Friday, 30 June 2006

Fewtril #104

When radicalism enters men’s heads, the fear of change is not so much lost as overcome by the fear of seeming insufficiently zealous for it.

With a Serious Face

“There are people who believe everything is sensible that is done with a serious face.”

[“Es gibt Leute, die glauben, alles wäre vernünftig, was man mit einem ernsthaften Gesicht tut.”]

G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), E.283 from Sudelbuch E (1775-1776), p. 218.

Wednesday, 28 June 2006

The Wrongness of Whiteness

According to race-theorists Robin DiAngelo and David Allen, “a discourse on whiteness attempts to show not just how whiteness oppresses people of color, but how whiteness elevates white people” [1]. Happily for our academic twosome, the intellectual burden of this discourse is made easy by their assuming in the term “whiteness” that which they have yet to demonstrate. For, in defining the term, they tell us that “[w]hiteness refers to dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over people of color” [2]. Putting this logical indelicacy aside, one may concentrate on the foregone conclusion to which they have come: that the very presence of whiteness oppresses those not in possession of it, and thus if such persons are to find justice, those in possession of whiteness must be divested of it.
.....Quite how this divestment will be achieved is not specified, but, since our two academicians are educationalists and social-constructivists, for whom reality is but the spell of society, one may suppose they envisage at the very least some kind of universal, deconstructionist “education”, a glimpse into the nature of which you may gain by reading the research article from which I have drawn the foregoing quotes.
.....Suffice it to say, that in such an “education”, there is no escape for the individual; for, as the authors tell us, “[p]ositioning oneself as an individual is a classic signal of whiteness” [3], and thus an evil to be eradicated.
.....One could well begin to suspect that for every kind of madness or corruption or stupidity, there is an academic course of study.

[1] Robin J. DiAngelo and David Allen, “‘My Feelings Are Not About You’: Personal Experience as a Move of Whiteness”, InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, Vol.2:2, June 2006, p.4.
[2] Ibid., p.3.
[3] Ibid., p.10.

Fewtril #103

That nature does not conform to the sensibilities of mankind does not offend the sensibilities of most men, simply because it has not occurred to them that it does not.

Monday, 26 June 2006

Fewtril #102

An idea can develop to so great a degree of sophistication that its adherents may even come to conclude thereby what was obvious without it.

Wednesday, 21 June 2006

Scots and Sassenachs

If the Scots are not out to goad the Sassenachs into political discontent, they are inadvertently working to that effect, particularly in their disregard of the West Lothian question.
.....Now, it is understandable that this question is of little concern to most Scots; for, since it does not adversely and directly affect them, they may be forgiven for attending to more personal and pressing concerns. As Kirk Elder, Scotland’s finest and foremost fogy, has said:
In my experience, there are two West Lothian Questions. One is ‘what are you looking at?’ and it is usually delivered before one is assaulted at a bus stop. The other — often delivered moments earlier — is ‘sauce or vinegar?’ [1]
For the Scots that govern England, however, the West Lothian question ought to be one of political concern, since it is a matter of political grievance; and yet they remain indifferent or even hostile to its settlement.
.....Since the English pay towards the luxury of Scottish client-nationalism (“Down with England, but don’t cancel the cheques!”), the English might feel entitled to call its bluff, and enjoy the fruit thereof: namely, the independence of England from Scotland. That way, not only would the West Lothian question be answered, but also the Scots would be free to dig deeply into their own pockets to pay for their own vast public expenditure. Now, I ask you: wouldn’t that be a sight worth seeing?
.....

Monday, 19 June 2006

Services to Society

“Ministers who are prepared to take the brutal approach to penal policy contribute to the general brutalisation of society”, says Roy Hattersley. [1]
.....It is well to be clear, however, in what sense Mr Hattersley sees fit to recast the meaning of the word “brutal”; for thereby it is “brutal” to lock up a mugger for longer than, say, two years or a murderer for longer than fifteen. On the other hand, letting the brutes out on early release has only a calming effect on society, as they typically set about serving Camomile tea and running charity tombolas.

[1] Roy Hattersley, “Against truth and logicThe Guardian, 19th June 2006.

Friday, 16 June 2006

The Friends of Humanity

The trouble with the friends of humanity is that they will not feel guilty even if everyone is made thoroughly miserable in accordance with their principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. For it seems that their own happiness depends upon the intention of making everyone happy, and such is this dependency, that an odd kind of callousness may arise in the face of even the most terrible consequences of their actions. This callousness—or blindness—was noted by T.S. Eliot:
Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm—but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves. [1]
The ancient idea that happiness is a by-product of the struggle for virtue, or incidental to other pursuits, or a personal discipline if it is to be a goal at all (such as the Epicureans and Stoics taught), has been largely replaced by this modern idea that we are obliged to make everyone happy. As David Stove says:
That our primary obligation is to increase human happiness, or decrease misery, is an idea only of the last ten minutes, historically speaking. The human race in general has always supposed that its primary moral obligation lies elsewhere: in being holy, or in being virtuous, or in practicing some specific virtue: loyalty or courage, for example. An obligation to increase the general happiness has occupied little if any place in most moral systems, whether of the learned or of the ignorant. But for the contemporaries of whom I am speaking, anything morally more important than human happiness is simply inconceivable. You can easily tell that this is so, by asking any of them to mention an example of something which they regard as extremely morally bad. You will find that what they give, in every case, is an example which turns essentially on pain. [2]
It all sounds very admirable. After all, who could be against the alleviation of suffering? Who could not wish that everyone were happy? But, as I have already suggested, the danger lies with boundless ambition coupled with good intention as a sop to conscience, the greatest of all modern conveniences; for therewith the conscionable life is made easy, untroubled by terrible and unintended consequences; indeed one may effortlessly arrogate to oneself good feelings in direct proportion to good intentions, no matter what the consequences.
.....With utopian dreams, it is all too easy to forget that life is a certain way, and cannot be otherwise.
Ultimately it amounts to this: life necessarily involves tension and suffering; consequently if we wish to abolish tension and suffering, life is to be extinguished. And there is nothing illogical in this last reasoning. [3]
We may be thankful that such dreams are rarely pursued as single-mindedly or consistently as Kolakowski’s logical illustration—thankful, that is, for the messiness of life which the perfectionists and the friends of humanity would like to clean away.

[1] T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party, (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), p. 111, quoted by Thomas Sowell, online at http://www.tsowell.com/quotes.html.

[2] David Stove, “Why You Should be a Conservative”, On Enlightenment (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2003), p.173, original emphasis.

[3] Leszek Kolakowski, “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered”, Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p.141.

Wednesday, 14 June 2006

The Death of a Din-Meister

The composer Gyorgy Ligeti has died; and it is only fitting that his passing has become the occasion for a mercifully short cacophony of praise in respect of his legacy.
.....I’ve often wondered if anyone listens to the music of Ligeti or Stockhausen when there is no one else around to witness the act. It strikes me as highly unlikely that someone would sit alone at home and think, “What I need now is a little Ligeti or Stockhausen to raise the spirit or soothe the soul or stimulate the intellect”. I for one would sooner listen to the cistern refilling. Even taking into consideration the adage that there is no accounting for taste, I am still of the strong suspicion that the Ligetis and Stockhausens of this world would get nowhere without playing upon the pretensions of others.

Fewtril #101

One is often told that frowning requires the use of more muscles than smiling, and that, for the sake of reduced effort, one ought to smile rather than frown; and to this one might respond in a similar spirit, declaring cheerily that in the long run it takes less effort to poke a man in the eye than to share daily pleasantries with him.

Tuesday, 6 June 2006

A Pox Upon Thought

It is sometimes adduced in favour of an idea that it has had a profound effect on thought, as though this fact alone were enough to establish its worth; but I dare say a pandemic of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease would also have a profound effect thereon, though it is eminently doubtful whether this ought to find our warm approval.
.....In our times, if a bad or vacuous idea is to have a profound effect, then it had better be present in the universities, wherein it will be invested with authority and wherefrom it will be spread by convinced and impassioned minds. As Schopenhauer noted:
Guileless and unsophisticated young men go to university full of childlike trust and gaze with awe at the self-styled possessors of all knowledge . . . Now if these innocent youths without judgement are presented, under the name of philosophy, with a complete chaos of thought that is turned upside down, a doctrine of the identity of being and nothing, an assortment of words that cause all thought to vanish from a sound mind, a twaddle recalling bedlam, all this trimmed with touches of crass ignorance and colossal stupidity . . . then these youths will revere even such stuff. They will merely think that philosophy must indeed consist in such abracadabra and will go forth with minds paralysed in which henceforth mere words pass for thoughts; thus they will for ever be incapable of producing real ideas and so will be mentally castrated. As a result, there grows up a generation of impotent, perverse, yet excessively pretentious minds, swelling with plans and purposes and intellectually anaemic, such as we have before us at the present time. [1]
Any man not infected thereby who has read a number of journals in the humanities will know how widely this baneful verbiage has spread, how it not only conceals a lack of ideas, but also inspires ideas of sublime vacuity; and he will know also how deeply such ideas have affected thought, bringing about a sort of vaunted ignorance. In the late eighteenth century, Lichtenberg was remarkably foresighted in view of this:
Nowadays we seek to spread knowledge everywhere; who knows whether in a few hundred years there will not be universities for re-establishing the old ignorance. [2]
For me, there are few sights bleaker than that of eager students trying to perfect the form of madness practised by their professors.

[1] Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Philosophy at the Universities”, Pererga and Paralipomena, vol.1, tr. by E.F.J. Payne, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.167-8.
[2] (“Jetzt sucht man überall Weisheit auszubreiten, wer weiß, ob es nicht in ein paar hundert Jahren Universitäten gibt, die alte Unwissenheit wieder herzustellen.”) G.C. Lichtenberg, Späße und Probleme. (München: Langen/Müller, 1954), p.48.

Friday, 2 June 2006

A Thumb-Law of Controversy

It so often happens that a well-crafted argument is no match for a well-established sentiment, such that in controversy, a resistance is put up, whereby the stronger the opposing case, the firmer one’s resolve to oppose it. As Sydney Smith told Lord John Russell,
Euclid would have had a bad chance with you if you had happened to have formed an opinion that the interior angles of a triangle were not equal to two right angles. The more poor Euclid demonstrated, the more you would not have been convinced. [1]
That of course is an exaggeration designed to make a point about Lord Russell’s obstinacy. In many things, however, in which sentiments and the undemonstrables of life might figure more prominently, it is often the case that the belief comes first, and the reasons for believing come later, and that for the whole edifice, it is sentiment that provides the foundations, with reasons (truth-claims and arguments) as the supports.
.....One may try to kick away the supports, but they are likely to be strongly embedded in the foundations; and even if one manages to kick them away, and the roof comes crashing in, there is no certainty that a man will abandon the foundations to begin anew elsewhere. It is just as likely that he will retain his attachment to them and go in search of new supports. Often then, if you wish in controversy to get a man to abandon his beliefs, you must take dynamite to his sentiments—and this explosive is often made, not from reason or facts, but from other sentiments.
.....It is often said—more from affectation than conviction—that sentiment is always a very poor thing on which to base one’s arguments, and no doubt in many instances, sentiment should play no part. One could draw only puzzled glances and pitying looks if one were to argue that the sky is blue because it looks rather nice that way. Without sentiment, however, we should not find any persuasive grounds for our assertion that people should not be tortured for fun. We might find reasons in support of this belief, but ultimately it rests on a sentiment, one which the sadist does not share. We might take it as self-evident that he is wrong and we are right, but our appeal is to sentiment and not to reason.
.....Thus, the existence of sentiment in controversy can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it provides us with grounds from which we might persuade others of the goodness of a belief, in which the sentiment may be that of a shared human dignity. On the other hand, it may introduce perverse and almost immovable objections to the most evident truths.
.....The most interminable controversies are usually those which surround the question of how society and government ought to be organised, if they ought to be organised at all; for, though facts and sound reasoning may be brought to bear—one ideal against another—in the end it is sentiment that almost always plays the role in determining what a person feels to be the better way of life, and thus it is a matter over which the twain shall rarely meet.
.....In such cases, and if one insists in arguing it out, the best thing to do against an advocate of a certain way of life is to demonstrate to him that it will bring about circumstances which will be an affront to the very sentiments by which he advocates it in the first place.
.....I do not predict much controversy when I say that this is more easily said than done.

[1] Sydney Smith, quoted by Hesketh Pearson, The Smith of Smiths, Being the Life, Wit and Humour of Sydney Smith. The Right Book Club, London. (n.d.). p. 274.

Thursday, 1 June 2006

Joyless and Triumphant

The joy of an unregimented life is incalculable, and cannot therefore find support from a state that wishes everything to be regimented and calculable.
.....We have sufficient cause to call totalitarian that state which seeks to regulate and regiment every area of life in accordance with some socio-political ideal, by which nothing—so far as it is practicable—may be left to individual choice and responsibility.
.....It does not matter what this state calls itself, nor is it a matter of symbols, flags, uniforms and military parades: such might accompany tyranny, but there is no reason to suppose they must accompany totalitarianism. The totalitarian state seeks rather to become coterminous with the nation; and the danger for us is precisely that democracy knows no bounds in this regard; for the proudest boast of democracy is that it is the government of the people by the people, and however ludicrous this claim may be, it has the injurious effect of lowering resistance to the idea that the nation is the state and the state is the nation.
.....We might hope to depend upon a robust body of individuals to maintain a healthy spirit of resistance against this threat, but we ought not to become complacent in this hope; for it is far from certain that every age must bring forth its saviours—cometh the hour, cometh the man—especially when that age has so many means of snuffing out the individual soul.
We have killed the ‘soul’, but we have created for ourselves a thousand-odd social and political slogans . . . which tyrannize over our thoughts, . . . and we proceed logically to transform the state into a monster to swallow up the individual. [1]
So wrote Lin Yutang, who would doubtless be unsurprised to see that the joyless impulse to crush the diversity and spontaneity of life, to regulate and regiment thought and deed, is so strong in our political and intellectual elite, and triumphant over timid and belittled souls; wherewith the greatest danger is that people will no longer be able to distinguish the true from the politically correct. This inability may already be seen to a large extent in the university-educated, who, you may be sure, will be ever happy to share their enlightened confusion with everyone else.
.....Statism has become a virulent idea, and consequently the state intrudes ever further into our lives, as surely as influenza lays low the infirm. It could well be that soon a man may not leap into a bath without Big Nanny having first tested the water with her big toe.
.....Still, a government minister playing croquet on a well-kept lawn is a glimmer of hope—and this hope, a proof of one’s desperation.
.....
[1] Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1938), p.427.