Isaiah Berlin was one of my most formative intellectual influences. He single-handedly engendered my enduring fascination with the history of ideas. I plan on re-reading all of his books soon, right after I get caught up on all the new books I’ve accumulated recently. Which brings me to my point: the NYRB has republished a short acceptance speech of his from twenty years ago which elegantly encapsulates a couple of his most fundamental, recurring themes. I do implore you to go read it, as it would be bad form for me to copy and paste the entire thing, a powerful temptation indeed.
All This Dog and Pony, Still Monkeys the Whole Time; We Could Not Help from Flinging Shit In Our Modern Suits and Ties
The Red Tribe and Blue Tribe have different narratives, which they use to tie together everything that happens into reasons why their tribe is good and the other tribe is bad. Sometimes this results in them seizing upon different sides of an apparently nonpolitical issue when these support their narrative; for example, Republicans generally supporting a quarantine against Ebola, Democrats generally opposing it. Other times it results in a side trying to gain publicity for stories that support their narrative while sinking their opponents’ preferred stories – Rotherham for some Reds; Ferguson for some Blues.
When an issue gets tied into a political narrative, it stops being about itself and starts being about the wider conflict between tribes until eventually it becomes viewed as a Referendum On Everything. At this point, people who are clued in start suspecting nobody cares about the issue itself – like victims of beheadings, or victims of sexual abuse – and everybody cares about the issue’s potential as a political weapon – like proving Muslims are “uncivilized”, or proving political correctness is dangerous. After that, even people who agree that the issue is a problem and who would otherwise want to take action have to stay quiet, because they know that their help would be used less to solve a problem than to push forward the war effort against them. If they feel especially threatened, they may even take an unexpected side on the issue, switching from what they would usually believe to whichever position seems less like a transparent cover for attempts to attack them and their friends.
And then you end up doing silly things like saying ISIS is not as bad as Fox News, or donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the officer who shot Michael Brown.
This can sort of be prevented by not turning everything into a referendum on how great your tribe is and how stupid the opposing tribe is, or by trying to frame an issue in a way that respects or appeals to an out-group’s narrative.
Excellent article. I should start reading there more often.
Of course, there are numerous factors, some hardwired into our brains, some created by our social environments, which make this phenomenon extremely difficult to resist. That is, telling people to “stop being tribal” is about as doomed to failure as atheists telling religious believers to “stop being stupid and start being more rational!” One of my personal ambitions has been to attempt to use this space in a conscious attempt to resist the gravitational pull of tribal affiliation. I think many things about writing online make it ideally suited for that goal, even though we have plenty of disappointing evidence that it can just as easily be used to reinforce the worst elements of tribalism.
In the 21st century that old spell of universal progress through western ideologies – socialism and capitalism – has been decisively broken. If we are appalled and dumbfounded by a world in flames it is because we have been living – in the east and south as well as west and north – with vanities and illusions: that Asian and African societies would become, like Europe, more secular and instrumentally rational as economic growth accelerated; that with socialism dead and buried, free markets would guarantee rapid economic growth and worldwide prosperity. What these fantasies of inverted Hegelianism always disguised was a sobering fact: that the dynamics and specific features of western “progress” were not and could not be replicated or correctly sequenced in the non-west.
Oh, I’ve been workin’ like a rented mule. I could use some comic relief:
For the past year Brand has been airing his views on the Trews (or the True News), a daily YouTube broadcast. In recent weeks, he has discussed democracy in Hong Kong, the importance of embracing real politics by ignoring Westminster, and whether Obama should give back his Nobel Peace prize. In the book, his conclusion is simple: capitalism is kaput, celebrity charity won’t plug holes, revolution is the only solution. Yet it also feels like a bit of a cop-out: he insists all this can be achieved through love, peace and understanding.
Would he ban private education? “Yes.” And private health? “Yes.” He would “cull corporations” after they have served their purpose. Does he really believe all this can be achieved without coercion? “Yes.” How? “By focusing on the important issues. We’re not even talking about moderately wealthy people – we’re talking about a society so unequal, so ludicrous, that 85 people have as much money as the 3.5 billion poorest in the world.”
…He grins like a shark. “Yeah, I love it out here. This is where I belong. When I look at them Eton-educated people that govern us, I ain’t afraid of those people. I am excited. I’m going to enjoy this like nothing else, because for once I’m on the right side of the argument. And this is the right time. I feel it. I feel it. The means exist.”
I ask if he normally talks so fast. “Yes. Yes. So now, why I’m excited and why I endorse not voting, is because the farther politics drifts to the right, the better it is. Good. Antagonise people. Let’s get to the point where people are no longer just satisfied with iPods, iPads, iWatches. To the point where people go, ‘I’ve had enough.’” Is he advocating rioting? “It doesn’t have to be through rioting. It can be through total disobedience, non-payment of taxes, non-payment of mortgages.”
…Another man approaches: “Got any spare cash?”
He hasn’t, because he’s celebrity royalty. “I ain’t got a penny, mate. You got any money, Simon?”
Brilliant, I say, digging into my pocket. I’m interviewing you about the revolution and you’ve not got a couple of quid to give to this fella.
As Brand talks to the homeless man, the posh boy says Brand has got a touch of Marx, Che Guevara and Jesus. “But really, parallels shouldn’t be drawn because he’s in a league of his own.”
Hmm. I think I’d go for the John Lennon comparison instead. I could totally see Russell protesting a war by staying in bed for a week, or singing “Imagine no possessions” while owning an air-conditioned closet for his fur coat collection.
As amusing as Brand is, it must be said that his is just the kind of mostly-inoffensive naïveté you expect of entertainers. I’m more incredulous at the fact that the Guardian considers this kind of thing important enough to devote a lengthy article to. I tend to read them, especially their Comment Is Free section, primarily to make myself feel better about the vapid state of American media.
The animated version:
To gain an understanding of this phenomenon, we can look at a strange aspect of liberalism’s “victory”: the constant appearance of counter-ideologies that have arisen in reaction against it. Despite its overall success, liberalism has for two centuries been dogged by a series of counter-ideologies. So far, they have all been defeated, but sometimes only at great cost. Fascism and the various forms of communism and leftist extremism were the major counter-ideologies during the 20th century; varieties of extreme nationalism played a similar role during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Various other intellectual trends, including some without comparable but still not trivial political significance, such as the Romanticism of the early 19th century and related forms of bohemianism and avant-gardism, might also be considered in this context.
However varied they are, these counter-ideologies generally share a sense that liberalism’s protection and privileging of individual self-interest as opposed to the common good (however defined) makes it ignoble; potentially or actually unjust; and chaotic or anarchic and hence ultimately weak. This sensibility is evident in the pejorative meaning of the term “bourgeois”: someone who is so immersed in the pursuit of petty material concerns that he is blind to both nobility of soul and the claims of social justice.
Roughly speaking, there are two ideal types of counter-ideologies: those holding that liberalism is too disorganized to work well and hence cannot survive, and those fearing that liberalism will succeed (or has already succeeded) and will diminish human life as a result. These sound like mutually contradictory objections, but by calling them ideal types we recognize that in practice most counter-ideologies have elements of both: Liberalism is bad because it is successful in forcing or seducing people to adopt a “bad” way of life, but its faults mean that it will fail eventually.
…In general, critics saw liberalism as too disorganized and anarchic to survive because it left individuals too free to pursue individual interests at the expense of a concern for the common good. As we have seen repeatedly over the years, it is easy for liberalism’s enemies to underestimate a democracy’s geopolitical (including military) strength as a result. The advantages of a less centralized political and economic system reside in the fact that, once galvanized by a common threat, such a system can make better use of the various talents of all members of society. This truth is easily overlooked by those who adhere to this critique of liberalism.
I clicked on this article with no particular expectation, only to find it very interesting, dare I say fun to read. Perhaps your experience might be similar should you care to give it a look-see.
As longtime readers know, I have always been uncomfortable with the progressive enthusiasm for silencing and marginalizing dissenters and opponents. In a neoliberal age, of course, we’re happy to let market forces do our censoring for us, because, hey, it’s only a problem if it’s the government trying to shut you up. At any rate, the point here is not to rehash that debate, just to note a different flaw in my argument: in order to convince people to adopt a more generous spirit of free speech, one would have to appeal to people who actually cared about principles, who aimed for consistency, who felt troubled by looking like the most brazen hypocrites. But you can’t shame the shameless:
Ethical journalism is not about silencing people who disagree with you — this is a censorship campaign, pure and simple. We can see through your mask…and boy, do you make it easy.
It’s not fair when our tribal opponents use the advertiser boycott to their advantage and succeed at it! Only we righteous ones get to do that! This man has all the intellectual conviction of a windsock.
But wait! There’s more!
“Those people are a bunch of rapists.”
“OK, phonies. Same thing, really.”
You know, if I honestly believed that sexual assault and rape were nearly-invisible epidemics, I would be furious at seeing imbeciles like this frivolously throwing the word “rapist” around as a loose synonym for “people I dislike”. If I found myself doing this in a moment of madness, I would be aghast at the thought that I might be undermining a cause I care deeply about through my selfish stupidity. But it would be prematurely cynical, in my view, to suggest that this proves that Peezus doesn’t actually believe his own bullshit, let alone care about it. I think he does care about what he imagines is a widespread social wrong. I think he’s just too stupid to realize he’s not helping.
Anyone who challenges the narrow practicality that dominates education will be suspected of elitist or aristocratic pretensions. The risk should be run. For if a liberal education is to regain its vitality, it must recapture its nonutilitarian dimension. Thinking, reading, and art require a cultural space, a zone free from the angst of moneymaking and practicality. Without a certain repose or leisure, a liberal education shrivels.
Today, to mention leisure evokes images of retirement communities or television viewing. Leisure has lost meaning, succumbing to the general fetish of leisure in a consumer society. In America leisure usually means buying or doing or watching something. The 1911 commission that validated an educational shift from academic to useful subjects listed the “worthy use of leisure” as one goal. “This objective calls for the ability to utilize the common means of enjoyment, such as music, art, literature, drama and social intercourse, together with the fostering in each individual of one or more special avocational interests.” The terms are revealing: leisure, the very antithesis of utility, must be “useful.”
Sebastian de Grazia, in his Of Time, Work and Leisure, sought to disentangle leisure from “free time,” an empty category. “Free time refers to a special way of calculating a special kind of time. Leisure refers to a state of being.” Originally leisure signaled something like quiet reflection. As the point of work and life, leisure or contemplation sustained Western culture.
…A liberal education requires a cultural breathing space, a small refuge. Reading, writing and thinking are delicate activities, easily numbed by the dint of money, shopping and jobs. This is not a judgment on individuals, who live as they must, but a judgment on a society that constricts the education it provides.
Jacoby is, of course, talking about the sorry state of higher education, but he could just as easily be summing up my complaint about Nicholas Carr’s big idea. The supposed neurological differences between reading a dead-tree book or a Nook book are petty when compared to the larger forces that prevent most people from having the time or inclination to read anything at all.
Speaking of Carr, a frequent enough target of my spitballs, I will say that this review of his latest book seems pretty unfair. I don’t think he’s paranoid or a scaredy-cat; he’s just barking up the wrong tree.
How irresistible it all was, an elite shortcut to political influence. In the ordinary world, outside the universities, such youngsters would have had no way of gaining attention. They took as their models Mao, Castro and Che Guevara, promoters of equality, if you please, but surely not themselves equal to anyone. They themselves wanted to be the leaders of a revolution of compassion. The great objects of their contempt and fury were the members of the American middle class, professionals, workers, white collar and blue, farmers — all of those vulgarians who made up the American majority and who did not need or want either the compassion or the leadership of the students. They dared to think themselves equal to the students and to resist having their consciousness raised by them. It is very difficult to distinguish oneself in America, and in order to do so, the students substituted conspicuous compassion for their parents’ conspicuous consumption. They specialized in being the advocates of all those in America and the Third World who did not challenge their sense of superiority and who, they imagined, would accept their leadership. None of the exquisite thrills of egalitarian vanity were alien to them.
From a book written in 1987, describing the students of twenty years earlier. The more things change, indeed. Anyway, it cracks me up every time I see this in action. Let one member of the oppressed classes raise up and talk back to their self-appointed advocates, and just watch how quickly the pimp hand draws back.
Speaking of GamerGate, I agree with Shetterly — this is one of the best articles I’ve seen on it yet.