Between Hope and History

Let me start with some basics, however unpalatable they seem to me. Unless you are an adamant believer in either faith-based progress narratives or their penumbral secular prolongations like Marxism-Leninism, free market capitalism, or law-based human rights-ism, there is no hope in history, at least in its broad sweep, what the Annales School historians called la longue duree.

To claim otherwise is a category mistake, pure and simple. To paraphrase Trotsky’s wisecrack about the dialectic, you may not be interested in the geological record, but the geological record is interested in you!

The Old Complaints

As Beckett said, “The old complaints, the old complaints are best.” In Victorian Britain, what social welfare that did exist was grounded in maintaining a fundamental distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. The Victorians thought this both the moral thing to do and that it was in the practical interests of the poor. In our own time, the conservative intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has favorably contrasted the Victorians’ success in combating social pathologies then rampant among the poor by steadfastly making morality “a conscious part of [their] social policy” with what she called the “de-moralization” of our own.

Enlighten Hearts

During this year’s official commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, the senior chaplain of the Irish military, Monsignor Eoin Thynne, delivered a brave homily in which he largely eschewed the customary bromides of Romantic Irish nationalism, speaking, instead, about the ethical collapse that had taken place in Ireland during the economic boom. It is a moment of national trauma in Ireland—the consequence of the financial meltdown and the child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. Combining, as he does, the duties of a priest and a soldier, it would have been unfair to expect Msgr. Thynne to address the pedophilia crisis and his Church’s cover-up. But on the economic crisis, he was unsparing. These days in Ireland, it often seems as if the morning papers do little but itemize one more insolvency of a former high-flying property company, or the further indebtedness of the major Irish banks—all of which have already had to be partly or wholly nationalized. The new glass and steel condominiums along the Liffey River stand largely empty, much like similar developments in Florida, Nevada, and Spain.

The Past as Grievance

That Ireland is a country seeped in memory is a commonplace. The annual commemorations held in every year in front of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street in Dublin on the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising against the British seems like the embodiment of this consensus view. It is comparatively modest, unlike Bastille Day in Paris, or the greatest public military ceremony of all, the Beating the Retreat in New Delhi that is a celebration of India’s Republic Day, though like them largely military. But in its combination of modesty and sternness, the ceremony is deeply affecting. The crowds, while not enormous, are dignified and respectful, and at least on April 1st of this year, when I was in Dublin, this very much seemed to include people from what the Irish government calls “the new communities”—immigrants from the poor world. I saw a sprinkling of people from the Indian sub-continent and West Africa, and, from what I could see, they were a bit puzzled but also more than a bit engaged.

Best Forgotten

Those of us who are in the habit of railing at the historical illiteracy of these great times of ours (it borders on amnesia) should be careful what we wish for. For despite what Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason about those who cannot remember the past being condemned to repeat it, historical memory is anything but an incontestable public good. Those who doubt this need only look at the Balkans in the 1990s. Despite the propaganda of the Serbs and their allies in Russia and in the West, the conflict was not principally about “ancient ethnic hatreds.” The fetishization of the historical grievances of the Croats and the Serbs unquestionably played a key role in providing the conflict with an ideological and propagandistic flag of convenience. And, in due course, the Bosnian side—which, despite the Muslim nationalist past of some of its leaders, was overwhelmingly Titoist at the beginning of the war—followed suit as well (those who still deny this cannot possibly have been in Sarajevo in the early months of the siege, but that is a debate for another day).

Amor Fati

In her edgy, ambivalent eulogy to her friend, the great British philosopher, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum wrote that, “he was never angry,” but “his attitude to the world was at some level without hope.” There were doubtless temperamental, as well as intellectual, explanations for this, as there surely must be for Nussbaum, who, on her own account of herself, is someone who is “angry more or less all the time”; and as there are for everyone, however much most of us prefer to think that temperament—which, though as adults we learn to ignore, suppress, or transcend, is fundamentally beyond reason—has little or nothing to do with how we arrive at our political and ethical views.

Blind Determination

For most of his lifetime, the architect of America’s cold war policy of containment toward the Soviet Union was known as a realist. But if the George Kennan who was the author of the "Long Telegram" of 1946, the advisor to Secretary of State George Marshall, and the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, remains a figure of historical importance, the Kennan who is the only major 20th century American political thinker who fundamentally distrusted optimism and was skeptical of the internationalism even of democratic states is still our contemporary. Even Niebuhr, who was hardly unmoved by pessimism, and, in some of his writing, seems to give in to it, finally rejected it as an abnegation of American responsibility. Kennan was unmoved by such democratic utopianism. In his book American Diplomacy, published in 1951, he wrote that:

Stand Down

What truly matters in the debate over American exceptionalism is what the historical record of America’s use of her power has been and how, even in an era of relative decline, she should use, or refrain from using, that power today and in the future. All the rest is silliness. If some young liberal policy wonk chooses to imagine that the United States is inherently good, or if the editor of The National Review finds it historically defensible to claim that America “is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth,” that really should not detain us.

As from a Poisoned Spring

Nostalgia is in the DNA of conservatism. That is its pathos. It is not that most intelligent conservatives revere the past, though of course there are some who do. But if one believes that political or social change are most sensibly viewed with principled skepticism, even if one must be open to them prudentially (which is what Edmund Burke meant when he said that there were times when change “is the means of our preservation”), then history is more likely to seem a chronicle of what we have lost than of what we have gained. On this account, any change usually—though, obviously, there will always be exceptions—will loom as a dangerous experiment rather than something warranted and desirable. The problem is that the capacity to distinguish between the concrete realities of previous mores, political arrangements, and one’s bedrock conviction that upholding tradition is a categorical imperative rarely inoculates conservatives against nostalgia.

Skin in the Game

The expression “skin in the game” was coined by Warren Buffett to describe the most desirable form of corporate governance—one in which senior management invest personally in the stock of the company they are running. The idea is that if executives have as much of a personal stake in the company as outside investors, they will do a better, more responsible job. As a prescription for sound corporate management, the idea is unexceptionable, if radical only in the context of the casino capitalism of the past 30 years. Indeed, as contemporary business credos go, it’s pretty mild; and as a use of language, it is less of a con than most. After all, the trajectory of the language of business—and of its un-indicted co-conspirator, advertising—is toward the Big Lie. Stalin’s Russia was like that. So is Goldman Sachs’ America. Re-read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, and instead of thinking of the world of politics, think about the world of business. I think you will find that, if anything, I am understating the matter.

Unless it is Forced on Them

I am grateful to my friend Rod Dreher for pointing me toward a recent piece in the London Review of Books on the looming crisis of the British economy in which the critic and novelist John Lanchester points out in passing that the 2009 bonus pool at Goldman Sachs was $16.2 billion, and that management praised itself for its "restraint." In contrast, Lanchester writes, the pre-earthquake Gross Domestic Product of Haiti, a country where one in eight children dies before his or (and alas more commonly) her fifth birthday, averaged $7 billion. Lanchester is rightly incensed by the financial world's shameless bonus culture.

The Dog's Silence

In a fragment written in 1921, Walter Benjamin wrote that capitalism is “a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.” Spend an hour watching one of the cable business channels, whether CNBC, Fox, or Bloomberg, and you will likely come around to his opinion. The "Low Church" side of the cult is epitomized by Larry Kudlow’s evening show on CNBC. In the place of the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible,” Kudlow, who is a practicing Catholic, begins every show by intoning what he himself has dubbed, apparently with no sense of its inappropriateness, “The Kudlow Creed.” “We believe that free market capitalism is the best path to prosperity.”

Moral Authority?

Though it has been badly shaken by President Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan (and dramatically ratchet up both drone strikes, and, or so it seems, anyway, covert operations in Pakistan), the liberal internationalist narrative about American power has emphasized the discontinuities between the Bush and Obama administrations. On this account, the United States under President Bush over-reached radically—taking advantage of the country's continuing belief in its own exceptionalism and the goodness of its intentions; its undeniable role as the world's sole military superpower and status as the issuer of the world's reserve currency; and its unique capacity to use both its hard and soft power to globally constructive ends to pursue overly-militarized, unilateralist policies that could only lessen the leadership America had exercised since the end of World War II. All of this was at the dawn of a multi-polar world age in which it was inevitable that U.S. power and influence would diminish, at least comparatively.


When I was very young, I knew an English Buddhist whose despair over the moral decline of the society into which he had been born knew almost no bounds. He was not talking of the so-called sexual revolution of the nineteen-sixties, though he certainly loathed it as well. Instead, his preferred cultural example was, of all things, the 1949 Ealing black comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets, which certainly struck very few viewers at the time as an obvious emblem of the moral deterioration of Western civilization. For those who have not seen it, the film’s plot revolves around a scheme by young Louis Mazzini (played by Dennis Price) to avenge his mother, who had been ostracized by her aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes, when she married an Italian opera singer, and at her death was refused burial in the family crypt. Louis sets about systematically murdering the eight D’Ascoynes who precede him in line to inherit a dukedom—all of whom are played by the young Alec Guinness—and eventually becomes Duke of Chalfont himself. “What kind of culture turns the murder of eight human beings into an occasion for laughter?” the Buddhist used to ask, almost in pleading tones.

Arsenal of Democracy

Imagine a country in which the average cost of being elected to the lower house of that nation’s parliament had reached a million dollars, and in districts where television advertising costs were high, that the money needed to finance a successful campaign frequently amounted to double or triple that. Then add the fact that the median cost of getting elected to the upper house was more than eight times that—8.53 million dollars—again, with many campaigns spending much more. While you’re calculating this, don’t forget to factor in the influence of monies spent by interest groups of all sorts that, while ostensibly used to promote the group in question’s particular cause, can be considered part of the campaign budget of candidates associated with the cause in question.


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