Repost-Tom Wolfe’s Social Realism, New Journalism & ‘Reginald Bacon’

The satire of the liberal intelligentsia is pretty rich, as well as the Southern Gentleman’s WASP ‘rejuvenation.’ You just know Christopher Hitchens had to get-in on that action:

From the Late Show in 1989 with Howard Jacobson:

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Is Tom Wolfe seeing things clearly, as they really are?

Certainly the liberal pieties and the conflicted, activist base is still ripe for the picking…for what is preventing the mocking of the Brooklyn hipster and the echoing of ‘This Land Is Your Land’ across the fruited plain?:

Peter Berkowitz review of Tom Wolfe’s Miami novel here.

What are you looking for in a novel:  Ideas and the deployment of ideas?  A reflection of your life/times/society? Good prose?  Characters that pop into your life?  Glimpses of the author? Pleasure?

The deeper divisions, as Wolfe’s novel compellingly presents them, are between those who believe that happiness consists in one form of pleasure or another — including the aesthetic pleasure of sensitively glimpsing one’s own sensitivities and the sensitivities of others — and those who, like Tom Wolfe and his heroes, believe that happiness consists in the exercise of courage, self-control, and the other qualities of mind and character that constitute human excellence.’

A New Yorker review here.

See Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic: That Party At Lenny’s for a rich account of the 60′s.  I remember reading ‘A Man In Full‘ a while back, and having mixed feelings.

Christopher Hitchens & William F Buckley On Anglo-American Relations

Roger Scruton On Moral Relativism And Ross Douthat On Bill Maher

I’m sure some will be eager to note that this took place in Budapest, Hungary, a country currently under politically right leadership, out from under tradition and institution-destroying Communist bureaucracy, in the news these days for refusing many Middle-Eastern refugees.

I recommend the video, as Scruton spent many years behind the Iron Curtain, working with folks to help chart a course out of Communist rule.

Moral Relativism is actually quite hard to define:

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A quote that stuck out:

‘There’s an attempt to produce a universal, objective morality, but without any conception of where it comes from.’

Where does the moral legitimacy come from to decide what a ‘human right’ is?  A majority of ‘right-thinking’ people?  A political majority? Some transcendent source?

As this blog has often noted, such secular idealism can lead to an ever-expanding list of human-rights, demands, and obligations; these in turn leading to rather sclerotic, over-promising, under-delivering, deeply indebted European states and poorly functional international institutions.  It can also produce a kind of liberal bien-pensant worldview, which can catch a radical cold every now and again, but which generally supports political leaders claiming such ideals and causes.  Oh yes, most folks nowadays believe we’re progressing, but where was that we were progressing to, exactly?  How do you know this to be true?

Many Christians in the West tend to see such secular idealism and humanism as being birthed from Christianity, and as being unmoored from the duties and obligations that come with religious belief in a transcendent God.  People haven’t changed that much, after all, nor has human nature, they often subtly argue, pointing out the many consequences such secular humanist claims have in the world by placing all kinds of laws, duties, and obligations upon us all.

Ross Douthat made similar arguments some years ago while promoting his book ‘Bad Religion:

‘…what is the idea of universal human rights if not a metaphysical principle?  Can you find universal human rights under a microscope?

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As previously posted:

Part 10 of a discussion between Douthat and Will Saletan here.

Natural law, Christian theology and metaphysics meet liberalism, gay rights, and a more rights-based definitions of liberty. Saletan and Douthat are discussing Douthat’s new book Bad Religion and having a back and forth.

Douthat puts forth the following:

‘Indeed, it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all. No ideal of universal human rights without Jesus’ radical upending of social hierarchies (including his death alongside common criminals on the cross). No separation of church and state without the gospels’ “render unto Caesar” and St. Augustine’s two cities. No liberal confidence about the march of historical progress without the Judeo-Christian interpretation of history as an unfolding story rather than an endlessly repeating wheel’

Perhaps modern American liberalism can claim other roots for itself.  Here’s a quote from Leo Strauss, who has influenced American conservative thought heavily:

“Strauss taught that liberalism in its modern form contained within it an intrinsic tendency towards extreme relativism, which in turn led to two types of nihilism. The first was a “brutal” nihilism, expressed in Nazi and Marxist regimes. In On Tyranny, he wrote that these ideologies, both descendants of Enlightenment thought, tried to destroy all traditions, history, ethics, and moral standards and replace them by force under which nature and mankind are subjugated and conquered. The second type – the “gentle” nihilism expressed in Western liberal democracies – was a kind of value-free aimlessness and a hedonistic”permissive egalitarianism”, which he saw as permeating the fabric of contemporary American society.”

And another quote on Strauss, which seems more compelling to me:

“As Strauss understood it, the principle of liberal democracy in the natural freedom and equality of all human beings, and the bond of liberal society is a universal morality that links human beings regardless of religion. Liberalism understands religion to be a primary source of divisiveness in society, but it also regards liberty of religious worship to be a fundamental expression of the autonomy of the individual. To safeguard religion and to safeguard society from conflicts over religion, liberalism pushes religion to the private sphere where it is protected by law. The liberal state also strictly prohibits public laws that discriminate on the basis of religion. What the liberal state cannot do without ceasing to be liberal is to use the law to root out and entirely eliminate discrimination, religious and otherwise, on the part of private individuals and groups.”

I’m more interested in the many people who are claiming that more freedom is necessary to reach a liberal ideal as they go about extending it to another group of people.  They aren’t just asking for a little more freedom, for as we humans do, they are striving to make their ideal the highest thing around, as well as a source for the laws, and a way to organize people and a path to political power and influence.  That seems to be part of the deal, but rarely discussed and I think should be open for debate a la Strauss.  Christianity certainly has a lot of experience in that realm.

Related On This Site: While politically Left, Slate used to be a bit edgy, thoughtful, occasionally more of a haven for artists, writers, creative thinkers and iconoclasts (Christopher Hitchens was a good example). At least Saletan thinks pretty deeply  From Slate: William Saletan’s ‘White Men Can’t Jump’

Douthat’s The Grand New PartyRoss Douthat At First Principles: ‘The Quest for Community in the Age of Obama: Nisbet’s Prescience’

Nussbaum argues that relgion shouldn’t be a source for the moral laws From The Reason Archives: ‘Discussing Disgust’ Julian Sanchez Interviews Martha Nussbaum…More on Strauss as I’m skeptical of his hermeticism and his strong reaction to Nietzsche and some things he may have missed about the Anglo tradition: From Philosophy And Polity: ‘Historicism In German Political Theory’From The Selected Writings By And About George Anastaplo: ‘Reason and Revelation: On Leo Strauss’

How does Natural Law Philosophy deal with these problems, and those of knowledge?

Nailed? Jim Epstein At Reason: ‘The New York Times’ Nail Salons Series Was Filled with Misquotes and Factual Errors. Here’s Why That Matters.’

Full piece here.

A very thorough fisking of some apparently very shoddy reporting showcased by the NY Times, and a very good read.  Parts II and III to come.

Hopefully the Times and the reporter in question get a chance to respond, perhaps in an open forum?

Apparently, many nail-salons have been offering the equivalent of unpaid internships for people to gain skills, which, you know, large newspapers are known to do (the Times pays apparently slightly more per week than some of the salons reported on in the article).

Epstein:

‘The “great lesson” here is actually something different. I’ve spent the last several weeks re-reporting aspects of Nir’s story and interviewing her sources. Not only did Nir’s coverage broadly mischaracterize the nail salon industry, several of the men and women she spoke with say she misquoted or misrepresented them. In some cases, she interviewed sources without translators despite their poor English skills. When her sources’ testimonies ran counter to her narrative, she omitted them altogether.’

This might remind of the discredited Rolling Stone story on the UVA case involving ‘Jackie.’

Some people’s ideology can lead them a kind of limitless outrage, to justify all manner of intrusion into the lives of others, often with righteous passion, bad statistics, and a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude.

It’s been a bit of a sad parade these last few years:

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No Art For Anyone and Hollywood For Ugly People-Two Links

At the WSJ: ‘How To Save Art From Islamic State:’

I’m afraid it will likely take more than lists, and that it’s more than just art at stake, including the low probability. high consequences of an attack on American soil….

…but the art really matters:

‘Beginning in 2000, the Paris-based International Council of Museums (ICOM) developed web-based Red Lists identifying those categories of archaeological material and ancient art most in jeopardy. The surveys, which are updated regularly, began with African objects and now include heritage at risk in Iraq and Syria.’

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The Taliban is another ahistorical Islamist movement with fascistic elements seeking to impose their vision of past, present and future upon their subjects.

Above is their response to the ‘modern’ world, and they still pose unique challenges to American and Western interests.

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John Cochrane on economic growth:

‘Sclerotic growth is the overriding economic issue of our time. From 1950 to 2000 the US economy grew at an average rate of 3.5% per year. Since 2000, it has grown at half that rate, 1.7%. From the bottom of the great recession in 2009, usually a time of super-fast catch-up growth, it has only grown at two percent per year.2 Two percent, or less, is starting to look like the new normal.’

How much of this is ‘normal,’ anyways?

Perhaps in order to properly integrate more immigrants (attracting them to the melting pot concept and allowing them to earn their own way over a few generations), and in order to create more harmony between individuals who are members of different racial and ethnic groups, we need more growth.

Wouldn’t you like to grow the American economy in a non-zero sum game, not only toward national security ends, but without losing sight of those ends either?

Yes, city machine politics hasn’t changed much, and ignorance is nearly always the rule and not the exception in human affairs, but it’s this blog’s belief that turning our federal system of government into a repository for activism as well as an estate for secular idealism hinders what is possible.

Art, Politics, Islam, France And All That…

From The American Interest: ‘The Unbearable Lightness Of Freedom:’

‘But one shouldn’t read Submission for its plot. Indeed, the various cheap shortcuts Houellebecq takes in setting up the storyline obscure his major strengths as an author. His talents are much more sharply on display in his previous works.’

Perhaps it’s best not to read a book if you’re not getting some pleasure out of its author’s artistry and abilities?

I do confess the below subject is a favorite of mine:

‘In this, Houellebecq’s intellectual challenge to liberalism is much more troubling than the quite frankly preposterous fictional prospect of a Muslim takeover of France. That people will not willingly submit is central to liberalism’s survivalThat people will not willingly submit is central to liberalism’s survival: citizens must bear the responsibility of choosing and questioning, rather than relying blindly on external authority. We want to believe that only fear, violence or lack of education—exterior factors of constraint—should prevent people from naturally wanting to be free.’

Perhaps novels, poems, music and works of art shouldn’t conform to one’s religious principles, metaphysical doctrines, political philosophy, one’s commitments to activist movements we find in the West (feminist, environmentalist etc)…

Perhaps it is a mistake to ask that they do, and one that good artists continually remind us of not making through their art.

As previously posted:

Interview sent in by a reader with Hollebecq on his ‘Soumission,’ which, in his fictional world, imagines a soon-to-be Muslim candidate defeating a French nationalist candidate, followed by an ultimate submission of French society to Islamic law and political leadership.

Interesting discussion at the link (including a deflation of (R)acism as critical theory).

‘But now you’re asking words to mean something they don’t. Racism is simply when you don’t like somebody because he belongs to another race, because he hasn’t got the same color skin that you do, or the same features, et cetera. You can’t stretch the word to give it some higher meaning.’

On some of Hollebecq’s thinking behind the creative work:

‘Yes. It has to happen sometime and it might as well be now. In this sense, too, I am a Comtean. We are in what he calls the metaphysical stage, which began in the Middle Ages and whose whole point was to destroy the phase that preceded it. In itself, it can produce nothing, just emptiness and unhappiness. So yes, I am hostile to Enlightenment philosophy, I need to make that perfectly clear. ‘

Whoa, at least he’s relatively up front about that.

Isn’t it possible to reject Hollebecq’s modernity-is-dead worldview AND also put the universal claims of progressive, collectivist, ideological, postmodern, multicultural feminist discontents into their proper perspective…without suggesting the end of the modern world and some presumed next stage to be reached?

And as for discussions of art:  Is the book worth a read?

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From the comments:

‘Those of you regarding e.g. feminism as somehow an antidote to the patriarchal impulses in enlightenment thinking or Islam, or in broader terms postmodern political and social movements as offering a ‘third way’, something totally new and immune from this dynamic of competitive decay and decline, forget the fact that these movements are themselves the most recent outgrowths of the emancipative instinct, one of the core features deeply rooted in Western thought ever since the renaissance, as Barzun described. As an Asian living in the West myself, I have to tell you that this instinct is simply not present as a core element in other civilisations, and is indeed distinctive about the West. That Japan and Korea, and for that matter every non-western nation, modernised without a countercultural ‘values’ rebellion is indicative in this regard. The west is going to be without allies as it goes with a whimper.

Under such a depressing worldview, hope is provided for by religion and mysticism, a return to medievalism. It is sad, because the West will truly die as it numbs its own most deeply embedded instincts in the process of conversion, but the mysticism is a form of hope for the masses, who never particularly cared for high ideals anyway.

Houellebecq seems to channel Spengler, who hardly anybody reads nowadays. But that such an interesting thinker is hardly glanced at today is an indictment of us, not of him.’

Also, from the comments.  Hubristic, but there’s something to the grandiosity and deflated nihilism:

‘This is why I love French writers and thinkers. Fascinating to read even if they are always wrong.’

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Denis Dutton suggested art could head towards Darwin (and may offer new direction from the troubles of the modern art aimlessness and shallow depth…the money and the fame) Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’…

Roger Sandall, Australian critic of romantic primitivism and the Western’s Left’s penchant for the Noble Savage: His home page where his essays can be found. Here’s “The Rise Of The Anthropologues“ and…

Robert Hughes, Australian and often fierce critic of modernism and post-modernism.

***I should add that Herzog’s ‘Into The Abyss‘ was worth my time. Herzog is probably not a proponent of the death penalty, but I thought he left me to decide what I thought, and he didn’t flinch from the crime, the tragedy and the loss.

Related On This Site:  From The NY Times Book Review-Thomas Nagel On John Gray’s New ‘Silence Of Animals’From Darwinian Conservatism: ‘The Evolution of Mind and Mathematics: Dehaene Versus Plantinga and Nagel’

From Edward Feser: ‘Nagel And His Critics Part IV’A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

John Gray Reviews Jonathan Haidt’s New Book At The New Republic: ‘The Knowns And The Unknowns’

Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

Sunday Quotation: Edmund Burke On The French Revolution

Some Sunday Links On China

Tyler Cowen from his blog: ‘The Rise And Fall Of The Chinese Economy

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From a George F Kennan article written in 1948 on China.

My how times have changed!:

‘From the analysis in this paper of demographic and economic factors it is concluded that for years to come China will probably be plagued by (1) an implacable population pressure, which is likely to result in (2) a general standard of living around and below the subsistence level, which in turn will tend to cause (3) popular unrest (4) economic backwardness, (5) cultural lag, and (6) an uncontrolled crude birth rate.

The political alternatives which this vicious cycle will permit for China’s future are chaos or authoritarianism. Democracy cannot take root in so harsh an environment.

Authoritarianism may be able to break the cycle by drastic means, such as forcible “socialization”. At best, such measures could be put into effect only at heavy and long protracted cost to the whole social structure; at worst they could provoke such rebellion as to recreate a state of chaos.’

As previously posted:

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Interview here. (Link will not last)

America’s Metternich (mostly kidding) wrote “On China“.  Interesting quote from the interview (unsurprisingly, Kissinger just wants people to read the book):

‘The remarks hint at what may be Mr. Kissinger’s fundamental view of U.S.-China relations—that they are already so fragile that it could be derailed by some candid remarks by him in a simple newspaper interview. Alternatively, he may simply have in mind his own opportunities for “maintaining influence.”‘

Some thoughts and some round-up on this blog.  Isn’t this what blogs are for?:

1. China is an old civilization which has been around for millennia, and which has a long history of a somewhat meritocratic, bureaucratic government long before anyone else arrived at such a form of government.  It’s currently centered around a Han Chinese core and is generally more authoritarian and conformist than most Americans are comfortable with, but to which many Chinese are loyal enough.  This isn’t necessarily a model that travels as well as Western models due to this Han core, but it has its advantages.

This blog is generally not favorable to what it perceives to be post-ish Communist authoritarian bureaucracy, but hey, there you go.  A highly individualistic and a much more conformist civilization are going to not understand one another on many issues. Americans tend to be idealistic and to assume their model is the default model without necessarily understanding how and why others might think differently.

2. China is undergoing seethingly rapid economic, social, and technological change.  It’s tough for many Chinese people to figure out exactly what’s going on, let alone outsiders, but Chinese leadership needs desperately to keep economic growth high, unemployment lower, and to copy, integrate, and frankly, steal, as much information and intellectual property to industrialize and modernize as quickly as possible.

3. Strategically, China has long borders, many powerful, organized neighbors (Japan, Korea, India, Russia) and many diverse ethnic and religious groups the central government has had to keep under wraps (respect is an important concept). Chinese authority must figure out how to match its political structure with an aging population, increasing wealth, increasing ‘middle-class,’ disposable income and expectations, increasing military strength and how to deal with those often powerfully opposed neighbors and internal struggles.

4. The Chinese are often people we can do business with on many levels, people who can be quite pragmatic and seem to want to get rich as much as they want to spread an opposing worldview to Western models.  They’re surprisingly sensitive to their own strengths and weaknesses and generally play their cards close to their chests.  They are quite thoughtful and strategic in often different ways than Americans. This past century is a sore point and seen as a rather shameful anomaly to their longer heritage of being the dominant power in the region.

Unsurprisingly, there is much, much ignorance on both sides, as is typical in human affairs, and ignorance is generally the default position.

5There are near constant and highly organized State-sponsored cyber-attacks and espionage going on against American interests (and some blowback and counter-espionage, I figure).  Many in higher levels of Chinese government clearly see the West as constraining and antithetical to Chinese interests.  Much logic and rational choice compels this, but also much vanity, pride, and fear and ignorance.    Such human nature can be found all ’round.

Feel free to highlight my ignorance.  Any thoughts and comments are welcome.

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Interesting piece here.

Our author reviews Evan Osnos’ book about his 8 years spent living on the ground in China:

‘For its part, the government seems to be making efforts to get a grasp on public opinion, though they stem more from its need to buttress its own chances of survival than from any democratic instinct. Attempts at opinion polling have not gone well, mainly because most Chinese are wary about voicing criticism of the government to a stranger on the phone. Nevertheless, there is the sense that the leaders are aware that the ground is shifting. They just don’t know where it is shifting to—and no one else does, either. There is an obsession with establishing the “central melody” of the current culture, but the tune keeps slipping away.’

As previously posted:

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(Q & A starts at about minute 6:20)

This blog is still trying to better understand China.  Troost traveled for months around the country, went with the flow, and wrote about his experiences.

The book comes highly recommended.

Interview with Troost here (via Althouse).

Fascinating piece here.

What’s life like in Beijing for an American editing an English-language Business Magazine?

Interesting quote on author Eveline Chao’s censor:

‘I understood then the mundane nature of all that kept her in place. A job she didn’t like, but worked hard to keep. A system that would never reward her for good work, only punish her for mistakes. And in exchange: Tutors. Traffic. Expensive drumming lessons. They were the same things that kept anyone, anywhere, in place — and it was the very ordinariness of these things that made them intractable.’

Also On This Site:  TED Via Youtube: Martin Jacques ‘Understanding The Rise Of China’From Foreign Affairs: ‘The Geography Of Chinese Power’From The New Perspectives Quarterly: Francis Fukuyama’s ‘Is America Ready for a Post-American World?’Repost-From The American Interest Online: Niall Ferguson on ‘What Chimerica Hath Wrought’

A Thread Of Stoicism

‘Cling tooth and nail to the following rule: Not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always to take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.”

Seneca The Younger

‘What can I know? What ought I to do?  What can I hope?’

Immanuel Kant