Philosophy in the news ….

by Chris Bertram on November 2, 2008

The Times has a story that Peter Millican , an Oxford philosopher, was offered $10,000 to help some Republicans “prove” that Obama’s memoirs were ghost-written by Bill Ayers. On a bizarreness scale of 1 to 10, that gets close to the Obama-was-Malcolm-X’s-lovechild story.

{ 39 comments }

1

Dave Weeden 11.02.08 at 11:49 am

Good gosh, wasn’t the ‘evidence’ in the American Thinker [sic] conclusive enough? Why would anyone doubt their expertise? – “Obama has not himself still has not released a certified copy of his birth certificate, which is treated as a confidential document under Hawaiian law.” Snopes. Ahem.

2

Michael Turner 11.02.08 at 12:01 pm

Fugitive Days and Dreams from My Father are in fact startling similar. Get this: average sentence length is almost the same, they both use nautical metaphors at one point or another, and there’s some flowery language in both talking about the image formed by the conjunction of earth and sky during certain seasons and weather conditions. I mean, what are the odds? If you just picked at random any two memoirs of any two academics with a history of involvement in progressive causes, I doubt that even as many as half of them would share those features. Maybe as few as a third. It sends a chill up your spine, dunnit? Barack Obama: too risky for America. Not saying there’s anything to be afraid of, mind you. Just that he’s too risky.

The one about him being Malcom X’s love-child is totally wrong, though. I knew Malcom X’s love-child. Mr. Obama, you’re no Malcom X’s love-child.

3

Dave Weeden 11.02.08 at 12:16 pm

And you’ve read both, Michael? And counted the words per sentence in each? And compared these to other autobiographical works by political academics (because you need a base number and a null hypothesis)? How very … thorough of you. You’ll put up some money toward this analysis then, and support the publication of the result, whichever way it falls, I take it.

4

Kieran 11.02.08 at 1:28 pm

Dave, a more careful reading of Michael’s comment might be in order. Meanwhile, here is Millican’s own discussion.

5

Jeff Rubard 11.02.08 at 2:16 pm

Sounds like an “urban legend”: that is, the kind of thing that could easily happen and probably sometimes does in rarefied-enough environments (say, if a politician were to write a mass-market book entitled Profiles in Courage while busy with real work). Stylo-eyeballing the selections of text reveals significant differences: Ayers employs a “high-low” style, both calling things “a motherfucker” and then making a Homeric reference, whereas Obama writes as he speaks, with equal temperament. But the bare fact both cohere with basic patterns of American English neither speaks for nor against the suggestion, and as such is a poor reason to go Kolmogorovian on some Republican ass.

6

Walt 11.02.08 at 2:17 pm

Remember, Dave, every time someone makes a joke on the Internet and someone else doesn’t get it, an angel gets his wings ripped off.

7

Michael Turner 11.02.08 at 2:22 pm

And do you think Jesus likes it when that happens? Not one bit.

8

Michael Turner 11.02.08 at 2:22 pm

Sorry, I meant “baby Jesus”, not just “Jesus”, in that last.

OK, I’ll go away now.

9

P.D. 11.02.08 at 3:10 pm

#5 writes: “…a poor reason to go Kolmogorovian…”

I now have the desire to write a poem that rhymes Kolmogorovian and Karl Rovian.

10

Dave Weeden 11.02.08 at 4:24 pm

Oops. OK Guys. I actually though Michael was joking up to the ‘too risky’ bit, where I thought, ‘nah, he actually means it.’

11

roger 11.02.08 at 4:55 pm

That Millican link is dynamite. So, Ayers also ghostwrote Clinton’s memoirs! An entire party craftily controlled by an uber terrorist. Now that I think about it, didn’t the first Bush prove conclusively that Clinton traveled to Moscow in the seventies to get a chip put in his head by the KGB?

I think the entire rotten business has to come out. How many books has Bill Ayers ghostwritten? Surely all of Maya Angelou’s work – remember, she read “her” poetry at Ayer’s puppet Clinton’s inauguration. I’d also guess Ayer’s has ghostwritten most of that “feminist” empowerment stuff, destroying our families. Also, all of Jean Genet’s work – do we even need to be reminded that the gay agenda was designed and implemented by the terrorist Weather Underground? Throw in Origin of the Species and I think we have bingo – Ayers, it turns out, ghostwrote all the harmful books listed on this very helpful site! (Wasilla librarians should take note!)

Until we have courageous leaders who will purge this filth, we will see our sheeplike people follow the deadly course of socialism down the slippery slope until they drink the last poisonous drop.

12

Righteous Bubba 11.02.08 at 5:42 pm

13

Colin Danby 11.02.08 at 7:17 pm

Z
O
M
G, RB!

14

Seth Finkelstein 11.02.08 at 7:38 pm

This is like the genre-fiction syndrome where all the major characters of the series end up related in their history by retcons. They’re literally claiming Obama has a secret origin , and had hidden mentoring by a member of revolutionary conspiracy.

Though he does seem to have (oratorical) powers far beyond ordinary men …

15

Harry 11.02.08 at 8:01 pm

Dave, the “too risky” bit was a masterstroke, that had me guessing too. Well done, Michael, good stuff.

16

Frank 11.02.08 at 8:25 pm

Hmm… Ayers has probably studied ventriloquism; it’s likely that he watched Charlie McCarthy on tv, sometime!

17

Seth Finkelstein 11.02.08 at 8:44 pm

In a major series event, it shall be revealed that Obama is a mutant, and has inherited his (biological) father’s mutant power, of “political hypnosis”.

Could the mutancy be any more obvious?

Malcolm X

18

Jim Harrison 11.02.08 at 8:58 pm

At last a definitive answer to the Homeric question: the Iliad and the Odyssey did have a single author, Bill Ayers.

19

Kieran Healy 11.02.08 at 9:16 pm

Or a terrorist of the same name.

20

J Thomas 11.02.08 at 9:20 pm

I considered the possibility that Michael Turner was serious. These days you can’t depend on actual internet-published opinions to be different from satire. But the first clue was that he published here. If it was a link to a stupid post somewhere else, that would be more plausible.

And the second damning disqualification was this:

The one about him being Malcom X’s love-child is totally wrong, though. I knew Malcom X’s love-child. Mr. Obama, you’re no Malcom X’s love-child.

It’s brilliant, but it just isn’t wing-nutty.

21

herr doktor bimler 11.02.08 at 10:00 pm

LGM takes on the graphic design element:
I was impressed to find out that the Weather Underground had a logo. Now I know that when I’m forming a clandestine group devoted to overthrowing a corrupt political system, the first step is to consult a graphic designer.

22

J Thomas 11.02.08 at 11:36 pm

Weather Underground wasn ‘t a clandestine group devoted to overthrowing a corrupt political system.

WU was a fad bearing the superficial trappings of a clandestine group. Compare to, say, music groups like Rage Against The Machine which made big bucks for performances urging people to overthrow the system that made the music groups their fortunes.

23

jacob 11.03.08 at 3:50 am

J Thomas: I wasn’t aware that Rage Against The Machine had managed to blow up any of its own members.

The Weather Underground may have been wrong, they may have had a superficial and wrongheaded theory of revolution, they may have killed more of their own members than anything else–all this is true. But dismissing them as “not a clandestine group devoted to overthrowing a corrupt political system” is absurd presentism. Just because they failed doesn’t mean they didn’t think they were trying.

24

Jeff Rubard 11.03.08 at 4:20 am

At last a definitive answer to the Homeric question: the Iliad and the Odyssey did have a single author, Bill Ayers.

Ehh, there’s a time and a place for this kind of shit; the point was rather that Obama favors all Mod cons.

25

Michael Turner 11.03.08 at 5:19 am

jacob, I just tore one wing off an angel, then was suddenly besieged by doubts. J Thomas, would you please clarify? This angel is really squirming and thrashing, and getting angel blood all over my bib. There’s still time to reattach the wing, but the angel might not be able to fly as well afterward. Actually, it might only be able to find work as a flying attack monkey for the GOP. That’s quite a step down in the Great Chain of Being, especially when you consider the fortunes of the GOP these days. Baby Jesus will be displeased.

Rage against the Machine definitely doesn’t count. Several of Spinal Tap’s drummers spontaneously combusted, which is sort of like blowing yourself up. However, the group was never about overthrowing a corrupt political system. It could be considered “clandestine”, I suppose — all attempts to locate the members, or even to interview them by phone, have been futile so far.

The early 80s retro-soul rap ensemble Malcom X’s Love Child had several members who were, under pseudonyms, violating the terms of their parole simply by performing together. You could say that was rather “clandestine” of them. Their lyrics also suggest a somewhat subversive streak, especially the line “Cinque, barbecue, Tania sez she’s missing u.” However, when they broke up, it wasn’t in some factional division over whether it was permissible to use deadly force in a plot to spring Antonio Negri from prison. As recounted by one beat-boxer sideman who sat in on the recording session during which the group began to have what their manager later called “serious artistic differences”, the split started when one band member described another’s girlfriend as a “ho”, or some syllable to that effect.

I’d say Malcom X’s Love Child qualifies as “clandestine” primarily in the sense that it had a very underground following, and remains almost entirely unknown today. Indeed, the group’s leader had been described in (now unlocatable ) xeroxed fanzines as “the retro-soul rapper’s retro-soul rapper, unfairly consigned to the remainder bin of history,” and the group is rivaled in their obscurity perhaps only by H. Rap Brown’s Ectopic Pregnancy. That group formed in my dorm room one night, produced one (now-missing) demo tape, and broke up very acrimoniously the next morning, something about whose turn it was to pay for breakfast at Denny’s (not mine, I swear.)

26

J Thomas 11.03.08 at 6:44 am

Jacob, I suppose this is a judgement call. Like, a bunch of guys can say they’re a band but I might disagree.

It looked to me like WU was a bunch of poseurs. They may have had a small clandestine wing but they were mostly not clandestine at all. They may have played at making explosives but they didn’t seem to be very serious about it. Etc. And yet you may be right that they themselves believed they meant it.

The problem that clandestine groups have in the USA is that we are not oppressed enough. Ideally you’d be spreading seditious ideas, and you have to be clandestine to keep from getting jailed or killed for doing it. But we don’t jail people for that. You could kill politicians, but they’d only be replaced by other politicians. You could sabotage waterworks and powerplants etc, but it would only annoy people. There’s nothing for a clandestine group to do here except get persecuted, and to even get persecuted they have to spread the news that they’re a clandestine group up to no good.

So the SLA was a bunch of glory hounds, doing their best to get into the news. Not so they could recruit hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of new members. Just to be in the news and feel important.

There’s no ecological niche for a clandestine revolutionary group, except among people who’re oppressed already. To get taken seriously that way in the USA you pretty much have to be a black separatist. Do you hear much about them? Does the media make a big splash when a black separatist leader gets captured and put on trial? Do you know the names of the leading groups? Have you seen their logo? No, they’re actually pretty clandestine and everybody involved wants to keep it that way.

27

Martin Bento 11.03.08 at 7:31 am

Does anyone know whether it’s true that the fusion band Weather Report named themselves for the Weathermen. I read that someplace – I think in a newspaper – but that doesn’t make it true.

28

Chris Bertram 11.03.08 at 7:36 am

#27 If that were true, we’d have been told that Obama has Weather Report albums on his iPod by now.

29

jacob 11.03.08 at 8:23 am

Ideally you’d be spreading seditious ideas, and you have to be clandestine to keep from getting jailed or killed for doing it. But we don’t jail people for that.

No? Tell that to the Haymarket Martyrs (killed). Or to Sacco and Vanzetti (killed). Or to those jailed under the Smith Act (jailed). Or the Black Panthers (killed and jailed).

30

Lex 11.03.08 at 8:25 am

Not oppressed enough? Maybe not in the days of late capitalism, but that’s because its predecessors had been so ruthlessly effective in gutting the real revolutionary movements of an earlier generation – Joe Hill anyone? [OK, granted, his actual death wasn’t exactly the Odessa Steps, but then try the judicial murder of the Haymarket Martyrs for taste.]

31

Lex 11.03.08 at 8:26 am

Ha! Serendipity.

32

DC 11.03.08 at 12:54 pm

“Obama-was-Malcolm-X’s-lovechild”

Oh man, that’s brilliant! Please tell me Fox have covered this?

33

harry b 11.03.08 at 1:22 pm

I think someone said of the Weather Underground that the only reason they weren’t guilty of mass murder was sheer incompetence. I think that is fair. But so is the poseur accusation. They were the smartest, best looking, most self-confident kids in the class, and they lived the pose. Talk to people who were at the 1969 convention, or who worked with them. Compare with the folks who went into TDC/TDU (endangering their own lives but not those of others), built local labor councils, built the environmental movement… Reckless, sure, but poseurs often are.

34

Michael Turner 11.03.08 at 1:29 pm

Chris has a point. It’s not so easy to link Weather Report to Obama. I can only do it by cheating, sort of: Seven Degrees of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.

Weather Report appeared on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. This links them to every band that ever performed on that show — including a band that appeared far too many times for anyone’s taste (not that taste had anything to do with it): Black Oak Arkansas. And there’s your Obama link, a triple word score actually: Obama is black, oaks grow from acorns, and Obama is now supported by the Clintons, who used to rule Arkansas. Working at it from the other direction: as we all know, Weather Underground derived its name from a Bob Dylan song. While I can find no evidence that Dylan performed on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (even incognito), Joan Baez performed with Dylan at times and sang covers of his songs, and she appeared on the show.

Yeah, OK, maybe I could do better, but with that kind of investment of time, I might as well turn pro and start writing for David Horowitz’s Discover the Networks.

35

Michael Turner 11.03.08 at 1:29 pm

Chris has a point. It’s not so easy to link Weather Report to Obama. I can only do it by cheating, sort of: Seven Degrees of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.

Weather Report appeared on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. This links them to every band that ever performed on that show — including a band that appeared far too many times for anyone’s taste (not that taste had anything to do with it): Black Oak Arkansas. And there’s your Obama link, a triple word score actually: Obama is black, oaks grow from acorns, and Obama is now supported by the Clintons, who used to rule Arkansas. Working at it from the other direction: as we all know, Weather Underground derived its name from a Bob Dylan song. While I can find no evidence that Dylan performed on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (even incognito), Joan Baez performed with Dylan at times and sang covers of his songs, and she appeared on the show.

Yeah, OK, maybe I could do better, but with that kind of investment of time, I might as well turn pro and start writing for David Horowitz’s Discover the Networks.

36

ajay 11.03.08 at 2:34 pm

I now see from reading the article that the reason they wanted Millican is that he’s written text-comparison software, which makes sense. I thought at first that they had just picked a random philosopher on the assumption that he would come out with something like “well, it’s impossible to prove that Ayers didn’t do it, because you can’t prove a negative, etc, etc” or perhaps a spin on the author being dead, Obama definitely alive, therefore Obama not the author, QED.

37

roger 11.03.08 at 5:34 pm

“I think someone said of the Weather Underground that the only reason they weren’t guilty of mass murder was sheer incompetence.”

I don’t think the Weather were incompetent. After the famous explosion in Greenwich Village, which killed four members, including Diane Oughten, the group made a U turn about bombings – they explicitly decreed that the bombing campaign would be set up so that nobody would be hurt. It isn’t incompetence that was exhibited when their bombs went off at midnight, or 2 am, when nobody was around, but intelligence and design. This is a typical Weather action, from Ron Jacob’s history of the movement:

“On August 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson, the 17-year-old brother of prison revolutionary
George Jackson, entered the Marin County courthouse armed with a submachine gun. He
hoped to force the release of the Soledad Brothers—George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and
John Clutchette, who were charged with the murder of two guards at Soledad Prison after
guards had killed another prisoner. Jonathan gave guns to three prisoners who were present
in court—Ruchell Magee, a jailhouse lawyer who was testifying at the trial of fellow prisoner
James McClain, and William Christmas. The three then took the judge, the prosecutor, and
three jurors hostage. They left the courthouse and placed the hostages in a county van.
Before the armed men and their hostages left the courthouse, the Marin County sheriff had
ordered his men not to shoot, but the van was hit by a hail of gunfire from San Quentin
prison guards and other law-enforcement personnel immediately after it left the building’s
garage. Jackson, Judge Haley, McClain, and Christmas were all killed. Several weeks later,
at approximately 1:30 in the morning on October 8, Weather exploded a bomb at the
courthouse building in anger over the “murders.” The explosion wrecked one of the
courtrooms in the building and an adjacent bathroom.”

1:30 was pretty much an ideal time for a bombing that would do building damage but that would not hurt anyone. The Weather got better as they went along, from freeing Leary to pretty much putting bombs into any space they wanted to. I’d compare their record to the IWW favorably as far as that goes.

38

Michael Turner 11.04.08 at 5:27 am

“U turn about bombings” makes it sound like the group was unified and headed inexorably toward mayhem with its bombing campaigns, until the Greenwich Village explosion. If Ayers is to be believed, however, the group was split over targeting — he theorizes that there was a split even within the Greenwich Village apartment, with one of the victims of the blast hoping to dissuade or prevent the others from planting the bomb and/or timing the explosion so that would kill people.

From a review of Fugitive Days:

Ayers wants us to see Oughton as a revolutionary saint who struggled against the Weathermen’s bomb-based violence. He imagines that she blew up the town house deliberately, killing her comrades and herself, to prevent the explosives from being used against their targets. The notion that Oughton resisted the group’s more violent tendencies is borne out in Lucinda Franks’s 1981 New York Times Magazine account of an argument that is said to have consumed the day and the night before the explosion.

Ayers may have been close enough to Oughton to know her true feelings — he is described as her “lover” in the article, although given the (perhaps overblown) sexual proclivities of this radical group, “lover” might not have meant much in terms of true intimacy. Ayers’ fantasy of Oughton committing suicide bomber terrorism as a tactic or statement against the faction favoring non-suicide bomber terrorism — that’s too richly self-mythologizing for me to swallow in one gulp, or even to nibble at. While it might be cruel of me to theorize ghoulishness here, perhaps Ayers had bidding on the film rights in mind when he wrote that.

I should point out: by “terrorism”, I mean surprise attacks against not directly complicit civilians, with mayhem definitely the intent. You wouldn’t catch me calling Earth First’s tree-spiking campaign “eco-terrorism”, for example, because they had a policy of reporting which forest areas they’d spiked.

The definition of terrorism is not that clearcut for some. I had a discussion recently with some conservative friends about how to define “terrorism”, one of the two friends being a relatively moderate Republican, the other definitely a right-wing evangelical. Both were comfortable with describing Irgun’s bombing of the King David Hotel as terrorism. I pointed out that Irgun had phoned in warnings, which were ignored. This was a surprise to them both. Then I asked again whether the King David Hotel bombing was really terrorism in intent, rather than something more like an attempt at sabotage that ended up unintentionally killing innocent civilians. The response of the more right-wing of the two was illuminating: in his view, it still had to be terrorism, because if it wasn’t terrorism, that would mean that Bill Ayers wasn’t a terrorist either.

I wish I could tell you I was making this up. Maybe it doesn’t take the cake for politically convenient definitions of terms, but it’s up there somewhere in the top ten, in my book.

39

Martin Bento 11.04.08 at 8:49 pm

Yes, it really seems that Harry’s remark was completely unfair. It did not give WU credit for deliberately not killing people, when they clearly went out of their way to avoid taking life, (and, no, the government has never been able to make a case that they were responsible for the pipe bomb that killed the cop), and it refers to a group competent enough to break Tim Leary out of high-security prison, to bomb the Pentagon fully enough to suspend Vietnam bombing for a couple of days, to successfully stay on the lam for years despite being majorly infiltrated till they decided to turn themselves in, and to do all this without killing anyone as “too incompetent” to simply plant bombs that kill people, a vastly easier task. And Harry proclaims this evaluation “fair”. Why is it that people who would normally pride themselves on their intellectual standards feel no need to be fair, logical, or reality-based when attacking the fringe? Probably because anyone who simply defends the truth in a case like this will be accused of “apologizing for the WU’s crimes”

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