story and presence

Our stories tell of the loss of a place and hearth—home and temple—by which we imagine and structure an original, unmediated presence as being lost. Our dancing liturgies endow it with power (cre-do), name it our god(s), send some of us to approach the hidden monuments of that presence. The place was also the temple, the fire its sacrificial cult, the prayers the consolidation or condensation of this no-name “presence.” The temple and its (hi)story are remembered and rebuilt as a dreamy capacity to get near the presence and keep up the possibility of visitation and renewal. It is part of the dynamic capacity all human beings are thrown into and have at their disposal. We are capable of recognizing we are in “circles” that can be described as distant points from something that ipso facto gets figured as a center. And so we keep re-imagining and reinventing our history, both individual and macro-social. The history of the mapping of, or distance from, this center at the beating heart of the person, its consuming life, gets things accomplished in ways more and more distant from and yet articulated on an improbable center. This, amici, was a comment on the polished story of Baal Shem and successors, quoted by Gershom Scholem (where? I don’t have a copy) and requoted by Martha Himmelfarb:

When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer—and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the “Maggid” of Meseritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers—and what he wanted done became reality. Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he went into the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs—and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the story-teller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.

From Himmelfarb’s Ascent to heaven in Jewish and Christian apocalypses (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 113.


Why does the demagoguery of the right and extreme right work so well in this US election? Many white and non-white middle or low earners have seen the vast majority of good jobs vanish. My last post mentioned Robert Reich’s book on labor and its conclusion that the middle class was losing traction at an accelerating pace. Without going into a discussion of ever-developing robotics and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is enough to look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections for jobs with the most growth expected between 2014 and 2024. There used to be plenty of jobs: technical, skilled and satisfying jobs that didn’t necessarily require a long and difficult education which led to better but not vastly superior benefits. Many middle and lower class people are being unwillingly pushed into menial jobs, as a walk along Woodward Avenue north of Detroit made me aware again this morning. White workers especially can be excused for questioning and even hating themselves for failing to live to an image they grew up with since at least the eighties. Longevity statistics of middle-aged white Americans have been discussed recently. This segment of the population is more inclined to substance abuse, alcoholism, suicide. For evidence and discussion, see these two recent articles: Death rates rising for middle-aged white Americans; and Why are white death rates rising? These new workers belong to a generation that had parents with better salaries, cheaper homes (mortgages are a most important barometer), a decent pension system and medicare. Not all of this is gone but it has become very fragile and much more difficult to acquire. Thirty-five year old skilled workers cannot raise a family like their parents did, buy a home, and hope their present jobs, let alone pension and health coverage, will be there next year. One would have to take into account also the pressure new communication systems put not only on socially-enforced consumption but even more on labor saving systems and productivity.

Non-whites presumably do not have the same self-image problem even though they are under even greater economic pressure. They know or assume that their parents and grand-parents had to struggle to ensure a minimum education and welfare for their children. They are continuing this struggle and perhaps are readier to accept the harshness of their lives in the hope they have for themselves and especially the next generation. But for many workers, especially white men and women, the hope in a better life and the trust placed in the nation, its government, and its economic institutions, have been sullied or shattered. They cannot admit they are angry at themselves, perhaps their parents’ generation, or those like themselves—with whom they identify—who had their fingers on the levers of power. The publicized and authorized anger at immigrants that is so easily mediatized, as well as a more coded hate of blacks, is directed at all those weaker and even more vulnerable than they are.

For the working class to adopt a broader analysis and look at their real historical condition rather than turning on each other seems hardly possible in the US. Or rather a whole new crop of rich and well-educated demagogues like a Trump, a Rubio, or a Cruz, systematically helped by the media, resorts to inflammatory words to temporarily unify and use or abuse as many of these electors as they can. With feelings of hate and contempt directed at those poorer than themselves, a large segment of the population is provided by the elites with a new escape from reasoned political analysis and action. In regard to such deception, there is no difference between Trump and a standard Republican establishment that proclaims its revulsion at his demagoguery. The whole party, helped by its paid political and media affiliates, has long played a divisive game in order to suppress any social and political analysis of the real situation of labor. Even worse, some of its leadership is actually beginning to say that Trump will not be so bad after all. No matter the dangers in terms of domestic peace and foreign policy, they seem willing to harvest what they sowed—or rather to have others harvest the storm. The mostly cost-free cultural values that have long been used to hide real bread and butter issues (no to abortion, prayer in school, anti-gay measures) become less important for the Republican party if the temporary unity that Trump or anyone else builds on anger and hate gathers sufficient votes and power politics as usual can then continue.

middle class?

Robert Reich’s most recent book, Saving Capitalism (Knopf, 2015), presents a dark view of the social and political divisions in today’s capitalism. Twenty years ago, it was still possible for Reich and many others to believe that technological inventions and skills could spread widely and help the middle class survive if not deploy any further. The new book by Reich presents a sociological and statistical analysis of the last twenty years that leads to different conclusions. The middle class is not being lifted by education and is losing traction at an accelerating pace. Counterweights like unions are being marginalized in what is at heart a political refashioning of the US and the world. All the candidates to the US presidency are willing agents, except Sanders who strikes me as a bona fide FDR democrat, as he said in last night debate with Clinton. The political system has turned massively into such a willing servant of the exploitative machinery that FDR and even Eisenhower look like rabid socialists. Clinton presents herself as a genial, experienced tinkerer on the margins of this systematic, legally enforced spoliation of people. The various worthy liberal claims attached to her persona may be genuine—I do believe they are—as is her appeal to Jesus’ beatitudes in the gospel of Matthew. The enactment of these claims will cost almost nothing, however, compared to other needed transformations. Liberal claims are presently most useful in hiding the transfer of wealth and the speedy, scary weakening and fracturing of people’s dignity.

Badiou on terrorism

Alain Badiou has just published Notre mal vient de plus loin. Penser les tueries du 13 Novembre (Paris: Fayard, 72 pages, 2016). Maggiori and Vécrin of Libération give an interview of the author. What are the real causes of radicalization leading to the murderous attacks in Paris, Turkey, Lebanon, US, and other places? Are they social, economic, and religious? For Badiou, these mass murders are a symptom of the radicalization of worldwide capitalism. Badiou calls for an alternative. His analysis in the interview goes something like this:

  1. The collapse of progressive ideologies after the collapse of socialist states has left a big ideological hole. Part of the responsibility (especially in France) rests with intellectuals who were disappointed by the outcome of movements in the sixties and seventies and went to serve the state and elites. Another organization of economic and social forces is possible but hardly discussed.
  2. Global capitalism and the domination of states by oligarchies is near complete. Its victory is a fact. [I add to this: one can now speak of the servitude of any modern state, including the United States, whether under Democrats or Republicans, though here mystifications are still operative. For instance yesterday, Obama spent much energy glorifying the state and proposing a take-no-prisoner approach regarding the jihadists. Or see the latest paper by Edsall in the NYT about the inroads made by oligarchies and money interests in buying political and ideological power in most of the states. Edsall proposes that democrats do the same and not be content with exercising power over the federal government. The “progressive” aspects he notes at the federal level are really about consumption and moral issues, not about fundamental structural issues like finances and military. End of my bracketed comment.] Badiou says that no alternative is proposed or thought possible between consumerism and wild nihilism.
  3. In the case of the attacks in Paris: In January, targeted ideological and antisemitic attack, in November nihilistic mass murder. The ideological answer to the first: massive demonstration of unity of the nation, no other ideology present. Reaction to the second one in November: no demonstration, and the government immediately declaring war on the barbarians, plus defense à la Le Pen of “our values” (these values being now left unspecified, a very thin justification for war and radical decisions on immigration and the use of police or military force). How is one to avoid the murderers’ nihilism and the state’s police response?
  4. The murderers came from Islamic background, true, but the analysis shouldn’t begin with Islam. The attackers are caught inside a désir d’Occident opprimé ou impossible. The capitalism that uses Western states as its proxies proposes an inaccessible world for so many who live in it everywhere and cannot avoid its projections as most desirable. If the criteria for one’s dignity and suitability (fitness?) are money, comfort, consumption, what happens when this situation is unreachable (and often blocked socially as in France because of its history of colonization and racism, not only psychologically or as part of a broader phenomenon of inequality of incomes)?
  5. Religion is not the prime object of analysis for Badiou. The youth’s fascism—tempted by both ideological violence and suicidal nihilism—takes shape in religion, granted. Yet, it is fascism that precedes islam, not islam that precedes fascism.


Waiting for a flight in Detroit two days ago, I wonder why the news feed is on so loud I have difficulty concentrating and thinking. An answer comes to me as the main two items of the so-called news are about violence perpetrated by police in Chicago, with some ideological defense by one of the accused, and the FBI information that the San Bernardino murderers were radicalized before they met and married in Saudi Arabia. I say so-called news, since the discussion of these highly selected two bits is itself highly ideological. Busy passengers worried about family, money, jobs, have little chance to recover and think for themselves. Furthermore, most of the imagery and sound is meant to increase people’s anxieties and remind them it is a most complex, dangerous, necessary business to buy health, insurance, cars, drink and food, electronic devices, games. That is the real news, with the other one serving as “reality.” As Marylinne Robinson writes in the first essay on the humanities of her The givenness of things (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015):

… the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own. In such an environment the humanities do seem to have little place. They are poor preparation for economic servitude. (page 4).

Holy rage

In his penultimate NYT column, following the events of the 13th of November in Paris—not those in Pakistan, Mali, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria—, well-meaning Roger Cohen didn’t hesitate to throw oil on the fire and call for rage. The US president was too cerebral, not emotional enough, not in the holy rage that events demanded. Yesterday, he wrote another noise-and-fury column in the reminiscing mode. The rotting bodies of war, pockets made by battlefield thieves, the personal letters scattered, never to be read by their loved ones, all of this via Hemingway. It could have been Hugo’s Les misérables: “Après les vainqueurs viennent les voleurs”. One of the commentators, JL Albrecht, gives shape to what I thougt upon reading a column in which compassion for the victims of war struck me as  not paradoxical at all and continuing the thread of his previous column: passion and rage at the service of glorious causes. In the present column, compassion serves as excuse and mask for indulging an all-swallowing rage and fury. It does more than justify it, it  makes it holy and removes it from any critical discourse. That kind of passion is an engine that knows no left or right:

Mr. Cohen says the world needs the absence of bad luck to avoid death in combat. What I really think is a single non-printable word, but what I’ll write is that attitude is a huge dodge. Countries “go to war”, they don’t “appear at war”. Soldiers don’t just “show up” on battle fields. Someone sends them there.

It starts with politicians and pundits inflaming people, giving in to the common human failures of racism and xenophobia. Little men with little minds saying the only way to be strong is to wage war, as in Mr. Cohen’s last column. It ends with the Joneses next door losing their son, along with a lot of other families losing loved ones.

In sports we note that it is those that practice the most that have the most “luck” on the field. In politics and punditry it is the same. Practice humility, humanity, and equality; you’ll be amazed how much “luck” we’ll have avoiding war.


Houellebecq’s novel Submission was recently published in English. It was reviewed in rambling fashion two Sundays ago in the New York Times by Karl Ove Klausgård. Houellebecq’s protagonist is a solitary, pleasure-seeking professor of literature at the Sorbonne, a specialist of Huysmans. He is deeply disillusioned by a number of recent philosophical and social movements like feminism and gender studies. Or perhaps more accurately, he never believed in anything. He is willing to erase all traces of belief or trust. Eventually, reluctantly it seems, he sells out completely to an intelligent version of Islam that wins the elections in France in 2022 and is pursuing political and moral restoration on the grand scale. Houellebecq is apparently not Zemmour, whose The French suicide is one more lament over France’s fall from grandeur. Houellebecq’s target in this fiction appears to be a much wider and deeper current than the immediate social and political circumstances France finds itself in. Does he think that enlightenment intellectuals who “converted” lacked courage and resolution in Huysmans’ times? Or is he simply after monotheism, from whatever origin, as it is reported? Huysmans, the alter ego of the protagonist, lived at a time when the Catholic church demanded submission. Or perhaps Houellebecq’s fundamental take is that the problem goes back much further, to the pursuit of freedom as the single fundamental marker and good of enlightenment. That pursuit of freedom is what is also claimed to be the greatest good in capitalist America, for example by GW Bush or more recently Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. They manage to find it in the Bible as well as in pope Francis’ latest encyclical on climate change, though it is not there. That is perhaps what Houellebecq argues is the cause of what he sees as catastrophic failures. The relentless pursuit of freedom would prepare new forms of slavery and submission.

The book, beginning with the title, adds to the fears regarding Islam. My own experience of it is not of a conquering, hateful messianic dream, but of a search for a life of dignity. In that spirit, let me try to sketch a small portrait of such a life.

C. is not a professor of literature at the Sorbonne. Abandoned at birth, passed on to careless or cruel foster families, he was adopted by a loving, supportive family at four. There was a very long, painful struggle for him and his adoptive parents, with some peace achieved only in his thirties, after he realized he might lose his family to disease and accidents. There was a long-standing fascination for life at night—not nightlife—, friendships in this in-between world. He did not take to drinking or drugs, but followed people living at the margins and edges, on the fringe of sleeping society. School was extremely difficult and humiliating. There were jobs eventually, friendship with a woman but that too broke and threatened to become a catastrophe. I do not know how and why—I presume it is through some of his friends in the suburbs of his large city—, he became a Muslim. Within Islam, he planned to marry and did find a young woman from north Africa he had never met. She emigrated to France, married him, works in a factory, is learning French, and is adapting the best she can to the new world she is in. She is devoted to her family of origin and has many siblings still living in the town she comes from, one disabled and in great need of help. She does her best trying to help them. She also helps her in-laws who have the modest financial security a hard-working and frugal family could expect after more than forty years of salaried work in post-WW II France.

She is young, dresses conservatively, and could be taken to be a radical Muslim. H. and C. have a child. They are devout, work hard, visit her family every year, stand by the in-laws, by now quite ill and isolated. It would take a book or two to describe this long surge of hope and added life in that family and circle of friends. These are the kind of people I know a little and whom I am thinking about when I hear echoes of Houellebecq’s story of submission, on top of the recent terrible events in Irak, Syria, Paris, Beyrut. In this young family, there is more free spirit and courage, more trust and openness, and less submission than exist in those who are so quick to express their hate of immigrants and foreigners.

Laudato si

An article by Nordhaus in the latest NYRB takes issue with the economic theories or thoughts rather that undergird pope Francis’ Laudato Si, and especially with its hostility to market-based cap-and-trade. He grants that profits have a distorting effect and consumerism is a danger but returns to Adam Smith’s fundamental idea that “the efficient performance of a market economy does not depend upon the ethics of individual behavior.” I think this idea has much older antecedents (Pascal for instance and other thinkers in the seventeenth century). Anyway, he quotes the famous phrase of Smith:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Of course, this “interest” could integrate an ethical interest for the well-being of the society, as advocated by Nordhaus later in the article. Nordhaus speaks of impersonal forces of the market. Indeed. Still the “forces” at work have to do with unleashed desire and envy at the personal level which were kept bridled, at least for the masses, until the eighteenth century. Economists realize that market failures and inequalities were wrongly ignored by Smith. Nordhaus further agrees with Okun that there should be limits to what markets are allowed to do until such time when economic deprivation is ended and a truly competitive market may be authorized to play out.

But isn’t poverty rising (Atkinson, Piketty, Stiglitz) and as the encyclical repeatedly says? Nordhaus disputes two things in that respect. First, that degradation of resources and pollution are major causes of rising poverty. The more important reasons, at least in the US, are robotization, imports from low-wage areas, and distortions in the financial system. Secondly, for the rest of the world, trends are rather for the decrease of global inequality. This is where a Marxist or neo-marxist analysis is badly needed. Mais passons.

It remains that externalities, especially pollution, have long preoccupied economists also. Can’t we tinker with the piping and the valves of the glorified system? The problem is that Laudato si doesn’t propose solutions for the resorption of pollution, a major externality that affects many poor people and threatens to be a catastrophe for millions of them. Nordhaus appeals to the market, a corrected market, to reduce pollution:

Rather, environmental degradation is the result of distorted market signals that put too low a price on harmful environmental effects.

A few examples: natural goods like water are underpriced in places like California; use of airports and roads is underpriced. Carbon dioxide emission is essentially priced at zero and its price must be raised, “This can be done either by taxing emissions or by a system of cap-and-trade.”

The encyclical is right in much of its approach but wrong, Nordhaus continues, in condemning a market approach. In a cap-and-trade approach, countries would decide to limit their emissions and then auction off emission permits that would be owned and traded by firms. It encourages not only limits but also highest economic value per unit of carbon emission. A very high price (vs zero) for emissions would signal a serious attempt to cap. Taxing emissions is simpler, but Nordhaus says precious little about this solution.

Back to the pope’s criticism of the market in this particular case, misguided criticism, according to Nordhaus. Why would the financial instruments regarding capping emissions be more volatile and particularly targeted by speculators? Nordhaus feels that the encyclical, which had great potential in raising consciousness and inviting everyone to strong actions, missed an opportunity to endorse carbon-pricing.

Many lines in this article invite discussion. Just one comment on why Catholic doctrine tends to be hostile to the capitalist form of the market. The fundamental reason for the discrepancy between Catholic doctrine on these modern matters and economists like Nordhaus is the still powerful structuring influence of the way sin is conceived of. Desire and envy, as in the story of Cain and Abel, are to be contained and capped. That was and is the priority. It happens that royal officers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries began to recognize that personal envies and desires, no matter the Church-proclaimed, aristotelic, moral preaching, could be allowed to play their role in a sort of miraculous self-regulation. They are indeed at the center of market mechanisms, as Smith after many others saw so well, and cannot be easily put back into the bottle. Perhaps we need a new Francis, I mean, a new world in which envy and desire can be confronted directly at the personal level and capped in imaginative new ways. Nordhaus, on the other hand, still believes that the magic of “the impersonal market” and its servo-mechanisms may still work miracles. Not glorious miracles but day-to-day grunt miracles. It seems he is asking a genie to become less of a genie and work at restraining itself via an ultimate trick. I’m afraid he is calling for the kind of political strength and unity in nations and international organizations that the market has precisely been eroding.

No to torture

From the ACLU:

Over a decade, the American people have demanded to know about post-9/11 torture conducted in our names. Today, we finally have some answers.

The Senate just released its summary report detailing widespread and illegal CIA torture during the Bush years. Over a hundred people were abused and tortured by the CIA and its contractors, often in secret prisons, set up in countries such as Poland, Romania and Thailand.

We have long known that the Bush administration’s torture program was authorized at the highest levels, including the White House, the Department of Justice, the CIA, and the Department of Defense.

We now also know that the CIA misled the public, Congress, and other oversight agencies about the scope and extent of its torture and the significance of the information obtained through torture.

In our system, no one should be above the law or beyond its reach, no matter how senior the official. Now that we have additional evidence of the wrongs committed in our name, we must demand accountability.

Ask Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct an independent investigation of the torture program: sign the ACLU petition.

Gildas Hamel