Blog #110a – Cultural Wars and a new Tribalism?

Blog 110a – Cultural Wars and a New Tribalism?

The Times Op-Ed page (on 3/2/18­­) was marvelously symbolic. On the left side, David Brooks reduces all the frightening disagreements about where our country is going, the battles over gun control , trade and tariffs, armaments, nuclear weapons, into manifestations of a “cultural war”,: in which the conservatives “have zero cultural power , but immense political power.” The big prize is not gun control. It’s “winning the cultural war, with the gun fight as the final battle.” Several days earlier (Feb 20,), he had written, “We don’t have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict…,” and the answer is, “just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off.” How? “Respect First, Then Gun Control.” If the Blues and the Reds simply respected each other, they’d settle their problems easily. His recommendation: Blues should stop shaming Reds.  Politics is not about who get what from whom and how they get it, but about how the left stupidly engages in “elite cultural intimidation , claiming “moral superiority.”

On the other side of the Op-Ed page, counter-symbolically the right side, Paul Krugman’s column is headed: “Taxpayers, You’ve Been Scammed.” It’s a straightforward contribution to a policy debate about the new tax law. It gives some facts about whom it will help, whom it will hurt, and how political and economic power are being wielded to achieve what those that possess it want, for their own benefit, at a cost to the middle class. Not a word about a “cultural wars.” It’s about who get what from whom and how they get it

And symbolically between these two column’s is Mat Glassman’s column, which explains the “larger problem” behind the White House Chaos,” blaming it on the weakness of Donald Trump as President to his inability to attract a competent staff to advise him.  It’s a management problem.

What the “culture wars” argument does, as does “lamenting the ‘roots of the problem’ in ‘management skills,’ ” is to completely side step the very real factual economic and social and political differences that divide the country. For cultural theorists, there’s no moral difference between advocating for teachers carrying guns in school and asking for a ban on assault rifles; no more weight to be given to logically grounded analysis of tax policies than to the hurt sensitivities of those that support them. Tranquility is what’s needed, above all; never mind who’s goring whose ox, whether some go homeless while others thrive in mansions using their labor. Such evenhandedness violates any effort to shape public policies that promote the values of social justice and human rights.

Indeed there are troublesome cultural differences that exacerbate the problems in our society, but the real issues aren’t differences of opinion or how they are expressed, but how the wealth that  society produces is shared. We don’t have “big tribal conflicts” because all of a sudden some “tribal instincts ” have emerged from some repressed deep identities, or because  we’ve suddenly decided to turn these instincts on, having turned them off all these years.  Focusing on the symptoms of conflicts shouldn’t obliterate recognition of their causes.

And it obliterates very specific causes: any reference to inequalities of wealth or power, or to their use in exploitation or domination, to create very hierarchical divisions not simply differences at the level of what the divisions are about, not “souls committed to the basic democratic norms–respect for truth, personal integrity, the capacity for deliberation and compromise, loyalty to nation above party or tribe,” up against other souls who believe “what matters is the survival of your nation and culture.” [David Brooks, “Worthy is The {Conor} Lamb,” New York Times, 3/17/p. A27] That something as mundane as class or race might be playing a role in the divisions that divide “us” never appears.


Blog #82 – Is “Radical – Islam” all Islam? A Grammatical Confusion Is Made Political

Blog #82 – Is “Radical – Islam” all Islam? A Grammatical Confusion Is Made Political

The trouble with Donald Trump’s use of the two words “radical” and “Islam” together is that he means them as a single noun: Radical-Islam. Not as an adjective describing one part of Islam, to differentiate it from another part, moderate Islam, or egalitarian Islam, etc. Two quite different meanings,and quite different political implications.

.When one acknowledges, “’Muscular weight-lifters’ make poor models for clothing fashions. You rarely see ‘weight-lifters’ in ads,” one recognizes that it’s not because ad agencies are looking for non-muscular weight-lifters, but because they assume all weightlifters are muscular. “Muscular weightlifters” in the sentence is simply an expanded word for “weightlifters,” not a subcategory of the group of weight-lifters. When one says “’dark-skinned Africans’ frighten Europeans because of the color of their skins,” and adds: “They shouldn’t; ‘Africans’ commit no more crimes than Europeans,” you’re implicitly assuming all Africans are dark-skinned. If someone writes: “God –fearing Christians and God –fearing Islam abhor violence; unlike God-denying  atheism ; Christianity and Islam are both  like  other mono-theistic religions in that regard,” the reference isn’t  to a sub-category of Christianity or Islam, but a uniform characteristic of each of them. But “American Christians are prone to violence” implies the opposite: non-American Christians also exist, and are not prone to violence.

So when Donald Trump says, “radical Islam is a violent religion and must be fought tooth and nail as the radical thing it is,” he means, and the language implies, all Islam is radical. If Obama says “radical Islam is antithetical to key pacifist currents in Islam,” he means, and the language implies, there is a non-radical Islam that is not prone to violence.

So when Donald Trump complains that Obama doesn’t  use “radical Islam,” it’s because Trump sees all Islam as radical; for  him,” radical Islam” refers to the same single object, Islam; all Islam is radical, in Trumps’ view. If Obama were to say “Radical Islam” indeed can be violent, but he would be intending to differentiate the Islam that is radical from the Islam that is neither. Trump is tarring all Islam with one stroke; Obama is describing a part of a complex reality.

Perhaps a knowledgeable grammarian could identify the two different formulations formally. Grammarians are knowledgeable about such things. (All of them? Or only the knowledgeable ones? Or are all grammarians assumed to be knowledgeable?)

Blog #57 – – “Public” opinion and the innocent media.

Blog #57 – “Public” opinion and the innocent media.

N. Gregory Mankiw, professor of economics at Harvard. writes:

“Media owners generally do not try to mold the population to their own brand of politics. Instead, like other business owners, they maximize profit by giving customers what they want.”
“These findings speak well of the marketplace. In the market for news, as in most other markets, Adam Smith’s invisible hand leads producers to cater to consumers. How likely is it that we as citizens will change our minds, or reach compromise with those who have differing views, if all of us are getting our news from sources that reinforce the opinions we start with?”

Fine as far as it goes. But four further points need to be made.

1. Multiple markets, multiple “publics.” Sure, media cater to their markets. But which markets? No media outlet can cater to all markets at once. Even if somehow media owners were devoid of any opinions of their own and scrupulously avoided injecting even the suspicion of injecting whatever opinions they had into their media – hardly likely given the strong personalities and convictions most of them have. And even if they were guided only by purely market concerns, that is, maximizing their profits, they would take into account the sources of their revenues, which include advertising. Advertisers recognize that there isn’t just one market out there, but many, and they cater to the one that will produce their own greatest profit. Newspapers, most media, looking to maximize their ad revenue, will thus cater to the audience to whom their advertisers cater. Advertisers professionally try to influence their potential markets; they don’t work on the idea that buyers will keep the preferences they start with, but try to mold those preferences to suit their clients And that pressure to please the particular pre-selected market inevitably caries the actions of the media with it.

2. The vicious circle of media and opinion. Sure thy go along with, and try to reinforce, the opinions that their selected part of the market members already holds. That indeed makes it harder for them to change, if they are only fed back what they already believe. But where did the “opinions they started with” come from? Surely they did not come from their experience in the womb, but were influenced from an early age, by what they heard, saw, were told by the media. They didn’t “start with the opinion” that ObamaCare was wrong; they got that from the media to which they were exposed. It’s not only had for them to change their opinions, as Mankiw correctly point out, it was the media that shaped those opinions to begin with. It’s indeed a classically vicious circle. The media should not be exonerated from their responsibility in what they do.
3. The innocence of media owners. It is hardly a sustainable contention that the the “brand of politics” of media owners does not affect what the media they own produces – think of Murdoch, think of Hearst, think of Sulzberger.

4. Journalistic ethics. Is it time to admit that there is no such thing as an ethics of journalism that plays any role in the media as they are in the real world, or should we perhaps recognize that reporters vary widely in their views of journalism as a profession with a set of ethics, and vary widely in the freedom they have to write their own stories without interference from the higher-ups controlling the business in which they work, with the power to hire and fire. The media is not simply another producer of a commodity on the market likes shoes and cars, but of something special, with a special public responsibility. ? Jefferson and Paine certainly thought so.

Blog # 55c – The Blocked Questions on Inequality.

Blog # 55c – The Blocked Questions on Inequality.

[Blog #55a has tried, in outline form, to explain the existence of inequality in the U.S.A.]

[Blog #55b has asked mores specifically how that inequality came about and why it is tolerated in a democracy.]

This Blog #55c gives three examples, from different points of view, of how challenges to that inequality are blocked in the discourse about it.

The limits of Piketty.

 Thomas Piketty’s work has received deserved acclaim among economists in the mainstream, and even among some on the left. He clearly relates increased inequality to the growth of wealth and capital, Iin other words, inequality is increasing because the 1%’s share of growth is increasing. Historically, Piketty argues, as Steven Pressman, in a review in the “social justice and economic democracy committed” journal Dollars and Sense,[1] summarizes it, although inequality had been declining, “in the 1970’s or1980’s…the moneyed class revolted and began to influence policy. Top income-tax rates fell, income and wealth inequality rose rapidly.” The focus is clearly on the 1%. The conclusion is to tax it more heavily again, both its wealth and its income. But, Piketty concedes, an unlikely immediate development. Period.

What Piketty brings to the discussion is very much; what is surprisingly missing is as great. His analysis seems to cry out for answers to questions he does not ask: how does that wealth of the 1% come to them in the first place, what in the process of production that Miller refers to gives them their wealth, how come when the moneyed class revolted it was able to influence policy so strongly, why is it unlikely to be taxed down? “When the rate of return to capital (r) exceeds the growth rate of the economy (g)… more money flows to those at the top and inequality increases.” Obviously; that’s simply stating a tautology: when capital gets more of growth, non-capital gets less. Money seems to flow up-hill quite naturally, in such an economy. Wouldn’t the logical next question be, if the concern is for inequality, how could one reverse the flow? But the existence, and propriety, of the reverse gravity is simply taken for granted.

And the progressive economist reviewing Piketty has no better conclusion than to wish for “even more fire in [Piketty’s] soul for a global wealth tax.” His consolation for Piketty’s pessimism is that Malthus was pessimistic too, and look, he was wrong; maybe Piketty will be wrong too.[2] The problem is not so much that Piketty’s recommendations, or the reviewer’s wishes are wrong. Indeed a global wealth tax is well worth fighting for. The problem is that neither is pushing their questions to the next logical level of inquiry: how the difference in wealth between the 1% and the 99%, capital and non-capital, comes about in the first place.

Leveling down or leveling up.

 We read in a brief summary of how to deal with inequality dealing with “the underlying causes of our continuing high degree of poverty and inequality,” by a well and properly respected liberal sociologist and veteran of the anti-poverty wars, that the choice is between two approaches: Leveling Down the 1% or Leveling up the 99%.[3] Leveling Down, in the form of “increasing tax rates on the 1% would… ineffectively combat the continuing production of wide-ranging poverties and inequalities.. .”[4] The simple idea that levelling down the 1% might in fact be the best way to leveling up the 99%, because the profits of the 1% are built on the lower wages of the 99%, simply does not appear in the discussion. Miller might well agree that it is so; he points out that financial industries captured 40% of all business profits…and they certainly did not provide 40% of all jobs, while making a substantial contribution to income and wealth disparities.”[5] But the logical conclusion that limiting the profits of the business sector might help level up the incomes and wealth of the 99% is not pursued.

But what are underlying causes of our continuing high degree of poverty? “The American Economy is shaping up as a low-wage economy producing …” poverty. “…the production of these low-wage jobs is a great obstacle to… contraction of poverties and inequalities.” These jobs are in the “low-wage service sector.” “Yes, we should definitely seek to improve wages in that sector,” but the better route is to reduce the role of those jobs and rather foster jobs in construction, for instance, where the pay is better.

The point here is not that Miller is wrong in his recommendations; they should be supported as part of a broad effort to reduce inequality. The point is that what is missing in his discussion is any confrontation with the simple fact that the wealth and income of the 1% are related to the lack of wealth and incomes of so many of the 99%.

Low wage jobs are simply accepted as low-wage jobs; the wages should be higher, but low wage is simply what those jobs are. The financial industry makes 40% of the profits of business. That’s too much, but it’s not an “underlying cause of inequality.” And the jobs that need creating are not simply jobs that pay well, but jobs that do useful work, not speculate better or privatize more.

No larger pie. The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter, in his Economic Scene column in that mainstream paper, believes he has the answer, gotten by “Taking a Hard-Eyed Look At U.S. Income Inequality and the Problems Behind it.”[6] At various points he quotes, apparently approvingly, Gregory Mankiw, an economic advisor to President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, advocates focusing on “increasing educational attainment,” and holds, in as forthright a conservative statement as one would want, that “Inequality itself is the wrong thing to look at… The question is, how do we help people at the bottom, rather than thwart people at the top? … “Policies that address the symptom rather than the cause include higher taxes and a more generous social safety net,” says Mankiw. So helping people at the bottom doesn’t work, perhaps because it might thwart those at the top? “The best way to address inequality is to focus on increasing educational attainment [because] technological progress has benefitted well educated workers.” But then there are a series of comments pointing out that “education isn’t doing it” either. Nor does “technological progress” seem to be the answer either, for “the real problem is slow growth.” according to Mankiw‘s presumably hard-eyed look.

But, Porter says at the end of his discussion, apparently sympathetically, getting to “the nub of the issue,” that, “as the richest Americans capture a larger and larger share of the fruits of growth, for many people the essential question becomes: What is the point of creating a larger pie?” Well! So it is the division of the pie that counts, after all, and maybe those at the top do need to be thwarted, if the nub is to be dealt with?

Although Porter has thus gone much further than the avowedly liberal Miller in linking the growing wealth of the 1% to the poverty of the poor, charging that the rich are capturing – presumably from the poor – a large part of the pie, he seems to go back to an earlier comment in the middle of his piece, said more or less in passing: “even avowedly liberal social scientists have had a tough time figure out the negative consequences of the rise of the 1 percent.” Without noticing that he has himself just figured it out, he concludes with a classic cop-out: “That’s the post-Great Recession reality.”



[1] “Piketting Wealth Inequality,” July/August 2014, p. 26.

[2] P. 37

[3] S.M. Miller, “Breaking the Low-Wage Syndrome, Poverty & Race, vol. 23, No. 4, July/August 2014, p. 9.

[4] Miller also properly points out that the effort to tax the 1% has been largely unsuccessful but does not address the question of why that is, the main point raised here.

[5] Ibid.

[6] July 30, 2014, p. B1, B8.

Blog #51 The Baran-Marcuse letters – Not Just the Facts, in Critical Social Science

Blog #51 – The Baran-Marcuse letters – Not Just the Facts, in Critical Social Science

The issue that Paul Baran and my father confronted in their correspondence[1] was, I suspect, what was an on-going and troublesome theme for them both, analytically and politically. It was a paradox that my father often formulated as: “You need new men and women to make a revolution, but you need a revolution to make new men and women.” It stems from a very fundamental insight: the large gap between the objective and the subjective condition for basic social change, in which the gap reflects the way in which the social is absorbed into the personal. In Baran’s formulation, it results from the fact that the “autonomous individual’s…own” thinking and feeling was also in the past somehow socially constituted…” Somehow. But how? The question led, I think, both to my father’s concern with Freud and to Baran’s with the cultural, both asserting a link to Marx. It parallels “somehow” the contradiction between “fact” as immediately perceived/experienced and essence, as “fact” understood in its social and historical context. It parallels in other ways the tension between the actual and the potential that the actual occludes, the demands of Eros and the demands of civilization, the one dimension and the other dimensions. intelligence vs. reason.[2]

Baran insisted, and my father agreed, that “the truth is in the whole.”[3]It was a revolutionary view, they held, and “broke with the fetishism and reification, with the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, prevalent in the social sciences, a pseudo-empiricism which… tended to make the objectivity of the social sciences a vehicle of apologetics and a defense of the status quo.”

Facts, I would read the point to to mean, are only “true” when understood in their “dialectal relationship between the particular conditions and facts, on the one side, and the whole social order, on the other.”[4] Henri Lefebvre makes the same point: “Appearance and reality […] are not separated like oil and water in a vessel, but rather amalgamated like water and wine. To separate them, we must analyze them in the most ‘classic’ sense of the word: the elements of the mixture must be isolated.” To claim that pure description of the “facts” is an objective presentation of reality turns what should be wine into water. The superficiality of, e.g., the current mas media, is not simply inadequate; it conceals the reality, suppresses the truth.

Examples as valid today as when written, abound. “election returns,” presented “as indications of democracy operating at an optimal level, the meaning of the word ‘democracy” never questioned. Public opinion polls, in which pollster by the way they frame questions, contribute to making the very public opinions that purport objectively to report as facts; the evaluation of decisions as good or bad, right or wrong, “whereas it is everywhere and only their question progressive and regressive in historical terms, that is, in terms of the available material and intellectual resources, the technical of their extract…”and thus “the greater rationality in the sense of human welfare.”[5] That rationality can be judged on the basis of the facts, fully understood, but the facts do not themselves provide the answers. Facts are “mute.”

These points are not self-evident, and provoke a level of thought and questioning which is very rare today, but much needed. There’s much still to be learned from this correspondence of half a century ago.


[A personal note: I only met Baran once, during the war, when my father was with the OSS, as I believe Baran was also. I was maybe 12 at the time. Baran had come over to our house to talk to my father, and they stayed up a long time. I asked my father later why Baran had come, and he told me Baran wanted to talk about whether capitalism was ultimately bad for the capitalists as well as for the workers, and I gather they had agreed it was. My father was working on Eros and Civilization at the time (on the side, not at OSS!), and I assume that was the context. They really respected each other.

[I was only a teen-ager then, but I remember whenever he mentioned Baran’s name at the dinner table it was always with a real smile. Reading the letter exchange with Baran from two decades later, I can see why: Anyone that would speak of Horkheimer as he “exudes his shallow moralizing snobbery” would understandably have delighted my father, although he would only have admitted it to very close friends. Always was lectured to be on my very best behavior whenever we visited with Horkheimer and his wife in California, and Baran’s description rings true. And my father would only have written, about Adorno, “I have always found Teddy’s “political” utterances rather abhorrent“ to a really close and politically very sympathetic friend..]

Peter Marcuse                                                             December 22, 2013

[1] A slightly different version is posted at, and referenced at Monthly Review, vol. 65, no. 10, March 2014, p. 20

[2] With a riff on “the high-IQ imbecile.” Supra, P. 43

[3] See “Marcuse on Baran,” ,Monthly Review, supra, p. 22.

[4] Supra, p. 2.

[5] Supra., p. 25.

Blog #48 – Writing About Inequality

To the Editor, The New York Times,

(re: Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off,but Far Behind”.. (Front page, May 1, 2014)

 A researcher is quoted as saying: “the poor are better off than they were… but they have also drifted further away.” “Drifted away,” indeed! The story says: “…the poor have fallen further behind.” They have “fallen?” What images does such writing conjure up? Inequality increases because the poor drift away from being better off, the silly, ne’er-do-wells? They can’t keep their balance, these helpless people? That’s surely not the intent, but it’s the effect of using stock formulations without thinking about them.

Would a formulation like: “While the poor fell behind or drifted away,the rich rose higher and marched further ahead” pass muster?

Or would formulations to explain increasing inequality like: ““The rich have gotten even richer on the backs of the poor,” or “The poor have been pushed even further down by the growing wealth of the rich” pass muster at the Times? After all, it takes two to be unequal. The victims shouldn’t be blamed for their poverty without examining what happened at the other end of the divide. Inequality increases because the rich get richer as well as the poor getting poorer. A coincidence?

 Peter Marcuse                                                            May 1, 2014.



Blog #37 – Lopsided Language

Loaded Language

Language is a political tool. That’s generally recognized.  What speakers mean when they use words like “freedom,” “security,” “justice,” or “democracy” says a great deal about where they stand politically, and such terms are deliberately used for their political effect. It may not be immediately apparent on which side of what argument the users stand, but it is obvious that the meaning is controversial and needs to be looked into.

Other terms that sound good are already clearly identified with a particular cause, and are open about it. If someone says “affirmative action,” or stresses “balancing budgets,” or “job creators,” or “all life is sacred,” we are immediately on notice that, while they sound good, there is a political position being put forward, an argument being made that requires reflection and proper contextualization. They are used as propaganda. Propaganda includes the artful choice of words to give a persuasive political message; those in the business make no bones about why they use some words and not others

More insidious, however, is when words are used that have an apparent obvious and noncontroversial meaning, that are customarily taken at face value and without refection, that are not reacted to as propaganda, but yet are just as much propaganda as the more obvious ones. And this often happens, not by what meaning is accepted for the words, but what meaning is avoided, suppressed distorted. These are words tacitly accepted as either good or bad, as non-controversial with an implicitly accepted meaning, that if they were seen as politically serving one purpose or another, would be the subject of debate. They are words like “consensus”, “growth,” “innovation,” “sustainable,” “resilience.” Some have indeed been subject to quite controversial scrutiny: “tolerance,” for instance, or “democracy“, on “inclusive.”  But others, such as those examined here, are generally used without particular attention being paid to their political implications, and operate, in a way subliminally, below the threshold of conscious examination,[1] to buttress a particular political position or world view, generally that of the establishment.

Take the words “poverty” and “inequality.” Which is the problem, poverty or inequality? Well, both, of course. But we have had a “War on Poverty” substantially funded at the national level and implemented in cities throughout the land, but when a candidate for Mayor of New York City makes a call to reduce inequality a key part of his platform, he is attacked as being “divisive,” and tea party Republicans denounce advocates of social welfare measures as fomenting a “class war” in the country. The difference in the phrases is telling. It is acceptable to declare “war on poverty,” because no-one is being attacked, Studies of how to wage it focus on the poor, their social capital or lack of it, the poor need education, contacts with middle-class folk and their job opportunities and their moral customs, maybe child care are health care or even jobs, for which of course they need the training. All may be true, and even helpful if seriously addressed. But the rich are not involved, certainly not seen as part of the problem, part of the causes of poverty. We need to reduce the gap between rich and poor, but certainly not by measures that reduce the wealth of the poor, according to the dominant thinking and language.

Yet inequality has a certain resonances, enough to be of concern to the establishment. Not many go so far as Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, who even accepts and justifies it, arguing it shouldn’t have such a bad rap. Bizarrely, he argues that inequality is good for the poor:

“Other cities have much lower inequality levels,” Mr. Bloomberg’s press secretary, Marc LaVorgna, said, citing Detroit and Camden, N.J. “Are those better places for low-income families to live? Or would they be better off if they had more wealthy people, and a larger income gap,”

Or, to quote Tony Auth’s cartoon, what Bloomberg might say:

“As not what you can do for equality. Ask what inequality can do for you.”

But even Paul Krugman, an energetic defender of the interests of the poor, feels forced to argue that, after all.  Helping the poor will help everybody, because what they will buy with increased incomes will be goods sold by to them by the rich and thus rebounding to the benefit of rich as well as of poor. And the even those not willing to go so far, and presenting impressive documentation on the extent of the growing inequality and its injustice, focus their arguments on the difficulties that the poor face, with some attention to the benefits to the rich, but rather little on how those benefits to the rich in fact are founded on the poverty of the poor. Only died-in-the-wool Marxists seem today to have picked up on the implications of concepts such as surplus value, which suggests that the profits of businesses and the wealth of their owners is directly related to how little they can pay the workers that produce what they sell.  There are words whose usage is tabooed, as well as words in lopsided usage.

A War on Inequality threatens the rich, a War on Poverty does not. “Poverty” is an acceptable term in mainstream discourse; Inequality rather slips to the side.

There is a political logic in this pattern of word usage. The ability of the 1% to maintain their position, both in politics and in the economy, rests not only on their physical power but also, and perhaps more and more, on their ability to contain the opposition of the governed, of the poor and of the middle “class” as well. Jürgen Habermas wrote of the Legitimation Crisis, the need of those on top to justify their positions to those below. This is accomplished in part by the handling of words, of language. Specifically, a major part of their argument is that there is a commonality of interest, not a conflict, between rich and poor. How each does is independent of how the other does; the poor may deserve more, indeed it can be recognized  that they do and that some level of charity and fairness must be shown them, but not at the expense of the rich or their practices. The poor must be helped to change; the rich need not do so.  The reality of a conflict of interest must be suppressed, and indeed is better not even let surface, and the lopsided use of words having a conventionally established meaning bottling up any incentive to challenge that meaning is a large part of the process.

Take other language. “Inclusion” and “exclusion” are words frequently used in policy discussions by political leaders, researchers, journalists, talking heads. “Inclusion” of course is a good thing, devoutly to be wished; to be excluded is undesirable. Right? But note the passive voice, which reads quite naturally – yet it already conceals the agency of the excluders in the exclusion. The focus is on those who are excluded, not on those who do the exclusion. They are not doing so well because of their characteristics: they lack education, skills, maybe morals, etc. They are overcrowded in insecure, unsupportive neighborhoods; they are not included in healthy middle class or better ones, and should be. The social city program of the European Union is addressed to deal with the problem, teaching those in such neighborhoods how to behave, how to improve themselves, so that they will be more acceptable in better communities. That the better communities in fact achieve their quality in part by their ability to exclude, that pubic actions support the “two cities” phenomenon partly be looking only at one of the cities, that of the poor, without analyzing the functioning of the other, of the better off – that’s a question the term “inclusion” might be thought logically to raise, but it’s conventional and overwhelmingly accepted usage does not raise, It is a lopsided usage, but the prevalent one.[2]

And there are terms whose conventionally and overwhelmingly accepted usage simply smothers any potential critical content. Terms such as “tolerance”, “diversity,” “sustainability,” all have important and good meanings, consistent with the achievement of social justice. But they can unexamined, be co-opted and used for their opposite. Tolerance can mean acceptance of racism, homophobia, arrogance, chauvinism. Diversity can be used to support the presence of the poor in all neighborhoods, as contributing to a desired diversity, without questioning the existence of poverty or the harm it can do to those at the bottom, as in gentrification which increased diversity but displaces the poor. Not everything should be sustained; on its face, sustainability almost calls for a continuation of the social status quo, usually less by aiming to do so as by never reaching the question. Such concepts are two or many sided; a lopsided usage implicitly supports existing social relations.

Of course, ultimately, we are all in it together, ultimately it is indeed to everyone benefit that all of us should be included and treated fairly in one world, one united city, one society in which each is tolerant of all other, all enjoy the benefits of diversity. But pretending, deliberately or by omission, that we are already there defeats the purpose of getting there. If we’re already there, no reason to change anything to get there. The very use of the word “we” in sentences such as the above is a tip-off to the lopsided understandings ordinary words can be given. “We” are a very disparate group of people; some of us are already tolerant and enjoy diversity and it’s to “”everyone’s” benefit that “we” act in solidarity with each other. But “we” also excludes a lot of people whose interests today are very different from each other, whatever they may ultimately” be. We can’t all be winner. If there are winners there must be losers. To try to make all of us winners while the game continues to make winners and losers won’t work.

“We,” as it’s most generally used,[3] should actually mean “some people” – a wag once suggested it should only be used when it means “me and my friends.” Lopsided meanings given to such words, many words, which conceal alternate meanings and wash out contradictions and conflicts among groups and interests, get in the way of changing things so that “we” could actually mean “all of us,” not just some of us. Straightening out the lopsided uses of language would be a big help.

[1] Herbert Marcuse has a long riff on the subject of language, pushing it further to argue that the very structure of grammatical laws has such political implications. See One-Dimensional Man, Chapter 4.

[2] A recent report to URBACT II, May 2013, Against Divided Cities In Europe, brought to my attention by Ivan Tosics of Hungary, is a welcome exception , calling explicitly in 0065amining “divided cities” for “planning and interventions across the whole city (which includes rich areas.)” p. 6

[3] A detailed example is at Blog 35, “Watch your Language, Krugman,” at