As usual, the early part of January is a recovery from the holidays (enjoyable though they were) and the sobering return of reality. I’m diving back into blogging with some random reading notes. First up is a tour of blogs and journals recommended by Politics & Prosperity. It reminded me to check out Theodore Dalrymple’s delightfully acidulous commentary. In his latest essay, he offers the following insights on “journaling,” or what used to be called “keeping a diary.”
Quite apart from the empirical question of whether it is easier to write in a stream-of-consciousness fashion by longhand than by word processor… there is that of whether the so-called inner critic is a personage who should be kept at bay. Here I am reminded of Truman Capote’s famous (and more than justified) criticism of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road: that it wasn’t writing, it was typing. The only explanation of the enduring popularity of this worthless book is that it appeals to the mass self-absorption that seems to have overtaken the Western world, for Kerouac was capable of traveling thousands of miles without taking the slightest interest in anything around him.
Dalrymple offers frequent diagnostics of the “egotism and self-absorption” of our culture, as it affects everything from politics and art to criminality and mental health. The older moral safeguards, which kept some of this narcissism in check, have since been dispensed with.
A new (to me) online journal is Quillette, which my fellow blogger at P&P describes as possessing an ecumenical but discerning cast of writers—”It’s like reading The New York Times Magazine without having to constantly filter out the left-wing-propaganda.” One of their articles addresses a topic much discussed in these pages: the crisis of political free speech. Alexander Blum opines that there “remain many on the left who stand for free expression and an open academy.” He notes instances where such people have bucked mob intimidation and conformism and warned against the dangers of the new censorship. Blum’s approach may seem overly optimistic at times; nevertheless, I applaud his message of good will.
I came across similar criticism of the left by a man of the left, Alexander Herzen, in Isaiah Berlin’s classic study, Russian Thinkers. The cantankerous nineteenth century anarchist was at least consistent in his cynicism, castigating certain radical assumptions along with more traditional outlooks. He asks, “If progress is the goal, for whom are we working?” He accused the leaders of revolutionary movements of demanding sacrifices from the present generation for vague and unattainable goals. He would not have been surprised by the slave labor camps upon which the “worker’s paradise” of the next century would be built. As for the people themselves, he had his doubts: “The masses… are indifferent to individual freedom, liberty of speech…. They are still blinded by the arrogant glitter of power, they are offended by those who stand alone. By equality they understand equality of oppression….”