Let Thine Eye Look Like a Friend on Denmark

So every fall, I teach a graduate course titled “Power, Privilege, and Oppression.” No, I did not come up with the title, fan of alliteration though I am, and I rather don’t care for the excessive wokeness connoted by such a string of words. If I had come up with the name, I would have called it something like “Rethinking Identity and Exploitation,” for what I want students most to do is re-conceptualize their view of identity (both individual and collective) and rethink how identity perpetuates, facilitates, generates the mechanisms of exploitation.

This year, my students read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Karen and Barbara Field’s Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, Jeff Spinner-Halev’s Enduring Industice, and Chris Gilligan’s Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti-Racism: Rethinking Racism and Sectarianism. It’s been a heady semester, with plenty of good discussion and (always the meat upon which teachers live) an acknowledgement by many that this class had really changed their perspectives. However, especially as we neared the end of the semester, I kept hearing from more and more students something along the lines of: This is all good theory and everything, but how do we fix these problems? What is the solution to all of this?

And I wanted to say, “Don’t you think if we had the solution to all of this that we would be implementing it right now instead of conducting a philosophical, sociological, and historical survey of these issues for you students?” Students reported being challenged and excited by the material but also depressed because it didn’t impart to them the knowledge they needed to go out and solve all of these problems, because it didn’t shorten that horizon to utopia. At the end of each semester, I bring in some folks who have done public service and activism in the state, across racial and class boundaries, to discuss their work. My students usually like this, at least more than they like hearing me ramble yet again. However, they still seemed disappointed that my activist friends had no “solution” for them but, instead, rather heartily endorsed the idea that public service and social justice were lifelong pursuits.

My students, they just want a way to “fix things.” And I’ve been struggling, wondering where this expectation even came from. Is this a generational divide? A consequence of a culture of slacktivism? Reaction to the trauma of the Trump regime?

The answer may relate to how we misinterpret Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

According to Rebecca West, in The Court and the Castle: A Study of the Interactions of Political and Religious Ideas in Imaginative Literature, we do great injury to the original meaning of Hamlet when we regard its eponymous hero as tormented by indecision and emotion. Hamlet’s not incapable of making quick decisions. Hell, the moment he discovers that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are bearing a letter demanding his execution he swaps it for one that gets them killed, despite their innocence in this scheme. And he’s apparently not too emotional, for they were, after all, apparently friends of his.

We misread Hamlet because we lack Shakespeare’s conception of the nature of authority, especially royal authority. As Rebecca West writes:

“To Shakespeare, a king was a man who had been appointed by fate, by a force half within him and half outside him, to be the custodian of an idea, and to exercise this function in the midst of a mob of barons who were rarely if ever entirely loyal to him or the idea, because some part of even the justest among them must regret the old days of feudalism when they would riot and thieve unchecked.”

To continue:

“We know from the historical plays that Shakespeare recognized danger as the climate of the courts, and it follows that he saw the palace at Elsinore as a place of tension, where it might well be that Hamlet was much less tense than the people around him. He was above all the onlooker, who is detached and preserves his detachment even when he is involved in action. He was in fact detached from the Danish royal situation; because the electors had passed over his candidature he was not sitting on the throne, he was standing beside it, he was not involved in the struggle between the Danish people and their nascent institutions. He was also the new-born Renaissance man, whose liberated intelligence had given him a form of self-awareness differing from the earlier forms of introspection, because it had no tinge of the confessional about it. When Hamlet soliloquised, he was really talking to himself, and taking pleasure in a recently acquired accomplishment. There could be no greater mistake than to see Hamlet as the only troubled figure in a court that was otherwise wax-work calm in the arrogant composure of an imaginary absolutism. Readers who see him thus must mistake the theme of the play, and see it as the failure of a weak human being to restore a pleasant status quo. But Shakespeare was writing about the failure of a strong and gifted man to alter a repellent situation, for the reason that he is tainted with the same guilt which had caused others to produce that situation.”

To restore a pleasant status quo–that, I suspect, is what my students want, because even if they devote themselves to studying the long history of othering and exploitation in this nation and beyond, they cannot yet relate to that history at a personal level. They came of age politically during the presidency of Barack Obama, and knowing intellectually the history of the United States but being privileged to live during the administration of the first black president, well, it has to lend a somewhat Panglossian (or at least Pelagian) patina to one’s political perspectives. And then along comes the vulgar talking yam, imported straight from Russia, and it feels rather like a usurpation. If we could just get the right king on the throne, all would be right again. But even at my modest middle age, I have seen war criminals in the White House, monsters such as Reagan, who helped to fund genocide in Central America and did everything he could to let gay men die of AIDS without remorse, as well as George W. Bush, architect of the Iraq War and its related body of memos justifying the crushing of a small boy’s testicles. All in the name of freedom. Trump, from this perspective, is no aberration.

But there is another factor here. If Hamlet exercised a form of self-awareness different from previous forms of introspection, so, too, do today’s inhabitants exercise a form of self-awareness radically different from Hamlet’s, with their soliloquizing constituting a discourse with the wider world through social media. (And yes, you can still call it a soliloquy if it’s a discourse because all soliloquies in theater are performed for the sake of the audience. We are just all performers now.) As Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell write in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic:

“The social psychologist Mark Leary coined the term sociometer to describe the mental gauge that tells us, moment by moment, how we’re doing in the eyes of others. We don’t really need self-esteem, Leary argued; rather, the evolutionary imperative is to get others to see us as desirable partners for various kinds of relationships. Social media, with its displays of likes, friends, followers, and retweets, has pulled our sociometers out of our private thoughts and posted them for all to see. If you constantly express your anger in private conversations, your friends will likely find you tiresome, but when there’s an audience, the payoffs are different–outrage can boost your status.”

But this critique of social media, as valid as it be, misses some of the larger, structural reasons why struggles for justice invariably find their way onto various social media platforms. Namely, it has to do with a historic loss of rights. As Bruce P. Frohnen writes in his essay, “Individual and Group Rights: Self-Government and Claims of Right in Historical Practice” (part of the anthology Rethinking Rights: Historical, Political, and Philosophical Perspectives), an “insistence on seeing rights in purely individualistic terms has resulted not just in the erosion of group rights, but also in the erosion of individual rights–particularly those individual rights aimed at meaningful participation in social, political, and economic life.” He tracks this erosion from the Middle Ages onward, examining how medieval Europe was home to a variety of institutions that jealously guarded their group rights–the Church, guilds, boroughs, kingdom, and more–and thus protected the individual rights of their members. However, over the centuries, these sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing organizations have largely withered away in the advance of the modern state, so much so that philosopher Hannah Arendt in the twentieth century ultimately defined citizenship as “the right to have rights,” the state being the only institution that could guarantee individual rights for a person by this point in time. One of the only organizations that could feasibly compete with the state, the corporation, is not as corporate as its name implies, with the role of shareholder being stripped of decision-making potentiality and essentially reduced to a fictive personage assumed to be interested solely in profit.

The result of these dramatic changes, writes Frohnen, “is a loss of individual as well as group rights. It has become extremely difficult for the individual person to influence the institutions in which he or she makes a livelihood, in which he or she works and lives. Not only can one not fight city hall, but even influencing it increasingly requires influencing the statehouse, courthouse, or even the White House. And influencing corporate headquarters? Well, it is no wonder that Americans increasingly look to methods of mass publicity and litigation where once their membership in the body of a corporate group afforded them the right to be heard.”

My students seem to believe that they live in a time of exception with Donald Trump (piss be upon him) in the White House, but they don’t. Instead, they live during an era when individual and group rights have been so eroded that Americans turn toward mass publicity and the potential for ideological purity it brings, and they are rewarded for this vaporous online pseudo-life. But nothing really changes, and they want to know why, they want to know what will make things better again without understanding the necessity of a full and complete commitment to this world and all of its flaws, and all of its dangers. If you want to be king, you must understand that the various dukes and barons will be plotting constantly to restore the localized anarchy of feudalism, or will undertake conspiracies to take your throne for themselves, because those who have had a taste of power only want more. And if you want to undertake the work of social justice and public service, you must understand that there is no magical formula you can incant in order to get people to “see reason.” Millionaires won’t be satisfied until they are billionaires, and billionaires dream of being trillionaires, and that is the only goal that matters to them no matter how much human suffering it causes other people.

In other words, the solution is fully engaging at a personal level with that might theologically be termed “original sin,” or a recognition of certain inherent flaws in human beings and the societies they create. You cannot detach yourself from this reality without causing still more damage to those you aim to help in this world. Or as Rebecca West put it:

“We are members of an imperfect society, and when we cooperate with it, we are committed to imperfection, because we are all imperfect beings and cannot conceive a perfect thought or act. The peculiar force of Hamlet lies in its contention that there is no escape from this guilt. Our imperfection cannot be sweetened by our acts or limited in its effect by our caution. Hamlet is exquisitely accomplished, but it does not aid his moral power. He is an egoist and annuls his natural affections so that he achieves no valid human relationship: he is a disobedient son to his father, he mauls his mother, he is a querulous and fugitive lover, he is not a husband and not a father, and he treats Horatio as a listening ear rather than as a friend. Yet in this detachment he is responsible for the perpetuation and extension of evil. When the play opens, the crime which stains the court is the theft of the throne by the fratricide and regicide Claudius; but when the last curtain falls the state as spread. Hamlet has killed Polonius and Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia is drowned, and Claudius has dipped himself in other crimes and has made an assassin of Laertes. These things have happened as the result of Hamlet’s refusal to bind himself by the same ties of flesh which have, through the ages, been generally blamed as the sources of sin. To our species all gates to innocence are barred.”

The Perpetual Decline of Academia

Recently, I’ve had extended stays in the pub closest to my place of work with friends and colleagues describing what they see as the ongoing decline of academe. And they have sufficient substance for their worries. Enrollments at universities are down across the board as the population boom upon which much of our educational infrastructure was established starts to taper off. Fewer young people are willing to saddle their lives with permanent student debt to earn degrees that might not get them the job they desire, what with the state of certain fields being in perpetual motion. Reactionary states, such as mine, are investing less and less in higher education, thus planning the burden more and more upon students, because they regard learning as adjacent to brainwashing. And higher education itself is facing the blowback of the boom it has created, especially in the field of humanities, producing a constant stream of doctorates when the job market is declining and fewer and fewer of these highly educated and experienced people can find employment in academia. Moreover, universities tend to be saddled with more and more administrators who see their job as expanding the corps of well-heeled administrators rather than actually educating the public.

In other words, there is reason for worry, and what I am about to say doesn’t try to deny that.

But last night, I was having a few beers with a public history professor friend of mine who related to me the latest “sky is falling” report from his own university. A few years back, his own department made the decision to get rid of its adjunct workforce and hire only full-time professors, a move that normally wouldn’t be lamentable given that university departments have, in recent years, relied too heavily upon adjuncts at the expense of tenured professors. However, with the current decline in enrollment at his institution, his department is now left without the flexibility that part-timers provide, and as morale sinks and people begin to leave, there’s a real possibility that the history department could shake out in a way that leaves it weaker, with all the Americanists, for example, finding berths elsewhere, leaving a department at an urban university in the heartland with only specialists in Asia and Europe. And why are people so ready to leave? Well, because they might not have the chance to teach upper-level courses on their area of expertise. At this particular university, most professors have a load of three courses in the spring and fall each–two survey courses and one upper-level course. Lacking adjuncts to fill in on the survey courses, full-time professors are being ask to teach a semester exclusively consisting of survey courses. And even when they get the chance to offer an upper-level course, the decline in enrollment means that sometimes it just won’t make.

For many people in my friend’s department, this is the veritable apocalypse, the sure sign that academia is on decline. For his part, my friend doesn’t mind teaching survey courses and laughs at the general mood of panic among his associates, but that panic is pervasive. And I was contemplating it this morning on the commute to work, and I had a thought–

What if academia has always been in decline? That is, what if academia arose within the very conditions that led its adherence to believe it was always in a state of decline?

You see, modern universities arose from monastery-based schools in medieval Europe. Sure, the idea of formal education predates this development, for the philosophers of Ancient Greece were often hired as tutors for the elite. But an important shift had occurred by the time incipient universities had begun to emerge, a philosophical shift that shaped the institutions responsible for later universities (the monasteries), and thus shaped the expectations that would be knit into the DNA of academia. By the Middle Ages, the Christian Church had largely baptized Platonism and Neo-Platonism, especially the divisions that Plato had erected between the ideal World of Forms and the shadow world, our world, that reflected imperfectly that ideal realm. In many ways, monasteries signify the material embodiment of this division, closed off from the world so that its members can more fully reflect upon the pure light of the divine.

How frustrating it must be, then, for idealistic novices entering these sacred spaces for purposes of communion with the creator of the universe to be asked to do the dishes or fix the meals one day a week. During one of the stranger career diversions I have undertaken, for some years I was a freelancer for a Catholic newspaper and regularly visited the local convent, just outside of town, to cover the goings-on there. My visits there quickly disabused me of the notion that convent life constituted a higher order of spiritual existence, freed from the petty squabbling that subsumes interpersonal actions here in the secular realm. Get one of them away from the convent for a while, and it was nothing but a stream of complaints about Sister So-and-So who was smoking in the recreation room again or Sister Whats-Her-Face who is still trying to figure out who voted against her in the election for prioress twenty years back. Not that there weren’t some generally good people in the building, but convent life constituted a reflection of human society, not an exception to it, and contained all the interpersonal friction you find in any collective enterprise, from government on down to a marriage.

But that’s not how it’s advertised, is it? We want to believe that the sanctified life is set apart, and likely most of those who entered this convent did so out of a genuine desire to devote the better part of their lives to meditation upon the divine, not to being stuck with laundry duty for the third week straight because the other sister says she threw out her back, when everyone knows she’s exaggerating. Plus, in this aging convent, people had to work. They were expected to get jobs to support each other, because the decline in religious vocations, and the decline in donations, means that even fewer in religious life are privileged to spend their hours in prayer and meditation. And so the realm of the Ideal you had hoped to find begins to look a lot like this degraded world the more you stay, and the distance between expectation and reality only grows, and you begin to become cynical, seeing this as a sign that we inhabit the waning days of Babylon, that the apocalypse is nigh, for how can this be?

And so, if academia grew from the roots of monastic life, might its own expectations have been similarly shaped by the Platonic division at the root of Christian culture? Might those in academia conceive of their mission as rooted in pure knowledge and resent any infringement upon their time and energy with more mundane responsibilities? And when confronted with the necessity of adapting to changing conditions, might they not similar adopt an eschatological viewpoint that regards this present moment as one of the expected signs of societal collapse?

In other words, academia is always in decline because academia was born aspiring to a sense of fulfillment that could never be attained.

There you go. The Chronicle of Higher Education can now cease its endless hand-wringing about the current state of affairs.


Okay, so Pope John Paul II “rehabilitated” Galileo in 1992, ending 359 years of official condemnation. Although this condemnation was typically presented to the public as a relic of antiquated bureaucracy, rather like those laws which continue to outlaw chewing gum on the Sabbath or some such, we must understand that the Roman Catholic Church remained earnest in its condemnation up to that very point in 1992, even if certain modernizing segments were embarrassed by the fact that it remained on the record. In fact, as Yves Gingras notes in his book Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue, while the conflict between Galileo and the papacy is presented primarily as a struggle of wills and only tangentially related to the science, the Church’s official position on the nature of the universe firmly geocentric through the 1800s. The 1757 Index of Prohibited Books did not remove Galileo’s Dialogue, and French astronomer Jerome Lalande’s popular book of astronomy would be put on the Index in 1830. Only in the 1835 edition of the Index were the works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler removed from prohibition. However, on through the 1900s, the Church was particularly sensitive of any publication regarded as too favorable to Galileo.

Of course. The Church had, centuries prior to Copernicus, baptized certain pagan thinkers and made a Christian dogma of their conception of the universe, and to deny that, to say that the Church was in error on something so fundamental, would upend society. As science historian James Burke noted in The Day the Universe Changed, “Belief in Aristotle and Ptolemy was the bedrock of social stability.” So when Copernicus and then Galileo came along and challenged that, their only recourse was to stand by their previous assertions, to double down on the geocentric tradition with the hope that they could contain the spread, because social change can happen fast like that, the moment an institution’s credibility begins to be questioned. Gingras again: “Conservative by nature, institutions are virtually forbidden to admit error without running the risk of losing credibility and authority.” We can see these actions as indicative of weakness or close-mindedness, but if you were within that institution or relied upon that institution, you had every reason to back its stance.

Although the contagion could not be contained, the Church retained its position on these issues, doubling and tripling down on its contrast with the secular world with the hopes that one of these retrograde bets would pay off. As Peter Sloterdijk writes in Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation, “The fact that Catholicism presented itself after 1870 as being at the peak of its antimodern campaign does not change the general situation. All of its efforts on the theological and political fronts were only the effects of weakness: the flight of the pope into the dogma of infallibility, the mobilization of an external mission, the militant incitement of Marianic fervor, the condemning of liberal and secular books, the founding of ultramontane parties in the parliaments of the secular world. All of these actions reveals the frightful panic of a declining power.”

Why does that sound so familiar right now? Can we not perhaps look at our modern world and find one issue in which the scientific consensus constitutes a threat to the structure of stability, a threat that is met not by a rational consideration of the evidence at hand but, instead, the manufacture of dogmas and the incitement of speculative fervors? And do we not increasingly have political parties that—if not ultramontane in the sense that they advocate for absolute papal authority in matters relating not just to faith but also discipline—do insist upon disciplining the population at large by reference to an absolute faith?

Yes, climate change is our heliocentric revolution of the twentieth century, the simple recognition of the fact that what goes up in smoke comes down in fire. And the faith that demands we doubt the evidence of experience is the market economy, the capitalist system, which has so much invested in the notion of infinite and infallible growth, world without end, amen. And the reason they will not debate this subject at all is because, to adapt that Burke quotation, “Belief in Adam Smith and Milton Friedman is the bedrock of social stability.”

The parallels are plenteous and obvious, and I’m certainly not the only one who has ever made this argument. But my goal is to draw attention to the other factors relating to the growing acceptance of heliocentric theory, as well as the time span over which change finally occurred. Copernicus and Galileo had the great fortune to be formulating their theories in an era when the power of the Church was no longer universal in Europe, thanks to the various Protestant reformations, and so the ideological enemies of the Church had room to adopt science that actually worked, especially if it came with the added bonus of driving the dagger a little deeper into the reputation of Rome.

However, when it comes to the Church of Capitalism, we are not quite so fortunate, for, ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and other communist powers, the world has lacked for a true alternative economic system, no matter how flawed it was. After all, the mere presence of the Soviet Union was a boon to anti-racist activists in the United States, if only because American authorities were sufficiently worried about looking bad on the world stage that they began sending in the feds to investigate lynchings and assassinations across the country, because each murder could constitute a propaganda coup for a communist superpower more than happy to broadcast the racisms of its chief rival to the Third World. But where is our chief rival today? And don’t say China, for it has become less a communist state and more a state capitalist state, outstripping the West in its ability to produce goods and exploit its workers.

A sufficiently powerful rival to the capitalist system could adopt the mantle of environmentalism for propaganda purposes and thus spur the rest of the world to good deeds, but we are rather lacking that during these waning days of Babylon, which means that grassroots activism must need be all the more intense in order to accomplish the necessary ends.

And that intensity is all the more necessary when considering the time across which the original geocentric-heliocentric debate actually raged. Yes, the Copernican view was quickly adopted due to its utility, thus making this one of Burke’s days in which the universe changed. But as Gingras noted, the Catholic Church always retained faith in its dogma of yore and, had it the ability, would most certainly have enforced that, at least down until that day in 1992. And so even if the world makes a successful transition from “free market” fundamentalism and to an economic system that allows us to live upon this planet sustainably, there will, perhaps for centuries, be powerful people dreaming of their economic Arcadia, planning and scheming how to get the planet back from us. Just as they will pass down the legends to their descendants of those glory days, so, too, must we pass down to those who come after us an awareness of just who the enemies are and how to recognize them. This is an intergenerational struggle, and so the lives we save will not be just our own.


A few years back, I subscribed to the digital version of the Swedish-language newspaper Dagens Nyheter. My experience was one of confronting the limitations of globalization. First, I had to wrangle with the subscription office over in Stockholm because I didn’t have a Swedish personal identity number, and that number is used all the time for any interactions, especially monetary ones. They apparently never encountered an American wanting to subscribe to their paper. Second, I had to call my bank to inform them that a monthly charge would be coming from Sweden onto my account. I asked if a note could be made to that effect so that I would not be getting any automated calls about needing to confirm recent transactions, and the guy I talked to was confused but said he would try. However, each month, the phone rings as soon as that charge goes through, and I have to confirm my identity, yet again, before listening to a recording of recent charges and confirm them, yet again. Same thing if I dare to purchase a book from Sweden through a platform like Abebooks.com.

So in some ways, we are a globalized world, in that I can get these things that, in a previous era, would have been enormously difficult to acquire and probably entail personal trips to the country or having a friend there willing to send me stuff. And in other ways, we aren’t globalized, because our systems are still not set up, and our mental attitudes still not calibrated, around the conception of a truly global exchange of information and money, at least for us peons who don’t work in international finance and only want to move around the cost of a book, not a small fortune.

I have often lamented our lack of a truly globalized society, largely because it denies me the Swedish-language books and shows I really want, but I’ve been contemplating here lately the downside of the free flow of information, largely because it also facilitates the free flow of disinformation. In his most recent book, Agent Running in the Field, John Le Carre has his main character, Nat, lamenting the relative difficulty of recognizing Russian agents these days because everyone speaks such damn fine English all across the world. The Russians were able to affect the 2016 election precisely because a general facility in English now makes that extremely possible. You’ll have more luck influencing an American school board election from abroad than you will an election where the people speak only Basque or Breton. Moreover, notice how terrorists across this world put their manifestos or videos in English. Anders Behring Brevik did. Stephan Balliet, who more recently streamed his attack on a German synagogue, likewise spoke English, because he, like Brevik, wanted his message to be spread widely. When everyone understands English, communication in English can take the world by storm, not just for those folks in those countries that have that as their official language. Too, with English now the lingua mundi, we English-speaking peoples are suddenly open to competition from the rest of the world; in fact, copyediting, which depends upon a native facility of the language and would seem one of the last jobs shipped abroad, is being outsourced to places like India these days. The political implications, too, should be obvious.

But language isn’t just for people. It’s also for computers. Misinformation constitutes something of a social virus spread by language, but computer viruses can cause much more immediate harm. Misinformation will convince people that vaccines are evil or climate change a hoax, while a computer virus can send a nuclear power plant into meltdown. When the bit of malware known as NotPetya hit the Danish shipping company Maersk, it quickly blew through their whole global network, and although suffering some $10 billion in losses, the company was able to recover its data, but only because a branch office in Ghana had been offline during the attack thanks to a local power outage. And malware is getting better and better, but combine it with a bit of basic AI algorithms, and it’s downright scary. These days, I am receiving e-mails on a regular basis that purport to be from co-workers, that have their name and some semi-plausible message in the body, and I have to double-check the e-mail address of origin to recognize it as a phishing attempt. But how long before that doesn’t work anymore?

Recently, I was listening to another artifact of our semi-globalized world, the Swedish podcast P3 Dystopia, on the subject of cyberwarfare, AI, and automated weapons systems, which is several episodes of Black Mirror on the cusp of happening all at once. And one of the presenters asked, almost as an aside, “Who voted for this?” The answer, of course, is no one, because if you put AI-run automated weapons systems on the ballot, they would lose. However, we accept their development, rather passively, because we adhere to an idea of progress which holds that we are always going forward, and that if progress contains all the good things we will come to like, then we need the bad things in order to stave off our enemies, because evil is forever progressing.

Cyberweapons are the new tools of the global war because we have passively accepted that we live in a global society. When I say “global society,” I mean an ethos of globalism, rather than an ethos of cosmopolitanism. Globalism is the creation of a unity from the diversity of world cultures, while cosmopolitanism is the ability to live in that diversity. Moreover, cosmopolitanism comes with it an ethos of citizenship; the word literally means “citizen of the cosmos.” Citizenship entails rights and responsibilities.

Nations were not inevitable but rather were fashioned from the crazy quilt of local cultures in order to service larger interests. At the time of Italian unification, only an estimated ten percent of the population spoke Italian, rather than their own local dialects or some other language; a national program of national education changed that, just as it did with the French and Germans and so many other “national” groups. The local gave way to the national, and now the national gives way to the global, which is why a would-be German mass shooter was speaking English while trying to blow his way into a local synagogue. The national structure made it easier to move money around the country, just as the global structure now makes it easier to move money around the world. Not my money, though. It’s damned difficult to get new books from Sweden; there being no distributor for most such publishers here in the United States, I have to wait until used copies show up online or have some friends mail me something. The nation, the global economy, have been elite projects with elite priorities. Money doesn’t like friction.

Which has me thinking again of the ancient myth of the Tower of Babel. The confusion of languages by a jealous god has long been viewed as a punishment for the sin of overreaching, of threatening to intrude upon the domain of the almighty. But what if, instead, it was the cure to elite power. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth. But who, exactly, is this “us”? Is this us a representation of the population at larger, or is it more likely that elite class of people who often envision grandiose building projects “so that we may make a name for ourselves”? (Do you want to take any bets on whether the workers were unionized?) Whose interests were served by the maintenance of a single language, and how much did the stock market lose in value after a jealous god scuttled these plans by imposing a diversity of languages?

Viruses spread easily through similar species. Language viruses, misinformation, spread easily through those who understand the language in question. Diversify our languages, and do we protect ourselves from such viruses? Center our economies around localities, and do we protect ourselves from the abuse of elite power? Or, at the very least, do we ensure that elite power does not rise beyond our ability to control? Can one only be a citizen of the cosmos by first and foremost being the citizen of a specific place?

I don’t know. Honestly, I’m just asking questions at this point. But maybe, next time, I won’t curse so much when my bank calls, yet again, to inquire about some transaction overseas. Maybe I’ll be thankful for the small amount of friction that survives in our global economy.

Don’t Check Your Privilege

“My writing is sophisticated because I had a head start, because I am years in the making, because I am my mother and her mother before. When I write, I have the privilege of using a language that she fought her whole life to understand. When I speak in opposition, I am grateful my voice is uncensored. I do not take my freedom of speech, my abundance of books, my access to education, my ease of first language for granted. My mom is a writer. The difference is, she spent the first twenty years of her life surviving. I am a writer, who spent twenty years of my life fed and loved in a home and classroom”

–Chanel Miller, Know My Name

I really don’t read that many memoirs. Barely any. The writing that most comforts me is writing that does not remind me of the author’s existence. When I read the novels of Graham Greene, Rebecca West, or Selma Lagerlöf, I find myself transported far outside the boundaries of personality, for lack of a better word. They way they construct stories, their facility with language, lets you know that their own experiences served as the scaffolding perhaps necessary for the erection of this narrative, but by the time that structure is complete, the scaffolding has been removed, and all that remains is the story.  Now go and contrast that with someone like Phillip Roth, who seemed to believe that scaffolding of personality is the most important part of the building he was constructing, who apparently aimed to express himself more than he did to tell a decent story, which is the only explanation for the existence of something like Operation Shylock.

Too, most of what I read these days is scholarly writing. And most of what I write can be loosely classified as scholarship. In the past, I used to write fiction, and I even wrote a series of personal essays for a local free tabloid many years back. But I enjoy writing academic history. While my choice of subject may be influenced by personal preferences and desires, any work I produce is not judged by that criteria but, instead, by how convincingly I fashion my argument using the sources available. And that is perhaps all the more important when the subject is atrocity, which happens to be my area of speciality, I suppose. Occasionally, people out in the world ask me, “What drew you to such a terrible subject?” And I have a few different answers, but they are not necessary for the completion of this particular equation. What is necessary is that I can prove that x happened by reference to y body of evidence and, given a number of other variables, can offer an explanation as to the reason why. I work for a regional library system and don’t ever get funding to go to a conference specifically on these subjects, but some day, I would like to go to some big conference on the subject of racial violence or genocide, just to stand around and see if the participants ever ask each other that question. My guess is that they don’t but, instead, just know that in the heart of every person in attendance is some reason, some little dark or hopeful drive, that motivates them to study a subject most people find too depressing to dwell upon even for a few minutes. When everybody has a secret, we don’t have to ask. All we have to do is prove.

As I said, I don’t read many memoirs. But this year, I have read two. I bought Tara Westover’s Educated while visiting my parents because I needed some purchase to justify that trip to the local Barnes and Noble, away from their home with its two televisions, one on Fox News, the other on Fox Business News, with the kitchen right in between so that you can hear both. I enjoyed it, and when my parents recently visited us, I handed my copy off to my mom, thinking it might be a rare thing we could share. And she enjoyed reading it, too, and in fact asked me to find her more books like that. As I said, I don’t really read memoirs, and her request surprised me. Since that phone conversation, I’ve had this thought: I’m in an unofficial book club with my mother. What would she like to read, or what would I like her to read?

On Monday afternoon, I drove up to our local bookstore and grabbed a copy of Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. If my mom liked Educated on account of its female protagonist asserting her individuality against all odds, well, she might like this, too. And I read it myself, of course, and rather compulsively, when I got into it. I teared up at multiple parts in the book (even if I did question this stylistic choice of rendering conversations or quotations exclusively in italics). And it was a true book. I’ve known far too many survivors of rape and sexual assault, and seen the exact patterns she describes over and over again, to dismiss even the slightest element of her story.


I found myself occasionally bothered by some of the advantages given this narrator. Not that this makes her trauma ring false. But she flies across the country to stay with her boyfriend who has a career in business and is able to hole up in her apartment while he is at work. They go on a trip to Indonesia and learn how to scuba dive. Her father is a therapist and her mother a writer, and she went to a competitive and exclusive high school. And I found myself just on occasion a little irritated at this person who could quit her job without losing her life as she worked to process everything that had happened to her. By contrast, the people I’ve known….


Here’s the thing about privilege–it can be used to good effect. And sometimes, it’s necessary to have a little privilege to help others out. Talk to aid workers who deliver food in a famine, and they will tell you that the hardest thing to do is to eat three meals a day yourself, to keep yourself fed while there are anatomies of death strolling the countryside. But if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t help others. Education can be a privilege. The time needed to think and learn and write and express. Every fall, I teach a graduate level course exploring structures of oppression and exploitation in a public service program, and this year, I mixed things up a bit and threw in the rather recent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne. Dr. Manne is in a position of privilege, relative to the rest of us, but many of my female students were grateful for her work, said that she put words to experiences and phenomena that they had yet to name.

And, as the quotation from Know My Name highlights, Chanel Miller lives in a privileged position, all the more so due because she has a bestselling book to her name now. But her position of privilege gave her a position from which she could express certain radical truths that have resonated in the hearts of millions and maybe, just maybe, have altered the course of this ship of state just a little bit. When authors and artists and scholars put words and shape to the secrets of our lives, they work on our behalf, for our good. They represent us.

(Besides, if Miller is privileged, then how much more privileged was Brock Turner, the Stanford University student who raped her? He had the privilege of being described in the media by his superstar status first and foremost, not by the crime he had committed. Every moment of the investigation and trial and appeal reeks of a privilege granted to him by a society that simply expects “boys to be boys.”)

If you have privilege, don’t check it at the door like it’s a gun and this world some bar in the Old West. If you mean well for your fellow travelers in this world, use that privilege for them. You inherited that privilege. Leave behind descendants. Lift as you climb.

Brexit and the Perceived Tedium of Stability

I’ve only a vague recollection of it, but there was a sequence in an episode of How I Met Your Mother in which Barney, whose entire character is premised upon the number of women he has slept with, gives a running total of his sexual encounters, to which his friend Marshall replies that he has actually had a whole lot more sex than Barney, calculating the length of his relationship with Lily and taking an average of twice-weekly sexual intercourse. But for Barney, his doesn’t count, precisely because all that sex has been with the same person.

Yes, studies show that people in monogamous relationships tend to have more sex than single people, and this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, if you have a loving and trusting parter who is attuned to your sexual needs and desires, then there is a lower barrier to having sex with that person. You’re not worrying in the back of your head that going home with this person might turn your name into a headline, the latest victim of whatever charming serial killer is making the rounds these days. Too, a variety of motivations underlying sex can express themselves in a relationship. Couples may get it on because they are bored and want to pass the time on a rainy day, because they can’t sleep, because they bought a new bed and want to try it out, etc. Maybe even because they are trying to procreate–I don’t judge. But probably not that many one-night stands are predicated upon a mutual desire for low-intensity spooning to overcome a recent bout of insomnia.

Chances are that partners in a long-term, mutually communicative and honest relationship both have sex more frequently and have more satisfying sex. But in our culture, we don’t typically equate stable relationships with the sex-driven life. That’s why the Barneys of the world say it doesn’t count. And this takes us to Brexit, because the European Union is a relationship with many advantages for all parties involved, and most of everything that UK Brexiteers want to achieve can actually be achieved–or is already actionable–within the framework of the European Union. In fact, being outside the union will actually increase the difficulty of securing trade deals with other nations, at least in ways that will be favorable to UK interests. The UK will actually be getting less trade on outside this relationship than in.

And every forecast of economic and social life post-NoDeal Brexit all warn of shortages of food and medicine, a decline in employment, the shrinking of the economy, and much more. And yet the Tory Party is determinedly heading straight toward a No Deal exit from the EU, with Etonian wife-beater Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson invoking the legacy of the Blitz to stoke a patriotic embrace of foreseeable and completely avoidable hardship. This is, of course, straight out of the fascist handbook. “And peace was despised not least on account of its associations with consumerism, the cowardly and hedonistic fixation, precisely, on welfare and higher standard of living,” writes Ishay Landa in Fascism and the Masses (p. 286). Fascist elites sell the idea of life as struggle in order to sway the population away from a concern about living standards and their own economic situation. This is why inflated Etonian piece of shit Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and other Brexiteers keep spouting Churchillian rhetoric, hoping to distract the people that the crisis is one of their own making–and then subsequently using the crisis they have made to call for more sacrifice.

It’s why they keep employing those terms like “freedom” to describe a life apart from the EU, conveniently forgetting that freedom and the goals they want to achieve don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. A single man has more “freedom,” I suppose, because there is no wife at home “telling me what to do,” no conversations about bills or arguments about housework or painful discussions about what to do with aging parents. But the man who predicates his singleness around sex ignores the fact that his married counterpart is having more sex precisely because he is sitting down at the dining room table and having those conversations.

Anyhow, I shared this correlation with the wife over dinner last night with the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that maybe the way out of this cultural trap was to eroticize long-term relationships and, also, render complex and heavily negotiated trade agreements the stuff of legend about which people want to write epic poems. And she said, “You’re missing the point. The Barneys of this world are not actually concerned with the total number of sexual encounters they have experienced. It’s about how being able to convince someone new to have sex with you affirms your superiority, confirms that you still have it, that you can play this game. It’s why some people change jobs year after year, just to show to themselves that they are hot item on the labor market. It’s not about sex, because you’re right, if you wanted that, a relationship is the best place to get it. It’s about self-esteem, and a particular kind of self-esteem that can only be derived from conquest.”

“You mean empire,” I said.

“Yep,” she answered.

That’s at the bottom of this. Great Britain was a great empire that, even within living memory, straddled the globe. Now, it’s part of an intricate partnership that succeeds in maintaining its cultural influence around the world, ensuring that Oxford and Cambridge remain exemplars of a classical education for the best and brightest and richest on this planet, ensuring that the Oxford English Dictionary remains the gold standard for the English-speaking world despite there being more native speakers of the language outside that tiny and damp isle, ensuring that cultural exports such as Doctor Who or The Great British Bake-Off remain touchstones for a wider world despite many viewers having no connection with that island whatsoever, ensuring, in short, that the UK remains an outsized influence upon the whole planet. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the UK has been able to maintain its ranking in the minds of the world largely because it has been a part of this broader cultural, social, and economic network called the EU.

Once, he was a single man who strode the world like a colossus, but when his personal empire fell apart, he married well and thus was able to rescue himself from oblivion. And now, he still gets invited to all the same parties he did back when he was single, but now he knows it’s because some of those people are more interested in the company of his wife. She’s the shining star of the cocktail hour, but they don’t mind that he’s there, too, for he has an interesting history himself. However, he does mind that it’s not his personality and flair that drives these invitations, and he begins to resent his wife for her popularity, despite the fact that he still benefits, and benefits immensely, from this relationship, and he eventually conceives the idea that if he divorced her, he’d get invited to more and better parties, that the focus would be on him again, that he would be the center of attention. And besides, there are more women out there, younger and sexier women, and he’s confident that he could get them into bed. Just like back when he had his own little empire.

And here’s something people forget about empire. As Daniel Immerwahr observed in How to Hide an Empire, the U.S. occupation of the Philippines entailed programs of nursing education that met American standards, and so when there began to be nursing shortages in the United States in later decades, nurses started arriving by the thousands from the Philippines. Because when you make your standards universal, you cease to be the center of your own little empire. Your “own” people can now be replaced. Currently, a lot of English-language copyediting is farmed off to India, and the best cricket players come from that same subcontinent. If post-Brexit UK turns into a squalid little isle of fascist retrenchment, how much longer will the remaining popularity of its culture or institutions survive?

There was nothing intrinsic in the British people that made them the wielders of empire. That was a historical accident that cannot be recreated. And hey, some relationships are abusive or outmoded or simply no longer satisfying the conditions under which they were entered into, and do need to be broken. But there is something singularly pathetic in watching the UK, like a middle-aged man living in the memories of his more lascivious youth, driving headlong toward Brexit with the hubris of the deranged. And in doing so, these Brexiteers miss the truth that the most enduring aspect of their own culture was never the struggle against dark and sinister forces or their history of striding the world and forcing all others to bow down. Struggles, at some point, must end, and conquerers will eventually be overthrown. No, what endeared many to Englishness (because it’s a claim upon Englishness that is the chief driver of Brexit) is the quiet romance and drama of home life. It’s why Jane Austen remains irresistibly popular. It’s why The Lord of the Rings ends like this:

At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing agains as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

Cuckold Fetishism and the Republican Party

Did you know that Paul Manafort forced his wife to engage in multiple gang-bangs with black men? It’s true, as revealed by text messages from one of his daughter’s cell phone (because his daughter knew about it). Actually, to call it a “gang bang” is probably a misnomer–more like he was arranging to have his wife raped by multiple people for his viewing pleasure, and all this after she sustained brain damage during a horse-riding accident.

Paul Manafort is a piece of shit and deserves to rot in prison for the rest of his miserable life. But this isn’t simply example number 2,984,003 of a conservative, “traditional” family values man being discovered to have some pretty non-conservative leanings in the bedroom. After all, as I have argued previously, conservatives these days hold themselves ontologically elevated above the masses. The rules and traditions they promote are for the lower orders to follow. They can violate these rules because they are simply better people. Cable news pundits keep searching for some consistency in the conservative worldview (“Do they not care about the deficit any more?”), but they keep missing the fact that conservatives hold themselves apart from the rest of us and simply do not judge their own by how many abortions they’ve paid for or how many thirteen-year-olds they’ve raped. Let this rule be your Rosetta Stone for understanding conservative thought.

But the Manafort case leads me to consider other, apparently non-sexual examples of a similar phenomenon. What drives many cuckold fetishists is the arousal generated by the feeling of humiliation. To see your wife in the arms of another man, to watch him penetrate her and her enjoy it–that gets some men riled up. Because we often fetish what is at variance with the prevailing norms of our society. Nobody says, “I totally have a fetish for missionary-position sex with a hot blonde bikini model in a monogamous relationship with me.” No, fetishes lie askew to our moral foundations, thus the reason that humiliation, especially for powerful men with conservative ideologies, can be such a turn-on–because it’s not supposed to be.

For my part, one of the prevailing mysteries, of recent political developments, has been the question of: Do these people have no dignity? Among the cadre of Republican talking heads are the likes of Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, and Lindsey Graham–people who are on record as speaking out against Donald Trump, warning the world that he would destroy the American republic, that he was a racist to boot and an absolute ignoramus even on his best days. And yet these three people, more than any others, have fully embraced Trump and rush to embrace and defend him even from those charges they have previously made against him. And I keep finding myself wondering: why? Have they changed their little minds so completely?

The answer is this: Donald Trump won. He humiliated them. And they discovered they liked the humiliation and want it to keep going.

Now, I don’t know, and am not necessarily alleging, that Donald Trump has actually had sex with Ted Cruz’s wife or Mitt Romney’s wives. But I am saying that the underlying drive behind fetishizing cuckoldry can also explain some of these political developments. No one in the Republican Party is ever going to stand up to him because, to a man, they have all discovered just how fucking hot humiliation can be. And you don’t get to experience that if you stand up and tell the man plugging away at your wife to be gone. You don’t get to experience that sweet humiliation if you take the chance to make yourself the main character in this particular scene. You just got to let him finish, and if you’re lucky, if you’re very lucky, maybe you’ll get the sloppy seconds once he’s done.

Maybe he’ll let you have that.