Sunday, August 31, 2014
THE BEST OF TIMES
In rare moments in history, ordinary men and women have been uncommonly contented. By contented I mean precisely what those men and women meant: This is not my judgment of them; it is their judgment of themselves, reflected in their letters and their arts. They were contented with their social and political lives. They found their daily activities pleasurable. They considered themselves remarkably fortunate to be alive at that very moment, in that very place. They were sunny in disposition, at peace with themselves, and above all, optimistic.
She identifies six historical situations, ranging from Rome in 160-220 AD to the United States in 1952-1963, in which she believes this condition existed, and analyzes the factors involved.
Ricochet (which is where Claire’s post appears) is a membership site; comments may be read by all but comments may only be added by members.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
BOOK REVIEW: MENACE IN EUROPE
by Claire Berlinski
I read this book shortly after it came out in 1996, and just re-read it in the light of the anti-Semitic ranting and violence which is now ranging across Europe. It is an important book, deserving of a wide readership.
The author’s preferred title was “Blackmailed by History,” but the publisher insisted on “Menace.” Whatever the title, the book is informative, thought-provoking, and disturbing. Berlinski is good at melding philosophical thinking with direct observation. She holds a doctorate in international relations from Oxford, and has lived and worked in Britain, France, and Turkey, among other countries. (Dr Berlinski, may I call you Claire?)
The book’s dark tour of Europe begins in the Netherlands, where the murder of film director Theo van Gogh by a radical Muslim upset at the content of a film was quickly followed by the cancellation of that movie’s planned appearance at a film festival–and where an artist’s street mural with the legend “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was destroyed by order of the mayor of Rotterdam, eager to avoid giving offense to Muslims. (“Self-Extinguishing Tolerance” is the title of the chapter on Holland.) Claire moves on to Britain and analyzes the reasons why Muslim immigrants there have much higher unemployment and lower levels of assimilation than do Muslim immigrants to the US, and also discusses the unhinged levels of anti-Americanism that she finds among British elites. (Novelist Margaret Drabble: “My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my throat like acid reflux…”) While there has always been a certain amount of anti-Americanism in Britain, the author notes that “traditionally, Britain’s anti-American elites have been vocal, but they have generally been marginalized as chattering donkeys” but that now, with 1.6 million Muslim immigrants in Britain (more worshippers at mosques than at the Church of England), the impact of these anti-Americans can be greatly amplified. (Today, there are apparently more British Muslims fighting for ISIS than serving in the British armed forces.)
One of the book’s most interesting chapters is centered around the French farmer and anti-globalization leader Jose Bove, whose philosophy Berlinski summarizes as “crop worship”….”European men and women still confront the same existential questions, the same suffering as everyone who has ever been born. They are suspicious now of the Church and of grand political ideologies, but they nonetheless yearn for the transcendent. And so they worship other things–crops, for example, which certain Europeans, like certain tribal animists, have come to regard with superstitious awe.”
The title of this chapter is “Black-Market Religion: The Nine Lives of Jose Bove,” and Berlinski sees the current Jose Bove as merely one in a long line of historical figures who hawked similar ideologies. They range from a man of unknown name born in Bourges circa AD 560, to Talchem of Antwerp in 1112, through Hans the Piper of Niklashausen in the late 1400s, and on to the “dreamy, gentle, and lunatic Cathars” of Languedoc and finally to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Berlinski sees all these people as being basically Christian heretics, with multiple factors in common. They tend appeal to those whose status or economic position is threatened, and to link the economic anxieties of their followers with spiritual ones. Quite a few of them have been hermits at some stage in their lives. Most of them have been strongly anti-Semitic. And many of the “Boves” have been concerned deeply with purity…Bove coined the neologism malbouffe, which according to Google Translate means “junk food,” but Berlinski says that translation “does not capture the full horror of bad bouffe, with its intimation of contamination, pollution, poison.” She observes that “the passionate terror of malbouffe–well founded or not–is also no accident; it recalls the fanatic religious and ritualistic search for purity of the Middle Ages, ethnic purity included. The fear of poisoning was widespread among the millenarians…” (See also this interesting piece on environmentalist ritualism as a means of coping with anxiety and perceived disorder.)
continued at Chicago Boyz
Monday, August 25, 2014
THE CALENDAR IS STILL NOT OMNIPOTENT
Barack Obama responded to the murder by ISIS/ISIL of James Foley by stating, among other things, that “a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century.”
Which paralleled his lecture about Vlad Putin’s actions, earlier this year: ”…because you’re bigger and stronger taking a piece of the country – that is not how international law and international norms are observed in the 21st century.” Hey, what are you going to believe–Obama’s theories, or your lying eyes?
My response here to Obama’s comments concerning Putin are equally applicable to his more recent statement concerning ISIS/ISIL, aka the Islamic State…
The idea that the mere passage of time has some automatic magical effect on national behavior…on human behavior…is simplistic, and more than a little odd. I don’t know how much history Obama and Kerry actually studied during their college years, but 100 years ago..in early 1914…there were many, many people convinced that a major war could not happen…because we were now in the twentieth century, with international trade and with railroads and steamships and telegraph networks and electric lights and all. And just 25 years after that, quite a few people refused to believe that concentration camps devoted to systematic murder could exist in the advanced mid-20th century, in the heart of Europe.
Especially simplistic is the idea that, because there had been no military territory-grabs by first-rank powers for a long time, that the era of such territory-grabs was over. George Eliot neatly disposed of this idea many years ago, in a passage in her novel Silas Marner:
The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent.
Or, as Mark Steyn put it much more recently:
‘Stability’ is a surface illusion, like a frozen river: underneath, the currents are moving, and to the casual observer the ice looks equally ‘stable’ whether there’s a foot of it or just two inches. There is no status quo in world affairs: ‘stability’ is a fancy term to dignify laziness and complacency as sophistication.
Obama also frequently refers to the Cold War, and argues that it is in the past. But the pursuit of force-based territorial gain by nations long predates the Cold War, and it has not always had much to do with economic rationality. The medieval baron with designs on his neighbor’s land didn’t necessarily care about improving his own standard of living, let alone that of his peasants–what he was after, in many cases, was mainly the ego charge of being top dog.
Human nature was not repealed by the existence of steam engines and electricity in 1914…nor even by the broad Western acceptance of Christianity in that year…nor is it repealed in 2014 by computers and the Internet or by sermons about “multiculturalism” and bumper stickers calling for “coexistence.”
American Digest just linked a very interesting analysis of the famous “long telegram” sent by George Kennan in 1947: George Kennan, Vladimir Putin, and the Appetites of Men. In this document, Kennan argued that Soviet behavior must be understood not only through the prism of Communist ideology, but also in terms of the desire of leaders to establish and maintain personal power.
Regarding the current Russian/Crimean situation, the author of the linked article (Tod Worner) says:
In the current crisis, many will quibble about the historical, geopolitical complexities surrounding the relationship between Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. They will debate whether Crimea’s former inclusion in the Russian Empire or Crimea’s restive Russian population justifies secession especially with a strong Russian hand involved. Papers will be written. Conferences will be convened. Experts will be consulted. Perhaps these are all prudent and thoughtful notions to consider and actions to undertake. Perhaps.
But perhaps we should, like George Kennan, return to the same questions we have been asking about human nature since the beginning of time. Maybe we are, at times, overthinking things. Perhaps we would do well to step back and consider something more fundamental, something more base, something more reliable than the calculus of geopolitics and ideology…Perhaps we ignore the simple math that is often before our very eyes. May we open our eyes to the appetites of men.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Sunday, August 17, 2014
SIX HUNDRED MILLION YEARS IN K-12
(Millions of kids are already headed back to school, making it an appropriate time to again rerun this post from 2012)
Peter Orszag, who was Obama’s budget director and is now a vice chairman at Citigroup, thinks it would be a good idea to cut back on summer school vacations for kids, arguing that this would both improve academics and reduce obesity.
I’m with Jeremy Lott: But to look at the vast wasteland that is American public education — the poor teaching, the awful curriculum, the low standards, the anemic achievement, the institutional resistance to needed reform — and say that the real problem is summer vacation takes a special sort of mind.
I wrote about the war on summer vacation back in 2006, after stopping at a store in Georgia on the first day of August and discovering that this was the first day of school for the local children. In this post, I said:
The truth is, most public K-12 schools make very poor use of the time of their students. They waste huge proportions of the millions of hours which have been entrusted to them–waste them through the mindless implementation of fads and theories, waste them through inappropriate teacher-credentialing processes, waste them through refusal to maintain high standards of performance and behavior.
When an organization or institution proves itself to be a poor steward of the resources that have been entrusted to it, the right answer is not to give it more resources to waste.
Orszag and similar thinkers seem to have no concept that good things can happen to children’s development outside of an institutional setting. Plenty of kids develop and pursue interests in science, literature, art, music…plus, there is plenty to be learned simply by interacting with friends in an unstructured environment.
Would the world be better off if Steve Wozniak and Jeri Ellsworth..to name only two of many, many examples..had their noses held constantly to the school grindstone rather than having time to develop their interests in electronics?
Lewis E Lawes, who was warden of Sing Sing prison from 1915 to 1941, wrote an interesting book titled Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing. The title refers to the aggregate lengths of the sentences of the men in the prison at a typical particular point in time.
Twenty-five hundred men saddled with an aggregate of twenty thousand years! Within such cycles worlds are born, die, and are reborn. That span has witnessed the evolution of the intelligence of mortal man. And we know that twenty thousand years have seen nations run their courses, perish, and give way to their successors. Twenty thousand years in my keeping. What will they evolve?
Following the same approach, the aggregate length of the terms to be spent in K-12 schools by their current students is more than 600,000,000 years. What proportion of this time is actually used productively?
And how many of the officials who supervise and run the public schools, and the ed-school professors who influence their policies, think about this 600,000,000 years in the same serious and reflective way that Lawes thought about the 20,000 years under his supervision? Some do, of course, but a disturbing percentage of them seem to be simply going through the bureaucratic motions.
And the politicians and officials of the Democratic Party are the last people in the world who are ever going to call them on it.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
BOOK REVIEW: NICE WORK
What happens when an expert on 19th-century British industrial novels—who is a professor, a feminist, and a deconstructionist–finds herself in an actual factory?
This not being a time-travel novel, the factory is a contemporary one for the book’s setting in mid-1980s Britain. It is a metalworking plant called Pringle’s, run by managing director Vic Wilcox. Vic is not thrilled when his boss (Pringle’s is owned by a conglomerate) suggests that he participate in something called the “shadow” program, designed to make academics and businesspeople better-acquainted with one another, but he goes along with the request.
Robyn Penrose, literature professor at a nearby university, is also not thrilled about her nomination to participate in the program, but she is concerned about her job in an era of reduced university funding, and also thinks she had better do as asked. The way the program works is that Robyn will be Vic’s “shadow,” joining him at the plant every Wednesday, sitting in on his regular activities, and learning just a bit about what is involved in managing a business.
Vic is a self-made man, not well-educated and with few interests outside work. He is acutely aware of the danger that faces Pringle’s under the current economic climate, and is resolved that his factory will not join the long list of those that have been tossed on the scrapheap.
There is nothing quite so forlorn as a closed factory–Vic Wilcox knows, having supervised a shutdown himself in his time. A factory is sustained by the energy of its own functioning, the throb and whine of machinery, the unceasing motion of assembly lines, the ebb and flow of workers changing shifts, the hiss of airbrakes and the growl of diesel engines from wagons delivering raw materials at one gate, taking away finished goods at the other. When you put a stop to all that, when the place is silent and empty, all that is left is a large, ramshackle shed–cold, filthy and depressing. Well, that won’t happen at Pringle’s, hopefully, as they say. Hopefully.
Robyn and Vic dislike each other on first meeting: Vic sees Robyn’s profession as useless, which Robyn sees Vic’s managerial role as brutal and greedy. She is appalled by what she sees in her first tour of the factory..especially the foundry:
They crossed another yard, where hulks of obsolete machinery crouched, bleeding rust into their blankets of snow, and entered a large building with a high vaulted roof hidden in gloom. This space rang with the most barbaric noise Robyn had ever experienced…The floor was covered with a black substance that looked like soot, but grated under the soles of her boots like sand. The air reeked with a sulphurous, resinous smell, and a fine drizzle of black dust fell on their heads from the roof. Here and there the open doors of furnaces glowed a dangerous red, and in the far corner of the building what looked like a stream of molten lave trickled down a curved channel from roof to floor…It was the most terrible place she had ever been in her life. To say that to herself restored the original meaning of the word “terrible”: it provoked terror, even a kind of awe. To think of being that man, wrestling with the heavy awkward lumps of metal in that maelstrom of heat, dust and stench, deafened by the unspeakable noise of the vibrating grid, working like that for hour after hour, day after day….That he was black seemed the final indignity: her heart swelled with the recognition of the spectacle’s powerful symbolism.
The situation was so bizarre, so totally unlike her usual environment, that there was a kind of exhilaration to be found in it…She thought of what her colleagues and students might be doing this Wednesday morning–earnestly discussing the poetry of John Donne or the novels of Jane Austen or the nature of modernism, in centrally heated, carpeted rooms…Penny Black would be feeding more statistics on wife-beating in the West Midlands into her data-based, and Robyn’s mother would be giving a coffee morning for some charitable cause…What would they all think if they could see her now?
Vic and Robyn’s association does not get off to a good start: Robyn almost causes a wildcat strike in her misguided attempt to save an employee who is in danger of being fired–and they argue incessantly about almost everything–Robyn for example is offended by the pin-ups that appear throughout the factory. But the two soon develop a grudging respect for one another.
Vic is married, though not very satisfactorily so, and had in recent years found himself increasingly disconnected from his children. Robyn is in a long-term relationship with another academic, Charles: she is clearly on track to be more successful than he, which fact does not appear to bother him. They live apart, for career reasons but also because of Robyn’s lack of commitment to the relationship, staying together sometimes on weekends and holidays. Via another woman he is attracted to, Charles develops an interest in the financial activities of the City. (He sees it as analogous to literary deconstructionism: ”…exchanging one semiotic system for another, the literary for the numerical, a game with high philosophical stakes for a game with high monetary stakes…but a game in each case,” whereas Vic has low regard for the finance industry: “It’s all paper. Moving bits of paper about. Whereas we make things, thing that weren’t there till we made ‘em.”)
Vic finds himself increasingly intrigued by Robyn and begins reading literature, going so far as to borrow one of his daughter’s schoolbooks. And Robyn finds herself noticing and thinking about things that she wouldn’t have noticed before. When looking down from the plane on a business trip with Vic:
People crammed into rush-hour buses and trains, or sitting at the wheels of their cars in traffic jams, or washing up breakfast things in the kitchens of pebble-dashed semis. All inhabiting their own little worlds, oblivious of how they fitted into the total picture. The housewife, switching on her electric kettle to make another cup of tea, gave no thought to the immense complex of operations that made that simple action possible: the building and maintenance of the power station that produced the electricity, the mining of coal or pumping of oil to fuel the generators, the laying of miles of cable to carry the current to her house, the digging and smelting and milling of ore or bauxite into sheets of steel or aluminum, the cutting and pressing of the metal into the kettle’s shell, spout and handle, the assembling of these parts with scores of other components…The housewife gave no thought to all this as she switched on her kettle. Neither had Robyn until this moment, and it would never have occured to her to do so before she met Vic Wilcox.
**will Vic be able to save Pringle’s?
**as part of this effort, will he be able to get rid of his sleazy and low-performing Marketing Director…who is apparently being protected by someone at a higher corporate level?
**will he be able to acquire the automated core-blowing machine (Altenhofer 22EX, with Siemens electronic controls) which he needs to preserve the foundry part of the business–but which is priced higher than he can afford?
**will Robyn and Vic become romantically involved?
At Chicago Boyz we’ve often discussed novels and films which deal realistically with work, and the relative paucity of such. Nice Work is a significant accomplishment in this area, and very well worth reading.
Monday, August 11, 2014
THOUGHT-PROVOKING POSTS FROM ITALY, CONTINUED
…some additional Joy of Knitting posts found at archive.org.
Those who want an unlimited number of immigrants to move into our country always say sighingly, to the sound of violins, “we were a nation of migrants…”. Which means that as Eyties once used to migrate to other countries, now we have to be generous and take in a billion people. I’m not against immigration, provided that it’s legal and regulated according to established quotas. But I also think that, as Italy can’t provide a decent livelihood for millions upon millions of immigrants, it’s useless to attract them here only to condemn them to a hand to mouth existence. Better support the economy in their own countries. Likewise the same beautiful souls look indulgently on crimes committed by immigrants reminding us that “we exported the Mafia”. Alas, so we did. However, as foreign governments quite rightly adopted whatever measures they deemed necessary to stamp it out, so we shouldn’t condone immigrant criminality. It would be offensive to law-abiding immigrants, sending them the message that they are racially inferior and therefore unable to tell right from wrong.
Communism as a Religion 11/18/04:
The fact that communism is a religion first dawned on me in the seventies. It struck me that, for all their virulent anti-Catholicism, comrades weren’t after all that different from the most bigoted among their opponents. They believed in Marxism with such a blind faith that merely hearing a different opinion made them fly into a rage and scream “fascist!” with the zeal of an Inquisitor. There were lots of dogmas to believe in unquestioningly, the coming of the Revolution, something called “the centrality of the working class”, proletarian violence, and lots more. No one could depart one jot from the approved faith on pain of excommunication. The doctrine was Marxism, enshrined in its holy texts, and the main prophet was Marx, but there were other prophets, like Lenin. There were saints, like Che Guevara. The god of this religion was a somewhat nebulous figure, either communism itself or a mythical entity called the People, or the Masses, or the Proletariat, which did not in reality correspond to any actual group of persons. Comrades talked about their love humanity all the time, but if there was something they couldn’t stand it was people. Human beings are so messy, so unpredictable, always botching up beautiful dreams of a perfect society in which everybody would be free to do as he is told by the comrades themselves, for his own good, of course. Their idea of paradise, where everyone would be exactly like everyone else, would be brought about by the Revolution. Belief in the Revolution was a central dogma of their faith, the one around which everything gravitated. It was the eschatological event that would lead, through purifying proletarian violence, to palingenesis, to total world renovation. It would be the Second Coming, the Apocalypse, the end of time, freeing humanity from its chains and placing it outside history. With the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the final triumph of the communist god, there would be no more history. That is, no more anxiety-inducing change, but endless stagnation. Where was Satan in all this? It was capitalistic bourgeois society. An often repeated slogan in those days was “The bourgeois state must be destroyed, not changed”. Criminals were therefore seen as romantic outcasts, the victims of bourgeois society, and terrorists were heroes of the People who fought for the Revolution. If they had to choose between criminals (or terrorists) and their victims, comrades would sympathise with the former and blame the latter. Imagine the left’s predicament in these days. Towards the end of the seventies, when revolutionary ideals started showing cracks, many comrades went mad or even committed suicide. Now, they must either wake up, face reality and renege on everything they’ve believed in so far, or just keep on dreaming.
When the Translator is a Deconstructionist 11/25/04:
I once bought a book of John Donne’s poems. I found an Italian edition with the original text on one page and the translation on the facing page. Plus, there was a short introduction about ten pages long. So far, so good. I took the book home, sat down to read it, and got a big surprise. When I happened to glance at the translation I found out that it was much more difficult than the original. The critic who had done it and had also written the introduction was a deconstructivist. While Donne’s text was easy to understand and not at all as obscure as I had been told it was, the translation into my own language was incomprehensible, twisted and tortured, with short, abrupt sentences that did nothing to follow the sustained flow of the original. The translator had rewritten the poems to his liking, even deliberately altering the meaning of the words, but the result had nothing in common with Donne’s work. Determined to see all of the horror perpetrated, I tried to read the introduction, ten miserable pages in a mysterious Italian I couldn’t understand. In the end I gave up. The problem is that the average student who couldn’t yet read English Metaphysical Poetry in the original would have thought that was Donne. The same thing happens to all those who touch anything deconstructivists have been messing about with, like cultures and civilizations. Claiming reality doesn’t exist, they present their own mistaken perceptions as the only possible reality, and want others to behave as if that was the only truth available.
Documentaries on Naziism vs Documentaries on Communism 11/21/04:
We surely get a lot of documentaries on Hitler and Nazism. There aren’t as many on its counterpart, communism, and the few we see run along completely different lines. Recently I happened to see some on Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Che Guevara. As the documentaries had been dubbed into Italian and were presented in the TV studio by an Italian girl, it was impossible to know whether they were made in the US or by the BBC. All these great men had been given the hero treatment. The tone was reverential and the less savoury aspects of their lives had been glossed over so that their biographies were to say the least eminently laudatory. In short, let’s call them hagiographies and leave it at that. The main difference between Nazism and communism seems to be that the latter has always had a better PR department.
The character of “progressive” activists 1/15/05:
We all have seen no globos and peaceniks in action. Their faces pale and distorted with rage, with lips drawn thin over their teeth and eyes burning cold with hatred, look like masks of wrathful beings. I often wonder where all this rage comes from. Theirs is not the reaction to an authoritarian upbringing. If anything, these young people are rather the result of a permissive education. Terrified of inflicting on their children anguish that would ruin their future lives, their parents let them do whatever they wanted, gave them everything their wanted, and never pronounced the word NO. Likewise in school no effort was required of them. It would have been tantamount to repressing them, stifling their spontaneity, and damaging their self-esteem. They were not there to learn, but to be endlessly entertained by teachers who had turned into nannies. Every difficulty had to be smoothed over and they were given to understand that everything was due to them as they were so absolutely wonderful. What’s more they were encouraged to be highly aggressive, in the mistaken belief that this meant freedom to express themselves. In a word they grew up terribly spoilt, spoilt kids forever stuck in an adolescence that protracts itself not only into their twenties but well into their thirties and forties. Sometimes they resemble toddlers more than teenagers. They love to write on walls with spray cans and to smash things, like for instance cars and shop windows. There’s no end to what they want. They never know when to stop, and to tell the truth they don’t even know what it is exactly that they want, but they demand it nevertheless. If it isn’t handed to them instantly they remonstrate violently and march and shout and wreak havoc, which is their way of throwing tantrums. If they don’t get the happiness they deserve it’s because whereas they are fantastic & fabulous, society instead is ugly and bad and always to blame. This comes straight down from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the man who perhaps single-handedly did most damage to Western civilization. They aren’t equipped to deal with life’s setbacks and even require therapy if their candidate doesn’t win the elections. Teenagers feel misunderstood and mistreated, and they are no exception. Healthy, well fed, they live privileged lives and have all the liberty they want, but they don’t appreciate it. They feel cheated if they don’t enjoy perfect, constant happiness, so their frustration turns to hatred towards the society that betrayed them. In their desperate search for proofs of conspiracies against them they turn in sympathy to terrorists and dictators posing as fathers of their people. While they scream for freedom, deep down they yearn for authoritarian rule, someone to come along and kick them around and give them licence to oppress others in revenge for imagined wrongs. As every obstacle was removed from their lives, now in their huge solipsism they see civilization itself as the ultimate obstacle in their path and they want to destroy it in an act of supreme hubris. Whether they become environmentalists, animal rights activists or something else doesn’t matter. The rage comes first, the ideology to cloak it comes after. Needless to say, these superannuated spoilt kids are easily duped by those who want to exploit them for their own ends, the militants they love so much.
Sunday, August 10, 2014
SOME THOUGHT-PROVOKING POSTS FROM ITALY
In 2004, I discovered an Italian blog called Joy of Knitting, and linked to one of her posts, from which I excerpted the following:
Cupio dissolvi…These words have been going through my mind for quite a long time now. It’s Latin. They mean “I (deeply) wish to be annihilated/to annihilate myself”, the passive form signifying that the action can be carried out both by an external agent or by the subject himself…Cupio dissolvi… Through all the screaming and the shouting and the wailing and the waving of the rainbow cloth by those who invoke peace but want appeasement, I hear these terrible words ringing in my ears. These people have had this precious gift, this civilization, and they have got bored with it. They take all the advantages it offers them for granted, and despise the ideals that have powered it. They wish for annihilation, the next new thing, as if it was a wonderful party. Won’t it be great, dancing on the ruins?
The post reminded me of some words from Walter Miller’s philosophical novel A Canticle for Leibowitz: ”children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever buiding Edens–and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn’t the same.”
Joy of Knitting had many interesting posts, focusing on the state of Western civilization and culture as well as items on Italian politics and society. Sadly, the blog disappeared circa 2008. Happily, I recently realized that some of the posts might still be available at archive.org, and indeed several snapshots are there. I’ve retrieved and posted a few of the ones I think are particularly good below and will add more in the future.
Siding with the Aggressor 8/29/04:
In an argument I have often observed people instinctively side with the aggressor even if personal safety was not at stake. The attacker is stronger, faster, more determined. By his nature fated to triumph over his enemy, he becomes an object of admiration. Sheer destructive violence is more fascinating to many than playing by the rules. I believe that siding with the aggressor is a primeval survival trait. Along with death wish, desiring the extermination of all rivals, being on the side of the winner ensured a longer life. These traits were superseded with the onset of civilisation, but they never disappeared. Nowadays we can see death wish fuelling peacenik rage, but it’s a death wish that turns against the very society in which they were born, bred and pampered so much that they never grew up into responsible adults. Likewise, instead of siding with boring, humdrum democracy, they support those who want to destroy it. In their boundless love for violence they identify with the aggressor so much that they glamorise terrorism, sincerely believing that in the final Armageddon the enemy will be grateful and spare them. He won’t. Once I read a sentence, maybe in Cyril M. Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”, that went “nobody invites the hangman to the victory banquet”. These babes in the wood will realise it only when it’s too late. As they cloak their deadly hatred of Western civilisation under a pretence of pacifism, so they justify their passionate love for the aggressor by pretending he’s the helpless victim. The intellectuals’ secret love for violence must also be taken into account. Living secure lives, hermetically insulated from reality, they long for excitement. Once they inebriated themselves contemplating Mussolini’s “masculine figure”, then they were all agog for proletarian violence, now they enthuse about the guerrilla of the month. Living mostly in their heads, they want a bit of action and revel in the total destruction they can only dream about.
The Spinsterization of Western Culture 8/26/04:
We’ve often heard about the feminization of Western culture. I would propose instead to talk about the spinsterization (or spinsterification? I do apologise to English speakers everywhere) of Western civilisation. I mean here spinsterhood as a state of the mind, and as such pertaining both to men and women. Forget about the inner child. It’s the inner spinster, the one that lies dormant inside all of us, that has surfaced with a vengeance. The ferocious do-goodery, doing good works all around whether they are required or not. The eternal preaching. There’s a homily for every occasion and an occasion for every homily. The prim, tight-lipped disapproval of about everything (actually, nowadays it’s rather a pout to show off the lips, plus the flaring nostrils). Loving animals and hating people. The moralising fury against small pleasures, like smoking, drinking, red meat, etc.. The constant “now look what you’ve done” look of reproach meant to unleash guilt trips that will last forever, taking as the official excuse concern about the third world or the environment. The tearful sympathy for the oppressed that quickly turns into loving the criminals and despising their victims. The ill concealed resentment against the rest of the world that becomes sympathy for those who want to destroy it. The hatred against men, especially white men, who are always dead and/or stupid. The revenge against Westerners who have a good life, and the attempt to make them wretched and miserable so as to smother them with condescension and good works. Preaching peace while relishing carnage. Seeing opponents as demons from hell. Using one’s own virtue as a battering ram in order to take control. Despite saintly words, absolute power is the spinster’s ultimate target and worthy causes are nothing but means to an end.
Leftists as Aristocrats 9/14/04:
Over time, lefties have filled the niche previously occupied by the aristocracy. The Italian nobility has not vanished, but since it lost its relevance it keeps itself very much to itself. Aristocrats once used to be the arbiters of taste, the supreme judges in matters of elegance and fashion, and established the rules of etiquette. They decreed what was in and what was out every season, what was done and what was definitely not done. As nobility slowly dwindled into insignificance, it left a social void. Lefties, once the proud sons (and daughters) of the people, moved in to fill that vacant space. It’s amusing to see how lefties, who used to pride themselves on their genuine, down to earth authenticity and their deliberately rough, uncouth manners, are now the essence of social refinement. They dress in cashmere and silk, they discuss wines with the smooth assurance of connoisseurs, and the places where top lefties go on holiday become instantly fashionable for a chosen elite. In their salons gathers the pick of the intellectual world, the culturati and the glitterati of the day. Lefties sneer at the right, which they call vulgar. They shiver when they think that Silvio Berlusconi, our PM, is a self made man, an entrepreneur who started from nothing and amassed an immense fortune. It’s somehow so unrefined. Lefties fawn instead on millionaires who belong to dynasties of industrialists. With their heightened sensitivity, they resemble the fine ladies of the Ancien Regime on the Eve of the French Revolution.
Blame Byron for Entertainment-Industry Leftism 11/21/04:
Why are so many people in show business such passionate lefties? I think the answer lies in the modern image of the artist which comes down straight from Romanticism. The artist had to be poor and misunderstood, an outcast rejected by society. Its ideal was the Byronic hero, an idealized self-portrait of Byron himself. Beautiful and damned, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, as one of his mistresses, the unfortunate Lady Caroline Lamb, described him, Byron was the model for generations of artists after him. Rockstars might never have heard of Byron, but they follow him closely. Either they are beautiful or success adds the indispensable glamour to their looks, drugs and alcohol provide the necessary aura of damnation, and a long sequel of women takes care of the rest. There remains the poor and misunderstood part. Even if in real life Byron was not poor (he extracted enormous sums from his publishers) and, far from being misunderstood, was immensely successful, the romantic image requires it. You can’t be an outcast without it, and here comes the snag. Rockstars are absolutely showered with money, so they can’t pretend to be poor. And when you play to stadiums filled to capacity and thousands of people sing back your songs at you the “nobody understands me” line just doesn’t wash. Yet they must do something, so they take up some great cause, rail against globalization that made them famous all over the world, against the capitalist system that made them rich beyond their wildest dreams, and against a war that ensured they could sleep safely in their fabulous Hollywood-style villas. It’s a hard life to be a rebel.
Separation of Church and State in Ancient Greece 9/18/04:
We should be grateful to ancient Greeks. They not only invented democracy and laid the foundations for Western civilisation, but added another distinctive trait to it. Unlike other ancient peoples, Greek culture was not in priests’ hands. Although religion was respected, it wasn’t the centre of power. Culture developed largely outside temples and shrines, so the ever inquisitive Greeks could exercise their natural curiosity as much as they pleased. There were no boundaries established by a priestly caste, no “thou shalt go no further”. Afterwards the always practical Romans made religion a support of the state. All over the world a priestly caste, any priestly caste, if left to its own devices will tend to run the whole show. Arts, science, philosophy, and politics. Especially politics. A theocracy is a tightly built power system in which an absolute control is exercised over everyone. The doctrine is declared holy and therefore untouchable. There is no room for doubts and questioning. Doubting is in itself a crime. There are fixed rules for everything. Departure from the norm, however slight, is regarded as heresy and severely punished. This way any change is impossible. In order to keep its control over the masses a theocracy’s structure is so rigid that any alteration threatens its stability. If a theocracy tries to change it is doomed to collapse, as happened to the Soviet Union. Communism, like other totalitarian systems, is a theocracy. There is a central messianic figure, or priest-king, the dictator, a holy doctrine, Marxism, and a priestly caste, the intellectuals and the bureaucrats. Don’t expect a theocracy to relent. If it does, it’s doomed to extinction. Rather, it will tighten its control to ensure its own survival and it will resort to more and more violence and cruelty in the name of religion. There is no humane theocracy, as there is no humane dictatorship. On the contrary, Western civilisation has a high degree of flexibility. Its various components, arts, science, philosophy, politics, and religion, although interconnected, are not so tightly bound to each other as to make change impossible. They can develop autonomously without endangering the whole system. That’s why the West has been able to evolve so much, and so fast. Freedom is a basic ingredient of Western culture. Sometimes we might resent all this “doing one’s own thing”, all this running in several directions at once. It might make us feel weary and anxious. Nevertheless, without the liberty to experiment, to try out different ways of doing things, our civilisation would become sterile and die. Freedom and belief in the dignity of the individual made the West what it is.
Thursday, August 07, 2014
JOURNALISTIC APPEASEMENT, WITH A PRECEDENT
The London Times said it refused the ad because “the opinion being expressed is too strong and too forcefully made and will cause concern amongst a significant number of Times readers.”
Hmm…reminds me of something. Yes…
In 1939, photos of dispossessed Czech Jews wandering the roads of Eastern Europe were made available to the Times. Geoffrey Dawson, then the editor of this publication, refused to publish them: it wouldn’t help the victims, he told his staff, and if they were published, Hitler would be offended. (Source: William Manchester, The Last Lion: Alone, cited in my 2006 post here and with an extended excerpt from the book at this interesting post on appeasement.)
WORTHWHILE READING & VIEWING
US Civil Rights commissioner uses “science” to argue for restricting the free speech rights of college students. (Is anyone surprised that he was formerly an aide to Nancy Pelosi?)
Fuel cells as a major energy source: for real this time?
Sunday, August 03, 2014
TWO SURVEYS ABOUT ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIANS
Survey by Pew Research conducted 7/24-27 and survey by Gallup conducted 7/23-24. There are some notable differences in the results…while the questions asked weren’t precisely the same, they seem pretty close, and the response gaps seem pretty significant.
Effect of age: When asked about Israel’s response to the conflict with Hamas, in the Pew survey, only 22% of those in the 50-64 and 65+ age ranges say “gone too far,” whereas about 30% of those in the 18-49 range give this response. With the Gallup survey, the question was whether Israel’s actions are “justified” or “unjustified”…about 30% of those in the 50-64 and 65+ ranges said “unjustified,” whereas 51% of those in the 18-29 range, and 43% of those in the 30-49 category, gave this answer.
Effect of race: In the Pew survey, 14% of whites, 27% of blacks, and 35% of Hispanics said that Israel is most responsible for current violence. In the Gallup survey, the justified/unjustified question resulted in 34% of whites saying that Israel’s actions were unjustified, with 49% of nonwhites giving that response.
Effect of gender: With Pew, 19% of both men and women say that Israel is most responsible for the current violence. With Gallup, 32% of men but 49% of women say that Israel’s actions are unjustified.
Effect of political affiliation: With Pew, 13% of Republicans but 26% of Democrats say Israel is most responsible for the violence. With Gallup, 21% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats say Israel’s actions are unjustified.
These opinion numbers are important not only from the standpoint of Israel’s survival and well-being, but also for the survival and well-being of the United States and the entire world, as they are largely (though not completely) proxies for attitudes which greatly affect our long-term ability to conduct a rational foreign and military policy in the face of radical Islamic terrorism.
MOVIES ABOUT LEADERSHIP
I think there are quite a few other movies and TV series that could be placed in this catgory. For starters:
Once an Eagle, which follows the comparative careers of Army officer Sam Damon–an excellent leader–and Courtney Massengale, an officer whose ambitions exceed his abilities and performance.
Friday Night Lights, focused on leadership in a sports, school, and community context.
The Caine Mutiny, which is indeed about leadership, albeit of a not very effective kind. ”No one is totally useless, you can always serve as a bad example.”
Saturday, August 02, 2014
RECENT EVENTS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
…remind me of a few things.
There are a lot of people who can’t understand why Israel can’t just achieve a compromise settlement with the Palestinian leadership, in Gaza and elsewhere. In response to this kind of thinking, here’s a comment by the writer and former Army intelligence officer Ralph Peters, written circa 2006:
One of the most consistently disheartening experiences an adult can have today is to listen to the endless attempts by our intellectuals and intelligence professionals to explain religious terrorism in clinical terms, assigning rational motives to men who have moved irrevocably beyond reason. We suffer under layers of intellectual asymmetries that hinder us from an intuititive recognition of our enemies.
And in 1940, the French politician Paul Reynaud, who became Prime Minister of France just two months before the German invasion, incisively explained what was at stake at that point in time, and why it was so much greater than what had been at stake in 1914:
People think Hitler is like Kaiser Wilhelm. The old gentleman only wanted to take Alsace-Lorraine from us. But Hitler is Genghis Khan.(approximate quote)
Today’s radical Islamists, including leaders of Hamas, often assert: “We love death like you love life.” This expression is very close to that of the Spanish Fascists of the 1930s: “Long live death!” The Fascist motto was taken from that of the Spanish Foreign legion….it is pretty strange even as the motto of an elite military force, and, when adopted as the motto of a society-wide movement, is a pretty good indicator of people who have moved “irrevocably beyond reason,” as Peters puts it.
The excuse-making for Palestinian terrorism, and romanticization of same, continues. It is especially strong today in Europe, but also exists on a considerable scale in the U.S., and indeed, even some Jews and Jewish organizations seem to be bending over backwards to find some moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas. I believe the psychological mechanisms behind these attitudes are significantly explained in a 1940 essay by C S Lewis on the “Dangers of National Repentance.” When Lewis wrote (March 1940), there was evidently a movement among Christian youth to “repent” England’s sins (which evidently were thought to include the treaty of Versailles) and to “forgive” England’s enemies.
“Young Christians especially..are turning to it in large numbers,” Lewis wrote. “They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England…Most of these young men were children…when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?”
“If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happen) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society…The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor; for a foreign secretary or a cabinet minister is certainly a neighbor…A group of such young penitents will say, “Let us repent our national sins”; what they mean is, “Let us attribute to our neighbor (even our Christian neighbor) in the cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.” (Emphasis added.)
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
"BUT WOULD YOU WANT YOUR DAUGHTER TO MARRY ONE?
…one of the supporters of the other political party, that is?
The graph above reflects an estimate of what percent of Republicans and Democrats would feel displeased if their son or daughter were to marry a member of the opposing party. I constructed the graph based on the survey data reported in this paper and referenced in this Psychology Today article.
The most interesting thing about the graph IMO is the sharp increase from 2008 to 2010…might this have something to do with the election of Barack Obama and the policies and rhetoric he has pursued since his first inauguration? It’s too bad that there are only the 3 data points for the survey data. In any event, it is clear that the past 50 years have seen a considerable uptrend in the belief that political divisions between the major factions are so strong as to prevent a happy and successful marriage.
The PT article is titled ”Why Republicans Don’t Want to Marry Democrats,” and goes on to say that ”As we’ve become increasingly polarized in America, conservatives have also defined liberals as an out group.” I think the title is a little dishonest: although the data shows a higher % opposed to cross-party marriages among Republicans than among Democrats, the proportion is quite substantial for both side: 49% versus 33%. Furthermore, the increase in such negativity from 2008 to 2010 is pretty similar: 1.81 versus 1.65. (Also, the survey wasn’t about who people wanted to marry; it was about who they wanted their children to marry.) And re the assertion about conservatives defining liberals as an out-group, anyone who has been paying attention over the past 6 years has seen and heard a constant stream of vituperation directed at conservatives, libertarians, and indeed anyone who dares depart from the “progressive” worldview. (As a very current example, see the just-uncovered comments by former IRS official Lois Lerner.)