Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Garry Wills on History and Liberalism

Upon re-reading this classic work about American politics and political thought, I came across these quotes about history and liberalism. Do not, in this context, confuse "liberalism" with "progressive" thought or the Left; in fact, Wills argues in his work that liberalism in its many guises is the guiding ideology of  American politics and culture. To what extent this is still true is an interesting point to ponder, but the main point I find in these quotes addresses our relationship to our history as a nation. Ponder this in light of today's events. What Wills wrote in the early 1970s in the context of Nixon and the turbulence of that era certainly applies today; we must find not only a way to rid ourselves of the plague of demagoguery and potential for tyranny, but we must find a way forward.  

History has made us, we cannot remake ourselves. To say this is to say that we are not the heirs, merely, but prisoners of our past thoughts, that we cannot break through them and be free, even when we recognize their delusive aspects. If this is so, then we must perish, feeding on recognized falsehood, our fate the fate of our exposed, exploded theories. But it is not so. Even in the past a great deal of our national life was left out of the accepted theories, and this becomes increasingly true as liberalism fails to enlist the energy and hopes of the young. At any rate, history never rests, never leaves alone the thing it makes; and there are signs that history, having made ours a great nation, may now be in the process of unmaking us—unless we can tap some energies for our own renewal. 

The historical achievement of liberalism is a great one, and even its severest critics would not systematically raze all its monuments. That these great deeds were accomplished by men acting, often, out of self-delusion means only that we are looking at the history of men—the same could be said of any school of thought that led to large actions in the world. One cannot even indulge in “hypothetical history” by saying a different course would have been a better one. 
This is our history, its good and bad intermixed; we cannot choose another. But one thing we can do—we can make history by refusing to rest in liberalism’s self-deceptions, once exposed. 

Wills, Garry. Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (Kindle Locations 9261-9266). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. 

What Wills writes about liberalism in the context of his book can be said of many things: once we've found the rot, we continue to use any tool or thought at our continuing peril. We have to recognize the rot and repair and even improve the tool. 

Compare these thoughts about history offered by Wills with the perspective of R.G. Collingwood. 







Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Robert D. Ray: Some Memories & Observations



The late Governor Ray closer the time I first met him. 


I first remember meeting Robert D. (Bob) Ray when I was 11 years-old. I rode in a car with him and my parents into the city of San Francisco from the airport. The occasion was the Republican National Convention in 1964. Ray was then the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party and leader of the Iowa delegation, and my dad was working for the moderate Republican candidate, Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania. My mom came along because, well, it was San Francisco and she'd lived and worked there during the Second World War. I got to tag along because I was the oldest--or perhaps merely because no one would want to look after four kids back home. In any event, it was the first of many occasions when I had the chance to be around Bob Ray and observe him behind the scenes. Of course, the convention nominated Barry Goldwater for president, and he was soundly trounced by Lyndon Johnson. But the Iowa delegation, to its credit, supported Scranton 14-10 over Goldwater in the crucial vote to the credit of my dad and Bob Ray (a Scranton supporter).

Both Ray and my parents remained loyal to the party and supported Goldwater in the election (although I never believed my dad all that enthusiastic about the task).  Ray, along with other moderate Republicans, worked hard after the '64 Democrat landslide and significantly revived the party in the following election. In 1968, Ray ran for the Republican nomination for governor against a couple of other contenders and won the nomination and went on the win the general election that year. From that point, he never looked back.

Because my dad's firm, Central Surveys, conducted political opinion research in those days, he helped with some polling for Ray and the Republicans. On one occasion, sometime after I'd started college at the University of Iowa, located in the People's Republic of Johnson County (and my faith was quietly beginning to waiver), my dad invited me to join him in traveling to Des Moines. The purpose of the trip was to attend a meeting at the Governor's mansion to discuss planning a survey for the upcoming gubernatorial race. We meet with Governor Ray and several of his aids and party officials. What I observed was pretty much what I'd seen (but would have been able to articulate) ten years before:  with Ray, I found someone who hadn't changed really at all despite having reached a place of some power and prominence. He displayed a dry and understated sense of humor, especially toward some who were critical of him. (Was Roger Jepsen already getting ready to try to unseat him from within the party? Perhaps.) In any event, while mild-manner and not the least bombastic, neither was he a Pollyanna nor did he suffer fools gladly. These were refreshing traits in any politician.

These are memories of a long by-gone era. The Republican Party in Iowa then was neatly divided between the moderates and the conservatives. As I observed it,  the contest was between the pragmatic wing composed of those who looked favorably on progress in areas like civil rights and opportunities for women, and who thought of government as a means--- limited but still substantial--with which to take action for the public good. Thus, Ray supported government programs and initiatives, yet when the government wasn't responsive to the citizenry, he grounded Air National Guard planes until the Guard paid damages that they'd caused to a couple of Iowa families. He also refused to approve of double-bottom trucks on Iowa interstates, much to the chagrin of the trucking industry. He supported and signed into law a bottle deposit requirement over the howling objections of the grocery industry. The attitude of he and his supporters contrasted with the conservatives, who were against most change and who were hell-bent on repealing the New Deal. And they always seemed angry (and still do).

I should add that my perceptions of Ray and his sense balance, humor, and sound judgment were reinforced by hours of talk I heard from Bob Tyson, our close family friend and one of Ray's right-hand men. Tyson served as the Executive Secretary of the Iowa Republican Party during Ray's time as chairman and then served in Ray's administration of Director of something-or-other. But I think Tyson's primary task was to know about everyone, Republican or Democrat. And in all of those stories that Tyson told us--and he was a natural raconteur--he never had anything derogatory to report about Ray or even to incidentally impune him (other than he tended to fall asleep when driving). What I saw and experienced on discrete occasions was apparently what Tyson perceived on a daily basis.

It's easy after someone dies to inflate memories and sweep faults under the rug, but I don't have to do that. As I drifted away from the Republican fold, I did so without any rancor and not without some remorse. There were Republicans then that I would be happy enough to have run the government. My parents and the likes of Bob Ray foremost in my mind as I think this. But as I floated left, the Republicans took a hard right and haven't stopped. What would that generation think about our current president? I don't know, and I wouldn't presume to channel the dead, but these early lessons about politics from my parents, Bob Tyson, and Bob Ray have helped shape the abhorrence that I feel toward the current pretender. I have seen better, so much better, that I can't but the all the more to resist its negation. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

180614 Readings & Comments



1. I suspect that the number of mocking parodies of the Trump movie trailer tailor-made for Kim Jun Un. But if you haven't watched it, do. Here's a considered take on it.





David Brooks

2. Dave Brooks captures the essence of what Trump & other authoritarians (listed) are up to and their effect. Take away quote (and I like wolves on the whole more than those humans who channel their ferocious instincts): 


Those who lost faith in this order began to elect wolves in order to destroy it. The wolves — whether Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or any of the others — don’t so much have shared ideology as a shared mentality.
It begins with 1, some monumental sense of historic betrayal. This leads to 2, a general outlook that says the world is a nasty place, and 3, a scarcity mind-set that says politics is a zero-sum game in which groups must viciously scramble to survive. This causes 4, a pervasive sense of distrust and suspicion, and 5, the rupture of any relationship built on friendship or affection, and finally 6, the loss of any sense that there is such a thing as the common good.
Wolves perceive the world as a war of all against all and seek to create the world in which wolves thrive, which is a world without agreed-upon rules, without restraining institutions, norms and etiquette.
. . . . 
[T]he core divide in our politics is no longer the conventional left-right divide. The core issue in our politics is over how we establish relationship. You can either organize relationship at a high level — based on friendship, shared values, loyalty and affection — or you can organize relationship at a low level, based on mutual selfish interest and a brutal, ends-justify-the-means mentality.



Frank Bruni

3. Sound advice from Frank Bruni: don't vent your anger or try to get even. Get ahead. Take only constructive steps. Don't make your opponent's MO yours. Rise above, don't fall down to that level. Bring together, don't further the divide. 







Tuesday, June 12, 2018

180612 Readings, Viewings, and Comments

Stephen Greenleaf
The distinction between the two types of politics is one that I haven't heard made before, but this dichotomy has great value. In the end, politics is always about change and choice. Politics can't ever really be about "eternity " (timelessness) or inevitability--that 'economic laws or "History" will determine our future and resolve our problems. But my, such beliefs are popular.
YOUTUBE.COM
History is not just what happens in time, it is how we think about time. The present moment seems…



Stephen Greenleaf
12 mins
My last two posts about Romania meld in this article and the accompanying video. About 20K Romanians gathered here in Bucharest to honor Halep.
However, the mayor of Bucharest showed up, and as you can hear, roundly booed. (I think this embarrassed Halep, but fans do have concerns beyond sports.) Afterward, the mayor "blamed 'Soros’s propaganda machine' for compromising the event by infiltrating teams of 'venomous citizens', well organized and strategically placed among decent people." This statement reinforces my sense that the ruling Social Democrat Party is beginning to track the line of other authoritarian movements in Eastern Europe. In fact, the reference to Soros is right out of the playbook of Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban. Soros is a wealthy Hungarian financier and philanthropist and a strong proponent of democracy and classical liberalism (think Karl Popper). And, oh yes, it just happens that he's Jewish. Hmm, what a coincidence. #sarcasm.
Halep's victory was a great moment to share, but the victory of the rule of law, democracy, and constitutional government over corruption, authoritarianism, and anti-Semitism is an even greater contest and one that, if one & preserved, is a win for the entire nation. So, yes, hurray for Halep, and boo to anti-Semitism.
ROMANIA-INSIDER.COM
Some 20,000 Romanians went to Bucharest’s National Arena on Monday evening to cheer tennis star Simona Halep, who won her first Roland Garros title on Saturday.

Monday, June 11, 2018

180611 Readings & Comments


George Orwell
When you have Masha Gessen quoting and discussing George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, you can be sure of receiving some keen and sobering insights. And so it is in this article in which Gessen examines Orwell's conjectures about literature in totalitarian regimes. In the U.S., we don't have a totalitarian regime, but the attack on facts, on truth, is increasing and it begins with the current occupant of the White House. Read this and be forewarned. 

Orwell was right. The totalitarian regime rests on lies because they are lies. The subject of the totalitarian regime must accept them not as truth—must not, in fact, believe them—but accept them both as lies and as the only available reality. She must believe nothing. Just as Orwell predicted, over time the totalitarian regime destroys the very concept, the very possibility of truth. Hannah Arendt identified this as one of the effects of totalitarian propaganda: it makes everything conceivable because “nothing is true.”

Paul Scofield as Thomas More

And here is an excellent complementary article by Michael Shermer writing in Quillette about free speech (which is not exactly the same as our rights under the First Amendment, but that's for another occasion).  The article is a defense of free speech. Note that free speech isn't "free" in the sense of without cost--not at all! Allowing free expression of beliefs and opinions and statements of supposed facts means that error--the un-truth--whether intentional or the result of mere fallibility, will abound. We pay the price for free speech, and the only justification is that the suppression of free speech costs more than its allowance. Shermer argues the point well. And to close, this quote that Shermer includes from Robert Bolt's play about (St.) Thomas More, "A Man for All Seasons." It's a piece that I first encountered as an undergraduate assignment. This particular quote struck me even before I became a lawyer. It's something every lawyer ought to have at hand when someone complains about someone getting off because of "legal technicalities," the Ropers of our current age. Shermer writes:


In the play, a dialogue unfolds over the changing of the law between More and his future son-in-law Roper, who urges him to arrest a man whose testimony could condemn More to death, even though no laws were broken. “And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law!” More entices.
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that.
More: Oh? And when the law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast…and if you cut them down…do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
A great insight. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

180608 Readings and Comments

Some quotes for thought:

When Nietzsche's Zarathustra told the crowd about the last man, a clamor arose: "Give us this last man, O Zarathustra!" "turn us into these last men!" they shouted. The life of the last man is physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates. Is this really what the human story has been "all about' these past few millennia? Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the genus homo sapiens? Or is the danger that we will be happy on one level, but still dis-satisfied with ourselves on another, and hence ready to drag the world back into history with all its wars, injustices, and revolution? 
. . . . 
[W]e can readily accept many of Nietzsche's acute psychological observations, even as we reject his morality. The way in which the desire for justice and punishment is all-too frequently anchored in the resentment of the weak against the strong, the potentially debilitating spiritual effects of compassion and equality, the fact that certain individuals deliberately do not seek comfort and security and are not satisfied with happiness as understood by the Anglo-Saxon utilitarian tradition, the way in which struggles and risk are constituent parts of the human soul, the relationship between the desire to be greater than others and the possibility of personal excellence and self-overcoming--all of these insights may be considered accurate reflections of the human condition, which we can accept without our having to break with the Christian-liberal traditions in which we live.

. . . .

But supposing that the world has become "filled up," so to speak, with liberal democracies, such that there exists no tyranny and oppression worthy of the name against which to struggle? Experience suggests that if men cannot struggles on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: they cannot imagine living in a world without struggles. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and properity, and against democracy.  

All of the above was published over a quarter of a century ago. Is it still pertinent? Does it shed any insight on our current world? 

From a different work, another quote to ponder:

Secrecy is the original sin. Fig leaf in the Garden of Eden. The basic crime against love . . . The purpose of life is to receive, synthesize and transmit energy. Communication fusion is the goal of life. Any star can tell you that. Communication is love. Secrecy, withholding the signal, hoarding, hiding, covering up the light is motivated by shame and fear. As so often happens, the right wing is half right for the wrong reasons. They say primly: if you have done nothing wrong, you have no fear of being bugged. Exactly. But the logic goes both ways. Then FBI files, CIA dossiers, White House conversations should be open to all. Let everything hang open. Let government be totally visible. The last, the very last people to hide their actions should be the police and the government.
Good idea or bad? Feasible or no?

BTW, in a couple of days or so I'll provide attributions for the quotes. I sometimes think that we tend to judge a quote by the attribution (I know I do). Let's think first, attribute later, although if anyone thinks they recognize a source, please do so. You'll earn bonus points (towards what, I don't know).

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

180606 Readings & Comments

Just a couple of items today:


1. "Fascism is Back. Blame the Internet" by Timothy Snyder, WaPo 180521. Snyder is a go-to guy about the threat of authoritarianism. As a historian of 20th century Eastern Europe, you get plenty of opportunities to explore the subject of authoritarianism and tyranny on both the right and the left. Snyder adroitly applies his insights to contemporary America. I should note that the internet might be our downfall or our savior, but more on that some other time (in fact, it may be a race).



2. "On Sovereignty" by Jordan Greenhall. Medium 180219. This isn't about Hobbes or the International Criminal Court or the nation-state, it's about you and me. Greenhall is a fascinating young thinker, and he's building a case for changing (nay, saving) the world along with some other folks that are worth knowing about. This is one building-block in this project. Spoiler alert: it starts with addressing our own shortcomings first.



Tuesday, June 5, 2018

180605 Readings & Comments

Today I'm initiating an experiment. I'm going to share some readings (shorter) that I find worth commenting upon. Somewhat like Tyler Cowen does at Marginal Revolution, and a bit like Robert Wright's Mindful Resistance Newsletter and WTFJustHappenedToday, only with more comment. (And not in the least to presume that I'll replace or even compete with any of those sites.) I'll mostly cover current legal and political news (plenty of that even today) and foreign affairs, but also anything else that catches my fancy that I read or listen to (lots of podcasts are excellent sources of information). You know, basketball, meditation, sex (Hah! Just trolling!).  Anyway, here goes.

1. "Intellectuals, Politics and Bad Faithby Paul Krugman, NYT 180604. I usually agree with Krugman, but I'm not convinced of his argument here. Nor do I buy Niall Ferguson's assertion that "the campus left the “biggest threat to free speech in Donald Trump’s America." Sorry, Professor Ferguson, you can't take that away from #45--he's by far the greatest threat. But that being said, the campus left, so-called "social justice warriors," are a matter of concern. Authoritarianism on the left and on the right poses a threat. I used to pooh-pooh claims of alarm about leftists on campus, but a bit of investigation has led me to worry more, especially in these polarized times. Few people make a distinction between "free speech" and First Amendment rights (which limit only government regulation of "expression) and social coercion. And given the fact that we have a right to avoid and even boycott those with whom we vehemently disagree and to suggest that others join us in doing so, I don't support any claim of right that someone else can censor my right to any information I want to receive by preventing a speaker from speaking (and implicitly my ability to hear and experience this person). Ferguson's alarm and then Krugman's counter-alarm were set off by actions against Charles Murray, a social scientist and author of--as Krugman describes it--a "much-debunked book" about race and IQ. That book is quite old, I believe, and Murray, I think, has published much else since then. In short, if Murray needs further "de-bunking," that should occur by debate and evidence, not student protests. I have no opinion on the validity of Murray's works or arguments. I have only a passing acquaintance.  But if I should disagree with him--even strongly so--that doesn't give me the right to gag him. 

2. Trump and His Lawyers Embrace a Vision of VastExecutive Power  by Charlie Savage, NYT, 180604. Is anyone else alarmed that a president claims that he could pardon himself? I can't cite any chapter and verse off the top of my head, but isn't it fundamental that one can't be a judge of one's own case--assuming you're making a pretext of following the rule of law. This is an essential, deep-seated, beyond-question conflict-of-interest. Yes, kings and tyrants do it, but American presidents? The Founders must be rolling over in their graves--or they're screaming, "We told you so!"  And I must say that #45 makes Nixon seem like a royal piker for arguing so modestly for regal prerogatives. 

3. The Flaw in Trump's Obstruction-of-Justice Defense by Benjamin Wittes, The Atlantic, 180604. Wittes is a fellow lawyer and go-to guy on issues of #45's legal antics and arguments (and he writes for the Lawfare blog). Anyway, he cools the jets on obstruction of justice issues. He doesn't address a royal pardon of the royal person. 

4. On the topic of tyrants and scoundrels, but not our current batch necessarily, Peter Turchin, an evolutionary biologist and originator of Cliodynamics, the study of historical trends, offers this piece in his blog. Entitled "The New Machiavelli," Turchin critiques rational choice theory (from its heyday) as promoted by Bruce Bueno de Mosquita and Alastair Smith in a recent book that applies the theory tout court to national political rulers. In brief, Turchin rejects outright a theory of power based only on self-regarding behavior. Turchin, the biologist and historian, notes the reality of altruistic leadership as well. These traits lie on a spectrum, not on an either/or switch. In fact, I would add the Machiavelli realized this. I believe its a mistake to consider Machiavelli only from the viewpoint of "The Prince." To understand Machiavelli and his values, one must also explore his republican side. And much of what is attributed to The Prince is a caricature of Machiavelli's beliefs and values. 



Monday, June 4, 2018

The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla

Published in 2001, new 2016 afterword
I'm going to do what a good reviewer probably shouldn't do, but life is short and sometimes its good to cut to the nub. Below you'll find the concluding paragraphs of this book by Mark Lilla, and if you read nothing else beyond these paragraphs, you'll have gained a significant value from the book--or at least I did. The topic of the book, generally speaking, is about political thinking by intellectuals in the 20th century, and more specifically, those who in the author's opinion (and mine), took a wrong term. But without further palaver, Lilla's concluding paragraphs:

There is certainly no reason to be nostalgic for the old ideologies and their Jesuits. But that is not to say that the problems they addressed were imaginary or beyond human reckoning. The grand systems were to be resisted because in the end they were inadequate to the task they took up, not because their ambition was wholly misguided. Their failures revealed the need for a more demanding ambition: to understand the present without self-deception. They did not signify the will to make sense of it is futile.

Yet that will has unmistakeably withered since this book was first published [2001]. It has been replaced by a soft dogma for which we have no adequate name. This dogma begins with basic liberal principles like the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, and the distrust of public authority, and advances no further. It is politically democratic but lacks awareness of democracy's weaknesses and how they can provoke hostility and resentment. It promotes economic growth with unreflective faith in the cost-free benefits of free trade, deregulation, and foreign investment. Since it presumes that individuals are all that count, it has next to nothing to say about collectivities and their enterprises, and the duties that come with them. It has a vocabulary for discussing rights and identities and feelings, but not class or other social realities. (The fact that race is now largely conceived as a problem of individual identity and not one of collective destiny requiring sacrifices to reach a common goal, as it was by the American civil rights movement, is significant.) 
This dogma is at once anti-political and anti-intellectual. It cultivates no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. It has no use for sociology or psychology or history, not to mention political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary and productive tension between individual and collective purposes. It is simplicity itself. This explains why people who otherwise share little can subscribe to it yet draw very different conclusions from it. Small-government fundamentalists on the American right and anarchists on the European left, absolutist civil libertarians and neoliberal evangelists of free markets—the differences between them are superficial. What they share is a mentality, a mood, a presumption—what used to be called, nonpejoratively, a prejudice.

Ideologies inspire lies. But what is a lie? It is a pretense to speaking truth about the world—and thus betrays a recognition that people are after it. Dogmas inspire instead ignorance and indifference. They convince people that a single idea or principle is sacred and all they need to know in order to act in the world. Maintaining an ideology requires work because political developments always threaten its plausibility. Theories must be tweaked, revisions must be revised, evidence must be accounted for or explained away. Because ideology makes a claim about the way the world actually works, it invites and resists refutation. A dogma does not. It kills curiosity and intellectual ambition by rendering them pointless. Our unreflective creed is little different from Luther’s sola fide [by faith alone]: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus [perish the world].

An ideology gives people the illusion of understanding more than they do. Today we seem to have renounced trying to understand as much as we can. We suffer from a new kind of hubris unlike that of the old master thinkers. Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention to look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well. The end of the cold war destroyed whatever confidence in the great modern ideologies still remained in the West. But it also left us incurious and self-absorbed. We have abdicated.

And so we need reminding, of many things. Reminding that the problems of capitalist democracies today—the hollowing out of the middle class, the erosion of family and community, the rage against the elites, the eclipse of political parties, widespread indifference to the public interest— cannot be grasped or addressed by focusing single-mindedly on individuals and their rights. Reminding that dealing with people outside our enchanted garden requires more than toleration and concerns with individual human rights. Reminding that we need a much deeper understanding of their histories and psychologies, free from idealization and fear and attentive to the explosive political power of pride and resentment. Reminding, finally, that the lure of tyranny is not the only force that pulls intellectuals off course. Self-deception has countless forms. Today, a decade and a half after its publication, my hope is that The Reckless Mind still serves as just such a reminder.

                                                                                                                --Paris, June 2016 
The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (with a New Afterword) pp. 225-227

Mark Lilla's book is a collection of essays about 20th-century intellectuals who ventured into writing and thinking about politics, often with distressing implications. Each chapter was written as a review of the works of the chapter subjects (the first chapter involves three thinkers, the rest address only a single thinker), but the collection works thematically. In brief, some very prominent European thinkers were either very wrong (or ineffective) about politics. Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt made camp with the Nazis (although Heidegger backed away, he never recanted his venture). Walter Benjamin and Alexandre Kojeve both skirted with radical politics and with unorthodox thinking. Although Kojeve held significant posts in the French government after his time as a lecturer on Hegel, he never acted overtly to implement a particular program consistent with his more radical thinking. Lilla also discusses the work of Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida, neither of whom contributed directly to political theory, although became influential about political thinking indirectly. But both followed the French intellectual fashion of commenting on contemporary politics, with sometimes embarrassing conclusions (the same may be said of Sartre, by the way).

I write none of the above to necessarily denigrate some aspects of the thinkers that Lilla discusses. With all thinkers, one gets both wheat and chaff (although too many are long on the latter). The fact that Hannah Arendt championed Heidegger (even late in life) and Benjamin gives us an indication of the value of their thought even as she would remain hostile to some of their political thought and action.

Lilla's essays provide an effective inoculation against taking in the speculations of philosophers-- especially politically naive philosophers--without a lot of critical judgment. Politics is informed by thought, but it consists of innumerable calculations of interest and belief that will continually defy easy schemes or remedies. As Lilla points out in the quote at the beginning of this review, it's easy to slip into either dogma or ideology when considering politics. I think he would agree with Hannah Arendt (and me) that political thought and action requires thinking--making judgments in the midst of the nitty-gritty stuff of everyday reality as experienced in the public sphere.

An excellent book.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Dark Star Rising: Magick & Power in the Age of Trump by Gary Lachman

No collusion here, but revealing comparisons abound
Having become a fan of Gary Lachman’s work a few years ago, I’ve known that he’s had Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump in the works for some time. The time between his announcement of the project and his report that he’d sent the manuscript to the publisher was some months ago, so it’s been a long wait. As time passed my anticipation grew, and upon receiving the book I had to wonder whether the reality would match the level of my anticipation. The answer, I’m happy to report, is a resounding “Yes!”

I’d learned that Lachman would be exploring the complex of ideas that surround Putin’s regime in Russia, a daunting task given Russia’s cultural heritage that’s as tangled and enigmatic as a great Russian novel. Lachman delivers on this end of the story, but to my delight, he also shines his light upon the American side of this time of political turmoil. His consideration of American-as-apple-pie New Thought and its relation to Trump provides a valuable contribution to our understanding. How does one start with a train of thought that can claim greats like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James—two of the most significant and encouraging of American thinkers—and arrive at Donald Trump?

Also, Lachman provides readers with a new lens through which we can better perceive the Trump phenomena. I’d initially perceived Trump as a clown in the mold of Silviu Berlusconi (Italy’s former PM)—a wealthy philanderer out to massage his own ego and line his pockets while his boorish behavior and grandiose promises distract voters long enough to pick their pockets (which seems all too acceptable in Italy). Later, I came to see Trump as a full-scale demagogue, precisely the type of candidate that political thinkers from Plato to the American Founders (Hamilton and Madison in particular) warned us about and against whom the Founders designed the Constitution. (This blog post addresses both of the first two of my Trump images.)Later, in part as a reaction to Scott Adams’s “Trump is a master persuader and can do no wrong” refrain (my initial response that I now find inadequate). I came to see Trump as a master salesman, a huckster in the classic American mold of hucksters. Only he didn’t sell land in Florida or shares in the Brooklyn Bridge; instead, he sold worthless educational certificates from Trump University and stiffed contractors and investors. A friend of mine captured Trump’s essence by describing him as “a man of low cunning.” More recently, and to use a more contemporary vocabulary, both Max Boot and Tim Egan (and undoubtedly others) have described Trump as a grifter. (Slate has an interesting piece that distinguishes a “grifter” from a “grafter,” but we needn’t quibble.) But while all of these characterizations hold validity, they’re not completely satisfying. While money is a VERY BIG THING for Trump (as it is, less ostentatiously, for Putin, who’s now probably richer than Trump), money alone doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation for the Trump phenomena. Something more, something deeper is at play, and here’s where Lachman has provided us with a more revealing lens. Drawing on the writings of Colin Wilson that deal with “rogue messiahs” (gurus) and “Right Men” (those who cannot admit errors or flaws), Lachman establishes a strong connection between “gurus” and “demagogues.” When reflecting on the traits of gurus gone bad--most prove human, all too human--and demagogues like Trump or Putin, one discovers very similar traits.  Lachman follows this trail of traits to establish—for me at least—that Trump is not just not a normal politician (compromise, give-and-take, follows established norms), but a guru-demagogue in about every conceivable way. He's intolerant of criticism, lacks friends, prefers mass audiences of adulating fans, holds a simplistic worldview of “us versus them,” and so on. This trope of the bad guru fits as well as any . . . Well, except for one more perspective that Lachman provides us.

A more far-fetched, but most intriguing perspective, is to consider Trump a “tulpa,” (or ‘telly-tulpa”), a thought-form, an apparition (albeit one with some material reality) created by mental processes. Lachman draws the idea of a tulpa from Tibetan and magical lore. Whatever the empirical validity of such an entity, as a metaphor, it fits. From this, I can conjure a great opening for a piece about Trump: “A specter is haunting America, the specter of Donald Trump.” Catchy, don’t you think? Just keep in mind that this specter is not a friendly genie that will do our bidding and fulfill our wishes, but an evil jinn who seeks to entice us into our own imprisonment.

Lachman is a thorough, reliable guide through the under-explored and labyrinthian ways of experiencing the world that lie outside of the modern mainstream. Lachman has developed a solid reputation for exploring these less traveled by-ways, and this work proves no exception. And I must mention that Lachman approximates an ideal teacher. He informs his reader about ideas, events, and persons with a very light, unobtrusive touch. One must read carefully to get a sense of where his preferences and perspectives lie. He tosses off comments and asides that provide clues, but he’s never ponderous or pedantic. Only at the end of the book, as on the last day of class, does Lachman pull back the curtain and provide a direct statement of his perspective about what he’s shared. His peroration merits careful contemplation:

Exactly what guidelines we impose on our imaginations is, of course, a serious question . . . . But the very power involved suggests we should proceed with caution, as anyone of any seriousness would; only children play with matches. This does not mean timidly, but with care and an awareness of the responsibility involved. The future perhaps is not only in our hands, but in our minds, and the reality that awaits us in the time ahead may be germinating there now. Let us hope that when it arrives we will be equal to it and that it will bring clearer skies and brighter stars on the horizon. 
Lachman, Gary. Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (p. 192). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 As usual, I find myself mostly agreeing or at least sympathetic with Lachman's arguments, even about points where I’m more skeptical—or perhaps to say cautious—about conclusions and connections. All the points in his case merit careful consideration and invite us to a more in-depth exploration of the issues raised.

For me, a book that promotes—even demands—further explorations of its subjects merits the highest valuation, and this book meets this criterion. I could go on at great length sharing and then riffing on the many issues that Lachman’s book raises: the nature of persuasion; the relation between thoughts, beliefs, actions, and reality; the role of ideas in the material world of politics; the thinning barrier between appearance and reality (or simulacra and simulation); the distinction between “imagination” and “fancy” (or “creativity); critiques of modernity and alternatives to modernity; the illusions and deceptions of postmodernism; the potential for civilizational disruption; and (in my words), why the human herd is so spooked that we have stampeded toward a cliff.


I’ll save exploration of these issues for later blogs, but suffice it to say, I highly recommend reading this book to better understand and investigate the uncertain times in which we now live. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Once More Into the Breach!: A bit more about Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson
I didn't think I'd venture into the Jordan Peterson jungle again because I don't have strong feelings about him. I don't find what I've heard him say or what he's written to be offensive. On the other hand, I don't see him especially novel or insightful. My responses to his contentions tend to be "yeah, probably," "that's plausible," and "I knew that" (which comes to my mind far too often, but I'm working on it.). His biology doesn't seem outside accepted cannons, his liberalism is classical (think John Stewart Mill), and his psychology has a marked Jungian flavor. (But if you want to go beyond Jung, I recommend James Hillman.)
But then I saw and started to read a NYT article about Peterson. I have to admit that I didn't finish it out of frustration that it appeared to me to be another hatchet job (like Cathy Newman on Channel 4). I stopped when the reporter argued to Peterson that there are no dragons and witches.
"“May God us keep
From Single vision
and Newton's sleep.”
I would have let it drop there, but then I came across this article, and I found that it identified many issues that concerned me and that David Fuller's article captured most of my thoughts on these topics, saving me from imposing another word storm any unsuspecting reader.
Take away quote from the article:
"As Eric Weinstein, Bret’s brother, and another member of the unofficial ‘intellectual dark web’ said — “bad faith changes everything”. It’s possible to have any kind of discussion with people you disagree with so long as they are approaching it in good faith — as soon as they are not, they’re just looking to boost their position, look good in front of others or advance their career within their tribe — as Peterson alleged Cathy Newman was — then true exchange of ideas is impossible."
P.S. Following this post I'm going to post about an interview of Peterson by Joe Rogan that I listened to after completing this post. Crazy stuff ahead!

Listening that this podcast (see below), I couldn't find any real point of disagreement with Peterson. And that must mean . . . . Oh my goodness! I'm a member of the . . . . radical center!
I'm poised on the knife edge between chaos and order, between openness to experience and satisfaction with the status quo. I value equality and difference, reason and tradition, and I'm a member of more than one tribe. I'm both critical and appreciative of many thinkers and points of view. I put loyalty to what I believe to be true above loyalty to any one tribe. I believe that tribes are necessary and good but that tribalism is poison. I'm an individual embedded in tribes large and small. It's all so complex! How do people deal with all of this ambiguity, this uncertainty!?
And then I remember.
Just look around. We are--among our many human traits--profoundly ill at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty. We often want safety more than we want to explore and change. And when we crave safety, driven by fear, we really make mistakes. We panic. We buy snake oil remedies, we run for "daddy," who will fix everything if we only trust him. And instead, we get Big Brother. America First, the Fatherland, and so on. Different names, same M-O.
No thanks.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

In his latest work, Timothy Snyder sets a high bar for himself: he compares his project to that of Thucydides in The Peloponnesian Wars. Snyder justifies the comparison by noting that Thucydides, like him, was writing about the events of his lifetime.

Can history be so contemporary? We think of the Peloponnesian Wars as ancient history . . . . Yet their historian Thucydides was describing events that he experienced. He included discussions of the past insofar as this was necessary to clarify the stakes in the present. This work humbly follows that approach. (12)

Snyder also explains his invocation of Thucydides on two additional grounds. First, with Thucydides, "History as a discipline began as a confrontation with war propaganda." Snyder continues,  "Thucydides was careful to make a distinction between leaders' accounts of their actions and the real reasons for their decisions." (10). In the remainder of the book, Snyder endeavors to lift the curtain that seeks to conceal the wizards who are busy pulling levers (or in more contemporary terms, programming content) to beguile their the gullible. Second, Thucydides identified "oligarchy" as "rule by the few," and that term has since found its way into contemporary English via the Russian experience of the 1990s. (I, however, prefer the more old-fashioned American term, "plutocrats," but I concede the point.)

So does Snyder justify his audacious comparison in this book? Yes. I don't know that it will go down into history with the same staying power of Thucydides' classic work, but it certainly meets a similar need in our time.

Snyder provides a crucial scheme to give shape to his tale. He distinguishes three varieties of politics: the politics of inevitability, the politics of eternity, and their mutual alternative, which he doesn't label until the end of the book, but that I'll label the politics of action. (He doesn't explicitly reference the political thought of Hannah Arendt (although he does quote her), but I perceive that his political thinking is very much influenced by Arendt, so I propose the label the "politics of action" in her honor. N.B. In the next to last paragraph of the book he uses the term "the politics of responsibility," I believe the two terms interchangeable from this perspective.) 

What Snyder labels as the politics of inevitability arises from the idea that "the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done." (7). He notes that Soviet Communism held these traits before it morphed into the politics of eternity, but he's most concerned that this type of politics marked American and European thinking at the end of the Cold War, at "the end of history." (Snyder, unlike many other writers on this topic, does not stop to slam Francis Fukuyama at this point, which I find refreshing, given that I believe Fukuyama has been at least in some measure unfairly maligned on this topic. Blog post.)

But when the inevitable doesn't arrive as promised, the politics of inevitability will collapse and "like a ghost from a corpse" (15) the politics of eternity will arise. In contrast to the good times promised by the politics of inevitability, the politics of eternity "places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. . . . Progress gives way to doom." (8). Yet despite their competing accounts of the schema of events, these two modes of politics share specific defining characteristics.

Inevitability and eternity translated facts into narratives. Those ways by inevitability see every fact as a blip that does not alter the overall story of progress; those who shift to eternity classify every new event as just one more instance of a timeless threat. Each masquerades as history; each does away with history. Inevitability politicians teach that the specifics of the past are irrelevant, since anything that happens is just grist for the mill of progress. Eternity politicians leap from one moment to another, over decades or centuries, to build a myth of innocence and danger. . They imagine cycles of threat in the past, creating an imagined pattern that they realize in the present by producing artificial crises and daily drama. (8-9). 
Each of these two visions has its own style of propaganda and creating a "political fiction" (9). It is at this point (and undoubtedly others) that the politics of action pushes back. As Snyder notes:

[W]hatever impression propaganda makes at the time, it is not history's final verdict. There is a difference between memory, the impressions we are given; and history, the connections that we work to make--if we wish. (9)
One final point about the distinction between Snyder's two models of misleading politics. Each, he claims, has "no ideas." This true in some sense, but it misses the point that these competing visions are both marked by one big idea (inevitability or eternity) that spin off the rest of (what passes for) for thought in these two regimes. Snyder spends most of a chapter on Ivan Ilyin, an early 20th-century  fascist Russian "thinker" whom Putin and his court adopted to provide a model for the politics of eternity (and whose remains were brought back to Russia for re-internment more than 60 years after his death, with great ceremony). It seems that the politics of eternity does have "ideas," but that it does not entertain any novel ideas that are grounded in historical reality. (Again, we're reminded of Arendt, who emphasized plurality and "beginning" in her work.).

Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man's freedom.
--Hannah Arendt (1951) (p.111) 

Snyder chronicles the descent of the Soviet Union into the politics of eternity, the chaos after the fall of Communist rule, the early Putin years, and then Putin's gradual adoption of the politics of eternity. I found Putin's metamorphosis most interesting: in his first years of rule, he didn't promote the politics of eternity nor excessive hostility toward the West. Snyder suggests (and I have no reason to disagree) that Putin's takedown of the oligarchs as a political threat and resulted in access to their wealth that he took advantage of and that converted his regime into a full-blown kleptocracy (rule by thieves, in essence). In such a scheme, Putin and Russia could not compete with the West, and therefore, drawing upon a long-standing Russian inferiority complex (my term, not Snyder's), he turned to the politics of eternity. Putin and the politics of eternity practice what Snyder labels as "strategic relativism;" in short, if you can't reach up to your rival's level, then pull them down to yours. And this became Putin's operating principle viz. Europe and the U.S.

Snyder also untangles the confusion about the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and all the surrounding issues. As a seasoned historian of Eastern Europe (and knowledgeable in several of those languages), he watched events unfold in real time. He provides a coherent account of events as well as explaining how those events fit his rubric of the politics of eternity. Snyder realizes how vital the project of getting the facts straight is. As he notes, "To end factuality is to begin eternity" (160) and "The ink of political fiction is blood."  For just a moment, ponder the meaning of that quote in light of the character--or lack thereof--of the current American president.

The final section of the book deals with America. As Putin moved Russia moved more deeply into the politics of eternity, his government began to take what they term "active measures" to weaken and confound the United States. There best weapon? "Donald Trump, successful businessman," a fiction that Snyder describes as "the payload of a cyberweapon." I will not repeat the details here, but suffice it to say that if I'd read this a few years ago, I would have thought someone was trying to update "The Manchurian Candidate" (again, but don't bother with that one). So now when I read the paper, even earlier today, I'm not surprised. Snyder is as honest, forthright, and meticulous as the House Intelligence [sic] Committee was duplicitous in its claim that the Russians didn't favor Trump. (Thank you, Senator Burr, for some refreshing honesty and candor.) Of course, we Americans must take responsibility for the policies and developments that allowed so many Americans to be exploited by this Russian adversary (not the nation, the regime). We set ourselves up; they played us.

As Snyder's prologue was a call to question and understand, his epilogue is a call to action, the politics of action (or "responsibility," as he describes it below). 

To experience its destruction is to see a world for the first time. Inheritors of an order we did not build, we are now witnesses to a decline we did not foresee.  
To see our moment is to step away from the stories supplied for our stupefaction, myths of inevitability and eternity, progress and doom. Life is elsewhere. Inevitability and eternity are not history but ideas within history, ways of experiencing our time that accelerates its trends while slowing our thoughts. To see, we must set aside the dark glass, and see as we are seen, ideas for what they are, history as what we make. 
. . . .
If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity; ad exit the road to unfreedom. We being a politics of responsibility.  
To take part in its creation is to see a world for a second time. Students of the virtues that history reveals, we become the makers of a renewal that no one can foresee. 

This is a brilliant history, meditation, and call to action. I heartily recommend it.  

Timothy Snyder on History



Timothy Snyder, American historian & political Cassandra. Will we heed him? 

One of my abiding interests is the study and use of history. History not just as a discipline, but as a way of knowing the world. And one of my other abiding interests concerns political thought and action. Every once in a while I come across an insightful piece of writing about one or other of these topics, but here I get a twofer from Timothy Snyder in his recently published book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia Europe America. In the prologue, Snyder writes:

History is and must be political thought, in the sense  that it opens a aperture between inevitability and eternity, preventing us from drifting from the one to the other, helping us see the moment when we might make a difference. 
As we emerge from inevitability and contend with eternity, a history of disintegration can be a guide to repair. Erosion reveals what resists, what can be reinforced, what can be reconstructed, and what must be reconcieved. Because understanding is empowerment, this book's chapter titles are framed as alternatives: Individualism or Totalitarianism; Succession or Failure; Integration or Empire; Novelty or Eternity; Truth or Lies; Equality or Oligarchy. Thus individuality, endurance, cooperation , novelty , honesty , and justice figure as political virtues. These qualities are not mere platitudes or preferences, but facts of history, not less than material forces might be. Virtues are inseparable from the institutions they inspire and nourish. 
An institution might cultivate certain ideas of the good, and it also depend upon them. If institutions are to flourish, they need virtues; if virtues are to be cultivated, they need institutions. The moral questions of what is good and evil in public life can never be separated from the historical investigation of structure. It is the politics of inevitability and eternity that make virtues seem irrelevant or even laughable: inevitably by promising that the good is what already exists and must predictably expand, eternity by assuring that the evil is always external and that we are forever its innocent victims. 
If we wish to have a better account of good and evil, we will have to resuscitate history.  
 
 The Road to Unfreedom: Russia Europe America (2018) 12-13. 

P.S. My review to follow soon.