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Casey Michel, ThinkProgress, and the Dissemination of Fake News

In Arts & Letters, News and Current Events, Politics, Rhetoric on May 8, 2019 at 6:00 am

We hear a lot about “fake news” these days. Until I was its victim, I was skeptical about the extent of its existence.

Now I understand why trust in the media is so low and why news networks are associated with leftist bias. I have learned, as well, that fake news does not necessarily consist of flagrant, outright lying; it can involve exaggeration, subtle distortion, fabrication, deception, insinuation, innuendo, opinion dressed up as fact, and guilt-by-association.

Here’s my story.

Last November, I gave a lecture about decentralization to the Abbeville Institute, an organization whose stated purpose is “to critically explore what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition.” The full text of the lecture, from which I read verbatim, is available here. The lecture was filmed and recorded and is available here. It does not mention secession, race, or the Confederacy. The focus of the conference was political secession and decentralization—controversial topics, to be sure, but important ones in light of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, Brexit, and recent separatist movements in Eritrea, Quebec, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Scotland, Kosovo, Angola, Catalan, Cyprus, China, and elsewhere. Of the speakers at the conference, only Dr. Donald Livingston, the president of the Abbeville Institute and a professor emeritus of philosophy at Emory University, and I were Southerners. The other speakers represented diverse political commitments and came from different geographic backgrounds.

Six days after my talk, ThinkProgress, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive think tank, ran an article by Mr. Casey Michel titled “Neo-Confederates have failed for the past 150 years. Now, they have a new ally.” The article features my photograph beneath this title, beside the photograph of Mr. Larry Secede Kilgore, a man I have never met, do not know, and had never heard of before reading about him in the article. Displaying my photograph prominently beneath the label “Neo-confederate” gives the impression that I am the face of that movement—or that I am the new ally of the so-called Neo-confederates referred to in the title. The article features two photographs of me but not of four of the other seven speakers at the conference (a separate article that Mr. Michel wrote about the conference, published on November 11, 2018, features a photograph of Mr. Michael Boldin, the executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center). Nor is there a photograph of Mr. Marcus Ruiz Evans, the principal subject of Mr. Michel’s piece and a young Mexican American who touts himself as a progressive advocating California’s secession from the United States of America.

The opening line of Mr. Michel’s article calls the Abbeville Institute conference “a conclave for neo-Confederates, white nationalists, and members of the fringe far right,” and there I am, pictured front and center, standing at the podium, the ostensible leader of the moment if not the movement. Without directly calling me a neo-Confederate or a white nationalist, Mr. Michel and the editors at ThinkProgress portrayed me as one.

I am not a neo-Confederate. In fact, I have written that “Confederate cultural values have been discredited.” Had Mr. Michel researched me, moreover, he would have found my scholarship that both analyzes and condemns white supremacy.  As just two representative examples among many, he might have read “Haunted by History’s Ghostly Gaps: A Literary Critique of the Dred Scott Decision and Its Historical Treatments” (published in 2009 by The Georgetown Journal of Law & Modern Critical Race Perspectives) or “From Natural Law to Natural Inferiority: The Construction of Racist Jurisprudence in Early Virginia” (published in 2013 by PEER English: Journal of New Critical Thinking). I have, moreover, been at the forefront of criticisms of the American Bar Association and state bar associations for their regulations that disproportionately impact ethnic minorities and reduce diversity in the legal profession.

My spouse is not white; my children are mixed race. It is deeply offensive and hurtful to me to be misrepresented and mischaracterized as sympathetic to white nationalism, an extremist ideology that would denounce and disparage my own family.

On August 25, 2017, after the tragic events in Charlottesville, I signed “An Open Letter from Christian Scholars on Racism in America Today.”  This letter, the terms of which I still affirm in their entirety, states,

Among the most grievous sins committed by early Americans was the enslavement of and trafficking in Africans and African Americans. Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but racism was not.  Indeed, it was often institutionalized and in some ways heightened over time through Jim Crow legislation, de facto segregation, structural inequalities, and pervasively racist attitudes.  And other persons of color, including Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, have often been subjected to official and unofficial discrimination.  What we have seen in Charlottesville makes it clear once again that racism is not a thing of the past, something that brothers and sisters of color have been trying to tell the white church for years.

The letter goes on to state,

Racism should be denounced by religious and civil leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.

I continue, as always, to denounce racism, white nationalism, and white supremacy, all of which conflict with my sincerely and deeply held Christian faith.

Mr. Michel states that I once worked as a staff attorney to Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court.  That’s true.  The article fails to note, however, that I left that position when, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, Chief Justice Moore issued an administrative order to Alabama’s probate judges directing them not to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Mentioning my former employment with Chief Justice Moore is a textbook example of the guilt-by-association, ad hominem fallacy that professional journalists should avoid at all costs, it being a mode of inferior logic and unsophisticated argumentation.

As most journalists are aware, moreover, the political views of law clerks and the judges for whom they clerk are not necessary similar. In many cases they differ drastically. Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance, reportedly hired at least one law clerk per term who identified as “liberal” because he wished to cover blind spots that his own jurisprudence prevented him from seeing.

Mr. Michel’s article claims that most of the Abbeville Institute conference attendees “were already graying,” and that “almost all of [them] were white.” What to make of this overt ageism? And who were these non-white attendees? Why did Mr. Michel deprive them of a voice? Would they have agreed with his description of the conference as a place where “white supremacy [was] simmering just below the surface” and there was “a lingering presence of neo-Confederacy”? If so, why were they there? Does Mr. Michel’s failure or refusal to interview them unwittingly reflect an inchoate or unconscious racism predicated on an assumed sense of superiority, on a paternalism in which Mr. Michel plays the role of cultural better tasked with analyzing his less sophisticated subordinates who are in need his enlightened assistance? Has Mr. Michel instantiated the “white savior” complex? Wouldn’t an account of the multiethnic nature of this conference have been more interesting, nuanced, and instructive than Mr. Michel’s simplistic depiction of a homogeneous group of likeminded “people preaching tired ideas”?

Mr. Michel’s article violates journalistic ethics and standards, calling into question not only his integrity but also the integrity of his employer, ThinkProgress, and its editors.

I wrote the editors of ThinkProgress to request a retraction or revision of Mr. Michel’s article—if not for me, I stated, then for the sake of ThinkProgress’s credibility as a journalism outlet.  Doing so, I added, might save them from embarrassment. Mr. Michel responded by asking, “Would you like to send a statement for the recording [sic] clarifying your opposition to being associated with white nationalism, or would you prefer that we quote from your email?” But I don’t just oppose being associated with white nationalism; I oppose white nationalism, an odious ideology that I condemn. At least Mr. Michel has acknowledged in writing that he associated me with white nationalism. He might have denied that erroneous association to avoid exposing his dishonesty.

Ms. Kiley Kroh, a senior editor at ThinkProgress, echoed Mr. Michel’s offer to include my perspective or statement in the article, but if I agreed to that, I would have validated the article, which was unworthy of validation. So I did not settle with Mr. Michel’s or Ms. Kroh’s offer, which seemed to me less like a sincere concession and more like a deceptive tactic. Instead, I sent Mr. Michel several questions—for the record.

My questions concerned the journalistic integrity of his article, in particular regarding the verifiability of his sources and the unprofessionalism of his methods.

Anyone can show up at a place and claim to have heard there all kinds of unflattering, objectionable conversations. A journalist can allege that some person or another said this or that if he or she does not document his or her sources. Absent the names of the individuals Mr. Michel quotes, there’s no way to track them down; his readers are left to take him at his word. He identifies only two interviewees by name: Mr. Kilgore and Mr. Kurt Burkhalter. (In a separate article about the conference, he also identifies Mr. Tom Glass, whose brief remarks were delivered publically to the entire audience—in other words, who was not interviewed by Mr. Michel, as I confirmed with Mr. Glass by phone.)

I tracked down Mr. Burkhalter, whose name, contrary to Mr. Michel’s reporting, is Karl, not Kurt. We emailed and spoke by phone. He told me that Mr. Michel did not identify himself as a reporter or a member of the press or even introduce himself to Mr. Burkhalter.  He doesn’t remember speaking to Mr. Michel. Nor did Mr. Michel ask Mr. Burkhalter to speak for the record. If Mr. Burkhalter was recorded, it was not to his knowledge.

What if Mr. Michel’s multiple unnamed sources do not exist? What if they aren’t real people? What if their remarks and conversations never occurred? What if Mr. Michel just invented them out of thin air to demean his subjects? Mr. Michel did not respond to my request for information about these people; nor did he state whether he identified himself as a journalist to them (if they exist) or recorded their remarks (if they occurred). And were there “roughly 60 conference attendees,” as Mr. Michel claims here, or “some 75 participants,” as he claims here?

Mr. Michel quotes one unnamed attendee as saying, “I can’t believe we’re in Texas and there’s no grits! …. Y’all been invaded by Yankees.”  I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could track this person down or prove that he or she exists. He has not responded.

He alleges that unnamed attendees “complained that ‘diversity’ was lowering the average IQ of Harvard,” and, at lunch, “swapped stories of supposed ‘Muslim-controlled no-go zones’ in the U.K. and support for British proto-fascist Tommy Robinson.” I was present at this lunch and heard no conversations to this effect. I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that these statements were actually made or that these attendees actually exist. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that an unnamed attendee stated, “You can’t bring up secession without being labeled a white nationalist.” I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that this statement was actually made or that this attendee actually exists. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that “one of the organizers” of the conference “hollered that Confederate flags would be referred to as ‘Freedom Flags’ and were available to any interested attendees.” I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that these statements were actually made or that this conference organizer actually exists. He has not responded. Dr. Livingston, however, has informed me that he, Dr. Livingston, was the only conference organizer, and that he hollered no such thing about Freedom Flags.

Mr. Michel’s interviews, if or to the extent they occurred, were with only attendees, not any of the speakers at the conference. Is that because the speakers had multiple graduate degrees among them, because their responses would have been measured and sophisticated and, thus, incompatible with the narrative that Mr. Michel wanted to tell? Is it because the speakers are real, traceable people who could be reached for comment or rebuttal?

Mr. Michel alleges that attendees at the conference loathed Abraham Lincoln. I asked him, for the record, if he could provide evidence for that claim or whether he interviewed any attendees about Lincoln. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that speakers at the conference “had waxed poetically for Dixie.” I didn’t see any speakers do such a thing; therefore, I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify or document his claim. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel calls nullification “a discredited legal principle supposedly permitting states to disregard federal law.” Because he provides no attribution for this claim, I take it to be his own. When I asked him how he squared this opinion with the fact that certain states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use in contravention of federal law, he did not respond.

*

On November 20, 2018, I emailed the other speakers at the conference to forward them my written correspondence with Mr. Michel.  Mr. Evans responded later that day claiming that Mr. Michel had previously written false or misleading information about YesCalifornia, the political action committee with which Mr. Evans is affiliated and which promotes California’s secession from the United States. So I decided to take a closer look at Mr. Michel’s claims about YesCalifornia in the article that I felt had targeted me.

This article claims, without providing or citing evidence, that YesCalifornia is “a Kremlin-backed group” that “has acted as one of the most obvious fronts for Russian interference efforts over the past few years.” I asked Mr. Michel whether he could verify or substantiate this claim. He has not responded. Curiously, however, he has written elsewhere that “[n]o evidence has emerged of direct Kremlin funding for the Calexit initiative, or similar endeavors in the United States.”

Mr. Michel also states that YesCalifornia was “reportedly helped by the architects of Russia’s social media interference efforts—one of the few American organizations directly linked to the types of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts that meddled in U.S. politics the past few years.” The words “linked directly” hyperlink to a BBC News article (“‘Russian trolls’ promoted California independence,” November 4, 2017) that does not claim a direct link between Russian social media accounts and YesCalifornia. Rather, the article states that social media accounts banned by Twitter due to ties to the Internet Research Agency—“a St. Petersburg-based ‘troll factory”—were pushing #Calexit hashtags and linking “to other social media accounts advocating the secession of California from the United States.”

I asked Mr. Evans about this BBC article. He wrote back that Mr. Michel “fails to point out that the article he links to directly contradicts the narrative that he is pushing, which is that Calexit is mostly, or nothing but a Russian backed social movement.” He clarified that, “although the FBI was instructing all technology companies to shut down all social media counts linked to the Russian government, the YesCalifornia Twitter and Facebook page have been untouched and are still active at this time, proving that the FBI itself confirms that YesCalifornia is an actual organic group.”

Mr. Michel is quoted in the BBC article as saying that the Anti-Globalisation Movement “received funding from the Kremlin to organize this conference to pay for the travel and lodging of American and European secession movements,” and that Louis Marinelli (a cofounder of YesCalifornia) spoke at an Anti-Globalisation conference. Mr. Michel provides no citation or evidence to back up his claim that the Kremlin helped to subsidize this conference. The fact that Mr. Marinelli spoke at a conference hosted by an organization with which he is not affiliated, moreover, hardly qualifies as a “direct link” between YesCalifornia and Russian interference in U.S. politics. In fact, Mr. Michel told a reporter for Playboy that “there’s no indication Marinelli himself has received funding from the Russian government,” adding, however, that “Yes California received rent-free space for its ‘Embassy’…provided by the Kremlin funded Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia.”

I know little about YesCalifornia or California secession movements, and even less about Russian meddling in U.S. politics. I cannot affirm or deny Mr. Michel’s claims about them. That, however, is precisely the problem: an educated reader ought to be able to evaluate the truthfulness of claims in articles that are published for a mass readership. Such claims should be fact-checked and scrutinized before they reach print. Journalists must be careful to distinguish fact from opinion, and possibility from actuality. They must clarify when they are speculating and when they are registering uncontroverted data. It isn’t fair to the general public for the media to convey vague or unsubstantiated allegations, placing the burden on skeptical readers to affirm or deny reported claims. Most readers are not lawyers or journalists trained and equipped for such rigorous undertakings. They don’t have time systematically to discredit every journalist who raises suspicions.

*

As a lawyer, I could be reprimanded, maybe even disbarred, for the kind of professional misconduct that Mr. Michel has demonstrated in his intemperate reporting about the Abbeville Institute’s conference. Shouldn’t journalists be held equally accountable?  Arguably, at least in certain circumstances, their capacity to harm society is greater than lawyers’, given that their writings are immediately available worldwide whereas the actions of most lawyers most of the time are confined to their jurisdiction and the parties to a case. If I could be removed from my profession or disciplined for actions similar to those of Mr. Michel in this instance, why shouldn’t he be removed from his?  Will media companies, including those that employ him, care about the flaws in his reporting?  Will they continue to feature his writings or air his opinions on television? Will his other work be scrutinized to ensure that it has truthfully conveyed verifiable facts to the general public? And what will happen to him if concerned readers discover a pattern of professional misconduct in his work, or that he has misled the public?

Mr. Michel’s coverage of the Abbeville Institute is hardly bold. It’s not an example of the little guy standing up to some big, bad, powerful corporation. The Abbeville Institute has comparatively little money and resources.  According to 990s available online, the Abbeville Institute reported year-end net assets or fund balances of $360,854 in 2015, $213,060 in 2014, and 178,760 in 2013. Its reported total revenue was $138,041 in 2015, $97,873 in 2014, and $56,291 in 2013. By contrast, in 2016, the Center for American Progress Action Fund reported net assets or fund balances of $4,225,946 and total revenue of $7,751,090. (According to the IRS, a 501(c)(4) may, unlike a 501(c)(3), “further its [tax] exempt purposes through lobbying as its primary activity without jeopardizing its exempt status.”) The Abbeville Institute is tiny by comparison.

Nor have I found anything published by the Abbeville Institute that could be described as “white nationalist,” which is defined as “the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s culture and public life.” The Abbeville Institute’s archives include favorable portraits of Jimmy Carter and civil rights, and its authors have characterized white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan as anti-Southern or as breaches of the Southern tradition. Vietnamese, Jewish, and an African-American authors have contributed to its blog. Mr. Michel cites this Abbeville Institute blog post as evidence of thinly veiled racism, but fails to note its celebration of ethnic diversity in the South.

No doubt scholars associated with the Abbeville Institute have expressed views with which I disagree. That would be the case with nearly any organization, given that my idiosyncratic opinions make me difficult to categorize along a simplistic left-right spectrum or within conventional political taxonomies. Because I believe in the merits and benefits of decentralization, I agreed enthusiastically to discuss this topic before a captive Abbeville Institute audience. Because I believe, moreover, that the American South is not a categorically bad place, that its history is, among other things, complex and worthy of serious study, I have been an associated scholar of the Abbeville Institute for many years. That fact alone should not disqualify my views, which deserve to be heard on their merits.

I remain friendly with academics, writers, and journalists on the left.  I take their ideas and writing seriously and engage them in constructive, civil, and good-faith dialogue so that I may better understand their views while refining and revising my own.  We have mutual respect for one another.  For many years, I myself was a man of the left. I still hold certain views with which self-identifying progressives would agree.

When progressives who know me read Mr. Michel’s article, they will, I suspect, immediately question his credibility and sincerity, even if they also question my judgment for speaking to the Abbeville Institute, a group with which they would not align themselves. It would seem to me that ThinkProgress would wish to attract a wider readership in states like Alabama, where progressives are few in number.  By associating me with white nationalists and neo-Confederates, however, ThinkProgress may drive away reasonable, level-headed moderates in Alabama whose vast presence here revealed itself with the election of Doug Jones to the United States Senate. In short, ThinkProgress risks, with the publication of Mr. Michel’s article, mainstreaming what it seeks to depict as extreme and alienating the very audience it seeks to attract—all because one reporter did not do his homework or adhere to professional standards of reporting.

I am not familiar with Mr. Michel’s larger body of work, but I wonder whether his publishers should revisit his writings to ensure that they contain verifiable facts, identifiable sources, proper attribution, and appropriate context. Mr. Michel has demonstrated, with his coverage of the Abbeville Institute conference, that he’s capable of distortion and unprofessionalism. Might he have been unprofessional in his previous writings?

Journalism as a profession depends upon the public trust, its chief function being to disseminate reliable information for public knowledge. People should make informed decisions whenever possible; the accurate and extensive communication of uncontroverted facts enables them to do so. The consequences of unprofessional reporting are potentially far-reaching and wide-ranging: What would it mean if the public, en masse, lost faith in the media, if there were no reliable fora for information gathering and transmission, if the definition of “information” was itself subverted beyond recognition?  How would we make informed decisions?  How could we knowledgeably mobilize ourselves into purposeful communities with shared values and commitments?

I believe that a diversity of thought and opinion is essential to the flourishing of society, and I admire ThinkProgress for standing up for ideas that fulfill and promote its core mission. I believe strongly in the freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and worry daily that they are under threat. That is why I cannot tolerate journalistic error and mischaracterization that cause harm to me and my family—and to honest journalists everywhere. Because the freedom of speech and the press is vital, it must not be cheapened or undermined by lies, fraud, or unprofessionalism.

This is not the story of some hack scribbler dashing off a dubious hit-job or smear piece. It’s bigger than that; it’s an illustrative example of the more general decline in journalistic standards, ethics, and accountability that contributes to widespread distrust of the media.

I am a human being, not some online robot or avatar.  My wife, my two children (aged seven and five), my mother and father, my elderly grandmother, my siblings—they are all living, breathing human beings who know me and love me, and who have been demoralized, disturbed, and disheartened by Mr. Michel’s article.

And guess what? If any of them trusted the media before, they don’t now. And they’ll applaud President Trump every time he attacks the media for “fake news.” And if there are others like them across America who are likewise victims of bad or unethical reporting, who do not believe that the media fairly informs the public about matters of general concern, then anger at the media will spread; trust in journalists will diminish; “news” will no longer be considered news.

Claas Relotius’s fabrications over several years validated growing skepticism about an impartial news media, as did numerous media statements about the Covington Catholic High School students that video footage later contradicted. I can add Mr. Michel’s reporting of me to the list of reasons I am skeptical about the truth of many stories the news media disseminates.

It is incumbent upon journalists to avoid unethical reporting and unprincipled methods that demean their profession and undercut the good-faith work of responsible reporters who strive to provide accurate information and verifiable data. The stakes are high in this “Information Age” in which we do not yet fully understand the effects and potential consequences of our new technologies on society. When in doubt, it’s best to bear in mind the ancient proverb: “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles.” For we’ve had enough troubles in these troublesome times.

Journalists should stick to facts and not seek to destroy their ideological opponents with reckless words. And we, all of us, left and right, should unite to hold them accountable if they don’t.

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Hayek’s Case for Decentralized Communities

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Religion, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Western Philosophy on January 16, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at Mises Wire.

My talk today is about decentralization and epistemology. At the outset I wish to disclaim any specialized expertise in this subject. I’m a lawyer by training who loves literature and earned a doctorate in English. It would be a stretch to call me a philosopher or a political theorist, hence this anchoring disclaimer to prevent me from sailing too deep into philosophical seas.

I have divided my argument, such as it is, into two parts: the impersonal and the personal. The former is a philosophical case for decentralization; the latter involves private considerations about intimate human relationships around which communities of common purpose organize and conduct themselves. In the end, the two approaches are mutually reinforcing, yielding, I hope, benevolent and humane considerations. Presenting them as separate, however, signals to different audiences whose tolerance for appeals to feeling may vary.

The Impersonal

The impersonal argument boils down to this: decentralized systems of order are more efficient, and hence more desirable, because they better account for and respond to dispersed knowledge across diverse communities with unique customs, ambitions, and values. Heterogeneous, bottom-up systems governed by local institutions that reflect native knowledge, talent, and choices more effectually serve humanity writ large than centralized, top-down systems that are unaccountable to local norms and mores.

Polycentric law, or polycentrism,is the term I use to describe this organizational arrangement. Other names that suggest themselves fail to express the dynamism of polycentrism. Federalism, for example, confounds because of its association with the early American Federalists. It presupposes, moreover, even in its articulation by the inaptly named Anti-Federalists, too strong of a central authority, in my view, beneath which local authorities contend as coequal subordinates. Localism, for its part, suffers from associations with protectionist, anticompetitive economic policies. Other names such as confederation, city state, or anarcho-capitalism likewise have their drawbacks.

So I’m stuck with polycentrism as the operative label for the working system of small and plural authorities that I seek to describe. The chief value of this system is its propensity to temper and check the natural ambition and pride that lead humans not only to aspirations of power and greatness, but also to the coercive institutions and machinations that inhibit the voluntary organization of individuals around shared norms and customs. An optimal polycentric order consists of multiple, competing jurisdictions of humane and reasonable scale, each with their own divided powers that prevent the consolidation of authority in the form of a supreme ruler or tyrant (or, more likely in our age, of a managerial, administrative, and bureaucratic state) and each with a written document outlining governing rules and institutions while affirming a core commitment to common goals and a guiding mission. To speak of an optimal polycentric order, however, is problematic, because polycentric orders enable distinct communities to select and define for themselves the operative assemblage of rules and institutions that fulfills their chief ideals and favored principles.

F. A. Hayek’s price theory provides a useful starting point for discussing the benefits of bottom-up, decentralized modes of human ordering that represent polycentrism. This theory holds that knowledge is dispersed throughout society and incapable of being comprehensively understood by any one person or group of people; therefore, centralized economic planning inevitably fails because it cannot accurately assess or calculate the felt needs and coordinated activities of faraway people in disparate communities; only in a market economy where consumers freely buy and sell according to their unique preferences will reliable pricing gradually reveal itself.

Hayek’s theory of knowledge is predicated on the fallibility and limitations of human intelligence. Because the complexity of human behavior and interaction exceeds the capacity of one mind or group of minds fully to comprehend it, human coordination requires deference to emergent or spontaneous orders, rooted in custom, that adapt to the dynamic, evolving needs and preferences of everyday consumers. Hayek’s articulation of price theory contemplates collective and aggregated wisdom—i.e., disembodied or embedded knowledge—and cautions against grand designs based on the alleged expertise of a select class of people.

Michael Polanyi, another polymath and an ardent anti-Marxist, exposited related theories about polycentricity, spontaneous order, central planning, and knowledge, but he focused less on economic theory and more on scientific discovery, independent inquiry, and the free, systematic exchange of research and ideas. Scientific advancement, in his view, did not proceed as the construction of a house proceeds, namely according to a fixed plan or design, but rather by a process analogous to, in his words, “the ordered arrangement of living cells which constitute a polycellular organism.”1 “Throughout the process of embryonic development,” he explained, “each cell pursues its own life, and yet each so adjusts its growth to that of its neighbors that a harmonious structure of the aggregate emerges.”2 “This”, he concluded, “is exactly how scientists co-operate: by continually adjusting their line of research to the results achieved up to date by their fellow-scientists.”3

Polanyi labored to show that “the central planning of production” was “strictly impossible”4 and that “the operations of a system of spontaneous order in society, such as the competitive order of a market, cannot be replaced by the establishment of a deliberate ordering agency.”5 He described the inefficiencies of purely hierarchical organizational structures within which information rises upward from the base, mediated successively by subsequent, higher tiers of authority, arriving ultimately at the top of a pyramid, at some supreme authority, which then centrally directs the entire system, commanding orders down to the base. This convoluted process, besides being inefficient, is susceptible to disinformation and misinformation, and to a lack of reliable, on-the-ground knowledge of relevant circumstances.

While Polanyi points to mundane instances of spontaneous ordering, such as passengers at train stations, without central direction, standing on platforms and filling seats on the trains,6 he also examines more complex forms of behavioral adaptation to interpersonal interactions that, over time and through repetition, emerge as tacitly understood habits and rules that gain acceptance by the larger corporate body.

Centralization concentrates power in fewer people in smaller spaces, whereas decentralization divides and spreads power among vast networks of people across wider spaces. Under centralized government, good people who enjoy power may, in theory, quickly accomplish good, but evil people who enjoy power may quickly accomplish evil. Because of the inherent, apocryphal dangers of the latter possibility, centralized government must not be preferred. Our tendencies as humans are catastrophic, asserting themselves in the sinful behaviors we both choose and cannot help. There is, moreover, on a considerable range of issues, disagreement about what constitutes the bad and the good, the evil and the virtuous. If questions about badness or goodness, evil and virtuousness are simply or hastily resolved in favor of the central power, then resistant communities—threatened, marginalized, silenced, and coerced—will eventually exercise their political agency, mobilizing into insurrectionary alliances to undermine the central power. Centralized power therefore increases the probability of large-scale violence whereas decentralized government reduces conflicts to local levels where they tend to be minor and offsetting.

Polycentric orders produce self-constituting communities that regulate themselves through the mediating institutions they have voluntarily erected to align with their values, traditions, and priorities. Their practical scope and scale enable them to govern themselves according to binding rules that are generally agreeable to the majority within their jurisdiction.

A man alone in the wilderness is vulnerable to threats. When he enters into society, however, he combines with others who, with common interests, serve and protect each other from outside threats. If society grows large, materializing as vast states or governments, the people therein lose their sense of common purpose, their desire to unify for mutual benefit and protection. Factions and classes arise, each contending for power. The people in whom the sovereignty of the central power supposedly resides may become disempowered and marginalized as the network of bureaucratic functionaries proliferates. The people are displaced by arms and agencies of the central power. Although progress cannot be achieved without constructive competition among and between rival groups, societies cannot flourish when their inhabitants do not share a fundamental sense of common purpose and identity.

Centralized power may at first blush seem to be more efficient because its decision-making process is not complex, consisting as it does of top-down commands to subordinates. Theoretically, and only theoretically, ultimate efficiency could be achieved if all power were possessed by one person. But of course in reality no one person could protect his or her power from external threats or internal insubordination. In fact, the concentration of power in one person invites dissent and insurrection. It is easier, after all, to overthrow one person than to overthrow many. Therefore, in practice, centralized power requires the supreme authority to build bureaucracies of agents and functionaries loyally and dutifully to institute its top-down directive

But how does the central power generate a sense of loyalty and duty among and between these subordinates? Through patronage and political favors, pensions, rent seeking, influence peddling, immunities, cronyism, graft—in short, by strengthening the human urge for self-aggrandizement, elevating select people and groups to privileged positions at extraordinary expense to ordinary people or consumers. Accordingly, centralization as a form of human organization incentivizes corruption, malfeasance, and dishonesty while building convoluted networks of costly officials through whom information is mediated and distorted. The result is widespread corruption, misunderstanding, and inefficiency.

Even assuming arguendo that concentrated authority is more efficient, it would ease the ability to accomplish evil and mischief as well as good. The purported benefits of consolidated power presuppose a benevolent supreme authority with comprehensive knowledge of native circumstances. Whatever conceivable benefits may be obtained through hypothetically quick decision-making are outweighed by the potential harms resulting from the implementation of the decision as binding law. The limited and fallible knowledge on which the decision is based amplifies the resultant harm beyond what it might have been in a decentralized system that localized power and thereby diminished the capability of bad people to cause harm.

The efficiency, if any, of commanding orders and setting policy on a top-down model is therefore neutralized by the resulting inefficiencies and harmful consequences that could have been avoided had central planners not presupposed knowledge of local circumstances. Absent an offsetting authority, any centralized power may, without just cause, coerce and molest peaceful men and women in contravention of their distinct laws and customs. Naturally, these men and women, combined as resistant communities, will contest unwarranted, unwanted tyranny that threatens their way of life and understanding of community. Disturbance of social harmony and backlash against unjustified coercion render inefficient the allegedly efficient operations of the central power.

It becomes apparent, after long consideration, that centralized modes of power are not more efficient after all, that in fact they are inimical to liberty and virtue when compared to their decentralized alternatives. But that is not the only reason why the decentralized model is superior.

The Personal

You don’t enjoy fine wine merely by talking and thinking about it, but by actually drinking it, sniffing its aromas, swirling it in your glass, wetting your tongue and coating your mouth with it. A true appreciation of wine is experiential, based on the repeated pleasure of tasting and consuming different grape varieties with their distinctive flavor components. Most people develop their loves and priorities this way. They do not love abstractions, but they love their neighbors, families, and friends. They prioritize issues that are to them near and daily. They have done so from an early age. “It is within families and other institutional arrangements characteristic of neighborhood, village, and community life that citizenship is learned and practiced for most people most of the time,” said Vincent Ostrom.7 “The first order of priority in learning the craft of citizenship as applied to public affairs,” he added, “needs to focus on how to cope with problems in the context of family, neighborhood, village, and community. This is where people acquire the rudiments for becoming self-governing, by learning how to live and work with others.”8

I learned to accept defeat, not from national election campaigns, foreign wars, or too-big-to-fail banks that nevertheless failed, but from little-league baseball, when my third-grade team, the Cardinals, lost in the semifinals, and when my freshman basketball team lost in the finals. I still dream about that championship basketball game. My coach had put me in the game for the sole purpose of shooting three-pointers, my specialty, but the defense double-teamed me. I was unable to get a clear shot. Every time I passed the ball away my coach yelled “no,” commanding me to shoot. Earlier in the season, before he knew my skill behind the three-point line, he shouted “no” whenever I took a shot.

I learned about injustice when my first-grade teacher punished me in a manner that was disproportionate to my alleged offense, which to this day I deny having committed, and about grace and mercy when my mother forgave me, without so much as a spank, for an offense that I had most definitely committed.

I learned about God and faith while having breakfast at my grandmother’s kitchen table. She kept a Bible on the table beside a bookshelf full of texts on Christian themes and teachings. At the middle of the table was a little jar of Bible verses. I recall reaching my hand into the jar and pulling out verses, one after another, weekend after weekend, reading them to her and then discussing with her what their meaning might be. This mode of learning was intimate and hands-on and prepared me to experience God for myself, to study His word and figure out my beliefs about Him when later I retired to places of solitude for silent contemplation. These experiences meant far more to me than the words of any faraway televangelist.

Whenever I stayed at my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would awaken early and start the coffee pot. My brother and I, hearing him downstairs, would rush to his side. He shared sections of the newspaper with us and allowed us to drink coffee with him. He made us feel like responsible adults, two little children with newspaper and coffee in hand, pondering current events and passing judgment on the latest political trends and scandals. This indispensable education did not come from public broadcasting or from some expensive civic literacy project orchestrated by the National Foundation for the Arts or the National Foundation for the Humanities. It came from family, in familiar spaces, in the warmth of a loving home.

Mrs. Stubbs taught me manners and decorum at cotillion, although she never succeeded in teaching me to dance. I learned etiquette on the golf course where I spent my childhood summers playing with groups of grown men, competing with them while learning how to ask questions about their careers and professions, staying silent as they swung or putted, not walking in their lines, holding the flagstick for them, giving them honors on the tee when they earned the lowest score on the previous hole, raking the bunkers, walking carefully to avoid leaving spike marks on the greens, fixing my ball marks, and so on.

I learned about death when a girl I carpooled with to church passed away from cancer. She was only four or five when she died. Then there was the death of my great-grandmother, then my great-grandfather, then my grandfather, and so on down the line, which to this day approaches me. In the South we still open our caskets to display corpses and remind ourselves of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. This solemn ritual keeps us mindful of our purpose in life, draws us closer to our friends and family, and ensures that we contemplate the gravest and most important questions.

My two grandfathers meant the world to me. Both of them wore suits and ties to work every day. They dressed professionally and responsibly for every occasion. I copied them at an early age. In high school, while the other kids gave themselves over to the latest fads and fashions, I wore button-down shirts tucked neatly into slacks. I thought I wouldn’t score points with my peers by dressing up for class, but before long many of my friends adopted the practice as we began to think of ourselves as little men in pursuit of an education. Because we were athletes, our clothing was not just tolerated but eventually mimicked. When the other basketball teams showed up at our gym, we met them in coat and tie while they wore t-shirts that were too big and breakaway pants that sagged beneath their rear ends. Our team might have startled them by our formal attire. But we startled them even more after we removed to the locker room, put on our jerseys, stormed the court and then beat the living hell out of them.

I could go on. The point  is that felt experience defines who we are and shapes how we behave. As Justice Holmes remarked, “What we most love and revere generally is determined by early associations. I love granite rocks and barberry bushes, no doubt because with them were my earliest joys that reach back through the past eternity of my life.”9 What he says next is more important:

But while one’s experience thus makes certain preferences dogmatic for oneself, recognition of how they came to be so leaves one able to see that others, poor souls, may be equally dogmatic about something else. And this again means skepticism. Not that one’s belief or love does not remain. Not that we would not fight and die for it if important—we all, whether we know it or not, are fighting to make the kind of a world that we should like—but that we have learned to recognize that others will fight and die to make a different world, with equal sincerity or belief. Deep-seated preferences can not be argued about—you can not argue a man into liking a glass of beer—and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.10

I take these words as cautionary—as a stark reminder of the horrifying potential for violence that inheres in the attempt of one group of people formed by certain associations to impose by force their norms and practices on another group of people formed by different associations. It is the distinct virtue of polycentricity to accommodate these differences and to minimize the chances of violence by diffusing and dispersing power.

Conclusion

The polycentric order I advocate is not utopian; it’s concrete and practical and exemplified by the mediating institutions and subsidiary authorities such as churches, synagogues, clubs, little leagues, community associations, schools, and professional memberships through and with which we express ourselves, politically or otherwise, and to whose rules we voluntarily submit.

When we turn on our televisions in the evening, we are, many of us from this part of the country, disturbed by the increase of lewd conduct, divisive rhetoric, mischievous behavior, and institutionalized decadence that are contrary to our local norms yet systemically and vigorously forced upon us by foreign or outside powers. Turning off the television in protest seems like our only mode of resistance, our only manner of dissent. Disgusted by mounting evidence that our politicians have marshaled the apparatus of the mighty federal government to achieve personal fame and glory, many of us feel exploited and powerless. In the face of massive state bureaucracies, large corporations, biased media, tendentious journalists, and commanding militaries, we nevertheless exercise our agency, bringing joy and hope to our families, friends, and neighbors, tending to concrete circumstances that are under our direct control. The promise of community reinvigorates and refreshes us.

Recently I strolled around Copenhagen, Denmark, on a bright Sunday morning. Though the church bells rang through the streets, echoing off buildings and cobblestone sidewalks, silencing conversations, and startling some pigeons, the churches themselves remained empty. I saw no worshipers or worship services. Some of the churches had been repurposed as cafes and restaurants with waiters and waitresses but no pastors or priests; customers drank their wine and ate their bread at fine little tables, but there were no communion rituals or sacraments.

A month later, also on a Sunday, I flew into Montgomery, Alabama, from Dallas, Texas. As the plane slowly descended beneath the clouds, the little dollhouse figurines and model buildings beneath me snapped to life, becoming real people and structures. I gazed upon the dozens of churches dotting the flat, widening landscape, which grew nearer and bigger as we approached the airport. And I observed, sitting there, stock still yet propelled through space, that the parking lots of each church were full of cars, that there were, at this early hour, hundreds if not thousands of my people there before me, worshipping the same God I worshipped, the same God my parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents had worshipped; and I sensed, right then, deeply and profoundly, for the first time in years, a rare but unmistakable feeling: hope not just for my community, but for community.

 

Notes:

  • 1.Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis Liberty Fund, 1998) (1951), p. 109.
  • 2.Ibid.
  • 3.Ibid.
  • 4.Ibid at 136.
  • 5.Ibid at 137.
  • 6.Ibid. at 141
  • 7.Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. x.
  • 8.Ibid.
  • 9.Oliver Wenell Holmes Jr. “Natural Law.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 32 (1918-19), p. 41.
  • 10.Holmes at 41.

The American Nietzsche? Fate and Power in Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s Pragmatism

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on February 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Seth Vannatta of Morgan State University recently coauthored a piece with me on Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The piece appeared in the fall 2016 issue of UMKC Law Review.

Richard Posner is one of the few legal minds to have noticed the affinity between the philosophies of Holmes and Nietzsche. Dr. Vannatta and I hope to expand the circles of interest in this topic.

Our article demonstrates how Holmes’s pragmatism both comports with and departs from Nietzsche’s existentialism. Holmes’s pragmatism shares with Nietzsche’s existentialism a commitment to skepticism, perspectivalism, experiential knowledge, and aesthetics, as well as an abiding awareness of the problematic nature of truth and the fallibility of the human mind.

We suggest that Holmes was familiar with Nietzsche’s writings and that the two thinkers turned away from Christian ethics and glorified the life struggle in distinctly evolutionary terms. Both men celebrated the individual capacity to exercise the will for purposes of personal autonomy, greatness, and creative or aesthetic achievement. Nietzsche, however, did not share Holmes’s belief in the pragmatic potential of meliorism, which marks the distinction between their notions of fate.

The thinking of Nietzsche and Holmes converges in the person of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a manifest influence on both Holmes and Nietzsche and whose thinking on fate and power, inflected as it is by aesthetic pragmatism, shapes our understanding not only of Holmes and Nietzsche in isolation but also of Holmes and Nietzsche as paired, ambitious philosophers concerned about the role of fate and power in human activity.

The article is available for download here in the SSRN database for those who are interested in reading more about this curious relationship between two intellectuals whose ideas shaped society during the 20th century.

Terry Eagleton on the Death of Criticism

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on December 14, 2016 at 6:45 am

The following lecture by Terry Eagleton was delivered at the University of California Berkeley in 2010.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Research & Writing, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Supreme Court, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 7, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

My latest book, scheduled for release next week through Bucknell University Press, is about United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The book continues my work at the intersection of law and the humanities and should interest scholars of literary theory, American literature, jurisprudence, and pragmatism.

I argue in the book that Holmes helps us see the law through an Emersonian lens by the way in which he wrote his judicial dissents. Holmes’s literary style mimics and enacts two characteristics of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought: “superfluity” and the “poetics of transition,” concepts ascribed to Emerson and developed by literary critic Richard Poirier. Using this aesthetic style borrowed from Emerson and carried out by later pragmatists, Holmes not only made it more likely that his dissents would remain alive for future judges or justices (because how they were written was itself memorable, whatever the value of their content), but also shaped our understanding of dissents and, in this, our understanding of law. By opening constitutional precedent to potential change, Holmes’s dissents made room for future thought, moving our understanding of legal concepts in a more pragmatic direction and away from formalistic understandings of law. Included in this new understanding is the idea that the “canon” of judicial cases involves oppositional positions that must be sustained if the law is to serve pragmatic purposes. This process of precedent-making in a common-law system resembles the construction of the literary canon as it is conceived by Harold Bloom and Richard Posner.

The book is available for purchase here:

Click here to purchase

The Antiwar Tradition in American Letters

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Christianity, Conservatism, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Religion, Rhetoric, Writing on October 12, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here at Antiwar.com.

A review of War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar and Peace Writing.  Lawrence Rosenwald, editor.  New York: The Library of America, 2016.  838 pgs.

James Carroll, the novelist and Christian man of letters who has won numerous accolades over a long, distinguished career, sets the tone for this fine edition, War No More, in his short foreword.  “Wars,” he says, “have defined the nation’s narrative, especially once the apocalyptic fratricide of the Civil War set the current running in blood – toward the Jim Crow reenslavement of African Americans, further genocidal assaults against native peoples, imperial adventures abroad, a two-phased World War that permanently militarized the American economy and spawned a bifurcated imagination that so requires an evil enemy that the Cold War morphed seamlessly into the War on Terror.”

We’ve seen editions like this before – We Who Dared to Say No to War, edited by Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods Jr. comes to mind – but the focus here is different and decidedly literary.  Lawrence Rosenwald, the editor, believes the “antiwar impulse” requires a rich “vocabulary” that’s “visionary, sensual, prophetic, outraged, introspective, self-doubting, fantastic, irreverent, witty, obscene, uncertain, heartbroken” – in short, that signals a range of human emotions and experiences.  Rosenwald promises that “[a]ll of those traits are on display here,” and follows through with essays and memoirs by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Kurt Vonnegut, Edmund Wilson, and, among others, Norman Mailer.

Rosenwald has also achieved a diversity of genre. He includes poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Stephen Crane, Adrienne Rich, Herman Melville, Robert Bly, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, George Starbuck, and Walt Whitman; short stories by Ray Bradbury and Ambrose Bierce; a genre-defying piece by Mark Twain (“The War Prayer”); songs by Country Joe McDonald, Ed McCurdy, and Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson; a statement before a federal grand jury; letters and an interview; a gospel song (“Down by the River-Side”); a leaflet on the Vietnam War (the conflict with the most permeating presence in the book); excerpts of the prefatory articles of the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy; and more.

Women as a class are underrepresented in Rosenwald’s selections.  I count 104 men and 35 women among the contributors.  Are there fewer women involved in the antiwar movement throughout American history?  Or did Rosenwald ignore females because of his preference for particular writers and writings?  We may never know because he does not address the gender disparity.  If antiwar writers are, in fact, disproportionally male, then further study of that curious fact – or at least some speculation about it – seems warranted.

Multiple traditions merge in these pages:  John Woolman, Benjamin Rush, and Reinhold Niebuhr speak as Christians; Eugene V. Debs, Jane Addams, Arturo Giovannitti, and Howard Zinn as proxies for the Left; and Andrew Bacevich as a representative of the Right.  Figures like Randolph Bourne cut across trite political labels.  And writers associated with certain styles and forms demonstrate their versatility with other kinds of writing.  For instance, Robert Lowell, known for his poetry, shows his mastery of the epistolary form in his letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Rosenwald proves to be far more astute than Jonah Goldberg in his assessment of William James’s “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Whereas Rosenwald submits that this essay is “intended as oppositional” to war, Goldberg, a senior editor at National Review, treats it as fascist and accuses it of presenting “militarism as a social philosophy” that was not only “a pragmatic expedient” but also the basis for “a workable and sensible model for achieving desirable ends.”  Of course, Goldberg has been wrong before.

Given that Rosenwald purports to have featured the writing of “pacifists,” the inclusion of John Kerry and Barack Obama is deplorable.  True, Kerry’s statement against the Vietnam War is notable as a work of peace activism, but Kerry also voted in 2002 to authorize President Bush’s use of force to disarm Saddam Hussein, advocated U.S. military involvement in Syria, and appears at least partially responsible for the US backing of Saudi-led bombings in Yemen.

If opposition to the Vietnam War is now the measure of pacifism, then most Americans today are pacifists, there being, as of the year 2000, just 30% of Americans who believe that that war was not a mistake, according to a Gallup poll. Thus, Kerry is hardly unique in such opposition. Nicholson Baker, in his energetic essay for this volume, seems more attuned than Rosenwald to Kerry’s foreign-policy prescriptions, castigating Kerry for inciting military involvement in Gaddafi’s Libya.

President Obama, for his part, has overseen regular bombings throughout the Middle East, including in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia; ordered US military intervention in Libya; increased US troop levels in Afghanistan and escalated US military operations there; and urged Americans to support US military involvement in Syria. These positions are ironic in light of his warning, in his piece in this collection, against traveling “blindly” down “that hellish path” to war.

Rosenwald’s brief, personal introductions (he recalls hearing James Baldwin speak in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, for instance, and mentions a tribute he wrote for Daniel Berrigan) to each chapter engender an autobiographical feel. One senses that this book represents a patchwork of accumulated memories, that Rosenwald has recounted and repurposed old reading experiences for present political needs. Inviting Carroll to pen the foreword, moreover, was entirely appropriate and wise.  As this review opened with Carroll’s eloquent words, so it closes with them.

“Because the human future, for the first time in history, is itself imperiled by the ancient impulse to respond to violence with violence,” Carroll intones, “the cry ‘war no more!’ can be heard coming back at us from time ahead, from the as yet unborn men and women – the ultimate voices of peace – who simply will not come into existence if the essential American soul does not change.”  But all is not lost; Carroll remains optimistic.  “The voices of this book, a replying chorus of hope,” he says, “insist that such change is possible.”

Why Read? An Interview With Mark Edmundson

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Creativity, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 5, 2016 at 6:45 am

In the following C-SPAN Booknotes interview, Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia discusses books, readings, the liberal arts, and more.

A Conversation Between Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, British Literature, Communication, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Civilization on September 21, 2016 at 6:45 am

In 2012, the Royal Institution of Great Britain hosted Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton for an evening of conversation and debate.  Here is the footage of that event:

Varieties of Emersonian Pragmatism: Synthesis in Justice Holmes

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship on April 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

There is a long tradition of scholarship regarding Emerson’s pragmatism. Among those who have written about Emerson’s pragmatism are Russell B. Goodman, Giles Gunn, Poirier, Cornel West, Joan Richardson, Levin, and James M. Albrecht. Even earlier Kenneth Burke noted that “we can see the incipient pragmatism in Emerson’s idealism” and that “Emerson’s brand of transcendentalism was but a short step ahead of an out-and-out pragmatism.”

Goodman analyzed Emerson as “America’s first Romantic philosopher,” the counterpart to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle whose idealism would influence William James and later John Dewey and Stanley Cavell.

Gunn examined while contributing to the critical renaissance of American pragmatism in the 1990s; he suggested that Emerson cast a long shadow “at the commencement of the pragmatist tradition in America” and that Emerson belonged to a family of writers that included Henry James, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Frank Lentricchia, and others.

To reach this conclusion Gunn adopted a more diffuse definition of pragmatism that went beyond the philosophical tradition of Peirce, Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Sidney Hook, Morton White, Richard Bernstein, John McDermott, and Richard Rorty. He attended to aesthetically charged political texts presented not only by Emerson but also by W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Flannery O’ Connor, Elizabeth Hardwick, Poirier, Cornel West, Clifford Geertz, and Stanley Fish. Gunn left behind James’s “somewhat restricted focus on the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth” and turned instead to literary and cultural works that affected social issues.

Gunn’s focus on the social indicates a debt to Dewey, and his valuation of Emerson must be considered in a Deweyian context. That Emerson is a pragmatist is somewhat implied or tacit in Gunn’s account; his discussion is not about what elements of Emersonian thought evidence pragmatism but about how Emerson influenced Henry James Sr. and his sons William and Henry, who in turn influenced a host of other writers; how Emerson spearheaded an American tradition of strong poets and transmitted optimism to subsequent writers; and how Emerson cultivated aesthetic rhetoric and anticipated progressive sociopolitical thought.

If Gunn is a bridge between classical philosophical pragmatism and neopragmatism of the aesthetic variety, Poirier was neither classical philosophical nor neopragmatist, eschewing as he did the logics and empiricism of Pierce and James as well as the political agitating of some of Gunn’s subjects. Poirier concentrated above all on the literary and cultural aspects of pragmatism: not that these aspects are divorced from politics, only that their primary objective is aesthetic or philosophical rather than partisan or activist.

Poirier sought to “revitalize a tradition linking Emerson to, among others, Stein, and to claim that new directions can thereby be opened up for contemporary criticism.” He, like Gunn, was frank about his attempt to expand the pragmatist canon that purportedly began with Emerson. “As Emerson would have it,” he explained, “every text is a reconstruction of some previous texts of work, work that itself is always, again, work-in-progress.”

This constant, competitive process of aesthetic revision gives rise to a community of authors whose mimetic activities gradually form and reform a canon that resembles and functions like the constantly reformulating legal principles in a common-law system: “The same work gets repeated throughout history in different texts, each being a revision of past texts to meet present needs, needs which are perceived differently by each new generation.” Within this revisionary paradigm, Poirier heralded Emerson as the writer who “wants us […] to discover traces of productive energy that pass through a text or a composition or an author, pointing always beyond any one of them.”

Cornel West explored the radical implications of pragmatism to democracy in the works of Emerson, Peirce, William James, Dewey, Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W.E.B. DuBois, Reinhold Niebuhur, Lionel Trilling, Roberto Unger, and Michel Foucault. Unlike the interpreters of pragmatism discussed above, West extended the pragmatist canon from America to the European continent and professed a radical preoccupation with knowledge, power, control, discourse, and politics. Like the previous interpreters, however, he acknowledged the family resemblances among disparate pragmatist thinkers and their ideas and so, in Nietzschean or Foucaultian fashion, undertook a “genealogy” of their traditions.

Recent work by Colin Koopman has run with the historicist compatibilities between genealogy and pragmatism to articulate novel approaches to cultural studies. Although the topic exceeds the scope of this short post, genealogical pragmatism might serve as a promising methodology for future studies of the common-law system.

“My emphasis on the political and moral side of pragmatism,” West explained, “permits me to make the case for the familiar, but rarely argued, claim that Emerson is the appropriate starting point for the pragmatist tradition.” West’s emphasis on pragmatism as a “new and novel form of indigenous American oppositional thought” has an interesting valence with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s new and novel form of dissenting from the majority and plurality opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Holmes’s jurisprudence was oppositional, in other words, although not radical in the sense that West means.

West credited Emerson with enacting “an intellectual style of cultural criticism that permits and encourages American pragmatists to swerve from mainstream European philosophy,” and Holmes’s dissents likewise moved American jurisprudence away from its British origins—especially from Blackstonian paradigms of the common law—and towards an oppositional paradigm modeled off theories of Darwinian struggle.

Richardson borrows a phrase from Darwin, “frontier instances,” which he borrowed from Francis Bacon, to trace the continuity of pragmatism in American life and thought. Her argument “proceeds by amplification, a gesture mimetic of Pragmatism itself, each essay illustrating what happened over time to a form of thinking brought over by the Puritans to the New World.” She treats pragmatism as a uniquely American philosophy and more impressively as an organism that develops through natural selection: “The signal, if implicit, motive of Pragmatism is the realization of thinking as a life form, subject to the same processes of growth and change as all other life forms.” Her diverse subjects signal the definitive expositors of pragmatism for their respective eras: Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, William and Henry James, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein.

Richardson’s Emerson is a visionary who retained a ministerial or spiritual philosophy but who repackaged it in less conventionally Christian terms than his Puritan, evangelical predecessors. She explains that Emerson imperfectly replicated the work of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles to make it apprehensible in the rapidly changing American context. Her latest book, Pragmatism and American Experience, endeavors to untangle the knot of pragmatism and transcendentalism, searching Cavell for illumination regarding the perceived mismatch between these two prominent schools of American philosophy.

Albrecht interrogates the term “individualism” and describes its currency within a pragmatic tradition that runs from Emerson, William James, and Dewey to Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Unlike the aforementioned scholars of Emerson, who “do not resolve the question of how far, and to what purpose, one can claim the ‘pragmatic’ character of Emerson’s thought,” Albrecht comes close to a practical answer that is made more insightful and understandable in light of Holmes’s judicial writings that appear in media (opinions and dissents) that control rather than merely influence social patterns.

Albrecht strikes a balance between radical and conservative characterizations of pragmatism, “which gets accused of […] contradictory sins: it optimistically overestimates the possibilities for reform, or it succumbs to a conservative gradualism; it is too committed to a mere, contentless method of inquiry that undermines the stability of traditional meanings, or its emphasis on existing means places too much weight on the need to accommodate existing customs, truths, and institutions.” The same could be said of the common-law tradition that Holmes adored and about which he authored his only book, The Common Law, in 1881.

Albrecht never mentions the common law, but there is a mutual radiance between his analysis of Emerson and the longstanding notion of the common law as the gradual implementation and description of rules by courts, aggregated into a canon by way of innumerable cases and in response to changing social norms. Nor does Albrecht mention Holmes, whose Emersonian contributions to pragmatism only affirm Albrecht’s contention that “there are important benefits to be gained not by calling Emerson a pragmatist, […] but by reading Emerson pragmatically—by applying the fundamental methods and attitudes of pragmatism in order to highlight the ways in which similar attitudes are already present in, and central to, Emerson.”

One such benefit involves the sober realization that Holmes’s Emersonian pragmatism cannot be or ought not to be distorted to mean an equivalence with contemporary and coordinate signifiers such as “Left” and “Right,” “Liberal” and “Conservative,” for there are as many self-proclaimed “Conservative pragmatists,” to borrow a term from the jurist Robert H. Bork, as there are Cornel Wests: thinkers “concern[ed] with particularity—respect for difference, circumstance, tradition, history and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies—[which] does not qualify as a universal principle, but competes with and holds absurd the idea of a utopia achievable in this world” (Bork’s words).

Due to the long line of scholars celebrating and studying Emersonian pragmatism, Albrecht is able to remark, “The notion that Emerson is a seminal figure or precursor for American pragmatism is no longer new or controversial.” He extends and affirms a scholarly tradition by depicting “an Emerson whose vision of the limited yet sufficient opportunities for human agency and power prefigures the philosophy of American pragmatism.”

More important than Albrecht’s being the latest link in a chain is the clarifying focus he provides for examining an Emersonian Holmes by attending to two ideas that comport with common-law theory: first, that Emerson prefigured James by walking a line between monism and pluralism and by emphasizing the contingency and complexity of natural phenomena; and second, that Emerson considered ideas as derived from past experience but open to creative revision in keeping with present circumstances.

Regarding the first, Albrecht seeks to undermine a prevailing assumption that Emerson was some kind of absolute idealist, as even William James suggested. Albrecht’s argument is based on the position that Emerson rejected essentialisms and envisioned a cosmos consisting of competing forms and ideas that grow and evolve because of their competition.

Regarding the second, Albrecht seeks to show that although Emerson imagined himself as breaking from past forms and ideas, he also regarded the past as indispensable to our understanding of the present and as necessary for generating and cultivating creative dynamism; the past is inescapable and must be utilized to shape the present, in other words. “All attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain,” Emerson preached in this vein in his Divinity School address, adding that all “attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason[.] […] Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing.”

Albrecht promises an Emerson who recounts the mimetic and derivative nature of creativity and genius; yet his portrait of Emerson is incomplete without Poirier, who describes an Emersonian stream of pragmatism flowing with idiomatic, resonate, sonorous, and figurative language. Poirier’s notion of superfluity is central to understanding Holmes’s Emersonian role within a common-law system where “[e]very several result is threatened and judged by that which follows” (Emerson, “Circles”). In the common-law system according to Holmes, a “rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts” as they are permutated in case precedents (Emerson, “Divinity School Address).

Poirier’s notion of Emersonian superfluity involves a thinker’s “continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height,” and to push the syntactical and intellectual boundaries so as to avoid having “the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow” (Emerson, “Circles”). Superfluity is an attempt to realize in language the restive impulse to drive forward and reenergize, to prophesy and transcend. It characterizes language that is designed to “stir the feelings of a generation” (Holmes, “Law in Science and Science in Law”), or less grandiosely to compensate rhetorically for the inability of the written word to realize the extraordinary power of an idea or emotion.

 

Paul H. Fry on “The Institutional Construction of Literary Theory”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy on March 16, 2016 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry. The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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