The fact that someone believes strongly in something is a reason for us to disrespect their belief and to discount it as the product of a fevered, fanatical and irrational mind.
Allowing myself some pedantry, I would say in response that I don't think this is well expressed. I take it Chris means to disparage the holding and expression of beliefs in exorbitant, unreasoned, overly dogmatic ways. But in that case what should not be respected is the manner in which the belief is adopted and propounded; which isn't the same thing as disrespecting the belief itself. Here what matters is the content of the belief in question. All kinds of beliefs that one may judge provisionally (on the basis of the evidence and argument available) to be sound can be held in unreasonable ('fevered' or 'fanatical') ways. I'm not going to disrespect atheism just because there are fanatical atheists. And the point can be generalized to other beliefs
Further to my post about the day of Henry James, here's an interesting piece by Colm Tóibín on one of James's many writer friends, Edith Wharton. It centres on her estate, The Mount, and on the passion she and James shared for one Morton Fullerton. But the friendship between her and James is also prominent:
James grew to admire her and wonder at her energy. He also adored her car, a black Pope-Hartford helmed by her chauffeur, Charles Cook. During a heat wave on one of his stays at The Mount, the only relief James found was in "incessant motoring." They motored, Wharton wrote, "daily, incessantly, over miles and miles of lustrous landscape lying motionless under the still glaze of heat. While we were moving he was refreshed and happy, his spirits rose, the twinkle returned to his lips and eyes."
James had reasons to be jealous of Wharton not only because of the nights she spent with Fullerton but because of her popularity as a writer. When she mentioned that she had bought a luxurious new car with her royalties, James remarked drily that all he had managed from the proceeds of his novel The Wings of the Dove was the purchase of a small wheelbarrow. "It needs a coat of paint," he wrote to her. "With the proceeds of my next novel I shall have it painted."
In an unusual move South African prosecutors are charging with murder, not any of those who killed 34 people by shooting into a crowd of striking miners, but rather some from among the crowd they fired on:
Two weeks after the police opened fire on a crowd of 3,000 workers engaged in a wildcat strike at a platinum mine near Johannesburg, killing 34 people in the bloodiest labor unrest since the end of apartheid, prosecutors are bringing murder charges against a surprising set of suspects: the miners themselves.
Using an obscure legal doctrine frequently relied upon by the apartheid government in its dying days, prosecutors did not accuse the police officers who shot and killed the strikers as they surged forward, machetes in hand. Instead, officials said Thursday that they were pursuing murder charges against the 270 miners who were arrested after the dust settled and the shooting stopped.
Did I say 'unusual'? Yes, I did. What kind of legal or moral thinking is it that shifts the primary responsibility for a mass killing on to people who plainly didn't commit it? Well, I'd better not comment on the legal aspect of the situation; I don't have the expertise. But so far as the moral aspect is concerned, the shifting of responsibility in this way is - come to think of it - entirely familiar from the last decade or so, for readers of the British liberal press and those tuned in to a certain segment of the left. Whether or not South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority know these sources, I couldn't say.
David Hawkes, Professor of English at Arizona State University, opens a review of two collections of interviews and discussions with Noam Chomsky with this paragraph:
Anyone following the career of Noam Chomsky is soon confronted with a problem. In fact, it has become known as the "Chomsky problem". Chomsky has achieved eminence in two very different fields, theoretical linguistics and political commentary. The "Chomsky problem" is that his approaches to these fields appear to contradict each other. In politics Chomsky is a radical, but in linguistics he takes positions that can easily be characterized as reactionary. He treats linguistics as a branch of biology. He traces language to a "Universal Grammar" resident in the physical brain. He believes that our linguistic nature is hard-wired into our genes. Because they diminish the influence of environment on human behaviour, such claims can be used to suggest that certain modes of social organization are natural and immutable. As a result, they have often been associated with conservative politics.
Leaving Chomsky aside here, I want to question the assumptions carried by the above lines. I won't deny that the way of thinking referred to by Hawkes is common: linking the belief in natural human characteristics to conservative or reactionary politics, while radicals are supposedly more attached to 'the influence of environment on human behaviour'. There are, though, at least two things wrong with treating these affinities as hard and fast.
First, the notion of a universal and relatively constant human nature can be deployed in favour of change as well as of an immutable social order. For example, in slave-owning societies, a powerful argument against slavery can be made on the basis of there being features of human nature which render being a slave onerous and unwelcome, at best, and harsh to unbearable, at worst, for nearly all human beings. Likewise, a society in which cruelties of one sort or another are regularly dealt out by the powerful against the powerless can be condemned in the light of the needs of human nature, since by and large the latter predisposes people against being on the receiving end of great cruelties.
Second, the assumption that all resistance to change is a bad thing and 'conservative' in the narrow political sense of that word is also open to question. A society which has banished the use of torture as a method of punishment and a means of securing information will not be the worse for sticking with this prohibition, but the better for it. Those seeking to reintroduce torture are to be resisted. One of the reasons torture is wrong is that, given the constraints of human nature, it is a cause of terrible, often irreparable, suffering.
If some think there's too much interest in the Holocaust, there's only one thing to be done: shine the spotlight on that terrible time, drawing attention to individuals whom others could get something out of knowing about. I have three examples to begin with.
1.Irena Veisaite, recipient of this year's Goethe Medal, who spent three years in the Kaunas ghetto and then, after her mother was murdered, was taken in by a Lithuanian family. Of the period in the ghetto Veisaite writes:
It was a very, very bad time. I was in constant fear of being killed and was terribly hungry... Often, people were arrested or executed. If you were still alive at the end of the day, then that was good.
How she sees things now:
When Lithuania gained its independence in 1990, Irena Veisaite was 62 years old and had survived two dictatorships. It took a long time until she was finally allowed to talk openly about her story and that of the many other persecuted Jews. It pains her that there is still conflict over her country's past; the collaboration of some Lithuanians with the Nazi occupiers has remained a touchy subject, and the suffering of the Jews has not received enough attention, despite efforts from the government, historians and museums.
Veisaite doesn't point fingers, but she feels strongly that people should know what happened so that the mistakes and crimes that were committed will not be repeated. Germany's approach to its dark past is a model for Veisaite.
2 & 3. Hein Sietsma and Berendina (Diet) Eman, engaged to be married, were Dutch rescuers of Jews and were killed at Dachau. Their story is one of those now being digitally archived by the government of the Netherlands and Yad Vashem, in cooperation. From a last communication from Sietsma to Eman: 'Even if we never meet each other again on this earth, we will never be sorry for what we did... We will never regret that we took this stand, and know, Diet, that of every human being in the world, I loved you the most.'
(Post title amended 3 September, 2012. For an index to the whole series, see here)
I ought to be cautious here after just one reading of Anna Karenina, and having no knowledge whatever of Tolstoy criticism; but I'll shoot my mouth off instead. I do not see how it is possible to discuss Anna Karenina at the length Geoffrey Macnab does in this column - in which he is assessing various filmed versions of the novel - and say nothing whatsoever about the 'other' story in the book, Levin and Kitty's. The love between Anna and Vronsky is obviously central. But to my eyes Tolstoy's exploration of its development, its different shapes and phases, Anna's and Vronsky's changing perceptions of their situation, has as its essential counterpoint the consciousness of Levin, his relationship with Kitty, and his thoughts about the meaning of life (including family life) and death. Lop that off and you have a different and much impoverished book.
(Incidentally, I don't share Keira Knightley's quoted view that Tolstoy 'hates' his own creation, Anna. If he'd hated her, I doubt that he could have traced all the nuances in her relations with Vronsky as well as he does.)
To the category of 'Ridiculously Interesting Things' these pictures of hiddenmothers well and truly belong. Whether they constitute a metaphor for some bigger truth about the world I leave to you to decide. (Thanks: J.)
If it was quieter than usual around here yesterday, it was because WotN and I went to Rye with our good friends Anne and Philip Stott. It wasn't the first visit. We'd been before, in June 2008. But on that occasion Lamb House, where Henry James wrote several of his books, was closed.
That was one reason why we were back. For me the day was, among other things, a Henry James pilgrimage - though my three companions also spent much of it swapping laughs about Mapp and Lucia, of whom I have merely heard and not yet read. But, in any event, there I stood right beside James's front door in Rye.
Inside the house, among other, and more important, Jamesiana, was a plaque bearing these lines:
In Heaven there'll be no algebra
No learning dates or names
But only playing golden harps
And reading Henry James
I'm bound to say that, even as a fan of TheMaster, I can imagine people for whom reading his more demanding works would not have a place in heaven as conceived by them. It was a lovely day. We even sat in the garden at Lamb House.
Elsewhere in the town we happened upon a property with a most intriguing name.
Nothing at all to do with me, however.
Postscript: Tom Deveson points me towards this from The Awkward Age: 'Mr. Longdon's garden took in three acres and, full of charming features, had for its greatest wonder the extent and colour of its old brick wall, in which the pink and purple surface was the fruit of the mild ages and the protective function, for a visitor strolling, sitting, talking, reading, that of a nurse of reverie. The air of the place, in the August time, thrilled all the while with the bliss of birds, the hum of little lives unseen and the flicker of white butterflies...'
[This post is the tenth and last in a series drawing on a recent paper of mine, 'Staying Home: G.A. Cohen and the Motivational Basis of Socialism'. The previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.]
But, now, what if the 'stuff' of humanity, so to speak, that which shapes and sets limits to human motivation, is not human nature as such but human nature deformed – deformed by capitalism or, more generally, by class and other inequalities? This might then leave it open to humankind to re-form its character by way of changed, more egalitarian, social structures and practices. Thereby the constraints of human motivation for which I have been arguing in this paper might not have to apply forever.
I have two responses here. First, this line of thought makes human character the dependent variable, being determined by societal structures in what is assumed to be a unidirectional relation. I do not, of course, deny that there is a powerful influence of that kind. It is by now a truism that people's make-up is historically and culturally shaped. But how can one rule out, other than purely speculatively, an influence in the other direction as well – from human nature to certain observable social facts, historical regularities among them? If so much of human history, so many types of social order, have accommodated inequalities and injustices of one kind and another, it is hard not to allow weight to the hypothesis that human beings have impulses and aptitudes for taking advantage of one another, for giving priority to their own interests and the interests of those close to them over the interests of more distant others. I will not, though, proceed further with the first response. This is partly because I have already argued in earlier work – and at some length – for a core human nature that is relatively stable and for its 'mixed' moral character.16 But it is also because, in the context of the present paper, I want to cast doubt on whether, even were it achievable on a society-wide or worldwide basis, the camping-trip ideal of other-regarding motivation would be desirable.
We are to imagine, then, in opposition to a heap of accumulated evidence, the possibility of a human type so differently socialized and acculturated that every individual's well-being would depend on knowing that everyone else was thriving to the same extent (at least roughly) as that individual him or herself. This would give us the human so-called family as, affectively, like a real family – though of course a harmonious, and not a warring or dysfunctional, real family – in which the good of each was tied not merely to the good of all but to the approximately equal good of all. Is it an attractive vision?
I am not so sure it is. If we regard human individuality as an important value, and the products of human individuality as a precious achievement of our species, we must surely allow that individual persons need the mental and emotional space to form and pursue their own purposes, to give priority to their own concerns. Yet if each individual is to devote the amount of attention to the well-being of everyone that would be necessary to their being confident of everyone's approximately equal flourishing, how could this not cramp the space left available for their flourishing in an individual way? Think only of the economy of personal time. Each of us has limited time and needs to be able, if individuality is to rank highly, to keep a serious amount of it free for the achievement of whatever ends are deemed by us central to our lives, or indeed merely to our current plans. In a world with many difficulties, personal obligations, frictions, troubles – such as even a socialist world must continue to be – a community spirit or friendly fellow-feeling that knows no boundaries is hard to square with securing those individual needs for mental and emotional space and sheer physical time that a thriving individuality requires. Socialist equality of opportunity is primarily about political, economic and social justice; it is not about universal love, friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood – as excellent as these values are.17
 See Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend, Verso, London 1983; Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind, pp. 47-70; and The Contract of Mutual Indifference, pp. 83-120.
 I am grateful to Eve Garrard, Matthew Kramer and Jonathan Quong for their comments on the paper from which this series has been drawn. None of them is responsible for the positions I take here or the arguments I make.