‘By going deep into the minds of six apostates Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens, Oppenheimer offers an unusually intimate history of the American left, and the right’s reaction.’
Gray highlights something I certainly find attractive about conservatism:
‘Ever since it emerged in the late 18th century as a distinct tradition of modern thought, conservatism has been defined by a suspicion of grand schemes of world improvement. Whether their thinking was grounded in a religious belief in original sin (as in the cases of Edmund Burke and the American conservative Russell Kirk) or a sceptical view of the power of human reason (as in David Hume and Michael Oakeshott), conservatives distrusted any attempt to remake the world according to the dictates of high-minded ideals and abstract models.’
Neo-conservatism comes in for criticism as having a hand in all of modern American politics.
‘George W Bush’s crazed pursuit of regime change and its continuation in some policies of the Obama administration, particularly when acting under the direction of Hillary Clinton, were the result.’
A few humble observations about the second Iraq invasion:
–There was a reassertion of many Americans’ nationalism, pride, and fear, especially after 9/11, and the desire for revenge against that rather awful blow against civilians and innocents at home, in a business setting no less (3,000 lives lost and a lot of terror). Strategically, Iraq could be convincingly argued to be a serious misstep.
–George W. Bush’s inherited guilt at leaving the Iraqi Kurds to their fate under Saddam on his father’s watch seems to have played a part (for which I have no evidence, but I’ve long thought…which is a product of deeper American life and politics).
Let me know if/how wrong I might be.
Perhaps one of Gray’s main takeaways, a la Oppenheimer, is the almost religious-type experience some people have had within Communist ideals, an experience which drastically shaped this past century, and our lives.
He finishes with:
‘Except for Chambers and Horowitz, Oppenheimer’s apostates learned very little from their journey across the political spectrum. Those who banged the drum for war were as ignorant of the countries whose governments they wanted to overthrow as they been had of the workers they had claimed to be fighting for in the past. In both cases they used people of whom they knew nothing to satisfy their own need for significance. Believing they had left behind the mistakes of the radical left, they helped create a new right that repeated the same follies. Along the way, an older and more civilised conservatism was consigned to the memory hole.’
Hitchens could be entertaining, especially on grounds I’m guessing he knew instinctively well as a former Trotskyite: Ideologies, while highlighting truths, promise a one-stop shop on truth, knowledge, how to be in the world, what to do and what the future will be.
People can kill for less, and when they adhere to such systems, then they can end-up killing more:
‘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?’
As to the epistemological questions surrounding Modernism, below are four poems. Hopefully, each is a representative example of a move away from the Romanticism that had been prevalent up until the late 1800’s.
In addition to the move away from traditional Romantic rhyme and meter towards modern blank verse, there’s also a certain conception of the Self rendered in them; a presentation of our natures that might be worth examining in some detail.
I believe we can see clearly a move away from tradition towards the Self, the Poet isolated, the poem itself as a means of communication, and an anxiety so common within the 20th century.
‘At the heart of Bloom’s project is the ancient quarrel between “poetry” and “philosophy.” In Bloom’s opinion, we ought not have to choose between Homer and Plato; we can have both, as long as we recognize that poetry is superior.’
Says the guy who writes about poetry…
What does one find within, as one looks without, waking from sleep and dream?
What kind of world is this, and can the poet actually help us know it?
You tossed a blanket from the bed You lay upon your back, and waited; You dozed, and watched the night revealing The thousand sordid images Of which your soul was constituted; They flickered against the ceiling. And when all the world came back And the light crept up between the shutters And you heard the sparrows in the gutters, You had such a vision of the street As the street hardly understands; Sitting along the bed’s edge, where You curled the papers from your hair, Or clasped the yellow soles of feet In the palms of both soiled hands.
The world will stain you, and it is a fallen, modern world, rendered profoundly and exquisitely.
As consciousness creeps in, building a bridge to the day, to the world, to the facts left as though they were the first facts, the light as though it were the first light, what one finds is distressing, both within and without.
That distress must be ‘made new,’ which is to say, the suffering (original?) in which we all sometimes find ourselves must match our experiences within the modern city and world, at least, the world created within Eliot’s lyrical verse.
Of the four poems, only the first and last have a 3rd-person subject.
Wallace Stevens‘ ‘I’ is in a more contemplative state, but it’s an ‘I’ exploring similar themes, and experiencing some distress in trying to know how the world actually is, and what might lie within.
The journey to The Self may not be a journey for the faint of heart.
The Poems Of Our Climate (stanzas II and III)
II Say even that this complete simplicity Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed The evilly compounded, vital I And made it fresh in a world of white, A world of clear water, brilliant-edged, Still one would want more, one would need more, More than a world of white and snowy scents.
III There would still remain the never-resting mind, So that one would want to escape, come back To what had been so long composed. The imperfect is our paradise. Note that, in this bitterness, delight, Since the imperfect is so hot in us, Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
Even if the verse can describe a perfected world, delivering us, perhaps, a little closer to perfection, our poet is still not free from the impulses and desires which simply never cease.
Interestingly, we end-up not with a discussion of the heart, the spirit, libido etc. as a source for those desires (for Plato, the irrational), but rather, for Stevens, just a mind.
We also find more Romantic elements of language and an almost baroque/rococo arrangement of words and ideas, dandyish even, yet combined with an intense effort to abstract, define, and clarify. From here, the poet may proceed on his task of flawed words and stubborn sounds.
***I find myself thinking of elements of modern architecture and abstract-expressionist painting. The meaning, or at least some delivery from our restless existences, can be found within the abstract itself. Or at least within a retreat to the abstract for its own sake, away from the world.
The modernist, glass-walled house on the hill will exist in its own space, offering and defying meaning. The structure’s own shapes will be stripped down to often mathematically precise forms interacting with Nature. These shall guide Man, or at least offer individual men a little refuge.
It is perhaps in Stevens’ poem we can see the questions of knowledge about the world suggesting questions about whether there is a world at all, or, at least, what kind of worlds each Self might be able to inhabit.
The Self is extremely isolated. In fact, Lowell went more than a little crazy. Unlike the known nervous breakdown of Eliot from which Eliot recovered, Lowell’s life was essentially one long breakdown from which he never recovered.
Here he is, looking back:
Those blessed structures plot and rhyme- why are they no help to me now i want to make something imagined not recalled? I hear the noise of my own voice: The painter’s vision is not a lens it trembles to caress the light. But sometimes everything i write With the threadbare art of my eye seems a snapshot lurid rapid garish grouped heightened from life yet paralyzed by fact. All’s misalliance. Yet why not say what happened? Pray for the grace of accuracy Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination stealing like the tide across a map to his girl solid with yearning. We are poor passing facts. warned by that to give each figure in the photograph his living name.
The weight of having to make that meaning, for yourself, and by yourself, is a horrible weight indeed. One can glorify one’s Self and family, but that, alas, only goes so far. Rhyme and form still carry one’s living name, as far as they do.
Of course, there’s still wonderful rhythm and form here (this is excellent verse), but blanker now, with a relentless focus on the ‘I.’ The poet is perhaps talking a little more to himself, and the poem keeps self-consciously calling attention to itself.
In fact, it reminded me of the poem below, by Robert Creeley, which was published a few years afterwards.
From this page:
‘Creeley was a leader in the generational shift that veered away from history and tradition as primary poetic sources and gave new prominence to the ongoing experiences of an individual’s life. Because of this emphasis, the major events of his life loom large in his literary work.’
There’s Nothing but the Self and the Eye seeking and making meaning, by itself within a void of emotionally compact and precise language (of course there’s still form and other things besides).
Can the poet fit inside the little abstract chapel of words he’s building for himself (let alone the world, tradition etc.)?
For all the talk about ‘space,’ there seems very little.
Position is where you put it, where it is, did you, for example, that
large tank there, silvered, with the white church along- side, lift
all that, to what purpose? How heavy the slow
world is with everything put in place. Some
man walks by, a car beside him on the dropped
road, a leaf of yellow color is going to
fall. It all drops into place. My
face is heavy with the sight. I can feel my eye breaking.
The distress is still there…but I’d argue that we are now a good distance away from the grandness of Eliot’s vision, his religiosity and virtuosity with form and meter at the dawn of Modernism. Very few people can/could do what Eliot did (addition: even if he can help us gain knowledge of our Selves or the world).
That said, it’s unclear there’s enough tradition and confidence to even undertake such a project, now, even as such talents come along. The state of things is more scattered. We’re in a very different place of selves and artists isolated, of anxiety and post-anxiety.
Aside from the very accomplished poets above, in terms of both knowledge (epistemology) and being (ontology), we often have writers feeling pressure to weigh-in on such questions without even being about to write that well; artists who can’t draw or paint that well, and frankly, quite a bit of bullshit besides.
So, where are we headed? Who’s ‘we’ exactly?
Predictions are hard, especially about the future.
‘In “Sea Change,” Graham becomes Prospero, casting spells by spelling out her thoughts to merge with ours, and with the voices of the elements. The result is a mingling of perceptions rather than a broadcasting of opinions. Instead of analysis, the poems encourage emotional involvement with the drastic changes overwhelming us, overwhelm- ing the planet.’
‘Strengths and weaknesses, flows and ebbs, yet every poem in “Sea Change” bears memorable lines, with almost haunting (if we truly have but 10 years to “fix” global warming) images of flora and fauna under siege. Jorie Graham has composed a swan song for Earth.’
What are these poems being asked to do?
And moving away from poetry into the realm of ‘performance art,’
Arnhart is taking a closer look at Friedrich Nietzsche over a series of posts. Worth a read.
‘But despite the obvious brilliance of Nietzsche’s early and late writing, Lou shows that his middle writing has a scientific basis that makes it far more intellectually defensible than is the case for the other writing, which shows a delusional religious fantasy that has no grounding in reality and thus leads to the madness into which Nietzsche fell.’
‘The third insight is that the deepest motivation for Nietzsche was his religious longing, so that once he lost his childhood faith in the Christian God, he had to find a replacement for God that would give the world some eternal meaning; and he did this by divinizing himself as Dionysus and eternalizing human experience through eternal return’
Nietzsche’s project against Christianity was deeply personal.
Here’s Nietzsche scholar J.P. Stern on Nietzsche’s anti-Christian, anti-secular morality (Kant, utilitarians), anti-democratic, and anti-Greek (except the “heroic” Greek) tendencies:
Predictions are hard, especially about the future. Thanks for reading, and for stopping by.
My two cents:
Technological dislocation is still going strong, and the recent developments in chat AI offer some predictive power. Labor costs, for most companies, are among the highest. Many smart and not-so-smart people never learn how to write well, nor persuasively. But they have other skills. The technology is here to utilize software prosthetics to do a lot of writing for us, instead of paying a writer. Writing well is a practical, creative and mind-changing journey, and will continue to influence entire civilizations, but paying for labor is an even tougher sell. This makes me wonder: How many specialized, well-educated 135 IQ thought-leaders will fall into a kind of resentful, punitive criticism? It’s tough to say, but, there will be many (writing well requires understanding and synthesis, but quickly surpasses knowledge and experience). This is why journalism generally loses money, with activists and deeper billionaire pockets funding most outlets.
An older American order, with aristocratic W.A.S.P. gatekeepers, more private religious belief and public square rule-making has eroded considerably. I view this set-up as having corrected many excesses of the market and maintained a lot of trust required between personal behavior and public office. Rules, rule-makers and maintaining legitimate authority can be tricky, but are found among the most important things. So, too, is maintaining a government of the people, by the people and for the people. I’d argue that a secular, technocratic humanism more common in Europe is now a likely majority in American life. Whether or not this is driven by a default, watered-down Marxism in the ‘collective-mind’ is debatable, but challenging the ideal requires wounding an idealist in the place where belief lives. It can even become deadly or disqualifying when a person challenges considerable power. This has lots of implications for speech, rules, and dissent. It will probably even affect what’s ‘cool.’ It’s tough to say what the new personal behavior and public office connection is going to be, but, as mentioned, I think it matters more than most things.
The postmodern pull is still very strong, and deep, as currents go. This blog has discussed Schopenhauer’s Will to Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power’ nihilism, the Straussian response, and various downstream consequences. There are some pretty good reasons to be liberal, but in America, I’d like to stop the lurch leftward towards true-believing, anti-speech activism and predictably stodgy, out-of-touch liberal idealism. That way lies disorder and potential violence. This blog, at least, has offered a nod to David Hume’s empiricism, J.S. Mill’s utilitarianism, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s self-reliant gnosticism, and Isaiah Berlin’s positive and negative freedoms. At the very least, I’m realistically hoping these could become brighter lights in the nihilist fog. We’ll see…
How might this translate into American politics? While I reject even Conrad’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’ existential nihilism (say…the craziness of Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’), which Gray has espoused in the past, I often fall into tragic realism. I’ve called it ‘depressive realism’ but it’s actually full of optimism. There’s a lot to be optimistic about, accounting for reality and human nature, and how mostly local and personal the good things in our lives are.
But, you’ve got to aim to be good, especially to your loved ones. I think life has a mystery to it, beyond most of our conceptions of life. That said, I view human nature as generally fixed in many ways (religious belief, traditions, the arts and many sciences are simply reflections of what we are, what the truth is, and how we interact with the world). But I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t necessarily know what’s right for you. I support the creative arts and the penetrating truths of the natural sciences and independent thinkers.
Personally, I look for the optimism found in home and hearth where love lives, and promises are made. I look for the looking-out for each other generally found in town and country, in friendships, and in some reasonable, capable talented people found in functional at-scale institutions within cities.
To be vulgar: There are dicks, pussies and assholes everywhere, so try not to be any one of these things, nor for very long. There are decent people everywhere, expanding their skills, talents and including others, with right aims and good minds, while generally avoiding too much f**king around.
In the public square: I favor a free-speech, no-nonsense skepticism, casting a cold eye on life and how institutional incentives actually work. I think Natural Law offers something of a lockbox to keep some of the true-believers and politicians from trying to engineer all parts of our lives (bound for failure…just as are most attempts to make a theology of ‘Man’). Unfortunately, Nautral Law is being replaced with a lot of (S)elf-centered therapeutics, the ‘personal-is-political’ empathy abstractions, anti-human movements, ‘-Isms’ and various flavors of ideology.
Like Gray, I see a lot of political contention ahead, and even dangerous instability because of these misalignments. I’m something of an optimist, BUT, within a depressive realism and a certain tragic view of life.
Of course, take me and my views with a grain of salt.
I’ve heard few liberals really accounting for these increasingly obvious failures of liberal ideas and leadership, but a few have, and a few older-school Lefties (change-first, injustice-focused) are actually the new civil libertarians and defenders of speech.
Global technocracy and authoritarianism will become a default for many idealists when human nature and reality bear down.
On that note: I’ve heard few conservatives really admit that the older tent has mostly fallen down, and the neo-cons, Bushies, Reaganites, religious folks, unmodern folks, war-hawks (when attached to home and hearth) are now in disarray while attacking each other. Most people I know live in-between personal reality, populist anger and a kind of institutional malaise and dysfunction.
Blame is all around. I see Trump as a kind of untrustworthy, narcissistic standard-bearer for ideas which few conservative thinking types will actually defend, given the currents in our lives and politics.
I don’t think this is a healthy situation.
Meanwhile, a lot of obvious realities go unsaid for ALL citizens, and such problems aren’t merely local, but many of the solutions probably will be.
‘Having read so many chivalric epics that his brains have “dried up,” the hero decides that he has been called to revive chivalry and restore the Golden Age in this Age of Iron. But as the book proceeded, Cervantes realized that he had hit on something much more profound than a simple parody. The story kept raising ultimate questions about faith, belief, evidence, and utopian ideals. When do we need caution and when risk? Should we seek to transform reality or the way we perceive it? Do good intentions or good results define moral actions? And what is the proper role of literature itself?’
On Nabokov’s reading of Don Quixote, via a NY Times article:
What Nabokov’s eyes kept seeing as he prepared his lectures was the accurately perceived fact that the book elicits cruel laughter. Cervantes’ old man who had read himself into insanity and his smelly squire were created to be the butt of mockery. Quite early, readers and critics began to sidestep this Spanish fun and to interpret that story as another kind of satire: one in which an essentially sane, humane soul in a crass and unromantic world can only appear as insane.
If you have any good links, or links to reviews, please pass them along…
My two cents: I’m currently thinking that the modern ‘Well of The Self’ has deep roots within Romanticism, and the idea that the artistic genius alone must make sense of the world. This lone genius will Return to Nature as cradle, delivering man or (M)an back to himself, and back to his most basic experiences, hopes and a sense of wonder (once with a Christian, now often within a modern, transmogrified metaphysic).
The Romantic genius, to some extent, must turn against the city, industry and technological change, going back to the countryside. The (M)odern Man, a la Eliot, must turn back to the city, man’s industry, and technological change and remake the world anew, so that we may carry our souls forward. The (P)ostmodern man must create entire worlds and meaning for himself, isolated and alienated from all traditions and other people, left struggling against the void.
There are options, of course, and nihilism is clearly one.
If true, one can easily extrapolate from such a vision towards how we’ve ended up not only with individualism, but radical individualism, and a constant negotiation left up to each individual between all existing institutions of authority and moral/immoral legitimacy.
I’m seeing a lot of basic individual loneliness, desperation for group membership, meaning, and search for some kind of relationship between (N)ature and the (S)elf through others and through political tribalism.
This also can lead to the clear and present unstabilizing political dangers of anarchy, radical liberation, and doctrinal certainty forming beneath the reasonableness found within the high, liberal doctrines of Enlightenment (R)eason and (M)an. The social activists and ‘wokists’ on the scene are nothing if not zealous about their ideas. The ‘-Ismologists’ keep promising some kind of ideal world, which always seems to fail in fully arriving (and this failure always seems to be someone else’s fault).
Perhaps many people are inflating politics and the study of politics, the study of people in groups (sociology), and the study of our interior lives (psychology) to idealistic and almost mythic proportions, coming to lean upon these epistemologies, and politics itself, with hopes I do not necessarily share.
It wasn’t so long ago that all sins were to be reconciled with a loving God; a confession in the booth. I’m seeing many of the same human desires, hopes and beliefs now directed at therapists, comedians, politicians and artists, sometimes able to bear significant weight, often unable to do so.
Ah well, Dear Reader.
There’s a lot of wisdom in reading Don Quixote.
Have I convinced you of any of this?
Here’s a stanza from ‘Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird‘ by Wallace Stevens, transitioning from Romanticism to Modernism, wrestling with faith and more modern doubt, staying the course with good Dutch-German insurance-executive sobriety and also lasting late in the night with passionately abstract poetic imaginings:
VII O thin men of Haddam, Why do you imagine golden birds? Do you not see how the blackbird Walks around the feet Of the women about you?
“The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.“
A move towards the rational, invites a relationship with the irrational. The move towards idealism requires authority in the real world, inviting ideology as central to a (S)elf’s life. Ideal worlds, utopias and dystopias abound in the nihilist soup, along with a lot of bureaucracy and declarations for actions to meet the ideal.
High-walls and extra surveillance are a logical consequence for much of this authority.
There are many people pursuing secular human rights ideals within many a Western governmental agency, international institution, and activist quarter these days. They claim the person who seeks to be virtuous, pursuing an ideal vision of the good society, simply by sharing in this ideal, has immediate access to a global human community and as such, moral duties to this community.
Many ambitious and reasonably well-intentioned young people are hearing its call.
On some level, most of us seek some kind of greater life purpose (guiding ideals and principles) and we seek for our inborn talents and natural abilities to merge hopefully, with our responsibility to feed ourselves and serve others in making a living.
These ideals allow some people, some of the time, to transcend many personal responsibilities along with many of the duties of family, neighbor, friend, the local, the state, the national.
Yet, at what cost? How are they working out in the world, our institutions, and in our lives?
If there’s anything universal in human affairs (math, the sciences, music, self-interest?), how is the universal to be codified into laws (rules), rights and responsibilities, and who makes the laws and who enforces them?
As posted (may you find the thread running through the post, dear reader. I know it’s a lot to ask…especially with all the unanswered, open-ended questions):
“‘…a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world.”
What is right, exactly, and where do ‘rights’ come from?
How does one person do lasting good for another while pursuing his/her own self-interest within the institutions and organizations that have developed and are often controlled by those adhering to such ideals?
Roger Scruton quote that stands out in the video below, while discussing moral relativism to an audience in a country once behind the Iron Curtain:
‘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? German Idealism?
Perhaps modern American liberalism can claim other roots for itself. Here’s a quote on Leo Strauss, who has influenced American conservative thought heavily:
“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.”
‘Perhaps the core of rational behavior is the idea of flexibility or resilience. The rational man, seeing his world collapse, will never turn his face to the wall (like a tragic hero) if there is the slightest possibility of accommodation with the force which has overwhelmed him. Hobbes, the uncompromising rationalist, deals with this possibility without attempting to disguise it. Overwhelming force determines the will of the rational man whose primary aim is to stay alive; there is no place for honor or heroism. The importance of flexibility also comes out in the hostility of rational thinkers to the social institution of the oath. One cannot rationally make a promise binding beyond the point where one gains from it, a point which Spinoza, for example, brings out  clearly. The oath, in fact, is a feudal institution which seemed to liberal thinkers an attempt to impose more on the human flux than it could bear.’
‘Long before the Revolution, then, the disposition of mind of the American colonists, the prevailing intellectual character and habit of politics, were rationalistic. And this is clearly reflected in the constitutional documents and history of the individual colonies. And when these colonies came ‘to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,’ and to declare their independence, the only fresh inspiration that this habit of politics received from the outside was one which confirmed its native character in every particular. For the inspiration of Jefferson and the other founders of American independence was the ideology which Locke had distilled from the English political tradition.’
Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991. Print. Pg 31.
I have trouble imagining Oakeshott having much sympathy with our founders’ direct experience and developing practice alongside and against King George III and the Redcoats; the slow-rolling revolution these men found themselves within.
‘I’ve noticed that Darwinism seems to support one of the fundamental claims of classical liberalism: natural rights emerge in human history as those conditions for human life that cannot be denied without eventually provoking a natural human tendency to violent resistance against exploitation.’
A deep and interesting argument. Both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke had to deal with a constantly warring, reformation England.
Using quite a bit of German idealism (Hegelian) to get at the problem:
‘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.’
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.’
‘Oddly enough, it is the intellectual snobbery and elitism of many of the literati that politically correct egalitarianism appeals to; their partiality to literary Marxism is based not on its economic theory but on its hostility to business and the middle class. The character of this anti-bourgeois sentiment therefore has more in common with its origin in aristocratic disdain for the lower orders than with egalitarianism.’
‘John Gray’s “Silence of Animals” is an attack on humanism. He condemns this widely accepted secular faith as a form of delusional self-flattery.’
‘The question Gray poses is of fundamental importance, so one wishes the book were better. It is not a systematic argument, but a varied collection of testimonies interspersed with Gray’s comments.’
Clearly humanism could use more serious critics and pushback.
Nagel finishes with:
‘Gray thinks the belief in progress is fueled by humanists’ worship of “a divinized version of themselves.” To replace it he offers contemplation: “Contemplation can be understood as an activity that aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be.” Though he distinguishes this from the ideal of mystical transcendence toward a higher order of being, it, too, seems more like a form of escape than a form of realism. Hope is a virtue, and we should not give it up so easily.’
Gray discusses the book here:
While science may proceed and real progress is taking place, in the realms of ethics and politics, Gray suggests things are learned but they don’t stay learned.
Kelley Ross responds to a correspondent on Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism, while discussing John Gray as well:
‘Now, I do not regard Berlin’s value pluralism as objectionable or even as wrong, except to the extend that it is irrelevant to the MORAL issue and so proves nothing for or against liberalism. Liberalism will indeed recommend itself if one wishes to have a regime that will respect, within limits, a value pluralism. I have no doubt that respecting a considerable value pluralism in society is a good thing and that a nomocratic regime that, mostly, leaves people alone is morally superior to a teleocratic regime that specifies and engineers the kinds of values that people should have. However, the project of showing that such a regime IS a good thing and IS morally superior is precisely the kind of thing that Gray decided was a failure.’
“As Strauss understood it, the principle of liberal democracy is 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.”
‘We may sum this up by saying that the more the style of what used to be called politics becomes theorized, the more political problems come to be reintrepreted as managerial. Working out the least oppressive laws under which different and sometimes conflicting groups may live peaceably together is being replaced by manipulation and management of the attitudes different groups take towards each other, with the hope that this will ultimately bring harmony. In other words, in the new form of society, human beings are becoming the matter which is to be shaped according to the latest moral ideas.’
Minogue, Kenneth. Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. (Pg 111).
‘The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilisation has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions.’
Yes and no, probably.
Traversing the rocky outcrops of the postmodern landscape can lead to occasional outbursts of moral grandeur. Beneath the fog, hilltops can present themselves as though all of ‘(H)istory’ is coming into view.
Bathing in the thermal pools of group identity, deep inside of this ritual or that, perhaps chanting ‘power-theories’ to feel some warmth and comfort; all may quiet the conscience for a time.
Sooner or later, though, action is required. The injustice becomes unbearable. The Self lies suspended atop ‘(H)istory’ and the utopias to come under its oppressions.
What were once Romantic visions of grandeur high above the clouds (is that an old German castle?) were still available to some Modernists, but maybe even fewer postmodernists, yet.
Where are these things headed?
Addition: It would seem I can state the radical case well enough that actual radicals are mistaking this post for one of sympathy.
Be careful where you put your Self, dear reader, as your moral sentiments, hope and despair will follow.
If I’m going to make an appeal to your Self, then at least let me do it in more pragmatic fashion, away from these many post-Enlightenment dead-ends and radical discontents.
Kelley Ross responds to a correspondent on Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism, while discussing John Gray as well:
‘Now, I do not regard Berlin’s value pluralism as objectionable or even as wrong, except to the extend that it is irrelevant to the MORAL issue and so proves nothing for or against liberalism. Liberalism will indeed recommend itself if one wishes to have a regime that will respect, within limits, a value pluralism. I have no doubt that respecting a considerable value pluralism in society is a good thing and that a nomocratic regime that, mostly, leaves people alone is morally superior to a teleocratic regime that specifies and engineers the kinds of values that people should have. However, the project of showing that such a regime IS a good thing and IS morally superior is precisely the kind of thing that Gray decided was a failure.
Thus, I believe Gray himself sees clearly enough that a thoroughgoing “value pluralism” would mean that the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini is just as morally justified as the regime of Thomas Jefferson. Gray prefers liberalism (or its wreckage) for the very same reason that the deconstructionist philosopher Richard Rorty prefers his leftism: it is “ours” and “we” like it better. Why Gray, or Rorty, should think that they speak for the rest of “us” is a good question. ‘
and about providing a core to liberalism:
‘Why should the state need a “sufficient rational justificaton” to impose a certain set of values? The whole project of “rational justification” is what Gray, and earlier philosophers like Hume, gave up on as hopeless. All the state need do, which it has often done, is claim that its values are favored by the majority, by the General Will, by the Blood of the Volk, or by God, and it is in business.’
And that business can quickly lead to ever-greater intrusion into our lives:
‘J.S. Mill, etc., continue to be better philosophers than Berlin or Gray because they understand that there must be an absolute moral claim in the end to fundamental rights and negative liberty, however it is thought, or not thought, to be justified. Surrendering the rational case does not even mean accepting the overall “value pluralism” thesis, since Hume himself did not do so. ‘