Notes and Comment Blog


Epistemology for Toddlers

Aug 25th, 2004 11:40 pm | By

I mentioned that I’ve been reading Sandra Harding. I have. Therefore I need to vent. I also need to write in short simple clause-free declarative sentences, because that’s the way Harding writes, and it’s catching.

Reading Harding is a very strange experience. I keep wondering – huh? What happened? Why did this book get published? Why didn’t anyone shove it back at her and say (at the very least), ‘I’m sorry but you’ll have to re-write this for grown-ups. Children don’t read books about epistemology.’ Why does she write the way she does? Why do people let her? And then publish it? And then why do other people buy the books and read them? And why, godgivemestrength, why do people cite them and quote them and praise them? As they do? You can google her and find people calling her ‘distinguished.’ A distinguished philosopher. But – seriously – the things she says are beyond wrong, they’re just inane. I’ll give you some examples.

At least one person has pointed this out – this ‘yes but her work is not acceptable’ aspect: Gonzalo Munévar in the collection Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology edited by Cassandra Pinnick, Noretta Koertge and Robert Almeder. An excellent collection, I recommend it highly.

I argue not that Sandra Harding’s epistemology, so highly regarded by feminists [not all of them! ed], is wrong; rather, I intend to show that serious scholars should consider the quality of her work unacceptable…The reader’s embarrassment grows with each amazing example…

It does. I feel actual discomfort reading her – I kind of squirm as I read. I feel like letting out little yips of protest like a dog – not to mention the occasional howl.

So. Want an example or two? Sure you do.

Might our understanding of nature and social life be different if the people who discovered the laws of nature were the same ones who cleaned up after them?

No. Next question.

Furthermore, there are many feminisms, and these can be understood to have started their analyses from the lives of different historical groups of women: liberal feminism from the lives of women in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European and American educated classes…Third World feminism from late twentieth-century Third World women’s lives. Moreover, we all change our minds about all kinds of issues.

Ah! Do we! I hadn’t realized that. That’s good to know. But that’s how she writes, you see. Repetitively. Ploddingly. Pointing out the obviously. Everything she says is either tautologous or obvious or wrong. Oh Third World feminism has to do with Third World women – I see! Thank you for clearing that up.

Okay, that’s enough venting for the moment. I feel slightly cruel – as if I’ve been mocking the afflicted. But she writes these damn books, and some people take them seriously. That’s a symptom of something very odd.



Undercurrent

Aug 25th, 2004 7:28 pm | By

Just to gather them all in one place. Jonathan Derbyshire has a post about the vexed (especially around here – we vex the damn thing to death) matter of the, shall we say, tender-mindedness of some parts of the left toward Islamism.

There seems to me to be an essential continuity between the stance adopted towards radical Islam by the intellectual left broadly conceived (and not just the SWP), and certain of the attitudes that characterised the so-called ‘New Left’ in the 1960s, and which were brilliantly diagnosed by Irving Howe in a wonderful 1965 essay entitled ‘New Styles in “Leftism”‘…

Yes, I like Howe, and he looks better all the time. He nailed the anti-intellectual aspect of the New Left as soon as it stuck its head over the parapet. I only wish more people had paid attention. Jonathan lists some ‘characteristic attitudes’ (are they Anglo-Saxon attitudes? now cut that out! ed.) that Howe noted then and that are still with us.

Then Oliver Kamm picks up the discussion, quoting from correspondence from Jeffrey Ketland of Edinburgh University:

…it’s hard to say to what extent the anti-Enlightenment features of postmodernism and social constructivism animate the views of current far left groups, including SWP and Respect, and the occasional letter to Guardian. To some extent, there is an undercurrent of relativism and sneering towards allegedly Western notions of truth and objectivity. Alan Sokal described this undercurrent as a “weird zeitgeist” in modern academia and beyond. But I would argue that they are predominantly motivated by simple-minded hatred of the US, rather than direct sympathy for Islamic theocracy. For example, I’ve never seen political leftists directly defending Sharia law, stonings, beheadings, etc., but there’s sometimes a disturbing whiff of apologetics.

Hmm. Not Sharia law and stonings, no, but the hijab, yes. No, of course the hijab is not as bad as stonings, but it is part of the whole system of unequal laws and rules for women and men, so the passionate support for it seems – peculiar. Not to say worrying. Anyway the point about the undercurrent and the weird zeitgeist seems pretty unmistakable. If I’ve seen one sneer at alleged Western notions of objectivity, I’ve seen several. (Often in the same paragraph, actually – I’ve been reading Sandra Harding. She’s like a factory for the output of such sneers all by herself.)

In place of obviously crude biological racism, modern fascism (in the form Wolin calls ‘designer fascism’) has adopted a cultural racism that decries the achievements and principles of the Enlightenment. The astonishing spectacle of the far-Left around the Respect coalition defending the progressive character of – among other aspects of Muslim particularism – the hijab is the ‘left’ variant of the same phenomenon. I stress that we are not talking here of Muslims’ right to adopt the practices and observances of their faith, for religious liberty is an essential principle of the Enlightenment tradition. I mean instead the insistence that the character of those observances is itself a principle to be defended.

Yup. I have huge reservations about the stipulation about ‘Muslims’ right to adopt the practices and observances of their faith’ – because of course that instantly gets right back into ‘defending Sharia law, stonings and beheadings’ territory. Religious liberty covers a multitude of sins, unfortunately, so I just don’t think it’s helpful to give blanket exemptions like that. But that aside, I agree with the rest of it. The insistence that the hijab (and the attitude to women that prompts it) is actually a good thing, is…unfortunate.

And then there’s one at Crooked Timber. Chris takes issue with Ketland’s reading of Foucault:

Foucault was a difficult, obscure, contradictory and often infuriating figure. At his worst he wrote nonsense. At his best he can be profoundly unsettling to the lazier assumptions of the “Enlightenment” (with a capital E) view of the world, in a similar way to the manner in which Rousseau and Nietzsche also can disturb them. What he won’t do is provide an easy example for blogospheric divisions of the world into sheep and goats.

Me, I don’t know. As I’ve said before, I’ve read only a very little Foucault (I think the bit I read was part of the nonsense), so I don’t know if people are getting him wrong. But I don’t take the point about Foucault to have been central, and I do think Ketland is right about that undercurrent. Well obviously; what else are we about, after all.



Running Around

Aug 24th, 2004 9:47 pm | By

Just thought I’d say – there’s an interesting post on JerryS’ Running Madness at Hugo Schwyzer’s blog. It gets a tad religious at one point for my taste, but it’s interesting all the same. Bears out what JS says. Runners will damage themselves rather than stop, and there is a moralistic aspect to that. ‘Coming from a runner, that’s terribly refreshing,’ Hugo says of my colleague’s observation: ‘there isn’t a moral requirement that we should fulfill our potentials; if people are happy with mediocrity, as I am, then let them be.’

I’ve often finished races or long training runs while feeling ill. I’ve only once dropped out of a marathon, down in Long Beach in 2001. I walked off the course at mile 22, but I hadn’t been feeling myself since mile 10. At the time, friends, family, and fellow runners assured me that I had done the sensible thing by not pushing myself through. A part of me, of course, believed them. But another part of me felt very much like a failure. That feeling of failure after the Long Beach marathon lasted longer than the feeling of elation I have had after successful marathons.

That’s interesting, and rather sad – sad in general, I mean, sad if you extrapolate it to runners (and people) in general. Sad if our feelings of failure last longer than our feelings of elation. Let’s hope they don’t, on the whole.



Running Madness

Aug 23rd, 2004 3:45 pm | By

It’s funny all this fuss over Paula Radcliffe.

The first thing to say is that if you haven’t tried to run a marathon quickly, in the heat, then you should keep quiet about whether she could have continued, etc. When the wheels come off marathon running, then it feels pretty much unlike anything else you’ll experience in life. I experienced it in a London marathon. I got to twenty miles in just over two hours. It took an hour and ten minutes to run the next six miles, so you get the picture.

But the interesting thing from a philosophical, sociological point of view is that somehow moral judgements seem to infect how we view sporting feats. It isn’t a character flaw to stop when you’re about to collapse from heat exhuastion, it’s sensible. When I was fairly serious about this running lark, I would train with people who were very serious. In their world, my comparative lack of seriousness was considered to be a moral flaw. They’d continually harp on about the fact that "I wasn’t fulfilling my potential", etc. Well, newsflash guys, there isn’t a moral requirement that we should fulfill our potentials; if people are happy with mediocrity, as I am, then let them be (so long as they don’t write for the Guardian). Food fascists are the same incidentally. Oh you must try this cod with avacado and peach. No, sod off, I like pizza!

And there’s a thing about the running obsessives that I used to mix with. Their personal lives are a disaster area. Because they are through and through self-obsessed, as well as running-obsessed. If you read athletics magazines, periodically they’ll tell the story of Ron Hill, who never missed a training session in his life (or pretty much he didn’t), even when he’d had an operation the same day. They write about him as if he’s some kind of hero. Well, he isn’t. He’s pathological. And shouldn’t be allowed out, or near children.

Update: Paula’s going to run the 10km tonight. Anybody who has ever run a marathon will know that this is mind-boggling.



Lear and Paulina

Aug 22nd, 2004 10:12 pm | By

Another literary post, this is going to be. That’s two in a row. Well – I have a literary side, so you’ll have to bear with me. I usually cover it up here, I pretend to be interested exclusively in other things – and in fact I am interested in other things; I’ve been getting less and less exclusively literary for years. All my adult life really. Which I guess is just a roundabout way of saying I used to be a rather narrow, boring, incurious person when I was young, and then I outgrew it. (Yes I did. I’m not boring. Stop it at once.)

It’s a Shakespeare poll. And not just any poll, but a poll that asks interesting questions, and gets even more interesting answers. And it’s a poll of RSC actors, so of people who know Shakespeare from the inside, so to speak. I learned of the poll from Normblog. Norm had a Shakespeare poll the other day. I have a notion that it was something I said here – the thing about Horatio, and ‘Give me that man that is not passion’s slave,’ and why we love Hamlet – last week that gave him the idea of the poll. No not gave him the idea – prompted the thoughts of his own that gave him the idea. Yes, that’s what I mean. [Update: No, it wasn’t. Nothing to do with me. I suppose I think I make the sun rise, too, do I? And the flowers to bloom, and the dog to smell? Honestly, the conceit of some people.] Anyway he asked me for my ranking before he did the poll – and I was predictable. That is to say, I thought what everyone else thinks. Hamlet and Lear tied for the top spot. Then Macbeth then Othello. Quite conventional.

But the RSC poll has some less conventional answers, at least I think they are. Just for one thing, I’m really delighted to see Henry IV part 2 in fourth place. I love that play. It’s one of my top favourites too. But I had an idea it wasn’t other people’s – partly because the management of the local Shakespeare Festival thinks it is actually much less interesting and audience-grabbing than part 1, whereas I think it takes part 1 and runs with it – soars past it. It’s both funny and moving – and the language!

I’m a bit thrown by the presence of Titus though. But never mind; that’s a wild card. But I love the fact that Paulina was voted the most inspiring character. Paulina is a brilliant character! She fascinates me. She has got the most colossal nerve. She not only shouts at the king and scolds, reproaches, guilt-trips, and calls him hard names – she even ‘thou’s him. Doubly outrageous. Her rank is not all that high, and she’s a woman. She has no business calling him ‘thou’ – it’s a kind of insult, a deliberate insult. Kent calls Lear ‘thou’ in the first scene (and is instantly banished on pain of death), and for the same sort of reason – exactly the same sort of reason, in fact: because Lear has betrayed and disowned a woman closely related to him for the most trivial and absurd of reasons, a woman he should have been loyal to and wasn’t. There is nothing that riles Shakespeare more – cf. Romeo and Juliet (Juliet’s father), Much Ado (Hero’s father), Cymbeline (Postumus and Imogen), Othello. So to make clear how drastically wrong such behavior is, he has underlings and even women chastise the men who do it. It’s extraordinary. And Paulina is much the most defiant and enraged of them all – and also the best reconciler. She gives Hermione back at the end. She’s an amazing character.



Walden and Points East

Aug 21st, 2004 1:49 am | By

There is an interesting essay on Thoreau in that wicked newspaper that people around here say such hard things about. I’m very keen on Thoreau, especially Walden, myself. Thoreau was such a damn phrase-maker, for one thing. I once memorized this paragraph, just because I liked it so much:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.

Phrase-maker. You have to admit. And there’s a lot of it like that; it’s a joy to read.

Speaking of joys to read, what fun I’ve been having this afternoon. On and off, because I was away for a few hours. But I’m engaged in an enthralling correspondence with someone who thinks I’m just unspeakably reprehensible because there is a sentence that ends with a preposition in ‘About B&W’ and I flatly refuse to share her outrage at the matter. She is quite remarkably agitated about it. It’s cruel of me, but I can’t help finding that funny. It’s especially funny because she insists on confusing me with those people who don’t care about language and grammar and How to Write With Ellegunts, which to anyone who knows me is just – well, pretty uproarious. She wanted me to add Eats, Shoots and Leaves to In the Library; nope, I said, not going to do that; she says that proves all sorts of terrible things about me. Oh? I’d have thought it just proved that I don’t particularly want to add that book, that’s all. How funny people are. My colleague told me amusing exchanges with indignant readers would be one of the perks of working on B&W, and he was right.

Back to the subject. Martin Kettle makes an interesting – albeit quite arbitrary – comparison between Walden and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and more particularly the respective belief systems rooted in each book. I don’t want to agree with what he says, and I don’t really agree, but I see what he’s getting at.

Thoreau can be seen as quite individualistic, solipsistic, even selfish, at least in Walden. He’s not very worried about poverty there (though maybe that’s not surprising in the 1840s, when land was cheap and labor was scarce and fairly well-paid) (and he was concerned about slavery), and he wasn’t a joiner of social experiments like Brooke Farm. But on the other hand, his ideas also didn’t do much harm; they didn’t inspire any mass killings. I don’t think mass killings are an inevitable result of socialist or utopian ideas…but the possibility does seem to hover over them.

And actually Thoreau is concerned about more than himself. His is a reformist, ameliorative vision. That’s what Walden is – an exploration of different ways to live and to think about one’s life. It is meant to awaken others.

One of the letters written in response to the article mentions Ted Kaczynski – which I noticed, because I mentioned him the other day myself, in an earlier chapter of this rumination on utopian ideas and where they can take us. People like him can make one start to think dark thoughts – that perhaps it’s impossible to have any ideas at all about how things could be different and better, without ending up wanting to kill random people by way of persuasion.

This article by Tibor Fischer about the Booker Prize longlist is good for a laugh too. Or maybe it’s not, maybe I just think so because I laugh every time I look at it, because the picture of him reminds me of someone I know, or rather don’t know but have seen a picture of that looks a lot like that. The same slightly truculent ‘Yeah, so?’ expression. Anyway, I particularly liked this part –

Distaste for the middle class was one common denominator. Writers are entitled to berate and conjure whatever they want, but it was curious to see how the middle class (particularly the white, home-counties middle class) got clobbered: racist, xenophobic, childkillers or just generally evil. Any prostitute, beggar, asylum-seeker or non-caucasian was likely to have a heart of gold. The conformity was such that I felt sometimes that only members of the Socialist Workers Party were allowed to publish novels (I never want to see the words “miners” and “strike” adjacent again on the page).

See, there it is again. That equation of underdoggery with the heart of gold. The sentimental illusion de nos jours. Hey, nobody has a heart of gold, okay? Not caucasians, not non-caucasians, not plutocrats, not miners, nobody. If you want a heart of gold, get a damn teddy bear; otherwise, forget it.



No Exemptions

Aug 18th, 2004 6:14 pm | By

Polly Toynbee has a very good column in the Guardian today (thus incidentally showing that that newspaper is not always the evil spawn of Satan despite what my colleague may say). She says what I’ve been saying for months: that criticism of Islam (or any other religion) is not racism, and should not be called such or talked about as if it were such. She also says that worry about just exactly this equation has caused a lot of people to go all woolly about Islam. Ain’t it the truth.

Fear of offending the religious is gathering ground on all sides. It is getting harder to argue against the hijab and the Koran’s edict that a woman’s place is one step behind. It is beginning to be racist for teachers or social workers to object to autocratic patriarchy and submission of women within many Muslim communities. Islamic ideas that find the very notion of democracy incompatible with faith are beginning to be taken seriously by those who should defend liberal democracy.

‘It is getting harder to argue against the hijab’ – you can say that again! I spent a lot of time doing just that last winter, and was endlessly surprised at the absurd things people on the left were willing to say. It was kind of educational, in a way. The fatwa on Salman Rushdie was educational for a lot of people; the arguments over the hijab were educational for me. I learned that a lot of well-meaning leftists will stop at nothing to mollify Islam. Which is bizarre. Why in a conflict between Islam on the one hand and secularism and feminism on the other, people on the left feel compelled to choose Islam, is beyond me. Well not entirely beyond me; I realize it has to do with the fact that Muslims are the targets of anti-immigrant hatreds and racism; but puzzling all the same.

More alarming is the softening of the brain of liberals and progressives. They increasingly find it easier to go with the flow that wants to mollify Muslim sentiment, for fear of joining the anti-immigration thugs who want to drive them from the land.

Just so. It is alarming, because if liberals and progressives won’t stand up for women’s rights and against Sharia, the hijab, unequal divorce laws and the rest of it, who will? Who the hell will? Who will stand shoulder to shoulder with Homa Arjomand and Azam Kamguian and Maryam Namazie and Ibn Warraq? If liberals and progressives abandon secularists and feminists who have the dire misfortune to live in countries ruled by Islam, in favour of solidarity with a religion that codifies unequal treatment of women – then they are not liberals and progressives any more. They intend to be, but they’re not.

Consider this post at Crooked Timber for instance.

This is one problem that we can’t blame Bush for. For all of his faults, he has consistently urged respect for the Muslim faith and world, and I’m grateful for that.

Okay – why is respect for the Muslim ‘faith’ a good thing? And more than that, in fact the heart of the matter – why is it so taken for granted that it’s a good thing? That’s the part I don’t get. So often it appears to be just – well, a matter of faith, that Islam is automatically and necessarily a good and harmless thing. That it has to be. That it simply can’t not be – so there is no need for further investigation or even thought. It is just not even conceivable (apparently) that right-thinking people might believe and say that Islam itself – not extremist Islam, just Islam – might have some bad ideas right at its core. Christianity has some terrible ideas right at its core; why is it self-evident that Islam does not? Well we know why. Because it’s all mixed up with race and anti-racism, colonialism and postcolonialism, Orientalism and Occidentalism, that’s why. But that’s not a good reason.

It will be more important than ever to stand like Voltaire, ready to defend Muslims, their right to be here and to practise their beliefs against the growing swamped-by-aliens talk that Anas Altikriti warned against on these pages last week…Muslims must also accept the right of others to criticise religions without smearing any critic as a racist.

I’m like a broken record – but it can’t be helped: the wool is out there. Religions cannot and must not be beyond criticism. They’re the last human institutions that ought to have a free pass to go unexamined and unquestioned – and yet so often they are the first to get the magic exemption. Écrasez l’infame, etc.



Nice Underdoggy

Aug 16th, 2004 11:00 pm | By

We were talking about distorted thinking and the way ideological (including utopian) commitments can cause it. There is some fresh material on the subject today. This review-article of Edward Said by his friend Christopher Hitchens, for example.

As someone who is Said’s distinct inferior as a litterateur, and who knows nothing of music, and could not share in his experience of being an exiled internationalist, I try not to suspect myself of envy when I say that he was at his very weakest when he embarked on the polemical…Said was extremely emotional and very acutely conscious of unfairness and injustice. No shame in that, I hardly need add. But he felt himself obliged to be the unappointed spokesman and interpreter for the unheard and the misunderstood, and this could sometimes tempt him to be propagandistic.

It can do that. With dire consequences. Because, just for one thing – the sad truth is that the unheard and misunderstood are not necessarily therefore the good and righteous and kind. Rather the contrary if anything. Being unheard and misunderstood doesn’t generally improve the character. It’s easy to get confused about that – to think that the underdog is automatically also the sweet dog – but it ain’t so. So feeling oneself obliged to be an interpreter for an underdog group can lead to a temptation to conceal and deny and fuzz over the faults of such groups. Understandably. It can seem like just a reasonable adjustment of life’s unfairness. But it’s not the best way to get at the truth.

We ended up having a bitter personal quarrel over the “regime change” policy of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the disagreement actually began almost a quarter of a century before that, with the publication of easily his worst book: Covering Islam. In that volume, published just after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, he undertook to explain something — Western ignorance of Muslim views — that certainly needed explication. But he ended up inviting us to take some of those Muslim grievances at their own face value. I remember asking him then how he — a secular Anglican with a love of political pluralism and of literary diversity — could hope to find any home, for himself or his principles, in an Islamic republic. He looked at me as if I had mentioned the wrong problem or tried to change the subject.

Yep. And a lot of people are still stuck in the same place – taking some of those Muslim grievances at their own face value. More than some of them, even. There was an article about the Muslim Association of Britain in the Times the other day; I’m linking to the version at Harry’s Place because the Times is behind subscription for those of us not in the UK.

It was the MAB that invited the controversial cleric Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, to London last month. Dr al-Qaradawi is editor-in-chief of Islamonline.net, which insists that it is the duty of Muslims to “achieve supremacy on earth and put their enemies to rout” and “the means for doing so is taking up arms in addition to preparation, financing and planning strategies”…THE MAB rose to national prominence in co-organising the Stop the War Coalition, and launched the pro-hijab campaign to oppose the banning of the Islamic veil in schools. Many leftwingers have joined the campaign on the ground of women’s right to choose, even though they are joining forces with Dr al-Qaradawi, who insists women must be forced to wear the hijab.

This is what I keep marveling at – leftwingers joining forces with Dr al-Qaradawi instead of with the people who resist the hijab, and thinking that’s the somehow leftier thing to do. That it would be ‘Islamophobia’ to do otherwise.

The liberal Left need to ask themselves what they hope to achieve by giving such uncritical support to Islamic extremism. They may believe, in their naivety, that they are helping to combat Islamophobia, which is indeed a real problem. But instead they are encouraging it. The hijacking of legitimate Muslim political activity by extremists will not reduce community tensions in Britain, but exacerbate them.

Anthony Browne who wrote the Times article also wrote a long, interesting post for the Secular Islam site a few weeks ago.

These are curious times. The British Left, long the champion of anti-racism and gay rights, is forging deepening bonds with anti-Semitic homophobes. If these were old-style anti-Semitic homophobes the Left would be campaigning to have them locked up. But instead they are Muslim extremists. What is most unsettling is that the Government, suffering from excessive cultural relativism, is also pandering to Islamic anti-Semitism. Consider the circumstances surrounding a conference to support the Islamic veil next Monday in London. Ken Livingstone, the mayor, is to open the event, organised by the Assembly for the Protection of the Hijab, of which the guest of honour is Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

Yeah…I used to think I admired Red Ken, without knowing much about him. Well I don’t admire him any more.

And have a look at this splendid interview by Maryam Namazie. Then try to go on thinking that the left by siding with Islamists is siding with everyone in ‘Muslim’ countries. They’re not, they’re siding with one point of view against another, and the point of view they’re siding with is the reactionary anti-modern anti-secular anti-reason side. And this is left wing? How, exactly?

They are trying to say that there is one culture and one religion and they put everyone together. They say the whole country and the whole population is religious, it’s Islamic, and that they have one culture. The reason they do that, I think, is because they want to justify certain things, since it’s very straightforward to understand what we are talking about. We are talking about fundamental values, which transcend anything religious or cultural. They are universal values. For example, human rights. Those rights are not something that can be conditioned by cultural considerations.

So. Be careful which underdog you decide to support. Some of them bite.



Dreams and Nightmares

Aug 15th, 2004 7:48 pm | By

And now Norm emails to point out an article of his on this very subject. Very apropos, and full of good points. I want to quote and quote…

Notwithstanding any of this, however, it remains true that from the outset socialism was utopian. It was a distant land, another moral universe. It was radically other vis-a-vis the order of things it aspired to replace. And that is what it still is. A society beyond exploitation is in the realm of the ideal.

And the thing is…well, my colleague will doubtless disagree, but I can’t help thinking that those distant lands we imagine, those other moral universes – those thought experiments and counterfactuals and what ifs – are good for us, if only to get us to realize that the way things are is not necessarily the one and only way they possibly could be. Yes, it can be risky to think that way (al Qaeda dreams its dreams too, as do the people who would like to make the ‘Ten Commandments’ the law of the land, as do white supremacists, as do – ), but it can also be productive.

We should be, without hesitation or embarrassment, utopians…nothing but a utopian goal will now suffice. The realities of our time are morally intolerable…The facts of widespread human privation and those of political oppression and atrocity are available to all who want them.

There is minimum utopia and there is maximum – and even maximum notions have their place, but minimum utopia should be the goal.

There is an interesting column by Ishtiaq Ahmed in Pakistan’s Daily Times that talks about a related subject: revolution as forward-looking, progressive, and revolution as ‘restoration of some normal or pristine state of the past.’

In the dogmatic Islamic conception of time, the pinnacle of human achievements was the Madinese state of the Prophet and his pious caliphs (in the case of the Shias only the period of Hazrat Ali). Since then society is understood to have deviated from that perfect model and has gone completely astray in the current times. Consequently the Wahhabi movement of the 18th century and its current peddlers aim at a revolutionary restoration of early Islam.

Dreams of the lost Golden Age are indeed another version of utopia – and a very scary one for people who are attached to their modern liberties and comforts. I’m a woman, and I don’t want to go back to the 8th century and be locked away for the rest of my life, thanks. I have a perverse fondness for autonomy, for being able to decide all by myself what I’m going to do and where I’m going to go. Most women throughout history and geography have been flatly automatically denied such autonomy, as a matter of course. So have most peasants, surfs, peons, coolies, lower castes, slaves, farm laborers – most people, in fact. And then – autonomy of course is all bound up with time, and who has time if it takes eighteen hours a day just to get the most basic work done? So electricity, running water, refrigeration, various kinds of soap, supermarkets – those are all part of our relative autonomy too; hence facing backward, as Meera Nanda calls it, is not an appealing form of utopianism – except maybe to the people who won’t be doing the drudgery.

So there’s the crux again. Utopia can be a good thing – if it’s the right kind of utopia, but there are other utopian dreamers whose dreams are everyone else’s nightmares.



Stoicism and Enthusiasm

Aug 14th, 2004 7:54 pm | By

It’s a depressing thought, really. No getting around it. It’s depressing and discouraging – in fact it’s tragic – to think that our best qualities are so inseparable from our worst. That (if this idea has anything right about it) we can’t even aim to make things better, do great things, right wrongs, improve the world, without risking turning into a butcher or an apologist for butchers. But it seems difficult to deny. Of course some people manage it, of course there have been improvers who don’t become homicidal maniacs or their lackeys. But the inherent risk of it seems difficult to deny – I suppose because the two seem to be actually the same thing only in different forms. What the Romantics valued as intensity, what Hume and James Mill suspected or scorned as enthusiasm. Passion. The Stoics were very wary of it, too. Horatio is a Stoic. ‘Give me that man that is not passion’s slave,’ says Hamlet admiringly, ‘and I will wear him at my heart’s core.’ But we don’t love Horatio, we love Hamlet, and with good reason. He cares – and not just about himself, though some productions give that impression; no, he cares about the world, about the something rotten in Denmark; he cares about love and memory and loyalty and truth. As he should. And yet what havoc he wreaks – as people who care often do.

No, the safest course is to take things as they are, to roll with the punches, to be laid-back, to eat what’s put on your plate. Montaigne knew that, living as he did in the midst of a bloody civil war about (in reality) nothing – disagreements over theology. But…

But this is where the hesitant good word for utopia comes in. There is some obstinate core in me somewhere that thinks we shouldn’t just take things as they are, shouldn’t just settle for the world as it is. That we should want to and try to make things better. And yet I know how quickly and easily that kind of thing can run amok – into orthodoxy-imposing and heresy-hunting, persecution and excommunication, and thinking of people as large abstract units to be shoved around or eliminated and then forgotten. It seems safer to cultiver the old jardin and let it go at that. But then – that thought ‘could do better’ returns. We could be less selfish, less greedy, less trivial…Yes and be more like Ted Kasczynski, I suppose. Ted, meet Osama; Osama, Ted. Have a nice day.



Blindness

Aug 14th, 2004 5:30 pm | By

Normblog pointed out a review by David Aaronovitch in the New Statesman the other day (read the NS item promptly because it will go subscription soon). It’s about a familiar but permanently mysterious fact of recent history: the willingness of the Stalinist and Leninist left to ignore or explain away or deny or justify mass murder. Thus it’s also about one of the starkest examples on record of the phenomenon B&W was set up to document and examine: the way ideology can distort the ability to think properly. B&W is primarily about the way ideology can warp judgments of the truth about the world, but moral judgments play a part in that process too. The denial of Stalin’s crimes was a moral denial as well as a factual one. In fact it was the usual sort of cover-all-bases defense of the desperate. I wasn’t even in the room, I didn’t break it, it was already cracked, everybody hated it anyway. There were no mass murders in the Soviet Union and they were a damn good thing.

How did it happen? Aaronovitch asks.

…for 20 years, this question has come to bother me more and more. Why did so many on the British left do it? Was it the case that they somehow didn’t know that the trials were rigged, the executed comrades were innocent, that the whole thing was a vast, foul set-up, until Nikita Khrushchev gave them permission to know in 1956?…And what now should we make of their credulity? Could such wilful blindness be repeated?

Any time, one can’t help thinking. Nothing easier. In fact one sees a fair amount of wilful blindness around even now.

What is revealed brilliantly through Beckett’s compassionate and well-researched account is this strange state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. The communists looked at the beast, saw its claws and fangs, and loved it still, as people are required to love their own youth. They excused, explained, justified, denied, ignored, defended and forgot what everyone else knew.

Norm has a second post yesterday with a very good quotation on the subject from Maxime Rodinson, which I will just quote in my turn.

[T]he deeper reason for the delay in registering disillusionment is simply the visceral need not to renounce a commitment that has illuminated one’s life, given it meaning, and for which many sacrifices have often been made. Hence the reluctance to recognise the most obvious facts, the desperate paralogical guile to which one resorts in an effort to avoid the required conclusion…

Just so. Just so. We’ve talked about these things before, I think – quite often. How double-edged things like commitments and meaning can be – how destructive as well as beneficent they can be. How they can motivate courage, self-sacrifice, dedication, hard work, generosity; but they can also motivate fanaticism, cruelty, ruthlessness, lying, vindictiveness, hatred. Exactly the same ambivalence came up in that discussion of religion a few months ago, when Chris at Crooked Timber said the reason he couldn’t agree with my hostility to religion had to do with religion’s power to motivate. I saw his point, and agreed (and still do), but also pointed out, as did Norm, that it cuts both ways. I think it’s an unresolvable issue, really. I do think commitments are a good thing (though some commitments are vastly better than others, of course, and one can always judge among and between them), but I also think they are potentially and often actually terribly dangerous. There’s not even any need to name examples of highly committed, motivated people in the world today whose commitments are dangerous in various ways. People can be for instance deeply committed to taking away other people’s rights, to subordinating and exploiting other people, or just to getting rid of them entirely; to demarcating who is inferior and who is not and then acting accordingly. People can find that a very meaningful activity. Can and do.

This idea relates to the idea of utopia, I think. My colleague and I were talking about utopia recently (I forget why). I said a good word for the idea, and he commented that we may have a basic disagreement on the subject. Maybe, but maybe not. My good word for the idea is a very limited, hedged, cautious one. It’s the sort of good word I just said about commitments and motivation. Ideas of utopia can inspire – but they can inspire to appalling things as well as to good ones. It may be that the only disagreement we have is on how inevitable the appalling possibility is – and I’m not really even sure I disagree about that. It may be that I do think the road to utopia leads straight to the basement of the Lubyanka.



Goddam Godless Slackers

Aug 12th, 2004 7:32 pm | By

Okay, that was fun, picking fights with my colleague is good entertainment but it’s a luxury, a rare, truffle-like item that only occurs once every few years. Life is not all holiday, as Niall Ferguson has just been reminding us, so it’s time for me to get back to the hard graft of saying something substantive. Well no not substantive – I don’t know how to do that – but anyway not frivolously internecine.

Check out this piece of reactionary nonsense from the aforementioned Ferguson. I’d seen links to it here and there but didn’t bother reading it, because the links merely talked about Europe and holidays and laziness and how much better the US is – and I’ve seen that kind of thing often enough before, thanks, I don’t feel much need to read it yet again. But José del Solar informed me that there’s more to it than that, so I changed my mind.

No doubt Ferguson is just doing it to get a rise out of people like me – or doing it for other reasons too but confidently hoping also to get a rise out of predictable people like me. He must be, because it’s such a silly thing to say. Such a correlation not causation remark. He can’t mean it all that seriously…surely. Weber notwithstanding.

The article starts from the (as I mentioned) unoriginal observation that Europeans get longer holidays and better coverage for illness than Americans do. He regards this as a terrible vice in the Europeans rather than as a respect for people’s needs, and he regards the contrasting frenzied overwork of Americans as a splendid thing rather than as a horrible necessity caused by having ruthless bastards as employers, who are aided by lobbyists who prevent the government from enacting worker-protections by paying large ‘campaign contributions’ i.e. bribes.

This is the nicest bit:

In the U.S., of course, the approach is different. Workers who consistently miss work because they are feeling under the weather are given the chance to miss it on a permanent basis — by being fired.

He says that with approval, note, not with revulsion or even regret. A pretty sentiment. But then he goes from the ruthless to the peculiar.

You see, the most remarkable thing about the transatlantic divergence in working patterns is that it has coincided almost exactly with a comparable divergence in religiosity, both in terms of observance and belief…[M]ore than twice as many North Americans as Europeans attend religious services once a week or more. I do not say this is the sole explanation for the fact that London today is lethargic while New York toils away as usual. But there is surely something more than coincidental about the simultaneous rise of unbelief in Europe and the decline of Weber’s work ethic.

And? What follows from that? Perhaps that godbothering employers think they have encouragement from a deity to gouge every bit of work out of their employees that they possibly can, while atheists have an idea that while the factory and office are great fun, still, there are other things it is desirable to do in life and a walk in the Alps might be nice at this time of year.



Now Wait Just a Minute

Aug 11th, 2004 6:29 pm | By

Well now really. I can’t just leave this sort of thing sitting there unopposed. It would be a dereliction of duty. I like jokes and provocations as well as the next person, but there is a limit. There are some things up with which I shall not put, to paraphrase Winny.

Or is the objection that he lacks self-knowledge; he should realise he isn’t very bright – if he isn’t – and, therefore, not have stood for the presidency? If so, let’s have a reality check here. Bloggers are hardly paragons of self-knowledge…And, anyway, since when does a lack of self-knowledge justify the kind of opprobrium levelled at Bush?

What have bloggers got to do with anything? Is that the opposite of Bush? Bloggers? You have Bush and his fans on the one hand, and bloggers on the other? Hardly. So why bring them up? Eh? But more to the point – bloggers are one thing, and presidents of the US are another. To say the least. What does it matter if bloggers lack self-knowledge or are not very bright? At least, what does it matter compared to the way it matters if the president of the US (the single most powerful human being on the planet, unfortunately) is? Bloggers don’t run anything, they don’t have the ability to launch nuclear weapons, they can’t start wars, they can’t nominate Supreme Court justices, their foreign policies don’t make anything happen (except possibly indirectly by helping to shape opinion). So the standards are simply different, that’s all. Very different indeed.

They make lots of linguistic errors, just like Dubya. Because that’s the way we speak. We start sentences, change our minds about what we want to say halfway through, alter tenses, don’t finish what we started to say, and generally talk in a way which makes little sense when transcribed onto paper.

Give me a break. Watch any bit of old tv footage (or listen to old radio archives) of unrehearsed unscripted Clinton and then listen to Bush. Everyone knows there is a gigantic difference, and it is all too obvious what the difference implies. Clinton has a functioning brain and a lot of knowledge; when he is asked a question he can sort through his knowledge quickly and give a coherent, relevant, interesting, complicated answer. I’ve heard and seen him do it many times, and so has everyone else. (And by the way I’m not a total fan of Clinton, but I do think all presidents should be clever the way he is as a minimal qualification, not as a luxury item.) Bush can’t do anything remotely comparable, not even with a ‘cat sat on the mat’ type question, let alone one that relies on some knowledge. There are degrees in these things, and no doubt some philosophers and scientists do make lots of linguistic errors (though no doubt my colleague’s experience of the matter is skewed, because the people he interviews are rendered peculiarly unable to speak coherently by the very fact of being interviewed by my colleague, for what sinister or impressive reason I leave to your surmises), but some make more than others and some make fewer. People who run for president ought to be good at thinking and talking before they even think about running; it’s that simple.

However, I do agree with JS’s point [you know, the point he didn’t make, because it was in an email not in the N&C – that point] that it’s the system that’s at fault. It is indeed. It’s a frighteningly disfunctional election system for such a powerful country. There just isn’t any mechanism to eliminate the blindingly incompetent, for one thing. That’s not good.



Leave Dubya Alone

Aug 11th, 2004 4:19 pm | By

If I don’t dislike George Bush as much as the next guy, I certainly dislike him enough to have stayed up all night on US election night, worrying about chads, and hoping for a Gore victory.

But what I don’t get is how come he gets so much flak for supposedly not being very bright? If it’s true, how exactly is it his fault? Is it okay, then, to attack the intellectually challenged simply because they are intellectually challenged (Madeleine Bunting notwithstanding)?

Or is the objection that he lacks self-knowledge; he should realise he isn’t very bright – if he isn’t – and, therefore, not have stood for the presidency? If so, let’s have a reality check here. Bloggers are hardly paragons of self-knowledge (“Ooohh, I’ve just been promoted to a shiny new university position”. Yeah, right, nobody cares.). And, anyway, since when does a lack of self-knowledge justify the kind of opprobrium levelled at Bush?

And what’s with this business of the fact that he messes up his sentences? Let me tell you something – I’ve interviewed some of the world’s top scientists and philosophers (though admittedly “top philosopher” is something of an oxymoron). Guess what? They make lots of linguistic errors, just like Dubya. Because that’s the way we speak. We start sentences, change our minds about what we want to say halfway through, alter tenses, don’t finish what we started to say, and generally talk in a way which makes little sense when transcribed onto paper. Hell, I even write in a way which makes little sense when transcribed onto paper. Does that mean we’re peculiarly daft? Nope. Does it mean we’re necessarily unable to run a country? Nope.

So, if you want to attack George Bush, attack him for being a religious maniac; or for his stem-cell nonsense; or for cutting the taxes of the rich; or for coming from Texas; but not for getting his words mixed up or for his lack of intelligence. They’re cheap shots.

(The Texas thing was a joke.)



Open the Door

Aug 9th, 2004 10:16 pm | By

Thought for the day. It’s from Meera Nanda’s Prophets Facing Backward again. I may even have quoted this particular passage before – but if I don’t remember, you won’t either, and nobody ever reads old N&Cs, so it doesn’t matter. And anyway this is worth quoting often. It’s from the Preface, page xii.

Having grown up in a provincial town in Northern India, I considered my education in science a source of personal enlightenment. Natural science, especially molecular biology, had given me a whole different perspective on the underlying cosmology of the religious and cultural traditions I was raised in. Science gave me good reasons to say a principled ‘No!’ to many of my inherited beliefs about God, nature, women, duties and rights, purity and pollution, social status, and my relationship with my fellow citizens. i had discovered my individuality, and found the courage to assert the right to fulfill my own destiny, because I learned to demand good reasons for the demands that were put on me.

There. I always think of Meera when people drone about the joys of community and tradition – usually people who want nothing to do with such joys themselves. The hell with tradition; give me liberation and emancipation, instead.



Name the Pseuds Contest

Aug 9th, 2004 2:08 am | By

I’m laughing maniacally again – and it’s Norm who’s made me laugh again. With his entry for the name the pseuds contest. Prof Ursula LeTofu Thinberry and Dr Doug D. Void. Yep, I like those very much.

There is also José’s entry: ‘Judith Lucelia Etchegaray’ and ‘Jacques Alain Babha-De Ritta’. I like those very much too. The competition for that copy of Of Grammatology is going to be fierce. Except from my colleague, of course; his silly suggestion I just pass over in silence.

Norm also made me laugh with his deeply profound ruminations on the meaning of the ‘cartoon’ and what its referent really really is.

I was wondering whether one might deconstruct the notion that the cartoon represents or refers to anybody at all. When I say I was wondering this, I don’t mean I actually embarked on such a deconstruction myself – heavens, no. Had I done so, I might have thought: maybe the cartoon is just a playful play on spontaneously playful playfulness and there’s no referent beyond it for it to be about. But I didn’t embark, and so I didn’t think. Perish the idea of my thinking it, and the idea of that idea. Perish the perishness even. I thought, instead: you can’t eat the meaning of cake, and you can’t shake hands with the concept of Richard Rorty while not eating it.

You can’t eat the meaning of meaning, either, I’ve noticed. Which makes one wonder what the politics of meaning was supposed to be about. I mean, if you can’t eat it, where’s the politics? Eh? I know. That’s a real poser, isn’t it. Thank you. I do my best.

Update: Another entry, this one from Nick S.: Temerety Twaddle and Joshua Brighton.



Beyond a Reasonable Certainty

Aug 9th, 2004 1:52 am | By

This story is interesting in more than one way.

Prof Southall accused Stephen Clark, a solicitor, of smothering his two babies on the basis of a 50-minute Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on the case…The paediatrician said Mr Clark was a double murderer “beyond reasonable doubt”, although he had not read any of the papers in the case, spoken to the parents or seen post mortem reports.

Beyond reasonable doubt – because he watched Clark on TV. Hmm.

Prof Southall refused to apologise and repeated the allegation during the disciplinary hearing. Denis McDevitt, the chairman of the GMC panel, said he was “extremely concerned” by Prof Southall’s actions. “Your view was a theory, which was, however, not presented as a theory but as a near certainty,” he said.

What’s interesting about that (at least to me, at the moment) is the level of certainty involved. And not just certainty, but stupid certainty. Really, really stupid certainty. Which is the worst kind. Not certainty based on masses of compelling evidence, but certainty based on – nothing much. Based on someone’s confidence in his own judgment, apparently – which is exactly what makes it so stupid. Non-stupid people are aware that their judgment is fallible – and if they forget that in the grip of an idea or an obsession or a passion, then they become temporarily stupid. Stupid pro tem. It’s almost one of the first laws of non-stupidity – never forget that you can just damn well be wrong, easily, that anyone can be wrong at any time, and that humans are not particularly well equipped to be infallible.

If I’ve noticed it once I’ve noticed it a million times – it’s the thickies who get obstinately convinced that they’re right when they have no good reason to think so. It’s not always the obvious thickies – it can be your rich, plump, prosperous, ‘succesful’ thicky who gets like that. In fact I’ve known several of that type. The prosperity helps. Rich people think that their richitude is a sure sign of how clever they are, and then they expect an admiring world to gape in wonder at their every hackneyed opinion. Perhaps this Southall guy was one of those.

But certainty on the basis of no or little or flimsy or bad evidence is a mistake, and to be avoided. And what’s funny about that is that very often it’s the certainty-addled thickies who accuse people who know they don’t have certainty, precisely of having too much certainty. It’s very odd. People whose certainty derives from their close personal acquaintance with the deity, or from an inner knowledge that the deity is there, or from an intuition that the deity simply can’t not be there, or from ‘faith’ that the deity is there because the deity is kind and the world is kind – those are the very people who accuse funny rationalist types who go around asking, ‘But what’s the evidence for that?’ of having way too much certainty about their scientistic rationalist way of doing things. Eh? How’s that? Saying ‘what’s the evidence for that?’ equates to certainty? That’s odd – see, I would have thought it equated to pointing out a lack of certainty.

But there’s a lot of confusion about that. I’ve pointed it out before. It’s the same confusion as the one behind the way people translate ‘what’s the evidence for that?’ into a claim to have disproven something. I keep noticing – over and over – that scientists talk about evidence and then whatever fool journalist they’re talking to instantly translates that into proof or disproof. Oy. They’re not the same thing. It’s so basic – and so many people seem not to have noticed the difference.



Wardrobe

Aug 8th, 2004 3:43 am | By

Well I just thought I would link to this, simply because it made me laugh a lot. Yes it is, that’s a perfectly good reason.

The situation Norm complains of – having to buy three kinds of cat food, two of which his cat doesn’t like and won’t eat, because the kind she does like suddenly comes in a variety pack with two others instead of on its own – is a classic, a pure, a definitional example of what Kingsley Amis so rightly called sod the public. There’s a lot of it in the UK. I’ve always noticed that. There’s too much obsequiousness and groveling for the customer over here, perhaps (except of course when there isn’t), but over there – well. I could tell you stories. There was that salmonella sandwich at Salisbury station, for example – no I didn’t eat it, that was the point. But it’s a long story, I won’t tell it now (because I have to go, that’s why, I’m late already, I should have shut this wretched thing down ten minutes ago). I’ll just quote a bit of Norm’s post and urge you to read the whole thing.

OK, so we’re talking market transactions here, are we not? And if they can do it to us, can we not start doing it back to them? Otherwise, where’s it all going to end? I’ll get on the bus one day and be told ‘Sorry, mate, you can only get a ticket to Piccadilly if you also take the digital watch and prawn sandwich that go with it. That’ll be £17.50.’ Or you won’t be able to buy a copy of the Guardian without the ‘It’s all about oil’ badge and Madeleine Bunting knitted pantaloons.

[Mopping eyes] Oh dear, I do want a pair of those pantaloons. Especially after all the nice things my colleague has been saying about Bunting lately. I’d like to send them to Sandra-Carol Foo-Ko. I think they’d look nice with her frilly turtleneck and her heavily emboidered ethnic jacket-thing.

Nighty night!



The Cover

Aug 7th, 2004 1:12 am | By

Oh look. What fun. We’d noticed that the Amazon page for the Dictionary didn’t have a picture. But now it does. I clicked on the page in an idle moment (okay a lazy moment) to see, and idleness and laziness were rewarded, because there it was. So have a look. And no, that is not a portrait. Everyone I’ve shown the book to says in a surprised manner ‘But you don’t look like that.’ No, that’s true, I don’t. I don’t wear my hair in two bunches on the back upper corners of my head, for one thing. And everything else is different too. There is no resemblance. None. I don’t think the guy looks much like my colleague, either. It’s not a portrait, it’s a cartoon, and the cartoon refers not to the authors but to people who talk the kind of bollocks the Dictionary is full of. It’s a very amusing cartoon, too – once everyone is clear that it’s not a portrait of the authors. See, we’re not silly looking like that, we both look very untrendy without being dorky, very reasonable without being dull, very perfect without being irritating. You know the type – and that’s what we look like. Well I do anyway. The cover is artfully designed in such a way that the names are indeed under the person of the corresponding gender, so that it does in fact look as if the names belong to the silly people immediately above. But they don’t. Those two people have quite different names. Maybe we should name them. Maybe we should have a contest – ‘Name the pseuds on the cover of the Dictionary. First prize: a copy of Of Grammatology. Second prize: five copies of Of Grammatology.‘ Let’s see…hmm…Sandra-Carol Foo-Ko and Ian Butler. Yeah, that’s a start. Your turn.



Boiling

Aug 5th, 2004 1:42 am | By

Remember the lists of life-altering books? Way back last month – out of sight out of mind? I thought I would link to another, because it has The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart. As good a reason as any.

So once I started a book-related subject I thought I might as well continue with this article by Mark Edmundson. It says one or two things that I often say to myself (sometimes with oaths, sometimes in a kind of whining sniveling croon).

Yet for many people, the process of socialization doesn’t quite work. The values they acquire from all the well-meaning authorities don’t fit them. And it is these people who often become obsessed readers. They don’t read for information, and they don’t read for beautiful escape. No, they read to remake themselves. They read to be socialized again, not into the ways of their city or village this time but into another world with different values. Such people want to revise, or even to displace, the influence their parents have had on them. They want to adopt values they perceive to be higher or perhaps just better suited to their natures.

Yeah. We’re always hearing about the joys of community these days. But what about the joys of uncommunity, huh? What about the joys of just damn well thinking for oneself? We’re not supposed to say so, in these days when working people have morphed into ‘working families’ as if everybody walked around welded into a unit of no fewer than four at all times – but thinking for oneself has a lot to be said for it. And Edmundson says some of it.

When Walt Whitman picked up the work of his older contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was a carpenter, framing two- and three-room houses in Brooklyn. He had been a journalist; he had written some mediocre fiction — he looked to be someone who would never amount to much. After reading the great essays, Whitman purportedly said: ”I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.”

I know exactly what he means. I’ve gone from simmering to a boil a few times. I suppose that’s what these lists of life-altering books are about – the ones that move us from the simmer to the boil.