Revisitando 1968

Editorial. Revisitando 1968

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Este año marca el 50 aniversario de la revolución estudiantil de 1968, lo que ofrece una oportunidad de reflexionar sobre el evento en sí y la percepción del público desde entonces. En 1969, apenas un año después del evento, Raymond Aron (1905-1983) publicó el libro La Revolution Introuvable: Réflexions sur les événements de mai, o The Elusive Revolution: Anatomy of a Student Revolt, en la traducción al inglés. Considerado el testigo más equilibrado de los acontecimientos en París, Aron describió a 1968 como un ‘psicodrama’, más para una comedia revolucionaria que para una verdadera revolución. Aron era el tipo de intelectual que siempre escogió la verdad, cualquiera que fuera el costo. Ser un feroz crítico del marxismo, en una época en que casi todo el mundo estaba envuelto con la izquierda, significó no sólo renunciar a la oportunidad de hacerse popular, sino también exponerse al menosprecio de otros pensadores. Pero, a pesar de todos los intentos de denigrar su imagen, Aron mantuvo su propio suelo. Aron finalmente alcanzó el reconocimiento merecido al final de su vida, especialmente después de la publicación de sus memorias, un mes antes de su muerte, el 17 de octubre de 1983.

Esta edición de PortVitoria reexamina las ideas en torno a las revueltas de los estudiantes de 1968. El principal artículo es ‘París, mayo de 1968: la revolución que nunca existió’, de Peter Steinfels, publicado por primera vez en The International Herald Tribune el 11 de de mayo de 2008, con motivo de los 40 años de 1968, y publicado aquí en español y portugués. Es seguido por el ensayo de Fernando Genovés ‘Raymond Aron y Jean-Paul Sartre: hombres de letras versus intelectuales’, que destaca los paralelos en las vidas de Aron y Sartre, incluido el evento en París, en el 26 de junio de 1979, cuando estas dos figuras imponentes se encontraron de nuevo por última vez. Un obituario de André Glucksmann, uno de los líderes de las revueltas estudiantiles de 1968 en París y que más tarde surgió como uno de los Nuevos Filósofos de Francia es nuestro tercer artículo. Lo mismo fue publicado en la revista semanal estadounidense The New Yorker, el 11 de noviembre de 2015, y es reproducido aquí en portugués. El cuarto artículo es mi proprio ensayo ‘1968 en un casquillo de nuez’, un breve relato de las revueltas de los estudiantes y sus consecuencias.

Un doble revisión de The Once and Future Liberal y The Shipwrecked Mind (La mente naufragada) de Mark Lilla, por James Meek, publicado por primera vez en 2017 en el London Review of Books, se ofrece aquí en español y portugués. Los libros fueron reseñados en varias revistas y periódicos españoles y brasileños, pero la reseña de Meek captura con aprumo sustancia e intención, permitiendo un vislumbre clara de la mente de ese escritor penetrante.

Mucha agua ha pasado bajo el puente desde 1968 y la narración de los acontecimientos que lo rodean también ha cambiado. Cincuenta años después, un número creciente de críticos parece concordar que fue un utopismo socialista que alcanzó el status de un culto. Aún más relevante que la etiqueta que debía aplicarse a 1968, es el hecho de que inculcó muchas ideas inconclusas en las mentes jóvenes y en la población. Esto tuvo muchas consecuencias imprevistas, tales como la sofocación del debate en la esfera pública, el populismo político, el multiculturalismo, el tribalismo y el desaliento de la enseñanza superior. América Latina tuvo todo eso más la fragmentación social causada por la diseminación del marxismo e ideologías semejantes.

Julio de 2018

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Jaron Lanier and the Bummer machine of making heads

Jaron Lanier and the Bummer machine of making heads

An American information technologist named Jaron Lanier is also the author of several books of critique of the Digital Age, such as You are not a Gadget: The Manifesto (2010), Who Owns the Future? (2013), Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality (2017). Lanier has just published his fourth book entitled Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), in which he denounces Silicon Valley in general, and FaceBook , in particular, as real head-turning machines.

Lanier called the ‘Bummer’ head-turning machine, an acronym in the phrase “Behavior of Others, Modified and Transformed into a Empire for Rent” (Behavior of Others, Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent).

The following is excerpted from the article by Danny Fortson published in The Sunday Times Magazine, 19.05.2018, about Lanier Ten’s new book Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now:

At the heart of his concern is the coupling of the smartphone, an always-on supercomputer, and tracking device, and advertising, which has been utterly transformed from a periodic annoyance that would materialise in defined places – during your favourite television show, on a billboard, in a magazine – to something else entirely. “Everyone who is in social media is getting individualised, continuously adjusted stimuli, without a break, so long as they use their smartphones,” he writes. “What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behaviour modification on a titanic scale.”

Even more alarming: The Bummer machine is getting stronger every day because what algorithms need more than anything is data to crunch and behaviours to analyse. … The more raw material the algorithms have to work with, the more effective they become. Hence Lanier’s call for mass deletion: “The arc of history has reversed with the arrival of the Bummer machine,” he says. “Quitting is the only way, for now, to learn what can replace our grand mistake.”

The argument goes like this: algorithms are optimised to create engagement and they work extremely well. The average millenial checks his phone 150 times a day. It is typically the first thing they do when they get up and the last thing before they go to sleep. More than 2 bn people are in FaceBook, roughly the same number of followers of Christianity.

The result is that society has “darkened a few shades”, Lanier argues. “If you don’t see the dark ads, the ambient whispers, the cold-hearted memes that someone else sees, that person will seem crazy to you. And that is our new Bummer world . We seem crazy to each other because Baummer is robbing us of our theories of one another’s minds.”

Our solution is to be like a cat, that is, be impervious to instruction or control.

Here are Lanier’s 10 reasons why people should delete their social media accounts:

  1. You are loosing your free will;
  2. Quitting social media is the most finely targetted way to resist the insanity of our times;
  3. Social media is turning you into an asshole;
  4. Social media is undermining truth;
  5. Social media is making what you say meaningless;
  6. Social media is desroying your capacity for empathy;
  7. Social media is making you unhappy;
  8. Social media doesn’t wabt you to have economic dignity;
  9. Social media is making politics impossible;
  10. Social media hates your soul;

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The above was taken from Danny Fortson’s interview of Jaron Lanier published in The Sunday Times Magazine, 19.05.2018, about Lanier’s latest book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

 

What defines a liberal mind?

What defines a liberal mind?
Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

I am proud to announce that PortVitoria is now entering its 8th year.
The main feature of this edition is an essay by the Spanish thinker Fernando R. Genovés explaining what defines the liberal mind. Genovés starts with the definition provided by Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton; 1834-1902), who wrote that the liberal mind is the mind of the individual to whom the idea of liberty means something sacred, such as life and property. He then covers the meaning of liberty, which boils down to ‘not to be subjected to the domain of others’, and shows that the sacredness of life and property points to the necessity of individuals to learn how to control themselves and their lives. Liberty is thus the main object of the liberal mind, that is, the mind of persons who make their own decisions and accept responsibility for them. This is even more relevant in a time of post-truths, characterised by false news and by the tricks of constructionism. According with Genovés, liberals are neither conservatives nor radicals, and much less extremists, and, that they tend to not get cosy in political parties.
The other essays of this edition are ‘Decálogo do livre pensador’ (The ten commandments of the free-thinker) by Miguel Ángel Fresdenal, and ‘El passaporte’(The passport), which was taken from my new e-book El hombre rasonable y otros ensayos (The reasonable man and other essays; 2016). Fresdenal’s article touches precisely the problem of how to deal intelligently with the daily bombardment of ideas. My article provides a summary of the history of the passport and also shows how governments sometimes use the passport to further their illiberal agendas.

My e-book El hombre rasonable y otros ensayos (7 November 2016, KDP, Amazon) was reviewed by Norman Berdichevsky, an American writer with a special interest in the Hispanic and Portuguese cultures. This review is presented in both Portuguese and Spanish.
Another review offered in this edition is of Milan Kundera’s Slowness, which was published in French in 1995. The book was launched in Portuguese, in a pocket edition, in 2011, by Companhia das Letras.
During 2016 I managed to complete the migration of PortVitoria from an old-fashioned format to a more modern and flexible one based in WordPress. The new format is much more user friendly for it adjusts to all sorts of computer screens and hand held devices. Now you can bookmark PortVitoria in the home screen of your tablet or smartphone.

January 2017

El hombre razonable

El hombre razonable

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

‘El hombre razonable’ es el título de uno de los 23 ensayos de mi libro publicado en noviembre de 2016 por Amazon. He escogido este tema por dos razones. El primero fue la curiosidad que tuve cuando encontré el tema por primera vez, cuando trabajaba como intérprete en un proceso de accidente de trabajo. El segundo fue la realización inmediata de lo importante que es el hombre razonable para el buen funcionamiento del Estado, y por tanto de la sociedad. Es obvio que la sociedad no puede prescindir de los individuos excelentes y de los genios, pero ella necesita también del hombre razonable, que, por conocerse a sí mismo, sabe reconocer la excelencia y la genialidad. En contraposición al hombre razonable, hay el hombre mediocre, que no se conoce a sí mismo y abraza la mediocridad simplemente por ser su zona de confort.

La idea del hombre razonable puede ser trazada desde la antigüedad. El corresponsal de la razonabilidad en la antigua Grecia era la phronēsis (φρόνησις), o sabiduría práctica; El hombre razonable de la antigua Grecia era el hombre de phronēsis. En su libro Menón, Platón muestra un diálogo de Sócrates en el que éste afirma que la phronēsis es el atributo más importante para aprender, aunque no puede ser enseñado y tiene que ser adquirido a través del autodesarrollo. Para Sócrates, el hombre poseedor de la phronēsis era aquel capaz de discernir cómo y por qué actuar virtuosamente y, además, alentar esa virtud práctica en otras personas.

Al final de la Edad Media, el filósofo Baruch Espinosa (1632-77) escribió que no hay nada más útil en el mundo que un hombre razonable. Espinosa definió al hombre razonable como el que cultiva el autoconocimiento. Para él, tal objetivo no hace al individuo más especial o menos humano, y sí, perfectamente humano. Cuanto más razonables los hombres, más útiles se convierten en la sociedad. Por la misma tabla, la sociedad es tanto más virtuosa cuanto mayor es su riqueza en ciudadanos razonables.

La descripción que Espinosa dio del hombre razonable está más para el superhombre excelente imaginado por Friedrich Nietzsche que para el hombre medio del Derecho. En el derecho inglés, por ejemplo, es un individuo de un nivel educativo razonable, pero común; Tal nivel educativo presumido no es el superior y sino el medio, aún así, suficiente para permitir una determinada capacidad de razonar acerca de las cuestiones prácticas del día a día.

La clase media es, para los filósofos políticos, el eslabón de la democracia. Cuando, en 1903 los legisladores de Inglaterra y del País de Gales incorporaron el concepto del hombre razonable en el derecho, la imagen de éste era la de un proverbial pasajero dentro del autobús de Clapham, entonces un tranquilo suburbio de Londres y lugar de residencia de ingleses de la clase media. Sucede que Clapham cambió completamente con la expansión de Londres después de la Primera Guerra Mundial. Esta expansión fue mayor en el curso del Támesis, pues amalgamó una gran cantidad de pueblos que hasta entonces poseían una existencia independiente. Los vecinos de Clapham también fueron cambiando, incluyendo el proverbial pasajero del autobús. Si elegimos al azar un autobús que hace el trayecto de Clapham a Camdem, otro ex suburbio amalgamado al Gran Londres, es muy probable que la mayor parte de los pasajeros estar formada por extranjeros que trabajan en el sector de servicios. Puede ser que muchos de esos individuos sean razonables, aunque no parezcan en nada con el hombre inglés en el autobús de Clapham, en 1903.

Así como los ingleses necesitan reflexionar más sobre su hombre razonable típico, también los brasileños, argentinos, mexicanos, etc., necesitan reflexionar sobre su hombre medio. ¿Es él mediocre o razonable? ¿Se mediocre, cómo hacer para educarlo? Si es razonable, cómo aprovechar mejor su razonabilidad?

                                                                                                                                               

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien es una brasileña que estudió en Brasil, Estados Unidos e Inglaterra, y obtuvo su PhD por la Universidad de Londres en 1991. Publicó sus primeros ensayos y reseñas en la revista Contemporary Review, entre 1999 y 2008, y A partir de 2010, en PortVitoria, revista electrónica de actualidad centrada en la cultura ibérica, que ella misma fundó y continúa editando (www.portvitoria.com). En 2016 publicó el libro El hombre razonable y otros ensayos (2016), una colección de 23 ensayos sobre los más diversos temas de la civilización occidental, en portugués y en español, y disponible en todos los portales de Amazon. US $ 9.99; Kindle ed. $2.99.

Check out PortVitoria, a biannual digital magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centered on the Iberian culture and its diaspora.

PortVitoria offers informed opinion on topics of interest to the Luso-Hispanic world in Portuguese, Spanish & English.

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Western Civilization in a Nutshell

Norman Berdichevsky

Review of the book El hombre razonable y otros ensayos by Joaquina Pires-O’Brien. Beccles, UK, KDP, 2016. Available at Amazon.com.

The announcement of the adoption of the new word ‘post-truth’ by the writers of the Oxford dictionary on 16 November 2016 came out days after the publication of an e-book in Portuguese called O homem razoável e outros ensaios, already translated into Spanish (El hombre razonable y otros ensayos) – a collection of 23 essays on some of the most defining, as well as, controversial aspects of Western Civilization. The timing of the two events shows that the author is indeed well attuned with Western Civilization and its hurdles. This is due to the fact that one of the essays of this book deals specifically with Post-Modernism, the doctrine or mind-set from where the word ‘post-truth’ originated. Besides Post-Modernism, this book covers other contemporary themes such as liberal education, the two cultures (the chasm between science and the arts and humanities) and 9/11 as well as some timeless themes such as utopia, love and man’s attachment to myth. The author, Jo Pires-O’Brien, a Brazilian resident in the U.K., is the editor in chief of PortVitoria, the on-line biannual magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centered on the Iberian culture and its diaspora, whose articles appear in Spanish, Portuguese and English.

The essay with the most difficult subject – in any language – is precisely the one that talks about post-modernism, described through its fascination with the concept of ‘narratives’; i.e. the plaything of many in the media – an attitude of scepticism or distrust towards ideologies, and various tenets of rational thought, including the existence of objective reality, truth, and the existing notions of progress. Instead, it asserts that knowledge and truth are the product of unique systems of social, historical, and political interpretation. The author’s preoccupation with the threat of post-modernism is not unwarranted. The term ‘post-truth’ adopted by the authors of the Oxford dictionary in 2016 captures the post-modernist idea that ‘there are no truths, only interpretations’. If there is no truth, science and other major elements of modern Western Civilization like its literary cannon are irrelevant.

The title of the book is taken from the first essay, which deals with a hypothetical ‘reasonable man’ that is enshrined in civil and contract law in Britain and the United States, although lacking a precise definition. Such ‘a reasonable man’ – without the definite article as in Spanish and Portuguese or ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ in British folklore, represents a person with common sense whose opinion is taken as the public opinion, and is valued in a number of particular instances such as how a person should behave in situations that might pose a threat (through action or inaction) to others. There is no need to establish a malicious intent and that this composite fictional character also is likely to commit ‘reasonable errors’ according to the circumstances and as such, is a matter of ethics. There is indeed much food for thought on how much our legal systems in the West, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon countries, are a function of a distinct tradition. One learns from the essay that the concept of the reasonable man goes back to antiquity, to the concept of phronesis or ‘practical wisdom’ of the ancient Greeks. To Socrates phronesis was the ability to discern how and why one should act virtuously, while Aristotle, and in the eve of the Modern Age, Spinoza, defined it as the capacity to think logically. The quality of a society depends on its human wealth, measured by the proportion of ‘reasonable citizens’. The theme of law reappears in another essay which deals with the crime of ‘affray’ – using or threatening to use unlawful violence towards another such that would cause a person of ‘reasonable firmness’ present at the scene to fear for their own personal safety. The etymology of the word ‘affray’ is explained showing that it goes back to a word in Proto-Germanic that has a Proto-Indo-European root.

Several essays are about influential thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Jacques Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Elias Canetti, Stefan Zweig and George Orwell. The essay entitled ‘The philosopher of liberty’ is about Hayek, notoriously out of favour among left-wing critics of the affluent modern societies and their economic policies. Hayek was one of the few who did not loose faith in capitalism in the aftermath of the Black Friday of November 1929. In The Road to Serfdom (1944), which turned out to be a best-seller, Hayek explained the misconceptions around the economic system of capitalism and highlighted the value of the freedom to use one’s enterprise and abilities to further oneself; most of all, he clarified that democracy is not an end value but only a means to achieve liberty. The Constitution of Liberty is another great book of Hayek, even though it was not a best-seller. Hayek was greatly admired by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once took the book The Constitution of Liberty to a session in Parliament and banged on the dispatch box saying at the same time: “This is what we believe”. Another personality I single out is George Orwell (Eric Blair), author of 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London, who is covered in two essays, one being a critical summary of Orwell`s life and the other describing the powerful metaphors of his book 1984.

The author’s past career in Brazil, as a research botanist with a PhD in forest ecology, is revealed in an essay about the ill-fated ‘Floram Project’, a reforestation programme. She based her account on the archives of the Institute for advanced studies of the University of Sao Paulo (IEA/USP) as well as on her personal memory. In this essay she shows how the Floram Project was conceived and the undeserved public maligning that caused the private sector investors to withdraw their support. The derailment of Project Floram is symptomatic of one of the major issues of our time – global warming. As Pires-O’Brien correctly concludes…’The project is an example of the constant debate between the reality and the ideal.’

One essay that is short and sharp deals with culture and cultural relativism, tracing the new meaning given to the word culture by some anthropologists and sociologists, and showing its connection to cultural relativism. The remainder essays deal with the great ideas that flourished in the West and helped to shape Western civilization – the Bible, paradise, utopia, life-long learning, love, a healthy mind in a healthy body and liberal education, as well as its current greatest challenges and threat: post-modernism and Islamic extremism. Although it is an eclectic collection of essays, there is a common denominator in the struggle of reason versus unreason.

Last but not least, the author tackles the Islamist extremism responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the use of jihad as the means to political power. This comes in the form of a series of Questions and Answers dealing not only with the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks but also with a number of relevant topics about the Islamic religion: fundamentalism, the history of the conspirators and their motivation, the nature of the Koran, the inter-Arab and inter-Muslim Sunni-Shi’ite rivalries, jihad, Wahhabism, Salafism, the Muslim brotherhood, the aspiration for a caliphate and the beliefs of the majority of ordinary Muslims who are not Islamists, as well as the failure, lack of cooperation and naïve assumptions of American intelligence agencies. All these things are explained with clarity and without exaggeration.

This is a book to read and reread to help put diverse but crucial ideas in order and perspective. As a reviewer whose first language is English and has a good reading knowledge of Spanish, I found the Spanish text eminently readable, clear, precise, light and both entertaining and informative. The style is of the kind that engages the reader’s attention and does not ‘wander’ or ‘plod’ as is frequently the case with similar narratives embracing two dozen diverse provocative themes that are nevertheless well connected.

To date, the book has appeared in Portuguese and in Spanish and there is a hint in the Preface that an English translation is not in the frame: “The repertory of the themes covered is already well known in the countries situated at the core of Western Civilization, but not in the countries of its fringe. The objective of the present collection is to contribute to correct this distortion”. Although this is probably true, I believe that even in the English language there is a gap in the literature for such a concise analysis showing the ideas that shaped Western Civilization and those which are a threat to it. It is my fervent hope that an English edition will soon fill this gap. This is a valuable book that should be required reading for entering university students in all the fields of history, philosophy, the social sciences and international relations

                                                                                                                       

Dr Norman Berdichevsky is an American specialist in human geography with a strong interest in Hispanic and Portuguese cultures. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and essays. He is on the Board of Editors of PortVitoria.

Check out PortVitoria, a biannual digital magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centered on the Iberian culture and its diaspora.

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No Mincing, No Newspeak

Review of the book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Thinkers of the New Left, by Roger Scruton. London, Bloomsbury, 2015.

What is Left? What is Right? What is the New Left? These are some of the questions that Roger Scruton explores in his 2015 book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. This abrasive title undoubtedly relates to the author’s lifetime defiance of the New Left. In it, Scruton describes how New Left academics and other intellectuals empowered themselves by uniting against the common enemy of capitalism and its bourgeoisie, as well as by adopting an idiosyncratic language of its own, akin to the Newspeak in Orwell’s fictitious totalitarian society. Contrary to what the provocative title may suggest, Scruton’s treatment of the New Left is kinder than the treatment he received from its partisans, who cavorted to pin on him the slanderous label of ‘right-wing’. In his straight-forward style, with no mincing or Newspeak, Scruton dissects the irrationalism behind the New Left’s assault on all the things that makes society possible – property, custom, hierarchy, family, negotiation, government and institutions, showing that such assault has been carried out under the belief that it would lead to a society of perfect equality. He also highlights the unfairness of the New Left in comparing its imagined perfect society with real society.

Any outsider who happened to be familiar with British liberalism would be appalled to find out that Scruton’s 1985 book Thinkers of the New Left, his first attempt to pursue the subject, was withdrawn from the bookstores by the publisher due to the pressure received from the academic establishment. If this smacked of the heretic trials of the Ancien Regime, it is because New Left ideology then enjoyed a similar dogmatic status. However, New Left dogmatism ended three years later with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which triggered the process of disintegration of the old Soviet Union. Scruton links the two events when he states that he decided to rewrite his book in 1989, ‘when people began to realize that not everything said, thought or done in the name of socialism had been intellectually respectable or morally right’.

In a special chapter, Scruton examines how the New Left developed its ‘revolutionary consciousness’ that caused the culture wars of the 1980s. The process goes back to the 1960s, when disappearance of the real working class in Britain and in other parts of the Western world, created the perfect conditions for the New Left to emerge. First the intellectuals sought to be recognised as honorary members of the working class and then they started a revolution in their name, to be fought in the world of books. Here is how Scruton describes it:

“For the first time it was possible to observe the ‘revolutionary consciousness’ from close to, while running no risk of violence other than the violence of words. It was possible, in particular, to observe how quickly and adroitly the left-wing message was encased in dogma, how energetically the new revolutionaries went about the business of inventing spurious questions, barren controversies and arcane pedantries, with which to divert all intellectual inquiry away from the fundamental questions that had – from emotional necessity – been begged in their favour, including the question of revolution itself: what, exactly, is a revolution, and what good does it do?”

In describing the birth of the New Left in Britain, Scruton dwells in the idiosyncrasies of British society that facilitated the process, such as the British tradition of treating historians as leaders in the world of ideas and its unique tradition of social and literary criticism. He recalls changes in the British institutions of higher education as early as 1964, which, in his opinion, marked the transition from the Old Left to New Left. Scruton also describes the views of the most influential British socialists at that time, such as the Welsh writer and critic, Raymond Williams (1921-88), and the socialist historians who provided socialist accounts of the Industrial Revolution. Those changes marked the start of the intellectual revolution to take control of culture. In Great Britain, they were concentrated in the humanities departments, where the old set curriculum based on the objective standards of the Enlightenment was gradually replaced by a consensus-driven post-modern curriculum.

Scruton also describes the early days of the New Left in other countries. In Germany, the main drivers of the New Left were the professors and thinkers affiliated with the Institute for Social Research of the University of Frankfurt am Main. The Frankfurt School, as it is better known, pioneered the idea of ‘Marxist humanism’. Although it was closed in 1933 by the Nazis, just three years after it was founded by Max Horkeheimer (1895-1973), it survived through cooperation with universities in the United States, and resumed its operation in Frankfurt in 1951. In addition to Horkeheimer, the Frankfurt School included many big names of the New Left such as Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Erich Fromm (1900-80) and Theodor Adorno (1903-69). Scruton criticises the fact that the members of the Frankfurt School who were given the opportunity to continue their teaching careers in the United States did not pay back in kind. Horkeheimer and Adorno launched a relentless attack on the Enlightenment, claiming it was a product of bourgeois reasoning, while Marcuse denounced America’s ‘repressive tolerance’ and the ‘the totalitarian universe of technological rationality’. Jürgen Habermas (1929-), the surviving representative of the Frankfurt School, is let off the hook for having overcome its ‘stultifying agenda’.

Scruton’s appraisal of the New Left in the United States highlights the pragmatism of Richard Rorty (1931-2007) and Edward Said (1935-2003), encapsulated by a set of relativist ideas according to which ‘there is no point to the old ideas of objectivity and universal truth for all that matters is what is agreed.’ According to Scruton, both Rorty and Said inculcated doubt in the American mind and attempted to deprive the American cultural inheritance of the belief of its own legitimacy. Rorty came up with the idea of a new curriculum, a post-modern one, to replace the old curriculum, based on the Enlightenment. As for Said, Scruton states that he scorned and poisoned the way which the West portrayed the East but never considered the way which the East portrayed the West. Said’s attacks included not just the living scholars of the West but the entire Western scholarship, which Scruton presents as evidence of Said’s short sightedness. As it turned out, Said’s seminal book Orientalism was later shown to be the outcome of pseudo-scholarship, when Robert Irwing exposed its mistakes, oversights and downright lies. Scruton completes his criticism of Rorty and Said by showing some great examples of Orient Studies that came out of the Enlightenment, from Galland’s 1717 translation of the Thousand and One Nights, Goethe’s translation of the collection West-Östlicher Diwan (into German), and FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayan’s Rubaiyat. Scruton complements these with Sir William Jones dedication to preserving Persian and Arabic poetry and his pioneering study of Indian languages.

Scruton’s account of the New Left includes the building of its own brand, as distinct from that of the Old Left. He also points out two important things that the New Left preserved from the Old Left: the practice of creating cults around figureheads and the lingo. After recognizing the need for a figurehead that was exclusive to them, the theoreticians of the New Left chose Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian communist revolutionary who was imprisoned by the fascist government from 1926 until his death at age 46. There were two things that drove them to choose Gramsci over any other. The first was Gramsci’s idea of ‘revolutionary praxis’ with which he hoped to create a new and objective cultural hegemony which would replace the bourgeois culture. In a nutshell, Gramsci’s idea consisted of prioritizing ‘practice’ over ‘theory’ and it fitted well with the message the New Left wanted to convey. The second was the circumstances of Gramsci’s death in a fascist prison, a fact that gives credence to the political spectrum conceived by the New Left, where communism is located in one end and fascism the other. All the New Left had to do to make the cult around Gramsci stick was to exaggerate his credentials.

The existence of a political spectrum where the ‘Left’ end is the presumed realm of everything ‘intellectually respectable or morally right’ while the ‘Right’ end is presumed to be the realm of the opposite is a total nonsense, according to Scruton. In an attempt to throw some light on the topic, Scruton points out how the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ originated, in the early days of post-revolutionary France. When the prospect of changing France into a Constitutional Monarchy was being considered, the ‘Estates-General’, a body representing the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate), which had not met since 1614, was reconvened. In the Assembly of 1789, the representatives of the common people sat on the left of King Louis XVI while others sat on his right. This event marked the start of the association of the Left with the people and the Right with the elite. Since then, many gimmicks have been used to stretch the meaning of the Left to include anarchists, Marxists dogmatists, nihilists and American-style liberals, and to lump fascists, Nazis and economic liberals in the Right. Scruton closes his case by highlighting the common ground that unites communism and fascism:

“Communism, like fascism, involved the attempt to create a mass popular movement and a state bound together under the rule of a single party, in which there will be total cohesion around a common goal. It involved the elimination of opposition, by whatever means, and the replacement of ordered dispute between parties by clandestine ‘discussion’ within the single ruling elite. It involved taking control – ‘in the name of the people’ – of the means of communication and education, and instilling a principle of command throughout the economy.”

A special idiosyncratic language is the other thing that the New Left preserved from the Old Left. Scruton describes it as a “contemptuous Marxist lingo created to denounce, exhort and condemn”. He also tries to show the similarities between the New Left’s lingo and ‘Newspeak’, the official language of Oceania, in Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four. Scruton describes Newspeak as “a new fortified language created for the purpose of creating a ‘politics of truth’ to be used in the place of truth itself.” This lingo, according to Scruton, includes the Manichaean spin on words in order to mislead people to think that there are only two alternatives, as well as the manipulation of the meaning of certain words such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘bourgeoisie’. By presenting the word ‘capitalism’ as synonym of exploitation, the New Left gain an excuse to condemn free economies. By presenting the word ‘bourgeoisie’ as ‘a hegemonic propertied class that controls the means of production and therefore exploits the working class or proletariat’ the New Left justifies its call for class warfare. Scruton admits that many of the wrongs in British society identified by the New Left are true but he objects to the way that the New Left describes such wrongs, framing accusations in such a way that do not leave any room for defence either of the people described or of the system that contained them.

The central point that Scruton makes in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is that when the New Left juxtaposes its project against Western Civilization, it is not comparing like with like. Great Britain may have many faults but is a real society. Such is not the case of the ‘Kingdom of Ends’, a term Scruton uses to describe the society of perfect equality imagined by the New Left. He ends his book defending his position that Great Britain should remain as it is and pointing out that any improvements to it must come from within. They should be done through the improvement of civil societies, institutions and personality. By civil societies Scruton means the little platoons that exist across the land such as brass bands, study groups, choirs, cricket clubs, dances, holiday clubs, etc. As examples of institutions Scruton names professional organizations such as the Inns of Court, although these are also civil societies. By personality Scruton means the agency and the accountability of individuals as well as the institutions that include them. In spite of his dislike for the political spectrum terminology, Scruton describes what the so-called Right stands for:

‘The right rests its case in representation and law. It advocates autonomous institutions that mediate between the state and the citizen, and a civil society that grows from below without asking permission of its rulers. It sees government as in every matter accountable: not a thing but a person. Such a government is answerable to other persons: to the individual citizen, to the corporations, and to other governments. It is also answerable to the law. It has rights against individual citizens and also duties towards them: it is tutor and companion to civil society, the butt of our jokes and the occasional recipient of our anger. It stands to us in a human relation, and this relation is upheld and vindicated by the law, before which it comes as one person among others, on equal footing with those who are also subject to its sovereignty.’

‘Such a state can accommodate and bargain. It recognizes that it must respect persons not as means only, but as end in themselves. It tries not to liquidate the opposition but to accommodate it, and socialists too have a part to play in this process, provided they recognize that no change, not even change in their favoured direction, is or ought to be ‘irreversible’.’

Many of the ideas in Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands will be carefully considered by his admirers in Eastern Europe and in Latin America even though he wrote it thinking about Great Britain. Scruton wants to preserve Britain because he loves it and believes that it deserves to be preserved. He also thinks that should the New Left ideology ever become a reality, the result would be slavery. Scruton’s call to preserve society does not exclude micro-adjustments. However, before deciding which adjustments are needed people need to understand society’s two basic components, the state itself and civil society. Scruton’s view is that civil society should apply changes to the state and not the other way around. Therefore, all such changes should be from the bottom up, from changes within people. It is us who need to make a change of life that leads to self-knowledge, which in turn, would allow us to recognize that our happiness depends on wanting the right things, rather than the things that captures our attention or inspire our lust. These suggestions resonate with ideas often associated with the Left and also illustrate the nonsense of the political spectrum.

Scruton does not think that everything that the New Left thinkers wrote is wrong. In his appraisal of Gramsci, for instance, although he rated his work as ‘common sense sociology’ rather than a cutting edge philosophy, he recognised in him ‘a frankness that the more orthodox Marxists lacked’. To Scruton, Gramsci ‘was thwarted by the repudiation of the very idea of objectivity, and by the purely negative work of the comfortable professoriate in America’. Such view suggests that Scruton understood Gramsci better than those who pandered to him.

Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is the outcome of the author’s defiance against the New Left and the new order of things that the New Left sought to introduce in Britain. Scruton got a lot of grief as a result of this defiance and this could explain the streak of pessimism he reveals at the very end of this book, in the form of the questions left unanswered. If the professorship of the West’s top universities can be so mistaken, what hope can be for the rest of humanity? If the human species has a religious need that no amount of rational thought can overcome, would not that make all argument meaningless? If people are more prone to the abstract than to the concrete, is there a point is defending that which is merely real? These questions serves as food for thought for everyone who loves their country and wants to preserve it. Perhaps that was what Scruton had in mind when he asked them.

                                                                                                                                                              

Jo Pires-O’Brien edits a digital magazine called PortVitoria, about the Iberian culture and its diaspora in the world.

Acknowledgment

Helen Kirby, reviser

 

Check out PortVitoria, a biannual digital magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centered on the Iberian culture and its diaspora.

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Europe’s Iranian Connections

Review of the book Towards One World. Ancient Persia and the West, by Warwick Ball. London, East & West Publishing, 2010).

To Warwick Ball (WB), an Australian archaeologist specialising in ancient cultures, the contribution of Persia to Europe has been greatly overlooked and his book Towards One World aims to set the record straight. To WB, Europe created the fallacy of ‘Greek therefore European’ when it decided to single out Greek civilization to be its roots. This in turn originated the mistaken idea that the culture of the West is entirely western, as well as the disingenuous concept of West versus East.

One clarification that WB provides in the beginning of this book is about the names ‘Persia’ and ‘Iran’. Contrary to what many people think, the name ‘Iran’ is not a modern name for ‘Persia’ but the most correct name for that country. The explanation is simple. While the name ‘Persia’ is a Hellenised form of Fars or Pars, a southern province that borders the Persian Gulf, the name ‘Iran’ derives from ‘Eranshabar’, meaning ‘country of Iran’. In this book the name ‘Persia’ is used for this is how Iran was known in the ancient world.

WB depicts ancient Persia as a civilization that was not just mighty but wise as well. The wisdom of ancient Persia is implicit in the title of this book, a reference to the ancient Iranian idea of a single universal world that transcends political and ethnic boundaries. The West, of course, only came up with a similar idea – Universalism –, during the seventeen century Enlightenment. Another point that WB makes in this book is that although the Persian presence in Europe occurred in its fringes and lasted for a mere sixty years, Persia’s legacy to Europe is comparable to that of the Phoenicians, Arabs and Turks, who remained in Europe for several centuries.

Where exactly in Europe was Persia? What exactly constituted the Persian legacy to Europe?

Persia’s foothold in Europe was indeed small and short-lived. It happened when the Greek colony of Ionia and adjacent Greek lands on the west coast of Anatolia (present day Turkey) became part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. The latter was the empire created around 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great, from a coalition of Persian tribes united under the house of Achaemene, and was the largest empire of classical antiquity. It lasted until 331 BCE when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.

In order to understand where in Western culture one can find the Persian ideas one needs first to recognise the three main descriptors of the West: the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition, the Classical Greek philosophy, and the set of values formed around liberal democracy such as the concept of the ‘open society’. However, if one considers an open society to be one that is open to influence from abroad, then the ancient Persian culture was one. ‘The Persian Empire created an international world that allowed peoples, goods, ideas and artistic creativity to move on a scale much greater than the Silk Route’, says WB. During its presence in the Anatolian peninsula the Persians imposed a unity that not only outlasted its own empire but preserved the idea of a civilization that is capable of receiving and giving.

The Judaeo-Christian religious tradition of the West absorbed many concepts from Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion, including the ideas of a single universal creator, final judgement and paradise. As for classical Greek philosophy, the last descriptor of Western culture, it was valued by the Persians well before the West decided to rescue it from the dust bin of its history. Although it is commonly known that Europe recovered classical Greek philosophy from the Muslim Arabs, during the Renaissance, it was from the Persians that the latter got it. The story of how this happened is well-described in this book. It all began in 260 CE when Shāpūr I, Persian king of the Sasanian dynasty, after winning the Battle of Edessa (modern Urfa, in Turkey), took many Roman prisoners, including Emperor Valerian, and sent them to several newly founded cities in Persia, especially to Gundishapur (or Jundaisabur) in Susiana. Gundishapur was not only a centre of Greek learning which had received the teachers of the Academy of Athens after the latter was closed under the orders of the pope, but was also a centre for the translation of Greek texts into Syriac, a variation of Aramaic, the official language of the Persian Empire. As it happened, Syriac was also one of the first languages to evolve from the first alphabetic system that the ancient Phoenicians invented in the second millennium BCE. Arabic speaking Muslims took the classical Greek scripts from the Persians after Persia became islamized.

Another thing one gets from this book is that archaeology has come a long way since it emerged out of antiquarianism. If in its beginning archaeology used to run after history, nowadays it is history that runs behind archaeology, thanks to its new techniques and new ways of studying the relics of the past. In the past, the strong elements of classical Greek architecture mislead scholars to overlook other cultural elements used in conjunction to it, says WB. Although ancient Persia borrowed the Greek architecture, it often combined it with elements from other cultures. One example he cites is the tomb of Mausolus, a local governor or satrap in Anatolia, a province of the Persian Empire, in Halicarnassus (today’s Bodrum, Turkey), considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. For many years its style was considered to be purely Greek; nowadays it is recognised that it also had the funerary tradition of Anatolia.

Ancient Persia not only left a long lasting influence in Europe but in Asia as well. The greatest influence of Persia worldwide is linked to its practical decision to adopt Syrio-Aramaic, then a global language, as the official language of its Empire instead of Persian. As a result of that, related languages of Central Asia such as Bactrian, Kharosshtiand and Soghdian, survived well into the first millennium AD. Also, in the ninth century the Uighurs adopted the Soghdian-Aramaic script to create a written form of Turkish. Last but not least is the written Mongolian language that Gengis Khan commissioned to the Uigur scholars, which survives until today, although its script was changed to the Cyrillic in the 1920s.

As already mentioned, WB is a fierce critic of the concept ‘West versus East’ which to him is a stereotype that stands on the way of good relations between countries. One example of that is the use of the phrase ‘West versus East’ to explain the terrorism committed under the aegis of the Islamic jihad. WB shows that the West has a shared responsibility since the Islamic jihad was created as a counter-offensive to the Holy War of the Crusades, a concept formulated in 622 by Heraclius, emperor of the Roman Empire in Byzantium (610-641), when he introduced the idea that killing was an act of sacred piety that the almighty himself approved. From the ISIS insurgency to Iran’s nuclear programme and the surge of Syrian refugees in Europe, many of the problems of the twenty-first century are linked to the ‘West versus East’ stereotype. To WB, putting such stereotyping aside is one step towards finding the best course of action to tackle such problems, as it would facilitate the involved parties talking to each another.

The book Towards One World puts forward the message that Persian culture not only permeated into the Hellenistic and the Roman societies but also left its mark in its religion and political ethos and organization. This book also puts right an array of historical bias and misconceptions about the relation between Persia and Europe. The book is aimed at Europeans, in the first instance, but there is a faint suggestion that perhaps English-speaking Iranians would welcome it too, in the following sayings: (i) Ancient Persia was once a highly tolerant and pluralistic society; (ii) Persian civilisation survived the investiture of Islam; and (iii) the new Persia that emerged was different from the old one.

One question that WB implies is: how much of the values of ancient Persia are still latent in the minds of the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran that exists since 1979?

Although WB’s book is academic but due to the clarity of the author’s ideas and the didactic and beautiful illustrations it is also amenable to the lay reader. WB’s views are balanced and they can be taken as a contribution to the process of finding a peaceful solution to the problems affecting both the West and Iran. Although there is no easy answer, at least this book points in the right direction. It ends with a poem by the thirteen century Persian poet Sadi inscribed over the entrance of the United Nations building in New York:

The sons of Adam are limbs of each other,

Having been created of one essence.

When the calamity of time affects the limb

The other limb cannot remain at rest.

If though hast no sympathy for the troubles of others

Though art unworthy to be called by the name of a human.

Sadi, Gulistan, Book I x (ca. 1259)

                                                                                                                                               

Jo Pires-O’Brien is a Brazilian living in England. She is the editor of PortVitoria, an digital magazine about the Iberian culture for speakers of Portuguese and Spanish.

 Acknowledgement

Revision: Carl O’Brien

 Citation:

WARWICK BALL. Towards One World. Ancient Persia and the West. London, East & West Publishing, 2012. Review by: PIRES-O’BRIEN, J. Europe’s Iranian Connections. PortVitoria, UK, v.12, Jan-Jun, 2016. ISSN 2044-8236, http://www.portvitoria.com/archive.html.

Note

A Portuguese version of this review is available in PortVitoria magazine:

http://www.portvitoria.com/BookReviewTOW.html

***
Check out PortVitoria, a biannual digital magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centered on the Iberian culture and its diaspora.

PortVitoria offers informed opinion on topics of interest to the Luso-Hispanic world in Portuguese, Spanish & English.

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