The individual and history

Questions Raised by 9/11, and Their Answers [An old grad-school paper] Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 is an illuminating account of Muslim terrorism prior to the attack on the Twin Towers. It describes the origins of such terrorism and specifically the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. At the same time, it traces in great detail the history of the U.S. government’s attempt to destroy terrorism, showing that it was partly because of bureaucratic incompetence and obstructionism in the FBI and CIA that 9/11 happened. The picture that emerges from the book is that bin Laden and his deputy al-Zawahiri have been the driving forces behind Muslim terroris

The importance of John Brown

[Grad-school notes...] I'm reading about John Brown--David Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights--an excellent, massive book that rehabilitates Brown from the propaganda that he was insane and a fanatic... John Brown, hero. R. W. Emerson: “John Brown will make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Did you know he had wild support among Northern intellectuals and Northern soldiers during the Civil War? Alfred Kazin said the war wouldn’t have happened without him. (Probably false. But he definitely hastened it.) Brown knew that only violence could end slavery. Reynolds’ book is “cultural history.” The cultural biographer

"Social Democracy Is the Best Form of Government"

[As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University I wrote hundreds of essays not all of which, I think, are worthless. Here's a short one on social democracy. Needless to say, the best form of 'government' is in fact socialism, in which workers democratically run the economy themselves. But in capitalist conditions, nothing beats social democracy.] Social Democracy Is the Best Form of Government Conservatives and other lovers of the "free market" have generally considered the welfare state to be a restriction upon individual freedom. The Lockean rights to private property and political liberty are, they declare, trampled on in economic systems such as Sweden’s. Moreover, the evils of paternalism c

Against idealism

[The following thoughts are from this book.] It’s funny that people often deprecate Marxian materialism as an explanation of society and human behavior, given that virtually no one cares much about ideas. People think they do, but basically they’re wrong. They insist that ideas, ideological motivations, and spiritual matters are very important to them....but then proceed to ignore them in their lives. Just listen to people talk and you’ll see they’re essentially unfamiliar with ideas and don’t think about them very often. Their understanding of the world is utterly superficial; their ideological commitments exist mainly on the level of words; quotidian personal interests are what preoccupy t

Existentialist thoughts on David Foster Wallace

[From 2008. Copied here, somewhat irrelevantly, in recognition of the recent suicides that have been in the news.] Read an article in Rolling Stone about Wallace. I see that his whole life was essentially my life between 18 and 25. In other words, it sucked. Right up to his suicide he had the same insecurities, the same thoughts, I had. Consider what he wrote in a letter: “I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I’m not one of the good ones. But then I countenance the fact that at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integri

D. W. Winnicott on playing

Here's a set of old notes on a classic book by the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott. I happen to be skeptical of psychoanalysis, since it lacks a rigorous scientific foundation and consists largely of "stories" (to quote Chomsky) that may be more or less plausible, but at its best it can be very thought-provoking. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality. Skimmed it long ago but I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate it. Three parts of a person’s life: inner reality, external life, and experiencing (between the two). “[The latter is] an area that is not challenged…a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated.” “The subs

Random thoughts on the self

Phenomenological explorations of consciousness and the self have always fascinated me, and over the years I've taken reams of notes on the subject. Many of them are collected here (and also on this page). Here's a short passage on the desire for recognition, or self-confirmation, that lies at the foundation of the self. If you deeply appreciate the meaning and the power of the desire for recognition, your life is turned upside down. That’s how you can tell whether you’ve understood the phenomenon. All great human endeavors are shot through with futility because they are directed at eternity. They are directed at a projection of the abstract Other in the self, a projection that can be either

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