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Amor Mundi: Butterflies and Bees

Butterflies and Bees

Ralph Benko offers a fascinating metaphor of the Bees and the Butterflies that helps explain the political divide in the United States.

“Bees (like ants) live in a centralized hierarchical culture. (The use of “culture” here is not a use of pathetic fallacy. It’s a Thing. Study of such cultures in the animal kingdom is called ethology.) Bees have a Queen, fertilized by drones, who lays all the eggs from which more bees are hatched. The worker bees, all female, do the work of building the hive and foraging for nectar among the flowers, bringing it home to be refined into honey. Armed with stingers, consider them a militant species and, indeed, the hierarchical structure of the human military has many similarities with that of bees.

Butterflies live in a decentralized, non-hierarchical, culture. They engage in courtship, mate, the female laying eggs which turn into larva and then caterpillars, which, in time, turn into pupa and emerge as butterflies. Butterflies, too, feed on nectar. But they don’t bring it to a central location, nor are they regimented. Consider the butterflies as somewhat akin to Hippies (of which I, although a credentialed right winger, am an aging specimen) of human society.

America’s political structure originally was, and was designed to be, structured much like that of the butterflies. This was called a “republican form of government.” Enter democracy! It took a long time — the inflection point arguably occurred under President Woodrow Wilson, a progressive champion, with his enactment of the federal income tax, the Federal Reserve System, and, of course, his sending America into World War I, 100 years ago on April 2, 1917, that the world “be made safe for democracy.”

The American political system has been deeply restructured, over time, along bee hive lines. Advantage: Bees! If the Trump administration succeeds — not foreordained — in capably restoring it to butterfly cultural lines: Advantage Butterflies!

There is nothing inherently “wrong” with either the culture of the bees or the culture of the butterflies. Both provide sustenance for their respective species. The question is: which is better adapted, right now, to the purposes for which the American government was constituted: to secure “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.””

Somehow Benko’s metaphor makes political differences both comprehensible and palatable. If we can understand that those Republicans are butterflies and those Democrats are bees, it is easier to respect them. It makes eminent sense that bees and butterflies can share the same meadow even as they maintain their differences.

This strange idea, that a plurality of people with different understandings of the good can join together in a political world is at the center of Hannah Arendt’s political thinking. Politics, as Arendt understands it, begins with the recognition of plurality and proceeds to discover the common understandings that exist amidst our differences. Those common understandings begin with the recognition of facts and the sharing of experiences. Together, shared facts and experiences contribute to a common sense that weaves us together without requiring that we hold the same opinions or live life in the same ways. Arendt’s idea of politics is a unity amidst plurality. It is probably closer to the culture of butterflies than it is to bees, for Arendt was deeply suspicious of sovereignty and the unitary single governmental power of the hive structure. But Arendt also believed firmly in constitutional limitations to the eccentricities of pluralistic communities. A constitution is an expression of those common truths we come to share in spite of our differences.

We are living through a time when common sense, common experiences, and common facts are increasingly rare. There is no top-down antidote to our loss of a common world. We can only re-create that shared world by talking to each other across divides, coming to share conversations, experiences, and encounters that will allow us to see and hear what holds us together and not only what keeps us apart. This is why Ralph Benko is a leader of the “Living Room Conversations” movement. The idea is to simple, to bring people who disagree politically into a structured conversation to listen to each other. The Arendt Center has been sponsoring Living Room Conversations and Dorm Room Conversations this year at Bard College, to great success. It is a program deeply consonant with Arendt’s defense of plurality as the basic fact of politics. You can learn more about Living Room Conversations here. —Roger Berkowitz

The Strategic Turn

Christian Parenti and James Davis make the strategic argument that the left should not censor speech on college campuses.

“Students and faculty are absolutely correct to challenge reactionary speakers. But they should never ask for censorship. This might seem like a minor or technical point; it is not.

Censorship used against our enemies will soon be used against us. The Left will never win the battle of ideas by trying to suppress opposing arguments. The only way to win is by a concerted, long-term effort to out-argue, out-educate, and out-organize the Right.

To be clear, we are not making a moral argument. We are not saying that racist and reactionary ideas are worth hearing — they are not. Rather, our point is purely strategic.

Asking for censorship makes the Left appear narrow-minded and afraid. And it opens the door for censorship to be used against us. Lest one think that last concern is an abstraction, recall that in January Fordham University denied Students for Justice in Palestine the right to operate on campus because the group’s work “leads to polarization.”

The strategic way to frame left opposition to offensive right-wing speakers is with more speech. Use free speech to drown them out, and more importantly, expose them for what they are. Fight speech with speech. Slogans like “free speech against hate speech” are better than “free Milo from ever speaking again.””

Parent and Davis are right on the matter of strategy. They are wrong to say that that oppositional ideas are not worthy hearing. One reason that censorship does not work strategically is that it is widely recognized as morally wrong. More importantly, it is intellectually wrong; intellectual life requires humility, the recognition that one might be wrong. The best reason to hear from those one finds wrong and even offensive is that you might learn something.

It may be time to stop defending the right of others to speak with the rhetoric of free speech. Freedom of speech should be a broad and wide-ranging statement of values that encompasses intellectual, moral, strategic, and constitutional arguments. Sadly, free speech has been reduced in contemporary parlance to simply a constitutional right. Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos have a Constitutional right to speak, but not at a college campus. The reason they should be allowed to speak at a college is not because they have a right, but because a campus is, above all, a space for encountering heterodox ideas. In the name of intellectual freedom and the pursuit of truths, we must always be willing to hear from those whose ideas are counter to our own. That is the only way to protect ourselves from the danger of orthodoxy. It is also the only way to affirm our belief in plurality and our commitment to a world of meaningful difference. By defending heterodox speech on campus we remind ourselves that the value of speech is in its ideas. The point is to bring voices to campus that are underrepresented and can challenge the status quo. Maybe in the disputes over free speech, we can remind ourselves about why speech is so important precisely in the context of a college or university. —Roger Berkowitz

Plurality and Campus Speech

Lynn Pasquerella offers a good intellectual defense of a pluralist intellectual life on college campuses.

“Liberal education is grounded in a commitment to intellectual diversity and protection against the suppression of unpopular viewpoints as a means of guarding against political indoctrination. Insofar as colleges and universities are sites for encountering divergent perspectives, assessing conflicting ideas, evaluating competing claims of truth, creating new knowledge, and upholding intellectual integrity, a liberal education is designed to develop students’ capacities to think critically and to make themselves vulnerable to criticism by welcoming dissenting voices. When preparing students for the future, faculty members should offer curricula that include a diversity of intellectual perspectives appropriate to their disciplines, and they must also be aware of the extent to which their positionality, framing of issues, and syllabi, together with written policies, campus cultures, and comments by other members of the community, can serve as inhibitors of speech.

To prepare the next generation of informed citizens who will shape our democracy, colleges and universities must remain free from entrenched and intellectually rigid forms of political partisanship and engage students from across the political spectrum. In fact, the honest and genuine pursuit of truth, at the core of a liberal education, mandates tolerance for ambiguity and respect for those bearing radically different perspectives. As members of college and university communities come together and appeal to their institutional values in guiding the determination of whether speech is protected, a commitment to respect for others, free inquiry, and inclusivity must be paramount in maintaining an environment in which the free exchange of ideas can thrive.”

When Jargon Fails

Jeffrey Goldfarb expresses a well-justified frustration with the term neoliberalism.

“The center of my bewilderment is with the “liberalism” that the “neo” is intended to specify. Is it the liberalism of the United States or liberalism as the term is used in much of the rest of the world? If it is the global definition of liberalism, “neoliberalism” refers to the radical application of market logic and practices to broader and broader previously nonmarket activities: from family life, to the arts and sciences, and education, and even to geopolitics (Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy). It further, centrally, refers to the radical commitment to let the market run wild without political interference. If the referent is to the distinctively American approach to liberalism, “neoliberalism” is manifested in the political innovations in the tradition of The New Deal to work on the relationship between state and market mechanism to accomplish what the rest of the world understands as social democratic ends. These two definitions clearly are not the same.

Without recognizing the distinction between these meanings, you cannot tell the difference between a realistic project of the left and a destructive utopian project of the right. Without recognizing the distinction between the meanings, in the U.S., you cannot tell the difference between the positions of the Democratic and Republican parties, while differences among progressives are exaggerated.”

Arts and Authoritarianism

Responding to cuts to federal arts and humanities funding in President Trump’s draft budget, Eve L. Ewing suggests a reason why artists and the arts are such a common target:

“Artists play a distinctive role in challenging authoritarianism. Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value. Like the proverbial court jester who can openly mock the king in his own court, artists who occupy marginalized social positions can use their art to challenge structures of power in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.
Authoritarian leaders throughout history have intuited this fact and have acted accordingly. The Stalinist government of the 1930s required art to meet strict criteria of style and content to ensure that it exclusively served the purposes of state leadership. In his memoir, the composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich writes that the Stalinist government systematically executed all of the Soviet Union’s Ukrainian folk poets. When Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973, muralists were arrested, tortured and exiled. Soon after the coup, the singer and theater artist Víctor Jara was killed, his body riddled with bullets and displayed publicly as a warning to others. In her book “Brazilian Art Under Dictatorship,” Claudia Calirman writes that the museum director Niomar Moniz Sodré Bittencourt had to hide works of art and advise artists to leave Brazil after authorities entered her museum, blocked the exhibition and demanded the work be dismantled because it contained dangerous images like a photograph of a member of the military falling off a motorcycle, which was seen as embarrassing to the police. Such extreme intervention may seem far removed from the United States today, until we consider episodes like the president’s public castigation of the “Hamilton” cast after it issued a fairly tame commentary directed at Mike Pence…

We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power. When the canary in the coal mine goes silent, we should be very afraid — not only because its song was so beautiful, but also because it was the only sign that we still had a chance to see daylight again.”

Choosing Words Carefully

Rachel DeWoskin remembers her teacher, the poet Derek Walcott:

“In the wake of Derek’s death, at the age of eighty-seven, I, like many of his former students, felt an urge to celebrate all that he gave us—most of all, his way of joking us out of our own seriousness while somehow also taking our work so seriously that he allowed us no slack, no unanswered notion, no lazy margins. Once, one of his playwrights, Zayd (who would later become my husband), wrote a play in which two human beings wake up together only to discover that they are in a cage, a zoo of sorts. Derek, who believed and taught us to believe that plays are, by their nature, lyrical—poetry unfolding on the stage—complimented Zayd on his dialogue but said that the whole play would have to be scrapped unless “the question” was answered. “What question?” we asked, and he stood up: “Where is the toilet? You think you can have two people in a cage overnight and not tell us where they use the toilet? You cannot.”

Derek was correct, of course: if the logistics of a narrative are flimsy or absent, then it hardly matters how lyrical its lines are. I have called upon this and additional bits of Walcott’s wisdom countless times in my own writing and teaching. He once said, of another student’s play, “If a character’s problem can be fixed with medication, then it’s a story of chemistry, not of tragedy.” When I wrote a poem that included the disastrous line “The sky in Beijing is a mosaic of coal smoke,” Derek was appalled. “Not only is it a terrible cliché,” he said, “but it makes no sense.” He drew tiles on the page in front of us. “This is mosaic!” he told me. “Tiles! They are hard. How can smoke be this?” “You’re right,” I agreed, anxious for the conversation to end. But we spent another half an hour talking about why I had put the line in there at all, whether for the sake of sound (a possibility that made him angry) or because I thought (for some deranged reason) that it was “necessary.” I didn’t know why I’d included it.

Derek made it clear that a good poet must know the exact reason for each of her lines, and he had absolute faith in the deliberateness of the writers he admired. A classmate of mine, smart and thoughtful, once asked why Thomas Hardy had used the word “ooze” to describe wind moving through trees. Why not “pour,” or “move,” or any other more natural-seeming choice? Derek rose from his chair and thundered—for the rest of class, forty-five excruciating minutes, against anyone who would dare to question Hardy’s word choice. Derek’s own way with words was at once epic and immediate, physical, literal, abstract, lyrical, guttural. I’ve thought often this week of the profound final lines from “Midsummer, Tobago,” a poem about the passage of time: “Days I have held, days I have lost / days that outgrow, like daughters / my harbouring arms.””

Easy Targets

Alexandra Petri writes a version of an article that, by now, should be a little familiar:

“In the shadow of the old flag factory, Craig Slabornik sits whittling away on a rusty nail, his only hobby since the plant shut down. He is an American like millions of Americans, and he has no regrets about pulling the lever for Donald Trump in November — twice, in fact, which Craig says is just more evidence of the voter fraud plaguing the country. Craig is a contradiction, but he does not know it.

Each morning he arrives at the Blue Plate Diner and tries to make sense of it all. The regulars are already there. Lydia Borkle lives in an old shoe in the tiny town of Tempe Work Only, Ariz., where the factory has just rusted away into a pile of gears and dust. The jobs were replaced by robots, not shipped overseas, but try telling Lydia that. (I did, very slowly and patiently, I thought, but she still became quite brusque.) Her one lifeline was an Obama-era jobs training program, but she says that she does not regret her vote for Trump and likes what he says about business. She makes a point of telling me that she is not racist, but I think she probably is, a little.

Next to her sits Linda Blarnik. Like the rusty hubcaps hanging on the wall behind her, she was made in America 50 years ago, back when this town made things, a time she still remembers fondly. She says she has had just enough of the “coastal elitist media who keep showing up to write mean things about my town and my life, like that thing just now where you said I was like a hubcap, yes you, stop writing I can see over your shoulder.” Mournfully a whistle blows behind her, the whistle of a train that does not stop in this America any longer.”

Petri well captures the condescension of many of the articles she’s parodying; as she says in her introduction, she “joined the flood of journalists who went to Real America to see how the Trump supporters are getting along.” Indeed, this genre of article, which always implies that its subject was somehow duped by President Trump’s rhetoric, is always low-key, if not outright, hostile. It is difficult, when reading these articles to see them as anything other than an attempt for the mainstream press to reassert it’s own credibility after its reporting failures prior to last fall’s election.

It is time, however, that we abandon the premise that the Trump voter was duped. This explanation underestimates the sophistication of the rural voters who are always the subject of these articles (and, by extension, overestimates the sophistication of big city voters). The Trump voters in question likely voted the way they did not simply because of what they valued about his economic promises, but because what they valued about his pledge to revolutionize American culture, that is, to Make America Great Again. While President Trump’s legislative agenda has, to this point, not met with many successes, the things that he has been able to impact, like the open opposition to Planned Parenthood, the changes in immigration policies, and the nomination of a Conservative justice to the Supreme Court, all in fact meets those expectations. Petri’s fictional subjects, stand ins for real people, are getting exactly what they voted for. -JK

Take Me Out to The Alligator Wrestling Match?

Elizabeth Yuko remembers the days when playing ball sometimes also meant finding work in showbiz:

“Despite baseball’s growing popularity at the end of the 1800s, players weren’t yet earning significant salaries. And unlike today, salaries fluctuated greatly from year to year. For example, according to the Society for American Baseball Research, the highest paid player in 1874 made $2,800, which went down to $1,800 in 1879 (equivalent to about $57,000 and $42,000 in 2017, respectively). In 1889, the highest paid player made $5,000 (around $126,000 today), before that number dropped back down to $1,800 in 1899 (around $50,000 today). After the playing season, which was much shorter then than it is now, many athletes took to the vaudeville stage rather than returning to their hometowns and getting blue-collar jobs. Catchers were especially sought out for vaudeville, because they had a reputation as raconteurs and were known for their banter with batters during games…

Starting as early as the 1860s…baseball players started moonlighting as stage performers, telling amusing anecdotes and answering questions about their time in the big leagues, as well as doing skill demonstrations. If they had even the slightest bit of musical talent, they’d be brought onstage to sing, dance, or play a little piano—one of the most famous examples being Babe Ruth’s little ditty where he lists various baseball words while swinging his arms, accompanied by a band. Occasionally, promoters would hire joke writers for the players to keep the act sharp, but they were primarily left to their own devices in order to keep costs down. In one example, the eccentric pitcher Rube Waddell, who played in the majors between 1897 and 1910, toured with the vaudeville melodrama The Stain of Guilt and wrestled alligators between seasons.”

Posted on 9 April 2017 | 9:30 am

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