Social Critics on Social Darwinism: How Rushkoff and Wiker Converge

I recently completed two books by two very different authors, Douglas Rushkoff and Benjamin Wiker. However, the serendipitous fact that I read them one right after the other brought home to me some intriguing commonalities between the two, focusing particularly on the widespread societal effects of social darwinism.

The two books are:

Although I suspect that these two authors would be very far apart on political issues, my reading of these two books in juxtaposition emphasized two interesting commonalities:

  • Both authors comment on the origins and dangers of social darwinism.
  • The two authors both focus their historical analyses on roughly the same time period, from the Middle Ages to the present day.

In writing the above, I also came to an interesting realization on another more-subtle commonality: Wiker starts with the classic cynical treatise The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli. Rushkoff starts with the Middle-Age “princes” who created the corporation and imposed central currency in Europe.

Rushkoff’s premise is that the aristocracy in the Middle Ages devised the chartered corporation as a legal mechanism to give them control over commerce and wealth. Because of their privileged status granted by government, corporations have progressively gained more power, even becoming legal “persons” over time.

Rushkoff’s criticism is that Western society has become steeped in corporatism, and that this pits individuals against one another in a win-lose competitive struggle. People operate according to unconscious corporatist values and assumptions about how life should be and are prevented from connecting in a natural way through communities.

Wiker’s premise is that modern civilization has been affected by a materialistic, atheistic philosophical tradition preserved and promoted by a series of highly-influential thinkers and their books, starting with Machiavelli, then Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Margaret Sanger, Margaret Mead, and Alfred Kinsey, along with others along the way.

As I said, where I see an important commonality between Rushkoff and Wiker is when it comes to their implications and comments about social darwinism: The modern world is strongly influenced by the idea that the natural order demands that the strong survive and the weak die off.

Ruskoff writes,

Richard Dawkins’s theory of the “selfish gene” popularized the extension of evolution to socioeconomics. Just as species competed in a battle for the survival of the fittest, people and their “memes” competed for dominance in the marketplace of ideas.

Human nature was simply part of biological nature, complex in its manifestations but simple in the core commands driving it. Like the genes driving them, people could be expected to act as selfishly as Adam Smith’s hypothetical primitive man, “the bartering savage,” always maximizing the value of every transaction as if by raw instinct.

Ironically, says Rushkoff, religionists were used to promote a compatible economic regime:

Right-wing conservatives turned to fundamentalist Christians to promote the free-market ethos, in return promising lip-service to hot-button Christian issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

It was now the godless Soviets who sought to thwart the Maker’s plan to bestow the universal rights of happiness and property on mankind. America’s founders, on the other hand, had been divinely inspired to create a nation in God’s service, through which people could pursue thier individual salvation and savings.

Rushkoff contends that

What both PR efforts had in common were two falsely reasoned premises: that human beings are private, self-interested actors behaving in ways that consistently promote personal wealth, and that the laissez-faire free market is a natural and self-sustaining system through which scarce resources can be equitably distributed.

Wiker follows the development of atheistic social darwinism from Machiavelli, but he takes considerable time to establish the connection between Darwin and eugenics. On pages 88 to 89 of 10 Books he quotes from Darwin’s Descent of Man (not as well known as On the Origin of Species):

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health …. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination [by means of various works of charity and relief]. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind ….

If … various checks … do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has occurred too often in the history of the world.

Wiker argues that the writings of Darwin and other atheistic thinkers have led to a modern world in which the weak are seen as expendable for the good of human progress.

At the end of his book, Wiker comments:

We are so fond of thinking of our progress from the simple savage that we forget to take account of whether we are really progressing in some sort of virtue or rather becoming more complexly and deviously savage.

We have a higher regard for health than our ancestors did, and a far greater knowledge of biology. But when biology, rather than theology, becomes the queen of the sciences, then Christian prohibitions against eugenics, the elimination of the unfit or the unwanted through abortion or infanticide, or the elimination of diseased races or classes all become merely “medieval” and irrelevant.

Rushkoff and Wiker approach their analyses with very different objectives and foci, and it would be far from accurate to say that they reach the same conclusions.

But both Life Inc. and 10 Books That Screwed Up the World shine light on some of the historical and philosophical sources of the great streak of heartlessness evident in the modern world.

In about 1970, I was picked up hitchhiking on I-85 in North Carolina by an older fellow driving a sedan. We got into a conversation about the problems of the world. From his point of view, one of the biggest problems was welfare and charity — all the giveaway programs that are supposed to help the poor.

I raised the question, Well, what are they supposed to do? Suppose they need help to survive and get back on their feet?

His response was, “Who cares? Let ’em die. That’s the way nature works.”

I wonder who he had been reading.

AB — 4 September 2009

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Hold on Tight, Boys, the Wind Is Picking Up!

[Note: The following is an essay I wrote in December 2003 put never published anywhere. I just ran across it and thought I would post it on Quriosity.]

Two months ago I stood in a cemetery in Wilton, Connecticut, looking down at the shiny wooden coffin containing the body of my wife Virginia’s uncle, Paul Lyon, soon to be lowered into the dug grave and covered with earth. Nearby the coffin stood an easel bearing a montage of photos from Uncle Paul’s life mounted on a sheet of poster board. A good breeze was blowing, so my chunky teenage nephews, Kellen and Tristan, trussed uncomfortably in neckties and sport jackets, stood flanking the easel like a pair of ushers, holding either side of the cardboard sheet to keep Uncle Paul’s pictures from sailing away on the wind.

I’m a real crybaby, and that day was no exception; I thought about the cold body inside that wood box — a man I had known and liked, an affable man of my parents’ World War II generation, who had lived what I supposed was a basically decent life.

Two photos stuck to that cardboard matting also stick in my mind from that windy day in the cemetery:

One, a picture of Paul Lyon sleek in his airman’s uniform during the war, not much older than my willowy 20-year-old son Paul (named more for my father than for my wife’s uncle, and named even more for the apostle than for any relative).

The other, a photo of Paul Lyon at age 80, only a few weeks before his death, standing at his front door waving goodbye. Maybe when he lifted his hand to the camera for that wave, he had in mind the cancer that was spreading inexorably inside him.

I think a lot about life and death, and I find myself again and again coming back to photos and to numbers. I told you about some photos; now consider some numbers: At 52, I stand right about between son Paul and uncle Paul: age 20, age 50, age 80. Thirty years back and I am my son’s age, hitchhiking across the country with a duffle bag, tambourine, and five dollars in my pocket. Thirty years ahead and I am lying in a wooden crate.

I love to look at old photos from the 19th century, to leaf through a book and muse on the faces of people from that time. Their faces are fresh, the spark of life is in their eyes. In a moment, this man, I imagine, will turn from the camera, kiss his wife, walk home with her, have dinner, go to bed, and make love.

In reality, he is long dead, a pile of bones under the ground. In fact, all of these faces are gone, carried away on the wind across a cemetery. They are all dead, every single one. Maybe nobody now living remembers them or even knows their names.

And of course, the thing that I am trying to grapple with, to force myself to confront, is that, in the normal course of things, mine will become a face like that. Someone will look at my face in an album, wonder briefly who I was, then flip to the next page.

You should understand that I am speaking as one who believes that this life is not all there is, that there is a higher being who cares, who remembers us and will bring us back. And that belief underpins my life so I can live hopefully. But it doesn’t completely do away with the visceral reaction to the enveloping death that is moving toward me to cover me over and draw me down into the unthinkable sleep. It will flow over me, and I will be gone. How can there be a world, if I am not in it?

Last week I got in my car to drive up to New Hampshire to my consulting job at a graduate school in Keene. The Public Radio program Morning Edition was on, and because of the proximity of Christmas, the interviewer was speaking with bookstore managers across the country asking for recommendations of good books for gifts.

One store manager recommended a book called “When It Was Our War,” and my stomach dropped when I heard the name of the author, Stella Suberman. Jack and Stella Suberman were friends of my parents when I was growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I remember watching them play tennis with my mother and father, and I remember swimming in their pool, and I remember them from dinner parties and cookouts. They were two larger-than-life people, awe-inspiring and wonderful and frightening (well, Jack was scary, anyway — Stella was bright and beautiful and charismatic).

One of the devastating moments in my life (among many, admittedly) was when I told my mother I wanted to invite the Subermans to come to my high school graduation and she waved off the idea — the Subermans don’t really know me that well, she said, and they would think it odd if I invited them to my graduation. Suddenly I learned I was nothing in the eyes of these two marvelous people who had been giants to me.

So, sitting in the car last week, hearing a recommendation of Stella’s World War II memoir, I was affected … well, as I said before, I’m a real crybaby. First chance I got, I ordered a copy of “When It Was Our War” from Half.com and started reading it this week.

Reading Stella’s book I become a time traveler. It’s a story of the young wife of a soldier during the war. The fascinating thing is that I am peering into the lives of two people, important in my childhood, before I ever knew them, before I was even born. On the cover of the book are black and white photos, a small one of Jack in his uniform, a larger one of a gorgeous Stella in a short tennis skirt, leaning against a palm tree. In the photos, Jack and Stella are easily recognizable as the people I knew. Seeing their faces, I can hear their voices on the tennis court and by the pool.

But reading Stella’s reminiscence and seeing these photos gets me going playing with numbers as I am wont to do.

In these photos, Jack and Stella are about 20, the age my son is now. But they are actually the contemporaries of my father and Virginia’s departed uncle. So I can peek in on their lives and see them practically as children. When I knew them 15 years later, they seemed old and formidable to me. But even at that age, they were in fact youthful in comparison with my now ancient age of about 50.

So I take these odd jumps of 15 years backward and forward along the line of my life and that of the Subermans and somehow it emphasizes to me how fleeting it all is, while yet so rich and wonderful.

Here’s another game with numbers: I was born in 1951. Go back about five years and you’re at the end of the Second World War, which doesn’t seem that long ago to me but would to my 20-year-old son. Go back just 35 years from 1951, and you are at the end of the First World War. That does seem like a long time ago to me, but it’s a relatively short period of time compared to the 50 years that have passed (quickly it seems to me) since 1951.

I wonder if I’m making any sense.

What it kind of amounts to is that I am like the character Dave in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”: I’m a middle-aged man looking back at myself as a young man. But standing in the doorway is an old man, also myself, watching me as a middle-aged man. The whole thing passes in a flash. Day by day, the experience is sweet and incredibly deep. But all in all, 80 years is very short.

As we drove away from the cemetery in Wilton, I told my sister-in-law Natalie and my nephews, “You know, the Bible says it’s good to go to a funeral. And it says that the day of your death is better than the day of your birth.”

Natalie was intrigued by the idea. She thought maybe I was referring to the cycle of life, but that wasn’t what I had in mind. The point is that when you’re born, you could turn out to be anything at all, good or bad. But at your death, you’ve had a lifetime to show what kind of person you are — what you made out of that thin thread of years as they spun their way out.

It’s Ecclesiastes 7:1, 2 I was thinking of: “A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born. Better it is to go to the house of mourning than to go to the banquet house, because that is the end of all mankind; and the one alive should take it to his heart.”

So I look through the pages of photos and run through the numbers in my head. And I try to take it to heart. Because I can feel the wind picking up, and all-in-all I’m not much more than a picture taped to a piece of poster board.

AB — written December 2003, posted 26 June 2009

Iranian sources: Fatwa by Ayatollah Yazdi authorized rigging of election; Whistleblower Asgari was assassinated

[Updated 24 Sept. 2009]

An open letter purporting to be from a group of employees at Iran’s Interior Ministry says that a hard-line ayatollah authorized election supervisors to alter the election results so President Ahmadinejad would win re-election. According to contacts in the Iranian defense department, an IT (information technology) manager in the Interior Ministry was murdered after he leaked information about the fraud to opposition candidates.

The implications given in the paragraph above are difficult to confirm in depth, given the news blackout in Iran. However, I do have sources with connections in Iran that lend reasonable credibility to this account.

In terms of the fatwa authorizing election supervisors to rig the results, Tehran Bureau, a news organization reporting on Iranian affairs, has published an open letter purporting to be written by a group of employees in the Iranian Interior Ministry (the agency in charge of the country’s elections) — here is a link to a copy of the letter in Persian.

I don’t read Persian, but Tehran Bureau has furnished a partial translation — see “Open Letter: Fatwa Issued for Changing the Vote in Favor of Ahmadinejad.”

According to the translation, the fatwa came from a well-known cleric who previously preached about political philosophy at Friday prayers in Tehran, identified by Tehran Bureau as Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi.

The letter says that in May of this year the government realized that Ahmadinejad’s political support was waning in favor of opposers. This led Yazdi to meet in secret with election supervisors. Citing the Quran, Yazdi told the supervisors,

If someone is elected the president and hurts the Islamic values that have been spread [by Mr. Ahmadinejad] to Lebanon, Palestine, Venezuela, and other places, it is against Islam to vote for that person. We should not vote for that person, and also warn people about that person. It is your religious duty as the supervisors of the elections to do so.

After criticizing the other candidates, Yazdi said,

You should throw away those who are unqualified, both morally and lawfully. Your highest call of duty at this time is to preserve your achievement.

The open letter describes the election supervisors as “happy and energetic for having obtained the religious fatwa to use any trick for changing the votes,” and says they “began immediately to develop plans for it.”

Tehran bureau describes itself as “a virtual bureau connecting journalists, Iran experts, and readers all over the world.” A news release in February 2009 from the Columbia University School of Journalism says the bureau was started by Kelly Golnoush Niknejad, a U.S.-based journalist born in Iran. The release said that journalist Jason Rezaian would be covering the Iranian presidential election from Tehran.

I have sent an email to Niknejad asking more information about how her organization obtained a copy of the open letter, but she has not replied as of today.

In researching this story, I read in the Guardian about “unconfirmed reports” that an Iranian whistleblower had been murdered for revealing the election fraud — see “Iran protests: Regime cracks down on opposition as further unrest looms,” by Ian Black, Robert Tait and Mark Tran. Black and colleagues reported that,

Mohammad Asgari, who was responsible for the security of the IT network in Iran’s interior ministry, was killed yesterday in a suspicious car accident in Tehran. Asgari had reportedly leaked evidence that the elections were rigged to alter the votes from the provinces. Asgari was said to have leaked information that showed Mousavi had won almost 19m votes, and should therefore be president.

I found that it was difficult to get further confirmation of this report, but it seemed valuable to do so, as it in turn would confirm the implications of the open letter from the Interior employees.

Finally I was able to get in touch with Rob (Sohrab) Shahmir, an Iranian in Toronto, who is now chairman of E&I Renewable Energies and CEO of E&I Group. Shahmir was working in Iran from 1998 to 2007 in environmental services and removal of landmines and unexploded ordinance.

Shahmir still has contacts in the Ministry of Defense in Iran. He tells me that, according to his contacts,

Mr. Asgari was a manager at the IT department of the Ministry of Interior, he was one of the few semi-senior supporters of the moderates at the ministry.  After they ministry was ordered to flip the results and declare Ahmadinejad the winner by the office of the leadership, Mr. Asgari released the information to the offices of Mr. Mousavi and Karoubi.
According to my contacts, after the Revolutionary Guards Counter Intelligence Group discovered his identity, Sardars (Generals) Naghdi, and Safavi ordered his assassination.  Consequently, his vehicle was run over by a Truck (one the size of a coal truck).  The pic is of the acutal truck.

Mr. Asgari was a manager at the IT department of the Ministry of Interior. He was one of the few semi-senior supporters of the moderates at the ministry.  After the ministry was ordered to flip the results and declare Ahmadinejad the winner by the office of the leadership, Mr. Asgari released the information to the offices of [opposition leaders] Mr. Mousavi and Karoubi.

truck that killed AsgariAccording to my contacts, after the Revolutionary Guards Counter Intelligence Group discovered his identity, Sardars (Generals) Naghdi and Safavi ordered his assassination. Consequently, his vehicle was run over by a truck (one the size of a coal truck).

Shahmir tells me that the photo shown here is the truck that was used to kill Asgari.

Update 11 Sept. 2009: Jeremy Hammond at Foreign Policy Journal has written an extensive analysis of the coverage of the reputed Yazdi fatwa. See “The Case of the ‘Fatwa’ to Rig Iran’s Election.”

Update 24 Sept. 2009: Muhammad Sahimi of Tehran Bureau has responded to critics of the account of the Yazdi fatwa — see “America’s Misguided Left.”

AB — 22 June 2009

Spin and Rhetorical Intimidation

[Updated 23 Oct. 2009]

I’ve been interested for a long time in how people use language to market or “spin” their own points of view, to one-up and intimidate others rhetorically, to use implication and insinuation to make the other side look bad. (See “Rhetorical Intimidation” and “Spin and Gaffes.”)

I think of “spin” as manipulation of words to further one’s own quest for dominance or superiority. One thing I wrote in my “Spin and Gaffes” entry is that I suspect that:

… spin is employed much more often than we acknowledge, in all kinds of situations, and can be very hard to identify and expose. I think it is often used as a tool to gain power by rhetorical intimidation.

This takes place in all kinds of arenas — including more public arenas such as politics, academia, science, and marketing — but also in groups and interpersonally.

In my “Rhetorial Intimidation” post I gave examples of some words and phrases that are used to gain the upper hand in disputes. Examples are “pure and simple,” “just plain wrong,” “There is no dispute that,” “nonsense,” and “utter.” Terms like these are used to add artificial certainty to an assertion or to cast someone else’s idea as inferior and unreliable.

Why do people use terms like these?

One possible reason is they truly think that somehow it advances their cause or agenda. It plays to the prejudice of listeners or readers and perhaps makes them less likely to listen to the other side.

In this case, motivations can be political — using rhetoric to influence fellow citizens and lawmakers can be a tool to gain political ends, such as securing a certain freedom, enforcing certain moral behavior in society, or obtaining funding or government intervention toward a given issue.

Another possible reason is more psychological — people use this kind of language because it reinforces their sense of moral superiority.

The potential harm of spin and rhetorical intimidation is that they can shut off dialogue and discourse by appealing to emotion, sentiment, or prejudice. Each person on his or her own side can resort to insults and labels and thus avoid having to really listen to what the other person has to say.

Recently I have thought of some additional terms that are used to exert spin in discussion or public discourse, to intimidate, or, put more neutrally, to persuade. Consider:

Pseudo-science

In my “Rhetorical Intimidation” entry I referred to this as a term “used to describe an area of inquiry that conflicts with your own deeply-held opinions.”

“Pseudo-science” was once used by Tom Cruise to disparage psychiatry. It is often used to describe any investigation into the paranormal, and is “sometimes used by partisans on either side of the evolution-intelligent design debate to describe one another’s models,” as I wrote previously.

A related term that has emerged and is used more and more frequently now is:

Anti-Science

I have heard this term used to disparage people who oppose the destruction of human embryos for use in research, people who doubt whether human activity is causing harmful climate change, and people who doubt that darwinian processes could be responsible for the development of all varieties of life and who doubt that life could have arisen spontaneously.

Although disparagers lump all these points of view under the single “anti-science” label, these are in fact very distinct issues, and science informs both sides of all these issues in very different ways. Many people who hold these points of view are in fact very well informed about the science involved.

-deniers

This epithet is starting to appear now in similar contexts with “Pseudo-Science” and “Anti-Science” as discussed above. The utterer attaches “-deniers” to some ideological position to cast their own position as superior and the “denier” as ignorant, deluded, or evil.

Few would argue that Holocaust deniers have any rational claims to make. However, the “-denier” label is now being used to cast in a negative light those who think there are reasonable arguments against evolution and global warming.

As in other cases of rhetorical spin, the “-deniers” label serves only to cut off dialogue. Indeed, that seems to be one of the important purposes of the label.

Anti-Business

Writing about “anti-science” reminded me of this label, which I have seen used by partisans of particular business practices that are under attack.

Someone once accused me of being “anti-business” because I wrote an article discouraging companies from using spam email advertising as a marketing method. (The original article is still online — see “10 Reasons Not to Spam.”)

In fact, I’ve been in business for many years and have used email as a marketing communications tool myself. So I’m hardly anti-business or anti-marketing in any real sense. The person who made this accusation was evidently in a business that involved sending unwanted email to Internet users, and he wanted to try to score some points against me by painting me with the “anti-business” label.

Political correctness

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about this term is that, curiously, it is used about matters that are only tangentially political, if at all. It seems to me the “PC” label is applied as a kind of excuse not to show sensitivity toward someone else’s minority status, ethnicity, or disability.

Ideology

Nowadays this term is only used to describe someone else’s ideology, never one’s own.

Bigotry and Homophobia

Certainly hatred and fear are involved in the attitudes of many people toward gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, many sincere people subscribe to religions that proscribe homosexuality among their members. Not all such people and not all such religions are motivated by hatred or fear, and not all such people intend to limit the legal rights of gays and lesbians. What purpose does it serve to cut off communication by labeling such people with insulting terms?

Cult and Sect

Often these terms are used to label unpopular minority religions that are said to be unorthodox. But what should really be the standard for judging what is orthodox? Surely it is not simply the fact that a religious group is unpopular or a minority.

Over the years, I’ve changed my mind on a number of important questions, and I’ve seen other people change their minds as well. In most cases, dialogue with others has been an important factor.

Not that we are always going to change sides on an issue, but at least through dialogue we can understand others’ thinking more clearly and establish more peaceful relations.

The use of spin and rhetorical intimidation might serve political purposes and might give the user and artificial sense of superiority. But they are not conducive to mutual understanding and make the user look arrogant and dogmatice.

AB — 19 May 2009 [Updated 23 Oct. 2009]