Sunday, May 29, 2011

Midgets on my shoulders

I have previously mentioned my failed search for a 'thinking master', a reliable guide to approaching and assessing the most important intellectual and moral questions. Perhaps it was a good thing that I never found one; perhaps even seeking such a guide is a sign of intellectual indolence. Certainly, George Steiner's study of maîtres à penser and their disciples which I cited in that previous post suggests that the vast majority of such relationships end in disillusionment. This is not to say, however, that we are not utterly dependent on what others have discovered and thought and said.

Isaac Newton wrote that he had seen further than other men only because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. Steven E. Landsburg cites an anonymous variation on this saying: "If I have not seen as far as other men, it is because midgets are standing on my shoulders."

Landsburg may or may not be an intellectual giant but - to his great credit - he is not afraid of addressing the big questions, and often brings to bear upon them a refreshing candor and directness coupled with ruthlessly rigorous logic (usually).* I have a few reservations about some of his positions, but I believe his general approach is well grounded.

One of his most interesting ideas relates to what people really believe. Wisely, he is very skeptical about what people say in response to survey questions, and he thinks that much of today's anti-religious literature (including Richard Dawkins's efforts) is based on the false premise that people really believe what they say (and perhaps think!) they believe.

According to Landsburg, "Dawkins undercuts his own position when he points to statistics showing that ... there is no correlation between religiosity and crime. His point is that religion does not make people better, but he misses the larger point that if religion doesn't make people better, then most people must not be terribly religious."

Different parts of our brain can in effect 'believe' different, incompatible things, and it's often only when circumstances require or force a single choice that the inconsistency is noted and resolved - one way or the other. So most purportedly religious people only believe in the tenets of their religion when there is no real cost to them. They believe that they believe, but it doesn't matter all that much so their beliefs are what Landsburg calls "disposable".

"Suppose you could take a devoutly religious person," he writes, "ask him, 'Are the tenets of your religion true?' and somehow convince him that the life of his child depends on getting the answer right. I'm guessing that nine times out of ten, you'd find yourself confronting a born-again infidel. The only reason that rarely happens is that there's rarely an occasion when getting the right answer actually matters."

*See The big questions: tackling the problems of philosophy with ideas from mathematics, economics and physics (Pocket Books, 2010). See also

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dollar bears

The U.S. dollar seems to be losing its status as a store of secure value and it's difficult not to see this both as a contributing factor to, and as symbolic of, a world-wide loss of confidence in the United States itself.

A Bloomberg report published today makes it clear that most of the top-performing global fund managers are sticking to their "long-term bets against the U.S. dollar even as the currency has rallied more than 4 percent since the end of last month." Despite the recent rally, the dollar is still down 12 percent in the past year against a trade-weighted basket of six currencies.

Alessio de Longis, a New York-based currency strategist, was quoted as saying that "the long-term fundamentals still look terrible for the dollar... The U.S. has worse monetary policy and worse fiscal policy than other countries, and that is a bad combination..."

Bill Gross of Pimco said that investors should "revolt" against Federal Reserve-engineered low interest rates and seek alternatives to U.S. bonds. Michael Gomez, also with Pimco, said that Asian currencies were only part way through a multiyear appreciation against the dollar. "We think this is a powerful trend," he said.

The rising Chinese currency (the yuan) is not yet convertible but many believe that Asian countries such as South Korea and Malaysia will let their currencies climb along with the yuan. Other currencies to get a favorable mention in the Bloomberg report were the Australian and New Zealand dollars, the Norwegian krone and the Swedish krona.

Anthony Norris of Wells Fargo thinks the U.S. dollar will rally later in the year but still believes the dollar has to decline in the longer term.

There are, of course, dissenting views, but the fate of the dollar rests with interest rates and government finances, and U.S. monetary and fiscal policies do not inspire confidence.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The smelly pony

Modern psychology has confirmed the deep psychological insights of a few 19th century thinkers (most notably, perhaps, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche) about the extent to which we are strangers to ourselves. We often do not see ourselves as clearly as others - even chance acquaintances - see us, or know our own minds.

I once read an account of a young woman who realized with great surprise that she had really hated the pony she thought she had loved as a girl. All girls love their ponies, don't they? And her younger self had duly conformed. But, looking back, she suddenly realized that that girl did not love her pony at all. It was evil-tempered and evil-smelling. A burden was lifted, an unnecessary self-deception revealed.

I can think of similar examples from my own adolescence. My 'love' of playing cricket lasted into young manhood, and it took a mere acquaintance (an older man, the captain of a team for which I was playing) to ask the obvious question - and to dispel the illusion. Again, a burden was lifted. At my father's initiative, I had had extensive training in the game, and, until that slightly embarrassing (but liberating) conversation, I continued to play it out of habit or duty or a delusion, not that I was good at it (I clearly wasn't), but that I enjoyed it.

Now, this may be drawing a long bow, but I recently wondered whether my love for the English language might not be another case of 'the smelly pony'. English is a brute of a language to use well. I don't know about you, but, even as a native speaker, I find it a struggle sometimes. I don't really feel at home in my own language!

English is classed as Germanic, but is really a mixture of Germanic and Romance. The double vocabulary (Anglo-Saxon/Norman), reflected in legal phrases like 'last will and testament' and 'storm and tempest', is well known and results in an unnecessarily large and unwieldy lexicon. But English sentence structure - not just the lexicon - seems also to have been influenced by the French-speaking Normans, to the extent that German sentence structures sound strange to us. (For English and the Romance languages the basic word order for transitive sentences is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), whereas German has verb-final order in subordinate clauses.) I wonder if native speakers of, on the one hand, Germanic languages like German or Swedish, or, on the other, of French or the other Romance languages, ever feel daunted by - not at home in - their own tongue. I doubt it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Filthy lucre

My thoughts have been more than usually concerned with financial matters of late as I attempt to rejig my modest investments in the light of the changing economic and financial environment, and bring them into line with my assessment of the current risks and opportunities out there. It's difficult to know where to put one's savings these days, with currency turmoil and sovereign debt problems adding to the usual uncertainties. I may in the future have a go at talking in detail about these matters though I still have a residual sense (derived from a rather old-fashioned upbringing) that money is not a proper subject for polite discourse!

The most unlikely people have spoken in praise of money - and in the most unlikely circumstances. The English television and screen writer Dennis Potter was interviewed on Channel 4 by Melvyn Bragg a short time before his death from cancer. He was in pain, and occasionally sipped a morphine-based concoction from a flask. He spoke of his early life, his work (he was trying to complete a final television drama), politics, English culture, and of his desire to murder Rupert Murdoch. Despite his left-wing views, Potter admitted to a strong preference for traveling first class. A disarming aside stuck in my memory. "Money - I like it," he said.

If lefties and the dying normally refrain from speaking in praise of cash, so do other categories of people, including Romantics and romantics. And, of course, the traditionally religious. The notion of holy poverty ("Blessed are the poor ...") is a major New Testament theme and a strong element in most Christian traditions, including Roman Catholicism.

So this couplet by Hilaire Belloc, a writer who strongly identified with the Roman Catholic church, has rather more punch than it would had it come from the pen of a worldly cynic:

I'm tired of Love; I'm still more tired of Rhyme.
But money gives me pleasure all the time.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Islamists and Nazis

If ever one is tempted to doubt, as I sometimes am, that ideas matter - I am speaking of ideas without technological applications - one has only to consider the havoc wreaked in recent years by violent Islamists. The pattern and manner of their actions could in no way be explained by economic or narrowly political factors. Recruiting young men and women (even children sometimes) as suicide bombers could only happen in an environment where all notions of decency and love of life had been replaced by poisonous myths, resentment, hatred, a cult of death and whatever else constitutes the ideology of violent Islamism.

I have in recent weeks been posting on this general topic as I educate myself on some of the main figures and groups involved. Paul Berman's book The flight of the intellectuals (Melville House, 2010) has been my main source. Berman has a sharp turn of phrase - for example, he refers to Yusuf al-Qaradawi as "the theologian of the human bomb" - but, more importantly, he has been scrupulous - as far as I can tell - in his presentation of (mainly) other people's research.

Two things struck me particularly: one was the influence of Romanticism on the Islamist cult of death; the second was the closeness of Islamism to extreme Western political ideologies, left and right.

The writings of Hassan al-Banna - founder of the Muslim Brotherhood - seem to have been as much concerned with overturning the Western cultural and political establishment as with religious preoccupations. Though his focus remained on early Islamic ideas and history, he was keen to incorporate modern notions into his ideology and was particularly impressed by the extreme right-wing movements which were flourishing in Europe in the 1920s. The Muslim Brotherhood started in Egypt as a very small, seemingly insignificant group. Al-Banna had great plans for it, however.

A few years later, he wrote of the potential power of small groups with charismatic leaders, citing the example of the Prophet Mohammed. He cited other examples also, though just two from the modern era. One was Ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia; the other was Adolf Hitler!

"... And who would have believed that that German workingman, Hitler, would ever obtain such immense influence and as successful a realization of his aims as he has?" (Cited Berman, p. 31)

In 1936, in Palestine, the 'Arab Revolt' against the British and the Zionists broke out. "The most violent and intransigent of the Palestinian leaders was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Al-Banna revered the mufti. He pledged support. He launched a solidarity campaign..." (Berman p. 31)

Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood increased rapidly during this period and reached about two hundred thousand by 1938. Berman's description brings out elements which are suggestive of fascism:

"It was a religious movement, pious and observant. It was intellectually vigorous. It was educationally active. The Brotherhood was athletics-oriented (the Boy Scouts were a direct influence). And welfare-oriented. The Brotherhood was also paramilitary, if only covertly, with an exterior appearance of law-abiding cautiousness. The Brotherhood cultivated the principles of discipline, obedience and adulation of its own Supreme Guide, who turned out to be Hassan al-Banna himself. Each new member swore an oath of loyalty to al-Banna. And the Brotherhood was a revolutionary movement on the grandest of scales." (Berman, pp. 31-32) It sought to subsume local nationalisms into a broader idea of Islamic unity.

One of the most fascinating - and shocking - features of Berman's book is the elaboration of the intimate links between the Nazis and key figures in the Islamic world, most notably Amin al-Husseini, al-Banna's "hero and inspiration" and his greatest ally outside of Egypt.

"Haj Amin al-Husseini, [...] when his time of desperate troubles came, would look to al-Banna, the most powerful of his own comrades for help, and would receive it too. And so began a three-way dance - between the Grand Mufti and the Nazi leaders, on one hand, and between the Grand Mufti and al-Banna, on the other." (Berman p. 67)

Rather than attempting to detail the dealings the Grand Mufti (who saw the Nazis as natural allies) had with Hitler and Himmler, I will quote a passage from a book by Matthias Küntzel whose "angry tone" seemed to Berman "well struck":

"The Mufti only ever criticized the Nazi policy when he feared that Jews might escape the Holocaust. He was on friendly terms with Heinrich Himmler, whom he admired. Their friendship was, however, strained when in 1943 Himmler wanted (as a propaganda stunt and in return for the release of twenty thousand German prisoners) to permit five thousand Jewish children to emigrate - and therefore to survive. The Mufti, who, according to a German government official, 'would prefer all of them (the Jews) to be killed,' fought tirelessly against this plan. With success! The children were dispatched to the gas chambers. The mufti showed special interest in reacting to decisions by the governments of Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to allow some thousands of Jewish children accompanied by responsible adults to leave for Palestine. It would be 'appropriate and more expedient,' he wrote promptly to the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, 'to prevent the Jews from emigrating from your country and send them somewhere they will be under strict control, for example to Poland.' Another success! Already issued emigration permits were withdrawn and the salvation of the Jewish children prevented." (Cited Berman, pp. 94-95.)

This was the man Hassan al-Banna welcomed as a hero into Egypt after the war: " ... this hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism, with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin al-Husseini will continue the struggle." (From a 1946 address by al-Banna to the Arab League, cited Berman, p. 106.)

Such attitudes are still alive and well within the Islamist movement as anyone who follows current affairs will know well. What is surprising to me is that such notions are held, not just by the uneducated, but also by supposedly learned figures within the Muslim world.

In the 1980s, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi wrote a book expounding al-Banna's ideas (including the notion of a massive jihad and world domination). Al-Qaradawi has been portrayed by Tariq Ramadan as the greatest of scholarly authorities on al-Banna's thought. But these three sentences, from a transcript of one of al-Qaradawi's television sermons (broadcast by Al Jazeera in 2009), suggest that something is profoundly wrong, not just with the scholarly judgement and moral perspective of the speaker, but with the politico-religious thought-world which the speaker and many of his listeners inhabit:

"Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them - even though they exaggerated the issue - he managed to put them in their place." (Cited Berman, p. 78)

The Islamist ideology is simply crass and credulous, morally bankrupt, intellectually null and void. It represents a tragic betrayal of all that is beautiful, all that is subtle and all that is fine in the cultural and intellectual traditions of the Islamic world.