Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky: Moral Vectors in current politics

A recent half-debate or exchange of heated emails between atheist author and public intellectual Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith) and famous Leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky exploded over the internet this past year. Followers of Sam Harris’ intellectual career in the past couple years have noticed his resurgence as a popular opinion leader due to his appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher in the months leading up to the election, his series of talks with Cenk Uygur, Maajid Nawaz, and his string of recent video blogs and blogs on political topics.

The crux of their half-debate was on the topic of Islamic terrorism, a topic chosen by Harris. Harris maintained that Islamic doctrine is the main cause for Islamic terrorism and tactics like suicide bombing are built into the logic of the Qu’ran. Chomsky tried shifting the debate to the terrain of US policy in the Middle East. Somewhere in there Harris called Chomsky an Islamic apologist, Chomsky called Harris ignorant about US history (in effect). Sam Harris’ argument against Chomsky is long and complicated, so I’ll link to it at the end of the article. Basically, Harris distinguishes between actors in Middle Eastern conflicts based on intention. Harris believes that one can say with certainty that Bush had “good misguided intentions”, and Hussein was an evil dictator in Iraq. Chomsky and Harris spend most of the email exchange arguing about the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan authorized by President Clinton. Harris is on the side of Clinton thinking that there were chemical weapons at this plant. Chomsky goes on to demonstrate, in delicious detail (already published!) why this is not the case.

For the amount of time Harris later spends claiming his detractors are moralizing, I find this argument nothing but moralizing. That term itself is cheap- its a moral debate, aren’t we inherently moralizing? Furthermore, Harris claims later that we should not foolishly label people racists or bigots and shut down the conversation. Harris’ idea that Bush’s intentions are completely pure in the Middle East seems to me to be naive, but I will humor his argument more. If on the basis of moral intentions, we judge these actors in the sphere of foreign policy, Hussein=bad, America=good. But does intention completely justify the actions that come after it? Harris at times comes off as a weird sort of utilitarian (I will get back to this point later). It seems that stupid justifications of imperialism come with the territory of Mill-style utilitarianism, so this is fitting.

In his article, Harris mentions the My Lai massacre to argue that what distinguishes us from our current enemies is that “as a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not” (Harris blog). Clearly, given the fact that this blog post was written in 2015, after Guantanamo Bay and after evidence has clearly shown that orders from higher ups were given in for torture in Abu Ghraib, this argument rings hollow for many Americans. Which Americans have outgrown our tolerance for deliberate torture? Certainly not Trump supporters…

Harris throughout his debate seems intent on believing that America has the best of intentions, and our enemies only the worst. In terms of the My Lai massacre, this was certainly horrific, but it is prescient that Harris leaves out Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia and other acts of terrorism by the United States. These acts were so horrific that we can almost forgive Chomsky for thinking that reports of Pol Pot’s genocide were exaggerated US propaganda.

Here’s an idea- what if the moral terrain is NOT BLACK AND WHITE. What a concept.

Some background on Harris. Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, became well known for his hard hitting anti-theist stance, based on the idea that religion is based on an attempt to fool the public into believing things that are essentially irrational, and that religion is the cause of many ancient and modern problems. His central thesis is that fundamentalism is the only honest form of a religion, because any religion that admits the supernatural must take this literally or be hypocritical. He makes a series of accusations that Islam in particular is a religion based on a conquest narrative, although he says Christianity at certain points in its history also had this strain of belief.

These arguments of course are no more original than Feuerbach and even a certain strain of Marxism, although he delves into the neuroscience of belief and other topics. With current political events about Islamic terrorism being what they are, it is only natural that Sam reemerge as the “voice of reason” not afraid to denounce Islam for what it is: a warlike ideology fueled by irrational beliefs.

I read this book when I was fairly young: 13 or 14, and I found the arguments pretty convincing at the time. Although I was young, I still hold that Harris does not pull punches when it comes to his argument. The fundamentalism question is still an intriguing thought problem. However I think it rests upon an assumption: an assumption that there can’t be a “legitimate” interpretation of a religion that is non-dogmatic and open to questioning. It has been argued that early Buddhism, which was also non-theistic, had this kind of character, when Buddha talks about testing his words like the purity of gold to determine if they suit your mind.

The “ideological mystification”/superstructure argument upon which Harris’ argument is based lacks the cultural-historical or context dependent analysis which has challenged the standard rationalist idea of religion as superstition and means of deception. Harris even lacks the classic Marxist depth of assuming that religion is a tool used by the owning classes to control the proleteriat, or the soul of a heartless world. Harris’ argument isn’t so much anti-organized religion or anti-clerical as anti-religion in all its forms. This is where our opinions diverge. The Absolute primacy of the atheist argument over the deist argument philosophically is not self evident to me either (neither is the other way around). But I digress.

Harris is a part of the growing new school of New Atheism or militant atheism. This community of people, I claim, has taken Sam Harris as a thought leader in the field of politics as well as religion. His analysis about Islam and terrorism has found support among the ranks of people who find the “dominant” narrative about multiculturalism and the idea of religions all being peaceful to be a cheap lie told to the public, a PC fabrication meant to maintain the status quo. For these New Atheists, Islam is seen as a bastion of bad ideas, from backwards ideas about the role of women in society to how to treat members of religions other than Islam.

The proof is in the pudding of the Qu’ran for Harris. He cites passages that run the gamut from stoning the infidel to the right to have slaves. While these passages ARE atrocious, they also ignore the context of the era in which the Prophet Muhammad lived, not to mention the context of modern day Islam, in which, despite the human rights abuses against women in parts of the fundamentalist Islamic world, such as Saudi Arabia, slavery is no longer acceptable (unless it is forced labour in Dubai by migrants, but that has more to do with capitalism than Islam).

In effect, I think Sam Harris is a bad anthropologist. He ignores the context in which the mujahideen, which would later become Al Qaeda, arose (the Soviet-Afghan War, in which Osama bin Laden’s forces were trained famously by our CIA). He ignores the context of the revival of fundamentalism in Iran (again due to CIA-backed overthrow of a democratically elected government). The entire history of the Middle East is stained with the history of colonialism, so deep that the motivations of Islamist fighters against the “evil West” are not evident, maybe even to themselves.

It boggles my mind that when Sam Harris makes the moral argument that Islam is to blame when it comes to terrorist willingness to use suicide bombers, that when we do the same thing and allow civilians to be killed in an attack by drones, or wholesale bombing as in the case of the Iraq War, he does not blame our ideology, he does not blame Christianity for example. Or better yet, he does not blame the doctrine of American exceptionalism. In fact he leaves out our moral failures entirely, or brushes them off as irrelevant.

Now, Sam Harris makes the compelling argument that this is a false equivalency, but there are huge problems with this argument. One is that one can view ISIS tactics against the West as simple total war retaliation tactics against an occupying force. This is anathema in conservative circles to even mention, due to the horrific nature of the terrorist bombings, and they are horrific. But one must question the moral logic of a Just War and acceptable losses entirely to come to that conclusion. The moral weight of overwhelming civilian casualties by American forces in Iraq or Palestine seems not to have hit Sam Harris as deeply as bombings closer to his own place of abode.

It seems over and over that Sam Harris speaks from a positioned subjectivity, and his knowledge of politics is pidgeon-holed by the “popular” political discourse. Whatever is on CNN is the topic of the day. This is shoddy thinking at best, and get everything wrong at its worst. To ignore history and view any event is to be blind. It is all to easy to come to easy morally appealing conclusions about Islam and the clash of cultures. The only problem for Harris is that the Islamic world just needs to adopt our values. This smacks of colonialism to many people in the Middle East, from pan-Arabists to the small but still present community of radical Leftists.

But in Sam Harris-land, liberals ignore hard truths about different value systems in the Middle East that just aren’t compatible with our values. I could go ON AND ON about this debate, but it basically just boils down to Harris believing that liberals’ “PC culture” has eroded critical thinking about Islam. Bill Maher, normally a staunch liberal and quasi-progressive, has been lately the poster child for this kind of anti-PC liberalism. An atheist himself, he falls into Harris’ camp and has been for years on the question of Islamic fundamentalism. Frankly, this resonates with American voters for good reasons, because Islamist terrorism remains a real threat in the minds of American voters who seek security and peace.

Too often though have the desire for peace and security allowed us to use questionable tactics in the war on terror that have just fueled the fires of the enemy. Even Bill Maher, who most of the time is staunchly anti-war, has not taken Obama to ask enough for continuing the several wars he promised to pull out of. Our current bombing of Yemen and the hospital in Sana’a that was destroyed by American-funded Saudi Arabian bombers is continued proof of our less than noble role in the region. Obama not only did not fully pull out of the countries he was supposed to, he expanded the fight to Libya, where he took out Muammar Gaddafi in a move totally equivalent Bush’s deposition of Saddam Hussein. This pattern of regime change seems inescapable to those currently in power. Obama has served as a “neo-con lite” for liberals to feel not guilty about. In fact, conservatives should be ecstatic about President Obama, who dropped so many bombs over the course of his presidency in the Middle East the army ordered that they could not continue due to low supply.

Conservatives, neo-cons, and Harrisites continue to justify our engagement in the Middle East by the phrase “we are at war”. The phrase “we are at war” is not a neutral phrase. Far from being a statement of fact, it is a call to continued engagement. For neo-conservatives, if we aren’t on the offense in a fight against terrorism (which is by no means a war in the traditional sense of the word), we will never win. Chomskyian analysis of foreign policy in the Middle East leads to the conclusion that peace in the region, whether it is the conflict in Palestine or Yemen, has to be won *gasp* by de-escalation. Harris’ arguments for viewing Islam as the primary reason for the reason that these people fight against us is not a neutral argument in terms of the ontological question of what we should do in the Middle East. It assumes an uncompromising Other which must be defeated, instead of a complex process of radicalization that involves a complex interplay between economics, politics, and religion. Many Islamist resistance fighters in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East for example, are explicitly anti-imperialist, while maintaining their allegiance to an Islamist creed. In other words, they are desperate and driven into the hands of the radicals, who they see as courageous enough to defeat their enemy and a desperate chance at a better life. Islam also provides a sense of community and common culture for which to strive for and is deeply rooted in the everyday life of the people.

In my mind, we must Courageously do what is right, and that is refuse to bomb the Middle East in order to stop the bleeding. Peace through strength did not ended well in the 20th fight against communism, and I believe it will not against Islamic terrorism. Harris seems all too willing to ask “tough moral questions” in regards to people that he has never met, and has not dared to question the establishment narrative surrounding Middle Eastern conflicts. It does a disservice for him to pretend that he is in in any way a foreign policy expert, or “just trying to have a dialogue” with Chomsky, in order to push this anti-Islam narrative that has been latched onto by populist right wingers, the alt-right in particular, Trump supporters, and the anti-immigrant Right.

What does Harris get right? In my mind, Harris is right about some things for the wrong reasons. Just like many Americans, he has bought the conservative narrative anti-political correctness, an argument that should not be underestimated, because it narrowly won Trump the presidency. Harris makes the argument on his podcast that Trump won (partially) because of liberal political correctness. I have listened to people in polling stations, and random places around the country, and one theme I hear over and over for why someone voted Trump was fear of terrorism; in this respect Harris is correct. “He will defeat ISIS” they say. He does get something right- there is a certain culture on the Left that does not denounce human rights abuses in countries like Saudi Arabia as forcefully as it should. Harris is right about political correctness, but in a way only slightly more aware than conservatives.  Harris is channeling the anti-PC vector in current politics and has some interesting points to make. But I must in the end disagree with him in the end.

But Harris is wrong because the values he claims to defend are undermined by his willingness to entertain logic (such as his thought experiment about torturing terrorists in a ticking time bomb scenario in his End of Faith book) that goes against Western values, humanist and Christian values, and willing to go down the path of being a talking head about Islam and foreign policy, with no end in sight. Its almost as if Harris is shy about some of his political beliefs, that he is a closet anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic, and just does not want to alienate his liberal fanbase. I think he is simply confused about the matter, and decided to vote for Hillary Clinton, and probably thought that Bernie Sanders was a nutcase on foreign policy.

Harris needs to do some serious soul-searching about the direction of his career as a  public intellectual. Make no mistake Sam Harris: those that follow you on social media and repeat your arguments are not enraged anti-PC liberals, they are conservatives, alt-righters, and Trump supporters. They hound the comment sections of your videos. They dominate the conversation surrounding it. The stupid anti-PC anti-SJW culture on the internet has bred and attracted misogynists, racists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and outright bigots. Those on the staunchly PC side sometimes aren’t the most politically savvy bunch (see my article on Pop Politics articles), but they can claim to staunchly defend the rights of minorities in a day where one religious minority, Muslims, have seen hate crimes against them SPIKE in the rise of Donald Trump.

Harris is one step from normalizing Donald Trump in this regard. In my mind,  the complete moral higher ground of the United States in the realm of the wars in the Middle East is a foolhardy assumption until we stop ALL BOMBING. If we truly want to be better than our enemies, pacifism is the standard we should hold ourselves to.

In my mind, current political narratives are always a double blackmail. “If you hate Trump, you have to like Hillary Clinton”. “If you like Trump, you must be against mainstream conservatives”. The narrative is confused because the ideological lens through which any story is presented is not always clear. In reality, the similarities between Trump and Clinton, or Republicans and Democrats, is too close for comfort for many to admit.

In my mind, in regard to being PC, Democrats and Republicans are both wrong. Liberals sometimes do underestimate our enemies (ISIS, etc.) while Republicans are not afraid to saber rattle. When Russia hacks into our election system, some liberals are quick to make excuses or deflect and not believe Putin is capable of this (our future President is under this assumption as well). But we also should not listen to the likes of Lindsey Graham and turn this situation into another Cold War. In a recent Senate hearing on the Russian hacks, Sen. Lindsey Graham said that “I would do much more than Obama”, and is “ready to throw a rock”. This kind of saber rattling is exactly the kind of thing that actually got Trump elected with regards to Russia. Russia is not and should not be at war with us, either by proxy in Syria or elsewhere. I do not think we should be allied with them either. I think Obama’s step toward sanctions is the right choice for some of the wrong reasons (where were the sanctions after Russia bombed civilians in Syria? Oh wait we are doing that too…).

Russia and America both do not have the higher moral ground here. The two sides of the Cold War are equally culpable for current historical trends in the Middle East. When it comes to the foreign policy of mainstream Democrats, mainstream Republicans, and Trump, give me NONE OF THE ABOVE. Trump is still far closer to a moderate Republican than many realize in terms of foreign policy. We should never normalize bigotry and racism. But if we truly want to not normalize him, we should acknowledge that we should never have normalized our imperialist aggression in the Middle East. Those lives can never be reclaimed.

I don’t expect Sam Harris to convert to Chomsky’s view on foreign policy. But I am of the opinion that he shouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight again, because he got destroyed in that debate. However I do believe if Harris had a dialogue with Leftist intellectual Slavoj Zizek, they would have a more fruitful and productive debate, specifically about Islam, terrorism, and political correctness. Zizek has written extensively about problems regarding Western intentions in the Middle East and political correctness for example. There are more contradictions in this realm than meets the eye, particularly in regards to humanitarian justifications for intervention. I believe that Harris is probably too easily swayed by the humanitarian argument for intervention. I expect Harris to lean further to the Left if he is given a chance to stand on equal footing with someone, unlike the Chomsky debate. Chomsky was being somewhat uncharitable with him, but probably because Chomsky kept having to explain things that he had already published in detail. Then again, if Harris can’t see our clear moral failure in Iraq by now, I don’t know what will change his mind.


Electoral College Reform NOW

“We don’t want California and New York to decide our elections” they say. Nope, instead you want a couple of swing states to decide the elections. One vote should be one vote!!!

Thus a lone youtube commenter acts as the voice of reason against the army of troglodytes who refuse to think outside the bounds of established reason. I believe there are a basic set of principles that would make someone against electoral college reform, and is partly responsible for why it hasn’t happened yet. Hypothetically, if 100% of the American people were for it, there would be almost no likelihood that they would vote for a Congress who is opposed to it in majority. Sadly, we have some reactionaries who are actually for this outdated vestige of the era of slavery. Why? Let’s enumerate the reasons.

  1. Pure ignorance- I’m not talking about ignorance in terms of someone having the opposite opinion as me which automatically makes them more stupid than me. No, according to a Washington Post poll, 52% of Republicans believe that Trump won the popular vote. Just outright won it. Not when you don’t count California or illegal immigrants (an outright lie by the way). No, just 52% of them BELIEVE he won the popular. Either they are completely ignorant of the electoral college, or living in a fantasy bubble whereby somehow Hillary manipulated the vote but Trump somehow won anyway? I chock it up to sheer ignorance, because 60% of non-college educated Republicans believe it as opposed to 31% of college educated Republicans.
  2. Self-interest- This is a reason I can’t really argue with on intellectual grounds. If you are a Republican, and you want the electoral college to stay because you know it gives more chance to Republicans, you are right. Just like how gerrymandering and purging voter lists also helps certain candidates. Problem is, you can’t claim to be for it intellectually and self-interestedly. Can’t have your cake and eat it too. So if you have one single shred of integrity, if you fall into this category, don’t claim that the electoral college is a good thing. Its just good for you
  3. Buying into crappy arguments/”the Founding Fathers”/”Federalism”- So I’ll chock this one up into a combination of crappy reasons and a sense of patriotism that involves never questioning authority. As one defender of the electoral college says, “its Civics 101 man, California and New York shouldn’t decide the election”. Ok: hypothetically, lets say New York and California each gained a million more people next year. Well the electoral college provides for them to get proportionally more electoral votes. Lets say California and New York each became so large that they would decide the election anyway. Well, do you still maintain that they shouldn’t decide the election if they have more people than majority of the country? Will you stand by your defense of rural states should matter, even if there is only 10 people in that state? Take Wyoming for example. Wyoming has a population of 584,153 people as of 2014. The city of El Paso has a larger population than Wyoming! I don’t see the state of El Paso getting 3 electoral votes anytime soon. **As it stands, the electoral college is nowhere near proportional to state population** If the number of electoral college votes was determined purely by proportion of population, Texas would have approximately 16% more electoral votes, and California would have 20% more. DO THE MATH. In short, the only reason people don’t accept that one vote should equal one vote in electing the highest office of our government is because they believe somehow “states rights” have to be protected. Sound familiar? Cough Cough the Confederacy. But in reality, they aren’t being infringed upon under a popular vote system. Their vote would count just as much as the next guy. In reality, the people whose votes don’t matter right now are- 1/6 of Texans, 1/5 of Californians, and arguably people that don’t vote for the majority party in non-swing states. That’s right! All you Republicans in California and Oregon, all the Northeastern Ivy League Republicans, all you Tennessee Democrats- your vote would actually matter! No wonder people feel as if their vote doesn’t matter- it doesn’t under the current system!
  4. Internet memes- this is a separate issue, but its pertinent. All of the sudden right after the election, I couldn’t believe. Hillary’s numbers kept rising and rising, provoking almost no outrage. Eventually she led in the popular vote by 2.5 million. Now it will just be a footnote in history. In fact this is a democratic outrage. Built into our system of democracy is a fundamentally undemocratic system. This would be the scandal of the century in Europe, where even Brexit had to be passed to respect the will of the majority. So how did people justify it 3-4 days later? Internet memes spread by right-wing news sites. Yes, you heard me correctly, internet memes. All of the sudden the old arguments start coming out in cut down internet meme format. “2 states shouldn’t decide an election” “If you come from these counties (shows map of rural states who vote Republican) you’ll understand why cities shouldn’t decide everything”. These memes basically are gut appeals to emotion- I’m from rural Kansas, that makes sense to me! In short, its parochialism writ large in 2016.
  5. No belief in democracy- There is also an argument I’ve heard defending the electoral college. “We were never meant to be a complete democracy, we are a representative democracy”. That’s right- you don’t make every foreign policy decision, the President, as our representative, does. That doesn’t mean the majority shouldn’t pick him! If you don’t believe in democracy, don’t defend the electoral college. It was made to satisfy Southern states, part of the same deal that got them the right to own slaves and the 3/5 compromise which gave them more representation equally 3/5 of the slave population. If you think the 3/5 compromise was unfair, then you should be against the electoral college, because everything the Founding Fathers put their hands on isn’t sacred. They were men, not gods.

In short, if the electoral college is abolished, your vote is exactly equivalent to anyone else’s vote. Not more, not less. Chances are, if you support it, it will give you even more voting power.

Don’t believe the establishment. Electoral College Reform NOW! I for one want my democracy back. If it continues, we live in a pseudo democracy. From a critical theory perspective, the electoral college is a system that maintains the current hegemony and gives people the illusion of power while simultaneously undermining it, an essential component of bourgeois democracy. That is how strongly I feel about this.

There will be those leftists among you who will say getting money out of politics or the class struggle is more important. Well, I say that you are probably correct, but this is an element of that struggle. By reforming these institutions, one can pave the way for larger social programs and efforts at reform. First, the people we elect truly have to be elected freely. We cannot sacrifice our will to the will of a party cadre. We must learn to live with American democratic institutions. Maybe someday we can get the Senate abolished as well and have only a House. Until that day, we must pick our battles wisely.

What this blog is about

This blog is about thinking, and the value of thinking, and of philosophy, or love of truth (philo meaning “love of” and sophia meaning “wisdom” in Greek) in the broadest sense. G.W.F Hegel, one of the greatest philosophers ever, considered the philosophy the process of edifying the soul. In his words:

“In this respect culture or development of mind (Bildung), regarded from the side of the individual, consists in his acquiring what lies at his hand ready for him, in making its inorganic nature organic to himself, and taking possession of it for himself. Looked at, however, from the side of universal mind qua general spiritual substance, culture means nothing else than that this substance gives itself its own self-consciousness, brings about its own inherent process and its own reflection into self.”

Later he makes some provocative statements like this one:

“Truth is not like stamped coin that is issued ready from the mint and so can be taken up and used. Nor, again, is there something false, any more than there is something evil.”

He means to say that Truth is not given, divinely given or revealed, for then there would be no reason to think at all! Also that “truth is born out of error”.  Of course this was heresy at the time, so he had to shroud a lot of his philosophy in more Christian sounding language. Even though you would expect a nominal Christian philosopher who talks about the Absolute and Spirit all the time to believe philosophy is all about religion and edifying stuff like that, Hegel thought it was all about the lone soul coming to Reason through his own personal struggle. But I digress. The point is we SHOULD think, because it is our God given right as free beings, and freedom is also the freedom to think! And not be afraid to make mistakes. This all seems like common sense, but then again, everything that is common sense was probably originally written complexly by some 16th century philosopher.

This blog is about my thoughts, on every subject. It’s my attempt to get thoughts out on paper, and share them, for public debate or consumption. The main topic I’ll explore will be politics, but I will try to stay away from mainstream American politics (try), and try to have a tone that is more analytical rather than partisan. Anthropological so to speak. That’s really my passion, anthropology, analyzing culture.

Apart from the brainy stuff, I might talk about spirituality or personal research that I do over the course of my studies in anthropology, or past research. Maybe more artsy things. Don’t expect it all to be nerdy, although most of it probably will be.

A word on politics. It can be divisive sure, but I feel like there are many things that aren’t very divisive about politics that should be a no brainer. The goal should be to maximize human happiness for one- I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think that way besides extremely selfish people and social Darwinists. Of course, people can disagree about the extent to which politics SHOULD determine peoples lives. But as it stands, we live in a state society, where politics does have a huge influence on our lives. So even if you want to return to small scale society (which won’t happen on a large-scale), politics will have some effect on you globally. Of course there are topics that are cultural that aren’t political per se, but as someone once said, “the personal is political”, or as Gilles Deleuze calls it, “micropolitics” is all around us, from the way our workplaces are run, to how much things cost at the supermarket, etc.

Economic and environmental anthropology are two of my big interests, specifically “political ecology” and the anthropology of development when it comes to the Global South or “third world”. I’m specifically interested in the complex interplay between local people, governments, and environmental policy. So there may be some articles about that here.

On my personal politics- I’m a Socialist.

*E-gad!* *cue John McCain fainting*

And I’ll explain why later in some post particularly about that. When I say socialist, I don’t mean some crazy Stalinist or whatever, I don’t usually have to clarify that, but then again, there are some crazy people out there on the internet and far corners of Reddit (they are usually called tankies). And I don’t have starry eyes for people like Castro or Tito either.

My particular “tendency” on the Left would probably be called “libertarian socialist”, but more along the lines of IWW as opposed to “insurrectionist” for those of you who are adept in the radical jargon. Then again, I’m also somewhat of a pessimist, and don’t believe the revolution is coming anytime soon, so I’m not opposed to party politics on principle. As in, I admire the ideals of the SYRIZA party in Greece, if SYRIZA had not caved to the demands of Germany, but that’s a whole other debacle.

Anyway, I’m Stephen, this is my blog, and thank you for reading, I hope to post much more in the future on life, learning, and other fun things. 🙂

Oh, and its called Traveler’s Thoughts because I travel due to being an anthropology major. Some places I’ve gone and done research in are Bhutan, Guyana, and I may do my masters thesis here in the US on environmental problems on Indian reservations. So there may be travel posts or updates from those places if I return or find somewhere else exciting to go.

In essence, this blog will be a trip of the mind, a philosophical journey…an exploration of my own thoughts and ideas.


The problem with “pop politics” articles

Well I’ve done it already. I’m already going to write about Trump. No surprise there, he’s unavoidable.

Recently, I came across an article on the site “Everyday Feminism” that provoked a lot of questions for me. The article is titled “5 Gaslighting Phrases Donald Trump Used That Remind Me a Lot of My Abusive Ex”. Now I know what some of you are going to say. “But Stephen, why deliberately pick such easy targets of criticism?” As with any article from Salon or Buzzfeed, there’s more here than meets the eye in terms of the current zeitgeist.

This particular site has been a hub of popular Feminist writers, who pen articles on currently salient topics, often from an interesting range of perspectives. Sure, some of the writers may be amateur, but most of them have degrees and write for other magazines (this article in particular was written by Suzannah Weiss, “She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more.”). 

Nevertheless, the site, while aimed at a younger audience, often tries to tackle subjects such as sexism, racism, homophobia and trans issues, often with political undertones, but written from a “self-help” kind of perspective. Some article titles include “How to Compliment Women without Objectifying Them”, “5 Gender Neutral Alternatives to “Boyfriend” and “Girlfriend”, and “But Seriously, Let’s Talk about Millenial Poverty”. Two things strike me about these articles when I read them- they are at once personal, and from a “social justice” perspective. They attempt to integrate lifestyle choices with a liberal/social justice mentality. Many people (critics of political correctness) will immediately dismiss these sites and communities as “social justice warriors” and be done with it. However, there is an emerging identity/community of people like this, many of them LGBT, people of color, or women in the US, who take this kind of thing very seriously. People are trying to apply concepts originally drawn from sociology like “intersectionality” and apply it to their lives. What’s the harm in that, my inner lib says?

The problems I see with these “social justice pop articles” that have recently been ubiquitous on the internet are multiple.

First, it perpetuates a certain standard liberal narrative without any introspection. In terms of this article about Trump, it focuses on the racism/sexism angle of Trump’s candidacy. While these are undeniable aspects of Trump’s candidacy, and the article provides provides effective counterarguments to Trump’s own arguments about why it wasn’t important to focus “pussygate”, several things in this article are very telling.

First of all, when addressing anticipated and real criticisms in the article, Weiss makes the following argument about political correctness. “Political correctness is just being considerate”, and denied accusations of being the “PC police”. This not only represents a heightened sense of awareness of exactly what type of discourse is being presented in these articles, it is interesting to see a defense of political correctness in and of itself (I’d be the first to guess that it would come from this site).

Is she right? To an extent. Critics of political correctness fail to remember that there are moral standards which we should hold people to in public discourse, most of all people in positions of power. Advocates of this PC culture also are correct in saying that sexism and misogyny have been so thoroughly internalized by the populace that they shut down any attempt to be considerate as being “politically correct”. I would go so far as to say every time Donald Trump has mentioned PC culture, he has used it as an excuse to target some minority group. This is hateful and frightfully alarming rhetoric.

But PC advocates also fail to recognize the complex political valences around the “political correctness” debate. This article is shoddy in its attempt to address current politics, first of all because it doesn’t attempt to be analytical, and was written from a personalistic perspective. The metaphor of gaslighting is supposed to carry over seamlessly into politics. She starts the article talking about how people are “traumatized” by this election. This is standard liberal waffling. Have hate crimes against Muslims gone up? Of course! I’m not attempting to delegitimize people’s feelings about this election. I too am VERY concerned about the direction this country is heading. But the sheer psychological impact of this election is reduced in this metaphor to a personalistic metaphor about an abusive relationship. First of all, let’s ignore the fact that a politician can’t “gaslight” in the normal sense of the word. Sure he can attempt to silence his critics (like every politician).

But how did Trump manage to pull out of his nosedive in the polls after “pussygate”? One reason may be that he controlled the policy narrative afterwards, while Clinton focused on Trump’s personal scandals. Just like Bill Clinton was able to get through his impeachment scandal and his poll numbers even went up, Trump was able to refocus the debate and appeal to voters on the basis of his ideas, not his character. Trump said “I’m not proud of my locker room talk. But this world has serious problems”. This resonated with many voters, working class people in Michigan and Wisconsin for example, who have been left behind by neoliberal policies. It sends the message- “I have my human failings, but I will be your defender in the halls of power”. Clinton could not have done more damage to herself by focusing on Trump’s scandals. Aside from quote “normalizing racism and sexism”, what impact could Trump’s words and actions those many years ago on a tour bus possibly have for a family of 5 in rural Kansas?

It is interesting that despite their apparent ideological difference, the writer of this article and Clintonites appeal to the same moral conservatism as Christian conservatives to discredit Trump. Whether this moral critique is true or not (and it certainly is true- Trump is a cancer to the state of decency in political speech), it is the populism of Trump’s message that is completely ignored in this article. Conservative voters or Trump voters will read the first line and think “oh the poor libs went crying to the hotlines after their candidate lost. They’ll get over it”. Simply put- this rhetorical strategy isn’t working. More talk about sexism and racism, mainstream media friendly topics (if it’s about a dirty word a politician said or a picture Anthony Weiner sent, it will make front page) will only serve to make Trump appear like the arbiter of common sense in politics who takes on out-of-control political correctness in public debate.

I do think liberals have to reclaim the side of morality and decency, and fight against sexism and racism. But taking such a complex political issue and reducing it to a metaphor about your relationship only serves to muddy the waters, and represents the problems with today’s mainstream liberal Left.

I’ll also say a quick word (and try not to be too harsh) about today’s “activist blogosphere”. Too often the articles seem to be aimed at an audience which already believes what they are saying. The debate around Trump in particular in social media has become hyperbolic, emotional, and lacks clarity or any attempt to be analytical. Forget comparisons of Trump’s win to Brexit- Trump is obviously winning because of my ex-boyfriend, racists, and other baddies.

What’s wrong with Social Democracy?

Take a look at this comic. It’s humorous (its actually very funny) I know, I shouldn’t take it too seriously. Even though it is a leftist comic, and I’m a Leftist, I believe it perfectly encapsulates what Ideology is.

What is Ideology?

Let’s take a few somewhat amorphous quotes from Slavoj Zizek:

“The stepping out of (what we experience as) ideology is the very form of our enslavement to it”

“Every ideology attaches itself to some kernel of jouissance which, however, retains the status of an ambiguous excess”

“The form of consciousness that fits late-capitalist “post-ideological” society – the cynical, “sober” attitude that advocates liberal “openness” in the matter of “opinions” (everybody is free to believe whatever she or he wants; this concerns only his or her privacy”

Let’s take the first quote. First of all, in and of itself, it’s very profound. Let’s say you have a political ideology. When you view things through the lens of your political ideology, and try to subject another’s ideology to your lens, then you are just enslaved to Ideology IN GENERAL.As in, if you say to yourself, “I have a viewpoint”, that viewpoint is fixed, solid, immutable. You are now trapped by ideology, you can now never question your dogmatic beliefs.

Now you chime in and say, “now Stephen, that’s quite unfair, anyone has the right to their opinion!”. This is a typical American statement. The third quote captures the problems with this belief. You can believe whatever you want! Ultimate freedom! What a great society we live in when we get to express and believe whatever we want! Underlying that whole belief structure is the belief that the society we live in has allowed us to form opinions that are rational in the first place. This is Foucault’s “Regime of Truth” problem if you will. At every moment, you have chosen to believe that what you believe is ultimately true and comes from yourself, without recognizing the ways society has influenced you to have a certain belief.

Now let’s ideologically analyze the comic using this method:

The cartoon is titled “Social Democracy in one Senate seat”. You see some young people watching Bernie Sanders speak. They have a preformed idea of what socialism is. The funny part comes from the juxtaposition of them being excited about “real” socialist ideas, then hearing old cranky Bernie talk about Norway and Sweden (which are still capitalist countries, strictly speaking). They walk away feeling depressed.

Here’s where you should start getting suspicious of this comic: the underlying message is- where’s the excitement??? I wanted real Socialism, not Larry David talking about how great the Scandinavian welfare state is! This is the “ideological kernel of jouissance [enjoyment]” Zizek talks about. Why were they disappointed? Bernie wasn’t ideologically pure! He wants a model from a country with a working economy and the highest standard of living in the world- what a sellout!

It’s almost as if the students were expecting him to say “Long live the Soviet Socialist Republic!” or something to that effect (I’m being unfair to the creator of this comic, I know that’s not the socialism he envisions). But it gives the reader with no knowledge of Leftism the impression…”what do those students actually want?”. This is the “Occupy Wall Street” problem, or the day after the revolution problem. Even though the comic does not go on, say to a different panel where they explain what kind of socialism they actually envision, you are left with the impression, “ok they disagree with Bernie because of his support of the invasion of Yugoslavia, and that jobs need to stay in America, and the military jets thing”. But that’s not what makes the comic funny. The underlying funniness is that Bernie is a lame old guy, he’s not “with” the real Leftism of the students.

So what about the positions Bernie advocates for on the podium. “Let’s keep jobs in America”. Well what’s wrong with that?

The problem with that statement in today’s PC culture is that it smacks of jingoism. The fact that Bernie is running for President of the US doesn’t make a difference. The fact that it would be a completely socialist policy of economic protectionism and intervention in the free market doesn’t make a difference. The reason it’s not a “pure enough” belief for the students is its all about America. The policy doesn’t “care” about the Third World enough. Now there’s a lot of ins and outs to what happens to other countries when free trade is adopted, but in general when companies outsource jobs, it exploits horrible labor laws in other countries and moves their factories over there. It kills jobs in the US, and overseas creates an economy based sometimes virtually on slave labor. It’s like when those on the far-left criticize Bernie for not being open borders- that position is very easy to take when you ignore the American economy. It is a position of extreme hypocrisy, where you claim to have the morally righteous position- the poor immigrants! All the while, a permanent underclass grows in America…that could be topic of a whole other long post on the immigration debate in the US. I’m willing to consider arguments from open borders people, but it seems to me that its too idealistic. And there would be nothing the capitalists would like more than for cheap labor to be able to migrate across borders at will. That’s not good for immigrants, its not good for us.

So either the students are pro-free trade socialists, because at least the poor Chinese children have jobs that way (an obvious contradiction), or they don’t think at all.

Let’s move on to the intervention in Yugoslavia. A true Leftist would never use the military!…would they? Obviously, from a hardcore non-interventionist perspective, the intervention was unjustified by its very nature. Unfortunately, this removes all context about the war in Yugoslavia (which I may write a whole other post about). The war in Yugoslavia was a war of aggression waged by a genocidal Serbian regime. Everyone agrees about that (if you are a sane person, and not brainwashed by the Serbian government). However, over the course of my internet adventures, I have encountered some strange pseudo-Leftists who argue that the intervention in Yugoslavia was a pretext by NATO against the completely innocent Serbian regime, who was actually going after Islamic terrorists. Ayiyi! I don’t have time to explain why that’s a complete crock of shit, anyone with any knowledge or time to watch an hour long documentary would know Milosevic was a genocidal maniac who wanted nothing more than to incorporate Bosnia into a greater Serbian state. The problem is, the people who that advocate position do so from a position of, “the American government is evil and has to be doing something wrong”. There are some who even claim NATO bombings killed more people than Milosevic! Do some research man!! These sort of gross ideological mystifications are the same sort of problems Chomsky ran into when he claimed the Khmer Rouge was being unfairly persecuted by the imperialist West and the genocide figures were inflated. It is true that the secret bombings of Cambodia were horrific. The problem comes when one equates that action under the Nixon administration, by all accounts a criminal administration, to the actions of the Clinton administration. “It’s all just imperialism” is a cop out.

Now would I have supported the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia? No, with some caveats. I think retroactively some sort of stronger UN intervention was necessary instead. But it is interesting how it is THAT issue that comes up over and over. It always seems to return to the Balkans, that bastion of ideological confusion. There were some who even claimed that the NATO intervention would just strengthen Milosevic’s hold on power- that didn’t end up occurring, but the fierce partisans of non-intervention in Serbia (coming at just the right time of an ethnic cleansing) seem to have held their tongues after the fact. No surprise that an actual committed leftist from the former Yugoslavia, was not as critical of the NATO intervention. He criticized NATO for depoliticizing the conflict on “humanitarian” grounds, but here’s what he said about its opponents:

“But it’s not only NATO that depoliticized the conflict. So has its opponents on the pseudo-Left. For them, the bombing of Yugoslavia played out the last act of the dismemberment of Tito’s Yugoslavia. It acted out the end of a promise, the collapse of a Utopia of multi-ethnic and authentic socialism into the confusion of an ethnic war. Even so sharp-sighted a political philosopher as Alain Badiou still maintains that all sides are equally guilty. There were ethnic cleansers on all sides, he says, among the Serbs, the Slovenes and the Bosnians. “Serbian nationalism is worthless. But in what respect is it worse than the others? It is more popular and it goes back further in time, it has more weapons at its disposal and in the past it doubtless had more opportunities to act out its criminal passions . . Certainly, Milosevic is a brutal nationalist, just as much as his colleagues in Croatia, Bosnia or Albania . . . From the beginning of the conflict the West has been on the side of the weaker nationalisms (the Bosnian, the Kosovar) and against the stronger nationalisms (the Serbian and, by means of subtraction, the Croatian).” (Zizek, NATO, the Left Hand of God).

So here, the specter of nostalgia for the old Communist bloc (or Tito’s Yugoslavia, which was outside Soviet influence) rears its ugly head. It begs the question: are the students in the comic secret Titoists who would throw Bernie in the gulag?

Here is where there is a kernel of truth in the comic for me. Social Democracy, in Europe, has failed to always not intervene in unjustified wars (Tony Blair invading Iraq), and has only promised to retain the welfare state, while all too often capitulating to the Right in their austerity policies. It’s “program” has failed to galvanize support- even the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Labour Party has not attracted enough support in Britain. So what is to be done, in the words of Lenin?

What is to be done is to recognize that Bernie Sanders represents a REAL alternative to the extremely conservative ideological atmosphere in the United States, in the Democratic and Republican party. And not to judge him on the basis of so-called purist principles and subject him to ridiculous ideological purity tests.

We should also to recognize that Social Democracy is not a cure-all alternative, and it has its own problems, but I believe they are largely the result of neoliberal influence into those parties. REAL social democracy, like in Norway and Finland, does and should work. That’s my view. The Left of today should not be so quick to judge those who fight the existing powers that be, completely removed from solving the concrete problems of today.