A Socratic morality of war?

An earlier post raised the question of whether Socrates had participated, directly or indirectly, in atrocities in war during his celebrated service as hoplite in numerous campaigns in the Peloponnesian War. And, further, it seems that Socrates never explicitly criticized the practice of massacring and enslaving the defeated foe (as was practiced by Cleon). Several readers offered useful suggestions about other places in the Platonic corpus where moral ideas about the conduct of war are discussed by Socrates. There are a few passages in the Republic, Book 5, that are relevant to the moral limits on the conduct of war, and the first Alcibiades dialogue has some relevance as well. Here I want to consider those passages to see if these passages provide principles that are relevant to violence against the innocent — massacres, slaughter of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, devastation of cities. Here the question is not “what circumstances justify a state’s decision to go to war against an antagonist”, but rather the moral limits that govern acts and targets of violence in war — the difference between legitimate acts of war and atrocities.

Here are a few relevant lines of dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon from Republic, Book 5 (link):

“But again, how will our soldiers conduct themselves toward enemies?” “In what respect?” “First, in the matter of making slaves of the defeated, do you think it right for Greeks to reduce Greek cities to slavery, or rather that so far as they are able, they should not suffer any other city to do so, but should accustom Greeks [469c] to spare Greeks, foreseeing the danger of enslavement by the barbarians?” “Sparing them is wholly and altogether the better,” said he. “They are not, then, themselves to own Greek slaves, either, and they should advise the other Greeks not to?” “By all means,” he said; “at any rate in that way they would be more likely to turn against the barbarians and keep their hands from one another.” “And how about stripping the dead after victory of anything except their weapons: is that well? Does it not furnish a pretext to cowards [469d] not to advance on the living foe, as if they were doing something needful when poking about the dead? Has not this snatching at the spoils ere new destroyed many an army?” “Yes, indeed.” “And don’t you think it illiberal and greedy to plunder a corpse, and is it not the mark of a womanish and petty spirit to deem the body of the dead an enemy when the real foeman has flown away and left behind only the instrument with which he fought? [469e] Do you see any difference between such conduct and that of the dogs who snarl at the stones that hit them but don’t touch the thrower?” “Not the slightest.” “We must abandon, then, the plundering of corpses and the refusal to permit their burial.” “By heaven, we certainly must,” he said.

And a few lines later:

“And in the matter of devastating the land of Greeks and burning their houses, how will your soldiers deal with their enemies.” “I would gladly hear your opinion of that.” “In my view,” [470b] said I, “they ought to do neither, but confine themselves to taking away the annual harvest. Shall I tell you why?” “Do.” “In my opinion, just as we have the two terms, war and faction, so there are also two things, distinguished by two differentiae. The two things I mean are the friendly and kindred on the one hand and the alien and foreign on the other. Now the term employed for the hostility of the friendly is faction, and for that of the alien is war.” “What you say is in nothing beside the mark,” he replied. “Consider, then, [470c] if this goes to the mark. I affirm that the Hellenic race is friendly to itself and akin, and foreign and alien to the barbarian.” “Rightly,” he said. “We shall then say that Greeks fight and wage war with barbarians, and barbarians with Greeks, and are enemies by nature, and that war is the fit name for this enmity and hatred. Greeks, however, we shall say, are still by nature the friends of Greeks when they act in this way, but that Greece is sick in that case and divided by faction, [470d] and faction is the name we must give to that enmity.” “I will allow you that habit of speech,” he said. “Then observe,” said I, “that when anything of this sort occurs in faction, as the word is now used, and a state is divided against itself, if either party devastates the land and burns the houses of the other such factional strife is thought to be an accursed thing and neither party to be true patriots. Otherwise, they would never have endured thus to outrage their nurse and mother. But the moderate and reasonable thing is thought to be that the victors [470e] shall take away the crops of the vanquished, but that their temper shall be that of men who expect to be reconciled and not always to wage war.” “That way of feeling,” he said, “is far less savage than the other.” “Well, then,” said I, “is not the city that you are founding to be a Greek city?” “It must be,” he said. “Will they then not be good and gentle?” “Indeed they will.” “And won’t they be philhellenes, lovers of Greeks, and will they not regard all Greece as their own and not renounce their part in the holy places common to all Greeks ?” “Most certainly.” “Will they not then regard any difference with Greeks [471a] who are their own people as a form of faction and refuse even to speak of it as war?” “Most certainly.” “And they will conduct their quarrels always looking forward to a reconciliation?” “By all means.” “They will correct them, then, for their own good, not chastising them with a view to their enslavement or their destruction, but acting as correctors, not as enemies.” “They will,” he said. “They will not, being Greeks, ravage Greek territory nor burn habitations, and they will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, [471b] those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel. And on all these considerations they will not be willing to lay waste the soil, since the majority are their friends, nor to destroy the houses, but will carry the conflict only to the point of compelling the guilty to do justice by the pressure of the suffering of the innocent.” “I,” he said, “agree that our citizens ought to deal with their Greek opponents on this wise, while treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.” “Shall we lay down this law also, then, [471c] for our guardians that they are not to lay waste the land or burn the houses?” “Let us so decree,” he said, “and assume that this and our preceding prescriptions are right.”

Several moral ideas about limits on the use of violence in warfare are evident here. First, there is the distinction between waging war against other Greeks and against barbarians (non-Greeks). And second, there is a principle of moderation applied, first to acts within war against Greeks, and then partially extended to non-Greeks.

The first passage is concerned with the case of war between Greeks. Socrates is explicit in saying that vanquished Greeks should not be enslaved; vanquished Greek cities should not be burned and annihilated; and (by implication) surrendered Greek soldiers should not be massacred. Despoiling the dead is also considered and rejected. These claims are limited to the case of war between Greek parties. They seem to express an idea of “Hellenic patriotism” over and above loyalty and obligation to one’s own polity (city). The primary rationale that Socrates provides in the first passage for these limits on the conduct of war is prudential: Greek enemies will fight differently if they are confident they will not be massacred or enslaved, and will be more likely to fight the barbarians than the Athenians. But the second passage raises a different consideration: war between Greeks should not be considered to be total or irresolvable, but should be conducted in such a way that a peaceful future can be imagined on both sides — “… their temper shall be that of men who expect to be reconciled …”. It should be seen as a matter of faction rather than war, of measured disagreement rather than unlimited efforts at annihilation of the antagonist. Eventual reconciliation should be the goal. This is the “pan-hellenism” that Socrates and Glaucon both seem to endorse.

An even more important distinction is introduced in the second passage, though not by name: the distinction between combatant and non-combatant. And the principle that is articulated is, essentially, that violence should be restricted to combatants and not aimed at non-combatants. “They will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel.” Or in more modern terms, the violence of war should be used only against those who provoked and conducted war, not those who simply inhabit the city that is at war. This is a significant limit on the conduct of war as practiced by Cleon. As we saw in the previous posts, Cleon’s proposed treatment of Mytilene was an instance of annihilation rather than eventual reconciliation.

The only statement about war against non-Greeks in these passages is this: “our citizens ought to deal with their Greek opponents on this wise, while treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.” But since Greek warfare against Greeks during the Peloponnesian War involved massacre of adult men, destruction of cities, and enslavement of women and children, this passage appears to permit these practices against “barbarians”. Moreover, the sharp distinction that Socrates draws between “fellow Greek” and “alien barbarian” is ominous, suggesting that in war against barbarians there are essentially no moral limitations. “I affirm that the Hellenic race is friendly to itself and akin, and foreign and alien to the barbarian.” “Rightly,” he said. “We shall then say that Greeks fight and wage war with barbarians, and barbarians with Greeks, and are enemies by nature, and that war is the fit name for this enmity and hatred.” Enemies by nature … enmity and hatred. These are phrases that lead to the legitimacy of wars of annihilation.

We might say that Socrates’ moral universe was fundamentally constrained by a “philosophical anthropology” that we would today describe as xenophobic, racist, or imperialist. It was a worldview that systematically regarded other groups as sub-human and less worthy of moral consideration than one’s own group. But once “barbarians” are recognized as fully and equally human, the arguments given above for moderation in war between Greek adversaries apply with equal force to war between Greek and non-Greek adversaries. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is just as compelling to the case of warfare against Persians or Phoenicians. And the case for moderation and reconciliation in war is just as valid as well. It is shared humanity rather than shared “Hellenic race” that is a legitimate basis for moderation and reconciliation. But the virulence of the Greek concept of “barbarian” and its fundamental contrast with “Hellenic” presents a huge barrier to the creation of a universalist human morality — a morality based on the traits of the human being rather than the Persian, the Greek, or the Egyptian. 

There is a basis, then, for thinking that the seeds of a more universal theory of moral limitations on the conduct of war exist in these Socratic ideas. What is missing is a recognition of the shared humanity of all social groups and civilizations — and their equal worthiness to being treated with compassion, equality, and consideration. But clearly, Plato and Socrates have not come to that insight.

The relevance of the Alcibiades dialogue (link) is more limited, because it concerns almost exclusively the question of what considerations of prudence and virtue should underlie a decision for a city to go to war against an adversary. This dialogue has relevance for the question of “just causes for war”, but almost nothing specific to say about “moral limitations on actions and strategies within war”.

Therefore neither the passages from the Republic nor the Alcibiades dialogue shed a great deal of light on the question of “Socrates and atrocity”. There is no strong statement about the fundamental moral unacceptability of the massacre of the men of a city or the enslavement of the children and women of the conquered city as human beings. Rather, there is a much weaker argument about the harmful consequences of harsh treatment towards fellow Greeks (permanent enmity and resistance) and the beneficial consequences of limits on violence (eventual reconciliation). But this is far from a clear and principled rejection of the use of massacre and enslavement as a tool of coercion in war — let alone a rejection of these uses of violence against “alien enemies”. To the charge of “participant in atrocity” we might then add the charge of “xenophobe!” to our critique of the historic Socrates. If only Glaucon had had the moral sense to press Socrates along these lines:

Glaucon: “But Socrates, when a Greek general orders the massacre of a Persian city, does he not in that act do great injustice by condemning innocent human beings to death?” Socrates: “But these are barbarians; they do not have the moral standing of Greek citizens.” Glaucon: “Do these Persian men and women not feel pain, love their children, and flourish in their freedoms?” Socrates: “What you say is true, dear Glaucon. But they are not Greek.” Glaucon: “But, dear Socrates, have you not taught that sentience, reason, language, and social feeling are the features that distinguish the Greek adult from the animal?” Socrates: “Yes, of course.” Glaucon: “And have you not agreed that Persian men and women, like the Greeks, feel, think, speak, and love one another?” Socrates: “Yes, that is obviously true, why do you repeat it?” Glaucon: “Are you not forced to agree, then, that the Persian is just as worthy of our moral consideration as the Athenian?” Socrates: “Now that you express yourself so clearly, Glaucon, I see your meaning. I am forced to agree.” Glaucon: “And so we agree, Socrates, my teacher, that all human beings must be treated virtuously, not just Greeks.” Socrates: “It is so.” Glaucon: “So, then, Socrates, we are in agreement that armies must never massacre the innocent or enslave the women and children.” Socrates: “That is the requirement of virtue.”

(Norwegian philosopher Henrik Syse has written several very interesting articles on Plato’s contributions to the theory of the morality of war herehere, and here.)

Probing atrocity in Miropol

photo: execution site at Babi Yar, Kiev, Ukraine, September 1941

It is challenging to form a mental picture of the significance and reality of the events and enormity of the Holocaust. Many of the summary facts that we “know” about the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jewish people are both inadequate to capture the human meaning of this period, and misleading or inaccurate, as Tim Snyder argues (Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning). How can we gain a better and more personal understanding of these horrible events from the 1940s?

First-person accounts and oral histories represent one form of access to the realities of the mass killings that occurred across Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe. But an especially powerful recent book takes a somewhat different approach. This is Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, a book that proceeds from a single photograph of a single instant of brutality and murder, and helps the reader develop an extensive understanding of the human realities that led to this moment. The photograph is taken in the midst of a mass killing outside the town of Miropol in the Ukraine in October, 1941. The Jews of Miropol were forced to walk into the forest, were gathered at a previously prepared shooting pit, and were murdered by rifle fire. The photograph is unusual in that it is at close range and captures identifiable faces of both the murderers (two German soldiers and two Ukrainian militiamen) and the victim, a mother holding a child by the hand as she is shot. Lower wants to understand the photograph in detail, and to learn the identities of the individuals involved.

Lower combines the skills of an experienced historian, a resourceful crime investigator, and a compassionate observer of family tragedy in a time of mass killing. Her goal is ambitious: she would like to uncover the identity of the victims in the photograph, the killers, the photographer, and the possibility of holding the responsible persons to account in the present. And she accomplishes much of this set of goals. She gains a great deal of detailed knowledge about the Ukrainian and German personnel who were present. She forms an educated guess about the family identity of the victims in the photograph. And she learns a great deal about the photographer. Along the way she provides enough detail about the context of German military and Final Solution activity in 1941 to give the reader a fairly good idea about how this event relates to the larger orchestrated Aktions against the Jews of Eastern Europe from 1941 to 1944 — the bulk of the killing during the Holocaust.

Miropol was a small town in occupied Ukraine in the fall of 1941. It is some 220 kilometers west of Kiev, the site of the massacre at Babi Yar in September 1941. In Miropol in October several hundred Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated by gunfire. This is the Aktion recorded in the photograph at the center of The Ravine. In Kiev only a few weeks earlier, the largest massacre of Jews in the Holocaust in the occupied Ukraine and Soviet territories occurred, involving the murder over a few days of over 34,000 human beings. In 1943 the Nazis made an effort to conceal the evidence of the massacre, and the Soviets concealed the fact that the victims were Jewish, preferring instead to refer to “Soviet civilians”. No memorial was created for the Jewish dead at Babi Yar until 1991, fifty years after the massacre. There appears to be no memorial for the Jewish dead at Miropol; the handful of photographs by Škrovina alone serve as memorial. But The Ravine represents a different kind of memorial. The reader comes away with a sober and human recognition of these many hundreds of innocent victims of murder, and the lives that were stolen from them.

Lower begins with this particular photograph — a photograph of several German soldiers and Ukrainian militia men in the act of shooting a Jewish mother holding a child at the edge of a burial pit. It is a haunting photograph. But Lower goes much beyond this particular photo, including archival evidence, more photographs, interviews with witnesses and participants, and records from both Nazi and Soviet sources. She is a resourceful, talented, and determined researcher, and her ability to unearth many of the details of this atrocity is continually surprising. She brings the skills and concentration of a forensic investigator to her work.

Especially interesting is Lower’s treatment of the role of photographs in this kind of investigation. She is very clear that photography is purposive and intentional. It is not generally a “flat representation of what occurred”; instead, the photographer has a story he or she in interested in discovering and telling. So photography is creative and “subjective”. And this proves to be true of the photographer of this particular image, a Slovak named Lubomir Škrovina, who had a narrative he was recording through a series of exposures. But at the same time, photographs prove to be a source of remarkable insight into the human realities of the moment captured in the negative — details that were invisible to the photographer. And Škrovina himself turns out to be different from how he first appears. Initially Lower takes him to be an accomplice or collaborator, but eventually discovers that he was a dissident and a supporter of the Slovak resistance movement, and was interested in recording the atrocities he witnesses under German occupation for the outside world. Lower writes of Škrovina as a moral human being and his subsequent actions during and after the war:

But being there certainly shaped his subsequent choices and the risks he undertook, which affected him and his family. He refused to stay on the front, feigned illness, spent months in a nerve clinic, then resumed contact with Jews in his town, including sheltering some in the attic of his family home. He helped Dr. Gotthilf secure a place in the forest with his comrades in the Slovak National Resistance, although Škrovina ultimately could not save him or his wife and child. Škrovina was antifascist and anti-Soviet. He had felt no pride wearing any government-issued uniform. He hated the war. (91)

Several specific and important insights emerge from Lower’s narrative. First is the importance of doing what we can to recognize and remember the individuals and families who were extinguished there. Lower’s point about the killing of families is especially poignant: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons, and daughters, all destroyed. Second is the important reminder that Nazi violence was carried out by its allies in occupied countries — Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine — and that these armed groups and police units were merciless and remorseless towards their Jewish neighbors. What Lower uncovers at Miropol is a microcosm of Babi Yar.

Theodor Adorno once said that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But here is a good reason not to agree with Adorno. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, Babi Yar. Yevtushenko helps us to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wendy Lower’s book is not poetry, but it is just as eloquent in its evocation of the human realities of this tragic moment in Miropol, and in the great expanse of the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.

BABI YAR

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
        Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
                a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
                    Dreyfus.
The Philistine
                    is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
                    Beset on every side.
Hounded,
            spat on,
                    slandered.

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
                        a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
                            ‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.

O my Russian people!
                        I know
                                    you
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
                                        without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
                    Anne Frank
transparent
                   as a branch in April.
And I love.
                  And have no need of phrases.
My need
                  is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
                               or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
                               we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
                                tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
                                Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
                                spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
                                Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
                                No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
                        like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
                            and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
                            turning grey.
And I myself
                    am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
                each old man
                        here shot dead.
I am
                every child
                    here shot dead.
Nothing in me
                    shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
                                thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
                        I am a true Russian!

Social behavior and the covid pandemic

Anyone who thinks that the social world is orderly and predictable needs to reflect carefully on the way the covid pandemic has played out in the United States and many other countries. For political scientists who are partial to rational-choice explanations of individual behavior — you’ll need to think again. No theory of rationality or rational self-interest I can think of would explain massive anti-vaccination activism. It is plain from the statistics of infection rates, hospital rates, and death rates, that a population that is slow to accept a high percentage of vaccination is a population that is likely to wind up in covid catastrophe. A family that rejects vaccination is likely to suffer serious illness and runs a risky likelihood of hospitalization and death. And an individual who rejects vaccination and goes off on his Harley to Sturgis, South Dakota is flirting with illness and the possibility of hospitalization and death as well. So why would a rational or sensible person make that decision? This isn’t quantum mechanics and high-flying scientific theory; epidemiology is an observational science, and its premises and reasoning can be followed by anyone with a high school education. And the germ theory of infectious disease is one of the most important achievements of medical science — and has been for a century and a half. Would the same anti-vax activist walk into a Chernobyl reactor on April 26, 1986, because he doesn’t believe in radiation, or doesn’t believe that exposure to radiation causes illness and death? So — irrational behavior on a massive scale. Are we in a Salem moment, a period of mass hysteria? Why are so many people behaving in ways that are objectively contrary to their most important interests?

The too-obvious answer is that “some people have been indoctrinated by anti-science propaganda and lies, and have come to believe that covid is a hoax and the vaccines are dangerous and useless”. And in fact, we know that very extensive social media and right-wing media outlets have promulgated exactly those messages — including pervasive Facebook and Youtube channels. But why would perhaps 35-40% of American adults fall for such obvious baloney?

The second too-obvious answer is that Trump and the extreme right — i.e., most of the GOP — found it to their political advantage to encourage belief in these lies. To support Trumpism in the past year is to be a vaccine skeptic and a covid skeptic. The core of Trump’s supporters fall in line in accepting conspiracies and lies — about covid, about the 2020 election, and about Democrats, and GOP leaders have been willing to work to energize and extend this group. This is “extremist populism” and opportunism at its purest — promote the lies even if it means illness and death for school children, neighbors, and family members. This puts the current realities of social behavior around covid into a different light, and one that is a bit more amenable to rational-choice treatment: the strategy is a rational one for the demagogues who are pushing it, but completely irrational for the followers. The political emotions and ideologies of the followers, shaped by social media, lead them to make life choices that put them and their communities at terrible risk.

But here’s the thing: what 2010-era sociologist or political scientist would have predicted that a major global pandemic would occur in the next several decades, that an almost miraculous search for an effective vaccine would be successful in an amazingly short period — and that the pandemic and vaccine would become a political issue leading to mass refusal to vaccinate? All global epidemiologists believed the first proposition — that pandemic would occur sometime; some biological researchers thought that vaccine creation could advance quickly; but I can’t think of any respected political scientist or sociologist who would have predicted the massive movement that has emerged against vaccination and the politicization of the spread of the virus. 

This seems to be a good example of “path-dependence” in history. This public health catastrophe we now face could have unfolded differently in the United States. There were GOP leaders in 2019 and 2020 when the virus was first perceived as a major threat to US public health who pursued a science-driven set of policies. But the extremism of Donald Trump and his followers made a science-based approach to public policy and public health untenable for most GOP governors and legislators. (Even today we hear of death threats against public health professionals who argue for a mask mandate in public schools as they re-open this fall.) 

If our current situation was path-dependent, then what events led us here? We could probably identify two or three key factors in 2019 and 2020 that pushed the US population off the path of “sane public health thinking” and onto the QAnon path of lies, doubt, and conspiracy theories — the persistent efforts by the Trump administration to minimize and trivialize the virus (and to attribute it to China); the onslaught of organized social media campaigns to the same effect; and an existing baseline of mistrust and disdain for the Federal government (e.g. Ammon Bundy’s takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2018).

Above I asked whether a vaccine skeptic might have walked into Chernobyl reactor in 1986 because she didn’t believe in radiation sickness. In a way, the example might be more illuminating than was first evident. A viral epidemic — even a highly deadly one — is not like an open reactor core. Everyone who is exposed to radiation levels found in the exploded Chernobyl reactor core will die, and will die in visibly horrible conditions. But even a highly contagious virus like the Delta variant of the covid virus is less visible than the glowing remnants of the Chernobyl fuel rods. Today the state of Florida has an extremely high incidence of new covid infections — 100.9 per 100,000 population. (Mississippi is even higher, at 114.1 per hundred thousand; whereas Michigan and Massachusetts are at about 19-20 per hundred thousand.) So Florida is a catastrophe. And yet the vast majority of Floridians do not often see the results of the pandemic on a daily basis. Only .1% of the population are infected each day; a tiny risk, one might say. Floridians see news reports about rising rates of infection and hospitals approaching full capacity, but these are just words in a torrent of media that they have come to mistrust. Further, they can also go to a bar or restaurant and not see anyone getting sick, and they may avoid infection themselves for months or years (through good luck or simple precautions). What is a catastrophe at the community level is invisible to the majority of Floridians — until their own parent, spouse, or child is infected. And then it is just “bad luck”. So most Floridians, most of the time, have a daily experience that seems to support the “no big deal” framework rather than the “rapidly spreading horrific disease” framework. But a viral epidemic is different from car crashes: more infected people leads to an even greater number of infected people in the next cycle. It is an exponential process. So it is urgent to take measures to reduce contagion at an early stage of the pandemic — which is precisely what many Red states have refused to do. 

Public health during pandemic is not an individual choice. A policy depending on “responsible choices” by individuals (concerning social distancing or masking, for example) is wholly inadequate to the problem. The slogan used by anti-maskers during current raging debates over mask requirements in public schools — “My child, my choice” — is absurd on its face. The unmasked child is a risk to others; so it is not simply a matter of personal choice — any more than would the choice of bringing bottles of gasoline to school be a matter of personal choice. And, further, one’s own child is dramatically less likely to become infected if other people’s children are masked. Public health requires rational standards of behavior and a high level of compliance. But in many GOP-ruled states, officials have refused to set such regulations. 

It seems, then, that American mass behavior during the past 12 months shows a very large dose of irrationality, and this level of irrationality is dangerous in the setting of a viral pandemic. And it did not have to be this way. If the vast majority of Americans were behaving intelligently with respect to their own health, they would be accepting the advice of scientific and health experts about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and they would be supporting the call for masking until the viral surge of infections falls to an acceptably low level. Each individual would be better off if he or she got vaccinated and wore a mask. And the same is true collectively: the whole community — whether Columbus, Ohio or Miami, Florida — is better off if the infection rate (R) is brought down below 1.0 and the hospital utilization rate is at a sustainable level. 

Further, the pandemic threatens public health in more ways than the possibility of acute respiratory illness for one individual. When hospital intensive care units fill up, they lose the capacity to treat acutely ill patients of every variety. By remaining unvaccinated, becoming ill, and winding up on a ventilator in an ICU, the individual has harmed her own health; but she has also made it more difficult for other members of the community to gain access to the intensive care that they need as well. Each Floridian is more likely to survive a serious auto accident or a heart attack if there is an ICU bed available to treat her — and this is a community-level fact. So whether we care primarily about our own health and the health of our families, or we care also about the wellbeing of our neighbors and fellow members of the community, sensible decision-making leads to sensible health behavior: vaccination, social distancing, and masking. The fact that 39% of the population in the US are still entirely unvaccinated (August 27) seems to document irrational personal choices on a massive scale. 

This seems to pose a very important and difficult problem for the social sciences. Is prudence such a weak influence on the typical person’s choices as it appears? Is there a kind of “crowd” behavior at work that makes individual prudence and rationality irrelevant — an echo chamber that makes independent thinking impossible? Is there some special difficulty in reasoning about an invisible diffuse risk like covid that is part of the problem? Are the avenues of social media messaging so powerful that large portions of the public lose their capacity for intelligent, sensible thought? What can we learn, in short, by studying the patterns of behavior that have emerged in the US over the past eighteen months? Are we living through a “natural experiment” in mass behavior when a population is faced with a novel and widespread threat?

Do norms and moral attitudes change over generations?

Moral philosophers have often written of ethical obligations, principles, and theories as if they were timeless and unchanging. Kant, for example, argued that moral obligations follow from the structure of rationality itself. The utilitarians — Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick — held that moral obligations are defined by the principle of maximizing happiness — whether in the time of Socrates or Neo (the protagonist in the Matrix).

But really — it is entirely unbelievable to imagine that philosophy and pure reason can discover an apriori, timeless system of moral truths. Values and norms are created by human beings living in concrete social circumstances. Rather, moral philosophy should be understood as a dialogue with the moral culture of a time and place, rather than an attempt to discover moral certainties valid beyond human experience. Seen in this way, the “reflective equilibrium” approach to moral epistemology advocated by John Rawls is the most plausible way of understanding the epistemic status of moral principles. This is a coherentist rather than a foundationalist epistemology, involving a back-and-forth adjustment of specific judgments and more general principles until a reasonable level of consistency is achieved. (Here is an earlier discussion of these ideas about moral reasoning; link.) And if human beings’ considered judgments change over time — if tormenting animals for entertainment is accepted in 1600 but largely rejected in 1900 — then the moral theory that corresponds to this system of judgments and principles will be different as well. 

Organized religions have advocated for fairly specific “codes of conduct” for practitioners (followers, or even all human beings). Religious codes of conduct are usually based on authority rather than philosophical argument — authority of the Koran or the Bible, authority of the founders, or authority of specialists who speak for the divine beings. But assuming a naturalistic view of the world, it is clear that the religious codes of a time are somehow an expression of the ambient moral attitudes of the time, perhaps with innovations introduced by charismatic teachers and leaders. Religious moral prescriptions rest upon the practical sets of social and interpersonal norms that exist in the communities in which these groups and bodies of doctrine emerged.

There is also an evolutionary question to be posed. What is it about the evolutionary history of primates and human beings that has led to the evolution of a central nervous system that is capable of normative behavior? Is there an evolutionary dimension to the moral emotions (or the underlying cognitive capacities that permit the embodiment of moral emotions)? Is an inclination to fairness or kindness “in our genes” in some way? This is a question that philosophers and psychologists have undertaken to investigate. Allan Gibbard’s analysis in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings is especially nuanced, and serves well as a rebuttal to crude forms of sociobiology (the idea that human behavioral characteristics are hard-wired as a result of our evolutionary history). (I discuss these issues in a 2010 post on the moral sentiments (link).) Significantly, Gibbard’s view leaves a great deal of room for “plasticity” in the moral emotions and the normative systems that are embodied in concrete social traditions and groups. So biology does not entail a particular moral system.

All of this means that we need to consider the question of “moral thinking and choice” in a historically and empirically specific way. We need to investigate the moral psychology or culture of moral attitudes that exist at a time and place. Plainly human beings do in fact have a capacity to act normatively — to make choices based on their moral emotions, moral perceptions, and moral reasons with regard to a situation. What are the particulars of this embodied set of psychologically real perceptions, motivations, and actions? What are the specifics of the normative “grammar” of a particular time and place? How do individual human beings acquire the moral competence that guides the moral perceptions and choices he or she is inclined to make in particular human circumstances? And how do these embodied complexes of moral competence change over time?

Two questions are evident when we reach this point. First, how is the moral psychology of a particular epoch created? What features of history, circumstance, and culture led to “village mentality” of medieval France? For example, what are the important influences that lead individuals in a time and place to pity animals, favor telling the truth, and want to take care of their children? And how much variation is there within a given cultural community, at a given time, in both the content and intensity of these features of moral psychology?

The second question is even more important. Are there processes through which the moral psychology of a time, the moral consensus, changes and — perhaps — improves? Is there a moment between generations when “sympathy for one’s kin” becomes more generalized and becomes “sympathy for one’s neighbors”, and eventually “sympathy for distant human beings”? Is it possible for a human population to “bootstrap” its way to a more benevolent and just way of living, through gradual change in the moral attitudes of individuals?

As a thought experiment, we might imagine a survey of practical moral questions that could be used to map the moral consciousness of human populations at various times and places — a survey of all of humanity, extending from Homeric peasants to men and women in India, China, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, over a 3,000-year period of time. (Think of it as an episode of The Good Place, but drawn from a long historical stretch of time. Lots of funding will be needed for the time-travel part of the research.) Here is a sample set of questions that might serve as a diagnostic tool for probing a moral worldview in a historical setting:

  1. Is it permissible to torment animals for entertainment?
  2. Is it permissible to enslave prisoners of war?
  3. Is it right to kill prisoners of war?
  4. Is it permissible to beat one’s children?
  5. Is it permissible to beat one’s spouse?
  6. Is it permissible to beat one’s neighbor when one is annoyed by his behavior?
  7. Do I have a reason to pay attention to the wellbeing of my neighbor’s children?
  8. Do I have a reason to pay attention to the wellbeing of distant and unknown children?
  9. Is it permissible to send one’s parents away to deprivation when they become old?
  10. Is it permissible to lie to one’s siblings about their inheritance?
  11. Is it permissible to lie to an unknown customer about the defects in a used car (or old horse)?
  12. Is it permissible to steal one’s neighbors’ sheep?
  13. Is it permissible to steal the sheep of people from a distant village?
  14. Is it permissible to tell lies about the practices of people from other groups?
  15. Do I have a duty to intervene when another person is behaving violently and immorally?
  16. Is it permissible and respectable to behave entirely self-interestedly?
  17. Do the powerful have a right of sexual coercion over less powerful individuals in their domain?
  18. Should one be generous to the poor?
  19. Should one be kind to strangers?
  20. Should one tolerate the non-conformity of one’s fellow villagers?
  21. Is it important to act rightly, even when no one is in a position to observe?
  22. Is it permissible to make fun of the gods in the privacy of one’s home?
  23. Is it permissible for an official to accept remunerations in order to provide a service?
  24. Is it permissible for landlords to collect rents from tenants during a time of severe consumption crisis?
  25. Is it permissible for the priests to live in luxury while ordinary people struggle for existence?

Of course this is just a thought experiment, though historians and anthropologists may be able to make some provisional guesses about how different social groups would have answered these questions. And even in the narrow cross-section of cultures that are alive and well in different places in the world today, it would seem likely that there are important differences across communities in the answers that are given to these questions.

Another way of probing the moral worlds of people in other cultures and times is through literature. Literature almost always revolves around the actions and motives of individuals in social groups — friendships, families, villages, armies, social classes, or nations. And often the drama of a novel or play derives from the author’s efforts at probing the reasoning and motivations of the various protagonists. So we might speculate that it is possible to triangulate to a “Shakespearean” ethical code, a “Tolstoyan” ethical code, or a “Flaubertian” ethical code — working backwards from the bad behavior of some of the actors and the admired behavior of others. Martha Nussbaum often emphasizes the moral insights made possible through literature (e.g., Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature). This too would be a very interesting exercise: what is the ordinary, day-to-day code of moral behavior that is presupposed in War and Peace?

All of this suggests a fairly high degree of plasticity in the moral frameworks and mentalities of people in different traditions and cultures.

But now, the crucial question: what kinds of effort and what kinds of lived experience might have the effect of improving the moral culture of a civilization in the making? Is it possible for humanity to become morally better over time? Can human communities learn from their mistakes? 

There seem to be at least two levers that might allow for moral learning. The first is an extension of empathy and compassion beyond its current borders. The moral intuitions of a community may change when individuals are brought to recognize in greater fullness the lived experience and capacities for happiness and suffering in other human beings; individuals may broaden their compassion for more distant strangers. And the second is the moral experience of fairness and cooperation as a crucial element of social life. No one wants to be treated unfairly; everyone wants a level of reciprocity from others. And social relations work best when there is a reasonably high level of confidence in the fairness of the institutions and behavior that prevails. Is slavery morally unacceptable? We might hope that a culture comes to see the misery and pain of the enslaved, and the fundamental unfairness of the master-slave relationship. “If our positions were reversed, I would fundamentally reject being enslaved; this gives me a reason to reject this system even when it advantages me.” This is the perspective of reciprocity (link).

This is the conclusion I wanted to reach in connection with the atrocities of the twentieth century: the possibility that a deepening of our culture’s understanding of the wrongs that occurred, the human suffering that was created, and the steps of social and political change that led to these outcomes, can lead as well to a meaningful change in our moral culture and behavior. By recognizing more fully the horror of the shooting pits, perhaps our political morality will change for the better, and we will have a heightened practical and moral resistance to the politicians and movements that led to murderous totalitarian dictatorships.

(Moral Psychology, The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness, Vol. 1, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, provides extensive and stimulating discussions of naturalism as a setting for understanding human moral reasoning and action. Richmond Campbell’s article on Moral Epistemology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent review of the question of the status of moral beliefs; link.)

The Warsaw experience of Janina Bauman

Janina Bauman, along with her sister Sophie and her mother Alina, miraculously survived the slaughter of the Jews of Warsaw and the crushing of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April, 1943. Born in 1926, Janina was only thirteen when the German army invaded Poland and besieged Warsaw. Her remarkable 1986 memoir, Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond 1939-1945, conveys both the circumstances and some of the emotional consequences of this horrific experience. (The book is also available on the Open Library; link.) Janina had managed to preserve many of her diaries from those years, so the text is grounded in her own contemporaneous observations and thoughts. Her father and her uncle Josef were among the 14,500 victims of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers and prisoners of war at Katyn Forest in 1940. And most of her friends and family members were murdered during the Nazi terror and waves of Aktion in the Warsaw ghetto. Her family suffered from both Nazi genocide and Soviet atrocity, both arising from merciless totalitarian regimes. The survival of Janina, Sophie, and their mother Alina was the result of their own courage and resourcefulness, the aid they received from their extended family and non-Jewish friends from before the war (Auntie Maria), the willingness of a number of non-Jewish strangers to shelter them at critical moments, and a few moments of monumental good luck. (For example, Janina’s mother’s ability to speak German fluently saves their lives during transport to an extermination camp.)

Much of the book is factual and autobiographical in tone, sometimes even laconic. The text conveys a good deal of the texture of life in the ghetto — struggling to find food, to avoid capture and execution on the streets, to find secret ways of continuing school, and occasionally having friendships, even boyfriends. Here is a passage from fifteen-year-old Janina’s diary, from a time shortly after Janina’s family has been forced into the Warsaw ghetto (April 18, 1941). Their conditions are tolerable, but severe suffering and deprivation are all around them.

‘Don’t you think the way we live is highly immoral?’ I asked. ‘We eat our breakfast, lunch and supper, we occupy our minds with the French Revolution or Polish poetry, or just which one of us L. fancies the most; then we go to bed with a good novel and peacefully fall asleep. At the same time they are starving and dying.’ ‘There’s nothing we can do for them,’ said Zula sadly, ‘for the hundreds and thousands of them.’ ‘Of course not. But for some of them perhaps? Each of us for somebody?’ ‘Would you and your family be willing to take home these two begging boys?’ asked Hanka very seriously. ‘To share not only food but also beds with them, live with them for better or worse?’ I had no ready answer to her question, and the more I think about it now, the clearer I see the answer is ‘No’. (42)

But Janina does find ways of helping others in these desperate conditions. She helps to organize a collective effort to grow vegetables for the destitute in the ghetto (she turns out to be very good at cultivating the garden), and she writes of her efforts to join the armed Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. (She was excluded from the Home Army resistance group because she was Jewish.) (Zula and Hanka were her closest friends. Zula was later raped and murdered by German soldiers, while Hanka survived the war.)

Here is a passage describing the Aktion (mass removal of Jews from the ghetto to death camps) on July 22, 1942. 

The first three days of the Aktion I spent in the flat, following Julian’s firm instructions not to set foot in the street…. On the fourth day I could wait no longer, and, ignoring Mother’s pleas, set out to the ‘little ghetto’. At first the streets seemed uncannily quiet, almost deserted. I walked fast, not looking around, quick, quick along Leszno Street, until I plunged into the tangle of narrow lanes leading to Roman’s flat. There, all of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of a panic-stricken crowd. In a little square a score of men — both Jewish policemen and civilian helpers — tried to hold a swarm of screaming people inside a ring of tightly locked hands. Other policemen ran up and down the back alleys searching for more victims, pulling them violently along, pushing them by force into the ring. Just concealed behind a large building, two lorries waited for their human load. A couple of Nazi soldiers leant leisurely against them. Their guns ready to fire, they watched the round-up lazily, talking and laughing in the bright sunshine of the mid-summer day. 

I hardly had time to be frightened when one of the men forming the deadly enclosure broke away from the ring, rushed at me, seized my arm, and began to pull me, as if intending to force me into the ring. He was just pretending. I recognised him at once: he was Mr. N., Stefan’s friend. As an employee of the Jewish Council he had evidently been ordered to take an active part in the round-up. His face was white, twisted with fear and agony, his hands trembling. With feigned brutality he pushed me into a dark gate and whispered imploringly, ‘Run away, child, run back home as fast as you can!’ He showed me a narrow passage between two buildings. Terrified, I darted away without another word. (66-67)

The book is primarily a narrative account of the young Janina’s own experiences. But the author sometimes offers general observations about the experience as well. Several passages are especially meaningful —

During the war I learned the truth we usually choose to leave unsaid: that the cruellest thing about cruelty is that it dehumanises its victims before it destroys them. And that the hardest of struggles is to remain human in inhuman conditions. (preface)

And here is an expression of shame, or survivor guilt, at having escaped the ghetto to a temporary refuge with strangers on the Aryan side of the wall:

A torrent of bitter thoughts washed away the last trace of ecstasy. I was in an unknown place, facing an unknown future among strangers. My own cruel but familiar world where I belonged remained behind the walls. I had deserted it, running for my safety, for the luxuries of a fragrant bath and a soft bed. I had deserted my people, leaving them to their terrible fate. In the early hours of the night, flooded with tears of agony and guilt, I crept out of bed and stretched myself out on the carpet. There, cold and miserable, I finally fell asleep. (100-101)

It is very interesting that Zygmunt Bauman, the husband of Janina, writes that his own willingness to write about the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s was triggered by reading his wife’s personal experience through this book. Janina is explicit in saying that she had never previously shared her experience with him. Zygmunt too had never addressed the experiences of anti-Semitism, genocide, and totalitarianism that he had witnessed, until the 1980s. (It is interesting to note that Bauman directly addresses the question of “shame” in his discussion of the Holocaust in Modernity and the Holocaust (205).)

Several issues arise in Winter in the Morning that are important points of debate today: the role of Polish Catholics in supporting the Nazi extermination of Polish Jews, on the one hand, and their role in sheltering Jews, on the other; the role played by Ukrainian police and soldiers in enforcing Nazi commandments in the ghetto, including murder; and the role played by the Jewish Council and the men who served as Jewish policemen in the ghetto in carrying out the mandates of the Nazi regime. (Hannah Arendt raises the issue of the possible culpability of the Jewish Councils in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.) On the whole, Bauman’s stance towards the Jewish Council and the Jewish policemen is a measured one, and she mentions life-saving efforts by the Jewish Council and by individual Jewish policemen in the ghetto — as well as their collaboration in several waves of Aktion leading to the deaths of the majority of the Jews living in the ghetto. As an adolescent observer, she was not in a position to know about the activities of these organizations at a higher level; she saw only their local activities in the streets and urban destruction of the ghetto — including in the scene of terror during the July Aktion described above.

Janina Bauman’s memoir is an important contribution to later generations’ ability to address the Holocaust in a human way, with compassion and a degree of understanding of the horrific human experience it embodied for many millions of men, women, and children. Her narrative is part of our collective memory of that trauma.

Another important document about the Warsaw ghetto is Hanna Krall’s interview with Dr. Marek Edelman, published as Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation With Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Polish 1977; English translation 1986); available on Open Library (link). Edelman was a leader in the armed Jewish resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and survived to become a leading cardiologist. Edelman’s recollections are stark and unblinking in his testimony to murder, rape, humiliation, and unmeasured cruelty to the Jews of the ghetto; and he is informative about the efforts made by the Jewish Combat Organization to gather arms and resist the final round of extermination undertaken by the Nazi regime.

Edelman demonstrates courage in his account. But his life also displays a significant and important level of understanding of the evil of the Holocaust. In their afterword to Shielding the Flame the translators quote an important set of comments by Edelman at the time of the Polish martial-law government’s 1983 commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising:

Forty years ago we fought not only for our lives. We fought for life in dignity and freedom. To celebrate our anniversary here where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion would be to deny our fight. It would mean participating in something contrary to its ideals. It would be an act of cynicism and contempt. I shall not participate in such arrangements or accept the participation of others who do so, regardless of where they come from or whom they represent. Far from these manipulated celebrations, in the silence of the graves and in people’s hearts, there shall live the true memory of the victims and the heroes, the memory of the eternal human striving for freedom and truth. (122)

Here Edelman makes an important point about history and memory, and the political use to which commemoration is all too often put. And his point is broad enough to encompass both the crimes of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the subsequent Soviet-backed dictatorship of Poland. Timothy Garton Ash makes a similar point about memory in his preface to the book:

The gulf between Poles and Jews today is not just a matter of physical separation. There has also been an extraordinary divorce of Polish and Jewish memory. A Polish child growing up in the 1970s learned next to nothing about the immense Jewish part in Polish history, let alone about the Polish part in Jewish history. (viii)

Again — memory, its importance, and its suppression.

A key question for me in the past year has been how historians should confront the evils of the twentieth century. Tim Snyder answers the question in one way, painting a very large canvas over the “bloodlands” of Central Europe. But — as Snyder insists — it is crucial to have a basis for empathy and compassion for the human beings who were tormented, humiliated, and destroyed by these massive and numbing atrocities. It is crucial to confront the personal memoirs of genocide and atrocity, like Bauman’s or Edelman’s, if we are to put a human face on the cold historical facts of the Holocaust, and to have a more acute understanding of the human realities of children, adults, and old people as they confronted cruelty, violence, humiliation, and extinction.

*     *     *     *     *

Literary theorist Julia Hell provides a fascinating treatment of the relationship between Janina Bauman’s memoir and Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, along with writings by W. G. Sebald and Peter Weiss, through the lens of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (“Modernity and the Holocaust, or, Listening to Eurydice”; link). It is a very interesting piece. Here is a brief summary of Hell’s approach:

Seen through this particular lens, Bauman’s texts, especially Modernity and the Holocaust (2000 [1989]) and related essays and lectures, emerge as deeply entangled in a cultural imagination that is obsessed with issues of representation, acts of looking, and the nature of human bonds in the wake of the Holocaust, a cultural imagination that tried to capture these topics by returning to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. (126)

And Hell attempts to identify traces of the Orpheus/Eurydice story in Janina’s narrative as well:

Let me gather the bits and pieces of the Orphic story that have surfaced so far: with respect to the Orphic topography, we have the frequent use of the inferno on the one hand; on the other hand, we have a river dividing the almost-dead from the living. That is, Janina Bauman’s story situates Eurydice in hell. And then we have the different figurations of Eurydice — the woman being led from the inferno by her mother and aunt or the woman waiting to be rescued ^ the Orphic topography of love and death, the underworld of the ghetto, the river dividing world and underworld, and the woman, who was doomed to die, the man who might or might not save her. What I want to draw attention to is the fact that Janina Bauman takes hold of particular moments in Eurydice’s story: the moment of danger when Eurydice is about to die, the moment of being about-to-be rescued, the moment of being rescued. (140)

This is an intriguing effort at explaining the narrative structure and language of Janina Bauman’s memoir. It gains plausibility when we recall from the text of Winter in Morning that Janina was a passionate reader of literature during the years of her adolescence in the terrors of Warsaw. She mentions reading most of Russian literature in one of the sanctuary apartments she and her sister and mother were able to find. It is entirely possible that Janina had read and absorbed The Divine Comedy in one half-illuminated cellar or another.

Kołakowski on Stalinism and reform

A recent post featured the evolution of the thought of Zygmunt Bauman. There I mentioned a comparison with his Warsaw contemporary, Leszek Kołakowski, and suggested that Kołakowski’s break with Stalinism was earlier and more profound than Bauman’s. I am not able to find a full-length biography of Kołakowski, but his history parallels that of Bauman. He was born in Radom, Poland, in 1927, and in 1939 had personal and tragic experience of the Nazi invasion of Poland. And, like Bauman, he was expelled from Poland in 1968 and spent much of the rest of his career in the west (at Oxford, in Kołakowski’s case, and at Leeds, in Bauman’s case). Here are a few lines from Steven Lukes’ biographical statement on Kołakowski in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

After the Nazis invaded Poland, Kolakowski’s father was arrested by the Gestapo and later executed. His remaining family found refuge in a village in eastern Poland where Kolakowski’s secret, largely solitary education was aided by teachers from the Polish underground. … Kolakowski had embraced Communism as the Russians drove the Germans out of Poland, thinking it promised a better world of equality and freedom, but he then moved away from Soviet-style Marxism and became increasingly influential on the younger generation of Poles as a leading voice for democratization and reformed Communism, or what came to be called ‘revisionism’. This led to his expulsion from the university, constant police surveillance, the banning of his publications, and his departure for the West. (link)

Here is a document written in 1971 that expresses the depth of Kołakowski’s critique of Polish Communism. In this piece Kołakowski published a short but profound critique of Stalinism as a system, “In Stalin’s Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair” (link). This short essay appeared in Paris in its Polish version in 1971, and was published in Paris in Politique Aujourd’hui in July-August 1971. The essay is highly valuable as an indication of the nature of the reformers’ critiques in Poland of the rigidities of Stalinist Communist systems. It is written clearly and cogently, reflecting Kołakowski’s talent as a philosopher and a writer. And it presents the case for the possibility of change in Poland and other Communist dictatorships.

Kołakowski begins his account by rehearsing the reasons that some believe that reform of Soviet-style Communism is impossible:

Stalinism, in the strict sense — that is, the bloody and cruel tyranny of an individual — was the most perfect material embodiment of the principles of the system: later transformations, and particularly the considerable relaxation of terrorism as practiced by the government, although important for the security of individuals, have not in any way changed the despotic nature of the regime, any more than they have limited the specifically socialist forms of oppression and exploitation. (2)

But notice the rhetorical strategy that Kołakowski adopts: he presents the extreme views of the most severe critics of the Soviet system first, and offers commentary. And, he notes, the extreme view rules out reform entirely: change control of the economy or information, and you destroy the foundations of communism. Therefore communism cannot be reformed or changed; its despots will never relinquish power over even the most minor issues. But Kołakowski himself does not take this view:

Now, my opinion is that this thesis is not correct, and that to defend it amounts to [adopting] an ideology of defeatism rather than a revolutionary appeal. I base my conviction on four general principles: first, we are never in a position to define in advance the limits of the capacity for change… of any social organization; and experience has not at all demonstrated that the despotic model of socialism is absolutely rigid. Secondly, the rigidity of a system depends in part on the degree to which the men who live within that system are convinced of its rigidity. Thirdly, the thesis which I am challenging is based on an ideology of “all or nothing,’ characteristic of men formed in the Marxist tradition; it is not in any way supported by historical experience. Fourthly, bureaucratic socialist despotism is pervaded by contradictory tendencies which it is incapable of bringing into any synthesis and which ineluctably weaken its coherence. (7-8)

Kołakowski’s optimism concerning the possibility for change within “despotic socialism” (but, one might reasonably argue, within Franco fascism as well) is the willingness of individuals and groups to think and act differently from their prescribed roles. Individuals can resist in a variety of ways, and their resistance, in a long and slow tempo, can lead to profound change.

This is why resistance to oppression and exploitation — within the system of Soviet despotism — takes place in the worst social conditions. No class of exploiters in history has ever had such extensive power at its disposal. But if this concentration of power is a source of strength, it also conceals weaknesses, as the whole post-Stalinist history of communism testifies. (9)

If I speak of a reformist orientation, it is in the sense of a faith in the possibility of effective pressures that are partial and progressive, exerted in a long-term perspective, that is, the perspective of social and national liberation. Despotic socialism is not an absolutely rigid system; such systems do not exist. (16)

What system does Kołakowski himself favor? It appears to be a form of democratic socialism, rather than either despotic socialism or liberal capitalism:

It is probable that, if they had the freedom to choose, the majority of the Polish working class and intelligentsia would opt for socialism, as would the author of this article. For socialism — that is to say for a sovereign national system which involves control by society over the utilization and development of the means of production and over the distribution of the national income, as well as over the political and administrative organization, working as an organ of society, and not as the master which rules over society in the guise of “serving” it. (18)

This paragraph entails democratic socialism as the favored ideal (not liberal capitalism), because it places the people in control of economy and government. And it rules out the arbitrary and despotic use of power that was universal in Poland, the USSR, and the rest of the Soviet bloc.

Kołakowski also has a view about the future of the Soviet bloc (as of 1971):

In spite of the military power of the Soviet empire, and in spite of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the centrifugal tendencies within the “bloc” cannot be contained, and the corrosion of nationalism will continue to erode a structure which has lost the cement of ideology. (19)

His essay ends with a call for a free Poland:

Our own dignity entitles us to proclaim aloud the old words: “liberty,” “justice” and “Poland”. (20)

This essay was written in 1971, only three years after the March 1968 protests in Warsaw that led to Kołakowski’s and Bauman’s expulsion from Poland. But notice as well: it was written only about a decade before the rise, and eventual success, of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk and other Polish cities, leading ultimately to the fall of Communist government in Poland. And the centrifugal tendencies that Kołakowski describes within the Soviet bloc led eventually to the collapse of despotic socialism throughout Eastern Europe. So in many ways Kołakowski was pretty close to the truth about the coming several decades in Poland and Eastern Europe. What he did not anticipate is the next chapter: the turn to nationalistic, far-right government in Poland, Hungary, and other former-Soviet bloc nations. But, as Hegel said, “the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.” (Here is a very brief description of Alain Touraine’s 1981 research in Gdansk on the Solidarity movement (link), and his account of the pathways through which worker non-violent resistance resulted in fundamental change in Poland.)

As I attempted to do in the case of Zygmunt Bauman, it is intriguing to ask how history, life experience, and academic influences combined to create the intellectual world of Leszek Kołakowski. Much of Kołakowski’s work was focused on the history of philosophy, the meaning of religion, and the ideology and deficiencies of Marxism. (His greatest book is his three-volume work, Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown.) Is there any evidence in his academic work of the imprint of the experience of war, genocide, murder, and authoritarian rule? His decades-long engagement with the topic of Soviet-style dictatorship plainly reflects his own experience as a brilliant Polish intellectual in the post-War period and high-ranking Communist Party member. He understood the nature of Soviet-style authoritarianism. But — like Bauman — there is little in his work that involves deep reflection on Nazism, genocide, anti-Semitism, ordinary evil-doers, and the use of terror by totalitarian states to achieve their ends. (Here he stands in contrast to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.) And yet Poland stands at the heart of the Bloodlands described so vividly by Tim Snyder. So we seem to confront a puzzle: why were both these brilliant intellectuals, both leading professors in the Polish academy, both children of the 1920s — why were they both somehow reluctant to reflect on the horrors confronted by Polish Jews from 1939 to 1945?

How Bauman became Bauman

Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) was an influential voice in the world of sociological theorizing. In the second part of his career — following his expulsion as a dissident and a Jew from Poland in 1968 — he came to be recognized as a non-conventional thinker about “modernity” and the modern world. His idea of “liquid modernity” (link), late in his career, was a very interesting and original way of thinking about the twentieth century. But Bauman was not just a theorist; he was a participant in history — the subject of anti-Semitic mistreatment and bullying as a child in Poland, a refugee, a socialist and communist activist, a Soviet-trained soldier and political officer in the Soviet-installed Polish army, a stateless person again after his expulsion from Poland in 1968 during the major “state pogrom” of that year, and eventually a critic of Stalinist Communism. He was a thinker, a doer, and a contributor to sociological theory.

A particularly interesting question is whether we can connect the life and the sociological writings and theories that Bauman created during his long career. Did his life experiences give him the some of the intellectual resources necessary to comprehend the catastrophes of genocide, mass enslavement, and totalitarianism? It will be surprising to find that the answer seems largely to be, no. There is little of the historical realities that Bauman observed and participated in to be found in his writings. (The Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds has a comprehensive bibliography of Bauman’s writings throughout his career; link.) 

Izabela Wagner’s thoughtful and thorough Bauman: A Biography is an excellent source for trying to answer the question: how did Bauman become Bauman? (And, we might add, when?) What experiences and conditions helped to create the sociological imagination of this singular man, and how did his personal history contribute to the creation of such an exceptional and original intellectual? 

Several features of character were evident in the young Bauman and persisted through the end of his career: intellectual curiosity, independence of mind, courage, humor, and measured cautiousness. His intellectual training — first in the USSR and then in Warsaw — was deeply embedded within an especially dogmatic ideological framework — the strictures of dialectical materialism and Marxist-Leninist thought as embodied in official Soviet ideology. And yet as a young sociology PhD student in Warsaw in the 1950s Bauman was exposed to a “dissident” strand of sociological thinking that contributed to a broader perspective on the regime that he served. Out of that chemistry came a surprising mix — a sociology that expressed itself in Marxist-Leninist terms, an openness to sociological research from Europe and the United States, and a view of society and the state that reflected a more “humanist” and democratic view (like that of Leszek Kołakowski). But here is the surprise for an intellectual historian: none of this seems to reflect the concrete historical life circumstances that Bauman experienced; rather, it is very similar to the kind of trajectory a talented graduate student takes through engagement with a number of intriguing philosophical perspectives.

It is worth reflecting on Bauman’s history as a committed and sincere communist from his teenage years in the 1930s onward until the early 1960s. Writers like Judt and Orwell have criticized leftist intellectuals unforgivingly for their failure to observe and denounce the massive crimes of Stalin in the 1930s. But these are exactly the years in which Bauman gained his communist identity — briefly in Poland and then more deeply in exile as a high school student in the Soviet Union. Wagner spends a good deal of time on the formation of Bauman’s identity as a communist youth and eventually communist functionary. She argues that it is a perfectly intelligible journey for a young Polish Jew who cared about social justice and equality. A return to the political and social arrangements of pre-war Poland was not even remotely attractive to Bauman, given its profound anti-Semitism and the enormous social inequalities it embodied. Communism, Wagner argues, provided a coherent view of a future in which all citizens would be treated equally, anti-Semitism would not exist, and social inequalities would disappear. Of course that is not at all how things turned out — in Poland or in the USSR. 

But the central point here — the question of the formation of the social imagination of Zygmunt Bauman — is that his historical experience in the 1930s and 1940s might have given him a particular and well-defined framework for understanding the potential for evil in modern totalizing states. It did not. Little of his life experience prior to 1945 seems to have had a profound influence on his sociological imagination, or on the topics that he chose to pursue as an academic sociologist. In particular, his early career in the 1950s and 1960s contains almost no reflection on the Holocaust, genocide, political murder, or the origins of totalitarianism. This is evident by examining the extensive bibliography of his writings compiled by the Bauman Center mentioned above. 

As a rising sociologist and professor in Warsaw, Bauman chose a cautious path that nonetheless continued to adhere to the idea of “open Marxism” — a more humanist alternative to Stalinist doctrine. And in the early 1960s he became — once again, cautiously — an intellectual source of inspiration for students at the University of Warsaw who demanded greater freedom, greater democracy, and less bureaucracy in their government. Bauman, like other academics, was under constant surveillance by the secret service. The activities and activism of University of Warsaw students led to a major demonstration at the university in March 1968, violently suppressed by the regime, and followed quickly by a hate-based campaign by the Gomułka government placing all blame on “Jewish” elements in the university. This resulted in a massive purge of Jews from government jobs, including in the universities, and to the expulsion of many thousands of Jews (including Zygmunt and Janina and their children) from Poland.

Bauman’s experience in post-war Poland (1945-1968) demonstrated the profound failure of the Communist ideal as well as the insidious power of anti-Semitism in post-war Communist Poland, and these experiences did have an effect on his subsequent development as a social thinker. But it is unclear whether these experiences led to a profound change in the ways that Bauman undertook to understand the social world. (Significantly, his contemporary Leszek Kołakowski broke from support for the Communist regime in Poland a decade earlier than Bauman, and Kołakowski’s shift seems more profound than Bauman’s.)

The question posed above seems to have a fairly clear answer, then: Bauman’s life experience in the 1930s through 1950s (from his teenage years as a persecuted Jewish boy in Posnan through his service in the Polish Army and his appointments at the University of Warsaw) had surprisingly little influence on his worldview and his intellectual framework. His sociological imagination appears to be the result of his engagement with other academic sociologists rather than with the realities of social life in the horrific decades of war and genocide. Most significant were the intellectual and academic influences to which he was exposed — Marxist-Leninism, open Marxism, Western sociology — and his own creative imagination in raising questions within those various frameworks. Bauman contributed little to understanding the horrific realities of the twentieth century (unlike Hannah Arendt, for example), and he confined much of his writing to a level of abstract theorizing that offered little help in understanding totalitarianism, the Holocaust, or the criminality of Stalinism.

Even his signature ideas — modernity and liquid modernity — have little concrete engagement with the specifics of the totalitarian regimes of violence and murder that he experienced under Hitler and Stalin. In a later post I will discuss his 1989 book, Modernity and the Holocaust, which does indeed engage the genocidal regime of the Nazi period. Here are a few sentences:

It is not the Holocaust which we find difficult to grasp in all its monstrosity. It is our Western Civilization which the occurrence of the Holocaust has made all but incomprehensible — and this at a time when we thought we had come to terms with it and seen through its world-wide, unprecedented cultural expansion. If Hilberg is right, and our most crucial social institutions elude our mental and practical grasp, then it is not just the professional academics who ought to be worried. (84)

But note — this book was written and published in 1989 — a half century after the Nazi crimes that Bauman himself witnessed. In a surprising way, Bauman’s intellectual and scientific work seems always to be at a great distance from the historical realities that he himself experienced. And that is indeed surprising. The comparison is perhaps not a fair one, but think of Orwell, and the close parallels that existed between his lived experiences of poverty, class, war, colonialism, and fascism, and the depth and insight of his writings. Can we imagine Orwell without Catalonia? Not at all. But it is not at all difficult to imagine Bauman without Poznań, Majdanek, or the Red Army.

(Here is a recollection of Bauman by several of his colleagues in English sociology; link.)

Did the Iliad have an author?

Did the Iliad have an author? Since this is probably the best known text from the ancient Greek world,  one might find the question a puzzling one: of course the Iliad had an author; it was Homer. But it turns out that this answer is no longer accepted by experts in classical literature — and hasn’t been for at least ninety years. Adam Kirsch’s recent piece in the New Yorker, “The Classicist Who Killed Homer,” sheds light on the topic, and also raises highly interesting questions about the nature of imagination, narrative, and story-telling. Kirsh’s piece is a discussion of Robert Kanigel’s biography of Milman Parry, Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry. Parry was a young professor of classics at Harvard in the 1930s, and his treatment of “Homer” created, according to Kanigel, a permanent change in the way that classicists conceived of the making of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The time of Homer — or at least, the time at which the oral poems that eventually became the Iliad and the Odyssey originated — is perhaps five or six centuries before the time of Socrates; it was ancient history, even for the ancient Greeks. Homer is indeed discussed by Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch, but with essentially no basis in historical fact. So how could modern scholars — scholars in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries — arrive at evidence-based conclusions about the authorship of these great works? This is the question that Parry sought to answer; and here is Kirsch’s summary of Parry’s considered conclusion: 

Parry’s thesis was simple but momentous: “It is my own view, as those who have read my studies on Homeric style know, that the nature of Homeric poetry can be grasped only when one has seen that it is composed in a diction which is oral, and so formulaic, and so traditional.” In other words, the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t written by Homer, because they weren’t written at all. They were products of an oral tradition, performed by generations of anonymous Greek bards who gradually shaped them into the epics we know today. Earlier scholars had advanced this as a hypothesis, but it was Parry who demonstrated it beyond a reasonable doubt. (73)

The primary clue that Parry pursued was the most evident stylistic fact about the poems: their meter and their continual use of stylized epithets for the key actors. The epithets and the meter of the verses give the oral poet a manageable framework from which to create line after line of verse.

Rather, [the poet] had a supply of ready-made epithets in different metrical patterns that could be slotted in depending on the needs of the verse, like Tetris blocks. As Parry wrote in one of his papers, “The Homeric language is the work of the Homeric verse,” not the other way around. (75)

Most interesting is the account that Kirsch provides of Parry’s method of research and argument. Biblical scholars came to the conclusion that the Hebrew Bible was not the work of a single author as well. But their arguments were largely textual: each of the books had a distinctive style and vocabulary, and it was straightforward to argue that these texts are an amalgam of multiple earlier texts. Parry proceeded differently in his treatment of the Iliad and the Odyssey. From a textual point of view, these poems are fairly consistent over their thousands of lines. But Parry asked himself a different question: how do pre-literate communities compose and transmit their stories? And he investigated this question through fieldwork in the 1930s. He undertook to observe the process of the creation of an oral tradition in the making. He functioned as a kind of “ethno-poeticist” — an observer and collector of oral traditions in these “spoken-word” communities of Yugoslavia.

Here is an especially interesting part of Parry’s research in Yugoslavia:

Parry’s research showed that, in an oral-performance tradition, it makes no sense to speak of a poem as having an authentic, original text. He found that, when he asked a guslar to perform the same poem on consecutive days, the transcripts could be dramatically different, with lines and whole episodes appearing or disappearing. With the guslar he considered the most gifted, a man in his sixties named Avdo Međedović, Parry tried an experiment: he had Međedović listen to a tale he’d never heard before, performed by a singer from another village, and then asked him to repeat it. After one hearing, Međedović not only could retell the whole thing but made it three times longer, and, in Lord’s recollection, much better: “The ornamentation and richness accumulated, and the human touches of character imparted a depth of feeling that had been missing.” (75)

What is interesting to me in this experiment is the light it sheds on the cognitive and creative process of the oral poet him- or herself. What seems to be going on in this account is a complex act of narrative cognition: hearing the unfamiliar story, linking it to a broader context of allusions and metaphors within the ambient oral tradition, remembering the story, and retelling the story with embellishments and refinements that make it more complex and more aesthetically satisfying to the listening audience. Parry seems to be observing the process of “oral poetry composition and transformation” in action, through the skilled intellectual and poetic work of the guslar Međedović. It is skillful improvisation joined with an immersion in a tradition of heroes and other stories, leading to a better and even more satisfying story. If this were Tolstoy’s work, we might say that the refinement of the story is the result of a repetitive process of drafting, editing, rewriting, and enhancement; but that iterative process is plainly absent in Međedović’s performance. Instead, Međedović is given the frame of the story and the key details, and — in real time — he weaves together an ornamented and rich version of the story “with a depth of feeling that had been missing.” This is a very plausible mechanism for explaining the richness and complexity of the storylines of the Iliad and the Odyssey — not a single Tolstoy writing an epic, but a series of more and less talented “guslars” in the pre-Athenian world rehearsing, refining, and extending the stories in a way that is astonishing in its comprehensiveness and richness by the time it was collected and recorded.

Kirsch doesn’t provide this analogy, but we might say that Parry proceeded somewhat analogously to Darwin in his careful observation of finches and other organisms in the Galapagos, supporting eventually a powerful hypothesis about the genesis of species (natural selection based on differential reproductive success). In Parry’s case, the result is an account of the multigenerational genesis of stories told by specialized story-tellers like Međedović — or the proto-Homers who contributed to the construction of the Iliad and the Odyssey over a period of centuries.

Notice how different this process of story composition and transmission is from other kinds of familiar narratives — novels and academic histories, for example. When David Hume attempted to tell the story of a century of English politics in The History of England, his narrative is structured by written sources, extensive notes, and a narrative plan. And it is an iterative process of editing and revision, with a conception of the whole that guides corrections throughout the narrative. When Tolstoy composed War and Peace, he too had the opportunity of revision, reconciliation, and recomposition, to ensure consistency of plot and character development. The oral poet, by contrast, is doing his creative work in real time; no corrections, no going back to an earlier chapter, no reminding himself/herself of the gist of the plot in earlier stages of the story. This presents an entirely different problem of creative cognition for the oral poet that is quite different from that facing the historian or the novelist. Memory, metaphor, fable, and humor through the unexpected all play a role in the oral poet’s performance.

Is there a field of cognitive psychology that studies narrative improvisation? Interestingly enough, there is. Here is an interesting research report (link) from a group of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology who have studied improv theater. The group includes Brian Magerko, Waleed Manzoul, Mark Riedl, Allan Baumer, Daniel Fuller, Kurt Luther, and Celia Pearce. They describe the object of their research in these terms:

Improvisation is a relatively understudied aspect of creativity and cognition. One way of viewing improvisation is as the act of real-time dynamic problem solving [12]. One of the most recognizable manifestations of improvisational problem solving comes from the theatre arts community. Improvisational theatre – or simply improv – is a rich source of data for reaching a better understanding of improvisational problem solving and cognition [11, 32]. This is in part due to the diversity of performative activities in improv, which allows us to manipulate independent variables for purposes of experimentation, and the decoupling from real-world problems (e.g., emergency management) that are hard to control or recreate. Focusing on improv theatre, we can more specifically define improvisation as a creative act to be the “creation of an artifact and/or performance with aesthetic goals in real-time that is not completely prescribed in terms of functional and/or content constraints.” Our definition here intentionally focuses on the process of creating; improvisation is viewed as an active endeavor that is equally, or more, important than the final product. That is, how you get to an outcome is more important than the outcome.

Like the topic of skilled bodily performance discussed elsewhere here (link), there is a great deal of room for important research on the question of improvisational narrative composition. This refreshes my own notion that many of the most ordinary parts of human life repay fascinating results when studied from a fresh point of view.

(I realize that I myself have had a little bit of personal experience of this kind of story-telling. Over the past six years or so I have developed a tradition with my grandchildren of an ongoing series of stories about a young French boy (Pierre) who worked with the French intelligence agency in the 1960s. Pierre has many adventures, and each story is initiated by a “seed event” that I bring to mind and then embroider with many exciting and laughable adventures. Among other things, I’ve learned that drama and humor must be mixed — the boys love absurd situations and wordplay as much as they enjoy complicated and sinister plots with figures like the mysterious X and Y. Most recently on vacation we enjoyed a few new stories based on Pierre’s secret visit to Dien Bien Phu and Dien Bien Phuie. In a very simple way, this is the work of a guslar! Here are a few of the stories that I’ve written down and recorded for the grandchildren during the pandemic; link.)

Explaining GOP behavior

If only Chuck Tilly were still with us … I’d give a lot to hear his interpretation of the behavior of GOP officials throughout large swaths of the country, in state governments and in Congress. But I’d like to hear from Cicero, Machiavelli, and Hannah Arendt as well. Perhaps only theorists who have witnessed the collapse of a republic can find the words necessary to describe our current condition when it comes to the behavior of our GOP politicians. What has become of a simple and principled dedication to the principles of democracy? What has become of politicians who care more about the wellbeing of our country than about their own political fortunes? What has become of integrity?

Think of the range of extremism from the right to which our country is now subject: extremist elected officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Josh Hawley, and other seemingly unhinged political voices channeling QAnon; servile compliance with the lies and authoritarian impulses of Donald Trump by establishment politicians like Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and Kevin McCarthy; and the concerted efforts by Republican majorities in Red states to restrict access to the right to vote, aimed at communities of color. These seem to be separate manifestations of a broad impulse towards raging, irrational authoritarianism on the part of virtually all segments of GOP leaders and rank and file politicians. There are the small number of anti-Trump Republican leaders like Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and others. But they seem to be almost invisible embers in the conflagration of our current crisis. 

So how should we understand the motivations of these various players? The first group seem easiest to understand. These are the political entrepreneurs selling their snake-oil to the extremist fringe, the base, of ideologically disaffected people on the extreme right. They both pander to these emotions of suspicion, distrust, antagonism, and hatred, and they fan them. This is the right wing extremism that Cas Mudde dissects in his books and writings about right wing populism (for example, The Far Right Today and (with Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser) Populism: A Very Short Introduction).

The second group seems to fall in the obvious category of cynical, unprincipled, and craven politicians who have no commitments beyond their calculations about retaining their offices and keeping a majority of voters in their districts. His history makes it apparent that Mitch McConnell is nothing more than a cynical political operative in the strict Machiavellian sense. Manipulating outcomes in support of his party and his own personal political fortunes is his entire story. The Twitter hashtag #ProfilesinCowardice is entirely descriptive of this group.

GOP figures in the third group — elected officials holding majorities in legislatures in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, … — are also unprincipled, but their motives are clear and goal-directed. They are looking to change the rules of the game, through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and new restrictions aimed at reducing the votes going to their Democratic rivals. This effort has been underway for decades and has accelerated in the past two years. Their efforts aren’t about ideology or rhetoric, but instead aimed at securing a permanent grip on power. They are blatantly anti-democratic; they care nothing about the sanctity of the vote and the right to vote for everyone, irrespective of race, wealth, or political preferences. They care only about their own party’s ability to dominate their state’s legislature. And there is a sub-text: the shifting demographics of the US population towards greater diversity is profoundly unsettling to these politicians, and they are doing what they can to stave off the political changes that these shifts seem to imply. (For extended analysis, see Kloos and McAdam, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

The themes that cut across all three groups are insidious: white supremacy, xenophobia, rejection of the legitimacy of government, and a willingness to believe even the most absurd conspiracy theories. These themes contribute to a potent and toxic mix — witness the fantastically unconstitutional effort to enact legislation banning “Critical Race Studies” from schools and universities (link). How can such an effort be understood as anything but a totalitarian effort at imposing thought control on teachers and students? What became of our liberal conviction that independence of mind is a cherished part of a democratic citizen?

What is most worrying about these separate threads is how they converge on a broad and powerful assault on our democracy. And they come together as well in contributing to a broad anti-democratic constituency drawing large numbers of voters. 

Our democracy is at risk, and people of integrity need to speak up for our basic values: the rule of law, the fundamental equality of all, the inviolability of our rights and liberties, and the crucial requirement of neutrality of state institutions across persons and parties. Recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s fears for the trajectory and fate of contemporary American democracy in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere. 

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

How can we find our way back to a shared social understanding — a social compact — about the framework of our democratic society and its crucial importance for the future of our country? How can political leaders and followers alike be helped to see that a democracy depends upon trust, upon dedication to the integrity of our political institutions, and a degree of good will by all for all? How can we reclaim our democracy from those who seem determined to destroy it?

Five easy pieces (for the social sciences)

Social scientists are generally interested in “explaining” social outcomes: why did such-and-so take place as it did? Why did the Indochina War occur, and why did it end in the defeat of two modern military powers? Why did the French fail so miserably at Dien Bien Phu? Why was the Tet Offensive so consequential for US military plans in Vietnam? Here are some fundamental questions surrounding the search for social explanations:

  1. What is involved in “explaining” a social event or circumstance?
  2. In what sense is there a kind of “order” in the social world?
  3. Can we reconcile the idea that some social events are “explained” and others are “stochastic”?
  4. Are there general and recurring causes at work in the social world?
  5. Is there any form of “unity” possible in the social sciences?

It is tempting to hold that many social events are more akin to the white noise of wind in the leaves than planets moving around the sun. That is, we might maintain that many social events are stochastic; they are the result of local contingencies and conjunctions, with little or no underlying order or necessity. This is not to say that the stochastic event is uncaused; rather, it is to say that the causes that led to this particular outcome represent a very different mix of conditions and events from the background of other similar events, so there is no common and general explanation of the event. 

Why should we think that social events often have this high degree of underlying stochasticity or contingency? One reason is the general ontological fact that social events are the result of the actions, decisions, interactions, and mental frameworks of specific individual actors, from anonymous consumers to business entrepreneurs to “social media influencers” to political leaders. The actors all have their own motivations and circumstances, so the strategies and actions that they choose are likely enough to be highly particular. And yet those strategies and actions eventually aggregate to social outcomes that we would like to understand: for example, why one midwestern town in the 1930s became a thriving manufacturing center, while another became a sleepy county seat with two traffic lights and a diner. William Cronon’s marvelous account in Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West of the rise of Chicago as the major metropolis in the middle of the country illustrates the deep level of contingency associated with this history (link).

Beyond the contingencies created by the fact of varying individual motivations and strategies, there is the fact that social outcomes are generally “conjunctural”: they are the result of multiple causal influences, and would have developed differently if any of those influences had been significantly different. The dramatic growth of intercontinental trade in the 1960s and later decades depended on several independent factors — liberalization of trading regimes in many countries and regions, technology change in shipping (containerization), manufacturing companies that were legally able to “off-shore” production of consumer goods, and the like. Each of these factors has its own history, and substantial change in any one of them would presumably have had great consequences for the volume of trade during those decades.

Instead of imagining that all social outcomes should be amenable to simple, general explanations, we should instead take a pluralistic view of the structural and social circumstances that sometimes propel individual actors to one kind of outcome rather than another. It was not inevitable that Chicago would become “nature’s metropolis” in the midwest; but the fact that it had easy access to the Great Lakes for cheap transportation, and to the farmlands of the midwest for ample sources of grain and meat made Chicago a more likely place for opportunistic actors to establish the makings of a great city than Springfield, Illinois. Likewise, once the routes of the great east-west railways were established (reflecting their own forms of contingency and struggle among actors), Chicago emerged as a more promising location for business and trade than Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

I referred to this kind of explanation as an “institutional logic” explanation in The Scientific Marx (link). And this kind of explanation has much in common with the explanatory framework associated with the “new institutionalism” (link).

So let’s return to the questions posed above:

1. What is involved in “explaining” a social event or circumstance?

We explain a social event when we show how it arose as a result of the actions and interactions of multiple social actors, engaged within a specified social, economic, political, and natural environment, to accomplish their varied and heterogeneous purposes. Sometimes the thrust of the explanation derives from discovering the surprising motives the actors had; sometimes it derives from uncovering the logic of unintended consequences that developed through their interactions; and sometimes it derives from uncovering the features of the institutional and natural environment that shaped the choices the actors made.

2. In what sense is there a kind of “order” in the social world?

There is one underlying foundation (unity) of all social outcomes — the fact of the composition of outcomes from the actions and mental frameworks of multiple social actors. However, given the heterogeneity of actors, the heterogeneity of the institutions and natural environments in which they act, and the pragmatic question of whether it is the institutional background or the actors’ characteristics that are of the greatest explanatory interest, there is no basis for expecting a single unified substance and form for social explanations.

3. Can we reconcile the idea that some social events are “explained” and others are “stochastic”?

One way of making this distinction is to highlight the generality or particularity of the set of conditions that were thought to bring about the event. If O was the result of A,B,C,D,E and each of A-E was contingent and unrelated to the occurrence of the other conditions, then it would be natural to say that O was stochastic. If O was the result of A-E and A,B,C were longstanding conditions while D and E were conditions known to recur periodically, then it would be natural to say that O was explained by the joint occurrence of D and E in the presence of A,B,C. To explain an event is to claim that there is some underlying “necessity” leading to its occurrence, not just a chance conjunction of independent events.

4. Are there general and recurring causes at work in the social world?

There are recurring causes in the social world — institutional and natural circumstances that shape actors’ choices in similar ways in multiple settings. Examples include technological opportunities, economic geography, available methods of warfare, available systems of taxation and governance, and the range of institutional variations that are found in every society. It is the work of historical and social research to discover these kinds of factors, and the discovery of a common causal factor is simultaneously the discovery of a causal mechanism.

5. Is there any form of “unity” possible in the social sciences?

The social sciences cannot be unified around a single theory — microeconomics, rational choice theory, hermeneutics, Marxism. Instead, social scientists need to approach their work with a diverse toolbox of theories and mechanisms on the basis of which to construct hypotheses about the explanation of diverse social phenomena; they should expect heterogeneity rather than underlying unity and homogeneity. Theoretical pluralism is necessary for a correct understanding of the workings of the social world.

(This is a topic I’ve returned to a number of times over the past fifteen years. Here is an argument for why we should not expect to find a unified theory of society (link) from 2008, and here are discussions of “what can be explained in the social world” from 2008 (link) and 2016 (link). In 2014 I discussed the idea of “entropic social processes” (link).)