Saturday, January 28, 2017

I Used to Hurry a Lot, I Used to Worry a Lot

Alan Jacobs:

If the frequency that led to the Battle of New Orleans was too long, the Twitter-cycle is far, far too short. People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done — plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out.

To advocate a policy of ignorance or indifference with regards to the news cycle is likely to invite contempt from one's peers. If you don't keep informed on all the latest minutiae, how can you possibly be prepared to act virtuously and effectively at a decisive moment? To me, this attitude is indicative of a mass illusion, one in which we vastly overestimate our personal ability to affect the flow of events. The fact that mass education has made us capable of being conversant with current events does not necessarily empower us to do anything with that tentative knowledge. Close scrutiny of the news isn't the same thing as being informed, any more than tensing one's facial muscles and staring hard is the same thing as being focused and concentrated. In either case, all you're likely to achieve is a headache. Jacobs is just pointing out that sitting on a mountaintop and looking down at the forest is often more conducive to understanding than scrutinizing the bark of any individual tree.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

And the Devil Turned 'Round on You

I've seen a few back-and-forths on this topic. My conclusion is that the participants are largely talking past each other, which is further evidence, as if any were needed, that Twitter is absolutely useless for trying to discuss anything containing the slightest depth or nuance. Please, people: just use it to post a link to an essay written on a blog or website. Stop trying to talk with a mouthful of novocaine, stop trying to sprint in a three-legged sack race, and stop trying to argue about detailed subjects in multiple sentence fragments. I beg you.

Anyway, yes, obviously, dishonesty is as old as the human species. What Malik is driving at, in my opinion, is that the postmodern left in particular has spent decades pouring acid on the concept of objectivity itself, which has created the opportunity for someone like Trump to brazenly disregard even a pretense of honesty. Allow me to elaborate by breezily conveying a few centuries' worth of complex intellectual trends in a pocket summary.

Around the period of time in European history which we conventionally refer to as "the Enlightenment," many people, understandably and reasonably enough, began to wonder if human society and culture could be explained by means of a few basic, inviolable laws in the same way that Newton had so successfully explained the natural world. Their hopes have remained unrealized to this day, with "scientism" being a term of disparagement often used against those who have closely hewed to that original vision.

Postmodernism was born as a result of the widespread disillusionment with the unintended consequences of mankind's efforts to direct society according to scientific principles, which seemed to confirm that all our science and technology had accomplished was to make our worst impulses more lethal and efficient. While most (but not all, it must be said) postmodernists would concede that "facts" and "truth" apply in the realm of the natural sciences (excepting, perhaps, biology), they tend to be opposed to the idea of the terms having stable meaning in the realms of culture, society, and politics.

Nietzsche famously said that "there are no facts, only interpretations." It's difficult to know precisely what he meant by that, how seriously he intended it to be understood, or how far he would have liked to see it taken. His disciple Foucault, however, took the idea much further, perhaps doing more than anyone else to popularize the ideas animating many of today's pomo radicals. When you hear someone's rational argument being reduced to the predictable sum of their race, class or gender and dismissed accordingly, or when you hear the idea of objective, disinterested truth being scorned as nothing more than the most subtle, devious attempt yet by the Cishet White Patriarchy to exert hegemonic control over the discourse by presenting its own biased, tendentious values as neutral and universal, you can imagine Foucault's bald head lurking in the background, nodding approvingly.

The postmodern left didn't invent "alternative facts" so much as corrode the idea that there could ever be an respected position from which one could meaningfully condemn "alternative facts" as false. If cultural life is nothing but an endless power struggle between opposing groups with no means to morally distinguish between them, then Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty may have been the first Foucauldian postmodernist when he claimed, in response to Alice's naïve assertion that words must have stable meanings, that the only thing that mattered was which meaning was to be master. For many of them, though, this is little more than an academic parlor game. Deconstructing the normative and epistemological foundations of Western culture is just a way to compete for status among other clever, disaffected academics, who otherwise live perfectly conventional lives outside the lecture hall. Others, however, are prepared to put such ideas to use outside of academia.

When Trump made the clearly risible claim that there were millions more people attending his inauguration than reported by the media, many people wondered why he would bother to lie about something so trivial, not to mention obviously untrue. Most bien pensant progressives responded along the lines of, "Because he's a stupid, insane Rethuglican; it's just the nature of the beast, hurr hurr!" I would suggest instead that he was simply planting his flag, rallying his supporters around a narrative. He's been saying to his supporters all along, "The media are biased against people like you and me." They already believed it anyway, and not without reason. They're ready and willing to fight about it. They don't need a good reason to fight about it, they just need a reason. Crowd size? Sure, why not. You've got your narrative, we've got ours. The only question is which is to be master, that's all. Let's do this thing.

The postmodern left, like a bunch of Will Ropers, have made clear their eagerness to cut down every last pretense to objectivity and civility in order to get at the Devil of oppression. We see another illustration of this in the pathetic spectacle of progressives competing to show which of them is more ready and willing to punch a Nazi, even if the Nazi in question has only been elevated from an insignificant fringe figure to an international celebrity thanks to progressive media giving him and his followers a disproportionate amount of undeserved attention in the first place. Out of reckless irresponsibility, they've created a battleground upon which they are woefully unprepared to fight. Now the Devil has turned around on them, eager to fight under these terms on this terrain.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Too Much Time Spent on Nothing, Waiting for a Moment to Arise

Ryan Holiday:

“If you wish to improve,” Epictetus once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” One of the most powerful things we can do as a human being in our hyperconnected, 24/7 media world is say: “I don’t know.” Or, more provocatively: “I don’t care.” Not about everything of course—just most things. Because most things don’t matter, and most news stories aren’t worth tracking.

It’s a trade off of deliberate ignorance for the ability to prioritize and see with clarity.

Thoreau acerbically noted that for all the eagerness to construct a telegraph to bring news across the ocean, the first bit of information to arrive might likely be nothing more than the nineteenth-century equivalent of celebrity gossip. Nowadays, I'm sure there are brilliant minds working hard to figure out how we can implant SIM cards in our frontal lobes so that we can keep up with the Kardashians without having to go to all the exhausting labor of manipulating our pocket computers with our fingers, like savages. But even "serious" news and information is often nothing of the sort. It exists to keep people perpetually agitated, not informed. The skewed incentives of nonstop cable news and social media reward rumors, trivia and useless opinions as much as, if not more than, reporting that any of us could actually use to make a practical difference in our lives. Like a bewildered librarian in Colchester, most of us are confronted daily with information we will not, cannot, apply in any meaningful way to our own routine.

In chapters 47 and 80 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu suggested that contentment and knowledge could be attained without being curious enough to visit a neighboring country, indeed, without even needing to leave one's house or look out the window. I suspect a bit of literary license being taken here, some poetic exaggeration, as was often the case with these old mystical parables. (I mean, really; who has ever had a plank or beam in their eye? A man with even a small wood chip in his eye would probably have far more pressing concerns than sanctimoniously lecturing others. But I digress.)

Yesterday, while hiking in the national forest, to which I am fortunate to live adjacent, I took notice of a couple unusual lichens I hadn't noticed before. At home, I spent a little time trying to count how many different birds came to the feeder. It crossed my mind that even trying to become enough of an amateur naturalist to be knowledgeable about the flora and fauna around here could be a years-long project. That, I imagine, is the spirit of Lao Tzu's assertion. In a world that frantically urges me to care about the newer, the faster, the popular, and the maximum quantity, I could easily live out my remaining years wandering mountain trails and returning home to old books without ever being bored, let alone missing out on much of importance.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Noteworthies (3)

• Humanities Magazine, A Chat with Mark Lilla about Those Who Think “History Has Gone Off Course.” I just finished reading Lilla's book The Shipwrecked Mind yesterday, in fact. Before that, I read another of his books, The Reckless Mind. I highly recommend both.

• Sonny Bunch, "You People Wanted the Politicized Life? Congrats, You Got It" (On a related note, David Malki)

• Jesse Singal, "Psychology’s Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the Job." I have long been skeptical that the Implicit Association Test was good for anything more than fertilizing crops, so I'm glad to see that my intuition served me well. Apparently, however, according to IAT co-creator Mahzarin Banaji, I am just one of a half-dozen or so aggrieved, insignificant, reactionary individuals afraid to know his own mind, and am probably motivated by racism anyway.

• Brad Warner, "Retreats for Nuthin’ and Your Zen for Free." Brad attempts to relay some basic understanding of economics to people who only understand social justice slogans. I had never heard of "upper-Middle Way" being used as a snarky signifier in Buddhism before, but I can't say I'm surprised. Buddhism in America has long been associated with leftish politics, so it was probably inevitable that it would take on the same characteristics as so many other cultural phenomena. A little later, Warner finds the same website pushing for a more political (read: left-wing) Buddhism: "Should Plumbing Be Political?" I've read and enjoyed Warner's books and blog for many years now, and I will be terribly sad to see him end up in the pillory, as he almost certainly will if he keeps talking sense to ideologues.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Nothing Is Good Enough for People Like You

Damon Linker:

Here we enter into the kaleidoscopically balkanizing world of intersectionality, which highlights multiple identities in an effort to single-out the nexus of ascriptive attributes that produces maximal oppression. The idea is that once these attributes have been identified, the "privilege" of those who undertake the oppression can be subverted. Yet in practice, the hierarchy of privilege isn't so much subverted as reproduced and inverted.

...It should be obvious that this brand of politics is profoundly poisonous. Instead of seeking to level an unjust hierarchy, mitigate its worst abuses, and foster cross-group solidarity, intersectionality merely flips the hierarchy on its head, placing the least privileged in the most powerful position and requiring everyone else to clamor for relative advantage in the new upside-down ranking. Those who come out on top in the struggle win their own counter-status, earning the special privilege of getting to demand that those lower in the pecking order "check their privilege."

In my opinion, the fundamental organizing principle of left-wing thought is opposition to oppression and injustice. Furthermore, the standard of what constitutes oppression and injustice is measured against utopian ideals which I doubt most progressives could clearly articulate if asked. Like Potter Stewart defining pornography, they couldn't tell you what equality and justice would look like in practice, but they'll know it when they see it, and they ain't seen it yet, so the fight must go on. The monomaniacal fervor with which they pursue this goal, the singleminded intensity with which they make such righteous opposition to oppression and injustice the very core of their political identity, ends up alienating moderate liberals who certainly agree that fighting oppression and injustice is one important political goal, but insist that it can't become the entire goal of politics. Moreover, when fighting oppression and injustice becomes the essence of their political identity, they become incentivized to keep finding instances of oppression and injustice to fight in order to keep themselves in a job, so to speak. Which is to say, if they don't outright invent instances of oppression and injustice, they certainly overinflate them, as in the case of the trendy obsession with transgenderism, which is primarily an attempt to build an extension onto the victorious gay rights movement and keep the struggle going a little longer. Once transgenderism is either mandatory by law or simply passé, the new fixation will be on the struggle for polyamorous marriage rights. And so it goes. Like Akash Kapur said, the chimerical goals of reinvented sex and a remade economy will keep them engaged in a war on reality for the indefinite future. The important thing is to keep those who object on the defensive, forced to argue uphill against the default assumption that only a vicious bigot would be opposed to ending oppression and injustice. The argument that many of the problems they identify cannot be reduced to a zero-sum struggle between callous oppressor and righteous victim, and must simply be accepted as part of the inherent unfairness of life itself which affects all of us in different ways at different times, is summarily dismissed as just the sort of thing a callous oppressor would say to justify his privilege. And so it goes.

To find yourself talking like I am here, it's not necessary to identify as a conservative, or to believe in an opposing set of talking points. All that's necessary is to get tired of the tedious whining, the nonstop tantrums, the neverending obsession with victimhood. All that's necessary is to see that the world is far more complex than a simpleton's story of the powerful cruelly dominating the powerless.

Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan

A couple of years ago, I wrote to Anthony Kronman to tell him how much I loved his 2007 book, Education's End. I immediately received an auto-response informing me that he was on summer vacation and wouldn't be checking his mail regularly. Having done my part to contribute some positive currency to the author-reader economy, I assumed that was the end of that and went merrily upon my way. To my great surprise, he wrote back the very next day with a warm, grateful letter of his own thanking me for taking the time to write, saying that writing a book like his was akin to throwing a bottle with a message into the sea; there's no telling who will pick it up and how it will be received, but it's always gratifying to hear that someone did find it, especially when the message serves its purpose.

Having gotten a bit of positive attention from an important author, you could say that I was already predisposed to be a gushing fanboy. But even so, by any measure I can think of, his new book, Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, is a masterpiece. An 1100-page book about philosophy and theology that reads at times like a thriller! Patient without being plodding, thorough without being tedious, and the major points and themes were helpfully reiterated for maximum clarity without being repetitive.

It would be impossible to give this book a capsule summary that could possibly do it justice. I will just say that this is exactly the sort of non-academic philosophy I have loved to read all my adult life. This is what I always imagined the "history of ideas" to be about ever since I heard there was such a discipline. It was as engrossing as when I first discovered Isaiah Berlin's lectures and books, a similar experience of rapt enjoyment at hearing a masterful narrative laid out in such a clear and informative fashion. I particularly enjoyed the sections about the Catholic reactionaries for reasons I couldn't even articulate. Perhaps because they were relatively unfamiliar to me, or because their criticisms of liberal society's weaknesses were so trenchant and worth further attention? Whatever the case, the fact that Kronman presented their arguments so well as to be gripping is, I think, a testament to his narrative skill.

It reminded me somewhat of Yuval Levin's excellent Tyranny of Reason, a similar tour through the disenchantment of the West with much of the same cast of characters, though placed within a narrower narrative framework. Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists, subtitled How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, ended with Watson suggesting a renewed appreciation for phenomenology as an intellectual corrective to nihilistic disenchantment, which, at least in his telling, bears somewhat of a family resemblance to Kronman's born-again paganism. But most of all, I felt I had already been made receptive to Kronman's theme by my long exposure to the writings of Alan Watts. He often addressed similar themes within a mythological framework — he talked about the alienation inherent in the Western conception of the world as something "made" by a separate creator in the same way that a bowl is crafted by a potter, rather than seeing it as an organic process of growth in which, for example, the Earth "peoples" in the same way that an apple tree "apples". He also used Indian mythology to illustrate the self-defeating tendency of our insatiable lust for total control and autonomy by suggesting that if you were an omnipotent god in control of absolutely everything, what would you want most of all? A surprise. And what would be the most thrilling surprise? To "forget" that you were god and enjoy having adventures as all these infinite separate little conscious beings. And then one day, you "wake up," remember that you were always one indivisible totality, and start the whole process over again.

There's a saying I love, most often misattributed to André Gide: "Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again." I occasionally hear people I enjoy and respect talk about their aspiration (or achievement) to restrict themselves to reading books written before some arbitrary date, on the assumption that most of what's "new" is frivolous chatter that will be quickly forgotten. While I often agree with the sentiment, it's painful to imagine missing the chance to read a book like this just because of a snobbish disdain for the publication date. There are treasures to be found in any age, even if they are, in a sense, saying it all again. Maybe a few more people will be listening this time.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Sic Transit Gloria

The Lady of the House spent the holidays visiting relatives in the homeland. She mentioned to me that her family apparently eats off of paper plates now due to the tedium of arguing over whose turn it is to do the dishes.

This gave me a new way to think about the fall of the Roman Empire. From our perspective, we look back and wonder how shepherds and peasants could have lived among the ruins of Roman infrastructure without being motivated to replicate those technological achievements. Perhaps in addition to the usual answers given, we should consider the possibility of an entire culture essentially sitting back-to-back, arms folded, glaring straight ahead in silence. Oh, you think I'm going to be responsible for the maintenance on those giant stone buildings and paved roads? I guess we'll just share this dirt-floor wooden hut with our livestock instead!

We moderns have inherited the Renaissance perspective that contemplation of the lost glories of antiquity was always tinged with melancholy and nostalgia, but the British historian Chris Wickham claims that the Roman ruins were seen in the early medieval period as emblematic of the righteous and inevitable triumph of Christianity over paganism. Likewise, perhaps the use of paper plates in lieu of perfectly good ceramic and china will be seen by future scholars as a symbol of the equally righteous and inevitable triumph of domestic egalitarianism over the gendered division of household drudgery.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Next Thing You Know They'll Take My Thoughts Away

Sam White:

Ultimately, shutting people down is a form of cowardice. If Milo’s detractors can’t combat his ideas with their own ideas, then we have to ask, what have Milo’s ideas got that theirs haven’t?

After all, if they’re so utterly confident that he’s wrong, so very certain to the point where they feel he shouldn’t even be published, then what do they have to fear? Why not let his ideas be exposed, and then show the world how faulty they are?

If their reasoning is sound, then it shouldn’t be difficult for them. After all, Apatow is totally convinced that his ideas are better, he has a public platform significantly larger than Milo’s, he’s more famous, richer, and he has more influence.

So I wonder, just what is it that he’s scared of?

This is true so far as it goes, which isn't very. It's like the man said in Cool Hand Luke: what we've got here is failure to communicate. The reason why we keep having these tedious arguments over free speech which go nowhere and convince no one is that the two sides are speaking different languages of value. For the sake of simplicity, we can say that they are just the mouthpieces channeling the echoes of an old argument between the ghosts of J.S. Mill and J.J. Rousseau. Mill's vision of liberalism has long been on the wane. It is intellectually ascetic, making difficult, almost superhuman demands on our ability to coexist with heterodoxy. Rousseau's vision has long been popular on the illberal far left. It is emotionally satisfying, tapping into deep wells of tribalist instinct.

Mill's On Liberty is the exemplary statement of classical liberal values. People like White, or Kenan Malik, or Russell Blackford, are all speaking in his spirit when they oppose censorship in all its forms. Coercion, whether it comes from a tyrannical government or an intolerant mob, whether enforced through guns or petitions, is to be opposed above all else. (Mill takes this to a logical extreme that even most of his descendants might balk at today.) It is a procedurally-oriented outlook in which the means are what matter, not the ends. As long as the rules are understood clearly and enforced impartially, no one has the right to usurp your decision-making for you, to bully you into silence, to intimidate you into acquiescence. Milo is free to write a book; Simon and Schuster are free to publish it; you are free to buy a copy; I am free to spend my money on other things, and we're all free to try to convince others to see things our way.

On the other hand, we have Rousseau and his concept of the general will. As Isaiah Berlin said about him:

In short, the problem goes somewhat as follows. You want to give people unlimited liberty because otherwise they cease to be men; and yet at the same time you want them to live according to the rules. If they can be made to love the rules, then they will want the rules, not so much because the rules are rules as because they love them. If your problem is how a man shall be at once free and yet in chains, you say: "What if the chains are not imposed upon him? What if the chains are not something with which he is bound as by some external force? What if the chains are something he chooses himself because such a choice is an expression of his nature, something he generates from within him as an inner ideal? If this is what he above all wants in the world, then the chains are no longer chains."

...But if the chains are chains of your own making, if the chains are simply the rules which you forge, with your own inner reason, or because of the grace which pours in while you lead the simple life, or because of the voice of conscience or the voice of God or the voice of nature, which all are referred to by Rousseau as if they were almost the same thing; if the chains are simply rules the very obedience to which is the most free, the strongest, most spontaneous expression of your own inner nature, then the chains no longer bind you — since self control is not control. Self-control is freedom. In this way Rousseau gradually proceeds toward the peculiar idea that what is wanted is men who want to be connected with each other in the way in which the State forcibly connects them.

Consequently Rousseau develops the notion of the general will. It begins in the harmless notion of a contract, which after all is a semi-commercial affair, merely a kind of undertaking voluntarily entered into, and ultimately revocable also, an act performed by human beings who come together and agree to do certain things intended to lead to their common happiness; but still only an arrangement of convenience which, if it leads to common misery, they can abandon. This is how it begins; but from the notion of a social contract as a perfectly voluntary act on the part of individuals who remain individual and who pursue each his own good, Rousseau gradually moves towards the notion of the notion of the general will as almost the personified willing of a large super-personal entity, of something called "the State", which is now no longer the crushing leviathan of Hobbes, but something more like a team, something like a Church, a unity in diversity, a greater-than-I, something in which I sink my personality only in order to find it again.

Starting from assumptions about the rational harmony of all seemingly-disparate truths, Rousseau creates the foundation of what would eventually be known as "false consciousness" — the idea that we, the enlightened, know what is is true and best for you. If you disagree with us, that's not a matter of opinion deserving respect and tolerance. It's a sign that you are either too stupid or confused to understand your own interests and how to rationally pursue them. Our answers are not mere differences of opinion or taste, they are practically scientific truths.

For Mill and his followers, freedom must include the freedom to choose badly and make mistakes. For Rousseau and his followers, allowing people to choose what we know to be a mistake is irrational and immoral. Therefore, if we have to "coerce" people, it's not tyranny, because our "coercion" is in service to a higher truth, a more important freedom. Allowing someone like Milo a platform to spread his ideas is as irresponsible and delinquent as a parent allowing their toddler to wander in the street. This same patronizing attitude is what motivates their attempts to intimidate Simon and Schuster away from publishing the book — it's not that we fear anything about Milo's ideas, because we're secure in the truth. It's all those other people, those impressionable simpletons out there, whom we have to protect for their own good. Unfortunately, we can't supervise all of them all of the time, so the next best thing is to make sure that dangerous materials don't fall into their naïve hands.

How can Mill's supporters convince Rousseau's that they don't have access to ultimate truth and therefore no right to threaten, intimidate, and coerce people into submission? How can Rousseau's supporters convince Mill's to accept that some ends should take priority over means? I suspect that if it were possible via argument, it would have happened by now.