The Too Ambitious Reporter
by Arthur Koestler.
New York, The Macmillan Company, 1945. 104 pp. $2.00.
The Yogi and the Commissar.
by Arthur Koestler.
New York, The Macmillan Company, 1945. 247 pp. $2.75.
Without a doubt Koestler belongs among the best reporters of our time. He has shown an extraordinary ability to seize and transmit the general feeling and thinking of a whole country during a critical period (civil-war Spain in Dialogue with Death; defeated France in Scum of the Earth). His flair for atmosphere, his sensitivity to fluctuating moods make him the ideal reporter of those events which, though never front-page news, are necessary to the understanding of front-page news. Put into any given country, he acts—or rather reacts—like a thermometer: he will produce that country’s correct temperature after only ten months’ stay.
“The intelligentsia,” confesses Koestler, “is a kind of sensitive porous membrane stretched between media of different properties.” This definition reminds one of Aristotle’s statement that the best medium is a person with an empty mind and an exaggerated sensitivity. But whatever the intelligentsia, taken as a definite class, may have become, it has not yet sunk to the level of mere reactivity. On the other hand, good reporters, if they are really good, do belong in a rather dubious realm between the intellectual and the merely sensitive. Koestler himself is an excellent example. Because of his personal decency and the good fortune he has had to live through this period as a Jewish antifascist, he could over-develop his natural gifts to the point of complete identification, not simply with a given situation, but with a general state of mind. And it is our good luck that Koestler’s trajectory has taken him into the bosom of the intelligentsia, whose destinies he now will share and about whom he will report. The point is that no one who really belonged to this “class” would ever have been able to report it.
Useful as this identification with the intelligentsia may prove for reportage, its more immediate consequences are disconcerting. Koestler has become ambitious, and he has written some rather bad novels and one rather nice play.
Twilight Bar is indeed almost as much “without presumptions” as the author insists. Its four acts deal good-humoredly with two characters who arrive from a star to investigate this poor planet’s situation with regard to happiness; they threaten mankind with immediate death if its quotient of happiness is not raised within three days’ time. This succeeds in frightening people into a state of superlative if slightly childish felicity (the point might have been made here that only children are capable of intense happiness; Koestler does not make it). But finally the two investigators land in jail as “suspicious” strangers. Whereupon everybody grows up again and becomes as unhappy as anyone could possibly be.
The theme and even more the style of this drama remind one of Shaw’s minor plays, except that Shaw’s supreme sense of drama, plot and action is lacking. What is left is wit that springs just as much from a foundation of banality as from the gift for repartee. This suffices, at any rate, to entertain, and makes the play much more enjoyable than Koestler’s tremendously “serious” novels.
The Yogi and the Commissar is by far the most ambitious of Koestler’s books because here he ventures beyond his experiments in bad fiction into something that in appearance only is individual thought. His sensitivity has communicated to him a notion of the fundamental restlessness of modern intellectuals who know that the basis of their mental activity is no longer safe. The trouble here is that Koestler tries to take part in the discussion itself instead of merely reporting its mental climate, with the result that he comes dangerously and—I am sorry to say—ridiculously close to assuming a mission. He talks about freedom, for instance, as though nobody before him had ever taken it seriously. His somewhat innocent emptiness—expressed in contemplations that always move between arbitrary polarities—is the price he, as a good reporter, has to pay for the gift of over-sensitiveness. In his first and final chapters, in which the intellectual is seen eternally swinging between the opposite extremes of “yogi” personal mysticism and “commissar” authoritarian practicality this emptiness is particularly shocking.
All these superficial chapters actually show is that European intellectuals are apparently fed up with the myths of materialism. The remaining chapters, on the other hand, take us back to good and sometimes excellent reportage Thus the essay on the death of the English poet and flyer, Richard Hillary, imparts something of the “mental climate of the war” in which (according to another English poet) they “who lived by honest dreams defend the bad against the worst.” Here are the desperate integrity and that despairing struggle for “some kind of fellowship” of which T. E. Lawrence already gave so eloquent testimony, and which is evidence to what an extent Lawrence’s general attitude toward society, culture and politics anticipated the present generation.
The members of this generation, before the war, still “balanced precariously and with irritability between a despised world they had come out of and a despising world they couldn’t get into”—all the while living under the dangerous illusion that somehow the despised bourgeoisie and the despising labor class were right and at home in this world and only they were out of place. While actually they were the only ones, apparently, to sense that the whole was going to pieces. Then came the war and with it the new pride in not forgetting that it was the bad they had to defend against the worse. Then came death and with it the old and saddening experience that it is Patroclus who gets killed and Thersites who sails safely home. Then, finally, came the shame, the general irrational feeling of humiliation at being alive, at having survived—as though mere survival were already desertion and betrayal.
There are many more pages worth reading. The chapter on Soviet Russia gives some very valuable statistical data on a state of affairs which in its general aspect and implications is only too real. “Scum of the Earth—1942” is a welcome and necessary supplement to the earlier reports on France. And even “Anatomy of a Myth,” though again impaired by superficial brilliancies and naive sophistication, gives a good insight into the sad story of the disillusioning of the European left.
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The Yogi and the Commissar, and Twilight Bar, by Arthur Koestler
Must-Reads from Magazine
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?
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Podcast: Christine Rosen on Brett Kavanaugh.
The podcast welcomes COMMENTARY contributor and author Christine Rosen on the program to discuss the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Have his confirmation hearings have transformed into another chapter in the national cultural reckoning that is the #MeToo moment?