Sunday, December 31, 2017

Noteworthies (29)

• David Marcus, "It’s Not Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Fault White Liberals Have Anointed Him Their Prophet" (and related, Loury and McWhorter)

• Justin Stover, "There Is No Case for the Humanities"

• A conversation with Robert P. Waxler, "Literature as Counterculture"

• Mark Forsyth, "Kalsarikännit"

• Stephen Lovell, "The Great Error"

• Interview with Francis O'Gorman, "The Perils of Forgetting"

• Toril Moi, "Describing My Struggle"

The good old days.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 26

Nothing should so much shrivel our self-satisfaction as realizing that what we once approved of we now disparage.

— La Rochefoucauld, Maxims

Even in adolescence, I noticed that I frequently had a sense of outgrowing friends. People who used to seem fascinating or attractive came to seem boring, or even annoying. And even then, I wondered if this was a character flaw. Was I too superficial, impatient, unforgiving, or restless? Am I some kind of vampire taking what I need from people before tossing them aside? Yet, in most ways, I'm a creature of utterly predictable routine and habit. Why would I be any different in my personal relationships? But still, to this day, the pattern appears even in my intellectual relationships with writers and thinkers. Inspiration often decays into irritation; flaws come to overshadow virtues. Perhaps, like Diogenes, I'm wandering around with a lantern searching for honesty and integrity. Or perhaps, also like Diogenes, I'm only doing so ironically, to bring heroes down to my lowly level.

Nietzsche wrote a beautiful — and perhaps self-serving — aphorism about outgrowing beautiful things in the course of a relentless search for truth. The cork-like buoyancy of our self-regard keeps us from drowning in doubts, so it's easy to rationalize our former enthusiasms away as necessary steps on the path to wisdom. Perhaps we have very high standards. But what if we're simply selfish and easily bored?

Friday, December 29, 2017

Children of the Grave

Farah Mohammed:

Yet, a popular question today is whether blogs still have any relevance. A quick Google search will yield suggested results, “are blogs still relevant 2016,” “are blogs still relevant 2017,” and “is blogging dead.”

...Today, writers lament the irrelevance of blogs not just because there’s too many of them; but because not enough people are engaging with even the more popular ones. Blogs are still important to those invested in their specific subjects, but not to a more general audience, who are more likely to turn to Twitter or Facebook for a quick news fix or take on current events.

Explains author Gina Bianchini as she advises not starting a blog, “2017 is a very different world than 2007. Today is noisier and people’s attention spans shorter than any other time in history…and things are only getting worse. Facebook counts a ‘view’ as 1.7 seconds and we have 84,600 of those in a day. Your new blog isn’t equipped to compete in this new attention-deficit-disorder Thunderdome.”

Suits me fine. Hermits have long been known for dwelling among ruins, or meditating in cemeteries. As my copy of the Tao Te Ching says:

The people of the world excitedly run about as if they were going to miss the yearly, royal, sacrificial feast, or as if they were going to be the last one to climb a high tower on a beautiful spring day.
I alone remain quiet and indifferent.
I anchor my being to that which existed before Heaven and Earth were formed.
I alone am innocent and unknowing, like a newborn babe.
Unoccupied by worldly cares, I move forward to nowhere.
The people of the world have more than enough.
I alone appear to have nothing.
The people of the world appear shrewd and wise.
I alone look foolish.
I like to be forgotten by the world and left alone.

If only it were true, though. I'm reminded of a Suicidal Tendencies lyric: "Why should they be resting so peacefully when we're up above in pure misery?" With regard to the dearly departed, it's terribly difficult to pay your respects when all these graverobbers keep disinterring the supposedly-irrelevant corpse for their deviant necrophilic purposes.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Oops, I Did It Again

I got enough money to order fourteen books, plus a friend gave me one unexpectedly. Now I get the extended pleasure of looking forward to the mail each day for the next few weeks. I hope your Christmas was as merry as mine.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Noteworthies (28)

• Claire Berlinski, "The Warlock Hunt"

• Chris Martin, "An Interview With John McWhorter About Politics and Protest"

• Douglas Dalrymple, "Eiseley on the Moon" (I'm assuming he's still using his former pen name. His original site, The New Psalmanazar, was my favorite blog of recent years, and I'm pleased to find that he's back with a new one.)

• William Buckner, "Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer"

• Jonathan Haidt, "The Age of Outrage"

• Fred Baumann, "Can Fairness Make a Comeback?"

• Costica Bradatan, "Philosophy Needs a New Definition"

Hear, hear.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Holiday, Holiday; I Declare a Holiday

Guinevere de la Mare:

Thus begins the Icelandic tradition of jólabókaflóð. What is jólabókaflóð? Jólabókaflóð, or “Yule Book Flood,” originated during World War II when foreign imports were restricted, but paper was cheap. Iceland’s population was not large enough to support a year-round publishing industry, so book publishers flooded the market with new titles in the final weeks of the year. While giving books is not unique to Iceland, the tradition of exchanging books on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading, is becoming a cultural phenomenon. In recent years the meme has spread on social media, and bookworms around the world are cottoning on to the idea.

The Lady of the House read about this the other day, but added the caveat that several Icelanders on her social media feed were saying either that they hadn't ever heard of it, or that it wasn't quite the thing that people were making it out to be. To which I say, since when do we care about the literal truth of holidays? Like all myths, this clearly expresses a higher truth beyond mere factuality — namely, in this instance, that it would be good and holy for people to give me lots of books on Christmas Eve. I might be able to make a suggestion or twenty if you need help choosing.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 25

It was as if de Gaulle's bursts of eloquence required long periods of silence to recharge his energies and store up more words, or perhaps he had decided that if he could not speak in poetry, he would rather not speak at all...He was silent or silver-tongued, nothing in between. It was maddening and magnetic, this refusal to make the most cursory effort at small talk and then to speak, on his own terms, so beautifully.

— Joe Moran, Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness

In both speaking and writing, I, too, tend to be parsimonious. As far back as I can remember, I have always preferred to err on the side of silence, as if words were a finite resource which must be vigilantly conserved. On the page, at least, I think I can occasionally muster up a burst of eloquence. Unfortunately, I have yet to speak in sonnets. Too often, my conversation resembles the most shapeless free verse. At best, I might produce a clever couplet.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 24

[T]he code of life of the High Middle Ages said something entirely opposite to this: that it was precisely lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure, that went together with idleness; that the restlessness of work-for-work's-sake arose from nothing other than idleness. There is a curious connection in the fact that the restlessness of a self-destructive work-fanaticism should take its rise from the absence of a will to accomplish something... Acedia is the "despair of weakness," of which Kierkegaard said, that it consists in someone "despairingly" not wanting "to be oneself." The metaphysical-theological concept of idleness means, then, that man finally does not agree with his own existence; that behind all his energetic activity, he is not at one with himself; that, as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness has seized him in the face of the divine Goodness that lives within him — and this sadness is that "sadness of the world," (tristitia saeculi) spoken of in the Bible.

...The opposite of acedia is not the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living, but rather the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God — of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action, which would never be confused by anyone with any experience with the narrow activity of the "workaholic."

— Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture

Philosophers dating back to Plato and Aristotle have expressed contempt for manual labor and those who work for a living. But for those of us who aren't slaveowners or members of the landed aristocracy, we unfortunately have to settle for a more anemic form of leisure —  a few minutes of quiet and privacy during the day, a short walk in the evening, an hour's reading before bed. If we want true leisure, we don't have the option to avoid industriousness; we can only choose frugality. The less you owe and need, the harder for the creditors and bosses to catch you by the short hairs. I work entirely for myself now, and while this is an incredibly busy time of year, leaving little in the way of free time, I find it much easier to cheerfully affirm my existence when I don't have to worry about the wolf at the door.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Noteworthies (27)

• Brian Smith, "Walker Percy and the Politics of Deranged Times"

• Andrew Ferguson, "To Be Sure, Nazis Are Evil"

• The New Criterion, "Is Civilization Overrated?"

• Ben Sixsmith, "In Defense of Right-Wing Intellectuals"

• Roger Kimball, "Raymond Aron"

• Frank Furedi, "The Hidden History of Identity Politics" (if you're like me, you're sick of hearing the very phrase I— P—, but this is a really good overview of the history and content of identitarian thinking.)

• Brendan O'Neill, "Black Privilege"

• Joanna Williams, "We Are More Than Our Gender"

• Scott Alexander, "Against Overgendering Harassment"

Monday, December 4, 2017

My Greed Is a Flame

John Lukacs:

Books will always exist.  Jefferson’s category of the educated minority, on whose existence the prospects of civilized mankind depend, is no longer enough.  To educated we need to add interested.  The very impulse of human attention depends on human interest, a quality often involved with humility, with our capacity of seeing beyond ourselves.  This awareness sometimes issues from reading.

Interest may just as well be involved with greed, as Nietzsche noted:

“Oh, my greed! There is no selflessness in my soul but only an all-coveting self that would like to appropriate many individuals as so many additional pairs and eyes and hands – a self that would like to bring back the whole past, too, and that will not lose anything that it could possibly possess. Oh, my greed is a flame! Oh, that I might be reborn in a hundred beings!” – Whoever does not know this sigh from firsthand experience does not know the passion of the search for knowledge.

The Lady of the House and I were traveling on business over the weekend, and during some free time in between engagements, we went foraging for victuals and found ourselves strolling through a gigantic mall which contained a two-story Barnes & Noble. I was doing fine until I got to the philosophy section, where I found a few books which have been on my Amazon wish list for a while, plus a few previously-unknown others which caught my interest.

Nothing else has this kind of pull over me. I know full well that I can have all these books for half the price if I just wait and buy wisely online, and I know equally well that I already have, uh — ::checks Goodreads, blushes, clears throat:: — 38 books waiting to be read, but lord-o-lord, it was a mighty struggle against the temptation to damn frugality and steam full speed ahead to the register with probably $200 worth of titles under my arm, just for the thrill of having them all right there in a bag. It honestly caused me psychic pain to have to walk away empty-handed. This is the only setting in which I have to beware the onset of temporary consumer madness like that. Plug my ears or tie me to the mast, Lady, the sirens are singing to me again!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Unhappy Ever After In the Marketplace

Charlotte Lieberman:

The quest for authenticity is ostensibly born out of a desire to resist mass-produced capitalism, yet the pervasiveness of this desire means countercultural trends are rapidly appropriated by the mainstream. In The Authenticity Hoax, Potter concludes that we need to “come to terms with modernity” by recognizing liberal democracy and the market economy as givens, but I’m not so sure.

If we choose to see only the aesthetic virtue of nostalgia, ignoring its ideological dimensions, we participate in an inhospitable value system that excludes, well, most people. When we buy into a trend like eco-tourism, for example, we’re not just glorifying living without electricity and with daily meditation, we’re consuming an ideological system. As Slavoj Žižek argues: “When we buy a cappuccino from Starbucks, we also buy quite a lot of ideology… ‘Yes, our cappuccino is more expensive than others,’ but then comes the story. ‘We give 1% of all our income to Guatemalan children to keep them healthy… [or] some Saharan farmers, or to save the forest, to enable organic growing for coffee, or whatever or whatever…. Starbucks enables you to be consumerist without any bad conscience because the price for the countermeasure of fighting consumerism is already included into the price of a commodity.” This absolves us of guilt but ensures that consumerism continues.

Žižek refers to this model as “the ultimate form of consumerism”—selling redemption as part of the price of consumption, both literally and figuratively. But if we make peace with liberal democracy, the market economy, and blindly embrace Starbucks’ clever business model as a convenient way to find meaning outside the consumerist machine, we threaten the rigor with which we might define social progress. If we regard “authentic” consumer choices as an outlet for self-expression reflecting a commitment to personal beliefs, we displace useful energy from serious issues to the personal performance of “politics.” And with politics in scare quotes, the threat to progress becomes a real—dare I say authentic—object of fear.

In Kristian Niemietz's Biercean-style definition, "consumerism" is the stuff that other people buy. In addition to being witty, this also accurately identifies the status competition that is the mechanism at work in these dime-a-dozen Marxish critiques. Lieberman, you see, is here to tell you that your Tiny Houses and farm-to-table-restaurants aren't truly threatening to the capitalist status quo — apparently, any innovation which isn't instantly and equally available to all without exception only perpetuates privilege and inequality, and clearly, any progressive improvements which leave the fundamentals of a market economy intact are fraudulent. Or, to go ahead and put too fine a point on it, she's doing a rarefied version of what she's complaining about — competing against rivals to sell a positional good. She's an apex predator in the circle of performative consumer life.

It might surprise her to find that Spiked magazine, which represents a British libertarian/classical liberal perspective, is also enamored of this line of criticism — see here for a typical example which I happen to remember off the top of my head. This bipartisan consensus ought to alert us to the common denominator of human nature at work here, namely, the desire to position myself as cooler, more fashionable, more in-the-know than you, however irrelevant that may be in the world of functioning, practical adults. But I suppose when you've spent grad school studying turgid windbags like Adorno, Horkheimer and Zizek, only to end up paying the bills by writing for such radical journals as Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, and Marie Claire, you'll seize any chance you can to feel superior to others.

I especially love that line, "the rigor with which we might define social progress." Oh, might we? Well, I, for one, would love to see what sort of rigorous vision she has. Cynical me, I suspect it's nothing more than vague gesturing in the general direction of some Rousseauvian fantasy in which the compromises and tradeoffs of sociopolitical life are finally transcended. The point is always to complain that other people aren't doing enough to transform the world, not to provide a positive example of your own, which, again, these kinds of reheated left-wing leftovers are incapable of doing anyway. True, increased consumer choice and purchasing power won't make people much more content. But that's because human beings are inherently restless, easily bored, and prone to all sorts of logical and psychological flaws which constantly undermine our own happiness, which itself is an amorphous, moving target. Like any other product, left-wing critique promises more than it could ever deliver, but as long as people get excited by the commercials, they'll keep chasing the illusion. At least it gives people like her a job.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I Got No Time for Hangin' Around Them Kind of Things

From today's Blendle email, truly, one of the pressing issues of our time:



Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Noteworthies (26)

• Patrick J. Deneen,  "The Tragedy of Liberalism"

• Uri Harris, "Wilfrid Laurier and the Creep of Critical Theory"

• Scott Alexander, "Contra Robinson on Public Food"

• Damon Linker, "Liberals' Clueless Crusade Against Far-right Extremists"

• Noah Rothman, "The Nazi Next Door Is Real—and Unspectacular"

• Alan Jacobs, "Joe Posnanski Wises Up"

• Ed West, "Stop Appeasing Stupidity" — and while we're on that theme, when you weaponize economics and employment in a shortsighted bid for a negligible advantage in the culture wars, it eventually gets turned against you. If only someone could have foreseen, yada yada...

• Matthew Klingle, "Nature Lovers May #OptOutside On Black Friday, But They Consume Resources Year-round"

• Paul Gleason, "The Picture In Her Mind"

Monday, November 27, 2017

What Did You Expect? Talons?

From this morning's Blendle email:



Which calls to mind the famous poem by Leonard Cohen:

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Gratitude

After a little reflection, I came to the conclusion that my dislike of waste arises from a whole approach to life that seems to me crude and wretched. For unthinking waste — and waste on our scale must be unthinking — implies a taking-for-granted, a failure to appreciate: not so much a disenchantment with the world as a failure to be enchanted by it in the first place. To consume without appreciation (which is what waste means) is analogous to the fault of which Sherlock Holmes accused Doctor Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia: You see, but you do not observe.

...Attention to and gratitude for socks is not a commonly expressed attitude. And yet I cannot help but think that this habit of throwing things away the moment they become defective leads to an unpleasantly disabused attitude to life. Computers, washing machines, televisions, refrigerators, clothes, out they all go the moment they break down or require repair. I know it is a tribute to our immense productivity that it is far cheaper to obtain a new machine than to repair the old, but in a world where everything is so replaceable, what affection or gratitude develops for anything? What do we notice and appreciate if everything is instantly replaceable?

...I suppose that what I would like is an abundance that everyone appreciated and did not take for granted. This would require that everyone was aware that things could be different from how they actually are, an awareness that is increasingly difficult to achieve.

— Theodore Dalrymple, "Attitude or Gratitude?," Farewell Fear

I have a distinct memory of being fifteen years old and going with my mom to an office-supply store, where she let me get a cool pen. I remember being aware that the novelty of this pen would be a small but genuine pleasure over the following few days, and I also remember thinking that this was the sort of thing that was considered silly, and that I should keep it to myself. Like socks, being grateful and happy about something as ordinary as a pen was lame and uncool, especially for a teenager. Over the years, though, I've secretly retained sentimental attachments to all sorts of humble objects, from clothing to electronics, which had long since outlived their "usefulness" by usual standards.

I recently read Robert Samuelson's excellent book, The Good Life and its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement. In brief, he argued that Americans in the postwar era had come to believe in a teleological vision of life which took for granted a constant upward trajectory of both material and psychological improvement, and that our post-'60s malaise was primarily due to our inability to understand that this was always a chimera. The pursuit of ever-increasing affluence and convenience eventually produces diminishing returns. People who expect perfection will inevitably be disappointed, and our disappointment has led to several decades of fault-finding and finger-pointing as we attempt to pinpoint who or what is to blame for depriving us of our birthright. We still haven't gotten to the point of questioning whether we ever had any good reason, let alone right, to expect it. As Louis C.K. said in a popular routine of his, "everything's amazing and nobody's happy." All we can think about is what we feel was owed to us and wrongly withheld, no matter how much we already have.

Epictetus famously advised that if we are fond of a ceramic cup, we should remind ourselves that it is only ceramic cups in general that we care about, so that we won't be bothered if this particular one breaks. He applied the same logic to spouses and children, too, a conclusion to which very few people would follow him. Still, even if we keep this line of thought confined to cups (and pens), I feel that the cure is worse than the disease here. The contingencies which make us feel insecure also allow us to feel gratitude if we choose to look at it from that perspective. The fact that all enchanting things will eventually be lost and turn to dust is the very reason why we should be appreciative of having them at all, rather than cursing our inability to possess and control them forever. I wasn't guaranteed any of this. It could so easily have been different. But it's here for now, and that's enough. I'm thankful for all of it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Noteworthies (25)

• Dead Philosophers in Heaven, "The Rand Scheme of Things"

• Damon Linker, "America's Age of Erasure", and related, Tom Slater, "Louis C.K. and the Rise of Sexual Stalinism"

Yep, pretty much.

• Margret Schaefer, "The Wizardry of Freud"

I'm a chauvinistic presentist.

• Warren Treadgold, "The Death of Scholarship"

• Dominic Green, "The Philosopher's Farm"

• Jesse Singal, "There Have Been So Many Bad Lefty Free-Speech Takes Lately" (nitpicks offered by Charles Cooke and Alan Jacobs)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The We In Me


Five? Tell you what, I'll do my best to keep it under twenty.

1. Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes; Gary Larson, The Complete Far Side

Comic strips, however brilliant they are, don't "influence" us in a didactic way. Nonetheless, there's no denying that these two masters of the form have shaped the way I see and think about the world, even if I couldn't pinpoint how they did it. All I know is that more than two decades after they both retired, I still constantly recall their work in response to all sorts of experiences. If I wanted to look impressive, I'd claim that studying existentialism and reading Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Camus taught me about the absurdity of life, but honestly, Larson had already done that, and his version at least was hilarious — none of the morbid, angsty ennui necessary to mark one as a deep, serious thinker. Yes, life is often a senseless, twisted joke, but you can still laugh about it.

As an adult, on an intellectual level, I'm in awe of the unshakable confidence and self-assurance Watterson had to fight for his artistic vision, even to the point of refusing marketing deals that would have garnered him hundreds of millions of dollars. I suppose I could name him as an influence based on that alone. But purity of idealism aside, Calvin & Hobbes ultimately represents the childlike enthusiasm of imagination, presented sophisticatedly enough for adults to enjoy.

2. Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Lila

We talked often about Zen... in Philosophy 101, so I bought my own copy shortly after that semester. As it happened, Lila was published only a few months later, and I bought that too. Both of these inspired my first attempts to philosophize, in my ungainly, adolescent way. I was already delighting in the effort of grappling with the big questions of life, however easily they were able to pin me down in those days.

3. Alan Watts, Buddhism: the Religion of No Religion; Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking; The Philosophies of Asia; The Culture of Counter-culture


There's no point in trying to define "Buddhism" in a rigorous way. I'll just say that as a quadragenarian American, the version of this ancient, constantly-morphing philosophy that resonates with me is the one promulgated and practiced by other Anglo-American Westerners. Steve Hagen, Stephen Batchelor, and Brad Warner are all favorites of mine, but in this case, Alan Watts is far and away the biggest influence I can name. He wrote more than twenty-five books in his lifetime, and his son Mark has compiled a similar number since then from his notes and lectures. All of them, especially the lectures, orbit the same themes of "Eastern philosophy and religion," if we must give it a label, so no matter where you start, you'll find something rewarding. These four were all published around the same time, so I don't recall which one of them I technically picked up first.

Watts "solved" the problem of religion, atheism, and metaphysics for me, not in a logical, argumentative way, but by giving me such a clear, different perspective on the whole argument that it just lost all relevance, like a balloon being deflated. It was as if I had been worrying for years over whether colorless green ideas slept furiously or not, and he came along and cheerfully disentangled the conceptual knot my thoughts were in. Twenty years after discovering him, his writing remains as fresh and stimulating as ever — I say this having just the other day finished the most recent of his/Mark's posthumous books. There are certain ideas I learned from him, but most of all, he is for me one of those rare authors who completely change the way you see the world. Many authors will rearrange your mental furniture; he shifted the entire foundations of my house.

4. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols/The Antichrist

I bought this shortly after encountering him in philosophy class as a callow teenager, though it would be years before I'd have enough contextual understanding of his thinking to get the most out of it. Where would I even begin? What about him, exactly, has influenced me so much? The exquisite prose, in which it's impossible to tell where philosophy ends and poetry begins? The revolutionary use of brilliant aphorisms as opposed to long, dry, scholarly arguments ("It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book — what everyone else does not say in a book.")? Even the famous, dangerous ideas themselves — the will to power; the Overman; the anti-Christianity, anti-pity preaching; master vs. slave morality — are less important than the effect of thinking through them in his company. I disagree with the particular content of his thoughts often, but never will disagreement be so useful and productive as in in the presence of such a mind. And while the development of his thought almost requires a reader to engage with it as an organic whole, rather than as a Whitman's sampler, I might still name Daybreak as my slight favorite of all his books, if I were forced to choose one. As risky as it is to try to identify a center of gravity in his thinking, this one seems to capture something like his essence, in my opinion.

5. Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism; Against the Current; The Crooked Timber of Humanity; Three Critics of the Enlightenment

Berlin wrote very little during his lifetime with an eye toward publication; Henry Hardy did the heroic work of collating his voluminous notes and lectures into book form, published in multiple volumes by Princeton University Press. Again, I'm not sure which of these four I read first, and I probably bought them all around the same time. Berlin made the "history of ideas" come to scintillating life for me, long before I knew that there even was such a thing in academia. A lifetime spent studying and explaining the historical ground from which influential ideas grew, while tracing the course of their development, seems like the sort of project which could keep one happily occupied for a lifetime. He was probably my first exposure to what I think of as the tragic vision of life, an outlook more commonly associated with conservatism, though Berlin himself was more of a Cold War liberal.

6. Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands

Michael Oakeshott wrote about conservatism as a disposition — a personal inclination to prefer "the familiar to the unknown...the tried to the untried...the limited to the unbounded...the near to the distant, [and] the sufficient to the superabundant." Oakeshott also said that the two things that made for this disposition were a passionate interest outside of politics, and a strong sense of mortality. Check, and check. To this root note, the British philosopher Roger Scruton added a complementary fifth in the form of his paean to conservatism as an attitude of love and gratitude, a love for what actually exists, rather than abstract, utopian fantasies, and as a heartfelt appreciation for people, places, and things, despite, or even because of, their imperfections. This particular book is an updated and revised version of the original, which made Scruton persona non grata in academia when published thirty years earlier. Out of his dozens of books, there are many which elaborate upon his "positive" philosophy, but this one is primarily an attack on the various types of pseudo-radical gibberish and nonsense passing itself off as the liberal arts these last few decades. Unlike most other books about academia written by disgruntled conservatives, though, Scruton goes after the biggest game there is, the celebrity philosophers like Lukács, Althusser, Sartre, Deleuze, Gramsci, Badiou and Zizek, on their own turf. The result is not just a satisfying flensing of the aforementioned charlatans, but a masterclass of witty rhetoric. His devastating metaphors repeatedly made me laugh out loud, no small accomplishment given such a potentially dry topic.

7. Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia

This book made it inarguably clear to me that leftism is an exhausted and hopeless ideology, stuck in a holding pattern for decades, aimlessly going through the radical motions. It was all the more powerful coming from a heterodox leftist.

8. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture

This is a brilliant demonstration of the extent to which virtue-signaling and status competition comprise most left-wing political stances, making them even less effectual than they would otherwise be.

9. Anthony Kronman, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life

I loved this book so much I wrote to Kronman to tell him so, and to my great surprise, he wrote back the very next day, despite being on vacation, to graciously thank me. This book was the first to suggest to me a vision in which individual professors set themselves to the task of being caretakers of beauty and wisdom, as opposed to the research-driven university model which seems ill-suited to a study of the humanities. This vision, which I've since heard echoed by other writers, obviously sounds a few conservative notes without forming an overtly-political marching theme — the attraction here is to the humility, the gratitude toward cultural and intellectual predecessors, the sheer pleasure in an erudite life, rooted in a sensibility which recognizes that the geniuses of the past offer us the best guidance we'll ever have in this imperfect world to satisfactorily answer the question of how we should live. Of course, I'm not a professor, but I try to cultivate this ideal in my own life. Arts and letters are what matter to me, not politics. Culture and art are the things which nourish and sustain us over a lifetime, not rationalism and policy wonkery. It just so happens that the exemplars of the arts-and-letters ideal whom I most respect are nominally "conservative" in the sense that they shun academic radicalism and strive to conserve the best which has been thought and said, in Matthew Arnold's famous phrase, and pass it on to future generations.

10. Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses; Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass

Technically, the first book of Dalrymple's I read was Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy, a bold flouting of the conventional wisdom surrounding the "disease" model of drug addiction, informed by his work as a doctor in prisons, mental hospitals, and the slums of post-industrial England. But these two collections of his essays from his columns in the magazine City Journal deeply impressed me with their elegance and erudition. They changed the way I both read and write, serving as a model for the type of essayist I'd like to become. His own writing often serves as a springboard for my own thoughts, and I can see his influence in my own voice and phrasing sometimes, though I hope to get better at hiding it.

11. John Gray, Straw Dogs


In terms of both style and content, Gray has been one of my biggest influences. The first book of his I read was Black Mass, but this unique, aphoristic work was the one that really seized my attention. Somewhat of a political and philosophical chameleon, one of his recurring themes is a skeptical questioning of moral and political progress. Like his mentor Isaiah Berlin, he elucidates a tragic vision of human existence without being predictably dour or pessimistic. He's one of my favorite people to "think with," even when I disagree.

12. Sam Hamill, Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry; Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God; Robert Haas, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa

Poetry is the music of language. When done well, it provides an almost-religious ecstasy, seeming to somehow penetrate closer to the mysterious heart of things than any straightforward prose can ever do. If I had the ability to express myself in verse, I'd probably never bother writing prose again. And yet, the ROI on reading poetry is pretty poor to me, I must admit. Very few poets, in my experience, have the shamanic ability to consistently venture into mystical realms and return with songs and chants capable of casting a spell on the reader. Sam Hamill, an American Zen Buddhist poet, has done so, especially with his translations of ancient Greek and Chinese masters. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy captured an otherworldly beauty in their translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. In general, though, most poets, even the acknowledged greats, only have a handful of truly magical poems to offer. Still, when it happens, when you find one of those rare gems, it makes all the searching worthwhile. I know nothing about Linda Pastan, but her poem "November" will stay with me my whole life. Humble as it may seem, for what it expresses, it's perfect.

Once again, it's hard to articulate how poetry "influences" me in a way that a well-written, informative non-fiction book doesn't. I can only repeat: at its best, poetry puts the reader in touch with something deeper, more essential, about life, something that changes the way life feels. It resonates like wisdom, not information.

13. Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

I had already read Montaigne's Essays, but Bakewell's wonderful biography humanized him and brought him vividly to life as a role model, in both character and literature.

14. Shelby Steele, The Content of Our Character

Steele's books present a compelling psychological conservatism, if I can call it that. His nuanced and penetrating observations on the state of race relations and racial awareness are unlike anything you typically hear in the clichés of punditry.

15. Jeremy Campbell, The Liar's Tale

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche taunted moralists with the suggestion that "it might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things — maybe even one with them in essence." In this book, Campbell sets out on a fascinating exploration of the countless ways in which deception, dishonesty and ignorance are inextricably intertwined with the noble elements of life, from the lowly biological level all the way up to the rarefied life of culture and the intellect. Falsehood is an integral element of existence.

16. David Berreby, Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind

A salutary reminder that the absolute easiest thing for human beings to do is divide up into groups and go to war with other groups over even the flimsiest reasons, and the hardest thing is to retain intellectual and moral integrity when tribal loyalty comes calling.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Reinventing the Wheel

Sarah Perez:

Twitter confirms it’s testing a feature that allows users to more easily create “tweetstorms” – those series of connected tweets that have grown to be a popular workaround for Twitter’s character count limitations. The feature, which was recently spotted in the wild, offers a new interface for composing tweets, where individual tweetstorm entries can be written one-by-one then published to Twitter in a staggered fashion with a press of a “Tweet All” button.

If only there were some sort of social media platform where users could write as many words as they want, and then press "Publish" to "post" these word-collections to the web all at once, where they can be accessed at an individual URL. Maybe a series of word-collections could even be chronologically stored in the form of a ship's "log" — but on the web. A "web log," if you will. I'm not a tech titan, of course, so I have no idea what sort of sorcery would be necessary for something like that to happen. Just the idle, science-fiction musings of a foolish dreamer.

You have to grudgingly respect the marketing, though — spend years telling people that the old product is dead and uncool, and then sell it to them again in new packaging.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Words Are Meaningless and Forgettable

Bethany Mandel:

I tweet too much; I know that not just because of the sheer number of these short messages I’ve sent, but also because I’ve noticed over the last few years that I form thoughts in 140-character bursts. I think in tweets.


Then, suddenly this week, everyone was granted 280 characters, and we were left with screens filled with huge blocks of text instead of a few sentences. Few users are happy about the change, and more than a handful warn that it could render the social media service unusable.


Learning how to write in 140-character bursts is therefore a job skill for many in journalism, and has almost certainly changed the way writers do their work.


Twitter has changed the way we think and has changed the way we express ourselves, and by expanding to 280 characters, I fear it will become a victim of its own success. Because for all of its benefits, Twitter has also helped shorten our attention spans—which makes us even less willing to read 280-character blocks of text.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Noteworthies (24)

• J. Oliver Conroy, "Get On the Bus or Get Under It: Shouting Down Free Speech at Rutgers"

• M. J. Crockett, "Moral Outrage In the Digital Age"

• Pumpkinrot, "Cuts"

• Brendan O’Neill, "An Anti-Capitalist Is the Most Bourgeois Thing You Can Be"

• Emile Phaneuf, "Sowell's Visions"

• Damon Linker, "The Left's Myopic Obsession With Fairness"

• Justin E.H. Smith, "Notes on Social Media and Autocracy"

• Razib Khan, "The Rising Waters of Human Tribal Nature"

• Kyle Smith, "Feminists’ Bizarre Crusade Against Taylor Swift"

Ahahaha.

You Keep On Dreaming Up a Hundred Different Ways to Cause Hysteria

The Editors:

That brings us to the category of Americans who are almost all on Twitter, Facebook, or both. We’re talking about America’s journalists. It’s a rare news reporter or editor or producer who doesn’t have a Twitter account and doesn’t get a lot of his or her news from these social media platforms. But the world is a big place, full of things and events and people and opinions that aren’t talked about or linked to by the accounts one follows on social media.

It's worth reflecting on periodically — so much of what makes up the national "conversation" we're having at any given moment, especially on the web, is the product of a tiny fraction of media figures, maybe a few hundred of them at most, chattering among themselves. Many of them are currently whining about how terrible it is that Twitter has expanded the character count from 140 to 280, because reading three or four sentences is clearly much more strenuous than reading one or two sentence fragments. And, as we're increasingly learning, much of what they're reacting to is the product of Russian troll farm disinformation anyway. It's worth repeating frequently — why do we allow them to set the tempo, definitions, and boundaries of our thoughts?

Friday, November 10, 2017

You'll Never Do Whatever Common People Do

I should certainly not agree with Mr. Mill's opinion that English people in general are dull, deficient in originality, and as like each other as herrings in a barrel appear to us. Many and many a fisherman, common sailor, workman, laborer, gamekeeper, policeman, non-commissioned officer, servant, and small clerk have I known who were just as distinct from each other, just as original in their own way, just as full of character, as men in a higher rank of life.

For my part I should limit myself to this, that the number of people who are able to carry on anything like a systematic train of thought, or to grasp the bearings of any subject consisting of several parts, is exceedingly small.

— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Fred Siegel's excellent book, The Revolt Against the Masses, examines in detail how early twentieth-century "gentry liberals," following a path blazed by intellectuals like Henry Adams, Herbert Croly, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Randolph Bourne, and H.G. Wells, dropped all pretenses of championing the masses and began affecting scorn for all things middle-class and middlebrow, while pining for a European-style aristocracy of the intellect which would recognize and reward them as the superior, cultured sophisticates they believed themselves to be. A century later, having lost their naïveté and optimism, today's gentry liberals are, if anything, different only by virtue of their bitter, melodramatic self-pity.

Periodically, you'll see thinkpieces lamenting the "diversity" problem of the workplace, a first-world problem if ever there were one. Having worked in less glamorous occupations my entire life, I can assure these monochromatic hand-wringers that their problems would be solved if they were to leave their corporate jobs and go work in retail or manual labor, where they would meet a plethora of characters from all walks of life. But, like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, the gentry's patronizing concern for the objects of their pity would run up against their inclination to disparage their thinking and blame them for all sorts of political problems. Or, rather, like Ivan Karamazov, they would love humankind "at a distance" while being unable to forgive individuals for the fact that they smell unpleasant, that they have stupid faces, or that they once stepped on our feet.

My unusual means of earning a living bring me into regular contact with academics as well as auto parts workers, and my experience leads me to agree with Stephen: many people are interesting and intelligent without being intellectuals, and that's probably not such a bad thing. It's a shame that modern liberalism has spent a century being oblivious to that banal fact.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 23

I've often said that Montaigne is a role model for me, but I didn't realize that an overly-literal Fate would take that to mean that I wanted to develop gallstones at the same age as he developed kidney stones. Yes, I'm back in the hospital this week, waiting to part ways with my gallbladder tomorrow morning. I already knew that I wasn't the writer Montaigne was; now I'm aware that I could never be the equanimous Stoic that he was. No Italian spa waters for me, thanks; I'll choose morphine, heated blankets, wifi, and an adjustable bed while I get caught up on some reading and writing. Only fanatics seek misery for its own sake; pragmatics take things as they are. I'd like to think that ol' Mike wouldn't have been too philosophically attached to suffering to sit here with me and enjoy streaming German soccer games while listening to new music from Beck and LCD Soundsystem.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 22

And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world, which is a matter not just of ideas but also of practices.

— Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

In high school gym class, our teacher encouraged us to run races against someone faster than ourselves in order to improve our time. It certainly worked, though I don't know what the poor kid who was already the fastest was supposed to do to challenge himself.

The title of the book might give you the impression that Jacobs is offering tips on how to control and optimize what goes on inside your head, but really, he spends most of it talking about the structural aspects of thinking, or the environment in which thinking is done. He stresses that thinking for yourself is obviously impossible, and therefore your concern should be to make sure that those you choose to "think with" aren't dragging you down. The entire reason for starting this particular blog, in fact, was to practice a different type of thinking, to avoid "dwelling habitually" among the bad influences of social media, to spend more time "thinking with" the greater perspective and understanding provided by books — who, thankfully, don't complain about being paired up with a laggard like me.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 21

I write on various forms of idiocy now — including the facile left-wing attacks on post-9/11 security measures, the knowledge-crushing banalities of "progressive education," or the charge that policing is shot through with racism. None of them are as tragic, in my view, as the idiocy that brought down the tradition of humanistic learning. The professoriate had been given the greatest luxury society can offer: studying beauty. All that they needed to do to justify that privilege was to help students see why they should fall on bended knee before Aeschylus, Mozart, or Tiepolo, in thanks for lifting us out of our usual stupidity and dullness. Instead, they set themselves up as more important than the literature and art that it was their duty to curate and created a tangle of antihumanistic nonsense that merely licensed students' ignorance.

— Heather Mac Donald, "Down and Out With Paul de Man," Why I Turned Right

I like to joke that I'm a wandering exile from the Republic of Arts and Letters, my beloved homeland which has been laid waste by a hostile army of ideological fanatics. I've mentioned that in an alternate lifetime I might have been a humanities professor at a tiny liberal-arts college. But humor aside, Mac Donald's apt summary here honestly rends my heart a bit at the terrible tragedy of it all, and makes me wonder what might have been had I known then what I know now.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 20

A democratic community enjoying political liberty is only possible when the attachment of the majority of the citizens to political liberty is stronger than their attachment to specific political doctrines. And this is to say that on many controversial issues a certain comparative apathy must prevail among a large part of the population. But apathy cannot appear a virtue to the man who has committed himself to an intellectually elaborated scheme or policy.

In a famous investigation of the politics of the small town of Elmira, New York, in the 1950s, the scholars concerned (Paul Lazarfeld, Bernard Berelson and William McPhee) were at first surprised by the results. The democratic processes had worked very satisfactorily in the town for a very long period. So, on theoretical principles, the researchers expected to find the citizenry well-informed about political issues, with firm and clear-cut opinions. They found, on the contrary, that the majority were fairly ill-informed and fairly apathetic. They concluded, after admirable heart-searching on their own part, that this was the condition for a working democracy. On the other hand, it may be urged that the instability of many of the Greek states was due to the devotion to politics of all concerned...

At any rate, all the major troubles the world has had in our era have been caused by people who have let politics become a mania.

— Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century

Social media is obviously overpopulated by people who have let politics become a mania. It would be easy to conclude, based on that sample, that we are heading for civil war. On the other hand, one could point to the current occupant of the White House as evidence of the demographic power of the ill-informed, or to the percentage of the electorate who don't vote at all as evidence of a healthy apathy. Like an appointment in Samarra, attempting to flee the hell of ignorance may only bring us closer to the hell of zealotry.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Elementary, My Dear Alexander

Scott Alexander:

I don’t know. The whole problem is so strange. For a brief second, modern culture looked at New Atheism, saw itself, and said “Huh, this is really stupid and annoying”. Then it cast New Atheism into the outer darkness while totally failing to generalize that experience to anything else. Why would it do that? Could it happen again? Please can it happen again? Pretty please?

He's wondering why, out of all the intellectual positions that signify membership in the right-thinking elect, atheism should be the only part that became gauche and uncool. Why did progressives decide that atheism was too embarrassing to be associated with, when, say, feminism has done more than enough to scare away all but the most die-hard true believers?

He seems to be overthinking it a bit — I don't think there's much more to it than the fact that New Atheism quickly became associated with "Islamophobia" in the intersectional calculus. The prominent spokesmen for the movement were white Western men, who were perceived to be propagandists for bigotry against victimized Muslims (this was especially the case during the Bush years, when it was briefly fashionable for progressives to be anguished over cruise missiles falling on the Middle East). One of the prominent faces of New Atheism in particular, Christopher Hitchens, was already loathed by the left with that special intensity reserved for traitors, after his attacks on Bill Clinton and his subsequent support for the Iraq War. (To a lesser extent, atheism is also associated with "scientism," which offends the large postmodern contingent of the progressive bloc, where basic biology is seen as a fascist social construction.)

It may be obviously true in the left-wing scheme of things that there is no God and monotheism is cruel and oppressive, but politics always has the final say in these arguments, and left-wing politics currently classifies Muslims as victims in need of protection. It's like rock, paper, scissors, but with race, culture and gender, and the innovation in this version of the game is that the white male Westerner is always in the wrong, no matter who he's playing against.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Sky Would Only Wait Till All My Breath Was Gone

Heather Wilhelm:

In just a few short weeks, on November 8, thousands of Americans in at least nine cities will take to the streets to “scream helplessly at the sky.” You can probably guess the reason: It’s to mark the one-year anniversary of the election of Donald Trump.

To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn't there
That singular command
I do not understand
Bless what there is for being
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?

— W.H. Auden, "Precious Five"

Monday, October 23, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 19


At the end of August, lacking anything new to read, I started re-reading Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad. A few days later, a routine trip to the library ended with me bringing home several new releases. Then, the fall library sale season began. I finally finished Twain over the weekend, but I notice that somehow I have 27 books in the currently-reading pile. An imminent birthday will surely lead to the accrual of another ten or so. Will I be able to finish them all by Christmas, in time to buy another stack? Would it make a difference? Of course not. As Zarathustra sighed, "I recognize my lot. Thus my destiny wants it. Well, I am ready." It's a good life.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Orwell That Ends Well

Nick Slater:

Here’s why: because Orwell is the kind of revolutionary who actually seems like a guy you’d like to be around. He is human: complex, self-critical, and imperfect. He speaks the people’s language, not the People’s Language. He is the symbol of a left that could win, a left that is defined not by its benevolent tech behemoths or diverse corporate boardrooms or slightly-less brutal cops, but by its vision of the world that is genuinely different, a human-sized world where notions of right and wrong are more permissive than they are now (though traditions are still respected), where common sense is once again common (just less racist, sexist, or classist), where ordinary people can work decent jobs and have decent houses and live decent lives. He is perhaps the only thinker, living or dead, whose work could receive a fair hearing from everyone from libertarians to socialists to libertarian socialists. He shows us how to persuade people thoughtfully and lovingly… and how to recognize when there’s no choice but to run for the barricades. His thoughts exist in the quiet, unoccupied spaces that modern society seeks to banish from our minds. Rediscovering how to think like Orwell is the first step toward thinking both critically and kindly, which is itself the first step toward healing this battered world we live in.


Peter Ross:

These days she sees the story differently. Orwell’s novel is “a handbook for now,” she told me, and its central message is, “as young black kids are saying, ‘Stay woke.’ It’s about staying awake, staying rebellious, staying human. We’re in a power struggle to hold on to fact, to say, ‘This is a lie.’ If we keep doing that, we can defeat this.”

...Orwell’s 1984, dark as it is, prefers to regard the human spirit—its capacity to love—as rather a large thing that can endure much. This is perhaps why the book is finding a place in so many American homes. Yes, it is a warning, just as it was in 1949, but it also offers an example and a glint of light.

If there is hope, it lies in the prose.

While I wouldn't go as far as Kristian Niemietz, I'd agree that Orwell is probably not destined to be remembered for much beyond 1984 and Animal Farm, and I say this after having recently read the four volumes of his collected essays, journalism and letters, much of which is still worth reading. Dead in 1950, his whole adult life was dominated by the importance of communism and fascism, which makes much of his output seem unfortunately dated by now. (Yes, I know, the media are endlessly hyping the idea that we're living through the second Weimar era, but that tells us more about their jaded boredom and novelty-seeking than anything else.) And yes, there is quite a bit of special pleading in Orwell's writing about the possibility of a "true" socialism that would somehow avoid the inevitable tyranny. I can forgive that in him, given his early expiration and his writing talent. But it's just plain embarrassing to see Slater, who has both sixty-seven subsequent years of history to learn from and none of Orwell's redeeming facility with the written word to fall back on, desperately grasping at the possibility of an imaginary socialism that has only ever been embodied in isolated individuals, fever dreams of Catalonia notwithstanding. "Current Affairs, publishing mawkish left-wing bodice-rippers that even Spiked would hesitate to touch, since 2015."

The truly interesting thought is whether Orwell's intellectual integrity would have survived disillusionment had he lived long enough to see what became of the socialist experiment. I suspect it might have, but then again, we have a contemporary example in Freddie deBoer of someone who undeniably has the integrity to clearly see the failings of his ideological comrades while still clinging to a strange faith in political miracles, so who knows?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Noteworthies (22)

• John Tinnell, "Tweeting @ Thoreau"

• Theodore Kupfer, "No, George Ciccariello-Maher Doesn’t Believe in Academic Freedom"

• Q&A with Alan Jacobs, "How American Politics Became So Exhausting"

• Heather Mac Donald, "Standing on the Shoulders of Diversocrats"

• John Gray, "Forgetfulness: the Dangers of a Modern Culture That Wages War on its Own Past"

I thought this was too stereotypical to be true. A young British out-and-proud Stalinist who writes for numerous lefty media outlets turns out to be a boorish, borderline rapist who furthermore brags about being a rich kid living in his parents' mansion? It seemed like too much of a desperately contrived plot twist. Until he owned up to it. (Just goes to show the truth of the old saying...)

• What to make of the absurd Ta-Nehisi Coates phenomenon? Oliver Traldi, and Loury & McWhorter.

• Kyle Smith, "Mob Rule In the Book World"

Obiter Dicta, no. 18

Wodehouse understood this. 'Humorists', he wrote towards the end of his life, 'are looked down upon by the intelligentsia.' His work will continue to suffer the fate of so much light comic writing: it will rarely be treated with the seriousness it deserves or the seriousness accorded to many lesser writers. Wodehouse would not be dismayed. For him, the lightness was all.

— Robert McCrum, Wodehouse: A Life

Alan Watts frequently talked about the universe being playful, in the sense that it didn't exist in order to accomplish a goal or prove a point. Song and dance, for example, likewise exist for their own sake. The "point" of a song isn't to arrive at the final note;  the "point" of a dance isn't to arrive at a certain spot on the floor. Wodehouse's writing, to me, is best appreciated as playful in this sense — as a pure delight in the musicality of words, as an appreciation of the inherent silliness of life. His type of silliness is a transcendence of seriousness, not an avoidance of it.

The Bleatings Will Continue Until the Ratios Improve

Roger Clegg:

If Apple thinks having a diversity of life experiences and background is important in assembling a good team, fine, but why use skin color, national origin, and sex as a proxy for how people grew up and what they believe?

It's a rhetorical question, of course. As Charles Cooke accurately notes with regard to a different identitarian uproar, the "endgame" is all that matters, and anyone with intellectual integrity knows this already.

This issue is a perfect example of why I will never call myself a progressive (or liberal, lefty, whatever). First of all, it's a blatant lie. It's a lie that people's thoughts, character and experience can be distilled through their race, gender, or any other trendy sociological marker. It's a lie that manipulating demographic ratios to achieve "proportional" representation in certain fields will do anything other than (temporarily) salve the consciences of guilt-ridden white progressives. It's a lie that the injustices of race, gender, etc. will be eventually transcended by redoubling our fanatical obsession with reducing everything to race, gender, etc.

And most of all, it's not an incidental lie; it's close to the heart of the entire progressive worldview. The Blue Tribe has irrevocably committed itself to this stance for the foreseeable future.

Denise Smith stated a simple and obvious truth, that white people weren't all mass-produced on the same suburban assembly line before being programmed with the same mental operating system. Being a black woman, you might think she possesses impeccable intersectional credentials to say something so banal, but identity politics has always been a form of satrapy, where superficial differences are celebrated as long as white progressives are allowed to remain in charge of deciding who qualifies as deserving of their patronizing attention. The entire rotten edifice of identitarianism is threatened by something so anodyne as an obvious truth, so, no, Smith has to be rebuked and offer an apology, and a devout progressive is required to sacrifice hizzorher intellectual integrity to the gods of the progressive polis.

Those devout progressives console themselves for their cowardly acquiescence to a blatant lie by claiming that such sacrifices are necessary to achieve an eventual greater good. Well, it is true that life presents many tragic choices, where we have to think strategically with limited resources and knowledge, but as Orwell noted when confronted with repeated clichés about "no omelettes without broken eggs," one is entitled to ask where the omelette is at some point.

Unlike Orwell's dramatic rendering of the choice between truth and lies at the conclusion of 1984, though, where Winston Smith is tortured into believing that two and two make five, the acceptance of this particular progressive lie is comparatively painless. It only requires believing yet another lie, namely, the facile assumption that we are wise enough to predict and control the results of our cowardly compromises. Deals with the devil don't require threats of punishment to be accepted. They work by flattering our vanity in precisely that way, by convincing us to believe that there is a "right side of history" to be on, one that will make all our lies and compromises worth it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 17

There are two reasons why it is totally impossible for X to tell the truth about the books he gets. To begin with, the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in him the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every case the only truthful review he could write would be: ‘this book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.’ But will anyone pay you to write that kind of thing? Obviously not. As a start, therefore, X is in the false position of having to manufacture, say, three hundred words about a book which means nothing to him whatever. Usually he does it by giving a brief résumé of the plot (incidentally betraying to the author the fact that he hasn't read the book) and handing out a few compliments which for all their fulsomeness are about as valuable as the smile of a prostitute.

— George Orwell, "In Defence of the Novel"

It's fortunate that I'm not a book reviewer, because I find this to be true. Most books that I read don't inspire me to say anything about them, and I would always rather pass them over in silence than manufacture dishonest or pointless sentences for the sake of a word count or deadline. A glance down at the Goodreads widget will confirm to the reader that I go through books like a bandsaw, but few of them provide material that I consider worthwhile enough to excerpt here. Yet they're not bad books; it's not that I regret wasting my time on them or anything. It's just that they're "Nice. Nice. Not thrilling, but nice." The topic was interesting, the writing was well done, but nothing stood out as a good conversation starter. It could very well be that the fault is with me, though. You'd think reading a hundred books a year would provide a lot more inspiration. Maybe I have some kind of cerebral tapeworm that absorbs all the intellectual nutrients and leaves me just as ravenous and empty as before.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Playing With Fire by People Who Don't Even Know That Fire Is Hot

Matthew Walther:

If Weinstein's name is to be removed from the credits of television shows in the production of which he played even a small part, what are we to do with the mountains of records, CDs, posters, books, memorabilia, commemorating rockers? What about the so-called "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame"? What is the point at which it becomes necessary for us to channel our inner Savonarolas and just start burning? Is one confirmed incident enough? How many Station to Stations or Physical Graffitis are worth the assault of a single woman or child? Are we affirming or materially contributing to their crimes when we watch films or listen to music made by abusers?

Like the rest of human life, sexuality has been subsumed over the course of the last few decades into the language of economics. The sexual act, we tell ourselves, is a simple matter of exchange between consenting partners, like a business transaction. It has nothing whatever to do with marriage or children. Like the deregulation of the economy, the privatization of sex has given us some apparent winners and a rather larger number of clear losers.

It's hard to care how much has to burn for us to start listening to them.

That's the problem with feeding frenzies. As entertaining as it may be to see an odious, degenerate elephant seal like Harvey Weinstein being torn apart by sharks, the blood in the water attracts all sorts of annoying smaller fish desperate to join in, and if they can't get close enough to the intoxicating action, they'll just turn and snap at anything within reach. Walther wants to extend the bloodlust to every celebrity who has committed similar offenses, so apparently we're supposed to abstain from listening to the music of Don Henley, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Ted Nugent, Charlie Parker, and the Rolling Stones in solidarity with their victims. I presume he didn't intend to present us with such an overwhelmingly white list of offenders, when such obvious (and arguably more relevant) candidates as Chuck Berry, Tupac Shakur, Nelly, Mystikal, and R. Kelly could have been included, but then again, feeding frenzies are dangerous places, and you don't want to show up, eager to sink your teeth into a sexual predator, only to find yourself being devoured by the anti-racist barracudas.

Aldo Leopold, in his "Odyssey" essay, poetically demonstrated the interconnectedness of all life by describing a particular cycle in the existence of a nitrogen atom, from rock, to flower, to acorn, to deer, to Indian, "all in a single year," and on and on. I mention it here in order to make a short metaphorical hop over to suggesting that Walther's incoherent fantasy of isolating "bad" people in a moral quarantine is just that, a fantasy. What if, let's just say ferzample, the cure for cancer ends up being discovered by a scientist who spent countless hours researching and experimenting while being inspired by listening to Led Zeppelin on repeat? Would that "justify" their music against whatever claims could be made against it on behalf of abused, underage groupies? What kind of imbecilic utilitarian (but I repeat myself) would even attempt to devise a calculus to meaningfully answer that inane question? Was the music of Bach or Mozart contaminated by the fact that commandants in Nazi death camps could force prisoners to play it for their entertainment? Shall we go on compiling similar examples? Like Leopold's nitrogen atom, human lives and human creations restlessly zigzag across neat-and-tidy definitional boundaries, contributing to both good and bad in the world simultaneously. T'was ever thus, t'will forever be.

As Nietzsche said, "Beware all those in whom the urge to punish is powerful." To people like Walther, it's not important whether there's any meaningful, accurate way in which moral credits and debits can be tallied when it comes to the production and consumption of music and films; what's important is that he and people like him assume they'll be the judges who make those decisions. But once the statues start toppling, and the records and books start burning, these moral purification rituals tend to take on a life and momentum of their own. He may be too stupid to realize that, or he may be cynically presenting a stupid, unworkable idea for the sake of meaningless Internet virtue points. I'm not sure which would be worse.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Wind Him Up, Bring Him Back, Conscript Deserter

If I am asked, what do you propose to substitute[...]? Practically, What have you to recommend? I answer at once, Nothing. The whole current and thought and feeling, the whole stream of human affairs, is setting with irresistible force in that direction. The old ways of living, many of which were just as bad in their time as any of our devices can be in ours, are breaking down all over Europe, and are floating this way and that like haycocks in a flood. Nor do I see why any wise man should expend much thought or trouble on trying to save their wrecks. The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god. I am not so vain as to suppose that anything that I can say will do either good or harm to any perceptible degree, but an attempt to make a few neutral observations on a process which is all but universally spoken of with passion on one side or the other may interest a few readers.

— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Damon Linker:

Every single event in our public life is now instantly swept up into the centrifugal whirlwind of a political culture in which the center has completely failed to hold. Democrats are increasingly defined by their hatred of Republicans, just as Republicans manage to agree about little besides their loathing of Democrats..."A pox on both your houses" might not be a viable politics. But it's a perfectly understandable response to the grotesque sideshow that American public life has become.

The iron law of oligarchy applies to social media as well. The web of ten to fifteen years ago might have held forth the illusion of an endlessly diverse, decentralized public square, but the inevitable centralization into huge media platforms soon took hold, and the Great a-Wokening of the 2010s (as future historians will surely call it) soon reduced most online writing to a monomaniacal obsession with virtue signaling and a barely-concealed longing for political holy war. It struck me the other day how there are almost no worthwhile independent blogs to be found anymore. People who, in 2007, might have been writing offbeat, interesting essays on Blogspot or Wordpress have largely migrated to Twitter or Instagram to produce sentence fragments and snapshots. Those who still want to express thoughts which require some exposition would rather get their work published by the same couple dozen digital magazines and newspapers than "waste" their efforts on a personal blog. Discourse, like water, relentlessly seeks sea level. And so here we are, with the same media outlets publishing boring, interchangeable pieces on the same boring topics, ad nauseam.

The pessimism of Linker and Stephen seems well-grounded. There's no way out, nothing you could "do" about it. Any hot take you could produce lamenting this state of affairs would only be adding more fuel to the inferno. Shut it off, starve it of oxygen, refuse to participate. Yes, yes, I know. I too have seen the accusations that the ability to ignore politics, or the desire to preserve some small cultural space free of political posturing, is itself an example of white privilege, etc. etc. But if you take the bait, then they've got you back where they want you, and you're arguing on their terms again. If there's going to be an alternative, isolated individuals will have to create and embody it themselves, in anonymity, if need be.

Emerson once noted about Thoreau that he seemed to need some sort of opposition, or challenge, to bring out the best in his writing or thinking. Though I'd love to be talented or creative enough to generate interesting ideas purely from my own observations and imagination, I fear I'm the same way — it's much easier to find inspiration in disagreement. Not all opposition is created equal, though. Pascal Bruckner helpfully differentiated between "useful enemies that make you fertile and sterile enemies that wear you out." The social-justice left and the Trumpist right are the very definition of sterile enemies, and between them, unfortunately, they've poisoned most of the media landscape. Nothing suitable for consumption grows there anymore. I'm not vain enough either to think that anything I say could make a difference, but perhaps I can also keep trying to unearth a few observations to interest a few readers. In the midst of this media wasteland, thank God for books.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Who Would Have Guessed That You'd Become What You Hated?

Thomas Chatterton Williams:

This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. It was an exchange that left me feeling physically sickened. Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he told me gleefully. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”

However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in A Time of Gifts, wrote about the thin, porous line between rival fanaticisms after meeting some newly-converted fascists who, just the previous year, had been committed Communists. In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer analyzed at length the psychology of fanaticism, in which the need to believe and belong far outweighed the ideological particulars of this or that doctrine. In this regard, Spencer is far more sophisticated than huckster preachers like Coates and his idiot legions of white progressive devotees, who would be better off, and do far less political damage, by simply going back to church to deal with those unacknowledged salvational needs. Wearing sackcloth and practicing flagellation could easily take the place of identity politics for white people consumed by a sense of sinfulness, and be more easily ignored by the rest of us.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 16

I am not suggesting that one can discharge all one's obligations towards society by means of a private re-afforestation scheme. Still, it might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground.

— George Orwell, "A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray"

We planted a new dwarf pear tree earlier this week. But yesterday, dealing with suburban D.C. traffic, I called down curses, maledictions and unholy vilifications upon at least several dozen drivers directly, and I may have fantasized about murder, both retail and wholesale. I suppose this puts my tree-per-sin account deeply into the red. Luckily, autumn weather is here, and the acorns are falling like wooden raindrops, or else I'd go broke trying to balance the books. Well, I've always wanted to live in a forest. Just call me Outis Oaktree, distant cousin to Johnny Appleseed. Speaking of whom, I wonder what he was atoning for?