Stray Thoughts: I.F. Stone, Vietnam, Sam Harris, Chinese Philosophy

Idle musings: Should majorities rule? Are “rationalists” rational? Is it good to be childlike?

This is the first in a weekly column of miscellaneous musings based on things I have read and pondered in the last week. I’d like it to be in the spirit of George Orwell’s “As I Please,” only it will probably be a little more scatterbrained and a lot less profound. I intend to release one every Sunday night, but as nothing ever gets done on time round here, this is unlikely to happen. This one is being published on Wednesday afternoon. 

  • I had never read much of I.F. Stone, even though as a “crusading leftist who ran an independent periodical for which he wrote large quantities of the content himself” he should probably have been someone I paid attention to. When I looked at his books before, I wasn’t very interested, because he mostly produced day-to-day journalism, of the kind that dates itself quickly. But in an effort to figure out how to successfully keep a scrappy leftist periodical alive, I’ve revisited his work, and now I’m engrossed. The entire archive of I.F. Stone’s Weekly is available online to browse through. I realize now why Glenn Greenwald said he could spend hours poring through this material; Stone was a proto-blogger who could go through each day’s news and figure out what it meant rather than just what it said. He shows how you do political analysis well, by sifting through facts and figuring out which ones matter and which ones don’t.
  • A couple of quotes I liked from Stone that seem particularly relevant right now. First, here he is talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and why it’s strange to think of John F. Kennedy as peaceable even though he was willing to take the world to the brink of annihilation: “What if the Russians had refused to back down and remove their missiles from Cuba? What if they had called our bluff and war had begun, and escalated? How would the historians of mankind, if a fragment survived, have regarded the events of October? Would they have thought us justified in blowing most of mankind to smithereens rather than negotiate, or appeal to the UN, or even to leave in Cuba the medium range missiles which were no different after all from those we have long aimed at the Russians from Turkey and England? When a whole people is in a state of mind where it is ready to risk extinction—its own and everybody else’s—as a means of having its own way in an international dispute, the readiness for murder has become a way of life and a world menace. Since this is the kind of bluff that can easily be played once too often, and that [Kennedy’s] successors may feel urged to imitate, it would be well to think it over carefully before canonizing [him] as an apostle of peace.” Once again, with John Bolton whispering in Trump’s ear (he actually sits right next to him—why couldn’t he at least be a few seats further down the table?), we find ourselves in a world where “the readiness for murder has become a way of life.” Who will we go to war with? Syria? North Korea? Iran? Russia? China? What on earth will the “historians of mankind” think when they look at how little effort we made to live peaceably with other humans.
  • Another relevant quote from Stone, this time on Israel. Commenting on the disturbing anti-Arab racism he saw emerging in the new Jewish state, Stone asked: “If Jews, after all their experience of suffering, prove no better once in the majority than the rest of mankind, what hope for a world as torn apart as ours is by tribalism and hate?” Note that Stone isn’t saying “no better than Nazis” or anything like that. No better than “the rest of mankind.” He’s saddened because he expected more from a state that was built in the aftermath of a racist bloodbath. Now, as the IDF cheerfully shoots harmless Palestinians, we can ask the same question. Is this really the best we could have hoped for? I just got a copy of Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel The Old New Land, which laid out an idealistic Zionist vision nearly fifty years before the founding of the Jewish state. Herzl envisioned a paradise in which Jews and Arabs would live together in peace. So much for that. One could almost say that Israel has betrayed Zionism, at least as it was originally conceived, since the Jewish state was supposed to display noble Jewish values rather than the same old authoritarian brutality as every other attempted utopia.
  • When Stone visits Cambodia in the mid-60’s, he is struck by how idyllic Phnomh Penh is compared with the war-torn Saigon he has just left: “In a cyclopus from the hotel into town for dinner, the night was like velvet. There were no planes overhead, no mortar or howitzer shells exploding on the outskirts. On a stroll after dinner, it looked as if everybody was out on the sidewalk after the heat of the day. The shops are open, the movies do a brisk business mostly with Italian-style spectaculars made in Hong Kong. Children play on the sidewalks but they don’t beg as they do in Saigon. No one clutches your sleeve to sell his sister… The huge open air market in the center of town sells everything from flowers to comic books in French and Khmer… I felt much safer walking back to the hotel through the dimly lit residential areas and the dark parks than I would have felt in Washington.” Stone sees in the contrast a demonstration of just what a  tragedy the U.S. invasion of Vietnam has been. Those of us who know what came next, though, can see something else as well. Ten years later, this little paradise would be swallowed up in one of the 20th century’s worst genocides when the Khmer Rouge took power. Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Southeast Asia,” the home of Cambodia’s wonderful 60’s rock and roll scene, would become a ghost town. The rapid transformation from thriving tropical metropolis to death camp gives an important warning about just how illusory progress can be. No matter how peaceful things may seem, things can change overnight.
  • I am particularly interested in this right now since I’ve just written about the Vietnam War for our new issue, and I’m currently reading a 700-page biography of Ho Chi Minh. (Okay, I’m skipping some bits.) Ho is a fascinating figure, a lot more complicated than people often think, if they think about him at all. No matter what one thinks of Leninism (personally I’m against it), he’s a difficult person to completely dislike because of the sincerity with which he was devoted to freeing his people from colonial rule. There is a good argument that we took the wrong side in Vietnam from the beginning. Compare two statements. Here’s Ho Chi Minh in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence from 1945: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.” And here’s General Ky, the South Vietnamese autocrat the U.S. was supporting in 1967: “People ask me who my heroes are. [I] have only one—Hitler… We need four or five Hitlers in Vietnam.” This is where we ended up after rejecting Vietnam’s independence and supporting France in its recolonization of the country.
  • Another bit of Ho Chi Minh trivia: when Ho was a socialist in Paris in his youth, he went under the pseudonym Nguyen O Phap. His fellow leftists rebuked him for it, saying it was too obvious to fool anyone, because it literally means “Nguyen Who Hates The French.”
  • This week I have also been reading a few scraps of Edmund Burke. I have about as much regard for his arguments as Thomas Paine did, but I am trying to become a well-read person and fill gaps in my knowledge, and he’s considered the founder of Conservative Thought so I feel grudgingly obligated to dip into his collected works. Of course, it’s full of the predictable stuff about how a “true natural aristocracy” is “an essential integrant part of any large body rightly constituted,” and “when you separate the common sort of men from their proper chieftains, so as to form them into an adverse army, I no longer know that venerable object called the people in such a disbanded race of deserters and vagabonds.” But even though I totally reject arguments about Natural Aristocrats whenever and wherever they arise (funny how the person making the argument is always included in their category of Natural Aristocrats), Burke does make a useful argument about “majority rule.” He says that we have been conditioned to think of a “majority” as something special, but there’s no actual reason why 51% is some kind of magic number that confers authority on a group to impose its will on others. Majority rule, he says, is “one of the most violent fictions of positive law that has ever been or can be made on the principles of artificial incorporation.” Of course, we know that men like Burke and the American founders talk of the “tyranny of the majority,” they generally mean they want to keep the rabble from claiming the power to overthrow a minority of wealthy property-owners. But I do wonder why majorities are ever considered special. The assumption that if more people prefer a thing, it produces more aggregate satisfaction, is false. So why is 51% ever special? Why does it ever matter that more people voted for a thing, without an inquiry into the effects of that thing on the people that didn’t vote for it? I am sure there are good responses but I like that Burke raises the question.
  • In criticizing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Burke also gives that famous formulation about philosophers who seem to love “the people” but loathe every actual person. As he says, “benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy.” That’s an important caution for any social critic to bear in mind. It relates to the distinction between a moral theory and moral practice; Burke points out that Rousseau expounded a philosophy of morality to apply to everyone else, but admitted he was a bastard to everyone in his life. I don’t see this as an indictment of general theories, but I do see it as a good reminder that it’s not enough to have good politics, you also have to be a good person.
  • One last little passage from Burke: “To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greatest part of mankind; indeed the necessary effects of the ignorance and levity of the vulgar. Such complaints and humors have existed in all times; yet as all times have not been alike, true political sagacity manifests itself in distinguishing that complaint which only characterizes the general infirmity of human nature from those which are symptoms of the particular distemperature of our own air and season.” In other words: everyone always thinks that things are getting worse, that the government sucks, and things would be better if we only did X. They’re not necessarily wrong, but since everyone always thinks it, the task is to figure out the extent to which it’s a true diagnosis of the problems of your time versus just an age-old complaint about human nature. Answering that question is important, because you can’t fix human nature but you can fix artificial problems. Although it’s also possible that everyone was always right to complain and we’ve just always done a very bad job of sorting out our affairs. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “human nature,” and conservatism’s insistence that problems are a result of nature is one of its core ways of convincing people not to try to improve the world. (I am very skeptical about “human nature” arguments.”)
  • Reading the Sam Harris/Ezra Klein debate over race and IQ and Charles Murray, I feel confirmed in my argument that so-called “rationalists” like Harris aren’t actually terribly rational people. The way he and David Brooks and others deal with “social justice” arguments is emotional rather than reasoned: instead of actually trying to talk with and empathize with the “social justice warriors” they caricature, they just accuse everyone else of being irrational and “politically correct” and “ideological” and operating in bad faith. Note that there is almost never an attempt by people like Harris or Jonathan Haidt to actually take seriously and understand the arguments being made by the progressive left, even though the first principles of science are humility, self-doubt, and curiosity. As Klein points out, Harris feels confident opining on the Irrational Social Justice Movement despite almost never talking to a single member of this movement. That’s why I think terms like “scientism” are justified to describe this perspective: I Am Reasonable And Everyone Else Is An Irrational Politically Correct Snowflake is not actually the perspective of a scientist, it’s the perspective of an idealogue.
  • In The Washington Monthly, I have a review of Jonah Goldberg’s new book Suicide of the West (spoiler: I didn’t like it). But the editor has told me not to tell people about the review yet, because they want to start promoting it when the book comes out. So please do not read it yet or mention it to anyone. Instead, consider buying a copy of the Washington Monthly’s print edition!
  • I am considering writing a defense of pacifism, because everyone seems to hate pacifists but I think they are socially useful. Trying to figure out a way to do it that won’t make people just scoff “Pacifism? But what about HITLER?
  • As part of my attempt to become intelligent, I have been reading some bits and pieces from the Chinese philosopher Mencius. There’s a lot of the usual elitist/paternalistic Confucian stuff in there, but here are a few quotes I liked. “After profound study and the most minute discussion, one may, in recapitulation, expound a matter with brevity.” I think this is absolutely true. Whenever I truly understand a thing I am able to explain it very clearly and simply. It’s because I don’t understand much that my writing often ends up being dense and convoluted. “We should speak of the shortcomings of others only when their shortcomings are likely to have disastrous consequences.” Not sure I believe this one, but I like the way it sounds. “The great man is one who never loses his child-like touch.” As a thoroughly childlike person I obviously endorse this. And finally: “Do not do what you should not do, do not wish for what you should not wish—there is nothing more to it than that.” There really isn’t, is there?

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