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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Socrates and Alcibiades by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816)

Socrates and Alcibiades by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816)

 

I did a series of tweets about Leo Strauss, homosociality and homoeroticism. Because people expressed interest in seeing them in one place, I’ve reprinted them (in slightly edited form) below:

1. Trigger warning. I’m starting a twitter-essay on the sexual politics of Leo Strauss.

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Norman Podhoretz: for the greater good he'll accept swarthy grand-kids but won't be happy about it.

Norman Podhoretz: for the greater good he’ll accept swarthy grand-kids but won’t be happy about it.

Fifty years ago, Norman Podhoretz wrote a profoundly stupid article called “My Negro Problem – and Ours.” The article was published in Commentary magazine, which is marking the anniversary.

I say “profoundly stupid” advisedly because Podhoretz himself, despite his reprehensible politics, is not a dumb guy. In fact, he’s a gifted editor and polemicist. The article itself is sometimes praised for being an honest attempt to describe the seriousness of racism.

Yet, what other phrase than profoundly stupid can apply to an article that argues that the best solution to racism is miscegenation. At the end of the essay Podhoretz writes:  “I cannot see how [the dream of erasing color consciousness] will ever be realized unless color does in fact disappear: and that means not integration, it means assimilation, it means—let the brutal word come out—miscegenation…. in my opinion the Negro problem can be solved in this country in no other way.”

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Hannah Arendt: theorist of revolution

 

Over at the Globe and Mail, I try to place the current turmoil in the Middle East (and elsewhere) in the context of various theories of revolution. You can read the article here.

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Assange: the ultimate gossip.

Over at the Globe and Mail I use WikiLeaks as a jumping off point for a larger discussion of the role of gossip. You can read my piece here.

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I, Asimov: A Memoir

 

“Vicious anti-Semitism was (and is again) a widespread scourge; no comparable, sustained phenomenon — ‘anti-Asianism’ — exists.” – Barbara Kay, National Post, November 23, 2010.

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Although I was Jewish and poor as well, I benefited from the American education system at its best and attended one of its finest universities; I wondered, how many African-Americans would have had the same opportunity at that time? Denouncing antisemitism without denouncing human cruelty in general troubled me constantly. The general blindness was such that I heard Jews condemn unreservedly the phenomenon of antisemitism, and then without skipping a beat move on to the African-American question, and talk about it as if they were little Hitlers. If I pointed this out to them and objected strenuously, they turned on me. They were completely unable to see what they were doing. 

 

I once heard a lady speak passionately about the Gentiles who had done nothing to save the Jews of Europe. “You just can’t trust them,” she claimed. 

I let it pass for a while, and then I suddenly asked: “And what are you doing to help the Blacks achieve their civil rights?”

“Listen”, she retorted. “I have enough problems of my own.”

And I said: “That’s exactly what the Gentiles of Europe said.” I saw a complete lack of comprehension in her face. She couldn’t see what I was getting at. What can we do about it? The whole world seems to be permanently waving a banner that reads: “Freedom! … but not for others.”

 

 

– Isaac Asimov, I, Asimov: A Memoir (1994)

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Joe Sobran, anti-Semite

 

As I’ve noted before, the death of a bigot presents a problem for obituary writers. Politeness dictates that we skimp over the misdeeds of the dead while honesty requires a fuller reckoning with the past.

Joseph Sobran, onetime National Review editor, died earlier this week. Outside the circles of the far right, Sobran was known, to the extent he’s known at all, as someone who made repeated statements about Jews that were so embarrassing that his mentor William F. Buckley had to upbraid Sobran in the pages of the magazine they both edited. Eventually, Buckley’s magazine severed its ties with Sobran over the Jewish question.

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Marty Peretz: Twilight of the Bigot

I’ve been mulling over writing something about “the Marty Peretz situation” (as it has been called at Harvard University). The occasion for the current controversy is that there are plans to endow a research fund in Peretz’s name at Harvard. Many people, both at Harvard and elsewhere, are justifiably upset about these plans because Peretz has a long history of making bigoted comments about Muslims (exemplified by his recent statement, later retracted, that Muslims didn’t deserve First Amendment Rights) as well as equally heinous comments about various racial and ethnic groups (notably African-Americans and Hispanics).

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William Randolph Heast, an early Plutocratic Populist

My new Globe and Mail column is about plutocratic populists. You can read it here.

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Tony Judt

Tony Judt was always admirably blunt and would have wanted nothing but the truth in his obituaries. So I hope I can be forgiven for saying that he was not an agreeable man. I mean that in reference to his public persona, not what he might have been like in private: it was always easier to disagree with him than to nod in conformity at this ideas. When I heard the news of Judt’s death this morning my first thought was of all the times I’ve wrinkled my nose while reading him, the various bones I’ve had to pick with him over the years, the many essays and books he’s written which I’ve had problems with, small and large.

Judt’s greatest qualities were his contentiousness which bordered on the ornery, his unwillingness to follow a party line, his independence of mind.  I immediately thought back to his famous attack on social history — “A Clown in Regal Purple” (1979) – which struck me as profoundly churlish in its unwillingness to appreciate the efforts of historians to recover the voices and experiences of the marginalized. His study of postwar French intellectuals – Past Imperfect – was a formidable achievement but marred, I thought, by a certain lack of historical empathy, an unwillingness to grant his ideological foes a context for their follies.

Like many other people I admired Judt’s ideological evolution: he started off a hardened Israeli nationalist, indeed a member of the IDF in 1967, but became in the last decade an eloquent advocate for the Palestinians. But here again, he went too far for me: his advocacy of a one-state solution seemed uncharacteristically utopian and indeed endangers the one real hope the Palestinians have, the two-state solution.

It might sound like I’m putting down Judt but the reverse is true: I’ve learned more from him than I have from thinkers whose worldviews are closer to my own. He was a good man to argue with. The loss to our intellectual life is immeasurable.

In honour of Tony Judt, I’d like to point readers to one of his best pieces of writing, his tribute to Edward Said, another man who stirred up important and necessary arguments. Judt’s essay can be found here.

Of course, much of what Judt wrote about Said applies to Judt himself. An excerpt:

The real impediment to new thinking in the Middle East, in Edward Said’s view, was not Arafat, or Sharon, or even the suicide bombers or the ultras of the settlements. It was the United States. The one place where official Israeli propaganda has succeeded beyond measure, and where Palestinian propaganda has utterly failed, is in America. As Said observed in a May 2002 column for Al-Ahram, American Jews (rather like Arab politicians) live in “extraordinary self-isolation in fantasy and myth.” Many Israelis are terribly aware of what occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has done to their own society (if somewhat less sensitive to its effect on others). In the words of Haim Guri, an Israeli poet who served in the 1948 war, “Rule over another nation corrupts and distorts Israel’s qualities, tears the nation apart, and shatters society.” But most Americans, including virtually every American politician, have no sense of any of this.

That is why Said insists in these essays upon the need for Palestinians to bring their case to the American public rather than just, as he puts it, imploring the American President to “give” them a state. American public opinion matters, and Said despaired of the uninformed anti-Americanism of Arab intellectuals and students: “It is not acceptable to sit in Beirut or Cairo meeting halls and denounce American imperialism (or Zionist colonialism for that matter) without a whit of understanding that these are complex societies not always truly represented by their governments’ stupid or cruel policies.” But as an American he was frustrated above all at his own country’s political myopia: Only America can break the murderous deadlock in the Middle East, but “what the U.S. refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy.”

Whether the United States will awaken to its responsibilities and opportunities remains unclear. It will certainly not do so unless we engage a debate about Israel and the Palestinians that many people would prefer to avoid, even at the cost of isolating America–with Israel–from the rest of the world. In order to be effective, this debate has to happen in America itself, and it must be conducted by Americans. That is why Edward Said was so singularly important. Over three decades, virtually single-handedly, he wedged open a conversation in America about Israel, Palestine and the Palestinians. In so doing he performed an inestimable public service at considerable personal risk. His death opens a yawning void in American public life. He is irreplaceable.

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Nikki Haley, the new face of the Republican party.

Over at the Globe and Mail, I look at the efforts of the Republicans to become a more multi-racial party. I had to cover a lot of ground in 900 words. Those who want to read the earlier, longer version (or “director’s cut”) can do so below:

Historical memory might be on the wane elsewhere but it is very much alive in South Carolina, a state whose expansive cotton fields and stately plantations memorialize the paradox of a genteel civilization built on centuries of slavery and segregation. So the world perked up to the news earlier this week that Tim Scott, an African-American legislator, won the primary to be the Republican candidate in the state’s first district, beating Paul Thurmond, a son of the late Strom Thurmond, the fabled segregationist who represented the state as a Senator from 1956 to 2003.

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