straussian

On Left Straussianism

We might therefore say that the left intellectual becomes the left Straussian when they decide that, in addition to sometimes filtering their own public speech to advance an ideological agenda, they’re additionally responsible for “protecting” the public from being exposed to conversations not disciplined by political strategy. To the extent that their own ideas are not already disciplined by such a strategy, they limit discussion of them to close friends and sympathetic colleagues.

And:

In each case, thoughtful criticism of an author’s argument—for being confused, or incomplete—was overshadowed by the left-Straussian assertion that, regardless of whether the argument was true or reasonable, it was “irresponsible” for the author to make it in public.

And:

Those who engage in such tactics would never endorse Strauss’s hard distinction between the elect few and the unthinking many—at least not explicitly. But the care they take to pre-screen intellectual material indicates that they share his dark foreboding about the “costs” of public intellectual conversations reflecting rather than repressing the complexities of private ones. Attempting to marginalize or disqualify intellectual arguments itself implies a gap between the commentator, who trusts themselves to evaluate the arguments in question, and their imagined audience, who is assumed to lack either the tools or the ability to do so unaided. Left Straussians may not believe that they are philosopher-kings but they repudiate, in practice and increasingly even in theory, the possibility of the philosopher-reader.

Here is the full piece by Anastasia Berg and John Baskin, via Agnes Callard.

Is Amharic the most Straussian language?

Amharic is susceptible of ambiguity to a remarkable degree, and Amharas have a tradition of writing clever, short poems, with an overt meaning and a hidden meaning, referred to as “wax and gold.”

That is from Sarah Howard’s Ethiopia: Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture.  An Ethiopian I had dinner with told me that Amharic is “eighty percent implication.”  Here is a research paper about ambiguity in Amharic.

*Blade Runner 2049* (some Straussian spoilers)

I hardly expected the movie to be so drenched in Tarkovsky (“The Zone” and Solaris, maybe a bit of The Sacrifice), and the now-famed sex scene draws from Bergman’s Persona.  Overall, the colors and palette were stunning, and the use of sound was as impressive as in any movie, do see this one in IMAX.  It hardly makes any concessions to the Hollywood vices of this millennium and indeed much of the Tysons Corner audience seemed to be baffled.

Think of the main plot line as showing a world where the Christ miracle is inverted and what that would have to mean for everything else.  Much of the plot is sprawling, some of the references are too heavy-handed or scattered (Moses and the Dalai Lama and Kafka and Star Wars 1-2 are thrown in for good measure, and few will grok the Galatians reference), and the whole thing could have been fifteen minutes shorter.  Still, this is a worthy sequel to one of the best movies of the 1980s or is that the 1990s?  Carla Juri steals the show, and furthermore it resolves the main plot puzzle of the original Blade Runner rather economically.

Also on the plus side, Adam Driver does not appear in this movie.

A Straussian neoreactionary review of *The Complacent Class*

The specific thinkers cited for ‘cyclical models of history’ are Vico, Spengler, and Toynbee, in that order.

With that triple-burst trigger pull, the race to a second, Straussian reading begins.

Taking a cue from those statements, consider that the book itself might be a cycle. Read forwards, it is a series of slightly overcooked thinkpieces that ends on a surprisingly bold note. Read backwards, one finds it hides a thrilling call to arms.

This is a contrarian reading; one I make no claim should actually be attributed to Cowen himself. Nonetheless, the coherences pile up too neatly to simply be ignored once seen.

There is much more of substance at the link.  That is from Thomas Barghest, via Justin.  By the way, someone else did a long “Alt Right” take on the book and emailed it to me, and I meant to link to it, but I misplaced the email somehow.  If you email it to me, or leave it in the comments, I’ll put it into Links tomorrow.  And here is just a wee bit more:

Cowen shows us that if we had the courage of immigrants and foreigners to ignore contemporary mores and treat our strengths as something to take pride in rather than something to hide, we might restore our culture to a dynamic greatness. Such honest pride in ourselves and our abilities was ours only a half-century ago, before the 60’s, he implies. It is not so long gone.

However, a proper neoreactionary, he doesn’t pretend we can simply wish ourselves there. Americans’ current complacency is not pure timidity. The transcendent is not something we’ve simply lost. It was crushed, stolen, and turned against us.

Overall, you guys crack me up, and I do mean “guys.”

Taylor Swift, Straussian?

Taylor

The singer is launching her own Taylor Swift-branded clothing line next month, on the platforms of local e-commerce giants JD.com and the Alibaba group, with t-shirts, dresses and sweatshirts featuring the politically charged date 1989.

The date – as well as being Swift’s year of birth – refers to her album and live tour of the same name, which she will perform in Shanghai in November.

But the date – and the initials TS – are particularly sensitive in China, as they signify the Tiananmen Square massace in 1989, when hundreds of students were killed in pro-democracy protests.

There is more here.  Here is a story on the map of China accompanying Dwyane Wade.

The Devil Wears Prada — a Straussian interpretation

Imagine a beautiful, pseudo-nerdy and ultimately devious Anne Hathaway [Andy] receiving a job at a top fashion magazine, more or less by accident.  At first she is baffled and fails but soon she is dressing up to fit the role and climbing the ladder of social success, ruthlessly at times.  Her model and mentor is Miranda, the magazine’s editor, an empire-builder played by a commanding and sexier-than-ever Meryl Streep.  Andy is transformed by a taste of success and she abandons her boyfriend, friends, and father in her Hegelian quest to command the obedience of others.

Of course Andy is troubled along the way.  After all, but a few months ago she was editing the school newspaper at Northwestern and wearing frumpy (but oh so cute, to my eyes) sweaters.  I much prefer her size six to her later size four, and yes women really do look better without make-up.

The key moment and emotional center of the movie comes when Miranda [Meryl Streep] tells Andy [Anne Hathaway] that, contrary to her initial expectations, Andy reminds her very much of herself.  Andy runs out of the cab, supposedly rejecting the life of obsessive careerism, for [get this] a [low stress?] career of journalism. 

But does she reject the life of the Uebermensch?  Andy had distanced herself from her hot but low-status boyfriend.  She never gets back together with him, and we learn that they will live in separate cities.  We never see her boring loser friends again.  She had been rude to her dull dad [from Ohio] and is never seen making amends.  Wouldn’t a cornier movie have closed with a fading shot of Andy on the phone, smiling and saying "Hi, Dad, Happy Birthday!  I Love You!"  But this never happens.  She is too hard at work on her next feature story. 

In fact Andy is an irresistible She-Demon, every bit as powerful as the mentor she turned her back on.  Andy didn’t so much scorn Miranda as mimic her and pay homage to her.  Miranda [Meryl Streep] was right (is she ever wrong?): Andy is strong enough to be her own leader and build her own world.  That is why Andy had to leave the realm of Miranda; it was not big enough to fit two such ravenous and yes extremely sexy women.  If Camille Paglia reviewed this movie, she would find occasion to use the words "Gorgon" and "autochthonous."

Andy even rejects the famous free-lance writer ("Christian") whom she sleeps with for kicks ("I’ve run out of excuses" she says) and then unceremoniously abandons — "I’m not your baby!"  Having sniffed out her own capabilities, she is no longer content to play second fiddle in a relationship, no matter how handsome or successful the man.  She also tells this guy just how much she admires Miranda — Andy is quite sincere — and notes that Miranda’s behavior would be found totally acceptable and indeed admirable in a man.

And the poor little British girl Andy screwed over (and caused to be run over by a car, I might add, check the movie’s title) during her rise at the magazine?  She buys her off with a set of new clothes from Paris.  How Kantian of her.

Make no mistake about it, this is a movie about sheer power lust.  It is a movie of how that lust can be cloaked or shifted to another sphere but never denied.  Never bottled up.  Never stopped.  It is a delicious tale of social intrigue, ambition, class, and how much clothes really do matter.  And to take sweet Anne Hathaway — remember the wonderful but underrated Ella Enchanted?– and have her play Max Stirner — that is a mark of genius.

The movie has many other fine points, most of which were neglected by the film’s intended demographic.  Here is Michael Blowhard on Anne Hathaway.  Here is Wikipedia on the movie.

Here is my earlier post, a Straussian reading of Star Wars.  What will be next?

Star Wars: Another Straussian Reading

Tyler’s artful reading of Star Wars inspires my own Straussian reading.

The Star Wars saga consists of 6 chapters.  Six equals 2 times 3. Three is now and for
quite sometime has been considered a good number, as in the holy trinity, but in former
times it was also and even primarily considered an evil number, as in three makes a crowd. So
‘twice 3’ might mean both good and evil, and hence
altogether; a balance of good and evil, surely the central theme of the entire saga.

The public choice economics of Star Wars: A Straussian reading

The only spoilers in this post concern the non-current Star Wars movies.  Stop reading now if you wish those to remain a surprise.

The core point is that the Jedi are not to be trusted:

1. The Jedi and Jedi-in-training sell out like crazy.  Even the evil Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight.

2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway?  The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail).  Aren’t they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that?  As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs.  Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends.

3. Obi-Wan told Luke scores of lies, including the big whopper that his dad was dead.

4. The Jedi can’t even keep us safe.

5. The bad guys have sex and do all the procreating.  The Jedi are not supposed to marry, or presumably have children.  Not ESS, if you ask me.  Anakin gets Natalie Portman; Luke spends two episodes with a perverse and distant crush on his sister Leia, leading only to one chaste kiss.

6. The prophecy was that Anakin (Darth) will restore order and balance to the force.  How true this turns out to be.  But none of the Jedi can begin to understand what this means.  Yes, you have to get rid of the bad guys.  But you also have to get rid of the Jedi.  The Jedi are, after all, the primary supply source and training ground for the bad guys.  Anakin/Darth manages to get rid of both, so he really is the hero of the story.  (It is also interesting which group of “Jedi” Darth kills first, but that would be telling.)

7. At the happy ending of “Return of the Jedi”, the Jedi no longer control the galaxy.  The Jedi Council is not reestablished.  Luke, the closest thing to a Jedi representative left, never becomes a formal Jedi.  He shows no desire to train other Jedi, and probably expects to spend the rest of his life doing voices for children’s cartoons.

8. The core message is that power corrupts, but also that good guys have power too.  Our possible safety lies in our humanity, not in our desires to transcend it or wield strange forces to our advantage.

What did Padme say?: “So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause.”

Addendum: By the way, did I mention that the Jedi are genetically superior supermen with “enhanced blood”?  That the rebels’ victory party in Episode IV borrows liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”?  And that the much-maligned ewoks make perfect sense as an antidote to Jedi fascism?

My Conversation with the excellent Reid Hoffman

This one is better than the other available conversations with Reid, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWTeam summary:

Reid joined Tyler to talk about all these leverage points and more, including the Silicon Valley cultural meme he most disagrees with, how Wittgenstein influenced the design of LinkedIn, mystical atheism, what it was like being on Firing Line, why he’s never said anything outrageous, how he and Peter Thiel interpret The Tempest differently, the most misunderstood thing about friendship, how to improve talent certification, what’s needed from science fiction, and his three new ideas for board games.

Excerpt:

COWEN: If we think of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, they could arguably, by the standards of many people, be called weird. I’ve reviewed all the books you’ve written and a lot of your public talks. I can’t recall you saying a single thing that’s outrageous in any way whatsoever. Why aren’t you weirder?

HOFFMAN: [laughs] Maybe I mask it better. That’s my Straussian element, that I hide my weirdness. I would say that a little bit of it comes down to a theory about what is the right way of evolving discourse.

I think I probably do have a variety of views that people would think is weird. I, for example, think of myself as a mystical atheist, which is neither the full atheist category nor any religious category, but some blend in the middle. Or the fact that I actually think that the notion of capitalism is one of the world’s leading interesting technologies, but it’s not a particularly good philosophy, and you’d think that’s odd for an entrepreneur or an investor, and so forth.

So I have areas where I would say groups of people would think I’m weird. I may not highlight it because I tend to always speak in a way to, how do I think I help us make the most progress? And I would only say the weird things if I thought that was the thing that would result from that.

COWEN: So there are weird things that are in your mind?

HOFFMAN: Yes, yeah.

And:

COWEN: How did your interest in the late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn? I’m sure they ask you this all the time in interviews.

HOFFMAN: [laughs] All the time. The question I’ve always been expecting. I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.

That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.

COWEN: What else from philosophy influenced the construction and design of LinkedIn?

Recommended.  For help in arranging this Conversation I am very much indebted to Ben Casnocha.

Best movies 2019

I am happy to recommend these selections, the links going to my earlier remarks about them:

Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse (animated)

Campernaum (Ethiopian refugee in Beirut)

Transit

Us

Ash is Purest White (Chinese, obscure)

High Life (best science fiction movie of the year?)

Long Day’s Journey into Night (big screen only, Chinese obscure)

Woman at War (Icelandic, wacky)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (duh)

Booksmart (full of energy on the screen)

Echo in the Canyon (L.A. music scene in the 1960s and beyond)

The Farewell (American-Chinese, about a dying relative)

Honeyland (Macedonian, about bee keepers)

Inside Bill’s Brain (Bill Gates, short documentary)

Joker

Parasite (Korean, the Straussian reading is anti-egalitarian)

JoJo Rabbit (modern-day anti-Nazi comedy, mostly they pull it off)

Marriage Story

Atlantics

The Rise of Skywalker

A Hidden Life

From those my top picks would be Marriage Story — the American redo of Scenes from a Marriage, and then Honeyland.  Overall it was a much better year for movies than last year.

As for marginal choices, Ad Astra and Knives Out were two movies I liked, and came close to making this list, but didn’t.

As for historic cinema, I am very glad I purchased the complete Blu-Ray set of Ingmar Bergman movies, spectacular transfers and the American viewer can watch the true, complete version of Persona for the first time.

As for the rest of the year, I have high hopes for The Souvenir, Little Women and also the new Adam Sandler movie, but I have not yet seen them.  The documentary For Sama has potential too.

What am I forgetting?

Addendum to best books of 2019 list

Here is the original non-fiction list, the original fiction list, and these are my post-Thanksgiving additions:

Emmanuel Todd, Lineages of Modernity.

John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book.

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Herself Alone, volume three.

Susan Gubar, Late-Life Love: A Memoir.

Bernardine Evaristo. Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel.  The Booker co-winner and yes the focus of black women’s gender-fluid lives in Britain sounds too PC, but I was won over.  There is a Straussian reading of it as well.

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again: A Novel.

On the classical music front, Jean-Paul Gasparian’s Chopin CD is one of the best Chopin recordings ever, which is saying something.

The list of add-ons is I think a bit shorter than usual, which suggests that other people’s “best of” lists are declining somewhat in quality.  In essence I construct this add-on list by ordering the items off other people’s lists which I am not already familiar with.  I didn’t find so many undiscovered-by-me winners this time around, the Gubar and Strout being the main choices I drew from the discoveries of others.

What I’ve been reading

Roderick Floud, An Economic History of the English Garden.  Every page of this book does indeed have economics.  It just does not have interesting economics.  Which may mean that gardens are not so interesting from an economic point of view.  Which in turn would make this a good book.  But not an interesting book.

Ajantha Subramanian, The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India.  A critique of casteism and growing inequality, this book also doubles as a fascinating history of IIT.  Best read in Straussian fashion as a sympathetic story of origins.

Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion & The Future of Clothes.  Some parts of this book have bad economics and extreme mood affiliation, but in general it has more actual information than other books on the same topic and at times the author makes decent external cost arguments against the current system of clothes production.  So a qualified recommendation, at least I am glad I read it, even though some parts are obviously too sloppy.

Razeen Sally, Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island.  People do not think enough about Sri Lanka, including in the social sciences!  It is a richer and nicer country than what most people are expecting, and it is good for studying both conflict and ethnic tensions.  This memoir — information rich rather than just blather — is one good place to get you started.

David Goldblatt, The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-First Century.  Football meaning soccer of course, this book covers how soccer interacts with politics in many particular countries, including Africa, and just how much the game has grown in global markets.  Mostly informative, good if you wish to read a book about this topic (I don’t).

Conversations with Zizek.  Maybe the best introduction to why Žižek is a richer thinker than his critics allege?  The book serves up insights on a consistent basis, and there is a minimum of jargon.  Marcus Pound had a good blurb: “Audacious and vertiginous, this book is everything one expects from him, a heady mix of psychoanalysis, politics, theology, philosophy, and cultural studies that will leave the reader both exhausted and exhilarated.”

Sunday assorted links

1. Chilean citizen lasers take down drones.

2. Those new service sector jobs is this a Straussian reference to the Rolling Stones song?

3. “Lotto lout Michael Carroll reveals he is ‘happier now’ working seven days a week as a £10-an-hour coalman after blowing £10m jackpot on drink, drugs and brothels (and claims he slept with 4,000 women).”  Link here.

4. BallerBusters “calls out” the phony rich people who in fact don’t have much money (NYT).

5. They let 70 different teams study the same fMRI results, you can imagine what happened.

My Conversation with Hollis Robbins

Here is the audio and video, here is part of the CWT summary:

Now a dean at Sonoma State University, Robbins joined Tyler to discuss 19th-century life and literature and more, including why the 1840s were a turning point in US history, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Calvinism, whether 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are appropriate portraits of slavery, the best argument for reparations, how prepaid postage changed America, the second best Herman Melville book, why Ayn Rand and Margaret Mitchell are ignored by English departments, growing up the daughter of a tech entrepreneur, and why teachers should be like quarterbacks.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You’ve written a good deal on the history of the postal service. How did the growth of the postal service change romance in America?

ROBBINS: Well, everybody could write a letter. [laughs] In 1844 — this was the other exciting thing that happened in the 1840s. Rowland Hill in England changed the postal service by inventing the idea of prepaid postage. Anybody could buy a stamp, and then you’d put the stamp on the letter and send the letter.

Prior to that, you had to go to the post office. You had to engage with the clerk. After the 1840s and after prepaid postage, you could just get your stamps, and anybody could send a letter. In fact, Frederick Douglass loved the idea of prepaid post for the ability for the enslaved to write and send letters. After that, people wrote letters to each other, letters home, letters to their lovers, letters to —

COWEN: When should you send a sealed letter? Because it’s also drawing attention to itself, right?

ROBBINS: Well, envelopes — it’s interesting that envelopes, sealed envelopes, came about 50 years after the post office became popular, so you didn’t really have self-sealing envelopes until the end of the 19th century.

COWEN: That was technology? Or people didn’t see the need for it?

ROBBINS: Technology, the idea of folding the envelope and then having it be gummed and self-sealing. There were a number of patents, but they kept breaking down. But technology finally resolved it at the end of the 19th century.

Prior to that, you would write in code. Also, paper was expensive, so you often wrote across the page horizontally and then turned it to the side and crossed the page, writing in the other direction. If somebody was really going to snoop on your letters, they had to work for it.

COWEN: On net, what were the social effects of the postal service?

ROBBINS: Well, communication. The post office and the need for the post office is in our Constitution.

COWEN: It was egalitarian? It was winner take all? It liberated women? It helped slaves? Or what?

ROBBINS: All those things.

COWEN: All those things.

ROBBINS: But yeah, de Tocqueville mentioned this in his great book in the 1830s that anybody — some farmer in Michigan — could be as informed as somebody in New York City.

And:

COWEN: Margaret Mitchell or Ayn Rand?

ROBBINS: Well, it’s interesting that two of the best-selling novelists of the 20th-century women are both equally ignored by English departments in universities. Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind is paid attention to a little bit just because, as I said, it’s something that literature and film worked against, but not Ayn Rand at all.

And:

COWEN: What’s a paradigmatic example of a movie made better by a good soundtrack?

ROBBINS: The Pink Panther — Henry Mancini’s score. The movie is ridiculous, but Henry Mancini’s score — you’re going to be humming it now the rest of the day.

And:

COWEN: What is the Straussian reading of Babar the Elephant?

ROBBINS: When’s the last time you read it?

COWEN: Not long ago.

Recommended throughout.