Patten and the EU

by Maria on August 5, 2009

Speaking of how the world needs many more assertive humanists to counter the seemingly irresistible forces of wingnuts and indifference, Chris Patten’s name is in the ring for Europe’s first proper foreign minister. The FT reports that Lord Patten is ‘not campaigning for the job, but would be very positive about it if approached’. Patten would do a superb job.

Patten’s thankless work on policing in Northern Ireland brought about a huge leap forward and must have required no small physical courage on his part. His stint as the last governor of Hong Kong got valuable concessions from the Chinese that someone more worried about their ego and reputation couldn’t have delivered. And Patten’s and Javier Solana’s outwardly amicable and respectful managing of their conflicting EU foreign policy roles in the early 2000’s is a credit to both. Patten is uniquely qualified to be the face (and the brains) of Europe’s foreign policy.

There are other good reasons, too. The FT points out David Cameron’s likely discomfort with a fellow Tory being in such a prominent EU role. Also, putting Patten in as Number 2 may make it all that much easier to refuse Tony Blair the top job. And Patten has proven he can actually do all the deal-making and consensus-building the job requires (even more reason why the member states should think of Patten for President of the union, not least to preserve their own sovereignty).

But here’s my reason. Sometimes the good guys should win. I want someone in the foreign policy job whose judgment, experience and, above all, integrity I respect. Someone who may disappoint in the particulars, but who is sound on the fundamentals. In both organizational and political life, I don’t want to believe that only the cynics and brown-nosers, the bullies and yes-men will come out on top. Patten is living proof that successful leaders can be deeply moral and highly effective. That’s something we can all aspire to.

And think about the book he would write afterward…

Full disclosure: I’ve met Lord Patten a few times at the 21st Century Trust, an organisation of which I’m a fellow and he is the Chair.

Jerry Cohen is dead

by Chris Bertram on August 5, 2009

Jerry Cohen valedictory lecture

I got a call this morning to tell me that Jerry (G.A.) Cohen has died suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive stroke. I want to write an appreciation of him as a friend, mentor and philosopher in due course, but I’m too numb to do it at the moment. I know that his other friends, colleagues and fellow students of his feel the same acute sense of loss.

Steady Work

by Scott McLemee on August 5, 2009

Since writing the foreword to What Are Intellectuals Good For? (incorporating a few paragraphs from a profile of George Scialabba published three years ago) I have returned to the book in a recent column about Isaac Rosenfeld. The intention in each case was not to provide a reasonably accurate précis of George Scialabba’s work, worthy exercise though that would be, but to engage with the author at the level of his project.

To put it another way, I have not been writing about George so much as to him. With hindsight that was probably also true of an essay called “After the Last Intellectuals” that appeared in Bookforum a couple of years ago.
[click to continue…]

What Sorts of Intellectuals Should There Be?

by John Holbo on August 5, 2009

On the whole, a great book. A real pleasure to read. I’ve never read Scialabba’s stuff before (or I haven’t noticed his byline, to remember it). My loss. But better late than never.

What’s so great about Scialabba? Temperamentally, there is his gratifyingly steady exhibition of generous severity to his subjects. (I can’t imagine anyone could object to being drubbed so fairly. With the possible exception of Christopher Hitchens.) Stylistically, there is his facility for cramming breadth into small literary packets, without recourse to cheap space-saving devices. Intellectually, there is his forthright evenhandedness—his awareness of what other people think—that never forgets, or neglects to mention, what he thinks. (Everyone else is praising George as well, so I won’t lay it on thick. But no kidding. Good stuff.)

Full disclosure: I left my copy of his book in Maryland – but only after reading it completely – then wrote this post in New York, from stuff on his website, with the TV blaring in the background. And now I’m in Singapore, polishing up a little.

What are intellectuals good for?

The cover seems to suggest the answer might be: nothing. Nothing good. ‘We fool you,’ announce the symbol-manipulating professionals, snug between those who rule and those who shoot. But no. The correct answer is: several things, surely. Two, for starters. [click to continue…]

Is this the same Steven Pinker?

by John Q on August 5, 2009

Over at my blog a couple of days ago, we were discussing Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, a book which I thought, when I reviewed it in 2002, was much below the standard of his earlier work, though no worse than the average book about the ‘nature-nurture’ controversy. In particular, I thought his discussion of war and violence was hopelessly confused, putting forward a Hobbesian view of violence as the product of rational self interest as if it was consistent with the genetic determinism that was the central theme of the rest of the book.

Now, via John Horgan at Slate, I’ve happened across this broadcast by Pinker at TED (which, by the way I’ve just discovered and is excellent). The broadcast has a transcript which is great for those of us who prefer reading to listening.

In this piece, Pinker appears to me to change sides almsot completely, from pessimist to optimist and from genetic determinist to social improver. Not only does he present evidence that war and violence are declining in relative importance, his explanation for this seems to be entirely consistent with the Standard Social Science Model he caricatured and debunked in The Blank Slate. He’s still got a sort of rational self-interest model in there, but now Hobbes is invoked, not for his ‘nasty, brutish and short’ state of nature, but for his argument that the Leviathan of social order will suppress violence to the benefit of all.

But even more striking is this:

[Co-operation] may also be powered by cosmopolitanism: by histories and journalism and memoirs and realistic fiction and travel and literacy, which allows you to project yourself into the lives of other people that formerly you may have treated as sub-human, and also to realize the accidental contingency of your own station in life; the sense that “there but for fortune go I.”

I agree entirely, but we seem to have come a long way from the African savannah here.