To the outside world the sheer nastiness of scientific feuds often comes as something of a surprise; politics, by contrast, is a relatively polite affair.
Matt Ridley, Genome: The autobiography of a species in 23 chapters, 1999.
January 12, 2017
January 8, 2017
James Miller is more than a bit skeptical of those who unabashedly sing the praises of NASA and more generally the “I love science sexually” crowd:
I’ve never understood the slobbering love affair many have with outer space and, more specifically, NASA. Sure, the moon landing was an incredible feat demonstrating American strength at time of conflict with a competing superpower. But I’m in agreement with Gary North: It was the “most expensive PR stunt in American history,” with little other benefit. We have yet to put a man on another moon, let alone another planet. It’s been a half century since Neil Armstrong made history, and the federal government still fails at running a simple website.
The saccharine lengths some go to to express their admiration for NASA has always made me queasy. Like all government bureaucracies, it wastes an incredible amount of money. Yet conservative lawmakers like Ted Cruz never miss an opportunity to remind us that conquering new galaxies is paramount to our national survival.
If the windbags in Washington can’t put a stop to the caliphate of killers in the Middle East, what hope is there for putting a colony on Kepler-186f?
My antipathy for space travel goes hand in hand with my overall distaste for science worshipping. The celebrification of the study of the natural world has been as infantilizing and degrading as Richard Nixon’s clownish appearance on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. “I fucking love science”? I’d much rather string celebrity science guy Neil deGrasse Tyson up by his thumbs.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link. Kathy also throws shade at Star Wars and praises the heck out of Star Trek:
If Star Trek was actually set on Antarctica (and here, it is) I would watch the hell out of that (and have.)
But I also love how this fictional universe (which I would HATE to live in because they’ve abolished money, wear ugly clothes, and pretend to believe in peace and love and shit) has inspired real world, well, enterprises.
Yes, space travel is stupid. But it’s amazing that a black woman decided she could and would become an astronaut because she saw an actress do it on her TV when she was a kid.
I totally get that, and just get off on the phenomenon of people taking a sliver of fiction, and having seen this fake, plastic, non-functional prop, worked to create a functional version (and a multi-billion dollar industry.)
It’s like cargo culting, except by, well, smart people with way more resources who actually want shit to work.
Star WARS on the other hand is just life-wasting masturbatory etc EXCLUSIVELY.
Star Wars is nothing but escapism.
It has had no real world impact except that negative one. Star Wars has been a net negative on society while Star Trek has been a net positive:
December 18, 2016
On a recent visit to New York City, I had the opportunity to walk around the exterior of the new Whitney Museum, built at a cost of $442 million. It is a monument of a kind: to the vanity, egotism, and aesthetic incompetence of celebrity architects such as Renzo Piano, and to the complete loss of judgment and taste of modern patrons.
If it were not a tragic lost opportunity (how often do architects have the chance to build an art gallery at such cost?), it would be comic. I asked the person with whom I was walking what he would think the building was for if he didn’t know. The façade — practically without windows — looked as if it could be the central torture chambers of the secret police, from which one half expects the screams of the tortured to emerge. Certainly, it was a façade for those with something to hide: perhaps appropriately so, given the state of so much modern art.
The building was a perfect place from which to commit suicide, with what looked like large diving boards emerging from the top of the building, leading straight to the ground far below. Looking up at them, one could almost hear in one’s mind’s ear the terrible sound of the bodies as they landed on the ground below. There were also some (for now) silvery industrial chimneys, leading presumably from the incinerators so necessary for the disposal of rubbishy art. The whole building lacked harmony, as if struck already by an earthquake and in a half-collapsed state; it’s a tribute to the imagination of the architect that something so expensive should be made to look so cheap. It is certain to be shabby within a decade.
Theodore Dalrymple, “A Monument to Tastelessness: The new Whitney Museum looks like a torture chamber”, City Journal, 2015-04-22.
November 16, 2016
In Maclean’s, Flannery Dean explains how making politics seem like entertainment may have contributed to the defeat of Hillary Clinton through encouraging apathy among her potential supporters:
The next evening, during his Live Election Night special on Showtime, Colbert quickly lost his taste for the political absurdity that has defined his success. When it was clear Trump’s victory was all but assured, the amiable host couldn’t summon up the heart to tell a joke. Trump as president “is a horrifying prospect,” he confessed. “I can’t put a happy face on that and that is my job.”
Cue the sinking feeling that you didn’t really know what was going on — all this time you thought politics was just a big joke that you shouldn’t take too seriously.
It was a Colonel Kurtz moment for Colbert, his guests, and the audience that had tuned in to be entertained by political humour and not troubled by its complete inadequacy in the face of seismic change.
You can hardly blame them for being caught unaware of the new dark zeitgeist, though. For the past 15 years, satire has become the preferred mode of left-leaning civic engagement. And The Daily Show’s tone — sarcastic, smug, chiding, and then creepily sentimental — has infiltrated mainstream media on TV, in print, and online (take this Nov. 11 story on Slate, for instance, that’s suffused with the adolescent eye-rolling that often accompanies troubling political information these days).
Given satire’s cultural dominance, it is not surprising that many may have naively assumed any real threat to American democracy had somehow been ridiculed into nullity by the likes of Stewart and Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee. But Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton revealed the error of the mainstream faith in political satire as an effective form of political engagement. In reality, our prolonged love affair with cracking wise wasn’t a tonic that shook people out of their apathy — it was a symptom of it.
“The more liberal you are, the more you see Colbert as a liberal skewering conservatives. But the more conservative you are, the more you see Stephen Colbert as a conservative skewing liberals.”
What did the Left see in Colbert’s murky mirror? Cute and kind of harmless hardliners — wind-up toys for them to play with. It’s hard not to see the mainstream media’s approach to Trump’s candidacy as being tainted by that dynamic: They were entertained by him, but few took him seriously.
That incredulity has legs, unfortunately. Many journalists and thinkers appear to be operating within the old zeitgeist still, assuming American politics is just another genre of entertainment, and that Trump is, at bottom, a soulless entertainer who was only pretending to be a racist, a xenophobe, and a despot in an effort to get elected.
H/T to Colby Cosh for the link.
November 8, 2016
Nathan Robinson explains everything you need to know about Ezra Klein’s Vox:
For the past two years, Ezra Klein’s philosophy in running Vox.com has been precisely this: people do not need facts, they need explanations. The ordinary person is ill-equipped to interpret the facts, to figure out what they mean. Klein rejects what he calls the “More Information Hypothesis,” the idea that a better-informed citizenry could have more productive political debates. In fact, because we see facts through partisan lenses, facts alone are useless. People are irresponsible with knowledge; facts just make them “better equipped to argue for their own side.”
Thus for Klein, the job of experts is not to give the public raw information, so that it can come to its own conclusions. The job of experts is to process the information themselves, and tell the public what it ought to have concluded. They are not here to help you figure out what you believe. You are a hopelessly irrational consumer. They are here, rather, to tell you what to think.
Vox therefore does not hesitate to make strong judgments. Its headlines frequently declare that “No, X is not what you think it is…” or tell you “Here’s the real reason why…” It promises to give everything you need to know on a subject, eliminating the need for further curiosity on the reader’s part. If you don’t know what the 18 best television shows are, Vox will tell you. (Quantification is its specialty; Vox builds trust by knowing the numbers, by having the data.) The Vox “explainers” say it plainly: about this, there can be no doubt.
Yet strangely, Vox staff would likely bristle at being called mere manufacturers of “opinion” or “commentary.” This is because when a Vox-er declares a scandal to be “bullshit,” he intends it as fact rather than opinion. There is no attempt to distinguish between the journalistic and the editorial. It all blurs together as “analysis.” Vox is therefore an exercise in the simultaneous having and eating of cake; it wishes to both make strong value-laden assertions and be trusted as neutral and dispassionate. This means that Vox inherently practices a crude and cruel form of rhetorical dishonesty: it treats matters of profound complexity as if they are able to be settled through mere expertise. If anyone disagrees with what the wonks have concluded, they must be dumb, delusional, or both.
October 30, 2016
Of course in [Hunter S.] Thompson’s world the Big Darkness is always coming. Every day it doesn’t come means it’ll just be bigger and darker when it finally arrives. He’s the anti-rooster, bitching about the dawn: sure, it worked today, but one of these days the sun won’t come up, and then where will you be? Sitting on your nest popping out eggs like THEY want you to, completely unprepared for the Big Darkness! Which will be huge! And dark!
It would be funny if it was, well, funny, but it’s not even that. It’s just rote spew from the other side of the latter sixties. You had your Hopeful Hippies, the face-painters and daisy-strewers, convinced that human nature and human history could be irrevocably changed if we all held hands, listened to “Imagine” and realized that the war is not the answer. Regardless of the question. But the other side was the sort of dank twitchy nihilism Thompson spouts. It has no lessons, no morals, no hope. Imagine, Winston, that the future consists of a boot pressing on a face. Here’s the worst part, Winston — inside the boot is NIXON’S FOOT.
Thompson has less hope than the Islamists; at least they have an afterlife to look forward to. All we have is a country so rotten and exhausted it’s not worth defending. It never was, of course, but it’s even less defensible now than before.
He can say what he wants. Drink what he wants. Drive where he wants. Do what he wants. He’s done okay in America. And he hates this country. Hates it. This appeals to high school kids and collegiate-aged students getting that first hot eye-crossing hit from the Screw Dad pipe, but it’s rather pathetic in aged moneyed authors. And it would be irrelevant if this same spirit didn’t infect on whom Hunter S. had an immense influence. He’s the guy who made nihilism hip. He’s the guy who taught a generation that the only thing you should believe is this: don’t trust anyone who believes anything. He’s the patron saint of journalism, whether journalists know it or not.
James Lileks, Bleat, 2004-05-17.
October 25, 2016
I expected to enjoy Dr. William Short’s Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques (Westholme Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59416-076-9), and I was not disappointed. I am a historical fencer and martial artist who has spent many hours sparring with weapons very similar to those Dr. Short describes, and I have long had an active interest in the Viking era. I had previously read many of the primary saga sources (such as Njal’s Saga Egil’s Saga, and the Saga of Grettir the Strong) that Dr. Short mines for information on Viking weaponscraft, but I had not realized how informative they can be when the many descriptions of fights in them are set beside each other and correlated with the archeological evidence.
For those who don’t regularly follow my blog, my wife Cathy and I train in a fighting tradition based around sword and shield, rooted in southern Italian cut-and-thrust fencing from around 1500. It is a battlefield rather than a dueling style. Our training weapons simulate cut-and-thrust swords similar in weight and length to Viking-era weapons, usually cross-hilted but occasionally basket-hilted after the manner of a schiavona; our shields are round, bossless, and slightly smaller than Viking-era shields. We also learn to fight single-sword, two-sword, and with polearms and spears. The swordmaster’s family descended from Sicilo-Norman nobles; when some obvious Renaissance Italian overlays such as the basket hilts are lain aside, the continuity of our weapons with well-attested Norman patterns and with pre-Norman Viking weapons is clear and obvious. Thus my close interest in the subject matter of Dr. Short’s book.
Dr. Short provides an invaluable service by gathering all this literary evidence and juxtaposing it with pictures and reconstructions of Viking-age weapons, and with sequences of re-enactors experimenting with replicas. He is careful and scholarly in his approach, emphasizing the limits of the evidence and the occasional flat-out contradictions between saga and archeological evidence. I was pleased that he does not shy from citing his own and his colleagues’ direct physical experience with replica weapons as evidence; indeed, at many points in the text, .the techniques they found by exploring the affordances of these weapons struck me as instantly familiar from my own fighting experience.
Though Dr. Short attempts to draw some support for his reconstructions of techniques from the earliest surviving European manuals of arms, such as the Talhoffer book and Joachim Meyer’s Art of Combat, his own warnings that these are from a much later period and addressing very different weapons are apposite. Only the most tentative sort of guesses can be justified from them, and I frankly think Dr. Short’s book would have been as strong if those references were entirely omitted. I suspect they were added mostly as a gesture aimed at mollifying academics suspicious of combat re-enactment as an investigative technique, by giving them a more conventional sort of scholarship to mull over.
Indeed, if this book has any continuing flaw, I think it’s that Dr. Short ought to trust his martial-arts experience more. He puzzles, for example, at what I consider excessive length over the question of whether Vikings used “thumb-leader” cuts with the back edge of a sword. Based on my own martial-arts experience, I think we may take it for granted that a warrior culture will explore and routinely use every affordance of its weapons. The Vikings were, by all accounts, brutally pragmatic fighters; the limits of their technique were, I am certain, set only by the limits of their weapons. Thus, the right question, in my opinion, is less “What can we prove they did?” than “What affordances are implied by the most accurate possible reconstructions of the tools they fought with?”.
As an example of this sort of thinking, I don’t think there is any room for doubt that the Viking shield was used aggressively, with an active parrying technique — and to bind opponents’ weapons. To see this, compare it to the wall shields used by Roman legionaries and also in the later Renaissance along with longswords, or with the “heater”-style jousting shields of the High Medieval period. Compared to these, everything about the Viking design – the relatively light weight, the boss, the style of the handgrip – says it was designed to move. Dr. Short documents the fact that his crew of experimental re-enactors found themselves using active shield guards (indistinguishable, by the way from my school’s); I wish he had felt the confidence to assert flat-out that this is what the Vikings did with the shield because this is what the shield clearly wants to do…
Eric S. Raymond, “Dr. William Short’s ‘Viking Weapons and Combat’: A Review”, Armed and Dangerous, 2009-08-13.
October 17, 2016
At Samizdata, a look at a new book covering the Islamic communities of Britain:
In the book Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, the author – a BBC radio producer (boo, hiss) – attempts to provide an overview of the various strands of Islam in the UK. Her aim is not to tell us what to think but simply to provide the facts – what are they called? how many of them are there? where so they come from? what do they believe? etc. It is up to us, the readers, to draw conclusions.
Along the way there are a number of surprises. One of them is how different Islam is from Christianity. You would expect them to be rather similar given that they are both book-based, mono-theistic religions that revere both Abraham and Christ. Not a bit of it.
For example, in Christianity there is usually a close relationship between denomination and building. In Islam (at least in the UK) it is far more vague. A sect might be said to be “in control” of a mosque, the implication being that that control is temporary and could be lost. Many influential Muslim organisations such as Tablighi Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami have no mosques at all or very few.
Another is that the largest two sects in the UK are the Deobandis and Barelwis. No, I’d never heard of them either. For the record they are both Sunni (one definitely Sufi the other arguably so) and both originated in British India. It is worth pointing out that for the most part Bowen focuses on Sunni Islam but that is hardly surprising given that Sunnis vastly outnumber Shi’ites both globally and in the UK.
Another is that interest in Islam seems to be a second-generation thing. The first generation brought their Islam with them but seem to have regarded it as something they did rather than thought about. The second generation are much more inclined to read the Koran, take it seriously and ask questions. Even so, the most influential Islamic thinkers still tend to be based abroad.
I said earlier that it is left up to the reader to draw his own conclusions. So what does this reader conclude? Well, my biggest takeaway was that despite there being many strands of Islam and many weird and wonderful doctrinal disputes within Islam, there is no “good” Islam. The best you get is “less awful” Islam.
October 2, 2016
After the great victory won by my insurgent, pro-sex, pro-fashion wing of feminism in the 1990s, American and British feminism has amazingly collapsed backward again into whining, narcissistic victimology. As in the hoary old days of Gloria Steinem and her Stalinist cohorts, we are endlessly subjected to the hackneyed scenario of history as a toxic wasteland of vicious male oppression and gruesome female suffering. College campuses are hysterically portrayed as rape extravaganzas where women are helpless fluffs with no control over their own choices and behavior. I am an equal opportunity feminist: that is, I call for the removal of all barriers to women’s advance in the professional and political realms. However, I oppose special protections for women, which I reject as demeaning and infantilizing. My principal demand (as I have been repeating for nearly 25 years) is for colleges to confine themselves to education and to cease their tyrannical surveillance of students’ social lives. If a real crime is committed, it must be reported to the police. College officials and committees have neither the expertise nor the legal right to be conducting investigations into he said/she said campus dating fiascos. Too many of today’s young feminists seem to want hovering, paternalistic authority figures to protect and soothe them, an attitude I regard as servile, reactionary and glaringly bourgeois. The world can never be made totally safe for anyone, male or female: there will always be sociopaths and psychotics impervious to social controls. I call my system “street-smart feminism”: there is no substitute for wary vigilance and personal responsibility.
Camille Paglia, “The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia”, American Magazine, 2015-02-25.
September 28, 2016
Kathy Shaidle burnishes her street cred as the most anti-Tragically Hip writer of the year:
Foreign ears will likely mistake the Hip for a fairly capable R.E.M. cover band — very “Stuff White People Like,” nothing more. But up here during, yes, the 1990s, college students got maudlin drunk on this group’s unsingable songs, in part because the only words you can make out are Canadian place names and slang terms, and there will always exist a particular variety of parochial — the type who otherwise despises “patriotism” — who inevitably finds that sort of thing weirdly…I don’t know if “flattering” is quite the word, but it will have to do. It helps that, off stage, the Hip promote the usual “progressive” bunkum.
The Tragically Hip are hardly the Rolling Stones or the Who, or Smashing Pumpkins or Hole. The Tragically Hip will never make any Top 50, or even Top 500, Musical Groups of All Time List.
And yet, I’ve been duly informed, they are “Canada’s Band.” The announcement on May Two-Four that lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie had fatal brain cancer meant, for me, that (forget what I wrote last week) his gnomic lyrics finally had a pretext, and for everyone else, that the band was embarking on a national farewell tour.
The media covered every aspect of this cross-country excursion with that cloying, breathless boosterism normally reserved for the Olympics. Except even the Games’ critics are allowed to voice their dissent, and not a discouraging word was permitted as the Tragically Hip traipsed across the country all summer, their “songs” blaring on the radio even more than already demanded by CanCon.
The CBC broadcast their final gig live, calling it “an honour and a privilege.” Prime Minister Zoolander (later conspicuously absent from any 15th-anniversary commemorations of 9/11) attended, of course. Maclean’s put Downie on the cover of a special issue and devoted dozens of pages to the tour, analyzing each set list and quoting fans declaring the Hip’s songs “the soundtrack of our lives” and Downie “a genius” and a “shaman” and a “saint.”
I’d go on, but Canadian poet David Solway’s crabby take on this “orgiastic sobfest” cannot be bettered. (Not surprisingly, it was published by an American outlet.)
And then it was over. Finally.
Except until it wasn’t.
August 15, 2016
Lisa de Moraes explains why the cast and crew of the new CBS comedy are being attacked on social media for their insensitivity to the plight of Millennials:
War broke out today between millennial media and the cast and creators of CBS’ new comedy series The Great Indoors, in which Joel McHale stars as an adventure reporter who becomes boss to a group of millennials in the digital department of their magazine. […]
It started when EP Mike Gibbons, who noted that 40 is the new 80, mentioned that CBS focus-grouped the pilot, and the millennial in the group said he did not like it because of the jokes about millennials being coddled, too sensitive and thin-skinned. The woman running the focus group, Gibbons said, clarified: “So, you were offended by millennials being portrayed as too sensitive.”
A Millennial Media Member interrupted Gibbons. “I’m a millennial myself. How are we so coddled, and what about our overly politically correct workplace bothers you?” she asked, like she meant it to sting.
Stephen Fry, who co-stars as the charismatic founder of The Great Outdoors magazine, who is a world traveler, explorer and adventurer, jumped in to note there is “an element of coddling” and “an element in which you have it tougher than the generation before.”
Another media member, non-millennial, asked Gibbons if he was “worried” that the show would be dismissed as “middle-aged white guy complaining about his lot in life and having to deal with millennials.”
Joked Gibbons, “Our show is going to make America great again”.
“So you are the Trump show?” Non-Millennial Media Member snapped back. “I’m just seeking clarification.”
“Irony comes through in print, right?” Gibbons quipped.
H/T to Small Dead Animals for the link.
July 19, 2016
Once more, alas, I find myself unable to follow the best Liberal thought. What the World’s contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.
True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. … They are free to shoot back. But they can’t disarm their enemy.
The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us. … What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.
H.L. Mencken, “Aftermath”, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1925-09-14.
June 22, 2016
Her latest column for Taki’s Magazine discusses her own journey away from the Catholic church and the current Pope’s own journey in a similar direction:
Such are the epochal times we’re living in that even timeworn truisms are at risk of obsolescence.
Take “Is the Pope Catholic?” Those of a certain age may prefer Steve Martin’s absurdist gloss — “Does the Pope shit in the woods?” — but the original has been every wise guy’s idea of a witticism for as long as I’ve been alive, and presumably longer.
But I’m not the first to wonder if the election of Pope Francis has rendered the phrase extinct. Great news for anyone whose taste in conversation veers away from the Runyonesque, but obviously not so great news for, you know, the Church.
Years ago, I would have cared more.
I spent much of my career as a semiprofessional Catholic. Besides working in Catholic publishing, such as it is, I’d called my first blog Relapsed Catholic. That was in 2000. When the American priestly sex-abuse scandals exploded shortly thereafter, I was in a uniquely helpful position: Canada had undergone an identical crisis the previous decade, and my blog posts about both found an eager readership. I encouraged others to start their own sites, and eventually an informal network grew up — run by priests, nuns, canon lawyers, laity — which I nicknamed “St. Blog’s Parish.”
I was then, as I am now, the resident brat. When, in 2002, America’s clueless cardinals called for a Day of Reparations — during which the laity would perform penance for what were undeniably clerical sins — I blogged that collective guilt was exactly one of the “trendy modern notions” (like the New Age “therapy” sporadically employed to “treat” pervert priests, and the diocesan deference to secular lawyers’ morally dubious advice) that had exacerbated the corruption. Jesus, I noted, had been bracingly clear on the topic of child abuse: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck.”
“Implicitly,” I blogged, “someone has to stay dry. And do the tying. I’m delighted to volunteer.”
May 26, 2016
Ten years ago, Terry Teachout finally got around to watching D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and found (to his relief) that it was just as offensively racist as everyone had always said. He also discovered that silent movies are becoming terra incognita even to those who love old movies:
None of this, however, interested me half so much as the fact that The Birth of a Nation progresses with the slow-motion solemnity of a funeral march. Even the title cards stay on the screen for three times as long as it takes to read them. Five minutes after the film started, I was squirming with impatience, and after another five minutes passed, I decided out of desperation to try an experiment: I cranked the film up to four times its normal playing speed and watched it that way. It was overly brisk in two or three spots, most notably the re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination (which turned out to be quite effective – it’s the best scene in the whole film). For the most part, though, I found nearly all of The Birth of a Nation to be perfectly intelligible at the faster speed.
Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film – not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it – is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities. (The only silent movies I can watch with more than merely antiquarian interest are the comedies of Buster Keaton.) Nor do I think the problem is solely, or even primarily, that it’s silent: I have no problem with plotless dance, for instance. It’s that silent film “speaks” to me in an alien tongue, one I can only master in an intellectual way. That’s not good enough for me when it comes to art, whose immediate appeal is not intellectual but visceral (though the intellect naturally enters into it).
As for The Birth of a Nation, I’m glad I saw it once. My card is now officially punched. On the other hand, I can’t imagine voluntarily seeing it again, any more than I’d attend the premiere of an opera by Philip Glass other than at gunpoint. It is the quintessential example of a work of art that has fulfilled its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently – and I don’t give a damn about history, at least not in my capacity as an aesthete. I care only for the validity of the immediate experience.
[…] Thrill me and all is forgiven. Bore me and you’ve lost me. That’s why I think it’s now safe to file and forget The Birth of a Nation. Yes, it’s still historically significant, and yes, it tells us something important about the way we once were. But it’s boring — and thank God for that.
May 19, 2016
… it is not a bad time to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live on this damp little island.
I don’t mean this in a jingoistic way, and certainly when you look closely there is little to recommend Henry V’s brutal French raid. What there is to celebrate, of course, is Shakespeare’s poetic rendering of the campaign. It is our literary, scientific, technological, economic, political and philosophical achievements, rather than just our military milestones that we should occasionally pause to remember, amid our usual self-criticism.
All my life I have been told that Britain is in decline. But stand back and take a long, hard look. Even by relative standards, it just is not true. We have recently overtaken France (again) as the fifth largest economy in the world and are closing on Germany. We have the fourth largest defence budget in the world, devoted largely to peace-keeping. We disproportionately contribute to the world’s literature, art, music, technology and science.
We have won some 123 Nobel prizes, more than any other country bar America (and more per capita than America), and we continue to win them, with 18 in this century so far. In the field of genetics, which I know best, we discovered the structure of DNA, invented DNA fingerprinting, pioneered cloning and contributed 40 per cent of the first sequencing of the human genome.
On absolute measures, we are in even better shape. Income per capita has more than doubled since 1965 — in real terms. In those days, three million households lacked or shared an inside lavatory, most houses did not have central heating and twice as many people as today had no access to a car. When they did it was expensive, unreliable and leaked fumes.
In the 1960s even though there were fewer people in Britain, rivers were more polluted, the air was dirtier, and there were fewer trees, otters and buzzards. Budget airlines, mobile phones, search engines and social media were as unimaginable as unicorns. Sure, there was less obesity and fewer traffic jams, but there were more strikes, racism and nylon clothing. People spent twice as much of their income on food. There may be political angst about immigrants, but Britain is far more at ease with its multicultural self today than we might have dared to hope in the 1960s.
Matt Ridley, “Britain’s Best Years”, MattRidley.com, 2015-01-01.