This year has had no coherent themes for me, and perhaps that is why I have struggled to write posts with a clearly signposted judgment on 2018. Only now it occurred to me that it has been a year of fragments and broken off story lines. So, the form of the fragment may be my refuge, ageing modernist that I am.
# “Walk with grief like an old friend / Listen to what he says” I read this yesterday in one of Rumi’s poems. I have walked with grief most of this year: my mother’s death, the decay of the institutions of government in which I wander like like a bereaved stranger, the loneliness of my intellectual life, divorced from like-mindedness. But have I listened well to grief, my old friend? It tells me about my losses, and all that I did not have, although I do not know if others do. The comfort of a family home. Memories of a happy childhood. But have I shed tears for these absences? Or is grief’s lesson to me to be thankful for who I am, and not sorry for who I was not?
# Turning away from the world. In the last few days I have been reading William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain: a journey in the shadow of Byzantium (1998). It describes with uncanny foresight the world of escalating cultural conflict in the former Byzantine world, and the slow extinction of Eastern Christian life in its homelands. As I read it, I imagine myself a monk turning my back on the world and its spiteful illusions. In simple habits and in the consecration of one’s life to beauty, truth and that which was one holds divine, even within a secular imagination, there may be a path to enlightenment. The world that I inhabit in my workaday life, the bureaucracy of a failing liberal democracy, has grown more bitter and more ashen to me this year. Its best traditions are trashed, and any dreams of renewal are fading. Its leaders are hollow men and women who despise me and my kind. I still plan to write my work of dissent, The Ordinary Virtues of Governing Well, and imagine that this samizdat may last beyond me, like Confucius’ teachings in his kingdom that had abandoned the virtuous life in its government. But I wonder also if next year I do not need to turn away from THE world, so much as find a different kind of institution which can care for the texts I want to give to the world.
# A world in disarray. I have no pretence any longer that I could govern events in our disintegrating world, and even my long-held confidence in interpreting or predicting political events has been shattered by my misreading of events close to home. I am like billions of other citizens who watch the high summits with both horror and a growing gratitude that “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” The daily outrage of liberal journalists at Trump’s latest offence against virtue only frustrates me. It is up to Americans, in the end, to reassert decent values for their republic, and every faux pas from the White House does not need to be broadcast to the world as a sign of the end of days. The retrenchment of the American Empire is, I believe, a good thing, and will only mean that this emperor is even further away from we who wish to escape him. But the advocates of liberal hegemony react to every event with shrill nonsense – “how dare Trump withdraw troops from the middle East and so give a victory to Turkey, Russia and Iran!” – all of which only have far more real interests in this region than faraway America. I am more scared by the hysterical nonsense spoken about Russia and China on Capitol Hill than I am by any efforts by Putin to secure Crimea and borders with Europe or by Xi Jinping assertion of China’s ancient claims to the South China Sea. After all, any realist would recognise these territories belong to these states. Richard Haass has written A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and and the crisis of the old order. I have begun to read this book, and I expect we will see some dramatic events in the next year that see the unravelling of the American empire, which it coyly calls the global rules-based order. An escalating trade war? Cyber attacks? Trump reneging on America’s debts and China calling in its chips? The growth of a Democratic war faction in Washington? A left-liberal coup backed by the deep state in America? The collapse of the United Kingdom? A small proxy war? The resurgence of Islamic extremism? As this older order collapses, I must seek to create better visions of a good life that can outlast the derangement of the West in my small corner of the South Pacific.
# Rules for living. This year I read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: an antidote to chaos. I read it needing an antidote to the chaos of feeling I experienced in the wake of my mother’s death. It had a profound effect on me. Initially, I was tentative since I had heard Peterson’s name through controversies about culture wars. Peterson has been maliciously misrepresented by so much of the progressive press. His deepest message to our disordered times – paradoxically, given the lens of political controversy through which many commentators see his work – is that the psychological is not political. Our culture has suffered through the viral penetration of the 60s radical slogan that the personal is political. This is not to deny that these movements have led to improvements in the circumstances of many lives. But it has poisoned how we talk to strangers about governing. We don’t, anymore; except to issue hisses of denunciation. Peterson reminds us: he without sin cast the first stone. There is a lot of wisdom in Peterson’s teachings, and I think now on the cusp of the new year that I may re-read 12 Rules for Life and attend his lecture in Melbourne in February this year. Because it points me to the pilgrimage to the sites of true meaning in my life that I can begin; now that I have turned my back on the delusions of the political world.