The Economist at 175 A manifesto

Success has turned liberals into a complacent elite. It is time to rekindle the spirit of radicalism

[Most of my own ideas, most of the things I want to say are already posted out there somewhere on the Internet. At the moment it makes a lot more sense to me to post on my blog a few of the op ed pieces that have said what I want to say but better. There are a number of publications that do this every day, (the Times, the Post) or every week (the Economist) or every month (Foreign Affairs) to mention just a few. My blog at best would direct you to these and others. PBW]

(From the Economist, September 15, 2018.)

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Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it. Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling, to solve the problems of ordinary people. Elsewhere a 25-year shift towards freedom and open markets has gone into reverse, even as China, soon to be the world’s largest economy, shows that dictatorships can thrive.

For The Economist this is profoundly worrying. We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism—not the leftish “progressivism” of American university campuses or the rightish “ultraliberalism” conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.

Our founders would be astonished at how life today compares with the poverty and the misery of the 1840s. Global life expectancy in the past 175 years has risen from a little under 30 years to over 70. The share of people living below the threshold of extreme poverty has fallen from about 80% to 8% and the absolute number has halved, even as the total living above it has increased from about 100m to over 6.5bn. And literacy rates are up more than fivefold, to over 80%. Civil rights and the rule of law are incomparably more robust than they were only a few decades ago. In many countries individuals are now free to choose how to live—and with whom.

This is not all the work of liberals, obviously. But as fascism, communism and autarky failed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, liberal societies have prospered. In one flavour or another, liberal democracy came to dominate the West and from there it started to spread around the world.

Laurels, but no rest

Yet political philosophies cannot live by their past glories: they must also promise a better future. And here liberal democracy faces a looming challenge. Western voters have started to doubt that the system works for them or that it is fair. In polling last year just 36% of Germans, 24% of Canadians and 9% of the French thought that the next generation would be better off than their parents. Only a third of Americans under 35 say that it is vital they live in a democracy; the share who would welcome military government grew from 7% in 1995 to 18% last year. Globally, according to Freedom House, an NGO, civil liberties and political rights have declined for the past 12 years—in 2017, 71 countries lost ground while only 35 made gains.

Against this current, The Economist still believes in the power of the liberal idea. Over the past six months, we have celebrated our 175th anniversary with online articles, debates, podcasts and films that explore how to respond to liberalism’s critics. In this issue we publish an essay that is a manifesto for a liberal revival—a liberalism for the people.

Our essay sets out how the state can work harder for the citizen by recasting taxation, welfare, education and immigration. The economy must be cut free from the growing power of corporate monopolies and the planning restrictions that shut people out of the most prosperous cities. And we urge the West to shore up the liberal world order through enhanced military power and reinvigorated alliances.

All these policies are designed to deal with liberalism’s central problem. In its moment of triumph after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it lost sight of its own essential values. It is with them that the liberal revival must begin.

Liberalism emerged in the late 18th century as a response to the turmoil stirred up by independence in America, revolution in France and the transformation of industry and commerce. Revolutionaries insist that, to build a better world, you first have to smash the one in front of you. By contrast, conservatives are suspicious of all revolutionary pretensions to universal truth. They seek to preserve what is best in society by managing change, usually under a ruling class or an authoritarian leader who “knows best”.

An engine of change

True liberals contend that societies can change gradually for the better and from the bottom up. They differ from revolutionaries because they reject the idea that individuals should be coerced into accepting someone else’s beliefs. They differ from conservatives because they assert that aristocracy and hierarchy, indeed all concentrations of power, tend to become sources of oppression.

Liberalism thus began as a restless, agitating world view. Yet over the past few decades liberals have become too comfortable with power. As a result, they have lost their hunger for reform. The ruling liberal elite tell themselves that they preside over a healthy meritocracy and that they have earned their privileges. The reality is not so clear-cut.

At its best, the competitive spirit of meritocracy has created extraordinary prosperity and a wealth of new ideas. In the name of efficiency and economic freedom, governments have opened up markets to competition. Race, gender and sexuality have never been less of a barrier to advancement. Globalisation has lifted hundreds of millions of people in emerging markets out of poverty.

Yet ruling liberals have often sheltered themselves from the gales of creative destruction. Cushy professions such as law are protected by fatuous regulations. University professors enjoy tenure even as they preach the virtues of the open society. Financiers were spared the worst of the financial crisis when their employers were bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Globalisation was meant to create enough gains to help the losers, but too few of them have seen the pay-off.

In all sorts of ways, the liberal meritocracy is closed and self-sustaining. A recent study found that, in 1999-2013, America’s most prestigious universities admitted more students from the top 1% of households by income than from the bottom 50%. In 1980-2015 university fees in America rose 17 times as fast as median incomes. The 50 biggest urban areas contain 7% of the world’s people and produce 40% of its output. But planning restrictions shut many out, especially the young.

Governing liberals have become so wrapped up in preserving the status quo that they have forgotten what radicalism looks like. Remember how, in her campaign to become America’s president, Hillary Clinton concealed her lack of big ideas behind a blizzard of small ones. The candidates to become leader of the Labour Party in Britain in 2015 lost to Jeremy Corbyn not because he is a dazzling political talent so much as because they were indistinguishably bland. Liberal technocrats contrive endless clever policy fixes, but they remain conspicuously aloof from the people they are supposed to be helping. This creates two classes: the doers and the done-to, the thinkers and the thought-for, the policymakers and the policytakers.

The foundations of liberty

Liberals have forgotten that their founding idea is civic respect for all. Our centenary editorial, written in 1943 as the war against fascism raged, set this out in two complementary principles. The first is freedom: that it is “not only just and wise but also profitable…to let people do what they want.” The second is the common interest: that “human society…can be an association for the welfare of all.”

Today’s liberal meritocracy sits uncomfortably with that inclusive definition of freedom. The ruling class live in a bubble. They go to the same colleges, marry each other, live in the same streets and work in the same offices. Remote from power, most people are expected to be content with growing material prosperity instead. Yet, amid stagnating productivity and the fiscal austerity that followed the financial crisis of 2008, even this promise has often been broken.

That is one reason loyalty to mainstream parties is corroding. Britain’s Conservatives, perhaps the most successful party in history, now raise more money from the wills of dead people than they do from the gifts of the living. In the first election in unified Germany, in 1990, the traditional parties won over 80% of the vote; the latest poll gives them just 45%, compared with a total of 41.5% for the far right, the far left and the Greens.

Instead people are retreating into group identities defined by race, religion or sexuality. As a result, that second principle, the common interest, has fragmented. Identity politics is a valid response to discrimination but, as identities multiply, the politics of each group collides with the politics of all the rest. Instead of generating useful compromises, debate becomes an exercise in tribal outrage. Leaders on the right, in particular, exploit the insecurity engendered by immigration as a way of whipping up support. And they use smug left-wing arguments about political correctness to feed their voters’ sense of being looked down on. The result is polarisation. Sometimes that leads to paralysis, sometimes to the tyranny of the majority. At worst it emboldens far-right authoritarians.

Liberals are losing the argument in geopolitics, too. Liberalism spread in the 19th and 20th centuries against the backdrop first of British naval hegemony and, later, the economic and military rise of the United States. Today, by contrast, the retreat of liberal democracy is taking place as Russia plays the saboteur and China asserts its growing global power. Yet rather than defend the system of alliances and liberal institutions it created after the second world war, America has been neglecting it—and even, under President Donald Trump, attacking it.

This impulse to pull back is based on a misconception. As the historian Robert Kagan points out, America did not switch from interwar isolationism to post-war engagement in order to contain the Soviet Union, as is often assumed. Instead, having seen how the chaos of the 1920s and 1930s bred fascism and Bolshevism, its post-war statesmen concluded that a leaderless world was a threat. In the words of Dean Acheson, a secretary of state, America could no longer sit “in the parlour with a loaded shotgun, waiting”.

It follows that the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not suddenly make America safe. If liberal ideas do not underpin the world, geopolitics risks becoming the balance-of-power, sphere-of-influence struggle that European statesmen grappled with in the 19th century. That culminated in the muddy battlefields of Flanders. Even if today’s peace holds, liberalism will suffer as growing fears of foreign foes drive people into the arms of strongmen and populists.

It is the moment for a liberal reinvention. Liberals need to spend less time dismissing their critics as fools and bigots and more fixing what is wrong. The true spirit of liberalism is not self-preserving, but radical and disruptive. The Economist was founded to campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws, which charged duties on imports of grain into Victorian Britain. Today that sounds comically small-bore. But in the 1840s, 60% of the income of factory workers went on food, a third of that on bread. We were created to take the part of the poor against the corn-cultivating gentry. Today, in that same vision, liberals need to side with a struggling precariat against the patricians.

They must rediscover their belief in individual dignity and self-reliance—by curbing their own privileges. They must stop sneering at nationalism, but claim it for themselves and fill it with their own brand of inclusive civic pride. Rather than lodging power in centralised ministries and unaccountable technocracies, they should devolve it to regions and municipalities. Instead of treating geopolitics as a zero-sum struggle between the great powers, America must draw on the self-reinforcing triad of its military might, its values and its allies.

The best liberals have always been pragmatic and adaptable. Before the first world war Theodore Roosevelt took on the robber barons who ran America’s great monopolies. Although many early liberals feared mob rule, they embraced democracy. After the Depression in the 1930s they acknowledged that government has a limited role in managing the economy. Partly in order to see off fascism and communism after the second world war, liberals designed the welfare state.

Liberals should approach today’s challenges with equal vigour. If they prevail, it will be because their ideas are unmatched for their ability to spread freedom and prosperity. Liberals should embrace criticism and welcome debate as a source of the new thinking that will rekindle their movement. They should be bold and impatient for reform. Young people, especially, have a world to claim.

When The Economist was founded 175 years ago our first editor, James Wilson, promised “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” We renew our pledge to that contest. And we ask liberals everywhere to join us.

Rejecting Puerto Rican Death Toll, Trump Falsely Accuses Democrats of Inflating It, “¡Amo a Puerto Rico!”.

President Trump on Thursday falsely accused Democrats of inflating the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year, rejecting that government’s assessment that the storm had claimed nearly 3,000 lives.

By Eileen Sullivan, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Nicholas Fando, The New York Times
Sept. 13, 2018

President Trump during his visit in Puerto Rico last year.

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Washington — El presidente estadounidense Donald Trump acusó, en falso, a los demócratas de aumentar el número de muertos por el huracán María en Puerto Rico, pese a un estudio de su gobierno que estima que tres mil personas fallecieron por la devastación y sus secuelas.

Trump declaró, de manera imprecisa, que solo entre seis y dieciocho personas murieron “después” de que la tormenta tocó tierra en la isla, y que los demócratas inflaron la cifra al incluir “a personas que murieron por cualquier razón, como vejez” con el presunto fin de hacerlo quedar “tan mal como fuera posible”.

En Twitter escribió: “No murieron 3000 personas en los dos huracanes que golpearon Puerto Rico. Cuando yo dejé la isla, DESPUÉS de la tormenta, había entre 6 y 18 muertes. Conforme pasó el tiempo ese saldo no aumentó. Y luego, mucho después, empezaron a reportar números muy altos”.


Después agregó en otro tuit: “Esto fue hecho por los demócratas para hacerme quedar tan mal como fuera posible cuando estaba exitosamente recaudando miles de millones de dólares para ayudar a reconstruir Puerto Rico”. Y cerró con un: “¡Amo a Puerto Rico!”.

La hermosa y compleja Bogotá: guía para viajeros primerizos
Durante casi un año, la cifra oficial de muertes rondaba las 64 personas, a pesar de la abundante evidencia de que el número era extremadamente bajo porque muchos certificados de defunción no tomaron en cuenta los efectos de la tormenta, como la falta de acceso a cuidado médico. En agosto, la cifra se revisó y recalculó a 2975 fallecimientos después de que estudios académicos y otro comisionado por el gobierno puertorriqueño mostraban que la cantidad era muchísimo mayor.

Las declaraciones de Trump en Twitter se dan unos días después de que afirmó que la respuesta poshuracán de las autoridades estadounidenses fue “increíblemente exitosa” y “una de las mejores”. De nuevo tildó a la alcaldesa de San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, de “incompetente”; ella ha criticado su respuesta al huracán.

La reacción del gobierno al María ha sido criticada como inadecuada; la Agencia Federal para el Manejo de Emergencias (FEMA) tuvo varios problemas para enviar alimentos y para restaurar la red eléctrica en la isla. Apenas en agosto todos los puertorriqueños recuperaron el acceso a la luz.

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WASHINGTON — The presidential playbook during times of disaster is pretty well established by now: Consult with emergency officials (and be seen doing so). Express concern for those affected (on camera). Assure the public that the government is ready for whatever comes (whether it is or not).

But once again, President Trump has rewritten the playbook as Hurricane Florence blows through the Carolinas. While delivering forceful messages of warning and reassurance, Mr. Trump has also been busy awarding himself good grades for past hurricanes and even accusing opponents of inventing a death toll “to make me look as bad as possible.”

At a time when even Mr. Trump acknowledged that the focus should be on millions of Americans in the path of the storm, the always-about-me president could not restrain himself for long. Angry at criticism of his response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year, he denied on Thursday that nearly 3,000 people had died, falsely calling it a made-up number by Democrats out to get him.

His defiant rejection of the widely accepted count infuriated the island’s leadership and even some Republican leaders in Congress. But it was hardly the first time Mr. Trump has dismissed consensus facts that do not fit his narrative. Mr. Trump’s version of his presidency is one of unmatched, best-in-history victory after victory, never mind what history may say. What the people of Puerto Rico considered a calamity, he saw as an “incredible unsung success.”

“He pushes back against the data on deaths, not because he’s upset by the loss of nearly 3,000 lives but because he’s terrified of responsibility, failure and blame,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “Were someone else president, Trump would be the first to tweet an attack on an administration that struggled the way his did after Maria. Now he imagines that others will attack him, so he’s acting first.”

Ever since the storm, Mr. Trump has pushed back against criticism that his administration was slow to respond to Puerto Rico, where the distribution of supplies, gas and food lagged and power outages lasted for months, particularly compared with a swift and efficient response to an earlier hurricane that hit Texas. It was six days after Hurricane Maria hit the island before Mr. Trump pledged to go there, even as he traveled to Texas four days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. Full power was restored to homes only in August, nearly a year after the storm.

Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican ally of Mr. Trump’s who was praised for his own leadership during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, said that Puerto Rico was an “extraordinary challenge” in part because the island’s infrastructure was in poor shape to begin with and that Mr. Trump resented being blamed for factors beyond his control.

Few presidents go out of their way to admit mistakes or take responsibility when things go wrong, but Mr. Trump arrived in the White House with a never-apologize rule and a penchant for bending facts to suit his needs. When good economic numbers were released under President Barack Obama, he said they could not be trusted. Now that the same agencies release good economic numbers on his watch, he cites them as proof of his success.

UNTRUTH: Trump calls Puerto Rico response an incredible unsung success

President Trump on Sept. 11 praised his administration’s response to the damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, where the death toll was nearly 3,000.

(by Josh Nawsey, The Washington Post, September 12, 2018)

An estimated 3,000 people died after the devastating Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico last year. Large swaths of the island were without power for months. FEMA was short thousands of workers and underestimated how much food and supplies were needed in the recovery, according to a federal government report.

But in the eyes of President Trump, the government’s response was a raging success — and one he touted this week as a monstrous hurricane pinwheeled toward the Carolinas.

“We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan),” he wrote Wednesday on Twitter.

It’s a frequent tactic of the president — elevate a widely perceived failure or mistake and defend it as a great triumph while attacking his critics. His detractors say it is shameless and sometimes comical gaslighting; supporters say he is just a master marketer who uses hyperbole and always shows strength.

“You just never give an inch or admit any mistake in public,” said Sam Nunberg, a former aide describing Trump’s mind-set.

Inside the administration, firing James B. Comey as FBI director in May 2017 is widely perceived as an original sin that spun a cascade of other problems for the White House — including the creation of a special counsel’s investigation that has tormented the president and includes an obstruction-of-justice inquiry. He was repeatedly counseled against the firing by top aides such as former chief of staff Reince Priebus, White House counsel Donald McGahn and former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who have since faced hours of questioning over Trump’s actions as part of the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe.

Puerto Ricans agree: Trump’s response to Maria was a failure

In the town of Yabucoa, residents say their government let them down and their struggle continues one year on.

But rather than show any signs of regret, the president has instead championed Comey’s firing, both publicly and privately, as a smart decision.

“I did a great service to the people in firing him!” Trump tweeted this summer.

Trump faced withering criticism, even from supporters, for standing on a podium in Helsinki in July and cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin while seeming to question U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election and entertaining the idea of letting Russian law enforcement officials question American citizens.

But to hear Trump tell it these days, it was one of his finest hours.

“One of my best meetings ever was with Vladimir Putin,” he said earlier this month, before attacking the “fakers,” or his short-term for the “fake news media.”

This week, he has repeatedly brought up Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” — continuously calling attention to a portrayal of his White House as incompetent and veering toward a breakdown. Trump says the book is a “scam” and that his White House is a “smooth running machine.”

Aides say that Trump’s tendency to focus on and defend his perceived failures is fueled by a mix of potent factors. He obsesses over negative news coverage sometimes long after the topic has changed. He often marvels that he can make the cable news chyrons change. And he is constantly selling himself — regardless of who is in front of him and no matter the topic.

Sometimes, he is trying to preempt criticism that he knows is likely to revive itself, like before this week’s hurricane. And he tells senior aides that his supporters will believe his version of events.

It leads to awkward encounters and surreal situations for those around him. His comments this week on the administration’s handling of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico following last year’s hurricane quickly morphed from a defense of how a difficult situation was handled to a declaration that it couldn’t have gone better.

It was “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday.

It was a statement that drew immediate condemnations and questions about how Trump could characterize the recovery effort as such a success especially on the heels of a study that estimated there were nearly 3,000 excess deaths in Puerto Rico due to the hurricane.

“You know there are no A-pluses in disaster recovery. That letter doesn’t exist,” said Marc Ferzan, who led recovery in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy and is now a consultant.

Trump also broods over perceived mistakes, even if he won’t admit they are missteps. He has repeatedly brought up to aides his decision to endorse Roy Moore in the Senate race in Alabama last year. Moore lost after The Washington Post reported on allegations that he pursued and sexually assaulted teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

“The president asks me all the time, ‘Why did Roy Moore lose?’” Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, recently said at a New York fundraiser.

He has also complained that aides publicly admitted mistakes earlier this year over their handling of allegations that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter was emotionally and physically abusive toward his two ex-wives. “You should have never apologized,” he told a group of communications aides, according to two people. “You don’t ever apologize.”

Trump observers and critics said that the president’s refusal to admit mistakes and to go a step further and declare them smart moves has long been part of how he operates.

“One of his great strengths is that he lives in his own reality distortion field — there is this narrative going on all the time in his head about how successful he is, how great he is — one of the things that allows him to plow ahead after he makes mistakes,” said Timothy O’Brien, a longtime Trump biographer.

Edwin Stanton Was Part of the ‘Resistance’—in 1860

If President Buchanan’s experience is a precedent, Trump’s internal critic may privately flatter him.

By Adam Rowe
the Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2018

Donald Trump isn’t the first president to be undermined by a senior official who claims to be saving the Republic from the chief executive he formally serves. The role of secret internal resister within the White House was first pioneered by Attorney General Edwin Stanton, perhaps the most relentless schemer in American political history. Stanton’s strange career is also an object lesson on the folly of trusting those claiming to play a role that, after all, requires a talent for deception.

Stanton joined the cabinet of lame-duck President James Buchanan on Dec. 20, 1860, the same day South Carolina seceded from the Union. Buchanan, a Democrat who was both loyal to the Union and personally friendly with many of those bent on destroying it, didn’t know what to do about the crisis in which he found himself. Mostly he blamed the Republicans and pitied himself, while many of his most trusted advisers did everything they could to weaken the government before resigning to serve the Confederacy.

Before joining the cabinet, Stanton’s most noteworthy achievement had been successfully defending Buchanan’s friend Rep. Daniel Sickles of New York, on murder charges. Sickles had fatally shot his wife’s lover, who also happened to be U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, in the middle of the day, steps from the White House. Stanton argued that Sickles was morally and legally justified in killing his wife’s seducer because—well, wouldn’t you? That was enough for the jury. Sickles was carried out of the courthouse like a hero, and Stanton earned Buchanan’s gratitude.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1863.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1863. PHOTO: BUYENLARGE/GETTY IMAGES
Immediately after taking office as attorney general, Stanton offered himself to several prominent Republicans as a spy within the administration. He mortified them with tales of imbecility and treason. One of them, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, recalled that it was “strikingly providential” that Buchanan had brought “that strong, rugged, downright, patriotic man” into his cabinet at such a fateful hour. In secret midnight meetings, Stanton told Wilson of his heroic efforts to save the republic from its treacherous chief executive.

“The President—poor, weak old man—trembled and grew pale,” Wilson quoted Stanton as saying. But for himself, Stanton claimed, the nation would have been dismembered by traitors before Lincoln and the Republicans took power. It’s a dramatic story, but alas, Stanton was lying—to the Republicans, to Buchanan, to everyone.

“I believe him to be a perfectly honest man,” poor, bewildered Buchanan later wrote, privately, of Stanton. “He was always on my side, and flattered me ad nauseam.” Stanton’s letters to Buchanan bear out this characterization. He praised Buchanan’s policy unequivocally and contrasted it with the “imbecility” of his successor. “The first month of [Lincoln’s] administration,” Stanton wrote to Buchanan on April 3, 1861, “seems to have furnished an ample vindication of your policy.”

The most charitable interpretation of Stanton’s career is that he was as sincere in his loyalty to the Union as he was treacherous in his loyalty to individuals. But that doesn’t explain why he continued to write Buchanan fawning letters even after Lincoln had arrived in the White House. In sending Buchanan a scathing indictment of Lincoln’s administration after the Union defeat at Bull Run, Stanton observed it was only a matter of time “until Jeff Davis turns out the whole concern. The capture of Washington seems now inevitable.” Whatever happened, Stanton planned to be on the winning side.

Stanton possessed an almost incredible ability to convince everyone—abolitionists, secessionists and many in between—that he was their faithful ally. “It is hard to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, but Stanton seems to have mastered the difficulty,” his predecessor as attorney general, Jeremiah Black, later marveled. “If he kept up this fraudulent deceit for 30 years, and thereby got the highest places in the gift of both parties, he was the most marvelous imposter who ever lived or died.”

Stanton soon became secretary of war under his new Republican friends, despite condemning them unsparingly to his old Democratic friends. And it is one more measure of Lincoln’s greatness that even this dishonest opportunist served him loyally and well. But Lincoln’s bumbling successor, Andrew Johnson, brought the conniver back out. Stanton praised Johnson warmly to his face and condemned him unsparingly to his enemies.

When the 1867 Tenure of Office Act came up in the cabinet, “Mr. Stanton was more earnest and emphatic in the expression of his objections than any member of the Cabinet,” Orville Hickman Browning noted in his diary. A second cabinet member’s diary corroborates the observation. The Tenure of Office Act was a trap radical Republicans passed to build a case for impeachment, and it revolved around Stanton. It stipulated that the president couldn’t remove certain officeholders without Senate approval.

When Johnson asked Stanton to write the message vetoing the bill, Stanton demurred on grounds of poor health. For good reason, Johnson wanted Stanton’s “emphatic” views in writing, and for equally good reason, Stanton did not. Stanton later cited the act in defying the president’s authority to remove him from office. The resulting quarrel between the president and his subordinate was the direct cause of the first presidential impeachment in American history.

History’s recurring rhythms are never exact repetitions. But if Stanton’s example is any guide, President Trump’s harshest anonymous critic may also be his warmest admirer.

Mr. Rowe is a teaching fellow in the social sciences at the University of Chicago.


Trump’s Huge Mistake on Refugees

His administration is considering another extreme reduction in the number of refugees allowed into the United States.

By Ariana A. Berengaut and Antony J. Blinken,

The New York Times, September 11, 2018

(Ms. Berengaut and Mr. Blinken worked at the State Department in the Obama administration.)

A demonstrator last year in New York protesting President Trump’s policies on refugees. His administration is now weighing another cut in the number of refugees allowed into the United States.CreditCreditDrew Angerer/Getty Images

When President Bashar al-Assad’s forces swept into the southwestern Syrian region of Dara’a this summer, American diplomats scrambled to save the lives of a few hundred besieged civil defense workers known as the White Helmets.

The White Helmets, who were carpenters, bakers, doctors and engineers before the war, have shown extraordinary bravery pulling civilians from the rubble of Mr. Assad’s barrel bombs and documenting his depravities. They became prime targets of the regime and its Russian backers.

Rescuing the rescuers hinged on securing written promises from Western countries to resettle them. American diplomats looked everywhere but at their own country: The Trump administration had all but shut the doors of the United States to refugees.

It may be about to get worse. Mr. Trump is considering another extreme cut in the number of refugees legally allowed into the United States. Already, his administration lowered the cap for 2018 by more than half, to 45,000 — the smallest number in the four-decade history of our modern refugee program. The administration also took actions that make it more difficult to secure a slot: It imposed a temporary refugee ban, put in place draconian, ill-defined vetting procedures and placed immigration hard-liners like Stephen Miller in charge.

The administration also buried a government study establishing the economic value of accepting refugees and falsely claimed they threaten our security.

The result has been a huge drop in the number of refugees actually admitted into the United States. We are on pace to bring in just 21,000 this year, compared with 85,000 in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

Simply put, Mr. Trump is strangling the refugee admissions program to death.

Destroying our bipartisan tradition of refugee resettlement goes against the American value of extending a lifeline to the world’s most vulnerable. And it’s economic malpractice: Refugees return more in taxes than they receive in benefits, revitalize towns whose best days seemed behind them and enrich the United States with new energy, ideas and businesses.

The refugee program is also an important tool of American foreign policy and has enhanced our global standing and security. We evacuated Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon, took in Soviet Jews in the 1980s, airlifted Kosovars fleeing genocide in the 1990s, admitted thousands of Sudanese “Lost Boys” orphaned by war in this century. In each instance, we sent an important signal to the world — and so goaded governments into action, undermined the legitimacy of authoritarian leaders and defended religious freedom.

The United States long resettled more refugees a year than every other country combined. That gave us global leverage. American leadership helped increase the number of countries formally admitting refugees to a record 37 in 2016, from 14 in 2005. That same year, the Obama administration rallied other nations to double admissions worldwide.

The Trump administration’s abdication of responsibility has contributed to a 48 percent drop in global resettlement from 2016 to 2017. Data from the United Nations Refugee Agency forecasts an even steeper decline this year. As Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, put it, if the American share of refugee resettlement diminishes, “my humanitarian negotiating power diminishes as well.”

Last year, Mr. Trump tried to justify a retreat on refugees by suggesting that American assistance alone is sufficient. But the administration also sought to slash humanitarian aid by 44 percent in its first budget and by 32 percent in its second.

In August, the administration canceled $230 million for Syrian stabilization and all funding for the United Nations agency that assists Palestinian refugees. Diplomacy, resettlement and assistance work together — cutting off one bleeds the effectiveness of the others.

The refugee program also helps us keep faith with key partners, making it more likely they will step up when we need them. In Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers, diplomats and aid workers rely on local translators and guides who put their lives on the line to serve by our side. The Trump administration is making a mockery of a special admissions program the Congress established to fast-track their resettlement. So far this fiscal year, between October and August, we have admitted just 48 Iraqi partners, compared with 5,100 in 2016 and 3,000 in 2017.

Some countries of first refuge — like Jordan, Turkey and Kenya — have been counterterrorism partners and hosts to the United States military. These and other countries offering temporary havens are under growing domestic pressure to send back refugees, which risks setting off new humanitarian crises and further destabilizing countries where terrorists find sanctuary.

When we worked at the State Department, we met two young Muslim brothers from Afghanistan who had fled the Taliban. We listened to their story in the California offices of Catholic Charities. They had been resettled by Jewish Family and Community Services, and first found shelter at the San Damiano Friary, a Franciscan retreat.

That was America at its best: a reflection of the generosity and common humanity that defines us and casts a light into the most forlorn corners of the world.

If Mr. Trump effectively shuts down the refugee program, he will be plunging the world — and Americans with it — into greater darkness.

Ariana A. Berengaut, director of programs at the Penn Biden Center, served at the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department from 2011 to 2017. Antony J. Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, is a managing director at the Penn Biden Center, a co-founder of WestExec Advisors and a contributing opinion writer.

Antony J. Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, is a managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy, a co-founder of WestExec Advisors and a contributing opinion writer.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

John McCain at 81 years is dead. And what a life he led, although in important respects it didn’t work out, as he would have liked.

For one, for almost from the time he left the US Naval Academy in 1958 he tied himself irredeemably to unnecessary and subsequently failed wars, wars that may have been well fought but were terribly wrongly conceived.

For two, the heroism of his father’s war, that he so longed to be a part of, had no place in Hanoi where he was imprisoned for five long years. Nor, and for three, was there any real greatness to be had in the wars against the peoples of the Middle East, wars that McCain continued to wage if only as a U S Senator. And finally and for last  there were the  presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2008, won by George Bush and Barack Obama, who would one after the other eulogize the Senator in Washington’s National Cathedral on September 1, the two campaigns both ending in failure. McCain remained in the Senate, a frustrated and conflicted man, until his death on August 25 of this year.

McCain wasn’t the country’s hero that he would have liked to have been. But he was a good man, and in some respects a great man (“let them go before me”) and throughout his life, especially remarkable in the age of Trump, he was honest and given to straight talking.

I want to have something good to remember him by. And I found a lot, of this, a lot of good things to remember him by, in a brief, but excellent “vita” of McCain written by George Blaustein  for N+1 magazine. What follows here  are the first couple of pages from Blaustein’s Vita,  My Fellow Prisoners.

My Fellow Prisoners

On John McCain

THERE IS a right way to swear, a right way to spit, a right way to roll a cigarette on the deck of an aircraft carrier, a right way to drink wine on the retreat from the Battle of Caporetto, a right way to get gored by a bull, a right way to dismantle a welfare program, a right way to blow up a bridge, a right way to taunt your captors, a right way to catch a bonefish, a right way to lead, a right way to serve, and finally there is a right way to die.

The right way is the heroic way and the manly way, which happens also to be the moral or ethical way, which happens in turn to be the picturesque way. You will sometimes fail to follow the right way, in which case there is a right way to grimace and a right way to atone.

“MOST CURRENT FICTION bores the shit out of me,” said John McCain in 2007, surprising no one. He always gravitated to the lost generation, Ernest Hemingway above all. If we are to believe McCain’s account, when he was 12 (this would be 1948) he found two four-leaf clovers in the yard and ran inside to preserve them in the pages of a book. From his father’s shelves he happened to grab For Whom the Bell TollsFor Whom the Bell Tolls, and his eyes lighted upon this:

“What are you going to do with us?” one asked him.

“Shoot thee,” said Pablo.

“When?” the man asked in the same gray voice.

“Now,” said Pablo.

“Where?” asked the man.

“Here,” said Pablo. “Here. Now. Here and now. Have you anything to say?”

“Nada,” said the civil. “Nothing but it is an ugly thing.”

This is the scene in which Pablo, leader of a band of Republican guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War, kills four policemen and has the town’s fascists flailed to death.

The mature McCain who relates this anecdote admires Hemingway’s “austere glare at the savagery that war can coax from even good-natured people,” and notes that the scene “should disabuse the most immature reader of any romantic notions about the nature of organized bloodletting.” There is a wrong way to kill fascists. But young McCain was beguiled: Hemingway’s account of the Spanish Civil War “gave flight to a boy’s romantic notions of courage and love, of idealistic men and women ennobled by their selflessness and the misuse and betrayal they suffered for it.”

The protagonist, Robert Jordan, is an American professor of Spanish who has come to blow up a bridge for the Republican side. He falls in love with a girl named Maria. Despite Pablo’s treachery and the mission’s increasing risk and his own doubt that blowing up the bridge will really accomplish anything, he does his duty. Old McCain recounts his younger self’s breathless page-turning:

Hemingway, the rascal, allows the reader a brief moment of hope with a quick feint toward a happy ending as the hero nearly escapes his fate and rides to a better life with his new love. . . . I, still smug because I had penetrated the story’s early mysteries, fell for it and cheered silently.

But instead of a happy ending we get a picturesque death, which, young McCain realizes, is an even happier ending. Jordan is injured by an explosion, orders to safety the Spaniards he has come to love, drags himself to a tree, and waits there with a gun. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for, and I hate to leave it very much,” he thinks as he dies. That line gave McCain the title for his second memoir—Worth the Fighting For—in which he fondly recounts this romantical reading. “How great it made me feel as I closed the book and charged on with my young life,” old McCain remembers, “aspiring to Jordan’s courage and nobility and certain I would possess it someday.”

It must be nice to have a favorite book, and to have it remain your favorite book your whole life. McCain reread For Whom the Bell Tolls many times, but the first impression of a 12-year-old looking for models of greatness and manly exertion—“how and why to be brave, how a real hero lives and dies”—remained the truest impression. No older, wiser reading could supplant it. To read Hemingway and fall for it, to enjoy falling for it, to think it is your destiny to fall for it—maybe this is how Great Men read books: like boys.


Wasn’t there something said one time about loving your neighbor as yourself?

In the scale of American blunders — from the Dred Scott decision of 1857F36CADD4-0AA8-4F18-A5B7-A4F52D1D6E7D

to the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s, to the tragedy of Vietnam — is the Trump presidency really unique?

(Bret Stephens, August 30, 2018)

Stephens is asking, have we done worse things? We’ll sure, but I would say that these single unfortunate and destructive acts of the past are not appropriate actions against which to measure the Trump presidency.

What Trump is doing to America, to all of us, and so far without effective opposition, is undermining the shared humanity that always has and still does account for our very greatest achievements, be they cultural, artistic, scientific, or intellectual. Without our cherishing our neighbors as belonging no less than ourselves to one and the same human family our lives are subject to constant warfare, of tribes endlessly warring among themselves. the Middle East being not the only example but the most pronounced of what may happen when our shared humanity is no longer felt.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.   Leviticus 19-17

Hume modelled a way of life that was gentle, reasonable, amiable: all the things public life now so rarely is.

Do you know Aeon, “We are committed to big ideas, serious enquiry and a humane world view.” Aeon is a digital magazine whose articles published on the web would “ask the big questions and find the freshest, most original answers in short and long essay and video format provided by leading thinkers on science, philosophy, society and the arts.”

I didn’t know Aeon at all until stumbling upon it just the other day. Talk about worlds apart, the redaction room say at Aeon, where real thinking and truth seeking are happening and the Oval Office where Trump and friends pretend to be thinking, pretend to be taking our country back to its past greatness while continuing to shred into sorry bits and pieces any real greatness that may have survived their terrible depredations up until the present moment.

Well it was one of these articles, in short essay form, that I stumbled upon, Hume the Humane, by Julian Baggini. Hume the Humane because Hume believed we are nothing more or less than human, and that’s why he’s the amiable, modest, generous philosopher we sorely need right now. (Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is A Short History of Truth, 2017).

Philip Waring


Socrates died by drinking hemlock, condemned to death by the people of Athens. Albert Camus met his end in a car that wrapped itself around a tree at high speed. Nietzsche collapsed into insanity after weeping over a beaten horse. Posterity loves a tragic end, which is one reason why the cult of David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher the West has ever produced, never took off.

While Hume was lying aged 65 on his deathbed at the end of a happy, successful and (for the times) long life, he told his doctor: ‘I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.’ Three days before he died, on 25 August 1776, probably of abdominal cancer, his doctor could still report that he was ‘quite free from anxiety, impatience, or low spirits, and passes his time very well with the assistance of amusing books’.

When the end came, Dr Black reported that Hume ‘continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness … He died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.’

In his own lifetime Hume’s reputation was mainly as a historian. His career as a philosopher started rather inauspiciously. His first precocious attempt at setting out his comprehensive new system of philosophy, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), published when he was 26, ‘fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots’, as he later recalled, with self-deprecating exaggeration.

Over time, however, his standing has grown to the highest level. A few years ago, thousands of academic philosophers were asked which non-living philosopher they most identified with. Hume came a clear first, ahead of Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein. Scientists, who often have little time for philosophy, often make an exception for Hume. Even the biologist Lewis Wolpert, who says philosophers are ‘very clever but have nothing useful to say whatsoever’ makes an exception for Hume, admitting that at one stage he ‘fell in love’ with him.

Yet the great Scot remains something of a philosopher’s philosopher. There have been no successful popular books on him, as there have been for the likes of Montaigne, Nietzsche, Socrates, Wittgenstein and the Stoics. Their quotes, not his, adorn mugs and tea towels, their faces gaze down from posters. Hume hasn’t ‘crossed over’ from academic preeminence to public acclaim.

The reasons why this is so are precisely the reasons why it ought not to be. Hume’s strengths as a person and a thinker mean that he does not have the kind of ‘brand’ that sells intellectuals. In short, he is not a tragic, romantic figure; his ideas do not distil into an easy-to-summarise ‘philosophy of life’; and his distaste for fanaticism of any kind made him too sensible and moderate to inspire zealotry in his admirers.

Hume had at least two opportunities to become a tragic hero and avoid the cheerful end he eventually met. When he was 19, he succumbed to what was known as ‘the disease of the learned’, a melancholy that we would today call depression. However, after around nine months, he realised that this was not the inevitable fate of the wise but the result of devoting too much time to his studies.

Hume realised that to remain in good health and spirits, it was necessary not only to study, but to exercise and to seek the company of friends. As soon as he started to do this he regained his cheer and kept it pretty much for the rest of his life.

This taught him an important lesson about the nature of the good life. As he later wrote in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748): ‘The mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry.’ Philosophy matters, but it is not all that matters, and although it is a good thing, one can have too much of it. ‘Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit,’ says Hume, ‘and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you.’ The life ‘most suitable to the human race’ is a ‘mixed kind’ in which play, pleasure and diversion matter as well as what are thought of as the ‘higher’ pursuits. ‘Be a philosopher,’ advised Hume, ‘but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.’

In 1770, Hume was also presented with an opportunity for martyrdom, in somewhat bathetic circumstances. The Nor’ Loch in Edinburgh, where Princes Street Gardens now stands, was being drained as part of the expansion of the city. Walking across it one day, Hume fell into the bog that still remained. He cried for help but unfortunately for him, the women who heard him recognised him as ‘the great infidel’ and were not inclined to save him. Hume reasonably pointed out that all Christians should help anyone irrespective of their beliefs, but their understanding of the parable of the Good Samaritan was not as up to scratch as his and they refused to save him unless he became a Christian there and then, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the creed.

A Socrates would perhaps have refused and died in the name of truth. Hume, however, was not going to allow the stupidity of others to cut his own life short, so he did what any sensible person should do: he went along with their request without any intention of keeping his promise.

In this he was following the example of the only other philosopher to rival Hume for all-time greatness: Aristotle. Here is another thinker whose stock among cognoscenti couldn’t be higher, but who has failed to capture the public’s imagination (although Edith Hall’s recent book Aristotle’s Way(2018) is trying to change that). Not coincidentally, I think, Aristotle also refused to play the martyr. Like Socrates, he was condemned to death for impiety. Also like Socrates, he had the opportunity to flee the city to safety. Unlike Socrates, that is exactly what he did. So while everyone knows how Socrates died, few know that Aristotle, like Hume, died in his 60s, probably also of stomach cancer.

It is somewhat perverse that the attractiveness of a philosophy seems to be directly correlated with how miserable its author’s life was. However, that is not the only reason why there are few self-ascribed Humeans outside academe.

Hume’s philosophy does not add up to an easily digestible system, a set of rules for living. Indeed, Hume is best known for three negative theses.

First, our belief in the power of cause and effect, on which all our reasoning about matters of fact rests, is not justified by either observation or by logical deduction. We only ever see one thing following another: we never observe any power that makes one thing necessitate an effect. Even if we could be satisfied that we had established x caused y, logic can’t establish any general principle of causation, since all the regularities we have observed in nature were in the past, but the principle of cause and effect is assumed to apply in the present and future.

1. Logically, you can never arrive at a truth about the future based entirely on premises that concern the past: what has been is not the same as what will be.

Hume did not deny cause and effect were real. We could not reason about any matter of empirical fact without assuming their reality, as his own writings frequently do. However, he was clear that this linchpin of sensible thinking is not itself established by reason or experience. This is philosophically strong stuff but hardly the source of inspirational Instagram quotes.

Hume is also well known for his arguments against various aspects of religion, although he never came out as a fully fledged atheist. Most famously,

2. Hume argued that it would never be rational to accept the claim of a miracle, since the evidence that one had occurred would always be weaker than the evidence that such things never happen.

It would always be more likely that the witness to a miracle was mistaken or lying than that the miracle actually took place. But again, skepticism about the claims of traditional religion does not amount to a substantive, positive philosophy.

Hume’s third notable negative claim does have the benefit of a stirring slogan, albeit one that is somewhat opaque:

3. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.’ Reason by itself gives us no motivation to act, and certainly no principles on which to base our morality.

If we are good it is because we have a basic fellow-feeling that makes us respond with sympathy to the suffering of others and with pleasure at the thought of them thriving. The person who does not see why she should be good is not irrational but heartless.

As these three core claims illustrate, Hume’s philosophy is essentially skeptical, and skepticism seems to take away more than it offers.

However, understood correctly, Humean skepticism can and should be the basis for a complete approach to life. It is built on the skeptical foundations of a brutally honest assessment of human nature, which could be seen as the essence of Hume’s project. It is not accidental that his first attempt to set out his philosophy was called A Treatise of Human Nature. Humanity was his primary subject.

Hume saw human beings as we really are, stripped of all pretension. We are not immortal souls temporarily encaged in flesh, nor the pure immaterial minds Descartes believed he had proved we were. Humans are animals – remarkable, highly intelligent ones – but animals nonetheless. Hume did not just bring human beings down to Earth, he robbed us of any enduring essence. Arguing against Descartes’s claim that we are aware of ourselves as pure, undivided egos, Hume challenged that when he introspected, he found no such thing. What we call the ‘self’ is just a ‘bundle of perceptions’.

Look inside yourself, try to find the ‘I’ that thinks and you’ll only observe this thought, that sensation: an ear worm, an itch, a thought that pops into your head.

Hume was echoing a view that was first articulated by the early Buddhists, whose ‘no-self’ (anattā) view is remarkably similar. He also anticipated the findings of contemporary neuroscience which has found that there is no central controller in the brain, no one place where the sense of self resides. Rather the brain is constantly executing any number of parallel processes. What happens to be most central to consciousness depends on the situation.

As for our intellect, Hume demonstrated how extraordinary it could be by rigorously showing how imperfect it really is. Pure reason, of the kind celebrated by Descartes, was largely impotent. Its demonstrations are restricted to proofs concerning ‘the relation of ideas’, the ways in which concepts are logically related to each other. So you can prove 2 + 2 = 4 but that tells you nothing about what happens when you put four things together in nature, where they could obliterate each other, multiply or merge into one. You can show that a female Pope is a logical contradiction, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility that a woman could lead the Catholic Church: evidence rather than logic tells us that the story of Pope Joan is almost certainly false.

Most of our ‘reasoning’ is little more than an almost-instinctive ‘association of ideas’. Learning from experience is ‘a species of Analogy’ in which we expect similar things to have similar effects. That’s why Hume had no problem attributing reason to animals. They too evidently ‘learn many things from experience, and infer, that the same events will always follow from the same causes’. We do not of course think that this learning involves ‘any process of argument or reasoning’. But then, neither does most of the learning of human beings – even philosophers. We are guided primarily by ‘custom and habit’.

Humean humans are therefore creatures of flesh and blood, of intellect and instinct, of reason and passion. The good life is therefore one which does justice to each of these characteristics. Hume never explicitly articulated what such a life would consist of, but he arguably did even better: he showed it by his own example. He studied and wrote, but he also played billiards and cooked a sheep’s head broth that had guests talking days later.

Everyone who knew Hume, with the exception of the paranoid and narcissistic Jean-Jacques Rousseau, spoke highly of him. When he spent three years in Paris in later life he was know as ‘le bon David’, his company sought out by all the salonistes. Baron d’Holbach described him as ‘a great man, whose friendship, at least, I know to value as it deserves’. Adam Smith, writing to pass on the news of Hume’s death to his publisher, William Strachan, said, ‘I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.’

If he lived such an exemplary life, why is it not more widely lauded as such? One reason is that Hume’s moral philosophy, and with it his conception of good, is not one which is superficially appealing. Other moral philosophies have stirring slogans expressing easy-to-grasp principles. ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,’ wrote Kant. Utilitarians have Bentham’s line: ‘Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove.’ ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’ said Jesus. Hume advocated no simple principle of morality at all, and it isn’t even clear what it means for him to be good.

For Hume, morality is rooted in nothing more than ‘sympathy’: a kind of fellow-feeling for others which is close to what we now call empathy. Moral principles cannot be derived by logical deductions, nor are they eternal, immortal principles that somehow inhere in the Universe. We behave well to others for no other reason than that we see in them the capacity to suffer or to thrive, and we respond accordingly. Someone who does not feel such sympathy is emotionally, not rationally, deficient.

Few have been satisfied with this account of morality. It looks to many like nothing more than the principle that you should be kind if you feel like it and if you don’t, there’s nothing more to be said. However, I think Hume was fundamentally correct and that far from making us pessimistic about the possibility of human goodness, it should make us more optimistic. If morality is rooted in pure reason, what hope can we have that we will understand and agree on what we ought to do, given that not even the finest minds in history have been able to demonstrate what reason demands of us and why? And if morality is rooted in some kind of extra-human transcendental reality, we are condemned to moral disagreement. But if morality is rooted in nothing more than the capacity to recognise the interests of another, it is something we can all respond to.

Hume was a great believer in paying attention to evidence and I think experience supports his model of morality better than the main competitors. The best human beings have not been driven by ideology, moral philosophy, and certainly not logic. They have always been people who have put the response to human need above creed or doctrine. Indeed, the worst crimes have been committed by people convinced of a justifying moral principle.

The physicist Steven Weinberg was wrong to say that ‘for good people to do evil things, that takes religion’: any rigidly held ideology will do.

But I suspect the main reason why Hume is not upheld as a paragon of virtue is because it did not conform to the heroic models of most civilisations. ‘Great men’ (since women have lamentably rarely been granted greatness) have either been powerful leaders or self-sacrificial saints. To be exceptional is to be more god-like than most, whether that is a powerful deity of myth or the God who died on the cross of Christianity. Hume’s kind of exceptionality is the opposite: he was more fully human than most, nothing more, nothing less. The virtues he expressed were not extreme ones of daring or courage but quiet ones of amiability, modesty, generosity of spirit, hospitality. Lest this sound like little, consider how difficult it is to live our lives consistently expressing such virtues.

Celebrating such a life is difficult because it undeniably depends upon privilege. So many struggle even to stay alive, so many live in war zones, that no wonder we prefer to praise those whose self-sacrificial acts help others. But the Humean good life, like that of Aristotle, points to what all that altruism is supposed to lead to. We want to eliminate poverty, disease and war so that people can get on and live flourishing, productive lives, like that of David Hume. In a better world, we would have no need of heroes.

Skepticism is central to this Humean good life. Not the ‘excessive’ Pyrrhonic skepticism that suspends judgment on everything, but a ‘mitigated’ skepticism that corrects our natural dogmatism. Hume was anticipating the findings of contemporary psychology when he observed, ‘The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counter-poising argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; nor have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments.’ Here we find confirmation bias and motivated thinking avant la lettre.

This fundamental moderation is, I think, another reason why Hume has never become a popular philosopher. He is just too damned sensible. Reasonableness and balance are seen as boring, signs of lack of spark or originality. Hume was always suspicious of what he called ‘enthusiasts’ and it is perhaps telling that the meaning of this word now has an unambiguously positive meaning. We would do well to remember that the word derives from the Greek entheos: having a god (theos) within. To be an enthusiast in Hume’s sense is to forget one is human and act as though one were a god, sufficient in reason and knowledge to be entirely confident about what one believes.

Hume knew that this error was all the more likely when we believed we knew God and his intentions. In his essay ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm’ (1741) he described how ‘the mind of man’ is ‘subject to an unaccountable elevation and presumption’. In this state of mind, humanity gets above itself, thinking it has within it the divine. This gives rise to a form of ‘false religion’ in which ‘no sublunary beauties or enjoyments can correspond’ and ‘every thing mortal and perishable vanishes as unworthy of attention’. The best prophylactic against this is to fully embrace our humanity and, with that, humility, accepting our limitations. Secular enthusiasts who elevate human rationality and nobility too highly make the very same mistake, creating a kind of godless religion of humankind which is just as pernicious.

If ever there were a time in recent history to turn to Hume, now is surely it. The enthusiasts are on the rise, in the form of strongman political populists who assert the will of the people as though it were absolute and absolutely infallible. In more settled times, we could perhaps use a Nietzsche to shake us out of our bourgeois complacency, or entertain Platonic dreams of perfect, immortals forms. Now such philosophical excesses are harmful indulgences. Good, uncommon sense is needed more than ever.

We also desperately need the right kind of skepticism to replace the weary, global shrug that allows people to dismiss climate change as a hoax or the judgments of experts as conspiracies. Humean skepticism is an antidote to hubris, not a recipe for inaction or an excuse to defer to prejudice. Hume’s mitigated skepticism rests on the principle that we should proportion our beliefs to the evidence, not doubt the value of any of it. Hume would not be a climate change skeptic but skeptical of our glib assumption that whatever happens, we’ll be okay.

The problem for fans of Hume is how we can be enthusiastic advocates of someone so opposed to enthusiasm. If the case for Hume is to be made in Humean terms, it has to be gently but eloquently argued for. More importantly still, perhaps, it has to be demonstrated. True lovers of the secular, reasonable way of life Hume stood for ought to avoid hysterical condemnations of religion and superstition as well as overly optimistic praise for the power of science and rationality. We should instead be modest in our philosophical pretensions, advocating human sympathy as much, if not more, than human rationality.

Most of all, we should never allow our pursuit of learning and knowledge to get in the way of the softening pleasures of food, drink, company and play. Hume modelled a way of life that was gentle, reasonable, amiable: all the things public life now so rarely is.

Aeon was founded in London by Paul and Brigid Hains. It now has offices in London, Melbourne and New York. They are a not-for-profit, registered charity operated by Aeon Media Group Ltd. Aeon is endorsed as a Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) organisation in Australia and, through its affiliate Aeon America, registered as a 501(c)(3) charity in the US.

Universal Civilization, 2

I promised you an abridged version of my earlier blog, Our Universal Civilization. Well here’s one, written by Naipaul himself for the NY Times, just one week after he gave the Walter B. Wriston lecture in Public Policy, at the Manhattan Institute October 30.

November 5, 1990

Our Universal Civilization


Inever formulated the idea of the universal civilization until 11 years ago, when I traveled for many months in a number of non-Arab Muslim countries — Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan — to try to understand what had driven them to their rage. That Muslim rage was just beginning to be apparent.

I thought I would be traveling among people who would be like the people of my own community, the Trinidad Indian community. A large portion of Indians were Muslims; we both had a similar 19th century imperial or colonial history. But it wasn’t like that.

Despite the history we had in common, I had traveled a different way. Starting with the Hindu background of the instinctive, ritualized life; growing up in the unpromising conditions of colonial Trinidad; I had gone through many stages of knowledge and self-knowledge. I had been granted the ideas of inquiry and the tools of scholarship. I could carry four or five or six different cultural ideas in my head. Now, traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world that I had been growing into on the other side of the world.

Before I began my journey — while the Shah still ruled — there had appeared in the United States a small novel, “Foreigner,” by Nahid Rachlin, a young Iranian woman, that in its subdued, unpolitical way foreshadowed the hysteria that was to come. The central figure is a young Iranian woman who does research work in Boston as a biologist. She is married to an American, and she might seem well adapted.

But when she goes back on a holiday to Teheran, she begins to feel lost. She reflects on her time in the United States. It is not a time of clarity; she sees it now to be a time of emptiness. She has never been in control. We can see that she was not prepared for the movement out of the shut-in Iranian world — where the faith was the complete way, filled everything, left no spare corner of the mind or will or soul — to the other world where it was necessary to be an individual and responsible; where people developed vocations and were stirred by ambition and achievement, and believed in perfectibility.

In her distress, she falls ill. She goes to a hospital. The doctor understands her unhappiness. He tells the young woman that her pain comes from an old ulcer. “What you have,” he says in his melancholy, seductive way, “is a Western disease.” And the research biologist arrives at a decision. She will give up that Boston-imposed life of the intellect and meaningless work; she will stay in Iran and put on the veil.

Immensely satisfying, that renunciation. But it is intellectually flawed: it assumes that there will continue to be people striving out there, in the stressed world, making drugs and medical equipment, to keep the Iranian doctor’s hospital going.

Again and again, on my Islamic journey in 1979, I found a similar unconscious contradiction in people’s attitudes. I remember especially a newspaper editor in Teheran. His paper had been at the heart of the revolution. In the middle of 1979 it was busy, in a state of glory. Seven months later, when I went back to Teheran, it had lost its heart; the once busy main room was empty; all but two of the staff had disappeared. The American Embassy had been seized; a financial crisis had followed; many foreign firms had closed down; advertising had dried up; the newspaper editor could hardly see his way ahead; every issue of the paper lost money; the editor, it might be said, had become as much a hostage as the diplomats.

He also, as I now learned, had two sons of university age. One was studying in the United States; the other had applied for a visa, but then the hostage crisis had occurred. This was news to me — that the United States should have been so important to the sons of one of the spokesmen of the Islamic revolution. I told the editor I was surprised. He said, speaking especially of the son waiting for the visa, “It’s his future.”

Emotional satisfaction on one hand; thought for the future on the other. The editor was as divided as nearly everyone else.

One of Joseph Conrad’s earliest stories of the East Indies, from the 1890’s, was about a local raja or chieftain, a murderous man, a Muslim (though it is never explicitly said), who, in a crisis, having lost his magical counselor, swims out one night to one of the English merchant ships in the harbor to ask the sailors, representatives of the immense power that had come from the other end of the world, for an amulet, a magical charm. The sailors are at a loss; but then someone among them gives the raja a British coin, a sixpence commemorating Queen Victoria’s Jubilee; and the raja is well pleased. Conrad didn’t treat the story as a joke; he loaded it with philosophical implications for both sides, and I feel now that he saw truly.

In the 100 years since that story, the wealth of the world has grown, power has grown, education has spread; the disturbance, the “philosophical shriek” of men at the margin (to use Conrad’s words), has been amplified. The division in the revolutionary editor’s spirit, and the renunciation of the fictional biologist, both contain a tribute — unacknowledged, but all the more profound — to the universal civilization. Simple charms alone cannot be acquired from it; other, difficult things come with it as well: ambition, endeavor, individuality.

The universal civilization has been a long time in the making. It wasn’t always universal; it wasn’t always as attractive as it is today. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain.

In Trinidad I grew up in the last days of that kind of racialism. And that, perhaps, has given me a greater appreciation of the immense changes that have taken place since the end of the war, the extraordinary attempt to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world’s thought.

Because my movement within this civilization has been from Trinidad to England, from the periphery to the center, I may have felt certain of its guiding principles more freshly than people to whom these things were everyday. One such realization — I suppose I have sensed it most of my life, but I have understood it philosophically only during the preparation of this talk — has been the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue.

This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s Hindu parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.

V. S. Naipaul is the author of numerous novels and travel memoirs. This article is adapted from the Walter B. Wriston lecture at the Manhattan Institute, a public policy organization.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité