March 7th 2020


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Beyond the Great Divide

EDITORIAL Holden, China, covid19: Time for industry reset

CANBERRA OBSERVED Political promises on the Never Never never never work well for the nation

CLIMATE POLITICS Business joins in climate change chorus

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Divided Democrats will help re-elect Donald Trump

GENDER POLITICS Project Nettie: Science takes on ideology

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Myth-busting China's 'soft power'

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Covid19 outbreak hits China's growth, imperils Communist Party

POLITICS AND SOCIETY What should the champions of democracy care about?

HISTORY Putting Lenin on the train: History's biggest blunder

NCC CONFERENCE 2020 Strengthening family, freedom, and sovereignty in a hostile world

HUMOUR Hooray for our premiers

MUSIC Handel: A composer who knew the value of a quick turnaround

CINEMA Emma: Handsome, clever, rich

BOOK REVIEW Useful but limited analysis of the breakdown of distinctions today

BOOK REVIEW The successive possessors of the West's first printed book

EBOOK: READ THIS

POETRY

AS THE WORLD TURNS

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal in the High Court this week

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BOOK REVIEW
Useful but limited analysis of the breakdown of distinctions today




News Weekly, March 7, 2020

NERVOUS STATES: How Feeling Took Over the World

by William Davies

Vintage, London
Paperback: 320 pages

Price: AUD$24.99

Reviewed by David Daintree

The more complicated the world becomes, the more books are written to help us understand and navigate it. So numerous and so diverse are books of this kind that a pessimist might suspect they have become part of the problem.

But Davies’ book is relatively creditable. His central thesis is set out in the introduction: “The modern world was founded upon two fundamental distinctions, both inaugurated in the mid-17th century: between mind and body, and between war and peace.”

These “binaries”, he says, have been growing weaker over the ensuing centuries: new sciences such as psychology have demonstrated previously unrecognised links between body and mind (psychosomatic illnesses were not understood by earlier gene-rations), and the invention of aerial bombing has blurred the difference between war and peace.

From this confusion of categories emerges a world of people who are inclined to give priority to emotions rather than intellectual processes, who put feelings before expertise, and who even mistrust the latter as lacking the sincerity of spontaneity.

The introduction sets the agenda for the whole work. Here we first encounter René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, who are his heroes, the intellectual progenitors of modernity.

Davies has a special interest in crowd behaviour, much influenced by Gustave le Bon’s late 19th-century study, The Psychology of Crowds. He analyses mob activity in two fairly recent situations – the 2016 JFK airport stampede, and the 2007 terror scare in Oxford Circus, London – as a prelude to references to many of the mass demonstrations for and against both Donald Trump and Brexit, recurrent themes throughout the book. The dangerous power of social media is identified as a major focus, having been “weaponised” (good word that) in the service of nations and corporations.

The rest of the book is logically divided into two complementary parts: “The Decline of Reason” and “The Rise of Feeling”. The wide learning of the author is clear, though some might think it too narrow: his book is dense with facts about the intellectual, social and political history of the past three hundred years but almost completely silent about all that preceded. He is very much a child of the Enlightenment.

To a modern reader, that may not be exceptionable, for everybody recognises that Modern Man knows (in the words of Mr Toad) “all that is to be knowed” about the world. But some readers might prefer to read more about the intellectual and spiritual giants on whose shoulders Descartes and Hobbes stood, to understand the context in which Davies’ modern world took root.

When Davies does occasionally stray into remoter areas, he can slip up: it is not true to say tout court that “nationalism” is a 19th-century invention; and his claim that earlier generations believed that suffering was “punishment for sins committed in a previous life” reveals an ignorance of Christian doctrine that would have astonished his mentors.

As the book progresses, the use and misuse of information (in the widest sense) and the “weaponisation” of data in a range of vital areas – principally politics, advertising, management and warfare – emerge as the central issues. His treatment of the moguls Mark Zuckerberg (I had not previously heard of his commercial interest in the future of telepathy!) and PayPal’s Peter Thiel is tough and informative.

Davies tries to show impartiality in his handling of the social divisions that are becoming more marked than ever (in 2018, 42 people owned half the world’s wealth) but he is not entirely successful: one feels that he has genuine sympathy for the world’s poorest, but thinks them generally deluded, for he appears to dislike populist movements and reserves his harshest criticisms for right-wing activists such as Milo Yiannopoulos, for Donald Trump, and for “climate sceptics” (whom he links with “religious conservatives and conspiracy theorists”).

I emerge from my reading of this fundamentally good book with a feeling that the writer, for all his wide reading, is not altogether wise. Sadly he offers no solutions. The concluding section, “Non-Violence”, is strangely lame. “We have an opportunity,” he says, “to listen and understand these features of human beings.”

In other words, we can do something about it – but I’m not sure what. This is the pathetic limited optimism of the secular humanist, for whom things are getting better, even if the plain evidence of our senses tells us otherwise.

David Daintree is director of the Hobart-based Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies and is a former president of Campion College.


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