The Road to Wigan Pier

book coverIn the Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo a choice: blue pill or red pill; blue pill and he’ll wake up back in his bed, able to continue living in the fictional world that is the Matrix. Red pill and he’ll see the brutal but true real reality that exists outside the Matrix.

I was reminded of Neo’s choice – the opportunity to see the truth, even if it’s harsh – when reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. In the 1930s, the Left Book Club, a socialist reading group in England, paid for Orwell to document the realities of poverty and staggering unemployment in northern England. The thought, it seems, was that such documentation would straightforwardly lead all readers to be reaffirmed in their commitment to Socialism. And, no doubt, it would plainly bring non-Socialists around. In other words, the club wanted to give people the opportunity to understand more deeply what sort of poverty and existence they were fighting against. Orwell, however, had additional plans. In addition to documenting the awful conditions in the first half of the book, the second half is perhaps best described as a critique of Socialism (or, more precisely, of Socialists) given with the hope of saving it from itself.

The second half centers on the idea that it is class prejudice that truly gets in the way of Socialism’s progress. That is, real Socialism requires reckoning with the realities of classism — a sort of prejudice that is ingrained in us in ways more fundamental than the economic prejudices (poor v. rich) Socialists usually focus on.

Orwell also provides a fantastic discussion about how the technological progress Socialism seems to require at the same time makes it harder for us to figure out what a good life even looks like. If we create ourselves and exercise our virtues though work and struggle, what happens when we live in a world where technology has made self-creating-and-enhancing work unnecessary? What’s a virtuous person look like in the Brave New World? What is it we are really trying to achieve here?Simply more leisure? But what do we do with leisure time? Easier lives? But that doesn’t seem right either, or else Brave New World wouldn’t seem so… discomforting.

Highly recommend.

The Member of the Wedding

book cover Picked this up at Powell’s on a friend’s strong recommendation. The story is about a young girl who feels alienated from everything and everybody until she hears about her brother’s upcoming wedding. Then suddenly, she feels this connection to the world, the people in it, and her own “true” self.

I ended up feeling quite ambivalent about the main character. It seems like part of the story is that, at least for some people, they feel most connected to the world when they hook themselves onto totally made-up things that they give a significance beyond themselves. And while that might not be so bad the sort of depressing part is that then when that person feels she loves the people she encounters, she’s really not interacting with them qua separate individuals at all. It’s just she has a feeling of goodness pouring outside herself and they are nothing but vessels she fills with that feeling. They aren’t really real, if that makes sense. And, if that’s right, the story of connection and love is quite solipsistic.

Very good, heart-aching book.

East of Eden

Bookcover I don’t have much to say: it might be the best novel I’ve ever read. I hope it’s true. There are also enough quote-worthy passages to fill another book. Some good ones:

  • “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
  • “I am certain that under their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love.”
  • “That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
  • “Tom bruised himself on the world and licked his cuts.”
  • “My Tom is a hell-bent boy. Always takes more on his plate than he can eat. Always plants more than he can harvest. Pleasures too much, sorrows too much. Some people are like that.”
  • “Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then – the glory – so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling  light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished.”
  • “A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more…. all this coming out of a little hurt girl.”   “And not out of you?”    “Oh no, or it would have come before.”
  • “The emotion of nonviolence was building in him until it became a prejudice like any other thought-stultifying prejudice.”
  • “Adam concealed his treasure deep in his tunnels, but he was inclined to pay for his pleasure with something. Alice began to find gifts ….”
  • “men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.”
  • “I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains … you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking – the beautiful thinking.”
  • “Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true.”
  • “You’re going to pass something down no matter what you do or if you do nothing. Even if you let yourself go fallow, the weeds will grow and the brambles. Something will grow.”
  • “It’s like you said about knowing people. I hate her because I know why she went away. I know – because I’ve got her in me.”
  • “We are Cain’s children”
  • “Timshel”

How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves

Book CoverRead this in conjunction with Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by law professor Kenji Yoshino. I absolutely recommend the pairing.

In Covering, Kenji basically argues that until we are each able to be our “authentic selves” in society we are not truly equal. To say people are equal regardless of their sexual orientation (or lack thereof) but then say that gays shouldn’t “flaunt” their gayness is to suffer a sort of cognitive dissonance. The test of equality is whether I can not only be bisexual but whether I can “act bisexual”. As I said in my review of the book, there are some serious issues with this idea of there being some way of being bisexual. But, putting that aside, his point is a good one: unless we can be our authentic selves, which means perform as our authentic selves, we aren’t actually equally. How Our Lives Become Stories is one piece in the large body of literature dealing with selfhood and, in so being, sheds light on how complex the construction of selves is (and thus how Kenji skips over much of the hard stuff). A lot of the book focuses on the relational aspects of self but it also contrasts that sort of self with the self we seem to be when it seems we’re acting apart from our relations, as radical individuals.

The book makes great use of autobiographies as a way of showing how the very construction of self (and the construction of a story about the self) varies across cultures and time.

Quite a great read. The first twenty or so pages are a bit of a slog (they struck me as overly dense and lacking the clarity he provides later), but after that it’s a very doable read.

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights

Book CoverFinished this on my flight out to a labor conference in Italy. Beautifully written (truly — it’s gorgeous). I’ll add more later but the only disappointment was that it didn’t cover more. In particular, he argues that real equality means that minority groups (e.g., homosexuals) are treated as equal even if they don’t “cover”. That is, even if they keep their own gay culture and are thus allowed to be their authentic selves. As the author recognizes, there’s a real danger here of suggesting both that (1) there is some essential gay culture and (2) if someone is gay but doesn’t perform that culture they aren’t being their authentic self. That’s all problematic. The author’s response is that he just wants people to be able to be their “authentic self.” Fair enough but the hard question is what on earth an authentic self even is. And, more to the point, to say that the law and culture should let us be our authentic selves seems to imagine that selves come before our experiences in the world and society. In other words, law and culture and the rest all create the conditions under which we develop into selves in the first instance. How that law and culture are constructed will thus determine to some large degree what I experience as my authentic self. So isn’t the hard question what sort of authentic selves law and culture should help cultivate?

I recommend reading How Our Lives Become Stories either during or immediately following this book.

The Modern School Movement (experimentation in anarchist and libertarian education and living)

Book CoverOne of the many interesting tidbits in the Avrich Sasha Berkman-Emma Goldman duel biography was its brief discussion of the Modern School Movement. The way Avrich explained it, in 1901 Francisco Ferrer started the Modern School in Spain. His goal was, at least in part, to teach the next generation of children how to lead the coming working class revolution. But the idea was that to achieve this end did not require force-feeding students dogma. Instead, a sense of justice and voluntary cooperation would arise naturally from children raised in an environment of freedom, nature, exercise, love, and sympathy — where formality, hierarchy, and discipline were entirely absent from learning. While the school was forcibly closed in 1906, Ferrer (once released from prison again) founded the International League for the Rational Education of Children in 1908. Tragically, though, he was then executed in 1909 as a result of his anarchist and related education activities (he was labeled seditious). His execution sparked international outcry and led anarchists and libertarians to create Modern Schools around the world. The United States was one place these schools particularly flourished and this book documents their creation and ultimate dissolution.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but there were a couple of issues. First, there are some chunks that seem virtually identical to text in the duel biography. Now, the repetition isn’t so much the issue as much as the fact that the areas of overlap didn’t strike me as core to the story of the Modern School Movement. It was bonus material that led down small (but interesting!) rabbit holes that diverted attention from the book’s main project. Another issue, and I don’t know how you get around this, was how many characters were introduced. Considering this seems to be one of the only books out there on the Modern School Movement, I don’t blame him for stuffing it full of information. But, it would be great for later books in this area to focus a bit more on specific lines of thought without the movement and develop them more robustly. At the end of the book there are likely a dozen names I’ve already forgotten. I also wish the book dedicated more than a few sentences to talking about what happened to the children who attended these amazing schools. How did they fare later in life? For an educational philosophy, the proof has got to be in the pudding. Most people reading this book, I suspect, want to know whether the experiments can be thought a success on the experimenters’ own terms. I still don’t know.

That all said, I am grateful Avrich wrote this and only wish there was more out there on this topic.

Here’s the list of ideas and notes I kept as I read. As I’ve said before, some of it might not make sense unless you read the book yourself.

  • Paul Robin’s school at Cempuis, which was the model for Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna.
  • A.S. Neill’s Summerhill – read by Uncle Fern, thought revolutionary (re: education)
  • 1949 Freedom in Education – post-Aunt (Elizabeth) Fern’s death. Interesting ideas on education but also anti-intellectual (in an ironically dogmatic way for a free-thinker)
  • Lewis Mumford – wrote on utopias
  • Single Tax party
  • Frobel – The Education of Man (founding educational philosophy text)
  • Central Labour College of London
  • News from Nowhere – William Morris. Libertarian utopia
  • Power of conduct as more powerful than mere speech quote on page 145 and what it should mean to free speech advocates/ the line between speech and conduct with re: government power to regulate. (quote = “It is not hard to write what one feels as truth. It is damned hard to live it.”
  • Walt Whitman, Walden – hugely influential on anarchists
  • Pestalozzi – 1800s, early radical education thought
  • Joseph McCabe – monk turned atheist (that’s got to be an interesting story. Elizabeth Fern had a similar trajectory. The relationship between some sort of mysticism/religiosity (just plain intensity of conviction?) and anarchism is interesting…. Think of C.S. Lewis, too.)
  • Skaneateles Community = one of the earliest US anarchist colonies. Brook Farms in MA was another early one.
  • The Paris Commune (looked online – very little in English about this)
  • The New Unionism – Andrew Tridon. One of the first American books on revolutionary syndicalism.
  • Kropotkin, Appeal to the Young. Probably one of the most influential pieces, sparked many young people to consider anarchism.
  • 1890-1920s is when anarchism was the most popular in the US. Where’s their writing on welfare capitalism? Made trade unionism seem tame.
  • Aurora Colony
  • The Modern School magazine, printed by Ishill around 1911ish. Free Spirit Press then Oriole Press (Ishill’s press — Ishill seems quite interesting).
  • Socialism spectrum: libertarian-ish (Carpenter, Morris) and then somewhere far away we have economic determinism (Engels, Marx)

Why Tolerate Religion?

book coverIs religion special such that the law should give religious commitments special/preferential treatment over other claims of conscience? And if they are not special, how should the law deal with religious-based claims for exemptions from otherwise applicable laws?

Here’s the hypothetical Brian uses at the start to illustrate the question: Imagine you have two fourteen year old boys starting middle school (NB: may the gods help them). Both are wearing daggers around their necks. Boy One is wearing a dagger because he’s a devout Sikh and in that religion, male believers must wear this sort of dagger as a symbol of religious devotion. Boy Two is wearing a dagger because for generations upon generations his family has been part of a culture where, when a male enters manhood, his father passes the dagger that his father gave him (and his father him etc.) and the boy/new man is then expected to wear it at all times. That is, the boy’s whole identity as a man in his community is wrapped up in wearing this dagger. Now imagine the school has a policy against bringing weapons on campus. What should happen?

Option One: The school should grant Boy One but not Two an exemption

Option Two: The school should grant Boy Two but not One an exemption

Option Three: Boy One and Two both get exemptions

Option Four: Neither One nor Two get an exemption.

Today, the most likely answer outcome is Option One. Boy One gets an exemption because his desire for an exemption is rooted in religion while Boy Two’s request stems from a non-religious conscientious objection. Brian more or less assumes that toleration is the underlying motivating force for why we feel compelled to make exemptions generally but then asks why we should “tolerate” (and by that he means make special exceptions for) religious-based claims over non-religious ones. After arguing that the answer is no (no, there is no reason to treat religion requests for exemption differently than other non-religious conscientious objections), he proceeds to argue that instead we should generally not create exemptions from these sorts of laws.

Unlike many readers (judging by other reviews I’ve seen), I find Brian’s first claim persuasive. I can see no good reason to privilege the Sikh boy’s request for an exemption from the weapon ban over that of the boy whose identity as a man is wrapped up in wearing the same dagger. My intuition, though, is to take much more seriously Option Three (i.e. giving both boys an exemption). Brian mostly dismisses this option out of hand by saying it would basically lead to anarchy. I don’t find that persuasive for two reasons: (1) we need some account of why anarchy is not an option (this is a philosophic argument, so it’s a bit like cheating to just assume that anarchy is off the table) and (2) we need some reason to think that allowing for exemptions for all claims of consciousness would actually lead to anarchy. I’m skeptical. Just think about the power of default rules, for starters.

I think I’ll save a full review of this book for when I’m guest posting on PrawfsBlawg later this summer, I’ll just mention a few other questions I’m left with:

  • The argument seems to be that toleration is what is required to show proper respect (meaning appropriate recognition) for other people’s faculty of conscience. (p. 69) But why? It seems true that we should give appropriate consideration to the ends and objects other people are aiming for but why is toleration appropriate? It’s not so clear to me that letting you be plainly wrong about something, without making at least an attempt at showing you what I think to be true, is the morally required stance I take. Or maybe the idea has to be that there’s no such thing as being wrong (or right) in the moral space? But I certainly don’t take that position. Knowing what is “right” and “good” is extraordinarily difficult but that doesn’t mean I don’t know when one thing is better than another. And, I take that to mean I think there’s some truth in there.
  • He says the state may not directly target or coercively burden claims of conscience generally, unless those claims violate the Harm principle (Mill’s principle – the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (p.115)  If we take the Harm principle seriously, why the focus on direct targeting? Who cares if you target me directly or not if you exercise your power over me, against my will, for a reason other than the prevention of harm to others? In other places Brian says the state has the right to push its own conception of the good. Ok… (1) why and (2) if that’s right, then it seems the state can target or coercively burden my claims of conscience. (maybe the pushback is to define “coercive” narrowly — to cover only super forceful coercing. But that seems like cheating)

In short, a quick and thought-provoking read!