Bergson and Brexit

Once it became clear that I would be staying indefinitely in the UK, I had long planned to apply for UK citizenship. I am a strong believer in democracy, and I thought it would be the good and responsible thing to vote and otherwise take part in politics.

Then came Brexit, and this, naturally, led me to think about Henri Bergson. Born to a Jewish family, Bergson moved gradually toward Christianity in his personal life, he considered himself a Christian from the early 1920s. By the 1930s he was making plans to convert formally to Catholicism, but held off because of solidarity with the increasingly threatened Jewish community. A few weeks before his death, Bergson left his sickbed — having rejected an offered exemption from the anti-Semitic laws of Vichy — to stand in line to register as a Jew.

He wrote in his will:

My reflections have led me closer and closer to Catholicism, in which I see the complete fulfillment of Judaism. I would have become a convert, had I not foreseen for years a formidable wave of anti-Semitism about to break upon the world. I wanted to remain among those who tomorrow were to be persecuted.

For a while, then, I deferred applying for citizenship, out of solidarity with my fellow migrants. And then I went and did it anyway. The stakes are obviously much lower than they were for Bergson. And while I regret having to renounce the migrant identity, which suits me well, I also see that this isn’t an entirely noble inclination, as it also excuses me from taking a citizen’s responsibility for the nation’s xenophobic turn. It’s easy to blame those dastardly “British”. The permission to acquire citizenship reflects the growing responsibility for the society that one acquires merely by living here.

I also can’t resist noting that Bergson’s first publication was the solution of Pascal’s problem in Annales des Mathématiques, for which he won the first prize in mathematics in the Concours Général. On learning that he was preparing for the École normale supérieure entrance examination in the letters and humanities section, his mathematics teacher reportedly exclaimed

You could have been a mathematician; you will be a mere philosopher.

When did the sixties end?

The Guardian’s obituary for Baba Ram Dass comments about his most famous book

He wrote about his conversion in Be Here Now, which became popular in the 1960s and provided a road map for the burgeoning New Age movement of spirituality.

Now, this should have given the writer pause, given that a prior paragraph dated his travel to India and religious conversion to late 1967. Indeed, Be Here Now was published in 1971, making its popularity in the 1960s of a particularly esoteric sort.

I suppose they’re not talking about the literal 1960s — as in, the span of ten years beginning from 1 January, 1960 AD — but rather, about the cultural 1960s, that began between the Chatterley case and the Beatles’ first LP, continued, as Hunter Thompson put it, only in San Francisco,

in the middle sixties… a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run … but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.

and concluded

now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Or maybe it never ended. Donald Trump is in many ways the apotheosis of the 1960s. The reduction of politics and traditional institutions to pure id and appetite. The unmasking of the White House mystique as just a cranky old antisemite with a fourth-grade vocabulary and a jones for Big Macs. He’s not what Abbie Hoffman thought he was fighting for, but in retrospect it turns out that’s what he was fighting for.

Pointing the finger at finger-pointers

Boris Johnson obviously considers himself a master rhetorician. His fascination with striking words and images, combined with his inability to structure a sentence — perhaps out of indiscipline, perhaps attention deficit, perhaps just out of a general mismatch between high education and mediocre intelligence — makes his speeches read like something out of one of William S. Burroughs’s less successful cut-up compositions.

The clash of tone and images can be jarring, as in the quote on the cover of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:

Given the leanings of the Telegraph, I’m assuming this was intended to flatter Johnson, not to mock him. And yet… Illustrating an accusation of finger-pointing with a photo of the accuser pointing his finger? And that’s before we even get to the hoary Labour is Stalinist accusation. In 2019? Really? So Johnson has to show that it’s not just a tired slogan by bringing some historical detail into it. With foreign words. So they’re persecuting kulaks. British kulaks should tremble! Before the horror of Jeremy Corbyn, who would be just like Stalin: a notorious scold!

16th century lessons on fake news and disinformation

I’ve just been reading an interesting book on the relationship between two 16th-century social-media influencers, Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther (Fatal Discord, by Michael Massing). I was struck by one comment that came up at the Diet of Worms that speaks to our current conundra over propaganda and disinformation.

Luther argued that he could not recant all of his writings, since some stated truths universally acknowledged by Christians. They must point out to him which particular assertions were false, and demonstrate the falsity with citations from genuine authorities, which could only be scriptural.

Determined not to be drawn into a debate, the theologian Johann Eck countered that Luther’s

assertion that some of his books contained teachings that were sound and acceptable to all was specious, for heretical books, going back to the Arians, had been burned, despite containing much that was godly and Catholic. In fact, Eck said, no doctrine is more effective in deceiving than that which mixes a few false teachings with many that are true.

This is a clear formulation of the principle of optimal fakery that I have discussed at length in this essay.

The no quid pro quo party

Hearing Donald Trump and all his lackeys repeating “no quid pro quo” ad nauseam gave me flashbacks to an earlier Republican president:

This was sufficiently prominent to be parodied in Doonesbury:

Rick: Sir, off the record, what’s the deal with Honduras? It really is starting to look like you cut a deal with President Suavo to support the Contras…
Bush: Rick, that’s just a bunch of needless, reckless speculation, so let me help you out, fella…The word of the President of the United States, me, George Bush, is there was no pro quo! Repeat, no… quid…pro…quo! Ergo, no de facto or de jure nolo contendere! Reporters: Quis? Quois?

Everything I needed to know about British politics I learned in kindergarten

The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Whether or not that ever well described the preparation of the British military I cannot say, but I feel like to understand British politics you need to go back earlier, to the playground of whatever toff kindergarten prepares the English elite for Eton. How else to explain Boris Johnson thinking he can pressure the Labour Party into agreeing to an election on Dominic Cummings’s preferred schedule by calling Jeremy Corbyn “frit”, a “chlorinated chicken”, or “a great big girl’s blouse“.

This last expression struck me as so bizarre — not only is it much too ungainly a phrase to function effectively as an insult, but I can’t think of another term of abuse that compares the target to an item of clothing — but various explainers have revealed that it is indeed a slang expression from the period of Johnson’s childhood, and that Johnson has been known to use it in the past.

It never ceases to astonish me, not just that someone in a position of influence would publicly speak this way, but that his co-partisans seem to find it normal, acceptable, not at all embarrassing, even powerful.

None of this can compare to early-twentieth-century British playground politics. One of the most horrifying details of Christopher Clarke’s meticulous analysis of the march to war in 1914 The Sleepwalkers was his adumbration of the temperamental state of mind prevailing in the British foreign-policy establishment in the decade before the war, illustrated by the comment of UK Ambassador to France Sir Francis ‘the Bull’ Bertie that the Germans wanted “to push us into the water and steal our clothes.”

Lecturing is obsolete — and always has been

Pretty much since I became a professional academic two decades ago there has been constant agitation against lecturing as a technology for teaching. Either new research has proven it, or new technology has rendered it, obsolete. Thus I was amused to read this comment in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

We talked of the difference between the mode of education at Oxford, and that in those Colleges where instruction is chiefly conveyed by lectures. JOHNSON: ‘Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book.’ Dr. Scott agreed with him. ‘But yet (said I), Dr. Scott, you yourself gave lectures at Oxford.’ He smiled. ‘You laughed (then said I) at those who came to you.’

Early comments by Johnson on the impact of no-deal Brexit

Fully consistent with what the PM is saying now:

There came two other gentlemen, one of whom uttered the common-place complaints, that by the increase of taxes, labour would be dear, other nations would undersell us, and our commerce would be ruined.

JOHNSON (smiling). ‘Never fear, Sir. Our commerce is in a very good state; and suppose we had no commerce at all, we could live very well on the produce of our own country.’

This was Samuel Johnson, in the 1770s, who also wrote that

The interruption of trade, though it may distress part of the community, leaves the rest power to communicate relief; the decay of one manufacture may be compensated by the advancement of another…

Johnson, of course, also famously said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Which may somehow be relevant.

Writing the Dolchstoßlegende in English

What Johnson wants is for one of two things to happen:

  1. No deal, with blame falling both on the obstreperous, sclerotic, backward-looking EU, and on the traitorous socialists who weakened Britain’s negotiating position from within by suggesting they would block no-deal in any case. We would have had the perfect buccaneering Brexit deal with complete access to European markets, if we hadn’t been betrayed;
  2. A deal that is forced upon the government by the same traitors in parliament.

In either case Johnson then hopes to win a new election by campaigning against the traitors. It’s even better (but riskier) if the country is in chaos because of no-deal Brexit.

No one who actually hoped to make a deal would publicly declare that the other side must entirely abandon one of its key demands, that had already been conceded by a previous UK government, and suggest that their opposition is only a public negotiating posture. But it’s a perfectly good way of provoking a crisis, while allowing low-information voters to believe that he’s really tried everything. Continue reading “Writing the Dolchstoßlegende in English”

The nature vs. nurture debate: High Christology edition

At least since the late nineteenth century the social interpretation of biology — and of genetics in particular — has devolved repeatedly upon the nature–nurture dispute: To what extent is a human’s individual characteristics determined by a predetermined essence or nature — qualities they are born with, commonly identified with inheritance; or by nurture, the particulars of the physical and social environment in which they develop after birth. From one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, I learned that an analogous debate roiled the early Christian Church.

One of the key disputes among early followers of Jesus concerned the nature and meaning of Jesus’s divinity. At the extremes you had the “low” christology belief that Jesus was a wise man and preacher, of the same nature as any other human; and the “high” christology claim that Jesus was identical with the creator God of the Hebrew Scriptures, and only appeared to be human. (Perhaps even more extreme were the gnostic claims that Jesus was an even higher being than that nasty Yahweh, who obviously fucked up his one major task*, for possibly nefarious purposes. In between were a range of beliefs that Jesus was entirely divine and entirely human. Ehrman points out that in the ancient Mediterranean world there were two “major ways” that it was believed possible for a human to be divine:

  • By adoption or exaltation. A human being… could be made divine by an act of God or a god…
  • By nature or incarnation. A divine being… could become human, either permanently or, more commonly, temporarily.

In other words, God by nurture or God by nature. Nurture is particularly emphasised in the Gospel of Mark, Nature in the Gospel of John. Reflecting the common prejudice in favour of “nature” as the more powerful, one typically thinks of incarnation as representing a more exalted view of Jesus. A Jesus who grew up as a human, and only in adulthood was adopted by God seems less genuinely godlike than one who is, so to speak, fruit of God’s loins — hence the virgin-birth story of Matthew and Luke.

One of the more fascinating novelties of Ehrman’s account is his elucidation of adoption customs in the Roman world, particularly as regards nobles and rulers. Of course, we know that Roman emperors commonly adopted heirs — most famously, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian — but Ehrman explains how prevalent views of adoption were that today would be called progressive: Adoptive families are families by choice, so could be considered superior to the accidental biological families. An heir chosen by a great leader for the qualities he has demonstrated better incorporates and perpetuate’s the leader’s essence than his biological descendant.

Thus, a Christ nurtured by and ultimately adopted into the divine family by God after he had proved himself worthy is a more genuinely divine being than any merely so-to-speak genetically divine progeny, who might ultimately turn out to be a disappointment to his father.

* A classic joke with a gnostic perspective: A man goes to the tailor to order a new coat. The tailor fusses around taking measurements, asking exacting questions about the fabric, the cut, and so on. Having finished he names a price and tells the customer the jacket will be finished in three weeks. “Three weeks! The Lord created the whole world in just one week!”

The tailor shakes his head, picks up another recently completed coat, and beckons the man to come to the window. “One week you want? Look at the work here. The precision cuts. The minute stitching. The harmonious interplay of the parts. And now” gesturing out the window, “look at this world…”