Book Review: Ayn Rand’s ” Ïdeal”


August 12, 2015

Review: Ayn Rand’s ‘Ideal’ Presents a Protagonist Familiar in Her Superiority

Paul Krugman on Thomas Piketty’s Capital


August 7, 2015

BOOK REVIEW

Paul Krugman on Thomas Piketty’s Capital

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/03/books/review-the-economics-of-inequality-by-thomas-piketty.html?ref=books&_r=0

Back in 2001 two French economists, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, circulated a seminal research paper (formally published two years later) titled “Income inequality in the United States, 1913-1998.” They used data from income tax receipts to do two things that you can’t do with standard data on the distribution of income, which come from household surveys. First, they gave us a portrait of the economic stratosphere — the incomes of the now-famous 1 percent. Second, they gave us historical depth, reaching all the way back to the late Gilded Age.

T Piketty2

Review of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha


July 17, 2015

Din Merican at his UC OfficeNote: I have read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha a few years ago and re-read it last week. It is a fascinating philosophical novel of a young Brahmin who sought enlightenment. I was attracted by this statement which was attributed to Siddhartha.  It reads :Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One has to find it, be fortified by it, and do wonders through it — Din Merican

Review of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

by Abhay Joshi of Pune

http://punejournalofphilosophy.com/?p=123

Hesse's SiddharthaA beautiful philosophical novel by a Nobel Prize winner. It’s a story of a young Indian Brahmin’s pursuit of enlightenment. The setting is the time period of Gautama Buddha. The story is rich with philosophy, but the language is so lyrical and the narration so vivid that it is difficult to separate the poetry and the deep philosophy. One flows with the story as if flowing with a peaceful river. The author seems to conclude that no amount of second-hand knowledge and learning can give you the real sense of peace or happiness unless it is enlivened by real first-hand experience.

Siddhartha, a Brahmin boy, is brought up in a devout and learned family, but he is restless and full of doubt about the routine of sacrifice, chanting, and meditation. So he leaves home and spends time with the ascetics who believe in hard renunciation and numbing of all bodily senses. But this route does not bring the salvation Siddhartha seeks. So, he goes and meets with Gautama Buddha to hear his teachings. He realizes that what he is seeking is the state Buddha has achieved for himself, but his teaching does not satisfy him. So, he decides to live an ordinary earthly life and try to discover his true “self”. A long time passes in the world of birds and flowers, sensuous pleasures and pains, and money and vices.

Initially, Siddhartha participates in ordinary people’s activities as if they were just games, and views ordinary people as children and laughs at their childish intensity in their material obsessions. He is able at will to return to the inward mental sanctuary of Siddhartha the ascetic and not be bothered by anything for too long. But sure enough he soon gets drawn into the whirlpool of Sansara and all but forgets his real pursuit. Eventually though, a bad dream awakens him and he returns to the river of his childhood and youth utterly shaken and bewildered.

He is saved from suicidal thoughts, and then he becomes the assistant of a wise old ferryman who has learnt the art of listening to the river and learning life’s secrets. Here, finally, Siddhartha achieves peace (although there is a brief period of torment when he experiences what it is to be a father).

He realizes that life is like a river – timeless, present everywhere at the same time, with no past and present, and when one conquers the unreality of time, one is happy and at peace. He realizes that the wisdom is in accepting things as they are.

The story is presented in a poetic and rhythmic language. A few examples:

Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river, from the twinkling stars at night, from the sun’s melting rays.

His worthy father and … the wise Brahmins had already poured … their knowledge into his waiting vessel; and the vessel was not full, his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still.

The Buddha went quietly on his way, … his face and his step … spoke of completeness, sought nothing, imitated nothing, reflected a continual quiet, an unfading light, an invulnerable peace.

Slowly, like moisture entering the dying tree trunk, slowly filling and rotting it, so did the world and inertia creep into Siddhartha’s soul; it slowly filled his soul, made it heavy, made it tired, sent it to sleep.

He looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on the mirror, sky-blue reflected in them.

As time passed and the boy remained unfriendly and sulky, when he proved arrogant and defiant, when he would do no work, when he showed no respect to the old people and robbed Vasudeva’s fruit trees, Siddhartha began to realize that no happiness and peace had come to him with his son, only sorrow and trouble.

And here are some of the philosophical gems:

One can beg, buy, be presented with and find love in the streets, but it can never be stolen.

Gradually his face assumed the expressions which are so often found among rich people – the expressions of discontent, of sickliness, of displeasure, of idleness, of lovelessness.

When someone is seeking, he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he has a goal, he is obsessed with his goal.

Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One has to find it, be fortified by it, and do wonders through it.

There shone in Siddhartha’s face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.

Everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. Through my body and soul … I learned to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.

PJOP: What can we, as ordinary men and women of the material world, take away from Siddhartha?

As a man of the real world, perfectly stuck in its vagaries and uncertainties, I found the section of the book that dwells on Siddhartha’s own participation in Sansara very helpful. He views every transaction as a game played by little children. He is not emotionally invested in the outcome of these games. He gambles with abandon – with amounts that astonish his more earthly mates. He treats his business partners – whether they are customers or vendors – as humans, and not as means of profit-making. He is as happy to win one big deal, as to lose another. There is a little episode narrated in the book of Siddhartha going to a distant marketplace ostentatiously to make money, but returns with empty hands. But, he had great fun, he says, with all those wonderful villagers feasting him, dancing with him, and what not. His logic is that these wonderful people would certainly help him make money in the future.

This detachment of Siddhartha from the fruits of his deeds is not a new idea – it’s one of the central tenets described in Gita. But, through the real-life examples the book provides it appeals even more and appears to be something that is not impossible to practice.

Siddhartha’s encounter with Gautama, the enlightened, is a must-read for those of us who I think mistakenly look for readymade recipes for everything. Listening to the great Gautama, whose fame is far and wide in alleviating the spiritual pain of millions, it is astonishing that Siddhartha comes away as a skeptic of Gautama’s cookbook for eternal happiness. Of course, it is not a comment specifically on Gautama’s ideas. Rather it is the realization that dawns on Siddhartha that he was not going to benefit from any doctrine, not even one as great and effective as Gautama’s. The author has timed this realization, wonderfully I think, during the encounter with Gautama, since the counterbalance to this sad realization is Siddhartha’s joy for finally getting to observe someone in flesh and blood who epitomized enlightenment. He is endlessly happy that he now knew what he was aspiring for all along. He wanted to be like Gautama – one whose limbs exhibited the perfect balance, one who walked in perfect peace, and one whose eyes emitted perfect happiness.

Hermann Hesse

Finally, this book is a feast for the literary aesthete. It is written in a lyrical fashion, and the story flows beautifully like the smoothly rolling river which is the central philosophical metaphor used towards the end of the book. It is interesting that many philosophical books have been written using the lyrical format. Gita is a great example, and so is the Marathi commentary on Gita by Sant Dnyaneshwar. Also Shankaracharya (aka Sankara) wrote couplets whenever he had spiritual inspirations. Looking at this philosopher-poet duality, it may be safe to conclude that philosophy is not the dry subject that many call it!

I think “Siddhartha” is really a journey of a seeker, and the most significant takeaway from this book is probably that there is no “one” path; everyone must undertake a similar journey of discovery of the ultimate truth. Siddhartha’s interaction with Gautama, the enlightened, beautifully portrays this message. Siddhartha is impressed with Gautama himself – by his serenity and his whole persona – and knows instantly that that is the state he wants to achieve himself. At the same time, Siddhartha has the intelligence to realize that Gautama’s teaching may not be the path leading to that state, and he, Siddhartha, must himself continue his quest. But, at least now he knows what he had been looking for all along. He now has a clear-cut goal personified in front of him in the shape of Gautama.

Siddhartha’s companion and friend, Govinda, travels with Siddhartha almost all throughout the journey, until they meet Gautama. At that point, Govinda decides for himself that he had reached his destination; he had found a home for his soul – the Sangha of Gautama’s disciples. And, so, Govinda separates from his lifelong friend and allows him to continue his journey.

Great works like the Bhagavad Geeta are clearly the result of accumulation of experiences of thousands of seekers – rishis and yogis – who explored different ways to enlightenment. Gita is a tome of this accumulated knowledge. Krishna, while answering Arjuna’s questions, suggests and expounds so many different means of reaching Him. And he informs Arjuna that there is no “recommended” or “preferred” way; one should follow a path that suits his/her temperament and liking.

It does not appear to me that there is any conflict between ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Gita’ so far as this specific “truth” is concerned. Gita also believes in the timelessness of life, the unity of things, and that life flows endlessly like a river.

PJOP: What is the extent to which Siddhartha follows a typical path in his pursuit of self-knowledge. I mean he is the student, the employee, the family man, the ascetic as he progresses through life—is this supposed to be a typical path?

One of the fascinating aspects of Siddhartha’s story is that he does not follow the typical path an average person goes through in the pursuit of spiritual peace. The average person usually starts out in the material world and goes through a prolonged Sansara (family life). (S)He may then realize the need for spiritual study and enlightenment for him/her-self. At that point, (s)he has a variety of paths available to choose from, and so forth.

Siddhartha chalks out a different sequence in his life. He is brought up in a devout and learned family, which indulges in the routine of sacrifice, chanting, and meditation. Dissatisfied with this lifestyle, he leaves home and spends time with the forest ascetics who believe in hard renunciation and numbing of all bodily senses. But this route also does not bring the salvation Siddhartha seeks. So, he goes and meets up with Gautama Buddha to hear his teachings. He realizes then that what he is seeking is the state Buddha has achieved for himself, but his teaching does not satisfy him. So, he decides to live an ordinary earthly life and try to discover his true “self”.

Thus, Siddhartha enters the stage of “Sansara” much later in life – after spending considerable amount of time in spiritual pursuits. In fact, he decides to experience Sansara only to try it out as another means of finding the ultimate truth, and not as an inevitable step in life like other ordinary people. Therefore, his responses to the worldly events are also very unlike the ordinary people’s. This part of “Siddhartha” is one of the most fascinating sections to read.

Only after spending an extended period of time in Sansara, and after realizing that it was all like a long bad dream, he awakens from it and returns to the river of his childhood and youth utterly shaken and bewildered. There he continues his pursuit of the ultimate truth.

Note: You can contact Abhay Joshi at abjoshi@yahoo.com.

NY Times Book Review


July 11, 2015

In ‘Between the World and Me,’ Ta-Nehisi Coates Delivers a Searing Dispatch to His Son

I love America the way I love my family — I was born into it. And there’s no escape out of it. But no definition of family that I’ve ever encountered or dealt with involves never having cross words with people, never having debate , never speaking directly. On the contrary, that’s the very definition in my house, and the house that I grew up in, of what family is.–Ta-Nehisi Coates in an Interview

by Michiko Kakutani@www.nytimes.com

Inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 classic “The Fire Next Time,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, “Between the World and Me,” is a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today. It takes the form of a letter from Mr. Coates to his 14-year-old son, Samori, and speaks of the perils of living in a country where unarmed black men and boys — Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter L. Scott, Freddie Gray — are dying at the hands of police officers, an America where just last month nine black worshipers were shot and killed in a Charleston, S.C., church by a young white man with apparent links to white supremacist groups online.

Mr. Coates’s expressionistic book is a sequel of sorts and a bookend to “The Beautiful Struggle,” his evocative 2008 memoir of growing up in Baltimore, the son of a Vietnam vet and former Black Panther — as compelling a portrait of a father-son relationship as Martin Amis’s “Experience” or Geoffrey Wolff’s “The Duke of Deception,” and a showcase for Mr. Coates’s emotional reach as a writer and his both lyric and gritty prose.

“Between the World and Me” (which takes its title from a Richard Wright poem) offers an abbreviated portrait of the author’s life at home, focusing mainly on the fear he felt growing up. Fear of the police, who he tells his son “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body,” and who also possess a dominion of prerogatives that include “friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.” And fear of the streets where members of crews — “young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage” — might “break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies,” where death might “billow up like fog” on an ordinary afternoon.

Between Me and The WorldThe “need to be always on guard” was exhausting, “the slow siphoning of essence,” Mr. Coates writes. He “feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give police a reason.”

Mr. Coates — a national correspondent for The Atlantic — contrasts this world of the streets with the “other world” of suburbia, “organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens.” He associates this clichéd suburban idyll with what he calls “the Dream” — not the American dream of opportunity and a better life for one’s children; not Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of freedom and equality (which the Reverend King observed was “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream”), but instead, in Mr. Coates’s somewhat confusing use of the term, an exclusionary white dream rooted in a history of subjugation and privilege.

Those Dreamers, he contends, “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.”

There is a Manichaean tone to some of the passages in this book, and at times, a hazardous tendency to generalize. After Sept. 11, he writes that he could “see no difference between the officer” who had gunned down his Howard University schoolmate Prince Jones a year earlier — firing 16 shots at the unarmed young man, who was on his way to visit his fiancée — and the police and firefighters who lost their own lives in the terrorist attacks: “They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.”

This startling passage seems meant not to convey a contempt for the first responders on Sept. 11, but to underscore the depth of Mr. Coates’s emotion over the loss of his friend and his anger at police killings of unarmed black men — killings that represent to him larger historical forces at work in American society, in which black men and women were enslaved, their families and bodies broken, and in which terrible inequities continue to exist. Yet it could be easily taken out of context, and it distracts attention from Mr. Coates’s profoundly moving account of Prince Jones’s brief life, and the grief of his mother, a woman who had worked her way up from the “raw poverty of her youth” to become an eminent doctor, trying to provide her children with comfortable — and most of all, safe — lives, which, in Prince’s case, would be cavalierly taken away one night by a police officer later found guilty of negligence and excessive force.

Sometimes Mr. Coates can sound as though he’s ignoring changes that have taken place over the decades, telling his son that “you and I” belong to “that ‘below’ ” in the racial hierarchy of American society: “That was true in 1776. It is true today.” He writes that “the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”

Such assertions skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made. After all, America has twice elected a black president. At other moments in this powerful and passionate book, Mr. Coates acknowledges such changes. In fact, his book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.

He points out that his son has expectations, hopes — “your dreams, if you will” — that he did not have at his age, and that he, himself, does not know “what it means to grow up with a black president, social networks, omnipresent media, and black women everywhere in their natural hair.”

“The grandness of the world,” he tells Samori, sounding a more optimistic note, “the real world, the whole world, is a known thing for you.”

Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/books/review-in-between-the-world-and-me-ta-nehisi-coates-delivers-a-desperate-dispatch-to-his-son.html?ref=books&_r=0

A version of this review appears in print on July 10, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Father’s Desperate Dispatch to a Son

Book Review: More on Richard M. Nixon


July 2, 2015

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/books/review/being-nixon-and-one-man-against-the-world.html?ref=books

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President Richard M. Nixon–America’s Most Tortured President

In May, to start the final broadcast of David Letterman’s late-night show, a dimly familiar yellow-tinged 1970s video began to play. “My fellow Americans,” Gerald Ford intoned, “our long national nightmare is over.” In specially recorded messages, Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama then recited the famous line, which Ford had first spoken just after the disgraced Richard Nixon left the White House, the only president ever to resign. No one in the Letterman bit mentioned Nixon’s name, but his specter — as it so often does in our political culture — hovered over the whole thing.

Being NixonHard though it may be to recall, for a time during the 1990s Richard Nixon seemed bound for rehabilitation. He had spent his last years romancing the pundit class, fashioning an image as a sage. Historians, digging into his administration’s domestic record, developed a ­man-bites-dog story line that pronounced him a Great Society liberal. And as the flood of Watergate memoirs dried up, kooky conspiracy theories flourished, some exonerating Tricky Dick from a key part in the 1972 burglary and cover-up that brought him down.

Now we’ve come full circle. The release of White House tapes and documents since Nixon’s death in 1994 has rendered the pro-Nixon historiography of yesteryear a musty artifact. Washington ­pseudoscandals have come and gone, clarifying anew how breathtaking Watergate was. And this summer brings two major new Nixon books — Tim Weiner’s “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon” and Evan Thomas’s “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” — neither of which offers much that’s novel but which together reaffirm the old (and new) consensus. These well-researched efforts remind us, fundamentally, that Nixon himself led the criminal conspiracy at the heart of his presidency, the revelation of which forever tarnished the White House in the public mind.

Both authors are highly accomplished journalists. Weiner, a former New York Times national security reporter, is decidedly hostile to Nixon, structuring his account of the presidency around a litany of transgressions related to Watergate and the Vietnam War. Thomas, a prolific author and veteran Newsweek editor, aims for a more fully rounded portrait, carefully pairing each indictment of Nixon with a mitigating perspective or flattering ­counterexample. Weiner makes more fruitful use of primary sources, while Thomas has a surer command of the secondary literature. Whether you prefer the edgier Weiner or the judicious Thomas may depend on whether you like your political history fizzy or still, spicy or mild, extra crispy or original recipe.

Dozens of splendid works on Nixon already exist, of course. My short list would include Garry Wills’s “Nixon Agonistes,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “The Final Days” and Stanley I. Kutler’s “The Wars of Watergate” (all still in print). Yet there remains no authoritative cradle-to-grave biography. Stephen E. Ambrose banged out a solid, breezily written trilogy, but his wanton acts of plagiarism and the posthumous revelation that he fabricated interviews with Dwight Eisenhower have rendered his work unusable. Tom Wicker and Herbert S. Parmet each tried to fill the Nixon biography void, but they produced gargantuan tomes without touching key parts of his presidency. Roger Morris wrote a magisterial, if slightly conspiratorial, first installment of a planned multivolume work, but its thousand-plus pages reached only to the end of 1952. The other volumes never appeared.

Thomas’s “Being Nixon” aspires to be the go-to one-volume life. The author guides us from Nixon’s boyhood and eventful early career through the war-making, peace-making and policy-making of his presidency, to his post-resignation comeback bid. But it’s no knock on Thomas’s storytelling powers to conclude, on finishing his study, that a satisfying one-volume biography probably just can’t be written. The sheer yardage that one has to traverse simply defies easy narration.

Thomas has a fine eye for the telling quote and the funny vignette, and his style is eminently readable. But for much of the book he pin balls from one topic to the next. A quick take on school desegregation dissolves into a riff on Nixon’s taste in movies and then it’s off to Cambodia. The insistence on tackling so much material also precludes the sort of fine-grained analysis — whether of politics or policy or personality — that a porterhouse steak of a biography like this implicitly promises.

Fathoming the murky psychological depths of our most tortured president also presents a challenge. To his credit, Thomas treats Nixon as a human being, not a cartoon. Always on the lookout for the good deed or the sympathetic angle, he stresses not the familiar hatreds and well-known vindictiveness but Nixon’s shyness, his devotion to family, his sentimentality: “Being Nixon” opens with a meditation on Nixon’s love of the movie “Around the World in 80 Days,” and he is later shown listening happily to recordings of “Carousel” and “The King and I.

Empathy is admirable and even necessary in a historian, but Thomas’s fulsome charity obscures the rage, paranoia and chilling amorality that propelled Nixon to the peak of power and brought on the Watergate nightmare. In some places Thomas relies uncritically on dubious sources, like a 1993 Nixon hagiography by the conservative British politician Jonathan Aitken. At other times, his ­evenhandedness yields misleading understatement and ludicrous litotes. “Nixon was not completely free of prejudice,” he writes of this racist, anti-Semitic churl. “Favoring hush money over full disclosure was a moral lapse,” another sentence begins. He starts the book’s last paragraph, “Nixon was no saint,” before ending with the claim that Nixon tried “to dare to be brave, to see, often though sadly not always, the light in the dark.”

This peroration is unpersuasive, not least because Thomas himself show­cases so many scenes of Nixon rolling up his sleeves to break the law. “Being Nixon” doesn’t neglect the notorious train of abuses — from Henry Kissinger’s illegal wiretaps to the “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of the Watergate special prosecutor — that amounted to the worst constitutional crisis of the century. On the contrary, Thomas’s account gets exciting precisely when it hits Watergate and the obligatory discussions of wage and price controls and the office of consumer affairs recede. His gentle judgments thus ring false.

If “Being Nixon” struggles to encompass Nixon’s whole life, “One Man Against the World” zeros in on the Vietnam War and Watergate, with other Cold War dramas — China, détente, Chile, the Yom Kippur War — also getting attention. This focused approach avoids the pitfalls of sprawl. Weiner’s barrage of information, however, devolves into a charmless inventory. Intent on reeling off facts, he provides little scene setting, few character sketches and a dearth of political or historical context. And where Thomas suffers from a surfeit of empathy, Weiner displays too little.

Weiner’s staccato typewriter prose, with its one-sentence paragraphs and bullet judgments, also contrasts with Thomas’s inoffensive, glossy lyricism. On whether Nixon should be considered a liberal, for example, Thomas writes (correctly, in my view): “He was not, but he was a crafty activist who loved to outflank and confound his foes.” He then dilates dutifully on such topics as the environment and welfare reform. Nixon’s onetime assistant budget chief, James Schlesinger, is quoted saying that the president even reviewed the details of fiscal policy.

Weiner, on the other hand, states emphatically that Nixon “cared little about domestic affairs: least ofNixon One Man Against the World all housing, health, education, welfare and civil rights” — all true enough — and his narrative skirts those issues almost entirely. Yet he goes on to assert that “getting rid of things was the heart of Nixon’s domestic policy — especially tearing down the structures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.” I know of no historians today who would endorse that claim. Nixon did in fact preside over a welter of new liberal programs, but mainly because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, public opinion was demanding activist government and the president had bigger priorities than fighting those battles.

Differences also arise in the two biographers’ takes on the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, which Nixon mounted to stop the North Vietnamese forces from hiding across the border. Weiner emphasizes the president’s deceit in concealing the operation from the American people and in having the military issue false reports about it. And he concludes ominously, in the last sentence of one chapter, “The bombing of a neutral nation arguably violated the laws of war.”

Widening the war into Cambodia fueled tensions at home, and the concealment of the operation typified Nixon’s furtive diplomatic style. But it’s noteworthy that Congress dropped the Cambodia incursion from the charges of impeachment it drafted in 1974, and Weiner is compelled to include the deflating adverb “arguably” for a reason. As Thomas explains in his more balanced account, “The North Vietnamese controlled Cambodia’s bordering territory,” and “‘hot pursuit’ into neutral territory is an old military doctrine.”

Weiner’s book is valuable insofar as it adds details to confirm what we knew about Nixon’s desperate Vietnam gambits and his central role in directing the Watergate cover-up. For example, he unearths an incriminating May 1973 tape of Nixon talking to his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, about memos from the previous summer that had been delivered by Vernon Walters of the C.I.A.; those documents described the president’s illegal effort to have the agency shut down the F.B.I.’s burgeoning probe of the Watergate break-in on the bogus grounds that it would compromise national security. “It will be very embarrassing,” Nixon says of releasing Walters’s notes. “It’ll indicate that we tried to cover up with the C.I.A.”

Weiner has clearly logged time in primary sources — C.I.A. files, Nixon’s tapes, oral histories, the State Department documents collected in “Foreign Relations of the United States” — and he serves up delightful nuggets of information. He discovers, for instance, that Nixon included a sentence in his first inauguration speech, “Our lines of communication will be open,” at the suggestion of the Soviet intelligence operative Boris Sedov, as a signal to Moscow. Unfortunately, Weiner exaggerates the import of this diplomatic wink, calling it “the K.G.B.’s proposal to ghostwrite a passage of the inaugural address.” Here and elsewhere, hyperbole undercuts his reliability.

Throughout the book, and in his public appearances promoting it, Weiner inflates his own contributions, sometimes leaving the impression that he first uncovered the information he cites. In truth, this volume adds less to our knowledge than two other recent books: Ken Hughes’s “Chasing Shadows,” about Nixon’s efforts during the 1968 election to keep the South Vietnamese from agreeing to Lyndon Johnson’s peace proposals, and John W. Dean’s “The Nixon Defense,” which uses hundreds of original tape transcriptions to illuminate the purpose of the 1972 Watergate break-in and the depth of Nixon’s knowledge of his aides’ obstruction of ­justice.

In 1994, during the height of the revisionism, one pro-Nixon scholar crowed that as time went on, Nixon would come to be known first for his social programs, next for his diplomacy and only incidentally for the orgy of lawlessness that had otherwise defined his reputation. Among the other verdicts that these two notable books offer — for all their sundry virtues and forgivable flaws — is the unmistakable conclusion that those revisionists were completely wrong.

ONE MAN AGAINST THE WORLD
The Tragedy of Richard Nixon
by Tim Weiner
369 pp. Henry Holt & Company.

BEING NIXON
A Man Divided
by Evan Thomas
Illustrated. 619 pp. Random House. $35.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image” and the forthcoming “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”

Why Grow Up?’ by Susan Neiman


June 21, 2015

Introducing Philosopher Susan Neiman and hear her talk on the subject of Moral Clarity.

Susan Neiman was born in 1955; she studied philosophy at Harvard and the Freie Universität Berlin, and taught philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University. Today she is Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

Professor Neiman received critical acclaim for her book Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, published in 2002. This magnum opus was alternative in many ways, let me underscore two of them. First, it took the theme of evil as a lens for understanding the history of philosophy, and thus broke away from the traditional approach to modern philosophy as divided into rationalist or empiricist responses to the problem of knowledge. Second, the book was alternative in emphasizing the importance of narrative interest in working with the history of philosophy.

Neiman’s skills as a storyteller of the philosopher’s struggle for meaning are impressive, and support her claim to write for both professional philosophers and those who are not. The added value of that ‘storytelling’ approach is not only that philosophy thus becomes accessible to a wide audience. Neiman also shows that we cannot live without philosophy: the fundamental question whether and how we can make sense of the world has to be conquered by every individual herself.

This tireless engagement with the public at large, was one of the reasons why the jury considered Susan Neiman an outstanding candidate of the International Spinoza Award. That remarkable quality of her work is well illustrated in Neiman’s essay about the book of Job, which is the final essay in a collection published by the International Spinoza Award Foundation and publishing house Boom, for this special occasion. (The collection’s title is Afgezien van de feiten.)

In her next book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, published in 2008, Neiman applies her fundamentally Kantian insights to the political agenda of this century. Neiman positions herself on the political left, but the book is critical of both the right and the left, and it is boldly ambitious in this endeavor. As Neiman formulates it herself, her book on Moral Clarity ‘aims to offer a twenty-first-century framework for an Enlightenment standpoint that no twentieth-century political direction succeeded in making its own.’ Neiman’s goal is, first, ‘to take back the Enlightenment from the claims that surround it: that the Enlightenment held human nature to be perfect and human progress to be inevitable, reason to be unlimited and science to be infallible, faith to be a worn-out answer to the questions of the past, and technology a solution to all the problems of the future.’ In doing so, she retrieves values – happiness, reason, reverence and hope – (values) that were fundamental to Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, but also offer a moral vocabulary for today.

In very simple words appealing to many people who are engaged in politics, she explains why the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is the most important distinction we have to draw, and why we have to draw it carefully and thoughtfully. Let me quote: ‘For we are indeed torn. We want a worldview that doesn’t blink when confronted with reality, that doesn’t wish away what it doesn’t wish to see. This is not pragmatics but pride: grown-up men and women look the world in its face. At the same time, we want a view that allows us not merely to resign ourselves to the reality that’s shaping us, but to play a role in shaping it. And most of us want to do so neither with weapons nor with soft power, but with the real power that the ideas of Enlightenment once possessed.’ (p. 90).

In reconnecting with the Enlightenment, Neiman also offers an answer to the problem of fundamentalism and religious terrorism, which she sees as fueled, in part, by the desire for transcendence. A cynical response, which interprets fundamentalism as merely reflecting a need for certainty, will not be able to answer it. ‘It will not work if we don’t understand that the longing for transcendence is a longing for freedom as least as much as it is a longing for certainty. (…) Immanuel Kant’s work can be used, according to Neiman, to provide a metaphysics capable of meeting our needs both for truth and for freedom.’ (p. 117-118).

Whether or not one agrees with this diagnostic – I, for one, agree with it, but you may discuss it – the jury of the International Spinoza Award highly values this drive to understand a key challenge of our time through the philosophical resources we do have at our disposal, and to formulate credible answers embedded in robust philosophical thinking. The role of ideas, ideologies and ideals is indeed crucial in politics.

In one of the essays published by the International Spinoza Award Foundation and Boom, Susan Neiman revisits Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. She concludes as follows: ‘While new revelations about Eichmann do not undermine Arendt’s core claim that evil intentions are not necessary for evil action, they do suggest how important it is to think more seriously about the role ideologies play in intention. Eichmann was not a bureaucrat, but neither was he a sadist nor a psychopath, or even in an ordinary sense corrupt; rather, he organized mass murder in service of an ideology to which he was completely devoted.’

According to Neiman, the standard liberal reaction – so much for ideologies, let’s focus on self-interest – will not carry us through the 21st century, if only because few people can live on bread alone. The jury couldn’t agree more.

In her most recent book (Why Grow Up?), Susan Neiman returns to the question what it means to grow up. Growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge. Courage is needed to acknowledge that both ideals and experience make equal claims on us. We must learn the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, without ever giving up on either one. Thus, Neiman challenges the thrust of many of our educational debates today, with their single-minded focus on skills needed here-and-now in contemporary labour markets. The fundamental educational question is: ‘How do we prepare a child for a world that is not the way it should be?’ We look forward to hear more about this in Susan Neiman’s lecture today.

http://www.boomfilosofie.nl/actueel/artikelen/magazine_artikel/105/Susan-Neiman-wint-de-prestigieuze-Spinozalens-2014

Sunday Book Review

‘Why Grow Up?’ by Susan Neiman

by A. O. SCOTT (June 15, 2015)

LOOKING-YOUNGA great deal of modern popular culture — including just about everything pertaining to what French savants like to call le nouvel âge d’or de la comédie américaine — runs on the disavowal of maturity. The ideal consumer is a mirror image of a familiar comic archetype: a man-child sitting in his parents’ basement with his video games and his “Star Wars” figurines; a postgraduate girl and her pals treating the world as their playground. Baby boomers pursue perpetual youth into retirement. Gen-Xers hold fast to their skateboards, their Pixies T-shirts and their Beastie Boys CDs. Nobody wants to be an adult anymore, and every so often someone writes an article blaming Hollywood, attachment parenting, global capitalism or the welfare state for this catastrophe. I’ve written one or two of those myself. It’s not a bad racket, and since I’m intimately acquainted, on a professional basis, with the cinematic oeuvre of Adam Sandler, I qualify as something of an expert.

In the annals of anti-infantile cultural complaint, Susan Neiman’s new book, “Why Grow Up?,” is both Susan Neimanexemplary and unusual. An American-born philosopher who lives in Berlin, Neiman has a pundit’s fondness for the sweeping generalization and the carefully hedged argumentative claim. “I’m not suggesting that we do without the web entirely,” she writes in one of her periodic reflections on life in the digital age, “just that we refuse to let it rule.” Elsewhere she observes that “if you spend your time in cyberspace watching something besides porn and Korean rap videos, you can gain a great deal,” a ­hypothesis I for one am eager to test.

But the present and its technological lures and discontents, thankfully, are not really her concern, any more than the jeremiad is her chosen form; she comes across as a patient pedagogue rather than an angry scold. She sprinkles in a few musical references — to Lady Gaga and the Rolling Stones — and occasional nods to unspecified “studies.” In spite of these, “Why Grow Up?” isn’t an exercise in pop-culture polemics or pop-sociological cherry-picking. It’s a case for philosophy of an admirably old-fashioned kind. Neiman is less interested in “The Catcher in the Rye” than in “The Critique of Pure Reason,” and more apt to cite Hannah ­Arendt than Lena Dunham.

Nor, in spite of its subtitle, is her book a critique of contemporary mores. The “infantile age” she has in mind goes back to the 18th century, and its most important figures are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. “Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem,” she writes, “and nothing shows so clearly that we are the Enlightenment’s heirs” than that we understand it as a topic for argument and analysis, as opposed to something that happens to everyone in more or less the same way. Before Kant and Rousseau, Neiman suggests, Western philosophy had little to say about the life cycle of individuals. As traditional religious and political modes of authority weakened, “the right form of human development became a philosophical problem, incorporating both psychological and political questions and giving them a normative thrust.”

How are we supposed to become free, happy and decent people? Rousseau’s “Emile” supplies Neiman with some plausible answers, and also with some cautionary lessons. A wonderfully problematic book — among other things a work of Utopian political thought, a manual for child-rearing, a foundational text of Romanticism and a sentimental novel — it serves here as a repository of ideas about the moral progress from infancy to adulthood. And also, more important, as a precursor and foil for Kant’s more systematic inquiries into human development.

Rousseau and Kant are Neiman’s main characters, and she conveys a vivid sense of their contrasting personalities in addition to providing an accessible survey of their relevant ideas. The Geneva-born Rousseau traveled across Europe on foot, fathering and abandoning at least five children. Kant rarely left his native Königsberg and never married. Between them, they mapped out what Neiman takes to be the essential predicament of maturity, namely the endless navigation of the gulf between the world as we encounter it and the way we believe it should be.

NY times book reviewIn infancy, we have no choice but to accept the world as it is. In adolescence, we rebel against the discrepancy between the “is” and the “ought.” Adulthood, for Kant and for Neiman, “requires facing squarely the fact that you will never get the world you want, while refusing to talk yourself out of wanting it.” It is a state of neither easy cynicism nor naïve idealism, but of engaged reasonableness.

When she sticks close to her favorite philosophers in describing this state, Neiman provides a useful and engaging tutorial, much as she did in her earlier book “Evil in Modern Thought.” But when she ventures into the concrete domains of the “is” — offering practical advice and polemical warnings — “Why Grow Up?” turns a bit fuzzy. The introduction and the last two of the book’s four chapters wander through meadows of half-baked observation, trading rigorous Kantianism for the nostrums of tote-bag liberalism. Neiman believes in the virtues of travel, in limiting time on the Internet, in good government and progressive education. She doesn’t like mass tourism, advertising or authoritarian politics. She wants you to think for yourself.

And who could argue? But the real virtue of this short, sometimes frustrating book lies in its insistence that thinking for oneself is a difficult and lifelong undertaking, in its genuinely subversive defense of philosophy in an age besotted by data. You don’t have to read Kant to be a grown-up, but it couldn’t hurt.

WHY GROW UP?
Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age
by Susan Neiman

A. O. Scott is a chief film critic at The Times. His book, “Better Living Through Criticism,” will be published in early 2016.

Related coverage:

Meghan Daum reviews “The Prime of Life,” by Steven Mintz

Heather Havrilesky reviews “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims

A version of this review appears in print on June 21, 2015, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Why Grow Up?.