Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

August 28, 2008

RE: Clive James on Leon Trotsky

Filed under: history — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:01 am

Clive James wrote a piece called “Don’t idealize Leon Trotsky” on Slate back in 2007.  In general, I would extend it further to say, don’t idealize anyone.  However, James makes a common claim that Trotsky was a mass murderer.  I wonder what revolutionary figure would not deserve such a label.  Was George Washington a mass murderer when he suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion, or had his own troops executed for desertion?

Anarchist Emma Goldman criticized Trotsky for his role suppressing sailors in the Kronstadt Rebellion.  Shouldn’t some consideration be paid to the devastation brought by the first World War, followed by the Russian Civil War where Western countries backed the White Army to restore the Tsar?

Trotsky’s life ended in exiled where he was assassinated via a pick of an ice axe that was driven into his skull. He died more than a day later from the brain damage he suffered.  To James, this implies the fundamental disagreement between Stalin and Trotsky was that Trotsky was complaining that Stalin wasn’t killing people fast enough.

But when it became clear that the vast crime called the collectivization of agriculture would involve a massacre of the peasantry, Trotsky’s only criticism was that Stalin’s campaign was not sufficiently “militarized.” He meant that the peasants weren’t being massacred fast enough.

Is that the only explanation?  Isn’t possible that Trotsky thought that the collectivization was too disorderly and causing needless deaths?

According to James’ argument, Iraq war critics who argued for more troops only did so because they weren’t satisfied with the rate of Iraqi casualties and wanted more civilians to be killed faster.

As James concedes:

We can dignify Trotsky’s ruthlessness with the name of realism if we like, but the question abides of just how realistic his ruthlessness would have been if he had won a power struggle against Stalin and stayed on to rule the Soviet Union.

We will never know.  However, I don’t see why one would prefer one particular answer over another.  There are a couple different historical threads in socialism.  One is where socialism is achieved by democratic means.  The government usually found itself undermined in some fashion, such was the case in Iran and Chile.  Others used socialism as a brand to overthrow the existing power structure and establish a dictatorship, as was the case in Nazi Germany, Iraq and I would argue Stalinist Russia.

In this respect, I think Marx got it wrong.  The story of history is not between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but rather the history of the rulers and the ruled.  Permanent revolution, if it means anything, is a willingness of ruled classes to replace their rulers.  The American system of government has the capacity for permanent revolution in theory, although it has not worked that way in practice.  The ideal of social democracy is to establish and maintain an egalitarian equilibrium where the rulers are never too far above those they rule.

Trotsky deserves to criticized along the lines of Goldman’s argument.  The failure of the Bolsheviks to establish democratic governance with individual rights is a legitimate one.  Whether or not that could have been done at the time of Kronstadt Rebellion is, again, arguable.

The fact that James has to slander Marx, Lenin and Trotsky based on a contempary’s observation hardly speaks well for his argument.  Although, James’ contempt for people who he feels might “idealize” Trotsky is hardly concealed:

Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution will always be attractive to the kind of romantic who believes that he is being oppressed by global capitalism when he maxes out his credit card.

All I ask is that we apply the same standard to figures in history.  It is necessary to look at history through the eyes of its victims, but we cannot do so selectively.  When we complain of usurption of power, it behooves us to look at how that power was actually used and whether it was ever relinquished.  In one respect, we could criticize Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus but to ignore the reality of a full-scale insurrection is hardly fair.

James concludes:

Trotsky lived on after Stalin, and to some extent is still alive today, not because young people want the world he wanted: a phantasm that not even he could define. What they want is to be him.

Anyone who finds something admirable about Leon Trotsky actually wants to be a mass murderer.  Should we say the same about people who idealize Lincoln or Washington?  There is much to criticize Trotsky for, but resorting to slander is unnecessary.

August 26, 2008

The AT&T Party Thanking the Blue Dogs

Filed under: media, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:53 am

Some things just have to be seen to believe.  Glenn Greenwald and Jane Hamsher played party crashers trying to interview guests going to a celebration for Blue Dog democrats apparently sponsored by AT&T.  The quid pro quo of the whole affair is brazenly obvious, although that is true for the whole convention.   It is particularly stunning how tight-lipped every guest turned out to be.

The other striking thing was the lack of other media coverage.  Democracy Now! and a couple bloggers, where was everyone else?  Blue Dog Democrats, the key enablers for a revision to FISA that granted immunity to civil liability, have a lavish party filled with VIP guests arriving in limos and luxury SUVs, sponsored by a company that directly benefited from the sponsored legislation and the mainstream media finds no reason to investigate it?!

The reason for this should be obvious even to the most casual of observers.  The mainstream media is owned by corporations, selling audiences to other businesses.  There is no “liberal” bias.  There is a business bias.  Everything else is driven by the bottom line.  The corporate owned media doesn’t report on the shenanigans of their advertisers unless they have to.  Bias is best displayed, not by the stories the media covers, but rather the stories they choose to ignore.

August 25, 2008

From the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

Filed under: Education, politics, religion, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:06 am

The New York Times has a story of a biology teacher in Florida trying to teach evolution.  Obviously it is an uphill battle.  PZ Myers asks whether or not we will ever stop running away from the source of the problem?  The source of problem, in Myers’ opinion, is religion.  I can’t help but draw parallels to Eugene V. Debs who wondered if we ever going to tackle the source of social inequity, which was in Debs’ opinion, capitalism.

Both capitalism and religion are entrenched power structures, in many cases reinforcing.  This is evidenced by the United States adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance to stave off communism.

The goal of science education has to be in honing a certain sensibility.  A sensibility whereby people who examine the same set of evidence draw roughly similar conclusions.  If we draw vastly different conclusions, then it should be on a general acknowledgment among the informed that there is a lack of evidence one way or another.

The fact that religion falls on geo-political fault lines, as Richard Dawkins demonstrates, tells us something.  Namely, religious belief is antithetical to scientific sensibility previously described.  As long as superstition exists, including its institutional manifestation in the form of religion, there will continue to be a culture war.

I will say again, superstition is a terminal disease.  Humans are too clever.  We’ve built weapons that are too dangerous.  We made it these last 50 years by the skin of our teeth.  In case one has been paying attention, the situation is significantly worse today.  Nuclear proliferation has increased, meaning the possibility of a loose nuclear weapon is more probable.  September 11th demonstrated the resolve of religious extremists to kill scores of innocent civilians.  Population has increased.  We are having a measurable effect on the climate of the planet via our use of fossil fuels.  There are vast oceanic dead zones due to pesticides.  We are poisoning the environment, and there is an increasing probability that we will use the most lethal environmental poison we have developed so far, nuclear weapons.

We can no longer afford to entertain ignorant delusions.  It will be the undoing of civilization as we know it.    We must challenge idiocy.  We must also push aside the concern trolling reformers.  One is either for the continued survival of the human species or against it.  Either god is going to save us, or there is no help in sight.  With our collective survival at stake, do you want someone who believes in an invisible man in the sky or someone who will carefully examine the evidence and reach a reasonable conclusion?  Not teaching evolution means we will have more of the former than the later.

I say we must deal with the inconvenient truths of existence instead of shrouding them in fanciful myths.  Having a crippled intellect is no longer a matter of personal vice, but rather a moral failing.  The future depends on the choices we make today.  Failing to educate oneself or hampering the education of others is a dereliction of duty to the species.

August 24, 2008

The Genius of Richard Dawkins

Filed under: culture, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:53 am

Richard Dawkins finished up the series The Genius of Charles Darwin for Channel 4 and various youtube can be tracked down for those interested in watching.  In the series, Richard Dawkins takes some jabs at the god hypothesis.  I don’t agree with Dawkins on everything.  His attitude towards the science teachers seemed a little harsh.  I highly doubt a science teacher in the United Kingdom are tenured.  As a student of evolution, he should be adept at recognizing aspects of the environment that favor the behavior the teachers exhibited.

Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins is an unreasonable man.  It is part of what makes him great.  His goal is not to adapt himself to the world he finds himself in, but rather to change the way the world thinks.

Dawkins is simply uncompromising when it comes truth we see with our own eyes.  Science demands skepticism, it encourages us to ask questions and provides a way, albeit meticulous, to answer them.  Dawkins finds it positively insulting for someone to deny the evidence for evolution, as well he should.  People who deny the evidence for evolution should be considered more fringe than those who deny the evidence for the Holocaust on any objective scale.

It has been said that science is friend that sometimes tells you inconvenient truths.  Dawkins, as a scientific man, embodies that ethos.  Much like his atheism, he just takes it a step further.  He will not allow people to believe a lie.  He rails against the relativism of the age and the moral turpitude it betrays in his colleagues.  Science isn’t the esoteric knowledge confined to privledged elites in ivory towers.  It is to be shared, and if people don’t believe it, then they should be challenged until they relent.

Humanity can simply no longer survive the combination of genius working to make tools to kill one another and the supreme lack of sense to use them.   Evolution is central to understanding there is no savior.  We make our own beds in which we will lie.  Believing the untrue but comforting is a recipe for disaster.  Thank goodness for people like Dawkins to wake us from our delusion; the best type of friend there is.

August 22, 2008

Nixon-Frost Interview

Filed under: film, history — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:27 am

In 1977, David Frost interviewed former President Richard Nixon.  The interview is the basis of an upcoming Ron Howard film titled “Frost/Nixon.”  Looking back on the actual interview (thank goodness for youtube), the one thing that becomes clear is what really screwed Nixon were the tapes.  People could independently verify exactly what was said and when.  The crimes of Nixon are hardly of any significance by today’s standards.  This speaks more of the establishment attitudes of today more than those of the Nixon era.

August 20, 2008

Jared Diamond: Collapse Lecture

Filed under: culture, environment, history — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:42 am

Jared Diamond gives a lecture about his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”  Choose is probably too strong a word.  As Rush put it in their song “Freewill”:

If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice

The underlying point is that Malthusian catastrophes have already occured on small scales.  There are finally enough of us to accomplish disaster on a global scale.  The elephant in the room is population.  We can choose humanely and preserve human dignity and quality of life through zero population growth (although even this may entail some reduction in resource usage) or we can let the catastrophe choose for us.

Diamond asks what did the last Eastern Islander say when they chopped down the last tree?  It is a failure of imagination to think they did so out of stubborness, invoking property rights and such.  When it came down to one tree, the disaster was already upon them.  He/she probably saw no other option.  The society didn’t address the issue until it was too late to do anything about it, at which point they couldn’t.  The destructive spiral was most likely caused by desperation, a vain attempt to stave off the inevitable thus making the problem worse.

Issues, like deforestation, can strike very fast.  Easter Island may have been in a halcyon age right before it met unmitigated disaster.  Nothing is inevitable.  However, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

August 18, 2008

Susan Jacoby: How Anti-Intellectualism Is Destroying America

Filed under: culture — Tags: — codesmithy @ 11:29 am

Terrence McNally has an interview with Susan Jacoby, author of the book The Age of American Unreason.  Ultimately, I think I’ll pass on her book.  Nick Gillespie had another excellent interview with her for Book TV which is now on youtube (part 1 of 7).  Bemoaning the state of the world is a favorite long-standing tradition of intellectuals, cynics and curmudgeons.  As H. L. Mencken put it: Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.  Given that Mencken died in 1956, Jacoby’s observations are hardly new.

At the heart, Jacoby’s assertion is that the various statistics that she quotes represents a decline in critical thought.  The problem is that every statistic is a non-sequitur.  At the heart, what one would have to do to prove a dumbed down culture is show that people have a reduced capacity for logical thought over time.  It is telling Jacoby doesn’t seem to quote the one statistic that would prove her point: do people have a better or reduced capacity for identifying validity of an argument over time?  It may be true that “American 15-year-olds rank 24th out of 29 countries in math literacy” but is that because the American education system got worse, or because other countries got better?

There are other arguments you can make, such as critical thought is more important today than it was in the past because population continues to grow.  Population growth means we would have to have to be more efficient with our finite resources to maintain basic human dignity, the foundation of democracy.  Isaac Asimov used the bathroom metaphor to demonstrate the argument:

The dignity of the human species] will be completely destroyed [if the population growth continues at its present rate]. I use what I call the bathroom metaphor: if two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want to stay as long as you like for whatever you need. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person; you have to bang on the door, “Aren’t you done yet?” In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive. Convenience and decency can’t survive. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one person matters

Jacoby bemoans the death of print, and complains about the quick hits of information we get online when we are seeking particular facts instead of long treastises on particular topics.  However, this is merely a fact in search of a problem.   If one doesn’t prove the underlying premise: critical thought has provably gone down in absolute terms i.e. more people are unable to determine the validity of the following argument:

  1. All men are mortal
  2. Socrates is a man
  3. Socrates is mortal

Or, cannot answer the following question.

There are a set of cards with numbers on the front and letters on the back.  Given the statement: if a card has an even number, then its letter is a vowel, what is the minimum number of cards one would have to turn over to prove/disprove the validity of the statement if one sees: 5 6 B E?

Then the statistics aren’t relevant to the argument.  Again, as far as I can tell, Jacoby never references a direct measure of this type.  If she doesn’t, Jacoby is paradoxically employing faulty logic in order to convince us that we lack critical thinking capacity.  I don’t think I could stand the irony of such a book.

August 15, 2008

Michael Parenti – The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Filed under: history — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:19 am

Above is a talk by Michael Parenti about the history surrounding the assassination of Julius Caesar.  While the leisure class is responsible for the lasting contributions to the ongoing enterprise known as civilization, it is important not to forget the nameless backs that life of privledge rested.

August 13, 2008

Sanity Prevails in Federal Court

Filed under: Education, religion, science — codesmithy @ 11:30 am

U.S. District Judge James Otero ruled that the California university system can deny course credit from schools that use textbooks that declare the Bible is inerrant and reject evolution.  It is rather typical that the plaintiffs in the case would claim discrimination.  The ruling is not about religious freedom, but rather applying the same standard to all applicants.  This standard is necessarily secular because it is based on evidence we can all agree upon.

Religion, by its very nature, is based on credulity not skepticism.  Religion may satisfy certain human psychological needs but that is irrelevant to whether or not it is actually true.  The fact that religion plays off those needs means it should rationally be examined more critically, not less.  Any thing that promises eternal bliss or suffering should be examined under the most profound scrutiny.

As such, science, with its relentless skepticism, erodes religion.  The solution that the fundamentalists have stumbled upon is further indoctrination, manufactured disinformation, and ignorance.  What they seek from the rest of society is accommodation for their agenda.

I would like to believe that the cases are frivolous; their outcomes clear from the outset.  However, history shows such unconditional belief in the court system to be misplaced, which is why it is refreshing to see the system actually work.

August 11, 2008

Noam Chomsky: On Globalization

Filed under: capitalism, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:31 am

In the above video, Chomsky gives a brief outline of “globalization.”  What qualifies as a “good” or “bad” economic outcome can deeply depend on perspective.  At the heart of the issue is ideology.  Do we want a world based on global capitalization or civic globalization?

Krugman laid out the old saw there were three types of economists: liberal economists, conservative economists, and professional conservative economists.  As such, economic news is frequently colored with establishment perspectives, i.e. what is good for the current rulers of the society.  The view laid out is that what is good for the rulers is good for the rest of us by proxy.  Lavish the rulers with riches so that they can shower us with their benevolent generosity in return.  That is not democracy, but rather plutocracy.  I’ll also leave the obvious parallels to Christian dogma as an exercise for the reader.

The big lies of a capitalist economy is that the rising tide lifts all ships and that capitalism and freedom are inexorably linked.  China provides a perfect counter-example, it combines the latest authoritarian measures with a potent mix of global capitalism.

In the end, there is a pretext that capitalism is based on tacit consent.  However, frequently the most profitable enterprises are based, not on any for of informed consent, tacit or explicit, but rather exploitation of the desperate.  Disaster, as it turns out, is the ultimate capitalist enterprise.  Welcome to the era of manufactured disaster.

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