June 7, 2017
Leisure and Modernity
June 7, 2017
Leisure and Modernity
June 4, 2017
BILL MAHER, no stranger to controversy, has recently risked his job for the first time in fifteen years. For the use of a single word during one of his broadcasts, he has called down a rain of holy wrath, and has been accosted by heated demands from all sides that he should resign his position, or be forcibly removed from it. Well might one ask what word in our obscenity-obsessed and godless day any longer could possibly swing this kind of weight against its speaker. Maher broke the new taboo: he took the word “nigger” in vain.
I have always had a certain distant respect for Maher. He seems to me a man who is willing to speak his mind even against those who agree with him, and in this he displays a kind of uncommon independence and courage. Back in 2001, but a week after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and when it was just becoming fashionable to refer to the terrorists as cowardly, he dared to point out that the word “coward” might not be a very appropriate fit for a man who sacrifices his life for a cause, no matter how erroneous or abhorrent that cause might be. He was roundly reproached for this simple shall we say semantic criticism, but he never apologized for it (his apologies centered merely on the misunderstanding of what he had said), and had to be taken off the public network where he then worked. But what might have been the ruin of another man was for him but the stepping stone to greater fame.
Anyone who even occasionally watches Maher can attest that he has never lost this proclivity to defy those who support him, as is witnessed most saliently by his vocal and unpopular opposition to Islam. Yet this latest utterance proved a step too far, even for an inveterate scandal-seeder like Maher, and he was quick to apologize for his statement. Evidently, he found either his career or his conscience hanging in the balance—and in either case the episode is of some interest.
One can always perceive the stark silhouette of a society’s deepest pieties in what it will not permit to be the subject of fast use and ridicule. Censorship of all kinds, and particularly that which is effected not by governmental fiat but by social convention, stems always from one of two urges: from the desire of the ruling order to maintain its power by silencing or shuttering opposition, or else from a society’s protective sense of the holy and the good. Modern censorship in the liberal West issues mainly from the second category. For instance, it was not so very long ago that one could count on strict regulation in the United States of vulgarities, and in certain European countries, like Italy, of blasphemies. The United States thus revealed its devotion to civility and propriety, and those other countries to Christian piety. This is surely no longer true. Under the auspices of freedom of speech, all of these prohibitions have been worn down to the nub, and stand to disappear completely. It is no longer to God nor even to decorum that we bow our heads in these latter days. No other word escaping from Bill Maher’s lips could have brought his employers to reprimand him, nor him to buckle. Perhaps the only other words which might have come close would have been other racial slurs. For we cherish nothing any longer, save the vague hope that each individual should be able to exist without feeling himself discriminated against. Our new piety is the piety of tolerance.
Now, Bill Maher, for all that he is often esteemed as something more, is at bottom a comedian, and comedians in our liberal society are given a liberty of speech which is not permitted to anyone else. There is not a single act nor issue, nor matter how heinous nor sensitive, that one of our comedians has not pilloried upon the stage. Infanticide, rape, mortal diseases—all’s fair game. Yet the racial question is evidently not to be touched—at least not by white comedians. Nor is this the first time this single word has fallen upon its user: Michael Richards, for instance, effectively had his career ruined when he let this little word slip in a comedy club, nor could redeem himself even in an abject ceremony of contrition which make Maher’s apology seem like a stiff-lipped concession to merest necessity. Nothing any longer is sacred to us—not virtue, not religion, nor any mystery of human nature or human deed—nothing except “diversity.” We have replaced the sacred with this wretched sense of obsequious slavishness in the face of our neighbor, this hankering fear of troubling his soul or upsetting his holy equilibrium. We codify this in our “political correctness,” that ubiquitous vague commandment to avoid stepping on toes, which replaces divine will with the whims of the weakest among us. Is it any wonder then when those most subjected to this code finally throw it off in an act of indignant liberation? For truly, one can build a culture and grow a people around the sanctity of the name of a god, and laws which punish the blasphemer and the impious; but around this silly urge to spare feelings alone, one cannot even form up a decent self-help group.
And this leads me to the second question underlying Bill Maher’s gaffe. This word “nigger” does not exist in a kind of sealed verbal container, so that it and it alone of all the words in the lexicon causes such wrath and disease: on the contrary, it is but most salient exemplar of a trend. It summons forth the same angry instinct which brought Professors Bret Weinstein and Nicholas Christakis to grief when they dared defy the growing racial animus now infecting our universities. All of this is but sign of a growing hostility toward whites as whites, an emerging sense that whites are somehow given by virtue of their birth some kind of “privilege” which non-whites lack, and that they must therefore some way or another be brought to feel shame for this. Shame, we are made to understand, even if very few will ever say as much, is the only means by which we may dispossess ourselves of our cruel “privilege.” The new censorship is built almost exclusively upon this idea, and would crumble to dust without it. It really is, as I have called it elsewhere, the glue that binds.
This censorship is all the more insidious insofar as it does not come from above, from government, but rather from “around,” from society. No court of law has come down on Maher’s head to tell him to retract his statements; HBO and various celebrities and journalists have done all the work. And it is HBO that has unilaterally decided that no future broadcast of this episode will contain Maher’s offensive remarks, but they will be expunged utterly from the record. Or take again Bret Weinstein, mentioned above, who had the gall to refuse to distance himself from campus on account of his white skin. The faculty of his own university are gathering against him now, calling for disciplinary action, accusing him of endangering the student body. Anyone who has seen the footage of him speaking with the students will witness in him the admirable embodiment of calm reason in the face of an angry mob, and will recognize that the only person in any danger that day was Weinstein himself. But our ability to confront the ludicrous accusations against him with the reality of what happened, depends decisively on the decision of private individuals: for the original video was most conveniently taken off of YouTube for reasons of “violating YouTube’s policy on harassment and bullying.” (One would like to know, harassment and bullying of whom precisely?) We are witness more and more to a creeping and purely social censorship, justified on the grounds of political correctness, everywhere accepted, no where challenged, except on the loose fringes of our society.
The going ideology would have us build pluralistic societies. I wonder on what basis they hope to accomplish such egregious utopias? Taking but one of the most advanced examples of such a society—the blacks and the whites in the United States of America, who have lived together now a quarter millennium—one really must wonder: how are these two groups alone ever to form anything like a pluralistic union, if the one of them is forever harping about oppression, and the other is forever tiptoeing about in fear of reprisals for behaving in “racist” ways? The past is heavy, too heavy to cast off so lightly as that, and I tremble to think on the future. For in a spirit which is best characterized as vindictive, non-whites are quickly establishing a new taboo, forging a new sacred and inviolable ideal, something lodged deep in the non-white heart which they call their “identity” and which they permit no man to besmirch. It is an ideal in which whites have absolutely no part, but before which they are made to genuflect regardless. Any who defy this taboo will be cast out and spurned—and it would be ingenuous in the extreme to suppose that this tendency will diminish in coming years, as non-whites become the more numerous and more powerful, and as whites diminish in both numbers and in influence. Nay, but matters shall so proceed, and this taboo grow to monstrous proportions and potencies, until the one group is able to forego its resentment, or the other group its shame.
June 1, 2017
The Crisis of Leisure
May 29, 2017
IN LATE MONTHS one has begun to hear murmur of something new. It creeps up at the borders of conversations, or on private blogs here and there, or on the lips of this or that intellectual or businessman or visionary, or now and then in a smaller article by a major online journal. A year ago it was an unheard-of novelty; today it is in the process of becoming a commonplace. I anticipate that these are but hints of what is to come. I think that this issue will in the near future attain a certain centrality in our public debates—and I anticipate that the major arguments given in its favor, will be largely secondary to the true motivations which press it forward.
I am speaking of the so-called “basic income,” the idea that each citizen of the state should receive, regardless of private and personal circumstance, a certain fixed amount of money each month. Many of the proponents of this income work in information technology, and it is no wonder they should be the first protagonists of this notion: for the “artificial intelligence” which they are even at this moment rapidly developing is liable to lead to unprecedented and largely unpredictable disruptions in the economy of traditional jobs—to say nothing of its effects on any number of essential human domains. The proposal of basic income is intrinsically connected to the possibility of mass unemployment, as robots and “intelligent” computers begin to encroach on any number of economic sectors. One way of addressing these profound changes, it is argued, is by giving every individual a safety net into which he may nicely fall, the moment his job disappears out from under him.
Yet although I do not believe this issue would ever have gained currency without the threat of such widespread technology-produced unemployment, I do not believe that this is the fundamental reason this idea will begin to gain traction, and I do not think it will be the primary reason it will finally succeed.
Nor do I think the kind of idealistic egalitarianism of contemporary communistic types will have much to do with its eventual triumph. The amelioration of “income inequality”—this mad modern attempt to blur the indelible lines between rich and poor—these dreams will surely seize the imagination of certain susceptible individuals, as they have done throughout modernity, and they will propel a percentage of the propaganda and defense behind this idea. But they will not move our politicians to consider its adoption. It will not be for the agonized consciences of compromised or modernized socialists that this idea comes finally to guide our public policies.
Nay—it will not even be the desperation of the politicians themselves, when they realize that their positions vis-à-vis immigration or public spending or social engineering or what have you, have led us all to the brink of social and economic ruin—it will not even be this desperation which will give this idea its horrible gravity.
Let us consider for a moment what basic income would represent. It would ostensibly be, as stated, an attempt to rectify one of the latest unintended consequences of the scientific revolution. It would disconnect every human being from the practical needs of existence—the “necessaries of life” that Thoreau speaks of. It would remove the human being that much farther from the land and the need to cultivate the land; from the raising of animals and the simple agricultural life which once underpinned all of human existence. It would make of every human being, in every part of the world, a “city-dweller,” a “consumer,” a node in the network, and would reduce exponentially the possibility of radical disconnection from the long project of modernity. It would represent therefore a detachment of human nature from its entire historical basis. It would give every human being the means to pursue his little dream, and so would equalize all human dreams: it would be the first step in the equalization of human ambition. It would diminish the effects of human inequalities, not only of income but of every kind, by eliminating many of the clearest outward signs of those differences. It would, in distancing the human being from the exigencies of his own nature, make his virtue and his vice, his artistic endeavors, his philosophical wonder, matters of increasing indifference. It would be the latest and thus far the greatest act in the long attempt to conquer chance and to immunize human beings against all misfortune—which can have no other effect on human psychology than to render it more careless of life and death, more prone to commit acts of violence and fanaticism, more susceptible to pain at merest discomfort and pity at the slightest suffering of one’s neighbor—at once more dangerously insouciant and more pathetically sensitive. It would redress the condemnation of God when he cast Adam and Eve out from the Garden, that they must labor in the soil and earn their bread of their sweat. It would to that extent make of the human being something other than a human being.
Here is the reason, then that this “basic income” will in all probability come about: because science seeks to master nature, and cannot do so without banishing man’s connection to his own nature. The final and necessary result of the scientific project, and the only way that science can overcome the contradictions in its makeup and the dire consequences and limitations of its methodology, is to make of society itself into a machine.
Shall I then state my hope aloud? To be honest, my hope grows extreme, and this troubles me almost to silence. This much seems evident to me: science cannot be stopped, and it is too late any longer to rein it in by the mere efforts of statesmanship or morality. The day that it discovers a free power source will be the day that its absolute apotheosis will be guaranteed beyond any hope of return. It is with horror that I state what begins to appear to me the last remaining conclusion: that our self-immolation on the alter of the soulless machine can be retarded or obviated only by a collapse of those social structures upon which science is presently building its most hubristic and most inhuman hopes.
Although I permit myself to pray that there is some third way of escaping this hideous dilemma, humanity to my eyes is presently in a race between the decay of our virtue, and the decay of our institutions. As I am a philanthropist, I can only hope that the second outruns the first.
May 26, 2017
May 23, 2017
THERE IS A CERTAIN RESISTANCE to the idea of immigrant integration which has been gaining some traction in late years. The Young Muslims of Italy, organization whose website can be found here, announced in 2015 a most suggestive congress entitled Integrazione? No grazie! Convivenza pacifica! (“Integration? No, thanks! Peaceful coexistence!”)—hardly a new idea even then, and one which has since been echoed in many sentiments of many commentators throughout Italy, both immigrant and native-born. A growing number of people, it seems, are recoiling from the idea that immigrants to Italy or to any other European country must accommodate themselves to European ways of life. To my eyes this is but the latest meter of territory willingly ceded to individuals who have no desire nor intention of following European ways, but who wish to populate our lands nonetheless.
But before we go genuflecting at the feet of this demand on the part of foreigners, it would be well to reflect a moment on just what is being asked of us.
The rejection of “integration” indicates that integration is in some way unpalatable for those who must integrate—that it is unjust toward them, or that it takes from them something precious that they are unwilling to surrender. Yet just what precisely might this be? For integration does not mean that these people must dress in accord with European fashions. It does not mean that they must worship in Christian churches, nor even cease to worship in mosques. It does not mean they must eat Italian food or frequent French cafes or marry into German families. It does not mean that they must change any single feature of their ways of life—save those features which contradict European laws or inhibit the right functioning of European societies.
He who coexists but does not integrate presumably does not have to learn the language of his host country. He presumably does not have to bow to the legal precepts of his host country, but may establish his own system of laws beside them. He presumably does not have to adopt the moral or social code of his host country, but may retain his own. He has the right to form a state within the state, to speak exclusively a language unknown to European ears or tongues, to abide by laws which contradict European justice, and to live by customs abhorrent to European sensibilities. Else I do not know what this “coexistence” could possibly mean, in contradistinction to the concept of “integration.”
Now, we must of course be just: the title of the Young Muslim’s congress, for example, calls for peaceful coexistence. What then does it matter what laws or what languages these people might speak, if they abide by the central point of order in any civil society, and refrain from doing harm or violence to their neighbors?
But here is the fundamental problem. Integration in Europe is premised on the notion of tolerance: one must allow other ways of life, other opinions, other faiths, than one own. The basic element which any individual must accept in order to integrate into Europe is then this: such an individual must agree to be tolerant, with all the legal and moral ramifications which attend to this agreement. “Coexistence” suggests that even this is no longer obligatory. Tolerance, being a purely European standard, should certainly not be imposed on any “coexisting” newcomer. Such a one should be permitted to make up his own mind with regard to tolerance, in accordance with his original traditions and customs.
But the Occident is the only part of the world, now or ever, to premise its society on the virtue of tolerance: no one who comes to Europe’s shores from a non-Westernized country will bring tolerant views with him, nor will he gain such views here unless he is integrated into the European way of life. These foreigners would live peacefully with us? That is well and good—so long as we tolerant Europeans remain the majority. But what of fifty years from now, when, given present trends in immigration and demographics, Muslims will form a sizable portion (no one even has any idea how sizable!) of European population? And what of one-hundred years from now, when they will almost certainly be the majority? What will guide their treatment of us then? The gentle interest in peaceful coexistence with individuals who live in starkly different ways than those taught by Mohammed? Or is it not rather to be expected that they will ignore the principles of a “tolerance” which they have never bothered to adopt, and will rather fall back on those preachments of Islam which are anything but inclusive, anything but peacable?
Though dearly I pray I am mistaken, I do not know how to read these matters otherwise than this: those who call for coexistence with Muslim ways today, will call for the oppression of European ways tomorrow.
May 20, 2017
The History of Philosophy, cont.
May 15, 2017
AS AN AMERICAN in Italy, I am often asked by dumbfounded Italians how it is possible my countrymen should possess so many guns. They want to know all manner of things—as, did I grow up with firearms? Is it permitted for Americans to take guns wherever they please—airplanes, buses, banks? Is it not appalling that such deadly weapons should be permitted in so many private houses? Am I not ashamed, when I look at the statistics of gun-related crimes, when I hear of this or that accident or school shooting, that my country permits such barbarities?
And thus I risk being drawn into the debate which rages in my own country over the status of its gun laws. Yet I would dearly like to avoid this debate—but because I think it insoluble, but because I think it is in all cases premised badly, and in such a way that it really does become insoluble.
For the debate over gun laws is a prime instance of what I have called in a different essay Procrustean statecraft. This is in its way a disease of modernity: this idea that with but the right institutions, all our social problems can be happily eradicated, and we dwell in prosperity and contentment ever after. Beyond that fact that I perceive such a notion as this to be at the root of a large portion of our more unjustifiable contemporary carping and disaffection, I also think it fundamentally absurd. May be one could have easily enough believed it even twenty years ago: but since the war in Iraq, and all our ruinous meddling in the affairs of nations which do not accept and evidently are incapable of accepting democratic institutions, it seems to me that we are no longer justified in taking this view so naively.
Anyone who has looked into the question of gun ownership and the laws surrounding gun ownership will certainly be familiar with the basic difficulty. One will find oneself perhaps pulled this way and that by the debate, now falling on this side, now on that, and with no means of reconciling the contradictions. The conversation, and with it one’s loyalties, will proceed something like this:
May 12, 2017
The History of Philosophy
May 9, 2017
IT WOULD SEEM that the European and American political establishments are breathing an immense sigh of relief over the results of the French election. In some circles, it would appear there has even been rejoicing. It is not difficult to imagine that this has far less to do with the triumph of Emmanuel Macron, than with the defeat of Marine Le Pen.
Vox, the day after the election, had this to say: