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Writing Worth Reading

Destination Denmark

Francis Fukuyama seeks “an overall pattern in history that, while leaving room for human choice, normally eventuates in democratic government”. But his model assumes far too readily the universal appeal of bourgeois virtues such as prosperity and fairness. Other forces drive society, including “national myths, identities and enmities”. These forces can take precedence over democracy, and, indeed, anything else (1,350 words)

Private Island

Review of James Meek’s Private Island, “an unputdownable book that will leave you with a lasting sense of unease”, about the privatisation of public services in Britain. Meek concentrates on the shortcomings of neoliberalism; but politically, it has triumphed. “As long as they own their homes, no matter how heavily mortgaged, most people in Britain don’t seem too bothered about who owns the country” (1,300 words)

Emperor Augustus Makes For Thrilling Fiction

John Williams’s novel, Augustus, gives us “the emperor’s life as he wished others to see it”. Augustus is neither hero nor villain, but a man trying to make the best of a difficult situation. “Resolute action does not require the hope that human society can be improved permanently. A semblance of civilised order is worth striving for, even though sooner or later it will be succeeded by chaos and barbarism” (1,970 words)

The Lost World Of Stefan Zweig

Renewed enthusiasm for Zweig’s writing, stirred in part by Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, is carrying his reputation to greater heights than it reached in his lifetime. He was complacent about Nazism until it was too late, while easily panicked by smaller dangers. Contemporaries found something “contorted and unresolved” in his character. But we can empathise now with his circumstances and his sensibility (2,530 words)

Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book

A new collection of academic essays on “Quotations From Chairman Mao” is full of interesting detail, but sadly lacking in broader perspective. “Reading the essays brought together here, you would hardly realise that Mao was responsible for one of the biggest human catastrophes in recorded history. Launched by him in 1958, the Great Leap Forward cost upwards of 45 million human lives” (2,140 words)

We Dream Of Utopia

Review of The Book of Legendary Lands, by Umberto Eco, an “enchanting” book about places celebrated in myths or created in fictions, from El Dorado to Uqbar. “Eco’s theme is the slippage from fiction to illusion in the human mind”. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 19C fantasy novel The Coming Race told of super-humans descended from survivors of Atlantis; by the mid-20C some Nazis believed this as fact (1,800 words)

The Notebooks Of Leopardi

Review of the first full English translation of Zibaldone, a journal kept by 19C Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. “With its publication, Leopardi will be ranked among the supreme interrogators of the modern condition. The notebook has something in common with Pascal’s Pensées and Kierkegaard’s diaries but the voice – refined, detached and betraying a reticent intellectual passion – is Leopardi’s alone” (1,800 words)

Review: ‘Edmund Burke’, By Jesse Norman

Nominally a review of Norman’s biography of Burke, but largely given over to a stinging critique of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatism. “By insisting that economic progress must come before anything else, she turned social institutions into more or less efficient means of achieving whatever is presently desired. Institutions ceased to be places in which people could find meaning and became mere tools” (1,948 words)

The Real Karl Marx

Review of Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A 19th Century Life, which seeks to judge Marx as a 19C thinker, rather than by his 20C influence. “The positions Marx adopted were rarely dictated by any preexisting theoretical commitments regarding capitalism or communism. More often, they reflected his attitudes toward the ruling European powers and their conflicts, and the intrigues and rivalries in which he was involved as a political activist” (3,603 words)

Review: The Locust And The Bee

Capitalism is good economic model. It is not a social model. “Ethics and politics are made up of conflicts rather than soluble problems and no increase in smartness will deliver us from difficult choices. In order to make these choices, we need ideas about the good life that go beyond anything that can be expressed in the language of economics” (1,889 words)

Review: The Locust And The Bee

Capitalism is good economic model. It is not a social model. “Ethics and politics are made up of conflicts rather than soluble problems and no increase in smartness will deliver us from difficult choices. In order to make these choices, we need ideas about the good life that go beyond anything that can be expressed in the language of economics”

Communism, Fascism And Liberals Now

Comparing communism and fascism. Both espoused mass killing, ostensibly as a means of social engineering. If we think the better of communism, that is because we are still more prone to believe the lies that Soviet communism told about itself. A hard read, but how could it be otherwise?

Are Tyrants Good For Art?

Thriving culture doesn’t need modern Western levels of democracy and personal liberty, but it does need some freedom to breathe. Ancient China and tsarist Russia produced great art. Maoist China and Soviet Russia stifled it

A Time When Violence Is Normal

Assessing nature of violence, through the lens of Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Hobbes. Is the visionary novelist more realistic than the rational philosopher? “Civilisation is natural for human beings, but so is barbarism”

The Rebirth Of Tragedy

“The Wire” as contemporary Greek tragedy. Writer David Simon created “doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality”. They are crushed not by gods, but by institutions indifferent to their fate

Knowns And Unknowns

Review of Jonathan Haidt’s “Righteous Mind”. Haidt is right to say that there is no universal morality, only values shared by given groups of people. He is wrong to see utilitarianism as the best morality for law and government

Religion For Atheists

Short review of de Botton book. Atheists have no reason to be hostile to religion. “It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless”

Making The Future By Noam Chomsky

Chomsky’s latest essay collection fails to impress Gray, who argues the American is out of touch with the reality of US political influence. “Like the neocons, he belongs in an Americo-centric world that has already passed away”

The Endless Obsession With What Might Be

In Europe, we think of political, economic stability as the norm. But it’s not the norm, it’s the exception. So what will it mean to live through a period of discontinuity? Interesting essay that even avoids a dispiriting conclusion

Delusions Of Peace

Philosopher rejects Steven Pinker’s argument that humans are learning to live peacefully. It relies on selective evidence, and even then: “All the trends that supposedly lie behind the Long Peace are contingent and reversible”

The Revolution Of Capitalism

“Marx was wrong about communism. But he was prophetically right about capitalism.” He understood not just capitalism’s endemic instability, but more profoundly how it destroys its own social base – the middle class way of life

The Most Human Human

Complimentary review of book by Brian Chistian defending humans’ sense of self. Counters claims that, as machines develop in complexity, computers are shrinking the range of activities that can be claimed to be exclusively human

Humanity’s Quest For Immortality

Victorian sages embraced spiritualism. Bolsheviks embalmed Lenin. Ray Kurzweil forecasts that humans will merge with machines. Why can’t even scientists accept the limits of science? As Darwin taught us, we all die

What Rawls Hath Wrought

Review-essay, arguing that modern human-rights doctrine is utopian. It ignores political realities. It assumes universality of Western values. But people want different things. Some may not even want freedom

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