Thursday, June 14, 2007

Baron Guy de Rothschild, 1909-2007

Continuing with the obits theme, a long-time head of the French Rothschild bank died the other day.

I'm not sure this is the end of an era exactly--perhaps it's long over, and perhaps it lives on--but there's something interesting at work here nonetheless. The Rothschilds in France were once conversant with heads of industry. Baron Guy, as he was apparently known, once prominently employed George Pompidou, who later succeeded de Gaulle to the French presidency. North of the English Channel, the British branch of the family bankrolled the expansion of the British Empire for decades.

The Rothschilds were and perhaps are, thus, forefathers of the economic and financial globalisation of our own time. Love them or hate them (Baron Guy seems to have been rather enjoyable company), one should take note.
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Monday, June 11, 2007

Atheists, etc

The Nation has a nice little article today on the recent crop of books militantly promoting atheism. The books themselves—Christopher Hitchins God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins The God Delusion are both quite visible at the moment—are a bit virulent for my taste. Still the general argument is appealing to me—the suggestion being that religion plays too large a role in our public life, and that those who are not religious tend to be, if nothing else, a bit looked down on for their beliefs.

I should note that I haven’t read any of these books, but I wonder if the authors are perhaps not the best to be making this argument. Dawkins is a biologist and popular science writer, with no particular background in philosophy or politics. Hitchins, while certainly political, has become something of an apostate to both the left and the right. He is first and foremost a rather clever but angry blowhard (at times his writing can resemble a form of antisocial behavior).

What is called for I suspect (and as the article implies) is an argument for a more thoughtful, measured atheism, which respects the religiosity it rejects, and encourages the participation of all in a secular society separate from religion. Such an argument would not, I suppose, be terribly novel—the position is nothing more or less than a presupposition of western liberal democracy. That said, hemmed in as we are at the moment by radical Islam, Christian fundamentalism, and assorted religious nationalisms (Jewish, Hindu and others), we seem to need it just now.

Sadly, one writer who might have undertaken this died the other day. Richard Rorty, probably the most important living philosopher working in the English Language, and perhaps also the most controversial, died Friday, aged 75. Rorty, a committed atheist, liberal, and pragmatist, was the sort we could use more of just now. He will be missed.

Update: The Independent obit for Rorty is excellent, and probably more informative than the NY Times/Herald-Tribune one linked above.
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