Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Very Popular Error - Having the Courage of One’s Convictions: Rather It Is a Matter of Having the Courage for an Attack Upon One’s Convictions

I've looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

— Joni Mitchell

Simon Cullen:

This is a situation we all find ourselves in: we sincerely hold strong moral beliefs on topics about which we are almost completely ignorant. Knowledge about difficult empirical questions has become so utterly irrelevant to whether we feel entitled to our opinions, often we do not even notice our own dramatic ignorance. In lieu of the facts we have not bothered to learn, we go to dazzling lengths to justify our opinions with ideology.

...If we do not bother to acquaint ourselves with the most basic facts, to expose ourselves openly to people with whom we are inclined to disagree, and especially to those who have thought the longest and hardest about these topics, then we are not entitled to any opinion. As J.S. Mill wrote in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” For most of us, the only defensible attitude on most issues is perfect agnosticism. The problem is, we have little tolerance for agnosticism.

When the first waves of a newly-invigorated political correctness began cresting a few years ago, I had to endure tiresome kibitzing from one reader in particular who had appointed himself the shepherd responsible for making sure I didn't wander beyond the ideological boundaries of the left-wing pasture. And while I have certainly learned to understand and appreciate much conservative thought, the primary lesson I took then, and still hold to now, was about recognizing the importance of epistemological agnosticism. Partisan issues and arguments will come and go, but try to interrupt your own self-awarded triumphs to whisper to yourself like a Roman public slave, "Remember, you might be wrong."

It is certainly a strenuous exercise in humility to admit how little we actually know about any given topic, but the task is made even more difficult by how much our social status depends on our being willing to accept a popular narrative in place of knowledge. Questioning the sociopolitical myths that give our social lives meaning doesn't deliver just a blow to our egos, something that can be borne privately, but a visible loss of respect from our peers. Skepticism toward fundamental tribal narratives will be about as well-received as oozing sores and coughing up blood. Whatever you've got may be catching; best to put you in quarantine. And while we all like to think of ourselves as rational animals with scientific mindsets, we still end up accepting most of our knowledge as provisional, based on such unquantifiable measures as trust — "this may or may not be true, but I don't have time or energy to do all the necessary research, and I generally trust/distrust the people saying it." What made my own experience so disorienting was having to admit that I no longer had good reason to trust viewpoints I had blithely accepted for so long. We change our minds on particular facts all the time with no harm to our self-image, but questioning the very basis upon which we determine what is or is not a fact can induce intellectual vertigo.

Still, however humbling it may be, it's also liberating to no longer feel the pressure to affirm this or that narrative in order to remain in good standing with the in-group. I still wrestle with the difficulty of existing here, in an environment like social media, in which the neverending din of loud, half-baked opinions constitutes the very fabric of reality, rather than retreating into a studious silence, but it's comforting to remember that Lao-tzu was also made fun of by Po Chu-i for saying "Those who speak do not know; those who know do not speak," and proceeding to elaborate on that theme for another five thousand words. ♫ Hypocrites like us deserve a little trust along the way...♫

Monday, December 19, 2016

Noteworthies (2)

I'm still doing most of my reading offline, as I struggle to make room on the reading table for the slew of books I'm anticipating as gifts during the holidays. In the meantime, you can read these:

• FiveBooks interview, "Emrys Westacott on Philosophy and Everyday Living" (From 2012, but new to me, and most importantly, it's excellent. FiveBooks is a great site, and Westacott is one of my favorite writers online.)

• Patrick West, "From Sweden to Cuba: Stop Looking for Utopias"

• Tim Lott, "A Guru for Those Who Don't Trust Gurus" (Again, an old article, but an excellent piece about Alan Watts, one of my most formative intellectual influences. )

• Brendan O'Neill, "'White Men': The Most Dehumanising Insult of Our Times" (Hyperbolic title, and it contains the obligatory Spiked/O'Neill call for class consciousness, but still a good read, especially the line, "The Guardian, slowly morphing from a newspaper into a tumblr account...")

• Kevin D. Williamson, "The Parochial Progressive Obsession With Ayn Rand," and "The Matter With Coal Country" (The former is especially notable for the brilliant metaphorical image of an affinity for Rand as an "intellectual mullet".)

• Ronald Bailey, "Stuck"

• Kay Hymowitz, "How Women in Media Missed the Women's Vote"

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

If You Break These Moth-Wing Feelings

Emily Bobrow:

Perel wants to change the way we think about infidelity. Instead of seeing it as a pathological and immoral impulse that invariably leaves trauma and destruction in its wake, she wants us to understand that extramarital yearnings are all too natural, and that affairs are terribly, perhaps even inevitably, human. “Monogamy may not be a part of human nature but transgression surely is,” she says. “And sometimes even happy people cheat.” If, like Seth, we want to build relationships that will last, then we may need to share his realism about what such a relationship might look like, and what kind of imperfections we are willing to tolerate.

Let's start by conceding that not all infidelities are created equal. For that matter, as Perel notes, not all of them are necessarily sexual. A monogamous yet emotionally unavailable man who often belittles his wife while furtively accruing impulsive debts which endanger their shared financial future has failed to uphold his side of the marriage, whether we call that "cheating" or not. In such circumstances, an affair on the woman's part may be an understandable exploratory attempt to find a soft landing spot before deciding to make the perilous jump into the unknown. It's a rationalist fantasy to insist that people should measure their relationships on ledger sheets, discarding a marriage when the math says it's a bad investment. Lost among the trees and undergrowth of day-to-day living, it can be difficult for an unhappy spouse to gain a forest-wide perspective — am I giving up too easily? Do I expect too much? Will he change if only I stay patient and supportive? Abstract truisms about the odds of finding a better partner aren't much comfort in times like these. The visceral experience of happiness and fulfillment with another person may be what finally provides the necessary clarity and courage to make such a drastic change.

And granted, some people simply don't feel strongly about sexual exclusivity. Defenders of monogamy who insist that alternative arrangements are inevitably selfish or doomed might find themselves flummoxed like Friedrich Hayek was when confronted by the fact of J.S. Mill and Harriet Taylor's unconventional relationship, which, as John Gray observes, worked for them with no apparent harm to any of the involved parties. As Ben Sixsmith says, dishonesty is typically the real corrosive agent in infidelity; an honest open marriage might stand just as good a chance of success as an exclusive one.

Nonetheless, however inclined we might be to live and let live, it's hard not to feel weary as we see this whole topic approaching us with an insolent swagger we recognize all too well. Akash Kapur wisely said that reinvented sex and a remade economy are the twin pillars of the utopian project, so whenever a progressive starts talking about either one, you know what to expect.You roll your eyes and think, oh, God, here we go, here comes polyamory, the weaponized cutting edge, the hot new fashion in virtue signaling. If it were merely a matter of different strokes for different folks, that would be one thing, but it's inherent in the nature of progressivism to proselytize. What's good for us must be objectively good for all. It's progress, after all. The goal is to transcend limits, restraints, particularism, judgment, and vulnerabilities. If you object to the idea of unwanted intrusions into your marriage, you're as benighted and pitiful as those backward bigots who feel uneasy about unassimilated immigrants.

Progressivism envisions as its ideal a Rousseauian state of detached independence, in which anything inconvenient, even family members, can be sloughed off with no lasting ill-effects. The ideal of something like lifelong monogamy can weigh heavily on progressive shoulders — why should we endure anything that's suboptimal when we can just replace it? Why should we strive for an unreal standard of conduct if we're likely to fail anyway? Why don't we just abolish the idea of higher standards and revel in the leveling equality of our flawed imperfection? The cynicism that passes for wisdom among the perpetually-cool asserts that anyone who sees failure in pursuit of a difficult goal as an incentive to redouble one's efforts, rather than a confirmation of hopelessness, is most likely in denial, or a hypocrite just waiting to be unmasked. Disapproving judgment is one vice never to be tolerated — until, perhaps, some clever conservative claims that judging other people is his sexual kink, at which point they'll be compelled to celebrate it.

Perel predictably attacks the unreal fantasy of the soulmate who magically satisfies all of our needs, a blanket rationalization which has no doubt provided cover for many trysts in motel beds. I still wait in vain to see a progressive follow that trite insight up with the acknowledgement that many of our "needs" are nothing of the sort, merely fleeting impulses that we would do well to deny and eventually outgrow.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Noteworthies

Most of my reading has been of the dead-tree variety lately, but I have managed to pluck several interesting pieces from the chirm of Twitter and the churn of the blogosphere. Here they are, presented sans commentary:

• Plexico Gingrich, "Why I'm a Free Speech Absolutist"

• Damon Linker, "How Conservatives Out-Intellectualized Progressives"

• William Voegeli, "The Roots of Liberal Condescension"

• John McWhorter, "Race in Trump's America"

• Interview with Dr. Jordan Peterson, "We're Teaching University Students Lies"

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Commie Seesaw

A lachrymose paean to the fallen idols of socialism. A fawning tribute to the up-and-coming defenders of the Marxish faith. A daily selection of links from all around the leftist web, with a recurrent focus lately on the imminence of fascism. I'm beginning to think that when we switched our clocks back at the beginning of last month, we somehow traveled back in time to 1933 or thereabouts. It's ironically amusing how much time "progressives" spend being stuck in the past, re-fighting lost causes, frantically performing CPR on Marx's corpse.

Fists, Fools, and Dollars



BuzzFeed decides to publish a casual smear of some celebrity couple, no doubt in hopes of costing them their TV show, or perhaps simply because it was more entertaining than churning out yet another listicle. Not to be outdone in the stupidity competition, Breitbart demands a boycott of Kellogg's in response to the politically-motivated withdrawal of advertising. I have been hoping for years to see these culture-war border skirmishes and vindictive economic embargoes explode into all-out Götterdämmerung. I'm fairly sure it meets the standard of "just war" when both sides richly deserve as much suffering and destruction as they can possibly inflict on each other. By all means, keep up the relentless politicization of absolutely everything. Keep trying to create economic circles of moral purity, micro forms of crony capitalism, in which your money never passes into the hands of anyone who hasn't passed a stringent ideological background check. When you've finally taken your petty point-scoring and scalp-taking to its logical conclusion, and you realize that you don't like the sort of society you've created, perhaps then you might finally think about growing up.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

I'm Not the One Who's Tryin' to Be Your Enemy

FdB:

Up from below. For universal rights or against them. In support of egalitarianism or in support of the vicious inequalities of “meritocracy.” These are the conflicts. If you’re a conservative who thinks that black people in poverty in Detroit deserve it because of a supposed culture of dependence, you’re my enemy. If you’re J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, and you think white people in poverty in the Cincinnati suburbs deserve it because they don’t take initiative in their own lives, you’re my enemy. If you’re Donald Trump and you think undocumented immigrants deserve to be kicked out of the country, you’re my enemy. If you’re some wealthy liberal aristocrat writer, sneering down at the rubes and condemning them to misery because you’ve decided they’re all bigots, you’re my enemy. People deserve their suffering or they don’t. I say they don’t. That’s it, that’s all there is.

Honestly, Freddie should just go ahead and find religion if he wants to keep arguing over metaphysics such as whether people "deserve" their lot in life. He's already got the instinct for martyrdom, and it's just being wasted in the political arena. Why quibble over a trifling detail like whether Christianity is "true" or not when you so clearly believe in its otherwordly moral vision? If you're ready to burn at the stake for the sake of a world in which politics is the ultimate cure for suffering, how is it any more of an affront to your intellectual integrity to accept doctrines of virgin births and resurrected corpses?

As an aside, if you can read Hillbilly Elegy, or listen to J.D. Vance's public talks, and come away with the conclusion that he thinks poor white people "deserve" their poverty simply because he doesn't agree that the state is ultimately and totally responsible for their well-being, you are a Manichean ideologue (as all the Matthew 12:30-style rhetoric would suggest) and a self-made idiot. There's always the possibility that you could just be another hack willing to be dishonest when convenient, but I, too, am capable of being idealistic.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Give Me That New-Time Religion

Kevin D. Williamson:

Fury’s version of things is the opposite of Lilla’s tolerant liberalism: To be the right sort of people, we must be feminists, and to be feminists, we must have opinions on . . . everything, and assign to the entirety of the universe moral gradations based upon the feminist position that all of the right sort of people must assume.

Glenn Loury:
A regime of political correctness is a moral signaling equilibrium in which people who don’t want to be thought of as being on the wrong side of history will suppress an honest expression of what they believe about some controversial issue because people who are known to be on the wrong side of history are prominently saying the same things.

It's facile, and usually misleading, to say that "Such-and-such-phenomenon is like a religion." But it does seem clear that the strongest motivation behind the phenomenon we call political correctness is a desire to classify humans as either the saved or the damned, even, or especially, at the expense of making practical political improvements. Perhaps Joseph Bottum was on to something.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Yea, Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I Will Fear No Evil

S. Abbas Raza:

UNDERSTANDING THE OTHER SIDE: Only a fraction of the articles we post are normally about politics but it is also true that the editors of 3QD are all (to a person) liberal progressives and none of us supported or voted for Donald Trump. In the interest of dialogue and trying to understand the conservative point of view better, I have decided to start occasionally posting relatively well-argued articles from the right side of the political spectrum. Some of these are sent to me by friends who did vote for Trump. (And, yes, I have such friends and hope you do too.) Trust me, it will not hurt you to read them. I hope that people will keep the comments civil and focused on the issues, and not engage in ad hominem attacks. This is the first of this series.

As a wanderer enduring self-imposed exile from the the Republic of Arts and Letters, my beloved homeland which has long been occupied by ideological invaders, this gave me some welcome mirth. 3QD is one of the better link-aggregator sites around, but their focus on culture and science is, as he says, predictably progressive. It's funny that their readership needs such comforting assurances before being confronted with an alien perspective — I find myself thinking of Grover Norquist's remarks about how being a right-wing student in the Ivy League had a "boy named Sue" quality to it. Progressives could certainly use a similar toughening-up.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Man Hears What He Wants to Hear and Disregards the Rest

A Guardian writer lifts a finger to the prevailing winds of opinion and urges his audience to break out of their leftist filter bubble by reading a few conservative sites. Not for the purpose of encountering, and maybe even understanding, contrary points of view, but because occasionally, some of these sites offer perspectives which neatly overlap with pre-existing leftist assumptions. Whew, that was easier than I thought! Those people aren't all bloodthirsty barbarians after all! Some of them even occasionally approach the enlightened heights where my peers and I dwell! I can't wait to tweet about how judicious and open-minded I am right after I take a shower.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Florist, the Baker, the Fashion Tastemaker

It is, of course, true that unpopular stances, such as being opposed to gay marriage, should have the same right to express dissent through the marketplace as popular stances, such as fashion designers refusing to serve Melania Trump. What precisely do we mean by "right," though? In the case of Arlene's Flowers, many people would agree that while nothing technically illegal has occurred, it's still morally wrong that a small business can be driven to bankruptcy in order to make an example of thoughtcrime. It looks like bullying. It looks like disproportionate punishment. It looks like, as someone joked recently, the culture wars have ended, and the victors are now driving around summarily executing prisoners of war for sport. Do we expect that magnanimity and mercy should prevail, that people should refrain from choosing punitive justice through the courts even though the option exists? Or do we envision equal "rights" as entailing that outraged progressives should be just as quick to demand that Sophie Theallet be financially punished?

Personally, I would love to see people outgrow the childish notion that their financial transactions can be confined to circles of moral purity, like a micro form of crony capitalism. Only through extremely selective attention can we avoid noticing how much of the money we earn and spend can be "linked" to organizations and schemes of which we would personally disapprove. Rather than withdraw into fantasies of self-sufficient, morally monolithic communes, or of a post-capitalist future in which all such social divisions have been transcended, perhaps our time would be better spent practicing how to be gracious and patient toward those in our out-group. Technically, the customer may always be right, but it's bad form to abuse that advantage.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

And Now That We Have Totally Lost All Composure We Will Wither From Exposure Beneath the Sun

Scott Alexander does his usual thing, and it's glorious to behold. It's like finding a genuine oasis after a week spent crawling through a social media desert.

It's funny — for eight years now, I have remembered this Daily Show clip where a McCain supporter tells John Oliver that if Obama is elected, he's going to "put on his turban" and "we're all gonna be shot!" For all these years, that represented the gold standard of partisan political insanity to me. I thought of that woman on several occasions during that time, wondering if and when she ever realized how ridiculous she sounded. The other day, however, the Lady of the House was showing me some of the screeds being posted by her Facebook friends, and I swear, no exaggeration, I saw an ostensibly-educated professional woman from one of the bluest cities in the nation — no ignorant, uninformed backwoods yokel here — worrying about whether she would be capable of throwing a punch or outrunning pursuers (Trumpist brownshirts, I presume), and even pondering whether these extreme circumstances meant she should consider buying a gun. From there, she seriously, no exaggeration, started musing about being willing to hide minorities and LGBT in her house (again, Trumpist stromtroopers are apparently going to be conducting house-to-house searches for enemies of the state when they're not chasing random progressives down the suburban streets), as if she's in the French Resistance.

In an idiocracy, political discourse vacillates between the hashtag and the swastika.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Rhetorical Hyperinflation

Ed West:

But the collective hysteria that followed shows what happens when Nazi Germany crowds out all other history. The poverty of peoples’ collective memory and imagination is such that the first minute any politician strays from the path of universalism, commentators reach for the most shocking (and only) historical comparison they can think of.

It is tediously predictable that every progressive political setback is treated as a harbinger of incipient fascism. I have become so jaded by this that I was almost delighted to see the term "Stalin-esque purge" being used in reference to routine personnel shuffling among Trump's advisers. Finally, a new twist on the tired old theme! You mean he's already had tens of thousands of underlings executed or sent south to work on constructing the Mexican border wall with their bare hands on starvation rations? No? You mean this is just more absurd hyperbole from people already lacking in all credibility? At this rate, will they even have anything left by January when he's actually sworn in?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I Ran So Far Away, I Couldn't Get Away

Neoconservatives used to joke, during the heady days of seemingly-imminent American empire, that "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." Richard Dawkins has apparently repurposed that slogan, deciding that Canada is just oh-so-passé; real rational liberals want to flee to New Zealand.

I spent some time traveling around the progressive blogosphere, visiting sites I haven't been to in many years. From Atrios and Digby down through the also-rans and lesser lights, they seem to have settled on racism, sexism and inveterate stupidity as the culprits behind Trump's victory. In other words, nothing to learn here, move along, more of the same, please. Four more years of in-group signaling and emotionally incontinent ranting that changes no minds and accomplishes nothing. I can't say I expected any differently.

Friday, November 11, 2016

It Will Always Be the End of Time, the End of Law, the End of Life

I hate to discourage a welcome moment of self-awareness, but back in the day, I heard plenty of Democrats convincing themselves that Bush and Cheney were also fascists — excuse me, "fashists" — who would refuse to leave office at the end of their term. Come back when you've got a bronze political sobriety chip, and maybe we'll see about letting you attend gatherings again.

Sometime the Wolf

When the lambs is lost in the mountain, he said. They is cry. Sometime come the mother. Sometime the wolf.

― Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West


It's a nice thought, but the lambs have been lost in the mountains and crying about identity politics for over fifty years now. Even with the wolf closing in, they can't imagine doing anything differently. There has been plenty of theorizing about what Trump will mean for the philosophical reorientation of the GOP. It remains to be seen whether the left will be capable of anything more than perfunctory self-criticism, and I am certainly pessimistic in that regard, but the need for a conceptual overhaul is no less dire in their case.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

You've Lost That Blogging Feeling, Bring Back That Blogging Feeling

Adam Kirsch:

But in fact Swing Time is a sober book, even—at times—a depressive one. It feels like the kind of book novelists write when they have come to the end of their own favorite themes and techniques. There is less of the excitement of discovery, of getting things down on paper that have not been observed before, and more of the resigned pleasure of understanding. There is less seeing, and more seeing through.

One of the reasons I like to read critics like Kirsch is that they often tend to illuminate unrelated topics just by virtue of their keen insights. I know nothing of Zadie Smith, and have no interest in her new book, but reading a review written under Kirsch's byline turns up a gem of a paragraph like this one.

It seems strange to think that my standards for writing could have outgrown my actual ability, but it certainly feels that way. In everyday life, I am an almost-comically predictable creature of routine and habit, but intellectually, I get quickly bored and easily restless. Once I've gained understanding or perspective to my satisfaction, the only thing left to do with that topic is to ironically joke about it for amusement. Once that gets tiresome...? I suppose that's where talented writers reinvent themselves somehow, or find new topics to explore. But I don't have the breadth or depth of knowledge to be a critic, merely enough to be impatient with my own limitations. Each day spent browsing online feels like more of the same — nothing exciting to discover, nothing I haven't already observed with tired eyes, nothing I haven't already seen through with weary cynicism. I don't know how people like David Thompson manage to keep doing it so well after so long; I feel like the Sisyphean monotony of making fun of the same stupid people doing the same stupid things on and on ad infinitum would drive me insane. I would rather sit in silence and wait for genuine inspiration than to feel trapped performing the role of a stock character of my own creation.

And so I read, and wait, while hopefully, life is slowly weaving together disparate threads that will eventually present themselves in the form of a serendipitous pattern.

Friday, November 4, 2016

I Won't Forget You, Even Though I Should

Michael Tomasky:

While that plays out, the least that we white Americans can do is to not ignore race. Some liberals used to pride themselves on saying they didn’t see race, which I always thought was fatuous, more about white self-regard than the reality of American life. No—as I learned at the water park, we have to make ourselves see it and think about it. 

As any meditating Buddhist can tell you, obsessing on your thoughts is a recipe for dissatisfaction. "Seeing and thinking about race" has been the default for white progressives for the last half-century at least; if doing so led to anything more productive than compulsively circling around rhetorical and conceptual dead ends, we would surely have seen those results by now. Tomasky relates a simple anecdote of minor social friction which was resolved thanks to people practicing some basic, universally-valid virtues: patience, respect, soft-speaking, and forgiveness. No need at all for a racial healing workshop, yet, predictably, this is what he decides we need. It's like a passage from one of Shelby Steele's books come to life.

Monday, October 17, 2016

He Shall Be Cut Off From Among His People

Apparently the gay clergy convened a synod to debate a highly abstruse point of theological doctrine for the purpose of confirming Peter Thiel's excommunication. The agreement they settled on is that while Thiel might engage in "gay sex," he's not truly "gay" in his heart and soul by virtue of his reactionary politics. No word yet as to whether he might be permitted to use his tech fortune to buy some indulgences. But to the superstitious medieval mind, Thiel's sins are so grievous that his evil spirit still possesses a company he sold more than a decade ago, prompting church officials to urge lay worshipers to boycott it until a professional exorcism can be performed.

If you've ever wanted to see the arrhythmic, worm-infested heart of identity politics, there it is — the group giveth identity, and the group taketh away. Black conservatives and anti-feminist, pro-life women nod and smile ruefully. Identity only counts within the boundaries of the party line. According to the Great Chain of Intersectional Being, straight white males, a monolithic group, are at the top. Everyone else is defined by degrees of alienation and oppression, the foundational concepts of the left-wing worldview. If you happen to reside further up the chain among the clouds of privilege, your only hope of being provisionally tolerated by the professionally oppressed clerisy is by engaging in public displays of obsequious flattery, maudlin pity, and anguished self-loathing. Still, however devoted your efforts, you may rest assured that a dossier is nevertheless being kept on you for use when you become inconvenient or tiresome. If, as an officially recognized victim, you deny that your agency has been completely compromised by structural factors far beyond your control or understanding, or you fail to display sufficient resentment against your oppressors, you, too, will be cast out into the outer darkness.

Update: And here I thought I was exaggerating for effect!



The article headline itself goes with "tolerate," while the URL uses "shun," but still, the message is the standard progressive party line. "Tolerance" means that conservative-leaning people need to put up with things that bother or offend them. "Diversity" means that everyone looks different in superficial ways while marching in ideological lockstep. For me, the funniest part is Oremus wrinkling his nose in disgust about a book Thiel co-wrote, which he describes as "noxious" and "as un-PC as it gets." I don't know, I haven't read it, but judging by the description, Oremus sounds like quite a delicate flower, which, I suppose, is all too typical of the hothouse environment he and his fellow progressives sequester themselves in.

Friday, October 14, 2016

I Wanted to Be With You Alone and Talk About the Weather

It is a piquant irony that I, of all people, should be forced to defend small talk, a practice in which I am neither a skilled nor enthusiastic participant, but thus have the fates decreed it. I must say, my esteem for Dan Ariely has taken a plunge after reading this article, which reads as if a social engineer with severe autism has legislated that conversations become key parties.

Now, as many supercilious, antisocial adolescents have long observed, small talk is often frivolous and tedious. But like many sub-optimal practices, it has evolved that way for a reason, given the inherent difficulties of easing tensions and forging bonds with complete strangers. Ariely and Berman note that their experiment works precisely because it is structured, or "socially coordinated" — being informed in advance of the new rules governing this particular social interaction obviates the need for individuals to tentatively feel their way through it by means of light conversation. Festivals like Halloween, which temporarily subvert the normal order and expectations of social life, are also powerful and exciting for that reason, but only a freak raised in a Skinner box would conclude that we could and should routinely go around wearing masks and costumes because it makes us feel creative and liberated. Likewise, heady talk about "creating new social norms" which make all the participants "happier" based on superficial metrics is the kind of hyper-rationalist delusion one might expect to read about in a history of utopian intentional communities. A practice like this could only function in very specific situations with clearly-understood rules; blurring the boundaries between random strangers in public and PostSecret is not likely to end well.

The unexamined axiom here is that deep, profound conversation is what we all truly desire on a ritual basis, and if only the inefficiencies of the oppressive system were removed, we would blossom in our natural, uninhibited state. But perhaps bad faith is our natural state. Perhaps we secretly appreciate shallow living while making occasional aspirational gestures toward deeper meaning and significance. Perhaps the forced intimacy of Ariely's dinner party would be an unwelcome mirror and harsh light to our self-image. Only the most naïve idealists go around overturning rocks that have been secured in place for ages and expect sunshine and charming melodies to come forth.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Calling You Wrong, Calling You Out, Calling You Gone

Cathy Young:

This is a familiar argument: It's really the critics of "political correctness" who want to suppress speech.

It's also ridiculous. Of course Shriver doesn't want to suppress negative reviews of her books. There's a massive difference between criticism and "callouts." Criticism is an individual opinion; callouts are groupthink. Criticism is a judgment primarily focused, in the case of art and literature, on artistic and intellectual merit. Callouts are an expression of offense, moral judgment and condemnation, delivered on behalf of a purported righteous community or collective. Criticism says, "This is bad." The callout says, "This should not exist." The response to "cultural appropriation" and other ideological offenses that has come to dominate much of the left-of-center media in the last few years is not criticism; it's public shaming and pillorying. Its tone is scarily reminiscent of campaigns against ideological transgressors in the Soviet press.

Nothing needs to be added to that.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

No One Can Belie Optimistic Proof

Phil Torres:

Thus, a world without religion would be a significantly improved world than the one in which we now inhabit.

Lord, these people make me embarrassed to be unchurched. The rest of the article is the usual collection of New Atheist tropes that will likely be enshrined in the Constitution of Neil deGrasse Tyson's utopian nation of Rationalia, and you almost have to admire the unblemished, uh, faith in the salvific potential of evangelical atheism, given the prominent and entirely predictable implosion of one of its most prominent online hubs. Bertrand Russell, favorably quoted, as always, in the article regarding the intrinsic obstacle religion presents to moral progress, could have warned them about the danger of trusting pure logic to trump animal nature — in fact, in his autobiography, he did. Reflecting on the messy damage caused by his progressive experiments with free love, he admitted that, "Anyone else could have told me this in advance, but I was blinded by theory."

All that aside, I'm just impressed by the blithe confidence with which our hero asserts the above sentence. We've been here before, and the point still stands: for people who prattle on and on about the value of evidence and experiment, they seem remarkably indifferent to the fact that "a world without religion" is something that has quite literally never existed, making summary pronouncements on its shape and character quite literally meaningless. Faith-based, you might even say. "Religion" is not a mere integer to be easily subtracted, or a simple proposition to be assented to or denied, but rather a tangled knot of threads comprising everything from culture and history to personal identity and psychology. But presumably new developments in "enhancement technologies" will succeed where previous political attempts to rationally remake the world failed horribly. I'm afraid I'm incapable of making such a leap of faith.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Epistemic Virtue

Scott Alexander:

And since then, one of the central principles behind my philosophy has been “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out”. Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.

Donald Trump does not represent those best parts of conservativism. To transform his movement into Marxism, just replace “the bourgeoisie” with “the coastal elites” and “false consciousness” with “PC speech”. Just replace the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of the workers, with the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of “real Americans”. Just replace the hand-waving lack of plans with what to do after the Revolution with a hand-waving lack of plans what to do after the election. In both cases, the sheer virtue of the movement, and the apocalyptic purification of the rich people keeping everyone else down, is supposed to mean everything will just turn out okay on its own. That never works.

...US conservatism is in crisis, and I think that crisis might end better if Trump loses than if he wins.

Since a country with thriving conservative and liberal parties is lower-variance than one with lots of liberals but no effective conservatism, I would like conservatism to get out of crisis as soon as possible and reach the point where it could form an effective opposition. It would also be neat if whatever form conservatism ended out taking had some slight contact with reality and what would help the country (this is not meant as a dig at conservatives – I’m not sure the Democrats have much contact with reality or helps the country either; I’m wishing for the moon and stars here).

As usual, Alexander says everything that needs to be said. I too hope to see a revitalized, healthy conservatism assert itself once the Trumpian fever breaks. That hope might be the only thing to sustain me through four-to-eight more years of our culture being absolutely saturated with social justice zealotry.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Ctrl-Left

Lionel Shriver:

When I was growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s, conservatives were the enforcers of conformity. It was the right that was suspicious, sniffing out Communists and scrutinizing public figures for signs of sedition.

Now the role of oppressor has passed to the left.

...Ms. Abdel-Magied got the question right: How is this happening? How did the left in the West come to embrace restriction, censorship and the imposition of an orthodoxy at least as tyrannical as the anti-Communist, pro-Christian conformism I grew up with? Liberals have ominously relabeled themselves “progressives,” forsaking a noun that had its roots in “liber,” meaning free. To progress is merely to go forward, and you can go forward into a pit.

I suppose you could say that it's just another case of power corrupting. People with cultural territory to defend are fearful of losing it. Or you could look at the way in which left-wing politics have incorporated the worst aspects of the recovery movement, where everyone is defined by the supposed traumas and abuses that have shaped them from childhood, thus requiring politics to become another form of therapy. Or maybe it's just the inevitable end game of a political outlook that always aimed too high and has now lost momentum and direction. Even the "sane" progressives have little to offer but nostalgia anymore, dreaming of a magical return to the unique conditions of the postwar welfare state, defining themselves against those dreaded conservatives primarily by means of their largely-ineffectual conspicuous compassion.

Someone somewhere recently joked that we should start calling this generation of leftists the ctrl-left, in honor of their relationship to their mirror image, the alt-right. Brilliant. I'm all in favor of it.

The Company You Keep



And there you have it — for zealots like Snyder, there is no such thing as neutral ground in a holy war. Likewise, Jamelle Bouie informs us, with a pointed stare and a raised eyebrow, that using a useful descriptor like "virtue signaling" makes you guilty by association with the alt-right. Okay, fine, you got me, I surrender. Yes, I only recently stopped beating my wife. Yes, I'm a conservative. Yes, I consort with neo-Nazis in the darkest corners of the web where we plot foul deeds. Yes, I've sworn fealty to the Trumplord. There's no point in arguing. Confess early, confess often. Cheerfully admit to anything and everything in the hopes that your inquisitors will conclude you're too insane to understand what you're even saying.

Ben additionally makes an interesting, related point here: what does it even mean to call yourself a progressive when you oppose much or most of what modern progressivism preaches and practices?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mot Juste

Rachelle Peterson:

“Privilege” is to serious criticism what a strobe on a cop car is to natural lighting: a warning, not a source of illumination.

That is a phrase which makes me envious.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

You Are the Spooks You're Chasing. You Know Not What You Do

According to the usual voices on the multiculti left, the author Lionel Shriver gave an address at a literary festival in which she largely quoted entire passages from Mein Kampf. The full transcript, for those of you intrepid souls brave enough to face the beast head-on, can be found here.

There's little to be said that hasn't been said before. The left will always subject reality to Procrustean torture to make it fit the alienation/oppression framework that gives structure to their entire worldview. Still, even I, jaded though I might be, couldn't help but chuckle involuntarily upon seeing white people on social media declare that of course white people like Shriver don't understand what cultural appropriation really is (despite the fact that in her speech, Shriver quoted a definition of the term from a seemingly-unimpeachable source). According to other people of pallor, the real issue is about her lack of empathy, or maybe it's about unjust power differentials. But by their own reasoning, who are these people to affirm what cultural appropriation is or isn't? On what philosophical grounds do they assert their vision of justice to be objective and factually accurate when all else is relative? Either they have somehow managed to miraculously surmount the apparently-genetic inability of white people to understand left-wing ideological axioms, or perhaps those axioms are normative statements — ostensibly objective facts, their proponents might even say — about the world which can be understood by anyone.

And thus we run up against a modern version of the ancient Epimenides paradox, which you can see acted out in real time on social media every day. All white people are stained by the sins of racism and colonialism and must unquestioningly defer to the judgment of people of color, says a white leftist, just before arrogantly dismissing the objections of non-white people who disagree with him. Lesser contradictions abound as well — Kenan Malik reiterates how the supposedly-progressive notions aimed at preventing a slippery slope to racial hatred and genocide are theoretically identical to those supporting old-fashioned racial separatism. Sonny Bunch notes the astonishing irony of Shriver's loudest critic claiming to want to be "challenged" and made "uncomfortable". I hate to validate anything about psychoanalysis, but it's hard to avoid thinking that there's very little about these people that can't be explained as an illustration of projection.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Into the Void

Alan Jacobs:

Anyway, a few weeks ago I decided to resume my tumblr, on which I was very active for around eight years or so — I’ll have my 10-year Tumblrversary next March — because I wasn’t getting a ton of traffic here and I thought “Why bother to post stuff that almost no one reads?”

I resemble that remark, so allow me to offer some answers.

  • For the sheer joy of expression which requires no external validation
  • To avoid pestering individual friends with long-winded emails
  • For posterity
  • To nurture a self-pitying fantasy of yourself as a misunderstood genius surrounded by unappreciative philistines
  • Montaigne wrote his Essays without an audience for ten years before publishing them (if it was good enough for him...)
  • To give solid form, structure, and clarity to your thoughts
  • Because when you read a lot of books, your head gets filled with words, and if you don't empty them out periodically, they'll start talking amongst themselves, and the din will be unbearable
  • To look busy at work
  • For its own sake, as with other spiritual disciplines and practices
  • To be surprised by how often a piece of your writing looks better when rediscovered
  • Because even the latent possibility of an audience keeps you from lapsing into "Dear Diary" self-indulgence
  • For the same reason we do almost anything beyond eating, sleeping, and reproducing: to distract ourselves from thinking about our inevitable deaths
  • Because the older generations walked miles every day to work tirelessly on the website factory assembly lines so that you kids could one day have the luxury of playing with preassembled, smoothly-functioning text editing platforms in any color or design you could want, so I really don't think it's asking too much that you take a few minutes to sit down and use the thing without crying about the fact that it doesn't come with an audience included

Monday, August 8, 2016

El Sueño

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

The concept of Rationalia began when Taylor Milsal insightfully mentioned at a cocktail reception of the Starmus Science Festival in Spain's Canary Islands (July 2016) that, perhaps, a new virtual country should be created: "Rational Land", containing member states that, by and large, embrace rational thinking in their conduct and policies.  This idea was prompted by how much irrational conduct currently drives world politics.

Goya warned us that
monsters rise when reason dreams.
Neil deGrasse Tyson,
with "the evidence"
brandished like a crucifix,
strides on, unafraid,
into that dark night.
Superstitions like the rest,
history's ghosts are
banished with a snort
of contempt. Enlightenment's
glow will permeate
all dark corners of
the mind, the heart, the halls of
power. Let it shine!
Oh, the irony,
the poor Cassandra critics,
their words unheeded.
It turned out that his
idea of reason is
rather circular.
The kind of proof he
wants to see is only found
in laboratories.
It's almost as if
evidence is an inkblot
not a diagram.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

I Know You're Out There Somewhere, Somewhere You Can Hear My Voice

Hossein Derakhshan:

Sometimes I think maybe I’m becoming too strict as I age. Maybe this is all a natural evolution of a technology. But I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: A loss of intellectual power and diversity, and on the great potentials it could have for our troubled time. In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment. So much that even Iran doesn’t take some — Instagram, for instance — serious enough to block.

I miss when people took time to be exposed to different opinions, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters. I miss the days when I could write something on my own blog, publish on my own domain, without taking an equal time to promote it on numerous social networks; when nobody cared about likes and reshares.

That’s the web I remember before jail. That’s the web we have to save.

Derakhshan characterizes the web's shift from the blog-and-computer-based culture of the early aughts to the app-and-phone-based culture of today as a lamentable turn from "a books-internet toward a television-internet". While I'm certainly sympathetic to his nostalgia, I'm not sure that there's really anything to "do" about it. It's not as if sheer willpower is going to reverse economic and technological trends. In fact, I would suggest that as the web's population density continues to increase, the demographic center of gravity increasingly settles among a younger audience. The denominator gets more and more common. People who enjoy regularly reading, let alone writing, a couple thousand words about politics, art, culture and niche hobbies have always been a minority, even in the pre-Internet days. The fact that they found themselves in the cultural spotlight for a short time was an aberration. I don't think it's case of people having abandoned their blogs in favor of posting one-liners on Twitter and photos on Instagram; I think the people who are now using those apps are mostly people who wouldn't have been interested in blogs a decade ago.

A common theme that runs through so many of these elegies for the supposedly-deceased blog is the internalized assumption that "nobody" is reading them anymore. All this means, of course, is that the cognoscenti no longer find them fashionable, which is hardly the kiss of death, unless you happen to be the kind of superficial person who craves the meaningless recognition of cultural tastemakers with the attention spans of attention-deficient toddlers, in which case you're probably already on Twitter anyway, but I digress. The point is, there are plenty of good blogs out there linking to each other. Don't waste time fretting about whether they'll ever be considered culturally significant again; just seek them out and participate.

Cristina Juesas said it well in her commentary on Derakhshan's piece — if you write for the love of writing, you won't care how many readers you have, but if your writing is any good, you'll attract them nonetheless. I can vouch for that — having written online for over a decade, without making the slightest effort to promote myself, I've had a couple dozen or so devoted readers who stumbled upon me through happenstance and ended up sticking around to check in regularly. With no comment section to perform in, they have no other motivation to be here. They apparently choose to seek me out because they want to hear what I have to say. I could be wrong, of course, but I don't think that sort of reward can increase exponentially along with readership. A handful of readers makes you feel humbly gratified. A million of them would probably just make you arrogant and self-absorbed. But either way, the personal essay has been around since Montaigne, and it will still be around when all of today's apps are hopelessly outdated.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Clamor of Today

Acculturated:

But this study reminds us that there is a vast difference between knowingness and knowledge. Knowingness can be achieved simply by scanning your Twitter account. Knowledge requires more discipline, direction, and—the quality perhaps most absent on social media—patience. Knowledge is power; knowingness, by contrast, risks creating a world of Know-Nothings.

Trash collected by the eyes and dumped into the brain;
Discriminate, said Schopenhauer. Learn when to abstain.

Or perhaps you may prefer his student Nietzsche's point of view.
An aristocrat's indifference to the world he passes through.

(He might say, were he here today, of media old and new:
Give a book a face and it might gaze back into you.)

Monkeys chatter, bluebirds tweet. Withdraw and go your way.
Restore your soul with knowledge and let knowingness decay.

Friday, June 10, 2016

They Ain't Heavy

Yahdon Israel:

He asked if the books were for class. I told him they weren’t. He asked if I was selling them. I told him I wasn’t. He asked why I had so many.

“Because I’m reading them.”

“All of them?”

“Yes.”

“Why carry them all? Why not just get a Nook or a Kindle?”

A trap, Yahdon! Don't answer that!
His premise is flawed. The logic is pat.
Resist the urge to justify;
Instead, reply with Bartleby,

"I would prefer not to."

Turn the tables, flip the script,
No, flip the tables, scatter wide
the coins of realm, and thus equipped
with self-respect, retort with pride,

"What sort of man are you?"

Why truckle like a serf to please
the monarchs of our modern age?
Convenience and Efficiency
still lock their subjects in a cage

with no aesthetic view.

Why trickle like a stream pursuing
least resistance to the sea?
One of us should be reviewing
options, but it isn't me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

You Think You're So Radical. I Think You Oughta Stop

Jessa Crispin:

Traister’s book has been praised for promoting a kind of revolutionary politics on the basis of single women’s power. Yet her goals are sometimes quite conservative. Singlehood is presented as merely an interlude before marriage. One of the great successes of the single women “movement,” according to Traister, is that eventual marriage is more satisfying and less likely to end in divorce. No radical societal reorganization is required if the assumption is that entry into a nuclear family will in time bring these women the stability and security they need.

If it's "conservative" to choose tangible improvement of what already exists over a Jacobin fantasy of "radical societal reorganization," then pass the Burke Fan Club registration paperwork over here, I guess. Crispin takes pains, however, to stress that she's not necessarily calling for massive state intervention to save people from the vicissitudes of bad luck and bad decisions, however much her logic might seem to inevitably point in that direction — she's inspired by having "toured" an experimental micro-housing commune in Berlin, run by architects, community organizers and artists, which seems to provide a "nurturing and secure" environment. I suppose it would likewise be conservative to suggest that we could maybe check back in a few years and see if the commune even still exists before we sit down and start redesigning American society along similar lines. Or perhaps we could simply note that history provides plenty of examples of similar visionary communities, from Robert Owen's New Harmony to the Charles Fourier-inspired Brook Farm, that failed to prosper, let alone inspire mass movements. After a couple hundred years of such attempts, no one is obliged to take this idea seriously anymore, no matter how resilient the progressive faith that this time will be the charm, surely.

She complains about the "maldistribution of care" which requires such creative experiments as the Berlin commune, since, as far as she's concerned, there's no going back to extended families and durable marriages. It's a telling image — as if "care" is a product which can be quantified and allocated by a central authority (not necessarily the state, though!), when in actuality, any "care" worthy of the name is organically grown and cultivated. Whatever facsimile of familial bonds you produce on demand will never have the roots to provide your new arrangements with longevity, no matter how many books of radical feminist theory you've read that insist otherwise.

We end with the reminder that the state can only do so much to replace family ties broken by neoliberalism, which leads to the exhortation to create a "cultural shift" by "redirecting this conversation from the individual to society." "Society," not the state, will apparently "reimagine traditional forms of care," which reminds me that the only people who make socialist utopians seem intellectually rigorous are anarchist utopians, who expect the same result to spontaneously flower from the soil of pure human nature. The Invisible Hand is real after all, and in a radically reimagined, reorganized society, it will cup us all lovingly in its generous palm.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Heart of a Heartless World

James Walker:

Art and culture, for our new generation of social critics — in no small part due to the the neoliberal milieu which bore them — is primarily an object of consumption. It is a means of moral and political nourishment. It can either be healthy (positive representations of women and minorities) or unhealthy (representations that reinforce “power structures”). It empowers or silences. A work of art is better or worse in accordance with whether or not it serves “the interests of the marginalized” — the skill, the craftsmanship, the care that the artist exhibits in creating an aesthetic experience only attains importance in its effectiveness in advancing the political message.

Let me state from the outset that this is an outstanding essay. I wholeheartedly endorse it. But rather than excerpt any number of other sections, only to chime in with a simple "Hear, hear," I'm focusing on this one because disagreements often stimulate more interesting thoughts.

"Neoliberal" is one of those words that I've come to hate. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with it — it's just that in most social media contexts, it's an empty leftist epithet. It tells you more about the writer than the target. When I see someone complaining about neoliberalism, it's often a safe bet that they're motivated by a nostalgic or futuristic vision of social democracy, and I have limited patience with either. Yes, yes; sometime in the 1970s, we were banished from the Garden of Welfare Statism, and since then, we've been wandering the shopping malls and suburbs like the accursed descendants of Cain. As myths go, this one isn't very profound.

In this instance, Walker has written an essay championing the power and necessity of culture against those who would subordinate it to politics. Immediately, then, you may think: what's specifically "neoliberal" about that mentality? Haven't there been plenty of leftist totalitarian states, to name an obvious example, who forced artists to conform to a party line? Clearly, they weren't motivated by an anti-government, pro-free-market ideology. The problem is that within that term, he's conflating two different enemies of culture. Let's call them consumers and philistines.

The bourgeoisie have been an object of aristocratic and artistic scorn for centuries. Derided as self-centered, acquisitive and shallow, they are the types who look at great art and ask, "What's in it for me as I am right now?" Rather than a portal transporting them to a wider perspective beyond their petty concerns, art becomes a mirror reflecting their own perspective right back at them, reinforcing what was already there. The secondary effects of familiarity with high culture, such as increased status, are what interest them. Religion, another means of transcending one's selfish short-sightedness through grappling with the inherited wisdom of millennia, is likewise transformed by a grasping consumerist mentality into the "spiritual-not-religious" identity, where, coincidentally enough, it turns out that your pure, untutored heart has always contained the only wisdom you ever need, and all sorts of exotic belief systems from around the world have been preaching a version of Western, middle-class, twenty-first century ethics all this time. Wherever they go, there they are, indeed.

The philistines, by contrast, do care about something greater than themselves. They just happen, in this case, to care more about politics than culture. Fixing society's problems takes precedence over artistic consolation and contemplation. Even pop culture is too important to be left to individual choice — we don't have to look far at all to find yet another philistine insisting that the most important aspect of popular novels and music is the race and gender of the artist. Subjective discussions of taste and quality are replaced by the ersatz objectivity of mathematical ratios — artists should be promoted or devalued depending on whether doing so helps to rectify past injustices, to even the aggregate score in the assumed competition between races and genders. Art and culture are merely tools to help achieve political goals; they're too dangerous, too trickster-like, to be handled without supervision. These seem to be the people Walker primarily has in mind — those whose moral fervor on behalf of social justice can be intimidating to proponents of "mere" aesthetics.

A different perspective might be what's sometimes called a "tragic" vision. This is one I endorse. From this perspective, life always defies our expectations and best efforts, good things are inherently fragile, and the consolations of art and culture are the closest we ever get to heaven. They are not progressive or cumulative — great art expresses timeless truth and sublime beauty in the most skillful way, but great artists don't "improve" on their predecessors any more than one mountain peak "improves" on the previous one. Mountains and artists aren't "going" anywhere in a progressive manner; they're just climbing higher than anything else around them and bringing a little bit of heaven within reach, before sloping down into the valley of everyday existence again. The cycle goes on, heedless of individual desires or teleological fantasies, rewarding those capable of appreciating something beyond immediate gratification or agitprop.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

To the Ten Thousand Things

Linji Yixuan, founder of a school of Ch'an Buddhism in 9th-century China, was said to have scornfully dismissed Buddhist terms such as "Bodhi" and "Nirvana" as stakes for tethering donkeys. In reading Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Café, I found myself wishing that the prominent figures in phenomenology and existentialism, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre, had studied under a similar instructor who might have imparted a sense of skepticism toward the possibility of capturing the essence of experience in words like "Being" and "Authenticity", or, as in the case of Heidegger, torturous compound German phrases.

Bakewell's previous book, an unconventional biography of Montaigne, was a treasure. I was eagerly anticipating this one as a result, especially given that I have become increasingly convinced that I am the victim of a hypnotist's lingering prank, one in which I was rendered incapable of remembering the slightest interesting thing about Heidegger's philosophy within mere minutes of having finished reading about him. If anyone could help me understand why this man is worth my time and attention, Bakewell could.

As it happens, I can't say I'm any closer to a desire to read Being and Time, though that's no fault of Bakewell's. As a character-driven summary, rather than a dense philosophical history, the story of this group of thinkers is indeed absorbing. It begins with Husserl's slogan, "To the things themselves!" As Bakewell explains:

It meant: don't waste time on the interpretations that accrue upon things, and especially don't waste time wondering whether the things are real. Just look at this that's presenting itself to you, whatever this may be, and describe it as precisely as possible.

There is at least a superficial similarity to Zen philosophy here, but in practice, the phenomenologist project appears more like an attempt to greedily attend to the quotidian details of experience in a possessive manner. I once heard a metaphorical description of conscious awareness as a thin penlight being used to search within a darkened warehouse. Bakewell's paraphrases of the original material, however lucid, seem to me to describe an attempt to shove as much experience as possible out of the shadows, into that narrow beam of light.

At this point, it becomes curious to note that Charles Darwin is mentioned only once in passing. Not that he should have played a role in Bakewell's story, of course, but his absence in the thought of her subjects, nearly a century after his discoveries, seems significant (for that matter, one might think Kant's criticisms of empiricism, a half-century before Darwin, should have likewise tempered the urge to wallow in the deluge of sensory stimuli). Evolution did not mold the human brain as a truth-seeking machine. Like all other evolved beings, we adapted to our environments at a cultural snail's pace, according to our most pressing needs. The fact that we ruthlessly filter our experience along established patterns and ignore most things which seem irrelevant to our needs and interests is evidence of our minds working in the most efficient manner possible within their enforced constraints, rather than evidence of a moral or intellectual failing. Subjecting our experiences to hyper-focused scrutiny is something that can only be done in short bursts — the cognitive burden is too taxing. Is the effort worth it, though? Will sustained attention to this, whatever this may be, burn a hole through the layers of illusion to the authentic truth beneath? I'm skeptical, to say the least.

In his book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, Roger Scruton referred a few times to Sartre's "Satanic" pride (Satanic in the sense of Milton's anti-hero). We see evidence of this here as well, with both Sartre and his partner Beauvoir struggling to accept the necessity of death. As Bakewell says about Sartre, "everything in his personality revolted against being hemmed in by anything at all, least of all by death." Phenomena, of course, will go on after our individual deaths; countless living beings will partake of the same experiences that we have had. What offends Sartre's immense pride is the fact that death means "I" can no longer hoard one particular collection of memories as "mine". I found it unexpectedly poignant to consider this particular tragic flaw, especially as there were so many others of his that failed to inspire much sympathy.

That said, I consider it a notable accomplishment that I found myself in near-agreement with Bakewell when she confesses coming to respect and even like Sartre, despite disagreeing with much of his philosophy and acknowledging his "monstrous" nature. For me, it was more a feeling of grudging acceptance for someone attempting to think his way through one of the darkest, most turbulent times in history, when it was very easy to make wrong choices. My general revulsion for Sartre as a man was tempered by being reminded of his concept of bad faith, one which has become increasingly central to my own thinking. Passages like this —

All these devices work because they allow us to pretend that we are not free. We know very well that we can always reset the alarm clock or disable the software, but we arrange things so that this option does not seem readily available. If we didn't resort to such tricks, we would have to deal with the whole vast scope of our freedom at every instant, and that would make life extremely difficult. Most of us therefore keep ourselves entangled in all kinds of subtle ways throughout the day.

Or this —

For Sartre, we show bad faith whenever we portray ourselves as passive creations of our race, class, job, history, nation, family, heredity, childhood influences, events, or even hidden drives in our subconscious which we claim are out of our control. 

— stir my blood and quicken my pulse, just like when I first discovered existentialism in philosophy class many years ago. We could do with a lot more emphasis on "radical freedom" in our own time, when the urge to shrug off the burden of our own agency is as tempting as ever, especially when encouraged by the latest theories in sociology and neuroscience. All in all, a satisfying read, even if Heidegger is destined to remain opaque to me.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

This Land Was Made for You and Me

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land:

The kind of society where trust is widespread is likely to be fairly compact and quite homogenous. The most developed and successful welfare states of Europe are Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria with Germany as an interesting outlier. Most of these countries have very small populations: of the Scandinavian lands only Sweden tops 6 million inhabitants and between them all they comprise less people than Tokyo.

...But it is not just a question of size. Like New Zealand, another small country (pop. 4.2. million, even smaller than Norway) that has succeeded in maintaining a high level of civic trust, the successful welfare states of northern Europe were remarkably homogenous.

...Size and homogeneity are of course not transferable. There is no way for India or the USA to become Austria or Norway, and in their purest form the social democratic welfare states of Europe are simply non-exportable.

It was strange, I thought, that Judt brought this up in the middle of his book and then just...went back to nostalgically lamenting the loss of mid-twentieth-century American civic spirit without attempting to suggest how, indeed, a renewed vision for social democracy might surmount this formidable obstacle. I don't mean to imply a necessity for the sort of cheap "call to action" that books like this typically end with, of course. American society will continue to evolve and redefine itself while paying no heed to the manifestos, blueprints or theories of intellectuals, which exist primarily to give other intellectuals something to chatter about. But assuming that most readers are coming to this book already sympathetic to Judt's perspective, perhaps it would have been more useful for them to be confronted with harder questions about their own complicity — for instance, what does it say that those on the left who would love to see the United States transform into a social democracy are the same people who, through their dogmatic adherence to multiculturalism and the ethnic balkanization of identity politics, have done the most to undermine the possibility of a civic ethos capable of transcending the heterogeneity of over three hundred million people? If religion is a superstitious relic of a benighted age, and earnest talk about the civic creed of the American Dream only brings a cynical sneer in return, where are we to find the resources to develop the sort of cosmopolitan neighbor-love that Judt pined for? The question is never raised in these pages, and so we can only continue to wonder.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

I Just Like Being My Own Solar System. Doing Good Things but Then Total-Eclipse Them

Emma C. Wiliams:

At primary school, I rarely played with other children. For me, playtime usually meant a walk around the edges of the playground, observing others and thinking to myself.

There were lots of reasons why I found it difficult to connect with my childhood peers, none of them particularly interesting or unusual, but I do sometimes wonder whether my early experiences have defined my temperament; I’ve never been much of a joiner, and I find many people frankly depressing.

...Experience has certainly taught me that being part of a group is not in my nature, and broadly speaking I am proud of the fact that I won’t play ball for the sake of staying on the team. It may not be my most attractive quality, but it’s the one that will drive me to raise the alarm whilst everyone else stays silent; it also makes me the kid who will shout that the emperor’s got no clothes on.

For obvious reasons, perhaps, I consider my lifelong aversion to casual companionship the most fundamentally defining feature of my personality. The most significant currents in my character, both positive and negative, trace back to this wellspring. Sometimes this trait can indeed lead to original perspectives and intellectual independence. At other times, it can make me sound like an adolescent cliché of self-regard and sour grapes, like a Pinterest image of a Nietzschean aphorism overlaying a Caspar David Friedrich painting.

The philosopher George Carlin, expanding on his predecessor Aristotle's idea of the Golden Mean, once theorized that everyone who drives slower than you is a moron, and everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac. Both of these great men were identifying something that is probably inherent in our neurology itself. Buoyant as cork, our ability to always portray ourselves as the sane, reasonable individual surrounded by mindless fanatics can never be submerged by self-doubt. And yet, we can all look back and recognize many instances in which we were embarrassingly wrong, times when we were the morons or the maniacs, without disturbing this narrative. There have been episodes in my life where my isolato nature has given me insights that many others seem to miss. But there were also times when a wiser friend or family member could have saved me a lot of unnecessary trial and error, had I only been willing to ask questions and listen.

Like everything else, a solitary nature is neither good nor bad in itself; unfortunately, it does not present a shortcut to truth, integrity and enlightenment. Its seductive self-image may even become one more false idol to be jettisoned during the search for wisdom.