Sunday, April 30, 2017

But Enough About You, Let's Talk About Me


"I do the show for me and for people like me, and I don't care how the rest of the world sees it quite frankly. That's great. We make a show for ourselves. We put it out to the world. We birth it and then the world receives it however they want to receive it. "


“I know! I know!” she wails, when I tell her she offers more questions than answers. But having no desire to be an activist, she doesn’t see it as her business to fix the patriarchy. “Maybe this sounds disingenuous, but I was writing for myself,” she says. “I just wanted to be clear about what I believe.”

I'm beginning to see a pattern! You know, I really need to hurry up and get to reading Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism. I really don't think modern progressivism can be completely grasped without an appreciation of how thoroughly people in the last half-century or so have intertwined politics and personal therapy, to the detriment of us all. If you want to indulge in emotionally incontinent venting about the state of the world, well, you should probably grow up a bit and get over that, but at the very least, confine your useless tantrums to a blog or a therapist's office, rather than broadcast them through a published book or TV show.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

To Tell Our Souls We're Still the Young Lions

Lary Wallace:

Some of us are more susceptible than others, but eventually it happens to us all. You know what I’m talking about: the inability to appreciate new music – or at least, to appreciate new music the way we once did. There’s a lot of disagreement about why exactly this happens, but virtually none about when. Call it a casualty of your 30s, the first sign of a great decline. Recently turned 40, I’ve seen it happen to me – and to a pretty significant extent – but refuse to consider myself defeated until the moment I stop fighting.

Aging is like hiking up a mountain. I speak as someone who has done a fair amount of both. What seems like a unique and fascinating tree down at ground level is just another tiny dot of green in nature's stippling when seen from above. Only a few striking landmarks stand out from that vantage point. The broader perspectives seem more meaningful than the particular nuances. The further you climb, the more you tire, and the more important it becomes to conserve your breath and energy. The external boundaries of the environment constrain your choices.

As a middle-aged music listener, your ability to luxuriate in new sounds the way you did when you were a teenager is constrained by the responsibilities of adulthood. It's curious that Wallace never mentions, over the course of three thousand words, the most obvious reasons why most people don't keep up with the contemporary music scene beyond their young adulthood: they have careers, families, and household chores which consume most of their limited time and energy. It doesn't mean it's impossible, of course; it just means that you'll have to sacrifice things, and frankly, a lot of rock and pop music, obsessed as it is with the adolescent themes of horniness, chemically altered consciousness, and emotional melodrama, becomes less compelling for people who have moved on to more mature interests. Plus, when you've already loved and lost geniuses like Mark Sandman and Peter Steele, you simply don't have it in you anymore to give your heart to some derivative band who, if they're lucky, might write three decent songs. There's no squirming out from underneath the weight of history.

Moreover, as Shakespeare said, there are more things in heaven and earth than can be contained in the typical baby-boomer experience. (Or something like that. I'm paraphrasing from memory.) That is, what Wallace is bemoaning as some perennial mystery of human nature has only been the norm for the three generations born after World War Two. The world of pop culture and mass media as we understand it only developed in tandem with the famously self-centered boomer generation, notorious for its inability to age gracefully. It's not a surprise that the people who turned "never trust anybody over thirty" into a slogan would have bequeathed to their children a Peter Pan-like desire to stay in Neverland playing air guitar in front of the bedroom mirror forever. Our early thirties loom in our awareness like the River Styx, with Charon extending his bony claw before us, demanding payment in the form of our golden years, before ferrying us across to the land of responsibilities, opportunity costs, and music containing more than three chords. A living death, in other words. But why should we assume that this pattern will still be the same three generations from now?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

No One Flinches, We All Float Face Down

If you express concern or disgust over the recent trend of campus radicals using intimidation, the heckler's veto, and outright force to shut down free speech, you will almost certainly be classified as conservative. It's just one of those fundamental dealbreakers of political taxonomy. The argument isn't even so much about essence as priorities, though. That is, even those who argue that this is nothing but a tempest in conservative teacups would likely agree that, yes, in itself, it would be nice if these students could stop acting like junior-varsity brownshirts. They simply prioritize other typical left-wing concerns. In their hierarchy of "real" issues, concern over intolerant college kids and their illberal professors is considered a trifle, if not an intentional distraction covering a reactionary agenda.

I used to argue against this line of "it's just students, they aren't important" thought by saying that if you wait until the President is repeating intersectional, postcolonial and postmodern dogmas, it's too late. And even if you assume, by subscribing to some zero-sum "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" logic, that leftist students are still better than Christian conservatives, you're holding false hope, because nothing worth keeping is going to grow from that contaminated soil. I don't know that I ever convinced anyone, but when I see the same illberal, anti-free speech idiocy being presented by former DNC head (and presidential candidate) Howard Dean and a NYT op-ed, I sure do feel prescient.

Obiter Dicta, no. 7

What is today called liberalism stands, domestically, on three legs: support for the welfare state, abortion, and identity politics. Obviously, this is a crude formulation. Abortion, for example, could be lumped into identity politics, as feminism is one of the creeds extolling the iron cage of identity. Or one could say that "sexual liberty" is a better term than abortion. But I don't think that any fair-minded reader would dispute that these three categories nearly cover the vast bulk of the liberal agenda — or at least describe the core of liberal passions — today.

— Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in urging us to trust our own intuition, said that if we bite our tongue out of fear, then "tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another." In this case, I can console myself with the fact that I arrived at the same conclusion independently — I would indeed argue that "sexual liberation" is probably a better choice to balance out the ideological tripod, especially since it suggests elements of therapeutic culture which have also become an integral part of the general left-wing worldview, where anything that "inhibits" or "represses" is assumed to be unhealthy. No, my shame, in this case, is due to the fact that I only read this book last week, and then only because I was already reading Thomas Leonard's excellent Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, and figured, well, if I'm going to read about the history of American progressivism, I might as well immerse myself in the topic by reading the two books back-to-back.

Plenty of copies of Goldberg's book had passed through my hands over the years, but I never bothered to read it, largely because of the aversion I acquired through years of reading the left-wing blogosphere, where he and his book were (and still are, I'm sure) favorite objects of ridicule. I remember one blog doing a chapter-by-chapter "review" of it over a series of posts, which I emailed to several friends so we could join in the laughs. When I revisited those posts after reading the book, I was stunned by the one-sidedness and intellectual dishonesty, and ashamed of the fact that I ever allowed such partisan hacks to do my thinking for me.

The point isn't that Goldberg produced some flawless masterpiece of scholarship. As he says early on, it's not intended as an academic book. But his larger theme, if approached with the minimum of charity, is sensible enough. And at a time when our modern Enragés are seeing fascism lurking in every shadow and shrieking accordingly, even his moments of hyperbole seem restrained by comparison. The point is just to try to be slightly skeptical of what "everyone" seems to agree is true if you haven't checked it out yourself; otherwise, you might end up taking the long way around to common-sense conclusions, as I have.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I'm Not a Number, I'm a Free Man, Live My Life Where I Want To

Knight said that he didn't really know why he left. He'd given the question plenty of thought but had never arrived at an answer. "It's a mystery," he declared. There was no specific cause he could name — no childhood trauma, no sexual abuse. There wasn't alcoholism in his home, or violence. He wasn't trying to hide anything, to cover a wrongdoing, to evade confusion about his sexuality.

— Michael Finkel, The Stranger In the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely free to act according to his own uncaused will — these are a few of the logical necessities that are essential to Christianity's existence. Anthony Kronman, in his book Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, argues that such axiomatic assumptions have long motivated the desire of Westerners to usurp the power and position of the God they invented. Modern science has dismissed the idea of free will as a superstitious relic of a pre-scientific age, but the quest for total knowledge of, and total control over, the universe still motivates us today. For at least a few centuries now, the assumption of the universe's inherent intelligibility has never been seriously in question. If something can be experienced, it can be explained — in principle, if not immediately in practice. Nothing comes into existence uncaused, and if something seems to, it's only because we don't have enough of the surrounding jigsaw pieces of the causal context to fit around it. When we have all those pieces, we will no longer be at the mercy of forces beyond our control or understanding.

Yuval Noah Harari has written a new book precisely about this theme. In strict materialist fashion, he celebrates the possibility of humanity achieving Godhood through means of omniscience and omnipotence. Personal satisfaction, political disagreements, and even death itself are all seen as technical problems to be solved by means of increased scientific power wielded by enlightened elites. Begged questions abound, obviously — John Gray, for example, notes that if humans are to become gods, they are far more likely to resemble the polytheistic schemers of Olympus than billions of individuals melded into one unified suprahuman deity. And if society is to be reinvented along the lines of a beehive or anthill, it can be safely assumed that dissent will be treated as a neurochemical disorder, as pluralistic, democratic politics will be done away with due to their inefficiency. Harari is well aware that this eerily resembles Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, but if it wouldn't be fair to say that he's eagerly anticipating it, he's at the very least resigned to it being inevitable.

In a world dominated by people who think like this, what makes someone like Knight so interesting is his passive defiance of such totalizing schemes. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, he seemingly just looked at life in society one day and decided "I would prefer not to." People obviously looked for a psychological or neurological angle to explain Knight's strange choice to simply walk away from civilization and live alone in the Maine woods for twenty-seven years — is he autistic? Schizoid? Angry? Depressed? There must be an intelligible cause! But as far as anyone has been able to tell, Knight simply did it because he felt like it. He knew what he was doing and made rational choices to cope with challenges along the way. One doesn't have to be traditionally religious to feel delight at this apparent assertion of obstinate will, this flickering possibility of hope that maybe, just maybe, the world won't be capable of being completely explained, mapped, dissected, perfected and predicted by omniscient experts. Maybe the possibility of radical freedom still exists, even if it has to hide in a tiny corner of the northern woods. It's heartening to think that some mysterious something in human nature, perhaps even intrinsic to life itself, resists and evades control.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 6

But all intellectuals love bogeymen to shadow-box: I do so myself on occasion.

— Theodore Dalrymple, "A Strange Alliance", Anything Goes

On days when work and other chores keep me too busy to spend time online, the truth of the old saying "out of sight, out of mind" becomes quickly apparent. One can live an interesting life and never lack for things to do without ever sparing a thought for politics, philosophy, academia, social media, or sundry other cultural ephemera. A central insight in Buddhism is the inherent dissatisfaction caused by "clinging" to feelings and experiences rather than seeing them as the transient things they are and letting them dissipate. For too many cerebral people, the shadows they spar with thicken and become more like the tar baby that trapped Br'er Rabbit. I know too many people whose online lives are spent bitterly cursing and thrashing against the objects of their animosity with which they're entangled. Sciamachy is indeed fun as a form of mental exercise, but sometimes you need to spread mulch, cut grass, or just sit on the porch on a cool spring morning watching the birds, and let the shadows fade away.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Noteworthies (9)

• Michael Lind, "The Fantasy Worlds of Politics"

• Wilfred McClay, "The Strange Persistence of Guilt"

• Brad Warner,  "Stand Against Suffering"

• William Voegeli, "The Democratic Party's Identity Crisis"

• Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin, & Paul Bloom, "Why People Prefer Unequal Societies"

• Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, Bloggingheads interview

Saturday, April 8, 2017

In Camazotz

Helena Cronin:

Gender proponents seem to be blithely unaware that, thanks to their conflation of equality and sameness, they are now answering an entirely different set of concerns—such as "diversity," "under-representation," "imbalance"—without asking what on earth they have to do with the original problem: discrimination.

And the confusions ramify. Bear in mind that equality is not sameness. Equality is about fair treatment, not about people or outcomes being identical; so fairness does not and should not require sameness. However, when sameness gets confused with equality—and equality is of course to do with fairness—then sameness ends up undeservedly sharing their moral high ground. And male/female discrepancies become a moral crusade.

A lesson so simple, it could be presented in a children's book:

   "But that's exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike."
   For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. "No!" she cried triumphantly. "Like and equal are not the same thing at all!"
   "Good girl, Meg!" her father shouted at her.
   But Charles Wallace continued as though there had been no interruption. "In Camazotz all are equal. In Camazotz everybody is the same as everybody else," but he gave her no argument, provided no answer, and she held on to her moment of revelation.
   Like and equal are two entirely different things.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Keep On Whispering In My Ear. Tell Me All the Things That I Want to Hear

How ironically conventional.
What is there to fear? What damage do
you risk to reputation or career?
Nostalgic nothings murmured into
aging left-wing ears. You're published and
acclaimed for saying what they want to hear.
Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm sure that you're
undoubtedly sincere. But rad chic
is no threat. It presents no new frontiers. 
Utopian promises will be
always in arrears. I swear, what sorts
of books have you been reading all these years?
A new state can never save us. Your
vision is unclear. You seem to seek 
transcendence. Try religion, Jessa, dear.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 5

Yet at no point did Jefferson's financial plight slow his spendthrift ways. Faithfully, almost obsessively, he kept recording every purchase and expenditure, but it was as if somehow he could never bring himself to add up the columns. At home, in his voluminous farm records, he never in his life added up the profit and loss for any year, and perhaps for the reason that there was almost never any profit.

...Paris booksellers soon found they had an American patron like no other. In the bookshops and stalls along the Seine were volumes in numbers and variety such as Jefferson had never seen, and his pleasure was boundless. To Madison he would describe the surpassing pleasure of "examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand and putting by everything related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable to every science." There were weeks when he was buying books every day. In his first month in Paris, he could not buy them fast enough, and ran up bills totaling nearly 800 francs. Nor was the book-buying spree to end. The grand total of books he acquired in France was about 2,000, but he also bought books by the boxful for Washington, Franklin and James Madison.

— David McCullough, John Adams

That image of Jefferson trying so hard to balance his books, only to lose heart right at the final tally, struck me as endearingly poignant. Good thing he didn't have to tempt him. Who knows how many modern Jeffersons have been diverted from what could have been a glorious political destiny into a pitiful existence as lonely book hoarders?

In the household budget, I keep a fraction of a percent of the quarterly gross revenues for my own selfish hedonistic pleasure, which invariably means buying books. Last week, as I began planning which books to buy with the first quarter's allotment, I was struck by a strange, lethargic sadness. I had whittled my wish list down to about nine or ten books after the holidays, but then I discovered a rich vein of intellectual ore that I wanted to mine, which led to another twenty or so being added during the last couple of months. Suddenly, it all seemed futile. So much still to be read, and more coming all the time! I can barely make a dent in it with this paltry amount of money! What's the use? Why suffer the torments of Tantalus over books I'll never have time or money for? Why not just resign myself to checking out romance novels from the library from now on?

Thankfully, the spell of madness didn't last long. And thanks to a budget review, a little extra money was trimmed from other line items to be allocated toward monthly book purchases. I wish I could reach back in time to put a consoling arm around Jefferson's shoulder and encourage him to face that bottom line without flinching. The only way out is straight on through, Tommy, old buddy. A little austerity up front makes the pleasure so much sweeter afterward.