Passionate Thinking

by Mark English

I want to say something about political and social commitments. In order to make the points I want to make, I will sketch out my own political and social views (and how they have changed) and refer to the views of Isaiah Berlin. But I am also making some general claims about human values and critical thinking.

My views (not surprisingly) have shifted over time, and I flatter myself that they are somewhat more developed now than they were in the past. Nonetheless, that beautiful old phrase, ‘through a glass, darkly’, still seems to apply. Another image that comes to mind is that of a kaleidoscope.

Is it that the world has changed, or have I? Both, of course. But I don’t think my underlying values have altered much.

Once I was quite relaxed about having (something I didn’t set out to have, but which I slowly recognized to be) a fairly standard, Western, conservative view of the world. America and its World War 2 allies were basically good. They/we had done some bad things in the past (e.g. the bombing of Dresden and, of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki) but these were, if not justifiable, then aberrations (i.e. they were not characteristic or typical).

In the post-war period, America had been, again, despite some further moral ‘aberrations’ (certain bombing and other operations in Indochina come to mind), basically a force for good in the world. I was inclined at least to keep an open mind about various controversial covert operations. Realpolitik was just the political manifestation of common sense.

Underlying my outlook was a Hobbesian view that peace does not always come naturally and needs to be maintained by a strong sovereign power. This I still believe.

But something has definitely changed. I am less sure of things now. In particular, I no longer believe that the particular grouping with which I identified and towards which I felt a degree of loyalty (‘the free world’) had right on its side; that its causes were basically just and basically good (even if various actors – including the US – did bad things from time to time). This particular myth just no longer works for me.

What probably started my doubts was a brute reality rather than a moral fact, namely America’s decline, which I first began to take real notice of in the early 2000s. As government debt increased and the political system started (apparently) to break down and political views polarized in very ugly ways and as other countries (especially in Asia) gained confidence and gathered momentum and as prosperity spread to previously impoverished regions, it became clear that American dominance was rapidly waning. I think it was this that initially jolted me out of my previous views and led me to reassess the past as well as the present.

There was also a Chinese woman to whom I became quite close and in whom I saw a different kind of conservatism from my own (or my father’s from whom mine probably derived). For one thing, it was anti-American. Her father had been a national hero at the time of the Korean War and rose to the rank of general. Her mother was an opera singer and her maternal grandmother (from whom my friend received much of her education) had been a concubine in the old China.

She was an unusual person. As a young gymnast, she had convinced herself that she could fly and jumped off a fairly high balcony. Not too high, fortunately, but she was injured. No drugs were involved, I assure you. Her culture, a strange mixture of traditional, revolutionary and martial elements, was almost Puritanical.

Anyway, these varied influences – and others, related to my learning more about mid-20th century European thought and history – caused my ideological kaleidoscope to turn.

Shortly before his death, Isaiah Berlin was asked by a Polish researcher about the meaning of life: “Those who seek for some deep, cosmic, all-embracing, teleologically arguable libretto or god are, believe me, pathetically deluded,” Berlin remarked. [1]

And, as there is no privileged cosmic libretto, so there is no privileged social or political one. Berlin’s kaleidoscopic vision reflected this conviction also.

He was a complex man and a complex and (above all) passionate thinker. As Christopher Hitchens put it: “Fearing that English liberalism on its own was too diffuse and benign and insipid, [Berlin] tried to inject it with a dose of passionate intensity, much of it necessarily borrowed from some rather illiberal sources.” [2]

Always opposed to fanaticism and revolutionary violence, he was fascinated by certain 19th-century radical thinkers (e.g. Herzen, Sorel). He was also a Zionist of sorts, but he distanced himself both from the secular zealots and their Orthodox counterparts. His vision was clearer than theirs, and his loyalty was ultimately to a broader constituency.

Loyalty is at the heart of things, both in personal and political life. The crucial question is: loyalty to whom, or to what?

To certain values, first of all, I would say, values which one typically sees as being embodied in certain individuals or groups. What I have realized is the tenuousness of the link between values (which persist) and the individuals and groups with which these values are – often quite arbitrarily – identified.

I’m not saying that social ideals can exist in the abstract, apart from actual individuals and actual groups. But any such identification should never be more than provisional. There is a world of difference between taking sides in an ideologically open manner, which involves keeping one’s critical senses alive, and taking sides in a merely political or social way so that the party or the nation or a particular ideology or ideologue becomes the cause.

I don’t know that I can satisfactorily describe the social vision or ideal that drives me. It’s a personal thing and I would probably need to draw on certain literary or cinematic sources to make it plain, books and films which others may not have read or seen. Unfortunately (from my perspective), it just happens to be an ideal which is not celebrated in contemporary Western culture.

I value self-control, a balance between asceticism and sensuality, a non-religious (or anti-religious) stance, good manners, self-reliance, intellectual curiosity, passion – and compassion (and practical help) for those who cannot cope.

I am generally repelled by contemporary progressive thought, by feminism (which all too often is mean-spirited and driven by resentment), and by the current obsession with ‘rights’. The dominant strand of organized secular humanism strikes me as a pale religion-substitute; a watered-down and sentimentalized version of Kantianism or Christianity; a front for progressive politics; a pretext for tedious and superficial moralizing.

These attitudes of mine are largely, no doubt, a function of biological predispositions and a particular upbringing. But the same applies to everyone. The trick is to take one’s deep feelings and intuitions seriously, but not too seriously; to maintain a critical distance. (My dislike of feminism, for example, does not entail a reactionary position or a belief that girls should be discriminated against in terms of education or anything else.)

There is a line in The Book of Revelation which resonates with me: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” Our deepest intuitions give depth and purpose to our lives. As I see it, managing them involves something like the willing suspension of disbelief which allows us to become involved in fictions like movies or plays or novels.

Passionate thoughts can all too easily override our critical faculties. But any form of critical thinking which does not embrace and come to terms with these unconscious drives and feelings is going to be both bland and impotent.


  1. Quoted here:
  1. See his rambling and amusing essay on Berlin: (Roger Scruton calls it “a collage of mischievous gossip, innuendo and self-righteous contempt …”. Enjoy!)


  1. Hi SW, if you didn’t get the point of the article, I’m not sure what I can say that will help you understand. I thought the writing, particularly in that passage, was quite clear.

    As an attempted synopsis, she is exposing portions of a movement that have drifted from advocating empowerment in the face of adversity, to a confused ideological-revolutionary movement identifying normal life realities (having kids, taking care of them, cooking, and god forbid being attracted to a man or enjoying sex with one) as part of the adversity (or symbolic chains to it that must be broken), and finally to an unhelpful escapist driven movement promoting images of women as fragile creatures easily wounded, or already wounded, and so must be protected like small children from real life… the very opposite of empowerment.

    Hi Dan, agree with everything you said (still wonder if Robin ever read Dworkin or met those of her stripe, not friendly), though as a word choice I have nothing against calling Didion’s work clever. To me clever is not a cheap thing, it is something extremely laudable. Maybe thats not how he meant it though. In any case, if you ever see it coming from me remember that I mean it as something positive. Either way, in this case, “devastating” should be included!

  2. Daniel Kaufman,

    There are lots of authoritarian and anti-democratic figures on the left to use as references. How about calling someone Leninist or Fidelista? Neither Lenin or Fidel were democratic, but they were not monsters of the level of Stalin, who is almost in the same league as Hitler. Even the comparatively saintly Trotsky would have had you, me and Noam Chomsky shot. I’m looking forward to reading your blog post about Didion’s apolitical view of human affairs.

  3. Dan, this discussion stimulates me to dig deeper (for which I genuinely thank you); to get a better grasp of the early 60s, when from my POV not much was happening (due to my being a pre-teen and early teen – there was just the Beatles and later the hippies as sentimentally-nicely portrayed in Time-Life pictorials). In the late 60s, I took things at face value from the standpoint of a so-so more or less midwestern more or less university. From that POV, the excitement about feminism was 2nd and 3rd hand, and much altered towards common sense, and away from the Marxian search for an “oppressed class” to form the vanguard of the revolution. I think that is the feminism that most people knew then**, and were affected by – much to the good I think – not the hothouse variety of early 60s elite universities, and those who continue to play at extremism in the groves of academe. I know the latter today mostly by exposure to “feminist epistemology”. There is the funny idea, bred by universities that will turn any notion into a department/doctoral program that where there’s something to talk about there must be theory, and and an arena for “theory” as competitive sport — I suspect the economics of ideas in such domains is somewhat similar to that in the comments sections of,,, etc. — some combination of entertainment value and extremism for its own sake (and for its entertainment value) reigns supreme.

    ** Call it the feminism of Marlo Thomas and Murphy Brown rather than Dworkin and MacKinnon, probably devoid of anything Joan Didion would recognize as an “idea”.

    So I’m trying to dig deeper and have read Didion’s article, and added Play it as it Lays and the Port Huron statement to my very long remedial education list. And I’ve taken a look at Dworkin and MacKinnon, but they seem merely mostly anti-pornography fanatics, and to confound that with Stalinism suggests you like to use the word but have no real familiarity with the actual historical Stalin (as does the phrase “Stalinist (without the murdering, of course)”. Maybe we should add “Reductio ad Stalinum” to our dictionary as synonym of “Reductio ad Hitlerum”.

    I suspect you give ideas too much credit. They are very important, of course, but so are action strategies, and even manners (I think Edmund Burke would agree) such as the willingness to verbally strategically demonize those who are not so far from you in ideas (say, sharing basic American democratic/republican principles) but whom you need to get out of the way in order to grasp the reigns of power++ While Gingrich’s ideas may not be that distinguished or consistent, I consider him a fantastically successful engineer of divisiveness, which makes the comparison to Stalin not completely ridiculous. He has had a big impact on the U.S., even if he’s a bit of a has-been now.

    ++ So, making sure Bolsheviks are not on speaking terms with Mensheviks, and Republicans not on speaking terms with Democrats — yes I know that was Lenin, but he created the atmosphere in which Stalin became a virtuoso.

    Dworkin and MacKinnon seem to me in the thrall of their sincere if wrongheaded beliefs, and not at all strategic, and it looks to me like they’re created little more than a tempest in a teapot, though if you’re swimming around in that teapot, it may look like and awfully big tempest. I think they will always be of more interest to hold them up as iconic representations of the “enemy” than to any potential allies. A few dozen or maybe a few hundred feminist “theorists” will continue to spin their fantastic fabrics of “theory” — their thinking having so little real solidity that they may be hoisted on their own petard by an Alan Sokol***

    ***Alan Sokol: Author of the article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the journal Social Text

  4. dbholmes,

    Precisely, my point is that Didion exaggerates the negative elements in the U.S. feminist movement, at least the U.S. feminist movement as I knew it in 1972. Wasn’t the chief slogan of the movement “Sisterhood is powerful”, that is, precisely about empowerment through collective action?

    In fact, I think that one of the greatest achievements of the feminist movement was to point out that what you call “normal life realities”, house care, childcare and heterosexual relationships, often (not always) contained elements which oppressed woman or were structured in such ways that the flourishing of women was less likely than that of males.

    Today my only contacts with feminists in the U.S. have been through certain blogs (since I live in Chile and visit the U.S. very infrequently) and those experiences have been mixed. So I’m defending U.S. feminism in 1972, the subject of Didion’s article, not U.S. feminism in 2015, although, let me be clear, I’m not criticizing U.S. feminism in 2015, merely refraining from commenting on it for lack of sufficient data. However, almost all the Chilean women I know well self-identify as feminists and I support their feminism, which may have some cultural differences from U.S. feminism today, completely.

  5. Hal: I am quite sensitive to the things you are talking about, as my parents are Holocaust survivors, my mother having been in Bergen Belsen. That said, is not uncommon to refer to anti-free speech and “thought control” types as “Stalinists,” just as it is quite common to refer to uber-Right wingers as “fascists.” Thess are just common, political colloquialisms.

    MacKinnon has argued that all heterosexual sex is rape. There is a lot more radicalism there, beyond her anti-porn lunacy. And as a very powerful law professor, there most certainly was an agenda there — it certainly was, as you put it, strategic.

  6. Hal Morris really points to something important: that something went awry with feminism when it ceased to be an “outsider” or counter-cultural movement and became institutionalized in the universities.

  7. S. Wallerstein wrote:

    In fact, I think that one of the greatest achievements of the feminist movement was to point out that what you call “normal life realities”, house care, childcare and heterosexual relationships, often (not always) contained elements which oppressed woman or were structured in such ways that the flourishing of women was less likely than that of males.


    This is exactly the sort of thing that Didion most effectively skewers in the article. And it is exactly what the movement feminists *did not* want feminism to become. So, it seems to me that you continue to misunderstand the essay entirely.

    Just last year, a feminist activist in my class called me a “rape apologist” for raising doubts about the “1 in 4” statistic (i.e. 1 in 4 college females are raped). And even the most casual perusal of the current public discussion of these issues will reveal that this sort of vicious, slanderous invective is not rare, but typical. Just read two weeks worth of the articles and comments on a massively trafficked feminist site like Jezebel and you’ll see this sort of thing constantly.

    When Feminism is about the right to vote, own property, obtain a divorce — i.e. have real autonomy over one’s own life — it is something that no decent person could disagree with. But the sort of thing that Didion rightly, accurately, devastatingly criticizes is not something that can withstand any sort of sustained, reasonable scrutiny, unless one has already drank the entire swimming pool’s worth of Sixties Kool-Aid and its even sillier Millennial variety.

    So, no, being in heterosexual relationships — i.e. some 97% of all relationships — is not, de facto, being oppressed. Doing your freaking laundry or washing dishes is not being oppressed. Having some idiot on a construction site whistle at you is not being oppressed. My mother spent a year in Bergen Belsen and came out weighing 80 pounds, with double pneumonia. My great aunt had to prostitute herself in Auschwitz to stay alive. *They* were oppressed. But never once have I heard them describe laundry or cooking or being heterosexual in such terms. And that’s because unlike Gloria Steinem or Shulamith Firestone, they actually knew what real oppression looks like. And they are too honest (and thus, too embarrassed) to talk such rubbish and nonsense.

  8. Hi SW, not sure if I can reply still or not, and apologies if this gets through and you can’t respond.

    To be honest I don’t know exactly how large the contingent was that Didion addressed in 1972. I can only say that historically they existed and had some effect as by the 80’s I definitely had to contend with them. And have been ever since, though thankfully there has been pushback.

    Thus her criticism was spot on, and a real concern, whether she was addressing a small percentage of the movement at the time or not. If anything, if you’re claim is true, her words were prescient for the ascent of these ideas. She spotted the threat early. That makes her work more impressive, not less.

    And in your comment to Hal, yes it got worse when it entered the university (and adopted by general culture). That is part of the long path that I was talking about, connecting these elements of 2nd wave feminism to what we see in society today.

    I think that one of the greatest achievements of the feminist movement was to point out that what you call “normal life realities”, house care, childcare and heterosexual relationships, often (not always) contained elements which oppressed woman or were structured in such ways that the flourishing of women was less likely than that of males.

    On that we are in complete disagreement. What I call normal life realities? I remain confused what world you are speaking about where house care, childcare, and heterosexual relationships are not the inherent realities of normal life.

    That some societies end up with common expectations limiting women to doing only those things, is a given. Didion’s point is that no woman, once they had rights which they did by that time, had to accept that fate. And so viewing such work as inherently connected to oppression and viewing women who enjoyed such things as living a lesser life or not flourishing was ridiculous.

    I can think of many achievements of feminism, foisting this delusion of life as man-created manacles comes nowhere close to its greatest.

    Hi Hal, I’m not going to debate semantics and so the validity of calling some Stalinist. I can only say that they were into “purges” of women from the movement, and treating women who argued against them as traitors or brainwashed tools or both. They were/are a nasty bit of work. And as Dan pointed out they were not just against pornography, though that in itself (and the reasons they gave) reveals problems in their beliefs. That they sided with religious conservatives in that fight (to my mind) was the first major step toward where we are today. But if you want to read some real man-hating, read Solanas’s SCUM manifesto.

    A few dozen or maybe a few hundred feminist “theorists” will continue to spin their fantastic fabrics of “theory” — their thinking having so little real solidity that they may be hoisted on their own petard by an Alan Sokol

    Well, I thought Didion did a find job deconstructing them herself, well before Sokol!

    The problem is that at this point there are parts of their delusions that are so ingrained in western culture, especially US, that the appearance of solidity defies Sokol-like dispelling. I can only point to Wallerstein’s quote I cite above.

  9. … More and more we have been hearing the wishful voices of … perpetual adolescents, the voices of women scarred by resentment not of their class position as women but at the failure of their childhood expectations and misapprehensions.

    What interests me particularly in Joan Didion’s essay is the emphasis on resentment. The theorists of the movement were seeking to turn their own politicized resentments and other women’s often dormant or half-felt personal resentments into a force for radical political change. But, as Didion points out, the radical politicizing process didn’t quite work out as intended.

    Attention was finally being paid, and yet that attention was mired in the trivial. Even the brightest movement women found themselves engaged in sullen public colloquies about the inequities of dishwashing and the intolerable humiliations of being observed by construction workers on Sixth Avenue.

    They totted up the pans scoured, the towels picked off the bathroom floor, the loads of laundry done in a lifetime. Cooking a meal could only be “dogwork,” and to claim any pleasure from it was evidence of craven acquiescence in one’s own forced labor. Small children could only be odious mechanisms for the spilling and digesting of food, for robbing women of their “freedom.” It was a long way from Simone de Beauvoir’s grave and awesome recognition of woman’s role as “the Other” to the notion that the first step in changing that role was Alix Kates Shulman’s marriage contract (“wife strips beds, husband remakes them”) …

    Of course this litany of trivia was crucial to the movement in the beginning, a key technique in the politicizing of women who perhaps had been conditioned to obscure their resentments even from themselves.

    The politicization process stalled, as Didion puts it, leaving just the naked resentment – or other negative emotions.

    More and more, as the literature of the movement began to reflect the thinking of women who did not really understand the movement’s ideological base, one had the sense of this stall, this delusion, the sense that the drilling of the theorists had struck only some psychic hardpan dense with superstitions and little sophistries, wish-fulfillment, self-loathing and bitter fancies.

    Strong stuff.

    I look forward to Dan’s piece on Didion.

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