RagefaceScott Alexander writes on the intellectual equivalent of trying to pick on the shortest kid in the playground…

What annoys me about the people who harp on moon-hoaxing and homeopathy – without any interest in the rest of medicine or space history – is that it seems like an attempt to Other irrationality.

(yes, I did just use “other” as a verb. Maybe I’ve been hanging around Continental types too much lately.)

It’s saying “Look, over here! It’s irrational people, believing things that we can instantly dismiss as dumb. Things we feel no temptation, not one bit, to believe. It must be that they are defective and we are rational.”

This reminded me of Michael Oakeshott’s assessment of Thomas Hobbes…

[B]rilliance in controversy is a corrupting accomplishment…Like many controversialists, he hated error more than he loved truth, and came to depend overmuch on the stimulus of opposition.

Our relationship with error is love-hate. We disdain mistruths, and dislike misdeeds, but there is an extent to which they are rewarding. We would not read half the columnists we do if this were not the case. To criticise, of course, is entertaining. Comedians joke about things that annoy them, not about things they admire, for it is easier to be amusing in a state of disgust than of enthusiasm. It is also attractive as a means of affirmation. We enjoy flaunting our superiority, for the sake of our egos or the benefit of onlookers.

To defend something as true or virtuous is more difficult. Theories are destroyed with greater ease than they are constructed – and in an age in which the truth is seen as being the preserve of the natural sciences this is especially true of ethical and cultural ideas. Moreover, enthusiasm can be humiliating in that it exposes more of oneself than disdain. Thus, I think that modern Westerners often define themselves far less by their beliefs than the beliefs of their opponents. Liberals and leftists might not have a good idea of how progress will appear but, by God, they are not like readers of the Daily Mail. Conservatives might have little idea of what to conserve but, by God, they are not like readers of the Guardian.

There is always a need for opposition. Grave harm is done by people with sincere and passionate beliefs. To resist, however, has defensive implications. There must be something of value that is under threat. Until one has something to value one has little idea of what to resist. Without it one’s pleasures are as idle as those of wannabe Carl Sagans ragging on creationists.

ConfederadosLearning about the American Civil War, it seems amazing that the nation could be as united as it is. If Southerners had wanted to secede before it had begun you would think that a long and bloody conflict would have made them more rather than less resentful, and I am sure there are Yankees who asked themselves why had they wanted to have rebs as their compatriots in the first place. Well, somehow a lot of people transcended their grievances. Not everyone, though. Some took up their sewing kits and formed the Ku Klux Klan. Others packed their bags.

Many Southerners decided not to be a part of the new America. Some were dispersed throughout Mexico, but up to ten thousand went further, accepting an invitation from Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil. The “Confederados” often returned, either displeased with their treatment further south than Alabama or pining for their homeland, but many stayed. Though cultural relics in the United States, they were symbolic of progress in Brazil…

The most important contributions the Americans made to Brazil were in agriculture (the steel plows they brought were superior to what most Brazilian farmers were using at the time), education (they founded schools based on a spirit of free inquiry), and religion (they were the first indigenous Protestant community). So it was that in the 1870s and 1880s republicans who wanted to abolish the Brazilian monarchy, end slavery, and separate church from state took up the cause of the Confederados, promoting them not as refugees from a conservative, slave-owning society but as representatives of advanced, liberal, democratic America.

The Confederados formed a strange little community, in which their traditional Southern attachments were blended with the culture of Brazil.

Passing by the graves of the [Confederado chapel], Nancy Padovesc makes a sweeping motion with her arm and says, “São todos teimosos” (they were all stubborn).

The [chapel], shaded by palm and ficus trees, sits in the middle of rolling fields of sugar cane. [It] is a simple red-brick building. Its spare interior—white walls, wooden pews—has just two adornments, a cross and a large portrait of Robert E. Lee. Religious services are held at the quarterly picnics; according to the Associação bylaws, services must be in one of the faiths of the original settlers—Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist. In front of the church a white stone obelisk rises from a granite base that bears the Confederate battle flag and the names of ninety-six families—names like Bookwalter and Carr, Dumas and Kennedy, Trigg and Yancey—that made the long journey.

One can only imagine what General Lee would have thought of being paid tribute to, in Brazilian, by people with names like De Muzio.

Such hybrid cultures are, of course, becoming common in a globalising world. These Confederates were ahead of their time. There can be sadness in dislocation, and danger in adjacency, but it is fascinating how traditions have been strewn across the globe: cropping up in the oddest of places. Are there Basque separatists in Britain? Irish Republicans in Iceland? Cornish nationalists in Spain?

I have been watching Ken Burns’ fine documentary series on the American Civil War. At present I would like to focus on something that might seem trivial: the faces of the gentlemen involved. Both the Unionist and Confederate leaders had, in my opinion, most distinguished features. Take Abraham Lincoln. Here is not a man that observers would think handsome, perhaps, but in his stiff jaw and steady gaze is character. This is the face of a man haunted by a thousand solemnities and occupied with deep reflection.

Lincoln

Robert E. Lee had the face of a sober man as well. Here, his mind seems to be elsewhere as the photo is taken.Robert E LeeThe question that occurred to me is how politicians evolved from this to this.

ChristieAs can be appreciated in this montage of American presidents throughout the ages, a goofball tendency became ubiquitous. Statesmen feel a strange compulsion to display their teeth to the world, as if to prove the scrupulousness of their dental hygiene.

presidentsI am not suggesting that appearance need be a reflection of character – and, indeed, I doubt the significance of the character of the figurehead of the state. Yet I find it interesting that the grim demeanour of the politicians of old has been replaced by all this mateyness. In an age of public relations I suppose these men are desperate to appear “relatable” to voters. Me, if I am biased at all it is towards the solemn. Politics is not a cheerful business but a frightening and bleak affair concerned with the lives and deaths of millions. A good man inside the Oval Office would be wracked with stress and sorrow of dreadful proportions.

Limp BizkitIt is strange to look back now, in 2018, to a time before nu-metal. The seeds of the genre had been planted before, of course, in KoЯn’s Life is Peachy and Limp Bizkit’s Three Dollar Bill, Y’all, but it truly flourished once the former’s Follow the Leader hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1998. Its unique amalgamation of heavy metal stylings with grunge riffs and hip hop beats became the soundtrack of a new generation of young, disaffected and energetic listeners who moshed their way into the public consciousness in a haze of cargo pants and hoodies.

It was a cultural revolution. Now, of course, one takes for granted collaborations between stars of rock and rap, but when Ice Cube was dropping rhymes with KoЯn’s Jonathan Davis, and Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre were appearing with Limp Bizkit, it was groundbreaking. The snobs might scoff but it was nu-metal that helped white America to love urban music. Without Fred Durst, could we have ever had Eminem? It is a sobering thought.

The lyrics of the genre were confrontational: expressing rage towards parents, women, peers, politicians, women, religion, women, teachers, women, women and women. Some may write this off as empty whining from overgrown adolescents in jean shorts but a more nuanced understanding reveals it to have been an assertion of existential pessimism that maintains that in an age of secular consumerism there is no point in transcending the habits of one’s youth.

Seen in this light, sentiments such as those of Limp Bizkit’s Break Stuff posed a radical challenge to both the social and philosophical values of the time. The optimism of the decade was giving way to the fears and frustrations of the noughties, and nu-metal acts were sounding the alarm. Now, as Prime Minister Cameron and President Clinton meet to discuss to crisis talks with the Chinese president, one can only wish that more had heeded their concerns that everything was fucked up and everybody sucked. I for one will take my baseball cap off to them.

MurderThe UN has issued a report on the 437,000 murders carried out around the world in 2013. It is daunting to see how many lives are snatched away on some areas of the globe. In Honduras, for example, more than one in 300 men between the ages of 30 and 44 were killed. Men, indeed, were far likelier to be slain than women, though this had a lot to do with banditry and gangsterism and was not always the case in nations that are safe from them.

One’s chances of being killed in Britain are far less significant than in South America. About one in 100,000 Britons are murdered (though, of course, it would be higher without our first world standards of medical treatment).

Thoughts of being killed probably take up more space in our brains than the risk suggests that it should. I suspect this is at least in part due to our judging the threat not merely by the likelihood of meeting killers but the ease with which it seems that one could kill. I remember standing in a tube station, near the yellow lines than run along the edge of the platform. It occurred to me that if a madman happened to be near, it would be a cinch to dart forward and shove me onto the tracks. Such thoughts are no more regular than thoughts of D.H. Lawrence and Ultimate Frisbee but the point is that our fears are not dependent on the statistical likelihood of events so much as the ease with which they can be imagined. We tend not discuss them in such terms, of course, but perhaps we don’t want to give people ideas.

ExplanationEdward Feser, the Catholic philosopher, has issued a stirring call for analytic seriousness from apologists, who are liable to defend religion on every basis except that of its truth claims. He quotes the philosopher John Searle, from his book Mind, Language, and Society

I believe that something much more radical than a decline in religious faith has taken place. For us, the educated members of society, the world has become demystified… The result of this demystification is that we have gone beyond atheism to a point where the issue no longer matters in the way it did to earlier generations…

As an agnostic, I maintain that our existence – and, indeed, existence itself – is still haunted by mysteries. Here are just a few problems that, I think, have yet to be resolved…

Consciousness – Explaining consciousness is so difficult that it has been known as the hard problem. Consciousness, indeed, remains so mysterious that it spawned an idea named mysterianism, according to which it cannot be explained. Intelligent men would disagree, of course, but it would take a great deal of chutzpah to claim that the argument has been won.

Abiogenesis – Almost everyone agrees that man evolved from other life forms – hominids, early primates and mysterious beings who dwelled in the primordial ooze. How, though, did life forms begin? The process by which life itself arose from non-living matter is mysterious. Robert Hazen, an expert in Earth Science, has claimed that while ingredients for life may have existed, how they were selected, concentrated and assembled into a lifelike self-replicating system is a “huge mystery”.

Existence – Lawrence Krauss, of course, claimed to have answered the question of how something came from nothing with his theory that matter arose from a vacuum. Where, though, one is then inspired to think, did the laws of quantum physics spring from? Perhaps nowhere, but the thought deserves more than the assumption that they were just there, hanging around, before unleashing the potential of the universe.

Metaphysics – Searle, of course, is far more intelligent than myself. He knows that all of these questions are hard to answer. What he means is not that all problems have been adequately explained but that our means for explaining the unknown do not require a Godlike being. This may be true. At the least, though, the limits of our ability to explain them through materialistic means is controversial. Thomas Nagel has famously rejected the idea, and Raymond Tallis has argued that science is in a “metaphysical mess and needs help” – “a job for a philosophy not yet dead”. Others would disagree, of course, but it remains true that the extent to which metaphysical concepts are required to explain the mysteries of the universe is a relevant question for debate. If Aristotelean ideas are to be given credence I do not think it makes sense to attempt to eject God from the room.

JebAmerican politics is unenlightening but often humorous. The 2016 election campaign is two years away yet it has already become a source of laughs. The favourite for the Democratic candidacy is the female representative of the Clintons. A potential contender for the Republican nomination, meanwhile, is the younger brother of George W. Bush. Bush versus Clinton? In 2016? By God, how can anyone say that without laughing? Why not throw in a Kennedy while you’re at it? True, one must acknowledge that talents can run in families, and that being close to power might teach one how to cope with it, but we are speaking of the Bushes here, not the Wright Brothers. I’d prefer an institutionalised aristocracy. At the very least, it would allow one to be honest.

TurnerA few days ago, I made an unpleasant discovery. Sussex County Cricket Club plays at a venue named the BrightonandHoveJobs.com County Ground. Roll that about your tongue. The BrightonandHoveJobs.com County Ground. Lords. Edgbaston. The Oval. The BrightonandHoveJobs.com County Ground. The BHJ? No, that sounds boring. The Com? No. Just no. I am not ignorant the fact that without sponsorship cricket grounds would soon be car parks, and that corporate sponsorship exists in exchange for advertising, but it remains startling in its ugliness. Even if one accepts the fact of capitalism one must resist its more degrading tendencies. (Picture: Press Association.)

UpdikeThe publication of a biography of John Updike has prompted questions as to how the poet of the American bourgeois will be remembered. Updike’s legacy, as with Roth’s, and quite a large proportion of twenty-first century art, depends on the extent to which the thoughts of our descendants are occupied by their sex drives. If they share the fixation on the male genitals and their accompanying neuroses, they will find these men and their literature enlightening. If their priorities have evolved I suspect they will be of largely historical and anthropological interest. (Picture: Justin Williams/Rex Features/Everett Collection)

 

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