New Jacobins

By: Jared Marcel Pollen

TO MY FELLOW-CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA:

I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinions upon Religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

This is Thomas Paine’s dedication to The Age of Reason, the first part of which he completed in France on the evening of December 28th 1793, hours before he was detained and imprisoned by a radical faction that had hijacked the very revolution he helped bolster with his treatise The Rights of Man. By the time Part II of The Rights of Man was published a year earlier, Paine was already an enemy of the state in Britain. He was tried in absentia for sedition and forced to seek refuge in France, whose people had watched their nation descend into bankruptcy and warfare, and their efforts to dismantle the ancien régime mutate into terror. The Jacobins, the leaders of the terror, considering Paine as a British citizen to be too dangerous to the revolution, locked him in Luxemburg prison in Paris for seven months. As the story goes, Paine was spared the guillotine only because a chalk mark (signifying the prisoner was to be collected for execution) was mistakenly left on the inside of his cell door, rather than outside. Fortuitously, this went unnoticed long enough for the National Convention to revolt against the Montagnards and execute Robespierre. Paine was set free later that year.

Terror is once again an emergent force in our political discourse––if we can take frightening people into a state of paralysis or submission to be one of the usable definitions for this already overused term. I employ it therefore, with reluctance, but with meaning. I’m mindful of the temptations of hyperbole, but I’m also unable to find a more fitting word to describe the scenes that took place at UC Berkeley and Middlebury College earlier this year.

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A People’s Buddhism?

America can learn much from B.R. Ambedkar’s liberation theology. But it first must get beyond bourgeois dismissals of the Dalit leader’s revolutionary dharma.

By: Daniel Clarkson Fisher

Over the last decade, a collection of social change efforts — including (but not limited to) Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the climate movement, third-wave feminism, LGBTQ rights activism, Fight for $15, and the Moral Monday protests — have helped focus much-needed attention on many painful realities about life in the United States today. With Donald J. Trump’s ascension to the White House, many more are and will be engaging with these and other causes: the recent Women’s March on Washington was the largest demonstration in American history; organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have seen unprecedentedly large donations; Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter are preparing to launch their first joint action as part of a “broadening of the coalition”; and the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America has tripled since last year.

It should not be a surprise, then, that, within religious communities, liberation theologies (those in which the emancipation of the oppressed from all forms of suffering is centrally important) seem to be having a moment. For example, in 2015, Gustavo Gutiérrez, who is considered one of the founders of the movement, was invited by Pope Francis to be one of the main speakers at a Vatican gathering of Catholic charities. In addition, as part of the process towards canonization, the Church is currently looking into a miracle attributed to another key figure, El Salvador’s assassinated Archbishop Óscar Romero. Harvard anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer recently spoke at length about the influence of liberation theology on his international humanitarian nonprofit Partners in Health as well. Looking at events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland in 2015, divinity student Daniel José Camacho also authored a powerful piece at Religion Dispatches, underscoring the percipience and enduring importance of black liberation theology. “Will Christians who have long dismissed [movement founder James H. Cone] ever admit that he was right?” he asks.

As Buddhist Americans begin to grapple with their theologies in the era of Trump, it seems to me that they could stand to ask themselves a very similar question: “Will those who have dismissed the dharma of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar finally give it a fair shake?”

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Rethinking the Goals of Finance, Cont’d

Some Letters to the Editor

The article Rethinking the Goals of Finance: Lessons from the Amherst Arbitrage proved controversial. Below are a couple emailed responses Political Animal recieved on the topic:

Dangerous Derivatives?

I particularly enjoyed the case example of Amherst Holdings versus the banks. Indeed, the use of financial derivatives was a superbly brilliant strategy by Amherst to protect itself against financial loss and importantly provided a social good to the community whereby none of the homeowners lost their houses.

That said, this essay should have ended in the second paragraph with the authors’ assertion that “there is nothing inherently problematic with finance……financial practices are troubling because of their execution, not because finance is itself problematic.”  As with many things in life, including finance, poor execution can typically lead to unfortunate and unintended outcomes. For example, owning a car is considered a valuable and useful asset, but poor execution (reckless driving) may very well lead to catastrophic consequences.

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The Pledge of Allegiance: A Reading

By: Richard Oxenberg

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What does it mean to say the Pledge of Allegiance? In this time of national tension, when the President of the United States has pronounced his inauguration day a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion,” and declared that “from this day forward it’s going to be only America first,” it might be helpful to remind ourselves just what we devote ourselves to whenever we say the Pledge.

To this end, I offer this brief reflection on the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance.

I. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America

It is an oddity of the pledge of allegiance that, in it, our allegiance is pledged, not to any particular, actual, nation, but, first of all, “to the flag.”

What can it mean to pledge allegiance to a flag? What is a ‘flag’ such that one can pledge one’s allegiance to it? Of course, if we take the flag to be no more than a piece of decorated cloth this makes no sense. Rather, the flag is a symbol. Our allegiance is pledged to a symbol and what it symbolizes.

This symbol transcends the instantiated nation as it may exist at any moment in time. We do not pledge our allegiance to the United States of America as it exists now, or at any time. Rather our allegiance is pledged to its symbol and what it represents. To understand just what we are pledging our allegiance to, then, we have to ask what the symbol symbolizes.

II. And to the Republic for which it stands

The flag symbolizes – “stands for” – a Republic. The word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin, ‘res publica,’ meaning literally, ‘public entity.’ It refers to a society dedicated to the public good, the good of all its people, as opposed to the private interests of any of its people, and governed for and by its people toward that common end. Thus, in pledging our allegiance to the symbol of this Republic, and to the Republic symbolized by it, we are dedicating ourselves to a particular ideal: The ideal of a society itself dedicated to the common good.

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Women Rule – How They Took Down a King

By: Elizabeth Larkin Bouché

As inauguration day approaches and women ready themselves for the Women’s March on Washington, I am reminded of Europe’s most remarkable uprising of women against tyranny—The Women’s March on Versailles in 1789.

It was a major, dramatic event on a par with the storming of the Bastille. A food riot in Paris, led seven thousand women, transformed into an armed march to take flour from the king’s stores 12 miles away in Versailles. Revolutionaries seized the opportunity to join the women and forced the king to sign the recently composed “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” so ending his absolute rule.  The king and his entourage were dragged back to the capital as prisoners. It was a turning point in history, signaling a shift in power from the nobility to the common people.

The Women’s March on Versailles is a reminder of the power of popular protest movements. Following the election of Trump, and spurred by growing unease with our own Versailles-like oligarchs, similar protests are now cropping up at grassroots level in the United States. The Paris women were driven by famine; they and their children were hungry. Women today are mobilized by threats to hard-won advances made since the Enlightenment. The ordinary women who have organized the March on Washington are unleashing what is perhaps a primal and formidable maternal fury once again.

The comparison between revolutionary France and current events is not so far-fetched. Civil unrest in Paris was fueled by paranoid plots in the press and fake news. It was also the result of basic needs becoming unaffordable, market deregulation, widespread distrust of government, huge national debt, and deeply divided political opinions. One key factor was the staggering inequality of the ancien régime, in which the clergy and nobles, or first and second estates, held vast wealth and paid no taxes, while the third estate, or 97 percent of the population, were heavily taxed for foreign wars. The parallels did not escape the notice of “Time” magazine. Its person of the year cover featured Trump seated on a tawdry carved chair decorated with a fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the French monarchy. Indeed, Trump draws the comparison himself when he chooses to be interviewed while seated in a gilded throne in his French Rococo-style dwellings.

Considering all this, and with large numbers of women taking to the streets, it is interesting to look at what drove French women to insurrection at a powder keg moment in history.

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Life is More Binary than Fiction: A Writer Reflects on Political Polarization

By: Shannon Kirk and Political Animal

Shannon Kirk is a novelist, a practicing attorney and law professor in Massachusetts, and also an avid follower of politics. She, like many of us, finds Trumpian politics incredibly distracting. In a world where the President-elect is constantly saying new and outrageous things on Twitter, how are news junkies supposed to get anything done?

In a great column on The Thrill Begins, Kirk addresses this problem, and outlines the system she’s using to try to stay focused. We highly recommend reading the whole thing.

One particularly interesting point is her observation that our current political climate encourages people to sort ourselves into two hostile camps based on our political identity. From a novelist’s perspective, this is maddening. Depth and contradiction make characters believable–because human life is complex. So why are we so attractive to binary extremism in our political life?


The following Is an excerpt from The article originally published in The Thrill Begins:

A good friend has a great response to try to chill me out every time I get spun up about the current political environment: “Is this going to impact the happiness of your cats?” Meaning, is this really going to lead to something that will change your life in a catastrophic way? I wish I could have this outlook on politics. I used to. I used to be able to tune most of it out and concentrate.

Now?

I confess. I have a problem. I’m addicted. I am distractified by Trump. But since I acknowledge this serious weakness, I’m hoping to fight my way back to my old ways and not let him win. I have devised a system, which I include at the end. No idea if this will work.

The distractification of Trump has impacted my writing in three ways: To lose time. To wallow in the quagmire of arguing about the fallacy of binary extremism. To resist bullying.

Distractified by Binary Extremism (frustrating my notion of character development)

Let’s first set the table and acknowledge the objective fact that we are living in La La Land right now. Nothing is normal, and, yes, nothing is logical. If your objective is to disagree and say that things are logical, then you are trolling this article; please move on.[1]

The reason it’s easy for me to get distractified by all this is actually nothing new; it’s something that’s always been a gripe of mine, even before Trump—just now more acute and in my face every single damn day, and in alarming ways. It is indeed a core issue I try to battle in my writing: the pushing of people into simplistic, binary camps. Example: Your character is a scientist, so she must be an atheist. I battle this notion, I reject it.

Here’s where we are, I liken it to the Fruit Loops vs. Cheerios Political System. Each Fruit Loop represents a position on an issue, and each Cheerio its “opposite.” If you are on Team Fruit Loop, you MUST accept and agree and support all Fruit Loops, likewise with Team Cheerio. Never may a Fruit Loop cross-pollinate the Cheerio world, and NEVER EVER may a Cheerio contaminate a Fruit-Loop-protected zone.

This is a binary system.

This is bullshit.

We would never allow such simple sorting for fictional characters, so why is it being pushed in reality?

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Merry Foolstide!

In honor of the season, Political Animal Magazine would like to remind you that the same Puritans who gave us Thanksgiving also outlawed Christmas, which they called Foolstide, in 1659.

Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas, than in all the 12 months besides.

Hugh Latimer

Our current “War on Christmas” pales in comparison.

Happy Holidays!

Rethinking the Goals of Finance: Lessons from the Amherst Arbitrage

By: John Brodie Gay & Jeremy Kingston Cynamon

I. BACKGROUND

Financial devices, like all technologies, develop – sometimes intentionally, sometimes by historical accident – to benefit particular interests and reinforce certain values at the expense of others. Therefore, the form in which we encounter these various technologies today is not a necessary characteristic of those technologies, but the result of their respective histories. If those histories had unfolded differently, then those technologies might benefit sharply different values and interests. Given this contingency, we can plausibly pursue different ways of repurposing financial devices (as well as technology more generally) and thereby altering the interests and the values they protect. With a bit of imagination, we can realize alternative potentials in these devices.

The sort of argument just previewed has been largely ignored by the left. In general, progressives tend to treat the financial sector as a scapegoat for the ills of society.  In our view this is a mistake.  There is nothing inherently problematic about finance. Insofar as our contemporary financial practices are troubling, they are troubling because of their execution, not because finance is itself problematic. To the contrary, finance – if directed purposely – can be a great asset to the political programs of any stripe.

Our goal in this short essay is merely to demonstrate the aforementioned contingency and transformative potentials in our financial devices. We argue by way of example, using a peculiar story about the use of credit default swaps after the 2008 mortgage crisis to illustrate our larger themes.

II. FINANCIAL DERIVATIVES

We begin with a rather strange fact: our financial system allows individuals and firms to place side bets on any homeowner’s ability to pay his/her mortgage. Known as financial derivatives, the total amount gambled in these bets can greatly exceed the outstanding amount on the underlying mortgage. Bizarre as it may seem, this is the financier’s utopia: a “complete market” that allows participants to bet on any chance event. Natural catastrophe, the result of an election, even a terrorist attack could be the source of profits for the shrewd gambler.

In theory, these financial derivatives can be tools for prudently distributing risk across parties. In practice, however, the use of financial derivatives often results in dangerous concentrations of risk. As it happens, a significant proliferation of these sorts of financial derivatives coincided with the real estate bubble and the subsequent 2008 mortgage crisis.[1] Though much has been written about that crisis, the story presented in the following section will likely be unfamiliar to most readers – even to those who keep up with this sort of thing. This is probably not a coincidence. The story illustrates the potential inherent in our financial technologies and devices to disrupt the common practices of finance and harness its power for varying purposes.

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What is “Fascist”? Umberto Eco on Ur-Fascism

Howl of the Day: Nov 30, 2016

There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

In 1995, the late Umberto Eco wrote an essay on what he called “Ur-Fascism”. What he meant by this term is the fuzzy constellation of ideas and feelings out of which fascism grows. “[B]ehind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.” In the case of fascism, this is Ur-Fascism.

Eco’s essay is as relevant today as when he wrote it. Indeed, with the election of Trump, and the debate over to what degree it is fair to call him or his positions “fascist,” it is extremely timely. (A topic we have covered a number of times before.)

The key insight of the essay is that fascism, and the underlying mode of thinking that gives rise to it, are impossible to clearly define, because they embrace many contradictory elements. “Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”

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Diogenes on Current Affairs

It is folly to lament the passing of a man who made a career out of writing beautiful lamentations for his own eventual passing.
Diogenes, regarding the death of Leonard Cohen

In death, as in life, may he lead his people as first among equals, and so may his funeral surpass in squalor those of the many poor dead of his nation.”
Diogenes, regarding the death of Fidel Castro

Diogenes the Cynic spent most of his life challenging the social, political, and philosophic views of Ancient Greece, often residing in a barrel in the marketplace. Long thought to have been torn apart by a pack of wild dogs outside the walls of Corinth in 323 BCE, he had in fact fallen asleep in a pool of molten amber. Now, thanks to the miracle of modern science, he has been extracted, restored, and returned to us. Diogenes is busy catching up on both the contemporary scene as well as the last 2300 years of historical development. He occasionally sends us these notes from a cardboard box that he is living in, somewhere in the nation’s capital.

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