Alasdair MacIntyre on the Trump Phenomenon

As with most things in life, Alasdair MacIntyre cuts right through the noise to the heart of things (in this case, what public support for Donald Trump might mean. From the first chapter of Whose Justice, Which Rationality:

Partly it [the Teflon-like ability of some to resist the charge of “irrationality” or “extremism”] is a matter of a general cynicism in our culture about the power or even the relevance of rational argument to matters sufficiently fundamental. Fideism has a large, not always articulate, body of adherents, and not only among the members of those Protestant churches and movements which openly proclaim it; there are plenty of secular fideists. And partly it is because of a strong and sometimes justified suspicion by those against whom the charge is leveled that those who level it do so, not so much because they themselves are genuinely moved by rational argument, as by appealing to argument they are able to exercise a kind of power which favors their own interests and privileges, the interests and privileges of a class which has arrogated the rhetorically effective use of argument to itself for its own purposes.

Arguments, that is to say, have come to be understood in some circles not as expressions of rationality, but as weapons, the techniques for deploying which furnish a key part of the professional skills of lawyers, academics, economists, and journalists who thereby dominate the dialectically unfluent and inarticulate. There is thus a remarkable concordance in the way in which apparently very different types of social and cultural groups envisage each other’s commitments. To the readership of the New York Times, or at least that part of it which shares the presuppositions of those who write that parish magazine of affluent and self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment, the congregations of evangelical fundamentalism appear unfashionably unenlightened. But to the members of those congregations that readership appears to be just as much a community of pre-rational faith as they themselves are but one whose members, unlike themselves, fail to recognize themselves for what they are, and hence are in no position to  level charges of irrationality at them or anyone else.

If you believed (with evidence) that there was a conspiracy of “reason” that made the kinds of arguments, beliefs, or reasons you held about a topic to be prima facie inadmissible in public discourse, don’t you think you would glom on to the first person or persons who “told it like it is” or “said what you were thinking”? It is in this way that (in the US, as well as Europe) it is the conspiracy of the “reasonable” biens pensants in the political and media elite to narrow legitimate political discourse that ultimately creates the vacuum into which far right populism enters.

Magic Kingdom: It’s a Small Civilization After All

I’m finally getting around to publishing my Disney posts- you can expect three more after this.

Magic Kingdom’s “It’s a Small World After All” (hereafter IASW) probably won the award for “Ride Experienced Most Differently As an Adult” (though Epcot’s “The American Adventure” was a close second- more on that in my next post). That’s mostly because Eddie Keane’s “Makings of the Modern International System” seminar has had my brain firing hard-core on the complicated politics of globalization and the links amongst geopolitics (or imperialism), civilization, economic ties, and cultural change in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For those of you unfamiliar, IASW is a fixed boat-track “tour of the world” throughout various rooms filled with animatronic puppets representing different countries/cultures/ethnicities all singing the eponymous ear worm of a song. Premiering at the famous 1964 World’s Fair in New York, it proved extremely popular, and later became a Disney World stalwart.

The lazy accusation to make of IASW is that it trucks in mildly racist stereotypes. Which is sort of true, but not very interesting (besides, every people group on the ride is presented rather stereotypically). Much more interesting is actually the way the ride is organized. The world is presented in this order:

First Room: Europe

  • Scandinavia
  • Germany
  • France
  • UK
  • Holland
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • (Classical) Greece (at the doorway to room 2)

Second Room: Asia

  • Hasidic/Shtetl Jews
  • (Modern) Greece
  • Russia
  • China
  • Bali/Indonesia
  • India
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Thailand

Third Room: Africa

  • Egypt/Arabia
  • “Africa” (jungle, savannah, lots of “tribal” dancers/musicians, various African animals)

Fourth Room: South America

  • Argentina,
  • Chile
  • Mexico
  • “Rain Forest”

Fifth Room: South Pacific

  • Hawaii
  • Australia
  • Polynesia
  • New Guinea

Sixth Room: Finale

 

smallworld2

Less imaginative commentators have pointed out that IASW doesn’t exactly provide a geographically coherent view of the world. Besides organizing rooms into various “continents”, there isn’t much organization, and the order of continents (or of countries within continents) doesn’t make much sense. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a coherent organizational logic behind the ride. I submit that the organizational logic at work here is the “Standard of Civilization” and the remnants of a Euro-centric Enlightenment view of history that still had currency in the early 60s, with a unique American twist which I’ll explain.

The timing sort of makes sense. When Walt Disney was working on the ride in 1963, the colonial wars were still raging, and every major European colonial power was still heavily involved in its former colonies, if not still the formal sovereign. While it is hard to see this in retrospect, a lot of the discourse defending these colonial holdings was of the civilizational variety; “liberal imperialism” (a la JS Mill) was the only acceptable kind – involvement in the colonies allowed the European states to continue the work of “educating” and uplifting colonial peoples to the refinement, manners, knowledge, “civilization” of the West. Lest we see this as purely one-sided, in each colonial nation there was a significant fraction of the populace (usually the educated, often elite section) that more or less agreed with this proposition (Graham Greene documents this in subtle and compelling ways in his novel The Quiet American). At the same time, following WW1, another civilizational discourse had taken ahold in the world, one emphasizing the plurality of civilizations and their (relative) equality. Propelled forward by a curious mix of historically minded Europeans (like Toynbee), new kinds of nationalism, and educated elites from “non-civilized” countries, the civilizations discourse was opposed to and deconstructive of the “Standard of Civilization”, holding that, as opposed to all of humanity moving together (at varying speeds) towards one common standard of progress, science, reason, etc., many cultures and peoples were advancing along their own ideals, standards of progress, and developmental trajectories. These two conceptions (civilization and civilizations) are interlinked in complex ways- societies on the margins of the West like the Ottoman Empire/Turkey, Japan, and Russia often pursued “civilization” before turning to a “civilizations” discourse and their own developmental trajectory after being rebuffed by Europe. And a belief in a planet of multiple civilizations did not prevent a belief in a competition amongst civilizations (a la Huntington) or in the local supremacy of one civilization and the construction of a local “Standard of Civilization” (a la the Soviets in Central Asia or Japanese imperialism in the 1930s-40s).

So what does this have to do with IASW? On one hand, there is clearly a “civilizations” discourse going on here – there is no overt hierarchy of nations, and each society is presented in a positive light with its “traditional culture” at the fore (even though many of those “traditional cultures”, like that of the Scottish, only came into being in light of 19th century nationalism and civilizational discourse). On the other hand, the old Standard of Civilization looms large. The journey starts in the “heart” of the civilized world – Northern and Western Europe, before taking you right down the spectrum into slightly less civilized/enlightened/productive/scientific Southern Europe (Spain, Italy) into even less civilized Eastern Europe and the Balkans (the most “barbaric” parts of Europe) and into the “Barbaric” countries which had real culture and law, but not the individualism and advancement of Europe, such as Japan, Korea, India, and China. IASW showcases the “culture” of these countries (traditional buildings, dress, etc) but none of the modern technology found in the Europe room. After that comes the “Savage” territories of Africa and the New World – “discovered” late by Europeans, and after the Great Divergence was well underway. While lacking in culture and law to European standards, they had the benefit of a “natural” lifestyle, a kind of Rousseauian primitivism. On IASW, only Egypt (the “civilized” part of Africa) and the Aztec ruins of Mexico contain any human architecture – the rest of Africa, South America, and Polynesia is a mixture of wild nature and “tribal” society (with the implied “wildness” of human society in these places front and center).

This leaves an interesting question – where is the United States represented in this world? It seems to me that the Finale room, while not explicitly American, represents a kind of classic American critique/embrace of the Standard of Civilizations. Here, representatives of all different races/ethnicities meet in a kind of “melting pot”, united by the progress of science and technology (exemplified by bright electrical lights, Ferris wheels, hot air balloons, etc), made equal by the experience of migration, assimilation, and integration into American society, which is a kind of prototype of a new possibility in world society. It’s telling that there is an ambiguity between whether this is a depiction of America or the world – this kind of cultivated both/and structure I found to be characteristic of Disney World as a whole (which I’ll explain in my future posts). The Finale room is an insight into how Walt Disney saw the 1964 Worlds Fair – as presenting an image of what the American World Order meant. All of the elements of IASW – the simultaneous embrace of “traditional” culture and technological progress, the earnest belief that the United States offers an alternative to a European way of making sense of world society, the tight link between government, society, and business in the service of this broader democratic vision (IASW was sponsored by Pepsi) – are found today at Disney World, in spades. IASW is a glimpse of the politics of Disney World in miniature; it is, perhaps, also a peephole into a deeper, even subconscious, part of the American mentality towards international politics and the purpose of American society.

 

My next post will be on the politics of Disney World.

 

The Happiest Place on Earth

Last week Laura and I went to Disney World as Laura’s birthday gift from my parents and had an absolute blast.

The part that’s always fascinated me about Disney World is Walt Disney’s vision for the place and the way that’s been protected and carried on by the corporation. It’s this vision, I think, that helps Disney World feel different from any other theme park- it has a real ethos apart from providing easy entertainment and making money (though they’re really good at those too).

What is Disney’s vision? Walt Disney saw himself as a myth maker and storyteller for the Modern Age, doing for the imagination what Henry Ford had done for transportation or Ray Kroc had done for food. By remaking classic European myths in the American image and making them fit for mass consumption, Disney was making a democratic and New World statement of the kind Jefferson or Whitman would have understood and appreciated. Disney believed in intentionally cultivating and furthering what he saw as American distinctives like enterprise, ingenuity, ruggedness, innovation, self-reliance, etc (it’s easy to forget that Disney was a major and eager participant in American anti-fascist and anti-communist propaganda campaigns). It was possible that this ethos could have been lost post Sexual Revolution, post-Cold War, but it wasn’t.  The following posts will explain why I think this was and why that matters.

To anyone reading who worries that I’m overthinking Disney and I should have been focused on having fun- this is my idea of fun! Plus, and we’ll see, Disney World is a fun and entertaining place with a pretty serious purpose.

Blog post 1.0

Laura and I are starting to blog. Partly, this is just to keep in better communication with friends and family and provide more of a picture into our life abroad. But part of this, too, is motivated by the value of writing things down, making them plain in the written word. As someone who spends a lot of time (both professionally and by inclination) learning, researching, thinking, and reflecting, the importance of writing things down, and in doing so in a structured way, is increasingly obvious to me. I find that, in general, my best ideas come during conversations with other people or when I’m walking around (there has been some interesting recent cognitive research to support the latter activity as paramount to thinking – there’s a reason Kant, Heidegger, and Tolkien, among others, made walking central to their thinking practices).     The great dangers of this mode of thinking are two. The first is, simply, that you will forget what you have thought, or at least not remember it in its entirety. It is the great conceit of those of an intellectual persuasion that great thoughts endure. They do not. Even the most striking insights have a tendency to slip away, and anything less than a flash of pure brilliance is sure to exit one’s memory before too long. The second, related to the first, is that one’s ideas in conversation or in one’s own head can be unstructured or have serious flaws that are not immediately apparent; the process of writing forces ideas into structure and argumentation and makes it easier to refine them. 

     My writing here will focus on whatever I’m working on or thinking about – you can expect stuff on the far-reaching economic, cultural, political and maybe even metaphysical effects of our rapidly evolving information and communications infrastructure, changes in the contemporary international system of states (and in those states themselves), Russia (of course), and other (hopefully interesting) tidbits. I hope it brings some profit to you – if it does, join the conversation! 

A Girls’ Weekend in Bath – Part 1

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen: the first real blog post on the Askonas family goings on.

A dear friend of mine, K, from College is working in London for the month of June, which conveniently happens to be the month we both turn 27, just a week apart. Up first was K’s special day, and we decided to take an easy (and cheapish!) trip out to Bath for a true girls’ weekend. We packed a lot into 48 hours this past weekend, so this amazing trip gets not one, but two posts!

Still defending Rome's farthest reaches, millennia later.

Still defending Rome’s farthest reaches in the North, millennia later.

Friday night, we met up on the train to Bath—I feel like I have officially been through a European resident right of passage in engineering an on-train meet up with a gal pal (Oxford is not just “on the way” from London to Bath!). We first checked into our hostel: my first ever hostel dorm experience and, frankly, it was a surprisingly amazing one. Special shout out to all the ladies in the dorm who actually left the lights off and kept quieter than I could ever have imagined. (If you’re traveling to Bath anytime soon, check it out: YMCA Bath Hostel) Pooped from our rough/long weeks, we wandered to a nearby pub for a couple pints before hitting the hay.

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey

First thing to know: Bath is an unbelievably beautiful city. I’ll get into more of the history in tomorrow’s post, but its important to know that the majority of it grew up in a very short period of time during the Georgian/Regency era. K regularly exclaimed, “This town is so picturesque” as we turned new corners—and it is, it is stupid picturesque. We spent all day Saturday focused on just relaxing and I could not have asked for better surroundings for such an endeavor. We even got lucky with a rather overcast/misty day, meaning we didn’t have to deal with the regular Saturday hordes.

Thermae Bath Spa from the  street.

Thermae Bath Spa from the street.

We rose early on Saturday to ensure we wouldn’t be cramped when we “took the waters” at Thermae Bath Spa, THE hot water spa in town. A wise choice given the line was short right at opening at 9 AM, but out the door and around the corner by the time we left at 12 PM. The Spa has 2 different hot baths (including a rooftop bath!) and aromatherapy steam rooms, and, boy, did we get our relaxation on. Always the obnoxious American, I spent most of our bathing time engaged in what I have dubbed “water yoga” because it’s not relaxing if you’re not trying to relax, right? A big thanks to K for being the best partner-in-crimes-of-flexibility and not caring at all what the surrounding, judgmental Brits thought of us.

Someone is ready for tea!

Someone is ready for tea!

Upon leaving the spa we felt like happy, smiley zombies (exactly what we wanted) and we proceeded to spend the rest of the day in our silly trance. After a quick coffee (to ensure zombies didn’t become sleeping beauties), our journey to Zen continued at the nail salon where the uncomfortably steamy Enrique Iglesias videos on loop just enhanced the experience. After all, they say laughter is the best medicine. Then, it was time for my favorite meal of the day, afternoon tea! (Yes, we skipped lunch just to ensure sufficient room in our stomachs for this time-honored tradition.) To get the full Bath experience, we took tea at the Pump Room, where Regency-era Brits (think Jane Austen) came to take the waters straight from the natural hot spring for which Bath is famous (the Roman Baths adjoins). Complete with piano, cello, and violin trio, it was the perfect choice!   So civilized. So relaxing. Then, with time to kill, little will to do face the crowds at any tourist attractions, and another birthday celebration around the corner at the Royal Ascot races next weekend, we hit the shops. K found herself both a hat and a dress for the races, but I regret to report that I did not share her luck.

The Royal Crescent: the row house to end all row houses.

The Royal Crescent: the row house to end all row houses.

Finally, we spent the night properly celebrating K’s birthday (which fell on the next day). On a tip from a friend, we started the evening with cocktails at the Royal Crescent Hotel’s Montagu Bar. Our drinks were out of this world! If only we could try all of them without compromising my composure… There were all kinds of combinations I have never seen before and they were oh so tasty! After drinks, we headed to dinner at a French restaurant, which, as luck would have it, had opened only the night before! That meant free glasses of champagne all around. We split an incredible baked Camembert, Beef Bourguignon for 2, and crème brûlèe before almost dying from the growing size of our stomachs. And in true French fashion, good wine flowed freely. We learned that bars in Bath close at midnight, which left little time for further festivities after our very late dinner. So we cut the night short when the bars closed, since turning 27 means we both feel way too old to even dare touch the club scene with a 10-foot pole.

Then, it was off to bed until the next day of adventures was to begin… Spoiler alert: there will be period costumes.