Archives for category: Philosophy
Recently on Facebook:

Can someone please explain why so many Libertarians are concerned with the gender controversy? Our motto is literally don’t hurt people or take their things, other than that do what you want. So if someone says they are not male or female, or they’re somewhere in between, that’s their freedom, no? Seems like there are a lot of people who fight for freedom when it comes to guns, businesses, and property, but not freedom of your own thoughts — that just makes you an asshole (or a republican).

First Answer:

I have many problems with “gender” talk. I will name three.

1. The concept is all about identification by “group.” Young people are being encouraged to conform not to their natural desires and interests, but to some set of group identifiers, often at the expense of biological facts. Confession: I am an individualist before a libertarian, and I want people to individuate, not tribalize. Become their own persons, not members of a club, complete with an ideology that makes them feel in-group/out-group love/hate. The “gender” movement is a neo-tribal groupthink ideology.

2. Gender theory has developed in tandem with the postmodernist movement, shanghaing Marxian class analysis from its goofy economic interpretation into a nebulous cultural orientation. Marxism is a disease of the mind. It falsifies reality and encourages collectivism. So does gender theory in practice.

3. Gender theory has been degraded in popular speech as a substitute for “sex,” which still embarrasses people to talk about. It is stupid, and it is common. Everyone who uses “gender” when they mean “sex” should be ashamed of themselves. And that is a majority of the word’s users, at least some of the time.

Second Answer:

Also, consider this part of original challenge: “So if someone says they are not male or female, or they’re somewhere in between, that’s their freedom, no?”

You can call yourself a toaster, but that doesn’t mean I’d put bread in your slot and expect a nice, dry and crisp and hot treat.

This is an issue of sex. The number of people who are hermaphrodites or have strange chromosomal issues is minute. These people have difficulty determining their sex. And I feel for them. But to those of us with either cox or kunz, balz or fallopians, xy’s or xx’s, we are either male or female.

“Male” and “female” are not gender concepts. They are sex concepts. We use sex as identifiers in common speech because it is objective and easy.

“Masculine” and “feminine” are the terms of “gender theory.” Two among many, actually.

Gender theory is about what people do with their sex, how they and others think about it. If you think “male” and “female” are gender concepts, you have misunderstood the theory.

Alas, many gender theorists misunderstand the theory, because they are incompetent thinkers who cannot rub two ideas together and get a synthesis.



The origin of a thing or practice does not always and obviously provide strong clues to the reason for its growth and then for its survival. Theories of ethics, for example, are littered with monocausal accounts of “the foundations of ethics” that fail to separate the various distinct causes and levels of operation.

Take that very institution (or human endeavor, or practice) we call “ethics” or “morality” — consisting of rules, ideals, norms, and reasonings and rationales for action. Its origin may be seen in the simple need to influence human behavior, of self and others. Think of the body of ethical precepts as a toolkit. But the reasons why one ethical system flourishes and others wilt may have surprisingly little to do with the aim of the moralizers who cook up, repeat, and transmit their normative notions. And those reasons may not be the same as their explicit justification.

These distinctions can often only be seen as we pass through time, as various stages of the social life of the memes become evident. (Maybe we should speak of the ordinal, not cardinal, virtues!)

IMG_3224Similarly, the first people to adopt a belief, habit or good are very different in nature from later adopters. The distinction between early-, mid- and late-term adopters is of huge importance for understanding fashion and other consumer behavior, as well as ideologies. Businesses that do not figure in these different consumer bases will suffer. Critics who do not understand this will find themselves irrelevant. Voters find themselves . . . stuck with bad candidates and poor policies.

On a macro level, this trend in consumption allows the masses to benefit from investments that they themselves would never make, nor would ever, alone, entice from capitalists. Only the strong preferences and spending of early adopters allow the success of many goods that later circulate to everybody. In effect, late adopters and skinflints are “subsidized” by the early adopters and the prodigal.

This element of capitalist development is integral to fulfilling one of its defining functions, mass production for the masses. Attempts to “rationalize” the economy in a social engineering way often assume an egalitarian customer base, and thus start with the lower rungs of development kicked away from the ladder of progress.

“Price discrimination,” particularly what amounts to  intertemporal price discrimination (what is the exact technical term? I wonder — separate time-frame equilibria?), is key to the functioning of markets.

Many class resentments and tensions come from a lack of acceptance about this diversity in human judgment and consumer function.

And much confusion results from mixing up the nature of the origins, the persistence, and the expressed and unexpressed rationales for any human practice or institution.


Illustration courtesy James Littleton Gill, My Monster Problem — and Ours

The problems here addressed are so huge that one simple blog post, indicating them as if with a wave of the hand, hardly does them justice. Clearer statements can be made later, or elsewhere — and no doubt have been, by others.

I support “science,” I guess, but not this Saturday’s Earth Day “March for Science.” Why?

Well, because it proved ridiculous? A bizarre twist on virtue signaling? A risible parade of partisans pretending to be “above politics”? 

Let me suggest the crucial distinction, the key to my incredulity, by way of a question:

If scientists practice science, who practices scientism?

Science is the accumulation of knowledge by means of public testing, and the falsifiability of claims is its standard, marking its boundary with other domains of belief. Scientism, on the other hand, is the use of “sciencey” factoids, hypotheses, fantasies, arguments, theories, procedures, and, alas, even the conclusions of scientists, sans any practical recognition of fallibilism or process context. That is, scientism is science-as-dogma, science-as-rite, science-as-shibboleth, etc.

Scientism is what you find most regularly in popular discourse. Scientism is what you find most often in politics. Scientism is what you will most likely find in . . . The March for Science.

Alas, “being a scientist” is no guarantee against practicing scientism some of the time or even most of the time. Many scientists revert to scientism when they wander outside their field of specialization. Not a few practice it part-time within their chosen realm. Almost all embrace the practice when they seek funding.

But what do we call a practitioner of scientism?

I suggest: “sciencist.”

Sciencists are those people who think they like science, but love scientism all the more, and cover for their ignorance and bigotry and embarrassing blind spots by extolling Science as their God and Bible all in one. They piously march to prove their loyalty.

Too bad self-flagellation is not in sciencey vogue. I would not mind seeing these people bleed.

Just a bit.

Oh, and remember: the proper place for scientism isn’t the safe space of a university, a congress, or a parade. It is in your library, under the heading SF.


N.B. “Scientism” has its origins as a technical term in a few peculiar contexts, most especially in the critique of logical positivism and reductionism. I am expanding on the usage of F. A. Hayek and Karl Popper. The image, above, is from Popper’s Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (1972; 1989). While Hayek and Popper saw scientism as the mistaken identification of a few procedures used by scientists as defining of science itself, and therefore worthy of emulation by all intellectuals, I am taking a more sociological view of that sort of attribution error and applying it broadly. Scientism is not unlike racism and sexism, to my way of thinking. At core, racism is the “making to much of race” by improperly imputing modal (but not defining) features of the race to all or any individuals who belong to it. It is attribution error by improper discrimination. Scientism “makes too much of science” by taking some common but not defining features of science and holding them as a standard. In academic settings, this can be seen in the over-valorization of measurement, say, and applying it where measurement does not work. In popular science-mongering, it is not procedure that is over-valorized, but certain findings or conclusions and even funding rationales. Most “isms” that we use pejoratively involve similar confusions of part for whole. Scientism as discussed by Hayek and Popper and others is an academic error. The scientism I am talking about could be called vulgar scientism. And since even academic scientism is a vulgarization of science, the vulgarity of everyday scientism is . . . doubly vulgar.

The term “neo-liberal” is the left’s favorite term to conflate actually-existing globalism, limited-government conservatism and libertarianism. There is a reason why libertarians, especially, hate the term. And, often, despise leftists for using it.
The term “cultural Marxist” I heard first from people trying to explain the left’s strange obsession with inclusion/exclusion issues and group identity politics. It is, I guess, a term of art on the right. I tend not to use it, but hey, I understand its utility. Modish, post-modern social justice ideas do trickle down from their ancestral origin, in Marx, regarding class interest and exploitation . . . and the idea that oppression must be understood in those precise terms.stevehorwitz
Users of the term cultural Marxism, so far as I have witnessed, do not normally conflate SJWers and feminists and intersectionalists with liberals and statists of the center-left variety. I, at least, rarely hear it so used, except when used in haste, and when the cultural acquiescence to the SJWers by the center-left is at issue. But perhaps I am living in a bubble.
Why bring this up?
Because Prof. Steve Horwitz, an economist I follow on Facebook, wrote the following:

The progressive bubble on college campuses that makes it so hard for so many students to pass an Ideological Turing Test leads them to name-call and question the good faith of libertarians and conservatives. Those students simply have no idea what a serious, thoughtful defense of conservative or libertarian ideas looks like.
But their bubble is mirrored on the right by the retreat into the right-wing media echo chamber which causes many conservatives, and too many libertarians, to be unable to pass an Ideological Turing Test themselves. They too end up name-calling and questioning the good faith of progressives, and they have little idea what a serious, thoughtful defense of progressive ideas looks like.
We end up with people shouting meaningless terms like “neo-liberal” and “cultural Marxist” at each other rather than actually talking, while they assert that they are on the moral high ground and the others are “snowflakes,” and everyone remains blissfully ignorant of the socially destructive bubbles they inhabit.

Horwitz had me until the last paragraph, at which point I rebelled. Neo-liberal is definitely not meaningless. It started life as a way to acknowledge the filiation of ideas of modern limited-government thought. Leftists, in recognizing it, acknowledge that liberalism used to be individualist — that in itself is something of an achievement (there are a lot of “liberals” and “progressives” out there who still refuse to accept the facts of their inheritance). The fact that it now encompasses almost the whole of any possible capitalist order indicates the extent to which its users hate the central institutions of capitalism: private property and markets, and the rule of law that sustains both.
And hey: cultural Marxist is not meaningless, either. The parentage of much of modern feminism and anti-racism and the whole intersectionalist project does indeed hail from a bowdlerized Marxism. It is not economic Marxism, which is fine, since that is a brain-dead philosophy anyway. It is “cultural” in that it emphasizes culture and “systemic” social influences, all the while denying whole perspectives on biology (and is thoroughly anti-science on many levels) and economic law.
So, these two terms may be problematic in some usages, or all, they are not mere terms of opprobrium. And to call them meaningless is to misconstrue major ideological ideas in our time.
Why would Horwitz suggest that they are meaningless?
Perhaps because he is playing a popular game that many libertarians play: the left and right are equally bad. And equally good.
Designate me dubious.
Where and how they err and differ depends on the subject.
And, frankly, the “right,” insofar as conservatives tend to uphold ancient, traditional conceptions of justice, is far, far less dangerous than the “left,” which holds to ideas of revolutionary justice, what Thomas Sowell calls “cosmic justice.” And my readings of John Rawls and the Frankfurt School confirm this notion down the line.
Like Horwitz, I do not easily fit into either camp. Perhaps like Horwitz, I can pass ideological Turing tests pretty well. I know what makes both left and right tick. And tic. And talk.
For the record, I categorize my social philosophy, following Herbert Spencer and F. A. Hayek, as “evolutionary justice,” which takes from traditional conceptions huge hunks of doctrine and major hints, but then applies philosophy and social science to them, to better understand their limitations.
I readily admit, this idea was revolutionary when advanced by John Locke, and the American Revolution, and in Spencer, Gustave de Molinari and others who carried on the tradition. But it was not anything like the revolution proposed by socialists.
The left has openly flirted (and often embraced) their concepts as a revolt against nature itself. My kind of revolutionists did not have the left’s utopian view of human potential, or the leftist’s “malleablist” (tabula rasa + social engineering) view of social causation. It was on the left that truly revolutionary — cosmic in scope — notions of justice took hold.
Today, things have come to a head. Contemporaries call each other names because now they recognize, as never before, how diametrically opposed their views are. Sure, they put themselves in bubbles for the reasons people have put themselves in bubbles throughout history. But the Internet has let us all gain intimate contact with our opponents’ very ids, and each side rears back in revulsion.
This is not a result of bubble-think. It is the result of more information and personal knowledge than ever before.
And I suspect Prof. Horwitz does not see it because he is firmly em-bubbled in the Academy, which houses many a . . . “snowflake.”
And let us come to terms with that as well. “Snowflake” is not a term used equally by both sides. It was used against the Social Justice Warriors by . . . everyone else. The far left’s whining and freak-outs over ideas showed a truly remarkable touchiness that most folks outside the left, not coddled by the deep class notions of oppression, and promiscuous standards to define oppression, are outside of their experience.
Horwitz’s apparent idea, here (if he is not simply engaging in an etiquette fiction) — that the left and right is equally as bad — strikes me as implausible. The left is more firmly in love with government, far more committed to government growth, and has a lock on several major cultural institutions all of which push increasing the size and scope of government.
They are the ones to fear most of all. For those very reasons. Government must be limited in order to be possessed.
I am somewhat surprised that a libertarian might think otherwise.
Now you see: that’s the bubble I live in, thinking that libertarians have it all figured out. When formulated as “all libertarians have it all figured out”? Obviously untrue.



Perhaps true cosmic justice would be this: each person forced to live with the consequences of his or her* ideology.

The only way to do this would be to form separate countries/states with different political and economic systems.covervoyage2arcturus

It is worth noting that my ideology would be fine with concurrent, interpenetrating populations with neighbors belonging to different “governments.” You could live in a tightly constructed socialist state, or whatever else you want; I could live with the services brought to me by Moe’s Police, Larry’s Judiciary, and Curly’s Military. But the point of most other ideologies? Force the given ideology upon everyone, the unwilling to be brought to “justice.” Read the rest of this entry »

Aspartame reminds me of homosexuality.


British philosopher Jeremy Bentham spent a great deal of effort trying to figure out a rationale, based on his utilitarianism, to make homosexuality illegal. He could find none. According to his principles, homosexuals must be treated like other adults, as basically free to do as they please so long as they do not harm others.

Sadly, Bentham would not allow his research and reasoning made public in his lifetime, for fear that it would tarnish the utilitarian emprise.

And here is the parallel story: Aspartame has been examined by scientists more than most other food substances.

They are always looking for a way to call it dangerous. And thus worthy of prohibition.

Aspartame’s like homosexuality: condemning it doesn’t pass muster.

Of course, the idea that you should ingest it no more follows than you should “be homosexual.” To each his/her own.


The history of philosophy is that of geniuses getting so close . . . but missing the mark.

Hence, my appreciation of a thinker is often not “do I agree” but “can I learn” from encountering said thinker’s work.

It is not for nothing that I am apt to say appreciative things about Jeremy Bentham but not William Godwin. Is Godwin uninteresting? Never, on occasion, correct? Irrelevant. It is merely that making sense of Bentham and where he went both wrong and right is much more edifying.

Thus, often we must look for truth, but keep a special eye out for the interesting and profitable mistakes, even blunders.

The two most interesting failures in political philosophy, in the last two centuries? Herbert Spencer and John Rawls. I am not sure anyone else comes even close.

The errors of great men are venerable because they are more profitable than the truths of little men. — Friedrich Nietzsche


This year, 2017, marks the centenary of The Great American Novel almost no one has even heard of.

Let me take that back. A bit. It is not as if the book were unknown. Critics have written about it. The story has a following, if small.

But it has, as far I can tell, never once been suggested as a contender for that dubious title, The Great American Novel. Indeed, most of the author’s cabal of readers put it third or fourth on their contentious “Best of” lists.

Still, I buck all trends. I assert that this particular hundred-year-old work is its author’s best in long form; that it qualifies for the status of meta-novel, thus giving it a cachet necessary for serious consideration by literary critics; and that it has enough contact with mainstream Americana (just enough) to qualify for the Great American status.

The book? No more evasions . . .

James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasions.

A thousand copies were printed in September, 1917. Two and one half years later, a second printing came out; six months after that, a third; the next year, a fourth. In 1922, a slightly revised Fifth Edition was published, with the previous editions’ Preface turned into Chapter One, and prefixed, now, with an introduction by Harold Ward. This edition became the template for the British printings. With the 1926 eighth edition, the text was established for several later Modern Library reprints, as well as Cabell’s own final revision for what he called the “Storisende” edition of 1930.

I own, at present, the Second Edition, a later Modern Library edition, and two paperback editions: the Ballantine Adult Fantasy (“unicorn head”) reprint of the Storisende, and an elaborate scholarly treatment edited by Joseph M. Flora.

After the first edition, and the spectacular notoriety of 1919’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, Cabell devised a 20+ volume cycle that he dubbed, with sly pleonasm, The Biography of the Life of Manuel. In this cycle, ordered by the fictional events, not date of authorship, The Cream of the Jest appears as the final book-length comedy, followed by Straws and Prayerbooks — an indirect sequel to 1919’s Beyond Life and, like the earlier better-known work, a droll explication of Cabell’s literary philosophy — and a strange hodge-podge called Townsend of Lichfield, about which, well, one may learn more of (and understand less) from Cabell himself in Preface to the Past (1927), pp. 281 – 309.

My advice to the literary reader is to forget The Biography — all the other books the author fused into one well-ordered chaos — and begin with a later edition of The Cream of the Jest without reading any prefatory matter. Start with Chapter One and proceed. If you happen to find yourself with an earlier edition, read the preface assigned to the fictional “Richard Fentnor Harrowby,” and continue on to the first chapter.

The author’s bizarre framing of his Biography’s tales have much the same resonance of Jorge Luis Borges’s meta-fictions. They confused me when I first read them. Trying to sort fact from fiction is not easy when the forewords written by the author, which give off all sorts of cues to non-fiction status, turn out to be, instead, mixtures of fantasy, scholarly earnestness entwined with scholarly irony, and a propensity to dispense not wholly reliable autobiography.

This fictional/non-fictional framing is carried to extreme in Beyond Life and Straws and Prayerbooks, which, as I state above, are literary manifestos disguised as fiction. Both books make for strange reading, but are necessary for anyone interested in what makes books like The Cream of the Jest “work.”

Which brings me back to this one volume, itself. It is not quite a novel. And yet it is. Perhaps it is an example of modernism smuggled in from the literary attic, wherein the Guardians of Literature had placed most of the dusty old tomes of belles lettres along with medieval romance and Gothic fancy. Or perhaps it is a work of post-modernism, a clever wedding of highbrow fantasy to popular romance.

One could also argue that it is the last gasp of the Genteel Tradition in American literature, except Cabell, though suave and well-mannered, was never genteel in Santayana’s sense. He daringly broke too many taboos for that.

The Cream is really what its subtitle proclaims: a comedy. As such, it indirectly but thoroughly confronts the inevitable failures of romance as a way of life, while reëstablishing its necessity in the same breath.

Cabell, being a comedian, has it both ways. He is both a romancer and an ironist. As a fantasy novelist (The Cream is half-fantasy dream study), he attempts to “write beautifully about beautiful happenings.” But as a philosopher, he hammers a kind of realism that in the hands of naturalist novelists turns into a now all-too-familiar sanctimonious nihilism. But caution: his hammering is on the order of Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer” — what is meant is not brute force debunking but, instead, a gentle tapping as if at tuning forks and small bells. The idols of the age (and all ages) are being sounded out.

In this, Cabell places himself in a tradition he was not entirely comfortable within: of George Meredith and Thackeray, as well as the philosophical comedians of a later generation, such as Iris Murdoch. Egoism he carefully calls up for apt ridicule, as he does the deadening hand of normality, of mediocrity.

Cabell more readily hails from late-19th century aestheticism, especially the work of Anatole France. Echoes of Balzac’s Droll Tales can be easily detected. The popular romancers of Cabell’s day, such as Maurice Hewlett, might exert a background influence. But Cabell’s own favorites among his contemporaries included British literary fantasists, including Lord Dunsany, author of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and Arthur Machen, author of The Three Imposters.

This puts Cabell utterly at odds with the mainstream of 20th century highbrow literature. And one might think it would have put him at odds with H. L. Mencken, America’s most enthusiastic promoter of the sociological novel. And yet, Mencken was an admirer. Perhaps what the Sage of Baltimore most liked was Cabell’s philosophy, that unmistakable thread of irony. Mencken called Cabell “the most acidulous of anti-romantics.”

So much for romance.

But Mencken also praised Cabell’s prose style. In fact, Mencken was capable of writing close to Cabell’s mode. In praise of Cabell he characterized the Southern gentleman as “a scarlet dragonfly embedded in amber.” Exactly.

Which might now indicate Cabell’s enduring interest for a few of us. His heart was in romance, his head was in irony, and his philosophical stance was . . . fancy footwork. Nimbly he stepped in and through several genres. The Cream of the Jest was one of the last of his fictions to be rooted in the mundane world of his time. With this work he firmly carved out a niche in high fantasy. It is half a comedy of manners and ideas, and half a fantasy, in brilliant union. The bulk of his work to follow proved more thoroughly fantastic, often set in the mythic province of medieval France, Poictesme. After wrapping up the Biography of the Life of Manuel, he jettisoned his first name, and produced several trilogies of quite distinct fantasy, including a successful dream trilogy, under the moniker Branch Cabell. At some point he brought back his first name, and, in the end, essayed a final foray back to the roots he planted in Cream, with his last (and  brilliant) comic fantasy, The Devil’s Own Dear Son.

The Cream of the Jest immediately follows three earlier comedies set in the Virginia of his youth: The Eagle’s Shadow, The Cords of Vanity, and The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck. Of these, the first is a fairly standard romantic comedy, the second is a dark comedy of egoism and betrayal, and the last is a masterwork focusing on the waning culture of Southern honor anchored in a sad “comedy of limitations” (to quote the subtitle). Only The Rivet holds up as a complete literary success. There were also several volumes of short stories, and a non-fantastic medieval romance, The Soul of Melicent (later retitled Domnei.)

But The Cream of the Jest transcends all that preceded it. With this work, the author finally “finds his voice.” Truth is, he always had his voice. What he had not developed until The Cream was a way to unite his philosophical interests with his love of literary japery and a wholly successful and absorbing tale.

Of course, opinions vary. Many readers complain that nothing of substance happens in The Cream of the Jest. And this is true if “of substance” means sword fights and lawsuits and such: the “action” is mostly dream, and, even when set in the humdrum of automobiles, face cream factories, and politicians, almost all interior.

One of the great turning points in the story is in Chapter 27 (Book Fourth: V in the early editions), “Evolution of a Vestryman.” Here Felix Kennaston, our hero, becomes a Christian, and a leader in his local Episcopalian church. It reads like a comedy. Indeed, it reads like a parody of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. But it came first, and one wonders whether Lewis might not have read the tale in disgust, and later, by cryptomnesia, took the half-remembered Cabellian argument to heart and became a Christian himself. Lewis was 25 when the book hit British libraries and bookstores.

I do know that Lewis hated Cabell. Cabell was so modernist compared to Lewis. Cabell the ironist could hardly please Lewis’s dogmatic earnestness. And yet Cabell himself had entered the fold of his Richmond, Virginia, Episcopalian Church, and become a member in good standing. He was more than half-earnest, himself, in this crucial chapter. Later, in other works, he defended Maundy Thursday and its Anglican rites, as being based on legends that might “possibly be true.” (Lewis became a member of the Anglican Church, churning to the top the cream of the jest: Lewis and Cabell were co-communicants.)

The ambiguities here as elsewhere set Cabell against the tide of rabid secularism. And yet his own comedies do more than merely suggest a caustic irony. What is going on here?

Cabell understood the hollowness, in fact, of the ancient traditions. But he also asserted that they were beautiful. Whether true or not, he had no intention of throwing the old ways completely aside. He was a post-modernist traditionalist conservative who was also a liberal doubter. But let us retain our bearings. What he doubted most was the advisability of a full embrace of modernity’s ongoing nihilism project.

Cabell lived his life as if tradition were worthwhile enough to preserve, if not embrace without a wink. And he wrote his fictions as if in full dialogue with the past. Indeed, that is what The Cream of the Jest really is: a philosophical dialogue with the past and its charms, while seriously acknowledging their tendency to disappear when attempted to be grasped. Just as his hero Kennaston wakes up from his dream whenever he attempts to touch his dream woman, Ettarre.

In The Cream of the Jest, we witness not the revelation of a special American Dream, but the reality of Dreams Universal. Which is American enough for me.

The year 1917 sports a few more prominent literary centenaries, the most important being the publication of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and Other Observations. (Eliot was also a co-communicant of Lewis and Cabell.) It is also the year that popular fiction made an important step into the future, with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. J. R. R. Tolkien began work on what eventually became The Silmarillon; Christopher Morley produced Parnassus on Wheels; and Norman Douglass published South Wind.

A century earlier, establishing bicentennial possibilities, Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey saw posthumous success; Walter Scott’s Rob Roy hit presses on both sides of the Atlantic; and Thomas Love Peacock’s delightful Melincourt debuted.

But these are very different stories.

My story? This year I celebrate

  • my Finnish heritage, with the centenary of the birth of independent Finland;
  • my family history, with what would have been my father’s hundredth birthday, had he not died four years ago; and, perhaps most of all,
  • the centenary of the publication of The Cream of the Jest, which I read at age 17 . . .

the one novel that seriously treats personal love and cultural literacy as a romance that, while inevitably comic, even the most cynical dismiss at their peril.


One of the fundamental errors of today’s socio-political thought can be summed in one simple equation, an equation quite without validity:

Diversity = Equality

Diversity does not even imply equality; it contra-indicates it.

But that identity is the foundational notion of pomo morality and “identity politics.” Only a highly nuanced analysis of the diverse things (or persons) themselves, and the diverse standards that might apply to them, would find an important connection between the two concepts. But the connection would be an identity only as a “term of art.”

But it is not highly nuanced thought that we are given. We witness, instead, relentless and hysterical assertion after assertion of the dubious identity. The notion that Diversity is Equality is the dogma of the day.

And it is corrosive to the basic habits and institutions of a liberal society. It is the latest attempt to apply coherence to the mirage of “social justice.”



I am a propagandist by profession. But my unpaid presence on the Web — which sometimes veers on rantwork, other times wanders into personal reflection — differs from my less public, behind-the-scenes editorial consulting in matters of persuasion. I allow myself, here as well as on Facebook, Twitter, etc., the latitude to use bigger words and more involved arguments . . . and to be more annoying in other ways as well. 

My middle name’s Wirkman. But, with some justice, I could elide the first phoneme: ’irkman.


A propagandist must have one foot in philosophy. And, off the clock, the other foot is free to step in and out of the philosophy ring at will, as if dancing the hokey-pokey. And philosophy, you may remember, may have started with a kind of metaphysical speculation about the substance of reality (Thales, Anaxagoras, Anaximander), but it was early on upgraded to gadfly status (Socrates). And there is no surer way to annoy a normal denizen among the living than to question his reality or challenge her ideals. But that is the job of the philosopher. So: irksome is the name of the game.

The propagandist has that job of inducing paradigm shift, too. But there the notion is to make the bitter pill of Error Correction as sweet as Confirmation Bias Candy. 

Marketing medicine as a luxury or decency, rather than as a necessity or strict economizing effort (no one hates “austerity” more than a modern profligate cosmopolitan*) is not an ignoble thing. 

But it is not the only thing. So I can be at once more honest and more annoying when I sign my name to these posts. Or just my initials —




* See the propagandist work of Paul Krugman in the New York Times. He is paid well to shill pleasant, candy covered pills for the Establishment. And boy, does he hate the very idea of “austerity”!