Ideas


John Gray writes on Malcolm Gladwell…Balls

Pretending to present daringly counterintuitive views to his readers, he actually strengthens the hold on them of a view of things that they have long taken for granted. This is, perhaps, the essence of the genre that Gladwell has pioneered: while reinforcing beliefs that everyone avows, he evokes in the reader a satisfying sensation of intellectual non-conformity.

Despite forming a culture that does not hesitate to exclude people for cleaving to marginal opinions, we like to think of ourselves as bold, independent thinkers, flouting dull conformism. We call ourselves democrats but we remember that cool kids never constituted a majority at school. To distinguish oneself as a thinker one has to be distinguishable.

This inspires two tendencies. Some people frame their unextraordinary opinions as being somehow radical. In his tribute to Norman Geras, Nick Cohen mentioned the “liberal consensus” against Western wars, as if Aaronovitch, Hari, Lloyd, Burchill, Wheen and so on were embattled dissidents.

Others form an instinctual aversion to accepting mainstream ideas. I have sympathy with this, because I think conventional wisdom can be very flawed, but the fact that humans live for as long as they do, in a world that is as productive as it is, suggests that some things have been proved. Unthinking opposition to the mainstream can lead one to accept ideas on the grounds of their alternative status rather than their epistemic value, as well as to limit one’s opinions by defining them according to what they contradict rather than what they promote.

In the spirit of avoiding such tiresome tendencies, I offer ten conventional opinions that I’m proud to hold…

1. Fascism and communism were very unpleasant things.

2. The Sopranos was a televisual masterpiece.

3. People would be healthier if they adopted Mediterranean diets.

4. Vaccines are worth getting.

5. Tony Blair was not a good Prime Minister.

6. The Earth is very old.

7. Ingmar Bergman was a genius.

8. Humanity should reduce its fossil fuel consumption.

9. OK Computer is a better album than Kid A.

10. Life is probably worth living.

Edmund BurkeNorman Tebbit’s intervention into the debate surrounding same-sex marriage has been met with little respect. “When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child,” he asks, could the product of a sperm donor be heir to the throne? One could point out that this hypothetical scenario seems rather ludicrous, but it also seems rather irrelevant: the same dilemma would arise should this sapphic sovereign be in a civil partnership.

What is interesting to me is that Norman Tebbit, that war horse of old Toryism, is phrasing his opinions in the terms of practicalities rather than of values. He, and others like him, are unable or unwilling to defend the virtues of the present but merely admonish us regarding hazards of the future. They caution against change, but give little sense of the value of conserving. This, it seems to me, has long been a problem for conservatives.

The strangest writing in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France come when the wise old Irishman begins to rhapsodise about Marie Antoinette: “the great lady” for whom “ten thousand swords [should] have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult”. Burke offers no reasons for admiring the Queen, and I cannot help wondering if he had thought his belief in the efficacy of institutions was too cerebral and that he had to promote not simply a belief in them but a love for them. This was not his strength.

Somewhat more recently, Ed West bid farewell to his Telegraph readers with a piece that revelled in its own miserabilism. “It’s my job as a conservative to depress you,” he said, for “conservatism is depressive realism”. “That’s not to say that things are always bad, or necessarily getting worse, but that there is a natural tendency among humans to ignore problems, and it’s our job to point this out”. I can’t help feeling that conservatives have done more than this or people would never have voted for the miserable sods.

I am not questioning West’s belief in the value of grim scepticism. To the extent that I am a conservative at all it is largely because, after years of indulging pleasant ideas about the world, and often being startlingly rude to people who cast doubt upon them, I have concluded that many of the world’s blessings are fragile and many of our attempts to multiply them are dangerous. Yet this does not make me much of a conservative because when I foresee no baneful consequences from the collapse of this or that institution I have little cause to spring to its defence.

It was simpler when everybody was religious, and believed that society functioned in accordance with God’s will. If something was alright with the man upstairs, people believed, it was alright with them. Being deprived of the language of religion made it hard for conservatives to articulate their values to themselves, never mind to other people. Once can see this in the prose of Mencken, who disliked change but did not seem especially fond of the present.

Leftism has few such problems. It offers the marquee attractions of faith in its ideas of progress towards an Edenic future, and of malicious forces that attempt to obstruct the path. Conservatives, though, tend to offer grievances and fear. This can be uninspiring at the best of times, and when they have no substantive cause for either in opposing change they seem peculiar.

This is not to imply that they heartless brutes. (Or, at least, that many of them are.) Pessimists tend to value a great deal. The primary reason that I have for fearing threats is that they might deprive me and others the things I treasure: freedom, peace and that which appears to be beautiful. Yet, as an agnostic mired in a swamp of subjectivity, I have no clear sense of the kind of society that it is right to inhabit. I’m not saying that one should be thrown together, as that would be like trying to build Rome over lunch, but without expressing what it is good as well as what is worrying conservatives are doomed to failure, as they are going up against teams of designers and marketers with no one but risk managers.

Chomsky Rand HitchensI have joked that the esteem in which Conservatives hold Christopher Hitchens shows that they prioritise waging war over loving God and opposing communism. As elegant a phrase to illustrate the strangeness of the reverence “decent leftists” extend towards him escapes me but, still, find someone else who has called David Irving “a great historian”, defended Chomsky over Cambodia and praised Lenin’s evisceration of the Russian church and they will treat them to a verbal barrage that would make a victim of the stocks feel privileged.

To explain this one has to consider more than Hitchens’ opinions. There are some theorists and commentators who inspire an admiration that transcends the intellectual. Such people are important to some of their admirers not merely for their ideas but for their personalities. Their esteem for them is important for their self-images and, thus, to criticise their heroes is to criticise them. Other examples might be Ayn Rand and Noam Chomsky.

The relationship is somewhat akin to that of a general and his men, in which devotion is inspired more by his character than his achievements or his cause and the nature of a battle is of less importance than the thrill of conflict. There are certain features that distinguish commentators who are liable to attain the status of guiding lights. They have individual characteristics that make them attractive to people – Hitchens, for example, provokes a desire to share a liquid lunch with him while Rand was no one’s idea of a drinking buddy – but these are the essential requirements.

1. Such commentators must have devoted critics. People love to feel as if they are engaged in some form of conflict and rally behind embattled commentators like troops behind officers in the field.

2. Such commentators must be disdainful of orthodoxies. Everybody wants to feel as if they are the underdog and, thus, admire people whose enemies appear to be powerful, and everybody wants to support a righteous cause and, thus, esteem people whose foes appear to be base, backward and dull-minded. Commentators who attain the status of authorities are thus seen to oppose influential but malignant and contemptible forces. The disdain, of course, is the crucial part of this requirement and the orthodoxies need only be perceived.

3. Much as people like to have the underdog status they have to feel as if they will be triumphant nonetheless. They have to feel, in other words, as if they are right. Commentators that people admire, then, are characterised by their rhetorical force: the assurance of their words and the argumentative force that they are thought to carry. Hitchens achieved this with his linguistic dexterity; Rand with her inventive logic and Chomsky with his daunting concentration of facts. This makes them equivalent to the warrior common soldiers believe that their enemies quake to imagine.

4. Such commentators have strong personalities and romantic images. Most of us suffer from self-doubt and fear of the perceptions of others, so the commentators we admire, different as they are, are often noted by their self-assurance and failure to give a damn about how they’re perceived. They also tend to have a bearing that distinguishes from the common man. Hitchens’ was the straightforwardly macho image of the hard-drinking, argumentative alpha male while Chomsky’s is of the frail and mild-mannered professor who can nonetheless take on a military empire. These backstories make them fitting heroes for internal narratives.

You will have noted that it is not essential for them to have intellectual substance or integrity. They might do, of course, but should they lack them it will not preclude the admiration of readers and listeners. Our thinking is as much on behalf of our ego as our intellect, and should you find that someone you admire is noted for these features it is worth reflecting on the cause you march for and your tactics as the banner you stride beneath.

Edmund BurkeMaria Bustillos has written a nice piece for The New Yorker on reading writers that you tend to disagree with…

Reading Burke, or any great polemicist, is a challenging test of one’s own intellectual swordsmanship. There is, or can be, a certain violence, even danger, in the clash of ideas. But I like to think that those hard-fought glimpses of understanding between ourselves and our rhetorical opponents open up the possibility of progress.

One of my healthier inclinations is towards exploring ideas that contradict my opinions. Had I been parochial enough to exclude myself to those who shared my prejudices I might still being waffling on about “intervention” and “conspiracy theorists”, or, indeed, “Islamophobia” and “Richard Littlejohn”.

These days I read people who include liberals, socialists, libertarians, reactionaries, sceptics, paranormalists, Christians, atheists, Islamic apologists, genetic determinists, vegans and Guardian columnists. Reading people with whom you have disagreed exposes you to data and analyses that test your preconceptions, and it is also a lot of fun. It can become a more active and enlightening experience than reading someone describe the view from your own window.

This could sound like a boastful assertion of my open-mindedness but it is not. One can read an argument that contradicts one’s prejudices yet be so biased against it that one need not have. An important point is that one must not approach the arguments with the expectation of their being incorrect but of their contradicting one’s preconceptions. The former attitude will ensure that one’s cognitive biases will do the rest of the work in dismissing them and the exersize will not transcend the anthropological. The latter, with its admission of the fallibility of one’s own ideas, creates room for intellectual contestation.

One must also be wary of the grounds on which one dismisses an idea. Is it because it is untrue or wicked or is it because it has been obstructed by a deeper layer of one’s prejudices? A Christian might reject an idea for being un-Christian, or a liberal might disdain an idea for being illiberal, yet they must first ask themselves if their religious and ideological premises are so firmly grounded that such objections have merit. It is hard to appreciate new intellectual terrain if one has yet to remove one’s tinted spectacles.

It is also worth ensuring that the thinkers whose ideas you choose to explore are not merely those people who your culture has designated as your ideological foes. A left-winger might think they are being open-minded in reading Toby Young, say, and a right-winger might assume they are being adventurous in reading Tanya Gold, but these tend to be court jesters of societies, arguing more for its amusement than its elucidation. It is worth venturing further into the territories of one’s supposed opponents: where the landscape is stranger and the beasts than one encounters seem more formidable yet also more fascinating.

HandsPosts in which bloggers write as if dictating a new weltanschauung to obedient masses are generally popular with no one but themselves. Parents fear that kids play Grand Theft Auto and become violent thugs and readers fear that bloggers will study Hayek, Rawls and Badiou and start behaving as if they have keys to the future. Still, a couple of posts ago I mentioned being a “nonegalitarian leftist”. I do not claim to be a member of any section of “the left” as it exists as a real world force, still less a representative of any of them, but I thought I would write a few notes on where I stand in relation to it on this issue.

Contemporary socialists and liberals often believe that egalitarianism is not just an ambition to be sought but a fact that underpins our existence, and presume that variations in behaviour and abilities are consequences of our environments alone. Owen Jones, for example, calls the notion that genetics play a role in determining one’s intelligence “poison”. Well, it appears to be true – as confirmed, in recent times, by Professor Ian Deary and his colleagues. [This was an unfair reading of Jones, as acknowledged here.]

This can be hard to swallow. The Marxist philosopher Nina Power has claimed that the idea that “everyone is equally intelligent” is “something to be presupposed”. No, it isn’t. No more than the age of the universe or chemical structure of plants. The question demands evidence and the evidence we have suggests that we are born no more equal in our cognitive abilities as in, say, our athletic talents. It is hard to stomach bright-eyed disregard for this when I think of poor kids twiddling their thumbs through bottom set algebra lessons; deprived of the skills they could have put to use in adulthood and left with the impression that their being unsuited to an academic education marks them out as failures.

Despite attributing massive differences between people to environmental circumstances, liberals and socialists often behave as if peoples in vastly different circumstances are pretty much the same. On an international scale, one sees an odd form of egalitarianism in the idea, expressed after every revolution and before every war, that there are frustrated democrats and liberals within all people of the world. That they so often elect authoritarians; give up their voting rights and offer fantastically illiberal views to pollsters must baffle these universalists. Once you have grasped that people raised in very different cultural environments are hardly liable to arrive at the same values and, thus, adopt the same ambitions, though, it makes a lot of sense.

This also has implications for the modern ardency for multiculturalism. People with different allegiances and ambitions are liable to find it hard or impossible to get on with one another. This can be appreciated if one considers the segregation of different communities within multicultural nations, or the discord that erupts when their values and, indeed, persons collide.

The left-wing belief in the need to establish the equality that they can believe we are equipped for has been energised in recent times by The Spirit Level - a book that argued that inequality is at the root of myriad societal ills. I think their enduring attachment to this work is illustrative of ideological biases, given not only the incisive criticisms of right-wing attack dogs but the measured disapproval of left-leaning sociologists like John Goldthorpe, who says he “read through the book [with] increasing dismay”, and Colin Mills, who judged that the authors “appear not to be playing it straight with [their] readers”. This is not to say that inequalities are not sometimes unjustifiable and ameliorable but that I see little evidence to prop up the belief that material inequality is the pervasive deleterious force that it is held to be.

Yet I still feel inclined towards values and policies that I associate with left-wing politics. Firstly as bright people starved of resources and attention need access to both if their potential is going to flourish; secondly as less bright but still industrious and emotional human beings do not deserve hardship on the basis of their being less gifted and thirdly as the very rich are liable to exploit and embezzle us quite regardless of our personal traits. Equality, however, while desirable and attainable in some areas of life, is not a value that is fundamental to my beliefs. It can be impossible to realise quite regardless of its hypothetical appeal, and thus the struggle to achieve it can inhibit efforts to conserve and improve.

Paul Berman devotes much of this essay on the “Arab Spring” to his favourite subject: the faults of intellectuals – unnamed, always unnamed – who criticise his view that terrorism can be rooted in its actors’ Islamic views. Funnily enough, writers to his left spend a lot of time griping about people who criticise the view that terrorism can be rooted in the woes of people on the wrong end of Western imperialism. Is this so complicated? They’re both true! Ideas of jihad against the kufr have inspired people, yes, but invasions, bombing and the like have been a great recruitment tool: they make others think, “Perhaps these “kufr” types are as bad as they’re cracked up to be”. Of course, this poses other, far more complicated problems – which ideas these are and how widely they’ve been disseminated; which actions provoke such a response – but if people are unwilling to accept that much I’m inclined to think they’re looking for a fight.

Still, Berman has – right up to his wearisome attempt to coax Obama into starting more, entirely ambiguous, conflict in the Middle East – the germ of a point: that people split between highlighting material and ideological conditions underlying people’s deeds. But, again, I’m not entirely sure what the problem is: it’s a false dichotomy. (I’ll admit a prejudice I hope I’ve restrained – whenever intellectual speak about the power of ideas it makes them sound like pharmacists lauding anti-depressants. I know that’s unfair.) The power of ideas lies in their ability to meet people’s desires and answer their frustrations; these can be material – so, revolutionary ideas flourish among starving folk – or, for want of a better term, spiritual – so, people hunger for identity; belonging; purpose. These factors determine the kinds of ideas people will be receptive to.  If you want to promote or oppose beliefs, then, you’re obliged to meet the greatest desires of the most people. To that extent, depressingly, one of the greatest talents that an intellectual can have is in marketing.

According to the NYT, a book by Emmanuel Faye – Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy…

…calls on philosophy professors to treat Heidegger’s writings like hate speech. Libraries, too, should stop classifying Heidegger’s collected works (which have been sanitized and abridged by his family) as philosophy and instead include them under the history of Nazism. These measures would function as a warning label, like a skull-and-crossbones on a bottle of poison, to prevent the careless spread of his most odious ideas, which Mr. Faye lists as the exaltation of the state over the individual, the impossibility of morality, anti-humanism and racial purity.

Three points while I mull this over…

1. If our minds are so flimsy and impressionable that we can’t assess a philosopher’s work without being steered to a foregone conclusion, philosophy itself is a worthless task. Clearly, we’re idiots!

2. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper argued that totalitarianism is rooted in Plato and Aristotle. Were Faye to accept this, would he call for their delegitimising too? What of Marx? Nietzsche? The whole darn Bible? All these works, if interpreted rashly, could lead one to destructive acts. Ring-fencing any idea with such tenuous potential, though, would represent and inspire more philistinism, officiousness and closed-minded skulduggery than yer average dictatorship.

3. Can I still read Heidegger in the pub, or does it lead to passive anti-humanism?

[H/t]

Well, I may as well face up to it: I’m blogging about blogging. Oh, the shame; the humiliation; the irony of doing so while railing against parochialism. Still, I’ve started so I’ll finish.

Yesterday’s notes were part-inspired by a comment from my fine comrade Naadir Jeewa

By the time a “consumer” starts getting interested in blogs, they’re likely to have already sorted themselves into an ideological camp. They’ll then seek blogs that tend to fit round their worldview. And yes, this can lead to “echo chambers” on either side.

This surprised me, but it really shouldn’t have. How many people, after all, buy newspapers they disagree with? Aside from the community one finds in comment threads, these “ideological camps” provide a rich source of affirmation. That, however, closets you. The only way that I, for one, will break my flabby mindset – sinking into comfortable opinions, as if they were recliners – is by immersing myself in views; coming to terms with their nuances and, if it’s deserved, learning to respect their adherents. Anyway, tedious navel-gazing aside, it’s a great, big world out there: exploring it is a lark.

Here, then, are interesting blogs that don’t “fit around my worldview” (needless to say, a link doesn’t necessarily represent an endorsement)…

HitchensBlog All that a commentator should be: stimulating, honest, independent and sincere. Yeah, his views often tickle my bile-duct but, in the end, what does that matter? Would love to meet him. Feel sorry for calling him an arse.

Edward Feser/Alexander Pruss/the Maverick Philosopher – These guys, fine Americans all, are also a) Catholic and b) conservative. Other traits they share – more congenial, I suspect, to our tastes – are keen wit, curiosity and perspicacious arguments. I’ve packed them all together, but this is really a three-course meal: Feser gives meaty but accessible thoughts; Pruss is intensely analytical (and, I must admit, often beyond me), while Bill Vallicella plucks out fascinating little nuggets from the sweep of man and its thought. Sure, they might piss you off, but you’ll feel better off for the…pissing.

Kevin Carson/Centre for a Stateless Society – I don’t really disagree with Carson and the merry market anarchists of the C4SS. They’ve yet to convince me, and the whole thing feels a mite utopian, but, hey, they’re all much brighter than I, so who can tell? Co-operative anti-statism, however, is tailor-made for my ideological sympathies, so I shouldn’t throw in my spade and tracts until I’m really convinced. Carson’s put out reams of word – on theory and current affairs – so you’re advised to wade in and have a decent rummage.

Entitled To An Opinion – Haven’t figured out where this improbably pseudonymed fellow sits, but he’ll trudge with you along the darkest, least explored tracks of opinion. A guided tour of the political fringe.

Dennis the Peasant - A Republican who does little but bitch about bloggers he finds inane. Funny bitching, though.

Sean GabbNot a blog, but an archive for this erudite libertarian’s work. He’s been mining away so fruitlessly in a little, stateless seam of thought that his candor’s hard to doubt. Also, there’s something strangely appealing about the archives of fringe thinkers. Digging in is like diving head first into a swimming pool (yes, yes, I’m sad, we established that long ago).

Antinatalism: The Greatest Tabboo – Every now and again we should all confront a philosophy that shakes up our worldview. Antinatalism – asserting the negative value of birth – might as well be your next. Instead of the blog – which I’m barely aquainted with – you could try this for size intellectual stimulation.

A question occurs: are any of the valued, happy (I hope!) few that read this site conservative? Liberal interventionists, maybe? Even downright fascists? I’d be very interested to know.

So, there’s this lil’ ol’ blog called Little Green Footballs, and…What’s that? You’ve heard of it? Oh, hey! Small world.

Anyway, its creator – one Charles Johnson – used to delve through anti-war protests, rooting up extremists and decrying the “Loony Left”. Then, about a year ago, he flipped: nowadays he spends his time scouring Tea Parties for racists and bitching about the Right. Now, I’ve no beef with people changing their minds. Heck, how could I? I’ve changed mine so often it’s a standing example to knock Theseus’s ship from the water. I don’t have much sympathy for Johnson, though. Firstly, rather than discussing the nastier, venomous stuff he pumped out in the Bush years, he gave it a hoof beneath the carpet. Secondly, doesn’t the guy get bored? For nine years he’s rooted through the world of politics, spraying his spittle over the disfigured nuggets that he’s plucked out. Hey, I don’t want to moralise – whatever gets your soul through existence – but it seems like going to Venice and having a fit over a lone, floating condom.

It’s clear why Johnson does it, of course. It brought him readers. Recognition. Something to do with his time.

This may look like I’m blogging about blogging, by the way. I’m not. I’m blogging about thought, rhetoric and self-construction. On blogs. So, yeah – I guess it’s about blogging, too. Wat-eva. Thing is, lots of people – with none of Johnson’s incentives – spend their time condemning obscure racists; or passing on their party’s soundbites; or analysing statements for offensiveness. Heck, take me: you’re reading a guy who spent time – valuable, free time – fisking a Sarah Palin speech. Who chewed yards of a comment thread comparing, and denouncing, the “insensitive” words of Bozza and Ken. (Christ, I wish that time had a returns policy.) With the yawning expanse of existence – dark as it is – it’s depressing that I – and, less viscerally, others – coop their minds up with this junk. The road to enlightenment doesn’t stop at the edge of one’s tribal territory, it winds off into all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies. That’s the fun of it, in fact; unless you think there’s a destination.

That’s why I tut, and frown, and purse my lips when I come across stuff like this…

I’m sick of opinion blogging. Everyone has an opinion and frankly it all gets very repetitive eventually. Plus, lefties love writing long articles when a short, punchy one-liner will do.

There are two kinds of content I believe will be key to the success of political blogging: news and analysis.

Basically, more political strategy. We seem to be churning out a lot of thoughts on what we hate or like but having very little discussion of the mechanisms or process that’s required in order to get there.

Argh! No! This could only make the whole thing tiresome. Fresh, ripe young bloggers will become entrenched: their hand-me-down views never challenged or even explored. The vast sweep of human knowledge, and the murky, less travelled lands beyond, will become reduced to dark, cloistered suburbs, and they’ll dwell, stultified, bitching about the folks across the road. Oh, reader, I’ve been that future and it’s fucking tedious.

Still, in fairness to Sunny, he’s trying to put together a movement. Movements need to be unified, not divided; they call for certitude, and would become disfigured by ambiguity. That, I think, is a split in our delightfully nebulous ‘sphere: the progs (building up, or tearing down) and the clogs (as in “clever”, or thick, dull and wooden). I’ll stop there: you know you’re a poor advert for unbound curiosity when you begin to sound like Malcolm-bleeding-Gladwell.

P.S. As this is a post that’s kind of on blogging, I’ll take the opportunity to publically apologise to Peter Hitchens. That is all.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 164 other followers