[NOTE: I do not support assassination. Aside from the fact that I personally am a wimp and a coward, I believe that political change will be more durable and legitimate if it is seen to emerge from within the existing political system. The purpose of this post is purely analytical. Ultimately, it’s about trying to account for mass shootings as a phenomenon.]
We are constantly told that our nation is more divided than it has ever been. That’s obviously bullshit. Leaving aside the Civil War — in which our nation was so divided that people literally lined up with rifles to murder each other by the thousands — the turn of the 20th century was marked by labor militancy and left-wing agitation, and the 1960s were a period of mass protest and reactionary violence that far overshadows the present day.
The publication of The 1619 Project in an expanded book form may be the appropriate time to revisit another attempt to rewrite a popular story to center racial oppression. I am speaking, of course, of HBO’s Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, a sequel and adaptation of Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel of the same name. By happenstance, I have been rereading the comic this week, as a colleague who had borrowed my copy prior to the pandemic finally returned it. Returning to the original text with the HBO series in mind reaffirms to me that Lindelof and his team of writers have achieved an absolute masterpiece of adaptation and reappropriation. The HBO series shows that our contmporary culture of endless remakes, prequels, and sequels does not have to be creatively barren — that the act of taking up a beloved source can actually inspire greater artistic feats and add a layer of enjoyment unavailable from a more original story.
Once upon a time, the novel was a new technology. As with many new technologies, many of its earliest and most enthusiastic adopters were women, and its rapid popularisation brought along with it a new set of anxieties about gender, sexuality, and moral corruption. In his article, ‘Masturbation, Credit and the Novel During the Long Eighteenth Century‘, Thomas Laqueur argues that 18th century anxieties about excessive novel reading amongst young women – thought to undermine their ability to distinguish between reality and fiction, to produce a dangerous isolation and morbid self-absorption – must be understood in connection both to contemporary anxieties about masturbation – another morally corrupting, unreal and solitary activity – and in turn to contemporary anxieties about the financialization of capital, which – like both masturbation and novel reading – threatened to undermine the realm of material interaction, duty and exchange by offering in its place an unreal promise of endless, amoral expansion and profit.
My Esteemed Partner and I both grew up in the Midwest and have lived here our entire lives. As we were enjoying our morning coffee amid the din of harsh winds and sirens, I turned to her to confirm an intuition: “Tornadoes are supposed to happen in the summer, right? Not in the opposite of summer, which it is right now?” She agreed with me, and yet here we are, waking up to find that tornadoes have ripped through multiple Midwestern states, killing dozens — in December.
It’s a small mercy that I at least never attended an anti-abortion protest. That was a little too tacky, too “political” for my upwardly mobile family at our upwardly mobile church. God sent his Son to die on the cross so we could clean up and move to the suburbs, and his perfect will for our life obviously didn’t include yelling and screaming and getting arrested. Nonetheless, the pro-life movement is driven by “my people,” the evangelicals, who are now on the cusp of victory in a generation-long battle that has deployed all available tactics, from the long march through the institutions to harassment, terrorism, and assassination. They wanted it bad, and now they’re getting it. We’re all getting it.
Recently I was talking to a friend from a similar background to mine. Though he was a little younger, we both shared the experience of living through the Bush years in a conservative Christian college milieu, and both of us found it profoundly disillusioning. He put it well when he said that both the Christian college community and the Bush administration represented a world in with “our people” had won, and both were unlivable. I can’t help but notice that the same pattern held when the evangelicals won by catapulting a man who exuded the sleazy menace of a televangelist — preaching the prosperity gospel without the tedious “gospel” part — into the White House against our will. And it will continue to hold when Roe is overturned, as the result will be a moral, social, and political disaster that will make Prohibition look like a well-considered public policy intervention.
In the Poetics, Aristotle identifies two basic forms of storytelling — tight and focused (tragedy) and loose and episodic (epic) — and I always tell my students that it broadly maps onto film vs. television. And in that context, I suggest that his assessment that tragedy is “better” doesn’t make much sense. Which is better, I ask, The Sopranos or The Godfather? They’re just different genres.
The disdain for aesthetic frivolity is as old as white feminism itself, going all the way back to Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women draws on anti-black, Orientalist and homophobic tropes to condemn ‘luxury’ – by which she means any kind of physical experience which renders a person passive or which allows feeling to triumph over reason. Like many ‘gender critical’ feminists, Wollstonecraft experienced the sharp end of patriarchal and homophobic social structures, struggling to hold her family together in the face of her father’s dissolution, and abandoned by the father of her child to fend for herself in the face of a censorious society. But the rights which she longs for are organised around bourgeois notions of freedom, centred on ideals of hard work, private property and self-sufficiency, and in her eagerness to find a footing of equality with men, she cultivates a disdain – sometimes even a disgust – both for the women around her and for her own queer desire.
We often hear from politicians that slavery is “America’s original sin.” This phrase has become a cliché, thoughtlessly intoned mostly by Democrats, though occasionally also deployed by Republicans in a bid to look like they are taking racism seriously. In most cases, it seems like little more than a way of gesturing at the unique gravity of racism. Nevertheless, if we take this bromide at its word – that grappling with racial oppression is not just a social or political problem, but also downright theological – it reveals the inherent deadlocks in liberal anti-racism.
As many readers know, I teach in a Great Books program where our courses center on the discussion of important primary texts across all major liberal arts disciplines — humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The center of authority in the classroom is not the professor, but the course materials, and accordingly we are encouraged to be a “jack of all trades” and teach outside our scholarly expertise. Hence this semester I am actually teaching a natural science course on different views of astronomy and cosmology through history. While a traditional Great Books program would focus only on Western sources, we have aimed for greater inclusivenes. My current syllabus includes Hindu, Chinese, and Islamic sources alongside Western materials.
This brings me to the topic of my post, the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra, an ancient Hindu text that espouses something like atomism. It was clearly a slam dunk for my course, to include alongside Democritus and Lucretius, but I have been repeatedly frustrated by the lack of a useable English translation of the text. This old edition is festooned with so much commentary as to be unreadable. Meanwhile, more recent editions are unusable for different reasons. The translation by Debasish Chakrabarty leaves so many words untranslated — including, absurdly, the words for the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) — as to be almost completely unreadable. Subhash Kak’s rendering is somewhat better, but still leaves far too many words untranslated and is burdened with a line-by-line commentary that alternates between boring reiteration and a tendentious attempt to demonstrate that the text anticipates everything in modern science. I can’t give either of those translations to my students and expect them to make heads or tails of it. I realize that no translation fully captures all the nuances of the foreign language — yet the solution is surely not to simply give up and expect the reader to learn dozens of foreign terms before they can approach the text at all.
Finally, driven by desperation, I went through the old edition, which at least translates the text into English, and transcribed the aphorisms of the original text. I provide the result here in case anyone might find it useful. It includes some clarifying footnotes of my own, as well as some material related directly to my classroom context (such as a division of the reading for two class sessions). I am aware that a full understanding of the text and its legacy requires engagement with the commentary, but I cannot pretend to provide that in the context of my class in any case. Presenting the original text, relatively unadorned, will at least give my students an overview of its breadth and key claims.
Immanuel Kant famously taught that we should treat all human beings as ends in themselves, and never simply as means. The categorical imperative imposes a complete prohibition against lying, because when someone lies, they treat the recipient of that lie not as an end in themselves, but as a means for the liar. When a lie is told, there is a fundamental breach––Kant calls this an annihilation––of a person’s dignity and autonomy. Many actions can be justified within a Kantian ethic; never lying.
I am becoming more Kantian by the day.
What we are witnessing today is not some postmodern moment where everything is relative. No, what we are witnessing today is a fundamental violation of Kant’s categorical imperative where a small group of right-wing extremists constantly lie to their listeners, and it is literally resulting in mass death. This is not sustainable.
When Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity––both fully vaccinated and part of a company that requires vaccination––get on television night after night and tell their viewers that Anthony Fauci is evil and that the Covid-19 vaccine is not trustworthy, they are lying. They are lying openly and they are lying unashamedly. They are using their viewers not as ends, but as means for their own political gain. Viewers of Fox News have dignity, and as that dignity is constantly violated by these bad men during a once in a century pandemic, said viewers are unnecessarily, but predictably, dying. This is not sustainable.
When these same right-wing commentators and politicians tell their listeners that President Biden has opened the southern border and that there are dangerous criminals flooding in, they are lying. Joe Biden has almost completely closed the border and he is likely violating international law by deporting asylum seekers, but half of America believes otherwise because people on television, radio, and pulpits have lied to them. The result of this lie ends up violating the basic dignity and autonomy of those who are credibly seeking help at our southern border, almost always leading to their further suffering and possible death. This is not sustainable.
From climate change to reproductive rights, the lies are nearly endless. I am actually not sure how to respond to a situation where half of the country is being lied to day after day. This might be where we need the psychoanalysts to explain that some people want to be lied to. But that still offers us no solution. In a world of lies where basic human dignity is being violated in such a blatant way, and where we see in real time the deadly results of those lies, the correct response must be political. The liars need to be defeated and their voices muted.
But is a politics built upon a prohibition of lying actually possible in a time when the liars are so loud? I’m genuinely not sure. But I am tired of watching family and friends get lied to again and again. I increasingly think that at a fundamental level Kant is right: we need a prohibition against lying. Humanity might literally depend on this.