The greatest American white guy


A friend of mine reminds me that today, October 16, is the 155th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. My friend says he’s the greatest white guy ever, which is maybe a stretch, depending on how you define ‘white’. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the greatest American white guy ever. No contest. Nobody else even close.

Whenever I’m in the Adirondacks I make a point of detouring to North Elba and laying some flowers on Old Osawatomie’s grave, in the farmstead where he lived before he went to join the immortals. It’s an evocative place: rather bare and windswept, with a distant prospect of the ancient High Peaks. Though it’s quite near horrible touristy Lake Placid, you can still get a sense of what it must have been like in his day — that hard denuded historyless American landscape, the fruit of a recent genocide. God’s unwinking eye above, and a blank slate all around. And yet beneath your feet the lifegiving earth and the sense it imparts that history isn’t over; that seeds are germinating under the windswayed grass, and old moles are digging, unimpaired by age. It’s a haunted spot — haunted in the best possible way, by a ghost who wishes only to introduce us to our better selves.

By force, if necessary. And it probably is necessary. We’re creatures of darkness, and we hate the light even as we desire it.

Thoreau had some eloquent words to say about him:

For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. He needed no babbling lawyer, making false issues, to defend him. He was more than a match for all the judges that American voters, or office-holders of whatever grade, can create. He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist.

Interesting, innit, that the greatest American white guy — the guy who does us more credit than all the sorry figures on our coinage — has no public buildings, or highways, or naval vessels named after him. The fact is, we still haven’t caught up with him. Will we ever?



There’s been some discussion lately on my Lefty mailing lists about what they call “social media”. There was a brief flurry of interest in something called “Ello”, apparently marketed as the hipster version of facebook, with a very cool minimalist UI and a very vaguely-worded commitment not to monetize your personal information. It didn’t last long enough for me to check it out.

More generally, we were all wondering how to disentangle the benefits of commercial social media — like facebook — from their obvious harms: the data mining, the marketing. The puppies.

The benefits can’t be entirely dismissed. I’ve found people on facebook with whom I’m glad to be back in touch, and whom it would have been difficult, in the actually existing world, to find in any other way. On the other hand I’ve had “friend” requests from people who seemed respectable — went to the same school, had a couple dozen “friends” in common — and turned out to be awful pests. It’s surprising how upset one can be when one of these people rounds on you and bites you in the neck — as if they were real friends, rather than pixelated shadows. One is tempted to invoke notions like “illusion of community”.

Of course in one sense all communities are illusory; they’re constituted by categorization. You are my neighbor, or you aren’t. I get to decide.

Much Lefty thinking boils down to the question: How would we do this under socialism? What would the socialist subway fare be? What would a socialist facebook be like? Could you even have social media without ad revenue, or VC’s who are hoping for ad revenue? Hey, who’s gonna pay all those coders without it?

Along the same line, one is (once again) tempted to suggest that facebook is the solution that our kind of society offers to a problem that our kind of society creates. Perhaps a different kind of society wouldn’t need facebook or anything like it.

Meanwhile, I see it in much the same light as the highway system. I don’t think there’s anything historically inevitable about mass automobilization. There’s no need to like it; and any rational person hates driving. Driving is not only a bore, it’s bad for people’s character. The same could be said about facebook. What would socialist interstate highways look like? Overgrown ruins, let’s hope (though who knows?).

But occasionally one gets into the car, rather reluctantly, and commits oneself to the Merritt Parkway or the Major Deegan, simply because it’s the least inconvenient way of doing something one needs to do. Along the way one will encounter any number of assholes, because the activity itself encourages assholery. But after a few hours of deep boredom interspersed with moments of active disagreeableness, one will, with luck, find oneself in some place one wants to be.

This is as close as I can get to being what they call “realistic”.

Crescat scientia, vita excolatur


I have a friend, a fella whom I’ve known for years, whom I like and admire, and who went to the great climate march recently. Let’s call him Homo Sapiens.

Sapiens put a picture of himself on his Facebook page — yes, I admit it, I still do Facebook. He was carrying a placard, printed out in the approved color scheme, that read, “Teach science!”

Now the pedant in me immediately wondered, what the hell is “science”? Last I heard, there were only sciences: physics, chemistry, herpetology and so on. Grand unification seems to be some ways off. But this wonderment rapidly gave way to another: What the hell was my old pal Sap doing saying such a thing?

He’s a smart guy, but his education was purely literary; he doesn’t know the first thing about any science. I doubt that he could tell you what the law of gravitation really says, or how Copernicus was right and how he was wrong, or the relationship between a watt and a volt, or what was interesting about Darwin’s finches. “Teach science?” Nobody ever taught Sap any science at all, and he wouldn’t have taken to it if they had tried.

I’m afraid that what old Sap meant, by holding up this placard, was something which could be unpacked more or less as follows:

There are all these stupid benighted people out there who think that the world was created day before yesterday, who don’t believe in evolution, whatever the hell that is, or in global warming. These people have a bad belief system. It needs to be replaced with a good belief system. Like… science! Teachers, do your thing! Students, listen to your teachers! Parents, shut the fuck up and leave it to the professionals!

The problem here is that what makes ‘science’ a good thing is that it is not a belief system. Sap, I suspect, thinks that there are people who believe in Genesis and other people who believe in ‘science’ — people mostly rather like himself.

Now there are a number of things wrong with this analogy, starting with the fact that believers in Genesis are quite likely to have read the book at some point, while Sap has certainly never peeked into the Origin of Species, not to mention any technical discussions of atmospheric chemistry.

But even more importantly, it’s apples and oranges. Biblical fundamentalism is a belief system, but science is an activity; a very worthwhile one, whose work product is always and only provisional hypotheses, subject at any time to revision or, for that matter, repudiation. The history of science makes this very clear; but Sapiens knows as little about the history of science as he does about ‘science’ itself.

Science, for real scientists, is a job, something they do; not a faith commitment, a body of dogmata that they believe in. This is precisely what constitutes its appeal and value.

But I’m afraid that what brother Sap means when he says ‘teach science’ is very much a matter of indoctrination. I don’t suppose that Sap cares much whether kids emerge from high school able to explain Avogadro’s number or Planck’s constant. But he would rather they were listening to jolly jokey Neil Degrasse Tyson, retailing his smooth popularized certainties and potted chronicle of progress on NPR, than so some wild man who doesn’t have a degree from a good school and who exhibits an unhealthy interest in the Epistle to the Romans.

Sap’s fideistic attitude toward ‘science’ is highly characteristic of the tribe to which he and I both belong. It’s part of our self-identification: we’re the party of enlightenment and, even more important, of expertise. Sap doesn’t understand the climate scientists’ reasoning; but he believes it, because they’re the duly ordained experts. Teach ‘science’! — but there’s no urgent need to teach any actual sciences. That is to say: teach belief, rather than content or method.

Obligatory disclaimer:

I think the climate-science boys are probably right, though I’m so poorly informed on the subject that I have no right to an opinion. And even if they’re wrong, I wish we’d act on the implications of their hypotheses. I wish we’d rip up all the asphalt and ban the manufacture of cars. I wish that everybody who didn’t live in a shack in the woods, ten miles from the nearest neighbor, lived in an apartment two blocks from a subway line. I wish every roof were covered with solar panels. I wish that air travel were a once-in-a-lifetime experience — if that — and that container ships were propelled by sail power. I wish we had a walloping carbon tax — as long as it’s rebated, on a strict per capita basis, to every man woman and child. All the things we might do in a desperate last-ditch effort against climate change are well worth doing for any number of other reasons — except, except! teaching people to believe the experts.

Opinion of climate


Needless to say, I didn’t attend the great Climate March a couple of weeks back. It’s a firm principle of mine never to attend an event for which a police permit has been obtained.

There were other reasons too. Climate change is a fait accompli. Nobody is going to do anything about it; probably nobody can do anything about it, at this point. It would make more sense to ask ourselves how we’re going to live through it. Probably many or most of us won’t; I’m afraid it’ll make the fourteenth-century Black Death look like a three-day suspension from school. But it might be interesting, at least, to imagine what sort of social arrangements could minimize the carnage.

Certainly not the ones we have, which I daresay few of the marchers were very interested in disturbing to any noticeable degree. It was a march in favor of rational policy choices — rational, that is, on the assumption of a universal humanity as chooser and actor. We should do this, we should do that. Of course in fact it’s not we, but they, who are calling the shots.