Enough with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath Already

I don’t dislike the poetry of either, and I’m open (see the comments to this post) to considering both for the title of great poets. But even philosophers are sick and tired of this glamourous couple. Slavoj Zizek provides in The Parallax View, page 205, a definition of “freedom” so we have a conceptual framework for attacking Ted Hughes mercilessly:

“Freedom” is not simply the opposite of deterministic causal necessity: as Kant knew, it means a specific mode of causality, the agent’s self-determination. There is in fact a kind of Kantian antinomy of freedom: if an act is fully determined by preceding causes, it is, of course, not free; if, however, it depends on the pure contingency which momentarily severs the full causal chain, it is also not free. The only way to resolve this antinomy is to introduce a secondlevel reflexive causality: I am determined by causes (be it direct brute natural causes or motivations), and the space of freedom is not a magic gap in this first-level causal chain but my ability retroactively to choose/determine which causes will determine me.

And thus, Ted Hughes sucks because:

“Ethics,” at its most elementary, stands for the courage to accept this responsibility. If, in the story of modern literature, there was ever a person who exemplifies ethical defeat, it is Ted Hughes. The true Other Woman, the focus of the Hughes-Plath saga ignored by both camps, is Assia Wevill, a dark-haired Jewish beauty, a Holocaust survivor, Ted’s mistress on account of whom he left Sylvia. So this was like leaving a wife and marrying the madwoman in the attic—however, how did she get mad in the first place? In 1969, she killed herself in the same way as Sylvia (by gassing herself), but killing along with her also Shura, her daughter by Ted. Why? What drove her into this uncanny repetition? This was Ted’s true ethical betrayal, not Sylvia—here, his Birthday Letters, with their fake mythologizing, turn into an ethically repulsive text, putting the blame on the dark forces of Fate which run our lives, casting Assia as the dark seductress:“ You are the dark force.You are the dark destructive force that destroyed Sylvia.” (The psychoanalytic notion of the Unconscious is the very opposite of this instinctual irrational Fate onto which we can transpose our responsibility.) Recall the line from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”—does not the same go for Ted Hughes? “To lose one wife through suicide may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two wives looks like carelessness. . . .” Hughes’s version is one long variation on Valmont’s “ce n’est pas ma faute” from Les liaisons dangereuses: it wasn’t me, it was Fate—as he put it, responsibility is “a figment valid only in a world of lawyers as moralists.”

Hughes was obviously a slithery, unreliable person, but he was good-looking. He also shared many of Plath’s passions, such as astrology, Craig Raine informs us in this review of the latest product of the never-stopping Hughes/Plath industry, an edition of Plath’s late letters.

Plath knew that Hughes collected women like others collect stamps. Raine cites her poem ‘The Courage of Shutting-Up’, in which Plath…

“…writes about wrongs as gramophone records: the needle ‘Tattooing over and over the same blue grievances’. Permanent, compulsive. One of her repeated, exhausting scenarios is the schema of barren women — that Ted is drawn to the childless, to Dido Merwin, to his sister Olwyn, to Assia Wevill (otherwise ‘Weavy Asshole’). In Plath’s account, Assia has had so many abortions that she is infertile. (Assia of course became pregnant after Plath’s suicide.)”

You can try to adorn it with flowers and sentiments, but:

“The problem is that he is attracted to other women and they are attracted to him — and Sylvia is aware of it, threatened and aggressive. ‘I am sick of being suspicious.’ In her journals, she is jealous of the 16-year-old Nicola Tryer in North Tawton. There is a vivid account of her on the lavatory and dragging on her dungarees when she hears Nicola downstairs. Dido Merwin’s memoir describes how Sylvia tore up ‘all Ted’s work in hand: manuscripts, drafts, notebooks, the lot’, because he was half an hour late from a meeting with Moira Doolan, the head of the BBC Schools Broadcasting Department. She ‘also gralloched his complete Shakespeare’.

Another problem is that Hughes may have been a violent man. To her psychiatrist, Dr Beuscher, Sylvia volunteers this account of things:

Ted beat me up physically a couple of days before my miscarriage: the baby I lost was to be born on his birthday. I thought this an aberration, & felt I had given him some cause, I had torn some of his papers in half, so they could be taped together, not lost, in a fury that he made me a couple of hours late to work.

Raine has doubts (“Is it cynical to detect in that otiose ‘physically’ the anxious pedantry of the perjurer? In every previous mention of her miscarriage (6 February 1961), the reason is said to be unknown, but possibly caused by her appendix which was removed three weeks later. Dido Merwin is aware of Sylvia’s version but doesn’t believe it.”) but I’m not going to defend Hughes here or anywhere else. There are reasons; Raine again:

There is another major discreditable thing in the Hughes record: he wished her dead, thought she might commit suicide —and said so. I think this is highly likely. But we need to understand it. Neither person was themselves. A minor symptom of this is that both became smokers under the strain of separating. They hated smoking, Sylvia especially. A feature of their break up is Sylvia’s persistent complaint that Hughes had become a liar. She returns to this again and again. And the complaint wasn’t presumably restricted to her correspondence with others. She asked for ‘the truth’. And eventually got it. Everyone has intrusive thoughts. No one is immune from them. They are repressed as a general rule — unless we are goaded into expressing them. “

You, reader, may think that I have a particularly low opinion of Hughes. Hey, I really thought that I had a particularly low opinion of the person (and, to be fair, that to some extent contaminates my view of Hughes, the artist). But no: Zizek, again in The Parallax View, has an even more negative view:

All his babble about Feminine Goddess, Fate, astrology, and so forth, is ethically worthless; this is how sexual difference was connoted here: she was hysterical, probing, authentic, selfdestructive; while he was mythologizing and putting the blame on the Other. In Kant’s terms, as we have seen, I am determined by causes, but I (can) retroactively determine which causes will determine me: we, subjects, are passively affected by pathological objects and motivations; but, in a reflexive way, we ourselves have the minimal power to accept (or reject) being affected in this way—that is to say, we retroactively determine the causes allowed to determine us, or, at least, the mode of this linear determination.

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Ave Atque Vale: Rubalcaba, Listo Entre los Tontos

Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, quien falleció el viernes, fue uno de los políticos más inteligentes que he conocido. Pero llama la atención que su momento de mayor brillo político fuera como miembro de uno de los gabinetes más ineptos que jamás ha conocido España.

Cuando llegó al gobierno José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, mis expectativas como cronista (yo entonces era corresponsal de Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal en Madrid) eran bajas, y ZP las cumplió. Su primer mandato fue dominado por la burbuja inmobiliaria que el propio ZP había denunciado durante la campaña electoral de 2004.

No solamente ZP no hizo nada para controlarla, lo mejor de todo fue que las supuestas luminarias de su gobierno (Pedro Solbes, David Vegara, Miguel Sebastián) insistieron en que NO SE PODÍA HACER NADA para desinflarla; su argumento, repetido hasta la náusea, fue que lo único que quedaba era quejarse a Alemania de que los tipos bajos que el Banco Central Europeo había establecido creaban preocupantes presiones sobre las economías más boyantes de la eurozona, como España.

Este argumento, por supuesto, es una mezcla de mentira y falta de conocimiento: cualquier gobierno tiene infinitas medidas para controlar una burbuja inmobiliaria, indirectas (aumento de la fiscalidad, eliminación de las deducciones por compra y/o alquiler de vivienda) o directas (subida del impuesto de transmisiones patrimoniales, aumento de los costes de registro de transmisiones, etc).

Años después, reportando desde Singapur en 2016-17, me tocó escribir largo y tendido, precisamente, sobre cómo el gobierno local usó exactamente esos mecanismos para matar completamente una burbuja inmobiliaria en la ciudad-estado más rica del mundo, un lugar donde apenas hay espacio para construir viviendas, con tipos de interés prácticamente a cero.

La diferencia entre lo que hizo el gobierno de Singapur entonces y lo que no hizo el gobierno de ZP en 2004-08 es que el partido en el gobierno singapureño tiene un margen de victoria tan clara sobre la oposición que no le importó perder trecho en las encuestas, a medida que el desinfle de la burbuja local llevaba a la bancarrota de empresas inmobiliarias locales y una caída en el crecimiento económico. ZP estaba desesperado por ganar las elecciones de 2008, lo que hizo por muy estrecho margen, así que no tenía incentivo ninguno para desinflar nada, en nombre de la prosperidad española, y quedarse fuera de La Moncloa.

Bienvenidos a la democracia, españolitos.

La historia de lo que pasó económicamente en España es bien conocida. Respecto a Rubalcaba, lo interesante de todo esto es que él ganó prominencia en el gabinete de ZP justamente cuando las ratas empezaban a abandonar el barco, en el temible año de 2008.

ZP había ganado las elecciones de 2004 por sorpresa, después de los ataques terroristas del 11-M y la torpe reacción del gobierno de José María Aznar. El sábado de reflexión, 13 de marzo, con las sedes del PP rodeadas de manifestantes convocadas por los partidos de izquierdas, Rubalcaba — quien nunca fue un político mitinero ni carismático — tuvo su gran momento electoral cuando, en una rueda de prensa organizada deprisa y corriendo, sentenció que “los españoles se merecen un gobierno que no les mienta.”

Un gobierno que no mienta a sus ciudadanos es quizá la mayor utopía de la historia. Que esas palabras las pronunciara justamente un hombre que ya entonces era conocido por su duplicidad y habilidad en los manejos a escondidas, en favor de su candidato — ZP — bien conocido por hacer una cosa y decir otra entonces y después… Todo ello son sólo ejemplos de cómo funciona el jueguito de la política.

Fijémonos en el propio Rubalcaba: nacido en 1951, como mi madre, tenía 53 años en el momento de pronunciar aquellas palabras. Miembro del Partido Socialista Obrero Español, el partido teóricamente de los perdedores de la Guerra Civil, era un chaval de familia adinerada del Barrio de Salamanca que, como muchos otros cachorros del PSOE, había estudiado en el más exclusivo colegio de Madrid, el famoso Colegio del Pilar. Se ve que la derrota, en la familia Rubalcaba, había sido muy dulce.

Muchos adolescentes se interesan por la política, pero no Rubalcaba. Siempre inteligente, tanteó mucho el terreno y sólo se metió en el PSOE en 1974 (para entonces, mi madre ya estaba casada y con un hijo: yo), cuando estaba claro que Francisco Franco no duraría mucho y que el franquismo moriría con el dictador.

Doctor en Química, Rubalcaba medró en los gobiernos de Felipe González, donde ascendió hasta ministro de la Presidencia y Portavoz del Gobierno. El trabajo de este hombre famoso por pontificar contra los males de la mentira fue, durante años, mentir descaradamente: es decir, negar la implicación del gabinete y sus miembros en todo tipo de escándalos, desde el GAL hasta los casos de corrupción que se llevaron por delante a múltiples ministros, un vicepresidente y un gobernador del Banco de España.

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Percibido como “hombre de la vieja guardia” de Felipe, a Rubalcaba le costó hacerse hueco entre las “nuevas caras” de ZP, que en su mayoría eran gente con poca o ninguna experiencia de gestión, como su jefe, quien llegó a presidente del Gobierno sin haber jamás tenido un trabajo fijo.

Rubalcaba fue portavoz del PSOE en el Parlamento hasta 2006, cuando saltó a la importante cartera de ministro de Interior. A partir de ahí, su talento y experiencia en el manejo de grandes burocracias le ayudaron a ganar influencia en un gabinete que necesitaba sus cualidades, y cualesquiera otras que hubieran podido aportarse.

Las elecciones generales de 2008 tuvieron lugar el 9 de Marzo. En las semanas anteriores, numerosos analistas y economistas internacionales habían estado avisando de que la economía internacional, sobrecalentada y con grandes burbujas de precios de materias primas y viviendas en países claves, estaba abocada a una recesión. Años después, el buró de estadísticas de EEUU concluiría que la mayor economía mundial estaba en recesión desde el último trimestre de 2007 — aunque nadie se había dado cuenta, aparte de los héroes de la película “The Big Short”. Pero el 9 de Marzo de 2008 fue un buen día.

Yo entonces trabajaba en Singapur, durante mi primera etapa, como columnista del mercado asiático de divisas, y recuerdo que los mercados se tomaban todos los avisos con bastante filosofía. La situación de la economía mundial en general era boyante: nadie veía mucho motivo de preocupación, y en España los votantes reeligieron a ZP, como se esperaba.

Ese lunes, todo era tranquilidad en las bolsas. El viernes siguiente, 14 de Marzo, el banco estadounidense Bear Stearns colapsó, dejando en evidencia que el mundo estaba de lleno en la mayor crisis económica del siglo XXI.

Los últimos años de Zapatero fueron una tragicomedia de tal escala que no puedo detallar aquí, haciendo honor a sus increíbles miserias. En lo que concierne a Rubalcaba, fueron sus años de gloria, y eso da una buena idea de la talla del personaje: un hombre brillante, al que siempre se recurrió en momentos de crisis, cuando los figurones no sabían qué hacer ni dónde ponerse. De hecho, ZP le colocó al frente de las negociaciones para que los terroristas de ETA dejaran las armas, de las que ZP esperaba sacar un Premio Nobel de la Paz.

Pedro Solbes dimitió como Ministro de Economía y “hombre fuerte” del gabinete ZP a principios de 2009, cuando vio el cariz de la situación, dejando a la pobre Elena Salgado en su lugar. Recuerdo sus llamadas, siempre con impropio toque de pánico, a la delegación del Wall Street Journal a partir de al año siguiente (regresé a España a finales de 2010): Salgado buscaba tranquilizar a los mercados internacionales, pero daba la impresión de estar fuera de lugar.

A Salgado, de hecho, la había conocido antes en Asia, durante una reunión de ministros de Economía del G-20 en Pusan, Corea del Sur. Hablamos en una esquina durante una media hora, sobre las fusiones de cajas de ahorros con las que el gobierno buscaba evitar lo que inevitablemente ocurrió con el rescate europeo de Bankia en 2012. Salgado no habría podido parar aquel desastre; muy poca gente habría podido.

En Madrid, Rubalcaba ascendió a vicepresidente del Gobierno en 2010, y ahí comenzó su apoteosis: con el resto del gabinete en huída y el presidente agotando lo que era obviamente el innoble final de una terrible carrera política, Rubalcaba esencialmente tomó las riendas de la situación y la condujo…. casi al desastre.

Esto no es una crítica a Rubalcaba: es la pura realidad. El quilombo que había montado ZP no lo podía arreglar tampoco Rubalcaba, y no estoy seguro de que sus contribuciones fueran muy positivas; pero estoy seguro de que no fueron muy negativas. En la primavera de 2011, las elecciones municipales llevaron a tal derrumbe para el PSOE, que perdió por toda España, que ZP cedió a las presiones desde todas direcciones y adelantó las elecciones generales… tres meses: a Diciembre de 2011.

El colapso se acrecentó: el déficit del estado se disparó, el crédito a la economía se congeló, el paro superó el 20% y los nacionalistas catalanes empezaron a preparar su plan de independencia, que lanzarían el año siguiente. En medio de todo esto, Rubalcaba un buen día aceptó reunirse con la asociación de corresponsales internacionales, en la sede del PSOE en Ferraz.

La reunión fue “off the record” pero muy informativa. Rubalcaba estuvo ingenioso, encantador, lenguaraz, gracioso. Había decenas de periodistas allí, pero te daba una curiosa impresión de familiaridad. Rubalcaba siempre fue un pico de oro, pero la verdad es que brillaba más cuando hablaba con gente que tenía cierta idea de los temas: en campaña electoral, ante leales que no saben la diferencia entre el IPC y el IPI, una personalidad así es desperdiciada.

Cerca del final de la reunión, levanté la mano para preguntar, y dije: “Ya que estamos off the record, y que usted fue el principal negociador en las conversaciones con ETA, querría saber cuál fue le motivo principal, en su opinión, por el que nunca se llegó a un acuerdo. ¿Cuál fue la diferencia fundamental que nunca pudieron superar?”

Con Rubalcaba fallecido, se puede levantar el off the record, supongo. Esto es lo que respondió:

“Fue Navarra. Los de ETA estaban obsesionados con Navarra. Querían algún tipo de fusión entre el País Vasco y Navarra, una asociación, una doble comunidad, lo que fuera. Para ellos, Navarra era el factor fundamental. Ni referéndum, ni presos, ni nada. Toda su manía era Navarra, hacer algo para que Navarra se integrara con Euskadi. Y nosotros nunca cedimos.”

Es imposible decir si esto fue así, o no. Rubalcaba mintió mucho a los españoles, y bien, con gracia y estilo. Quizá a los “extranjeros” no nos mintió aquel día. En todo caso, él cumplió sus compromisos con el PSOE: fue candidato a la Presidencia en las elecciones generales de 2011, sabiendo que iba a ser machacado, y fue machacado en las urnas. Luego se retiró y se puso a dar clases de Química.

Que una persona así acabara en el PSOE y no en cualquier otro partido, es prueba obvia de que el PSOE es el partido de la Transición, del post-franquismo. El partido del consenso que se alcanzó en 1975-78, el partido natural de gobierno en España, como se acaba de demostrar. Rubalcaba no habría fichado por un partido de perdedores como el PP, por los Washington Generals, un partido cuya función es tapar las vergüenzas del partido dominante y arreglar los desastres que causa, dentro de sus capacidades. El quería jugar en los Harlem Globe Trotters, y jugó; y jugó bien. Veremos si ello fue en beneficio de España, o sólo en el beneficio de su partido y del suyo propio.

 

 

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One Reason Why Literary Critics Tend to Overpraise

“It is almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them. Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are . . . . But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing.”

That was George Orwell, writing in 1946.

I will add: since you’re going to praise a book that you may not think that great, betraying your inner call to truth and beauty, you might as well carefully pick the book you’re going the praise.

You might as well go for a book written by somebody who has helped you or will be able to help you in the future, or that of a friend, right? It’s only human nature. That’s why I like commenting on old-ish books, or those by people who, chances are, will never have the chance to repay the compliment/stab in the back.

 

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Diarios de Guerra de Manuel Azaña (6)

(Esta entrada es parte de una serie)

La segunda mitad de 1937 fue, a pesar de los continuos reveses militares, un momento de cierto enardecimiento y optimismo para Azaña. El Presidente se pasa el día desfaciendo entuertos, de los que hay a puñados, y empeorando su relación con Negrín, al principio excelente. En gran medida, es Indalecio Prieto, en el que Azaña confiaba cada día más en esta época, el que más malmete contra el presidente del Gobierno, detallando la infiltración comunista en todos los órganos del gobierno. Me gusta el comentario del general que le dice a Prieto: “Estoy sometido a tres disciplinas: la militar, la masónica y la comunista” Del gobierno legal de la República, no se acuerda.

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Que el General Miaja hubiera enviado sus hijos a pasar la Guerra Civil a… El Cairo me parece curioso. Que andaran con chanchullos de dinero en la legación republicana en Egipto me lo parece menos, dados los antecedentes. Prieto, como ya he dicho un héroe de estos diarios, sentencia sobre los embajadores republicanos por el mundo: “una colección de ilustres fugitivos”. Sobre Ceferino Palencia, embajador en Londres: “un país que tiene de ministro a Ceferino no merece ganar la guerra”.

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Otra constante de los diarios es las reflexiones de Azaña sobre tiempos pasados que, inexorablemente, veía mejores. Aquí recuerda su tiempo como presidente del Consejo en 1933-34, cuando la obstrucción era puramente política y no militar:

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Azaña sigue rememorando la época en que Prieto era su rival, dentro del campo republicano en el gobierno. Aquí acusa a los socialistas, por su terquedad, de forzar las elecciones de 1934 que dieron campo abierto a la CEDA y la ruptura que devino en la Guerra Civil dos años más tarde:

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Aquí Azaña recuerda el anti-republicanismo, algo impostado, del PSOE en aquel momento de 1933-34 en que pensaban que iban a comerse las elecciones y llegar a un estado socialista por aclamación pública, y fue la CEDA y se los merendó.

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Todo ello, explica Azaña, llevó a la frustración y violencia apenas contenida que desembocaron en la intentona golpista del PSOE en 1934, frecuentemente recordada como “revolución de Asturias”, tomando una parte por el todo. “Era desatinado hacer cundir entre las masas el sentimiento de que nada podía esperarse de la República”, sentencia Azaña. “Una derrota electoral, y sus desastrosas consecuencias, debe repararse en el mismo terreno”.

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“Era quimérico suponer que (los del PSOE) ganarían la partida con una huelga general, por muchos motes de revolucionaria que le pusieran, y por muchos puestos de la Guardia civil (sic) que destruyesen”, escribe Azaña.

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Vuelve Companys, la eterna ampolla en la piel de la República. Con toda maldad, Azaña destaca que Companys era el típico converso tardío al nacionalismo, con mal manejo del idioma catalán, que no podía utilizar en discursos. Su “democracia expeditiva” es “despotismo demagógico”, añade Azaña, que podría haberse pasado una tarde agradable junto a Franco metiéndose con el molt ilustre President. Luego viene una mención interesante a las milicias nacionalistas catalanas.

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Azaña sigue tronando con la Generalidad, acusándola de múltiples delitos incluyendo asesinatos, robos, corrupción masiva. Companys lo gobierna todo como un cortijo.

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En un momento dado, Azaña baraja la posibilidad de forzar elecciones en Cataluña, en plena guerra, para quitarse de encima de Companys. El mayor problema es que el gobierno, con Negrín al frente, no está por la labor. Interesante explicación de Corominas sobre por qué crecían a marchas forzadas los sindicatos: había que sindicarse para ejercer una profesión. ¿Y qué se hace con los “regionalistas”, continúa Corominas, dado que el regionalismo, en su mayor parte, se pasó al franquismo? (Otra de las cosas que raramente se cita en las historias de la Guerra Civil, donde es mejor dejar entender que era Falange Vs Demócratas)

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(Continuará)

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Slavoj Zizek Vs Jordan Peterson: An Assessment

I wrote a preview for this debate weeks ago, so here’s my (I suppose) informed assessment of how it went. Spoilers: it went very much like I expected but, of course, not exactly in the same manner.

I anticipated three main themes for the debate:

-Marxism and the Frankfurt School

-Jung and the Jungians

-Political correctness as a sickness of the left

In the event, there was quite a bit of discussion about the first and the third topic, almost no reference to the second. The fact that this was the case is largely a reflection of the good-humored, hands-off nature of the encounter.

Fundamentally, the debate was bloodless because Zizek and Peterson are alike in many ways. They’re both excellent debaters who rise to the occasion when challenged, and still manage to play within the accepted boundaries of discourse, and so none of them really poked too hard, out of fear of the other’s comebacks.

At the same time, both Zizek and Peterson are also alike in that they are both celebrity thinkers who have been cast off by the ruling ideology’s chattering classes: Zizek is widely seen as insufficiently committed to the Left’s Kulturkampf, while Peterson is seen as dangerously friendly to the deplorables and the alt-right.

They both make tons of money off traveling around the world dispensing wisdom — especially Peterson, who has this North American knack of turning everything into profitable business — while able to publicly lament the fact that they are blacklisted by the likes of CNN, The Guardian and the London Review of Books.

It’s no wonder that they couldn’t really come to blows.

As I explained in my preview, to me the core disagreement between Zizek and Peterson is (was) that Peterson has insisted on blaming the evils of Political Correctness on Cultural Marxism and the Frankfurt School (*). However, he seems to have done a lot of Zizekian reading over the last few months, and convinced himself that Zizek is right that Political Correctness is not the fault of left-behind Commie cells, but a fundamental component of modern capitalism with cosmetic progressive characteristics.

In fact, in his very last public appearance before meeting Zizek, Peterson didn’t use the expression “cultural marxists” (and replaced it with “quasi-marxist postmodernists”) in a Heritage Foundation talk, as a Reddit Zizekian pointed out. I can’t say with any certainty that this is the first such instance, but I’ve followed Peterson pretty closely for years, and I’d put my money on that.

In the most contentious moment of the whole debate, Zizek challenged Peterson to name mythical marxists who are behind the PC scourge, and Peterson did cite statistics, but fell short from naming names because he very well knows they consider themselves marxist, while they really are not.

With this disagreement gone, and Zizek preferring not to engage Peterson on the sensitive topic of Karl Jung (whom Peterson reveres, and Zizek dislikes) and a couple other subjects on which he kept his cards close to his chest, things were smooth and amiable.

There’s a sense in the pro-Jordan Peterson community that the professor wasn’t at his best while debating Zizek. But there is no real hostility against Zizek in this community, rather a sort of puzzlement regarding Zizek and his fame as an unconventional Marxist, so that’s not perceived as a big deal. Note that this comment about Peterson praising Zizek as a “character” was highly upvoted.

I noticed that Peterson didn’t really get any clear openings from Zizek. An example: when Peterson raised one of his strongest points, and criticized those who seek equality of outcome, claiming as he often does that this is a key, and wrongheaded, component of the modern Leftist consensus, Zizek agreed with him. Not only that: Zizek said that, in his reading, marxist doctrine can never be supportive of equality of outcomes, only of equality of opportunities.

As Bradley Kaye of the Zizek Studies Facebook group pointed out, it was remarkable that “Zizek in a public forum with many alt-right folks undoubtedly watching proclaiming ‘Marx explicitly denounces equality as a bourgeois sentiment. Communism for him was not egalitarianism. He says this in the Critique of the Gotha Program’ – giving citations is a good thing, ha!”

Peterson returned the favor during a another moment of potential dispute, when Zizek went into his now-traditional assault against the role of Zen Buddhism in justifying and promoting Japanese militarism and human rights violations. Peterson, rarely one to shirk from a debate defending the role of religion and tradition in modern society, did agree with Zizek’s points without offering a challenge, perhaps because it was late in the debate and time was running out.

This was still a surprising concession to me, since I recently listened to a long, eight-hour debate between Peterson and Sam Harris, spanning three countries, and four or five Youtube videos (starting here), that was essentially a conservative defense of religion against Harris’ progressive criticism.

I’m not sure I’d recommend anyone to listen to the whole Peterson-Harris discussion. It wasn’t bad at all, but sounded more like an earnest encounter between educated representatives of the center-left and a center-right of the kind you’d see in the 1990s, and not very representative of 2019 currents of thought and propaganda. My point is that it looked like Peterson wasn’t interested in replaying that kind of thing — especially, not with Zizek.

Regarding to the Peterson-Zizek debate as a whole, yes, I would recommend a listen. First of all it’s much shorter than Peterson Vs Harris. It also helps to put Zizek’s ideas and role in modern political discussion in context: generally speaking, I find that Zizek is one of the world’s most misunderstood people, up there with all moody teenagers that the world just don’t get.

A lot of people have noticed that most debates between supposed representatives of the Left and the Right are won by rightists, not because they are smarter or better educated (stats tell us they are not) but rather because rightists know all the leftists’ arguments, and the opposite is not true.

This is because most leftists, especially prominent ones, have no idea about the debates in the Right, and couldn’t tell a neoconservative from an alt-righter if their life depended on it. The explanation is simple: leftists are, as a rule, warmly embraced by the West’s ruling ideology and in positions of absolute dominance in academia, mass media and the intellectual class in general, so they need not worry about the stuff in rightists’ minds (**). They just live in happy, blissful, justifiable ignorance of the Right — as Zizek himself said in the debate, these people are always ready to call anyone they dislike Fascist and wait for the hordes to tear this person to pieces.

Zizek is a total exception to this rule. Rightists are always shocked when confronted by a leftist who is not a walking-and-breathing let’s-abolish-the-patriarchy meme; a leftist who knows about Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique, easily one of the most influential alt-right texts out there. So Peterson, despite his preparation, was wrong-footed. Thus, his protestations that he wasn’t certain that Zizek is a Marxist at all, his praise for his Zizek’s provocations, and his absolutely earnest question: why don’t you declare youself Zizekian, Slavoj, instead of Marxist?

I liked the way Zizek defended his interpretation of marxism, and this guy did too; but not everyone. The Philosophical Salon had a dismissive review of the debate, in which it incorrectly assumes that Zizek just wanted to expose Peterson’s fundamental hollowness; Peterson may be naive and old-fashioned, but he’s not hollow.

The Guardian’s opinion piece was drawn along similar lines. This was just moronic, like assigning a report about a cricket match to somebody who has a passing knowledge of baseball. And yet the one article that I found really clueless was published in Jacobin Magazine, where most writers (I suspect) couldn’t tell a Jacobin from a Facebook PR manager. The writer found Zizek insufficiently marxist and too nice to Peterson.

This story contains the now-standard PC denunciation of Zizek for not being supportive of the newfangled leftist doctrine of open borders. Which is fine, but then you shouldn’t call for an authentic defender of Marxism to take Zizek’s place in the debate, since Karl Marx himself never expressed support for anything remotely similar to open borders.

I truly am tired of hearing from alleged progressives claiming that they are Marxists AND for open borders. You can’t be both! Marx often argued that the importation of low-paid Irish immigrants to England forced them into hostile competition with English workers. He saw it as part of a system of exploitation, which divided the working class and which represented an extension of the colonial system. Rings a bell?

This is what Marx wrote in an April 9, 1870 letter for Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, from “Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Selected correspondence,” Progress Publishers, 1975, pp. 220-224:

As for the English bourgeoisie, it has in the first place a common interest with the English aristocracy in turning Ireland into mere pasture land which provides the English market with meat and wool at the cheapest possible prices. It is likewise interested in reducing the Irish population by eviction and forcible emigration, to such a small number that English capital (capital invested in land leased for farming) can function there with “security”. It has the same interest in clearing the estates of Ireland as it had in the clearing of the agricultural districts of England and Scotland. The £6,000-10,000 absentee-landlord and other Irish revenues which at present flow annually to London have also to be taken into account.

But the English bourgeoisie has also much more important interests in the present economy of Ireland. Owing to the constantly increasing concentration of leaseholds, Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class.

And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

It’s not hard to realize that the most-commonly cited example showing the alleged dependence of advanced 21st century economies on undocumented labor is fruit- and vegetable-picking, truly back-breaking work that I did for a while (all of nine hours, before I quit in disgust) in Queensland, Australia. The other? The nerve-wrecking shortage of cheap nannies and gardeners, hardly a working-class complaint.

You can see that open borders promoters are truly concerned about the plight of the landholders and top managers who can only afford to buy beach-houses if they pay  Mexicans with fake papers less than the minimum wage. Heck, I feel for them too. Just don’t pretend that’s a Marxist stance, and I’ll have no problem with you. If you’re looking for a true Marxist who is an open borders supporter, you will have to check with the admirers of the Marx Brothers, or the Koch brothers.

 

*This is, incidentally, a key alt-right tenet, so it also connects Peterson to the people that mainstream media wouldn’t touch with a beanpole.

**I’m using the conventional, 20th century labelling for Left and Right, which I believe is nowadays obsolete, a sort of legacy politics that blinds most people from the actual emerging divide in politics between nationalism and globalism, as I explained here.

 

 

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La escatología musulmana en la Divina Comedia

Leyendo “Lo que Europa debe al Islam de España” (1999), de Juan Vernet, encontré un largo comentario sobre este libro-discurso que presentó Miguel Asín Palacios en 1919 con ocasión de su entrada en la Real Academia de la Lengua Española.

“La escatología musulmana en la Divina Comedia” (aquí al completo en PDF) es una obra de gran interés para todos aquellos interesados en la historia y literatura en general, y la influencia de la cultura islámica sobre la cultura europea en la Edad Media y el Renacimiento. O todos aquellos, como yo, fascinados por “La Divina Comedia” de Dante Alighieri y sus curiosidades.

En entradas anteriores, he discutido los fuertes componentes políticos de La Divina Comedia de forma bastante extensa; es obvio que Dante escribió no para iluminarnos con su poesía, sino para justar cuentas con sus enemigos políticos en la convulsa Italia de su era. Leyendo a Vernet y Asín, me ha llamado mucho la atención que, aceptando sus conclusiones, se podría afirmar que La Divina Comedia es en realidad un tratado político basado en gran medida en visiones islámicas del cielo y el infierno, y escrito en italiano.

Respecto a las conexiones entre Dante y la escatología islámica, lo ideal es leer directamente a Asín, pero resumo aquí, muy brevemente, sus argumentos, con ayuda de Vernet:

  1. -El alfaquín Don Abraham había hecho una traducción castellana del libro musulmán Kitab al-Mi’ray (KAM, de ahora en adelante), que narra el ascenso de Mahoma a los cielos tras su muerte; esta versión fue luego fue traducida al francés y latín. “Hoy en día ya no cabe duda de que Dante tuvo acceso a las leyendas musulmanas acerca de la vida de ultratumba” (Vernet, página 475)
  2. -Varios autores, escudriñando La Divina Comedia, han indicado que es posible que Dante conociera tanto el árabe como el hebreo, ya que palabras en ambos idiomas aparecen en la obra.
  3. -Los protagonistas de KAM y la Comedia, Mahoma y Dante, son acompañados en su viaje por un guía: el arcángel Gabriel y Virgilio (más tarde, Beatriz), respectivamente.
  4. -Dante entra en un Limbo que se describe siguiendo la concepción islámica, un jardín feraz al que van a pasar las almas que murieron sin virtud ni sin vicio. La topografía de ambos autores es la misma, indica Asín, y ambos infiernos están bajo Jerusalén.
  5. -Los tormentos presentan grandes analogías: el de los sodomitas, aduladores y adivinos tiene sus equivalentes en el Infierno musulmán; los tormentos aplicados a la adivinos en la Comedia corresponden a las amenazas contra los judíos no conversos al Islam en El Corán.
  6. -Los aduladores en la Comedia sufren el mismo castigo que los borrachos en el KAM (se les alimenta con una mezcla de sangre, sudor, pus y podredumbre extraída de las llagas de otros condenados, por si tenías curiosidad, lector).
  7. -El último círculo del infierno dantesco, el tormento del frío, corresponde con el tormento adoptado por los teólogos musulmanes, tomándolo del mazdeísmo, para los ángeles caídos: éstos eran inmunes al fuego por haber sido creados, ellos mismos, de este elemento.

 

 

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The Downsides of a World Government (2)

(The first part is here)

Ancient China offers an excellent example of an ossified system that lost all capacity to innovate and adapt: after the Qin and then the Han dynasties unified the countries just before the start of the common era, China embarked — with hiccups — on an extraordinary process of technological and social advancement that gave us not only the usual suspects, like the gunpowder, firearms, explosive bombs, moveable type and the magnetic compass, but also the invention of new ideas and concepts.

For example, Communism was actually invented by the Chinese of this era, twice. First, it was Wang Mang, who briefly seized power from the Han with a revolutionary program that included land confiscation, the suppression of most private property, as well as establishing state monopolies on most commodities, and banning private ownership of gold. Wang Anshí came second, around a thousand years later under the Northern Song dynasty: he served as counsellor for the frustrated war-loving emperor Shenzong, whom he provided with funds by nationalizing pretty much everything and setting price-fixing mechanisms.

All this vibrant dynamic intellectual and technological activity, the logical consequence of a high-IQ, highly-educated populace with time and resources to innovate, ground to a halt over the next millennia: even as the Chinese grew in number and remained just as a smart and just as fond of education, China became an intellectual backwater, especially in terms of technology. Look around yourself: pretty much everything you see was invented by Europeans, in Europe of its overseas possessions and colonies, from computers to combustion engines, from bathrooms to T-shirts and bicycles.

The question of why Europe dominated the world to such an extent even as Europeans were, perhaps, a mere 20% of the global population and fought each other all the freaking time too, has left us with hundreds if not thousands of books, notably Niall Ferguson’s. The response is probably a complex combination of factors, but this debate is much easier if we focus strictly on the comparison with China.

Like Europe, China is a temperate territory with ancient civilizations, multiple religions and a long history of civilized life. The biggest, perhaps the only, significant difference between, say, 17th century China and 17th century Europe is a political one: China was a centralized state with a single center of power. Whenever the Chinese center deemed a new technology or idea too dangerous, it would suppress it.

Cautionary examples of this kind of trend abound in Chinese history: from the very First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, ordering a massive burning of ancient books as soon as he took the throne, to admiral Zheng He being ordered to destroy the fleet he had used to successfully explore the Indian Ocean in the early 15th century, to the last great Chinese emperor, Qianlong, and his efforts to destroy all deviating thought in his realm.

Qianlong, the most recent of these examples, is perhaps the most striking. A brilliant strategist and successful ruler who spent six decades on the throne and died in 1799, he incorporated the Eastern Turkestan to China and crushed the Mongol threat for ever by creating the still-existing province of Inner Mongolia, well beyond the Great Wall.

In the manner of most Chinese emperors, Qianlong fancied himself a patron of the arts and aesthete. His summer residence in Chengde, which I’ve visited, is larger and grander than most palaces ever built. Even though it was of secondary importance to his main residences in and outside Beijing, it’s so vast that it has small lodges so that the Emperor and his entourage could spend the night outside in the enclosed forests while hunting.

However, Qianlong’s reign was also marked by an ambitious attempt to censor the entire Chinese culture with the Siku Quanshu collection, including every book that was acceptable to Qianlong’s inclinations – and calling for the destruction of everything left outside. I don’t need to explain how bad this was for Chinese culture.

At the same time, Qianlong’s extremely centralized policy-making system was a disservice to China in 1793. That year, the self-styled United Kingdom sent its first embassy ever to China, under the arrogant George Macartney. After the British ambassador got involved in a highly-charged row over the proper ways to kowtow to a Chinese emperor, Qing policy would turn extremely hostile and disdainful to the world’s emerging superpower — with disastrous results including  humiliating defeats, partial invasion, the loss of sovereignty and territories such as Hong Kong.

The objection here would be: well, yes, if centralized China was so bad, then how come they invented gunpowder, firearms, explosive bombs, moveable type, the magnetic compass and Communism, to start with?

The answer is simple: almost all of these advancements came in times of political division, when China didn’t have a single center of power, but competing ones, with various dynasties vying for power (like the time of the Northern Song) or multiple warlords controlling separate provinces. For example, almost all of what we know as Chinese philosophy was created during the Warring States period that came to a close with Qing Shi Huangdi’s book burning.

Political division was the secret ingredient to China’s inventions. It’s no wonder then that Europe, always more divided than China ever was, with dozens of competing and hostile states and ethnicities, eventually surpassed China in terms of technology and the development of new ideas.

In China under the last dynasty, the Qing, iconoclastic thinkers who wouldn’t listen were jailed or murdered. In medieval, Renaissance and modern Europe, such types, from Dante to Gutenberg to Descartes, Voltaire and Goya, went from court to court, looking for the protection of rulers who were often in conflict with their previous master. You lose political division, and you lose the chance of exile for dissidents.

And we still haven’t looked at two other downsides of globalized, centralized government: the genetical conundrum presented by the ancient Greece’s islands and polis, and the benefits of small-scale warfare.

Free internal migration is one of the key characteristics of a state. It’s not a given: communist countries and other states throught history have set limits to internal migration, woth systems of internal passports and the like (albeit these limits have always been looser than those on immigration from outside the state), but it’s fairly obvious that a world government would lead to higher levels of migration across different regions of the planet, all things equal.

Existing supranational institutions from which any world government would have to grow, including the European Union, are certainly in favor of mass migration. The United Nations has just pushed a controversial compact for migration across existing national borders, despite very significant opposition from very significant countries that pay a very large percentage of the U.N.’s annual budget.

This has advantages, of course. But it also has disadvantages, To me, the most unexpected of this comes from the likely loss of isolated genetic clusters, which would severely limit one of the most beneficial oddities of human history: genetic drift.

Genetic drift causes species to evolve even in the absence of selection, as Freeman Dyson masterfully explained in this long article in the New York Review of Books. Genetic drift and the better-known natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) work together to drive evolution, with selection being dominant when populations are large, and genetic drift being dominant when populations are small. As Dyson puts it:

If a small population is inbreeding, the rate of drift of the average measure of any human capability scales with the inverse square root of the population. Big fluctuations of the average happen in isolated villages far more often than in cities. On the average, people in villages are not more capable than people in cities. But if ten million people are divided into a thousand genetically isolated villages, there is a good chance that one lucky village will have a population with outstandingly high average capability, and there is a good chance that an inbreeding population with high average capability produces an occasional bunch of geniuses in a short time. The effect of genetic isolation is even stronger if the population of the village is divided by barriers of rank or caste or religion. Social snobbery can be as effective as geography in keeping people from spreading their genes widely.

A substantial fraction of the population of Europe and the Middle East in the time between 1000 BC and 1800 AD lived in genetically isolated villages, so that genetic drift may have been the most important factor making intellectual revolutions possible. Places where intellectual revolutions happened include, among many others, Jerusalem around 800 BC (the invention of monotheistic religion), Athens around 500 BC (the invention of drama and philosophy and the beginnings of science), Venice around 1300 AD (the invention of modern commerce), Florence around 1600 (the invention of modern science), and Manchester around 1750 (the invention of modern industry). These places were all villages, with populations of a few tens of thousands, divided into tribes and social classes with even smaller populations.

In each case, a small starburst of geniuses emerged from a small inbred population within a few centuries, and changed our ways of thinking irreversibly. These eruptions have many historical causes. Cultural and political accidents may provide unusual opportunities for young geniuses to exploit. But the appearance of a starburst must be to some extent a consequence of genetic drift.

If you lose genetic drift, by limiting the chances of creating at least relative genetic isolation at least in some places, you lose a big part of what created massive explosions of human creativity and ingenuity in recent millennia, from which everyone else has been living ever since.

And we arrive at what I see as the final significant downside of world government: the decline in warfare.

One may think that the end of war is a good thing. And, yes, generally speaking it is a good thing, but there are serious caveats. This downside is connected to the others, it really builds up on all the others. One could summarize: a world government will lead to a decline in human competition, and that is a bad thing in general. The decline of warfare is just a part of it, just not an insignificant one.

It’s easy to make the case that war is one very direct way to simplify arguments: whoever wins, turns out to have been right all along. When being not genocidal, all-out (that is, as it’s been during 99% of human history: limited), warfare leads to resolving problems. It’s no wonder that Edward Luttwak famously called on nations to “give war a chance”:

An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached. War brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence. Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat… A cease-fire tends to arrest war-induced exhaustion and lets belligerents reconstitute and rearm their forces. It intensifies and prolongs the struggle once the cease-fire ends — and it does usually end.

It’s very unlikely that a world government would bring organized, violent conflict (warfare) to an end, since adjudicating claims in a way that makes both sides happy or at least content is practically impossible: it’s much likelier that a world government would be an endless purveyor of cease-fires and half-baked accomodations that both warring sides can take to rest, rearm and restart conflicts. The United Nations has used this template throughout its ineffective history, which is why we now have so many frozen conflicts across the continents, from Cyprus to Kashmir to Congo, but not real peace in so many places.

Besides being a clarifying system for disputes, war is also a huge driver for technological innovation: advanced flight, spaceflight (through rocketry) and nuclear energy are all products of the latest World War. Previous wars, even limited ones, have done much to advance human knowledge, with technologies that may be re-engineered from a destructive to a constructive purpose.

A world government may thus create a world that competes less, innovates less, has fewer sparks of genius, and contains conflicts without ever fully solving them. A world government may create a vulnerable, stagnant, weak world that is ripe for takeover for ideologies that won’t necessarily look for human improvement or for orderly development. To quote Mark Steyn:

“One of the oldest lessons of human history is that will trumps wealth: advanced prosperous societies are not beaten by even more advanced, more prosperous societies; the Roman Empire did not fall to the Even More Roman Empire, but to cruder forces on the fringes of the map driven by the old primal impulses when you no longer have even a vestigial survival instinct and, indeed, when such a lack is pointed out, you trumpet it as a virtue, evidence of your more highly evolved state.”

 

 

 

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