Posts Tagged ‘Book Blogging’

David Sirota, author of Back to our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now — Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything (2011), came to my attention (how else?) through a podcast. He riffed pretty entertainingly on his book, now roughly one decade old, like a rock ‘n’ roller stuck (re)playing his or her greatest hits into dotage. However, his thesis was strong and appealing enough that I picked up a copy (read: borrowed from the library) to investigate despite the datedness of the book (and my tardiness). It promised to be an easy read.

Sirota’s basic thesis is that memes and meme complexes (a/k/a memeplexes, though Sirota never uses the term meme) developed in the 80s and deployed through a combination of information and entertainment media (thus, infotainment) form the narrative background we take for granted in the early part of the 20th century. Children fed a steady diet of clichés, catchphrases, one-liners, archetypes, and story plots have now grown to adulthood and are scarcely able to peer behind the curtain to question the legitimacy or subtext of the narrative shapes and distortions imbibed during childhood like mother’s milk. The table of contents lists four parts (boldface section titles are Sirota’s; descriptive text is mine):

  • Liking Ike, Hating Woodstock. How the 50s and 60s decades were (the first?) assigned reductive demographic signifiers, handily ignoring the true diversity of experience during those decades. More specifically, the boom-boom 50s (economics, births) were recalled nostalgically in 80s TV and films while the 60s were recast as being all about those dirty, hairy hippies and their music, drugs, and sexual licentiousness, all of which had to be invalidated somehow to regain lost wholesomeness. The one-man promotional vehicle for this pleasing self-deception was Michael J. Fox, whose screen personae (TV and film) during the 80s (glorifying the 50s but openly shitting on the 60s) were instrumental in reforming attitudes about our mixed history.
  • The Jump Man Chronicles. How the Great Man Theory of History was developed through glorification of heroes, rogues, mavericks, and iconoclasts who came into their own during the 80s. That one-man vehicle was Michael Jordan, whose talents and personal magnetism were so outsized that everyone aspired to be “like Mike,” which is to say, a superhero elevated beyond mere mortal rules and thus immortalized. The effect was duplicated many times over in popular culture, with various entertainment icons and political operatives subverting thoughtful consideration of real-world problems in favor of jingoistic portrayals.
  • Why We (Continue to) Fight. How the U.S. military was rehabilitated after losing the Vietnam War, gifting us with today’s hypermilitarism and permanent wars. Two principal tropes were deployed to shape public opinion: the Legend of the Spat upon Veteran and the Hands Tied Behind Their Backs Myth. Each was trotted out reliably whenever we needed to misremember our past as fictionalized in the 80s.
  • The Huxtable Effect. How “America’s dad” helped accommodate race relations to white anxiety, primarily to sell a TV show. In contrast with various “ghetto TV” shows of the 70s that depicted urban working poor (various ethnicities), The Cosby Show presented an upscale black family who transcended race by simply ignoring the issue — a privilege of wealth and celebrity. The Obama campaign and subsequent administration copied this approach, pretending American society had become postracial despite his never truly being able to escape the modifier black because the default (no modifier needed) in America is always white. This is the most fraught part of the book, demonstrating that despite whatever instructions we get from entertainment media and pundits, we remain stuck in an unresolved, unhealed, inescapable trap.


From They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (2014) by Paul Street, which I’m just starting to read:

The contemporary United States, I find in this volume, is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy. It is something in between or perhaps different altogether: a corporate-managed state-capitalist pseudo-democracy that sells the narrow interests of the wealthy business and financial elite as the public interest, closes off critical and independent thought, and subjects culture, politics, policy, institutions, the environment, daily life, and individual minds to the often hidden and unseen authoritarian dictates of money and profit. It is a corporate and financial plutocracy whose managers generally prefer to rule through outwardly democratic and noncoercive means since leading American corporations and their servants have worked effectively at draining and disabling democracy’s radical and progressive potential by propagandizing, dulling, pacifying, deadening, overextending, overstressing, atomizing, and demobilizing the citizenry. At the same time, American state and capitalist elites remain ready, willing, and able to maintain their power with the help from ever more sinister and sophisticated methods and tools of repression brutality, and coercive control.

Continuing (after some delay) from part 1, Pankaj Mishra concludes chapter 4 of The Age of Anger with an overview of Iranian governments that shifted from U.S./British client state (headed by the Shah of Iran, reigned 1941–1979) to its populist replacement (headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, ruled 1979–1989), both leaders having been authoritarians. During the period discussed, Iran underwent the same modernization and infiltration by liberal, Western values and economics, which produced a backlash familiar from Mishra’s descriptions of other nations and regions that had experienced the same severed roots of place since the onset of the Enlightenment. Vacillation among two or more styles of government might be understood as a thermostatic response: too hot/cold one direction leads to correction in another direction. It’s not a binary relationship, however, between monarchy and democracy (to use just one example). Nor are options between a security state headed by an installed military leader and a leader elected by popular vote. Rather, it’s a question of national identity being alternatively fractured and unified (though difficult to analyze and articulate) in the wake of multiple intellectual influences.

According to Lewis and Huntington, modernity has failed to take root in intransigently traditional and backward Muslim countries despite various attempts to impose it by secular leaders such as Turkey’s Atatürk, the Shah of Iran, Algeria’s Ben Bella, Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat, and Pakistan’s Ayub Khan.

Since 9/11 there have been many versions, crassly populist as well as solemnly intellectual, of the claims by Lewis and Huntington that the crisis in Muslim countries is purely self-induced, and [that] the West is resented for the magnitude of its extraordinary success as a beacon of freedom, and embodiment of the Enlightenment’s achievements … They have mutated into the apparently more sophisticated claim that the clash of civilizations occurs [primarily] within Islam, and that Western interventions are required on behalf of the ‘good Muslim’, who is rational, moderate and liberal. [p. 127]

This is history told by the putative winners. Mishra goes on:

Much of the postcolonial world … became a laboratory for Western-style social engineering, a fresh testing site for the Enlightenment ideas of secular progress. The philosophes had aimed at rationalization, or ‘uniformization’, of a range of institutions inherited from an intensely religious era. Likewise, postcolonial leaders planned to turn illiterate peasants into educated citizens, to industrialize the economy, move the rural population to cities, alchemize local communities into a singular national identity, replace the social hierarchies of the past with an egalitarian order, and promote the cults of science and technology among a pious and often superstitious population. [p. 133]

Readers may recognize this project and/or process by its more contemporary name: globalization. It’s not merely a war of competing ideas, however, because those ideas manifest in various styles of social and political organization. Moreover, the significance of migration from rural agrarian settings to primarily urban and suburban ones can scarcely be overstated. This transformation (referring to the U.S. in the course of the 20th century) is something James Howard Kunstler repeatedly characterizes rather emphatically as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Mishra summarizes the effects of Westernization handily:

In every human case, identity turns out to be porous and inconsistent rather than fixed and discrete; and prone to get confused and lost in the play of mirrors. The cross-currents of ideas and inspirations — the Nazi reverence for Atatürk, a gay French philosopher’s denunciation of the modern West and sympathy for the Iranian Revolution, or the various ideological inspirations for Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Zionism, Existentialism, Bolshevism and revolutionary Shiism) — reveal that the picture of a planet defined by civilizations closed off from one another and defined by religion (or lack thereof) is a puerile cartoon. They break the simple axis — religious-secular, modern-medieval, spiritual-materialist — on which the contemporary world is still measured, revealing that its populations, however different their pasts, have been on converging and overlapping paths. [p. 158]

These descriptions and analyses put me in mind of a fascinating book I read some years ago and reviewed on Amazon (one of only a handful of Amazon reviews): John Reader’s Man on Earth (1988). Reader describes and indeed celebrates incredibly diverse ways of inhabiting the Earth specially adapted to the landscape and based on evolving local practices. Thus, the notion of “place” is paramount. Comparison occurs only by virtue of juxtaposition. Mishra does something quite different, drawing out the connective ideas that account for “converging and overlapping paths.” Perhaps inevitably, disturbances to collective and individual identities that flow from unique styles of social organization, especially those now operating at industrial scale (i.e., industrial civilization), appear to be picking up. For instance, in the U.S., even as mass shootings (a preferred form of attack but not the only one) appear to be on the rise at the same time that violent crime is at an all-time low, perpetrators of violence are not limited to a few lone wolves, as the common trope goes. According to journalist Matt Agorist,

mass shootings — in which murdering psychopaths go on rampages in public spaces — have claimed the lives of 339 people since 2015 [up to mid-July 2019]. While this number is certainly shocking and far too high, during this same time frame, police in America have claimed the lives of 4,355 citizens.

And according to this article in Vox, this crazy disproportion (police violence to mass shootings) is predominantly an American thing at least partly because of our high rate of fetishized civilian gun ownership. Thus, the self-described “land of the free, home of the brave” has transformed itself into a paranoid garrison state affecting civil authority even more egregiously than the disenfranchised (mostly young men). Something similar occurred during the Cold War, when leaders became hypervigilant for attacks and invasions that never came. Whether a few close calls during the height of the Cold War were the result of escalating paranoia, brinkmanship, or true, maniacal, existential threats from a mustache-twirling, hand-rolling despot hellbent on the destruction of the West is a good question, probably impossible to answer convincingly. However, the result today of this mindset couldn’t be more disastrous:

It is now clear that the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war, massive retaliation, regime change, nation-building and reforming Islam have failed — catastrophically failed — while the dirty war against the West’s own Enlightenment [the West secretly at war with itself] — inadvertently pursued through extrajudicial murder, torture, rendition, indefinite detention and massive surveillance — has been a wild success. The uncodified and unbridled violence of the ‘war on terror’ ushered in the present era of absolute enmity in which the adversaries, scornful of all compromise, seek to annihilate each other. Malignant zealots have emerged at the very heart of the democratic West after a decade of political and economic tumult; the simple explanatory paradigm set in stone soon after the attacks of 9/11 — Islam-inspired terrorism versus modernity — lies in ruins. [pp.124–125]

Decades ago, I read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Lots of inventive things in those books have stayed with me despite not having revisited them. For instance, I found the SEP (Somebody-Else’s-Problem) Field and the infinite improbability drive tantalizing concepts even though they’re jokes. Another that resonates more as I age is disorientation felt (according to Adams) because of dislocation more than 500 light-years away from home, namely, the planet of one’s origin. When I was younger, my wanderlust led me to venture out into the world (as opposed to the galaxy), though I never gave much thought to the stabilizing effect of the modest town in which I grew up before moving to a more typical American suburb and then to various cities, growing more anonymous with each step. Although I haven’t lived in that town for 25+ years, I pass through periodically and admit it still feels like home. Since moving away, it’s been swallowed up in suburban sprawl and isn’t really the same place anymore.

Reading chapter 4 of Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger brought back to me the idea of being rooted in a particular place and its culture, and more significantly, how those roots can be severed even without leaving. The main cause appears to be cultural and economic infiltration by foreign elements, which has occurred many places through mere demographic drift and in others by design or force (i.e., colonialism and globalization). How to characterize the current waves of political, economic, and climate refugees inundating Europe and the smaller migration of Central Americans (and others) into the U.S. is a good question. I admit to being a little blasé about it: like water, people gonna go where they gonna go. Sovereign states can attempt to manage immigration somewhat, but stopgap administration ultimately fails, at least in open societies. In the meantime, the intractable issue has made many Americans paranoid and irrational while our civil institutions have become decidedly inhumane in their mistreatment of refugees. The not-so-hidden migration is Chinese people into Africa. Only the last of these migrations gives off the stink of neocolonialism, but they all suggest decades of inflamed racial tension to come if not open race wars.

Mishra cites numerous authors and political leaders/revolutionaries in chapter 4 who understand and observe that modernizing and Westernizing countries, especially those attempting to catch up, produce psychic turmoil in their populations because of abandonment and transformation of their unique, local identities as they move, for instance, from predominantly agrarian social organization to urbanization in search of opportunity and in the process imitate and adopt inappropriate Western models. Mishra quotes a 1951 United Nations document discussing the costs of supposed progress:

There is a sense in which rapid economic progress in impossible without painful adjustments. Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of cast, creed and race have to burst; and large numbers of persons who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated. [p. 118]

Thus, men were “uprooted from rural habitats and condemned to live in the big city,” which is a reenactment of the same transformation the West underwent previously. Another insightful passage comes from the final page of Westoxification (1962) or Weststruckness (English transliteration varies) by the Iranian novelist Jalal Al-e-Ahmad:

And now I, not as an Easterner, but as one like the first Muslims, who expected to see the Resurrection on the Plain of Judgment in their lifetimes, see that Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Ingmar Bergman, and many other artists, all of them from the West, are proclaiming this same resurrection. All regard the end of human affairs with despair. Sartre’s Erostratus fires a revolver at the people in the street blindfolded; Nabokov’s protagonist drives his car into the crowd; and the stranger, Meursault, kills someone in reaction to a bad case of sunburn. These fictional endings all represent where humanity is ending up in reality, a humanity that, if it does not care to be crushed under the machine, must go about in a rhinoceros’s skin. [pp. 122–123]

It’s unclear that the resurrection referenced above is the Christian one. Nonetheless, how sobering is it to recognize that random, anonymous victims of nihilistic violence depicted in storytelling have their analogues in today’s victims of mass killings? A direct line of causality from the severed roots of place to violent incidents cannot be drawn clearly, but the loss of a clear, stabilizing sense of self, formerly situated within a community now suffering substantial losses of historical continuity and tradition, is certainly an ingredient.

More to come in pt. 2.

For readers coming to this blog post lacking context, I’m currently reading and book-blogging Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. It explores Western intellectual history that gives rise to feelings of radical discontent over injustices that have not been addressed or remedied successfully for the entirety of the modern era despite centuries of supposed progress.

Continuing from part 1, the case of Voltaire is a curious one. A true child of the Enlightenment, my inference is that he came along too late to participate in the formulation of foundational Enlightenment ideals but later became one of their chief proponents as they diffused throughout Europe and into Russia and elsewhere. He joined many, many others in a belief (against a preponderance of evidence) in human progress, if not perfectibility. (Technical progress is an entirely different matter.) One of the significant aspects of his ideology and writings was his sustained attack on Christianity, or more particularly, Catholicism. More than three centuries later, the secularization of Europe and diminished influence of medieval church dogma stand out as part of the same intellectual tradition.

Enlightenment canon includes aspirational faith in the ability of reason, mechanisms, systems, and administrative prowess to order the affairs of men properly. (How one defines properly, as distinct from equitably or justly, is a gaping hole primed for debate.) In the course of the last few centuries, history has demonstrated that instrumental logic spawned by this ideology has given rise to numerous totalitarian regimes that have subjugated entire populations, often quite cruelly, in modernizing and Westernizing projects. Voltaire found himself in the thick of such projects by willingly aligning himself with despots and rulers who victimized their own peoples in pursuit of industrialization and imitation of urbane French and British models. Russians Peter the Great (reigned May 7, 1682 to February 8, 1725) and Catherine the Great (reigned July 9, 1762 to November 17, 1796) were among those for whom Voltaire acted as apologist and intellectual co-conspirator. Here’s what Mishra has to say:

Voltaire was an unequivocal top-down modernizer, like most of the Enlightenment philosophes, and an enraptured chronicler in particular of Peter the Great. Russian peasants had paid a steep price for Russia’s Westernization, exposed as they were to more oppression and exploitation as Peter tried in the seventeenth century to build a strong military and bureaucratic state. Serfdom, near extinct in most of Western Europe by the thirteen century, was actually strengthened by Peter in Russia. Coercing his nobles into lifetime service to the state, [effectively] postponing the emergence of a civil society, Peter the Great waged war endlessly. But among educated Europeans, who until 1789 saw civilization as something passed down from the enlightened few to the ignorant many, Russia was an admirably progressive model. [pp. 98–99]

and slightly later

… it was Voltaire who brought a truly religious ardour to the cult of Catherine. As the Empress entered into war with Poland and Turkey in 1768, Voltaire became her cheerleader. Catherine claimed to be protecting the rights of religious minorities residing in the territories of her opponents. The tactic, repeatedly deployed by later European imperialists in Asia and Africa, had the expected effect on Voltaire, who promptly declared Catherine’s imperialistic venture to be a crusade for the Enlightenment. [p. 102]

No doubt plenty of rulers throughout history understood in the proverbial sense that to make an omelette, a few eggs must be broken, and that by extension, their unpopular decisions must be reshaped and propagandized to the masses to forestall open revolt. Whose eggs are ultimately broken is entirely at issue. That basic script is easily recognizable as being at work even today. Justifications for administrative violence ought to fail to convince those on the bottom rungs of society who make most of the real sacrifices — except that propaganda works. Thus, the United States’ multiple, preemptive wars of aggression and regime change (never fully declared or even admitted as such) have continued to be supported or at least passively accepted by a majority of Americans until quite recently. Mishra makes this very same point using an example different from mine:

… cossetted writers and artists would in the twentieth century transfer their fantasies of an idea society to Soviet leaders, who seemed to be bringing a superhuman energy and progressive rhetoric to Peter the Great’s rational schemes of social engineering. Stalin’s Russia, as it ruthlessly eradicated its religious and evidently backward enemies in the 1930s, came to ‘constitute … a quintessential Enlightenment utopia’. But the Enlightenment philosophes had already shown, in their blind adherence to Catherine, how reason could degenerate into dogma and new, more extensive forms of domination, authoritarian state structures, violent top-down manipulation of human affairs (often couched in terms of humanitarian concern) and indifference to suffering. [pp. 104–105]

As I reread the chapter in preparation for this blog post, I was surprised to find somewhat less characterization of Voltaire than of Rousseau. Indeed, it is more through Rousseau’s criticism of the dominant European paradigm that the schism between competing intellectual traditions is explored. Mishra circles back to Rousseau repeatedly but does not hesitate to show where his ideas, too, are insufficient. For instance, whereas pro-Enlightenment thinkers are often characterized as being lost in abstraction and idealization (i.e., ideologically possessed), thus estranged from practical reality or history, Rousseau’s empathy and identification with commoners does not provide enough structure for Rousseau to construct a viable alternative to the historical thrust of the day. Mishra quotes a contemporary critic (Joseph de Maistre) who charged Rousseau with irresponsible radicalism:

… he often discovers remarkable truths and expresses them better than anyone else, but these truths are sterile to his hands … No one shapes their materials better than he, and no one builds more poorly. Everything is good except his systems. [p. 110]

The notion that leaders (monarchs, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, social critics, and more recently, billionaires) ought to be in the business of engineering society rather than merely managing it is tacitly assumed. Indeed, there is a parallel hubris present in Rousseau as a thought leader having questionable moral superiority through his vehement criticism of the Enlightenment:

His confidence and self-righteousness derived from his belief that he had at least escaped the vices of modern life: deceit and flattery. In his solitude, he was convinced, like many converts to ideological causes and religious beliefs, that he was immune to corruption. A conviction of his incorruptibility was what gave his liberation from social pieties a heroic aura and moved him from a feeling of powerlessness to omnipotence. In the movement from victimhood to moral supremacy, Rousseau enacted the dialectic of ressentiment that has become commonplace in our time. [pp. 111–112]

This is a recapitulation of the main thesis of the book, which Mishra amplifies only a couple paragraphs later:

Rousseau actually went beyond the conventional political categories and intellectual vocabularies of left and right to outline the basic psychological outlook of those who perceive themselves as abandoned or pushed behind. He provided the basic vocabulary for their characteristic new expressions of discontent, and then articulated their longing for a world cleansed of the social sources of dissatisfaction. Against today’s backdrop of near-universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power. [p. 112]

Does “the incendiary appeal of victimhood” sound like a potent component of today’s Zeitgeist? Or for that matter “militant lowbrow” (names withheld)? At the end of the 18th century, Voltaire and Rousseau were among the primary men of letters, the intelligentsia, the cognoscenti, articulating competing social views and values with major sociopolitical revolutions following shortly thereafter. The oft-observed rhyming (not repetition) of history suggests another such period may well be at hand.

Returning to Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger, chapter 2 (subtitled “Progress and its Contradictions”) profiles two writers of the 18th-century Enlightenment: François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known by his nom de plume Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Voltaire was a proponent and embodiment of Enlightenment values and ethics, whereas Rousseau was among the primary critics. Both were hugely influential, and the controversy inherent in their relative perspectives is unresolved even today. First come Rousseau’s criticisms (in Mishra’s prose):

… the new commercial society, which was acquiring its main features of class divisions, inequality and callous elites during the eighteenth century, made its members corrupt, hypocritical and cruel with its prescribed values of wealth, vanity and ostentation. Human beings were good by nature until they entered such a society, exposing themselves to ceaseless and psychologically debilitating transformation and bewildering complexity. Propelled into an endless process of change, and deprived of their peace and stability, human beings failed to be either privately happy or active citizens [p. 87]

This assessment could easily be mistaken for a description of the 1980s and 90s: ceaseless change and turmoil as new technological developments (e.g., the Internet) challenged everyone to reorient and reinvent themselves, often as a brand. Cultural transformation in the 18th century, however, was about more than just emerging economic reconfigurations. New, secular, free thought and rationalism openly challenged orthodoxies formerly imposed by religious and political institutions and demanded intellectual and entrepreneurial striving to participate meaningfully in charting new paths for progressive society purportedly no longer anchored statically in the past. Mishra goes on:

It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority and deference. The lucky few on top remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of the also-rans. The latter use all means available to them to realize their unfulfilled cravings while making sure to veil them with a show of civility, even benevolence. [p. 89]

Sounds quite contemporary, no? Driving the point home:

What makes Rousseau, and his self-described ‘history of the human heart’, so astonishingly germane and eerily resonant is that, unlike his fellow eighteenth-century writers, he described the quintessential inner experience of modernity for most people: the uprooted outsider in the commercial metropolis, aspiring for a place in it, and struggling with complex feelings of envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection. [p. 90]

While most of the chapter describes Rousseau’s rejection and critique of 18th-century ethics, Mishra at one point depicts Rousseau arguing for instead of against something:

Rousseau’s ideal society was Sparta, small, harsh, self-sufficient, fiercely patriotic and defiantly un-cosmopolitan and uncommercial. In this society at least, the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others, and the deceiving of the poor by the rich, could be counterpoised by the surrender of individuality to public service, and the desire to seek pride for community and country. [p. 92]

Notably absent from Mishra’s profile is the meme mistakenly applied to Rousseau’s diverse criticism: the noble savage. Rousseau praises provincial men (patriarchal orientation acknowledged) largely unspoilt by the corrupting influence of commercial, cosmopolitan society devoted to individual self-interest and amour propre, and his ideal (above) is uncompromising. Although Rousseau had potential to insinuate himself successfully in fashionable salons and academic posts, his real affinity was with the weak and downtrodden — the peasant underclass — who were mostly passed over by rapidly modernizing society. Others managed to raise their station in life above the peasantry to join the bourgeoisie (disambiguation needed on that term). Mishra’s description (via Rousseau) of this middle and upper middle class group provided my first real understanding of popular disdain many report toward bourgeois values using the derisive term bourgie (clearer when spoken than when written).

Profile of Voltaire to follow in part 2.

Apologies for this overlong blog post. I know that this much text tries the patience of most readers and is well in excess of my customary 3–4 paragraphs.

Continuing my book blogging of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, Chapter Two (subtitled “History’s Winners and Their Illusions”) focuses on the thought revolution that followed from the Enlightenment in Western Europe and its imitation in non-Western cultures, especially as manifested in the century leading to the French Revolution. Although the American Revolution (more narrowly a tax revolt with insistence on self-rule) preceded the French Revolution by slightly more than a decade, it’s really the French, whose motto liberté, égalité, fraternité came to prominence and defined an influential set of European values, who effectively challenged enthusiastic modernizers around the globe to try to catch up with the ascendant West.

However, almost as soon as this project appeared, i.e., attempting to transform ancien régime monarchies in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Russia into something pseudo-European, critics arose who denounced the abandonment of tradition and centuries-old national identities. Perhaps they can be understood as the first wave of modern conservatism. Here is Mishra’s characterization:

Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking. [p. 48]

Aside: The phrase “rights-bearing individual” has obvious echoes with today’s SJWs and their poorly conceived demand for egalitarianism not just before the law but in social and economic outcomes. Although economic justice (totally out of whack with today’s extreme income and wealth inequality) is a worthy goal that aligns with idealized but not real-world Enlightenment values, SJW activism reinforces retrograde divisions of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc. Calls to level out all these questionable markers of identity have resulted in intellectual confusion and invalidation of large “privileged” and/or “unoppressed” groups such as white males of European descent in favor of oppressed minorities (and majorities, e.g., women) of all categories. Never mind that many of those same white males are often every bit as disenfranchised as others whose victimhood is paraded around as some sort virtue granting them authority and preferential treatment.

Modernization has not been evenly distributed around the globe, which accounts for countries even today being designated either First, Second, or Third World. An oft-used euphemism is “developing economy,” which translates to an invitation for wealthy First-World nations (or its corporations) to force their way in to exploit cheap labor and untapped natural resources. Indeed, as Mishra points out, the promise of joining First-World living standards (having diverged centuries ago) is markedly hollow:

… doubters of Western-style progress today include more than just marginal communities and some angry environmental activists. In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies — or, most of the human population — might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment — manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests, and devastating floods — the non-West also has no real prospect of catching up … [pp. 47-48]

That second paragraph is an unexpected acknowledgement that the earliest industrialized nations (France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) unwittingly put us on a path to self-annihilation only to be knowingly repeated and intensified by latecomers to industrialization. All those (cough) ecological disturbances are occurring right now, though the public has been lulled into complacency by temporary abundance, misinformation, under- and misreporting, and international political incompetence. Of course, ecological destruction is no longer merely the West’s trauma but a global catastrophe of the highest magnitude which is certainly in the process of catching up to us.

Late in Chapter Two, Mishra settles on the Crystal Palace exhibition space and utopian symbol, built in 1851 during the era of world’s fairs and mistaken enthusiasm regarding the myth of perpetual progress and perfectibility, as an irresistible embodiment of Western hubris to which some intellectual leaders responded with clear disdain. Although a marvelous technical feat of engineering prowess and demonstration of economic power (not unlike countries that host the Olympics — remember Beijing?), the Crystal Palace was also viewed as an expression of the sheer might of Western thought and its concomitant products. Mishra repeatedly quotes Dostoevsky, who visited the Crystal Palace in 1862 and described his visceral response to the place poignantly and powerfully:

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that here there is victory and triumph. You even begin vaguely to fear something. However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath. [p. 68]

And later, describing the “world-historical import” of the Crystal Palace:

Look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people humbly streaming here from all over the face of the earth. People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging onto this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end. It is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is not to accept the material world as your ideal. [pp. 69–70]

The prophetic finality of the Crystal Palace thus presaged twentieth-century achievements and ideas (the so-called American Century) that undoubtedly eclipsed the awesome majesty of the Crystal Palace, e.g., nuclear fission and liberal democracy’s purported victory over Soviet Communism (to name only two). Indeed, Mishra begins the chapter with a review of Americans declarations of the end of history, i.e., having reached final forms of political, social, and economic organization that are now the sole model for all nations to emulate. The whole point of the chapter is that such pronouncements are illusions with strong historical antecedents that might have cautioned us not to leap to unwarranted conclusions or to perpetuate a soul-destroying regime hellbent on extinguishing all alternatives. Of course, as Gore Vidal famously quipped, “Americans never learn; it’s part of our charm.”


I put aside Harari’s book from the previous blog post in favor of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). Mishra’s sharp cultural criticism is far more convincing than Harari’s Panglossian perspective. Perhaps some of that is due to an inescapable pessimism in my own character. Either way, I’ve found the first 35 pages dense with observations of interest to me as a blogger and armchair cultural critic. Some while back, I published a post attempting to delineate (not very well, probably) what’s missing in the modern world despite its obvious material abundance. Reinforcing my own contentions, Mishra’s thesis (as I understand it so far) is this: we today share with others post-Enlightenment an array of resentments and hatreds (Fr.: ressentiment) aimed incorrectly at scapegoats for political and social failure to deliver the promises of progressive modernity equitably. For instance, Mishra describes

… flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorified war, misogyny and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities. [pp. 10–11]

Contrast and/or compare his assessment of the recent past:

Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration … swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies … The culture of [frantic] individualism went universal … The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty … individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity … is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications … [S]hocks of modernity were once absorbed by inherited social structures of family and community, and the state’s welfare cushions [something mentioned here, too]. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all. [pp. 12–14]

These long quotes (the second one cut together from longer paragraphs) are here because Mishra is remarkably eloquent in his diagnosis of globalized culture. Although I’ve only read the prologue, I expect to find support for my long-held contention that disorienting disruptions of modernity (using Anthony Giddens’ sociological definition rather than the modish use of the term Postmodern to describe only the last few decades) create unique and formidable challenges to the formation of healthy self-image and personhood. Foremost among these challenges is an unexpectedly oppressive information environment: the world forced into full view and inciting comparison, jealousy, envy, and hatred stemming from routine and ubiquitous frustrations and humiliations as we each struggle in life getting our personal share of attention, renown, and reward.

Another reason Mishra provides for our collective anger is a deep human yearning not for anarchism or radical freedom but rather for belonging and absorption within a meaningful social context. This reminds me of Erich Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom (1941), which I read long ago but can’t remember so well anymore. I do remember quite vividly how counter-intuitive was the suggestion that absolute freedom is actually burdensome as distinguished from the usual programming we get about breaking free of all restraints. (Freedom! Liberty!) Indeed, Mishra provides a snapshot of multiple cultural and intellectual movements from the past two centuries where abandoning oneself to a cause, any cause, was preferable to the boredom and nothingness of everyday life absent purpose other than mere existence. The modern substitute for larger purpose — commodity culture — is a mere shadow of better ways of spending one’s life. Maybe commodity culture is better than sacrificing one’s life fighting wars (a common fate) or destroying others, but that’s a much longer, more difficult argument.

More to follow as my reading progresses.

I started reading Yuval Harari’s book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017). Had expected to read Sapiens (2014) first but its follow-up came into my possession instead. My familiarity with Harari’s theses and arguments stem from his gadfly presence on YouTube being interviewed or giving speeches promoting his books. He’s a compelling yet confounding thinker, and his distinctive voice in my mind’s ear lent to my reading the quality of an audiobook. I’ve only read the introductory chapter (“A New Human Agenda”) so far, the main argument being this:

We have managed to bring famine, plague and war under control thanks largely to our phenomenal economic growth, which provides us with abundant food, medicine, energy and raw materials. Yet this same growth destabilises the ecological equilibrium of the planet in myriad ways, which we have only begun to explore … Despite all the talk of pollution, global warming and climate change, most countries have yet to make any serious economic or political sacrifices to improve the situation … In the twenty-first century, we shall have to do better if we are to avoid catastrophe. [p. 20]

“Do better”? Harari’s bland understatement of the catastrophic implications of our historical moment is risible. Yet as a consequence of having (at least temporarily) brought three major historical pestilences (no direct mention of the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) under administrative, managerial, and technical control (I leave that contention unchallenged), Harari states rather over-confidently — forcefully even — that humankind is now turning its attention and ambitions toward different problems, namely, mortality (the fourth of the Four Horsemen and one of the defining features of the human condition), misery, and divinity.

Harari provides statistical support for his thesis (mere measurement offered as indisputable evidence — shades of Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now), none of which I’m in a position to refute. However, his contextualization, interpretation, and extrapolation of trends purportedly demonstrating how humans will further bend the arc of history strike me as absurd. Harari also misses the two true catalyzing factors underlying growth and trends that have caused history to go vertical: (1) a fossil-fuel energy binge of roughly two and one-half centuries that peaked more than a decade ago and (2) improved information and material flows and processing that enabled managerial and bureaucratic functions to transcend time and space or at least lessen their constraints on human activity dramatically. James Beniger addresses information flow and processing in his book The Control Revolution (1989). Many, many others have provided in-depth analyses of energy uses (or inputs) because, contrary to the familiar song lyric, it’s energy that makes the world go round. No one besides Harari (to my knowledge but I’m confident some lamebrained economist agrees with Harari) leaps to the unwarranted conclusion that economic growth is the principal forcing factor of the last 2–3 centuries.

I’ve taken issue with Harari before (here and here) and will not repeat those arguments. My impression of Homo Deus, now that I’ve got 70 pages under my belt, is that Harari wants to have it both ways: vaguely optimistic (even inspirational and/or aspirational) regarding future technological developments (after all, who doesn’t want the marvels and wonders we’ve been ceaselessly teased and promised?) yet precautionary because those very developments will produce disruptive and unforeseeable side effects (black swans) we can’t possibly yet imagine. To his credit, Harari’s caveats regarding unintended consequences are plain and direct. For instance, one of the main warnings is that the way we treat nonhuman species is the best model for how we humans will in turn be treated when superhumans or strong AI appear, which Harari believes is inevitable so long as we keep tinkering. Harari also indicates that he’s not advocating for any of these anticipated developments but is merely mapping them as likely outcomes of human restlessness and continued technological progress.

Harari’s disclaimers do not convince me; his writing is decidedly Transhumanist in character. In the limited portion I’ve read, Harari comes across far more like “golly, gee willikers” at human cleverness and potential than as someone seeking to slam on the brakes before we innovate ourselves out of relevance or existence. In fact, by focusing on mortality, misery, and divinity as future projects, Harari gets to indulge in making highly controversial (and fatuous) predictions regarding one set of transformations that can happen only if the far more dire and immediate threats of runaway global warming and nonlinear climate change don’t first lead to the collapse of industrial civilization and near-term extinction of humans alongside most other species. My expectation is that this second outcome is far more likely than anything contemplated by Harari in his book.

Update: Climate chaos has produced the wettest winter, spring, and summer on record, which shows no indication of abating. A significant percentage of croplands in flooded regions around the globe is unplanted, and those that are planted are stunted and imperiled. Harari’s confidence that we had that famine problem licked is being sorely tested.

An ongoing conflict in sociology and anthropology exists between those who believe that human nature is competitive and brutal to the bitter end versus those who believe human nature is more cooperative and sociable, sharing resources of all types to secure the greater good. This might be recognizable to some as the perennial friction between citizen and society (alternatively, individualism and collectivism). Convincing evidence from human prehistory is difficult to uncover. Accordingly, much of the argument for competition comes from evolutionary biology, where concepts such as genetic fitness and reproductive success (and by inference, reproductive failure) are believed to motivate and justify behavior across the board. As the typical argument goes, inferior genes and males in particular who lack sexual access or otherwise fail to secure mates don’t survive into the next generation. Attributes passed onto each subsequent generation thus favor fitter, Type A brutes who out-compete weaker (read: more cooperative) candidates in an endless self-reinforcing and narrowing cycle. The alternative offered by others points to a wider gene pool based on collaboration and sharing of resources (including mates) that enables populations to thrive together better than individuals who attempt to go it alone or dominate.

Not having undertaken a formal study of anthropology (or more broadly, primatology), I can’t say how well this issue is settled in the professional, academic literature. Online, I often see explanations that are really just-so stories based on logic. What that means is that an ideal or guiding principle is described, something that just “makes sense,” and supporting evidence is then assumed or projected. For instance, we now know many of the mechanisms that function at the cellular level with respect to reproduction and genetic evolution. Those mechanisms are typically spun up to the level of the organism through pure argumentation and presumed to manifest in individual behaviors. Any discontinuity between aggregate characteristics and particular instances is ignored. Questions are solved through ideation (i.e., thought experiments). However, series of if-then statements that seem plausible when confronted initially often turn out to be pure conjecture rather than evidence. That’s a just-so story.

One of the reasons we look into prehistory for evidence of our true nature (understood as biology, not sociology, handily sweeping aside the nature/nurture question) is that hunter-gatherers (HGs) lived at subsistence level for a far longer period of our evolutionary history than our comparatively brief time within the bounty of civilization. It’s only when surpluses and excesses provide something worth hoarding, monopolizing, and protecting that hierarchies arise and/or leveling mechanisms are relaxed. Leaving Babylon has a discussion of this here. Some few HG cultures survive into the 21st century, but for most of us, The Agricultural Revolution is the branching point when competition began to assert itself, displacing sharing and other egalitarian impulses. Accordingly, the dog-eat-dog competition and inequality characteristic of the modern world is regarded by many as an exaptation, not our underlying nature.