Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I've done it. I think I've surpassed my record. It was a long haul, but I'm glad I did it.

I finished the audio book of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (Constance Garnett translation).  In doing so, I believe that I broke my previous audiobook record for length by having listened to all of Moby Dick by audio. By the way, the duration of the reading clocks in at just over 34 hours. (My secret was listening to it as I commuted to work, which varied from 25 to about 40 minutes each way.)

I'd only read some short pieces and Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky before undertaking this his last--and perhaps greatest--novel. But I did not go into without some preconceptions, which I found reinforced early in my listening. My first source of preconceptions:



Yes, there is a great deal of this (and other parts of Woody Allen's Love and Death--a favorite of ours) in this book. At some point early on, I did ask myself whether Katerina Ivanova and Grushenka were worth all of the fuss and the sometimes melodramatic dialogue. But in the end, it proves worthwhile, although it can try the patience in portions.

The other preconception comes from having read and then watched this story within the story of The Brothers Karamazov: the story of "The Grand Inquisitor." Below is a dramatization of it performed by the incomparable John Gielgud, whose sonorous voice is a joy to experience as he lays out this fundamental and chilling insight.



I won't go deeper into the novel here. It's a long and complex story, which includes, I might add, a trial section that's quite worthwhile.

The reader in this version is the late Frederick Davidson, a Brit who performed all of the characters with British accents, for instance, assigning peasants cockney accents. In the beginning, I found this quite annoying. To me, I was already listening to a foreign accent, so why not a Slavic English accent? If I were to choose again, I would have made this switch, but it didn't matter so much in the end.

This is a great book.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

An Open Letter to Senators Grassley & Ernst to Urge Appointment of a Special Prosecutor













10 May 2017

Hon. Charles Grassley, U.S. Senate, Iowa
Hon. Joni Ernst, U.S. Senate, Iowa

Dear Senators:

I want to join your Republican colleagues Senators McCain and Burr who are calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the issue of whether the Trump campaign and administration has had any illegal or compromising contacts with Russian interests. I know that the Senate has a committee investigating these matters chaired by Senator Burr, but with the firing of FBI Director Comey, I have no faith that any successor will have the credibility to fully and fairly pursue this vital investigation.

Senator Grassley, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the longest-serving senators, I call on you, in particular, to speak out openly and directly on this issue. The White House should hear from you in no uncertain terms that the appointment of a special prosecutor is necessary to making sure that these matters are fairly and completely resolved. I trust that you share my deep concern for the integrity of our legal system. I've been an Iowa lawyer even longer than you've been a U.S. senator, and I shudder to see the compromise of our constitutional system and a weakening of the faith of the people in that system that the Comey firing creates. This wound to the justice and national security systems is a grave threat to our Republic. I urge you to act and become a leader of this cause.

Senator Ernst, there's no time like the present to stand up for the indispensable American value of the rule of law. Leadership goes to those who display it, not those who play it safe to please party or to pander to some voters.

Senators, we look to you to stand up for our values.

Thank you for your consideration.


Stephen N. Greenleaf


Monday, May 1, 2017

Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists by Gary Lachman

A collection of biographical essays
Gary Lachman’s collection of biographical essays, Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists (2014) gathers together short pieces that he’s written over the course of 20 years of as a professional writer in the field of (for lack of a better term) “alternative thinking.” One might wonder about the connecting thread between the subjects of these essays (and Lachman’s project as a whole), but if you have any doubt, he provides an enlightening self-description in his introduction:

What the reader of this collection, and perhaps of my other books, will discover is that I am in love and obsessed with ideas. I like to think. It is, admittedly, an occupation not as popular as in some earlier times and one that requires the increasingly elusive necessities of peace and quiet, along with the more accessible ingredients of a book, notebook, table, and pen, or, more frequently today, laptop. . .. Thinkers are rather like those people at the head of a jungle expedition, hacking into a thick tangle of roots and vines in order to make a path. It is demanding, unpleasant work, but it needs to be done, and it must be admitted that the people further back on the trail have a relatively easier time of it.

Lachman, Gary. Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists (Kindle Locations 111-119). Quest Books. Kindle Edition.


Lachman, following the example of his friend and mentor, Colin Wilson (the subject of the first essay in the collection), excels at capturing and relaying the ideas and stories of the varied cast represented here. After introducing us to Wilson’s thought (or at least a slice of it, for Wilson was a prolific writer), Lachman takes us back in time to look at the work of Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg, as I read about him here, reminded me of other multi-talented geniuses of the early modern era, like Leibniz and Newton, to name two the most famous of that era’s genius polymaths. (Although Swedenborg, so far as I know, had no hand in inventing the calculus.) And Newton’s interest in alchemy notwithstanding, Swedenborg had a unique talent: he saw complex visions of heaven and hell. Regardless of what one thinks about the ontological basis of these visions (more on this topic later), his visions and ideas had some far-reaching influence. Included among those affected by his works were Blake, Emerson, and the father of William and Henry James.

Another scientist-turned visionary discussed by Lachman is Rudolf Steiner. To the extent Steiner is known today, it’s probably as the founder of Steiner (a/k/a Waldorf) schools. But before becoming a visionary of other worlds and realms, as well as a practical purveyor of ideas about philosophy, education, and agriculture, Steiner was a biologist and a Goethe scholar. As with Swedenborg, I find the combination of a high degree of scientific training and practice an intriguing and puzzling contrast—or compliment? —to their etheric visions. The same could be said of Carl Jung, another subject here, who was a trained physician as well as one exposed to the occult (spirit world) at a young age and who tried to understand humanity through depth psychology. But he seems to have kept hidden a predilection for the occult for most of his career that affected his beliefs and judgments.

A wide array of figures included here are those who delved into occult visions and magic. From little-known figures (to me anyway) to rather famous ones like Madame Blavatsky and Manly Palmer Hall (American), this group can be seen as a whole to have mined past traditions (e.g., Ancient Egypt, and the “mysterious East”) to shape into ideas and practices that reach far outside everyday reality. Hidden “masters,” incantations, fantastic visions, and ancient doctrines and practices mark this group. Taken as a whole, this group provides the most colorful life stories, some appearing as charlatans and at other times having been duped by charlatans. But in other contexts, they are (literally) revolutionaries (Madame B for example). But whether we consider them simply as a rogue’s gallery or as perhaps a combination of extraordinary talents blessed with a sense of showmanship, many of them were quite personally adventuresome and amazing in the experiences. Whatever we may think of their work as passed down to posterity (all of these figures published works), they provide fascinating lives and works upon which to reflect further. (Lachman has published biographies of several of the individuals that I look forward to reading.)

The last group to cover is one that I label the “philosophers.” None of them are mainstream, but their claims to notoriety come from the ideas that they left us much more than any claim to personal powers or special insights. In this group, I’d include Ouspensky, Julius Evola, Jean Gebser, and Owen Barfield. Evola, dubbed “Mussolini’s Mystic” by Lachman for the chapter devoted to him, is of topical interest now because Steve Bannon, President Trump’s aide, has professed adherence to Evola’s work. It’s worth noting some Italian terrorists in the 1980’s as well as some of Mussolini’s supporters were also admirers. While I reject Evola’s praise of violence (which comes across like that of George Sorel and Frantz Fanon), some have suggested (including Lachman), that Evola nevertheless expresses a serious critique of Modernity. (And Modernity is either the key to our freedom or a hell that we’ve created for ourselves; I’m not sure which—or perhaps both.)  The Russian émigré Ouspensky had many original and challenging ideas published before becoming a student and then master of Gurdjieff’s “Third Way.” Jean Gebser is another fascinating figure with his theory the evolution of consciousness. His work has influenced the likes of William Irwin Thompson, Ken Wilber, and Georg Feuerstein. I’m one of those persons that Lachman refers to that have heard of Gebser but who’ve not plunged into his original work. Reading Lachman’s account reminds me (again) that Gebser's work should be on my list.

The final figure I’ll discuss here is my personal favorite, Owen Barfield. Compared to almost all of the other figures discussed in this book, Barfield’s life might seem the drabbest and his ideas the least spectacular—and perhaps that’s why he’s my favorite among all of these figures. Like me, Barfield was a practicing lawyer most of his adult life, albeit a reluctant one, having been called into the family business by necessity rather than desire. But Barfield’s life, while outwardly prosaic, still was one of extraordinary experiences. After serving in The Great War (WWI), Barfield attended Oxford, where he met C.S. “Jack” Lewis. Lewis credits Barfield for his conversion to Christianity. Through Lewis, Barfield met others at Oxford that would become “The Inklings,” a group that included Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. Barfield wrote two books, Poetic Diction and History in English Words before taking up his legal career, and he was a disciple of Steiner’s Anthroposophy from an early age. After about a 30-year hiatus, Barfield returned to full-time writing and thinking with the publication of his Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1957) and later works. Barfield’s ideas about “original participation” and “final participation” have influenced historian John Lukacs and sparked the admiration of writers such as Saul Bellow, James Hillman, and Harold Bloom, to name but three. It is in this essay that Lachman engages most in his love of ideas and their power.

When we come to the end of this work we are in a better position to reflect upon what Lachman wrote in his introduction about the two predominate themes of his writing career:

One is human consciousness and its evolution, both in the individual and in the culture at large. Another is that mysterious world that seems to strangely parallel our familiar, everyday one, the world of the occult, the magical, the esoteric. As you might suspect, these two themes overlap and are intimately related.

Id. (Kindle Locations 122-124)

The first of his themes is one that I wholeheartedly share. How we have changed as a species and how we change in a lifetime are the two great issues we face in our individual lives and in our collective life as a species. Everything that you and I do is to change our consciousness—from answering a hunger pang with a bite to eat to sleeping to talking to someone—it’s all about changing our state of our consciousness. But over a longer term, it’s about changing what we know explicitly and implicitly—rationally and verbally, intuitively and imaginatively. We all have at some time experienced a metanoia, a change of our heart-mind, as the term is used in the New Testament. My individual path was first laid down through Christianity (Catholic practice and Protestant insights), but then supplemented and surpassed by Buddhism, ancient Western philosophy “as a way of life” (Pierre Hadot), and a variety other sources of wisdom from China and India as well as from more recent thinkers. And how this all plays out collectively is as well as individually is, to me, a fascinating and vital subject.

But I must say that the occult and magic leave me flat. My amalgamation of sources that I listed above tend toward what some might see as the quotidian and cautious, the mainstream. Despite hours of meditation, prayer, and silence, as well as exposure t0 ideas quite beyond the ordinary, I’ve never experienced any bells or whistles. Now I’d be the first to admit that this might be the result of my tone-deafness to such frequencies and that training might make a difference. I’m skeptical and agnostic as to occult realities and practices. I see myself as following the Buddha in taking the position that I don’t have to know who made the arrow or by whom it was shot or from where is was shot in order to act to alleviate the suffering that it causes. I just need to remove the damned arrow.

The other attitude I have I attribute to William James (and thus I demonstrate my American bona fides). I want to know the “cash value” of all of these varieties of seeing and experiencing the world. Of all of these practices and beliefs, which ones have, can, and should change the world? None of these actors (and some of them are quite intriguing actors) can claim to have influenced the world in a significant, continuing way? There is no one here with the stature of Napoleon, Disraeli, Hitler or Stalin, or Roosevelt. No one the stature of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, or Russell. No one the stature of Gandhi, Niebuhr, or Marx. Of course, the deeper question is whether any of the figures considered by Lachman should have the level of influence comparable to the figures I listed above. And, in fairness, while no one of Lachman’s subjects alone had a large effect, as he notes in his Introduction, the occult and esoteric collectively have influenced our culture and the course of history. Even as I write this, a potent mix of politics and esoteric beliefs challenge the status quo.
The explorer-author


Thus, regardless of what skeptics like me might conclude about many of these figures, like human activity as a whole, they and the occult represent a part of who we are. The fact that we believe in all manner of things and act in all manner of ways is a part of why we take an interest in ourselves as a species, or more precisely, as a culture. These lives, these beliefs, whatever their reality (whatever that may mean or entail) is interesting nonetheless because of what it says about us. Is it simply that we humans are dumb and gullible? We have to go beyond that simplistic and unsatisfying conclusion to learn something deeper about ourselves. To this end, Gary Lachman provides us a great service by dedicating himself to exploring the boundaries of human consciousness and beliefs where most thinkers (especially academics) don’t dare go. It’s at the boundaries, the unexplored edges, that we learn something new. I know that I’ll keep following him there. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Denial: 2016 Movie Reviewed


While potentialities alone, without their actual expressions, cannot constitute historical evidence (this being one of the few correspondences between historical and legal evidence, at least in the Western world), the purposes of history and of law are different. The purpose of the law is to maintain justice by eliminating injustice; the purpose of history is to pursue truth by eliminating untruths. And the historian's recognition that reality encompasses actuality and potentiality reflect his propensity to see things with the eye of a novelist rather than the eye of a lawyer.  

John Lukacs, The Future of History, 124

But what happens when the law must adjudicate the facts of history, and in particular, the works of historians? Can the courts "do justice" to history?

The 2016 release of Denial, based on the book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah Lipstadt explores these issues and does so rather well. Because of the very significant difference in libel laws between the U.S. and U.K.--which has actually led to American courts not recognizing British libel judgments--Lipstadt was sued by British historian David Irving for libel in London, not in the U.S., where the book was first published and where Lipstadt taught at Emory University. The account is well told, and I read that screenwriter David Hare stuck to the trial transcript in the courtroom scenes, which struck me as realistic (although different from an American courtroom). 

Some of the interactions seemed contrived. Lipstadt, played by Rachel Weisz, comes across as naive at some points. Part of the dramatic conflict in the film comes from Lipstadt's individualist attitude and willingness to engage in public battle versus the team approach of her British solicitors and barristers and their emphasis on pursuing a winning trial strategy. Some of the issues that come up seem realistic, but arise relatively late in the proceedings and display a surprising naivete on the part of Lipstadt. (I just purchased Lipstadt's book for $1.99 on my Kindle, now re-titled Denial for the movie tie-in, and I'll let you know if that portrayal is accurate according to her.) 

Two themes that the movie touched upon--and most movies can only "touch upon" and not fully address complex themes--concern "giving a voice to the victims" and the importance of truth in the trial process. As to giving voice to victims, this is a continual challenge in many court cases, especially  those that involve serious harm or death to loved ones. For instance, a criminal trial is about the guilt or innocence of the accused, not the nature of the harm committed (although prosecutors try to work it in and it no doubt does come into play). As the lawyers tell Lipstadt in the movie, the trial is not for therapy nor for giving voice to victims, it's about defending her and her publisher from a judgment for libel. Harsh but true. 

The other issue goes to the truth. The nature of truth, the challenge of proving the truth (which fell upon Lipstadt and her lawyers and not upon her accuser), and the importance of truth. If these issues do not resonate with you, you are not awake to the world in which we live. 



Saturday, April 1, 2017

After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith by Judith Shklar

Judith Shklar: 

The state of the world today encourages the growth of unhappy consciousness. It is now the most prevalent of all intellectual conditions, and the one to which the most imaginative and subtle spirits are drawn. And who is to say that they are "wrong"? To be sure, they can offer no coherent account of nature, man, history, or society. They do not even try, for the defeat of the spirit lies in just this: that everything has become incomprehensible. But, then, the strange as this of “the world" is constantly pressed upon us. The romanticism of defeat is the simple submission to the "otherness" of nature and society. All that the unhappy consciousness can do now is preserve its own integrity against the encroachments of a hostile world. Its shortcomings, both practical and intellectual, are obvious enough, but one question remains. Is anything else possible?  163

This edition costs $36.99. Mine cost $2.95. Those were the days my friend!

One of the fun things about having a lot of books (and I do) is that you are subject to a degree of serendipity when you choose one, having so many that I’ve not yet read. Also, many of my books are packed in a hot, dark, crowded storage unit which I can now access at best once a year, and even then with a limited amount of time to ponder selections of what to pack to take to our next venue. So when I unpacked here in Bucharest, many of the selections came as a bit of a surprise. My goal was to grab a lot of my books on 20th-century European history (we had moved to Europe). I guess that it was with this in mind that I tossed in Judith Shklar’s After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith (1957). I recalled the book because I read it before, in the fall of 1975. John Nelson assigned it for his class on “Contemporary Political Theory.” I’m not sure what I thought of it then, and enough time had passed that loved it or hated it, I would be like a new book to me. (I read a whole lot that semester, which is another story for another time.) Whatever I thought of it then, I can say now that I quite admire it.

Shklar’s aim is to explore the decline in political faith after the Enlightenment, which, roughly speaking, was right after the turn of the French Revolution into a blood bath that eventually brought Europe the figure of Napoleon. Of course, the Enlightenment had critiques before then, such as Rousseau, but the reaction to it reached full bloom after Rousseau and Napolean--each in his own way--critiqued it. So while the Enlightenment had great faith in the power of human reason, after the revolt against the Enlightenment, many elites began to doubt the ability of reason to construct a political system that capable of achieving its ends. While the Enlightenment movement was marked by optimism, intellectualism, and anarchism—in short, Reason—its heyday didn’t last long. Romanticism developed as a counter to Enlightenment, with individuality as its highest aim. But the movement was also marked by a sense of despair at the course of human events. Hegel dubbed this the “unhappy consciousness,” and he also provided us with the idea of the “alienated soul.” This trend continued throughout much of the 19th and into the 20th-century, with attitudes of pessimism and despair marking the work of many artists and thinkers. Some tried to buck the trend, but the list of prominent thinkers and artists who fit into these categories is a who’s who of leaders in thought and the arts. Of course, some tried to defy the trend, and as Shklar notes, because of these efforts, “today we have excessively intellectual poetry and philosophy that calls for more life.” (On the poetry end, try some Jorrie Graham is you don’t believe her.) Terms like “pessimism” and “fatalism,” “mass” and “crowd” come to the forefront of discourse. 


Romanticism cultivates an anti-politics that seeks to defy any social controls. Shklar argues that this morphs into the existentialism of Sartre and others like him: philosophical self-transcendence, historical despair, and aesthetic anarchism are existentialism’s inheritance from the “Romanticism of defeat.” Of course, in the political realm, nothing could prove less promising. As Shklar observes, “at first sight, nothing could seem less promising than an attempt to devise an ethic of isolated individuals.” She goes on: “[E]xistentialism has in its preoccupation with victimhood come to deny the reality of all those human relationships upon which systems of morality is explicitly or implicitly based.” (134) Although to be fair, this is much more true of Sartre than of Heidegger and some others associated with existentialism. (This shortcoming applies as well, I think, to a sympathetic critic and proponent of a more upbeat existentialism like Colin Wilson, who, so far as I can tell, seems to have largely ignored the social and political implications of our existential situation.)

Shklar also explores what she terms “Christian fatalism,” and those who developed “Christian social theory,” which, in short, holds that society and polity are failing because religion (specifically Christianity) has fallen out of favor in Europe (virtually all of the thinkers that she considers are European). But these thinkers provide thin fare, lacking any real explanatory power to back up their contentions. In the face of fascism and totalitarianism, merely alleging a decline of religious faith and practice doesn’t provide a satisfactory account. (She mentions Reinhold Niehbur briefly in a footnote, and I would have liked to have learned more about her perception of this work, which seems to me to go beyond that of the “Christian social theorists.”)

In all of this, even liberalism and socialism lose much of their drive. Shklar briefly discusses Tocqueville, Mill, and Acton, but on the whole, she doesn’t find much optimism in the liberal project, or the socialist alternative, either. (She is perceptive, however, in identifying the Mount Pelerin Society of Hayek, Friedman (Milton), et. al as a platform for promoting a traditional liberal politics and capitalism.) Her treatment of “conservative” liberalism is dated; when she writes this, Bill Buckley is just launching National Review, and of course, things have spun from that starting point in startling ways.

Shklar provides a description of liberalism that is worth pondering:
Liberalism is a political philosophy, romanticism is a Weltansuang, a state of mind which can adapt itself to the most divergent types of political thought. The basic problem of liberalism is the creation of an enlightened public opinion to secure civil rights of individuals and to encourage the spontaneous forces of order in society itself. It has nothing to say about defying convention, except to extend legal protection. The liberal sees the rights of individuals is based on justice or utility. The romantic makes a virtue of self-expression as an end in itself, and sees individuality as necessarily involving an opposition to prevailing social standards. The liberal fears majorities, because they may be too powerful to be just, and too ignorant to be wise. The romantic is revolted by their docility, their indifference to genius, their undistinguished emotional life. The liberal sees only the dangers of power abused. That the state may not interfere with society is a concept of an entirely different order than the idea of a man's first duty is to develop an original personality. Majority rule and minority rights are two central themes of political thought; the unique individual and his enemies, the masses, never enter its considerations. The romantic does not offer society anything but his defiance. Liberalism, on the other hand, attempts to regulate the relations of the individual to society and the state, and of these two to each other, by law. 231-232.

In the end, Shklar seems a bit despairing, but her concluding words betray a sense of what thinking and acting politically should entail. (N.B. She published this work before her fellow Jewish refugee from the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt, published her groundbreaking re-thinking of the possibilities of political life, The Human Condition (1958), which takes a positive view of politics.) Shklar writes:
The fact is that a curious situation exists in which everyone talks about or around politics, but no one really cares – at least, no one is sufficiently concerned philosophically to be capable of renewing the traditional political theory. Yet everyone is perfectly aware that it is in the realm of political life that our present condition and future life are largely determined. Politics impinge upon every moment of our existence, and yet we are incapable of synthesizing our experience into a theoretical picture. It is not only the civic consciousness of the Enlightenment but the entire tradition of political theory that is it at a standstill. 269.… The fact is that intellectually there is no escaping politics. Romanticism is surely not political in its initial inspiration, yet ultimately it too is forced to concern itself with questions of politics, even if only to exploit or to bewail. Indeed, the disgust with omnipresent political activity is the greatest incentive to romanticism.


Yet, despite her bleak assessment, it seems to me that she closes on a faint note of optimism, or perhaps it’s just determination,  a sense that we can find our way out of this predicament, which, although written 60 years ago, rings all too familiar: 

The answer to the quasi-politics of despair would be a new justification of some form of politics as culturally valuable and intellectually necessary. Yet such a thing is beyond us, even after all the countless failings of Christian fatalism and romantic despair--the two most extreme expressions of much general opinion--have been demonstrated. . . .  Paradoxically the fact remains that many people could never be satisfied by despair or by gloomy contemplation of the apocalypse. To a great extent the success of these attitudes is due to the absence of a satisfactory secular social philosophy. 270-271.
 
 . . . . 
The grand tradition of political theory the began with Plato is, then, in abeyance. A reason skepticism is consequently the sanest attitude for the present. Even skepticism is politically sounder and empirically more justifiable than cultural despair and fatalism. For neither logic nor history is in accord with these, and this even when no happier philosophies flourish. 271-272. 

Shklar's work is, of course, a history and appraisal of the works of high art and intellect within a mostly European tradition. Against this trend, many others were moved with an optimism fueled by amazing technological changes and increasing wealth. And while some despised politics, others jumped head-long into the fray. Some came away jaded or disillusioned, but others, liberals, Marxists, and all manner of different philosophies and outlooks, did not sit on the sidelines and despair. Of course, some of those who were active became authoritarians, fascists, Leninists and Stalinists, and Nazis. And the "masses"? They went about their lives in the midst of all of this economic, technological, social, and political change, wondering how it worked, but primarily concerned with the immediate circumstances of their own well-being and that of their families. Thus, Shklar's story is only a part of the whole, but it's nonetheless important and well-told, and one that still resonates with the world around us today. 

Friday, March 24, 2017


John Lukacs: writer, historian, thinker--wise man. 

All history is revisionism of a kind. The revision of history is not--or, rather, ought not be--the monopoly of opportunists whose description of the past serves but their ephemeral interests of the present--their present; who are ever ready to twist or turn the record of the past in order to employ ideas that are intellectually fashionable. All history--indeed, all thinking--consists of rethinking of the past. That this constant revising of the past must rest on evidence is a truism. It is true: only it is not true enough. Historical evidence is one thinking; legal evidence is another. The ultimate purpose of the latter is justice; of the former, truth. Truth is not only a deeper, it is a greater matter than justice. The reservoir of historical evidence is potentially boundless. 

John Lukacs, The Last European War: September 1939--December 1941. p. ix

Global History & the Trends of Historical Study

Is global history still possible, or has it had its moment? – Jeremy Adelman | Aeon Essays

This interesting article prompted me to some reflections on the nature of history: 

1. History has a history. Most people tend to think of history as the story of wars, governments, leaders, and various adventures and big events. But all knowledge comes from the past. Everything we now experience comes to us from the past. Every topic has a genealogy. Thus, history as a discipline has changed through time. 

2. History has fashions. Don't rush out to a meeting of historians to get ideas how to dress; you'd end up embarrassed. Pros in NYC, Paris, and Milan are the place to go for clothes. The fashions that I'm speaking about here are intellectual, not a matter of raiment. Historians, like about every other discipline, are subject to in infatuation with the new and novel, to a new generation striving to find something different, unique from the work of their elders. 

3. Adelman's (and other "globalist's) interest in expanding the scope of history is valuable. Whether it's nations or groups that have not been as prominent on the world stage or who have suffered at the hands of others or those who simply have not come within the spotlight of history so far, plumbing this unexplored aspect of our past is a sound enterprise. Is each area of interest equal? Of course not. What is of interest, what is significant, is in the eye of the beholder. It's up to the beholder to convince others that a topic belongs in the spotlight. And opinions will vary between contemporaries and between generations. Some fashions will stand the test of time; others will fade to the side. Time sorts it out. 

4. The past is one humongous block of fixed events. We can never know the past wholly or finally. Just as our everyday reality must exclude most of the world that comes into our minds, so it is with history. We must sift through the records that the past leaves behind. For although the past is fixed--events of the past don't change--not all events leave a trace. Think of the bulk of your day and how little you recall of it and how little you miss that inability. As in one's life, we must decide what in history--our collective past--merits knowing and recalling. 

5. No one approach suffices to capture the past. There is no Rosetta stone of history. Neither world systems nor dialectical materialism nor the dialectic of master and slave nor any other theory that might be applied to history can be complete, can capture the whole. History, like reality, is too messy. 

6. What history can do is change its focus. The focus may be like a telescope searching deep into the past seeking to discover the most significant events, the historical equivalent of the birth of stars and galaxies. Or it can focus like a microscope on the minute details an event. No one focus can claim primacy. One can turn from Big History (that starts with the Big Bang) to the course of empires to five days in London in May 1940. All can be useful and fascinating. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen by Gary Lachman

History, but not "just" history



Before I get to this book, please indulge me while I engage in a couple of brief tangents that I will tie into the book review in due course. First, I hear people say something to the effect that “people shouldn’t bring religion into politics,” or “in America, our Constitution says we should keep religion and politics separate.” I find these statements well-intentioned and understandable, but nevertheless absurd. Religion and politics have been conjoined since humans conceived of each, and they have been intimate since the dawn of civilization (agriculture and cities). One can argue that as a part of the modern project these concerns should be separated, and in some measure, they address different domains. But they are overlapping Venn diagrams, each claiming a common territory. Religion, broadly conceived, is the stuff of ultimate concerns: how we relate to those powers greater than us (e.g., God, gods, Nature, the Dharma, the Tao, etc.) and how we relate to each other (morality broadly conceived). Politics often addresses the mundane: “Where should we put this road?” and “How much should we levy for taxes this year?” (I was a city attorney for three decades.) In short, the “who gets what, when, and how” of Harold Laswell. But politics also addresses fundamental issues of life and death, such as definitions and punishments for murder, the legality of abortion, declarations of war—the big issues. In short, politics entails both the sacred and the profane; it involves the ethical and the practical. Thus, I can’t imagine keeping religion and politics separate. It’s impossible. On the other hand, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ..”  In other words, what it requires is the separation of church and state, the respective institutions of religion and politics. The First Amendment prohibits the state from interfering in religious belief and practice, regardless of whether conducted within an institutional framework (church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.) or arising from the beliefs and practices of any one person. This constitutionally mandated separation of government from religion provides an essential safeguard for the individual, and it protects both religious institutions and government.  Entanglements of church and state create problems for churches and states. 

My next digression involves some post-election communications about Trump and Clinton. In short, one person with whom I had some contact argued that Trump deserved to win over Clinton because Clinton was in cahoots (my term, not his) with “the Illuminati,” such as George Soros. What? I, in my Enlightenment bubble, thought that such nonsense was something that I’d encounter only among the truly wigged-out. Not so. There isn’t a bubble out there; there are more bubbles than we can begin to count. I prefer mine (and I hope that it doesn’t create too distorting a lens), but we need to pop some of these others.

Having allowed myself these two digressions, let me turn to this book and explain why I found my digressions fitting in the circumstances. Gary Lachman’s Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen (2008) is about the intersection of religion (or spirituality, if you prefer a wider net) and politics. However,  instead of the usual roster of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, he’s writing about those who inhabit the fringes of those religions and some who draw upon entirely different creeds. If Lachman had shared any jokes in this book, they wouldn’t have set up with a “priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar,” but “a magician, an adept, and a charlatan walk into a bar.” But unlike the mainstream set-up, where perhaps a Roman collar and a yarmulke would help us distinguish who is who among the mainstream three, among the three occult figures, you couldn’t know who is who from any first glimpse. (N.B. Don’t take this analogy too far; we can’t necessarily tell who is a charlatan in the occult group and only by process of elimination can we identify the minister in the first. Protestants can be so nondescript in public.) The occult has its roots in many of the mainstream traditions, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, in addition to other traditions (Gnosticism, Hermeticism, etc.), but by definition, the occult remains out of site and the esoteric reserved for the few. Lachman argues that the occult traditions became more secretive with the advent of the modern world when science and materialism (Newton’s interests notwithstanding) became the dominant ideology. With this tidal shift in culture, concerns about the soul, mind, and consciousness became suspect and began to migrate underground. Thus, the shadow side of religion becomes, even more, a matter of fear and fascination.

The list of occult groups identified and discussed by Lachman is impressive. From early modern times, we get the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, and the Illuminati. All of these groups clothed themselves in secrecy, which, in addition to practical concerns about repression by ruling authorities, makes each organization more attractive to members (exclusiveness) and more fascinating to outsiders. Also, one can’t help but note that these groups seem to be populated by the elite, not simply (or even primarily) the aristocracy, but the educated elite as well. For instance, both Descartes and Leibniz are associated with the Rosicrucians. (An aside: isn’t Leibniz one of the most brilliant minds of all time?) The elite membership in these organizations certainly enhanced both their prestige and popular resentment of against them.

But how influential—or even powerful—were these early modern occult groups? In the end, the pyramid with the eye on the dollar bill and George Washington’s well-known Freemasonry membership notwithstanding, these groups were not that influential. If you want to gauge the thoughts and beliefs that guided the American Revolution and Founding, you’d do better to study Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment, Montesquieu, the Atlantic Republican tradition, and the English Whig tradition than  Freemasonry. Add the political economy of slavery (as sadly one must), and you have a strong sense of the thinking behind America’s political origins.  Occult organizations also had their fingerprints on the French Revolution, on both the Right and the Left (the time in which these terms emerged), but no group (occult or not) was in control completely or for long until Napolean put an end to the chaos. The ideas behind sea-change of the French Revolution have more to do with Voltaire and the philosophes and their arch-critic Rousseau than any occult dogma or action.

The intersection of the occult and the political continued into the 19th century. At the level of individuals and events, adherents to occult organizations and beliefs have a role, but in the more encompassing mix of culture and political beliefs, their effect is hard to discern. The ideas of Marx and Mill and mainstream religions and philosophies are the most influential. Of course, many small sectarian groups, both political and occult (and sometimes overlapping) populate history since the French Revolution. Zionists and anti-Semitic schemers, utopian socialists and free-love advocates, syndicalists and social welfare groups—experimenters (good and ill) of all types abound as society goes through continued upheavals. As Lachman notes, inquiries into the spiritual, the non-material, and consciousness preceded modernity (and are as old as human culture), but in times of great change and turbulence, these concerns become acuter and more widespread. And beginning in the late 18th century, the turmoil of politics, the wildfires of revolution, the conflagration of wars, imperialism and colonialism, along with changes in technology and culture, vastly increased the total wealth of Western nations and altered the composition of society while dramatically changing the culture. This level of change was—is—unprecedented in human history. But in contrast to the headlong changes in our lived environment, changes in shared consciousness, particularly at the deeper individual levels, seems to move at a much slower pace, taking the course of epochs, not months and years. Thus, to any extent that the occult or esoteric beliefs and practices might have had an effect would, by definition, be limited to an elite and could only disburse slowly through society. By contrast, changes in some religious practices can spread like wildfire through society, for instance, the changes of the Protestant Reformation and the Great Awakening, to provide just two examples. Thus, whatever legitimate hopes initiates might hold in times of great change, the odds are against any significant influence—not to mention control—over events. Thus, for all of the aspiration, the influence of the occult and esoteric remains limited.

But despite the limited influence, the role of occult and esoteric thinkers remains intriguing. Within periods that I’m acquainted with, the footprints bear following. Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists were proponents of Indian independence at the beginning in the late 19th century. In Romania, the great scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, had sympathies with Romanian fascist and nationalist groups through the Second World War. Finally, at present, the president’s aide Stephen Bannon cites Julius Evola (along with Lenin) as an intellectual mentor. Evola was an Italian esoteric thinker and critic of modernity who promoted Italian fascism. Thus, while esoteric and occult thinkers certainly have not guided events nor have they been at the forefront of the intellectual currents shaping modern life, neither have their beliefs and personages been negligible. And contemplate this: you may conclude that Stephen Bannon is not the president and that his beliefs, no matter how seemingly fringe or outrageous, are of little consequence. But understand that the man he serves is marked by an extreme intellectual vacuity, and the contents of the House of Horrors that fill Bannon’s mind will undoubtedly—have undoubtedly—streamed in to fill that vacuum.

Before I conclude my review, I need to admit something. I feel a bit guilty about reviewing this book. The guilt comes from the fact that while reading it—and other books and articles by Lachman—I find myself mumbling “hum-hum," making an electronic note of a “yes” to a passage, and generally finding that his comments—never intrusive and or heavy-handed—reflect many of my beliefs and conclusions. I enjoyed this book, like the others, because he channels and expresses so many of my thoughts and perceptions. It’s reassuring the find someone who shares many of your viewpoints, but it may take the edge off of my criticism. If so, so be it; you’re forewarned. 

To illustrate this point, let me quote from his conclusion, where, as in the Introduction, Lachman allows himself to comment more extensively. In the “Last Words” he writes:

Clearly, for anyone who thinks life should be about something more than reality TV, celebrity gossip, and having the “F” word misspelled on your clothes, the secular Western world leaves much to be desired. I include myself in this group. Like many people, I find much about the modern world unappealing. It's for this reason that I find critics of it like Julius Evola and René Guénon [both “Traditionalists”] and others of their sensibilities disturbing—not because of Evola's obvious fascist sympathies or Guénon's elitist ethos, but because many of their criticisms hit the mark. Unless a more moderate rethinking of modernity comes up with something soon, the more extreme alternatives offered by Guénon and others like him will seem attractive. Notwithstanding Evola's repellent racist views, it's not surprising that some of his readers appreciated his belief that the only thing left was to “blow up” everything. Thankfully, the majority take this as a metaphor, and I'd bet that many of us feel something similar at times, although, again thankfully, we have the presence of mind not to succumb to this “purifying” release. To want to knock everything down and start anew has been a part of the human psyche for ages, probably from the beginning. It's a form of metaphysical impatience, and most spiritual practices are aimed at learning how to curb it. But no society or nation can practice Zen or any other discipline; only people can. So it's up to us to refrain from indulging in the delightful and stimulating exercise of smashing everything up.
Lachman, Gary. Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen (p. 232). Quest Books. Kindle Edition.

While I’m not well enough acquainted with either Evola or Guenon to endorse their critiques of modernity, I appreciate the sentiment. (See my review of William Ophuls’s book Requiem for Modern Politics and my review of Ian McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary--also a Lachman favorite--for examples.) But as someone who’s trying to figure out how he can call himself a “Burkean revolutionary” (I’m still working out how I can transform this from a blatant oxymoron into a revealing paradox), I share Lachman’s appreciation of the critique and his desire not to destroy the world in order to perfect it. I didn’t think Donald Trump would be elected president because I didn’t believe enough American were willing to (even metaphorically) “blow up the system,” which Trump is attempting to do.

I also share Lachman’s conception of politics and political thinking:

Politics deals with the possible, not the ideal; it inhabits the messy world of becoming, not the stable world of being. Ideas from the world of being can inform the politics of becoming, but they cannot take its place, which means that as long as the world is the world, there will always be change. Attempts to force some ideal, whether it be right or left, into existence will fail, or success will come at such a cost that failure would have been preferable. While watching the collapse of his beloved Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, P. D. Ouspensky had deep insight into what he called “the impossibility of violence,” “the uselessness of violent means to attain no matter what.” “I saw with undoubted clarity,” Ouspensky wrote, “that violent means and methods in anything whatever would unfailingly produce negative results, that is to say, results opposed to those aims for which they were applied.” This, Ouspensky said, wasn't an ethical insight but a practical one. Violence simply doesn't work. History, I think, bears Ouspensky out. If humankind and society are going to become “better,” it's not going to happen overnight. As the I Ching counsels, “Perseverance furthers.” And that, as I say, takes patience.

Lachman continues:

            Given that the political world isn't an ideal one, if I was asked which I preferred, the modern world—which allows for shopping malls, dumbed-down culture, and consumer consciousness—or a variant of the spiritual authoritarian theocracies encountered in this book, I'd have to come down on the side of modernity. With Leszek Kolakowski, I'm conservative because I believe that there is much to conserve and that the new is not always better than the old. But with Ernst Bloch I'm a radical, because I believe in the promise of the new, the potential for something that doesn't yet exist to arrive. The challenge, of course, is how to combine the two until we find the Goldilocks-like state of having things “just right.”

Id.

To all of the above, I say “Amen.” Lachman is not only a knowledgeable guide in the field of the occult, the esoteric, and of consciousness studies, but he also proves himself a responsible thinker in the quotidian world of politics. To borrow from the candidates, “I approve this message.”  

One final point. In a year-end blog post, in addition to announcing a new book scheduled for publication this spring about the imagination (including more on Owen Barfield), Lachman announced the receipt of a new commission. He reports:

I’ve also just received a commission from my US publisher, Tarcher Penguin, now Tarcher Perigee, for Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. The book will look at the influence ‘mental science’ and ‘positive thinking’ has had on Trump’s rise to power, and will explore the links between the new ‘alt.right’ movement within the political far right and the political philosophy of the Italian esotericist Julius Evola. I will also look at the influence Alexandr Dugin, a radical political theorist influenced by Evola, ‘chaos magick’ and Martin Heidegger, has on the Russian President Vladimir Putin. In different ways both Trump and Putin seek to destabilize the west and reshape the political and economic map of Europe. With this in mind I will look at the possible connection – if any – between the European Union and a strange political philosophy that began in the late nineteenth century and according to some reports had a hidden but effective influence on European politics. This is what is known as Synarchy, the complete opposite of anarchy. Anarchy means no government; Synarchy means total government. I write about Synarchy in Politics and the Occult  and Dark Star Rising will pick up my account of the occult influence on modern politics from where I left it in 2008.
To borrow a term that I picked up from Lachman, I’m “chuffed” at this prospect. (I hope I’ve used that correctly.) I also hope that by the time of publication that it’s not as topical as it is at the moment, but I’m not banking on that. And even if we are so lucky, we’re going to be trying to discern what happened for some time, and Lachman is sure to provide fascinating insights into our unsettling course of events.



Monday, March 6, 2017

Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History by Peter Turchin

History through a different lens
One of the oldest and most common endeavors of those who have thought about the long arc of history has been to discern the long trends—sometimes expressed as “laws”—that govern history. The earliest theorists discerned a cyclical pattern, from the earliest myth-histories to the Greeks, and then the great North Africans, St. Augustine and then Ibn-Khaldun. With the Enlightenment, the idea of unending progress arose and even the concept of an “end of history.” But in the 20th century, with the works of Spengler, Toynbee, and Sorokin, the ideas of cycles once again gained traction. Of course, it’s possible to argue that there is progress in history that is marked by cyclical patterns (a “spiral dynamic” as one viewpoint labels it). Both the march of progress perspective and the cyclical perspective have proponents and persuasive arguments in their favor. I adhere to the aphorism that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes” (misattributed to Mark Twain, but worthy of him). And I’m just not sure where the long arc of history will take us.

Foremost among those exploring the rhymes of history today is Peter Turchin. I’ve enthusiastically reviewed his work here and here, so I won’t repeat too much in the way of background. In his most recent book, Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History*, Turchin delves into a major issue that he left hanging in his previous work. That is, whether the cyclical patterns that he and his confederates identified in a broad range of pre-industrial societies apply to modern, industrial nations. The work of Thomas Malthus and demography as a field of knowledge play a crucial role in his pre-industrial models. In brief, a national or regional population would overshoot the available food supply, leading to widespread immiseration and discontent among the non-elites. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, food supply has not been an acute issue in industrialized societies. The expansion of European culture and science into the Americas and other locales around the world opened up new sources of food, and science devised new, more efficient means of agriculture that created unprecedented food supplies and food security. So, would this end the cycle that Turchin explained to the general public in War and Peace and War?

Turchin puts to test his structural-demographic theory by examining the history of the U.S. Does his theory hold in this modern, industrial land with abundant food? The short answer is “yes,” a cyclical pattern can be identified following a template established by older societies. A new ingredient replaces the Malthusian trap. Instead of population per se, immigration comes to play a crucial role. In short, while food and even land were widely available in the U.S., there were still stressors placed on most individuals by relative wage stagnation. With population growth from both fertility and immigration, there were periods, notably in the 19th and early 20th century, when virtually unlimited immigration caused wages to stagnate. The “give me your tired, your poor” meant that wages would remain lower as the nation’s reservoir of wage labors kept filling to the brim. Given the current political conflict about immigration, Turchin’s statistics provide a bracing reminder of the complexity of this issue. I’m a descendent of Calvinist immigrants from around the time of the Mayflower and the late 19th-century Irish immigration. I’m the product of both the long-established and the newcomer. Xenophobia and ethnic stereotypes are not the only—or the most cogent—grounds for imposing limits on immigration. However, I hasten to add that after the limitation of immigration in adopted in the early 1920s, when the Red Scare and widespread unrest were causing alarm among elites, led to a drastic decline in the number of immigrants. And from this point forward, Turchin does not identify immigration as a significant factor in the down cycle that began in the Regan era. (Turchin also notes that the Red Scare of the 1920s with the Palmer Raids and like instances were not the result of imagining bogeymen in the closet. The revolutionary potential in the U.S. was serious. Even paranoids have enemies. (The same can be said of the McCarthy Era; for all the paranoia and desecration of fundamental standards of decency and lawfulness, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were Soviet spies. Despite our desire to uncomplicate it, history remains complicated.)

I would be remiss, however, if you came away thinking that Turchin’s work is only about population and immigration. Turchin’s formula includes a variety of variables. (He expresses his theory via mathematical algorithms, but don’t let this deter you, as Turchin expects it might. He explains it all very well in plain English in addition to providing the mathematical models.) And Turchin, experienced historian as he is, also recognizes that stochastic variables (unanticipated and unmodeled factors) can affect turn of events and the course of trends. (Turchin emphases that he seeks only to identify and track trends, not forecast events.) In addition to population and labor supply issues, Turchin identifies “elite overproduction,” youth bulges in the population, the fiscal soundness of the state, and “cultural factors” as other key ingredients in identifying what overall trends of well-being and stability (or ill-being and instability) the nation will likely experience. Using a variety of databases, Turchin follows the course of U.S. history from the founding of the republic up to the publication of his book in 2016. Along each step of the way, he draws upon quantitative data supplemented by a narrative of events to further his thesis. For anyone acquainted with U.S. history, it’s an intriguing review from a new perspective.

But like most of us, I’m most interested in what’s happening around me. The incredible turn of events surrounding the 2016 election and initiation of the current presidential administration were particularly intriguing. And here, Turchin does not disappoint, and he offers no comfort. In short, beginning around 1920 and continuing through the Great Depression, WWII, and into the post-war era, the U.S. went through what Turchin labels “The Era of Good Feelings II,” named after the first era in the early 19th century, when the nation was young. But by 1970, cracks in the foundation of this era began to appear, and by the beginning of the Reagan presidency, a deterioration becomes apparent (although Reagan’s charm and optimism hid a great deal, I might add). One of the most widely identified factors in the current phase is the stagnation of wages, which affected voters’ choices in recent elections, especially in 2016, when voters decided to gamble on a complete outsider. But elite overproduction has also continued, and social norms have continued to deteriorate. Statistics about the polarization of Congress are shocking but not surprising. Based upon the trends, which events could alter, we won’t hit a peak of social and political disintegration (that certainly entails violence) until after 2020. In other words, hard times lie ahead.

Turchin’s analysis and perspective on the current trend in America provides a needed contrast or at least a supplement to other diagnoses. For instance, I recently finished reading Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger. In that work, Mishra argued that what we in the U.S. are experiencing, as well as many other nations, is a continuing rebellion against modernity.  In other words, a continuation, after a brief reprieve, of the social, political, and economic unrest that the world experienced in much of the 19th and early 20th century. But the shortcoming of Mishra’s analysis is that it does not explain what turns-on or turns-off this discontent.  Modernity, while new to some parts of the world, is certainly not new to the U.S. Turchin’s analysis suggests that the turmoil and political upheaval that we’re now experiencing are a part of a much longer term trend.

Turchin offers us one ray of hope. By identifying these trends, by obtaining this knowledge, he suggests that we can intervene to alleviate the bad times that we seemed destined to endure. Alas, I believe that we as a nation and as a species are too stuck in our ways, too myopic, to take advantage of our knowledge. As reflected in St. Paul’s lament, “for the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do,” aligning human knowledge and will is terrifically difficult and usually occurs only under duress. What might that duress be? It would have to be some “exogenous event,” something outside of Turchin’s model. An alien invasion? A dramatic and devastating change in the climate? Or perhaps some new, emergent property will manifest. The history of the universe is the story of one emergent property unfolding after another, which we can come to understand in hindsight but that we cannot forecast. The cultural evolution of humankind, the development of language, writing, and mathematics; developments of technology and the accumulation of scientific knowledge; the ability to live in cities and vast societies—all are properties and traits that emerged from generations before us. But the hardest change to manifest is within the species itself, within the individual and collective consciousness. And when under threat and stress, more often than not devolution replaces evolution. Can we avoid this? Can we start to navigate our own ship? It’s something that we have to strive for even as the likelihood of success remains low. And Peter Turchin has provided us with useful guidance for our endeavor.   


*Turchin just announced that the book is now available on Kindle. He initially declined Kindle publication because of the number of table and charts included in the book, but feeling assured that these could be properly presented, he authorized a version. My reading of the book was delayed until my courier (daughter) brought me the paperback version at our Christmas visit. Thus, my delay in completing and reviewing this book that I had been looking forward to reading. The Kindle version is good news. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

This is a short, quick book to read, perhaps 30-45 minutes of your time. And at only $2.99 (on Kindle) you can't afford not to buy it. For those who found his list of 20 points elsewhere on the web for free, don't let that suffice. The book adds commentary to his list, and it's worth the small cost.

For those of you not acquainted with Snyder, he's a historian of Eastern Europe and has written extensively on the turmoil--the killing fields--of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. He knows whereof he speaks.

I will offer you a couple of his thoughts from his concluding remarks. In addressing what he terms "the politics of inevitability," he notes

Until recently, we Americans had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy. After communism in eastern Europe came to an end in 1989–91, we imbibed the myth of an “end of history.” In doing so, we lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.
Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Kindle Locations 765-769). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition. 
But he then addresses the converse attitude, what he calls "the politics of eternity." About this attitude, he states
In the politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures. The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems. Since the crisis is permanent, the sense of emergency is always present; planning for the future seems impossible or even disloyal. How can we even think of reform when the enemy is always at the gate? 
Id. at 810-815.
In contrast to both of these attitudes, he places history (an encomium with which I could not agree more):
Both of these positions, inevitability and eternity, are antihistorical. The only thing that stands between them is history itself. History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz thought that such a notion of responsibility worked against loneliness and indifference. History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.
Id. at 822-827 
In his peroration, he exhorts young people especially (although it applies to all of us)
One thing is certain: If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some. 
This is not the end, but a beginning. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!” Thus Hamlet. Yet he concludes: “Nay, come, let’s go together.” 
Id. at 830-834
Buy this book and read it! 

The Siberian Candidate?

A recent tweet by Gary Lachman, who writes about the history and philosophy of consciousness, has prompted some further reflection by me about the strange case of Trump's connection with Russia.



Let me start with where I'm coming from. Conspiracy theories abound in modern society (and their roots go deep into human history). I find that as soon as someone promotes a conspiracy theory, I immediately throw them into my mental looney bin (although once in a great while I have to dig one out). The list has always been long: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a supposed secret Jewish blueprint for world hegemony in the early 20th century; black helicopters landing blue-helmeted U.N. troops to take over the U.S.; the Trilateral Commission as a world-controlling cabal; the JFK assassination plots concocted by . . . take your pick. In short (and my list could go on and on), we humans would rather latch on to a dark fairy tale that reveals that someone is in control than admit that a lone actor or a complex confluence of conditions beyond our ken lead to outcomes that frighten and disturb us.

But even paranoids have enemies, right? There are conspiracies throughout history. The assassinations of Caesar and of Lincoln, to name just two of the better known proven conspiracies.  So when contemplating conspiracies, one finds that diamonds sometimes lie in the mud, revealed only after sifting through the mental muck that clouds our vision.

So what is the Trump-Putin connection? Is it merely a matter of autocrat envy? There are many displays this trait, such as Orban in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey. This explanation is plausible. Or it could be a matter of shared ideology: the West (and Orthodox East) vs. Islam in a battle of the civilizations. Perhaps this belief set plays a role as well. Or it could be that Putin has some dirt on Trump that gives him sway over Trump. But how could Trump's reputation be further despoiled? Perhaps by showing he owes more than he's worth or some revelation that is the business equivalent of small hands.

At present, we just don't know. I agree that simply bashing Trump and his administration by way of association with Russia is a weak line of thought and attack. Being of a realist bent in the field of international relations, I don't go much for this. If Trump was trustworthy, working on specific deals and shared interests with the Putin regime could prove useful, so demonization of Russia as a whole is not a good avenue. On the other hand, Trump and his administration--except probably his Defense Secretary--seem naive and ill-informed about the Putin regime's intentions and the nefarious activities in which they certainly do engage (like disrupting U.S. and European elections). To put it bluntly, in the world of geopolitics, Putin comes across as a whole lot sharper than Trump.

So despite the great Hollywood potential that would make The Parallax View, JFK, or The Manchurian Candidate seem all too timid, I'm going to say that we have only what appears to be smoke. Maybe it's fog or maybe it's smoke. I don't see a fire, and we must prove that we have a fire in the house before we act. However, when we're not sure about what's happening, we'd damn well better call out the fire department just in case. And in this instance, the fire department needs to be a strong, truly independent investigatory commission. Congress has to take up its constitutional mantle and act.

In any event, the events of the Trump candidacy and administration will provide plenty of weird takes that will provide fodder for many a writer for decades to come (unless he messes us up even worse than I want to imagine).