How Society Operates

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Will Self

Laurie Taylor: One of the things people say about your books is the difficulty in feeling any empathy or sympathy for the characters… why aren’t your characters lovable?

Will Self: But people aren’t really that lovable. Again an aspect of the modern Kulturkampf is to pretend that everybody’s lovable. That’s a collective delusion. Society doesn’t operate because we love everybody; society operates through sanction, through forms of collective control, through hierarchy, through the imposition of controlled forms of mass hysteria. So the novels that persuade you of the idea that everybody’s intrinsically lovable are pulling off a confidence trick – as are the moral systems that delude people into believing it. You see it time and time again, Laurie, and you know it’s true: people’s capacity for empathy for those who are outside their immediate social matrix is remarkably small. And it doesn’t matter if you validate this through evolutionary psychology or you pull up Stanley Milgram’s experiments at Yale or the genocidal impulse that seems to exist in humanity: these are true facts. The thing is people will hear these arguments and respond, saying, ‘Yes, you’re right, but we’ve got to aim for something better than that.’

But what would that world be like in which you empathized with 7 billion people? What would the world be like if you felt the pain of the 250,000 people who were rubbed out in Haiti a few weeks ago? What a strange place it would be.

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Will Self offering his typically disquieting opinion in an interview with Sociologist Laurie Taylor for the BBC program In Confidence in 2010.

“Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”  – Zadie Smith

Remember the Signs

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C. S. Lewis

“But first, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from the following signs.

And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That it why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”

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Excerpted from The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis.

Winston Churchill: The Simple, Complex Man

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winston-churchill31

“All who were with him then agree that the Old Man had more important matters on his mind than the sensitive feelings of subordinates. In any event, in time they came to adore him. Jock Colville later recalled, ‘Churchill had a natural sympathy for simple people, because he himself took a simple view of what was required; and he hated casuistry. That was no doubt why the man-in-the-street loved him and the intellectuals did not.’ Churchill, for his part, considered those on the left who anointed themselves the arbiters of right and wrong to be arrogant, ‘a fault,’ Colville recalled, Churchill ‘detested in others, particularly in its intellectual form.’ For that reason, Churchill ‘had dislike and contempt, of a kind which transcended politics, of the intellectual wing of the Labour party,’ which in turn despised Churchill. In 1940 the intellectualism of the left was inimical to Churchill and to Britain’s cause, which was simplicity itself: defeat Hitler.

Churchill cared little for obtuse political or social theories; he was a man of action: state the problem, find a solution, and solve the problem. For a man of action, however, he was exceptionally thoughtful and well read. When serving as a young subaltern in India, he amassed a private library that included Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Plato’s Republic, Schopenhauer on pessimism, Malthus on population, and Darwin’s Origin of Species. Reading, for Churchill, was a form of action. After a lifetime of reading — from the sea-adventuring Hornblower novels to the complete Shakespeare and Macaulay — he possessed the acumen to reduce complex intellectual systems and constructs and theories to their most basic essences. He once brought a wartime dinner conversation on socialism to an abrupt end by recommending that those present read Maurice Maeterlinck’s entomological study, The Life of the White Ant. ‘Socialism,’ Churchill declared, ‘would make our society comparable to that of the white ant.’ Case closed. Almost a decade later, when the Labour Party, then in power, nationalized British industries one by one, and when paper, meat, gasoline, and even wood for furniture were still rationed, Churchill commented: ‘The Socialist dream is no longer Utopia but Queuetopia.'”

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Excerpted from The Last Lion: Winston Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid.

More of the Old Man:

Winston Churchill

John Updike: Is It Selfish to Want an Afterlife?

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John Updike 2

“Do I really want it, this self, these scattered fingerprints on the air, to persist forever, to outlast the atomic universe?

Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only a mass of biological evidence knitting the self-conscious mind tight to the perishing body but a certain moral superiority as well: isn’t it terribly, well, selfish, and grotesquely egocentric, to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun, from eager blind infancy through the productive and procreative years into a senescence that, by the laws of biological instinct as well as by the premeditated precepts of stoic virtue, will submit to eternal sleep gratefully? Where, indeed, in the vast spaces disclosed by modern astronomy, would our disembodied spirit go, and, once there, what would it do?

In fact we do not try to picture the afterlife, nor is it our selves in our nervous tics and optical flecks that we wish to perpetuate; it is the self as window on the world that we can’t bear to think of shutting. My mind when I was a boy of ten or eleven sent up its silent screams at the thought of future aeons – at the thought of the cosmic party going on without me.

The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience. Though some believers may think of the afterlife as a place of retribution, where lives of poverty, distress, and illness will be compensated for, and where renunciations will be rewarded – where the last shall be first, in other words, and those that hunger and thirst shall be filled – the basic desire, as Unamuno says in his Tragic Sense of Life, is not for some otherworld but for this world, for life more or less as we know it to go on forever: ‘The immortality that we crave is a phenomenal immortality – it is the continuation of this present life.'”

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John Updike, writing in the best book I’ve read this year, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs.

To truly get the entire heft of his argument, it’s essential that you read all of this chapter, which closes Self-Consciousness on a note of such extra perception, depth, and clarity that you wish John Updike had lived a dozen lives to write memoirs about. These paragraphs, which deserve an attentive reread, tie into the remarks from King below. At bottom, both men emphasize a shift in perspective; the truly unselfish desire to live on is like the desire to help another – each requires that fundamental shift in perspective, from thinking first about “I” to thinking about “thou”.

Publicity photo of author John Updike

Martin Luther King: What Does the Story of the Good Samaritan Teach Us?

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MLK

“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now his questions could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled his questions from mid-air, and placed them on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him.

And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy.

Martin Luther King Jr. At Home With His FamilyJesus ended up saying that this was the good man because he had the capacity to project the ‘I’ into the ‘thou,’ and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jericho to organize a ‘Jericho Road Improvement Association’. That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.

But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me: it’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road.

I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing… In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around.

And so the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’

That’s the question before you tonight.”

Martin Luther King Jr. and His Wife

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Martin Luther King, preaching his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon on April 4th, 1968, the night before he was murdered.

The parable of the “Good Samaritan” is mentioned in only one gospel, Luke’s, the sole book of the Bible written by a Gentile.

Keep moving:

Martin Amis on Terror, Iraq, and His Father

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Jon Snow: Look at the war on Iraq – do you not think that would stir an urge in the Arab world when they see women and children ravaged by what we Westerners are doing?

Martin Amis: I’ve said in print that by far the greatest danger of terrorism is not what it inflicts, but what it provokes; and the Iraq war has been a disaster. I was against it at the time, and I’m against it now. Blowing up a London nightclub on lady’s night [as an uncovered terrorist plot had planned] doesn’t seem to me to be a proportionate act in response to that.

The other night, I asked an audience to put up its hands if it felt morally superior to the Taliban. To the Taliban – who have two-day massacres, slash the throats of children, not only subtract women from society, but black up the windows of the houses they’re confined to. And only a third of the audience raised its hands.

Jon Snow: But do you feel morally superior to Islam?

Martin Amis: I feel morally superior to Islamism, yes. By some distance.

Jeremy Paxman: Islam itself?

Martin Amis: Well, I feel an intellectual distance from it.

Jon Snow: What do you say to the charge that you are your father’s son?

Martin Amis: Well, he’s now being lazily and cornily defamed by his critics when he’s not around to defend himself. You have an argument with your father all your life – and he’s been dead for twelve years, and I’m still having that argument.

I was on most things to the left of him. But critics are accusing him of impulses he never had – he was never homophobic; he had a difficult time in his relations with women, but was not misogynistic; was not, in any sense, anti-semitic, except in the odd impulse. And why do we not admit to these odd impulses?

Do we cleanse ourselves? Do we pretend that we’re homogenous and pure and clean? Do we want to live with that kind of illusion?

The anti-semites, the psychotic misogynists and homophobics are the Islamists.

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Martin Amis in an interview with Jon Snow in 2007.

Martin Amis and Isabel Fonseca

H. L. Mencken on Capitalism

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H. L. Mencken

“What we confront is not the failure of capitalism, but simply the failure of democracy.

Capitalism has really been responsible for all the progress of the modern age. Better than any other system ever devised, it provides leisure for large numbers of superior men, and so fosters the arts and sciences. No other system ever heard of is so beneficial to invention. Its fundamental desire for gain may be far from glorious per se, but it at least furthers improvement in all the departments of life. We owe to it every innovation that makes life secure and comfortable.

Unfortunately, like any other human institution (for example, Holy Church), capitalism tends to run amuck when it is not restrained, and democracy provides inadequate means of keeping it in order. There is never any surety that democracy will throw up leaders competent to discern the true dangers of capitalism and able to remedy them in a prudent and rational manner. Thus we have vacillated between letting it run wild and trying to ruin it. Both courses are hazardous and ineffective, and it is hard to say which is more so.”

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Entry #310 in H. L. Mencken’s notebooks (collected and printed as Minority Report).

Read on:

The Question of Nostalgia

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Julian Barnes

“I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began…

Back then, things were plainer: less money, no electronic devices, little fashion tyranny, no girlfriends. There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty which was to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job, and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of our parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own earlier lives, which had been simpler, and therefore superior. None of this, of course, was ever stated.

In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives – and time itself – would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible. […]

But I’ve ben turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time — love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions — and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives — then I plead guilty… And if we’re talking about strong feelings that will never come again, I suppose it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain as well as remembered pleasure.”

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Julian Barnes, writing in his Booker Prize winning novella The Sense of an Ending.

Go on:

Julian Barnes and Kavanaugh

The Hero Sleeps

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Roman Bust

‘You’re a hard man, Odysseus, stronger
Than other men, and you never wear out,
A real-iron man.’ […]

Then Odysseus
Stood up and placed a two-handled cup
In Arete’s hands, and his words rose on wings:

“Be well, my queen, all of your days, until age
And death come to you, as they come to all.
I am leaving now. But you, Lady — enjoy this house,
Your children, your people, and Lord Alcinous.”

And godlike Odysseus stepped over the threshold.
Alcinous sent a herald along
To guide him to the shore and the swift ship there,
And Arete sent serving women with him,
One carrying a cloak and laundered shirt,
And another to bring the strong sea-chest.
A third brought alone bread and red wine.
They came down to the sea, and the ship’s crew
Stowed all these things away in the hold,
The food and drink, too. Then they spread out
A rug and a linen sheet on the stern deck
For Odysseus to sleep upon undisturbed.
He climbed on board and lay down in silence
While they took their places upon the benches
And untied the cable from the anchor stone.
As soon as they dipped their oars in the sea,
A deep sleep fell on his eyelids, a sleep
Sound, and sweet, and very much like death.

And as four yoked stallions spring all together
Beneath the lash, leaping high,
And then eat up the dusty road on the plain,

So lifted the keel of that ship, and in her wake
An indigo wave hissed and roiled
As she ran straight ahead. Not even a falcon,
Lord of the skies, could have matched her pace,
So light her course as she cut through the waves,
Bearing a man with a mind like god’s,
A man who had suffered deep in his heart,
Enduring men’s wars and the bitter sea —
But now he slept, his sorrows forgotten.

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Odysseus’s departure from the island of Scheria in books 12 and 13 of Homer’s Odyssey (Lombardo translation).

Read on:

“A Fable” by Louise Glück

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Louise Glück

Two women with
the same claim
came to the feet of
the wise king. Two women,
but only one baby.
The king knew
someone was lying.
What he said was
Let the child be
cut in half; that way
no one will go
empty-handed. He
drew his sword.
Then, of the two
women, one
renounced her share:
this was
the sign, the lesson.
Suppose
you saw your mother
torn between two daughters:
what could you do
to save her but be
willing to destroy
yourself— she would know
who was the rightful child,
the one who couldn’t bear
to divide the mother.

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“A Fable” by Louise Glück.

‘We Are the People Who Sanctify Life': Jonathan Sacks on Israel

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“Let me tell you, friends, what Israel is.

Elaine and I have just come back… We saw the Laniado Hospital in the Netanya, a place I always visit because it moves me beyond words. Many of you know the Laniado Hospital was built by an Auschwitz survivor who during the Holocaust lost his wife and all 11 children. And there in the camps of death made an oath that if he should ever survive he would dedicate the rest of his life to saving life.

Israel is the sustained defiance of hatred and power in the name of life because we are the people who sanctify life.

Israel has been surrounded by enemies and yet it has shown that even so you can still be a democracy, still have a free press, still have an independent judiciary. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where a Palestinian can stand up on national television and criticize the government and the next day still be a free human being.

Israel is an inspiration to the world… On one of my visits to Hong Kong, I went to see Mr. Tung Chee Hwa, the Beijing appointment as head of Hong Kong. And I tell you this man, this Chinese appointment, is a lover of Jews and Judaism and Israel. He said to me, ‘You know, your people and my people are very old people. You’ve been around 6,000 years; we’ve been around 5,000 years. Tell me, I always wanted to know, what did you do for the first thousand years before you had Chinese takeaway?’ [Laughter.]

I said, ‘Mr. Tung, you want to know what we did for the first thousand years? We complained about the food.’ [Laughter.]

Jonathan Sacks

And Mr. Tung said to me, I want to go and visit Israel because I see that as the model of development for us. And he did go two or three months later and came back absolutely inspired. And I went straight to the Israeli ambassador in London and said, ‘Look how the world has changed. There was a time when Israel dreamed about being the Hong Kong of the Middle East; today Hong Kong dreams of being the Israel of the Far East.’

Think about the Jewish people. How probable is it that one man, Abraham, who commanded no empire, ordered no army, performed no miracle, delivered no prophecy, should today be perhaps the most influential man who ever lived, who’s claimed as the spiritual ancestor by 2.4 billion Christians and most of you in the room today? [Laughter]

How probable is it that this tiny people, the Jewish people, numbering less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the population of the world, should have outlived the world’s greatest empires — the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans — every empire that ever stood up to destroy us? They are being consigned to history, and still we stand and sing Am Yisrael Chai.

How likely is it that after 2,000 years of exile our people should have come back to our land — having stood in Auschwitz a mere three years earlier, eyeball to eyeball with the Angel of Death — and therein say lo amut kiechyeh: I will not die but I will live? Israel is the greatest collective affirmation of life in the whole of modern history.

Friends, the Jews represent the defeat of probability by the power of possibility. And nowhere will you see the power of possibility more than in the state of Israel today. Israel has taken a barren land and made it bloom again. Israel has taken an ancient language, the language of the Bible, and make it speak again. Israel has taken the West’s oldest faith and made it young again. Israel has taken a shattered nation and made it live again.”

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking at the 2013 AIPAC Policy Conference.

To get the full effect, listen to Sacks give the talk in his impeccable voice.

Chief Rabbi

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