A Student Jubilee! Liberate 41 Million Americans From Crushing Loan Debt

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‘It is time to forgive this debt and set our students and their families free,’ write the authors. ‘We propose a Student Debt Jubilee which will forgive all $1.3 trillion in American student loan debt.’ (Image: via youtube)

President Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college education, and the broader discussion which it has inspired, confirms our belief that it is time for a comprehensive solution to a $1.3 trillion problem: student debt in the United States.

We strongly support the concept of tuition-free public higher education, and are encouraged by renewed arguments in its favor. But we must also confront what has been done to the last several generations of students. They have been forced to take on debt that is crippling to them, to our economy and our society.

A student debt “jubilee” would reflect both the values upon which this nation was founded, and the economic principles which have sustained it through its greatest periods of growth and prosperity.

It is time for a truly transformative idea:  Let’s Abolish All Student Loan Debt in America.

If you agree, click here to take action.

Jubilees Then and Now

The Liberty Bell represents our nation’s core values, combining personal freedom with community action. The words inscribed on the Bell – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof” – are from the Book of Leviticus and refer to a Biblical “Year of Jubilee,” when all debts were periodically forgiven by the nation’s rulers.

Those Jubilee years – proclaimed at 49 year intervals for over 4,000 years – were both moral and practical in nature. On one hand, they were an acknowledgement that prolonged and excessive debt was an unconscionable burden. That morality is woven into the ethical foundation of Western civilization, which accepts the notion of fair debt but rejects indebtedness which is usurious or impinges on human freedom.

But they were also an economic necessity, preserving social harmony while ensuring uninterrupted production. The practical value of debt forgiveness has been explored by scholars who note that it reinforces social cohesion and prevents large groups of people from falling into poverty or oppression.

These goals remain as important today as they were in ancient times. A vibrant middle class is the engine of a functioning economy. A sustainable future is impractical without it.

While “Jubilee Years” were created long ago, the concept lives on today in different forms. Most modern Western societies have drawn on similar moral and practical arguments to end usury, indentured servitude, and slavery. Bankruptcy laws extend a kind of individualized “jubilee” to people who are over-burdened with debt. (Ironically, student debt is exempted from most forms of bankruptcy relief.)

Now we face a new moral challenge.  We need a new and transformative movement, one which echoes the struggles of recent history while drawing its inspiration from ancient traditions. Our massive student debt burden is a moral and ethical challenge. This debt draws upon the as-yet unearned wealth of each new generation, mortgaging tomorrow’s wealth and inhibiting the prosperity of the future.

How did we get here?

The Rise of Student Debt

There was a time in living memory when many Americans could obtain public higher education at little or no tuition cost. Today a college degree has become prohibitively expensive for many, while millions of others are required to borrow extensively in order to meet its soaring costs.

Rather than address the cost of education, the root cause of the problem, the government became the primary lender for student debt,  a move which contributed to runaway costs and crippling indebtedness. As a result, student debt is now the second-largest form of personal debt in this country, exceeding credit card debt and trailing only home mortgages.

Student debt is a dark betrayal at the heart of the American promise, and it must come to an end.

The statistics paint a clear picture: Student debt has soared, and continues to rise. The total amount owed is now $1.3 trillion. Approximately 41 million Americans now carry student debt, a figure which rose 40 percent between 2004 and 2012. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average amount owed for each graduating borrower has risen from less than $10,000 in 1993 to more than $30,000 in 2014 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). This debt has disproportionately affected lower-income Americans, but has affected households at all but the very highest income levels.

It gets worse. Unscrupulous “educators” and loan servicers in the private sector have exploited unwary students and their families. For the last six years, debt-burdened college students have entered the worst employment environment for young people and graduates in modern history. Politicians who have been too timid to tax hedge fund billionaires the same way they tax their personal assistants are ironically using the money from debt-burdened students and their families to offset the loss.

Social factors make the burden even greater.  Upward social mobility is at record lows for the United States, and continues to fall. We pride ourselves on being a nation where “anyone who wants to work hard can get ahead,” but the statistics belie that statement. Education seems to be the last avenue of advancement for lower- and middle-class American young people, many of whom are faced with a terrible choice: either accept their economically disadvantaged lot in life, or assume a crushing debt on the hope that tomorrow’s earnings will eventually offset today’s burden.

This is not a moral system. It is our nation’s Faustian bargain with the future, forcing students and their families to mortgage their hopes and dreams because society is no longer willing to provide them with an education. That is a moral abdication and it has led to a form of indentured servitude for young college graduates, many of whom entered the worst job market in decades.

A Moral – and Practical – Solution

Student debt doesn’t just represent a breakdown in our social conscience. It also reflects a loss in our longstanding economic judgment. The entire society benefits from well-educated citizens, who provide it with better employees, brighter visionaries and leaders, artistic enrichment, and wiser participants in a collaborative democracy.

It is time to forgive this debt and set our students and their families free. We propose a Student Debt Jubilee which will forgive all $1.3 trillion in American student loan debt. Here’s how it can work:  Most student loan debt (approximately 86 percent) is held by the Federal government. That means it is actually owned by the very people who owe the debt.  That debt will can be forgiven by government action. The remainder is held by private lenders and will be the subject of future proposals.

Many people’s first reaction will be: We can’t afford it. While we will provide more detail on the funding process soon, the answer is a simple one:  Yes, we can.

First, let’s reflect on our priorities. The Jubilee would cost less than the 2001 tax cuts, which  primarily benefited the wealthiest among us – and is only slightly more than the ten-year cost of offshore tax loopholes for corporate America.  For another perspective, astudy published 18 months ago showed that the costs of the war in Iraq had already exceeded $2 trillion.

We realize that a “student debt jubilee” will cost money. But it will also stimulate economic growth, by injecting more money into the overall economy, and that growth will provide more tax revenue for the government.  There will also be a major expansionary effect, as young Americans liberated from debt are able to buy homes, start businesses and pursue their dreams. And in the future our economy will benefit from a better-educated population.

Going Forward

As we address today’s student debt, we must also ensure that tomorrow’s college students aren’t forced into excessive debt. We must therefore see to it that residents of every state have access to tuition-free public higher education. This is not a radical notion, or even a new one.  President Obama’s plan for free community college stands on firm footing.  The University of California was tuition-free until the 1960s, for example, and free higher education was available in New York City for well over a century.  Germany has just joined the growing list of nations which offer their citizens a cost-free college education.

We are pleased that the President’s community-college proposal has sparked a new debate about four-year education as well. But tomorrow’s free tuition, should we achieve that goal, will not relieve the crushing debt burden of the past.

We are not naive. We know that this idea will meet with bitter resistance from those who argue that it “rewards the undeserving” or encourages irresponsible borrowing. (Paradoxically, many of those who will make those arguments remained silent as Wall Street was rescued and tax breaks were offered to undeserving financial speculators.) There are those who will argue that the idea is fiscally irresponsible, despite the fact that it will have a positive economic impact in the long-term.

We also know that, while the concept is simple, it will require more thought and discussion. That’s why we will continue to explore and expand upon this proposal until we have reached our goal. This is a new idea to most people. It represents a fundamental shift in our moral universe, just as other such struggles – for workplace rights, women’s rights, and civil rights – have in the past. It is an idea whose time has come.  But these shifts don’t come easily. They take time, and debate – and an organized movement.

We hope you will join us.

If you agree, click here to take action.

“Public sentiment is everything.  With public sentiment, nothing can fail.  Without it, nothing can succeed.”  — Abraham Lincoln

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a senior fellow at Campaign for America’s Future.

Mary Green Swig is a senior fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at  Harvard University and co-founder of the National Student Debt Jubilee Project.

Steven Swig is a senior fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and co-founder and President Emeritus of the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco.

 

http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/01/27/student-jubilee-liberate-41-million-americans-crushing-loan-debt

He’s not suddenly Paul Krugman: Let’s not morph Obama into Elizabeth Warren quite yet

Populist State of the Union with a fiery tone has liberals excited. They’d be wise to remember Obama’s true nature

He's not suddenly Paul Krugman: Let's not morph Obama into Elizabeth Warren quite yet
Paul Krugman, Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren (Credit: AP/Reuters/Bob Strong/Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Charles Dharapak/Photo montage by Salon)

Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech capped an epic political makeover. In two months he went from the living avatar of the political and economic establishment to a self-styled populist scourge. It’s as if he walked into a plastic surgeon’s office after Election Day and said “make me look like Bernie Sanders.” No president has ever tried to alter his image so drastically or so fast. I wonder if he’ll pull it off.

His campaign began emphatically on Nov. 5. Instead of the ritual submission the media demands of defeated party leaders, Obama used his post-election press conference to renew his vow to enact substantial immigration reform by executive order. Days later, he announced a major climate accord with China and finally came down foursquare for net neutrality.

These were big moves, but Obama was just warming up. In December, he announced the surprising end of our miserably failed Cuban trade embargo. Earlier this month, he unveiled a bold bid to make community college free for millions of students all across America.

Still not impressed? On Tuesday night he called for paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, a minimum wage hike and a tripling of the child tax credit to $3,000. He’s also pushing a $500 “second earner” tax credit and wants to give college students up to $2,500 apiece to help with expenses. The best part is how he’d pay for it all, mostly by taxing big banks, raising capital gains rates and closing loopholes that allows rich heirs to avoid capital gains taxes altogether.

A not-so-subtle shift in tone followed. Gone, for now, is Obama the ceaseless appeaser. He’s been replaced by a president with a more combative stance, as befits a true people’s champion. At times on Tuesday Obama even seemed to taunt his tormentors. In the last two months he has threatened five vetoes. In the previous six years he’d issued just two; that’s the fewest since James Garfield. Garfield, by the way, was president for six months.

What should we make of this new Obama? Are he and his new agenda for real? For liberals, these are tender questions. When Obama first appeared, their response was almost worshipful. Even today, many liberals treat Obama’s progressive critics as apostates. Given their deep investment in him, the vitriol of Tea Party attacks and the looming specter of GOP rule, it’s easy to understand why. But it’s crucial now for his liberal critics and defenders alike to see him as he is.



Obama’s new program seems real enough. We can’t gauge its full impact without more numbers, but this much is clear: Do it all — equal pay, minimum wage hike, community college tuition, family leave, middle-class tax credits and taxes on big banks and the superrich — and we’d make a very big dent in income inequality. Add the financial transaction tax Ralph Nader and Rose Ann DeMoro’s California nurses have long been pushing — and that some House Democrats now embrace — and you have enough money on the table to reverse decades of wage stagnation.

It may seem a big claim but the numbers are close to consensual. The transaction tax would raise a trillion dollars in 10 years, in which time a modest minimum wage hike would put $300 billion in the pockets of the working poor. Equal pay for equal work could do as much. Even without Obama’s numbers, we know the ideas gaining ground among Democrats could solve one of our biggest problems. As the president said apropos of just about everything, “this is good news, people.”

So what’s not to like? The bad news is there’s quite a bit. The problem is that Obama’s deeds so often contradict his words. Indeed, examine his actions over these same two months and one could also construct a compelling counter-narrative to this tale of populist transformation.

Consider climate change. While negotiating his China deal, Obama was also busy auctioning off drilling rights to 112 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. As soon as the deal was done, he was on the phone urging Democrats to back a bill that cut EPA staff, let the Export-Import Bank fund coal-fired electric plants and blocked enforcement of new rules for energy-efficient light bulbs.

In his first term Obama passed the word to his top hires to quiet down about global warming. He likes fracking and brags about increasing oil production. He won’t let Congress approve the Keystone pipeline, but he may approve it himself. In short, he’s a study in mixed climate messages.

The net neutrality story is even more confounding. The statement Obama released was one of the more thoughtful of his presidency. But he’d already made Tom Wheeler, CEO of the most powerful lobby opposing net neutrality, head of the Federal Communications Commission. And they decide the issue. It’s an independent commission that does what it wants. Its members may be moved by Obama’s eloquent words, or just confused.

Perhaps the most troubling contradiction lies in foreign policy. Obama began his speech on Tuesday by saying “tonight we turn the page.” As evidence he cited our newly reduced role in Afghanistan. As he put it: “For the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman… who has served to keep us safe.”

Obama’s relative restraint is such an improvement on George W. Bush’s bellicosity that we can’t help but judge him on a curve. That he’s bogged down in Afghanistan is no surprise, as these wars are always easier to start than finish. (It’s why they call them quagmires.) But in fact there are more than 15,000 Americans still left there. There are, for instance, the private contractors, whose number tripled under Obama. In early 2014, the last time figures were reported, there were 24,000. Obama says the “combat mission” is over — but the combat isn’t finished and neither is the mission.

On Wednesday, Mother Jones ran a story by Nick Turse of TomDispatch.com reporting that in 2014 Obama deployed U.S. Special Ops forces to 133 countries. That’s more than two-thirds of all the countries in the world; it’s a disturbing number and one that also grew exponentially on Obama’s watch. Even more disturbing are the drone strikes Obama has authorized, more than 10 times the number authorized by George W. Bush. American drones have now killed an estimate of more than 4,000 people. At least 20 percent of them were innocent civilians; less than 2 percent were high-value military targets.

In case you thought our combat mission in Iraq ended, buried in Obama’s speech was a call for Congress to pass a “resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” That was it — no explanation of vital interests at stake or limits to set. It was strange coming from a man who wouldn’t be president but for a speech he once gave against a war into which we were tragically conned.

Our war with ISIL proceeds under cover of our original Iraq war resolution, the exhaustion of which Obama concedes by implication. Someone should tell him the same resolution is used to justify drone strikes in nations we’re not at war with. Someone might also mention that use of “private security contractors” — the word “mercenary” stirs indignation — ill befits a democracy; that sending special ops forces to 133 countries also requires authorization and that if you declare an end to combat operations in two wars, your next budget should declare a peace dividend.

Obama’s failure to reconcile words to deeds detracts mightily from the grab bag of ideas he offers under the catchy title “middle class economics.” As noted, these policies could really improve people’s lives. But while he’s out thumping for them, he’s in hot pursuit of what he hopes will be his last coup, approval of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership. It’s such a popular idea he chose not to breathe its name in his speech. What he did say was worth sampling if only to savor its cleverness: “China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. We should write those rules… That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.”

He doesn’t want another free trade fiasco like that awful NAFTA, just “trade promotion authority to protect American workers.” Surely we can all be for that.

Nearly all left-leaning Democrats oppose the TPTP: Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, Bob Reich, Elizabeth Warren. One can’t imagine Obama changing his mind on it any more than one imagines him asking any of them to help craft his new populist agenda. As he likes to reassure his donors, “I’m a market kind of guy,” meaning he comes as close as a Democrat can to being a market ideologue. And yes, there is such a thing.

Market ideologues aren’t the sort to throw bombs or ruin dinner parties but they’re ideologues nonetheless. Their solution for every problem known to mankind is to adopt “market principles.” Their influence on Obama’s generation of Democratic elites has been profound. It’s why so many of them apply market theory to issues to which it is ill-suited, such as carbon reduction, health care and public education.

Obama doesn’t get that free trade can be as good as he says for business and still be a terrible deal for workers. He doesn’t get that markets by their nature do a great job of creating wealth and a poor one of distributing it; that absent a strong government to encode and enforce a social contract there is no middle class; that pitting our workers against those lacking such support will eventually impoverish them. It’s why he opposed raising the minimum wage when he had the votes to do it in his first term. It’s why he bailed out banks but not homeowners, and abandoned the public option.

Missing from Obama’s speech, as from his presidency, was any mention of public corruption. Countless polls attest to the depth of public revulsion at the domination of government by moneyed interests. Obama’s silence allows the Tea Party to fly the flag of “crony capitalism.” Most progressives miss the criticality of this issue that social change movements the world over put at the very top of their agendas.

It makes it really hard to enact new government programs, which is one reason Obama didn’t propose any new federal programs, just tax cuts, private sector mandates and grants to states. There are things the federal government does better, but voters won’t hand over the keys to a car with a cracked engine block. A real populist would fix what we all know is broken.

Betting on what a politician truly thinks is a high-risk business. Some say Obama has changed. Perhaps so; maybe a friend gave him a Krugman book for Christmas and midway through it he had an epiphany. Others say he feels liberated; that’s a popular hope among liberals in that it implies he really did love them all along. Still others say he wants to shape his legacy or the next debate.

But in studying Obama, one discovers a man of markedly fixed views. His take on issues has barely budged over a lifetime. Once he sets a course he sticks to it. We saw it in 2008 when Hillary Clinton rose from the dead sporting a new populist persona. It surprised many to see her peddling her wares to the working class. It shocked them when she won the Pennsylvania primary. John McCain shocked some by running even with him up until the Wall Street crash. We don’t know if either shocked Obama, but we do know he never once changed course.

On Tuesday he devoted an astonishing 20 percent of his time not to global warming or “middle-class economics” but to a defense of his 10-year pursuit of the holy grail of bipartisanship. For six years Obama played Charlie Brown to the Republicans’ Lucy in budget battles. In December he took another crack at the football. Is his new populism such a far cry from his 2008 rhetoric of transformation, or just a bit more specific to satisfy the hunger still rising for change? Do we really think it arose from somewhere other than the usual focus groups and polls?

There’s good news in all this. Someone changed, and if it isn’t Obama it must be us. It isn’t any politician but the power of public opinion that drives this debate. Republicans feel it. Hearing just an outline of a populist message scares them. Pundits say they won’t pass any part of Obama’s agenda but if they’re smart they will; perhaps a lesser minimum wage hike and something just for women. But we’ll never win the victory we must win without a strong progressive movement because neither this system nor those who run it will ever really change.

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/01/25/hes_not_suddenly_paul_krugman_lets_not_morph_obama_into_elizabeth_warren_quite_yet/?source=newsletter

The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered

Posted: 01/20/2015 3:20 pm EST 
It is now one hundred years since drugs were first banned — and all through this long century of waging war on drugs, we have been told a story about addiction by our teachers and by our governments. This story is so deeply ingrained in our minds that we take it for granted. It seems obvious. It seems manifestly true. Until I set off three and a half years ago on a 30,000-mile journey for my new book, Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs, to figure out what is really driving the drug war, I believed it too. But what I learned on the road is that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong — and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it.

If we truly absorb this new story, we will have to change a lot more than the drug war. We will have to change ourselves.

I learned it from an extraordinary mixture of people I met on my travels. From the surviving friends of Billie Holiday, who helped me to learn how the founder of the war on drugs stalked and helped to kill her. From a Jewish doctor who was smuggled out of the Budapest ghetto as a baby, only to unlock the secrets of addiction as a grown man. From a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn who was conceived when his mother, a crack-addict, was raped by his father, an NYPD officer. From a man who was kept at the bottom of a well for two years by a torturing dictatorship, only to emerge to be elected President of Uruguay and to begin the last days of the war on drugs.

I had a quite personal reason to set out for these answers. One of my earliest memories as a kid is trying to wake up one of my relatives, and not being able to. Ever since then, I have been turning over the essential mystery of addiction in my mind — what causes some people to become fixated on a drug or a behavior until they can’t stop? How do we help those people to come back to us? As I got older, another of my close relatives developed a cocaine addiction, and I fell into a relationship with a heroin addict. I guess addiction felt like home to me.

If you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: “Drugs. Duh.” It’s not difficult to grasp. I thought I had seen it in my own life. We can all explain it. Imagine if you and I and the next twenty people to pass us on the street take a really potent drug for twenty days. There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That’s what addiction means.

One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments — ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexandernoticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about the head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.

After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further. He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use for fifty-seven days — if anything can hook you, it’s that. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is — again — striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them. (The full references to all the studies I am discussing are in the book.)

When I first learned about this, I was puzzled. How can this be? This new theory is such a radical assault on what we have been told that it felt like it could not be true. But the more scientists I interviewed, and the more I looked at their studies, the more I discovered things that don’t seem to make sense — unless you take account of this new approach.

Here’s one example of an experiment that is happening all around you, and may well happen to you one day. If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right — it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.

If you still believe — as I used to — that addiction is caused by chemical hooks, this makes no sense. But if you believe Bruce Alexander’s theory, the picture falls into place. The street-addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. She is going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different.

This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

When I learned all this, I found it slowly persuading me, but I still couldn’t shake off a nagging doubt. Are these scientists saying chemical hooks make no difference? It was explained to me — you can become addicted to gambling, and nobody thinks you inject a pack of cards into your veins. You can have all the addiction, and none of the chemical hooks. I went to a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting in Las Vegas (with the permission of everyone present, who knew I was there to observe) and they were as plainly addicted as the cocaine and heroin addicts I have known in my life. Yet there are no chemical hooks on a craps table.

But still, surely, I asked, there is some role for the chemicals? It turns out there is an experiment which gives us the answer to this in quite precise terms, which I learned about in Richard DeGrandpre’s book The Cult of Pharmacology.

Everyone agrees cigarette smoking is one of the most addictive processes around. The chemical hooks in tobacco come from a drug inside it called nicotine. So when nicotine patches were developed in the early 1990s, there was a huge surge of optimism — cigarette smokers could get all of their chemical hooks, without the other filthy (and deadly) effects of cigarette smoking. They would be freed.

But the Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers are able to stop using nicotine patches. That’s not nothing. If the chemicals drive 17.7 percent of addiction, as this shows, that’s still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about The Cause of Addiction lying with chemical hooks is, in fact, real, but only a minor part of a much bigger picture.

This has huge implications for the one-hundred-year-old war on drugs. This massive war — which, as I saw, kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool — is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction — if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction — then this makes no sense.

Ironically, the war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction. For example, I went to a prison in Arizona — ‘Tent City’ — where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (‘The Hole’) for weeks and weeks on end to punish them for drug use. It is as close to a human recreation of the cages that guaranteed deadly addiction in rats as I can imagine. And when those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record — guaranteeing they with be cut off ever more. I watched this playing out in the human stories I met across the world.

There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world — and so leave behind their addictions.

This isn’t theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them — to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.

One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care.

The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass — and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.

This isn’t only relevant to the addicts I love. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s — “only connect.” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.

The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander — the creator of Rat Park — told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery — how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.

But this new evidence isn’t just a challenge to us politically. It doesn’t just force us to change our minds. It forces us to change our hearts.

Loving an addict is really hard. When I looked at the addicts I love, it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice doled out by reality shows like Intervention — tell the addict to shape up, or cut them off. Their message is that an addict who won’t stop should be shunned. It’s the logic of the drug war, imported into our private lives. But in fact, I learned, that will only deepen their addiction — and you may lose them altogether. I came home determined to tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever — to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can’t.

When I returned from my long journey, I looked at my ex-boyfriend, in withdrawal, trembling on my spare bed, and I thought about him differently. For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts. It occurred to me as I wiped his brow, we should have been singing love songs to them all along.

The full story of Johann Hari’s journey — told through the stories of the people he met — can be read in Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, published by Bloomsbury. The book has been praised by everyone from Elton John to Glenn Greenwald to Naomi Klein. You can buy it at all good bookstores and read more at www.chasingthescream.com.

Johann Hari will be talking about his book at 7pm at Politics and Prose in Washington DC on the 29th of January, at lunchtime at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on the 30th January, and in the evening at Red Emma’s in Baltimore on the 4th February.

The full references and sources for all the information cited in this article can be found in the book’s extensive end-notes.

 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html

More than half of US public school students living in poverty

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By Andre Damon
19 January 2015

For the first time in at least half a century, low-income children make up the majority of students enrolled in American public schools, according to a report by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF).

The percentage of public school students who are classified as low-income has risen steadily over the past quarter century, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. In 1989, under 32 percent of public school students were classified as low-income, according to statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) cited by the report. This rose to 38 percent by 2000, 48 percent in 2011, and 51 percent in 2013.

These figures are the result of decades of deindustrialization, stagnating wages and cuts to antipoverty programs. Since the 2008 financial crisis in particular, the US ruling class, with the Obama administration at its head, has waged an unrelenting assault on the social rights of working people, carrying out mass layoffs, driving down wages, and slashing social services during the recession and the “recovery.” The SEF report makes clear that it has been the most vulnerable sections of society, including children, who have been made to bear a disproportionate burden due to these policies.

The study defines low-income students as those qualifying for either free or reduced-price lunches. Students from families making less than 135 percent of the federal poverty threshold are eligible for free lunches, while those making under 185 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible for reduced-price lunches.

The report was published last week in the form of an update to a 2007 study, entitled “A New Majority,” which warned that low-income students had for the first time in decades become the majority in the historically impoverished American South, and were well on their way to becoming the majority in the US as a whole. In 2006, the year covered by the report, low-income students constituted 42 percent of students enrolled at public schools. Seven years later, the figure has risen by a shocking nine percentage points.

The 2007 report noted that in 1959, “Historical correlations suggest that close to a majority of the school-age children in the South were in households living below the recently defined American poverty line.” It added, “Somewhere between 1959 and 1967, it is likely that for the first time since public schools were established in the South, low income children no longer constituted a majority of students in the South’s public schools.”

“By 1967, the percentage of low income children in the South and the nation had declined to unmatched levels,” the report continued, but noted that the improvement “came to a halt in 1970 when the percentage of low income children leveled off and remained essentially constant over five years. In 1975 the trend lines for low income students in the South and across the nation began to creep upward. After 1980, the Reagan Administration convinced Congress to enact large federal cutbacks in anti-poverty programs, and the numbers of low income children in the South started to rise sharply.”

The vast historical retrogression exposed by the report is further emphasized in the breakdown by state. The report notes, “In 1989, Mississippi was the only state in the nation with a majority of low income students. It had 59 percent. Louisiana ranked second with 49 percent.”

Low-income students now comprise the majority in 21 states, and between 40 percent and 49 percent of students in 19 others. While all states had significant numbers of low-income students, the share of poor students in the South and West is “extraordinarily high.” It notes that “thirteen of the 21 states with a majority of low income students in 2013 were located in the South, and six of the other 21 states were in the West.”

Mississippi has the highest share of low-income students, at a shocking 71 percent, or nearly three out of four, in 2013. Second was New Mexico, where 68 percent of public school students are low-income. These are followed by Louisiana, with 65 percent; Arkansas, with 61 percent; Oklahoma, with 61 percent; and Texas, with 60 percent. California, the country’s most populous state, has 55 percent of its public school students in poverty.

Poor students require far more resources than their affluent peers if they are to keep up. But rather than provide resources according to need, the Bush and Obama administrations, under the “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” programs, have channeled resources away from schools with a high share of students in poverty, which are declared to be “underperforming.”

The SEF report warns, “With huge, stubbornly unchanging gaps in learning, schools in the South and across the nation face the real danger of becoming entrenched, inadequately funded educational systems that enlarge the division in America between haves and have-nots.”

The study is the latest in a series of reports showing the increasingly desperate social conditions facing children in the United States.

In September, the US Department of Education released statistics showing that the number of homeless children increased by eight percent in the 2012-2013 school year, compared to the year before. There were 1.3 million homeless children enrolled in US schools, a figure that is up by 85 percent since the beginning of the recession.

In April, Feeding America reported that 16 million children, or 21.6 percent, live in food insecure households. The share of all people in the United States who are food insecure has increased from 13.4 percent in 2006 to 21.1 percent in 2013.

In April 2013, the United Nations Children’s Fund released a report showing that the US has the fourth-highest child poverty rate among 29 developed countries. Only Lithuania, Latvia and Romania have higher child poverty rates. The US fell behind even Greece, which has been devastated by years of austerity measures dictated by the International Monetary Fund.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/19/pove-j19.html

Leo Tolstoy’s theory of everything

Before writing some of the greatest novels in history, Tolstoy asked some of philosophy’s hardest questions

Leo Tolstoy's theory of everything

Leo Tolstoy (Credit: Wikimedia)

Tolstoy’s first diary, started on March 17, 1847, at the age of eighteen, began as a clinical investigation launched under laboratory conditions: in the isolation of a hospital ward, where he was being treated for a venereal disease. A student at Kazan University, he was about to drop out due to lack of academic progress. In the clinic, freed from external influences, the young man planned to “enter into himself” for intense self-exploration (vzoiti sam v sebia ; 46:3). On the first page, he wrote (then crossed out) that he was in complete agreement with Rousseau on the advantages of solitude. This act of introspection had a moral goal: to exert control over his runaway life. Following a well-established practice, the young Tolstoy approached the diary as an instrument of self-perfection.

But this was not all. For the young Tolstoy, keeping a diary (as I hope to show) was also an experimental project aimed at exploring the nature of self: the links connecting a sense of self, a moral ideal, and the temporal order of narrative.

From the very beginning there were problems. For one, the diarist obviously found it difficult to sustain the flow of narrative. To fill the pages of his first diary, beginning on day two, Tolstoy gives an account of his reading, assigned by a professor of history: Catherine the Great’s famous Instruction (Nakaz), as compared with Montesquieu’sL’Esprit de lois. This manifesto aimed at regulating the future social order, and its philosophical principles, rooted in the French Enlightenment (happy is a man in whom will rules over passions, and happy is a state in which laws serve as an instrument of such control), appealed to the young Tolstoy. But with the account of Catherine’s utopia (on March 26), Tolstoy’s first diary came to an end.

When he started again (and again), Tolstoy commented on the diary itself, its purpose and uses. In his diary, he will evaluate the course of self- improvement (46:29). He will also reflect on the purpose of human life (46:30). The diary will contain rules pertaining to his behavior in specific times and places; he will then analyze his failures to follow these rules (46:34). The diary’s other purpose is to describe himself and the world (46:35). But how? He looked in the mirror. He looked at the moon and the starry sky. “ But how can one write this ?” he asked. “One has to go, sit at an ink-stained desk, take coarse paper, ink . . . and trace letters on paper. Letters will make words, words—phrases, but is it possible to convey one’s feeling?” (46:65). The young diarist was in despair.



Apart from the diaries, the young Tolstoy kept separate notebooks for rules: “ Rules for Developing Will ” (1847), “Rules of Life” (1847), “Rules” (1847 and 1853), and “Rules in General” (1850) (46:262–76). “Rules for playing music” (46:36) and “Rules for playing cards in Moscow until January 1” (46: 39). There are also rules for determining “(a) what is God, (b) what is man, and (c) what are the relations between God and man” (46:263). It would seem that in these early journals, Tolstoy was actually working not on a history but on a utopia of himself: his own personal Instruction.

Yet another notebook from the early 1850s, “Journal for Weaknesses” (Zhurnal dlia slabostei)—or, as he called it, the “Franklin journal”—listed, in columns, potential weaknesses, such as laziness, mendacity, indecision, sensuality, and vanity, and Tolstoy marked (with small crosses) the qualities that he exhibited on a particular day. Here, Tolstoy was consciously following the method that Benjamin Franklin had laid out in his famous autobiography. There was also an account book devoted to financial expenditures. On the whole, on the basis of these documents, it appears that the condition of Tolstoy’s moral and monetary economy was deplorable. But another expenditure presented still graver problems: that of time.

Along with the first, hesitant diaries, for almost six months in 1847 Tolstoy kept a “Journal of Daily Occupations” (Zhurnal ezhednevnykh zaniatii; 46:245–61), the main function of which was to account for the actual expenditure of time. In the journal, each page was divided into two vertical columns: the first one, marked “The Future,” listed things he planned to do the next day; a parallel column, marked “The Past,” contained comments (made a day later) on the fulfillment of the plan. The most frequent entry was “not quite” (nesovsem). One thing catches the eye: there was no present.

The Moral Vision of Self and the Temporal Order of Narrative

Beginning in 1850, the time scheme of Tolstoy’s “Journal of Daily Occupations” and the moral accounting of the Franklin journal were incorporated into a single narrative. Each day’s entry was written from the reference point of yesterday’s entry, which ended with a detailed schedule for the next day—under tomorrow’s date. In the evening of the next day, Tolstoy reviewed what he had actually done, comparing his use of time to the plan made the previous day. He also commented on his actions, evaluating his conduct on a general scale of moral values. The entry concluded with a plan of action and a schedule for yet another day. The following entry (from March 1851) is typical for the early to mid-1850s:

24. Arose somewhat late and read, but did not have time to write. Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cowardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cowardice). Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness).—At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness). At the Volkonskys’ was unnatural and distracted, and stayed until one in the morning (distractedness, desire to show off, and weakness of character). 25. [This is a plan for the next day, the 25th, written on the 24th—I.P.] From 10 to 11 yesterday’s diary and to read. From 11 to 12—gymnastics. From 12 to 1—English. Beklemishev and Beyer from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4—on horseback. From 4 to 6—dinner. From 6 to 8—to read. From 8 to 10—to write.—To translate something from a foreign language into Russian to develop memory and style.—To write today with all the impressions and thoughts it gives rise to.—25. Awoke late out of sloth. Wrote my diary and did gymnastics, hurrying. Did not study English out of sloth. With Begichev and with Islavin was vain. At Beklemishev’s was cowardly and lack of fierté. On Tver Boulevardwanted to show off. I did not walk on foot to the Kalymazhnyi Dvor (sissiness). Rode with a desire to show off. For the same reason rode to Ozerov’s.—Did not return to Kalymazhnyi, thoughtlessness. At the Gorchakovs’ dissembled and did not call things by their names, fooling myself. Went to L’vov’s out of insufficient energy and the habit of doing nothing. Sat around at home out of absentmindedness and read Werther inattentively, hurrying. 26 [This is a plan for the next day, the 26th, written on the 25th—I.P.] To get up at 5. Until 10—to write the history of this day. From 10 to 12—fencing and to read. From 12 to 1—English, and if something interferes, then in the evening. From 1 to 3—walking, until 4—gymnastics. From 4 to 6, dinner—to read and write.— (46:55).

An account of the present as much as a plan for the future, this diary combines the prescriptive and the descriptive. In the evening of each day, the young Tolstoy reads the present as a failure to live up to the expectations of the past, and he anticipates a future that will embody his vision of a perfect self. The next day, he again records what went wrong today with yesterday’s tomorrow. Wanting reality to live up to his moral ideal, he forces the past to meet the future.

In his attempt to create an ordered account of time, and thus a moral order, Tolstoy’s greatest difficulty remains capturing the present. Indeed, today makes its first appearance in the diary as tomorrow, embedded in the previous day and usually expressed in infinitive verb forms (“to read,” “to write,” “to translate”). On the evening of today, when Tolstoy writes his diary, today is already the past, told in the past tense. His daily account ends with a vision of another tomorrow. Since it appears under tomorrow’s date, it masquerades as today, but the infinitive forms of the verbs suggest timelessness.

In the diaries, unlike in the “Journal of Daily Occupations,” the present is accorded a place, but it is deprived of even a semblance of autonomy: The present is a space where the past and the future overlap. It appears that the narrative order of the diary simply does not allow one to account for the present. The adolescent Tolstoy’s papers contain the following excerpt, identified by the commentators of Tolstoy’s complete works as a “language exercise”: “Le passé est ce qui fut, le futur est ce qui sera et le présent est ce qui n’est pas.—C’est pour cela que la vie de l’homme ne consiste que dans le futur et le passé et c’est pour la même raison que le bonheur que nous voulons posséder n’est qu’une chimère de même que le présent” (1:217).  (The past is that which was, the future is that which will be, and the present is that which is not. That is why the life of man consists in nothing but the future and the past, and it is for the same reason that the happiness we want to possess is nothing but a chimera, just as the present is.) Whether he knew it or not, the problem that troubled the young Tolstoy, as expressed in this language exercise, was a common one, and it had a long history.

What Is Time? Cultural Precedents

It was Augustine, in the celebrated Book 11 of the Confessions, who first expressed his bewilderment: “What is time?” He argued as follows: The future is not yet here, the past is no longer here, and the present does not remain. Does time, then, have a real being? What is the present? The day? But “not even one day is entirely present.” Some hours of the day are in the future, some in the past. The hour? But “one hour is itself constituted of fugitive moments.”

Time flies quickly from future into past. In Augustine’s words, “the present occupies no space.” Thus, “time” both exists (the language speaks of it and the mind experiences it) and does not exist. The passage of time is both real and unreal (11.14.17–11.17.22). Augustine’s solution was to turn inward, placing the past and the future within the human soul (or mind), as memory and expectation. Taking his investigation further, he argues that these qualities of mind are observed in storytelling and fixed in narrative: “When I am recollecting and telling my story, I am looking on its image in present time, since it is still in my memory” (11.18.23). As images fixed in a story, both the past and the future lie within the present, which thus acquires a semblance of being. In the mind, or in the telling of one’s personal story, times exist all at once as traces of what has passed and will pass through the soul. Augustine thus linked the issue of time and the notion of self. In the end, the question “What is time?” was an extension of the fundamental question of the Confessions: “What am I, my God? What is my Nature?” (10.17.26).

For centuries philosophers continued to refine and transform these arguments. Rousseau reinterpreted Augustine’s idea in a secular perspective, focusing on the temporality of human feelings. Being attached to things outside us, “our affections” necessarily change: “they recall a past that is gone” or “anticipate a future that may never come into being.” From his own experience, Rousseau knew that the happiness for which his soul longed was not one “composed of fugitive moments” (“ le bonheur que mon coeur regrette n’est point composé d’instants fugitives ”) but a single and lasting state of the soul. But is there a state in which the soul can concentrate its entire being, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future? Such were Rousseau’s famous meditations on time in the fifth of his Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Rêveries du promeneur solitaire), a sequel to the Confessions. In both texts Rousseau practiced the habit of “reentering into himself,” with the express purpose of inquiring “What am I?” (“Que suis je moi-même ?”).

Since the mid-eighteenth century, after Rousseau and Laurence Sterne, time, as known through the mind of the perceiving individual, had also been the subject of narrative experiments undertaken in novels and memoirs. By the 1850s, the theme of the being and nonbeing of time in relation to human consciousness, inaugurated by Augustine and secularized by Rousseau, could serve as the topic of an adolescent’s language exercise.

In his later years, as a novelist, Tolstoy would play a decisive role in the never-ending endeavor to catch time in the act. In the 1850s, in his personal diary, the young Tolstoy was designing his first, homemade methods of managing the flow of personal time by narrative means. As we have seen, this dropout student was not without cultural resources. The young Tolstoy could hardly have known Augustine, but he did know Rousseau, whose presence in the early diaries is palpable. (In later years, when he does read Augustine, he will focus on the problem of narrating time and fully appreciate its theological meaning.)  But mostly he proceeded by way of his own narrative efforts: his diary. Fixed in the diary, the past would remain with him; planned in writing, the future was already there. Creating a future past and a present future, the diarist relieved some of the anxieties of watching life pass. But in one domain his efforts fell short of the ideal: not even one day was entirely present.

“A History of Yesterday”

In March 1851, the twenty-two-year-old Tolstoy embarked on another longplanned project: to write a complete account of a single day—a history of yesterday. His choice fell on March 24: “ not because yesterday was extraordinary in any way . . . but because I have long wished to tell the innermost [zadushevnuiu] side of life in one day. God only knows how many diverse . . . impressions and thoughts . . . pass in a single day. If it were only possible to recount them all so that I could easily read myself and others could read me as I do. . . . ” (1:279).

An outgrowth of the diary, “A History of Yesterday” (Istoriia vcherashnego dnia) was conceived as an experiment: Where would the process of writing take him? (Tolstoy was writing for himself alone; indeed, in his lifetime, “A History of Yesterday” remained unpublished.)

The metaphor of self, or life, as a book, an image to which Tolstoy would return throughout his life, makes its first appearance here. 8 Rousseau, in whose footsteps Tolstoy followed in wanting to make himself into an open book, believed that self-knowledge was based on feeling and that all he had to do was “to make my soul transparent to the reader.” The young Benjamin Franklin, who was a printer, used the image in his own epitaph: He imagined a typeset book of his life and expressed his belief that it would appear once more in a new edition, “revised and corrected by the author.”

Tolstoy, in 1851, seems to have suspected that the problem lay in the narrative itself. Knowing that “there is not enough ink in the world to write such a story, or typesetters to put it into print” (1:279), he nevertheless embarked upon this project.

In the end it turned out that after about twenty-four hours of writing (spread over a three-week period), Tolstoy was still at the start of the day. Having filled what amounts to twenty-six pages of printed text, he abandoned his “History.” By that time Tolstoy was in a position to know that the enterprise was doomed, and not only because of empirical difficulties (“there would not be enough ink in the world to write it, or typesetters to put it in print”), but also because of major philosophical problems (such as the constraints inherent in the nature of narrative).

“A History of Yesterday” starts in the morning: “I arose late yesterday—at a quarter to 10.” What follows is a causal explanation that relates the given event to an earlier event, which happened on the day before yesterday: “— because I had gone to bed after midnight.” At this point, the account is interrupted by a parenthetical remark that places the second event within a system of general rules of conduct: “( It has long been my rule never to retire after midnight, yet this happens to me about 3 times a week).” The story resumes with a detailed description of those circumstances which had led to the second event and a minor moral transgression (going to bed after midnight): “I was playing cards. . . .” (1:279). The account of the action is then interrupted by another digression—the narrator’s reflections on the nature of society games.

After a page and a half, Tolstoy returns to the game of cards. The narrative proceeds, slowly and painfully, tracing not so much external actions as the webs of the protagonist/narrator’s mental activity, fusing two levels of reflections: those that accompanied the action and those that accompany the act of narration. After many digressions, the narrative follows the protagonist home, puts him to bed, and ends with an elaborate description of his dream, leaving the hero at the threshold of “yesterday.”

What, then, is time? In Tolstoy’s “History,” the day (a natural unit of time) starts in the morning, moves rapidly to the previous evening, and then slowly makes its way back towards the initial morning. Time flows backward, making a circle. In the end, Tolstoy wrote not a history of yesterday but a history of the day before yesterday.

This pattern would play itself out once again in Tolstoy’s work when, in 1856, he started working on a historical novel, the future War and Peace. As he later described it (in an explanatory note on War and Peace), Tolstoy’ original plan was to write a novel about the Decembrists. He set the action in the present, in 1856: An elderly Decembrist returns to Moscow from Siberian exile. But before Tolstoy could move any further, he felt compelled to interrupt the narrative progression: “ involuntarily I passed from today to 1825 ”(that is, to the Decembrist uprising). In order to understand his hero in 1825, he then turned to the formative events of the war with Napoleon: “ I once again discarded what I had begun and started to write from the time of 1812.” “But then for a third time I put aside what I had begun”—Tolstoy now turned to 1805 (the dawn of the Napoleonic age in Russia; 13:54). The narrative did not progress in time; it regressed. In both an early piece of personal history, “A History of Yesterday,” and the mature historical novel, War and Peace, Tolstoy saw the initial event as the end of a chain of preceding events, locked into causal dependency by the implications of the narrative order. At the time he made this comment on the writing of his novel, Tolstoy seemed to hold this principle as the inescapable logic of historical narrative.

In “A History of Yesterday,” temporal refraction does not end with a shift from the target day to the preceding day. In the description of “the day before yesterday” itself, time also does not progress: It is pulled apart to fit an array of simultaneous processes. The game of cards has come to an end. The narrator is standing by the card table involved in a (mostly silent) conversation with the hostess. It is time to leave, but taking leave does not come easily to the young man; nor is it easy to tell the story of leaving:

I looked at my watch and got up . . . . Whether she wished to end this conversation which I found so sweet, or to see how I would refuse, or whether she simply wished to continue playing, she looked at the figures which were written on the table, drew the chalk across the table— making a figure that could be classified neither as mathematical nor as pictorial—looked at her husband, then between him and me, and said: “Let’s play three more rubbers.” I was so absorbed in the contemplation not of her movements alone, but of everything that is called charme, which it is impossible to describe, that my imagination was very far away, and I did not have time to clothe my words in a felicitous form; I simply said: “No, I can’t.” Before I had finished saying this I began to regret it,—that is, not all of me, but a certain part of me. . . .

—I suppose this part spoke very eloquently and persuasively (although I cannot convey this), for I became alarmed and began to cast about for arguments.—In the first place, I said to myself, there is no great pleasure in it, you do not really like her, and you’re in an awkward position; besides, you’ve already said that you can’t stay, and you have fallen in her estimation. . . .

Comme il est aimable, ce jeune homme.” [How pleasant he is, this young man.]

This sentence, which followed immediately after mine, interrupted my reflections. I began to make excuses, to say I couldn’t stay, but since one does not have to think to make excuses, I continued reasoning with myself: How I love to have her speak of me in the third person. In German this is rude, but I would love it even in German. . . . “Stay for supper,” said her husband.—As I was busy with my reflections on the formula of the third person, I did not notice that my body, while very properly excusing itself for not being able to stay, was putting down the hat again and sitting down quite coolly in an easy chair. It was clear that my mind was taking no part in this absurdity. (1:282–83)

Written from memory, in the past tense, this narrative nevertheless strives to imitate a notation of immediate experience—something like a stenographic transcription of a human consciousness involved in the act of apprehending itself.

Some critics see this as an early instance of what would later be called the “stream of consciousness” or even read Tolstoy’s desire to describe what lies “behind the soul” as an attempt to reach “what we now call the subconscious.”  But this is a special case: a stream of consciousness with an observer. As an external observer, the narrator can only guess at what is going on in the other’s mind. As a self-narrator who describes the zadushevnui  —“innermost,” or, translating literally, the “behind-the-soul”—side of one day’s life, he faces other difficulties.

Indeed, the narrator deals with internal multiplicity, with speech, thought, and bodily movement divided, with ambivalent desires, with the dialectical drama that stands behind a motive. There is yet another layer: the splitting of the self into a protagonist and a narrator, who operate in two different timeframes. Moreover, the narrator (even when he is lost in reverie) is involved in reflections not only on the process of narrating but also on general (meta-) problems in the “historiography” of the self. Finally, he keeps referring to the residue of that which cannot be expressed and explained. How could such multiplicity be represented in the linear order of a narrative?

Time and Narrative 

Unbeknownst to the young Tolstoy, Kant had long since deplored the limitations of narrative in The Critique of Pure Reason. In narrative representation, one event as a matter of convention follows upon another. In Kant’s words, “the apprehension of the manifold of appearance is always successive”; “the representations of the parts” succeed one another. It does not follow, however, that what we represent is also in itself successive; it is just that we “cannot arrange the apprehension otherwise than in this very succession.” This is the way “in which we are first led to construct for ourselves the concept of cause”: succession suggests causality.

As yet unfamiliar with Kant’s deductions, Tolstoy attempted to break the rule of succession—to stretch the temporality of his narrative in order to account for actions and processes that occur as if simultaneously. As a result, he extended time beyond the endurance of the narrative form: the story breaks off. The narrator who describes his own being from within knows (if only subconsciously) more than he can possibly tell. Is it humanly possible to give an account of even one day in one’s own life?

There were, of course, cultural precedents. Tolstoy’s narrative strategies were largely borrowed from Laurence Sterne, who, along with Rousseau, was among his first self-chosen mentors. 13 In 1851, in his diary, Tolstoy called Sterne his “favorite writer” (49:82). In 1851–52, he translated A Sentimental Journey from English into Russian as an exercise.

Informed by Locke’s philosophy, Sterne’s narrative strategy was to make the consciousness of the protagonist/narrator into a locus of action. Locke, unlike Augustine, hoped that time itself could be captured: He derived the idea of time (duration) from the way in which we experience a train of ideas that constantly succeed one another in our minds. It followed that the sense of self derives from the continuity of consciousness from past to future.

Sterne followed suit by laying bare the flow of free associations in the mind of the narrator. One of his discoveries concerned time and narrative: Turning the narration inward, Sterne discovered that there is a psychic time that diverges from clock time. The splitting of time results in living, and writing, simultaneously on several levels. To be true to life, Sterne’s narrator digresses. The author confronted the necessity for interweaving movements forward and backward, which alone promised to move beyond the confines of time. The combination of progression and digression, including retrospective digression, created a narrative marked by experimentation, with the narrator openly commenting on his procedures.  In the end, Sterne’s experimentation—his “realistic” representation—revealed flaws in Locke’s argument: Successive representation could not catch up with the manifold perceptions of the human mind. In brief, the narrative that attempted to represent human consciousness did not progress.

By mimicking Sterne’s narrative strategy, Tolstoy learned his first lessons in epistemology: the Cartesian shift to the point of view of the perceiving individual, the modern view on the train and succession of inner thoughts, the dependence of personal identity on the ability to extend consciousness backward to a past action, and so on. Tolstoy also confronted the restrictions that govern our apprehension and representation of time—limitations that he would continue to probe and challenge throughout his life and work, even after he had read, and fully appreciated, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (in 1869, as he was finishing War and Peace).

In his first diaries and in “A History of Yesterday,” proceeding by way of narrative experiments, the young Tolstoy discovered a number of things. He discovered that there was no history of today. Even in a record almost concurrent with experience, there was no present. A history was a history of yesterday. Moreover, writing a history of the individual and a self-history, he was confronted with the need to account not only for the order of events but also for a whole other domain: the inner life. Uncovering the inner life led to further temporal refraction: From an inside point of view, it appeared that behind an event or action there stood a whole array of simultaneous processes. This led to another discovery.

Excerpted from “’Who, What Am I?’: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self” by Irina Paperno. Copyright © 2014 by Irina Paperno. Reprinted by arrangement with Cornell University Press. All rights reserved.

http://www.salon.com/2015/01/11/leo_tolstoys_theory_of_everything/?source=newsletter

 

The secret history of beauty

How the Greeks invented Western civilization’s biggest idea

People think of beauty as universal to the human experience. But the truth is actually much more complicated

The secret history of beauty: How the Greeks invented Western civilization's biggest idea
(Credit: Xirurg via iStock)

The English word beauty is semantically rich; that is, it has a wide range of meanings and connotations. In everyday speech, this is not a problem: we can apply the noun, or the corresponding adjective beautiful, to a great variety of objects that do not seem to have much, or indeed anything, in common, and yet we know perfectly well what is meant. For example, we can speak of a beautiful woman, a beautiful child, a beautiful painting, a beautiful mathematical proof, and a beautiful catch in baseball. The expression “that’s a beauty” can be said of almost anything at all. In some of the preceding examples, we might mean “attractive” or even “sexy,” as when we use the term to describe a model or actress; in others, we may mean something more like “well executed,” as in the case of a good play in athletic competitions. When ascribed to a work of art, the term may signify balance or proportion, or some other quality that we think of as aesthetic; in the case of mathematics, we perhaps mean that a proof is elegant because it is crisp and compact, or innovative in method. Very generally, beautiful is a term of approbation, and its precise sense depends on the context. However, it would seem to retain in most of its uses some connection with attractiveness, and its connotations do not overlap entirely or precisely with other expressions of approval such as good or fine. Upon reflection, one is naturally led to wonder whether all the different applications of beauty or beautiful really have a core quality in common, despite some outlying or marginal uses, or whether the term rather embraces a set of homonyms, in which the connection between the various senses is either thin or nonexistent, like pool when it bears the sense of a small body of water and then again when it refers to a game similar to billiards.

The nature of beauty became a central intellectual question with the emergence of the discipline known as aesthetics in the mid-eighteenth century, when the word was first coined. Aesthetics took beauty as its special province, above all in the domain of art. Why this interest should have arisen just then, and in Germany (or what is now Germany) in particular, is an intriguing issue in the history of philosophy, to which we shall return. From this point on, at any rate, serious thinking about beauty had to take account of well-developed theoretical positions and confront the paradoxes or difficulties that arose as a result of the umbrella character of the concept, which covered so great a variety of notions.

The present investigation is historical and looks to understand how our modern notions of beauty arose in relation to the prevailing ideas and accounts of beauty in classical antiquity, beginning with the Greeks. From this perspective, perhaps the quandary that most immediately presents itself concerning the nature of beauty is the apparent variety of forms that it takes across different times and places. This is evident in relation to the human form, the ideals for which may vary even in a relatively short period of time: for several recent decades, glamour was associated with models so thin as to appear anorexic. They would have aroused a certain revulsion in periods accustomed to more fulsome figures. The current practice of piercing and tattooing the body is another variation in the criteria for beauty, as is long hair or totally shaved heads for men compared to the trim haircuts of fifty or sixty years ago (I am not sure that younger people even know what a “part” is, in relation to a hairstyle). The ancient Greeks also had their preferences, which doubtless varied over time and in different locales. The same would be true for the Romans and the vast empire they eventually ruled. Although I mention, when relevant, the traits (for example, height) that counted as contributing to beauty, whether male or female, in antiquity, they are not the primary subject of the present book.

Did the Ancient Greeks Recognize Art?

I propose rather to examine the kinds of things that were described as beautiful (Did the term cover the same wide range of objects that it does in modern English usage?) and what the typical response to beauty was understood to be (What did people feel or think of themselves as feeling, when they beheld something they called beautiful?). As I mentioned, one of the characteristic spheres in which the modern notion of beauty is applied is the aesthetic one, that is, as a response or relation to art. Yet some have claimed—with what validity we will examine in due course—that the ancient Greeks had no sense of art as a self-standing sphere of experience, any more than they had a word for “literature” in the way we understand it today. Indeed, this is the dominant view today. As Elizabeth Prettejohn observes in her book about the reception of ancient Greek art, “ancient society, according to a prevalent view, did not have a ‘conception of art comparable to ours.’ ” As a result, seeing ancient sculpture, for example, as part of a “chain of receptions is not just irrelevant to their contemporary context, but a positive falsification.” As Prettejohn says, to scholars today “this sounds like common sense” (Prettejohn 2012, 98). The view was given its most influential expression in a well-known paper by the eminent historian of the Renaissance Paul Oskar

Kristeller, who affirmed that “ancient writers and thinkers, though confronted with excellent works of art and quite susceptible to their charm, were neither able nor eager to detach the aesthetic quality of these works of art from their intellectual, moral, religious and practical functions or content, or to use such an aesthetic quality as a standard for grouping the fine arts together or for making them the subject of a comprehensive philosophical interpretation” (Kristeller 1951, 506). According to Kristeller, an understanding of art as an autonomous sphere arose only in the eighteenth century, coincident with the rise of the new discipline of aesthetics.

To be sure, there are also contrary voices. Perhaps the most incisive critic of the view associated with Kristeller is James Porter, who has turned the tables on Kristeller’s picture of the ancient conception by asking: “Is it even true as a description of the state of the arts and their classification in the eighteenth century?” But this still leaves the status of ancient art up in the air. Porter quotes a noted essay, in which Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne signal “a danger in using the general word ‘art’ ” in connection with painted images on classical pottery or friezes on temples, for example, insofar as “significant nuances of contextualization may be effaced.” Their basic thesis is, as Porter puts it, that “the term art risks misleading us into a false identification of the nature of ancient aesthetic production altogether.” If it is “really the case that the ancients had no conception of art comparable to ours,” then the question is, as Porter says: “Can we ever hope to approach their art on its own terms? Or worse still, in order to gain access to ancient culture, must we abandon all hope of approaching it through what we used to call its art?” The question has an immediate bearing on the ancient conception of beauty. For if the ancient Greeks had no notion of “art” as we understand it, we may well wonder whether it makes sense at all to ask whether they thought of beauty as a feature of art itself as opposed to the objects—human or otherwise—represented in a work of art.

The question of whether spheres of life that we consider autonomous were also regarded this way in other cultures and more specifically in classical antiquity is not limited to matters of art or culture. Some scholars have questioned, for example, whether it is right to speak of an ancient Greek or Roman “economy” in the sense of an independent and self-regulating social domain with its own laws and history. They have argued rather that trade and other economic transactions were embedded in social relations generally, and only with the rise of modern capitalism did the economy as such emerge, distinct and separate from the wider social context that included family, religious practices, political formations, and so forth. This view too has been challenged, and other scholars have seen in ancient banking and insurance practices ample evidence of strictly economic activity, in which people made investments with a view to profit and calculated gains and losses in relation to market values. Efforts have been made in recent years to move beyond the polarity of embedded versus autonomous economies by paying closer attention to local behaviors, which may have varied from one place to another or even within different occupations in a single community. The question continues to be disputed, but the debate itself is a salutary reminder of the need to avoid anachronism when we seek to understand ancient attitudes, values, and social categories.

Did the Ancient Greeks Recognize Beauty?

This book is concerned not with artistic beauty as such but with beauty more generally, which of course ranges well beyond the sphere of art. Even in the relatively narrow sense in which it is applied to visually attractive objects, beauty is perceived not only in paintings and sculptures but also in man-made items such as automobiles and furniture, which we would not necessarily classify as works of art. Still, it is hard to say just where the boundary is to be drawn between “art” and “design.” But above all—and in some ways most fundamentally—beauty is an attribute of the human form and of certain objects in the natural world. We do not typically classify these under the rubric of art, although here again our notions of what a beautiful woman or beautiful landscape looks like may well be influenced by artifice, via the cosmetics and fashion industries or images of cultivated gardens and country scenes. Thus Lessing wrote in his classic treatise on poetry and painting: “If beautiful men created beautiful statues, these statues in turn affected the men, and thus the state owed thanks also to beautiful statues for beautiful men.” Our question, then, is whether the ancient Greeks had a well-defined conception of beauty in general, even if they did not “use such an aesthetic quality as a standard for grouping the fine arts together,” in the words of Kristeller. It may seem even less likely that the Greeks lacked the idea of beauty than that they somehow failed to single out the more abstract notions of art or economy, which after all depend on the development of certain social practices that may not be common to all cultures. We can understand, for example, that ritual masks we gaze at in museums may not have been produced with an aesthetic purpose in mind but were intended to serve a religious function, and it is conceivable that images in a classical temple or on the altarpiece in a church were imagined as inspiring something other than an aesthetic response—at least in the first instance. So too, while we may think of the exchange of goods as strictly financial, we can recognize other contexts in which such transactions were primarily intended to promote solidarity and may have been the dominant form of exchange.

But beauty would seem to be a fundamental experience of human beings in any society, ancient or modern. Can there be a culture that has no such concept, or no term to express it? This would seem even more unlikely in the case of ancient Greece, with its brilliant art that to this day has set the standard for what we imagine to be the ideal representation of the human form. As Michael Squire has observed, “Like it or not—and there have been many reasons for not liking it—antiquity has supplied the mould for all subsequent attempts to figure and figure out the human body” (Squire 2011, xi). He adds, “Because Graeco-Roman art bestowed us with our western concepts of ‘naturalistic’ representation . . . ancient images resemble not only our modern images, but also the ‘real’ world around us” (xiii). Can the Greeks really have lacked the very idea of beauty?

Surprising as it may sound, leading scholars have in fact questioned whether any word in classical Greek corresponded to the modern idea of beauty. The absence of a specific term does not, of course, necessarily mean that the concept itself was lacking: languages, including our own, do resort to paraphrase after all, and we may recognize and respond to classes of things for which we have no special name. The so-called Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, according to which the vocabulary and structure of a given language not only influence but in fact strictly determine how its speakers perceive the world, is hardly tenable in its strictest form, which would deny that people can even conceive of a class of things that has no name in their own tongue. Edward T. Jeremiah has recently offered what he calls a “milder version” of the thesis that should “be uncontroversial.” He writes, “What a culture does not have a word for is not important for them as an object of inquiry or socio-cultural signifier” (Jeremiah 2012, 12). Still, it would be no less shocking, perhaps, to discover that beauty was insignificant for the ancient Greeks as a “socio-cultural signifier,” that is, a term charged with a specific meaning and value in their view of the world.

We shall take up in due course the question of whether there was a word for “beauty” or “beautiful” in classical Greek and Latin. For now, let me put the reader at ease and reveal that, despite the reservations entertained by serious scholars on this matter, I will argue that there was indeed a term for “beauty” in Greek and, what is more, that a proper appreciation of its meaning and use has something to tell us about our own ideas of the beautiful. The point requires argument, because if it were self-evident then it would not have been and indeed have remained controversial. But before tackling this debate directly, inevitably via an examination of the ancient Greek vocabulary, it is worth looking at some of the problems that beset the idea of beauty in its modern applications. For the idea of beauty, as we employ it, is not so simple or innocent a notion as it might seem. If beauty turns out to be a problematic concept for us, it may be less surprising to discover that some cultures may make do perfectly well without it or—if they do have such a notion (as I believe the ancient Greeks did)—may define and understand it in ways sufficiently different from ours to shed some light on our own difficulties and possibly on ways to resolve or circumvent them. Regarding the Greeks in particular, we may be able to see how the modern conception of beauty, with whatever baggage of contradictions and tensions it carries, emerged in the first place, since Greek works of art and Greek ideas about art had a massive influence on the Western tradition, even if they were sometimes misunderstood (not that this is necessarily a terrible thing: misunderstanding is one of the great sources of creativity).

Excerpted from “Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea” by David Konstan. Copyright © 2014 by David Konstan. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/01/03/the_secret_history_of_beauty_how_the_greeks_invented_western_civilizations_biggest_idea/?source=newsletter