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'I will be as modest as possible': A brief foray

In my experience it is rare to come across a book that is entirely without merit; rarer still that I would actually own one. At worst, some books qualify as being almost completely useless, without quite going all the way. Even the stupidest book I’ve ever read, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse (1997), written by the five-foot-tall, super-conceited, ultra-reactionary, Indian-born Anglophile Nirad Chaudhuri, provides some useful insight into how political thinking works in the absence of intelligence. (Chaudhuri has a chapter to himself in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, which I guess makes sense).

Luckily, I've been able to extract something, even if it is something small, from all the books I own. 
L. T. Hobhouse’s Social Evolution and Political Theory (1911), which I ordered via Abebooks late last year, is on the whole not a satisfactory book. This is mainly due to its datedness. The lengthiest chapter is a very mild critique of eugenics that gives the impression that either Ho…
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On Adam Gopnik's A Thousand Small Sanities

In reading and thinking about Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (2019), I am reminded of a line from Richard Rorty’s review of a very different kind of book, Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1983). Rest assured I don’t have a photographic memory of every review-essay published in the 1980s by The London Review of Books; I just happen to have read this one a couple of times, mainly because it’s Rorty and he’s never dull. Besides, if you can get through a thunderously difficult (and Germanic) tome such as The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, washing it down with a bit of Rorty doesn’t hurt. Anyway, the line in question was Rorty’s belief that Blumenberg’s treatise (which I’ll avoid a summary of for mental health reasons) championed those ‘whose highest hopes are still those of Mill’.

Rorty for one was adamant that however large or small a group there was that regarded Mill as their hero, this group needed a shelf of books that gu…

Thoughts on the 2019 Australian Election

There's a fine line between analysing something and simply complaining about it. I hope that the following, which was penned in a rush the day after the election, doesn't veer too much into the latter.

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With the re-election of the Liberal government now sinking in, we are hearing the oft-repeated but perhaps not entirely comprehended observation that Australia is in fact a deeply conservative country. This fact has never been intuitively obvious for me, because I’m from and live in the most progressive part of the country. My family, education, workplace and the bulk of my acquaintances reflect a tacit left-wing consensus on social and political issues. Australia being conservative is something I understand only in an abstract, intellectual sense. The reaction a lot of people in my area are having to the 2019 election is reminiscent of the wealthy socialite’s reaction to George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election: how could he have been elected, I don’t know anyone who voted for him! I…

What is the liberal temperament? The case of Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston College and Adlai Stevenson-style liberal, had a family connection to Dwight Macdonald growing up, the exact nature of which isn’t clear. He revealed this factoid during a lecture commemorating the 50-year anniversary of Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), which Macdonald helped popularise through a monograph-length review in The New Yorker (the transcript of Wolfe’s speech was reprinted in The Chronicle of Higher Education). This connection of Wolfe to a figure who formed part of that famous group known as the NYPIs – New York public intellectuals – makes the job of describing Wolfe’s output a bit easier. His writing is in that ‘not quite scholarship, not quite journalism’ genre that resembles what was produced in the era of ‘little magazines’ from the 1920s to the 1960s of which Macdonald was a prominent, if flaky, contributor.



Although a lifelong academic, most of Wolfe’s output has been in the form of book re…

In defence of wonks

The most recent contribution to The Baffler, ‘Eat Your Chart Out’ (Jan 2, 2019) by Jon Greenaway, highlights a phenomenon I was not in any way aware of, namely the prolific use of dubious charts and graphs by online right-wing commentators. These are used without much statistical nuance to demonstrate that the positions of Trumpian demagogues have scientific validity. One embarrassingly awful example outlines that reading fiction more than non-fiction leads to people to vote Democrat, while reading non-fiction over fiction leads to voting Republican. The piece is entertaining for the most part, but towards the end Greenaway highlights another group that is overly fond of the use of charts: centrist liberals.

The wonkish liberal crowd loves information, and devoutly fetishizes facts and smart graphs that can reduce the complexities of political reality into banal platitudinous data points. In this narrow compass of wonkery, matters like survival under the pressures of late capitalism ca…

Maybe just a little bit obsessed...

Philosopher and intellectual-of-quite-a-few trades Joseph Heath hasn’t found the time recently to post anything to his blog In Due Course (well, not his blog as such, but a blog he regularly contributes to). I’m not paranoid enough to think that this is because I left a very ill-tempered comment on his most recent post all the way back in May. But still...anything is possible.

But luckily he hasn’t been completely off the radar, giving this keynote speaker address at a Canadian college in the beginning of October and in the process dropping the real reason for his absence from his blog (he's writing a book on climate change): 




It’s only been viewed about a hundred times, and the one comment amusingly notes that Heath is a much better writer than a speaker. It is true that Heath talks a lot like a highly enthusiastic IT service officer, and he did drop the interesting biographical detail that he was interested in AI design when he was still in his “anarchist phase”. (This certainly e…

Books I had a hard time putting down

There are some books where even getting through the publisher’s blurb is a chore. Others you discover in the first ten or twenty pages are not worth reading. Within the category of books that you end up having a good relationship with, however, it is possible to create sub-categories and/or rankings. This is because while you get to read many interesting books in a lifetime, there are a select few that are unusually stimulating and pleasurable all the way through.

It's been possible for me over the years to extract many great ideas, insights, observations, facts and general information from books that nonetheless had dull, forgettable and even disagreeable passages. As an example, recently I’ve been reading quite a bit about the welfare-state capitalist model favoured by social democratic parties in the twentieth century. While there’s a lot of great stuff in these books – stuff that allows me to call myself a social democrat with some understanding of what that means – I can’t sa…