‘Therein lies the central tension of Speak, Memory. Its prose is meticulous, suggesting memory as an exercise in exacting dictation from an omniscient oracle, yet its message points to memory as mutable, prone to the passage of time and the vagaries of imagination’
“Nabokov in America” is rewarding on all counts, as biography, as photo album (there are many pictures of people, Western landscapes and motels) and as appreciative criticism. Not least, Roper even avoids the arch style so often adopted by critics faintly trying to emulate their inimitable subject.’
What’s more American than an exiled member of the Russian aristocracy intimately making his way into the English language and peering out from a thousand Motor Lodges?
A little bit about politics and also the politics amidst fellow writers and critics:
‘…when in doubt, I always follow the simple method of choosing that line of conduct which may be the most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells.’
‘Who’s in, who’s out, and where are the snows of yesteryear. All very amusing. I am a little sorry to be left out. Nobody can decide if I am a middle-aged American writer or an old Russian writer—or an ageless international freak.’
On his professional collection of butterflies:
‘The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.’
Via Youtube: An interviewer, Nabokov and Lionel Trilling discuss ‘Lolita:’
‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’
‘Recognizing the ancient ideas at work in these modern arguments puts those of us committed to America’s parrhesiastic tradition of speaking truth to power in a better position to defend it. It suggests that to defeat the modern proponents of isegoria—and remind the modern parrhesiastes what they are fighting for—one must go beyond the First Amendment to the other, orienting principle of American democracy behind it, namely equality. After all, the genius of the First Amendment lies in bringing isegoria and parrhesia together, by securing the equal right and liberty of citizens not simply to “exercise their reason” but to speak their minds. It does so because the alternative is to allow the powers-that-happen-to-be to grant that liberty as a license to some individuals while denying it to others.’
Further exploration in the video below…:
My brief summary (let me know what I may have gotten wrong): Bejan appeals to two ancient and somewhat conflicting Greek concepts in order to define two types of ‘free speech.’
Isegoria: More associated with reason, argument, and debate. You may feel, believe and think certain things to be true, but you’re a member/citizen of a Republic and you’ve got to martial your arguments and follow the rules (not all people may be members/citizens either, depending on the rules). Many Enlightenment figures (Locke, Kant, Spinoza) appealed to reason more through isegoria according to Bejan (given the tricky course they had to navigate with the existing authority of the time). Think first, speak later.
Parrhesia: More associated with open, honest and frank discussion, and with much less concern as to consequences: ‘Say-it-all’ Socrates was voted to death by the People after all, despite his reasoning prowess. She brings up Diogenes (the lantern guy), who flaunted convention, tooks serious risks and even masturbated publicly. She brings up all the racy stuff even Quakers and various other sects said against each other in the early days of our Republic.
So, why create this particular framework, and why is it necessary to ‘go around’ the 1st amendment upon it in pursuit of Equality?: Perhaps one of Bejan’s aims is to resuscitate an American liberalism which would allow old-school liberals to appeal to young activists and a lot of young people influenced by activists, obliquely routing all back to the Constitution. Only through becoming aware of their own assumptions can liberals better address the ‘hate-speech’ concept (with no Constitutional basis) which has taken root in our universities, for example.
Bejan relies on some data and some anecdotal evidence from her own teaching experience to justify a potential shift in public sentiment, requiring of her approach. Such evidence might line-up with elements of libertarian/conservative critiques of liberalism, too, which tend to focus on liberals lacking a sufficiently profound moral framework to justify why liberals should make and enforce laws, and run our institutions, especially when those institutions are judged by outcomes, not intentions, bound as they are within a Constitutional framework.
So far, I’m not sure I’m persuaded by Bejan’s reasoning, for why not just stick to teaching, promoting and discussing the Constitution? Has Bejan really punched a hole back to the Greeks, or has she fashioned a tool-at-hand to grasp certain products of Enlightenment modernity to address more crises of modernity?
***In the video Bejan mentions, in non-Burkean, non-conservative fashion, our founding documents, the French Revolutionaries, and the U.N. charter as examples of rights-based thinking. Of course, beyond debates about liberalism, there’s quite a lot of dispute about where our rights might come from in the first place (from God, from a Deity, from Nature, from Nature’s Laws, from past Laws and Charters, from knowledge gained through the Natural Sciences, from the latest Social Science, from coalitions of like-minded people, from majorities/pluralities of people, from top-down lists of rights and ideological platforms etc.)
‘I keep hearing about a supposed “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, or statements such as, “This isn’t free speech, it’s hate speech,” or “When does free speech stop and hate speech begin?” But there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. Hateful ideas (whatever exactly that might mean) are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas.‘
‘A true devotee of freedom of speech says, ‘Let everyone speak, because it is important that all sides are heard and that the public has the right to use their moral muscles and decide who they trust and who they don’t’. The new, partial campaigners for friends’ speech effectively say, ‘Let my friend speak. She is interesting. She will tell the public what they need to hear.’ These are profoundly different positions, the former built on liberty and humanism, the latter motored by a desire to protect oneself, and oneself alone, from censorship. The former is free speech; the latter ‘me speech.’
“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.’
‘Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. ‘
‘Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. ‘
And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.”
Tzvetan Todorov is primarily a literary theorist, but it’s often worth highlighting the following:
“Or take the current fetishisation of The Science, or as Todorov calls it, ‘scientism’.”
“We experience this most often, although far from exclusively, through environmentalist discourse. Here, science supplants politics. Competing visions of the good are ruled out in favour of that which the science demands, be it reduced energy consumption or a massive wind-power project. This, as Todorov sees it, involves a conflation of two types of reasoning, the moral (or the promotion of the good) and the scientific (or the discovery of truth).”
On this analysis, those who would defend skepticism and political conservatism against climate change politics (demanding less, much less and in some ways more, from their politics …and with a healthier understanding of what politics can do) are boxed out.
But our author is somewhat critical of Todorov’s approach:
“Any redemption of the hopes of the Enlightenment, any revival of the core principles of Enlightenment, from autonomy to secularism, can never be a purely intellectual exercise.”
I suppose we’ll see what the French body politic decides to prioritize in conserving and changing:
‘Emmanuel Macron is running for his second term of five years. He is a political centrist. Five years ago, he won easily in a runoff against the far right Marine Le Pen. Until recently, it was assumed that Macron in this election would repeat that easy victory over Le Pen.‘
‘Funny word, “tribe”. Karl Popper used it a lot but you don’t hear it much today.
‘As Popper told the historical story, in the 5th and 6th centuries BC the tribal world of the old-time Greeks was breaking down. Everywhere there was change and decay—or change that looked like decay. And it is the anxiety and distress felt by men and women in this situation that leads them to try and freeze all change and return to the tribal past. He thought Plato’s thinking exemplified this.‘
‘While I am complaining, I will also note that Scruton has nothing to say about how several of these figures—especially Žižek and Alain Badiou, along with Jacques Derrida, who is barely mentioned here—have played a role in the so-called “religious turn” of humanistic studies, in which various movements generally called “postmodern” find a significant place for religion in their reflections, if not in their beliefs or practices. This marks a significant departure from the relentless secularism of most earlier forms of European leftism, and that deserves note. Nor does Scruton account fully for Jürgen Habermas’s reputation as a centrist figure in the German and more generally the European context. (Habermas too has spoken more warmly of religion in recent years.’
I’ve heard Scruton’s rather sober vision of the good society referred to as ‘Scrutopia’ by dissenters:
So, what is all this Nothing-ness about? ‘My view’, says Scruton, ‘is that what’s underlying all of this is a kind of nihilistic vision that masks itself as a moving toward the enlightened future, but never pauses to describe what that society will be like. It simply loses itself in negatives about the existing things – institutional relations like marriage, for instance – but never asks itself if those existing things are actually part of what human beings are. Always in Zizek there’s an assumption of the right to dismiss them as standing in the way of something else, but that something else turns out to be Nothing.’
Horses I pleasurably beat: It’d have been nice if the old liberal guard within our universities had said something like ‘no‘ to many of the radicals roiling in front of them. ‘You are still required to read The Canterbury Tales by the 25th.’ ‘Also, you have to let other people think and speak.‘
This old nag: Many a rationalist, secular humanist, and liberal idealist likely believes that while activists get carried away, the cause is mostly just. Religion is still poisoning everything, and the new fields of knowledge can bear the weight of humanity’s ignorance, suffering and hope. Math + data + new social science research + applied policy + conventional wisdom through the academy and media = sufficient moral orthodoxy. The moral force of change against injustice can be directed into a liberal order all individuals can get behind (and not be ground under).
The Appaloosa is a proud breed. I’m skeptical of the view that marginalized people, the meekest and poorest among us, are generally served by the kind of inverse religious logic a radical Marxist employs, even as the Marxist goes too far. The prediction I hear from the liberal mainstream is this: Such malcontents can be kept below deck. (S)elf still comes first, but (S)elfhood will require allegiance to the old/new institutions as long as these are run by the right people with the right moral lights. In the control room, where the sea spreads before the best and brightest, (H)istory is capable of producing the right men to steer the Ship of State.
It’s odd to have those who conserve finding themselves out of conservation, wishing for the roiling and disruption of existing institutions, still while being called ‘Hitler.’
Populism is all around, and for good reasons.
More like a draft horse: The pipers calling are human nature, truth and reality. Can you hear the tune?
Many radical discontents exhibit the chaotic minds, troubled souls and controlling tendencies of the all-too-familiar religious zealot (always there amongst the pews). We still live in a world of limited resources and hard choices where life ain’t fair. Politics calls forth a few 1st-rate men but a majority of ambitious 2nd and 3rd raters who think they’re 1st-rate (a surprising number of scoundrels).
In lieu of an older, more religious American idealism, a new moral and moralizing force forms in the gaps, where old money gets co-opted by new zealots. A lot of change, very quickly, compels towards new rules and new authority.
This is coming from Left and Right, and the newer Lefts and newer Rights.
I guess I don’t trust any one man, (this is why we have our Constitutional constraints and separation of powers).
We’ll see about if my hope for better speech rules have been misplaced…
The previous two cents and two cents more gets you close to a nickel: Twitter as a platform is what it is (especially good at brief bursts of condensed information, data gathering, and disasters). It’s the kind of internal, open chat platform within a company, scaled more broadly. All you need is a device, free software to download, and voila, you’ve become a node on a vast network. This has advantages.
Communication, however, is obviously a pathetic prosthetic for human contact and real conversation. I suspect the people curating Twitter of playing a dumb, dumb game by favoring their favored biases (like all of us, to some extent) instead of just letting speech flourish.
‘Clarity: As I’ve said, the movie abstracts from concrete reality certain general character types, purges from them the nuance and complexity in which we find these general patterns embedded in everyday life, and re-embodies them in extreme characters so that we might more carefully consider those types. Just as we know more clearly what it is to be a triangle by abstracting from particular triangles (red ones, green ones, triangles drawn in ink, triangles drawn in chalk, etc.) and considering the general pattern, so too does the movie allow us to see more clearly what it is to be a desperate man, a cruel man, a weak man, a dishonest man, a broken man, and so on, by way of its skillful caricatures.
So, in its integrity, proportion, and clarity, Glengarry has the marks of a beautiful thing, despite its grim subject matter. One need not admire and approve of Satan in order to admire and approve of Dante’s or Milton’s literary representations of Satan, and one need not admire or approve of the sorts of people represented in a film like Glengarry in order to admire and approve of the representation itself.’
‘You call yourself a salesman you son-of-a-bitch?:’
For those who’ve ever had a real job, and seen people at their best and worst, or been reasonably honest about their own motivations and willingness to be do right by others under duress, well, there’s a lot of truth to be found in this particular work of art.
Like boxing gyms and MMA matches, or call-centers full of debt collectors, or daily life on public city buses, the stuff of humanity is pretty much the same as anywhere else, just more raw and closer to the surface.
On fuller display, perhaps.
Feser provides some reasonable context, here, the kind that forms the backbone of a good Catholic education, and which this blog considers to have enriched the debate.
For those who didn’t ask!:
As this blog sees things, the modernist project is not explicitly ideological, but it is extremely ambitious: Make it new. Start from the ground up, or go back to the foundations and take a really good look, and have the individual genius start building his own, new foundations (alone or in contact with others, such as the Bloomsbury Group).
It takes really talentedindividuals to pull this off; often individuals with previous exposure to tradition; young practitioners with enough talent and perseverance, as well as enough of a pedagogy to inherit and rebel against should they choose.
As this blog has noted, it’s not hard to witness a string of causation between high modernist aims and a lot of the modern and postmodern aimlessness we see all around us. There sure are a lot of poseurs and would-be artists bobbing in the postmodern stew, left to sort out the entire world and their relation to it alone, or upon a stage (as alone and not alone as one can be).
They write these f**king art blurbs before they have any art! What the f**k is this lady doing?:
‘The most useful definition of modernist fiction I’ve encountered comes from Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction. He says modernist fiction tends to “foreground epistemological questions” such as “How can I interpret the world I’m part of? What is there to be known? Who knows it? What are the limits of that knowledge?” In contrast, postmodernist fiction tends to “foreground ontological questions” such as “What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there and how are they constituted? What happens when…boundaries between worlds are violated?’
The above can invite all manner of despair and isolation, and perhaps a deeper cynicism we see in upcoming generations’ rather pervasive desire for fame and recognition.
The above can also exacerbate the spiritual and meaning-making demands individuals place upon the Marketplace, the Church, and in The Media and The Academy (where an authoritarian/totalitarian radical Left seeks to control institutions, institutions where a kind of Western secular humanism and standard-issue political idealism often dominates).
As I see it, I cannot call myself a believer in the questions the Catholic Church claims to to be able to answer, but many modern political and politico-philsophical movements are incomplete at best, and dangerously wrong at worst.
Ah well…there’s my two cents.
There’s good art to be found, of course, but like most well-made things, good art is relatively rare, its ultimate value and quality endlessly disputed, but perhaps, enduring.
–Born and raised in Chicago, Mamet seems pretty old-school and pretty tough. He reminds me a bit of Norman Mailer, verbally pugilistic and combative, though unlike Mailer he’s taken a different turn into ju-jitsu, instead of boxing, as well as into a different set of motivating principles. Alec Baldwin’s Death-Of-A-Salesman-on-steroids speech from Glengarry Glen Ross is a well-known example of Mamet’s work (demonstrating the kind of balls-out truth-telling dialogue from which Baldwin has possibly not recovered). I’m guessing Mamet grew-up back before anti-bullying campaigns and excessive political correctness became the norm.
***As I understand it, Thomas Sowell, after becoming a young Marxist eventually became a young ex-Marxist, embracing a hard-bitten empiricism regarding outcomes and results, not the intentions, of economic and social policies. See him discuss his later vision of human nature and political organization in a Conflict Of Visions.
–Mamet cites the Bible, but mainly the Talmud as a source of wisdom and knowledge to draw upon as a guide for flawed human nature. Jewish folks in the U.S. have traditionally formed a reliably liberal/Democratic voting bloc, so unlike many Christian religious conservatives, they aren’t necessarily voting Republican. There are no doubt many reasons for this, but to be sure, there are also many tales of neoconservatives ‘mugged’ out of the social sciences and policy-making halls of the liberal establishment into doubt and skepticism, some chased away by the New Left. There is also a conservative Christian/Jewish pro-Israel alliance which has traditionally been strong on national defense (some fundamentals of that American/Israeli relationship may be changing).
Religious belief can ground one in a kind of traditional and tragic view of human nature. This, say, as opposed to human nature understood as simply a blank slate or existentialist absurdity, or by some political movements as human clay to be molded with the right knowledge and right people in charge of our social institutions (they always seem to nominate themselves). As Mamet discusses in the video, there are distinctions to be made between Talmudic justice and social justice.
I’m guessing he might agree there are distinctions to be made between abstract equality and equality under the law (the exception of Civil Rights and black folks held under the civil laws is discussed). I’m also guessing he’d argue there are distinctions to be made between life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on one hand, and liberation theology and/or individual freedom granted by a rights-based cohort in charge of government on the other.
–Mamet also touches on the fact that the arts aren’t a political endeavor. If writing a play is simply a didactic enterprise and/or a vehicle for deploying a political philosophy (Ayn Rand?), then I think the artist has probably failed in some fundamental way to show the audience/reader a unique truth which only that work of art has to show. Didactic art can come across as clunky at best, pure propaganda at worst.
Personally, I tend to believe that politics, religion, convention and popular thinking all have trouble with the arts.
Anyways, this is just a brief summary. Any thoughts or comments are welcome.
‘But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at legnth utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal, which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no expense and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England.’
I’ll take this in a certain direction. From my high-school days, ‘The Wave’:
Intellectuals running things…:
And a quotation:
“The likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion. And in general, those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling, have left this condition of things unassailed in principle, however they may have come into conflict with it in some of its details. They have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals. They preferred endeavoring to alter the feelings of mankind on the particular points on which they were themselves heretical, rather than make common cause in defence of freedom, with heretics generally. The only case in which the higher ground has been taken on principle and maintained with consistency, by any but an individual here and there, is that of religious belief:…”
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007), 8-9.
My very un-hot take: The deconstructionism dominant in the academy scoops out all kinds of meaning from texts and lives, with an ever-present focus on the (S)elf (not necessarily the individual). Many very good artists this past century have flirted with Communism/Socialism as an alternative organizing system within this existential void, or have retreated to a kind of nihilism (the idea that there is no objective reality).
Some of their art, often reaching highest levels, lives beyond them.
This intellectual milieu partly informs what is replacing the previous educational ideas we had at many levels of American society.
Teaching younger folks, especially, tends to be people-oriented and requiring of patience, sensitivity to developmental and behavioral issues, and interpersonal communication. This tends to attract a higher proportion of women (this disparity is mentioned in the video below). Many good women, in particular, and many good people (minds, characters, habits), have implicitly or explicitly supported feminism as a means of more freedom the past few generations. Much feminist doctrine has quite radical ideas about the family, the Nation, and the aims of education, which also helps produce good people.
Good teachers tend to aim at higher things with humility (like knowledge, personal growth for themselves and the students, as well as duty…to some kind of ideal). You never really know what they think personally, but they encourage you to think well. Americans have been a particularly idealistic civilization.
In my experience, many less good teachers only aim at rising through the educracy, or at a job with a pension, or maybe easy enforcement of existing ideas without having to do too much. Incentives matter.
More broadly, some people are just unstable and without identity, finding primary meaning within radical and destructive ideologies. They embody the beliefs and live through them. Some of these doctrines are finding their way into some curricula in our schools and the results will not be pretty (I think of them as the new postmodern religionists, who are incredibly hostile to all outside their ideology).
It’s be nice if we could just say these are some of the costs of change, without blaming those who reason from a position more skeptical of change. I’m not holding my breath.
‘Students are leaving as well. Since 2020, nearly 1.5 million children have been removed from public schools to attend private or charter schools or be homeschooled. Families are deserting the public system out of frustration with unending closures and quarantines, stubborn teachers’ unions, inadequate resources, and the low standards exposed by remote learning.‘
‘Generally, political inertia and public worker unions combined to keep government in the Blue Age even as the rest of the economy moved on. Today, the experiences and the expectations of people in the private sector and people in the public sector are quite different. There are many results, including taxpayer revolts against public sector benefits and pay, but from an urban policy standpoint the key one is this: the government job machine is no longer an escalator to the middle class. In fact, the dependence of the Black middle class on government work is going to be one of the chief threats to the health of the Black middle class as we’ve known it’
At the Bari Weiss substack: Frank Fukuyama, Walter Russell Mead, and Niall Ferguson have a discussion about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As for the John Mearsheimer talk previously linked (I myself have reservations about some elements of such a view), Mearsheimer seems to have gotten a good many things right. Other people have gotten things right, too. The strong anti-Mearsheimer reaction (overreaction?) leads me to suspect that this could be as much about domestic strategic politics, some of his other views, and acceptable opinion in the U.S.
What do you potentially want the West to defend? Would you stand up to defend it (or more likely, your children)? If, culturally and politically, you have less trust in your institutions as an individual, isn’t this same weakness reflected within intellectual debates?
What’s probably true: The sooner we think about some of these questions, and with whom we enter into a potentially fighting alliance (an Anglosphere, trade and the old Westphalian model? the ‘global liberal’ vision?), the less dumb war there will probably be. There will very likely be war(s), however.
My current take on domestic politics is roughly what I’ve written (some of it bound to be wrong):
Conservative, traditional and religious Americans have likely moved from a majority to a plurality/minority in most cultural/political spaces (more requiring of minority protections, also more conspiratorial). These are the people more likely to defend home and hearth and more likely to join and support the military during the Cold War (along with higher Southern representation).
I understand Neo-Conservatism as the drive to extend American military and global interests by advancing humanistic ideas and secular humanism (liberals/secular humanists mugged by ‘reality’). Such folks are more likely to have been in influential policy/intellectual positions, not necessarily doing the warfighting.
Cold War patriotic liberals, just as were many old school liberals, have been increasingly challenged from the activist Left, and that activist Left now has a lot of cultural/political influence. Old school Democrats were generally about unions and a certain amount of patriotism (Cuban Missile Crisis). Many New Democrats are about pronouns in the postmodern soup and the Green New Deal. This presses upwards upon the liberal international and global worldview. This dynamic seems to occupy the folks in charge at the moment (dovetailing with elements of the Eurozone), pivoting from the Health/Safety COVID worldview to defending human and Western interests.
It’s been…strange to see Susan Glasser at the New Yorker become rabidly pro-Ukraine and a war hawk, but…here we are.