Stuart Ewen #1

One of your correspondent’s favorite documentaries is Bill Moyers’ Consuming Images from 1989 on the media and the public mind. There was not much talk of the media in political science graduate school. Then the professors argued that the media simply pushed more information around faster, so there was not fundamental difference or impact on politics generally and American politics specifically.

Although the mainstream media has been impacting elections for decades—one only needs to consider The Candidate from 1972 to understand that people have been noting media impacts of politics for some time—the 2016 election indicates that something fundamental has changed. The Democrats are beyond upset, and President Obama has expelled Russian diplomats as he accuses them of “tampering” with the election.

However Moyers seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the media’s impacts, and he featured a range of insightful intellectuals including Neil Postman whose Entertaining Ourselves to Death is a must read. However I’d like to concentrate on Stuart Ewen, a New York-based author, historian and lecturer on media, consumer culture, and the compliance profession. He is also a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, in the departments of History, Sociology and Media Studies. Ewen is everything a New York intellectual should be and usually is not, which is to say provocative, articulate, and insightful. I am going to comment on each of Ewen’s quotes inConsuming Images because they were so important to me at that time I first heard them and the appear to stand up over time.

I think one of the things that people do when they create images around them is that they’re ascribing meaning to their existence. I think what happens within our culture is that those images that we produce for ourselves, insofar as we do that, their validity is almost always dependent upon their ability to be transformed into merchandise. In the process, of course, the meaning which may have driven us to create that image is lost.

Your correspondent studied the politics of the environment because it seemed protecting the earth, our island home, was the most important task, but Tocqueville noted:

It would frequently be easier to interest [Americans] in the punctilios of court etiquette than in the repairs of their common dwelling.

That is, people are easily distracted away from what’s truly important, especially in matters of status, elites, and hierarchy. Part of the American genius has been to redirect such impulses in the direction of commerce, though this redirection—some would call it social engineering—has not been without cost. And this cost has come at the conflation of connecting with, participating in, and protection of our common environment. Instead the images of media merchandise generally and advertising specifically evoke a consumerist society replete with acquisitiveness and solipsism. But more than images being transmuted into merchandise, such images are given preference and over time tend to dominate the marketplace of ideas. So while society creates images, it is also shaped by those images to the extent that they form a merchandise world of their own that crowds out the features that traditionally comprised the public space. And to the extent that images ascribe meaning to our existence, that means that merchandise ascribes meaning as well. Finally, the images as they transmute into merchandise change in ways that cannot be predicted, controlled, or considered helpful.



Herb Simon

Herb Simon was quite the intellectual hero. He earned his PhD at the University of Chicago in social science, what they called decision science, but made significant contributions in economics, experimental psychology, and artificial intelligence while a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978 and learned Swedish to give his acceptance speech, which I think is just showing off. Your correspondent never met him but saw him once sitting next to my adviser on a panel. I did hear a story of a student who was tasked with driving Prof. Simon to the airport, and not knowing what to talk about with Simon, he asked him about his Nobel Prize, and Simon’s response was surprising because he was mad. Simon felt the prize was something of a lifetime achievement award and was angry because the ideas and topics he had developed and written about had not been adopted by academia.

Simon wrote two books that particularly influenced your correspondent, Reason in Human Affairs and Sciences of the Artificial. Together they develop a concept Simon calls bounded rationality, the idea that people tend to make decisions based on few and certain data, and when decision makers are stressed, they make decision based on even fewer and more certain information. Bounded rationality squares with observation and experiment, but it doesn’t square with economic theory that tends to be more flattering of human cognition.

The consequence of bounded rationality is that high-status decision makers can make claims of competency and prediction that just aren’t true, that just don’t stand up to observation and experiment. I’ve always thought that public policy should be crafted with the same intelligence and care that engineers use to design their systems, especially electronic systems, given the stakes of such policy decisions, but that is not usually the case. However, the changing international system and the seriousness of policy consequences provide the incentive for revisiting  Simon’s work that was doubtless ahead of its time.

Bounded rationality manifests itself politically when understanding why centralized planned economies can’t solve the distributed market information problem. That is, markets process more information than humans can process, which doesn’t sit well with ego-driven political leaders who have risen to positions of leadership. Additionally, it doesn’t do well for one’s career prospects that political leaders are cognitively incapable of controlling markets and comparable social systems even if it is true. Hayek wrote intelligently and presciently about complexity in the 1960s and the social sciences still haven’t incorporated their insights into the discipline.

Part of the reason Simon’s and Hayek’s good and accurate work hasn’t been picked is that their positive observations are sometimes in conflict with normative preferences. For instance, Simon considers the voting associated with democracy—the sine qua non of American social science—as just another decision-making mechanism. Social scientists may feel that a democratic vote confers legitimacy, but Simon argues that there are other systemic characteristics that are more important and indicative of policy success than voting.

Socialism’s Enduring Appeal

One thing that the average person on the street doesn’t appreciate is just how much socialism rules the schools, especially the good ones. There’s a socialist tradition about controlling the Commanding Heights of the economy, and that must include the good schools too. While studying computer science at an Ivy League school, your correspondent heard tell that there were still intrepid scholars who would give traditional style lectures, but the socialists would call them late at night threatening them with tenure denials. This might sound like relatively tame stuff in the real world, but it’s amazing how intellectually violent these academics can be.

I ended up going to MIT to study environmental policy in the political science department—what at MIT is called Course 17—and never really thought about socialism because my studies concerned the intersection of the social and natural environments, something that my technical background prepared me for and for which MIT appeared to be ideally suited.

One of the great things about elite schools are your fellow students. The teachers may be a little crazy and inaccessible, but one’s fellow students are super smart and interacting with them can be even more rewarding and informative than interacting with the faculty. So there was a typical graduate student party in somebody’s apartment and your correspondent went because talking about books and ideas, especially with smart people, was his idea of a good time.

The problem was, your correspondent had a subscription to The New Republic, and the most recent issue featured a critical look at socialism and wealth redistribution schemes. So at the party I mention some of these criticisms. You know, something like, “Well clearly you have to admit that the demographic consequences of wealth redistribution schemes are problematic. I mean, there’s so much supporting evidence.”

I didn’t even really think too much about it at the time because it wasn’t like I was quoting The National Review. These were liberal intellectual critiques from a respected liberal intellectual publication. But it got kind of creepy because my classmates got really quiet, and before long your correspondent became the sole focus of attention of six MIT graduate students whose collective goal was to convince me I was wrong.

Needless to say, it didn’t end well, but it’s instructive to consider why. First, clearly my opinions were of particular interest to these students. They might argue that they just really care about common people, and “social justice”—a euphemism for socialism—but I think they care mostly about themselves and their career. That is, the whole reason why they studied political science is because they believed in wealth redistribution and they envisioned themselves to be the wealth redistributors! Apparently it was a career field, and a popular one! Moreover, I would argue that the real motivation isn’t even wealth redistribution, it’s status. These smart students were interested in politics, which is all about the relative differences and competition between different groups of people. But wealth redistribution is a power trip, an opportunity to pick winners, and pick up some spare change on the side.

But more than that, there was a certain disdain for what in the 2016 came to be known as deplorables. I was a patriotic American,  a conservative, and a Christian, but I tried not to be obnoxious about it, but I also tried to defend my positions and not retreat. This turned out to be very difficult to do, especially as my fellow status-seeking socialist students seemed to disdain patriotism, nationalism, and Christianity. The socialism was much more powerful and prevalent than what I had envisioned our predicted. The other students had all received a social science undergraduate education, but my technical  background kept me insulated from and in some sense unprepared to deal with this pervasive socialism. And of course, such conflicts couldn’t be addressed because such socialism couldn’t be acknowledged. To be blunt, I had been outed in the most fundamental sense as politically incorrect: notions such as truth and evidence and arguments were irrelevant as I was now outside the tribe, so the social dynamics were, as you might guess, destined to get very strange indeed.

Soviet Union’s End

The Soviet Union fell officially 25 years ago, on December 25, 1991. Countries continue to experiment with and experience ruin by communism and socialism with Venezuela and Sweden being on the most recent. However it’s worth remembering the first big failure of communism and socialism was the first big failed experiment, the Soviet Union.

Robert Conquest‘s The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties tells the story that 200 million people worldwide may have died as part of the 20th century dream of creating a collectivist “paradise on earth,” which is what the Soviet Union was intended to be. The socialist revolutionary leaders (SRLs)—which were the social justice warriors (SJWs) of their day—understood  a new “better world” was taken to mean the extermination, liquidation, and mass murder of all those who the socialist revolutionary leaders declared to be “class enemies,” including the families and even the children of “enemies of the people.” The idea of the SRLs is to make a new Soviet man and a new Soviet society. This required the destruction of everything that had gone before and entailed the forced creation of a new civilization, as conjured up in the minds of those who had appointed themselves the creators of this brave new world.

In the minds of those like Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lenin’s close associate and founder of the Soviet secret police, violence was an act of love. So much did they love the vision of the blissful communist future to come that they were willing to sacrifice all the traditional conceptions of humanity and morality to bring their utopia to fruition. So intense was their socialist commitment that in 1919, the newly formed Soviet secret police, the Cheka (later the NKVD and then the KGB), proclaimed:

We reject the old systems of morality and ‘humanity’ invented by the bourgeoisie to oppress and exploit the ‘lower classes.’ Our morality has no precedent, and our humanity is absolute because it rests on a new ideal. Our aim is to destroy all forms of oppression and violence. To so, everything is permitted, for we are the first to raise the sword not to oppress races and reduce them to slavery, but to liberate humanity from its shackles …

Blood? Let blood flow like water! Let blood stain forever the black pirate’s flag flown by the bourgeoisie, and let our flag be blood-red forever! For only through the death of the old world can we liberate ourselves from the return of those jackals.

Conquest however was only a prelude to The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had done the on-the-ground reporting and detailed that Conquest could not. The western mind cannot even conceive off such willful social destruction, but Solzhenitsyn helped the west understand the socialist’s mindset:

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes…. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations…. Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

In country after country besides just the Soviet Union, death, destruction, and privation follow in the wake of socialism’s implementation. Socialism’s history is a story of crushing tyranny and oceans of blood. The question, what is the enduring theoretical appeal of socialism, what is the evidence of its failure, and what causal mechanisms explain its failure. This is a crucial question not just for its victims but for future generations so that they can inoculate themselves against the seductions of socialism. Socialism appears to be the apogee of politics without nationalism—that in fact is its explicitly stated goal—so it is a politics without fellow-feeling between rulers and the ruled, which appears to help explain why countries that implement socialism fail.


Cool Jazz

Jazz is not the most popular of art forms, and it is difficult to distinguish between good and bad jazz, and least hard enough to justify a book on the topic. What is not as difficult to determine is the best-selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue (KoB) by Miles Davis. It was recorded in 1959, at a time when the popularity of the faster and more flamboyant bebop jazz was waning, but before the British invasion and rock and roll had captured the American imagination. Miles’ innovation behind cool jazz was a more spare presentation, the genius to represent 3, 4, or 5 notes in a single note. Cool jazz is also modal jazz, in which the complex chord changes of bebop are replaced with a reduced number of chords over which the musicians solo. When it is done well, the effect is impactful and moving, and on KoB it’s done well.

Of comparable importance is the development of high-fidelity recording equipment that is ubiquitous now but wasn’t so then. The long play (LP) albums that where new in 1959 allowed for a more extended and intimate experience, which is the essence of KoB. At the core of KoB’s genius are the intense relationship and collaborations among Davis’s band. It long ago passed into lore that each of the tracks was a first take at Columbia’s 30th Street studio in Manhattan, which in today’s music environment is unheard of. At one point the studio engineer noted that they were picking up snare noises generated by the other instruments. Miles said, “That’s part of it.” He knew what he was doing. Jazz isn’t about perfection, it’s about capturing the mood, the interaction, and hopefully genius among the musicians, and there was plenty there in that session, or “sesh” as the musicians would say. There was no intention or indication of genius that day though. It was just another jazz recording made by musicians who worked regularly, but history and album sales would judge their work remarkable.

The other musicians in Davis’s band were each became legends by themselves.  Saxophonist John Coltrane played on KoB along with Cannonball Adderly, with Coltrane’s A Love Supreme being second most important jazz albums “that shook the world”  according to Jazz Wise Magazine (KoB was number one). Pianist Bill Evans was joined by Wynton Kelly, who played only on “Freddy the Freeloader”—Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard was the fourth most important album. What was most crucial to the making of KoB however was the musical sensitivity and interplay between Evans and Davis. Jazz fans love telling stories about their musicians, and one of the stories was that Miles would call Bill just to hear him play over the phone because he loved to hear him play that much. KoB begins with inchoate chords from Evans’ piano, which sets the tone before the other musicians join in, on the most successful jazz album in history.

Spy Fiction Redux

The study of international relations (IR) is, by its very nature, abstract as the interactions among nations are spread out over the planet. The conduct of diplomacy, espionage, and war are very remote from the day-to-day lives of average people, but such exotic events are brought into homes and imaginations of average people through spy fiction. Despite that fact that spy fiction may not be the most elevated of literary genres, it has helped generations of readers to enlarge their notions about the world and inform them about the forces that impact their lives. Gaining such knowledge, especially about war, can be dangerous, but spy fiction grants the opportunity gain such experience vicariously.

Ian Fleming created the preeminent spy fiction character, James Bond over the course of fourteen books. Coming out during the Cold War (1947-1991), James Bond made it fun, or at least not so scary. The Cold War did not feature armies moving across the globe as did World War II, which was still recent enough that it was still fresh in people’s memories. Instead it entailed espionage in the shadows, which Bond portrayed in terms of international travel, exotic gadgets, and beautiful women. What’s not to like? The Bond villains were not portrayed as the Soviet Union exactly but in terms of nameless enemies determined to destroy the western way of life. The movies from the early 1960s, Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Thuderball exemplified this then new storytelling dynamic, and young men found the travel, cars, and women both exciting and attractive. James Bond helped set the male ideal and consumerist tone of the next few decades, even if they were slightly adolescent and the IR specifics were more than a little murky.

John le Carré (i.e.,David John Moore Cornwell) provided a more mature, informed, and sophisticated literary perspective on the Cold War than Fleming. Carré’s struck first with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in 1963 with its message of moral ambiguity. It was always clear that Fleming’s Bond was always the hero fighting for freedom and the west. Carré’s spy was more tired, flawed, and world-weary. The constant lying, being away from one’s family, and watching well-meaning people getting ground down between the great powers of the Cold War, it all too easy to lose track of the ideals motivating the conflict. In fact, when the western powers employ the same tactics of deception and violence as their opponents, it is possible to lose track entirely of their differences. A decade later, Carré addressed the defection of Kim Philby in his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Philby was a British aristocrat who passed information to the Soviets and though he was suspected, he was never seriously questioned because he went to the right schools, said the right things, and knew the right people. It was inconceivable to people that somebody they thought they knew so well could be a traitor. Philby’s defection caused a major rift between American and British intelligence. Carré explored the search for the mole at the top of British intelligence in all its institutional and interpersonal detail. Novels are the ideal art form to delve into the inner life of characters, and spy fiction with its attendant espionage provided a rich source of material to inform that inner life. The constant double-dealing and deception takes its toll on spies.

Robert Ludlum wrote many books but is best known for his series of books about Jason Bourne, which was first made into a movie in 1988 but was reprised again with Matt Damon over a decade later in 2002. Ludlum’s Bourne series took a very institutional perspective of espionage by exploring its bureaucratic aspects. Specifically, Ludlum did not explore the tensions between the Cold War protagonists, the United States and Soviet Union, as had Fleming and Carré. Instead Ludlum explored the tension between the bureaucracy and the individual, in this case Bourne who even though he devoted his life to the bureaucracy found himself pursued by that same bureaucracy. Ludlum had a background in theater and masterfully employed its narrative techniques in his spy fiction novels. When Bourne is initially introduced, he is found floating in the Mediterranean Sea with amnesia, which as it turns out is rare in real life but is a standard plot device. The reader follows Bourne and learns about Bourne at the same time that Bourne is learning about Bourne, which works well. The man versus bureaucracy theme explores the standard “dupe” deception in which master spies allow a relatively experienced person to take the blame for those better able to play the espionage game. Bourne is being sought because his amnesia makes his actions impossible to interpret by the bureaucracy, but the skills he remembers allows him to evade capture. The Bourne character also allows for exploration of the excesses of the 1960s era CIA and its MK Ultra program that pursued mind control through psycho-active drugs.

Tom Clancy was an insurance agent who parlayed an interest in the military into a career as a thriller writer, although what he explored was more the military than espionage per se, but close enough. Clancy broke out with the novel The Hunt for Red October, which was later made into a movie. At times the Cold War plot seen more a way to showcase Clancy’s encyclopedic knowledge of military systems. One of key ways that the Navy and Air Force differ from the Army and Marines is their view towards technology: that is, the Navy and Air Force focus on manning weapons systems, ships and planes, while the Army and Marines focus on the individual and view technology as a way to extend the individual’s natural capabilities.

Trevanian (i.e., Rodney Whitaker) was an academic turned thriller writer who achieved initial success with The Eiger Sanction and wrote a number of books, however Shibumi seemed to be his best. The title is a Japanese term meaning “effortless perfection,” which is a personal goal sought by the book’s protagonist, Nicholai Hel, a go master turned assassin. The book ranges from World War II to the Cold War, but presages the post-Cold War by focusing on trans-national corporations generally and oil companies specifically that sometimes operate as states unto themselves. Carré has also tried to transcend the Cold War certainty to address the dangers and uncertainties inherent in the post-Cold War era, which is hard because computers and foreign direct investment are considerably less interesting than sex and violence. In focusing on oil and the cultural challenges associated with its geopolitical positioning, Trevanian pointed the security and espionage issues of the 21st century. Perhaps his protagonist also points towards the way spy fiction should be pursued as well.

Information and Politics

With the recent discussions of and tut-tutting about “fake news”—the shading and spin applied by commentators, talking heads, and the chattering classes—it is worth considering the information that is available to people and how that impacts society. The book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman provides trenchant insights into the issue. But if you’re pressed for time—and who isn’t these days?—then might I suggest the comic version. Postman compares and contrasts George Orwell’s 1984 with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and makes the point that while the former is totalitarian and the latter seductive, both are ultimately and equivalently dystopian.

Orwell’s society bans books thereby reducing information to the point that citizens can’t make accurate decisions. For Orwell, the truth is concealed, and the people living within the culture are kept captive by the government. Huxley’s society is so entertaining and enjoyable that people don’t want to read books. There is so much information freely available that people have to shut down to keep from being overwhelmed, and the truth is rendered irrelevant by a trivial by entertainment.

Orwell’s motivation is to oppose tyranny and avoid pain. He argues that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley highlights humanities appetite for distraction and desire for pleasure. He argues that what we love will ruin us. Huxley therefore places boundaries on Jeremy Bentham’s fundamental axiom, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” in which “good” is defined as “pleasure.” That is, it is possible to experience so much pleasure that it leads to “ruin” or “non-pleasure.” This is inherently a complexity-based argument as short-term pleasure changes over time to long-term ruin. One need only consider alcoholism, drug addiction, or extreme indebtedness to understand how such an argument would manifest itself in the real world.

Postman provides an astringent observation that while society fears Orwell, it may be undone by Huxley. It has been said that there are two bad things that can happen to people: getting nothing they want and geting everything they want. While the latter may indeed prove problematic, it is hard to feel sorry for such people. The good life therefore, according to Postman, appears to consist of a balance between having enough and not too much information as well as between pain and pleasure. Perhaps the Eagles best captured the society Postman and Huxley warned about in their song, “Hotel California,” about a state that is justifiably infamous for its abundance of pleasures with those pleasures themselves constituting a kind of cognitive and emotional trap: “You can check out any time you like,” from the abundance of distraction and pleasure, but once you get used to and develop a taste for it, “you can never leave.”

Fear the Boom and Bust

Whenever and wherever economists congregate, the conversation inevitably turns to the enduring question, “What is the greatest economic rap video ever made?” Okay it isn’t true that economists, political scientists, and political economists get together, they always argue about what is the greatest economic rap video of all time. Okay, that is not strictly true because there is nothing to argue about: the greatest economics rap video of all time is Fear the Boom and Bust, which portrays the ongoing debate between John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek, which has been ongoing for some time. .

The video’s tagline is the Keynes want to steer markets, while Hayek wants them set free. Markets are human constructs, so there is a certain about of artifice in their construction, in which the buyers and sellers have a certain amount of freedom to conduct transactions. The source of the debate is that there are limits both to the ability to direct and operate within the market. Most problematic is the desire of Keynes to interfere with the market and engage in the favorite activity of politicians, pick winners and direct outcomes. Keynes argues that interfering in markets inevitably leads to perverse incentives, poorly functioning markets, and bad outcomes.

Confounding the identification of market intervention consequences is that the benefits—that is the boom, the enrichment of politically selected beneficiaries— tends to be unambiguous and in the short-term, while the costs—that is the bust, the impoverishment of larger numbers of people like the general public—tends to be more causally confused and long-term. Venezuela provides only the most recent example because the wealth of the country has been unambiguously concentrated in one person, Hugo Chavez’s daughter, while the country is doing unambiguously less well. The boom and bust may appear to be separate phenomena, and those who benefit from the boom and seek scapegoats for the bust, but Hayek argues that the causes of the bust are initially through the boom.

The video memorably portrays Keynes as having rockstar status, while Hayek is seen in the eyes of comely young women who, it is rumored are graduate students, as a quickly forgotten stick-in-the-mud, nay-saying nerd. Hayek’s arguing against Keynes’ boom policies however is done for the best of reasons: to prevent the population from enduring the painful bust, but that doesn’t buy one any friends in economics apparently.

Finally, there is the matter of complexity. The benefits of Keynes’ optimistic and popular boom are quickly enjoyed and easily identified, while the costs of Hayek’s pessimistic bust obtain over the longer term and causality is harder to determine. Even though Hayek may not be popular with the ladies in the video, he did win the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974, which is doubtless of some consolation.

On Nationalism

As policy discussions to nationalism, it is instructive to consider nationalism from a more neutral and intellectual perspective. Immigration is an increasingly salient policy issue as there are a sizeable number countries in which one fifth or more of their population lives abroad. As such large numbers of people move across the globe, changing notions of nationalism are certain to arise. Facile comparisons to nativism and fascism are unhelpful, so it makes sense to think about what exactly it is, its history, and why it exists.

Anthony D. Smith wrote about nationalism from a sociological perspective at the London School of Economics. Smith’s Ethnic Origin of Nations makes the case that nations, despite their modern interpretations, have ethnic origins and that ethnic core is at the heart of the concept of nation. That is, countries were created when distinct ethnic populations or nations were associated with specific geographies and their borders. The modernist project took this traditional nationalism, what sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies called gemeinschaft, and transformed it into a more explicitly contractually transactional and economically mediated set of relationships called gesellschaft.

Nationalism however is something more than the opposite of modernity, it denotes fellow feeling among members of a nation that leads to cooperation and sacrifice for the common good. Looking to pre-modern Britain, or rather England, one need only compare the early pre-kings, such as Offa of Mercia,  who while they had king-like qualities, ruled their dominion more like a tyrant with little to know public consent or fellow-feeling. Later elites, like Alfred the Great, held the allegiance of the people, so the government and the people were mutually beneficial and undertook collective action without being physically compelled to do so. That is, they behaved as a nation. True elites elicit this fellow-feeling from the non-elites and take it seriously rather than take it for granted and demand it.

Smith points out that narratives about common myths and historical ages help to prompt these common feelings, and he points out that such myths need not be, strictly true. For example, the tartans that support Scottish nationalism are not quite as ancient as some might believe, only going back to the late 18th century. However, it is not the historical accuracy of such narratives and stories that matters so much as the fellow-feeling and social cohesion they elicit.

In conclusion, there a three takeaway points from Smith’s study of nationalism. First, the modern nation-state has its historical roots in common ethnicities associated with a common geography. Second, nationalism entails a conversation and mutual respect between elites and non-elites. Third, national narratives may not be strictly true but serve to support and reinforce these mutual bonds. Nationalism is often described negatively, but a sensitive and academic understanding of it demonstrates much of the social organization that people enjoy, depend on, and take for granted derives from nationalism.

On Ancient and Modern Philosophy

Previously your correspondent discussed three pairs of semi-modern philosophers—Spinoza and Locke, Hegel and Kant, and Tocqueville and J.S. Mill—with the fundamental tension between the two groups being the natural and social environments.This theme suggests two more philosopher pairs, one ancient and one modern. The ancient one is the classic pair between Aristotle and Plato, while the more modern pairing is between Leo Strauss and John Rawls.

For the ancient philosophers, Aristotle was a natural scientist of his day. Viewed from the modern perspective, many of his observations and conclusions are, to say the least specious, but then again, much has been learned over the last 2000 years. What persists though is his framing of fundamental questions, his philosophical perspective that recognizes the role of natural phenomenon and that humanity gains wisdom by attempting to understand the natural world.

Plato was Aristotle’s teacher and, in contrast, primarily a social theorist. His Republic is a philosophical classic—crisp, clear, and classic. But as Plato matured, he recognized that the world is more complex, more nuanced, and less clear and crisp. Comparing the Republic to the Laws illustrates this increasing recognition of complexity and its impact on readability and philosophical satisfaction.

Leo Strauss provides a modern equivalent to Aristotle by providing a methodology to address the complexity of reality. Staussians are often described as “close reading,” which means they take the text seriously. This entails engaging in both “exegesis”—reading the text in the historical context in which it was written—and “hermeneutics”—applying that text to the modern day context. Gordon Fee describes and applies this same close reading methodology of exegesis and hermeneutics to the Holy Bible,  which mirrors the fundamental human experience of taking lessons from the past, applying them to decisions in the present, and trying to improve the future, what your correspondent calls the policy problématique.

John Rawls follows in the tradition of Plato and Bentham by offering a more crisp and clean fundamental axiom—the original position—which states that when considering a political order, one must evaluate it without knowing which position in the order one would inhabit. That is, one could theoretically support any political order so long as one was in charge, but Rawls’ original position forces one to consider inhabiting the position of a mere citizen rather than a leader. Rawls’ axiom is comparatively social, spare, and abstract compared to the complexity of the social and natural environments, but it captures something fundamental about the human experience and provides a defensible perspective for philosophical inquiry.