Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Yesterday, finally, after more than a fortnight of hard time, my family was able to spring me from the hospital. Purity and simplicity of desire are perhaps rather rare but I longed to be home “as the hart panteth after the water brooks”. The old verb may be apt in light of my (I hope temporarily) iffy pulmonary function, but even more so in the intensity of its modest objects: to be home among my books, with my long view of the sloping garden, and the aroma of a good soup from the kitchen.
Contemporary medicine, of which I have been enjoying the most profligate and privileged applications, deserves to be called “awesome”—if there is any force left in an adjective so abused by trivial misuse. One day I might try to write about my experience of it. But as any of you generous enough to stick with me today will soon see, I am heading in a “political” direction; and I shall make in passing only a “political” point on this topic. It is this: the undoubted excellence of American medicine, and especially the remarkable level of care available in the large teaching hospitals, would disappear like a whiff of smoke were it not for significant levels of recent high-skill immigration, especially from sub-continental and East Asia.
Relief from the occasional angst and more frequent tedium of medical confinement came in two forms, television and books. I made daily recourse to both.
The cable offerings were limited. I may be one of few Americans who had never before experienced a full daily dose of either Fox News or MSNBC. But I just had a crash course, and it was an appalling experience. I will not say six of one and half a dozen of the other. Fox News is essentially a low-brow propaganda outlet pure and simple. MSNBC, slightly less vacuous and somewhat more intellectually serious, is a step up but still pretty close to the bottom of the staircase of serious journalism. Both shocked me with their vulgarity. I am referring here to the networks’ tediously repeating day-long morning and afternoon panels of talking heads. Some of their prime-time “stars”—such as Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow--are highly intelligent partisan polemicists of considerable forensic agility. They provide something of the experience of an Oxford Union debate, which is to say of engaging sophism that can be quite impressive in its power to confirm the rectitude of one’s pre-existing political biases. MSNBC has the further ethical advantage of being able to expose and lambast presidential prevarications, while Fox must ignore or rationalize them. But don’t confuse any of this with principled journalism. Robert Hutchins once remarked of the two most popular “news” organs of my youth that “America has two great news magazines—Time magazine, for people who can’t think, and Life magazine, for people who can’t read.” Such, roughly was my “discovery” of MSNBC and Fox.
Fortunately, there was plenty to think about in the books I read. I read five books by Jean-Francois Revel (1924-2006), a magnificent journalist and one of the great public intellectuals of post-War France. He was probably best known in this country for his rather amazing book Without Marx or Jesus. Like the great Raymond Aron (1905-1983), author of The Opium of the Intellectuals, Revel was a champion of “liberalism” in its European sense—a political philosophy based in individual ethical agency and in political and economic liberty. (This is roughly what is known in the English political vocabulary as “classical conservatism.”) Unless you have experienced French socialist groupthink in its massive, stolid immobility—as I was forced to do with relation to Arthur Koestler in The Anti-Communist Manifestos—you can have no conception of the sheer intellectual courage of these two men.
The institution of academic tenure in American universities was intended to protect unpopular or transgressive thinkers from the persecution of political yahoos. Its effect, on the other hand, has been to institutionalize a leftist conformism that aspires to absolute monopoly and a “multicultural diversity” as diverse as any two pieces of Velveeta cheese. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the triumph of savage capitalism in the People’s Republic of China, actual “real world” Marxists are pretty thin on the ground. But universities, whether European or American, rarely aspire to quotidian reality. I hope our humanities departments are not all destined to become the rag and bone shops in which the great achievements over long centuries of human intellect, art, and science are endlessly stretched upon the rack of “race, class, and gender,” with occasional further oppressive hierarchies still waiting to be fully exposed. Against all this, in its full frontal Gallic form, Revel battled valiantly for long decades.
Without Marx or Jesus was published in 1970. Its opening sentences are these: “The revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States. It is only there that it can happen. And it has already begun. Whether or not that revolution spreads to the rest of the world depends on whether or not it succeeds first in America.” The one advantage of being fifty years late in reading the book, as I was, is that I could avoid the suspense. The revolution did not succeed. We blew it all on a big “tax break”, and the world reverted to the old tribalist busy-work. “It is clear,” says Revel, “that the nation-state henceforth can serve only to polarize the most regressive tendencies of people and their rulers, and that it favors the selection of rulers from among the most aggressive, cynical, and unscrupulous sort of men—that is to say, from among those least capable of understanding the world as it is today and of ameliorating its condition.” Sad.