Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Reconsidering "Anti-intellectualism in American Life"

On Richard Hofstadter: Part Two


Anti-intellectalism in American Life (AIiAL) may be Hofstadter's most famous work. It is especially popular with pundits who love to name-check the book when they disparage the sort people who vote for Trump and Brexit.

The book may have appeared in the 1960s but its origin story goes back to 1952. Hofstadter was not just disappointed in the victory of Dwight Eisenhower, he was traumatized. He went so Madly for Adlai that he saw the election result in stark, apocalyptic terms:

a repudiation by plebiscite of American intellectuals and of intellect itself.

The campaign of 1952 dramatized the contrast between intellect and philistinism in the opposing candidates. On one side was Adlai Stevenson, a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history. On the other was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate, harnessed to the unpalatable Nixon.

Eisenhower's decisive victory was taken both by the intellectuals themselves and by their critics as a measure of their repudiation by America.
According to Sam Tannenhaus, the 1952 election gave Hofstatdter his central thesis for AIiAL:

The fundamental division within America was not between Democrats and Republicans, nor between liberals and conservatives, but between clear-eyed intellectuals and benighted philistines, between the rational elite and the impassioned mob.
Hofstadter's reaction to Ike's victory epitomizes the most egregious blunders and blindspots of the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot when they write about most things intellectual.

1. They really aren't very good at identifying intelligence in other people.
2. The I-Y-Is are seduced by style and self-referential biases.
3. Moral outrage is never far below the surface of their detached dispassionate analysis.

As of consequence…..

4 (a) They over-value the capabilities of people who talk and act like them and who share their political views
4 (b) They are blind to the abilities of those who are not like them or who disagree with them. They cannot believe that 'those people' act in good faith or have valid arguments or intellectual heft.

For Hofstadter, the 1952 election was a titanic struggle between the Army of Intellect and the Forces of Ignorance.

Representing Intellect was a New Deal lawyer who became a governor thanks to the Cook County Democratic machine. Everyone knew he was brilliant because he gave witty speeches and made self-decrecating jokes. Arrayed against this Hero of the Intellectuals was the man who commanded:

1. The largest army in US history.
2. The most complex and high-stakes military operation in history.
3. The most successful wartime coalition since Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession.
It was this absurd false dichotomy - smart Adlai and dumb Ike - that was the genesis for AIiAL.

Stevenson knew how to sprinkle aphorisms and wry observations into his speeches. Adlai the politician was a lot like Hofstadter the historian. But that wasn't the only reason Hofstadter was moved to political activism during the campaign. In 1952 he was pro-Stevenson because he was convinced that the survival of liberalism depended on defeating Eisenhower. And for him the survival of liberalism was synonymous with the survival of America.

Over the next ten years the names changed but the melodramatic struggle remained central to Hofstadter's narrative. Leftwing politics morphed into Intellect; Ike's brand of moderate Republicanism became Ignorance and Resentment.

What remained constant was that Richard Hofstadter and people like him were always the heroes in the stories Richard Hofstadter wrote.

And who could contest that narrative? Hofstadter was a celebrated historian and esteemed public intellectual. He was the expert's expert. Only a budding Know Nothing would be so gauche as to question his dicta.

Not to mention-his narrative was useful to the IYIs in the press and academia. It is always easier to name-check Hofstadter than to formulate coherent arguments. It takes a lot of energy, intelligence, and integrity to rebut an opponent in the manner of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is child's play to toss around "paranoid style" and "anti-intellectualism."


Richard Hofstadter: The I-Y-I's intellectual for all seasons

Half-blind experts and the straw men they create

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Nixon's the One

This speech by Ben Stein at the Nixon Library is well worth watching. Stein has always been a defender of RN and here he gives a passionate, full-throated defense of the man and his presidency.

Two especially interesting points in this speech. 1. Stein defends RN against the accusations of anti-Semitism. 2.) He has an interesting theory about the role sadism played in the attacks on Nixon.

Also interesting is this talk by Geoff Shepard on how the Watergate investigation went off the rails.


Watergate and history

Friday, April 21, 2017

Poets and Kommissars

Chekisty and poets were drawn to each other like stoats and rabbits-- often with fatal consequences for the latter. They found common ground: the need for fame, an image of themselves as crusaders, creative frustration, membership of a vanguard, scorn for the bourgeoisie, an inability to discuss their work with common mortals. There was an easily bridged gap between between the symbolist poet who aimed to epater le bourgeois and the checkist who stood the bourgeois up against the wall.
Donald Rayfield

Auden was not eccentric. The poets of the thirties were intoxicated with the idea of violence. You could not be sincere unless you were prepared to have blood on your hands. For Day Lewis it was the hour of the knife, for Spender light was to be brought to life by bringing death to the age-long exploiters. 'We're much ruder,' boasted Day Lewis writing to his scavenger press baron, 'and we're learning to shoot.'
Noel Annan

First, last, and always, the real politics of Bloomsbury was a search for elite cultural power in England.
Stephen Koch

Civil liberties, shit. Are you with us or are you against us.
Ernest Hemingway to John Dos Passos

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"If I find you doing something, I will help you, but if I find you doing nothing, only God will help you."
Gen. George C. Marshall

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rejoice! He is risen!

Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.

And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.

And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.

And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:

And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?

He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,

Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.

And they remembered his words,

And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest.

It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.

And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.

Luke 24: 1-12

Friday, April 14, 2017

"Wood and nails and colored eggs"

First Posted 22 March 2005

This passage from Martin Bell's remarkable little book The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images seems especially timely this Easter season.

God raised Jesus from the dead to the end that we should be clear-once and for all-that there is nothing more important than being human. Our lives have eternal significance. And no one-absolutely no one-is expendable.

Colored Eggs

Some human beings are fortunate enough to be able to color eggs on Easter. If you have a pair of hands to hold the eggs, or if you are fortunate enough to be able to see the brilliant colors, then you are twice blessed.

This Easter some of us cannot hold the eggs, others of us cannot see the colors, many of us are unable to move at all-and so it will be necessary to color the eggs in our hearts.

This Easter there is a hydrocephalic child lying very still in a hospital bed nearby with a head the size of his pillow and vacant, unmoving eyes, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs in his heart, and so God will have to color eggs for him.

And God will color eggs for him. You can bet your life and the life of the created universe on that.

At the cross of Calvary God reconsecrated and sanctified wood and nails and absurdity and helplessness to be continuing vehicles of his love. And then he simply raised Jesus from the dead. And they both went home and colored eggs

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Richard Hofstadter: The I-Y-I’s intellectual for all seasons

Part One

In his essay on the death of expertise Tom Nichols quotes Richard Hofstadter. This is not surprising. Ever since Hofstadter wrote Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963) he has been the go-to expert for pundits and partisans when lamenting America’s short-comings in all things cultural.

Hofstadter’s career and writings have a great deal to say about the role of intellectuals and experts in modern America. As is often the case, the real lesson is not the message that Hofstadter and his fans meant to send.


This is the Hofstadter quote that Nichols uses to launch his Kulturekampf on Trumpian America:

In the original American populistic dream, the omnicompetence of the common man was fundamental and indispensable. It was believed that he could, without much special preparation, pursue the professions and run the government. Today he knows that he cannot even make his breakfast without using devices, more or less mysterious to him, which expertise has put at his disposal; and when he sits down to breakfast and looks at his morning newspaper, he reads about a whole range of vital and intricate issues and acknowledges, if he is candid with himself, that he has not acquired competence to judge most of them.
Two things stand out about Hofstadter’s “argument”. First, it showcases his go-to move: Hofstadter never debates when he can denigrate and dismiss. (We’ll return to this point shortly.)

Even more striking is the rhetorical legerdemain he uses to set up his straw man. The common man is helpless without the magical gifts of technology that the intellectual elites of have given him. The toaster and the coffee pot are mysteries beyond his comprehension so therefore he is not competent to judge the major issues of the day.

Hofstadter expects us to believe that the folks at Vox and the Atlantic are competent to rule over the rest of American because they have expertise and are not baffled modern technology.

Seriously, does anyone really think that Ta-Nehisi Coates can explain multi-port electronic fuel injection? How many writers at Vox can even change the oil in their cars?

Victor Davis Hanson:

Technology has deluded the modern West. We equate widespread knowledge of how to use an iPad with collective wisdom. Because a rare, brilliantly inventive mind from Caltech or MIT can craft a device undreamed of in the age of Einstein, we assume that we all warrant a share in his genius, as if our generation has trumped Einstein’s. We deserve no such kudos unless animals at the zoo that find delight in their rote enjoyment of their hoops and bars can be credited with the architect’s sophisticated zoological design.

We don’t need more technocrats who fool us that their Ivy League law degrees are synonymous with wisdom. They can be, but now are more likely not much more than tickets that allow an Eric Holder or Timothy Geithner into the first-class seating.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

These self-described members of the “intelligenzia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.
James Kwak:

Yale Law School is undeniably an elite institution, the undisputed number one school in a field that is intensely (and toxically) hierarchical. Also, because it is a law schoolas opposed to other elite institutions such as West Point or the UConn women’s basketball teamit is filled with people who have never had any idea of what they wanted to do other than be successful and gain access to the best opportunities out there.


Hofstadter is remembered as a prose stylist of distinction. His mode of argument is also distinctive and much copied. He was one of the leading practioners of the “I’m smartyou are crazy and stupid” polemical style. It’s a style is still beloved by I-Y-Is even to this day and a style that sometimes appears in Nichol’s writing and twitter feed.

RH relied heavily on sociology, psychology, and other social science. To some extent, this was a mark of his restless mind and intellectual curiosity. It also reflects a lazy, perhaps agoraphobic historian. (We’ll get to this later.) But those fields also gave Hofstadter a vocabulary with which to malign opponents rather than engage them.

Fred Siegel:

History and events could be bathed in the certainties that came from dismissing one's opponents as insufficiently deferential and psychologically stunted.
Christopher Lasch, a student of Hofstadter, noted of his teacher and his allies, “instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds.”

This is a rhetorical trick still beloved by I-Y-Is. It is the antithesis of the rigorous, intellectually honest mode of argument Taleb discusses here:

The Facts are True, the News is Fake
It is also a form of argument that has roots in totalitarianism.

Jacques Barzun:

To deprecate an idea or explain it away by finding (i.e. guessing) the reason why it is held is the prevailing form of polemics in the twentieth century. We owe it to the popularity of Freud and Marx, whose systems imply that any resistance to them proves how right they are. Agree or disagree, it is all one; dispute a Freudian interpretation of Nietzsche and the act shows your 'defense mechanism' at work. Similarly, any opinion contrary to Marxism-Leninism reveals only the fraudulent bourgeois thought. This perversion of the sense in which ideas are instrumental to the new obscurantism in the garb of high theory.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

Hannah Arendt had it right. She said one of the great advantages of the totalitarian elites of the Twenties and Thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.
Milan Kundera:

In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.

Part two: Reconsidering "Anti-intellectualism in American Life"

Sunday, April 09, 2017

One hundred years ago

Gary Sheffield:

At 5.30 a.m. on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, the British and Canadian infantry ‘hopped the bags’ and advanced through a snowstorm. Fifteen minutes earlier German batteries had been bombarded with poison gas. Like artillery, machine gun tactics had increased in sophistication since the beginning of the war.[414] Massed machine guns fired a barrage over the heads of the attacking infantry, while forty tanks rumbled into action alongside. The first day of Arras was highly successful. At Vimy Ridge, with the support of nine Heavy Artillery Groups (seven of them British) the Canadians captured most of this formidable position with little difficulty, although at the cost of 11,000 casualties.
Cyril Falls, the author of the British official history of the battle (and an officer in the war) wrote:"‘Easter Monday of the year 1917 must be accounted from the British point of view one of the great days of the War" The first day of the Battle of Arras was, in his view, "among the heaviest blows struck by British arms in the Western theatre of war."

As with everything on the Western Front, the cost in casualties was high.


The BEF’s daily loss rate of 4,076 at Arras was greater than the Somme (2,943), Passchendaele (2,323), or the Hundred Days battles of 1918 (3,645)



Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Tolstoy, Netflix, and the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot

Reading books still matters.

From Gracey Olmstead in the Federalist:

Why It’s A Problem That Reading Is At 30-Year Lows

Americans' interest in literature has dropped to a three-decade low. The fact is, many don’t know what they are missing and they don’t care

Reading Is Work, In a Way Other Pastimes Aren’t

Why is it that the busy working professional will turn off his or her computer to binge-watch a season of “The Walking Dead,” but not to read Tolstoy? To most, the answer is immediately obvious: reading is “work,” to a degree that television is not. Tolstoy requires intense focus, careful reading. But television offers us a sedentary respite, both mentally and physically. It dulls the whirring tension of our brains. Films are often interesting and insightfulbut even the detailed artistry of “The Crown” doesn’t require the focus and diligence that a reading of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” would require.
As Chesterton might have said*: “People have not traded reading for Netflix because Netflix is better; they prefer Netflix because reading is hard.”*

Victor Davis Hanson reminds us why reading remains fundamental:

The mind is a muscle. Without exercise, it reverts to mush. Watching most TV or using the normal electronic gadgetry does not tax us much indeed that is by design the very purpose: to eliminate effort, worry, unease, and afterthought. None of us thinks back a year ago to a great video game session. Few off-hand can recall the Super Bowl winner of 2001. I remember the scenes in a Shane or Casablanca,  but not many others in the other thousand of movies that I have watched.

By nature, our ways of expression and even thinking always fossilize and are withering away with age and monotony a process accelerated by the modern electronic age and the neglect of replenishment through reading.


David Gelernter:

“Good is hard, temptation is a given; therefore, a healthy society talks to itself.”

“Goodness is unnatural, and we need to cheer one another on.”
We’ve stopped encouraging each other to read serious things. Forty years ago a serious person did not demonstrate their seriousness by babbling on about “Dallas” or “Charlie’s Angels”. Those were seen, at best, as harmless, guilty pleasures. ** (The were guilty pleasures precisely because they were unserious.)

Now, preening thought-leaders and self-styled experts prattle on about House of Cards and The Americans as though these soap operas are significant cultural milestones and sources of wisdom akin to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Solzhenitsyn.

As Instapundit said, the “death of expertise” was more suicide than murder.


*The original: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

** How harmless? Jacques Barzun represents one POV: "Love of what is fine should not make one finicky." Schopenhauer , at the other extreme, puts the GUILT in guilty pleasure. See:

Schopenhauer on the Dangers of Clickbait

Friday, March 24, 2017

World War One: Getting past the myths

Richard Holmes:

As far as Britain and her dominions were concerned the Western Front was the most costly event of modern history, and we remain touched by its long cold shadow.
Gary Sheffield:

The image of the British army of 1914-18 as being inept, ‘lions led by donkeys’, is highly misleading. In fact, against a background of revolutionary changes in the nature of war, the British army underwent a bloody learning curve and emerged as a formidable force. In 1918 this much-maligned army won the greatest series of victories in British military history.
Two good lectures on this subject on Youtube:

Brian Bond

Stephen Badsey

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Virginia Woolf: Nietzsche on the fainting couch

Is there a more absurd progressive icon in the Age of Intersectionality?

The Unbearable Burden of Being a Special Snowflake

G. K. Chesterton:

Fastidiousness is the most pardonable of of vices; but it is the most unpardonable of virtues. Nietzsche, who represents most prominently this pretentious claim of the fastidious, has a description somewhere-- a very powerful description in a purely literary sense-- of the disgust and disdain which consume him at the sight of the common people with their common faces, common voices, and their common minds. As I have said, this attitude is almost beautiful if we may regard it as pathetic. Nietzsche's aristocracy has about it all the sacredness that belongs to the weak. When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overpowering omnipresence which belongs to the mob, he will have the sympathy of anybody who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired in a crowded omnibus. Every man has hated mankind when he was less than a man. Every man has had humanity in his eyes like a blinding fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell. But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humour and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.
In our age, Nietzsche is no longer the most prominent exemplar of the pretentious claims of fastidiousness. That honor has to belong to Virginia Woolf.

Nietzsche had to hide his weakness as he paraded his “disgust and disdain” for humanity; the Ubermensch can’t very well be a trembling, feverish invalid. Woolf, on the other hand, pulled off a feat of daring rhetorical jujutsu: She justified her Will to Power with her weakness and “oppression.”

As Theodore Dalrymple points out, the great theme of Woolf’s work can be summarized as “How to Be Privileged and Yet Feel Extremely Aggrieved.”

Woolf’s solipsistic whining is absurd when examined in the hard light of reason. Yet it is irresistible academic catnip for Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Intellectual-Yet-Idiots.


Her historiography was very modern: she scoured the records to justify the backward projection of her current resentments. For her, there was no such thing as the human condition, with its inevitable discontent and limitations. She thought that all the things she desired were reconcilable, so that freedom and security, for example, or artistic effort and complete selflessness, might abide in perpetual harmony. As a female member of the British upper middle class and one of what she called “the daughters of educated men,” she felt both socially superior to the rest of the world and peculiarly, indeed uniquely, put upon. The very locution, “the daughters of educated men,” is an odd one, capturing her oscillation between grandiosity and self-pity: she meant by it that class of women who, by virtue of their gentle birth and hereditarily superior minds, could not be expected to perform physical labor of any kind, but who were prevented by the injustice of “the system” from participating fully in public and intellectual affairs.

For those who actually know anything about the hardships endured by the British working class, male and female, during the years of the Depression, statements that insinuate an equality, or even a superiority, of suffering on the part of the daughters of educated men are little short of nauseating: but they would clearly appeal to the pampered resentful, a class that was to grow exponentially in the postwar years of sustained prosperity.

Had Mrs. Woolf survived to our time, however, she would at least have had the satisfaction of observing that her cast of mindshallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and ultimately brutalhad triumphed among the elites of the Western world.
I think Dalrymple cut to the heart of the matter here:

It comes as no surprise that a thinker (or perhaps I should say a feeler) such as Mrs. Woolf, with her emotional and intellectual dishonesty, should collapse all relevant moral distinctions, a technique vital to all schools of resentment. Time and again we find her misappropriating the connotation of one thing and attaching it to another, by insinuating a false analogy: that since both the British policeman and the Nazi stormtrooper wore a uniform, the British policeman was a brute. It is one of the chief characteristics of modern rhetoric, designed not so much to find the truth as (in the words of former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam) to “maintain your rage.”
This explains Woolf’s “thinking” (and by “explain” I guess I mean “demolish and destroy”) while also helping us to see why she has become an icon to the “pampered resentful class”, the special snowflakes who make up the I-Y-Is. “Maintain the rage” becomes “righteous indignation” and that fire is vital to modern intellectuals:

From the outset the eminence of this new creature, the intellectual, who was to play such a tremendous role in the history of the twentieth century, was inseperable from his necessary indignation. It was his indignation that elevated him to a plateau of moral superiority. Once up there, he was in a position to look down on the rest of humanity. And it did not cost him any effort, intellectual or otherwise. As Marshall McLuhan would put it years later: 'Moral indignation is a technique used to endow the idiot with dignity
Tom Wolfe, Hooking Up


Variations of a theme

Steak, ketchup, and Trump Derangement Disorder

Who was John Galt?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Steak, ketchup, and Trump Derangement Disorder

Really insightful piece by Matthew Continetti:

Freedom Is Eating Steak Well Done With Ketchup
Over the last year however the press has fixated on the steak and its accompaniment, returned to them again and again, fetishized them, contorted them into a metaphor for the childishness and vulgarity and gaucheness that Trump's opponents so despise. "Putting ketchup on his $54 steak drives a wedge between Trump and his fans," reports, citing a silly PPP poll in order to expel Trump from the in-group. Does Trump put "Bernaise? Chimichurri? Peppercorn?" on his steak? Negative. "Instead, Trump went with ketchup, that most pedestrian of all condiments." Lock him up!

I am fascinated by the condescending use of "pedestrian," with its connotations of d├ęclassement, to describe one of America's most popular condiments. What it suggests is that the fixation with Trump's manner of eating is in reality a fixation with the persistence of habits and attitudes and trends that the over-schooled and undereducated metropolitan producers of news and opinion do not like, deem retrograde, wish would recede into the past as humanity progresses toward its gender-neutral, multicultural, borderless, medium-rare steak au poivre future. "For real, Mr. President?" asks the Washington Post‘s food critic when confronted with Trump's menu choices.
The heart of the matter:

It is hard to read stories like these without coming to the conclusion that so much of our elite's abhorrence of Trump is a matter of aesthetics, of his not fitting in, of his stubborn devotion to practices and ideas deemed retrograde by opinion leaders but that still appeal to, oh, about half the country.
G. K. Chesterton:

The modern world will not distinguish between matters of opinion and matters of principle and it ends up treating them all as matters of taste.
GKC did not regard this as an advance for civilization. Instead he described “good taste” as “the last and vilest of human superstitions”

The history of the 20th century shows that it was a superstition that could be exploited for the worst ends. England and its Bloomsbury group should serve as a warning. Ostensibly concerned with Taste and Art and Higher Things, the reality was far different.

Stephen Koch:

Even by the ungentle standards of most literary cliques, Bloomsbury was exceptionally malicious within its own ranks, and with outsiders cruel to the point of systematic sadism. All the talk of 'friendship' concealed quite different interests,

First, last, and always, the real politics of Bloomsbury was a search for elite cultural power in England.
Lytton Strachey and his “friends” might mock the middle classes and their conventional heroes but their disdain was not disinterested:

Within Strachey's supercilious view of the British middle class was encoded an assumed right to rule that class “Taste” for Bloomsbury, as Chesterton saw clearly, became an elastic standard which swallowed up all aspects of life.
Upper class sensibilities trumped left-wing solidarity with the laboring classes:

And my God how workmen smell. The Whole house stinks of them. How I hate the proletariat. (vita Sackville-West)
To Virginia Woolf, there were things more important than feminist solidarity or professional accomplishment. Things like a good manicure:

Woolf withdrew from West’s very presence, preferring to dismiss Rebecca because she had dirty fingernails. Bloomsbury was Woolf’s safe haven, but Westcertainly just as enamored of creature comforts as Woolf wasjourneyed to the Balkans and beyond, to Lebanon and South Africa, in order to understand the nature of the modern world. She was not, in short, afraid of dirtying herself by reporting on great events and movements of the twentieth century.
The politics of taste, as practiced by Bloomsbury, was totalitarian in both scope and practice.

As Paul Johnson noted of Strachey:

From the Apostles he grasped the principles of group power: The ability not merely to exclude but to be seen to exclude. He perfected the art of inapproachability and rejection.
Virginia Woolf:

I have just had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.
Here we see the fatuous absurdity of the Bloomsbury worldview. They begin by cultivating Higher Feelings and Refined Tastes while seeking companions who share those tastes. They end up excluding the great poets and writers of their age because those people are not up to the high standards of Bloomsbury.


Following Strachey's lead, the coterie remained far too preoccupied with questions of mere taste to touch real greatness  .
Except it doesn’t end there.

In the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the unmasked traitor Bill Haydon offers an explanation for going over to the Soviets:

It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly.
Haydon is seemingly based on Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Spies. As Koch reminds us, Bloomsbury and the Cambridge Ring are not separate phenomena.:

The Cambridge spies were Bloomsbury's heirs by direct line of descent. The crucible for both was the 'Cambridge Conversation Club', the Apostles, a long-established campus secret society for aristocratic young intellectuals. Tennyson and Hallam had been members, Strachey and Leonard Woolf had taken over the Apostles for their own political purposes before the war, and a generation later Blunt and Burgess remade it for theirs.
One generation mocks the conventional heroes and holds their countrymen in contempt and views her allies with disdain. The next generation betrays their country in the service of a murderous tyrant.


Sometimes it seems that all worthwhile social commentary is really just elaborations on G. K. Chesterton

Variations on a theme

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Half-blind experts and the straw men they create

Foreign Affairs features an article by professor Tom Nichols on the Perils of Democracy and the Ordeal of one of America’s most vulnerable classes:

How America Lost Faith in Expertise

It's not just that people don't know a lot about science or politics or geography. They don't, but that's an old problem. The bigger concern today is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance--at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy--is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites--and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they're wrong.
The article will appeal to all those in the “credentialed not educated" classes who are still dealing with post-election trauma. Like a good friend after a break up, Nichols reassures the Acela riders “It’s not you, it’s the idiots who don’t recognize your value.”

I doubt that Nichols will win many converts. G. K. Chesterton was a formidable polemicist and debater because he tried to “never let a quarrel ruin a good argument.” On Twitter (@RadioFreeTom) Nichols is the anti-Chesterton. He never argues when he can dismiss and demean.

This passage is hilarious and damning:

Conspiracy theories are attractive to people who have a hard time making sense of a complicated world and little patience for boring, detailed explanations. They are also a way for people to give context and meaning to events that frighten them. Without a coherent explanation for why terrible things happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurrences as nothing more than the random cruelty of either an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity. And just as individuals facing grief and confusion look for meaning where none may exist, so, too, will entire societies gravitate toward outlandish theories when collectively subjected to a terrible national experience. Conspiracy theories and the awed reasoning behind them, as the Canadian writer Jonathan Kay has noted, become especially seductive "in any society that has suffered an epic, collectively felt trauma." This is why they spiked in popularity after World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks, and other major disasters--and are growing now in response to destabilizing contemporary trends, such as the economic and social dislocations of globalization and persistent terrorism.

At their worst, conspiracy theories can produce a moral panic in which innocent people get hurt. But even when they seem trivial, their prevalence undermines the sort of reasoned interpersonal discourse on which liberal democracy depends. Why? Because by definition, conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable: experts who contradict them demonstrate that they, too, are part of the conspiracy.
As recently noted on this blog (“They trusted the experts”) the ritual child abuse panics of the 1980s and 1990s were fueled by the insane conspiracy theories of experts: child psychologists, social workers, policeman, prosecutors.

Nichols teaches at the Naval War College. This piece notes that the experts of the 1990s got most of the big things wrong when it came to Future War:

Anticipating Contemporary War: How Well Did We Do?
This article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is also well worth a read:

The Intellectual Yet Idiot

What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.

But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities??but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.

Changing Minds

More on Changing Minds

UPDATE 3-20-2017:

Instapundit weighs in:

The suicide of expertise

It doesn’t matter what your SAT scores were, voters are under no obligation to listen to you unless they find what you say persuasive.

And you know what makes you less persuasive? The kind of contempt displayed by Foreign Affairs. If expertise is dead, it’s because those who claimed it overplayed their hands. It’s not the death of expertise, so much as a suicide.

This Thomas Sowell column from 2008 makes for interesting reading.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Sometimes it seems that all worthwhile social commentary is really just elaborations on G. K. Chesterton

Kevin Williamson:

Why Corporate Leaders Became Progressive Activists

Some of them are rock-star entrepreneurs. But most of them are variations on the Organization Man, veterans of MBA programs, management consultancies, financial firms, and 10,000 corporate-strategy meetings. If you have not read it, spare a moment for William H. Whyte’s Cold War classic. In the 1950s, Whyte, a writer for Fortune, interviewed dozens of important CEOs and found that they mostly rejected the ethos of rugged individualism in favor of a more collectivist view of the world. The capitalists were not much interested in defending the culture of capitalism. What he found was that the psychological and operational mechanics of large corporations were much like those of other large organizations, including government agencies, and that American CEOs believed, as they had believed since at least the time of Frederick Winslow Taylor and his 19th-century cult of “scientific management,” that expertise deployed through bureaucracy could impose rationality on such unruly social entities as free markets, culture, family, and sexuality. The supplanting of spontaneous order with political discipline is the essence of progressivism, then and now.
From 2013:

The birth of the hive mind

Not all of Chesterton’s targets were socialists. If many socialists loved the vision of a society tightly organized like an anthill, many conservatives and businessmen shared the same vision. They were in thrall of factories full of unmammal-like men and women; worker bees with the emphasis on bee. No wonder Taylorism proved so seductive to the business and managerial class.
From Taylorism to Reengineering to ERP the private sector managerial class has fallen for one fad after another that promote command, control, uniformity, and the massacre of the drones.

Insect worship helps explain why hip Apple loves to build their expensive trinkets in the world’s largest Stalinist state.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Worth checking out

The latest from Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Facts are True, the News is Fake
Worthwhile point that journalists and journalism professors should take to heart:

One way journalism will self destruct [from its divergence away from the public] is illustrated by the Gawker story. A voyeurism outfit realized that there are tort laws in the U.S. protecting private citizens. America has tort laws and a legal mechanism by which people harmed by corporations can be compensated for it –a mechanism that flourished thanks to Ralph Nader. It, along with the First Amendment, protect citizens by putting skin in the game of the corporations. So eventually Gawker which bullied its financially weaker victims (often twenty-one-year old in revenge porn scenes) got bullied by someone richer and went bankrupt.

What was quite revealing is that journalists sided with Gawker on grounds of “freedom of information”, the most misplaced exploitation of that concept, rather than with the public who sided, naturally, with the victim. Nobody is a saint, nobody wants his or her sexual scenes or private information to spread without some type of punishment; nobody likes the industrialization of voyeurism.
He also has some very on point things to say about the media's agency problems.



Journalists like to picture themselves as fearless speakers of truth to power. They love it when the powerful try (and fail) to silence a lowly reporter doing his job. From martyr to victor -- that’s how icons get made.

David Halberstam made his bones as a journalistic hero when JFK tried to get the New York Times to move him out of Vietnam. Nixon’s pressure on the Washington Post during Watergate adds a touch of Hitchcock to the early pages of All the President’s Men. Would the Pentagon Papers be as famous if the New York Times had not fought an injunction all the way to the Supreme Court?

Then there is that class of stories that do not fit the template.

In this talk from 1997, Hilton Kramer recalls the reaction to an article he wrote on Hollywood and the Blacklist. (Starts at the 40.00 min mark). Because he did not show the proper feality to the Great Historical Concensus, Sy Hersh went to his editor and demanded that he fire Kramer. Hersh believed the article did not show proper respect to the Martyrs of McCarthyism.

Kramer had committed the cardinal sin of noting that there really were communists in Hollywood and that Lillian Hellman was not always honest. To Hersh this was a firing offense. That Kramer was right was of little consequence.

In 1965 Tom Wolfe wrote a two part profile of the New Yorker and its editor William Shawn for Herald-Tribune’s New York magazine. It was brilliantvintage Wolfe. It mocked the New Yorker’s pretensions but Wolfe had also done his homework. He knew more about how the New Yorker and Shawn operated than any other outsider. The piece was New Journalism but it was, at its core, very good journalism.

The New Yorker was a powerful media outlet and Wolfe took readers inside its walls, explained how that distinctive style was created, dissected the editing process that ensured every piece had that unique New Yorker tone. He also, boldly, suggested that the overpowering editorial system of Mr. William Shawn had preserved that quintessential style at the cost of missing the best writing in post-war America.

Much of ‘literary’ New York reacted with horror and outrage. All sorts of the right people suggested that New York should never have run Wolfe’s story. Richard Rovere the scourge of Sen. Joe McCarthy thought Wolfe had crossed a line. It was one thing to mock Henry Luce (as the New Yorker had) or to traffic in rumors about Tailgunner Joe (as Rovere had with glee.) But the New Yorker and Mr. Willaim Shawn were supposed to be off-limits.

The highlight for Wolfe came when his editor received a phone call from Richard Goodwin, now best known as Mr. Doris Kearns Goodwin, but then a White House muckety muck for LBJ. Wolfe describes the call in Hooking Up:

This is Richard Goodwin. I’m calling from the White House.

He preceded to tell Clay [Felker] what poisonous, gutterish, despicable stuff our New Yorker articles were. The bill of particulars was pretty famialar by now. The only thing that made Goodwin’s different was that he couldn’t let twenty-five words go by without interjecting “Here at the White House”. Golly, what were we to conclude? Johnson was already sending half a million American troops to Vietnam on the basis of a ten cent gunboat incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. What chance did we have? But by now Clay’s instincts and Jim Bellow’s were the same.

“Excuse me, I don’t mean to interrupt,” said Clay, “but if you’ll do me a favor and write down everything you’ve just said on White House stationary and send it to me, I promise you we’ll print it.”

We never heard another word from Richard Goodwin there at the White House.
Three months after William Safire began writing an op-ed column for the New York Times, a former Times reporter wrote ‘Punch’ Sulzberger and demanded that Safire be fired.

It is a very dishonest column and a shabby one. A few years ago when you had just taken over the paper you were handed a tough decision on the West Coast edition. You said“It’s a lousy paper. Close it.” So Punch, this time the play is to you. It’s a lousy column and it’s a dishonest one. So close it. Our you end up just as shabby as Safire.
The letter was written by David Halberstam. Safire deserves the last word:

The irony did not escape me. Halberstam had gained fame when an American President tried to get the New York Times to fire him for his out-of-step Vietnam dispatches, and here was that same reporter trying to get the Times’s publisher to ‘close up’ a point of view that, however shabby, was mine own.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

When disruption requires a sugar daddy

From the always interesting Nicholas Carr:

The Uber advantage

We’re often told that companies like Uber and Amazon are masters of business innovation and industry disruption. But an argument could be made that what they’re really masters of is getting investors, whether in public or private markets, to cover massive losses over long periods of time. The generosity of the capital markets is what allows Uber and its ilk to subsidize purchases by customers, again on a massive scale and over many years. It’s worth asking whether these subsidies are the real engine behind much of the tech industry’s vaunted wave of disruption. After all, the small businesses being disrupted — local taxi companies and book shops, for instance — don’t have sugar daddies underwriting their existence. They actually have to make money, day after day, to pay their employees and their bankers. They have to charge real prices, not make-believe ones.

Some will argue that the capital markets are acting rationally, investing for future returns. But if those future returns are predicated on the killing off of competitors through years of investor-subsidized predatory pricing and other economically dubious behavior, how rational are the capital market’s actions, really? At some point, it starts to smell like a market failure rather than a market success.
This reminded me of something Peter Drucker said back when the first Dot-Com bubble was bursting:

Many of these internet startups were not startups of businesses at all. They were just stock exchange gambles. If there was a business plan, it was only to launch an IPO or be bought. Not to build a business.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Intellectuals and the seduction of power

Western intellectual enthusiasm for communism peaked not in the time of 'goulash communism' or 'socialism with a human face,' but rather at the moments of the regime's worst cruelties: 1935-1939 and 1944-1956. Writers and professors and teachers and trade unionists admired and loved Stalin not in spite of his faults, but because of them. It was when he was murdering people on an industrial scale, when the show trials were displaying Communism at its most theatrically macabre, that men and women were most seduced by the man and his cult. Likewise the cult of Mao in the West
Tony Judt
New Republic, 2002

Monday, March 06, 2017

A lot of this happens when the Narrative demands it

As long as you look at the Emperor from the neck up, it's almost easy to forget he's as naked as a jaybird.
Mark Y. Herring

Friday, March 03, 2017

Still true a century later

I am a journalist and so am vastly ignorant of many things, but because I am a journalist I write and talk about them all.
G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

They trusted the experts

Alan Jacobs looks at a new book on the Satanic ritual abuse scandals of the 1980s and early 1990s:

structures of presumption: case studies
As Jacobs notes:

We don’t hear many claims these days that day-care workers, or anyone else, are forcing children to participate in Satanic rituals. But reading Beck’s narrative, I couldn’t help reflecting on the ways in which certain structures of presumption that drove that “moral panic” thirty years ago are still in place and still having massive social effects just in somewhat different contexts.
He bravely points out that while the MSM doesn’t fall for Satanic ritual abuse claims anymore, there are parallels to current media obsessions:

The precise logic I have outlined above is at work today in two prominent venues, sexual assault cases on college campuses and the increasingly widespread diagnoses of gender dysphoria among young people. Just as child abuse is real and tragic and often in the past was diminished or ignored so too with sexual assault and profound gender dysphoria. But as Beck’s narrative shows, attempts to correct past neglect can go wildly, destructively awry; and the “structures of presumption” I have laid out above make it virtually impossible to have a reasonable discussion of how to assess claims that have immense consequences for human lives.
To that list I would add a third:the MSM-promoted hysteria which fueled Black Lives Matter and their agitprop narratives.

Three quick points:

1. The ritual abuse panic was just an extreme example of the Rosenhan problem in criminal investigations. When an investigator or prosecutor makes up their mind their theories are immune to falsification.

Criminal justice and the Rosenhan experiment

Rosenhan II

Rosenhan redux

Revisiting the Hanssen case
2.) The abuse panic and the related popularization of “recovered memories” exposed modern psychology as a pseudoscientific cesspit. Frederick Crews demolished its intellectual foundations in the NYRB. Those essays and the resulting correspondence make for exhilarating reading.

3. The panic did not express itself in unthinking, proto-Trumpian lynch mobs. Instead, the damage was done by “experts”: police investigators, journalists, social workers, lawyers, psychologists.

Forgotten witch hunts
Note that very few of these “experts” paid a professional or personal price for the lives they ruined. They had no skin in the game. This sort of makes one think that an awful lot of media-approved experts qualify for Intellectual-Yet-Idiot status.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The great minds at NPR

The hosts of public radio’s On the Media think of themselves as smart, honest and brave. In the Age of Trump they are eager to play generals in the crusader armies of woke journalists.*

Needless to say, self-awareness is not the strong suit of either host. Before Donald Trump was even elected, Bob Garfield was convinced that America in 2016 was just like Weimar in 1933. Brooke Gladstone has repeatedly embarrassed herself. There was her hopeless fangirling for Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert:

Max Peak MSM Blue Bubble
Then there was that time she managed to cram three lies into nineteen words while defending the Obama administration on the IRS scandal:

We still need better media critics
Despite my low expectations based on this track record, Gladstone still manages to surprise me.

In a recent podcast interview (here) she exhorted young journalists to remember that it was possible to do ‘great journalism’ even in difficult times. She offered several examples of what she considered ‘some of the best journalism that has ever been done in America’:

Ida Tarbell
Lincoln Steffens
The New Masses
To Gladstone, these are among the ‘greats of American journalism.’

Lincoln Steffens was such a great journalist that he returned from Lenin’s famine-stricken Soviet Union and famously announced: “I have seen the future and it works.” Steffens was such a hard-bitten truth-seeker that he spent the last years of his life under the control of Comintern operative Ella Winters (he even married her) and dutifully followed whatever line Stalin wanted to.

The New Masses was an organ of the Communist Party USA. Its founding editor was Mike Gold one of Stalin’s cultural commissars. Gold’s commitment to the Party shines through in this quote from 1922:

The Russian Bolsheviks will leave the world a better place than Jesus left it. They will leave it on the threshold of the final victorythe poor will have bread and peace and culture in another generation, not churches and a swarm of lying parasite minister dogs, the legacy of Jesus.
Mike Gold a true believer and the magazine he helped found was devoted to the Party line laid down in Moscow. The New Masses did not do investigative journalism; it did agitprop. It worked tirelessly to cover-up, minimize and justify Stalin’s crimes.

And yet, Brook Gladstone sees this as a role model for young journalists.

Perhaps On The Media should change its name to Truth. It is altogether more fitting.

*As generals go, they are very much in the mold of the Western Front commanders circa 1916. It’s easy to urge journalists to race to the left when you have nice public radio sinicures subsidized by the tax payers.