Re: Mr. Rummel’s Entry & the blight of capitalism

I would rather not reinforce Mr. Rummel’s opinion of the academic life; it sorely needs minds like his–willing to face facts and begin with experience. Still his argument on June 2 reminds me of a favorite anecdote.

Last spring, my husband read a paper to a group of colleagues. Influenced by Darwinian literary criticism he examined various expressions of “human nature” in a work he loves because of the interplay of individual character with social values. It was not theoretical, but assumptions of universality underlay his argument. In some ways the approach resembles old-fashioned character studies, since both begin with assumptions (pretty much a given a century ago) that there is a human nature. Recent books draw on evolutionary science to give ballast. Joseph Carroll in Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature advocates its use in literary criticism, but the approach is most broadly defined in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

That evening is recalled for Mr. Rummel’s example has the starkness of one of Pinker’s graphs (p. 57) in which “percentage of male deaths caused by warfare” is illustrated; in primitive societies it ranges from 10 to 60%, while in twentieth century Europe and North America, the percentage was miniscule (even in what many of us consider a bloody century). And such thoughts were in the back of my husband’s head as he wrote the paper.

That evening, my husband spoke of a poet who champions Victorian values, embodied in traditions that molded man’s competitive and aggressive nature to fit that century’s definition of strength and restraint, reinforced by their admiration for that “manliness”. We find such traits compelling and attractive (after all, they signal a man able to defend his wife, child, tribe) but potentially destructive.

After he finished, one of his colleagues (who earlier contended Rumsfeld was a war criminal) said, well, yes, man has become competitive and violent because of the rise of capitalism. He ignored my husband’s reference to Pinker’s chart, seeming to think it supported his interpretation. I’m not sure when he thought capitalism began to misshape man. He certainly ignored facts that throw a dark shadow on the twentieth century.

We’ve seen the farther a country moved from capitalism, the more likely it was to rank among those that killed their own. I’m not much into graphs, but the pastels in the Nov 2003 Atlantic Monthly are unforgettable. In pink and soft green it compares “state-sponsored killings” with “battlefield deaths.” Only in the worst year of World War I are war deaths greater – and even there the “state-sponsored mountain” remains close, with the Russian Civil War and the Turkish massacre of Armenians.

The charts do show Saddam Hussein a piker (having only slaughtered an estimated 1% of his population from 1979-2003), despite his admiration for Stalin. The Russian beat him in quantity, percentage, and swiftness (7% from 1929 to 1931). The winner, not surprisingly, was Cambodia, with 31% of the population destroyed. Nor are the other countries on the Atlantic‘s list (Turkey 1909-1918, Nazi-occupied Europe 1935-1945, China (1959-1963), Bosnia 1992-1995, and Rwanda 1994) great exemplars of capitalism.

We are left to ponder if my husband’s colleague is heartless or stupid. But probably he is “merely” an ideologue. He could not let go of his idea for a moment. Pinker would argue (and I suspect correctly) that to this colleague, man is naturally an unblemished blank slate; left to his own devices he would wander through life as a noble savage. (Contradictory? Ah, nothing is contradictory if we don’t think much.) Of course, Western institutions and capitalism affect the expression of man’s core self. However, I suspect many readers of this blog would argue capitalism proves a useful and peaceful channel for exactly those universals of “human nature”.

Acknowledging those deaths, why should we be surprised that this particularly unenlightened scholar at this land grant institution in the middle of the United States should share this belief? Facts are irrelevant. Any experience of human nature is irrelevant (he was, needless to say, demonstrating his own competitive nature in the exchange – as, indeed, was my husband). Of course, he teaches literature in a university – pretty far from the life of the noble savage. And it is not surprising, perhaps, that he often seems unhappy – teaching fiction makes him a participant in the Western culture he finds essentially flawed.

But he, too, lives in the real world. This is the same person who wondered how his sons had gained their considerable musical ability – was it from his divorced wife’s family? Was it from his, and his ancestors had merely not been nurtured in previous generations? In other words, this was from a man who in his “real” life thinks the thoughts most of us do about offspring, that many of our skills and interests are inherited, though lessons and nurturance affect their expression. In his office, however, he locks out the earthy–complicated human nature–and embraces only that illusion, ideology.

We must have sympathy for his tenacity: the world is a complex place. We all would like to fit our messy experiences into a simple template. We realize that even our relatively easy lives partake of the tragic: we are born, we sin (or screw up as Franklin might say), we die. Of course, and more often perhaps when our choices are relatively free and we hold ourselves responsible: we are born, we love, we create, we at times transcend our worse natures, we often sin (screw-up), we die. Accepting the messy diversity that is mankind, the tragic nature of our lives—all that is difficult. His neatly circumscribed theory can, he believes, organize human experience and explain human nature; it also absolves him of responsibility.

The problem is that, as Mr. Rummel points out, this delusion also leads us to misinterpret and leaves us vulnerable. I think we all long for simplicity, but it should not be at the expense of the truth. It also diminishes us–and not only our tendency toward violence. Our triumphs disappear as well. When Los Angeles takes the cross from its stationery, it rewrites history. It simplifies. I suspect some would prefer not to think of the power religion has played in many lives. It is outside the template. But this erasure is bought at the cost of not understanding by whom and why the area was settled, the town was named. Angelenos have settled for an illusion, an abstraction, and ignored the messy, complicated, interesting, truth. They have also lost a sense of the universals: why do men explore and why do they willingly undergo the hardships of such exploration?

Obviously, Pinker’s chart is at once an indication of the nature of man but also how it can be nurtured. The Western tradition has found less destructive channels, but even then it is not as successful as we might like. Trench warfare may have killed fewer than would have died in a primitive culture, but we prefer smaller losses. As Mr Rummel observes, we are less likely to find those ways if we ignore history and human nature.

I would argue that such delusions destroy our ability to distinguish between the temporary, the tribal, and the universal. Ignoring universals, we ignore the core of humanity. Chomsky’s politics may be crazy, but his sense that there is, in all of our brains, some deep structure is reinforced by Pinker (another linguist) in a broader way. Unless we acknowledge that we cannot change man’s essential nature while still believing we can channel it, any good government or good educational theory is not going to work. And I think we’ve learned that the channel should not be too narrow nor constraining – because fallible man has poured the concrete and set the path.

Our forefathers would recognize the truth behind Pinker’s chart: the universal tendency of men to fight. On the other hand, they would also celebrate the narrowness of that final bar. Western culture, with its relative freedom, has helped harness man’s potential. The West’s ability to transcend tribalism and recognize a common humanity–to many, the universality of the soul. We are little different from our ancestors, but these assumptions lead us to channel our drives into less violent, less destructive expressions.

Our forefathers considered the traditions both of their religious beliefs and the Enlightenment. This is an argument that Michael Novak makes with some power in his On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. Those men so long ago would argue that factions will always be with us–but the exact issues leading to factions may well change from generation to generation. Setting such divisions in stone (as this WSJ editorial suggests) is likely to make that Constitution vulnerable. Mr. Rummel points to a mistake academics and revolutionaries make more often than others: of mistaking the variables dependent upon space and time with the universals – and the universals with the variables.

Our founders, as Franklin acknowledged in his famous quip, knew that a perfect government is a chimera. The fact that there will be factions is universal; the factions themselves, however, are likely to be defined by more temporary factors. Our country assumed that our representatives would represent us in broad and geographic terms. Geography, indeed, may be eternal. Our relation with it is not.

Man’s nature in some basic ways is also not mutable. For instance, our forefathers, because they could distinguish the eternal within the ephemeral, realized that power tends to corrupt. This is true whether we are Napoleon or Stalin, Hitler or Saddam Hussein (or, perhaps, the guards at Abu Ghraib). Surely, we don’t have to think about this very much to come to that conclusion. A perfect government doesn’t arrive from a perfect revolution in which one class replaces another, one ethnic group replaces another, one religious group replaces another. The eternal that is man is still prone to like power a bit too much.

We need to recognize the noble savage as myth. That shouldn’t be a great loss. We aren’t savages, I’m not sure why we would want to be ones. What we want to be is the best we can be, given our frail natures. History helps us become that best. Sure, some of our choices are going to be virtuous and some not, some self-destructive and some heroic. That is what freedom is all about. And the great questions of the nineteenth century remain questions today: How much freedom for our personal growth and responsibility? How much restraint for the good of the community as a whole – and perhaps of ourselves? That is implicit in what many blogs ask; that is why blogging is about the real and often academia is not.

This is a subject rich with applications because reality is rich. Ideology, such as those of my husband’s colleagues, is not rich because it ignores the messy beauty that is a free man, the reality of human nature. It is not rich because it mistakes the ephemeral for the universal – and the universal for the ephemeral.

In blogs we discuss this; we don’t so often in academia. We need to start if scholars are ever to be free to face facts again–if indeed academic discussion can ever again be as interesting as blogging is.

And, if we deal with reality, scholars must take responsibility for theories. They risk nothing, remember nothing today. But we need from them the faith that Jonathan Edwards and the Mathers had in their beliefs – that research and thought, indeed, that science would only reinforce theology. We need to be willing to stand, as Thoreau observes, “right fronting and face to face to a fact” even if “it were a cimeter” that cuts through our hearts. If those old Puritans were willing to be inoculated for small pox and face the bricks of their neighbors, then surely modern literary critics and social scientists need not think that reality must be ignored to keep their beliefs strong—and if they find such blindness necessary, they might reconsider their beliefs

13 thoughts on “Re: Mr. Rummel’s Entry & the blight of capitalism”

  1. Thank you for the kind words.

    I think that you’ve very clearly stated why academics are extremely unlikely to take a clear and cold look at reality any time soon. Perversly it’s in your discussion of old time Puritans that this is most evident.

    “If those old Puritans were willing to be inoculated for small pox and face the bricks of their neighbors, then surely modern literary critics and social scientists need not think that reality must be ignored to keep their beliefs strong—and if they find such blindness necessary, they might reconsider their beliefs”

    Sure, but the Puritans were facing a dire consequence if they ignored the hope offered by inoculation. This was a long, slow, painful death as their skin sloughed off of them and they bled to death from a thousand open sores.

    Modern day academics are like a mummy packed in the middle of a forgotten tomb: insulated from the world. Ignore violence by refusing to acknowledge it and it’s extremely unlikely that it will come back to bite them in the ass. With no incentive for rationality, ideology wins over reality. And it’s even counter productive to take a realistic stance since that will decrease your job prospects in the Ivory Tower.

    This environment is a massive achievement, won only after centuries of struggle. It’s like the center of a beseiged medieval town where life continues at a normal pace even while soldiers fight every day to keep the barbarians at bay. I can’t say that I begrudge those that benefit without struggle, but it would be nice if they realized that the end of their comfortable existence was only the length of a spear away.

    But, then again, if I’m wishing for miracles I’d also like them to glance up at the walls every now and again and acknowledge the soldiers manning the walls. But I know that’s not about to happen.


  2. You may like this quote from Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”. (p. 341)

    “Anyone familiar with academia knows that it breeds ideological cults that are prone to dogma and resistant to criticism.”

    This is an opinion I had come to long ago, long even before Pinker, but it is good to see a prominent academic say it.

    It does pose a serious public policy problem, for which I have not found a solution. It is easy to find academic departments, and even whole fields, that are not just useless, but actively harmful to the advancment of knowledge. (Middle East Studies, for example.)

    What I haven’t figured out is how a state legislature or Congress can do something about the problem. Our tax money is being wasted on this s nonsense, but I see no simple way to stop it, without damaging the useful parts of the univerisities.

    I’ll have more to say about this subject at my site in the future.

  3. Almost every single university and college in the US is a left wing think tank. Think about it. The profits of capitalist enterprise being diverted to finance the destruction of all capitalist enterprise. Quite a scam.

    Leftist commentators complain about all the “right wing think tanks”, such as Cato, Heritage, and AEI. But compared to all the leftist think tanks, aka universities, the right wingers are a drop in the bucket.

  4. “What I haven’t figured out is how a state legislature or Congress can do something about the problem. Our tax money is being wasted on this s nonsense, but I see no simple way to stop it, without damaging the useful parts of the univerisities.”

    Good question. I suspect that eventually the electorates on the local, State, and National level will work it out over the the next generation. Americans are generally Pragmatists at heart, and the inability to deliver substantive and productive results always leads to a reassessment of basic premises and attitudes. This can already be seen in the debate over secretarian and political discrimination within certain academic disciplines. The 40% of the electorate that’s centrist and independent might not care about the polemics of the 30% Left versus the 30% Right, but when either succeed in establishing an ideological monopoly within a public institution, as the New Left has in academia, there’s only so much abuse the great unwashed middle will take before losing its temper.

    In terms of economics, it’s foolish to bother arguing with an adult that: a) is unable to define their terms (a la “Capitalism”); b) relies on demonstrable fallacy to support their arguments; or c) lacks a minimum amount of practical experience outside of a ‘theoretical’ environment, i.e. academia. Besides, there’s no profession with more small minded bourgeois whiners than first world college profs.

  5. A Scott Crawford, has hit on what I believe will change the system for the better: making sure that professors have a practical background. Maybe they should begin requiring that professors have some actual work experience outside academia?

  6. Work is important – but I suspect that responsibility is more important. Parachuting in as Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America did doesn’t really do it – “slumming” wouldn’t help.

  7. A couple years isn’t slumming.

    Also, the humanities need to incorporate more math. This would help to ground them.

  8. Jim Miller: What I haven’t figured out is how a state legislature or Congress can do something about the problem. Our tax money is being wasted on this nonsense, but I see no simple way to stop it, without damaging the useful parts of the universities.

    Well, here in California (home of IIRC the world’s largest university system), Governor Schwarzenegger is cutting state funding of UC by $372M and making students pay 10-40% higher fees. [link]

    Indirectly this starves the more objectionable parts of the beast by incenting buyers/students to study more useful/lucrative subjects. I’ll major in Post-Structuralist Theory if you’re paying for it. If I have to pay for it, hell, I’ll major in Engineering.

    It also puts gentle pressure on suppliers/universities to de-emphasize those departments that are less self-sufficient through grant money. MolBio brought in $25M in NIH grants, while Women’s Studies brought in seven dollars and ten cents. Guess who gets a new building?

    Not perfect, but a start.

  9. Lindenen,

    I was speaking of economics in general, and socio-political economists in particular… but I’d agree with the extension of the principal to any intellectual discipline where practical, professional, and/or personal experience is feasible and a reasonable prerequisite for advanced study and/or the instruction of students.

  10. I appreciate the comments on this thread. Our goal should be an education that lets us distinguish between the eternal universals and the transitory ephemerals, that helps us understand human nature. We need to value seeing the world whole.

    Our goal of a “well-rounded scholar” may often but not always mean one pointed to a practical outcome. I suspect lindeman’s argument for math reflects such a vision.

    Hanson’s study of the classics arms him with what appeared an esoteric knowledge, but, coupled with his love of the farm, led to an application of that knowledge to the world outside both his farm and his classroom. His may not be the right interpretation of events, but if those that argue with him want to be convincing they need a sense of history and a pragmatic understanding of how the real world works today.

  11. I read a Playboy interview with Steve Wosniak some years back. He described going back to college, pseudonymously for his own satisfaction, after he dropped out of Apple. Here he was, co-founder of what had become for a while the fastest growing corporation in history by selling what people wanted for less than they expected to pay, and his Economics intructor was explaining to him that corporations profit only by selling people things they don’t want for more than they are worth.

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