Tag Archives: anarchy

August Reads

Excited to report that I completed my 52-books-in-2016 challenge this month!

But now onto the August reads…

  1. At Home in the Law: How the Domestic Violence Revolution is Transforming Privacy by Jeannie Suk (YUP 2011)
  2. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper 2016)
    • After reading the author’s interview with the New Conservative, this got bumped to the top of the list. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would (some of the dialogue reminded me of what I heard as a kid, and reading about it somehow elicits, among other things, laughter). Instead of some memoirs where you either feel like the author barely sees him/herself as an agent (which then leaves you feeling depressed and helpless as well) or where the author tells a story of triumphing over all with god/John Galt-like control (unrealistic and fails to appreciate how we all depend on those around us, and how important it is to have support – as a kid and as an adult) this was much more in the middle. He acknowledges how some members of his family not simply “saved him” but, better than that, provided him with the conditions from which he could go on to succeed. Also, a refreshing comment on how the military can turn lives around (I don’t think people in elite institutions often understand how someone screaming at you, making you do what they say, can really *increase* agency, but Vance explains how much of a difference his time there made). (note: both my parents were in the Air Force and I’m pretty sure my dad would agree. Mom is a different story) In short: really enjoyed, very quick read, and I suspect will give a lot of people an insight into a culture of which they are ignorant but, if this election cycle has shown anything, they should not be.
  3. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (Scribner 2000)
    • Atlas is not an inaccurate description. This book is massive, 570+ pages. And the font is small! Parts I enjoyed. Other parts, less so. If you want a now-slightly-outdated encyclopedic understanding of depression, here’s your book. Chapters go into detail about the author’s own experiences, the history of different drugs and treatments, the history of how we’ve understood depression over the centuries (I liked that part), and an unfortunately short look at what it’s like to deal with mental illness for those who don’t come (in contrast to the author) from such privileged backgrounds.
  4. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (originally Putnam’s Sons 1966)
    •  A gift with high praise from Will B., though he hadn’t read the thing since he was a kid. Libertarians will enjoy. Enjoyed the alternate family structures, the conscious computer (Mike!), and the political and revolutionary strategy. A quick-witted sort of tone. No Ursula K. Le Guin (Dispossessed is better) and no Octavia Butler, but good. And let’s be real: that is an awesome title.

June Reads

 

  1. House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster)

What is the relationship between fantasy and reality? Here I have in mind two different kinds of fantasy: (1) alternative worlds we gain exposure to through, among other things, stories; (2) the fantasies we have in our heads.

As for version (1), I’ve been thinking about/reading about whether we have a duty of epistemic resistance (borrowing philosopher José Medina’s term from The Epistemology of Resistance).The idea here is something like: each of us needs to cultivate epistemic openness to alternative points of view and ways of knowing because it is through confrontation with these alternative perspectives that ethical learning happens. Part of cultivating this openness is engaging in the kinds of self-interrogation that make us feel perplexed and self-estranged. From that space of perplexity and alienation-from-self,  we are able to take seriously – listen truly – to the views of others. And the reason: because we are less stuck in our own perspective. We’ve seen the contingencies, conflicts, problems, latent in the mosaic of beliefs and commitments we have. (I know very little about the tradition, but, relying on Medina again, this is all part of the Pragmatist tradition espoused by Dewey, Jane Addams, and others.). Given how this works, we should affirmatively look for ways to confront ourselves with radically different views and possible worlds. (This is, for what it’s worth, part of why I think science fiction *can* be so important – some authors, like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Marge Piercy, create worlds that really do jolt us/confront us with something uncomfortably different, thereby inviting us to question everything that seems axiomatic in our own lives and worlds).

As for version (2), what’s the relationship between those fantasies and our ethical commitments? Take sexual fantasies. If one is turned-on by depictions of women being degraded or humiliated, does that necessarily say something about one’s views and ethical commitments about women “in real life”? Some feminist theorists think the line between fantasy and real life is illusory – porn of men degrading women cannot but negatively effect the treatment of women. Others think there’s at least the possibility of compartmentalization. (think of violent video games – most (?) seem to think there’s no necessary relation between entering into those fantastic worlds and being violent in real life.)  I don’t know, though I tentatively think it’s unlikely there’s a hermeneutic seal between the ethical and fantastical. It seems like our aesthetic preferences/responses, like emotions, are at least in some sense formed by/guided by/influenced by/responsive to our ethical commitments. For instance, imagine the creation of totally computer-generated child pornography. That is, no children were involved, it’s all animated, etc. etc. I suspect that most people would find the idea of being turned on by that repugnant, even though it’s not real, and even though it’s just fantasy. They think people should not be turned on by depictions of that thing. Ever. And yet… people don’t seem to have that same no-go response to depictions (even if those depictions are fake in some sense [though I don’t think they’re very fake]) of women being humiliated and/or dominated, though they swear up and down they think the subordination of women “in real life” is wrong. What’s the difference? A response might be: even fake child porn is a depiction of someone doing something to someone who we think just cannot consent, whereas a woman can consent to being humiliated. So it’s sexy because there’s consent? Perhaps. But the turn-on is the humiliation and degradation — the consent just seems to be what then might make being turned on by that “ok” in some sense.

Another thought: there might be a lot else going on in what makes something we think ethically problematic fodder for fantasy. The taboo generally might work, and that subordination is now supposedly taboo, that might be a partial explanation. (though that doesn’t seem to work for fake child porn!)

One more thought I’ve been mulling over: thinking back to fantasy version (1), we have radically different understandings and perspectives depending on where we stand in relation to others. Different perspectives give us access to different kinds of knowledge, different insights. What if playing out different roles (sexual being just one example, though an area where I suspect adults feel more free to play than they do (sadly) otherwise) can give us access to different understandings. Could a man, for instance, ever play out a submissive, dominated role in one area as a way of coming to understand a bit more what that is like for groups that are more oppressed generally? We know that acting, even for a short time, can lead us to really embody those roles (think Milgram experiment). And what if that might be a good thing, at least sometimes?

That’s all a long introduction to House of Holes. This book, I had hoped, would speak to both versions (1) and (2). Alas, not so much.

The premise is something like this: ordinary objects, like dryer and golf holes, are occasional-portals, transporting everyday people to The House of Holes, a magical, carnivalesque sex resort where any and all sexual desires can be fulfilled… for a price.

Re: Fantasy (1) (exposure to new ideas)

As I said, I was under the impression that the book would make space for imagining different kinds of sexuality outside the everyday heteronormative stuff we are all exposed to. In short, I thought it would be like SF — enter an alien world and, through exposure, be changed a little. Or learn something new and weird about yourself. But no. First, how odd that there was basically zero same-sex sex. How is that possible? More than that, the vast majority of the fantasies were just the same old heteronormative tropes on steroids. Granted, lots of steroids. Lots and lots of steroids, but the underlying idea of what was sexual was fundamentally and almost always centered on women as sex objects, men turned on by doing things to them, and women being turned on by being used. Even the economy of House of Holes seemed saturated in the same old gender awfulness: when men wanted something, they had to pay money or temporarily give up a body part (like an arm, in exchange for a larger penis). When women wanted something — for instance, a woman who wanted to have sex with a tree — you know what she had to do? Guess. Yep — perform some sort of sexual act for a man. When women wanted something they almost invariably had to pay with sex. Men (at least, only men had them) could also buy butt-grabbing passes. One in possession of such a card had the right to go up to any woman and demand the right to grope her bottom (they could also demand to do what they wanted with said bottom out in public or require her to go back to their rooms, for instance). Women were forbidden to refuse, on pains of (if I remember correctly) all their clothes disappearing, forcing them to walk around naked. Like… is that supposed to be paradise for women? I don’t deny that some women will like some (or all) of what the book depicts, but I found the sexual politics not so great and, more to my original point, not the kind of mind-bending experience I was hoping it would be. That’s not to say that some of the book wasn’t fun at times, and I certainly appreciated female characters who fully and openly embraced sex, but, again, this was not a whole new world.

Re: Fantasy (2) (ethics and aesthetics)

The above pretty much captures my issues. What was fascinating to me: of all the reviews I read on this book, none seemed to mention these potential critiques. Everyone cheered that it was “sex positive.” And perhaps they are right, in some sense. Some women, some of the time, want to be subordinated in sex. And if it just so happens that every woman depicted in House of Holes had that view, then I suppose it was positive for them. The question might be (1) should we worry about what people fantasize about and (2) is it problematic when we only depict one kind of fantasy/way of being sexual? It would have been much neater to see a woman who enjoyed subordination sometimes but other times took on the dominant role. It also would have been great to see some sex that wasn’t so focused on power-as-sexual-fuel at all. Though perhaps Baker is sympathetic to, or at least finds descriptively accurate, Oscar Wilde’s view: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”

40. Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600-1800 by Woodruff Smith (Routledge)

41. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (updated edition, Haymarket Books)

This book is a collection of essays, the most famous among them: Men Explain Things to Men — the essay known for leading to the creation of the term “mansplaining”. (Tidbit: the author notes in a postscript that she has “doubts” about the term: “it seems to me to go a little heavy on the idea that men are inherently flawed this way, rather than that some men explain things they shouldn’t and don’t hear things they should. If it’s not clear enough in the piece, I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t yet know: it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong.” (13). I agree with her there.

The collection is great. My favorite two: Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable and Cassandra Among the CreepsCassandra deals with what Miranda Fricker would call epistemic injustice, mostly testimonial injustice specifically. In contrast to the Boy Who Cried Wolf, who was believed and believed until finally he wasn’t, Cassandra is the story of a woman who has the power of true prophecy but was cursed by Apollo (as punishment for refusing to have sex with him) so nobody would ever believe her. From there, Solnit discusses the harms we experience when others fail to take us seriously and fail to hear us. “Silence, like Dante’s hell, has its concentric circles.” (107). From talking about silencing, invoking both Judith Herman and Susan Brison’s work in this area (both scholars I respect immensely), she talks about the power of language, narrative construction, and how how words help us both describe and reshape our world. Like Fricker, the concept of sexual harassment is discussed. A great read on the heels of Consumption and the Making of Respectability.

Another interesting bit related to Respectability and the question of whether it can be used for subversive purposes (as question Smith raised): here, Solnit discusses the los desaparecidos (the disappeared) during Argentina’s “dirty war” (1976-1983) and the success the mothers had in raising awareness and pushing for change. As Solnit understands it (and I just don’t know nearly enough to comment on this), the mothers used the respectability that they had in virtue of motherhood (itself a result of the respectability women are given in the domain of femininity, domesticity, emotions, etc.) to be taken seriously. Whereas others fighting against the regime were brushed aside and delegitimized as Radical, the same could not be done to mothers who invoked the revered concept of motherly love. Here, we might say that the respectability women get through domestication, while subordinating in some (most) ways, was also itself a tool they could use for subversive ends. It gave them a narrow way to enter public spaces, where they might usually be excluded, to push for justice.

42. Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America by Dana Frank  (originally South End Press, though I read the Haymarket Press version – purchased at the Chicago Lit Fest!)

I’m writing this on a plane without the book so I don’t have access to my notes! Short version: interesting and mind-opening.

43. The Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin

44. From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century by Alexander Gourevitch (Cambridge University Press)

Absolutely worth reading. I did not before this understand the relationship between the concept of Solidarity and the neo-republican conception of freedom. It goes a long way toward explaining why, historically, collective action was considered masculine, whereas today it seems to invoke the feminine. I’d like to understand more how that shift to the feminine occurred. Perhaps it tracks declines in unionization?

 

The Man Who Was Thursday

book cover Wow. From the person who brought me two other recent successes (The Member of the Wedding and The Road to Wigan Pier) now comes this. What to say (other than, “I love you and please keep recommending books!!”):

First, G.K. Chesterton’s writing is exceptional. For most writers, there are maybe a half-dozen lines I underline in a book because they’re cool and insightful and well-crafted. Virtually this whole book should be underlined. That this guy had such insight into human behavior while also being able to express it in writing with such wit, topsy-turvy paradoxical flair, and yet simplicity is something to behold. I will absolutely read more by him in the future — and then stick the book under my pillow in the hopes his style comes to me through sleep osmosis. (it’s a thing — sleep osmosis). A few examples of awesome passages

  • “Gabriel  Syme was not merely a detective who pretended to be a poet; he was really a poet who had become a detective. Nor was his hatred of anarchy hypocritical. He was one of those who are driven early in life into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists. He had not attained it by any tame tradition. His respectability was spontaneous and sudden, a rebellion against rebellion. He came from a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else. His father cultivated art and self-realisation; his mother went in for simplicity and hygiene. Hence the child, during his tenderer years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between the extremes of absinth and cocoa, of both of which he had a healthy dislike. The more his mother preached a more than Puritan abstinence the more  did his father expand into a more than pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforcing vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism.”    [NB: I mean, come on! I want to write that!]
  • The debate between Syme (who stands in for order) against Gregory (who stands in for anarchy, which basically here just means chaos [unfortunately]). They debate where art comes from – order or chaos. Gregory retorts that if poetry comes from order, then the Underground Railway would be the most poetical thing in the world. Syme agrees. From there,
    • Gregory says: “Nonesense!” “Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket  for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”
    •  “It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!
  • “Let us remain together a little, we who have loved each other so sadly, and have fought so long.”
  • “Now absent-mindedness is just a bit too awful in a bad man. We think of a wicked man as vigilant. We can’t think of a wicked man who is honestly and sincerely dreamy, because we daren’t think of a wicked man alone with himself. An absentminded man means a good-natured man. It means a man who, if he happens to see you, will apologise. But how will you bear an absentminded man who, if he happens to see you, will kill you? That is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty. Men have felt it sometimes when they went through wild forests, and felt that the animals there were at once innocent and pitiless. They might ignore or slay. How would you like to pass ten mortal hours in a parlour with an absent-minded tiger?” [NB: Reminds me of why No Country for Old Men was so very very creepy]
  • “Syme was subject to spasms of singular common sense, not otherwise a part of his character.”

I could go on.

Also, given how many anarchy-related booklists I’ve seen this book on, I assumed it was in some sense pro-anarchy. Let me assure you that that is not the case, though I can’t say it’s a full-fledged love letter to order either. A bit like C.S. Lewis (though upon some googling it seems more accurate to say Lewis a bit like Chesterton, just not particularly clever and topsy-turvy version of him): Chesterton was a Christian and this book can certainly be read to endorse a sort of divine orderliness that goes along with that view of the universe. But then, if that’s the view what to make of the fact that the book suggests it through a most chaotic and absurd of nightmares. Perhaps a phoenix rising from the ashes sort of thing.

Long story short: Chesterton is brilliant and the fact that I’ve only just heard of him in the last few months is a tragedy. I want a first edition like nobody’s business!

An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre

book cover So I lied. Less than twelve hours after saying I’d likely not post here for a bit I finished another Paul Avrich book and can’t help myself. [apologies for the not-great book cover. There wasn’t a good one online so I took a photo at 11 at night]

I’d never even heard of Voltairine before reading Avrich’s duel Berkman-Goldman biography a bit back (though to be honest, I knew nothing about Berkman and Goldman before stumbling upon their biography either) but there were a few quotes attributed to her that peaked my interest. I could tell Avrich had something of a special interest in her and so I was not at all surprised to find this biography.

As a biography this is a solid B. Part of the problem throughout Avrich’s work is that, being one of the only historians to look at anarchy in the United States, he no doubt felt compelled to do too much at once. Write a biography of one person but at the same time give an overview of Anarchism, and create mini-bios of as many other people as possible (more than is necessary to our understanding of Voltai). And perhaps this is just a product of coming at the book with unrealistic expectations, but I was also hoping the book would talk more in-depth about her actual views. That is, more than just a line or two about her views on education, prison reform, sex, etc., I wanted depth and nuance. A mini-treatise! Avrich’s research was exhaustive and impressive, and he cites to a ton of lectures she gave over the course of her too-short life. But then fails to tell us much of anything about her positions. He’s such a tease!

That all said, I learned a great deal about her and there’s no doubt Avrich’s work here has, as another reviewer said, “rescued de Cleyre from undeserved oblivion.”  L. Glen Seretan Review, 1979. Absolutely worth reading — I only wish it were twice as long!

Below are some of my notes, in case they’re of use: 

  • People worth looking up
    • Lucy Parsons (p.90)
    • Natasha Notkin (98)
    • Mary Hansen (98)
    • Jacob Coxey – “industrial army” – marched to DC to demand relief from unemployment. (100)
    • Max Nettlau – anarchist historian (109)
    • Elisee Reclus (157)
    • Mary Wollstonecraft – Voltai’s feminist hero. Mentions idea of room of one’s own and issues with opposite-sex romantic relations and power. (158; 161)
    • Kropotkin –  esp. Fields, Factories, and Workshops, influenced her views on the possible compatibility of technology, innovation, and labor. (167-68)
    • Catherine Breshkovskaya – Socialist revolutionary from Russia. (187). “Unless the material conditions for equality exist, it is worse than mockery to pronounce men equal”. (186)
    • Relationship between anarchists & libertarians with socialists like Debs and London. (203)
    • Flores Magon
    • American libertarian and anarchist thinkers she IDs
      • Paine, Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau
  • Ideas, Orgs, etc.
    • Alternative living arrangements
      • Stelton Colony (82)
      • Sunrise Colony in Michigan (82)
      • Mohegan colonies (104)
      • Flores Magon’s Mexican revolution and corresponding experimentation with communal living in places like Tijuana. (226)
    • Ladies Liberal League and the Radical Library (97)
    • Marriage and Children – seemed to think it might be morally wrong to have children. (160)
    • Property
      • not an advocate of communal property originally and definitely not a Communist. (105; 144) (contrast with Emma Goldman)
      • in 1890s moved to a Dyer Lum-Proudhon type mutualism.
      • strongly opposed to commercialism. Had a sort of Jeffersonian agrarian fantasy
    • Philosophy
      • anti-materialist conception of history. Like Berkman “the idea is the thing”
      • Dominant Idea Theory – thought was about consumerism. (162)
      • Anarchy has different threads
        • (1) Individualism vs. (2) Collectivist (subcategories include: mutualism, socialist/Marxist, communist)
        • (1) US native (I take him to mean not native but simply not first generation) vs. (2) immigrant. (155)
      • what draws some anarchists and libertarians to Buddhism? Here Avrich talks about Lum, who was her most stable mentor and lover, being involved in it. (56)

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!

Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman

Book CoverJust finished an absolutely engrossing dual biography of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. I should keep better track of how I’m led to all the different books I buy and read – it’s interesting to see how your own most core views morph over time in response, in large part, to the sheer fortuity of what you read. As for this book, while I can’t remember the specifics, I think my recent interest in the history of anarchist thought in the United States is connected to both the First Amendment section of a paper I’ll be trying to get published soon (it deals with labor law and government interests that do/do not compel restrictions of speech in that context) and also Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the influence of which continues to spread through my brain.

But back to the book. I am embarrassed to confess that, prior to this book, I knew almost nothing about anarchist thought in the United States. I’ve read a number of very unfortunate First Amendment cases dealing with anarchists’ speech, but I never dedicated time to learning about the nitty-gritty of its different branches, its history, etc. Ugh. Such a mistake.

This book is a great introduction to the area. Paul Avrich (the first author) was a professor specializing in Anarchism and I suspect you won’t find a better guide into the field than him. (This book was also the last project he worked on before his death in 2006. [I know this because I tried to email him after finishing the book to ask him some follow-up questions.] His daughter, Karen Avrich, ended up compiling his work and actually writing and creating the final product. You can read a little bit about their lovely collaboration here.)

But moving on — as I mentioned, it’s a dual biography of two hugely influential anarchists — Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. And, given their inspirational and significant friendship, it seems quite natural to read about both of their experiences at the same time.

I kept a list of ideas, peoples, things, etc. the book mentioned that I wanted to learn more about. I’ll add my notes verbatim here, too (so some may make more sense than others):

  • International Institute of Social History – Amsterdam
  • The Bolshevik Myth (Berkman’s account) and the separate concluding chapters (published separately)
  • Goldman’s book – My disillusionment in Russia (two volumes originally, later published as one)
  • Spanish Civil War (esp. how it does/does not relate to activity in Russia and Germany)
  • Gustav Landauer and Alfred G. Sanftleben (libertarian socialists)
  • Leonard Abbot (part of the Ferrer teaching association – just look up Ferrer teaching generally)
  • Modern School Movement (Avrich wrote a book on this, I think)
  • Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (Berkman from awful time in prison – also first discussion of homosexuality outside the medical context?)
  • Becky Edelsohn
  • Gertie Vose
  • Upton Sinclair (relation to anarchists)
  • The Blast and Mother Earth (Berkman and Goldman’s publications)
  • Catholic Worker Movement
  • Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan (at least had documents about radicalism in it)
  • Voltairine de Cleyre