Wednesday, February 28, 2018

We Accept You, One of Us!

Damon Linker:

Social media goes further, allowing us to construct a reality defined by distinct visions of the world: We pick who we "friend" and who we follow, creating virtual communities of the likeminded. Before social media, you lived out your days in the real world of neighborhoods and workplaces that in many cases had some diversity of views, and also uncertainty about views, which led people to conceal and restrain them out of a concern for manners.

But now we can voluntarily join together with hundreds or thousands of people scattered across the country and the world who share common views about justice. That leads to the intensification of these views, as they get reinforced through combat with those on the outside of the group (who affirm contrary positions on justice) and amplified by the frenzied encouragement of those in the inside.

Jonathan Rauch:

Science has shown that tribalism is hard-wired. Experiments and evidence dating back generations, in psychology, sociology and anthropology, have established firmly that human opinions and emotions, loyalties and affiliations, religions and customs, and even perceptions are shaped by our need to belong to a group — and by our proclivity to hate rival groups. Experimental subjects will spontaneously form in-group loyalties and out-group antipathies when assigned to teams randomly. Subjects will deny the evidence of their own eyes to agree with those around them, even if the discrepancy is blatant. There need be no trigger for tribalism, no cause or conflict. If we do not already have a tribe and a reason to be loyal to it, we will create a tribe and invent a rationale.

Not only that, but anger is also the quickest emotion to go viral. It strikes me that in the last couple decades, with the rise of the web, we've been able to observe a real-time experiment in which purely ideological tribes can develop, unimpeded by physical limitations. Only a decade ago, in fact, it was still common to read all sorts of gushing panegyrics to social media and how it was going to change the world for the better by allowing people everywhere to "connect," with the blithe assumption that, having connected, people would naturally share happiness and camaraderie for the most part. But it turns out that much like it must have been on the African savanna millions of years ago, once a tribal group has the basic needs of food and shelter met, the next step is consolidating their territory and engaging in violent skirmishes with outsiders. Centuries of civilization and domestication haven't changed that. Only a common extraterrestrial enemy can save human nature from itself.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Pens and Swords

I mentioned before that I had no interest in reading Steven Pinker's new book, but I certainly have enjoyed reading some of the reviews it's been attracting. I had been hopeful that John Gray would get the assignation again, and he did. We'll see if Pinker is provoked to an angry article-length response again, as he was when Gray criticized his Better Angels of Our Nature a few years ago. Peter Harrison also wrote a fascinating review, though I believe he's being a bit unfair when he ascribes to Pinker a teleological faith in inevitable progress, which even I have heard Pinker deny a few times. And finally, Ross Douthat had a brief but incisive take on it.

Yuval Harari is another public intellectual with a new book about humanity's future that I don't plan to read, but David Berlinski gave it a pretty entertaining pummeling.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Somethin' Happenin' Here

Scott Alexander:

The culture wars will continue to be marked by both sides scoring an unrelenting series of own-goals, with the victory going to whoever can make their supporters shut up first. The best case scenario for the Right is that Jordan Peterson’s ability to not instantly get ostracized and destroyed signals a new era of basically decent people being able to speak out against social justice; this launches a cascade of people doing so, and the vague group consisting of Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, etc coalesces into a perfectly respectable force no more controversial than the gun lobby or the pro-life movement or something. With social justice no longer able to enforce its own sacredness values against blasphemy, it loses a lot of credibility and ends up no more powerful or religion-like than eg Christianity. The best case scenario for the Left is that the alt-right makes some more noise, the media is able to relentlessly keep everyone’s focus on the alt-right, the words ALT-RIGHT get seared into the public consciousness every single day on every single news website, and everyone is so afraid of being associated with the alt-right that they shut up about any disagreements with the consensus they might have. I predict both of these will happen, but the Right’s win-scenario will come together faster and they will score a minor victory.

The Lady of the House was telling me the other day about an article that explored why fandom can become so toxic. For example, the barrier to entry for becoming a Harry Potter fan is very low. To differentiate themselves from the herd, hardcore fans basically have to create tiers within their subculture to make it more exclusive for them. There's no status in having and enjoying the same thing as every teenage mallrat. By contrast, a higher barrier to entry makes it easier for a niche group to be more welcoming to newbies, as they can trust that anyone who's here has earned the right to be here.

Listening to her, I remembered some webcomic from several years ago which amusingly noted the differences between the social-justice left and the far right with regards to their outreach programs, shall we say. Basically, it's easy and trendy to be on the left, and you see this reflected in the contemptuous attitude that hardcore SJWs hold toward anyone who isn't already part of the in-group. Outsiders were frequently treated with hostility from the start, as I witnessed countless times when the social-justice virus first spread through online atheism. People who earnestly tried to engage in discussion were accused of "JAQing off" and told that it was a sign of privilege to expect answers to their stupid questions. There already existed an elite caste whose main concern was to demonstrate their higher social rank by competing to see who could be the most excoriating toward the outgroup. The highly-stigmatized far right, on the other hand, was more than happy to oblige curiosity from newcomers. Oh, you got attacked for your "white privilege," huh? Yeah, that's typical leftist hypocrisy, enforced by the liberal media. Would you like to learn more? Here's some information, and oh, by the way, there's a group that meets on Wednesday nights if you'd like to come by and hear so-and-so speak! Bring your friends!

Like I said, I saw that comic several years ago, so it seems especially prescient in hindsight, now that most of us have had occasion to rub our eyes and wonder where all these outright neo-Nazis came from all of a sudden.

In any event, right-wing politics, even of the moderate, mainstream variety, has long had a higher barrier to entry for most people. It often seems too pessimistic, too unsympathetic, too severe, too demanding. There's no cultural status to be had in being conservative. People often age into it with experience rather than get argued into it with facile reasoning. It has struck me, though, as it has likewise apparently struck Alexander, that the shifting tectonic plates in the domestic political landscape seem to be opening up some fissures which could perhaps be filled by a more reasonable, approachable center-right coalition typified by individuals like Peterson, Harris, Haidt, Pinker, etc. With a generous helping of good fortune, maybe this trend might develop from a cultural faction into a new conservative party, leaving the big two to continue becoming more extreme. Granted, that's only if-this, then-that, unless-this, in-which-case-that speculation. I'm certainly not holding my breath for a viable third-party option anytime in the near future. But as the Republican party continues to accommodate Trumpian populism and adapt to it rather than tame it, I can't help but wonder where the newly-homeless conservatives are going to end up. Are they going to continue to wait out what they hope is a temporary spell of madness, or will they eventually walk away and possibly encounter the refugees from the left somewhere in the middle?

Friday, February 23, 2018

Cover Your Mouth

For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves.

— William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads

There was an absurd piece making the rounds on social media the other day, written by a women's studies professor (of course), which claimed that the recent SpaceX launch was just another example of patriarchy in action, because isn't it just like men to think they can use up resources here before nonchalantly heading off into space to despoil virgin frontiers with their phallic rockets, etc. You can find eye-rolling material like that every day, of course; the only thing that was even slightly eyebrow-raising at all about this was that it was published by nbcnews.com. One of the people retweeting it commented that this was more proof that toxic intersectionality doesn't stay confined to undergrads on campus, but leaks out and pollutes the groundwater of mainstream society too.

Typically, though, when we talk about the threat of campus radicalism to social norms, we picture it as the work of committed ideologues. While there are certainly plenty of earnest preachers of the intersectional gospel, one can't help but notice that there are some rather more prosaic factors involved in broadcasting — normalizing, if you will — the message to a wider audience. The structure of online media incentivizes a race to publish inflammatory garbage for easy clicks, and the jaded boredom of an audience which "craves extraordinary incident" acts in concert with "rapid communication" to turn grotesque deformations of intelligent, thoughtful conversation into "great national events." Hardly anyone involved in creating this climate of ridiculous opinion needs to be a true believer, but we all have to live under it regardless.

If, indeed, social media is to bad ideas what the first cities were to infectious diseases, one simple solution would be for far more people to stop carelessly coughing and sneezing. Ironic amusement can be just as much of a vector as ideology for spreading asinine notions. Intellectual bacteria don't care why they get passed from host to host as long as they do. Wash your hands before linking or retweeting.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 37

That Schopenhauer, like the Buddha in his Third Noble Truth, offered a means of escape from the pain of existence is also clear. But Schopenhauer was not a believing Buddhist, and admire as he did the teachings of the Dharma, the means of escape he proposed was altogether different in scope: a mere list of aesthetic and psychological coping mechanisms, including polite consideration for others; solitary philosophical reflection; immersion in great works of literature, art, and music; and ironic distancing of oneself from the futile preoccupations of humankind. These resemble Buddhism less than they do the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus on virtuous restraint and appreciation of life's simpler pleasures.

—Lawrence Sutin, All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West


It's a pretty naked feeling, seeing the bones and sinews of your entire worldview so briefly summarized and dissected. Describing them as "mere coping mechanisms" is just the insult added to injury! In all seriousness, though, the concept of "escape" is doing a lot of question-begging work here. Who is it that's doing the escaping, and where is he escaping to? If you accept, as I do, the version of Buddhist thought which sees the flawed understanding of selfhood as being the cause of dukkha in the first place, trying to "escape" the pain of existence from the perspective of your individual self is just adding more fuel to the flames. Believing in a Buddha who perfected a technique for achieving impervious equanimity is just another way of believing in the supernatural.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Noteworthies (32)

• Joseph Bottom, "Chicken Littles and Pollyannas"

• Theodore Dalrymple, "Paging Dr. Marx?"

• Chris Goss, "Powder Man" — a haunting new song from the man behind Masters of Reality, one of my all-time favorite bands.

• Tony Daniel, "Canadian Linguistic Delight ‘Letterkenny’ May Be The Best Comedy On TV Right Now" (The Lady and I are both fans now.)

• Tom Nichols, "I'm Still a Republican, But My Party Needs to Be Fumigated"

• Thomas Wells, "Can Free Speech Survive the Internet?"

• "Hikikomarxist." Brilliant.

• Joseph Heath, "The Problem With 'Critical' Studies"

• Andrew Potter, "The Perils of Paid Content"

• Kai Weiss, "The Fallacy of 'Social Justice'"

• Uri Harris, "Thinking Critically About Social Justice"

Sunday, February 18, 2018

This Thing We Keep and Dip Into When We Need

Rosie Wilby:

The vast majority of couples I’ve spoken to who have opened up a central or ‘primary’ partnership have done so precisely as a way of being more faithful – a way of having neither to cheat nor leave. For them, it’s been a case of sustaining a good thing, keeping promises and allowing one another to thrive.

...‘But isn’t it an admission that something’s lacking?’ Bex asked.

‘Absolutely,’ I said, ‘but since when does any one person meet every single one of your needs? I’ve never had a relationship without several items left un-ticked on my ideal wish list. Finally I get to be respectfully honest about it without getting my head bitten off.’

The Idler is a publication essentially dedicated to the observation of limits. They're not advocating rebellion so much as a sort of intellectual civil disobedience. Animated by the spirit of Bartleby the Scrivener, they look upon the modern cults of ambition, achievement and efficiency and demur, "I would prefer not to." So it's especially funny to see them publishing a piece on (the inaptly-named) polyamory, a trend which truly exemplifies the vain hope of "having it all." The greed of the poly mentality, which would be readily apparent to the average Idler if the objects of desire were mere material possessions, manages to pass unnoticed disguised in the modern virtues of egalitarianism and non-judgment. Biology's truth will out, I suppose. It's easy to pose as indifferent to wealth and status, but much more difficult to voluntarily limit oneself from pleasures of the flesh, especially when you consider the typical demographics of the people attracted to free love — young, unattached, and cosmopolitan. I said before that I continue to wait in vain for one of these proselytizers to follow up the cliché about how "no one person meets every one of your needs" with the equally valid observation that most of our "needs" are merely impulsive wants that it would be better to ignore and outgrow. You'd think a publication devoted to criticizing restless acquisition would be ideally suited for that.

Friday, February 16, 2018

I Can Do No Other

Noah Rothman:

Those who contend that conservatives, in particular, overstate the threat on campus make several claims. These are the works of only a handful of misguided “college kids,” they contend. The few instances of extreme behavior on campus are not suggestive of any broader societal trend and don’t merit much attention. In fact, the limited scope of the problem, therefore, suggests that that conservative indignation is false–a convenient way to avoid confronting anti-social behavior among their ideological compatriots. All of this is fallacious.

Everyone believes that slippery slopes exist. We just disagree on their precise location and steepness. Or, you could say we're all frogs in a pot of water, arguing over whether the temperature has noticeably increased in the last few minutes. Talented sophists can certainly make plausible cases for prioritizing attention toward almost any area of concern, from social to economic to environmental ills, but there's no objective standard of proof that would settle these arguments with finality. Hume's famous problem of induction still haunts us here — the fact that we can identify a developing trend doesn't guarantee that it will continue. We'll only know who was right with the benefit of hindsight one day. However tiny it may be, there's still a leap of faith involved in choosing which issues are worth our attention and which can be safely ignored. And in our frivolous culture, where, despite all the sturm und drang, no one honestly expects things to drastically change one way or the other, arguments over what right-thinking people should properly be focusing their limited time and attention on become just another way of flashing our tribal I.D. badges.

I'm a conservative by temperament, if not by party affiliation. If I vote at all, it almost certainly won't be in any election beyond the state level. To me, our sclerotic political institutions are like the Olympian gods of ancient Greece, completely beyond our control or fathoming, only worth keeping a wary eye on in the possibly-vain hope of not being crushed underfoot as they pursue their mysterious goals, heedless to the destruction they cause down below. I think that despite endless bipartisan ranting and raving, life is generally pretty good in this country, even for people without a lot of money or power, and that it provides a fair amount of freedom for people to live as they wish. The idea of man as a fallen creature prone to weakness and vice strikes me as portraying a psychological truth if not a religious one. I don't believe that any amount of money or comfort, let alone any new sociopolitical arrangement, will make people content, because it's too easy and tempting for people to be weak, lazy and prone to blame their unhappiness on something else. While not a Stoic, I do agree that the only thing most people achieve by complaining is becoming proficient at it and prone to practice it relentlessly. Obsessing over politics in particular causes most people to walk around with their own personal storm clouds permanently thundering in their heads. Work hard, treat people well, do your best to accept and ignore things beyond your control, and just get on with it — that's the basic framework of my approach to life.

Most of all, I share the typically-conservative tragic view of life, in which perfection is inherently unattainable. It's more than enough work for most people to cultivate the character and practice the good habits necessary to keep from accidentally or maliciously destroying the fragile blessings in life. The game always ends in defeat, so to speak, so it's more important to play it well. To this end, art, music, and literature, also known as the humanities, are the greatest source of succor and solace this side of the River Styx. This is why I make my stand there. The humanities are the greatest respite we'll ever have from our worldly tribulations, and these abhorrent philistines only care about turning them into just another branch of radical activist politics, with all the misery that entails. In everyday life, with limited time, energy, and resources at our disposal, it obviously makes sense to prioritize problems and tackle them in order of importance. In the big scheme of things, though, when we're talking about problems that are global in scope if not existential in nature, that sort of one-at-a-time approach won't work. Adolescent barbarians vandalizing their cultural heritage will never rise high enough on the list of pressing issues to be considered worthy of attention. Prioritizing be damned; some things are simply worth fighting for on principle, and this is the one I choose.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Shoulders Too Broad for a Girl

Jessa Crispin:

A truly progressive man, then, would be one who rejects the social and economic advantages that come from hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal conformity. A “feminine flourish,” as Cremin puts it, of perfume or lipstick or a silk blouse, would undercut a man’s power immediately in both the workplace and on the sexual market. But why is that still true, other than because men are heavily invested in retaining old forms and modes of power, and are unwilling to take even the smallest step toward voluntarily relinquishing it—as well as having a disinterest in, or belittling viewpoint of, femininity and women, and a fear of being mistaken for gay? You know, small things like that. The feminine potential that lies within men is often spoken about in terms of caretaking and parenting within marriages and nuclear families—which are forms of patriarchal control, too—rather than with regard to exploring sensuality, beauty, and softness.

I suppose I stand corrected. When I suggested the other day that our inclinations and behaviors around here were more truly genderbendy than all these bandwagon-jumpers who change their pronouns as often as their underwear, I failed to recognize that those ostensibly non-conforming practices were still taking place within the confines of a hetero-patriarchal relationship, rendering them null and void with regard to their revolutionary potential. Plus, the Lady of the House still harbors a reactionary fondness for fashionable clothes and makeup, while I, with my "gym bod" and "nostalgia bearding," am clearly reacting out of subconscious fear of the, uh, "rise of the visibility of women and queers in the public realm," desperately trying to reassert my threatened masculinity. Let's not even mention my t-shirt and cargo-shorts wardrobe. Point is, "true" revolutionary socialism will only arrive when we're all dressing like Ziggy Stardust. If the history of actually-existing revolutionary socialism is any indication, it's more likely we'd all be wearing drab unisex Mao Suits, but okay, whatever.

Funny enough, I don't actually have any problem with the idea that fashion is a largely-arbitrary social construction that could be changed with no lasting consequences to the social order. Whether we call them kilts, skirts, sarongs, kimonos, dresses or robes, I'm all in favor of dressing comfortably. If it became socially acceptable for guys to wear eyeliner, I'd probably do it. I fully admit that the only reason I don't is because it's not a hill I'm willing to answer ten thousand questions upon. Life is all about tradeoffs, and I simply don't feel strongly enough about men's indubitable right to wear makeup to do it myself. I mean, having a beard, even if only because I like the way it looks, apparently opens me to charges of being subconsciously homophobic and misogynist, so I really just don't have the time to face interrogation over the subtext of my lip gloss as well. Is this proof of the stifling conformity of capitalist patriarchy, or is it just the adult recognition of the fact that not all battles are equally worth fighting?

No, the article would be unremarkable were it not for the fact of Crispin's determination to squeeze in her typically half-baked ideas about socialist utopia. Well, since we're all pretending to be able to read each other's minds here, allow me to go ahead and speculate that her generic bowl of buzzword soup here is just the latest product of her admittedly-incomplete education and its attending inferiority complex. An intellectual orphan, left to fend for herself in the inhospitable, culturally sterile Midwest, trying to cobble together a sophisticated worldview through voracious, indiscriminate reading, she apparently impressed upon the first jargon-spouting critical theorist she encountered and never outgrew it. And so, sadly, here she is, close to middle age, proud of having attained fluency in academese, and evidently unaware that it does nothing to disguise the adolescent puerility of her ideas. "When we remove forms of control, we are left to act freely on our desires." Yes, and only a superficially-intelligent naïf who confuses bookishness with wisdom assumes that this is likely to turn out well.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Do You Even Believe That There's a Race to Be Won?

Michael Tanner:

We have become obsessed with economic equality at the expense of economic growth. Inequality is said to be the transcendent issue of our time. Yet a society that is rich and unequal still beats one that is poor and equal any day of the week.

I don't know about "transcendent," but it sure is ubiquitous, at least. I long ago passed through the semantic satiation stage; now, I think I'm in the learned helplessness phase, where I can't even react to the pain of hearing progressives yammering incessantly and nonsensically about income inequality; I just lay on the floor of my cage and tremble and whimper as if there's no escape.

In slogan form, the argument often takes shape as a distinction between equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Exasperated, progressives will retort that they're not demanding equality of outcome; it's just that there's no true equality of opportunity as long as there is structural inequality, i.e. privilege. Many will approvingly quote Anatole France's famous snark about how the law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor to sleep under bridges and steal loaves of bread. Dig, if you will, the picture of society engaged in a race. The progressive perspective is that "equality of opportunity" still allows too many people to have a significant, even insurmountable, head start through "unearned" advantages. The only way the race can be made truly fair is to bring everyone back to the same starting line. Of course, doing so would entail the very same socioeconomic leveling that progressives insist they're not aiming for. Equality of outcome by a different name — imposing it "before" rather than "after" the race. And let's be honest — assuming such "true" equality of opportunity was even achievable, why would you fire the starting pistol and allow the same old inequalities to begin asserting themselves again? Are we supposed to believe that our former devotees of equality, possessing the power to eliminate disparities, would suddenly just shrug their shoulders and say, "Well, we ensured absolutely fair starting conditions, so it's all up to individual skill and desire now. Whatever happens, happens. Let the best man win."?

William Voegeli accurately noted that no matter how much the welfare state continues to grow (even under Republican administrations), progressives always insist it's never enough. More specifically, they never make any attempt to quantify what "enough" might finally look like, or how we would recognize it when we get there. How much GDP is the redistributive state entitled to consume? How many new programs do we need? At what point might we factor in that human beings are never satisfied and always complaining no matter what? A cynic might suspect that such vagueness is the entire point, that it's all about procuring blank checks and ever-increasing administrative power for you and your party by constantly stoking and inflaming moral outrage. No, it's not that there's a danger of progressives actually gaining enough power and ability to eliminate all the privileges and talents that give some people an automatic head start in life; it's that to the extent that such ahistorical fantasies are relentlessly pursued by people too stupid to recognize them as fantasies, they can still cause an awful lot of damage.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 36

It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them that one might have a doubt right here at the threshold where it was most surely necessary — even if they vowed to themselves, “de omnibus dubitandum.”

— Nietzsche

Andrew Sullivan:
Look: I don’t doubt the good intentions of the new identity politics — to expand the opportunities for people previously excluded.

Having spent the article up until this point making his case for why campus radicalism can't be dismissed as an irrelevant sideshow with no bearing on the "real" world, we arrive at this curious statement — curious, because a mere four sentences later, he correctly observes that "the new identity politics" is better understood as a Marxist assault on the very notion of a liberal society than a logical extension of the traditional liberal project of integrating minorities, which makes one wonder just what would have to occur to make Sullivan suspicious of their motives.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Snips and Snails and Sugar and Spice

The Big Lebowski: What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn't that what makes a man?

The Dude: Hmmm... Sure, that and a pair of testicles.

Spencer Case:

When gender identity is divorced from biology, the only way to distinguish a male from a female gender identity is to rely on gender stereotypes. We can imagine a woman’s mind in a man’s body, or a biological woman who defies gender stereotypes with regard to preferences and behavior. But try to say something substantive about the gender identity “woman” – something that would distinguish it from other gender identities – without referencing either biology or gender stereotypes. The DSM-5, the most recent edition of American Psychological Association’s guide for identifying mental illnesses, includes having a “strong preference for toys, games or other activities stereotypically used or engaged in by the other gender” among its diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria. Why not assume that children with such preferences are simply members of their biological sex who defy the stereotypes?

When my generation was coming of age, it seemed like the commonest of sense that many of the general differences between men and women could still be blurred or even erased by individuals who were so inclined. The Lady of the House worked in some of the most typically masculine manual-labor fields when she was younger. She's constantly doing the sort of "handyman" projects around here that involve trips to Home Depot for supplies, where the workers unfailingly look at me when asking if "we" need any help. I prefer tasks like cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and decorating for holidays. (The Lady says I'm also emotionally sensitive, "in touch with my feelings," and in the sort of physical shape that, at my age, usually gets a fellow classified as gay.) And yet, despite the fact that in practice, we're more genderbendy than half of the adolescent posers on Tumblr, we don't make a fetish of it. There's no existential angst over whether we might "really" be the other sex. Our biology doesn't oppress or imprison us.

Had you told me then that in a mere couple decades, we would "progress" to the point where people would define masculinity and femininity by those very same, uh, social constructions favored by nostalgic conservatives and lazy stand-up comedians, I would have stared at you in stunned silence. But here we are. Racially-segregated public spaces and clichéd definitions of gender are now "progressive" stances. There's apparently no idea so stupid it can't come back into vogue, if for no better reason than boredom.

The American Civil Liberties Union describes itself as an organization that “champions transgender people’s right to be themselves,” which suggests that transgender activists are motivated by a “live and let live” philosophy. But because the underlying conception of selfhood is so radical, this implies a right to live in a society devoid of gender norms. It is far from clear that most people would flourish under these conditions. “In a culture where transgender identities are not only affirmed, but celebrated,” Anderson writes, “everyone will be compelled to construct their own gender identities, unaided by a common understanding of sex differences and why they matter.” Transforming society along these lines necessarily has implications for the rights and interests of others.

This is what mainstream liberals, the kind who think all this culture war drama is an annoying distraction from the serious business of ghost-dancing the Great Society back into existence, fail to understand. This is much more radical than just another partisan skirmish. The fact that the transgender political project relies on restrictive stereotypes for an epistemological foundation in the absence of biology is really just an ironic side issue. The act of choosing itself, the uncaused assertion of pure will, is the foundation of it. What this is really about is liberalism, as a political philosophy opposed to any unjust limitations upon the individual, taken to its most extreme logical conclusion. It's not just tradition in the form of, say, fundamentalist religious practices that's oppressive; it's the very existence of a common frame of reference at all. Why should I have to abide by linguistic standards that I didn't voluntarily assent to? Why should society get to have any say over my self-expression? It doesn't matter if my choices make no sense; the important thing is that they're mine. If I feel like changing my gender sixteen times a week and demanding validation from everyone else, that's my choice, my right. Anything that impinges on my ability to do that is tyrannical and oppressive.

And thus the centuries-old drive to liberate the individual from any personal, social, or cultural entanglements that weren't consciously chosen ends up in solipsism. Well, not precisely — they still technically recognize the existence of other people who need to be scolded and browbeaten into submission. It's more a malignant form of narcissism. But still, mainstream liberals, fearful of being scooped up by the social-justice tumbrils which they helped set into motion, keep pretending that this is just one more logical, incremental extension of the sexual revolution that no reasonable person could have a problem with. And even if they did find the courage to call it what it is, they'd feel guilty over drawing what, to them, would feel like an arbitrary line — why should Obergefell be the final scene? How do you justify bringing the curtain down now? Who are you to decide that trans people or polygamists or whoever's next don't qualify as victims in need of liberation from prejudice and customs? Boy, isn't it convenient that the revolution stops when you start to feel uncomfortable...! Etc. If individual choice and freedom from irrational customs are good things by definition, it's difficult to articulate any reason why they should be curtailed without sounding like, *gulp*, a conservative, and if there's one thing that wakes a typical liberal in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, it's the thought of being called a conservative by their peers.

As long as status and power accrue to those willing to play this cynical game, it won't end. As long as dysfunctional people are incentivized to project their misery onto society, they'll keep seeking political solutions for it. As long as the clerisy keep reflexively genuflecting before anyone who claims victimhood, they'll keep finding newly-discovered victim groups making demands. Conservatives are at least comfortable with the knowledge that mores and customs will never be "rational" in the sense of being founded on abstract principles rather than tried-and-true practices. Liberals aren't. Faced with accusations of irrational hypocrisy, of failing to live up to their principles, they'll continue to back down rather than risk sacrificing their beloved self-image as the heroic champions of the underdog. In a sense, they've been living off of cultural savings for a while now, having it both ways. They've been able to position themselves as the cool, tolerant, sophisticated alternative to those musty, archaic conservatives, while trusting that unchecked individualism would never actually gather enough momentum to threaten the social cohesion accrued over the ages. As those cultural funds dwindle, the bills are starting to come due. It looks like we may be the ones fated to live in some truly interesting times indeed.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

He Remembered Remembering Contrary Things, but Those Were False Memories, Products of Self-Deception

Ed West:

People have always objected to women dressing immodestly – more so women than men – but what I can’t understand, and this is the dinosaur brain again, is that the current public moral space has no coherence or consistency. So while F1 girls are out of date and exploitative, pornography is fine because it’s empowering and education or something, at least according to the increasingly Buzzfeed-like BBC online. It’s okay for singers whose target audience is pre-teen girls to be crudely sexual and dress half-naked as long as they’re woke; ditto films and television being sexually graphic, as long as everyone makes the right vacuous points on Oscar night. Sex work likewise is a morally neutral issue because it’s empowering; except when it’s not. Women enjoying lifestyle choice is good; except when it isn’t. The one thing all approved, authorised sex-positive things have in common is that they upset conservatives or traditional conservative mores; grid girls don’t.

I appreciate that we’re in the middle of a cultural revolution and revolutions are marked by uncertainty and therefore terror – have I denounced the wrong person today? Did my tweet upset people when a year ago it would have been harmless? – but I do wish it would just hurry up and reach whatever awful dictatorship phase follows next. At least then we’ll have consistency.

Spoken more out of weariness than conviction. In other words, he knows better, the poor guy. The arbitrariness is the whole point. As Beria famously said, "Show me the man and I'll show you the crime." Or, as power-seeking radicals have long known, if they acquiesce to one of your demands, hit 'em with a dozen more. The point isn't to get what you want and be satisfied; it's about keeping them subservient and anxious to satisfy your neverending demands. Political correctness isn't about inspiring people to practice better behavior; it's about being the authority in charge of ordering others how to behave. They won't stop hectoring and start praising once we finally give in and comply with today's dictates; they'll just invent some new ones tomorrow and start hectoring us again. But I feel confident enough to assert that this phase of revolution will fizzle out as it continues to eat its own; I don't see any danger of the Napoleon of social justice coming to power and exporting its principles by force (though I resent Ed even putting such a horrific image in my head).

Again, I truly hate to give a quack like Freud credit for anything, but projection explains so very, very much about unpleasant human behavior. The same people who insist that everything noble or pleasurable in society is merely a mask concealing an insatiable lust for power and dominance turn out to be grotesque mutants who conceal an insatiable lust for power and dominance underneath a mask of egalitarian rhetoric. They were warning us all along!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Noteworthies (31)

J. V. Last interviews Ryan Anderson. I've been really looking forward to reading Anderson's upcoming book.

• Heather Mac Donald, "#MediocrityToo"

• T.A. Frank, "Welcome to the Golden Age of Conservative Magazines"

• Christopher Snowdon, "Nick Cohen's Dystopia"

• Joanna Williams, "#MeToo in an Age of Heterophobia"

• Pascal Boyer, "'So you’re saying … we should live like lobsters?' or: Why does politics make us stupid?"

• Scott Spillman, "Potentially Much Better"

• Max Diamond, "The Philosophical Question Underlying the Google/Damore Dispute"

• Henry Farrell, "Philip K. Dick and the Fake Humans"

• Sean Collins interviews Fred Siegel, "The Revolt Against the Masses"

• Damon Linker, "Is America Having Second Thoughts About Free Speech?"

• Katie Roiphe, "The Other Whisper Network"

• Hahaha:

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Mr. I.V. Lenin Gonna Make Us Feel So Fine With a Hit of Socialism In the Mainline

In The Opium of the Intellectuals, Raymond Aron wrote, "It is always astonishing that a thinker should appear indulgent to a society which would not tolerate him and merciless to the one which honors him." In a slightly more colloquial fashion, Eric Hoffer echoed this with his observation that "people who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them." Hold that thought for a moment; we'll come back to it.

Recently, I was reading some old interviews with the members of Alabama 3, one of my favorite bands. I couldn't help but roll my eyes at parts like these:

I ask him if he believes that the Sopranos helped them to cultivate their outlaw image, something which reflects itself as clearly in their music as in their personal politics: “It certainly did. I tell you what – we never had any trouble at any gigs in America. We’ve certainly been known to hang around with a few naughty characters both in the states and around London…we formed Alabama 3 with a certain set of beliefs in mind and they’ve always been a part of us right from the start.” Although Larry also points out that they view a lot of the revolutionary spirit within their music as being reflective of a lot of the unheard opinions within UK society as a whole: “A lot of the time we’re not explicitly saying ‘go out and grab a gun,’ but what we are saying is, as our song goes, ‘Mao Tse Tung said change must come through the barrel of a gun.’ The messages are already out there.”

Most of the other interviews contain similar examples of typical rock-star radicalism, a sort of non-denominational Marxism seasoned with Romantic self-destructive decadence (or maybe that should be the other way around). I don't expect my entertainers to be sensible or level-headed, of course, especially when they've written as many brilliant songs as these guys. It's just that I can't help but marvel at the cognitive dissonance involved in yearning for a revolutionary left-wing society, as if it wouldn't immediately execute a bunch of drug-addled, antisocial musicians as socially degenerate elements. For all their clichéd complaints about the bourgeois stupidity of American and British society, at least those tolerate and provide a comfortable living for malcontents who would otherwise, come the revolution, be slaving away in the fields or dead in a mass grave. Ah, well. Hoffer also wrote about the mysterious alchemy of the human soul, in which the base materials of our flaws could be miraculously transformed into the precious metals of art and nobility of spirit — "the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us." Likewise, people who might sound stupid and trite when speaking somehow become inspiring when they pick up an instrument and sing. Only the naïve expect a harmonious symmetry between motive and result. I don't need to understand how the ingredients combine. It's enough to just appreciate the magic.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Choosing Weaknesses

Thomas Chatterton Williams:

Norwegian chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen gave an interview in 2011—when he was just 21—in which he dropped a bit of chess wisdom that I’ve come to think about in other contexts ever since. It falls into the category of what my friend Josh calls “forever knowledge” about life. Asked whether he considered himself a tactician or a strategist, Carlsen said neither. “I’d call myself an optimist!” he responded. “In actual fact, I don’t have any clear preferences in chess. I do what I think circumstances require of me—I attack, defend, or go into the endgame. Having preferences means having weaknesses.”

Leave aside the game of chess. Having preferences means having weaknesses. This has never felt truer to me than over the past few days as I’ve been wandering around the labyrinthine passages of the Old City of Jerusalem, a tiny parcel of land divided between Muslims, Christians, and Jews (and Armenians, which for some reason, wasn’t immediately apparent to me). Within this tiny city, these religious factions contest minuscule parcels of land that over the millennia have led to pain and misery that boggle the mind. I do not propose to solve the Israeli-Palestine conflict. But I do think the world would be a vastly safer place—and maybe a happier one, too—if more of us learned to see beyond our biases, our preferences, and became optimists capable of letting go.

While it's clearly a good thing for us to question our own mental reflexes and put ourselves in the other fellow's shoes more often, I don't think this metaphor is sturdy enough to travel far beyond the original context of chess strategy. "Doing what circumstances require" in a chess match is in service to the ultimate goal of winning the match. "Doing what circumstances require" in the context of life in general begs the question of what life is all about. How do you "win" the game of life? By racking up titles and trophies, or by good sportsmanship and honest effort? Is it all about what you achieve, or all about how you play the game?

Within the ultimate context of life's meaning, "preferences = weaknesses" is an ascetic mentality which values invulnerable serenity at the cost of human feeling, which, come to think of it, is just another way of believing in the supernatural. Love, to name the most obvious example, is a weakness in the sense that it makes you vulnerable. Your well-being is now invested in the health and happiness of others, which exponentially multiplies the number of dangerous circumstances over which you have no control. And yet, other than the bitter narrator of Simon & Garfunkel's song "I Am a Rock," who would consider that a trade worth making? Not to mention that what love takes away in terms of paranoid security, it amply reimburses in terms of motivation, determination and pleasure. Turning oneself to stone for the sake of invulnerability is a cure worse than the disease.

The attraction here lies in the idea that by removing emotions, passions, and desires from the equation, we can see the circumstances with perfect clarity, at which point the most rational, i.e. "true," option will practically choose itself. But this is just another of the many ways we attempt to hand the burden of our agency off to someone or something else, whether an authority figure or a formula. No matter how dispassionately you may survey the available options when faced with a choice, to choose between them means to value one more than the others, and valuing has no meaning independent of emotions, passions, and desires. As a Zen Buddhist might quip, you're still preferring to have no preferences. All the facts in the world can't tell you what to want. All the is's in the world can't add up to an ought. You still have to choose, from the incomplete perspective of a partial, subjective consciousness invested in the world, and accept the consequences.

Eventually, we'll all succumb to our various weaknesses, whether mental, physical, or even spiritual, and be overcome by life. If Heraclitus and the panta rheists are correct that life is constant flux, comparable to an endless river, there will come a time when we can no longer keep up with the onrushing waters, or no longer even see the point. Perhaps then it's not about trying to find a strategy for staying waterproof and buoyant indefinitely, but about consciously choosing which of our "weaknesses" are worth putting down roots for, even if our eventual uprooting sees us hopelessly swept away by the current.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 35

It may be true that work on the assembly line dulls the faculties and empties the mind, the cure only being fewer hours of work at higher pay. But during fifty years as a workingman, I have found dull routine compatible with an active mind. I can still savor the joy I used to derive from the fact that while doing dull, repetitive work on the waterfront, I could talk with my partners and compose sentences in the back of my mind, all at the same time. Life seemed glorious. Chances are that had my work been of absorbing interest I could not have done any thinking and composing on the company’s time or even on my own time after returning from work.

People who find dull jobs unendurable are often dull people who do not know what to do with themselves when at leisure. Children and mature people thrive on dull routine, while the adolescent, who has lost the child’s capacity for concentration and is without the inner resources of the mature, needs excitement and novelty to stave off boredom.

— Eric Hoffer, In Our Time

Close your eyes and place your finger down just about anywhere on the web, and you'll find some entitled dullard whining about the oppressiveness of work. In truth, it's all projection, like the man said. I used to compose poems and posts in my head while driving down lonely highways in the middle of the night; now I do it while cutting the grass or processing and shipping merchandise for clients. All the money and free time in the world won't help people who are fundamentally empty and lazy.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Long Way Home

Kevin O'Rourke:

Later on, he publicly wondered why so many people care what some random psychology professor thinks about anything. More than likely it’s his ability to articulate things that people half-know, things they’ve picked up bit by bit from books, teachers, TV, parents, friends, but never explicitly grasped.

When I was younger, I dabbled in several different martial arts. One guy whose self-defense videos I enjoyed was Paul Vunak. His innovation was to delineate three different "zones" in which fighting takes place. Basically, he said, fights either happen at arm's (or leg's) length, i.e. punching and kicking, or in a clinch, i.e. grappling and wrestling. The third zone was in between the two. Most fighters just treat it as an empty transition zone between the other two, but Vunak taught a number of techniques, mainly involving the elbow and knee, to take advantage of this space where you're too close for your opponent to take a full swing at you, but not close enough to grab and pummel yet. The key was to consciously recognize the potential of this zone rather than treat it as a meaningless transition. As an all-purpose metaphor, this approach has been even more useful to me outside of its original context.

I watched Joe Rogan's engrossing recent interview with Jordan Peterson yesterday. Again, I rarely do any video-watching or podcast-listening. If I have an hour or two of free time, I'd almost always rather use it to read, and if I want to know what an interview is about, I'd rather read a transcript, which is much faster for me than watching it play out in real time. But I have to say that I was especially impressed with the uninterrupted, free-flowing conversational structure of the talk, as well as Rogan's exceptional skill as a host and a listener. They briefly mentioned their shared belief that YouTube and podcasts will eventually be the death of the standard TV model, with its inflammatory soundbites, moronic shouting-heads format of "conversation," and constant commercial breaks, and I fervently hope they're correct. A few times, Peterson would pause to collect his thoughts or phrasing, and I quickly became aware that I was tensing up when that happened, because I'd been conditioned by media to expect that the slightest pause for breath or reflection was an invitation to intercept the conversation and run the other way with it. Thankfully, Rogan has the calm patience and attentiveness of a meditating Buddhist. As with most things, I'm probably way behind the curve here, and this is all incredibly obvious to those of you who have been watching vloggers and listening to podcasts for years already, but I just had to express my gratitude that such a wonderful format exists. Long may it continue.

Anyway, there were also a couple of times when Rogan and Peterson expressed their shared surprise over the response to his work. Rogan in particular noted that astonishing numbers of people were obviously ravenous for this message of responsibility, dignity, and self-development, so, he wondered, why was there such a void in the first place? Why did it take this obscure Canadian academic to fill that void, and what were people responding so passionately to about the messenger? There are other books that tell people how the smallest things like making your bed can help change the world, and there are other attempts to present a sort of upper-middlebrow approach to self-help, but those never seem to become mainstream phenomena.

Obviously, Peterson in particular came to prominence for his outspoken opposition to the infamous Bill C-16, at a time when the majority of typical pusillanimous liberals were going along with it, and all the other trendy transgender absurdity, out of their ever-present fear of "looking conservative." The hero we needed, and all that. But his broader message just happens to fill one of those overlooked "zones" that most people ignore. The liberal clerisy have always considered themselves too sophisticated to take self-improvement seriously, and — here I have to agree with someone like Patrick Deneen — the internal logic of liberalism seems to lead many of them to believe that there's always something gauche or even sinister about a popular movement with a charismatic leader, as if all such roads inevitably lead to Jonestown. See, for example, this ambivalent piece, which tries to imply something religious, or cultish, or both, about Peterson's message and fanbase without ever being brave enough to say it outright. "Moralism," even the common-sense variety, is apparently for religious-right televangelists, and they're all hypocrites, as we know.

Some of these pieces are no doubt motivated by professional envy, as a bunch of accredited hair-splitters wonder why their monographs weren't the ones to escape the academic ghetto into the bestseller lists, or why their pedantic critiques of the illiberal left didn't go viral. But in general, there's a long-standing assumption on the left-of-center that there's something inherently suspicious about a man who dares to act as if he might have some answers for other people when it comes to the "how should we live?" philosophical questions. Conservatism has always insisted that our best sources of that wisdom come from cultural tradition and our ancestors. Liberalism has always insisted that we, as separate individuals, should be lamps unto ourselves, only accepting that which we've rationally verified by our own experience. It seems like the time was just right for someone to synthesize the two into an accessible package — things we all used to know as "common sense" have to be rediscovered via lectures delivered by a faraway stranger, mediated by technology and social media.