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‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’


nbcnightlynews: BREAKING: “Make our planet great again,”...

Thu, 01 Jun 2017 21:03:49 -0400


BREAKING: “Make our planet great again,” French Pres. Macron says in English as he rejects Pres. Trump’s assertion that the Paris climate agreement may be renegotiated – and calls the US president’s decision to withdraw from the agreement a “mistake.“ 

Pres. Macron also called on scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, "responsible citizens” in US, who are disappointed by Pres. Trump’s decision, to come and work in France.

More reactions:

• France, Germany, Italy say Paris climate agreement can’t be renegotiated, rejecting Pres. Trump’s assertion: “the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies. ”

• Canadian PM Trudeau: “We are deeply disappointed” by Pres. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

• UN: Pres. Trump’s decision is “major disappointment for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote global security.”

• European Union: “Today is a sad day for the global community, as a key partner” in the US “turns its back on the fight against climate change.”

• Pres. Obama: By withdrawing from Paris climate agreement, Trump admin. “joins a small handful of nations that reject the future.”

• Former Sec. Kerry says Pres. Trump has made “big mistake” that is “a self-destructive step that puts our nation last.”

• Elon Musk says resigning from presidential advisory roles because leaving climate agreement "is not good for America or the world.”

• Speaker Ryan: “I commend Pres. Trump for fulfilling his commitment to the American people and withdrawing from this bad deal.”

• Al Gore: Pres. Trump’s withdrawal from climate agreement is "reckless and indefensible action” that will undermine US standing in the world.

• Leon Panetta: Pres. Trump’s statements on climate agreement, Europe and NATO mark “sad demise” of 70-year era of US global leadership.

• Pittsburgh mayor on Pres. Trump’s Pittsburgh-Paris comment: “I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement.”

• Senate Majority Leader McConnell: “I applaud President Trump and his administration for dealing yet another significant blow to the Obama Administration’s assault on domestic energy production and jobs.

• “Widespread praise” and “broad support” for Pres. Trump’s decision to pull US from climate agreement, White House declares in press release.

Tony Judt’s Prescience on Trumpism and What We Might Do About it

Tue, 22 Nov 2016 17:02:59 -0500

The papers and online media have been filled with typical presentist sound-and-fury analysis that seems to almost relish the prospect of being forgotten the next day. In this sense, the coverage of the election results is itself a significant part of the carnage any thinking person has to reckon with. Seeking out alternative resources of hope, I’ve been perusing my own personal library for reflective minds that might yield some measure of instruction in these dark times. I was especially pleased to happen on a strikingly prescient review piece by the late Tony Judt, public intellectual par excellence. The 2007 review is of Robert Reich’s book, Supercapitalism, which is just as instructive to read today. But the part that grabbed my attention was the following passages at the end of the piece that not only foreshadow the manifestation of fear in especially toxic forms of ethno-nationalism and economic instability, but also imagine how we might rethink our political engagements in ways that would make for a more inclusive and stable democratic coexistence. Here’s the bit:“… Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course; but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.Half a century of security and prosperity has largely erased the memory of the last time an “economic age” collapsed into an era of fear. We have become stridently insistent—in our economic calculations, our political practices, our international strategies, even our educational priorities—that the past has little of relevance to teach us. Ours, we insist, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent. Our parents and grandparents, however, who lived the consequences of the unraveling of an earlier economic age, had a far sharper sense of what can happen to a society when private and sectional interests trump public goals and obscure the common good.We need to recover some of that sense. We are likely, in any event, to rediscover the state thanks to globalization itself. Populations experiencing increased economic and physical insecurity will retreat to the political symbols, legal resources, and physical barriers that only a territorial state can provide. This is already happening in many countries: note the rising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of “anti-immigrant” parties across Western Europe, the call for “walls,” “barriers,” and “tests” everywhere. “Flat worlders” may be in for a surprise. Moreover, while it may be true that globalization and “supercapitalism” reduce differences between countries, they typically amplify inequality within them—in China, for instance, or the US—with disruptive political implications.If we are indeed going to experience a return of the state, an enhanced need for the security and resources that only a state can provide, then we should be paying more attention to the things states can do. Today we speak contemptuously of the state: not as the natural benefactor of first resort but as a source of economic inefficiency and social intrusion best excluded from citizens’ affairs wherever possible. The very success of the mixed-economy welfare states—in providing the social stability and ideological demobilization which made possible the prosperity of the past half-century—has led a younger generation to take that same stability and ideological quiescence for granted and demand the elimination of the “impediment” of the taxing, regulating, and generally interfering state. This discounting of the public sector has become the defaul[...]

"It takes an extraordinarily fine-tuned political intelligence to target popular anger at the parts..."

Sun, 20 Nov 2016 00:16:54 -0500

“It takes an extraordinarily fine-tuned political intelligence to target popular anger at the parts of the state that need reform while leaving intact the parts that make that reform possible. Trump – and indeed Brexit – are not that. They are the bluntest of instruments, indiscriminately shaking the foundations with nothing to offer by way of support. Under these conditions, the likeliest response is for the grown-ups in the room to hunker down, waiting for the storm to pass. While they do, politics atrophies and necessary change is put off by the overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse. The understandable desire to keep the tanks off the streets and the cashpoints open gets in the way of tackling the long-term threats we face. Fake disruption followed by institutional paralysis, and all the while the real dangers continue to mount. Ultimately, that is how democracy ends.”


The Price of Political (Mis)Education

Sat, 19 Nov 2016 20:31:52 -0500

So a week and half has elapsed since the election and the president-elect has accomplished the following thus far: appointed an avowed bigot and white nationalist (Steve Bannon) as his chief strategist, picked a hardline former general (Mike Flynn) who’s declared Islam “a cancer” as his national security advisor, nominated a documented racist who once failed to win confirmation to a judgeship because of his racist views (Jeff Sessions) as his attorney general, is seeking national security clearance for his children who also will be running his businesses, and settled a $25 million lawsuit about his scam university. Those are the highlights of just the past 1.5 weeks of his transition to power.

Foremost among the fables told about the reasons for Trump’s election is his apparent championing of the alienated working class, the disenchanted masses who’ve been lied to too many times by the technocratic globalist elite in both parties. I have little doubt that if even a hint of such a promise resided inside him, Trump disabused himself of it the minute he climbed back up the very gold-plated escalator that once upon a time carried him down to wreak such havoc. How high a price will the public have to pay this time around for a real education?

On Concession

Fri, 21 Oct 2016 15:40:33 -0400



Vice President Al Gore certifying the Electoral College vote in 2001, declaring himself to have lost 271-266. 

So here’s the thing:

I get it. People are in an outrage after Trump suggested that he might not accept the election results if he didn’t win. This claim is a logical extension of Trump’s boorish, narcissistic attitudes, as well as his insistence that anything that doesn’t go his way must be the result of cheating since he always wins.

And this outrage is righteous: in claiming that the American election system is structurally corrupt, and in potentially refusing to accept the outcome of an election, Trump is undermining the legitimacy of the American democratic process. Al Gore provides an obviously better example: fight in a close case, but when you sense you can’t win, and that continued fighting is harmful to the nation, you concede – no matter how ridiculous the circumstances are. Bush v Gore, anyone?

But here’s the thing: Trump doesn’t have to concede. (Neither did Gore.) Hillary Clinton WILL NOT be elected by Donald Trump’s concession. Hillary Clinton will be elected when the electors pledged to her meet in their respective State Houses on December 19, 2016 and then submit their ballots to the US Congress where they will be counted in Joint Session, with the Vice President presiding as President of the Senate, on January 6, 2017. 

At no point is it required for the loser of the election to concede. The mechanisms of power transferring from one president to the next are in no way dependent on the loser agreeing to say “I lost, good luck.” Should the loser do this? Absolutely. Can losers muck things up with law suits? Sure they can. But they don’t have to concede. Congress counts the votes and declares who wins whether or not the loser likes that result or not.

Some things just can’t be studied, and for good reasons

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 11:57:05 -0400

One of the more striking aspects of this election is the proliferation of “studies” just about every aspect of it. Think tankers carry out studies adjudging the implications of Clinton’s or Trump’s policies. The effects of sex, gender, race, class, ideology, religion, region, education, party affiliation, profession, and age on political preferences have been studied to high kingdom - as have been the multiplicity of biases purportedly derived from them. Surely this is the most over-studied election cycle in modern Western history! 

Yet, none of these studies seem to actually tell us much about politics, if you examine them more closely, or more importantly, if you take the time to actually speak to ordinary people. People hold contradictory and contingent beliefs all the time. But their politics are even more elusive and conditional. 

A number of years ago, when I was half-way through my doctoral work (in political science), I started noticing a senior professor asking the same question of visiting lecturers, political figures, job candidates in political science, and activists at public events. The question was straightforward enough: what is your understanding of the political - of what politics is? I’ve never observed so many people active in either the study or practice of politics appear so naked and feeble, so perplexed and inarticulate at the sight of what one would assume to be an elementary question for anyone interested in politics. 

I found this both fascinating and disheartening. So one day I decided to ask the professor about this particular question (shockingly, no one else yet had!). His reasoning was thus: most people confuse doing politics with thinking about it, and of those who think about it most think they know what constitutes politics but have a hard time explaining why it can’t be explained the way a game, a work of art, a cuisine, a product, or an institution can be explained. This, he went on to say, makes any “study” of politics at best a terrible approximation of reality. At worse, it was “camouflage ego” with citation of other camouflaged egos. 

Since that exchange I’ve become skeptical of the work and rhetoric of anyone who can’t offer a description of their thinking about politics. It doesn’t need to be a convincing or a reassuring description - just one that demonstrates the person’s consideration of it in the first place. 

My own account goes as follows: politics is mostly a byproduct of disagreement, and where disagreement is absent, of taste. Between those two concepts - disagreement and taste - there are a multitude of reasons why any “study” of political phenomena is likely to always disappoint or fall way short of the mark. 

oupacademic: As this year sees Shakespeare’s 400th...

Mon, 27 Jun 2016 22:26:38 -0400



As this year sees Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, here are the top 6 books which commemorate the playwright’s work, life, and influence.

Image: Shakespeare by WikiImages. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

bookshelfporn: Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago. Image: Tom...

Sat, 21 May 2016 10:37:42 -0400



Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago. 

Image: Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation.

Negative Equations: US Elections, 2016

Sun, 10 Apr 2016 23:05:18 -0400

Donald Trump = anti-immigrant + anti-government + anti-elite + militarist + unilateralist + vindictive

Ted Cruz = anti-secular + anti-immigrant + anti-government + anti-elite + militarist + unilateralist + sinister + ideological anti-liberal

John Kasich = anti-government + militarist + conventional conservative


Hillary Clinton = militarist + survivalist + conventional neoliberal

Bernie Sanders = anti-neoliberal + anti-elite + ideological social-democrat

Now and Then

Sun, 27 Mar 2016 00:58:51 -0400

It’s worth remembering the actual distance traveled from more innocent times, once in a while. I just happened on a photo from 1992 - when I was 12 - in which the only visible electronic device is a hideously large intercom/doorbell system with multiple wires dangling from it. Nearly everyone in the photo is smiling, but not everyone is looking directly at the camera. The Fujitsu or Kodak disposable camera with which this photo was taken must have been a frivolous novelty to the older family members avoiding its intrusive gaze. Little did anyone know just how much more intrusive technology will become. 

This image of an irrecoverable past can be deceiving, though. On the one hand, there’s something undeniably sweet and innocent about it. Family members gathered in a circular room, tethered by nothing other than conversation. Each person’s presence is vividly felt by others. Not captured fully in this picture, however, are the rigidities, the silences, the awkward asides and glances that passed for conversation but which were in fact stand-ins for emotional detachment and/or shyness. We were manifestly two-dimensional, each one of us. Back then, there were no indirect outlets to let our parents, uncles and aunts, grandparents, siblings, or friends know that we were capable of engaging at higher levels - that there was a third dimension to our personality after all. One either brought all the dimensions to social gatherings, or two dimensions it was. 

Proust was right: “The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic; the passions that we feel expand it, those that we inspire contract it; and habit fills up what remains.”

Thinking historically and philosophically about terrorism

Thu, 19 Nov 2015 09:40:37 -0500

One of the enduring pleasures of my graduate school days was getting into verbal spats with the late Fred Halliday, who was every bit a pugilist as he was a doting mentor. His erudition and voice are especially missed these days. Here’s a timely piece he wrote on terrorism before his untimely death. The last few paragraphs are vintage Halliday: discerning, full of commitment to liberal democratic values, and optimistic:

The central challenge facing the world in the face of 9/11 and all the other terrorist acts preceding and following it, is to create a global order that defends security while also making real the aspirations to equality and mutual respect that modernity itself has aroused and proclaimed but has spectacularly failed so far to fulfil.

Terrorism, then, is a world problem in cause and in impact. It should be addressed in a global, cosmopolitan, context. Europe will probably be again its victim, but it is also historically and morally a contributor to this abuse of political opposition, and an architect of political violence.

All human beings, European or not, are locked into a conflict that will endure for decades, the outcome of which is not certain. In engaging with it, citizens need five things: a clear sense of history; recognition of the reality of the danger; steady, intelligent, political leadership; the building of mass support within European and global society for resistance to this new and major threat; and above all, our best defense, a commitment to liberal and democratic values.

The Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote in The Second Coming (1921 ):

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

We must, and can still, prove him wrong. The future – just – remains open.

In terror’s wake

Sun, 15 Nov 2015 01:16:42 -0500

Jihadis attack and proudly proclaim their responsibility. Government officials react by vowing swift and just revenge. Left-wing people implore the rest to examine root causes that link back to Western governments’ actions. Right-wing people lash out at immigrants, refugees, and blame lack of military resolve. Muslims, on the main, rush to absolve Islam. Non-Muslims wonder why, on the main, such attacks keep occurring in the name of Islam, justly or not. Literary types revel in pointing out pointless ironies embedded in everyone’s positions. Sporting types do the only thing they ever seem to know to do during moments of crisis: bow their heads under the watchful eyes of television cameras and observe a moment of silence before earning their keep. Then there’s the rest of us nobodies, seeing and hearing it all, forming and discarding views of our own, unsure of what, if anything, does any of this even mean

Meaning is the most consequential casualty of terror; not because terror kills meaning or somehow strips us of our ability to reason, but because terror relativizes meaning. Once upon a time, in the world that we no longer inhabit, states imposed their own meaning on events large and small. Reverse-engineering that mechanism and laying it bare for the masses to see was a great a triumph of the Left. But the very medium through which these very words now reach you and a few others changed all that. And so the age of spectacular terror arrived just as the state’s monopoly over political meaning became substantially diminished. Terror is no longer just a symptom of irreparable impotence, but a merciless dare to find meaning where there is none to be found. How to escape this vapid circularity? 

"Wolin had democratic daring. He sought not lasting institutions but a fugitive democracy, not..."

Tue, 03 Nov 2015 23:08:54 -0500

Wolin had democratic daring. He sought not lasting institutions but a fugitive democracy, not liberal stability but democratic adventure. He saw with clarity the hazards, risks, possible errors, and certain missteps of democrats. He mourned, with Tocqueville, the virtue, beauty, and learning that aristocracies produced. But, like Tocqueville, he saw beyond the loss. Democracy in America closes with Tocqueville’s reluctant praise of the democratic: “in its justice lies its greatness and beauty.” The recognition that came so reluctantly to Tocqueville came passionately to Wolin.

Wolin could account for past and present injustices with clinical precision and a ruthless eye. He had no faith in progress. For him politics was often, though not only, Weber’s “slow drilling through hard boards”: the long work of building a common democratic life. There is no promise of redemption in the future. Yet the possibility of the political, the arrival of the democratic, is always with us.

- Ann Norton in Boston Review

"Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies."

Mon, 02 Nov 2015 22:31:35 -0500

“Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies.”

- V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River
(via vintageanchorbooks)

Awful man, but by heavens is this a good book!

"Homo economicus, who seeks to replace all other human values and interests with cost-benefit..."

Sat, 24 Oct 2015 23:18:11 -0400

“Homo economicus, who seeks to replace all other human values and interests with cost-benefit calculations, rampages across the globe: in personal relations as well as the workplace, higher education and political institutions. Pulverising the welfarist state, and even a sense of community, and contemptuous of history and tradition, he sentences hundreds of millions to economic and psychological insecurity and isolation in an opaque and hostile world. This scorched-earth universalism incites, as Santayana warned, ‘a lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence’. Many putative Augie Marches, whether in India, Russia, Japan or Israel, seem keen to surrender their onerous individuality to demagogues and to be used by them. Elsewhere, those excluded from a degraded world of man, or condemned to join its burgeoning precariat, are prone to embrace the god of destruction rather than of inner peace. The thin sound of cracking is heard from many more parts of the world as exhausted authority surrenders to nihilism.”

- Pankaj Mishra in LRB.

"Our digital technologies aren’t politically neutral. The young person who cannot or will not be..."

Mon, 28 Sep 2015 16:21:19 -0400

“Our digital technologies aren’t politically neutral. The young person who cannot or will not be alone, converse with family, go out with friends, attend a lecture or perform a job without monitoring her smartphone is an emblem of our economy’s leechlike attachment to our very bodies. Digital technology is capitalism in hyperdrive, injecting its logic of consumption and promotion, of monetization and efficiency, into every waking minute.”

- Jonathan Franzen’s review of Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle herself had an excerpt of her book featured as an essay in this weekend’s NYT. It surely says something about the times in which we live that it takes a psychologist to provide a useful review of myriad technologies controlling our lives, and for a novelist to provide a helpful political-economic rejoinder of that review. 

"The terrible conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics such as..."

Fri, 25 Sep 2015 11:25:12 -0400

The terrible conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics such as “America,” “the west” or “Islam” and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed. We still have at our disposal the rational interpretive skills that are the legacy of humanistic education, not as a sentimental piety enjoining us to return to traditional values or the classics but as the active practice of worldly secular rational discourse. The secular world is the world of history as made by human beings. Critical thought does not submit to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or another approved enemy. Rather than the manufactured clash of civilisations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together. But for that kind of wider perception we need time, patient and sceptical inquiry, supported by faith in communities of interpretation that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction.

Humanism is centred upon the agency of human individuality and subjective intuition, rather than on received ideas and authority. Texts have to be read as texts that were produced and live on in all sorts of what I have called worldly ways. But this by no means excludes power, since on the contrary I have tried to show the insinuations, the imbrications of power into even the most recondite of studies. And lastly, most important, humanism is the only, and I would go as far as to say the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.

- Edward Said, who died twelve years ago today, wrote these still resonant words just as the supposed ‘cakewalk’ in Iraq was beginning to unravel into endless war. Very few individuals have matched his intellectual honesty complemented by his unceasing ‘optimism of the will’ since. 

"For centuries we have been telling ourselves there is no incompatibility between being good and..."

Thu, 10 Sep 2015 14:01:59 -0400

For centuries we have been telling ourselves there is no incompatibility between being good and being rich. The debate was settled in the Renaissance. Forget the poverty of Christ, fill the churches with the wealth of merchants and bankers, with images of the three kings bringing gold to the manger. The rich man is a patron of the arts, of chapels and charities. His wealth is justified. Well-dressed and well-fed, he is free to enjoy the ultimate luxury of knowing he is a good man going to heaven. Money and piety have made their peace. This is the West.

The idea filters down. We can all give a little to the world’s refugees from the safety of our prosperous societies. We can be good and secure. We soak up the melodrama of Third World suffering, safe in the knowledge that our lives won’t change. This is happening in Namibia, in Bangladesh. We make a donation. It is a pleasure to feel compassionate. We Save the Children and go out for a steak. We are OK.

Above all Europe is good. It is a Community. Communities are good. It was formed so that our nations might no longer go to war. True, it largely depends on an agricultural policy that impoverishes Africa, but when was the last time anyone looked into that? Europe allows free movement of people, because when that right was granted relatively few wanted to move. It speaks a rhetoric of openness and equality. We won’t let other cultures treat their women badly. We won’t let them mutilate their daughters. Aren’t we admirable? We separate religion from public life. We won’t allow fanatics. Europe is the model for the future, isn’t it? So we believe. Eclectic, savvy, relaxed. Relaxed because wealthy. Free to be compassionate.

So long as they don’t all come here.

- Tim Parks

Quick observations on Iran deal

Thu, 16 Jul 2015 03:15:13 -0400

Iranians are happy because the deal treats them as legitimate interlocutors for the first time in 36 years; 

Some American commentators and former diplomats are unhappy because the United States negotiated with Iran, as opposed to continuing its tradition of dictating to countries it disagrees with;

This deal is a direct result of the Iraq war but most Americans have difficulty seeing it that way - perhaps because too many American journalists are too credulous, and too many American commentators too dishonest to make that connection;

The historic varnish of this deal will soon wear off as it goes through the ratification process in the US congress; and

I continue to believe that Iran needed this deal more than the US. It would serve Iran to send a major goodwill signal to the US by either helping out majorly in the fight against ISIS, or making some concessions with respect to its proxies in the region - the worst thing Iran can do now is to rest on its laurels and resort to bombast.