Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Apt cartoon in today's Spiegel:


It made me think of V.S. Naipaul's comment on the high hopes Iranian communists had of the Islamic revolution. Well, we all know better now:

These [communist] volunteers in quilted khaki jackets and pullovers were revolutionaries who, one year on, were still trying to live out the revolution, still anxious to direct traffic to show their solidarity with the police, now of the people, not of the Shah), still anxious to demonstrate the Islamic "union" that had brought them victory [....] Behzad had said in August [...], "This is no a religious occasion. It is a political occasion." The communist son of a persecuted communist father, Behzad had read Islamic union in his own way, had interpreted Shia triumph and misanthropy in his own way, had seen a revolution that could be pushed further to another revolution. And these Islamic revolutionaries, in their Che Guevara costume, did see themselves as late-twentieth-century revolutionaries [....] Injustice, the wickedness of men, the worthlessness of the world as it is, the revenge to come, the joy of "union": Behzad was a communist, but the Shia passion was like his. And in August Behzad, like a Shia, was collecting his own injustices: Khomeini's revolution had begun to turn against the men of the left.
V.S. Naipaul, Among the Believers (1981)

Beware of revolutionaries, even of the wannabe sort. And beware, you revolutionaries, even of the wannabe sort. The utopia you're dreaming up in your suburban "Jugendzimmer" might turn very, very nasty for you.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Shakespeare on Young Men and "Criminal Energy"

SHEPHERD I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting -- Hark you now! Would any but
these boiled brains of nineteen and two-and-twenty
hunt this weather? They have scared away two of my
best sheep, which I fear the wolf will sooner find
than the master  ....
The Winter's Tale (III.iii 58-67)

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Penelope Fitzgerald, (Pop) Cultural Critic

I'm currently reading the collected letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, and have to say they're rather charming and entertaining (oh dear, I'm beginning to sound like Fitzgerald myself). They are full of everyday gems like the following, from a letter to her older daughter Tina:

Quite exhausted emotions raised by Eurovision Song Contest: We felt sure Cliff should have won, though doubtful about his dress of nylon ruffles and dandy's velvet-effect suit. It was very odd Germany suddenly giving 6 votes for Spain, I'm sure it was a vote to promote trade. (Wollen Sie in Spanien gehen?) As usual I was quite wrong as the one I though best got no votes at all, and Sandie Shaw looked frightful in ostrich-effect feathers and was hit by a piece of stage.
Just to remind you of the target of her sartorial critique (and how astute it was):


Other passages in the letters are more wistful and melancholy, for instance when she describes a conversation with her other daugher to Tina:

Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying: "What a funny old couple you are!" and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn't really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seemed to be crumbling into dust.

The following assessment of, again, her older daughter's disappointment with her English degree at Oxford contains an insight we should pass on to our students at the beginning of each semester:

I'm sorry that the poor English school is so dull too - the truth is, though I would never dare saying it in public, that the value of studying literature only really appears as you go on living, and find how it really is like life - that it all works - and it's a pity this can't somehow be shown in the course, except I suppose in Marxist Free Universities.

I'm not so sure about the Marxist Free Universities (in fact, I don't even know what she means by that), but in the first part of the quote Fitzgerald seems to put the finger on what may be the tragedy of the humanities.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

"The 5th now is considered a holiday by the lower classes"

A few notes from the archives about events on the Fifth of November in the early nineteenth century in Lewes.

Where it sounds like they had a right good time.

 Deposition of James Burridge, constable:

“I also was upon duty as police officer in the Town of Lewes upon the night of the fifth day of November instant and saw a great mob of persons unlawfully assembled together and making a great noise & disturbance, letting off fireworks and having lighted tar barrels through the high street. About ten o’clock I was violently assaulted by the mob who hustled me and threw stones at me and gravel and dirt into my eyes whereby my eyes were much hurt and painful.” 

Deposition of Stephen Clarke, constable:

“I saw a great riot and disturbance in the town with persons letting off fireworks, rolling lighted tar barrels and throwing lighted fire balls….Many of the persons in the disturbance were in disguise having masks and some having their faces black red and white and many of them had very large sticks.” 

Henry Powler Mackay deposed that he saw the tar-barrels fireworks and riotous mob:

“I have not joined in such occasions, there was more than ever I have before. I have not let off fireworks since I left school…The 5th now is considered a holiday by the lower classes. I do not think the town would have been quiet if the police had not been there.” 

Deposition of William Bennett:

“…I have seen bonfire nights in Lewes and it was similar to the one last time, I saw tar barrels last year and windows broken.” 

 According to reports, many of the police were violently assaulted with sticks and clubs.

 Feeling nostalgic for the good old days yet?

(Source: The National Archive, ASSI 36/4 Sussex assizes 1841. These were among the sources I used in my first book, Violence and Crime in Nineteenth-Century England: The Shadow of Our Refinement, which is soon to be available as a paperback.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Counting your blessings, if slowly

Comments by historian (and committed Christian) Herbert Butterfield (who coined the term "Whig history") on "The Christian and history", from the first of a four-part series in The Christian News-Letter, 1949: 

In fact what we are faced with in the twentieth century are the disciples of Marx on the one hand, H.G. Wells (shall we say) on the other, the Protestants and the Jesuits, the Fascists and the Liberals, all producing their selections from the complexity of historical facts and their different organizations of the whole narrative of the centuries – all feeling that there is the absolute explanation, and longing to see it established as the basis for a universal teaching and examining system.

In a cut-throat conflict between these and other systems for the control of schools and universities (in other words for predominance in society) it is not clear that a specifically Christian or Biblical interpretation would in fact prevail at the present day; and though it is a sad thing when any man rejects Christianity, still Christians can hardly have a technical ground of complaint in modern society if universities do not pour all their academic teaching into a specifically Christian mould as in former times. Considering their own record of intolerance and persecution where they had the power, Churches must consider it rather fortunate for them if so often their enemies have been less thorough-going – thankful that, if society is not Christian, it is at any rate not yet wholeheartedly anything else.

While we have Marxists and Wellsians, Protestants and Catholics, Whigs and Tories, with their mutually exclusive systems (historical assertion confronted by counter-assertion), many people, confounded by the contradictions, will run thankfully in the last resort to the humbler “academic” historian – to the man who will just try to show what the evidence warrants, and will respect the intricacy and the complexity of events. In the clash of interpretations somebody will sigh in the long run for an answer to the more pedestrian question, the purely historical question: What is the evidence, and what are at any rate the tangible things which demonstrably took place?

Men are slow to count their blessings but Christians might even be thankful for this “academic” history at the last stage of the argument – thankful so long as no authoritative interpretation of history and the human drama has been rigorously imposed upon our educational system by an increasingly non-Christian society.

– Herbert Butterfield, “The Christian and History. I. The Christian and Academic History”, The Christian News-Letter no. 333, 16 March 1949, 91-92. (Paragraph breaks added.)

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The more things change

Something that sounds familiar from an early post-war report on a Student Christian Movement conference at Westminster:

"The outstanding fact revealed by these discussions was the ignorance of most students. By comparison with most European students in the groups they were ill-informed. A few had a wide general interest but had not mastered for example UNO terminology: a few had strong particular interests – Federal Union for example: a few were communists or near communists or had been to Yugoslavia. Many clearly did not bother to read a good weekly or daily newspaper, and the most common practical decision taken was to do so in future. Here and there the opinion was expressed that the salient facts are kept in the hands of Governments and the ordinary person is prevented from having a point of view, a labour-saving fallacy with a superficial grain of truth in it to make it highly dangerous." – Kathleen Bliss, The Christian News-Letter, #303, 21 January 1948, 5.

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.) 

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Love of Wisdom

Can we start an internet meme, please:

Human Kindness and the Whiff of Hemlock?
Human Kindness and the Stench of the Decaying Res Extensa?
Human Kindness and the Funk of a Philosopher's Fart?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On having a bird (of sorts)

Tim Dee in today's Guardian - do we really need this juvenile simile?

In my birdwatching lifetime, blackcaps that breed in southern Germany and Austria (the birds are mostly grey and look like handsome German soldiers in greatcoats) have started coming north-west to Britain in the autumn instead of heading south. 
To explain the title: "to have a bird" - "einen Vogel haben" - means being mad in German.


After encountering a hefty dose of Pinker-bashing at this year's Anglistentag, I thought it a lovely bit of irony to stumble over this at the station bookshop in Paderborn on my way home:

I simply had to buy it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Being beastly, by God, to the Germans

My current research on British Christian newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s turns up quite a bit of interesting material that is not quite directly project-related.

For example: there was relatively little turning of the cheek in a commentary by the Dean of Wells (Richard Malden) in the Guardian (the Anglican Church paper and not to be confused with the Manchester Guardian) in May 1945 on what should be done with Germany in the post-war world.

The dean, in fact, took rather a hard line.

Direct retaliation – that is to say, massacre or mutilation of the German race – is out of the question.

You can almost hear the Dean's sigh of disappointment.

Such violation of the Moral Law is not for us. But within the inviolable limits prescribed by the Christian conscience it is not easy to see how any punishment which can be meted out to the German people can be counted too severe. I have said ‘to the German people’, because there is no real distinction to be drawn between them and the Nazi party.

After the First World War, the dean recalled,

…we were urged to discriminate between the Germans and their rulers. We were assured that the German race is at bottom simple, honest and kindly, content to live within a horizon bounded by music, philosophy and beer. Its admirable moral qualities had made it an easy prey for the wicked Hohenzollerns, who had exploited it to serve their dynastic ambitions.


The truth was, and is, that the Germans are not at bottom simple, honest and kindly, though it has often been to their interest to try to persuade foreigners that they are. (A sound axiom for dealing with them is: Any German will say whatever he thinks convenient, and do whatever he thinks he can.) They have consistently, for two hundred years at least, if not for longer, shown themselves to be as arrogant, greedy and brutal as any nation which walks the earth, with the possible exception of the Japanese.

Among the dean's more concrete suggestions was evacuating the German industrial city of Essen and laying it, as he put it, 

utterly waste, and to remain so for ever. Any attempt to re-occupy or rebuild it to be an immediate casus belli without parley.

The destroyed city would serve as a reminder and warning for future generations. (The seventh son of the seventh son is not mentioned, but you get the picture.)


The first step towards their regeneration must be for us to make them understand that they are almost universally detested, as few people have ever been; and despised for their sheeplike docility. They must be shown that detestation and contempt will be their portion until they begin to show themselves worthy of something else. If they are to be allowed to set foot in British territory in any part of the world (and for my own part I believe it would be wise to exclude them absolutely for a term of years and to make plain that trespassers will be executed), it must only be in rigidly restricted numbers…

…and subject to strict regulations. For example, Germans were to be treated as “ticket of leave men” (e.g., they would be required to check in at police stations at regular intervals), would be forbidden to acquire property, their correspondence to be strictly censored and they would be required to pay a special “poll-tax" that would defray the costs of all the surveillance that the dean thought necessary to keep them under control.

Unsurprisingly, the subsequent weeks' correspondence columns in the Guardian were pretty lively.

(Source: The Dean of Wells, “Treatment of Germany. The Way of Regeneration”, (Anglican) Guardian, 25 May 1945, 203-204.)  

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.) 

Plain English

A Christian argument for minding one's language via the recurring column "From a Journalist's Notebook" in The Church Times, 1939:

Let’s Talk English 
I thoroughly agree with the writer in the Tablet who protests against the use of pretentious and pseudo-scientific terms when simple everyday phrases are far more expressive. Herr Hitler has, for example, been recently described in the Times as a paranoiac with delusions of persecution, he is aggressive, a megalomaniac with messianic feelings, and the victim of a power impulse for bloodless victories. Why not, as the Tablet suggests, use English, and say that Herr Hitler is a nasty piece of work.
(The Church Times, 3 November 1939, 378)

As far as I know, "a nasty piece of work" doesn't appear in the Authorised Version.

Though perhaps this is an error that needs revising. 

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.)  

Saturday, August 01, 2015

On Norbert Elias

Today marks twenty five years since the death of the German historical sociologist Norbert Elias. So far I have only seen that anniversary marked in German-language publications, so I thought I would briefly note it here.

Norbert Elias (via Wikipedia)
For me, Elias has been an inspiration and intellectual companion of sorts for about twenty years. He was one of the main theoretical guideposts for my dissertation, which I started thinking about in the mid-1990s.

I can still remember my dissertation advisor at the University of Maryland recommending in a rather offhand way that I take a look at Elias's main work -- The Civilising Process -- while we were in the early stages of discussing what was then my aim of writing about changing standards of behaviour in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with regard to "recklessness".

In the end, I wrote about violence in nineteenth-century England, but Elias -- and the historical and sociological work that he had inspired -- remained important to me, even if I struggled at first with both Elias's ideas and his style of writing. (This is one of the many, many instances in my life where chance meetings and comments have led to life-long interests and even obsessions. Given Elias's emphasis on the unplanned nature of historical development, this seems maybe appropriate.)

Elias's imprint is certainly unmistakable in what resulted, published in 2004 as The Shadow of Our Refinement. (Review)

In my post-doctoral Wanderjahre, I tried to build on this work, exploring ways of combining the essentials of Elias's "figurational sociology" with both cultural history and evolutionary psychology. I think, actually, that I might have been the first person to try in any sustained way to combine all three of these ingredients. It's still relatively rare to see all of them brought together; however, there has been a great deal of increased interest in this kind of combination well beyond the historical field itself thanks not least to the enormous resonance that Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature has received since its publication in 2011. (A book to whose development I'm happy to have made some small contribution.)

I've also had a go at applying Elias to literary violence and civilisation, in an essay on de-civilising themes J.G. Ballard's novels High-Rise and Super-Cannes (published in a remarkable essay collection that resulted from an excellent conference). 

In recent years, my historical research has moved away from the history of violence and crime (to intellectual religious history...it's a long story for another time), so I haven't had much to do with his work directly. (Though one of the figures who plays a role in my current project is Karl Mannheim, with whom Elias worked in Frankfurt in the inter-war period before both were compelled to leave Germany. So some slight connection remains.)

While Elias's ideas are far from uncontroversial among historians of violence (which I've had the mixed pleasure of experiencing first-hand on some occasions), they have in one way or another inspired much of the most important work on violence history over the last thirty years. Of course, like all theoretical systems, Elias's is certainly in need of constant testing, reconsideration and revision.

Still, for me, Elias's work has been important well beyond the academic battlefield. Rather than being something that I simply apply "in my work", his ideas have also helped shape the way I see the world more broadly. Even Elias's meditations on death -- in his book The Loneliness of the Dying -- helped me when I was coming to terms with the death of my mother some years ago.

On the long list of deceased intellectuals from the past with whom I'd like to have had the chance to have dinner, Norbert Elias is at the top. And I can't think of all that many other intellectual influences I had in my 20s that I still have in my 40s.  

Elias himself had a complicated, dramatic and in many ways rather sad life, and he remained very much an outsider in his field until the 1970s, when he was well into what for most scholars counts as retirement. Since then, the process of rediscovering his thought and applying it in new ways has gathered pace.

Looking back, I'm happy to have been involved -- in at least some small way -- with that.


Thursday, July 09, 2015

What do they know of breathing who only breathing know?

While going through issues of The Christian News-Letter from 1945, I ran across a positive review of Arthur Koestler's The Yogi and the Commissar. It quoted, rather inexactly, parts of the following passage, which I found elsewhere.

And which is quite striking.

The tragedy is that only those realize what oxygen means who have known the torture of suffocation; only those who have shared the life of the ordinary native in Nazi Germany or Stalinite Russia for at least a year know that disintegration of the human substance which befalls people deprived of their basic liberties. But how many of us are capable of drawing comparisons?

The English dock yard worker has not experienced the difference between risking, for the same negligence, a cut in pay or death as a saboteur. The English journalist does not know the difference between a limited freedom of expression and the status of a human teleprinter. The English highbrow, fed up with a statesman's cigar or a general's photo-mania, has no idea the abject idiocy of regimented Byzantine leader worship.

The English public, disgruntled but secure within the law, does not know the shivering insecurity, the naked horror of an autocratic police-state. They only know their own frustrations. The atmosphere of democracy has become a stale fog, and those who breathe it cannot be expected to be grateful for the air which it contains. The predicament of western civilization is that it use ceased to be aware of the values which it is in peril of losing. 

Arthur Koestler, "The End of an Illusion" 1944. Collected in The Yogi and the Commissar. (210)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Be true to your school

So there I am, on my birthday, somewhere in my mid-40s, and already feeling a bit nostalgic for my youth and the place I come from.

And then I see: yesterday Charlie Sheen launched an attack not only on his ex-wife -- Denise Richards -- but also on the town in which she grew up.

A hometown that we happen to share.

As reported in the "Downers Grove Patch":

He calls Richards, whom he married in 2002 and divorced in 2006, a “doosh phace” and a “charlatan” and the “worst mom alive.” Most of the post is unprintable and not worth reading. But this swipe stood out:
“last note; this lab rat is from a retarded (expletive) hole named ‘Downers Grove’ nothing further your Honor”
OK. I can't claim any inside knowledge into the Richards-Sheen relationship. But I did grow up in Downers Grove.

And I spent a year of middle school together with Denise Richards, separated only by a relatively few number of pages in the 1984 "Herrick Spartan":

I don't have any specific memories of interacting with Denise, but I do remember her being there. I have no doubt that we crossed paths at some point in junior high: it was, after all, a small place. (Though hopefully it was not one of those points where I was being humiliated by bullies, which was a fairly common occurrence in those days.)

As the article notes, Denise herself has had some kind things to say about her home town.

“Downers Grove was a charming little town with cobblestone streets and cute mom-and-pop stores. There was one movie theater, where I saw ‘E.T.’ and ‘Star Wars.’ On summer nights, we walked to Bogg’s ice cream, which to this day is the best homemade ice cream I’ve ever eaten. My parents took my sister and me to church on Sundays, and both of us attended CCD classes one day a week after school. We made our Communion and Confirmation. Though we had our own rooms, Michelle and I did everything together, from gymnastics to pom-poms in junior high. Both of us had a crush on Rob Lowe, we had a poster of him in our room, and we never missed an episode of ‘The Facts of Life.’”
I don't remember too many cobblestone streets, but I do remember the excellent movie theatre -- the Tivoli -- where I probably saw "E.T." and "Star Wars" along with Denise.

Actually, there were times in my past when I would have used language to describe the town of my birth that closely resembles that used by Charlie Sheen. I suppose a lot of us hate the places that we come from at some point.

But since then -- not least since I've moved fairly far away from there -- I've come to have a different and rather fonder memory of the place, and it's always a pleasure to return.

I mean, we can't all be born, like Mr. Sheen, in New York, a city which is certainly close to my own family's origins.

But there's nothing in that origin, I think, that automatically protects one from being a complete asshole.

Though that's just an opinion.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The contemporary condition #3

Nick Cohen, at the Spectator:

For all the videos of beheadings Islamic State shamelessly posts on the Web, Islamists may one day say that they are American/Zionist forgeries, if that lie is tactically useful. In the West, meanwhile, there are many who want to hear that their own governments are the “root cause” of the violence. Cage is not some shabby outfit hidden in a London backstreet. Absurdly given their professed principles,the Quaker Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Anita Roddick Foundation have funded it.

Amnesty International meanwhile tore up a hard-won reputation for impartiality, it had taken decades to build, just so it could ally with Cage. My friend and comrade Gita Sahgal, the head of Amnesty International’s gender unit in 2010, warned Amnesty  that allying with a jihadi advocacy group, whose members included supporters of the Taliban, undermined its fight against misogyny.

The rest is also worth reading. 

The contemporary condition #2

In the midst of a lengthy and very worthwhile discussion by Laura Kipnis at the Chronicle of Higher Education on changing campus sexual politics, the topic turns, unsurprisingly, to anxiety

These are anxious times for officialdom, and students, too, are increasingly afflicted with the condition—after all, anxiety is contagious. Around the time the "survivor" email arrived, something happened that I’d never experienced in many decades of teaching, which was that two students—one male, one female—in two classes informed me, separately, that they were unable to watch assigned films because they "triggered" something for them. I was baffled by the congruence until the following week, when the Times ran a story titled "Trauma Warnings Move From the Internet to the Ivory Tower," and the word "trigger" was suddenly all over the news.

I didn’t press the two students on the nature of these triggers. I knew them both pretty well from previous classes, and they’d always seemed well-adjusted enough, so I couldn’t help wondering. One of the films dealt with fascism and bigotry: The triggeree was a minority student, though not the minority targeted in the film. Still, I could see what might be upsetting. In the other case, the connection between the student and the film was obscure: no overlapping identity categories, and though there was some sexual content in the film, it wasn’t particularly explicit. We exchanged emails about whether she should sit out the discussion, too; I proposed that she attend and leave if it got uncomfortable. I was trying to be empathetic, though I was also convinced that I was impeding her education rather than contributing to it.

I teach in a film program. We’re supposed to be instilling critical skills in our students (at least that’s how I see it), even those who aspire to churn out formulaic dreck for Hollywood. Which is how I framed it to my student: If she hoped for a career in the industry, getting more critical distance on material she found upsetting would seem advisable, given the nature of even mainstream media. I had an image of her in a meeting with a bunch of execs, telling them that she couldn’t watch one of the company’s films because it was a trigger for her. She agreed this could be a problem, and sat in on the discussion with no discernable ill effects.

But what do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life? What becomes of students so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life? I can’t help asking, because there’s a distressing little fact about the discomfort of vulnerability, which is that it’s pretty much a daily experience in the world, and every sentient being has to learn how to somehow negotiate the consequences and fallout, or go through life flummoxed at every turn.

The contemporary condition #1

Following up on a topic mentioned before.

At Tablet, James Kirchick has some insights into competitive victimology and online mobbing:
The problem with these little purges, these forced incantations of the latest auto-da-fés, however, is that they never quite end, for the tumbrils always need replenishing. Like all good left-wing revolutionaries, these latter-day cultural warriors are eating their own. There is an unholy synergy existing between the notions of identity politics and the mechanisms of social media, which fused together form a concatenation that is debasing political debate. The mob-like mentality fostered by Twitter, the easy, often anonymous (and, even if a name is attached to the account, de-personalized) insulting, fosters a social pressure that aims to close discussion, not open it. [...]

What makes this current cultural moment so depressing is that both identity politics and the preferred tool of enforcing its precepts—social media—are so easy and widely available to use, and are being used in regressive ways by people who claim to be promoting social justice. What they are actually doing—quite deliberately—is making themselves social despots by driving out everyone who lacks the taste or the ability to shout angry slogans and personal accusations through the social media megaphone. It’s actually difficult to write an essay saying simply that someone is a racist or sexist or homophobe without making easily refutable mistakes—unless they are in fact guilty of that crime. Twitter, however, puts the burden of proof on the defendant, making it very hard to defend oneself against the 8-word tweet that uses a hot-button word to slime whoever becomes the target of the mob’s ire. It’s Salem, with 21st-century technology. And sooner or later, we will all become witches.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Like a chain of grotesque paradoxes": Adolf Löwe on England

Something I ran across in my research just now:

“Thus the England and the Germany of the liberal age represent two extremes of social formation. On the one side a society which has grown up and is daily maintained by the spontaneous conformity of its members—on the other side a social chaos which from time to time produces wonderful flowers of individual development and then relapses into the dullness of the herd, held together by the mechanical forces of the state.”*

This was a comment by Adolf Löwe (later Adolph Lowe), who came to Britain -- or as he consistently refers to it in his book, "England" -- in the mid-1930s from Germany for reasons that I probably don't have to explain.  

In case there should be any misunderstanding, he's praising Britain (sorry, England) in the passage I quoted, which appears in his 1937 book The Price of Liberty. (He became a naturalised British subject in 1939.)

To Löwe, the English capacity for "spontaneous conformity" was a model for facing the need to balance freedom and order in the world of the new mass society.

From a little earlier in his book.  

“When I landed in England three years ago, with my German background everything which happens naturally here at first seemed to me like a chain of grotesque paradoxes. … It was only gradually that I succeeded in finding the common denominator which gives these paradoxes coherence. This forced me to cast about for some of the historical factors which have moulded this peculiar social form. From here a road suddenly opened up to a certain insight into the significance of the English social order for the future. This must even be understood in a double sense: not only of England’s own further development, but especially of her value as an example for a new Western civilisation.”**

* Adolf Löwe, The Price of Liberty: An Essay on Contemporary Britain (3rd edn., London, 1948 [1937]), 26.
**Ibid., 10.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Secularism continued

Excellent article by Nick Cohen in The Guardian to support my previous post. The following sums it up nicely:

Do I need to remind you that insulting the gods, the pope or the synagogue were the charges the faithful levelled against Socrates, Galileo and Spinoza? Or that insulting religion is everywhere the favourite charge of fanatics?

Sadly, what is happening at the moment makes me wonder whether we haven't been overestimating the extent to which the mentality of the West has actually been shaped by spirit of these (and other) thinkers. The whole debate post-Charlie Hebdo has confirmed a nagging hunch of mine, namely that the secularisation of the West has never been as complete and all-encompassing as some of us seem to have believed. Most people have not understood what secularism means or fully embraced the values that this term denotes, or abandoned latent beliefs in the Christian roots of our ways of thinking, morality and sense of justice. How many of my friends and colleagues whom I had thought to be intelligent rationalists have puzzled me with abrupt und unmotivated references to the Sermon on the Mount as the dominant precept of Western Thought (well, the "liberal" Pontifex's recent endorsement of the principle of honour and lex talionis should have vaporised that fallacy) or even described the Ten Commandments as the basis of our justice system.

This means, in turn, that these are not "post-secular times", nor that religion is "returning". At this very moment I'm actually wondering whether we might not still be in a pre-secular stage of history and that this is a crucial moment for us to prove that we want to - and are able to - live in world that is as free as possible from ignorance, prejudice and fanaticism as it can be.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Thank you, Pope Francis: This settles the matter, then, whether Islamist terror is a religious issue. Because - as you have made so perfectly clear with your tasteless intervention - it is (though it has to be emphasised, of course, that all religious orthodoxies have committed heinous crimes).

And while we're at it, Angela Merkel: Papa's candor puts paid to the claim, reiterated ad nauseam all over the place, that "our" values are Christian. No: Our values are the values of secular reason. They are what must be defended.

UPDATE: And here another reason why free speech must be defended at all cost.