Yuri Tarnopolsky
Essay 30.  Tinkering with Justice

Saul Bellow. Justice. Equality

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Essay 30. Tinkering with Justice

I begin to think that the idea of equality has become as much American as it used to be Communist. I recognize it in political correctness and the principle of "equal treatment for all, no matter what," especially, in the "no matter what." I feel uneasy with the familiar pattern and I want to understand why. Regarding the idea itself, there is no question in my mind. It is natural for human mind to explore the space of ideas in search for comfort and surprise and to invent a new one if none is found. The idea of equality, however, is one of the most ancient ones, trampled all over along and across. The phenomenon of absolute equality, as that of eternal motion—another member of the club—has never been observed on earth.

Complex ideas live in populations. Like any biological species, they are presented as packages consisting of the main idea and its derivatives. Thus, the ideas of Christianity, Islam, or Communism are ensembles of variations ranging from stiff orthodoxy to very liberal interpretation. They follow a distribution around a certain average, existing or imaginary.

The real ideology can be represented by a stack of index cards with an interpretation written on each, arranged according to the logical distance of the interpretation from the average. A few rare extreme interpretations will sit on the outside of the pack, and many slightly different will huddle in the middle. The largest distance is between  the opposites. Any change, therefore, is a shift or reshuffling of the package, with the former off-center idea becoming the mainstream. The number of the cards in the pack remains the same, but the content on some of them changes. It is only rarely that a new interpretation is added on a separate card, but no card is ever dis-carded.

Simple ideas, for example, that life is good, do not have this kind of fluidity. Instead, the thesis and its negation are born as twins. It is only when the idea develops to a certain size that it splits into a population in which a slight change does not destroy everything and the general pattern is preserved.

For example, the idea (1) "life is very good but sometimes can be very bad" can mutate into (2) "life is very bad but sometimes can be very good" and (3) "life is good but often can be very bad". All three are pretty close, but the distance between (1) and (2) is larger than between (1) and (3). There are methods to calculate the distance, for example, as the smallest number of single minimal changes to convert one into the other (Hamming distance).

The most fascinating—and terrifying—example is the shift of the ideological distribution in Germany with Nazism becoming the mainstream. There was certainly enough traditional components of national mentality preserved, but the mutations happened to be about questions of life and death. It was literally a lethal mutation. Another lethal mutation has, apparently, happened in terrorist spinoffs in Islam. I suspect they inherited the "no matter what" from Communism, itself with German ancestry. But in fact, "no matter what" has really ancient pharaonic and imperial roots. It is, actually, a meme, a gene of ideology (see Essay 6, On the Yahoos, or Apologia of Samuel Butler).

We all have the same ideological genotype. We all can be cruel, aggressive, and vengeful, as well as compassionate, humble, and altruistic. We all can be murderers and martyrs, although mostly in imagination. We combine codes for incompatible properties like the insects combine the codes of incompatible metamorphic stages in their genomes: egg, larva, pupa, and adult form.

The difference is that an insect can exist in only one form at a time while a human being is a superposition of all possible qualities, some in negligible proportion, others dominating, and some unpredictably popping up under the influence of emotions. The individual is as much a dynamic system, a multitude, and a society of selves as the society itself.

NOTE: This seems unrelated to Marvin Minsky's concept of the society of the mind, but there is a deep underlying similarity with O.G. Selfridge's concept of pandemonium.

A probability is assigned to any possible implementation of ideas as a quantity is assigned to any ingredient of a cake. The proportion can vary within certain limits. As a curiosity, somebody could even make a cake of salt alone, but this is as rare as a human being who is plotting murder 24 hours a day.

My problem with the current stack of ideological index cards is the following.

Triumph and shame, pride and defeat, honor and disgrace seem to be antiquated and frayed concepts in the uninhibited and opportunistic society that thinks in purely dynamic terms of progress and setback, growth and decline, gain and loss. I feel uneasy about this mechanical image of a living system and I know why: without the old-fashioned polar categories I feel blind and helpless. They are the last limits of what I can shed in my adaptation to the new life.

At the same time, the displacement of the moral labels to the periphery of the stack is egalitarian. Nobody will ask you whether it is honorable or shameful to buy a toothbrush or to sell a car.  People get equal treatment in a supermarket where moral measure has no use. Political correctness follows from the principle of equality because it ensures stability and the widest possible range of potential customers.  You are not so much concerned with making friends as with not alienating anybody. When you rely on the law for your welfare,  you don't want to alienate the judge.  Conversely, if you don't trust the law, you want to make friends and care less about enemies.

Political correctness, therefore, has the same roots as bureaucracy: the priority of inaction over action. All acts of inaction are equally safe, while action can have unintended consequences.

I realize that all extremes, for example, militarism and pacifism, with their corresponding overtones of chauvinism and self-hate, are what they are: extremes. In time of transition, the extreme voices are always louder than the hum in the middle. But history is full of examples how margins switch places with the former core when the stack is reshuffled by winds of history.

Modern social and ideological extremes are full of stress because they are pushed to the periphery of influence, literally, marginalized. They do not have to compete for the focus of attention because the media notice the extremes first and run the core survey only as a scheduled maintenance. Instead of attention, the core gets the power to fence off the extremes on its own.

Why are the carriers of extreme views so militant? Because, as everything in the world, they try to minimize their stress and find peace in the middle of the humble core. They dream of ceasing the fretful status of militant minority and taking rest in the easy chair of the complacent majority.

A continuous mixing goes on in our souls and in the distribution of public opinion, as if it were a dance show with dancers who step into the limelight to do their number and step back in the shadow while a new contender takes the center stage. Unlike the scripted show, our ideas feed, grow, fight, and fall into hibernation in a not quite predictable manner.

Same happens in personal life: emotions give us strong illegitimate and mutant impulses while the day-to-day median sends us drifting down the routine. From time to time everybody jumps off the train of routine to his or her peril, albeit only in dreams.

Today, by the end of the year 2001, for example, biological research with human embryonic cells seems a marginal and extreme idea to the conservative block. Today a few people can see that the logical consequence of the illogical but seemingly pious conservative attitude is the idea that society has the right to refuse a gravely sick child, woman, and man any hope of a cure.  But if the new idea is accepted and if it pushes the old and not so much ethical as religious interpretation of  the sanctity of life to the periphery, a new heresy will pick up the gauntlet: everybody can be left to die if the price of life is too high.

The change never comes from the middle: it comes from the most energetic wing of the bell curve (Essays 14 and 16). While all molecules are the same, the ideas are all different, as if we copied our cards on tiny tags and tied them to molecules, one to each.

The silence of the majority is the self-defeating trait of democracy. The expression "hunger for power" should be understood literally: a minority hungry for power is as active as  hungry animal on the prowl for food and the satisfied majority is in after-dinner slumber.

Why do I care at all about such problems at this inactive stage of my life when the categories of ethics do not apply to me anymore because I have no opportunity to put them to test? My addiction to thinking in abstract terms makes me blow everything out of proportions: I have to fill the void of categories, which requires a lot of hot air. The true proportions can be seen only from infinite distance, but, as a decent clockwork,  I am on a short tether with the current moment and show almost the right time.

I find the picture of world transformation as exciting as the birth of a volcanic island. The nascent soil comes from the four Aristotelian elements: earth, fire, water, and air. My own quasi-Aristotelian elements are past, present, future, and imagination.

What occupies my mind most is exactly the period of transition, uncertainty, and ambiguity that normally do not last. In personal decisions it is the period of weighing  pro and contra, when a pair of alternatives sits on the opposite pans of the balance. My anxiety is transient, but I want to learn something permanent from it.

When people regard victory and revenge as politically incorrect, it troubles me as a photo of a mutilated body.

I am less troubled by the phenomenon of people who lost the powerful instinct of self-preservation because there are many examples of self-destructive and suicidal behavior in history. But the loss of the powerful instinct of triumph is something I cannot link to a historical precedent.

I perfectly realize that both are rare deviation from the crude but healthy average human nature preserved in the formalin jars of history. People want to live and win as much as they want to love and be loved.

I could not believe my eyes when I saw the verse from my favorite Dhammapada in a poster in the Siberian labor camp, the most unlikely place to find it if not to take to account its closeness to the Mongolian border:

If one man conquer in battle a thousand times thousand men, and if another conquer himself, he is the greatest of conquerors. (Dhammapada, 8:103).

It never seemed to apply to suicide. It applies to triumph. I am comforted by the rarity of murder-suicide, but I am disturbed by the realization that without self-sacrifice no human greatness is possible. Greatness is also something out of fashion, except in sports.

I begin to think that my internal dissonance is centered on the concept of justice.

I try to be tolerant to the view that all people in the world equally deserve life, even in times of war.  I believe, however, that the armed enemy deserves life less than a friend, whether armed or not.

My belief is far from the abstract blanket well-wishing: from my personal viewpoint, all the other people in the world are at different ethical distances from me and from each other. We can lie about it to ourselves but we act accordingly to our secret maps in the heart.

People have to choose when the choice is imposed on them, and, fortunately, making life or death decision does not happen too often.  To choose for somebody or between two people, regarding the matter of gain or loss, pleasure or pain, promotion or demise, and consent or refusal—it happens every day.

Some people take a great pleasure and satisfaction in deciding the fate of other people. It would be the greatest pain for me, and I suspect, for many others.

To ease the pain of making life or death decisions in the absence of a despot, people hand over  the personal responsibility to the law. In terms of geometry, by sentencing a person, they increase the distance between themselves and the offender. In terms of topology, they cancel the nearness. "You are not one of us."

There is the third source of  decision: controlled chance. In extraordinary circumstances, people agree to draw lots in the matter of life and death. They control the fairness of drawing lots.

The fourth source is blind chance: something that happens on a highway, in a flight, or just in obstructed arteries.  It is also the blind chance of biological evolution.

Thinking about the reasons why Darwin is still under siege in some parts of  America, I find that the idea of justice, even slightly infected with chance, is the major challenge to any religion. People love lotteries and casinos, but they cannot stand the idea  that they need a Green Card to go through the doors of Heaven, which they can get only by  the Green Card Lottery.

Thinking about the reason why sports are so universally popular, while Darwin is not, I see that people create heaven on earth in the form of a Hall of Fame. They believe that a great baseball player owes his greatness to his own energy, talent, and skill and they admit his or her soul to the eternal paradise.

This is so strange... Life in a free society is utterly competitive. Unlike the struggle for existence in nature, it is regulated to some extent, and nevertheless it is based partly on pure luck, not just on talent and skills. In economics, the more participants, the more fair the competition. But the more participants, the more unfair it can be toward any individual participant because it does not guarantee a chance to fair hearing. Economy is the court where people are admitted to hearing by lottery because there are too many of them. Large corporations buy bags of lottery tickets, and small fish buys one or two. That can be said about the One-Percent, too.

Darwinism implies that adamant justice is nowhere to be found on earth.  There is nothing more atheistic than the idea of evolution as the game of chance and necessity.  Even Albert Einstein felt some discomfort at quantum injustice in the form of randomness.

What is very plain, however, is that the ideas having the highest invading potential are those that explain man by assigning him his place in an immanent destiny, in whose bosom his anxiety dissolves. (Jaques Monod, from: Chance and Necessity)

How lively and realistic was the Greco-Roman Pantheon with gods as fallible and irrational as people, and as receptive to bribe and temptation! No wonder the luscious Western thought grew from it. The pagan gods of antiquity, worshipped no more, are taking revenge on monotheism with the weapon of science and secular philosophy.

Thinking about the reasons why American democracy and its history stand alone in the rest of the Western world, I attribute it (no pretense of originality) to the phenomenon of the open frontier which for a couple of centuries provided the nowhere else to be found abundance of  free land. As result, the probabilistic injustice was for a while suspended for the White American. Competition was not so much for life itself as for money. The picture looked different through the eyes of Indians and Black slaves.

But when I try to see the world through the eyes of a mass murderer, there is nothing but red haze in my eyes. I believe that my mind needs to be severely twisted for such ability. And yet we all, each of us, have the same human nature as common for us as the bee’s nature is for various social types of  bees: queen, worker, and drone. Our genome produces them (us) all, and when the queen dies, a new one takes the available place. We do not worship the King, but we may worship the King of the Hoop or the Queen of Pop. There is a card with "hail the King" in everyone's personal stack.

The mass murderer, the terrorist, the dictator impose their own justice and their own ratio of chance and necessity. Confronting this kind of justice, we have to either accept, or fight, or cheat it by our own justice.

To speak against equality is politically incorrect.  But would that be politically incorrect in our times that women and children leave the sinking ship first and the captain leaves last? I am against equality as an imperative. The absolute universal comprehensive equality means the world without love because love is inequality. Equality is nothing but the political eternal motion: equality of civil rights, opportunities, responsibilities, and numbers. It is never completely achievable and the capitalist economics is based on inequality. Communism collapsed because  people began to accumulate wealth while the ideology limited the inequality.

Finally, I see why I cannot find peace of mind: I have no intellectual friends. I feel myself as a member of a quiet minority, which may be even more stressful than being in a militant minority. I am looking for allies. If you have even a single ally, you are not at the very tip of the distribution wing.

I discovered Saul Bellow while in Russia. Even after his Nobel Prize of 1976, Saul Bellow was not permitted to be translated. A friend of mine who lived in Moscow and had contacts with foreigners, supplied me with books in English, Saul Bellow among them. I read all his books up to Humboldt's Gift.  It was a difficult reading at my level of English, and it still is, at a much higher level. Bellow, like Montaigne, is an intellectual writer, introspective and rambling, with his incessant monologues and treading intellectual water. The action goes nowhere but the thoughts are boiling, sometimes down to shreds, as overcooked fish. I was completely happy with the thick mental chowder that would repel most readers. Action can be found elsewhere, but the thoughts could not.

The Dean's December, the first book written by Saul Bellow after his Nobel Prize, had the familiar tense and badly lit air. After my life in Russia and my one year stay in Chicago I still could equally identify myself with both the American setting and that of Communist Romania.

The title character of the book, a Dean of a Chicago College, publishes papers about the problems of inner city.  This leads to his conflict with the Provost. I quote from the paperback edition:  Saul Bellow, The Dean's December, New York: Pocket Books, 1982.

Capitalistic democracies could never be at home with the catastrophe outlook. We are used to peace and plenty, we are for everything nice and against cruelty, wickedness, craftiness, and monstrousness. Worshipers of progress, its dependents, we are unwilling to reckon with villainy and misanthropy, we reject the horrible—the same as saying we are anti-philosophical. (p.220)

Why? Because catastrophe is an ultimate inequality: I die and you don't? To reject the horrible means to reject violent response to it.


I am uncertain whether long quotations are allowed (a mind-boggling paradox: free speech and intellectual property) and I add only three more.

A tender liberal society has to find soft ways to institutionalize harshness and smooth it over compatibly with progress, buoyancy. So that with us when people are merciless, when they kill, we explain that it's because they're disadvantaged, or have lead poisoning, or come from a backward section of the country, or need psychological treatment. (p.305)

Suppose the public expense of kidney dialysis is ninety thousand dollars a year in a clinic that keeps six or seven dim, unproductive lives going—will we let these old folks watch the television for another year yet?” (p.305-306)

They're just a lumpen population. We do not know how to approach this population. We haven't even conceived that reaching it may be a problem. So there's nothing but death before it. Maybe we've already made our decision. Those that can be advanced into the middle class, let them be advanced. The rest? Well, we do our best by them. We don't have to do any more. They kill some of us. Mostly they kill themselves. (p.229)

The author should never be identified with his character, even in memoirs. What the Dean says, in my re-interpretation, is that every society sets an acceptable, i.e., institutionalized "level of pain," in Bellow's term.

Mass executions and death of hunger were openly acceptable in Lenin's revolutionary Russia. Stalin was already hiding them. The mutilations were an acceptable level of pain in Sierra Leone. Rape of a child as cure of AIDS is said to be culturally institutionalized in South Africa.

However liberal,  American society still approves of the pain at the level of capital punishment, which the European Union does not, but Europe has nothing comparable with the American underclass.

Any society accepts some level of pain, suffering, injustice, and accidental death. The American society is constantly bleeding from automobile and airplane accidents, gang shooting, drug overdose, and child abuse, which is as socially tolerable as a certain rate of fire, flood, and tornado damage. We may expect hiking the pain level to the additional bleeding from terrorism, internal and external. This seems to me the most probable outcome. Another compatible move is raising the barriers of inequality.

Bellow's book is an unintended illustration to the concept of historical progress. A lot of things have happened since 1982: the World Communism has been dismantled and the National Communism of China substantially decreased its level of pain. Whether life of Chicago housing projects or Miami gangs changed, I have no idea. It is not in daily news.  Generalizations  on this issue are not a popular news topic.

My position regarding the level of pain is that: (1) it is part of life, (2) it historically subsides in some forms, and (3) it historically appears in new forms. It is being reshuffled, like all ideas. In other words, cruelty is a form of life, and it evolves through new species and decline of old ones. This is a fatalistic view, but if we acknowledge competition, it is as natural as to deny eternal motion. The idea of equality, even in the form of equal opportunities,  and the idea of competition are logically incompatible. This is one of the hidden fissures of the American mind. At least it (the mind) is not closed.


P.S. (2016). Thinking about the nasty, loaded, and dangerous political situation in this , Election Year, I find that, after decades of Red-Blue tug-of-war, Cold Civil War, and War on Terror, the natural hunger of masses for victory already cannot be satisfied with sports. It needs a grand bloody victory over the hated enemy, followed by triumph, procession, four-horse-chariots, feast, and  gladiator fights in Coliseum. What depresses me most is that people want it NO MATTER WHAT. Otherwise, I would be with masses. Probably.




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