Marx bicentennial

Karl Marx’s two hundredth birthday was celebrated on May 5 — at least, it was celebrated in a few places such as Marx’s home town of Trier, where there is reportedly a thriving trade in Marx-themed tourist tschotchkes; and in China, still a communist country, at least from its own perspective.

In most of the United States, Marx’s birthday was studiously ignored. There were a few newspaper editorials (remember newspapers?), most of which, I suspect, assumed the gently mocking tone of the editorial in the Chicago Tribune, which wound up concluding that Marx was wrong: “Germany conducted an exhaustive 40-year experiment on the comparative value of a market-based approach and a statist one. In 1989, it was the latter that expired, along with the Soviet-aligned dictatorship that ruled in the east.”

Social media was far less restrained in its open criticism of Marx; when philosophy professor Brian Leiter posted birthday greetings to Marx on Twitter, both he and Marx were, not surprisingly, viciously attacked, and to a lesser extent, viciously defended.

For most people in the United States, the main thing to know about Karl Marx is that he has been proved wrong. Communist states murdered tens of millions of people, communism couldn’t compete with capitalism, and since 1989 when the Soviet Union imploded, communism and Karl Marx are irrelevant.

Was Karl Marx wrong? It depends on how you read him. If you accept the Soviet Union’s interpretation of Marx (which most Americans do without questioning it), an interpretation in which the Soviet Union had the only true interpretation of Karl Marx, then you have a pretty strong argument that Marx was in fact wrong.

As for me, I was introduced to Marx through the Frankfurt School, which offered a substantially different interpretation. The Frankfurt School pointed out that Marx demonstrated the ways capitalism causes alienation, and the ways women are subjugated under capitalism. The Frankfurt School also made it clear that reading Marx seriously required intellectual freedom that only came from disaffiliating with existing communist parties. While I’m critical of the Frankfurt School, it was the Frankfurt School helped me learn how to be critical — critical of economic systems that cause harm; critical of social structures in which a few people dominate everyone else; and critical of any belief in supernatural forces that are supposed to save us.

I’ve found this last kind of criticism — the criticism of belief in supernatural forces that will supposedly save us — to be very powerful. Whenever I hear that something is going to save us, if we would just put our trust in it, I get very skeptical. A lot of Americans want us to have unquestioning belief in the motto “In God we trust”; but I’m very skeptical that some big Daddy God is going to save us from infidel Muslim terrorists, unemployment, or whatever the bogeyman of the month happens to be.

And most Americans, including all our political leaders, have an unquestioning belief in a supernatural force called “The Free Market” that will solve all our problems. I find this even less believable than the idea that a Daddy God is going to solve all our problems.

Marx’s writings have distinct limitations, and we should read him critically. Some of the best criticism of Marx may be found in Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, where Piketty points out that because Marx did not have access to big data sets, Marx simply couldn’t be very accurate.

Despite those limitations, Marx’s writings taught me how to be critical of the society in which I live. Things do not have to be the way they are now. History shows that things can change. We do not have to put up with injustice. That’s the fundamental message of Marx, one that is still as fresh today as when he was writing the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Capital, and the Theses on Feuerbach which end with the statement:

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Happy birthday, Karl.

Not thinking about being human

At the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, writes about what it’s like to be a black professor.

Back in December, 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Yancy titled “Dear White America,” a thoughtful essay that asked white Americans to reflect on their position as white persons in a social system that provides structural benefits for white people. From my perspective as a former student of philosophy, this op-ed piece was primarily philosophical: it was written in the spirit of dialogue and openness, and designed to evoke serious reflection on an insistent social situation.

Rather than evoking reflection, Yancy reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he received “hundreds of emails, phone messages, and letters, an overwhelming number of which were filled with racist vitriol.” Yancy offers quotations from perhaps a dozen of the communications he received. Sadly I was not astonished by the level of vitriol; it was about what I expected. I was mildly astonished at how badly written these communications were, and how thoughtless — I mean “thoughtless” not in the sense of a lack of civility (though they did lack civility), but thoughtless in the sense that the writers had not actually thought about what they wrote.

Since Yancy’s essay was structured to provoke thoughtfulness about the topic of race, how is it that hundreds of people responded thoughtlessly? Part of the problem may be the American cultural tendency towards “evasion of philosophy” — the phrase used by American pragmatist philosopher Cornel West to name the American propensity of avoiding systematic thinking. Another part of the problem is American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon which includes those ostensibly well-educated Americans who value entrepreneurship and “business” over the life of the mind.

But I think the major problem here is the inability of most white Americans to think seriously about race and racism in America — to think, to think seriously. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has identified the problem of “white fragility,” but there is more to Yancy’s experience than white fragility. Yancy was attacked for asking white Americans to think, reflect, be introspective. The refusal to think can only be called intellectual fearfulness.

Another way of saying this is that white Americans are fearful of thinking seriously and deeply about what it means to be human. This fearfulness on the part of white Americans is, I suspect, amplified by the general American anti-intellectualism which is in large part a fear of thinking outside the narrow boundaries of technical achievement or outside the even narrower boundaries of American white Protestant evangelical theology. Thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence and other technical matters is acceptable. Thinking about, and either accepting or rejecting, the Protestant evangelical conception of God is acceptable. Thinking about what it means to be human as a white American is not acceptable, and evokes fearfulness rather than serious reflection and introspection. I find that very troubling.

Xenophanes on the appearance of the divine

Xenophanes, a Greek thinker (fl. 540 BCE), is quoted by later writers as having said the following about the divine:

If cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as humans do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own — horses like horses, cattle like cattle. [Diels-Kranz fr. 15.]

Mortal [humans] suppose that the gods are born as they themselves are, and that they wear human clothing and have human voice and body. [Diels-Kranz fr. 14.]

— trans. Arthur Fairbanks [and altered slightly by me], The First Philosophers of Greece: An Edition and Translation… (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trubner Co., 1898), p. 67.

A possible case for teaching intelligent design

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who declares himself an atheist, argued in a 2008 article in Philosophy and Public Affairs that intelligent design (ID) can not be dismissed as easily as young earth creationism. Yes, ID is very problematic, as Nagel knows:

“I understand the attitude that ID is just the latest manifestation of the fundamentalist threat, and that you have to stand and fight them here or you will end up having to fight for the right to teach evolution at all.” [Thomas Nagel, “Public Education and Intelligent Design,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, v. 36, no. 2, p. 203.]

However, Nagel says, both ID and scientific naturalism are grounded in worldviews that originate outside science. He then asks, Why is it OK to disallow one of these world views in public education, while allowing the other worldview? Speaking as an atheist, he says:

“I do not regard divine intervention as a possibility, even though I have no other candidates. Yet I recognize that this is because of an aspect of my overall worldview that does not rest on empirical grounds or any other kind of rational grounds. I do not think the existence of God can be disproved. So someone who can offer serious scientific reasons to doubt the adequacy of the theory of evolution, and who believes in God, in the same immediate way that I believe there is no god, can quite reasonably conclude that the hypothesis of design should be taken seriously.” [pp. 202-203]

Many political liberals will reject this notion out of hand, but Nagel makes a convincing argument that they should think more carefully about their rejection. It is worth reading the entire article, in order to follow Nagel’s careful and nuanced line of thought; the article is online here.