Pacifism

Pacifism is properly pacificism, the making of peace: not a belief or an attitude, but a practice. Mathematics then is pacifist, because learning it means learning that you cannot fight your way to the truth. Might does not make right. If others are going to agree with you, they will have to do it freely. Moreover, you cannot rest until they do agree with you, if you’ve got a piece of mathematics that you think is right.

Such is the ideal. It doesn’t mean there won’t be mathematicians who try to bluff their way to dominance, or suppress the work of their competitors. Such persons can be a problem whenever a practice becomes a remunerative profession, no longer pursued for its own sake alone.

Still, since everybody learns some mathematics at school; since etymologically speaking, mathematics is that which is learned; it has been my dream that everybody could realize that in one field of endeavor at least, fighting is not allowed, and universal agreement is believed to be possible and is actually achieved.

In short, mathematics is pacifist, and that is something good; and yet in the political context, pacifism has been justly condemned.

“Pacifism is war-mongery complicated by defeatism,” wrote Collingwood in 1942, in support of the war of Britain against the Nazis. The sentence is italicized in the chapter of The New Leviathan called “External Politics.”

The present post began as a supplement to my original post about that chapter. I spent five years writing a post about each chapter of The New Leviathan, whose alternative title is Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism. The experience helps me deal with life today. I return now to the chapter that takes up pacifism, because to some fellow academics, I am annoying or suspect for trying to understand the thoughts of persons with whom they disagree politically.

You don’t try to understand Nazis, they might say; you fight them.

While being critical of the current adminstration of the United States, some writers issue a disclaimer: America under Donald Trump is not at all like Germany and Austria under Adolf Hitler.

That the disclaimer would be needed is worrying enough. If war is a state of mind, as Collingwood says, then the United States is at war with itself. With its foolish way of trying to make peace, pacifism effectively promotes war,

Not realizing that modern war is a neurotic thing, an effect of terror where there is nothing to fear and of hunger where the stomach is already full …

That was 1942. What is there to be afraid of now?

Not enough people are afraid of climate change—afraid with the kind of fear that provokes responsible action.

In America at least, too many people are afraid of black people. That’s my impression of a country I haven’t lived in since 1998. That country may twice have elected a black man as president; this doesn’t mean it has got over being founded by people who owned black people as slaves.

People may say that what they fear is not black people, but an ideology that they call wokism. I don’t know who specifically is held to embrace this ideology, except perhaps Ibram X. Kendi.

It’s October 29, 2020, and the August issue of Harper’s reached me just the other day, by snail mail in Istanbul; however, from a tweet, I have learned about an essay in the November issue called “Is America Ungovernable?” According to David Bromwich,

“The only remedy to racist discrimination,” Kendi’s central axiom asserts, “is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” Present discrimination, that is, against white people is to remedy past discrimination against Black people. The present status of Black people is supposed to be marked at every moment by systemic racism. White people are oppositely marked, so the doctrine maintains, by the reality of white supremacy. In every civic or cultural encounter, race identity supervenes on personal identity.

Bromwich’s quotations are correct; I find them in Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist, as excerpted on the website of his UK publisher. From there I learn that, according to Kendi,

The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race-neutral” one … there is no such thing as a not-racist idea, only racist ideas and antiracist ideas.

Philosophically speaking, Kendi’s Manichaeism is at odds with Collingwood’s dialectic, even in the chapter of The New Leviathan that I am reviewing:

29. 52. Dialectic is not between contraries but between contradictories (24. 68). The process leading to agreement begins not from disagreement but from non-agreement.

29. 53. Non-agreement may be hardened into disagreement; in that case the stage is set for an eristic in which each party tries to vanquish the other; or, remaining mere non-agreement, it may set the stage for a dialectic in which each party tries to discover that the difference of view between them conceals a fundamental agreement.

I found reason to quote 29. 52 when taking up Chapter XLI, “What Barbarism Is.” Meanwhile, according to Kendi in a tweet (dated September 21, 2020) that I happened to see,

So what does “not racist” mean? The term has no meaning other than denying when one is being racist. We should not have words in the dictionary that don’t have definitions.

I think we can always suspect people who say, “I am not racist,” or “I am not sexist,” or “I am not transphobic,” or what have you. It’s like saying, “I am not rude”: not something for you to determine on your own.

But “We should not have words in the dictionary that don’t have definitions”? It makes no sense, even though Kendi is now a professor of history at Boston University, where he is to “establish a new University-wide research center that will be titled the ‘BU Center for Antiracist Research,’” according to the announcement (pdf) from the university provost that is linked to in Wikipedia.

Bromwich too writes foolishly in Harper’s, when he says,

calling someone a racist in 2020 inflicts as sure a wound, with as light a burden of proof, as calling someone a Communist did in 1952; and Democrats in our time have found antiracism as valuable a weapon as anticommunism was for Republicans in the McCarthy period.

Andrew Sullivan tweeted this excerpt, perhaps because he agrees with it. The absurdity was noted by a surgeon whom I follow called Mark Hoofnagle:

Imagine the false persecution complex needed to believe this while: an open racist literally occupies the White House, denying black people the vote has become overt policy of an entire party, and there is nothing resembling a HUAC for racism.

Do they hear themselves talk?

At first I felt embarrassed to be a Harper’s reader and subscriber; but then I actually read Bromwich’s piece. As I said in my own tweet, “[the] essay as a whole seemed good to me as a warning about dealing with Trump.”

I suggested above that a racist society can still elect a black president. It may also be the case that in such a society, an accusation of racism can effect social death. It would not be the same thing as being accused of Communism in the middle of the last century, when you could be jailed for being a Communist or even defending Communists.

In the 1990s I listened to Dorothy Healey’s program on WPFW in Washington; she would emphasize the importance of the Supreme Court, since it had overthrown the five-year sentence of her and her comrades for conspiring to overthrow the government.

No analogy can be expected to be perfect, except in mathematics.

From decades ago, in an article about medical practice, I recall that when a patient’s vital signs are constantly recorded on a roll of paper (or presumably now in a computer file), a malpractice attorney can always pore over the record to find something abnormal that the doctor failed to respond to.

We may also suspiciously pore over an essay, to find a sentence that reveals the writer as being somehow tainted or impaired or dishonest.

Modern war is characterized by neurotic fear. I wrote first about this observation of Collingwood’s in 2018. A year later, I went back to add a quote from Rod Dreher. Writing in The American Conservative, Dreher admitted his fear, but not the pathology of it.

Identifying as a Christian, Dreher says his fear is of the “progressives” who “really do hate us, and wish to see harm done to us.” This fear then is the progressives’ fault.

By Collingwood’s account, Dreher is correct, at least as far as progressives are concerned. If you are somehow terrifying others, then it is on you to do something about it. However, as Collingwood also points out, you need not automatically give the fearful what they want.

Should you even give them a hearing?

I called Dreher “thoughtful” in the earlier post, because he thinks about his life and what he wants, and he shares what he learns—and shares honestly, as far as I can tell. By contrast, it’s dishonest for one Nick Hankoff, born in 1985, to write, in the same magazine as Dreher,

Trump and Biden certainly differ on policy, but the more important and clearer contrast is in their leadership capabilities. The incumbent is emerging as a fatherly figure, while the challenger is fading into the form of an absent father …

When millions of Americans witnessed President Donald Trump remove his mask upon returning to the White House from a brief hospital stay for Covid-19, that was the defining moment for the 2020 election. Along with his subsequent, encouraging remarks, the moment also distinguished Trump as the fatherly leader of the nation.

This is dishonest, because (as I suppose) it does not express the writer’s real reasons for supporting Trump. The rhetoric tries to give others an excuse for supporting him.

Dreher is clear why he effectively supports Trump, whether voting for him or not. He is afraid. I have been willing to listen to why.

In a 2017 post called “Community,” I took issue with the ideas of Dreher that were to be gathered into his book, The Benedict Option; at least I argued that a liberal democracy like the United States was the convenient place for him to try to put his ideas into practice.

Dreher has written a sequel now: Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. This is reviewed in The Bias Magazine: The Voice of the Christian Left, October 27, 2020, by Daniel Walden, who says,

Dreher’s considerable personal charm will always afford him a warm reception in a media landscape that anoints conservative intellectuals primarily on the basis of their ability to avoid overt racial slurs during fifteen minute television appearances … Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents is not worth your time or anyone else’s …

Dreher’s main concern in writing this book is “soft totalitarianism,” which he is quick to point out does not actually exist yet, but which he is absolutely certain poses a civilization-scale threat to the United States. It is important to note that at no point does he actually define “soft totalitarianism” or tell us how we would know it had arrived … soft totalitarianism is supposed to instill the atmospheric dread of an old episode of The Twilight Zone, assuring us that the book’s litany of interviews with Eastern Bloc dissidents has something to teach contemporary Christians about the coming persecution …

Dreher is willing to throw away others’ freedom to assuage his own fears. What shall we do about that? Fight him, in some sense; but what sense?

Yet another writer for The American Conservative, Micah Mattix, is quoted by his university:

In my classes, we read texts carefully and take writing with clarity and nuance seriously. In studying great works of literature, we learn about ourselves, our world, and the God who created both. My hope is that students will not only become clearer thinkers as a result but also come to the value of benefit of contemplating the true and the beautiful in their own right.

I studied great works of literature as an undergraduate at St John’s College. It was one of the best things I have done. I’m pretty satisfied with the words that I wrote about the College in 2012. I am therefore curious what is behind the words of Micah Mattix.

Great-books programs are suspect. Jason Stanley tweeted, just a week ago,

Your regular reminder that “Great Books” programs are not essential to “humanistic education”, and are often part of the problem not the solution.

It’s a bizarre remark, but Stanley must have his reasons for it. However, there is no one great-books program. A lot depends, not just on whom you are reading, but whom you are reading with: your teachers, your fellow students. Do the teachers let the students speak? Do they expect the students to speak? Do the students speak, understanding it as their right, while accepting the responsibility of explaining and revising what they say?

Micah Mattix may be reading great books with his students, but he is at the university founded by Pat Robertson and called originally Christian Broadcasting Network University. He invokes God in his blurb.

I wouldn’t do that, were I teaching literature. In the last quoted sentence of Mattix, perhaps “come to the value of benefit” was supposed to be “come to value the benefit.” I would avoid the suggestion that the books to be read were instances of the true and the beautiful. It is the reading and discussing of them that is a good in itself, as I have said of participating in the activities of the Nesin Mathematics Village.

For the students with whom I am reading Euclid now, albeit remotely, I prepared a page of this blog that says, in my simple Turkish:

Freedom is a right and a responsibility. In mathematics we are free because:

  • To demand of everybody a reason for their claim is our right.

  • To give to those who ask a reason for our own claim is our responsibility.

In mathematics truth is

  • individual, because nobody else can order us to accept a claim;

  • universal, because we all must agree on the same claim; if not, we cannot fight, but must talk.

That’s mathematics, as I see it. I try to extend the ideas beyond that field. But when in a tweet I said, “I wonder what [Mattix’s] classes are like,” an historian said, “I don’t.”

Then she blocked me from seeing this and all of her other tweets, after I said, “Interesting. I wonder what you are curious about. Or perhaps curiosity is suspect, as it can be where I live, curiosity and anxiety being called by the same word here.” So now I’ve got to wonder what the historian’s classes are like.

One Trackback

  1. By The point of teaching mathematics « Polytropy on October 30, 2020 at 7:01 am

    […] added, October 30, 2020. Most recently in “Pacifism,” I have developed or refined the ideas of this post into two antitheses. Mathematics […]

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