Notre-Dame is Burning

The cornerstone of Notre-Dame de Paris was laid in 1163, almost nine hundred years ago. It was completed almost a century later in 1250. Since then, it has stood through revolutions, empires and wars. Sometimes looted, sometimes battered by the winds of history, Our Lady of Paris endured. Today it caught fire at around 6 p.m. local time. The roof burned for hours, collapsing in sections. At around 7, the spire collapsed, to gasps from the Parisian onlookers. Notre-Dame is burning.

In his film F for Fake Orson Welles, talking about the similar Chartres Cathedral said

“You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.”

Welles was an old man when he made that film in 1973. To anyone young in this 21st century there is an abiding feeling that this will be the presiding sensation of our lives. To watch things that took centuries, even millenia to be built and to grow die out in a matter of moments. From cathedrals to glaciers and forests. This is a video of the spire falling

In history we will find ourselves in that moment in the video where we know the spire will fall but are unable to do anything but gasp in disbelief at its collapse. It is unlikely that the fire at Notre-Dame was anything but accidental, yet its destruction is no less painful for it.

There are a few people, and fewer places, that are more than just their components. When someone like Stephen Hawking dies, it is not just a death. Occasionally, through great works, men and women transform themselves to something greater. They become points of reference, in conjunction they form constellation by whose light we navigate history. When Stephen Hawking died and the spire of Notre-Dame fell, we did not simply lose a man or masonry. We lost a character in the human alphabet.

I only saw Notre-Dame once. I was just a boy, ten or eleven years old, and we had gone to Paris in the winter, because it was cheaper. In the cold and the snow we had spent the day wandering from museum to monument, warmth to warmth until we came to Notre-Dame de Paris. We rushed in through the great doors, barely noticing the carved facade at the front. It was Massof some sort, though to this day I’m not sure exactly what we interrupted. But we hushed and began a circuit of the cathedral, while the organs plays and the choir sang. It was a miserable day outside, and the windows were dark and gloomy with little light shining through them. But as we ended our quiet, awed rotation and returned to the gates, we saw through the great circular window at the front of the cathedral that the snow had stopped, and the sun pushed the clouds aside and beams of light were cast through the air, glistening in the dust.

I do not believe in any god but if I did it would be the one that cast that light into Notre-Dame. It is the sort of place that makes such belief a possibility, even if just for a moment.

I am learning now, as I write this, that the fire is under control. The bell towers, at the front of the cathedral have most likely been saved. I am reminded of the rest of Welles’ speech.

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing. ”






The Revolutions Will Not Be Improvised

Journalists, pundits and the casual observer all had something in common in the wake of the US bombing of the Al-Shayrat airfield in Syria. Especially in the first few hours, before ideology and orthodoxy could set in, none of us knew what to make of it.
Many of Trumps more odiously vocal supporters are outraged. Leading figures of the Alt-Right were quick to condemn the attack and Trump as “just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet.”

They view this as a betrayal of the American isolationism Trump paid lip-service to throughout his presidential campaign.
Many establishment Republicans have praised Trumps actions. Even leading figures in Democratic party initially responded with guarded praise, tempered by the lack of Congressional approval and the hypocrisy of an administration that shuts its doors to victims of the Syrian conflict but uses their suffering to justify military action.

Public response has been predictably incensed. Hysterical declarations of the Third World War were issued, conspiracies that posit that the chemical weapons used in Syria were part of a ‘false-flag’ operation now run rampant through the veins of the internet. In short, we all responded as expected. Except for Trump, whose opposition to American to intervention in Syria has in the last 36 hours been painstakingly documented.

Many have called Trump hypocritical for his yielding to the interventionist foreign policy that Obama had rejected. The truth seems far more dangerous. We have no reason to believe that Trump was disingenuous in his opposition all these years. The volume and consistency of this opposition indicates a genuine, if occasionally incoherent, sentiment.
Indeed, the Trump campaign did push the narrative that voting for Hillary Clinton would be a vote for a war hawk, who would lead America back into the quagmires of the Middle East.
Unfortunately this is not hypocrisy. The Trump administration was, until the use of chemical weapons, making overtures towards re-legitimizing al-Assad.
It seems the crucial factor in this foreign policy reversal is in the videos of Syrian victims of chemical warfare. His description of the attacks was uncharacteristically lucid.

Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.

A noble sentiment. One that does seem to require that those opposed to Trump acknowledge that he is not an evil man. Not yet at any rate. He is pompous, narcissistic, vulgar and profoundly ignorant. His psyche seems the closest to a tinpot dictator America has ventured in a very long time. But, despite his rancid proximity to evil, he is no Vladimir Putin. Not yet.

The majority of the positions Trump has adopted thus far have been more or less boilerplate Republican. Under any other president this would have been unfortunate for those Americans whose welfare, subsidies, abortion rights and childcare will be cut, but have little effect on the liberal world order. That Trump seems to have made a major foreign policy decision on impulse should concern us all. Assad using chemical weapons is an arbitrary line to draw, when joint Russo-Syrian forces are routinely bombing schools and hospitals. This new American interventionism of Trumps is propelled purely by public relations and the visceral reactions we all share in seeing children gassed to death. Under any other president, Republican or Democrat, this action would be nearly unanimously praised.

American Ideals
One of the darkest aspects of the Obama years is in his refusal to hold al-Assad to account, even after the now infamous ‘red-line’ on chemical weapons was crossed.
He had the power to limit civilian deaths and de-escalate the Syrian Civil War and in a fit of presidential pique he chose not to, largely because doing so would heavily alienate the Democratic base. In a profile by Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic Obama claimed to be “very proud of this moment”, when he chose to break with the “Washington playbook”.

Obama is frequently described in the press and on television as thoughtful and dignified. He seems in this instance to pride himself on his independence from conventional wisdom.
However, his decision to leave Syrians to the mercy of their tyrant reflects a growing and perhaps even dominant strain of thought among citizens of Western democracies.

This is that they have no business involving themselves in ‘regional conflicts’. Those who argue  for the necessity of intervention in a purely pragmatic sense; to curb Russian or Chinese or Iranian impulses are accused of war-mongering, as was done to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. More worryingly, those who make the far more principled case for Jeffersonian democracy; the intentional expansion of human rights and democratic forms of government, are labelled Western Imperialists.
This line of thinking is best represented in the points and person of Noam Chomsky. It carries with it an antipathy to Western military force that largely stems from the Vietnam War. More often that not it requires citation of the incompetence with which the Iraq war was handled and how that incompetence ‘created ISIS’. Those who paid attention will be quick to point out that Iraq was a significantly more stable country when Barack Obama was inaugurated and that it was not until the US withdrew its forces in 2011 that Jihadists regained their ground. The withdrawal of American troops at its core boils down to a shortfall of popular support and a poverty of political will.

Most citizens of liberal democracies will defend the value of liberty and democratic institutions. If asked in a non-committal sense if they would prefer if the Middle East was more democratic you would be hard pressed to find a mainstream voice arguing against it. The burden of tyranny on the peoples of the Middle East are clear even from our current, detached distance. This much is evident in the short-lived hope many of us felt in the initial stages of the Arab Spring in 2011. Finally these dictators would be overthrown by their peoples. We all know how that ended.
Fundamentally we want people to be free from tyranny. We would just prefer if they managed to make themselves free without bothering us.
This is a dangerously immoral position to hold and it is one that is profoundly ignorant of historical reality.

Our culture and sketchy educations have painted a poor picture of revolution. We think of the success of the Enlightenment and American revolution as having sprung forth, from the hearts and minds of ‘the people’, like Athena from Zeus. In truth, they were complex interactions between pragmatic political actors, some of whom happened to support revolutions. The American revolution, frequently idealized as the archetypal revolution, was largely motivated by the growing abolitionist sentiment in Great Britain. Coupled with tax raises, this moved the Thirteen Colonies to armed rebellion. And rebellion it would have remained were it not for the support of the French Monarchy, who supplied the Colonists with guns and ships and prevented British domination of the American coasts.
If we require a point of contrast; the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, was similiarly motivated by high taxes. It was put down by George Washington himself. This was a local rebellion without the support of a major power, and it was readily crushed.
Revolutions succeed, rebellions fail.

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For decades however, popular culture and media has portrayed the fight for freedom as won by a small group of ‘rag-tag’ rebels. Luke Skywalker in his dinky X-Wing in Star Wars, the high school kids in Red Dawn. All it takes is resistance and rebellion. Grit and righteous determination light the path.
This view, though it makes for some very good films, has very poorly effected our collective understanding of revolutions. They are not spontaneous uprisings, certainly not the successful ones.  Revolutions require sponsors, and allies. The nature of dictatorship and tyranny is inherently totalitarian. In a closed system where the tyrant has the guns, no people’s revolt will ever be successful. For the people of Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, North Korea, China and countless others, they cannot free themselves, however much they may wish to.

Earlier I referred to Jeffersonian democracy as the antidote to the poisonously amoral isolationism of Chomsky and Trump supporters alike.
If we are to defend and uphold liberal democratic ideals at home, we have no excuse beyond necessity to abandon them abroad. If you believe that Western intervention into the Middle East is doomed to failure on practical grounds that is your right and you may indeed be right. But if you claim to oppose that intervention on moral grounds, on ‘principled’  opposition to ‘Western Imperialism’, whatever that fluffy phrase means, you are not viewing the costs of tyranny and dictatorship with a clear mind. Jefferson wrote of an ‘Empire of Liberty’, one committed to the freedoms of thought, speech and association required in free societies. Whatever its faults, and they are many, the application of this Empire of Liberty has never approached the cruelty and malice of the Communist and fascist empires it opposed through the 20th century. It is a grave injustice to those who hope for liberty to even compare it to the theocratic empires that it faces today.

As free societies we failed those brave men and women who stood for their freedom in the Arab Spring. We routinely abandon homosexuals, atheists, women and all freethinkers to the molestation of theocrats and dictators.
There is never a better time to acknowledge our failure and our cowardice. Thankfully the people f these nations are resilient. If we choose to we can, and I believe should, defend and support their rebellious, their dissidents and protesters. And when the revolutions come, if they come, we must ensure that they will not be improvised.

To Begin the World Over Again

Two weeks ago was the 4th of July. In less trying times the occasion is looked upon by the rest of the world as an excuse for Americans to express their particular brand of crass nationalism. It has become exceedingly easy in the last few years to view any American overtures about liberty and equality with suspicion and even disdain. America is, by many empirical measures among the worst developed democracies on Earth. And these shortcomings are not new to the nation. Even the Declaration of Independence, for all the eloquent universalism of its opening paragraphs, also contains descriptions of “merciless Indian savages”. The American constitution was designed to give slave-holding and rural states an outsized influence. And of course, America’s original sin; slavery, was maintained for decades after the Declaration of Independence. So our ambivalence about American independence is understandable. Some of the most morally eloquent and intelligent Americans have always had a complicated relationship to the day their nation was born or the document for which it is celebrated.

Something unique to American celebrations of Independence is the obsessive focus on the military and its heroism. It should not go unsaid that the American preoccupation with the martial is more suited to authoritarian countries than to democracies and is easily leveraged by those who would wish to turn America from the latter to the former. Donald Trump released a video this last week saluting current U.S. armed forces as “truly special people” and that “we are in awe of their courage, and we are eternally in their debt.” This sort of pandering is not unique to the current president but it does reflect a tendency for Americans to ignore the political and social meaning of the Declaration of Independence. It was a pivotal moment in world history, a moment of emancipation for some and an increase in net irony for others. And yet in the United States, on the anniversary of its signing, there is no attempt to explore its true value or the means by which it can help understand the political period we are currently surviving.

I came across a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr., delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, on or near the 4th of July, 1965. His topic was “The American Dream”. Below I have excerpted some of the sermon.

 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is a dream. It’s a great dream.

The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say, ‘some men’; it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men. It does not say ‘all Gentiles’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Jews. It doesn’t say ‘all Protestants’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say ‘all theists and believers’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes humanists and agnostics.

Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day—that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.

Here King is the man from the child’s textbook expressing his progressive view of American history that is still noticeably patriotic. It is the man sanitised to be respectable to a pearl clutching majority. But King went on to say;

Are we really taking this thing seriously? “All men are created equal.”And that means that every man who lives in a slum today is just as significant as John D., Nelson, or any other Rockefeller. Every man who lives in the slum is just as significant as Henry Ford. All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, rights that can’t be separated from you. Go down and tell them, “You may take my life, but you can’t take my right to life. You may take liberty from me, but you can’t take my right to liberty. You may take from me the desire, you may take from me the propensity to pursue happiness, but you can’t take from me my right to pursue happiness.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights and among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Now there’s another thing that we must never forget. If we are going to make the American dream a reality,  we are challenged to work in an action program to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination. This problem isn’t going to solve itself, however much people tell us this… History is the long story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges without strong resistance, and they seldom do it voluntarily. And so if the American dream is to be a reality, we must work to make it a reality and realize the urgency of the moment.

King here is his own figure, laying the foundations for the social democracy he never got to advocate for. It is interesting to note that in the recording of King’s speech when the Declaration of Independence is quoted it is reacted to by the congregants as if it were gospel. When King says “All men are created equal” he is met with a chorus of “Amen”.

Every ideology, every empire, every attempt to build anything has a set of foundational texts. The state or philosophy which is  being built always attempts to remain loyal to the foundational texts. These texts move us on a historical scale; they motivate our wars and justify our crimes. Although the last few centuries are frequently described as the “Age of Ideology” this is not a product of the printing press or any other invention of modernity. Alexander the Great kept a copy of The Iliad under his pillow during his conquests. He so loved Homer’s epic that he made pilgrimages to the ruins of Troy during his invasion of Persia and frequently imitated the actions of Homeric heroes.

For every society, these texts and stories are stitched together, sometimes awkwardly, and weave a tapestry of moral and political meaning. They are our North Stars, by whose light we orient ourselves and navigate forward through history.

But historically, the vision of America presented in the first paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence is very dissimilar to anything intended by the founders of America. There is a dissonance in American history created by the radical claim in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and that certain rights are natural and unalienable. This revolutionary proposition is at sharp odds with the institution of slavery in America.

Taken in its entirety, the Declaration is an immensely self-contradictory document, and read as such there is certainly a case to be made for discarding it. It was written by a slave-owner after all. It’s problems are obvious and glaring and not easily or rightly ignored.


But I disagree with the assertion made by some that the failures of the American revolution are reason to condemn to condemn the “American experiment”. There is no doubt, and no honest or moral denying the failures of the United States. American failures are not moulded by circumstance. But at the same time Jefferson and Washington were profiting off the scarred backs of their slaves, Thomas Paine wrote “We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Paine’s hopes for a rebirth of human freedom were dashed in the American and then in the French revolution. It is worth noting that Paine died penniless, condemned by the founders.

The American philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in his book Achieving Our Country

You cannot urge national political renewal on the basis of descriptions of fact. You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in the terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.

If America is to survive its current political crisis (formally known as the Trump Administration) it must abandon the shallow simplifications of the past. If America is to live up to the story it tells the world about itself; it cannot be the story of Jefferson or Washington. It cannot be the story of Hamilton either, no matter how catchy the songs. The history of America, of the America that matters, the America that is worth saving; is the history of people like Martin Luther King and Thomas Paine. It is the history of those who fought, for years and often with no hope of victory, against the slave trade, against segregation, against injustice, inequality and oppression.  It is a history of the silenced, the downtrodden, the poor and the hungry. It is a history of those who were loyal to idea of America and never bound by one they inhabited.

I’ve ended up accidentally writing a trilogy of essays, largely because of my own need to negotiate my relationship with the country I’m studying in. Next week I’ll be doing a less self-involved piece about why stupid ideas are popular and (on an entirely unrelated note) probably Jordan Peterson.

Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

The Cynicism of Ordinary Men

I have heard from quite a few people, quite often, that America is a sick country. That is is terrible beyond compare and its sins so great they cannot be forgiven. I understand this impulse, there is a kernel of it in my last piece. But upon reflection I think that this sort of historical fatalism reflects a poor understanding of history and an even poorer grasp of moral responsibility.

More often than not, I have heard the condemnation of America from people who seem thoroughly defeated. Their outrage is often framed in terms like these; “What good can come from a country that cages children?”, “How can anyone support this?”. The despair that current events engenders in the minority of people who stay informed is palpable. But from it arises the numbing of the moral nerve that I wrote about last week. The torrent of horrible news and tragic images overwhelms us. And it is a perfectly natural response to disengage, to argue that the country or society that produces these wrongs is so fundamentally broken that it does not warrant our attention or our concern for what becomes of it. A nation so cruel is not worth our efforts, and not worth saving. And beyond that a nation so cruel is beyond any hope of saving at all.

These two arguments are separate but bound together, they loop back, feeding into each other. The second argument is far simpler to dispute and is ultimately just a product of historical ignorance. If there are any lessons to learn from history at all, the first is that radical, monumental change can occur; not in centuries or generations, but in years. But these changes need a brazen, angry and ultimately radical movement. Civil rights were not won by civility, they were won by civil disobedience. No people has freed itself from its oppressors by conversation with them. But resistance of this kind is radical. It is by nature and necessity unconcerned with proper procedure and it is this kind of activism, this kind of politics that tears down walls and repeals unjust laws. It is also this kind of politics that was entirely possible in an America far more unjust than today.

The first argument, that a nation can be so to not be worth the effort it would take to save it, is to me thoroughly immoral. It is a borne from privilege, from the arrogant belief that the collapse of the American-led international order will not affect you. A belief that, I hasten to add, is almost certainly wrong. Political dominance is a zero-sum game, and if American leadership declines, as it has been doing for some time now, it will be replaced. The chief power vying for global and regional dominance at the moment are Russia and China, in eastern Europe and south-east Asia respectively. To say that America is not worth saving is to condemn those threatened and currently oppressed by these twin tyrannies to the loss of their already meagre liberties, to have their rights; to self- determination and representation stripped from them. And ultimately those who make this argument do so because their comfort is worth more than the freedoms of others. Political reform, especially on the scale needed by the United States, is a massive, exhausting and fundamentally disruptive task. Far easier to condemn the whole affair and wash your hands of it.

This argument was played out in the catastrophic American election from which the world is struggling to extricate itself. Those who argued that the systems and institutions of American politics are so corrupt, so broken that there is no reason to vote for either of the two candidates who could win. Far better to vote third-party, to not capitulate to a broken system and thus to send a message to the “political elite”.  This was the argument made by countless people in 2016. You can see variations on these theme in this New York Times story. That the system is flawed and undemocratic is true. But to refuse to vote for the “lesser of two evils” (a phrase frayed by overuse) because you don’t want to sully yourself in making a difficult moral choice is the argument of an egotist, so concerned with moral righteousness that they are willing to neglect their moral duty.

The 2016 election came down to 107,000 people spread out over Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. That amounts to 0.09% of all votes cast in the election. Like so many historical events, the election of Donald Trump was an accident, a culmination of a hundred different factors any one of which, had it been different, could have swung the election to Clinton.

Those who would condemn a nation or the world to authoritarian tragicomedy, who would wash their hands of politics and return to their quiet and comfortable lives working white collar jobs are always very satisfied by their conclusions. As far as they are concerned their intellects have absolved them of the obligation to participate in politics. But in truth their principles are a performance, made to seem high-minded and above the muck of everyday political scraps. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote “aloofness without policy does not imply even the minimum concern of the oppressor for the oppressed.” In other words, declaring yourself superior to politics is not a righteous act. It is to submit yourself and your fellows to the whims of the powerful.It is to sever the threads that tie you to your fellow men and women.

Sometime later this week I will also be publishing a piece about how figures in American history dealt with the legacy of the Declaration of Independence, and whether we can learn anything about


A Long Bout of Some Painful Illness

I have in the last few months been so busy with academics, my first year of college, and the general indolence of the ambitious,  that I have allowed this blog to sit idle. I have been writing for classes and for this blog but something has stopped me from publishing anything here. In that time I have been thinking quite a lot about writing and what wanting to write for a living says about someone. I say someone, what I mean is what it says about me. In particular, why it is I want to write.

The thing about writing is that it is a very selfish thing to do. Orwell famously listed “sheer egoism” first in his motivations for writing, before any allusions to beauty or truth. Now, egoism does not necessarily mean arrogance here, although it certainly can. It simply means that the desire to write-and the more selfish desire to make a living writing-is precisely that: a desire. Just as hunger growls and thirst parches, the need to write has a physiological effect on a body. Something tightens in the chest and a mad scramble for the nearest paper, pen, keyboard or crayon. But it is a selfish thing, to want to write. There is no nobility or righteousness to it. For myself, wanting to write is the same as wanting to breathe, to eat, to drink, to sleep. And like all these things, writing seems terribly, desperately inadequate.

To say that times are tough is a cliche bordering on the pointless. It is also true. Politics entangles us all, and we are every day sinking deeper and deeper into a mire of sadism and cruelty. Whatever I write, whether it be an elegant elegy for democracy or a polemic against the stupid and hateful, it all seems inadequate. The world seems to be dragging itself back into the sorts of darkness I had once thought the reserve of history books and derivative dystopias. It not without cause that Orwell also said of writing that
“One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

Watch this video. It is from the southern border of the country I study in. Listen to it. Read the captions.

That was obtained by ProPublica. It is a recording of audio from 10 children separated from their parents at the American border. The when doesn’t matter, why their parents brought them to America doesn’t matter. Listen to them. They may not speak your language but you can understand them. Their every word is weighed down by the sort of monsters we all recognise. Terror, despair and desperation in each cry and wail. When I went to America for the first time in the autumn of last year it was for much the same reasons as they did. I think I can do better there. I think it is the sort of place I can make something of myself. The most horrible obstacle I faced was a dull immigration line. There is not much to say about this that is not already being said. There has been outcry and outrage and nothing has changed. And even if things do change, some failures are not there to be forgiven.

A few years ago, my parents and I were visiting Poland. My mother has family there,albeit no blood, and for days and days these people who I had never met were generous and kind and loving to us. We went to visit Auschwitz one day. (There is no verb for such an experience; they all reek of holidays and guided tours, I have settled on the most neutral). We went to Auschwitz and walked past bricks against which mothers and fathers had been murdered. Past the demolished remains of human-fuelled furnaces. I vomited in a bin outside one of the exhibits. This one, in fact.


Those are the shoes that were taken from those sent to Auschwitz. They are in a pile four times my height. In the exhibition next to them are suitcases, next to them are watches, and on and on.



These are from Arizona. They were taken from immigrants and discarded as “non-essential items”. These shoes in particular were collected by a former Customs and Border Protection janitor named Tom Kiefer.

These images, through this small intrusion into my college life, overwhelm me. What good is a blog or a podcast or anything I do in the face of such obvious cruelty?
But the truth is whatever I do, it is necessary as long as it is done. My generation is perhaps the first to be faced with this daily, hourly onslaught. Our parents, politically conscious, intellectually liberal though they were, carried on with their lives, got degrees, got married and got on with it. Many of my peers will no doubt follow the same path. This is not a failing on their part. It is understandable. In many ways it is done for the sake of survival. Being up to date with all the injustice in the world is a recipe  Being close to injustice numbs the moral nerves and dulls our senses of right and wrong, even when all it takes to be reminded is ordinary vision.

There’s an old line, sometimes mistakenly attributed to Orwell that goes “In a time of universal deceit- telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The problem is that this saying assumes too much power on behalf of the truth-teller. The truth is that there is nothing revolutionary about writing and nothing radical about speaking it. It is not and ought not to be done in service of some grander design or principle. Nor should it be done under the expectation that it will effect some great change, or even some small one. I’m not sure why it should be done. But I know that I don’t think I have it in me to get on with my life and not do it. Perhaps it is as simple as that; sheer egoism. The belief that you ought to say and do what you think is right to satisfy your own self-righteousness.

This essay does not have an conclusive ending because this conversation that I am having with myself has not ended. But thanks for reading.



Laughter from the Body Politic


Politics is stupid. It is ridiculous. Absurd. Frustrating. For most of us even at its best, politics is simply boring, at its worst exceptionally depressing.
It is a stark condemnation of the activity, that when our politicians manage to display some semblance of principle or compassion in the face of tragedy, we laud them for overcoming politics.

In the face of such overwhelming disdain, it is easy to see why we turn our dry and dreary governance into fuel for our entertainment. It is simply easier to treat these passionless debates and baffling legislation as parts of a vast national sport, with added pride, pomp and circumstance.

Trump on Election Night looking slightly queasy at his victory.

The current commander-in-chief of the largest military force in human history (pictured above in the moment of his triumph) is the purest distillation of politics as entertainment.
The former reality-star turned chief executive is hardly in the Oval Office on merit. He is catastrophically ignorant and profoundly unsuitable in morals and temperament to the lower rungs of public service. And yet, he won (with some Slavic aid no doubt) the presidency of the most important country in the world.
Now, once Trump secured the Republican nomination there are a host of practical and pragmatic reasons why he was voted for. They’ve all been dissected  and analyzed to saturation so I shall not discuss them here.
However, the reason Trump was elevated to a position where it was even possible for him to win the nomination is quite simple.

Donald Trump is entertaining.

That is by no means an endorsement of his particular colour of demagoguery, which remains odious and shallower than a common sieve. But it is a recrimination of the political class in America. Lacking charm or wit, they find themselves outplayed by the sort of creature who finds grade-school nicknames to be a dignified weapon in his rhetorical repertoire. And thus they lose. So it goes.

This is not to suggest that left is not guilty of elevating the unworthy to positions of reverence.
Take for example the role of comedy in left of centre discourse.

Over the last two decades, we have all seen the growth of political satire as a main stream of political conversation. Led by Jon Stewart, driven by a defiant irritation against the inadequacies of the Bush administration, The Daily Show ushered in a Golden Age of political comedy, in which many of its alumni reign supreme.
Unfortunately, the left’s warm embrace of easy political comedy and the vindication that a punch-line provides, comes at a cost.
Conservatism in its best forms, requires elitism. The conservative intellectual must be capable and willing to defending the past in both the broad and the specific. This manifests itself in a love of the ‘finer things’, of the bourgeois and the snobby, of Shakespeare, opera and golf (in  rapidly descending order). When conservatism allies itself to populism, as it has in America with Fox News and the petty demagogues of talk radio, it diminishes; shrinking until it exists only to provide an intellectual defense of indefensible politics.

Similarly, when progressives ally with what is an escape into cynicism, sarcasm and outrage, they abandon the very real necessity for the left to be explicitly constructive. Democracy and liberty are fundamentally radical ideas and their ideals remain under construction. To be so distressed by political opposition that we escape its pressures through what is, at the end of the day entertainment, leaves a vacuum ripe for the exploitation of the reactionary and the regressive.

Émile Durkheim

The early French sociologist Émile Durkheim first developed a complex theory of society as an organism, with various institutions acting as organs, fulfilling functions required for living. This was developed further by later writers but the fundamental metaphor is an interesting one to apply to any society.
Obviously in a liberal democracy the heart is the Constitution and the rule of law. In America perhaps the heart is shared with The Declaration of Independence (whose weighty signing was celebrated this week).
The mind may be freedom of thought, or when institutionalized, a free press.
Where does the comedy go though? It does not perform any essential function that is easily detectable. It is in essence no difference than any other art, it exists primarily for us to enjoy.

Free expression is often described as a requirement of a free society. While this sentiment is admirable and understandable I think it may be slightly off base. It is certainly true that any free society must allow free expression and thought, but it is not that expression that forms a free society.
Speech and expression are most important in precisely those in which they are not free. In which they come far too high a price. It is that violently expensive speech that moves masses and topples kings. It is that speech that requires of the speakers a commitment to hanging together, lest they find themselves hanging separately.

To return to the body politic, it seems that free speech has no place among the organs of a free society. It is instead of the breathing, the breath itself of liberty, instead of the heartbeat, the pulse of emancipation.
It is a sign of freedom, and thus we see in the birth of free peoples the loud exhalation in exaltation of dissidents and revolutionaries. In Czechoslovakia. In Georgia. In the Middle East and North Africa.
These breaths of freedom may be stifled by the iron hand or the jackboot, but without them no change is possible.

So when we claim that our cynicism and sarcasm is a suitable response to the transgressions and shortcomings of our politics, that it’s free speech at its finest. I simply ask that we remember those to whom the only path to liberty is through painfully sincere and costly speech.




The Catharsis of Protest

Those of us whose intuitions incline towards liberalism and an understated support for democracy have plenty of reasons to protest, with our societies injustices and institutionalised ignorances growing longer by the headline. Thus, it is difficult to criticize those who do take to the streets in protest. They are, after all, demonstrating as their conscience decrees. However, in our present politics, when the need for civil disobedience and dissidence is paramount; it is more important than ever to understand that not all protests are created equal. Many recent protest movements have been afflicted in varying degrees by the same illness. Often identified by a hashtag, these ‘grassroots’ movements and marches are perennially reactive.
#Black Lives Matter #Occupy Wall Street #Notinmyname and so on.

Occupy Wall Street


These protests are each fundamentally moral. They are conceived in opposition to racism, to theft and to lynching. These are not crimes of perspective, but of principle. They burn against the very fabric of a free society and so it cannot be wrong to speak out against them.
But in each of these cases, the protests that grew against these crimes were practically futile. Where they have had an effect, they have catalyzed a nebulous ‘awareness’ of the problems we face. Often, they have simply forced otherwise static politicians to offer a conciliatory speech and carry on with their political agenda. This is because despite the scale of the issues at hand, these movements do not understand the nature of effective political protest.

There are two types of political protest. The first is descriptive protest. The movements named above are all largely in this category. Descriptive protest is often a response to a particularly abhorrent example of injustice. The pictures of Junaid Khan were one such example. The videos of Philando Castille and Eric Garner are another.
These images and sounds act as fuel, enraging our moral senses and rousing our consciences to protest, to marches and speeches. In the aggregate however, they do not offer or demand anything material from the State. They restrict themselves to sloganeering and hash-tagging their way through civil discourse. “We are the 99%” is not so much a call to action as it is a claim of solidarity, “Not in my name” is not so much as call to action as it is a demand to be indemnified against the crimes of your fellow citizens. The descriptive protest may also be noted for its emphasis on outrage and ridicule of opposition. For instance, those whose response to Black Lives Matter was “All Lives Matter” were very rarely met with reasoned argument or persuasion. Instead they were met with condemnation and indelible labels of racism.

The second type of political protest is prescriptive protest. The examples of prescriptive protest movements are rather more resonant through our history. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was largely prescriptive. The LGBT Rights movement in the 21st century was similarly prescriptive. Prescriptive protests are often carried by the same energy of moral outrage; the injustice faced by Rosa Parks and black students spurred the United States towards desegregation, just as the Stonewall Riots led to the inception of the modern LGBT rights movement. Prescriptive protests are identified by their willingness to make use of the same injustices, but pragmatically and in service of specific political goals such as the desegregation of schools or the decriminalisation of sodomy. While this can manifest itself cynically it also produces the most direct results.
They also choose to prioritize persuasion over condemnation. Martin Luther King’s dream of his children living in a nation “where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” is notable for its lack of vitriol towards white America. Similarly, Frederick Douglas’ writing shows that despite what would be absolutely justified hatred of America, the autodidact freed slave retains admiration for the ‘great principles’ of the Declaration of Independence and hope for his captor nations more perfect union.

All protest is in the pursuit of catharsis. The ideal protest will result in a form of national or social catharsis; a popular realisation of the injustices of tradition and orthodoxy. There is no example of completely successful protest, but the examples of prescriptive protest above are as close as I can find. Although far from complete, the progress made in American race relations since the 50’s and in LGBT rights throughout the world in the last 40 years is unprecedented. This is because these movements embraced social catharsis. We need to understand the difference, historically and practically, between these styles of protest. They are by no means mutually exclusive, and often bleed into each other, using the same symbols and rhetoric to bend the moral arc of history towards justice.
But when one form of protest overtakes the other, as it has in many contemporary protest movements, we find ourselves in a civil discourse that is profoundly self-involved.

Political protest cannot exist in isolation, and it cannot succeed without the support of the institutions of democracy, but these institutions also require the support of protest, civil disobedience and dissidence that does not deal in cynicism or derision, but in honest civic engagement in the democratic project. A project that is both universal and profoundly parochial. If we are ever to reach the point that James Baldwin described in The Fire Next Time where we achieve our countries we must ask of ourselves and our peers these uncomfortable questions (among others).
What purpose should protest serve, if not to convince your fellow citizens of injustice? Can a moral minority ever hope to convict the immoral majority through condemnation and derision? What hope is there for a nation to achieve its potential if its liberals and dissidents, who are the drivers of social progress, view all patriotism as vulgar and crass. When protest is more in service of moral absolution than political solution? In short, we must take care to ensure that we do not substitute our own personal moral catharsis from speaking out, from standing up; for the social catharsis we need to create among our peers.

Protest and civic engagement may seem futile, especially to those of us privileged to look down from our internet towers. It may at times seem impossible to persuade our foes and even undesirable to make the attempt.  Perhaps it is.
But to butcher Robert Browning;
Ah, but that a peoples reach should exceed their grasp, Or what’s a country for? 

The resemblance of the centre to a mushroom cloud is a large part of what drew me to this.

Beneath Good & Evil

As I write this, more than a quarter of the way around the world, Donald Trump’s presidency is penetrating the history books. There are no ways I can think of to condemn Trump that have not already been tried, no criticisms that have not been made manifold.

If we may cautiously poke whatever bright side exists on this rather tarnished moment in human history, it is in the return by necessity of a critical media. Shameful though it is that many publications and outlets deserted their posts in the warm glow of the election of first black president, the election of Trump seems to have brought at least some journalists back from their stupor.
That said, this also means a rise in pieces such as this one. There is a tendency among writers to portray political tumult as a clash between opposing forces. Inevitably the force with which the author sympathises is the light and its opponent the darkness. The twilight between them is the battlefield, the election campaign and so on.

Our arts are filled with this sort of imagery. It is easy and evocative. It appeals to our most primal instincts. We all know to be afraid of the dark. In its simplicity is its power.
But on this one instance I think it’s necessary to sheath Occam’s Razor for a moment and contemplate a seemingly more complex shorthand for good and evil.

There is a danger to our constant references to villainy of the dark. It separates ‘us’ from evil. There is now a good distance between us and evil; the twilight an effective barrier. When we denounce our foes as members of this shadow we condemn ourselves to the misapprehension of the righteous. We ignore the real origin of evil.
That is not to suggest that there no such thing as genuine darkness. In human terms that darkness is best described as a variety of nihilism(s). The absence of and opposition to the very idea of principle is impossible to combat without, well, combat. We see symptoms of this in those  madmen who shoot into crowds in the US to whom political purpose cannot be attached. We see this in the ignorant jihadist, who doesn’t know why he kills, or for whom, only that he will be rewarded as a martyr. These darkness’ can only ever be fought and fought until its elimination.
To claim that the current surge of popular faith in authority, strength and rage is symptomatic of the same darkness is misguided at best and clearly false as an observation. At worst it blinds us to a very elementary truth. Good and evil are not binary. Darkness is not evil. Light is not good. To stretch a metaphor perhaps too far, if darkness is the domain of the madman then it must be us who occupy the fire. Us. Those who act with some (however misguided) moral purpose.

It is not often discussed how readily and drastically we romanticize humanity. Virtues are ‘human’ and the worst vice ‘inhuman’. Surely it would be a far more sensible claim that both are equally human. Doing so should not be taken as an endorsement of wrongdoing.
If we are to recognize the humanity of evil, then we must also recognize where darkness fails to explain evil. What we think of as evil today: Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China and perhaps Trump’s America, are not forces of darkness but of flame.
Like those revolutionaries and radicals currently in retreat around the world who pursue a variety of Utopias, Trump supporters are very easily spotted by their passion, their now palpable anger at the direction of recent history.

Perhaps then the danger is not in the darkness. Perhaps our future concern ought to be directed at the fire. Because the right (or in fact, wrong) demagogue can seize upon an unattended flame and burn all of our works to the ground. Everything must then be in moderation. Passion and fury are compelling fuels for justice and liberty and all the forces of good. But they can, at the drop of a pretense, fuel every goods opposite.
This acknowledgement is difficult. It requires that we stop demonizing our opposition and attempt to recognize our common humanity. Flawed primates that we are, we are certainly not the best candidates for a civil society, nor will the process of forming one be a peaceful or altogether calm affair. But we cannot abandon it now. We must keep the fires burning so that we may someday learn to control them.

A Letter Re: the Public

I don’t want to talk about Donald Trump. The last year we have been inundated with the man and all the reasons why the subject is sour are not difficult to find. Indeed perhaps that is one of the primary reasons many, myself included, find themselves so dismayed at his victory. Four more years of crudeness, ignorance and frighteningly un-impotent rage can exhaust those who look for more grace in their leaders. But this is not a piece about Trump’s failings. There are enough of those on pages like this.

This is the sort of thing late night comedy wouldn’t get away with a few years ago.

I want to also draw your attention to the failures of the Democratic party and the American left wing in general. The cursory appeals to a generic better America, the institutional illiberality of their support for Clinton throughout the primaries and the sheer political inbreeding confirmed by the emails show a party dangerously out of touch with the spirit of the age and self-segregated within the gated communities of academia and media into delusion. The nature of the establishment arguments in favour of Clinton seem, especially with the perspective of hindsight, particularly sinister. The language of the ‘presumptive nominee’ lent the entire process a whiff of the banana republic. Those who proselytized to the unconverted voter how much Clinton ‘deserved’ the presidency as if it were some perverse reward for public service must now feel an affinity with every other imbecilic moral prophecy that spouts predetermination as somehow just. That it was ‘her turn’ seemed dogma in certain spheres of thought.
But even this has been said elsewhere in greater depth and detail.

I address this missive to the American voter. Those making merry and those in mourning in what I hope is equal measure.
In 1989 a man wrote an essay called ‘The End of History’. It defines much of the worst excesses of the global left.
The author, Francis Fukuyama argued that;

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

It’s easy to see now just how wrongheaded this thesis is. The details of the book are more nuanced and interesting. But what matters is that the idea above is what permeated the political left, throughout Europe and America. The inevitability of liberal triumph made us complacent. Our belief in the righteousness of our cause induced an intolerance of the ‘wrong’ ideas and of the ‘ignorant’ and ‘stupid’ people that espouse them.
This is the liberalism of my parents’ generation. The liberalism of Angela Merkel, Tony Blair and the Clintons. It is the liberalism that crowned Hillary Clinton and conspired to stonewall Bernie Sanders. It is the liberalism that the majority in our parents generation have now rebuffed.
This liberalism is not healthy. It is a foul reality when the right wing, the successors of McCarthy and Nixon, are those who appear most often in defence of the freedoms of speech and expression whose acquisition and defence were the greatest triumphs of the left. It is the liberalism that the majority in our parents generation have now rebuffed.
The right is no more sympathetic to those liberties than before, theirs’ is the radicalism of the oppressed, no, the principled. But that they are assuredly oppressed is an indictment of the liberal lefts capitulation to the worst impulses of the empowered. We are so convinced of the rectitude of our conviction that we grow contemptibly impatient with dissent.

We can already see this infirmity of principle seeping into the young. We see college students incapable of dealing with challenges to their ideology. So we silence. And censor. So a critic of Islam is an Islamophobe. A critic of Black Lives Matter is a racist. A critic of Hillary Clinton is a misogynist. We are nearing an abundance of intolerance. The right will not respond kindly to the protestations of the left. We have cried wolf, bigot and sexist so often and so loudly that even when it is true the sound of dissent dissolves in the white noise of partisan hackery that is our media.

“They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.”-The late Sir Terry Prachett

The left, Democrats, liberals and progressives are now the political minority around the world. Not because of the ignorance or prejudice of our opponents but because of the frailty of our convictions in the face of convenience. It is easier to smear, to silence, to shame. We should know, the revolutions that gave us the freedoms we enjoy fought against those tactics.

The surge of opinion pieces lamenting democracy and its stupidity is the sort of thing that drives a movement like Trump’s. Our intellectuals and opinion makers show their true colours in these confessions of illiberalism. The ‘elite’, who have demonstrated that accusations that they are out of touch are warranted, because their naive belief in the inviolability of the liberal project has made them careless. The good life of the liberal intellectual in the cities of the nation has made them unwilling to consider challenges to the liberal world order.
But this is only an explanation. Who is to blame for what seems now to be the collapse of that order is irrelevant. The question must be what do we do next.


The philosopher William James in his book The Principles of Psychology writes;

We cannot control our emotions…. But gradually our will can lead us to the same results by a very simple method: we need only in cold blood act as if the thing in question were real, and keep acting as if it were real, and it will infallibly end by growing into such a connection with our life that it will become real.

James was writing of the nature of belief, but we should assume his words as a mandate to do better. If we allow the sins of our fathers to infect the principles of our conviction we will march a short route to chaos. We must dissent. We must argue. We must protest. And if we succeed we must promise not to abandon the promise of a liberal world as our parents have done. However difficult. However uncomfortable. We cannot simply allow history’s end.
To quote a Republican president of the United States;

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. . . . We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.abraham_lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait

Should we not bleed?

There is a great deal made of the loneliness of writers. They are a solitary, pained bunch anguishing under the weight of the ideas they have yet to discover and the stories they have yet to tell. It’s an understandably attractive reflection to contemplate. We are all Byronic heroes struggling to excavate our genius to display to the world.
Unfortunately for us, though perhaps fortunately for the average reader, most don’t get to.
But this image of the Romantic writer; Hemingway with a whiskey in one hand, a pen in the other and depression on his mind, persists.  Perhaps because the alternative is far less attractive to introspection.

I write this in the middle of the night, in one of those all too brief respites from exams, tests and college applications. I write because I find it enjoyable. There is an exhilaration to framing a thought in a particularly pleasing way. I apologize for this digression into the first-person but it’s in service of a larger point. I’m writing this alone, and not really for anyone in particular. It is as solitary as I imagine writing can be.

But this is a collaboration.

Not with anyone in particular, but the all the most original thoughts I could compose, the most eloquent phrases are constructed on scaffolding put up by a thousand writers before me. An essay on the eccentricities of writers is hardly original for a young writer. As it happens it’s barely even original on this blog.
Writing is uniquely positioned as an art form because of the power of the individual writer. Filmmakers are reliant on their cast and crew, game designers on their development teams. Visual artists; your painters and so on, are reliant on the audience’s interpretation. The writer is the only artist whose only limitation is their skill and ability to explain.
The skill of writing is not simply creativity, but the combination and composition of a million different ideas, phrases and rhythms.

A good writer in our time is working, quite often very closely, with; Homer, Aristotle, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Shelley(s), Dickens, Wilde, Shaw, Hugo, Steinbeck, Russell, Tolkien, Orwell, Lewis, Clarke, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Hitchens, King, Fry and Pratchett to name very few. And in this collaboration the writer is called upon the reanimate these silent authors and attempt to best emulate their best features.
It is so often repeated that it now borders on cliche but to read is to inoculate yourself against poor, repetitive and dull writing. Originality is the craft of knowing what to use later.
Writing is absolute in its primacy for the simple reason that it is, in practical terms, the annotation of thought as combinations of symbols and spaces. This simplicity marks it out as the finest means with which we can know each other and know at all.
Through this lens, writing loses much of its romantic lustre but gains the optimism that should be inherent in a form that manages to democratize thought.

I love the phrase ‘The Republic of Letters’. I was first introduced to it below.

“Universal empire is the prerogative of a writer. His concerns are with all mankind, and though he cannot command their obedience, he can assign them their duty. The Republic of Letters is more ancient than monarchy and of far higher character in the world than the vassal court… he that rebels against reason is a real rebel, but he that in defence of reason, rebels against tyranny has a better title to “Defender of the Faith,” than George the Third.” -Thomas Paine The American Crisis No. 2

I found this tremendously appealing, and it says far more eloquently and concisely much of what I think about writings role. I dislike the romantic notion of writing as a ‘need’ to express yourself because I feel it diminishes the importance of writing. All life has needs. They can range from the primal  to the complex. We do not distinguish ourselves as beings if we are simply motivated by a ‘need’ to write. Nor do I appreciate the attempt to describe writing as noble. No medium or tool can be noble, only it’s usage can warrant that description.

Writing is vital not because of some moral sheen that it bestows on the writer but because of a basic philosophical distinction it draws between humanity and our lesser neighbors. A beast needs. It acts for what it wants. We can never separate ourselves from our ‘beastliness’ as it is what makes us live. A beast acts on its needs. As do we. But, we distinguish ourselves as intelligent because we are not limited by our needs. We act on what we think ‘should’ be. And this is where writing plays an immense role. Without writing and its resultant shared human mentality, we could only act on our needs. Without the construction of organised thought that is writing we would be unable to ever believe that anything ‘should’ be. But this is still not noble. We once believed some rather unfortunate things ‘should’ be. It did not make us just or great. But, with writing and the desire that it instills to fashion a world as it ‘should’ be, we aspire to greatness. To nobility. That potential, and our striving for use it, is flawed and frequently even ruinous.

But it is what we are. And what separates us from beasts.