Sunday, October 30, 2016

Quotes from Ophuls, Pt. 1

All quotes are taken from Requiem for Modern Politics by William Ophuls. All quotes are his unless otherwise indicated. I'll post a few quotes each time with the intention that they will act as thought seeds. Is this guy nuts or is he on to something? 

The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wrecked the societies in which they occur.

Alfred North Whitehead (xv)

Of course, all political paradigms contain inherent contradictions and therefore generate problems that must be solved.The job of the statesman, as opposed to the mere politician, is to preserve the paradigm by dealing effectively with these problems. However, if political wisdom and skill are lacking or if the contradictions are very deep, small problems eventually coalesce into a large problemmatique that challenges the old paradigm. At this point, more reform, however well conceived, no longer suffices and may even make matters worse, so pressure builds up for a fundamental change in regime. (26)

The challenge is to find a way of going beyond a moral individualism without losing the individual along the way. (27)

Friday, October 28, 2016

Requiem for Modern Politics: The Tragedy of the Enlightenment & the Challenge of the Next Millennium by William Ophuls

When I took a course entitled “Introduction to Political Theory” as a freshman at the University of Iowa in 1972, the course reading  requirements included Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a selection of Karl Marx that included The Communist Manifesto and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter-Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. You may notice that one of the assigned authors was not like any of the others. Roszak’s book was only published in 1969, and he was not then (nor is he now) among the pantheon of great political thinkers. But the book was as important and influential on me as any of the others. As an ardent young Republican, this book introduced me to a way of thinking about politics and the contemporary world that I’d not been exposed to before (which was true of the other authors as well, but I at least had heard of them). Roszak discussed thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, Norman O. Brown, and Lewis Mumford. What this book did was to critique the liberal consensus of American politics. And back then at least, this included both Republicans and Democrats. In later courses in contemporary political thought (with Lane Davis and John Nelson), the critiques of modernity, industrialism and technology, and liberalism (as a system of thought) became more distinct. I never wanted to throw out the liberal system (in this way I’m very much a conservative), but I appreciate these critiques and regard them (to some extent) as better templates than our current system. And now, with Requiem for Modern Politics: The Tragedy of the Enlightenment and the Challenge of the New Millennium by William Ophuls (1997) I’ve encountered a sustained and summary critique that captures all most everything that I’ve found suspect in social, economic, and political thought and action in the modern world.

For any reader of this blog, my affinity for this book should come as no surprise. In 2014 I had the good fortune to read both Plato’s Revenge and Immoderate Greatness, briefer, more recent books by Ophuls that focus on a vision of a new politics (Plato’s Revenge) and the inevitability of civilizational decline (Immoderate Greatness). Requiem follows his initial work, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revisited (1992; earlier version 1977)(on my to-read list). Ecology focuses a great deal on ecological issues and less on the political and social theory, while Requiem is very much a work in political, social, and economic theory. (Can these three realms be separated? Not really.) In fact, Ophuls dispenses with most of contemporary social science, finding what he needs in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, Tocqueville, Lippmann, and others among the pantheon of great political and historical thinkers. There is no mention of John Rawls in this book. His self-imposed limitation does not impede his argument—it strengthens it. However, he does make one decisive move that distinguishes his work from that of his august forbearers in this field: he bases his work in the science of ecology, something that he emphasizes in all of his works. And, in conjunction with ecology, he necessarily incorporates thermodynamics, complexity theory, and evolution in his explanation of how we humans exist in nature.

His work can be described as one long diatribe (not intending a negative connotation here) against liberalism, and all that has flowered from it: capitalism, industrialism, scientism, and excessive rationalism. The root of Ophuls’s account starts with Hobbes and continues, with modifications, to Locke, and then the tradition blossoms out into a wider array of thinkers. Put simply: liberal culture, which seeks to maximize the liberty of the individual and free him or her from the constraints of tradition in politics, religion, family relations, and economics, is a parasite that destroys its host. In politics and society, liberalism feeds off of family, civil society, and mythic traditions; capitalism feeds off of traditional values, and industrialism feeds off the of environment. In each of these realms, I write “feed,” but the relationship is parasitic, not symbiotic. All of these parasitic systems weaken and will eventually destroy the hosts upon which they depend. Now lest you think Ophuls a fire-breathing radical (I believe he is best described as a prophet), he is careful to base his arguments on traditional commentators and well-supported facts. Nothing that he writes here hasn’t been said before, but nowhere in a single work have I found the critique so thoroughly and convincingly expounded. (Although I must say that he mostly ignores Hegel, although he recognized Fukuyama’s riff on Hegel as a prominent alternative perspective.)

When reading this work, anyone other than the most committed intellectual radical will find something shocking in Ophuls’s contentions. Ophuls castigates the entire liberal tradition, which at least until populism—a profoundly anti-intellectual, non-rational movement that took over the Republican Party—was the basis of all American political assumptions. America is, and always has been the liberal society, par excellence. One can quibble about this observation or that, but Ophuls’s critique is radical in the most basic sense of the word: he strikes at the root. Ophuls doesn’t want to make the mistake of many radicals—destroying that which is valuable in the dominant liberal tradition. The recognition of the dignity and human rights of the individual are values that Ophuls recognizes and wants to preserve. (Ophuls gets down to the details of governance in his book Sane Polity: A Pattern Language (2012) (review forthcoming).

Some of the criticisms that Ophuls levels are not unique to liberalism or modernity. The creep of government, the liability to fall from youthful idealism to crotchety despotism—the Roman historians, Ibn Khaldun,  and Gibbon all described these conditions centuries ago. (And Francis Fukuyama has updated them in his most recent book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (2014)). And not every fault is equal. An argument exists that the U.S. government is too big, too expensive, and too intrusive, but who wants to surrender the feed bag? The military, science, the middle class, the poor (who receive the smallest piece of the pie)? And is the intrusion, at least in economic affairs, so great? Some intervention is needed to protect consumers from corporations and to preserve the integrity and viability of markets. So while these are real concerns, they don’t rise to the level of his more fundamental critiques.

Ophuls has performed a great service with this book: he has criticized some of the key assumptions of our most cherished ideas; he has questioned the very nature of our collective enterprise, and he has done so without rancor and with a sincere care for the values worth preserving and further cultivating. This work is a profoundly mature and thoughtful work. The work is fundamental, and he describes it at the beginning:

I envision a politics of consciousness deeply rooted in a renewed erotic connection to nature and to the mysterious and sacred realm out of which both man and nature arise. But destruction is the precondition of creation. We must therefore begin by examining modernity on its funeral pyre, for it is from the ashes of the old order that the phoenix of the new will rise. (xv)

In the coming days, I’ll post some quotes from Ophuls, hoping to plant seeds of thought in interest readers.  

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

Listening in to a great conversation
A study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind. 
John Maynard Keynes (opening epigraph)

Reading Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder (2012) was like eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation between two very erudite gentlemen who happen to be discussing a topic in which you hold a keen interest. But this unusual book—as an extended conversation—arose from an unusual and sad course of events. Tony Judt was a historian who had risen to prominence based on his longer works and on widely admired (and sometimes criticized) pieces in prestigious publications such as The New York Review of Books. In 2005, he published his acclaimed Postwar:  A History of Europe Since 1945. But then in 2008, Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. The diagnosis is a slow motion death warrant. Yet Judt worked until his death in August 2010. After learning of his diagnosis, instead of writing a large, intended study, he decided to use recorded conversations with Snyder, a fellow historian, as the vehicle for sharing his insights. In fact, the unusual format of an extended conversation works quite well, serving to add a feel of intimacy to the work that it would not have enjoyed if it Judt had written it in the usual manner. Of course, this wouldn’t have worked were it not for Judt’s erudition and facility with words, nor would it have worked without the matching knowledge and insight of Snyder. Both men are professional historians, and both shared an interest in 20th-century European history, history as a discipline, and the application of historical knowledge and insight to current affairs. And perhaps of greatest significance, they both exhibit a profound ethical commitment.

The Berlinian [Isaiah Berlin] lesson most pertinent to daily political analysis and debate is the reminder that all political choices entail real and unavoidable costs. The issue is not whether or not there is a right or wrong decision to be taken, nor even whether you face a choice such as the "right" decision consists in avoiding the worst mistakes. Any decision – including any right decision – entails forgoing certain options: depriving yourself of the power to do certain things, some of which might well have been worth doing. In short, there are choices that we are right to make but which implicitly invoke rejecting other choices whose virtues it would be a mistake to deny. In the real world of politics, as in most other arenas of life, all worthwhile decisions entail genuine gains and losses. (196)

The conversation contained in each chapter begins with a consideration of Judt’s personal and professional history. Following E.H. Carr’s dicta, “Before you study the history, study the historian” and “and before you study the historian, study his background and environment”—dicta that John Lukacs considers a “half-truth”, but which must suffice at present—Snyder has Judt recount his background as the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to London growing up in the 1950s (Judt was born in 1948). From there, the story continues to Cambridge, Israel, Paris, Berkley, and eventually to New York City. Each portion of Judt’s biography serves as a springboard for a discussion of topics in the 20th-century history (centered on Europe and the U.S.). For instance, early on, especially relevant in light of Judt’s Eastern European Jewish heritage, the discussion turns to the role of Judaism and anti-Semitism in European culture. The discussion is enlightening, for one can’t understand 20th-century history and political thought without grasping the importance of “the Jewish question”. 

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that this [the Reagan-Thatcher view that the right to make any amount of money unhindered by the state is part of an unbroken continuim with the right of free speech] is not what Adam Smith thought. And it is certainly not the view of most neoclassical economic economists either. It would simply never have occurred to them to suppose a necessary and permanent relationship between the forms of economic life and all other aspects of human existence. They treated economics as benefiting from internal laws as well as the logic of human self interest; but the notion that economics alone could supply the purposes of human existence on earth would have struck them as peculiarly thin gruel. (247)

(I learned this as an undergraduate in modern history and contemporary political science who hailed from a small town in Iowa where there was only one Jew—that I knew of—in the town, and his living there was no big deal.  The better side of growing up in such a sheltered environment was that most ethnic and racial prejudices, while existent, were of little importance because, except for seasonal migrant workers (“Mexicans”), there were no racial or ethnic minorities. And I have my parents to thank for discouraging such nonsense if it did come up. But when it came to understanding the place of Jews and anti-Semitism in the modern world, I was at a bit of a--not unwelcome--disadvantage.)

It's terribly important for an open society to be familiar with its past. It was a common feature of the closed societies of the 20th century, whether of the Left or the Right, that they manipulated history. Reading the past is the oldest form of knowledge control: if you have power over the interpretation of what went before (or simply lie about it), the present and the future are at your disposal. So it is a simple democratic prudence to ensure that the citizenry are historically informed. (265)

But at the beginning with Chapter 6, my pencil came out. I’d read the beginning of the book with pleasure and profit, but beginning in Chapter 6, I started marking comments that I found especially revealing or with which I agreed, celebrating the identification of kindred thinkers. (I’ve spread some of these quotes throughout my review and at the end.) Judt and Snyder not only talk about events, beliefs, and actors in the 20th century, but they remark upon how those events and beliefs are manifest in our world today. They also provide some insightful comments on the history profession, journalism, the relation of memory to history, and the teaching of history that I found exceptionally well-considered. (And—again—they were making these observations via a conversation, not via a carefully crafted essay.) By the end of the book, I’d marked the book in more red pencil than I imagined I had available.

Nature doesn't mind paths [ways of understanding historical events], but nature abhors a vacuum. We have taken remembering events in a vacuum. Accordingly, we invoke them in isolation: "never again," Munich, Hitler, Stalin and so forth. But how can anyone make sense of such invocations and labels? In American and European high schools today, it is not uncommon for students to graduate having just taken one course in World coupled History: typically this will be either the Holocaust, World War II, totalitarianism or some comparably excerpted were from mid-20th- century Europe. However well taught, however sensitively sourced and discussed, such a course emerges from nowhere and, inevitably, leads nowhere. What possible pedagogical purpose can it serve? (273)

For anyone interested in the history of Europe and America, especially from the perspective of incisive commentary on social and political thought, this will prove an exhilarating read. As a lifelong student of history and as a firm believer in the value of history as a way of knowing and understanding the world, one could not ask for a more worthwhile example of the practice and culture of historical thinking and how it applies to our world. At a time when U.S. democracy and values are threatened by demagoguery unparalleled in my memory, taking (silent) part in the conversation of these two extraordinary historians reminds me that there are those out there who are shining their lights into the darkness. I’m with them. (Keep reading below--the best parts of this post!)

The Churchillian dictum that democracy is the worst possible system except for all the others has some – but limited – truth. Democracy has been the best short-term defense against undemocratic alternatives, but it is not a defense against its own genetic shortcomings. The Greeks knew that democracy was not likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, or authoritarianism or oligarchy; it's much more likely to fall to a corrupted version of itself.
 . . . . Democracies corrode quite fast; they corrode linguistically, or rhetorically, if you like – that's the Orwellian point about language. They corrode because most people don't care very much about them. . . . Democracy is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a good, open society. I don't want to come across as excessively skeptical about democracy: as someone having a preference for the aristocratic, liberal societies of the 19th century. But I do want to make a (Isaiah) Berlinian point. We seem to have simply have to acknowledge that some earlier nondemocratic societies were in certain respects better the late democracies. (306;308)

I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory; to allow memory to put replace history is dangerous. Where as history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes: a theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, flag. Such pneumonic manifestations of the past are of necessity partial, brief, selective; those who arrange them are constrained sooner or later to tell partial truths or even outright lies – sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not. In either event, they cannot substitute for history. (278) 
Remember that in Europe above all, those who have been most successful in mobilizing such fears-fears of strangers, of immigrants, of economic uncertainty or violence – are primarily the conventional, old-fashioned demagogic, nationalist, xenophobic politicians. The structure of American public life makes it harder for people like that to get a purchase on the government as a whole, one of the ways in which the US has been uniquely fortunate. But the contemporary Republican Party has begun to mobilize just these fears in recent times and may well ride them to power.(386) 

This last quote, remember, was written before the rise of Trump and Trumpism.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

Published in 1938, still timely
Reading Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit recreated for me the experience of sitting in the classroom of a wise teacher. In my imagination she’s older, has a bit of extra weight, and is dressed appropriately for the 1930s (when this book was published), looking a bit of the stereotype of the schoolmarm. Well, that’s my imagination; in fact, this early 20th-century feminist, Barnard College graduate, and writer was not at all dowdy when she wrote this book.  (I think, because of similarities of tone and vocabulary, my image merged into that of Dorothy Sayers.) Ueland did, however, live an active life until her death at age 93!

But a mistaken image of Ms. Ueland’s appearance is not so great a mistake as thinking that this book is only for “Writers.” It’s not, it’s for writers, those who don’t (necessarily) earn their living by the pen or aspire to popular acclaim. Instead, it’s aimed at those who want to express themselves—amateurs, like me. Another mistake would be to assume that her work only applies to fiction writers, but good writing and the ingredients it requires, applies to all writing, even legal briefs! So whether you’re aiming for the New Yorker or just a post on Goodreads, this book will help guide and inspire you.

The first benefit of this book is that of a pep talk, and for her guidance, she relies primarily on the great English poet of the Imagination, William Blake. Blake, along with the painter Van Gogh, provide Ueland with statements about the Imagination that she commends to her readers. Blake, with support from other such as Plotinus and George Bernard Shaw, serve as inspirational guides. But the great Russians, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekov are her models for writing compelling stories. All of this she shares with her readers with an infectious enthusiasm, as well she should if following the example of Blake. But while she encourages, she does not compel or prescribe. She respects the genius in each of us and advises writers that we cannot force the imagination. Diligence, yes; compulsion, no. So it’s not a cookbook or a guidebook, it’s an inspirational book with lots of models and insight about the process of writing.

Since this is a short book, I’ll keep my review short. But if you’re a writer, even a casual one, or an artist in any medium, this book can provide you with inspiration and guidance that will be well worth your time and which I anticipate that you will enjoy. 

Brenda Ueland undated photo
Dorothy Sayers undated photo
While these women don't look so much alike, both published in the 1930s, and both wrote about creativity and imagination and referred these qualities to the Holy Ghost.