Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Friday, August 24, 2018

Bell on religion

On page 155, Bell cites Emile Durkheim, who apparently viewed religion as dividing the world not into men and gods but sacred and profane.  Seen in that light, the religiosity of a society is measured not by supernatural belief but by extremes of moral convictions.  I think our modern politically correct era is a very religious one.  However, it's a religion that cannot identify itself as one, so we lack the language and customs to respect it, critique it, constrain it, and channel it.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Latest book: Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell

I'm reading The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell.  Seventy pages in (out of 339) the book very much has the feel of a polemic, but I'm getting interesting bit of cultural history mixed in.  The question he's tackling is how a very capitalist society that was shaped by Puritan frugality and discipline has spawned such licentiousness while still remaining so capitalist.  What corporations pander to in their customers is so different from what they need from their employees, but the two have to co-exist.

The book really got interesting for me on page 61.  After describing the disciplined cultural legacy of the Puritans, he starts chronicling the backlash.  Apparently writers as early as 1915 were demanding a re-examination of our cultural roots, a re-envisioning of America as a place for not just the descendants of Puritans but also immigrants, African Americans, and urban life.  What's ironic is that the cultural and political descendants of the Puritans were foremost among the crusaders against slavery.  A less racist America is very much an America that embraces the multi-faceted legacy of the Puritans, examining their shortcomings and working to do better, but also holding on to their most positive contributions.

Bell quotes writers who saw the Puritans only as sexually repressed people.  First, sexual repression was hardly a trait unique to Puritans.  In that regard they were unremarkable among the many strains in the Western European culture that they came from.  Their values of learning, work, discipline, frugality, and egalitarianism are what made them remarkable.  Nonetheless, too many people to this day only remember them for that.

I will grant that some American ancestral strains were more open about sexuality, particularly the Scots-Irish (for whom "out-of-wedlock birth" was arguably redundant) and the Cavaliers who founded the Virginia aristocracy (and probably believed in Droit du seigneur).  However, they weren't so much liberated as bad at hiding hypocrisy.  The Scots-Irish might not have been terribly disciplined about sex but they were fervent about religion, and proclaimed themselves quite devout adherents of the most conservative strains of Christianity. And while powerful men in every society have always seen themselves as entitled to women, the Southern elites took it to particularly nasty places.  That doesn't mean that everyone else was forgiven similar indiscretions.  They were open about sex but not necessarily free about sex.

But, anyway, Bell makes the case that a century ago people sought a new Bohemia and they did so not by looking South (for then they'd have to see what comes of lack of restraint) but rather by pissing on the legacy of the Puritans.  Rejecting an idea is so much easier than arguing for its opposite, because if you start to examine its opposite you might find all sorts of unfortunate examples and precedents.  But the idea itself probably has tons of easily-identified downsides.  So, much better to argue against Puritan morals than to argue for the actually-existing cultures that rejected them.  It's the licentious version of "Oh, we just haven't seen Real Communism yet!"

Interestingly, these Bohemians of the early 20th century liked to call everything that they did "New."  "New Poetry", "New Democracy", etc.  This feels very much like the restlessness of the present. They'd probably love pedagogy workshops.  "Oh, we don't assign homework.  That's so old-fashioned!  No, we assign Take-Home Assessments!  They're totally different!"

I'm now at the part where he blames transportation and mass media for freeing us from constraints.  If you live in a world where a trip of even five miles is a big deal, you will spend most of your time in a tight network of people.  If a trip of twenty miles is no big deal, you can have more ties but also looser ties, and more activity can take place out of sight of your closest ties (such as they are).  And the movies, TV, and radio can all advertise and create material lust in your heart.

Let's see where this goes.