Quotes & Commentary #76: Thucydides

Quotes & Commentary #76: Thucydides

Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.

—Thucydides

In my previous post I bemoaned the conversion of a public health crisis into yet another partisan fight—with those on the left for the lockdown, and those on the right against it. In this regard, I think it is striking to reread this passage of Thucydides, as it encapsulates a common occurrence in times of crisis: the preference for extreme measures over moderation, for decisiveness over prudent hesitation.

The reason for this is our very human need to feel safe and secure. Having a plan, especially a drastic plan, is one of the ways we accomplish this. Carrying out extreme measures at least gives us the illusion of control; and control is what everyone craves in an emergency. But I do not think we should let this very human need prevent us from being critical, open-minded, and moderate. These are good qualities in the worst of times as well as in the best of times.

My main concern is that I think that too many people—especially on the left—are advocating long, strict lockdowns as the only possible option. Calls to reopen are being dismissed as irresponsible or even nefarious, and respected epidemiologists like David Katz (who advocates more measured policies) can only get a hearing on Fox News and Bill Maher’s show. This makes me worry that the left is backing itself into an ideological corner, insisting that lockdowns are the only way to fight this virus.

There is certainly a noble impulse in this: valuing human life over profit. But I think that the situation is far more complex than this dichotomy implies. A narrative is starting to emerge that it is our evil corporate overlords (Elon Musk, most notoriously) who want us to return to work in order to satisfy their greed. Already in Georgia, people are compiling lists of businesses which are reopening with the intention of blacklisting them for doing so. But are we really willing to vilify people for reopening when remaining closed would mean bankruptcy, financial ruin, and losing their livelihoods? The anti-corporate, pro-lockdown messaging is ignoring the simple truth that the economic effects of the lockdowns will hurt the poor far, far more than they will hurt the rich. 

Granted, we could and should be doing much more to help the poor and disadvantaged during this time. Also granted, our economy was rife with structural inequalities before all of this, which ought not to have been there to begin with. But we must work with the economy we have and with the options that are politically possible—not with the economy we should’ve had and the things we should be able to do. And we also must be sure that our policies are shaped by prudence rather than fear or ideology.

So here is my worry: if the left (of which I consider myself a member) becomes the party of lockdowns, this may not appear so wise in retrospect. This is because the efficacy of our anti-virus measures is still very much an open question; and it is thus very possible that some of our policies will have done more harm than good.

As a prime contender for this, I would submit school closures. As I noted in my previous post, young children seem both safe from, and hardly able to transmit, the virus. The idea that they were major transmitters was an educated guess, and it seems to have been wrong. Keeping children out of school, however, will undoubtedly be harmful to their development and detrimental to their futures. And it will most certainly do the most harm to the poorest among us. Furthermore, keeping children home puts more pressure on parents, and may take some doctors and nurses out of commission.

At the very least, I think it is wrong to close schools in a “better safe than sorry” mentality, without very thorough consideration of the costs and benefits. As a teacher myself, I can say with confidence that virtual learning is no substitute for being in the classroom. If my students must miss class, I want to be sure that it is to protect them, and not simply to make us feel safer. I am not willing to sacrifice their education to satisfy my panic.

Here is the trouble with a total lockdown: it combines so many different measures into one sweeping global approach that we have no opportunity to see which specific parts of the lockdown—closing restaurants, canceling concerts, calling off school—have the highest cost-benefit ratio. It simply cannot be taken for granted that a total lockdown is the single best strategy going forward. In the absence of more data about the virus’s lethality and total spread, we cannot even be confident that it was even a wise strategy to begin with. (A study by the Wall Street Journal—which admittedly has its own biases—found that there was no correlation at all between coronavirus mortality and the speed of lockdown in U.S. states.)

The case of Sweden should give lockdown advocates pause. Sweden has become notorious for its lax coronavirus measures. Shops and restaurants are open, and life carries on without masks or gloves. Meanwhile, most other European countries instituted strict lockdowns. Spain had one of the strictest lockdowns of all. Parks were closed, and people were not allowed to go on walks or to exercise outside. All non-essential businesses were shuttered, and people could only leave the house to go to the pharmacy and the supermarket. Police patrolled the streets, giving out hundreds of thousands of fines, and making hundreds of arrests, in enforcement of the lockdown.

If lockdowns were really an effective way of controlling the virus, then one might expect Spain to have a substantially lower death rate. On the contrary, Spain has suffered twice as many deaths-per-million as Sweden. Indeed, Sweden is in the ballpark of Ireland and Switzerland, two countries that took swift, decisive action to shut down their economies. And Sweden’s “curve” seems to be leveling out anyway. To say the very least, it has not been an unmitigated disaster in the country. 

Admittedly, if you compare Sweden to its Scandinavian neighbors, Finland and Norway, you can see that their lax policy seems to have resulted in a higher mortality rate. Does this prove that Sweden has taken the wrong course? I think we should not rush to judgment. First, it is easily possible that, as Finland and Norway open up, their death rates will climb to approach Sweden’s. Furthermore, by minimizing the damage done to their economy, there is a very real possibility that Sweden inflicted less total harm on its society.

(We also should not rush to declare New Zealand’s tough policies a success, which for the moment seems to have eliminated coronavirus from their shores. While this is impressive, it remains to be seen whether this was the best strategy for the long-term, since it is possible that it will only make it that much more difficult to reestablish open channels with the outside world.)

My own personal fear—which apparently is not shared by many—is that the left will put itself in a bad position if it becomes the party of the lockdown. At the present moment, there is an awful lot of fear of this new virus. But in six months, when the elections roll around, what will be at the forefront of people’s minds: the virus, or the economic depression?

My guess is that, as time goes by, fear of the virus will fade, and concern for ruined businesses, blasted retirement accounts, and lost careers will only grow more acute. So far, it seems that Republicans have shifted most decisively in the direction of economic concern, with Independents shifting somewhat in that direction, while Democrats have hardly budged.

Such flagrantly political concerns should not guide our policy. Concern for human welfare should. And I am afraid that we may be developing myopic and unrealistic ideas about the lockdowns in this regard. First, somewhere along the line, many people seemed to have forgotten that our original idea of “flattening the curve” was to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. The idea was never that we would absolutely prevent people from getting sick. Unless we are willing to stay inside until a vaccine is widely available—an unknown timeline, but still many months away—we are simply going to have to accept some risk from the virus.

Now, perhaps some rich countries could afford to stay shut up indoors until we have a vaccine. And maybe this would benefit these rich countries (though I doubt it). However, I think such a prolonged and severe period of economic inactivity would be horrendous for poorer countries. Telling people to stay inside is simply not feasible where people live in shacks and have no savings. And governments in poor countries could not afford drastic social policies to keep their people fed, especially during a severe depression. (Remember that a depression in richer countries means a depression everywhere.) A months-long lockdown could easily result in food shortages in many parts of the world, which might claim significantly more lives than the virus itself. 

What is more, prolonged economic depression has serious political repercussions. Economic instability easily translates into political instability, and political instability easily translates into violence—even war. The 2008 financial crisis has already had an awful effect on worldwide politics, eventually resulting in waves of populist right-wing parties, and a growing polarization which has resulted in increasingly dysfunctional governments. And this is only to speak of rich countries.

In countries already struggling with low standards of living and ineffective governments, what will be the results of an economic crisis much more severe than 2008? Will every government be able to take the pressure? We must keep in mind that, if any government fails, the consequences will be bad for everyone. As we have learned, power vacuums leave the door open for the most dangerous among us to gain control.

For those of us on the left, I think it behooves us to examine the complete picture, and not to fall into easy rhetoric about workers being sacrificed for the economy. These are the hard facts: the virus is here to stay; and if the economy is not working, it will be very, very hard on millions of people—especially poor people all around the world. Our governments could and should do more to alleviate the economic suffering. But many countries around the world simply do not have the resources to do so, and a severe depression will only make this more true. Of all people, we on the left should know that poverty hurts and kills, and we cannot afford to turn this into yet another purity test.

The hardest truth of all, perhaps, is that we are in a horrible situation that requires us to make painful compromises. An ideology that promises easy answers and readily-identifiable villains will not get us very far.

Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.

—Thucydides

The plague of Athens is one of the most famous epidemics in history. It struck the city-state hard, and played a decisive role in Athens’ loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The historian Thucydides, who suffered the disease himself, gives a clinical description of the symptoms. Many are rather garden variety: headache, sore throat, a bad cough, diarrhea, and vomiting. Apart from this, victims suffered ulcers on the skin, and a fever so bad that people tore off their clothes. Thucydides also describes an unquenchable thirst. Tens of thousands died—in a city that was not, by modern standards, especially big—including the great statesman, Pericles; and it created ripples in society that lasted for many years after the plague ended.

(It is still unknown what germ caused the Athenian plague. One theory is typhus.)

It is impossible to make any sort of prediction when it comes to the novel coronavirus. In the beginning, I saw much commentary in the news criticizing China’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with the virus. Back then, most of the political commentary centered on whether an authoritarian regime could adequately cope. Now, Western governments are not looking very good by comparison. The outbreak has caught the leaders off guard, and there were many weeks of downplaying the threat before serious action was taken. And, in the end, Europe will likely have to enact many of the same measures as were put in place in China.

People of any political persuasion can find grist for their mills. I have already mentioned the criticism of China’s heavy-handed approach. Marxists are using the shortages at supermarkets as evidence of the shortcomings of capitalism; while conservatives point to the government’s inadequate response as evidence of bureaucratic incompetence. Trump, as usual, has said many false or misleading things, and the economic downturn caused by the virus could possibly hurt his chances for re-election. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, cites the virus as a good argument for universal healthcare. And so on.

Certainly some of these perspectives have merit. And there is plenty of blame to go around. Judging from the state of things here in Spain, the government was unprepared for the virus, even though they had weeks to observe its progress in China and then Italy. Speaking for myself, the outbreak has been an exercise in humility, since in the past few weeks I consistently downplayed its importance and severity. A week ago I was feeling totally secure, as if my normal life could not be affected. So I do have some sympathy for everyone who underestimated the danger. (On the other hand, the people in power are the ones who are supposed to know, of course.)

To continue my exercise in humility, I think I will refrain from making any definite predictions about the weeks and months to come. There are too many variables. It is unknown how long these measures will have to be enacted; and it is equally unclear exactly what effect this will have on the economy. Further down the line, we cannot predict if, how, or to what extent the crisis will affect the political situation. Big events like September 11 and the 2008 financial crisis had long-lasting political aftershocks, still reverberating today. Will the coronavirus be decisive in the 2020 American presidential elections? Will Spain’s socialist government lose credibility?

The plague of Athens was a major turning point in the history of Ancient Greece. Without Pericles, and reeling from the depopulation, Athens lost to Sparta, which henceforth became the leading power in the Peninsula. The Golden Age of Ancient Greece thus came to an end. How might history have turned out differently if Athens had won instead? Such counterfactuals are impossible to definitively answer. Now, all we can really do is sit in our homes and wait. But perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that, despite all of our missteps, we are far better positioned to deal with the coronavirus than the Athenians were ready to deal with their plague (whatever it was). For one thing, we understand how diseases spread; and thus each of us can do our part to stop it.

Letters from Spain #5: Elections and Opera

Letters from Spain #5: Elections and Opera

Here is episode five of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-5-elections-and-opera/id1469809686?i=1000456741892

For the full transcript, see below:


Winter is in the air here in Madrid. It’s not just the cold that lets you know, but the smell. The churro trucks have now taken their positions in the city, selling that most wonderful of Spanish junk foods. I was surprised, when I first came to Spain, to learn that churros, by themselves, are not particularly sweet. In fact, if anything they’re a little salty. The secret is chocolate. Spaniards dip their churros in a thick liquid chocolate. And when they’re done with the churro, they drink the chocolate. At first I could not understand how old women managed to chug down such a viscous, heavy drink. The first time I tried it, I thought I would choke—the chocolate is nothing like our American hot chocolate, which is so milky. But, now I can happily have two or three of those chocolates.

The other staple of Spanish streets in wintertime are the chestnuts. Vendors roast chestnuts on charcoal grills, creating a wonderful aroma that spreads everywhere. It’s fantastic.

Well, another week has rolled around. And it has been an eventful one. Most notably, this last Sunday, the tenth of November, Spain has had its elections. Now, there is nothing that makes me feel quite so much like a foreigner as when there are elections. Of course, not being a Spanish citizen, I cannot vote. And even though I live in Spain, I don’t have very much to gain or to lose by the results of the elections. So I feel very left out. Besides all that, like many Americans I have had trouble understanding how a foreign country’s government—Spain’s government—works.

I will try not to bore you with the details—which I don’t even know anyways—but here’s what I have learned so far. Spain’s democracy is quite young, since it only began in 1978 with the death of Franco. The country has had literally dozens of constitutions throughout its history, beginning with the Napoleonic invasions, but the current constitution is only the second fully democratic one. (The first one, of 1931, lasted only five years until the Spanish Civil War and ended when Franco took power.) Before his death, Franco groomed the prince of Spain, Juan Carlos, to be his dictatorial heir. But the young monarch surprised everyone after Franco died by moving resolutely in the direction of democracy. And so, to make a long story short, the current government was born.

Like many countries around the world, Spain has a parliamentary system. This is confusing for Americans. In America we vote separately for the legislature—our representatives and senators—and for the president. In Spain, on the other hand, the president is not directly chosen by the people (or even the electoral college), but instead by the legislature. So basically, if one party achieves a majority in the parliament, the leader of that party will become the president. This means that you can’t have the president be of one party and then the congress controlled by the opposing party, which so often happens in America. For this reason, parliamentary systems are often more decisive than the American model, since there aren’t so many checks and balances between the legislature and executive, and the two are much more closely involved.

Now, the situation is more complicated if no single party achieves a majority. This is what happened in the recent elections. Then, the government must be run by a coalition, which usually means that the party with the most votes needs to cut a deal with a smaller party (or two…) in order to achieve the necessary majority. To be specific, the country’s socialist party, PSOE, won the most votes this last election, but not enough to have an absolute majority. To achieve a majority, they teamed up with a party called Podemos, a left-wing populist party. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the socialists, is therefore now the president, and the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesías, is the vice president. So Spain, unlike many European countries nowadays, has a leftist government. But to maintain power these two parties not only need to work with each other—which has been difficult for them recently—but to work with several smaller, regional parties, most notably those Catalonian parties that favor independence. We’ll see if they can work it out.

I should mention another curious aspect of parliamentary systems, at least from the perspective of an American. In Spain, there is no fixed timing for elections. The Spanish don’t, like us, automatically vote every four years, even though politicians do have term limits. Rather, elections happen when there are special circumstances. For example, a government may call a snap election in the hopes of bolstering its majority—this is what happened this past April, which was the last election. (So the last election was just a few months ago.) Or elections may be held if the current parliament fails to form a working majority or coalition, maybe because one party is holding out in the hopes of better election results. This is what recently happened. (It didn’t pan out for the socialists.)

Oh, and I should mention that Spain is still technically a monarchy, even though the king does not have any real power. King Felipe VI is the head of state in Spain. From what I can tell, though lots of Spaniards don’t like having a monarchy, and though some Spaniards are die-hard monarchists, most people don’t seem to pay the monarchy much mind. It’s not like England, where the royal family are tabloid celebrities.

Anyways, anyways, I don’t want to bore you with a treatise on Spanish government. Even Spanish people don’t talk that much about Spanish politics, at least compared to how much we Americans talk about American politics. Ironically, however, the voter turnout in Spain is higher than it is in America! This can be hard for us Americans to believe, since we like to think we invented democracy, and in any case we spend so much energy on politics. But most of Europe has us beat in that regard. Maybe it helps that elections in Spain are on Sundays, and not Tuesdays.

The funny thing about the recent elections is that, from what I can tell, most Spaniards aren’t talking about who won, but rather but who lost. During the rise of Trump and the whole Brexit fiasco—not to mention similar right-wing populist movements in Europe—many commentators noted Spain’s seeming immunity from this phenomenon. Commentators said, “Oh, they remember Franco.” But that is no longer the case. A new, far-right party, Vox, surprised everyone by winning more seats in congress than either Podemos or Ciudadanos (a centrist party that used to be a major player), making it the third-largest party in the country, after the socialists and the old conservative party. Vox conforms to many of the far-right stereotypes: anti-European Union, anti-Islam, anti-femminist, anti-LGBT, and so on. One would have hoped that this strain of Spanish politics had died with Franco. But history is never so tidy.

Well, I’ve given you this whole spiel about the Spanish government, and yet this was not the most interesting part of my weekend. Not by a long-shot. I recently discovered that Madrid’s opera house, the royal theater—a massive building right next to the royal palace—offers discount tickets for people under thirty. This, for the moment, includes me! So this last Sunday I went to the box office two hours before the show, and got myself a good seat for only nineteen euros. Keep in mind that this could have cost me five times as much if I were older. The opera was L’elisir d’Amore, by Donizetti—a kind of farcical Romantic comedy. Let me tell you, I have seldom felt both so fancy and so shabby as when I went to see an opera in a red t-shirt.

Opera is only the tip of the performance iceberg in Madrid. Largely thanks to my girlfriend—who is a theater maniac—I have discovered that Madrid is extremely rich in theater of every kind. To name just a few of the city’s excellent theaters, there is the Teatro Lara, the Teatro del Canal, the Teatro de la Comedia, the Teatro Español, and so on. Dozens and dozens of theaters, some of them small holes in the wall, and some of them elaborately decorated spaces. I have seen Shakespeare’s Othello performed as a sado-masochistic dystopian work, and I have seen classic plays from the Spanish Golden Age performed with perfect correctness. Besides being simply fun, visiting the theater is a wonderful way to practice my Spanish and to immerse myself in Spanish culture.

Like the Opera, many theaters—particularly the fancier ones—offer generous discounts to young people. This is common all over Europe. If you are 26 or under (unfortunately not me, at the moment), you can visit many of Europe’s famous monuments for cheap or even for free. The Prado in Madrid, for example, is free if you are under 27. You can even get discounts on public transportation. Up until the age of 26, you can get a transit pass that includes all of the trains, metros, and buses in the entire Madrid metropolitan area—going all the way to Toledo—for only twenty euros a month. Although I am obviously biased, I think this is a wonderful idea. It certainly helps to encourage young people to take advantage of all of the available cultural experiences they can. My girlfriend, for example, could never have developed such a terrible addiction to the theater if it weren’t so cheap for her. 

The idea of a “youth discount” is one of the many small ways that life in Europe can seem so much more accessible and accommodating than life in the United States. It is certainly difficult to imagine the New York Subway letting you ride the entire network for only 20 bucks a month. And imagine if the Metropolitan Opera offered 19 dollar tickets to anyone under thirty! Now that I’ve discovered these youth tickets, maybe I’ll take the opportunity to become an opera addict. It’s certainly better than being addicted to politics.

Review: What’s Up with Catalonia?

Review: What’s Up with Catalonia?

What's Up with Catalonia?What’s Up with Catalonia? by Liz Castro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do not invite an American to speak about Europe; he will usually display great presumption and a rather ridiculous arrogance.

—Alexis de Toqueville

Perhaps the most politically controversial topic here in Madrid is the Catalonian independence movement. Almost everyone I speak to is vigorously against it, for one reason or another. I’ve heard people say that it is just a bluff for political negotiations; that it is based on calculated lies; that it is illegal and unconstitutional; that the Catalans are just crazy people; and so on. Indeed, it is my understanding that disagreement over the Catalonia Question is one of the major causes of the current political deadlock in Spain.

People talk about it a lot. But even after dozens of conversations, I still felt that I didn’t understand the situation; I was only hearing one side of the story. So for my first trip to Barcelona, I decided to open this book, a collection of essays by several pro-independence authors. It is a quick read: I read half of the book on the flight to Barcelona, and the other half on the flight back to Madrid. And now that I think of it, that is probably the best place to read this book, suspended in midair between the two cities.

It is this stance, an attempt at impartiality, that I am trying to maintain. But this is difficult for me. As one of the essays in this collection explains, many Americans are predisposed against independence movements because it reminds us of our Civil War. Of course, Catalonia is a completely different issue, so my association is illogical and unfair; and besides, my whole country originated in a war for independence. Yet I find it difficult to contemplate the option of secession without feeling queasy. That’s my bias.

This collections offers a variety of arguments for and perspectives on independence. The reasons offered for secession range from economic, to sentimental, to nationalistic, to linguistic, to historical, to political, often in combination. But, to quote Warwick, the result is less than the sum of its parts. The authors have different priorities and their arguments often contradict one another, which creates a sense of incoherence. One author argues that the Catalan language cannot be used as the primary marker of their identity, since a significant portion of the region’s inhabitants don’t speak it fluently; but another author comes out strongly for Catalan. Lots of authors talk about taxation and fiscal spending—all of them quoting the same statistics, which got rather tiresome by the end—but others said that they would want independence even if these financial troubles were cleared up. The tone of the essays ranged from dry analysis to impassioned pleas. It’s a hodgepodge.

One thing seriously lacking from the discussions of taxation and fiscal spending was how the Catalonia situation compared with that of other countries. In a nutshell, the complaint is that the Spanish government takes more money from Catalonia than they spend on it. But it is my understanding that this is a common occurrence when one region of a country is richer than another: money is diverted to where it is needed most. New York and California help to fund other states; and from what I’m told, Berlin is on the receiving end of a lot of financial support. If one of the authors had framed the fiscal situation in an international context, it would be easier to see whether it was fair.

These criticisms notwithstanding, I think this is an extremely valuable collection. Yes, there are much better overviews of the independence movement in Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain and Hooper’s The New Spaniards; but those are two foreigners trying to summarize a complicated situation. This collection lets the Catalans speak for themselves, leading to a much more nuanced view of the independence movement. It shouldn’t be read in isolation; this is only one half of the debate. But it is an important half.

Personally I can’t decide how I feel about the whole thing. I am hostile to nationalism in general; and it strikes me that both the pro- and anti-independence positions are tinged with nationalism, for Catalonia or for Spain. I can certainly understand why, after Franco’s repressive policies, there is a considerable amount of bad blood built up in Catalonia; and I appreciate that it would make many Catalans very happy to have a country of their own. On the other hand, I think one mark of a country’s greatness is the amount of diversity it can incorporate, so I’d prefer it if the opposing sides could figure out how to live together without stepping on each other’s toes. Secession strikes my American mind as an overly drastic solution to the problem. But at this point I will take heed from Toqueville’s warning and say no more.

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Quotes & Commentary #62: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #62: Santayana

Matters of religion should never be matters of controversy. We neither argue with a lover about his taste, nor condemn him, if we are just, for knowing so human a passion.

—George Santayana

This quote sums up the apparent futility of argument—not only about religion, but about so many things that arouse strong feeling. I have never seen, or even heard of, a discussion about religion or politics that ended with one of the participants being convinced. If anything, conversations about these topics seem only to entrench the opposing parties in their positions.

This occurrence appears common and universal; and yet its implications strike at one of the pillars of western thought—that rational arguments can be used to reach the truth and to convince others—as well as of liberal democracy, which rests on the ideal that, to paraphrase John Milton, truth emerges victorious from open encounters with untruth. If debate is really futile in matters religious (which involves our ultimate views of life and the universe) and politics (which involves our stance on society), then are we doomed to endless tribal bickering based on nothing more than group mentality?

I strongly wish that this wasn’t the case; but I admit that, judging on my actions in daily life, I have little faith in the power of reason in these matters. I tend to avoid topics like religion and politics, even among friends. Powerful emotions underpin these aspects of life; values and identity are implicated; and individual psychology—background, traumas, inadequacies—may render the action far removed from cold calculation.

To a large extent, admittedly, rationality has only a subsidiary role in decision-making. Hume was quite right, I believe, to call reason a “slave of the passions.” We are never motivated by reason alone; indeed I don’t even know what that would look like. We are motivated, instead, by desires, which are organic facts. In themselves, desires are neither rational nor irrational. Rationality only applies, first, when we are figuring our how to satisfy these desires; and, second, when multiple, conflicting desires are at play.

The desires to be skinny and to eat three pints of ice cream a day, for example, conflict with one another, and reasoning is needed to achieve a harmony between these two. A reasoner may realize that, however, delicious ice cream may be, the desire to be skinny is consonant with the strong desire to be healthy and live long, so the ice cream is reduced. Both internally, within our psyches, and externally, within society, reason is how we achieve the most satisfying balance of competing desires.

Since reason rests on a fundamentally non-rational bases—namely, desires—it may be the case that reason has no appeal. In politics, for example, somebody may crave equality, and another person freedom; and no argument could move or undermine these desires, since neither is rational in the first place. Different political orientations are rooted in different value systems; and values are nothing but orientations of desires.

But I think it is often the case that competing value systems have many points in common. Grave inequality can, for instance, curtail freedom; and enforced inequality can do the same. For either party, then, a satisfactory society cannot have absolute inequality, absolute equality, absolute freedom, or absolute slavery. These different values are therefore not totally at odds, but are merely different emphases of the same basic desires, different ways to harmonize competing pulls. And in cases like these, rational argument can help to achieve a compromise.

What about religion? Here the case seems somewhat different from politics, since religion is not just a question of values but involves a view of reality.

Admittedly, political ideologies also involve a certain view of reality. Each ideology comes with its own historical narrative. Sometimes these narratives are nothing but a tissue of lies, as with the Nazis; and even the most respectable political narrative may make some dubious assumptions. Nevertheless, the validity of political opinions is not purely a matter of the truth of their historical narrative. Somebody may genuinely desire communism even if everything they assert about the Soviet Union is wrong; and if debunking their history makes us doubtful of the possibility of satisfying their desire, it does not invalidate the desire itself.

With religion, to repeat, the case is somewhat different, since religions assert some set of facts about the universe; and without this set of facts, the religion falls to pieces. All of Marx’s theories of history may be wrong, but you can still rationally want a communist society. But a Christianity without a belief in a divine Jesus has lost its core. It is no longer a religion. In this way religion is decidedly not like falling in love, contrary to Santayana, since love, being pure desire, makes no assertion about the world.

This seems to put religions on a different footing, since they rest not only on desires, but beliefs. And if these beliefs prove incorrect or irrational, then the religion ceases to make sense. From my readings in history, science, philosophy, and theology, it seems quite clear to me that this is the case: that insofar as religious notions can be disproved, they have been; and insofar as they are unprovable, they are irrational to believe.

Indeed, I think with enough time I could explain this quite clearly to a believer. But I have never tried, since I am almost positive it wouldn’t work—that their religious beliefs would be impervious to argument. I also admit that the thought of doing so, of trying to talk someone out of a religion, makes me feel uneasy. It seems impolite and invasive to try to exert so much pressure on somebody’s fundamental beliefs. And even if I were successful, I believe I would feel somewhat guilty, like I had just told a child that Santa wasn’t real.

But is this uneasiness justified? If religions are truly irrational, based on a mistaken picture of the world, then they can give rise to unjustifiable actions. The religiously inspired fight against gay marriage, climate change, and abortion are excellent examples of this. Furthermore, if people habitually accept an irrational picture of the world, basing beliefs on religious authority rather than reasoned arguments, then perhaps they will be more easily manipulated by unscrupulous leaders.

On the other hand, living in a liberal society requires tolerance of others’ beliefs, rational or otherwise. And living in a polite society requires that we respect even when we do not agree. So it seems that a balance must be struck between arguing against an irrational belief and keeping considerate silence.

Review: The Righteous Mind

Review: The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I expected this book to be good, but I did not expect it to be so rich in ideas and dense with information. Haidt covers far more territory than the subtitle of the book implies. Not only is he attempting to explain why people are morally tribal, but also the way morality works in the human brain, the evolutionary origins of moral feelings, the role of moral psychology in the history of civilization, the origin and function of religion, and how we can apply all this information to the modern political situation—among much else along the way.

Haidt begins with the roles of intuition and reasoning in making moral judgments. He contends that our moral reasoning—the reasons we aver for our moral judgments—consists of mere post hoc rationalizations for our moral intuitions. We intuitively condemn or praise an action, and then search for reasons to justify our intuitive reaction.

He bases his argument on the results of experiments in which the subjects were told a story—usually involving a taboo violation of some kind, such as incest—and then asked whether the story involved any moral breach or not. These stories were carefully crafted so as not to involve harm to anyone (such as a brother and sister having sex in a lonely cabin and never telling anyone, and using contraception to prevent the risk of pregnancy).

Almost inevitably he found the same result: people would condemn the action, but then struggle to find coherent reasons to do so. To use Haidt’s metaphor, our intuition is like a client in a court case, and our reasoning is the lawyer: its job is to win the case for intuition, not to find the truth.

This is hardly a new idea. Haidt’s position was summed up several hundred years before he was born, by Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” An intuitionist view of morality was also put forward by David Hume and Adam Smith. But Haidt’s account is novel for the evolutionary logic behind his argument and the empirical research used to back his claims. This is exemplified in his work on moral axes.

Our moral intuition is not one unified axis from right to wrong. There are, rather, six independent axes: harm, proportionality, equality, loyalty, authority, and purity. In other words, actions can be condemned for a variety of reasons: for harming others, for cheating others, for oppressing others, for betraying one’s group, for disrespecting authority, and for desecrating sacred objects, beings, or places.

These axes of morality arose because of evolutionary pressure. Humans who cared for their offspring and their families survived better, as did humans who had a greater sensitivity to being cheated by freeloaders (proportionality) and who resisted abusive alpha males trying to exploit them (equality). Similarly, humans who were loyal to their group and who respected a power hierarchy outperformed less loyal and less compliant humans, because they created more coherent groups (this explanation relies on group selection theory; see below). And lastly, our sense of purity and desecration—usually linked to religious and superstitious notions—arose out of our drive to avoid physical contamination (for example, pork was morally prohibited because it was unsafe to eat).

Most people in the world use all six of these axes in their moral systems. It is only in the West—particularly in the leftist West—where we focus mainly on the first three: harm, proportionality, and equality. Indeed, one of Haidt’s most interesting points is that the right tends to be more successful in elections because it appeals to a broader moral palate: it appeals to more “moral receptors” in the brain than left-wing morality (which primarily appeals to the axis of help and harm), and is thus more persuasive.

This brings us to Part III of the book, by far the most speculative.

Haidt begins with a defense of group selection: the theory that evolution can operate on the level of groups competing against one another, rather than on individuals. This may sound innocuous, but it is actually a highly controversial topic in biology, as Haidt himself acknowledges. Haidt thinks that group selection is needed to explain the “groupishness” displayed by humans—our ability to put aside personal interest in favor of our groups—and makes a case for the possibility of group selection occurring during the last 10,000 or so years of our history. He makes the theory seem plausible (to a layperson like me), but I think the topic is too complex to be covered in one short chapter.

True or not, Haidt uses the theory of group theory to account for what he calls “hiveish” behavior that humans sometimes display. Why are soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for their brethren? Why do people like to take ecstasy and rave? Why do we waste so much money and energy going to football games and cheering for our teams? All these behaviors are bizarre when you see humans as fundamentally self-seeking; they only make sense, Haidt argues, if humans possess the ability to transcend their usual self-seeking perspective and identify themselves fully with a group. Activating this self-transcendence requires special circumstances, and it cannot be activated indefinitely; but it produces powerful effects that can permanently alter a person’s perspective.

Haidt then uses group selection and this idea of a “hive-switch” to explain religion. Religions are not ultimately about beliefs, he says, even though religions necessarily involve supernatural beliefs of some kind. Rather, the social functions of religions are primarily to bind groups together. This conclusion is straight out of Durkheim. Haidt’s innovation (well, the credit should probably go to David Sloan Wilson, who wrote Darwin’s Cathedral) is to combine Durkheim’s social explanation of religion with a group-selection theory and a plausible evolutionary story (too long to relate here).

As for empirical support, Haidt cites a historical study of communes, which found that religious communes survived much longer than their secular counterparts, thus suggesting that religions substantially contribute to social cohesion and stability. He also cites several studies showing that religious people tend to be more altruistic and generous than their atheistic peers; and this is apparently unaffected by creed or dogma, depending only on attendance rates of religious services. Indeed, for someone who describes himself as an atheist, Haidt is remarkably positive on the subject of religion; he sees religions as valuable institutions that promote the moral level and stability of a society.

The book ends with a proposed explanation of the political spectrum—people genetically predisposed to derive pleasure from novelty and to be less sensitive to threats become left-wing, and vice versa (the existence of libertarians isn’t explained, and perhaps can’t be)—and finally with an application of the book’s theses to the political arena.

Since we are predisposed to be “groupish” (to display strong loyalty towards our own group) and to be terrible at questioning our own beliefs (since our intuitions direct our reasoning), we should expect to be blind to the arguments of our political adversaries and to regard them as evil. But the reality, Haidt argues, is that each side possesses a valuable perspective, and we need to have civil debate in order to reach reasonable compromises. Pretty thrilling stuff.

Well, there is my summary of the book. As you can see, for such a short book, written for a popular audience, The Righteous Mind is impressively vast in scope. Haidt must come to grips with philosophy, politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, biology, history—from Hume, to Darwin, to Durkheim—incorporating mountains of empirical evidence and several distinct intellectual traditions into one coherent, readable whole. I was constantly impressed by the performance. But for all that, I had the constant, nagging feeling that Haidt was intentionally playing the devil’s advocate.

Haidt argues that our moral intuition guides our moral reasoning, in a book that rationally explores our moral judgments and aims to convince its readers through reason. The very existence of his book undermines his uni-directional model of intuitions to reasoning. Being reasonable is not easy; but we can take steps to approach arguments more rationally. One of these steps is to summarize another person’s argument before critiquing it, which is what I’ve done in this review.

He argues that religions are not primarily about beliefs but about group fitness; but his evolutionary explanation of religion would be rejected by those who deny evolution on religious grounds; and even if specific beliefs don’t influence altruistic behavior, they certainly do influence which groups (homosexuals, biologists) are shunned. Haidt also argues that religions are valuable because of their ability to promote group cohesion; but if religions necessarily involve irrational beliefs, as Haidt admits, is it really wise to base a moral order on religious notions? If religions contribute to the social order by encouraging people to sacrifice their best interest for illogical reasons—such as in the commune example—should they really be praised?

The internal tension continues. Haidt argues that conservatives have an advantage in elections because they appeal to a broader moral palate, not just care and harm; and he argues that conservatives are valuable because their broad morality makes them more sensitive to disturbances of the social order. Religious conservative groups which enforce loyalty and obedience are more cohesive and durable than secular groups that value tolerance. But Haidt himself endorses utilitarianism (based solely on the harm axis) and ends the book with a plea for moral tolerance. Again, the existence of Haidt’s book presupposes secular tolerance, which makes his stance confusing.

Haidt’s arguments with regard to broad morality come dangerously close to the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’: equating what is natural with what is good. He compares moral axes to taste receptors; a morality that appeals to only one axis will be unsuccessful, just like a cuisine that appeals to only one taste receptor will fail to satisfy. But this analogy leads directly to a counter-point: we know that we have evolved to love sugar and salt, but this preference is no longer adaptive, indeed it is unhealthy; and it is equally possible that our moral environment has changed so much that our moral senses are no longer adaptive.

In any case, I think that Haidt’s conclusions about leftist morality are incorrect. Haidt asserts that progressive morality rests primarily on the axis of care and harm, and that loyalty, authority, and purity are actively rejected by liberals (“liberals” in the American sense, as leftist). But this is implausible. Liberals can be extremely preoccupied with loyalty—just ask any Bernie Sanders supporter. The difference is not that liberals don’t care about loyalty, but that they tend to be loyal to different types of groups—parties and ideologies rather than countries. And the psychology of purity and desecration is undoubtedly involved in the left’s concern with racism, sexism, homophobia, or privilege (accusing someone of speaking from privilege creates a moral taint as severe as advocating sodomy does in other circles).

I think Haidt’s conclusion is rather an artifact of the types of questions that he asks in his surveys to measure loyalty and purity. Saying the pledge of allegiance and going to church are not the only manifestations of these impulses.

For my part, I think the main difference between left-wing and right-wing morality is the attitude towards authority: leftists are skeptical of authority, while conservatives are skeptical of equality. This is hardly a new conclusion; but it does contradict Haidt’s argument that conservatives think of morality more broadly. And considering that a more secular and tolerant morality has steadily increased in popularity over the last 300 years, it seems prima facie implausible to argue that this way of thinking is intrinsically unappealing to the human brain. If we want to explain why Republicans win so many elections, I think we cannot do it using psychology alone.

The internal tensions of this book can make it frustrating to read, even if it is consistently fascinating. It seems that Haidt had a definite political purpose in writing the book, aiming to make liberals more open to conservative arguments; but in de-emphasizing so completely the value of reason and truth—in moral judgments, in politics, and in religion—he gets twisted into contradictions and risks undermining his entire project.

Be that as it may, I think his research is extremely valuable. Like him, I think it is vital that we understand how morality works socially and psychologically. What is natural is not necessarily what is right; but in order to achieve what is right, it helps to know what we’re working with.

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Review: The Decline of the West

Review: The Decline of the West

The Decline of the WestThe Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All genuine historical work is philosophy, unless it is mere ant-industry.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of my favorite books, not only because it is written so beautifully, but because of the spectacle of decline—of a great empire slowly and inevitably crumbling. The scene is irresistibly tragic. Like a Macbeth or an Oedipus, the Empire succumbs to itself, brought down by its own efforts at self-expansion. Or perhaps the scene can be better compared to the Fall of Man in Milton’s poem, a grand cosmic undoing, followed by the heroic struggle against the inevitable.

Besides the sublime tragedy of Rome’s decline, it fascinates because it gives us a foreboding of what might happen to us. Indeed, maybe it is already? This would explain all the banality we see on television every day, all the terrible music on the radio. More than decline—a loss of political and economic power—this is decadence: a decay of taste, morals, artistic skill. Decadence seems observable in many historical instances: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines: they all petered out, losing cultural vitality until they disappeared completely. Couldn’t the same thing be happening to us?

Oswald Spengler thought so, and he turned this thought into the basis for an entire philosophy of history. He was not a professional historian, nor an academic of any kind. He worked as a school teacher until his mother’s inheritance allowed him quit his job and to devote all of his time to scholarship. This scholarship was mustered to write an enormous book, whose publication was delayed by World War I. Probably this was very lucky for Spengler, since the pessimism and anguish caused by that war set the mood for his grand theory of cultural decline.

The Decline of the West puts forward a radically unconventional view of history. Spengler divides up world history, not into countries or epochs, but into “Cultures.” There have been only eight: the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Meso-American, the Chinese, the Indian, the Classical (Greco-Roman), the Arabian (includes the Byzantine), and the Western (European Culture, beginning around the year 1000). Each of these Cultures he conceives as a super-organism, with its own birth, middle-age, and dotage. These Cultures all age at a similar rate, and go through analogical stages in the process (Napoleon is the Western equivalent to Alexander the Great, for example). Spengler believed that he had delineated these Cultures and traced their basic growth and aging process, thus providing a valid scheme for all future history as well, if any new Culture should arise.

Spengler is a cultural determinist and a cultural relativist. This means that he does not see these Cultures as dependent on the talent of individuals to grow; the individual is a product of the Culture and not the reverse. He also thinks that each of these Cultures creates its own self-contained world of significance, based on its own fundamental ideas. There is no such thing as inter-cultural influence, he thinks, at least not on any deep level. Each of these Cultures conceives the world so differently that they can hardly understand one another, let alone determine one another, even if one Culture can overpower another one in a contest of arms. Their art, their mathematics, their architecture, their experience of nature, their whole mental world is grounded in one specific cultural worldview.

Because Spengler is a determinist, he does not present us with a Gibbonian spectacle of a civilization succumbing to its own faults, struggling against its own decline. For Spengler, everything that happens in history is destiny. People don’t make history; history makes people. Thus, while often classed as a political conservative, it is hard to put any political label on Spengler, or to co-opt his views for any political purpose, since he didn’t think we directed our own history. To be a true Spenglerian is to believe that decline is inevitable: decadence wasn’t anyone’s “fault,” and it can’t be averted.

Much of this book consists of a contrast between what he calls the Apollonian (Greco-Roman) worldview, and the Faustian (Western) worldview. The Apollonian world-picture is based on the idea of definite form and definable shape; the nude statue is its most characteristic art, the delineated human body; its mathematics is all based on geometry, concrete shapes and visible lines. The Faustian picture, by contrast, is possessed by the idea of infinity; we make fugues, roving explorations of musical space; our mathematics is based on the idea of a function, an operation that can create an endless series of numbers. Spengler dwells on this contrast in chapter after chapter, trying to prove his point that Western Culture, far from being a development of Classical Culture, is entirely incompatible with it.

His own Culture, the Western, he traces to around the year 1000, at the commencement of the Romanesque. How or why new a Culture begins, Spengler doesn’t venture to say; but once they do begin, they follow the same definite steps. It was inevitable, he thinks, that the Romanesque transformed into the Gothic, and then eventually flourished into the Baroque, the high point of our Culture, wherein we expressed our deep longing for the infinite in Bach’s fugues and Descartes’s mathematics.

Sometime around the year 1800, the Western Culture entered its late, senescent phase, which Spengler terms ‘Civilization.’ This is the phase that follows cultural growth and flourishing; its onset begins when a Culture has exhausted its fundamental idea and explored its inherent forms. A Civilization is what remains of Culture when it has spent its creative forces: “The aim once attained—the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual—the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization.”

The ‘decline’ that forms the title of this book is just this transition from Culture to Civilization, wherein major creative work is at an end. Civilization is, rather, the age of Caesarism, the consolidation of political power. It is the age of world cities, major metropolises filled with cosmopolitan urban intellectuals. It is the age of academics rather than geniuses, the Alexandrine Greeks instead of the Golden-Age of Athens. It is, in other words, the period that corresponds with the onset of the Roman Empire, a period of no substantial innovation, but of magnificent stability. The Western Culture, Spengler thought, was entering just this period.

Whereas those who are actuated by a Culture during its creative period feel themselves driven by inevitable impulses, which allow even mediocre artists to create great works, people within a Civilization are creatures of the intellect, not the instinct; and instead of being given creative power and direction by their Culture, they are left to substitute their own subjective tastes and whims for cultural destiny. Instead of, for example, having one overriding epoch in our artistic productions—such as the Gothic, the Baroque, or what have you—we have artistic ‘movements’ or trends—Futurism, Dadaism, Cubism—which, far from being necessary phases in a Culture’s self-expression, are merely intellectual fads with no force behind them.

Spengler’s theory does have the considerable merit of being testable, because he made very specific predictions about what the immediate future held. We had gone through the period of ‘Warring States,’ he thought, in which country fought country and money ruled everything, and were about to enter a period of Caesarism, wherein people would lose faith in the power of self-interested capitalism and follow a charismatic leader. This would also be a period of ‘Second Religiousness,’ a period of faith rather than reason—a period of patriotism, zeal, and peaceful capitulation to the status quo.

Nowadays, one-hundred years later, it seems these predictions were certainly false. For one, he did not foresee the Second World War, but thought the period of internecine warfare was coming to a close. What is more, economic power has grown even more important—far more important than political power, in many ways—and no Caesar has arisen, despite many contenders (including Hitler, during Spengler’s lifetime, of whom Spengler didn’t think highly).

Aside from its breadth, one thing that sets this book apart is its style. Spengler is a remarkable writer. He can be poetic, describing the “flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you—a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence.” He can be bitter, biting, and caustic, castigating the blind scholars who couldn’t see the obvious, satirizing the pseudo-sauve intellectuals who populated the cities of his time. He can be lyrical or epigrammatic, and can write ably about art, music, and mathematics.

His most characteristic mode, however, is the oracular: Spengler proclaims, predicts, pronounces. His voice, resonating through the written word, booms as if from a mountaintop. He sweeps the reader up in his swelling prose, an inundation of erudition, a flood that covers the world and brings us, like Noah in his ark, even higher than mountaintops. Perhaps a flood is the most apt metaphor, since Spengler is not only overwhelming in his rhetorical force, but all-encompassing in his world-view. He seems to have thought of everything, considered every subject, drawn his own conclusions about every fact; no detail escapes him, no conventionality remains to be overturned by his roving mind. The experience can be intoxicating as he draws you into his own perspective, with everything you thought you knew now blurry and swirling.

Spengler is so knowledgeable that, at times, he can sound like some higher power declaiming from above. But he was a man, after all, and his erudition was limited. He was most certainly an expert on music, mathematics, and the arts, and writes with keen insight in each of these subjects. But in politics, economics, religion, and especially science, he is less impressive. He completely fails to understand Darwin’s theory, for example, and he thought that physics was already complete and there would be no more great geniuses (and this, in one of the greatest epochs of physics!). He doesn’t even mention Einstein. Spengler also thought that our scientific theories were culturally determined and culturally bound; the Western conception of nature, for example, would have no validity for the Chinese (which doesn’t seem to stop the Chinese from learning Newton’s theories).

His grand theory, though undeniably fascinating, is also impossible to accept. What is the nature of a Culture? Why do they arise, why are they self-contained, why do they follow the same life-course? Why would one single idea determine every single cultural production—from mathematics to music, from architecture to physics—in a Culture from birth to death? All these seem like fundamental questions, and yet they are not satisfactorily addressed—nor do I see how they could be.

By insisting on the Culture as the unit of history, Spengler seems to be at once too narrow and too broad. Too narrow, because he does not allow for the possibility that these Cultures can influence one another; while it seems obvious to me that, yes, there was influence from the Classical to the Western, as well as from the Classical to the so-called ‘Magian’ (his term for the Arabian Culture), and from the Magian to the Western, and so on. And too broad, because within any given Culture there are not only different ages but different areas. Is the cultural difference between Spain and England ultimately superficial, but between the Renaissance and Classical Greece unbridgeable? Really, the more you think about Spengler’s claims, the less credible they seem. After all, if Spengler were right, how could he, a Western intellectual living in the Civilization phase of Western Culture, delineate the fundamental ideas of other Cultures and produce what he regarded as a major intellectual achievement?

I am certainly not saying that this book is intellectually valueless. By comparison, Walter Pater had this to say about aesthetic theories: “Many attempts have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.”

This seems equally true with regard to Spengler’s universal formula for history. Although I think his theory is untenable, this book is nevertheless filled to the brim with suggestive and penetrating observations, especially about art, architecture, music, and mathematics. Spengler may be a failed prophet, but he was an excellent critic, capable of making the most astonishing comparisons between arts of different eras and epochs.

Even if we reject Spengler’s proposed theory, we may still savor the grand vision required to see all of human history as a whole, to scan one’s eye over the past and present of humankind, in all its forms and phases, and to form conjectures as to its destiny. And Spengler was undeniably original in his inclusion of Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Meso-American Cultures as of equal importance as Western history; indeed, it is at least in part to Spengler that we owe our notion of world-history. Rich in ideas, set forth in ringing prose, invigorating in its novelty, breathtaking in its scope—here we have a true classic, yet another example of a book whose enormous originality outweighs every conventional defect we can detect in it.

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Review: Orwell’s Essays

Review: Orwell’s Essays

A Collection of EssaysA Collection of Essays by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.

George Orwell is one of the inescapable writers of the last century. Far from becoming irrelevant, his works seem to become more significant with each passing year (as most recently evidenced by the present administration’s strained relationship with the truth). Orwell himself said that the “final test of any work of art is survival,” and his works seem on track to pass this final test. His dystopian novel recently became a surprise best-seller, almost seventy years after its initial publication. That is more than mere survival.

And yet it isn’t for his political insights that I opened this collection of essays. It was rather—and I feel somewhat silly saying this—for his writing style. Orwell’s writing is, for me, a model of modern prose. His style can accommodate both the abstract and the concrete, the homely and the refined, the pretentious and the vulgar; his prose can satisfy both the academic and the artist, the intellectual and the layperson, the Panurge and the parish priest. It is unmistakably modern, even sleek, while obviously informed by the tastes and standards of the past. It is fiery, angry, and political, while remaining intimate, human, and honest.

Something that repeatedly struck me while reading this collection was an inner conflict in Orwell’s worldview. There are two sides of the man, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes at odds: the writer and the activist. Orwell the writer is captivated by the rhythms of words, the sounds of sentences; he loves ruminating on a strange personality or a memorable story; he is enchanted by the details of daily life. Orwell the activist is outraged at injustice and uncompromising in his moral sense; he sees people as a collection of allies and enemies, taking part in a grand struggle to bring about a better society.

Orwell himself discusses this tension in his little essay, “Why I Write.” In a more peaceful age, he thinks, he could have been an entirely aesthetic writer, perhaps a poet, not paying much attention to politics. It was his firsthand experience of imperialism, poverty, and fascism that activated his political conscience. Specifically, it was the Spanish Civil War that “tipped the scale” for him: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

Be that as it may, Orwell seems to have repeatedly struggled to reconcile this aim with his more humanistic side. In his brilliant essay on Dickens, for example, he spends page after page trying to analyze Dickens as a kind of social philosopher, examining Dickens’s views on work, on the state, on education, and so on. Since Dickens was anything but a philosopher—as Orwell himself admits—this repeatedly leads to frustrating dead ends, and fails completely to do justice to Dickens’s work. It is only in the last section, where Orwell drops this pretense and treats Dickens as a novelist, that the essay becomes deeply insightful. Indeed, it soon becomes clear—it seems clear to me, at least—that Orwell likes Dickens for his writing, and not his activism, however much he may wish to think otherwise.

Other essays exhibit this same tension. In his essay on vulgar postcard art, for example, he notes how backward is the social worldview expressed in the cards; but he is obviously quite fond of them and even ventures to defend them by likening their humor to Sancho Panza’s. His essay on boy’s magazines follows an identical pattern, exposing their conservative ideology while betraying a keen interest, even a warm fondness, for the stories. In his appreciative essay on Rudyard Kipling’s poems, he even goes so far as to defend Kipling’s political views, at least from accusations of fascism.

It is largely due to Orwell’s influence, I think, that nowadays it is uncontroversial to see the political implications in a movie cast or a Halloween costume. In all of these essays, Orwell worked to undermine the naïve distinction between politics and everyday life, showing how we absorb messages about standards, values, and ideologies from every direction. He did not merely state that “All art is propaganda,” but he tried to show it, both in his analyses and his own works. At least half the time, he is utterly convincing in this. (And indeed, Orwell was such a brilliant man that, even when I think he’s involved in a pointless exercise, he makes so many penetrating observations along the way— incidentally, parenthetically—that his writing fully absorbs me. )

We owe a tremendous debt to Orwell for this insight. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that there is something terribly limiting about this perspective. All art may be propaganda, but it is not only propaganda; it is not even primarily so. There needs to be room in criticism, as in life, for the non-political. We need to be able to enjoy a novelist because of his characters and not his views on the state, a poet for his lines rather than his opinions, a dirty joke or a trashy magazine just because we want a laugh and a break. Orwell would agree with me up to a point, I think, but would also say that every decision to be “non-political” implicitly accepts the status quo, and is therefore conservative. This may be true; but it is also true that such “non-political” things are necessary to live a full life.

Where I most disagree with Orwell is his conviction that the media we consume—magazines, post cards, popular novels, television—nefariously and decisively shape our worldview. For my part, I suspect that people absorb their opinions more from their community, face-to-face, and then seek out media that corresponds with their pre-existing views: not the reverse. Media may reinforce these views and give them shape and drive, but I don’t think it generates them.

All this is besides the point. I admire Orwell, for his fierce independence, for his sense of outrage and injustice, for his facility with words, for his attempt to blend art and truth. In sum, I admire both the writer and the activist, and I think his work should be read until judgment day.

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Quotes & Commentary #41: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #41: Emerson

It is impossible to extricate oneself from the questions in which our age is involved. You can no more keep out of politics than out of the frost.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I suppose Emerson wrote this at a time when insulation was far less robust, since nowadays it is perfectly possible to keep out of the frost. Or perhaps he meant that the only way to keep out of politics was to shut oneself up like a hermit. In any case, though the comparison has aged, the sentiment certainly has not.

Lately I have been reading some of Orwell’s essays, which called this quote to mind. It was Orwell’s essay on Dickens—in which he utters his famous dictum, “All art is propaganda”—that specifically made me think of Emerson.

Is it really true that all art contains political preaching? Is it true that it is impossible to extricate oneself from controversial questions?

To these answers I would give a qualified “yes.” I do not think it possible to create art that is politically neutral, since our thoughts about personality, philosophy, nationality, morality, sexuality, human nature, society, and so forth, all have political ramifications, even if the author has not thought through these ramifications. Every artistic choice—the characters, the setting, the plot—carries ideological baggage, even if this baggage is unintended.

Even if we attempted to create “art for art’s sake”—purely formal art, devoid of any identifiable content—this, too, would have political consequences, since it takes a stance, a very particular stance, on the role of art and the artist in society.

Before I go on, I will try to define what I mean by “politics.” To me, politics is the struggle between demographic groups for resources and power. Politics isn’t politics without controversy, since it necessarily involves a zero-sum game. This controversy is typically carried on in highly charged, stringently moral language; but the fundamental motive that animates political struggle is self-interest.

Where I disagree is that I think the political content of art is usually uninteresting, and plays little role in the art’s quality. There is no contradiction in saying that a great novel may embody backwards political principles, or noting that a movie that champions progressive values may be boring and amateurish.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, it stuffed to the brim with the politics of his age; and these political passages are, in my opinion, inevitably the weakest and most tiresome of the poem. The Divine Comedy is great in spite of, not because of, its politics. Likewise, the political implications of Milton’s Paradise Lost are chiefly of historical interest, and for me neither add to nor subtract from the poem’s artistic force. Nothing ages faster than politics, since politics is always embroiled in transitory struggles between factions.

Orwell’s essay itself, ironically enough, also illustrates the limitations of seeing art as propaganda. Orwell attempts to treat Dickens as a sort of social philosopher—trying to furrow out Dickens views on the state, on the economy, on education, on the good life—only to repeatedly hit a wall. Dickens was not a reformer, and not a revolutionary; he was, if anything, a moralist, as Orwell himself admits. But above all Dickens was a novelist, something that should not need pointing out. His books are far more interesting as novels than as sermons.

Do not mistake my meaning. I am not arguing for “art for art’s sake.” Some art cannot be properly appreciated without noting its political message. I am, however, arguing that the political implications of a work of art do not exhaust its meaning, nor do they even constitute its most valuable meaning.

The aesthetic is as valid a category as the political and the moral. And by categorizing something as “art,” we implicitly acknowledge that its aesthetic qualities are its most important traits, and determine its ultimate value. Even if we insist otherwise, the very fact that we differentiate between polemical cartoons and portraits, between political pamphlets and plays, between national anthems and symphonies, belies the fact that we consider art a special category.

How anyone chooses to interpret a piece of art is, of course, up to them. Great art is distinguished by its ability to inspire nearly infinite reactions. But I do believe that every interpretation, if it wishes to respect the work in question, ought to increase our appreciation of it, or at least to try.

When somebody reads a novel solely for its political content, and then evaluates it solely on the extent to which it agrees or disagrees with the interpreter’s beliefs, the work of art is turned into a mere weapon of political struggle. In other words, to treat art merely as propaganda is not to respect it as art.

I have heard many movies and television shows denounced for their political implications; nowadays there are endless controversies about representation in media. Now, I believe the question of interpretation is undoubtedly important. But to condemn or champion works of art purely on this criterion is, I think, just as narrow-minded as ignoring the question of representation altogether.

Art speaks in different languages to different people. This is its magic and its lasting value. And anybody who thinks that they unequivocally “know” the meaning of a work of art, and is so politically self-righteous that they think they can pronounce eternal judgement on its worth, is acting tyrannical, even if they are mouthing sentiments of egalitarianism.

* * *

Parenthetically, it is worth noting that this anxiety about representation and political values in art, so common nowadays, is grounded in a certain, tacit theory of human behavior. This is the belief that our media exerts a decisive influence over our values and actions. Indeed, I’m sure this proposition would hardly be regarded as controversial in some circles.

But isn’t it equally possible that our media is just a reflection of our values and actions? And doesn’t the very fact that people are often politically dissatisfied with their media prove that we are not under their control? For, if the influence of media were decisive over our political perspective, how could we ever be dissatisfied with it?

Artists and art critics tend to be intellectuals. Intellectuals are naturally prone to believing that humans are motivated by ideas, since that’s what motivates intellectuals. Thus they can be expected to pay too much attention to art as a social force, and not enough to the other things that drive human behavior, like economic trends or political institutions, since art operates on the level of symbols. 

And since much of our discourse is framed by intellectuals—people tend to become politically conscious in college, under the influence of professors—it seems likely that paying too much attention to the political power of art would be a pervasive error, which I believe it is.

Quotes & Commentary #40: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #40: Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

The test of civilization is the power of drawing the most benefit out of cities.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cities are improbable. For most of our history we lived in little roving bands: Groups held together by personal relationships, of blood, marriage, or friendship, scattered lightly over the landscape, not tied to any particular spot but moving in accordance with their needs.

Agriculture changed that. You cannot raise crops without tending them throughout the year; thus you need a permanent settlement. Crops can also be grown and gathered more efficiently the more people there are to help; and a stable food supply can support a larger population. Cities grew up along with the crops, and a new type of communal living was born.

(I remember from my archaeology classes that early farmers were not necessarily healthier than their hunter-gatherer peers. Eating mostly corn is not very nutritious and is bad for your teeth. Depending on a single type of crop also makes you more sensitive to drought and at risk for starvation should the crops fail. This is not to mention the other danger of cities: Disease. Living in close proximity with others allows sickness to spread more easily. Nevertheless, our ancestors clearly saw some advantage to city life—maybe they had more kids to compensate for their reduced lifespan?—so cities sprung up and expanded.)

The transition must have been difficult, not least for the social strain. As cities grew, people could find themselves in the novel situation of living with somebody they didn’t know very well, or at all. For the vast majority of humankind’s history, this simply didn’t happen.

New problems must be faced when strangers start living together. In small groups, where everyone is either related or married to everyone else, crime is not a major problem. But in a city, full of strangers and neighbors, this changes: crime must be guarded against.

There is another novel problem. Hunter-gatherers can retreat from danger, but city dwellers cannot. And since urbanites accumulate more goods and food then their roving peers, they are more tempting targets for bandits. Roving nomads can swoop down upon the immobile city and carry off their grain, wine, and women. To prevent this, cities need defenses.

As you can see, the earliest denizens of cities faced many novel threats: crime from within, raids from without, and the constant danger of drought and starvation.

Government emerges from need to organize against these threats. To discourage crime the community must come together to punish wrongdoers; to protect against attacks the community must build walls and weapons, and fight alongside one another; to protect against starvation, surplus crops must be saved for the lean times.

Hierarchy of power, codes of law, and the special status of leaders arise to fill the vacuum of organization. Religion was also enlisted in this effort, sanctifying leaders with titles and myths, reinforcing the hierarchy with rituals and customs and taboos, and uniting the people under the guardianship of the same divine shepherds.

Despite these unpropitious beginnings, the city has grown from an experiment in communal living, held together by fear and necessity, into the generic model of modern life. And I have the good fortune to live near one of the greatest cities in history.

* * *

Whenever I am alone in New York City, I wander, for as many miles as time allows. The only way to see how massive, chaotic, and remarkable is New York, is by foot. There’s no telling what you might find.

I like to walk along the river, watching the freighters with their bright metal boxes of cargo, the leviathan cruise ships carrying their passengers out to sea, the helicopters buzzing overhead, giving a few lucky tourists a glimpse of the skyline. Bridges span the water—masses of metal and stone suspended by wire—and steam pours forth from the smokestacks of power plants.  

I pass through parks and neighborhoods. Elderly couples totter by on roller blades. A lonely teenager with a determined look practices shooting a basketball. The playground is full of screaming, running, jumping, hanging, falling, fighting kids. Their mothers and fathers chat on the sidelines, casting occasional nervous glances at their offspring.

Soon I get the United Nations building. The edifice itself is not beautiful—just a grey slab covered in glass—but what it represents is beautiful. The ideal of the United Nations is, after all, the same ideal of New York City. It is the ideal of all cities and of civilization itself: that we can put aside our differences and live together in peace.

The city is not just the product of political organization and economic means; it is an expression of confidence. You cannot justify building walls and houses without the belief that tomorrow will be as safe and prosperous as today. And you cannot live calmly among strangers—people who dress different, who speak a different language, people you have never seen before and may never see again—without trust.

It is that confidence in tomorrow and that trust in our neighbors on which civilization is built. And New York City, that buzzing, chaotic, thriving hive, is a manifestation of those values.