Wednesday, August 30, 2017

All My Little Words

I have not much pleasure in writing these Essays, or in reading them afterwards; though I own I now and then meet with a phrase that I like, or a thought that strikes me as a true one. But after I begin them, I am only anxious to get to the end of them, which I am not sure I shall do, for I seldom see my way a page or even a sentence beforehand; and when I have as by a miracle escaped, I trouble myself little more about them.

...For  person to read his own works over with any great delight, he ought first to forget that he ever wrote them.

— William Hazlitt, "On the Pleasure of Painting," Table-Talk

This rings true to me. I'm rarely ever satisfied with a post immediately after completing it; I find myself looking at the finished product, wondering how, out of what seemed like such endless potential, this should end up being the best I could do. The thoughts swarm my brain like gnats, but my attempts to swat them down onto the page involve a lot of empty flailing.

A couple weeks ago, I thought it might make a nice Christmas gift if I were to collect some of my favorite writings and have them printed in hardback to give to my parents, who will be especially delighted because they've always urged me to make something of my writing ability, but have no idea that I've actually done so. (Granted, it's not like I'm producing lit-rah-chur here, but parents tend to be an easy audience to impress, especially when you've lowered expectations beforehand.) makes little projects like that easy and affordable, so I set about reading over every single thing I've written, collecting a first cut to be whittled down later.

Well, my earliest attempts make me cringe now, of course. It seems that it took me about two solid years before I started to write anything worth keeping, and a couple more before I started to hit my stride. At that point, I started to be occasionally impressed by an insight or a turn of phrase that I had completely forgotten about. In the last few years, the problem became one of motivation rather than ability, as social justice fanaticism became the ever-rising sea level of online dialogue, forcing us recusants to scramble for the isolated peaks of higher ground where we could attempt to scratch out some sort of intellectual sustenance from the rocky soil. However hard the labor may have been at times, the fruits taste that much sweeter now, as I finally start to get a clearer vision of what I can aspire to, and where I can look for inspiration. I find it much easier to forgive my inability to say everything perfectly on demand — there will be other chances in the future. Ah, hindsight — both the torment and the solace of an amateur writer.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Fifteen Clicks Is All She Asks For. Everybody's Got Their Vice

It is more difficult to write interestingly of good people than bad; villains are generally more memorable than heroes. A newspaper that reported only acts of kindness and generosity would be insufferably boring and would go bankrupt faster than those that relay only disaster caused by defalcation. To adopt very slightly Tolstoy's famous aphorism, good people are all good in the same way, but bad people are all bad in their own way.

To write of good people is often to sound either naïve or priggish; whereas to write of the bad is to appear worldly and sophisticated. One of the reasons, of course, for the difficulty of writing interestingly of the good is that there seems so much less to say of them than the bad. The good act according to principle, and are lamentably (from the literary point of view) predictable. Once you know how they behave in one situation, you know how they will behave in others. The bad, by contrast, have no principles beyond the pursuit of short-term self-interest, and sometimes not even that. They are therefore unpredictable and their conduct is infinitely various. As I discovered in my medical work, the variety of human self-destruction is, like the making of books, without end; and even the least imaginative and inventive may discover new ways of exercising malignity. Since variety is the spice of prose, the bad are lingered upon with affection by most, if not by all, writers.

— Theodore Dalrymple, "Beauty and the Beast," Farewell Fear 

The city where I was born and raised to adulthood has been the subject of worldwide interest recently, thanks to her christening as a major battleground in the Weimar America wars of political religion. Now I see and hear her name being casually advertised and barked all along the seediest streets in the red-light clickbait district of the web, inviting all sorts of scumbag pundits to come in and enjoy a cheap fondle of this small, virginal college-town for a moment's political pleasure. Should I parlay my insider advantage into a topical piece of my own to cash in on the trend? Or should I be more noble, like the narrator of Iron Maiden's "22 Acacia Avenue," and brusquely demand that she pack her bags, she's coming with me back to a life of virtue? Instead, I find myself sitting in my hospital room, reflecting on the quiet heroism of registered nurses.

Just a short way down the highway, over hill and dale, the chattering classes are busy crafting lurid narratives of violence and hatred. Here, nurses are being attentive and supportive, to their patients and each other, even over the smallest things in the wee hours. There, journalists and pundits are marching along in search of new angles, new interviews, and new perspectives, much like how I singlemindedly stride the mountain trails in pursuit of whichever arbitrary endpoint I've chosen that day. Here, nurses are skillfully and quietly mending the damage done to countless individuals, like the uncomplaining spiders who patiently rebuild the webs I carelessly brush aside on my hikes.

I'm not romanticizing the profession, of course, just granting it some poetic burnishing. I'm well aware that office politics apply here as to any other workplace, and even the best of us can only briefly pose as selfless angels. But like Dalrymple says, it's far too easy to wallow in the salacious details of the latest atrocity, soon to be supplanted by the next one. It is indeed almost impossible to say anything truly compelling about the simple, obvious, and yet so necessary, acts of unacknowledged compassion and generosity that go on around us all the time. No, this feeble effort is merely my attempt, as I sit here recuperating in the pre-dawn hours, to reach out and take hold of just a few of those anonymous acts before they slip gently away with another good night, smile, and express my deepest gratitude for their existence.

Friday, August 25, 2017

It's Not Me, It's Them Over There

Iona Italia:

“Iona is no leftist,” a Twitter acquaintance recently asserted. It’s left me pensive as to what it means to be on the left (or not) and why so many of us lifelong left-leaning voters find ourselves described by our fellow lefties as, bafflingly, “right-wing.”

I think of myself as left-leaning primarily because of my belief in a strong welfare state. Communism is a failed ideology, incompatible with human nature, which can only be maintained by the most severe and inhumane forms of authoritarianism. But, while I am therefore a reluctant capitalist, I feel we have a duty of care towards the weakest members of our society. I believe in free-at-point-of-use healthcare and education at all levels. I favor a robust welfare state and am far less concerned about possible abuses of hand-outs than I am about the many deserving but less successful people who slip through the cracks. I would like to see far greater support for single mothers and more affordable childcare for all who need it; I’d like drug users to be treated with compassion, not criminalized; I’d like us to provide a dignified life for the elderly, ill and disabled. As far as possible, I’d like to see everyone given equal opportunities to thrive, whatever their background and I do not want us to abandon anyone to misery. And I can see no place for religious dogmatism of any kind in government which must remain completely secular and uninfluenced by politicians’ personal faiths. These are not right-wing views.

If I were in charge of such things, everything following the first line of the second paragraph would have been taken outside and impaled upon a row of red editor's pens, on the grounds that it consists of nothing but platitudes better suited for a politician's stump speech than a poli-sci discussion. But I guess I would agree that "belief in a strong welfare state" marks an important distinction — more because of the "belief" part, though. The stakes between Trinitarians and Arians were no less important (or deadly) just because all parties involved were arguing over a nonexistent God; likewise, the fact that the welfare state keeps growing more elephantine regardless of what any particular priests thunder about from the pulpits renders the argument strictly academic from my perspective. Sayre's Law in full effect. But, okay, fine, you guys fervently "believe" in the righteousness and goodness of this system that is far too massive and complex for any faction to control; you guys don't "believe" in it and would like to go back to some golden age of laissez-faire; and you're both ready to settle down to decades of trench warfare over it. Gotcha. Just let me remove myself to a safe distance before you start trading artillery rounds.

Well, I should amend that a bit. That last line, "These are not right-wing views," also signifies something substantial, namely, what Christina Hoff Sommers accurately called "the liberal fear of looking conservative," a debilitating trait that permeates every single article in this burgeoning genre. Not only does it reek of fearful defensiveness, it situates the argument on an axis of ideological proximity rather than principle. Worst of all, the whole tendentious classification breaks down as soon as you try to apply it to the original culture warrior and welfare-stater.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 14

Ill health — which had granted me quite a long spell of leave — has attacked me without warning again.

— Seneca, "Asthma"

I feel Seneca's pain, and then some. For while I don't doubt that the inability to fill one's lungs is a harrowing one, I might be willing to trade him for the acute pancreatitis that I'm currently enjoying. I've been ensconced at the hospital since last Saturday, which, coincidentally, is the last time I ate anything. Still, I've managed to gain eighteen pounds of water weight from all the IV bags they've emptied into me, which has led to the excruciating edema afflicting my belly and all points south. How much I would have loved an enforced week off from work to do nothing but read and write! What's that, you say? I can have that? All I need to do is wish upon this monkey's paw? Great! Hey, wait, the pain is too distracting to focus! And the painkillers leave me in a drooling stupor!

Friday, August 18, 2017

What the World Needs Now Are Some True Words of Wisdom, Like La La La La La La La La-La

Matthew Hennessey:
Given the eager acquiescence of millennials to the all-online world, Generation X has a formidable responsibility to keep faith with reality. They are the last analog generation. Raised in a prerevolutionary moment technologically, they are children of paper, books, handshakes, body language, and eye contact. They learned—even if they didn’t always practice or appreciate them—the virtues of patience, self-control, and delayed gratification. They knew what it meant to be out of contact with someone they loved. Some of them—too few—learned how to fix an engine or wire a light fixture. Most remember how quiet things used to be; how easy it was to be alone.

...So what can Generation X do to help save America? It can begin by reasserting the relevance of the flesh-and-blood world that formed it. On an individual level, this means putting the iPhone down, turning off the computer, and taking a book out of the library or visiting a museum. It means going to a movie theater instead of binge-watching a Netflix series. It means talking to your friends face-to-face more instead of mostly texting or e-mailing them. On a societal level, it means pushing back against those who blithely accept that technology can be the solution to all our social and political problems. It means adopting a healthy skepticism of millennials’ efforts to disrupt every industry, every institution, and every economy with technology and an ethos of “sharing.” It means fighting for your privacy.

Rich Cohen:

Demographics are destiny. We grew up in the world and mind of the baby-boomers simply because there were so many of them. They were the biggest, easiest, most free-spending market the planet had ever known. What they wanted filled the shelves and what fills the shelves is our history. They wanted to dance so we had rock ’n’ roll. They wanted to open their minds so we had LSD. They did not want to go to war so that was it for the draft. We will grow old in the world and mind of the millennials because there are even more of them. Because they don’t know what they want, the culture will be scrambled and the screens a neverending scroll. They are not literally the children of the baby-boomers but might as well be— because here you have two vast generations, linking arms over our heads, akin in the certainty that what they want they will have, and that what they have is right and good.

The members of the in-between generation have moved through life squeezed fore and aft, with these tremendous populations pressing on either side, demanding we grow up and move away, or grow old and die—get out, delete your account, kill yourself. But it’s become clear to me that if this nation has any chance of survival, of carrying its traditions deep into the 21st century, it will in no small part depend on members of my generation, Generation X, the last Americans schooled in the old manner, the last Americans that know how to fold a newspaper, take a joke, and listen to a dirty story without losing their minds.

...Irony and a keen sense of dread are what make Generation X the last great hope, with its belief that, even if you could tell other people what to say and what not to say, even if you could tell them how to live, even if you could enforce those rules through social pressure and public shaming, why would you want to? I mean, it’s just so uncool.

In a suspicious coincidence, these two pieces appeared nearly simultaneously to argue that my generation's sense of jaded irony is apparently the only thing that can save us from true believers who take politics and technology too seriously. Allow me to raise a skeptical eyebrow in response. But then, I would do that, wouldn't I? Look, I'm saving the world by continuing to do what I was already doing anyway! ♫ Hey, Dad, what do you think about your son now...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Game Over, Man, Game Over!

Paul Tomkins:

I think I’ve just about reached breaking point. Whatever fun is left from the spectacle of football – which still brings me great joy, and is rarely bettered than Liverpool’s first goal at Watford – is lost in the maelstrom of hate, negativity and just downright nastiness. It’s spiteful, immature and depressing, with spoilt brats seemingly incapable of handling their team drawing a football match. Mostly it comes from men, many of whom may also be fully grown.

Warning: there will be rambling. And foul language (nuns and priests, click off now). And it may take up 30 minutes of your time. There will be a look at Liverpool’s current predicament, but also my (latest) despair on how general football discourse is going, and how everything gets skewed by fury.

...Remember, remember: the more you want and need something, the more you grasp for it, and the more your world dissolves when you don’t have it. Because, if you need it, then you are in a state of “lacking”. Only wins, or the title, can remove the sense of unworthiness, which spreads around Twitter due to the constant “banter”, in the echo-chamber, and in the way misery loves company.

He may sound like an aspiring Buddhist who hasn't quite got the knack of keeping his equanimous poise, but Tomkins is just a long-time journalist and a diehard fan of Liverpool FC who has arrived at a conclusion already occupied by many others: social media makes everything worse, even — or especially — the things you love.

My father once asked if I regretted not pursuing a philosophy degree. I laughed it off by noting that my former professor lived in a townhouse and drove a Ford Pinto, and I had already achieved that level of success without the crushing debt of graduate school on top of it. I was being jocoserious, of course; a lack of passion for teaching, rather than a fear of debt, was the reason for that particular road not taken. But even had I pursued something like what Damon Linker described — a humble existence as a teaching professor at a small liberal-arts school — I doubt I'd be happier than I am now as an autodidact and anonymuncule. I knew when to stop, and that has made all the difference.

Like a sideways-8 infinity symbol, the dogged pursuit of happiness often seems to wind around and turn back upon itself. It seems perfectly logical — what could be more fulfilling than a job that requires a complete focus on your favorite sport and your favorite club and pays you to write about them? What could be better than doing so in the company of countless other people who also share your passion? And yet, we always forget — those same people love to complain incessantly. They love to pick fights over nothing. They love caviling and kibitzing even when they have nothing valuable to add. And social media amplifies, magnifies and intensifies all the negativity to the point where even a Buddhist master would struggle to avoid being dispirited by it all. Maybe, like George Carlin joked, the answer is to ignore your team when they're doing poorly, and only jump back on the bandwagon when they're winning again. Life gives you more than enough opportunities to build character through suffering; it seems perversely masochistic to turn a beloved hobby into yet another one.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

An Orangutan Among Chimpanzees

Douglas Dalrymple:

I’m a bit worried these days by how little I have, or care, to say. Other people’s words don’t hold much interest either. It feels ridiculous that we should be required to have opinions and perspectives, or that we should need to express them. These days I avoid conversation. I switch off the television and radio and wonder why we can’t be content, like Bertie Wooster in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, to “just exist beautifully.” How different – how better –things would be if we could only dial down (by fifty percent, say) the chatty sociability of the species.

I recently read Massimo Pigliucci's book How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. I was pretty sure I wasn't an unconscious or incipient Stoic, but it's good to reassess these things every so often. Still, to what would surely be the good professor's chagrin, all this did was reaffirm that I am indeed still the Epicurean I always thought I was. Good friendships, clear thinking, modest desires, intellectual pleasures, gods in name only, and most crucially — or most damningly from a Stoic perspective — a preference for withdrawal from social and political life. Those who espouse "living unknown" as a maxim will always be offensive in the sight of those who believe in performing duty and signaling virtue. "Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society." Pretty much. Still, I reserve the right to hold myself aloof from the fray.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 13

"The human race is an enormous agglomeration of bubbles which are continually bursting and ceasing to be. No one made it or knows anything worth knowing about it. Love it dearly, O ye bubbles." This is a sort of religion, no doubt, but it seems to me a very silly one.

— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

And yet, what archaic prejudice leads us to believe that the truth, when unmasked, should be sober and respectable rather than ludic or silly? Why should the currency of love only have value if backed by guarantees of permanence? We treat with indifference and contempt that which we control and expect; we love most dearly that which we know can be lost.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Seen the Shadows Grow, See an Ominous Display

Scott Alexander:

A lot of people without connections to the tech industry don’t realize how bad it’s gotten. This is how bad. It would be pointless trying to do anything about this person in particular. This is the climate.

Silicon Valley was supposed to be better than this. It was supposed to be the life of the mind, where people who were interested in the mysteries of computation and cognition could get together and make the world better for everybody. Now it’s degenerated into this giant hatefest of everybody writing long screeds calling everyone else Nazis and demanding violence against them. Where if someone disagrees with the consensus, it’s just taken as a matter of course that we need to hunt them down, deny them of the cloak of anonymity, fire them, and blacklist them so they can never get a job again. Where the idea that we shouldn’t be a surveillance society where we carefully watch our coworkers for signs of sexism so we can report them to the authorities is exactly the sort of thing you get reported to the authorities if people see you saying.

...Parts of tech are already this bad. For the rest of you: it’s what you have to look forward to.

He's speaking, of course, of the reaction to the memo destined to live in infamy. "This person in particular" about whom it would be pointless to do anything is another Google employee ranting about Nazis, Nazis and the need to punch Nazis, namely the author of the memo. Because, as we know, the actual Nazis were famous for beginning their inter-party memos with statements like "I value diversity and inclusion." It's funny — I've read many good articles at National Review, but after a couple days of seeing the most wildly deranged and willfully dishonest reactions to the memo from progressives, this was the first time I've clicked over to N.R. and thought, "Oh, thank God!" They had several pieces up about the topic, and reading them was like discovering an oasis of sanity in a desert of hysteria. Ah, well. At this point, the conversation is several meta-levels above where it began. People rarely ever discuss the original point; they react to what they think the person might have been implying, and their opponents do likewise, and everyone just ends up screaming past each other yet again. It's as if the children's game of Telephone has become a full-contact sport.

In 1873, James Fitzjames Stephen wrote a book called Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, a philosophical assault on John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Among many other criticisms, Stephen noted that Mill's dream of a society that changed minds purely through gentle persuasion, not coercion, was a chimera. Debate all you want, Stephen said, but a clash of values will only end with one opponent finally bending the knee in submission and the majority of the onlookers shrugging their shoulders in indifference:

The custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality, and the fact that this aversion may be felt by the very person whose conduct occasions it, and may be described as arising from the action of his own conscience, makes no difference which need be considered here. The important point is that such disapprobation could never have become customary unless it had been imposed upon mankind at large by persons who themselves felt it with exceptional energy, and who were in a position which enabled them to make other people adopt their principles and even their tastes and feelings.

Religion and morals, in a word, bear, even when they are at their calmest, the traces of having been established, as we know that in fact they were, by word of command. We have seen enough of the foundation of religions to know pretty well what is their usual course. A religion is first preached by a single person or a small body of persons. A certain number of disciples adopts it enthusiastically, and proceed to force their views upon the world by preaching, by persuasion, by the force of sympathy, until the new creed has become sufficiently influential and sufficiently well organized to exercise power both over its own members and beyond its own sphere....But, be the special form of religious power what it will, the principle is universally true that the growth of religions is in the nature of a conquest made by a small number of ardent believers over the lukewarmness, the indifference, and the conscious ignorance of the mass of mankind.

I've worried about this for a long time without coming any closer to a reassuring answer. The best always seem to lack conviction for the fight, and the worst are always filled with an inexhaustible reservoir of passionate intensity. "The goal of creating 50/50 gender parity in prestigious fields is a simple-minded fantasy, and even if it could be achieved, nothing important would be solved by doing so" — I can say this only because I'm a nobody, beneath notice. It's the truth, but it's not the sort of truth anyone wants to endure painful consequences in order to defend. The willingness to inflict those consequences ends up deciding the matter. Has it ever been otherwise?

Theodore Dalrymple wrote a fascinating essay, "How to Read a Society," in his book Our Culture, What's Left of It. In it, he tells of a nineteenth-century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine, who visited Russia for three months and published his observations in a series of letters, later to become a book, under the title La Russie en 1839. Particularly noteworthy was his diagnosis of a cultural malaise owing to the propensity to deceive and be deceived. One of the unspoken customs prevalent during Custine's visit was for Russians to refuse to look at the palace where the Czar's father, Paul, had been murdered. Similarly, no previous Czar was ever mentioned in conversation, in order to avoid implying that the current Czar was mortal. As Dalrymple writes:

Custine appreciated only too well the violence that this remaking of history did to the minds of men, and the consequences it had for their character and behavior. In order not to look at the palace in which the emperor Paul was murdered, a person had to know that he was killed there; but his whole purpose in not looking at the palace was to demonstrate in public his ignorance of the murder. He thus had not only to assert a lie but also to deny that he knew it was a lie. And all officials — the emperor included — had likewise to pretend that they did not know they were being lied to, or else the whole edifice of falsehood would have come tumbling down.

The need always to lie and always to avoid the truth stripped everyone of what Custine called "the two greatest gifts of God — the soul and the speech which communicates it." People become hypocritical, cunning, mistrustful, cynical, silent, cruel and indifferent to the fate of others as a result of the destruction of their own souls. Moreover the upkeep of systematic untruth requires a network of spies; indeed, it requires that everyone become a spy and potential informer. And "the spy," wrote Custine, "believes only in espionage, and if you escape his snares he believes that he is about to fall into yours." The damage to personal relations was incalculable.

If Custine were among us now, he would recognize the evil of political correctness at once, because of the violence that it does to people's souls by forcing them to say or imply what they do not believe but must not question. Custine would demonstrate to us that, without an external despot to explain our pusillanimity, we have willingly adopted the mental habits of people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship.

The avenues of the web are indeed filled with snitches and cops. Most of us are learning to keep our heads down and mouths shut as a result. As Dalrymple noted elsewhere, the purpose of political correctness is to humiliate, not to persuade. It forces you to become complicit in your own confinement, to lose self-respect and thus become more easily controlled. Death by a thousand little white lies.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Everything That Needs to Be Said Has Already Been Said. But Since No One Was Listening, Everything Must Be Said Again

Damon Linker:

These are classical subjects that centuries of people have written and thought about while reading the great playwright and poet. What's new to say about them? Probably nothing. Instead, reflecting on such themes entails a rediscovery of knowledge that past readers may have possessed but that must be reacquired by every reader, by every student, anew.

By definition, that's not "progress in knowledge," since it denies that a contemporary scholar necessarily knows more on the subject than a reader from a previous century. It presumes that the only form of "progress" is each individual’s advancement in coming to understand the perennial problems and puzzles of the human condition, and it looks to great writers of the past for help in acquiring that understanding.

This explains the resistance shown by many conservatives toward efforts to achieve progress in knowledge by expanding the canon: They tend to presume that the authors and books that come down to us as "great" will provide more guidance than those that have disappeared into obscurity. It also explains why many conservative academics prefer to teach at small liberal arts colleges, where they can spend their days poring over the same old books by the same old writers, making their own personal progress toward understanding, in part by leading new generations of young people to begin their own personal progress toward the same goal.

But this means that the culture of the research university stands in considerable tension with what motivates many conservatives to pursue academic study in the first place.

When a friend of mine told me that his unfinished dissertation was on aphorisms in history, I was excited to read it. I was young and naïve at the time, though, so I was expecting a more general overview. It turned out to be a specific focus on a particular use of aphoristic sententiousness in a particular section of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, not the sort of thing that will ever make its way into ordinary conversation. By contrast, when I came across James Geary's book The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, I thought I had finally found the fulfillment of my earlier expectations, only to find myself quoting Julius Caesar upon finishing it: "Nice. Nice. Not thrilling, but nice." It was the sort of pleasant book that passes easily through your eyes and out of your memory like so much fiber through your digestive tract. It turns out that while aphorisms in particular are fascinating, there just isn't much to say about aphorisms in general, as a genre. It's better to just go straight to the source—read the practitioners themselves. rather than filter them through intermediaries.

Linker's piece is excellent, and I think he's exactly right. When people complain about the lack of conservatives in academia, they're referring mostly to the humanities. But the culture of the research university incentivizes the wrong sort of attitude and approach to humanistic learning. That same sort of approach — seeking a counterintuitive, novel perspective on old topics, attempting to build one's own name by tearing down an established predecessor — permeates a lot of popular writing online as well. While thinking about Thoreau the other day, I had a vague memory of having seen yet another recent viral piece attacking him for...well, who knows. Whatever it was, it's easy enough to find things to upbraid him over, if that's the angle you want to take. But we're still talking about Thoreau centuries later because he was a fantastic writer, whereas the twenty-something gender studies major who's currently getting clicks and praise for denouncing his problematic views on this, that or the other won't even be remembered five years from now. Well, if I may repurpose the words of a famous prophet, those hack writers have received the reward they're most interested in. But for those who are willing to shut the door on academic careerism and trendy contrarianism, greater rewards can be found by quietly studying in private with the great minds of the past.

I mean that quite literally — there's no need to take on massive financial debt just to study the classics and apply their lessons to everyday life. In fact, the sunk costs of doing so will almost irresistibly incentivize you to become yet another tenure-chasing ideologue. We're fortunate enough to live in an age when both the materials and a supporting community of like-minded people (if you're so inclined) are a few mouse-clicks away. I'm picturing something like Morris Berman's "new monastic individual" (minus the almost cartoonish bitterness and despair that Berman evinces in his more recent writings). There's no need to cast down this culture's idols of progress. Just refuse to offer them prayers.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Velvet Glove of Superficial Diversity Over the Iron Fist of Ideological Uniformity

Andrew Sullivan:

I fear that the truth is Islam has become an untouchable shibboleth for some on the left. What they lacerate in other religions, they refuse to mention in Islam. Sexism, homophobia, the death penalty for apostasy … all of this is to be rationalized if the alternative is Islamophobia. Why, one wonders? Is it because Muslims are a small minority? But the same could be said for Jews. My best guess is simply that, for the far left, anything that is predominantly “of color” is preferable to anything, like Judaism and Christianity, that can usually be described as “white.” That’s how “intersectionality” can be used to defend what would otherwise be indefensible. The preoccupation with race on the far left is now so deep, in other words, it’s becoming simply an inversion of that on the far right.

To be more specific, the proximate preoccupation is with race, but the ultimate preoccupation is with moral authority, as Shelby Steele has helpfully described over the course of several books. As many have noted, the loudest voices denouncing all things "white" typically issue forth from...white people. These White Wokies have no problem with dropping their ostensible racial sensitivity the moment a member of an officially oppressed group dares to disagree with their progressive axioms. It's about politics and power, just as it's always been. Race is just an effective tactic for the time being. The only people "of color" who matter are the ones who are content to let the Wokies stay in charge. Cosmetic diversity flowers while ideology marches in lockstep.

In the aggregate logic of progressivism, Team White/Male/Etc. has been running up the score on Team Everybody Else for several hundred years, so the duty of the Enlightened Elect is to encourage and amplify millions of tiny, everyday incidents which can be vaguely construed as The Subaltern scoring one against White/Male/Etc. Supremacy, helping to cancel out the unjust privileges inherited from history. The cumulative effect will be to even the sociopolitical score sometime in the distant future, at which point...the games can re-commence on a level playing field? Just kidding, of course. At that point, behavior will have to be even more tightly supervised and controlled for fear of all our hard work getting undone. Don't worry, our Wokie overlords will tell us when we reach the promised land and Year Zero begins. Now keep marching.

A Thousand Angers Have Kept Me Alive

Theodore Dalrymple:

The question, then, is whether, 30 years ago, all the rage expressed by these insults, threats and menaces existed but simply went unexpressed, or whether the ability to express it actually called it into existence. Does our ability now to communicate the first thing that comes into our head alter the nature of the first thing that comes into our head? After all, anger is a habit like any other and, as everyone knows (if he is honest with himself), there is a certain pleasure in being angry.

In addition, if you express anger on behalf of someone else — Charlie Gard, for example — you have the additional pleasure of thinking that you must be a good, generous soul concerned for the welfare of others.

Many people still seem to subscribe to a hydraulic theory of emotions, in which the "pressure" of anger needs to be released in the form of "blowing off steam," lest the engine overheat and explode. As a glance through social media will show you, though, people habituated to expressing anger only become more motivated to do it. When the Buddhists wanted to invent the worst kind of hell, they described a place of constant anger and aggression and called it Naraka, which I believe is Sanskrit for "Twitter."

Last Time I Looked Around, I Knew Everything

Theodore Dalrymple:

A visit to any pub or bar will confirm the truth of what Dr. Johnson says. There you will find people who seem to be party to the most secret of secret state policy, though they appear to work in humble capacities in local businesses, or who are unalterably convinced of the motives of people in authority whom they have never met and about whom they know practically nothing. Needless to say, I do not exclude myself from this class of know-all: I am exactly the same.

It's not just serious topics like politics, though. Even while browsing the Liverpool FC subreddit, for example, I'm constantly amazed at people's ability to quickly turn gaseous speculation into granite conviction. Guys who couldn't successfully manage a local McDonald's franchise seem to know better than billionaire owners how the club's business should be run. Fellows who couldn't coach a team of eight year-olds are founts of insider information and advice on strategy that professional managers are apparently too blind or stupid to see. Direct communication often manages to devolve into a game of Telephone as it is, with the participants reacting to subtext (both real and imagined) as much as the actual words spoken, but these fans are like people standing outside the window with their ears pressed to the glass, trying to participate in the conversation based on the snippets and fragments they're able to catch. The absurdity would be comical were it not for how seriously they take it.

I find that as humility permits my conversation to extend only as far as its leash of ignorance will reach, my walks around the Internet are much more peaceful and enjoyable. "I don't know, and I don't need to know" may not stir the blood and quicken the pulse, but as far as slogans go, I have yet to find one more liberating.