Seth Barrett Tillman: “What I Learned About the United States After Ten Years in Ireland”

This is an anniversary, of sorts, for me. I have now lived in Ireland for ten years. They were ten good years. During that time, I made some friends and worked with colleagues, who later became friends, and befriended some students, who later befriended me. During this time, I made one good decision, and one bad mis-judgment—and the two were related.

Worth reading in full.

The Politician as Bully

Peggy Noonan, in a WSJ column which is actually worthwhile (rare for her these days, IMO) writes about aspects of Andrew Cuomo’s behavior which she says demonstrate a deep weirdness:

The culture of his office was rife with fear and intimidation. A victim: “It was extremely toxic, extremely abusive. If you got yelled at in front of everyone, it wasn’t any special day. . . . It was controlled largely by his temper, and he was surrounded by people who enabled his behavior.” Everyone feared retaliation for speaking out, so they didn’t.

But there is deep weirdness beyond that. He ordered one aide to memorize the lyrics to “Danny Boy.” She testified he “would pop out” of his office and ask her to start singing. A footnote says it was not the only time the governor asked her to sing. The aide found herself writing to a former staffer, “He just asked me to sing Bohemian Rhapsody so. We aren’t far off from a bedtime story.” He asked her to do push-ups in front of him…

I was reminded of a passage in one of the Hornblower novels in which the protagonist, as a new midshipman, finds himself on a ship with a sickly and disconnected captain and a midshipmen’s mess ruled by a bully, Simpson.

Simpson had apparently always been an ingenious tyrant, but now, embittered and humiliated by his failure to pass his examination for his commission, he was a worse tyrant, and his ingenuity had multiplied itself. He may have been weak in mathematics, but he was diabolically clever at making other people’s lives a burden to them. As senior officer in the mess he had wide official powers; as a man with a blistering tongue and a morbid sense of mischief he would have been powerful anyway, even if the Justinian had possessed an alert and masterful first lieutenant to keep him in check while Mr. Clay was neither…

Significantly, it was not his ordinary exactions which roused the greatest resentment — his levying toll upon their sea chests for clean shirts for himself, his appropriation of the best cuts of the meat served, nor even his taking their coveted issues of spirits. These things could be excused as understandable, the sort of thing they would do themselves if they had the power. But he displayed a whimsical arbitrariness which reminded Hornblower, with his classical education, of the freaks of the Roman emperors. He forced Cleveland to shave the whiskers which were his inordinate pride; he imposed upon Hether the duty of waking up Mackenzie every half hour, day and night, so that neither of them was able to sleep — and there were toadies ready to tell him if Hether ever failed in his task.


Here’s my thought when I finished the report. As America becomes stranger and our culture becomes stranger, our politicians become stranger. As their power increases (I can close a whole state down; I can close a country!) so do the stakes.

As politicians gain more and more power…especially arbitrary power…the kind of people who become politicians changes.  Francis Spufford, in his book Red Plenty, writes about those who sought and achieved power in the Soviet Union.  He notes that:

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Quote of the Day

The Antiplanner:

Despite continued and growing preferences for single-family homes, a web search for “single-family zoning” reveals enormous animosity to such housing. Like the animosity to the automobile, this comes from a minority of people who refuse to recognize that Americans not only want but are better off in single-family homes and automobiles.
People should be allowed to choose to live in single-family or multifamily homes based on the actual costs of such housing, not costs that are artificially inflated by planning regulations. People should also be allowed to choose to live in single-family neighborhoods, protected by either deed restrictions or zoning, if they prefer such neighborhoods. Free-market advocates who want to “restore property rights” by abolishing single-family zoning are falling into a trap set for them by the central planners who want to ignore people’s preferences and cram more families into multifamily housing.

Hedgehogs, Ideologues, and the ‘Woke’

Lance Morrow, writing at The Wall Street Journal, referenced a line by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus:  “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  In a 1953 book, philosopher Isaiah Berlin suggested that the world is divided between hedgehogs and foxes—between those who believe in One Big Thing (one all-sufficient super-explanation), and those who are content with a more modest, irrational and even incoherent idea of history’s unfolding.

Morrow asserts that “The world’s hedgehog population tends to expand in times of stress and change. Lately it has exploded in the U.S. Hedgehogs are thick on the ground, all of them advancing One Big Thing or another—each peering through the lens of a particular obsession. At the moment, the biggest One Big Thing is race—the key, it seems, to all of America, to the innermost meanings of the country and its history.”  He asserts that Biden has gone full hedgehog: “President Biden, who spent almost 40 years following the ways of an amiable political fox in the Senate—exchanging pleasantries and now and then doing legislative business with Confederate mossbacks like Strom Thurmond and James Eastland —has, in his old age, signed on with the monomaniacs of the left.”  Apologies to the actual foxes for lumping them in with Joe Biden, even Biden of the past, but the point is a good one.

A letter in today’s WSJ suggests that “perhaps more should be said about where the creature (the hedgehog) has made his lair: the social-science and humanities departments of academia.”  The writer continues:  “As a student, I was a hedgehog. If you are curious about revolutions, all you need to do is read my 1966 master’s thesis: “Asceticism as a Form of Revolutionary Behavior.”  But I had to leave the campus and earn a living. I had to abandon the heady “truth” for the crazy quilt of unrelated, changing and sometimes contradictory truths. I became a fox.”

Hedgehog>>>fox is, a think, a common pattern of human development with age and experience.  Biden’s movement in the other direction is an exception.

The original article and the letter reminded me of a few things:

–Writer Andre Maurois asserted that those who are intelligent, but not in any way creative, tend to be eager adopters of intellectual systems created by others and to apply those systems more vigorously (rigorously?) than the creators of those systems would have.  Reasonably intelligent but not creative is, I think, a fair description of many denizens of academia–probably inevitably so, given the vast expansion of the university archipelago over recent decades.

–C S Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, describes a schoolbook whose authors, while representing their book as an English literature text, actually use it to propagate what seems to be a 1940s version of deconstruction.  Lewis notes that “literary criticism is difficult, and what (these authors) actually do is very much easier.”  It’s a valuable insight, I think.  Hedgehog theories spare one a whole lot of work in dealing with the specifics of a subject.  Becoming an acolyte of some all-encompassing theory can spare you from the effort of learning about anything else.

For example: if everything is about (let’s say) power relationships–all literature, all history, all science, even all mathematics–you don’t need to actually learn much about medieval poetry, or about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or about isolationism in the 1930s. You can look smugly down on those poor drudges who do study such things, while enjoying “that intellectual sweep of comprehension known only to adolescents, psychopaths and college professors” (the phrase is from Andrew Klavan’s unusual novel True Crime.)  And at the K-12 level, teaching ‘woke’ math to 10th graders is surely easier than teaching them actual algebra, and similarly for other subjects. Laziness–intellectual laziness and just plain laziness–likely plays a significant role here.

–Arthur Koestler, himself a former Communist, described the nature of intellectually closed systems:

A closed system has three peculiarities. Firstly, it claims to represent a truth of universal validity, capable of explaining all phenomena, and to have a cure for all that ails man. In the second place, it is a system which cannot be refuted by evidence, because all potentially damaging data are automatically processed and reinterpreted to make them fit the expected pattern. The processing is done by sophisticated methods of casuistry, centered on axioms of great emotive power, and indifferent to the rules of common logic; it is a kind of Wonderland croquet, played with mobile hoops. In the third place, it is a system which invalidates criticism by shifting the argument to the subjective motivation of the critic, and deducing his motivation from the axioms of the system itself. The orthodox Freudian school in its early stages approximated a closed system; if you argued that for such and such reasons you doubted the existence of the so-called castration complex, the Freudian’s prompt answer was that your argument betrayed an unconscious resistance indicating that you ourself have a castration complex; you were caught in a vicious circle. Similarly, if you argued with a Stalinist that to make a pact with Hitler was not a nice thing to do he would explain that your bourgeois class-consciousness made you unable to understand the dialectics of history…In short, the closed system excludes the possibility of objective argument by two related proceedings: (a) facts are deprived of their value as evidence by scholastic processing; (b) objections are invalidated by shifting the argument to the personal motive behind the objection. This procedure is legitimate according to the closed system’s rules of the game which, however absurd they seem to the outsider, have a great coherence and inner consistency.

The atmosphere inside the closed system is highly charged; it is an emotional hothouse…The trained, “closed-minded” theologian, psychoanalyst, or Marxist can at any time make mincemeat of his “open-minded” adversary and thus prove the superiority of his system to the world and to himself.

Hedgehog tend to live in a mental world which is intellectually closed; information that may challenge the axioms on which the hedgehog centers his worldview are an emotional threat, and must be disregarded or ‘proved’ to be invalid.  Hence the ’emotional hothouse’ characteristic, which seems to apply very well to aggregations of the ‘Woke’.

Your thoughts?


Pwosesis Ayiti A

No reward for resistance; no assistance, no applause.

— Neil Peart, “Lock and Key


For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.

— Paul of Tarsus, Epistle to the Romans

La merde a frappé le ventilateur; my earlier post became abruptly more topical on Wednesday the 7th, when we woke to the news of the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. This follow-up will consider the implications of developments since late June and will specifically respond to commenters on Dilèm Aksyon Kolektif nan Matisan. Most of the structure of this post will follow the Deming process-workbench model, because history is, to a great extent, a series of contingent events, and because I am a giant process nerd.

Follow along, kids, as I summon the shade of W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993) to analyze the biggest mess I’ve ever been in!

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