Sunday, August 25, 2013

There is a Place: A Look at the Walls of the Heart and Mind

There is a place,
Where I can go,
When I feel low,
When I feel blue.
And it's my mind,
And there's no time when I'm alone.
                                – The Beatles, ‘There’s a Place’

        Jean Paul Sartre begins the essay ‘Being and Nothingness’ writing that philosophy has discarded many of the dualisms that inhibited its progress in past eras. Among these outmoded dualisms, is the belief that every human existent consists of both an interior and exterior which sit in opposition to each other. The interior is typically understood to be a privileged space, the realm of essential identity, substance and being. By contrast, the exterior is nothing but appearance and delusion; it is the realm of the senses, a world of dazzling colors and phantasmal shapes which taunt the viewer, underscoring the frailty of human perception. But as Sartre explains, “The appearances which manifest the existent are neither interior nor exterior; they are all equal, they all refer to other appearances, and none of them is privileged” (p. 3). Thus he goes on to conclude that “The obvious conclusion is that the dualism of being and appearance is no longer entitled to any legal status within philosophy” (p. 4). 

        While it is probably safe to say that few people today would dispute the soundness of Sartre’s conclusion, the full implications of this simple observation – namely, the unity of the existent or, more broadly, phenomena – have yet to be assimilated. This is only to be expected. After all, one of the basic tenets of existentialist thought is the idea that the introduction of every human to earth is, in its own small way, a revolution. For every new person – for that is what they are, a new person – is suddenly tasked with (re)inventing humanity. Every generation must start from scratch, learning, inventing or perverting humanity all over again. 

        Thus, for every person the heliocentric revolution might just as well have occurred during freshman science class, and the polemics of Socrates first argued in the middle of sophomore literature. In short, if there are still many people who still believe their “true” self to be unknowable to all but themselves, residing in some nebulous interior space, this should not be all that surprising. Again, the merits of this Cartesian dualism, the opposition of the interior to the exterior, are likely to be debated as long as there are humans plodding the earth. At the very least, learning about this dualism will always be a small revolution for each new person, the introduction of – for them – a new problem, footnote or solution. 

        Yet there are more persistent causes that compel people to organize their worldview spatially into interior and exterior realms than simple intellectual confusion. By severing one’s world into two realms – one public and partial, the other private and complete – the human existent erects a defensive mental terrain that protects them from the pressures of reality. It is a self-defense measure, though perhaps not in the traditional sense of the phrase. Within the familiar redoubt of one’s interior space, the pressures and criticisms of the exterior world are easily repulsed. The towers of the interior are impenetrable, its walls made of a material too foreign to grasp, its heights too lofty to scale. Carving out an interior space accords its occupant a position of power and privilege, for only they get to occupy it; indeed, only they are capable of occupying it. 

        In contrast, the exterior is like some strange frontier, foreign and dangerous. The interior realm can hover over the exterior’s lonely plains or cast its gaze upon its sun-baked hills, but their borders are never wholly transgressed; they are like oil and water. Indeed, the fact that the human existent can occupy both the interior world and the exterior at the same time illustrates their enduring polarity. The existence of one is confirmed by the other, just as a great hero demands a nemesis, the depths of whose perversity mirrors the great magnitude of their righteousness. Considerable psychic tension is generated when the two confront one another, confirming the existence of both and compelling the existent to withdraw to the interior. An awareness of their mastery of the interior helps dull a sense of helplessness that is now and then piqued by the knowledge of their impotence out in the dangerous exterior. But this inability to master the exterior does not phase the existent – at least, that is what they tell themselves – since all that is true and worth knowing ultimately lies within the interior, their interior. What good, after all, is it to entertain falsehood, to be courted by lies? 

        The interior-exterior dualism consequently embodies as much of a human propensity for self-understanding as it does a purely intellectual theorem. Cast into the world, naked and bloody, the human existent is confronted by the startling fact of their existence. What makes their existence alarming is not the fact of life itself, but the peculiar relation of the individual to the imposing world in which they find themselves thrown. It is a world of marvelous complexity and beauty, as well as tragedy and conflict. But in all its contours and cataclysms, this world is frustrating for the human existent, for even its grandeur seems to remind the existent of their unfolding mortality, impotence and general inability to master this ever-expanding world. 

        By carving out an interior space, however, they score a subtle but important victory. First, by establishing the fiction of an interior space they create a realm that is inaccessible to others but one in which they know everything. It is outside the control and knowledge of the threatening exterior, yet completely within their mastery and realm of comprehension. And by investing their own personhood and identity within this cloistered world they implicitly take themselves out of the exterior one. In doing so, they gain control of their lives – or, at least, the feeling of control. 

        The idea of an interior world is perhaps most used when people are experiencing relational problems. How often have we heard the phrases “he/she does not understand me,” or “they just don’t get me.” If asked what is wrong, these sorry sops may even snap back that “you wouldn’t understand.” Read through the teeth, the insinuation is not so much that we would not understand their problems if told, as it is the assertion that we cannot understand their position; this is supposedly a psychic impossibility since the rest of us are not privy to their inaccessible interior. This worldview is, however, deeply problematic: it does not so much help the individual understand the world, as give them an excuse to give up trying to do so; and it does not empower the individual to confront their problems in the real world, but rather, provides them a fictive refuge to escape from this world, even as this interior world is inescapably a part of the real one. And lastly, it shifts the blame for their problems upon others, and this by default. There would not be a problem, we are told, if they understood. But they cannot, so there is no point in trying to reach a solution. Just as the interior never resolves itself to the existence of the exterior, the individual never resolves themselves to the existence of their fellow humanity. For it is just in these people, these others, that the enduring legacy of the exterior finds its most permanent expression. 

        Upon reflection, however, one realizes that there is a great deal about humans that are best appreciated by others. One’s mannerisms, temperament and silly passions are most keenly felt by those who supposedly regard only the exterior. A great friend, for instance, may be able to put into words the pain that their friend is experiencing even before this friend is able to articulate this suffering in their own words. What’s more, a parent will likely comprehend the trials and significance of school life better than their struggling student. “You don’t know what it’s like to be a high-schooler!” rebuts the teenage daughter, in all her alienated ardor. Struggling to hide a smile, the parent will know precisely what it is like to be a teenager attempting to negotiate peer groups, brave tests and overcome growing pains. At one time, they were the teenager. Even the endeavor of creating an interior identity and the motives that underlie it are shared experiences. It is highly unlikely that this dualism would be a general philosophical problem if others did not indulge in its creation and for similar reasons. 

        What ultimately makes the experience of others accessible is the fact that we are all human, and secondly, the fact that being human means being cast into a shared world – the same problem-riddled turf occupied by the rest of humanity. Each social experience is a shared experience. To entertain the pretense that others cannot understand it is ridiculous; by its very terms a social experience requires that others partake in it as well. But why then do people retreat to a fictive interior, especially when confronted by, to the contrary, a knowing other? To be known is to be vulnerable, to transcend the narrow bounds of one’s self, and acknowledge our interdependence as human existents. Yet it is only by committing this act of surrender, the dissolution of the interior, that one is fully enlivened. In other words, to be alive one must not only know but be known, that is, understood and accepted by the other. What good is an identity if there is no one to identify with? 

         In Christian philosophy, for example, this entails the admission of one’s sin and dependence on God; it is to reciprocate God’s love for the world back to God. A Christian’s identity then, comes not from attempts to garner respect, the pursuit of great deeds, or the accumulation of knowledge, but rather, from being known and loved by God. So Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 that “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.” Put another way, the quest for intellectual mastery is an admission of insecurity. It is a frenzied attempt to create a new identity for one’s self rather than accept the identity that God already has for them – an identity that is based upon being known and loved by God, not temporal endeavors. 

        To follow God consequently means that one must admit their essential weakness, something that is very upsetting to those who have spent their lives attempting to find transcendence by means of their own devices, within their own interior space. Yet, within Christian philosophy, to be known by God is profoundly empowering: freed from ill-fated attempts to immortalize themselves – that is, to transcend their immanence by means of their own power – the disciple is empowered to look outwards and engage the “exterior,” the real world in which they reside. Or in the words of C.S. Lewis, their lives are buoyed with the knowledge that “eternity is now,” freed to live within the present rather than be enslaved to the demons of the past or fears of the future. 

        What does this all mean? The distinction between the interior and exterior betrays something deeper about humanity’s existential condition than mere intellectual confusion. Broadly interpreted, it signals an attempt to escape from the disorder and tension of every day, to make sense of the world by rearranging it spatially into realms which can be more easily controlled – or, more accurately, ones that we can more easily convince ourselves we control. Yet walls keep out just as much as they keep in. Friends are shirked, loved ones are rejected and knowledge is ignored through use of these manmade barriers. In this quest to know and be known we are then left with several uncomfortable questions. What are we trying to keep out? What are we trying to hide? 

        We must learn that “there is a place,” as John and Paul sing, where we can go when we feel “low” or “blue.” Yet it is not a place apart from the world of our problems but one planted firmly in it. It is the present, a place book-ended by the pillars of past and present, and grounded in the revelation that indeed eternity is now.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Freedom and the Politics of Disempowerment

“‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
              – Francis Scott Key, “The Star Spangled Banner”

        This June I completed my undergraduate studies in political science at the University of Oregon. After some contemplation, I realized that not once during my entire time at the university did a teacher address the subject of freedom, a subject which one might consider axiomatic for a student of political science. Perhaps in a post-modern world this is to be expected. All words seem to have shed their original meaning; indeed, the very idea that a word can have a clear, discernible meaning has itself been debated. Yet as a student of Hannah Arendt or Timothy Mitchell knows, this is not the case for all languages and it certainly was not always, if ever, the case for our own. Yes, language is always changing. But the world of language is far less inchoate, impenetrable and fluid than one might imagine. It is much easier to visualize change than to imagine constancy. Motion, change and progress are concepts far more accessible to the human imagination than the abstraction of stasis over any extended period of time.

        Whatever the case, it seems silly to dive into the minutiae to politics without ever asking what they are meant to achieve, that is, their purpose. And if freedom is the highest goal, as everyone seems to believe, then this seems as good a place as any to begin our inquiry. Let us begin our search for freedom with the conviction that in order to be free one must be willing to ask questions, one must be willing to see things as they are...

        For the ancient Greeks, freedom was believed to exist within the polis, the realm of political action, between equals in wealth and stature. Instead of denoting an individual right, freedom comprised group action, that is, the ability of peers to work together for a common purpose. The current notion that people from all classes, both the rich and poor, can be free would have struck the ancient Greeks as absurd. For it was only by forcing others, in other words slaves, to pursue life’s essential activities that the elite secured for themselves the time and means to partake in the exercise of freedom.

        Besides being qualified by class, freedom was understood to be a political in nature. To the modern reader, this may sound odd. The Republican Party, for instance – an organization which self-consciously identifies itself with the values of Greco-Roman antiquity – has often suggested that politics are actually antagonistic to freedom. After all Ronald Reagan, the icon of American conservatism, said in his inaugural address that, “government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.” For the ancient Greeks, however, freedom was an expressly political phenomenon. The ability to speak freely or pursue individual enjoyments were not “freedoms” that existed outside of the political sphere. Rather, they were indicators of one’s privileged political status, and in fact the preconditions, as opposed to the substance, of freedom. In short, the Greek conception of freedom finds itself at odds with our own modern notion of freedom, one which focuses on the individual as opposed to the collective, and generally regards politics with a wary eye. 

        This clash of terms merits the question, why the discrepancy? For today, instead of recognizing the distinctly political character of freedom, freedom is believed to only exist outside of the political sphere, even existing in opposition to it. And the notion that both the poor and rich can honestly regard each other as their political peers has also become a fixture of political thought. The figment of the benign capitalist, or benevolent hierarchy, now sits in perpetual though unstated tension with the ideal of equality between peers.

        It is, perhaps, first worth examining precisely why the notions of freedom that are now in vogue are, in practice, little more than notional. The political process in America is a profoundly disillusioning one. Every several years, a list of candidates is made without input from the greater public. This is followed by a wave of campaign advertisements which seem to arise out of the blue, most of which are paid for by shady slush funds whose ponderous names seem to meld into one another. Next is the most involved step of the process for the average citizen: they check off a box on a piece of paper and drop it into a container. 

        True, a string of speeches, campaign antics and patriotic themes saturate the airwaves. But in all of this the citizen remains not so much a participant in the political process as an observer. Their involvement is ordered by patterns of mediation: the screen of the television, antenna of the radio or veil of the ballot box. It is hard to imagine that anything could be further from the ideal of direct democracy; for in this case, participation is vicarious. A citizen watching the Democratic National Convention, for example, can imagine that they are sitting in the stands and the candidate addressing them personally. The soaring rhetoric and airbrushed imagery is not a marketing gimmick, they are told, but rather, a “fireside chat.” The entire experience is received rather than taken, given rather than created. It is mediated through the priestly intercessor of the media; the role of the citizen is fundamentally that of observer; and the process entails no collective action, no communal solidarity except for that which exists for and in relation to a distant symbol – the candidate or party. And this symbol is like a lightning rod. All hopes, fears and desires can be projected upon it, allotting the observer an opportunity for cathartic release. Yet its emotional power and mass appeal is largely a product of its ambiguity; as a symbol it stands for everything and nothing at the same time.  

        Unfortunately, what has the potential to be the most involved, impactful and community-oriented mode of human intercourse has become the most inert, unsatisfying and atomized of activities – if, indeed, can even be said to be an activity. It is, consequently, no wonder that most Americans view politics with skepticism; politics is most often felt in its absence, in its insufficiency. The hope that flickers in the citizen’s heart may draw them toward the polls, but the campaign’s mesmeric effect rarely outlasts itself. Having been alienated from the political process, the citizen may begin to feel that freedom from politics is the solution to their ills, rather than the freedom that exists within the realm of political action. Naturally, this is a freedom that they are oblivious to, one obscured by broken promises.

        Members of the political class are just as likely to believe that freedom exists outside of the political sphere, yet for altogether different reasons. Living within a bubble of political power, it becomes easy to forget that the freedom they enjoy is actually political in nature. The freedom that the citizen rejects out of ignorance is the freedom that the politician overlooks out of familiarity. Just as a child, oblivious to his parents’ sacrifices, may believe that life would be better off without them, the politician can rave about the evils of big government while ironically holding elected office. 

        And having imbibed the heady fumes of power and privilege, the politician can also pursue the myth of American prosperity, indeed, the gilded promise of the American Dream. This is a much more delicate matter – though, given the blinding nature of privilege, it is generally handled with all the tact of a hog wrestler. Equality between the classes is assumed even as certain classes are savaged, leading to amusing contradictions. Thus, Mitt Romney can praise the essential dignity of the American people while claiming that 47% of Americans are leeches sapping the nation of its fiscal vitality. During campaign season, one will find that politicians inevitably pay homage to the “middle class,” before denying that the phenomenon of class exists in America altogether. And while odes are sung to the middle class, nobody will ever mention the existence of a lower or working-class. All people in America are members of the middle-class, we are assured. Either the politicians who wax about the middle-class really do not believe that poverty exists, or their failure to even mention the America’s poor suggest that the poor just do not matter. They are expendable.

        The discomfiting reality is that the poor, for the most part, really do not matter to the average politician. They are far less likely to vote or engage in political activism that effectively challenges the litigious obstacles of the status quo. Just as importantly, they do not have the money that decides elections. After all, their exploited labor power is what makes the lavish lifestyles of the corporate elite possible, and through this, the existence of monetized politics. But the politician’s ambivalent if contradictory approach to the existence of the American poor goes beyond pure political calculation. More concretely, the imprecise rhetoric of the politician – which both recognizes and denies the existence of class within the same sentence – reflects an imprecise understanding of freedom. The Greek upper-crust knew that their freedom was made possible through the enslavement of other people who were tasked with the banalities of life (productive labor). Today, however, the political class is generally in denial with the fact that their freedom is made possible by the exploitation, indeed the enslavement, of America’s poor. 

        So what is freedom? Or, more appropriately, what was freedom? Freedom is nothing more and nothing less than the ability of people to act in concert towards meaningful political change. At present, the type of freedom enjoyed by the political class is, like the Greeks’, exclusive and partial. The designated forum for political action is self-selective, dependent upon money and hostile to those who are not of the same pedigree. Since it is by nature exclusive it sacrifices the potential for the full realization of freedom. The political class can act together towards a desired objective, but their power potential is limited because it exists only at the exclusion of the average citizen. Their partial form of privilege and power exists in opposition to the majority of the citizenry; its existence and structural weakness existing in spite of and because of the untapped potential of the greater public. 

        A government’s use of violence is a good indicator of the type of freedom exercised by the political class. When a state does not attract the support or power – that is, solidarity – of its citizens, it relies on violence to crush dissent. This violence masks the impotence of the ruling clique, even as it admits their own powerlessness. Governments whose people are free will not need to use violence because the people are the government, their solidary (power) being the power of the government. Consequently, a society in which all the people are encouraged to pursue their potential to the fullest will be the freest of societies. The potential for collective action and self-realization will be tapped to the fullest extent, uplifting society as a whole and expanding the feasibility of political action – freedom. 

        Yet the potential realm of collective action, and thus, political freedom, is fragmented today. “Individual liberties” are touted as freedom itself, rather than being the prerequisites of freedom. Members of the political class suggest that politics is simply a means for securing these “individual liberties,” negating the role of mass participation within the political process. This is eminently dangerous. If the individual is reliant on a distant government to act as intercessor between them and their “individual liberties” then they are, paradoxically, put into a very vulnerable position as an individual citizen. 

        Firstly, their freedom becomes synonymous with the brute conditions for existence, instead of being something that ennobles these conditions and is produced from them. To be deprived of “freedom of speech” is to become a slave, indeed; but what good is this “freedom” if it cannot be used to reify some higher purpose? What good is the ability to speak if one lives in a society in which freedom only amounts to talk, and in fact, this society has become so divided that there is no one to talk to? Secondly, if a distant government takes on the role of the intermediary between the citizen and their freedoms, then the citizen is subjected to the whims of those at its helm. Their freedom becomes subjective – that is, subject to the caprices of whoever is in office. Freedom becomes malleable and inconstant; a slave to the commands of someone else. It is no longer a verb which entails participation but takes on the appearance a noun, something to be given or traded. The citizen becomes an observer or recipient of freedom. And because it is something that is given, the citizen has little to no role in its formation, no input regarding its provisions. It is the freedom of the dependent, the vulnerable – the slave. 

        The present obsession with individual will and liberty is as curious as it is dangerous. Hannah Arendt explains that the “will” first appeared as a distinct faculty in Christian thought. Yet the individual “will,” in this context, is never truly free. Or as the apostle Paul writes, the will of the spirit to do what is right finds itself in perpetual conflict with the will of the flesh to sin. So while a “will” may exist, it is itself weak and capricious, unable to transcend the conflict of competing wills which confuse it at every turn. Arendt writes that “if man has a will at all, it must always appear as though there were two wills present in the same man, fighting each other for power over his mind. Hence, the will is both powerful and impotent, free and unfree” (Arendt, Between Past and Future, p. 161).

         In Christian philosophy, God’s intervention allows humanity to transcend this clash of wills. But this resolution is only sustained through collective action and empowerment made possible through solidarity with other Christians. The tension between wills persists but is transcended through collective action rooted in faith. Today’s focus on the individual’s liberties, however, curiously denies the importance of collective identity and participation within the decision-making process. This leaves the citizen vulnerable, unable to transcend their immanence, the confines of their prejudices, weakness and finitude. Disempowered and dissatisfied, they project their angst and deferred hopes on a distant symbol, in this case the preexisting power structure: the sovereign. Yet this valorization of the unreachable, distant and uncertain creates problems of its own. 

        Hannah Arendt notes this when she writes that, “Politically, this identification of freedom with sovereignty is perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous consequence of the philosophical equation of freedom and free will. For it leads either to a denial of human freedom – namely, if it is realized that whatever man may be, they are never sovereign – or to the insight that the freedom of one man, or a group, or a body politic can be purchased only at the price, i.e., the sovereignty, of all others” (ibid., p. 164). In refusing to live interdependently with their peers, the citizen chooses to become dependent on elite power. 

        The effects of the corrupted understanding of freedom can be seen everywhere, as indeed it has seeped into the very fabric of political life. Freedom, for the most part, has become synonymous with alienation; in other words, slavery. Citizens are encouraged to take out huge college loans – with interest rates above the market rates – and this is regarded as a shining example of America’s enterprising character. The college student, we are told, must shoulder their entire education on their own back, even as it drives them deeper and deeper into debt-bondage. In a world of NSA-style surveillance, austerity packages and corporate propaganda, the debtor prison has become unnecessary, even redundant. The entire civilized world is has become a prison and the atomized individual their own cell, complete with a (prison) social security number. 

        And again, the freedom of the citizen is essentially the freedom to choose their punishment. Malcolm X once quipped that, “‘Conservatism’ in America’s politics means ‘Let’s keep the niggers in their place.’ And ‘liberalism’ means ‘Let’s keep the knee-grows in their place – but tell them we’ll treat them a little better; let’s fool them more, with more promises’” (Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, p. 380). Unfortunately, Malcolm X’s observation remains just as relevant today. One party, we are told, stands on the left and the other on the right. Yet one’s spatial position is always relative, implying a certain reference point. In politics, this remains true for one’s ideological position. One must then ask, to whom does this party stand to the left, and next to whom does this other party stand to the right? In practice, both parties have drifted so far to the right that their only ideological differences are cosmetic. The Democrats may say that they stand up for the average citizen but it was Clinton who gutted “welfare as we know it” with the punitive Personal Responsibility Act, a law which literally renounced the very principle of welfare. And the Republicans can rave about the evils of big government, but it is they who have racked up the most debt in proportion to GDP while in office. To borrow from Malcolm X again, the difference between the two parties is that between the wolf and the fox. Both will try to eat you; one is just smarter in going about it.

        The brand of freedom marketed by the political class is always one of negation, self-renouncement and division. This is what is ultimately meant by the supposed virtue of small government: cut the food stamps, starve schools of funding, kill Medicaid, cut taxes for the rich and make the rest bear the brunt. What is most telling, though, are the origins of the pro-states’ rights and small government philosophy. The most outspoken proponent of states’ rights in the 20th century was Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who famously said “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” This is no coincidence. Ever since abolitionists lobbied the government to end slavery, the mantra of states’ rights has most loudly been invoked to justify slavery, and later, the persistence of Jim Crow laws on a local basis. The logic of states’ rights has time and time again been used to suppress “civil rights,” or the ability of people to meaningfully participate in the political system collectively. This suppression of civil rights is interchangeable with the suppression of political rights – in other words, freedom. 

        Today the logic of states’ rights is also being used to erode the ability of labor to bargain with management. So-called “right to work” initiatives are being launched on a state-to-state basis in order to scare people from participating in union activity, and get them to believe that unions are their enemy. Workers do not need to act collectively to voice their concerns, “right to work” advocates claim. They just need to be able to talk to management on a one-on-one basis, the so-called “open door policy.” Just as the political elite are the intercessor between the isolated citizen and their freedom, so management is to be the intercessor between the worker and their work – their means of existence. Labor is divided while management is united: “As capitalism creates a society in which no one is presumed to consult anything but self-interest, and as the employment contract between parties sharing nothing but the inability to avoid each other becomes prevalent, management becomes a more perfected and subtle instrument” (Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, p. 67). 

        The idea that strength does not exist in numbers or that people with the same interests should not be able to collectively express their concerns is ridiculous, of course. After all, that is exactly what management is doing! Just as revealing is the fact that the advocates of “right to work” measures universally frame the problem as one of freedom and rights, but never express support for the “right to a living wage” or anything else that would actually help workers. Rights are always understood in terms of being free from something: free from freedom. 

          And this propaganda of disempowerment can be witnessed everywhere. During the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century, for instance, women were encouraged to smoke as a sign of their new liberty. Edward Bernays, the mastermind behind this marketing campaign, came to be known as one of the founders of human relations, contributing a seminal work to the field which he entitled Propaganda. Today people attempt to free themselves from the alienation and despair sensed so acutely in American society through the use of addictive drugs like cigarettes and alcohol. In doing so, they become slaves to a destructive habit, one which threatens their very lives, and makes them peons of a soulless corporate machine which makes money by slowly killing their bodies. 

         And within Guantanamo Bay, the paragon of American freedom, a mass hunger strike is underway. Over one-hundred prisoners have chosen to collectively strike in protest to their continued imprisonment without charges, a policy which stands in stunning violation of international law. This display of collective power is a poignant act of freedom, a revelation of humanity’s capacity to work in solidarity even in the most violent and hopeless of situations. The brilliance of their freedom, their humanity, has managed to reach the outside world, even if only through the bars of the cages that attempt to confine, separate and degrade their freedom. Yet the prisoners have refused to surrender their freedom, instead choosing to fight for it at all costs – even death. 

        But the government has been quick to explain that the prisoners have no cause for complaint. After all, those who are force-fed have the freedom to choose the flavor of protein shake that goes down their neck each day. 

        When I write that Guantanamo Bay is the “paragon of American freedom,” I mean it – though this requires an explanation. American freedom is understood in terms of freedom from, never as the freedom to. It is never productive but reactive; never satisfied but always seeking. During the Cold War, freedom meant freedom from an attack from the Soviets or freedom from a nuclear holocaust. Today the definition has been transposed to fit the latest paper enemy, terrorism. It then follows that Guantanamo Bay is paradoxically America’s bastion of freedom, that is, freedom from the terrorism that it supposedly locks inside, as if it were Pandora’s Box. Within the American mindset one can never be free unless there is a threat to confirm one’s freedom, something to be free from. 

        Yet what the prisoners in Guantanamo are practicing is, paradoxically, freedom. For, make no mistake, they are asserting their freedom – the ability to collectively inscribe their existence on the world, and, in doing so, transcend it. Yes, the U.S. may have control over their bodies but it can never penetrate their souls, that deep, primordial drive to live unshackled by the manacles of hate, oppression and ignorance. Together they are forging a small space in which freedom is not inert and passive, but vital and active, even painfully so. It is time for Americans, like the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, to learn that there are worse things than pain, fear and death. 

        And the solution is freedom.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Problem with 'Intelligent Opinion'

        Last week the widely read columnist, Rich Lowry, published an article which critiques the work of historian Howard Zinn. Recently, he explains, the president of Purdue attempted to ban Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States from the classroom, characterizing it as “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.” When Purdue’s history department learned of the president’s intentions, they responded by defending the book’s use, asserting that to throw it out of the curriculum would be tantamount to an attack on academic freedom. To Lowry, this is nonsense. He writes that, “You’d never guess from the hysterics that the low estimation that Daniels has for Zinn’s work is shared by a swath of distinguished historians. It’s not that they disagree with Zinn or believe he’s too controversial. They think his work is, to borrow the word Daniels used in another email, ‘crap.’” According to Lowry, “‘A People’s History’ is a book for high-school students not yet through their Holden Caulfield phase, for professors eager to subject their students to their own ideological enthusiasms, and for celebrities like Matt Damon, who has done so much to publicize it. If it is a revelation to you that we treated Native Americans poorly, and if you believe the Founding Fathers were a bunch of phonies, Zinn’s volume will strike you with the power of a thunderclap. And one day, maybe, you will grow up.”
        Lowry’s article is noteworthy because it epitomizes several problems that have become commonplace amongst those who produce “intelligent opinion” in America, especially those who are part of the venerated establishment of the fourth estate. What follows is the first part of a new series which critiques several assumptions that are held by a surprising number of people who specialize in the manufacture of “intelligent opinion.” While dissecting these assumptions it becomes apparent that what is at stake is more than simple scholarship, but indeed, how we think and engage the world: whether we are to live with our feet planted on the ground, or live a life enveloped in convenient illusions -- albeit ones buoyed with pleasant prose.

        The most plangent critique sounded against Zinn in the article is the charge that his work is not “objective.” One can tell that Lowry believes this to be the most damning charge that one can level against an intellectual, Lowry sniffing that Zinn simply “had no use for objectivity.” Lowry’s choice of the objectivity card – a favorite among journalists – is interesting. It is reflective of many erroneous and, quite frankly, dangerous assumptions which are current amongst most members of the so-called fourth estate. The principle of objectivity has become axiomatic, the standard by which all journalists are supposed to gage their work. There must be an “even-handed” analysis of the event, “both sides” need to have their day in the sun, and, whatever you do, do not alienate any of the readers. Seeing as objectivity, that elusive, ethereal ideal, is a preoccupation of journalists, it should not be surprising that Lowry raises it as his chief point of contention with Zinn’s work. In the mouth of Lowry, the idea of objectivity takes on the theological colors. When he says that Zinn “had no use for objectivity,” it is like excommunicating him from the altar of intellectualism – or uttering the vilest expletive. 

        Behind this air of professionalism, however, is a great deal of nonsense. The fact of the matter is that the facade of objectivity indulged by journalists is just that – a substance-less spectacle. No human-being is a disinterested automaton; if they were, they would not be human. Instead of hovering above the earth, freed from the limits of the mind and external influence, all people live within a set of complex circumstances that shape their interests, reveal their ignorance and limit their understanding. For journalists to entertain the pretense that they are “objective” is consequently an exercise in self-deception and thoroughly misleading. 

        Just as wrong, though, is the related idea that being objective requires giving equal coverage to “both sides of the story.” Of course, knowing where all the players stand is important, but the principle of “both sides” is more often than not used to hide a power imbalance between the “sides” rather than acknowledge or rectify this disparity. It is also inherently reductive, framing any scenario as that between two groups for ease of comprehension, even though the issue may encompass more groups than two and be considerably more complex than implied. It also has the effect of protecting powerful interests by giving credence to their lies; the concept of “both sides” and “balance” becomes the fiction that both sides can be true or right. Most importantly, this notion of “balance” commonly obscures the reality that there may be one truth which is crystal clear and, moreover, that this truth may have powerful moral implications. (That is not to say that either “party” grasps this truth, but only to suggest that an absolute truth does exist and often can be discerned by the journalist if they choose to see it.)

        The classic example of the bankruptcy of “objectivity” is the media’s coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The two “sides” in this case are Israel and Palestine. Under the facile notion of “two sides,” the idea of parity or equal power between the two groups is suggested implicitly. Furthermore, the demands of each “side” are seen as equally legitimate. There is no victim and no victimizer, no weak and no strong, only “sides.” Yet this cookie-cutter narrative utterly fails to evoke the actual nature of the conflict. For in actuality, the conflict is between wealthy Israeli colonizers who are violently constructing colonies on Palestinian land, and Palestinians who are being ethnically cleansed from their homes – a criminal process which has been going on over the course of the past century. 

        This is not an objective assessment of the conflict per se because the viewer – me – is embedded in society, and thus, like all humans, views the conflict from a certain reference point within the world. But this assessment is based on facts and, more importantly, it is the truth. The “birth” of Israel was made possible by the violent displacement of around 750,000 Palestinians, a number accepted by the international community, serious scholars and many Israelis themselves. Today the construction of illegal “settlements,” i.e. colonies, continues to displace 1,000s from their homes. In fact, U.N. Resolution 194 explicitly recognizes that Palestinians are being ethnically cleansed from their homes, as it guarantees their right of return. And the right of return, now enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was specifically created with the Palestinians in mind, as their removal from the land occurred while the document – now the cornerstone of international law – was being drafted. 

        In short the truth, contrary to the suggestion of Lowry, is never reached objectively and the cookie-cutter application of the “sides” criteria can actually wreak havoc on reality. What is probably more radical to some ears, though, is the fact that the truth is often imbued with moral implications and pathos. When Palestinian children are being attacked with (illegal) Israeli phosphorous and cluster bombs, as happened during Operation Cast Lead of 2008, the truth is not “even-handed,” “impartial,” or “balanced.” The truth, rather, is that Israel is in the wrong and the deaths of Palestinian human-beings – not “casualties,” “collateral damage,” or “numbers” – should make any human-being angry. To sanitize the hellish torment experienced by the victims under the shibboleth of objectivity, with its “sides” and “even-handedness,” is not being objective: it is aiding the victimizer by distorting the facts. 

        The ideal of objectivity suggests that the journalist exists above and outside the world, recording pure, distilled truth as it hovers out in the ether. We have already examined why this is not the case for the journalist; now it is time to explain why this understanding of truth is problematic. For truth, like the journalist, exists in the world, not outside of it. It then follows that truth is not a stoic, emotionless ideal but a tangible, even emotional, reality. It is not pedantic, dry or lifeless – a floating abstraction – but can be exuberant, heartrending, calm or powerful. Truth reflects the complexity, chaos and wonder of existence. The Bible, for example, says that the truth will set you free; these are, indeed, bold words. What does all this mean though? To begin, the truth can and, in many cases, should elicit an emotional response from the hearer. Some truths require a response, that is to say, action. When someone learns about the truth of Palestinian suffering, for instance, they should use the opportunities within their reach to help the victims. At the very least, they should not perform any act which aids the crimes of the oppressors. Simply put, truth can have real moral implications and should compel real action. 
        For Lowry to rail against Zinn because of his lack of objectivity consequently reveals more about the columnist’s (erroneous) assumptions than anything intrinsically wrong with Zinn’s work. The question still remains, though, as to why journalists are so enamored by the idea of objectivity. Firstly, entertaining pretensions to objectivity implicitly accords the journalist a position of superiority and power: the power to know over the known. This power is obviously a very seductive idea. On the assumption of objectivity, they can claim oracular abilities, to see the world without the pesky obstacles of bias and ignorance – obstacles which, if we are honest, are faced by all humanity. Secondly – and as previously noted – the notion of objectivity lends itself to convenient, cookie cutter clichés which make writing easier. The format of “two sides,” “equal coverage,” and “balance” literally provides a ready-made blueprint for any issue, even those which do not fit the mold in real life. For journalists who are under the pressure of a deadline, these formulaic models can become very attractive.

       Thirdly, many journalists and news organs are funded by special interests which have a stake in seeing that their side is given favorable coverage. There are few lobbying interests in the U.S. for the Palestinians while there are legions of groups which propound Israel’s policies: the ADL, AIPAC and WINEP, to name a few. If any newspaper suggests that the Israeli government is doing anything illegal in Palestine, these groups are sure to pounce – as they have before in the past. It also does not help that the decidedly non-objective political culture in the U.S. is bitterly hostile of the Palestinian “side.” The U.S. government gives more military and foreign aid to Israel than to any other country in the world, despite Israel’s being a member of the First World; the last U.S. “arbiters” between the “two sides” were former members of the Israeli lobby (Dennis Ross of AIPAC extraction and now Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel); and the U.S. is the only country that vetoes U.N. Security Council resolutions that criticize Israel’s violations of human rights. 

        And lastly, the notion of objectivity is, in practice, highly profitable. Newspapers are, in the end, businesses. To buy a newspaper is to buy not only news but advertisements, which, you may notice, generally account for one-half of each page. By depicting stories in an “objective” fashion, it is less likely that a reader’s ideological inclinations will be alienated, prompting them to stop subscribing to the newspaper. If “both sides” are depicted, then, the explanation of the issue may be synthetic and the truth may be muddied, but it is less likely that the reader’s feathers will be ruffled and stop paying the subscription fee. After all, their “side” will have been covered. What’s more, the above-noted formula that “objective” reports follow dogmatically is easier for the reader to digest. Complex issues are broken down into binaries, e.g. “both sides,” creating a narrative that, while superficial, has instinctive appeal. The reader may not understand what is going on in the Syrian War, for instance, but they will be assured that there are “two sides,” and their government supports the “good” one. All issues, no matter how complex or grave, can be grasped instinctually by the reader through use of this cookie-cutter formula. 

        What then can we conclude from Lowry’s objectivity fetishism? The much vaunted ideal of objectivity, in practice, assumes that the truth itself is neutral, though this merits a bit more explanation. You will often hear journalists say that they strive to be “neutral,” this phrase in fact being interchangeable with “objective.” While it is important for a journalist to scrutinize the facts and weigh them honestly, this is different from being neutral or objective. For when striving to be neutral or objective – two criteria with no semblance to reality – most journalists end up projecting these criteria on the truth; the criteria used to gain truth come to restrain, order and, all too often, distort the truth itself. In seeking to gain truth neutrally or objectively, the truth itself is seen as existing in a neutral or objective state. This is, in part, why “both sides” may be given an air of validity, even if one may consist of unimpeachable facts and the other complete fabrication. But the truth is seldom neutral, as explained in the case of Israel and Palestine. Rather, the truth may very well serve to vindicate some while assigning guilt to others. It can be revolutionary, electrifying and demand a response; it is far from the vapid, bipolar and negotiable abstraction assumed by the fourth estate.             

        But the assumption of truth’s neutrality does serve a distinct political purpose. If truth is neutral than both sides can be right, even the victimizers; the moral demands intrinsic to some truths are emasculated from the truth itself, meaning that the viewer is encouraged towards apathy; and, out of a sense of “proportion,” the great power differential that lies between the haves and have-nots, the common and the elite, the victims and the victimizers is glossed over. The weakness of one group is hidden, allowing for their continued victimization. So this week the press can talk about “peace talks” between both the Israeli and Palestinian “sides,” obscuring the fact that the “peace talks” amount to the powerful dictating the terms to the weak; that is, the U.S.-Israeli alliance – which is a legal, diplomatic and historical reality – against the Palestinians. Yet, we are assured, this is simply done out of a sense of “neutrality,” “proportion” and “balance.” This engenders contradictions to no end. The U.S. is supposed to be a “neutral” party to the dispute, despite the fact that it arms Israel with the latest weaponry; has waged war on the Palestinians, as in Lebanon during the 1980s; and, even while it negotiates with Palestine, refuses to recognize the existence of a Palestinian state – in other words, that a Palestinian “side” actually exists. So “objectivity” and “neutrality” do serve a particular “side;” that people actually believe in objectivity – especially journalists – is one of the greatest propaganda coups of the twentieth century.

        Now having addressed Lowry’s maladroit handling of the objectivity card on journalism’s terms, it is time to examine why objectivity is problematic when used as a criterion for historical research. After all, Lowry’s article, at its core, raises questions of historical methodology. All history is selected and manmade by necessity. Since it is impossible to internalize all of history in its entirety, a historian must choose what they study based on a specific question or problem that they seek to address from the reference point of the present. Thus there is no such thing as an objective history because all history is relative – that is, it is created in relation to a certain question, problem or curious individual which exists in the present. Behind every historical problem is a question and behind every question is a human-being. 

        As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, the “questions of science will always remain replies to questions asked by men; the confusion in the issue of ‘objectivity’ was to assume that there could be answers without questions and results independent of a question-asking being” (Arendt, Between Past and Future, p. 49). In regard to history, “every selection of material in a sense interferes with history; and all criteria for selection put the historical course of events under certain man-made conditions, which are quite similar to the conditions the natural scientist prescribes to natural processes in the experiment” (p. 50). So for Lowry to demand objectivity from Zinn is to literally assume the possibility of human omniscience, trans-historical prescience and the existence of neutral, platonic truth. It is, in short, to assume the fictive and expect the impossible. 

        The real questions, then, are as follows: were the questions raised by Zinn worth pursuing, was his methodology honest and for what purpose did he write A People’s History of the United States? Zinn, a civil rights scholar and activist, was throughout his life deeply concerned with how history is presented to the public. During the time in which he wrote A People’s History, few textbooks spoke about the struggles of working-class people, the government’s genocidal campaign against Native Americans or the struggles of non-white people in America. Instead, history – as in many classrooms today – concentrated on the deeds of great white men (seldom women) and generally viewed the nation’s past with rose-tinted glasses. Memorable anecdotes were substituted for historical context, musty dates for relevance and patriotic lessons in place of a real understanding of the U.S.’s less than exemplary conduct in the world. Writing scholarly works during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, Zinn was acutely aware of how history could – and was – used to serve powerful interests. His magnum opus, A People’s History, was thus a response to a generally parochial and hagiographic curriculum, the terrible effects of which he had seen in the brutal ignorance of white supremacists in the American south and overseas in Vietnam. 

        So when Lowry writes that “If it is a revelation to you that we treated Native Americans poorly, and if you believe the Founding Fathers were a bunch of phonies, Zinn’s volume will strike you with the power of a thunderclap,” he is literally taking Zinn’s work out of its historical context. The sad fact of the matter is that many Americans at the time of the book’s publication did not realize that the U.S. had “treated Native Americans poorly” or that the “Founding Fathers” were humans in the flesh who made serious transgressions. Many still don’t. If more people today – such as Lowry, apparently – know these facts, it is in no small part due to enterprising historians like Zinn who have seismically altered the way history is taught during the last half century. For Lowry to be unaware of this fact betrays astounding lack of historical foresight. After all, these social and educational problems are precisely why Zinn’s book was written in the first place. 

        Every historian pursues their studies with a specific set of motives in mind. Zinn’s was to add a counter-narrative to top-down histories, those that concentrate on the lives of an elite few, by writing about the struggles that the majority of people faced in the U.S. Unless you are someone with a vested interest in seeing that the history of the U.S. working-class is hushed-up – a history often marred by elite violence, greed and misanthropy – then it is hard to see why this would be viewed as a controversial undertaking. Like most historical writing, it recognizes a problem in existing scholarship and addresses this problem through the use of facts and strenuous research. 

        In contrast, Lowry’s column would not pass the same test of scholarly rigor. When he professes to be in complete accord with the President Daniels of Purdue – “The sin of Mitch Daniels, it turns out, is to take history more seriously than they do” – he commits himself to several insoluble contradictions.  The President of Purdue’s claim that Zinn’s book “misstates American history on every page,” for instance, falls apart on its own terms. Zinn’s book is several hundred pages long. If Zinn really was a fraud, it is hard to believe that he would have been skilled enough to lie on every page of his voluminous tome while maintaining an air of credibility for the overall narrative. Most interestingly, though, is the fact that many of the pages include extended excerpts from primary source documents, i.e., historical evidence. Is Daniels’ saying that the historical evidence itself is lying? That is to say, is Daniels denying reality? 

        It is also worth noting that while Lowry uses the article as forum for hacking out gutsy and self-satisfying flourishes – such as when he suggests that most historians view Zinn’s work as “crap” – he fails to note a single instance in which the book actually falsifies history. If the book is really wrong on “every page,” as Daniels and Lowry suggest, then this task should not be too difficult. The absence of a single concrete example of Zinn’s alleged sins is telling. The only sentence which even takes on the semblance of a concrete example is when Lowry writes that Zinn “joined his propagandistic purpose to a moral obtuseness that refused to distinguish between the United States and its enemies, including Nazi Germany.” This charge is not only false but shameful. During WWII, Zinn was a member of the U.S. military who fought fascism overseas. Thus the claim that Zinn “refused to distinguish” between the U.S. and Nazi Germany – and, by implication, that he lacks moral scruples – is utterly ridiculous, not to mention, a gross distortion of the facts. Zinn went on to oppose war as a matter of principle, largely out of his own first-hand experience with war, both as a soldier and later as an observer of the war in Vietnam. For someone like Lowry, who has never risked anything, to level these absurd charges is disgusting.

        The fact of the matter, however, is that there are vested interests at work which would be all too happy to see a work like Zinn’s banned. After WWII, for instance, few Americans believed that laisser-faire capitalism worked. For people who had lived through the poverty of the 1920s and subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s, the idea of “percolation” – or, in our day, “trickle down” economics – appeared ridiculous. It had been wholly disproven by the Depression, a catastrophe of epic proportions which wealthy interests wished people would soon forget. It was only government wartime spending that had extricated the country from the morass of the Depression and the rise of labor unionism in the 1930s that safeguarded post-war prosperity. Yet this shift towards the left and Keynesian economics chagrined big business to no end, even as it reaped in cost-plus contracts and massive subsidies from the government. Eventually influential businessmen like Joseph Pew created pro-business organizations for disseminating corporate propaganda amongst church organizations and dictating the curriculum in schools. Their concerted efforts were very successful. Whereas most people in the mid-1940s believed that some government intervention in the economy was necessary, such support for government intervention fell precipitously in subsequent decades. 

        These same interests were dead set against students learning of big business’s soiled past. General Motor’s’ strategy of introducing prostitutes and liquor into their factories in order to discredit sit-down strikers was forgotten. The Rockefeller mining interests’ massacre of striking women and children at Ludlow was forgotten. The free dispensation of land-holdings the size of France by the government to the “free market” railroad interests was forgotten. Henry Ford’s illegal attack on unionization efforts through his clandestine “Service Department” was forgotten. The fact that the nation had only decades earlier gone through a depression, the Depression, was forgotten. In short, there was a lot that big business did not want people to remember. A People’s History helped resurrect these memories; it was a shot of sanity into a historical discourse that had long drifted away from the facts and this for political reasons. 

         So when Lowry writes that Zinn believed that history is “politically useful,” he is merely stating the obvious. Yes, Zinn believed that history is “politically useful,” but that is because it is. Without history it is impossible to engage the political process in an educated and informed manner. To deny this fact, as Lowry does, is to be either naïve or mislead others purposefully. The “facts” had already been marshaled by certain groups for their own interests – most notably the business interests of the country – and Zinn’s work intelligently assailed to these fixed ideas by showing that they simply do not conform to the historical record. 

        There is a compelling reason, though, as to why Lowry would want Zinn’s book to be banned. As a conservative columnist and disciple of Charles Krauthammer, he has dedicated the majority of his intellectual life propounding the thesis of American exceptionalism and chronicling the vicissitudes of the Republican Party. Zinn’s book brilliantly demolishes the thesis of American exceptionalism, or that the U.S. is a uniquely beneficent power, and shows how both major political parties are out of touch with the average American. Zinn does this through the use of two things which are conspicuously absent from Lowry’s column: historical facts and a deeper analysis of how present developments are linked to the past – you know, history. And this is what makes Zinn’s tome powerful. Instead of divorcing the past from the present, as many history teachers are in the habit of doing, he had a knack for contextualizing present issues against the past in a way that made both the past and present understandable. In other words, he was both the consummate history teacher and a savvy political commentator. It is, then, not surprising that Lowry should ridicule Zinn. Zinn had already proven that Lowry’s work is factually wrong or, at best, socially irrelevant.

        That the columnist chose to attack him after his death is also telling; if he had written the same fact-less article during the historian’s life, Zinn would have demolished it with a characteristically brilliant critique. It is a sad but common tendency of intellectuals to attack their peers only after they have gone to the grave. It is much easier to win arguments when you are only arguing with yourself.

        What is most stunning about the work of public intellectuals like Lowry, however, is the fact that, unlike Zinn, they do not invest anything in their writing. Zinn’s views were informed by a life of activism and undergirded by a deep respect for the intelligence of all human-beings. He had the humility and moral audacity to protest war as a matter of principal, even though this meant discrediting his own stint in the military and his previous worldview. To him, the potential lives lost in war were more important than his own reputation. 

        In contrast, Lowry supported the illegal invasion of Iraq instead of “objectively” noting that the reasons spouted off by the Bush administration in favor of the war were all factually incorrect; that is to say, they were 100% phony. After the initial invasion he even went on to suggest that the U.S. should attack Syria, a country which had assisted the U.S. in the 2003 invasion. The reason for this verdict: the U.S. was in a “strong position to demand that they [Syria] end their relationship with terrorist groups.” Lowry also was not enthusiastic about Baathist party of Syria which he suggested was connected to the Baathists of Iraq. 

        What Lowry neglects to mention – and seems blissfully unaware of – is the fact that the only “terrorist groups” which Syria was allied with were American. After all, if America’s illegal invasion of a sovereign country and the deaths of over one million Iraqis is not an act of "terrorism" then I don’t know what is. And the suggestion that the Baathists of Syria are connected to the Baathists of Iraq is laughable. If Lowry knew anything about Middle-Eastern history, he would know that the Iraqi and Syrian branches of the Baathist party split off from each other about a half century ago; they had been irreconcilable enemies ever since. Lowry’s tendency to advocate and cover up war crimes even went so far as supporting waterboarding and other policies which are illegal under international law. 

        But what, you may ask, does this have to do with the state of intelligent opinion today? 
Intellectuals like Lowry can, and regularly do, indulge in advocating policies which are questionable, sometimes even criminal. When they are proven wrong, as in their support of the Iraq War, they come out of it unscathed, their professional reputations intact. One million Iraqis may have died, but you can bet that people will be reading – and taking seriously – the columns of people like Lowry for years to come. Nothing is at stake. And when they advocate sensational policies like waterboarding, something inherently cruel and immoral, they may even expand their reputation. He’s gutsy, people think; at least the column for makes an interesting read. But that is the problem: what is written is interesting, yet most of it is nonsense and some of it is dangerous. Despite their recklessness, irresponsibility and whitewashing of reality, their work will still be read and applauded. Advocates of the Iraq War like David Brooks, Michael Gerson and Rich Lowry will continue to be read by “serious” audiences (probably not by Iraqis) and will continue to haul in awards for their “serious” ideas. 

        Is this why so many intellectuals hate Zinn? Confronted by a man who used facts, acted upon his convictions and admitted when he was wrong, they are suddenly confronted by what they themselves have failed to do. Suddenly the contradictions of their work come into the light, only to blister and crack under their own weight. 

        And if, as Sartre said, the job of the intellectual is to expose society’s contradictions, then Zinn's work fulfilled its task. Indeed, some people are still trying to come to grips with it.