When Bernard Williams died in June 2003, the obituary in The Timessaid that “he will be remembered as the most brilliant and most important British moral philosopher of his time”. It goes on to make clear that Williams was far from the dry, awkward, detached academic philosopher of caricature.
Born in Essex in 1929, Williams had an extraordinary and, in some respects, glamorous life. He not only enjoyed a stellar academic career – holding a series of distinguished posts at Oxford, UCL, Cambridge and Berkeley – but was also a public figure in British political and cultural life. He played, for example, a leading role in several high profile government committees and reports, and served for almost two decades on the board of the English National Opera. He had, moreover, an easy confidence and charm, a lucidity of expression, and a sharp and, at times, acerbic wit (which could alarm both friends and foes alike).
Although these achievements and qualities are impressive, what he will be remembered for chiefly is his significant contribution to philosophy, which spanned a wide spectrum of topics. It is in the field of ethics, in particular, that his contributions are of the most lasting importance. And yet there is a real sense in which he remains a rather enigmatic figure – and the interpretation of his work continues to be a matter of considerable debate.
In her short, sharp book, the historian Sophia Rosenfeld takes a longer and deeper view. Her argument is that, ever since its origins in the late 18th century, modern democracy has had a peculiar relationship to truth: the current crisis merely epitomises that. We shouldn’t focus only on external causes, for our system of government carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. As in her previous work on the twisted history of democratic political rhetoric, it’s a simultaneously reassuring and unsettling message.
The essential problem, as Rosenfeld sees it, is that democratic government is predicated on an aspiration to collective truth. Unlike older systems of aristocratic and monarchical rule, which excluded the people from power and stressed the need for administrative secrecy, the new republics of the late 18th century, and the more egalitarian mass democracies that succeeded them, depended on openness and trust between citizens and rulers. Through the free discussion and united wisdom of the educated and the masses, errors would be dispelled, “public knowledge” established and societies advanced. And yet, she points out, the reality has never lived up to this powerful ideal. From the outset, democratic societies contained vast inequalities of power and education, and their media have always been driven by commercial and partisan imperatives. In practice, instead of a free civil marketplace of ideas, politics has always been a vicious fight over the truth and the power of determining it.
[I]f you think of the European Coal and Steel Community as the original kernel of the European integration project [in 1951], the whole project was to say, “We’ve got this tightly interconnected economic sector that has powerful geopolitical and broader historical implications, so we have to neutralize it. And the way we’re going to neutralize it is this mechanism.”
They did that with agriculture as well, in the early 1960s. They said, “Peasants are a big chunk of our population, a key part of this historical transformation, and politically potentially really lethal, and so as we stabilize, let’s have this Common Agricultural Policy.”
It’s really telling to me that before the 2008 crisis the Europeans were unable politically to draw on that and say, “Right, we’re building this tightly interconnected economic sector — finance. It has potentially explosive implications for the eurozone project. Clearly, we need to have a banking union, and we need to have it straight away and right from the beginning.”
A massive amount of ink has already been spilled trying to figure out what has gone wrong, but two narratives can be plucked from the confusion. The first focuses on economic change. Over the past few decades growth has slowed, inequality has risen, and social mobility has declined, particularly in the United States. This has made life more insecure for the working and middle classes by privileging highly educated and urban dwellers over less-educated and rural ones, and spreading economic risk, fear of the future, and social divisions throughout Western societies. The second narrative focuses on social change. During this same period, traditional norms and attitudes about religion, sexuality, family life, and more have been challenged by the emergence of feminist, LGBTI, and other social movements. Meanwhile, massive immigration and (especially in the United States) the mobilization of hitherto oppressed minority groups like African Americans has disrupted existing status and political hierarchies, making many white citizens in particular uncomfortable, resentful, and angry.
Most analysis stops here, at viewing economic or social change or some combination of the two as leading inevitably to dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and a readiness to embrace populist, illiberal, or even undemocratic alternatives. The issue, of course, is that social, economic, and technological change alone are not the problem—they only become so if politicians and governments don’t help citizens adjust to them. If we want, therefore, to understand liberal democracy’s current problems, we need to examine not only such changes, but also how elites and governments have responded to them.
His book is a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.” It was a Democratic representative from Oklahoma who gave this verdict of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s chronicle of migrants leaving the Dust Bowl for California. Disdained by the political elite and much of the literary set, it was nonetheless the best-selling book of 1939. Today’s parallels with the 1930s give Steinbeck’s work renewed urgency. He writes about farm labourers, shopkeepers and the denizens of village taverns – the kinds of people who, before the enormous political upheaval of 2016, the chattering classes barely remembered. In the age of Trump, mass-migration and the phenomenon of the ‘left behind’, Steinbeck’s work is just as relevant as when he wrote it. But more than that: reading Steinbeck fifty years after his death is the perfect antidote to the culture war that has gripped America.
As in the 1930s, machinery – today it’s automation – threaten traditional livelihoods and ways of life in the United States. The Rust Belt is today’s version of the Dust Bowl of the Depression. “One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families,” representatives of city-based corporations explain to the tenant families working the Oklahoma land in The Grapes of Wrath. Unconcerned by the fabric of local communities, the agents suggest the families abandon their homes. “Why don’t you go west to California? … You can reach out anywhere and pick an orange,” they advise, incentivising migration, like the local authorities today who pack homeless people on buses and send them to other American cities.
Jan Mattlin was having what counts as a bad day in Kauniainen. He had driven to the town’s train station and found nowhere to park. Mildly piqued, he called the local newspaper to suggest a small article about the lack of parking spots. To Mr. Mattlin’s surprise, the editor put the story on the front page. “We have very few problems here,” recalled Mr. Mattlin, a partner at a private equity firm. “Maybe they didn’t have any other news available.” Such is the charmed life in Kauniainen (pronounced: COW-nee-AY-nen), a small and wealthy Finnish town that can lay claim to being the happiest place on the planet. Finland was named the world’s happiest country by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in April, based on polling results from 156 nations. And a second survey found that Kauniainen’s 9,600 residents were the most satisfied in Finland, leading the local mayor, Christoffer Masar, to joke that theirs was the happiest town on earth.
…Kauniainen’s blandly named Adult Education Center, a tall building on the edge of town, did not sound promising. But it was here, not the bar, where large numbers of residents were having fun that evening. In the basement, they were weaving carpets on vast looms, and making pottery. On the ground floor, a choir was singing. On the floors above, others were painting replicas of Orthodox Christian icons — or practicing yoga. Subsidized by both the state and the city, the center offers cheap evening classes to residents “in basically anything that people might be interested in,” said Roger Renman, the center’s director.
Note: Translations in italics are literal translations by the reviewer, whereas those in bold italics are by the M. Shahid Alam in the book under review.
In reviewing “Intimations of Ghalib”, a new translation of selected ghazals of the Urdu poet Ghalib by M. Shahid Alam, let it be said at the outset that translating classical Urdu ghazal into any language – possibly excepting Persian – is an almost impossible task, and translating Ghalib’s ghazals even more so. The use of symbolism, the aphoristic aspect of each couplet, the frequent play on words, and the packing of multiple meanings into a single verse are all too easy to lose in translation. And no Urdu poet used all these devices more pervasively and subtly than Ghalib, and even learned scholars can disagree strongly on the “correct” meaning of particular verses. As such, Alam set himself an impossible task, and the result is, among other things, a demonstration of this.
But first the positive – and there is much. The translator has made an admirable decision to retain the couplet structure of the ghazal in all translations, and in some cases, rhyme and refrain as well. In doing this, he has often succeeded in capturing the flavor of the ghazal genre, which is defined by strict rules of form, as described in the book’s Introduction. And even where he has struggled as a translator – indeed, often most in those places – Alam has succeeded more as a poet. Ultimately, the best part of this book is its intellectually honest and diligent attempt to grapple with its difficult task. In the process, Alam succeeds in creating a valuable work of literature that many readers should find accessible and enjoyable.
Before getting to the translations, the reader must read through the translator’s Introduction, which introduces both Ghalib and the genre of ghazal simply and elegantly. Mirza Asadullah Khan (1797-1869) – better known by his nom de plume, Ghalib – is generally regarded as one of the two or three greatest poets in the rich literary tradition of Urdu poetry. He lived in “interesting” times and at the center of calamitous events. Associated with the court of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar – an emperor in name only – Ghalib saw even that nominal glory go up in smoke during the rebellion of 1857, which led to the final British takeover of India and the end of the Mughal period. In the aftermath, Ghalib saw his own prospects diminished, many of his friends executed or exiled, and his world destroyed by forces he barely understood. In both his poetry and in his marvelous corpus of letters that are regarded as masterpiece of Urdu prose, Ghalib was able to create a persona and an ethos that is simultaneously individualistic, irreverent, complex, long-suffering and – paradoxically – good humored. His poetry, which is the focus of the book under review, is famous for both its philosophical depth and its Shakespearean insight into human nature. Read more »
Britain’s large country houses are original and distinctive, and they can be seen gracing the landscape from prime positions in the countryside. They are admired for their many features: their elegant architecture, the artistic treasures they house, the curatorial opportunities they offer, their landscaped gardens and grounds, and their representation of British genteel living. However, despite the obvious elegance of these houses, my response to them has usually been to view them in terms of, at worst, expressions of the British class system, and gross inequalities of wealth, power and privilege, and at best, as monuments to the skills of the tradesmen responsible for the construction of those houses. But Martin Belam’s article ‘Glasgow University to Make Amends Over Slavery Profits of the Past’ (Guardian Sept 17, 2018) was to change all that. It sent me on a reading journey that ended in me rethinking the representation of those iconic features of Britain’s countryside.
Belam’s article is a commentary on the ‘Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow’ report (Mullen Newman 2018). The report acknowledges the University’s pride in its history of opposition to the transatlantic slave trade, the institution of slavery, and the involvement of many of its alumni in the abolitionist movement. However, the report concluded that ‘although the University of Glasgow never owned enslaved people or traded in goods they produced, it is nonetheless clear that the University received significant gifts and support from people who derived some or occasionally much of their wealth from slavery’, particularly in the West Indies during the 18thand 19thcenturies. The value of the financial endowments and prizes to the University runs into tens of millions of pounds, depending on how the amount is calculated in the present-day. The findings have prompted the University to commit to the implementation of a ‘Programme of reparative justice’.
The Glasgow University’s willingness to engage with the darker side of its history is admirable, and it is to be hoped that more institutions will follow suit and make known the origins of the financial contributions received during that period of British history, and embark on their own strategies of reparative justice should they need to do so. The findings in the report have also added to our existing knowledge of the relationship between wealth created from the enslavement of peoples and the establishment of institutions in Britain. Read more »
The year and the century are dying; everything else is already dead. In Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” (1900), it is a dim day in the dimmest part of the year. Sunset will come early; night in Dorset, England, where Hardy lived, will last sixteen hours. A thrush sings, unwarrantably, of “joy illimited.” Why in the world? Or is his reason not of this world? Is he better informed than we? May we hope? Hardy’s subject is the close relationship between our own ignorance and our belief in another’s knowledge. To realize that we don’t know something is to realize that someone else might. To think that what the other knows might be good, might even be divine good, in spite of the earth’s sorry state—well, that is to celebrate Christmas.
“The Darkling Thrush” was first published on December 29, 1900, under the title “By the Century’s Deathbed.” There is a horticultural term for the season Hardy was then living at his house in Dorset, and that we in the Northern hemisphere are living now: the Persephone Days, named for the goddess of spring’s annual rape at Hades’ hands. You are in the Persephone Days, according to gardener Eliot Coleman, when fewer than ten of the twenty-four hours are light. Why ten hours? Because vegetables mostly slow or stop their growth with any less. “The ancient pulse of germ and birth / [is] shrunken hard and dry,” as Hardy wrote. Plenty of vegetables are cold tolerant. I have kale plants in my front yard now that can withstand a 10º F night. Darkness, however, stunts them. The problem winter poses for our survival is not the freezing of water. It’s the freezing of time. I’ll eat only what reaches maturity before the annual darkness comes.
Or I can always go to Whole Foods. Shopping and other glamours flurry about in the foreground these dark days, distracting us from Sol’s deadly swing toward Capricorn. Black Friday roughly coincides with the start of the Persephone Days; in Norfolk, Virginia (36.8º N latitude), they coincide exactly. Black Friday is itself a kind of heretical outgrowth from Advent, a time of holy anticipation; some of us confusedly observe them both by receiving toy catalogs, letting ourselves buy cheese balls from festive displays, and growing tired of ecstatic carolings. Call it Advert. If you were in America four weeks ago, you may have found the retail festival the most noticeable of the three, followed by the liturgical holiday, with the horticultural one coming in a distant third, if at all. But that’s the whole point of the first two: to be noticeable. So as not to notice the other thing. The very intensity of the annual danse macabre shows we have not entirely forgotten our fear of the dark. Read more »
In 2018, Earth picked up about 40,000 metric tons of interplanetary material, mostly dust, much of it from comets. Earth lost around 96,250 metric tons of hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements, which escaped to outer space. Roughly 505,000 cubic kilometers of water fell on Earth’s surface as rain, snow, or other types of precipitation. Bristlecone pines, which can live for millennia, each gained perhaps a hundredth of an inch in diameter. Countless mayflies came and went. As of this writing, more than one hundred thirty-six million people were born in 2018, and more than fifty-seven million died.
Tidal interactions are very slowly increasing the distance between Earth and the moon, which ended 2018 about 3.8 centimeters further apart than they were at the beginning. As a consequence, Earth is now rotating slightly more slowly; the day is a tiny fraction of a second longer. Earth and the sun are also creeping apart, by around 1.5 centimeters per year, although the effect of tidal interactions is very small. Most of the change is due to changes in the sun’s gravitational pull as it converts some of its mass into energy by nuclear fusion.
The entire solar system traveled roughly 7.25 billion kilometers in its orbit about the center of the Milky Way. This vast distance, however, is only about 1/230,000,000th of the entire orbit.
In 2018, there were two lunar eclipses and three partial solar eclipses, each a step in the long gravitational dance making up the roughly 18-year saros cycle. During one saros cycle, eclipses with particular characteristics (partial, total, annular) and a specific Earth–Moon–Sun geometry occur in a predictable sequence; at the end, the whole thing starts again. This pattern has been repeating for much longer than humans have been around to see it.
I like knowing these bits of cosmic context because they link me to a larger world. I can echo the words of Ptolemy: “Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth.” Read more »
In college, I took a course on American poetry, but I missed the class on Robert Frost. To be honest, I slept straight through it. That particular winter was brutally cold. I lived in a worn-out house some fifteen minutes from campus, and the water heater in the basement was broken. So I skipped the ice-cold shower at 8AM, the wet walk through a foot of snow, and the monotone reading of a few representative poems by a long-tenured professor. I stayed in my warm bed, wrapped up in the comforter.
From that morning until only a few weeks ago, my mental image of Robert Frost was that of a grey-haired, folksy New Englander who wrote modest poems about country life. I knew “The Road Not Taken,” thoughI didn’t understand it. I was familiar with a handful of other titles— “Fire and Ice,” “Mending Wall,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”— but I can’t say if I had ever really read these poems. If so, they hardly made an impression on me. In short, I had Frost figured as a quaint poet of nature, a leftover from 19th Century America.
I now realize that I was wonderfully mistaken, that Robert Frost isn’t what he seems, and that the fundamental experience of reading Frost is discovering that the poems aren’t what they seem. Harold Bloom has called Frost a “trickster and a mischief maker.” In TheNew Yorker, Joshua Rothman describes Frost’s “poetic sleight of hand,” his characteristic tendency for deception. In his own words, Frost considered poetry “the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.” For nearly fifty years, the poet hid ulterior meanings behind plain language.Read more »
It is simultaneously awkward and exciting to read about your own consciously and responsibly adopted beliefs as something to be anatomized. It is also something atheists are not always much disposed to. On the contrary, perhaps: many forms of atheism present themselves as a consequence of free thought, of emancipation from tradition. The internal logic of their arguments prescribes that while religious beliefs, being non-rational, are in need of cultural or psychological explanation, atheism is really just what you will gravitate towards once you finally start thinking. One question here will be whether this is necessarily the case.
Most Atheists Just Don’t Get It
To the extent that what I just said is a recognizable self-description, we deserve the injustice that John Gray does to us in his Seven Types of Atheism (2018). Of the seven types Gray distinguishes, only two – its more withdrawn, Epicurean or mystical manifestations – get a positive review. One other version (‘God-haters’) is interesting but also confused, hardly atheistic, and of course evil. The remaining four types are primarily variations upon the theme of the naive progressivist: people who think they have left behind monotheistic religion, but who have in fact replaced it with a new God: humanity, or some proxy to humanity – science, or progress, or Enlightenment, or secular political utopia.
Idolizing or deifying something while claiming to be an atheist requires some self-delusion, according to Gray, and he readily psychologizes this phenomenon. Atheists’ understanding of religion has been “unthinkingly” inherited from monotheism (5); new atheists are “unwitting disciplines” of Comte’s positivism (11); twenty-first-century atheists are “unthinking liberals” (20); secular thinkers have continued to try to harmonize Jewish and Greek views of the world “without knowing what they are doing” (29).
A charitable reading of this is that Gray is not pointing out lack of cognitive capacity, but lack of historical awareness. Read more »