Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Unfinished

Have I missed much by spending my life with barely literate people? I need intellectual isolation to work out my ideas. I get my stimulation from both the world of books and the book of the world. I cannot see how living with educated, articulate people, skilled in argument, would have helped me develop my ideas.

— Eric Hoffer, Working and Thinking on the Waterfront

A friend of my stepson's once came by the house to visit him while I was out. He knew me from a job where we briefly worked together, but only as an acquaintance. I laughed to hear that he was gobsmacked upon seeing all my books, especially as he's a fairly serious reader himself. He told my stepson that I was an enigma. "What's he doing here?" he asked, meaning, here in a small town, living a nondescript life. Apparently I should be someone important in a big city if I read this much. I recently heard that he'd taken to calling me the "Wizard" and the "Pagemaster," in reference to some '90s movie starring Macaulay Culkin, and telling people that I live in a library (I haven't seen the film, but still, I think that might just be my favorite compliment of all time).

That's the benefit of low expectations, of course. If people don't see you as much more than a truck driver or a janitor, they're overly impressed by any ways in which you defy the stereotype. The flipside to that, though, is wondering why you should be content to exist below your potential. It's a reflexive assumption that any talents or interests one might have should be maximized and monetized. I, in turn, have said repeatedly, ever since I started writing, that this is just another one of the many ways in which we surrender our agency and let the conventional wisdom do our thinking for us. Had I taken the path of least resistance and "risen" to my potential as defined by parents, teachers, and aptitude tests, I would have probably been just another unhappy face in the crowd of failed writers, like a couple academic friends of mine. By remaining undeveloped, unpolished and unfinished, I've preserved the freedom and space to grow at my own pace for my own reasons, and that has been far more satisfying than reaching for the stars would have been.

No man is an intellectual island, obviously. I've benefitted greatly from having a few highly-educated friends and pen pals, and the Internet provides constant exposure to smarter thinkers and better writers. Still, there is something about living an ordinary life among regular folks that serves as the necessary ballast to keep from floating off into the cerebral clouds where so many ambitious, educated people get lost.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Past Is Never Dead. It's Not Even Past



Ah, progressivism. Where gender and biology are fluid, but language is static. To quote the Red Queen, "It's too late to correct it. When you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences." If the word was once associated with racism, it will be forever tainted and irredeemable, a linguistic landmine lying in wait to macroaggressively maim the unwary. We saw this with beards as well. No, wait, come to think of it, pronouns change with the wind these days, too. Maybe it's only proper nouns that work like this. Yeah, that must be it. Otherwise, the only logical conclusion is that this is all just a society-wide game of Calvinball, where the only consistent aim is to be the group in charge of declaring when and how the rules change, and that's just too awful to contemplate.

Thomas Sowell put it most clearly in one of his books — the characteristic thing about this progressive crusading is its desire to not only end suffering and injustice here and now, but its desire to erase the past as well. He didn't mean "erase" in the Orwellian memory-hole sense, although that tendency certainly exists too. He meant that they're attempting to cancel the past out, by re-creating what they imagine to be the original Edenic conditions that would have existed had not patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and all the other assorted evils from Pandora's jar escaped to wreak havoc throughout history. They postulate an original world intended to resemble a maudlin John Lennon song, tabulate all the ways in which it fell short, and then attempt to create the conditions of that world in the present through social engineering. From affirmative action to privilege-checking via language-policing and all points in between, the goal is to reduce "unjust" disparities, but, as you may be noticing, in this worldview, it's an axiom that all disparities are unjust. Had things been truly fair and equal from the start as they should have been, no disparities would have arisen to begin with.

It should go without saying that this is the type of idea normally found inhabiting pungent clouds of marijuana cannabis smoke. In the commonly-recognized reality, all we can do to atone for shameful actions is to learn from them and do better from this day forward. What's done can't be undone. The end of racism will be when we stop practicing racist behavior, not when we expunge every last object, habit, word or idea that may once have been tangentially connected to something racist, however much they may have evolved since then. But unfortunately, the Handicapper General ideal is what underlies the aggregate logic of progressivism, in which a poorly-conceived-and-defined "equality" requires that all officially-recognized victims be "raised up" to wherever they would "naturally" be, had they not been victimized. In practice, though, it's much easier to remove existing privileges from those who possess them, especially as they didn't "deserve" them in the first place. To end unjust discrimination, we'll need to "progressively" discriminate for "better" reasons until, by smoke, mirrors, and dialectical magic, we finally arrive at a point where no one ever needs to unjustly discriminate against anyone. In this instance, it's not enough that pot legalization has become a mainstream issue; it doesn't matter that absolutely nobody uses the word "marijuana" to conjure up racist fears of Mexicans; we still can't be allowed to move forward until we have completely obliterated all traces of previous injustice, as if it never existed; hence, we need to stop using the contaminated term altogether. Again, to just go ahead and put too fine of a point on it, this is an idea so incoherent and delusional that it doesn't deserve a rebuttal so much as a pillow held firmly over its face.

It's amusingly ironic to me that a residual respect for the archetypal Old Testament-era prophet should be one of the aspects of our religious heritage to survive deep into our secular liberal age. What I mean is, there's absolutely no reason anyone should take this social justice nonsense seriously. It's self-evidently ignorant and counterproductive. And yet, articles like this are published every day and cheered by substantial numbers of influential people, because the authors are given the benefit of the doubt as to their "good intentions." Sure, they may go a little too far in their zeal, but they mean well, and it's good to have people filling that role as the moral conscience of a community, nation, etc., calling us to a higher standard and reproving us for our flaws. In reality, this has never been anything but the subtlest of power plays, in which a new class of aspiring mandarins realized that by declaring even the most innocuous things "problematic," they could present themselves as the cure to their invented disease, and best of all, we're supposed to believe that they will remain uncorrupted by the power that they refuse to trust anyone else with. It turns out that a "just" society requires their constant supervision and permission to function. Who'd'a thunk it?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What You May Have Heard and What You Think You Know

Conor Friedersdorf:

My first introduction to Jordan B. Peterson, a University of Toronto clinical psychologist, came by way of an interview that began trending on social media last week. Peterson was pressed by the British journalist Cathy Newman to explain several of his controversial views. But what struck me, far more than any position he took, was the method his interviewer employed. It was the most prominent, striking example I’ve seen yet of an unfortunate trend in modern communication.

First, a person says something. Then, another person restates what they purportedly said so as to make it seem as if their view is as offensive, hostile, or absurd.

Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and various Fox News hosts all feature and reward this rhetorical technique. And the Peterson interview has so many moments of this kind that each successive example calls attention to itself until the attentive viewer can’t help but wonder what drives the interviewer to keep inflating the nature of Peterson’s claims, instead of addressing what he actually said.

I remember, many years ago, reading an article about Queens of the Stone Age which mentioned an incident at a show. A heckler in front of the stage was shouting something derogatory at Queens singer Josh Homme, whereupon Homme, speaking into the microphone for comedic affect, pretended to decline the offer of various gay sex acts. The crowd laughed, of course. Homme followed up with, "You know, moron, no one can hear you but me, whereas I have a mic and a P.A. system."

Most of us have had the experience of seeing a topic we happen to be especially knowledgeable about become the focus of a news article or program. And most of us would agree that we're often appalled at the superficial, misleading impression an uninformed reader/viewer would get, and we wonder briefly how much else of the news is like that, on topics we don't know much about, where we rely on the reporter to give us a fair summary. At that point, we generally turn our thoughts away hurriedly rather than continue to stare into that abyss. Still, up until social media mildly reduced the power and information disparities, many people knew what it was like to be in the position of a heckler shouting in vain to be heard, as those with the microphones, bylines and TV cameras enjoyed the freedom to misrepresent them to a vast audience. Far from being a "trend," this game of malicious Telephone has long been the norm for the media, and contrary to Friedersdorf's partisan naïveté, it isn't only social media and Fox News who play it.

As a rule, I despise watching videos. I wasn't going to watch the Newman/Peterson interview until I decided to write about it, at which point due diligence required me to know whereof I spoke. I had seen a few people whose opinions I generally trust mention what a fiasco it was, but I had to see for myself, so I watched the entire thing. Yes, it turns out that their descriptions were accurate (though I hope no one reading this is so duncelike as to accept my word for it either). I'm afraid there are no dignity-saving options for Newman here. She's either breathtakingly dumb or shockingly dishonest, perhaps both. On second thought, there is the possibility suggested by, I believe, Nicholas Christakis: somehow, Newman made it through an Oxford education and a media career and arrived at the age of 43 having never been directly exposed to anyone whose ideas ranged beyond the shibboleths and bromides of her left-wing media class. Whatever the case, the only things that make this incident unusual are, one, Peterson's remarkable ability to stay calm and coherent when faced with a hostile, incompetent interviewer, and, two, the fact that he has enough of a devoted following to keep the clerisy from having the final word. He did his part by keeping cool and being reasonable, and they did their part by making the interview go viral, where even media figures like Friedersdorf in a sad excuse for journalism like the Atlantic are forced to take notice and say, "Wow, that was really awful."

But there is a way to reduce needless division over the countless disagreements that are inevitable in a pluralistic democracy: get better at accurately characterizing the views of folks with differing opinions, rather than egging them on to offer more extreme statements in interviews; or even worse, distorting their words so that existing divisions seem more intractable or impossible to tolerate than they are. That sort of exaggeration or hyperbolic misrepresentation is epidemic—and addressing it for everyone’s sake is long overdue.

Well, yeah, assuming people want to understand better and communicate more honestly. They don't. There are various incentives that keep it that way, from the economics of viral clickbait and monetized outrage to the psychology of tribalism, boredom, and mischief-making. And on the personal character side, many if not most people are intellectually lazy. "Read the whole thing? Watch the whole video? Hell with that; what does the social media telephone say?" It takes a lot of time and effort to be informed. Most people would prefer to keep churning out ephemeral "content" to keep up with the attention-deficient news cycle. Yes, social media frequently makes people nastier and stupider. But, people being people, they don't care, because, as W.H. Auden wrote:

We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 34

Mad melancholics like Molière's Alceste cherish their rigidities and seek out dark corners in rural solitudes. Not so the wise: they keep up their commerce with friends, women, books. The solitude that Montaigne advocated was never a local one. It always emphatically remained a matter of the mind withdrawing, not from people nor from the body, but from an excessive engagement in outside affairs.

— M.A. Screech, Montaigne and Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays

Conspicuously absenting oneself from social interaction can have the unintended consequence of attracting unwanted attention from novelty-seekers alert to the possibility of hidden treasure. It's better to appear perfectly boring and unremarkable and remain beneath notice, even if that requires a few superficial appearances here and there to remind people they're not missing anything. Hidden in plain sight, while maintaining a Taoist indifference to the news du jour. I've always modeled my hermit ideal more along these lines:
So there he sits and some may wonder
About the sly grin on his face
Yet little do they know
(they don't have a clue)
The boundaries of his wisdom
In the solitude of his kingdom

Monday, January 22, 2018

Pay No Attention to That Group Behind the Curtain

Uri Harris:

The identity of the group providing the intellectual foundation for both critical theory and the social justice movement are mostly white middle-and-upper-class intellectuals from the political left in advanced Western economies. It may be more illuminating to see this group’s interests as the driving force of societal change, rather than those of the ever-changing group of the powerless. In effect, the intellectuals of the political left are creating the type of society they personally want to live in. ‘The powerless’ are temporary allies on this journey.

Over the past few decades, this group has become increasingly powerful, essentially becoming a bourgeoisie much like the one Marx and the early critical theorists were criticising, and using many of the same mechanisms: suppressing criticism through control of the news media and now social media, enforcing rigid etiquette in speech and behaviour, using the education system to teach its values, and most importantly, representing its own interests as universal values and beliefs.

Peterson represents a growing group of people who are now waking up and starting to look more closely at contemporary morals, beliefs, and institutions that they had previously held beyond reproach and are now asking: “Are these things really universal or interest-neutral, and if not, whose interests are they serving and whose values do they represent?” This is a process, I think, that is inevitable.

I linked to this as a noteworthy article the other day, but I wanted to return to this part in particular because if the vague concept of a Zeitgeist is ever apt, I think it is here. Not just because Harris perfectly sums up the pretensions of our clerisy, who rhetorically scorn power even as they voraciously pursue it and tenaciously cling to it, but also because he's on to something when he identifies Peterson as symbolic of the, uh, resistance to social justice fanaticism.

In a postmodern age, it's become second nature for us to be suspicious, if not cynical, of any claims to neutrality and objectivity. In what Foucault called a "genealogical" approach, and which others call a simple ad hominem, it has become common to reduce an argument from its propositions down to the biases and motivations presumed to underlie it, which makes it easy to redirect and dismiss the argument without engaging it in good faith. (Of course, as a cishet white male, I obviously would say that.) This is supposedly done in order to theorize our way toward a world without "unjust" power disparities, by unmasking and criticizing the various ways in which white, masculine, capitalist, etc. norms are promulgated and reinforced, keeping oppressive structures and relationships in place. But the greatest trick the power-hungry intellectual class ever pulled was convincing people it was somehow exempt from its own critique. The same people who insist that everything in society boils down to a power struggle between oppressor and oppressed have somehow been allowed to go largely unquestioned on the assumption of their good intentions. In truth, the only problem they ever had with power was their own lack of it, and they were cunning enough to realize they could obtain it by branding themselves as the official representatives of values which most people intuitively share. It's poignantly ironic that Nietzsche, as the pioneer of the genealogical method of criticism and a wellspring of much postmodern philosophy, would have instantly seen these frauds for what they are.

Up until very recently, they've been able to relegate their critics to the "Here There Be Dragons" section of the intellectual map by dismissing them as "conservatives," even when the newly-minted conservatives in question had earnestly considered themselves card-carrying liberals in good standing right up until the moment of their dismissal. The liberal fear of looking conservative, or of being suspected of associating with conservatives, did the rest. But as videos like this go viral, it becomes harder to smear people like Peterson as some kind of hidebound reactionary, while it also becomes necessary to recognize that conservatives were right about these people all along, even when the rest of us were too cowardly to acknowledge it. Like the saying about generals fighting the last war, liberals have been wasting time fighting the last culture war against straggling remnants of Christian Republicans while ignoring the influential and powerful enemy on their left. It's also ironic, but amusingly so this time, that the social-justice left has become today's analogue of the religious right of my youth — humorless, censorious, detached from reality, corrupted by power, infatuated with their self-righteousness, and arrogantly oblivious to the stench of their own decay.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 33

But Montaigne detested drink taken to excess, and it may have been this antipathy that led him to question the desirability of even those ecstasies of genius which were akin to drunkenness. He did not intend to get drunk; he eventually made it plain that he had no desire to be philosophically or theologically drunk either. For his taste, such fuerurs came too close to folie.

— M.A. Screech, Montaigne and Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays

When I was eighteen, I got hold of a cheap case of Robert Pirsig, which all the cooler, older kids in philosophy class had been talking about. I guzzled both his books down as fast as I could, and promptly puked up my first attempt at an essay — something noble savage-y contrasting the sacred circle of American Indian mythology to the hierarchical ladder of success in our culture. Yes, it smelled as bad as you can imagine. Over the next few years, I was double-fisting hard metaphysical liquors like Hegel, Heidegger, and abstruse arguments over God's existence, and chasing them with shots of modern Russian poets. It all seemed deeply profound at the time, but I'd always wake up the next day with no memory of what I'd imbibed the day before. Thankfully I outgrew that phase before ending up with cerebral cirrhosis, i.e. tenure in a philosophy department.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

That's When She Told Me a Story About Free Milk and a Cow

Megan McArdle:

These women express a feeling of overwhelming powerlessness, even though they are not being threatened, either physically or economically. How has the most empowered generation of women in all of human history come to feel less control over their bodies than their grandmothers did?

Let me propose a possible answer to this, suggested by a very smart social scientist of my acquaintance: They feel this way because we no longer have any moral language for talking about sex except consent. So when men do things that they feel are wrong -- such as aggressively pursuing casual sex without caring about the feelings of their female target -- we’re left flailing for some way to describe this as non-consensual, even when she agreed to the sex.

Under the old code, of course, we had ample condemnatory terms for men who slept with women carelessly, without much regard for their feelings: cads and rakes, bounders and boors. Those words have now decayed into archaism. Yet it seems to me that these are just the words that young women are reaching for, when instead they label things like mutually drunken encounters and horrible one-night stands as an abuse of power, a violation of consent--which is to say, as a crime, or something close to it. To which a lot of other people incredulously respond: now being a bad lover is a crime?

In addition to McArdle's piece, there have been several other excellent articles about the #MeToo phenomenon, especially in the case of Aziz Ansari — Heather Mac Donald's and Mona Charen's stand out especially. They all point out the uncomfortable fact that sexual liberation was always going to be skewed heavily in favor of male desires. Turning sex into another commodity to be haggled over in the deregulated marketplace and casually disposed of like any other product was only ever going to be an "improvement" for the insatiable male libido, but the dogmatic assumption that there are no significant differences between men and women that can't be erased by more gender studies seminars and feminist fundamentalist preaching has left us unable to honestly discuss it.

The loss of a cultural consensus regarding the rules of courtship and sexual intercourse has left a void which can't remain unoccupied for long. As conservatives since Burke have been warning about, when the informal social mores governing human relationships disintegrate, the only authority left capable of refereeing a disputed marketplace transaction is the state. Hence, as the above writers note, men who formerly would have been merely scorned as jerks, cads or players are now accused of sexual assault, harassment, or even rape. The purview of the legalistic state expands to fill the areas of social life vacated by informal custom facilitated by good-faith dialogue.

Jonathan Haidt describes it as the transition from a "dignity" culture to a "victimhood" culture — formerly, people would have felt ashamed of looking weak and helpless under adversity and needing authority figures to fight their battles for them, but now the default is to appeal to increasingly powerful third-parties, whether campus administrators or the state itself, for protection and refereeing, while viewing discomfort and adversity as a hostile enemy action requiring punishment. Mac Donald spells out the unintended consequences — we've come full circle to presuming women to be frail, flighty creatures lacking agency and requiring protection, only now, we appeal to the state where formerly we relied on the power of reputation among family and community to restrain bad behavior.

There's no "going back," of course. The imagined social consensus of, say, the mid-20th century was a product of the fact that a small, homogeneous group of people had all the power to dictate the rules and boundaries of discussion. Outsiders and rebels, if not actively oppressed, were simply ignored. In fact, one could easily argue that we're simply in the process of forming a new social consensus for a global age, dominated by the clerisy, or progressive media class. Little Susie and her boyfriend in the famous song only had to worry about her parents' disapproval and her friends' teasing; now, a date gone wrong brings the risks of a social media mob attack and loss of a career. The reason Ansari, of all people, has been the focus of such intense debate for a week or so (the equivalent of a decade in news-cycle time) is because his case illustrates how far the new clerisy is willing to go to enforce their new norms, and the remnants of dignity culture, or second-wave feminism, or classical liberalism, or whatever you want to call it, are fighting a rearguard action here.

If the new clerisy wins the battle, it will no longer be enough for men to refrain from forcing themselves on women; they will also have to somehow make them feel special and fulfilled in a social context, hookup culture, that has up until now been defined precisely by its meaninglessness and lack of personal connection. The unstable fault line in "Grace's" personal expectations of a one-night stand is a miniature version of the fault line in our culture. "Grace" felt betrayed because a hookup with a TV star was a disappointment, much like how Americans in general, despite having more personal freedom to customize their lifestyles down to the smallest detail, constantly report feeling increasingly lonely and unhappy in social science surveys. Looking for love in all the wrong places, as a wise old bard once put it. But rather than do the practices and form the habits that would provide it, we demand it from authority as a "right" to which we're entitled. Sooner or later, one would think, these contradictions will become untenable, but until then, there's likely to be a lot more tremors and destructive quakes.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 32

Leaders, kings and emperors always complain that they are the least free of their subjects, and there is some truth to this.

— Stephen Fry, Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his collection of aphorisms entitled The Bed of Procrustes, said, "You don’t become completely free by just avoiding to be a slave; you also need to avoid becoming a master." Fortunately, like a gnarled, crooked tree in one of Chuang Tzu's parables, I've been able to escape the notice of worldly carpenters with plans to make something impressive and useful out of me. Should I ever somehow attract offers of power, wealth and fame, though, I too would merely aspire to keep dragging my tail in the mud.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Why Liberalism Failed

Aristotle told us that virtue taken to excess becomes a vice. "Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded," reads the first sentence of the conclusion of Patrick Deneen's book Why Liberalism Failed, a study of the unintended consequences that Deneen claims were inherent in liberal philosophy from the beginning. Liberalism may have been virtuous in opposition to the divine right of kings and wars of religion, but having vanquished all recent ideological challengers, it has been able to uninterruptedly pursue its philosophical principles to excess, and thus become a vice.

At times, Deneen sounds positively Hegelian in his insistence that a 500-year-old political philosophy founded on the ideal of liberty from arbitrary and unjust authority is destined by its nature to dialectically produce its own antithesis in the form of a massive, invasive state responsible for the upkeep of millions of atomized, infantilized individuals in thrall to their boundless appetites. As a Marxist would say, the contradictions have been heightened, and now we near the inevitable collapse into what Deneen thinks most likely to be either an Orwellian administrative state, a military autocracy, or populist nationalist authoritarianism.

The social ills he describes certainly exist, of course. The question is how widespread, let alone inevitable or terminal, these ills are. Intellectuals in general are overly inclined to put the theoretical cart ahead of the practical horse, and conservative intellectuals are no exception. In theory, A may produce B which leads inexorably to C, but in practice, most people are inconsistent about connecting those logical dots and not particularly bothered about it. In other words, people are perfectly capable of adopting the aspects of liberalism which appeal to them, such as sexual liberation and increased consumer choice, while supplementing them with practices, such as community involvement, church attendance, and striving after virtue, which are, in theory, being crushed by the juggernaut set into motion by Hobbes and Locke. The selfish, short-sighted hedonism that Deneen takes to be illustrative of liberalism per se may eventually become integrated as just another stage in the typical life cycle of an individual, a sort of equivalent to the Amish Rumspringa, where people in their late teens and early twenties have to indulge their appetites in order to learn the hard way how empty that way of life is. Some would probably argue that this is already how things are. In politics, as in the natural world, mass extinction events are extremely rare; slow, piecemeal evolution is the rule. Liberalism will probably shed a few vestigial organs and grow some gangling appendages; the question of when it deserves a new Linnaean classification is only of interest to specialists.

Deneen repeatedly stresses that the conventional distinction between conservatives and liberals only masks the ways in which these two wings of liberalism act in tandem to advance its inner logic. The state and the market are like two competing apps, he says; the real problem is the operating system which in both cases promotes the satisfaction of impulsive appetites, restlessness, and the technical mastery of the natural world. Late in the book, he criticizes Charles Murray, a libertarian, for failing to see that the ills of liberalism can't be tamed by "moral admonition" — no amount of moralizing can divert the wheels of runaway history. And yet, all Deneen offers in the conclusion are typical "crunchy con" suggestions for how to live while preparing for whatever follows liberalism. Murray, who is supposedly too captive to the logic of liberalism to think outside the Lockean box, has at least written a book suggesting ways in which citizens can practice a sort of passive resistance, or civil disobedience, while waiting for a sclerotic, overreaching state to collapse on itself. I hardly see enough difference between these two approaches worth elaborating, just as I hardly see any point in being exercised about what may or may not happen to liberalism over the next few generations. What will be, will be. We'll muddle through like we always have. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 31

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina, choosing unhappiness as his primary theme, for only in unhappiness does human identity and uniqueness seem to reside. Happiness is anonymous, and therefore it may appear inherently uninteresting to the contemplative artist. It is an emotion to be lived, to be experienced, an end in itself with no need or compulsion to examine itself. Happiness is essentially wordless, or so the logic of Tolstoy's statement would imply. "And so they lived happily ever after."

Theoretically, there is no aspect of reality that the gifted artists cannot describe or dramatize. Does the theme of happiness, then, present the artist with some special problem? Is there something in the very nature of literary art that militates against choosing happiness as a theme? In paradise, or in a social utopia, would there be little motivation for the creating of art? If, in choosing to become a literary artist, one henceforth depends upon the world's unhappiness for one's creative substance, how can one oppose that unhappiness upon which one's identity depends? Is the project of art in some way tied to the sickness of man's loving the very affliction out of which his art arises? The fact that one sets out to be an artist may affect the way one looks at the world by tempting one to focus on violence and pain because such themes are more exciting than those of tranquility or contentment.

— Robert Pack, "Art and Unhappiness," Affirming Limits: Essays on Mortality, Choice and Poetic Form

The most difficult challenge I ever set for myself in my modest writing practice was to aim to be more creative and positive, less destructive and negative. I don't mean "positive" in a shallow and saccharine way, but rather in the sense of being interesting without relying on snark or complaining. I wanted to generate more writing from my own resources and build up my reserves. When it works, it's gratifying, but Lord, it can be strenuous effort. Tearing existing things down is so much easier than building something out of nothing. When coupled with the fact that everyday life is as contented and rewarding as I could hope for, it's all the more tempting to avoid deep thinking and creative exertion and just be. But as with physical exercise, the long-term rewards of being in shape are worth forgoing the more immediate pleasures of laziness, however much the mental muscles ache at the moment. And also as with physical exercise, forging new habits might entail a change of circumstances and companionship. Hence I find myself poring through old collections of essays in search of inspirational material rather than reaching for a quick-n-easy bag of clickbait popcorn.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Sound of Pretenses Falling All Around


- Because feminism is, by definition, a Good Thing.
- Good Things, by definition, are on the Right Side of History.
- Katie Roiphe has Bad Opinions (which may even make her a Bad Person).
- People with Bad Opinions are, by definition, on the Wrong Side of History, and, by the Law of Moral Physics, cannot occupy the same space as Good Things at the same time, ergo Roiphe cannot be a feminist.

It's an a priori sort of argument that reeks of the musty cologne of Scholasticism — if reality conflicts with our pristine axioms and definitions, reality is obviously wrong. The more interesting question might be why anyone, especially secular progressives who are normally loath to have anything to do with Christianity, would still be so naïve as to believe that history is teleologically progressing toward some preordained benevolent destination, a wishful fantasy which has somehow survived where the equally-ridiculous belief in miracles, loving deities, and life after death has died. Amanda Marcotte is, to be sure, astoundingly stupid and dishonest as always, so it's not really a surprise in her case, but still, not everyone who subscribes to the circular logic of progressive virtue is such an extreme example.

One possibility might be that it's simply the deeply-engrained instinct of anyone seeking power over others to present their own opinions as The Way Things Truly, Objectively Are, as opposed to the partial and self-serving opinions of their opponents. It's not me saying this, I'm just the humble mouthpiece for God, or History's Dialectic, or some other higher truth speaking through me. Most intractable arguments are like this. Everyone who claims to be right is claiming to have identified a truth that exists independently of mistaken, self-interested perspective. As Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil:

They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish—and talk of “inspiration”); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of “inspiration”—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize “truths.”

In general, that may be true, but in the particular phenomenon of left-wingers who arrogate to themselves the right to speak for various victimized and downtrodden groups, there's more specific details to flesh out. The Arc of History may be nothing more than an inspirational image, but you don't have to believe in historical metaphysics to recognize which way the cultural wind is a-blowin', and our clerisy (to borrow Joel Kotkin's term) noticed a long time ago that there was much power and influence to be had by positioning themselves as the "good" white people, who had somehow transcended the natural sinfulness of their kind. They'd be happy to serve as generic rhetorical scapegoats as long as they retained the far more important power to set the terms of cultural conversation and decide who gets to participate.

Even today, more than half a century later, you can't help but notice that it's always the same people out in front of all these culture war skirmishes — usually white, typically privileged, and always progressive; still defining the terms, still policing the guest list. If I got a book off my wish list for every time I've seen a white male progressive defenestrate all his previous rhetoric about empowering the underprivileged and blatantly, aggressively pull rank on a woman, or a PoC, or both, when his moral and intellectual authority is challenged, I'd already be shopping for a 5,000-square-foot house with its own library. As I've said before, it's as if members of the Tsar's inner circle managed to reinvent themselves as hardcore Bolsheviks. "Social justice" is just the new brand name of the same old product, namely, the status-and-power-seeking personality type which adores bossing others around in the name of a higher good. Still the same; baby, baby, still the same.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 30

While in London, Smith also managed to get into a spat with Samuel Johnson on their first meeting, perhaps because Johnson spoke ill of Hume in front of him. This was the Great Moralist's wont with respect to the Great Infidel; as the historian Peter Gay notes, Johnson's recorded comments about Hume display "an unphilosophical aversion that smacks almost of fear." One version of the story has it that Johnson criticized Smith for praising Hume, calling him a liar, at which point Smith snapped back that Johnson was a son of a bitch.

— Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought

While having lunch with an old friend a couple years ago, he bitterly complained about Obama and Bush being two of the worst presidents we'd ever had. I demurred that only time would give us enough perspective to judge, and besides, didn't it just seem that way because we knew so much more about them, living in our fishbowl world of constant news and social media? Historical events and personalities only acquire their sepia-toned gravitas by virtue of our temporal distance from them. To paraphrase Epicurus, "Where we are, dignity is not; where dignity is, we are not." Our fantasies about the solemnity of our ancestors wouldn't survive our intimate acquaintance with them. The eighteenth-century equivalent of Vox Media would have been writing headlines about the sick burn Smith laid on Johnson, and Publius420 would have been taunting Johnson on Twitter with "lmao what did the invisible hand say to the face?!?!" followed by a reaction gif. Thomas Jefferson would have quickly been pilloried as a sexual predator. Rousseau would have been the guy melting down on Facebook before dramatically flouncing.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 29

I derive a subtle pleasure from the conviction that the world does not owe me anything. I need little to be contented: two good meals, tobacco, books that hold my interest, and a little writing every day. This to me is a full life.

— Eric Hoffer, Working and Thinking on the Waterfront

Though I was never in danger of dying last year during my gallbladder adventures, a couple weeks spent in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV does have a way of making the big questions about life come into sharp focus. Statistically, what do I have left, thirty or forty years? Suddenly, that's not an abstract number; it's a known quantity. I know from experience how fast that time can seem to go. Before I know it, the doctor's visits won't be quick and perfunctory; the hospital stays will become more serious. What do I want out of my remaining time? Fortunately, a lifelong philosophical temperament has prepared me well, enough that I, too, feel that another four decades of reading, writing, and ordinary life would still be a cup that runneth over.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Or Did You Long for the Next Distraction?

Memory says, “I did that.” Pride replies, “I could not have done that.” Eventually, memory yields.

— Nietzsche

Eric Andrew-Gee:

The lesson we're slowly beginning to learn, though, is that they're not a harmless vice. Used the way we currently use them, smartphones keep us from being our best selves. The world is starting to make up its mind about whether it's worth it and whether the sugary hits of digital pleasure justify being worse, both alone and together.

As I've said a time or two dozen, we keep ourselves from being our "best selves;" smartphones are just the latest convenient excuse we strew across our own path. If it somehow becomes widely accepted that phones are no longer considered an acceptable excuse for our shortcomings, we'll invent another one. That's the human condition. Sartre may have been a garbage human being, but his concept of bad faith almost makes everything else about him worth it.

The article makes full use of the latest terminology from neuroscience, of course. This is how we like to deny our agency these days, by pretending that we're at the mercy of our neural pathways and dopamine spurts. But those neurochemical factors were always involved in our omnipresent battles with temptation, even when we didn't have the technology to observe them. Nothing has changed since Paul was lamenting how "the good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do." The fact that we talk about neurotransmitters instead of willpower or virtue now doesn't change the fact that the solution is still the same as it's always been: reflect on your behavior, acknowledge any flaws that need correcting, and start practicing new habits. If you can't do that, it's probably because you don't actually care enough to do so. Admitting that, though — that's the problem. I remember an old punchline about having never seen someone work so hard to avoid work — similarly, I'm always amused/amazed at how much effort people will put into rationalizing and excusing their bad habits rather than practice good ones.

Look, I've had a smartphone for six years. I mostly use it for work, and otherwise it sits on my dresser, untouched, for hours. I don't surf the web on it. The only game I have on it is a chess app, and I rarely play it. I don't text people just to chat. Am I superhuman to be able to resist this supposedly-immense gravitational pull of dopamine rushes and novelty bias? I can assure you I'm not. You know what I do instead? I make time to have in-depth conversations with the Lady of the House, and I set aside a couple hours almost every day to read books. There is no possibility of being distracted by a stupid toy phone, no matter how insidious the intentions of engineers at Google, because I'm consciously aware that these are the things I'd rather do than anything else on Earth. If you find yourself repeatedly preferring to thumb your phone rather than talk to your spouse, maybe that says something uncomfortable about the quality of your relationship. If you'd rather browse aimlessly through the app store than read a book, maybe you're not actually interested in reading, even though some aspirational part of you thinks you should be. Those are the sorts of unsettling questions most of us would rather avoid, even at the expense of our dignity as we make pathetic excuses for why we never do the things we claim to want to do. By pretending to be enfeebled, we somehow, counterintuitively, salvage our pride.

Discipline is a verb, not a noun. It's not a "thing" you "get" in order to perform actions. It is the consistent performing of actions. You only know you have it in hindsight, when you look back at a pattern of consistent accomplishments. Until then, there's a hundred tiny trials every day. You can either practice skills and habits to better cope with them, or you can allow them to defeat you and whine about it.

"But you don't understand!" people like Andrew-Gee will sputter. "Parents are too often on the phone to greet their children upon arriving home! Mothers are too distracted by texting to pay attention to their breastfeeding infants! These are some of the most fundamental, important aspects of our lives! It's too terrible to accept the implications for our character if being distracted is a choice we're all making, rather than something being imposed on us!"

Yes, I know. That's exactly what I'm saying.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 28

I have never had absolute command of language. Words have always been to me accidental, unnatural, uninevitable. I have spent my life trying to master words, but they never became part of me. I always have to search for them, pull them in by the neck. I use as few of them as I can.

— Eric Hoffer, Before the Sabbath

It's funny to picture Hoffer as a truant officer, rounding up recalcitrant words as they play hooky. Myself, I'm more of a nomadic hunter, stalking the skittish herds during their seasonal migrations across printed pages and pixelated screens. Occasionally, I'm fortunate enough to drive a few good-sized paragraphs off a cliff, which will provide sustenance for at least several days. And like the hunters of yore, I let no part of a kill go to waste. Every bony noun, fatty adjective, and sinewy participle will find a use, and any viscera left over will be shaped into neoterisms, nonce words, or portmanteaus.

Hoffer went on to say that any idea could be clearly expressed in two hundred words by anyone knowledgeable and determined to avoid pedantic obfuscation. I would add that an apt metaphor is to language what the invention of the wheel was to labor — a means of carrying heavy concepts with minimal effort. A prescient metaphorical picture is worth a thousand words of academic detail.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Chase Another Pig

Jürgen Klopp:

It is not my cup of tea. I am not interested. I am interested in what we do that is best for us. That is all. And all the stories around? You can not imagine how cool life is when ignoring them. They are not important. In football, and in the world of news, the next day they will chase another pig in the village, as we say in Germany. You talk about this today and tomorrow something else.”

British football media, especially during the biannual transfer window, is like an ultra-concentrated example of everything that's wrong with media in general in the age of 24/7/365 "news" you can't use. Granted, in a field which on most days contains very little substance worth reporting, journalists are forced to get creative in throwing text against the wall of a deadline to see what sticks (I laughed at this recent example, where the writer spends the first two paragraphs acknowledging and half-apologizing for yet another column about a tired old topic, before enlisting Dante's help in meeting the word count). Still, it's impossible to not feel contempt while watching journalists run around like hyperactive toddlers, first chasing this ephemeral story, then that one.

But rather than hand out anodyne answers like a beleaguered homeowner on Halloween glumly resigned to participating in the sugar-coated protection racket in hope of keeping his house from getting egged, Klopp always manages to slip a little razor blade of media criticism into his responses. So often, the subtext to his answers is, "This is a tedious question, and you are a shallow person for asking it." It's especially funny seeing him call reporters out for their favorite meta-game, asking for comments on irrelevant narratives which they themselves invented to fill out their talking points. And yet, he gives good copy, so they can't stop coming back for more. "Please, sir, may we have another?" It's almost as entertaining as watching Liverpool on the pitch.

"And all the stories around? You can not imagine how cool life is when ignoring them." This little maxim holds true even, or especially, outside of its original context. I'm tempted to print it out and tape it to the top of my monitor.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Chaos Rampant, an Age of Distrust. Confrontations, Impulsive Habitat


Ed West:

There’s an interesting theory that social media is to bad ideas what the first cities were to diseases, and that they are having the same radical effect. Civilisation allowed both memes and genes to spread much more rapidly, but the effects could be devastating at times. Similarly social media allows hysteria and catchy, simplistic themes to spread like plague through a medieval city.

That's why this place is fortified with a moat, drawbridge and portcullis.

Tertullian and Aquinas claimed that the saints in heaven would enjoy observing the torments of the damned writhing in hell. Personally, I look forward to watching the population of Twitter, which consists mostly of journalist junkies and failed-writer plague victims anyway, claw at the gates, wailing and begging to be released.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Better Days Come Around, Get Better

Gracy Olmstead:

Can we sing in the face of adversity? Can we be merry despite our brokenness?

This sort of joy is unlikely—nay, I’d suggest, impossible—without divine intervention. The Grinch who puzzles for three hours in the snow is unlikely to experience exponential heart growth and transformation without some sort of providential awakening. Christmas is “more” than presents and levity because it is really about redemption: about sparse beginnings that turn into happily ever afters, death that results in resurrection, poverty that ends in fullness of joy. Christmas offers us the sort of redemption that can make you sing in an empty house, the sort of joy that can transform a barren heart.

I generally appreciate Olmstead's writing, but this is an example of one of the most off-putting things about a certain strain of American conservatism — this blinkered insistence, despite much evidence to the contrary, that happiness and fortitude as experienced by billions of people worldwide is just so much worthless fiat currency unless pegged to the gold standard of monotheistic divinity. Experience alone has taught even us godless folks that however bad things might be now, they will almost certainly change soon enough, and probably for the better on the principle of "nowhere to go but up." No need for deities when contemplative reflection will serve just fine.

Earlier in the essay, she describes her chagrin during a wretched Christmas Eve as she realizes that she had subconsciously bought into the idea that the holiday season should be somehow exempt from the hassles and heartbreaks of the rest of the year. But even as she realizes that festivities don't have to be perfect to be worth celebrating, she falls back on the biggest happy-ending story of all. As with our holiday plans, so with life in general — the very lack of guaranteed happiness is what gives our joys any meaning at all.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 27

Jay Cost:

So I think we should all try to relax. Policy outcomes in this country rarely reflect the dire prophecies of political combatants. Sometimes the needle moves a little to the left, sometimes to the right, but the Battle of Armageddon has yet to happen, Christ has yet to return to inaugurate his millennial kingdom. I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d wager that the tax bill or another debate on immigration reform is not going to bring Him back, either. Instead, it will be politics as usual in 2018. And that is not such a bad thing.

More than anything else — more than Trumpian ineptitude, more than worst-case climate change scenarios, more than Prime Minister Corbyn or war with North Korea or another worldwide economic meltdown — what political partisans fear is boredom. Boredom, being left alone with nothing but their own thoughts and personalities for company, and having to take responsibility for their own happiness during a string of uneventful, unremarkable days — anything but that.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

I'll Be Doing All I Can if I Die an Honest Man

But, whereas Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn challenge the dominant belief in historical advancement, they both believe in the possibility of individual self-improvement. Tolstoy writes that "the law of progress, or perfectibility, is written in the soul of each man, and is transferred to history only through error. As long as it remains personal, this law is fruitful." Solzhenitsyn echoes this sentiment, claiming that "there can be only one true Progress: the sum total of the spiritual progresses of individuals; the degree of self-perfection in the course of their lives."

...Schopenhauer writes that "the State and the Kingdom of God, or the Moral Law, are so entirely different in their character that the former is a parody of the latter, a bitter mockery at the absence of it. Compared with the Moral Law the State is a crutch instead of a limb, an automaton instead of a man." On this point, [Tolstoy] assuredly agrees. Indeed, this is the unifying position of thinkers who find no rhyme or reason in history, antipolitical thinkers who seek refuge in art, religion, or intellectual pursuits. Thinkers of this sort recommend that individuals work out their own salvation rather than trust in the state to bring about national or universal progress.

— Matthew Slaboch, A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and its Critics

Here we are at the beginning of a new year, a time when the belief in willpower and self-improvement is at its zenith, at least rhetorically. Over the next couple weeks, most people will rediscover the fact that agency is an uncomfortable burden entailing much hard work, and they will gradually return it, in the original wrapping paper, to the various impersonal forces that "prevent" them from fulfilling their resolutions.

In Dave Chappelle's two new Netflix shows, he muses about perhaps being done with comedy, partially due to our hypersensitive age where everything that used to be funny is now po-faced problematic. No doubt his observations about the "brittle spirits" of the #MeToo movement who allow themselves to be traumatized and defeated by the simplest obstacles will launch a thousand hot takes in the coming days encouraging him to hurry up and go away already. But numerous commentators have also noted this about the recent spectacles involving safe-space snowflakes — however sympathetic one might be to their grievances in theory, it's impossible to avoid the intuitive sense of them as a bunch of whiny weaklings who have never had to deal with any serious adversity. For all their buzzword-laden jargon about "systemic" this and "structural" that, they come across as, uh, well, privileged brats who expect customized treatment, who feel entitled to bubble-wrapped comfort. People, in other words, who seem to naïvely, unquestioningly believe in the inherent fairness of life, including the inexhaustible goodwill of strangers, and are proportionally furious at being denied. It's the narcissistic tantrum you'd expect of people who take progress utterly for granted, who expect to be praised and rewarded for simply showing up.

Steven Pinker has a new book coming out, following up on the themes of his previous one. I was never interested in reading Better Angels..., and I have no interest in this one either. Judging by the commentary surrounding them, it seems like one of those rorschach things where people read into it whatever they intended to see all along. The rationalist/atheist/humanist crowd sees him as confirming their Whiggish beliefs about the teleological betterment of civilization, and the pessimistic crowd attacks him for his questionable metrics, or for turning a blind eye to all the horrible events that would disprove his thesis. I don't know if Pinker has ever endorsed the idea that these improvements are cumulative or guaranteed, though I hope not, since I'd hate to have to think less of him. Sure, many things, from medicine to personal entertainment, are clearly better than they were at various points in the past. Sure, being reasonable, rational and scientific are generally good things. But all the charts and statistics you can present don't change the fact that as long as countless variables in life are beyond our control, as long as unintended consequences exist, there's always the chance that what's been gained can be lost. We may even find that in the process of taming the world to suit our desires, we ourselves have been subtly changed as well, leaving us with the familiar feeling of existential dissonance.

Like Schopenhauer, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, only without the philosophical depth or literary talent, I'm one of those who doesn't think history is going anywhere in particular for any reason. I don't expect anyone to finally discover an undeniable preordained pattern, whether scientific, philosophical, or religious, that finally tells us how to live or why, and I don't feel that as a loss. Even the Buddha's parting advice on his deathbed was a simple "appamadena sampadetha" — strive diligently. It's unceasing hard work to be good and wise. The world will constantly tempt you with shortcuts — technological and theoretical "hacks" that promise to do the heavy lifting for you. Sociopolitical movements will provide easy answers, the security of superficial consensus, a sense of harnessing the power of a combustion engine or a river to effortlessly take you to your destination. But when you're done distracting yourself with fantasies, agency will still be waiting, right where you left it, to be shouldered and carried once again.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Big Tech, You Can Drive My Car

Charles Cooke:

So it is here. In truth, the coming debate over driving is not really about driving at all, but about movement, autonomy, and reliance upon one’s self. Which is to say that the root question is whether free people are to be permitted to move themselves around without needing somebody else to agree to the transaction, or whether the government may interpose itself. This, naturally, is a perennial inquiry, not a contingent one. It would have been as pertinent in 1790 if there had been an anti-horse movement, and it will be necessary when the car has been replaced with the jetpack, or the rotocopter, or whatever is coming our way. May I move myself, or may I not?

After nearly three decades with a driver's license, much of it spent driving for a living, racking up over a million miles in total (with no accidents!), I have to admit that experience has made me bitter and cynical. Most people, as far as I'm concerned, especially on interstates, are too impulsive, impatient and stupid to be allowed to drive. I wouldn't shed a tear to see roads turned into above-ground subways filled with driverless cars. Hell, I could get even more reading done in the time that's currently spent on stressful guard duty against some moron weaving into my lane while trying to Instagram a picture of his genitalia.

And yet, the basic philosophical argument that Cooke delineates is valid and vital. Like any sci-fi prognostication, the exact details are up for debate. Future policies and technologies may render some of his particular concerns moot, but he's correct that the underlying argument will still be rumbling — how far are we willing to go to eliminate risk and inefficiency from our lives? What can't be justified as a public health and safety measure by bureaucrats and managers incentivized by power and control? In a world where agency is largely felt to be an unwelcome burden, no matter what we officially claim to the contrary, the allure of Taylorism will remain strong — why not outsource this particular choice to the experts? Thinking, judging and considering is exhausting and only leads to decision fatigue. Let the machines massage those mental muscular aches away. Save your energy for puttering around in your garden or building model trains and cars. Those activities will remain unsupervised and unregulated...for now. I don't know, maybe working in the yard causes back problems and skin cancer. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the results of the latest study before we can justify that.

Perhaps individual driving will pass into history and elicit no more than a collective shrug, judged to be an acceptable tradeoff. But the basic conflict will remain and reassert itself again and again, because we remain incapable of articulating a shared response to that most basic of philosophical questions: what is life for?