Monday, February 15, 2010

That's It! This Is A Blog Sui Generis!

Ah, music to this blogger's ears: "a blog sui generis." If this is (fair & balanced) self-delusion, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Why Orwell Endures
By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

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In Sutton Courtenay churchyard about 10 miles south of Oxford, near the imposing tomb of H.[erbert] H.[enry] Asquith, the prime minister 100 years ago, a much simpler gravestone reads “Eric Arthur Blair.” It was to that grave a friend and I recently made a pilgrimage for a sad anniversary. Blair died of tuberculosis on Jan. 21, 1950, at the age of 46, just when he had found fame and fortune under the name by which the world knows him, George Orwell.

An early death was a kind of secular martyrdom for this latter-day St. George of England, and the heroic aura hasn’t faded. Sixty years on, Orwell towers above not only the apologists for tyranny whom he loathed but also other anti­totalitarian writers. Recent biographies of Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone haven’t done much to enhance the reputation of either man. Both believed that, as Silone said, “the last battle” would be between Communists and former Communists, like themselves, and such men too often evinced in their anti-Bolshevik guise the dogmatism or even fanaticism that had made them Bolsheviks in the first place. That kind of zealotry was alien to Orwell.

He has worn well for other reasons, of course. His deathbed fortune came with 1984, which has been plausibly described by Robert Harris (another notable political novelist) as the most influential novel ever written. No other can have so enriched the language. Try a Web search for countless contemporary uses of Newspeak, the thought police or doublethink — the expressions, that is: a glance at the political pages or op-ed columns provides plenty of examples of what those brilliant coinings describe.

And yet for all his fame and stature, Orwell remains elusive. For one thing, he is impossible to categorize. He was a great something — but a great what? Scarcely a great novelist: the prewar novels are good but not very good, and even Animal Farm and 1984 aren’t great in the sense of Madame Bovary. To call him a great journalist, as many have done, means overlooking plenty of mundane (and inaccurate) political commentary. It’s when he turns to such unlikely matters as boys’ comics and vulgar postcards, as well as to his central subject of politics and language, that he enters the realm of deathless literature.

His politics were likewise sui generis. Although he called himself a democratic socialist, and served with a revolutionary-Marxist militia in Spain, he was in many ways an emotional and cultural conservative. The least doctrinaire of political writers, he had the gift of being able to transmute the Tory virtues of skepticism and pragmatism into a distinctive kind of radicalism.

Even his personality is elusive. It’s most striking that although he worked for BBC Radio and lived in the heyday of newsreels, we don’t have a single recording of his voice or moving image of him, or indeed any photograph at all of Orwell smiling. That too somehow seems appropriate. There were dark sides to his personality, and it’s not hard to understand what his friend Malcolm Muggeridge meant when he said that Orwell was an easier man to love than to like.

Sad as Orwell’s death was, one can’t escape a sense that in some way it was providential. Koestler and Silone were sullied by the bruising battles of the cold war, while Orwell’s early death, as Harris says, bestowed an “aura of unassailable posthumous integrity” on his life and work. That explains why so many years later he has survived his notorious fate, appropriated by a militant right he abhorred, yet vilified by much of the left to which he felt he belonged.

Only a few years ago, his enemies on the left found a new stick to beat him with, the list of fellow-travelers and crypto-Communists he compiled in 1949 and showed to a friend in the foreign office. Apart from the fact that, to anyone who knows anything about literary and political London then, the list is shrewd, fair-minded and often amusing, look back a few years. In 1941-42, Orwell was sardonically taken by the way so many French intellectuals had transferred their loyalty to the Third Reich. “If the Germans got to England, similar things would happen, and I think I could make out at least a preliminary list of the people who would go over.” Was that equally reprehensible?

Besides, there is the sheer originality of what Orwell says, which is why whenever you dig into him you will hit a nugget of golden wisdom. “India is potentially a nation, as Europe, with its smaller population and great racial homogeneity, is not,” he wrote, thereby obviating acres of print since, about whether there will ever be a United States of Europe.

And when friends of Israel wonder sorrowfully these days why international opinion has turned against that country, I think of Orwell writing in 1945 for an American (and largely Jewish) audience in the famous leftist magazine Partisan Review. As he observed, liberal-left sentiment was then “strongly committed to support the Jews against the Arabs” in what was still British Palestine. And yet, he went on, “the Palestine issue is partly a color issue,” in which “an Indian nationalist, for example, would probably side with the Arabs.” There in a lightning flash you have it: “an Indian nationalist” — Nehru and many another — did support the Palestinian Arabs, followed over the years by the whole of Asia and Africa.

Or again, whenever perplexed Americans fret over Osama bin Laden or suicide killings, and delude themselves that material progress will cure these ills, I think of what Orwell wrote in 1940 about another charismatic monster. “Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice.... However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.”

And then, when the Berlin Wall fell at last and Big Brother was dethroned in Eastern Europe, I wondered how many people recalled another insight by this famous scourge of Communism. Hannah Arendt insisted that Soviet dictatorship could only grow ever more horribly repressive, a view 1984 might seem to endorse. But it was also possible that the grip might one day be relaxed, Orwell said with great prescience, and that even a slight relaxation would ultimately doom the regime, which would collapse from the inside.

In the end, when trying to pin down Orwell’s mysterious grandeur, I think of two phrases. One was by Evelyn Waugh, with whom Orwell shared an unlikely mutual admiration, and who saw just what mattered: Orwell’s “unusually high moral sense and respect for justice and truth.” And there is Orwell himself, who once wrote of Anatole France that he was not a socialist but a radical, as could be seen quite simply in “his passion for liberty and intellectual honesty.” Could there be a better epitaph for the man who said that? Ω

[Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include The Controversy of Zion (1996) and Yo, Blair! (2007). He is writing a study of Winston Churchill’s reputation and influence. Wheatcroft was educated at University College School, London, and at New College Oxford, where he read Modern History.]

Copyright © 2010 The New York Times Company

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Post-It® Note History?

Groan. this blogger is on the cusp of septuagenarianhood. Just another (nearly) 70-year-old hoodie. Today, Russell Jacoby body-slams Thomas Sowell. As is the custom in this blog, references to books are linked to a site that supplies bibiliographical info. By no stretch of the imagination is this blog a shill for Amazon; it's just that Amazon (like Google) is everywhere. If this is (fair & balanced) non-huckstering, so be it.

[x The Chronicle Review]
Why Intellectuals Are All Bad
By Russell Jacoby

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Is there anything new to say about intellectuals? Thomas Sowell, the conservative economist and writer who hangs his hat at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, gives it a shot. Sowell is a rare being, an intellectual who makes his life half in the university and half outside it. He has taught on several campuses, writes a syndicated column, and produces a book almost every year. As a black conservative, he occupies a visible perch, and has not been shy in advancing tough critiques of busing and affirmative action. Sowell gets noticed. With a nod to his provocative ideas, Bates College established an endowed chair in economics after him. Now Sowell turns to intellectuals.

He intimates in its preface that his new book, Intellectuals and Society (2009), should be considered the third of a conservative trilogy that blasts intellectuals. Paul Johnson in Intellectuals (1988) cataloged the personal misconduct and dishonesty of the species. From Johnson we learned, for instance, that Ibsen sometimes got drunk and wrote suggestive letters to young women. Johnson concluded that a dozen people picked "at random" on the street should be preferred to immoral intellectuals, which may include himself, inasmuch as his long-term mistress later denounced in public the long-married author for hypocrisy. Richard Posner in Public Intellectuals (2003) snared the species in a scientific net to show that it behaved poorly outside its narrow terrain. For example, law professors who protested the Bush military tribunals were not specialists in criminal or international law and could not understand the pertinent issues. For Posner, intellectuals should stick to things they know, advice he flouted in his own book.

In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell cleans up what is left and—in his eyes—on the left, intellectuals who influence policy. They are not necessarily "public intellectuals," but "writers, academics, and the like" who have enormous impact on society. The question of who these intellectuals are does not much interest Sowell. He specifies that his targets are less engineers and financiers than sociologists and English professors. Their influence on millions of people, he writes, "can hardly be disputed." He mentions the impact of Lenin, Hitler, and Mao, but does not explain how English professors influenced those figures.

Sowell is more eager to skewer intellectuals than quibble over definitions. His position is straightforward. Intellectuals do not understand the genius of the market. They ignore empirical evidence. They are elitists. They operate with ideological blinders. Ultimately, they are "unaccountable to the external world." They judge ideas by how clever or complex they are, not whether they work. "But no one judged Vince Lombardi's ideas about how to play football" by their complexity or novelty, writes Sowell, but by "what happened when his ideas were put to the test on the football field." Mr. Sowell champions what might be called the Vince Lombardi Interpretation of Ideas, or VLII. Test ideas in the field.

VLII might be a tad simplistic. After all, Nazism "worked" and yielded a bustling economy, until it was militarily defeated. Would Sowell say all was well with Nazi ideas until 1945? The Soviet Union lasted many decades. Did Stalinism "work" until it did not?

Putting aside those bigger issues, Sowell slams Western intellectuals for their misconceptions about society. Activist judges, teenage pregnancy, gun control, city planning, the war in Vietnam, income distribution, and crime all get brief hearings. Everywhere intellectuals miss the boat. They do not understand the facts and their consequences. For instance, intellectuals agitate over the "widening income gap." While that gap exists—and has grown—intellectuals do not understand the difference between statistical categories and real people. Studies of income mobility show that individuals move between economic strata, Sowell claims.

Intellectuals and Society covers many topics but feels like an "oldies but goodies" compilation for conservative seniors at Leisure Lakes Golf. Everything here has been played countless times. Inasmuch as Sowell rarely identifies intellectuals he derides, except in discussions of the past, where he becomes fearless, the book lacks punch. He slams Bertrand Russell's pronouncements on peace and George Bernard Shaw's statements on the Soviet Union, but he pussyfoots about the present. For instance, he disdains city planners for the usual reasons. They are biased and insular. He gives "a typical example" where planners ask leading questions from the audience about their preferences. "Would you like to have more or less time commuting? Would you like to live in an ugly neighborhood or a pretty one?" Sowell judges those queries "tendentious" and dishonest to boot. They show no awareness of costs. But who are these planners? In fact, the "typical example" derives from a book published by the conservative Cato Institute, in which the author paraphrases the planners he wants to put out of business.

Like many conservatives, Sowell stands tall in the name of the people against the intellectual elite. He writes that his book is "about intellectuals," but not "for intellectuals," and he cannot be bothered if his victims find fault with him. But who besides intellectuals would be reading a book on intellectuals? He also writes in the name of the market, but sometimes his loyalties conflict. "Many intellectuals," he says, do not grasp executive compensation. "They do not understand how corporate executives can be worth such high salaries—as if there is any inherent reason why third parties should be expected to understand, or why their acquiescence should be necessary." Is it only "intellectuals" who have doubts about executive pay and bonuses? Where has Sowell been?

Intellectuals have seldom been so disparaged and elevated at the same time. Sowell gives us a chapter "Intellectuals and War" that largely focuses on the appeasement of the 1930s and its usual villains. He believes "the intellectuals" contrived appeasement, and the English and French governments followed in lock step. Never was a leader of a democratic nation more acclaimed than Neville Chamberlain, writes Sowell, when he returned from Munich with an agreement with Hitler. Why? Because of intellectuals and their "steady drumbeat of pacifist anti-national-defense efforts."

That is far from the truth. The 1930s appeasement had roots in a popular pacifism and war weariness as well as an anticommunism that saw Hitler as an ally, not an opponent. After all, Hitler expanded to the East and threatened the Soviet Union, not the West. Moreover, many intellectuals opposed appeasement, a fact about which Sowell seems to know nothing. He might add to his reading list books on the Spanish Civil War, even George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1952), in which he may discover that intellectuals fought with their lives against appeasement.

Sowell likes history, but he likes it on Post-It® notes. He also prefers to revisit stale arguments rather than intervene in current controversies. In a book about intellectuals and society, he manages to ignore the health-care and financial crises. Instead, he argues that intellectuals have misunderstood Herbert Hoover. Wouldn't VLII help us with the current economic crisis, to find out which ideas "worked"?

In a rare foray into something immediate or contentious, Sowell ducks. He discusses the Iraq war in just a few pages. His focus? The 2007 increase in troops under George W. Bush known as "the surge." Guess what? The intellectuals opposed it. Sowell employs VLII. The surge succeeded. "There was fierce resistance among the intelligentsia to news that the surge was working."

What does this mean, the "surge" worked? That Iraq has become a peaceful country? Sowell does not say. Even if one accepts that the surge "worked," what about the larger Iraq war and the role of intellectuals? What about the reason and ideas for the war? The plan to bring democracy to the Middle East? Is the aggressive foreign policy Sowell cherishes "working" in Iraq after eight years? Moreover, many "intellectuals," armed with facts and verifiable theories, supported the war. How does the accountability he champions apply to those foreign-policy intellectuals? This would seem a perfect situation in which to employ VLII.

What does Sowell say about the Iraq war—its motivating ideas and the role of intellectuals in it? Nothing. Or only that he will put "aside" the "debatable issues about the wisdom of the invasion or the nature of its goals." Instead he segues into the nagging criticism of the "surge." He prefers to declaim for pages about the pacifists of the 1930s, rather than reflect on the current war. Has it occurred to him that the 10-cent critique of appeasement that he offers has helped lead us into this mess? In any event, little could illustrate more his spinelessness. As the house burns down, Sowell observes that the fire-resistant curtains seem to be holding up.

In the Conservative Series on American Politics, Sowell has given us the Idiot's Guide to Intellectuals, Big Print Edition. We should take him at his word. This is not a book for intellectuals. It is a gift item for conservatives who do not read. They can shelve it next to Paul Johnson's screed. If conservatives want something more, however, they should spring for Posner's Public Intellectuals. Posner may be wrong-headed, but he has bite and verve. Moreover, if they buy Posner in paperback instead of Sowell in hardback, they will save 10 bucks. In Sowell's universe, that clinches any argument. Ω

[Russell Jacoby is a professor in residence in the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles. A columnist for The Chronicle Review, he is author, most recently, of Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (2005). Jacoby graduated from the Universities of Chicago, Wisconsin, and Rochester (PhD, Rochester).]

Copyright © 2010 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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