Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Heroes of Spiritualism

From my old web site.

1. Iseult's Letters

I have just stumbled across review of a little historical oddity, a collection of the letters of Iseult Gonne, and since I read it I have not been able to stop thinking. Iseult was the daughter of Maud Gonne, famous Irish nationalist and the great, unrequited love of W.B. Yeats. Iseult's life was haunted from the very beginning: she was conceived at the marble tomb of her dead brother because her mother thought that this way she could give birth to the reincarnation of her dead child. The father was Maud's French lover, cast aside not long afterward. The child grew up amid her mother's social circle, a group of nationalist agitators, artists, and spiritual questers always pursuing new forms of expression and new ways of approaching the divine. She wanted to be an artist but had no real talent, so she drifted through her youth as a hanger-on of artists and a minor presence at seances. She was Ezra Pound's lover, and Yeats proposed to her twice. She eventually married Francis Stuart, a now-forgotten poet, but in 1939 he decided that Nazism was the political expression of eastern spirituality and went off to Germany to help the fascist cause. Iseult retired to an English country house where she ruled over a dwindling circle of admirers, except for the two years she spent in prison for helping German spies.

Iseult's story is fascinating in its own right, but it gains a deeper meaning for me because of her connections with Irish nationalism, spiritualism, and Yeats. Yeats is my favorite poet. I can recite hundreds of his lines, from "I will arise and go now, and go to Inisfree" to "Under bare Ben Bulben's head in Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid." I love the singing rhythms, the words that flow like water. But I also love Yeats because in his poetry I can be moved by spiritual insights that I find hard to take in bald prose.

Though grave-diggers' toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
What does it mean? I'm not sure that I can put in simpler words what it says to me–that death is not just an ending, that we are more than flesh, that humanity has created something together that is more than any one of us and lives on beyond any individual life. It speaks to me of hope, and permanence. As a person with spiritual longings who can't endure any organized church, I find a power in these verses that comes as close to religion as almost anything in my life.

And yet Yeats, one must admit, was a nut. He used spirit mediums to contact the ancient Irish gods. He belonged to several different spiritual societies–the theosophists, the Order of the Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucians, and the Dublin Hermetic Society–not seeming to care that the professed beliefs of these orders contradicted both each other and other things he claimed to believe. He laid out one version of his personal philosophy in a strange work he called The Vision, which I have found impossible to read, let alone understand. Ezra Pound called it "absolute rot." If he were not such a great artist, most of us would dismiss him as a crank.

Is there a way to reach the place of meaning and beauty that inspired Yeats' art without succumbing to his occult obsessions, his mad eclecticism, his complete indifference to logic, his airy contempt for the notion of "truth"? I wonder, and so I write out my musings here.

2. Nationalism

Yeats and his friends were nationalists as well as spiritualists. To me these interests are connected, and my response to occult spiritualism is colored in some ways by the politics of its practitioners. I find nationalism to be an especially troublesome expression of unreason. To me nothing is more stirring than Irish revolutionary music, and the rhetoric of freedom touches something very deep in me. But the line between patriotism and savage tribalism is hard to draw, and the one can easily slide into the other, as the Irish revolution slid into decades of hatred and terrorism. The wars of nations have been by far our deadliest. What is a nation anyway, and what does it mean for a nation to be free? In the case of Ireland, where most of the people did want independence from Britain, there is surely something to it, but the usual situation is much more muddled. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, the United States supported the independence of Croatia from Yugoslavia but not the independence of the Serbian part of Croatia; why does one deserve to be free but not the other?

I believe that freedom is a concept we should apply to people, not nations, and that human rights are more important than national liberation. All too often, wars of liberation have led only to oppression by native tyrants instead of foreigners. Yet the songs and stories of revolution move me, and I hold to that feeling. I love to read about the American Revolution and the Civil War, to ride with Paul Revere, to converse with Benjamin Franklin, to stand with the Minute Men at Lexington and the 20th Maine at Gettysburg. There must be a kind of patriotism that holds its country to the highest standards; that is built from love of home, not from hatred of enemies; that provides us with a solid base for understanding the wider world rather than blinding us with provincial scorn. Even though I fear and scorn the excesses of nationalism, I love my country, and I derive great solace from our shared stories, symbols, and dreams.

A nation exists when enough people believe that it exists, and it operates through the expectations and beliefs of its citizens. We will our countries into existence. Yeats and his friends were not the only nationalists with distinctly unpractical outlooks; many modern nations were created by dreamers and prophets. A nation is both a bureaucratic reality and a spiritual entity. The political realm is a place where what people imagine can become real, where how people feel about something can determine whether it exists or not. If enough people believe themselves to be a nation, they can make their beliefs true. There is something hopeful and empowering in this realization. And yet, the dismal results wrought by some of the ideas that have gotten loose in the modern world should caution us that our beliefs can have real and terrible consequences. Perhaps the trenches of Verdun and the smoking craters left by suicide bombers should make us careful about what we believe.

3. Fascism

In the 1920s and 1930s, spurred on in some mysterious way by the immense slaughter of World War I, European nationalism mutated into fascism. Fascism is essentially militant nationalism elevated to a mystical plane, or a feverish pitch. Its advocates sought to harness the full power of human emotion and energy for the advancement of the state, especially the powerful impulses of brutality, sexuality, and spirituality. A fascist identified entirely with his nation, its tradition, and its leaders, loved its friends, hated its enemies, celebrated its victories and mourned it defeats no matter how long past. Yeats himself was not especially interested in fascism, but in this he was somewhat unusual for his circle. Not just Pound and Francis Stuart but many other people who shared their interests ended up on the Nazi side during World War II. Julius Evola, the Italian "traditionalist" much admired by Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, and other fathers of mythical spiritualism, was an ardent fascist who scorned all talk of liberty or democracy. Some of my favorite German historians, the ones interested in peasant religion, Indo-European myth, and the ancient roots of medieval culture, were fanatical Nazis. People with my historical, artistic, and spritiual interests, I have to admit, were strongly drawn to fascism, and that sometimes gives me pause.

If I feel ambivalent about nationalism, I hate fascism. I hate the exaltation of the nation over the individual, the crude dismissal of all pleas for rights, the worship of violent action. "Let us," said Mussolini, "have a bomb in our hands, a dagger in our teeth,and infinite scorn in our hearts." And yet I have to admit that modern liberal beliefs cut us off from much that I find beautiful in Europe's ancient heritage. War and nobility have been woven together for millenia, and many of our ancestors would have trouble even imagining a secular society. Freedom of religion, which I cherish, destroys the religion of the community. We may have the right to think whatever we want, but we will never know the joy of seeing our whole neighborhood join in a ritual to honor God together. As free individuals, we belong to nothing. Fascism provided its adherents with an identity, a purpose, something to belong to much bigger than themselves. By promoting war and genocidal hatred of outsiders, fascism worked great evil in the world, but a fascist's life did have something that mine lacks.

4. Learning and Feeling

As I think about Yeats and his circle, I run these themes around each other, braiding and knotting them and then separating them again: nationalism, fascism, the beauty of art, occult obscurity, the pursuit of spiritual light. How, I ask myself, does one seek spiritual understanding without either bowing to the dictates of some authoritarian church or becoming the kind of person who can't distinguish between Nazism and yoga? The horrors wrought by fascism, communism, and other theoretical systems say something to me about the necessity of staying grounded in the real, of not letting ideas carry us away from what we know to be so, and know to be right.

How can a rational person with a commitment to truth and sanity seek an experience of the divine?

To begin with I suppose I should say something about what I mean by the spiritual. It was Aristotle who remarked, about the Eleusinian mysteries, that people did not attend them to learn something, but to feel something. I take my start from this text. The intellectual path is rooted in knowing, the spiritual path in feeling. To explore the spiritual is to seek a sense of the world and our place in it beyond the bare facts of our existence. The mind investigates the world, but faith incorporates our understanding into our souls.

I do not mean by this that a spiritual approach means believing what makes us feel good, or what we feel to be right. We can, perhaps, change the rules of politics or the structure of our societies through our efforts, but I do not think we can change the laws of physics or the structure of the atom. Certainly our knowledge is very limited and our ignorance vast, but there are things we do know and do understand. Living things evolve whether you like the idea or not; walking on hot coals is a stunt, and levitation is impossible, no matter how enlightened you are; there is a world out there, and it is a certain way. Politics is one, but not the only one. Even more important is what happens inside us. We live in our minds, and our inner lives we can, to some extent, shape to our liking. Whatever the world is like, how we perceive it and how we feel about it are at least as important to us. Within our thoughts and feelings we do shape the world. We do understand through symbols and metaphors; we can choose what some things are to us. The realm of relationships is very much about how we perceive things and what we feel, and relationships define our world as much as physics does. Not just nations but friendship, love affairs, and marriages are things we imagine. We make them real, experience them, and destroy them entirely within our minds. When it comes to what we sometimes call the big question, I think the spiritual has less to do with what we believe than how we feel about what we know and believe. Cosmology and quantum physics are our best guide to what the universe it, but what should we do with the information they provide? To contemplate the immensity of the universe in space and time, and how insignificant our little lives are to the whole pageant, fills some of us with awe and others with despair. It is a spiritual approach that helps us understand which is right for us. Reason can sort our what we are, but only faith can teach us whether we matter.

5. The Rational Spiritualist

I am by nature a rational, skeptical person, and I delight in dismantling the fabrications of untruth. I love to feel my brain working, to study the world, to analyze, to comprehend. I have enormous respect for the powers of the human intellect, and I think our science is one of our most glorious and beautiful achievements.

To me, though, the world of intellect is not enough. It does not answer the questions of meaning and purpose; it cannot tell us how to live, or why to live at all. Our secular art is a shabby scarecrow compared to the art made by earlier ages to exalt the divine and probe the demonic. To me, that says something about the role of spiritual understanding in human life. Yeats, the mad prophet of pseudo-philosophical nonsense, gave more beauty to the world than any of the millions of sensible writers who have lived since then. Science tells us much of the biochemistry of sex but little of the part we should give to love in our lives; evolutionary theory can lay out the mathematics of kin selection but not explain what kind of loyalty we owe our friends or help us find right mixture of patriotism toward our nations and mistrust toward our governments.

As I said, I cannot tolerate organized religion, because to be handed answers only provokes my skepticism. That leaves me searching for my own answers, along a path I clear largely by myself through dense thickets of confusion, worry, and doubt. As I seek my own understanding, I think about risks involved. I worry about being ridiculous, about losing my grounding in what we know about the world, about being suckered by sweet words, about giving up my independence of thought and the free working of my mind. I want to find a way to relate to nature and to history that does not distort the truth of either. I want to understand the important relationships in my life in ways that uplift me while staying true to who I and my friends are and to what we want and need. I want to be a loyal citizen of my country but also a good citizen of the world. I want to feel that I have a place in universe, in my community, in my own family. I want to know who I am and to feel satisfied with that knowing. I want to explore both the world of things and the realms of feeling, to be a person of good sense and mystical enthusiasm. Perhaps I am asking too much; perhaps I will never find any satisfactory answers. Yet I have no trouble enjoying Gothic art and paleontology, physics and symbolist poetry, Leonardo and Richard Feynman, and so far I am enjoying my attempts both to learn about the world and to transcend what I know. Can I ask for anything else?

September 17, 2004 

Georges Fouqet and the Question of Modernity and Beauty

Georges Fouquet (1862 – 1957) was a French jewelry designer best known for his Art Nouveau wonders. This, to me, is the period when jewelry was prettiest. I love ancient golden things that came out of royal tombs, but that is partly because they are ancient and tie me to the dimly known past; in terms of pure aesthetics, I think these are the best.

Fouquet was born in Paris into a family of jewelers, and he joined his father in the family business in 1891. 

In 1900 he opened a new jewelry shop at 6 rue Royale in Paris, designed by the illustrator Alphonse Mucha. The interior of the shop is preserved at the Carnavalet Museum in Paris. 

I love the period around 1900 for numerous reasons. This is the crest of the long European wave that carried the continent to the pinnacle of world power and wealth, before they set about destroying it all. Europe reached new heights in science and almost every other academic pursuit, creating everything from archaeology to microbiology. To me, the art of this era is part of that moment of dominance: supremely confident, boldly innovative but also conntected to tradition. To me, the art of the next 50 years is only what you would expect from an era dominated by world war, bloody revolution, sinister ideologies, and genocide.

And yet, of course, the Europe of 1900 was awful in uncountable ways. Not to pick on them, no past period meets our standards of humanity, and few places in the present do. But by 1990 Europe had done much more for ordinary people's health and well being, freed its colonies, etc. So why did their art get so ugly? People often say that our art is awful because our age is awful; but wasn't 1900 worse, in terms of humanity? If they could create extraordinary beauty in such a casual way, in everything from street lamps to sculpture, is there some chance that we could, as well?

Art Nouveau was a style that was both modern and beautiful; why can't we do that again? Why are our buildings either ghastly or rather tepid recreations of past styles? Why isn't there more that is both new and attractive? Our distinctive creations are things like geometrically pure skyscrapers, horror films, and thrash metal; future archaeologists will know us mainly as the builders of complex freeway interchanges.

When I feel the need to see something beautiful, I almost always look either to the natural world or to the past, and I spend too much time wondering why that has to be so.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Links 24 February 2023

The Hunterston Brooch, probably made in Ireland around 700 AD

Joe Biden in Poland: "The appetites of autocrats cannot be appeased, they have to be opposed." As I have said before, the war against Putin's Russia is the fight that many American moderates want.

The weird effects of being in the quietest room in the world.

Excellent Scott Siskind essay on culture and mental illness, starting from the problem of penis-stealing witches.

"Art" made by slicing open ordinary electronic gadgets to see their insides. Interesting look at the underpinnings of our world.

The Bronze Age Mindset and the neo-Straussian critique of our civilization, weirdly fascinating. My response is here.

Ross Douthat notes that whatever you think of the weird personalities that have been uncovered by people probing at the Bing chatbot, they are spectacularly unsuited for a search engine or research assistant (NY Times).

And AI-assisted chatbots for erotic fantasy.

Photo tour of a wonderful London townhouse.

West Africa's economy is highly concentrated along the coast; 50% of the region's GDP is generated within 25 km of the ocean, and 31% of the people live in that strip. This "malformation" dates back to colonial times, when the coastal trade replaced the trans-Sahara trade and interior areas stagnated.

Jamaica's economy is not doing well. Which is great for the US and Canada, since Jamaica is one of the world leaders in brain drain, and we benefit from all that talent.

Why is the expansion of the universe accelerating? These physicists say it is "the result of a previously unknown interaction between black holes and spacetime." Weird theory but this explanation is very clear.

Russia's energy warfare did not hurt Europe enough to change any nation's policies toward Ukraine, partly because it turbocharged the transition to green energy. In 2022 Europe's use of fossil fuels for electricity generation fell by 20 percent, and for the first time the continent got more of its electrical power from solar and wind than from fossil fuels. (NY Times

Bisa Butler's quilted portraits of black Americans.

Roald Dahl's books are being reissued in new editions with "some passages relating to weight, mental health, gender and race" edited to remove "colorful language." Argh. A big part of Dahl's appeal was always the childish meanness and cruelty. But nobody seems to be mentioning the real root of this crime, which is that Roald Dahl's estate still has the power to do this 33 years after his death and 60 years after some of these books were published. (AP, Book Riot, NY Times)

Ancient and medieval ghost stories do not satisfy modern readers' taste for "supernatural horror" because most of them were morality plays in which virtue is rewarded. Deep question: why does our age love horror?

Even the NY Times thinks charges of "transphobia" against J.K. Rowling are overblown.

Archaeologists explore the royal palace at Girsu in ancient Sumer. Interesting that a big part of this project is trying to sort out what all the previous excavations at Girsu did, official and not, and tracking down artifacts from Girsu that have been scattered around the world.

The Ingenuity helicopter has now been on Mars for two years and has completed 44 flights. We learn once again how quickly the astonishing can become the boring.

Tyler Cowen interviews economist Brad DeLong, much on economic history of the very long term and the period since 1870, a date he thinks marks a radical break.

Interesting long piece on how painters have used and misused shadows over the past several centuries.

English museums are running out of space to store archaeological artifacts. If you ask me, archaeologists should throw away a lot more of what they find; that's the policy recently adopted by the US National Park Service. The problem goes back to the invention of radiocarbon dating, at which point archaeologists who had thrown away bushels of charcoal cursed themselves and vowed never to throw away anything again.

A primer on ancient brain surgery.

Ukraine Links

Lots of finger-pointing and doubt after Russia's disastrous attack on Vuhledar.

British Ministry of Defence estimates that Russian casualties now total 175,000-200,000, with 40,000 to 60,000 killed. The say the ratio of killed to wounded is high because of "rudimentary" medical facilities. And a US estimate that the Wagner Group has lost 9,000 killed, half since mid December. That's a high price to pay for a foothold in the destroyed city of Bahkmut.

Lots of rumors that Russia is planning an air offensive over Ukraine, using hundreds of planes. I have seen claims of many planes being moved to forward bases from all over Russia. Seems like a strange idea to do this after Ukraine has obtained modern NATO SAM systems.

Institute for the Study of War Assessment for February 18. Interesting to read a rundown of all the Russian attacks made on a single day. There is a Russian offensive under way, it just isn't making the headlines because so little is being gained.

Wagner head Prigozhin released a recorded statement saying that his men cannot get artillery ammunition even though Russia has adequate supplies, because of political interference. But Russian battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky says there is no animus against Wagner, they are just now getting the same artillery ration as everyone else, and the available supply is not enough for any attack to achieve its goal. If so, this is very good news.

Alleged leaked Russian document lays out a plan for absorbing Belarus by 2030.

The tactics used by Wagner in infantry assault, very interesting.

Highlights from an interview with Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine's head of military intelligence, on the war.

Long NY Times piece collecting text messages from the first hours of Russia's invasion. Love this:

Good morning. Russia attacked Ukraine.
Good morning. Russia started the process of self-destruction.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Cost of War

A report from the OECD:

The global economy has been hit by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Global economic growth stalled in the second quarter of 2022, and indicators in many economies now point to an extended period of subdued growth.

The war has pushed up energy and food prices substantially, aggravating inflationary pressures at a time when the cost of living was already rising rapidly around the world.

Global growth is projected to slow from 3% in 2022 to 2¼ per cent in 2023, well below the pace foreseen prior to the war. In 2023, real global incomes could be around USD 2.8 trillion lower than expected a year ago.

Meanwhile the NY Times is running a story on the effort to supply Ukraine with the 3,000 artillery shells a day its army routinely fires. (Which is a lot less than they would like to be firing.) This has involved searching out abandoned production lines in old Warsaw Pact countries like Bulgaria and Montenegro and paying millions to get them restarted. Which is great for a few hundred workers in Bulgaria and Montenegro, but very expensive for the rest of us; each shell costs $2,000 to $3,000. The laser-guided rounds (like the American Excalibur) that have proved so effective cost up to $150,000 each. A Javelin anti-tank missile costs around $200,000. One GMLRS missile for Himars costs around $168,000.

I think this war is worth it, but we shouldn't kid ourselves about the cost, which is depressing the economy of the whole world.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

In Seoul, a Freeway became a Riverside Park

One of the delightful features of downtown Seoul, South Korea, is a stream called Cheonggyecheon. It winds 11 km (7 miles) through the central city, lined with various parks and promenades.

As Seoul grew in the 1600s, Cheonggyecheon served as its sewer. Korean kings invested in improving it, building embankments and levees to control flooding. In 1904 part of it it looked like this, muddy, polluted, some said dangerous. Notice that diversion of the stream's water for human use had reduced it to a trickle during dry seasons. The Japanese imperialists who ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945 also invested in the stream and in Seoul's water and sewer systems generally, and the stream was cleaned up a lot.

When refugees flocked to Seoul after the Korean War, shanty-towns lined the stream and it was once a again an open sewer. In the 1960s growing South Korea decided that the stream was an eyesore. So they put what was left of the stream's flow into a concrete-lined tunnel and built this elevated expressway above it.

But then in the 2000s, as Seoul's people started to want nicer lives, not wider expressways, a plan was floated to get rid of the highway and bring back the stream. The plan was approved in 2003 and construction was completed 2005. The result was this delightful urban amenity.

The transformation was not cheap; the bill eventually came to $281 million. 

Some environmentalists protested spending all that money to create something they called fake. Because, remember, so much of the stream's water had been diverted, the new Cheonggyecheon had to be rewatered using sources like water piped from metro stations and even some municipal water in dry seasons. I don't care if it's fake; it looks wonderful.

Three pillars left as a reminder of the freeway that once ran here.

Projects like this remind us that the world does not have to keep getting uglier. It was expensive, but South Korea is rich, and can afford it. New businesses have sprouted up all along the stream, helped to pay the city back for the expense, and it has also helped the city to attract new residents.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Joe Biden in Kyiv

Joe Biden:

As the world prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, I am in Kyiv today to meet with President Zelenskyy and reaffirm our unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

When Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us. But he was dead wrong.

Anne Appelbaum at The Atlantic:

The message today is about Ukraine itself: Despite a year of brutal war, Kyiv remains a free city; Ukraine remains a sovereign country—and this will not change. Jake Sullivan, the national-security adviser, put it like this during a press-conference call from Kyiv: “The visit today was an effort to show, and not just tell, that we will continue to stand strong.”

These messages matter because Ukraine is now engaged in a war of attrition on several fronts. In the eastern part of the country, Ukraine and Russia are fighting an old-fashioned artillery battle. Russia sends waves of conscripts and convicts at the Ukrainian defenses, suffering huge losses and appearing not to care. . . .

But alongside that ground combat, a psychological war of attrition is also unfolding. Putin thinks that he will win not through technological superiority, and not through better tactics or better-trained soldiers, but simply by outlasting a Western alliance that he still believes to be weak, divided, and easily undermined. He reckons that he has more people, more ammunition, and above all more time: that Russians can endure an infinite number of casualties, that Russians can survive an infinite amount of economic pain. Just in case they cannot, he will personally demonstrate his capacity for cruelty by locking down his society in extraordinary ways. In the city of Krasnodar, police recently arrested and handcuffed a couple in a restaurant, after an eavesdropper overheard them complaining about the war. The Sakharov Center, Moscow’s last remaining institution devoted to human rights, has just announced that it is being evicted from its state-owned buildings. Paranoia, suspicion, and fear have risen to new levels. Many expect a new mobilization, even an imminent closure of the borders.

This psychological war plays out elsewhere too. Some Europeans, and indeed some Americans, have not yet adjusted their thinking to this Russian strategy. In Munich last weekend, it was clear that many haven’t yet accepted that the continent is really at war. The Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, told me she fears her colleagues secretly hope “that this problem will disappear by itself,” that the war will end before any deep changes have to be made, before their defense industries have to be altered. “Russia,” she said in a speech at the conference, “is hoping for just that, that we will get tired of our own initiatives, and in Russia, meanwhile, there is a lot of human resources, and enterprises there work in three shifts.” Consciously or unconsciously, many still speak as if everything will soon return to normal, as if things will go back to the way they were. Defense industries have not yet switched to a different tempo. Defense industries have not yet raised their production to meet the new demands.

Biden’s visit to Kyiv is intended to offer a bracing contrast, and a different message: If the U.S. president is willing to take this personal risk, if the U.S. government is willing to invest this effort, then time is not on Russia’s side after all. He is putting everyone on notice, including the defense ministries and the defense industries, that the paradigm has shifted and the story has changed. The old “normal” is not coming back.

And images of long faces on Russian television, on twitter. 

Bronze Age Pervert and the Undending Struggle against Aristocracy

Life, most people would agree, is unfair. Some people are rich, powerful, glamorous, and admired; others are poor, oppressed, uncool, and despised. And, it seems like the ones who get the top slots in this hierarchy are often not the most deserving, but the lucky, the ruthless, the beautiful and the conniving. Virtue, everyone says, is not really rewarded, whereas wickedness often is.

There are a variety of responses one can make to this. One is to insist that none of it really matters, because it is the poor and downtrodden who are truly blessed by god. This has been over the centuries a very powerful response, helping millions to lead satisfying lives and inspiring a few to achieve ecstasies of renunciation.

Another is to fight, politically, for a more just world; we'll come back to this one at the end. 

A third is to try, somehow, to set up a system in which the "best" really do occupy the top slots. Plato's political dialogues are focused on exactly this point, and from him the idea has stumbled through the western tradition down to our own time. Nobody agrees on what Machiavelli was really trying to say in his books, but one view is that he wanted to teach elite young men how to reach the top while serving their cities or kingdoms.

The notion that the top slots should go to the "best" is not confined to politics. There is an old and strong tradition holding that the really top people are the intellectuals, whose worth is measured by the boldness and power of their ideas and works. Nietzsche, one of the key thinkers in this discourse, wrote that a civilization is the universe's way of producing a few truly great minds. This emphasis shifts the problem from "how do the best achieve power" to "how do the best attain the freedom they need to think and create, and the wherewithal to spread their wisdom."

In the modern world of mass media and mass democracy this kind of thinking has taken on a different tone. While in ancient Greece the "problem" was that the truly good were oppressed the powerful few, be they tyrants or oligarchs, in the modern world they are oppressed by the masses. Modern intellectuals may have the freedom to publish their ideas in small magazines, or on their blogs, but this does not matter because nobody reads their work or recognizes their greatness. Real excellence remains scorned.

All that was by way of introducing a very strange contemporary best-seller, titled Bronze Age Mindset, by an author who signed himself Bronze Age Pervert. I have not read BAM, and will not, but I have spent a few hours this evening reading reviews and responses; here is a fairly sympathetic summary if you want to read more. On its surface the book is not very impressive:

BAM appears at first glance to be a simplified pastiche of Friedrich Nietzsche written by an ESL-middle-school-message-board troll. Words are often misspelled or dropped, verbs misconjugated, punctuation rules ignored. For example, a prototypical BAP sentence reads “Wat means?”
And so far as I can tell, BAM is basically another version of the young Nietzschean screed, urging young men to get tough, get smart, storm the heights of power and influence, conquer hot women, etc. On his twitter feed, BAP is obsessed with weight lifting, and many of his posts are just pictures of buff men and toned women. He has something of an obsession with beauty, and one of his main attacks on the irritating masses is that they are motivated mainly by jealousy:

The bugman pretends to be motivated by compassion, but is instead motivated by a titanic hatred of the well-turned-out and beautiful [and seeks to] bury beauty under a morass of ubiquitous ugliness and garbage.

One of his attacks on modern civilization is the ugliness of our art, which he thinks is designed to destroy our natural love for the beautiful in the name of equality, which really means mass mediocrity.

But of course the main grievance is that the truly excellent are held back by the grinding banalites of liberal piety, which insists that everyone be polite even to the pathetic, everyone try to fit in, everyone pretend that the mediocre is just as valuable as the extraordinary. There is no greatness because we shame anyone who puts himself forward as great. There are no alpha wolves/gorillas/lions/men, because the betas stomp us down. In opposition to all of this BAP offers the mindset of the Bronze Age Hero, which is a passionate desire “to be worshiped as a god!”

There are two interesting points here. One is that BAP has now been identified, and he turns out to be Costin Vlad Alamariu, a Yale University political science PhD. According to Blake Smith, Alamariu's dissertation attacked the tradition that runs from Nietzsche through Leo Strauss to Alan Bloom, which emphasized that the truly "free spirits" should scorn the masses and write only for each other, if necessary by concealing their true meaning behind a facade of acceptable rhetoric. Alamariu argued that modern conservative thought was failing either to inspire to young or to halt the continuing decay of society, and that what was needed was a more radical and youth-friendly kind of politics. BAP, it seems, is just Alamariu carrying out the program laid out in that dissertation. BAP does warn his followers that they might need to keep their actual thoughts secret, in order to survive in our miserably fallen age, but he at least is through with trying to speak in code. He gleefully describes the violence of his vision:

The BAMs will “wipe away this corrupt civilization,” and justice will become the will of the stronger. Alamariu writes that his vision of justice is for predatory zoo animals to be “unleashed by the dozens, hundreds… the buildings smashed to pieces, the cries of the human bug shearing through the streets as the lord of beasts returns.”

Those who have bothered to attack BAM have called it fascist, but I don't think that is quite right. Obviously fascism shares some of BAM's themes and rhetoric: the call for a violent cleansing of society, the contempt for weakness, the celebration of inequality. But actual fascist leaders have had very little in common with Bronze Age heroes. They tend to be short, ordinary-looking, and unbuff, with a history of failure before they entered politics. But the main difference is that BAM has nothing to say about either nation or race. One assumes that most of BAM's readers despise blacks and Jews, and Alamariu may as well, but the main animus is against ordinary people of every race. If you look at the contemporary fascism of, say, Russia, you see very little about individual heroes, but instead an endless insistence on the wonders of the Russian People. It is the whole people who are despised by outsiders and must fight for their rightful place in the world. BAP is having none of that; to him the few truly great beings are oppressed everywhere, and their only loyalty should be to themselves.

One of my thoughts about all of this is that until very recently, most human civilizations were dominated by a hereditary aristocracy; there are few things more universal. The longing of people like BAP to be and be seen as part of an elite tells me that the aristocratic impulse is deep and ancient. The thought that I am better than you, and therefore deserve to be richer, more powerful, and more respected than you, is surely among the most ancient human thoughts, probably shared with other social mammals. One can imagine evolutionary reasons why this is so widespread, and why it appears even in people raised in societies with a strongly egalitarian ideology.

I would call the political philosphy of BAM aristocratic. BAP says nothing about a hereditary elite, of course, so what it envisages must be something like Jefferson's "natural" aristocrats, the people who deserve to lead because of their excellence. 

And (finally) the reason I am writing about this, is that BAM's exhortation represents the exact opposite of my own political views.

I can find things I admire and agree with in the writings of fascists and communists, but BAM inspires in me nothing but loathing. I agree, as I have said, that there is something "natural" about aristocracy; so far as I know, there has never been a civilization without a leadership class that believed in its own special status and special fitness to rule. That just means we must always be on our guard against aristocratic rhetoric and thinking. The whole point of my politics is to fight those aristocratic tendencies, to insist that everyone matters, and work for a world in which a few do not hoard most of the wealth and power for themselves.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Zakariya ibn Muhammad Qazwini, "The Wonders of Creation"

Zakariya al-Qazwini was a cartographer, cosmographer and encyclopedist who lived in Iran but claimed descent from one of the prophet Muhammad's close friends. He lived in Shiraz from 1203-1283. 

These days he is known almost exclusively because of a book called Ajāʾib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharāʾib al-mawjūdāt, that is, Marvels of the Created World and Strange Things Existing

And mainly not because of the text, which nobody reads any more, but because of the many beautifully illuminated manuscript copies made over the centuries. There's a complete one here if you have an hour to kill.

The book includes a primer of Ptolemaic astronomy, with methods for predicting eclipses; a history of the world from the creation; a map of the known world with descriptions of the nations; and a bestiary which covers all the greatest hits of Persian and Mediterranean myth and folklore, many of which appeared in Pliny's Natural History.


Some charmers.

It really is astonishing to me how long people kept reprising Pliny's lies about headless men, dog-headed men and so on.

Here's a weird bit of Arab cosmology:

God created an angel who took [the earth] on his shoulders, and grasped it with his hands; the angel had as his support a rectangular rock of green hyacinth, itself borne upon a giant bull which rests upon a fish swimming in the water 


The wonders go on and on.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Speaking One's Mind as an Impossible Act

Anxiety about social media has inspired innumerable hand-wringing essays about inauthenticity and group-think, along with much rereading of Hannah Arendt. Arendt thought that part of the background to totalitarianism was modern mass media, which absorbed individuals into the state's obsessions, making individual thought all but impossible. As Blake Smith recently wrote,

The great moral and political insight of Arendt’s work is that there is only a short step from the apparently trivial problem of having inauthentic opinions to the horrors of mass violence.
One of Arendt's essays on this problem came in the form of a book review. The book was The Golden Fruits by Nathalie Sarraute (1963), which consists almost entirely of dialogue among readers, critics, and hangers on about a book called The Golden Fruits. This book rises from obscurity to fame and then falls back into obscurity through conversations in which people are too focused on being cool, with it, witty, and brilliant to meaningful engage with the book. Indeed we are left with no real idea of the book at all. Of these critics Arendt wrote,

They cannot share personal experiences of the book with others, because their experiences have been impersonal from the outset, warped by their anxious desire to generate statements about it that will signal both their loyalty to the fashion of the moment and their individual brilliance. A ubiquitous and totalizing media conversation has made it impossible to speak one’s mind because no one thus exposed to the din of so many voices and anxious to join them, can have a mind of their own to speak. 

As Smith notes, this seems very much like social media: 

These acts of judgment are motivated from the outset by a “mimetic” desire, that is, a longing to have what others seem to want (likes, followers, a fuller participation in the discourse). When we give an opinion on Twitter, we are not inspired by an authentic, personal desire to have our particular relationship to the world enlarged by an encounter with other such relationships, but by a derivative, imitative desire to have the attention that other people seem to enjoy.

Ok, fine. There is a lot of terrible group think on Twitter, a lot of fear of offending the mob.

But I am, among other things, something of an anthropologist, and my question is this: in what sort of society did people ever find it easy to express their own truly personal thoughts? Who has ever had truly authentic opinions?

No human has ever lived who did not have a culture, and the thoughts of everyone who belongs to a culture are very much shaped by it.

You can still find traditional societies around the world in which people will deny flat out that original thought is even possible. The ancestors, they will tell you, laid down the truth about all important matters in the dawn time, and any change we might make would be for the worse. Of course this is not really correct, and the beliefs and institutions of such societies do change over time. But most traditional people would be puzzled by the very notion of having their own authentic opinions about a wide range of topics: marriage, household arrangements, hunting practices, worship, political arrangements, and so on. 

In all the societies I know anything about, writing is saturated with convention: ancient Rome, medieval western Europe, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and America. You can't read any old book with attention and not be struck by the immense weight of assumptions that lie behind every sentence. The notion of authentic, original thought, unshackled from the past, is a sort of Enlightenment fantasy.

Everyone writes to please some audience or another. To the extent that there was any discussion of this in the past, it was criticism of people who tried too hard to please the great mass of people, rather than writing for their own friends. (Aristocratic friends, it is usually implied.) Socrates did not attack the notion of trying to please anyone, but the notion of trying to please everyone; the really good people, he said, will recognize the virtue of our actions. 

Even the boldest and most original thinkers we know of emerged from some kind of society and wrote to please the people they valued within it.

I do recognize that there is a difference between saying what you believe to be true and repeating a popular phrase that you believe to be false. But how does anyone know that the beliefs of ardent Nazis or Bolsheviks were any less "authentic" than yours or mine? 

What is an authentic belief anyway? Can you authentically believe things that you were taught as a child, or things that most other people also believe? I would say, yes, you can. I would say that nothing produces more self-delusion than the constant push to be original, the way modern people are always announcing discoveries and revelations that have been discovered and revealed millions of times before.

If it is really a short step from having inauthentic opinions to mass violence, every society has been constantly on the verge of mass violence. Which, come to think of it, might be true. But it is not at all weird for great masses of people to agree about things, and to attack those who disagree. This is the human condition. We were social beings long before we developed philosophy, probably long before we developed language. We are not ever going to shrug off that legacy.

Retrospective Wisdom about Foreign Policy

Sometimes, reading the headlines, you get the impression that the people leading US foreign policy are nitwits. This is usually not true. They often say inane things in public because they think the political situation requires it, but when we eventually get access to their private memos it turns out they knew all along that their public statements were probably wrong. A good example is the notes Henry Kissinger wrote after a trip to Vietnam in 1965, in which he was scornful of all claims of US success and dubious about any eventual victory.

So it's interesting to read about the memos the Bush administration's National Security Council left for the incoming Obama team in 2009. (NY Times) From what has been made public, these seem to have been genuinely thoughtful and intelligent attempts to sum up the problems the new administration would face.

Most interesting to me are the strenuous warnings about Russian ambitions in Ukraine:

The memo on Russia concludes that Mr. Bush’s “strategy of personal diplomacy met with early success” but acknowledged that ties had soured, especially after Russia’s invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008. The memo presciently warned about Russia’s future ambitions.

“Russia attempts to challenge the territorial integrity of Ukraine, particularly in Crimea, which is 59 percent ethnically Russian and is home to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, must be prevented,” the memo warned five years before Russian forces would seize Crimea and 13 years before they would invade the rest of the country. The memo added that “Russia will exploit Europe’s dependence on Russian energy” and use political means “to drive wedges between the United States and Europe.”

On Iraq:

Iraq was central to the Bush administration’s foreign policy and still a festering problem as he was leaving office, but his surge of additional troops and a change in strategy in 2006 had helped bring down civilian deaths by nearly 90 percent. Those moves also paved the way for agreements that Mr. Bush sealed with Iraq to withdraw all American troops by the end of 2011, a time frame that Mr. Obama essentially adopted.

The Iraq memo, written by Brett McGurk, who went on to work for Mr. Obama, President Donald J. Trump and President Biden, offered no recapitulation of how the war was initiated on false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, but it did acknowledge how badly the war had gone until the surge.

“The surge strategy reset negative trends and set the conditions for longer-term stability,” the memo said. “The coming 18 months, however, may be the most strategically significant in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein,” it added, putting that in boldface. Referring to Al Qaeda of Iraq, it said, “AQI is down but not out and a series of elections will define Iraq’s future.”

The memo warned the Obama team that the situation could still unravel again: “There is no magic formula in Iraq. While our policy is now on a more stable and sustainable course, we should expect shocks to the system that will require a flexible and pragmatic approach at least through government formation in the first quarter of 2010.”

On Afghanistan:

The Bush team drew similar conclusions about Afghanistan. “Rarely, if ever, were the resources accorded to Afghanistan commensurate with the goals espoused,” Ms. O’Sullivan and two colleagues wrote in a postscript for that memo. “Policymakers overestimated the ability of the United States to produce an outcome” and “underestimated the impact of variables beyond U.S. control.”

This makes me wonder: people like me are always asking for honesty from politicians, with the feeling that the voters can handle the truth. And even if they can't in some situations, honesty from leaders will lead to a healthier democracy in the long run.

But is that true? I realize that I am setting myself against people who know a whole lot more about both foreign policy and domestic politics than I ever will. Is there a case to be made for predicting success even when you expect failure, so as to keep up morale among people executing the policy?

Friday, February 17, 2023

In New York, a Statement of Progressive Principles

The New York City Council has 51 members; last summer 35 belonged to the Progressive Caucus, giving them a clear majority. But then the leadership of the caucus published a "Statement of Principles" that they expected all members to support. At which point 15 members promptly quit, putting them back in the minority. It's a perfect illustration of American politics on the left. Of course it may be that the Progressive leaders were right here, and some of their members were not progressive at all and just took the label because they thought it would help in the primaries. Anyway, what do New York's Progressive leaders think being a progressive means?

The article that drove those 15 council members out of the caucus was probably this one:

A holistic, multistrategy approach to community safety that ensures true safety and justice. By enacting policies that build a robust public health infrastructure to provide New Yorkers with mental health support, stable housing, violence prevention teams and tools, training and employment, and harm reduction for drug use, we will do everything we can to reduce the size and scope of the NYPD and the Department of Correction, and prioritize and fund alternative safety infrastructure that truly invests in our communities.

Doing "everything we can" to reduce the size of the police department probably seemed too dangerous to many politicians in a city where crime remains a serious problem.

The other principles are:

A fair budget that incorporates a more transparent, inclusive and participatory budget process to provide strong core City services, prioritizes support for the most marginalized, protects funding for public schools, and utilizes progressive revenue streams.

Economic policy focused on the creation and preservation of jobs that provide life sustaining wages with adequate benefits, leave, and security to support a family, that enhances rates of unionization, that aims to nurture a diverse economy, and that generates affirmative opportunities to those who have been left out.

Creating and preserving safe, habitable, truly affordable housing for all New Yorkers — with a particular emphasis on low-income, very-low income, and homeless households.

High-quality, public education from early childhood education to higher education that prioritizes desegregation and reducing class sizes, as well as universal free or low-cost early childhood development (ages 0 – 5) and universal after school programs, which should enable all kids to succeed and aim to eliminate the achievement gap.

A more sustainable and environmentally just city that leads in the fight against climate change and embeds climate solutions in all policymaking.

Full civil rights for all New Yorkers regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or physical disability. This includes a commitment to the safety and well-being of LGBTQIA New Yorkers, but especially Black and brown trans women, reproductive rights for women and other people who can become pregnant, full municipal privileges and responsibilities regardless of immigration status or criminal record.

The education statement is actually a bit of New York-specific code for opposition to elite public schools with entrance requirements, a burning issue in the city. The "class size" bit is for teachers' unions, which are always focused on that, when the statistics do not show much effect on student learning. The "diverse economy" line is an attack on Wall Street. Some of the other items may also point toward particular local issues I don't recognize. But in general this is a pretty standard list of Progressive goals. 

A few notes: 

New York's progressives are still in the Simone de Beauvoir camp of wanting state daycare for babies; "parent" is one of the suspiciously missing words.

It is interesting that even progressives bring up mental health in their statement on "community safety;" the way to get even left-wing voters to care about mental health care is to tie to it to fear of crazy homeless people.

The progressives talk about lot about Civil Rights, race, and so on, but minority voters are not impressed. In the last mayoral election they went strongly for the moderate, pro-police Eric Adams, because they care more about safety than inclusive language and don't trust progressives on crime.

Otherwise the big issue, to me, is that questions of how one might go about achieving things like affordable housing and good jobs is entirely ignored. E.g., there are lot of good jobs in New York building expensive condo buildings for stock market millionaires; do we care more about jobs like that, or some abstract notion of justice?

But, hey, it's a short statement of principles, not an actual plan, so maybe it's not the place to look for such details. But the older I get the less impressed I am by such vague statements and the more I want to know what your plan is.

Links 17 February 2023

Ma Yuan, Immortal Riding a Dragon, early 13th century (detail)

AI Chatbots as romantic partners.

Striking images of ground displacement during Turkey's earthquake.

In Ethiopia, church leaders in the Oromia region are trying to secede from the Ethiopian Church and have named their own Patriarch. This is actually an ancient theme; Ethiopia is an old kingdom, but its boundaries have grown and shrunk over the centuries, and for much of its history it was highly decentralized, with some regions nearly independent. The recent conflicts we have seen over movements for independence or autonomy in Tigray and now Oromia repeat similar struggles going back a thousand years.

The strange history of Mazdak, a heretical Zoroastrian priest who may also have been a social revolutionary – if he even existed, which is disputed – and Mazdakism, which some people think had a very long-term impact on the religious landscape of Persia.

I won't even attempt to summarize the experience that Vincent Lloyd, a black professor of black studies and author of books like Black Dignity, went through when he tried to lead a summer seminar in anti-racist studies. The title of his essay is "A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell."

One of the founders of the modern chicken industry was Cecile Steele of Ocean View, Delaware, who was shipped 500 chicks by mistake and decided to expand her operation to raise all of them.

Toxic train derailment in an Ohio town where some residents recently appeared as extras in a movie about a toxic train derailment. Lots of freaky stories about animal deaths and so on, but remember that there are always stories like that and most of them turn out not to be true.

Busy woodpeckers fill a wall with 700 pounds of acorns.

Obituary of Solomon Perel, a Jew who survived the Holocaust by claiming to be German and becoming a member of the Hitler Youth. His story was told in the film Europa, Europa.

A trove of coded letters Mary Queen of Scotts sent from prison, long thought to be lost, have been rediscovered and deciphered. (News story, original article)

Short video titled the "Thingamajig Convention."

Who knew that Bolivia had a big skateboarding scene, and a lot of youg women with serious skater attitude?

Vox reviews the 115-year history of fighting over whether gas stoves are safe. Pushes for regulation are not new and have little to do with climate change.

The staggering cost of peer review.

Long, interesting interview with art critic Jed Perl, good on the relationship between art and politics. Trotsky has a lot to answer for here, as the most famous proponent of the view that "artistic freedom" means the freedom of artists to criticize society and thus serve the Revolution.

Ukraine Links

Short video that seems to show the Zatoka Bridge near Odessa being hit by a Russian naval drone.

The Wagner-associated Grey Zone telegram goes hard after the Russian commanders who ordered the failed assault on Vuhledar, implies that at least one officer was killed by his men during that operation. And here Grey Zone says the attack was only launched so the army would have a success to compete with Wagner's taking Soledar.

Some Russian moblinks make a video protesting the way they were used, sent to attack a very strong position with no support and few weapons.

Watch an entire formation of Russian armored vehicles all run over mines, one after another.

Modern tanks are engineered to hold their gun barrels steady so they can fire on the move, hence the beer on the barrel challenge.

Ukraine is badgering its allies so hard to supply more tanks, IFVs, and artillery because they have expanded their combat force from 27 to 103 combat brigades and now have 500,000 under arms.

Ukrainian MOD claims that the Russian 155th Naval Infantry Brigade was "destroyed" in their attack on Vuhledar, losing their command staff, 36 tanks, and 94 other vehicles and artillery pieces.

Good long interview with the commander of a Ukrainian reserve artillery brigade. When the war started his unit had only a cadre of 52 men and was staffed up to more than a thousand with volunteers, who were fighting in two weeks.

The criminals recruited to fight with Wagner in Ukraine include three notorious crime bosses