Why can’t we have both?

From The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age (1993) by John Lukacs:

Near the end of the twentieth century — indeed, near the end of the so-called Modern Age — two dangerous circumstances threaten the world. One is the institutionalized pressure for material and economic “growth” — contrary to stability and threatening nature itself. The other is the existence of the populist inclinations of nationalism — contrary to a greater and better understanding among peoples, often debouching into barbarism. One is the thrust for increasing wealth, the other, for tribal power. One issues from the presumption that the principal human motive is greed; the other, that it is power. To think that the former is morally superior to the latter is at least questionable; but to think that the progress of history amounts to the triumph of money over force is stupid beyond belief.

 

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Haters gonna hate

From The Tangled Garden: A Canadian Cultural Manifesto for the Digital Age (2019) by Richard Stursberg with Stephen Armstrong:

One day during all this unpleasantness, I sat down to have lunch with Flora MacDonald and seek her counsel.

“Why do your people hate the CBC so much?” I asked.

“My people?” she replied.

“Yes. Your people, your party, the Conservative Party.”

“They are not my people. They are a different party from the one I was in.”

“But you must have some insight into why they hate the CBC so much.”

“Oh, Richard,” she laughed. “Don’t think that you’re special. They hate everything.”

“Everything?”

“Yes, everything. That’s what they do. They are haters.”

Revisitings

Call it the Trump Effect. Or another Trump Effect. Over at Goodreports I’ve added a review of Gavin Esler’s The United States of Anger, which came out in 1997. In fact, I remember Esler’s book as being one of the very first to cross my desk when I started reviewing on a regular basis. I didn’t review it at the time, but some of its arguments stuck in my head. When I came across it again recently, cleaning up some books in the basement, I started flipping through it and, given all that’s happened in the two decades since, I thought it was worth re-examining.

As I point out in my review, this is not the way it usually works with timely political books. They’re almost always forgotten a few months after publication. But with the Trump phenomenon I think it’s interesting to go back and looks at these studies of the world BT (Before Trump) and see what, in retrospect, they might tell us about what was coming. Much the same thinking was behind my revisiting of my review of John Filion’s book on Doug Ford, The Only Average Guy. At least in terms of politics and the media, Trump really changed the game. But should we have seen him coming? Did we?

The decay of lying

I’ve recently been re-reading Seymour Hersh’s series of investigations into some of the lies told by the Obama administration, first published in the London Review of Books and then collected in The Killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s a measure of the impact Trump has had that it all seems so quaint now. And I’m not just referring to the arrival of truth-tellin’ Michael Flynn in the final pages of Hersh’s book to tell us that Russia is our friend.

Obama’s lies were variously motivated, but mainly had to do with reasons of state and the always-in-operation cover-your-ass principle. The cover story or “narrative” (a word that has now become synonymous with fiction) about the assassination of Osama bin Laden was primarily concocted in order to conceal the cooperation of Pakistan’s military intelligence. As far as cover stories (or lies) go, this struck me as fairly innocuous, even though it gave rise to Zero Dark Thirty and the hard-to-kill myth of torture’s efficacy.

I felt the same way about the misinformation given out regarding what the administration knew of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This again seems to have been politically motivated, and stemmed largely from a chaotic situation on the ground and no clear directing policy framework for dealing with it. I’m not even sure how much it matters, at the end of the day, who was gassing whom, much less who the U.S. said was responsible.

But that was then. These lies were purposeful, political, and at least to some extent persuasive. Zero Dark Thirty even won an Oscar by taking the lies about the hunt for bin Laden and running with them. The lies of Trump, in comparison, are random, personal, and easily exposed. Are they, however, less consequential? As many commentators have pointed out, his indiscriminate carpet-bombing of lies isn’t meant to mislead about any particular point as to make the whole concept of truth seem irrelevant.

The post-truth world is the endgame in sight, a political environment like Putin’s Russia as described by Peter Pomerantsev in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. Pomerantsev’s book is held up by Timothy Snyder as a warning of where the West is heading, and it’s hard to disagree with his general assessment of the course we’re on.

I was thinking of matters like these this past week when following some media scandals. First there was the testimony of Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was commended, even by some Liberal party members, for telling “her truth.” I’ve been vaguely aware of this expression for a while but I’m not sure where it got started. As near as I can tell, when someone says they appreciate you telling your truth what they’re saying is that they don’t believe what you are saying is true, but they accept that you believe it to be true. It’s very much a backhanded way of saying nothing much. It’s also a perfect political soundbite. In response to the recent accusation of inappropriate behaviour on the part of possible presidential candidate Joe Biden, other Democratic candidates again rushed to acknowledge the complainant coming forward with “her truth.” I guess this covers the bases pretty nicely, without committing anyone to saying what the truth in any particular situation is.

But isn’t this a problem? By just saying that someone has told their truth aren’t we making the claim that no objective truth can be arrived at or is recoverable? That everything is relative to one’s own subjective experience? How is this different from a world where nothing is true and everything is possible?

Are identity politics progressive?

From First World War: Still No End in Sight (2014) by Frank Furedi:

Although expressed through a radical rhetoric of liberation and empowerment, the shift towards identity politics tended to reflect a conservative sensibility that celebrated the particular and regarded the aspiration for universal values with suspicion. The politics of identity focused on the consciousness of the self and on how the self was perceived. It was and continues to be the politics of “it’s all about me.” Even when self-identity was expressed through a group form, the imperative of recognition by others remains its axial principle. As the historian Tony Judt stated, the doctrines that were developed to express the politics of identity were directed towards psychology and were often indifferent to the “traditional projects of social revolution.” Indeed “they sought to undermine the very concept of the human subject that had once underlain them,” argues Judt. People whose identity is defined by their biology, emotional disposition, history and culture have as their focus what they are rather than what they could be. As we shall see, such low expectation towards the exercise of human subjectivity interlocked with a tendency to devalue the ideas of progress and development.