Sunday, January 15, 2006


I am a dreadful housekeeper and keep losing things like combs and scissors. I rummage around for them until I get frustrated and simply buy replacements. Of course once I have the new comb or scissors, all the old ones magically reappear. History has a similar logic. Philosophical questions get asked anew from time to time, for example, not only because they were never fully answered, but in some cases because perfectly adequate answers got lost someplace in the back of the library—a classic instance being the 20th Century debate over metaethics that took about fifty years to catch up with Aristotle. Unfortunately, when the misplaced truth is not a set of academic propositions, but hard won historical experience, the political consequences do more than waste the ample time available to Oxford dons. At present a great many low-level intellectuals and journalists are treading the once well-worn but now mostly overgrown path that led so many liberals and leftists to authoritarian populism at the beginning of the 20th Century. The same themes—integral nationalism, cultural destiny, the moral beauty of violence, the need for external and internal enemies, premeditated political myth, the superiority of will to reason and the leader to the constraints of law—that one finds in Sorel or Gentile or Schmitt are reappearing in new variations, elaborated or, more often, coarsened by assorted op-ed writing profs and television personalities. I don’t know how many of these deep thinkers are aware that what they are proposing is a reprise of a set of proposals that didn’t turn out too well on their first try out. Maybe some of them figure that they’ll do fascism right this time, but I expect that most of them have forgotten or never learned the sad lesson, which, after all, costs more to replace than a comb or a pair of sox.

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