Monday, May 27, 2013

Next month will mark the fiftieth anniversary of a major turning point in my life.   At McGraw-Hill I turned in my resignation, ending a stressful period in New York publishing.  I ventured into the unknown--a new lifestyle in a new country.  I wasn't totally without resources, as I had a Fubright Award--later extended for a second year--to London, where I was nominally attached to the University.

Those were the days before "swinging London" took off.  The general atmosphere was remarkably soothing and placid, and I spent most of my time soaking up learned lectures (there were no formal classes) and going every day to the British Library (then located in the British Museum).  Under the great dome I read in all sorts of subjects, fantasizing that my industriousness prepared me for a special purchase on life--disregarding the more basic fact that it is life itself that so prepares one.  So I became a know-it-all, to the displeasure of many.

In London I embarked on my first stable relationship with another guy, who was also an American student.  Nor having any other models, we aped heterosexual couples, whom we eagerly and pleasantly had to dinner.  We ended up staying in London for four years.  When I finally returned to these shores in 1967, I had to "translate" dollar prices I saw in stores into pounds, shillings, and pence!

Time elides many things.  There have been vast changes.  But somehow it is as if those years in London were only yesterday.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

While I have been accused of being a contrarian and even (absurdly) a neocon, I have never identified as a conservative. At one time, I confess, I profited from reading the writings of Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott, and Milton Friedman and a few others of that caliber. 
For some time, though, there have been no new major conservative thinkers. In fact no conservative thinkers at all, apart from columnists like the odious Charles Krauthammer and the clapped-out George Will. 
What happened? The proximate cause was the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush. Surrounded by "National Greatness" loons, he sought to extend US domination throughout the world by bluster, intimidation, and military invasions. Regrettably, that behavior was in accord with one strand of conservative thinking, which seeks simply to clobber opponents. What was not in such accord was his fiscal profligacy, saddling us with an enormous debt that still looms ominously over everything, despite the fatuous assurances of the "deficits don't matter" crowd. 
Yet more fatally damaging to the coherence of the conservative cause was a basic antinomy. The unfettered operations of the market have been ruthlessly eroding the social-conservative imperatives of religion and "family values." Since I have never rallied to those latter causes, I see no grounds for lament. Yet the contradiction between the two impulses has made the link between social conservatism and economic conservatism untenable. Honest observers from that camp have detected this disconnect, which explains why so many have fallen silent--and why above all there is no new intellectual product of this kind coming off the assembly line.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Seven years ago when I retired from teaching I resolved to attempt some major reading of authors I hadn't had time to address when I was working. So I tackled the major works of Aristotle, finally finished Dante's Divine Comedy, and fought may way through Montaigne's Essays. Then I thought: why must I turn into a reading machine? I want to read for pleasure as well as instruction. Now a Facebook acquaintance, the Australian Andrew Rutherford, has devised a way of testing this commitment. Take 15 minutes to write down 15 authors that are most important to you (disregarding such universal favorites as Plato and Shakespeare). I did this, and I was surprised to see how dominated it was with counterculture favorites starting, more less, with Verlaine and Rimbaud and concluding with Ginsberg and Kerouac. Once a rebel, always a rebel, I suppose.

Now for the full set of 15.  In looking over my list, I notice that there are no living authors. Apparently I am not keeping up with the times. But in my view it is hard to compete with the truly charismatic works that have come down to us from the past. 

Anyway, here is the full list: Daodejing (ascribed to Laotse), Rabelais, Blake, Leopardi, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Wilde, Pessoa, Pound, Dos Passos, Céline, Stein, Bulgakov, Ginsberg, Kerouac. 

 Of course I have evolved over the years. At one time John Donne meant a lot to me; but I tried him again the other day and, except for a few famous pieces, I just couldn't get back into it. And of course new (or semi-new) figures are looming on the horizon.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, Bill Maher broke a taboo that forbids using the words "liberalism" and "bullshit" in the same sentence. Maher is one of a kind, and I am not advocating this practice as a general rule. Still, I am struck by the way that liberalism has become the default setting in this country. 
Conservatives, the few that are left, ascribe this hegemony to the dominant position of liberals in academia, the media, and Hollywood. Supposedly, the influence spread from those loci; absent these citadels liberalism would not be in charge. In all likelihood, though, the effect proceeds in a reverse direction: the media and so forth lean liberal because that is where most thinking people are. I know that I will catch hell for saying this, but is this monothink a healthy situation? 
Forty years ago there was a substantial revival of Marxism, causing a healthy rethinking of issues having to do with class, the economy, and social change. Gradually, this trend faded. There was a little bit of pickup as a result of the economic crisis of 2008, but no much. All too often these days, though, what is left of Marxism is represented by such charlatans as Slavoj Zizek. It almost seems that the popularity of this crazy figure is designed to convey the message that Marxism is indeed dead. That is too bad in my view. 
Another casualty of today's groupthink is libertarianism. Forty years ago, reading writers like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman was eye-opening. But now libertarianism is dismissed as simply having led to too little regulation--our present pickle--and that is it. At all events, I am seeking to tackle these issues in my next book project.  This will be historically oriented, starting in the fourteenth century.
 AfternoteI have just heard the good news that Delaware has become the 11th state to adopt marriage equality. The momentum that this movement has achieved in just a short time is extraordinary, but it may not be an irresistible force, at least not just yet. Most of the progress has been made in the blue states, and by contrast the red states, by and large, have erected formidable barriers. Nor are these restrictions purely formalistic, for many in the heartland still believe that same-sex marriage is immoral and should be blocked. 
Will they be won over? One hopes so, but previous experience with efforts at fundamental social change suggests that this may prove an arduous process. I note also that not all the opponents of same-sex marriage are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Two of my closest friends, who are long-term gay activists, have reservations about same-sex marriage. In fact they are resolutely opposed to it. Why so? They believe that marriage as such is a reactionary institution, and for GLBT people to rally to it is to blunt the transformational potential unleashed by the original movement for gay liberation. We will simply become stolid bourgeois conformists--like most everybody else. Asked about this, I would have to tell my dissident friends that, regrettably, theirs is a dwindling cohort, as young people have quite a different mindset. 
At all events, these differences of opinion throw some light on my remarks above on the hegemony of liberalism (a political philosophy which may well, I hasten to add, deserve to be hegemonic). But in the matter of marriage equality the "approved" view is flanked by two others, one conservative the other on the left. They may be the skunks at the party, but they are here.