Monday, December 24, 2012
Though visitor statistics have improved significantly, there are fewer comments, and I take this to be part of a general trend away from (commenting on) blogs and towards social media.
As the year draws to a close, I have been (as one does) wondering about future directions, both in terms of which particular interests to pursue, and how and where (at what level, using which forums, etc.). Should I have a look at Google+, I wonder? And/or look at more specialized forums?
And should the two blogs be maintained or consolidated into one?
As it stands, Language, Life and Logic allows me a bit more scope to be boringly scholarly. I intend to put up something there soon on Noam Chomsky's ideas on language, but, if I wanted to discuss his political ideas, I would do it on Conservative Tendency.
I don't analyze visitor statistics, but am pretty sure the majority of hits are fleeting and superficial. To those visitors who have read something here they relate to in some way, thanks for your interest.
A tolerable Christmas and a happy new year to all.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
Specifically, if one applies standard Christian-like ethics to these areas, one ends up feeling one should care for and protect consumers and the general public as one would one's loved ones, not only from 'market forces' but also from themselves. The result is inevitably going to be a form of socialism, or at least a nanny state.
Tweak the ethical starting-point (by rejecting universalism for nationalism, for example) and you may get something like fascism.
But, at any rate, you will be committed to trying to create an extended economic, political and social community modelled on the family or tribe. Something warm and human and emotion-based, but on a large scale.
It is a potent and alluring idea, but, as history shows, it just doesn't work. Or, at least, it doesn't work for long. The consequences, in fact, are generally disastrous.
European-style social democracy could be seen as an attempt to realize this idea of an extended human community without resorting to totalitarian methods. Social democratic systems never really managed, however, to create a true, extended sense of community, remaining cold and bureaucratic (as well as being economically unsustainable).
Paradoxically, one of the cruelest totalitarian regimes of the 20th century had more success (for a limited time and not for the whole population) on the affective front. I am thinking of Hitler's rallies, and the stories told by (non-Jewish) Germans about growing up in the early days of National Socialism (the state-sponsored camping trips, the sense of community and belonging).
I don't have a neat conclusion; only the sense that an emotional approach to broad social questions can be dangerous, and perhaps the best kind of general ethical framework for business and politics will be unemotional and rule-based.
Of course, emotions are part of being human, and all of us are emotionally engaged as individuals in our professional and business lives. The main dangers seem to lie in trying to impose one's own emotionally-charged vision on the broader community.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
"Chinese people are very superstitious and they believe, one, that they are luckier than the casino themselves and, two, they are probably luckier than the other casino patrons and that's why they can win."
Of course, the tendency to overrate one's own luck or ability is a universal human trait. But the Chinese cultural heritage is particularly rich in beliefs and customs relating to luck and fortune, and there is no doubt that Chinese people are often strongly drawn to gambling in general, and casino gambling in particular.
Many Chinese are suspicious of the stock market and the big investment banks, and Ho suggests they see the casino as a fairer option. In baccarat, for example, you have a 50-50 chance of winning.
Well, it's not quite as simple as that! But Ho and his fellow casino entrepreneurs are quite happy to exploit the naive ideas of the new Chinese middle class.
In fact, growth in the VIP or 'high roller' sector is flat, whereas the mass market for what casinos have to offer is currently growing at 30% per annum. The focus is now squarely on the new middle class rather than on professional gamblers or the super rich.
I wonder how the likes of Lawrence Ho and James Packer, respected and admired as they are, justify to themselves their exploitation of human weakness and irrationality. Are they hard and cynical Social Darwinists at heart? Or do they believe that they are providing a real service to the community?
I am reminded of a childhood friend whose family ran a corner store which made a significant proportion of its money from cigarettes, many of which were purchased by young people.
My friend's trite observation that it was a dream they were buying, 'not just a packet of fags,' was true enough, but not particularly convincing as a moral defense.
The way I see it is that we humans do all sorts of stupid and self-destructive things. The relatively good business person may exploit some of these activities but provides an honest (and legal) product and refrains from outright deception.
The real reprobate is the purveyor of contaminated goods, counterfeit medical drugs, that sort of thing.
Or am I setting the bar too low?
Sunday, December 2, 2012
Don't ask for how long (I want to say) she will be content with her domestic routine; enjoy the conservative moment. For Carla Bruni is one of the few contemporary figures who has old-fashioned star quality, and so symbolic importance.
In fact, the 44-year-old seems to have developed a strange kinship with a former generation of Hollywood stars whose public personas transcended their cinematic achievements and somehow represented for many people an ideal, a mode of life at once sophisticated and traditional.
Emma-Kate Symons has written a piece which discusses Bruni's mid-life conversion as 'counter-cultural' in the context of our 'post-familial' world.
And so it is. But whether the paradox of a counter-cultural conservatism can deliver long-term moral benefits is doubtful.
Symons notes that a number of writers have recently elaborated on the negative moral and demographic consequences of the anti-family culture which now dominates Western social and political life.
It has been clear for decades, however, that, while the model of the traditional family may survive, it has lost its dominant position and normative influence; rapidly becoming, in fact, just one possible option amongst many.
I sometimes think that humans in general and not just children function better and more happily when choices are constrained.
I know this raises awkward political questions, about who determines and applies the constraints, for example; and social questions about the legitimacy of traditional cultural constraints.
But I am not making policy prescriptions here just making the observation that freedom is often a mixed blessing.
Carla Bruni may even agree with me on this.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Goldman emphasizes the crucial importance (as he sees it) of national birthrates as indicators of the health and future viability of cultures. His interpretations focus particularly on religious ideas.
Here are a few notes and preliminary thoughts on what he is saying.
He sees Islam as being in a downward spiral, and as failing to come to terms with modernity. Birthrates in Islamic countries with high levels of literacy are more or less equivalent to European birthrates. He mentions Iran, Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey. (With respect to Turkey, however, he notes that the Kurdish population is increasing.)
On radical Islam: 'Never in history have so many people committed suicide in order to kill large numbers of innocent people.'
Goldman appears to have an unrealistically sanguine view of America's strategic and military prospects. (This may be in part but only in part explained by the fact that, at the time the interview was conducted, it seemed likely that a Republican would be in the White House in 2013.)
'Americans often forget how exceptional we are,' he declares. 'Our founding premise is that God gave inalienable rights to every individual. The notion of a covenant in which every individual derives rights from God such that no earthly power can take them away begins at Mount Sinai. In Islam, it is absurd to suggest that God might limit his own power by a permanent grant of rights to every individual. The arbitrary, capricious and absolutely transcendent god of Islam would not condescend to a covenant with humankind. The institutions of representative democracy are a hollow shell without its covenantal premise.'
He draws an interesting contrast here between the God of Judaism and Christianity and the God of Islam. But this passage also brings out the fact that Goldman clearly bases his political philosophy on religious beliefs (which rules it out as a model from my point of view).
I agree with him that rational self-interest is not enough to explain human behavior, but Goldman overreaches when he attempts to condemn the tradition of thought initiated by Thomas Hobbes on the grounds that it is 'materialistic'. What he calls materialism may or may not be sufficient to motivate populations to behave well, but it certainly does not preclude the development of plausible theories of human behavior which take account of irrational elements.
Put simply, Goldman fails to appreciate the obvious fact that you can be a physicalist and still recognize the irrational drivers of human behavior.
I am also uneasy about the way he divides the world up into cultural and ethnic groupings. Sure, such groupings are significant, but people are increasingly identifying with multiple and overlapping groups, most of which are not defined in terms of ethnicity or traditional culture, religious or otherwise.
Goldman states: 'We live in a world in which most of the industrial nations find themselves in a demographic death spiral, a Great Extinction of the nations unlike anything we have seen since the 7th century... Why do some nations find the spiritual resources to embrace life, while others chant, 'We love death'? ... Franz Rozenzweig's sociology of religion ... provides a better framework for understanding these problems than the political rationalism of Leo Strauss.'
I don't know about that. Rosenzweig was essentially a religious thinker. He was a secular Jew who, following a mystical experience, embraced Orthodox Judaism, and I would be very surprised if his sociology of religion did not bear the marks of his passionate religious convictions (which would not condemn it, but would certainly limit its interest for those not sharing such convictions).
Whatever the merits or otherwise of the intellectual sources on which he draws, however, it seems pretty clear that Goldman's vision for America is utterly unrealistic.
The United States may have looked like the 'undisputed world hyperpower' for a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a purely military sense, it may still be just that.
But U.S. government indebtedness and the shift in the balance of global wealth from West to East means that, as Goldman recognizes, rising powers like China will be playing an increasingly important role in international affairs.
Does he really think China would respond meekly to a more aggressive and militaristic stance on the part of a debtor nation?
Friday, November 23, 2012
Stevenson alludes to the long-standing struggle between those committed to a stable currency and inflationists, a struggle which has been at the heart of many presidential contests.
In this instance, clearly '[t]he victors were the forces of cheap money. William Jennings Bryan would be proud - as would bimetallists and Weimar Republicans.'
'Inflation won because it is the panacea for all that ails the body politic: a short-term cure-all that promises economic growth, the possibility of paying off national and international debts, new-found prosperity for the middle classes and liquidity for the impoverished, who otherwise would be voting in the streets with rocks and burning tires.
'... Cheap money defers many liabilities. Real wages for industrial workers have declined since the 1970s. True unemployment including those too discouraged to look further and others working part-time for unlivable wages is closer to 22 percent than the official figure of 7.9 percent. The national debt, $16.3 trillion, exceeds the gross national product. With unfunded entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, the government is eventually on the hook for a further $46 trillion, which it would rather not pay with pieces of eight.
'The hard-money men have not been able to win many elections since the 19th century, arguing as they do for reductions in the monetary supply; an asset-backed currency (preferably with gold) and policies that lead to deflation...
'The magic of inflation, before it turns everything to dust, is that it papers over a number of financial problems. The United States government is now able to run monumental trade and budget deficits, fight multiple foreign wars, vote tax cuts, extend unfunded pension and healthcare benefits to citizens over age 65 and spend money with Medici-like munificence on myriad federal programs by printing money or borrowing in national and international capital markets.
'Were the dollar unacceptable as a reserve currency in investor portfolios here and abroad, these financial sleights of hand would have ended long ago. Imagine the consequences if the Chinese demanded gold, diamonds or barrels of oil as collateral for their U.S. dollar bond investments. Already, the dollar is badly depreciated against many currencies ...'
Stevenson suggests that the official inflation figures grossly understate actual inflation and cites 'four-year college tuition at $200,000, one-bedroom New York appartments for $1 million, gasoline at $3.46 a gallon and carts of groceries that routinely cost at least $250.'
Inflation 'allows the political classes to maintain the illusion of power and authority. Without the ability to print and circulate paper money to balance the books ... U.S. presidents would be riding Greyhound on their appointed rounds, not the magic carpet of Air Force One.'
Furthermore, inflation allows politicians to create 'a veneer of fairness' but 'it is a direct tax on the savings of American citizens, especially those of the middle classes who lack hedges against its effects ...'
'[T]he economic carnival will end when the dollar is no longer acceptable as a reserve currency, first in international markets and later domestically.'
The only reason the Chinese hold debts denominated in dollars, Stevenson notes, 'is because it helps them maintain the artificially low exchange rate of the renmimbi.'
'Whether or not the United States goes over the fiscal cliff, it will remain unified as a nation of debtors for whom the goal is always to repay their loans with debased currency.'
Matthew Stevenson has a nice turn of phrase and a good sense of history. I agree with the general thrust of what he says even if a few of his assertions are problematic. There is no doubt in my mind that the massive U.S. national debt is eventually going to bring the country down, but exactly how and when is just not predictable. (To his credit, Stevenson leaves the timetable open.)
Had Romney prevailed, I would have watched and waited and wondered whether, after all and against the odds, America could come back.
But it's gone now, headed for inevitable, irrevocable decline. It was probably too late to start to turn things around anyway. But that we will never know for sure.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
The latest focus of attention is on fringe politics. 'Oh, Imogen would never get involved with anything violent.'
Well, Imogen would actually, especially if she gets carried away by the sense that the established order is racist and sexist and rotten to the core and hell-bent on destroying the environment and precipitating climate chaos in pursuit of profit and the maintenance of hegemonic power.
She has no religious scruples (what are they?); no sense of love for or identification with Western civilization (dead white males, etc.); nothing in fact to hold her back.
Take Felicity Ann Ryder. She is apparently hiding out somewhere in Mexico after the arrest of her presumed boyfriend Mario Antonio López Hernández who seriously injured himself when his improvised explosive device went off prematurely on a Mexico City street in June.
Her mother Jenny has told the press that it was 'beyond comprehension to think that our daughter would have had any involvement with violence... We as her parents, and her family, have the utmost respect for her beliefs, her commitment to social justice which we know is very close to her heart.'
Typical doting parents. (In denial?)
Felicity Ann Ryder, a politics and history graduate and a 'talented linguist', is described by friends as 'quiet and quite serious', 'not someone who drew attention to herself'. She is interested in animal liberation and environmental protest, and is said to have worked (as what is not clear) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
After the arrest of López, Ryder posted a statement on a Mexican anarchist website thanking 'everyone who has worried about me and my situation [and] those who have shown solidarity with Mario and I.'
Ryder, López and their revolutionary friends probably genuinely believe that the old power structures and those who benefit from them are in fact soon to be swept aside and replaced by a new, just and glorious social order.
Don't count on it.
I would counsel young anarchists (old ones are too far gone) to do a bit of reading on the fate and effectiveness of earlier anarchist movements; to note the parallels between their ideas and groupish ways, and religious ideas and structures; and consider the possibility that the ideals to which they aspire are ultimately unrealizable on any significant scale.
Sure, what you are doing feels good and right (and just a little bit exciting). But it is based on myth and fantasy.
In the end, you are fooling yourselves. And doing harm rather than good. Society is more complex than you think, and fragile in ways you do not understand.
Yours is a comic-book view of the world, of good and bad, of black and white. And your sense of solidarity is as fatally restricted and limited as your understanding of history and the human condition.
We are all all of us just stumbling around in the dark until death takes us. Base your sense of solidarity on that.
Thursday, November 8, 2012
I am not claiming that media bias played a significant role in the American presidential election. The extent of the opinion-forming power of the press is an empirical question which I haven't looked into. My guess is that journalists and commentators are less influential than they would like to think, and deeper forces are at work. [But more on this another time.]
With respect to the coverage of the US election, some public broadcasters in Europe and elsewhere were even worse, I suspect, than mainstream American media (which at least is American and so has a stake in the outcome).
To keep up my French, I watch news on France 2. They continually highlight progressive causes, and their coverage of the election was boringly predictable. (The predictability is a plus, however, from the pedagogical point of view, as my understanding of spoken French is not as good as it could be.)
But a Scottish-accented 'senior reporter' working for Australia's hard-left, publicly-funded SBS took my prize for naked bias and patent unprofessionalism. He went so far as to proclaim - as a (foreign) reporter, remember, not a commentator - that the Republican Party's continued dominance of the House of Representatives was not only bad for the Democratic Party but bad for America.
I looked him up on Wikipedia. Brian Thomson. Born and raised Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Majored in politics and history at Newcastle University, where he was Deputy President of the Newcastle University Union Society. Deputy, note. But he was the winner of the 2011 United Nations Association of Australia Peace Award. (God save us from Peace Prize winners.) I don't know that I've ever seen a reporter who appears to take himself quite as seriously as this character does.
In many ways, I regret the demise of pen, paper and print as communication media, but I console myself that changes in the media landscape - the shift away from print and, in particular, the fragmentation of the audience for the electronic media - mean that the current crop of smug, know-nothing, campaigning journalists face a very uncertain professional future.
Monday, November 5, 2012
The Telegraph (UK) quotes Chris Williamson (chief economist at Markit): 'The ongoing weakness of the periphery is being combined with [a] hollowing out of the previously strong core of France and Germany.'
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told a meeting of her Christian Democratic party in Sternberg that the eurozone would take years to recover. She said that new investment from outside Europe was crucial, but such investment would not materialize unless European governments demonstrated rigor and fiscal discipline.
The time had come for 'a bit of strictness,' she said, according to the Telegraph report.
Yes, a little bit of strictness.
But it gets worse. The Deutsche Welle English language website account of the Sternberg meeting has her saying: 'We have to hold our breath for five years or more.'
I doubt, however, that Dr Merkel sounds quite so funny in German (or indeed when translated into Greek or Spanish).
Sunday, October 28, 2012
Let's leave aside fundamentalist religion and its crazy, childish literalism and acknowledge that there are reasonably sophisticated forms of religious belief which are compatible with an intelligent approach to politics and social issues. Such approaches (unlike fundamentalist ones) are more or less within my intuitive range, and, from such a perspective, secular conservatism looks unappealing if not dubious.
Only a person with a religious perspective can have a strong sense of his or her conservative beliefs being anchored in something secure.
Sure, the non-religious conservative can look to history. But history is notoriously subject to alternative interpretations.
He or she can also look to extant social and cultural elements which exhibit some continuity with past practices, but here again there are problems. In a world like ours discontinuity rather than continuity is the norm. And, even then, the secular conservative must deploy a necessary - but also, in a sense, an arbitrary - bias against one (very important) class of cultural lore.
Razib skirts this problem. Why does his 'empirical conservatism' not apply to religious traditions? (If it did, by the way, it might begin to look something like William James's Pragmatism.)
There are clear psychological and practical advantages for those who find themselves able to embrace a set of religious doctrines or at least a religious outlook, to convince themselves that certain of their intuitions penetrate into a sacred realm rather than being mere tricks of the brain. It is potentially very appealing to feel linked to a higher power and bound in a profound and intimate way with one's co-religionists.
Arguably we evolved for this; it is natural for us. But reason and - in particular scientific reason, that particularly unnatural mode of thought - stands implacably opposed to religious modes of thought and feeling.
Scientific reason expels us from paradise and gives in return very little from the human point of view.
No wonder, then, that secular conservatism is an unstable and unsatisfying position. Much of what one values one is bound to question and possibly to reject. One is a conservative and yet (in the eyes of many) not a conservative, a liberal and yet not a liberal.
The temptation is always to flick the switch to something radical and irrational and more in line with our deeper, evolved natures. The Romantics knew this well, and out of Romanticism grew a whole range of potent ideologies of radical change and transformation.
Some of these ideologies - the most sinister in fact - looked to the past as well as the future. The radical conservatisms of continental Europe during the 1920s and 30s come readily to mind, and there are signs that groups with (albeit tenuous) links to this tradition of thought and action are gaining some support today, especially in economically distressed areas.
Razib Khan associates such traditions with what he calls rationalism, by which he means social or political thinking based on principles which are accepted as true or appropriate and applied willy-nilly. Top-down thinking as distinct from a bottom-up, empirical approach.
But rationalism can also be understood in a broader sense and contrasted with the irrational. And, in this sense, the author is clearly a rationalist.
Which is fine. But, as I have suggested, I think he fails sufficiently to see or at least appreciate the full extent of human irrationality, its depth, its inevitability.
The fact is that the elements of our nature which motivate action and drive us this way and that are dark and complex and a million miles from scientific reason.
Intellectuals are all too prone to retrospectively rationalize their choices, to present a favored view of things as consistent and empirically justified, as if an ideology were like a scientific theory.
In his article Razib Khan makes some good Burkean points about the wisdom implicit in cultural traditions etc., but the talk about human flourishing doesn't quite ring true to me.
This is partly because it is a jargon phrase based on reheated ancient philosophy. It is also because it is being presented as an ideal, a standard against which different systems may be empirically measured, and it seems to me too vague a concept to be so applied.
Vague, and maybe (in the wrong hands) dangerous.
Saturday, October 20, 2012
One of these food cultures is eclectic and multicultural and puts food into the foreground. Food becomes a constant topic of conversation, as there is a constant need to choose, constant pressure to assess, to compare tastes and textures. Food becomes something of a cult object, an obsession even. This is the bad food culture (and, increasingly, the dominant one).
A good food culture (in my admittedly conservative opinion) puts food into the background, as is the case in any community which maintains the traditions of its national or regional cuisine. There is a limited repertoire, a pattern or cycle to go with most of the time, and no need continually to make choices and assessments and judgements, no need to talk about food much at all.
There is the health side of things of course. We know a lot more now about how particular diets can have dramatic effects on one's health and longevity, but, interestingly, traditional diets do pretty well on this front, certainly when compared to the sorts of diets encouraged by the proliferation and ready availability of convenience foods and confectionery. Eating used to be more restricted to certain times and places, healthily constrained by certain rituals.
But these rituals also had a civilizing function. Only when such traditional practices are functioning - and the focus is not primarily on the taste experience - can food and eating play their social and civilizing role.
Food talk is fine - to a point. But it is well to bear in mind that food is one of those dangerous topics which tend to expand exponentially to fill mental and conversational voids.*
* Like some forms of gossip. Or talk amongst older people about ailments. Or talk about the achievements of one's children. Or - worst of all, and worse than food talk by far - accounts of plans for the renovation of one's home and the implementation and progress thereof.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Ethnicity needn't come into it, of course. In an increasingly complex world, our group identities - more often than not - have nothing to do with 'race' or genetic relatedness.*
But our tribal instincts were originally based on such factors, and such factors still play a significant role.
My question is: how should one respond to this phenomenon?
Disapproval seems silly and futile.
On the other hand, encouraging a sense of racial identity and 'national self-determination' seems to me dangerous and irresponsible - though many (often well-meaning) groups, political leaders and governments encourage such thinking with great enthusiasm.
The only sensible approach seems to me to be to accept that ethnic loyalties are a fact of life, potentially dangerous, but not altogether negative.
The liberal left generally presents an incoherent - or at least inconsistent - view. They hold 'racism' to be a totally unacceptable attitude, and yet actively encourage a sense of racial identity in certain selected groups. In other words racial consciousness is good if your particular ethnic group has had a bad run in recent times, and bad if your people have done okay.
Ethnic or racial identification will be more important to some people than others, but it is arguably a universal human phenomenon and a constant of human nature.
Certainly not to be encouraged as a path to liberation and fulfilment (a crazy Romantic notion); or damned as an abomination if indulged in even in non-violent and moderate forms by white Europeans, for example.
There are problems with European racial consciousness, of course. People seeking to return to some imagined mono-ethnic paradise are deluded and maybe dangerous.
Associating oneself too strongly with the fortunes of a particular ethnic group (defined in racial terms) is, in my opinion, an unnecessary, misguided and often ultimately pathetic move. Those who identify with groups traditionally seen as having been exploited etc. run the risk of perpetuating a mentality of victimhood; just as those who identify with dominant groups often fool themselves (like football fans) into believing that they somehow share credit or glory for the achievements of others.
* Reflections on ethnic self-identification and nationalism always take place within (and are affected by) broader political and historical circumstances. My perspective here is decidedly Western, and most significant for recent debates have been memories of the colonial period and of the Nazis, and the current situation in various Western countries.
I would suggest, however, that the (at least in part ethnically-based) nationalism of a rapidly rising China will increasingly constitute the context - and perhaps the focus - of future discussions on these issues.
Monday, October 1, 2012
Actually, I feel more comfortable talking about what's not cool than what is: the not-cool is more my area of expertise.
So, let me say that scholarly pursuits are not generally considered cool (though some scholars manage to be cool in spite of this fact). It is not generally considered cool to put a premium on safety and good health. To be too careful about one's diet. To plan. To spend any time or effort, for example, working out an investment or retirement plan. Definitely not cool.
Genes have got a lot to do with this. They want us (I am personifying them as a form of shorthand) to reproduce, and so distort everything to favor behaviors conducive to reproducing, but once we have passed the peak reproducing age they lose interest. They certainly have no interest in our leading long lives, healthy or otherwise.
I, by contrast, like the idea of staying alive; and I like the idea of having enough money and not having to work for any longer than necessary.
Cool is a trick, like fashion is a trick, like peacocks' tails are a trick played on peacocks by their genes.
People smoke cigarettes because it's dangerous and cool (in some circles). It may help attract mates. But it's stupid.
Drugs of course, and the whole rock culture (the culture, note, not the music). Some other music cultures. Driving fast. Unprotected sex. Getting into fights. Sky diving, scuba diving, white water rafting...
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Okay, so some people might have a good reason to jump out of an aeroplane or ride a wild river or go deep beneath the surface of the sea: soldiers, escapees, professional divers. They are not thrill-seekers; they are exempted from my criticisms.
Work aside, most of what most people do and are interested in is stupid.
Even if much of it is cool.
Cool may be stupid, but stupid is certainly not always cool. The really sad people are the ones who manage to be both stupid and uncool in their behavior.
So cool is not entirely negative. I am happy to concede this.
It is a fact everybody knows perfectly well as it happens: cool has its compensations.
* I know the word is hopelessly vague and ambiguous, but this is all part of the mystique of the concept I am trying to explicate here. You can't tie it down or describe it explicitly because its very nature is to be not explicitly definable.
Saturday, September 22, 2012
Irving Kristol called it 'thin gruel'. This is one way of looking at it: merely as a watered-down version of conservatism.
But removing, say, Christian beliefs from Western conservatism involves (I suggest) more than just a weakening or watering down. It involves deeper changes - and choices.
For example, does one stay with Christian morality or wipe the slate clean and develop a different morality entirely?
Many non-religious conservatives have looked back to the Greco-Roman world for inspiration, to a time when Western culture was flourishing and had not yet succumbed to Christian doctrines, rituals and ways of thinking. Morally, it was a very different world.
The moral assumptions of the post-Christian world are however, more often than not, Christian assumptions, as the general population in Western countries has arguably internalized large chunks of Christian ethics.
Furthermore, so-called progressive thought is arguably a secular version of one particular aspect of Christian morality. The whole Marxist and broader left-wing tradition is based squarely on certain Christian moral ideals, and could be seen simply to represent an attempt to apply Biblical notions of justice and equality in the here and now - or at least the near future - rather than banking on a supernatural savior.
I think the relatively recent shift of the mainstream churches to the political left can be explained in a similar way. They have in effect ceased believing in a compensatory spiritual realm.
So there is radical and radical. There is standard, left-wing political radicalism which seeks to overthrow the 'unjust' status quo and replace it with a new world order based on (Biblical notions of) justice and equality.
And then there is the deeper radicalism of conservatives who have not only rejected Christian beliefs but Christian morality as well.
But, because most of them have such good manners, and so will refrain from saying what they really think, it will remain largely hidden from view.
Saturday, September 15, 2012
As Pilling points out, diplomatic links between Moscow and Beijing are strengthening and Russian trade with China is already running at significantly higher levels than its trade with Germany and at much higher levels than its trade with the U.S. ($80 billion as against $50 billion and $36 billion).
And Russian trade with China, South Korea and Japan is set to increase rapidly. An oil pipeline terminating in the far-eastern port of Kozmino (near Japan) is nearing completion.
Russia will also be a crucial source of gas, timber and grains. According to Mr Putin, Russia is planning to double or treble its export of grains to Asia.
Over the past year or two the U.S. has made a show of asserting its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, but so far this has been more rhetorical than substantive and seemingly focused more on military and strategic factors than on economics or trade. Though U.S. trade with Asia has obviously increased, there has been much unproductive talk about various possible future multilateral 'architectures'.
Meanwhile other countries in the region and beyond are doing more, more quickly. For example, New Zealand already has a bilateral free trade agreement with China.
Even tiny Samoa made a substantive (and symbolic) shift in its geo-political orientation. Last December they jumped the International Date Line so as to be closer to Australasian and Asian time zones. The switch reverses a decision made 120 years ago to move to the east of the date line in order to be more closely coordinated with the U.S. and Europe.
Thursday, September 6, 2012
Mitt Romney seems to be holding his own in the polls, and his campaign seems to have some momentum. He has shown himself to be steadier and more astute than John McCain four years ago (for example, in his choice of a vice presidential running mate). Also, I have heard a lot about younger voters losing enthusiasm for the President and being less likely to vote than older voters are.
And then there are the one million or so undecided voters in swing states whom commentators believe will determine the election outcome. I would not be surprised if all Romney has to do to win most of them over is to continue to look like a competent economic manager in an economic environment which increasingly looks like it desperately needs just that. (A couple of days ago it was announced that U.S. manufacturing contracted for a third straight month in August.)
Some are looking to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke for a solution, but his policies are increasingly being questioned. Many economists and bankers are talking about a fundamental structural shift having occurred in the U.S. economy.
At the recent Jackson Hole meeting, James Bullard (St Louis Fed president) suggested that the sluggish recovery and persistent unemployment stem not so much from cyclical weaknesses as from longer-term structural factors. Other Fed district bank presidents - and many economists - agree, doubting the wisdom of further easing action on the part of the Federal Reserve.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas recently published a paper by the former chief economist at the Bank of International Settlements, William White, which warns of the unintended consequences of ultra easy monetary policy. White sees the economy as a complex adaptive system which cannot be readily modelled. He believes that cheap credit leads to malinvestment and has a pernicious effect on the financial sector, essentially corrupting markets.*
Governments and the financial sector will resist tightening but the current easy money environment is not sustainable. The long-term risks include hyperinflation and deflation.
On the fiscal front, President Obama has, as I understand it, no long-term plan for dealing with the national debt. (Under his proposals, the debt would stabilize and then start to rise again after ten years.) It's clear, at least, that the Republicans take the debt issue more seriously than the Obama team.
The national debt constitutes a threat to America's long-term economic future and geo-political standing, and the problem seems all the more intractable given the alarming degree of political polarization (and social fragmentation?).
I am not an American so I can't speak with any authority on this - and I hesitate to speak at all on these matters - but it certainly seems that the country is seriously divided, and President Obama has been contributing to this with his class-oriented rhetoric. (I find this mildly shocking, actually, coming from the head of state of an advanced country.)
As I write this, President Obama is giving his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. I am not tuned in but will check news reports before posting, just to make sure nothing unexpected happened or was said. Suspect that many in the audience will be cheering like mad but secretly wondering how it all could have gone so badly wrong.
* Dallas Fed president, Richard Fisher, who has openly supported White's views, is a former Democratic Senate candidate and worked for the Clinton administration. (He has an interesting background. Born in L.A. to an Australian father and a South African mother (of Norwegian descent), he grew up mainly in Mexico and struggled financially before completing degrees at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford.)
Sunday, September 2, 2012
He was a left-wing student radical, something of a leader. Certainly he had devoted followers, and maybe he still does. Despite having mellowed somewhat and worked for years within the burgeoning bureaucracy of the health system, his fundamental convictions and motivating forces remain quite consistent with the convictions and motivations of his younger self.
His latest cause is 'natural death'. Which immediately makes me want to champion the medical specialists who are deemed to be causing unnecessary pain and suffering to their terminally-ill patients by their reluctance to admit defeat. The argument goes that they - aided and abetted by the system built around them - screen out the reality of death (which exposes the ultimate failure of all their efforts and so wounds their professional vanity). Or something like that.
I don't buy the demonization of specialist doctors nor radical critiques of technologized medicine. If physicians and surgeons don't like to tell their patients they are finished, I suspect it is generally out of natural kindness rather than vanity. Sometimes we have to play little games of deception and self-deception to get by. That's okay by me.
Of course it's inappropriate to go to excessive lengths to keep the moribund alive, but I have more faith in the commonsense and judgement of medical professionals than in bureaucrats and activists with ideological and/or religious agendas.
My cursory research on the natural death movement indicates that it is driven by people with such agendas. They want us all to see death as a good and natural part of life.
It may be natural but it's not good. At best it's a nothing.
Don't think about death. I'm with Spinoza on this one. There are better things to think about and talk about, whether one is in rude health - or teetering on the brink (as we all are, in a way, all the time).
Thursday, August 23, 2012
For, according to Dr. Svante Paabo and his colleagues, the last gene flow from Neanderthals into Europeans most likely occurred between 47 and 65 thousand years ago, too late for the substructure theory. And during this time there were periods when Neanderthal and modern human populations were living in the same areas (in what is now Israel, for example).
It's no big deal, I suppose, but it certainly changes the way one sees Neanderthals (no longer quite the lumbering losers or tragic victims - as the old stereotypes had it).
And it seems that mating between modern and pre-modern populations was a common occurrence.
For example, Ridley points out that there was almost certainly interbreeding between the modern people who populated South East Asia and Australia and the pre-modern Denisovans.
As he puts it, 'when modern people spread around the Indian Ocean, they too encountered a distantly related human species and dallied with them under the palms.'
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Sometimes it is appropriate, however, to change ways of speaking or product names to avoid giving offense. In the realm of children's treats, this brand of liquorice must surely take the prize for insensitivity. (They subsequently changed the brand name to 'Lucky Boy'.)
But engineered changes to the way we speak and write have gone too far, reflecting, I think, various radical agendas.
'People-first' language by some twisted logic sees it as unacceptable to use ordinary adjectival phrases when speaking about people and mandates unnatural-sounding, pretentious (and ultimately patronizing) locutions such as 'person (or people) of color'.
This insidious practice has been promoted by advocacy groups, especially in relation to health-related areas. So remember, you are supposed to say 'people with disabilities' not 'disabled people'.
Other absurdities, like the use of 'differently-abled' or the use of the word 'challenged' were generally seen as such and made fun of.
Since the word 'retarded' just means held back or delayed, it's interesting that it has become unacceptable whereas the use of the terms 'delayed development' or 'developmental delays' is perfectly okay. The problem with 'retarded' derives mainly from the unfortunate slang nominalization 'retard'.
Actually the terms 'disabled' and 'disability' are not too bad. At least they aren't patronizing like some of the terms they replaced (e.g. 'handicapped') and they don't have the offensive ring of many older popular terms.
More sinister than the politically-correct linguistic lobbying of advocates for disabled groups, women and minorities is the term 'social marketing' - and the assumptions and practices which go with it.
Social marketing involves using all the resources of social psychology and commercial marketing techniques to alter behaviors to conform to (usually) a government view of what are considered to be desirable (or healthy or 'sustainable') behaviors.
Never has the term 'soft totalitarianism' been so appropriate. Propaganda ministries in the old 20th-century totalitarian states were engaged in something very like what is now called social marketing. Only they weren't afraid to call it by an honest name.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Clearly, values are involved here, but the question of whether specific policies work is an objective one.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur B. Laffer makes a case (based on figures from the IMF) that stimulus spending has actually been counterproductive, "more like a valium for lethargic economies than a stimulant."
Of the 34 OECD countries, those that 'stimulated' the most from 2007 to 2009 saw the least growth in subsequent GDP rates.
"Sorry, Keynesians. There was no discernible two or three dollar multiplier effect from every dollar the government spent and borrowed. In reality, every dollar of public-sector spending on stimulus simply wiped out a dollar of private investment and output, resulting in an overall decline in GDP. This is an even more astonishing result because government spending is counted in official GDP numbers."
It might be objected that an economic downturn will trigger increases in public spending, and so the appearance of a negative relationship between stimulus spending and economic growth. But Laffer focuses on changes in the rate of GDP growth to help isolate the effects of more spending.
"The evidence is extremely damaging to the case made by Obama and others that there is economic value to spending more money on infrastructure, education, unemployment insurance, food stamps, windmills and bailouts. Obama keeps saying that if only Congress would pass his second stimulus plan, unemployment would finally start to fall. That's an expensive leap of faith with no evidence to confirm it."
Monday, August 6, 2012
'Actual inflation appears dormant for now, and big lenders appear content to buy bonds at very low interest rates. But bond holders were very wrong about future inflation in the 1970s, and as [Milton] Friedman wrote, "monetary policy action takes a longer time to affect the price level than to affect the monetary totals."
'The amount of money has risen by almost 40 per cent in the US since early 2008, while consumer prices have risen only 6 per cent. More money chasing the same amount of goods and services should ultimately prompt inflation.'
Creighton argues that money creation programs have taken the pressure off politicians to implement necessary changes; and cheap money has protected highly leveraged private banks and dulled incentives to clean up balance sheets.
What makes this particularly disturbing is that it is occurring in a context of extremely high levels of government debt.
And yet liberals routinely fail to be disturbed by the situation. They are generally critical of bank bailouts, of course, but they see government borrowing for fine and noble causes (such as welfare programs, hospitals, schools and infrastructure) as a fine and noble thing, no matter the budgetary position.
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
It has just been brought to my attention that, in 2002 in Berkeley, California (where else?), Jonathon Keats organized a petition to have the law of identity added to the statutes. The proposed law stated that "every entity shall be identical to itself." Any entity caught being unidentical to itself was to be subject to a fine of up to one tenth of a cent.
The law didn't get up, but it did attract some attention during the 2002 gubernatorial race in Massachusetts, apparently receiving cryptic words of support from the Mitt Romney campaign.
Monday, July 16, 2012
Of course, for those with left-wing views there is no puzzle here. They would simply say that bright people gravitate towards the truth. Their puzzle would be the converse of mine - why so many otherwise intelligent people are conservatives (but, of course, the popular image of the conservative as redneck or reactionary obscures this potentially awkward fact).
The first point to make is that 'intelligent' and 'intellectual' may be derived from the same Latin root, but that does not guarantee any congruence of meaning. Put simply, the set of intellectuals may overlap somewhat less than many intellectuals think with the set of highly intelligent people. (This takes us back to the quantitative issues I said I would leave aside, and there may be some research out there which impinges on this question.)
Sure, leftist ideologies flourish amongst intellectuals (especially in universities, and especially within the humanities) but such people are often directly dependent on state funding for their professional income. It is no wonder they tend to support a larger rather than a smaller role for the state and higher rather than lower taxes. There is clearly more to it than this, however.
Idealism no doubt plays a part, but idealism is never as simple as it seems, and its nature and content (or lack thereof) change over time. Current trends (notably the Occupy movement) are rather different from the more sophisticated and intellectually elaborated radical traditions which dominated the 20th century, and my focus here is on the latter.
Could the tendency to left-wing thought amongst intellectuals - who, almost by definition, excelled in the classroom - have something to do with the classroom, with wanting to turn the world into a giant classroom, to perpetuate somehow those positive experiences? To create a world based on the model of a world where violence and money and trading and physical (productive) work were more or less absent, and every boy or girl had an identical desk and wore identical clothes, where a centralized order prevailed, and ideals were fostered... I don't mean to be snarky here: I know the appeal of a world where the struggles are of understanding and ideas rather than related to more mundane concerns.
I realize there are counter-arguments - along the lines that schools have traditionally been authoritarian and patriarchal structures and so might be seen to foster conservatism amongst those who thrived there and radicalism amongst those who didn't. But there are authoritarian and conservative elements evident in socialist theory and practice. The main political divide as I see it is not so much between right and left as between advocates of free-market approaches and advocates of centralized control. In its day, the far right also held great appeal for intellectuals. Think of Heidegger in the 1930s, or Giovanni Gentile in Italy.
Moral and political considerations are generally given prominence but aesthetic factors cannot be ignored. One reason why clever people, and especially intellectuals, are antagonistic to free markets relates to the fact that a market-based system does tend to play to the lowest common denominator. Look at the mass media and entertainment, for instance. Highly cultured people (as academics often are) are naturally repelled by the crassness and vulgarity and mindlessness of the sort of popular culture which develops in a market economy. Such aesthetic factors no doubt play a role in causing intellectuals to reject such societies and to seek out alternatives reflecting their ideal of a civilized and intellectually-advanced community.
Monday, July 9, 2012
Adrian McKinty recently (and somewhat anachronistically) referred to Roger Casement (1864-1916) as a 'champion of human rights'.
Although the term 'human rights' was not widely used until relatively recently, I recognize that the general concept has been around for centuries. My understanding is that the modern idea evolved from the medieval tradition of natural law. The notion of a divinely sanctioned moral order lying behind (and somehow justifying) human-made laws and legal systems led to the notion of universal rights which came to prominence in the 18th century. The concept was initially applied to individuals but was broadened during the Romantic period and beyond to encompass the rights of ethnic groups (or nations) to self-determination, etc. Roger Casement's anti-colonialism and (militant) Irish nationalism grew out of this tradition of thought, so McKinty's description is not altogether wrong.
But I do have problems with the term itself, as I don't think most of the people who use it realize what (in my view at any rate) its use is committing them to - that is, what assumptions it depends on to be meaningful.
It seems to me that the term 'human rights' only makes sense a) if you believe in an objectively existing natural law (or immaterial moral realm) where these rights are somehow inscribed; and/or b) if you envisage and advocate some kind of comprehensive institutional arrangement (not necessarily a world government) which would list certain rights as universally enforceable laws. (In the latter case, the rights may be seen as transcending the laws, or, if one rejects the natural law idea, merely as legal rights.)
This is not just about terminology. There are deep issues of belief involved. In my view, it's most unfortunate that humanitarian causes etc. have become linked to this (rather problematic) term. Humanitarian goals can be and have been effectively pursued without using the term or appealing to the concept. One can be motivated simply by a sense of human decency, or fairness, or compassion, or empathy, or by other emotions or convictions which owe little or nothing to the concept of universal human rights.
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Yes, there are complexities. There is the possibility that some people may attribute a more significant role to our genes than they in fact play. But I think by far the more common error is to underestimate the power and significance of genetic factors.
My views on this matter started to take shape when I saw a documentary film based on the Minnesota study and featuring some of the twins themselves. One thing was strikingly clear: what the social scientific establishment had been saying for so long about genetic inheritance (essentially downplaying its importance) was false (and presumably ideologically motivated).
Attempts to discredit studies such as the Minnesota project continue. People will believe what they want to believe, I guess, and try to convince others.
But, just as the ideologically-inspired bias of famous phonies like Margaret Mead was eventually exposed, so later waves of social pseudo-scientists and ideologically-driven philosophers will fall by the wayside.
Truth wins in the sense that ideas which are way out of line with the data are marginalized (and eventually fizzle out). Debate and conflict may continue, but the battle lines have shifted and will continue to shift.
* Here are some pertinent comments by Matt Ridley; and here is Bryan Caplan's review from The Wall Street Journal.
Saturday, June 23, 2012
I have just come across a report on some research which seems to support this point of view. The researchers found that one particular doctrine - a belief in punishment after death - was the most significant factor in determining whether a society had a low level of crime. Other studies have delivered similar findings, with one even finding that a belief in supernatural punishment promoted productive business activity. (Gross domestic product was found to be higher in developed countries when belief in after-death punishments was widespread.) Old time religion seems to trump the more liberal, postmodern varieties hands down when it comes to being socially useful.
This is an uncomfortable truth for those of us who reject such religious ideas, but it is also useful insofar as it exposes unrealistically optimistic views about human nature and society for what they are: wishful thinking.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
Of course, there is a long tradition of skeptical conservative thought, going back to the ancients, which advocates the necessity of a 'noble lie' to maintain social order.
Leaving aside the practicality of such an approach, I shy away from it on moral grounds. It just feels wrong to me, but maybe this is due to a Puritan streak in my thinking. I see the logic of the noble lie, but I don't like it. I resist the thought that we're in the sort of world where you have to lie to people on a routine basis. (Though I'm comfortable with the idea that, in certain situations (like just prior to an exit from a currency union, for instance) untruths must be told.)
It is certainly true that people can and do behave well without believing in a supernatural watcher, but it is an open question as to whether enough people will behave well enough to guarantee a smoothly functioning secular society. There is little evidence to draw on, as widespread non-belief is a relatively recent phenomenon. And what evidence there is is not encouraging.
The revolutionary secular regimes of the 20th century felt the need to replace the eyes of God with informers and secret police, and our current secular democracies are implementing unprecedentedly extensive regulatory and surveillance networks in an attempt to maintain law and order.
I suspect that, while at the level of the small or culturally homogeneous group there is generally no problem with secularism, problems do emerge when societies are larger and culturally mixed. All the complex societies of the past of which I am aware incorporated either religious elements or the mechanisms of totalitarian terror (or a mixture of the two).
We in the West seem to be in a situation where prosperity is threatened, the social fabric is slowly failing and governments are moving into areas which once were self-sufficient or the preserve of independent and autonomous institutions (like families, churches or professional bodies).
The other side of the coin is business and trade, which creates prosperity but which depends for its effective functioning not only on a legal framework (which governments can provide) but also on a culture of trust and truth-telling (which governments are powerless to protect and, of course, quite unable to create).
Life will go on, no doubt. But the spontaneous order and cultural richness which is the fruit of centuries of tradition is failing and falling away. Life will go on, but in a culturally impoverished form.
And individual freedom, the idea and the reality of which developed and flourished in Western countries, is just one of many cultural treasures which we are losing as populist governments attempt to impose order on fragmenting and increasingly rootless populations.
We certainly can't rely on a noble lie to save us. No one would believe it.
Because the strategy of the noble lie is predicated on the existence of a respected political and/or cultural elite and these conditions do not exist and are unlikely to come into being any time soon.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
This (ultimately) medieval outlook has faded in the West as other forms of religion or irreligion - less rooted in European history - have come to prominence.
Besides, as wealth moves from west to east, it's clear that the chief beneficiaries of the global financial system (and, increasingly, the key players) are more likely to be east or south Asian than Jewish.* If there was a secret Jewish plan to control the world, it has clearly failed!
Oddly, the absurd view of Jews as arch-evil villains, long since abandoned in mainstream circles in the Christian and post-Christian West, flourishes in sections of the Islamic world due in part to the continuing influence of 19th and early 20th century Muslim thinkers who blended elements of European thought (including fascism and European-style anti-Semitism) into their political theology in an attempt to revivify and - irony of ironies - modernize their religion.**
Anti-Semitism was a dark strand in European history which once spawned potent fictions capable of inducing even intelligent men and women to suspend their disbelief. But in the context of today's world it can only ever be a fringe phenomenon, a magnet for small minds and a tawdry cover for fanatics with a taste for violence.
* The latest Boston Consulting Group global wealth survey showed that Singapore has the greatest concentration of households with investable assets in excess of $1,000,000. The number of millionaire households in the United States is falling. The number of millionaire households in China is surging.
** Last year I wrote a little on this movement, prompted largely by my reading of Paul Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals and Christopher Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. (See, for example, 'Islamic death cult' and 'Islamists and Nazis').
Monday, June 4, 2012
The irony is that the dangers of applying Christian principles in the political sphere have been known about and talked about by many thinkers, religious and unreligious, Christian and non-Christian, in the course of the last two thousand years.
I recently came across this reference to the views of Martin Luther (a thinker who once meant a lot to me).
Luther rejected philosophy - and so logic and reason - as a starting-point for faith. He drew a clear distinction between the law and the gospel, between conscience and faith.
"[U]nlike most of his contemporaries, Luther did not believe that a ruler had to be Christian, only reasonable. Here, opposite to his discussion of theology, it is revelation that is improper. Trying to govern using the gospel as one’s model would either corrupt the government or corrupt the gospel. The gospel’s fundamental message is forgiveness, government must maintain justice. To confuse the two here is just as troubling as confusing them when discussing theology. If forgiveness becomes the dominant model in government, people being sinful, chaos will increase."
Secular conservatism is a difficult path to follow because it doesn't provide an outlet for our religious instincts. It's 'unnatural' in fact, like science (both requiring an overthrow of built-in instincts and proclivities). I fear it is destined to remain a minority position.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
What stood out in the article for me was not so much the analysis as a reported remark by a disgruntled German guest (it would have to be a German, wouldn't it?) to an Athens hotel worker: "You don't have an economy, government, or money, but you're charging me €4 for a coffee."
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
And, from the perspective of this particular person, the people being formed at present and for the foreseeable future will come with serious deficiencies of mind: attention-span limitations, an inability to embrace silence and solitude, no sense of history or cultural continuity. Technological factors are the main culprit.
There will be a small number of individuals (of conservative or contrarian persuasion) who will transcend their circumstances and shine, but on the whole it will remain the case that the best people are dead.
Such a claim need not be absolute or categorical. In fact, it will be stronger and truer if put into hypothetical form. If one espouses certain (you might call them old-fashioned) values associated with self-discipline, restraint, focused thought, etc., and believes current and likely future technological and cultural trends will not support such values then the bleak proposition that the best people are dead (or well on the way to oblivion) seems to follow inescapably.
This sort of claim is routinely ridiculed as the typical and utterly predictable refrain of groups associated with the old order as society changes (as it always has and always will). But a case can be made that this time it's different. (A case I will not attempt to make here, however, merely noting that the digital revolution is quite unprecedented in its scope and intrusiveness.)
And the claim about the best people being gone or fading fast need not be made in a whinging or complaining sort of way. For me, it is an (admittedly sad and regrettable) observation, but also a tribute to teachers and intellectual ancestors.
And finally, with respect to the future, I did speak only of the foreseeable future.
There are other times, other worlds...
Friday, May 4, 2012
And yet we (or at least some of us) still hanker for a general understanding of things, a synoptic view. This is what religions and various secular ideologies have provided - something to satisfy our instinct to get to the bottom of things and to situate ourselves within the whole; to make sense of our fleeting lives.
Crucially, we need to integrate our feelings and values with our practical and objective knowledge of the world, and this is what religions and ideologies have done so successfully in the past.
Unfortunately, the most potent forms of religion today are completely divorced from modern science. Islam is locked into a medieval worldview, and the forms of Christianity (and indeed Judaism) which are currently flourishing rely on a blinkered and literalistic interpretation of scriptures composed thousands of years ago.
More intelligent forms of religion (like the views put forward by Erwin Schrödinger to which I recently alluded) are also problematic, in my opinion, largely because they tend to lack content. Rereading Schrödinger, I am annoyed both by the vagueness of his religious claims and by the patrician, sage-like tone. Just a bit too self-conscious. And of course the science is old.*
Political ideologies are not much more satisfactory. The complexity of the social realm makes it impossible to pin down the essentials in a creed or text, and attempts to do so - and apply the creed - have been spectacularly unsuccessful, often resulting in much unnecessary death and suffering.
But one can take the word 'ideology' in a broader sense, denoting a general set of beliefs about the nature of things and about social life and about what is important. In this sense, ideology is a good and necessary thing.
We need to make choices, we need to act, and to do so we need to integrate objective knowledge with feelings and values. I don't think we need to turn to religious traditions for help here (though many do); and of course we should be modest in what we claim for our view of things. But we need something like an ideology if we are to have a synoptic view, and certainly if we aspire to give a coherent and principled account of our actions.
* Interestingly, Roger Penrose contributed a brief preface to the reprint of some of Schrödinger's non-technical writings which I have been reading. Penrose writes that when he was a young mathematics student in the 1950s he didn't read a great deal, "but what I did read - at least if I completed the book - was usually by Erwin Schrödinger." It is no surprise that Schrödinger's mystical view of life and consciousness would have appealed to the man who was to write The Emperor's New Mind.
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Schrödinger was profoundly influenced by Vedantic thought and, when I read him previously, I was more interested in and respectful of mysticism than I am now. It will be interesting to see whether I still feel I can endorse his view of the world.
He was not a paragon of virtue. An only child, he had a very happy childhood, though he admits that as a young man he neglected his ailing parents. I know that he fell out with Albert Einstein, and, though I don't know the circumstances, I believe that Schrödinger was at fault.
And here is a paragraph from Autobiographical Sketches (1960). It strikes a rather odd - and disturbing - note. But it should be noted that the Schrödingers stayed only a brief time in Jena, and Hitler's rise to power was well over a decade away.
In March/April 1920 Annemarie and I got married. We moved soon after to Jena, where we took furnished lodgings. I was expected to add some up-to-date theoretical physics to Professor Auerbach's set lectures. We enjoyed the friendship and cordiality of both the Auerbachs, who were Jews, and of my boss Max Wien and his wife (they were anti-Semites by tradition, but bore no personal malice). Being on such good terms with them all was a great help to me. In 1933, the Auerbachs, I am told, saw no means of escape from the oppression and humiliation which Hitler's taking over ... held in store for them but suicide. Eberhard Buchwald, a young physicist who had just lost his wife, and a couple called Eller with their two little sons were also amongst our friends in Jena. Mrs. Eller came to see me here in Alpbach last summer (1959), a poor bereaved woman whose three men-folk had lost their lives fighting for a cause they did not believe in.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Furthermore, it is undeniable that many philosophers are motivated by religious or political agendas which are not always easy to identify. Although it has always been the case that philosophers have had ideological motivations, the professionalization of philosophy has encouraged the view that ideological and religious motivations are irrelevant to, and should not be discussed in the context of, a philosopher's professional work. Consequently, work which appears on the surface to involve the disinterested pursuit of truth may all too often be, in effect, disguised apologetics.
If one engages, one runs the risk of becoming caught up in a futile new form of scholasticism (if that is what it is). If one keeps one's distance, one is excluded from the conversation (such as it is).
And throwing the occasional hand grenade is not particularly productive. (See, for example, comment #14 - not mine! - on this post plugging a new philosophy journal.)
I'll have more to say on science and scientism, on physicalism and the limits of human knowledge in due course. I have strong intuitions in these areas, but I want to spend a bit of time reading and thinking before I commit myself to specific positions.
For the present, here is an interesting response by H. Allen Orr to E.O. Wilson's book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge. (Massimo Pigliucci, who is preparing for a conference on Wilson's ideas, recently recommended Orr's review.)
And here is a transcript of an interview with Patricia Churchland in which this controversial, scientifically-oriented philosopher outlines her basic views. (Hat tip to Pete Mandik.)
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
It's all very well to say that someone should be paid to perform some (presumably worthwhile) activity, but if businesses or individuals are unwilling to fund them then any money must come from the state, from public resources. And - especially in these times of high government indebtedness - a strong case can be made that controversial or ideologically motivated activities or activities which are normally deemed to be inessential or which only benefit a small group should (whenever possible) be paid for directly by those involved.
Take sport and the arts. There is nothing to stop people getting together to play games if they want to. There is nothing to stop people putting on concerts or plays; and, if the product is popular, the audience will pay. Why should I subsidize writers or artists or performers in whom I have no interest and who, in many cases (given the left-leaning tendency of the arts community), are seeking to undermine the values I hold most dear?
I know that sports and the arts constitute only a small fraction of government budgets, but these areas are not discrete or easily defined, and they impinge on and merge into other more significant areas of government concern. For example, the arts merge into the media, advertising and propaganda. And sports funding is associated with community health initiatives. Nanny state, yes, but at least sport (unlike much activity in the arts) is not ideological.
Much arts funding is more about promoting multiculturalism (or, more cynically, about placating certain ethnic minorities) or winning votes from the broader 'arts community' than it is about encouraging artistic excellence (whatever that may be these days). But then, why should the state promote artistic excellence anyway? It is a good and worthwhile thing, but let it be left to artists to excel and to their followers to reward them.
At the elite end of the spectrum, both sport and the arts are used by governments to promote the 'national brand', an unfortunate tendency that appears - at least in respect of the arts in some European countries and in respect of sport just about everywhere - to have popular support.
Although the number of people directly employed by governments may be falling in some Western countries, the number who work for organizations which are dependent on government funding - including international organizations - is growing. And in areas such as health, education and aged care many mainstream churches and previously-independent welfare organizations have become mere 'service providers', following government rules and dependent on government largesse for their continued existence.
More insidious - if not sinister - is the way many groups espousing and promoting so-called progressive causes have inserted themselves, formally or informally, into the bureaucracy of national and local governments, redirecting resources and effectively reshaping the ethos of these bodies. Institutions and bureaucracies devoted to education are particularly culpable in this regard.
More broadly, laws and government regulations - promoted and encouraged by unions and other left-wing pressure groups - are making it increasingly difficult in many countries for businesses to make decisions about their own operations, including hiring and firing.
Similar constraints are being placed on professionals of all kinds. Once the professional-client relationship was, though essentially market-based, associated with well-understood and respected ethical standards. Direct and indirect government intrusions on this relationship are effectively undermining the very concept of the independent professional who maintains a direct relationship with clients based on trust and a sense of responsibility.
Freedom does not guarantee morality, but morality will only develop in the context of freedom, and withers in a highly regulated environment.
Sunday, April 1, 2012
Of course, this could all be seen as rather trivial and unimportant, and such questions of family history - though often of interest to the families or individuals concerned - are of no particular significance. What is significant, however, is how we think about ethnicity or 'race'.
The word 'Jewish' can be used to refer to genetic factors or to the religion or to culture, and often to a combination of these elements. But I think the genetic or 'racial' aspect is problematic insofar as our racial categories are unlikely to correspond in any precise way with the pattern of actual genetic differences between different people and groups. For example, would Sephardi Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain be closer genetically to particular Spanish populations or to Jews from other parts of the world?
One possible result of the increasing use of DNA analysis is that, as complex patterns emerge, some of the ethnic categories which our languages just happen to have words for will be revealed as simplistic and in some cases perhaps completely unfounded.
This is a sensitive issue, in part because so many people base their sense of identity to a greater or lesser extent on their ethnic background. And, of course, this identification is often accompanied by an acceptance of cultural myths and stereotypes.
Of course, the word 'ethnic' is ambiguous. Like the word 'Jewish', it can refer solely to so-called racial factors. Or it may refer to cultural factors. Mostly it refers to both at once. The trouble is, this mixing of racial and ideological thought is the source of many of the world's most toxic and intractable problems.
My view is that it is good to be aware of where we came from, of who our forebears were. All of what we are - genetically speaking - we inherited from them. It may be interesting to know what they thought and believed, but those beliefs need in no way affect ours. On cultural matters we are free to make up our own minds.
Just because your parents and their parents and so on believed certain things and engaged in certain rituals associated with those beliefs - whether we are talking about Islam or forms of Christianity or Judaism or any other form of religion - there is no reason for you to feel any obligation to conform to this pattern.
Sure, one often feels solidarity with one's kin and respect for one's ancestors but this should never involve any intellectual or religious constraints.
Secular customs are another matter entirely. They do not in any way restrict one's freedom to think for oneself.
Group identity is inevitable to some extent, and many forms of group identity are based on kinship. But it is well to remember that there are no clear dividing lines in this matter, just degrees and complex patterns of relatedness which are unlikely to correspond in any simple way with conventional ethnic categories and stereotypes.
Saturday, March 24, 2012
Though I am not a chocolate eater, this window display speaks to me. It conjures up a dimly remembered world run by rather distant but benevolent adults in which there was a place for everything and everything was in its place.
A world where movement was reassuringly constrained.
A pre-digital, pre-New Age world where machines were machines and people were people. Where parents were parents and children were children.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
[This page remains active (with the names list being periodically updated and comments welcome, but you might also like to visit my new (May 2016) Google Plus Collection, Jewish Identity (URL: https://plus.google.com/collection/IrvUTB).]
As I have mentioned previously, some of the names of my (English) forebears would seem to indicate Jewish origins, and I would like to make a few general comments on the topic of Jewish immigration and surnames in the English-speaking world.
It's difficult to find good information on the history of Jewish assimilation in England. Jewish leaders naturally see the preservation of their religious and cultural heritage as paramount and often speak disparagingly of those who, over the centuries, intermarried with Christians and adopted Christianity or drifted away from religion altogether. And many who write on Jewish history take a similar line: Jewish culture and tradition are what they are interested in.
The stigma associated with assimilation is understandable, as it was only a strong sense of community that kept Jewish beliefs and customs alive in a world which lacked a Jewish homeland. But, as a consequence of the focus on synagogues and communities which maintained their religious heritage, I suspect that the standard histories of Jews in England underestimate the real number of immigrants with Jewish origins, in particular those descended from Jews from the Iberian peninsula. There were particularly significant migrations during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Many people are interested not so much in Jewish religion and culture as in their own family histories, or, for that matter, in the ethnic history of their country. They see assimilated Jews not in terms of their ancestral religion or culture but rather as individuals who contributed to the broader culture of the country in which they chose to live.
New methods of genetic analysis* are revolutionizing the way we trace our ancestors. For the present, however, most of us rely on traditional records and, where records do not exist, on names and the clues that names can give of ethnic or geographic origins.
Unfortunately, Jewish naming practices make it very difficult for researchers. In many parts of Europe, Jews maintained their traditional practice of assigning patronymics and were slow to adopt the practice of giving permanent family names. For this and other reasons (such as the lack of a homeland, persecution and discrimination), Jews have been more inclined to adopt new or modified surnames than most other peoples.
Of course, in English-speaking countries, certain surnames - often German or Hebraic – are well-known as indicating Jewish origins. [A fairly good list is here. And here is a good explanatory article on the origins of Ashkenazic last names.] But Jewish immigrants often modified foreign-sounding names or chose English surnames, and some names were favored over others.
I have compiled a list of surnames based on my own (limited) knowledge and research. I emphasize that these names do not necessarily indicate Jewish origins, and some are more strongly indicative than others. I have excluded almost all Biblical (Hebrew), Polish and most German and other obviously non-English names and intend to refine the list over time, deleting names with only tenuous claims to be here and adding others. Comments and suggestions, either via this site or to my email address**, are welcome.
Abrams, Adams, Albert, Allen, Alexander, Alpert, Ames, Angel, Ansell, Archer, Arnold, Asher, Asherson, Astley, Avery, Baker, Ball, Banks, Barber, Barkin, Barnard, Barnett, Baron, Barret, Barrett, Barron, Barrow, Bart, Barton, Bass, Batt, Beck, Becker, Beer, Belcher, Bell, Bellman, Belman, Belmont, Benedict, Bennet, Bennett, Benson, Bentley, Bernard, Berry, Bickel, Bickell, Bickle, Bird, Blond, Bloomfield, Black, Blacker, Blackman, Blackwell, Blank, Block, Blue, Bolton, Booker, Bookman, Brand, Brice, Brill, Brilliant, Briscoe, Brock, Brody, Brooks, Broomfield, Brower, Brown, Buckley, Burstin, Bush, Byrd, Cain, Carpenter, Carter, Chandler, Chaplin, Chester, Chetwynd (an old English name without any apparent links to commonly Jewish names, but I have come across a couple of instances of Jewish families adopting it), Cline, Cobb, Cole, Coleman, Cook, Cooke, Cooper, Cope, Copeland, Copland, Cove, Cripps, Crossman, Crouch, Cutler, Darley, David, Davidson, Davies, Davis, Diamond, Dove, Draper, Durant, Eastman, Ellis, Ellman, Elman, Elton, Fain (from Feinstein?), Faine (from Feinstein?), Falk, Feldman, Finch, Fine (from Feinstein?), Finniston (from Feinstein), Firestone, Fish, Fisher, Forster, Foster, Fox, Frank, Franks, Fredman, Freedman, Freeman, Froman, Gardner, Garfield, Garland, Gilbert, Glass, Gold, Golden, Golding, Goldsmith, Good, Goodman, Goodwin, Gordon (from Grodno, Lithuania or from the Russian word gorodin (townsman)), Gould, Gray, Green, Greenfield, Greenwood, Grey, Gross, Hacker, Hale (as variant spelling of Ashkenazic Halle), Halperin (from Heilbronn, Germany), Halpern (see Halperin), Hancock, Harding, Harman, Harris***, Harrison, Hart, Hartman, Harvey, Harwood, Hayman, Heller (from Halle, Germany), Helman, Hendler, Henry, Hering, Herring, Hickman, Hill, Hiller, Holden, Holder, Hollander (from a town in Lithuania settled by the Dutch?), Holman, Holt, Holton, Hook, Horn, Horne, Horton, Horwich (from the town Horovice in Bohemia?), Hurwich (see Horwich), Hyams, Hyatt, Hyman, Ivory, Jarvis (sometimes from the Eastern European Javitz, as in the case of the family of the American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson), Jewel, Jewell, Jones (from Jonas or Jonah), Kane, Kay, Kaye, Kennard, King (from Koenig), Kline, Lambert, Landon, Landis, Lane, Lang, Langer, Langerman, Langley, Langman, Lawrence, Lawson, Leavit, Leavitt, Lee, Leigh, Leonard, Leslie, Lester, Levin, Levine, Levett, Levitt, Lewis, Libson (eastern Ashkenazic metronymic), Lincoln, Lipson (eastern Ashkenazic patronymic or in some cases variation of Lipschitz (Polish town)), Lipton, Little, London, Long, Lott, Low, Lowe, Lowy, Lucas, Lyon, Lyons, Lytton, Mack, Mander, Manders, Mann, Marchant, Marcus, Marks, Marshall, Mason, Maurice, Maxwell, May, Mayman, Merchant, Michael, Michell, Miller, Millman, Milman, Mitchell, Montague, Morris, Moss, Moyse, Myer, Myers, Nelson, New, Newman, Newmark, Nichol, Nicholl, Nicholls, Nichols, Nobel, Norman, Oliver, Paley, Palmer, Park, Parker, Parrish, Parsons, Pavey, Pearl, Pearlman, Peavey, Peavy, Peck, Perkins, Perry (from Pereira), Pepper, Phillip, Phillips, Pine, Pinner, Pittman, Platt, Polk, Pollard, Pollock, Pool, Poole, Porter, Portman, Posner, Powers, Price, Priest, Prince, Rae, Raine, Randall, Ray, Raye, Raymond, Reed, Rees, Reid, Rest, Rice, Rich, Robbins, Robert, Roberts, Robertson, Robin, Robins, Robinson, Ronson, Rose, Rosefield, Ross, Roth, Rothman, Rothwell, Ruby, Sacks, Salmon, Salman, Sams, Sand, Sanders, Sandler, Sands, Sassoon, Saunders, Saville, Saxon, Selwyn, Sharman, Sharp (from German Scharf (=sharp-witted); or perhaps Shapiro), Sharpe (see Sharp), Shaw, Shayne, Sher (Ashkenazic, from word for scissors or shears as used by tailors), Sherman, Sherwood, Shields, Shinwell, Shore (from Schorr), Short, Silk, Sills, Silver, Silverstone, Simmonds****, Simmons, Simon, Simons, Sims, Sinclair, Singer, Singleton, Sless, Sloman, Smith, Snell (from the German name Schnell), Snider (from word for tailor), Snyder (from word for tailor), Somers, Sommer, Sommers, Speed (from the German name Schnell), Spelling, Sperling, Spurling, Stainer (from Steiner?), Stanley, Stark (from Yiddish Shtark=strong), Starr, Sterling, Stone, Strong (translation of Yiddish Shtark?), Sugar, Summers, Sumner, Swan, Swann, Swanson, Syme, Symes, Symonds, Taft (from Tugendhaft), Tate, Taylor, Temple, Trilling, Turner, Uren, Vale, Waddell, Walker, Wall, Waller, Walt, Walter, Walters, Ward, Wardle, Waterman (from Wascherman or Wasserman(n)), Watt, Webber, Weller, Whaley, White, Whiteman, Whitman, Wideman, Wiley, Winner, Winston, Winters, Winton, Wise, Wolf, Wolfson, Woolf, Worley, Yates, Young.
[And here is a list of names I am currently considering, some of which will be transfered to the main list in due course: Benson, Bland, Bonnett, Bowman, Brack, Bracks, Bray, Brayer, Briar, Brier, Buckle, Burns, Cantwell, Carr, Clifton, Coe, Colman, Corbin, Corbyn, Couch, Couchman, Crane, Crawford, Davenport, Dillon, Douglas, Eliot, Elliot, Epps, Evans, Fay, Faye, Ford, Foreman, Forman, Gates, Harlow, Harrod, Harrold, Hodges, Honeyman, Hooker, Hubbard, Jackson, Jane, Jamison, Judd, Kerr, Knight (? from Sephardic Cabalero/Caballero/Cabaliero = knight or horseman), Lewin, Lipset, Mack, Marlow, Martel, Martell, Martin, Merton, Morrison, Mosely, Newcomb, Paul, Paulson, Pember (from Pemper?), Peters, Pinter, Quin, Quinn, Raynor, Roderick, Rodgers, Rogers, Rogerson, Russell, Sailor, Sayer, Sayers, Saylor, Sefton, Sheldon, Simkin, Simpkins, Sturgeon, Tolkin, Tucker, Watson, Welch, Wheeler, Watts, Wyatt.
I am also looking at names based on place names: towns, cities, regions, countries, etc. (e.g. Amsterdam or Holland). Or on nationalities (like German or French).]
* I suspect that DNA analysis is going to present an unwelcome and challenging picture for those who wish to maintain a simple concept of Jewish ethnicity. Of course, it is well known that the population groups which have formed the Jewish people over the centuries have been geographically divided and genetically diverse, so it will come as no surprise if there are no clear genetic markers for Jewish ethnicity. What DNA analysis will do, however, is to indicate how particular populations have maintained continuity or merged with neighbouring populations.
** engmar3 at gmail dot com.
*** It is difficult to know whether to include here such common English names as 'Harris' which in the majority of cases is not Jewish, but which has been adopted by Jews. Preliminary Y-DNA results may be of interest. Y-DNA results for Harris (based on 465 samples) reflect standard Western European/Scandinavian patterns (haplogroups R1b1 and I1), though there are also instances of haplotypes characteristic of Eastern European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and African populations. But even names which are more identifiably Jewish (e.g. Silver) are often associated with the R1b1 haplogroup.
**** Note an interesting surname change in the late nineteenth century from Raby to Simmonds.