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!)







60 responses to “Passionate Thinking”

  1. I’m not going to comment on either Berlin or Hitchens (although I expect others will, leading to considerable contention).

    I will first remark my own roller-coaster ride over the American political spectrum, and see how my resolutions compare with your own.

    In my middle- teens, I was actually a Young Nixonian. I campaigned for him, attended a speech he delivered where I lived, wrote letters to the editor, etc. As his presidency unfolded, certain behaviors of his administration became difficult to defend; but I was still willing to make the effort, and always tried to see things through the eyes of the more interesting conservatives of the day, like Buckley.

    It was the killings at Kent State – or rather, Nixon’s entirely callous response to these – that led to a ‘180’ in my thinking. Political expediency could not excuse such callousness; and what if the demonstrators had been right all along? A year of reading sources I had long spurned led me to become something of a Yippie – at least Abbie Hoffman knew how to tell a good joke, which Nixon never did.

    The Yippie position was of course a political fad and unsustainable; but its historical antecedent, social anarchism, seemed to have strong reasoning to it, and a more powerful social critique.

    Nonetheless, by the late ’80s, this position also appeared to be untenable, because clear distinctions between anarchism and libertarianism were difficult to maintain. At the time I was reading deeply into Dewey, and he persuaded me to social democracy – or, rather, democratic socialism. This seemed a reasonable counter to the deregulated excesses of Reaganism.

    I won’t go into my responses to the Bush II regime and its disastrous invasion of Iraq; rather I note my disappointment with the American people, some 85% of whom that invasion, however misled. But I will say that this disappointment and many other disappointments since, have left me utterly pessimistic as to the potential progress we can see here. It doesn’t matter which social theory we adopt, the American people are going to go ahead making the mistakes any citizens of empire would.

    So I have adopted a strange position, politically; while remaining critical on some issues, cautiously optimistic on others, my general position is one of detachment from the show as a whole. Humans are as they are, and making blunders is what they do.

    Consequently, while I respect – even admire – your call to find the passions that move us (giving them careful critical attention to maintain balance), my own view is that “Passionate thoughts can all too easily override our critical faculties,” is a greater danger than finding ways to quiet such passions and live a decent life without.

    I’ve run down too many dead ends in life; I’d rather meditate on the other lemmings, at least for a while.

  2. Hi Mark. This is very interesting and refreshingly human and candid. I’d like to write a book in response, but can only manage an impressionistic rant, trying to convey a chapter’s worth in its impressionistic ranty way, perhaps to be followed by another and another if the gods of Electric Agora will allow.

    I’ll start off with piecemeal reactions “America and its World War 2 allies were basically good.” Does that include Stalin or was there some sort of mental lapse when you wrote that?

    Isaiah Berlin, etc. Much to admire there. Foxes and Hedgehogs – very useful concept, though Francis Bacon addressed the distinction in New Organon, and when I finally read the piece, after listening to War and Peace in preparation, it made me wonder what had sold the concept so well.

    The ever so sincere 19c Russian intelligentsia, including Herzen, a fine novelistic portrait of his traipsing around the world making a soap opera with his two wives or something like that. When you think a world is built on a set of propositions rather than the organic sort of stuff it really is made of – you start questioning the propositions, and may soon become comically disoriented.

    Then there were the Anarchists a great exemplar of the “get rid of the bad guys and all will be well” philosophy, later practiced differently by GWB in Iraq. We don’t need no steenkin’ state building because the state is the problem. The anarchists, having very limited means, went around assassinating Czars, presidents, and others, having no idea what to do next other than make other people believe what they believed.

    I read a good shelf full of books on the USSR. Stephen F. Cohen’s Bukharin and the Bolshevic Revolution set me off – quite a revelation. When a revolution murders 95-99% of its founders as happened by the 30s, one questions the idea that the cause is a bunch of overzealous do-gooders. If ones exposure is to deputized peasants and factory workers taught a simple notion of what they were up to, taking over 90% of your house and letting you live in the remaining 10%, the sort of thing Ayn Rand remembered, or visionary academic dupes of Stalin with their pure visions, one can think such a thing (“overzealous do-gooders”), but you weren’t in the heart of the beast.

    Or you can believe in the myth of Totalitarianism as a belief system- you think maybe they were 99% do-gooders who unfortunately had a belief system that said you should put one man in charge. No, totalitarianism is a perfect storm – a combination of once in a century chaos and power vacuum and one cunning monster who always knows what to do next to confound potential rivals, and a rising crescendo of violence that will one way or another destroy itself in the long run. Maybe North Korea is the one example of it stabilizing into a 1984-like environment.

    Belief systems are not what they seem to be. Yes they are belief systems, sort of. There are texts that make them look very tidy and like a set of propositions, but they are also evolving social dynamics. John Foster Dulles was clueless as he carried around his well worn copy of Stalin’s Problems of Leninism. Everything changes, as when Stalin died, but no one dares to change the incantations that have defined the system for years. It is not in the Kremlin’s interest to let the West know how it has changed, and anyway, they don’t dare try to grasp the change. The party has conquered the anti-party group. The party has exempted itself and is no longer living in terror, so the relax and do what people in power have always done – start grooming their worthless children for high positions, and those not in that class have little chance. They get lazy, and eventually tolerate people leaving their workplaces with their jackets left on their chair backs to give the impression they’re just around the corner. A trove of bitter jokes is building up.

  3. ejwinner

    You have an intriguing political history. I think we probably differ in two main respects. I have never really been attracted to socialism, democratic or otherwise (though my religious convictions as a very young man did push me towards something like social democracy for a time). I have never been much attracted to Dewey, and my undergraduate introduction to Marx’s early writings was taught from an essentially anti-Marxist perspective (by an Hungarian emigré).

    I’m half with you on detachment from politics. What I’m passionate about are personal rather than specifically political values. Am quite ambivalent about politics, actually, and certainly opposed to making some kind of pseudo-religion out of it.

  4. Hi Hal

    “I’ll start off with piecemeal reactions “America and its World War 2 allies were basically good.” Does that include Stalin or was there some sort of mental lapse when you wrote that?”

    Mental lapse. I wasn’t thinking of Russia actually. The general gist of what you’re saying – certainly about the grotesque nature of Stalinism (and what preceded and followed it) – I agree with. Haven’t quite got a clear picture of your wider point of view, so will wait for a bit of elucidation before replying further.

  5. s. wallerstein

    Mark English,

    You say that you are “generally repelled” by feminism. Feminism is a very varied phenomenon, ranging from mainstream organizations to very extreme radical groups, which come in different varieties too. Are you “generally repelled” by all varieties of feminism or only by the extreme radical ones?

    You also claim that feminist groups are resentful. Well, a very common reaction to being oppressed is becoming resentful. As W.H. Auden says, “those to whom evil is done/do evil in return”. I suppose that it would be wonderful if feminists were more saintly and reacted to their oppression with the saintliness of Martin Luther King, but since we males have oppressed, raped, harassed and objectified them for thousands of years, it seems that we males can be a bit more understanding and not expect them to react to their situation with a smile. It may be that you personally are a model of non-sexist conduct with women, but you can’t expect feminists upon first running into you to realize that and thus, they are likely to blame you (and me) for all the wrongs that they have suffered.

  6. Hume had the right intuition that it all begins with the passions. At the same time he drew back from those driven by passion and extreme ideological positions (the religious fanatics of his time and the previous century).

    D’Amasion (Descartes’ Error) argued through a clinical case study and much neurological detail that the intellect cut off from passion is like a magnificent piece of machinery, but the operator has no idea what to do and just makes random fits and starts.

    An intellect without passion can make up a rule like “do whatever yields the most pleasure”, or relief of stress, or some such, and think, as B.F. Skinner did, that that will somehow shape you into a human being. Principals stated as maximizations are so alluring because the goal is so easy to grasp, even though how to get there is anything but.

    I am all into passion but like Hume, deny my passion any access to a tidy ideological principal. I wonder what your favorite movies are, Mark – you hinted that that way leads to some clues to what drives you. Some of mine are W. R., Mysteries of the Organism (a small door prize if anyone has hear of it), Funny Bones, Tampopo. Things that have the quality of an epic journey, and/or operatic over-the-topness, combined with deep hilarity.

    Quite a bit of my political philosophy in a nutshell:
    The kernel of truth in postmodernism, with its obsession with the modern “gaze” and “master narratives” is, if you look at the world from a Gods-eye point of view (as the universal observer as opposed to just you – in whatever weak position you happen to be in) — whatever solutions you may think of to the worlds problems will tend to start with “STEP 1: Get control of everything”. Step 2 may be “Nationalize all wealth”, or it may be “Reduce government to the functions of preventing crime and enforcing contracts”, but you will never get to step 2, but be stuck making a mess of step 1 forever.

  7. Mark, not only is the essay good, but it provides an outstanding opportunity to hear everyone’s political/ideological stories, and they are fascinating to read.

    I didn’t grow up in a home that was heavily political or ideological. It was a very Jewish home, but not in a religious sense, though we did celebrate all the major holidays together. It certainly was a Zionist hiome — my father is of the founding generation in Israel and was in both the Haganah and the first IDF, during the War of Independence, and my mother came to Israel as a refugee, from Bergen Belsen. If there was anything resembling a “passionate commitment” in my house it was to the Jewish people and to Israel, and Hebrew was the main language spoken in our house, until I got older, and then it was about 50% of what was spoken.

    This commitment is one that has largely stuck with me and has not changed much.

    Politically, in High School, I was largely a liberal. College began to see my move to the political Right and it was mostly in reaction to the early manifestations of American-style political correctness and identity politics, which I found utterly repellant. Campus activists are the people who initially shoved me into the arms of the Right.

    In graduate school — and living in New York city for almost a decade — intellectually I found myself become enamored with high culture and with the Western tradition of arts and letters. This became the “positive” substance of my conservatism and remains to this day.

    It led to conservative activism within the academy. I founded a chapter of the National Association of Scholars at CUNY, and our group was actually quite successful in pushing through a number of reforms. In the middle of all this, I decided I wanted to make a go at establishing myself in the movement, and approached William F. Buckley, Jr. to do a column on New York, for National Review. After being invited to lunch with the editors and pitching the idea, I had my own column, called “New York Journal,” which would run for about two years. I was 26 years old.

    My abandonment of the movement happened gradually. A falling out in National Review caused my column to be cut — only to be resurrected a year later, under a slightly different name, and this time penned by one of their Senior Editors. A series of brutal letters that I sent to Buckley burnt my bridges over there. Once I had my PhD and was a professor in Missouri, I tried to use my connections in the movement to obtain the Headmaster’s position at Hillsdale’ College’s preperatory school. But all the work I’d done in the movement had been for nothing. Not a single one of my connections lifted a single finger to help me.

    Mark talks about loyalty, which is one of my highest ranking values. I am tremendously loyal to those to whom I’ve become close, either personally or through work or common cause, and I take any breach of that loyalty as grave to the point of being unpardonable. The conservatives had shown me no loyatly, even after I’d done years of work in the movement, and so, I was done with them.

    There was, however, another factor. Much of the substance of my conservatism really was a kind of cultural and aesthetic traditionalism. I never was on board with the gay-hate. I never liked the religious Right, which is largelly Low-Church and philistine. I always hated the populist wing. But all of this was easy to ignore, in the sort of conservatism one found in New York city, in the circles in which I was running. It was moving to southwest Missouri that made me realize that my conservatism was really a kind of High Church Toryism and was completely alien to the mainline conservatism in the US. Beyond my personal sense of betrayal, regarding the movement, this is what really put the final nail in the coffin of my affiliation.

    Since then, I have flirted with varieties of leftism, but always find myself returning to classical liberalism. It strikes me as the worst political philosophy, except for all the others.

    I find myself becoming less and less interested in politics, however, as well as in generalist modes of thinking. In philosophy, my early taste was for grand systems and big abstractions, and now it is for Ordinary Language philosophy and the philosophy of common sense. I have less and less patience for theoretical approaches to ethics and morals and for the application of moral frameworks to run-of-the-mill human affairs. I find myself focusing more and more on what Joan Didion called “the personal” and the particular and less and less on the political, the ideological, the principled and the general. Indeed, I have been reading a lot of Didion over the last half decade or so and have found in her very much a kindred spirit on many levels.

  8. My childhood was an exercise in exposure to ideological and cultural polarities from an early age. I will be 53 in less than a month. My mom has always been and continues to be a social and political activist from a left-wing perspective. She recently received a local ‘woman of peace’ award. My dad attended Woodstock, but less than gradually became more and more conservative over the years. He passed away 4 years ago, but for the last 20 or so years of his life he was a pretty extreme stereotypical example of the angry/fearful NRA gun toting minority hating Dick Cheyney supporting version of conservatism.

    Needless to say my mom dad divorced before I entered 3rd grade and moved us to a poor minority neighborhood as it fit her ideology, and it also was all she could afford on her day care directors salary. My dad who was a school psychologist was not good with child support payments (I have a biological brother and sister and an adopted brother), but he was devoted to taking us one weekday and every other weekend. At my moms I got used to being the only white kid on the basketball courts where I spent most of my hours. At 5′ 9 I had to earn my respect. Our high school also served a rough working class Italian and Polish neighborhood (where my brother would find the toughest guys to friend for protection) across the bridge. I generally became accepted in many communities while also in many ways always feeling like an outsider. Living through the crack epidemic next door to a crack house I saw my share of racism, bigotry and violence from multiple perspectives.

    With my dad who was a hunter and fisherman we would often go out into the adirondack wilderness in upstate NY near the Canadian border. He didn’t plan and we had a couple close calls spending a lost night in a snowstorm with no tent and almost getting stuck on a mountain with no way to climb back down. I also spent a good deal of time on a working dairy and corn and vegetable farm where my moms parents lived and worked.

    Unlike pretty much every one else in my family (other than my dad) I am an introvert personality by nature. I think my childhood combined with that trait to lead to a pretty strong sense of independence. I never took on any of mannerisms of those in my predominant neighborhood.

    I always respected my moms commitments, and still do and greatly respect her intent.I lean liberal on most issues but like others here much of the kneejerk response to issues along with the group think and inability to be receptive to considering alternative views has turned me cold to politics. Sometimes I feel like I should be more politically active ( I do vote, and try to have discussions when I think some is more knowlegeable or open to hearing a different view), but I find hard to give a commitment to cause when those leading the charge take an approach that is so foreign to me.

  9. s.wallerstein

    “Feminism is a very varied phenomenon, ranging from mainstream organizations to very extreme radical groups, which come in different varieties too. Are you “generally repelled” by all varieties of feminism or only by the extreme radical ones?”

    It would have been less provocative for me to have specified “extreme radical” feminism. And in fact two or three close personal encounters (each extending over more than a decade) with extreme radical feminists have influenced my views on the matter. But my point could also be seen to apply to any feminists who take the sort of line you describe…

    “I suppose that it would be wonderful if feminists were more saintly and reacted to their oppression with the saintliness of Martin Luther King, but since we males have oppressed, raped, harassed and objectified them for thousands of years, it seems that we males can be a bit more understanding and not expect them to react to their situation with a smile. It may be that you personally are a model of non-sexist conduct with women, but you can’t expect feminists upon first running into you to realize that and thus, they are likely to blame you (and me) for all the wrongs that they have suffered.”

    I don’t expect saintliness, just the sensibleness which the vast majority of women and girls seem to have no trouble achieving.

    The kinds of resentment you talk about are deliberately fostered, I believe, for political ends. And it may be that the ends justify the means, but I don’t think so. This sort of attitude can in fact make victims of the victims and poison people’s lives.

    I’ve got nothing against – in fact I admire – those who over the years have worked to improve the lot of women and girls, and of other groups who have been discriminated against. What I am opposed to is feminist ideology (and other forms of identity politics).

  10. Hal

    I think I might agree with you about the kernel of truth in postmodernism. (Pity postmodernists often have a very distorted view of science.)

    I too have a high regard for Antonio Damasio. I particularly enjoyed his book, Looking for Spinoza.

    You ask about movies. I don’t know the ones you mention and I wouldn’t really know where to start (or stop) listing those that were important for me. Old films, focussed on the small-scale and the personal mainly. As I said to ejwinner, my strongest values are more personal than political (but the personal projects to the political of course). [Three at random: Victoria in Dover (1954, German-language); A Kid for Two Farthings (1955, Jewish-themed, written by Wolf Mankowitz, dir. by Carol Reed); La nuit de Varennes (1982, includes some marvellous bits, including the symbolism of the king’s cloak).]

  11. I was brought up among, on the one hand, working class Tories and, on the other, middle class swinging voters.

    I was an atheist at 12 and a communist at 14. My Dad cured me of the latter by securing for me as much genuine, up to date Soviet propaganda as he could lay his hands on.

    After that no ‘isms’ made sense to me. Why bother to ask if some idea is right wing or left wing or conservative or liberal? Ask rather if it makes sense.

    I went through a couple of causes, shouted very loudly at at a lot of demos. But I am not really made for passionate intensity. I vote for whatever party seems more likely to do the job properly and against the ones which are going to nibble at our freedom, or de-fund the arts or give our money to pseudo science.

    And , let me say that of all the Feminists that it has, with few exceptions, been my pleasure to know throughout the years, none of them have seemed resentful. I guess in 200 years or so of feminism a few might be resentful, but that will go for any group.

  12. Thanks, Dan (K.), for the vote of confidence.

    I agree that it’s generally a good thing (within limits) to talk about one’s own particular background, and I am always curious about where other people are coming from. I remember the writer William Somerset Maugham saying something along these lines. He would draw people out in his travels, obviously looking for material for his fiction but also, I think, just out of natural curiosity about human affairs. I read all these accounts (ejwinner’s, Robin Herbert’s, Seth Leon’s …) with interest. And of course your own: I didn’t know most of that.

  13. Robin

    “… let me say that of all the Feminists that it has, with few exceptions, been my pleasure to know throughout the years, none of them have seemed resentful.”

    Fine. But, as you say, there are resentfuI people in any group.

    What I am really concerned about, however, (as I explained in a previous comment) are certain ideologically-driven strands of thinking and, in particular, ‘identity politics’ which is (at least in its current form) a relatively recent phenomenon. My claim (for what it’s worth) is that this general approach typically encourages resentful attitudes.

  14. s. wallerstein

    Mark English,

    Cosmopolitan, skeptical, thoughtful people, the kind both of us probably seek among friends generally aren’t those who do the hard work of changing an unjust society such as ours.

    Those who do the hard, often dirty work of changing an unjust society tend to be dogmatic, self-righteous and often resentful. That kind of energy keeps them going when you and I would probably prefer to read a good book.

    The result is often that revolutionary changes, almost or almost always carried out by dogmatic, self-righteous radicals, are not what they promise to, but on the other hand, without revolutionary changes, we’d all be living in much more unjust society.

  15. Mark, where are you geographically; no idea if it’s UK, US, or something else. I am in New Jersey, brought up in West Virginia, with a few (grad school) years in Columbus Ohio

  16. Hi Mark,

    Identity politics tends to be a reaction to negative identity politics, ie sexism, racism, bigotry against gays. I am not sure how this kind if thing can be countered except by a positive identity politics.

    It is pretty obvious that the major strand of all of these movements were characterised by a refusal to engage in the politics of resentment, for example the emphasis on positive action and empowerment in the civil rights movements of the sixties, the emphasis on “pride” in the gay liberation movement etc. I think that, in general, feminism has been characterised by positive action and empowerment rather than resentment.

    And don’t forget that resentment is often in the eye of the beholder. For example I am sure that there are many who might see your own remarks about feminism as seeming resentful. I am not saying that they are, just that someone reading them uncharitably might think so.

  17. davidlduffy

    I’m afraid my life and politics seem rather boring in comparison, since I work ~300 metres from where I was born; myself and many relatives work in various types of government funded public service or academia, I come from a medical/public health way of thinking about the world (that mixture of paternalism/technocratism with non-judgement and pragmatic harm minimization). I think that attitude is important, because it is the old style Enlightenment ideals of progress still at work, and relatively unsullied, despite the many shortcomings of corporatized medicine.

    The state of Queensland (here where I am writing) had the first Labour government in the world, and has had universal free hospital care since the 1940s, despite a reputation for also being red-necked and conservative. And we’ve had universal free-ish primary care since the 1970s. So you could characterize me as unthinkingly and apathetically leftish in orientation, based on how our institutions worked and work. And cautiously optimistic for the future in a Whiggish way, though we’ll see.

  18. s. wallerstein

    Even if I concede that there is some truth in what you say – and I am happy to do so – there are still a couple of problems (as I see it) about your assumptions.

    For example, you talk about “an unjust society such as ours.” You seem to be implying the real possibility or actuality elsewhere of a society which is not unjust.

    But, though you talk as if there is a dichotomy, I’m sure you’d agree that the institutions of any given society will always be imperfect. And of course there is the problem that ‘justice’ means different things to different people. (Some societies are, I concede, clearly more unjust than others.)

    The other problem I see is that you only talk about revolutionary changes. What about organic, gradual, incremental changes? Are they not often more sustainable in the longer term?

    “… revolutionary changes, almost or almost always carried out by dogmatic, self-righteous radicals, are not what they promise to, but on the other hand, without revolutionary changes, we’d all be living in much more unjust society.”

    Not necessarily. You rightly suggest that there are always unintended consequences. Who is to say that the consequences of any forced or revolutionary changes – even well-intentioned ones – will necessarily be positive?

    I am reminded of the slogan (mentioned in Hitchens’ essay on Berlin) which an Argentinian politician suggested for an imagined political movement which would finally allow Argentina to fulfill its promise as a prosperous and stable country: Moderation or death!

  19. Hal, you ask about my geographical location and (implicitly) where I was brought up and educated. Currently living in Melbourne, Australia. I was raised and got most of my education (to Master’s level) in Perth. PhD from Monash University.

    As you might have gathered from the essay, I am impressed by what is happening in Asia and am not only very respectful of but also attracted to the cultures of the East (even though my personal background (culturally, linguistically, etc.) has been rather Eurocentric).

    Not sure where I will end up.

  20. Robin

    “And don’t forget that resentment is often in the eye of the beholder. For example I am sure that there are many who might see your own remarks about feminism as seeming resentful. I am not saying that they are, just that someone reading them uncharitably might think so.”

    In the essay I made one reference to a link between feminism and resentment. Here is the offending sentence:

    “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’.”

    I made no other reference to feminism in the entire piece (apart from a parenthetical note to assure readers that my dislike of the ideology was not associated with reactionary views about women).

    So where do I reveal this supposed resentment exactly?

    I really think you are wide of the mark here. It seems like you are saying that anyone who criticizes feminism as “all too often mean-spirited and resentful” will himself be seen (by many) as mean-spirited and resentful!

    Maybe so – but doesn’t this drain all substantive meaning from the term? Like: ‘You think I’m X. But really you are X.’

    You can see resentment in various ways, of course. On one level it is a natural emotion we all feel from time to time. Or you can see it as a chronic and essentially negative attitude (as I described it in a comment above).

    But if it is going to mean anything at all, it will not be just “in the eye of the beholder”. There is an objective element to it.

  21. s. wallerstein

    Mark English,

    Several points.

    Of course, every society will be imperfect. However, Denmark is generally more just than North Korea or Somalia.

    I agree that revolutionary or radical changes do not necessarily improve things.

    However, there is a certain inertia in society and in order to break through that inertia you need people with radical or revolutionary ideas, people who believe in ideals, who believe that those who stand for the status quo or those who while not standing for the status quo, aren’t outraged enough by the status quo to do much about it (me in my current old age) are either reactionary villains or sell-outs or complicit in injustice, people who are fired by self-righteousness, by dogmatism, sectarianism and often a complete inability to see the point of view of the more conservative or cautious members of society.

    They are willing to march, to stand on street corners handing out pamphlets, to repeat the same simplistic slogans again and again, selling radical change as if it were a deodorant, but without that energy and that simplistic approach to things, change does not take place. With them no feminist movement, no gay rights movement, no peace movement, no
    environment movement: they are the infantry of all those movements.

    You need all kinds of people to make the world happen and just as the kind of people who make good SWAT officers are not the kind of people I’d seek as close friends, those who march for radical change are also not those I’d seek out (although I prefer them to SWAT officers), but both are necessary.

  22. s. wallerstein

    Error in my comment.

    I say “with them, no feminist movement….” when I mean “WITHOUT them….”


  23. Hi Mark,

    It seems like you are saying that anyone who criticizes feminism as “all too often mean-spirited and resentful” will himself be seen (by many) as mean-spirited and resentful!

    If I was saying that, I would have said that.

    Why might your statement about feminism seem resentful? Well the very brevity of the dismissal of a widespread and longstanding movement which is so important to so many, for a start. The use of the word ‘repelled’. Such a strong word.

    But if it is going to mean anything at all, it will not be just “in the eye of the beholder”. There is an objective element to it.

    Well, if you think you can make an objective case about feminism and resentfulness then that would be different. As I said before, I have never met these resentful feminists who have led you to this conclusion so it is difficult for me to know how you came to that conclusion.

    I see many attacks on feminism these days which don’t seem to be based on evidence. Well of course that was always the case from the very start, but it appears to have been amplified by social media and the SRW’s like Peter Boghossian and Russell Blackford.

  24. A bit of biography and ruminations on the politics I grew up with:
    From some time in elementary school, my highest value may have been retaining independence of thought. This was threatened by TV and school. TV, while very mediocre used heavy handed methods to drag people along by their emotions – the dramatic music; the laugh tracks. My mother says I would start watching some show and while she could tell I was pulled into it, would go read a book or walk in the woods or whatever. One illustration of my character, for better or worse, is that I briefly went out for wrestling in high school, and was great at avoiding being pinned or getting unpinned, but once free, had very little drive to take down the other guy, so it didn’t work out. Going back again as early as elementary school, I’d say in retrospect school was pinning me down, trying to make me jump through hoops and wearing down creative impulses, and I was having none of it, and developed the sort of surliness or indifference to teachers that could make other kids laugh. A few subjects lit me up briefly; visual art, math, and “speech”.

    While a regular church goer and sincere Sunday school discussant driven there with the family, by age 14, it just made no organic sense to me. Nothing particular repelled me from church. It was an easy going sort of Methodism, and one wasn’t pressured to believe in Hell or biblical literalism, but it just seemed clearly false.

    While not reading assignments or doing homework, I was educating myself in my own energetic but haphazard way. I discovered the library early, and was taken there on a regular basis. I could have developed better if there had been anyone able to challenge me and show me the paths to various kinds of knowledge.

    Kennedy was assassinated when I was 11, so my political consciousness developed under LBJ and Nixon, right up to about the end of undergraduate college. The Viet Nam was struck me as more and more obscene. The simple fact that by the news accounts, we were killing 10 times as many as we were being killed; that a guerilla force not tightly controlled in mass battalions but operating independently, kept taking that level of punishment and the South Vietnamese government seemed barely there — they certainly couldn’t project much power of deliver services in the countryside — it all looked very wrong, and not at all like the heroics of WWII (and the messaging around that wasn’t so impressive “bravery and patriotism will prevail”.

    Excerpt from an essay:

    The Image of Nazism in the Minds of My Generation

    My generation (Baby Boomers) was brought up, in the 50s and early 60s, pretty largely on the mythos of World War II movies.
    The bad guys in that conflict were presented as a lot of extremely uptight looking guys whose every aspect or act screamed precision — their hair, their uniforms, their way of speech, constantly affirming their obedience and reverence for the chain of command with “Yes Sir!”s,”Heil Hitler!”s, and elaborate and precise salutes, and scurrying around obeying orders like machines.
    What were we told (by example) to do with this vision? Blow it up!

    While the vastly greater level of sacrifice of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighting for (more or less) their country convinced me things were terribly wrong, as public opinion moved against the war, I was put off talk that was only about the sacrifice of “our boys” – not the obscene thing we were doing to this little country. It had nothing to do with admiring Communists or thinking that side were angels, though I think it’s very arguable that they would not have grown as hard as they were without the baths of fire we were giving them.

    From today’s perspective I would say the largest legacy of the Cold War was what was done through proxy wars all over the world — the saturation of the world with deadly weapons; the coups our covert operations made against elected governments; the propping up of any strong man who would swear allegiance to one side or the other; the near forcing of every country to pick a side, all of which retarded the path to strong civil societies dominated by the exchange of goods and services.

  25. Hi Mark, this was an interesting account, though I admit I don’t know how to reply to such personal pieces. Since Dan suggested using it as an opportunity to give our own stories I guess I’ll go with that.

    I came out of my childhood with no political or religious leanings. I guess I did view the US as having a greater potential for doing useful or exciting things than many nonWestern countries. But religion? It simply made no sense to me. I felt nothing for any of the Abrahamic religions, zilch, other than bafflement that no one could ever answer the simplest questions regarding their faith.

    In college I came to loathe conservatives, and most religious types, due largely to the rise of the moral majority along with laissez-faire capitalism as an economic faith. It didn’t help that I was attending college in rural, downstate Illinois which was Xian fundie-Republican dominated. I found that the closest box I could be put into was classic liberal-to-classic libertarian, heavy on freedom and so opposing both state and economic coercion. I was not allied to any party.

    In general I have found my political intuitions supported by the constant failures of growing government influence (over personal lives) and deregulated markets (so increased corporate power over personal lives) to provide any stability or quality of life since the 1980s.

    So I have not changed in these early positions other than:

    1) Mellowing on my anti-religious feelings perhaps by meeting more religious people that were not fundies, and watching prominent atheists and purported liberals become just as puritanical and bigoted as any religious fundie.


    2) Losing hope that beyond specific discoveries, inventions, and works of art nothing useful or exciting will be coming out of the US or most western nations anytime soon. Extreme religious, political, and economic doctrines seem to have bogged up the works, spreading to even the most liberal nations and individuals.

    Personal qualities:
    From a relatively early age I was interested in control over my passions. Spock (the Vulcan, not the Doctor) was a very early influence/role model in my life. I believed that tight logic and empirical evidence were crucial to understanding the world.

    Yet, perhaps paradoxically, that did not mean I wanted to reduce or eliminate my passions. I wanted to revel in them (I hate asceticism). It is just that passions have their areas of relevance, and where they are not useful I wanted to be able to shut them down clean. In college I was to discover there are limits to that trick, much to my embarrassment.

    Thankfully, finding Hume and virtue ethics in college gave me an intellectual base to build upon (regarding logic v passions). While more formal schooling in martial arts gave me practical skills.

    All the same, logic remains the slave to (mediate) my passions.

  26. Hi Mark and Dan, I used to think I understood what loyalty was. Well I guess I still have a definition for it. But it doesn’t seem to be the common working one. And maybe this gets to Mark’s suggestion there is a difference between loyalty to a group and loyalty to values (which presumably the group is supposed to hold).

    In my experience the most common deployment of the term loyalty has been: let us take credit for (or any benefit arising from) your work without acknowledgment or compensation, you take all the blame for (or any deficits arising from) our fuckups regardless that you had no involvement, don’t complain while our more popular/powerful members screw you over, and… don’t hold us to the same standard we hold others.

    Despite prizing loyalty, given what he went through I wonder if Dan ever experienced loyalty being deployed against him the same as I described?

    (As an aside to Dan, that was a suprising and interesting account, which raises so many questions. I NEVER would have guessed you’d worked with Buckley. One burning question is what you thought of the debates between Buckley and Gore, or Buckley and Chomsky? I really would have thought you’d side against Buckley on those).

    Hi Mark, Robin Herbert, and Wallerstein, while I agree that there are valid reasons why feminism emerged in our culture, and there are positive feminist movements, I don’t get the blowback Mark is getting for his comment.

    Feminism is diverse (, and there have been exceedingly negative portions of that overall movement. Much of this emerged during the so-called second wave (, particularly the radical feminists (

    Robin, if you have never heard anything negative from feminists I recommend Andrea Dworkin, Valeria Solanas, and Catharine MacKinnon.

    In the US some of them helped merge feminism with the religious right (strange bedfellows indeed), largely based on their acceptance (though they won’t acknowledge it) of Xian puritanical ideas regarding sexuality. And to my mind helped institute the “victim culture” which has only grown over time, morphing into the absurd “rights” movement Mark was complaining about.

    It’s not like those elements have gone away.

    And it is not demeaning to women, or even feminists, to complain about that portion (especially where that form is growing such that it taints “feminism”).

    As far as I can tell my own feminist heroes, such as Betty Dodson and Susie Bright, were slowly replaced by second-wave, radical types, pushing the trauma and victimization angle over self-empowerment and individual choice.

  27. Robin

    “Why might your statement about feminism seem resentful? Well the very brevity of the dismissal of a widespread and longstanding movement which is so important to so many, for a start.”

    If you like, I could go on at length on the issue, but then that might give you a better case for suggesting that I am driven by resentment. As to the strong language (“repelled”), it reflects what I feel. Do you believe that all or most strong adverse reactions of this kind are prompted by resentment? This seems to be drawing a very long bow indeed.

    The reference to the movement being so important to so many is a curious one. It may be important to many, but it is also a fairly aggressive and proselytizing one which gets up the noses of many – and not just male noses. Lots of women and girls feel just as I do on the issue. I taught at a provincial university for a number of years and was amazed by the degree of hostility towards feminism shown by many of my female students. Or look at The Conservative Woman website, for example (tagline: “Vive la difference!”). I’m not necessarily endorsing the site. In fact, I don’t often read it, but I have seen a few good articles there. The main contributors seem to write with a certain degree of grace and style, rare qualities these days.

    I’m not insisting that I’m right and you’re wrong, just that there are alternative (more or less) defensible perspectives. Make a bit of space for them – that’s all I’m asking. Ideally, there should be no taboos in mature discussion forums.

    I don’t know what SRWs are. Nor am I familiar with the writings of Russell Blackford or Peter Boghossian (or only vaguely). Should I be?

    On the broader resentment issue, you could approach it in various ways: looking at Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment; via the psychological literature (to try to get a clearer focus or definition); subjecting feminist texts to close reading and analysis.

    There is a substantive question here about the extent (not quantifiable, of course) to which feminism is/has been driven by and/or fosters feelings which could be reasonably characterized by the word ‘resentment’. It may not be a scientific question but I believe it is a real question upon which evidence of one kind or another may be brought to bear.

    It wasn’t reading texts or articles which formed my opinions in the first place, however, but rather personal experiences (quite different from yours obviously): interacting with people and making judgements (as one does) on motivations etc.. I can’t really share these experiences with you (though perhaps in private conversation I could flesh them out a bit, not that I am suggesting this). I have observed quite a few examples related not just to feminism but also to other forms of identity politics.

  28. Hal

    Yes, I thought there might be a bit more talk of this kind about America’s role in the world and so on. Interesting take on the Cold War. But don’t we continue to see a very similar pattern of strategic politics in the post-Cold War world? I suspect you are not sufficiently cynical…

    That TV manipulation business. You picked up on it early. It didn’t really start to bother me (in films for example) until I was in my thirties.

  29. brodix

    I guess I’m late to this conversation, but to add a bit of my own trajectory.

    As a later baby boomer, with lots of older siblings and cousins, I was a bit of a fly on the wall to many personal and political discussions. The more I tried to understand the big picture, the less clear everything became. Which led me to try to look beyond politics, as it seemed more about lots of emotion being focused on narrow logical goals, that naturally resulted in overkill.
    So then I tried studying philosophy, but western philosophy only seemed to be chasing down various loose ends and not really going anywhere. So eventually I just went to ground and tried figuring out the basics and how all these complex Towers of Babel came to be. Why everyone rushed to build and then tear them apart, etc. Which then led to the sense that when it’s billions of people, much of the detail evens out, into elemental physical dynamics. So that’s why I keep dragging physical processes into these discussions.

  30. dbholmes

    I appreciate your coming in on this and your comments on feminism etc.

    Regarding your personal statement, intriguing stuff. It’s not entirely clear to me what you mean by ‘passions’. But then maybe it was not intended to be!

    You also raised some important points on the loyalty question.

  31. Brodix

    It is in the nature of values-based questions, I think, not to be definitively answerable. But in order to live and act we have to opt for answers to many such questions. Our attitudes and life choices express our (often implicit) answers.

    Basic physics underlies everything, but physics per se isn’t any use in describing specifically human behaviour. Nor is it of much use for dealing with those messy and annoying but inescapable values-based questions.

    But questions about the nature of time for example (which I vaguely remember you talking about) are humanly interesting; how one answers them could have a big impact on how one conceptualizes one’s life and existence.

  32. This business started me thinking, and I tried to sort some things out so will set them down as an exercize, however much it might or might not interest anyone else.

    In 1986, I married my wife, a staunch and avowed libertarian, who in fact did, I think the production work for their 1980 Presidential Nominating Convention in NYC, in which David Koch had the VP slot (which enabled him to spend any amount of his money). She met at least David Koch (said his apartment had a lot of animal head trophies).

    At the time we met, this issue was in the background. I had since around 1980 spent a lot of time trying to understand the history of the USSR. Anti-sovietism hadn’t been a big part of her thoughts, and I was able to talk with her about my readings, which she seemed to respect, and it illuminated the changes being made at that time by Gorbachev. Later we listened to the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination debate and seemed to have much the same appalled reaction. I don’t believe that would happen today with the incredibly proactive perception management of todays movement conservatism.

    E.g. of ways that works, Newt Gingrich’s 1996 GOPAC lists of what sort of words to use when talking about conservative politics vs what to use when talking about the enemy’s politics. A paper at

    reconstructs, from records of a twitter conversation, how “Climategate” was branded. I also witnessed my wife’s close attention to online discussions of how to spin the Gabrielle Giffords shooting as the drama was unfolding. I looked up this twitter conversation myself:

    RT @mattklewis: RT @mattklewis: Liberal bloggers blame Sarah Palin for shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

    RT @thegopalliance: RT if your Tea Party friends are offering prayers for Rep Giffords while your liberal friends are offering blame. #tcot #ocra #p2 #spwbt

    RT @scotthennen: Liberal blogger is to blame for inciting attack on Dem Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

    RT @michaeldcarney: Giffords~@~X Gunman ~@~YLeft Wing, Quite Liberal~@~Y via @theblaze Not that it matters…They will blame the right. #tcot

    RT @beckyblanton: So, can we blame the gay liberal whose “Gifford is dead to me!” editorial in a newspaper for Gifford’s shooting?

    RT @bullslapper: Liberal press trying to blame Sarah Palin for this? The young man was clearly a socialist liberal who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

    RT @kimbertrent: RT @Cubachi: Liberal bloggers blame Sarah Palin for shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. Via @mattklewis

    RT @thewrightwing: RT @StevenErtelt: RT @mattklewis Liberal bloggers blame Sarah Palin for shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

    RT @thecriticalpost: < Article 4 wanna know why today's incident and others like it continue? blame MPPDA rating sys #giffords liberal media

    RT @sheariner: RT @mamaswati: RT @mattklewis: Liberal bloggers blame Sarah Palin for shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

    Besides hoping to put the blame on a liberal blogger or shooter, they were rounding up whatever ridiculous statements could be found from the most obscure liberal bloggers in order to be able to say "Look how the liberals are spinning this".

    For several years, I've been blogging, but mostly reeducating myself, to try to find ways to deal with the tabloidization of the public sphere, and the breakdown of common sense about what to believe.

    It has been especially crazy since 2007/8, when Obama and Hillary Clinton were vying for the presidential nomination. I was getting from my mother, always having been a moderate Republican the most jaw-dropping forwarded emails containing carefully constructed lies, which she believed until I did 5-10 minutes research on the internet.

    See My Not-really-right-wing Mom and her adventures in Email-Land (revision)

    In the 1990s I took on a crash course to become literate, on the level of real scholars on early 19c America, started attending the leading convention (SHEAR) on the subject, and became known — about half the people I’d meet there would have some awareness of me — through an email newsletter of chapter-length excerpts from period sources scanned with some commentary added. (see You may wonder how an amateur managed this. An academic blind spot — it is much more academically rewarding to work with handwritten sources such as diaries, so they could still be surprised by things found in period print sources, which they mostly passed by.

    In these post 2007 years, I’ve given myself multiple crash courses on many subjects, from propaganda and bullshit, and “why people believe weird things” to the history of movement conservatism going back to Hayek, Mises, and the Montpellier society, to social epistemology to New Institutional History and Economic history to Kahneman and Tversky to Evolutionary psychology to histories of more nations what went “off the tracks” to subjects discussed on this web site.

    That is what I’ve been doing, Quixotically, it might be thought, trying to learn and make connections between areas of knowledge in search of something that might improve on what the debunkers (Snopes et al), the scholars of motivated reasoning, the pollsters trying to make sense of it all, etc.

  33. Everyone

    Happy Christmas!

  34. dbholmes: On loyalty, I am only truly loyal to particular individuals. My commitments to ideas or culture do not constitute loyalty, per se, but something in the same family of concepts.

  35. I’ve taught this essay by Joan Didion on Second Wave feminism, alongside her novel, Play it as it Lays, for years.

  36. A Happy Christmas to you too, Mark. And to all the rest of our Christmas-celebrating readers and contributors!

  37. Hi Mark, well I meant the same passions as Hume discusses, in some cases a bit more visceral than cerebral 🙂

    Hi Dan, some quotes from Didion’s essay were quite interesting…

    That fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology.

    Yeah I like that idea.

    But more important for some of the recent discussions at EA (my emphasis)…

    But of course something other than an objection to being “discriminated against” was at work here, something other than an aversion to being “stereotyped” in one’s sex role. Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children. One is constantly struck, in the accounts of lesbian relationships which appear from time to time in the movement literature, by the emphasis on the superior “tenderness” of the relationship, the “gentleness” of the sexual connection, as if the participants were wounded birds. The derogation of assertiveness as “machismo” has achieved such currency that one imagines several million women to delicate to deal with a man more overtly sexual than, say, David Cassidy. Just as one had gotten the unintended but inescapable suggestion, when told about the “terror and revulsion” experienced by women in the vicinity of construction sites, of creatures too “tender” for the abrasiveness of daily life, too fragile for the streets, so now one was getting, in the later literature of the movement, the impression of women too “sensitive” for the difficulties and ambiguities of adult life, women unequipped for reality and grasping at the movement as a rationale for denying that reality.

    As I said before I think the negative parts of the 2nd wave feminist movement are in part responsible for producing the mindset we are seeing in today’s students. This observation by Didion seems almost prescient if you replace “women” with “certain Millenials”, and expand concerns from the sexual to basically all common human experience.

    I hadn’t read Play it as it Lays but think I’ll pick it up sometime this year.

    Merry Christmas to all… or whichever holiday you celebrate… and to all a good night!

  38. brodix


    Values based questions are not objectively answerable, but that has to do with the fact there is no objective point of view.

    In order to have a functioning society, we need some larger, collective frame of moral reference, a cultural sense of some collective positive toward which the group is attracted and negative from which it is repelled.

    The problem is that as humanity has gradually filled the planet to capacity, those compass points are not simply guideposts in surviving the natural world, but increasingly applied to other groupings of people. Then when passion is applied, reason is lost and we descend into war.

    This is why I think we need to further explore the processes bubbling up through humanity.

    Since I came to physics as an antidote to sociological issues, I then came to the opinion that physics is deeply sociological and has reached its currently state of complex confusion as a natural consequence of one generation building on the received wisdom of prior generations, in which there remain various cognitive biases deeply embedded and that if we could peel back and examine those, it would illuminate many seemingly intractable sociological factors. Not to give us the direct answers we wish for, but to give us a broader landscape of facts to place these issues.

    For instance, if we were to consider reality as the dichotomy of energy and form, with all form manifested by energy and all energy expressing some degree of form, it might give us a simple concept to explain many complex aspects of existence.

    Such as the issue of time, in that since energy is conserved, it only exists in the present and its changing configuration creates the effect of time. Consequently, the arrow of time for energy is from past to future formations, while the arrow of time for these configurations, from probability, to actuality, to residue, is future to past.

    Even galaxies exist as cycles of mass/form falling in, as energy/radiation expands out.

    Now as biological organisms, we have the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems to process energy, while we have the rational/emotional central nervous system to process form/information extracted from energy.

    This tends to create a significant bias toward form and information, among those who are most devoted to intellectual pursuits. Such as the mathematical universe hypothesis. Yet math is form distilled from reality, which makes it more a mapping device, rather than fundamental. Ideals are confused with absolutes. Just try imagining an absolute circle, as opposed to an ideal one. There is no form in the void.

    Now passion is necessary to function in reality, as it is the cognitive energy propelling us forward. But as thinking beings, we still need to be able to apply logic to it and help to determine its form.

    For instance humanity manifests as broad social energies pushing out, as cultural, civil and civic forms push in. Too much energy and it is anarchy, as too much cultural and civic strictures are totalitarian.

    Currently we exist as highly atomized societies, mediated by a monetary mechanism, which allows a great deal of personal autonomy, but which is being used as a rent extraction device and as it extracts more value than can be created, is building toward a form of massive coronary. Money serves as both medium of exchange and store of value, which are divergent and somewhat at odds, as a medium is dynamic, while a store is static. Consider that in the body, blood is the medium and fat is the store. Mix them up too much and you have that aforementioned coronary.

    Now to get to long winded, but to just give some idea of how all these questions tie into one another and having theoretical physics worrying over strings and multiverses only serves to further distract from serious consideration of these fundamental issues.

    The original argument is that matter/energy is both particle and wave, yet it has since gravitated to the particles being real, while the waves are statistical, but now, after examining reality to the most infinitesimal levels, the models now say it is 99+% empty space, with these particles bouncing around.

    So what if we were to look at it from the other direction, that waves of energy are real and particles are just contact points? For one thing, it might explain such questions as “spooky action at a distance,” but it would run up against a significant cognitive bias. That reality is fundamentally physical objects in motion. If we looked at it as primarily waves of energy interacting and creating this sense of solid reality, it would make reality more of a hologram, then solid form.

    Yet on a social and cultural level, this might help people to get over some of the obsessive focus on objects and form and appreciate the processes and events of which their lives consist.

    For instance, understanding that money is a contract, requiring both asset and debit, rather than a store of actual, distinct wealth.

  39. s. wallerstein


    There is a long distance between women who priorize gentleness and tenderness in their sex life to students who need a safe room with stuffed animals when controversial speakers appear on campus.

    Marriage or one’s love life is an area of intimacy, in the context of a very indifferent and at times hostile competitive capitalist society, in which one expects understanding and tenderness: a space in which one feels safe and can let down one’s defense mechanisms and feel accepted is one of the chief points of marriage. Women who demand that in their love life seems wholly justified to me and if they only find that in lesbian relationships, that speaks badly of us males, not of the women involved.

    As for women who feel harassed by construction workers, at least where I live (Chile), macho commentaries on attractive women in street can be very offensive and there is no reason why someone, in this case, a woman, who is minding their own business in a public thoroughfare, should be subject to vulgar or obscene comments on their physical attributes.

    Universities, on the other hand, are or should be spaces of debate, where all ideas are welcome and are open to criticism. There is no justification for students trying to ban controversial speakers on their campuses, as has been the case and anyone who claims to be an intellectual should be willing to listen to and debate ideas which do not agree with those of one’s own.

  40. Hi S. Wallerstein, if what you saw was someone heaping scorn on women who happen to prioritize gentleness in their sex life, claiming that relationships do not involve space to let one’s defenses down, and arguing that women ought to be subject to vulgar or obscene comments (about anything), then you missed the point of the article (and the excerpt I quoted) entirely.

    But yes, as it happens, it is a long distance, or more accurately time, between what she was actually talking about and what is going on in universities… which is not just about banning controversial speakers, but a process of self-infantilization.

    To be fair, I didn’t claim the connection was a short, straight line.

    BTW, do you have a preference how you are addressed? I wasn’t sure if you wanted something less formal than S. Wallerstein.

  41. s. wallerstein


    If I’ve missed the point of the Didion article, as you claim, please enlighten me as to the point. Thank you.

    As to my name, feel free to abbreviate it.

  42. dbholmes: I agree entirely with your assessment re: the trends Didion saw emerging in the early 70s and the things we are seeing now, regarding “safe spaces” “trigger warnings” and the like.

    s. wallerstein: I’m afraid you did entirely miss Didion’s point (or simply rejected it, without argument). Much of your post reads exactly like the sort of thing she is talking about, which had to do with *reality* not with what one “has a right to” or “finds offensive”. And it is worth pointing out … she *is* a woman.

  43. s. wallerstein

    Daniel Kaufman,

    No one has yet explained what Didion’s point is except to very cleverly (no one denies that she is a skilled writer) put down the 2nd wave feminist movement. The fact that she is a woman is neither here nor there. I’m a Jew, but would you accept me as a spokesperson for Jews?

  44. S. Wallerstein:

    Didion was also a first class journalist. One of the most important of the New Journalists, alongside Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. She saw very clearly — especially through the fog of sixties ideology — and spoke very directly. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, she effected some of the most potent criticisms of the sixties ever written, by way of nothing more than showing pictures; repeating words; closely examining the particular. Hers was not a critique from the Right — all you need to do to dispel that idea is read her accounts of the Reagans in “After Henry” — or from any ideological point of view. She simply showed things to us … and they damned themselves.

    Your assignment of “clever” as a descriptor of her work couldn’t get it more wrong. She is the opposite of that.

    The feminist movement wanted to claim her, in the wake of her having written Play it As it Lays, which can easily be mistaken as a feminist work. They were shocked by her response and tried to punish her for it. What they didn’t understand is that (a) she is actually almost completely apolitical (b) she is bigger — and better — than any of them were. As for whether she “represents” women, she certainly does more than any movement-feminist, insofar as most women are not — and have never been — movement feminists.

    Her critique, far from being “clever” is devastating — crippling even. You may not see it, but the movement feminists certainly did, which is why they attacked her so ferociously for it.

  45. s. wallerstein

    Daniel Kaufman,

    The fact that most women are not movement feminists in no way shows that Didion, not a movement feminist, represents most women more than movement feminists do. Maybe neither Didion nor movement feminists represent most women, for example.

    Didion is not apolitical. She may not identify with or belong to any organized political group, but the moment she writes an article for the NYT on a political phenomenon, in this case, feminism, she has entered the political ring.

    Let’s look at her article at bit. She calls the thinking of some feminists “Stalinist”. Does she know the meaning of the term? Stalinism means the cult of the personality, purges, the assassination of Trotsky, massacre of the kulaks, show trials, etc. What is there about movement feminism that is Stalinist? It’s as if I called “fascist” someone who once wrote for democratic rightwing publications such as yourself. That’s a smear tactic.

    Didion wonders why women who are in sexist jobs or in hotels where they only serve donuts (a metaphor, I realize) don’t change their jobs or go to hotels with a more varied menu. Perhaps she does not understand that for many women, without her undoubted literary talent, changing jobs changes nothing, because the only jobs open to them are sexist and the only hotels that they can afford to stay at serve donuts (again a metaphor, I understand).

    “That many women are victims of condescension and exploitation and sex-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy the package.”

    Maybe the fact that many women are victims of condescension and exploitation and sex-role stereotyping was scarcely news to Didion, who is an exceptionally well-read person and undoubtedly was already familiar with feminist literature before the feminist movement became a mass phenomenon, but for many women it was news and it was good news that the feminists
    denounced it and protested against it. No one forces women to buy the package, especially not a talented autonomous person like Didion, but for a less talented woman, there are many social pressures that maybe someone like Didion does not notice or does not want to notice. Those social pressures, described very well by Mill in On Liberty (which we discussed in a previous blog in this website), make it very difficult for many women to resist the sex-role stereotyping, without the support of the feminist movement.

  46. S. Wallerstein: Well, we clearly disagree quite strongly about Didion’s critique, which struck me as spot-on. That’s OK. As with most such things, YMMV.

    But anyone familiar with her work in any depth — both the fiction and non-fiction — would know that she is largely apolitical and focused on the particular, rather than the general (the focus on the latter of which is the hallmark of ideology). She herself attributes this to the generation to which she belongs — i.e. the Silent Generation — the effect of which she discusses in her essay, “On the Morning After the Sixties.” It is also why she was such an influence on Gen X writers like Bret Easton Ellis, who also is largely apolitical and who rejects the notion that literature should be either political or ideological.

    She simply is one of the best writers since the Second World War, one of a handful of our finest journalists, and one of the sharpest critics of the ideological fog that came pouring out of the sixties, who comes not from the Left or from the Right, but from the ground. And I think that’s incredibly valuable, especially today.

  47. s. wallerstein

    Daniel Kaufman,

    I read Play it as it Lays about 40 years ago and I recall being very favorably impressed by the book. Her literary craftspersonship is undeniable and she would probably laugh at me for writing “craftspersonship” instead of “craftsmanship” and maybe she would justified in mocking me. I’m willing to accept your judgment that she’s one of the best post-World War 2 writers, although I don’t share her view of second wave feminism and I would say that calling it “Stalinist” is a low blow, unworthy of a great writer.

    While I would not go so far as to claim that everything is political, as some do, most writing has a political dimension, at least in a politicized society such as the U.S. In a politicized society one is responsible for the political effects of one’s writing, even one’s so-called apolitical writings. If one claims that one is unaware of the political effects of one’s writings, well, one is responsible for being aware. Someone as highly intelligent as Didion knew that her writings would be read politically and thus, were political, even if she would have preferred for them not to be considered politically. To argue that one somehow does not see that what one writes, in a politicized society and in a political context, is political is bad faith, in Sartre’s sense of the term.

    Now it may be that in the 19th century intelligent people could live a cultural life without being aware of the political context in some sense. The mass media were less pervasive, there were fewer mass movements (at least in the first half of the 19th century), but that’s no longer an option. Or to take an extreme example to make my point, it would be absurd to talk about Chaucer’s politics, although one could talk about Dante’s politics or Spinoza’s.

  48. The Andrea Dworkins and Catherine MacKinnons of the movement strike me as quite Stalinist (without the murdering, of course).

    As for Didion’s apolitical stance being “in bad faith,” I completely disagree. Her entire body of work is directed *against* viewing human life and experience in that way and the fact that others insist on it has nothing to do with her.

  49. S. Wallerstein: Funnily enough, I have a piece in the works on Didion and her apolitical view of human affairs, so we’ll have plenty more to argue about in the near future.

  50. I could as justifiably call Newt Gingrich “Stalinist without the murdering of course”, but that would reek of the ideological fog of the 60s. It is no accident that Tea Partiers are also largely from my generation which after all gave the world David Horowitz the Ramparts ex-editor who thinks he’s Whittaker Chambers for the new millennium.

  51. Don’t know if you’ve actually read the writings of either Dworkin or MacKinnon, but they are far more extreme than Newt Gingrich, who is a relatively run-of-the-mill American rightist.

  52. 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!

  53. s. wallerstein

    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.

  54. 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

  55. s. wallerstein


    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.

  56. 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.

  57. s. wallerstein

    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.

  58. 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.

  59. 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.

  60. … 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.