Thursday, April 10, 2014

Gloomy about Europe

Borrowing costs may have come down across Europe – even in Greece – but the underlying economic situation in many euro zone countries is still grim. And it may well be that the political consequences are only just starting to emerge.

In a recent piece in the Financial Times Gideon Rachman suggests that the euro crisis hasn't gone away: it has simply moved from the periphery to the core.

Italy, for example, has lost 25% of its industrial capacity since 2008, and the real level of unemployment is about 15%. The country's ratio of debt to GDP is more than 130%. France too has double-digit unemployment and the national debt is rising towards 100% of GDP.

Tension between European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and the German economic establishment including finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble seems to be increasing. And Rachman fears that Europe is very vulnerable to an external shock – such as higher energy prices as a result of any standoff with Russia over Ukraine.

Europe's fragile economy is in danger of being tipped into a deep recession. "And," writes Rachman, "a return to deep recession would favour the radical fringes in Europe."

Anyone who has witnessed Marine Le Pen's unequivocal and outspoken but brilliantly controlled television interview performances will be only too aware of the dangers.

But though she has made the Front National far more respectable than it was under her father and has achieved impressive electoral successes (such as in recent mayoral elections) with the prospect of more to come, she has not moved her party into the political – and certainly not into the economic – mainstream. She appeals directly (and effectively) to the French people and scorns the institutional status quo. And her protectionist economic policies are quite at odds with the economic thinking of both the centre left and the centre right.

The situation in other European countries, of course, is different but groups supporting policies similar to those of the FN are now a common feature of the political landscape.

In Asia, by contrast, despite rising nationalism and real threats to the continuing growth of trade and prosperity, bilateral free trade deals and other new arrangements to facilitate international trade and financial transactions are somehow continuing to happen. (Deals between Australia and Japan and Australia and South Korea have been finalized in recent days, for example, and a suite of new arrangements between Australia and China is expected to be concluded this year.)

Despite problems in some regions – like poor air or water quality, or food contamination – much of East Asia (and South and South-East Asia and Australasia) continues to benefit from strong levels of economic activity, with most countries still firmly committed to further lowering barriers to increased trade and investment.

Meanwhile Europe, driven by long-term historical, economic and demographic trends as well as more contingent cultural factors, is moving slowly (but apparently inexorably) to the periphery of global politics and trade. It doesn't help that, under an ineffective President and an increasingly dysfunctional political system, the United States seems to be drifting into a long, drawn-out and perhaps inevitable decline.

Such prognostications, I know, are not worth much. But as more people come to see things in this way – and they will if nothing happens to suddenly render this narrative implausible – these expectations will affect behaviour, feeding and consolidating deep, underlying economic and social trends. Even now, many Asian cities (like Singapore, for example) are booming and attracting some of Europe's and America's best talent.

I don't know that it makes sense to talk about Europe as a single entity. It has always been a patchwork of nations and regions with very different cultures and levels of prosperity. And – despite attempts over recent decades to create a more unified and homogeneous union – it remains something of a patchwork, more interdependent, certainly, but also more divided in new and complex ways.

Some regions, no doubt, will prosper; others will languish, relatively speaking. Given the overall economic situation, however, the best one can hope for, I think, is that the countries of Europe will maintain social harmony and hold at least to the general levels of prosperity which currently exist.

This would not be so bad. But such an outcome is far from guaranteed.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A path not taken – twice

Reminiscing is a dubious business, sometimes indicative of a failing life, a fading brain (or both).

In fact, I have sometimes wondered whether Marcel Proust suffered from premature aging of his brain, as the past typically looms largest for dementia sufferers as old memories rise again eclipsing more recent and shallower ones. If he was in the early stages of dementia, he certainly made good use of his affliction.

For myself, I look to the past by and large only to try to make sense of the present, strongly believing that people (and organizations and societies) can only be properly understood when seen in the light of their development and history.

So for the individual, say, dwelling on past experiences or decisions need not be an entirely futile exercise and may even provide a better understanding of oneself and what it is one is really looking for (if indeed one is looking for anything at all).

In this regard, mistakes and bad decisions are particularly worth scrutinizing. Though what is lost is lost, critical scrutiny of past errors makes it less likely that similar patterns of behaviour will be repeated. (This is the essence of human intelligence, as I see it. Forget about cleverness.)

Though I'm skeptical about history as a discipline and the stories that historians tell, a sense of history gleaned from reading contemporary sources is undoubtedly valuable in understanding why things are as they are. Likewise, having a sense of an organization's history is a necessary prerequisite to understanding its culture. Learning from one's personal (and family) history is also possible, so long as one is able to remain sufficiently detached.

I've been thinking about the medical profession and doctors lately because I have had some recent dealings with them (concerning some minor but nagging symptoms which were bothering me*).

If I have regrets about paths not taken, not having taken a medical degree is not one of them. [A careful reader will be justifiably suspicious of the triple negative here. Does it indicate subconscious rationalization, a mind playing tricks on itself, I wonder?]

I tell myself that practising medicine would only have exacabated my hypochondriacal propensities, because if one is constantly dealing with the health problems of others it is virtually impossible not to see potential parallels with the operations of one's own body.

And – have you noticed? – doctors seem all too often to die before their time. Statistics I have seen support this observation, and I think there is little doubt that the stress of dealing constantly with disease and death and being responsible day in, day out for making crucial decisions and giving advice to patients is largely the cause. (Also, easy access to benignantly lethal drugs has contributed to a relatively high suicide rate amongst doctors, I believe.)

Interestingly, two (at least) of my favorite writers were medically trained – William Somerset Maugham, whose early literary success allowed him to forego a medical career (and live to a grand age); and Anton Chekhov, who did practice (and died young). Another notable literary doctor was Céline (whom I haven't got around to reading).

My father had had thoughts of going to medical school. His mother was very keen on the idea (as mothers all too often are**).

At that time you needed a foreign language to get in, but his attempt at mastering French over a summer break with the aid of a linguistically-inclined college friend ended in failure.

Though he maintained a strong interest in science and medicine and (especially) genetics throughout his life, most of his reading – and he was a voracious reader*** – was non-scientific: history and (mid-20th-century) fiction.

He also maintained an exaggerated respect for the French language which he was very keen for me to keep up in high school.

He meant well but he was ineffective in steering his children in sensible directions, partly because he was increasingly out of touch with them and partly because he was out of touch with the times in which he lived. He remained only vaguely cognizant of the radical social and cultural changes that had occurred in the course of the four decades which separated his own high school years from those of his eldest child.

* The symptoms had nothing to do with my heart, but my general practitioner heard a murmur (which I have had from childhood and which has never caused problems) and he wanted it checked out. So I was booked in to have an echocardiogram. I was expecting something easy and quick like an ECG, and was surprised not only at how long it took but also at the physicality of it: all that poking and prodding and breathing out and holding one's breath and so on. To make matters worse, a couple of times during this process a terrible sloshing and gurgling noise – quite chaotic-sounding, actually – became briefly and alarmingly audible. I referred to this as I was getting dressed and the doctor was tapping away on the computer, trying to finish off whatever she had to finish off regarding my test. She said that that noise still bothered her and she was only now, after a number of years, starting to get used to it. I took some comfort in her remarks, as nervous airline passengers sometimes take comfort in the reactions – or non-reactions – of flight attendants to sudden turbulence or strange bumps or noises. Clearly my chaotic gurglings were not dramatically different from anyone else's...

** Jewish mothers especially? I rarely remember jokes; I tell them badly so what's the point? This one stuck however... From the shore, a Jewish mother sees her adult son in serious trouble in the water. "Help! Help!" she cries. "My son (the doctor) is drowning!"

*** Before there were any children, my parents went to a beach cottage together for a holiday. After they arrived, my father immediately got out a pile of books and settled into a comfortable chair. (Needless to say, this didn't do my mother's confidence any good. She was very young and naïve and starting to wonder about this time what she had got herself into.)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Michael Walzer on anti-Judaism

There is something about Michael Walzer's sympathetic presentation of David Nirenberg's ideas on the history of what he (following Nirenberg) calls anti-Judaism which seems – at least to me – to strike a false note. I am focussing here entirely on Walzer's essay and make no judgment about Nirenberg's book.

Part of the problem is that the term 'anti-Judaism' – which one naturally takes to refer specifically to the religion – is being stretched to encompass broader cultural and other factors.

For example, in his essay – the main point of which seems to be to promote the view that the Jews and Judaism of the Christian and post-Christian imagination bear no relationship to actual Jews and Judaism – Walzer writes:

"No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them – but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of real Jews." [Emphasis mine.]

But, leaving that specific issue aside, consider this passage in which Walzer sums up (and endorses) David Nirenberg's core thesis about 'anti-Judaism':

"… [A]nti-Judaism claims to be explanatory. What is being explained is the social world; the explanatory tools are certain supposed features of Judaism; and the enemies are mostly not Jews but 'Judaizing' non-Jews who take on these features and are denounced for doing so. I will deal with only a few of Judaism’s negative characteristics: its hyperintellectualism; its predilection for tyranny; its equal and opposite predilection for subversive radicalism; and its this-worldly materialism, invoked […] by both Burke and Marx. None of this is actually descriptive; there certainly are examples of hyper-intellectual, tyrannical, subversive, and materialist Jews (and of dumb, powerless, conformist, and idealistic Jews), but Nirenberg insists, rightly, that real Jews have remarkably little to do with anti-Judaism." [My emphasis again.]

"None of this," Walzer wrote, "is actually descriptive." Just to be clear, he means that none of those listed characteristics is actually descriptive of Judaism.

The listed characteristics are descriptive of something, however, insofar as they are exemplified in the social world. This is important because, clearly, ideas can only be seen as explanatory (even if they are only in fact pseudo-explanatory) if the things they purport to explain are there to be explained (or mis-explained).

The question is, then, whether the characteristics in question have any correlation with Judaism or Judaic culture.

Walzer claims here that they do not, pure and simple.

But a strong case can be made that the Hebrew scriptures are characterized by a certain earthiness or 'embodiedness' or this-worldliness which is absent from many other religions. This is not materialism, certainly, but it does reflect a certain orientation which is very different from Platonistic idealism, for example.

There is also evidence of moral and political radicalism in various prophetic and apocalyptic texts.

Even Walzer admits in the course of his essay that the revolutionary Puritans at the time of the English civil war were actual Judaizers (and not just 'Judaizers') in that they focussed more on the Old than the New Testament. He also admits that many of the Bolsheviks were in fact Jewish – "though of the sort that Isaac Deutscher called 'non-Jewish Jews'."

As to hyperintellectualism, there is ample evidence for this in the Talmudic tradition, is there not?

Why not just admit these facts? I don't see the problem.

The issue is complicated and compounded – rather than clarified and resolved (which presumably was the intention) – by the introduction of the inevitably vague distinction between "real Jews" and "'Judaizing' non-Jews".

The basic thesis seems to run as follows...

Non-Jewish (and Jewish, like Marx) thinkers criticized certain forms of thought and action which they characterized as Judaic. But these forms of thought and action were in fact exemplified not so much by real Jews but rather by non-Jewish 'Judaizers'.

Real Jews have remarkably little to do with anti-Judaism precisely because the 'Judaism' of anti-Judaism has remarkably little to do with real Judaism (or indeed with anything Judaic). So the Judaizing non-Jews (or non-Jewish Judaizers) are not really Judaizing (or Judaizers) at all. (Except the Puritans, apparently.)

Got it?

Finally, let me address directly my concern about Walzer's use of the concept 'real Jews' and the substantive distinction which that concept entails between Jews and non-Jews. Making or assuming such a distinction leads inevitably to the sorts of odd dichotomies I was making fun of above and more generally to definitional dilemmas and arbitrary judgements which a more secular and pragmatic approach could easily avoid.

How would Isaac Deutscher's "non-Jewish Jews" fit in here, for example? Presumably they would be seen by Walzer as real Jews who had made some unfortunate choices!

And indeed, according to Philip Weiss who attended a talk Walzer gave to a Jewish audience in 2007, Walzer does seem to take this view (or something like it). Citing Exodus, Walzer allowed that there have always been irreligious Jews. He also accepted that there are Buddhist Jews. But Jews cease to be Jews by active conversion to, for example, Islam or Christianity. (Just in case you were wondering.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Another thought on Wittgenstein's masked theatre remark

I want to follow up on some comments I made the other day concerning Wittgenstein's remark about Jews being attracted to masked theatre by looking at a passage from Michael Walzer's recent essay on anti-Judaism.

Walzer writes:

"The critique of Jewish cleverness is fairly continuous over time, but it appears with special force among German idealist philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who repeat many of the supersessionist arguments of the early Christians. [That is, the idea that a new arrangement based on new and deeper values supersedes the old.] Kant understood the heteronomy he sought to overcome – action according to moral law externally imposed rather than freely accepted by the agent – in Jewish terms, but he was himself considered too Jewish by the philosophers who came next, most importantly by Hegel. Kantianism, Hegel claimed, was simply a new version of 'the Jewish principle of opposing thought to reality, reason to sense; this principle involves the rending of life and a lifeless connection between God and the world.' According to Hegel, Abraham had made a fateful choice: his rejection of the world in favor of a sublime God had alienated the Jews forever from the beauty of nature and made them the prisoners of law, incapable of love... [And] Schopenhauer, in the next generation, thought that the academic Hegelians of his time were 'Jews' and followers of 'the Jewish God'..."

Perhaps these notions of a certain kind of thought or intellectuality or cleverness leading to false perceptions and alienation – to being cut off from some supposedly deeper nature – may help to explain Wittgenstein's curious remark about masked theatre.

Originally I took Wittgenstein to be saying that masked theatre was an inferior form of theatre and its putative attraction for Jewish audiences was indicative merely of their lack of depth or artistic understanding.

But you could look at it another way. Perhaps Wittgenstein was thinking that masked theatre was ideally suited to expressing the alienation or cut-offness which Jews (or perhaps 'Jews') have supposedly inflicted on themselves by their intellectualism, etc.. This type of theatre would therefore be particularly meaningful to them (i.e. to intellectualizing Jews or 'Jews'*) – and possibly cathartic.

Belle Waring suggested (in response to my comment on her blog post in which I first raised this issue) that Wittgenstein can't have been referring to classical Greek theatre in his apparently disparaging remark. But this would no longer be the case if the remark was not (as I am now suggesting) intended to be disparaging at all.

* I may have something to say about this distinction and some other matters arising out of Walzer's article in a day or two – and then perhaps will give these Jewish themes a rest!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ludwig Wittgenstein and the 'Jewish mentality'

I made reference recently – in a comment on a blog post by Belle Waring on clowns and masks and related matters – to Wittgenstein's curious remark, made in a notebook around 1930, about 'masked theatre': namely, that only Jews will be attracted to it.

That discussion didn't really lead anywhere so I thought I might set out here a few suggestions and thoughts not only on Wittgenstein's comment but, more generally, on his attitude to Jews and Judaism.

I'm not sure what kind of masked theatre Wittgenstein was thinking of, but he appears to have been associating it somehow with the unpoetic, abstracting and intellectualizing tendencies which he saw as characterizing the 'Jewish mentality'.

Most of what Wittgenstein says about Jews is conventional 19th-century nonsense related to the idea that Jews are not truly creative, but the reference to masked theatre is decidedly odd.

This is drawing a very long bow but could he, in his eccentric way, be referring to something like what we would now see as autistic tendencies? Those on the autism spectrum have trouble reading subtle social signals (including facial expression) and – I don't know about masked theatre – but they do tend to gravitate more to comic books and cartoons than the rest of us. They also often have a narrow focus in their thinking and are sometimes highly gifted in mathematics and related disciplines.

And, of course, many of the greatest mathematical and scientific thinkers of the last century-and-a-half (autistic-tending or not) were Jewish...

But I am not making specific claims here so much as just tossing around some ideas to try to make sense of Wittgenstein's remark.*

He was aware, of course, of his Jewish forebears and at times referred to himself as Jewish. After previously playing down his Jewish background, he told his friend Fania Pascal in 1938 that three of his grandparents were Jewish. She subsequently discovered that all three of those Jewish grandparents were – or became – Christians.

Wittgenstein's paternal grandparents were both born to Jewish parents but were baptized as Lutherans and married in a Lutheran church.

His maternal grandfather was raised as a Catholic by his mother who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism. His maternal grandmother was a Catholic without a Jewish background.

"Some Jew," Fania Pascal remarked.

Wittgenstein was baptized a Catholic, instructed in the faith and even considered, about the age of thirty, taking holy orders. He was given a Catholic burial. But he lived his religious life very privately, a devout if unorthodox Christian.

I recall reading that he was not only devastated but disbelieving when he found out that the invading Nazis had classified his family as Jewish.

Wittgenstein's religious commitments have been downplayed or ignored, for the most part, by his philosophical followers but his anti-Semitic-sounding remarks (as well as his fundamental philosophical commitments) only really make sense when seen in the broader context of his Christian beliefs.

As this essay by Michael Walzer (a review of a book by David Nirenberg actually) makes clear, Western anti-Semitism – or, more precisely, anti-Judaism – is only comprehensible historically when seen in the light of Christian doctrines and is, or at least has been, an essentially explanatory idea intrinsic to Christian thinking.**

But there were always conflicting traditions of thought within Christianity, and the frictions were often traceable to tensions between those who emphasized classical elements and those whose focus was more on Biblical and Jewish sources.

Consider, for example, the controveries surrounding the notion of the 'Hebrew republic' in the 16th and 17th centuries when some prominent Christian scholars took a decidedly pro- or philo-Judaic approach. These individuals – mostly Protestants but also Jesuits – sought enlightenment about pressing political questions from the Hebrew Bible and its Jewish interpreters.

By Wittgenstein's time the concerns were quite different, of course, as various forms of idealism dominated the philosophical world and modernism battled with neo-scholasticism.

Wittgenstein's main problem with Catholicism, apparently, related to its emphasis on natural theology and, by extension, metaphysics, both of which disciplines he rejected unequivocally.

His views seem to have more in common with certain mystical and fideist traditions, and he found religious inspiration in the writings of Augustine, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well as certain books of the New Testament.

John Hayes discusses Wittgenstein's intense moral preoccupations in terms of his Jewish background, but I see these preoccupations as being quite consistent with those forms of Christianity which draw more on Hebraic sources than Greek or classical ones.

Hayes writes: "From the point of view of Wittgenstein's religious sensibility, [a] feeling of Jewishness seems to have manifested itself in a strong belief in the Last Judgement as a young man and, as an older one, in what he called the 'hundred per cent Hebraic' sense that what we do makes a difference in the end. Such a perspective compels taking our actions seriously; there is only one chance at life and an accounting at the end of it. Wittgenstein seems to have had an abiding sense of guilt which he constantly counter-balanced by a renewed resolution to live life decently."

Significantly Wittgenstein felt far more comfortable with Matthew's gospel – the most Jewish of the gospels – than, say, with the Gospel according to John. And he originally rejected but came eventually to see value in the letters of Paul – who had, it seems, been deeply involved with a mystical form of Judaism (as evidenced by his reference to the 'third heaven', for example).

* Another thought relates to concealment and deception, as Jews have often been characterized as deceptive. Wittgenstein was preoccupied at various stages with his own deceptions and confessed them to friends as a form of self-abasement. (They related, amongst other things, to his allowing misperceptions of the extent of his Jewish background to go uncorrected; and to violent behavior – which he had originally denied – towards children during his brief career as a primary school teacher in rural Austria). But, though masks do involve concealment and deception in a sense, so does theatre in general. And, not only is this decidedly not a morally suspect form of deception, any concealment or 'deception' is on the part of the players rather than the audience.

** Though anti-Semitic ideas are not necessarily associated directly with Christianity, there are usually at least indirect links. For example, though many 20th-century anti-Semites were influenced more by philosophical idealism than by Christianity, idealism can be seen as a development of the Platonistic elements embedded in the Christian tradition. And, surprisingly, some of the most virulent forms of Islamic anti-Semitism trace their origins to Christian sources.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Improving the odds

I recently sided with Lucy Kellaway on the importance of traditional social conventions and rituals in relation to eating and drinking, and mentioned in passing that I had reverted to drinking ordinary tea made in a pot rather than tea-bag tea.

That piece may have given a slightly misleading picture of my views because, though I certainly do feel – and no doubt will continue to feel – an emotional attachment to the rituals of eating and drinking, I must confess that my basic approach to food is more utilitarian than aesthetic.

I certainly share Kellaway's view that food itself, no matter how good, is "curiously forgettable" and that most of the real pleasure comes from the anticipation and the ritual.

Furthermore I see the current cultural obsession with food and the taste of food as being symptomatic of real cultural decline.

But my personal approach to food is in practice more closely linked to hypochondriacal tendencies than to conservative ones. When I was in my twenties a doctor asked me if I had read Three Men in a Boat. He was thinking of the (once) well-known passage describing how one of the characters leafs through a medical dictionary and finds he has symptoms that match virtually every disease in the book.

My usual way of dealing with perceived symptoms is to tweak my diet and hope they go away. I'll resist the temptation to give details of my current symptoms beyond saying that they are not painful or debilitating, just vaguely suggestive (as my symptoms invariably are) of very dark possibilities.

Of course, dark possibilities crystallize into dark realities for all of us in time; the trick (and it is a trick) is to keep that inevitable reckoning out of sight (and so out of mind) for as long as possible.

Part of this is psychological game-playing but the most important part relates to real choices impinging on general health.

And food choices, along with decisions relating to sleep and exercise, etc., give us – within the limits set by our respective genomes and other factors beyond our control – the ability to maximize (or minimize) our chances of longevity and well-being. We can alter the odds considerably, in fact. And this, to my mind at least, is hugely significant.

Maintaining traditional habits and patterns of eating and drinking is all very well. But the simple truth is that any such habits and customs – however appealing – will get short shrift from me if they stand in the way of my latest dietary prescriptions.*

* Just to give a sense of where I am at the moment... No alcohol, no sugar, no white flour, minimal caffeine (and no caffeine late in the day). Staples include: anchovies; lettuce mix; various fruits and vegetables; yogurt; heavy grainy bread; cheese; tahini; peanut butter; yeast extract; brewer's yeast; pea soup (with ham) and other types of soup. That's the bare bones of the 'what'; I may elaborate on the 'why' – on my rationale – another time. (The concept of glycemic load is important; and recently I decided to increase my intake of purines...)

Monday, February 17, 2014

The trouble with history

I have just come across an essay (published last November in the New York Review) by Mark Lilla on Hannah Arendt and how Margarethe von Trotta's recent film about her gets Arendt all wrong – by ignoring the fact that, as subsequent research has revealed, Arendt got Eichmann all wrong.

Von Trotta's films tend to based around strong and visionary female characters. And Hannah Arendt is presented as just such a powerful visionary.

One can see more clearly why the author of Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared to fit the bill when one considers certain aspects of the filmmaker's cultural and ideological background.

Lilla writes:

"When left-wing radicalism was at its violent peak in the 1970s, the following false syllogism became common wisdom: Nazi crimes were made possible by blind obedience to orders and social convention; therefore anyone who still obeys rules and follows convention is complicit with Nazism, while anyone who rebels against them strikes a retrospective blow against Hitler. For the left in that period, the Holocaust was not fundamentally about the Jews and hatred of Jews (in fact anti-Semitism was common on the radical left). It was, narcissistically, about the Germans' relation to themselves and their unwillingness, in the extreme case, to think for themselves."

Apart from the reference to narcissism, this seems true to me.

But I would also make the more general point (also made, if slightly more equivocally, by Lilla) that writers and filmmakers almost inevitably frame their works on controversial historical and political subjects in terms of simplistic ideologies and flawed logic.

If it didn't conjure up images of book-burning or the Index librorum prohibitorum, I would be tempted to indulge a small fantasy of mine and flesh out the notion of a world in which there would be no popular history books or films, biographical or otherwise – just easy access to a wide range of primary sources, and the minimal framework of scholarship required to authenticate, maintain and present this material to a wider public.

What would happen, of course, if one banned popular histories is that – as has happened so often in the past – enterprising writers would produce allegorical fictions which would make the same sorts of political and ideological points that popular histories would have made more directly (but not necessarily more effectively).

But, leaving aside questions about the desirability or effectiveness of censorship, there is no denying that reading letters and diaries and other documents from past eras (including literary works) is a powerful means of counteracting the myths that historians deliberately or unwittingly promote (even as they try, in many cases, to debunk other myths).