Sunday, October 29, 2017

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Elementary, My Dear Alexander

Scott Alexander:

I don’t know. The whole problem is so strange. For a brief second, modern culture looked at New Atheism, saw itself, and said “Huh, this is really stupid and annoying”. Then it cast New Atheism into the outer darkness while totally failing to generalize that experience to anything else. Why would it do that? Could it happen again? Please can it happen again? Pretty please?

He's wondering why, out of all the intellectual positions that signify membership in the right-thinking elect, atheism should be the only part that became gauche and uncool. Why did progressives decide that atheism was too embarrassing to be associated with, when, say, feminism has done more than enough to scare away all but the most die-hard true believers?

He seems to be overthinking it a bit — I don't think there's much more to it than the fact that New Atheism quickly became associated with "Islamophobia" in the intersectional calculus. The prominent spokesmen for the movement were white Western men, who were perceived to be propagandists for bigotry against victimized Muslims (this was especially the case during the Bush years, when it was briefly fashionable for progressives to be anguished over cruise missiles falling on the Middle East). One of the prominent faces of New Atheism in particular, Christopher Hitchens, was already loathed by the left with that special intensity reserved for traitors, after his attacks on Bill Clinton and his subsequent support for the Iraq War. (To a lesser extent, atheism is also associated with "scientism," which offends the large postmodern contingent of the progressive bloc, where basic biology is seen as a fascist social construction.)

It may be obviously true in the left-wing scheme of things that there is no God and monotheism is cruel and oppressive, but politics always has the final say in these arguments, and left-wing politics currently classifies Muslims as victims in need of protection. It's like rock, paper, scissors, but with race, culture and gender, and the innovation in this version of the game is that the white male Westerner is always in the wrong, no matter who he's playing against.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Sky Would Only Wait Till All My Breath Was Gone

Heather Wilhelm:

In just a few short weeks, on November 8, thousands of Americans in at least nine cities will take to the streets to “scream helplessly at the sky.” You can probably guess the reason: It’s to mark the one-year anniversary of the election of Donald Trump.

To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn't there
That singular command
I do not understand
Bless what there is for being
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?

— W.H. Auden, "Precious Five"

Monday, October 23, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 19

At the end of August, lacking anything new to read, I started re-reading Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad. A few days later, a routine trip to the library ended with me bringing home several new releases. Then, the fall library sale season began. I finally finished Twain over the weekend, but I notice that somehow I have 27 books in the currently-reading pile. An imminent birthday will surely lead to the accrual of another ten or so. Will I be able to finish them all by Christmas, in time to buy another stack? Would it make a difference? Of course not. As Zarathustra sighed, "I recognize my lot. Thus my destiny wants it. Well, I am ready." It's a good life.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Orwell That Ends Well

Nick Slater:

Here’s why: because Orwell is the kind of revolutionary who actually seems like a guy you’d like to be around. He is human: complex, self-critical, and imperfect. He speaks the people’s language, not the People’s Language. He is the symbol of a left that could win, a left that is defined not by its benevolent tech behemoths or diverse corporate boardrooms or slightly-less brutal cops, but by its vision of the world that is genuinely different, a human-sized world where notions of right and wrong are more permissive than they are now (though traditions are still respected), where common sense is once again common (just less racist, sexist, or classist), where ordinary people can work decent jobs and have decent houses and live decent lives. He is perhaps the only thinker, living or dead, whose work could receive a fair hearing from everyone from libertarians to socialists to libertarian socialists. He shows us how to persuade people thoughtfully and lovingly… and how to recognize when there’s no choice but to run for the barricades. His thoughts exist in the quiet, unoccupied spaces that modern society seeks to banish from our minds. Rediscovering how to think like Orwell is the first step toward thinking both critically and kindly, which is itself the first step toward healing this battered world we live in.

Peter Ross:

These days she sees the story differently. Orwell’s novel is “a handbook for now,” she told me, and its central message is, “as young black kids are saying, ‘Stay woke.’ It’s about staying awake, staying rebellious, staying human. We’re in a power struggle to hold on to fact, to say, ‘This is a lie.’ If we keep doing that, we can defeat this.”

...Orwell’s 1984, dark as it is, prefers to regard the human spirit—its capacity to love—as rather a large thing that can endure much. This is perhaps why the book is finding a place in so many American homes. Yes, it is a warning, just as it was in 1949, but it also offers an example and a glint of light.

If there is hope, it lies in the prose.

While I wouldn't go as far as Kristian Niemietz, I'd agree that Orwell is probably not destined to be remembered for much beyond 1984 and Animal Farm, and I say this after having recently read the four volumes of his collected essays, journalism and letters, much of which is still worth reading. Dead in 1950, his whole adult life was dominated by the importance of communism and fascism, which makes much of his output seem unfortunately dated by now. (Yes, I know, the media are endlessly hyping the idea that we're living through the second Weimar era, but that tells us more about their jaded boredom and novelty-seeking than anything else.) And yes, there is quite a bit of special pleading in Orwell's writing about the possibility of a "true" socialism that would somehow avoid the inevitable tyranny. I can forgive that in him, given his early expiration and his writing talent. But it's just plain embarrassing to see Slater, who has both sixty-seven subsequent years of history to learn from and none of Orwell's redeeming facility with the written word to fall back on, desperately grasping at the possibility of an imaginary socialism that has only ever been embodied in isolated individuals, fever dreams of Catalonia notwithstanding. "Current Affairs, publishing mawkish left-wing bodice-rippers that even Spiked would hesitate to touch, since 2015."

The truly interesting thought is whether Orwell's intellectual integrity would have survived disillusionment had he lived long enough to see what became of the socialist experiment. I suspect it might have, but then again, we have a contemporary example in Freddie deBoer of someone who undeniably has the integrity to clearly see the failings of his ideological comrades while still clinging to a strange faith in political miracles, so who knows?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Noteworthies (22)

• John Tinnell, "Tweeting @ Thoreau"

• Theodore Kupfer, "No, George Ciccariello-Maher Doesn’t Believe in Academic Freedom"

• Q&A with Alan Jacobs, "How American Politics Became So Exhausting"

• Heather Mac Donald, "Standing on the Shoulders of Diversocrats"

• John Gray, "Forgetfulness: the Dangers of a Modern Culture That Wages War on its Own Past"

I thought this was too stereotypical to be true. A young British out-and-proud Stalinist who writes for numerous lefty media outlets turns out to be a boorish, borderline rapist who furthermore brags about being a rich kid living in his parents' mansion? It seemed like too much of a desperately contrived plot twist. Until he owned up to it. (Just goes to show the truth of the old saying...)

• What to make of the absurd Ta-Nehisi Coates phenomenon? Oliver Traldi, and Loury & McWhorter.

• Kyle Smith, "Mob Rule In the Book World"

Obiter Dicta, no. 18

Wodehouse understood this. 'Humorists', he wrote towards the end of his life, 'are looked down upon by the intelligentsia.' His work will continue to suffer the fate of so much light comic writing: it will rarely be treated with the seriousness it deserves or the seriousness accorded to many lesser writers. Wodehouse would not be dismayed. For him, the lightness was all.

— Robert McCrum, Wodehouse: A Life

Alan Watts frequently talked about the universe being playful, in the sense that it didn't exist in order to accomplish a goal or prove a point. Song and dance, for example, likewise exist for their own sake. The "point" of a song isn't to arrive at the final note;  the "point" of a dance isn't to arrive at a certain spot on the floor. Wodehouse's writing, to me, is best appreciated as playful in this sense — as a pure delight in the musicality of words, as an appreciation of the inherent silliness of life. His type of silliness is a transcendence of seriousness, not an avoidance of it.

The Bleatings Will Continue Until the Ratios Improve

Roger Clegg:

If Apple thinks having a diversity of life experiences and background is important in assembling a good team, fine, but why use skin color, national origin, and sex as a proxy for how people grew up and what they believe?

It's a rhetorical question, of course. As Charles Cooke accurately notes with regard to a different identitarian uproar, the "endgame" is all that matters, and anyone with intellectual integrity knows this already.

This issue is a perfect example of why I will never call myself a progressive (or liberal, lefty, whatever). First of all, it's a blatant lie. It's a lie that people's thoughts, character and experience can be distilled through their race, gender, or any other trendy sociological marker. It's a lie that manipulating demographic ratios to achieve "proportional" representation in certain fields will do anything other than (temporarily) salve the consciences of guilt-ridden white progressives. It's a lie that the injustices of race, gender, etc. will be eventually transcended by redoubling our fanatical obsession with reducing everything to race, gender, etc.

And most of all, it's not an incidental lie; it's close to the heart of the entire progressive worldview. The Blue Tribe has irrevocably committed itself to this stance for the foreseeable future.

Denise Smith stated a simple and obvious truth, that white people weren't all mass-produced on the same suburban assembly line before being programmed with the same mental operating system. Being a black woman, you might think she possesses impeccable intersectional credentials to say something so banal, but identity politics has always been a form of satrapy, where superficial differences are celebrated as long as white progressives are allowed to remain in charge of deciding who qualifies as deserving of their patronizing attention. The entire rotten edifice of identitarianism is threatened by something so anodyne as an obvious truth, so, no, Smith has to be rebuked and offer an apology, and a devout progressive is required to sacrifice hizzorher intellectual integrity to the gods of the progressive polis.

Those devout progressives console themselves for their cowardly acquiescence to a blatant lie by claiming that such sacrifices are necessary to achieve an eventual greater good. Well, it is true that life presents many tragic choices, where we have to think strategically with limited resources and knowledge, but as Orwell noted when confronted with repeated clichés about "no omelettes without broken eggs," one is entitled to ask where the omelette is at some point.

Unlike Orwell's dramatic rendering of the choice between truth and lies at the conclusion of 1984, though, where Winston Smith is tortured into believing that two and two make five, the acceptance of this particular progressive lie is comparatively painless. It only requires believing yet another lie, namely, the facile assumption that we are wise enough to predict and control the results of our cowardly compromises. Deals with the devil don't require threats of punishment to be accepted. They work by flattering our vanity in precisely that way, by convincing us to believe that there is a "right side of history" to be on, one that will make all our lies and compromises worth it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 17

There are two reasons why it is totally impossible for X to tell the truth about the books he gets. To begin with, the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in him the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every case the only truthful review he could write would be: ‘this book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.’ But will anyone pay you to write that kind of thing? Obviously not. As a start, therefore, X is in the false position of having to manufacture, say, three hundred words about a book which means nothing to him whatever. Usually he does it by giving a brief résumé of the plot (incidentally betraying to the author the fact that he hasn't read the book) and handing out a few compliments which for all their fulsomeness are about as valuable as the smile of a prostitute.

— George Orwell, "In Defence of the Novel"

It's fortunate that I'm not a book reviewer, because I find this to be true. Most books that I read don't inspire me to say anything about them, and I would always rather pass them over in silence than manufacture dishonest or pointless sentences for the sake of a word count or deadline. A glance down at the Goodreads widget will confirm to the reader that I go through books like a bandsaw, but few of them provide material that I consider worthwhile enough to excerpt here. Yet they're not bad books; it's not that I regret wasting my time on them or anything. It's just that they're "Nice. Nice. Not thrilling, but nice." The topic was interesting, the writing was well done, but nothing stood out as a good conversation starter. It could very well be that the fault is with me, though. You'd think reading a hundred books a year would provide a lot more inspiration. Maybe I have some kind of cerebral tapeworm that absorbs all the intellectual nutrients and leaves me just as ravenous and empty as before.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Playing With Fire by People Who Don't Even Know That Fire Is Hot

Matthew Walther:

If Weinstein's name is to be removed from the credits of television shows in the production of which he played even a small part, what are we to do with the mountains of records, CDs, posters, books, memorabilia, commemorating rockers? What about the so-called "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame"? What is the point at which it becomes necessary for us to channel our inner Savonarolas and just start burning? Is one confirmed incident enough? How many Station to Stations or Physical Graffitis are worth the assault of a single woman or child? Are we affirming or materially contributing to their crimes when we watch films or listen to music made by abusers?

Like the rest of human life, sexuality has been subsumed over the course of the last few decades into the language of economics. The sexual act, we tell ourselves, is a simple matter of exchange between consenting partners, like a business transaction. It has nothing whatever to do with marriage or children. Like the deregulation of the economy, the privatization of sex has given us some apparent winners and a rather larger number of clear losers.

It's hard to care how much has to burn for us to start listening to them.

That's the problem with feeding frenzies. As entertaining as it may be to see an odious, degenerate elephant seal like Harvey Weinstein being torn apart by sharks, the blood in the water attracts all sorts of annoying smaller fish desperate to join in, and if they can't get close enough to the intoxicating action, they'll just turn and snap at anything within reach. Walther wants to extend the bloodlust to every celebrity who has committed similar offenses, so apparently we're supposed to abstain from listening to the music of Don Henley, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Ted Nugent, Charlie Parker, and the Rolling Stones in solidarity with their victims. I presume he didn't intend to present us with such an overwhelmingly white list of offenders, when such obvious (and arguably more relevant) candidates as Chuck Berry, Tupac Shakur, Nelly, Mystikal, and R. Kelly could have been included, but then again, feeding frenzies are dangerous places, and you don't want to show up, eager to sink your teeth into a sexual predator, only to find yourself being devoured by the anti-racist barracudas.

Aldo Leopold, in his "Odyssey" essay, poetically demonstrated the interconnectedness of all life by describing a particular cycle in the existence of a nitrogen atom, from rock, to flower, to acorn, to deer, to Indian, "all in a single year," and on and on. I mention it here in order to make a short metaphorical hop over to suggesting that Walther's incoherent fantasy of isolating "bad" people in a moral quarantine is just that, a fantasy. What if, let's just say ferzample, the cure for cancer ends up being discovered by a scientist who spent countless hours researching and experimenting while being inspired by listening to Led Zeppelin on repeat? Would that "justify" their music against whatever claims could be made against it on behalf of abused, underage groupies? What kind of imbecilic utilitarian (but I repeat myself) would even attempt to devise a calculus to meaningfully answer that inane question? Was the music of Bach or Mozart contaminated by the fact that commandants in Nazi death camps could force prisoners to play it for their entertainment? Shall we go on compiling similar examples? Like Leopold's nitrogen atom, human lives and human creations restlessly zigzag across neat-and-tidy definitional boundaries, contributing to both good and bad in the world simultaneously. T'was ever thus, t'will forever be.

As Nietzsche said, "Beware all those in whom the urge to punish is powerful." To people like Walther, it's not important whether there's any meaningful, accurate way in which moral credits and debits can be tallied when it comes to the production and consumption of music and films; what's important is that he and people like him assume they'll be the judges who make those decisions. But once the statues start toppling, and the records and books start burning, these moral purification rituals tend to take on a life and momentum of their own. He may be too stupid to realize that, or he may be cynically presenting a stupid, unworkable idea for the sake of meaningless Internet virtue points. I'm not sure which would be worse.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Wind Him Up, Bring Him Back, Conscript Deserter

If I am asked, what do you propose to substitute[...]? Practically, What have you to recommend? I answer at once, Nothing. The whole current and thought and feeling, the whole stream of human affairs, is setting with irresistible force in that direction. The old ways of living, many of which were just as bad in their time as any of our devices can be in ours, are breaking down all over Europe, and are floating this way and that like haycocks in a flood. Nor do I see why any wise man should expend much thought or trouble on trying to save their wrecks. The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god. I am not so vain as to suppose that anything that I can say will do either good or harm to any perceptible degree, but an attempt to make a few neutral observations on a process which is all but universally spoken of with passion on one side or the other may interest a few readers.

— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Damon Linker:

Every single event in our public life is now instantly swept up into the centrifugal whirlwind of a political culture in which the center has completely failed to hold. Democrats are increasingly defined by their hatred of Republicans, just as Republicans manage to agree about little besides their loathing of Democrats..."A pox on both your houses" might not be a viable politics. But it's a perfectly understandable response to the grotesque sideshow that American public life has become.

The iron law of oligarchy applies to social media as well. The web of ten to fifteen years ago might have held forth the illusion of an endlessly diverse, decentralized public square, but the inevitable centralization into huge media platforms soon took hold, and the Great a-Wokening of the 2010s (as future historians will surely call it) soon reduced most online writing to a monomaniacal obsession with virtue signaling and a barely-concealed longing for political holy war. It struck me the other day how there are almost no worthwhile independent blogs to be found anymore. People who, in 2007, might have been writing offbeat, interesting essays on Blogspot or Wordpress have largely migrated to Twitter or Instagram to produce sentence fragments and snapshots. Those who still want to express thoughts which require some exposition would rather get their work published by the same couple dozen digital magazines and newspapers than "waste" their efforts on a personal blog. Discourse, like water, relentlessly seeks sea level. And so here we are, with the same media outlets publishing boring, interchangeable pieces on the same boring topics, ad nauseam.

The pessimism of Linker and Stephen seems well-grounded. There's no way out, nothing you could "do" about it. Any hot take you could produce lamenting this state of affairs would only be adding more fuel to the inferno. Shut it off, starve it of oxygen, refuse to participate. Yes, yes, I know. I too have seen the accusations that the ability to ignore politics, or the desire to preserve some small cultural space free of political posturing, is itself an example of white privilege, etc. etc. But if you take the bait, then they've got you back where they want you, and you're arguing on their terms again. If there's going to be an alternative, isolated individuals will have to create and embody it themselves, in anonymity, if need be.

Emerson once noted about Thoreau that he seemed to need some sort of opposition, or challenge, to bring out the best in his writing or thinking. Though I'd love to be talented or creative enough to generate interesting ideas purely from my own observations and imagination, I fear I'm the same way — it's much easier to find inspiration in disagreement. Not all opposition is created equal, though. Pascal Bruckner helpfully differentiated between "useful enemies that make you fertile and sterile enemies that wear you out." The social-justice left and the Trumpist right are the very definition of sterile enemies, and between them, unfortunately, they've poisoned most of the media landscape. Nothing suitable for consumption grows there anymore. I'm not vain enough either to think that anything I say could make a difference, but perhaps I can also keep trying to unearth a few observations to interest a few readers. In the midst of this media wasteland, thank God for books.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Who Would Have Guessed That You'd Become What You Hated?

Thomas Chatterton Williams:

This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. It was an exchange that left me feeling physically sickened. Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he told me gleefully. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”

However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in A Time of Gifts, wrote about the thin, porous line between rival fanaticisms after meeting some newly-converted fascists who, just the previous year, had been committed Communists. In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer analyzed at length the psychology of fanaticism, in which the need to believe and belong far outweighed the ideological particulars of this or that doctrine. In this regard, Spencer is far more sophisticated than huckster preachers like Coates and his idiot legions of white progressive devotees, who would be better off, and do far less political damage, by simply going back to church to deal with those unacknowledged salvational needs. Wearing sackcloth and practicing flagellation could easily take the place of identity politics for white people consumed by a sense of sinfulness, and be more easily ignored by the rest of us.