Wednesday, June 13, 2018

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

Ian Marcus Corbin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

Penitential Acts

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

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no. 49

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

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

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 7, 2018

You Will Be a Restless Wanderer On the Earth

Melissa Mackenzie:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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