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.   

100 Men Who Care, the Wilmington Chapter

One by one men amble up. Many run late. Not even close to a hundred of us. It’s not clear this is actually the official group and not just a bunch of random dudes chatting, comparing the craft beers on tap at Pour.

At this high-tech, self-service taproom in the Murchison building downtown, whose owner Brian Ballard donated the event space and the appetizers for this evening, there are dozens of taps, walls of them on two floors, each with its own little screen full of information. To get a beer, you choose, wave your rubber wristband near the screen, and pour. The space is crowded and comfortable. It’s social. Ironically, the automation gets people clumping together around the taps or the couches, striking up conversations.

The group of men does seem a bit random. That’s part of what seems so winning about the 100 Men Who Care organization starting up in Wilmington. We are just a bunch of dudes. Different kinds, different walks. At this inaugural November meeting, we are told, we are forming the only chapter of 100 Men Who Care in North Carolina at present, which feels pretty good. Take that RTP! There have been others in the state at different times—and there are hundreds of similar organizations across the country: There are 100 Black Men Who Care organizations. 100 Women Who Care is a common configuration—there’s a very successful one of these in Charlotte. There’s rumors of a 100 Children Who Care. Though all share a common mission, these organizations are different, separate, and evolving. Organizations like 100 Men Who Care are not legal entities, or tax shelters. They’re more like networks–networks of members who are interested in outcomes, collaboration, camaraderie, and the success of the region as a whole. These members bring this same sensibility to their professions, to their hiring, to their other organizations and community service.

Aaron Rovner, one of the organizers of this Wilmington chapter, says the idea was so compelling that he and his partners got the plan off the ground in minutes, got the website going a little bit later than that. When you hear about it, it just sort of makes sense, and this makes it work well—especially for people who want to contribute but want the support of a structure, who are busy, who want a way to vet their giving. It’s all not quite finished, and not quite official, not written into bylaws, not centrally managed. Instead, it’s agile, and it may be just the sort of lean, light, social structure that can channel giving the best. And be a boon for the area.

The way it works is this: Every quarter, members of 100MWC gather in places like Pour. Three members present their candidate charities to the others, describing the organization, the particular need. They answer questions. The emphasis here is not on selling the charities but on plain talk, real needs, and consensus. Once the discussion winds up and the votes have been tallied, all the members cut 100 dollar checks to the winner. That’s it. It can amount to as much as 10,000 dollars to the selected recipient (100 men x 100 dollars), and it happens every quarter.

This last meeting the three candidates were:

CFVC won handily with 40% of the votes, and is using our money to buy a box truck for shuttling volunteers and building materials to different sites affected by the hurricane. With so much need and so many pitching in to help for Florence, we voted for something infrastructural, a charity that makes other charities work better. The group raised about 2500 dollars that night (We were about twenty five Men Who Cared), and a member who couldn’t make it that night, Ross Hamilton from Connected Investors, rounded the total up to 5000 dollars!

Possibly winter Nor’easters and damaging freezes will be the focus of the next quarterly meeting in February. But there’s always need, and if you’re like me you want to figure out how to help wisely, and in the company of others who feel the same and can help make sense of it. 100MWC Wilmington is perfect for this.

As I got more into it over the course of the evening–and got close to the pour quota on my wristband–I kept asking what I came to learn were the wrong questions about 100MWC, and making the types of suggestions that I won’t anymore: We should have Powerpoints and one of these big screens, I said to Adam Fox, Rovner’s co-founder (with Jason Ashby) and the unofficial leader of the group, who goes by Fox and brought the idea from Knoxville. No no, he said, shaking his head like a giant bearded sensei, that would distract the process with visuals and fanciness, with things extrinsic from the actual need. Well, can we have the organizations themselves here, I asked? No, he said again, shaking his head almost sadly. In that case we’d be distracted from our purpose by their personalities, or their Powerpoints, or their charm, or size. You just have to get together, talk it out with a trusted group, and decide. I’m learning.

For more information on the 100 Men Who Care (Wilmington) organization, visit http://100menwilmington.org/

“NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER rent to her”: The found art of negative Airbnb reviews

We needed to flee when Hurricane Florence landed on our home town of Wilmington, NC, last month, and came upon this unhappy but perfect exchange in our searches—a dismissive Airbnb review of a cottage on farmland near Odessa, FL, a sharp reply from the host, and then an assertive personal review about the renter herself on her profile page, the only one about her.

One-star reviews 1 with real content in them—such as we pored over as we travelled in our Travato last year, looking for RV parks up ahead that weren’t too dicey—are a form of pop art without equal. You can laugh until you cry, discuss the merits of the claims, think of counter-arguments, try to piece together the story. Almost always we felt the harsh reviews made the reviewers seem much worse than the offending teen-aged receptionist or breakfast bar or RV park that didn’t let your Chihuahua shit its little turds on the Astro-turf after 10PM.

In these and in so much online writing, what you’re really often seeing is an epidemic sense of entitlement and aggrievement. You’re seeing people disqualify themselves as judges of what’s good or decent or helpful for others with their smug tones and haughty wounded-ness. The whole world is not a stupid movie megaplex for your thoughtless angry “reviews”!

This is an example of the form, sort of. Seems like this girl, Jenny, rents out the Odessa cottage—which looks lovely and seems to have attracted nothing but really neat renters up until now because of the care the host puts into it, its charm, its chickens. Then the girl throws the kind of giant rager party where you pile furniture, install black lights, stamp hands at the door and admit packs of under-aged drinkers. This is in the back yard the cottage shares with the host’s own home. Then, when it comes apart Jenny leaves this flippant, tiny comment—which is the kind of thing that can tarnish an Airbnb host’s reputation and rental income:

Be sure to triple confirm if you’re throwing a party and advise if people will be outside.

The nerve of that host, Laurel, not letting her cottage be trashed at a party Jenny was printing flyers for and didn’t show up at!

Response from Laurel:
I want to respond this review because her comments are bold-faced lies. They were not having a graduation party. First, she NEVER told me that she was having a party. Two teenagers showed up and I asked them who they were. They said they were here for the party. I called Jennifer and she told me that they were having a family get together. Well that family “get together” turned into a RAVE. They were charging money and stamping hands at the door . They had removed all my furniture and piled it on top of each other in the bedroom and bathroom. They removed all my lightbulbs and replaced them with black lights. And the most disturbing thing was that they were serving alcohol to minors (beer from a keg in my refrigerator and shots – all the liquor bottles were strewn around the house). The new wood floor was soaking wet. I asked two of the teenagers who were standing outside how they knew the people who rented and they said that they didn’t know them. The party was posted on Instagram and kids from all over the county were there. II made them leave because IT WAS ILLEGAL ACTIVITY, How dare Jennifer say that it was a family get together and children were outside!!!!! SHE NEVER EVER SHOWED UP AT THE PROPERTY.

And over on Jenny’s profile, Laurel posts this TKO as well. Read on. I think I’m fully on the side of Laurel and the chickens.

This was the most upsetting experience I have ever had with my vacation rentals. I have been renting for over 4 years and nothing like this has ever happened. Jennifer instant booked and I had not communication with her about her stay. (Be careful about instant booking). The day of “her” arrival, two teenagers were sitting in my driveway in a truck. I asked them who they were and they told me that they were renting my house. I asked where Jennifer was and they said that Jennifer’s husband was coming to stay. Then they said they were having a small graduation party with family and a few friends. I called Jennifer and told her that she should have told me about the party. She said it would be very small. I saw kids and older people early in the evening and it seemed harmless. At around 9:30pm I went to let my dogs out. There was a full-blown rave going on in my house. An “adult” who said he was a friend of Jennifer’s husband was stamping KIDS hands and using a black light to see if they had paid. YES PAID!!!! I went in the house and all the furniture was gone from the livingroom/kitchen. Black lights had replaced all my lights bulbs. There was a keg in the refrigerator. Liquor bottles and shot glasses were strewn around. The wood floors were wet. All the furniture was tossed on the bed in the bedroom. The bedroom furniture was in the bathroom. I almost had a stroke. I called Jennifer who was at home sleeping. I told her what I thought of her and her disrespect. I talked to one of the kids and asked how they knew the graduate kid. They said that didn’t know him. They said that someone had posted on Instagram that there was a club party at my address. Strangers from all over the county were there. I shut down the party and made the “guests” leave. Fortunately the graduate and the adult friend stayed to clean up. Soon after Jennifer’s husband arrived and helped clean also. I didn’t call the police, but in hindsight I should have. UNBELIEVABLE. This woman is he most disrespectful liar I have ever met. NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER rent to her.

From Odessa, FL · July 2018

Notes:

  1. One of the common tropes in this medium is that the reviewer ‘would have left zero stars’ but needed to leave at least a star to tell others how terrible their experiences were