Americans are forgetting how to accept electoral defeat

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Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) leads a group of people calling for stopping the vote count in Pennsylvania on November 05, 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

It has become a fad recently to find echoes of America’s religious past in its current politics. Well, the last fortnight has reminded me of nothing so much as the event known as “The Great Disappointment.”

On October 22, 1844, a major movement known as the Millerites — after William Miller, a Baptist preacher with a flair for prophecy — expected Jesus Christ to return to earth and usher in the end times. When this did not come to pass, most Millerites grew disillusioned and drifted away. Some, however, remained in the fold.

One subgroup insisted that, actually, Christ did return — but in a changed form. So the expected Age of Sabbath really was underway. Another group decided the timing of the prophecy had been wrong, that the calculations were off. But they continued to anticipate the second coming soon. …


Joe Biden has offered two different foreign policy visions. Can they be reconciled?

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(L) Xi Jinping, (R) Joe Biden (Paul J. Richards/Getty)

Elections always seem to demand that candidates show a slightly different face to different sections of the public. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is no exception. In his case, this dynamic has been most interesting in the realm of foreign policy, where we find two sides to the Biden program.

The first is Biden as avatar of the American worker — the everyman from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who speaks for a middle class beset by stagnating wages and declining opportunity. Biden’s strategy for counteracting this middle-class plight was described by a Foreign Policy essay as “a form of economic nationalism,” a departure from the Democratic Party’s commitment to neoliberalism that will “upend decades of dogma on globalization.” This is the Biden who holds Trump’s feet to the fire for being too soft on China in his trade negotiations, and for allowing federal contractors to offshore jobs. …


Matt Ridley provides a fascinating though lopsided account of how innovation works

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(Getty/Arc)

As the world reels from the chaos of COVID-19, it is banking on the power of innovation. We need a vaccine, and before even that, we need new technologies and practices to help us protect the vulnerable, salvage our pulverized economies, and go on with our lives. If we manage to weather this storm, it will be because our institutions prove capable of converting human ingenuity into practical, scalable fixes.

And yet, even if we did not realize it, this was already the position we found ourselves in prior to the pandemic. From global warming to food and energy security to aging populations, the challenges faced by humanity in the 21st century will require new ways of doing things, and new tools to do them with. …


The latest developments in progressive politics call out for better analysis

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(Alex Pantling/Getty)

In the digital era, political discourse is marked by a rapid circulation of symbols, concepts, and narratives — easily recognized memes with the ability to spread into diverse settings. As a result, the emergence of new political movements can create an impression of startling conformity and coordination, as though they are the product of some deep underlying structure which manifests itself in highly determined ways.

Nothing illustrates this so well as the new progressive politics which has lately been roiling Western democracies, and which is grasped at with vague terms such as “woke,” “social justice,” or “identity politics.”

In the weeks following the eruption of the George Floyd protests in the United States, British police officers were “taking the knee” before baying crowds of demonstrators, and young people in Prague were wearing face masks emblazoned with the phrase “I can’t breathe.” Before long, this wave of unrest had somehow become bound up with J. K. Rowling’s views about gender, the renaming of the Washington Redskins, and the internal politics of The New York Times. …


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This spring, I finally got round to reading Derek Parfit’s famous work, Reasons and Persons. Published in 1984, the book is often cited as a key inspiration for subsequent developments in moral philosophy, notably the field of population ethics and the Effective Altruism movement. (Both of which, incidentally, are closely associated with Oxford University, the institution where Parfit himself worked until his death in 2017). I found Reasons and Persons every bit the masterpiece many have made it out to be — a work not just of rich insight, but also of persuasive humility and charm. …


Why our consciousness keeps being raised without much of anything getting done

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George Washington monument defaced in Chicago, Illinois. (Credit: ABC-7 Chicago)

Protest is a symbolic form of politics. It is about sending messages. It turns public space — both physical and now virtual — into an arena where frustrations not satisfied by the formal political system are expressed with slogans, banners, and bodies.

But protest can only be a force for good if its aims point away from the symbolic and back towards formal politics — and, beyond that, towards material reality.

Yes, filling the streets with demonstrators and the internet with hashtags can be effective in raising awareness of issues. It can be effective in bringing new movements to life. …


Four articles from the first month of the crisis

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Source: Nickolay Romensky via Wikimedia Commons

Coronavirus and the spectre of the closed network

14th March 2020

How will the world be reshaped by coronavirus? Answers to this question have almost become a genre unto themselves. Such speculation — even if it is just speculation — can be valuable, and not just insofar as it helps us to grapple with the particular threat facing us. Moments of unexpected shock like this one, when drastic change suddenly seems possible, can shake us out of our engrained ways of thinking and refocus our attention on the forces at play in our lives.

To be sure, the arrival of a global pandemic has not escaped the immense gravitational force of familiar arguments. Many conservative commentators have taken it as confirmation of long-held suspicions over globalisation: a pathogen bred in unhygienic Chinese animal markets seems an obvious reminder that bad things as well as good can spread through porous borders. There is, moreover, nothing quite like the prospect of collapsing supply chains to stir vague longings for autarchy. “If Britain were ever isolated from the rest of the world,” a columnist in the UK’s Telegraph opines, “It would need healthy farms.” …


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Nikiforos Lytras, “Antigone in front of the dead Polynices” (1865), National Gallery of Athens. via Wikimedia Commons

The play opens with two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, arguing about their duties to family versus those to the state. Their two brothers have just killed each other while leading opposing sides of a civil war in Thebes. Their uncle Creon has now taken charge of the city, and has decreed that one of the brothers, Polynices, is to be denied a funeral: “he must be left unburied, his corpse / carrion for the birds and dogs to tear, / an obscenity for the citizens to behold.”

Ismene chooses obedience to Creon, but Antigone decides to rebel. She casts a symbolic handful of dust over Polynices’ corpse, and when brought before Creon, affirms her action in the name of “the great unwritten, unshakeable traditions” demanding funeral rites for the dead. So begins a confrontation between two headstrong, unflinching protagonists. It will end with Antigone hanging herself in her jail cell, leading to the suicide both of Creon’s son (who was engaged to Antigone), and consequently of his wife. …


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Ugo Mulas, “Lucio Fontana,” 1964. Gelatin silver print on baritated paper on board.

The series of paintings known as Concetto spaziale, by the Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana, is one of those moments in art history whose significance is easily overlooked today. It is difficult to imagine how radical they must have looked during the 1960s: plain white canvases presenting nothing more than one or a few slits where Fontana slashed the surface with a blade. …


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Frontispiece for Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” (1651), which Deneen cites as one of the founding texts of liberalism.

Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed was one of the most widely discussed political books last year. In a crowded field of authors addressing the future of liberalism, Deneen stood out like a lightning-rod for his withering, full-frontal attack on the core principles and assumptions of liberal philosophy. And yet, when I recently went back and read the many reviews of Why Liberalism Failed, I came out feeling slightly dissatisfied. Critics of the book seemed all too able to shrug off its most interesting claims, and to argue in stead on grounds more comfortable to them.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that Deneen’s book is not all that well written. His argument is more often a barrage of polemical statements than a carefully constructed analysis. Still, the objective is clear enough. He is taking aim at the liberal doctrine of individual freedom, which prioritises the individual’s right to do, be, and choose as he or she wishes. This “voluntarist” notion of freedom, Deneen argues, has shown itself to be not just destructive, but in certain respects illusory. On that basis he claims we would be better off embracing the constraints of small-scale community life. …

About

Wessie du Toit

Freelance writer. Main interest = history of ideas. Also art, books, politics. Follow me on twitter @wessiedutoit

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