Saturday, December 30, 2006

For Dockery a son

These past six months have been remarkable time: a new life on its way with all the attendant scarily high stakes and worries. And optimism - that cannot be denied. For a long time I shared Larkin's mock mock-distant attitude with the innermost feeling being pure relief at not having that harsh patronage. Of course it is always hard to tell with Larkin what would be that innermost feeling, probably as contradictory, as poised, as the poems (at heart) were. Of myself I can be sure - we do change, I have changed. Matured, yes, but there are many ways to maturity, procreation surely not the most significant of them. In this particular case, within this particular context, a new life does make sense, is fitting, despite all the attendant high stakes and worries. This no doubt is how we all arrive in the world: into other contexts, other constellations - hopefully welcome, hopefully loved. In these respects at least our new family member should not worry.

The past is dead

I suppose it is due to my most thorough historical education that I automatically view our modern society as something very strange, very odd. This week I was surveying the dark plains of my native Ostrobothnia from a sauna balcony, the freezing night lit by pale stars, the old way of living that preceded our last half-century as consumers seemed very real, very close. Slow centuries formed those fields, those roads. Not to mention that those slow centuries, or in many places, millenniums, were themselves a radical innovation after hundreds of thousands of uncounted years of hunting and gathering. Yet it is this mere decades old, frantic, ephemeral flux that is taken for granted, for permanent.

My current home town of Espoo is only a sizable suburb of Helsinki, grown from 12 000 to 220 000 inhabitants in 60 years, now the proud home of Nokia and other high-tech companies - but the past is still here to see: fields, placenames, patterns of roads and streets. But it is not seen, not imagined at all. The past is utterly dead for our society: we are completely unable to imagine other ways of thinking, of living, we can't picture what once was so real. This is will happen to us too, so immersed in this passing moment, so self-important. The high ship sails on.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The great melody

I have always thought that the great admiration and respect Keynes had for Burke is very revealing - of both of them. Keynes was the archetypal pragmatic liberal, distrustful of hypothetical theoretical benefits as opposed to concrete existing and working structures. To see him as a doctrinaire left wing ideologue is simply plain silly (so, it is not a great surprise that this is how libertarians see him today). And Burke really was a whig, as traditional and conservative as imaginable (with many silly ideas), but a whig still, and it is only with some violence that he is now fitted to be a part of the English conservative tradition.

Well, I suppose this only shows that modern Tories are actually nothing but a branch of liberalism. I wonder if there is anyone alive today that you could say would still be the genuine article? A few decades ago the most anti-Burkean intellectual tradition around was Marxism-Leninism, and after its unmourned death, the position has been held by free market doctrinaires. An abstract theoretical mechanism is seen as the universal answer to all human problems without regard to any particular place or time. This is pure folly.

For Burke - as Keynes - we have unique constellations, particular contexts, things and structures that work in practice (something we have always had great difficulties in creating). Pure reason becomes only too easily the prisoner of our animal and fearful natures, violent means turn into nightmarish ends. The French Revolution certainly proved that, but we got an even more awful example with the Russian Revolution. But where Keynes is more logical than Burke is that he sees more clearly that pragmatism should then be the most logical answer for political ideology. Sometimes, often, the existing structures are a danger to a free society without being reformed but reform itself should not be doctrinaire and unempirical, irrational, but particular, particularly suited to the existing, unique conditions.

I adopted this view while becoming acquainted to both Keynes and the marvellously optimistic and exuberant young Walter Lippman, whose "Preface to Politics" is one of the great specimens of 20th century liberal thought. His faith got obviously badly shaken by the nightmares then still only looming, but I don't think that it would be reasonable to abandon his outlook. So we should see a society as a living thing, organic in many ways with meanings and coherence beyond any abstract logic. This makes gradual reform a very difficult and unpredictable task but, I would also argue, an absolute necessity: humankind is best at destroyal, without intelligent reform structures will collapse with all the attendant irrational destruction that it entails.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Liberal beliefs

I have often wondered what really would be the core foundation of liberalism: yes, anyone can recite its historical structures (for some reason liberalism is always criticized based on its concrete - and meagre - achievements and not for its ideals like all the other political ideologies...) For what it's worth, and maybe not much, I have come to hold that there are two core beliefs that sustain the liberal project: a conviction that people are able to create coherent meanings (combined with a suspicion that all coherent meanings are thus created in our finite minds) and a faith, a trust in the human will to ethical behaviour. If these premises are accepted, it is easy to see how they would sustain and support each other; if we are able to create coherent meanings, no crude (and fictional) divine being is needed to give absolutes readymade, if there is a will to ethical behaviour it will find its goal defined by our ability to coherent creation which in turn will then be directed by that will.

So, then there follows of course a third, mostly unspoken argument, or instinct: that the world is inherently in harmony with this premise, that we have to only discover, only be aware, only use our intelligence and wisdom - and there we might even have use for absolutes and divine beings, whether or not they pre-exist materially. The alternative to this is conservative fiction, an eternal, mostly bloody and unjust existence in history - perhaps some made up stories can dicipline us enough to live in those conditions and even moderately prosper but the intellectual and moral cost would be awful. Even if our liberal instincts are correct, this might be the situation we will find ourselves in - there is prescious little enlightenment and awareness, prescious little wisdom in humankind: we might not even perceive the truth should we be confronted by it.