The Things I Read Today — January 23, 2021
He was undoubtedly also influenced by one factor that routinely deprives otherwise rational people of their sense: love.
Tattoo it on my soul: “Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.”
Afternoon Prayer: Ephesians 6:10–24
If ever the ecstasies of individual exegesis concerning the following passage should move you to consider acts of violence against others I implore you to seek out your local Episcopalian bishop for a conversation.
11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high [places].
13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Every year my estimation of Princess Mary increases. Today offers a perfect example of why. Here, finally, we have all the Bolkonsky clan gathered together. It should be a happy affair. This being the Bolkonskys, however, it is not.
Keep in mind, as we look at what happens during this brief family reunion, that Audrey is off to war the next day. First, Andrey is a jaded jerk. His father is no better, deeming it fit to browbeat his son with his superior knowledge of foreign affairs. To boot, he boasts that his war was a much more serious war than this present skirmish with Napoleon. Okay, old man. The little princess Lise, meanwhile, prattles away, masking her worries over her husband with meaningless gossip.
Mary is different. Tolstoy writes: “Princess Mary was still gazing in silence at her brother, her lovely eyes filled with affection and sadness.” By Tolstoy’s account Princess Mary is an ugly woman but every time he writes of her eyes, those windows to the soul, he speaks of their loveliness. Throughout the novel Mary earns this loveliness. Today she does so as she is the only one to show her brother any true, unvarnished affection. I love her. Model of behavior.
The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola
Finished it today. I don’t want to write too much about it here because I have so much to say and so little time. But I will share one passage because it is so powerful and well-executed. Honestly. It’s a jump cut so cinematic and affecting Martin Scorsese himself would bow in respect if he ever ran into old Zola on the street.
To fully appreciate the scene you’ll need to know the parties. First is Silvère, a teenager who fought honorably as an insurgent for the dying Second French Republic against the nascent Empire shortly after the coup d’état of 1851. His thoughts in this scene are on his love, Miette, who has previously been shot dead by the empire’s army. There’s also Justin, a local boy who hates Silvère and watches in glee as a gendarme executes the poor kid. Then we have Silvère’s cousins, the Rougons, a gaggle of worthless and sinfully ambitious cretins who position themselves, at Silvère’s expense, to profit from the establishment of empire over liberty. Writes Zola in the final scene of the novel:
At that moment he felt the cold pistol to his temple. There was a smile on Justin’s pale face. Closing his eyes, Silvère heard the urgent calls of the long-departed dead. In the darkness he could now see only Miette, wrapped in the banner under the trees, her eyes staring up at the sky. Then the one-eyed man fired, and it was all over; the child’s skull burst open like a ripe pomegranate; his face fell on the stone, his lips pressed to the spot worn by Miette’s feet — that warm spot where his sweetheart had left the imprint of her body.
That evening, in the Rougons’ apartment at dessert, gales of laughter rose from the table, which was still warm with the remains of the dinner. The Rougons were finally enjoying the pleasures of the wealthy!
Damn. That’s good stuff. Can you hear the opportunity for a killer audio match cut linking the dead skull’s crack on the stone to the eruption of the Rougons laughter over dessert?
The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History From Antiquity to Today by David Stasavage
In distinguishing between what he calls “early democracy” and “modern democracy” Stasavage describes modern democracies as having two fracture points:
Episodic participation is the first fracture point of modern democracy because it can produce citizen distrust and disengagement; there must be continual efforts to overcome this problem. The second fracture point of modern democracy is that it coexists with a state bureaucracy that manages day-to-day affairs, and the risk of this is that the people may no longer believe that they themselves are governing.
I can see these fracture points breaking the American republic right now. Hopefully, Stasavage will write more about what can be done to curb the passions these fracture points provoke in people. Might be something worth knowing.
The Life and Times of Emile Zola by FWJ Hemmings
In the pages I read this morning Hemmings introduces us to Zola’s parents. The father, Francesco, was a civil engineer. At one point he partnered up with some people to build the first public railway on the continent of Europe. He hoped to link the Bohemian town of Budweis to the Austrian city of Linz. Hemmings tells us, however, that “although the new railway was eventually built (between 1834 and 1836), Francesco who had pioneered it had no hand in its construction. This may have been because of unforeseen difficulties in securing financial backing: with the sniff of revolution in the air, it was not a good moment to coax money out of bankers and businessmen.”
Must maintain political stability if you want to encourage investment and promote growth!
Beethoven: A Life by Jan Caeyers
Today’s chapter was about who Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved may have been. It’s unknown who exactly this person was. There are multiple candidates. In this chapter Josephine von Brunsvik is the candidate considered.
Caeyers writes: “Their shared secret — the unspoken knowledge of that which may not be known — created a strong bond between the two lovers. Josephine was walking on air, and over the ensuing months Beethoven composed many of his most beautiful works: The Fourth Piano Concerto, The Fourth Symphony, the Razumovsky Quartets, and the Violin Concerto.”
The final of the Razumovsky Quartets has long been a favorite of mine. Just wonderful.
I’ve collected these pieces of Beethoven in love here in this Apple Music playlist. Enjoy.
Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard by Clare Carlisle
Søren was an overly productive fellow so he took daily walks to break up the intensity of his demanding writing schedule. He called these walks “air baths.”
I, too, enjoy a nice air bath.
News, Opinion and Policy Analysis
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose:
It was the policies of a Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who forced peasants at gunpoint onto collective farms. Mengistu also tried to crush an insurgency in the northern region of Tigray by burning crops, destroying grain stores and slaughtering livestock. When the head of his own government’s humanitarian agency begged him for cash to feed the starving, he dismissed him with a memorably callous phrase: “Don’t let these petty human problems…consume you.”
Things were supposed to be different under Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister who was hailed as a reformer when he took charge in 2018, and who won the Nobel peace prize the following year. Yet once again it looks as if hunger is being used as a weapon in Africa’s second-most-populous nation. And once again the scene of the horror is Tigray.
I really want to know more about this:
In charging papers, the FBI said that during the Capitol riot, Caldwell received Facebook messages from unspecified senders updating him of the location of lawmakers. When he posted a one-word message, “Inside,” he received exhortations and directions describing tunnels, doors and hallways, the FBI said.
Some messages, according to the FBI, included, “Tom all legislators are down in the Tunnels 3floors down,” and “Go through back house chamber doors facing N left down hallway down steps.” Another message read: “All members are in the tunnels under capital seal them in. Turn on gas,” the FBI added.
Immigration is the Sincerest Form of Flattery. This Country Needs a Good Hit of it. (The Washington Post)
George Will comes out in favor of Biden’s first day moves on immigration and argues for even more immigration liberalization in the future. He’s exactly right. Unlike some people . . .
Europe back on their shit again. The nonsense continues below.
EU Immigration: Frontex Faces Scrutiny Over its Growing Role (Financial Times)
As it gains a higher profile, Frontex is facing a growing docket of concerns. On the same day the new uniform was unveiled, reports revealed that its headquarters had been raided in December by investigators from Olaf, the EU’s anti-fraud office. The agency has also come under increasing pressure from the European Commission over its alleged failures to implement human rights safeguards and write crucial rules including on how its agents should use firearms.
Most pressingly, Frontex faces an inquiry into multiple claims that it has been complicit in illegal “pushbacks” of refugees trying to enter the EU on foot or in flimsy boats. This can endanger migrants’ lives at sea or leave them stranded in countries such as Bosnia, sometimes in makeshift camps. Such actions also deny people the right to apply for asylum, even though some may be fleeing conflict zones or seeking refuge from persecution. Initial results of the review, set up by Frontex’s own management board, which comprises representatives of EU member states and the commission, are due to be discussed on Thursday. The report is likely to fuel the already intense battles over the agency’s activities and future.
Trump and Justice Dept. Lawyer Said to Have Plotted to Oust Acting Attorney General (The New York Times)
Trump’s entire administration was just one continuous assault on the rule of law. Unconscionable.
The only reason he wasn’t able to do more damage is because honorable men and women held positions of power and were able to refuse his absurd requests. But what happens when honorable men and women no longer hold positions of power? What happens when those positions are filled by people like Mr. Clark who in this story “mentioned to Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue that he spent a lot of time reading on the internet — a comment that alarmed them because they inferred that he believed the unfounded conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump had won the election.” (Emphasis mine)
Lots of time reading on the internet. I swear, a lack of digital media literacy is killing this country. Speaking of which . . .
The Enduring Allure of Conspiracies (NiemanLab)
According to this piece there is little we can do to stop people from falling for conspiracy theories other than slowing down their spread. I’m worried about the free speech implications of that sentiment though.
More important, I think, is understanding why, as in the case of the aforementioned Mr. Clark, conspiracy theories spread so easily?:
One reason that conspiracy theories find fertile ground in the human mind has to do with epistemology — the philosophy of how we know what we know (or think we do). Because any individual can know only a tiny sliver of the world firsthand, we have no choice but to accept a great deal of information we can’t verify for ourselves. Most people believe (correctly) that Antarctica is very cold and populated with penguins, despite never having been there. The assumptions and cognitive shortcuts we use to decide what’s true make sense most of the time, but they also leave the door open for bad information, including conspiracy theories.
Since most of the information we encounter in everyday life (at least outside of social media) is true, that creates a bias toward accepting new information, says Nadia Brashier, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Harvard. And hearing a claim multiple times makes it seem even more true. “One of the most insidious influences on our judgment involves repetition,” Brashier says.
Dozens of studies have documented this “illusory truth effect,” mainly by asking participants to rate the veracity of trivia, rumors, product claims, fake news reports and other bits of information, Brashier and Duke University psychologist and neuroscientist Elizabeth Marsh write in a recent Annual Review of Psychology paper about how people determine what’s true. Even people who recognize a statement as false the first time they see it are more likely to judge it as probably true after seeing it multiple times, Brashier says.
Ordinarily, it’s rational to assume that the more times you hear something, the more likely it is to be true, she says. “But we’re seeing bad actors hijack these shortcuts that we use that make sense in a lot of situations [but] that can lead us astray in others.”
Conspiracy theories also take advantage of our tendency to look for patterns and explanations, says Karen Douglas, a psychologist who studies conspiracy thinking at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. Pattern detection serves us well in everyday life, Douglas says: It’s how we piece together how people typically behave in given situations, for example. Believing in a bogus conspiracy theory amounts to seeing a pattern that’s not really there.
Wall Street eyes China despite continued tensions with US (Financial Times)
Sino-American relations will probably prove to be the defining geopolitical story of the twenty-first century.
On the political side we have ever increasing tensions. Trump launched a trade war and appears to have created a bipartisan consensus in Washington that China is a strategic foe and must be confronted, Thucydides trap be damned China, meanwhile, is making no friends by releasing a ferocious pack of wolf warrior diplomats on the entire globe in the wake of their bungling of the coronavirus epidemic. On the finance and economics side, though, capital, like the honey badger, just doesn’t give a shit. We see drastic inflows of capital into Chinese markets despite the political tensions.
What does this mean for the future of Sino-US relations?
Many people point to seemingly unstoppable Chinese economic growth and the concomitant deepening of domestic financial markets as evidence that China will soon overtake the United States as a financial powerhouse and center of business innovation. Maybe. I wonder, though: How innovative can a nation be when their government continues to impose its will on business? Can Xi Jinping Thought guide an economy better than Adam Smith’s invisible hand? Time will tell. I don’t think so. I hope, for the Chinese people’s sake, that I’m wrong.
Podcast of the Day: Trump is No Longer in Office, So Why Put Him on Trial (The Cato Daily Podcast)