Friday, September 20, 2019

Accentuating the negative

I once claimed that all the best people are dead. Such an assertion, taken at face value, is little more than a rhetorical flourish or provocation. Just a little hyperbolic, you could say.

Compare and contrast the stated views of John Cleese. Informed by an interviewer in September, 2017 that he (Cleese) was “very, very old”, the actor responded:

I’m 77. It’s very nice being this old, because when you’re this old, you’re going to die soon, so you don’t give a [expletive removed in source]… I am not afraid of death. I was thinking about it a lot, because you do when you’re older. I thought: most of the best people are dead.

I have to admit that his “most” is more defensible than my “all”. Cleese added that there are today “a lot of really awful people” about, many of them holding positions of power and influence. Provocation? Yes. But at least half-serious also.

If we are to take such claims even half seriously, however, we need to see them clearly for what they are: judgments not so much about individuals but rather (because individuals are created by the culture which nurtures them) about cultural change.

Moreover, negative or positive assessments of our (or any) society’s cultural trajectory will inevitably be subjective because any given judgment derives from a particular value framework, one amongst many actual and possible such frameworks. And, although they may be objectively described, competing value frameworks cannot be objectively assessed (except perhaps in very broad, functional terms).

Given the assumption that the social, political, educational, professional and familial structures upon which the functioning, health and transmission of a valued culture depend are breaking down or mutating in dangerous or otherwise undesirable ways, negative conclusions about the present and immediate future can be confidently – and quite reasonably – drawn. How plausible (or implausible) such an assumption or set of assumptions might be is debatable, of course. Opinions on these matters will be heavily influenced by ideological views and moral priorities.

Documentation on the decline in educational standards and a concomitant loss of status on the part of teachers and academics is not difficult to find, however. Likewise documentation on the breakdown of the family. But interpretations of the data will inevitably differ, as will the scope and focus of individual concerns.

We are all confronted with – and react in different ways to – the same broad social, political and cultural realities. Strangely – or perhaps, given the binary nature of many of our thought processes, not so strangely – most of us take a clear position not just on particular issues but also on the general trend. It is perceived as positive or as negative; as indicative of general improvement or of general deterioration.

Driven by temperament and who-knows-what, as time passes and as more loved and admired figures topple into the grave, I naturally see my negative stance confirmed. It is not just that all the old family friends, my father, all but one of my aunts and most of my teachers are dead; so are the thinkers and writers and artists who mean most to me. More importantly, the sorts of values these people exemplified or at least aspired to have been replaced by other values entirely.

Because linguistic communication is based on shared assumptions and words have no fixed meanings, talk about alternative assumptions is difficult. Let me try at least to describe the main areas in which I see deep divisions.

One is the social and political arena. So-called progressive attitudes and policies clearly dominate within the education system and within our ever-expanding government and quasi-governmental bureaucracies. Such attitudes also dominate the mainstream media and the increasingly influential technology companies. ‘Conservatism’ has become a dirty word associated either with fundamentalist Christians or war-mongering neocons. Burkean and other sensible and moderate forms of conservatism are not much discussed or widely understood.

Unfortunately, the arts have become a vehicle for the dominant ideology. There is an appalling homogeneity of views amongst actors, directors, screenwriters, dramatists and artists of various kinds. I know a bit about Western cultural history and I have never seen anything like it.

There are, of course, a few dissidents, a few independent voices, but even they find themselves caught up in the general silliness. Satire works only when the basic culture is still more or less intact. It deals with aberrations, exaggerating certain trends. But our politicians, bureaucrats, actors, academics and educators unwittingly satirize themselves.

[This is an extract from a piece published last month at The Electric Agora.]

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Karl Lagerfeld

Here is a short extract from a piece I wrote early this year:

Variations on the general theme that things ain’t what they used to be are often heard but rarely taken seriously. And, as a general rule, the older the speaker is, the less seriously the claims are taken. Of course he would say that, the old codger. Life was so much better for him back then.

A couple of years ago the German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld admitted to feeling that the world he had once lived in had ceased to exist. Paris, where he has lived and worked since the 1950s (when “it looked like an old French movie”), had never been as gloomy, dangerous or depressing as it was now.

As fate would have it, Mr Lagerfeld himself ceased to exist two weeks after my piece appeared. He was hospitalized on February 18th and died from complications associated with pancreatic cancer the next morning. In accordance with his wishes, there was no formal funeral, no ceremony.

My attitude to the industry in which Lagerfeld worked is not positive, and I have little knowledge of or interest in the man himself. What is most interesting is the phenomenon, the artifice, the public image – sustained over many years – as a kind of mask or act which was understood to be just that. Whatever his faults, Karl Lagerfeld had style and staying power. He also maintained a sense of privacy, showing himself to be (in this respect at least) very much a product of the lost world which he remembered.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Sex, schisms and pseudo-scholarship

I have been following – via The Electric Agora and via Twitter (where I maintain a fitful and tenuous personal presence*) – certain recent sex/gender identity debates and, more generally, the internecine conflict between various feminist and other progressive factions. I have not been participating in these clashes and skirmishes. They are not my battles.

I will say here, however, that I support the view (which Daniel Kaufman has articulated through EA articles and through the EA Twitter account) that much psychological and physical harm is being done to children and others, especially in relation to sex/gender “transitioning”. There is no doubt that young children need to be protected from the actions of a group of people who are at once the victims and promoters of a set of extremely muddled ideas about sex and identity.

My criticisms are not just of the arguments being deployed but of underlying assumptions; in fact, of the whole framework of identity politics within which the arguments are deployed. I am inclined to see the ideological splintering as deriving from deep-seated contradictions and flaws within feminism and within progressive and radical thinking more generally. The process is similar to what has happened to churches and other religious groups over the millennia, and also to the splintering which inevitably affects political parties. The more passionate and radical the groups, the more they are subject to internecine strife.

An article by Sonia Zawitkowski
recently got me thinking about these issues again. The article is about standpoint theory which entails a highly politicized approach to knowledge and values. You know the sort of thing: the “oppressors” see everything in distorted, self-serving ways, while oppressed groups tend to see things more truly.

Zawitkowski writes: “[T]he complexity of today’s most controversial social problems coupled with an increasingly polarized political climate means that we need standpoint theory more than ever.”

Do we really? Sure, we need to take account of social situation, self-interest, etc. when assessing people’s opinions (including our own) on various controversial social issues, but we don’t need standpoint theory or any other kind of theory to do this. The whole concept of “theory” when used to refer to intellectual constructs driven by ideology (critical theory, feminist theory, standpoint theory, etc.) is extremely problematic. It is, as I see it, a case of intellectual sleight of hand, rhetorical trickery, the packaging of mere opinion and polemics as scholarship. (Once upon a time scholarship required a commitment to actual research – and scholars were actually respected.)

I have points of agreement with Zawitkowski. She speaks, for example, of “a glaring disregard of the moral and normative nature of [early arguments concerning universal suffrage and the status of women]… There exist rational arguments for and against most egalitarian policies, but ultimately people are arguing for their preferred state of affairs based on their conception of the Good. This necessarily involves the prioritization of different rights, each conferring benefits and drawbacks for different groups.”

It is always unfortunate when values-based and ideologically-driven arguments are presented as if they were not values- and ideology-based.

As I see it, social harmony is a function of the extent to which moral and social values are shared within a population, and the social fragmentation we see today in most Western countries is directly associated with the loss of a shared culture. Ideologically-driven academic theorizing isn’t going to help.

Inevitably, in the sort of situation we are in, bureaucracy and regulation expands and proliferates. This process is both facilitated and justified by the promulgation of narratives developed and approved by various entrenched groups (including teachers and academics). Clumsy legal remedies are sought in areas where previously informal cultural and moral systems did the work. A spare and limited framework of law and regulation supporting the basic prerequisites for ordinary social existence, prosperity and peace is now just a forlorn libertarian dream, or perhaps a distant memory.

* @mark_english1

Monday, April 1, 2019

The wisdom of Roman Polanski

The girl on the phone (it's Catherine Deneuve in the film Repulsion if you're wondering) featured in an illuminated hoarding promoting a program of old Roman Polanski films at a local cinema. The image is certainly striking. The old technology (big, old-fashioned receiver with coiled cord) gives this still a weirdness it would not originally have had, but does not make it quaint. There is a wildness in the pose and a confronting directness in the stare.

The accompanying quote (from Polanski) runs: "Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theatre."

Well, yes... Polanski made some great films but this famous remark of his is not a particularly penetrating one. It goes without saying, I would have thought.

I had a look at a list of Polanski quotes and he certainly wasn't averse, it seems, to stating the obvious – e.g. "Films are films, life is life." But then all of us say things like this. The problem for celebrities is that offhand remarks get written down and presented as some kind of wisdom.

The best comments in the collection I looked at were about the crucial importance of attention to detail, and about honesty in dealing with violence.

He also had some interesting things to say about neuroticism. He values certain forms of neuroticism in actors, and seems himself to exhibit neurotic tendencies.

Here he is sounding a bit like Woody Allen:

"Whenever I get happy, I always have a terrible feeling."

I can relate to that.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Radicalism and religion

Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, had been involved with a mystical form of Judaism (possibly Merkabah) before he joined the early-first-century Jewish sect which became (largely through his own writings and missionary activities) a new religion quite distinct from Judaism. Paul knew that his teachings were unacceptable to most devout Jews and would be perceived as utter foolishness by most non-Jews, especially by those educated in classical culture. The Mediterranean world was dominated by the Roman Empire; Koine Greek was the main language of international trade and culture. Paul, as a practising Jew, a Roman citizen and a speaker of Greek, understood – and unequivocally rejected – both classical values and the tribal aspect of Judaism. Arguably, more than any other single figure, he universalized and so cut loose from its ethnic moorings the radical political morality which had become a significant feature of the Judaism of the time.

Though Christianity is now in rapid decline, secularized versions of Biblical ethics and eschatology still flourish and continue to exert a profound influence on moral and political thinking, especially in left-wing and radical circles. Unfortunately these modes of thinking become very problematic if you remove them from the theological context in which they arose. The moral imperatives of the Biblical and Christian world cannot be divorced from the absolute and morally engaged deity who lies at the heart of most Biblical texts without creating major distortions.

What gives force to notions of moral responsibility which go beyond our natural instincts and the requirements of social life? If there is a morally engaged creator-God involved, a God who communicates with us and cares about us, an absolute and demanding Biblical-style morality makes sense. If not, not.

On the Christian view, we are called to feel in some sense responsible for and to truly care about everybody on the planet. And this may be psychologically possible – if one believes in prayer and providence and a beneficent deity.

If you take these radical moral imperatives seriously in the absence of religious belief, however, they create an absolutely crushing and debilitating psychological burden. It is a recipe for cognitive dissonance and worse. Self-protective moral contortions and distortions, compartmentalized thinking, cynicism and hypocrisy are not restricted to the atheistic left but such cognitive and moral aberrations are certainly in evidence in contemporary progressive circles. What’s more, in the absence of actual religion, social and political causes have a tendency to become cults, or at least vehicles for cultish or tribalistic behavior. Activist groups typically involve a strong in-group/out-group dynamic.

Moreover, there is a demonstrable link between radical Western social and political thought and Biblical ethics.

Thinkers with a Jewish background (amongst them Heinrich Heine, Alexander Herzen, Karl Marx, Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, Saul Alinsky and Noam Chomsky) have been prominent proponents of radical ideas within the Western tradition, especially over the last two hundred years. It would be naive to attribute their prominence solely to a shared, secularized religious culture. Much can be explained in terms of social and economic history. But it is not unreasonable to see many of these thinkers as having being influenced, directly or indirectly, by the radical morality implicit in certain books of the Hebrew Bible as well as by a sense of belonging to a group with a long history of persecution and resistance.

Many Christian radicals also took their cue from the Bible, of course. Over the centuries, anti-establishment Christian thinkers of all kinds have found inspiration for religious reform and radical politics in both the New and Old Testaments. The New Testament draws heavily on the prophetic and apocalyptic literature of postexilic Judaism. Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, is just one of many apocalyptic texts, the vast majority of which were associated not with Christianity but with Judaism. Perhaps the most influential of these was the the Book of Daniel, composed in the second century B.C..

Despite attempts by later thinkers to Christianize them, mainstream classical values stand opposed in quite fundamental ways to the uncompromising moral spirit of the prophetic literature and the New Testament. The contrast between mainstream Greek and Roman philosophy (with its emphasis on reason and moderation) and the apocalyptic literature (with its emphasis on revelation and its often extreme and violent imagery) is even greater.

Many points of difference could be enumerated between the moral attitudes which are evident in these various traditions. The contrasts, however, are not just between Roman and Jewish or Pagan and Christian, but also between specific strands of Judaism or Christianity or Pagan philosophy. The New Testament narratives and other documents of the time make it clear, for example, that not all Jewish religious groups were committed to the values and beliefs of the apocalyptic and prophetic writings. And there were also many assimilated Jews (like Josephus) who took a basically pro-Roman stance.

Nonetheless, the contrast between the early Christian view and the classical view is pretty clear. Drawing on certain strands of Jewish thought, the Christian tradition defined morality or ethics in narrower terms than the classical philosophers. Prudential considerations were excluded (thus the emphasis on self-sacrifice and martyrdom). And moral considerations (in this narrow sense) trump all other kinds of consideration. Also, the Christian view is that we have a direct responsibility not just for our family members, friends and neighbours, but for everybody. My main point is that this style of ethics evolved within the context of a particular system of religious beliefs and, divorced from such a context, it is neither logically compelling nor (and I am speaking from personal experience here) psychologically bearable.

To summarize: I am saying that Western culture has inherited (at least) two very different – and incompatible – ways of conceptualizing and judging human behavior, and that the form peculiar to certain Hebrew and Christian texts in which commonsense and prudential considerations are marginalized or excluded altogether, is only sustainable within a religious framework of some kind. Furthermore, I am suggesting that, in many cases, traces of Biblical morality mark the thinking of people who see themselves as being non-religious and quite unaffected by the Biblical traditions of which I am speaking. This applies particularly in the sphere of radical politics.

I mentioned tribalism. As I see it, we are inveterately tribal creatures, but our tribalism may express itself in different ways. Traditionally it was associated with actual tribes and clans. But the radical moral views of the New Testament led to a tribalism of ideas, beliefs and values totally unconnected with – and in fact inimical to – family and clan loyalties. Radical forms of socialism clearly inherit such notions.

Finally, a brief mention of a couple of specific concepts which are are associated (mainly) with progressivism and the left and which also bear the marks of their religious origins: social justice and human rights.

The rhetoric of social justice has Christian roots but it was also a focus of much secular activism during the 20th century and beyond. In the 1930s the demagogic Charles Coughlin probably did more than anyone else in the United States to popularize the term. But, for him, the concept was still essentially a religious one in the sense that the moral imperatives involved had a religious basis. Remove that basis and you change the concept entirely.

The concept of human rights (taken from the natural law tradition rather than Biblical sources) is also a staple of today’s radical progressivism. Activists find the rhetoric of human rights extremely useful in pursuing their political goals. Few however have any interest in or commitment to the underlying metaphysics. Again, the result is unfortunate: conceptual confusion and a loss of meaning and coherence. As rights inflation has inexorably taken hold, the emptiness and absurdity of many of the claims being made becomes increasingly evident.

[This is a slightly revised version of an essay published at The Electric Agora.]