My home town is often characterized as the redneck capital of Canada, especially by the bien pensants concentrated in Ontario and Quebec. And the few who escape this label must be progressives, eh? So it surprises many when they learn I am a conservative and I read the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). In fact, in this age of instant communication and the resultant attention spans to match, it surprises them even more when they learn I subscribe to two daily newspapers and five magazines rich in words, words, words. In fact, throughout my life, I have subscribed to a multitude of ‘wordy’ North American and British magazines, only to sadly cancel them after a year or two as their left-liberal bias becomes overpowering with fact and balance left off the page—like many campus protests today actively opposed to free speech. I wonder what they are afraid of?
Now, to intelligent reading. The TLS is a weekly publication in tabloid format and, like the tabloids, printed on newsprint. But there the similarity ends. Its 32 pages are filled with long, erudite articles with few photos or illustrations to alleviate the columns of text. And these few are in black & white or sepia tones, most often photos of the person the article’s about. The photos definitely are not worth a thousand words, but the subjects—ah, the subjects—are worth thousands and thousands of words. The subjects range across the spectrum of human interest, with some TLS editions engaging my interest in almost all of their articles and others in only a few. Regardless, there is always next week’s edition that I know will have a gem or two of intelligent reading.
For instance, the lead article in the January 15, 2016, edition is on Joseph Roth, a Mittel European writer who captured much of the angst of first half of the 20th century and was especially prescient of the approaching terror of Hitler and his henchmen. As early as 1923 when Roth first mentioned Hitler’s name in print, he began to see the beginning of the end for his fellow Jews in mainstream German life. His work became tinged with sadness, a lament for the decaying Habsburg Empire that saw Jews flourish in its capital of Vienna, while exposing the fraying of civilization in Germany between the two world wars.
I think Roth’s comment astute when he writes of Thomas Mann, a contemporary German writer whose novels I’ve very much enjoyed, “ ‘I’ve never cared for Thomas Mann’s way of walking on water. … [He] has somehow usurped ‘objectivity’.” This happens all the time in all eras, and it fascinates, puzzles and enrages me: How do some individuals become revered and beyond criticism while others become reviled and scorned with often only a gossamer connection to their actions or accomplishments? Because we are all built from the ‘crooked timber of humanity’, to use a phrase originally created by Immanuel Kant and subsequently translated by Isaiah Berlin, my scepticism quickly kicks in when unconditional praise is lavished on someone. Admiration and applause, yes, but not worship. As the belief in an awesome God has receded in the secular West, we’ve transferred our awe to things and other people, a degeneration no matter from what angle one looks at it.
Roth goes on to write about Mann, “ ‘He is one of those people who will countenance everything, under the pretext of understanding everything.’ ” How I loathe people who are perpetually feeling people’s pain and never naming evil when it’s staring them in the face. Today, we have the lefties, particularly in government who will dance on the head of a pin to avoid naming Islam as the author of a terrorist act even when Islamists are shouting from the minarets that they did the deed. No, it’s all equivalence—provocation and retaliation—because heaven forbid we name the evil.
And the article’s author is true to Roth’s human standard, revealing Roth as one of us crooked humans with all the contradictions inherent in that timber. He was an educated, civilized European who as a young man had invented a gentile father, embellished his war experience in World War I and flirted with communism as so many intellectuals seem to do. But he grew up quickly after the war as he began to witness that ‘common decency was no longer a reliable social adhesive’. What a tragedy that a highly sophisticated society such as Germany could so rapidly become its rabid opposite!
This shining quality of Roth—skewering pretensions—makes this reader wish he were writing today with pretension the lifeblood of much of social media.
And then we have a review of China under Mao by Andrew G. Walder, with a damning verdict on Mao and his revolution: “ ‘Mao left a China that was badly broken, and it would take an enormous effort to fix it.’ ” Again, I think, this contrary and well researched view of a dictator and his revolution adds balance to an oftentimes almost hagiographic picture painted by the left. The evidence exposed in this book should forever fix Mao, at 40 million dead, in the 20th century gallery of evil alongside his fellow mass killers, Hitler, at 6 million Holocaust victims, and Stalin, at 10 million Ukrainians starved to death.
As night follows day in our modern world of turning everyone into a victim—through no fault of his/her own, of course—the edition wouldn’t be complete without at least one article on this theme: a review of 11 books lamenting the poor stateless Palestinians and, naturally, their oppressor, Israel. As soon as I saw the authors of one of these tracts, Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé, I knew it was time to put away critical judgement and wrap oneself in the keffiyeh of Arab intransigence. No wonder Palestinians always miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, with these bien pensants, ensconced in their cushy academic redoubts, encouraging them to miss that opportunity. With the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement touted as the solution to the problem, another generation of Palestinians will remain on the UN dime with their Gazan leaders using them as cannon fodder whenever these leaders feel their credibility is slipping.
But then next week’s edition landed in the mail, and I was off on more thoughtful adventures such as exploring many ways to write a life, Berlusconi’s own way, bad King Richard III, and on and on and on. What delicious nourishment for the brain the TLS is!