Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Death and destruction
Wednesday, September 28, 2022
Though they don’t concern me in a direct or personal way, I am following geopolitical developments closely. I am concerned by the belligerent stances being assumed by all major powers, and by the lack of leadership and intelligent diplomacy being exhibited by major Western powers.
More generally, I am appalled by the transformation of our media into an integrated propaganda machine. News has always been propaganda to an extent but the balance between propaganda and hard (factual or critical) content varies from time to time and from place to place. What we are seeing now in the West is somewhat reminiscent of old communist and fascist models and of World War 2-era American and British newspapers and newsreels, etc.. But arguably the situation is worse now than it was back then because of the intrusive nature of current technologies. The combination of digital news services and social media has produced an integrated – and insidious – framework of communication which is being effectively exploited by governments, powerful corporations and other favoured organizations.
As a preparation for possible future writing on social, economic and geopolitical themes, I have been reading (or rereading) the work of some early 20th-century thinkers, including Louis Rougier. Born in Lyon in 1889, Rougier was an intellectual historian and social philosopher who, unlike many intellectuals, had a good grasp of fundamental social, political and economic principles. In his best writings (from the 1930s and 1940s especially) he takes a refreshingly down-to-earth and non-ideological approach to political and economic questions. More on him later perhaps.
Friday, August 26, 2022
Politics, personal attitudes and the approaching crisis
The following observations had their origin in an exchange I had with a friend, some of whose ideas about, and attitudes towards, politics and human freedom I saw – rightly or wrongly – as being false (the ideas) and counterproductive (the attitudes).
For me politics is a boring necessity which, at its best, runs in the background. Enthusiasm for politics is always a danger signal.
Such enthusiasm may manifest itself rhetorically or be rhetorically generated, but I am not condemning rhetoric per se. Rhetoric is an inevitable feature of any communication which incorporates a human element and engages the emotions. You can’t avoid it, and political talk – which is often designed to persuade or (let’s face it) to manipulate – is always going to be rhetorical to some extent.
So I am not criticizing people for utilizing rhetoric in the political sphere so much as for believing it – for falling for their own or other people’s rhetoric. Doing so, they are often implicitly seeking in politics something which politics or political action cannot, in the end, provide: that is, some kind of deep satisfaction or “salvation”. They are turning politics into a religion-substitute. This is a very dangerous thing to do.
Emotional satisfaction is a personal rather than a political matter and is best sought, I believe, in interpersonal relationships and personal, non-political activities and practices (work, hobbies and “creative” activities, walking, sitting in the sunshine, etc.). When people get (or seek to get) their deepest satisfactions from political or, more broadly, from ideological beliefs and activities, something is amiss.
2. Romanticism and politics
I keep seeing not only ideological (that is, political and personal-value-based) but also metaphysical elements in the political views of activists both of the left and the right. Much has been written about the implicit (and in my view dangerous) metaphysics of Marxism but right-libertarians – with their views on natural rights and their fetishization of freedom – are also committed to their own, ultimately empty and baseless, metaphysical ideas.
The origins of many current ideological fashions can be traced to the 19th century and the Romantic movement. Many Romantic ideas carry religious and metaphysical baggage deriving from Biblical as well as classical sources (Plato, the Stoics). It took me some years to see my own Platonist and Romantic commitments and assumptions for what they were – and so let go of them.
One’s views on art and human creativity and action need not have a metaphysical dimension but Romantic aesthetics certainly does, and these ideas have and still do play into political thinking in unfortunate ways. I am not saying that we, as individuals, can’t find deep satisfaction in creative activities at a personal level. My point is that no political solution can ever alter the underlying realities and imperatives of social and economic life and deliver the sorts of universal freedoms and satisfactions which are typically promised by radical, progressive or libertarian ideologies.
3. The current situation
Ideologies are real in the sense that they motivate political action and affect the way people interpret history and current events. They are essentially action-oriented, reality-distorting mechanisms and are worse than useless as analytical tools.
The “system” we currently find ourselves in is not capitalism, at least in the historical sense of the term. Western capitalism had deep cultural roots and was associated with certain patterns of thought and behaviour which no longer prevail (work ethic, deferred gratification, thrift, certain religious ideas, etc.). It involved the slow accumulation and deployment of actual capital, “creative destruction”, unprofitable companies being allowed to fail, and so on.
This is nothing like what we are witnessing today where everything is driven by debt and derivatives and there is an unholy alliance between heavily indebted governments, central banks and financial institutions. Markets are grossly distorted. Currencies are losing purchasing power. The financial system has become detached from economic reality.
The seeds of the current crisis were sown when the USD’s link to gold was finally severed in 1971. Or actually before that: in the fiscal profligacy of the 1960s which made the suspension of the Bretton Woods arrangement necessary.
Governments and central banks have played a major role in creating the current perverse and dysfunctional system, but other groups have also been involved (Wall Street bankers, certain business people and billionaires, NGOs, big tech and media). The system – such as it is – is now collapsing.
There will be inevitable pain.
Wednesday, August 17, 2022
Circles of concern
There is much to be said for seeing life primarily in local terms, for seeing one’s personal situation as dictating to a large extent one’s actual duties and responsibilities, and for resisting temptations to moralize, pontificate or parade one’s opinions in the public sphere. Sadly, the current digital media environment works against such reticence and self-restraint, exacerbating the drift away from real connections and real communities.
The “uncoupling of shared content from physical proximity and ongoing relations” was recently a topic of discussion at The Electric Agora. One participant lamented the current situation, seeing “the constant deluge of information about far-off goings on” as the root cause of the problem.
Apart from the occasional message from family, it’s not natural for people to be concerned about what’s going on more than a few day’s ride or walk away. It makes diffuse the collective ethics of cooperation, and lends itself to costless performative virtue. Easier for a New Yorker to wave a sign on behalf of a Uyghur than knock on doors for the would-be county mayor, or boycott Israel instead of putting a stone through a scab’s windshield. Solidarity and hope are reduced to self-parody.
I'm not sure I see any form of solidarity or hope worth having in picket lines – but let that pass.
We need to rebuild [heal?] social division geographically. People are best at improving things close by, and knowing what needs improving. Unfettered individualism and social division are symptoms of the sickness. Humanity writ large is not a society, let alone a community. Put your neighborhood, family, and city first, and maybe you’ll feel like part of something bigger. The welfare of your locale is part of the world’s welfare, and the part you can do the most about.
Self improvement comes into it too.
You’re part of the community. Improve yourself, and you improve the community. Prowess, beauty, and fitness are all good. A personable friend to shoot hoops with, a scoutmaster teaching kids to camp, or a schoolgirl putting her all into clarinet chasing that scholarship do far more for a neighborhood than a conscientious news-junkie or devout activist for the identitarian cause of the day.
We need to go back, but most won’t. Streaming videos, internet news, and cell phones are popular for a reason. Distraction has its place, but it’s not a legitimate way of life. The EA crowd has a lot of this going on. Buying 20 Malaria nets for strangers a continent away is less virtuous than playing catch with your kids or baking a pie with grandma, and – no matter how they pretend otherwise – they know it too.
I quote these passages in full because they are vividly expressed and because there is significant overlap with my own views. These sorts of topics are never clearcut, however, and caveats and reservations necessarily apply.
One caveat relates to the fact that there are circumstances in which long-distance concerns demand attention: foreign policy questions, for example.
Quite obviously, the interventionist policies currently being pursued by the U.S. and its closest allies sit uneasily with the principles outlined above, and some kind of regionalism or system of geographically-based spheres of influence would be a better fit.
No set of principles is sacrosanct, however, and it may be – I don’t think they can, but it may be – that current policies can be defended or justified on other grounds. I can see that proximity counts for less and less in purely military terms – in terms of weapons technology, for example – just as it does in terms of general communication. But, of course, any strategic analysis needs to be contextualized and supplemented with a wide range of data and information (including cultural information) if it is to be useful in the real world and effective in the long term.
Some believe that only continued American global dominance can save us and deliver a more just, peaceful and prosperous world but I see dangers in the unipolar model and in the very notion of a global elite, however it is constituted and however sensitive this supposed elite might be to the nuances of cultural variation.
Sunday, August 7, 2022
A few thoughts on culture, religion and Jewish identity
There is also the psychological angle: despite individual differences, it’s clear that our brains are wired for religion or something like it. Why else would secular and even atheistic social and political movements exhibit so many similarities to religious sects and cults?
In a recent piece at The Electric Agora, Daniel Kaufman summarized his skeptical views on God and the supernatural and wondered why it is that so many are still drawn to religious belief.
"By now," he begins, "most readers know that I am an atheist, as I do not believe in the existence of God or anything supernatural. Readers also likely know that I am Jewish by lineage and culturally and that I think God is useless both as an explanation and as a moral exemplar."
It was his social and cultural observations rather than the philosophical reflections which interested me. This, for instance:
"When I first moved to the Bible Belt, I was surprised by the level of confidence people had in their particular brand of evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity (some of them brands I’d never even heard of until that point) and used to think that the best thing for them would be to live in a Lubavitch or Satmar community for a few weeks, where it would become quickly evident that there were people far more religiously committed and more rigorous in their religious lifestyles than they are."
Chabad-Lubavitch and Satmar are rival Brooklyn-based Hasidic sects originating in Russia and Hungary respectively. They differ, amongst other things, in terms of their attitudes to outreach and proselytizing within the wider Jewish community [Chabad is active in such activity but Satmar is not]; and in their attitudes to Zionism and the state of Israel [Satmar remains staunchly anti-Zionist].
Unlike these Jewish groups, evangelicals and Pentecostals profess and proclaim (in Kaufman’s words) their own “extraordinary and intense religious faith” whilst behaving in other respects “pretty much like everyone else.”
Dan talks about the “self-deception” or “psychic indolence” involved in seeing ancient religious texts as embodying eternal truths “about the nature and operation of the universe and everything and everyone in it” rather than in more realistic terms. He himself sees sacred texts as “fascinating and often lurid elements from the eclectic, messy, often ugly history of human development.”
US fundamentalist Christians are a group concerning which I have only limited knowledge. Two things are clear, however: they are are less regimented than Jewish ultra-Orthodox or extremist Islamic groups; and most of the individuals involved embrace large chunks of modernity in their thinking and in their day-to-day lives.
Mixing faith-based and modern views involves inconsistencies but compartmentalization of one kind or another is a universal feature of our brains. Some of the greatest scientists bracketed out their religious beliefs in rather crude ways or aligned themselves with extreme and anti-rational ideologies or political movements. Though most of us manage to avoid such extremes, the logical aspect of our thinking is always in an awkward or ambiguous relationship with more emotional aspects of thought – including those that relate to existential anxieties, to attachments and aversions, to religion, politics, self-image and identity.
In the linked piece, Dan explicitly acknowledges and embraces his Jewish lineage as well as the essentially secular Jewish culture in which he was raised. For his parents – and for himself, apparently – ancestral religious practices continued to be meaningful in the absence of belief.
There is a tension here which revolves, I think, around the purported centrality of specifically religious ideas and practices to Jewish identity. When scriptures lose their special status and come to be seen solely in historical or literary terms, when prayers and rituals are no longer expressions of religious experience but mere nostalgic forms or reassuring customs, they gradually but inexorably lose their power to command attention and motivate religious practice. They become museum pieces. They die.
Is this a problem?
My preference is to see group affiliations in personal and individual terms, that is in terms of sets of shared and overlapping cultural elements and personal values. To the extent that Jewishness is seen this way (i.e. as an evolving element within various disparate cultures rather than in terms of direct links with an ancient, Hebrew-speaking population and the religious practices and beliefs of that population), existential questions about cultural survival simply will not arise.
Sunday, June 12, 2022
Saturday, April 9, 2022
I am in the process of reorienting my life. Over the years I have been caught up, as everybody is, in various projects, commitments, entanglements and responsibilities (or perceived responsibilities). Some of these commitments limited my opportunities for extensive travel, or at least the sort of travel I desired.
In recent years I wanted to ensure that I would be able to visit my ailing mother on a regular basis. She was in a nursing home in Melbourne. So I leased a place fairly close by, a small ninth-floor apartment in Melbourne’s old Chinatown district.
Unfortunately, due to draconian COVID-driven bans on visiting, I was not allowed to see my mother for months on end or liaise in the normal way with nursing staff during 2021. In previous years she had fared pretty well, fighting off occasional acute illnesses and defying predictions by physicians and nurses of her imminent demise. But last year a pressure sore got out of hand and became infected and she went into serious decline. She died in January.
My apartment lease expires in early August and my intention at the moment is not to renew it. I have not decided on where I will be based. The plan, for the moment, is just to travel. Initially to Singapore, and then further afield. This itinerant lifestyle could continue for quite some time if my health and finances allow.
My intention is not to be moving constantly but rather to stay for extended periods (months) at most destinations. I will probably continue to post material online. But how my lifestyle changes will affect the extent, nature or focus of this activity is uncertain.
Naturally there would now be some scope for doing anecdotal travel-related pieces, impressions of various places and so on. But to what end? Before the restrictions of the last couple of years, most people I know traveled widely and on a regular basis. I didn’t. I am the least-frequent flyer I know.
I am aware that the old fogey, Rip Van Winkle angle could easily become tedious, so I'll need to put strict limits on my conversational and other references to four-engined turboprops, Boeing 707s and descriptions of how places have changed. (When I last visited Athens, for example, the Third Hellenic Republic was in its initial stages and the time of the generals was still fresh in everybody’s memory. But, as I say, this is not really a line I want to pursue.)
On places, one has impressions, one makes judgments. But is there any need to talk publicly about them? Opinions and impressions are a dime a dozen; and reportage makes sense if you are being paid for it or if you are pushing some narrative or other which you deem to be important, but not otherwise as far as I can see.
There is always the option of getting involved in scholarly work again or in serious writing – possibly on political themes or international relations, possibly on more theoretical topics. It all depends on various factors (whom I meet, where I am based, how my interests develop, geopolitical developments, etc.).
Whatever happens, my preoccupation with culture and value will continue, and exposing myself to different cultures (to the extent that urban cultures have not converged into a boring sameness) will at the very least constitute a kind of experiment in compatibility.
There are still things to do here (sorting papers, legal matters, getting a new passport, etc.). I hope that it will all go smoothly and that my transition to a new way of life occurs without my having to face any further personal stresses or challenges.
Looking to the broader context, it goes without saying that social, political and economic stresses will continue and probably become more intense. To what extent I will be trying to chronicle or wanting to comment on these things in the future I do not know.
Nor have I decided what communication platforms to rely on during my travels. I may even decide, given the state of the world and the direction in which things are moving, that I want to follow the example of many of my literary and intellectual heroes and hunker down somewhere far from the madding crowd.
While I am in traveling mode, however, I would be very open to meeting – for a coffee, say – anyone who may have come across my blog posts or essays over the years, as well as those internet friends with whom I have maintained more direct contact.
[This is an abridged and modified version of an essay which appeared recently at The Electric Agora.]