McWhorter and Lowry

McWhorterMcWhorter and Lowry slug it out

I have yet to write and post the final installment of my Elitism, Progressives and Conservatives series of articles (mostly on ‘Evolution’) but in the meantime I was fascinated by the ongoing discussion between Glenn Lowry and John McWhorter. Here you have a condensation of the discussion between progressives and conservatives, at its most intelligent. McWhorter is a conservative (normally-Republican, I guess) enthusiast of Obama and Lowry a progressive Democrat skeptic Clintonite.

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The Neanderthals

[This article is the third in a series on Elitism, Conservatives and Progressives.]

Baroness Murphy said recently in an article on Lords of the Blog.

Sitting here blogging while waiting on tenterhooks for the vote in the Commons on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Mustn’t watch more TV…I just heard a TV BBC 1 newsreader describe the debate on the creation of hybrid embryos for stem cell research as ‘a clash between science and ethics’. I was so angry I wanted to punch the screen. Huge numbers of ordinary people (and peers by a massive vote when the bill came through the Lords a couple of months ago) regard it as immoral and unethical to stop research that could benefit thousands of people. Far from being a clash between science and ethics it is more a straight clash between medieval church ignorance and 21st century secular realities and medical advances.

This dismissal of the concerns of so many people as ‘medieval church ignorance’ is a typical highly-educated liberal dismissal of those that question, on religious grounds, the brave new world being delivered by science, as was Arianna Huffington’s article, GOP Debate: A Competition to See Who Could Be the Biggest Neanderthal, decrying conservative positions on issues like abortion, stem-cell research and evolution in a Republican presidential debate.

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Who is being Racist?

[This article is the third in a series on Elitism, Conservatives and Progressives.]

In this discussion of elitism, and how it plays out in progressive and conservative politics, identity politics is central with the identities dividing into cultural (e.g., religion) and biological factors (e.g., sex). In the real world they don’t separate out so neatly as cultural characteristics often follow biological characteristics but here I look at a topical biological division, race, and how it has been playing out in the Democratic primaries. It seems to be leading to some confusion among progressives and conservatives alike.

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Conservatives and Progressives

[This article is the second in a series on Elitism, Conservatives and Progressives.]

Andrew Sullivan has been chewing over what it means to be a conservative and I would like to clarify my own ideas here. I agree with Sullivan in seeing Edmund Burke as the founder of modern conservatism. (Of course, that I am a Bristolian and the Anglo-Irish Burke represented the city in parliament doesn’t bias me in the least.) Modern conservatism arose as a reaction to the French Revolution, which is not to say that it was a reactionary movement, there being much to be said for the point of view that the French Revolution was a glorious mistake (the same could been achieved much less violently) and that conservatism offers a valuable critique, with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France setting the terms of the debate.

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Elitism: The Democrats Self-Inflicted Wound?

[This article is the first in a series on Elitism, Conservatives and Progressives.]

I have been meaning to get my ideas straight on elitism for some weeks now, but little did I realise how central it was to so many philosophical issues that I am talking about on this blog. The catalyst for this series of articles was my previous article on Obama’s Appalachian problem, which I thought was explained brilliantly by Senator Jim Webb. Webb is an Appalachian of Scottish-Irish descent, the very demographic that has been causing so many problems for Obama. I will return to the attitudes of progressive elites to the ‘racism’ of the Appalachians later.

One of the clearest explanations of Elitism in US politics was written by Jonathan Chait in a short article, Popular Will, where he says:

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On Zionism (Contents)

In this article I explain why those that really want to help the Palestinians should become Zionists and those that really want to help Israel should support Barack Obama’s policy of engaging Iran.

  1. Zionism: The Great Divide
  2. How I Became a Zionist
  3. The Great Hypocrisy
  4. Barack Obama, Israel, Iran and Hamas

Barack Obama, Israel, Iran and Hamas

(This is the fourth and final article of the On Zionism series.)

In a recent article, Obama. What’s Complicated Here?, Gershom Gorenberg at South Jerusalem explains why he thinks Barack Obama should get the support of all right-thinking Israelis (left-thinking Israelis in Gorenberg’s case):

The one candidate who speaks in clear terms of taking a new approach to the Mideast is Obama. This is what scares the small coterie of American Jewish rightists who would eagerly fight to the last Israeli. If you care about Israel, you should hit “delete” when you get their emails.

Obama is the one candidate who had the sense to oppose the war in Iraq. He’s the one candidate whose statement on Israel expresses support for a two-state solution, which is the country’s path to peaceful future and is today the consensus position in Israel. He’s the one proposing a clear break from the disastrous Bush policies, and a turn to trying diplomacy.

Matt Yglesias at The Atlantic does find a complication though.

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The Great Hypocrisy

(This is the third article of the On Zionism series.)

It seems to me that there is a great partisan divide, and those perpetuating it on both sides are using Israelis and Palestinians as surrogates for their own political agendas (see Stop the Demonising and Idiot Compassion). A standard line to pursue at this point (the lefty narrative) would be to take up Jimmy Carter’s point about the brutal treatment of the Gazans, but, if the reader has been following me, that is an argument best left for the likes of Jimmy Carter: much better for me to expose the great Euro-leftie hypocrisy, the great abuse of the Palestinian cause for quite unrelated agendas.

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How I Became a Zionist

(This is the second article of the On Zionism series.)

True to my Euro-leftie roots, especially someone whose political consciousness was formed after the Camp David Accords (i.e., after all serious existential threats to Israel had been extinguished), watching the 1982 Lebanon war and the Sabra and Chatilla massacres I grew up with no empathy or real understanding of the Israeli perspective, an attitude that was cemented by a hapless visiting Israeli’s attempt justify to our sixth form the 1982 invasion of Lebanon immediately after the camp massacres.

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Zionism: The Great Divide

(This is the first article of the On Zionism series.)

It is interesting listening to Jeffery Goldberg being interviewed by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz at the Atlantic. (Some speech I find quite mesmerising, including Rothenberg Gritz’s; always a bit of an Americanophile it seems to be coming to the fore with the election season.) Here Jeffery Goldberg is in fine, thoughtful form, reflecting on the various currents of the often highly contradictory ideals that flowed into the formation of Israel. And what a contrast they make to his reactionary screeds against Jimmy Carter.

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Jane Bennet and Barack Obama (Contents)

In this series of articles I link the Jane Austen and political threads on the blog, discussing the similarities between our modern response to Jane Bennett and Barack Obama’s New Politics.

  1. Jane Bennet and Barack Obama
  2. The Candour of Jane Bennet
  3. Jane Bennet and Barack Obama
  4. Original Sin (postscript)

Original Sin (Postscript)

While writing this series of articles on candour, our potential for realising our better, divine selves, it occurred to me how equally poorly understood is the Christian doctrine of original sin. (I have no wish to get tangled in theological debate here so I would like to confine myself to some general remarks, speaking as a non-Christian.)

Nothing is more common than to hear non-Christians pointing to the doctrine of original sin as proof of how pessimistic and depressing Christianity is. Even, I am sorry to say, some Buddhists who should really know better. In doing so they will point to the Buddhist doctrine of Buddha Nature, that we all have the potential to attain enlightenment and become Buddhas.

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Barack Obama and The New Politics

He’s never come up with an explanation about how he would actually transform politics, and his conventional substance is beginning to overshadow his unconventional style.

— David Brooks, Combat and Composure, New York Times, 6th May

I’m on record as saying that Hillary Clinton’s advocacy of a gas-tax holiday, while it wasn’t good policy, didn’t rise to the level of a crime.

Judging from last night’s results, however, it was worse than a crime: it was a mistake.

— Paul Krugman, Talleyrand and the gas tax holiday, New York Times, 7th May

I could have picked dozens of quotes insisting that Obama hasn’t explained how his New Politics works, yet from nowhere he has turned the political scene upside down, eschewed PAC funding, signed up 1.5 million donors, crushed one the most formidable (if incompetent) political machines of recent times and quite conceivably will thrash the Republicans in a landslide in the autumn (it is of course impossible to predict, but as far as any of these things are predictable, this looks on the cards). The junior senator from Illinois, not even on the national political scene when the Iraq war was launched, has got himself into a position where Washington could soon be his feet. Could some people be failing to see the wood for the trees? I think it is interesting that the old media, with some honourable exceptions, is having such difficulty understanding Obama’s core message.

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The Candour of Jane Bennet

A recent posting to the Austen-L mailing list, titled the ‘desperation of candour’, illustrates the thoroughly bad press that old-style candour generally receives. In it we were told that Austen began as a satirist, and retained her critical stance throughout (I couldn’t agree more—it is difficult to disagree with this), that while endeavouring to read and understand the novel with the candour of Jane Bennet would do justice to one’s heart, Jane Bennet sees the world the way she does because it would be too painful to see it as Elizabeth sees it, and Jane finally agrees to Elizabeth’s observations of the hypocrisy and duplicity of the Bingley sisters. Jane’s candour comes out of desperation, desiring peace, not through any conviction about the truth but driven by a psychological vulnerability. Austen was too much of a realist we are told: Jane Bennet was only one voice, and certainly not the definitive perspective from which to make sense of Pride and Prejudice.

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Jane Bennet and Barack Obama

(or The New Politics)

After apologising for combining Jane Austen with more contemporary, worldly topics in the blog, it would be as well to make an explicit connection. This I will try to do with Barack Obama and his New Politics.

As with practically every philosophical article on this blog it is about how we are losing our minds because we are losing sight of our minds—the modern tendency to fixate on and overemphasise the external play of phenomenon, to the extent that we lose sight of inner, psychological factors, in this case, losing site of the distinction between cynicism and candour.

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A Philosophical Manifesto (Contents)

In this series of articles I explain my own understanding of philosophy and why I think the writings of Jane Austen should be of interest to to anyone interested in modern morality and ethics.

  1. A Philosophical Manifesto
  2. Classical Philosophy
  3. George Berkeley
  4. The Enlightenment
  5. Immanuel Kant
  6. Joseph Butler
  7. David Hume and Jane Austen
  8. A Short Digression: David Hume in Perspective
  9. The Romantics
  10. The Cynics
  11. Postscript (A Personal Anecdote)

    Postscript (A Personal Anecdote)

    A few years I visited The National Portrait Gallery to view the portrait of Jane Austen by her sister. I walked all over the gallery in search of it, until someone pointed out that it was in ground-level display case, and sure enough, once I stopped craning my neck at the grand canvases there was Cassandra’s portrait in front of me.

    The Cynics

    To get a feel for the kind of problems that Austen presents for her critics, consider the Margaret Oliphant (1870) review, an article prompted by the publication of the Austen-Leigh (1870) memoir, triggering as it did the resurgence of interest in Austen that continues to the present.

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    The Romantics

    “I did not know before,” continued Bingley immediately, “that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study.”

    “Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage.”

    “The country,” said Darcy, “can in general supply but a few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society.”

    “But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”

    “Yes, indeed,” cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. “I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.”

    Pride and Prejudice (9.15)

    It is difficult not to understand this interchange between Elizabeth and Darcy as an anticipation of the debate within Austen criticism as to whether the restriction of her range reflected a limitation of the novelist, and—more to the point—whether this limitation should be reflected in the novels’ status in the canon. This debate will no doubt run and run, but there can be little doubt that this was a choice of Austen’s, a reflection of the judgement that the middle-range rural domestic arena—the familiar and the universal—was the place to be. And it has provoked a reaction from the Romantics reminiscent of Mrs Bennet’s, Charlotte Brontë’s witty response to George Henry Lewes’s provocations speaking for many:

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    A Short Digression: David Hume in Perspective

    David Hume was a great writer and a great philosopher but this doesn’t mean that he produced perfect philosophy. Two of the best assessments I have seen are one by William Russell (see What is Enlightenment?) and Gilbert Ryle.

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