Lost World

by Mark English

My old high-school Latin teacher had a very short temper. He exploded on a regular basis. More than once he became so agitated in class that he knocked off his own spectacles, sending them skidding across the floor.

Corporal punishment was part of the culture at this strange institution, which seemed to have been trapped in a Victorian time warp. Such punishment was not restricted to rule breaches or misbehavior. Fail to adequately prepare for certain classes (Latin was one of them), and you were in trouble. But any violence against individuals was strangely clinical, and not in any way anger-based. Nothing personal. No hard feelings.

“Bill” – nickname from his surname (Williams) – was reaching the end of a distinguished career in education. He was past the normal retirement age. What’s more, it was well-known that he had a serious heart condition. We always half-expected one of these anger episodes to escalate into a fatal heart attack, which only added to the pressure to learn what we were supposed to learn. None of us wanted him to die and certainly not to be personally responsible for his death. He was much loved, actually.

He had no family and was resigned to living out his final years in an alien country. In a way, we boys were “family”. He was famous for his touchingly weak and relentlessly repeated jokes. “Time to get out your breakfast cereal,” he used to say in an earlier year, referring to an unbelievably boring Latin reader called Vercobrix: puer fortissimus. (Weetabix was the product being alluded to.) Occasionally he would tease us. He remarked on one boy’s fine golden hair, noting that he would soon lose much of it (as indeed he did). Or, pleading ignorance of these matters, he used to cajole another boy, who was strikingly handsome in a blond-Slavic sort of way, to give a commentary on the romantic themes of Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid (which we were at the time dutifully ploughing through). Book IV is centered around the story of the ill-fated love affair between Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas for whom the call of duty – he was destined to found Rome – eventually trumps his feelings for his girl. Dido’s response was to have herself incinerated on a funeral pyre while calling down curses on her faithless lover. An avenger would arise from her ashes. (Hannibal… but that is another story.)

Significantly, “Bill” never teased the shy boys, his empathy in this regard reflecting, no doubt, his own experiences as a shy and naïve and (by all accounts) brilliant student.

Very occasionally he would reminisce about his home country, painting an idyllic picture of rural Ireland, fallow deer grazing in the morning mist. I don’t fully recall how we reacted at the time but, looking back, it all seems heartbreakingly sad. Not only was he cut off from his personal roots, it was increasingly clear that the scholarly and educational causes to which he had devoted his life, the teaching of Latin and the promotion of the classical curriculum, were basically lost.

I recount this story (and the anecdotes that follow) to flesh out some of the background to my views on certain themes which recently have been a focus of debate on this site: patriotism, nationalism and empire. The discussions were prompted by an essay in which I elaborated my not altogether positive take on the impact of certain kinds of myth, particularly national myths, on politics and policy-making. [1]

E. John Winner subsequently wrote a piece in praise of Irish nationalism. [2] His approach was quite partisan. According to Winner, the British were engaged in a form of attempted genocide, and violent rebellion and exiting the Empire was the only real solution for the Irish. Imperialism was presented as being virtually synonymous with cruelty and oppression.

I am not denying that the Irish had real and justified grievances. But I felt that Winner’s account glossed over the political complexities involved, including the wide spectrum of political opinion and allegiance amongst the Irish themselves. There is also the issue of ethnic continuities between the Irish and other inhabitants of the British Isles. Likewise, ethnic differences amongst the Irish – stemming from the Norman invasions of the late 12th century, for example – were downplayed.

In due course (in a future piece) I may elaborate my point of view in explicit terms and argue directly against views such as Winner’s. I would emphasize the necessarily simplistic and distorting nature of political myth, and make a case for preferring organic to invented and imposed myths. (I recognize that invented myths often incorporate preexisting organic elements, so the categories are not always clear-cut.)

Political myths are all about coordinating mass action; mind manipulation as a means to an end. National myths, in particular, often necessitate the imposition of a certain homogeneity of belief on a population, something I am uneasy about. It can sometimes be an insidious, even proto-totalitarian, process that works against basic liberal principles. Even the Romans did not seek to impose conformity or uniformity of belief on the peoples they ruled.

I am not saying that the myths associated with imperialism are necessarily more benign than national myths. In fact, my main concern at the moment relates to the dangers posed by neoconservatives whose outlook – based on the notion of American exceptionalism – is thoroughly imperialistic. The ideological roots of the founders of this movement were in Trotskyism. I confess to having a strong natural aversion to such manufactured ideologies – and especially to those which promote revolutionary violence (or any kind of violence other than that involved in basic self-defense or clear-cut humanitarian interventions).

Sometimes violent action is called for, and sometimes it needs to be coordinated on a large scale. I am willing to concede that, in some such cases, the use of myths may be necessary to coordinate effective action. But myths are also used to justify violence, and this is more problematic.

The truth is that individuals have – and will always have – different political beliefs and views deriving from divergences in inherited psychological tendencies and upbringing. The best we can do as individuals is to coordinate our political opinions with our most basic instincts and values.

My Irish Latin teacher was quite apolitical and would not have related at all to the concept of Ireland (or Irish nationalism) which Winner was describing and promoting. He was simply not living in Winner’s universe – or anything like it. And Winner is not living in his. As I was saying, each of us lives in his or her own unique universe, and this is not something we can change. Fortunately, there is usually sufficient overlap between these personal universes to make social life possible, even if there are also sufficient divergences to ensure that argument and misunderstanding will remain staples of social existence.

I see a parallel here with language. In a practical sense, linguistic communication works. But what people think they are communicating is always at least subtly different from what they actually are communicating. Crucially, there is no “message” which is sent and received. Nor, for that matter, is there such a thing as a language. English and French and German, etc. are abstract constructs. Really, there are just overlapping and non-overlapping idiolects. Where idiolects overlap (to a greater or lesser extent) linguistic communication is possible.

In the essay that sparked the debate, I referred to the 16th-century humanist and Latinist, Joachim du Bellay whose patriotic attachments (like my teacher’s) were to his native region – Anjou in his case – and were not in any obvious way political. It was only in subsequent centuries that the modern idea of the nation state (an essentially political notion) came to prominence. In earlier times, Europe was a patchwork of regions sharing a broadly similar ethnic, linguistic (Indo-European and, more specifically, Latin) and religious heritage. Educated people identified with this broader culture, as well as with their own native regions and vernaculars.

My high school (as I have noted) and undergraduate education exposed me to people who exemplified this old tradition. In my freshman year I continued with Latin, which I had studied continuously from the age of twelve. The advanced first-year class was very small (less than a dozen). Fewer and fewer high school students were taking Latin through to matriculation level. It had very limited appeal as a high school option, and less as a university minor or major. Not only was it quite demanding, it had no vocational relevance. The only half-plausible practical justification for the learning of Latin which I recall hearing was that learning Latin improves one’s English writing style. And well it may. But – for better or for worse – such matters are not exactly front and center in terms of educational priorities. (And, if they were, a more direct approach would likely prove far more effective.)

There were three girls in that first-year university class, one of whom I had a crush on. Her marvelously Latinate name was Perpetua Grave (a daughter of the head of the philosophy department).

Another student was a recently retired businessman whom we knew only as Mr. Freeman. He subsequently completed a classics PhD, producing a new edition of Juvenal. He used to talk about his literary-oriented youth in Germany and France. There was also a younger man from central Europe who couldn’t speak English at all but who turned out to be fluent in Latin which, until that time, I had taken to be a long-dead language (except in certain ecclesiastical contexts). There is a piece of doggerel which every schoolboy once knew: “Latin is a dead language, as dead as dead can be. It killed the ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me.” Well, it wasn’t dead in parts of central and eastern Europe apparently, at least until the latter part of the 20th century.

Sometime later I met another Latin speaker: an old, surly, atheistic Czech with a doctorate in political science,who was a Wagner fanatic and made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth every year. He talked fondly of his younger days when he and his friends would hike all over central Europe, casually crossing borders and receiving hospitality from parish priests. As Latin speakers they were granted the status of fellow scholars and were welcomed in to share dinner and given a bed for the night.

The cultural continuities of which I speak here are now irredeemably broken. I have no illusions about this.

It is, however, important to see – at least in general terms – what it is that we have lost. Only then, I suggest, can we fully understand the radically provisional and unstable nature of the political and cultural status quo in Western countries; and even perhaps – who knows? – be motivated to envisage a wider range of political, social and cultural possibilities than conventional wisdom currently allows.

REFERENCES

  1. https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/22/nationalism-and-mythical-thinking/
  2. https://theelectricagora.com/2017/03/03/politics-and-song/

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83 responses to “Lost World”

  1. A splendid piece, Mark! Did all latin masters back in the day have volcanic tempers. Ours went on to teach classics at Sydney U. Some did have ideologies and generally romanticised the republican era. For all their conservativism in many things, I suspect that they were democrats at heart. It may be time to ditch the ‘free market’ ideology/myth in favour of something more complex. Surely education has produced a constituency for this by now. If not, the Trump seems set fair to create one!

    Regards,

    Inigo

  2. Considering a subject that drew from works culled by time to only those of exceptional virtue – well, any such loss should be mourned. You do a wonderful service, Mark, in rendering the sensibilities of its devotees in opposition to those seeking situational political advantage.

  3. davidlduffy

    You presumably listen to
    http://areena.yle.fi/1-1931339

  4. Mark,
    Well written as always, but loses focus in the middle, in your attempt to reply to my article. Some of this is mistargetted, and some uses wet ammunition.

    My essay was an attempt to explore the realtionship between politics and song, using as example the cultural experience of the Irish during the decades leading up to the War of Independence, with brief reflection on its political aftermath. In the context of that exploration, there was no point in exploring the ‘ethnic’ multiplicity of the people of Ireland – and I scare-quote that because when you write “Likewise, ethnic differences amongst the Irish – stemming from the Norman invasions of the late 12th century, for example – were downplayed,” I detect genetics – or ‘race’ – behind this (for me ethnicity is always a social construct). I myself noted that Britain likewise was a genetic stew of sorts, so why shouldn’t Ireland also be? But it was the British who by the 19th century had adopted inheritance as ‘racial,’ who asserted a ‘racial’ identity to themselves and others. It was the British who emphasized the ‘racial/ethnic’ differences of the Irish – as they did in Scotland, in the middle east, in Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Asia. It suited their politics well, helping to fragmant the former colonies; now we should blame the formerly colonized for taking such emphasis too seriously?

    I didn’t “gloss over” the political complexities in Ireland, I just didn’t need to discuss them much within the context of my essay. You’re chiding me for not writing a ‘History of the British Isles in 3000 words or less.’ But that would not be an essay on the relationship between politics and song in the context of the Irish struggle for independence. I didn’t “praise” Irish nationalism; I discussed some of its origins, and one of its primary cultural expressions. But I will say that the people of the Republic of Ireland are considerably better off now than they ever were under British rule.

    Nationalist myths can be just as dangerous as you claim – but they can also be liberating. It depends on the circumstances. And yes political myths can be used to justify violence; but sometimes violence is inevitable where egregious harm is enacted against an oppressed population.

    And this notion: “Political myths are all about coordinating mass action; mind manipulation as a means to an end.” Oh, come on! What is this, a complaint about ‘outside agitators?’ There are no “invented or imposed” political myths; myths are only narratives that focus emotional responses to perceptions of experience. But people just feel the way they do; and that’s the knot that has to be untangled, how to work our way out of impulsive reponses to reasoned actions, with a greater understanding of our own interests, and respect for the interests of others. We’ll never get there by simply dismissing the feelings.

    “In due course (in a future piece) I may elaborate my point of view in explicit terms and argue directly against views such as Winner’s.” I don’t even know what views you think I have. From my perspective, you misread the article – and you had nothing to say about its substantive subject matter, the relationship between politics and song.

    I feel your nostalgia for the British Empire. But face these facts – it hurt a lot of people, many still live with the consequences of that hurt, and political movements, including revolutions (however originating in myth), have put an end to it. Soon, perhaps the Scottish will at last put an end to the myth of a “United Kingdom.”

    I can’t help your sense that something vital was lost in the deconstruction of the world of your youth. That kind of deconstruction is always ongoing in civilized nations, has been since the very appearance of what we can call civilization Because civilization not only allows but necessitates innovation. With the coming of the new, something is always lost.

    Finally, in reference to Neoconservativism, you remark: “The ideological roots of the founders of this movement were in Trotskyism.” Wow! Where did this come from?! I’ve been a critic of the Neocon movement since their ascendency into the W. Bush Administration, and I studied their Project for the New American Century at that time, and I don’t remember a single reference to Trotsky or anything close to Trotskyist ideas at all! (Their website remains preserved at the Internet Archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20130609154959/http://www.newamericancentury.org/.)

    And Mark, when next you respond to an essay titled “Politics and Song,” could you please discuss song somewhere?

  5. I thought the personal element of this was really terrific, but much like EJ, I found the portion in which you examine his essay to be tacked on, without much connection to the rest, breaking up what otherwise was quite a lovely little mediation on a piece of your past.

    There also is something quite weird about referring to the essay as “partisan” as if there are two valid sides to the question of the British treatment of the Irish, during their rule. There aren’t. And by the way, of course the Romans “imposed conformity.” That’s why my people — you know, the uppity Jews — are scattered all over the world.

    I really think you are at your best when you do the personal memoir. History and politics? Less so.

  6. labnut

    Mark,
    I loved your essay and think some replies were misguided, reflecting a typical American world view, an absolutist view of the of the wrongs of committed by their favourite targets of opprobrium combined with an absolute conviction of being right. Nuance and context are the first casualties of such a world view. Your essay, in a subtle, gentle way, restored some feeling of that nuance and broader context that absurdly parochial Americans are constitutionally blind to.

  7. Inigo

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I can think of Latinists who had various political views. The most famous was probably A.E. Housman. Not a social conservative, certainly. The other famous classicist who comes to mind is Enoch Powell, who was a student of Housman’s, and taught at Sydney University in the 1930s. Powell had long predicted the outbreak of war, and returned to England in 1939 to enlist.

  8. Thanks Brian. I really appreciate that.

  9. David

    I notice that they Latinize names of countries but not personal names. “Donald Trump, praesidens Civitatum Americae Unitarum…”

    For some reason I am reminded of a famous scene from the Life of Brian…

  10. What is parochial about the view that the critique of EJ’s piece felt tacked on? Or that it is historically strange to view what the British did to the Irish as anything but monstrous?

  11. ejwinner

    I was using your piece as a kind of reference point: for my own purposes, if you like. I accept that I did not give a full and fair account of it here. I understood what you were doing (but certain polemical/ideological aspects put me off).

    “… when you write “Likewise, ethnic differences amongst the Irish – stemming from the Norman invasions of the late 12th century, for example – were downplayed,” I detect genetics – or ‘race’ – behind this (for me ethnicity is always a social construct).”

    It’s a social construct to a point, but it’s not purely a social construct. You seem to want to see everything in terms of semiotics. Sometimes this is enlightening. Sometimes it seems ideologically driven and not open to other perspectives.

    I noticed in your last piece that you avoided any reference to genetic differences, as if you see genetics as some kind of taboo. All individual differences were a function of *social* factors.

    “…[I]t was the British who by the 19th century had adopted inheritance as ‘racial,’ who asserted a ‘racial’ identity to themselves and others. It was the British who emphasized the ‘racial/ethnic’ differences of the Irish – as they did in Scotland, in the middle east, in Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Asia. It suited their politics well, helping to fragment the former colonies; now we should blame the formerly colonized for taking such emphasis too seriously?”

    There was often an unfortunate racial element involved, yes. But the narrative you are pushing is very problematic, in my opinion. You make it much too simple. Racialist ideas originated in France and Germany, didn’t they? And the Belgians, for example, were far, far worse than the British as colonial administrators. There were many examples of enlightened British administrators and officials and professionals (like doctors) working in the colonies.

    “I didn’t “praise” Irish nationalism; I discussed some of its origins, and one of its primary cultural expressions.”

    You presented one strand of Irish thought and cultural and political activism in a very favorable light, and scoffed at or ignored other strands. I understand what you were doing. And I realize it was just a short essay. I called your approach “partisan”. This seems like a fair description.

    “And yes political myths can be used to justify violence; but sometimes violence is inevitable where egregious harm is enacted against an oppressed population.”

    It’s the violent oppression which justifies reactive violence, not the myth! This is my key point.

    “And this notion: “Political myths are all about coordinating mass action; mind manipulation as a means to an end.” Oh, come on! What is this, a complaint about ‘outside agitators?’ There are no “invented or imposed” political myths; myths are only narratives that focus emotional responses to perceptions of experience. But people just feel the way they do; and that’s the knot that has to be untangled, how to work our way out of impulsive reponses to reasoned actions, with a greater understanding of our own interests, and respect for the interests of others. We’ll never get there by simply dismissing the feelings.”

    Who said anything about dismissing feelings? I stand by the statement you quote. Note I’m talking specifically about *political* myths.

    “I feel your nostalgia for the British Empire. But face these facts – it hurt a lot of people, many still live with the consequences of that hurt, and political movements, including revolutions (however originating in myth) have put an end to it.”

    I didn’t know the British Empire. I knew/know only the Commonwealth. I mentioned previously that my Dad was involved (in a planning/administrative capacity) in some important Commonwealth activities – good ones, like student exchanges, the Commonwealth Games, and the Duke of Edinburgh Awards. These activities continue.

    “Soon, perhaps the Scottish will at last put an end to the myth of a “United Kingdom.” ”

    Partisan, did I say? Why not just let the inhabitants of Great Britain sort this one out? It’s hardly a big humanitarian issue.

  12. ejwinner (cont.)

    “Finally, in reference to Neoconservativism, you remark: “The ideological roots of the founders of this movement were in Trotskyism.” Wow! Where did this come from?!”

    The origins of American neoconservativism lie in the anti-Stalinist left; in a group of leftists who gradually shifted to the right in their views and eventually became very influential in the Republican Party. From Wikipedia: “The term “neoconservative” refers to those who made the ideological journey from the anti-Stalinist Left to the camp of American conservatism.” Irving Kristol was unapologetic about his Trotskyist past. “Joining a radical movement when one is young is very much like falling in love when one is young,” he wrote. “The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of love is so valuable it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment.”

    One of the most visible promoters and defenders of neoconservative policies was Christopher Hitchens. I don’t know that he ever really renounced his Trotskyism, did he?

  13. Dan

    “I thought the personal element of this was really terrific, but much like EJ, I found the portion in which you examine his essay to be tacked on, without much connection to the rest, breaking up what otherwise was quite a lovely little mediation on a piece of your past.”

    Thanks for the (qualified) praise. I see connections.

    “There also is something quite weird about referring to the essay as “partisan” as if there are two valid sides to the question of the British treatment of the Irish, during their rule. There aren’t.”

    It was not partisan in seeing the British response to the famine as disastrous and inhumane (it was) but in seeing a particular revolutionary nationalist response as being the only appropriate response. There were other models being discussed at the time. No one can really say, but it’s quite possible that alternative approaches might have had a better outcome (and avoided some of the violence we saw in the latter part of the last century, for instance). It’s not a black-and-white issue.

    “And by the way, of course the Romans “imposed conformity.” That’s why my people — you know, the uppity Jews — are scattered all over the world.”

    This is what I actually claimed: “Even the Romans did not seek to impose *conformity or uniformity of belief* on the peoples they ruled.”

    In fact, they allowed a very large degree of religious freedom. They incorporated the gods of conquered peoples into their pantheon. And many Romans attended synagogues and converted to Judaism. Judaism was very popular and respected in Rome at one point. It was for many years a “permitted religion”. I know that from the latter part of the first century there was conflict with Jews (and Christians) but my point is that the Romans were more interested in controlling how people behaved than how they thought or what they believed.

  14. Mark, the Jewish wars with the Romans began, in good part, because of Roman imposition on and intolerance of Jewish religious belief and practice. Your “generalization” is so wide as to render it inaccurate in the particulars. Forcing Jews to accept statues of Roman emperors in their holy spaces — and this is just one example — is not just “controlling how people behave.” So, my criticism was correct, despite your effort to wave it away with generalization that in the case of the treatment of *my* people is false and had devastating effects that are still felt to this day.

    This also strikes me as committing a bit of the same kind of historical offense:

    “It was not partisan in seeing the British response to the famine as disastrous and inhumane (it was) but in seeing a particular revolutionary nationalist response as being the only appropriate response. There were other models being discussed at the time”

    In general I find rather weird the combination of your somewhat mild attitudes towards Empire and your quite negative ones regarding nations and nationalism.

    Anyway, it’s your essay. I just call ’em as I see ’em. And I didn’t think this section fit in with the rest at all. It seemed like a sudden “Oh, I should take a swipe at something ” moment. But, I told you as much privately, so, it shouldn’t be any surprise that that’s how it read to me.

  15. labnut

    Dan-K,
    What is parochial about the view that the critique of EJ’s piece felt tacked on?

    But that’s just the point, Mark’s mention of the Irish problem was not just tacked on. It was an integral part of the way he was developing his thought in the essay.

    Both you and EJ have hopelessly over-reacted and this has made you lose sight of what Mark was really saying. I am not sure why the two of you are so heavily emotionally invested but it does not help the understanding of Mark’s essay. If we want a vigorous discussion from many points of view we should not become offended when someone expresses a countervailing point of view. Mark was not trying to be offensive, instead he was trying to make an important point and chose striking examples to bring it across. You might disagree with his examples but do not let that get in the way of understanding what it is that he is trying to get across.

  16. Labnut, I have no idea what you are talking about. I stand by my assessment. A nice meditation on his Latin teacher was marred by a glossy side swipe at EJ’s piece, which contributed nothing to the whole and was too hand wavey to comprise any sort of substantial critique.

    Who was offended? I certainly wasn’t. You’re doing an awful lot of reading in.

  17. labnut

    Dan-K,
    . A nice meditation on his Latin teacher was marred by a glossy side swipe at EJ’s piece

    His essay was much more than a ‘nice meditation on his Latin teacher‘. He cleverly used his Latin teacher to set the scene for important thoughts about cultural continuities which are being lost under the onslaught of distorting nationalist myths. His essay is not and was not intended as a critique of EJ’s piece.

    His essay is very subtle and very clever. I often disagree with Mark, but by gosh, I think he has hit the mark with this essay 🙂

  18. Well, each of us has a different experience, I guess. I loved the personal meditation. The critique and the analysis of cultural continuity struck me as pretty shallow. Seems to me the latter needs more space to be something more than glib.

  19. Mark,
    once again, you managed to criticize my essay, “Politics and SONG’ without saying anything about song. . And you still insist I should have written a different essay than I actually did. I just didn’t have to include discussion of the issues you chide me for not mentioning, in order to make my case.

    “It’s the violent oppression which justifies reactive violence, not the myth!” I suggest that’s largely what happened in Ireland. One doesn’t have to be partisan for that, one may be merely reporting history. And I find it odd that in your presumably non-partizan ‘realist’ politics, you want the evident myth of a ‘United Kingdom’ to continue; especially since it’s clearly in your perceived self-interest that it does, as supportive of Commonwealth programs you like; who’s the ideologist now?

    Political myths are inescapable. In the instance of an oppressed people, the myths provide a narrative, emotionally rich focus for the efforts to throw over the oppression. Simply dismissing the myths is as good as dismissing the feelings they focus – that’s one reason I discussed this in terms of *song,* one of the ways we interact emotionally with each other. If the myths are in anyway dangerous or self-destructive, what is needed is to find healthier myths to replace them with – sing a more powerful song.

    BTW, semiotics is just the study of systems of signs and significations; sometimes you seem to see Commies lurking everywhere, but remember that the founder of semiotics was Charles Sanders Peirce. If you can find any of his connections to Marx, let us know.

    So, finally, that some supporters of Neoconservativism were radicals in their youth – and Hitchens has no place here, because he only threw in with the Neocons after 9/11, in his fierce hatred of Islamism – is really quite irrelevant to the sum and substance of the set of policies and their foundations the term refers to. These, again, are to be found in the Project for the New American Century. I linked their website, please show me the trace elements of Trotsky there. (Go to their “Statement of Principles,” note the signatories, and remark any Commies you find there. Dick Cheney? Jeb Bush? Donald Rumsfeld?)

    For that matter, if you’re going to make such a charge, you should at least be able to articulate which Neocon policy correlates with which Trotskyist principle.

    I recognize that what you’re trying to argue for is a certain kind of historically rooted cosmopolitanism that was once available to Europeans in the era when the British Empire seemed still in ascendance. From that perspective, Irish nationalism – any nationalism among the people whom the Europeans oppressed – would seem a threat, a narrowing of the possibility for such cosmopolitanism to continue. But outside of Europe, it was rather an artificial cosmopolitanism, since it refused to include the undeniable contributions non-Europeans could have made to it. What a different world this would be, had the British cooperatively worked with the political and social leaders of India, rather than conquering them and treating them as inferior peoples with a discredited past!

    But history is just what it is. And the force of history will move where it will. We do the best we can with what we have. But there’s no going back and changing it. Perhaps globalization is a good thing; hopefully we could achieve a more inclusive cosmopolitanism than what you enjoyed in your youth, or I in mine. But it will mean fostering myths of inclusion, not simply abandoning myth all together.

    And yeah, I think the notion that genetics in any way determines ethnic behavior is itself a complete myth, and a discredited one. Some scientists will continue to pursue it; but I doubt they’ll find the precise allele that determines an appreciation for an Irish ballad as opposed to, say, Beethoven’s Ninth.

  20. Perhaps globalization is a good thing; hopefully we could achieve a more inclusive cosmopolitanism than what you enjoyed in your youth, or I in mine. But it will mean fostering myths of inclusion, not simply abandoning myth all together.
    ===
    This is key. And I doubt it will happen, in part because the myths necessary are just unsustainable. I think cosmopolitanism is being rather oversold anyway. A certain amount of it is good, but beyond that point it simply involves a lot of cultural erasure … as well as a lot of lying to oneself and everyone else. Hence my mostly negative attitudes about much of what passes for globalization.

  21. This strikes me as another problem with side-swipe criticism. Now, rather than discussing the bulk of the piece, the conversation has shifted to the two short paragraphs about EJ’s piece. I always think it best to keep one’s tasks separate. If your aim is to rebut EJ, then write a piece about EJ’s essay. It was lengthy and substantial and can only be properly criticized if one has enough space to engage with its details. If your aim is to write about your Latin teacher and to meditate on how these reminiscences relate to your views on cultural continuity, then do that. But trying to do both at once simply lands you in this situation, which seems to me undesirable, since the latter and more substantial mission of the paper inevitably gets lost.

  22. labnut

    Dan-K,
    Well, each of us has a different experience, I guess

    Yes, and that is part of the point. I read and interpret his essay from the perspective of an Anglo-colonialist with deep experience of the system while you read it from an American perspective that is hostile to Anglo-colonialism. I see your perspective as parochial and you probably see my perspective as exploitative and self-serving. There is a gap between us that needs to be bridged.

    You think of his treatment of cultural continuity as being shallow. I see instead an essay that that resembles a delicate watercolour painting which one would not dream of criticising for lacking the detail and precision of an engineering drawing. He has used a literary device to evoke the thoughts and feelings of a ‘lost world‘. Because of my background I instantly recognised this ‘lost world‘ and mourned its loss. I think your background blocks you from recognising what I see, hence I made the probably unfair accusation of parochialism. On the other hand you are far more cosmopolitan than the average American, and a scholar to boot, so I must open myself to the possibility you have seen more than I do.

    But at the very least I hope my differing viewpoint will encourage you to see Mark’s essay differently. I think it deserves that.

  23. labnut

    Dan-K,
    If your aim is to rebut EJ, then write a piece about EJ’s essay.

    But that clearly was not his aim.

  24. Yes, that was my point. The sideswipe detracted from — because it distracted attention from — his aim.

  25. Actually, Labnut, I read it from an Israeli perspective, which is even more hostile to Anglo-colonialism. My father, when he was in the Haganah, fought against the British, who were preventing Jewish refugees from the concentration camps from getting into then-Palestine. My father was knifing British soldiers when he was 14 years old, as he tried to smuggle refugees from Auschwitz and Treblinka, past the British fucks who controlled the country.

  26. labnut

    Dan-K,
    , I read it from an Israeli perspective … My father was knifing British soldiers when he was 14 years old … the British fucks who controlled the country.

    and now the Arabs are returning the compliment in the same way since they bitterly resent the Israeli “fucks who controlled the country.

    So is the Israeli perspective also not suspect? You may reply that this is a crude characterisation with no understanding of the complexities and nuances of the conflict. And you will be right but you will have made my point for me.

    Just for the record, I deeply admire the Israeli people but they are embedded in a quagmire that may never be resolved. Perhaps the British were right after all.

  27. The British were right about what? Not letting Jewish refugees from Auschwitz and Treblinka into the country? Because that’s what I was speaking to. And Jews fought in the 8th Army against Rommel, during WWII.

    I won’t litigate the Arab/Israeli conflict with you, here. I may do an essay on it at some point.

  28. I suppose because my essay was the target for the criticism, I read Mark’s in reverse of how Dan and labnut have; I see it as a critique with an admittedly charming anecdote tacked onto it. And I suspect there is some deeper emotion involved; perhaps Mark blames nationalist movements among (post)colonials for having robbed him of the possibility for continuing experiences such as he enjoyed in his youth. But he has a problem, which he partly acknowledges; the (supposedly benign?) myth of British imperialism that constructed the world making those experiences possible, resonates uncomfortably well with the American imperialist myth that Neoconservatism stems from- as it should, since the historical model the Neocons rely on is clearly Pax Britannica (and nothing Trotskyite as far as I can see). And there is little benign, in Mark’s view (as in mine, BTW) about the myth of American imperialism.

    And I have another suspicion, that what Mark wants to claim for Ireland is that the independence-nationalists stole the island, despite the many opposition parties in Ireland and Britain; but this just isn’t true. The songs tell us that. The songs are overwhelmingly independence-nationalist, and won over the majority of the Irish people by well expressing their anxieties and resentment during British rule.That’s why it was utterly unnecessary to provide an overview of Irish politics of that era; the independence-nationalists won, and songs played their part in that, and that’s all I needed to discuss.

    Well, I’m doing a lot of supposing and suspecting and ‘perhapsing’ here, and perhaps none of it is justified. However, that’s one of the problems with Mark’s writings on history or politics – one sometimes reads implicature rather than direct statement, and there is often direct statement that requires unpacking. That’s why the Trotskyism remark is so terribly odd – what is it doing there? It is a flat statement that is not only ill-founded, but actually has nothing to do with the problems of Neoconservatism or American imperialism. Its rhetorical purpose seems to be to imply a deep relationship between Neconservatism and Marxism (rather than Pax Britannica), and that’s simply false.

    Mark,
    sorry for writing of you in the third person in this remark. You can reject any of my supposing and suspecting here, and I’ll gladly renounce it. But I suggest stating your positions as explicitly as possible in the future. Clearly (to me) you have two essays here, one which is beautifully evocative, and one that is highly debatable. You think the two reflect on one another, and apparently others have been persuaded to this view; but the debatable essay obviously just opens up to more debate, which Dan says detracts from the other, evocative essay, but which seems to me to effectively trivialize the other. All right, there are Irish who lived elsewhere than Ireland who taught Latin – what has that got to do with the War of Independence? Or with Neoconservatism, or the problem of imperialism? Or with semiotics? or with Trostkyism? I don’t see it.

  29. you have two essays here, one which is beautifully evocative, and one that is highly debatable. You think the two reflect on one another, and apparently others have been persuaded to this view; but the debatable essay obviously just opens up to more debate, which Dan says detracts from the other, evocative essay, but which seems to me to effectively trivialize the other.

    = = =

    This, this, and this.

  30. labnut

    Dan-K
    The British were right about what?

    The British were deeply ambivalent about establishing an Israeli homeland. Now we can see their misgivings were well founded.

    Not letting Jewish refugees from Auschwitz and Treblinka into the country?

    Better solutions could and should have been have been found.

    And Jews fought in the 8th Army against Rommel, during WWII.

    And South Africans fought in all major engagements with distinction. In every town and city in this country are cenotaphs listing the names of the war dead. My father and uncles all did active duty on the major fronts. My father was repatriated with war injuries. The rest of his life was plagued by PTSD. All of us were affected by the war but it gives us no special privileges.

    Oddly enough, I think there is one workable solution to the Arab/Israeli dispute and that is to embrace the South African solution to the Apartheid conflict.

    I may do an essay on it at some point.

    I really do look forward to it.

  31. Over 80% of my family lives in Israel. It is a flourishing, thriving, successful democracy, as well as an economic powerhouse, despite the atavistic, basket-case countries surrounding it.

    So, no, the “misgivings” of the British were not well-founded. They were based in their instinctive Arabist attitudes, which goes back to their Imperialism.

    And they lost it all. The Empire and Palestine with it.

    I think you missed my point about Jews serving in the 8th Army. After aiding Britain in the war effort, they certainly deserved better than to have their refugees from the Nazi camps turned back. My father refers to the British as ultimately perfidious, and I understand why.

  32. labnut

    EJ,
    …and apparently others have been persuaded to this view

    No, I have not been persuaded. The unity and logic of the essay was evident to me at first sight. But it provoked the special sensitivities of Dan-K and yourself leading to what I see as a large over-reaction.

  33. I love how we can’t see past our “special sensitivities” because we disagree with Mark, but you can, because you agree with him.

    Amazing.

  34. labnut

    Dan-K,
    My father refers to the British as ultimately perfidious, and I understand why.

    Every time you say something like that you are seemingly unaware that this is exactly how the Palestinians perceive you. These simplistic, broad, sweeping judgements do not do the problem justice. They are handy for myth making but little else And that after all is a central point that Mark is making.

  35. Labnut, I made the context very clear. We are talking about 1945.

  36. labnut

    Dan-K,
    Amazing.

    We all have our blind spots and I have twice as many as the average person. It has something to do with macular degeneration 🙂

    We have had a good discussion and I hope I was not unduly offensive. I certainly do look forward to your essay about the Arab/Israeli conflict.

    I recommend Tuvia Tenenbom’s book ‘Catch the Jew’ for its irreverent, funny and often polemical views of Israel. Here is a hostile review of the book in the Tablet. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/189839/tuvia-tenenbom. Don’t be put off by the review. I think the book is worth reading if you can endure his writing style.

  37. I persist in not being offended, Peter. Especially not by you. We go too far back and have shared too much!

  38. Hi Mark, I might have handled the introduction of EJ’s essay differently, but I did not find it as great a distraction as some others did. Given the quality of your writing, I begin to wonder if I should have taken Latin.
    ………….

    Hi EJ, I’m not going to get into the entire debate you and Mark are having, but I have to say I did think your essay was taking a side (even if that was not the topic). Not that that is bad, but it did seem that way.

    “I didn’t “praise” Irish nationalism; I discussed some of its origins, and one of its primary cultural expressions.”

    That seems an understatement, especially given the closing lines of your essay in favor of songs to motivate resistance. Go back and read them. Given the entire essay before it, it looked to me like you were meaning certain Irish songs were a rousing good example.

    To the above statement by you, Mark responded:

    “You presented one strand of Irish thought and cultural and political activism in a very favorable light… I called your approach “partisan”. This seems like a fair description.”

    Honestly, that seems a fair assessment of the approach. Your point that it was not the message or target of the essay, also seems fair.
    ……………

    Hi Dan, I don’t understand your criticism of Mark’s characterization of Rome’s lack of imposing uniformity. Israel was conquered and so obviously *some* changes were going to be imposed. Relative to other empires, and even small kingdoms (like say, Israel), at that time in human history, their treatment of conquered people was less drastic in demanding changes to beliefs and practices.

  39. Dwayne: The Persians were less demanding on Jewish practice and belief. So, your “relative to other empires” claim is false.

    http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~rauhn/Hist303/Persian_Empire.htm

    I have a degree in this period, so I know something about it. Roman toleration is overstated.

  40. > You make it much too simple. (…) And the Belgians, for example, were far, far worse than the British as colonial administrators.

    I’m not an expert in the matter, but I do think that your relatively benign view on British imperialism makes you forget that, indeed, thing weren’t that simple. “The Belgians” – meaning Belgian parliament and the government, who only represented the very few people who could vote – didn’t want a colony in the first place. They blocked several attempts of king Leopold II to acquire one. In the end, he did it on his own – with the approval of the great European powers, the UK included.
    Parliament and government preferred to look the other way when Leopold ruled Congo Free State, which makes them at least partly responsible for the cruelties. But it doesn’t make them incompetent colonial administrators. “The Belgians” weren’t administrating Congo Free State.
    In the end “the Belgians” had to take over Congo Free State, but they were far from eager to do so. It took two years of debate and new elections before Belgium accepted.
    Where they “far, far worse” as colonial administrators? They were racist, cruel and paternalist, no doubt about that. But were “the Brits” so much better in this respect? In the 40 odd years that “the Belgians” ruled the Congo, they were occupied twice by Germany, there was the great depression etc. Ruling a colony wasn’t an easy task, in those circumstances. Nevertheless, according to some studies, the Congo had the highest living standards below the Sahara before independence.
    The transition to independence was a bloody mess, and again, I feel Belgium should take responsibility for it. But in view of the bloody mess created by the partition of India, it’s a bit rich to read that the Brits were better colonial administrators. They had much more experience with it, and I get the impression that they really liked to rule over pieces of Asia and Africa (unlike the Belgians), but better? Come on, please.

    Your piece would have been a lot better without the references to Ireland, another colony of Great-Britain.

  41. Hi Mark. No-one has commented much on your main topic, Latin at school and university. My schooling — in the same place and time as yours — was language-free. This article made me regret never having learnt it. It seems Latin is having a mini-revival in some places.
    Alan

    http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-Vatican-s-Latinist-8618

  42. Hi Dan, I am definitely *not* a historian, so will gladly accept your word that “Roman toleration is overstated.”

    That said…

    1) When I said relative to other empires/kingdoms, I did not mean that no exceptions could be found. It was speaking in general, not absolute. It’s like saying Bobby scores better on tests relative to other students. There could be some that match or exceed. The statement is still true as long as for the most part Bobby is significantly better than the average. So bringing up the Persians, while interesting, is not itself a falsification of what I was saying. But perhaps you meant Romans were about the same or worse than most countries at that time, and just gave Persia as an example?

    2) It’s not like I had no history courses or interest in history of that period, not to mention so much biblical stuff related to that time. After your reply, I went to recheck my memory (now specifically about Israel) and it was close to what I found. When Rome took over the area that was Israel (called a different name at the time) it was tolerant to Jews, and if anything ended repression by previous conquerors (which also partially involved Jewish internecine warfare). It was only later, under Caligula (who broke from Roman tradition), that problems began to mount, eventually leading under succeeding emperors to an attempted national revolt (3 actually) that solidified Roman opposition and oppression of Jews. And this included plenty of Jewish internecine conflicts, which eventually led to the rise of Christianity. But even then there was at least one Emperor who tried to restore Rome’s original relationship (until he was killed). Obviously that was simplified, but as a general sketch is that wrong?

    If you have good cites, I’m interested. And on this particular question (Roman toleration), I’d be interested in more than just how Romans treated Jews.

  43. Dwayne: Yes, you have it correct, the conflicts with the Jews started with Caligula, but persisted afterwards. But so what? The conflict was at least in part over Roman efforts to impose upon Jewish belief and practice, which is what we were talking about. Mark said the Romans pretty much only controlled how people behaved, but not what they believed and the Jewish case is a counterexample. You said “relative to other empires,” etc., and I gave a counterexample, in the Persian empire. Not sure what the problem is supposed to be. And my reference to being an historian of the period was only intended to assure you that I wasn’t just talking out of my ass. Or that I just looked something up on Wikipedia.

    And here’s another thing I said: the drive-by slap at EJ’s piece, wedged into what was essentially a memoir, would distract all attention from the bulk of the essay. And that’s exactly what’s happened. I suggested he not do it before publishing, but at the end of the day, it is his piece and he can do what he likes.

  44. Hi labnut

    I’m glad you related to what I was saying. Thanks for coming in here. I appreciate what you have said in support of my essay and its themes.

  45. Now to some of the best parts of the essay:

    1. The portrait of the Latin teacher was very well painted. The man came to life. Like the best impressionists, Mark can convey a lot, without unnecessary detail.

    2. The point about there not being languages but just overlapping idiolects is interesting. I actually wouldn’t mind reading a whole essay just on that. I can see some echoes of Quine on the indeterminacy of translation there.

    3. I would have actually liked to hear more about the world Mark says is lost. It is alluded to at the end, but not enough is said for me to form a full picture.

  46. Dan

    “In general I find rather weird the combination of your somewhat mild attitudes towards Empire and your quite negative ones regarding nations and nationalism.”

    I am reacting against certain kinds of nationalist myth; in particular, violent revolutionary nationalism which I generally see – as you are well aware – in a negative light. Of course, you need to look at particular cases.

    I’m also strongly opposed to attacks which target civilians such as the attacks carried out by the Provisional IRA in England in the latter part of the 20th century. Many other radical and nationalist groups do this sort of thing of course – Islamic extremists are the main culprits today. I see my position on this more as a moral position than a political one.

    Neoconservativism is more imperialistic than nationalistic, but it seems to incorporate a kind of unreasoning, revolutionary fervor. At any rate, it is an example of just the kind of myth-based thinking we do *not* need, in my opinion.

  47. I’m curious, Mark, what your feelings are about Imperialist myths, other than neoconservativsm.

  48. “The portrait of the Latin teacher was very well painted. The man came to life.”

    I’m glad. And I’m also glad that he knew (I’m confident of it) that we boys respected and were fond of him. In that sense he was fulfilled.

    “The point about there not being languages but just overlapping idiolects is interesting. I actually wouldn’t mind reading a whole essay just on that. I can see some echoes of Quine on the indeterminacy of translation there.”

    Chomsky talks about it. I hadn’t thought about it in relation to Quine.

    “I would have actually liked to hear more about the world Mark says is lost. It is alluded to at the end, but not enough is said for me to form a full picture.”

    Labnut seemed to know what I was talking about. Maybe it is something you need to have experienced. I suspect that if I did flesh it out certain people might just say “good riddance”. 🙂

  49. I’m glad. And I’m also glad that he knew (I’m confident of it) that we boys respected and were fond of him. In that sense he was fulfilled.

    = = =

    The older I get, the more I wonder whether this really is the only ultimate fulfillment there is. The positive effect one has on particular individuals. I used to be much more concerned with legacy, in a more abstract sense, but more and more, it’s the personal that seems really to matter.

  50. ejwinner

    “And I find it odd that in your presumably non-partizan ‘realist’ politics, you want the evident myth of a ‘United Kingdom’ to continue; especially since it’s clearly in your perceived self-interest that it does, as supportive of Commonwealth programs you like; who’s the ideologist now?”

    This is complete nonsense. Self-interest? The programs I mentioned (student exchanges, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, Commonwealth Games) I have no involvement in. The Commonwealth seemed like a force for good when my father was involved in those things. It may have outlived its usefulness or (who knows?) it may once again play an important moderating role. The concept (myth) behind it may not be the most potent, but it is at least benign – a family of nations.

    I have not written about my views of the UK and its future. In fact, I don’t have any very strong views on that question.

    “If the myths are in anyway dangerous or self-destructive, what is needed is to find healthier myths to replace them with – sing a more powerful song.”

    Or a funny song? Or a love song?

    “… Semiotics is just the study of systems of signs and significations; sometimes you seem to see Commies lurking everywhere, but remember that the founder of semiotics was Charles Sanders Peirce. If you can find any of his connections to Marx, let us know.”

    I have a very high regard for C.S. Peirce, always have. But unfortunately much (most if my sampling was representative) late-20th-century semiotics is shot through with leftist ideology.

    “… if you’re going to make such a charge, you should at least be able to articulate which Neocon policy correlates with which Trotskyist principle.”

    I can’t deal with this here, but a lot has been written about it. One thing that comes immediately to mind is the revolutionary mindset (regime change, and so on). Also the idea of this being an ongoing process, and an international process, moving from country to country. They have a one-size-fits-all blueprint which they seek to impose. My God, even Francis Fukuyama saw the problem. But he saw neocons as reflecting *Leninist* traits: “Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version, and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States. Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.”

    Paul Gottfried also highlighted the revolutionary element in neocon thinking. He has characterized neocons – not implausibly – as “ranters out of a Dostoyevskian novel, who are out to practise permanent revolution courtesy of the U.S. government.” They are not conservatives, he argues: “What make[s] neocons most dangerous [is] the leftist revolutionary fury they express.”

    This is a contentious analysis, I know. But the fact that the movement grew out of the anti-Stalinist left is *not* contentious.

  51. Hi Dan, I was definitely *not* complaining that you referred to your background in history. That is a point well taken.

    “Yes, you have it correct, the conflicts with the Jews started with Caligula, but persisted afterwards. But so what?”

    Well in this case Mark was simply talking about Roman practices. That there might be aberrations due to specific leaders, or historical events, does not undercut his point what general Roman practices were. I guess I could see your complaint if he specified treatment of Jews to make it sound like the Romans always treated them well (and never touched their beliefs), but that was not how it read to me at all. The fact that Caligula was the start of a notable exception, which is not how it started and there were changes since then, means it is inaccurate to use it as an example of general practice.

    “You said “relative to other empires,” etc., and I gave a counterexample, in the Persian empire. Not sure what the problem is supposed to be. ”

    I wasn’t saying that was a problem. That was an interesting example. I just explained why a single example of an empire that had equal or better practices did not address what I trying to get at with my statement. Would you agree that Rome was better than *most* kingdoms and empires at that time in not trying to enforce uniform beliefs?

    “… the drive-by slap at EJ’s piece, wedged into what was essentially a memoir, would distract all attention from the bulk of the essay. ”

    While I was not effected by it as much as you were, I did say to Mark that I probably would have handled EJ’s essay differently. So it’s not like I entirely disagree with your criticism.

  52. The fact that Caligula was the start of a notable exception, which is not how it started and there were changes since then, means it is inaccurate to use it as an example of general practice.

    = = =

    I don’t agree. It is a perfectly good counterexample to a generalization that had been made.

    I have no idea whether the Roman empire was better than “most kingdoms” and I suspect you don’t either. There have been a lot of kingdoms.

    Generalization / counterexample. Pretty common stuff. And that’s all I did.

  53. You’re right that I don’t actually *know* how the Roman Empire compared to other nations. I gave a belief based on what I had been taught and read about that empire. It was an impression, formed from what I took to be useful sources, but I am willing to change it.

    “It is a perfectly good counterexample to a generalization that had been made.”

    Generalizations can be useful, even when there are counterexamples. For example, these days I’m often running into the use of exceptions to undercut generalizations on the subject of healthcare. Generally speaking, single-payer (aka socialized) medical systems provide better care for all, for less. But Republicans have been making a lot of progress against it using scare-tactics based on small numbers of counterexamples, where the systems failed. While true, they do not represent a useful model for how such systems typically operate.

    I took Mark’s point, in that way. This is how the Romans typically operated.

    But maybe I didn’t understand *your* point. If all you meant with your counterexample was to remind him, “not always!” Then, ok.

    I thought you were using the counterexample to argue the Roman Empire *never* acted the way he described, and that the opposite generalization was better (analogous to what Reps are doing with single-payer healthcare). It was that idea that drove my question.

  54. couvent

    My understanding is that the Belgian Congo was a particularly nasty example of European colonialism. But I confess I don’t know a lot about it. Reading Joseph Conrad’s stories (‘An Outpost of Progress’, but especially ‘Heart of Darkness’) sparked my interest.

    “… in view of the bloody mess created by the partition of India, it’s a bit rich to read that the Brits were better colonial administrators. They had much more experience with it, and I get the impression that they really liked to rule over pieces of Asia and Africa (unlike the Belgians), but better? Come on, please.”

    I have a less negative view of what the British did than you have. I thought the remark about Belgium – as the Congo is often quoted as a particularly bad example of European colonialism – was uncontroversial. But I am happy to agree that Britain and Belgium are not comparable as colonial powers because one did so much more colonizing than the other.

    “Your piece would have been a lot better without the references to Ireland, another colony of Great-Britain.”

    I wanted to distinguish nationalism from patriotism, and make a link between the early Latinist Joachim du Bellay and my Latin teacher. They both had a strong attachment to their native land without nationalism being involved.

    The other references may have seemed out of place, but I suspect part of the problem is that you disagree with my view of Ireland and its position vis-à-vis other parts of the British Isles. It’s a complex question. There’s plenty of scope for reasonable people to disagree on this issue.

  55. Mark,
    Well, I’m glad we’ve got some meat on the Trotskyite bone. You’re mistaking sniping between Paleo and Neo Conservatives for substantive theoretical claims (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoconservatism_and_paleoconservatism). It doesn’t matter where Neocon thought began, what matters is where it ended up. And the practical fact of the matter is that the Neocons, in their greatest political success, realized their ideas most completely in the George W. Bush Administration, which included many signatories to the PNAC position papers, and I just don’t see any of these as Marxist by even the most extreme imagining.

    Fukuyama actually wrote a considerably more nuanced postmortem, that I suggest the reader look at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/19/magazine/after-neoconservatism.html .

    I know you want it to be Commies all the way down, but that just won’t wash – Neoconservativism is a right-wing orientation, and the plan for continued US hegemony doesn’t look anything like Trotsky’s principle of perpetual revolution of the proletariat.

    “‘sing a more powerful song.”’
    Or a funny song? Or a love song?”

    Sing any song you want, certainly. I never claimed that song per se is political, but in certain contexts song can obviously express the political in a meaningful – and musical – way. That’s the topic you’re trying to avoid.

    If you think the Commonwealth programs you like contribute to a social order you find comfortable, then whether you’re involved in them or not, you should see them in your self interest. That’s the nature of politics. I’m supportive of a host of programs I never will partake in, because it’s in my interest that such programs exist, contributing to a what I perceive as a healthier social environment. I may have misread you, but this is clearly not nonsense.

    Finally: Semiotics just is a certain study; what individual practitioners do with that doesn’t change that. Or… Since Chomsky clearly uses understanding derived from his linguistics to make claims concerning the use of language in politics, and he’s clearly a leftist, then I suppose we’ll just have to chuck linguistics from the Academy – dam’ commies! Oops! – there goes all your discussion on idiolects; sorry.

  56. ejwinner

    “I know you want it to be Commies all the way down, but that just won’t wash…”

    I find your talk of me looking for “Commies” everywhere as if I were some kind of American 1950s stereotype almost offensive. It *would* be offensive if it were not so childish and silly. You are clearly trying to ridicule me. But please look at what I actually said.

    “Neoconservativism is a right-wing orientation…”

    Not only am I not denying this, I explicitly said this.

    “… and the plan for continued US hegemony doesn’t look anything like Trotsky’s principle of perpetual revolution of the proletariat.”

    Of course it doesn’t. Nobody is suggesting it did.

    What I said was that the key founders of neoconservativism came from a radical background (anti-Stalinist left). This is irrefutable.

    The point and relevance of this claim – which I did not discuss – is that traces of that background may be seen to exist in their later attitudes and points of view. As I say, I have not tried to make that case, and only started to make it in the comment thread in response to you.

    “… in certain contexts song can obviously express the political in a meaningful – and musical – way. That’s the topic you’re trying to avoid.”

    It’s not my frigging topic!

    “If you think the Commonwealth programs you like contribute to a social order you find comfortable, then whether you’re involved in them or not, you should see them in your self interest. That’s the nature of politics. I’m supportive of a host of programs I never will partake in, because it’s in my interest that such programs exist, contributing to a what I perceive as a healthier social environment. I may have misread you, but this is clearly not nonsense.”

    The programs I mentioned were about as apolitical as you can get: scholarships, athletics, orienteering, etc..

    “Finally: Semiotics just is a certain study; what individual practitioners do with that doesn’t change that. Or… Since Chomsky clearly uses understanding derived from his linguistics to make claims concerning the use of language in politics, and he’s clearly a leftist, then I suppose we’ll just have to chuck linguistics from the Academy – dam’ commies! Oops! – there goes all your discussion on idiolects; sorry.”

    More of the same… You’ll say you are joking. But the joke isn’t funny. Sorry.

  57. Mark and EJ: I have no problem with a strong, vigorous debate. But let’s not allow it to slide into the kind of nastiness we are familiar with … elsewhere. Remember, we are one family, and both of you are very valued contributors, whose work makes this magazine the success that it is!

  58. “‘… in certain contexts song can obviously express the political in a meaningful – and musical – way. That’s the topic you’re trying to avoid.’
    It’s not my frigging topic!”

    It was the topic of the article you spent half your own essay criticizing. One pays for the house, the basement comes with it.

    “The point and relevance of this claim – which I did not discuss – is that traces of that background may be seen to exist in their later attitudes and points of view.”

    That’s a substantial point, worthy of further discussion. I would disagree in general, but it may apply to some of the Neocon theorists, and it is worth investigating how these interacted with Neocons who were clearly never on the left, like Cheney and Jeb Bush. I think my problem here is that you just dropped the topic into your essay, where it may have ended up implying more than you intended, and in way that distracted.

    My semiotics remark is clear, “commies” snark aside; a lot of theorists use the tools of their profession for political ends, that doesn’t make the tools themselves suspect. I think at least some race-based genetic research is politically motivated; but the genetics research tools they use are not.

    “The programs I mentioned were about as apolitical as you can get: scholarships, athletics, orienteering, etc..”

    I certainly hope that’s true in your country; it hasn’t been so much in mine. And I don’t how you would argue non-politically for budgeting such programs in the current climate.

    Finally, I willingly drop the “commie” snarking. I meant no offense, but I can understand you’re being rankled by it, and apologize.

    However, I suggest that suspecting left ideology whenever an issue comes up that you find disagreeable to some extent, is probably not helpful to your own causes.

    And while I am not one who believes that ‘everything is political,’ I’m afraid that in any field of community interest, politics is simply inescapable. I think you find this itself disagreeable, and having been raised in an era when it was hoped certain community interests could transcend the political, I understand this and even sympathize. But by the time I received my doctorate, I was thoroughly disabused of this illusion. If there are interests involved and disagreement over those interests, there will be politics.

  59. Dan,
    I apologized to Mark for my “commie” snarks, and I apologize to you as well. I suppose I was reading too many comments… elsewhere, and forgot to change gears posting here.

    I have great respect for Mark, and always find his writing well-crafted, interesting and challenging. I think we share a similar pessimism concerning the present state of the world, but clearly disagree as to its origins or how to respond to it. Hopefully, in this disagreement we can generate a space for creative response.

  60. It’s all good! You guys are both terrific writers. Without you both, this magazine would be tremendously diminished.

  61. Dan,
    Hope we can get past this.

    Thinking about this, I’m beginning to realize that Mark and I are from such different backgrounds (“universes,” as Mark puts it), that we just tend to push each others’ buttons without realizing it. I hope we can find some way to reach an understanding so that we can express ourselves differently, or allow different expressions from each other.

    Mark, I hope that you see that this wish is sincere. I know that I’m to the left and you’re to the right, but I don’t think that’s the problem here. Rather, our differing experiences have generated a slippery overlap of our idiolects (which point you made in the article I largely agree with, although I recognize the view is controversial).

    Famously, Strother Martin’s character remarks, in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Hopefully, let’s not get that far. On many issues we’re actually closer than either of us recognize, we just express it differently.

  62. dbholmes,
    “That seems an understatement, especially given the closing lines of your essay in favor of songs to motivate resistance. Go back and read them. Given the entire essay before it, it looked to me like you were meaning certain Irish songs were a rousing good example.”

    Some of the inspiration for my own essay was Dan’s response to Mark’s article on nationalism, which included a photograph of his relatives at a train-station.

    Our bodies are both the first and last witnesses to history. This is hardly deniable. The bodies of the dead at Auschwitz, of survivors of Dachau,are all we really need to know of the Holocaust.

    But my uneasy relationship with Irish culture (and remember from the introduction from my article, that I do not identify myself as ‘Irish’ in any sense, either genetically or culturally) resolves in the appreciation of Irish music, as fundamentally an expression of the body during an era of extreme oppression. Song is of the body; the body is inescapably entangled in the politics of its era.

    Please here note that the song I last link to (endnote 10). is Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit;” Hardly an Irish rebel song; but a song of resistance? Yes, obviously; and where is the wrong of that? Resistance is sometimes politically necessary – even Mark doesn’t degree with that.

    He just doesn’t think the myths (or their musical expressions) are necessary (or particularly useful). I do.

  63. The aunt of my first girlfriend, now lost to me in time, and my bad decisions, and the natural passage of life into death…

    … had a number branded into her arm. The body speaks. It also sings.

  64. labnut

    Hi EJ,
    I’m beginning to realize that Mark and I are from such different backgrounds (“universes,” as Mark puts it),

    Yes, that is the problem. I of course inhabit another universe that overlaps Mark’s universe sufficiently that I recognise and am responsive to, that I can sympathise with his point of view.

    I hope we can find some way to reach an understanding so that we can express ourselves differently, or allow different expressions from each other.

    Eric(this is another Eric, very insightful), over at HowToBeAStoic, memorably said we ought to enter imaginatively into each other’s world-views. I found that so striking that I have repeatedly quoted him. This then is the answer – to cultivate a sincere desire to enter imaginatively another person’s world-view. Every time someone writes something we are given a glimpse of his world-view. And as we read more of that person’s writing we assemble a more complete picture of their world-view.

    It is in our literature, especially fiction, poetry and history that we enter most fully into other world-views. This is a vital process. Without it we become solipsistic. And as we enter into other world-views we are enabled to knit them together into a composite world-view where we see our place in it and a larger, grander world-view. This creates a mutual understanding that engenders trust, the most vital ingredient of a cooperative society.

    I want to emphasise this point about the importance of trust. When Mark wrote his retrospective piece and exposed something of himself, it was an act of trust. He hoped and trusted that others would read his words with sympathetic understanding. This does not mean we must agree but only that we should be charitable in our assessment, with a sincere desire to understand. Every act that damages trust is like a dagger to the heart of society. It is that important.

    So what has gone wrong. This is my diagnosis. As part of the trend towards scientism we have become fixated on the idea of truth. Science seeks the truth. And in science, for a given problem there is only one truth. This kind of thinking has been absorbed by society in general and is now applied by us all. But society cannot be usefully understood through the prism of single truths. The complex kaleidoscope of society defies reduction to the simplistic categories of truth and falsehood.

    But the enormous success of science has made this view irresistible. This creates severe problems, chief of which is that we feel the obligation to detect and correct lack of truth. This is an emotion that is viscerally felt and is powerful. This is, I believe, at the heart of our dispute. It is also I believe, the root cause of the culture wars. Thus Dan-K and EJ reacted strongly to statements they saw as contradictions of the received view of the truth, setting out to correct this and restore what they believed was a true view of the world.

    But whose view of the truth should prevail? Is there only one truth? Can a single person possess the truth? Is it useful to insist on only one truth? Or should we not rather leave our own truths behind and give ourselves the space to examine other people’s truths? This is what I am urging. And if in reply you raise an et tu quoque argument I will plead guilty. I am weak but desire to be stronger.

  65. ejwinner

    [I had drafted this before I saw labnut’s “diagnosis”. But I will post this as it stands even though I suspect parts of it will annoy him. Labnut: Nice comment. I’ll come in later on it.]

    “Thinking about this, I’m beginning to realize that Mark and I are from such different backgrounds (“universes,” as Mark puts it), that we just tend to push each others’ buttons without realizing it. I hope we can find some way to reach an understanding… Mark, I hope that you see that this wish is sincere.”

    I don’t doubt your sincerity.

    I’m not suggesting that I always express myself perfectly or even appropriately but I am pretty scrupulously courteous, and only used some slightly strong language here in reaction to what I saw as your mocking tone and cumulative misreadings of what I was trying to say.

    Let me give one example. I conceded earlier in the comment thread that I had used your essay for my own purposes and had not given a full and fair account of it. But in subsequent comments you wrote as if I had made no such concession. Thus the frustration when you accused me of trying to avoid the topic of political songs. (I responded: “It’s not my frigging topic!”).

    Sure I “press your buttons”. But this is no surprise. I reject large parts of the general view of the world which you have articulated from time to time.

    “I know that I’m to the left and you’re to the right, but I don’t think that’s the problem here. Rather, our differing experiences have generated a slippery overlap of our idiolects (which point you made in the article I largely agree with, although I recognize the view is controversial).”

    Yes, it’s not just politics. I think we have radically opposed views of the world, including on the role and status of various kinds of knowledge. I think your views – not all of them by any means, but some of the central ones – are both mistaken and socially deleterious. This is my honest opinion. I may be wrong on both counts. But it’s no wonder that you will react against me when I touch on these matters.

    “On many issues we’re actually closer than either of us recognize, we just express it differently.”

    On some issues we are close.

    “I think we share a similar pessimism concerning the present state of the world, but clearly disagree as to its origins or how to respond to it. Hopefully, in this disagreement we can generate a space for creative response.”

    You can do the creative response. I’m more of a quietist. Stuff happens. As I see it, the real creative response is broad-based and organic and pretty much out of individual control. It’s decidedly *not* a Romantic thing. I’ll content myself with trying to see the world more clearly – and not doing gratuitous harm.

  66. ejwinner

    “Resistance is sometimes politically necessary – even Mark doesn’t degree with that… He just doesn’t think the myths (or their musical expressions) are necessary (or particularly useful). I do.”

    I accept that myths are built into how we think. So certainly I accept that they are necessary in a general sense. And useful. All too useful!

    What I have been criticizing are particular kinds of myth and the way they may be used. Political myths are necessary. But they also distort and simplify reality, and so can be dangerous. It’s largely by virtue of the fact that they simplify (and so distort) reality that they are useful in facilitating and encouraging political action. Think of a bunch of boys marching to war and singing stirring songs. They are being manipulated by a myth. In the vast majority of cases, they – and their families – will suffer for it. The nation or whatever the driving myth – goddess Liberty, say – is a cruel master/mistress. It is heartless. It doesn’t care. And all too often such myths are consciously exploited by cynical (political or military) leaders who likewise don’t care about the individuals whose lives they are destroying or poisoning.

    (Sometimes you need to fight. I am not denying this.)

  67. Giovanni Dassa

    This was a fascinating essay. Sidestepping the issues talked about the comment section it evokes such a clear picture of a world long gone. It also touched me emotionally since it shows how the world we grow up can change even before we die to something unrecognizable. This is surprising since I am a young American growing up in the Midwestern suburbs. This so far from my experience and my only exposure to this world is from satires from Monty Python which I hardly consider a reliable guide. Hopefully more essays like this will be written.

  68. Giovanni

    Thanks very much. I find it encouraging that people of your age and background can engage emotionally with what I am talking about.

  69. My last comment to ejwinner had a section in bold type. Only the first sentence of that section was meant to be bolded.

  70. Alan

    Regarding your comment of the 23rd: I have just seen it. I think it must have been delayed for some reason, and has only just been posted.

    The point I would want to emphasize is that Latin will never be mainstream again. It played a significant role in European and anglophone culture – and it no longer does, and never will again. And, in a way, the article you linked to only serves to underscore this point.

  71. Mark: Bold face has been fixed.

  72. Dan

    No it hasn’t! The sentence I wanted in bold was: “It’s largely by virtue of the fact that they simplify (and so distort) reality that they are useful in facilitating and encouraging political action.”

    Next time I’ll take more care. Or maybe forgo the HTML! Who needs bold anyway?

  73. I bolded the wrong one. Fixing it now.

  74. I’m sure you’re right. Alea iacta est.

  75. There is one more point I would like to make in relation to the discussion with ejwinner, specifically about Irish nationalism. In his essay on politics and song, he referred briefly to a different kind of song…

    “One might object that I haven’t remarked on “the Troubles” in Northern Island, so I will. There have been political songs on both sides of that conflict, as well as, in recent decades, admonitions to peace. [6] They are all Irish.” (He goes on to say that the Unionists may see themselves as British but nobody else does. In his view, one can’t be both Irish and British.)

    I don’t want to mount an argument here, but I just want to point out that there are less nationalistic and less parochial ways of being Irish, and a song can illustrate this.

    Note 6 references three songs, only one of which I know: Zombie, by the Cranberries. The YouTube video has had nearly 500 million views.

    The song is Irish: the accent certainly is. And (controversially) there is a reference to the 1916 rebellion – which is seen in terms of violence rather than liberation. But my main point is this: what sparked the writing of this song was a bomb attack by the Provisional IRA or a related group *in England* which killed two children. Such “admonitions to peace” transcend the nationalist narrative. That is their whole point.

  76. Mark,
    “The song is Irish: the accent certainly is. And (controversially) there is a reference to the 1916 rebellion – which is seen in terms of violence rather than liberation. But my main point is this: what sparked the writing of this song was a bomb attack by the Provisional IRA or a related group *in England* which killed two children. Such “admonitions to peace” transcend the nationalist narrative. That is their whole point.”

    And that was my whole point in including reference to the song, and I think the Cranberries’ negatively remarking “the same old dream/ since 1916” is spot on and one of the reasons I think that an important song.. And I noted in the comment thread,

    “I “scoff” (your word) at the North Irish who maintain they are British for two reasons; the first I remark explicitly, that at this point no one else thinks of them as such. Implicitly, what this means is that in the transition from colony to nation, if it is to continue to progress toward union, Ireland now has to assume a state responsibility to consider its population as no longer homogeneous ethnically (or religiously). It has been quite successful in recent in years in recognizing this and moving beyond old modes of thinking. Ulster too needs to move in this direction if it is ever to have a government of its own (and I believe that politically and economically, it is strategically in its interests to unite with the south, since England is a falling star, and I still think the future belongs to the EU).

    I’m perfectly aware of the differences between nationalist myths and political realities, and that progress in politics means resolving older and useless myths into more useful, beneficial beliefs (although these may prove myth themselves in time). I still maintain that you’ve misread my essay, at least in part, and assume views that aren’t mine.

    But I don’t think we can freeze time and pretend politics doesn’t happen. Which politics we follow is a matter of contingent interests shaped by history, and ethical choices. But song very much has its place in such discussions. The only point of my essay.

  77. labnut

    It is time to move beyond the narrow preoccupation with the Irish and presumptive wrongs of the British. The essay had a larger and more important theme so it is time to think beyond ancient sensitivities.

    Just what is this lost world? Why is it lost and what is replacing it?

    I suggest that this lost world was a shared set of values that knit together the larger pan-European Latinate world. These values were strands of thought woven together to produce the whole cloth of ancient and medieval Europe. These strands of thought were Hebraic, Grecian, Roman and Christian, each contributing a vital element. They produced the unique mode of thinking that enabled the appearance in Europe of universities, the sciences, the industrial revolution, free market economies, democracy, schooling, medical care, liberal humanism, consumerism and the flowering of the arts.

    This world was always in tension with the local forces of ethnicity and language that defined individual countries. Gradually the tension was resolved in favour of the individual countries, leading eventually to the birth of nation-states, Values were bent to serve the interests of the nation and the values of the pan-European Latinate world began to recede. Mark’s essay is a nostalgic look back at the remnants of that world.

    But what replaced those values? The pan-European Latinate world became the nation-state world and finally this became the individual world, one where the individual’s needs and wants began to trump all other considerations. Values were now bent to serve the appetite of the individual and the appetite of the individual fuelled the growth of the corporatist world. As a result the corporatist world has expanded, knitting together countries that were once knit together by the Latinate values.

    The Latinate world has been replaced by the corporatist world. The first was held together by the Latin language and the second is held together by the English language. But there is a key difference. The corporatist world nakedly celebrates greed, nakedly exploiting both its customers and its workers in the pursuit of returns. The success of this strategy is shown by the growing wealth inequality.

    The corporatist world may fall sooner than the Latinate world because it contains more powerful contradictions. Every worker is also a customer. When one exploits a worker one is also damaging one’s customer. Lower wages or fewer workers inevitably means lower demand for products and services. This effect is being multiplied by the automation, the ageing of the population and falling birth rates, making the customer base even smaller. The corporatist world has not yet found out how to resolve this contradiction. The state was meant to balance these needs more equitably but the corporatist world has infiltrated the state by co-opting the legislative and executive bodies.

    This may only be resolved(temporarily) by the appearance of a new ideologue(Marx?) or new demagogue(Hitler?). Ideologues and demagogues are the symptoms of irresolvable contradictions in society.

  78. labnut

    John Gray, in the introduction to his book Straw Dogs made the point that for much of our history we did not seek progress but rather sought to reconcile ourselves to the world as we found it.

    For Plato contemplation was the highest form of human activity. A similar view existed in ancient India. The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly.

    When we cannot change the world in our favour we take refuge in seeing it rightly. And then we create belief systems that validate seeing the world rightly. Buddhism is one such outcome in the East and the Western reply was Stoicism.

    The corporatist world, with its growing stranglehold on jobs and wages, is presenting many people with a reality where progress is not possible. Wage stagnation and declining job opportunities are in our future.

    How will we react to the absence of progress with the severe stresses that will result? Drugs are one avenue and violence is another. We are already seeing these responses. Old value systems will be retreaded for modern consumption. Buddhism and Stoicism come to mind. After a long flirtation I reject Stoicism(for the reasons below) and I find Buddhism too alien.

    Specifically, I found that Stoicism:

    1) is a joyless philosophy;
    2) does not value beauty;
    3) is a passivist philosophy that has no concept of the luminous spirit;
    4) is a quietist philosophy that rests on the assumption that the aim of life is not to change the world but to see it rightly.
    5) is a loveless philosophy;
    6) lacks communal spirit;
    7) is a solipsistic philosophy.

    I know too little about Buddhism to make an informed judgement. But in any case we need a value system that is ‘other-directed’ rather that ‘self-directed’ to cope with the severe dislocations that will be the result of declining opportunity in a corporatist world. We need to be motivated by a deep desire to help others who suffer more than we do.

  79. Labnut, I am afraid that my own feelings about Stoicism have become quite negative, even the more so as I have heard more about it from my dear friend, Massimo. The final straw may have been when I went over to his “How to be a Stoic” blog and read what to me was a quite shocking response to a woman who was suffering over her inability to have children. Not only was I dismayed and chilled by Massimo’s reply to her, but I was appalled when he referred to his own daughter as a “preferred indifferent.” (No, I’m not making this up.)

    It shouldn’t surprise us though. Stoicism, like the other Hellenistic philosophies, are frameworks that only really make sense in a civilization that is far along into a period of decline and undergoing a process of disintegration. In such a world, they represent a noble effort to endure. In a world like ours, however, one in which we enjoy almost unimaginable prosperity and comfort, they make no sense whatsoever, and come across as self-absorbed, even narcissistic, and terribly cold-blooded.

  80. labnut

    Dan-K,
    Stoicism, like the other Hellenistic philosophies, are frameworks that only really make sense in a civilization that is far along into a period of decline and undergoing a process of disintegration. In such a world, they represent a noble effort to endure.

    Carlin Barton, in her book, Roman Honor, makes exactly this point(page 117). She describes the decline of the Roman Republic and its replacement by the Roman Empire, whose power rendered ordinary people impotent and subject to brutal injustice. To endure one must become like a stone(a common Stoic theme).

    We are passionate, caring people embedded in that most foundational unit of all, the family, and any belief system that discounts this will be marginal. The decline and obscurity of Stoicism is history’s judgement.

  81. I agree with labnut and Dan that trying to revive Stoicism is a bad idea. I think I would want to defend a form of quietism, however. It may not be for everyone but it works for some people.

    I think labnut gave an accurate account of that pan-European culture we have lost. An earlier point he made about the importance of trust (and charitable interpretations) in the sharing of personal perspectives is a good one.

    Though it’s always important not to be locked into an ideology, I think I would place more emphasis than you do on seeing clearly and on the importance of “getting things right”. Where values are concerned – arguably at least – it is not a case of being correct or incorrect. But in respect of certain kinds of knowledge at least, you *can* make plausible claims of this kind.