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Month: October, 2013

Black Against Empire: A Review

Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., the authors of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, have a very ambitious goal: to tell a better history of the Black Panther Party than anyone else. Their method is stated up-front. They want to trace the history of the Black Panther Party through its stated politics. This history takes us from the meeting of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to the expansion of the party to over forty cities around the country all the way to the death of Fred Hampton and the final dissolution of the Panthers. Through it all, the authors have a deep respect for the Panthers as true revolutionaries and warn those who came after the party that they’ll never be able to achieve what the Panthers did without understanding the people like they did.

This was actually my first time reading a book about the history of the Black Panther Party. All of my previous information about the party came from the Internet, movies and some YouTube videos. As a history of the Panthers, this was a great one. Bloom and Martin take you from the very beginning to the very end and do a great job at explaining what they believe made the Panthers into a popular and well-run organization. They note that while the Panthers were a product of their times, they organized effectively to meet the needs and concerns of the people. They fought against the draft and police brutality while at the same time creating community programs such as free breakfasts for kids and clothing drives for the neighborhoods they worked in. These positions gained them support from both poor blacks and white allies.

Bloom and Martin also stress the importance of Third World Liberation to the Panther project. The Panthers understood black people in the United States to constitute a sort of colony within the United States itself. With this idea, they pushed for solidarity with other Third World Liberation movements such as the North Vietnamese and Chinese communists. They also understood themselves and the black poor to be at war with the United States and pushed for a revolution at home. In their first few years, they aggressively pushed insurrection and revolution through fighting police brutality and state repression.

Bloom and Martin argue wonderfully for their understanding that the Black Panthers understood the milieu they found themselves in a created a working, replicable politic for pushing against the status quo. They track the downfall of the Panthers as the state dialed down the draft and moved more blacks into the middle class through jobs programs and affirmative action. This made the popular base of white liberals and moderate blacks evaporate and left the tension in the party exposed. With the leaders of the Panthers wanting to focus on survival tactics to wait until the moment was ripe for revolution, some local groups wanted to push for revolution right away, believing that it would draw the masses into action. These tensions were the end of the party.

While the book is great, it could definitely be better. There are a number of issues hampering this history and had Bloom and Martin spent more time on it, this could have been THE book on the Panthers.

One of the issues is that the narrative is garbled. The book seems to move more or less chronologically, but certain sections will jump from 1970 back to 1968 or 1969. Eldridge Cleaver goes into exile in Cuba in one section and but is speaking in the United States in another, and returns to the public sphere in yet another. Bobby Seale is arrested and jailed, speaking in Connecticut, in jail, held in contempt and being prosecuted in Connecticut. All of these happen without adequate explanation of how Seale got out of jail each time. One of the biggest issues of the book is Seale’s prosecution for murder in Connecticut but we’re never even told how the trial actually unfolded. Angela Davis joins a knock-off Panthers Party in Los Angeles and disappears until she’s at a rally for the real Panther Party then we’re told she’s a love of George Jackson. The manhunt for her is never even mentioned. Stokely Carmichael is an important figure in the beginning of the book, disappears in the middle and is inexplicably called a ‘bootlicker’ in the end. Many of the threads of the narrative are tangled or hidden.

Another problem with the book is that it never really goes into the Black Panther Party’s actual politics. We’re told they believe in Third World Liberation and that they struggle against Police Brutality, but those are the most we get. Intercommunalism (Huey Newton’s idea) and the idea of the lumpenproletariat being the revolutionary class (Eldridge Cleaver’s idea) are brought up only in passing. Indeed, only two pages of this book are spent looking at the Marxist-influence of the party’s ideas. We don’t know how Che, Mao, Marx and Fanon really influenced them; we’re just told that Party members were required to read them and that some leaders were well-versed in their works. For a book purporting to analyze the politics of the organization, it was very lax on that analysis.

Lastly, one of the things Bloom and Martin found important was the alliances the Panthers forged with Third World Liberation movements and white allies. We are treated to some information on how the Young Lords, The Red Guard and the Young Patriots were all influenced by the Panthers and how the Panthers mobilized white allies to support, demonstrate and raise money for Bobby Seale’s murder trial, but we’re left wondering what other projects the Panthers collaborated on with these groups. We’re told that after the United Against Fascism conference, they created National Committees Against Fascism around the country that allowed whites to join, but they are never mentioned again. What were their daily activities? How did they organize? What were the tensions in the groups, if any?

While there are criticisms to be made about this book, I still very much enjoyed it. As my first Panther book, I learned a great deal of information I had not known before. I learned that David Hilliard rather than Newton spearheaded the community service programs. I also learned about numerous other Panthers who often are not talked about: Ericka and John Huggins, Bunchy Carter and Doug Miranda. If you don’t know much about the Panthers and want to learn more, this is a great introduction.


Evolution vs. Naturalism: What is Rational?

Alvin Plantinga’s article ‘Evolution vs. Naturalism’ aims to unseat the discourse of Dawkins and company that science and only science is the way to understand truth in our universe. While it is important to challenge the New Atheist rhetoric of scientism, this article is lacking.

Plantinga’s argument centers around the idea that naturalism, “…the idea that there is no such person as God or anything like God” is untenable with the concept of evolution. Evolution is blind; its forces can only move species in the direction of traits that help it survive in the species’ environment. This means that our cognitive functions are not set out to discover truth, only to survive. Plantinga says:

“The problem, as several thinkers (C. S. Lewis, for example) have seen, is that naturalism, or evolutionary naturalism, seems to lead to a deep and pervasive skepticism. It leads to the conclusion that our cognitive or belief-producing faculties—memory, perception, logical insight, etc.—are unreliable and cannot be trusted to produce a preponderance of true beliefs over false.”

He concludes that it is not rational to be a naturalist. Rationality cannot exist because the probability that our mental faculties are reliable is very low.

“If evolutionary naturalism is true, then the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is also very low. And that means that one who accepts evolutionary naturalism has a defeater for the belief that her cognitive faculties are reliable: a reason for giving up that belief, for rejecting it, for no longer holding it. If there isn’t a defeater for that defeater—a defeater-defeater, we could say—she can’t rationally believe that her cognitive faculties are reliable. No doubt she can’t help believing that they are; no doubt she will in fact continue to believe it; but that belief will be irrational.”

The biggest problem with Plantinga’s argument is that he is conflating the concepts of ‘true’ and ‘rational.’ Plantinga’s argument is that we cannot rationally hold to naturalism because we cannot know if what we believe is ‘true.’ Rationality has only a small relation to what is true.

If I buy the ‘Clapper’ (a sound activated electrical switch allowing consumers to clap and turn off and on their appliances) and attach it to my lamp, I can rationally assume that when I clap, my clap is turning my lamp on and off. The truth may be that I have a slightly unhinged friend turning my lamp on and off, having unplugged my Clapper as a joke, but my belief is still rational. I bought the Clapper and installed it and the effect is consistent with what I expect.

And that is how logic works. Basic philosophy students learn that a valid argument is not necessarily a true argument.  A valid argument is one in which the conclusion would be true if the premises are assumed to be true. I bought and installed a Clapper. The Clapper turns appliances off and on via loud clapping sounds. I clapped and my lamp turned off. The Clapper is working. Accepting these premises as true, my conclusion would also be true. However, my premises are not true because my friend is playing a practical joke. My Clapper is not installed and therefore my conclusion is false. However, no one would say that I was being irrational for believing my Clapper was working even though that conclusion is false. Indeed, many people would think it irrational to believe that my friend was turning my lights on and off, even if it was true!

That is where Plantinga fails in his argument. He never quite defines ‘true’ or ‘rational’ and because of that, he does not make the necessary distinguishing between the two. Even a meaning of ‘belief’ for Plantinga may run into problems. Regardless of whether we could trust our faculties to give us ‘true’ belief, we can know that we believe rationally.

Our brains have evolved from ‘lower’ life forms, there is no doubt about that. They are adapted for survival in our environment (or at least our ancestors’ environment). This may mean that we cannot know truth because our faculties are not ‘designed’ for truth, but our cognition allows us to work with certain rules of logic that we have developed over our millennia of existence. These rules, constructed through our faculties and through society, regardless of their truth, allow us to formulate rational beliefs and arguments. If atheism and naturalism are some of those beliefs, they are not irrational beliefs. They may be untrue, but still very valid.

Even some Christian philosophers accept a break in rationality and truth. Soren Kierkegaard understood that Christianity and its central tenets were not rational. Looking at how the world worked, it was irrational to believe that God existed or that Jesus rose three days after his execution. But it was central to his philosophy that these things were true nevertheless and that a leap of faith was necessary for true belief.

Plantinga, for his own side of the argument, lacks a very compelling reason why theism is not susceptible to a similar skepticism. He says, “Clearly this doubt arises for naturalists or atheists, but not for those who believe in God. That is because if God has created us in his image, then even if he fashioned us by some evolutionary means, he would presumably want us to resemble him in being able to know…” Why is it that we can presume this? Why should we not presume that God would grant us omniscience or omnipotence in his image? Why should we not presume God would grant us the ability to create wine from water or feed hundreds with just a few loafs of bread?

Plantinga falls into a similar problem that Descartes encountered when Descartes was deciding whether he existed or not. Descartes believed that since he could think, he could assume a God who was good and wanted him to be able to think. But that is not a good assumption at all. A God who was wicked or a jokester might have made him with the belief that he could think when it was really an illusion. Plantinga assumes a God who wants us to think, when the difficult work of providing a foundation for that assumption has not been done.

A refutation of the scientism nonsense that is constantly spewed by Dawkins and company is definitely necessary and especially from the religious side of things. Fundamentalist sects unfortunately define religion and their theology is generally as weak as the arguments made against them by the New Atheists. Unfortunately though, this article will not be the ammunition needed against the New Atheists.