Category Archives: Culture & Civilization

The Meanings of History

HISTORY HAS BEEN used and abused more than once in the Ukraine Crisis, informing and inspiring its participants but also justifying violations of international law, human rights, and the right to life itself. The Russo-Ukrainian conflict, while arising unexpectedly and taking many of those involved by surprise, has deep historical roots and is replete with historical references and allusions. Leaving aside the propagandistic use of historical arguments, at least three parallel processes rooted in the past are now going on in Ukraine: Russia’s attempts to reestablish political, economic, and military control in the former imperial space acquired by Moscow since the mid-seventeenth century; the formation of modern national identities, which concerns both Russians and Ukrainians (the latter often divided along regional lines); and the struggle over historical and cultural fault lines that allow the participants in the conflict to imagine it as a contest between East and West, Europe and the Russian World. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 486). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict reminded the world of the Russian annexation of the Crimea in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the creation in southern Ukraine of the short-lived imperial province of New Russia. This memory of Russian imperial expansion into the area was brought to the fore not by outside observers trying to portray current Russian behavior as imperial but by ideologues of the Russian hybrid war in Ukraine, who came up with the New Russia project. They sought to develop their historical ideology on the foundations of imperial conquest and Russian dominance in lands originally inhabited by the Crimean and Noghay Tatars and Zaporozhian Cossacks. This pertains especially to the trope of Sevastopol as a city of Russian glory—a historical myth rooted in the 1853–1856 Crimean War (a disaster for the Russian Empire) that attributes the heroism of the multiethnic imperial army defending the city to Russians alone. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 486-487). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

The formation of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” along with the attempts to proclaim Odesa and Kharkiv republics—building blocks of a future New Russia—also had its roots in historical memory. It went back to Bolshevik attempts to maintain control over Ukraine’s east and south soon after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany (February 1918), which assigned those regions to Ukraine. At that time the Bolsheviks were using self-proclaimed states, including the Crimean and Donetsk–Kryvyi Rih Soviet republics, to claim that they were not part of Ukraine and thus not covered by the treaty. The founders of the new Donetsk republic claimed to use the symbols of the Donetsk–Kryvyi Rih republic of 1918, as, like the old one, theirs would not have arisen or survived without Moscow’s sponsorship and support. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 487). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

While allusions to the Russian imperial and revolutionary past became part of the historical discourse justifying the Russian aggression against Ukraine, its historical motivation is more recent. The rapid and unexpected disintegration of the Soviet Union, recalled by President Vladimir Putin in his speech on the annexation of the Crimea, provides the most immediate historical background to the crisis. The current Russian government keeps claiming that Ukraine is an artificial formation whose eastern territories were allegedly a gift to the country from the Bolsheviks, as was the Crimea after World War II. According to this narrative, the only genuine and thus historically legitimate polity is the empire—first the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. The Russian government actively combats and suppresses any historical traditions and memories that undermine the legitimacy of the empire, such as commemoration of the 1932–1933 Great Ukrainian Famine or the Soviet government’s 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars; such was the case with the ban on public commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Crimean Tatar deportation imposed by the Russian authorities in the Crimea in May 2014. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 487-488). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

Russia today seems to be following in the footsteps of some of its imperial predecessors who continued to harbor nostalgia for their empires long after they were lost. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Russian elites bitter about their loss of imperial and superpower status, nourishing illusions that what had happened was an accident brought about by the ill will of the West or by politicians like Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin foolishly bickering for power. Such a view of the end of the Soviet Union makes it hard to resist the temptation to rewrite history. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 488). Basic Books. Kindle Edition. )

THE RUSSO-UKRAINIAN CONFLICT also brought to the fore another important issue with historical roots and ramifications: the unfinished process of building the modern Russian and Ukrainian nations. The Russian annexation of the Crimea and the propaganda intended to justify Russian aggression in the Donbas have proceeded under the slogan of defending the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in general. The equation of the Russian language not only with Russian culture but also with Russian nationality has been an important aspect of the worldview of many Russian volunteers who have come to Donbas. One problem with that interpretation of Russianness is that while ethnic Russians indeed make up a majority of the population in the Crimea and large minorities in parts of the Donbas, most of the population of the projected New Russia consists of ethnic Ukrainians. While Russian and separatist propaganda has had an appeal for many ethnic Ukrainians, most have refused to identify themselves with Russia or with Russian ethnicity even as they continue to use the Russian language. That was one of the main reasons for the failure of the New Russia project, which came as a complete surprise to its authors. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 488-489). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

The view of Ukrainians as constituents of the Russian nation goes back to the founding myth of modern Russia as a nation conceived and born in Kyiv, the “mother of Russian [rather than Rus’] cities.” The Synopsis of 1674, the first printed “textbook” of Russian history, compiled by Kyivan monks seeking the protection of the Muscovite tsars, first formulated and widely disseminated this myth in Russia. Throughout most of the imperial period, Ukrainians were regarded as Little Russians—a vision that allowed for the existence of Ukrainian folk culture and spoken vernacular but not a high culture or a modern literature. Recognition of Ukrainians as a distinct nation in cultural but not political terms in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1917 challenged that vision. The aggression of 2014, backed by the ideology of the “Russian World,” offers Ukrainians today a throwback in comparison with Soviet practices. Nation building as conceived in a future New Russia makes no provision for a separate Ukrainian ethnicity within a broader Russian nation. This is hardly an oversight or excess born of the heat of battle. Less than a year before the annexation of the Crimea, Vladimir Putin himself went on record claiming that Russians and Ukrainians were one and the same people. He repeated that statement in a speech delivered on March 18, 2015, to mark the first anniversary of the annexation of the Crimea. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 489). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

Since the fall of the USSR, the Russian nation-building project has switched its focus to the idea of forming a single Russian nation not divided into branches and unifying the Eastern Slavs on the basis of the Russian language and culture. Ukraine has become the first testing ground for this model outside the Russian Federation. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 489-490). Basic Books. Kindle Edition. )

Science Wars Myth

SCIENCE AND RELIGION

The idea of inevitable conflict between science and religion was decisively challenged by John Hedley Brooke in his classic Science and religion: Some historical perspectives (Cambridge, 1991). Almost two decades on, Science and religion: New Historical perspectives revisits this argument and asks how historians can now impose order on the complex and contingent histories of religious engagements with science.

Bringing together leading scholars, this new volume explores the history and changing meanings of the categories ‘science’ and ‘religion’; the role of publishing and education in forging and spreading ideas; the connection between knowledge, power, and intellectual imperialism; and the reasons for the confrontation between evolution and creationism among American Christians and in the Islamic world. A major contribution to the historiography of science and religion, this book makes the most recent scholarship on this much misunderstood debate widely accessible. (Dixon et. al. 2010, Front Material, in Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives)

I propose, then, to present to you this evening an outline of the great sacred struggle for the liberty of Science-a struggle which has been going on for so many centuries. A tough contest this has been! A war continued longer-with battles fiercer, with sieges more persistent, with strategy more vigorous than in any of the comparatively petty warfares of Alexander, or Cxsar, or Napoleon … In all modern history, interference with Science in the supposed interest of religion-no matter how conscientious such interference may have been-has resulted in the direst evils both to Religion and Science, and invariably.
—Andrew Dickson White, “The Battle-Fields of Science” (1869)

The antagonism we thus witness between Religion and Science is the continuation of a struggle that commenced when Christianity began to attain political power … The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.
—John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874)

The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict. No one bears more responsibility for promoting this notion than two nineteenth-century American polemicists: Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) and John William Draper (1811-1882). White, the young president of Cornell University, became a believer in the warfare between science and religion after religious critics branded him an infidel for, as he put it, trying to create in Ithaca “[a]n asylum for Science—where truth shall be sought for truth’s sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed Religion.” On a winter’s evening in December 1869 he strode to the podium in the great hall of Cooper Union in New York City, ready to smite his enemies with history, to give them “a lesson which they will remember.” In a melodramatic lecture titled “The Battle-Fields of Science” the historian surveyed “some of the hardest-fought battle-fields” of the “great war” between science and religion. He told of Giordano Bruno’s being “burned alive as a monster of impiety,” of Galileo’s having been “tortured tured and humiliated as the worst of unbelievers,” and much more, ending with the latest scientific martyrs, Cornell University and its beleaguered president. As White must have anticipated, his lecture sparked even more controversy, prompting, according to one observer, “instantaneous outcry and opposition.” Over the next quarter century White expanded his talk into a huge two-volume work, A History of the Warfare of Science ence with Theology in Christendom (1896), widely translated and frequently reprinted down to the present. In it, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton gleefully noted, he showed “that the Bible has been the greatest block in the way of progress.”‘ (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 39-49). Kindle Edition.)

Draper was equally exercised when he wrote his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). An accomplished physician, chemist, and historian, Draper largely excused Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy of crimes against science while excoriating Roman Catholicism. He did so, he wrote, “partly because its adherents compose the majority of Christendom, partly because its demands are the most pretentious, and partly because it has commonly sought to enforce those demands by the civil power.” In addition to chronicling the church’s age-old opposition to scientific progress, he ridiculed the recently promulgated doctrine of papal infallibility, which he attributed to men “of sin and shame.” He never publicly mentioned, however, what may have agitated him the most: his antipathy toward his own sister, Elizabeth, who had converted to Catholicism and who for a time lived with the Drapers. When one of the Draper children, eight-year-old William, lay near death, Aunt Elizabeth hid his favorite book, a Protestant devotional tract-and did not return it until after the boy had passed away. The grieving father angrily kicked her out of his house, no doubt blaming the Vatican for her un-Christian and dogmatic behavior. Draper’s tale of “ferocious theologians” hounding the pioneers of science “with a Bible in one hand and a fiery fagot in the other,” as one critic characterized his account, understandably provoked numerous counterattacks. The American convert to Catholicism Orestes Brownson, who described the book as “a tissue of lies from beginning to end,” could scarcely contain his fury. “A thousand highway-robberies or a thousand cold-blooded murders,” he fumed, “would be but a light social offence in comparison with the publication of one such book as this before us..” (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 49-59). Kindle Edition.)

(….) Discussions of the relationship between “science” and “religion” originated in the early nineteenth century, when students of nature first began referring to their work as science rather than as natural philosophy (or natural history). Before that time there were occasional expressions of concern about the tension between faith and reason, but no one pitted religion against science or vice versa.’ By the 1820s, however, books and articles featuring the phrase “science and religion” in their titles were starting to appear. One of the first, if not the first, English-language books with the words in their titles came out in 1823: Thomas Dick’s popular The Christian Philosopher; or, The Connection of Science and Philosophy with Religion. By midcentury “science and religion” was becoming a literary trope, and during the 1850s and 1860s several American colleges and seminaries established professorships devoted to demonstrating (and preserving) the harmony of science and revealed religion.4 (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 59-64). Kindle Edition.)

Although a few freethinkers, most notoriously Thomas Cooper of South Carolina College, denounced religion as “the great enemy of Science,” antebellum Americans, especially the clergy, worried far more about the threat of science to orthodox Christianity than about religious barriers to science. By the middle third of the nineteenth century some observers were beginning to suspect that “every new conquest achieved by science, involved the loss of a domain to religion.” Especially disturbing were scientific challenges to the first chapters of the Bible. During the three decades between about 1810 and 1840 men of science pushed successfully to replace the supernatural creation of the solar system with the nebular hypothesis, to expand the history of life on earth from 6,000 to millions of years, and to shrink Noah’s flood to a regional event in the Near East. Many Christians readily adjusted their reading of the Bible to accommodate such findings, but some biblical literalists thought that the geologists of the day were taking too many liberties with God’s word. The Reverend Gardiner Spring, for example, resented scientific efforts to explain creation, which he regarded as “a great miracle,” incapable of being accounted for scientifically. “The collision is not between the Bible & Nature,” he declared, “but between the Bible & natural philosophers.”‘ (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 64-71). Kindle Edition.)

At the time it was not uncommon for men of science to engage in biblical exegesis while denying theologians and clergymen the right to monitor science. This practice, along with the increasing marginalization of theologians from the scientific enterprise, Charles Hodge, the most eminent Calvinist theologian in midcentury America. Although he continued to venerate men of science who disclosed “the wonderful works of God,” by the late 1850s he was growing increasingly frustrated by their tendency to treat theologians who expressed themselves on scientific subjects as “trespassers” who should mind their own business. He attributed the growing “alienation” between men of science and men of the cloth in part to the former’s “assumption of superiority” and their practice of stigmatizing their religious critics “as narrow-minded, bigots, old women, Bible worshippers, etc.” He resented the lack of respect frequently shown to religious men, who were instructed by their scientific colleagues to quit meddling in science, while they themselves belittled religious beliefs and values. At times Hodge worried that science, devoid of religion, was becoming downright “satanic.” He had no doubt that religion was in a “fight for its life against a large class of scientific men.”6 (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 71-78). Kindle Edition.)

The spread of “infidel” science—from geology and cosmogonies to biology and anthropology—caused many Christians, both conservatives and liberals, to feel under attack. According to the southern intellectual George Frederick Holmes, “The struggle between science and religion, between philosophy and faith, has been protracted through centuries; but it is only within recent years that the breach has become so open and avowed as to be declared by many to be irreconcilable.” Worse yet, even the working classes were joining the fray. As one British writer noted in 1852, “Science is no longer a lifeless abstraction floating above the heads of the multitude. It has descended to earth. It mingles with men. It penetrates our mines. It enters our workshops. It speeds along with the iron courser of the rail.”7 (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 78-82). Kindle Edition.)

The debates over Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), in which the British naturalist sought “to overthrow the dogma of separate creations” and extend the domain of natural law throughout the organic world, signaled a shift in emphasis. Increasingly, scientists, as they were coming to be called, expressed pressed resentment at playing handmaiden to religion. One after another called not only for scientific freedom but also for the subordination of religion—and the rewriting of history with religion as the villain. The most infamous outburst came from the Irish physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893), who in his 1874 Belfast address as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science thundered: (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 82-86). Kindle Edition.)

The impregnable position of science may be described in a few words. We claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory. All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon the domain of science must, in so far as they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it. Acting otherwise proved disastrous in the past, and it is simply fatuous to-day. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 86-89). Kindle Edition.)

Two years later Tyndall wrote a laudatory preface to a British edition of White’s The Warfare of Science. With such endorsements, the conflict thesis was well on its way toward becoming the historical dogma of the day, at least among intellectuals seeking freedom from religion.’ (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 89-90). Kindle Edition.)

Historians of science have known for years that White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda than history.’ (An opposing ing myth, that Christianity alone gave birth to modern science, is disposed of in Myth 9.) Yet the message has rarely escaped the ivory tower. The secular public, if it thinks about such issues at all, knows that organized religion has always opposed scientific progress (witness the attacks on Galileo, Darwin, and Scopes). The religious public knows that science has taken the leading role in corroding faith (through naturalism and antibiblicism). As a first step toward correcting these misperceptions we must dispel the hoary myths that continue to pass as historical truths. No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, as we shall see in Myth 7, the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth-century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 90-95). Kindle Edition.)

Unlike the master mythmakers White and Draper, the contributors to this volume have no obvious scientific or theological axes to grind. Nearly half, twelve of twenty-five, self-identify as agnostic or atheist (that is, unbelievers in religion). Among the remaining thirteen there are five mainstream Protestants, two evangelical Protestants, one Roman Catholic, one Jew, one Muslim, one Buddhist—and two whose beliefs fit no conventional category (including one pious Spinozist). Over half of the unbelievers, including me, grew up in devout Christian homes—some as fundamentalists or evangelicals—but subsequently lost their faith. I’m not sure exactly what to make of this fact, but I suspect it tells us something about why we care so much about setting the record straight. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 95-99). Kindle Edition.)

A final word about our use of the word myth: Although some of the myths we puncture may have helped to give meaning to the lives of those embracing them, we do not employ the term in its sophisticated academic sense but rather use it as done in everyday conversation—to designate a claim that is false. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 99-101). Kindle Edition.)

Tasdiq

Reason and intellect may take a man to the doorsteps of the domain of faith, but only revelation and the mercy of Allah will enable him to enter it. (Hamdani, Ibrahim 1989, 36, in Three Faiths One God: A Jewish, Christian, Muslim Encounter)

The vision to be set forth in this presentation is of the unity or coherence of humankind’s religious history. (Wilfred Cantwell Smith 1981, 3, in Towards a World Theology)

Observing minds and discriminating souls know religion when they find it in the lives of their fellows. Religion requires no definition; we all know its social, intellectual, moral, and spiritual fruits. And this all grows out of the fact that religion is the property of the human race; it is not a child of culture. True, one’s perception of religion is still human and therefore subject to the bondage of ignorance, the slavery of superstition, the deceptions of sophistication, and the delusions of false philosophy. (1119: 6)

The impact of agnostic science will turn out to have been child’s play compared to the challenge to Christian theology of the faith of other men…. The era of religious isolationism is about to be as much at an end as that of political isolationism already is…. The time will soon be with us when a theologian who attempts to work out his position unaware that he does so as a member of a world society in which other theologians equally intelligent, equally devout, equally moral, are Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and unaware that his readers are likely perhaps to be Buddhists or to have Muslim husbands or Hindu colleagues—such a theologian is as out of date as is one who attempts to construct an intellectual position unaware that Aristotle has thought about the world or that existentialists have raised new orientations, or unaware that the earth is a minor planet in a galaxy that is vast only by terrestrial standards. Philosophy and science have impinged so far on theological thought more effectively than has comparative religion, but this will not last. (Smith 1982, 7,8,9, in Religious Diversity)

The only basis on which it [Islam] distinguishes between humans is on the basis of their moral personality—their ability, that is, to acquire taqwa, or God-consciousness—and it is in terms of their moral praxis that individuals will be judged and recompensed in the Hereafter. What matters in and to the Qur’an, then, is not sex/gender, but an individual’s ‘faith and deeds’. (Barlas, Asma. Amina Wadud’s hermeneutics of the Qur’an. In Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an (editor Suha Taji-Farouki). Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2004; p. 114.)

Tasdiq is to recognize a truth, to appropriate it, to affirm it, to confirm it, to actualize it. And the truth, in each case, is personalist and sincere…. [F]aith is then the recognition of divine truth at the personal level. Faith is the ability to recognize truth as true for oneself, and to trust it. Especially in the Islamic case, with its primarily moral orientation, this includes, or makes primary, the recognition of the authenticity, a moral authority, of the divine commands. Thus there is a recognition of the obligatoriness of moral obligations; and the acceptance of their obligatoriness as applying to oneself, with the personal commitment then to carrying them out.

Again: it is the personal making of what is cosmically true come true on earth–the actualization of truth (the truth about man).

More mystically, it is the discovery of truth (the personal truth) of the Islamic injunctions: the process of personal verification of them, whereby, by living them out, one proves them and finds that they do indeed become true, both for oneself and for society and world in which one lives.

Tasdiq is the inner appropriation and outward implementation of truth. It is the process of making or finding true in actual human life, in one’s own personal spirit and overt behavior, what God–or Realityintends for man.

And with many a passage strongly insisting that faith is more than knowledge, that it is a question of how one responds to the truth, one may also render the proposition ‘faith is tasdiq‘ as ‘Faith is the ability to trust, and to act in terms of, what one knows to be true’. (Smith 1981: 150-151)

(….) Faith, then, is the positive response to God’s initiative. It is not merely knowledge: it includes knowledge, but is something else as well. That something additional, the men of kalam came to agree, is tasdiq. Huwa (that is al-tasdiq) amr za’id ‘ala al-‘ilm.

We turn, then, from faith to tasdiq… We can now see that it designates not belief, but knowledge; and not merely knowledge, but knowledge of the truth plus something else. (Neither of these two componentsneither that of knowing the truth, nor that of the something additionalis found in the current Western translations …). (Smith 1981: 155)

(….) What, then, is tasdiq? Clearly, it lies in the realm of activist sincerity. Sidq … designates truth at the personalist level, of recognition and integrity: the second form of the very designates an activating of this.

Fundamental for understanding one of the prime meanings of tasdiq in this connection is a remark such as the following of al-Tabari:

al-qwam kanu sadaqu bi-alsinatihim wa-lam yusaddiqu qawwlahum bi-fi lihim.

Obviously this is not ‘to believe’ but rather to confirm, to actualize the truth. They ‘… spoke the truth with their tongues, but did not corroborate what they were saying with their deeds’. Or one might use such verbs as ‘authenticate’ or ‘validate’. An older usage in English would legitimately appear here if one translated by: ‘… they were not faithful to what they were saying, in their deeds’. (Smith 1981: 156)

The actualizing aspect of tasdiq is illuminated, again, in the oft-cited statement, al-iman ma waqara fi alqalb, wa-saddaqahu al-amal. ‘Faith is that about which the heart is firm, and that deeds validate (authenticate, corroborate).’

Again, and more theologically, the fact that God Himself is called mu’min is also explained, by al-Baghdadi, as His being actively faithful in this sense:

wa-Allah mu’min li-annahu yusaddiqu wa’dahu bi-al-tahqiq.

(It would be ludicrous to translate either iman or tasdiq as ‘believing’ in any of these cases–and I feel, in any cases at all).

The difference, then, between knowledge and tasdiq lies in the sincerity and in the opperationalist addenda denoted by the latter term. Knowledge is the perception of the truth outside oneself; tasdiq is the personal appropriation of that perception. It is the inner reordering of oneself so as to act in terms of it; the interiorization and implementation of the truth in dynamic sincerity. Tasdiq means not ‘to believe’ but
rather to recognize a truth and to existentialize it. (Smith 1981: 156)

(….) All this is especially relevant to, and leads to a consideration of, the second of the two fundamental orientations that we averred to be characteristic of Islamic life and significant for its faithnamely, the moral. For the truth to which the Muslim must respond is largely a moral truth. The knowledge conferred by revelation is largely a knowledge of moral requirements, of commands, of duties: awamir, ahkam, fara’id. In the moral life especially, as all of us recognize, knowledge is not yet virtue. The recognition of that something out to be done is not yet the recognition that I ought to do it, not yet the resolve to do it, not yet my personal decision to act. Involved in the moral life is a particular quality or act, more than and other than knowledge and its awareness of objective truth, a quality that brings one to the point of committing oneself to act in terms of what one has recognized as right. This is tasdiq, and to have it is to have faith. (Smith 1981: 157-158)

(….) One of the compelling expositions of the matter comes in the fuller elaboration of a statement by the later writer al-Kastalt …: ‘Al-tasdiq does not mean knowing the truth …; no, it is rather a yielding to what is known and a letting oneself be led by it, setting aside recalcitrance and stubborness, and constructing one’s actions in accordance with it’. (This is a beautiful example of a passage that Christian [or Buddhist, or Jewish] theology could be happy and proud to take over word for word ….) (Smith 1981: 158)

Change is Coming

For more than a decade now, dissatisfaction with the state of economics as a discipline has been growing within its ranks. Much of it has been driven by students and young people who are increasingly aware of the many limitations of what they are being taught at universities across the world, and much more willing to challenge existing dogmas and power structures.

This book is the outcome of a collective effort by such young people, to identify more precisely the source of their unhappiness with the current state of economics and, even more importantly, to highlight how this state of affairs can be changed.

It highlights a wide range of problems within the profession including a lack of diversity and inclusion; harmful hierarchies between countries; a dominant paradigm that fails to address structural inequalities, whitewashes histories of oppression, and undermines democracy and development; and incentive structures that punish economists who seek to venture beyond this paradigm. By presenting these concerns in clear-eyed and courageous ways, it also provides much hope for the future of economics.

We know that much of this dominant paradigm in economics is simply wrong and is being continuously exposed as being wrong: from being over-optimistic about how financial markets work and whether they are or can be ‘efficient’ without regulation, to misplaced arguments in favour of fiscal austerity or the deregulation of labour markets and wages. Critical relationships between humans and nature that form the basis of most material production are dismissed as ‘externalities’. These are only some of the ways in which mainstream economic thinking is either irrelevant or downright misleading in understanding contemporary economic processes and useless or counterproductive in addressing humanity’s most important challenges.

One reason is that much of the mainstream discipline has been in the service of power, effectively the power of the wealthy, at national and international levels. By ‘assuming away’ critical concerns, theoretical results and problematic empirical analyses effectively reinforce existing power structures and imbalances.

Deeper systemic issues like the exploitation of labour by capital and the unsustainable exploitation of nature by forms of economic activity, of labour market segmentation by social categories that allows for differential exploitation of different types of workers, of the appropriation of value, of the abuse of market power and rent-seeking behaviour by large capital, of the use of political power to push economic interests including of cronies, of the distributive impact of fiscal and monetary policies – all these are swept aside, covered up and rarely brought out as the focus of analysis.

This is associated with strict power hierarchies within the discipline as well, which suppress the emergence and spread of alternative theories, explanations and analysis. Economic models that do not challenge existing power structures are promoted and valorised by gatekeepers in the senior ranks of the profession. Alternative theories and analyses are ignored, marginalised, rarely published in the ‘top’ journals, and obliterated from textbooks and other teaching materials. (Ambler, Lucy; Earle, Joe; Scott, Nicola. Reclaiming economics for future generations (Manchester Capitalism) (pp. 16-17). Manchester University Press. Kindle Edition.)

The disincentives for young economists to stray from the straight and narrow path are huge: academic jobs and other placements as economists are dependent on publications, which are ‘ranked’ according to the supposed quality of the journal they are in, in a system that demotes articles from alternative perspectives; promotions and further success in the profession depend on these markers. (Ambler, Lucy; Earle, Joe; Scott, Nicola. Reclaiming economics for future generations (Manchester Capitalism) (pp. 17-18). Manchester University Press. Kindle Edition.)

This combines with the other pervasive forms of social discrimination by gender, racialised identity and location. A macho ethos permeates the mainstream discipline, with women routinely facing the consequences. Along with widespread patriarchy, the adverse impact of relational power affects other socially marginalised categories, according to class, racial and ethnic identities, and language. The impact of location is enormous, with the mainstream discipline completely dominated by the North Atlantic in terms of prestige, influence, and the ability to determine the content and direction of what is globally accepted. The enormous knowledge, insights and contributions to economic analysis made by economists located in the Global South in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are largely ignored. (Ambler, Lucy; Earle, Joe; Scott, Nicola. Reclaiming economics for future generations (Manchester Capitalism) (p. 18). Manchester University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Then there is disciplinary arrogance, expressed in insufficient attention to history and a reluctance to engage seriously with other social sciences and humanities, which has greatly impoverished economics. Arrogance is also evident in the tendency of economists to play God, to engage in social engineering, couched in technocratic terms which are incomprehensible to the majority of people who are told that particular economic strategies are the only possible choice, in an attitude that collapses into the unethical. (Ambler, Lucy; Earle, Joe; Scott, Nicola. Reclaiming economics for future generations (Manchester Capitalism) (p. 18). Manchester University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Fortunately, there is growing pushback against these tendencies, globally and within the current bastions of economics in the North Atlantic. This book is very much part of that response: challenging the rigidities and power structures within the mainstream discipline, and calling for a more varied, sophisticated, nuanced and relevant understanding of economies. This is, of course, greatly welcome; it is also hugely necessary and urgent, if economics is to reclaim its position as a relevant social science that had origins in both moral philosophy and statecraft. (Ambler, Lucy; Earle, Joe; Scott, Nicola. Reclaiming economics for future generations (Manchester Capitalism) (pp. 18-19). Manchester University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Jayati Ghosh
Professor of Economics,
University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA;
formerly Professor of Economics,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

Bismark on Rice

Late-Victorian economic doctrine answered the need for an intellectual response to the workers’ challenge, to trade unions, to socialism, to the land reform movement, and to Social Democracy. Liberal economists upheld the existing property order and its inequalities. In Western Europe, North America and Australasia, Social Democracy eventually prevailed over fascism and communism, established welfare states, safeguarded the structures of capitalism, and dominated policy during the first three post-war decades. It sustained economic growth and distributed it more equally. To do this, it had to challenge the assumptions of neoclassical economics, and sometimes to reject them. (Offer, Avner; Söderberg, Gabriel. The Nobel Factor (p. 6). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition. https://a.co/foDEAma)

In contrast to the competitive free-for-all of orthodox economics, Social Democratic parties in post-war Europe (and in the English-speaking countries) defined a cluster of collective aspirations:

•  Collective insurance against life-cycle periods of dependency, regulated and administered by government and paid for through progressive taxation.
•  Good-quality affordable housing, by means of rent control, new construction, mortgage subsidies, and public or collective ownership.
•  Secondary and higher education, land use planning, scientific research, culture, sports, roads and railways.
•  A mixed economy with extensive public services, some nationalized firms, but leaving private ownership to manage production and distribution.
•  A special concern for disadvantaged groups.13

The United States also went along with a good deal of this programme, and if it failed to provide universal healthcare entitlement, it did provide one for the old and the indigent.

Offer, Avner; Söderberg, Gabriel. The Nobel Factor (pp. 6-7). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition. https://a.co/cobZtMt

Japan: Bismark on Rice

DURING A DEBATE AMONG THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES in the spring of 2008, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani offered a picture of health care in foreign countries: “These countries that say they provide universal coverage—they pay a price for it, you know,” Giuliani explained. “They do it by rationing care, by long waiting lines, and by limiting, or I should say by eliminating, a patient’s choice.” Judging from that, it seems safe to say that Rudy Giuliani has never visited Dr. Nakamichi Noriaki at the Orthopedic Surgery Department of Keio Daigaku Hospital in Tokyo. (Reid, T. R.. The Healing of America (p. 82). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

In a society that is acutely conscious of hierarchy and rank, Dr. Nakamichi is generally recognized as one of the top orthopedic surgeons in all Japan; his clinic at Keio is perhaps the most respected place in the country for the repair of stiff, aching shoulders like mine. I was first told about him one Thursday morning in Tokyo when I was complaining, as usual, about my shoulder. I called his office to schedule an appointment—and was told to come in that same afternoon. After the familiar poking, patting, massage, and manipulation, Dr. Nakamichi suggested an assortment of different treatments that might work for me; in fact, it was the widest variety of care any doctor had proposed. The treatment available in Japan ranges from acupuncture to injections to manipulation to the total shoulder arthroplasty that my doctor back home had recommended. All the options, he told me, are covered by Japanese health insurance. When I asked how long I would have to wait if I chose the full-scale shoulder-replacement surgery, the doctor checked his computer. “Tomorrow would be a little difficult,” he said. “But next week would probably work.” (Reid, T. R.. The Healing of America (pp. 82-83). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

In other words: no waiting, no gatekeeper, no rationing, and a broad array of patient choice. Prices are low; as we’ll see, the Japanese system has a rigid cost-control mechanism that favors the patient, at the expense of doctors and hospitals. My out-of-pocket cost for an office visit with the prestigious Dr. Nakamichi in his prestigious clinic came to ¥2,060, or $19 (the doctor charged $64, and insurance pays 70 percent of the bill in Japan). (Reid, T. R.. The Healing of America (p. 83). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

(….) It’s worth noting that this happens in a largely private-sector system; Japan relies on private doctors and hospitals, with the bills paid by insurance plans. In fact, Japanese doctors are the most capitalist, and most competitive, that I’ve seen anywhere in the world. (Reid, T. R.. The Healing of America (p. 83). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

(….) Since medical care is so readily available, so easy to get, and so cheap, you might think that the Japanese use an awful lot of medical care. And you’d be right. The Japanese are the world’s most prodigious consumers of health care.1 The average Japanese visits a doctor about 14.5 times per year—three times as often as the U.S. average, and twice as often as any nation in Europe. If you can’t get to the doctor, no problem: Nearly all general practitioners in Japan make house calls, either daily or weekly. (Reid, T. R.. The Healing of America (p. 84). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

(….) “Japan’s macro health indices, such as healthy life expectancy and infant mortality, are the best, or among the best, in the world,” says Professor Ikegami Naoki, the country’s best-known health care economist. “Now, that’s not all the result of health care. Japan has lower rates of violent crime than most countries, less illicit drug use, fewer traffic accidents, lower rates of HIV infection, less obesity. In terms of keeping people alive and healthy, those factors obviously help. But you also have to give some credit to the health care system for providing universal coverage and egalitarian access without long waiting lists, and we need to credit the doctors and the medical schools for providing a high quality of treatment.” (Reid, T. R.. The Healing of America (p. 85). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The Japanese system, in short, provides care to every resident of Japan, for minimal fees, with no waiting lists—and excellent results. This is a good deal for the people of Japan, and they take advantage of it, flocking to clinics and hospitals. To an American, it seems natural that this formula—heavy demand by an aging population, with almost no rationing of care—would add up to a huge national medical bill. But when it comes to costs, Japan has turned the predictable formula upside down. Despite universal coverage and prodigious consumption, Japan spends a lot less for health care than most of the developed nations; with costs running at about 8 percent of GDP, it spends about half as much as the United States. (Reid, T. R.. The Healing of America (p. 85). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

(….) As we’ll see shortly, not everybody in Japan is happy with the system and its strict cost controls, because the system squeezes cost by sharply limiting the income of medical providers—doctors, nurses, hospitals, labs, drug makers. But if your goal is to provide quality care for everybody at a reasonable cost (which is not a bad goal for any health system), then the Japanese model could be a good one to follow. (Reid, T. R.. The Healing of America (p. 86). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Commanders of Corruption

[C]apitalism is not a monolithic form of economic organization but rather that it takes many forms, which differ substantially in terms of their implications for economic growth and elimination of poverty. The implicit assumption underlying the idea of a homogenous capitalism, the notion that all capitalist economies are fundamentally the same, reflects something of the mentality common during the cold war when two superpowers, representing two great ideologies, were struggling for the hearts and minds of peoples of the world. On the one side were countries like the United States, whose economies rested on the foundation of the private ownership of property, and on the other were communist or socialist societies, whose economies essentially did not. This distinction seemed to divide the two economic systems, and not much thought was given to the possibility that there is much more to capitalism. (Baumol et. al. 2007, vii)

Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism and the Economics of Growth and Prosperity

Fighting corruption is not just good governance. It is self-defense. It is patriotism, and it’s essential to the preservation of our democracy and our future.

—President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., June 3, 2021

Across the world, leaders of authoritarian governments, and their cronies, are robbing their people. These leaders are kleptocrats and they are pocketing staggering sums of cash, which they move through the world’s financial systems into investments in the wealthiest Western nations. These crimes perpetrated by the kleptocrats governing Russia, China, Iran, Egypt, Hungary, Nigeria, and many more nations not only impoverish their own citizens, but all of us. More gallingly, we are assisting them in their greed and their grand corruption. Even more worrying, we are complicit in their quest for ever greater power. (Vogl, Frank; Vogl, Frank. The Enablers (p. 12). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

Central to Western complicity with kleptocrats and their associates across the globe are the armies of financial and legal advisors, real estate and luxury yacht brokers, art dealers and auction house managers, diamond and gold traders, auditors, and consulting firms, based in London and in New York and in other important global business centers, who aid and abet the kleptocrats in return for handsome fees—these are the enablers. They are motivated not only by the substantial incomes they obtain but also by the widespread failures of law enforcement across the Western democracies to impose punishments that are sufficient to serve as meaningful disincentives. At the major banks, for example, who have been prosecuted at times for multi-billion-dollar laundering of dirty cash, not a single chairman or chief executive officer has personally faced criminal charges for such activities, while the fines that are agreed to settle legal actions appear, quite simply, to be viewed by bankers as just the costs of doing business. (Vogl, Frank; Vogl, Frank. The Enablers (pp. 12-13). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

The short-term maximization of profits is at the core of the corporate cultures at many of the world’s largest banks and multinational corporations. They are giant enterprises and some of these banks have assets under management that dwarf the GDPs of many national economies. The drive for ever bigger and quicker profits, which translate into mounting bonuses for senior executives, push issues of integrity and accountability to the sidelines. Concerns for serving the public interest, which ought to be at the center of the cultures driving vast companies, have increased in recent times as public demands and leading groups of investors have called upon these companies to pay far greater attention to how their business practices impact climate change. Gradually, arguably too slowly, these pressures are generating positive developments. But when it comes to international corruption and the roles that major banks and other giant multinational firms play, then public pressures for reform are few, investor concerns are barely visible, and corporate boards of directors charged with risk management oversight are silent. (Vogl, Frank; Vogl, Frank. The Enablers (pp. 13-14). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

Some of the activities of the enablers are illegal. Many of their actions in service to their kleptocrat clients are legal, but they do not serve the public interests of citizens in democratic nations, and indeed well beyond. By supporting the power of the kleptocrats and their associates, the enablers contribute to risks to international security, to Western democracy, and to the stability of the international financial system. The threats are now so formidable that countering the kleptocrats and their money-laundering operations has to become a leading priority for the Biden administration, the US Congress, the British government, the Commission of the twenty-seven-country European Union (EU), and other public authorities, such as those in Canada, Australia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These authorities are now doing more to counter illicit finance than ever before, but their combined impact is modest when seen against the full magnitude of international grand corruption and money laundering today. The necessary actions need to embrace fully the roles played by the enablers who reside in our midst, who are subject to our domestic laws and regulations, and whose operations do us so much harm. (Vogl, Frank; Vogl, Frank. The Enablers (p. 14). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

Curbing the activities of the enablers will make it far more difficult for kleptocrats and their associates to launder their stolen loot and invest it safely and profitably. It will make it far harder for authoritarian governments to access the global capital markets and secure formidable sums of cash through new bond issues. Diminishing the activities of the enablers for their corrupt clients will make the financing of terrorist organizations more difficult. It will stymie the rising efforts of some regimes, notably Russian and Chinese, to channel funds to foreign governments and organizations in their quests to disrupt democracies and diminish Western geopolitical and commercial influence. (Vogl, Frank; Vogl, Frank. The Enablers (pp. 14-15). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

The vested interests are well-entrenched, and securing reforms to counter corrupt practices in finance and commerce more generally will be intensely difficult. The starting point is increasing broad public understanding of the activities of the enablers and why these are so damaging. Too many politicians, journalists, and concerned citizens are poorly informed about how the kleptocrats operate, how the enablers serve their clients, how inadequate are current laws and the application of relevant financial regulations, and just how much cash we are now talking about. (Vogl, Frank; Vogl, Frank. The Enablers (p. 15). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

Respecting Truth

When liars lie people die

As America approaches a million deaths from COVID-19, many thousands of families have been left wondering whether available treatments and vaccines could have saved their loved ones. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 230,000 deaths could have been avoided if individuals had gotten vaccinated.

NPR: Their mom died of COVID. They say conspiracy theories are what really killed her, GEOFF BRUMFIEL

Ignorance is the lack of true knowledge. Willful ignorance is something more. It is ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. In saying this, it is tempting to believe that if one is willfully ignorant then one must know that one is ignorant, thereby revealing a bit of savvy whereby, presumably, one knows that there is some truth out there that one wants to be insulated from. A good example of this might be our suspicion that a vast majority of the people who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 did not actually believe the nonsense that they spouted about global warming, but instead merely pretended to believe it, so that they would appeal to those voters who were actually ignorant. But this is not willful ignorance; this is dishonesty. Instead, to be truly willfully ignorant, one could neither disbelieve in the truth (for, after all, one could simply think that one’s mistaken beliefs were correct), nor affect the mere pretense of disbelieving (for that is to look at the truth with one eye and pretend not to see it). Willful ignorance is instead marked by the conviction to shut both eyes against any further investigation, because one is so firm in one’s belief that any other sources of knowledge are not needed. Here one is not only ignorant but (like Euthyphro) prefers to remain so. One does not in any sense “know” the truth (even with one eye), even though one probably does suspect that there are further sources of contravening information out there. Yet these are rejected, because they might conflict with one’s favored beliefs; if there are other sources of information, they must be ignored. This is why the false beliefs cited in the polling results show more than just ignorance. For when there are such easily available sources of accurate information out there, the only excuse for such stunning ignorance is the desire to remain so; one has actively chosen not to investigate. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects contempt. But why would someone embrace such a hostile attitude toward the truth?

Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age by Lee McIntyre

At what point does “skepticism” become crackpot? How long before the preference for anecdotal over scientific evidence tips the balance toward a conspiracy theory that ranks with AIDS deniers and those who believe that NASA faked the Moon landing? Conspiracy theories are one of the most insidious forms of disrespecting truth for, even while they profess to be guided by the fervent desire to discover a truth that someone else is hiding, they simultaneously undermine the process by which most truths are discovered. Conspiracy theorists are customarily proud to profess the highest standards of skepticism, even while expressing a naïve credulity that the most unlikely correlations are true. This is disrespect, if not outright contempt, for the truth. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 47). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Finally, we turn to the problem of rumor. After the foregoing account, it may seem that belief in rumors has nothing much in common with the set of irrational beliefs that we have dismissed so far as “crackpot.” Yet rumors too can be dangerous and far-fetched. In the absence of reliable sources of information, rumors can tempt us to believe things that in less exigent circumstances we would be highly likely to dismiss. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 47). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

The best example in recent years is the list of atrocities that allegedly occurred in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. Armed gangs were beating and raping tourists in the street. Snipers were shooting at rescue workers. Inside the Superdome—which was home to some 25,000 refugees—muzzle flashes were said to portend mass killings with bodies piling up in the basement. Children’s throats were slit. Women were being dragged away from their families and raped. A seven-year-old girl was raped and murdered. Two babies had their throats slit. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (pp. 47-48). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

The consequences of these reports were dire. When Governor Kathleen Blanco sent the National Guard in to restore order, she did so with a stark message to the perpetrators: “I have one message for these hoodlums: these troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.” She and Mayor Ray Nagin called off rescue efforts to focus on protecting private property. Helicopters were grounded. The sheriff of one suburb that had a bridge to New Orleans turned back stranded tourists and locals, firing bullets over their heads. New Orleans had become a prison city. A team of paramedics was barred from entering the suburb of Slidell for nearly ten hours based on a state trooper’s report that a mob of armed, marauding men had commandeered boats. An ambulance company was locked down after word came that a firehouse in Covington had been looted by armed robbers. New Orleans police shot and killed several lawbreakers as they attempted to flee across the Danziger Bridge. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 48). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

The problem is that none of the reported atrocities just described actually occurred. None. Three weeks after the storm, police superintendent Edwin P. Compass III, who had initially provided some of the most graphic reports of violence, said “we have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault.” During the alleged six-day siege inside the Superdome, Lt. David Benelli (head of the New Orleans Police Department’s sex crimes unit) lived with his officers inside the dome and ran down every rumor of rape or atrocity. At the final count, they had made two arrests, both for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the other rumored attacks had not happened.44 (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 48). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

The snipers who were shooting at rescue workers turned out to be a relief valve on a gas tank that popped open every few minutes. The men commandeering boats turned out to be two refugees trying to escape their flooded street. The report of the robbery at the firehouse was simply false. When the giant refrigerated trucks backed up to the Superdome to haul out the bodies, there were only six: four had died of natural causes and one from suicide, with only one dying of gunshot wounds.45 The child who was raped—and indeed each of the rapes in the Superdome—turned out to be untrue. So did the story of the murdered babies. Despite police commitment to investigate, no witnesses, survivors, or survivors’ relatives ever came forward.46 (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 48). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

What was very real, however, was the aftermath of the city’s stalled rescue efforts and the crackdown on all those alleged lawbreakers. The people who were shot by police on the Danziger Bridge turned out to include a middle-aged African American mother who had her forearm blown off. The other was a mentally disabled forty-year-old man on his way to his brother’s dental office, who was shot five times and killed. A teenager was also killed.47 And thousands of people suffered with little food, water, or medical attention for days inside the Superdome. Yes, there were confirmed reports of widespread looting after the storm, mostly for food, water, and other necessities. And there was some violence. But how did such small incidents get so wildly exaggerated? How did we all become so easily seduced into believing the worst about the refugees in New Orleans? (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (pp. 48-49). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

In a city that was two-thirds African American before Katrina hit, and substantially less diverse in the population of refugees who could afford to put thirty gallons of gas in their SUVS and flee the approaching storm, one doesn’t need to take an IAT to understand that racial bias may have had something to do with it. Indeed, many experts now feel that the power of rumor to feed into pre-existing racial stereotypes likely led to one of the most tragic instances of “confirmation bias” ever to play out on the world stage. And the tragedy is that the effect of this bias was borne by the refugees themselves, who had done nothing wrong and were begging for help. They were stranded not merely due to poor federal disaster planning and lack of supplies, but also by the palpable hesitancy of public officials to expose rescue workers to the kind of “animals” who would commit such atrocities. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 49). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

What to say about those of us who were nowhere near New Orleans? Are we off the hook? Yet how many of us even to this day knew that the reports of violence in New Orleans were untrue? Although the press bears some responsibility for not reporting the retractions with as much vigor as the alleged atrocities, the corrected stories were out there. Yet how many of us read them? How many of us were sufficiently skeptical of such incredible claims even to look? Will Rogers famously quipped that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” Yet if we respect truth, isn’t it important to engage our critical faculties and search out better information? (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 49). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Rumor has the power to keep us from looking for the truth only if we are willing to suspend our critical faculties. In a life-threatening situation, it is probably understandable to take rumors seriously. If we do not know what is going on and we are scared, we may feel that we cannot afford the risk to be gullible. Survival comes first. But when the danger has passed, or we are far removed from it, don’t we have an obligation to try to replace rumor with fact? (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 49). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but respect for truth must survive the conflict. We may not like to think of ourselves among the “Seekers,” “Birthers,” “Truthers,” or other conspiracy theorists, but the fact is that we are all probably capable of believing in crackpot theories if the circumstances are right. We demonstrate respect for truth when we are willing to resist such pressure. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 49). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

~ ~ ~

[B]ullshit results from the adoption of lame methods of justification, whether intentionally, blamelessly or as a result of self-deception. The function of the term is to emphatically express that a given claim lacks any serious justification, whether or not the speaker realizes it. By calling bullshit, we express our disdain for the speaker’s lack of justification, and indignation for any harm we suffer as a result. 

On Letting it Slide: Bullshit and Philosophy

Suppose someone sits down where you are sitting right now and announces to you that he or she is Napoleon Bonaparte. The last thing we want to do with them is to get involved in a technical discussion of cavalry tactics at the battle of Austerlitz. If we do that, we’re getting tacitly drawn into the game that he or she is Napoleon. For those who espouse and believe conspiracist theories they would like nothing better than to drag everyone else down the rabbit hole into fruitless discussions of false claims of pseudo-evidence without a shred of fact or truth (real evidence); they are content disrespecting truth by repeating innuendo, outright falsehoods, rumors, and otherwise parroting hearsay and falsehoods they have heard or read on social media. To go down this conspiracist rabbit hole is to tacitly agree with their fundamental assumptions that there is something there to debate when there is nothing but empty falsehoods. Their goal is to draw you too into their bullshit and to distract you away from the scientific and rational methods of finding truth based upon evidence (fact). Thoughtful individuals who respect truth find such conspiratorial claims ludicrous and the most appropriate response is to treat them as ludicrous that is, by laughing at such falsehood mongering so as not to fall into the trap of giving the impression one takes such conspiratorial falsehoods seriously.

The Lady in Red

People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.

—George Orwell

In the summer of 2009, many in the world’s media suddenly became aware of a new conspiracist phenomenon. A video shot by a citizen cameraperson sitting approximately halfway back in the auditorium at a town-hall meeting in Georgetown, Delaware, on June 30 was put on YouTube a week or so later, and within days went viral. (Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories (p. 296). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 8))

The clip begins with the rangy figure of Congressman Mike Castle, Delaware’s sole representative in the U.S. House, face to the camera, choosing a questioner from the audience. “This lady in red . . .” he says. From the back it is hard to make out anything about the woman who now stands up, except that she seems to wear glasses and have her hair in what might be called a Sarah Palin semi-bun. The woman in red is brandishing something. She announces, “I have a birth certificate here from the United States of America, saying I am an American citizen, with a seal on it, signed by a doctor, with a hospital administrator’s name, my parents, my date of birth, the time, the date. I want to go back to January 20, and I want to know why are you people ignoring his birth certificate.” There is a loud cry of “Yeah!!!” and some applause, and a little booing. The woman continues, without specifying whom she is talking about—perhaps because she does not need to. “He is not an American citizen! He is a citizen of Kenya! My father fought in World War Two with the greatest generation in the Pacific theater for this country, and I don’t want this flag to change.” She waves a small American flag and shouts, “I want my country back!”1 And sits back down. (Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories (pp. 296-297). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Mr. Castle, a moderate Republican, seemingly taken aback by both the sentiment and the support for it, insists that “if you’re referring to the president there, he is a citizen of the United States.” Some catcalls follow. Apparently emboldened, the questioner rises and shouts out, “I think we should all stand up and pledge allegiance to the flag!” Several people yell, “Pledge allegiance!” and one loudly opines that Castle “probably doesn’t even know it!” Surreally, Castle then leads the people of Georgetown in this enforced act of loyalty, as though there had been a doubt about his patriotism that now needed to be expunged. (Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories (p. 297). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The Lady in Red was many people’s first Birther. But for the next few weeks the question of whether Barack Obama was an American citizen at birth, and the fact that there was a debate about that question, were hotly discussed on mainstream news channels in the United States, and the peculiarity that a significant number of Americans thought that he wasn’t a citizen (and that he was therefore ineligible to be president) was featured widely outside the country. One of the earliest Birthers, the Philadelphia lawyer (and 9/11 Truth activist) Philip J. Berg, observed that until the Delaware eruption, “the coverage has been minuscule” and confined to Internet and marginal radio stations, but that the Georgetown meeting had set off “a vast uptick.” On his radio broadcast, the sonorous CNN host Lou Dobbs, in “only asking” mode, repeatedly suggested that Obama set minds at rest by producing his long-form birth certificate. The more pungent right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh argued that the new president had “yet to prove that he’s a citizen.” (Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories (p. 297). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

At the same time, a group of mostly Texan Republican congressmen sponsored a measure, drafted by Bill Posey of Florida, “to amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to require the principal campaign committee of a candidate for election to the office of President to include with the committee’s statement of organization a copy of the candidate’s birth certificate,” a requirement that had somehow been regarded as superfluous in the previous 230 years of the republic. By mid-August 2009, a quarter of Americans polled were of the opinion that Barack Obama was not an American citizen by birth, and another 14 percent were unsure, with 10 percent naming Indonesia as his place of birth, 7 percent opting for Kenya, and 6 percent agreeing that it was Hawaii, but a Hawaii that, in their opinion, was not part of the United States in 1961 when Obama was born. Twelve percent, when prompted by the mischievous pollsters, pronounced themselves unsure that Obama wasn’t French. There were political, gender, and ethnic disparities. Sixty-two percent of Birthers were Republicans (44 percent of Republicans believed that Obama was not a citizen, compared with 36 percent who thought he was), 57 percent were “conservative,” 56 percent were male, and 86 percent were white.2 (Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories (pp. 297-298). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Stalin’s Ghost

The warning signs were ample. By the early spring of 1932, the peasants of Ukraine were beginning to starve. Secret police reports and letters from the grain-growing districts all across the Soviet Union—the North Caucases, the Volga region, western Siberia—spoke of children swollen with hunger; of families eating grass and acorns; of peasants fleeing their homes in search of food. In March a medical commission found corpses lying on the street in a village near Odessa. No one was strong enough to bury them. In another village local authorities were trying to conceal the mortality from outsiders. They denied what was happening, even as it was unfolding before their visitors’ eyes.1 (Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine (p. xxv). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Some wrote directly to the Kremlin, asking for an explanation:

Honourable Comrade Stalin, is there a Soviet government law stating that villagers should go hungry? Because we, collective farm workers, have not had a slice of bread in our farm since January 1…How can we build a socialist peoples’ economy when we are condemned to starving to death, as the harvest is still four months away? What did we die for on the battlefronts? To go hungry, to see our children die in pangs of hunger?2

Others found it impossible to believe the Soviet state could be responsible:

Every day, ten to twenty families die from famine in the villages, children run off and railway stations are overflowing with fleeing villagers. There are no horses or livestock left in the countryside…The bourgeoisie has created a genuine famine here, part of the capitalist plan to set the entire peasant class against the Soviet government.3 (Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine (pp. xxv-xxvi). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

But the bourgeoisie had not created the famine. The Soviet Union’s disastrous decision to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms; the eviction of “kulaks,” the wealthier peasants, from their homes; the chaos that followed; these policies, all ultimately the responsibility of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, had led the countryside to the brink of starvation. Throughout the spring and summer of 1932, many of Stalin’s colleagues sent him urgent messages from all around the USSR, describing the crisis. Communist Party leaders in Ukraine were especially desperate, and several wrote him long letters, begging him for help. (Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine (p. xxvi). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Many of them believed, in the late summer of 1932, that a greater tragedy could still be avoided. The regime could have asked for international assistance, as it had during a previous famine in 1921. It could have halted grain exports, or stopped the punishing grain requisitions altogether. It could have offered aid to peasants in starving regions—and to a degree it did, but not nearly enough. (Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine (p. xxvi). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Instead, in the autumn of 1932, the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that widened and deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside and at the same time prevented peasants from leaving the republic in search of food. At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and party activists, motivated by hunger, fear and a decade of hateful and conspiratorial rhetoric, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, anything in the oven and anything in the cupboard, farm animals and pets. (Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine (p. xxvi). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were more than 3.9 million Ukrainians. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932–3 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger—holod—and extermination—mor.4 (Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine (p. xxvi). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

But famine was only half the story. While peasants were dying in the countryside, the Soviet secret police simultaneously launched an attack on the Ukrainian intellectual and political elites. As the famine spread, a campaign of slander and repression was launched against Ukrainian intellectuals, professors, museum curators, writers, artists, priests, theologians, public officials and bureaucrats. Anyone connected to the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, which had existed for a few months from June 1917, anyone who had promoted the Ukrainian language or Ukrainian history, anyone with an independent literary or artistic career, was liable to be publicly vilified, jailed, sent to a labour camp or executed. Unable to watch what was happening, Mykola Skrypnyk, one of the best-known leaders of the Ukrainian Communist Party, committed suicide in 1933. He was not alone. (Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine (pp. xxvi-xxvii). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Taken together, these two policies—the Holodomor in the winter and spring of 1933 and the repression of the Ukrainian intellectual and political class in the months that followed—brought about the Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet unity. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who invented the word “genocide,” spoke of Ukraine in this era as the “classic example” of his concept: “It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.” Since Lemkin first coined the term, “genocide” has come to be used in a narrower, more legalistic way. It has also become a controversial touchstone, a concept used by both Russians and Ukrainians, as well as by different groups within Ukraine, to make political arguments. For that reason, a separate discussion of the Holodomor as a “genocide”—as well as Lemkin’s Ukrainian connections and influences—forms part of the epilogue to this book. (Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine (p. xxvii). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Ukraine’s Road to Unfreedom

Soviet Ukraine was the second most populous republic of the USSR, after Soviet Russia. In Soviet Ukraine’s western districts, which had been part of Poland before the Second World War, Ukrainian nationalists resisted the imposition of Soviet rule. In a series of deportations in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they and their families were sent by the hundreds of thousands to the Soviet concentration camp system, the Gulag. In just a few days in October 1947, for example, 76,192 Ukrainians were transported to the Gulag in what was known as Operation West. Most of those who were still alive at the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 were released by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ukrainian communists joined their Russian comrades in governing the largest country in the world. During the cold war, southeastern Ukraine was a Soviet military heartland. Rockets were built in Dnipropetrovsk, not far from where the Cossacks once had their fortress. (Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom (p. 120). Crown. Kindle Edition.)

Though Soviet policy had been lethal to Ukrainians, Soviet leaders never denied that Ukraine was a nation. The governing idea was that nations would achieve their full potential under Soviet rule, and then dissolve once communism was achieved. In the early decades of the Soviet Union, the existence of a Ukrainian nation was taken for granted, from the journalism of Joseph Roth to the statistics of the League of Nations. The famine of 1932–1933 was also a war against the Ukrainian nation, in that it wrecked the social cohesion of villages and coincided with a bloody purge of Ukrainian national activists. Yet the vague idea remained that a Ukrainian nation would have a socialist future. It was really only in the 1970s, under Brezhnev, that Soviet policy officially dropped this pretense. In his myth of the “Great Fatherland War,” Russians and Ukrainians were merged as soldiers against fascism. When Brezhnev abandoned utopia for “really existing socialism,” he implied that the development of non-Russian nations was complete. Brezhnev urged that Russian become the language of communication for all Soviet elites, and a client of his ran Ukrainian affairs. Schools were russified, and universities were to follow. In the 1970s, Ukrainian opponents of the Soviet regime risked prison and the psychiatric hospital to protest on behalf of Ukrainian culture. (Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom (pp. 120-121). Crown. Kindle Edition.)

To be sure, Ukrainian communists joined wholeheartedly and in great numbers in the Soviet project, helping Russian communists to govern Asian regions of the USSR. After 1985, Gorbachev’s attempt to bypass the communist party alienated such people, while his policy of glasnost, or open discussion, encouraged Soviet citizens to air national grievances. In 1986, his silence after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl discredited him among many Ukrainians. Millions of inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine were needlessly exposed to high doses of radiation. It was hard to forgive his specific order that a May Day parade go forward under a deadly cloud. The senseless poisoning of 1986 prompted Ukrainians to begin to speak of the senseless mass starvation of 1933. (Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom (p. 121). Crown. Kindle Edition.)

In summer 1991, the failed coup against Gorbachev opened the way for Boris Yeltsin to lead Russia from the Soviet Union. Ukrainian communists and oppositionists alike agreed that Ukraine should follow suit. In a referendum, 92% of the inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine, including a majority in every Ukrainian region, voted for independence. (Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom (pp. 121-122). Crown. Kindle Edition.)