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

 

Catalonia and the battle of ideas in the 21st century

Catalonia and the battle of ideas in the 21st century
Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

As a magazine about the Iberian culture PortVitoria could not ignore the recent referendum for independence held in Catalonia on Sunday, 1st October 2017, in which only 42% of the eligible voters participated, but resulted in a 90 per cent ‘yes’ vote. The national administration in Madrid has declared it unconstitutional and Spain’s Constitutional Court outlawed the referendum. Our editor and contributor Norman Berdichevsky, a cultural geographer with extensive knowledge and expertise on Iberian history, discusses various angles of the problem in his paper ‘The Catalonian referendum and what lay behind it’.
Could Catalonia’s referendum rekindle similar movements elsewhere which in turn could trigger a war? Lets examine the two opposing arguments. The ‘no’ argument states that most people are against violence and would prefer the stability of a normal life, even if backwards and faulty, to the instability of a war. The ‘yes’ argument states that Catalonia’s secessionist movement could rekindle similar movements around the world; fuelled by nationalism and ethnic claims, the same type that caused the wars of the 20th century.
In the 21st century, many State-nations face the problems of secessionism as well as subcultural affirmation. These two are connected by a crave for identity, which is the ‘dish of the day’ in the battle of ideas of the 21st century. One thinker who has contributed greatly to enlighten the battle of ideas of the 21st century is Thomas Sowell, an American economist and a Senior Fellow of The Hoover Institution at Stanford University, California. Among his many books, Sowell wrote on subcultural affirmation in his book Intellectuals and Society (2009), where he calls attention for the dishonesty of self-serving intellectuals behind the single issue activism of the 21st century. He writes: “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth, When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.” We are pleased to offer the review of Sorwell’s book by David Gordon, a senior researcher at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
The compounding effects of the internet and the world’s super-population have brought the world’s ambiguities too close for comfort, making the battle of ideas in the 21st century much more volatile than of previous times. We in the 21st century should reflect upon the 20th century if we are to prevent the current battle of ideas from turning into war. No one depicted better the war of ideas of the 20th century and the mass movements it created than the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). Ortega had a lifetime interest in capturing reality, and his books are still very relevant in the 21st century. His 1914 book Meditations on Quixote depicts the spirit of Spain itself in the character Sancho Panza. His 1929 book The Revolt of the Masses depicts changes as they were occurring all over Europe, describing the barbarism of lootings, the coerciveness of the mass movements and the homogenization of ideas. Ortega showed that the right to freedom comes with the responsibility to think for ourselves and that there is a relation between thinking and surviving: “We do not live to think, but, on the contrary, we think in order that we may succeed in surviving”. The two essays by Fernando Genovés presented in the current edition of PortVitoria cover the themes of Ortega the thinker and the battle of ideas. They were taken from Genovés 2016 book La riqueza de la libertad, and are offered in their English translation.
December 2017

On individualism

On individualism

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

I had two reasons to choose individualism as a theme for the current issue of PortVitoria. The first is the disturbing revelations of ‘Operação Lava Jato’ (Operation Car Wash) in Brazil, namely the denial of many of the accused, that the benefits in kind received amounted to bribes. The second is the upcoming centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution or October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, which resulted in the establishment of the world’s first Marxist experiment and 74 years of oppressive collectivism. These two motives have a common denominator in the populist collectivist tint of the majority of the political parties in Brazil. Individualism is contrary to collectivism and also the antidote for the vice of not owning up to one’s responsibilities. However, due the populist collectivist rhetoric of politicians, individualism is often portrayed negatively as a form of egoism. The sophistry goes more or less like this: ‘If you are against the collective then you are an egotist’.

Is individualism a form of selfishness, as the populist collectivist mindset claims, or is it a simple preference for the individual, as opposed to the collective, as the liberals assert? These are some of the questions I try to answer oi my essay on individualism. In it, I stress the fact that individualism is not a kind of egoism but a recognition of the importance of taking responsibility for what we do with our lives and how we act as citizens. Although the word ‘individualism’ only appeared at the start of the 19st century, the idea of the self is frequent in ancient Greek mythology, literature and philosophy. Socrates’ statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living” resonates well with the concept of individualism. Man’s struggle to be himself resonates even better in Greek drama, as shown in Débora Finamore’s essay on Sophocles.

Brazil needs to build a culture of integrity if it wants to tackle corruption effectively. It needs good citizenship, which boils down to responsible individuals with the habit of thinking for themselves. The best way one can learn how to think for oneself is by learning the kind of things that matter to humanity, general things that are not connected to any specific occupation, otherwise known as liberal education. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in his essay ‘Philosophy for laymen’ that the knowledge of general things that are not connected to any specific skill or profession, such as history and philosophy, could improve enormously the way people think, not only about practical things but also about polemic topics. A Portuguese translation of this essay is offered in this edition of PortVitoria.

Finally, there is a small contribution to history in general, in the two book reviews selected for this edition. David A. West’s book is Darwin’s Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller (2016), is reviewed by Amy Cox Hall, while Simon Winder’s book Danubia: A Personal History of Hapsburg Europe (2013), is reviewed by Andrew Wheatcroft. West’s book is about a German physician turned naturalist who immigrated to Brazil and ended up as a collaborator of Charles Darwin. In it, one learns how Müller was attracted to Brazil, to join a new German colony established in the 1850s by Hermann Blumenau and F. Hackradt. West notes that Darwin believed that Müller’s book was “perhaps the most important contribution in support of his ideas”, an example of which being the scientist’s testing of whether butterflies are born knowing exactly which flower had nectar, or if this skill was learned. Another example was Müller’s research on predation in butterflies. Winder’s book describes the lands in Central Europe that were once under the Austrian Hapsburgs, a dynasty which played a great role not only in Europe but also in Latin America. Brazil is the common denominator of both books, namely the German immigrants it received during the nineteenth century, which, in addition to Germans proper, included other peoples from the Austrian Hapsburg Empire such as various minorities from the Galicia–Volhynia region and Pomeranians.

July 2017


Pires-O’Brien, J. Editorial. On individualism. PortVitoria, UK, v.15, Jul-Dec, 2017. ISSN 2044-8236.

Note.  Although the German immigration to Brazil started in 1818, under the rule of João VI, of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarve, the bulk of it took place during the long rule of Pedro II (1825-91), from 1831 to 1889. It was facilitated by Pedro II’s links with both Austria and Germany. Pedro II, of Brazil, was the son of Carolina Josefa Leopoldina of Habsburg-Lorena (1797-1826), fifth daughter of Francis II (1768-1835), of Austria, and the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. One of his daughters, Teresa Cristina,  Leopoldina Teresa de Bragança e Bourbon (1847-71), married a German prince – Ludwig August of Saxe-Corburg-Gotha (1845-1907), who was a first cousin to both Queen Victoria and her consort Albert, and was the Princess of Saxe-Corburg-Gotha and Dutchess of Saxe.

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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.

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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.

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Why the Apotheosis of Empathy Subtracts Responsibility – An Interview with Fernando Rodrígues Genovés

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien, editor of the internet magazine PortVitoria, interviews the Spanish philosopher Fernando Genovés about his latest book La ilusión de la empatía. Ponerse en el lugar del otro y demás imposturas morales (Provisional English title: The Illusion of Empathy. To put oneself in the place of another and other moral impostures).

Dr. Fernando Rodríguez Genovés is professor of philosophy at the University of Valencia currently on sabbatical. He is a literary and film critic, author of many essays and published books, a blogger and one of the founders of the monthly electronic magazine El Catoblepas, published since 2002, to which he is a frequent contributor.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien (JPO): Why do you state in your book that the popular notion of ´to put oneself in the place of another’ is a moral imposture?

Fernando Rodríguez Genovés (FRG): I chose the term ‘imposture’ in order to air some issues that I detect in the phenomenon of empathy, more specifically, in the proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’, since it describes precisely a topic that deals not only with moral attitudes but also with places and theorizations. I won’t deny that such terminological choice also invites to an intellectual complicity with Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s famous book Intellectual Impostures (UK edition, published in the USA as Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science).Empathy represents, in effect, an intellectual imposture, for in addition to be an idea that is scientifically absurd and theoretically unfeasible, it constitutes, first and foremost, a huge artifice, not far from pretence, and as stated in the very title of the essay, it is also not free from illusion. There are optical illusions but there are also illusory beliefs. Empathy is one of them.

JPO: What does moral philosophy says regarding compassion and the need to understand our fellow citizens?

FRG: There is not a single agreed moral philosophy about this, but several diverse ones. Those that are directly linked to our theme lean primarily towards amour-propre, self-care and self-respect, starting from the ones we could call ‘altruists’, that is, those which place the other ahead —or above— the personal I. Compassion is a human instinct, just like aggression and sexuality. Therefore, it is not a moral value in itself, only a natural propensity that people have, which, as such, must be governed and contained by reason. What happens is that, suddenly, some concepts acquire a theoretical and/or ideological veneer that literally changes their meaning, prompting an opportune criticism. This happened with the notion of ‘compassion’, as well as with the meaning of ‘understanding’, for ‘understanding the other’ should not necessarily lead to agree with everything someone says, nor having to patronize, to adopt or ‘to put in someone’s place ’, but only, in the first instance, to understand the reasons by which someone acts.

JPO: Could you give an example of why individual responsibility and self-respect are hardly compatibles with the proposition ´to put oneself in the place of another’?

FRG: Moral responsibility means the ability to take charge of one’s life and to account for one’s actions. Due to its personal nature, responsibility (like identity) is not transferable. Thus, ‘to account for the other’ as a norm is tantamount to interfere with people’s autonomy, to take away their voice, wanting to constrain them intellectually and morally as under-age. Understanding the others means to take them seriously and to respect them, that is, to do nothing that could prevent them from freely exercising their own will. This is the best way to build a society of free and responsible individuals, neither by bringing interventionism and protectionism to the sphere of emotions, nor or to an area as specific as ethics.

JPO: Are psychologists wrong in overvaluing the role of the individuals’ social relations?

FRG: This is another case where it is not prudent to generalize. Not all psychologists hold the same viewpoint on the subject of empathy. We noticed in this professional group the same thing that occurs in many others: they are severely conditioned by fads. In the area of psychology, Gestalt and psychoanalysis ruled yesterday; today, it is ruled by currents inspired by emotional intelligence and empathy. At the same time, one needs to take into account that at the fringe of the therapeutic practices of psychologists, there is a wide spectrum of new professions and new trends — such as those linked to coaching, self-help, communication techniques, and so on — which function by the use of clichés and very elementary practical models, seeking first and foremost to attract public sympathy. Moreover, nothing is more captivating than empathy. Whoever works in a field that involves controlling behaviour, hardly remains immune to the dominant currents; and let us not forget that contemporary Western societies, which are self-designated ‘welfare societies’, are marked by extremely community-orientated values — security and overprotection, solidarity and philanthropy and the proliferation of rights — whilst they are less inclined to risk, to entrepreneurship, to free competition, and to extend liberty to a greater number of human activities.

JPO: In his book The Revolt of the Masses, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset referred to hyperdemocracy as a disease of democracy. Do you see any similarity between hyperdemocracy and the apotheosis of empathy?

FRG: The analysis carried out by Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses, not only remains valid but has also been corroborated further by the expansion of the meaning of the word ‘mass’. The inertia of the mass tends to transform society in a totum revolutum, an amorphous conglomeration where individualities and particularities are firstly blurred and then wiped out. A ‘hyperdemocracy’ is the best-suited place to celebrate the apotheosis of empathy. It has no hierarchies, categories or meritocracy; according to it, the simplest comparisons are hateful. Anyone can take any place, not by merit or hard work, but by one’s own right. Status and places are inevitably interchangeable: lessons are given by the students, rather than by the teachers; the division of power, the main condition of the liberal society, has been reduced to a relic of the old political system; in the realm of the family, parents are dominated by the whims of their children; existing social networks allow unbound identities: today you can be someone and tomorrow someone else; and so on. If the illusion of empathy could become a reality, we would witness the apotheosis of moral egalitarianism.

JPO: What are the dangers of tolerance and acceptance without limits in the family?

FRG: In Western societies, a large section of the present generation of parents suffer from a noticeable guilt complex and a responsibility deficit, which prompt them to overprotect their children (and all of this, open brackets, when the couples decide to make descendants, for the drop in the birth rate in Europe has become a worrisome demographic problem which could become disastrous both socially and culturally). On the one hand, parents have renounced the traditional mission of educating children, transferring this task to the school. On the other hand, they permit and tolerate everything, for they are afraid of ‘traumatizing them’ with the smallest rules of behaviour. The following can be noted in the above mentioned situations: in the first case, we have teachers that put themselves in the place of parents; and in the second case we have parents who fail to guide their children — they neither tell them off nor do they punish the faults they commit — for in their angst to understand them, they put themselves in their place.

JPO: You cited the philosopher Bernard Williams who pointed out the ‘heresy of the anthropologists’ in relation to the theoretical proposition that moral judgements have no universal value, and therefore it would be inadequate for one society to condemn or to criticise the values of another. What kind of problem does this type of cultural relativism represents to the understanding and discernment of things?

FRG: Mainly one: relativism makes it impossible to understand things. In fact, it does not even aspire to such an objective. By its own nature, the process of understanding demands distancing from the reality one seeks to understand. This is particularly so in the sphere of practical knowledge such as ethics, psychology, law, and so on. I am going to give you an example: a judge cannot pass a sentence in a murder case by putting himself in the place of the murderer. In the case of cultural anthropology, to which Williams referred, there is no such thing as superior or inferior cultures, civilization or barbarism. According to that assertion, all cultures are equally ‘respectable’, what changes the strict meaning of the term ‘respect’. From such a perspective, it is only possible to know the societies from inside, and never from the outside. And this is an absurdity, for if things were analysed in this fashion, the historical and sociological investigation would become impossible: for no one can be everywhere at the same time. The political and ideological correspondence of this is no less sinister. Relativism only stirs feelings without leading to any understanding; it does not propose comprehension but only acceptance. It is worth reminding that empathy is also a manifestation of relativism. To put it in economic terms, empathy aspires to change the present monetary system back to a barter system.

JPO: You also cited the philosopher Elias Canetti (1905-1994) in whose book Crowds and Power (1960) he talks about the anxiety and the pain resulting from an incomplete and frustrated experience and how the weight of individuality becomes too much to bear, driving the individual to seek relief by integrating in the group. Do you think that Canetti’s explanation, which was inspired in the masses of the ‘20s and ‘30s in Germany and Austria, is true for the masses of today?

FRG: Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power is a product of its time, but due to its condition of an outstanding analysis, it has a universal and everlasting dimension, where the particular coexists with the generality of the topic under scrutiny. The same thing can be said of Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Both works have helped us to understand that the power of the masses increases proportionally with the eclipse of individualities, the suppression of distances and the extension of levelling in a given society. In this sense, Canetti’s Crowds and Power provides an enlightened description of the relentless ambition of the masses for levelling through a process of absorption of people that end up nullifying them as autonomous beings. Summarizing, the advance of the masses leads to the integration to the whole, at the cost of the integrity of each individual. The proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’ owes a lot to the ‘levelling with the other’ that Canetti identified.

JPO: Does an individual lose his identity as a physical person when he joins the mass?

FRG:From the very moment that an individual is ‘swallowed’ by the masses, he loses his own identity as a physical person and as a moral person. Physically, the individual is no longer a complete and autonomous being but only a part of a whole, an additional piece in a set, a mere strand of ‘the social fabric’. And note this: within the group, or inside the mass, the individual doesn’t act, he simply let himself to be carried away, he drifts in the current; he does not decide, he obeys ; he does not speak, he shouts. To illustrate the group’s homogeneity, whenever the group wishes to manifest itself, they usually speak ‘with one voice’. Here is the collectivist ideal. Finally, let us remember that Octavio Paz used to refer to the State as ‘El ogro (monster) filantrópico’. They are many, the voices that put the notions of ‘philanthropy’ and ‘empathy’ on the same plane.

JPO: At the end of your book you show funny situations in relation to ´put oneself in the place of another’ in television comedies and in Hollywood movies, whose characters are always persons we would consider reasonable and intelligent. What is the purpose of this Appendix in your essay?

FRG: The essay has a final Appendix, which I entitled ‘Empathy Taken as a Joke’. Its purpose is to show how the proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’ ended up as a common place —a ‘joker’! — that keeps reappearing not only in certain professional and academic spheres but also in the media and in everyday talk. Cinema and television (including comedies and animated cartoons) did not stay at the margin of such influence, for they often reveal it bot explicitly and implicitly. Comedy, in particular, is the perfect genre to take everyday situations to their limit, as well as to their absurdity. Perhaps some readers will find such Appendix more clarifying than the preceding analytical chapters, to understand the great folly that empathy signifies. Satire and irony, for their habitualness, can be more persuasive and efficient than bold discourses and rigorous explanations.

JPO: How can people’s understanding be improved by the use of reason?

FRG: In relationships, and in the understanding of other people, sentiment is not only necessary but also indispensable. We are not machines, but rational beings who have a heart. However, the path to understanding is not sentiment, but reason. We love, appreciate or hate others not because of any rational reflexion, but because of emotional experiences, which condense as either affection or disaffection. Thus, everything has its place and everyone has their space. I distrust theories prone to intellectual mixtures and practical cocktails; in other words, anyone who puts the concepts of reason and sentiment at the same level, to the point of equalizing them, exchanging one notion for another as it suits their interest.

JPO: I would like to thank you for giving this interview to PortVitoria. Thank you and good luck with your new book!

FRG: Thank you very much for your kindness.

Note
Fernando Genovés new book La ilusión de la empatía is available from Amazon, via the following links:
http://www.amazon.es/gp/product/B00DBU4FS4/ref=docs-os-doi_0
http://www.amazon.com/ilusi%C3%B3n-empat%C3%ADa-Spanish-ebook/dp/B00DBU4FS4/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1371569400&sr=1-8&keywords=empatia

Acknowledgement: Carl O’Brien, reviser

This interview is a reprinted from the internet magazine PortVitoria, dedicted to the Hispano-Lusophone communities around the world. You can download this interview in Spanish and Portuguese by going to:

http://www.portvitoria.com/

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