The Name of the Rose

5113DL-1yKL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

Umberto Eco is one of those authors that you consistently hear about – a reference here, a mention there, but never have a rabid following. They’re respected, but certainlly no J.K. Rowling.

Umberto Eco’s books deserve a much wider readership and appreciation, for the simple reason that they are brilliant. At once witty and deep, scholarly yet adventurous,  Eco’s delicious sense of pulp and high intellectual drama is peerless. His books are unique in this sense in that they are de facto works of philosophy that are also highly enjoyable and readable tales that can be read simply for their own pleasure.

The Name of the Rose was Eco’s debut novel, and that alone is saying something; I would rate this book better than most author’s entire oeuvre. Part thrilling murder mystery and defective story, part intellectual and academic meditation on the nature of scholarship and language and part coming-of-age story, The Name of the Rose is masterful on multiple layers. It can be read effortlessly as a medieval Sherlock Holmes story (one of the two leading characters is William of Baskerville) but it also works just as well as a philosophical demonstration of Eco’s day-job academic ideas, steeped in postmodernism and deconstructionism.

Set during the high middle ages, during the epic, centuries long clash between pope and emperor, this book even manages to mix in high political and cultural drama. The final confrontation between bad guy and good guy is both dramatic and intellectually stimulating and meaningful. Again, very few authors could possibly manage this. Eco’s books work very well on multiple levels.

This is top tier writing; a great example of the power and value of books and the written word over all other types of media.

 

A Game of Thrones

51NHcGe1uCL._AC_UL320_SR188,320_

HBO has a formula. One part shock value: violence, torture. One part sex: nudity, boobies, education. And one part of actually really great television: you know, that one scene every few episodes where an awesome character delivers and awesome monologue or your mind is blown by some epic twist. I used referred to it as “sexy history” a la The Tudors staring Johnathon Rhyes Myers. I could enjoy it, but once you’ve detected the pattern, it wears thin.

For some reason, I never quite saw HBO as a network that would go to the world of pure fantasy for their source material, but clearly it’s brilliant. You see: it’s just sexy history where the source material fits the HBO formula better than real history. How can Johnathon Rhyes Myers play a fat 50 year old man and still be sexy?

I watched Game of Thrones not really sure if I would like it. My wife will tell you I’m obsessed now, but I want to stand on saying that I very much enjoy Game of Thrones but step back from obsession. For me, Westworld takes that title.

The truth is that Donald Trump is president, and escapism – in the face of ecological destruction, American fascism and the death of the Great American Republic a very likely probability – is the order of the day. Game of Thrones is as good escape as any.

George R.R. Martin is a great writer because he knows very well he is not a great writer. He is a master borrower and adaptor. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros while distinctly different from European history, is at the same time reassuringly familiar: it’s a world that you immediately understand and know the rules too. The Dornish remind me of Moorish Spain; the Lannisters strike me as a little French. The Starks strike me as Scottish. Similarly, the religions of this universe parallel quite nicely with European paganism, Catholic Christianity and Islam. While no one to one comparison is ever possible (it’s not really Martin’s style to make social commentary, I would say), things fit together more or less they way then did in the middle ages. Martin’s fantasy has just the right amount of fantasy to be brilliant.

Here’s another example. Yes, there are dragons. And yes, there is magic. And yes, there might even be ice zombies. But they remain in the background to real human drama; they act more like props or symbols or metaphors. The dragons don’t talk; they are simply animals that happen to fly and breathe fire. Magic appears as illusion or religion or possibly chance; we are very far from Harry Potter. The ice zombies remain a terrible, possibly false myth; they add to the drama rather than being major plot points.

I was struck by how closely the television show follows the books. They really did a great job adapting it.

Final verdict: Game of Thrones is grade-A escapism.

Dear Tom Perez….

Congratulations on being elected to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.

It’s very exciting to know that the mindset of myopia, hypocrisy, backroom dealings and ineptitude that lost the 2016 election to a reality TV star and snake-oil salesman named Donald Trump is still solidly in control of the Democratic Party. It’s a real honour to lead the most corrupt political party in American history: the party of machine politics and smoked-filled backrooms, Mayor Daley and Herbert Humphrey, and now the party of Hilary Clinton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and yourself. A smug insider elected by smug insiders that vividly, excruciatingly have no reason to be smug: that’s your situation right now.

Oh, I know that Hilary won the popular vote, but you have clearly not learned a lesson from the election. Nor have you and your backers any conception of what is happening to this country right now. The Democratic Brand embodied by the Clintons: neoliberalism, identity politics, wealthy behind the scenes donors, technocratic centrism loaded with platitudes about Hope and Change has actually just been torpedoed. You are captain of a sinking ship that just voted to tell it’s progressive base – and not for the first time in very recent memory – to go f*** itself. There is no other way to say it.

Thank you, Mr. Perez, for confirming to progressive voters that they are not at fault for Trump’s election. Thank you for confirming our suspicion that he Democrats are a corporate party, designed more to foil progressive politics then to represent them. Every time I start to feel any sort of loyalty or start to identify with the Democrats, somewhere behind the closed doors of the DNC, some sort of wedge issue emerges to reconfirm that the DNC is the Abbott to the GOP’s Costello. A few months ago, I thought between demographic changes and the fielding of Trump that the Democrats where going to be the party in power for the foreseeable future and the GOP was going to split into a sort of regional party and a libertarian party. Now I don’t even think we will see any real democracy ever again.

Thank you for freeing me from any sense of loyalty to Democrats. If this election has done anything good, it has revealed a lot of true stripes. For all the fake news and indefinably rigged primaries and elections, there is a decent chance that Americans will get to see exactly where things stand now. With this catastrophic loss to Trump, I thought that the Democrats would embrace progressive politics and lay the foundation for the millennial generation to really come to identify with  a major US political party. Well, that dream is done; perhaps  I was foolish and naive to think that was possible. Instead of fighting for democracy and choosing to represent and fight for an energised progressive base, you have opted to stay fiercely loyal to the very things that where rejected in this last election. Millennials – the largest and most highly educated generation – are seeking political representation and you have failed them again and again. Brilliant. The galling thing is that both your tactical moves and your strategic moves are not working…

Of course, that’s not your perspective. I know that your calculation is that progressives and millennials have no choice but to vote Democrat in 2018 and 2020, but if the results of the election suggest anything, they suggest that the American voter isn’t buying the (never very successful) Democratic model that Bill Clinton started. It’s all about money after all, isn’t it?  The progressive voter cannot be counted on to show up on voting day.

As a progressive voter, I’ve heard it all before. Sarah Silverman’s “You’re being ridiculous!” has come to define the party you now lead. I wish the Democrats were as effective as opposing Republicans as they where at foiling their own progressive wing of their party.

It’s not too late though Mr. Perez. We’re looking for leaders. Right now we have Bernie, but there is a hunger for leaders that voters can trust. Trump won because a big block of Americans felt they could trust him; they felt they represented their interests. I think they are stupid and dead wrong, but that is beside the point.

The majority of Americans want what ‘Merica wants. True representation.

You might try it sometime.

 

 

this is what fascism looks like

It has been one month since Trump became president. We have all been asking ourselves: “what is Donald Trump?” A populist? A fascist? Just what we need to shake things up? We as a society have not settled on what he is, what he really represents. And this might be his greatest strength; that potential of ‘normalisation’ already well under way.

Let’s cut to the chase: this is what fascism looks like. All the “fascism” alarms bells, klaxons, sirens, calendar event reminders and tocsins are going off right now. All of them. Every damn single last one.

Let’s be clear on what fascism is and what it is not. Because a part of the problem is that we have used the word “fascism” for so long as a catchall word meaning “very bad, angry/strict.”

Fascism is revolution in favour of authoritarianism. The strange marriage of angry populism and cynical conservative powers, this is a revolt against the idea of the public good, public reason and messy secular humanism. Fascism always makes use of the emotional appeal of a misunderstood, mythical past, even as it is itself something new and has nothing to do with the actual history of the nation. Fascism simultaneously captures the language of revolt and of change; it thus has a way of outflanking traditional political parties on both the right and the left.

This logically incoherent, internally contradictory appeal is the keynote sign of facscism. It “works” because, remember, fascism is revolt against civil society: it is an explosion of greed and selfishness, the triumph of the id, so to speak. As the saying going: “there is no contradiction in self interest.” Fascism is what happens when corporate greed hollows out a society, its individuals and institutions in the name of profit, and when things come to a breaking point where the path of the political body either points towards a move towards public good at the expense of corporate profit, or the destruction of civil society for the benefit of corporate profit. The resulting destruction of civil society and government based on public reason creates the appearance – in the case of Nazisim at least – of explosive growth and expansion. Because the resources of society are no longer being directed to the well-being of its individuals, it’s being completely directed into military expansion, corporate profit, and the gain of the handful of sychophants at the top. Fascism in this sense is extreme corporate cronyism with an expansive ideological cover.

All of these signs are present in Trump’s nascent regime. It all fits. Let me repeat that: it all fits the pattern. “Populism,” the tortured ideological term conservatives would prefer you to use for Trump, is drafted every time a demagogue sweeps onto the scene to take advantage of people’s anger. Don’t call it mob rule. At it’s best, populism expresses an almost marxist sense of lower class identity. Explain to me how Trump’s cabinet of billionaires is “populist” again?

Fascism is not true populism. Nor is it pure autocracy. It obviously contains huge doses of these things, but fascism is not about common people overthrowing some sort of oppressive regime, nor is fascism particularly strong at the top. It is not so much characterised by extreme centralised authority as competing factions of cronies and sycophants, who compete for the attention of the Leader. Fascism isn’t so much centralised and autocratic as a handful of powerful interests – in Nazi Germany’s case, the army, the bureaucracy, the SS and the major corporations – vying to expand their own power. The German government had ceased to exist in a de facto sense. Remember, Hitler wasn’t brilliant and his cronies and henchmen were even worse. They where crackpots, ranters, fanatics and madmen that political elites thought they could control and mould. Fascism is a wrecking; that turns a vibrant society into a barracks.

Recently, I have been reading the traditional Republican/conservative pushback on Donald Trump being as fascist: here are the best two articles. Barton Swaim’s “Trump’s populism isn’t fascism. So what is it?” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-populism-isnt-fascism-so-what-is-it/2017/02/16/d871df78-f20f-11e6-8d72-263470bf0401_story.html?utm_term=.5db0621deea1&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1 Swaim suggests that America exceptionalism – that our character as a nation renders us immune to fascism – and that if we where going to have gone fascist, it would have been in the ’30s and ’40s. Embracing the idea of American Exceptionalism, Swaim smugly announces that our society intrinsically resists the “centralisation of authority” that would happen under fascism. Further, fascism is “for elites, not mavericks or crackpots” and German society, including their version of liberal professors fell into line behind Hitler because German thought of itself as monolithic and was OK with being ruled by an aristocracy from Berlin. Again curious when your election is made possible by billionaires, the oil and coal industry, and FBI Director Comey. Fascism is when the “elites” and crackpots join forces.

Any complains liberals might have – like Bannon saying that the media should shut up – say more about delicate liberal sensitivities than about Trump’s ideology. Swains suggests that because he is able to disagree with Trump on anything (he airs slight disapproval of the Muslim Ban here) that means Trump is not a fascist. Swain then gets to his main course: Trump is a populist. A return to roots and basics. He’s the Salt of the Earth of American Democracy. Again, Trump lost the popular vote and “did not vote” was the winner of the election. After providing no evidence or explanation, merely a vague quote from Irving Kristol that echoes the Jefferson quote about the Tree of Liberty needing the blood of patriots except in this case populists, Swaim closes by saying the real problem is the conformism and complacency of America’s liberal elites.

Adopting the arm-chair-general superciliousness I’ve come to strongly associate with conservatives delivering an oversimplified, strangely convenient/cherry-picked version of history, Swaim claims that American ‘frontier spirit’ and general resistance to conformity means that authoritarianism of any stripe would be instantly halted before it even began. The funny thing about Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Swaim says, is that it fascism never took place in ’30s America. I cannot tell if Swaim makes his arguments out of cynicism and hypocrisy or naive ignorance, but he clearly has not read It Can’t Happen Here. The entire point of the book is to illustrate how easily it could “happen here” i.e., how easily “American exceptionalism” could be turned into a fascist program. If I was Swaim, I wouldn’t have even mentioned the book at all.

Further, Swaim seems blind that he is on the side of the forces of racial/religious conformism. America was explicitly founded on the idea of public reason and the separation of church and state: the Founding Fathers refused to choose. Swaim implicitly thinks that American means “white and christian.” What this means in the modern age is fascism. Nor does he have any conception of how the ‘frontier spirit’ might work. When does it “kick in?” Swaim is also ignoring the realty of what the decades of the Cold War have done to our democratic society (talk about centralisation of power and conformity); his statement that “Americans have never gone for socialism” seems strange given FDR’s New Deal programs and the fact that American politics is currently heading off a cliff into right wing extremism. It implies Americans are immune to extremist politics just when that is exactly what is happening.

Ultimately for Swaim, nothing Donald Trump could ever do would count as fascist. And that is the real weakness in what he’s saying. Swaim’s rationale here indicates that that, hypothetically, Mike Pence’s “Patriotic Bible Camp for American Greatness” cannot be a  concentration camp because, well, it reflects our frontier spirit, and it chastises bleeding heart liberals (who are also secret totalitarians) and if it was fascist – which it definitely isn’t – Americans wouldn’t have it. “Frontier spirit” is great, but does Swaim realise that there is no frontier anymore?

Swaim’s basic argument rests on myths and  misconceptions about the American past and the actual nut-and-bolts of how are society functions today. Worse, he has no idea what fascism actually is. For him, the sum of the liberal argument is that Trump is a fascist because he is a bully, and Benito Mussolini was also a blustering bully. Swaim dismisses the comparison as facile. Fine. But he misses how Trump’s bullying fits a pattern that is repeating itself  here and now.

The second pattern of response is quite a lot more subtle and complicated. A great example is John McNeill’s “How fascist is Donald Trump? There’s a formula for that.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/10/21/how-fascist-is-donald-trump-theres-actually-a-formula-for-that/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.e23796649cd4.

McNeill, a historian, grades Trump on his similarities with historical fascism in eleven categories, each category getting a possible four “benitos.” This is an interesting and charming read (on the category of ‘fetishisation of masculinity,’ four benitos are awarded) that dismisses Trump as a crude semi-fascist, a baby fascist (Trump scores a total of 22 benitos out of a possible 44). Fine. McNeill is clearly no friend of Trump, but his perspective tends to play down or even dismiss concerns about what is taking place now. Instead of indicating that we are serious danger of history repeating itself, and that our society and democracy are in dire peril, McNeill more or less leaves the impression that, like Swaim, Trump is like commercials during a movie: you don’t like them, but you sit through it anyway. McNeill contributes, in a small way, to the normalisation of Trump.

But what does it mean that a third of Americans slobber a semi-fascist and many more tolerate him? It strikes me that even a baby fascist should still trigger the “frontier spirit.” And even then, I would argue that the basic mechanics of fascism – populist rage allied with corporate and military interests destroying the basic tenets of the public good/civil society – clearly do not require a “high benito scoring” fascist dictator to be fascism. Remember we are talking about destruction here; you don’t have to be competent. 

Obviously Trump isn’t Hitler. Trump obviously isn’t Mussolini. But he does not have to be, and  American fascism – Trumpism – was never going to resemble the historical fascists. Really – just think about it. This is root-and-branch the essential reasoning behind the conservative mind-block on what’s happening to this country. Trump can’t be a fascist – the reasoning goes – because of the dazzling array of superficial differences between Trumpism and Nazism, Germany/Italy and America. For example, McNeill awards zero benitos in the categories of ‘fetishisation of youth’ and ‘hierarchical party structure/purging the disloyal,’ making much of the fact that his followers are not dressed up in ersatz military outfits and some Republicans dislike Trump and are not afraid to say so in public. So Republicans aren’t goose stepping around Washington DC in Davy Crockett outfits. Great. McNeill is blind to how militarised are society has become; requiring that fascism march in the street with matching outfits is laughable. Also, what about those little red hats?

NcNeill’s categories have nothing to do with what fascism actually is and how it actually operates. McNeill is implicitly assuming that Trumpism must fit snuggly into a mould that it simply doesn’t need in order to be fascist. McNeill is like the generals who “prepare for the last war” instead of looking to fight the next one. Again, neither McNeill nor Swaim look below the surface and look at what has happened to this country since WWII and the underlying economics, not to mention the state of our democracy (effectively gone). They are afraid to check underneath the hood: Trump doesn’t represent “frontier spirit” nor does Trumpism need to fit a blueprint of 1930’s European fascism for Trumpism to be fascism.

How long will these ostensibly reasonable, hard headed Republicans – fond of Winston Churchill and Edmund Burke – keep up their sham debate? How bad will it have to get? Look at their words and actions. Bannon’s statements about the media culminate to a calculated attempt to subvert democracy; Trump is moving full bore destroy any sort of function public system.

What exactly do you need to be more clear?

 

 

The City and the Castle

2500 years ago, at the birth of western civilisation as we know it, there where two political nodes from which the ancient Greek world organised itself. One one side you had The City: a vibrant, messy republic.  And on the other, the Castle: an austere militaristic society. I am referring to the classical match up of Athens and Sparta. Ultimately, the idea of the City and the Castle refer to bedrock notions of what the idea political body should be: one based on civil duty, and the other, righteous hierarchy.

These rivals created the bedrock of western political thinking; I would argue that each society has, since ancient times, wrestled with a political spectrum with Athens at one end  and Sparta on the other. This political spectrum is both more realistic and even more practical than the clunky, outdated and ideologically motivated American conception of the political spectrum, i.e., Communism on the far left and extreme libertarianism/ anarchy and or fascism on the right (depending on who you ask), with American society perfectly balanced distinctly on the right in the realm of laissez-faire capitalism.

The political spectrum of the City and the Castle is also more complex and nuanced then a clunky authoritarianism vs freedom sense of the political spectrum. This means that the Castle does not mean “authoritarianism” and the City does not mean “freedom,” though these concepts are definitely integral to both respectively.

Athens and Sparta represent the two poles, or ideals of the western political landscape. Every society and government primarily appeals to one or the other; and while every society will have both impulses, a given government or ruler will appeal to one ideal or the other. For example, I would like the 20th century totalitarianisms of Stalinism and Nazisim with a radical shift towards the Castle. While the French Revolution could be seen as a bringing-into-line of the French political system with a socio-economic system which had already shifted along the lines of the City.

The Castle – the fundamental sense that there is a righteous, received hierarchy and order to society – is best seen in Sparta, but other examples might be feudal Europe and various authoritarian units throughout western history, ranging from the likes of Oliver Cromwell to Pinochet. There are numerous advantages: military strength and high social cohesion between the two big ones. But the idea of the Castle is as much psychological and social as it is political. As Herbert Marcuse said: “people do not want to be free.” The strength of the Castle is it’s clearly delineated social hierarchy closely linked to an ideology with religious overtones, i.e., “One God in Heaven, One King on Earth.” The Castle provides its people with simple, unquestioned answers to life’s vexing questions.

static, oppressive, brittle, ignorant

The City – exemplified originally by Athens – rests on a conception of shared humanity. Thus the human individual is a citizen – with rights and duties – rather than a subject or member of a folk. The City doesn’t equate to democracy, or even a republic necessarily. It’s about the fundamental conception of how the political body should function: how it is envisioned. The City is where the idea of the public good is primary. The strength of the City is it’s vibrancy. By this I mean more than simply “freedom.” The idea of the polis – a rational, human-oriented political unit – assists human individuals with pursuing their own well being. It is this social framework of the public good which enables tremendous social energies to be released.

The drawback with the Castle is its static conception society and life in an ever changing world. The Castle is oppressive: the result a psychological and emotional stunting of it’s people. It is a narrow conception of society and life which some psychological profiles crave, but few thrive in. Strong leaders of the Castle are almost unstoppable, but wise, great men are always in short supply and one wise man is not enough to rule an entire society. Ask any autocrat ever.

The weakness of the City is it’s trouble with social and political cohesion. Implicitly based on ideas of equality and moral relativism, it lacks a sense of divine sanction. It is hard to ask people to sacrifice themselves – either their lives or their sense of profit and gain – for an indistinct and abstract ‘public good.’ The City is more complicated psychologically, intellectually and emotionally. It’s much harder to sustain; it requires much more privileged circumstances to  function properly.  The most successful republics – Athens, Venice, Holland, England, and America are at once the most dynamic societies but also incredibly rare and fragile. The Venetian Republic, for example, was a totally unique production of geographic location (islands in lagoon which both protected the Venetians and inhibited the rise of the feudal system), historical confluence (the Hunnic invasions, the fall of the Roman Empire), and cultural factors (the intellectual and cultural heritage of  Athens and Rome. These factors combined to create a unique sense of civic pride and duty amongst the citizens of Venice.

The Peloponnesian War – the WWII of ancient Greece – was eventually won by Sparta. Plato’s Republic is in many ways inspired by Sparta, and since then the lovers-of-all-things Spartan have only gained ground. Sparta resonates with many people, where as nobody makes movies about Athenians.

But there is a problem. There are no actual Spartan accounts of being Spartan. Everything we know about the ancient Spartans was written by other Greeks: Athenians, Thebans, Corinthians. When we refer to the birth of western civilisation, we are referring to Athens at the height of its glory. Yes, the entire ancient Greek world played its part here, but it is Athens that produced the great philosophers and the artists that created a lasting civilisation. Sparta won the War because it remained defensive; Sparta merely survived. It never conquored. Sparta rode high until they where defeated by the Thebans. And then they where gone. And we are all Athenians now.

America was founded upon the ideas of The City: secular humanism, civic duty an the public good. These values are at the root of what makes America great. These ideas are under attack, to the point of being destroyed. Make no mistake: patriotism and people shouting about loving freedom do not guarantee freedom, nor will it matter when it comes to maintaining a republic in this country. It’s the idea of the public good, linked with secular humanism which is the essence of American democracy, not guns and bibles. Corporate greed – the profit maximisation principle – and the religious right are two principles which seek to destroy the idea of the public good, which both limits profits and stands in implicit contradiction to the fundamentalist mindset.

It’s now or never.

 

Ready Player One

ready_player_one_cover

Ready Player One: the cover has all the makings of an awesome, mind-bending dystopian fiction that makes 1984 look outdated, the Mockingjay series look naive, and Tron not very inventive. Ernest Cline, too, has all the makings of an awesome hey-this-guy-is-our-age-and-speaks-to-our-experience top tier author; with just enough millennial/Gen-X nostalgia to really make it mainstream. This book should have been eerie; a sort of cyber-punk, reality questioning, death-match in layers of computer games.

Ready Player One is none of those things. This might be a solid contribution to the young-adult fiction genre, but does not qualify as serious literature. As much as I might be putting my snobbery on display for all to see here, I think I can justify it. Here’s the scene: it is about 30 years in the future, and the world is dying under global warming, endless wars, famine, disease, etc. Pretty much the future we are hurtling towards right now. In this dark future, a Gen-X reclusive genius computer programer creates OASIS, a totally immersive, massive computer game. It quickly turns into more then the only real outlet of escapism; the creator of OASIS built some basic “public good” devices into the system (like no monthly entry fee or monthly fee to play). OASIS therefore quickly becomes much more than simply a game; it becomes the glue that hold humanity together (it even has a free and functioning public school system. Yes, this really is fiction).

So far so good, right?

And it ends there. Cline seems both unwilling and unable to following up on the potential of this universe. The dystopian landscape described above is more or less a vehicle for Cline’s real interest: 1980’s nostalgia obsession. The music, the style, but especially the early arcade games are painstakingly on display. In some respects, this book is almost a history of early computer games. Beyond that, the plot is conventional – childishly so – the bad guys are profoundly cliche, the hero saves the day, wins the big prize and gets the (very) attractive girl. Liberal use of deus ex machine makes sure of this.

The initial idea for the book must have been the idea of easter eggs in computer games and people’s obsession with finding them. You know: the designers code a complicated, almost invisible puzzle that, if solved, reveals something like the developer’s name, or gives a special power, etc.

So why didn’t Cline go for a story plot along the lines of: in the future, humanity more or less lives inside of an immersive computer simulation that enslaves us all. However, the original coder and developer left the Ultimate Easter Egg: a way out, a glitch, a chance to escape, opt out, or destroy the system. The digital appeal of Tron/video games with the overall plot of George Lucas’ early movie THX-1181. That’s my idea anyway.

Probably a solid entry for young adults.

Byzantium The Apogee

s-l300

This is the second book in John Julius Norwich’s majestic Byzantium trilogy. Covering the roughly three centuries between 800AD and 1100AD, this is the Byzantine Empire at it’s height, culturally, civilly, and militarily. Norwich, as one would expect from this history master of the Mediterranean, expertly balances narrative, scrutiny of reported facts, and pace. While not an academic work – Norwich frequently allows himself  moralising judgements a al Edward Gibbon – the strengths of his descriptions and gently criticism allows the reader far more access to this very different time and place.

Norwich draws upon the handful of historical sources from this period, more or less recounts the stories told in these sources, then relies on academic work to fill in the blanks with best-guesses  or conjecture. His real talent is his rich descriptions and sympathetic portrayal of the wide cast of characters one encounters in medevial Byzantium.

There are so many stories to tell about the Byzantines. There is the story of Constantinople, for a thousand years, the greatest metropolis in the world. The story of iconoclasm, the great theological civil war which tore the Empire apart. The story of the long wars with the Arabs, a tale of major, epic campaigns, but also a “wild west” border land of raids and myth. Not to mention the art and architecture. It goes on and on. Fair warning, the Byzantines are my favourite historical entity.

Reading this book about an Empire that reaches its height and then is led into decline and destruction due in no small part to the incompetence and avarice of its emperors, I was struck by some interesting parallels to our situation today. The Byzantines reach their height because they have a run of about eight good-to-great emperors in a row; almost unheard of. But there was ongoing tension between the powerful landed aristocrats and small land holders who formed the backbone of the Byzantine army; the aristocrats had this way of swallowing the small landholders, turning citizens into effective slaves.

Sound familiar?

I couldn’t resist: sometimes the Emperors where on the sides of the aristocrats, and sometimes not. But part of the decline of the Byzantines is the triumph of the plantation/latifunda system over something a bit more equitable.

An awesome book that is the equal of you R.R. Martin/Tolkien thirst.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

81dr5pjlrul

This is a landmark piece of intellectual history; the sort of work which is must referenced, but rarely read outright. The sort of book that is referenced in textbooks and deployed in master’s dissertations.

Published in the early 1960’s, this book marks an important watershed in the way we think about science as belief and practice; even the way scientists think about science. In this sense, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions assumes a critical, lynch-pin position in both the ongoing debate between logical positivism/analytic philosohpy and the ‘continental’ philosophical tradition, as well as the idea of modernism and postmodernism. This is a whole lot to chew on, so please go easy on me in advance.

Logical Positivism is the position that science, the more quantifiable the better, is the only  route to facts and knowledge. Call it scientific absolutism. This view clashed with more “metaphysical” philosophies, which felt that this “hard” approach ignored its own philosophical underpinnings. Meanwhile, the logical positivists felt that these other philosophies where unverifiable, and therefore dangerous nonsense.

Now there is a difference between the logical positivists – who in the light of some discoveries in quantum mechanics have not had much staying power – must be separated from more mainline analytic philosophy proponents, Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell being the best known of these. Thomas Kuhn fits in here. A serious proponent of hard science; he would be deeply sceptical of less verifiable ways of seeing the world, but in his book, he nonetheless is able to step back and make many powerful observations.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions revolves around the idea of the paradigm. When somebody throws an apple up into the air and that apple falls to the ground, do you see gravity at work?  Or do you see the mutual sympathy of matter as opposed to ether? Seeing gravity is a paradigm; the most famous paradigm shift is the shift from an geo-centric universe to a solar one. You know, Galileo, Kepler, etc. It’s the mental and intellectual framework that allows individuals to organise,  make sense of and interpret phenomena.

The best part of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is watching Kuhn work out the implications of his idea of paradigms: there is not hard, ultimate scientific truth, just succeeded paradigms, which probably will never fully describe or capture all phenomena. Thus this analytic philosopher winds up dealing with a morass of what feels like relativism; one is tempted to draw out the experience of shifting from a Modernist perspective to a postmodern one. I admit that may be “a bit much,” in terms of the nature of the book; maybe reasonable self-critical might be a better term. Either way, Kuhn wrestles with the idea that science-with a capital S-may not be an absolute accumulation of facts, but merely an other human attempt make sense of the world.

This book is concise and insightful, disciplined yet epic in scope. And surprisingly short, yet full of interesting anecdotes about the process of scientific discovery.

 

President Orange, Part III

I am aware – oh so aware – of Godwin’s Law. You know: the longer an argument takes place on the internet, the greater the likelihood that something or somebody will be compared to Hitler. Hitler is our Great Cliche, Nazis our Great Bad Guy. WWII is our lodestone; our orientation place. It was bound to come up.

But you know the old favourite of McCarthyites: “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…”

Look, Trump bares little resemblance to Hitler. The GOP alt-right Twitter squad will never swear a personal loyalty oath to der Furher, like the Nazis and the Brown Shirts. Trump’s gewgaw world of gold-paint chandeliers, Reality TV production, and scuzzy casinos is a world apart from an alienated struggling artist in 1920s Bavaria. I can make any number of statements about ostensible differences.

But Trump has everything to do with fascism. I’m not making a ‘Duck Test’ Argument here, I’m making a direct parallel between Trump’s America in 2017 and Hitler’s Germany in 1933: the alignment of social forces are identical. Fascism is the alliance of Big Business with, well, exactly the sort of people who voted for Trump: the lower middle classes (white working class) and that curious group of angry blowhards (Jeremy Clarkson’s type) who’s fragile egos and brittle intelligences are threatened by a messy, changing, complicated world.

Let there be no mistake: Trump was never going to resemble Hitler and the Nazis. All too often we assume fascism means “Swastika armband, hating Jews, silly little moustache.” The Nazis really are only the best example of what fascism is: the alliance of the angry and ignorant with the supremely greedy and powerful. That is simply the alignment of social forces: the psychological essence of facsism  is best seen in contemporary politics of Pizzagate. People believe in Pizzagate – that Hilary Clinton is running a child sex ring out of a Washington DC Pizzerias’ basement (even though it doesn’t even have a basement) – because they intuitively understand that that is what their “side” is supposed to believe. People believe in Pizziagate the same way that they have faith that Trump is actually a brilliant businessman, or the way children come to believe in Santa Claus.

Fascism, then, is a social alignment of the lower class and the corporate interest, but also a complex psychological phenomenon. This explains why so many people are drawn to it: it’s appeal is emotional.

American Fascism was always going to come wrapped differently: it was always going to be the Cowboy Hats or some sort of showbiz billionaire (as in our case!) Our fascism was always going have more glitz and glam. We will have a family-values, gimcrack-disco-ball deregulated and pro-small government totalitarian future of ecological destruction and societal collapse.

It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump does not want to be fascist. It does not matter that Trump genuinely wants to bring jobs back to the Midwest or get better trade deals for the US. His very outlook – that thuggish authoritarianism – combined with powerful corporate interest (Rex Tillerson to name merely the most prominent example) combined with a ignorant and angry political base, and all the contradictions contained within conservative ideology is fascism.

This is how things are going to play out. The corporate interest wants tax breaks and profits; it wants regulations to go away: it wants profit and only profit. The angry political base not only wants contradictory things, like libertarianism that restricts women’s rights or wants to kick protester’s teeth in, or fiscal conservatism that will expand the military (already comically, criminally bloated) and rebuild America’s infrastructure and build The Great Wall of Trump, but what they really vote for is a psychological, emotional satisfaction.

The only thing they will agree on is destroying the things they both hate (for differing reasons). You know: Planned Parenthood, the welfare state, national parks, NPR, the environment, protesters, the education system, etc. In a world what is most likely to come under attack is civil society and our notion of the public good. This cannot be too strongly emphasised. Hitler’s economic miracle for Germany came most directly at the cost of destroying civil society, followed eventually by the total destruction of Germany.

Keep in mind that Hitler, like Trump, are idiots, who genuinely have no idea what they are doing. They have certain talents that they know how to use; they are demagogues, and they have the benefit of having an audience who is psychologically vulnerable (they are idiots alongside the leader). Remember, the easiest person to fool is yourself.

The grim, gritty reality in both cases is that the system of profit-for-profit’s sake, weather it is called monopoly capitalism (as in Hitler’s time) or neoliberalism (our version) had eaten away at people lives; at society at large. Faced with a situation where profits would either be sacrificed for the good of society or vice versa, these powerful entities have sided with twisted social forces beyond the pale. Greed leads the very destruction of society, which consumes itself in ignorance, anger and violence.

The fact that Trump badly lost the popular vote and is already the most corrupt, disliked man to ever take office and he actually hasn’t quite gotten their yet, combined with the long-term demographic weaknesses of the conservative movement and the GOP, means that the kakistocracy in power will be pulling out all of the authoritarian stops to “Make America Great Again.” Let me put it this way: there is a great conservative bubble, that due to how well funded it is, has been wildly successful. But now that the wing-nut’s have their fantasy Cabinet – and they will actually have to govern in this messy, complicated world – their only real option will be the radical and truely fascist leap into locking down our advanced technological society into the Great White Christian State (with a pussy-grabbing casino-capitalist twist).

Our constitution was built on the humanistic idea of the republic: an institution of civil society and the concept of the greater, public good. This idea is radically under attck both from corporate greed from one side and from a conservative subset of Americans who see this country in religious terms.

If you believe in democracy, and if you believe that this Great Republic is truely the last best great hope of mankind, then now is the time to make your voice heard. Now is the time to act.

 

 

 

 

 

Grand Hotel Abyss

Jeffries4

Grand Hotel Abyss is mix of biographical vignettes,  sorties into philosophical and historical explanations, and a skeptical overview of the entire arc of the Frankfurt School, all written in the tone and style of either a newspaper article or Wikipedia.

I should mention that I wrote my master’s dissertation on a member of the Frankfurt School, Franz Neumann (who comes across quite well in this book), and am therefore prone to be a bit defensive about these very important and impressive thinkers. Jeffries is prone to gambol in the foibles, hypocrisies, egos, and little tantrums of the Frankfurt School luminaries. And that grates a little. Walter Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, and Horkheimer  – where, yes, human – but they where also brilliant men navigating the treacherous waters of fascism, communism and capitalism and pouring out a brilliant school of thought.

The Frankfurt School was a creature of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s but remained high profile through Marcuse and Habermas into the 60’s and 70’s. Composed mostly of German Jews (assimilated) from either comfortable or plush backgrounds, Jefferies never ceases to to draw parallels between their relationships with their (often wealthy) parents. Perhaps the sweetest irony is that the organisation itself owes its existences to a wealthy donor achieved through grain imports. This sense of generation irony and tension remains a theme through the book.

Starting out as an institute to study Marxism (and explain why the German Revolution of 1918-20 failed), the Institute for Social Research quickly found a trajectory that would take them very far away from strict “Marxism” or even “Leninism.” By mixing Freudian insights with the Hegelian understanding of dialectics, the Frankfurt School was both the hottest thing going intellectual and the implicit enemy of all the major blocs battling for control of the world at the time. The Frankfurt thinkers valued independence and purest truth over “picking a side” when everyone was screaming for them to pick a side. Thus much light has been made about ivory tower intellectuals or the irony of calling the USA totalitarian even while it was at war with the Nazis.

Such criticism is valid, but largely misses the point of what the Frankfurt School was trying to do. It’s a little like making fun of Trump because of his hair: ultimately this is beside the point. The Frankfurters where making fundamental insights into the nature of human psychology and the very functioning of our societies. No school of thought has been more vindicated then with the emergence of the internet in a surreal, fake enslaver of the mind. Put another way, if these guys where alive today they would simply say “I told you so.” And they would be completely right.

There is a seriousness of the Frankfurt School that I think people miss. They asked Big Questions and gave Big Answers. And both are even more relevant now then ever.