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September 07, 2008

"LIVING WITHOUT GOD" -- Ronald Aronson's important new book

Ron_aronsons_book I wrote the following article for the magazine New Humanist's September-October issue:

Ronald Aronson’s new book, Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided, represents a radical departure from the recent attention-grabbing anti-religion polemics from Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Michel Onfray. While Aronson (right) pays heartfelt tributeRon_aronson  to all of these authors, his is a much more pragmatic proposal. He suggests that “even after reading Harris, Dennett, Dawkins or Hitchens, secularists often have difficulty discussing what it is we believe in, if not God.” And what that means, for Aronson, is that humanism needs to recouple thought with action, morality with socialism.

“To live comfortably without God today means … rethinking the secular worldview after the eclipse of modern optimism,” Aronson insists. “This can happen only by working through the secular outlook itself, in light of the disasters and disappointments of the last century, and the dangers of this one.”

Aronson, perhaps of all contemporary thinkers, is ideally situated to take on the task. He is internationally recognised as the foremost Sartre scholar in the English-speaking world. A native of Detroit, Michigan, that’s where he has chosen to stay, making his academic career at the unglamorous Wayne State University, where he has taught since 1969, and where today he is a Distinguished Professor of the History of Ideas. The grandson of immigrants, Aronson is fiercely loyal to his city, once the proud flagship of the American trade union movement, the birthplace and headquarters of the United Auto Workers, but today America’s poorest urban agglomeration now that the auto industry has collapsed and much of the well-paid white working class has fled.

Detroit is, in fact, one of the characters in Living Without God, for Aronson often invokes his city to illustrate his thesis: that we need an ethics and a morality which, without belief in a supreme being, allows us to confront the daily problems of our lived lives, from Hurricane Katrina to economic insecurity to social injustice and want to death and dying.

Sartre Aronson is a philosopher, but of a special kind. One of his most important books is titled Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World (unfortunately out of print, but available in its entirety on Aronson’s website), and he situates himself firmly in what Oliver Wendell Holmes once called “the passion and action of our times”. His writing frequently draws on his own life. In Living Without God, for example, the chapter on confronting mortality was written while Aronson was undergoing (ultimately successful) treatment for prostate cancer.

As a scholar and writer, Aronson for the last three decades has explored and illuminated the nature of hope as reified through political commitment. And he is also today one of the handful of contemporary US public intellectuals who has the courage to openly identify himself as a socialist. Chased from the public square in the McCarthyite 1950s and given the coup de grace by the collapse of its endlessly perverted incarnation in the Soviet Union and its satellites, the idea of socialism, indeed the very word, is a taboo in modern America.

But Aronson’s radicalism is deeply rooted, and distinctly American. A student of New Left icon Herbert Marcuse, under whom he took his doctorate while at Brandeis University, Aronson was swept up in the political activism of the 1960s. He became a community organiser in the African-American neighbourhood of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and an editor of the influential New Left journal Studies on the Left. In the heady spring of 1968, while completing his doctoral dissertation on “Art and Freedom in the Philosophy of Sartre”, Aronson participated in the Freedom School organised in the aftermath of the student strike at Columbia University. Unlike many who left their activism behind them once they’d moved on from student life, Aronson has continued down the path of explicit political engagement.

During the apogee of the struggle against apartheid in the late 1980s, while a guest lecturer at universities in South Africa, Aronson threw himself into the fight – a story he told in his 1990 book, Stay Out of Politics: A Philosopher Views South Africa. He was later celebrated for his activism and his writings with an honorary doctorate from the University of Natal in Durban. More recently, he has been a fierce opponent of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and as a firm believer in local activism has been an active member of the Huntington Woods (Michigan) Peace, Citizenship, and Education Project in the Detroit inner suburb where he resides.

Ever ready to take the clash of ideas out of the academy, Aronson has produced televised debates on democratic values and affirmative action that have pitted the likes of Cornel West and Barbara Ehrenreich on the left against conservative writers like David Frum and Abigail Thernstrom. And, unusually for a philosopher, he has produced two films, together with Academy Award-nominated director Judith Montell. One of them, Professional Revolutionary: The Life of Saul Wellman, explores the life of a legendary Detroit trade union radical who was once indicted and jailed by the federal government (a conviction later overturned by the Supreme Court on free speech grounds) and who much later was honoured by testimonials from both the Detroit City Council and the state legislature for his contributions to Michigan’s working class.

Wellman (below left), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, in later life mentored Saul_wellman many younger leftists, and played a key role in Aronson’s life in 1974 when Aronson was denied tenure at Wayne State University and lost his job because of his political activism. “I was feeling whipped,” Aronson once told me, “and I had offers elsewhere, and didn’t feel like fighting. But I told Saul about it, and he said, ‘You can’t leave, this is your home – you have to fight it. Now, who should we contact?’ And he took out his list of addresses and we started organising the movement for the reversal of my tenure decision.” Aronson won that fight, and was reinstated in 1975 –with tenure.

Aronson’s second film, First Amendment on Trial: The Case of the Detroit Six, chronicles how the federal government overreacted to dissent during the Cold War when it indicted and convicted Michigan’s Communist leaders during the McCarthy hysteria. “The film seeks to situate the story in its historical era and then consider it from the distance of 50 years,” says Aronson. “It demonstrates that the political system failed to protect dissent at a time of national crisis but that the judicial system stepped in at the highest level to ultimately confirm and clarify freedom of speech and assembly.”

Aronson has churned out a steady stream of articles and books: the latter include The Dialectics of Disaster, After Marxism and the groundbreaking Camus and Sartre: the Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It, which was hailed by critics in both the US and France for uncovering the personal and political roots of the quarrel between the two gigantic figures of existentialism. Aronson’s easily digestible prose is remarkably free of academic cant; as the Times Literary Supplement has observed, his work combines “the highest level of scholarship with a lively and readable style of writing.”

But if Living Without God is an enjoyable read, anyone looking for a catechism of neat, formulaic, three-a-penny slogans of the prêt-à-penser variety in this volume will be disappointed. Taking as his starting point Immanuel Kant’s three questions – “What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?” – Aronson wants above all to make us think.

He writes, “Instead of lending our power to a being above us and then asking for it to be lent back to us, we may be able to feel our power as drawn from, and connected to, all that we depend on.”

That interconnectedness commands us to assume a sense of absolute responsibility as beings for the world around us. For example, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust that flowed from it “required the active or passive consent of tens of millions ... many of the accomplices may have done very little or even nothing. Some only averted their eyes. But each did exactly what was needed” for the triumph of evil. And he brings his assessment right up to today by discerning the bulk of the American people’s similar responsibility for the war in Iraq.

But Aronson also insists that “ignoring that we are interdependent is ruining our society” because we refuse to tackle a different form of quotidian violence: inequality. “Inequality may be wholly impersonal, and we may have no intentional relationship to it, but by our failing to name it and confront it and do something about it, we wind up living by it. We make it ours. To condone and benefit from injustice is to become implicated in it.”

I asked Aronson what he thinks humanists should be doing to address inequality. “The struggle for equality, which has been not only going on but making slow, painful strides – and sometimes quick and exhilarating ones – is an essential part of the humanist identity,” he responded, “not tacked on as something that it might be good to do. We are responsible for ourselves and each other. For combating the inequality that keeps us from ourselves and each other.”

Is Aronson hopeful about how Living Without God will be received? “I’m holding my breath about the book,” he told me. “I say hopeful, not optimistic, inasmuch as I see myself as part of a long-term struggle to make the world more humane and more equal. I believe that social and political action is absolutely necessary to keep one’s sanity. It’s simply a matter of acknowledging and acting on our social and political identities: we are citizens, whether the powers that be like it or not.”

Two years ago, Aronson created a stir by publishing in the leading US progressive magazine, The Nation, an article entitled “The Left Needs More Socialism”. In it, Aronson argued that “The next Left will have to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the socialist spirit ... The socialist standards of fairness, democracy, equality and justice are as much a part of daily life as are capitalism’s values of privilege, unequal rewards, and power.”

When asked if he thought America could become more socialist, Aronson, as he does in his books, saw inextricable links between America’s political character and its religious inclinations: “I think about these together, because America’s retard in terms of the basic securities of advanced societies is connected with its status as the most religious of societies. As Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart demonstrate in Sacred and Secular, religiosity seems to diminish as security and equality increase. The most unequal and insecure of advanced societies, the US, is also the one that has the greatest presence and intensity of belief in heaven above and a transcendent force managing human lives.”

Even though the word “socialism” scarcely appears in Living Without God, Aronson’s new book represents the logical extension of his lifelong probings of how political commitment is constructed and of his untimorous socialist faith. In his refusal to think about religion and humanism outside the frame of the political, Aronson has extended the “new atheism” into regions it has often been reluctant to go. His challenge to humanists – to live up to their commitment to human equality – is both welcome and profound.

The Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote from his prison cell in Mussolini’s Italy that “The challenge of modernity is to live a life without illusions, without becoming disillusioned.” In Living Without God, it seems to me, Aronson has admirably met that challenge.

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September 01, 2008

BERLUSCONI PRIVATIZES CULTURE -- a Letter from Rome

The following article was written specially for DIRELAND by this blog's Rome correspondent, veteran expat journalist Judy Harris:

Rome -- In what amounts to political sleight of hand, Italy's new brooms are recklessly sweeping away a huge portion of the income that pays for tending the Italian cultural heritage.

Here's what happened. Campaigning for national general elections lastSilvio_berlusconi  spring, media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi (right) promised to abolish the property tax (ICI) for those owning only one house. It worked, he won.

Trouble was, the incoming rightist government which Berlusconi heads was left with a budget hole from the unpaid property tax. How to fill it? Eureka! Foreigners especially love the Italian cultural heritage, as has been proven by the Packard Foundation's recent donation of cash to pay for ordinary maintenance at the ancient site of Herculaneum. This donation was proof that culture is a fine begging bowl, and that it can lure cash from foreign foundations and the earnest, cultivated filthy rich.

Pompeii_wall_freiize The first step in trying to cadge money to pay for Italian culture: a campaign denigrating Pompeii, depicted as hopelessly degraded by various news organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere. (Left, a Pompeii wall painting)

No one denies Italy faces a challenge in maintaining its immense cultural heritage: along with its 4,000 museums and 2,000 archeological sites are minor treasures, such as mildew-threatened archives of ancient abbeys and the endangered film libraries housing the masterworks of early Italian cinema. Who is to take care of all this?

Article 9 of the Italian Constitution is clear on this point. The custody of the national heritage, plus protection of the landscape itself, is specifically and exclusively the responsibility of the national government.

But it is also clear that tourism, which brought into the country last year over E. 31 billion, depends upon that heritage, the single most important attraction for foreigners.         

When it was announced that the Culture Ministry would lose E. 1.5 billion in the next three years, the first to protest was the head of that Ministry's advisory committee, archaeologist Salvatore Settis. The cuts suggest the Government intends to abolish the Culture Ministry or to reduce it to a larval state, he charged. What's left will just about pay the staff, whose median age, incidentally, is over 55.€

At just 0.28% of the Italian GNP in 2007, the Ministry budget was already anorexic. Even the directors of Uffizi Gallery in Florence are worried that its services and plans for a new exit and exhibition space for its Magliabechiana Library will be affected.

Sandro_bondi The new minister for culture, Sandro Bondi, 49 (left), is taking all this in his stride, counting upon the privatization of Italian cultural enterprises to make up the difference. Bondi, a sometime poet (he publishes a weekly poem in a popular magazine), used to be Berlusconi's private secretary and gate-keeper. He is also the author of Una Storia Italiana, a lavishly illustrated biography of the Premier mailed to all Italian families during the 2001 election campaign.

In planning to recover income through privatization, Berlusconi and Bondi have seized upon ancient Pompeii as the likeliest new income source, and to this end Bondi toured the site in mid-July with a gaggle of fellow parliamentarians and journalists. This is an important day, my first real trial as minister, he said after meeting Pompeii staffers.

With well over two million visitors annually, Pompeii was and is the quintessential cash cow, and last year a private research firm hired by the Italian industrialists' association, Confindustria, suggested that the present income is only a small amount of what Pompeii could earn.

Subsequently a press campaign was launched protesting the alleged degradation of Pompeii (and making clear that privatization can heal its wounds), culminating in installation of a prefect to oversee finances and to work alongside the archaeologist, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, director of Pompeii for the past decade.

Pompeii can surely use some tidying: it sorely needs a visitors€™ information center, explanatory panels, more gardeners, more guards and refurbished public toilets. But what is being proposed is to use the site as a movie set and for private events; last spring its largest ancient theater was rented for a local political event.

In the past, income from Pompeii ticket sales went automatically to the Ministry in Rome and was then parceled out, with a portion returning and the rest financing less popular sites. But since the arrival of Professor Guzzo, all Pompeii funding remains at Pompeii. (Although an official figure mentions $60 million income, with $16 charged per ticket for approximately 70% paid entries, Pompeii's take-home should be in excess of $200 million annually.)        

Privatization goes hand in hand with devolution, promoted actively by Berlusconi's powerful coalition partner, the truculent Umberto Bossi, photographed in late July giving the finger while the Italian national anthem was being played. The problem here is that greater localism is a serious risk to the cultural heritage in those regions where organized crime penetrates local politics. Among the sites known to be at perennial risk from building speculators is the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento.

Judith_harris_large DIRELAND's Rome correspondent, Judy Harris (left), is a veteran ex-pat journalist who used to write from Italy for TIME magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and now writes for ArtNews. She's the author of the recently-published book, Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery. You can visit her website by clicking here.

Read Judy's previous recent dispatches for DIRELAND: "Prodi's Contradictions," February 26, 2007; "Rome's Anti-Gay Family Day," May 12, 2007; "An Agenda for Bush's Italian Visit," June 8, 2007; "Rome's Gay Kiss-in Protests Arrests," August 3, 2007; "Italy's New Left Party, Old Divisions," October 23, 2007; "Pope Charged With Heresy by Rome University," January 17, 2008; "The Ghosts That Haunt Italy's Elections," March 16, 2008; "Aldo Moro, the Ouija Board, and Romano Prodi: New Revelations About Italy's Most Significant Political Assassination," March 26, 2008; "Italy's Elections: Viagra for the Doldrums?" April 4, 2008; "Rome Turns Right," April 28, 2008;  "Is Italy Going Fascist?" June 13, 2008

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