The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Get Out There and Vote Dan La Botz, Socialist for Senate!

"Certain conspiracy-addled commentators want you to know that scary Kenyan Socialists are secretly plotting to overthrow America as you read this newspaper. In the face of such panic, surely no Socialist would be brazen enough to run for office — especially here in heartland Ohio... Enter Dan La Botz."

That's how a short article from the Cleveland Scene begins, describing the campaign by Socialist Dan La Botz for the Ohio Senate seat. While no Kenyan, La Botz is running on a principled, anti-capitalist campaign, as outlined by the "radical ideas" he espouses, such as "the right of Americans to full-time jobs at a living wage, universal access to health care, ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and opposing prejudices like racism, xenophobia, and homophobia." Sardonically, they add, "Yes, there’s no room for this brand of nutbag thinking in our fair corner of the world."

Among the political mainstream, with their corporate sponsors and narrow ideological dogmatism, those ideas certainly are radical. But for someone like my father, a factory worker for thirty years who was laid off during the 2008 economic crisis, a "full-time job at a living wage" with "access to health care" isn't exactly a revolutionary message. For someone like my father, a white man with an adopted black son, my brother, "opposing prejudices like racism" isn't a radical demand either. The thing is, my father is not alone. 

Everyone knows Ohio, and it's many urban centers like Toledo, Cleveland, and Columbus, have been hit hard by unemployment and declining living standards. Many folks are looking toward the future in a sense of despair, with the economic indicators relatively bleak for anyone making under a couple hundred thousand dollars a year. Frustrated, many people are turning to alternative political voices, or turning away from politics all-together.

This is not a bad thing. We should reject the corporate platform of the Democratic and Republican parties, with their ideological commitment to corporate capitalism and big business. However, we need a political organization, a vehicle through which can articulate the demands, the needs, and the hopes of working class people.

Unfortunately, many have turned not to the left, where there is a noticeable absence of well-organized political structures, but to the right, where corporate populism, a sort of fake grassroots has taken hold. I am, of course, talking about the infamous Tea Party.

As the Cincinnati City Beat, in an article endorsing Dan La Botz for Senate, explains so lucidly, "on a political level, the Tea Party simply is a “populist” cover for the Republican Party's desire to maintain tax cuts for the wealthy, eliminate the estate tax for the wealthy, deregulate Wall Street firms that almost drove the country into financial ruin and protect profits for health insurance corporations."

No doubt that. City Beat continues: 

"We're angry that our health insurance premiums skyrocket while coverage gets scaled back and insurance corporations report record profits. We're angry that BP can dump millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and get away with it. We're angry that the Supreme Court equates corporations with personhood and now allows businesses to pump even more money into an already corrupt political system. And we're angry that this country has spent more than $1 trillion and endured more than 5,000 dead soldiers to fight largely unsuccessful wars in the Middle East."

And, I should add, for any of us with a conscience that extends beyond our national borders, we are angry that hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been murdered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. And we are angry that our tax dollars go to funding an immoral, illegal, and illegitimate, and horrendously violent occupation of Palestinian land by the Israeli state.

But best of all, I think City Beat sums up many of the feelings Ohioans share about the Senate race here, when they say they're "unexcited about the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, and squeamish about the GOP nominee, former Cincinnati area Congressman Rob Portman."

Disgusted with the mainstream choices, the City Beat has openly and courageously endorsed a Socialist candidate. Besides the fact that he "supports radical democracy, the democratic control of the economy by the majority of Americans instead of by a small minority," part of the reason they want Ohio voters to choose La Botz is the likely chance that the "heads of those on the Far Right who consider Obama a socialist would explode, and that could be fun to watch."

I couldn't agree more.

And, for those of you following the election, you should know that Rob Portman, the Republican, is ahead in the polls. So far ahead, in fact, that Lee Fischer, the Democrat, has essentially dropped his campaign. You could still vote for him, but it would be a waste. A huge waste, in fact, when he has no chance of being elected.

Instead, I urge everyone to read the open letter by Dan La Botz to Progressive Democrats, which I have copied here:

Dear Friends and Fellow Progressives, 

In the Senate race, the Democratic Party in Ohio has largely ignored your wishes, crushed your hopes, and now abandons you to the Republican Rob Portman. In the beginning, when many and perhaps most of you wanted Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to be the Senate candidate, the Democratic Party organization used its power and its money to push Brunner aside and impose Lee Fisher as the candidate. Now, as we approach election day, Lee Fisher has apparently thrown in the towel, giving up on his race and turning his remaining campaign funds over to the Democratic Party to use for other races where they think they still have a chance. 

What are you going to do with Fisher having failed so badly and now going down to defeat? I know that you won’t vote for Rob Portman or for the Libertarian or Constitution or party candidates who are perhaps even further right than he is. But I am afraid that you might waste your vote by casting it for Lee Fisher. This would be squandering your vote. 

First, of course, as you know it was Fisher who pushed Brunner and the progressives aside. Second, Fisher refused to take a strong stand on issues that concern us progressives, like getting out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Third, even the Ohio AFL-CIO didn’t endorse Fisher (look at the mailing you got or go to the website and you’ll see his name is not on the voting card: Finally, Fisher ran a lackluster campaign failing to go out and fight for the principles you believe in. 

And now Fisher is anywhere between 10 and 20 points behind in the polls. He doesn’t stand a chance of winning. If you vote for Fisher now, you just waste your vote. It won’t harm the Republicans. And worst of all it will convince the Democrats that they don’t really need to pay attention to progressives like you, since you’ll always bite the bullet and vote for them anyway.
So, this year, don’t knuckle under. Send a message to the Republicans, to the Democrats and to Washington. Let them know that you’re tired of being dragged to the right, that you want a progressive alternative. Vote on November 2 for Dan La Botz, Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. You won’t be alone. Cincinnati’s CityBeat has endorsed me and progressives around the state have let me know they’re voting for me. 

Thanks for giving this some thought. Look at my website and you'll see we believe in many of the same things. I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other soon at the same demonstrations against the war, for immigrant rights, for gay rights, and for all the other things we believe in. Take care. 

Dan La Botz 
Socialist Party candidate for Senate

If that doesn't sway you to vote, I don't know what will. La Botz recently mentioned that along the campaign there has been a "willingness to discuss Socialism," and we on the left should not forgo this opportunity to push for radical change  

Let's take advantage of this moment. If you want your vote to actually mean something this time, get out there November 2nd, vote Dan La Botz for Senate!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fellow Ohioans DO Have a Choice on the Ballot This Year!

Midterm elections are quickly approaching and the mainstream press is quickly latching on to the latest polls showing that GOP voters are more “fired up” and enthusiastic than Democratic voters.

Anyone who has been paying attention the past two years should already know this, as its no surprise once-upon-a-time Obama supporters have been let down again and again on a variety of issues. From healthcare to the wars, from LGBT rights to the Employee Free Choice Act, the Obama administration has let its base down again and again.

Unemployment is still high as ever, workers are being laid off left and right, teachers are getting sacked, billions of dollars are still being funneled into killing people overseas, and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments have grown. Meanwhile, wealth disparity in the United States has shot up, and the only wage increases have gone to those in the very highest wealth bracket.

We could learn a lot from the percussive lyrics of a recent song called Obama Nation by the British rapper Lowkey:

It’s over people, wake up from the dream now / Nobel peace prize, Jay Z on speed-dial / It’s the substance within, not the colour of your skin / Are you the puppeteer or the puppet on the string? / So many believed it was instantly gonna’ change / There was still Dennis Ross, Brzezinski and Robert Gates…/ I have the heart to say what all the other rappers aren’t / Words like Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan / The wars on, and you morons were all wrong / I call Obama “your bomba” cause those are your bombs…

None of this should shock us. There were many of us on the left who warned that Obama’s rhetoric about hope and change was little more than hot air. He has simply stepped in as imperialist-in-chief and anything of significance he has attempted has been watered-down and beaten around by right-wingers, with approval by Obama on “pragmatic” grounds, leaving a worthless, crippled mess in its wake. The rest of the Democrats have fallen in line behind him, with little opposition to the left within the party.

And now, surprise, surprise, they want us to vote for them, claiming that a Republican victory this November would be disastrous. Those of us on the left should not fall into this line of voting for the “lesser evil,” no matter how clever the rhetoric peddlers are who spout this idea. Do not allow them to scare you into voting with someone do not agree with simply because you disagree with the other candidate even more. A Republican victory will be disastrous for working people, for poor people, for any historically marginalized group. But so will a Democratic victory. Indeed, if the past two years has not yet convinced us of this fact, we are in trouble.

People in the United States have struggled long and hard for the right to vote. The problem is we often do not have anyone to vote for. Our votes are so commonly funneled into what Noam Chomsky refers to as the “two factions of the business party,” the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democrats are the “second most enthusiastic capitalist party,” and we will do well to remember that.

The socialist and labor leader, and many time presidential candidate (who garnered nearly a million votes from prison cell, which he was in for his opposition to World War I), Eugene Debs once said, "It is better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you don’t want and get it!" I am here to argue that position to those you planning (or not planning) to vote in Ohio November 2nd.

Dan La Botz, Socialist Candidate for Senate
For the first time in awhile, we have some real choices on the ballot. I’m talking, first and foremost, about Dan La Botz, the socialist candidate for senate, and Dennis Spisak, the Green candidate for governor. I urge you to vote for both, but my focus here will be on Dan La Botz.

If you live in Ohio you are probably aware that the mainstream candidates for Senate are Rob Portman, a former Bush administration official and Cincinnati congressman, of the Republican Party and Lee Fisher, the business friendly Lt. Governor of Ohio, of the Democratic Party. They, of course, are the only ones represented in the mainstream media. Aside from a few local papers, the debates have been closed to the third party candidates, and instead we have gotten the normal, narrow, limited debates that are so common in our “democracy.” Alternate voices, like those of La Botz and Spisak, were, as predicted, left out. 

Undoubtedly, right-wingers have and will gain from this whole debacle, from the failure of the Democrats to deliver on their promise of change. On the flip side, however, I've spoken to many people who are far more open to ideas about socialism than ever before. Numerous polls reinforce this idea, and socialism, despite the varied and multi-definitional understanding of the word, is gaining ground, especially among young people. I've even convinced some died-in-the-wool Democrats, including my nearly seventy year old grandmother, to switch their votes from the Democratic Party. People are frustrated, and they are getting fed up with being let down, especially in the midst of such an economic crisis.

Let me be absolutely lucid before continuing. I am not in any way arguing that voting is the essence of democracy, or that going to the booth every two years (or sending in your absentee ballot) is the zenith of civic participation. On the contrary, we should listen when Sherry Wolf explains that genuine change comes from “the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours a year activists spend organizing protests, rallies, speak outs, fundraisers, meetings, speeches and the like,” as they are the “most crucial political acts a person can undertake.” She is absolutely correct, and no amount of vacuous voting can replace the genuine activism that she advocates.

Still, we here in Ohio ought to cast our vote November 2nd, not because if we do not we are “un-American,” apathetic, or cynical. No, we ought to vote because for the first time we have some choices on the ballot who are not beholden to corporate interests, who are not afraid to stand on principles against the budget cuts, the austerity measures, and an economic system which places profit before people. I urge everyone in Ohio to read the socialist platform for 2010, you will not be disappointed.

Let me be absolutely clear. Electing Dan La Botz as senator will not change the system. We will still live in a cut-throat, profit-driven society that dehumanizes and alienates working people and the poor. But that is the thing, he has no illusion that his victory will create fundamental change, and don’t take my word for it:

“I want my Senate race to be a campaign for justice…As a Socialist in Congress, I will use the office of Senator to organize and mobilize the American people. I would as Senator support and call for mobilizations of Ohio’s people and the people of the country to stop the wars, to create jobs, to win health care for all, and to stop the destruction of the environment.”

And, if you are not yet convinced, take ten minutes and watch the short clip here:

There you have it. The end goal is not to get La Botz elected, despite how wonderful that would be, but to mobilize and organize for real change, not the kind promised by Obama. We should remember Obama’s campaign during the primaries, when he so eloquently explained that change does not come from Washington, it comes to Washington. The reality of his statements, ironically, have been far to obvious for most of his administration. Dan La Botz understands that reality, and that is why a vote for Dan La Botz on November 2nd is a vote for real, fundamental change.

Do not pass up the chance to vote for a real alternative. Vote Dan La Botz on November 2nd, and in the process help build the social movement that can bring about fundamental change.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cain Velasquez and the Hypocrisy of the UFC

“Todos Latinos, we did it, eh?”

Those were the words of the new heavyweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) this Saturday after his historic upset over the favored ex-champ Brock Lesnar. Lesnar had been the #1 ranked heavyweight in the world by Sherdog and MMA Weekly prior to be pounded out with one minute left in the first round by the 30 pound smaller Velasquez.

Needless to say, thousands and thousands of Latino and non-Latino supporters erupted in applause at the spectacular win. Mexican flags and pro-Velasquez banners were commonplace among the 14,000 plus fans that packed Anaheim’s Honda Center.

The media pitch for this event, spearheaded by the UFC’s head figure Dana White, was the story of Velasquez, “Brown Pride” tattooed across his chest, trying to defeat the purportedly unstoppable force that was Brock Lesnar to become the first Mexican-American heavyweight champion.

Prior to the fight at a press conference, one reporter tried to get the fighters to respond to a question regarding their stance on the anti-immigrant SB1070 passed in Arizona recently.

Lesnar, known for keeping his personal life private but also understood to harbor rather right-wing political views, as exemplified in his conservative views on healthcare and President Obama, declined to comment and simply stated he was “for legal immigration” and didn’t “have time to talk about [his] nationality.”

Like the editors at Cage Potato explain, this was probably the best response he could have given, “especially since dudes like Lesnar usually can’t pass up an opportunity to talk about their nationality, or put stickers about their nationality on their enormous 4X4s.”

Velasquez, on the other hand, remained true to his “Brown Pride” tattoo and explained that he was “against, definitely. Both my parents came into the United States from Mexico." He went on to explain his choice of music when he enters the ring, "It's a story about a man crossing the border and all the hardships…”

Undoubtedly those hardships must have shaped Velasquez, and those of us anti-racists in the MMA community can only thank him for speaking out when some other athletes would have chosen not to.

Interestingly, this was one of the first times that nationality was used so explicitly and overtly to sell a UFC event. Despite past attempts with fighters like Roger Huerta to break into the Latino market, every UFC commercial and blog mentioned the fact that Velasquez could be the “first Mexican-American heavyweight” ever.

Steven Marracco of MMA Junkie outlines the media campaign:

“The promotion's "UFC Primetime" series deeply delved into his ethnic roots and portrayed his father, a migrant lettuce farmer, as a pivotal character in his push to become champion.”

All too often issues of nationality and race simply slip by the radar and are ignored by the MMA community. For instance, Cheal Sonnen, an MMA fighter and lackluster Republican politician, before losing to Anderson Silva, who is from Brazil, got away with a host of bigoted comments. At one point he basically explained that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was only for gays and told Silva’s manager that he should “pray to whatever Demon effigy you prance and dance in front of that I decide not to CRUCIFY you.”

So, for the UFC to highlight Velasquez’s Mexican-American heritage seems like a progressive leap within the world of MMA.

“The guy's Mexican. His parents came here from Mexico (and) came over the border. ... Do you think we had him tattoo 'Brown Pride' on his chest? What the [expletive]?" Dana White so eloquently told reporters after the fight.

Some, of course, criticized the media blitz for using his nationality to sell the UFC to Latinos.

White did not reject this idea. He admitted that Velasquez could provide a serious opening for the UFC to enter the Latino community, adding that this fight as a “big deal” and could be a watershed moment.

Doesn’t sound like a bad thing, right? Think again.

White’s comments are a classic example of a CEO talking out of both sides of his mouth. While he is attempting to break into the Latino market and paint himself as a crusader for the Mexican-American fighter, he is also moving to get MMA shows for the first time in Arizona, the very state where the most racist and vile form of bigotry is alive and well in the form of SB1070.

The utter hypocrisy on display could not be more obvious.

Arizona's SB1070 is a law that will authorize officers to pull over, question, and detain anyone they have a "reasonable suspicion," including skin color, to believe is in this country without proper documentation. This is a law meant to legalize racial profiling and increase the harassment of Arizona residents and anybody who visits the state, including MMA fighters, their families and fans.

MMA is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with a wide array of Latino and Latino-American fighters. White is trying, with one already in the works for December 2010, to bring large-scale events to Arizona which could bring millions of dollars in revenue to a racist state. 

Meanwhile, he’s selling his brand to Latinos in hopes that they will not smell the rottenness of the deal they are getting sold. White could care less about discrimination or racism against Latinos, he only cares about how much of their money he can strip from their wallet. 

This, of course, is the essence of capitalism. Due what is best for the bottom line, not what is best for human beings, even if these human beings are some of the most important people in your business.

Every anti-racist should celebrate the victory of Velasquez, in the same way that anti-racists would celebrate the whooping of James Jeffries by Jack Johnson. We should not, however, be duped into thinking that Dana White gives a damn about Latinos.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The French Uprising over “Pension Reform” and Where We Ought to Stand

Noam Chomsky once explained that we ought to be wary of the word “reform.” He says:

Reform is a word you always ought to watch out for... Reform is a change that you're supposed to like. And watch -- so as soon as you hear the word reform, you kind of reach for your wallet and see who's lifting it.

His words could not be more accurate.

Currently, the French working class is up in arms (see some fantastic photos here) against the austerity measures in the form of “pension reform” being forced upon them via the reactionary Skarkozy administration. On Friday, the French Senate pushed through a bill to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 and the age for a full pension to 67 from 65. The vote, with 177 for and 153 against, was much closer than the vote in the National Assembly, France’s lower house.

Charles-André Udry, in an interview with Ahmed Shawki, outlined the seriousness of this so-called reform:

And in any event, one thing that's typical of the general economic situation is the growing number of workers who, for reasons of ill health or because of layoffs, are forced to leave work at 55 or 58 or 60 years of age, and go on unemployment. As a result, they aren't able to contribute sufficiently to assure themselves of a full pension at 60--and it's not certain that they'll have a full pension at 65 or 67, which is the final proposal of the Sarkozy government… It's not even that there's so much opposition to pushing back the minimum age of retirement to 62, but rather that most people know that in order to get a full pension you can live on, you would be forced to work until you're 67.

Its passage is a pernicious victory for the reactionary French government and will prove very harmful to the French working class. Regardless, the fact that the vote was so close shows that the prodigious upsurge in struggle did have some effect on forcing politicians to rethink the bill.

Nearly every town and city in France, no matter the size, has been touched by the wave of strikes and street protests that have swept across the country. All last week strikes, blockades, and demonstrations shut down oil refineries, schools, highways, gas stations, etc. Even Lady Gaga had to cancel her shows in Paris. The main unions have called extremely successful nationwide strikes, with organizers estimating around three million people out in the streets. Meanwhile, smaller actions are taking place every single day. Police have clashed with workers and youth all around France.

Even with the measure passing, a two-day general strike has been called for Thursday and another for November 6th.

The conservatives in France are claiming that someday workers will thank them for the pension rollback. They argue that a certain retirement age, as well as other social services, are not rights, but privileges, and sometimes these privileges need to be revoked. Pretentious right-wingers like Greg Gutfeld factitiously claim that, in essence, French workers are like children who need to learn that “when you don’t work, you can no longer pay for stuff,” and Skarkozy, who “has more balls than a McDonald’s play pit,” is the only daddy-like figure who has the bravery to scold them. Apparently, only those of us with testicles can smash workers down and destroy their standard of living. Thatcher must have been a guy in disguise.

While this sort of right-wing garbage is to be expected, what is not so clear is how liberals and the left are talking about the issue.

Even though many of them voted against it, the Socialist Party in France is worried about the protests because they could be “discredited if there are excesses.” Likewise, even many people here in the states who identify themselves as progressives or liberals argue that the pension system is unsustainable and that the French shouldn’t care about raising the pension age two years.

The Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek recently appeared on DemocracyNow and, when asked about the strikes in France, had this to say:

A strange phenomenon is now exploding in Europe, getting more and more accentuated, which was here, we just didn’t notice it all the time. Those who dare to strike today are usually the privileged, those who have a guaranteed state employment and so on. And they strike for these things like, no, we don’t want to freeze our salaries; we want raise them up, while, for example, in my country, there are thousands of textile workers, women, who, if one were to offer them what—that situation with regard to which those who strike today are protesting, like "we guarantee you permanent employment, just with frozen salaries for next five years," they would say, "My god! That’s better than we dared to dream." This is what worries me a little bit, that this strike waves, you know, are clearly predominantly strikes of the, let’s call it in old Leninist terms, workers’ aristocracy, those with safe positions.

In other words, he juxtaposes the workers in France and the workers in Slovenia, and is basically, without saying it, insinuating that the France workers should be take the pension reform and shut up, because things could always be worse. This sort of rhetoric is, in my opinion, the most disempowering that a leftist, especially one with as much of a following as Zizek, could articulate.  

We on the left have to be utterly clear on this issue.

First, the French government is not simply trying to preserve the pension system, as many claim. The pension system is in no urgent danger, and is not on the verge of collapse as some economists claim. Furthermore, extending the full pension age to 67 would be harmful for older workers, many of them having lived through the speed ups and excessive increases in productivity over the last few years. It would mean there are less jobs for young people entering the workforce, a section of the population which already suffers from high unemployment. This, in large part, as well as solidarity with their friends and family, explains why youth have organized to fight back alongside workers.

There is not fatal flaw in the pension system. It is not, and would not be, short by any significant sum of money. Some economists and politicians like to provide a few abstract percentages, tailored in a way to make one think there is some tremendous shortage, in order to push the ideological case for changing the pension. Any shortages could be easily fixed by a few tax adjustments, especially on the rich, and not a continual push towards austerity for French workers.

The money is there. The question is, who should bear the burden? These pension cuts are “being planned amid a financial scandal rocking the Sarkozy government. Sarkozy and his Labour Minister Eric Woerth—who is in charge of the pension reform—allegedly obtained illegal campaign funding from France’s richest woman Liliane Bettencourt, who received €100 million in tax refunds from Sarkozy’s tax breaks for the wealthy.”

So, while Skarkozy is pushing through tax cuts for the rich, he plans to cut social spending by €100 billion, €19 billion of which come, purportedly, from raising the pension age.

We ought to find it more than ironic that Skarkozy pushed through a large tax cut (cutting inheritance taxes, reducing taxes for the wealthiest from 60% to 50%, etc.) in 2007 worth $18 billion euros, just shy of the amount he claims this pension reform will save.

Meanwhile, people like Martine Durand plays with abstract statistics and useless percentages while not actually providing any solid numbers in terms of actual money being brought in and paid out by the pension program. She gives the classic “we’re going to have more old people and less young people, the whole system is going to collapse” rhetoric when, in reality, these things could be fixed with very minor tax adjustments, particularly increases on the wealthiest sections of French society. Our only options, she argues, is to cut pensions or raise the age to receive them. Apparently, because of the ideological interests she represents, no other solution is possible. The only solutions presented are those that harm working people.

Interesting, also, is the fact that she presents a blanket claim that “even the unions think the pension system needs to be fixed,” but not a single union or working class voice is present in the entire article. It is very easy to inject claims on behalf of the other side when they are not there to represent themselves!

The French people know which side of the battle they are on. reported that:

Fully 71 percent of the population opposes Sarkozy's "reform," and that support for the movement rises to 87 percent among manual workers and routine office workers. A poll last week even reckoned that two-thirds of the population thought the strike movement needed to get tougher on the government, while 53 percent of the population and 70 percent of manual workers wanted a general strike.

Us workers in the United States should be in solidarity with our French counterparts, asking ourselves why we do not have pension eligibility at age 60, not condemning them for it.

Second, this is not the first attack on the French working class by Skarkozy. There are various instances of the Skarkozy government attempting to dismantle and undermine unions in France and push austerity measures onto the people there

For those that argue retirement is not a right, we must stand unequivocally against such rhetoric. Rights are defined by a given society at a given historical point. They are socially constructed and constantly changing. Thus, we need to understand that the definition of what constitutes a right is a site of struggle. Likewise, we need to be ready to defend the idea that retirement is and should be a guaranteed right. We must stand against those, like Skarkozy, who would attempt to shorten or remove our right to it.

We ought to argue against the idea that the cost of financing state deficits should be on the backs of the working class in the form of social cuts. These are meant not to “save the pension system” but to cheapen labor and help the French capitalist class to be more competitive in the global market. That is, fundamentally, what this is about.

Third, the entire context of this general strike is within the worldwide austerity measures that are hitting Europeans especially hard. French workers understand that once you allow the state to remove one hard earned benefit without a battle the social safety net and hard earned gains can be unraveled piece by piece. It is, in essence, the ultimate failure of reformist ideology. Reforms can always, and historically this has been proven again and again, be rolled back.

In fact, it has been happening here in the United States for the past thirty-five years, and we would be ignorant to not make the comparison. The French have maintained a fairly higher standard of living because of their militancy.

We need to understand that, and we need to support them in their struggle to maintain a decent standard of living. In fact, not only should we support them, we should take inspiration from their struggle and start fighting back here, where for the last four decades we have been smashed in the face again and again as neoliberal “reforms” have eaten away at the already failing social safety net in the United States. We need our own version of France’s “May 1968,” that’s for sure, but I’d settle for anything comparable to what’s going on in France right now. At a time when unemployment is high and wages are at their lowest point in decades, we need to start fighting back. It’s time, America.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Uncommon Sense or Traditional Ethnocentrism?

Uncommon Sense or Traditional Ethnocentrism? 
A Review of Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science by Alan Cromer

Given the ideological dominance of scientific thought and the scientific community in the 21st century, science is often portrayed as a natural development or growth arising from innate human proclivities towards such methodological inquiry. Alan Cromer, in his book Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, forcefully rejects the notion constructed by some scientists and historians that science was a predetermined or mechanistic development in the course of human evolution. In contrast with the commonly accepted view that the development of science is a natural process, he attempts to trace the metaphysical origin and historical trajectory of scientific inquiry as a unique phenomenon occurring because of the peculiar material and cultural developments observed in Ancient Greece. In other words, Cromer posits that science developed not because humans have a natural proclivity towards it, but because the society established in Ancient Greece, and nowhere else, cultivated the perfect combination of economic and ideological variables that lead to its development. He argues that no other place in the world developed, nor could have developed, modern science, as the concept is understood today. By rooting the development of scientific inquiry in its material and economic roots, and simultaneously drawing on a myriad of sources and documents, Cromer makes a compelling but ultimately flawed argument for his case.
Although not substantively dealt with until much later in the book, it is important to note at this point that Cromer accepts the definition of science articulated by the British physicist John Ziman. Ziman argues that science is a social activity and can be defined as “the search for a consensus of rational opinion among all competent researchers.”[1] All of chapter one deals with particular aspects of science and Cromer maintains that science, despite a few exceptional leaps in scientific theory, is generally cumulative rather than revolutionary in its advancement. Due to this fact, the scientific basis upon which the scientific community currently builds is relatively stable. Cromer skillfully utilizes the theory of Newtonian mechanics to reinforce this assertion:
Although some future theory may be able to relate G, m, e, c, and h to a smaller set of still more fundamental constants, it won’t decrease the validity or scope of the existing relations that involve them. Our knowledge of Newtonian mechanics and quantum theory is complete because it is knowledge — not of absolute causes, but of relations of broad generality — that is valid to the limits of our current measuring abilities. Future theories can only broaden the scope and deepen the range of our knowledge.[2]
 He cites the exploration of DNA as yet another example of this principle. Thus, the fact that science is so recent and complete in its fundamental knowledge, and intrinsically unified, allows Cromer to posit that “for the first time in human history we have true knowledge of the nature of existence and of our place in it.”[3] Establishing truth and certainty as the basis upon which modern science is predicated, however, is only an ancillary argument in his book. According to Cromer, “higher rational abilities don’t develop spontaneously, but must be carefully cultivated by a process of formal education.”[4] Therefore, something other than the course of human evolution must have galvanized the development of such an unnatural intellectual propensity.
Cromer’s primary thesis rests in his contention that Ancient Greece was the womb in which the modem conception of science was cultivated. He begins by constructing a dichotomy between scholars who argue the traditional view that science was “a product of the special genius of Ancient Greece... [which] developed the concepts of objectivity and deductive reasoning that are necessary for science” and those who argue that science develops in all civilizations but some may develop the concept further than others.[5] Cromer develops what he labels a neotraditionalist interpretation of scientific development. Within this framework he claims that “antecedents of science either permeate a culture or are absent altogether.”[6] Thus, the tradition of open debate and non-contradiction, found solely in Ancient Greece, support the idea that science is not a natural proclivity but a historically unique phenomenon that can only be developed “under a very precise set of cultural circumstances.”[7] This is the fundamental thesis that runs throughout Cromer’s work.
Alongside this is the rejection that science ought to be applied to any system of thought dealing with problem-solving. Therefore, according to Cromer any “bland relativism that applies the term science so indiscriminately…hopelessly muddles thinking on the subject.”[8] Nonscientific systems such as psychoanalysis and astrology function within their own traditions and their own closed sets of ideas. They, accordingly, do not constitute authentic science. Cromer spends an entire chapter comparing and contrasting different forms of what he considers to be pseudoscience. Similarly, he purports that the technological advances in a variety of areas across a broad range of different civilizations, including China, Egypt, and the Islamic world, do not constitute a holistic and rational scientific approach comparable to modern forms of scientific endeavors.
Cromer maintains, in alignment with the psychologist Piaget, that the development of rational capabilities require cumulative accumulation. Therefore, rational and critical capacities must be overtly cultivated and fostered. They require a specific environment which, he argues, only the Greeks were able to develop. The result is that other societies, even if they produced certain technological advances beyond the Greeks, could not break through traditional egocentrism into scientific objectivity. However, Cromer attempts to formulate a dialectical synthesis between objectivity and subjectivity; “Although it sounds contradictory,” he explains, “what we call objective thinking is possible only after we come to understand the subjective nature of thought”[9] Once that subjective nature is understood, a break with egocentric continuity between private thoughts and the external world is possible. Only then, with the emergence of this historic schism, and the recognition of the role subjectivity plays, is the development of rational, scientific models able to come to the fore.
Cromer briefly outlines the evolution of humanity in order to situate the development of rational thinking in its historical and evolutionary context. After articulating how early humanoids interacted and positing a variety of plausible explanations for common behaviors among them, he moves on to juxtaposing Ancient Greece and Israel. By reviewing the dominant literature of these two civilizations, the Iliad, Odyssey, and the Old Testament, Cromer argues how these works are manifestations of the dominant ideological discourse and nature of thought present in these societies. In the former, open debate and the ideas of non-contradiction are fundamental aspects in Greek society and are ever present in the stories written by Homer. In the former, appeals to mysticism and higher powers prevail as the dominant discourse. Cromer credits the Greeks with developing a variety of mathematical branches, science, astronomy, theater, history, history, philosophy, and democracy, all of which resulted from their contribution of objectivity and the development of their rational capacities. The development of such rationality in Greek society is attributed to a variety of cultural factors, with material conditions playing an ancillary role in this development The Greco-Israeli paradigm is the primary example supporting his thesis.
The rise of Christianity into power alongside repeated attacks by what Cromer refers to as barbarian hordes during the fifth and sixth century decelerated the spread and eventually reduced notions of rationality and objectivity to an obscure and esoteric fate. It was not until the resurgence of European developments associated with Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, which Cromer maintains was “directly simulated by the work of ancient Greek mathematicians, astronomers, and natural philosophers,”[10] that science again became universal discourse. His argument is that during the European dark ages, even great civilizations such as China, India, and the Islamic world did not develop scientific inquiry. China, despite being “more unified, organized, cultivated, and technologically advanced than Europe” for many centuries, never reached objective thinking.[11] Instead, Cromer argues that such a rigid and hierarchical bureaucracy, along with affiliative or purely collective forms of thinking, actually dissuaded the pursuit and development of science. India, despite some mathematical developments, remained trapped in an egocentric ideology that often dismissed the material world. Islamic society actually produced technological advances and maintained Greek classics, which spurred the scientific revolution in Europe. However, Cromer argues that religious restrictions on things like printing and surgery kept Islam “cut off from the scientific revolution helped initiate.”[12] Therefore, rationality and scientific pursuit is a decidedly Greek phenomenon.
Material changes in European society galvanized the growth of capitalism and an economic system. These included, but were not limited to, the expansion of trade and the development of technological advances such as three-crop rotation systems and the horse collar which, subsequently, augmented crop production and work output,. Therefore, a combination of material changes led to the scientific revolution in Europe, and Europe alone:
First, European science was a direct continuation of Greek science... Second, the distinctive feature of European culture was its tendency to develop autonomous self-governing institutions [the guild and university, which]… offered stability and continuity to Europe’s intellectual life... Third, capitalism provided a force and a class that could stand up to the nobility and the clergy... Fourth, the printing of inexpensive books spread new ideas among the learned and also made possible the education of an increasing number of students from the middle class.
 Thus, Cromer’s assertion is buttressed by his reference to the changing material conditions which were made possible primarily by chance. The ideological and cultural impacts that these material conditions, along with the lasting legacy of Ancient Greece, had on Europe were the primary reason why science was resurrected there and not methodologically constructed elsewhere.
In essence, then, his thesis is that science is a unique phenomenon that is not common to humanity and, due to this, it developed because of the particular material and cultural dimensions of one society. The potential for science, the rational pursuit of consensus concerning objective knowledge, can only develop given certain historical conditions. Cromer argues that despite the existence of these conditions, however, the development of rationality and science is not mechanistically determined or inevitable. Instead, a unique synthesis of objective and subjective elements, the material conditions and subsequent cultural predilections crafted by human thought and action, must occur. This synthesis is what fosters the development of scientific inquiry.
There are many strengths and factors that contribute heavily to the legitimacy Cromer’s work and reinforce his thesis. The approach he utilizes as his analytical framework is a materialist one. First, Cromer attempts to draw on a wide range of sources to support his thesis. Throughout the work he cites a wide range of literature from the Bible to Homer’s epics, classic philosophers like Aristotle, major scientific theorists such as Newton and Einstein, and scientific researchers studying a broad array of topics. This extensive arsenal of primary and secondary source material gives a sense of legitimacy and scope that scaffolds his argument. Second, the sociological approach he uses to address a history of science, and the definition of science itself; is a unique approach that allows room for debate. Scientific advances and the development of rational, scientific inquiry are situated within their appropriate historical, social, economic, and political contexts. Furthermore, Cromer’s relatively easy approach allows for non-science majors to comprehend the often dense, theoretical, and esoteric topics he engages.
Perhaps both the strongest and weakest aspect of his is that it is, essentially, a materialist one. Although no explicit materialist label is provided by Cromer, it is clear that he addresses the material conditions as the root out of which society, culture, and evolution occurs. Vague abstractions and idealistic notions are rejected for a solid, fundamentally material analysis. His approach, as seen near the end of his chapter titled “From Apes to Agriculture,” even incorporates a nascent understanding of class struggle in the development of human society. This class struggle, however, is ancillary in Cromer’s view. The term is not used, but the concept is present. Cromer generally portrays an accurate view of human history and evolution. He makes it clear that material conditions, and not abstract ideological changes or idealistic tribal leaders, forced the development of agriculture. “The Neolithic agricultural revolution was one of the most important episodes in human history,” he explains, “It’s wrong, however, to think that it was an advance on a previous economy. Agriculture arose from grim necessity.”[13] This materialism, however, could be attributed purely to a Darwinian approach. It is clear when analyzing Ancient Greece that Cromer falls far short of a Marxist or dialectical approach.
Therefore, his primary weakness arises from the fact that his materialism falls far short of a serious, consistent historical analysis. Although rooting any work in a materialist framework is important, Cromer falls into the trap of reductionism. It is clear that an analysis based upon dialectical materialism could have broadened Cromer’s scope and allowed for a more lucid, holistic work. Instead, as evident in his analysis of Ancient Greece, Cromer’s materialism is often haphazardly applied. For instance, he locates the development of Greek rationality in seven essential Greek characteristics: the assembly, a maritime economy, the existence of a widespread Greek-speaking world, the existence of an independent merchant class who could educate themselves the Iliad and the Odyssey, and a literary religion not dominated by priests, and finally, the “persistence of these factors for 1,000 years.”[14] Out of these, only two deal with material and economic conditions; namely, the development of a maritime economy and a merchant class. However, the other factors, while vital it his analysis of why Greek society developed rationality, are ideological abstractions that Cromer does not provide a material base for. In other words, he appears to adopt a rather Hegelian approach that puts the idea before the world that constructed it. For example, when dealing with the assembly he shows how rationality and non-contradiction were fundamental aspects. Yet, the actual development of the assembly, and how Greek society was the sole society to develop such a democratic institution, is not addressed. In other words, Cromer leaves this purely to chance and gives no real material root for why and how such an institution developed. It is in instances like these that his analysis appears superficial. Even with these critical oversights, his primary argument is clearly flawed.
Subsequently, his material framework is all too often used solely as a historic approach; Cromer’s analysis of contemporary society post-Scientific Revolution, and his specific proposal for educational reform, lacks the critical insight and piercing clarity that his historical analysis can potentially offer. His political convictions often shine through in his work, diminishing the clarity and objectivity he claims to support. For instance, he claims that the redirection “from physical aggression to economic aggression” is one of the “major accomplishments of our species.”[15] This is the same economic aggression, manifested in a capitalist economic system, which condemns millions of people to death every year because they are not part of the market system or force millions to toil under heavily exploitative conditions for the benefit of an elite economic class of owners. Despite this, the assertion itself is not accurate. Humanity has not been redirected from physical aggression. The last century, which has been plagued by world wars and imperialistic slaughters, dismisses such an utterly absurd statement. His hagiographic analysis of capitalism is evident elsewhere throughout the book as well. Furthermore, his assertion that it was the “entrepreneurial spirit” that “launched the age of discovery”[16] in medieval Europe is drastically misguided. Instead, an analysis of the colonial drive for primitive accumulation by the burgeoning capitalist class and the militaristic monarchial regimes striving to maintain dominance would have been much more appropriate. This sort of Euro-centrism often pierces and deflates an otherwise important material analysis.
Considering these theoretical failures, Cromer also commits a myriad of fallacies and purports truth to a list of historical inaccuracies. For instance, when he proclaims that if Greek mathematics “had been totally lost, it probably would never have been reinvented” is an utterly absurd statement to make. Despite authoritatively asserting such nonsense, Cromer gives no serious evidence to support such an absolute statement. While it is clear that the material base determines what ideological superstructures can potentially arise in any given society, it is not so clear that objectivity and rationality were the result of a highly unique Greek culture. Similarly, the idea that Ancient Greece discovered objective thinking and that Homer was the world’s first example of it are not only improbable, they are impossible to prove.
Similarly, when Cromer adopts his definition of science as the search for consensus of rational opinion among all competent researchers, he cloaks what he refers to as this sociological definition in a host of glittering generalities. For instance, he never defines what constitutes a rational opinion or competent researcher. He asserts throughout the book that some objective, eternal reality must exist which can constitute an objective search for rationality. However, he does not address the problem that arises when one considers that different opinions or ideas could prove rational within a particular framework. For instance, inside a capitalist mode of production where inter-state rivalries pursue nuclear weapons to maintain hegemony in a region or over the globe, such massive weapons of human destruction, and their creation by purportedly rational scientists, may appear rational to some observers. In some other context, a society where Cromer’s supposedly benevolent economic competition is a thing of the past, nuclear weapons may prove a futile, irrational waste.
Historically, Cromer’s arguments often fail the test as well. He constructs a dichotomy where two forms of intelligence dominate. One, the kind human beings have been confined to for most of their existence, is common intelligence that confuses consciousness with egocentrism and, therefore, is nothing more than the intelligence an animal would possess. The other, the unique kind Cromer posits only developed in Greek society, is the hyper-rationalism suited to mathematical methodology and consciously cultivated. Although the argument for unique cultural factors contributing to the development of such intelligence may appear legitimate, this dichotomy is arbitrarily constructed and defended with religious zeal. There are a multitude of problems with this approach.
First, it is entirely too simplistic to assert that there is a black and white choice between excepting the traditional view of science originating in Greece and science developing in every human civilization. The reality is much more complex. For instance, many scientists and historians posit that the development of monotheism was an essential step towards the scientific concept of the universe being constructed along certain natural laws. This could disqualify Cromer’s assertion that science could not “evolve from the prophetic tradition of Judaism and Christianity.”[17] Similarly, many of the earliest European scientists came directly from the church apparatus. Although it is fair to say that at times the church greatly hindered scientific development, the claim cannot be made that Christianity single-handedly destroyed the scientific rationality developed in Greece.
Furthermore, the ethnocentrism Cromer displays is historically inaccurate as well. While it is not true that scientific though is innately generated by every human being confronted with a problem, this does not mean that Cromer’s equally dramatic assertion is the only explanation left. Cromer maintains that the Scientific Revolution was a direct continuation of the work done by ancient Greek figures. This is blatantly false. The Scientific Revolution in Europe would never have been realized without the stimulus provided by the Islamic societies that kept Greek learning and rational thought alive. The very fact that scholars within Islamic society maintained such a rigorous and methodological method of learning is not diminished simply because some sectors of society were dominated by religion. Even during the European rebirth in scientific thought this was the case.
Lastly, despite Cromer’s claims otherwise, the significant scientific and mathematical advances developed in Islamic societies, India, and the Mesopotamian area cannot be ignored. Things like the concept of zero and infinity were fundamental for mathematics. Without some form of rational and critical inquiry these developments would not have been possible. It is a strong claim to make, and one nearly impossible to prove, that throughout the history of such civilizations no form of rational thought was developed that lead to scientific inquiry.
Perhaps the most distressing view he takes is on education, where he asserts vacuously that the problem with American education is “fundamentally one of values.”[18] Instead of addressing institutional inequality, an entirely unequal funding structure for schools, a prodigious lack of resources, racism, economic segregation, and a host of other ills that the American educational system faces, Cromer simply asserts that “the poorest and least successful families dictate what public schools can demand of students and parents.”[19] His class consciousness is apparently not in solidarity with the working majority. In place of the current system, he advocates what is essentially a meritocracy based upon the principle of social efficiency. Churning out obedient workers and transforming them into what is the most economically advantageous for the state apparatus remains his primary goal, despite the rhetoric he sometimes employs about higher levels of thinking. Even more extreme social and economic stratification, then, based upon a purportedly meritocratic system, would be the result of Cromer’s educational reforms. This chapter was the most disappointing conclusion to an otherwise thought-provoking and engaging work.
Cromer provides a lucid and entertaining read that is accessible to non-science majors and lays out a host of important arguments and ideas to consider. He utilizes a wide range of sources and theories, properly engaged as to not confuse the reader, to support the main tenants of his argument. He falls short in some areas, especially concerning his approach to education and his extreme emphasis on the merits of the capitalist economic system. However, his thesis that science and rationality ought to be cultivated, and are not necessarily inherent to human thought, is a fair proposition. It is not so clear, however, that Greece was the only society to ever develop rational thinking and scientific inquiry. Still, Uncommon Sense ought to be read by anyone who finds science or history engaging but none of Cromer’ s propositions ought to be accepted without a serious and critical analysis.

[1] Cromer, A., Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1993), 144.
[2] Cromer, Uncommon Sense, 13.
[3] Ibid., 17.
[4] Ibid., 18.
[5] Ibid., vii.
[6] Ibid., viii.
[7] Ibid., x.
[8] Ibid., 19.
[9]Ibid.,  29.
[10] Ibid., 100.
[11] Ibid., 103.
[12] Ibid., 100.
[13] Ibid., 140-1.
[14] Ibid., 60.
[15] Ibid., 79.
[16] Ibid., 56.
[17] Ibid., 70.
[18] Ibid., 198.
[19] Ibid., 199.
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Derek Ide 2011


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