Sunday, October 30, 2016

Signs of cultural decline


I have previously* made reference to Daniel Kaufman's provocative critique of Western self-improvement fads. His key examples related to Werner Erhard's est program and its successors. Having no direct experience with these movements I can't really comment meaningfully though I've noted that – whilst I personally am averse to these sorts of programs – some of the underlying ideas do look at least interesting and are not obviously misguided.

I am in strong agreement, however, with Kaufman's general remarks about cultural impoverishment.

Cited below are the final two paragraphs of his piece which make a number of telling points. I especially like the bit about "broadcasting the obvious". And the notion of these fads being symptomatic of a "national emptiness or sadness" is also worth taking seriously.

This last point (deriving from a perception of a deep and general malaise; cultural decline, if you like) is hard to put into words that don't sound histrionic or at least very subjective, but that doesn't mean that such judgments have no basis in reality.

"Of course, self improvement, in the ordinary sense, is a part of the human condition, and an inability or unwillingness to change or evolve over the course of our lives is undoubtedly problematic. Marriage and parenthood and middle age have led to my changing and developing in myriad ways, as has my relocation from New York to the Lower Midwest. I’ve had to begin paying more attention to my physical condition; to moderate some of my more reactive tendencies; to let more things go, rather than fight them all out; and to give up who knows how many personal prerogatives that I would have insisted upon, when I was younger, single, and childless, roaming the hedonistic mecca that was 1980’s and 90’s Manhattan. There is nothing special about this – indeed, it is boringly common. It isn’t the result of a program or a project or a plan. It requires no explicit philosophy or discipline. There is no need to meditate or visualize or take special views or whatever the hell the current Self-Improvement crowd would like to suggest is necessary. The result is not “enlightenment,” but growing up and eventually, growing old. This means, alas, that there is nothing to tweet or blog about, no reason to set up a website or to write a book chronicling “the journey”… unless, that is, one wants to broadcast to the world the bloody obvious, and why on earth would anyone want to do that?

"It’s depressing to realize that the American memory is so stunted, so addled, that these fads have to be unmasked every decade or so and the same criticisms made over and over again. EST [the program developed by Werner Erhard] came upon hard times and was repackaged, in subsequent decades, into the “Landmark Forum,” which was even more successful than the original. Guru after guru has been revealed to be a crook, a fraud, or a pervert, but the parade of such characters and their mobs of credulous, adoring fans continues on, unabated. That Americans continue to exhibit an unending thirst for this sort of thing suggests that for all that has changed, we still have not escaped the grip of the malaise that arose in the wake of the 1960’s, the collapse of the counterculture, and the disintegration of America’s families. The retreat into cyberspace is only the latest and most radical manifestation of this national emptiness and sadness, and we can expect that as it deepens, the Cult of the Self will only grow stronger, easily overwhelming the few voices that rise up in opposition to it, and with no obvious end in sight."


* See my Google+ collection Language, Logic, Life. I also maintain the collection The Decline of the West: Observations and reflections (which is more political). You can follow all my Google+ activity via my profile or just follow a particular collection.

Friday, October 28, 2016

American exceptionalism and foreign policy

[This is a shortened version of my latest Electric Agora essay.]



I have previously drawn attention to the neoconservative elements of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy orientation and spoken of the dangers (as I see them) of a resurgence of such policies. At the time I wrote my previous piece on this topic (before the first TV debate), the polls were narrowing and the trend favored Trump. Subsequently, things have not gone well for the Republican campaign.

Assuming Clinton does win, I sincerely hope that she changes tack on foreign policy because – given the epochal changes currently underway in the geopolitical and economic spheres – I just don’t see how neoconservative-style policies, based on an essentially imperial vision of America’s role in the world and coupled with a deeply adversarial approach to Russia and China, could possibly play out in a benign way.

There are different views on this, of course, and I am not entirely sure of my position. On NATO, for example, I tend to the view that it should have been gradually scaled back or unwound after the demise of the USSR and that its expansion eastwards (in spite of assurances given to Gorbachev that this would not happen) and current activities have made the likelihood of large-scale war more rather than less likely. Charles Moore, a British neo-conservative who has a very dark view of Putin’s ultimate intentions, has made a case recently for NATO’s continuing importance in constraining Russia. There is no simple answer here. Perceived weakness and confusion on the part of Western powers will no doubt be exploited by hostile forces. But it is also true that alliances which operate as vehicles for hegemonic powers can be very problematic.

The word ‘realism’ can mean many different things, depending on context. Often it is used rhetorically and lacks substantive meaning. In international affairs, however, it has a generally accepted meaning. It comes in different flavors, but its key defining elements are clear enough. Realism in international relations is associated with strong skepticism about all forms of ideological thinking; an acute awareness of the dangers of the unforeseen consequences of military interventions; and generally modest expectations about what can be achieved on the international front.

As I understand it, there are competing factions within the Obama administration, some (like Obama himself, perhaps) not so committed to neocon-style policies and some more committed to hawkish intervention. I think the election of Hillary Clinton will give comfort to the latter group, and there will be a policy shift in that direction.

Someone asked in the course of the discussion of my earlier piece whether I really thought that the Chiefs of Staff would accept a presidential order to do something likely to trigger war with Russia or China.

It would depend on the circumstances. But it seems obvious enough that to the extent that the US follows neocon-like policies, the prerequisites for a big war (as distinct from more limited, regional conflicts) are more likely to be in place. The worst situations arise when countries fall readily into blocs and particularly if the blocs are very large and very few. We know this from the Cold War. At times we were very close to the brink of a global catastrophe. It would be so, so stupid and reckless to return to such a state of affairs. But many of the neocons seem to want just that.

I happen to think our future is bleak, whatever happens with this election and whatever policies the new administration adopts. But a major nuclear war is by no means inevitable and in my opinion is less likely in a multipolar world in which political leaders see their role more in local and regional than in global and ideological terms.

The Cold War was about power blocs, but it was also about ideology. The old Marxist-Leninist, Maoist and related ideologies have faded from the scene. I say it’s time for all of these overarching narratives to be dropped, including the idea that America has some kind of imperial destiny (or responsibility) to fulfil.

For years I bought into this narrative to some extent. But for a state to fulfil this kind of imperial role effectively, its strength and dominance and underlying economic health must be unquestioned. The state in question must also be widely trusted and respected. Arguably these conditions applied to the United States in the not-too-distant past. But today?

In America – and even to some extent in Britain – both neoconservatism and liberal interventionism are associated with the idea of American exceptionalism: that the United States has a special status amongst the nations, moral as well as military, and that from this status flow certain unique rights and responsibilities relating to global order and governance. In the past this myth has facilitated some very unfortunate actions – and maybe some good ones as well. But in current circumstances it can only be extremely dangerous.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Geopolitics and the US presidential election



"Could fear of Trump rattle Stoics, while fear of death finds no purchase?”

Dwayne Holmes was alluding to self-styled Stoic Massimo Pigliucci's readiness – in the face of the possibility of a Trump presidency – to endorse over-the-top, emotion-driven political analysis. There is certainly a lot of panic in liberal and progressive circles.

Here Holmes summarizes his own take on the upcoming election:

“We are down to haggling over whether it is a moderate pro-business southern Democrat (aka conservative) or extreme right wing ... reality TV star [and] pro-business conservative who sits in the office. Both are hawks (with Trump more blustery but less hawkish) …”

He is right in that Trump is certainly less hawkish in terms of foreign policy. Trump is not a neocon.

On the issue of conservatism and the left/right divide you’d have to say that these terms are getting more difficult to apply in the normal way. This is partly because across the Western world a lot of people – including many traditional conservatives, classical liberals and previously apolitical folk – are becoming disgusted with the status quo and so are voting or threatening to vote for candidates outside the mainstream or otherwise in quite radical ways (e.g. Brexit).

Hillary Rodham was a keen Goldwater supporter before she went to Wellesley College and was introduced to left-wing thought. She wrote her senior thesis on Saul Alinsky. But she certainly seems to have moved away from Alinsky’s ideas (apart perhaps from his ideas on lying). She is a neocon and supported by neocons. But many conservatives now clearly hate the neocons and are strenuously resisting their foreign policy prescriptions.

Why is it that President Dwight D. Eisenhower's prescient warnings about the American military-industrial complex (often now conceptualized in terms of the broader concept of the deep state) are only now becoming mainstream in conservative circles? The reasons are complex but certain things stand out.

For one thing, the recent track record of American interventions has been quite disastrous. But, more importantly, associated with these failures has been a loss of confidence in America's future prospects in terms both of prosperity and (partly as a consequence of this) of geo-strategic power. The centre of gravity of the world's wealth is reverting to a more normal historical pattern, balanced between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. There even seems a real prospect that the West is entering a period not just of relative decline in economic and social terms but of actual decline. And, of course, those overseeing this difficult period – the promoters and implementors of recent and current financial, monetary and foreign policies in the West – have lost or are rapidly losing credibility.

My main concerns regarding this election are geopolitical. Clinton’s general foreign policy orientation (and she has form on this front, remember) strikes me as a greater danger to world peace than Trump’s.

And if she has serious health problems (as appears increasingly likely), that would only add to the danger/instability. I could easily imagine a situation in which, if her health holds out until the election and there are no more ill-timed coughing fits or physical stumblings and she manages to get elected, that she would be not be at all inclined to step aside in favour of the Vice-President even in the face of very serious health concerns.

There is at least one precedent of this happening in America: Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke and stayed in office. And there have been many cases in other countries. Some occurred in the old Soviet Union. There was, for example, Leonid Brezhnev who had severe arteriosclerosis which affected his speech and other aspects of neurological functioning. His immediate successors were almost as bad but didn't take so long to die.

And then, of course, there was the sad case of the bloated-looking and alcohol-fuelled Boris Yeltsin in post-Soviet Russia.

Clinton would be more Brezhnev than Yeltsin, you'd have to say.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

No more politics?

[This piece was posted earlier today in my Google+ collection, Social and Political Reflections.]

I'm beginning to question the wisdom of writing about and giving my personal views on politically contentious issues. For one thing, speaking out is socially disadvantageous. In fact, I have more than once lost a good friend because they read something I wrote with which they strongly disagreed.

There is, of course, a downside to most activities. But where, I am wondering, is the upside here? What is the point of my sticking my neck out on political themes? It's not as if I really expect people to be persuaded to my point of view.

On the other hand, it may be that such ideological reflections do have a point and purpose, albeit one which is difficult precisely to discern or define. It may be in fact that they have more significance than just about any other form of discourse because they are centrally concerned with human values (and so with the motive force of human actions). Even if something I say makes only the slightest difference to how you see the world, your subsequent thoughts and actions will be different from how they would have been without that influence, will they not? The difference may be miniscule, but in complex systems – brains, societies – even small differences can sometimes become very significant.

I suspect, however, that contentious values-based issues are best approached obliquely rather than head on. Perhaps very obliquely.

I never was much into polemics (which nonetheless has its place in the scheme of things); my style has been more 'thinking out loud'. Only now I am reconsidering what to 'think out loud' about.

I am usually careful in a casual social context not to be too outspoken. When you talk to a person or group you tailor what you say to that audience, taking account of their responses, etc.. But with written communication, you don't have that kind of control.

When you write something and make it publicly available the audience is largely invisible and its nature unknown. Moreover, you don't usually get a chance to correct misunderstandings or clarify, something which happens as a matter of course in normal conversational exchanges.

A crucial thing about social and political values is that they are largely subjective. We may feel that our point of view is totally compelling. It is compelling to us. But objectively speaking?

Though some aspects of social and political value systems can be set out and objectively assessed, in the end no objective assessment can rank competing systems or – except in the case of hopelessly implausible systems – make definitive judgments. Ideology is just not the sort of thing that can be laid out clearly or definitively assessed.

In the light of these considerations, I am – as an experiment – adopting a new strategy of self-censorship on contentious ideological matters. The intention is to refrain from expressing political views and to keep the focus on the non-ideological side of things.

How will this decision affect my personal sites? It will mean that I will probably be posting mainly to my other general collection – Language, Logic, Life – in preference to this one, and reposting most or all of that material to (the Blogger blog) Language, Life and Logic.

My other blog, Conservative Tendency, finds itself at least for the time being, like this collection, in limbo.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

Jonathan Miller's view of life


I said I might follow up on Jonathan Miller, having posted a couple of weeks ago a segment of an old TV interview in which he talked about his Jewishness. There he was basically saying that he asserts it only in the face of anti-Semitism, and also that he was not religiously Jewish. (Apparently, he gave up on the religious side of things as he was preparing for his bar mitzvah, which in the end never took place).

When he was interviewed by Ben Silverstone in 2006, Miller was saying the same things about his Jewishness as he had been a quarter of a century earlier. But it's clear that he had become more embittered over the intervening years, convinced that he had not been given his due (as a director, say) as well as exhibiting more regrets about giving up the practice of medicine.

A number of things struck me, most notably his commitment to the ideas (mainly his views on religion and social issues, I suspect) of Bertrand Russell. Miller's father (who later became a noted psychiatrist) had studied philosophy at Cambridge before World War I and Jonathan inherited his father's library which included works by Russell.

Miller -- I think unfortunately -- made a bigger deal than Russell did of rejecting religion. For Russell this was primarily a personal decision whereas Miller sees religion as an evil social force which must be actively resisted.

I am also out of sympathy with Miller's left-wing social and political views. His children were sent to the local comprehensive, described by his son as a "war zone".

Russell had some decidedly dodgy ideas on education, and made (or lent his name to) some extreme political statements, particularly in his old age as a leading member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and associated groups. But generally I think his social and political views were more nuanced than Miller's.

I won't talk about Miller's activism on behalf of the Palestinians and against Israel. I have never lived in the region and I prefer to steer clear of these sorts of discussions. Both sides have done bad things.

In three main respects I am on the same page as Miller: I share his respect for scientific knowledge and achievement, his rejection of metaphysics, and his fascination with ordinary human behaviour.

Miller says: "On the whole, the best works of literature simply address the tiny, quotidian questions - what happens when you get up? What stops you not going to bed earlier? In neurology, you’re also looking at the peculiar, anomalous ways in which patients do what they do: deficits, failures to say what they wished to say. In both neurology and theatre, subtle observation of what appear to be negligible details turns out to be the name of the game: that’s where the payload is."

I agree. Certainly there is no way we can get answers to those old, traditional metaphysical questions about purpose and meaning. The best we can do is muddle through, understanding the little we can and cherishing, if possible, the uncertainty and fragility of human life.

At the time of the interview, Miller was directing a production (in Michael Frayne's strange but wonderful translation) of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

Chekhov, he points out, was a doctor also. Miller also mentions Flaubert in this regard (but not Somerset Maugham who -- though he too was trained as a physician and was an acute observer of mundane human behaviour -- was probably not ideologically sound from Miller's point of view, being rather conservative). Frankly, I think medical training is much less relevant to observational capacities than Miller is making out.

According to Miller, great literature is simply about "what it's like to get from one end of a life to another". This sounds about right. Seriousness and triviality are inevitably intertwined.

The Cherry Orchard, Miller explains, "ends with a short scene depicting the aged footman, Firs, locked into a freezing house, left alone, apparently to die, after the departure of the entire Gayev household for the winter."

In Michael Frayn’s translation, Firs’s final words read...

“My life’s gone by, and it’s just as if I’d never lived at all. I’ll lie down for a bit, then… No strength, have you? Nothing left. Nothing… Oh you… sillybilly…”

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Jewish identity and assimilation

[Latest post in my Google+ Jewish Identity Collection: https://plus.google.com/collection/IrvUTB]

Jonathan Miller is one of those multi-talented people whose stars shone brightly for a time but then faded, leaving a sense, perhaps, of promise unfulfilled. I know that Miller has expressed some regrets about the course his life has taken. He sees himself, I think, primarily as an intellectual and a man of science rather than identifying fully with the areas in which he has spent the most time working and for which he is mainly known (entertainment and the arts).
At the time he gave this interview [see video] his star was shining bright. The excerpt deals specifically with the theme of Jewishness. Miller defends Jews who, like himself, choose to assimilate. Though a number of his statements are strong and unequivocal, I'm not sure that his overall position, as expressed here, is entirely clear or consistent (especially on the issue of "solidarity"). But then perhaps a degree of ambiguity and even inconsistency is inevitable when we are dealing with the thorny issue of Jewish identity.

I agree with most of the points that Miller makes. Assimilating Jews are all too often seen by other Jews as betraying their heritage. I understand the reasons for this but, like Miller, I think it's nonsense to talk about betrayal.

I don't know the details, but all of my most recent Jewish ancestors took an assimilatory path. On what grounds could we deem their decisions to be wrong or unfortunate? They made their choices on this and many other (often more important) matters: it just seems inappropriate for others to pass judgment.

If one believes in the basic tenets of Judaism (however they might be understood), then – sure – it may seem unfortunate that someone born into this faith decides to renounce it. I know that Judaism is not a creedal religion like Christianity is, but (as I see it) it only really makes sense as a religion if it is seen to incorporate certain beliefs (for example – and most importantly – that the God of the Bible is real in more than a mythical, symbolic or psychological sense). Miller also sees the issue in these terms apparently. He says he can't accept "the creed".

If you set aside Judaism there are still of course many valuable things which could be seen to characterize modern Jewish culture (or, more accurately, cultures). Intellectualism, respect for learning and education, a certain kind humour... One could easily extend the list. But I don't see how one could find in such things a compelling, unifying force, something strong and coherent enough to hold all those with Jewish ancestors together as a people going forward.

A shared history of oppression? Yes, Jews have often suffered discrimination and oppression, but these experiences varied from place to place and from time to time. And not all Jews suffered in this way. It is not a defining feature of being Jewish (as being associated with Judaism is).

It would be interesting to know if Miller's views changed as he got older. I may follow up on this.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Assimilating Jews in England and Ireland

A few more thoughts on Jewish migration to Britain [from my Google+ Collection, Jewish Identity]. My focus (for personal reasons) is on those who made the move before the middle of the 19th century.

One point I want to raise relates to a topic that came up recently in a comment on my blog post 'English Jewish surnames'. A commenter mentioned that his/her gentile great-grandfather had been lodging with a Jewish family in Birmingham and married a daughter of that family. They moved to Hertfordshire and became Christian spiritualists.

My speculation is that assimilating Jews were often drawn to nonconformist or marginal sects rather than mainstream churches. The 19th-century novelist George Eliot had a sympathetic interest in Jews, and explicitly wrote about them in Daniel Deronda. But I am also thinking of an earlier book of hers, Silas Marner. The book doesn't mention Jews or Judaism but the main character is obviously being presented as a Jew. I won't go into detail but he is described as having an alien appearance and as belonging to a slightly weird, quasi-Christian sect and as being unfamiliar with the rituals of the Church of England. He is a weaver by trade. (Jews were often involved in textile-related businesses, including weaving.)

Another point... Russell is a Norman name and one would normally expect families with this name to trace their roots back to the Norman invaders of the 11th century. But, in following up some Russell ancestors of mine, I came across a reference (in a book called The Families of County Dublin) to some Russells who lived in Dublin in the 18th century and who were merchants and weavers. Significantly, they were neither Catholics nor Episcopalians (the majority of Irish people were Catholic and there was a large Episcopalian minority). These Russells were Quakers.

There were also some notable Russells who were very active in Cork, merchants most of them. At least one was a draper. Some had links with Lisbon and one at least had business interests in (and travelled to) Brazil. This suggests to me that they were Sephardic Jews who had Portuguese roots, and that they may have simply adopted the name Russell and may not have had any connection to the Normans at all. (Russell is sometimes said to be a possible Sephardic name, but I don't have reliable information on this.)

Alternatively Portuguese Jews could have married into an established Russell family of that region, but I have found no evidence of this.