Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Noteworthies (13)

• David Streitfeld, "‘The Internet Is Broken’: @ev Is Trying to Salvage It"

• And while we're on that theme, Stephen Fry, "The Way Ahead"

• Theodore Dalrymple, "Mobility and Nobility"

• William Voegeli, "The New Abnormal"

• Alan Jacobs, "Getting Context, and a Grip"

• John McWhorter, "When People Were Proud to Call Themselves ‘Neoliberal’"

• Matt Shapiro, "The Homeless Conservative"

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Noteworthies (12)

• 3 A.M. Interview with Massimo Pigliucci, "How to Be a Stoic"

• Peter Boghossian & James Lindsay, "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies" & Helen Pluckrose, "Sokal Affair 2.0: Penis Envy: Addressing Its Critics"

The Anti-Status-Quo Society

• Theodore Dalrymple, "Crushing on Crushers"

• Gareth Williams, "Post-Truth Set In Early"

• Justin E.H. Smith, "A Cold Take on Comey's Firing"

• Jason Guriel, "What Happens When Authors Are Afraid to Stand Alone"

• Robert D. Kaplan, "The Tragic Sensibility"

• Daniel J. Mahoney, "Dialogues in Scrutopia"

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Too Much Is Not Enough, I Feel Numb

Scott Galupo:

The Closing of the American Mind makes for interesting reading today. The thrust of its complaint about elites and relativism has only intensified. But some of it does not hold up well at all. Take its snarkily written chapter with the heading "The Nietzscheanization of the Left or Vice Versa," for example. In it, Bloom argued that the left had largely abandoned the discredited economic doctrines of Marx and, in their place, adopted a stylized anti-bourgeois Nietzsche. Nietzsche and his "will to power" over flabby liberal values no longer sustainable by reason or myth were still casting a revolutionary spell, Bloom asserted, but it was no longer over adherents of German and Italian fascism, discredited (to say the least) as those movements were by the horrors of World War II.

Nietzsche's thought was now being transmitted through European leftists such as Georg Lukacs, Alexandre Kojeve, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre, who had jettisoned Marx's "embarrassing economic determinism" and created a new "mutant" crossbreed of Nietzsche and Marx:

The mature Marx had almost nothing to say about art, music, literature, or education, or about what the life of man would be when the yoke of oppression was lifted. His early "humanistic" writings were looked by some for the inspiration lacking in the later ones, but they turned out to be thin and derivative stuff. Since the Nietzscheans spoke so marvelously well about all these things, why not just appropriate what they said? So they took over "the last man," whom they identified with the Marx's bourgeois, and "the superman," whom they identified with the victorious proletarian after the revolution. [The Closing of the American Mind]

Without crawling further into the weeds, suffice it to say that, in 2017, the philosophical picture that Bloom painted in 1987 has been inverted. In the post-crash, post-Picketty era of global inequality, the Marxist-minded left is very much interested in those discarded economic doctrines. And the far right, as evidenced by Spencer and his ilk, is very much interested in Nietzsche as he was originally understood by 20th-century fascists.

Lord, what a deeply stupid article. I mean, Francis Fukuyama may have proclaimed "the end of history" after the fall of the USSR, but I'm pretty sure even he never suggested that political fashions would no longer be recycled in the same superficial manner as clothing and pop music. Yes, the "Marxist-minded left" most certainly has been doing its best to reanimate the mummified corpse of their old dogma. And what of it? Even as we speak, Venezuela is busy segueing from every airhead's favorite example of "hope for the socialist future" to the inevitable "it was never real socialism anyway" denouement. Progressive media's favorite neo-Nazi claims to have been inspired by Nietzsche? Well, yes, as ever, people can find whichever philosophical justification in Nietzsche they're determined to find, fascists included. Is this supposed to tell us something meaningful about the substance of these beliefs, or are we just supposed to find something profound about the ephemeral fact that everything old is currently new again? What happens in a few years when Trump is out of office, the media are bounding around after a different red laser dot, socialist theory is still moribund, and today's social media revolutionaries have all reached their thirties and settled down with corporate careers and families? Will that make Bloom prescient again? To address questions like that, you'd need context and perspective, and you're not going to find them amid this tripe.

Ironically enough, this article itself reads as a confirmation of Bloom's point. Whether he was right or wrong in asserting that the left has settled for an aesthetic style of politics after losing faith in historical dialectic and economic determinism isn't the point; this is just a rhetorical angle from which to approach the actual subject of the article, namely Richard Spencer. Because God knows, criminally stupid progressive media clickwhores haven't given the man enough free publicity as it is. They need a narrative, and a demographic that was apparently educated by the History Channel naturally responded to Brexit, Trump, et. al. by seeing Nazis, Nazis everywhere. Not because it provided a useful explanatory framework to understand these events, but because it provides said demographic with a chance to LARP as the French Resistance and thus provides a frisson of purpose to their comfortable lives, which they feel terribly guilty about anyway. It presses down hard on nerves that have been long since deadened by comfort and security. There's no reason to believe that "Spencer and his ilk" are any more pervasive or threatening than any other fringe white-power groups from the last several decades, but he's become the subject of countless media profiles in recent months because he plays a central role in the story progressives love to repeatedly tell themselves, and if the fact that so much political punditry consists of nothing but this storytelling doesn't prove that Bloom was pinpoint-accurate in his assessment, I don't know what would.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Luck's Last Match Struck In the Pouring Down Wind

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, I still find it difficult to accept that a life spent creating music and becoming rich from it could ever feel pointless. Oh, believe me, I'm well aware that many celebrities are utterly miserable and self-destructive, despite seeming to have it all. It's just that music is still as thrilling and meaningful to me as it was when I was an adolescent, both as a listener and as a creator. How could anyone talented enough to create beauty out of nothing but imagination fail to be rejuvenated by the healing waters of musical creativity? Perhaps asking that question indicates that I've only ever been splashing around in the shallow end, safe from the dangerous undercurrents out where the truly gifted swim. Or perhaps, to borrow religious terminology, salvation is purely a matter of grace, not works. Maybe talent and undying passion are just more false idols. Maybe I've just been lucky, and he became unlucky, and there's no more reason to it than that.

Doubtless, subsequent reports and eventual biographies will fill in further details, and they will likely offer seemingly clear reasons for why a man with a happy marriage, three kids, and a successful musical career would kill himself. Goodness knows, even a brief reading of his lyrics over the years can plausibly seem, in hindsight, to suggest inevitability rather than impulsivity. Was it depression? A relapse into substance abuse? Some other kind of personal trauma that became overwhelming? Any name will do; any rhetorical candle to provide a comforting, explanatory glow against the inexplicable darkness.

It's not quite survivor's guilt, but the shock of something like this almost makes me suspicious, wanting to look closely behind and under all the things that provide so much meaning in life for any telltale hints of gathering shadows. What if love, music, books and writing all desert me one day? Asking that question reminds me how quickly powerless we can all become, even as we build our lives around the illusion of control. And so we tremble and comfort ourselves with ritual words and behaviors while waiting and praying for the periodic darkness to pass without something in it lingering and turning its gaze in our direction.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

And Then My Idols Walk Next to Me, I Look Up at Them, They Fade Away. It's a Destruction of a Mystery, the More I Listen to What They Say

Freddie deBoer:

What I want is a movement for social justice that has the honesty and the confidence to continuing that fight without constantly grinding up innocent victims in its wake, to maintain both a commitment to fighting for equality AND a commitment to treating people with basic fairness. I want a movement that matches its passion with understanding and a willingness to forgive.

Well, yes; therein lies the rub, doesn't it? Why does this never seem to happen? Why do movements ostensibly devoted to the most utopian ideals invariably end up as circular firing squads after betraying those ideals and alienating themselves from everyone they hoped to convert? "Some animals are more equal than others." "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." "We're the People's Front of Judea!" It's pretty much a cliché at this point, yet in the eternal sunshine of the spotless academic mind, tomorrow is always a brand new day where human nature will finally be a blank slate and all of our schemes will finally work according to plan.

Well, anyway, that's Freddie at his most optimistic and inclusive. That's the writing of his that gets widely shared and retweeted by people who love the idea that there's still a Last Honest Leftist out there fighting against all the other ones making us look bad. But after quaffing a mysterious potion, his much-more-realistic twin Freddie deBergeron comes out to illustrate the violence inherent in the system:

You could say that what we want is to squash the variance in outcomes – to narrow up the bell curve on test scores and GPA and the like so that all students are more tightly spread near the average. That would necessarily reduce the number of high outliers too, which seems contrary to the whole American ethos of excellence, but as a commie I’m cool with it. But is that what we really want? And do we have any evidence that, at scale, we can narrow the spread in that way? I’m skeptical.

...The fact of the matter is, mobility is necessarily antagonistic to equality. Every student who moves up pushes another one down. These values are in direct tension, and yet no one seems to pause for a moment and really critically evaluate what we’re asking for. If your interest is in promoting equality then you should agitate against mobility, as true mobility will result only in more outliers – both above and below the mean. If instead you are concerned with simply providing a better quality of life for the most possible people, then you should focus on redistributive economic systems that ameliorate the effects of poverty and create a downward pressure on the wealth of those at the very top. Then you can allow education to go back to being education, rather than seeing it constantly as an instrument of economic manipulation – a role for which it has proven totally unsuited.

Two posts, written one day apart, the first one wishing that leftism could be something other than what it has repeatedly demonstrated itself to be, the second one complaining about progressives who can't get what they want because they don't recognize the incompatibility of the things they're demanding. All I can say is, blogger, critique thyself.

I'd always been surprised at how many times I see Freddie being linked to by conservative writers, but now it's making more sense: he's cheerfully reinforcing everything they've always said:

Conservatives: "We believe in equality of opportunity; they want equality of outcome."
Generic progressives: "What a straw man! We don't want to make everyone equal; we're just saying that there's no true equality of opportunity until systemic imbalances are addressed, and—"
DeBoer: "Actually, yeah, equality of outcome sounds great! Unfortunately, sigh, it doesn't seem realistic. Also, here's my latest post illustrating the ugly aspects my fellow leftists would prefer to ignore. By the way, I'm a proud 4th-generation Marxist."
Conservatives: "My God, give this man a PA system and a stage. Can we set up a Patreon for you, sir? Whatever you need, let us know."

It's embarrassing to remember that I used to consider him one of my favorite bloggers, but if I'm being charitable to myself, I note that within a very limited range, he's consistently correct: online leftism is a useless joke, a bunch of cool kids reproducing the cliques of the high-school cafeteria against the backdrop of political idealism. That's all true as far as it goes, which isn't very, thankfully enough. Indeed, liberty and equality have always been inherently conflicting goods. This is a basic principle of political philosophy. Generally, most people are not honest — or stupid — enough to come right out and say, "Well, so much the worse for liberty, then." Oh, I don't doubt that he genuinely hopes for a world of politically squared circles, even as the logic of his political convictions leads him inexorably on toward the sorts of dystopian conclusions he explores here. It's just that his type of oblivious incoherence illustrates the truth of Orwell's observation: One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.

Monday, May 8, 2017

I Mistrust All Systematizers and Avoid Them. The Will to a System Is a Lack of Integrity

Patrick West:

But is Nietzsche really to blame? And was he really a relativist? I would say that he isn’t and he wasn’t. I believe that it’s time that the great man and free-thinker par excellence was reclaimed by the school of the Enlightenment.

Sigh. Karl Jaspers once said that a reader could not be in a position to decide what Nietzsche meant by any particular assertion until finding a different passage in his writings that contradicts it. Suffice it to say, one of the things that makes Nietzsche still so rewarding to read is the fact that his writing, in addition to being stylistically superior, is so suggestive of different interpretations — and yes, he frequently does contradict himself. As my friend Arthur said, "the problem is that there is no Nietzsche; there are only Nietzsches." For every passage that seems to glorify cruelty and conflict, you can find a beautiful example like this one preaching a humble life of self-renunciation. For all his quoteworthy assaults upon Christianity and slave morality, there are examples like this one, where he asserts that "It goes without saying that I do not deny — unless I am a fool — that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged — but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto." What are we to make of all this? I prefer to take him at his word — in this instance, at least — when he says, repeatedly, that he is philosophically opposed to the very idea of trying to construct an internally consistent system of thought. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that Nietzsche ever read Walt Whitman, but the oft-quoted line from "Song of Myself" about contradictions and multitudes would almost certainly have raised a smile beneath Nietzsche's prominent mustache, and he would have been proud to stand beside Whitman in the philosophical nude, their non-sequiturs dangling in the breeze, scandalizing those prim and proper thinkers who preferred to tightly button up their several layers of systematic theorizing.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of people who still insist on trying to extract one of the many themes he wrote about and hold it up as the keystone of his thought. Here, we have some bien-pensant grad student doing her best to amputate whichever aspects of Nietzsche's thought won't fit on the Procrustean bed of political conservatism she's determined to fit him upon; here, we have the case of Nicholas Carr, who ridiculously attempts to use Nietzsche's fondness for aphoristic writing as evidence confirming Carr's own ideas about technological determinism. You name the cause, and there's probably someone out there right now mining Nietzsche's books for selective quotations in service to it. It's true, some of Nietzsche's work did flirt with Enlightenment themes. You can read a very good book about that period of his career here. But to take that "middle period" as the skeleton key which unlocks all the mysteries of his varied experiments in perspectivism is to make him appear more shallow and you appear more foolish. I'll bet you a large sum of imaginary money that West's forthcoming book about Nietzsche concludes that he was an individualist libertarian freethinker, just like the writers and readers of Spiked magazine, coincidentally enough.

Friday, May 5, 2017

In This Twittering World

Michael Brendan Dougherty:

There are any number of reasons why people feel this way, historical and political. But one of the main reasons they feel like this is because of the internet, particularly social media's effect on the way news is created and delivered to you. And how all of this has warped the experience of those who have lived through these social changes. It isn't just about politics either, but almost every dimension of human experience. Do you love architecture? Someone just built a monstrosity next to a building you loved. Click here. Do you adore products by Apple? Well, they're screwing them up. Click here. Did you just feel that unnamable, almost unmentionable surge of gratitude for all the people you've known in life and all the kindnesses their presence brought to you? Click here and see that most of them have contemptibly dumb opinions about everything.

The internet doesn't coddle you in a comforting information bubble. It imprisons you in an information cell and closes the walls in on you by a few microns every day. It works with your friends and the major media on the outside to make a study of your worst suspicions about the world and the society you live in. Then it finds the living embodiments of these fears and turns them into your cell mates. And good heavens it is efficient.

Like a magnifying glass held over an anthill, social media focuses an intense, disproportionate amount of our energy and attention on trivial objects and events. Or like a classic Tragedy of the Commons-collective action problem, we're all individually incentivized to dump just a little bit of negativity into the web, whether it's by writing a vituperative blog post or sharing the latest outrageous "OMG, you're not going to believe what this idiot said" with a friend. Collectively, though, we all become worse off as our news and information stream becomes increasingly polluted by garbage and bile. How do you change the incentives, then?

Last year, I had lunch with an old friend. He had become increasingly embittered by politics in the last few years, and he spent part of this conversation fuming about Obama and Bush, claiming that they were two of the absolute worst presidents we'd ever had. But, I replied, don't you think it just seems that way because we know so much more about them? If modern mass media had existed to scrutinize the previous few dozen presidents on a microscopic basis, don't you think that we'd have been similarly convinced that they were hastening the End of Days too? Do we honestly have the context and perspective to meaningfully judge such recent actions yet?

I recently saw a conservative writer summarize the presidency of Bill Clinton by saying, essentially, "shrug, yawn." His verdict was that Clinton was fortunate to occupy the office during a relatively calm period of peace and prosperity between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror. The dot-com boom and the tail end of the abundance created by the neoliberal shift in the '70s and '80s meant that Clinton only had to keep the ship of state cruising on course. History will apparently only register him as an unremarkable footnote to the end of a much more interesting century.

Now, I'm speaking here from the dead center of Generation X. That is, I was a young adult when Clinton took office, and if he is indeed destined to be remembered as a talented-but-unexceptional politician who didn't have much lasting influence, you wouldn't have guessed it then. My perspective may be skewed a bit by virtue of my membership in a family of rabid Clinton-haters, but I clearly remember Republicans generally acting as if he represented the death of virtue in general and everything good about America in particular. But it wasn't just the deranged conspiracy-theorizing of his enemies that we can see reflected in the level of discourse on blogs and tweets today — I also remember when he did a live town hall-style event on MTV, where one young woman, who had clearly absorbed plenty of media narratives in her time, informed him that the recent suicide of Kurt Cobain symbolized the hopelessness and frustration that a lot of us in this generation felt, and wondered what encouragement he might have to offer. I don't remember his boilerplate answer, but the point is, this common theme of a young generation facing an uncertain future full of anxiety, career insecurity, and financial decline was overdone then, and we didn't even have the Internet to perpetuate it. How long would it take me to find an article written within the last week bemoaning the inability of millennials to find satisfying work and middle-class security in a topsy-turvy world? Probably less than a minute. But don't worry, kids, they wrote the same articles about us, and we seem to be getting by okay. And less than two decades later, the man who represented the decline and fall of America is now seen as a humdrum symbol of the good old days. Why should we believe that things will be significantly different two decades from now?

In middle-school social studies class, we were taught how to watch and read the news while critically reflecting on it. One important lesson our teachers stressed was that the reason so much news seems horrible is because it's the exception. Good news is too common to bother reporting on. Paradoxically, though, when the exceptions get concentrated into a compact, regular delivery system, it starts to overwhelm our perspective and seem like the norm. We all know this, but it's boring to remind ourselves of it, and the latest outrage hits us right in our amygdala and gets our adrenaline pumping, which makes us feel so alive. Even if we feel sick soon after. I don't know if there's any systemic solution to the problem. On a personal level, all I can think to do is to seek out better sources of information, like books, which grant wider, deeper perspectives than the chirm of social media, and to use them as inspiration to write after a period of reflection, rather than indulging in reflexive ranting. Put down the magnifying glass and try looking through a telescope for a change.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 8

The urge to sterilize the socially expensive or inconvenient on the grounds that they reproduce themselves is often treated as though it were a German nationalist or extreme right-wing aberration, but it is not...Nor is it true that eugenics as a means of dealing with social problems was particularly attractive to the authoritarian right (if statist nationalism is on the right): it was equally attractive to the authoritarian left. The intellectual progenitors of the British welfare state, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw were strongly in favour of eugenics, both positive and negative. And by now it is well-known that Scandinavian welfare democracies continued with their eugenic programmes into the 1970s.

...Eugenics, I suspect, was in reality a symptom of a growing impatience of intellectuals with the intractability of the human condition, with the fact that that Man was irredeemably imperfect. And this impatience grew because of a decline in the religious understanding of life (it was no coincidence that Chesterton, who saw so easily through the pretensions of eugenics, should have been firmly Christian, while none of his opponents was). In the 1920s sterilization of the unfit would do for humanity what psychopharmacology is now supposed to do: render it happy because perfect. No one with an understanding of Original Sin could believe such a thing – even if Original Sin is not based upon an actual historical truth.

— Theodore Dalrymple, "Destiny of Crime", Threats of Pain and Ruin

Jonah Goldberg's primary theme in his book Liberal Fascism centered on what he called the "fascist moment" in Western culture around the beginning of the 20th century. He was referring to the then-widespread belief among the intelligentsia that classic, laissez-faire liberalism was outdated and incapable of meeting the challenges of life in industrialized societies. Hard as it may be for us to imagine in hindsight, many American progressives saw both fascism and communism as equally valid "experiments" in new ways of organizing society along more rational lines. The retroactive mythologizing of history has most of us thinking that the progressives were mainly concerned with busting up corporate monopolies and sanding the rough edges off of capitalism by means of labor and safety regulations, whereas there must have been some mysterious evil peculiar to European life that led to people being marched into concentration camps and crematoria. This allows us to ignore that the progressive vision of society as an organic whole, akin to an ant colony or a beehive, with everything scientifically managed by an elite caste of university-credentialed experts, is inherently illiberal. We've seen in the past year alone how easily the intelligentsia can succumb to the illiberal temptation to "dissolve the people and elect another," in Brecht's phrase. As our knowledge and technical mastery increase, the more likely it becomes that we will find it increasingly intolerable to accept a certain amount of inherent tragedy and imperfection in life, and the more likely that recalcitrant elements in society who are perceived to be holding up progress will be dealt with harshly. As Steven Ozment said, those who have glimpsed a fantasy of resolution cannot forgive the grinding years of imperfect life that still must be lived.