Wednesday, June 13, 2018

It Will Help You Sleep at Night. It Will Make It Seem That Right Is Always Right

Ian Marcus Corbin:

En route to such an argument, Beiner suggests that we must continually engage Nietzsche as a live opponent, who might just have his hand on something that is both wicked and enduringly attractive. “Reading these thinkers,” Beiner assures us,

doesn’t automatically turn us from liberals into something else (or hopefully it doesn’t!); but hopefully what it does do is draw us into a fully ambitious questioning of what human life expects of us.

This is a generally welcome exhortation, basic to the practice of philosophy, but if Beiner ever concludes his ambitious questioning (and is still a liberal!) I hope he will write another book in which we can learn what it means for “human life” to “expect” anything at all of “us” in a God-shorn universe. Nietzsche thinks it expects nothing at all, and we need to demand that it meet our expectations. One is tempted to see this as another example of Beiner’s quietly placing all of the most momentous philosophical action offstage, as if there is some agent out there called “human life” that will save us from the heavy task of judging and deciding in the absence of a Great Judge.

...Beiner’s good instincts are part of what makes his book so frustrating; he mysteriously fails to follow his own excellent counsel, as he refuses to explore or acknowledge the very real—and yes, potentially dangerous—beauty of Nietzsche’s prescriptions. But maybe he’s just exercising prudence. If these prescriptions are potentially dangerous, why bother to discern the goodness or beauty in them? These ideas are not liberal! Keep them under wraps!

By the time I reached this point in Corbin's excellent review, I had already remembered a line from Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "And whoever wanted to sleep well still talked of good and evil before going to sleep." Apparently, Nietzsche was fine when he was being used as an all-purpose tool of intellectual deconstruction by postmodern academics, but in our hyperventilating, panicked political environment, orthodox progressive opinion has once again quarantined him as a dangerous inspiration to fascism. Ah, the vagaries of fashion.

Corbin goes on to draw parallels between Beiner's bedtime fable, where equality and justice triumph to live happily ever after, and the well-documented paradox of social media, which makes communication with countless strangers both easier and faster, yet ends up creating silos, echo chambers, vituperative distrust, and astonishing ignorance. As Corbin shows, the hope that life would finally be tamed and solved by means of gathering mankind under the comforting shelter of the One True Politics was present in Nietzsche's time, too, and he saw it for the delusion it is. Bien-pensants like Beiner will never understand this, preferring to tell the same old tales of good and evil before going to sleep.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Penitential Acts


John McWhorter wasn't correct enough — it's not just anti-racism; wokeness itself is a surrogate religion (hence "The Great Awokening"). Now we've even got the arcane dietary restrictions: no appropriating certain types of cuisines, no eating certain foods during holy festivals. At least Christianity, in theory if not always in practice, emphasizes that whole "judge not" ideal. With these fanatics, there's no such restraint.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 49

An eighteenth-century inkstand — complete with quill holder, penknife, inkwell, pounce box (to hold the desiccant powder), and wafer box (to hold the paste sealing wafers) — was a monument to the physical act of writing. But if no inkstand was at hand, one could make do with temporary expedients. One day, when Sir Walter Scott was out hunting, a sentence he had been trying to compose all morning suddenly leapt into his head. Before it could fade, he shot a crow, plucked a feather, sharpened the tip, dipped it in crow's blood, and captured the sentence.

— Anne Fadiman, "Eternal Ink," Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Let me proudly state that no animals have ever been harmed during the production of my own writing. And furthermore, if I must appear a madman for the sake of my art, I would rather build a mnemonic cage around the elusive sentence in question by repeating it out loud over and over again. More humane and more effective, if you ask me, and even if you don't. Scott would no doubt find my attitude regrettably soft and unmanly. But I like to think he'd be impressed, and perhaps a bit unnerved, by the way I can summon a notepad app from thin air, like a wizard's familiar, to capture ideas when I'm away from my writing desk.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Let's Hang On to What We've Got. Don't Let Go, Because We've Got a Lot

Before I begin, I should recap the argument of this book: First, the rust of human nature is eating away at the Miracle of Western civilization and the American experiment. Second, this corruption is nothing new; nature is always trying to reclaim what is hers. But this corruption expresses itself in new ways at different times as the romantic spirit takes whatever form it must to creep back in. Third, the corruption can only succeed when we willfully, and ungratefully, turn our backs on the principles that brought us out of the muck of human history in the first place. The last point, which is the subject of the next chapter, is that the corruption has now spread, disastrously, to the right, not just in America but throughout the West.

— Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy

Louis C.K. did a funny bit about how our pettiness and short-sighted selfishness keeps us from enjoying conveniences which would have been considered utterly miraculous only a few generations ago. "Everything is amazing right now, and nobody's happy!" he exclaimed. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. Jonah Goldberg has essentially combined those perspectives into a book-length meditation on our current political environment, pleading with us to recover a spirit of gratitude for what he calls the Miracle; i.e. Western democratic capitalism and the release it has granted us from the hardship and want of the pre-industrial age.

Goldberg, though a religious believer, presents a case designed to appeal to skeptics and atheists. There is no God to save us from our mistakes and tragedies. Life is a constant struggle against material and cultural entropy. The Miracle, though successful, is highly unnatural, forcing us to adopt new habits of living which defy all the tribal instincts ingrained through eons of evolution. The Miracle was only achieved through good fortune, and can easily be lost again with no guarantee of return. Various forms of what Goldberg groups together under the rubric of "romanticism," from left-wing utopianism to right-wing blood-and-soil nationalism, all promise to heal our alienation and make us whole again; all of them are pernicious lies.

An earnest plea for psychological balance and sanguine perspective will no doubt seem like a pitiful thing in a melodramatic, hyper-political age, but hopefully the seeds of Goldberg's argument will find receptive ground among the bystanders. Having long since come to the same tragic perspective on my own, I didn't need any additional convincing, but nonetheless, it was good to read an eloquent expression of it. Sometimes, there's nothing more that needs to be said beyond hear, hear.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

You Will Be a Restless Wanderer On the Earth

Melissa Mackenzie:

Peterson had been noodling some ideas about this question: How do we know when the Left goes too far? He made the point that on the right, everyone knows Nazis are evil. They’re something bad and something we don’t want to be and this moral judgment was clearly illustrated at the Nuremberg Trials, but that there is no such limit on the Left.

It was one of those rare instances of serendipity. On June 25th, 2015, I read an essay by George Santayana, "Josiah Royce," in which he wrote:

Yet that is what romantic philosophy would condemn us to; we must all strut and roar. We must lend ourselves to the partisan earnestness of persons and nations calling their rivals villains and themselves heroes; but this earnestness will be of the histrionic German sort, made to order and transferable at short notice from one object to another, since what truly matters is not that we should achieve our ostensible aim (which Hegel contemptuously called ideal) but that we should carry on perpetually, if possible with a crescendo, the strenuous experience of living in a gloriously bad world, and always working to reform it, with the comforting speculative assurance that we never can succeed. We never can succeed, I mean, in rendering reform less necessary or life happier; but of course in any specific reform we may succeed half the time, thereby sowing the seeds of new and higher evils, to keep the edge of virtue keen. And in reality we, or the Absolute in us, are succeeding all the time; the play is always going on, and the play's the thing.

Suddenly, I understood. I saw, vividly, what I had only understood abstractly before: that the crusading would never stop. There was no limiting principle to left-wing political efforts, nothing that would serve as a reasonable goal or endpoint. Today's vanguard will be denounced as tomorrow's reactionaries by a new group of radicals demanding more, faster, better.

The very next day was when the Obergefell ruling was handed down. And Freddie deBoer, whom I had previously held in high esteem as an intelligent alternative to orthodox leftists, immediately tweeted, "Now on to polygamy. (And no, I ain't kidding.)" He followed that up with, "Y'know, fellow left types who say today's not a good day to start talking polygamy, 'slow down' is a derided stance for a reason."

I have no problem with gay marriage. And I don't think that poly-anything will ever be more than a fringe fad. In other words, my road-to-Damascus moment wasn't motivated by any visceral fear or loathing of the newest phases of the sexual revolution. Like Roger Scruton as a student in Paris in 1968, watching the rioting of the soixante-huitards, I simply realized that regardless of the merits of any particular culture-war crusade, in the grand scheme I was watching "a kind of adolescent insouciance, a throwing away of all customs, institutions, and achievements, for the sake of a momentary exultation which could have no lasting sense save anarchy." Nothing would ever be good enough. Nothing will ever satisfy people whose anger and misery is existential, not situational. Like Scruton, I realized that these people would eagerly tear down many of the imperfect things I loved about the world in pursuit of unattainable perfection, and that I was tired of being associated in any way with their endless complaints and histrionics.

Ever since Bacon and Descartes, we've been increasingly accustomed to shaping the world to our preferences. As our technical mastery increases, we find it harder to accept the existence of anything which impedes "progress," whether personal or political. How do we know when the Left goes too far? To answer that, we'd have to be capable of envisioning a world of "good enough," and I'm not sure if human nature even allows for that. What sort of epochal revolution would have to occur in order for humanity to envision an alternative to progress that didn't involve some romanticized past? Individuals will continue to have private epiphanies where they make peace with an imperfect world and resign from the crusades, but the species as a whole will continue to be what Nietzsche called "the unfinished animal," endlessly striving to bring more of life under its control, forever dissatisfied with what actually exists.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

You Tried to Turn Me Off but You Couldn't Even Turn Me Down

Stephen Miller:

This is a formula to kill artistic freedom – yes even by artists we may find deplorable, like R. Kelly or Kill, Baby, Kill. Every artist should take a step back at who Spotify is entrusting to carry out its new content policing.

Furthermore, modern artists should go to YouTube and dig up the footage of Frank Zappa and Dee Snyder testifying in front of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985. If Spotify continues down this path, then artists need to realize they have the power to make Spotify suffer the same fate as the Tipper Gore group – an extinct laughingstock and stain on the history of free expression through music.

If you're just joining us, we're reading an article on Fox News's website defending freedom of expression in...uh...popular music against new demands for censorship from...um...religious fundamentalists, a.k.a. rainbow-haired, pussyhat-wearing feminists, who are being supported, at least implicitly, by milquetoast liberals who see nothing wrong with organized pressure campaigns by moralistic zealots attempting to create obstacles between artists and willing audiences since only government can officially "censor" anyone. Well, the neo-Whigs who think that "It's the current year!" counts as a persuasive argument will have fun making sense of this one, at least.

If there's any reactionaries out there who can write a decent melody, the stage couldn't be more perfectly set for you to position yourself as the newest phase in rock 'n' roll rebellion by giving this generation of church ladies the middle fingers and mockery they're begging for. And best of all, they'll give you all the free advertising you can handle. They won't be able to help themselves.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Grey Walkers

The sale was going to start at 9:00 a.m. Saturday, but numbered tickets were going to be handed out starting at 6:30. We drove up on Friday and arrived a little before 3:00 p.m. to put a couple of boxes in line to hold our place until the next morning, then we went to visit the arboretum and take a leisurely stroll around campus.

We arrived back at the arena the next morning around 6:00 and made a little small talk with some of the other members of our itinerant biblio-tribe, then collected our numbers. Most people got back in their cars to drive into town for breakfast, but as we've done for the last couple years, we used the opportunity to grab a prime parking spot. It was only two miles down to College Corner, and we're always up for a good walk. We took off at a brisk pace, wanting to have plenty of time to eat and get back in line.

It was an absolutely beautiful morning. Maybe not by most people's standards — there had been a torrential thunderstorm around midnight, and the skies were still slate-grey, though merely overcast. No threat of further rain. Temperatures in the low 50s, with a slight breeze. For me, there couldn't be more gorgeous weather for a walk. It made my heart sing. And campus walking, especially early on a weekend morning after graduation, is one of our favorite things to do. It's a pleasant feeling of kenopsia to walk past such stately buildings and perfectly manicured lawns with hardly any sign of human activity anywhere.

Shortly after we had crossed the street and passed the stadium, the Lady said, jokingly, "We're being followed." She spoke truly, for there was an older couple not far behind us. I'd been vaguely aware of them back there since we left the parking lot, but now they were close enough that we could hear them. Before they caught up to us, though, they veered left and headed down near the tennis courts and swimming pool, while we continued down the sidewalk along the main road. The speed of their pace and the purposeful manner of it made me suspect that they were also heading down to the Corner for breakfast and they knew a shortcut. Several minutes later, our parallel paths converged, and they were indeed a little bit ahead of us. "The stalker has become the stalkee," I whispered, but a few minutes later, we had to admit that despite our respectable clip, we were, in fact, getting dusted by a couple of sprightly greyhairs.

They went into the waffle shop where we had eaten last year, but we continued for another half-mile to a different one, where I discovered that a three-cheese omelette with a few fun-size hash brown patties and a couple slices of toast provide enough fat and protein to keep a fellow feeling energetic and sated for almost seven hours, despite four miles of walking and a day's hard work.

After finishing breakfast, having made such good time, we went back up the main lawn and past the library, taking a more relaxed amble this time. When we turned back onto the main thoroughfare again, though, we saw our fellow saunterers coming up via a perpendicular sidewalk. This sort of serendipity, this brief membership in a transient club of four, we felt, had to be acknowledged, so we turned toward them as they came into earshot and offered a hail-fellow-well-met. The Lady asked if they were also at the sale, which they were. They said they were surprised, because they thought they were the only ones who ever walked into town. We responded in kind. We asked if they were locals, seeing as how they seemed to know their way around. The wife said, "Well, he was a local, from '71 to '75." "A lot of the buildings are different now, though!" he added. We fell into step together and chatted the rest of the way back to the sale.

By my math, if he was a freshman in 1971, that would make him 74 or 75 years old now, and I assume his wife was about the same. They told us that they bike about 30 miles every other day as well, near their home in Amish country. "No matter how tired I am, I never let myself get passed by an Amish buggy!" she asserted. I had to laugh in appreciation of that competitive spirit. Other than the grey hair, you wouldn't guess they were anywhere near that age. Spry and athletic, they could have easily passed for being in their early fifties.

I don't have any grand conclusion to the story. I just thought it was inspiring to meet such a role model. Hopefully the Lady and I will still be that fit and active at the same age, still strolling around campuses early on summer mornings.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

I Fear That I Am Ordinary, Just Like Everyone

It's almost as if our crazy love of dreaming big is a last-ditch survival mechanism to cope with our day-in, day-out awareness of how small, pointless and ineffectual we turn out to be. For all but a minuscule few, life is about recognizing just how little change you can effect, from politics and economics to public opinion and popular tastes. It often seems to impossible to change even one person's mind, especially a partner or relative. We indulge our big fantasies despite what appears to be endless, intimate evidence to the contrary. Why do we do this? What are we, crazy?

— James Poulos, The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us From Ourselves


I remember being a teenager and buying one of Robert Fulghum's books at a B. Dalton (back when malls had bookstores instead of cellphone-repair kiosks). The cashier commented on it, saying that she had tried reading it, but "it just seemed to be a lot of stuff I already knew." Even at the time, I remember thinking, well, yeah; why would you expect that truth should be something completely exotic and abstruse? Some of Fulghum's stories are twee, no doubt; but some of them are hilarious, and others contain minimalist insights and observations that blossom into the universal truths that, yes, we all already know, but somehow fail to honor in practice. Truth often is ordinary. The effort we put into rationalizing it away is what's extraordinary. Part of getting older, I think, is finally getting tired of creating complexity and complications where none need exist.

The Lady and I were talking on a hike about a podcast she'd listened to with an author who'd just published a book based on the claim that willpower is feeble in comparison to having a properly structured environment. The truth, of course, is that both personal discipline and a supportive environment are necessary to achieve goals in the most efficient way, but the precise proportions of each depend on individual circumstances, and they can't be reduced to an abstract, universal formula. But that's boring, and it can be summed up in a sentence. To write a book like that, to get attention and distinction, you have to take a strong stand on one side or the other. With truisms, there's nothing to do but accept them. A strong either/or partisan argument gets our adrenaline pumping. A stubborn opponent sharpens our wits and concentration. We feel so much more alive and engaged when we're fighting, even if we're fighting over a completely manufactured disagreement. At least then, we're not alone with our thoughts, forced to admit how rarely we do the things we know we should and how lame our perennial excuses are for not doing them.

When I look back at my decade or so of writing online, I notice that the years where I did my best work were the ones I spent with some sort of challenge. For a couple of years, I was writing for that most inspiring of reasons, to impress a girl. For a few years after that, I was writing in order to make sense of what would come to be known as the Great Awokening, while coming to terms with my own evolving political perspective. Having achieved both, I can now afford to write for the pure enjoyment of playing with words, while making tentative, experimental attempts to develop as a writer and a thinker. In one sense, that's liberating, but that same sense of pleasant weightlessness can also make you feel adrift and alone, unable to connect to a culture dominated by angry, partisan adolescents of all ages who are determined to make the entire world fit onto the Procrustean bed of their narrow political obsessions. Without an argument to join, without a sacred cause to crusade for, without any desire to be noticed and appreciated, I'm forced to acknowledge how plain my pleasures are, how banal my tasks and routines are, and how very much I have in common with people I formerly scorned in my supercilious youth. It's often said that the story of humanity has been a sequence of increasing disillusionment. Copernicus demoted us from our place at the center of the universe. Darwin relegated us from our special status above the rest of the animal kingdom. Freud then informed us that we weren't even the masters of our own minds. Now, even within the privacy of our self-image, it seems the final humiliation is the recognition of our own individual ordinariness, a recognition itself so common as to need no famous spokesman. Thankfully, the consolations of simple, earnest joys more than make up for it.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Rolling Green


We realized, to our chagrin, that we hadn't been hiking since last September. First there were my two hospital stays plus eventual surgery. Then the new business got rolling and ate up a lot of our time. And even we aren't quite mad enough to get up before dawn on a winter morning and go walk for several miles along a mountain ridge while our several layers of clothing put up about as much resistance to the howling, frigid wind as your grandmother's password does to identity thieves. But we've hiked this trail twice in the past week, and it's great to be back. No bears yet, but lots of chipmunks, plus what appeared to be a beautiful pair of orioles, a pileated woodpecker, and one bald eagle! The long-term forecast is calling for a cooler-than-normal spring in the mid-Atlantic; 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. We've got a lot of lost time to make up for.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 48

If Schopenhauer had a religion in his youth, or at any time in his life, it was music. It was in music that he found intimations of a realm beyond the human world. The nature of things, he came to think, was ineffable. Language could not capture the reality that lay behind changing appearances. But what could not be spoken could still be sung or played.

— John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism

As Mark Sandman sang, "Music is like our prayer; it helps you reach somewhere." Likewise, my faith is the substance of rhythms hoped for, the evidence of melodies not heard.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Noteworthies (37)

• Tim Rogers, "Jordan Peterson and the Return of the Stoics"

• Wesley Yang, "The Passion of Jordan Peterson"

• Kyle Smith, "Ezra Klein’s Intellectual Demagoguery"

• Theodore Dalrymple, "Reading the State of Britain with Roger Scruton"

• Ben Sixsmith, "My Favorite French Intellectual"

• Patrick Freyne, "Where Do Atheists Get Their Values?"

• Michael Brendan Dougherty, "The Church of Grievance"

• Joe Berkowitz, "If You Think You Hate Puns, You're Wrong"

• David Thompson, "Annihilation Of Bourgeois Life Delayed Somewhat"

• Songs I'm enjoying this week: while listening to Google Play's "Psychedelic Indie" station, I discovered "Comb My Hair" by Coast Modern (sorta like Tame Impala sharing a ride and a singalong with the Flaming Lips), and "Boys Latin" by Panda Bear (sorta like techno-Gregorian chanting)

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 47

It is true that in certain acute and painful crises of oppression or disgrace, discontent is a duty and shame could call us like a trumpet. But it is not true that man should look at life with an eye of discontent, however high-minded. It is not true that in his primary, naked relation to the world, in his relation to sex, to pain, to comradeship, to the grave or to the weather, man ought to make discontent his ideal; it is black lunacy. Half his poor little hopes of happiness hang on his thinking a small house pretty, a plain wife charming, a lame foot not unbearable, and bad cards not so bad. The voice of the special rebels and prophets, recommending discontent, should, as I have said, sound now and then suddenly, like a trumpet. But the voices of the saints and sages, recommending contentment, should sound unceasingly, like the sea.

— G. K. Chesterton, "What Is Right With the World"

Sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, discontent is a means of distinguishing oneself. I have higher standards. I see further and deeper. I am too profound to be distracted or mollified by superficial baubles. To be happy with simple pleasures is to risk appearing a simpleton, or worse, to risk being forced to acknowledge how much one has in common with others. Most of our modern prophets are simply trying to reassure themselves of their own uniqueness in matters of both morality and taste.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Or You Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain


When the Atlantic was publishing 7800-word profiles about Kanye's genius, I grudgingly endured it. When Slate was analyzing his videos as if they were high art, I patiently withstood it. When some airheaded ditz at the Baffler tried to portray his shallow narcissism as artistic genius, I suffered it stoically. When the A.V. Club — back when they actually published interesting pieces about music and film before becoming just another interchangeable storefront staffed by snarky adolescents in the Woke Mall of America that counts as pop culture writing these days — kept genuflecting before his greatness, I politely overlooked it. Today, I have to say it was all worth it. All of it. I just hope the Internet is sturdy enough to contain the ocean of salty woke tears I've seen flowing through my feed this morning, because if the dams burst and that stuff saturates the earth, nothing will ever grow there for thousands of years and we'll all starve to death.

But still, this isn't a day for I-told-you-sos. This isn't a day for noting that I was anti-Kanye years before it was cool. This is a day for laughter and merriment. A day for relaxing after an intense period of work and travel. Now flow, tears, and soak your cheeks! rage! flow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Noteworthies (36)

• Douglas Dalrymple, "Jonah In Siberia"

• Jacob Bacharach, "Like a Dog"

• Theodore Dalrymple, "Jeremy Corbyn’s Jewish Problem"

• Matthew Continetti, "The Battle of Woke Island"

• Kevin Williamson, "When the Twitter Mob Came for Me" (may be paywalled, but you can find the URL on Twitter and access it there)

• Bradley Campbell, "Kevin Williamson, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Victimhood Culture"

• John McGinnis, "Explaining the New Illiberal Liberalism"

• David Marcus, "Five Big, Fat Lies Free Speech Opponents Love," and related, "Nice place you've got here..."

• "Progress Man" summarizes Steven Pinker's new book.

Truth. Especially about the lizard people.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 46

Sociology (Tocqueville's discipline, and the one practiced in this book), for instance, has largely been captured by the view that inequalities are the most prevalent and most consequential things around. That view is so forcefully held and so apparently beyond criticism that it has become not only virtually synonymous with the dominant vision of what politics is for but virtually sacrosanct, too. For many sociologists, there just isn't anything else to care about more than inequality, and there just isn't anything else to do but to combat it politically.

— James Poulos, The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us From Ourselves

As the saying of unknown origin goes, it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. It's funny to think that all the ceaseless chattering about inequality is just this century's version of Freudian psychology, a fleeting intellectual fashion among the intelligentsia, soon to be deservedly ignored. It's liberating to hear it summed up so concisely like this; it reminds you that there's life outside this stifling, insular climate of opinion.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Hands All Over Words I Utter, Change Them Into What You Want to Like Balls of Clay


Sunday, June 12th, 1994 is a date more commonly associated with the beginning of the O.J. Simpson media circus, but what I remember is that the Barnes & Noble in Charlottesville had its grand opening on the 10th, and this was my first time visiting the store. The book I bought that day was Indians 'R' Us, a collection of essays and articles by the not-yet-infamous Ward Churchill. One of the chapters, an excoriating attack on the poet Robert Bly, dealt with the topic of what would today be called "appropriation" of Indian culture by white people. In it, Churchill (who, ironically, would later be accused of having fabricated his own Indian heritage) not only argued that white people looking to reject their oppressive colonial European heritage should stick to romanticizing their own barbarian ancestors ("Proud to be a Visigoth-American!"), but that the word "tribe" was especially offensive because it was formerly used in reference to livestock, thus equating non-European people with cattle. Cattle=>cattle cars=>genocide=>Nazi Germany=U.S.A. Q.E.D! Again, 1994. Dylan Matthews and the rest of the Vox Media cohort were probably busy tattling on the naughty language of their seventh-grade peers and doodling heroic portraits of Bill Clinton on their Trapper-Keeper notebooks back then, blissfully unaware that a quarter-century later, their every banal thought would have already been voiced by a soon-to-be disgraced ethnic studies professor. I'm trying to imagine the appropriate inverse of the old "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants" image and failing.

Point is, besides the fact that there is absolutely nothing new under the left-wing sun, by resurrecting this idea, Dylan Matthews, and by slippery-slope extension, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias and all the rest of the interchangeable Voxplaining millennial media morons, have placed themselves in rhetorical solidarity with the man who infamously called the people working in the WTC on 9/11 "little Eichmanns," while implicitly endorsing his own appropriation of Indian culture as well. I'm pretty sure that's how this guilt-by-association thing works. Now, even those of us who wouldn't have read Vox even if you'd paid us have to feign an attack of the vapors and loudly announce our intention to withhold money we weren't going to spend from companies we never patronize for advertising on a website we never visit while patting ourselves on the back for our moral integrity; the offending parties need to be placed under economic embargo until they're forced to resign; and they can never hold a job that pays more than eleven dollars an hour again. Hey, I don't make the outrage-mob rules, I just observe them.

Monday, April 16, 2018

How Did My Soul Rise Again From These Graves?

Jason Kottke, in 2013:

The blog is dead, long live the blog

Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice.

Jason Kottke, today:

Blogging is most certainly not dead

Social media is as compelling as ever, but people are increasingly souring on the surveillance state Skinner boxes like Facebook and Twitter. Decentralized media like blogs and newsletters are looking better and better these days…

Well, one thing has definitely remained constant over the years: this guy is not a very deep thinker.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 45

If I were to ask myself where and when I have been happiest, I could of course give the obvious answers, as true of me as of everybody else; at some dance or feast of the romantic time of life; at some juvenile triumph of debate; at some sight of beautiful things in strange lands. But it is much more important to remember that I have been intensely and imaginatively happy in the queerest because the quietest places. I have been filled with life from within in a cold waiting-room in a deserted railway junction. I have been completely alive sitting on an iron seat under an ugly lamp-post at a third-rate watering place. In short, I have experienced the mere excitement of existence in places that would commonly be called as dull as ditch-water.

— G. K. Chesterton, "The Spice of Life"

I happened to read this passage just after having attended a biannual library sale, one of the high points of my year. There's this small, brick retaining wall around the back of the library, near the entrance to the nonfiction room. Shaded by trees, surrounded by ivy, invisible from almost anywhere else in the vicinity and unremarkable to anyone who does happen to notice it, it's one of my favorite places to sit while thinking about everything and nothing. I generally arrive at that sale more than two hours early just to have some time to myself, sitting on my wall, thinking about how good life can be in the most mundane circumstances. I'm already looking forward to revisiting it in the autumn.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 44

If an American should be reduced to occupying himself with his own affairs, at that moment half his existence would be snatched from him; he would feel it as a vast void in his life and would become incredibly unhappy.

— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Where am I? Delaware? Pennsylvania? Maryland? No, that was last month. New York? Ohio? No, that's later this spring. North Carolina, then? Sounds likely. Well, whatever the case, from this hotel in Somewhere, U.S.A., let me say that as I continue to have no time for reading online about politics, culture, and current events, I can only laugh in the face of Tocqueville's ghost. Bounded in the nutshell of my own affairs, I count myself a king of infinite space.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Spaying and Neutering

David Marcus:

The Left generally argues that part of free speech is exercising it to marginalize the incorrect speech of others. It is a kind of natural selection in which aggressively opposing certain viewpoints is used to banish those viewpoints from responsible mainstream discourse.

It's an interesting article, but I would suggest a better metaphor here is intellectual eugenics. Like their original progressive forefathers, natural selection is far too slow and inefficient for them, and besides, there's always the chance you might lose a fair contest. Better to have them, as self-appointed experts, decide which thought-criminals need to have their careers compulsorily sterilized to prevent them from inseminating unwary readers or listeners with their atavistic ideas. The dream of purifying the body politic of moral degeneracy never went away; it just morphed from a fixation on biology to one on ideology. Seizing the means of intellectual reproduction, you might say.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 43

I cannot understand why so many modern people like to be regarded as slaves. I mean the most dismal and degraded sort of slaves; moral and spiritual slaves. Popular preachers and fashionable novelists can safely repeat that men are only what their destiny makes them; and that there is no choice or challenge in the lot of man. Dean Inge declares, with a sort of gloomy glee, that some absurd American statistics or experiments show that heredity is an incurable disease and that education is no cure for it. Mr. Arnold Bennett says that many of his friends drink too much; but that it cannot be helped, because they cannot help it. I am not Puritanic about drink; I have drunk all sorts of things; and in my youth, often more than was good for me. But in any conceivable condition, drunk or sober, I should be furious at the suggestion that I could not help it. I should have wanted to punch the head of the consoling fatalist who told me so. Yet nobody seems to punch the heads of consoling fatalists.

— G. K. Chesterton, "On a Humiliating Heresy"

Good point. Let's ask an expert.

There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life. Moreover, when we have an alibi for not writing a book, painting a picture, and so on, we have an alibi for not writing the greatest book and not painting the greatest picture. Small wonder that the effort expended and the punishment endured in obtaining a good alibi often exceed the effort and grief requisite for the attainment of a most marked achievement.

— Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind: And Other Aphorisms

Friday, April 6, 2018

Souls of Damnation In Their Own Reality

Alastair Roberts:

Healthy engagement requires careful management and channelling of our emotions, ensuring that we are not driven by dysfunctional reactivity, but that we have the sort of well-ordered loves, selves, and societies that enable us to respond, rather than merely react. What this looks like will vary for different people. For most people, it probably requires radically paring down social media presence and activity. It almost certainly requires practicing solitude, or at least significantly cutting down on the intensity of one’s social exposure, spending more time in obscurer social contexts. For all of us, it requires the practice of those disciplines that will cultivate strong and virtuous character in us, so that we will be less at the mercy of our environments.

I've been far too busy with work and travel lately to read much online (and, just so you know, with the busy season continuing through late May, soon to be followed by the World Cup, that may continue to be the case for a while). Now, I love reading and writing as much as anything on Earth. But today was a one-day respite from the hectic pace of the rest of the week, where I had time to browse at leisure, and I have to admit, I had an almost-sinking feeling as I sat down and prepared to go through my usual smorgasbord of bookmarks. Do I really want to do this? I was mentally flinching from the thought of exposing myself to all the usual effluvia and jackassery. Even a few days away from it is enough to make you feel acutely sensitive to the depleting effects. It feels like eating junk food for the first time in months after you've been eating healthily and working out — instantly disappointing and regrettable. Sometimes I'm lazily reluctant to do pushups or go hiking, too, but I know from constant experience that I always feel better afterward for having made the effort, and the benefits are clear. I'm not so sure exposing myself to the latest social media stupidity is comparable to a yoga routine, though. What mental muscles have I exercised by reading the latest garbage about parents trying to raise their children without gender?

There is certainly worthwhile stuff to read online. It's just a terrible shame that the overall environment where it exists is so permeated by toxicity. My body knows it even if my mind tries to rationalize it away. It's like the old days of going to a concert in a small venue and being disgusted the next morning by the putrid reek of secondhand smoke in your clothes. Even the best shows playing online take place within a dispiriting haze of secondhand stupidity, competing to be heard over a din of belligerent imbeciles.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Reuse, Recycle, Restore


As Nathan Hale famously said, I only regret that I had but one joke to make about progressive feminists being as dumb as bugs, and I already used it. Regrets are endlessly renewable, though, and I'll regret it again the next time Sarah Jones tweets something stupid, which is to say, the next time she logs in to her account.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Like a Bug?


What's it like being Jessa Crispin? Is it like being a bug?

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 42

It was once a universally accepted notion that politics grows out of culture — that the profound insights of art, religion, scholarship and local custom ultimately shape the terms of political debate. Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.

Its is not difficult to find evidence for this assertion. Take, for example, the rise of single-issue politics and the plethora of political pressure groups and the lengths to which politicians go to court such groups. Above all, there is the shrillness and one-dimensionality of most political rhetoric. The quality of public discourse has degenerated into shouting matches between bands of professional crusaders. As James Davison Hunter has put it, the culture wars consist of "competing utopian politics that will not rest until there is complete victory." The result, Hunter concludes, is that "the only thing left to order public life is power. This is why we invest so much into politics."

...The very metaphor of war ought to make us pause. The phrase "culture wars" is an oxymoron: culture is about nourishment and cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse. We are now at the point in the culture wars where we are sending women and children into battle and neglecting to sow the crops in the spring. Clearly we cannot sustain such a total war. In the end, there will be nothing left to fight over.

— Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human In an Ideological Age

"If there is hope," wrote Heather Wilhelm, "it lies in the 'mehs'."

If there was hope, it MUST lie in the mehs, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 per cent of the population without Twitter accounts, could the force to destroy SocMed ever be generated. SocMed could not be overthrown from within. Its enemies, if it had any enemies, had no way of coming together or even of identifying one another. Even if the legendary Brotherhood existed, as just possibly it might, it was inconceivable that its members could ever assemble in larger numbers than twos and threes. Rebellion meant a look in the eyes, an inflexion of the voice, at the most, an occasional whispered word. But the mehs, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength. would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow SocMed to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it? And yet ——!

Friday, March 23, 2018

Now Our Lives Are Changing Fast, Hope That Something Pure Can Last

Dan Cohen:

There has been a recent movement to “re-decentralize” the web, returning our activities to sites like this one. I am unsurprisingly sympathetic to this as an idealist, and this post is my commitment to renew that ideal. I plan to write more here from now on. However, I’m also a pragmatist, and I feel the re-decentralizers have underestimated what they are up against, which is partially about technology but mostly about human nature.

...It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

He notes that most people simply don't have time to write at length, which is another strong incentive to stick to the minimal demands of Facebook and Instagram. I would add that even if they had the time, most people are not particularly driven to philosophize about the world and articulate those thoughts in medium-to-long-form essays. As always, that doesn't mean they're stupid or shallow; it's just that regular writing, even of the amateur variety, is a discipline like any other, and very few people have the odd single-mindedness necessary to stick to a discipline with military precision and religious zeal. Most people would want to be compensated for the time and energy they invest in writing with money, attention, or both, and as he says, the centralized web is far more efficient at providing those opportunities. Was it ever about writing per se, or was it just about self-expression? If the latter, well, that can be accomplished through sentence fragments, photos and videos in much less time. As a fellow who would surely know put it, "Convenience decides everything." Easy is better, easiest is best.

There may well be a fair number of other oddballs out there who can find the motivation to write in nothing more than self-contained aesthetic enjoyment, but, largely by definition, they're not going to attract notice. Or, to put it another way, there might be plenty of people who are happy to maintain blogs, but blogging itself is never going to be a cultural "thing" again, except possibly in the aspirational sense — having a blog might signify authenticity by virtue of its old-fashioned impracticality, like so many other status symbols. In a best-case scenario, perhaps in the spirit of Morris Berman's New Monastic Individuals, blogs might come to be another redoubt of those who choose to turn their backs and walk away from the cult of convenience. That will always be a tiny minority, though.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 41

Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human In an Ideological Age:

In biblical terms, a prophet is someone both on the margins of society and yet passionately engaged in it. The prophet is both gadfly and lover of the community. By reminding human beings of the fundamental order of the universe that exists prior to the exercise of will and power, the prophet calls his people back to reverence and humility. And while the prophet is traditionally seen as thoroughly wayward — think hair shirts, locusts, scraggly beards, and bulging eyes — he is, in fact, the castigator of waywardness in others.

Eric Hoffer, Before the Sabbath:

Capitalism's greatest predicament is that several paradoxes of the human condition combine to turn capitalist successes into failures... Take mass education: it was the capitalists and not the intellectuals who initiated and promoted mass education. In capitalist America every mother's son can go to college. Most capitalist societies are being swamped with educated people who disdain the triviality and hustle of the marketplace and pray for a new social order that will enable them to live meaningful, weighty lives. The education explosion is now a more immediate threat to capitalist societies than a population explosion.

Hoffer also said elsewhere that "nothing is so unsettling to a social order as the presence of a mass of scribes without suitable employment and an acknowledged status." He attributed the education explosion to the post-Sputnik panic, when billions of dollars were shoveled into the universities to produce scientists and technologists wholesale; following the money were large groups of mediocre talents and intellects who saw an opportunity to avoid business careers and climb the academic ladder instead. In our day, we have a similar glut of mediocrities who have been educated just enough to think themselves above "ordinary" careers and lives, which makes the bitterness of debt and failure that much harder for them to take. The difference between a generation shaped by the Cold War and one shaped by the Great Awokening perhaps explains why so many today have channeled their ambitions and frustrations into careers as prophets of social justice. "They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves..."

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

I Wish It Was the Sixties, I Wish We Could Be Happy, I Wish, I Wish, I Wish That Something Would Happen

Some "encountering" enthusiasts blamed the only-partial success of the social movements of the 1960s for their turn away from politics. Many asked what the point was of critiquing a system so thoroughly corrupt. They decided to seek personal empowerment instead of political empowerment, and freeing themselves of their emotional "baggage" became their preoccupation.

Others saw turning inward as a natural extension of New Left philosophy. If the personal was political, then it made sense that in order to change the world they first had to find out who they were. Identity, as I have shown, has always been a critical part of movement rhetoric, whether it was the civil-rights movement, the women's movement, or the antiwar movement. The me generation took the 1960s emphasis on identity one step further (or backward, depending upon one's perspective).

— Eva Moskowitz, In Therapy We Trust: America's Obsession with Self-Fulfillment

I've said before that the Great Awokening of our time can't be understood merely as a reprise of '60s political radicalism; the self-help/therapeutic/recovery movement ran parallel to it, and continues to do so today. As we've all seen, hashtag political gestures like BLM and MeToo are now seamlessly interwoven with demands for safe spaces and the abolition of "hate speech." Many people have observed that activist politics is becoming more like a religion, and while there's some value in that comparison, I think it's probably more accurate to say that those parallel tracks have converged, and activists today treat politics as a form of group therapy, and vice versa. Righteous political action makes the world a better place while also healing the personal wounds suffered under oppressive conditions. If nothing else, it alleviates ennui.

In reflecting on that unholy combination, it also strikes me that perhaps the main reason why the left-wing clerisy has reacted with ambivalence at best, if not uncharitable hostility, toward Jordan Peterson, is because he challenges both aspects of this Janus-faced worldview at the same time. Not only does he insist that egalitarianism is merely a softer, slower totalitarianism, but his phenomenally-popular "self-help" book advocates a stoic, tragic ideal which encourages personal responsibility and self-confidence rather than narcissistic navel-gazing and finger-pointing. The fact that young men in particular have taken to his message with voracious enthusiasm is maddening to those academics who would prefer them to be "deconstructing masculinity" under their expert supervision instead. How many of these useless middlemen would be out of work if the general public finally stopped being receptive to their message? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? No wonder they've moved on to associating Peterson with Nazism; to them, it's like he's trying to commit intellectual genocide.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Noteworthies (34)

• James Hankins, "How Not to Defend the Humanities"

• Lydialyle Gibson, "The Mirage of Knowledge"

• Sohrab Amari, "The Disappearance of Desire"

• Joanna Baron & Jerry Gibbon, "Good Luck With That"

• Tanner Greer, "Jordan Peterson Saves the World"

• Marc Lewis, "The Addiction Habit"

• Meng-Hu, "Four Juxtapositions"

• Bradley Campbell, "The Intellectual Source of Victimhood Culture"

Tiptoeing through the comedy minefield (a lament in four tweets).

A day in the life.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Where Have You Been? I've Been Waiting for You

Robert Tracinski:
It’s time to give up on all of this, writing it off as a failed experiment. So here is what I’m going to do.

1. I’m going off Twitter for a month. No, this is not a fake Farhad Manjoo Twitter break, but a real one. At the end of 30 days, we’ll see if I bother to come back.

2. Instead of staring at my phone all the time, I’m going to carry around an honest to goodness book to read. A lot of the time I spend messing around on Twitter is in spare moments when I’m waiting for the kids to get ready for bed, or between sets at the gym, and I have rationalized it by saying this is time when I can’t get sustained work done, so it’s not really going to waste. But I’m betting that’s not true and that I can fill this time with more productive or more enjoyable things.

3. I’m going to go back to what I used to do: checking out a roster of websites and blogs with good information and getting all of my news directly from those sources, not from people posting them to social media. You should do the same.

4. I’m going to spend more time writing at The Federalist, or posting extra material here on my own site—that would be TracinskiLetter.com, thanks for asking—or working on a couple of other projects I have in mind. If you want to know what I have to say, you know where to find me. I’m willing to bet that all of these projects will do me a lot more good than being “Twitter famous.”

Partly what I’m trying to do here is to go back to the future, back to the golden age of blogs. There may be another, better technological solution, and I’m open to hearing about it. But I’m starting to realize that whatever the answer eventually turns out to be, social media was probably a mistake.

I'm still sitting in the exact same spot where I took up residence in the autumn of 2007, still using a Dell desktop to do the majority of my browsing and writing, still keeping folders on the bookmarks bar full of "Blogs" or "Twits" to follow worthwhile sites and timelines. I'm happy to let it remain forever a mystery how people can do anything important on a phone screen, let alone how apps could fascinate anyone but adolescent simpletons. I've never been plagued by the fear of missing out that keeps shallow people flitting like anxious butterflies from one tech trend or platform to another. I recognized immediately that the blog format was perfect for my needs, and I've never been tempted to chase after the next shiny object. As long as you aren't interested in making money, getting attention, or having influence, it's easy!

Anecdotes don't necessarily mean anything, of course, but lately I have seen several people independently grousing about social media and flirting with the idea of leaving it. Time will tell if more people follow Tracinski's lead. Let's just hope blogs don't become the new vinyl, a hipster status symbol.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 40

I have set out a dish of bird seed and a basin of water on the balcony. I no longer have any illusion about birdlike innocence. One bully gets into the dish and drives off all other birds. The bullies seem demented and malicious. They skip about pecking at other birds rather than eat the seed. Why don't the birds gang up on the bully? Is it because of a lack of language? Birds are capable of united action: they flock together and organize themselves into flights to the end of the earth.

It wearies me to think that the senseless pecking is part of the energy that fueled the ascent of life — the manifestation of a tireless, blind drive that will go on forever.

— Eric Hoffer, Before the Sabbath

Very Schopenhauerian of him. Of course, the avian belligerence he describes is indeed often the case. I'm convinced that hummingbirds, for example, use at least three-quarters of their caloric intake merely for driving other hummingbirds away from the feeder. But we recently saw a male cardinal take a bite of suet and flutter over to give it to his sweetheart perched nearby, a courting behavior which is apparently common among cardinals, who also mate for life. Perhaps even birds validate life's struggles through tiny acts of affection and self-sacrifice which, however briefly, point toward the possibility of something meaningful beyond the senseless pecking.

This Good Old Man Appears to Me to Have Chosen for Himself a Lot Most Preferable

Sam Dolnick:

It was just going to be for a few days. But he is now more than a year into knowing almost nothing about American politics. He has managed to become shockingly uninformed during one of the most eventful chapters in modern American history. He is as ignorant as a contemporary citizen could ever hope to be.

James Comey. Russia. Robert Mueller. Las Vegas. The travel ban. “Alternative facts.” Pussy hats. Scaramucci. Parkland. Big nuclear buttons. Roy Moore.

He knows none of it. To Mr. Hagerman, life is a spoiler.

...He said that with some pride, but he has the misgivings about disengaging from political life that you have, by now, surely been shouting at him as you read. “The first several months of this thing, I didn’t feel all that great about it,” he said. “It makes me a crappy citizen. It’s the ostrich head-in-the-sand approach to political outcomes you disagree with.”

It seems obvious to say, but to avoid current affairs is in some ways a luxury that many people, like, for example, immigrants worried about deportation, cannot afford.

The Lady of the House has a business acquaintance with whom she keeps in intermittent touch via social media. This woman — let's call her Shelly — is, to judge by her newsletters and Facebook updates, a thoroughly unpleasant person. Each post is brimming over with typical performative spleen-venting about the sociopolitical outrage du jour, and supplemented with performative wallowing in angst/situational depression. Naturally, like all the other #resistance! nonconformist freethinkers, she looks like she was rolled off the assembly line in a social-justice shrew factory, complete with bright yarn-colored hair, hipster eyeglasses, ugly tattoos, and t-shirts emblazoned with feminist slogans. Being terrible people and known thought-criminals, the Lady and I of course laugh at each status update, treating it like a guilty-pleasure TV show. How long until this dunce finally figures out that she's using "wokeness" as an excuse to flounder in self-inflicted misery? we keep asking after every episode.

Anyway, back to Erik Hagerman, the subject of this aghast NYT profile. This was one of the most unintentionally hilarious articles I've read in some time. Avoiding current affairs is a, surprise surprise, privilege! Don't you know there are information-starved citizens in Africa who would gratefully gobble up all that social media ephemera you're wasting? Now, to be clear, countless ordinary people live lives of prosaic local and personal concerns without ever paying the slightest attention to the dreadfully important issues of, uh, pussy hats and D.C. insider gossip, but the Times is gravely concerned because Hagerman is a former corporate executive at Nike, Walmart and Disney. It's all well and good for hoi polloi to busy themselves with trivia and leave serious matters to their betters, but if an Important Person calls shenanigans on the whole charade of being an informed, cosmopolitan citizen, it cuts straight to the heart of the clerisy's flattering conceit that they matter. External enemies are always necessary for maintaining the faith, but heresy corrodes it from within. We can tolerate, indeed, we require a large outgroup of proudly-ignorant Trumpenproles to define ourselves against, but if one of "us" stops performing the rituals and ablutions of being well-informed and suffers no adverse consequences, what does that say about the rest of us? Make no mistake, the fear is not that society will collapse if a small minority of citizens stop paying attention to news they can't use, the fear is that the lack of dramatic consequences will prove the utter emptiness of this whole media-class pretense. Like Shelly, Dolnick and the clucking hens he appeals to for sympathy are deeply invested in consuming the very garbage that makes them sick, but they find that preferable to having to face their own insignificance.

Look at the list of "newsworthy events" that Dolnick lists up there. Ask yourself, how many of those have profoundly changed anything about the way you view the world? Did Parkland or the unsolved Las Vegas shootings change your views on gun control or reinforce them? Has any of the skulduggery surrounding Trump and Russia changed your political principles and allegiances or just reinforced them? When was the last time you read anything that made you stop at length to rethink your most basic attitudes and commitments, if ever? For most of us, the ideological foundations of our worldviews were cemented in place long ago; all we're doing now is laying more bricks on top of them to keep us safe and dry. None of you are going to donate money, time or energy to political causes (especially those of you who are too busy tweeting to have time for anything else). None of you are going to do anything other than vote for the same political party you've always voted for, no matter how they perform. Go ahead, read a few more articles about subjects you only half-understand and can't meaningfully act upon anyway. Send a few more vituperative tweets and posts into the void to convince yourself that you're "doing something." Alternatively, you could get over yourself and go focus on something that makes you feel pleasant for a change. Quietly tending to your own garden would do far more to make the world a better place than sharing your ill-informed, dyspeptic tirades with the rest of us. But you'd rather have attention and adrenaline rushes, wouldn't you?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Bliss Was It In That Dawn

Oliver Traldi:

Lefty friends keep asking me if — or telling me that — I’m a conservative now. But I’m just a liberal who remembers what they’ve forgotten. I remember what it meant to be a liberal back when I really started to identify as one, back around 2000, during Bush v. Gore, 9/11, the PATRIOT Act, the Iraq War. Of course, I may just have been gullible. Maybe it meant something different before that and maybe it came to mean something different after. Maybe it’s all just “tribal” signifiers, all just flags and symbols. But if it is, the forgetting must help, and that just isn’t what I’m good at.

"I'm not a conservative; I'm merely nostalgic for the simple politics and moral certainties of a bygone age, which just happens to correlate with my youth!" That's not being entirely fair to either conservatism or Traldi, but it's still funny. Lately, these "I didn't leave the left; the left left me" pieces are becoming popular again, which is at least one thing that hasn't changed much from the Dubya Bush years. During the Cold War, it was common for defenders of the liberal West to note the simple fact that it was unnecessary to put up walls and guard towers to keep their populations from escaping en masse. Likewise, it might be useful for these agonizers to reflect on why the traffic in these political conversion stories tends to be mostly one-way.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 39

Theodore Dalrymple:

One of the underlying problems, argues Professor O’Gorman, is in consumer society brought about by globalised capitalism. Our economy is such that it depends utterly on creating new desires among consumers, whether or not the satisfaction of those desires leads to happiness or anything worthwhile sub specie aeternitatis. Without a constant desire for something new, for something supposedly better, our economy would deflate like a balloon emptied of gas. If a large proportion of the population were to decide that it already had enough to meet its needs, and that it would be no happier if it possessed anything else, economic activity would stagnate at best. It is therefore necessary that there should be a population that is never materially satisfied, that supposes that the next purchase will bring it fulfillment: which, of course, it never does, which explains why so many people go out shopping when they actually need for nothing.

I know these claims well, having made them often enough when I was young and stupid(er). Still, despite my intimate familiarity with the mindset, I find it almost incomprehensible now. Like all religious visions of paradise, it defines itself against the hated fact of ceaseless, omnipresent change which defines our very existence; it imagines a scratch to end all itches forever, a final resolution of all recurring chores. In paradise, our satisfactions will be spiritual and self-contained, impervious to decay. In reality, our acceptance of the need to work in order to consume in order to work is simply an acknowledgement that the least-worst option is often the only realistic one. Smug adolescents of all ages always act like they're the first to discover that material possessions don't bring permanent fulfillment. For the rest of us, the transient pleasures of purchases and novelty are valuable insofar as they make one day, one place or one shared experience just a bit brighter.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Adam of Your Labors

You doubtless recollect these papers. Here they are. Everything is related in them which bears reference to my accursed origin; the whole detail of that series of disgusting circumstances which produced it is set in view; the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person is given, in language which painted your own horrors and rendered mine indelible. I sickened as I read. "Hateful day when I received life!" I exclaimed in agony. "Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust?...Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed?"

— The Creature, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus


Some of us figured that out a long time ago, not that it was particularly difficult. And while I find it funny to imply Spencer being the anguished Creature raging against his creators in the media, in actuality, I'm sure he's delighted with all they've done to help. The anger should be ours, rather. Never forget that these irresponsible morons, these superficial dilettantes posing as journalists, these historical illiterates with their ridiculously self-indulgent "democracy dies in darkness!!!" masturbatory emo hysterics, did their best for the last couple of years to inflate an American "Nazi" movement, which would struggle to fill one small concert venue with all its members combined, into the great Confrontation With Evil of our time. And why? Out of boredom? Out of a need to meet a word count? Out of the pathetic yearning of a bunch of soft, redundant weaklings to participate in something exciting, dangerous, and historically significant? From established mainstream media down to partisan clickwhore sites run by gum-popping adolescents, they all played their role, and they all deserve undying contempt.

Monday, March 12, 2018

I Never Inquire What Is Doing at Constantinople

Gracy Olmstead:

News needn’t keep us trapped in the cave. But staying away from news shouldn’t mean holing up in a literal cave, away from any media influence. There’s a balance we can strive to achieve. It’s true that finding nuggets of real gold amidst the trash heap of modern news media will take some work. But I believe, in the long run, that we can be all the better for it.

I'm not sure why this piece exists. I'm not sure who it's trying to convince, or what it's trying to convince them of. All it does is restate the basic problem — it's difficult to consume a healthy, balanced media diet — without offering anything but platitudes to resolve it. The unanswered question remains: as an individual with very limited time, energy, money, and power, where is it reasonable to draw the line with regards to being an informed citizen? What am I going to do with that knowledge? Which media deserve my attention and why?

As Alain de Botton once noted, technology has made the phenomenon of news increasingly strange. Ordinary folks have constant, immediate access to information which they are powerless to act upon, which changes absolutely nothing about their lives, but about which they are expected to express meaningful opinions. Perhaps it's just an evolved social grooming ritual, a way of reassuring each other that we hold certain experiences and emotions in common in a frightening world. Or perhaps it has become an upper-middle-class pursuit for status, a way for us to pretend that we're much more significant than we are, a strange conceit whereby we pretend that we need to be informed in the event that a policymaker happens to call us and ask for our tie-breaking opinion. But as Eric Hoffer sardonically quipped, nobodies who yearn to be somebodies usually end up as busybodies, and God knows we don't need any more of those.

In recent years, I came to the humbling realization that while I knew how to "pass" as well-informed (and opinionated), I really wasn't. When I stopped trying to keep up and participate in the chirm of online media, I was forced to admit that my knowledge of most topics was superficial at best. As a clever Folk Implosion lyric puts it, "When I said I understood, I only knew where to stand." Most importantly, I realized that I had much better things to do with my time than accumulate factoids for no better reason than to bolster some vague self-image. Like Candide, I realized that tending to one's own garden is a perfectly good way to spend one's time on Earth. It's especially strange that I should have to write a defense of the wisdom of voluntary limits in response to a conservative writer in a conservative magazine.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 38

David Bell:

But Pinker is not exactly reliable when it comes to the intellectuals and their ideas. He takes as his guide to intellectual pessimism a book titled The Idea of Decline in Western History by Arthur Herman, a far-right author whose most well-known book is a rapturously favorable biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

As someone who works with books for a living and has read several of Herman's in particular, I'm pretty sure that his "most well-known" and successful book is a little tale called How the Scots Invented the Modern World. His Hudson Institute profile mentions five of his other titles, but his biography of McCarthy isn't one of them, which would seem like a curious oversight in the promotional blurb department. He's certainly conservative, but "far-right"? No, I fear Bell is merely putting a rhetorical flashlight under his chin to scare the simple-minded children gathered around the Nation campfire. It's a shame, because there are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made of Pinker's book without having to rely on gratuitously misleading guilt-by-dubious-association smears.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

When Harry Became Sally

Regardless of whether they identify as "cisgender" or "transgender," the activists promote a highly subjective and incoherent worldview. On the one hand, they claim that the real self is something other than the physical body, in a new form of Gnostic dualism, yet at the same time they embrace a materialist philosophy in which only the material world exists. They say that gender is purely a social construct, while asserting that a person can be "trapped" in the wrong body. They say there are no meaningful differences between man and woman, yet they rely on rigid sex stereotypes to argue that "gender identity" is real while human embodiment is not. They claim that truth is whatever a person says it is, yet they believe there's a real self to be discovered inside that person. They promote a radical expressive individualism in which people are free to do whatever they want and define the truth however they wish, yet they try to enforce acceptance of transgender ideology in a paternalistic way.

— Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment

The early twentieth-century French writer Charles Péguy wrote, "It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive." While reading Anderson's book, I was reminded of that line along with a former reader who used to email me to confess his heretical thoughts on the transgender dogma then starting to take rigid shape on lefty social media. I would chuckle at the desperate way he would always hasten to preface his remarks by stressing that of course he wasn't saying that trans people should be beaten up or discriminated against by law. There's a satisfying poetic justice in seeing progressives haunted by their own strawmen.

Of course, he was right to be worried about the social consequences of being found harboring thought-criminals in the attic of his head, even if he was slow to connect the dots and realize that the progressive desire to always appear in the vanguard on "the right side of history," to maintain a constant posture of indulgent, nonjudgmental acceptance toward "victims" of the conformist, middle-American booboisie, is precisely the Achilles heel being exploited by radical activists. Even Anderson goes out of his way to stress repeatedly that transgender individuals and activists are almost always two different groups with different aims, and the former deserve nothing but compassion and respect. That does nothing to prevent the NYT from soliciting an op-ed contributor to brazenly lie about the book, naturally. You can have the progressive oppression narrative when you pry it from their cold, dead hands.

If you set aside the citations of studies which make up the bulk of the book, you're left with what should be a fairly mild assertion, that transgenderism is better understood and treated as a disorder akin to anorexia, not as the latest logical extension of the sexual revolution. Accepting that, though, would mean that progressives would have to stop portraying all critics of "progress" as mindless, reactionary denizens of Pleasantville, and honestly, they've been leaning on that crutch for so long, I imagine their muscles have atrophied. They would have to stop reenacting culture wars against the skeletal remnants of the Religious Right and acknowledge that the transgender political project is part of an insatiable, subjective assault on the very concept of a shared, objective reality which will inevitably target them as well as "deserving" enemies. They might even have to admit that there isn't a clear, bright line between "campus radicalism" and "the real world." I'm not optimistic about any of those scenarios, so I assume cowardice and dishonesty will continue to be the S.O.P.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Contradictions and Multitudes

Matt Purple:

Thomas Friedman takes a lot of guff for his (admittedly precious) habit of interviewing anonymous cab drivers, but sometimes that’s the best way to escape the clamor of Politics Inc. The average man, because he doesn’t follow around the partisan circus, isn’t particularly committed to one party or orthodoxy, which allows for a broader range of discussion than you’ll ever see on MSNBC. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, as anyone with a Sean Hannity-addled family member will attest. But outside the constipated little theater that is cable news, the real world is painted in grays, and people tend to acknowledge and reflect that. There are entire industries desperate to make this complexity more uniform. Ideologues shepherd man into pens of left and right; Twitter reduces him to narrow windows sliding by; wonks compress him into Cartesian points. In reality he is a person, and the only way to understand him is to chat him up as such. That isn’t to espouse relativism—just because there are myriad viewpoints doesn’t mean there are also myriad truths—but it does mean our politics must be compatible with the variety and reality of human nature, which can only be absorbed firsthand.

Sometimes, the ecumenical tolerance of the Average Joe toward the details of political philosophy is nothing more than incoherence born of failure to think rigorously about the logical derivatives of his vague principles. In that sense, it's not necessarily a virtue that he can't be roused to a debate, let alone a fight, if his laodicean tolerance is really just a manifestation of his inability to take serious topics seriously. However — and this is a point which I would have struggled to accept when younger — there are also habits and practices of everyday life which are no less important or worthy of respect for their failure to take the form of a skillfully articulated creed or theory. A simple way to put it is, a lot of Average Joes are good people, even if they're naïve or self-contradictory when expressing inchoate political opinions, and character is much more valuable and dependable than intellectual rigor in many instances.

The media environment tends to select for personalities who would rather be right than conciliatory and are therefore driven to leave no hair unsplit if it means gaining a slight edge in an argument. This makes a perfect breeding ground for the narcissism of small differences. There have been many times where I've caught myself starting to feel irritated by some minor point of disagreement with someone whose ideas usually mirror my own, and I just stop and think: It's this place, man; don't let it get to you; just walk away. I've heard slaughterhouse workers talk about how the constant smell of blood in the air makes them feel much more tense and short-tempered. Something similar happens to people who spend too much time on social media.