What I’ve been reading

1. J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays 2006-2017.  The pieces on Robert Walser, Ford Madox Ford, Patrick White, Gerald Murnane, Samuel Beckett, and Juan Ramón Jiménez make this worth buying, the rest are mixed in quality.  Coetzee remains minimalistically grumpy in the right way.

2. Grant N. Havers, Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique.  Havers argues against Strauss from “the Right,” but sympathetically.  He suggests Strauss underrated Christianity and had too high an opinion of antiquity, and was a true liberal democrat, while the American founders consciously rejected ancient political thought.

3. Neil Monnery, Architect of Prosperity: Sir John Cowperthwaite and the Making of Hong Kong.  I didn’t find this inspiring to read, but still it is a useful account of the under-covered early days of how Hong Kong evolved into a freedom-oriented economy after World War II.  Here is a review from The Economist.

4. Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.  “As Dolot remembered it, the presence of the Soviet state in his village in the 1920s had been minimal.”  And “Initially, collectivization was supposed to be voluntary.”  And “When their potatoes were gone…people began to go to the Russian villages and to exchange their clothing for food.”

I have only browsed my library copy of Masha Gessen’s The Future of History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, but it looked very good and so I ordered it from Amazon.

William Blake and the Age of Aquarius is a beautiful exhibition catalog, with text, edited by Stephen F. Eisenman, for a show currently on at Northwestern University.

David Kynaston, Till Time’s Last Sand: A History of the Bank of England, 1694-2013, seems to be a fine work of history, but it is not organized analytically in the way I might wish.  Still, some of you should be interested, as this is 796 pp. of well-written, carefully researched material on the BOE.


"I have only browsed my library copy of Masha Gessen’s The Future of History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, but it looked very good and so I ordered it from Amazon."


Why LOL? Have you ever done something similar? I am sure you have something interesting to say about something - almost everybody does. But you wasted my time here, Randall, and I am no big fan of Masha Gessen, so ordinarily I would side with you. But you know what - you wasted my time. Grow up.

LOL indeed. Russia is not totalitarian.

It might be if some of us were in charge but thank God we aren't.

If read any reporting from Russia you'll understand it pretty clearly is. It didn't have to go that way, but it did and the last few years have really cemented that.

"If read any reporting from Russia "

I have, but not the kind of propaganda you're thinking of.

If read any reporting from Russia you’ll understand it pretty clearly is.

The term 'totalitarian' does not mean what you fancy it means.

Russia is authoritarian, not totalitarian. The USSR was totalitarian because that's what a socialist state has to be to keep everyone in line. Russia does not have a "total state."

Yes it does.

Lighten up. I saw what looked to me like classic Tyler signalling/trolling the comments section and I laughed. Hard to see how that "wasted your time."


P --- Randall made fun of Tyler (by making a comment that assumes Tyler is just signaling when he writes about books, which he is not, I think he is just a hard working honest person who writes a lot, leaving aside whether knows what he is talking about - a subject which is extremely complicated): then anonymous (i.e., me) called out Randall, and maybe got in a dig at Masha Gessen, who is well known as a critic (some would say an unfair critic) of the post-soviet Russian federation; the anti-Gnostic chimed in (indeed) with the comment of anonymous, and noted that Masha Gessen's assumption that Russia is totalitarian is itself the sort of claim that requires an LOL.

I do the same. Peruse a book in the library to see if I should read it, and then order it online. No big deal.

My favorite book is the little collection of memories Juan Ramon Jimenez (one leaves off the accents if one calls him by the three names - he had four, if you use all four, use the accents) wrote about his good friend Platero. Not just better than Cervantes, but as much better than Cervantes as a dream in 2020 about a good day in 1980 would be than a dream in 1980 about a good day in 2020.

I am totally sympathetic to Cowperthwaite's approach to economic management, but I do think the success of Hong Kong has a lot more to do with the genetic character of the inhabitants to work hard and engage in trade and industry, plus it's long term role as a way to funnel trade into China, rather than the economic policies of it's colonial government. Let's say they just didn't mess it up like the communists did on the mainland.

So the Chinese are so genetically superior and it was only the communists who ruined it eh? That’s why we kept giving them a good roughing up before Mao eh?

I made no comment on the superiority or otherwise of the Chinese. I will say that anyone who made the effort to escape the mainland and look for a better life in Hong Kong is quite likely to have more than average willingness to want to better themselves. But there are definitely other dimensions to humanity than a willingness to better yourself.

How can we be sure it's not just you?

Giving up Hong Kong was the single most harmful element of the Empire's decline, even worse than relinquishing India to the Hindus.

Time to add value with my five second reviews, judging by the titles and my vast erudition:

1) J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays 2006-2017. This man wrote about racism. I would argue (as have others?) that makes him a racist. But maybe in a good way. Never read him, don't plan to.

2) Leo Strauss? Before reading this blog, I never heard of him. Never read him, don't plan to. Should I? I never read Nietzsche in the original either. Thus Spoke Zarathustra sounds like such a cool cult classic too.

3) Neil Monnery, Architect of Prosperity: Sir John Cowperthwaite and the Making of Hong Kong. - what? some sort of 'single Great (white) Man builds HKK" theme, for simple minded people that like an easy to understand narrative? Bonus trivia: HKK came into being during the 1830s Opium Wars, where, dare I say it, Adam Smith and Free Trade was used by the UK parliament (yes! they actually mentioned this in debate) as a reason to forcefully peddle drugs to the hapless Canton Chinese. True. Helped weaken the Qing (pronounced "Ching") dynasty, as did the later Taipai movement and Boxer rebellions.

4). Anne Applebaum on the Ukraine Holodomor. Boooring. Martin Amis did a better bitter book on bthis, and he even showed a Ukraine family of cannibals dissecting their next meaty meal in an apocryphal photo captioned "anthropophage" (Greek for 'Man-Eaters'). Bonus trivia: Stalin, to raise hard currency, was actually selling wheat while the Ukrainian kulaks were starving. Communists, strangely, made excellent creditors on the international credit market. Reputation is important!

5) William Blake and the Age of Aquarius ... Blake, the Romantic, was anti-science, as were the Romantics. Let's not be romantic (nostalgic) but frankly the Romantics were responsible for the 19th c. "Nationalist" movement, and essentially they are like today's BrExit supporters and White Supremacists. I am not saying that the Concert of Europe was a counterweight, but essentially Blake today would be a Luddite and "Occupy Wall Street" type, just saying. He was no milquetoast.

6) David Kynaston, Till Time’s Last Sand: A History of the Bank of England, 1694-2013, "seems to be a fine work of history" - boring! OMG so boring, but I would pick this book as the best of the six picks. And despite the fact that I believe money is largely neutral. Right now I'm reading 2 books by the gold expert Bardo on the gold standard, each about 600 pages long. And yes I totally think money is neutral so this entire debate is sterile (not to be confused with the alleged sterilization of gold by central banks).

(1) no value added (2) there are no "cool cult classics" only truth, sometimes expressed in art, usually expressed in the life we and our friends live: Nietzsche was a poor befuddled coddled little man who thought he could leverage his hard work in learning Greek into being some sort of Bismarck-era sage - sad! he couldn't, as we now know (3) see, that is why I don't skip Ray Lopez comments - no idea if you know what you are talking about, you probably don't, but there is a hint of the love of truth in (3): I am impressed: (4) but then we come to (4) - disastrously inappropriate, as if you gloried in being afflicted with some unpleasant unkind form of neurodiversity: (5) and then we come to (5) which I will not say anything about, except: poor Blake! so much talent and so little love in his heart! and (6) you can do better - I am not saying you do not have vast erudition - just saying you can do better. Bonus trivia : less than one in 9 World Series games is won in the third inning. Good job on (3), though, Ray. Next time double up on the things you know a little about and abstain from the things you know nothing about.

More bonus trivia: "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus" is the best known book of that little band of books whose titles constitute, independent of the subject of the book, supremely good advice! (Read a little Leo Strauss - not much, just a little: or don't: but whatever you do, don't let the pigeon drive the bus). (Bonus trivia - both the bus driver and the pigeon in Mo Willems' beloved classic look nothing like Leo Strauss, although the driver is a ringer for poor Hume and the pigeon looks suspiciously like a young Alfred North Whitehead: although, surprisingly, the beloved cartoon Tiger Hobbes looks more like the Genevan writer Hobbes than his little friend Calvin looks like the Cockneyish pamphleteer Calvin. You would think it would be the other way around.)

Please substitute ("re" # 2) for ("more bonus trivia"). For the record: Cubs (last year) Astros (never) Yankees (a long time ago) Dodgers (East Germany's golden Olympic years).

'while the American founders consciously rejected ancient political thought'

No they didn't - just looking at the Commonwealth of Virginia's seal, from 1776, shows the idiocy of that observation. A seal presented by George Mason to be approved by the Commonwealth's Government on the same day, by the way. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_and_seal_of_Virginia

The idea that a tyrant deserved to be overthrown is most distinctly a part of ancient political thought, after all. 'Tyrannicide can also be a political theory, and as such dates from antiquity. Support for tyrannicide can be found in Plutarch's Lives, Cicero's De Officiis, and Seneca's Hercules Furens. Plato describes a violent tyrant as the opposite of a good and "true king" in the Statesman, and while Aristotle in the Politics sees it as opposed to all other beneficial forms of government, he also described tyrannicide mainly as an act by those wishing to gain personally from the tyrant's death, while those who act without hope of personal gain or to make a name for themselves are rare.

Various Christian philosophers and theologians also wrote about tyrannicide. In Thomas Aquinas's commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Aquinas gave a defense not only of disobedience to an unjust authority, using as an example Christian martyrs in the Roman Empire, but also of "one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant."' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyrannicide

You obviously have no clue about what is actually meant by rejecting ancient political thought, but go on embarrassing yourself with your superficial gotchas backed by wikipedia references.

‘while the American founders consciously rejected ancient political thought’: they were pretty keen on keeping slaves and conquering tribes, so there was quite a bit of the Roman about them. Less of the Greek, I suppose.

That politicians in the lowest taxed civilisation in history chose to pretend that it was tyrannised is wonderfully Alinskyite.

It's a right wing argument.

I think Republican Rome was the lowest taxed civilization in History. They used tributes and loot from conquered peoples. The early US Republic (extinct, if ever it existed, since 1861? or 1913?) was funded with excise taxes, used land sales, tariffs. Why use "civilization?" Maybe it was ":constitution" or "polity."

Do you think the issue was high tax rates and not taxation without representation? Plus, in the Americas, cannibalism, conquests/wars, human sacrifices, slavery existed before Columbus arrived.

You confuse ancient political thought with practice, but then you never let any serious understanding of matters get in the way of your snarking.

It is an interesting moment when you realize that Ray is providing pretty much the only substantive response in this thread. Why oh why do people respond to p-a's trolling?

Coetzee is a fool who lobbied from safety for the old South Africa to be destroyed. Then he fled the joys of majority rule for another majority White colonial society. If he publishes anything that does not expose his revealed preferences to light, he is a hypocrite.

And to get those quotes out of Applebaum's book massively misses the point - and the controversy with what is left of Stalin's Western academic friends.

I've long found Coetzee's topical commentary and reviews to be an irritant. Literary figures are seldom that insightful about society (as opposed to small-scale human relations). That having been said, neither absolutely nor relatively is South Africa in worse condition than it was in 1994 - whether you're talking production and income or whether you're talking crime. What likely has changed is that some of the disagreeableness of daily life in South Africa has been allocated to sectors of the population which were better protected a generation ago. The 'old South Africa' wasn't a great place and was not sustainable as it was.

There is no trolling involved to point out what the seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia represents. Particularly when George Mason was the man that had it adopted in the ever so coincidental year of 1776, and when the flag of the Commonwealth carries the seal also.

A seal that has been used by the Commonwealth of Virginia until today, with Virtue standing over a vanquished tyrant. Of course ancient political thought was not part of what founders such as Mason rejected - they rejected the parts that supported monarchs, tyrants, etc.

Where do you think the name and role of the 'Senate' came from, for example? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senate

I seem to recall a title like “The Founders and the Classics”, which discusses how and where the Founders esteemed the classics. Cato, Cicero etc.

Bonus fact, as Ray would say: until about 1600 Cicero was regarded as great a philosopher as Plato and Aristotle in the West.

Current status of Bolshies amongst academic leftists:

Stalin, dangerous to mention, suspect, only the foolhardy adopts the term Stalinist

Trotsky, a hero of the oooh think-what-could-have-been crowd (because T didn’t have power long enough to make communism work)

Lenin, not too long ago it was seen as foolish to identify as a leninist, currently (last decade) his rehabilitation is proceeding, albeit slowly. See Zizek. Lenin’s concept of imperialism, always only signifying the crimes of capitalism and the west, is of inestimable value to revolutionaries... not least because it can mean whatever they wish and cannot be tested.

#3, Thanks for the comment on the Monnery book -- was thinking about buying it after reading the Economist review but will now skip it.

Every now and then there are posted some fine reviews at the Amazon site. This review of the Strauss book makes it sound most interesting:

“Strauss’s promotion of the study of Great Books is one reason he is usually seen by traditional conservatives as an ally in the defense of Western civilization. Readers with leftist sympathies, however, have accused Strauss of being an extremely subtle critic of liberal democracy. These readers attack him as a sneaky extremist who cleverly disguises a dangerous right-wing agenda.

Havers brilliantly cuts the Gordian knot of the debate to date over Strauss. After decades of carefully reading the writings of Strauss and the scholarship about him, Havers achieves a breakthrough by refusing to get sucked into the ideological clash of the warring right-wing and left-wing interpretations of Strauss. Instead, he painstakingly explores the strange ways that Strauss made use of the Great Books.

In his detailed study, Havers shows how a proper understanding of Strauss must also place him in his historical context. This means seeing him as a Cold War liberal with a secular bias that embraced some typically leftist and modern ideas about Christianity. Oddly enough, Strauss championed the study of the classical tradition because he wanted to bypass Christianity and make a purely secular argument in defense of modern, liberal democracy.”

Strauss ended his days at St. John's College. Mightn't we consider the possibility that he was a fairly unworldly figure and not concerned much with topical questions? Allan Bloom cared about the condition of intellectual life and the institutions which envelop it; other than that, his interests were on the aesthetic side of life.


What's topical is also hard-ish to define. But let's posit this: for Strauss what mattered was the threat to liberty by the collective, but also the threat to communal life by unchecked liberty. Liberal democracy, under assault from the commies and the nazis, was/is a balancing act.

He also saw historicism as a threat. The rot started with Hegel, and continued through Marx and on to Heidegger. (Reasons to like Strauss!) Historicism was topical after the routing of the neo-Kantians around the turn of the century (1900), but it extended back to Hegel. So topical or not? Hard to say.

The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford History of the United States) 1st Edition
by Richard White

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