Sunday, March 25, 2018

Like a Bug?


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

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 42

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 23, 2018

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

Dan Cohen:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 41

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

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

Eric Hoffer, Before the Sabbath:

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

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Noteworthies (34)

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

• Lydialyle Gibson, "The Mirage of Knowledge"

• Sohrab Amari, "The Disappearance of Desire"

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

• Tanner Greer, "Jordan Peterson Saves the World"

• Marc Lewis, "The Addiction Habit"

• Meng-Hu, "Four Juxtapositions"

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

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

A day in the life.

Monday, March 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 40

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

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

— Eric Hoffer, Before the Sabbath

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

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

Sam Dolnick:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Bliss Was It In That Dawn

Oliver Traldi:

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

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

Friday, March 16, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 39

Theodore Dalrymple:

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

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Adam of Your Labors

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

— The Creature, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus


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

Monday, March 12, 2018

I Never Inquire What Is Doing at Constantinople

Gracy Olmstead:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 38

David Bell:

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

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

When Harry Became Sally

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Contradictions and Multitudes

Matt Purple:

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

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

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

Friday, March 2, 2018

Truth In an Extra-Moral Sense

Brad Warner:

These folks plan to form a coalition of Buddhists all across America to implement the kind of social and political action they believe is right. Greg Snyder said, “Then those local movements can connect to each other and create a national movement. I would like to see a coalition come out of this. If something like that were to happen nationally, it would be an important move for the moral authority of the religious community, generally. The Buddhist voice is important.”

So, the Moral Majority gets replaced by the Moral Authorities.

The Great Awokening of the last several years has inspired many fantasies of collective action for a better world, and it would seem that an updated form of Engaged Buddhism is part of that trend. But in Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, D.T. Suzuki stressed what he saw as the amoral nature of Zen practice:

Zen has no special doctrine or philosophy with a set of concepts and intellectual formulas, except that it tries to release one from the bondage of birth and death and this by means of certain intuitive modes of understanding peculiar to itself. It is, therefore, extremely flexible to adapt itself almost to any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with. It may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy, atheism or idealism, or a political or economic dogmatism.

Few Western practitioners would recognize Buddhism as a mere technique for achieving a certain perspective, devoid of any ethical content. A basic acceptance of the Noble Eightfold Path, along with a reasonable understanding of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, would seem to be inherently incompatible with politics as typically practiced in a liberal democracy, to say nothing of totalitarianism. Then again, if you were to reverse the scenario and imagine an Asian Christian who had only ever read about Christianity in books and been impressed by the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, you could also easily imagine them being shocked and appalled at how little those principles seem to matter to most Western Christians in practice. It's likely no different in Asia, and lay, nominal Buddhists are probably just as lazy and hypocritical about their religion as we are. Whatever the case, Buddhism in America is largely becoming just another accoutrement of lifestyle leftism, another way of absorbing the whole world into our endlessly fascinating, comfortingly familiar navels. Suzuki's perspective is, if nothing else, a salutary reminder that capital-T Truth, assuming such a thing can be approached, might reveal itself to be far more alien and amoral than we typically imagine, an eerily grinning unknown.