Isaiah Berlin’s “Crooked Timber” and the “Bent Twig” of Nationalism

Obviously, there’s a ton of new writing on politics. Thoughtful, anxious books and longform essays about the right wing, especially, about nationalism, authoritarianism. I’m just beginning Kurt Anderson’s Evil Geniuses, as one example, which documents the Right’s efforts, since the late 70s, to dismantle the New Deal and create distracting culture wars as cover. Robert Reich, whose books The Work of Nations, Reason, and others were formative parts of my reading education, has now written a book called The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. And of course Jane Meyer’s amazing Dark Money was, a few years ago, the new standard in impeccably-researched, dark and incontrovertibly real accounts of Plutocratic moves to undermine American democracy and fairness. 

These books look into America’s recent political past for explicit beginnings and sharp turns. Policies, manifestos. Think tanks. Secret meetings. They’re all there! Despite Anderson’s professed disinclination toward conspiracies, Evil Geniuses is absolutely persuasive about an organized, well-funded, secretive, bait-and-switch to lock in the power of corporations and the rich in the wake of late-60s progressivism and the schisms of the “Me” generation, bad wars, and bad actors in government. 

What is happening? is the question we’re asking over and over now. This is not normal. Is it a Trumpocalypse, as David Frum has it in his book by that name? Is it something that’s always been here, for which Trump is just the most cartoonishly vivid and corrupt avatar, as Kurt Anderson seems to say in his earlier book Fantasyland? Is it something more fundamental, the ugly form of decadence that was predicted of late capitalism, like the critic Terry Eagleton describes in his book Materialism?

These were not the questions I had in mind when I went to re-read Isaiah Berlin’s book The Crooked Timber: Chapters in the History of Ideas. It had been so long since I’d read it, in fact, that I was taking it off the shelf as an escape, as one of those confident, anodyne syntheses of philosophy that would take my mind off the present, reconnect Aquinas with Aristotle or something like that.  

I could not have been more wrong, and The Crooked Timber could not be a more eerily incisive analysis of the current situation. Though it was published as a collection more than 30 years ago, and though it focuses on what may seem like minor historical figures, like Joseph de Maistre (“Joseph de Maistre and the Origin of Fascism”), the clarity of Berlin’s analysis, the specificity of his historical subjects, and his analytical synthesis of rationalism, the romantic, belief and esteem bring this book right to the doorstep of our current crises.

The Crooked Timber is a collection of essays spanning Isaiah Berlin’s career starting in the late 50s, and connecting the themes of his political philosophy: History is concerned with the development of our faculties, of science and rationalism, of human as opposed to absolute truths (“Giambattista Vico and Cultural History”). Progress, moving in fits and starts, crests in the Renaissance, again in the Age of Reason and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. But reason has so many psychological pitfalls and frankly vengeful enemies that history is deranged by the emergence of good ideas at key points, like the French Revolution. New ideas arise and change culture; they are attacked. There are reactions, counter-reactions. Berlin says almost wistfully that “these collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are,” and yet the results of the collisions can be brutal, catastrophic. The Reformation, the Terror, the Counter-reformation. History simply is the expression of human progress, its angry suppression, its eventual reappearance.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Kant says in the quote from which the book takes its name. It’s clear that for Berlin absolutism, such as arises against ordinary human progress, is a real enemy—and a form that fear and suppression often take. Berlin deploys the Kant epigram not to criticize the idea of progress per se but to show how skeptical we should be of “straight things” like the religious orthodoxies, political utopias, and totalizing principles that are the bad guys in his writing.

Even worse and more deranging than absolutes, however, are the ideas that come out of the Romantic movement, which he sees as a “deep and radical revolt against the central tradition of western thought” that peaks in the second half of the 18th century as Germany’s Sturm und Drang (“The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will: The Revolt against the Myth of an Ideal World”). For Berlin, the Romantic is the dethronement of reason by the will, whose poet is Friedrich “high demonic freedom” Schiller and whose philosopher is Fichte, the “true father of romanticism.” It is the replacement of shared truths with personal truths, the elevation of the artist over the thinker, and the irrational, emotional, and violent over the reasoned and hammered out.  One’s own truth is something to be insisted upon, even if it’s wrong. This is the truly massive shift in western culture, and a bad one: the Germans, as Berlin has it, couldn’t keep up with their Enlightened French showboat Encyclopedist neighbors in the sixteenth century and so basically invented Romanticism, and with it the aggrieved blood-and-soil ideologies that became National Socialism and the new American authoritarianism 300 years later in a crooked but unbroken line.

Nationalism and populism come directly out of the Romantic, in other words, out of the particular and personal against the general. This is where Berlin’s writing is so prescient. As he says, “Nationalism is an inflamed condition of national consciousness which can be, and on occasion has been, tolerant and peaceful. [But] it usually seems to be caused by wounds, some form of collective humiliation.” As Berlin says, “to be the object of contempt or patronizing tolerance on the part of proud neighbors in one of the most traumatic experiences that individuals or societies can suffer.” In Berlin’s example, the Germans, lagging behind their European and especially their French counterparts during the Renaissance “discover in themselves qualities superior” to their neighbors, qualities based on “unexhausted vital powers”, deliberate provincialism and the rejection of learning and sophistication. Berlin describes this as a “pathological exaggeration of one’s real or imaginary virtues, and resent and hostility toward the proud, the happy, the successful” (Italics mine). For me this is the beating heart of the book and the thing that makes it so extraordinary—and so timely: Aggrievement and shame are the real engines here! Fuck ideas, fuck fellow-feeling! Fuck level playing fields and “what relations between men have been, are, might be and should be.”

The uncanny relevance of this was really brought home to me as I listened to a recent “Trumpcast” episode with Virginia Heffernan and Ben Rhodes, writer and former White House staffer. Rhodes said the animating force of the far right in America this last decade has been disgrace. The hallmarks of the conservative agenda were so thoroughly repudiated by the spectacular failures of the financial crisis (deregulation) and the Iraq War that true believers were left with nothing but shame, resentment and vengefulness. Which puts us in one of Berlin’s convolutions right now, actually, one of those moments like the French Revolution that pit the rational against the aggrieved irrational in ways that almost can’t help but go crooked.   

Summon: A Short Essay on Making Music

Making music is, in one sense at least, really hard. I mean that it’s elusive. You can play an instrument by yourself for thousands of hours, as I have, often in a not very productive way, and you can play with others for hundreds of hours, and get hardly any music out of it. Even if you know the chords and you know the lyrics and you know the song form and the audience is clapping and you have the technique, usually something hasn’t quite happened. What isn’t happening all that time? What is music that is so elusive? 

There’s a trend now in discussions of “practice”, both in the strictly musical sense, like how to make your half-hour piano practice more efficient, what techniques to practice. But also in the more general and maybe more Eastern sense of “your practice”, the set of activities you do routinely and with intention to improve your skills and your self. In both these senses I myself am deficient, and am most often noodling mindlessly on my guitar or not being intentional enough about my actions in any sphere, let alone the musical one. 

On those rare moments when music happens, however, you really feel it. You can be playing something solo or, even better, suddenly find that you and the rest of the band are making something, holy shit!, making music! It’s there!

The way I think of it is like a seance. Playing summons music, though not often. The deepest feeling I have about music is that it’s its own thing, a rare presence in the room, a creation that sits apart from its participants. And isn’t this what art is, after all, what creation is: You made it and now it’s there.

As at a seance (I imagine), you can be “doing” the seance and not quite feeling it. Maybe the table shakes a little bit, maybe someone thinks the air has gotten colder in the corner. But then: the seance works and there is a real manifestation. And everybody knows it. A being has been summoned into this room with us. This is music. We are a string quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello—but there are five…entities in this room.

Time is one for the main mediums (ha) of this summoning, too: The music has its tempo, and when it’s there you don’t feel like you’re having to keep time for the music. You just feel the music’s time, just as you feel the harmonies. They are there. Present. When the bridge of the jazz standard comes you all drop into it, relaxed in spacious time divisions and fooling with them because the music is with you, non-contingent, not fragile, it’s keeping things going, at the tempo, in that key.

And to summon music, you must of course listen. Even as you are playing. To listen and perform at the same time, even just by yourself, is rare! As rare as music is.

But Show Me *How* Jupyter is the New Excel

These are the slides, notes, and the resulting video from a presentation I gave at TekMountain on Tuesday, September 17th, inspired by the article mentioned below

I read this great article just a few weeks ago called “Jupyter is the New Excel“. I loved it, and was provoked by its premise, and wrote to the author to tell her so. This dominant and for many users intimidating part of the data science toolchain, called a Jupyter notebook, could be used for more everyday tasks. You didn’t have to do data science per se with notebooks, didn’t have to, like, crunch big data, worry about data storage, care what generalized least squares were. Jupyter was easy and useful enough to use for front office tasks, for fantasy football, dinner party invites, what have you. You could fool around with it!

I work at IBM, where I fool around with data science as a rank amateur, and I took the article as a jumping off point: Yes, how? How would Jupyter replace Excel exactly? How could you use Jupyter for your email marketing and fantasy football, for your real estate office spreadsheets?

So I thought I’d create this tech talk, a presentation where we can step through examples of everyday data crunching, the things that many of do now in Excel, see if the article’s premise checks out.

My goal is to introduce Jupyter notebooks very, very briefly, get right into just a few super-practical, everyday tasks, to not talk about data science, to welcome and un-intimidate. If I’m successful, I’ll persuade you that Jupyter notebooks are no more complicated to use than Excel, might work better for some things, can be the kind of ready-to-hand tool that spreadsheets are for many now. This might even be a gateway drug to do some better integrations of your data, which is where Jupyter starts to really outpace all these separate, versioned, weirdo macro-laden spreadsheets, or even be a useful starting point for some data-sciencing on your own :-)

Resources for learning more

Jupyter and Python and a lot of the premier data science tools are open source, which means there are a TON of resources out there for learning, trying. Here are a few good ones, focusing again not on the ocean of data science but on Jupyter notebooks: