Thursday, November 30, 2017

Unhappy Ever After In the Marketplace

Charlotte Lieberman:

The quest for authenticity is ostensibly born out of a desire to resist mass-produced capitalism, yet the pervasiveness of this desire means countercultural trends are rapidly appropriated by the mainstream. In The Authenticity Hoax, Potter concludes that we need to “come to terms with modernity” by recognizing liberal democracy and the market economy as givens, but I’m not so sure.

If we choose to see only the aesthetic virtue of nostalgia, ignoring its ideological dimensions, we participate in an inhospitable value system that excludes, well, most people. When we buy into a trend like eco-tourism, for example, we’re not just glorifying living without electricity and with daily meditation, we’re consuming an ideological system. As Slavoj Žižek argues: “When we buy a cappuccino from Starbucks, we also buy quite a lot of ideology… ‘Yes, our cappuccino is more expensive than others,’ but then comes the story. ‘We give 1% of all our income to Guatemalan children to keep them healthy… [or] some Saharan farmers, or to save the forest, to enable organic growing for coffee, or whatever or whatever…. Starbucks enables you to be consumerist without any bad conscience because the price for the countermeasure of fighting consumerism is already included into the price of a commodity.” This absolves us of guilt but ensures that consumerism continues.

Žižek refers to this model as “the ultimate form of consumerism”—selling redemption as part of the price of consumption, both literally and figuratively. But if we make peace with liberal democracy, the market economy, and blindly embrace Starbucks’ clever business model as a convenient way to find meaning outside the consumerist machine, we threaten the rigor with which we might define social progress. If we regard “authentic” consumer choices as an outlet for self-expression reflecting a commitment to personal beliefs, we displace useful energy from serious issues to the personal performance of “politics.” And with politics in scare quotes, the threat to progress becomes a real—dare I say authentic—object of fear.

In Kristian Niemietz's Biercean-style definition, "consumerism" is the stuff that other people buy. In addition to being witty, this also accurately identifies the status competition that is the mechanism at work in these dime-a-dozen Marxish critiques. Lieberman, you see, is here to tell you that your Tiny Houses and farm-to-table-restaurants aren't truly threatening to the capitalist status quo — apparently, any innovation which isn't instantly and equally available to all without exception only perpetuates privilege and inequality, and clearly, any progressive improvements which leave the fundamentals of a market economy intact are fraudulent. Or, to go ahead and put too fine a point on it, she's doing a rarefied version of what she's complaining about — competing against rivals to sell a positional good. She's an apex predator in the circle of performative consumer life.

It might surprise her to find that Spiked magazine, which represents a British libertarian/classical liberal perspective, is also enamored of this line of criticism — see here for a typical example which I happen to remember off the top of my head. This bipartisan consensus ought to alert us to the common denominator of human nature at work here, namely, the desire to position myself as cooler, more fashionable, more in-the-know than you, however irrelevant that may be in the world of functioning, practical adults. But I suppose when you've spent grad school studying turgid windbags like Adorno, Horkheimer and Zizek, only to end up paying the bills by writing for such radical journals as Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, and Marie Claire, you'll seize any chance you can to feel superior to others.

I especially love that line, "the rigor with which we might define social progress." Oh, might we? Well, I, for one, would love to see what sort of rigorous vision she has. Cynical me, I suspect it's nothing more than vague gesturing in the general direction of some Rousseauvian fantasy in which the compromises and tradeoffs of sociopolitical life are finally transcended. The point is always to complain that other people aren't doing enough to transform the world, not to provide a positive example of your own, which, again, these kinds of reheated left-wing leftovers are incapable of doing anyway. True, increased consumer choice and purchasing power won't make people much more content. But that's because human beings are inherently restless, easily bored, and prone to all sorts of logical and psychological flaws which constantly undermine our own happiness, which itself is an amorphous, moving target. Like any other product, left-wing critique promises more than it could ever deliver, but as long as people get excited by the commercials, they'll keep chasing the illusion. At least it gives people like her a job.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I Got No Time for Hangin' Around Them Kind of Things

From today's Blendle email, truly, one of the pressing issues of our time:



Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Noteworthies (26)

• Patrick J. Deneen,  "The Tragedy of Liberalism"

• Uri Harris, "Wilfrid Laurier and the Creep of Critical Theory"

• Scott Alexander, "Contra Robinson on Public Food"

• Damon Linker, "Liberals' Clueless Crusade Against Far-right Extremists"

• Noah Rothman, "The Nazi Next Door Is Real—and Unspectacular"

• Alan Jacobs, "Joe Posnanski Wises Up"

• Ed West, "Stop Appeasing Stupidity" — and while we're on that theme, when you weaponize economics and employment in a shortsighted bid for a negligible advantage in the culture wars, it eventually gets turned against you. If only someone could have foreseen, yada yada...

• Matthew Klingle, "Nature Lovers May #OptOutside On Black Friday, But They Consume Resources Year-round"

• Paul Gleason, "The Picture In Her Mind"

Monday, November 27, 2017

What Did You Expect? Talons?

From this morning's Blendle email:



Which calls to mind the famous poem by Leonard Cohen:

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Gratitude

After a little reflection, I came to the conclusion that my dislike of waste arises from a whole approach to life that seems to me crude and wretched. For unthinking waste — and waste on our scale must be unthinking — implies a taking-for-granted, a failure to appreciate: not so much a disenchantment with the world as a failure to be enchanted by it in the first place. To consume without appreciation (which is what waste means) is analogous to the fault of which Sherlock Holmes accused Doctor Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia: You see, but you do not observe.

...Attention to and gratitude for socks is not a commonly expressed attitude. And yet I cannot help but think that this habit of throwing things away the moment they become defective leads to an unpleasantly disabused attitude to life. Computers, washing machines, televisions, refrigerators, clothes, out they all go the moment they break down or require repair. I know it is a tribute to our immense productivity that it is far cheaper to obtain a new machine than to repair the old, but in a world where everything is so replaceable, what affection or gratitude develops for anything? What do we notice and appreciate if everything is instantly replaceable?

...I suppose that what I would like is an abundance that everyone appreciated and did not take for granted. This would require that everyone was aware that things could be different from how they actually are, an awareness that is increasingly difficult to achieve.

— Theodore Dalrymple, "Attitude or Gratitude?," Farewell Fear

I have a distinct memory of being fifteen years old and going with my mom to an office-supply store, where she let me get a cool pen. I remember being aware that the novelty of this pen would be a small but genuine pleasure over the following few days, and I also remember thinking that this was the sort of thing that was considered silly, and that I should keep it to myself. Like socks, being grateful and happy about something as ordinary as a pen was lame and uncool, especially for a teenager. Over the years, though, I've secretly retained sentimental attachments to all sorts of humble objects, from clothing to electronics, which had long since outlived their "usefulness" by usual standards.

I recently read Robert Samuelson's excellent book, The Good Life and its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement. In brief, he argued that Americans in the postwar era had come to believe in a teleological vision of life which took for granted a constant upward trajectory of both material and psychological improvement, and that our post-'60s malaise was primarily due to our inability to understand that this was always a chimera. The pursuit of ever-increasing affluence and convenience eventually produces diminishing returns. People who expect perfection will inevitably be disappointed, and our disappointment has led to several decades of fault-finding and finger-pointing as we attempt to pinpoint who or what is to blame for depriving us of our birthright. We still haven't gotten to the point of questioning whether we ever had any good reason, let alone right, to expect it. As Louis C.K. said in a popular routine of his, "everything's amazing and nobody's happy." All we can think about is what we feel was owed to us and wrongly withheld, no matter how much we already have.

Epictetus famously advised that if we are fond of a ceramic cup, we should remind ourselves that it is only ceramic cups in general that we care about, so that we won't be bothered if this particular one breaks. He applied the same logic to spouses and children, too, a conclusion to which very few people would follow him. Still, even if we keep this line of thought confined to cups (and pens), I feel that the cure is worse than the disease here. The contingencies which make us feel insecure also allow us to feel gratitude if we choose to look at it from that perspective. The fact that all enchanting things will eventually be lost and turn to dust is the very reason why we should be appreciative of having them at all, rather than cursing our inability to possess and control them forever. I wasn't guaranteed any of this. It could so easily have been different. But it's here for now, and that's enough. I'm thankful for all of it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Noteworthies (25)

• Dead Philosophers in Heaven, "The Rand Scheme of Things"

• Damon Linker, "America's Age of Erasure", and related, Tom Slater, "Louis C.K. and the Rise of Sexual Stalinism"

Yep, pretty much.

• Margret Schaefer, "The Wizardry of Freud"

I'm a chauvinistic presentist.

• Warren Treadgold, "The Death of Scholarship"

• Dominic Green, "The Philosopher's Farm"

• Jesse Singal, "There Have Been So Many Bad Lefty Free-Speech Takes Lately" (nitpicks offered by Charles Cooke and Alan Jacobs)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The We In Me


Five? Tell you what, I'll do my best to keep it under twenty.

1. Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes; Gary Larson, The Complete Far Side

Comic strips, however brilliant they are, don't "influence" us in a didactic way. Nonetheless, there's no denying that these two masters of the form have shaped the way I see and think about the world, even if I couldn't pinpoint how they did it. All I know is that more than two decades after they both retired, I still constantly recall their work in response to all sorts of experiences. If I wanted to look impressive, I'd claim that studying existentialism and reading Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Camus taught me about the absurdity of life, but honestly, Larson had already done that, and his version at least was hilarious — none of the morbid, angsty ennui necessary to mark one as a deep, serious thinker. Yes, life is often a senseless, twisted joke, but you can still laugh about it.

As an adult, on an intellectual level, I'm in awe of the unshakable confidence and self-assurance Watterson had to fight for his artistic vision, even to the point of refusing marketing deals that would have garnered him hundreds of millions of dollars. I suppose I could name him as an influence based on that alone. But purity of idealism aside, Calvin & Hobbes ultimately represents the childlike enthusiasm of imagination, presented sophisticatedly enough for adults to enjoy.

2. Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Lila

We talked often about Zen... in Philosophy 101, so I bought my own copy shortly after that semester. As it happened, Lila was published only a few months later, and I bought that too. Both of these inspired my first attempts to philosophize, in my ungainly, adolescent way. I was already delighting in the effort of grappling with the big questions of life, however easily they were able to pin me down in those days.

3. Alan Watts, Buddhism: the Religion of No Religion; Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking; The Philosophies of Asia; The Culture of Counter-culture


There's no point in trying to define "Buddhism" in a rigorous way. I'll just say that as a quadragenarian American, the version of this ancient, constantly-morphing philosophy that resonates with me is the one promulgated and practiced by other Anglo-American Westerners. Steve Hagen, Stephen Batchelor, and Brad Warner are all favorites of mine, but in this case, Alan Watts is far and away the biggest influence I can name. He wrote more than twenty-five books in his lifetime, and his son Mark has compiled a similar number since then from his notes and lectures. All of them, especially the lectures, orbit the same themes of "Eastern philosophy and religion," if we must give it a label, so no matter where you start, you'll find something rewarding. These four were all published around the same time, so I don't recall which one of them I technically picked up first.

Watts "solved" the problem of religion, atheism, and metaphysics for me, not in a logical, argumentative way, but by giving me such a clear, different perspective on the whole argument that it just lost all relevance, like a balloon being deflated. It was as if I had been worrying for years over whether colorless green ideas slept furiously or not, and he came along and cheerfully disentangled the conceptual knot my thoughts were in. Twenty years after discovering him, his writing remains as fresh and stimulating as ever — I say this having just the other day finished the most recent of his/Mark's posthumous books. There are certain ideas I learned from him, but most of all, he is for me one of those rare authors who completely change the way you see the world. Many authors will rearrange your mental furniture; he shifted the entire foundations of my house.

4. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols/The Antichrist

I bought this shortly after encountering him in philosophy class as a callow teenager, though it would be years before I'd have enough contextual understanding of his thinking to get the most out of it. Where would I even begin? What about him, exactly, has influenced me so much? The exquisite prose, in which it's impossible to tell where philosophy ends and poetry begins? The revolutionary use of brilliant aphorisms as opposed to long, dry, scholarly arguments ("It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book — what everyone else does not say in a book.")? Even the famous, dangerous ideas themselves — the will to power; the Overman; the anti-Christianity, anti-pity preaching; master vs. slave morality — are less important than the effect of thinking through them in his company. I disagree with the particular content of his thoughts often, but never will disagreement be so useful and productive as in in the presence of such a mind. And while the development of his thought almost requires a reader to engage with it as an organic whole, rather than as a Whitman's sampler, I might still name Daybreak as my slight favorite of all his books, if I were forced to choose one. As risky as it is to try to identify a center of gravity in his thinking, this one seems to capture something like his essence, in my opinion.

5. Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism; Against the Current; The Crooked Timber of Humanity; Three Critics of the Enlightenment

Berlin wrote very little during his lifetime with an eye toward publication; Henry Hardy did the heroic work of collating his voluminous notes and lectures into book form, published in multiple volumes by Princeton University Press. Again, I'm not sure which of these four I read first, and I probably bought them all around the same time. Berlin made the "history of ideas" come to scintillating life for me, long before I knew that there even was such a thing in academia. A lifetime spent studying and explaining the historical ground from which influential ideas grew, while tracing the course of their development, seems like the sort of project which could keep one happily occupied for a lifetime. He was probably my first exposure to what I think of as the tragic vision of life, an outlook more commonly associated with conservatism, though Berlin himself was more of a Cold War liberal.

6. Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands

Michael Oakeshott wrote about conservatism as a disposition — a personal inclination to prefer "the familiar to the unknown...the tried to the untried...the limited to the unbounded...the near to the distant, [and] the sufficient to the superabundant." Oakeshott also said that the two things that made for this disposition were a passionate interest outside of politics, and a strong sense of mortality. Check, and check. To this root note, the British philosopher Roger Scruton added a complementary fifth in the form of his paean to conservatism as an attitude of love and gratitude, a love for what actually exists, rather than abstract, utopian fantasies, and as a heartfelt appreciation for people, places, and things, despite, or even because of, their imperfections. This particular book is an updated and revised version of the original, which made Scruton persona non grata in academia when published thirty years earlier. Out of his dozens of books, there are many which elaborate upon his "positive" philosophy, but this one is primarily an attack on the various types of pseudo-radical gibberish and nonsense passing itself off as the liberal arts these last few decades. Unlike most other books about academia written by disgruntled conservatives, though, Scruton goes after the biggest game there is, the celebrity philosophers like Lukács, Althusser, Sartre, Deleuze, Gramsci, Badiou and Zizek, on their own turf. The result is not just a satisfying flensing of the aforementioned charlatans, but a masterclass of witty rhetoric. His devastating metaphors repeatedly made me laugh out loud, no small accomplishment given such a potentially dry topic.

7. Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia

This book made it inarguably clear to me that leftism is an exhausted and hopeless ideology, stuck in a holding pattern for decades, aimlessly going through the radical motions. It was all the more powerful coming from a heterodox leftist.

8. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture

This is a brilliant demonstration of the extent to which virtue-signaling and status competition comprise most left-wing political stances, making them even less effectual than they would otherwise be.

9. Anthony Kronman, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life

I loved this book so much I wrote to Kronman to tell him so, and to my great surprise, he wrote back the very next day, despite being on vacation, to graciously thank me. This book was the first to suggest to me a vision in which individual professors set themselves to the task of being caretakers of beauty and wisdom, as opposed to the research-driven university model which seems ill-suited to a study of the humanities. This vision, which I've since heard echoed by other writers, obviously sounds a few conservative notes without forming an overtly-political marching theme — the attraction here is to the humility, the gratitude toward cultural and intellectual predecessors, the sheer pleasure in an erudite life, rooted in a sensibility which recognizes that the geniuses of the past offer us the best guidance we'll ever have in this imperfect world to satisfactorily answer the question of how we should live. Of course, I'm not a professor, but I try to cultivate this ideal in my own life. Arts and letters are what matter to me, not politics. Culture and art are the things which nourish and sustain us over a lifetime, not rationalism and policy wonkery. It just so happens that the exemplars of the arts-and-letters ideal whom I most respect are nominally "conservative" in the sense that they shun academic radicalism and strive to conserve the best which has been thought and said, in Matthew Arnold's famous phrase, and pass it on to future generations.

10. Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses; Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass

Technically, the first book of Dalrymple's I read was Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy, a bold flouting of the conventional wisdom surrounding the "disease" model of drug addiction, informed by his work as a doctor in prisons, mental hospitals, and the slums of post-industrial England. But these two collections of his essays from his columns in the magazine City Journal deeply impressed me with their elegance and erudition. They changed the way I both read and write, serving as a model for the type of essayist I'd like to become. His own writing often serves as a springboard for my own thoughts, and I can see his influence in my own voice and phrasing sometimes, though I hope to get better at hiding it.

11. John Gray, Straw Dogs


In terms of both style and content, Gray has been one of my biggest influences. The first book of his I read was Black Mass, but this unique, aphoristic work was the one that really seized my attention. Somewhat of a political and philosophical chameleon, one of his recurring themes is a skeptical questioning of moral and political progress. Like his mentor Isaiah Berlin, he elucidates a tragic vision of human existence without being predictably dour or pessimistic. He's one of my favorite people to "think with," even when I disagree.

12. Sam Hamill, Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry; Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God; Robert Haas, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa

Poetry is the music of language. When done well, it provides an almost-religious ecstasy, seeming to somehow penetrate closer to the mysterious heart of things than any straightforward prose can ever do. If I had the ability to express myself in verse, I'd probably never bother writing prose again. And yet, the ROI on reading poetry is pretty poor to me, I must admit. Very few poets, in my experience, have the shamanic ability to consistently venture into mystical realms and return with songs and chants capable of casting a spell on the reader. Sam Hamill, an American Zen Buddhist poet, has done so, especially with his translations of ancient Greek and Chinese masters. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy captured an otherworldly beauty in their translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. In general, though, most poets, even the acknowledged greats, only have a handful of truly magical poems to offer. Still, when it happens, when you find one of those rare gems, it makes all the searching worthwhile. I know nothing about Linda Pastan, but her poem "November" will stay with me my whole life. Humble as it may seem, for what it expresses, it's perfect.

Once again, it's hard to articulate how poetry "influences" me in a way that a well-written, informative non-fiction book doesn't. I can only repeat: at its best, poetry puts the reader in touch with something deeper, more essential, about life, something that changes the way life feels. It resonates like wisdom, not information.

13. Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

I had already read Montaigne's Essays, but Bakewell's wonderful biography humanized him and brought him vividly to life as a role model, in both character and literature.

14. Shelby Steele, The Content of Our Character

Steele's books present a compelling psychological conservatism, if I can call it that. His nuanced and penetrating observations on the state of race relations and racial awareness are unlike anything you typically hear in the clichés of punditry.

15. Jeremy Campbell, The Liar's Tale

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche taunted moralists with the suggestion that "it might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things — maybe even one with them in essence." In this book, Campbell sets out on a fascinating exploration of the countless ways in which deception, dishonesty and ignorance are inextricably intertwined with the noble elements of life, from the lowly biological level all the way up to the rarefied life of culture and the intellect. Falsehood is an integral element of existence.

16. David Berreby, Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind

A salutary reminder that the absolute easiest thing for human beings to do is divide up into groups and go to war with other groups over even the flimsiest reasons, and the hardest thing is to retain intellectual and moral integrity when tribal loyalty comes calling.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Reinventing the Wheel

Sarah Perez:

Twitter confirms it’s testing a feature that allows users to more easily create “tweetstorms” – those series of connected tweets that have grown to be a popular workaround for Twitter’s character count limitations. The feature, which was recently spotted in the wild, offers a new interface for composing tweets, where individual tweetstorm entries can be written one-by-one then published to Twitter in a staggered fashion with a press of a “Tweet All” button.

If only there were some sort of social media platform where users could write as many words as they want, and then press "Publish" to "post" these word-collections to the web all at once, where they can be accessed at an individual URL. Maybe a series of word-collections could even be chronologically stored in the form of a ship's "log" — but on the web. A "web log," if you will. I'm not a tech titan, of course, so I have no idea what sort of sorcery would be necessary for something like that to happen. Just the idle, science-fiction musings of a foolish dreamer.

You have to grudgingly respect the marketing, though — spend years telling people that the old product is dead and uncool, and then sell it to them again in new packaging.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Words Are Meaningless and Forgettable

Bethany Mandel:

I tweet too much; I know that not just because of the sheer number of these short messages I’ve sent, but also because I’ve noticed over the last few years that I form thoughts in 140-character bursts. I think in tweets.


Then, suddenly this week, everyone was granted 280 characters, and we were left with screens filled with huge blocks of text instead of a few sentences. Few users are happy about the change, and more than a handful warn that it could render the social media service unusable.


Learning how to write in 140-character bursts is therefore a job skill for many in journalism, and has almost certainly changed the way writers do their work.


Twitter has changed the way we think and has changed the way we express ourselves, and by expanding to 280 characters, I fear it will become a victim of its own success. Because for all of its benefits, Twitter has also helped shorten our attention spans—which makes us even less willing to read 280-character blocks of text.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Noteworthies (24)

• J. Oliver Conroy, "Get On the Bus or Get Under It: Shouting Down Free Speech at Rutgers"

• M. J. Crockett, "Moral Outrage In the Digital Age"

• Pumpkinrot, "Cuts"

• Brendan O’Neill, "An Anti-Capitalist Is the Most Bourgeois Thing You Can Be"

• Emile Phaneuf, "Sowell's Visions"

• Damon Linker, "The Left's Myopic Obsession With Fairness"

• Justin E.H. Smith, "Notes on Social Media and Autocracy"

• Razib Khan, "The Rising Waters of Human Tribal Nature"

• Kyle Smith, "Feminists’ Bizarre Crusade Against Taylor Swift"

Ahahaha.

You Keep On Dreaming Up a Hundred Different Ways to Cause Hysteria

The Editors:

That brings us to the category of Americans who are almost all on Twitter, Facebook, or both. We’re talking about America’s journalists. It’s a rare news reporter or editor or producer who doesn’t have a Twitter account and doesn’t get a lot of his or her news from these social media platforms. But the world is a big place, full of things and events and people and opinions that aren’t talked about or linked to by the accounts one follows on social media.

It's worth reflecting on periodically — so much of what makes up the national "conversation" we're having at any given moment, especially on the web, is the product of a tiny fraction of media figures, maybe a few hundred of them at most, chattering among themselves. Many of them are currently whining about how terrible it is that Twitter has expanded the character count from 140 to 280, because reading three or four sentences is clearly much more strenuous than reading one or two sentence fragments. And, as we're increasingly learning, much of what they're reacting to is the product of Russian troll farm disinformation anyway. It's worth repeating frequently — why do we allow them to set the tempo, definitions, and boundaries of our thoughts?

Friday, November 10, 2017

You'll Never Do Whatever Common People Do

I should certainly not agree with Mr. Mill's opinion that English people in general are dull, deficient in originality, and as like each other as herrings in a barrel appear to us. Many and many a fisherman, common sailor, workman, laborer, gamekeeper, policeman, non-commissioned officer, servant, and small clerk have I known who were just as distinct from each other, just as original in their own way, just as full of character, as men in a higher rank of life.

For my part I should limit myself to this, that the number of people who are able to carry on anything like a systematic train of thought, or to grasp the bearings of any subject consisting of several parts, is exceedingly small.

— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Fred Siegel's excellent book, The Revolt Against the Masses, examines in detail how early twentieth-century "gentry liberals," following a path blazed by intellectuals like Henry Adams, Herbert Croly, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Randolph Bourne, and H.G. Wells, dropped all pretenses of championing the masses and began affecting scorn for all things middle-class and middlebrow, while pining for a European-style aristocracy of the intellect which would recognize and reward them as the superior, cultured sophisticates they believed themselves to be. A century later, having lost their naïveté and optimism, today's gentry liberals are, if anything, different only by virtue of their bitter, melodramatic self-pity.

Periodically, you'll see thinkpieces lamenting the "diversity" problem of the workplace, a first-world problem if ever there were one. Having worked in less glamorous occupations my entire life, I can assure these monochromatic hand-wringers that their problems would be solved if they were to leave their corporate jobs and go work in retail or manual labor, where they would meet a plethora of characters from all walks of life. But, like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, the gentry's patronizing concern for the objects of their pity would run up against their inclination to disparage their thinking and blame them for all sorts of political problems. Or, rather, like Ivan Karamazov, they would love humankind "at a distance" while being unable to forgive individuals for the fact that they smell unpleasant, that they have stupid faces, or that they once stepped on our feet.

My unusual means of earning a living bring me into regular contact with academics as well as auto parts workers, and my experience leads me to agree with Stephen: many people are interesting and intelligent without being intellectuals, and that's probably not such a bad thing. It's a shame that modern liberalism has spent a century being oblivious to that banal fact.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 23

I've often said that Montaigne is a role model for me, but I didn't realize that an overly-literal Fate would take that to mean that I wanted to develop gallstones at the same age as he developed kidney stones. Yes, I'm back in the hospital this week, waiting to part ways with my gallbladder tomorrow morning. I already knew that I wasn't the writer Montaigne was; now I'm aware that I could never be the equanimous Stoic that he was. No Italian spa waters for me, thanks; I'll choose morphine, heated blankets, wifi, and an adjustable bed while I get caught up on some reading and writing. Only fanatics seek misery for its own sake; pragmatics take things as they are. I'd like to think that ol' Mike wouldn't have been too philosophically attached to suffering to sit here with me and enjoy streaming German soccer games while listening to new music from Beck and LCD Soundsystem.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 22

And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world, which is a matter not just of ideas but also of practices.

— Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

In high school gym class, our teacher encouraged us to run races against someone faster than ourselves in order to improve our time. It certainly worked, though I don't know what the poor kid who was already the fastest was supposed to do to challenge himself.

The title of the book might give you the impression that Jacobs is offering tips on how to control and optimize what goes on inside your head, but really, he spends most of it talking about the structural aspects of thinking, or the environment in which thinking is done. He stresses that thinking for yourself is obviously impossible, and therefore your concern should be to make sure that those you choose to "think with" aren't dragging you down. The entire reason for starting this particular blog, in fact, was to practice a different type of thinking, to avoid "dwelling habitually" among the bad influences of social media, to spend more time "thinking with" the greater perspective and understanding provided by books — who, thankfully, don't complain about being paired up with a laggard like me.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 21

I write on various forms of idiocy now — including the facile left-wing attacks on post-9/11 security measures, the knowledge-crushing banalities of "progressive education," or the charge that policing is shot through with racism. None of them are as tragic, in my view, as the idiocy that brought down the tradition of humanistic learning. The professoriate had been given the greatest luxury society can offer: studying beauty. All that they needed to do to justify that privilege was to help students see why they should fall on bended knee before Aeschylus, Mozart, or Tiepolo, in thanks for lifting us out of our usual stupidity and dullness. Instead, they set themselves up as more important than the literature and art that it was their duty to curate and created a tangle of antihumanistic nonsense that merely licensed students' ignorance.

— Heather Mac Donald, "Down and Out With Paul de Man," Why I Turned Right

I like to joke that I'm a wandering exile from the Republic of Arts and Letters, my beloved homeland which has been laid waste by a hostile army of ideological fanatics. I've mentioned that in an alternate lifetime I might have been a humanities professor at a tiny liberal-arts college. But humor aside, Mac Donald's apt summary here honestly rends my heart a bit at the terrible tragedy of it all, and makes me wonder what might have been had I known then what I know now.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 20

A democratic community enjoying political liberty is only possible when the attachment of the majority of the citizens to political liberty is stronger than their attachment to specific political doctrines. And this is to say that on many controversial issues a certain comparative apathy must prevail among a large part of the population. But apathy cannot appear a virtue to the man who has committed himself to an intellectually elaborated scheme or policy.

In a famous investigation of the politics of the small town of Elmira, New York, in the 1950s, the scholars concerned (Paul Lazarfeld, Bernard Berelson and William McPhee) were at first surprised by the results. The democratic processes had worked very satisfactorily in the town for a very long period. So, on theoretical principles, the researchers expected to find the citizenry well-informed about political issues, with firm and clear-cut opinions. They found, on the contrary, that the majority were fairly ill-informed and fairly apathetic. They concluded, after admirable heart-searching on their own part, that this was the condition for a working democracy. On the other hand, it may be urged that the instability of many of the Greek states was due to the devotion to politics of all concerned...

At any rate, all the major troubles the world has had in our era have been caused by people who have let politics become a mania.

— Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century

Social media is obviously overpopulated by people who have let politics become a mania. It would be easy to conclude, based on that sample, that we are heading for civil war. On the other hand, one could point to the current occupant of the White House as evidence of the demographic power of the ill-informed, or to the percentage of the electorate who don't vote at all as evidence of a healthy apathy. Like an appointment in Samarra, attempting to flee the hell of ignorance may only bring us closer to the hell of zealotry.