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Some Thoughts on Reading “Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,” Part 4

January 9, 2014
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Like a number of other notable intellectuals who found the youthful excesses of the student-led New Left movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s to be abhorrent and frightening, Peter L. Berger denounced this movement and threw his lot in with the emerging web of academics, foundations and think tanks that was coalescing during the Reagan administration to oppose the forces of “Leftism.” I purposely use the scare quotes above, because while I do not doubt the sincerity of these people’s feelings that the Left presented a real and dangerous force to be reckoned with, there is no question that with the wisdom of hindsight, it is very clear that this force was mostly a mirage rooted in youthful energy. Meanwhile, the real power to shape every concrete aspect of social, political, economic life and culture (with the possible short-lived exception of pop music, which itself was soon fully coopted) always remained firmly in the hands of those with money and deeply-rooted establishmentarian connections. As even current advertising makes clear, coopting every symbol of New Left “revolution” to sell the endless products of late-capitalist consumption (He, denizen of the corner office: “Yea! Stick it to The Man!”  The office underling: “…but Sir, you ARE the Man.”) the supposed power of the New Left, along with the danger to the social order it represented, was always only one of style and not genuine substance.

Again, I have no need to question the sincerity of the initial feelings of threat felt by that cadre of intellectuals mentioned above. Though one of the younger of the Boomer generation, I am certain old enough myself to remember the short-lived sense, circa 1968-1970, that as the song said, “there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” OK. But the shallowness and ineffectual nature of the supposed revolutionary spirit became clear to anyone with half a brain within a few short years. In the meantime, the forces of real power were reasserting themselves. As we know now, as a result of the “Powell Memo” of 1971, by 1980 there was a growing network of generously funded foundations, think tanks, magazine and journals established, all dedicated simultaneously to smashing whatever power there was on the Left even while keeping the myth of a powerful and danger Left alive, and to employ and massively fund the “research” projects of this cadre of intellectuals for both purposes. As the years have worn on, the very pitiful non-existence of any real and tangible power on the Left or even Liberal side of social politics appears to have only increased the need to shout all the louder about the hidden dangers it represents. Again, I do not necessarily doubt the sincerity of the original feelings of threat felt among this cadre of intellectuals. But it is simply not credible to me that such well-trained analysts of society have continued all these decades now to believe their own disturbing rhetoric about it.

These were the folks among whom Berger associated, both professionally and personally, during his late 40s, 50s and 60s. Berger claims that he was never really one of them, that he always maintained his sense of intellectual distance and independence, and that he remained basically the true liberal he had always been; and in fairness, it needs to be said that at key junctures Berger did act to assert his independence, for example, by having his name removed from the Contributing Editor mast of First Things magazine, as it moved increasingly from being a voice of traditional ecumenism to that of the most militant type of Roman Catholic conservative dogmatism (though we might notice that his conformities, such as The Hartford Appeal, were much more loud and public than his assertions of independence.). Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that these were years that might have otherwise been ones of solidifying his most concrete and lasting contributions, both to sociology and to wider academia. What mess of pottage did we get instead?

Berger veered off into economics and the sociology of development. Well and good. But what we got was book after book, article after the next, extolling the virtues of the Capitalist model of development over that of the Socialist model. In this, Berger always claimed his vaunted “value neutrality,” that he only went where the raw data led him. This illustrates vividly what I have found most frustrating about Berger’s work after about 1980. He excoriates the “ideological blindness” of others, especially academics of communist and socialist countries, in many places coming very close to or even crossing the line of suggesting that they largely see things the way they do only because seeing it that way enhances their power and economic self-interest. This is what we would expect from the author of The Social Construction of Reality. But in his own work, Berger resorts to the justification of value neutrality, even when referring to the “studies” he engaged in for the tobacco industry and their deep-pocketed attempts to undermine the public credibility of the nascent anti-smoking campaign in society.

Berger noted, rightly, that all economic development is a trade-off between the traditional forces of meaning (community, religion, tribal and family bonds) and that of increased material standards of living. His general view (where the raw data led him) was to see that while both the capitalist and socialist models of development more or less equally undermined the traditional forces of meaning, the capitalist mode at least delivered the material goods, a rising standard of living for the vast population, while the socialist model succeeded here barely at all or was even counter-productive. His work repeats this “finding” over and over again.

To put it mildly, Berger found no trouble lining up sources for continued funding of this work. It is highly doubtful, however, that any of it will be of lasting value to the profession. In the first place, that we would even think of “socialism” as a model for development is a relic of the Cold War competition between the USA and the USSR, which has little or no organic roots in the way people actually cooperate to create wealth. Secondly, the particular model, whether socialist or capitalist, is vastly overridden in the results it produces by such factors as whether or not there is an established and functioning independent judicial system in the countries undergoing development (certainly for a Weberian questions such as these should be front and center, not whether the social ideology is socialist or capitalist.) Berger and his contributors may have argued (I haven’t read all of those many studies and conference reports) that an independent judicial system is more compatible with the capitalist model. But I hardly think this could be empirically demonstrated unambiguously. If anything, our current experience in the USA suggests that the highly skewed distribution of wealth inherent in the capitalist model tends to undermine judicial independence.

The vast majority of that material is unlikely to have any lasting value to the profession also because so much of it was simply intellectual window dressing, an academic fig leaf, for people that were going to do what they wanted to do anyway, regardless of what the “studies” indicated, up to and including the use of economic and military coercion. At one point, Berger seems aware of this role he willingly played during those years. He relates being invited by very well-funded sources to come to a planning meeting at a private location in Texas, supposedly focused on economics and the Caribbean. It was all a bit vague, and while the money was there in abundance for just about any study he wanted to pursue, no one really seemed to care what he studied, or in the results produced. In retrospect, even Berger himself cannot escape the sneaking realization that his real purpose there was to provide a known public name as fig leaf for a meeting, the real purpose of which was to plan out covert strategy (clearly illegal) for getting funds and weapons to the Contra movement fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

I am not at all impugning Berger’s motives, nor suggesting that he himself took part in illegal activities in relation to Contra support. I am only saying it is unlikely that the comfortably funded report he produced as part of this venture will have any lasting value. I also must say that I would at least have hoped such an experience would have led the author of The Social Construction of Reality to engage in some very deep introspection about the current power relationships in society and his own place in that power structure. We might imagine him pondering the question, “If that is what they had in mind, why did they feel so confident inviting ME to be the beard?” There is no evidence here that Berger was led to engage in such introspection.

Despite these disappointments, I do want to say that this was an enjoyable book. Berger’s dry wit is evident throughout. He studiously stays on a “sociological” track, and refuses beyond a few tantalizing statements here and there to get into his personal (especially, religious) views. I found this odd for one known primarily as a sociologist of religion, but it is in keeping with the method of writing Berger established for himself over the decades, and it also raises my hopes that another volume focusing on this other side is in the making.

I know I have expressed a lot of frustration with Berger in these installments. In the end, however, the overall message I take away is that even our most highly regarded heroes and role models are “human, all too human.” Some have the advantage of dying young, before they have a chance to disappoint. Others, like Berger, live long lives and leave behind a very mixed legacy as a result. As readers of The Denial File know, one of my main intellectual heroes is Ernest Becker. Certainly he has never disappointed, right?! But let’s face it, Becker died very young, and though he did heroically stand up against S.I Hayakawa’s crack down on the student movement in the late 1960s (costing him his job, among other things) Becker also clearly had his strong reservations and revulsions toward the excesses of the time (as can be seen in his stated preference for Apollonian order over Dionysian disorder.) Becker can be seen clearly moving in an increasingly “conservative” direction in his last few works. At the very least, I think we can all agree that Becker’s political philosophy, such as it is (“seek maximum freedom within maximum community”) is highly compatible if not congruent with Berger’s idea of “radical in analysis, conservative in application.” Many times as I was reading this book, I wondered what my view of Becker would be had he lived to 89 instead of just 49.

Well, if for nothing else we have to thank Peter L. Berger for that vision of sociology he formulated with his group back in the early 1960s and for the vivid and entertaining style with which he communicated this vision to the rest of us. As I notice my students even today lighting up to the insights sparked in them by Berger’s work from that time, I know that at least that segment of his work does and will continue to have lasting value. May God bless you, Peter L. Berger.


Some Thoughts on Reading “Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,” Part 3

August 27, 2013
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Now that I am sitting down to write my third blog on my reactions to this book, it is pretty clear that the book engaged me at a fairly deep level. Although I didn’t plan it this way, part 1 dealt with why I like Peter L. Berger’s work so much, and how much I have learned from him. Part 2 dealt with why I was so disappointed in seeing him join forces with the liberal-turned-conservative crowd of academics, just in time to reap the generous professional and financial rewards for doing so (I am not impugning his internal motives, only pointing out the obvious corollaries). In parts 3 and 4, I expect it is time I finally get around to reviewing the book itself.

The origin of this book is in a lecture Berger was invited to deliver by a faculty of sociology which would examine his intellectual development and career. This is a book-length expansion on that lecture. It follows an essentially chronological sequence, beginning with his decision to study sociology in graduate school, the turn in his career goal from becoming a Lutheran minister to becoming a professional sociologist, and the quite intriguing discussion of the peculiar types of sociology and social theory being taught at The New School in New York, where Berger completed both the MA and PhD degrees. Born in 1929, he has 25 when he received the doctorate. Berger’s professors at The New School by no means taught from a single, unified perspective, but it is plain to see that each one of them left his special stamp on Berger. It was at The New School where Berger also formed deep personal and academic relationships that shaped his life and career ever since. Not least of these are Thomas Luckmann, Hansfried Kellner, and through Kellner, his sister Brigitte Kellner, who eventually became Brigitte Berger. Each of these has coauthored significant works with Berger.

Berger worked as a low-level academic during the immediate years following his graduate studies, but throughout the decade of his 30s, he began to publish prodigiously, with a fervor Berger refers to with characteristically self-deprecating wit, as “bibliorrhea.” It was during this time that Berger completed the works in the sociology of religion by which he is best known even to this day, as well as the classic collaboration with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (1966). All of these works, read in context, clearly show Berger was building a paradigm for sociology that was far out of step with the mainstream of American academic sociology at the time (and still is, really.) His group of collaborators was aware of this and there was some discussion of creating an institutionally-based center for the propagation of this counter-vision. However, for reasons Berger somewhat skirts, this did not happen. One cannot help but wonder if Berger has presented events very selectively here, since this group certainly was not lacking in vision, ambition, talent and resources for the task. But at least as Berger presents it here, the years just sort of rolled by and momentum for the project waned. Thomas Luckmann returned to a professorship in Germany and there did create something approaching this vision, although Luckmann’s center has had almost no discernible influence on American sociology, as would have certainly been the case had the institutional center been located in America with Berger as a leading spokesperson.

At least part of the problem, it seems (if I may read between some of the lines of this text) is that Berger reacted very negatively to the rise of the student movement and the New Left in this country. Berger himself was liberal in his political views (and claims, legitimately, to have remained a liberal to this day.) But his liberalism was built on a firm foundation of his Lutheran Austrian upbringing and the European Gymnasium education. In that system, the highest respect for order and propriety is instilled. People can have diametrically opposing views on almost any issue, but they can never let their views become the source of disorderly conduct or disrespect for position and authority. Berger, I believe, has carried this vein of abhorrence for disorder and disrespect as an undercurrent throughout his entire life.

He has come close at times to acknowledging this undercurrent explicitly; for example in his oft-repeated assertion that the sociological vision he represents is radical in its criticism of the social order, but very conservative in its sense of what should or could be done to change that social order. Tinker around the edges in pursuit of social justice, to be sure. Berger strongly supported civil rights policies, the decriminalization of homosexual relationships, he was an early public critic of American involvement in Vietnam. But exactly because “reality” (actually, social reality; Berger never proposed that ALL of reality is a social construction) is a social construction, that is, based on ongoing social consensus, even the very basic pillar social institutions that characterize and contour our society (marriage, family, religion, democracy, education, morals and ethics) are inherently fragile. We would not want to live in the kind of anarchy and chaos that would ensue were these social institutions to significantly weaken or disappear. Therefore, you proceed very, very cautiously in instituting any reform policies that strike too quickly at the heart of any of these social institutions. Radical in its criticism (social analysis), conservative in its application (political reform.) Sociological wisdom is exactly the ability to keep these two perspectives alive and not allow either to collapse into the other. Marx meets Weber, we might say.

Berger became increasingly horrified to find that the young campus radicals, both in America and beyond, had clearly digested the radical social criticism inherent in the widely-read and much discussed Berger/Luckmann text, but simply did not share or even begin to understand the “conservative” side of the formulation. Berger found his work being touted in support of wildly anarchist politics, and his young readers apparently even expected that Berger himself would side with them in undermining the structures of academy and society.

There are other more minor streams in Berger’s alienation from the counterculture that arose in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of that counterculture took on an anti-modernist cloak, envisioning a return to organic farming, intentional communities and a vaguely rural/pastoral sensitivity toward life. Despite the fact that Berger wrote some of the most pungent analysis of the cognitive/emotional costs of modernity, it has to be well understood that Berger himself always loved modernity. To Berger, the vision of rural/pastoral intentional community was at best stifling, and in its more extreme forms clearly echoed the “back to nature” themes present in the youth education material of extreme nationalistic rightwing, pan-Germanic propaganda Berger was exposed to in Europe as an adolescent.

Likewise, while his classic text was titled The Social Construction of Reality, what Berger and Luckmann really meant was the social construction of social reality. As said above, it was never Berger’s view that ALL of reality is socially constructed. He was simply appalled, as the 70s fed into the 80s, to see the new crop of “tenured radicals” glopping onto postmodernist, poststructuralist and perspectival views, which would claim that even established scientific facts and natural laws are mere “social constructions,” as if they would disappear as facts if only people believed otherwise. One can only imagine Berger biting right through his ubiquitous cigar in seeing his name appear in the footnotes as support of an argument like that!

Another seed in his craw as these years proceeded was the rise of ‘radical feminists,’ who publically, loudly and eventually disruptively protested Berger’s studied use of male pronouns in his lecturing and general conversation. Berger presents a classic scene in which he has agreed to dialogue with these young Harvard women about their concerns. But der Herr Professor’s idea of dialogue was to ‘explain’ to them the fine points of Indo-European languages in general and of English grammar in particular. These women were there to express how much they have felt marginalized, hurt and excluded by the exclusive use of male pronouns in reference to generic humanity. They were certainly not there to be further lectured to. You can imagine that that scene did not end well Although Berger seems to have always enjoyed basic respect and appreciation in the academic institutions that employed him, with increasing regularity, his invited lectures on other campuses were met with disruptive and unruly signals of disrespect and protest.

Throughout all of this, Berger could see little else than that a strong current of fascism lurked just under the surface of “lefty” activism. In retrospect, and speaking at least as one of the generation of the protestors, I think Berger’s view of the situation was really off base. These were mostly just young people with a legitimate sense that something is wrong in society, feeling out their own sense of newly acquired independence and social power, but without the maturity of years to help them channel that energy. They were raised in the American public schools, not the European Gymnasium, after all.

Teaching public school in in Vienna, I was mostly pleasantly amazed to watch how easily school teachers could line up even their high school students and walk them in orderly single file as directed. I knew instinctively that American teachers could never do this (an hypothesis fully confirmed when, some years later, I struggle mightily to function as a public school teacher back in the USA.) There is much to be said for a deeply instilled sense of order and high respect for authority figures. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that it was the regimented Gymnasiums that produced a generation of raging Brownshirts, something which the chaotic American system has never done, at least so far.

At least one result of this tragic clash with these disruptive young people is that Berger was driven to spend way too much energy in the subsequent years of his long career (and he is still active, even as an octogenarian) joisting with the windmills of a Left that is largely a figment of his own mental construction. This has detracted from the really solid and valuable work he has continued to produce. He writes about all of this in his memoir, and that is where we will pick up in Part 4.


Some Thoughts on Reading “Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,” Part 2

July 22, 2013
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

In Part 1 of this entry, I wrote about how much I appreciate about the contribution Peter L. Berger has made. Not only to sociology but, I would say, to intellectual discourse generally for my generation. I also said that my “relationship” with PLB was not untroubled. Here I will expand on this a bit.

As I stated in Part 1, Berger’s books were prominent among those I took with me from America as I moved for further university studies, in summer of 1978, to Eastern Europe. Just to remind us of the setting, Jimmy Carter was still a very popular President and both Carter and the USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev were, it certainly appeared, quite sincere in their pursuit of a warming relationship between the so-called Superpowers, and an end to the Cold War. It certainly seemed to me at the time that in the coming decades, USSR economics and social policy would become more capitalist/market-oriented and democratic, and correspondingly, USA economics and social policy would continue to incorporate social democratic elements.

Of course, world events were soon to go in a much different direction. The Iranian Revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis more or less sank the Carter administration. Soon after, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. More than any just about anything else, this invasion spelled the end of the mutual USA/USSR policy of Détente. Because I was living in Hungary, a Warsaw Pact country behind the so-called Iron Curtain, I know my perspective on this was much different than that of most people in the USA. I had regular access to the daily newspaper International Herald Tribune and the weekly European edition of Time Magazine. The US Embassy library also had other papers, but I tried to keep my visits there to an absolute minimum. So while I could know intellectually that things had changed radically in terms of the general political ethos in the USA, emotionally I still lived in that space of détente and moving toward that future of social democracy (in many ways, I still do!)

Well, back to Peter Berger. It must have been sometime in the winter or spring of 1980. I was in the reading room attached to the philosophy faculty at the University of Budapest (Eotvos Larand.) I saw there lying on a reading table a journal, more like a magazine actually, that had a prominent article by Peter L. Berger. I jumped on it like water in a desert, but was quite dismayed to find that it was full of basically standard Cold War rhetoric about totalitarian repression and forced conformity under communism, and in contrast what amounted to a rationalization for US support of authoritarian military regimes (so much for Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on Human Rights!) I have tried many a time subsequently to figure out exactly which article that was so that I could review it again, but I haven’t been able to nail it down. My recollection of it, however, these 30 years later, is that Berger basically made the argument that while authoritarian military regimes (capitalist) have the possibility of evolving into democracies, totalitarian regimes (communist) cannot and so can only be overthrown. Furthermore, as I recall, the litmus test he advocated for delineating the difference between totalitarian repression and military authoritarianism is how much independence each gives to its intellectual class in general and its sociologists in particular. Military authoritarianism tends to ignore “mere intellectuals” while totalitarian regimes go after them with a vengeance, hence stamping out even the “seeds” of future reform.

I had always known that PLB was not shy about criticizing and pointing out the inconsistencies of American liberals and liberal policies. I saw that as a positive point of honor in his favor. This was not a man afraid to go against the grain. But I was simply stunned by this article, so much so that I spent some weeks wondering if this were not perhaps a different person with the same name. This was not at all an example of bravely going against the grain, but simply conformed, rationalized propaganda for a grain that had shifted entirely.

Furthermore, I could see every day that it was full of downright lies about what social life and more importantly intellectual life is like in a communist country. After all, I accessed this magazine on the open reading table in the philosophy faculty library at the main university of a communist country (a library which, I assume, was open more or less to any person who wanted to use it – certainly no one ever checked your ID to enter or inquired by what authorization you were there; in other words, much more open than many university libraries are today in America.) I was taking a seminar at that university focused on the social and political theory of the Frankfurt School (the very school that so influenced Berger’s own professors) and even with my language limitations I understood clearly that the discussions in that seminar ranged far and wide, without any sense of fear or intimidation.

It is true that young sociologist Miklos Haraszti had had his dissertation rejected by the state-run academic publisher, who said it was not up to the “scholarly standards” of the press (Haraszti was probably the closest thing there was to a public intellectual dissenter or strongly “oppositional” figure in Hungary at that time.) But the rejection of his dissertation was a big scandal, the source of much debate in academic circles, and in any case the English version published by Penguin under the title A Worker in a Workers’ State, was easily available to anyone who wanted to read it (most Hungarian academics can easily read at least 3,  4 or more languages). Manuscript copies of the Hungarian version floated around, and though were scarce by today’s standards (this was back when Xerox copies were 25c a page or more) I saw at least three of them myself. (note: Haraszti’s book deals with the feelings of boredom, discontent, alienation and being valued only for their labor among industrial workers in state-owned factories in Hungary. The irony of this is that in a “workers’ state” the workers are supposedly in charge of their own lives, which was obviously contradicted by the Haraszti’s findings. Yet every point of their feelings of frustration, boredom and alienation Haraszti outlined reminded me exactly of what I experienced among American factory workers during the time I spent as a line metal punch-press operator, an employee of the Anderson-Boling Corporation, turning out Dodge truck grills and other Chrysler auto parts.)

Furthermore, Haraszti helped to found and edit a journal/newspaper, Beszelo, which was at least moderately available to anyone who wanted to read it (this was an example so-called samizdat literature, a publication that existed without official approval or sanction, and thus could have trouble finding material and press time, its staff would be considered “unemployed,” and they could not charge for the product.) Most of my friends read Beszelo regularly – one copy would make its way through dozens of hands eventually. So Haraszti’s views and those of his circle were certainly well known. I could go on about the “home lectures” held regularly in people’s apartments, about the artistic and intellectual life centered around various Budapest cafes, coffeehouses and theaters, about the strong registering of dissent on many public issues including even the tacit “official” support Hungary expressed for the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. (I could only WISH we had such an engaged intellectual life here now…) But the point is, I knew first hand that PLB’s analysis was abjectly false.

Over the ensuing years, I watched a number of intellectuals of a once-Lefty bent when that was popular suddenly, experience their “conversions” to New Right and hawkish Neoconservativism when the wind shifted during the Reagan years. David Horowitz, Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, to name only a few who had been prominent in my intellectual life; each of them were generously rewarded by the long list of foundations and think tanks set up exactly for that purpose. And though I can see from his memoir that at least in his own mind Peter Berger tried to chart an independent path, for many years everything that I saw put him directly in the center of that crowd.

In this memoir, PLB does talk about these years and acknowledges that a recognizable shift occurred in his point of view, especially related to capitalism versus socialism. But attention to that will have to wait until Part 3 of this blog review.


Some Thoughts on Reading “Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,” Part 1

June 18, 2013
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Sociologist Peter L. Berger recently published a memoir, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist (2011) which I have been enjoying these last few days as if talking with an old friend. To be sure, I only know Berger through his books and other writings. I have never met the man personally. Yet in many ways (and maybe you have to be a bibliophile to understand this) I do feel like he is an old friend, one with whom I have had a troubled, on-again off-again relationship!

If my recollection is correct, I first encountered PLB as a senior in high school, which would have been the 1971-1972 school year. That is when I first read the book for which he is probably best know, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), co-authored with Thomas Luckmann. At the time, I had no strong background in sociology or really any field of scholarship, and so that was really hard reading for me. It angered me and confused me, and numerous times I set it down and said “That’s enough of that!” But I kept coming back to it, and when I finally did finish it, I immediately sat down and read the whole thing again, cover to cover. Over the years, I have returned to that book many times, but one thing I remember clearly from that first reading is how the whole religiously and socially conservative Mennonite world in which I had been raised suddenly started to make sense to me in ways that it never really had before. I went to the school library (my Mennonite high school was on a college campus, so we had unusually good library access) and there I found Berger’s book, The Sacred Canopy (1967), and I devoured that one as well. By the time I had finished college, I think I read all of Berger’s books published up to that date.

The thing that struck me most about Berger’s perspective was his way of looking at “solid” social institutions as “precarious,” that is, wholly dependent on the willingness of each generation to uphold, obey and conform to the social norms and values of these institutions. The mental image I got (I am one of those who tends to think in mental models and pictures) was that of boys playing hockey on “firm” lake ice that in fact was not nearly as thick as they thought it was. In other words, society went on its merry way, largely unaware that it was always skating over relatively “thin ice” that separated it from chaos and anarchy.

That image I had gained from Berger was an integral part of my intellectual outlook as I went off to seminary school in 1976. As I combined it with other sources and also the zeitgeist of those years, I had come to think that at least dipping a toe into anarchy once in a while was probably a good thing. Embracing a bit of “creative chaos” was how I thought of it. It was in my first semester of seminary that I was introduced to Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death (1973) and I quickly came to understand that this “lake of chaos/anarchy” was fundamentally an image of individual and social anxiety, more specifically the anxiety of human mortality. Although Ernest Becker soon became my main intellectual passion, I can see in retrospect that I may well have understood Becker very differently, or perhaps not at all, had I not come to his writings with an already firm acquaintance with Berger’s work. When I graduated seminary in Spring of 1978 and went off to study philosophy in Hungary (an Eastern-Bloc communist country at the time) it was Becker’s Denial of Death (1973) and Escape from Evil (1975) that I packed away in my suitcase, but also Berger’s books Social Construction (1966), The Homeless Mind (1974) and Pyramids of Sacrifice (1975). At the time, political Détente was strongly in the air, Jimmy Carter was still a very popular President, and the steady path toward social democracy in America, it appeared to me, was objected to only by kooky folks at the far-right, irrelevant fringes of our society.

Obviously, I was soon myself to have a stark lesson in just how thin that ice can be, as well as to experience many troubling doubts in my “relationship” with Peter L. Berger. But that is for the next installment.


Guns and “Mental Illness”

March 27, 2013
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I think it may have started with Wayne LaPierre’s infamous press conference a week after Sandy Hook. In any case, we now here it as a common refrain of the no-holds-barred gun crowd – that the big problem is inadequate enforcement in keeping high-powered weapons out of the hands of the “mentally ill,” since obviously it is the “mentally ill” who perpetrate the mass killings of the type seen in Sandy Hook, Aurora, and dozens of other places around the country. In short, we ought all unite together to make sure no one with “mental illness” has easy access to these high powered weapons, but let them remain freely available for others.

In my view, even apart from the further stigmatization of mental illness this would entail, the policy itself is mind-bogglingly naive.

In the first place, “mental illness” is not a clearly definable condition. Other than a few very rare organic brain disorders, “mental illness” must be diagnosed on the basis of behavior. Therefore, in effect, supporters of this idea are advocating policies that would seek to proscribe allowing high powered weapons getting into the hands of people who have NOT YET behaved in such a way that we would diagnose them as killers.

Oh, but isn’t it true that with just about every person who has perpetrated mass killing people report that the suspect exhibited all sorts of strange and anti-social behavior long before the fact? Of course. But notice that we can only know that all of those behaviors we later recognize as strange and antisocial were actually “leading up to something” AFTER they have led up to something, that is, in retrospect. Thousands upon thousands of people display the same or similar behaviors and remain perfectly harmless.

Are advocates of such policies really saying they want us all to unite prophylactically to keep high powered weapons out of the hands of those many thousands who have been reported to exhibit strange and antisocial behaviors? Given that this would doubtlessly include many hundreds, if not thousands, of NRA members themselves, I rather doubt it.

But, taking them at their word, the complications have only just begun. Let us imagine we have the resources to seriously investigate each case of reportedly strange and antisocial behavior. Whom would we then trust to assess the investigations and decide if that person should be proscribed from gun ownership, and to have weapons in their possession confiscated? Would we trust that kind of power and wisdom to government officials? To mental health experts? To teachers? To police? To judges and lawyers?

Advocates of this approach should ask themselves whom they would trust enough for this assignment, for holding that degree of power over others, potentially including themselves?

I can only conclude that Wayne LaPierre and his followers have not even taken the first step in truly thinking through the implications of what they are advocating. Having it their way, we would very quickly find ourselves defending completely irrational interpretations of “2d Amendment Rights” by totally trampling on 1st Amendment, 4th Amendment and 5th Amendment Rights, creating veritable police state conditions, at best, as our “weapon against weapons.”

A much more reasonable, sensible and workable solution is to cool off a bit and then, with full acknowledgment of the 2d Amendment and the history of its interpretation in our laws and in our courts, begin the process of examining what weapons it make sense for civilians to have in private hands and what weapons it makes absolutely no sense for civilians to have in private hands (though these might still be “owned” by private citizens and accessible in controlled circumstances such as on regulated gun club target ranges.) In the meantime, as I have said in a previous posting, we could impose significant ammunition surcharges and heavy taxation on the weapons manufacturers designated to meaningfully compensate for the undeniable damage to society that all-but-unregulated weapons impose on all the rest of us on a daily basis, similar to tobacco and alcohol taxes designated for cancer care and treatment of victims of drunk drivers.


A Proposal for an American-Specific Gun Policy

January 23, 2013


"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Lately I have cocked my eavesdropping ear whenever I hear others discussing guns in America. Ideas are flying furiously about how to prevent such events as the recent school massacre in Connecticut, from banning any and all firearms on one side to placing heavily armed guards wherever people gather in public, with a good portion of that public themselves packing concealed weapons, on the other side.

We are scared and want protection against feelings of powerlessness. The depths of our fears are demonstrated by the very irrationality of the proposals. Many people see guns as the problem itself. True, people shoot people, not guns alone. But unarmed people do not shoot people, and therefore the more difficult it is for a potential shooter access to high-powered weapons, the less likely it is such a shooting will occur. Many other people know from experience that guns give them a sense of power. Naturally, they turn even more strongly to the power these weapons render to counter feelings of powerlessness. Here in Illinois, the only state not to have one already, we are considering state-wide concealed-carry policy. This back-and-forth “guns as problem, guns as power” is played out daily in the Letters section of each newspapers across the state.

I do not own a gun, though I grew up with them and earned a turkey or two in my younger years for marksmanship. Sometime around 15 years of age, I just lost interest. Furthermore, I lived for many years in countries with extremely strict gun policies, and there the only people I heard complain about it were folks who I was quite relieved did not have easy access to guns! There, homicides of any kind were only a fraction of what occurs in any one of dozens of US cities each day.

But the USA is something else entirely.  We have a different history, temperament and very different social institutions. Many in our society really love guns. Our Supreme Court, in laughably contorted interpretation of “well-regulated militia,” decided that being armed is a basic individual right. So clearly guns are not going away. Furthermore, any policy of confiscation would be largely viewed as a direct attempt to decrease citizens’ power, the remedy for which is [insert mental rim shot here] more guns!

So, we need to re-frame the issue. There are tradeoffs between individual freedom and the social costs incurred by exercise of such freedom. Generally we agree it is fair for the social costs of a freely-chosen activity to be folded into the activity itself and born largely by those who choose to engage in the activity. User-fee taxes are the best example of this. Thus smokers pay hefty tobacco taxes when they purchase their chosen product, the revenues of which defray at least a portion of the costs incurred by society because some people among us choose to smoke. Likewise, gasoline taxes at the pump are designated for upkeep of roads and bridges, which are costs incurred by society from the activities of drivers. We honor people’s right to engage in cost-incurring activities, but rightly expect that if costs are incurred from that activity, such costs be paid largely by those who choose to engage in the activity. Those who smoke a lot pay more tax for the privilege than those who smoke less. Those who buy lots of gasoline pay more tax than those who buy less. Generally speaking, we Americans prefer this to outright bans on harmful activities. “You can swing your arms all you want, but if you break someone’s nose, you pay the medical bill yourself!”

Rather than coercively eliminating guns, a better policy would be to recognize fully the rights of citizens to arm themselves, but also that exercise of this right entails very real costs to the society. Setting aside intangible costs (what dollar value can be assigned to people’s grief?) there are plenty of concrete costs incurred by current gun ethics in our country to give us a place to start–medical care for the wounded and payment for protection officers alone is already a significant sum. To this we might add the costs of a beefed up mental health and criminal justice system required if we are really serious about keeping guns out of the hands of some while fostering relatively free availability to everyone else.

A ballpark figure would not be difficult to establish for the costs incurred by society so that those among us who feel safer with guns can own more or less as many guns as they want and can afford. The next reasonable step is to assess an adequate users’-fee-tax, perhaps at the point when ammunition is purchased, designated to defray the social costs incurred by the misuse of such easily available weapons. Gun owners would then enjoy the freedom to decide how much or how little of that tax they want to pay, based on how much of the levied items they choose to purchase. Others in society would be at least somewhat eased of the burden of paying for the choice of gun owners to exercise their rights of gun ownership.

It seems Win/Win to me…


Romney’s Taxes

September 27, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

So  Maria Bartiroma and Christian Heinze have taken to scolding the press, the Obama campaign and by extension the all rest of us for our continuing “obsession” with Willard “Mitt” Romney’s personal taxes ( It is all beside the point, they say, simply voyeuristic and in any case none of our damn business. But if I could sit down with Maria and Chris, I would like to pose for their evaluation (and by extension, all the rest of us as well) the following. (note: please excuse that I use a university setting in the scenario–it’s what I know–please feel free to substitute whatever institution makes most sense to you. DL)

Let us imagine that it is the strongly established custom at my university that a certain percentage of the salaries earned by all those working here are given back annually as a gift to the university in support for the university’s general operations. Let us further imagine that one of the most highly paid professors on campus routinely goes through all kinds of machinations and accounting tricks to keep his “salary” as low as possible, moving this over here and that over there, explicitly to keep his “contribution” to financial support of the university as absolutely low as possible. As a result, on the whole he routinely pays in a significantly lower percentage of his total compensation package in give-back support than any of the custodians, office workers and maintenance people, even though his total compensation package is 100s, even 1,000s of times greater than theirs.

What are the rest of us who work at this university to think of this person? Well, many of us recognize that on a much smaller scale we are doing the same kind of thing ourselves, the main difference being that given his level of compensation he has access to many more machinations and accounting tricks that would simply not be cost effective for us to try to access. We therefore perhaps a little grudgingly tolerate the man’s financial mores and figure that as long as he isn’t breaking the law, well, no harm no foul.

But would we then support him in becoming president of the university? Would we buy the view that it is exactly his deft employment of machinations and accounting tricks that qualify him to be president of our university? Were we to find ourselves on the presidential hiring committee reviewing his application, would we think it “none of our business” to expect a full inspection of his compensation and giving record at our university?

You, Maria and Chris (and by extension all the rest of us) can answer these questions in whatever way seems right to you. I know what my answer is.


Clint Eastwood Appreciation

September 11, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Good old Clint Eastwood is back in the news lately, following his “empty chair” speech at the Republican Convention. There is not much more to say about that, other than to express my disappointment in Clint’s political judgment. But because he is front and center in current events, I have been doing an increased amount of thinking about him these recent weeks. No question about it, I love Clint Eastwood’s movies. Although I oppose on ethical grounds the concept of redemptive violence (a theme running through his movies like the mighty Colorado since Fistful of Dollars (1964), director Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, starring Clint, that created the very genre of the “spaghetti western.” The noxious theme continues to run through the later movies Eastwood directed himself, but at least there it tempered by the realities of aging and moral ambiguity. I have thought long and hard about why I would love these movies so much, even though I so vehemently oppose their central theme of redemptive violence. I’ve come to the conclusion that their tales of righting the world’s wrongs through the explosive but heroically portrayed violence is for me a sort of moral pornography. I cannot deny that it holds a certain fascination, even if it be teasing what I tend to think of as the dark side of our nature. Kirby Farrell’s cultural analysis, especially his book Berserk Style in American Culture, strongly outlines the grounds for both the fascination and for why overall this must be considered the dark side of our nature.

Ernest Becker, of course, was the master of suspicion when it comes to cultural heroism. Yet he also suggested that we cannot live in the absence of its pursuit. That is quite the dilemma for anyone striving to incorporate Becker’s insights into daily living – be deeply suspicious of all forms of heroism, criticize it, debunk it whenever possible, but recognize that you can’t live without it. Well, I suppose if there is an implicit heroism in such a task, it is the heroism of insight. Peel away the onion of illusion. Now the next layer, now the next layer. Now again the next layer. And then what?

Clint said it the best, in his 1973 film, High Plains Drifter (perhaps my favorite, by the way). With that determined glint in his eye that is quintessential Eastwood, he says, “And then you live with it.” Gosh, I wish I’d said that…


“Post-Birth” Abortion?

September 7, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

There has been a lot of media hype this summer over an article published last February in The Journal of Medical Ethics.  Supposedly, the article makes an argument for “post-birth abortion,” that is, allowing legal infanticide for an unspecified period of time after a child is born, giving the parents a bit of extra time to decide if they really want this child or not. The argument is that this is only taking the justifications for pre-birth abortions one step farther and that all important moral justifications for pre-birth abortions apply equally to post-birth abortions, since no clear moral line of distinction can be made between a fetus about to be born and that same fetus some minutes or hours or days later after birth.

I first heard about this article on an ethics discussion list last winter. Most people thought it was a hoax. But the authors and the journal present it as a serious article, and over the last few months I have been “confronted” with this article numerous times by people claiming it is the “logical extension” of pro-choice thinking. Feeling perhaps a bit goaded, as well as enjoying a bit more free time this summer than I usually have, I finally actually read the article.

The authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, summarize what they see as the central moral arguments supporting abortion, noting that the thread that runs through them all is that they all place the convenience of the adults above the good of the fetus. They then engage in an “if…then…” thought experiment. They say that “if…” arguments for the legitimacy of abortion based on what is convenient for the adults only are morally valid, “then…” there is no moral difference between pre-birth abortion and after-birth infanticide.

They are not (I don’t think) advocating infanticide, but playing the Devil’s Advocate role concerning arguments for the legitimacy of pre-birth abortion set forward by others (that they play the role so well is the source of confusion about their intentions and why one can easily read them as actually advocating legal infanticide.)

Now, if it were true that abortion rights supporters draw solely or even mainly on what is convenient for adults as the basis for their moral reasoning, this article would have a lot of force behind it. In fact, it probably would have been already written by someone else years ago. But that is only very peripheral to the moral reasoning of those who support policies of choice in specific circumstances (it is, in fact, the perspective on abortion advanced by those who want to proscribe it entirely.)

The central pillar of pro-choice moral argument is the woman’s right to bodily integrity, plain and simple. This is why distinguishing between stages of fetal pre- and post-viability is of crucial importance in reasoning toward moral support for policies allowing for abortion in specific circumstances. Pre-viability, we are looking at a circumstance in which assertion of the woman’s right to bodily integrity (autonomy) must be protected above fetal right to existence, because the existence of the fetus is completely dependent on the will of the woman to continue the pregnancy. Post-viability, that is no longer the case, and therefore once viability has been reached, the right of the fetus to existence must be weighed much more equally with the woman’s right of bodily integrity.

Even once viability has been reached, in my view, the decision to continue the pregnancy is still strongly that of the woman herself, but the right of the fetus to existence increases along with the length of the pregnancy. Regardless, there is a crucial moral difference between pre-viability and post-viability. For the most part, we have set viability at about the end of the second term of pregnancy (approx. 6 months.) Increased medical technology is constantly pushing that backward into the 5th month, but there are certainly limits as to how far this can or (morally speaking) even should be pushed.

The authors of this article totally ignore and dismiss viability as a moral watershed in pregnancy termination, which is certainly why 99% of medical ethicists who read the article initially thought it was a hoax of some kind. It turns out it wasn’t a hoax, but it certainly was laughably poor, scholarship–about like someone making an argument about how high humans can jump but neglecting to take gravity into account. While “if…then” thought experiment has a place in academic discourse, no serious ethicist will have learned anything from this article about actual policy.

One thing I hope we have learned from this episode is that with the advent of the internet, articles of this type, on issues related to “culture war” hot buttons, are bound to be hyped and exploited far beyond the intentions of the authors or the journal editors. Much more cautious hesitation about publishing such articles is in order.


Roberts and Rationality

August 8, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Circumstances conspired to put me on a “political news diet” for the last few weeks – no TV, no newspapers or magazines, no podcasts, no internet, very sparse radio contact. I have to say that once the withdrawal shock was weathered, it was pretty nice. What’s more, that the world could just keep right on going, even without me obsessively milking each medium to follow its every move. Furthermore, I felt much more relaxed and optimistic about our species the longer it lasted! But, of course, all good things must end, and like it or not I am now back home trying to work my way through the amassed pile of papers, mags, podcasts and Bill Moyers programs that were sitting here waiting for me. Did I learn anything from the experience? Probably nothing profound or that will stick. In any case, I’m back at it now, and noticing something others have missed.

There is an emerging consensus among academic social and political scientists that people do not make political commitments based on rational considerations of specific policies. Their research points toward the conclusion that across the political spectrum, conservative to liberal, people are heavily and even determinatively influenced by nonrational factors. Rational faculties are more likely to be employed in the secondary step of rationalizing decisions and commitments already made.

One version of this thesis getting a lot of attention right now is that of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012). Haidt interprets research findings to conclude that people generally “pick a team” and then on specifics will line up behind whatever the team position is. This goes a long way in explaining why people will so consistently line up behind inconsistent positions on specifics (e.g., “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”) and even support with a full head of steam policies that are directly contrary to their own personal best interests (e.g., the long-term unemployed person voting for those who will curtail unemployment benefits.) This often leaves liberals (who hold rationality in high esteem) scratching their heads confusedly. But liberals are prone to the same type of thing–misdeeds perpetrated by those on liberal side are much more easily overlooked and forgiven than the same misdeeds on conservative side.

There is a lot that could be done with this analysis, but it appears to break down when we consider the judgment rendered by Chief Justice John Roberts in the recent case concerning the constitutionality of Obama’s healthcare mandate. According to this view, we might have expected Roberts would line up dutifully with his “team” and find the mandate to be unconstitutional.

Instead, even though he dodged the direct question of the mandate, we find him weaving in and out to find some rationale for ruling favorably on the policy itself (as I only learned days later.) This was a real shocker to everyone! The conservatives clearly feel betrayed, that Roberts has double-crossed them and is not a reliable “team” player. Liberals discuss the possibility of welcoming Roberts into “their” camp. So while the team-analysis does seem to hold in terms of the follow-up reaction, it doesn’t seem to explain Roberts’s own motives.

Keep in mind that social science research is never intended to explain the motives of specific individuals in specific circumstances, but only that of large numbers of people in general circumstances. With that said, it seems clear to me that Roberts decided that by hook or crook the Obamacare policy had to be found constitutional. His resort to the taxing powers of the other branches allowed him to do this without total, in-your-face disagreement with “his” team on the question of the mandate. In other words, his brief was clearly a rationalization of a prior decision and not the basis for that decision.

Why this prior decision, when it would have been so easy to simply rule with the other four justices against the constitutionality of Obamacare? I suggest it has to do with the fact that Roberts is beginning increasingly to look at his court from the perspective of History. From this perspective, he sees that future historians will be writing about the Roberts Court as extremely activist and powerfully partisan. Although something like 40% of its actual decisions have been 9-0 or 8-1 (in other words, representing a clear court consensus–cause for at least some optimism about our divided political present) the remaining 60%, which are often the much more visible cases, have been down the line 5/4 decisions in which the majority unapologetically align themselves with the conservative point of view. Roberts understood that if, in the heat of this election year, there were to be yet another in a long line of 5/4 decisions on key watershed issues, this time against the healthcare mandate, thus effectively gutting the main positive policy achievement of Obama’s first term of office, the judgment of History will doubtless be that under John Roberts, the Supreme Court degenerated into little more than a submissive handmaiden of the Republican Party. Obviously, Roberts wanted desperately to avoid this judgment of History, and he found a way to do it (or at least mitigate it somewhat.)

I am surprised that no one else appears to have noticed this (at least I haven’t seen it mentioned in the post-decision analyses I have read so far) but it is really the only way I can make sense of the motives for his decision, and the Byzantine brief he wrote to rationalize it. We’ll have to see if it results in more unexpected twists and turns in future cases.