Tag Archives: morality

Three Ways of Standing on Quicksand

Here’s a drawing I made on the back of an envelope over breakfast this morning, to illustrate three ways of standing on quicksand: territorial rivalry, amoral transactionalism, and moral community or mutual standing.


How Things Are Between Us, 3: A Brief Reply to a Long Comment

For some time now, I’ve been meaning to set down some thoughts in response to Marc Tognotti’s long comment on my posts about the transactional model of conversation, in which asks are countered by bids, resulting in a spread or a workable measure of practical liquidity.

Marc suggested I was too hasty in my refusal of the transactional model, and urged me to look a little more closely at asking and bidding and the joint commitments that underlie even the most finite, fleeting and seemingly self-interested human interactions.

There’s lots to what Marc says, and we might ultimately be saying the same thing. One place I thought my response might take the discussion was to Kant’s distinction of price from dignity in the second section of the Groundwork.

What refers to general human inclinations and needs has a market price; what, even without presupposing a need, conforms with a certain taste, i.e., a delight in the mere purposeless play of the powers of our mind, has a fancy price; but what constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not merely have a relative worth, i.e, a price, but an inner worth, i.e., dignity.

This distinction of relative worth and inner worth, price and dignity, can be applied and extended in a number of useful ways. More on that in the future. Here, I invoke it just to draw a bright line between negotiating a price (or merely asking and bidding) and the dignity of the plural subject to which conversations and other cooperative endeavors commit us. We want conversations that respect not only the dignity of individual persons but also the dignity of the plural first person to which we have jointly committed.

Marc’s comment comes close to the Kantian position in saying that we are already so committed: as Kant argues, the “share” every rational being has in universal legislation requires that each person takes her maxims from the point of view of herself, “but also at the same time of every other” person.

The larger point — maybe this is obvious — is that when acting jointly these basic moral considerations of the respect we owe to each other are of more importance in working out what to do than arriving at a brokered decision about what each wants or is willing to do.

Postscript 3 September 2016: To take a simple example. Lucy and Jo are taking a walk together to the old lighthouse. When they arrive at a fork in the road, Lucy wants to go left, and follow the path that runs along the brook, then cuts back to the cliff where the lighthouse stands. Jo wants to walk along the cliff all the way to the lighthouse. Both routes have much to recommend them, and we could extend the example to imagine their conversation at this juncture. They might debate the merits of each route, the scenic beauty of the cliff route or the quiet shade of the brookside path, but their conversation will involve something other than negotiations of fancy price. (Is Jo dismissive of Lucy’s suggestion? Is Lucy obstinate in her refusal to walk along the cliff? Does one run roughshod over the other? Does Jo agree to Lucy’s route then nurse a resentment for the rest of the walk?) Jo and Lucy have arrived at a moral crossroads: how they conduct themselves in conversation is of greater moral significance than the route they take. It’s not just a question of how they treat one another. It’s a question of the respect they accord to the “us” to which they’ve committed, the first-person-plural cooperating subject that is Jo and Lucy walking together.

Is Respect Really All That Simple?

Last week, John Ruggie addressed the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, where a “new global architecture” for corporate sustainability was unveiled and celebrated. Ruggie started out by talking about the special challenges — the “problems without passports” — that the world’s “tightly-coupled” systems present, and the inadequacy of our “largely self-interested politics” to address them. This was not, however, the brief he’d been given, so he had to move on; and I hope he’ll have more to say on the topic in the future. Instead, Ruggie had been asked, he said, “to say a word about respect,” and — not surprisingly — he took the opportunity to talk about the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and how the framework helps companies meet their obligations to respect human rights.

I have been asked to say a word about respect, specifically about respecting human
rights. Its meaning is simple: treat people with dignity, be they workers, communities in which you operate, or other stakeholders. But while the meaning is simple, mere declarations of respect by business no longer suffice: companies must have systems in place to know and show that they respect rights. This is where the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights come in. [pdf.]

Fair enough, but I found myself pausing here, and wondering whether the meaning of “respect” is really so simple as Ruggie makes it out to be, or at least whether “treat people with dignity” is sufficient guidance.

I understand that Ruggie’s intention here is largely rhetorical: we all know what respect means, but we need more than fine words, declarations and definitions. We need practical and consistent ways of acknowledging, checking and demonstrating human rights commitments — “systems” like the UN Guiding Principles.

Still, there are good reasons to start unpacking — and challenging — this simple definition, if only to ward off misconceptions.

First, to say that “[to] respect” human rights means “[to] treat people with dignity” (and leave it at that) invites confusion, because it passes the semantic buck from respect to dignity. If we are to treat people “with dignity” — if that’s our definition of respect — then we had better have a good working definition of dignity to govern or temper our treatment of others.

Of course, the word “dignity” is a staple of human rights discourse, so we’ve got to make allowances for shorthand here. If we don’t — if we want to take the long route and spell things out — we will most likely find our way back to Kant’s moral theory. I’m not going to attempt a summary here except to say that for Kant, dignity imposes absolute and non-negotiable constraints on our treatment of other people. Our dignity derives from our moral stature as free, rational and autonomous agents — ends in ourselves — and cannot be discussed in terms of relative value (or usefulness, or any other relative terms). It must be respected: in other words, dignity imposes strict and inviolable limits, absolute constraints, on how we treat others and how others treat us.

Most obviously people may not be treated merely as means to our ends; and that caveat is especially important when it comes to business, where, for starters, people are valued and evaluated as priced labor or “talent,” in terms of services of they perform or as “human resources.” To respect the dignity of people — “be they workers, communities in which you operate, or other stakeholders” — is to recognize them as persons (or ends in themselves) and not just mere functions in an efficiency equation.

This is hasty pudding, but suffice it to say that in the Kantian idea of dignity there is the suggestion that respect follows from our recognition of others as persons: this is an idea suggested by the word “respect” itself, which comes from the Latin respicere, to look back, to give a second look. Every person deserves a second look — or I should say, demands it. Recognition is something we demand of others and others demand of us.

I like to put it this way: respect is always the first, and sometimes the only thing we ask of each other. How we respond to this demand will depend in all cases upon whether we understand that our dignity as persons makes us mutually accountable or answerable to each other in the first place. So before we can talk about how we “treat” others — before we jump, with Ruggie, to considerations of behavior — let’s take a couple of steps back, and make sure that when we talk about respect we are also talking about recognition as well as accountability.

Of course all of this may be implied in Ruggie’s definition, and I wonder if recognition and accountability are just other ways of saying that companies must “know and show” that they respect human rights. My concern is that when you gather business leaders at the UN and tell them that to respect human rights is to treat people with dignity, you may leave them with the mistaken impression that dignity is something they have the power to confer on others, rather than something that makes them answerable to others. Dignity is not something the mighty can grant or deny the meek, and respect is not another word for benevolent gestures companies might make toward communities, workers and other stakeholders. Where people stand, business must yield.

Only the Doer Learns – A Little Context

A short while ago, I tracked down the source of a quotation that had been wrongly attributed to Kant and widely circulated online: “A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting.” I found the sentence a pretty long way from any work by Immanuel Kant, in Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality, and after reading the passage in question I remarked offhand that Castaneda seemed to channeling not Kant, but some mix of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Now my pursuit of another widely-circulated quotation — this one attributed correctly, it turns out, to Nietzsche — has brought me back to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Reading my old beat up paperback edition of Zarathustra again today only strengthened my conviction that Castaneda drew freely on Nietzsche as he created Don Juan; and it’s also brought me back to some consideration of how much gets lost when we allow philosophical quotations to stand for philosophy. That, as I noted in a previous post, is a growing tendency, driven by the boom in career, motivational and leadership literature and by social media.

“Only the doer learns” is how R.J. Hollingdale neatly renders Nietzche’s nur der Thäter lernt. The translation I’ve seen most widely circulated lately has a deliberately antiquated flavor: “the doer alone learneth.” Maybe that looks better as a tattoo, or a gamer’s motto. [Update 22 Feb 2015: since writing this post I have discovered that the brutal death metal band Emeth has a 2008 song called ‘The Doer Alone Learneth.’] I cannot even begin to imagine the various uses to which Nietzsche might be put nowadays. I can imagine, based on other forays I have made into the world of popular quotations, that “only the doer learns” is being traded as advice that one ought to learn by doing, jump right in, be a self-starter, take some measured risks. That, regrettably, is what the literature of success reduces philosophy to — formulas for jumpstarting your career and getting ahead. Let’s see if in the present case we can arrive at something a little more intelligent and nuanced than that.

Context helps. The line in question is from the chapter on “The Ugliest Man” in Book 3 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s been yanked completely out of context — as most of these popular and familiar quotations are — and I wonder how and why it ended up getting yanked.

Here, Zarathustra is passing through the valley the shepherds call Serpent’s Death, where he comes upon “something sitting on the pathway, shaped like a man and yet hardly like a man, something unutterable” and he is overcome by “the great shame of having beheld such a thing.” He blushes and turns away, but just as he attempts to leave a human voice rises up and puts a riddle to him: “What is the revenge on the witness?” And a few minutes later: “who am I”? At first so overcome by pity that he sinks to the ground, Zarathustra raises himself up and, standing again, replies: you are the murderer of God.

So here we have Zarathustra, face to face with the ugliest man, who could not tolerate God’s witness: God pitied him. “His pity knew no shame: he crept into my dirtiest corners. This most curious, most over-importunate, over-compassionate god had to die….Man could not endure that such a witness should live.” Zarathustra replies:

“You unutterable creature,” he said, “you warned me against your road. As thanks for that, I recommend you mine. Behold, up yonder lies Zarathustra’s cave.”
“My cave is big and deep and possesses many corners; there the best hidden man can find his hiding place. And close by it are a hundred secret and slippery ways for creeping, fluttering, and jumping beasts.”
“You outcast who cast yourself out, do you not wish to live among men and the pity of men? Very well, do as I do. Thus you also learn from me; only the doer learns.
And first of all and above all speak with my animals! The proudest animal and the wisest animal — they may well be the proper counsellors for both of us!”
Thus spoke Zarathustra, and went on his way, even more thoughtfully and slowly than before: for he asked himself many things and did not easily know what to answer.
How poor is man! (he thought in his heart) how ugly, how croaking, how full of secret shame!
They tell me that man loves himself: ah, how great must this self-love be! How much contempt is opposed to it!
Even this man has loved himself as he has despised himself — he seems to me a great lover and a great despiser.
I have yet found no one who has despised himself more deeply: even that is height. Alas, was he perhaps the Higher Man whose cry I heard?
I love the great despisers. Man, however, is something that must be overcome.

To learn from Zarathustra, the Ugliest Man will do as he has done: he will live in his cave, far from the sight of men, beyond pity and morality, and beyond human language itself. He will live among the beasts and speak with the animals. That is the where Zarathustra’s steep mountain road leads.

I suspect that we are to hear some mockery in the maxim “only the doer learns.” So lernst du auch von mir; nur der Thäter lernt might be Nietzche’s aphoristic and bitterly ironic rendering of a passage in Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics 1103A) on the habit of virtue: “the virtues,” runs this famous passage from Book II of the Ethics, “we acquire by first having put them into action, and the same is also true of the arts. For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing” [emphasis mine]. It wouldn’t surprise me to find Nietzsche roasting this old chestnut of moral philosophy even as Zarathustra turns morality and philosophy itself on its head.

Race You To The Water

The other day I expressed some misgivings over the word that Earthworks chose to apply to water in the first sentence of its report, Polluting the Future: their characterization of water as an “asset,” I said, made me uneasy. The water flowing from springs and brooks, the water of rivers, lakes and streams, the raindrops that fall from the sky and the dew on the morning grass, the water in our bodies, in plants and trees, the water in dogs, flowers, bugs, fish, elephants, walruses and caterpillars, the water in everything that is alive on earth — water is and will always be something greater, more wondrous and something other than a mere entry in the accounting ledgers of some grand business enterprise, which is all that the word “asset” conjures for me.

greatlakesoilI came across the word again today as I was reading an editorial in The Detroit Free Press. I am in complete sympathy with the position it takes against plans to build a huge network of oil pipelines carrying diluted bitumen (or dilbit) across the Great Lakes region, and to transport crude oil by barge across Lake Superior. These are reckless, irresponsible ideas. The threat they pose to the integrity of the Lakes and the life the Lakes sustain is only made worse when you consider a couple of salient facts. First (and it is curious that the editorial does not mention this), the new mining around Lake Superior — as I’ve noted repeatedly — is already going to put pressure on Lake Superior and the Lake Superior watershed; the shipping of oil by barge would bring even more industrialization and greatly heighten the risk of environmental catastrophe. Second, the company building and running the pipeline (the Canadian company Enbridge) has already been responsible for an environmental disaster in Kalamazoo, Michigan — the worst inland oil spill in US history, in fact.

The editorial takes the position that these plans betray a “deep misunderstanding of the true value of the lakes,” but when the editors try to say what that value is, they run into trouble:

It’s easy to wax poetic about the value of the Great Lakes to Michigan and the other states they border. The beauty of the lakes, the wildlife and fish that dwell in and around the lakes, the environmental benefits the lakes present — they’re incalculable.

But let’s get practical: Clean freshwater is one of the scarcest commodities there is. And it’s only going to get worse. Clean water will be an asset that’s worth far more than oil. Jeopardizing the Great Lakes isn’t just morally and ethically wrong. It’s financially foolish, as well.

It’s interesting how the argument here moves, in just a couple of short paragraphs, from the “incalculable” to the crudest of calculations — the “worth” of clean water. This is tantamount to arguing that what is “morally and ethically” right should take second place to what is financially sound — as if finance should have more claim on the imagination and intellect (and the heart) than morality, and monetary value should be privileged over moral and ethical considerations.

I suppose that’s the way it goes nowadays, and I just need to get real. Still, there’s a great swirl of confusion in these two paragraphs, and I have a number of questions about the concept of morality being invoked here, how we’re to distinguish it from ethics, and why those things don’t seem to figure into what are called “practical” considerations. Practice and finance here are unmoored from and unrestricted by moral and ethical concerns; it’s precisely that kind of thinking that got us into the precarious situation we’re now in.

One remedy for all this confusion may lie in the perspective that holds water to be a basic human right — a perspective I also found missing from the Earthworks report. But even then we need to go beyond talking about assets and recognize the limitations of the argument that “clean freshwater is one of the scarcest commodities.” Why? Follow the link from The Detroit Free Press editorial to the National Geographic site on the “Freshwater Crisis.” There you enter a Malthusian world:

While the amount of freshwater on the planet has remained fairly constant over time—continually recycled through the atmosphere and back into our cups—the population has exploded. This means that every year competition for a clean, copious supply of water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sustaining life intensifies.

bilquaszwaterchildHere, all of humanity is engaged in a contest or race. More and more people enter every year to compete for the same, limited resources. This is one reason why it’s imperative to recognize freshwater as a human right. Otherwise, history becomes a death match, or a big, global reality TV show: intensifying “competition” over this scarce “commodity” means that there will be winners and losers in the water game. The winners are fully vested with their rights; the losers struggle to survive in arid, toxic regions, or simply die of thirst.

Thucydides on Catastrophe and Lawlessness

On the plague of Athens in 430 BC. History of the Peloponnesian War (2.52): “the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.” Thucydides continues (2.53, Warner trans.):

In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness (ἀνομίας). Seeing how quick and abrupt were the changes of fortune which came to the rich who suddenly died and to those who had previously been penniless but now inherited their wealth, people now began openly to venture on acts of self-indulgence which before then they had used to keep dark. Thus they resolved to spend their money quickly and to spend it on pleasure, since money and life alike seemed equally ephemeral. As for what is called honour, no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws, so doubtful was it whether one would survive to enjoy the name for it. It was generally agreed that what was both honourable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure. No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. As for offenses against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that already a far heavier sentence had been passed on him and was hanging over him, and that before the time for its execution arrived it was only natural to get some pleasure out of life.

StarKist Cans Samoans

The economic news from faraway America is grim. Unemployment in the U.S. territory of American Samoa now sits at around thirty percent. More trouble is on the horizon.

In a bid to save jobs at the StarKist tuna cannery, the Territory’s big employer, American Samoa had asked to be exempted from the minimum wage increase to $7.25 an hour. Congress rejected that plea. StarKist predictably responded with a fresh round of layoffs, and the company is likely to follow Chicken of the Sea to Thailand and other places in Asia where cannery workers earn as little as 75 cents an hour.

Congress is not indifferent to the lot of the American Samoans, of course, so it has proposed $18 million in new spending for the tiny, remote island territory of 65,000 people . An editorial in the Wall Street Journal the other day observed, with some justice, that this “taxpayer handout” amounts to foolishly attempting “to undo the damage Congress’s economic illiteracy has caused.” The editorial then went on to blame the Democrats, the unions, and the minimum wage for the layoffs and all the Territory’s economic woes. Apparently even the South Pacific cannot escape the socialist scourge.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. First, the $18 million set aside in the new spending bill was already being given away, to StarKist. Or, more precisely, StarKist would have already been entitled to that amount – up to $18 million dollars — in “30A” tax credits for 2010 if it had operated “at a profit” in American Samoa. In the language of the proposed legislation, this “economic development tax credit” was intended to reward StarKist for “the corporation’s employment and capital investment in American Samoa.”

The proposal now is to channel that same $18 million in credit directly to the American Samoan Government “for purposes of economic development.”

“Development” is a tricky word in this context — everybody’s doing it — and it’s hard to imagine that $18 million can buy the kind of development American Samoa needs. The Territory is still recovering from last year’s 8.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, which wreaked havoc all over the island.

We might get a better fix on the word if we were able to specify what will be entailed in the program of “economic development” to which the $18 million will be dedicated. The answer seems to be pretty straightforward: keeping StarKist in American Samoa. Last month, Eni Faleomavaega, the non-voting House Delegate from American Samoa, worked with Carl Levin of Michigan and Max Baucus of Montana “to convert the 30A tax credit in a way that will provide a direct payment” to the American Samoan Government. The Territory’s government would, in turn, use the money “to help StarKist until we can put a more long-term solution in place.” There go those Democrats and their anti-business agenda again.

As a headline in the Samoa News put it, StarKist would get the $18 million as an inducement to stay, “in lieu of” its tax credit, even though it was operating at a loss. One reader of that paper asked its editors to “please explain to your readers what lieu means– not all our folks know the word.” Of course, to explain the word is to reveal the sleight of hand it is meant to cover up. But Samoa is in a tough spot. “Without help,” Faleomavaega said, without exaggeration, “StarKist will be forced to close its operations in American Samoa and, if this happens, the Territory’s economy, which is barely hanging by a thread, will collapse.”

The fight over the minimum wage has put Faleomavaega in a tough spot, too, and that’s probably why he is now taking a more conciliatory position than ever before toward StarKist. Just a few years ago, in May of 2007, Faleomavaega penned an angry letter to Richard Wolford, President and CEO of Del Monte, StarKist’s parent company, in which he railed against “corporate greed” and “hypocrisy,” and noted that Wolford’s own compensation amounted to “over 400 times more per year than the average cannery worker in American Samoa.”

According to my calculations, you have approximately 3,000 employees and an increase of $0.50 per hour equates to about a $3,000,000 increase per year for StarKist and Chicken of the Sea. Considering that you do not pay health care benefits to our cannery workers which in itself is un-American, and also given that after 20 years of dedicated service you only pay out $160 a month in pensions to Samoan men and women who stand on their feet and clean fish for 8 hours a day, I believe your wisest course of action is to join with me in supporting a one-time increase of $0.50 per hour.

Faleomavaega ended his letter by taking issue with Del Monte’s notion of “responsibility” – which the company defines as “an economic, legal, and moral responsibility to maximize the return it gives to its investors or shareholders” – and reminded them of other obligations: “I believe higher laws should guide our actions and that we have a moral responsibility to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

I leave it for others to decide whether securing $18 million on behalf of a multinational corporation that is probably going to pull stakes anyway amounts to following the golden rule. The real question in American Samoa is whether that $18 million transfer amounts to development, at least in any meaningful sense of the word.

I have my doubts, unless by “economic development” Faleomavaega and associates merely mean saving jobs – or making a desperate bid to save jobs — at the StarKist cannery. That would seem to be the very antithesis of sustainable development, and though it may be politically advantageous for Faleomavaega in the short term, it does little for Samoa’s long-term prospects.

Worse, the proposed arrangement will launder the StarKist payoff through the American Samoan government. Corruption, as one CNN report put it, is “endemic” in American Samoa, which receives about $250 million in federal funding every year. Governor Togiola Tulafono has been accused of bribery; so have sundry government officials. In early 2007, one year before the quake and tsunami hit, Department of Homeland Security inspectors found that millions in disaster-preparedness had been diverted to other uses – flat screen televisions, expensive leather chairs, trips to Las Vegas, and miscellaneous entertainments. In response, our government temporarily froze all federal funding to the island. (That freeze did not and could not last. In the wake of the 2009 tsunami, President Obama declared an emergency and directed federal aid to the Territory.)

There has been some speculation that corruption made the natural disaster much worse than it could have been. The Homeland Security funds squandered by government officials in American Samoa were intended to pay for an early-warning system, which included thirty towers with thirty sirens that could have been activated with the push of a button in the event of a disaster. None had been put in place when inspectors arrived in 2007; Governor Tulafono claimed there was “never a plan for a system.” So disaster struck, and nobody was able to sound the alarm.

No surprise, then, that there are no viable economic recovery plans in place should StarKist decide to pull out of American Samoa. The Territory has relied on a mix of corporate interests and federal assistance for too long, counting on help from greater powers without making any long-term plans of its own. Maybe that’s what makes this remote island territory quintessentially, and uncannily, American.

History by Proxy

I interviewed Pete Seeger a few years ago for a film I’m making. We started out talking about Woody Guthrie, but if you’ve ever heard Pete talk or spent any time in his company – and he’s very good company – you know that conversations with Pete Seeger have a tendency to wander amiably from subject to subject, sometimes with no apparent purpose, until (I’m not sure how it happens, but it does) you discover yourself talking about what you wanted to talk about all along.

Somehow we ended up talking about what I guess I’d call the power of witness, the power of people who hold up a mirror to the world, or to history, to brutality or injustice – and Pete remarked: We used to think the pen was mightier than the sword. Turns out it wasn’t. But the camera lens might be.

I’m reminded of this exchange as I watch the video of demonstrations and police brutality coming out of Iran in the wake of the election. The Iranian regime may not be worried about its international reputation; but the video and pictures are showing the world just what the crowds in the street are up against. We in the West can admire their courage, utter all sorts of noble-sounding sentiments and encouraging words, and try to figure out ways to stand with them; but more importantly, right now we must not look away.

That’s where our vigilance comes in. We pay tribute to the courage of the Iranians in the streets so long as we in the West have the courage not to look away.

This, at least, is where I’ve arrived, after watching the Twitter streams of news from Iran, and trying to figure out what we in the West, online, trying to help Iranians hold the line, can do — beyond re-tweeting information and videos and pictures, participating in attacks on Iranian government websites, providing proxies so Iranians can continue to post updates online, and joining in the criticism of mainstream media outlets in the U.S. for running stories about Sarah Palin and David Letterman or Britney Spears while in Iran the Basij militia shoot and beat and terrorize demonstrators.

What to do? Few of us can take an action that will have direct consequences in the streets of Tehran. This is the frustration of being a witness – one is an observer, in this case, an observer from afar, rather than a participant – but I think it’s also where the power of witness lies, just in looking at what is happening, and refusing to look away.

I know we have a real stake in staying true to that commitment, in keeping watch. What is that stake? I’m still groping for an answer that satisfies me. I want to say something about our shared humanity but I’m concerned that it’s too vague, a platitude, a cop-out of sorts. I know that we are changed by what we witness. So maybe by bearing witness to what’s happening in Iran right now, we gain some new stake in the world that’s being born even as the Islamic Republic of Iran dies.

Return of the Blob

The rhetoric around the ousting of former GM CEO Richard Wagoner has given a whole new meaning to the phrase “moral hazard.”

Interviewed Monday on the Today Show, Governor Jennifer Granholm said that Wagoner is “clearly a sacrificial lamb”. The remark was widely reported; and – what can this portend? – the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal found itself in agreement with the governor, adding that the “anticorporate furies” have been unleashed.

I suppose it’s because we sense that we are not just going through an economic downturn but witnessing the passing of an entire economic and social order that we have reverted to the language of a more primal one: the blood of the Paschal lamb, an innocent (“Rick Wagoner is a good man,” said Granholm), shed on the high altar of industry, to sate the angry god or slake his bloodthirst; winged avengers hover, ready to swoop down and feed, like the Furies in a dark Gustav Doré engraving.

This is economic crisis as miasma. The Blob. The sky darkens and the blood-guilt spreads; the chorus of the people cries out for a cleansing rite, expiation or salvation.

Never mind that Paul Ingrassia can produce a decade-long list of mistakes and bad judgment calls Wagoner made; his loyalty and goodness are now what count. He grappled, says another columnist, with a “cursed legacy” dating back to the Wagner Act of 1935. Never mind that GM’s new CEO, Frederick “Fritz” Henderson, has indicated that he will not depart significantly from Mr. Wagoner’s strategic choices; he has been “anointed,” declares a front page story. (But he makes a strange sort of messiah, one who likes to spend downtime reading novels in the company of his family and their five cats.)

At the very least, this older language of mysteries and rites allows us to express truths our own morally impoverished, wonkish vocabulary of social scientific facts, TV punditry and fiscal policy can’t accommodate.

Look at it this way: the auto industry is the closest thing to an ancient grudge American industrial capitalism has ever known, the archetypal struggle of American workers with American bosses. We’re not out on the heath, crying out to the unanswering sky to tell us what we have done — what could we possibly have done? — to defile ourselves and bring these punishments down upon our heads. We know that we have set our world out of joint, and we know that some old scores are going to be settled in the auto industry shakedown; but we want more than some measly concessions from labor and management.

We want “sacrifice” on all sides — the President himself said it. There will be blood. Or at least that’s the promise. And everybody seems to be groping for words to describe the cosmic hazards we will all face if, in this Easter season, that sacrifice does not appease the wrathful god Economy.

A Note on Thug Life

Thug enters the English language in the early 19th century as an import from colonial India. The original thugs, or thagi, were itinerant bands of thieves and marauders who strangled their victims to death. The practice was known as P’hansigár, from the Hindustani word P’hánsí, noose.

The methods of the thug are described by James Arthur Stevenson in an 1834 paper that he read before the Royal Asiatic Society:

The chief object in view is to lull their victim into a sense of security before they proceed to deprive him of life, which is…always effected by strangulation. When a favorable opportunity presents itself, one of the party throws a noose, which is made with a tightly twisted handkerchief, round the destined sufferer’s neck; an accomplice immediately strikes the person on the inside of his knees, so as to knock him off his legs, and thus throw the whole weight of his body on the noose; and a very few seconds puts an end to the unfortunate man’s struggles.

The victim would be buried and the booty sent back home.

Other writers at the time remark on how expert the thugs are in the art of deception, false friendship and smooth talk. Lawrence James, who describes the work of these “inveiglers” in Raj, says that “deception” (and only incidentally robbery and murder, I suppose) was “their trade.” Stevenson called them “the most decided villains that stain the face of the earth”; and by 1855, a British civil servant urged that the thugs ought to be considered “an infernal machine beneath the keel of the good ship government,” subversive to civilizing measures of the British colonial project.

And indeed they were, not just because they created mayhem and committed murder, but because the practice of thugee was, to use a fancy word for it, incommensurable with the moral outlook of the colonizers.

Thug life was governed by ritual and devotion to the goddess Kali. The corpses of victims were stabbed; the stabbing may have once involved more elaborate rituals of sacrifice. It seems, from British accounts, the thugs regarded their murders not as crimes but almost as a perfectly legitimate trade into which they were born, as the son of a blacksmith might regard work at the forge. They talked about themselves almost as members of a social caste.

When they were apprehended,

the thugs were unmoved by their fate; in one instance several under sentence of death sung cheerily on their way to the scaffold and hung themselves rather than die at the polluted hands of an executioner who was a leather dresser.

A correspondent named James Paton interviewed a band of captured thugs in 1836 and was shocked by the “relish and pleasure” with which they confessed to horrible crimes. They took pride in good kills, and did not venture out without performing oblations and ablutions and reading omens. They were hunters of men.

European accounts of thugs, beginning with Jean de Thévenot’s late seventeenth-century Voyages, would make a fascinating study in the “documentary” aspect of early anthropology. In the 1850s, the Italian photographer Felice Beato photographed a group of four thugs demonstrating the use of the P’hánsí. I found what I believe is a copy on Mike Dash’s site.