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


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.