Friday, March 31, 2017

But It's Not My Conscience That Hates to Be Untrue

Several years ago, the social/technology critic Evgeny Morozov said that in order to maximize his productivity, he bought a safe with a timed combination lock which he used to lock up his phone and router so that he would have no means of procrastinating when he had work that needed to get done. Nicholas Carr, a frequent target of Morozov's snarky jabs and brash criticisms, couldn't help snickering at what he took to be further proof of his famous assertion that digital media is negatively affecting our brains and corroding our ability to concentrate. Morozov's argument, though, was that locking away his Internet access was simply the most efficient way to allocate his mental resources. If temptation is immediately at hand, it will require a constant effort to refuse it. If temptation isn't even allowed anywhere in the vicinity, though, it can be put completely out of mind. Sure, if you need to prove a point to yourself, you can make a show of resisting temptation even as it dances tantalizingly in your face, but it's a lot easier to simply plan in advance to avoid it in the first place.

Progressives are all aflutter over the news that Mike Pence refuses to dine alone with a woman other than his wife, and he refuses to attend events where alcohol is served without his wife accompanying him. The reflexive assumptions seem to be, a) Evangelicals sure are weirdos, hurr hurr, and b) What kind of freak goes to such extreme lengths to avoid temptation, and what does that tell us about him, since we're apparently still taking Freudian theories of repression seriously?

Again, some people seem to think that temptation should be constantly faced and overcome through a pure, singular act of will in order to prove one's character, and that anything else is some sort of cowardice or weakness. Often, though, the most effective way to neutralize one vice is through another vice, rather than through pure virtue. If gluttony is your problem, perhaps vanity might be the cure — I know of one fellow who claims to have an insatiable junk food addiction, which magically goes away when someone he knows is around to see him. Apparently his strong desire to be thought well of by others can pacify his urge to gobble candy bars by the dozen. Or perhaps laziness might do the trick — if you refuse to keep junk food in your house while attempting to lose weight, the thought of making a special trip into town when cravings arise just to buy ice cream and chocolate might not seem worth the effort. If you can win the short battle against temptation while actually at the grocery store, you save yourself from fighting a long war of attrition against the enemy in the kitchen. Fight smarter, not harder, in other words.

Pence's desire to avoid even the appearance of impropriety could just as easily spring from honor, prudence, or rational wisdom as from the baser motives that many seem eager to impute to him. I don't know or care either way. Human beings are a battleground of competing drives, forever divided against themselves, and only appear coherent through the mythology of hindsight. I am not a Christian, but having outgrown the juvenile urge to sneer at religion as a fairy tale for the feeble minded, I can appreciate that an evangelical Christian with a belief in humankind's inherent sinfulness (a belief I share in the spirit if not in the letter) would see no shame in relying on such rules to guide his social conduct, rather than pridefully insisting on pure willpower to carry him through. Fighting smarter, perhaps.

(After first posting this, I was surprised to hear my thoughts echoed from an unexpected source.)

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Noteworthies (8)

• Helen Pluckrose, "How French 'Intellectuals' Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained"

• Christina Hoff Sommers interviewing Roger Scruton. Scruton is one of my favorite people to think with. Some of his work can be philosophically dense, but I find it's always worth putting in the time and effort to understand it. This, though, is just an example of how interesting it would be to have an informal conversation with him.

• Carlos Lozada, "The Last Thing On ‘Privilege’ You’ll Ever Need to Read"

• Walter Scheidel, "The Only Thing, Historically, That's Curbed Inequality: Catastrophe." In recent years, progressives have soft-pedaled their redistributionist instincts into moaning about income inequality as the apparent root of all evil. It's so nice to finally see a lonely rebuttal, and in the Atlantic, of all places. His book on the topic looks very interesting. Sigh. Like I need another book to read.

• Lionel Shriver, "We Need to Talk About Sense and Sensitivity"

Existentialism's Witnesses

• Bo & Ben Winegard, "A Tale of Two Bell Curves"

Lecture by Wilfred McClay: "The Illusion of Mastery" (parts 2-5; part 1 is only introductory remarks). "No aspiration of modernity has been more fundamental and more persistent than its desire to achieve mastery over the terms of human existence. Yet the record of the last century or more suggests that mastery is an ambivalent goal, one that does not always deliver on its promises, and does not necessarily conduce to greater human happiness. Wilfred McClay explores the paradoxical character of our drive toward mastery, and how we should balance that impulse against other fundamental human goods." I love this kind of philosophizing about the history of ideas.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Silence Like a Cancer Grows

I don't want to sound apocalyptic about these developments. Education is always in ferment, and a good thing too. Schools and colleges have always been battlegrounds for debates over beliefs, philosophies, values. The situation in our universities, I am confident, will soon right itself once the great silent majority of professors cry "enough" and challenge what they know to be voguish blather.

— Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society

I have gained much perspective from reading books written during the early-to-mid-nineties, during the previous plague of locusts surge of political correctness, of which Schlesinger's, published in 1991, is a solid and succinct example. Still, as the kids like to say on social media, "Wow, this aged well." Perhaps we could show this passage to the folks at Heterodox Academy or Minding the Campus to give them a good laugh.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Missionaries, They Tell Us We Will Be Left Behind, So If You Wanna Be Righteous, Get In Line

Kyle Chayka:

His voice raised in a British lilt, Robinson announces, “One of the things alt-right guys are good at is making all these weird, young, disaffected teens feel like they’re the cool ones and the left side is the boring side. We need to have that kind of thing.”

Then Robinson becomes expansive, his spoon arm swinging urgently, describing his wish for the new left in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. “We are the people you want to be around, we’re the fun people, we’re the cool people, the people who make life better!” he exclaims.

A cynic might suggest that signaling an image of cool sophistication is the only thing the left has going for it anymore — that, and Ghost Dancing for the return of the Great Welfare State and the disappearance of the neoliberals. Well, when you're lacking in substantial ideas, you might as well play up aesthetics and image. Nothing says fun, cool and forward-looking like posing for a photo next to a miniature bust of Marx, if you ask me.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Noteworthies (7)

• Adam Gopnik, "Are Liberals On the Wrong Side of History?"

• Pascal Bruckner, "Barbarians and the Civilized"

• Matthew Continetti, "Freedom Is Eating Steak Well Done with Ketchup"

• John Gray, "Fictions of Fascism: What Twentieth Century Dystopia Can (and Can't) Teach Us About Trump"

• After Words: Anthony Kronman interviewed by Charles Murray. An hour-long video from 2008, discussing one of Kronman's earlier books, but still interesting and relevant.

• Roger Kimball, "The Treason of the Intellectuals & 'The Undoing of Thought'" Digging even deeper in the archives here, back to 1992. I had cause to look this up recently, and found it depressingly interesting and relevant.

• Alex Good, "The Rising Tide of Educated Aliteracy"

Monday, March 20, 2017

And Thereby Hangs a Tale

Colin Koopman:

Foucault remains one of the most cited 20th-century thinkers and is, according to some lists, the single most cited figure across the humanities and social sciences.

Reading this brought to mind a dim recollection of a cartoon, something to the effect of a patient sitting in a doctor's exam room with a hatchet buried in his skull, and the doctor saying, "I think I see the problem." Yes, it's truly a mystery why the humanities are in such a sorry state. You can browse through the invaluable New Real Peer Review account if you'd like to see many of the gruesome, mutant offspring bearing Foucault's intellectual DNA.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

There Was No War But the Culture War, I Was Ready to Set the World on Fire

Seth Matlins:

What’s clear is that the people buying from you and working for you want to know if you’re on their side. Or not. They want to know if you’re doing something to make the world better. Or not. And they will reward — or ignore or perhaps even boycott — you accordingly.

This is our new marketing reality, and cultural values are marketing’s new table stakes. Few are the brands who court controversy as a matter of strategy. But in today’s landscape, avoiding taking sides and bringing your cultural values to life to avoid controversy is a fast track to irrelevance.

Yes, “doing well by doing good” is a decades-old truism. But showing the world what you stand for (and occasionally against) is now as important, efficient and effective an eyeball-grabbing platform as exists. To win today’s battles for attention — as in, relevance, engagement, resource allocation and return — you’d better let people know whose side you’re on.

Today, brands can be neither quiet, defensive nor isolated. They have to be proactive, and they have to stand for something — for both the world's and their own good.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Little Do They Know the Boundaries of His Wisdom In the Solitude of His Kingdom

Michael Finkel:

Later, a fad for hermits swept 18th-century England. It was believed that hermits radiated kindness and thoughtfulness, so advertisements were placed in newspapers for “ornamental hermits” who were lax in grooming and willing to sleep in caves on the country estates of the aristocracy. The job paid well and hundreds were hired, typically on seven-year contracts. Some of the hermits would even emerge at dinner parties and greet guests.

The "lax in grooming" part is actually a myth. We spread that rumor ourselves to discourage dilettantes. Thankfully, I have no social obligations as part of my contract, which is good, because I have enough to read as it is, and here we have an excerpt from another book that I simply must own. Not enough hours in the day...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On My Last Nerve

A couple of summers ago, I landed awkwardly while jumping into the pool. I had placed my hands on the deck, turned, and dropped down into the water, landing with my arms up in a sort of goalpost-stance. Perhaps my feet landed a little too squarely. Whatever it was, I assume I got what they call a "stinger" — a sharp jolt up my spine, flowering out beneath my shoulder blades, like burning electricity. I stood frozen for a moment like that until I caught my breath, then gingerly moved my arms and torso around to make sure everything was still functioning.

Ever since then, I've had some chronic soreness and weakness in that mid-back area. Still, it didn't prevent me from being physically active — I walk on the treadmill for a few miles at a stretch several times a week, I do a thrice-weekly routine of push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups and dips, I hike most weekends, time and weather permitting, and I do up to an hour of yoga every day. I assumed a little nagging back pain was just one of the inevitabilities of middle age, possibly even a casualty of misdiagnosed-and-therefore-untreated rheumatoid arthritis from ages 28-31. Walk it off, champ.

Last week, on my way home, I started to feel some discomfort in my mid-back, which also made its presence felt in my stomach, in an almost-nauseated feeling. The pain increased steadily for the next half-hour or so, until it felt like my stomach was violently contracting. Then my arms and legs started to tingle and go slightly numb. When I stumbled in the door, the Lady of the House took one look at my chalk-white face, now streaming with cold sweat, and assumed I had food poisoning. I dropped to my arms and knees, groaning in pain, writhing around in an attempt to find some sort of posture to relieve the pressure, and, in between gasping for full breaths, managed to convey that no, it wasn't food poisoning, something was wrong with my back. After a few minutes with my back rounded and my chin tucked, I felt stable enough to make my way back to the car, where I re-assumed that posture in the back seat while she drove to the ER.

After two hours in the waiting room, and a further three waiting in a room to see a doctor, all spent leaning forward with a rounded back, the pain had largely subsided on its own. After an EKG, blood tests and a CT scan all came back with nothing to show, the doctor was left scratching his head and grasping at the straw of a possible gallbladder problem, which he conceded was very unlikely. He agreed with my suspicion that I had probably pinched a nerve, but there was little he could suggest. I arrived home at one a.m., no closer to a solution than I'd been eight hours earlier, though at least I knew I hadn't herniated a disk or something drastic like that.

The next day, I called a masseuse/physical therapist I've seen before and asked him his advice. He said the numbness and tingling definitely suggested a neural problem, not a muscular one, so a massage wouldn't help. He suggested a chiropractor, and when I said I didn't visit one, he recommended the one he works with. Now, I'm not exactly enamored of the wide variety of practices conventionally grouped together under the rubric of "alternative medicine" — like the related joke goes, there is no "Eastern medicine" or "Western medicine;" there's "medicine" and there's "stuff that hasn't been proven to work." I've been to chiropractors before, and while I have always thought, based on those experiences, that there certainly is a correlation between certain pains and the misalignment of vertebrae which can be relieved by manipulation of the spine, I didn't trust them much beyond that point. Some of them seem a little quackish when they try to pronounce on matters outside of their specialty, which I've heard them do often. In my experience — again, as someone who has spent a lot of time in doctor's offices dealing with autoimmune disorders — my "conventional" doctors were open-minded and well-informed while readily admitting when they didn't know something for sure, urging me to trust my own judgment. My chiropractors, in contrast, have seemed unprofessional in their scorn for "mainstream" medicine, while making sweeping judgments and proclamations on the efficacy of this or that treatment based on scant evidence. The last one I visited first suggested that rheumatoid arthritis wasn't really a disease, before later claiming that it was all caused by diet, and urging me to take various over-the-counter supplements. When I asked my rheumatologist about the diet and supplements, he said that there was a lot of smoke about those sorts of claims, no real fire, but if I noticed that eating something made me feel worse, I didn't need him to tell me to avoid it. As for the supplements, they were more for osteoarthritis, and wouldn't do much for me. I appreciated that sort of straightforward common sense. In my opinion, there's probably some sort of inferiority complex going on, where the alternative practitioners feel compelled to rush into the gap any time conventional medicine steps back and says "we don't know for sure", looking for any advantage they can get. Unfortunately, that kind of dogmatic certainty is a Pyrrhic victory at best.

Still, humbled by what was probably the most intense pain I've ever felt, I was willing to try just about anything, especially since the hospital wasn't offering anything beyond cortisone injections to the spine. It turned out that this chiropractor uses what's called the Gonstead method, which is much gentler than the usual kind — no twisting of the neck or hips. She had me sit on a stool while she rocked me very slightly from side to side, feeling along my spine from my sacrum to my neck for any misalignments. She identified three — in my right hip, my T6 vertebra, and my first rib, which was causing shoulder and neck pain. The adjustments were so mild, especially in the neck, that I could hardly believe anything had been done. One soft "pop" from the T6. The neck adjustment was me leaning my head back a bit while she pressed quickly but gently with the knife edge of her hand into my trapezius muscle. I barely felt the pressure, didn't feel anything change, but the difference has been astonishing. I could feel the positive effect in my hip while walking out of the office. You don't realize how much a chronic ache has been affecting you until it suddenly disappears. I still keep turning my head to the left just for the novelty of not feeling any pain along the left side of my neck and spine.

While reading up on the spine later, I learned, interestingly, that the T6 vertebra being close to the stomach, if injured, could cause heartburn, dyspepsia and indigestion. In hindsight, I realize that I came close to having similar problems on a few occasions, where I felt that same combination of back pain and nausea. In those instances, I had been able to move around and shift my posture before the nerve got terribly impinged, but there were a few times where I took some antacids, wondering if I had heartburn or something (I still don't know what heartburn actually feels like). I also recall that Kurt Cobain famously claimed that he started taking heroin because of a persistent stomach problem. In Michael Azerrad's biography of Nirvana, friends described Cobain as rolling on the floor in agony while dry retching, a condition that was recurrent enough to make him suicidal. He claimed that heroin cured him of this problem, but some of his skeptical friends, like Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins, argue that he never had a stomach problem to begin with, that it was just a typical junkie excuse for using drugs he'd always intended to use. But Azerrad's book also mentioned that not long before he finally did commit suicide, a doctor had diagnosed Cobain's ailment as a nerve problem related to his scoliosis. From this side of my trip to the ER, I look back on that old story with new appreciation — if I experienced excruciating pain like that on a regular basis with no apparent hope of relief, it might drive me out of my mind with desperation too. It's strange to ponder how Cobain's life might have been different, or longer, if only his spine had been straighter, and it's humbling to realize how easily any of us can be reduced to utter helplessness by our own skeleton and nervous system.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Noteworthies (6)

•  JP O'Malley interviewing Will Stone, "On Not Facing the Death of a Civilization." Having just written about Theodore Dalrymple's essay on Stefan Zweig, it was interesting to find this interview with the translator of a just-released book of Zweig's work.

• Speaking of Dalrymple, "How — and How Not — to Love Mankind." This was possibly my favorite essay from an excellent book full of them. Both the content and the style are superb.

• Scott Beauchamp, "The Kids Aren’t All Right: What the Gender-Identity Revolution Has in Common with 1960s’ Drug Culture." For me, finding the right song lyrics to serve as the title of a post is a minor art form in itself. Therefore, for one of my refined sensibility, there can be no more atrocious cliché than the compulsive overuse of that stupid song title by that wretched band whenever an article has something to do with youth culture. For the love of God, people, put some effort into it. As if there are no other lyrics written in the past half-century about being misunderstood adolescents which you could use instead.

That aside, the article is good.

• Shelby Steele, "The Exhaustion of American Liberalism." Having long since plucked all the low-hanging fruit of injustice from a seemingly boundless orchard, progressives are now reduced to anxiously gnawing on the desiccated rinds, trying desperately to suck out every last delicious drop of moral superiority. Steele's books are much more psychological than political, and I found them revelatory. (Looks like the direct article link is paywalled now; try a Twitter link instead.)

• William Deresiewicz, "On Political Correctness." This is probably the most well-rounded, comprehensive treatment of the topic I've read. A one-stop shop.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ain't Crispin's Day

Maria Bustillos:

Feminism began, necessarily, by rightfully demanding equality from men. Men, who once held all the cards rather than just most of them, were increasingly challenged to demonstrate an egalitarian spirit: to consider the claims of women, the work of women, the needs of women, as being equal in value and importance with their own. And where has this history led women like Jessa Crispin? To a haughty, point-blank refusal even to listen to any man who may have a response to her work. Some soi-disant feminists drink their tea from “Male Tears” mugs, while others wear T-shirts reading, “Kill All Men.” Is it any wonder that American feminism is dead? Good riddance to it, honestly.

The wider context for Bustillos's accurate observation here is one of disappointment — she agrees with Crispin that any feminism worthy of the name cannot be merely a piecemeal, practical strategy for improving various aspects of women's lives, but must be a utopian, transformative social movement. Hearts need to change, not policies. It seems to me that what they really yearn for is another Great Awakening, even if our secular sensibilities won't allow us to call it as such. Well, we're all about accentuating the positive here, so as far as that goes, Bustillos has pinpointed why fulminations like Crispin's are destined to echo no further than the back row of the misandrist choir. Still, I'm starting to suspect that religious conservatives are correct when they insist that the denial of religious impulses often leads to unintended consequences — namely, salvationist tendencies start bleeding over into your politics, and that never ends well.