Politics and Song

by E. John Winner

Now, the whole business of Irish nationalism can get very serious if you’re not careful.

– Liam Clancy [1]

My father, Joseph Connelly, abandoned his family when I was two years of age.  I probably should have hated him and be done with it; but that’s not how children respond to their abandonment.  There’s a lot of self-questioning – ‘was I the cause of his leaving?’ – and attempts to prove worthy of a love that will never be acknowledged.

So up to his death of a heart attack in 1989, I went through periods when I tried to adopt Irish culture as somehow my own; as my inheritance.  In the long run, these efforts failed, and they left me realizing that I had no cultural inheritance beyond the common culture of the United States.  When people ask me where my family came from, I answer without hesitation, “Brooklyn” [2].

Nonetheless, the efforts to identify with an Irish heritage left me with considerable sympathy for a people that had long suffered the most miserable oppression as a colony of the British Empire.  (The British long maintained that Ireland was a willingly subservient kingdom, aligned to Britain in the laughable pretense of a “United Kingdom,” but this was believed only by British colonialists stealing farmland from the Irish and putting them to work as, in effect, serfs.)  The oppression really began with Cromwell’s bloody conquest of the Catholic Irish, whom he called “barbarous wretches”; the massacres were bad enough – and the Irish were no saints in these engagements – but the immediate aftermath really established the Anglo-Irish relationship that followed:  the policy of suppression “included the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement, and killing of civilians” [3].  It cut the population by nearly half.

Difficulties, including the occasional Irish rebellion, continued throughout the history of this “union” of Ireland and England, but reached a turning point with the notorious Potato Famine of 1845.  The potato had become a staple, because it could be grown in private gardens.  When a serious blight stuck, the Irish faced starvation. Cash crops in Ireland were routinely sent to England for wholesale, and if they returned to Ireland for retail sale, they were priced way beyond the ability of the Irish peasantry to pay. These practices were unaddressed by the British government for some five years [4].  By the end of the famine, roughly 1852, the Irish population was estimated as having lost more than 2 million, half to starvation, half to emigration.  The British – many of whom agreed with Cromwell’s assessment of the Irish character as barbarous and wretched (and shameless Catholics to boot) – thought that with the famine ended, markets would naturally stabilize, and relations with the Irish could be restored to way they were under the Acts of Union of 1801. They were wrong.  Survivors of the Famine and their heirs remembered what they had gone through and who had put them through it.  Irish political activists were no longer interested in “protesting” impoverished economic conditions that the British colonialists could exploit.  They knew that any such conditions would inevitably recur as long as the colonialists controlled the economy.  So began the long hard struggle that would lead to Irish independence.

Irish rebel songs had been recorded since at least the 17th century (“Seán Ó Duibhir a’Ghleanna” on the Battle of Aughrim during the Williamite War, 1691).  Indeed, there are so many of them that they form a genre of their own.  (Going by Wikipedia, they seem to comprise about a third of all catalogued folk songs of Ireland [5].)  However, they truly embed themselves in Irish culture in the decades leading up to the War of Independence (1919-21).   They include exhortations to fight for “dear old Ireland,” reports of battles, like “Foggy Dew” (Easter Rebellion, 1916), elegies for slain soldiers; as well as opinions on differing perspectives on the politics of the era, especially concerning those that erupted into violence during the Civil War of 1922.

One might object that I haven’t remarked on “the Troubles” in Northern Island, so I will.  There have been political songs on both sides of that conflict, as well as, in recent decades, admonitions to peace. [6]  They are all Irish.  Because as much as some citizens of North Ireland like to think of themselves as somehow British, no one else does – not even the British, who in signing the accords that brought peace to Ulster (1998), effectively agreed to the right of all the Irish to self-determination.

One can no more remove politics from Irish song, than one could remove the Guinness Brewery from Dublin [7].  But the matter goes much deeper.  In fact, throughout the years of occupation, pretty much whatever the Irish sang about was political in nature.  They sang of the success of their gardens – that violated British economics.  They sang of their children – they weren’t supposed to have so many, those damned Catholics!  They sang out their love of their God – in the 17th Century, this got them killed; in the 18th matters improved, it only sent them to prison.  They sang of the beauty of their countryside – and were kicked off it left and right.  They sang of their trades – which they couldn’t independently practice, without a British approved overseer.  All they had to do was warble a note in Gaelic, and they were suspected of some dark satanic plot against the crown.  In other words, the very existence of Irish song, the very singing of it, was a politically rebellious act against British domination.

It must be kept in mind here that for 400 years, the British were engaged in what might be called genocide-by-attrition of the Irish people.  This is difficult to discuss in America, where the media has such a fascination for the health and marital antics of the ‘royal family’.  I suppose the long-range plan was to have the Irish simply die off, but since most of them were Catholics, that wasn’t going to happen.  So the British settled for total suppression of the Irish way of life and domination of its economy. They reduced the Irish to something less than serfs, since serfs were recognized as being a part of the land they worked.  The Irish were not recognized as belonging to the land, they were seen as somehow an annoying infection, needing to be cauterized.  The British did worse than destroy Irish culture, they stripped the Irish of the resources needed to produce culture.

But the body is a resource, and it can only be stripped from the possessor through death.  As Hitler realized, the only way you can completely erase a culture is through complete eradication of the targeted people.  But the British, although cruel and destructive, had a peculiar image of themselves as fundamentally “decent,” so all their crimes needed to be rationally explicable and moderated with some sense of “mercy” (and with some sense of moral superiority).   Goering once declared in a speech, “Yes, we (Nazis) are barbarians!”  A British politician would never admit such a thing.  So the Irish were allowed to starve to death, but there were no death camps to be found in, say, County Clare.

That may have been a mistake.  Song is of the body.  One feels it singing. It reverberates deeply in the lungs and shakes the innards.  It rises up with every breath (Latin: spiritus).  Sing a song and one is that song.  Sing a song for others, and one produces culture.  The British could take everything from the Irish, but they could not take away their breath; they could not stop them singing.

There are actually two ways to listen to a song.  One is to hear the voice simply as a part of the music itself.  One doesn’t actually pay attention to the words; perhaps one doesn’t understand the words.  This is how we listen to songs in languages we do not speak.  But the practice extends beyond that.  Where I work, my older colleagues and clients generally tend to be political and social conservatives.  Yet the public address radio is set to a “classic rock” station.  So I find myself frequently bemused watching these conservatives hum along to songs promoting recreational drug use (“White Rabbit”), sexual promiscuity (every other song by the Rolling Stones), political revolution or anti-war resistance (Steppenwolf’s “Monster”), non-Christian religious belief (a George Harrison song extolling Hari-Krishna), or even a song of anti-American hostility (“American Woman”).  They listen to something like the Chambers Brothers’ burst of outrage, “Time Has Come Today,” and don’t seem to have any idea that they are the targets of that outrage.  The words are meaningless to them, because they’re not listening to the words.  The voice they hear and hum along with, that’s just part of the music.

I have a suspicion that this is how most of us listen to songs in our own language, especially songs we have been hearing since very young.  My colleagues and clients don’t want to be reminded of the ’60s with all that era’s political turbulence.  They want to be reminded of their own youth.

What the British did in their aggressive disenfranchisement of the Irish on their own soil was to force the Irish to listen to their own songs, to pay attention to the words as well as to the melodies.  Because we listen to the words of a song when they are touching us directly in our immediate circumstances.  So even ancient songs can be made meaningful again if the events they refer to are replicated in the events of the current day: they are recognized as contemporary as a newspaper or a political broadside.

The British thus made the rebel song the touch-stone, the embodiment of Irish culture.  One can see how this plays out in the Irish ‘cheer’ (that’s its technical genre), “Óró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.” [8]  This probably originated as a shanty, welcoming sailors home from voyage (its structure is quite similar to “Drunken Sailor,” with which it probably shares a common original).  During the Williamite War, it transformed into a plea for Bonny Prince Charles to reclaim the throne and set conditions aright for the Irish.  In the early 20th Century, it was slightly revised by Patrick Pearse, who some say was murdered – or as others would have it, executed – by the British for participation in the Easter ’16 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. [9]  The song is in Gaelic, and roughly less than a third of the Irish report using Gaelic.  That may be less among today’s young Irish, and perhaps they don’t quite understand the full meaning of this song.  But anyone in Ireland forty years or older does.  A call for heroes to oust the “foreigners” (British) from Ireland, it was used as a marching song during the War of Independence.  Even if one doesn’t understand the words, the historical context reveals the meaning, a context remembered and passed on through generations.

Let’s clarify that.  Obviously, however moving the music, and however well known the context, the words technically have no meaning, until they’re explained.  So imagine a young person, unable to speak Gaelic, yet hearing his parents and their friends singing this song and noting their attitudes of pride and determination.  Such a one would feel impelled to ask after the song’s meaning.  And here’s where attempts to suppress a language and its song swing back to bite the oppressor’s hand.  The young person now pays closer attention to the meaning of the song during and following the explanation than he or she would if it were sung in a language already understood.  In other words, the effort to suppress Gaelic song actually backfired:  Rebel songs in Gaelic achieved greater respect as audiences struggled to place them meaningfully within the context of the Irish revolution and take possession of them as their own.

In fact, the problem for any empire is that colonization, oppression, slavery, and mass slaughter do not make friends.  Empires generate hatreds and enmities that last for generations.  The good natured Irish tend to adopt a “live and let live” pragmatic attitude even towards those they have battled in the past.  But they also tend to carry a grudge.

The British are a very proud people.  Writing this in America, I know it is expected of me to continue, “and they have every right to be.”  But I don’t believe that.  The history of England includes important eddies of remarkable writers and scientists.  But these appear to the sides of a great river of blood, clogged with the remains of slaughtered natives of colonized lands.  And for every one of those dead, whole families are left behind to this day, battling to redefine the wretched political and economic confusion the British Empire left behind in its collapse – a collapse that the British still won’t admit or deal with honestly.

I write this in America, the nation that long acted as inheritor of that collapsed empire, while flattering the British ego, by pretending we are all somehow the same people because of a common language.  By functioning in a more paternalistic, “caring” fashion, acknowledging the sovereignty of other countries, spreading around aid programs, enlisting allies (as long as they didn’t threaten our hegemony and wealth), Americans have deluded themselves into believing they are not imperialists and have made no enemies.  But they are and they have, and this will continue to haunt and befuddle their foreign affairs for many generations to come.

But America has another problem.  There is no such thing as “the American people.”  America is a collection of many peoples from around the world.  Some of these have been historically oppressed, although later assimilated into the mainstream.  Others have not been able or allowed to assimilate.  And others may feel themselves oppressed where there is no empirical evidence that this is so, beyond their own disappointment, given the nature of the economy or the nature of constitutional government.  Consequently, there are an awful lot of people here who have, or who have had, or who believe they have, reason speak out.  And when the means for doing so are blocked or when speaking seems unlikely to convince others – they can always sing about it. [10]   That’s what song is for.  Politics is not an add-on to song; song is an inevitable expression in politics.

Mark English wrote here recently of the dangers of relying on mythical thinking in matters political. [11]  The desire for respect, for the ability to live without oppression or risk of theft or murder, for the opportunity to realize one’s full potential unhindered by stigma – are these mythical aspirations?  Quite probably.  The world is a cold home to a lonely, anxious species of over-developed hominids.  But I would not be the one to reassure those starving in a famine that, rationally, their deaths would (in the words of Scrooge) “decrease the surplus population.”   Some myths are worth living for, even fighting for; and worth singing about.

Notes

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3zOVi0C5X4

[2] My oldest sister never quite got over it, and became obsessed with developing a family tree.  She traced the Irish roots back to an 18th century poet, Thomas Dermody, aka Dead-Drunk Dermody, who, as his nickname would suggest, drank himself to death at an early age. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Dermody

The first stanza from his “On a Dead Negro;” https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/on-a-dead-negro/:

AT length the tyrant stays his iron rod,

At length the iron rod can hurt no more;

The slave soft slumbers ‘neath this verdant sod,

And all his years of misery are o’er.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cromwellian_conquest_of_Ireland

[4] The British response to the famine – heartless indifference – was a purely rational one.  Remember that this was the age of Malthus, who once wrote, however ironically:

“(W)e should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality [of the poor]; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use” Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.

Lest any think this was not in minds of the British during the Famine, consider the following:

“Ireland is like a half-starved rat that crosses the path of an elephant. What must the elephant do? Squelch it – by heavens – squelch it.” – Thomas Carlyle, British essayist, 1840s

“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” – Charles Trevelyan, head of administration for famine relief, 1840s

“[Existing policies] will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848 and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.” – Queen Victoria’s economist, Nassau Senior

“A Celt will soon be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as the red man on the banks of Manhattan.” – The Times, editorial, 1848

Source of additional quotes: http://www.politics.ie/forum/history/22143-anti-irish-quotes-throughout-history.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Irish_ballads

[6] For instance: U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Simple Minds: “Belfast Child,” The Cranberries: “Zombie.”

[7] Until Guinness bought out the brewery building recently, they held a 9,000 year lease on it.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Sje2VYw99A

About the song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%93r%C3%B3_s%C3%A9_do_bheatha_abhaile

Translation in English: http://songsinirish.com/oro-se-do-bheatha-bhaile-lyrics/

Revisions author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Pearse

[9] The execution of the leaders of Easter ‘16 was perhaps the most profound mistake the British could have made.  Initially, they sentenced 89 men and a woman to death; but the first 15 executions were staggered over 9 days, as crowds stood outside the prison weeping, and politicians both Irish and British protested.  Author James Stephens described it as “like watching blood oozing from under a door.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stephens_(author)  The sentences of the other 75 sentenced to death were commuted.  But the damage was done.  The effect was to galvanize the Irish people in support of independence.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Rising

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

[11] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/22/nationalism-and-mythical-thinking/

Categories: Essay, Essays

Tagged as: , , ,

40 Comments »

  1. Ok, EJ, a few things by way of strong praise:

    1. I think an awful lot of people have no idea about the scope and degree of the brutality levied upon the Irish. “Genocide by attrition” and “the Irish were allowed to starve to death, but there were no death camps … in County Clare” are strong and very well put.

    2. Your remarks regarding the different ways of listening to a song are fascinating and profound. Particularly interesting were your observations regarding the folly of British efforts to suppress Gaelic and how this actually had the opposite effect of what they intended.

    3. My father was in the Jewish underground in Palestine,when he was a teenager — the Haganah specifically — and was often in direct, violent conflict with the British. He also was involved in smuggling Jewish refugees from the camps past British checkpoints designed to enforce inhumane quotas. Your depiction of the British as civil and rational on the surface, but deeply perfidious matches his description to a T.

    4. Your last paragraph is beautifully put and expresses better than I did what I found so objectionable about Mark’s thesis. Reason and Enlightenment are in themselves lovely, noble things, but there is a kind of invoking of them — in which I believe Mark engaged in his essay — that sounds a lot like an effort to explain to people why they ought to accept their lot, even if it is squalid and miserable. I’m not sure whether it is even *possible* to rouse oneself and one’s people from terrible circumstances without appeal to the mythic consciousness, but it certainly is the case that overwhelmingly, when a people are so roused, it is by way of mythic consciousness.

    Like

  2. Hi EJ, very nice.

    “The British are a very proud people. Writing this in America, I know it is expected of me to continue, “and they have every right to be.””

    I’m wondering if this is true for most Americans, especially in the context of the British-Irish conflict? I know that the Irish were treated horribly in the US, but I thought that they had become more accepted to even somewhat popular in general culture, and even empathized with in their fight against oppression by the British. Then again, maybe that’s just my experience from living in Chicago, where we dye the river green every year on St. Patrick’s day.

    “But America has another problem. There is no such thing as “the American people.” America is a collection of many peoples from around the world.”

    Exactly.

    “Mark English wrote here recently of the dangers of relying on mythical thinking in matters political… But I would not be the one to reassure those starving in a famine that, rationally, their deaths would (in the words of Scrooge) “decrease the surplus population.” Some myths are worth living for, even fighting for; and worth singing about.”

    This would probably be my only area of disagreement. I don’t see your argument/position as countering Mark’s. First, there is nothing mythical about wanting to avoid oppression and starvation. Second, his argument did not seem to discount all aspects/potential uses of myth. And third, his warning would have applied to the British as well. If it was all about the rational, then rationally the British did not need to be doing anything they were doing to the Irish. Clearly it was the British feeding on mythical ideas of themselves and the Irish, including religious mythology (damn Catholics!), that lay behind the persecution.

    The bone-chilling anti-Irish quotes you cited in your notes really suggest this last point.

    Minor quibble given the overall quality of the essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My first response to these curious attacks on my last essay is simply to refer people to the essay which is (I believe) being seriously mischaracterized here.

    Thanks Dwayne for coming in on my behalf. Let me reiterate one of your points: my argument did not discount positive uses of myth. My focus was on the negative side because I see very real dangers in certain myths currently being deployed. But I made it perfectly clear that I accept that we can’t avoid mythical thinking entirely, even if we want to.

    Dan wrote: “I’m not sure whether it is … *possible* to rouse oneself and one’s people from terrible circumstances without appeal to the mythic consciousness, but it certainly is the case that overwhelmingly, when a people are so roused, it is by way of mythic consciousness.”

    I certainly agree with the last part of the sentence. But how does this conflict with what I was saying?

    Like

  4. Something doesn’t become a “curious attack” because you don’t agree with the criticism. It just *might* be possible that what you wrote came across to others in ways that you did not anticipate.

    Anyway, I’m here to discuss EJ’s piece, not rehash old arguments.

    Like

  5. Dan and dbholmes,
    thank you for your warm remarks, much appreciated.

    db,
    All political ideas, especially those acted upon, are held together by some narrative or other, and unfortunately all such narratives are open to charges of mythic thinking, since they are founded on beliefs that cannot be justified except through their realization through successful action. As is clear in the instance of the British practices towards the Irish, part of the British myth justifying those practices was that they were realistic (given the presumed nature of the Irish) and rationally justifiable, and that this would become clear by an eventual Irish acceptance of their results, which never happened. So the paradox revealed there is that ‘rationality’ and ‘realism’ can be maintained as mythic beliefs, and that creates considerable problems.

    Also (and this is somewhat in response to Mark’s article), I think it’s necessary to distinguish between statecraft, which includes diplomacy and foreign relations strategies, and politics in the sense of promotion of perceived collective self-interest. The two crafts are in fact very different in both their intention and their expected results, requiring careful discrimination between the two. Indeed, confusing them can be dangerous. Michael Collins, in signing the Free State treaty, had created an independent Ireland that could evolve politically, while engaging the UK strategically in diplomacy. The IRA refused to make the distinction between their political ambitions, and the kind of statecraft Collins was bringing into existence, and civil war ensued. One great irony of that war was that the IRA leader, De Valera, eventually came out of prison a changed man, and pursued pretty much the politics that Collins would have had he lived; and the Free State at last became the Republic through an orchestration of democratic politics and statecraft rather than through armed confrontation.

    Finally to get cosmic here (with tongue only partly in cheek), it might be noted that assertions of right or aspiration are always somewhat mythic, in the sense that they always imply that the world is, or ought to be, fair, and it isn’t. I claim the right not to be struck by lightning, but am well aware that the lightning doesn’t care. However, I can insist politically that my community take steps to prepare for lightning strikes by having adequate emergency response mechanisms, and of course I can avoid standing beside ungrounded metal poles.

    Mark,
    I think people should read your essay, and remarked on it that I saw good in it, as well as some problems. I also of course wanted to discuss an issue you’ve raised indirectly a number of times, about whether politics has any place in the appreciation of music, and obviously we have at last one historic instance where a music cannot be fully appreciated without accounting for the political context in which it was created.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. EJ,

    Enjoyed it very much, I learned a lot too; and emotionally, knowing I can refer to myself as a quarter Irish, it also resonated strongly.

    And I loved how you made clear for me the gulf I feel between ‘music’, and singing that is really spoken and clearly meant.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. To the extent that elements of EJ’s essay constitute a response to Mark’s earlier essay — a response I agree with — these lines from his most recent comment strike me as key:

    “The paradox revealed there is that ‘rationality’ and ‘realism’ can be maintained as mythic beliefs, and that creates considerable problems.”

    “Assertions of right or aspiration are always somewhat mythic, in the sense that they always imply that the world is, or ought to be, fair, and it isn’t. I claim the right not to be struck by lightning, but am well aware that the lightning doesn’t care.”

    Like

  8. “Mark English wrote here recently of the dangers of relying on mythical thinking in matters political.”

    I did. And I said a few things about the European tradition of nationalism which owes something to Romantic ideas. I am ambivalent about it, as it happens; but I distinguished such secular myths from (fundamentalist) religious myths and argued that the latter should not be applied to political questions today. My conclusion: “Romantic and other secular myths will persist, and will continue to affect how we think about many things, including nationalism. But fundamentalist religious ideas – whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish – are in an altogether different category. And, in today’s highly interconnected, heavily armed and polarized world, they pose an even greater threat than other forms of unreason – not so much in themselves, but at least in so far as they are applied to political questions.”

    So I am not denying the (past or present) role of secular political myths.

    E. John Winner seems to think I am: “The desire for respect, for the ability to live without oppression or risk of theft or murder, for the opportunity to realize one’s full potential unhindered by stigma – are these mythical aspirations? Quite probably.”

    But (as dbholmes has pointed out) more often than not *this very oppression and stigmatizing is also myth-driven*.

    “… I would not be the one to reassure those starving in a famine that, rationally, their deaths would (in the words of Scrooge) “decrease the surplus population.” ”

    I think you can take a critical stance towards Romantic nationalism without going full Malthusian!

    “Some myths are worth living for, even fighting for…”

    People fight for all sorts of reasons, some good, some bad. I don’t know that I would want to die for a myth, whatever it was. Fighting in a war to stop an invading army, say, would usually involve a certain degree of patriotism (or commitment to one’s country or way of life) but it might also be motivated by a desire to protect family and friends.

    I endorse your distinction between between statecraft and politics in the sense of promotion of perceived collective self-interest – and agree that confusing them can be dangerous.

    “Michael Collins, in signing the Free State treaty, had created an independent Ireland that could evolve politically, while engaging the UK strategically in diplomacy. The IRA refused to make the distinction between their political ambitions, and the kind of statecraft Collins was bringing into existence, and civil war ensued. One great irony of that war was that the IRA leader, De Valera, eventually came out of prison a changed man, and pursued pretty much the politics that Collins would have had he lived; and the Free State at last became the Republic through an orchestration of democratic politics and statecraft rather than through armed confrontation.”

    This sounds about right but I must say I find fault with other aspects of your account of Irish nationalism. There is genuine diversity amongst the Irish in terms of background and in terms of perceived identity, but you scoff at some of those whose self-identity doesn’t fit your one-size-fits-all template. You also downplay the historical and ethnic continuities with the rest of the British Isles (and also with parts of France and Spain and, to a lesser extent, the Nordic countries).

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Hi EJ, I agree with much of your reply.

    “… it might be noted that assertions of right or aspiration are always somewhat mythic, in the sense that they always imply that the world is, or ought to be, fair, and it isn’t.”

    True enough. I am not a believer in “natural rights” as some metaphysically real, by-fact-of-existence-granted protection. They are a sort of myth built around the aspects of life people are willing to fight and die for. Sort of a legal “border” between individuals (and gov’t) which is as mythical as geographical borders between state entities.

    George Carlin has argued (rather convincingly) they are just made-up, temporary privileges:

    “… I think it’s necessary to distinguish between statecraft, which includes diplomacy and foreign relations strategies, and politics in the sense of promotion of perceived collective self-interest. The two crafts are in fact very different in both their intention and their expected results, requiring careful discrimination between the two. Indeed, confusing them can be dangerous.”

    Agreed.

    “All political ideas, especially those acted upon, are held together by some narrative or other, and unfortunately all such narratives are open to charges of mythic thinking… As is clear in the instance of the British practices towards the Irish, part of the British myth justifying those practices was that they were realistic (given the presumed nature of the Irish) and rationally justifiable… So the paradox revealed there is that ‘rationality’ and ‘realism’ can be maintained as mythic beliefs, and that creates considerable problems.”

    I agree with this in part. But the example somewhat conflates/confuses a few things…

    1) Myths held that one is rational, dealing with reality (removing a need to second guess)
    2) Myths held as true and then worked on rationally (eugenics is a good example of this)
    3) Myths held as true and acted on even if in obvious conflict with reason (fundamentalist religious myth)
    4) Myths held about the effectiveness/applicability of reason to all things
    5) Actually employing reason to facts, where applicable

    1-4 can cause problems, I don’t think 5 can. In the example you gave, the British seem to be engaged in 1-3, with the added possibility of 4. And I would argue that much stemmed from 3 (including blanket religious bigotries).

    Like

  10. Hi Mark, not sure why others got such a different message from your essay than I did. I thought you defined the scope and target of your argument well enough. Hope I did it justice in the last thread, and that my extended defense did not distract too much.

    “I think you can take a critical stance towards Romantic nationalism without going full Malthusian!”

    Nice.

    “People fight for all sorts of reasons, some good, some bad. I don’t know that I would want to die for a myth, whatever it was. Fighting in a war to stop an invading army, say, would usually involve a certain degree of patriotism (or commitment to one’s country or way of life) but it might also be motivated by a desire to protect family and friends.”

    Right.

    I’m also wondering if “identity building” is entirely “mythic”, when one is simply recognizing/defining the parameters/characteristics of those being oppressed in order to mount a defense.

    Sure some mythic qualities might start getting built into that “identity”, especially over time, but that is not quite the same as starting with myth-building and applying it to oneself (Aryan myth), or appealing to myth to excite a population towards actions that are not relevant/useful to the current situation (Aryan, Xian fundamentalist, etc).

    Like

  11. Hi Dan, yeah I thought it was funny that when I hit post and the screen refreshed, your reply appeared with the exact opposite conclusion (on that specific sub-topic). I guess great minds sometimes don’t think alike. 🙂

    For the quotes you gave in a later reply, which you felt were relevant to Mark’s essay, I though they were interesting and yet somewhat problematic. You can see my latest reply to EJ for where I thought there were problems (beyond questions of applicability to Mark’s position/argument).

    Like

  12. dbholmes: I think a good part of the issue, here, is that I am just not nearly as enamored with the rational consciousness or as disenchanted with the mythical one as Mark is — or apparently, as you are. I am not at all convinced that in the final tally, one clearly produces more harm than the other, unless one stacks the deck in such a way as to make one’s initial characterization decisive. And I am even less convinced that at the end of the day, there need necessarily be a real difference between the two, other than situationally. In this I agree with EJ that the rational is often a self-delusional pose, masking what is really mythical.

    The older I get, the more I am inclined to the modern, rather than the ancient view of reason: that it really just a tool of instrumental calculation and doesn’t really go much deeper than that. On that view, reason is impotent in the determination of fundamental values and thus, has no particular preeminence in our thinking or action. Indeed, rather the opposite. Slave to the passions and all that. On such a view, the sort of rationalism and enlightenment Mark advocates for is more of a conceit than anything substantive or deep.

    Like

  13. Mark,
    I “scoff” (your word) at the North Irish who maintain they are British for two reasons; the first I remark explicitly, that at this point no one else thinks of them as such. Implicitly, what this means is that in the transition from colony to nation, if it is to continue to progress toward union, Ireland now has to assume a state responsibility to consider its population as no longer homogeneous ethnically (or religiously). It has been quite successful in recent in years in recognizing this and moving beyond old modes of thinking. Ulster too needs to move in this direction if it is ever to have a government of its own (and I believe that politically and economically, it is strategically in its interests to unite with the south, since England is a falling star, and I still think the future belongs to the EU).

    I am certainly aware of the ethnic history of the Irish and other Celtic peoples. But the story of Irish song is bound up with the story of the Irish people. There are some wonderful musics to be found in Scotland, Wales, Breton, etc., but I wasn’t telling their stories, and saw no need to in the process of making my argument.

    It has also been the British who have discounted the ethnic continuities of the British Isles. Until recently, the British long acted as though they themselves had a single ethnic identity, when in fact Britain has historically served as a pot for a genetic stew into which have poured several Nordic peoples, the Italians during the Roman period, several genetic groups from France, the Spanish – one might say here ‘etc, etc.’ Yet the attitude adopted, certainly during the Victorian era of Imperial dominance, was that not only god but nature had somehow determined the British as a superior ‘race.’ And it has been the British also who have insisted on ethnic discontinuities in their former colonies, to leave them as politically unstable as possible so as to maintain control over their economies.

    In a sense the British helped create the ethnic identity “Irish,” through their oppression and discrimination. Now there is a nation of Ireland, and ‘Irish’ technically refers to its citizens, many of whom do not share that older ethnic identity. But there are 80 million peoples not in Ireland who have a share in that ethnic identity, and history doesn’t move fast enough to rob them of that birth-right if they wish to identify as such. As I note in the introduction to my article, I no longer wish to do so; but I certainly understand why others would.

    Finally, as regards your article: you opened the door to possible antagonistic readings of the article by not distinguishing as carefully as you might have, between the myths that are helpful in developing human freedom and opportunity and those that mislead into counterproductive mistakes. Broad brush strokes, like “fundamentalism” will not do – even religious fundamentalism can have its place in moving a people forward, although I would certainly agree that at some point it becomes counter-productive. But if you’re getting disenfranchised for being a Catholic, that’s not really the time to start saying, ‘yeah, y’know, I’ll convert – who needs those damn Catholics anyway? (Even if they might include my family and friends.)’

    “I think you can take a critical stance towards Romantic nationalism without going full Malthusian!”

    I was just continuing to remark the attitude the British actually did take toward the Irish during the famine. Certainly we need to maintain a critical outlook toward Romanticism, nationalism, fundamentalism… but also toward presumptions of our own rationality or sense of realism, which may themselves be mythic in origin.

    This is tangential, but I remember a letter Alfred Wallace wrote to Darwin. He was troubled that while natural selection had evidently resulted in the English having brains capable of superior ability in mathematics, yet “savages” had the same sized brain and ‘of course’ were doomed to ignorance.

    Before attempting to make judgments on history, politics or statecraft, we need to check the grounds of the reasoning of those judgments. And we need first to recognize that the social world is too complicated, too complex, too variable to fit into ready made boxes very easily.

    As clear from my remark concerning the narratives that hold together political ideas, anybody who engages in politics does so on the basis of mythic thinking. The only healthy choice in the matter is leaving open the possibility that one could be wrong.

    Like

  14. dbholmes,
    “Actually employing reason to facts, where applicable” – the further one gets into social reality (rather than mathematical or scientific), the more problematic the application of pure reason becomes. Eventually we reach a point where the “facts” with which we are reasoning are simply social constructs, and our reasoning necessarily engages presumptions that are themselves social-historical constructs, but without which we might be able to reason at all. When these are incorporated into narrative explanations, they effectively function as myth.

    In 1954, a male of a certain species inseminated a female, and in January 1955 a male infant was born. Biologically, the male can be said to be the ‘father’ of the infant, as long as we understand that in biology the term does not carry the full social/legal implications of the term. But as we’re talking about humans here, then of course society requires at least a public recognition, in order to maintain proper records, that the man is registered as the ‘father’ of the infant.

    In 1957, the biological, and now also the legal, father of the infant moves to Florida and has nothing further to do with the infant or his welfare. Is this man, in the full social understanding of the term, the father of the child? Having been that infant, I would argue no. The mother involved could have filed law suits such that the man could still be held legally or financially responsible for his part in bringing my life into this world, but she did not. While biologically and – in a somewhat different way – legally, the fact is that the man was my father. However, socially and psychologically, in a very real sense it can be stated – again as fact – that I never had a father.

    This is not a paradox, I’m not violating the law of non-contradiction here. It is clear that social terms and their full understanding require different categories under different circumstances; sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.

    Mark says he would be willing to die in a war to protect his family. My ‘family’ (and I only refer to them as such by custom and for legal purposes as they arise) are not such that, were they still living, I would care to give up my life for them, although there were times in the past when I would have liked to believe that. But I might for a myth of progressing justice or defending the rights of others – even though I’m aware that such narratives are mythic in nature. Nothing we do politically is ever going to reach down to a base premise that is logically without challenge. The best we can do is go with our best understanding and hope it comes out well.

    Or devote one’s self to a life of meditation, which may yet be the safest course.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Hi EJ, I’d be wary of treating all social constructs as myths, though I agree that social constructs can have mythological elements added to them… and that that is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Your example seems pretty straightforward and without mythic elements. It is known and accepted that there are biological parents (and other relatives), and that those might not be the people considered family based on fulfilling certain supportive roles in one’s life.

    “Nothing we do politically is ever going to reach down to a base premise that is logically without challenge. The best we can do is go with our best understanding and hope it comes out well.”

    I agree with both of those statements. But I’d argue our “best understanding” usually comes from sticking with reason and evidence to some degree. And our “worst understanding” usually comes from starting with one belief (or set of beliefs) and not allowing any evidence or reason to change it.

    If this is not true, why bother having debates at all? Why teach logic, math, and science? Do they not add value?

    Like

  16. Hi Dan,

    “I am not at all convinced that in the final tally, one clearly produces more harm than the other, unless one stacks the deck in such a way as to make one’s initial characterization decisive.”

    We don’t have to rehash the debate from last thread, but I want to point out I did provide a list of what I thought the worst international policy decisions have been… greatest negative outcomes in suffering and death… since I’ve been alive, and I don’t think I was stacking the deck against mythical thinking.

    Also, not being in the sciences you may not have been directly affected by the fundamentalist religious fights against evolution (in school and research), as well as against stem cell research. These sorts of things certainly have me feeling less enchanted by mythical thinking.

    “In this I agree with EJ that the rational is often a self-delusional pose, masking what is really mythical.”

    Yes, I am sympathetic to this. But then I would want to disentangle myth from rationality in my criticism of any particular decision, and not simply lump the two together (which seems an equivocation regarding the role played). This gets to the 5 points I used for EJ’s example.

    “… reason is impotent in the determination of fundamental values and thus, has no particular preeminence in our thinking or action. Indeed, rather the opposite. Slave to the passions and all that. “

    Again, I am very sympathetic to this. I am totally on board with the Humean conception of reason being the slave to the passions. But to me a mistake is being made to go from that to your criticism of Mark’s position (or mine).

    The real problem you raise seems to be that we can fool ourselves that we are being rational, when we are not, or that we can employ reason toward goals other than the one most relevant to the question at hand, and not recognize we have switched goals. Neither of those undercut reason-based thinking as an extremely useful tool in support of understanding and decision making. If they challenge anything, it is the lack of self-awareness as to what passions motivate us, and which passions are most appropriate, in any particular situation.

    Like

  17. Dwayne: I suspect we aren’t going to agree on this, so I’ll just say one more thing. Part of what accepting the Humean idea means is that reason’s role is *strictly* instrumental — it just tells you the best means to achieve Y, given that you want X. But it seems to me that much of the blame that is directed towards “mythic thinking” is that it is permitted to determine our ends and that we should engage in rational thinking instead. But if Hume is right, that is something rational thinking cannot do.

    Like

  18. When I reread the last sentence… “If they challenge anything, it is the lack of self-awareness as to what passions motivate us, and which passions are most appropriate, in any particular situation.”… I realized it might read as saying reason alone should “decide” which “passions are most appropriate”, should be felt, which is not what I meant.

    Rather, we usually wrestle with a mix of passions, and where they are conflicting, must select between them while making decisions. If faced with a life or death situation, a fixation on figuring out what pattern of drapes you want to buy, would be “less appropriate”, a distraction, to more important interests such as figuring out how to stay alive. This is an extreme example, but in less dramatic situations it is easier to lose track of which are the more important passions to focus on (for ourselves) in addressing a situation.

    Like

  19. Hi Dan,

    “But it seems to me that much of the blame that is directed towards “mythic thinking” is that it is permitted to determine our ends and that we should engage in rational thinking instead. But if Hume is right, that is something rational thinking cannot do.”

    I agree with the last sentence, and did not see criticism of mythic thinking (especially fundamentalist religious thought) as arguing that rational thinking can determine our ends. Rather, (in the context of Mark’s essay) it was that if we want a certain end, certain forms of mythic thinking (particularly fundamentalist religious thinking) will impair the process of rational thought applied toward that end.

    This difference might explain our disagreement.

    Like

  20. You can have the last word, so we don’t exhaust ourselves (and others), but I want to explain (right or wrong) how I saw his position intersecting with (and not solely relying on) reason.

    To avoid the thorny issue of Zionism and myth, he also pointed at Christian and Islamic myths as being problematic so I will explain how I thought this intersected with rationality.

    IF we are interested in resolving the MidEast situation without violence (or the least amount), then basing policy on (or arousing interest in policy using) Christian or Islamic fundamentalist myths would be counterproductive to that end, especially when wedded to modern weaponry.

    Yes, one could argue any rejection of rational arguments/actions toward that “end” is because they have different myth-based “ends” that would logically require violence*, but that does not generate an argument that the initial desired “end” of peace in the MidEast (sans violence) was suppose to be derived by pure reason. Perhaps I am wrong (Mark could answer this best) but I never saw Mark claiming the ends he sought were from reason alone, and it’s not like warning against the excesses of Romanticism demands people accept the excesses of Enlightenment reasoning.

    *note: I believe there was more to the argument and nature of impediment to reason from that form of mythical thinking, but will take for sake of argument it collapses to the stated reason above.

    Like

  21. Dwayne: I’m not sure I entirely understand the account you are giving. I don’t care about using the Zionist example. I just bristle, when someone gives an account of it, with no mention of the fact that the primary motivation for it was the millennia long hounding and attempt at extermination of the Jewish people. So, the example is fine.

    To have a Jewish homeland is an End. If Hume is correct — and I think he is — it is not something, then, that can be decided on the basis of reason. Which means that it *must* involve *some* variety of mythical thinking. Now Mark wants to say the religious kind is worse than the non religious kind, which I disputed in my remarks to his piece, but in any event, strike me as pretty hard to demonstrate one way or another.

    Now, once the Jewish State was created, it fell to the new-founded Israelis to defend it from attack after attack after attack. They were very successful in doing so, defeating armies far larger and more numerous than their own. Part of the reason is that their tactics were far superior to those of the Arabs.

    Now, presumably, what this means, in part, was that the Israelis were better reasoners — in the Humean sense — than the Arabs who attacked them.

    The growth and flourishing of Israel has been based largely in a combination of Academic, Economic, Industrial, and Military excellence. Surely, this had to do with having pretty sound Ends, with respect to what a country should aspire to achieve. Presumably, it also involved large amounts of very successful reasoning, in the Humean sense.

    The Arab states, by contrast, are awash in a natural resource that should make them all rich and yet, their populations are desperate and impoverished. To a country they are dictatorships. And to a country they are spectacular failures. Now, presumably, this is in part, because they reasoned poorly. Perhaps their Ends were also poorly chosen, but it wouldn’t be because they were based in “mythical thinking” per se.

    Seems to me like mythically chosen Ends — i.e. all of them, given that Hume is right — admit of good and bad varieties, but I suspect it isn’t because one set is religious while another isn’t. Rather, I think other things might come into play like, for example, how realistic they are.

    Like

  22. Dan

    “[Mark] gave the specific example of Zionism as an example of an End that was determined by mythical thinking.”

    I wasn’t presenting Zionism as an example of an “end”, just as a movement. (You could see it as an end in itself or as a means to particular ends – see below.) And I didn’t say it was determined by mythical thinking. I just pointed out that cultural Zionism in particular drew on certain Romantic ideas.

    “The older I get, the more I am inclined to the modern, rather than the ancient view of reason: that it really just a tool of instrumental calculation and doesn’t really go much deeper than that.”

    I think I could agree with this.

    “On that view, reason is impotent in the determination of fundamental values and thus, has no particular preeminence in our thinking or action.”

    I agree that reason can’t give us our values, and also that we often rationalize after the event. But we use various kinds of (non-myth-based) reasoning all the time in our daily lives to solve problems and make plans and (not least) to see the world in a clear and perspicuous way.

    “… the sort of rationalism and enlightenment Mark advocates for is more of a conceit than anything substantive or deep.”

    I try to see things clearly, dispassionately. This doesn’t mean that I ignore or discount the importance of the emotional side of things (including my own emotions).

    “To have a Jewish homeland is an End.”

    Some might see it as an end in itself, others as a means to various ends (e.g. protection and safety, religious continuity, cultural development…).

    “Now Mark wants to say the religious kind [of myth] is worse than the non religious kind, which I disputed in my remarks to his piece, but in any event, [this] strike[s] me as pretty hard to demonstrate one way or another.”

    We could at least agree that the religious dimension complicates Middle Eastern politics considerably and exacerbates certain problems.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Dwayne

    I thought the discussion between you and Dan about ends and means got a bit confused at times, but I agreed with just about everything you said – and (see my previous comment) with much of what Dan was saying also.

    “… I never saw Mark claiming the ends he sought were from reason alone…”

    That’s right.

    Like

  24. Hi Dan, since you state that you were not clear about my last reply, and there’s been no further action in the thread, I’ll respond to clarify. As your reply shifted from ends to means (which gets at the asterisked note in my last reply), my clarification will be longer.

    Hume argued that reason was necessarily a tool of the passions. However, to equate *passion* with *mythical thinking* is a mistake. Sure, mythical thinking is bound up with passions, but they are not synonymous, the former also involves beliefs about the world and often requires specific ways of interacting with evidence/facts (aka restricting reasoning).

    The desire to resolve a conflict with minimal violence (which was the example I gave and what I took as implicit in Mark’s position), does not involve mythical thinking at all. Nor does it require being derived by reason alone (which is why I defended Mark’s essay from a criticism he was arguing that ends must be).

    The desire to create a nation is also a passion that does not require mythical thinking. It might be argued that because nations are social constructs they must involve mythical thinking, but I rejected such equations earlier. If this is something you disagree with, I’ll agree for sake of argument that “nations” involve some limited form of mythical thinking.

    Of course, the desire to create a nation to act as a *homeland* for a *people*, requires mythical thinking. Though that is less mythical in scope when both terms can be defined by direct, practical criteria (i.e. a central nation to which a group has ultimate loyalty, and a group of individuals with unique, identifiable characteristics). In this case, nation-building is not the only passion, there are other passions connected to ideas of homelands and specific group identities. Facts or rational arguments/actions may be rejected on the grounds of cutting against *feelings* about those other issues, even if that undercuts practical concerns regarding nation-building. Put another way, passions about *homeland* or *people* will employ our rational faculty in different ways than when used solely for the desire of building a *nation*. Passions can be at cross-purposes. In addition to having conflicting ends, myths about homelands or people may cause one to overlook, or actively exclude possible means. Mark’s warnings about American secular myths might be a good example.

    Religious thinking is usually, almost by definition, at odds with rational thought about events in the world. This is especially true for the Abrahamic faiths which posit revelation as crucial, overriding to evidence and reason. Not about everything, but of many things. Passions related to religious faith normally employ rational faculties to work evidence into pre-existing narratives and beliefs, rather than challenging them and/or constructing new ones. So when one is dealing with religious myth, there are more built-in constraints towards both ends and means. There are more incentives to exclude options obtainable through rational thought. Obviously, fundamentalist religious thought is even more strict than moderate religious thought.

    To summarize, while reason will be used by our passions, the stronger or more numerous the mythic elements involved, the more likely passions may be at cross-purposes and so divert reason… whether toward other ends, or by causing one to overlook, or actively exclude, viable options otherwise obtainable by reason (toward a single purpose). Fundamentalist religious myths are arguably the most challenging in this regard.

    Of course, people can be irrational or engage in poor reasoning, regardless of religious myths they hold.

    “I think other things might come into play like, for example, how realistic they are.”

    This would be, I think, the crux of the problem with fundamentalist religious mythical thinking. They are, by all accounts, unconcerned with determining how *realistic* most things are. They have posited what is real, to which our rational faculty must be employed to make evidence fit that picture, and our actions dedicated to prophecy fulfilment.

    Like

  25. Hi Mark, of course after I posted my last reply, your comments showed up. So much for “no further action”. Anyway, I guess I’d be interested in your take on my last reply to Dan. Hopefully less confusing?

    Like

  26. Mark and Dwayne: If all you mean is that reason should prevail in means/ends reasoning, you have no objection from me. That said, it’s a pretty uninteresting claim, and sure doesn’t sound like what you were talking about, and not just to me, but to EJ either.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. My original claims about reason were largely implicit. Nor did I explicitly define what I meant by mythical thinking or talk about means and ends.

    Dwayne [your latest elaboration, by the way, seemed clear to me] draws a distinction between emotions and mythical thinking. The latter involves the former but the former do not necessarily involve the latter.

    In a recent comment I talked about reason, and not just in strictly instrumental terms. I agreed that reason can’t give us our values. I noted that we often rationalize after the event. And then said:

    “We use various kinds of non-myth-based [and, to a greater or lesser extent, dispassionate] reasoning all the time in our daily lives to solve problems and make plans and (not least) to see the world in a clear and perspicuous way.”

    My view of the world is such that my understanding of “what is” is based on observation and reasoned reflection on our collective knowledge-base (mainly scientific and historical). This understanding is useful, but it is not *just* instrumental. It could also be seen as an end in itself.

    I use the word “dispassionate” in its usual sense, and my use of this term shouldn’t be taken to imply that I am ignoring or discounting the importance of the emotions in our lives – nor the importance of myths.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. Hi Dan, to be fair to Mark…

    1) The explanation I gave above was a clarification of how I thought his argument would be compatible with a Humean view of reasons and passions, which you had questioned. I have no idea if this is something Mark had in mind while writing or would agree with (though I hope the latter). It is certainly how I viewed intersections between reason and passion with respect to myths, especially fundamentalist religious myth, when I read his piece.

    2) I don’t think that was “all” he was saying.

    3) The excellent essay above, when distilled to a dry takeaway point, would be dull and uninteresting. EJ has argued (and you have defended) rhetoric as being important, and all rhetoric is is dressing up dull takeaway points in fine clothes (or sounds!) to make potentially disagreeable points attractive, and agreeable points exciting. Not every underlying claim has to be new or exciting to make for an interesting or *useful* essay on a specific topic (like international policy). So “pretty uninteresting claim”, seems an unusual criticism.

    Like

  29. Rhetoric is only “dressing up” on a very analytic view of argumentation, in which it is essentially illegitimate, but necessary because people are insufficiently rational. But if one believes that emotional appeal is not only illegitimate but primary, there is nothing “dressing up” about it.

    Like

  30. Hi Dan, that is a good point. I admit to coming from a more analytic view of argumentation (I certainly don’t take rhetoric as primary), and my statement in #3 reflected that.

    Like

  31. dbholmes.
    – “all rhetoric is is dressing up dull takeaway points in fine clothes (or sounds!) to make potentially disagreeable points attractive, and agreeable points exciting” – wow, this shows little understanding of rhetoric, even the Aristotelian or otherwise traditional variety. Personally I am much more persuaded that, at least in argumentation, logic reduces to a rhetorical device, rather than the ‘takeaway point’ or an argument.

    And I may have written a dull and uninteresting article, but I hardly think that the relationship between Irish song, Irish nationalism, and Irish politics – and in a broader context, the nature of imperialism – are dull and uninteresting topics. The notion that we engage political thought – merely by reasoning through some ‘facts’ – without accounting for the history of those facts, and the rhetoric that brought them about, seems hopelessly blinkered.

    Logical Positivism failed because nobody actually talks that way. Rhetoric is our primary verbal means of communicating in a useful way with others having ideas, feelings, and egos substantially different from our own, and thus forging collective interests. “Please” and “thank you” may seem like dressing, but failing to use them in my Aunt Ginny’s house got us slapped for being disrespectful.

    Certain ends are noble, but politically useless. Useful ends in politics – the collective interests that motivate us to political action – cannot be determined through pure reason. I told the story of my father because I wanted to point out that the very notion of ‘fatherhood’ is problematic. In biology “father” is used metaphorically (what? rhetorically? yes; it’s actually an anthropomorphism, now so well used that we’ve forgotten it’s a metaphor). In law, it’s a legal fiction functioning as fact. It overlaps with the biological usage, hence can be influenced by DNA comparisons, etc., but its primary usage has to do with responsibility.

    But in common usage, the term explodes with connotation and implications far beyond a simple identification of ‘male parent.’ it is rich in emotional resonance and personal expectations, with enormous repeated semiotic re-enforcement from the culture that surrounds us, and embedded in that culture’s history. It saturates our thinking to the point of determining our psychology to a certain extent.

    Social sciences have long confirmed that a fundamental ground of political thought is our commitment to our families. Most of our understanding of collective interests in the public sphere derive from our understanding of our families’ interests. Yet the hard truth remains that “family” is a social construct. It is a useful, even necessary, and inevitable social construct. But while a social fact, it is not even really a biological fact. The biological fact is that a male contributed sperm, a female contributed an egg, and progeny was delivered alive. The only strict relationship between the three is genetics. Any obligations they might have are entirely socially determined. This determination is made through narrative (thus primarily through rhetoric). It therefore functions in the manner of myth – “family” is a myth.

    It is a myth no society can exist without, since, as noted, it is the ground other collective interests derive from. And it makes our lives worth living. I came from a broken family, and my relationship to that family is now existent only as a cartload of unpleasant memories. Yet I feel no interest in insisting that others should distance themselves from their families or deny the meaning “family” has for them.

    Thus all politics derives from mythic thinking, and engages our deepest emotions and most profound social connections. Failure to realize that has oft defeated politicians, however the seeming rightness of their causes.

    Liked by 4 people

  32. Hi EJ, whoa, whoa, whoa… nice comment, but let’s take a step back and consider how much relates to what I wrote.

    Remember, I was reacting to a criticism of Mark’s essay, where Dan (felt he had) reduced it to a dry takeaway point which he found “a pretty uninteresting claim”. My entire point 3 statement was a *defense* of Mark’s essay from that criticism, even if it was reducible to such a claim, because there are other parts of an essay (rhetoric) which can play different roles. Was I arguing these other roles were entirely unimportant? Let’s see what I said without pulling a single sentence out of context…

    “3) The excellent essay above, when distilled to a dry takeaway point, would be dull and uninteresting. EJ has argued (and you have defended) rhetoric as being important, and all rhetoric is is dressing up dull takeaway points in fine clothes (or sounds!) to make potentially disagreeable points attractive, and agreeable points exciting. Not every underlying claim has to be new or exciting to make for an interesting or *useful* essay on a specific topic (like international policy). So “pretty uninteresting claim”, seems an unusual criticism.”

    Ok, I was pretty negative sounding about rhetoric’s contribution to *the underlying claim*, that is to say it’s contribution to any logical underpinnings, but the last two sentences argue that it contributes to the *interest* and *usefulness* of an *essay*.

    Dan identified the negative language as coming from an analytic view of argumentation. While I do not hold with the idea rhetoric “… is essentially illegitimate, but necessary because people are insufficiently rational” (my take is a bit more nuanced) I decided not to elaborate because it was true that I come from “a more analytic view” and certainly do not view rhetoric as primary.

    “I am much more persuaded that, at least in argumentation, logic reduces to a rhetorical device, rather than the ‘takeaway point’ or an argument.”

    I think I would disagree with this, and if you want to argue about it fine. But that does not touch my position as much as it does Dan’s criticism of Mark’s essay.

    “And I may have written a dull and uninteresting article…”

    You did not, which was my whole point! Neither did Mark, which is why criticizing some potential underlying line of logic (or conclusion) within his essay as “pretty uninteresting” seemed to me “an unusual criticism”.

    “… I hardly think that the relationship between Irish song, Irish nationalism, and Irish politics – and in a broader context, the nature of imperialism – are dull and uninteresting topics. The notion that we engage political thought – merely by reasoning through some ‘facts’ – without accounting for the history of those facts, and the rhetoric that brought them about, seems hopelessly blinkered.”

    Absolute agreement!

    “Useful ends in politics – the collective interests that motivate us to political action – cannot be determined through pure reason.”

    Given that I essentially argued this at length in this thread, of course I agree!

    As for the rest of your comment, where we disagree is whether all social constructs are mythical rather than factual. To me, some are and some aren’t. The latter would include your example of family. Again we could argue about that, but is not relevant to what I was saying. Also, I would disagree that dealing with myth is inherently “rhetoric”, it depends on how those myths are being used.

    “Thus all politics derives from mythic thinking, and engages our deepest emotions and most profound social connections. Failure to realize that has oft defeated politicians, however the seeming rightness of their causes.”

    While I disagree that “all” politics derives from mythic thinking, and gave a counterexample in the thread already (sometimes it is just passion), I would agree much or most does, as well as with everything else you say here.

    What puzzles me is why arguments or essays that involve reminders about the importance of logic and facts, or potential problems from ignoring them, when engaging in political decision making, get treated as arguing reason and facts are all that matters… all that can/should be used… especially when the author openly states that is *not* the case.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. E. John Winner

    You were addressing dbholmes who has now replied. He wrote (in part):

    “… where we disagree is whether all social constructs are mythical rather than factual. To me, some are and some aren’t. The latter would include your example of family.”

    I wanted to come in on this too.

    You wrote:

    “Certain ends are noble, but politically useless. Useful ends in politics – the collective interests that motivate us to political action – cannot be determined through pure reason.”

    Agreed. But there are ends and ends. Some are more reliant on myth-based beliefs than others.

    “I told the story of my father because I wanted to point out that the very notion of ‘fatherhood’ is problematic. In biology “father” is used metaphorically (what? rhetorically? yes; it’s actually an anthropomorphism, now so well used that we’ve forgotten it’s a metaphor). In law, it’s a legal fiction functioning as fact. It overlaps with the biological usage, hence can be influenced by DNA comparisons, etc., but its primary usage has to do with responsibility.”

    Yes, the word “father” has various uses and meanings (biological father, step-father, father-figure, founder, etc.). But polysemy is not problematic!

    “… [I]n common usage, the term explodes with connotation and implications far beyond a simple identification of ‘male parent.’ It is rich in emotional resonance and personal expectations… It saturates our thinking to the point of determining our psychology to a certain extent.”

    The responsibility angle is a “social construct”, sure.

    “Social sciences have long confirmed that a fundamental ground of political thought is our commitment to our families. Most of our understanding of collective interests in the public sphere derive from our understanding of our families’ interests. Yet the hard truth remains that “family” is a social construct. It is a useful, even necessary, and inevitable social construct. But while a social fact, it is not even really a biological fact. The biological fact is that a male contributed sperm, a female contributed an egg, and progeny was delivered alive. The only strict relationship between the three is genetics. Any obligations they might have are entirely socially determined. This determination is made through narrative (thus primarily through rhetoric). It therefore functions in the manner of myth – “family” is a myth.”

    This is the main problem with what you are saying, as I see it: you want to call every social construct – even “necessary and inevitable” ones – myth. Whereas I would want to say that some are more myth-like than others. Wanting a peaceful society may be a “socially constructed” desire, but it is not necessarily myth-based.

    And mating attachments and parent-offspring dynamics are often closely tied to instinctive responses, quite unlike Biblical or racial-historical (e.g. Aryan) myths, for example. (This is not to deny that concepts of family can be – are, in fact – elaborated in very complex ways.)

    Liked by 2 people

  34. db, Mark,
    I think we have reached a point where all we’re doing is making position statements, since some of what has surfaced in recent comments (my own included) cannot be argued fully in a comments section, and have veered off topic to the OP. That’s actually OK, because such position statements help to disclose the differing positions from which we are commenting, and readers deserve to understand these. But we’re not going to resolve some of the issues that either of you – or myself – have raised in these comments.

    Hopefully, this dispute will entice interesting full essays from each of us that can address these issues with some of the details they deserve.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. I liked Mark’s essay, but I found a lot of comments on it unfair (or worse). Lots of interesting discussion though, glad some of that has been sorted out.

    Like

  36. I certainly don’t think it was anyone’s intention to be unfair. We’ve all known each other here long enough that I think everyone is being pretty straight with one another.

    Like

  37. Dan,

    “I certainly don’t think it was anyone’s intention to be unfair”

    That was certainly my overall my impression.

    Like