Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Description of the World - Part 70

Francis L. Wellman, The Art of Cross-Examination (I bought this book in the early 60s from a store across Crenshaw Avenue from El Camino Jr. College. I mention this detail, which I remember for some other inexplicable reason, because it reminds me of how I came to be a reader of such various things. Part of it is simply a reflection of a defect of character, a permanent lack of focus; but the difficulty of acquiring books of any kind had something to do with it too. I read what I could find. Gardena had dreadful libraries and the tiny El Camino shop was the nearest bookstore if you don’t count the used furniture store whose owner was more interested in selling bookcases than books and, in any case, had little use for anything not printed in Hebrew letters. Come to think of it, drug stores commonly had revolving racks of pocketbooks in those days so I acquired things from that source too. For the most part, what I read was all a matter of random access, exacerbated from the fact that I never really had a mentor or adviser to structure my reading. For that matter, very little of what I know was ever taught to me. I’m a living warning of the consequences of self- education. Which is how I came to read a practical guide to grilling a witness even though I never expected to be a lawyer. Oddly, this book is a very good read, especially the interrogations in the back, though I can’t find a transcription of the courtroom downfall of Oscar Wilde there, though I was sure that this book was where I read it. I guess a demonstration of the fallibility of memory is appropriate apropos a book on testimony. I have a certain affinity for Wilde. We both are guilty of a sin that dare not speak its name. Not homosexuality—I prefer girls—but a fatal proclivity for one liners. Wilde got into trouble on the stand when he tried to be too clever during a cross examination and that keyword made me think I’d read about the case in a book on cross examinations.)

Theodore Zeldin, France 1848-1945: Intellect and Pride (This is one section of the author’s big book on France. I have the entire work bound in one or two volumes around here someplace; and in one form or another I’ve read the same chapters several times in the interest of getting and keeping a handle on things French—I have a reputation for having a good memory, but the half life of information in my head is no longer than anybody else’s. I just keep relearning the same things.)

G.J.A. O’Toole, The Spanish War; An American Epic 1898 (Since we acquired Puerto Rico during this brief spasm of traditional imperialism, it seems appropriate to leaf through this book a month after Maria hit. Acquiring bits and pieces of the Caribbean was an obsession of Southerners both before and after the Civil War—Jefferson Davis wrote letters in support of annexing Cuba from exile. Of course the Confederates didn’t have a monopoly on imperial dreams—Grant and his cohorts had designs on getting the Dominican Republic—but it’s interesting to learn how many old Rebs had a hand in the Spanish American War including Robert E. Lee’s nephew Fitzhugh Lee who was the American consul in Havana when the Maine blew up and Joseph Wheeler. Both of them were Generals in both the Civil and Spanish wars. Wheeler, at least was good at it, perhaps as good as the more famous cavalry leader Bedford Forrest. Of course we didn’t actually annex Cuba, and the war seemed to quench for some time the taste of the American public for literal empire building. The permanent anomaly that is Puerto Rico is good evidence of the downside of stealing other people’s real estate. The war, after all, was pure piracy.)

Richard Jenkins, Pierre Bourdieu (In the extremely unlikely event anybody ever comes up with the theory, let me assure everyone here and now my use of the word hexis as a sometime nom de guerre on the Internet and as part of my email address has nothing to do with Pierre Bourdieu, who uses the word and habitus, its Latin semi-equivalent, in somewhat idiosyncratic ways. I just picked up hexis because I liked the sound of it, though I knew it meant something like disposition in GreekI probably encountered it in Ross’ little book on Aristotle. That said, I sometimes find my thinking getting close to Bourdieu’s or to what I imagine Bourdieu was thinking. I make no strong claims on that score. The one thing I’m sure about is that I find his writing extraordinarily opaque, which is why I’ve resorted to high-brow Monarch notes like this one and even looked up habitus on Wikipedia. Incidentally, Jenkins is similarly unsure if he understands what Bourdieu is driving at.

Bourdieu and I have this much in common. We’re both trying to grasp what it’s like to be part of the hive mind of humanity.* In some respects I’m still trying to parse the word “conditioned” as in individual thinking is conditioned by culture. When I was a kid, I rebelled (like everybody else) at the suggestion that I was a puppet whose strings were being pulled by something called Society. That seemed implausible and not simply because the idea violated the American ideology of individualism. For one thing, since there’s nobody here but us chickens, society is just us and our stuff. It isn’t materially separate. Meanwhile, the occurrence of deviancy and creativity has to be accounted for. If Society is God, as Comte taught us, it isn’t just the devil he’s got on a long leash. Agency is not just a nice thing to believe in. It’s a reality, though, a reality that didn’t look very impressive from where I was and am sitting. There are always choices, but they are drastically constrained. You get to play. Indeed, you have to play. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the options are limited by the grammar of the game, which is why deviance so often turns out to be another form of conformity. In the play I wrote for my junior high school graduation, I had a character claim that “People make choices. They’re the only things in the universe that make choices.” Sixty years later, I’m a little less impressed about that.

*According to Nagel, it’s hard to know what it’s like to be a bat because we aren’t bats. I’ve discovered that it’s hard to know what it’s like to be a human being because we are human beings.)

Zeev Sternhell with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asferi, The Birth of Fascist Ideology (Sternhell doesn’t regard fascism as a freak but as an ideology with continuing appeal that can’t be tisk-tisked away as we always and fruitlessly try to do with other persistent right wing ideas. I agree. Nazism really was an aberration, and thinking of it when we hear the word fascism is rather like taking a penguin as your idea of a bird. You can certainly make the case that the word fascism should be reserved for a very specific, time-bound phenomenon, and if I were an empirical social scientist like Michael Mann, I’d probably opt for something like that, though current reactionary-populist movements in the U.S. and many other countries are coming pretty close to satisfying even the most stringent sociological criteria. Sternhell’s somewhat wider version also makes historical sense however. Because the fascist revolt against liberalism and democracy he describes is more specific than a mere revulsion against the Enlightenment, because in its own way it aspires to be hypermodern rather than traditionalist, I think of it as vulgar Nietzscheanism. Sorel, the philosophe who, as Sternhell notes, was never a philosopher and knew it, stood for a revaluation of all values, for a revolution built on myths rather than on some ineluctable historical dialectic. A parody of Zarathustra stands in for Marx and a fortiori for Hegel. There’s a lot of that going on in the strutting il Duce but also in Lenin’s strikingly voluntaristic version of Marxism. Not for nothing did both the Communists and the Fascists send delegations to Sorel’s funeral.

One fragment of from Mussolini’s description of Sorel has stuck with me for years for obvious reasons: “library-devouring pensioner.” Ouch.

A passage worth quoting, which is also rather uncomfortable: “If fascism wished to reap all the benefits of the modern age, to exploit all the technological achievements of capitalism, if it never questioned the idea that market forces and private property were part of the natural order of things, it had a horror of the so-called bourgeois, or as Nietzsche called them, modern values: universalism, individualism, progress, natural rights, and equality. Thus, fascism adopted the economic aspect of liberalism but completely denied its philosophical principles and the intellectual and moral heritage of modernity.”)

Max Hastings,  Bomber Command: Churchill’s Epic Campaign (About the only excuse I can come up with for reading military history is that getting into the details of what war is really is just about the only way for non-participants to come to understand just how vicious and stupid it is. Kids and men who never grow up continue to believe that the virtuous and clever win with acceptable losses against serious opponents when it always comes down to attrition. Maybe we’d have a different view of things if we weren’t always talking to survivors, but it’s hard to debrief the dead. Hasting’s anecdotes are terrifying enough for me.)

Richard Rhodes, The Making of Atomic Bomb (As far as I know, this book, which won a deserved Pulitzer, is still the standard account of the building of the bomb. In the end, the Manhattan Project was a huge exercise in what one of the scientist called “sweet engineering.” It was damned hard to pull off and fortunately still is, but physicists anticipated the possibility a long time before Los Alamos—I underlined the bit about how Rutherford had quipped (in 1903) how “some fool in a laboratory might blow up the universe unawares;” but you didn’t have to be one of the Gods of physics to get the picture. My Dad told me that his physics prof at UCLA had foretold the bomb circa 1930. Once you recognized that atoms had nuclei with mulitiple positively charged particles, it was obvious that only a tremendously strong force could hold them together against their mutual repulsion The nucleus is like a tightly compressed spring. When a fission bomb detonates, the kinetic energy of the particles is actually electro-magnetic in origin, though it would been amateur branding to have called it the electric bomb and other forms of energy release are involved.)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Description of the World - Part 69

Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c. 1540-1660, ed. Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn (I don’t think I ever read this collection of scholarly articles. I may have bought the book for the pictures, which are indeed interesting. I think I know why the topic appealed to me. Back in the 90s I got to thinking about the sheer abundance of visual images in contemporary life, the epidemic of illustrations. Which raised the question of how many images were available to previous generations and what difference did the scarcity of pictures make?. Historicists of a certain denomination, adherents of the Whorf hypothesis, and many others who retain a faith in psychology believe that ancient peoples and distant tribes inhabit a different reality because they have a different mentality. I’m inclined to think they have (or had) a different mentality because they inhabited a different reality. Language, belief, culture aren’t lived in the privacy of private skulls The things of the world are their body. Which is why, gazing at the relics of the past in museums and books, I find myself quoting the Tin Man: “That’s you all over.” Were icons and images a burning issue in previous ages at least in part because there just weren’t very many of ‘em?)

The Okagami: A Japanese Historical Tale, trans. Joseph K. Yamagiwa (Two ancient duffers, one 150, the other 140, tell stories about court life in Medieval Japan. “I have seen a great many sights, but among them none was more fascinating than when Retired Emperor En’yu was viewing the Special Festival at Iwashimizu.” To tell the truth, the sight in question wasn’t all that spectacular, at least from the point of view of a coarse Westerner or contemporary Japanese kid who wants car chases. Japan suffered plenty of the cruel and showy events that characterize the history of other lands, but it also went through long stretches of solitude and political immobility. It, or at least its elite, lived inside a couple of soap bubbles that didn’t burst for a surprisingly long time. In several periods, it lived the End of History or so Fukuyama, the End-of-History guy, supposed. (He was actually channeling a footnote in Alexandre Koj√®ve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.) Once the historical dialectic reaches it’s end (for the time being), there’s nothing left but aestheticism and the meaningless pursuit of prestige, viewing the moon and improvising little poems. My guilty confession is that I don’t think that outcome would be especially disastrous.)

Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam ( I lived through the Vietnam War era, which is why I don’t understand it at all and why I have never managed to read this now crumbling paperback from 1973. For that matter, I’d rather go to the dentist than watch the Ken Burns documentary. Since I sat through several teach-ins during the War and have read a couple of histories of Vietnam, I know the facts pretty well. Lord knows the rightness or wrongness of the America involvement was chewed over endlessly at the time; and, contrary to an impression many people have, it wasn’t the case that students were uniformly anti-war. I was at a debate over the war at the Yale Whale that ended in a dead tie. For that matter, I had mixed emotions about the war at the time. I thought it was a mistake, not only morally but as a matter of national strategy; but I was also worried that the anti-war movement was going to result in lasting cynicism and division. I spent two hours on a ratty sofa in a grad dorm arguing with the Reverend William Sloane Coffin on that very point—he waved away my concerns. He was as idealistic as a boy scout and just didn’t understand how political anger was curdling into nihilism and Yuppy self absorption. Confusion about the war was all the deeper because it was quite impossible to separate the political from the personal when you were facing the draft, a fact that was underlined when Nixon ended the draft and the air almost immediately began to leak out of the anti-war movement. The hangover was painfully ambiguous as well.  The fall of Saigon wasn’t an edifying moment for anybody and not just because so many lives had been lost for nothing. It was hard not to feel that we didn’t act honorably as a nation when we washed our hands of any responsibility for the South Vietnamese. The law of overshoot in operation.

I have evolved my own party line on Vietnam, but it is obviously incomplete even assuming it’s right as far as it goes. The revisionists are correct to the extent that it is perfectly true that the victory of the North guaranteed forty years of economic stagnation and authoritarian rule, but wrong in not recognizing that people will fight to the end for the right to make their own mistakes coming out of imperial domination. The fundamental error of our policy was in the way we framed the situation. There were two great themes of international politics after World War II, the Cold War and the end of the colonial empires. American foreign policy was most successful when it supported decolonization, but much less successful when it cast everything as part of the struggle against the Reds. We should have co-opted Ho Chi Minh, not opposed him; but once Eisenhower didn’t insist that the South live up to its treaty obligations to hold and respect general elections, it was too late.

Robert L. Heilbroner, Business Civilization in Decline (Like many other lefties—Gabriel Kolko and E.P.Thompson—Heilbroner recanted some of his hostility to capitalism in the 80s and 90s. In 1976, though, he was still predicting the advent of some version of socialism because planning seemed to be the only answer to the disorders that plagued the capitalist economy. He wasn’t unequivocally happy at the prospect. Greater co-ordination and social solidarity challenged the individualistic values he very much cherished. Of course it turned out that the very problems he thought would hasten the advent of socialism—stagflation, resource shocks, environmental problems—ushered in thirty years of neoliberal domination in both government and economics departments. Forty years on, I wonder if Heilbroner might yet turn out to have been on to something. It’s not that classic socialism is poised for a global comeback, but the economic order of 2017 is dominated by the contemporary version of cartels and monopolies, organizations that are planned from the top. We don’t have Vladimir Lenin, but we do have Jeff Bezos. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple are each worth more than a great many countries, and none of them have internal markets. We are endlessly told about the structural inefficiency of command economies, but the dinosaurs that dominate the capitalism of our times are all command economies and are crushing the smaller outfits. The bitch about these outfit is not that they don’t work, which is why complaints about them have a conflicted undertone. To paraphrase Augustine, the line seems to be “Save me from Amazon, O Lord, but can we keep the free two-day shipping?”)

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Written in the 30s and reissued with a new introduction in the 60s, this venerable tome seems musty indeed, though what makes it seem so dated is not so much that the technology it describes belongs to the first decades of the 20th Century, but that it talks about man’s destiny is accents reminiscent of Raymond Massey in the Shape of Things to Come.)

Friday, September 15, 2017

Description of the World - Part 68

Yet Another Resumption of Unclear Jesting in the Atmosphere

Michael Johnston, Political Corruption and Public Policy in America (I’v got this book because it happened to be published by a company I was working for. I also knew its author. He was a freshly minted PhD at the University of Pittsburgh when I met him but already a pretty well known mavin on political corruption. I gather he’s still working on that topic as an emeritus prof at Dartmouth. He’s hardly a fan of graft, but he doesn’t look at it as simply something to be ritually deplored. It is, among other things, a way of getting things done, some of them worth doing, so as with so many other things, it depends. Patrolling the potholed byways of Pennsylvania, you could easily understand why people reacted to the bit about the road to Hell by saying “at least it’s paved!” And if bad intentions work as well or better than good ones? The blogger Atrios wished out loud the other day that the crooked pols of his end of the state would figure out how to make their corrupt profits improving the roads instead of subsidizing useless shopping malls and impractical technologies. We could certainly use a better class of grifters. My wife had very little use for Johnston, who was a big sloppy man who chugged beer with abandon—I thought he was jovial; and big or not, he could certainly play softball. Rita predicted an early death for him, but he’s still around 40 years later. Apparently her actuarial instincts were no better than her taste in husbands.)

David Hunt, Parents & Children in History: The Psychology of Family Life in Early Modern France (Earthquakes have aftershocks of decreasing intensity and so do books. This small volume is an aftershock of Phillippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood, which was officially a BFD in the 1960s, though Aries’ claim that children were regarded as merely little adults before modern times, that childhood was, at it were, invented has lost a lot of ground, in part because of the efforts of people like Hunt. His response to Aries reminds me of the way Foucault was received. “Very interesting,” said one friend of mine apropos of Madness in the Classic Age, “but has he done his homework?” Foucault turned out to be much more fecund than Aries, but the knock is the same. On the other hand, some of the archival material Hunt reviews from the time of Richelieu shows that childhood has certainly changed even if it wasn’t exactly invented. Nobody should really be surprised at this. After all, in the same years when the juvenile Dauphin of France could gaily wave his cock (coq?) in front of the ladies in waiting without getting investigated by the FBI, the young Gargantua was conducting extensive research on the best way to wipe your ass. [Since nobody but me reads old books any more, I should perhaps pause here to report his conclusion in the interest of science, if not hygiene. The optimal butt wipe is a live goose, but you’ve got to keep the beak under control.])

Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition (I was going to say that I never got around to reading this book, but the underlinings show that I did. [here, I took a tenth month break in writing this paragraph the better to enjoy the disaster that probably verified Hofstadter’s conclusions if I could remember what those conclusions were.]

Peter  Vansittart, Voices from the Great War (As I’ve probably remarked too many times already and probably in almost the same words, World War I remains the real Great War for me. The sequel was bigger, vastly more expensive, deadlier, and had much better special effects; but it couldn’t improve on the horror of the founding stupidity of the short Twentieth Century. I also keep up an interest in WWI because I’ve been able to experience how what was still a living memory of a shattering event became the answer to a multiple choice question or, at most, another filler for the History channel. For most Americans, the war has failed to qualify as sacred history, i.e. to pass muster as one of the handful of foundational myths like Washington or the Civil War; but it hasn’t failed by that much, which makes it an interesting case.

But back to the book. This little compilation of very short contemporaneous reports, quotations, and poems arranged in chronological order is depressing rather than challenging unlike Nicholaus Baker’s corresponding effort, Human Smoke, which commits premeditated outrage on pieties about the Good War. Still, there are enough surprises in Voices to remind us that objects as complex as major wars can’t be defined by simple adjectives. For example, it’s easy to think of the famous denunciation of dulce et decorum est as the fundamental message of the war poets, but Wilfred Owen could write:

       As bronze may be much beautified
       By lying in the dark, damp soil,
       So men who fade in dust of warfare fade
       Fairer, and sorrow blooms their soul.

       Like pearls which noble women wear
      And, tarnishing, awhile confide
      Unto the old salt sea to feed,
      Many return more lustrous than they were

That’s not quite 

      I sometimes think that never blows so red
      The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled.

but it isn’t froth corrupted lungs either.

E.P.Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (This late work of Thompson about the nature and political meaning of English customs is less forceful that his earlier and better known writings. The ifs, ands, and buts accumulate in the ideological arteries of the old lefty as they do, for that matter, in the circulatory system of any scholar who hasn’t become a booking agent for own greatest hits tour. You keep pouring over the evidence and adjusting your conclusion so that eventually the parts where you take it back choke off the parts where you put it out.

Thompson always knew this much: the lived experience of ordinary people can’t be boiled down to formulae; and the culture of the people is a moving target, not a mass of eternal mores. The Levi-Strauss bit about cold cultures is misleading—the folk have a history same as everybody else. They just they have less ability to remember it, and that creates an effect of antiquity. Seventy years ago is time out of mind for them so folkways of fairly recent vintage seem vestiges of the Dreamtime and are treasured as such. In fact, it’s the people in the big houses that have durable records, though they also overestimate their powers of memory. What they don’t forget is what you owe, which is why burning the charters is such a standard feature of peasant revolts.

Mikhail Heller, Cogs in the Wheel: the Formation of Soviet Man (There’s the event, its tendency, how it was remembered, when it was remembered, how its remembering at a given time was itself an event… Evidently we’re dealing with very few scalars and the tensors in question are of a fairly high order. It’s like writing a time travel story and finding that there just aren’t enough tenses in the English language. This book is interesting to me to look over in 2017 as much because it was written in the middle of the 1980s and translated into English in 1988 as because of any interpretation it supplies of Soviet history. I’m not suggesting it’s dated. All books are dated, though some of ‘em are more suited to having their dates ignored than others.* Fact is, I don’t remember Heller’s book well enough to make a reasoned judgment about that; and, in any case, you have to take into account the time of the initial reading and the time of the reading of the marginal notes by a being who is surely dated himself and unlikely to be eternalized and who, anyhow, read Red Plenty between time t1 and time t2.

Heller was a refugee from the USSR and had an emigre’s chip on his shoulder. That hardly disqualifies his analysis, but the polemical point of his book makes more sense in terms of the time when he escaped Russia than the time when he wrote the book. I’m reminded of a textbook of historical geology I once read that was written by some profs in Michigan. When these fellow started out to write, the pre-tectonic plate understanding of continent formation was still credible and must have seemed very natural to geologists who had done field work all their lives hammering away on ancient metamorphic rocks from the North American craton. By the time they finished, as they admitted in a rather remarkable preface, the evidence for plate tectonics had become overwhelming. Heller’s timing was even worse. The introduction to the English edition was mostly a long warning that Gorbachev would turn out like all the others. It was as if Frege had got the book out before he got the postcard from Bertrand Russell. Heller had a deeper problem, though. He seems to have treated the Soviet system as more monolithic and unchangeable than it ever actually was. Although it’s useful to learn that glasnost and perestroika were invoked by earlier incoming party leaders, even early on in the Gorbachev era—before Heller wrote his Introduction, in fact—it was pretty clear that the meaning of these cliches were mutating. Both the insiders and their external critics had a motive to deny that anything ever changed. The ridiculously stilted party argot was useful to both sides to prove their point. The Reds were always building the new socialist order and creating a new man. The Communists were always constructing an infernal machine to turn men into cogs.

Heller didn’t think that the Soviet system would go on forever. He knew that empires get old and fall, either by internal decay or the intervention of external forces; and he was aware that the technological change was presenting the Reds with a challenge they were especially ill prepared to meet, the advent of the information economy. Still, I tend to be more of a Hegelian about what actually happened than Heller for whom the end of the game must have seemed like the bursting of a bubble. The regime could have persisted for a long time if its leaders continued the old policy of hypocrisy and band aids. It was Gorbachev’s sincerity that finished it off. Trying to live up to the Communist promise was fatal. He actually believed the dream. 

*Reading sub specie aeternitatis is a rather specialized activity. You have to be taught how to ignore context in philosophy school, though a number of history majors seemed to have acquire the skill through independent study. A naive reading looks like the default approach because it is superficially similar to a reading simplified by mere ignorance when it is actually the willful scrubbing of the paint off all those marble statues. We’re talking here about a premeditated innocence. Incidentally. To admit that is not to criticize the approach.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Data Point

I had occasion to recall an incident of my youth in a Quora thread. I repeat it here to establish a reliable historical record.

When I was young, I walked in my sleep. Once while I was at college I woke up with muddy feet, dressed only in a tuxedo jacket. What was especially alarming about that was that at the time the campus was being terrorized (if that’s the right word) by some guy who urinated in the dead of night on the flower beds in front of the women’s dorms. I was afraid I might have been the mad pisser (as people called him). Fortunately for me, the real mad pisser kept getting madder and soon revealed himself in broad daylight by urinating from a bell tower on a passing philosophy professor.

In the Quora thread, somebody misunderstood the story and asked “Philosophy Professor? That seems most appropriate. Why did they consider him mad?” I responded:

The philosopher professor certainly wasn’t mad. In fact he was a rather eminent man in his field—he’s got a Wikipedia page—and was regarded with great respect and affection by the students and faculty. His moral earnestness—I almost wrote innocence—did strike some of the more irreverent among us as amusing, which probably accounts for the “improved” versions of what happened at the end of the mad pisser saga. The story ran that eyewitnesses saw the prof holding out his palm as if to see if it were raining and then looked up… That picture is almost too perfect, and I didn’t include the detail in the interest of journalistic accuracy. It is mere hearsay. On the other hand, it is true that the bell tower, a then recent addition to the school paid for by a rich alumnus named Smith, was known locally as Smith’s last erection.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Residual Karma

I search for the ripening remains of what were once desires,
Circling the place where I forgot some great event
Long ago, when my wings weren’t black.
The body lives but the soul is carrion.

In the Aztec eschaton
To reach their ultimate annihilation,
The dead must journey a hard journey
On the other side of the grave.
I pace that stony road before the furnace,
A dung beetle rolling his own corpse.

Not being is nothing to be concerned about:
There’s no bad weather in that abyss,
And lots of interesting company:
Heroes, philosophers, saints,
Achilles, Immanuel Kant, four-sided triangles,
Hopping and paddling through lakes of clover,
Things red and green all over,
Virtual particles in perpetual motion,
And even the edifying notion,
Which should end this lament.
All these things aren’t and will be my companions there,
But it’s the death I live that oppresses me.
Somebody forgot to turn the lights off.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Self Reliant to the End, He Drove Himself to the Autopsy

In many of the postmortems I'm detecting what I'll call the fallacy of intellectual optimism, the notion, understandably popular among thinking people, that understanding things solves all problems. I don't doubt that Clinton and her supporters could have been done things better—when is that ever not true?—but I don't discount the possibility that some sort of disaster was inevitable. Small differences in the votes in a few states might easily have resulted in an electoral as well as a popular majority for Clinton, but nearly half the country would still have been rabidly against her. I'd certainly prefer to undergo the Purgatory of a bitterly contested Clinton administration than the Hell of a Trump regime, but there are deep reasons why a happy outcome may have been impossible. We underestimate how profoundly the transition of America from a white Christian country to a genuinely multicultural and multiethnic nation affects the would-be Herrenvolk. They actually are losing out, at least relatively; and a better analysis of the situation isn't going to change that anymore than a definite diagnosis of end stage lung cancer means you aren't going to die. The rise of women in business and politics is perhaps even more difficult for men, white, black, Asian, or Hispanic, to stomach. If you're a man and doing well, the equality of the sexes may be unproblematic or profoundly welcome. For a great many men, however, that is not the case. On top of all this, modestly skilled and educated people are simply less valuable in a high tech world. That is also a fact. Trump is offering this huge group imaginary solutions to their declining fortunes, but over the medium term, there aren’t anything but imaginary solutions apart from the usual weak tea. How is understanding the plight of the Trump voters in the face of this pile of social and economic revolutions supposed to help politically?  We all have an obligation to try to find answers, but that doesn't mean there are any, at least in the short run.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Charitable Hope 

In the Last Emperor there was a scene in which the imperial eunuchs, suddenly out of a job because of the revolution, are dismissed from service. Each one is given a little black bag that contains his balls so that all of them would leave service with everything they came into it with. One hopes that at the end of this election, Trump will have the decency to give Pence, Giuliani, Christie, and Priebus their little black bags....