Sunday, February 24, 2013

Antinomies of Marxist Juvenile Biography

Juvenile biographies, as a genre, necessarily traffic in the heroic, while at the same time debasing it with the common coin of domesticity. Every juvenile biography must include the section on the hero's childhood, in which the young reader is reassured that the hero was, at one time, a child much like him or herself. Only thereby can the moral lessons to be conveyed by the biography can be translated from the Olympian heights to the emergent sentiments of the child.

Marxism tends to undermine the notions of heroism and moralism intrinsic to juvenile biography as a genre. The repository of civic virtue is not the the individual hero, but the class to which he or she politically adheres. Moral precepts are not universally applicable, but have a class content. The hero is not he who can never tell a lie, but the one who lies unflinchingly to the police while never lying to the class. The hero is not the one who is most distinguished in her virtues, but the one who aids the class in finding its own virtues by giving unstintingly of her capacities. And because the struggle has not yet found its way to final victory, the most obvious heroes are the tragic ones--the type of heroism hardest to translate into the juvenile mind.

More than most Marxists, Rosa Luxemburg's life lends itself to juvenile biography because of her propensity to refer her own triumphs to the class, to speak and act according to an ethical imperative derived from the class struggle, and to portray defeats as moments on the way to the final victory.

For precisely that reason, it is remarkably difficult to write about those moments in which she fell the furthest short of her own standards, e.g., the period immediately before and after the second Congress of the RSDLP, when she squandered the opportunity to unify the Polish party with the Russians as she had been insisting was necessary for her entire political life, made the question of opposition to Polish self-determination into a sectarian point d'honneur, and then misrepresented the substance of the disagreements between Lenin and herself to an international audience.

Explaining that in terms that a child can understand may well be impossible. It's hard enough for me to understand, as an adult who has made a close study of the period.

This creates the temptation to gloss over it completely and write as if it never happened. But in becoming a parent, I have translated the Marxist dictum of "never lie to the working class" into another dictum that is even harder to live by: Never lie to your kids.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Beginning to Draw the Lines

To begin to articulate what appears contradictory to me about the quotes I pulled yesterday from the contribution of an SWPer who wishes to remain anonymous:

When one speaks of "revolutionary politics" that are not "trade union politics," the expectation raised in some readers--at very least, in me--is that one will then begin to articulate what that revolutionary politics would be. Instead, the essay in question appears to refrain, returning instead to a discussion of whether general strike slogans are opportune, or what type of attitude to take to left union leaders like Crow and Serwotka.

Perhaps, to give the author the benefit of the doubt, he is writing toward an imagined audience composed primarily of SWPers, whom he imagines to share a common understanding of what would constitute "revolutionary politics". Yet the examples he gives of recent SWP conduct in the British unions would seem to suggest a great degree of confusion on that score among both the party leadership and the ranks. Further, any blog posting is, by nature, a public statement. Even when addressing a primary audience, one must bear in mind the likely secondary audience which may well end up outnumbering the primary audience. Contemporary means of communication are ruthless enemies to any form of "inspeak," revealing its absurdities.

What would constitute revolutionary politics in the Marxist sense would seem to be consciously and publicly addressing those political issues that are broadly in the public mind and are most likely to promote the development of a class-conscious identity among workers in a given country, and with that identity, a desire to overthrow the existing capitalist state. What those issues are will vary from time to time and place to place. I do not follow British politics closely enough to be able to say with appreciable certainty what those would be. It seems safe to say that austerity would be one such issue, but with austerity at present being pushed by a Conservative-LibDem coalition government, any discussion of that is likely to require some kind of clarity on the tactical approach to take toward the Labour Party. It is on that point, for example, that one is likely to discover what their "reformist ideology with its self defeating ordinances" consists of, and clash with it. So while it may well be the case that in particular workplaces, or particular unions, or within particular joint struggles, those adhering to revolutionary politics would align tactically with Crow or Serwotka for a time, it is by no means the a priori given that seems to be expressed in the article, nor would such alignment likely be long-lasting.

So to take that approach and turn attention to U.S. politics, which I know much better, the issues today which are most likely to unmask suspicion of or hostility to the capitalists and their state would be:

  1. Austerity
  2. War
  3. Police Violence, and
  4. Gun Rights

It's indicative of the peculiarities of U.S. history and the ways in which the ruling class of this country has artfully generated and played upon divisions that those most likely to have a healthy distrust of the state on the first three are more likely to be confused on the last, and vice versa. But there are exceptions, and in a situation where no socialist political organization is large or effective enough to have an appreciable and sustained impact on the national stage--go ahead, name me a counterexample--the immediate organizational tasks consist of regrouping those individuals and small groupings exceptional enough to have developed a consistent aversion to the capitalist state around a shared political program based on a concrete analysis of present realities.

If we take it as given that none of those existing individuals and groupings has such a program--and again, go ahead, name me a counterexample--then the task of those who think of themselves as revolutionaries is to have an open and frank discussion, intelligible not only to those who have been steeped in a certain political tradition but to a wide audience that may well include some hitherto undiscovered exceptions, about what that program should be.

There should be parameters on who participates in and drives the discussion, of both substance and style. I'd like to propose two:

1. No Democrats (or Ron Paul supporters)

That is not to say that many who may one day be won to the side of an overthrow of capitalism may not, at present, fit that description. Only that we who presently claim to be committed to such an end need to collectively figure out first what we would be winning them to, and that anyone who has not yet figured out, despite the ample evidence available, that the Democratic Party is one of austerity and imperialism, or that capitalist libertarianism would be a nightmare for the working class, is not yet likely to add much to that discussion. Listen to them, of course, by all means. (It's not like we have much choice--we all have friends, family and co-workers, and the far-left is too small to form a self-contained bubble, though in some metropolitan areas like New York or San Francisco it misguidedly tries to construct one.) But don't let them steer the discussion.

2. No Assholes

It's sad that I have to borrow this from corporate management literature, and indicative of how far the left has allowed itself to be ground down. Note also that I do not mean "no sectarians". The word "sectarian" is the most abused word in the far-left lexicon, and those who use it most frequently as a synonym for "asshole" are those most likely to be assholes themselves.

As an illustration of what I mean, let's look back at the debates in the Socialist International provoked by Rosa Luxemburg and her comrades around the question of Polish independence. Luxemburg was often described as "strident" (a term that gets aimed more often at women than at men), and she was known to say disparaging things about others in her private communications--letters to friends and comrades. But in public debate, she stuck to facts about the growing class struggle in Russia, the industrial development of Poland, the links between the Polish bourgeoisie and the Tsarist Empire, and drew inferences therefrom. Her opponents, on the other hand, made appeals to the residual authority of Marx and Engels (based on their opinions drawn from an earlier set of circumstances), expressed umbrage at the notion of this even becoming a topic of controversy and discussion, sneered that she and her comrades "represented nothing on the ground in Poland," or even disparaged her based on her gender, stature, or Jewish background. Who were the assholes? As it happens, I think Luxemburg was wrong as to several of her inferences, as was shown by the course of the Russian Revolution and the Russo-Polish War of 1920. But an asshole? Not at all.

The basic rhetorical tactics of assholery in politics, as shown by Luxemburg's opponents, were and are, "This is how we've always done it. How dare you make trouble about this now? Who the hell are you, anyway? Don't worry your pretty little head about it."

Returning then, to Britain, the substantive delimitation of discussion would need to be made on the basis of a configuration of political forces very different from that here in the U.S. It is a delimitation that the anonymous author of the article I linked to last night has not yet made, or not yet made explicit. Either Crow and Serwotka are reformist, and therefore any revolutionary alignment with them would be at most temporary and tactical, or a strategic alignment with them is possible, in which case he or she believes they might be part of some necessary new formation. Which is it?

The second delimitation--the No Assholes rule, the need to address political problems not on the basis of appeals to tradition, puffed up illusions of strength or personalized denigration, but of sober assessment of fact and logical analysis--is one that they seem to be attempting, in attacking the present leadership of the SWP, which if it has made nothing else clear in its recent debacle over sexual assault, is one redoubt (among many) of the assholes.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Revolutionary Tactics and Rhetorical Care

Another bookmark: A note concerning the SWP and rank and fileism: principles and recent experiences. Some quick pull quotes:
So what would a revolutionary politics look like in the trade unions today? It would not be a trade union politics, but the translation of revolutionary politics into the trade union arena keeping in mind that large sections of the working class are not in the trade unions and that but a very small minority of workers are active trade unionists.

And yet:

This cannot but mean making the best of opportunities afforded by work carried out in broad left formations and by alliances with left union leaders, good examples would be Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, without ever subjecting our project to their reformist ideology with its self defeating ordinances.

Not all readers would perceive a contradiction here, but I would. Which ties back to the main rhetorical problem of leftist politics: How to make evident to ever expanding circles what seems obvious to only a small minority. How to express difference without creating the appearance of condescension. Which I am too tired for, at the moment.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Peer Groups, not Propaganda Groups?

My attempt at a juvenile biography of Rosa Luxemburg may end up being one of the shortest things I have ever written, in terms of word count, but the research I intend to do to make sure I get it right will be no less arduous for that. As part of that, I am revisiting J.P. Nettl's two-volume biography of her--a book that, due to the implicit political attitudes of the author, I had difficulty working my way through in my college days, when I was a fairly doctrinaire Trotskyist. The following passage is one that I likely did not read well the first time around, but which has deeper significance for me now:
"The Polish Social Democrats (SDKPiL), that small body of intellectual activists who broke out of the main Polish Socialist Party (PPS) in 1893, a year after it had been founded, was much more than a mere doctrinaire sect. This Social Democracy of Poland and Lithuania was a group of intellectual peers long before it became a political party. It provided its members with all the attributes of a primary group, an association which all the other émigrés lacked--a family, an ideology, a discipline, in short a constant and reliable source of strength.... The discipline was largely voluntary and was confined to public action; for the rest, it left large areas of freedom and choice to the participants, even room for profound intellectual disagreements.... Trotsky, with all his friends, admirers and disciples, never had the benefit of a peer group; hence his difficulty in building a following before the revolution and the fragility of his political support after 1923." (v. 1, pp. 22-23)

In a footnote to this paragraph, he explicates further:

"A peer group is a sociological term denoting a latent relationship among a group of people of roughly similar age and outlook, whose opinion is of particular importance with reference to one's own. Thus it is intended to express both the concept of reference group as well as convey a group source of ideological and moral strength, but not to imply a sense of conformity strong enough to subsume self-made decisions...."

Regardless of the historical accuracy (or not) of this passage as a description of the SDKPiL, or as a psycho-social cause for Trotsky's difficulties after Lenin's death, as a description of a radical political peer group it is a reasonable summary of some of what I think is needed right now.

So if nothing else, this project will serve the purpose of forcing me to re-read, more attentively, some things I might not have been equipped to understand two decades years ago.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Kid's Biography of Rosa Luxemburg: Open Call for Illustrators

My five-year-old daughter, who has exquisite taste and impeccable politics, has commissioned me to write a juvenile biography of Rosa Luxemburg. (My librarian wife has determined, by checking WorldCat, that the only kids' books about her are Rosa und Karl, published 1988 in East Germany and only available from German libraries; a 200-something page young adult book in Norwegian; and a pamphlet in Tamil.)

No matter what, I will write this. But once it's done I'd like very much for it to find an audience beyond my household. So if you are an illustrator, or know an illustrator who might be interested in collaborating on such a project, feel free to DM me your e-mail address via Twitter, and let's talk (@epateur).

Friday, February 15, 2013

CPGB Keeping It Classy

I screengrabbed this off the website of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) earlier today:

Why is the European far-left so appallingly stupid about race?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Drop the Gramsci, Step Away from the Notebooks

You may not have noticed this article last week about the book Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change. Read it now.

Note now that the predictions are based on an assumption of a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. Note that that is a fairly conservative assumption in comparison to present climatological models. Note also that, when comparing past climatological models to subsequent data, they have nearly always proven to have been too conservative.

Note the following "highlights":

  • "Flooding and forced migration will push citizens to crowded cities or refugee camps, creating ripe conditions for the spread of infectious diseases."
  • "California's Sierra Snowpack, its most important water source, will have shrunk by a third by 2050. No plan exists for how the state will find enough water for its projected 50 million residents."
  • "Bangladesh alone will lose 17 percent of its land mass."
  • "Rainfall-dependent crop production in Nigeria may fall by 50 percent."
  • "Water flow to the Indus River could drop off by 35 percent, as glaciers melt. India and Pakistan, which have had 4 wars since the 1940s, will have to share this shrinking resource. At issue is life and death for tens of millions on both sides of the border -- and both countries have nuclear weapons."

Now calculate how old you will be in 2050. If you have children, calculate how old they will be in 2050. (In my case: I will be 73--an age which all my grandparents exceeded--and my daughter will be 43.) Realize that "barbarism" is no longer a matter of the implausibly distant future.

I would like to propose, therefore, to my fellow leftists, that we stop wasting time trying to puzzle out Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks. Is it unfair for me to pick on Gramsci? Perhaps. After all, he was writing on whatever scraps of paper he could scrounge, trying to keep his mind alive while his body was slowly dying in a fascist prison. Just about anyone (other than a die-hard Bordigaist sectarian) would agree he was a martyr of the cause for a more human world. But consider what the fruits have been of four decades of Gramsci-vogue for everyone ranging from left-social-democrats through Eurocommunists to the softer sides of the Trotskyist movement: the "war of position" instead of the "war of maneuver," which becomes, the attempt by serious, serious people to be taken seriously by the serious gatekeepers of bourgeois seriousness. A world-view in which, for example, doing the PR that broke SWP's China Miéville into the public eye for free when he complained that his publisher wasn't making him famous can be seen as a reasonable allocation of time for a party full-timer.

The war of position is over. The ground on which we have taken our stand is crumbling under our feet. Whatever knocks the theorists of the "war of maneuver"--Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, for example--have taken, there are still aspects of their work that can be revised, updated, and adapted to new realities. Gramsci's war of position, however brilliant it may once have seemed, must now be classified as a failed hypothesis. One hundred years from now, if we have done our jobs, his writings will be of value once more, to hobbyists of early-20th-century Italian philology.

Until then: Drop the Gramsci, step away from the notebooks.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Information: Production, Circulation and Comprehension

Consider the months between August 1774 and July 1776, a pressure cooker period during which many Americans made up or changed their minds. Two periods stand out during which the North Atlantic winter held up information--November 1774 to April 1775, then essentially the same calendar of icebergs and adverse winds a year later--thereby slowing down decision making or implementation. British policy makers and military commanders, and American Patriots and Loyalists alike, waited for news or instructions. In retrospect, it seems implausible that cross-pressured colonists could have seen much hope for reconciliation with Britain in early 1776, but they did--and information took three to four months to make a superficial round trip and probably five to six months to sink in and be absorbed.

Britain and the North American colonies had two of the world's best-educated and most literate populations. Besides, many historians view the American insurgency as one of the first--if not the first--modern popular revolutions. While the role of public opinion was modernizing, communications between the two sides of the Atlantic, even in the 1770s, were almost premodern, trapped in drawn-out sea crossings not much faster than the seventeenth-century Spanish voyages undertaken just after navigators first understood the circular wind pattern over the Atlantic. In 1775 knowledge and technological improvements were accelerating--the discovery of the longitudes in the 1760s, the mapping of the Gulf Stream in the 1770s. (Benjamin Franklin, an early oceanographer, took measurements even while returning from England to America in 1775.) Other breakthroughs were imminent, like the turn-of-the-century fitting of steam engines into vessels and the 1840s invention of the telegraph. None, though, were at hand to permit the American Revolution to unfold at the more rapid decision-making pace of the Civil War. We can only speculate on what might have been different.

--Kevin Phillips, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, pp. 24-25.

This raises the question: We know that the circulation period within which information makes "a superficial round trip" has shortened dramatically. How long, however, does it take for it to "sink in and be absorbed"? Has the lag between the receipt of information and the mass, popular comprehension of that information shortened, remained the same--or perhaps even lengthened--as a result of new communications technologies?

This is a question that can and should be rigorously investigated, and upon whose answer much depends.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Writers Taking Risks: A Review of Hobart No. 14

The literary ecosystem is seriously damaged.

Here's an illustrative data point: According to Duotrope, there are 248 publications, print and online, that accept short fiction and list "literary" as a style attribute, and that pay their contributors at least a token monetary sum. Even though I work at a reasonably well-endowed liberal arts college, only a small fraction of those 248 publications are subscribed to by our library. Even though I have a reasonably well-paying job, to subscribe to all 248 would likely require about 12% of my annual take-home pay. (That's a very rough estimate.)

And of those publications, only a small number have likely been heard of by anyone on the faculty other than the small number of folks in the English department who teach creative writing. That is leaving aside, for now, the "genre" ghetto. Here is another, more anecdotal piece of information: Last week I went out to dinner with two colleagues from the college, one an administrator and psychology faculty member, the other a curator from our museum. When I mentioned that I had had some recent success in getting a couple of my stories published, the only venue they could think to ask about was The New Yorker. (Full disclosure: I did submit a story to The New Yorker a couple months ago, and it hasn't been rejected yet. Hope springs eternal in a writer's breast.) These two highly educated, broadly cultured, well read individuals would not have had the slightest idea where else to look for short fiction. That's one publication, out of 248.

Another very different publication of the 248 is Hobart. I had not known of their existence until about three weeks ago, when I was reading the latest collection of Pushcart Prize winners. There I read Roxane Gay's prize-winning story, and noted that it was originally published in Hobart. (I'll note for the record that there was another Pushcart-winner from Hobart this year, but I don't remember it well enough to say anything positive or negative about it.) I'd certainly never seen it stocked at Longfellow Books, the Portland bookstore on which I rely for literary magazine purchases. So I did the only rational thing, started following them on Twitter, and when they offered PDF review copies of their latest issue, No. 14, I jumped.

For me, it was one of the most enjoyable literary magazines I have read in years. I felt the same excitement that I did years ago when picking up the earliest issues of Tin House or McSweeney's. Every story took risks. Not every story succeeded--or perhaps I should say, worked for me--but that is in the nature of writing that takes risks. Out of 13 pieces, there were three that I loved enough that I would urge anyone to buy a copy for the pleasure of reading these stories:

  1. Charles McLeod, "Steps for Home Tooth Extraction, Berkeley, 2006"
  2. Patrick Somerville, "The Legend of Troy Cartwright"
  3. Courtney Maum, "The Bashful Yeti Tree Sculpture, Guarder of the Pond"

I say this with no intention of slighting the other writers whose work appears in this issue. I strongly liked the majority of stories in the issue, and even of those that did not work for me, I respected the writers for what they were attempting and the editors for seeing something worthy in it. I wish I could say this more often.

Instead of impoverishing the world by adding to the all-too-rich stock of commentary, I'll tease you with sentences from each of those pieces:

  • McLeod: "Offer the nighttime your very best yawp and with one more tug, have your work be over, relief arriving as a rich mineral taste that leaks out of then drains down inside you."
  • Maum: "In Kanchenjunga, we have numbers: I was number seven."
  • Somerville: "If you loaned Troy a dollar, he’d ask you for seven, and if you gave him that, he’d start calling you up in the middle of the night, asking whether family meant anything anymore, and if it did, could you possibly wire six-thousand five hundred seventy six dollars to a specific Western Union in Salt Lake City."

So please buy it. Among other reasons, because on their submissions page they say "We are currently closed for print submissions, and will be closed for the forseeable future, likely until we get Hobart 14 ready for print, we get better caught up with other projects, and we figure out if we can actually afford to continue printing these things." And because, according to Duotrope, they don't pay for the pieces they publish online, so I would want to submit to the print edition, if I had anything to submit. Which I might, if I had some peculiar story that did not fit comfortably with preferences of any of the more cautious journals. Perhaps they would not publish it: I'd hope that they have enough time to write a short rejection note, but even a form rejection would do. And even if they did select it for publication, I'd be inordinately grateful, because it likely wouldn't be the best story in the issue, not based on what I've seen. More likely, it would have just squeaked through, because its idiosyncrasies vibrated in sympathy with those of one of the editors. I could live with that, really I could. But if you didn't buy Hobart and another good journal goes belly up, well, then we need to talk.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On the Use and Abuse of Metaphor in Politics and Literature

I just finished reading Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar. If you want to know what I think of the book, you can read my Goodreads review, which sums it up briefly. This post will not be about the book, as such, but about some thoughts triggered by it.

Marx wrote what perhaps ought to have become the final word on historical catachresis, but has not largely because his followers have enacted their own imitative tragedies and farces:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

The accelerations inherent to epochs of technological, social and/or political revolutions leave their protagonists like the earliest speakers of an emergent creole, stammering to one another in idiolects marked by their origins and trying, thereby, to construct a mutually intelligible tongue adequate to their new circumstances. In the process, existing words, phrases and stock concepts are stretched to encompass unforeseen phenomena. The process by which this takes place is a special case of metaphor.

A speaker who must resort to metaphor to describe a phenomenon reveals at least one of these two things: Either he does not understand it, or he presumes that those to whom he is speaking cannot understand it. Yet the misunderstanding thus revealed can help us to a better understanding of the phenomenon in question. Thus, for example, in the Cato biography, the authors contrast "Cato's libertas to [George] Washington's liberty," referring to the latter as a noble pun, and a world-changing one." Yet the content of Cato's political life shows similarities where the authors would prefer to imagine differences--libertas as the hereditary right of the land-owning citizen and paterfamilias to despoil and massacre some "barbarian" tribes, enslave others, and maintain his social precedence at the expense of those less able to profit from such rapine. Consider, for example, the moment in which Cato rejects the call to free and arm the slaves of Utica to fight against Caesar, and speaks of the rights of property as an integral part of libertas: Every U.S. president from Washington forward has had at least one such moment, where deference to the rights of property inhibited his ability to accomplish his professed aims, and only Lincoln managed--temporarily--to escape from that bind. (And then only after the slaves had in great measure freed and armed themselves.) The figure of Cato, the reactionary revolutionist and well-heeled republican, remains an important part of the genetic coding of mainstream political ideology in both U.S. political parties. It became so in spite of the fact that, even before the Declaration of Independence, it was already an inadequate metaphor, attempting to map characteristics shaped by one set of social relationships into another, quite different set. The intellectual inadequacy of metaphor is precisely what makes it aesthetically appealing as a means of giving expression to an inadequate understanding.

The implications for literature would seem to include some caution in the use of metaphor in narrative voices. A first-person or otherwise limited narrative ought to include metaphor, but only those necessary to show the limited comprehension or trustworthiness of the narrator. The use of metaphor becomes much trickier in a third-person omniscient narrative, the so-called "voice of God"--which I personally tend to abjure--as in this case the limitation on understanding must not be that of the narrator but that of the intended audience. If an omniscient narrator uses a metaphor which a particular reader either finds hard to comprehend, or that the reader thinks oversimplifies or falsifies the description of one of the points of comparison, then that reader has thereby been separated or distanced from the imagined audience. Such a distancing effect may well be intentional, but then it must be consciously deployed, as in Brechtian epic theater. In other cases, the distancing effect may be unavoidably conditioned by historical development or cultural difference. (How much of the aesthetic pleasure of a nineteenth century novel is blunted when read by a reader who cannot imagine the sound of horse hooves on a cobblestone street? Could someone who had never eaten Vietnamese food imagine the sense of warmth and comfort implied by a steaming bowl of pho in a story by Le Minh Khue?) And in other cases, it may be integral to a certain genre (e.g. far-future science fiction).

Having articulated that makes me nervous about checking my stories for adherence to my own dicta.

The political implications of an abuse of metaphor can be even more significant. For example, if someone says about the current situation in Greece, "It's just like the Weimar Republic!", then they may be making more or less effective use of rhetoric, but they are also making an empirically falsifiable statement. A few salient differences that come readily to mind:

  • Germany was one of the most industrially advanced economies at the time, in spite of the destruction wrought during and after the First World War. Greece, while it has some industry, is a comparative backwater on a European scale, and heavily dependent upon tourism, remittances, and shipping.
  • Weimar Germany was a near neighbor of the Soviet Union. Today there is no Soviet Union.
  • Weimar Germany controlled its own monetary policy, even though it was heavily in hock to U.S. financiers and owed a great deal in France in war reparations. Greece is part of currency union controlled in large part by... Germany.
  • Weimar Germany had two large working-class left parties, the SPD and KPD, with significant parliamentary representation, ties to trade unions and movements of the unemployed, and large, disciplined, more or less militant street-fighting capacities. In Greece the parliamentary left is divided four ways (including two parties in the governing coalition), the largest such party (SYRIZA) has coopted a significant portion of the formerly extraparliamentary left, each party's relations to the existing trade unions is in flux, there is a significant extraparliamentary left with a history of terrorist tactics, and the parliamentary left is hobbled by a tradition several decades old of pacifism.

So when someone compares Greece to Weimar Germany, they had better be able to specify which of these differences have implications for the strategy and tactics that would be needed to resist the rise of the likes of Golden Dawn, and what those implications might be. If they can't, then they don't know what they're talking about and should not be entrusted with political leadership. And if they can but won't, because they prefer the cheap rhetorical metaphor, then they underestimate the intelligence of their audience, are selling wolf tickets, and likewise, are not to be trusted.