Most things may never happen: this one will,

By Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


Quote #323: Perdido Street Station

It was not a purer realm that loomed vastly over the city. Smokestacks punctured the membrane between the land and the air and disgorged tons of poisonous smog into that upper world as if out of spite. In a thicker, stinking haze just above the rooftops, the detritus from a million low chimneys eddied together. Crematoria vented into the airborne ashes of wills burnt by jealous executors, which mixed with coaldust burnt to keep dying lovers warm. Thousands of sordid smoke-ghosts wrapped New Crobuzon in a stench that suffocated like guilt.

The clouds swirled in the city’s filthy microclimate. It seemed as if all of New Crobuzon’s weather was formed by a massive, gradual crawling hurricane that centred around the city’s heart, the enormous mongrel building that squatted at the core of the commercial zone known as The Crow, the coagulate of miles of railway line and years of architectural styles and violations: Perdido Street Station.

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (2000), p78

Cover by Edward Miller


What is imperative is that you be there and speak

One is called to the deathbed of a parent, and one, facing her, does not know what to say. Yet one has to say something.
The other has arrived at the limit – the limit of her life – when she can do nothing more. But she has yet this to do: to die. It is something she has to do, alone, and without any experience to appeal to, any means or resources. It is something she, nevertheless, has to do and will do well or badly, bravely or in collapse, resolutely or cowering. She has always known she will have to do this, has often thought of it, has often willed to die the one way or the other. For every time she did something bravely, or cowardly, it was an anticipation of this final confrontation. Aristotle, who wrote the first treatise in the West on rational ethics, listed courage first of all the virtues. It is not simply first on the list of equivalent virtues; it is the transcendental virtue, the condition for the possibility of all the virtues. For no one can be truthful, or magnanimous, or a friend, or even congenial in conversation, without courage. And every courage is an act done in risk: of one’s reputation, of one’s job, of one’s possessions, of one’s life.
And you, called upon to be there when the other is at the limit, and also at the origin, of the virtues, the powers, that a life can have, find yourself at the limit of the powers of language.
The nurses say, “I am so glad you have come!” They know you can do, must do, something they cannot do – say something to the dying one. What can one say? Anything one tries to say sounds vacuous and absurd in one’s mouth. It seems to you that the problem is not simply that you do not have the skills in speaking or that you cannot come up with the right things to say because you have no experience in this kind of situation, but that language itself does not have the powers. There is not, in the words and the combinatory possibilities of language, the power to say what has to be said. Yet you have to be there, and you have to say something. You have never been more clear about anything. There are those who do not go, to the bedside of the dying one, demoralized by the terrible impotence of language to say anything. It seems to them that, in their speechlessness, they are carried away already into the region of death and silence with the other. But if you somehow find the courage to go, you are sure you have to be there and have to say something. What is imperative is that you be there and speak; what you say, in the end, hardly matters. You end up saying anything “It’ll be alright, Mom” – which you know is a stupid thing to say, even an insult to her intelligence; she knows she is dying and is more brave than you. She does not reproach you for what you said; in the end it doesn’t matter, what was imperative was only that you say something, anything. That your hand and your voice extend to her in accompaniment to the nowhere she is drifting on to, that the warmth and the tone of your voice come to her as her own breath gives way, and that the light of your eyes meet hers that are turned to where there is nothing to see.
Everyone has known such a situation in which the rift between the saying and the said opens up. A situation in which the saying, essential and imperative, separates from the said, which somehow it no longer orders and hardly requires.

In the rational community the other situation is the normal one – that where what is said is the essential and the saying inessential, that where what is imperative is only that whoever speaks, he say this.

Alphonso Lingis (1994). The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (essays). This is the start of “the element that faces”, p107ff


Quote #321 Naipaul on writing

I discovered that to be a writer was not (as I had imagined) a state – of competence, or achievement, or fame, or content – at which one arrived and where one stayed. There was a special anguish attached to the career: whatever the labor of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it. And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time of vigor, now past for good.

VS Naipaul, in The Enigma of Arrival (1987), p94


Quote #320 Orwell on Dali

One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.

Orwell, George (1944). Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali

Quote #319

The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent

Attributed to John Maynard Keynes, but probably Gary Shilling
quotes Uncategorized

Returning to Reims

No one thinks about how the order of things actually works, because to do so would require being able to see oneself from a different point of view, have a bird’s eye view on one’s own life and the lives of other people. Only if you actually manage to move from one side of the border to the other, as happened in my case, can you get out from under the implacable logic of all those things that go without saying in order to perceive the terrible injustice of this unequal distribution of prospects and possibilities. And things haven’t changed all that much: the age for leaving school has shifted, but the social barrier between classes remains the same. That is why any sociology or any philosophy that begins by placing at the center of its project the “point of view of the actors” and the “meaning they give to their actions” runs the risk of simply reproducing a shorthand version of the mystified relation that social agents maintain with their own practices and desires, and consequently does nothing more than serve to perpetuate the world as it currently stands—an ideology of justification (for the established order). Only an epistemological break with the way in which individuals spontaneously think about themselves renders possible the description of the mechanisms by which the social order reproduces itself. The entire system needs to be apprehended, including the manner in which dominated people ratify their domination through the choice they make to drop out of school, thereby making the choice they had been intended to make. A theory’s power and interest lie precisely in the fact that it doesn’t consider it as sufficient simply to record the words that “actors” say about their “actions,” but that rather, it sets as a goal to allow both individuals and groups to see and to think differently about what they are and what they do, and then, perhaps, to change what they do and what they are. (p.46-47)

So we find ourselves back at the question of who has the right to speak, who takes part—and how—in decision-making processes, which is to say not just in the elaboration of solutions, but also in the collective definition of the questions that it is legitimate and important to take up. When the left shows itself to be incapable of serving as a space in which new forms of questioning can be elaborated and tested, when it ceases to serve as a locus in which people can invest their dreams and their energy, they will be drawn to and welcomed by the right and the extreme right.
Here, then, is the task that social movements and critical intellectuals must take up: the elaboration of theoretical frameworks and of political modes of perceiving reality that enable not an erasure—that would be an impossible task—, but as great a neutralization as possible of the negative passions that are at work within the social body, especially within the popular classes. Other perspectives must be offered and a different future sketched out on behalf of what might then deservedly once again be called the left.(p. 148-149)

Didier Eribon (2009). Returning To Reims. Trans. Michael Lucey (2013)


Quote #317: Beyond the suburbs where I went to school

All I knew was that somewhere,
Beyond the suburbs where I went to school,
It seemed there were heroic deeds,
Irrational acts and holy fools.

Stewart Lee, “I’ll Only Go If You Throw Glass“, collected in “How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian” (2010)


Quote #316: Against parochial standards of transparency

Moreover, neither grammar nor style are politically neutral. Learning the rules that govern intelligible speech is an inculcation into normalized language, where the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself. As Drucilla Cornell, in the tradition of Adorno, reminds me: there is nothing radical about common sense. It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed upon the thinkable itself. But formulations that twist grammar or that implicitly call into question the subject-verb requirements of propositional sense are clearly irritating for some. They produce more work for their readers, and sometimes their readers are offended by such demands. Are those who are offended making a legitimate request for “plain speaking” or does their complaint emerge from a consumer expectation of intellectual life? Is there, perhaps a value to be derived from such experiences of linguistic difficulty? … The demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motor the ostensibly “clear” view. Avital Ronell recalls the moment in which Nixon looked into the eyes of the nation and said, “let me make one thing perfectly clear” and then proceeded to lie. What travels under the sign of “clarity” and what would be the price of failing to deploy a certain critical suspicion when the arrival of lucidity is announced? Who devises the protocols of “clarity” and whose interests do they serve? What is foreclosed by the insistence on parochial standards of transparency as requisite for all communication? What does “transparency” keep obscure?

Judith Butler in the Preface (1999) to Gender Trouble (1990)


Quote #315: a secret reservoir of courage

All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit. Certainly that was my conviction back in the summer of 1968. Tim O’Brien: a secret hero. The Lone Ranger. If the stakes ever became high enough—if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough—I would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years. Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory. It dispensed with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage; it offered hope and grace to the repetitive coward; it justified the past while amortizing the future

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990), p39-40


Quote #314: a dark circus

So the grey arena formed itself and the crowd grew, while the domed ceiling of the dark place dripped, and the lamps were re-filled and some held candles, some torches, while others had brought mirrors to reflect the light, until the whole place swam like a miasma. Were his shoulder not hurting from the grip it had sustained Titus might well have wondered whether he was asleep and dreaming. Around him, tier upon tier (for the centre of the arena was appreciably lower than the margin. and there was about the place almost the feeling of a dark circus) were standing or were seated the failures of earth. The beggars, the harlots, the cheats, the refugees, the scatterlings, the wasters, the loafers, the bohemians, the black sheep, the chaff, the poets, the riff-raff, the small fry, the misfits, the conversationalists, the human oysters, the vermin, the innocent, the snobs and the men of straw, the pariahs, the outcasts, rag-pickers, the rascals, the rakehells, the fallen angels, the sad-dogs, the castaways, the prodigals, the defaulters, the dreamers and the scum of the earth

Mervyn Peake, Titus Alone (1968), Chapter 58


everything whole has been smashed

only what happens is possible, says K., the great, the sad, the wise one, who already knew from individual lives exactly what it would be like when criminal lunatics look upon the world rationally and the world in turn presents a rational aspect to them, that is to say, is obedient to them. And don’t tell me, I most probably said, that this explanation is just a tautological way of explaining the facts with facts, because yes, indeed, this explanation, hard as I know it may be for you to accept, that we are governed by commonplace felons—hard even when you already call them commonplace felons and know them as such— nevertheless as soon as a criminal lunatic ends up, not in a madhouse or penal institution, but in a chancellery or other government office you immediately begin to search for what is interesting, original, extraordinary, and (though you don’t dare to say so, except in secret, of course) yes, great in him, so you are not obliged to see yourselves as such dwarfs, and histories of the world as so absurd, I most probably said; yes, so that you may continue to look upon the world rationally and the world in its turn may present a rational aspect to you. And that is entirely understandable, even entirely commendable, even if your method is neither “scientific” nor “objective,” as you would like to believe, it is not; it is sheer lyricism and moralizing insofar as it seeks to restore a rational, or in other words endurable, world order, and those who have been banished from the world subsequently edge their way back into the world again through these back and front doors—anyone, that is, who is inclined to do so and who believes that the world will henceforth be a place fit for people, but then that is quite another matter, I most probably must have said, the only problem is that this is how legends are born, we can learn from these “objective” lyrical works, these scientific horror stories, say, that the great man had an outstanding tactical sense—right?—as if an outstanding tactical sense were not precisely the means by which every paranoid and manic madman misleads and befuddles those around him and his doctors, and then that social conditions were such-and-such, while international politics were such-and-such, and then some, once philosophy, music and other forms of artistic hocus-pocus had corrupted people’s capacity to think, but above all that, when it comes down to it, the great man, let’s not mince words, was a great man, he had about him something of the disarming, the fascinating, in short: something of the demonic, that’s it, a demonic streak that was quite simply irresistible, especially if we have no will to resist, seeing that we just happen to be hunting for a demon; a demon is just what we’ve been needing for a long, long time for our squalid affairs, to gratify our squalid desires, the sort of demon, of course, who can be persuaded to believe that he is the demon who will take all our own demoniacality on his shoulders, an Antichrist bearing the Iron Cross, and will not insolently slip through our fingers to string himself up before time, as Stavrogin did. Yes, you see and label them as common criminal lunatics, yet from the moment one lays his hands on the orb and scepter you immediately start to deify him, reviling him even as you deify him, listing the objective circumstances, reciting what, objectively, he was right about, but what, subjectively, he was not right about, what objectively can be understood, and what subjectively cannot, what sorts of hanky-panky were going on in the background, what sorts of interests played a part, and never running short of explanations just so that you can salvage your souls and whatever else is salvageable, just so that you can view commonplace robbery, murder and trafficking in souls in which we all, all of us sitting here, somehow play or have played a part, one way or another, in the grand opera-house limelight of world events, I most probably must have said, yes, just so that you may fish partial truths out of the great shipwreck in which everything whole has been smashed, yes, just so as not to see before you, behind you, underneath you and at every turn the yawning chasm, the nothingness, the void, or in other words, our true situation, what it is you are serving and the prevailing nature of the prevailing régime, a dominating power which is neither necessary nor unnecessary but simply a matter of decisions, decisions that are made or not made in individual lives, neither satanic nor unfathomably and spellbindingly intricate, nor something that majestically sweeps us up with it, no, it is just vulgar, mean, murderous, stupid, hypocritical, and even at the moments of its greatest achievements at best merely well organized

Imre Kertesz, Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990, trans. Tim Wilkinson)


In praise of idleness

a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work… the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work

Bertrand Russell (1932). In Praise of Idleness

quotes science

“But sir, what hypothesis does your experiment disprove?”

But I will mention one severe but useful private test – a touchstone of strong inference – that removes the necessity for third-person criticism, because it is a test that anyone can learn to carry with him for use as needed. It is our old friend the Baconian “exclusion,” but I call it “The Question.” Obviously it should be applied as much to one’s own thinking as to others’. It consists of asking in your own mind, on hearing any scientific explanation or theory put forward, “But sir, what experiment could disprove your hypothesis?” ; or, on hearing a scientific experiment described, “But sir, what hypothesis does your experiment disprove?”

Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science, 146(3642), 347-353.


in Ancient Day, Waylaid

The lit mosaic of the wood
Stayed me at the turn of the road
To stare
At Autumn standing there
In Joseph’s coat; a tree
Golden, and bright, and free
For head; his feet
In the rich earth were set.
The wind
Was tugging blind
At the fierce rainbow rags, the tattered turban,
Under a fitful sun.
Ambushed by beauty,
I a new creature, stand in Ancient Day,
At the turn of the road
By trees that bleed
And fill my eyes with plunder!
Is there no climax then? No ripe-as-thunder
Sudden, and strong?
Nought to be done
But only stand and stare and travel on.

‘Autumn’, by Mervyn Peake, written (c. autumn 1937), in Collected Poems (2008),

intellectual self-defence quotes

Popper on scientific objectivity

…science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method…

Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them : they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes…In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is ‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it…

This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself.

Karl Popper, The Open Science and Its Enemies, Chapter 23 (p217-218, Vol. II)


making universal singularities into transcendent entities

In these terms the isomorphism between models and what they can model can be explained as a coactualisation of the same diagram, or of different but overlapping diagrams. In that chapter we went on to argue that the main danger of this account is making universal singularities into transcendent entities, entities existing entirely entirely independently of the material world. But this potential pitfall can be avoided by always treating diagrams as immanent to matter, energy and information: while the objective existence of diagrams may not depend on any particular material, energetic, or informational mechanism, it does depend on the actual existence of some mechanism or another. If this account turns out to be correct then it will point to an intimate link between ontology and epistemology. And the existence of such a link, in turn, will constitute a powerful argument for breaking with the ontology we inherited from the classic Greek philosophers, an ontology based on the general and the particular, and an incentive to develop a new one based on the individual singular and the universal singular.

Manual DeLanda (2011) ‘Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason’, final paragraph


Quote #307: from Mughshin to Bai

Later Musallim and al Auf argued how far it was from Mughshin to Bai, where Tamtaim and the others were to wait for us. I asked al Auf if he had ever ridden from the Wadi al Amairi to Bai, He answered, ‘Yes, six years ago.’

‘How many days did it take?’

‘I will tell you. We watered at al Ghaba in the Amairi. There were four of us, myself, Salim, Janazil of the Awamir, and Alaiwi of the Afar; it was in the middle of summer. We had been to Ibri to settle the feud between the Rashid and the Mahamid, started by the killing of Fahad’s son.’

Musallim interrupted, ‘That must have been before the Riqaishi was Governor of Ibri. I had been there myself the year before. Sahail was with me and we went there from…’

But al Auf went on, ‘I was riding the three-year-old I had bought from bin Duailan.’

‘The one the Manahil raided from the Yam?’ Bin Kabina asked.

‘Yes. I exchanged it later for the yellow six-year-old I got from bin Ham. Janazil rode a Batina camel. Do you remember her? She was the daughter of the famous grey which belonged to Harahaish of the Wahiba.’

Mabkhaut said, ‘Yes, I saw her last year when he was in Salala, a tall animal; she was old when I saw her, past her prime but even then a real beauty.’

Al Auf went on, ‘We spent the night with Rai of the Afar.’

Bin Kabina chimed in, ‘I met him last year when he came to Habarut; he carried a rifle, “a father of ten shots”, which he had taken from the Mahra he had killed in the Ghudun. Bin Mautlauq offered him the grey yearling, the daughter of Farha, and fifty riyals for this rifle, but he refused.’

Al Auf continued, ‘Rai killed a goat for our dinner and told us …’, but I interrupted: ‘Yes, but how many days did it take you to get to Bai?’ He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Am I not telling you?’

From “Arabian Sands“, by Wilfred Thesiger


how psychology has progressed

Several decades ago, an eminent psychologist defined the field of psychology as ‘a bunch of men standing on piles of their own crap, waving their hands and yelling “Look at me, look at me!” ’ Fortunately, things have changed quite a bit over the years, and the field is no longer composed entirely of men.

Daniel Gilbert, referencing George Miller, in Gilbert, D. (2002). Are psychology’s tribes ready to form a nation?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(1), 3.


we know that we are not only these things

At the opening of his 1986 work The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins wrote: “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it.” This passage highlights the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist worldview of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that he has solved our mystery — and although science has indeed solved part of it — the fact is that we do not feel solved. We do not live our lives and experience our lives as solved beings. In the same way, no intelligent person could reject what we know to be our kinship with the animal kingdom. Yet few people would rejoice in being referred to as a mere animal. Being described as “mammalian” may shock and even stimulate for a bit, but to live as though we were animals would be — we know — to degrade ourselves. Whether we are right or wrong in this, we do feel that we are more than this. In the same way, we know we are more than mere consumers. We rebel when we are talked of as mere cogs in some economic wheel, and some people will even vote Green as a result. We rebel not because we are not these things, but because we know that we are not only these things. We know we are something else, even if we do not know what that else is.

Douglas Murray, 2015, in Standpoint magazine: ‘Is The West’s Loss Of Faith Terminal?


Quote #304: Knuth versus email

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

(Donald) Knuth versus email


For the left

I am for the left, despite myself and despite the left.

Albert Camus (attrib.)


When the axe came into the woods

When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said, “At least the handle is one of us”


Quote #301

We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing

David Cain, in Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed

quotes Uncategorized

Quote #300: Graeber on the popular appeal of the right

One of the perennial complaints of the progressive left is that so many working-class Americans vote against their own economic interests—actively supporting Republican candidates who promise to slash programs that provide their families with heating oil, who savage their schools and privatize their Medicare. To some degree the reason is simply that the scraps the Democratic Party is now willing to throw its “base” at this point are so paltry it’s hard not to see their offers as an insult: especially when it comes down to the Bill Clinton– or Barack Obama–style argument “we’re not really going to fight for you, but then, why should we? It’s not really in our self-interest when we know you have no choice but to vote for us anyway.” Still, while this may be a compelling reason to avoid voting altogether—and, indeed, most working Americans have long since given up on the electoral process—it doesn’t explain voting for the other side.

The only way to explain this is not that they are somehow confused about their self-interest, but that they are indignant at the very idea that self-interest is all that politics could ever be about. The rhetoric of austerity, of “shared sacrifice” to save one’s children from the terrible consequences of government debt, might be a cynical lie, just a way of distributing even more wealth to the 1 percent, but such rhetoric at least gives ordinary people a certain credit for nobility. At a time when, for most Americans, there really isn’t anything around them worth calling a “community,” at least this is something they can do for everybody else.

The moment we realize that most Americans are not cynics, the appeal of right-wing populism becomes much easier to understand. It comes, often enough, surrounded by the most vile sorts of racism, sexism, homophobia. But what lies behind it is a genuine indignation at being cut off from the means for doing good.

Take two of the most familiar rallying cries of the populist right: hatred of the “cultural elite” and constant calls to “support our troops.” On the surface, it seems these would have nothing to do with each other. In fact, they are profoundly linked. It might seem strange that so many working-class Americans would resent that fraction of the 1 percent who work in the culture industry more than they do oil tycoons and HMO executives, but it actually represents a fairly realistic assessment of their situation: an air conditioner repairman from Nebraska is aware that while it is exceedingly unlikely that his child would ever become CEO of a large corporation, it could possibly happen; but it’s utterly unimaginable that she will ever become an international human rights lawyer or drama critic for The New York Times. Most obviously, if you wish to pursue a career that isn’t simply for the money—a career in the arts, in politics, social welfare, journalism, that is, a life dedicated to pursuing some value other than money, whether that be the pursuit of truth, beauty, charity—for the first year or two, your employers will simply refuse to pay you. As I myself discovered on graduating college, an impenetrable bastion of unpaid internships places any such careers permanently outside the reach of anyone who can’t fund several years’ free residence in a city like New York or San Francisco—which, most obviously, immediately eliminates any child of the working class. What this means in practice is that not only do the children of this (increasingly in-marrying, exclusive) class of sophisticates see most working-class Americans as so many knuckle-dragging cavemen, which is infuriating enough, but that they have developed a clever system to monopolize, for their own children, all lines of work where one can both earn a decent living and also pursue something selfless or noble. If an air conditioner repairman’s daughter does aspire to a career where she can serve some calling higher than herself, she really only has two realistic options: she can work for her local church, or she can join the army.

This was, I am convinced, the secret of the peculiar popular appeal of George W. Bush, a man born to one of the richest families in America: he talked, and acted, like a man that felt more comfortable around soldiers than professors. The militant anti-intellectualism of the populist right is more than merely a rejection of the authority of the professional-managerial class (who, for most working-class Americans, are more likely to have immediate power over their lives than CEOs), it’s also a protest against a class that they see as trying to monopolize for itself the means to live a life dedicated to anything other than material self-interest. Watching liberals express bewilderment that they thus seem to be acting against their own self-interest—by not accepting a few material scraps they are offered by Democratic candidates—presumably only makes matters worse.

David Graeber (2013), The Democracy Project: A History. A Crisis. A Movement., p123-125


Make a friend of horror


Michael Leunig, published in the Age. Click for the full cartoon. Let’s work so this isn’t true.


Quote #298

I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the house-tops

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, 1949.


Reason is no mere slave

“Human beings are not the perfectly rational creatures they would be if they strove for truth and consistency at all times. Nevertheless, if we can be motivated by a desire to eliminate inconsistency in our beliefs and actions, reason is no mere slave. We may use reason to enable us to satisfy our needs, but reason then develops its own motivating force”

Peter Singer (1981). The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, p. 143


On the epistemic costs of implicit bias

“…if you live in a society structured by racial categories that you disavow, either you must pay the epistemic cost of failing to encode certain sorts of base-rate or background information about cultural categories, or you must expend epistemic energy regulating the inevitable associations to which that information – encoded in ways to guarantee availability – gives rise”

Gendler, T. S. (2011). On the epistemic costs of implicit bias. Philosophical studies, 156(1), 33-63.


ur-quote on addiction and freewill

The craving for a drink in real dipsomaniacs, or for opium or chloral in those subjugated, is of a strength of which normal persons can form no conception. ‘Were a keg of rum in one corner of a room and were a cannon constantly discharging balls between me and it, I could not refrain from passing before that cannon in order to get the rum’; ‘If a bottle of brandy stood at one hand and the pit of hell yawned at the other, and I were convinced that I should be pushed in as sure as I took one glass, I could not refrain’: such statements abound in dipsomaniacs’ mouths.

William James, Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1890), p. 543. Via Laurence. Thanks Laurence!