Trump, a third-party, and a golden calf

I’ve frequently discussed the possibility that Trump could run as a third-party candidate. I was wrong.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on the weekend, Donald Trump gave one of his first public addresses since leaving the White House. In addition to the usual ravings about electoral fraud, he also called rumors he would lead a breakaway political party fake news, saying: “We’re not starting new parties. We have the Republican Party. It’s going to be united and be stronger than ever before. I am not starting a new party.”

He teased the possibility he would run for a third-term, saying “I may even decide to beat them for a third time.” The FT reports that 68% of attendees wanted Trump to run again. I suspect this understates his support, given CPAC hosts a larger portion of party functionaries, who may be more likely to oppose him.

Finally, what kind of conservative political conference would it be without a golden statue of Trump.

Perhaps they’ve forgotten how God feels about golden idols.

Golden calf | Old Testament | Britannica
Adoration of the Golden Calf, oil on canvas by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1634

Exocudes 32, verses 7-10

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

Things to not waste time on

We drown in content. Authors, thinkers, and officials are available on podcasts or YouTube commenting on almost any issue. Some of these conversations are interesting, many are not. Powerful people with reputations at stake, both theirs and their organization’s, are incentivized to be guarded. This is sensible policy when off-the-cuff comments can move markets, but doesn’t make it any more interesting. So, how to find content worth listening to?

Avoid interviews with Very Important People: People like the IMF’s Chief Economist or the CEO of Volkswagen have little to say not already in print elsewhere. They are usually there to discuss one of three things: a report or press release; events which are the subject of an ongoing report or press release; events which will soon be the subject of reports or press releases. Very Important People will repeat the party line with clarity, maybe even a little humour, but waffle the rest. Should the conversation require their opinions on the unknown or controversial – presumably why you are listening – they will squirt out clouds of PR speak.

Take this example from an interview with former Director of the CIA John O. Brennan. When asked his opinion on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, following the release of videos taken by US Navy pilots documenting as-yet-unexplained flying lights and objects, he said:

What that might be is subject to a lot of different views. But I think some of the phenomenon we are seeing continues to be unexplained and might in fact be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.

Avoid public intellectuals at well-marketed events. “An evening with…” or “In conversation with…” are warnings you are paying to be the clap track of a YouTube video. These events usually follow the release of a new book or public controversy. In the latter case, consider a podcast (or the book’s introduction), in the former, the opinion section of a newspaper. When it comes to the content itself, nuance and complexity will probably be left out, while you can find the high-level summary more quickly and cheaply elsewhere. I make exceptions for debates or dull-looking events like memorial lectures or technical presentations; you usually get more candour and a better version of their ideas.

A case can be made for seeing your ticket as a financial gift for an author you like; I suspect it is more lucrative than book royalties. It can also be exciting to see an idol up close, in which case the location is also usually beautiful, even if the drinks are overpriced.


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A European Union (of sorts)

From Perry Anderson’s third and final essay on Europe for the LRB:

Those from the EU actually living and working outside their country of birth in the Union form a number smaller still, less than 4% of its total population in 2015, of whom the large majority were manual labourers of one kind or another. As late as 2008, they made up less than 2% of the population of Western Europe.

For those wondering, 4% of the EU’s population in 2015 was about 20 million people. Less than a third the population of France, twice the population of Greece.

Stoicism and self-help

I was at Kinokuniya on the weekend with a group of friends who were all looking for the same book. On the third floor of a mall in the city, Kinokuniya basically occupies the entire level, wrapping around the escalators from which you enter. Most bookstores have a history section, Kinokuniya has a Latin American history section. That row is next to Russian history, and behind cultural studies. It’s big.

There were two copies of the book, but three friends. While they argued about whether priority should be given to those who saw the book first, or those who touched it first, I walked over to the philosophy section. The covers of philosophical books are often very enticing, I expect to compensate for what lies beneath the covers; even the impenetrable Being and Time looks like a fantasy novel from a distance.

The slickest covers were reserved for the books on Stoicism – poor Hegel was in ghastly green. It was hard to miss them, perhaps 40% of the philosophy section was devoted to Stoic philosophy. Seneca rubbed shoulders with six different editions of Marcus Aurelius. Modern entrants crowded about the primary texts, countless handbooks and beginners guides, each promising happiness, resilience, or ‘the good.’ The rest of the philosophical canon was squeezed onto another shelf around the corner, where my friends were still arguing, now about whether being more likely to read it first was a relevant consideration.

Stoicism was not the first school of philosophy to deal with the good life, nor was it the last. Everyone from the ancient Epicureans to Nietzsche has opined on it. Still, Stoicism has the closest relationship with contemporary self-help. On Amazon.com.au there are over 1000 results for stoicism under “self-help.” Only one book on the first page was a primary text (Seneca), the remainder are made up of books with titles like, “Stoicism and the Art of Happiness” or “The Good Life Handbook.” There was also “The Stoic Cop – Policing through Stoic Virtue.”

Mentions in books scanned by Google Ngram

Part of the attraction is Stoicism’s accessibility. Seneca or Marcus Aurelius write with clarity and a minimum of jargon. They wrote short essays and aphorisms which directly relate to everyday human issues like death, anger, or boredom. There are few areas of philosophy where a lay person can read a primary text unaided.

Still, are there are other reasons Stoicism is so popular? To paraphrase Nietzsche, what is the meaning of the desire for what Stoicism has to offer? Does the popularity of a philosophy which emphasizes self-regulation and resilience say anything about our social world?

Isaiah Berlin thought that the emergence of ideas had something to do with particular historical moments:

It sometimes happens in human history – though parallels may be dangerous – that when the natural road towards human fulfillment is blocked, human beings retreat into themselves, become involved in themselves, and try to create inwardly that world which some evil fate has denied them externally. This is certainly what happened in Ancient Greece when Alexander the Great began to destroy the city-States, and the Stoics and the Epicureans began to preach a new morality of personal salvation, which took the form of saying that politics was unimportant, civil life was unimportant, all the great ideals held up by Pericles and by Demosthenes, by Plato and by Aristotle, were trivial and as nothing before the imperative need for personal individual salvation.


All I’m saying is, there is a gap in the market for self-help with Hegel.

Beeple

Hardly a day goes by without the catalogue of social media’s harms expanding. Our smartphones are bridgeheads from which apps like Instagram undermine our self-esteem, attention span, sleep, mental health, and relationships.

One relationship social media has improved for me, is my relationship with art. Instagram has made it incredibly easy to discover art. Some friends have gone beyond discovery, and started to participate as customers as well; buying art directly from artists or small galleries has never been easier.

Which leads me to the artist Beeple, who I discovered today and could not resist sharing. His artwork is weird, irreverent, shocking, and profane. I love it. You can see an example to the left, but please go on over to his Instagram for thousands more. In a testament to the view that creativity is a numbers game, he has been creating a new image everyday for over 5000 days (you do the math).

His digital art has sold for millions through a new application of the Blockchain. You can buy something here for far less.

Check out his site here, and a write-up in Esquire here.

Thanks to Marginal Revolution for the heads up.

Selected quotations

I have been re-reading Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian and wanted to share a few passages which stayed with me

On racism

It especially annoys me when racists are accused of ‘discrmination.’ The ability to discriminate is a precious faculty; by judging all members of one ‘race’ to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination

On the open conflict of ideas and principles

Conflict may be painful, but the painless solution does not exist in any case and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness; the apotheosis of the ostrich.

Contrast this to the unashamed recommendations of the mindless that are offered to us every day. In place of honest disputation we are offered platitudes about “healing.” The idea of “unity” is granted huge privileges over any notion of “division” or, worse, “divisiveness.” I cringe every time I hear denunciations of “the politics of division” – as if politics was not division by definition.

He quotes Eugene Debs, addressing socialist voters in the 1912 election campaign:

he would not lead them into a Promised Land even if he could, because if they were trusting enough to be led in, they would be trusting enough to be led out again.

The life of Eugene Debs, a unionist and socialist activist who was imprisoned for denouncing American participation in World War 1, is worth examining. I have just bought this biography of the man.