Friday, August 18, 2017

What the World Needs Now Are Some True Words of Wisdom, Like La La La La La La La La-La

Matthew Hennessey:
Given the eager acquiescence of millennials to the all-online world, Generation X has a formidable responsibility to keep faith with reality. They are the last analog generation. Raised in a prerevolutionary moment technologically, they are children of paper, books, handshakes, body language, and eye contact. They learned—even if they didn’t always practice or appreciate them—the virtues of patience, self-control, and delayed gratification. They knew what it meant to be out of contact with someone they loved. Some of them—too few—learned how to fix an engine or wire a light fixture. Most remember how quiet things used to be; how easy it was to be alone.

...So what can Generation X do to help save America? It can begin by reasserting the relevance of the flesh-and-blood world that formed it. On an individual level, this means putting the iPhone down, turning off the computer, and taking a book out of the library or visiting a museum. It means going to a movie theater instead of binge-watching a Netflix series. It means talking to your friends face-to-face more instead of mostly texting or e-mailing them. On a societal level, it means pushing back against those who blithely accept that technology can be the solution to all our social and political problems. It means adopting a healthy skepticism of millennials’ efforts to disrupt every industry, every institution, and every economy with technology and an ethos of “sharing.” It means fighting for your privacy.

Rich Cohen:

Demographics are destiny. We grew up in the world and mind of the baby-boomers simply because there were so many of them. They were the biggest, easiest, most free-spending market the planet had ever known. What they wanted filled the shelves and what fills the shelves is our history. They wanted to dance so we had rock ’n’ roll. They wanted to open their minds so we had LSD. They did not want to go to war so that was it for the draft. We will grow old in the world and mind of the millennials because there are even more of them. Because they don’t know what they want, the culture will be scrambled and the screens a neverending scroll. They are not literally the children of the baby-boomers but might as well be— because here you have two vast generations, linking arms over our heads, akin in the certainty that what they want they will have, and that what they have is right and good.

The members of the in-between generation have moved through life squeezed fore and aft, with these tremendous populations pressing on either side, demanding we grow up and move away, or grow old and die—get out, delete your account, kill yourself. But it’s become clear to me that if this nation has any chance of survival, of carrying its traditions deep into the 21st century, it will in no small part depend on members of my generation, Generation X, the last Americans schooled in the old manner, the last Americans that know how to fold a newspaper, take a joke, and listen to a dirty story without losing their minds.

...Irony and a keen sense of dread are what make Generation X the last great hope, with its belief that, even if you could tell other people what to say and what not to say, even if you could tell them how to live, even if you could enforce those rules through social pressure and public shaming, why would you want to? I mean, it’s just so uncool.

In a suspicious coincidence, these two pieces appeared nearly simultaneously to argue that my generation's sense of jaded irony is apparently the only thing that can save us from true believers who take politics and technology too seriously. Allow me to raise a skeptical eyebrow in response. But then, I would do that, wouldn't I? Look, I'm saving the world by continuing to do what I was already doing anyway! ♫ Hey, Dad, what do you think about your son now...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Game Over, Man, Game Over!

Paul Tomkins:

I think I’ve just about reached breaking point. Whatever fun is left from the spectacle of football – which still brings me great joy, and is rarely bettered than Liverpool’s first goal at Watford – is lost in the maelstrom of hate, negativity and just downright nastiness. It’s spiteful, immature and depressing, with spoilt brats seemingly incapable of handling their team drawing a football match. Mostly it comes from men, many of whom may also be fully grown.

Warning: there will be rambling. And foul language (nuns and priests, click off now). And it may take up 30 minutes of your time. There will be a look at Liverpool’s current predicament, but also my (latest) despair on how general football discourse is going, and how everything gets skewed by fury.

...Remember, remember: the more you want and need something, the more you grasp for it, and the more your world dissolves when you don’t have it. Because, if you need it, then you are in a state of “lacking”. Only wins, or the title, can remove the sense of unworthiness, which spreads around Twitter due to the constant “banter”, in the echo-chamber, and in the way misery loves company.

He may sound like an aspiring Buddhist who hasn't quite got the knack of keeping his equanimous poise, but Tomkins is just a long-time journalist and a diehard fan of Liverpool FC who has arrived at a conclusion already occupied by many others: social media makes everything worse, even — or especially — the things you love.

My father once asked if I regretted not pursuing a philosophy degree. I laughed it off by noting that my former professor lived in a townhouse and drove a Ford Pinto, and I had already achieved that level of success without the crushing debt of graduate school on top of it. I was being jocoserious, of course; a lack of passion for teaching, rather than a fear of debt, was the reason for that particular road not taken. But even had I pursued something like what Damon Linker described — a humble existence as a teaching professor at a small liberal-arts school — I doubt I'd be happier than I am now as an autodidact and anonymuncule. I knew when to stop, and that has made all the difference.

Like a sideways-8 infinity symbol, the dogged pursuit of happiness often seems to wind around and turn back upon itself. It seems perfectly logical — what could be more fulfilling than a job that requires a complete focus on your favorite sport and your favorite club and pays you to write about them? What could be better than doing so in the company of countless other people who also share your passion? And yet, we always forget — those same people love to complain incessantly. They love to pick fights over nothing. They love caviling and kibitzing even when they have nothing valuable to add. And social media amplifies, magnifies and intensifies all the negativity to the point where even a Buddhist master would struggle to avoid being dispirited by it all. Maybe, like George Carlin joked, the answer is to ignore your team when they're doing poorly, and only jump back on the bandwagon when they're winning again. Life gives you more than enough opportunities to build character through suffering; it seems perversely masochistic to turn a beloved hobby into yet another one.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

An Orangutan Among Chimpanzees

Douglas Dalrymple:

I’m a bit worried these days by how little I have, or care, to say. Other people’s words don’t hold much interest either. It feels ridiculous that we should be required to have opinions and perspectives, or that we should need to express them. These days I avoid conversation. I switch off the television and radio and wonder why we can’t be content, like Bertie Wooster in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, to “just exist beautifully.” How different – how better –things would be if we could only dial down (by fifty percent, say) the chatty sociability of the species.

I recently read Massimo Pigliucci's book How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. I was pretty sure I wasn't an unconscious or incipient Stoic, but it's good to reassess these things every so often. Still, to what would surely be the good professor's chagrin, all this did was reaffirm that I am indeed still the Epicurean I always thought I was. Good friendships, clear thinking, modest desires, intellectual pleasures, gods in name only, and most crucially — or most damningly from a Stoic perspective — a preference for withdrawal from social and political life. Those who espouse "living unknown" as a maxim will always be offensive in the sight of those who believe in performing duty and signaling virtue. "Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society." Pretty much. Still, I reserve the right to hold myself aloof from the fray.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 13

"The human race is an enormous agglomeration of bubbles which are continually bursting and ceasing to be. No one made it or knows anything worth knowing about it. Love it dearly, O ye bubbles." This is a sort of religion, no doubt, but it seems to me a very silly one.

— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

And yet, what archaic prejudice leads us to believe that the truth, when unmasked, should be sober and respectable rather than ludic or silly? Why should the currency of love only have value if backed by guarantees of permanence? We treat with indifference and contempt that which we control and expect; we love most dearly that which we know can be lost.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Seen the Shadows Grow, See an Ominous Display

Scott Alexander:

A lot of people without connections to the tech industry don’t realize how bad it’s gotten. This is how bad. It would be pointless trying to do anything about this person in particular. This is the climate.

Silicon Valley was supposed to be better than this. It was supposed to be the life of the mind, where people who were interested in the mysteries of computation and cognition could get together and make the world better for everybody. Now it’s degenerated into this giant hatefest of everybody writing long screeds calling everyone else Nazis and demanding violence against them. Where if someone disagrees with the consensus, it’s just taken as a matter of course that we need to hunt them down, deny them of the cloak of anonymity, fire them, and blacklist them so they can never get a job again. Where the idea that we shouldn’t be a surveillance society where we carefully watch our coworkers for signs of sexism so we can report them to the authorities is exactly the sort of thing you get reported to the authorities if people see you saying.

...Parts of tech are already this bad. For the rest of you: it’s what you have to look forward to.

He's speaking, of course, of the reaction to the memo destined to live in infamy. "This person in particular" about whom it would be pointless to do anything is another Google employee ranting about Nazis, Nazis and the need to punch Nazis, namely the author of the memo. Because, as we know, the actual Nazis were famous for beginning their inter-party memos with statements like "I value diversity and inclusion." It's funny — I've read many good articles at National Review, but after a couple days of seeing the most wildly deranged and willfully dishonest reactions to the memo from progressives, this was the first time I've clicked over to N.R. and thought, "Oh, thank God!" They had several pieces up about the topic, and reading them was like discovering an oasis of sanity in a desert of hysteria. Ah, well. At this point, the conversation is several meta-levels above where it began. People rarely ever discuss the original point; they react to what they think the person might have been implying, and their opponents do likewise, and everyone just ends up screaming past each other yet again. It's as if the children's game of Telephone has become a full-contact sport.

In 1873, James Fitzjames Stephen wrote a book called Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, a philosophical assault on John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Among many other criticisms, Stephen noted that Mill's dream of a society that changed minds purely through gentle persuasion, not coercion, was a chimera. Debate all you want, Stephen said, but a clash of values will only end with one opponent finally bending the knee in submission and the majority of the onlookers shrugging their shoulders in indifference:

The custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality, and the fact that this aversion may be felt by the very person whose conduct occasions it, and may be described as arising from the action of his own conscience, makes no difference which need be considered here. The important point is that such disapprobation could never have become customary unless it had been imposed upon mankind at large by persons who themselves felt it with exceptional energy, and who were in a position which enabled them to make other people adopt their principles and even their tastes and feelings.

Religion and morals, in a word, bear, even when they are at their calmest, the traces of having been established, as we know that in fact they were, by word of command. We have seen enough of the foundation of religions to know pretty well what is their usual course. A religion is first preached by a single person or a small body of persons. A certain number of disciples adopts it enthusiastically, and proceed to force their views upon the world by preaching, by persuasion, by the force of sympathy, until the new creed has become sufficiently influential and sufficiently well organized to exercise power both over its own members and beyond its own sphere....But, be the special form of religious power what it will, the principle is universally true that the growth of religions is in the nature of a conquest made by a small number of ardent believers over the lukewarmness, the indifference, and the conscious ignorance of the mass of mankind.

I've worried about this for a long time without coming any closer to a reassuring answer. The best always seem to lack conviction for the fight, and the worst are always filled with an inexhaustible reservoir of passionate intensity. "The goal of creating 50/50 gender parity in prestigious fields is a simple-minded fantasy, and even if it could be achieved, nothing important would be solved by doing so" — I can say this only because I'm a nobody, beneath notice. It's the truth, but it's not the sort of truth anyone wants to endure painful consequences in order to defend. The willingness to inflict those consequences ends up deciding the matter. Has it ever been otherwise?

Theodore Dalrymple wrote a fascinating essay, "How to Read a Society," in his book Our Culture, What's Left of It. In it, he tells of a nineteenth-century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine, who visited Russia for three months and published his observations in a series of letters, later to become a book, under the title La Russie en 1839. Particularly noteworthy was his diagnosis of a cultural malaise owing to the propensity to deceive and be deceived. One of the unspoken customs prevalent during Custine's visit was for Russians to refuse to look at the palace where the Czar's father, Paul, had been murdered. Similarly, no previous Czar was ever mentioned in conversation, in order to avoid implying that the current Czar was mortal. As Dalrymple writes:

Custine appreciated only too well the violence that this remaking of history did to the minds of men, and the consequences it had for their character and behavior. In order not to look at the palace in which the emperor Paul was murdered, a person had to know that he was killed there; but his whole purpose in not looking at the palace was to demonstrate in public his ignorance of the murder. He thus had not only to assert a lie but also to deny that he knew it was a lie. And all officials — the emperor included — had likewise to pretend that they did not know they were being lied to, or else the whole edifice of falsehood would have come tumbling down.

The need always to lie and always to avoid the truth stripped everyone of what Custine called "the two greatest gifts of God — the soul and the speech which communicates it." People become hypocritical, cunning, mistrustful, cynical, silent, cruel and indifferent to the fate of others as a result of the destruction of their own souls. Moreover the upkeep of systematic untruth requires a network of spies; indeed, it requires that everyone become a spy and potential informer. And "the spy," wrote Custine, "believes only in espionage, and if you escape his snares he believes that he is about to fall into yours." The damage to personal relations was incalculable.

If Custine were among us now, he would recognize the evil of political correctness at once, because of the violence that it does to people's souls by forcing them to say or imply what they do not believe but must not question. Custine would demonstrate to us that, without an external despot to explain our pusillanimity, we have willingly adopted the mental habits of people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship.

The avenues of the web are indeed filled with snitches and cops. Most of us are learning to keep our heads down and mouths shut as a result. As Dalrymple noted elsewhere, the purpose of political correctness is to humiliate, not to persuade. It forces you to become complicit in your own confinement, to lose self-respect and thus become more easily controlled. Death by a thousand little white lies.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Everything That Needs to Be Said Has Already Been Said. But Since No One Was Listening, Everything Must Be Said Again

Damon Linker:

These are classical subjects that centuries of people have written and thought about while reading the great playwright and poet. What's new to say about them? Probably nothing. Instead, reflecting on such themes entails a rediscovery of knowledge that past readers may have possessed but that must be reacquired by every reader, by every student, anew.

By definition, that's not "progress in knowledge," since it denies that a contemporary scholar necessarily knows more on the subject than a reader from a previous century. It presumes that the only form of "progress" is each individual’s advancement in coming to understand the perennial problems and puzzles of the human condition, and it looks to great writers of the past for help in acquiring that understanding.

This explains the resistance shown by many conservatives toward efforts to achieve progress in knowledge by expanding the canon: They tend to presume that the authors and books that come down to us as "great" will provide more guidance than those that have disappeared into obscurity. It also explains why many conservative academics prefer to teach at small liberal arts colleges, where they can spend their days poring over the same old books by the same old writers, making their own personal progress toward understanding, in part by leading new generations of young people to begin their own personal progress toward the same goal.

But this means that the culture of the research university stands in considerable tension with what motivates many conservatives to pursue academic study in the first place.

When a friend of mine told me that his unfinished dissertation was on aphorisms in history, I was excited to read it. I was young and naive at the time, though, so I was expecting a more general overview. It turned out to be a specific focus on a particular use of aphoristic sententiousness in a particular section of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, not the sort of thing that will ever make its way into ordinary conversation. By contrast, when I came across James Geary's book The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, I thought I had finally found the fulfillment of my earlier expectations, only to find myself quoting Julius Caesar upon finishing it: "Nice. Nice. Not thrilling, but nice." It was the sort of pleasant book that passes easily through your eyes and out of your memory like so much fiber through your digestive tract. It turns out that while aphorisms in particular are fascinating, there just isn't much to say about aphorisms in general, as a genre. It's better to just go straight to the source—read the practitioners themselves. rather than filter them through intermediaries.

Linker's piece is excellent, and I think he's exactly right. When people complain about the lack of conservatives in academia, they're referring mostly to the humanities. But the culture of the research university incentivizes the wrong sort of attitude and approach to humanistic learning. That same sort of approach — seeking a counterintuitive, novel perspective on old topics, attempting to build one's own name by tearing down an established predecessor — permeates a lot of popular writing online as well. While thinking about Thoreau the other day, I had a vague memory of having seen yet another recent viral piece attacking him for...well, who knows. Whatever it was, it's easy enough to find things to upbraid him over, if that's the angle you want to take. But we're still talking about Thoreau centuries later because he was a fantastic writer, whereas the twenty-something gender studies major who's currently getting clicks and praise for denouncing his problematic views on this, that or the other won't even be remembered five years from now. Well, if I may repurpose the words of a famous prophet, those hack writers have received the reward they're most interested in. But for those who are willing to shut the door on academic careerism and trendy contrarianism, greater rewards can be found by quietly studying in private with the great minds of the past.

I mean that quite literally — there's no need to take on massive financial debt just to study the classics and apply their lessons to everyday life. In fact, the sunk costs of doing so will almost irresistibly incentivize you to become yet another tenure-chasing ideologue. We're fortunate enough to live in an age when both the materials and a supporting community of like-minded people (if you're so inclined) are a few mouse-clicks away. I'm picturing something like Morris Berman's "new monastic individual" (minus the almost cartoonish bitterness and despair that Berman envinces in his more recent writings). There's no need to cast down this culture's idols of progress. Just refuse to offer them prayers.