wind out of the sails of the ship of state by removing the idea of a desirable destination, a progressive direction – all is already lost. So it’s obfuscatory noise, and cannot by definition be policy. The Right’s policy is laissez-faire (or sometimes, regulation and protectionism), either in the sincere (progressive) belief that it is for the greater good, or as a second mask for honest cupidity.