In recent weeks, President Trump has spent a great deal of time articulating a specific and extreme vision of American patriotism. This vision asks us to remember and celebrate only the most idealized American histories and stories, and defines any deviation from those celebrations as nothing less than unpatriotic hate.
Trump expressed this absolute form of patriotism in the September 17thspeech announcing his “Patriotic Education” Commission, calling the New York Times’ 1619 Project “a crusade against American history,” “toxic propaganda,” and “a form of child abuse.” He claimed that “patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country.” And he did so again in his recent Columbus Day proclamation, arguing that the “extremists” who would “replace discussion of [Columbus’] vast contributions with talk of failings … seek to revise [history], deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister,” and that in response “we must teach future generations about our storied heritage.”
On August 31 President Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that people in “dark shadows” were controlling Joe Biden. When pressed by Ingraham, Trump elaborated, “We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear and this and that.”
The president’s ravings might have seemed psychotic had they not fit a Zeitgeist of paranoid, conspiratorial, and even magical thinking that has arced across our land over the last four years. Earlier this year, Trump praised Stella Immanuel, a Houston minister and pediatrician who believes, among other things, that ovarian cysts are caused by sexual intercourse with demons. A swell of right-wing voters have taken to the QAnon conspiracy, the belief that a cabal of left-wing politicians and Hollywood elites lead an international child sex ring. In response to the swelling number of deaths caused by COVID-19, Vice President Mike Pence told the Republican National Convention, “America is a nation of miracles,” and that there would be a COVID-19 vaccine “by the end of this year.” Trump has also recommended injecting sunlight and bleach as possible COVID cures.
While such thinking is undoubtedly on a tear among right-wing Americans, the left too has indulged in its share of conspiratorial and mystical thought.
Like many people, I am skeptical of any book, lecture or article offering to divulge the secrets of happiness. To me, happiness is episodic. It’s there at a moment of insight over drinks with a friend, when hearing a new and affecting piece of music on the radio, sharing confidences with a relative or waking up from a good night’s sleep after a bout of the flu. Happiness is a feeling of in-the-moment joy that can’t be chased and caught and which can’t last very long.
But satisfaction with how things are going is different than happiness. Satisfaction has to do with the qualities and arrangements of life that make us want to get out of bed in the morning, find out what’s happening in the world, and get on with whatever the day brings. There are obstacles to satisfaction, and they can be, if not entirely removed, at least lowered. Some writers argue that satisfaction mostly depends on my genes, where I live and the season of the year, or how other people, including the government, are treating me. Nevertheless, psychology and the sharing of first-person experience acquired over many generations, can actually help.
So can philosophy. The major schools of philosophy in antiquity – Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism and, my favourite, Epicureanism, addressed the question of the good life directly. The philosophers all subscribed to an ideal of ‘life according to nature’, by which they meant both human and nonhuman nature, while disagreeing among themselves about what that entailed.
Money crises stoke money thought – some of it new, most of it old and recycled. Some of the money thought tends toward the crankish. Money crankery is like gingivitis, after all, ‘bleeding gums.’ It perennially emerges and re-emerges, opportunistically, in times of bodily stress.
But some new old money thought is well worth recycling. It can serve as a corrective for thought-ruts that we’ve fallen into – ruts that work mischief.
Corrective rediscovery and recycling of this kind only helps, however, if we are clear about what can be usefully recovered for what purposes. And here it behooves us to separate strands, tracing them back to their origins. For much that’s recycled originates in circumstances that are importantly different from ours, and must be updated to be useful.
I’d like here to do some of that disentangling and updating. That way we’ll better know what to accept and what to reject from new purveyors of new old money theories.
You can glean what I’m getting at in light of some recent political and monetary controversy – especially apropos the Fed’s many ‘easing’ programs post-2008 and now, in the midst of our Covid pandemic. What are ‘the Austrians’ saying about this, you might ask, ‘and how about MMT?’ ‘And what about Keynes – is Chairman Powell Keynesian, post-Keynesian, neo-Keynesian?’ ‘Is he classical or neo-classical?’ ‘And, by the way, where do liberalism and neoliberalism fit in here?’
For anyone with a platform, Donald Trump’s presidency comes with a choice. Should they – the artists, the creative types, the famous ones – defend what they believe in? Or should they refrain from “going political”, at a time when fans might readily forsake an artist’s output if they don’t land on the same side? For Don Winslow, there is no debate. The author, with 22 books to his name, is one of the most heralded names in contemporary crime fiction. He’s also one of the most outspoken anti-Trump activists in the current American literary landscape.
Winslow’s Twitter timeline is the most direct reflection of this occupation. “Dear Eric Trump,” reads one of his recent messages, addressed to the US president’s second son, “Name one person who ever hired you for a job that wasn’t your dad? You can’t.” “Dear Republicans, How can Joe Biden take away your guns?” he asks in another tweet, this time about gun legislation. “Didn’t @BarackObama take away your guns in 2008 and 2012? HE DIDN’T. IT NEVER HAPPENED. THEY THINK YOU’RE SO STUPID THAT THEY ARE TELLING YOU THE SAME LIES.”
Activism used to be a side gig for Winslow. He’s been at it at least since June 2017, when he took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to denounce Donald Trump’s “woefully ignorant” approach to the war on drugs, a theme relevant to his Cartel trilogy. In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, Winslow’s advocacy work has ramped up. Novel writing has been placed “on the back burner”, he tells The Independent – although future books are “simmering nicely”.
The cable news talking heads seem obsessed with Joe Biden’s “significant” lead over Donald Trump in the national polls – as if this lead signifies a certain coming Biden victory in the presidential election. Also feeding the narrative that Biden is likely to win are stories and film clips of millions of Americans standing in long lines to vote early in record numbers.
This is dangerously pacifying. Nearly two and a half centuries since its founding, the United States, self-described homeland and headquarters of democracy, does not select its top elected official, the president, on the basis of a national popular vote. The Electoral College, devised by slave-owning constitutional framers for whom democracy was the ultimate nightmare, restricts the presidential election to the contest for all-or-nothing Elector slates in a relatively small number of states. And in these states, the horse race between Biden and Trump is much closer than it is in on the national scale. It seems likely that Trump will receive a significant amount of hidden white support, not captured by pollsters.
Overall, the Electoral College leans well to the right, over-representing the country’s most reactionary, white and rural regions so extremely that Biden cannot win the final tally without beating Trump by far more than a simple majority of the national popular vote.
I find an old copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species among my father-in-law’s Bibles and theology books, and my own laugh startles me in the empty house. We never talked about Darwin that I recall, but of course this well-read man wouldn’t have been afraid of the church’s favorite villain after Satan and Judas. His faith was never threatened by thought. I once thought that to be saved was to laugh at science—what a shock to later learn Darwin’s sin was observing turtles and pigeons, flying squirrels and bats, and realizing that all things change. I know that I can’t keep everything and that nothing I take will be enough to fill what’s lost, but I pick the crumbling book from the shelf, wrap it in tissue, and tuck it into my suitcase to save.
Britain’s national myth about slavery goes something like this: for most of history, slavery was a normal state of affairs; but in the later 18th century, enlightened Britons such as William Wilberforce led the way in fighting against it. Britain ended the slave trade in 1807, before any other nation, and thereafter campaigned zealously to eradicate it everywhere else.
As Michael Taylor points out in his scintillating new book, this is a farrago of nonsense. Slavery was certainly an ancient practice, but for 200 years the British developed it on an unprecedented scale. Throughout the 18th century, they were the world’s foremost slavers, and the plantation system they helped create devoured the lives of millions of African men, women and children. In the name of profit and racial superiority, English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish enslavers inflicted a holocaust of suffering on their human chattels, practising rape, torture, mutilation, and manslaughter.
Since the last volume of “His Dark Materials” appeared in 2000, Pullman has written two more (superb) volumes of a second trilogy called “The Book of Dust”, as well as a few interstitial bits and bobs that fill in the odd blank spot in his vast legendarium. His latest work, “Serpentine,” is one of the latter, and as befits its title it is the slenderest of creatures, almost plotless and at 80 generously illustrated pages barely thick enough to have a spine. Set five years after the events of the first trilogy, the story finds Pullman’s heroine, the unquenchably curious Lyra, in an unquiet state of mind. She was once (in “The Amber Spyglass”) briefly separated from her daemon, Pantalaimon, and ever since then she’s been haunted by the question of what he did while they were apart.
ANTHONY DAVIS, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his opera The Central Park Five, is a composer with a great future behind him. Five is his eighth opera, and during those labors, spanning four decades, he’s found the time and talent to write orchestral pieces and music for plays, to record solo piano albums, to gig widely, and to make records with his group, Episteme. Under the microscope, Davis, who is 68 and a professor at the University of California at San Diego, reveals a rare strain of the American composer’s DNA, a synthesis of the diasporic music of African descendants and the uncompromising voice of contemporary opera.
Fresh out of Yale and into New York City in 1977, Davis began to explore and reimagine jazz and composition, which he simmered with themes of social justice, à la his equally subversive forefather, Charles Mingus. Another primal influence was the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — havoc specialists, with roots in the 1960s, for whom live improvisation has been the gold standard. Yet Davis dislikes the “jazz” label. He prefers what he calls “a plurality of traditions,” an eclectic assortment of mentors from Wagner to Thelonious Monk, Stravinsky to Anthony Braxton.
In 2002 the Cambridge astrophysicist and Astronomer Royal Lord Rees predicted that, by the end of 2020, “bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event”. In 2017 the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker took the other side in a formal bet. As the terms of the wager defined casualties to include “victims requiring hospitalization”, Rees had already won long before the global death toll of Covid-19 passed the one million mark in September. Sadly for him, the stake was a meagre $400.
Nicholas Christakis has given his rapidly written yet magisterial book about the pandemic the title Apollo’s Arrow. The allusion is to the plague the god unleashes against the Achaeans for kidnapping the daughter of his priest Chryses in Book One of Homer’s Iliad. An alternative title might have been Rees’s Bet. In a report from 1998 the US Department of Defense observed that “historians in the next millennium may find that the 20th century’s greatest fallacy was the belief that infectious diseases were nearing elimination”. Pinker was only one of many scholars who subscribed to this belief in the twenty-first century. “Disease outbreaks don’t become pandemics” any more, he argued in Enlightenment Now, because “advances in biology … make it easier for the good guys (and there are many more of them) to identify pathogens, invent antibiotics that overcome antibiotic resistance, and rapidly develop vaccines”.
The 1990s now seem as distant as the 1950s. America is famously polarized into cultural tribes, each regarding the other with contempt and alarm. In the White House sits a populist entertainer with little evident commitment to constitutional norms. Sober scholars publish books with titles such as How Democracies Die 1 and The Road to Unfreedom.2 The coronavirus that burrowed into the country in early 2020 has made vices of the old American virtues of individual liberty and decentralized government. China’s relative competence in public health has lent its increasingly autocratic regime a new luster, notwithstanding its being the birthplace of the virus.
In thinking about the predicament of the American republic, we find ourselves looking not only within the country but abroad—at beleaguered democratic allies, at elected leaders sidling toward dictatorship, at Russian mischief, and at Chinese wealth and assertiveness. Scanning the world for trends in domestic regimes is a democratic tradition. For democrats hold the twin convictions, seldom defended but deeply felt, that self-government is an international phenomenon and democracies are in some way interdependent. If constitutional rule is spreading in the world, it is good for democracy in the United States; if authoritarian giants such as China and Russia are thriving, it is ominous for us.
Silliness is not such a stretch as one would think, should one think of Wittgenstein. The ludic is at play, from conception, in the language-game itself; or the duck-rabbit as a vehicle of ambiguity, a perceptual “third thing,” a visual neologism: now ears … now beak, or “Both; not side-by-side, however, but about the one via the other.” Silliness is ruminative, i.e., we must look back over time for its sense to resonate. And it seeks a beyond. I consider the question of whether the two-headed calf should be counted as one animal or two—a serious moment for the Vatican Belvedere Gardens of 1625. Three, of course. “For the physicians, the feature distinguishing the individual was the brain; for followers of Aristotle, the heart,” wrote Carlo Ginzburg. And the dissection of the animal “was done with the aim of establishing not the ‘character’ peculiar to that particular animal, but ‘the common character’ … of the species as a whole.” A parallelism: Wittgenstein’s insistence that a student learn a new word by experiencing it through practice, being responsible to it and its usage, and eventually making the word meaningful for a greater understanding of her (whole) (linguistic) (yet shared, and seen) world.
He says, they will not take us. They want the ones who love another god, the ones whose joy comes with five prayers and songs to the sun in the mornings and at night. He says, they will not want us. They want the ones whose tongues stumble over silent e’s, whose voices creak when a th suddenly appears in the middle of a word.
They want the ones who cannot hide copper skin like we can. He says, I am old. I lived through one revolution. We can hide our skin. We have read the books. He says, we are the quiet kind, the ones who stay late and do not speak, the ones who do not bring trumpets or trouble. He says, we are safe in silence. We must become ghosts.
I think, so many are already dust. tried to stay thin, be small, tried breaking bone and voice, tried to be soft. So many tried to be empty, to be barely breath. To be still enough to be left alone. Become shadows, trying not to be bodies.
It never works. To become nothing. They come for the shadows, too.
When he died in 1677 at the age of forty-four, Spinoza left behind a compact Latin manuscript, Ethics, and his disciples quickly got it printed. It is a book like no other. It urges us to change our whole way of thinking and in particular to rid ourselves of the deep-rooted conceit that makes us imagine that our petty, transient lives might have some ultimate significance. The argument is dynamic, disruptive and upsetting, but it is contained within a literary framework of extraordinary austerity, comprising an array of definitions, axioms, propositions, proofs and scholia. The overall effect is not so much beautiful as sublime, like watching a massive fortress being shaken by storms and earthquakes. Many readers have found themselves deeply moved by Ethics but unable to say exactly what it means.
Historically, US presidential elections were dominated by competing views on economic and social issues. No longer. This approaching election has increasingly been consumed by a cultural conflict, at the heart of which is a war over American history. But this is no mere disagreement over the precise details of what happened three or four centuries ago. It is a battle for the very soul of the United States. The principal battle is being fought over the founding of the US. As we will see, this is best captured, by, on one side, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which contends America was founded when African slaves first arrived in Jamestown; and, on the other, President Donald Trump’s mooted 1776 Commission, which reasserts the traditional, would-be inspiring narrative of revolution and independence as America’s founding moment.
All of this raises questions of the utmost importance. Why has America’s founding become such a vital issue in the 21st century? And, more broadly, how should humanity engage with the legacy of its past achievements?
History has rarely appeared more alive than it does in the West today. Even before the Black Lives Matters protests this summer, protesters had been treating symbols of the past, be they building names or statues, as if they were living things. Some protesters even claim that these inanimate objects pose a threat to their wellbeing, with some Rhodes Must Fall campaigners at the University of Oxford claiming that merely walking past Cecil Rhodes’ statue is traumatic. Many more treat these symbols of the past as if they are living adversaries, against whom every act of vandalism or toppling is a vital act. You could see something of this when activists pulled down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol earlier this year. They did not simply want to topple it. They wanted to defile it, humiliate it, debase it. And so they pulled it down, and then dragged it along the street before throwing it into the river. It was almost as if they were parading the corpse of a hated tyrant before his liberated people, rather than a statue of a long-forgotten slave-trading merchant who died 300 years ago.