To Know a Pear One Must Bite Into a Pear
By Dennis Loo (3/28/14)
I came of age politically during the revolutionary upsurges of the 1960s. They are principally responsible for who I am politically and socially today.
These movements made it unmistakably clear that not only were powerful and large social movements possible – these movements, after all, were rocking the nation and world – but revolution itself was possible. Revolution was most definitely on the table.
My academic studies as an undergraduate also taught me something profoundly important. I was a government major and I studied closely two examples of bureaucracies' behavior, the US Interior Department’s attempt to protect cattle ranchers by poisoning prairie dogs and the US military’s defoliation campaign in Vietnam. In both instances not only did I learn that the empirical foundation for these governmental policies was at best suspect – the prairie dog wasn’t causing cattle deaths and destroying the jungle wouldn’t win the US’s war in Vietnam – but I also more importantly came to see the disjuncture between what public officialdom said they were doing and why they were doing it versus their actual policies and behavior.
I also took a course on education and in this course there were two TA’s, Herbert Gintis and Sam Bowles, who were Marxists and who introduced me to a Marxist analysis of education. They explained that the reason why schools were unnecessarily alienating was because schools were preparing people to perform in alienating occupations in which the goal was extrinsic – grades in school and money in jobs – instead of focusing on the intrinsic value of learning and working. This made total sense to me and explained a conundrum that I had been living with for years: why, if the goal was learning, did schools emphasize grades instead of learning?
Because I was an undergrad at Harvard I had the rare opportunity to meet up close and personal elites who were literally running the country. Most people in the world don’t have this chance as these movers and shakers are normally only visible to the public over the TV or from a distance in some large crowd in tightly controlled and managed events. What I saw in these close encounters showed me that these individuals had fairly distorted value systems and that I could not in good conscience model myself after them. I would not likely have recognized how messed up their worldview was, however, without the other factors above.
I thus had concrete exposure to the possibility of another way and I was willing to follow through in my studies intellectually to their logical conclusion. I also became a political activist and learned an enormous amount through that work. Without that extensive experience I would not have been able to parse through and determine how to make full sense of Marxism.
I came across for the first time in a library during a school winter break Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. This work contains the distilled essence of Marxism. I recall very vividly the powerful impact this very brief but concentrated essay had on me. It has informed what I’ve done as an intellectual and an activist ever since.
As Marx points out in it:
[Feuerbach] regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation. Hence he does not grasp the significance of 'revolutionary,' of 'practical-critical,' activity.”
As everyone knows from the 11th thesis that is its most often-cited passage, Marxism aims to resolve the historic gap between contemplation and action: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The full meaning of this perspective continues to provoke debate.
The widely varying takes on Marxism that we see in the academy are testimony to how people can pick and choose and see in a body of theory what they wish to see. In the academy what you learn about Marxism is mostly academic Marxism, robbed of its revolutionary soul.
Marx argues in Theses that it is impossible to truly know things without actively engaging with them. You cannot be an armchair philosopher and claim to really know the world because there are limits to what can know through sheer contemplation. As Mao Zedong put it once: to know a pear one must bite into a pear.
There is another angle from which to view this: those who claim to be “value-free” and who say that they are not taking a side or taking a stand are in fact either deceiving themselves or others, or both. It is not possible to be “value-free.” People who have suffered from a very specific kind of brain injury and who lose the ability to make value judgments but who continue to retain their reasoning abilities find that they cannot come to conclusions. The reason? You cannot reach conclusions without having a value stance.
The basic cleavage in humanity in value positions is that between those who regard their individual lives as more important than anything (or that of their immediate family or other “tribe” such as their nation) versus those who see principles such as the common good as paramount. A common form of this is the oppositional views between those who see “my nation” first compared to those who view the lives for all peoples as of equal value.
Any debates that occur between these two groups are not resolvable on the level of reasoning alone since those reasons rest ultimately on two radically different value stances.
Another way of putting this is that for some people, “truth” is whatever serves their group’s interests versus those who regard truth as something that exists objectively in that it is not subject to being either elevated or downgraded based on whether or not it suits one’s personal preferences and group allegiances. Truth is the truth, regardless of whether or not it suits one’s personal desires. Someone, for instance, can be stating the truth, even if their motives are not pure and even if they do not belong to the group about which their observation is being made. Truth is truth.
The comments thread on my article about the Oscar Pistorius murder trial is very interesting in this regard. Some people who have left comments have trouble distinguishing between their personal desires for what they want to believe from the facts of the case (e.g., they think that Pistorius can’t have done such a heinous thing as murder his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp because “it’s out of character” for Pistorius to do so).
The debates during and since Trayvon Martin’s murder by George Zimmerman have also had a similar character, with Zimmerman’s defenders having no trouble believing that Trayvon must have provoked his own death, despite no empirical evidence to support that view (e.g., DNA tests showed no DNA of Zimmerman on Martin and vice-versa), and all of the evidence (such as the fact that Zimmerman was stalking Trayvon) pointing to the opposite conclusion. Moreover, if you believe that Zimmerman had a legal right to use deadly force to “defend” himself, then to be consistent you would have to argue that Trayvon had at least an equal right to use deadly force to defend his life, in which case Zimmerman can not have been found not guilty of Trayvon’s murder given that even if Trayvon had properly defended himself, this would not and could not have justified Zimmerman using deadly force to kill someone who was only defending himself against an unidentified stalker with a gun.
These cases illustrate how much of a political and attitudinal Rorschach test these legal cases can be.
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)