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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Great Quote

"Surveying the ruins of industrial America Hanson notes elsewhere that “Hiroshima looks a lot better today than does Detroit”, raising the interesting possibility that recovering from a nuclear blast may be possible or at least a lot more likely than surviving terminally stupid political projects." --Richard Fernandez, The Past Future Tense

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The new Roger Kimball book

I recently read The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia by Roger Kimball.
Anyone familiar with his work knows that he is tremendously knowledgeable and a terrific writer.  He does not disappoint.

This review by Bruce Thornton gives a good overview of the book:
Roger Kimball has long been one of America’s most learned commentators on intellectual history, contemporary politics, fine art, and architecture. Longtime editor of The New Criterion and more recently publisher of Encounter Books, Kimball authored two of the best exposés of the left-wing corruption of the American university: Tenured Radicals and The Long March. The 21 essays in Kimball’s new book, The Fortunes of Permanence, cover a remarkable range of topics: relativism, multiculturalism, radical egalitarianism, the enduring importance of tradition, the delusions of socialism, “democratic despotism,” the dangers of sentimental “benevolence,” and the cultural significance of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The essays also discuss a wide variety of individual writers: those unfairly demonized, like Rudyard Kipling; those insufficiently well known, like Leszek Kołakowski, Richard Weaver, and James Burnham; and those familiar yet still worthy of explication and reconsideration, like G. K. Chesterton and Friedrich Hayek.
 Kimball’s survey articulates his two great themes. The first is the need to battle what he has elsewhere called “cultural amnesia”; the struggle requires recovering the great thinkers and writers of the past, “the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization” but “whose voices have been drowned out by the demotic inanities of pop culture or embalmed by the dead hand of the academy.” Second is the importance of “discrimination,” or what Kimball calls “the gritty job of intellectual and cultural trash collector,” in which one identifies and disposes of the faddish and politicized ephemera that make up most of the art and writing celebrated by the bien-pensant elite.
Kimball’s “anatomy of servitude,” as he calls it—his analysis of cultural, educational, and political degeneration—doesn’t end on a Spenglerian note of inevitable decline. Such determinism would contradict the celebration of human freedom that recurs throughout these essays. We can choose a different course, and we have the resources to do so.
"Intellectual and cultural trash collector" is a pretty good description of the task of debunking so much of what I now call Postmodernist dreck.  The failure to grasp the intellectual embarrassment entailed in such ideas is part of the problem.  Perhaps it is of less consequence than the power lust that promotes such nonsense. 

What follows, for your enjoyment,  are excerpts from two of the essays included in the book:

First, from   Leszek Kolakowski & the anatomy of totalitarianism :
No, Marxism has been as wrong as it is possible for a theory to be wrong. Addicted to “the self-deification of mankind,” it continually bears witness to what Kolakowski calls “the farcical aspect of human bondage.” Why then was Marxism like moral catnip—not so much among its proposed beneficiaries, the working classes, but among the educated elite? Well, beguiling simplicity was part of it. “One of the causes of the popularity of Marxism among educated people,” Kolakowski notes, “was the fact that in its simple form it was very easy.” Marxism—like Freudianism, like Darwinism, like Hegelianism—is a “one key fits all locks” philosophy.  All aspects of human experience can be referred to the operation of a single all-governing process which thereby offers the illusion of universal explanation.

Marxism also spoke powerfully to mankind’s unsatisfied utopian impulses. How imperfect a construct is capitalist society: how much conflict does it abet, how many desires does it leave unsatisfied! Can we not imagine a world beyond those tensions and conflicts in which we could realize our full human potential without competition, without scarcity, without want? Sure, we can imagine it, but there is a reason that “utopia” means “nowhere.”
Of course, it is not just to mankind’s spiritual cravings that Marxism appeals. It also speaks to its inherent thuggishness. This cannot be emphasized too much. These days, Stalin and Stalinism are in bad odor. We forget the romance that Western intellectuals indulged for this mass murderer.  We also tend to overlook the fact that thuggishness is an integral, not an accidental, feature of Marxism.
To be an anatomist of totalitarianism is also to be a connoisseur of freedom, its many beguiling counterfeits as well as its genuine aspirations.The question—the lure, the never fulfilled but inescapable promise—of freedom stands at the center of much of Kolakowski’s work.
Part of what makes Kolakowski’s reflections on freedom and its vicissitudes so fruitful is his understanding that human freedom is inextricably tied to a recognition of limits, which in the end involves a recognition of the sacred.This has been a leitmotif of his work from the beginning. In The Alienation of Reason (1966), he criticizes positivism as “an attempt to consolidate science as a self-sufficient activity, which exhausts all the possible ways of appropriating the world intellectually.”

In “Man Does Not Live by Reason Alone” (1991), Kolakowski argues that “mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be ex-communicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.” He shows how the tendency to believe that all human problems have a technical solution is an unfortunate inheritance from the Enlightenment—“even,” he notes, “from the best aspects of the Enlightenment: from its struggle against intolerance, self-complacency, superstitions, and uncritical worship of tradition.” There is much about human life that is not susceptible to human remedy or intervention. Our allegiance to the ideal of unlimited progress is, paradoxically, a dangerous moral limitation that is closely bound up with what Kolakowski calls the loss of the sacred. “With the disappearance of the sacred,” he writes,
which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization—the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is “in principle” an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man’s total autonomy and thus to deny man himself.
These are wise words, grippingly pertinent to an age conjuring with the immense technological novelties of cloning, genetic engineering, and other Promethean temptations. We pride ourselves today on our “openness” and commitment to liberal ideals, our empathy for other cultures, and our sophisticated understanding that our way of viewing the world is, after all, only our way of viewing the world. But Kolakowski reminds us that, without a prior commitment to substantive values—to an ideal of the good and (just as important) an acknowledgment of evil—openness threatens to degenerate into vacuousness. Given the shape of our post-Soviet, technologically infatuated world, perhaps it is that admonition, even more than his heroic demolition of Marxism, for which Leszek Kolakowski will be honored in the decades to come.
Oh, the misery unleashed by the unconstrained vision!

The final essay is   The Anglosphere & the future of liberty:
English, Bishop Sprat thought, is conspicuously the friend of empirical truth. It is also conspicuously the friend of liberty. Andrew Roberts, reflecting on the pedigree of certain ideas in the lexicon of freedom, notes that such key phrases as “liberty of conscience” (1580), “civil liberty” (1644, a Miltonic coinage), and “liberty of the press” (1769) were first expressed in English. Why is it that English-speaking countries produced Adam Smith and John Locke, David Hume and James Madison, but not Hegel, Marx, or Foucault? “The tongue and the philosophy are not unrelated,” the philologist Robert Claiborne writes in The Life and Times of the English Language. “Both reflect the ingrained Anglo-American distrust of unlimited authority, whether in language or in life.”
 I have nothing by way of an explanation for this filiation between the English language and the habit of liberty. I merely note its existence. Alan Macfarlane, in his classic Origins of English Individualism (1978), shows that the habit is far older than we have been taught to believe. According to the Marxist narrative, individualism is a “bourgeois construct” whose motor belongs to the eighteenth-century. Macfarlane shows that, on the contrary, “since at least the thirteenth century England has been a country where the individual has been more important than the group.” “Peasant” was a term the English used about others but not themselves. Why? Macfarlane locates the answer in the presence of a market economy, an “individualistic pattern of ownership,” and strong recourse to local initiative that were prominent features of English life at least since 1250. “In many respects,” he writes, “England had probably long been different from almost every other major agrarian society we know.”
The anatomy of servitude, which bulks large in what follows, tells a depressing story. But it is not all of the story. Even the “apocalyptic” Mark Steyn points to the way out. He is quite right that “you cannot wage a sustained ideological assault on your own civilization without profound consequence.” We’ve had the assault and we are living with the consequences. He is also right that “without serious course correction, we will see the end of the Anglo-American era, and the eclipse of the powers that built the modern world.” The hopeful part of that prediction comes in the apodosis: the course may still be corrected. As Hayek noted about his own dire diagnosis: “The consequences can of course be averted if that spirit reasserts itself in time.” There are, I believe, two main sources of hope. One lies in the past, in the depth and strength of the Anglosphere’s traditional commitment to individual freedom and local initiative against the meddlesome intrusion of any central authority. “The future is unknowable,” said Churchill, “but the past should give us hope.” The Anglosphere, James Bennett writes, “is not a fragile hothouse flower that can be easily uprooted and disappear forever.”

The second main ground for hope lies in the present and immediate future. In the United States, anyway, we have lately witnessed a new “revolt of the masses,” different from, in fact more or less the opposite of, the socialistic eruption Ortega y Gasset limned in his famous essay on the subject. A specter is haunting America, the specter of freedom. What happened on November 2 was not an instance of business as usual in the world of partisan politics. It was stage one in the rejection of that business as usual: the big-government, top-down, elitist egalitarianism practiced by both major parties in the United States. I recently spoke on a cruise sponsored by National Review at which the pollster Scott Rasmussen observed that one thing November’s election demonstrated was that Americans do not want to be governed by Democrats or by Republicans: they want to govern themselves. If he is right—there’s that little word “if” again—the Anglosphere has a lot more mileage in it. Are things bad? Is it late? Yes, and yes again. But as Lord D’Abernon memorably put it, “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.”
 Lovers of liberty(and dignity) can hope that his optimism is not misplaced and do their part to aid in such an outcome!

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

More damaging than he knows

Over at National Review Online    Reihan Salam links to three articles  inspired by the “You Didn’t Build That” remark of the President:
Yuval Levin argues that the president’s Roanoke speech illustrates a broader belief that doing things together means doing things through government. The mediating institutions between the individual and the state thus get short shrift in his worldview. This difference of opinion regarding the role of civil society represents, in Yuval’s view, a fundamental divide between the left and the right:

The Left tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it enables the application of technical knowledge that can make our lives better, and that this knowledge can overcome our biggest problems. This is the technocratic promise of progressivism. The Right tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it has evolved to channel deep social knowledge through free institutions — knowledge that often cannot be articulated in technical terms but is the most important knowledge we have. For the Left, therefore, the mediating institutions (and at times even our constitutional forms) are obstacles to the application of liberal knowledge. For the Right, the mediating institutions (and our constitutional forms) are the embodiment of liberal knowledge.

Earlier in the article Levin provides some interesting perspective:
This remarkable window into the president’s thinking shows us not only a man chilly toward the potential of individual initiative, and not only a man deluded about the nature of his opponents and their views, but also (and perhaps most important) a man with a staggeringly thin idea of common action in American life.
The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.
But most of life is lived somewhere between those two extremes, and American life in particular has given rise to unprecedented human flourishing because we have allowed the institutions that occupy the middle ground — the family, civil society, and the private economy — to thrive in relative freedom. Obama’s remarks in Virginia shed a bright light on his attitude toward that middle ground, and in that light a great deal of what his administration has done in this three and a half years suddenly grows clearer and more coherent, and even more disconcerting.
This attitude toward mediating institutions is by no means novel or unique to the Obama administration. It has been essential to the progressive cause for more than a century, and indeed has been an element of more radical strands of liberalism for far longer than that. As far back as 1791, Thomas Paine, in defending the French revolutionaries, complained of the distance that traditional institutions established between the citizen and the regime, which he described as an “artificial chasm [that] is filled up with a succession of barriers, or sort of turnpike gates, through which [the citizen] has to pass.”
Conservative voices have defended these mediating layers precisely for creating such barriers, which can guard the citizen from direct exposure to the searing power of the state. Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated America’s bewildering array of associations, institutions, and corporations of civil society for their ability to offer individual citizens some protection from the domineering sway of political majorities.
Edmund Burke, Paine’s great nemesis, argued that such mediating structures also express in their very forms the actual shape of our society — evolved over time out of affectionate sentiments, practical needs, and common aspirations. “We begin our public affections in our families,” Burke wrote. “We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill.” To sweep them away and leave only the citizen and the state would rob society of its sources of warmth, loyalty, and affinity, and of the most effective means of enacting significant social improvements.
The second article mentioned here expresses conservative sentiments as follows:
Conservatives do have solutions. Our answer is not “no government”; our answer is a government that is more natural. Choice and diversity, if entrusted to people, require — and create — economic freedom. Conservatives need to learn the language of the environmental and civil-rights movements, not only because it is more marketable, but also because it more accurately reflects the organic liberty and self-government we cherish.

Our theme, our brand, our identity? How about this: Republicans are the not the party of a decaying, old, static, industrial-age, top-down government in Washington. We are the communications-age party of genuinely democratic, dynamic government — of, for, and by real people. We want to get money and power out of Washington and into the hands of the people — not because we want no government, but because we believe people who live in liberty create the best government when they are trusted to govern themselves. Ours is a purpose-driven populism, determined to change Washington, because if we do that, Americans can achieve anything in the world.

Fellow conservatives, let’s learn to say it: We need more government, lots of it, but we need the kind that actually works: Bottom-up self-government by a mature people. And we need that government in our hands — because it is not natural, efficient, or beneficial to leave something so powerful in the hands of anyone else.
Slapping down multicultural nonsense and relativism will be an essential part of restoring the ability for self-government.

The most poignant assessment of the remarks are here as provided by Virginia Postrel:
Although his supporters pooh-pooh the controversy, claiming the statement has been taken out of context and that he was referring only to public infrastructure, the full video isn’t reassuring. Whatever the meaning of “that” was, the president on the whole was clearly trying to take business owners down a peg. He was dissing their accomplishments. As my Bloomberg View colleague Josh Barro has written, “You don’t have to make over $250,000 a year to be annoyed when the president mocks people for taking credit for their achievements.”
 “Bourgeois Dignity” is both the title of a recent book by the economic historian Deirdre N. McCloskey and, she argues, the attitude that accounts for the biggest story in economic history: the explosion of growth that took northern Europeans and eventually the world from living on about $3 a day, give or take a dollar or two (in today’s buying power), to the current global average of $30 -- and much higher in developed nations.

 That change, she argues, is way too big to be explained by normal economic behavior, however rational, disciplined or efficient. Hence the book’s subtitle: “Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.”

 Something bigger was at work. McCloskey’s explanation is that people changed the way they thought, wrote and spoke about economic activity. “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” she writes, “a great shift occurred in what Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘habits of the mind’ -- or more exactly, habits of the lip. People stopped sneering at market innovativeness and other bourgeois virtues.” As attitudes changed, so did behavior, leading to more than two centuries of constant innovation and rising living standards.
 There had always been enough capital. What was different, she maintains, is how people thought about new ideas. Creative destruction became not only accepted but also encouraged, as did individual enterprise. “What made us rich,” she writes, “was a new rhetoric that was favorable to unbounded innovation, imagination, alertness, persuasion, originality, with individual rewards often paid in a coin of honor or thankfulness -- not individual accumulation restlessly stirring, or mere duty to a calling, which are ancient and routine and uncreative.”
McCloskey’s book is not only a useful survey of how scholars answer the biggest question in economics: What causes growth? It is also a timely reminder that prosperity depends on more than effort or resources or infrastructure or good laws. Attitudes matter, too. You don’t build a wealthy society by deriding bourgeois enterprise -- or the people who take pride in it.  
By trampling on bourgeois liberty and dignity, rhetorically and otherwise, the President has done more damage than he knows.  He has also revealed something important to anyone paying attention.