Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!


August 1, 2017

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!

https://www.newyorker.com

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani! On Thursday, the Times’ chief daily book critic announced that she would be leaving her regular reviewing post after thirty-eight years at the paper, marking the end of a literary era. Her assessments of novels and memoirs, works of history, biography, politics, and poetry have guided generations of American readers, and the prospect of getting a Kakutani review has been the hope and fear of more writers than could possibly be counted—a seriously big deal, or ordeal, as the case might be. A good review brought on elation. “It was like having the good fairy touch you on the shoulder with her wand,” Mary Karr told NPR. A bad one incited rage, sometimes despair. Nicholson Baker compared getting a negative Kakutani review to undergoing surgery without anesthesia; Jonathan Franzen called her “the stupidest person in New York.” (She had deemed his memoir “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.”) What made her scary to writers made her reliable to readers: you couldn’t easily predict where her favor would fall.

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Thank You. Michiko, for your Book Reviews in  the New York Times. You will be sorely missed. –Din Merican

More so than any critic working today, Kakutani has become synonymous with her profession. Her name long ago entered the lexicon as a verb (“to be Kakutanied”), a signifier of the ultimate cultural prestige. On “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw declared herself “terrified” of getting the Michiko treatment. A generation later, Hannah Horvath, on “Girls,” just wanted to “lock eyes” with her across a room—not an easy feat, considering Kakutani’s reputation for guarding her privacy. She turns down interviews, never does panels, and is rarely photographed. A head shot of Joan Didion is still, mysteriously, the first picture to appear on a Google search for Kakutani. Her Twitter avatar is an egg, though not one of the old default cartoon ones, beloved of trolls, but, rather, an attractive, hard-boiled number, luxuriating against a sea-green pillow.

Who is Michiko Kakutani? What is she like? One minuscule clue came in the much-discussed interview that she conducted with Barack Obama in January, days before his second term came to an end. When the President referred to his teen-age years, and his adolescent preference for “imbibing things that weren’t very healthy,” Kakutani responded, “I think all of us did.” Michiko Kakutani imbibed unhealthy substances in high school! I thought, with weird excitement. That she had couched this confession in a universal statement, thus disclosing absolutely nothing about herself, only added to her mystique.

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She is careful to hide herself on the page, too. “I” is a word that you will never read in a Kakutani review. She had no interest in the first person as a critical device, and that avoidance of the personal pronoun is part of what could make her negative reviews feel so lacerating. When she wrote, for instance, that Don DeLillo’s novel “Cosmopolis” was “a major dud, as lugubrious and heavy-handed as a bad Wim Wenders film, as dated as an old issue of Interview magazine,” the burn was all the sicker from being simultaneously so specific and so remote. (Note how this statement is actually three insults squeezed into one; what did Wim Wenders do to get so brutally Kakutanied along with DeLillo?)

Certain observers resented Kakutani for resisting “I,” a preference that became more noticeable as the chatty, confessional informality of Internet writing started to change the tone of criticism in the early aughts. Ben Yagoda, writing in Slate, accused Kakutani of having no humor, no wit, and no voice of her own. (He was, to this critic’s mind, overly aggrieved by the goofy reviews that Kakutani sometimes wrote in character. It’s a gruelling business, trying to find fresh ways to write about other people’s writing, let alone trying to do it multiple times a week. Let a critic have some fun.) Yagoda implored Kakutani to retire the old-fashioned epithet “the reader,” which she preferred to the personal pronoun. Then there’s the argument that the critic should use the first person to lay all her cards on the table, owning up to the particular experiences that shaped the taste that she’s bringing to bear on someone else’s work. But self-exposure wasn’t Kakutani’s style. What a critic needs most is independence, the ability to evaluate a work on her, and its, own terms. Some people find their independence through the first person, stressing the subjective nature of the whole critical enterprise. Kakutani found it by screening herself with the privacy afforded by the third. If she loved your book, or if she hated it, it wasn’t personal. “The reader” might always change her mind—next time.

Kakutani had deeper concerns about the possible pitfalls of relying too much on the first person. Writing in 2006 about the fraudulent memoirist James Frey, whose partially fabricated account of his struggles with addiction came to be seen as a high point of narcissism during the era’s memoir craze, she connected Frey’s slippery personal revisionism to broader cultural trends eroding the value of objectivity and truth. It was surprising, to say the least, to find, in a piece about one guy’s lies, references to Holocaust historiography, Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal, and the Bush White House’s manipulative cynicism regarding the invasion of Iraq. But Kakutani’s argument—that postmodernism and deconstruction had ushered in a view of the world in which “all meaning is relative, all truth elusive,” easily manipulated by people in power—proved perceptive and darkly prescient.

“We live in a relativistic culture where television ‘reality shows’ are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics,” she wrote. “This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like ‘credibility’ and ‘perception’ replace the old ideas of objective truth—a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability.” Kakutani has said that she’ll take advantage of her retirement as a regular critic to write longer pieces about politics and culture, and that’s a good thing. For all the uproar that any given rave or take down of hers could incite, she kept her eye on the bigger picture.

Tom Friedman’s Message to Donald Trump


March 16, 2017

Tom Friedman’s Message to Donald Trump

OPINION–New York Times

by Thomas L. Friedman

Every president has an early foreign policy test, and Donald Trump is no exception. Trump’s test is actually already in progress, and it bears some resemblance to the one faced by a young President Kennedy. Indeed, Trump’s crisis has best been described as a “slow-motion Cuban missile crisis” — only the crisis-driver is not Fidel Castro, but North Korea’s bizarre despot, Kim Jong-un.

If this crisis is not keeping you up at night, you’re not paying attention.Let’s see, we have an untested, macho, Twitter-happy U.S. president facing off against the leader of a dynastic North Korean political cult who’s building a long-range nuclear missile that could hit Los Angeles and who — allegedly — just had his half brother, Kim Jong-nam, knocked off by two women who wiped his face with a lethal nerve agent while he was transiting a Malaysian airport….

READ ON:

 

‘Russell Kirk: American Conservative,’ by Bradley J. Birzer


January 28, 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review

‘Russell Kirk: American Conservative,’ by Bradley J. Birzer

“I’m so happy to find that you’re little, too!” the political philosopher Leo Strauss said when he first met Russell Kirk in Chicago in the mid-1950s. “From your books, I had feared that you might be a great, tall, fierce man.” Kirk can still seem great and fierce.

It was his book “The Conservative Mind” (1953) that first used the word “conservative” to classify various currents of anti-progressive dissidence that ran from the French Revolution to the 20th-century heyday of social democracy. Kirk’s book was an event. After a recommendation from Whittaker Chambers, Time magazine devoted the entire book review section to it. And Kirk had other gifts. He was a capable writer of ghost and fantasy novels. He founded and edited two prestigious journals. Not just Strauss and Chambers but also T. S. Eliot and Ray Bradbury esteemed him. In 1955, Flannery O’Connor, scarcely able to walk, traveled 340 miles in hopes of seeing him lecture in ­Tennessee.

Yet, by the time he died in 1994 at the age of 75, Kirk did look little. His brand of conservatism had come under attack from some of the people it was meant to inspire, including “neoconservative” foreign policy hawks in Washington and Lincoln-revering disciples of Strauss on the West Coast.

In a diligent and adulatory study of Kirk’s life and thought, the Hillsdale College historian Bradley J. Birzer makes high claims for Kirk as both a man of letters and a philosopher, and makes plain why Kirk worked such a fascination on thinking Americans, even non­conservatives, half a century ago.

Kirk grew up in Plymouth, Mich., in a family that was bookish but poor. He was solitary and self-dramatizing, later even a bit of a dandy, affecting sword canes, capes, three-piece suits with watch fobs and fedoras. He wrote his first autobiography in his mid-30s and often referred to himself in the third person. (When his rival Frank Meyer won a foundation grant, Kirk wrote to William F. Buckley, “There is a concerted effort to denigrate Russell Amos Kirk.”) He sought out feuds with anyone he suspected of pragmatism, utilitarianism or logical positivism.

When the publication of “The Conservative Mind” made it possible for him to resign his junior faculty position at Michigan State, he cast his decision as a protest against the institution’s “progressive lowering of standards.”

The principles Kirk laid out in his books once passed for a generic description of conservatism. Today they look idiosyncratic. “The Conservative Mind” grew out of a doctoral thesis on the intellectual heirs of Edmund Burke that he wrote at St. Andrews in Scotland. Kirk was intellectually smitten with Burke, especially with his critical assessment of the French Revolution. He could paraphrase Burke with such subtlety that the reader can almost never tell where Burke leaves off and Kirk picks up.

“The individual is foolish, but the species is wise,” Kirk writes. “Prejudices and prescriptions and presumptions are the instruments which the wisdom of the species employs to safeguard man against his own passions and appetites.” Kirk stressed the religious roots of Burke’s thought, easily documented but until then of interest to relatively few scholars.

“The Conservative Mind” is Manichaean in its certitudes. It elicits passions and loyalties as a sport does. A conservative is one who plays on the Burkean “team,” fights for the same decencies Burke does and denounces the right opponents: the dastardly Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, and Jeremy Bentham, promulgator of “utilitarian” theories that seek “the greatest good for the greatest number,” who is the book’s archfiend. Thus Kirk conscripts the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, a liberal Whig, into his conservative army, only because Macaulay wrote a rather atypical debunking of Bentham in his youth.

Kirk is preposterously Anglophilic. This disposition is justified by the influence of British thought on the conservative parts of America’s constitutional culture, but it quivers with something more literary and emotional, too. When Kirk writes of Britain’s tragic inability to defend “the rural parishes and tight little towns that had nourished English political stability, English literature and English charm,” one hears a note that runs through American literature after Henry James.

“The Conservative Mind” is the work of an American shocked by a first encounter with Europe, and thus with the relative shallowness of his own culture. Perhaps Kirk had a vocation for nostalgia: In his early 20s, he worked at Greenfield Village — Henry Ford’s “living history” theme park — where he did a variety of jobs, including playing the role of old-time preacher.

Kirk’s philosophical conservatism is nothing like the political doctrines that today bear that name: He backed the Socialist Norman Thomas for President in 1944, Barry Goldwater in 1964, Eugene McCarthy in 1976 and Pat Buchanan in 1992. He was not nationalistic. American nuclear strategy, the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II, the country’s treatment of American Indians and Middle East policy at the time of the first gulf war — these outraged him. Nor does Kirk extol entrepreneurship. He regrets that “Alexander Hamilton the financier, the party manager, the empire builder, fascinates those numerous Americans among whom the acquisitive instinct is confounded with the conservative tendency.” Kirk worried early on about “vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining.”

Because Kirk cut such an eccentric path through the Western intellectual tradition, it is no mean scholarly feat to discern an overarching project in his writing. At this Birzer succeeds admirably. He gives mini-biographies of those who influenced Kirk, including the Harvard French scholar Irving Babbitt, the Nation editor Paul Elmer More and (in rather too much detail) T. S. Eliot.

Birzer traces a favorite Kirkian-Burkean argument — that societies too rationally organized make easy prey for demagogues — to its origins in Plato’s “Republic.” He shows that the Stoicism Kirk professed in his youth is in profound philosophical harmony with the Catholicism he turned to in the 1960s and that Kirk was not the first intellectual to make the transition from one to the other. He believes Kirk suffered from his forays into politics and from his association with Buckley and National Review.

Birzer’s focus is more on Kirk’s thought than on his life. We do not find out why Kirk remained celibate until he married in his mid-40s or how he managed to spend whole summers in Scotland when he was so often strapped for cash. Like Kirk himself (who called Henry Adams “the zenith of American civilization,” Eric Voegelin “the most influential historian of our century” and Bradbury 20th-century America’s “best prose fiction” writer), Birzer is given to flinging around superlatives. He calls one of the characters in Kirk’s “Lord of the Hollow Dark” “not only a highlight of the novel but also a highlight of 20th-century literature.” He exaggerates Kirk’s importance in the past decades’ revival of interest in Burke and Tocqueville.

Birzer ascribes to Kirk a larger role than the facts warrant in the early stages of Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the 1964 Republican nomination, showing that Kirk wrote two speeches for him in 1962 but giving no account of any conversation the two ever had and citing no Goldwater letters that go beyond political boilerplate. Kirk is too often the book’s hero rather than its subject.

Birzer calls “The Conservative Mind” a “postmodern hagiography.” It is an apt description. Kirk’s mighty intelligence was, in retrospect, that of a curator or anthologist, not that of a creator. To say so is not to demean him. Kirk’s guiding principle was that when the subject is human nature, nothing is ever really created. Institutions, traditions and wisdom are either handed down or, if need be, rediscovered. This remains a deep and necessary insight. “Conservatism” is as good a name for it as any.

An earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to the aspect of America’s World War II internment of people of Japanese ancestry that particularly outraged Russell Kirk. It was the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, not the internment of Japanese citizens. (Though many Japanese citizens were indeed interned, a majority of the internees were American citizens.)

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

A version of this review appears in print on January 24, 2016, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Original Conservative.

Book Review–Ike and Apprentice Dick


September 12, 2015

History: Dwight Eisenhower and Apprentice Richard Nixon

by 

Ike and DickDwight David Eisenhower and Richard Milhous Nixon

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., someone who unquestionably understood charisma, considered Vice President Richard Nixon “one of the most magnetic personalities” he had ever encountered. “When you are close to Nixon,” King observed in 1958, “he almost disarms you with his apparent sincerity.” But King also worried that there might be a hidden duality to Nixon, or worse, a facade. If the Vice President was actually insincere, King warned, he could be “the most dangerous man in America.”

Nixon’s Vice-Presidential years are arguably the least well-known of his long political career. It has been over 20 years since Stephen Ambrose wrote the first and until now only major book to focus on Nixon’s Vice Presidency. Much has since been released about the Eisenhower administration, and Ambrose’s own research methods have been called into question. But the reason Nixon’s activities between 1952 and 1961 are comparatively little understood also relates to a problem inherent in studying vice presidencies. Big decisions emanate from the White House, not the Vice President’s office (though Dick Cheney may have broken the mold). Furthermore, the most influential Vice Presidents know to keep their advice confidential.

With the publication of “The President and the Apprentice,” Irwin F. Gellman hopes to fill that void. He is a prodigious researcher, who made his name with fine books on Franklin Roosevelt’s Cuba policy and on Sumner Welles. “The Contender,” his first book on Richard Nixon, covered the congressional years, and made the case that other historians had missed the Nixon behind the redbaiting.

In this long-awaited second volume, Gellman continues trying to set the record straight. He sees far less animosity in the peculiar political marriage between Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower than did Jeffrey Frank in his elegant and indispensable “Ike and Dick.” Gellman agrees with most historians that Eisenhower was prepared to drop Nixon from the ticket in 1952 over allegations about a secret fund set up by Southern Californian businessmen. Gellman, who has found the notes Eisenhower made while watching Nixon give the so-called Checkers speech, concludes that the General gained new respect for his running mate. Persuaded that Nixon was being honest, and impressed by his savvy and political courage, Eisenhower started to groom him for the Presidency.

Book Review--Eisenhower and his ApprenticeAlthough Nixon is clearly the “apprentice” of the title, what Gellman describes is more like a symbiotic relationship. Young enough to be Eisenhower’s son, Nixon traveled around the world for the President, serving as his eyes and ears. Presidential cynicism played a role in these assignments. Eisenhower exploited Nixon’s unassailable anti-Communist credentials to defend his policies abroad. At home, Eisenhower used Nixon to rally the Republicans’ restive right-wing base, occasionally wincing when Nixon verged on charging Democrats with treason but never ordering him to curtail his Reds! Reds! Reds! roadshows.

In a fascinating chapter on Nixon’s health, Gellman breaks new ground in understanding the man. Nixon’s trusted doctor Arnold Hutschnecker turns out to have been a Dr. Feelgood. Starting in 1952, Nixon sought help from Hutschnecker for a series of stress-induced ailments, and the doctor prescribed a medicine-­cabinetful of barbiturates and sleep aids (Seconal and Doriden), tranquilizers (Equanil) and “uppers” (Dexamyl), a potentially addictive, mood-altering cocktail that Nixon apparently took throughout the 1950s and possibly thereafter. We can now reconcile assertions by Nixon’s defenders that he drank little with evidence of strange late-night calls, slurred words and incoherence. As Gellman writes, “At the height of the Cold War, both the president and the vice president could easily have been simultaneously incapacitated, leaving no one responsible for governing.”

Like many Nixon scholars, Gellman believes that there were two Nixons. His private Nixon was a thoughtful pragmatist. The demagogy was political theater. “Nixon,” Gellman writes, “the inflexible ­anti-Communist in public, was far more flexible in private.” Unfortunately, instead of reflecting on the consequences of Nixon’s cynical use of anti-Communist rhetoric for the country, Gellman focuses on the cost to Nixon’s reputation. Had historians and the news media been allowed to sit in on Eisenhower’s national security meetings, he argues, they would have seen the real, non-ideological Nixon. Nixon’s crowning foreign policy achievement, the opening to China a decade later, would not then have so shocked Nixon watchers. “The roots of Nixon’s thinking about East Asia,” he asserts, “go back to his vice presidency.”

Gellman’s case for Nixon’s foreign policy pragmatism this early on is not persuasive. There is nothing in the book to suggest that Nixon was inclined to think a two-China policy possible. Nixon returned from a 1953 meeting with the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek singing his praises, despite the fact that the delusional Chiang was lobbying for support of a 600,000-man army to invade the mainland and topple Mao. More important, Gellman tends to play down the scattered but unmistakable evidence that Eisenhower and Nixon disagreed on how cold the Cold War should be. Eisenhower, for example, wanted to expand East-West trade as a way of forcing the Soviets to be better players in the game of nations; Nixon thought this a bad idea. Nixon favored American armed intervention to help the French win their war in Indochina in 1954. Eisenhower wisely disagreed. In sum, when Eisenhower deviated from hard-line Cold War policies, at least in his first term, Nixon was uncomfortable.

It is on the explosive issue of race where pragmatism may be the best explanation for Nixon’s Vice Presidency. Nixon was Eisenhower’s personal representative to the civil rights community, and “The President and the Apprentice” provides a thorough accounting of his activities. Gellman rightly points out that the Eisenhower administration’s record on civil rights was as significant as the Truman administration’s. And Nixon was comfortable among ­African-Americans to an extent not shared by Eisenhower or Truman. African-­American leaders like King took notice.

Gellman is convinced that Nixon was a sincere advocate of civil rights. “Fighting for racial justice,” Nixon wrote privately in 1958, “is for me a moral as well as a legal obligation.” As a result, Gellman sees Nixon as unfairly tarred with racism. “During my 20 years of Nixon research,” Gellman says, “I have not found him uttering any racial slurs.” He then cites another scholar, Luke Nichter, to demonstrate that even on the infamous tapes, where Nixon revels in using every other dirty word, the N-word does not escape his lips.

People of good faith can debate whether in fact they hear that word on the often muddy recordings, but racism is not exclusively the use of an epithet. In two chilling conversations with Daniel Patrick Moynihan in October and December 1971, Nixon discussed the implications for federal social policy of “science” allegedly showing that the Negro race was genetically inferior. Nixon, at least as President, believed that race largely determined I.Q.

Although Gellman’s research is extensive and his work on Nixon’s well-being is essential reading, this book is like a feast that leaves one hungry. A bit too quick to distance himself from the most ­single-minded of Nixon’s critics, Gellman provides an equally simplistic theory for what lay behind the actions of a publicly loyal Vice President. His Nixon is a little bland: loyal, eager and, though politically cynical, deeply misunderstood. As Vice President, Nixon clearly did not have the power to be “the most dangerous man in America.” That power would come later.

Timothy Naftali, clinical associate professor of history and public service at New York ­University, is the Founding Director of the Federal Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

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.

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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?.