Tuesday, December 06, 2016
Nikil Saval in n + 1:
The "NO" vote triumph is being assimilated in the Anglo-American press to the broad journalistic narrative of “anti-establishment populist revolt.” But the message to be derived from it is distinct from the votes for Brexit, or for Trump; for once this year (twice, if you include the narrow escape in Austria), a vote brings good news.
The campaign for Italian constitutional reform was characterized by lies, wishful fantasies, and projections. Immensely complicated and virtually incomprehensible as a written document, the constitutional reform had nonetheless a simple goal: to eliminate an entire chamber of the legislature and reduce the proportional representation of Italian voters, and thereby increase the power of the centrist parties and the prime minister, on the idea that it would make Italian governance easier. The details of the referendum were hashed out by Silvio Berlusconi and the vacuous puffin Matteo Renzi, current leader of the centrist Democratic Party (PD), before the latter had even entered Parliament.
The nature of the support made it obvious who expected to benefit. “Basta un sì” was pushed by Confindustria, the major business federation; JP Morgan; Wolfgang Schäuble; Jean-Claude Juncker; Sergio Marchionne; Barack Obama. (Berlusconi, cannily, turned against his own deal, once he recognized that its passage would tilt forces away from the Right in favor of Renzi.)
Sheherzad Preisler in Nautilus:
In May this year, Curtis Cetrulo, a plastic-reconstructive surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, performed the first penis transplant in the United States. Previously his patient, Thomas Manning, 64, had most of his penis amputated to stem penis cancer, a rare form of the disease. Since the transplant, Manning has received a wave of media attention, and been a remarkably good sport about it. After the amputation, he told the New York Times, “I couldn’t have a relationship with anybody. You can’t tell a woman, ‘I had a penis amputation.’”
Cetrulo is thankful that Manning has been so good-natured about the media attention . “He’s doing it because he wants people to realize there’s some hope, despite the fact that no one’s talking about it,” Cetrulo says. And they should be. “The penile transplant-seeking patient population is desperate,” Cetrulo says. According to Cetrulo, more than 1,500 soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan who are awaiting penile transplants.
We spoke to Cetrulo about Manning’s operation, how Manning’s faring, and about the future of penis-transplant surgery.
How did you get involved in transplanting penises?
We had done a hand transplant here in 2012, and I was presenting that case in our transplant rounds when two people approached me and asked if this was possible for penile transplants.
Phil Torres in Motherboard (at Vice):
Motherboard: Trump has repeatedly painted an apocalyptic picture of contemporary America. He has talked about (black) people getting shot while walking down the street, about terrorists disguising themselves as refugeesfleeing the atrocities of Syria, and about Mexico sending its “criminals” and “rapists” across the southern border. Could you briefly explain why this characterization of the contemporary US is factually wrong?
Steven Pinker: Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for newsreaders to believe that apocalyptic picture. The news media give lavish coverage to violent incidents, seldom follow up on negative reportage in the past, and rarely put events in statistical or historical perspective. Worse, they allow themselves to be played by violence impresarios, namely terrorists and rampage killers, who correctly anticipate that they can attract the world’s attention by killing a number of innocent people at once. This is true not just of tabloids and cable news chasing eyeballs and clicks, but of high-quality outlets who feel that by highlighting what goes wrong, they are discharging their duty as watchdogs, muckrakers, and afflicters of the comfortable.
The facts are as follows. The rate of violent crime is lower now than it was at any time between 1966 and 2009. Immigrants have a lower rate of violent crime than American citizens. Terrorists kill just three-tenths of one percent of all American homicide victims. The rate of death from terrorism in the United States was higher in the early 1970s than it is today. And since 2002, more Americans have been killed by right-wing American terrorists than by Islamic terrorists. It’s true that the rate of violent crime went up between 2014 and 2015, most likely a consequence of the retreat of active policing since Ferguson. But it’s a small uptick in the context of the massive downward trend since 1992.
Video length: 3:53
I know this sounds crazy—believe me, I know—but I just saw 19 Errol Flynn movies in a row (from Captain Blood, the 1935 film that made him instantly famous, to 1953’s The Master of Ballantrae, his last decent film and good performance before he died in 1959, only 50 years old), and I just read all three of the books he wrote, and I have read an awful lot written and said about him by other people.
One, Errol Flynn is one of the greatest actors I have ever seen, and I have been utterly absorbed in movies and movie actors since I was five years old when my sister took me to a movie theater for the first time (to see the new hit The Swiss Family Robinson). I am no professional critic, I am no scholar, but anyone who has seen thousands of actors in maybe 2,000 films has an informed opinion beyond his own taste.
Two, Flynn’s colorful life off screen—as dashing lover, epic seducer, irrepressible rake, suave man-about-town, innocent defendant in a spurious rape trial (the charges trumped up by a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department furious at Warner Bros. for not paying the usual bribe), legendary imbiber, and penniless star who lived his last years cruising the world on his boat—overshadows the superb acting he did on screen.
Contrary to what, Googling around, you might assume, obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. “There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt.” Those sentences are from the opening pages of Henry Miller’s first novel, “Tropic of Cancer,” which was published in France in 1934. Are they obscene? It took thirty years, but American courts eventually decided that they are not, and therefore the book they appear in cannot be banned. To get to that result, judges had to ignore the usual understanding of “obscene”—most people probably think that if “cunt” isn’t obscene, what is?—and invent a new definition for constitutional purposes. But the decision changed the way books, and, soon afterward, movies and music, are created, sold, and consumed. Depending on your point of view, it either lowered the drawbridge or opened the floodgates.
“Tropic of Cancer” is not a verbal artifact to everyone’s taste, but it made a deep impression on two people in a position to advance its fortunes. The first was Jack Kahane. Kahane was born in 1887 in Manchester, the son of Romanian Jews who had settled in the North of England and made, then lost, a fortune in the textile business. He was a Francophile, and, when the First World War broke out, in 1914, he went off to France to fight for civilization. He was gassed and badly wounded in the trenches at Ypres. But he had fallen in love with a Frenchwoman, Marcelle Girodias, from a well-off family; they married in 1917, and remained in France. In 1929, he decided to go into the book business.
He had plenty of company. Between the wars, Paris was home to many English-language presses. There were two basic types. The first specialized in modernist writers.
I became utterly in thrall to London. I wanted nothing more than to think of myself as legitimate there. To be real. To be a “Londoner,” or at least to be able to say, “I live in London.” I kept dwelling on the vague temporal qualifications each of these identities required. How long till you’re living there, and not just visiting? Is it three months? Six? How long till you’re a “Londoner”? Is it five years? Seven? Or do you have to be from there? I attempted rampant assimilation. Having pointedly refused anything but instant coffee in all my days, I became a filter coffee convert, in the way of my new people. I felt an immense satisfaction and sense of belonging when I could publicly cling to a paper coffee cup.
After a few months, my best friend arrived from Johannesburg. The year before we had declared that we were going to do this together: Big Ben, Beatles, pounds, center-of-everything, discover-the-world. We found our own place: it had bay windows; or, more accurately, it was a bay window. The space probably began life as a reading nook or something, back when there was enough London to go around, but by the time we showed up it had been transformed into a stand-alone studio. Likely it’s been subdivided again since then. We practiced, in these first efforts at running our own home, forgoing every imaginable tenet of domestic hygiene, without incident.
We stayed in the same room, we read the same books out loud to each other, and a few weeks in we managed to find the same job.
Roni Caryn Rabin in The New York Times:
Protein has achieved a venerated status in the dietary world for everything from building muscle to preventing weight gain. But can you get too much of a good thing? Protein powders that come in chocolate, strawberry, and cookies and cream flavors are doled out by the scoopful and mixed into smoothies, making it possible to effortlessly consume protein in amounts that far exceed dietary recommendations. A canned protein drink can contain almost as much protein as an eight-ounce steak, and snack bars or a small bag of protein chips can pack more of the macronutrient than a three-egg omelet. But while some nutritionists have encouraged the protein craze, a number of experts are urging caution. They point out that protein powders and supplements, which come from animal products like whey and casein (byproducts of cheese manufacturing) or from plants like soy, rice, pea or hemp, are a relatively new invention. The vast majority of Americans already get more than the recommended daily amounts of protein from food, they say, and there are no rigorous long-term studies to tell us how much protein is too much. “It’s an experiment,” said Dr. John E. Swartzberg, chairman of the editorial board of the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter. “No one can tell you the long-term effects, and that’s what worries me as a physician. No one can tell you what the results are going to be in people’s bodies 10 or 15 years later.” People need sufficient protein in the diet because it supplies indispensable amino acids that our bodies cannot synthesize on their own. Together they provide the essential building blocks used to make and maintain muscle, bone, skin and other tissues and an array of vital hormones and enzymes.
But the average adult can achieve the recommended intake — 46 grams of protein a day for women, and 56 grams for men — by eating moderate amounts of protein-rich foods like meat, fish, dairy products, beans or nuts every day. There are about 44 grams of protein in a cup of chopped chicken, 20 grams in a cup of tofu or serving of Greek yogurt, and 18 grams in a cup of lentils or three eggs. American men already consume much greater amounts, averaging nearly 100 grams of protein a day, according to a 2015 analysis of the 2007-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January, cautioned that some people, especially teenage boys and adult men, should “reduce overall intake of protein foods” and eat more vegetables.
Monday, December 05, 2016
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Still reeling from the unexpected outcome of the US presidential election, commentators understandably have begun diagnosing the political and intellectual condition of the country. One assessment that has been gaining traction especially among Left-leaning intellectuals is that, in electing Mr. Trump to the Presidency, the United States has embraced a "post-truth" politics. Though quickly becoming a predominant theme of political commentary, as yet the term does not have a unified meaning. Arguably, it refers instead to a several related but distinct phenomena. But if the term is going to serve any useful diagnostic function, it is necessary to disambiguate its central uses.
Most commonly, "post-truth" is employed to mark the fact that apparently a large segment of the electorate holds that although Ms. Clinton's alleged dishonesty disqualifies her for office, Mr. Trump's dozens of demonstrable lies, deceptions, and whole-cloth fabrications are acceptable, if not positively admirable. That is, our politics has become "post-truth" in that lying and dissembling no longer necessarily count against a politician. But when one regards lying as disqualifying only for one's political opponents, one reveals that one's concern isn't really with truth telling at all. One is appealing to truth in a strictly opportunistic way.
A second deployment of "post-truth" is closely related, though more radical. It concerns the newfound force of unrelenting denial. When caught in a lie or fabrication, Mr. Trump's leading tactic is to flatly deny that he ever said the lying or fabricated thing that, provably, he said. This goes beyond President Bill Clinton's infamously tortured semantics concerning "the meaning of ‘is'." Here, Trump embraces the view of Humpty Dumpty, whose words mean whatever he at any moment declares them to mean. When meaning is fixed wholly by the speaker's will, what the speaker has said is no long evaluable by anyone but the speaker himself. Hence our politics is post-truth not only in that lying, and even asserting falsehood, is conceptually impossible. There could be no such thing as lying for those who, like Carrol's egg, refuse to be mastered by words, even by their own words.
by Jonathan Kujawa
On the occasion of Richard Guy's 100th birthday.
Human beings have a talent for spotting patterns. No doubt this was handy in our early days. If both Ug and Oka were violently ill after eating purple berries from a particular bush, our clan was well served to notice and avoid those berries in the future. If anything, evolution encourages us to be overly quick to infer patterns. Better safe than sorry. No need for a double blind, randomized trial with a large sample size when life and death are on the line.
Our keen sense for what is random and what is not works both for and against us. After all, as we saw last month, it was Pick's keen eye for patterns which lead him to discover his beautiful formula. For an easier example, let's write down the first few numbers of the Fibonacci sequence:
It only takes a minute to spot the rule used to generate these numbers. With a little more time we can even guess exactly which ones are even and which ones are odd .
Now imagine I tell you that I flipped two coins twenty-one times and got:
Coin A: TTTTHTTHHTTHTTTTHHHTT,
Coin B: HTTHTTHTTHTTHTTHTTHTT.
You would have to be an awfully trusting person to believe that both are fair coins and that I faithfully flipped and recorded the results. Our pattern seeking brain notices the regularity of Coin B. It violates our sense of what a "random" sequence of coin flips should look like. Mathematically we know each string of coins flips is equally likely. But even the most steely mathematician would be hard pressed to bet against Coin B next coming up heads.
A great icebreaker on the first day of teaching is to ask the students generate two lists of 100 coin flips: one by flipping a real coin and one by hand. Even though they do this while the instructor is out of the room, the instructor invariably can identify which is list is which. The secret is to look for long runs of heads, tails, or other patterns (like Coin B). Since all outcomes are equally likely to the coin it will happily generate strings of heads in a row. Human brains, however, notice such patterns and veto them in their effort to fake a random sequence of heads and tails. There is a running joke on this theme in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
when words make love sentences are born
the world’s heft is changed by the weight of nouns,
the hesitations of hyphens and commas,
like the space between breaths,
tell the rhythm of what’s new and what’s been,
the dead stops of periods spell the end of what a breath holds,
adjectives, like the blood blush of infants
color clauses, articles wrap things in skin,
pronouns, unlike the particular names of new beings,
often identify the generalities of their forms by inclusion,
by saying, “We,” suggesting that mine and thine share,
and verbs are the darting eyes of fresh life,
the spastic gestures of unfamiliarity, the random smiles
that pass in the features of infants, sudden, uncalled-for
and of course the cautious steps of the old
reaching for footholds that once came naturally,
without thought, before the foreshadows of final words
by Daniel Ranard
—A.R. Ammons, in Guide
The world is usually grasped by its pieces. We may speak of a "holistic" perspective, but it's hard to understand all of a thing at once, or even to talk about it all at once. So we delineate pieces within the whole; we analyze the pieces and their interactions. For instance, to understand the recent political changes in the United States, it is uninformative to treat society monolithically. On the other hand, it's impossible to consider the disparate lives of every citizen at once. Instead, we delineate groups within the whole of society – political groups, racial groups, geographic groups – and discuss their interplay. Some delineations are more useful than others; it's probably difficult to understand the 2016 election in terms of cat- and dog-lovers. And all delineations share some degree of blurriness or arbitrariness: race is already a blurry construction, and though it may be crystallized in a bureaucratic form, the distinction only makes it more arbitrary. Through these delineations, we come to understand the otherwise formless and chaotic world and even to create our experience within it.
Imagine viewing all of human history as a video on fast-forward; observed all at once, you see only the tangled scurrying human beings. You cannot usefully describe what you see, nor guess what might happen next. But to the historian, history is not formless, though it may require hard work and ingenuity to find the right units of analysis. The traditional divisions of global society into self-described nation states and political institutions may serve you well, but new divisions may also be informative. In What is Global History?, Sebastian Conrad outlines the view that historians must not "accept political entities a priori as the boundaries of analysis, but instead trace the actual scope of entanglements and interconnections and work form there." For instance, Marx chose to analyze history as an interplay of social classes. New perspectives might require more than the simple re-organization of people into different groups; historians might also invent new abstractions, such as the concept of capital, that help organize their observations.
These abstractions can be world-changing and world-making. That is, we live in the world of our chosen abstractions, which shape our narratives about ourselves and society. Although we choose these delineations and abstractions ourselves, I would not draw the radical conclusion that all choices are equal, or that the world is anything we make of it. Some choices are more useful, or maybe also more true or beautiful.
“Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design”, current exhibition at The Jewish Museum, New York.
"Commenting on Chareau’s work and the exhibition design, DS+R’s (exhibition design) founding partner, Elizabeth Diller, noted, “Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design is an opportunity to return to a significant figure in every architect’s education, but one primarily known through only one masterwork, the Maison de Verre. This exhibition is a rare opportunity to see so much of Chareau’s creative output brought together in one place. The challenge in undertaking its design was to provide a multi-faceted and imaginative backdrop that would highlight, but not compete with, his exceptional mastery of detailing and assemblage. By engaging with Chareau’s furniture, interiors, and collected ephemera, we are able to absorb and represent his idiosyncratic voice, which has had relatively little exposure in the U.S.'"
by Olivia Zhu
A month ago, I wrote about haikus that wended their way through the Internet and found me. Really, truly—I hadn’t gone looking for them, had read them casually, and thought I might forget them. “And yet, and yet…” Chiyo-ni’s and Issa’s haikus kept nagging at me, so I looked for the translations that spoke most to me and wrote about them. Their mark lingers still, though, and when I passed by a used copy of Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Bashō to Shiki in a bookstore, I had to pick it up.
Relatively speaking, it’s quite an old book on haiku. Published in 1958, it now appears to be out of print—so I really felt quite fortunate stumbling across as a clueless neophyte. It’s so old that inflation dictated I pay almost double the $1.45 that’s listed on the duck-decorated paperback cover, even in the book’s well-loved condition—still well worth it, of course. From what little I’ve read online, it seems likely that Henderson might have contributed to initial interest in haiku in America, as he helped found the Haiku Society of America and published some of the earliest English-language works on Japanese haiku.
by Jalees Rehman
Less than one fifth of PhD students in the United States will be able to pursue tenure track academic faculty careers once they graduate from their program. Reduced federal funding for research and dwindling support from the institutions for their tenure-track faculty are some of the major reasons for why there is such an imbalance between the large numbers of PhD graduates and the limited availability of academic positions. Upon completing the program, PhD graduates have to consider non-academic job opportunities such as in the industry, government agencies and non-profit foundations but not every doctoral program is equally well-suited to prepare their graduates for such alternate careers. It is therefore essential for prospective students to carefully assess the doctoral program they want to enroll in and the primary mentor they would work with. The best approach is to proactively contact prospective mentors, meet with them and learn about the research opportunities in their group but also discuss how completing the doctoral program would prepare them for their future careers.
The vast majority of professors will gladly meet a prospective graduate student and discuss research opportunities as well as long-term career options, especially if the student requesting the meeting clarifies the goal of the meeting. However, there are cases when students wait in vain for a response. Is it because their email never reached the professor because it got lost in the internet ether or a spam folder? Was the professor simply too busy to respond? A research study headed by Katherine Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the lack of response from the professor may in part be influenced by the perceived race or gender of the student.
by Brooks Riley
by Dwight Furrow
There is an ingrained set of assumptions and attitudes about creativity in the arts that harms our understanding of art and ultimately human existence. That is the idea of the artist as a relatively unconstrained maker, a fashioner ex nihilo who brings something new into being solely through the force of her imagination and capacity for self-expression. We might contrast this with an older view of art perhaps best expressed by this quote attributed to Michelangelo:
"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."
On the view expressed by Michelangelo, an artist is like a skillful craftsperson who attends to the inherent qualities of a piece of raw material, it's shape, grain, texture or color, and then decides what she can do with it. Art is too varied and complex to wholly fit either description, both of which are drawn too starkly, but I want to make the case that Michelangelo's view has more to recommend it than first meets the eye.
Aesthetic appreciation is often described in terms of adopting an aesthetic attitude, a state of mind in which one attends sympathetically and with focused attention to the aesthetic features of objects. Part of that aesthetic attitude is a willingness to be receptive to what is in the work, to refrain from imposing preconceptions on it, to let the work speak for itself. The viewer or listener must open herself up to being moved by the work and to discover all there is to be discovered in it. As important as this attitude of openness and receptivity is to appreciating art, it would be exceedingly odd if this aesthetic attitude was not also part of the process of creating the work. But if we take this receptive attitude seriously it shows the limitations of our assumptions about artists as ultimate masters.
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
We are at the Original Pancake House. Walking through these double doors, a life-size mirror is always the first to meet me, but I am never shocked by the reflection as I am now. Does the wallpaper seem more ivory than before? Are the white tablecloths casting a glare? Am I more brown? I catch several glances in the mirror, of breakfast-eaters looking up to see who has entered. Complexion is the new currency. The Election season of 2016 has ended with rising fear and fading nuance. Shades of skin are suddenly coining new dialects of silence. Language, as we know it, is shedding gradations— those gray areas where subtlety of thought resides; nuance is becoming obsolete like discarded snakeskin, but unlike snakeskin, it will not regenerate on its own.
My husband and I discuss the menu in our usual English mixed with Urdu; he orders a German pancake and a vegetarian omelet. Years ago, when we came here for the first time, he declared that the German pancakes at this restaurant were authentic and reminded him of his mother. His mother is originally from Berlin where she met and married his father (a student from Pakistan) after she converted to Islam in the ‘60s. They moved to Karachi a few years later and have lived there ever since.
Sunday, December 04, 2016
Ray Monk in the New York Review of Books:
Thus, in the New Year of 1929, was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge announced by John Maynard Keynes in a letter to his wife, Lydia Lopokova. Wittgenstein had previously been at Cambridge before World War I as a student of Bertrand Russell, but had acquired his godlike status through the publication after the war of his first and only book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was very quickly recognized as a work of genius by philosophers in both Cambridge and his home city of Vienna. Wittgenstein himself was initially convinced that it provided definitive solutions to all the problems of philosophy, and accordingly gave up philosophy in favor of schoolteaching. In 1929, however, he returned to Cambridge to think again about philosophical problems, having become convinced that his book did not, in fact, solve them once and for all.
What drew him back to Cambridge was not the prospect of working again with Russell, who by this time (having been stripped of his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, because of his opposition to World War I) was a freelance journalist, a political activist, and only intermittently a philosopher. Rather, it was the opportunity of working with Frank Ramsey, the man who had persuaded him of the flaws in the Tractatus. Most significantly, Ramsey had shown that the account Wittgenstein gives of the nature of logic in the Tractatus could not be entirely correct.
Belén Fernández in Jacobin:
The late Alexander Cockburn, reflecting on the work of decorated New York Times foreign affairs columnist and neoliberal warmonger extraordinaire Thomas Friedman, once observed: “Friedman’s is an industrial, implacable noise, like having a generator running under the next table in a restaurant. The only sensible thing to do is leave.”
But while generators at least serve a rather obvious function, the same can’t usually be said of Friedman, who has just spewed out his latest unnecessarily humongous book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.
In the nearly eight hundred pages that comprise my electronic version of the manuscript, there is approximately one glimmer of hope: the point at which Friedman remarks that this is “maybe my last book.”
The title Thank You for Being Late is a reference to Friedman’s realization that when his Washington, DC breakfast companions are a few minutes tardy, he can use the time not only to people-watch and eavesdrop on neighboring conversations but also to have ideas. Who knew?
Ethan Siegel in Forbes:
Perhaps the greatest discovery of all announced in 2016 was the direct detection of gravitational waves. Even though they had been predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity 101 years prior, it took the development of a laser interferometer sensitive to ripples in space that would displace two mirrors separated by multiple kilometers by less than 10^-19 meters, or 1/10,000th the width of a proton. This finally came to pass during LIGO's 2015 data run, and two bona fide black hole-black hole merger events unambiguously popped out of the data. But how does physics actually allow this? Mārtiņš Kalvāns wants to know:
This question has puzzled me for a long time. Articles about LIGO discovery state that some percentage of black hole merger mass was radiated away, leaving [a] resulting black hole smaller than [the] sum of [the] original mergers. Yet it is accepted that nothing escapes black holes [...] So my question is: how was energy radiated from black hole mergers?
This is a really deep question, and goes straight to the heart of black hole physics and general relativity.
How Stigma Sows Seeds of Its Own Defeat: Defending the liberal project is a Sisyphean task in part because successfully inculcating liberal norms leads to habits that weaken the ability to sustain them
Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic:
In the Western world, the percentage of people who say that it is essential to live in a democracy is in precipitous decline. In the United States, only 19 percent of millennials agree that it would be illegitimate for the military to take control of government. The president-elect routinely speculates about authoritarian policies, like stripping citizenship from those who burn the American flag in protest.
During a bygone crisis in global politics, when the liberal order was under sustained attack, Friedrich Hayek published this diagnosis of the challenge before liberals:
If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations. What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same conviction; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking. This may be inevitable because no statement of an ideal that is likely to sway men’s minds can be complete: it must be adapted to a given climate of opinion, presuppose much that is accepted by all men of the time, and illustrate general principles in terms of issues with which they are concerned.
The passage resurfaced this week when Will Wilkinson, in-house philosopher at the Niskanen Center, cited it to suggest that the Sisyphean task of saving liberalism is now ours, the boulder at our feet, the struggle of the hill looming once again.
“If the old truths are not updated for each new age, they will slip from our grasp and lose our allegiance,” he wrote. “The terms in which those truths have been couched will become hollow, potted mottoes, will fail to galvanize, inspire, and move us. The old truths will remain truths, but they’ll be dismissed and neglected as mere dogma, noise. And the liberal, open society will again face a crisis of faith.”
Across the Western world, liberals are grappling with how to execute that project. And while I have no pat answer, I do see an obstacle to success that’s worth understanding.