Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #15

web 15

The latest (somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.


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It’s not all relative
Alan Jay Levinovitz, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 March 2017

The notion of ‘truth as disrespect’ powers the current assault on facts. Trump and much of his base reject the truth-making mechanisms of academic culture by appealing to anti-elitism, and sow uncertainty via indignation and cultural pride. Why should pompous experts get the last word on the truth when working-class folk have their own ideas about it?

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Just as many advocates of multiculturalism see the imposition of ‘Western norms’ as patronizing, colonial, and unjust, many Americans see the privileging of expert advice in much the same way, especially because it leaves voiceless those who do not have access to information and analytic tools that experts deem essential to the responsible pursuit of truth. Vox’s David Roberts describes this as ‘tribal epistemology’, a key component of which involves leveraging the dignity of one’s culture to preserve beliefs against criticism.

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Yet this approach to truth – sorely needed right now – is difficult to square with an imperative to refrain from privileging one culture’s epistemology. It would be highly controversial if I were to state that Hmong people ‘mistakenly believe demons cause illness’ or that Mormons ‘falsely claim ancient Israelites came to the New World on the basis of a mythological text.’

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Are liberals on the wrong side of history?
Adam Gopnik, New Yorker, 20 March 2017

By ‘humanism’ Harari means, instead, the doctrine that only our feelings can tell us what to do – that ‘we ought to give as much freedom as possible to every individual to experience the world, follow his or her inner voice and express his or her inner truth.’ This sentiment is surely typical only of the Romantic rebellion against Enlightenment humanism, the reaction – which Mishra details at such length – of the figures, including Rousseau, who have been most sympathetic to religion and mysticism and the irrational. (Rousseau is almost the only eighteenth-century thinker who is quoted in Harari’s book.) Enlightenment humanists tended to believe in absolute truths, of the kind produced by experimental science; they gave a fixed speed to light and asserted laws of gravity that were constant throughout the cosmos. If they doubted anything, it was the natural urgings of the heart, which they saw most often as cruel or destructive.

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Harari’s larger contention is that our homocentric creed, devoted to human liberty and happiness, will be destroyed by the approaching post-humanist horizon. Free will and individualism are, he says, illusions. We must reconceive ourselves as mere meat machines running algorithms, soon to be overtaken by metal machines running better ones. By then, we will no longer be able to sustain our comforting creed of ‘autonomy,’ the belief, which he finds in Rousseau, that ‘I will find deep within myself a clear and single inner voice, which is my authentic self,’ and that ‘my authentic self is completely free.’ In reality, Harari maintains, we have merely a self-deluding, ‘narrating self,’ one that recites obviously tendentious stories, shaped by our evolutionary history to help us cope with life. We are – this is his most emphatic point – already machines of a kind, robots unaware of our own programming. Humanism will be replaced by Dataism; and if the humanist revolution made us masters the Dataist revolution will make us pets.

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The CIA reads French theory:
On the intellectual labor of dismantling the cultural left

Gabriel Rockhill, Philosophical Salon, 28 February 2017

The intelligence agency understands culture and theory to be crucial weapons in the overall arsenal it deploys to perpetuate US interests around the world. The recently released research paper from 1985, entitled ‘France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals,’ examines – undoubtedly in order to manipulate – the French intelligentsia and its fundamental role in shaping the trends that generate political policy. Suggesting that there has been a relative ideological balance between the left and the right in the history of the French intellectual world, the report highlights the monopoly of the left in the immediate postwar era – to which, we know, the Agency was rabidly opposed – due to the Communists’ key role in resisting fascism and ultimately winning the war against it. Although the right had been massively discredited because of its direct contribution to the Nazi death camps, as well as its overall xenophobic, anti-egalitarian and fascist agenda (according to the CIA’s own description), the unnamed secret agents who drafted the study outline with palpable delight the return of the right since approximately the early 1970s.

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More specifically, the undercover cultural warriors applaud what they see as a double movement that has contributed to the intelligentsia shifting its critical focus away from the US and toward the USSR. On the left, there was a gradual intellectual disaffection with Stalinism and Marxism, a progressive withdrawal of radical intellectuals from public debate, and a theoretical move away from socialism and the socialist party. Further to the right, the ideological opportunists referred to as the New Philosophers and the New Right intellectuals launched a high-profile media smear campaign against Marxism.

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The secret history of emotions
Lisa Feldman Barrett, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 March 2017

I turned to the work of luminaries in the field of emotion, including Charles Darwin and William James, that I’d last encountered in graduate school. This time around, rather than read bits and pieces or interpretations by other scholars, I pored over the original books in their entirety. They were eye-opening in ways I had not expected.

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First up was Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which has been lauded for more than a century for demonstrating that facial expressions are useful and functional products of natural selection. I was stunned to discover that the book says nothing of the sort. Natural selection is barely mentioned, and Darwin never claims that facial expressions are functional. Quite the opposite: He repeatedly calls them vestigial and ‘purposeless’! Virtually everyone in my field, for reasons unknown, was citing Darwin’s ideas on emotional expressions inaccurately.

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After Darwin, I reread William James, considered a father of modern psychology. James is widely known for saying that every type of emotion has a distinct fingerprint in the body. You can find this claim about James in undergraduate textbooks, in scholarly papers, and in best sellers. And yet, the more James I read in the original, the less plausible the claim became. A whole section in his classic Principles of Psychology, Volume 2, is titled ‘No Special Brain-Centres for Emotion’. And I kept encountering criticisms of the idea of emotion fingerprints, such as ‘ ’Fear’ of getting wet is not the same fear as fear of a bear’ (in ‘The Physical Basis of Emotion’). Ultimately, I discovered that James had been wildly misinterpreted. He never said that every type of emotion has a distinct bodily state. He said every instance of emotion may have a distinct bodily state — in other words, variety is the norm. That is the opposite of a fingerprint.

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Van Jones’ excellent metaphors
about the dangers of ideological safety

Jonathan Haidt & Van Jones, Heterodox Academy, 2 March 2017

I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different.

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I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym. You can’t live on a campus where people say stuff you don’t like?! And these people can’t fire you, they can’t arrest you, they can’t beat you up, they can just say stuff you don’t like- and you get to say stuff back- and this you cannot bear?! [audience applause]

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This is ridiculous BS liberals! My parents, and Monica Elizabeth Peak’s parents [points to someone in the audience and greets her] were marched, they dealt with fire hoses! They dealt with dogs! They dealt with beatings! You can’t deal with a mean tweet?! You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous. I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you in these communities.

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All too human
James Ryerson, New York Times, 6 March 2017

Scruton offers an analogy. Consider a painting – let’s say, the Mona Lisa. It is a physical object composed entirely of physical things: lines and fields of paint applied to a canvas. If you look at the painting, you see those physical things. But you also see something else: an image of a woman with an enigmatic expression on her face. This image is not an extra thing added to the lines and fields of paint. At the same time, it is something ‘over and above’ the paint: a likeness of Lisa Gherardini. While not every arrangement of paint gives rise to such images, those of a certain complexity do. Scruton is not suggesting that in those cases, some numinous entity – the image – is created; he is suggesting that a different way of seeing the lines and fields is available to us, a way of seeing that exposes us to a world beyond the one expressible by any purely physical description of paint.

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Similarly, Scruton contends, personhood is an ‘emergent’ property of a biological organism. The critical shift occurs when the organism is complex enough to become self-conscious, when it is capable of conceiving itself as an ‘I,’ and of grasping that other like-minded organisms also conceive of themselves this way. This is the human equivalent of the moment when the image of Lisa Gherardini arises from Leonardo’s paint: A new way of understanding ourselves and others like us comes into view. We become ‘persons,’ whose actions make sense in terms of things like reasons and obligations and free choice — a different order of explanation than biologists have recourse to when talking about instinctive animal behavior. Science can offer powerful accounts of the relations between organisms – between an ‘it’ and an ‘it’ – but it cannot capture the understanding of us as we understand each other: as between a ‘you’ and an ‘I.’ For Scruton, this marks a radical separation of us from the rest of the natural world.

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Aliens, anti-Semitism and academia
Landon Frim & Harrison Fluss, Jacobin, 11 March 2017

The alt-right will always outflank the postmodern left because, in the words of Mike Pence, the former are ‘coming home,’ while the latter are attempting to camp on alien territory. Jorjani’s book epitomizes this fact. Repeatedly, he uses leftist and progressive thinkers to make his own reactionary points. He can do so precisely because these thinkers have themselves imbibed Counter-Enlightenment thinking.

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Jorjani’s case is worth our attention precisely because it is not unique, but typical. His work is the predictable, nearly mechanical consequence of a longstanding intellectual retreat from the legacy of the Enlightenment.

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The importance of being Charlie
Naomi Firsht, spiked review, February 2017

Why does he think French satire is set apart from that of other countries? ‘Historically, drawings in the French press were really political, violent drawings. The first press drawings were in the small periodicals distributed before and during the French Revolution, so they were very violent drawings. And if you study the history of press drawings in France you will see that the caricatures are of an unbelievable violence, that even we wouldn’t publish today. When you look at the caricatures which were done at the time of the debate on the 1905 laïcité law, there was an impressive number of small anticlerical newspapers and periodicals which were publishing drawings… So there is this tradition which still exists.

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‘If you look a little at the way the Anglo-Saxon press drawings are constructed’, he continues, ‘very often they remain tied to the text. What’s important is the text. You have two or three people having a conversation in an office, or an exchange in a living room. In France, the drawings often have very little text, very little dialogue.’

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Biard believes the problem today is that people do not know how to read a drawing. ‘There is a paradox’, he says. ‘We live more than ever in a civilisation where everything is image, we are surrounded by images all the time. Yet, today, we don’t learn how to read them. We don’t know how to read an image. Nine tenths of people don’t know how to read them. I’m not even talking about drawings, but images. A drawing is even more difficult because it’s an expression. There is an individual behind the pencil who is expressing himself: there is a particular style; there is a tone; a context. Reading a press drawing, reading satire, means knowing; first of all, why?; in what context?; and following on from what?’ Little wonder, perhaps, that a special Charlie comic strip drawn in response to the critics of the Aylan cartoon reminds readers, ‘Don’t forget that your eyes are connected to your brain’.

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Between twin barbarisms
Shiraz Maher, New Statesman, 13 March 2017

The shifting dynamics of the war present a significant challenge for Syria’s beleaguered and dwindling revolutionaries, who find themselves caught between the twin barbarisms of Assad and the jihadist groups. Although there remains an alphabet soup of groups operating in Syria, few have any significance. In Idlib, the only groups realistically capable of commanding authority or administering rebel-held territory were JFS and Ahrar al-Sham. With the latter in free fall, it seems that the spoils will go exclusively to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

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This marks a dangerous pivot in the Syrian Revolution. The pragmatic aspects of the opposition are being overtaken by a bullish and avowedly jihadist movement that is not only dogmatic in its approach to scripture, but also not prepared to abide minorities. The ascendency of HTS heralds an end for the opposition’s backers in both the West and the Gulf, who will shy away from supporting an alliance that so brazenly incorporates a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Already, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have suspended support to moderate rebel groups, fearing that supplies will fall into the hands of extremists.

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There really was a liberal media bubble
Nate Silver, Five Thirty Eight, 10 March 2017

I recently reread James Surowiecki’s book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ which, despite its name, spends as much time contemplating the shortcomings of such wisdom as it does celebrating its successes. Surowiecki argues that crowds usually make good predictions when they satisfy these four conditions:

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1 Diversity of opinion. ‘Each person should have private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.’

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2 Independence. ‘People’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them.’

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3 Decentralization. ‘People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.’

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4Aggregation. ‘Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.’

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Political journalism scores highly on the fourth condition, aggregation. While Surowiecki usually has something like a financial or betting market in mind when he refers to ‘aggregation,’ the broader idea is that there’s some way for individuals to exchange their opinions instead of keeping them to themselves. And my gosh, do political journalists have a lot of ways to share their opinions with one another, whether through their columns, at major events such as the political conventions or, especially, through Twitter.

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But those other three conditions? Political journalism fails miserably along those dimensions.

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Mind over matter
Adam Frank, Aeon, 13 March 2017

When I was a young physics student I once asked a professor: ‘What’s an electron?’ His answer stunned me. ‘An electron,’ he said, ‘is that to which we attribute the properties of the electron.’ That vague, circular response was a long way from the dream that drove me into physics, a dream of theories that perfectly described reality. Like almost every student over the past 100 years, I was shocked by quantum mechanics, the physics of the micro-world. In place of a clear vision of little bits of matter that explain all the big things around us, quantum physics gives us a powerful yet seemly paradoxical calculus. With its emphasis on probability waves, essential uncertainties and experimenters disturbing the reality they seek to measure, quantum mechanics made imagining the stuff of the world as classical bits of matter (or miniature billiard balls) all but impossible.

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Like most physicists, I learned how to ignore the weirdness of quantum physics. ‘Shut up and calculate!’ (the dictum of the American physicist David Mermin) works fine if you are trying to get 100 per cent on your Advanced Quantum Theory homework or building a laser. But behind quantum mechanics’ unequaled calculational precision lie profound, stubbornly persistent questions about what those quantum rules imply about the nature of reality – including our place in it.

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How diverse Is African art?
A 54-volume encyclopedia will try for an answer

Ginanne Brownell Mitic, New York Times, 11 March 2017

‘I would go to the underground library vaults,’ Ms. Oforiatta-Ayim said, ‘and I would find theses that were so brilliant and interesting, and yet no one was looking at it and it is so valuable. I would get completely sidetracked reading about things like the technology of kente cloth. And at the same time I was also thinking that the narrative that is told about Africa is still the backward narrative: no innovation, it’s ahistorical and stuck. Yet with everything I was reading, it was stories of innovation, of knowledge, of technology.’

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The encyclopedia will consist of an open-source internet platform for documenting past, present and future African arts and culture (starting with Ghana) and eventually will be published in 54 volumes, one for each country. An ambitious undertaking, the Cultural Encyclopedia aims to change perceptions of the continent and help alleviate the frustration of African cultural producers concerned that their rich histories have been lost or forgotten over the decades because they lack good archives.

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Illiberal colleges: Pay more, get less (free speech)
Richard V Reeves & Dimitros Halikias,
Brookings Institute, 14 March 2017

One overlooked irony of the events at Middlebury is how they perfectly proved some of the points that Murray made in his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which he had been invited to discuss. The book documents the separation of a ‘new upper class’, raised in rich neighborhoods, immersed in liberal, cosmopolitan values, and educated at expensive, liberal universities. In other words, it profiles the students of Middlebury College.

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Middlebury’s students are among the richest and most privileged in America. The average enrollee comes from a household making a quarter of a million dollars a year, according to recent research on universities and social mobility. As many students at Middlebury come from the top 1% of households (23%) as come from the bottom four quintiles (24%). The annual cost of attending is almost $64,000 a year.

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The domination of elite institutions of higher education by the upper middle class is a big problem for social mobility, of course. It looks like it might be bad news for free speech, too…

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In the figure below, we plot every university in America based on the proportion of students from families with incomes in the top quintile (vertical axis) and from the bottom quintile (horizontal). Marked in red are the ‘disinvitation colleges’ described above. The pattern is clear: the more economically exclusive the institution, the more likely the students have attempted to hinder free speech.

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What does it mean to be human?
Gaia Vince, Mosaic, 7 March 2017

‘Then,’ says Eske, ‘we sequenced a hunter-gatherer from Spain, and he showed clear genetic resistance to a number of pathogens that he shouldn’t have been exposed to.’ Clearly, Europeans and other groups have a resistance that other groups don’t have, but is this really a result of the early agricultural revolution in Europe, or is something else going on?

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Eske’s analysis of people living 5,000 years ago has also revealed massive epidemics of plague in Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 years earlier than previously thought. Around 10 per cent of all skeletons the team analysed had evidence of plague. ‘Scandinavians and some northern Europeans have higher resistance to HIV than anywhere else in the world,’ Eske notes. ‘Our theory is that their HIV resistance is partly resistance towards plague.’

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It could be that the cultural changes we have made, such as farming and herding, have had less influence on our genes than we thought. Perhaps it is simply the randomness of genetic mutation that has instead changed our culture. There’s no doubt that where mutations have occurred and spread through our population, they have influenced the way we look, our health risks and what we can eat. My ancestors clearly didn’t stop evolving once they’d left Africa – we’re still evolving now – and they have left an intriguing trail in our genes.

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And then the strangest thing happened
Owen Hatherley, n+1, 6 March 2017

The first Curtis series I saw was 2002’s The Century of the Self. It is worth reminding Americans that at this point, British television was still dominated by five channels, so whatever was on could receive huge ratings and become a talking point in workplaces and playgrounds; you could also find yourself watching it by accident. Switching from the banal, ‘let me take you on a journey’ documentaries that dominated BBC2 or Channel 4 (the designated ‘sophisticated’ channels) to one of Curtis’s dizzying montages and complex arguments was an experience that could reassert your faith in television as a medium. This cast Curtis himself (along with Jonathan Meades, a very different figure of a similar age) as the last, delinquent heir of the project of patrician populism—the explaining of complex ideas to a mass audience—associated with its first director general John Reith (and generally known as Reithianism), upon which the BBC once prided itself. (The conservative Reith would have found Curtis a puzzling successor, but he might have noticed a kinship in both the seriousness with which Curtis approached concepts and histories and the disbelief in any autonomous action of ordinary people.)…

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What grates the most in the new, untrammelled, non-Reithian Adam Curtis – aside from the surely by now intentional, fan-pleasing self-parody – is the way he drifts over long images of destruction and horror, the victims (somehow more unnamed, more voiceless than ever before) exhumed, immolated, or tortured as Eno’s ‘On Some Faraway Beach’ plays yet again. If Curtis once appeared to want to explain late, neoliberal global capitalism and tell (always admittedly tendentious and picaresque) stories about ‘how we got here,’ by now he seems to be content with adding to the helplessness. Worst of all, he seems to be enjoying it.

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Denmark’s revived blasphemy ban
Jacob Mchangama, Index on Censorship, 10 March 2017

It would be wrong however, to suggest that Denmark has succumbed to the will of Islamists in particular, rather than to a loss of faith in free speech in general. Last year Parliament adopted a bill prohibiting ‘religious teachings’ that ‘expressly condone’ certain punishable acts and allows the government to maintain a dynamic list of ‘hate preachers’ barred from entering Denmark. These initiatives were the direct consequence of a documentary exposing radical imams in Danish mosques preaching that the punishment for adultery and apostasy is stoning. And the current government has also presented a bill that would criminalize the mere sharing of ‘terrorist propaganda’ online and allow the police to block access to websites containing criminal material such as terrorist propaganda or racist content. These developments signal a marked shift in the Danish approach to free speech.

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In the post-World War II era Denmark has with a few exceptions been a liberal democracy committed to the idea that freedom of expression was an essential tool in defeating extremism and totalitarian ideologies. But Denmark is turning towards a model of militant democracy where free speech is often seen as the problem rather than the solution, and as a hindrance rather than the foundation of social peace. The revival of the Danish blasphemy ban should therefore be seen in the wider context of a world where respect for freedom of expression is at its lowest level in 12 years, a development that has now affected even one of the global bastions and beacons of free speech.

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Magnetic hard drives go atomic
Elizabeth Gibney, Nature, 8 March 2017

Inside a regular hard drive is a disk split up into magnetized areas — each like a tiny bar magnet – the fields of which can point either up or down. Each direction represents a 1 or 0 – a unit of data known as a bit. The smaller the magnetized areas, the more densely data can be stored. But the magnetized regions must be stable, so that ‘1’s and ‘0’s inside the hard disk do not unintentionally switch.

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Current commercial bits comprise around 1 million atoms. But in experiments physicists have radically shrunk the number of atoms needed to store 1 bit – moving from 12 atoms in 20122 to now just one. Natterer and his team used atoms of holmium, a rare-earth metal, sitting on a sheet of magnesium oxide, at a temperature below 5 kelvin.

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Time for a more nuanced, fuller portrayal
of working-class voters

Robert Yates, Observer, 5 March 2017

One might also reflect that the term ‘white working class’ is overused, turning issues of class and economics into ones of race. In the interests of a fuller picture, it’s also worth noting that mixed-race is the fastest growing demographic category, and that the growth is largely among the working class.

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Then there is the question of values. The ‘left behind’ are, it’s said, profoundly at odds with liberal metropolitan types. In fact, this theory has now hardened into received wisdom if not established fact. So much so that within the Labour party – where any division of this sort could entail serious electoral consequences – a central debate of the past year has been how to reconcile the priorities of these two tribes. Here’s the thing, however. What if these divisions have been overplayed? Brexitland and Remainia, we’ve learned to recite, belong to different tribes, despite the referendum electoral map showing a patchwork quilt of results with most people living in places where the result was close. (And despite many, if not most, Labour supporters in Leave areas having voted Remain.)

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‘It is remarkable how much the ‘values division’ narrative has come to dominate,’ says Robert Ford, professor of political science at Manchester University. ‘Yes, there are differences in values, but they are not new, and they wax and wane.’ Ford is a particularly useful guide to this theme because he (alongside colleague Matthew Goodwin) led the way in detailing how working-class alienation from mainstream parties could boost Ukip. So if Ford says ‘steady on’, it’s worth listening. Ford also offers the essential reminder that politics is about the ‘mobilisation of conflicts’. That is, politicians, academics and journalists have chosen to run with the theme of a culture clash between the ‘metros’ and the rest. However, the evidence is there to sustain a very different call to arms. ‘There’s nothing in the data to suggest a leadership of common purpose across the classes could not be drummed up. No reason why you couldn’t have a Blair mark II,’ says Ford.

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Fighting words
John Fabian Witt, The Rambler, 6 March 2017

The ancient Greeks had no concept of civil war.  Thomas Hobbes’s translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War never once uses the term, and Armitage insists it is for good reason.  The loose network of city states of the Peloponnesus was not the kind of political unit that could sustain the sort of conflict that would later come to be known as civil war.  There was conflict, to be sure.  But without a ‘central organ’ commanding ‘a common obedience,’ as Armitage quotes the nineteenth-century English essayist Thomas De Quincy, internal Peloponnesian conflicts could not be civil wars.  Instead, the Greeks used the term stasis to describe the kinds of factional infighting that politics was meant to replace.  Stasis was not the same as civil war, however, for it was neither civil nor war.  It did not imply a form of political authority.  Nor did it require a kind of armed conflict rising to the level of warfare.  Stasis could be ‘a state of mind,’ Armitage says (38), and it could take place among families or private groups just as in cities.

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The ancient Greek case illustrates Armitage’s claim that civil war is contingent on a particular configuration of political authority.  Civil war, it seems, requires the kind of territorial political unit stitched together with enough central authority as to sustain an idea of collective political identity.

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It is no wonder, then, that the men who theorized the modern state form took up the question of civil war.  Hobbes saw civil war as the collapse back into the state of nature – the worst thing that could befall a form of government, Hobbes insisted, were the ‘miseries, and horrible calamities, that accompany a Civill Warre’. Locke, by contrast, assimilated the idea of civil war to the rebellions that extinguished one regime on the way to establishing a new one.

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Have we got Machiavelli all wrong?
Erica Benner, Guardian, 3 March 2017

Don’t judge by reputation or appearances. ‘Take nothing on authority.’ These are among Machiavelli’s less-known maxims, and we should apply them to his own words. If we look again at how he lived his life and how that life shaped his thoughts, it looks as if we’ve got Machiavelli all wrong.

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And it’s time we got him right, because no contemporary writer is a better guide to understanding and confronting our own political world. Both as secretary to the republic and through his writings – which include reams of poetry, risqué comedies and a quietly tragic history of Florence – he spent his life fighting to defend his city’s republican government against threats from within and without. It was a hard fight, with battles on many fronts. It took Machiavelli on a long journey across France with King Louis XII, and to the court of Cesare Borgia, where he spent nerve-racking months trying to dissuade the violent youth from attacking Florence.

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Machiavelli was convinced the real threats to freedom come from within – from gross inequalities on the one hand, and extreme partisanship on the other. He saw first-hand that authoritarian rule can take root and flourish in such conditions with terrifying ease, even in republics like Florence that had proud traditions of popular self-government.

2 comments

  1. As an unemployed builder’s labourer living in Dublin, I couldn’t agree more with Robert Yates’ views on the misunderstanding surrounding the motives of the ‘deplorables’ and the ‘left behind.’ The ‘values division’ is chronically overstated, but then that has been the case for a couple of generations now. I attended university in Australia for a couple of years in the mid 1980s, and even then I was struck by the determination of my lecturers to get me to think of literature as a code for oppression, regardless of what the literature ‘appeared’ to be about. Corrupt Western values were being peddled by dead white males, and it was up to the academy to protect us all from the ‘tyranny of the text.’ Above all, we were told, literature had an identity – the wrong identity – which made it necessary to dispense with the canon in favor of a less bigoted curriculum. I’d just arrived from Catholic Ireland, where people knew something about oppression, and had a nose for ideologues disguised as educators. The literature I was being instructed to interrogate and dismiss had saved my life in Ireland, and so when given the choice between dispensing with dead white males or dispensing with uni, I chose the latter. The experience of being coerced into thinking about the world and its people in a particularly proscribed way, complete with the endorsement of the academy, made my blood boil and I’ve been steaming ever since. I’ve befriended many beneficiaries of a university Arts degree over the years, and what has struck me about many of them is a reactionary objection to ‘Western’ values. Over time, that objection morphed into an unquestioning ‘respect’ for other cultures, until it finally became a kind of regurgitated romanticism in which the ‘other’ took the place of the old noble savage. Meanwhile I and my kind were coming under increasing scrutiny. Our words and gestures were scrutinized for the slightest trace of innuendo. And if none was found, an offence was attributed to us anyway, on the basis of our working class origins and the colour of our skin. The old charge damning all things Western was a little too broad for the new moral crusaders, who felt it implicated them in the very crimes they were determined to prevent. So they transferred all of the guilt for the West’s many sins onto us, and set about damning us accordingly. We were racists and xenophobes, whereas the other, who happened to be a paragon of virtue, was someone we supposedly despised. When I have pointed out that the other is also my workmate, lover, countryman and buddy, I’m told my claims make it obvious to those who understand such things that I am exactly what they suspect me of being – a mortal threat to the very existence of the other. When I point out that the other is an in-law, a counselor, a community activist and a team mate at the local pool hall, I’m studiously ignored as a spoofer. If I arrive with the other in tow, I get the impression that my illiberal friends feel an almost uncontrollable desire to take my sallow-skinned pal aside and tell her she’s making a terrible mistake. Since the crash, however, what was infuriating and ridiculous has become an outright prejudice – a class bigotry that wishes to see me and my kind suffer for our sins. When I say that we – and by that I mean all of my kind, black white and brindle – are finding it impossible to secure steady work at a decent rate of pay, and that unlimited immigration not only exacerbates this, but drives up rents in our neighbourhoods and puts tremendous strain on public services, I am dismissed outright as a racist, despite the fact that I am also speaking for many generations of immigrants who live and work side-by-side with me. The problem has become so bad, particularly in the Labour party, that the people I call my own have had to resort to voting for candidates they would never dream of voting for under other circumstances, simply to change their circumstances. They want to wreck a system that is wrecking them, and maligning them as racists in the process.

    Meanwhile, I and others like me continue to rankle our denouncers by reading the books we ought not to read, and loving the people we ought not to love. I sometimes wonder where it will all end.

  2. Van Jones saying “put on some boots” reminds me of Milton: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary.”

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