Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Novel as Experiment in Whitehead’s Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was one of the most famous novels of 2016. In this novel, a young slave Cora escapes from Georgia on the Underground Railroad, and eventually...does she make it? I won’t spoil the ending. But in this novel the Railroad is really a railroad, with railroad cars on tracks running through tunnels.

One impression is inescapable, and intentional. The amount of deliberate suffering inflicted by slave owners and slave hunters on the slaves, and even on other whites, is almost infinitely brutal. In this novel, slave hunters would kill and rape white abolitionists. Slave owners would put the eyes out of a slave who tried to learn to read. A white daughter turned in her parents to be hanged for hiding a fugitive slave (Cora), in return for an elevation of her social status. One slave hunter wore a necklace made out of human ears. One slave owner tortured his male slave by cutting off the slave’s manhood, stuffing it in the slave’s mouth, and sewing it shut.

Remember, this is fiction. Many of these things did not actually happen. For example, it makes no economic sense for slave owners to torture and kill their slaves for minor infractions; slaves were expensive to buy and maintain. Slave owners would, in the real South, treat slaves like animals, but not usually worse. But Whitehead achieves the novelist’s purpose, to make the reader hate slavery, and to see how it turns slave owners into devils.

And then I realized that this was the point. Most of these brutal things occurred at some point in history, but not all at once. During the lynchings after the Civil War, whites would indeed torture blacks. In doing so, they were not losing any money, the way slave owners would have. Whitehead took actual events from the lynching period and stuck them into the time of slavery. Whitehead also created a superficially nice-looking South Carolina, where black escapees were treated nicely, but it turns out that they were being sterilized in the name of scientific eugenics, and being used in scientific experiments. These things actually happened in the first half of the twentieth century. By placing the brutalities of fictional Georgia and North Carolina alongside the superficial niceness of the fictional South Carolina, Whitehead was inviting us to compare them. Were eugenics and scientific experimentation (as in the Tuskegee experiments), any less brutal than slavery? We usually don’t ask that question, because they occurred separately in history. Whitehead lines them all up during one brief time in Cora’s life. He performs an experiment with history. Hypothesis: eugenics is less brutal than slavery. Conclusion: No, they are both brutal.

I tried this kind of literary experiment when I was in junior high. I wrote a short story in which I divided England into two counties, Rupertshire and Spratleyshire, and I gave them two different forms of government. I set them side by side and allowed a traveler to directly compare them. That’s all I remember about this story, which might be in a box somewhere.

The Underground Railroad will certainly stir your fury. The young escaped slave Cora did not take every opportunity for revenge that came to her. I found myself wishing she had tortured and slowly killed the slave catcher in Indiana, rather than leaving him alive and tied up. That is, Whitehead stirred my desire for revenge then confronted me with mercy. This literary theme will never grow old.

Colson Whitehead broke up the timeline of history in a way that is forbidden in most historical fiction: he altered the historical context. But he made this broken timeline into parallel segments and compared them, as in a scientific experiment.


I published this essay on my evolution blog earlier this fall.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Comfortable Pew


Back in the 1960s, the Anglican Church in Canada asked the most famous Canadian writer of the time, Pierre Burton, who had withdrawn from active church affiliation, to write a book about why he had problems with Christianity. The result was his book The Comfortable Pew.

The major point was that churches, in Berton’s view, were irrelevant to important national and world issues. The title says it all; Christians withdrew from dealing with the problems of the world by hiding in church on their comfortable pews.

Imagine! That was the worst thing he could say about religion. Berton could not have imagined, I suspect, that in the next century powerful churches would practically control the American government and deliberately head the world toward war and Armageddon, that they would glorify politicians who lived in all the ways that they claimed were sinful. Today, in America, most fundamentalist Christians celebrate Roy Moore. He is famous for, as Alabama chief justice, defying federal courts regarding stone monuments inscribed with the Ten Commandments on public property in Alabama, defying court orders to do so. He is now running for the U.S. Senate. Numerous women have accused him of sexual harassment. Apparently, to American fundamentalist Christians, you don’t have to actually obey the Ten Commandments, but just carve them in stone and then ignore them.

I almost wish we could go back to the time when the most dangerous thing about religion was irrelevancy.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The American Image

What is the image that the world has of Americans? We all know what the image is: Americans are rude, self-centered, loud, big, fat, violent, and impatient. At least once a week some French news item reminds them of this. One recent example is a French news item about gun violence in America. Also, it was from the French news, not the American news, that I learned about the white supremacist rally in Shelbyville, TN on October 29. We might think that the image they have of us is not fair, but we keep feeding it with confirmatory data.




Perhaps the author K. W. Oxnard said it best. The United States is a childish country that cannot make friends or clean up after itself. The author wrote this over twenty years ago, long before the Infant-In-Chief took office. Remember that the Infant-In-Chief got about half the votes in the country. About half of Americans want the world to think we are like him.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Altruism in America and in France

I have written recently about how the social environment of America has become hostile, largely due to the hostility that Trump Republicans hold against all other Americans, even other Republicans. Altruism binds together members of a group in a pact of mutual aid. Altruism can actually help a group be more efficiently violent against people outside of the group. Trump Republicans have drawn the borders of their group very tightly and restricted altruism to within their group. Therefore, altruism is dying in American society in general.

This trend is being reflected in government policy. National Parks, monuments, etc. were created for the common good of all Americans and all species. They were created for the future. Now the Trump Republicans want to dismantle the system of protected lands. They want to make a profit on land that Americans (especially the Republican Teddy Roosevelt) set aside for the future. But Trump Republicans literally do not care about the future. They could use as their motto, “What has posterity ever done for me?”

Also, in October, the Senate voted (50 to 50; Mike Pence cast the deciding vote) to make it illegal for Americans to sue financial corporations even if those corporations violate contracts and defraud them. We can date the end of altruism from that vote. As of that vote, the American people have no financial rights, and corporations have no responsibilities. You have money in the bank? You might still have it. You have a fixed rate mortgage? You might still have it. As of this vote, not only are corporations people, as Republicans have long proclaimed; but now, they are the only people. People aren’t people. Gone from society is the altruism of reliable laws and contracts; replacing it is the struggle for existence, only it’s not much of a struggle—we know who is going to win. The Republican government, and the corporations. What is to keep them from making us their slaves in everything but name?

Meanwhile, altruism continues in France. When I was in Strasbourg, I liked it, but was not sure exactly why. Now I realize what it is: everyone treats everyone else altruistically. With few exceptions, nobody throws trash in the street or creates loud noises. As a matter of fact, when you recycle glass (and nearly everybody does), you have to do it during the day so as to not create noise that could disturb the neighbors. If you use a public building for an event, and you create too much noise, the electricity will shut off. Translation: Attention! Limit to Noise! Please do not make sound at too high a level. If you pass a noise level of 90 decibels, the electricity of this hall will be cut off. Thank you for taking this into account.




As I said, altruism can create hostility toward outsiders, too. And after I move to France, I will never be completely French. The French are very happy to let you know that you are not one of them. I will always be something of an outsider, and I will not fully enjoy the benefits of French societal altruism. I know this is the way it is going to be, but I will accept this risk rather than to stay in America where I have no rights, where corporations can cheat me, where my risk of being killed by someone’s gun is five times greater, per capita, than in France. And I will enjoy the altruism (the French call it l’entraide, or aid-between) that is the dominant atmosphere there.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Best Job Ever?


The Congressional Chaplain, Father Patrick J. Conroy, earns a salary of $172,500 per year, over three times what I earn as a professor. To earn this salary, all he has to do is to open each session with a prayer, a duty that he frequently delegates to an assistant.


Not only does this give Father Conroy a lot of free time to do other things, many or all of which could make him more money (I don’t know what he does with the rest of his time), but it also provides him with a huge amount of influence on Congressional deliberations. While I have not seen any videos of Conroy’s prayers, I have posted a video of a Baptist minister in Oklahoma who opened a session of the Oklahoma House of Representatives with aprayer that had clear political content. This would be very easy to do without being overt. A Congressional chaplain could say, “Guide us O Lord in our deliberations to defend the current government of the people who have claimed in the past to be Your Chosen Nation, and guide us to support the political party that claims to have special exemptions from Your Moral Law…” Well, maybe that would be a bit overt, but what is to stop him from doing it?

Monday, October 30, 2017

They Will Never Have Enough

So, the Trump Republicans have control over virtually everything except the courts. The path is now clear before them to chop down every policy and law that might impede their conquest of nation and Earth for their private gain. They have not been able, as of this writing, to destroy the Affordable Care Act, but Trump has already singlehandedly disabled its implementation. And they have negated nearly every environmental policy that existed prior to the current administration, even rules that date back to previous Republican presidents. Sure, some kinds of pollution remain illegal, but the Executive Branch will simply not execute those laws.

You would think these would be the Halcyon Days when everything is going their way, sort of like what the Democrats had in 1993-1994 and the Republicans had in 2001-2006: single-party rule. You would think that they could just relax and enjoy their hegemony.

But instead, the Trump supporters have become even more fierce. They need not bother to attack Democrats, who have no power. Despite this, they still do so. Right-wing Republicans continue to insult Hillary Clinton on social media. What? What is the point? Hillary has no more political clout. There is no reason to attack her except to continue wallowing in hatred of her.

But the Trump Republicans also attack moderate Republicans, Bipartisanship is now considered treason. Trump even attacks His own hand-picked cabinet. Just recently, Trump has openly insulted retiring Senate Republicans Bob Corker and Jeff Flake.

The Trump Republicans do not just want to be in sole control of the nation. They want to be the only voices that are heard. Already, nobody listens to Democrats. The Trump Republicans want moderate Republicans, as well, to simply bow and obey.

One vivid recent example of this is the October 29 white supremacist rally in Shelbyville, TN. They shouted, marched, wore Confederate insignia, and some of them declared that “the Jews will not take our place.” While not all Trump supporters are Nazis, we are still waiting to see if any Trump supporters speak out against them. Why don’t the neo-Nazis just sit back and enjoy the far-right domination of all of American life? They will never have a Nazi in the White House, at least by legitimate means; they have it as good as they ever will. But they cannot enjoy the Trump victory which has created a golden space for them. The white supremacists have tasted blood and they are on a roll.

White rage is happening not just in politics but in general society. Where I live, in rural Oklahoma, most of the people are Trump Republicans, not moderate Republicans. They have the whole arena of public space under their control. But what do they do? The people of rural Oklahoma are even more militant in their hatred of non-supporters of Trump than they were before the election of 2016. They overtly demonstrate their hatred of their neighbors even more than before. If you are out in public in rural Oklahoma, it feels like a theater of war. At least for people like me who look like liberals; I wear science T-shirts rather than camo. It is now hostility that I encounter, not the quiet dislike such as I experienced before.

Already, Trump Republicans can accumulate all the automatic weapons they want, at least in Oklahoma. But they have redoubled their efforts to build up their stockpiles since the beginning of the Trump administration. I know this because one of them told me. Who are they building up their weapons against? Is it against the remaining minority of progressives such as myself, progressives who do not dare to speak out? My car has no bumper stickers on it, but the fact that it is a Prius calls attention to the fact that I am not a Trump supporter. I might, for all anyone knows when they see me in my car, be a moderate Republican who sees energy efficiency as a great investment (which it is). I feel as afraid to speak my mind in public as do the people in the Zoroastrian or Christian minorities in countries ruled by Muslim strongmen. I am less likely to get killed than a religious minority in a Muslim country, but, I wonder, for how long? How long will Trump Republicans keep accumulating weapons before they decide it is time to use them, perhaps not just against progressives but against moderates within their own party?


They will never be satisfied, so long as those of us who do not agree with them exist in even barely noticeable numbers.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Altruism: Don't We Wish

I recently heard an interview with Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University. He had some really interesting thoughts; and not just thoughts, but results of his own research. Oh how I wish I could agree with him.

Haidt’s research shows that our political convictions—in particular, being liberals vs. conservatives—is based on psychology rather than reason. Of course, liberals have always “known” this about conservatives: those conservatives are just mean people who want to oppress and victimize other people. And conservatives have always “known” this about liberals: those liberals are just immoral people who want to destroy the moral compass of society. But Haidt has shown that liberal vs. conservative biases may come from the deepest part of our brains. Conservatives have a need for order, while liberals relish diversity. This even shows up in the conservative preference for dots on a screen that move in lock-step with one another, and liberal preference for dots moving independently.

But what do we do with this information? It is here that, I fear, Haidt has gone off on a cloud of wishful thinking. If both liberals and conservatives can just recognize that their beliefs have a psychological basis, then they could start to talk and work things out. This is, as I understand it, Haidt’s gospel, as it were. He also says that our society needs both liberals and conservatives, to keep each other from going overboard.

Alas, there are two problems here.

  • Liberals are much more likely to agree with Haidt on his basic points. Conservatives will usually reject the very premise that psychology has any influence on their beliefs. They believe that they are God’s chosen and that they are as unlikely to be wrong as for God to not exist. The Holy Spirit has made them conservatives. That being the case, a true conservative will consider it unnecessary or even evil to have a meeting of minds with liberals. Haidt reached his conclusion from his liberal background; can he point to even one conservative scholar who has reached the same conclusion from his or her conservative background? Maybe he can, and if so, I’d like to hear about it.
  • Conservatives have a lot more guns piled up, ready to hand, than liberals. How can any parity of discussion be reached when one side is heavily armed and the other side virtually helpless? If you have guns, who needs dialogue?


These are two deadly asymmetries that make discussion impossible between liberals and conservatives, in general. Happily, some individual conservatives and liberals can talk, but this will not happen on a large enough scale to influence the immediate future.

Haidt gave an example of how liberals and conservatives could discuss an issue and perhaps come to a better understanding of one another. The issue: global warming. The liberals could begin a discussion by citing a military general, rather than an environmentalist, who talks about the dangers of global warming. Great idea. Only we climate scientists have already tried this. Defense Secretary Maddis has already said that global warming will cause international conflicts to which the U.S. military must pay close attention. Maddis is not just a conservative, but a hand-picked Trump follower. But the conservative global-warming denialists have either taken no notice or have been hostile toward this prominent conservative. A search of the most prominent denialist website turned up no matches with “Maddis.” The reason is, of course, that the denialists are paid by fossil fuel corporations, or individuals who have gotten rich from them, or foundations started by them.

Haidt also said that, on average, religion makes people more moral. But in order to justify this statement, Haidt had to include, in the term “morality,” those activities that bind the group together, even if it means that the group is hostile toward other groups and causes a great deal of harm to the world in general. I am sure Haidt does not mean to establish a moral equivalence between, say, the United Nations and the Nazis, but I am unclear about how he avoids this equivalence.

This problem is the very same one we encounter when we consider altruism, about which I have often written. Altruistic behavior, encouraged by empathetic feelings, enhances an individual’s evolutionary success within his or her social environment. In ancient times, the social environment was very local. Today, the environment can be the whole world. Natural and cultural selection may favor warm, fuzzy feelings within the group, but may also favor extreme hostility. This hostility can take two forms: the feeling of sweet revenge against cheaters within the group, and extreme hostility toward people outside the group, whether they are cheaters or not. It might be enlightening to think that conservatives draw the line between “us” and “them” more narrowly than do liberals. Haidt may have written about this someplace.

In a related thought, Haidt also said that, according to surveys, conservatives care more about the people around them, while liberals care more about the people of the world. And here is where I have to draw a completely different conclusion from my Oklahoma experiences than Haidt may draw from his New York experiences. The conservatives who live around me in Oklahoma seem to be hostile toward everyone except, maybe, their own families. They dump garbage in their neighbors’ yards and allow their dogs to attack anyone who is out on the street. Many of them fly Confederate flags, which displays their hostility toward even many of their immediate neighbors. And, in this reddest of red states, “Oklahoma is ranked 3rd in the nation for women killed by men in single victim-single offender homicides.” (see data here). Red states are not moral, at home, or in their communities. I wonder if the surveys that Haidt has conducted indicate more about what people like to think about themselves than what they actually do. Prominent conservatives, from Bill O’Reilly on down, proclaim Christian morality while pursuing immoral personal lives.

What I come away with, from Haidt’s statements, is that individual conservatives and liberals might try to understand one another better, after finding some personal common ground. This common ground might be something as strange as a shared adoration for the music of the 1930s country singer Jimmie Rodgers—which I share with a very conservative person I’ve not yet met but if I do I will talk to her about this rather than about politics. But on a national level? I think it is hopeless.


Haidt’s views might be appropriate for a society at equilibrium—that is, one in which liberal and conservative views can mix and respond to one another, reaching some kind of stable balance. But right now, our country is experiencing extreme disequilibrium. This is not true in every country. In France, a country about which I know a little, the conservatives and liberals disagree vividly. But the conservatives do not have stockpiles of guns in France the way they do in America. Even if American conservatives choose not to use these guns, they have the psychological advantage: we all know that they have them.