How should we begin to make amends for raising a generation obsessed with the pursuit of material wealth and indifferent to so much else? Perhaps we might start by reminding ourselves and our children that it wasn’t always thus. Thinking “economistically”, as we have done now for thirty years, is not intrinsic to humans. There was a time when when we ordered our lives differently.
What does ‘privatization’ mean? It removes from the state the capacity and the responsibility for making good the shortcomings in people’s lives; it also removes that same set of responsibilities from the conscience of fellow citizens, who no longer feel a shared burden for common dilemmas. All that remains is the charitable impulse derived from an individual sense of guilt towards other suffering individuals.
Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century
of all our contemporary illusions, the most dangerous is the one that underpins and accounts for all the others. And that is the idea that we live in a time without precedent: that what is happening to us is new and irreversible and that the past has nothing to teach us
It is one thing to dwell amongst inequality and its pathologies; it is quite another to revel in them. There is everywhere a striking propensity to admire great wealth and accord it celebrity status (‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’). We have been here before: back in the 18th century, Adam Smith–the founding father of classical economics–observed the same disposition among his contemporaries: 'The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness.’
For Smith, this uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake was not merely unattractive. It was also a potentially destructive feature of a modern commercial economy, one that might in the course of time undermine the very qualities which capitalism, in his eyes, needed to sustain and nourish: 'The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition… [is]… the great and most universal cause of corruption of our moral sentiments.’
“When we ransack the past for political profit– selecting the bits that can serve our purposes and recruiting history to teach opportunistic moral lessons–we get bad morality and bad history.” - Tony Judt
The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation the cult of privatization and the private sector the growing disparities of rich and poor.
I love trains, and they have always loved me back.
“What does it mean to be loved by a train? Love, it seems to me, is that condition in which one is most contentedly oneself. If this sounds paradoxical, remember Rilke’s admonition: love consists in leaving the loved one space to be themselves while providing the security within which that self may flourish. As a child, I always felt uneasy and a little constrained around people, my family in particular. Solitude was bliss, but not easily obtained. Being always felt stressful—wherever I was there was something to do, someone to please, a duty to be completed, a role inadequately fulfilled: something amiss. Becoming, on the other hand, was relief. I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better. Walking was pleasurable, cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven.
Tony Judt, “In Love With Trains,” The New York Review of Books March 11, 2010.
Last night I re-listened to the “Memory of Europe” episode of Welcome to Night Vale. This is (for those of you who haven’t been swept up in the show’s recent explosion in popularity) a humor podcast, but the conclusion to that episode, about nostalgia and the people we didn’t become, hits me surprisingly hard. I think part of the reason is that it reminds me of this essay. It’s a dizzyingly specific evocation of a lonely childhood in the English trains and depots of the 1950’s, all of it precisely, perfectly, achingly sad.
What a timely read as we enter into the “ Age of Austerity” …
The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.
~ Tony Judt, ILL FARES THE LAND, Introductory Chapter, where he questions the conventional wisdom that dominates the political discourse of today
As much as I appreciate an organization such as Rappler and what it is attempting to achieve, its focus on breaking stories down according to ‘mood meters’ is kind of misguided. It actually also acts as another pointed commentary on public discourse in the Philippines.
This 'crowd-sourcing’ of emotional responses does little to further discussion, it has the unfortunate by-product of reducing discourse to almost unimportant binary considerations. Is everyone happy? Is everyone saaaad? How many are happy? How many are saaaaad? How are we feeling today?
Look, how people feel should be far less important than what they think about an issue, or a story. Yet it is the emotions that our media loves to exploit, it is their baser feelings on which they thrive. Feelings drive clicks, reblogs, comments, views, and subscriptions. Tony Judt, in his book Ill Fares the Land, commented on this global degeneration of public discourse: “Demagogues tell the crowd what to think; when their phrases are echoed back to them, they boldly announce that they are merely relaying popular sentiment…professional politicians now claim to listen to vox populi in the form of instant phone-in votes and popularity polls on everything from immigration policy to pedophilia. Twittering back to their audiences its own fears and prejudices, they are relieved of the burden of leadership or initiative.”
The fact that we can draw a comparison between journalists and crowd-leveraging politicians is not necessarily a good thing (ok, it’s never a good thing). Journalism is as much a socially and culturally important calling as government service. It is an awesome responsibility, this vast trust that is imbued in the words of a journalist, that should not be abused. Nor reduced for purposes of segregation and emotion-mongering.
Again, I like Rappler. I like what they are doing. I like the fact that they are owned by journalists who are attempting to hold themselves to the highest standards of journalistic ethics and integrity. I am just uncomfortable with this focus on the feelings of people. Primarily because the corollary is the attempt to elicit emotional responses as opposed to focusing on the stories themselves. Like Tony Judt, I worry that media is becoming more focused on reflecting the feelings and attitudes of the people as opposed to being leaders in crafting and challenging us to look at the issues of the day in new ways.
We have responsibilities for others, not just across space but across time. We have responsibilities to people who came before us. They left us a world of institutions, ideas or possibilities for which we, in turn, owe them something. One of the things we owe them is not to squander them.
There are a number of traits inherent in Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s worldview that I object to; among them her denouncing of any belief contrary to hers and her proclivity for hate-mongering and insult-laden ranting. The impeachment trial has brought her many faults into sharp-focus, at least for those who look past the inherent entertainment value of her screeds and weigh the value of the content.
If anything Senator Santiago has fully embraced her role as the loose canon of the Senate, and the Impeachment Court; playing and pandering to the less introspective elements of society, obscuring whatever intelligent and incisive commentary she has amid a cascade of blithering, blathering, and bombastic pronouncements. She has, in fact, become a court jester, a sad figure who relies on the volume and cadence of her voice to attract attention, rather than the probity of her opinions. Sad, because she offers a valuable viewpoint to the proceedings and public discourse at large.
One of my favorite 20th century thinkers was Tony Judt, a man who lamented the deplorable levels to which public discourse has fallen in the West. Unfortunately, we in the East (and especially the Philippines) too often adopt the less admirable qualities of Western democratic discourse. We have a discursive problem, one that Judt described as, “Our discursive disability: we simply do not know how to talk about things anymore.” While he was referring to our proclivity to reduce any discussion into economic components, the guiding idea remains the same: We are no longer capable of discussing. Our culture has become one where we are talking on differing levels, with different foundations for opinions, and with conceits that inform the idea that “I am right and everyone else is wrong.” The sense of self-righteous superiority that fills the air can become oppressive. People talk at length, but say little. We are not longer strangers passing in the night, we are strangers shouting to the side, failing to listen, learn, or explore (even respect) alternate world-views.
Judt continued to discuss the breakdown in social imagination: “A closed circle of opinion or ideas into which discontent or opposition is never allowed - or allowed only within circumscribed and stylized limits - loses its capacity to respond energetically or imaginatively to new challenges.” The side-effect of an elected representative of the people haranguing and denouncing any opinion contrary to hers is in fact creating an atmosphere of circuitous thinking, it denies the validity of any contrary opinion. The reducing of public discourse to snide commentary, insults, and ‘cute’ names is a disservice. When a Senator, one of the highest elected officials in the land, contributes on a daily basis to that reduction it is a travesty.
Quite frankly, I care little for the reaction of Attorney Aguirre to Santiago’s rants. He broke court decorum, he essentially kicked mud in the eye of the Senate Impeachment Court. But, between a Senator referring to other elected officials and representatives of the Filipino people as gago (in essence, attacking other members of Congress and deriding the Filipino people whom they serve) she was creating a situation where-by someone was going too react to her 'trolling’ and provocations. Let’s not pretend that there wasn’t good reason for him to act the way he did, there was. And the fact that there has been little blow back on the bully is disheartening. More to the point, the fact that the stance of the Senate has been to refuse to reel her in and attempt to add some decorum to the proceedings gives insight into how the Senate views this exercise. Or even how the Senators view the position that they hold. Between Sotto cracking jokes, Drilon playing the role of lead prosecutor, Joker Arroyo blithering on about half-baked conspiracy theories, and Santiago basically mocking the entire proceedings with her actions we have a very good idea how they view their position and responsibilities. This holds true too for the failures of the prosecution and the tactics deployed by the defense and their client throughout these proceedings. By the way, Judt commented on conspiracy theorists who go off half-cocked with nonsensical storytelling: “Those who assert the system is at fault, or who see mysterious maneuverings behind every political misstep, have little to teach us.”
Eventually someone has to stand up to a bully, and Santiago has always been a bully. She relies on the sanctity of her elected position to bolster her opinions and shield her actions from criticism. Yet, by acting the way she has, she is inevitably (and consistently) debasing the august position that she holds. In no shape or form should it be acceptable for a Senator of the Republic of the Philippines to continually go off half-cocked hurling insults, ridiculing the intelligence and education of Filipinos who hold contrary opinions (as she has the last few days), and treating the position she holds as license to bully and deride.
Miriam Defensor-Santiago is not the cause of our discursive issues in the Philippines. But she is a consequence, one that continues to sow the seeds for reductive and ill-formed discourse in the Philippines. Judt’s book from which I quoted is called Ill Fares the Land. I cannot think of a better description for the state of discourse in the Philippine sphere than that.
The difficulty of sustaining voluntary interest in the business of choosing the people who will rule over you is well attested. And the reason why we need intellectuals, as well as all the good journalists we can find, is to fill the space that grows between the two parts of democracy: the governed and the governors.
Just as an obsession with ‘growth’ has left a moral vacuum at the heart of some modern nations, so the abstract, materialist quality of the idea of Europe is proving insufficient to legitimate its own institutions and retain popular confidence.
… people like Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault were curiously silent. One reason was their near-obsession with Communism. While proclaiming the need to “engage”, to take a stand, two generations of intellectuals avoided any ethical issue that could not advance or, in some cases, retard the Marxist cause.
Vichy was dismissed as the work of a few senile Fascists. No one looked closely at what had happened during the Occupation, perhaps because very few intellectuals of any political stripe could claim to have had a “good” war, as Albert Camus did. No one stood up to cry “J'accuse!” at high functionaries, as Émile Zola did during the Dreyfus affair. When Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida entered the public arena, it usually involved a crisis far away—in Madagascar, Vietnam or Cambodia. Even today, politically engaged writers call for action in Bosnia but intervene only sporadically in debates about the French past.
Almost a decade in the making , this much-anticipated grand history of postwar Europe from one of the world’s most esteemed historians and intellectuals is a singular achievement. Postwar is the first modern history that covers all of Europe, both east and west, drawing on research in six languages to sweep readers through thirty-four nations and sixty years of political and cultural change-all in one integrated, enthralling narrative. Both intellectually ambitious and compelling to read, thrilling in its scope and delightful in its small details, Postwar is a rare joy.
Europe in 1945 was prostrate. Much of the continent was devastated by war, mass slaughter, bombing and chaos. Large areas of Eastern Europe were falling under Soviet control, exchanging one despotism for another. Today, the Soviet Union is no more and the democracies of the European Union reach as far as the borders of Russia itself. Postwar tells the rich and complex story of how we got from there to here. It tells of Europe’s recovery from the devastation; of the decline and fall of Soviet Communism and the rise of the EC and EU; of the end of Europe’s empires; and of Europe’s uneasy and changing relationships with the memory of the war and with the two great powers that bracket it, Russian and America. With clarity and economy, he tells of developments across the continent as a whole, as well as of the contrasting experiences of Eastern and Western Europe. Along the way, we learn of Greece’s Civil War, of Scandinavian social democracy, the stresses of multilingual Belgium, the struggles of Northern Ireland and the Basque country. And this is a history of people as well as of peoples, Churchill and Mitterand, General Franco and General Jaruzelski, Silvio Berlusconi and Joseph Stalin. And Postwar also has cultural and social histories to tell: of French and Czech cinema, of the rise of the fridge and the decline of the public intellectual, of immigration and gastarbeiters, existentialism and punk rock, Monty Python and brutalist architecture. Running right up to the Iraq War and the election of Benedict XVI, Postwar makes sense of Europe’s recent history and identity, of what Europe is and has been, in what can only be described as a masterpiece.