Saturday, June 24, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 10

He seemed intelligent, but frequently mispronounced words the way well-read people who have not grown up around well-read people often do.

— Allison Hoover Bartlett, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

Not all hermits are autodidacts, but autodidacts, by necessity, know something of hermit life. Knowledge is social. Even the smartest of us rely on the library of information embedded in the surrounding community and technology. For those of us who undertake vision quests upon the printed page, enduring the increasing isolation from our tribe, unfamiliar words become mute sentinels who carefully observe our trespassing without ever responding to our halting, pidgin attempts to speak their language.

Friday, June 16, 2017

It Is Intolerable to Us That an Erroneous Thought Should Exist Anywhere In the World, However Secret and Powerless It May Be

Sohrab Ahmari (article is paywalled, but I was able to access it via the author's Twitter):

Mr. Farron’s politics recall the liberalism of Gladstone, Chesterton and Isaiah Berlin, which treated conscience as king. Today’s liberalism has triumphed so spectacularly over the claims of faith and tradition that it has nothing left to conquer but the individual conscience. This is why modern liberals are so unmagnanimous in victory.

It isn’t enough to emancipate transgender people—you, rabbi, must adhere to strict pronoun guidelines and feel in your soul that Chelsea Manning was always a “she.” It isn’t enough to legalize abortion—you, Tim Farron, must like it.

Liberals welcome believers insofar as religion can be deployed in service of liberal causes, to be sure. But any expression of theological or moral judgment is met with hostility. 

Many years ago, I read an article about a former neo-Nazi who had repented of his beliefs and was now dedicating his life to traveling around the country giving speeches to adolescents in hopes of keeping them from falling under a similar influence. His turning point came about at some white supremacist gathering, where, feeling philosophical, he turned to a friend and asked, "When the race war is over and we've won, then what?" The friend laughed it off by saying, "Oh, come on, you know we're going to start on eye color next." The unwitting truth in the revealing "joke" struck home for our protagonist, and he shortly thereafter renounced his worldview.

Needless to say, I hope, I don't mention this story in order to make some facile point about how it's all just one slippery-slope continuum from bleeding-heart progressivism to Nazi racism. Still, another famous classical liberal, Lord Acton, reminded us about the danger of absolute power. Power abhors being without a wielder, and Ahmari is correct to note that liberalism is no more likely than any other creed to voluntarily relinquish power due to abstract principle. As Nietzsche would excitedly interrupt us here, will to power is the truest instinct of life, and any being (individual or collective) feels most alive when exercising power against opposition. In Orwell's 1984, O'Brien boasts to Winston Smith about not merely torturing men into submission, but about conquering their consciences. Martyrs who are allowed to remain unrepentant in their hearts only inspire more martyrs. Enemies being led to their own executions were still allowed to carry rebellion locked up inside their skulls, an intolerable remnant of uncontrolled freedom to zealots like O'Brien. When the war against officially-sanctioned bigotry backed by law is over and we've won, then what? Come on, you know we're going to start rearranging the inside of people's heads next.

Again, the point isn't to imply that soon we're all going to be frog-marched to Room 101 for being suspected of rolling our eyes during the next ESPN special devoted to transgender heroes. But, if we're going to be philosophical about it, where is the line? Can we even conceive, in the abstract, of a point at which we would finally stop trying to eliminate error or dissent altogether? Granted, some will blithely retort that the "freedom" to hold ignorant, outdated opinions is not worth preserving anyway. You may not have any sympathy in particular for trans-skeptics, religious opponents of gay marriage, or proud Confederate flag-wavers, but you're naïve if you think that the crusading will end once those opponents have been defeated and re-educated. Formerly-innocuous opinions and practices will become crimes, just so that those in power have an occasion to test their strength against an enemy, or an excuse to experience the thrill of bending others to their will.

Let me stress this for the third and final time: I'm not paraphrasing the famous Niemöller quote and saying that your freedom to tell dirty jokes among friends is contingent upon Milo being allowed to have a book deal and a Twitter account. I'm saying that homo sapiens may be inherently incapable of ceasing to attempt to optimize and sanitize the world, even when those attempts lead to unintended consequences, and that we might do well to contemplate in advance just how much imperfection in social life we're willing to live with. Individuality was always going to be a fragile achievement of a social species, but perhaps we could try a bit harder to allow people to carry a bit of rebellion inside their skulls without attempting to starve or beat them into submission.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 9

Day and night, thousands of voices, each carrying on its own tumultuous monologue, pour out on the peoples of the world a torrent of mystifying words, attacks, defenses, and over-excitement. But what is the mechanism of polemics? It consists in considering the opponent as an enemy, consequently in simplifying him and refusing to see him. We have no idea of what the man we are insulting looks like, or whether he ever smiles, or how. Having become three-quarters blind by the grace of polemics, we no longer live among men but in a world of silhouettes.

— Albert Camus, "The Artist as Witness of Freedom:The Independent Mind in an Age of Ideologies"

Either Camus was prescient enough in 1949 to foresee social media, or the phenomenon he's describing t'was ever thus.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

He Was Always a Thousand Miles Away While Still Standing In Front of Your Face

I remember hearing a song on the radio back in the '90s by some generic alt-rock band, with a chorus that went, "If I could be all by myself, I could be free." But as Christopher Knight, the Maine Hermit, noted from experience, true solitude dissolves such romantic adolescent fantasies of authentic selfhood. It sets you free from everything, including meaning and purpose. Most people's notion of solitude and independence only extends to arm's length, understandably enough.

Intellectual (or epistemological) solitude, like what Brad Warner is talking about here, has a similarly unsettling effect. If, like Descartes, we sit down to rigorously and thoroughly determine what we really know about the topics we opine about, we're soon forced to admit that we don't have the time (or inclination, if we're feeling especially honest) to become deeply informed. For most of us, in most areas of knowledge, our feeling of certainty rests on Arguments from Various Authorities. If asked "How do you know?" persistently enough, we will end up pointing toward someone else. "Because they said so, and I generally trust them."

There's no shame in that, of course. In a world as complex as ours, there's no way for any individual to be an expert in all the things that matter. Nevertheless, acknowledging this diminishes a flattering self-conception most of us hold, where we like to imagine our opinions being rooted in objective facts and reason, unlike those people over there. Most startling, perhaps, at least for those of us who write online, is the recognition of how much of this type of writing requires being completely invested in the conceit that our opinions are well-founded and, especially, that they matter. The sort of emotionally-balanced honesty that Brad is talking about, well — it sounds kind of boring, doesn't it? Who wants to read the musings of someone who can't even seem to take a side in an argument? As a writer, who wants to sit down every day to affirm his own ignorance and powerlessness? It's much more viscerally satisfying to both parties to scream and throw things at those people over there. Most of what we consume online is empty-calorie junk food and cheap beer, briefly sating a fleeting desire while simultaneously stimulating the appetite for more. No one wants the equivalent of a raw-food vegan showing up and ruining the fun.

How do we maintain our independence while still remaining within touching distance of other people and events? How do we generate meaningful things to say from within ourselves, rather than rely on the trivia/outrage du jour to give us our cues? This is something I wrestle with regularly, trying to find that golden mean between "Dear Diary" self-indulgence and ephemeral social-media punditry.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Hiding Out In Treetops, Shouting Out Rude Names

In his book The Unforeseen Tendencies of Democracy, E.L. Godkin, founder of The Nation, noted that the rise of the newspaper press furnished "to every man the materials for an opinion of some sort about public affairs, and the opportunity to say something about them, whether well or ill judged." Near the end of his life, in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, he lamented the political effect of the yellow journalism popularized by Pulitzer and Hearst: "The worst of it is that the cheap press has become a great aid and support in all these things. It has by no means turned out, as it was expected to, a teacher of better manners and purer laws."

As it was expected to! Well, I'm not here to be harsh toward Godkin, who had more nuance to his thought than doctrinaire progressivism, and who can hardly be blamed for what his magazine has turned into in our time. No, I'm reminded of this after hearing Damon Linker add his voice to the lamenting howl raised just recently by Evan Williams, founder of Twitter and Blogger. "I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place," Mr. Williams says. "I was wrong about that." "This simply isn't how thoughtful citizens of a democracy should be comporting themselves in public," harrumphs Linker.

Well, they're right, of course. Social media is mostly garbage because, to be shockingly inegalitarian about it, most people are ignorant boors (and bores) who aren't worth the time and energy it takes to get to know them. A medium which is expressly designed to incessantly provoke instant, emotional reactions from people who would struggle to be informed and thoughtful on their best day could hardly be expected to produce anything else. The only mystery is why, more than a century after Godkin's bitter reckoning, anyone should still have to re-learn this lesson. Progressives still want to believe that somehow, especially through technology, we're going to invent our way to a brand new human animal which will finally behave the way it should. "Liberalism was the child of an honest, if somewhat myopic, 'reasonableness', the assumption that society could be induced to follow courses strictly logical and practical; and when the masses insisted on remaining unreasonable, the liberals drowned in the fierce waters they had mistaken for a millpond," observed Russell Kirk. The worry is that if changing external conditions can't seem to solve the vexing problem of human behavior, impatience will encourage the attempts of people like Yuval Harari to take things to their logical conclusion.