Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Poem: sac ri fice s

grassbreaks

inthewind

toomuch

marigoldsca t ter s

Andy Goodman

into


James Cheney

what the Mississippi


V i ola


holds


noman


will

unearth

Monday, September 26, 2011

Polemarchus as a symbol of the Republic's theme - a philosophical warrior for democracy against tyranny

The action of Plato’s Republic is centrally about Glaucon, who is convinced, it seems, not to become a tyrant. Glaucon – the son of the best, an aristocrat, a military leader - had that possibility, but is not otherwise known to history (Socrates may really have persuaded him). He is Socrates’s companion in book 1, has a few strategic remarks, and then becomes the leading interlocutor in book 2. His subtle story of the ring of Gyges, praising the unjust man who appears just and is celebrated and denouncing someone like Socrates who is just and is murdered for it, drives the rest of the dialogue. In book 1, the leading figure is Thrasymachus, who nearly jumps on Socrates like a beast – Socrates says that he is lucky enough to have seen Thrasymachus first, as in a tale, for otherwise Thrasymachus would have frozen him, and appears later in book 2, in Glaucon’s characterization, as a “tamed snake.” But even a charmed snake is still venomous. If one starts from the arrest of Socrates in the Piraeus in the opening lines, one may see the first book too easily as the story of the eventual execution of Socrates by the democracy for asking: what is justice? – with Thrasymachus as the democracy's initial representative with the crushing assertion: justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger. But then charmed by Socrates, he becomes perhaps a strange ally of Socrates (“we have just become friends though we were not enemies before.” The question: what is justice? goes beyond Athens, but there, as in America, that what appears to be justice is the advantage of stronger, short of protest from below, is obvious enough, as the spectacle of the execution of Troy Davis underlines. See here, here, here and here) *

In this way of looking at the first book, Cephalos and particularly Polemarchus fade out. But contrary to initial appearances, I will argue, Polemarchus is the most important, and hopeful character in book 1. He is spoken of only once otherwise in the dialogues, in Phaedrus as someone who has become “philosophical” and, in contrast to his brother, Lysias, the rhetorician, held up by Socrates to Phaedrus as a model of turning toward philosophy (Phaedrus, 256e-257b).** This characterization is demonstrated – with an implied, broader public significance - in book 1 of the Republic. For instance, one would not characterize Thrasymachus as a philosopher of any sort, nor for that matter Glaucon and Adeimantus, Plato’s brothers, who are interested in philosophy particularly about the question of justice and whether evil with a good appearance is the best life, in Glaucon’s case, and persuaded not to do harm through Socrates's questioning. Glaucon perhaps becomes one who listens to philosophy like Apollodorus or Crito. But they do not live to fashion arguments daily. They are not, in Steven Wagner's wonderful phrase, "besotted." They are not philosophers.

As I have emphasized here and about the Phaedrus, Plato’s dialogues need to be understood in terms of what they teach his present and future students. That was Plato’s standpoint in writing them. He, like Socrates, was an example as well as a teacher of becoming a philosopher. But every interlocutor does not become such a student. Similarly, many readers, like listeners and interlocutors, come away with a (mis-)impression, a fragment. The dialogues do not open for them a vocation. This is, thus, the fundamental question to ask about the dialogues if they are to reveal their depths, their secrets.

Leo Strauss suggests that there are pretty wooden hidden meanings buried beneath the surface of the dialogues – to establish authoritarian executive power, the lawless rule of the wise – which a careful reader can decode (his Persecution and the Art of Writing is a decoder). Strauss lives by the saying of Al-Farabi about the pious ascetic whom the tyrant hunts; banging on a cymbal, the ascetic pretends to be drunk and goes to a gate of the city. The watchman asks: who goes there? The apparent drunk slurs: that pious ascetic you are looking for. The watchman lets him pass…

One may rarely say the exact truth, Al-Farabi suggests, and nonetheless be taken, by a careless reader, a sleepy watchman, not to mean that. Strauss is, as William Altman demonstrates in The German Stranger, a master of this kind of statement. Hence, the need, Strauss avers, for great care in reading.

From this tale, however, Strauss derives a rule that writers who practice coded meanings are to be believed about things they seem to repeat many times not in the most prominent and common meanings, but only in the variance. One must read for the odd, the different, the opposing. If the latter remarks seem a contradiction to the surface, they alone are to be taken in. In master writers, Strauss foolishly insists, there are no mistakes or ordinary contradictions, but only hidden truths.

Strauss is sometimes right. About himself, if one applies the decoder, one will know that the occasional comments about his affection for constitutional democracy, to put the audience and some of his leading followers to sleep, are, prima facie, doubtful…See here.

In any case, if one knows how to decode (how to count sections, where, in the text, the message is likely to be found, and the like), one knows which message to believe. But this substitutes cryptography for thinking.

Such decoding leads Strauss to an interesting, sometimes revealing kind of scholarship: Al-Farabi’s story has an important meaning. But it is not philosophy. One does not ask of contradictory pointings whether the latter are right. One does not reason further about a tension, or think about the possibility that some such thoughts might be right, if elaborated, others false paths. One simply adopts the hidden stand. In Strauss’s own life, an affection for Heideggerian Nazism - see his posthumously published "Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism" - and an attempt to move the United States, through his some of his students, to become a more centralized or tyrannical and imperial regime, are coded messages (see here, here and here).***

Plato, too, defends a version of hidden writing. The words in an essay or even a dialogue are like statues, says Socrates in the Phaedrus (275d-277a); if you ask them a question, they have no father to defend them. Many who do not read well will carry away a foolish interpretation. But if one reads carefully, if one tests out every argument and character as Plato and his students spent years doing in the Academy – Aristotle was Plato’s student for 20 years… - then perhaps the meaning of the dialogues will become, over time, a little clearer, the introduction or the first steps toward understanding the mysteries which Plato taught (this is all the dialogues are) available. It is in this context that Polemarchus becomes a decisively important figure in the Republic.

At the opening of the Republic, Polemarchus has his slave arrest Socrates on behalf of Polemarchus and his friends. (327b) Socrates asks whether Polemarchus will allow him to persuade them that he and Glaucon should leave, and Polemarchos, acting like a thug, says:

“But do you see how many of us there are?”

Here is a core appeal to democratic injustice, the rule by brute force of “the many.”

“Of course

Well you are going to have to choose between staying here peacefully or fighting us if you try to get away.

How about a third choice in which we persuade you that you ought to let us go?

But could you persuade us if we don’t listen?

Obviously not, said Glaucon” (327c-e)

Polemarchus is the symbol of the democrats in Athens, centered in the Piraeus who will kill Socrates to compel his no longer questioning.**** On the surface, Polemarchus speaks jocularly – though there is little evidence that he has a sense of humor- but dully.

It is Glaucon who insists that the two will stay. By silence, Socrates makes clear that he does not submit to force. He has come down from Athens with Glaucon (the shining one, Plato’s brother)*****, and aims to be with him for erotic, political and philosophical reasons.

Adeimantus, Plato’s other brother (Plato is nearly here in the dialogue, although some sibling rivalry – mockery – is also in the presentation) breaks in that there will be a horse race that night to Bendis, a Thracian moon goddess.******

Socrates says mockingly: “Now that’s something new. Do you mean a relay with horses in which the readers pass on the torches to one another in sequence?

Not a fool, Adeimantus falls silent. In contrast, desperately hoping to throw enough considerations against the wall at Socrates so that one will stick, Polemarchus leaps in:

“Exactly said Polemarchus. And the festival will continue all night [for young men, this might have proven a distraction…]. After dinner we will go out and see it and then meet with some of our friends and have a really good talk. Don’t refuse. Do stay with us.” (328a)

One might be alerted to Polemarchus’ importance, despite his dull democratic thuggery, by his name – war leader (polemos, archos). Cephalus, a name that means the head or brain, is actually an immigrant or metic from Syracuse. He is Polemarchus’ father and the first interlocutor with Socrates in book 1. One should look closely at who Cephalus is: a wealthy arms maker and dealer. He does not live up on the hill with the aristocrats, but, though wealthy, down in the Pireaus with the rowers in the navy, the heart of the democracy. He bequeaths a tyrannical argument to his son (one quite characteristic of much ordinary politics), whom he has named not only for war but to be a war leader. *******

Polemarchus is a leader of the democrats in Athens, who will be executed by the Tyranny of the Thirty. He stands for Athenian democracy in two ways. Athens became great, as Pericles tells us in Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, through war. Athenians were unusually free, invented participation in deliberation in the assembly, and were restless for conquest; they sought to build up a splendid dominion. Glaucon’s name, shining, an Athenian military leader and son of the best – Ariston - is a serious threat to become tyrant and contrasts with Thrasymachus, who is an immigrant from Chalcedon and, in our terms, but an ideologue. Polemarchos’s name also recalls that splendor centered in the democratic Piraeus and in arms manufacture and rowing; the democracy and its war merchants were scorned by the aristocrats up on the hill.

Secondly, the name Polemarchus also means the warrior who fell for democracy in the civil war against the murderous Tyranny of the Thirty. In his first appearance, Polemarchus is just a democratic thug who arrests Socrates in the name of the many, and will, as did the majority at the trial, not listen. He is but one of those who attempts, in killing Socrates, to kill philosophy (asking questions).

But in book 1 of the Republic, Polemarchus is taken by Socrates’s asking of questions, follows the argument, shifts…

At his trial, on Plato’s account in the Apology, Socrates does not advocate philosophical rule. The Republic as a philosophical account notwithstanding, he is not shown in Plato as promoting such an idea in Athens. But the idea of a seemingly just city in speech, offered cautiously as but a way to illuminate the appropriate order of the three parts of the soul (nous or mind rules spiritedness - thymos - and the desires or appetites - to epithumetikon; the philosopher rules guardians and the artisans and farmers) could be a hidden message, a la Strauss. I have explored this possibility further – see here – and will come back to it in part 2 of this post. But is also inconsistent with Socrates’s wisdom. In the Apology, Socrates says: I tested out the oracle’s riddle, and found that I am wiser than others only in this, that they think they know and do not, and I neither know nor think that I do…********

I should also note that rule in the politeia is modeled on Glaucon’s psyche; the guardians as warriors are the key figures. It is Glaucon’s own dream with the obscure possibility that some will become philosophers, that a philosopher might rule, far beyond what Glaucon can yet take in or understand. Not the philosophers but the celebration of the phylaches (guardians) is what is shown. One should be careful as a student to recognize: it is Glaucon’s dream with the addition of Socrates’s dazzling and obscure indication of what it is to be a philosopher….

In book one by contrast, we have not only Polemarchos following and stumbling around, but thinking for himself. He is a philosophical witness.

As the second speaker, Polemarchos defends the view of justice of Simonides (he also prefigures the vision of politics of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political that it is entirely about friends and enemies and lacking a common good). In Xenophon’s Hiero or on tyranny, the poet Simonides offers the complaining Hiero a way to become a successful and well-loved tyrant. Strauss’s first book in America (1948) on the Hiero – On Tyranny - gives the clue to his interpretation of Plato’s Republic and the Laws (see also "Politics and the God," part one and two, here and here); it is a sign of his continuing authoritarianism, and Heideggerian pro-Nazism and echoed in his last book on The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws (1973)...Plato knew the story and had very likely seen Xenophon’s dialogue.

But as a student might note, the dialogue with Polemarchus differs radically from the fight with Thrasymachus (this name means bold or confident fighter (thrasos, mache or fight). But the war leader refers to wars (imperial, democratic); the fierce fighter refers to style of argument in debate. The war leader is educated through becoming philosophical, the rhetorician charmed like a snake.

Philosophy in the Republic takes root among aristocrats and powerful democrats and ideologues who are all caught in, consumed by war (that the Greek civil wars murdered endlessly, that Athens in particular was brutal and corrupt, is part of the motivation, in context, of Plato’s Socrates casting up the lean city, the city in speech). Philosophy moves out of, and begins to engage even those engaged in war.

Polemarchus is plainly thinking about what he is saying, disturbed by the conclusions he comes to under Socrates’s questioning. In contrast, Thrasymachus is trying merely to defeat Socrates and his alleged rhetorical snares for prize money (actually it is Thrasymachus who lays out such snares, insisting that Socrates not speak of justice as an interest, say a common interest, for example, when Thrasymachus himself says that justice is nothing but the advantage or interest or the stronger. He is a beast or a wolf; he gets embarrassed, turns beet-red and sweats. Despite his name - warleader - Polemarchus does none of things.

Socrates tries to pin Polemarchus down on what justice is good for. Polemarchus is not quick-witted and the argument does not go swiftly. But unlike other interlocutors, even the initially brilliant Glaucon and his story of the ring of Gyges in book 2, he is more cautious, more thoughtful.

“And how about a just man? [Socrates asks] In what situation is he best able to help his friends and harm his enemies? [Simonides’ definition, offered by Polemarchus]

In war, Socrates, when he joins his fellow countrymen in battle against the foe

I see. All this leads me to conclude that when we are well and safe on dry land, we have no use for doctors or captains. [note that Socrates does not directly challenge or answer the thought here].

True.

But how about justice? Will justice be useless in peacetime.

I don’t want to say that.

[here is Polemarchus thinking about the argument]

Then justice has its uses in times of peace?

Yes.

Just like farming and shoemaking?

It is useful in business, in drawing up contracts and in forming partnerships.

But if you were competing in a game, whom would you prefer as a partner? A skillful player or a just man?

A skillful player.

Just as you would prefer partnership with a mason if you were laying bricks or with a musician if you were making music?

Yes.

Then for what kind of partnership is the just man best suited?

In a partnership involving money.

But surely not where money is changing hands. If we wanted to buy or sell horses, it would be better to have a canny judge of horseflesh as our partner. If ships were the commodity, we should want a shipbuilder or sea captain on our side.

No doubt.

Then in what transactions will the just man be the best partner?

When one wants to deposit money for safekeeping.

You mean that the just man is useful only when money lies idle?

Exactly. [Polemarchus is still a little slow, grasping at straws].

Justice is useful when money is useless? [Socrates rubs the point in]

Apparently. [again, Polemarchus, disconcerted, is thinking). [332e-333d]

…So one who guards well is also good at stealing? The just man who guards money well, will also be good at stealing it?

Evidently.

Then it seems we have revealed the just man to be a kind of thief. That is one of Homer’s lessons. Homer often stressed his admiration of Odysseus’s grandfather Autolycus ["lone wolf," a son of Hermes], extolling his surpassing skill in ‘theft and perjury.’ Apparently you agree with Homer and Simonides that justice sanctions even the art of stealing so long as a man steals things to benefit friends or injure enemies. Is that what you meant?

Certainly not, although I confess I no longer know what I said.” (334a-b)

This recognition can be, as in Polemarchus, the beginning of thinking seriously. Or it can be in Thrasymachus, the source of bullying********* and embarrassment (his famous blushing and profuse sweating).

In contrast to Thrasymachus, Polemarchus begins the process of thinking about the questions Socrates is asking and reconsidering or reformulating his position. Perhaps he is moving from being a tyrannical democrat, the bully prefiguring the trial in the opening scene. For Polemarchos now studies the argument and is surprised and dismayed by what follows from it. “Apparently,” he says down to: “I no longer know what I said”…

Socrates also hangs him out to dry (likewise, Thrasymachos) on the idea that human beings are psychologically complex and often make mistakes about who their friends and enemies are.**********

Book 1 is not just the beginning of this long dialogue. It also teaches the student about what doing political philosophy – asking questions as Socrates does – is. It is, for the careful reader, a kind of initiation.

In addition, the preceding discussion of Socrates with Cepahalus, the war merchant and pretend old-time Athenian, going to his death by paying off the gods, involves an apparently good but domineering man. But appearances are deceptive. Cephalus comes back in book 10 in the Myth of Er as he who chooses first, “good by habit in a former life,” the life of a tyrant, then looks more closely and discovers that the tyrant is fated to eat his children, and blames the fates/weavers, not himself, for the choice…. He is caught up in war and its cycles, not free for thinking (Brecht’s Mutter Courage – Mother Courage – comes to mind). He is filled with high sentences from Pindar’s poems, stories of Themistocles, a veritable Polonius from Hamlet...

Cephalus is introduced by Socrates’s asking how it looks to him being “on the threshold of old age.” The poetic line from Homer’s Iliad seems innocent (nothing in Plato is; Plato changes every story). But Homer’s epics are a parallel theme, a kind of underlying chord or counterpoint to the symphony of the Republic. In book 24, Priam, King of Troy, has just seen his son Hector, his city’s leading warrior, slaughtered by Achilles, and dragged around behind his chariot, for murdering Patroclus, Achilles’s lover, who had garbed himself in Achilles’ armor. Now am I, Priam screams who have seen my child destroyed before me, my city destroyed, “on the threshold of old age.” Priam implores Achilles for the mangled body of his son:

“Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles—
as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!” h/t Jim Cole)

By pressing Cephalus on whether he is content because he is rich, trying to buy off the gods, Socrates drives the old man out. No longer able to ascend to Athens, Cephalus had wanted Socrates to entertain him, to be a court-jester (most philosophers sit at the door of the rich, Socrates notes aptly later in the Republic). It is only once Cephalus leaves that philosophy, really questioning an argument and more or less direct responses and continued questioning, can begin (see Peter Steinberger’s fine essay "Who is Cephalus?," Political Theory, 1996). Along with the argument, Cephalus bequeaths his fortune, gained from war, to his son and heir, the democratic war leader, Polemarchus.

All Plato’s students would have noted that the domination of the wealthy arms merchant who, though an immigrant, mindlessly follows customs and the ancients ways of Athens, must be dispensed with for a philosophical discussion to begin. Here force and money are finally displaced, though not their power in rhetoric. Rhetoricians (pseudo-philosophers), who sit at the doors of the rich and embroider the emperor’s new clothes, are customary as Thrasymachus illustrates. Philosophy begins with Polemarchus.

In an unusual move, again a signal for his students and unique to this dialogue among the dialogues, Plato interrupts the discussion between Thrasymachus and Socrates for a comment by listeners. Here one listener, Polemarchus, serves as witness to the argument, displacing the unwilling Thrasymachus. And this witnessing about argument, as we learn also from the Crito (46b-49a), is the main point. Philosophy is asking questions of and fashioning arguments with one witness. It is thus dependent on both where the philosopher has gotten (and her psychology) in the argument and the witness’s. Socrates notably makes mistakes about whether virtue can be taught in the Meno because the beautiful young boy is coquetting with him . He discusses the subsequent question whether virtue can be taught, at Meno’s insistence and oddly concludes that it cannot without first discussing what virtue is.*********** But one subtheme of the action of the Republic is that Glaucon agrees that justice is better than injustice. He gives up his initial hunger, the temptation to become a tyrant. In this sense, he learns virtue – at least not doing evil – from Socrates. The action of the Republic is an antidote to the inadequate argument of the Meno.

Here in the Republic, every student of Socrates and Plato learns how to do argument, what Polemarchus has discovered, as opposed to Cleitophon who does not follow and is no witness, and Thrasymachus who also not a witness.

“Now most wise Thrasymachus, [says, Socrates], can you see how you contradict yourself? Your indiscriminate equation of justice with what the strong command and the weak obey leads only to its own negation; it actually requires the weak to injure the interests of the strong.

Nothing could be clearer, Socrates, said Polemarchus.

If one could believe Polemarchs’s testimony, said Cleitophon.

No witness is necessary, said Polemarchus. Thrasymachus himself said that rulers may command what is not in their interest and that subjects obeying these commands are doing justice.

You are right, Polemarchus. Thrasymachus himself said that rulers may command what is not in their interest and that subjects obeying these commands are doing justice.

Yes, Cleitophon, but he also said justice is [nothing but] the interest of the stronger, that sometimes the strong mistake their interest, but that the subjects must nevertheless carry out what the stronger mistakenly order them to do. The inference is unavoidable that justice may equally be to the advantage or disadvantage of the ruler.”

Here Polemarchus understands and develops the argument. He speaks as a philosopher.

“What Thrasymachus meant, said Cleitophon, is that justice is what the stronger believes to be in his interest. Obedience to this belief, in turn, is the just duty of the subject.

But he didn’t say that, objected Polemarchus.

It doesn’t matter, Polemarchus, said I. If that is the position Thraymachus now wants to take [it isn’t], let us accept it. Is that what you want to say Thrasymachus? Is justice what the stronger thinks is in his interest, whether it really is or not? (339e-340d)

Comparable to Shakespeare, the interlude here between Polemarchus and Cleitophon might appear comic. It highlights how belligerent Thrasymachus is, how unwilling to take part in an examination of his own position. What is evident to the attentive reader here, however, is that Polemarchus has also become a philosopher, following the argument, and thus proving that he is a good witness by being able to spell out the contradictions in it. At this point, the student is meant to take in sharply what it is to do argument. One is also meant to notice the evolution of a democratic war leader into a philosophical fighter for democracy against tyranny. It is but one image in Plato. But as I have emphasized in "going down" here, here, and here, it is also an important, perhaps decisive one.

*Strauss interprets Thrasymachus as a rhetor, speading the word for Socrates’s philosophical kingship or tyranny (rule of the wise without laws). As we will see, there is exactly no evidence for this; what Socrates – and Plato – urged for Athens is something quite different (see the last links).

**There is much subtlety in the Phaedrus, in which Socrates acknowledges Eros as a god and the Symposium, in which "Diotima," whose story he tells, does not. Nonetheless, with the beautiful boy Phaedrus, the lover of Lysias, Socrates identifies inchoate rhetoric and contrasts the life of an orator to the philosophical life, with Polemarchus, brother of Lysias, as the paradigm.

***In a descriptive but largely nonphilosophical account of my views and William Altman’s - shortly to appear
in Perspectives in Politics, “Who Was Leo Strauss?”, my friend Peter Minowitz cites my argument about hidden meanings in Plato as equivalent to Strauss’s:

“When discussing Plato, Gilbert sometimes echoes Strauss: ―one has to learn the Delphic meanings of the dialogues, take in what one can of the force of the spoken word, 'the word written upon the soul,' not just the written word. One cannot read a dialogue, even persistently, and wrestle with surface arguments as if they alone were the issue (they are often contradictory or incomplete). Instead, one must follow out the whole meaning, including the setting, and the elliptical comments‖ (Alan Gilbert, ―The Divine, the Charioteer and Writing in the Phaedrus, Part 2,‖ 12/23/10, http://democratic-individuality.blogspot.com/2010/12/divine-charioteer-and-writing-in.html).“ This is at p. 5, n. 14 of his article.

Now as Peter suggests, Strauss is a very helpful reader of Plato in that he grasps the complexity of the dialogues and I have learned from him in this respect (he is, in this way, a more apt reader than many historians of philosophy and philosophers who read Plato). That seems a powerful recognition, which Peter exaggerates by attempting to reduce what I say to Strauss. What Peter fails to see is that one may differ with Strauss utterly about what the meanings of the dialogues are. That is a central point, for example, of this essay. More deeply, that there are hidden meanings requires further thought about whether and in what sense or context, they may be right. They are not a ring of Gyges, a ring of power, which one may, with Strauss’s idol Heidegger, brandish to serve Hitler…

Strauss’s view is also wooden because he thinks the hidden meaning of a dialogue – the pointing by Plato in the Republic to how a tyrant of a certain kind may become a philosopher-king or tyrant ruling wisely but without laws must be what Plato recommends, despite the Republic’s fierce indictment of tyranny. But the hidden meaning is just a possible, if often contradictory conclusion. It is not argued for or if argued for, advanced shakily by doubtful characters like the Athenian Stranger (in "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?", I mistakenly take the Stranger as speaking for Plato in a passage where he says shockingly that only a tyrant may change things quickly for good or ill. The latter is not a Socratic locution). As I suggested in that essay which Peter cites but does not take in the argument of, however, the surface argument refutes the hidden pointing; the argument is self-refuting. See here. The most vivid and psychological opponent of tyranny, in fact, contradictorily embraces this possibility – by signs and a shard of argument, that extremes are nearest one another, that some rare tyrant might become a philosopher - against his own main argument. I was sad to discover that the Republic, this great and moving work, was, on this understanding, incoherent.

But suppose after long consideration and some experimentation in journeying to Syracuse, Plato rejected the hidden argument. Suppose he left it there as a dead end for some of his haughty aristocratic, initially pro tyranny students to find and think about and others to argue with them about (he did not foresee pro-Nazi philosophers in Weimar Germany for whom the story of the philosopher-tyrant would become a religion – 3 out of 6 leading pro-Nazis of whom Heidegger was the most gifted). Suppose the aim of all of this questioning and study was to convince many of the students, to fight for democracy against tyranny (even the tyranny of Dionysius in Syracuse that Plato advised and which then imprisoned him and almost sold him into slavery – see the Seventh Letter). Perhaps Plato learned the hard way not to dream of tyranny, but to defend even democracy, not the greatest regime but one tolerant of philosophy, against it. Once one has noticed that the argument is self-refuting, this is a possible and different conclusion, an affirmation of the main argument against the hidden pointing…

I have said that Strauss is sometimes a very clever cryptographer but not a philosopher. He finds the clues; he adopts the message (it coheres with his preexisting fascist prejudices). He does not name or think about the self-refutation (nor does Peter) and the evidence elsewhere in the dialogue or elsewhere in Plato. But is striving for wise tyranny a good idea, or is the more intelligent thought to check tyranny before it triumphs? Do philosophers fare well in tyranny (can one do philosophy in “philosopher”-tyranny?) or do they, in sometimes small circles, fare better in democracies?

The followers of Socrates and Plato might fight against the tyranny of the Bush-Cheney authoritarians and in many respects the Democrats as well; Strauss and particularly his political followers (Peter is not one) actively affirm and encourage that tyranny. They might emulate the students Chaerophon and Polemarchus of Socrates, Demosthenes of Plato, rather than Alcibiades, Critias or Aristotle. The political or democratic stakes of a philosophical understanding of Socrates and Plato are high.

****Shining here may have the suggestion of the blue-green shine of the sea or the gray shine of an owl's eyes. His name also suggests owl - glaux - and recalls glaukopis, gray-faced, used of Athena and her owl avatar in Homer – h/t Matt Morgan.Athens is a sea-power as Pericles stresses, and its shining splendor linked through war to the sea, the owl a symbol, perhaps a mocking one from his brother Plato, of Glaucon's struggles with philosophy in the rest of the dialogue.

*****In Phaedrus, the main interlocutor is the lover of Lysias, brother of Polemarchus. To get a conversation from Socrates, he says jocularly: I am younger than you are and will beat you up if you don't comply.

"Just make up your mind you won't get away from here until you speak out what you said you had in your breast. We are alone in a solitary spot, and I am younger and stronger than you; so under these circumstances, take my meaning, and speak voluntarily rather than under compulsion." (236 c-d)

This, of course, parallels - and is meant by Plato, he of broad shoulders, a gymnast or wrestler, to be understood as parallel to - Polemarchus in the opening scene of the Republic. The initial, youthful response, Plato suggests, is often force; wisdom, insight into a common good and persuasion come after...

******The Athenians are graphically shown to lust after other goddesses, the charge singling out Socrates for ‘not believing in the gods of Athens,” stands out, in this action, for its falsity.

*******His other two sons are present though silent, Lysias and Euthydemus. Lysias figures strongly as a rhetorician in the Phaedrus where Socrates strikingly and poetically shows Lysias's lover, Phaedrus, that his rhetoric has no order, and contrasts Polemarchus as philosophical. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Euthydemus is shown as the beautiful boy whom the murderous tyrant Critias, a student of Socrates and Plato’s cousin, wishes to throw himself on. Socrates says, in Euthydemus’s presence, that Critias has a pig’s itch for Euthydemus and wants to rub himself on the young man as a piglet scratches itself on a rock (see here and here on I.F. Stone part 1 and 2). Part of the charge against Socrates, as Stone has underlined, was that he stayed in Athens under the murderous Tyranny of his student. In fact, he resisted at the threat to his life, refusing to bring back Leon of Salamis to be murdered.

********I will leave aside the appalling and fairly monstrous character of the city in speech – if murdering “defective” babies, driving out everyone over 10, and making each have the same passions, the same reactions or habits, is said to make this “a beautiful city” (Kallipolis),” this adjective will elude many of us…

*********“My dear Thrasymachus, do you really think me a quibbler?

Of course I do.

And do you imagine that I design my questions in order to trick you and sabotage your arguments.

It’s not a question of imagination [and Thrasymachos is not wrong…]. I know very well that’s what you do. But your tactics will fail. Whether you choose open debate or resort to cunning, you won’t get the better of me.

I wouldn’t dream of trying [Socratic irony]. But let us try to put misunderstandings behind us. (341a-b)

**********An aristocrat and rhetorician from unruly Thessaly, Meno becomes a mercenary in Persia and is impaled by the Emperor at 24. Socrates is killed by the city; one of his accusers, Anytus, is Meno’s host in Athens, and appears briefly in that dialogue to threaten Socrates

***********In the Seventh Letter, Dion’s mistake about his “friend,” Calippus, who murders him, seals the fate of philosophical-tyranny as an unlikely regime for Plato and those students who listen carefully. For Dion, Plato’s best student, was a likely philosopher-king, though the Seventh Letter underlines, on behalf of laws…). Similarly, Thrasymachus is stumped by the question: don’t the stronger sometimes make mistakes about their interests, i.e. choose false friends.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Poem: spirit (for Troy Davis)

If you say youdid

deathcocktail

theywillletyou

mur der

live

deathcocktail


ifyousay

deathcocktail

triallonga go

twomenwalkedout

you are innocent

allmenare

deathcocktail


youknewthem

mor tal


22years

andfourreprieves


is not enough

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A sad reversal

n a new Dred Scott decision, the "Supreme" Court has ruled that it will not block the execution of Troy Davis. There were no dissents and the response was but one sentence indicating denial. Neither Thomas and not any of the moderates acted decently or intelligently. Amnesty International leader Larry Cox says that the decision is cowardly. That is right. It is also true that no civilized state - not one that strives for the rule of law - will remand a suspected murderer to the United States because it practices the death penalty.

It is appallingly sad - for me and everyone else watching this - to take in this murder of an almost certainly innocent man. The execution was delayed three hours because of the facts and the massive international protest, but even former FBI director Sessions and Georgia death penalty proponent Bob Barr who intervened in this case could stay the hand of injustice. Troy Davis will be murdered by the State of Georgia in the next 30 minutes.

Troy Davis reprieved for 1 to 7 days: a miracle for the fourth time

There has been, for the fourth time, a miracle. It is one hour and thirty-seven minutes after the time scheduled for Troy Davis's execution. There is apparently a reprieve for 1 to 7 days by the Supreme Court. A reprieve is different from a stay. Even if it only lasts till tomorrow, this again is a victory for all those people who stood up for justice.

Martina Correia, Troy Davis's sister, Dejuan Correia, her 17 year old son who spoke on the meaning of "I am Troy Davis," the sign of this movement held by several hundred students from Morehouse and Spelman, the centers of the early civil rights movement and this one, Ed Dubose, President of the Georgia NAACP, Benjamin Jealous, President of the NAACP, Pastor Raphael Warnock of the Ebenezer Baptist Church (the church King led) and Larry Cox, the President of Amnesty International have been very impressive. This is a serious and admirable continuation of the civil rights movement, and is calling many people into action. It is an international movement; there are large demonstration to free Troy Davis in London, Paris, Marseille, Reykjavik, Iceland, and many other countries.

One other note. Mark McPhail, the police officer who was murdered, was working off duty that night in 1989. He saw a homeless person being pistol whipped and tried to stop it. He was shot. What he did is an admirable thing and what police officers should do. Anyone who cares about the law should want to put his murderer off the streets for life. The Georgia "legal" establishment has behaved and behaves wretchedly, with no concern for the law, willing to execute an innocent man sooner than find the murderer. The murder appears to be - there is now a witness - the eyewitness who first accursed Davis, Sylester "Red" Coles. The witness is a woman, one of the 7 who have recanted, who was threatened by Coles because she heard him say that he did the murder but that he had children and had to let Troy Davis die to take care of them. Her apartment was destroyed and she has left the state, but has spoken out..

While there was no physical evidence against Troy Davis, Coles had a gun registered to him of the type that fired the bullet. Police and district attorneys and judges, worthy of the name, could investigate..

Clarence Thomas, on this one issue, is apparently working on the Supreme Court for a decent resolution.

I spoke in a class today about this - comparative practices of capital punishment in the trial and hemlock given to Socrates (and also to Polemarchos by the Tyranny of the Thirty) and capital punishment in the United States. I asked the students how many countries in addition to the United States practice capital punishment - 4 - and which they are. The guesses were slow but China came quickly and finally Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Mexico, Malaysia and Israel were erroneous guesses (those countries are comparatively civilized in this respect). 49% of the death row prisoners are black (13% of the population); some 234 prsioners have now been freed because of DNA testing, a very large number with an execution rate now at 100 per year (down from 300 in the 1990s). Racism toward blacks (which also drags down chicanos and white) plainly makes the American "legal" system stand out compared to the injustice toward Socrates who had a serious trial, spoke his mind, and accepted (though innocent of any crime except questioning) the punishment.

The Troy Davis case is now an example of injustice which rivals Dumas' Man in the Iron Mask. Troy Davis said today that he is part of and wants to stand for all the Troy Davises who are in this position, past and future. One has but to look at the case and the grotsequeness - and, in particular, the racism - of the death penalty stands out.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

That torture is rightly outlawed

Here is a simple note I wrote about torture to the Denver Post. It is, I think, clear enough. But in book 26, of De l’esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws), Montesquieu wrote ironically of the burning of a Jewish teenage girl by the Inquisition in Lisbon, “when one says things so clear and simple, one is sure never to convince.” For a longer post on the protest and the eloquent letter of the University of Colorado at Denver political science department, see here.

Torture By Any Other Name Still Unconstitutional

Re: “Ex-U.S. AG gives speech amid shouts,” Sept. 9 news story.

Your article missed the issue of the protest against former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, which is not a partisan matter. International law, notably the Convention against Torture, which President Reagan signed, outlaws torture under any circumstances. By Article 6, Section 2, of the Constitution, the Supremacy Clause, treaties signed by the U.S. become the highest law of the land.

The reason that Gonzalez does not face hearings is not that the case against leading Bush administration officials is weak. On the contrary, it is because what is already in the public record is very likely sufficient enough to convict a number of them that President Obama has forbidden hearings. Those officials cannot travel abroad or they face arrest.

Under American law, an official cannot escape a charge of murder by renaming it. The same goes for the crime of so-called “enhanced interrogations.”

Alan Gilbert, Morrison

The writer is an international studies professor at the University of Denver.
This letter was published in the Sept. 16 edition.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Troy Davis

Troy Davis faces execution on Wednesday. The case is an abomination; 7 of 9 witnesses were coerced and have changed their testimony. See the New York Times story below. Yet despite an increasingly international movement, Davis cannot get a reprieve or a new trial. That the prison system is a system of often racist murder (letting the guilty get away) is visible from the statistics alone (49% of those who await execution in the United States are black). That they do so when police officers are killed (this case and the Mumia case, for example) is particularly striking. Powerful district attorneys and officers want blood, like Bush attacking Iraq, but whose blood they don’t much care. One would think that care for the law and concern to find a murderer, not just record a false penalty and execution, would have been sufficient for the police themselves to have initiated protest on behalf of a reprieve and new trial.

The Davis case, along with Buck reprieve because of the overt racism of Texas – see "Texas Execution Stayed Based on Race Testimony" (Times, September 17, 2011) here - is the cutting edge of racism about the prisons. In the latter case, a “psychologist” testified – and a prosecutor encouraged and relied on, a judge allowed – that “being black” is a predisposing “cause” of murder. In an unusual move, the Supreme Court stayed this execution: the psychologist, prosecutor and judge had all spoken in – or accepted – the language of the Klan. The Court also stayed a previous execution of Davis in 2009. But ensuring a new trial and justice is a different matter. For almost anything short of wearing pointy hats – in the arrest and imprisonment of black men, 10% of the population, 49% of people on death row – the “Supreme” Court turns away. See the two recent posts of the vast prison/probation complex, containing 25% of the world’s prisoners, here and here.

When Al Gore was running for President in 2000, researchers found that 4.5 of each 10 prisoners executed in the United States are, by DNA evidence - innocent...Gore was able to stem, with attention to science, his then zeal for capital punishment. For similar reasons, from 300 executions per year in the United States in the 1990s, the number is now around 100. Slowly, the thought that the state taking a life for a life is barbaric as most of the world has recognized is making headway. The Republican "tea-baggers," with their nasty existence is some fictive universe, hope to reverse this as other slow forms of moral advance. But the Davis case is, even in the context of American executions, extraordinary and emblematic (the son of a police officer, no physical evidence, 7 witnesses – out of 9 - recanting...). All support in the form of letters to the parole board or newspapers or participating in rallies (especially for those in the East) is worthwhile.


Digital Age Drives Rally to Keep a Georgia Inmate From Execution
On Friday, demonstrators marched to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for a prayer vigil for Troy Davis, who was convicted of killing a Savannah police officer 22 years ago.

By KIM SEVERSON
Published: September 16, 2011


ATLANTA — As Troy Davis faces his fourth execution date, the effort to save him has come to rival the most celebrated death row campaigns in recent history.

A woman held up a sign in support of Troy Davis in Woodruff Park in Atlanta.

On Monday, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles will give Mr. Davis what is by all accounts his last chance to avoid death by lethal injection, scheduled for Wednesday.

Whether history will ultimately judge Mr. Davis guilty or innocent, cultural and legal observers will be left to examine why Mr. Davis, convicted of killing a Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail, 22 years ago, has been catapulted to the forefront of the national conversation when most of the 3,251 other people on death row in the United States have not.

The answer, experts say, can be found in an amalgam of changing death penalty politics, concerns about cracks in the judicial system, the swift power of digital political organizing and, simply, a story with a strong narrative that caught the public’s attention.

“Compelling cases that make us second-guess our justice system have always struck a chord with the American public,” said Benjamin T. Jealous, president of the N.A.A.C.P. “Some are simply more compelling in that they seem to tap deeply into the psyche of this country. A case like this suggests that our justice system is flawed.”

Like others involved in the case, he credits Mr. Davis’s sister, Martina Correia, a media-friendly former soldier who has long argued that the police simply got the wrong man, with keeping the story alive.

And the story has been compelling. A parade of witnesses have recanted since the original trial, and new testimony suggests the prosecution’s main witness might be the killer.

There are racial undertones — Mr. Davis is black and the victim was white — and legal cliffhangers, including a stay in 2008 that came with less than 90 minutes to spare and a Hail Mary pass in 2009 that resulted in a rare Supreme Court decision.

Altogether, it had the makings of a story that has grabbed many armchair lawyers and even the most casual opponent of the death penalty.

The list of people asking that the Georgia parole board offer clemency has grown from the predictable (Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Indigo Girls) to the surprising, including 51 members of Congress, entertainment heavyweights like Cee Lo Green and death penalty supporters including William S. Sessions, a former F.B.I. director, and Bob Barr, a former member of Congress, and some leaders in the Southern Baptist church. (Unlike some other states, in Georgia the governor cannot commute a death sentence; only the parole board can.)

Propelled by a recent flood of digital media including Twitter traffic and online petition requests, the case has become fodder for discussion in fashionable Atlanta bistros, Harlem street corners and anywhere living room sleuths gather in their search for another Casey Anthony trial to dissect.

On Friday, about 1,000 people marched to Ebenezer Baptist Church here for a prayer vigil, one of hundreds of rallies being organized by Amnesty International around the world.

The facts of the case itself captured the attention of Nancie McDermott, a North Carolina cookbook author who usually spends her time in the kitchen but who took up the cause with a passion once she started reading about it on liberal Web sites.

“I think if my brother or son or dear friend from college were about to be put to death, and there was no physical evidence, and seven of nine witnesses had recanted and testified to coercion in that original testimony, would I shrug and say, ‘The jury made its decision?’ ” she wrote in an e-mail. “I just want people, particularly all the churchgoing people like me, to look me in the eye and tell me, just once, that this is justice.”

There are some larger political themes weaving through the case.

As executions becomes less common and sentences for executions decline — dropping to about 100 a year from three times that in the 1990s — the focus on execution as a means of punishment and a marker of the nation’s cultural and political divide becomes sharper, legal analysts said.

That divide results in a culture that in the same week can generate hundreds of thousands of letters of support for Troy Davis and, conversely, bring a cheering round of applause from the audience at a Republican presidential debate when Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was asked about the 234 executions in his state during his term of office.

“We’ve gotten to a critical point in the death penalty in this country,” said Ferrel Guillory, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina. “These cases are being phased out but at the same time they don’t make the front page anymore, so when one comes along with a strong narrative and a good advocate, it gets our attention.”

Matthew Poncelet, a Louisiana convict, had Sister Helen Prejean, whose story of her work with him in the final phase of his life brought “dead man walking” into popular lexicon after Hollywood released a film version of the case in 1995.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former journalist and Black Panther who was convicted of shooting a white Philadelphia police officer in 1981, rode the power of his own charisma. His case became so popular globally that a road in a Parisian suburb bears his name.

Mr. Davis’s case not only offers a good narrative with strong characters people can relate to — his father was a law enforcement officer, his mother was a churchgoer, his sister is fighting both cancer and for her brother’s innocence — but has also benefited from an explosion in social media.

“Back in 2007, nobody outside of Savannah knew who Troy Davis was,” said Laura Moye, director of Amnesty International U.S.A.’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign. “Now it’s safe to say over a million people do.”

For proof, she offers the 633,000 petitions she and others delivered to the parole board in an elaborate media event on Friday. About 200,000 of them were electronic signatures gathered by Change.org in less than a week.

“It’s a new era of activism,” she said.

Online organizing drew Anderia Bishop, 37, of Atlanta, to the case last week. She learned about Mr. Davis through an e-mail from ColorOfChange.org, a black political organization.

The fact that there was very little physical evidence and no DNA and a case built largely on witnesses who changed their story got her attention.

“I thought, literally, it could be me, and that’s something a lot of people who are casually watching this case think,” she said. “There are just too many questions.”

But public pressure and intense media attention can cut both ways, said Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights and a longtime capital defense lawyer.

“It certainly heightens the attention a case gets, but there also can be some defensiveness,” he said. “There has historically been that worry that people from out of state will come in and not understand what really happened.”

The difference, he said, is that in today’s information-rich age, people around the world actually do know most of the facts in the case.

“It tells the State of Georgia that the whole world is watching,” he said.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Poem: shor t

hardeyed

beaten

inAfghanistan

screamedat woman

cared not for life

smalltown

skieddelirious

threwhay

ready to re-up

weavingweaving


h a pp i
n e s s


intoatree

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Race, class, what to call the prison/parole system and a letter from Alan Cafruny, part 2

Alan Cafruny, my friend from Colgate, wrote this thoughtful correction of Desmond King’s and Rogers Smith’s very good op-ed included in part 1 here.

“Hi Alan, As usual a nice blog piece. On one important point I think that King and Smith are wrong: they argue that there is a "silence"--especially coming from the Republicans--over race. It seems to me that racism is now expressed in the Republican party--especially the Tea Party--but also among many Democrats--primarily in terms of the discourse about taxes. Indeed, "tax" and even "government" have become code words for "black" so the silence is formal but not substantive. Taxation and more generally ‘government programs’ are portrayed as ‘redistribution’ from white to black. Reagan sought to get the ‘government’ (read: blacks) ‘off our backs' and Clinton sought to "’redefine' government (i.e. race relations") thereby setting the stage for the present situation that you and King and Smith describe so well. In the context of the growing poverty that is also afflicting so many whites, this type of ideology is essential to prevent progressive policies that would reduce inequality.

All the best,
Alan"

Cafruny’s point is that racists have slightly indirect names - "code-words" - for racism. These words may fool racist Justices like Scalia and Roberts, but they are both real and transparent. 10 times the sentence for crack – sold to black and brown people and some poor whites – as opposed to cocaine (used in Boulder, Scarsdale and the like) is also racist in intent.

In addition, , the Census Bureau issued startling statistics on the increasing poverty in the United States yesterday. There are now 15.1% of Americans living beneath the poverty line ($22,314 for a family of four). In real terms, double this poverty line for a family of four, and that would still be something close to poverty. In any case, 46.2 million people live below the official poverty line (another 2.6 billion became impoverished last year). This is the highest number in 52 years. Further, real wages have declined in the last decade. Harvard economist Lawrence Katz refers to it as a rare “lost decade” – the only decade, the only generation, in which household incomes - the median household income adjusted for inflation - declined: “'This is truly a lost decade,'” Mr. Katz said. “'We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.'” See Sabrina Tavernise in the New York Times here.

The study is particularly grim about the black and latin reserve army of the unemployed and very poor, as Marx named it. 27% of blacks and 26% of latinos are poor. Further, these official figures are diminished by their real employment at slave wages or worse in prison (once in prison, individuals are counted neither in poverty figures nor as looking for work). Capitalism’s need for massive prisons and the division between workers and the petit bourgeoisie in the form of prisoners (a striking emphasis in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish) for these groups is underlined by these figures. The next time you call for information on the phone, the operator is likely either to be in an American prison or in India.

Adding the official figures 53% - better than half – of the poor are members of the caste of color which Michelle Alexander emphasizes. But 9.9% are white, out of a much bigger percentage of the population (so the absolute numbers are very high). 12.1% are Asian.

As the first post underlined, Cathy Cohen and Desmond King both questioned Alexander’s title: The New Jim Crow, though underlining that her writing is brilliant and careful, as overly focused on blacks and potentially politically isolating. My own initial inclination, however, is to find other shocking names for the prison/probation/unemployment system as well as reach out. It is only when we come to see racism as a form of divide and rule that all of us – I mean especially whites who are often lured into going along with or tolerating racism and fiercer oppression toward others – will see this strongly as our own fight. I suggested in the question period two more names, both of which are uncomfortable in the so-called “colorblind” American regime and civil rights state – a seemingly free regime though increasingly less so - and to which no one directly responded. The first is, as I indicated in the first post, a police state, given the magnitude of people in prison/on parole and how it probably exceeds all the prisoners combined in China, Russia and the remaining tyrannies of the Middle East.The term is both apt and surprising, and does not emphasize the caste element.

It is important to spell out the architecture of this system, which Alexander's naming and her book uniquely does (read the book and you will get an idea of this architecture in a way that King’s and Smith’s fine article in the Times can only begin to hint at). For instance, as Alexander’s book stresses, the police are licensed by the Supreme Court to discriminate and district attorneys are enormously, and without much check, empowered in this system and have helped to drive it.(Alexander, 128-29).

It is also important to underline the gigantic police state character of the prison/parole system because the racist authoritarians (also imperial authoritarians), misnamed conservatives in the corporate press and in this case joined by many of the so-called libertarians, are okay with having a giant system of incarceration along with a war complex. Ron Paul and his followers intelligently oppose the latter, and as I underlined in the last post, conservatives like Scott Horton draw this line sharply. See his interview with Chicago professor Bernard Harcourt here.

In contrast, despite their self-conception and misnaming in the corporate media as supposed cutters of government, these authoritarians are fierce statists about subject populations. They want the big stick of the military and the prison/probation system. See here. Free marketeering in one quite limited area actually on behalf of global corporations and megabanks, war and the police and prisons are their favored ways of responding, particularly to non-white others though with horrendous effects on whites as well.

It is only common good-sustaining government expenditures (rather than far larger expenditures which are mainly for class - legitimized by racism and divide and rule - oppression such as the giant police state or aggressive war) that these “cons” and “neocons” oppose and that we need a multiracial, mass civil disobedience movement from below to uphold.

But it is also, as Desmond King and Rogers Smith suggest below, the state, even under Obama who knows better, which does not directly help those who are caught up in the prison system or seek to break its startling “institutionalization” (Alexander). Obama cannot be seen, he thinks, as an angry black man or as leading a crusade for people of color and be electable. In corporate mainstream politics, that may, currently, be right. It may only be a movement from below that can change this circumstance, though Obama demobilized a powerful, already existing movement when he was elected, and has been working hard to discourage his supporters by doing corrupt things and placing himself in the so-called “center” since (his speech last Thursday night, however, set a different tone). Yet sometimes, for instance, after deporting a vast number of immigrants working or going to school in the United States and guilty of no crime and given the racism of the House of Representatives and the Republicans (the ones who produced, with some Democratic support, the “wall” with Mexico), Obama has recently ordered the immigration service only to deport criminals. That is an unusual (for an American President) and decent act.

But about the “war on drugs,” or more exactly, a war on the poor, on people of color and the black community, Obama is, so far, blind. As Alexander reported on the panel, Byrne Grants for state and local police to pursue drug arrests, were lagging. While the stimulus gave no money to the Pentagon and was in this respect, decent, it increased the budget for Byrne Grants 12 times, the worst thing it did. (The New Jim Crow, pp. 72-73, 82-83). The police state conscripts the help of both Parties and even the President, who, perhaps like Michelle Alexander as she was just starting her journey as an ACLU civil rights attorney for Northern California (see here), does not yet fully understand what this system is about. But word is now making it even around the political science association (there is an increasing group of scholars now looking into these issues; h/t Bonnie Honig for encouraging these panels); perhaps we can even reach some Democratic politicians since presiding over an American or bigger than South African gulag based on racism is perhaps not something they want to do. I would add non-crazy Republicans but being anti-science or anti-facts of this world - Huntsman excepted - seems now to be a characteristic in what was once the party of Lincoln…

Second, I recalled the 1948 UN Convention against Genocide which refers to imposing on people “in whole or in part” conditions designed to destroy it. * See here. This is perhaps too difficult to spell out, though three of the five conditions below are plainly realized. This term sharply emphasizes the racist element (as does calling all this Jim Crow or neo-slavery – h/t Arthur Gilbert), but can be and needs to be linked with the oppression of whites. It is nonetheless useful to consider the criteria (the idea that this could be applicable today in Obama-led America, is at the least, disturbing...). With the deindustrialization of the United States and the siphoning off of only some in the imperial military, many poor and working class whites have been hurt. But even more strikingly, a large proportion of young blacks have no prospects for employment. They are, once again, part of, in Marx’s terms, a necessary complement to capitalist accumulation, the reserve army of the unemployed. The latter engulfs many whites as well and worsens as the depression deepens, current policies continue…The vast figures of American prisoners come from the failure of American-style capitalism to provide a decent standard of living, or even subsistence, for its own population.

In the later 1940s, the Civil Rights Congress, allied with the Communist Party, issued a pamphlet by William Patterson, applying the standards of the Genocide Convention to American segregation: We charge genocide. Until the Presidency of Jimmy Carter in 1979, the US did not ratify the Convention, created against Nazism in a war that the US had been a leading participant in. American politicians, particularly Southern Democrats, knew that the charge was true. What Alexander describes is also a genocidal system.

What is to be done? First, abolish all marijuana crimes (this has also been a leading point of Glenn Greenwald’s work and is emphasized by Andrew Sullivan). That America is a police state is a result of the drug war, focused on marijuana. That is far more important, in its massive social and political consequences and crushing of lives, than merely - as a matter of irrationality - criminalizing marijuana. To end what might well be seen as a crime against humanity, marijuana should be legalized and every possession offender immediately released and "made whole": no probation or requirement of reporting to prison for possession. Second, all mandatory sentencing should cease. We need sentencing based on Europe and other places that do not maintain a prison-probation-media-Congressional complex.

Third , with cuts to militarism and this police state as well as a sharp movement away from the privatization of war and prisons, much more money would be available for a) education which should be funded publically in the United States, and based on achievement, through graduate school (it is hard to have a green economy or compete in the 21st century if no one is educated…) , b) public works and infrastructure as a form of mass employment, and c) a determined focus on a green economy. Other proposals might include a shorter work week for adequate pay (in slogan form, 6 hours work for 8 hours pay).

In addition, King and Smith suggest a number of proposals which might be taken up in the current climate (without changing it very much), including trying to plan more integrated schools and housing districts and eliminating vast disparities in sentencing – racist ones – for possession of crack as opposed to cocaine. The two drugs are the same medically; the difference in the length of sentence an intentional aspect of the caste system (even the Supreme Court, if it did not have five racists on it, would recognize this point). These, too, would be useful, though beginning steps.

I should also add that Mayor Bloomberg in New York, though laying off many public workers and doing other problematic things, has joined with George Soros to fund a major program to keep black and latin students in school and to foster the hiring of blacks who have been in prison. He has put up $30 million as has Soros as part of $300 million. See the very interesting New York Times piece here. There is a broad and diverse movement for decency forming against the new Jim Crow, the American police state.


OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS
On Race, the Silence Is Bipartisan
By DESMOND S. KING and ROGERS M. SMITH
Published: September 2, 2011


THE economic crisis in the United States is also a racial crisis. White Americans are hurting, but nonwhite Americans are hurting even more. Yet leaders in both political parties — for different reasons — continue to act as though race were anachronistic and irrelevant in a country where an African-American is the president.

In July, the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent for whites, but 16.8 percent for blacks and 11.3 percent for Latinos. The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2009, the median household net worth was $5,677 for blacks, $6,325 for Hispanics and $113,149 for whites — down from $12,124, $18,539 and $134,992, respectively, in 2005.

All groups have suffered from high unemployment, the mortgage meltdown and soaring health care costs, but African-Americans and Hispanics started far behind and continue to fall behind. In 2009, 35 percent of black households and 31 percent of Latino households had zero or negative wealth, compared with 15 percent of white households.

Since the end of legal segregation in the 1960s, there have been two approaches to ameliorating racial inequality. Conservatives and most Republican politicians insist that laws be colorblind and that race-conscious measures like affirmative action should be ended. Liberals and most Democratic politicians favor such measures, mindful of the burdens of past and present discrimination.

For most of the nation’s history, the two major parties were internally divided over racial issues. But today, racial policy positions align almost perfectly with the party system. The two parties, which openly clashed over race from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, have for the last decade pretty much agreed not to talk about race — a silence that impedes progress toward racial equality.

Democrats mention race as little as possible, even though minority voters are crucial constituents, because colorblind positions are far more politically popular. Affirmative action has been supported in every Democratic presidential platform since 1972, but since the Reagan era, Democrats speak of it less and less.

President Obama, for example, does not openly renounce affirmative action, but he pragmatically stresses universal social programs like health care. He manages to avoid appearing especially concerned about African-Americans.

This tack leaves modern Republicans with little to criticize, lest they appear to be race-baiting, so they too keep quiet.
Advocates of both colorblind and race-conscious approaches to public policy now claim the mantle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights agenda and his call for people to be judged by their character, not their skin. Though Republicans claim that free-market policies will lift all boats and Democrats hope that “universal” measures to combat economic inequality will benefit all groups, racial inequality has endured.

As studies of employment and real estate practices begun during the Reagan era have consistently shown, racial discrimination persists. And “race neutral” economic measures backed by Democrats, like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, have proved too limited to aid many poorer blacks and Hispanics.

Political leaders must openly recognize that we cannot progress either by ignoring race or focusing exclusively on it. It is not only legitimate, but also essential, to evaluate policy options partly on the basis of whether they are likely to reduce or increase racial inequalities.

Compromise policies — measures that are not explicitly race-targeted but are chosen partly because they will benefit nonwhites especially — should become the basis for policy debates.

For example, without using explicit racial classifications, we can devise districts and situate homes in ways that are more likely to produce integrated schools and neighborhoods.

We can adopt employment tests that are fair and inclusive and do a better job at predicting job performance than many Civil Service exams now do.

And we can do more to ensure that our criminal laws do not target crimes more typical of urban Hispanics and blacks, like crack cocaine use, more strongly than crimes typical of suburban whites, like powder cocaine use.

Both parties should accept that the question of whether policies help narrow the racial divide must be part of the discussion. After all, it was the Republican-led search for racial progress in the 1860s and the Democratic-led fight for civil rights in the 1960s — buttressed, of course, by African-Americans’ own freedom struggle — that allowed the election of a black president in 2008.

Desmond S. King, a professor of American government at Oxford University, and Rogers M. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, are the authors of “Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America.”

*Article 2 of the Convention reads:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

A, b, and c are strikingly realized in the American police state.

Monday, September 12, 2011

How a formally civil rights state locks up a social caste of black and brown people and a large number of whites

Desmond King of Oxford and Rogers Smith of Penn, who have written very forcefully on the issue of racism in America, published an op-ed piece in the Times last weekend, breaking a political – bipartisan – and media conspiracy about racism. The Democrats, including Obama, speak only of “the middle class.” Even the poor, let alone a mention of blacks or chicanos, is beyond their rhetoric. The Republicans live off disenfranchising blacks, the poor, students and the elderly, have passed restrictions on voting in 20 states where Republicans came to power in 2010. They affect to admire Martin Luther King and speak of color-blindness. But as Desmond King and Smith say, unemployment statistics for blacks are twice those of whites (and of Chicanos 33% higher than whites). The wealth statistics, cited from Pew, are equally disturbing. “The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2009, the median household net worth was $5,677 for blacks, $6,325 for Hispanics and $113,149 for whites — down from $12,124, $18,539 and $134,992, respectively, in 2005.” The Pew study also indicates that blacks have 1% of the total wealth in the US, Chicanos 2%... King’s and Smith’s op-ed is especially important because the silence of corporate politicians and the corporate media about racism and these differentials is so striking. That the Times printed this piece is also a hopeful sign about trying to at least name America’s problems and begin to address them.

But what one can say in the Times at its best is but the tip of an iceberg. As I have written about here and here, Michelle Alexander has a striking book, The New Jim Crow, which identifies how many poor people, black, latin and white, are involved with the prison system and has spoken widely with high school students, in law schools and churches about what the problem is and how to fight it. This year at the American Political Science Association, the magnitude of the problem was beginning to draw the attention of many political scientists. Note also that the issue of mass incarceration is beginning to surface among serious conservatives and libertarians (see the Economist's review of Ernest Drucker’s A Plague of Prisons here and Scott Horton’s post on Bernard Harcourt here).

From 300,000 prisoners in all American prisons in the early 1970s, Alexander shows, there are now 2.3 million. This eightfold increase has been triggered by the so-called war on drugs, enforced especially heavily in black communities (lots of people banished into the prison system never to get out for victimless crimes) and by the “tough on crime,” lengthy sentences advocated by Republicans and some Democrats and now mandated by law. As Alexander emphasizes, these sentences are not just for a particular crime – do your time and be made whole, a full citizen again. Instead, drug felons, particularly black ones, are often denied the right to vote afterwards. They are not able, with a jail record, to get jobs in the outside world (they have to survive through family and personal connections). They cannot live in public housing and are subject to fear and discrimination by private landlords. They are continually supervised in the parole system and thus, much more likely to be returned to jail if for example, depressed, they miss a meeting…

For the system of parole - a life sentence - sweeps up another 5.1 million. In 2008, the total number trapped in this system is some 7.4 million human beings (Alexander, 92). More people were returned to prison in 2000 for parole violations than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980:

"The extraordinary increase in prison admissions due to parole and probation violations is due almost entirely to the war on drugs. With respect to parole, in 1980 only percent of all prison admissions were parole violators. Twenty years later, more than one third (35 percent) of prison admissions resulted from parole violations. To put the matter more starkly: About as many people were returned to prison for parole violations in 2000 as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons. Of all parole violators returned to prison in 2000, only one-third were returned for a new conviction: two-thirds were returned for a technical violation such as missing appointments with a parole officer, failing to maintain employment, or failing a drug test. In this system of control, failing to cope well with one's exile status is treated like a crime. If you fail, after being released from prison with a criminal record - your personal badge of inferiority - to remain drug free, or if you fail to get a job against all the odds, or if you get depressed and miss an appointment with your parole officer (or if you cannot afford the bus fare to take you there), you can be sent right back to prison - where society apparently thinks millions of Americans belong." (Alexander, 93)

Black, latin and perhaps native american men are most swept up in this cruel system. But women are also affected. Given the abdication of state responsibilities for the welfare of citizens, the American government, as Anna Marie Smith, a professor at Cornell emphasizes, targets "deadbeat dads". Criminalizing the fathers, they make any voluntary or continuing relationship – something which is probably a possibility in many cases – out of the question by state fiat. Here the state seems to be working on a meticulous – one might say in Foucault’s sense disciplinary – form of divide and rule. In any case, it wantonly destroys the lives and wellbeing of the people it affects. Further, attempting to squeeze those who often have little income, it does not provide adequately for children. Comparisons with Europe are highly relevant here. In Scandinavia in 2000, according to an OECD report, there were the largest percentage of single parent households in the world - 47% - and the lowest occurrence of child poverty - 3%. Quite a contrast with American misery imposed especially on blacks and latins and on poor whites as well.

Now the vast majority of drug users in the US (and a huge part of the prison and paroled population) are white (Alexander, 131). According to Alexander,

"Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980 -an increase of 1,100 percent. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. Nothing has contributed to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the war on drugs....

In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession and only one of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity." (Alexander, 59)

Though purportedly “color blind” – ours is formally a civil rights state - and seemingly utterly different from the earlier segregated state, the police have unspoken prejudices and, with Supreme Court license (61-65), concentrate on blacks and latins. Unless the plaintiff can provide racist words as the motive, the Court has eliminated every appeal based on patterns of racial discrimination, even in situations where there is so vast a percentage of blacks (and latins) that one must be a stone racist not to notice. (ch. 2) If everyone who ever inhaled (and even Bill Clinton who “didn’t”) ended up jail, most of the population (the entire middle class, and every President since at least HW Bush), would be behind bars or on parole.

It is easy to joke about the hypocrisy of it all, but this system, as Alexander says, is, shockingly, in result, a kind of new Jim Crow. It repeats and feeds off the creation of a racial caste. Such fierce treatment of blacks, however, is also linked to special oppression toward Chicanos – a second component of the racial caste - and poor whites (with the continuing depression – roughly 1 in 5 unemployed and many others at minimum wage jobs – see the op-ed last Tuesday by Paul Osterman on Texas here - this is an increasing segment of whites, the middle class thinning out). According to the Justice Department, 1 in 3 black male children born in 2001 can expect to be involved with this prison system, 1 in 6 Chicanoes, 1 in 17 whites…

The magnitude of this system – what needs to be named this American police state – is startling. 2.3 million prisoners is 25% of all the prisoners in the world (add in the unique probation state, 3 times as large, 7.4 million, and the American stigmatization of a subpopulation as criminal exceeds the combined prison population of perhaps 3/4 of the world). America holds directly a much larger number of prisoners in jail than China, and the gap grows with the difference in population (i.e. as a ratio in the population; in the US it’s approximately 1 in 100 in prison, 3 in 100 in the prison/parole system). The American government imprisons more people than China, Russia and all the prisoners in the tyrannies of the Middle East combined (throw in Egypt which has hardly yet freed the prisoners from Mubarak as well).

Obama is the President and the issue of race moves the Tea Party (those who believe he lacks a birth certificate) – some 26% of the electorate in current, though probably exaggerated toward the Right polling. But the bipartisan silence about race combined with the Obama Presidency leads to the comforting illusion that racism no longer plays a central role in the American life (more aptly, the American system of divide and rule). The month after Obama was elected, the New York Times ran an editorial on December 22, 2008 which mentioned that 4 in 100 poor black teenagers in New York find work. That’s an unemployment rate of 96%.

At a second panel I attended, it turned out that even the imperial military is only an escape for blacks who have no record and some college. For those who have only high school, 5 in 100 make it out through joining the military (Amy Lerman, Princeton, “Civil Rights, the State and Black Mass Incarceration," APSA, 2011). Taking in this figure for the one, integrated institution (below sergeant) in this society made me want to cry…

These two panels at the American Political Science association, one centered around Alexander’s book, the other on the creation of a civil rights state, a state which does not enforce segregation law and yet produces horrendous and racist results (i.e. that 49% of people on death row are black), were striking. This is a problem that Alexander, a subtle analyst of how this system affects all, deals with well in chapter 3 of The New Jim Crow.

But several panelists, notably Cathy Cohen of the University of Chicago and Desmond King, raised important questions about whether calling the system the New Jim Crow doesn’t limit our concern to the black caste – or in her book, a caste of color, black and brown - in the prisons with the implication also that this might be politically isolating. And the idea of a new jim Crow being practiced de facto by a civil rights state – the very point that made her initially disbelieve the thought as she eloquently describes – is paradoxical, hard if you have little contact with the prison system, aren’t staring at the people in it, to take in. Yet if one does look at the prison population, a Jim Crow with wider ramifications – segregation in the South also led to impoverishment for most whites as well - is obvious.

Marie Gottschalk, in political science at the University of Pennsylvania who often speaks to criminologists as well as political scientists, made the important point that concentration on the differential of blacks and whites in sentencing has led scholars to neglect the more important point. It is the long sentences required by legislative mandate which is the even deeper oppression. This was also Alexander’s central point in her The New Jim Crow; that segregationist Democrats switched to the Republican Party and fought for long and predetermined sentences, “law and order,” and with much Democratic acquiescence or embrace, helped recreate the conditions of segregation for the prison/probation population. In America, it is unwise to look too far from straight-out racism in the explanation of why so many black and brown people are, disproportionally, in the prison/probation system even if many, many whites are also dragged down. Alexander also makes the startling point that a murderer in other societies will often get a lesser sentence than a drug offender, sometimes, even a first time drug offender, in the United States.

As an indiction of how the prison system has worsened, in the mid-1970s, I was arrested for “jaywalking” in a demonstration of 50 people in downtown Los Angeles. When I went to the court, there were 50 black people, 49 chicanoes, and me…in the 1970s, the LA courthouse was the second biggest in the world. The biggest – I often ask my students to guess – was in Johannesburg. Sadly, there is no comparison today between South Africa and the United States. In South Africa, apartheid is gone; despite enormous poverty, that regime has healed to a considerable extent. But the United States is, as the statistics above reveal, startlingly – 8 times - worse in the number of prisoners, not even counting the 5.1 million on parole. Though formally a democracy, the United States is also the biggest (racist) police state in the world…

In any case, Alexander’s response that it is after all a caste pulling down everyone else with it is sensible. Another point that she makes in her book about the Supreme Court particularly underlines this. The fourth amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. It was the heart of the Bill of Rights, directed against British tyranny. But since drug “crimes” are between consenting participants – buyers and sellers – there is no one who experiences being beaten or robbed, no obvious victim or family to report the crimes. Only an increasingly institutionized police state can crack down on drug "crimes," especially those concerning marijuana (ones which are doubtfully crimes). Case by case, an authoritarian Supreme Court – often by a 5-4 margin - has reversed lower courts and permitted, for example, traffic stops to be used for random searches of cars for drugs (some 7 in every hundred searches turn up something). There is plainly prejudice in who gets searched (the police do not do this in Boulder or Scarsdale).

The danger of political isolation in naming this, however, is, as the critics point out, real. This gigantic police system is sometimes called a “prison-industrial complex” except that this misses the broader aspect of probation, of corporate media stigmatization of blacks as “likely criminals,” and the like. Like the war complex (the military-industrial-congressional-think tank/academic-corporate media-intelligence-foreign militaries with large scale American aid and so forth complex), this police state complex is far broader, more institutionalized, more subject to a private profit motive (police often appropriate the money and estates from drug confiscations, prisons are increasingly privatized, and the like) and thus harder to change despite its grotesquely irrational, cruel and wasteful aspects than people usually imagine. Further, as we saw in the case of Abu Ghraib where Sergeant Charles Graner had learned torture techniques practicing on blacks in Florida prisons even before he got orders from Donald Rumsfeld (and Bush and Cheney) to practice them on Iraqi prisoners, there is a mutual interplay between prisons abroad and prisons at home (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? for a broader analysis of this dynamic). To undo this complex, movements from below, for instance, to legalize marijuana and repeal the rigid federal sentences and three strikes and your out state laws (California), are needed. We need apt words to gather a movement. Both Cathy Cohen and Desmond King, who rightly admire and have learned from Alexander’s book, have raised a deep question about whether the new Jim Crow is the right term.

The next post will continue this one.


OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS
On Race, the Silence Is Bipartisan
By DESMOND S. KING and ROGERS M. SMITH
Published: September 2, 2011


THE economic crisis in the United States is also a racial crisis. White Americans are hurting, but nonwhite Americans are hurting even more. Yet leaders in both political parties — for different reasons — continue to act as though race were anachronistic and irrelevant in a country where an African-American is the president.

In July, the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent for whites, but 16.8 percent for blacks and 11.3 percent for Latinos. The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2009, the median household net worth was $5,677 for blacks, $6,325 for Hispanics and $113,149 for whites — down from $12,124, $18,539 and $134,992, respectively, in 2005.

All groups have suffered from high unemployment, the mortgage meltdown and soaring health care costs, but African-Americans and Hispanics started far behind and continue to fall behind. In 2009, 35 percent of black households and 31 percent of Latino households had zero or negative wealth, compared with 15 percent of white households.

Since the end of legal segregation in the 1960s, there have been two approaches to ameliorating racial inequality. Conservatives and most Republican politicians insist that laws be colorblind and that race-conscious measures like affirmative action should be ended. Liberals and most Democratic politicians favor such measures, mindful of the burdens of past and present discrimination.

For most of the nation’s history, the two major parties were internally divided over racial issues. But today, racial policy positions align almost perfectly with the party system. The two parties, which openly clashed over race from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, have for the last decade pretty much agreed not to talk about race — a silence that impedes progress toward racial equality.

Democrats mention race as little as possible, even though minority voters are crucial constituents, because colorblind positions are far more politically popular. Affirmative action has been supported in every Democratic presidential platform since 1972, but since the Reagan era, Democrats speak of it less and less.

President Obama, for example, does not openly renounce affirmative action, but he pragmatically stresses universal social programs like health care. He manages to avoid appearing especially concerned about African-Americans.

This tack leaves modern Republicans with little to criticize, lest they appear to be race-baiting, so they too keep quiet.Advocates of both colorblind and race-conscious approaches to public policy now claim the mantle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights agenda and his call for people to be judged by their character, not their skin. Though Republicans claim that free-market policies will lift all boats and Democrats hope that “universal” measures to combat economic inequality will benefit all groups, racial inequality has endured.

As studies of employment and real estate practices begun during the Reagan era have consistently shown, racial discrimination persists. And “race neutral” economic measures backed by Democrats, like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, have proved too limited to aid many poorer blacks and Hispanics.

Political leaders must openly recognize that we cannot progress either by ignoring race or focusing exclusively on it. It is not only legitimate, but also essential, to evaluate policy options partly on the basis of whether they are likely to reduce or increase racial inequalities.

Compromise policies — measures that are not explicitly race-targeted but are chosen partly because they will benefit nonwhites especially — should become the basis for policy debates.

For example, without using explicit racial classifications, we can devise districts and situate homes in ways that are more likely to produce integrated schools and neighborhoods.

We can adopt employment tests that are fair and inclusive and do a better job at predicting job performance than many Civil Service exams now do.

And we can do more to ensure that our criminal laws do not target crimes more typical of urban Hispanics and blacks, like crack cocaine use, more strongly than crimes typical of suburban whites, like powder cocaine use.

Both parties should accept that the question of whether policies help narrow the racial divide must be part of the discussion. After all, it was the Republican-led search for racial progress in the 1860s and the Democratic-led fight for civil rights in the 1960s — buttressed, of course, by African-Americans’ own freedom struggle — that allowed the election of a black president in 2008.

Desmond S. King, a professor of American government at Oxford University, and Rogers M. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, are the authors of “Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America.”