This book had been happily sitting in my ‘one day to acquire and read list’ with not much hope of moving on to a less passive state when The Washington Post took it upon themselves to review his follow up publication, which caused me to bestir myself and pester my local library to lend me a copy of the earlier book.
My father would greatly enjoy reading about the first figure Mishra biographs, Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, which is mostly fictious name (a Shi’a Muslim from Persia, he adopted ‘Al-Afghai’ to imply he was from mostly Sunni Afghanistan), classic sort of roving intellectual who traveled to many of the cultural capitals of the nineteenth century (Calcutta, Alexandria, London, Paris, Istanbul, and Moscow) as a sort professional public intellectual, sometimes making a living by giving informal lectures or classes to young, educated Muslims, sometimes as journalist, and always seeming to espouse a sort of pan-Islamic movement that was simultaneously slightly secular, while also being fundamentalist.
Liang Qichao was also new to me, though Mishra rather muddled him up with other figures, so that my sense of his importance was similarly muddled. Poor Tagore… the first non-white person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. If the author didn’t really know what to do with him, why include him? The point seems to be, he was important because he’s kind of famous, but maybe his ideas went nowhere (so how did he remake Asia, in that case?).
Japan is posited as a simply fascinating intellectual center in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and I finished the book wishing that Mishra would write that book for us.
I can’t quite figure out what to make of Zoellick, the author. I live in Washington, DC and I’ve worked in government, so understand what it means for someone to be part of the foreign policy establishment, as Zoellick is, but beyond being a generic example of that, I don’t know what else to say, based on reading this book.
Did I like it all? Of course! It was fascinating. He gives Teddy Roosevelt a lot of credit for being a canny foreign relations player (he also, in a chapter covering Wilson, refer to him at ‘TR’ without giving me any notice that he was going to do that, which caused some initial, pointless confusion); provides a nuanced look at Japanese policy positions and motivations; gives space to previously unknown to me figures like Charles Evans Hughes, who, before becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, played key roles for several presidents in the first quarter of the twentieth century; and did you know that Dean Acheson had ties to Alger Hiss?
Of course, as seemingly every one in the foreign policy establishment does, he gives kudos to James Baker, who I mostly remember as Dubya’s consigliere during the 2000 recount/debacle. I’m trying to be broadminded about him, but it’s not easy. However, President Trump made it easier to look at previous, failed Republican presidents and say to one’s self, well, at least he never instigated the sacking of our nation’s temple of democracy. He also compares Dubya’s vision to Kennedy’s and… I guess I don’t know enough to criticize, but the partisan in me rankles.
And a reminder, in case any reader forgot: the Vietnam-American War was a sad, embarrassing time in U.S. history. Also, not related to this book, but I saw a writer note this, but take a moment and think about your favorite Vietnam movie.
Is it Platoon or Born on the 4th of July or maybe Full Metal Jacket?
I ask because, that writer (whose name I sadly forget) noted that the answer to the question about Vietnam movies or books are invariably media about Americans… not about a Vietnamese person at all. Like a narcissist, it’s all about us.
He writes about, as he must, the famed Sovietologist (is that a real word, or did Foggy Bottom make it up?) George Kennan. I must confess that I have never read his ‘Long Telegram,’ but the description given of it makes it seem like Russia hasn’t changed since it was chief among Soviet republics.
‘Theory’ (in the context of the humanities) and ‘critical theory’ (and especially ‘critical race theory’) find themselves frequently despised. Well,Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism falls squarely into that camp.
Though short, if you do not like those categories, you won’t like, even if it won’t take you long to read.
I am always trying to be a ‘good’ white man and especially to be a good, white father to an non-white appearing daughter and I try to welcome challenges to my understandings (and, yes, prejudices).
The author struck me to the heart of the unseen biases within myself. I was most impacted by an off-handed line criticizing Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, a book that I adored, for failing to recognize how beauty can be terribly, damagingly racialized. It is so easy to see ‘my’ truth (a white, heterosexual, college-educated, middle class, man in America) as being everyone’s reality. Like Kant, I am constantly being awakened from my dogmatic slumber. It’s not always fun, but it is important.
Beyond that, it is about the Asian, female body. The body as clothed in exotic dresses, jewelry, headwear. The body stamped by prejudices (the assumption of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that unaccompanied Asian woman coming to America must be sex workers). The body as skin and flesh (naked, like sashimi; or, compared to porcelain). The body appropriated by white females.
Early in the book, in the second chapter, he quotes from the slightly unorthodox conservative, Andrew Sulivan, from his book, The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom, and the Future of the Right:
All conservatism begins with loss.
(Of course, I tend to think of Sullivan as rather a wannabe Hitchens, but lacking that better writer’s adventurous spirit and mordant wit. Of course they both did quit national magazines on account of feelings of ostracization stemming from more liberal colleagues disapproval of some of their positions.)
As a rhetorical tool, Corey Robin’s best move is to quickly go after Edmund Burke and place him squarely in the lineage of modern conservatism. ‘The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power,’ he writes. Burke, by virtue of his commitment to keeping Westminster in narrow, elite hands, even as he believed in gifting a degree of economic security, falls under that rubric, the author argues. There is much more on Burke, early on, which makes me want to read more of Burke because I have an instinct to want to defend him (perhaps on account of my own elitism). But I cannot deny the efficiency of placing Burke in a lineage that leads directly to Trump, because otherwise, that esteemed eighteenth century thinker is the there to be pointed to, as an example of noble, intellectual conservative thought, implying that the current crudeness is an aberration. Robin seems to point at Burke’s thought and say, to quote Joseph Conrad, ‘And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth.’
But to go back to that idea of loss… Buckley stands athwart history and shouts stop because something is being taken away from him. Race certainly being part of it, as desegregation and civil rights took a certain dominion from white men. While not his purpose, he gives a beautifully succinct explanation for why the Civil War could be about slavery (it was) even though most white men in the South did not own slaves. Under slavery, every white man was an aristocrat. With emancipation, man white men became merely poor and wanted their aristocratic privilege back.
Always though, he rows ceaselessly back to Burke. He take a trip earlier to visit Hobbes (the conservative as counterrevolutionary), but Burke is always there. He is what Thomas Jefferson is to me, I think: an admired figure who he knows is also dangerous and deeply unadmirable. To paraphrase a movie, he just can’t quit him.
He enjoys long, discursive, excerpt heavy footnotes… especially about Burke. I think he understands that Burke is figure at the beginning who no one (including, arguably, me) can accept as truly being part of the lineage of Trump. And he can’t let that (or him) go. Burke, you might say, is living rent-free in his head.
He’s now living in mine, too. I’ll have to find my copy of his selected writings and revisit. Especially his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity which sounds like a fascinating (and, yes, deeply conservative) defense of the rich and their capital against the needs of working people, disguised as an economic treatise.
The takedown of Rand (intertwined, somewhat inexplicably, with Nietzsche) was delicious. The author was incredulous as to how a writer of such ridiculous prose and philosopher of such shallow depths (who seems not to have read much philosophy) could be have become so… influential. In the end, I don’t think we know. I blame Paul Ryan.
Similarly, his critique of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s frankly rank hypocrisy (hint: he only adopted his textual originalism when it was useful to buttressing his decision, rather than always letting his originalism lead him to the decision) was nice to hear, because paeans to his supposedly principled legal stance have always rankled. Like so many leading 20th century (and now, 21st century) conservatives, his politics and philosophy were rooted in a culture of victimhood.
So, did this book, as a blurb attests, predict Trump? There is a chapter on Trump, clearly written post-election. But it feels understandably tacked on. Yes, he appealed to the sense of aggrievement, of victimhood, that is chronicled throughout as a key factor in conservatism. But Trump himself is so vacuous (he makes Ayn Rand look like Hannah Arendt) that the chapter is jarring. He’s a cipher, but in no way a thinker who added anything to the conservative movement beyond, perhaps, a little daylight (which has not proved to be as a good disinfectant as one might like).
Every one knows that judicious manner and charms of style have rendered Hume’s history [of England] the manual of every student. I remember well the enthusiasm with which I devoured it when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it had instilled in my mind… It is this book which has undermined the free principles of the English government, has persuaded readers of all classes that these were usurpations on the legitimate and salutary rights of the crown and have spread universal toryism over the land.
I borrowed this from the library (after a reassuringly long wait; people wanted to read it) partly because I like Hong’s poetry and partly because my daughter may experience some of what would be discussed.
First of all, a great book, beautifully, painfully written. Some remarks that delivered some deeply personal pain (some paragraph about how white men date Asian women because they can find Asian women who are much more attractive than the white women who would consider them and how Asian women, because of low self-esteem, will date a white man that no white woman would consider; as a white man with an Asian wife… yikes… but let’s just say, not without truth and move on).
The meditation on the erasure of the violence done to the writer Theresa Has Kyung Cha was devastating, but what I really kept coming back was something not in the book, but relevant.
My better half spoke about wanting me to take our daughter to school and to pick her up and be present whenever possible so that the roost-ruling white children and white families would see her white father and accept her as not being othered by race. Trying to make her safe and accepted by blessing her with my whiteness.
Such a brief book must, necessarily, be swift in its progress. But there is, as always, such a thing, as too much. Amply endnoted, it nonetheless feels shallow. The Enlightenment influenced thought behind America’s founding is dealt with in less than twenty pages. An opening chapter, which subtitled itself ‘Precontact-1740,’ managed to make most of what was said about indigenous people’s thought about Europeans proselytizing to them, which feels more than a little icky.
Transcendentalism, the second most interesting moment in American intellectual history, to my mind, after the Founding period, actually subsumed in a chapter about first half of the nineteenth century, so that an alien who magically read English, but knew nothing about American history, would think that Ralph Waldo Emerson, rather than being a towering figure in the creation of a American intellectual tradition, was more of just a guy who was around and maybe wrote one or two essays that are pretty good.
I would say that the author has a conservative bent (even though she completely fails to give any details about conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk and William Buckley believed, despite spending several pages on them), and perhaps because many of America’s most important thinkers were liberal (or even radical) in some way: William James, Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, etc.).
The most egregious sin, I think, is that it’s just an assemblage. The book advances no thesis, it just breaks up American intellectual into some distinct time period and gives a breezily brief description of each. Without that, how can you claim these ideas made America?
So,I guess it’s a nice, short primer of some kind, but perhaps not useful for much beyond brushing up on a couple of things to drop in conversation to make yourself sound smart (but hopefully, you don’t encounter anyone who actually read the thinkers, because then you might be caught out, because you won’t have learned that much).
This is the sort of book that seemed like it should be right up my alley. After all, the three lives were a writer I enjoy, an opera singer, and an art connoisseur. But it nonetheless failed to properly grip me.
It was, dare I say, too bourgeois?
And the implied premise is that these three characters are deeply interesting, as well as being useful exemplars of Europe’s growing cosmopolitanism in the nineteenth century. And they are (I believe) interesting figures (well, the writer and the singer definitely are), but more than sixty pages in, I had learned about the connection between the rise of railways and mass market literature and about how fear of buying forgeries led the nouveau riche to invest in (then) contemporary art, among other interesting things, but had not gotten anything close to an idea about the central figures (well, except perhaps for the connoisseur, Louis Viardot, whose primary personality traits are deeply positive in a partner, but maybe not engrossing reading; traits like patience, tolerance, and staidness).
I did, eventually, get a better idea of the three central figures but the premise… I don’t know. I feel that Baden-Baden would have been awesome in the 1860s (did you know they had a public building called the Conversation House [only, they naturally used the German]?), but the epilogue went on to suggest that, actually, their time (the mid nineteenth century) was less truly European and cosmopolitan than the early twentieth century.
So, should you read it? I guess. It’s interesting in many ways, but at the same time, never has a ménage a trois seemed so boring.
Thomas Jefferson has often been accused of dissembling in his political life. Two letters, in particular, that I came across while reading my Modern Library edition of The Life and Selected Writings of Jefferson drove that home. Both, not coincidentally, written to John Adams, his great political rival in post-Articles America.
The first is Jefferson proclaiming a certain innocence in the controversy over his private correspondence praising Paine’s Rights of Man, praise which pointedly criticized the (comparatively) Anglophilicism of the Federalists and their political stances. While certainly true that he did not intend it to become public, much less published as a sort of introduction to the work, he writes as if nothing he said was not an implied attack on Adams.
Later, in the aftermath of what passed for presidential campaign in those days (the 1796 election), he protests too much to his (former, future) friend, writing:
In the retired canton where I am, I learn little of what is passing: pamphlets I never see: newspapers but few; and the fewer the happier.
Even the use of the pointedly pastoral term ‘canton’ (a word I can’t remember him using and a search using the tools of the National Archives reveals that, when used, it mostly used to refer to places in Europe, like the Swiss cantons or places or things actually named ‘Canton’) seems too… too much. After all, Jefferson did engage his supporters in a media war (using newspapers and pamphlets) on his behalf during the election. His failure to say something as simple as, it was a hard fought election and while we have our strong political differences, I remain your friend and admirer. Instead, he says he wasn’t paying attention and later says that he always assumed that Adams would end up the victor. Finally, he says:
No one then will congratulate you with purer disinterestedness than myself…
Gore Vidal’s portrayal of the third President as a conflict adverse, sneaky political operator seems apt. Jefferson later wrote to his friend James Madison, complaining that he despaired of convincing Adams of the truth of his professed sentiments. I’m not sure I would have trusted them either.