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on necks that need millstones around them

In the Diocese of Allentown, for example, documents show that a priest was confronted about an abuse complaint. He admitted, “Please help me. I sexually molested a boy. “The diocese concluded that “the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma” for the victim, and that the family should just be given “an oportunity to ventilate.” The priest was left in unrestricted ministry for several more years, despite his own confession.

Similarly in the Diocese of Erie, despite a priest’s admission to assaulting at least a dozen young boys, the bishop wrote to thank him for “all that you have done for God’s people. The Lord, who sees in private, will reward. “Another priest confessed to anal and oral rape of at least 15 boys, as young as seven years old. The bishop later met with the abuser to commend him as “a person of candor and sincerity, “and to compliment him” for the progress he has made “in controlling his “addiction.” When the abuser was finally removed from the priesthood years later, the bishop ordered the parish not to say why; “nothing else need be noted.”

— The grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses. You need a strong stomach to read much of it; I couldn’t manage more than a few pages. But this was the passage that, though not explicit about what the priests did to children, most caught my eye. Even when the priests knew they were doing terrible things, even when they wanted to be held accountable, even when they desperately desired for children to be protected from them, the bishops refused. Faced not only with horrifically abused children, but also with abusers who cried out to be restrained, they did nothing. They all but forced the abuse to continue — they could not have done more if they had themselves desired above all things the destruction of lives.

The Lord, who sees in private, will reward.

more to come

I am very grateful to Jeffrey Bilbro for this extremely thoughtful and thorough response to my new book. For now I just want to respond to one passage:

Jacobs’s project includes elements of both history and argument; he’s narrating a particular intellectual history, and he’s defending the wisdom these figures provide. For the most part, these dual purposes are compatible, but at times I found myself wanting more synthesis and analysis. Much of the book is content to interweave the thinking of his five protagonists without teasing apart the inherent tensions among them or mustering an argument about which view Jacobs thinks is best. He compares his narrative mode to the cinematic method of Orson Welles, and I appreciate the challenges of crafting a unified story from the lives of five individuals who rarely, if ever, interacted directly with each other. Nevertheless, I kept wishing Jacobs was more explicit regarding his own evaluation of their ideas.

My response: God willing, I am not done writing books yet. Stay tuned.

A brief addendum to the previous post:

  1. It goes a long way towards explaining why in my writing I so often try to resurrect abandoned metaphors and neglected or forgotten terms. These are not necessarily better than the languages that are dominant today, but they are different and than in itself is valuable.
  2. Difference is valuable in itself because of a phenomenon that has never been described better than Kenneth Burke described it decades ago in his great essay on “Terministic Screens”: every vocabulary brings certain aspects of reality into clear view while simultaneously screening out others.

excerpts from my Sent folder: on exhausted languages

What I really am, by vocation and avocation, is a historian of ideas, and when you’ve been a historian of ideas for several decades you’re bound to notice how a certain vocabulary can take over an era — and not always in a good way. Consider for instance the period of over half the 20th century in which Freudian language completely dominated humanistic discourse, despite the fact that it had no empirical support whatever and was about as wrong-headed as it is possible for a body of ideas to be. Some tiny number of people flatly rejected it, a rather larger group enthused over it, and the great majority accepted it as part of their mandatory mental furniture, like having a coffee table or refrigerator in your house. (“It’s what people do, dear.”) Eventually it passed not because it had been discredited — it had never been “credited” in the first place — but because people got tired of it.

This exhaustion of a vocabulary happens more and more quickly now thanks to the takeover of intellectual life by a university committed to novelty in scholarship. But that’s a topic for another day.

Anyway, when you do this kind of work you develop — or you damn well ought to develop — an awareness that many of our vocabularies are evanescent  because of their highly limited explanatory power. You see, in a given discipline or topic area, one vocabulary coming on as another fades away, and you don’t expect the new one to last any longer than the previous one did. I think this makes it easier for you to consider the possibility that a whole explanatory language is basically useless. But while those languages last people get profoundly attached to them and are simply unwilling to question them — they become axioms for their users — which means that conversations cease to be conversations but rather turn into endlessly iterated restatements of quasi-religious conviction. “Intersecting monologues,” as Rebecca West said.

Often when I’m grading essays, or talking to my students about their essays, I notice that a certain set of terms are functioning axiomatically for them in ways that impede actual thought. When that happens I will sometimes ask, “How would you describe your position if you couldn’t use that word?” And I try to force the same discipline on myself on those occasions (too rare of course) when I realize that I am allowing a certain set of terms to become an intellectual crutch.

Moreover, I have come to believe that when a conversation gets to the “intersecting monologue” stage, when people are just trotting out the same limited set of terms in every context, that says something about the inadequacy of the vocabulary itself. Not just its users but the vocabulary itself is proving resistant to an encounter with difference and otherness. And that’s a sign that it has lost whatever explanatory power it ever had.

I think that’s where we are in our discourse of gender. And that’s why I am strongly inclined to think that there’s nothing substantial behind that discourse, it’s just a bundle of words with no actual explanatory power. And even if that’s not the case, the only way we can free ourselves from bondage to our terministic axioms is to set them aside and try to describe the phenomena we’re interested in in wholly other terms.

This, by the way, is the origin of all great metaphors, the “metaphors we live by”: the ones that make a permanent mark on culture are the ones that arise from an awareness of how our conventional terms fail us. Those coinages are (often desperate) attempts to throw off the constricting power of those terms. It was when Darwin realized that the explanatory language of natural history had reached a dead end that he coined “natural selection,” a term whose power is so great that it is hard for most people to realize that it is after all a metaphor. Our whole discourse of gender needs Darwins who can’t bear those constrictions any more and decide to live without them. And the first term that should go, as I suggested to you earlier, is “gender” itself.

on sharpness and gentleness

I appreciate this from Joe Carter on the times when theological correction needs to be “sharp” — which I think is a better term than “harsh,” the term Joe uses through most of his post. (“Harsh” almost always has pejorative connotations.) But of course I have some doubts about the argument.

First, if you’re going to say that St. Paul tells us to be sharp (Titus 1:11–12), you really need also to acknowledge some of his other advice. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:12). “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling you have received: with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, and with diligence to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3). “A servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome, but he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, and forbearing. He must gently reprove those who oppose him, in the hope that God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). It’s a very strong theme in Paul.

And before any of us presumes to correct anyone, we would do well first to meditate — and I mean very seriously to meditate — on this: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” This doesn’t mean that we never presume to correct; but it definitely does mean that correction can properly be risked only after the would-be corrector has engaged in some serious self-examination and penitence. Even when I do seek to correct my brother or sister, I need to face the very real possibility that I am in greater need of correction than he or she is. (And when it comes, how will I receive it?)

Might that discipline make correction less frequent? Probably. But a dominical commandment is a dominical commandment. We just have to deal with it.

Finally: A great many of intra-Christian disputes these days happen on social media. What do we have more of there? Meekness and gentleness? Or excessive harshness?

saving America from exploding Cadbury bars

“What do you do for a living?” the supervisor asked.

I knew this question was coming. I detest this question. I know from experience that if I tell CBP up front that I’m a civil rights lawyer, they’ll let me go in a flash. As a general rule, I don’t — because it’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to get equal treatment under the law. I travel internationally six to eight times per year, and it doesn’t surprise me to get stopped at least half of those times. Every time I mention I’m a lawyer, they release me immediately. Funny how that works — they know they’re illegally profiling me because of my name, skin color or religion.

Qasim Rashid

not for fun

At the beginning of Two Serious Ladies, the great Jane Bowles novel, one little girl asks another to play a new game. “It’s called ’I forgive you for all your sins,’” she says. “Is it fun?” asks the other. “It’s not for fun that we play it, but because it’s necessary to play it.” This, undoubtedly, is just why religion is so queer; it’s not for fun that we play it.

— Michael Warner, “Tongues Untied”

excerpts from my Sent folder: authority

There are three models of writing I despise: “I am old and have seen everything and therefore can speak with absolute authority”; “I am middle-aged and at the height of my powers and therefore can speak with absolute authority”; “I am young and have mastered the moment in which I live and therefore can speak with absolute authority.”

The Profumo Option

The other day, in one of his many recent posts on the waves of sexual scandal that are afflicting American churches, Rod Dreher made a passing mention of John Profumo. In the early 1960s Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War and got caught up in a sexual scandal that led to his resignation.

So much so ordinary (sad to say). But what happened afterwards wasn’t so ordinary. Profumo — a very well-connected man with many friends and supporters who would gladly have eased him back into some significant political or business role — simply left public life and never fully returned. He began to work as a volunteer for Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, doing menial work at first and gradually, over the course of decades, becoming a primary fundraiser. He never sought office again. For the rest of his life he worked out of the public eye to serve the poor.

Will a Profumo arise from our current situation? Will even one, single, solitary Christian leader who has been caught doing or enabling or covering for nasty things decide that the proper response is to perform extensive penance? And by performing extensive penance I don’t mean just taking a few months off to plan a comeback tour. I mean, rather, embracing humble service as medicine for the soul.

Will there be even one? Will any our currently disgraced leaders do for even a few weeks what John Profumo did for fifty years?

I doubt it. There are multiple forces conspiring against it. One is a religious-celebrity culture that produces no shortage of people who want to rub shoulders with the famous even when they have become infamous. Another is the almost complete disappearance of penance from the life of the Church — of churches in the west, anyway, including Catholicism, where it remained structurally embedded the longest.

Will anyone take the Profumo Option? I doubt it. But I hope.

excerpts from my Sent folder: LP & MTD

One of these days we’ll be drooling in our wheelchairs in the old folks’ home and saying, “Remember liberal proceduralism and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Good times, good times….”

Re: the previous post, I often wonder whether the people who claim to reject proceduralism

(a) believe they can win and win forever;

(b) don’t have that confidence but are so miserable under the current regime that they’d rather blow it up than allow it to stay alive — like Tolkien’s Denethor, if they can’t have things the way they prefer they will have nought; or

(c) deep down inside, don’t think they can blow it up, don’t think they can even put a real dent in it, but love the posture of radicalism.

 

nostalgia for proceduralism

One of the classic critiques made against the liberal social order is that it is philosophically thin, characterized by an inadequate, narrow, limited account of human being and human flourishing. It effectively waives essential questions of what the human animal is and replaces those questions with a commitment to certain fixed procedures applied to all. These procedures, philosophical liberals believe, are the best preservers of peace in a highly plural society such as ours. This “liberal proceduralism” is most often associated with the work of John Rawls, but its pedigree goes back at least to Locke.

I have often joined in those critiques, and have been especially attracted to the anti-proceduralist arguments of Alasdair MacIntyre, but now that proceduralism is greatly weakened and perhaps dying, I am starting to miss it. Some time back Ross Douthat tweeted that if you thought you hated the religious right, wait till you see the post-religious right. Similarly, I thought I disapproved of the proceduralist liberal order, but that was before I met the post-proceduralist liberal order.

Here is a classic argument based on the assumption that we are living in, and that arguments can appeal to, proceduralism. It concerns no-platforming strategies by leftist protestors on university campuses, and here’s a characteristic sample of the substance and tenor of the argument:

If [students] are led to think that it is appropriate for them to shout down speakers whose views they dislike or that they find offensive, then, to act with intellectual integrity and in good faith, students would have to support people shouting them down when they express views that others find distasteful or offensive.

But protesters who shout down others without acknowledging that they too could be shouted down are acting without “intellectual integrity” and “good faith” only under the assumptions of proceduralism. And student protestors do not share those assumptions. For them, what matters is that their positions are correct and the positions of those they are shouting down are profoundly wrong.

Similarly, you often hear political pundits contend that Republicans act in bad faith when they cheerfully allow President Trump to behave in precisely the same ways that they fiercely denounced when President Obama did them, or that Democrats lack intellectual integrity when they protest behavior by the current President that they cheerfully embraced in the previous administration. These arguments too appeal to proceduralist norms in conditions where they simply have no force. Few of our politicians are willing to share a common set of rules and norms with those they are convinced will ruin the country if they get a chance (or are beholden for their seats to voters and donors who think that).

When Conan the Barbarian was asked “What is best in life?” he replied, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” Had you been there, would you have replied, “Now Conan, you need to think about how you’d feel if the tables were turned, and it was your women who wailed in lamentation”? I trust that the question answers itself.

Proceduralism depends on the belief that my fellow citizens, while often wrong, indeed in some cases profoundly wrong, can be negotiated with. It depends on the belief that, while a world made precisely in my image may not be in the cards, if I and my fellow citizens agree to be bound by a common set of norms, then we can probably negotiate a tolerable social order. It depends on the belief that people whose politics differ from my own are not ipso facto evil, nor do they need to be pushed to the margins of society or forced out of it altogether. When those stances are not in play — and especially when all sides agree that error has no rights — proceduralism withers.

And that’s why, though I agree that proceduralism is morally limited and metaphysically thin to the point of invisibility, I am already missing it. I can feel the nostalgia coming on.

an apology

A few days ago I wrote a post in which I sought to express solidarity with what many of my faithful Catholic friends are going through these days. I also sent the link to some of those who have been on my mind. Very few of them responded at all, and among those who did respond, while a small handful were grateful, the predominant tone was one of irritation. I clearly touched a raw nerve, or struck the wrong tone, or something. I honestly do not know what went awry, but something did, and I am sorry for it. I never would have published the post if I had known that it would bring no comfort.

And if you are one of those friends who found my post somehow inappropriate, I would be grateful to you if you wrote to explain where and how I went astray. I will listen with open ears and heart.

the Clientele, the Public, the Person

Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon:

The multiversity [Clark] Kerr described was not the result of any considered plan or coherent philosophy. Rather, it emerged inadvertently as a congeries of historical conceptions of the university. Kerr identified three salient traditions. The first was represented by Cardinal Newman, founder of the University of Dublin in the mid-19th century. Newman regarded the purpose of the university as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, cultivating gentlemen suited to lives of erudition, taste, and intellectual refinement. The second was embodied in Abraham Flexner, an American educational reformer who, in 1930, founded the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. He invoked a German model that defined the university as an institution devoted to specialized research.

Finally, Kerr described the “American model,” which he saw most strongly reflected in the land-grant movement of the latter half of the 19th century. This distinctly American idea of the university was born of an explicit twinning of higher education and the democratic project, opening the doors of the academy to a broader public and emphasizing such “practical” fields of study as engineering and agriculture. If Newman’s university served the generalist and Flexner’s the specialist, the American model was to serve the demos.

Kerr saw all three models as coexisting in the multiversity. The balance among them varied by institution, but, under the watchful stewardship of presidents, they remained in a general state of homeostasis. In the 55 years since Kerr’s treatise, however, the “American model” has increasingly eclipsed the other two. Regardless of what they do or how they fund and organize themselves, American universities understand themselves as institutions in service to the public.”

With all due respect to my good friend Chad and his colleague, I must disagree. It is true that universities often describe themselves in this way, but that is a smokescreen. American universities actually understand themselves as institutions in service to their clientele. They make occasional face-saving and conscience-salving gestures in the direction of the public good, but the reality is this: Universities, and especially top-tier universities, compete with one another for a shrinking pool of customers, whom they lure with promises of (a) a variety of recreational activities during their four years of undergraduate life and (b) admission to graduate school or a relatively lucrative job afterwards.

Professors and some administrators will tell a different tale, but I believe that the decisions of the people who actually run our universities clearly confirm my account. As I said in an earlier post, if you pay attention to actions rather than words the math isn’t hard to do. Just follow the money.

This is why, as Chad himself has argued, those of us who care about learning must promote and nourish the Academy that stealthily functions within the University. But I would argue that that Academy doesn’t exist “in service to the public” any more than the University does.

Many years ago, W. H. Auden wrote,

A man has his distinctive personal scent which his wife, his children and his dog can recognize. A crowd has a generalized stink. The public is odorless.

A mob is active; it smashes, kills and sacrifices itself. The public is passive or, at most, curious. It neither murders nor sacrifices itself; it looks on, or looks away, while the mob beats up a Negro or the police round up Jews for the gas ovens.

The public is the least exclusive of clubs; anybody, rich or poor, educated or unlettered, nice or nasty, can join it….

Auden gets his notion of the Public from Kierkegaard, who said, in The Present Age, that “the public is a host, more numerous than all the peoples together, but it is a body which can never be reviewed, it cannot even be represented, because it is an abstraction. Nevertheless, when the age is reflective and passionless and destroys everything concrete, the public becomes everything and is supposed to include everything. And that again shows how the individual is thrown back upon himself.”

I want to argue that the secret function of the Academy within (and sometimes without) the University is to nurture the human formation to which the gaping maw of a Clientele and the featureless abstraction of a Public are alike inimical. And to this formation the arts are absolutely central. Auden again:

Before the phenomenon of the Public appeared in society, there existed naïve art and sophisticated art which were different from each other but only in the way that two brothers are different. The Athenian court may smile at the mechanics’ play of Pyramus and Thisbe, but they recognize it as a play. Court poetry and Folk poetry were bound by the common tie that both were made by hand and both were intended to last; the crudest ballad was as custom-built as the most esoteric sonnet. The appearance of the Public and the mass media which cater to it have destroyed naïve popular art. The sophisticated “highbrow” artist survives and can still work as he did a thousand years ago, because his audience is too small to interest the mass media. But the audience of the popular artist is the majority and this the mass media must steal from him if they are not to go bankrupt. Consequently, aside from a few comedians, the only art today is “highbrow.” What the mass media offer is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs.

The purpose of the Academy should be to encourage and nourish a richly human cultural world in which one may transcend the subhuman status of Clientele and Public without succumbing to the equally dehumanizing lure of the Highbrow.

getting real about Facebook

Nikhil Sonnad:

The solution, then, is for Facebook to change its mindset. Until now, even Facebook’s positive steps — like taking down posts inciting violence, or temporarily banning the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — have come not as the result of soul-searching, but of intense public pressure and PR fallout. Facebook only does the right thing when it’s forced to. Instead, it needs to be willing to sacrifice the goal of total connectedness and growth when this goal has a human cost; to create a decision-making process that requires Facebook leaders to check their instinctive technological optimism against the realities of human life.

Absent human considerations, Facebook will continue to bring thoughtless, banal harm to the world. The 2.5 billion people who use it, as part of their real lives, won’t put up with that forever.

My reply:

  1. Facebook will not “change its mindset.” Ever.
  2. Facebook’s “goal” is not “total connectedness,” it is the monopolization and monetization of your attention.
  3. “Facebook will continue to bring thoughtless, banal harm to the world.” Period. There are no “human considerations,” nor will there ever be.
  4. Billions of people will indeed “put up with that forever.”

I really cannot see the point of these arguments that assume the possibility that Facebook will radically reconfigure its corporate ethics. That’s like building hen houses with the hope that the local foxes will become vegetarians. The “what to do about Facebook” question must begin with the understanding that Facebook will (a) try to buy off its fiercest legislative critics and (b) make only such changes as it must to avoid being legally constrained.

the end of hypocrisy

Today, many critics on the right are noting that the New York Times is extending to Sarah Jeong gracious understanding that they refused to Quinn Norton, and that the Atlantic refused to Kevin Williamson. These critics then go on to accuse the Times, and the center-left journalism world more generally, of hypocrisy. 

Hypocrisy occurs in the presence of an agreed-upon standard which people in power — perhaps the power is only local — apply variously according to preference. If a standard helps someone I like, I’ll apply it to them; if it helps someone I don’t like, I’ll carve out an exception and say it doesn’t apply to my enemy. Thus I become a hypocrite. 

But as Stanley Fish pointed out decades ago, during the first round of political-correctness culture wars (ca. 1985-95), in this sense hypocrisy is simply what human beings do. According to the definition given above, it is virtually impossible to find non-hypocritical judgments. In his famous essay “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too” Fish describes John Milton’s famous celebration of free speech in “Areopagitica,” which commends “the virtues of toleration and unregulated publication in passages that find their way into every discussion of free speech and the First Amendment,” after which “Milton catches himself up short and says, of course I didn’t mean Catholics, them we exterminate.” Here’s the key passage: 

I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate . . . that also which is impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners no law can possibly permit that intends not to unlaw itself. 

Beneath every commitment to free speech, Fish says, is this unspoken but essential question: “Would this form of speech or advocacy, if permitted to flourish, tend to undermine the very purposes for which our society is constituted?” If the answer is Yes, then that speech is unprotected by our laws. 

Supposed commitments to “free speech” and “fairness” and “equal access” and “inclusiveness” are always — always — smoke screens for some commitment that is both narrower and more fundamental. Fish summarizes it thus: 

Speech, in short, is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict. When the pinch comes (and sooner or later it will always come) and the institution (be it church, state, or university) is confronted by behavior subversive of its core rationale, it will respond by declaring “of course we mean not tolerated ——, that we extirpate,” not because an exception to a general freedom has suddenly and contradictorily been announced, but because the freedom has never been general and has always been understood against the background of an originary exclusion that gives it meaning. 

The general failure to understand this point leads to a pathology of thought that is extremely common but rarely acknowledged for what it is. You see it when people say that they’re all about empowering women’s voices, but of course pro-life women aren’t really women at all. You see when people who advocate for true freedom for black people in America say that a black person who supports Trump isn’t really black at all. You see it when Republicans call other Republicans RINOs. You see it when people say that Catholics who don’t support the Pope against ancient tradition aren’t really Catholic, and when others say that those who don’t support ancient tradition against the Pope are the ones who aren’t really Catholic. You see it when people want to celebrate the beautiful unity of Christianity, but those who don’t hold our views about sexuality aren’t really Christians at all. “Of course we mean not tolerated ——, that we extirpate.” 

I think this chasm between what one claims to stand for, who one claims to speak for, and one’s actual loyalties happens because most people have two conflicting desires: (a) to feel that they belong to a majority, they they speak for and with a great cloud of witnesses, and (b) to exclude and punish dissenters. It is very difficult to face the possibility — and it’s more than a possibility, it’s a certainty — that those two desires truly are irreconcilable, and that you’ll at some point have to choose one rather than the other. So it’s easier to pretend that there’s no choice to be made. This is how you get to “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” 

For those of us observing such scenes, the best practice is simply to ignore what any institution says it stands for, and pay attention to its actions. The self-descriptions of institutions are meaningless, because, to borrow terms from William Butler Yeats, they tend to be either rhetorical or sentimental: “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbor, the sentimentalist himself.” There is really no point in your calling attention to the hypocrisy of institutions in applying their professed standards. The lack of fit between their words and their deeds is inevitable, and precisely the same is true of the institutions you love and pledge your loyalty to.

The idea that you can somehow back an institution, or an individual, into a corner by drawing attention to that lack of fit is absurd. When has that tactic ever succeeded? The accused parties merely tweak their definitions to disguise the inconsistencies and resume their self-soothing. 

It is better, then, just to pay attention to how institutions act and draw the conclusions the conclusions that are generally obvious. The New York Times has room for Sarah Jeong but not for Quinn Norton; the Atlantic has room for Ta-Nehisi Coates but not Kevin Williamson. Churches, universities, businesses all likewise define themselves through their inclusions and exclusions, their actions and inactions. If you’re not distracted by institutional self-descriptions, the math is rarely hard to do. 

the value of emotional resilience

“Trogger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead”:

Participants in the trigger warning group believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma. Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm. Warnings did not affect participants’ implicit self-identification as vulnerable, or subsequent anxiety response to less distressing content… .

Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience. Further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories.

Right — but what if you don’t think that being emotionally resilient is desirable? What if emotional resilience is perceived as a failure to feel pain with sufficient intensity?

insensibly

Careful writers of narrative, whether that narrative is fictional or historical or journalistic, will, like composers, work with themes and variations on those themes. For example, consider Edward Gibbon: reading his account of Rome’s decline and fall a few years ago, I noticed his fondness for a particular adverb: insensibly. “It was by such institutions that the nations of the empire insensibly melted away into the Roman name and people.” “We have already seen that the active and successful zeal of the Christians had insensibly diffused them through every province and almost every city of the empire.” “The heart of Theodosius was softened by the tears of beauty; his affections were insensibly engaged by the graces of youth and innocence: the art of Justina managed and directed the impulse of passion; and the celebration of the royal nuptials was the assurance and signal of the civil war.”

Why does Gibbon like this word so much? Is it just a verbal quirk? I think not: rather, it embodies a key theme of the whole history, which is that major transformations in the life of the Roman empire happened slowly, gradually, and without anyone noticing them: people were insensible to the changes, and by the time anyone figured out what had happened, it was too late for a reversal of course. And this insensibility affects political structures, social and religious developments, military cultures, and the hearts of emperors alike; this particular theme has many and wide-ranging variations.

The reader who notices this word, then, notices a vital, not a trivial, point about the story Gibbon tells. 

— Me, in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction 

the threefold order of ministry

This is a topic I find myself thinking about surprisingly often — surprisingly because it’s so far beyond the scope of my expertise and experience. But hey, if you can’t bloviate on your personal blog, where can you bloviate? 

I believe that the classic threefold order of Christian ministry (bishop, priest, deacon) is indeed embedded in the earliest Christian communities. You can see these roles beginning to form by noting how the letters of the New Testament employ the terms (episkopos, presbyteros, diakonos) — but the evidence is sketchy, and there are few details. The threefold order could have taken different forms that it did, and I’m inclined to think that, as the saying goes, mistakes were made. 

The most lasting and consequential of those mistakes was the decision to model episcopal governance on the administrative structures of the Roman Empire. I say “decision” but I suspect it was an unconscious inclination to mimic the dominant social organization of time, in much the same way that churches today mimic the broader culture’s entertainment and business models. In any case, just as the Roman Empire came to be divided into provincia, each of which contained several or many municipia, so ecclesiastical systems gradually emerged which followed this general practice. These have always differed from place to place, and a Metropolitan in the East may not be precisely the same as an Archbishop in the West, but there are strong family resemblances, and they all follow from the territorial structure of Rome’s Empire. 

An ecclesiastical organization modeled on an administrative organization will inevitably take on an administrative character, and that is what has happened to the episcopacy. Thoughtful and prayerful churchmen have always been aware of the dangers involved in this modeling: for instance, the informal papal title of servus servorum Dei is an attempt at correction and redefinition. But organizational structures exhibit powerful affordances; they constantly press the people who inhabit them into certain practices, into a certain habitus. The pre-existing layout of the Empire may have seemed to the early Church a wonderful gift; but I cannot help seeing it as a poisoned chalice. 

The long, slow, but ultimately irresistible process by which bishops became managers is one of the largest contributing factors in the sex-abuse crisis in the Church today. Very few bishops are wickedly predatory like Uncle Ted McCarrick; but men who have been raised to the episcopacy because they were thought to have managerial competency, and men who clearly lack managerial competency but understand that their job demands that they acquire it, are equally unlikely to think that it’s any of their business to exercise fraternal discipline of someone managing a different department in the same organization. The affordances of the episcopacy as it is currently constituted (more or less throughout the world) strongly dispose it to disciplinary ineffectuality. 

Some Christians will agree with much of this and see it as evidence that the threefold order of ministry needs to be abandoned, or at least to become twofold through the amputation of bishops. I don’t think so. But I think the Church of Jesus Christ needs a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the office of bishop. 

More thoughts about that (and related matters) in another post. 

Sustainability and Solidarity

Sustainability and Solidarity – Kathleen Fitzpatrick:

There is absolutely an institutional responsibility involved in sustaining these projects, but, as I argue in Generous Thinking, individual institutions cannot manage such responsibilities on their own. Cross-institutional collaborations are required in order to keep open-source software projects sustainable, and those collaborations demand that the staff participating in them be supported in dedicating some portion of their time to the collective good, rather than strictly to local requirements. 

Sustainability in open-source development thus increasingly seems to me to have solidarity as a prerequisite, a recognition that the interests of the group require commitment from its members to that group, at times over and above their own individual interests. What I’m interested in thinking about is how we foster that commitment: how, in fact, we understand that commitment itself as a crucial form of social sustainability. 

Kathleen’s blog has been full of ideas recently — more than I can respond to with some travel and talking coming up — but this is an  especially important idea, and applies to more realms than the one she’s discussing. Collective achievements require collective virtues; but collective achievements also encourage collective virtues. The academic world — or at least the part of it I occupy — is dominated by incentive structures that discourage this kind of positive feedback loop. Those of us at the senior level of our profession need to be doing some serious work to restructure the incentives we’re bequeathing to our junior colleagues. 

political mistrust in the long term

Elizabeth Bruenig:

The gravity and legality of the two exercises in meddling differ, certainly. But they both operate to wound our faith in democratic legitimacy. It has gone this way before. It took several incidents, from Vietnam to Watergate to scattered episodes of civil unrest, to permanently damage American trust in government; but as distinct as each event was, they all fractured the same essential faith. We haven’t returned to consistent levels of pre-’70s levels of trust in 40 years, and I doubt this current civic unease will fade much sooner. 

This particular horror — Trump and his failures, whatever ridiculous thing he has said or done today, whatever international incident he causes on Twitter tomorrow, however authentic the next panic is — will pass. What will last is the frank revelation of a point that, while ugly and dark, is at least true: You really don’t have the choices you ought to in American democracy, because of decisions made without your consent by people of wealth and power behind closed doors. It’s possible to continue to participate in a democracy after that. But not with a quiet mind.

common prayer

I have many faithful Catholic friends who are hurting right now — who are in deep pain, even anguish. They stay in the forefront of my prayers, along with the victims of clerical abuse. (And of course, many of those victims remain faithful Catholics, though who knows how many have left Catholicism and even the Christian faith altogether.) 

I am also praying for the clerical abusers and their enablers, my primary emphasis being that they find true repentance and express that repentance publicly. For what it’s worth, I wholly (and quite seriously) endorse Sohrab Amari’s suggestion

But the first step is, as I say, sackcloth and ashes. I mean that quite literally. Following ancient Israel’s footsteps, the early Church adopted ashes as an expression of sorrow for sin. Depending on the sin, public penitents were required to wear ashes and sackcloth. The Church should bring back such practices. Whatever criminal and civil consequences await McCarrick, he should also be called to Rome and forced to circle Saint Peter’s Square in sackcloth and ashes, perhaps while the pope observes from the steps of the basilica. Or how about having McCarrick spend hours kneeling at a prie-dieu while Pope Francis looks upon him with anger and contempt? Others have proposed corporal punishments. I’m not opposed to these, either. The point is that the old apologies and settlements won’t do. 

But I am not dwelling on the clerics. It’s those who are wounded by clerical sin and crime who primarily concern me. 

And, I think it essential to say, these are not the wounds of Roman Catholicism. These are the wounds of the Body of Christ. Insofar as we are members of that Body those wounds are ours. This is no time for those of us who belong to the Reformation traditions to be smug (as though we have a leg to stand on anyway). This is time for every Christian to weep with those who weep. This is the time to confess our own sins of omission and commission. This is a time to ask God to reveal to us all that we have done and left undone that pride and complacency and fear do not allow us to perceive. This is a time to bear one another’s burdens. This is a time to pray a common prayer, and die a common death. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” 

saving journalism:

Megan McArdle:

What can be done? Start figuring out how to make journalism work as a philanthropic enterprise. If you’re a journalist at one of the countless struggling papers, get together with other journalists and start feeling out philanthropists. Make the case that local journalism’s traditional mission — poking around in the details of city budgets, monitoring what the school board is getting up to, investigating self-dealing politicians — benefits the community and is worthy of their involvement. Who knows, maybe a few subscribers will turn up when they see the local paper as a philanthropy instead of as vulture bait.

There are no obvious treatments for journalism’s profound malaise, but I think Megan has identified the most plausible direction to take. 

pronoun trouble

Political philosopher Jason Brennan on the case for epistocracy:

Here’s what I propose we do: Everyone can vote, even children. No one gets excluded. But when you vote, you do three things. 

First, you tell us what you want. You cast your vote for a politician, or for a party, or you take a position on a referendum, whatever it might be. Second, you tell us who you are. We get your demographic information, which is anonymously coded, because that stuff affects how you vote and what you support. 

And the third thing you do is take a quiz of very basic political knowledge. When we have those three bits of information, we can then statistically estimate what the public would have wanted if it was fully informed. 

There’s an intellectual habit, one very common to academics, at work in Brennan’s formulations that I’ve called attention to before, and you can get at it by noting his use of pronouns: We get your demographic information. You tell us what you want. You take the quiz, we administer and assess the quiz. We ask, you answer; you give us the information we require and we decide what to do with it, and how it should be interpreted. We’re running the experiment, you’re our experimental subject. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! 

Which means, of course, that none of us will ever have our vote discounted. 

As I’ve noted in a slightly different (but not altogether different) context, “There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power.” It’s enough to make a Franz Fanon disciple out of me. 

Chuck Berry, 1958

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The Second Vatican Council

Second Vatican Council by Lothar Wolleh 005

Lothar Wolleh

do not make room for the devil

Wesley Hill:

If you’ve never been told by your fellow Christians that the personal object of your desire — not just what you might want to do sinfully with that person, but rather the personal object him- or herself — is wrong for you to have, period, then this might not resonate with you as much as it does with me. But for those of us who have been told that, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — for those of us who have been told that the way to godliness is by removing ourselves altogether from the kinds of friendships in which we might be tempted — it comes as healing balm when you’re told instead, “Christianity… is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections.”

Bear with me as I (seem to) digress: This reminds me of something that happened to me long ago, when I was a youngish teacher at Wheaton College. In those days — and for that matter until I moved to Waco — I played basketball several days a week, and one morning I almost got into a fight. A guy on the other team said something snarky to me after fouling me pretty hard, and I completely lost my temper, called him him some choice names, and tried to punch him. (It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t, because he was younger and stronger than me and could certainly have kicked my ass.) 

This was a pickup game mainly populated by faculty, staff, a few graduate students, and a handful of undergrads, and later that day I found myself wondering what they thought of me. Here I was, a faculty member at a Christian college, cursing like a sailor and trying to slug someone who offended me. What kind of Christian witness is that? I thought and prayed and decided: If I can’t behave any better than that on the basketball court, then I should give up basketball. No matter how much I love it, I need to give it up if it’s standing between me and a decent public life as a Christian. 

I also decided that I was going to tell my students about my decision, on the “confession is good for the soul” principle — and because I wanted them to see that (supposedly) more mature Christians can struggle too. And maybe, if I am honest, also because I wanted them to see how humble I was. So the next day in class I told the story and explained my decision — expecting, I suppose some admiration for my Christian commitment. 

I was therefore quite disconcerted to see, in my first class, as I related my edifying tale, a student sitting in the front row and, in obvious discomfort, shaking his head. That student was an older student, an ex-con named Manny Mill — you can read a bit of Manny’s story here. His head-shaking was very odd, because Manny was exceedingly, even excessively, respectful of me. I managed to get through my story and teach the class, and when we were done Manny bolted to the front and asked — in his Cuban accent and with what was in those days a pronounced stutter — if he could talk to me. I couldn’t see him that day, but we made an appointment for the following one. 

When he came to my office, Manny began by apologizing repeatedly for being so bold, but then took a deep breath and said: “Dr. Jacobs, please do not make room for the Devil.” I found this statement incomprehensible, but he went on, nervous and stammering, to explain. He asked me if I enjoyed playing basketball. I told him that I loved it. Then, he replied, I should not allow the Evil One to take a good thing I love away from me. By giving up basketball, I was saying, whether I meant to say it or not, that that part of my life belonged to the devil, was impervious to God’s grace, was an arena in which God could not win. Manny asked when, if I were still playing basketball, I would next play, and I told him that it would be the very next day. He then pleaded with me to get back out there on the court — but do so only after having prayed for patience and a peaceable spirit. 

This was strange news to me. I had thought that “not making room for the Devil” was the very principle I had followed in giving up my favorite recreation, but if Manny was right I was accomplishing the opposite of what I hoped to accomplish: I was ceding territory to my Enemy — an enemy who does not give territory back. By going back onto the basketball court I was putting myself in moral danger, wasn’t I? Surely I was. But what if the alternative to moral risk, especially for Christians, is ceding spiritual territory you can’t get back? 

I did what Manny asked. And I have always been very, very glad I did. 

When I reflect on such matters, I remember Don Quixote, who once stops on the road a man who is transporting lions in a cage and orders him to open the cage so that he, Don Quixote de la Mancha, can perhaps have the opportunity to fight a lion or two. After the lions, remarkably, show no interest in fighting the knight, Don Quixote considers his honor satisfied. He then addresses an observer of the scene: 

“Who can doubt, Señor Don Diego de Miranda, that in the opinion of your grace I am a foolish and witless man? And it would not be surprising if you did, because my actions do not attest to anything else. Even so, I would like your grace to observe that I am not as mad or as foolish as I must have seemed to you….

It was my rightful place to attack the lions which I now attacked, although I knew it was exceedingly reckless, because I know very well what valor means; it is a virtue that occupies a place between two wicked extremes, which are cowardice and temerity, but it is better for the valiant man to touch on and climb to the heights of temerity than to touch on and fall to the depths of cowardice; and just as it is easier for the prodigal to be generous than the miser, it is easier for the reckless man to become truly brave than for the coward; and in the matter of undertaking adventures, your grace may believe me, Señor Don Diego, it is better to lose with too many cards than too few, because ‘This knight is reckless and daring’ sounds better to the ear of those who hear it than ‘This knight is timid and cowardly.’”

Ours is not a spirit of fear. 

Fractured Europe

3

Pocket-Run Pool

4

our airport future

NewImage

Two quotes from this interview with Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon. One:

SD: The airport is where different promises of the modern world are concentrated: the promise of moving freely around the globe, the promise of unlimited shopping, the promise of a completely rational organisation and the promise of a perfect surveillance. It embodies the desire of mastering the world. Yet, it is also the place where these promises meet their limits and their contradictions.

And two: 

GW: The airport is an archetypal place, in terms of both space and behaviour. In the book, we have a chapter about what we call “Cultural LCD”, which can be defined as the Least Common Denominator of world cultures. A universal code that would be as neutral as possible, a standardized interface that allows different individuals or cultural groups to communicate with each other. However, the airport model is expanding further and further and contaminating railway stations, institutions, monuments, stadiums, concert halls, museums, international hotels, malls and urban duty-free shops, restaurants, museums, schools, universities, offices, motorway service areas, etc.

This is fascinating and … horrifying. 

For the Love of Mars

For the Love of Mars:

Once we come of cultural age into a mature, considered love for Mars, and see what happens when we act on that love, our crises and challenges on Earth can be recast, as can our menu of choices in meeting them. Rather than panic and rancor, scripted according to the prevailing social and political battle lines that have replaced the grand frontier, we will be more apt to find confidence, courage, and creativity. And rather than applying these virtues to the virtual world that draws us deeper into antihuman utopias, we’ll apply them to the metal-and-plastic, flesh-and-blood, brick-and-mortal world that forms an essential bridge between analog and digital life. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this approach will also happen to fit in logically with the reality that our younger kids now experience.

A really fascinating essay by James Poulos. The core of James’s argument, and it’s a point that deserves extended contemplation, goes something like this: We think all the time about the technologies we use or might use, but we don’t think at all about the object of our technological explorations, the sovereign end (telos) of our ingenuity. The pursuit of Mars, James thinks, can be a kind of collective focal practice (to borrow a term from Albert Borgmann) that brings order and purpose to our technological strivings. 

Whether this proposal can actual work will depend, I think, on whether it has the follow-on effects that James believes it will — follow-on effects that make life on Earth better, as described in the paragraph quoted above. I’m no so sure. But what a wonderfully imaginative and provocative essay. 

the church in Imminent America

My colleague Philip Jenkins:

So just as an intellectual exercise, let’s make a bold prophecy for the 2040s or so. Imagine a near future US where a state’s population corresponds to its degree of urbanization, and thus to its relative secularity. Imagine the most thriving regions of church loyalty being concentrated strongly in The Rest, those 34 states containing thirty percent of the nation’s people, especially in the Midwest and the Upper South. The metroplexes, in contrast, are very difficult territory indeed for believers of any kind, a kind of malarial swamp of faith. A situation much like contemporary Europe, in fact.

Catholics, of course, face special issues in this Imminent America, and all depends on how far they can retain the loyalty of that very large Latino presence.

Hmm, planning a church for the hyper-urban future ….

These are enormously complex demographic issues that every thoughtful Christian should be considering. I wonder whether the existing national structure of Christian denominations can survive a future in which the 16 states of Metroplex America and the 34 states of The Rest experience greater and greater cultural divergence. It might be that the forms of faithful Christian living in the one context look very different than those in the other, even when there is substantial theological agreement. 

I’m inclined to think that every church that wants to live into the urban future should read the work of Mark Gornik, especially his book on African Christianity in New York City — an amazing tale. Very few people would believe just how many Christians there are in New York, especially (but not only) from the African diaspora. There are wonderfully thriving Christian communities that fly wholly under the radar of our cultural attention, and will probably never be noticed by the culture at large. But Christians who want to bear witness into the future ought to notice them. 

And City Seminary, of which Mark was a founder, should be observed also, especially as a model for how to train bivocational Christian leaders for a world in which full-time ministry will, in all likelihood, be rarer and rarer. 

the point of the sword

Sarah Smarsh:

What my father seeks is not a return to times that were worse for women and people of color but progress toward a society in which everyone can get by, including his white, college-educated son who graduated into the Great Recession and for 10 years sold his own plasma for gas money. After being laid off during that recession in 2008, my dad had to cash in his retirement to make ends meet while looking for another job. He has labored nearly every day of his life and has no savings beyond Social Security.

Yes, my father is angry at someone. But it is not his co-worker Gem, a Filipino immigrant with whom he has split a room to pocket some of the per diem from their employer, or Francisco, a Hispanic crew member with whom he recently built a Wendy’s north of Memphis. His anger, rather, is directed at bosses who exploit labor and governments that punish the working poor — two sides of a capitalist democracy that bleeds people like him dry.

“Corporations,” Dad said. “That’s it. That’s the point of the sword that’s killing us.”

CPU

from Introduction to IBM Data Processing Systems (1968)

the moral ideal

When the guide of conduct is a moral ideal we are never suffered to escape from perfection. Constantly, indeed on all occasions, the society is called upon to seek virtue as the crow flies. It may even be said that the moral life, in this form, demands a hyperoptic moral vision and encourages intense moral emulation among those who enjoy it…. And the unhappy society, with an ear for every call, certain always about what it ought to think (though it will never for long be the same thing), in action shies and plunges like a distracted animal….

Too often the excessive pursuit of one ideal leads to the exclusion of others, perhaps all others; in our eagerness to realize justice we come to forget charity, and a passion for righteousness has made many a man hard and merciless. There is indeed no ideal the pursuit of which will not lead to disillusion; chagrin waits at the end for all who take this path. Every admirable ideal has its opposite, no less admirable. Liberty or order, justice or charity, spontaneity or deliberateness, principle or circumstance, self or others, these are the kinds of dilemma with which this form of the moral life is always confronting us, making a see double by directing our attention always to abstract extremes, none of which is wholly desirable.

— Michael Oakeshott, “The Tower of Babel”

truth and lies

I’ve always had great admiration for those who, in the chaos that generally characterises the present, sensed from the start the enormous dangers of Nazi-fascism and courageously denounced it. But do we still have the capacity to be as far-seeing? Do the conditions exist today for the long view?

Sometimes I think I understand why we women increasingly read novels. Novels, when they work, use lies to tell the truth. The information marketplace, battling for an audience, tends, more and more, to transform intolerable truths into novelistic, riveting, enjoyable lies.

Elena Ferrante

unforeseen consequences

Another follow-up on my baseball post. I’m getting two kinds of feedback: (a) you’re a moron, sabermetrics is awesome, and (b) you’re absolutely right, sabermetrics is terrible.

Let me emphasize a point that I think is perfectly clear in the piece itself: I love sabermetrics. I started reading Bill James in, I think, 1981; I have written fan letters to him, Rob Neyer, and (later) Voros McCracken (for heaven’s sake); when James came up with the earliest serious attempt to evaluate fielding, Range Factor, I spent countless hours that should have been devoted to my doctoral dissertation trying to improve it — using (by the way) pencil, paper, and a TI SR-50 calculator. I was pontificating about the uselessness of assigning wins and losses to pitchers when Brian Kenny was scarcely a gleam in his father’s eye. If in those days one of those sabermetricians had offered me a job as an assistant, I would’ve dropped out of grad school in an instant.

So in many ways it has been enormously gratifying to me to see the undoubted insights and revelations of serious statistical study make their way into the practices of professional baseball. But such changes have had some unforeseen consequences, and my post was largely about those.

This, by the way, is what those of us with a conservative disposition are supposed to do: When everyone else is running to embrace some new exciting opportunity, we warn that there will be unforeseen consequences; and then, when we have been (as we always are) ignored, we help conduct the postmortem and point out what those consequences actually were. (I was, needless to say, not allowing my conservative side to have a voice when I was so absorbed in sabermetrics — but that was because I never for one second imagined that people running professional baseball organizations would pay attention.)

Now, we might actually like the new opportunity. We might think that on balance it’s worthy to be pursued. So we don’t necessarily stand athwart history shouting Stop. We might instead stand judiciously to the side and quietly ask Do you know what you’re getting into? Because there will be trade-offs. There are always trade-offs.

converging on rational standards: not always bad!

This is a follow-up to my just-posted essay on my unchosen-but-apparently inexorable declining interest in baseball. My chief point there is that baseball has increasingly converged on a set of Best Practices but that convergence has made baseball less interesting to watch. (And my secondary point is that this is ironic because the practices now being converged upon are the ones I used to cheerlead for when they were far less common.) 

That’s the way it has turned out in baseball, but it doesn’t always turn out that way. Take basketball, for instance, and more particularly all the controversy in the last NBA season about Lonzo Ball’s peculiar jump shot: I can remember a time when Lonzo’s technique wouldn’t have been unusual at all. When I first started watching basketball, in the 1970s, there were some weird-looking shots, let me tell you. The most notorious of these was the Jamaal Wilkes slingshot, but Jamaal had a lot of competition. Gradually, though, coaches at all levels came to understood that certain ways of holding and releasing the ball simply made for far greater and more consistent accuracy than others, and players started getting the relevant guidance even in their first organized games. So we have seen a very widespread convergence on the Best Practices of Shooting a Basketball. 

And the result has been great for the game. It wasn’t just implementing the three-point line that created the free-flowing, open, spread-the-floor offense that the Golden State Warriors delight us with; it was the rise of a generation of players who have the shooting technique to take advantage of that line. In at least this one situation in this one sport, standardization of technique has led to increased creativity and possibility; in baseball, I fear, just the opposite has happened. 

(I am now thinking that I ought to write a short book or long essay called “Rationalism in Sports” to serve as a counterpart to Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics.”) 

suffering and not triumph

Are we then to deduce that we should forget God, lay down our tools, and serve men in the Church – as though there were no Gospel? No, the right conclusion is that, remembering God, we should use our tools, proclaim the Gospel, and submit to the Church, because it is conformed to the kingdom of God. We must not, because we are fully aware of the internal opposition between the Gospel and the Church, hold ourselves aloof from the Church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility, and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it. — I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Ghost, that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart. This is the attitude to the Church engendered by the Gospel. He who hears the gospel and proclaims it does not observe the Church from outside. He neither misunderstands it and rejects it, nor understands it and – sympathizes with it. He belongs personally within the Church. But he knows also that the Church means suffering and not triumph.

— Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

The Event

An eye-opening post from Douglas Rushkoff, describing what happened when he was asked to give a talk about “the future of technology” — and ended up instead being peppered with questions by five high-powered hedge-fund managers:

They had come with questions of their own. They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern.

Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

What a world we live in.

Trollope and Brexit

Trollope’s Phineas Redux, like the other Palliser novels, has a domestic plot and a political plot, and the political plot here spins out from the decision by Mr. Daubeny, the Prime Minister, to come up with a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England. (Daubeny is a stand-in for Benjamin Disraeli, who never did anything quite like this. But we’ll set aside the real-life correspondences for this post.) This a curious, indeed a shocking, decision because Daubeny is a Conservative, and the Conservative Party in the Victorian era was very much the party of the Church. How could be betray the very heart of his constituency this way?

The answer is that in the recent election his party lost their majority, and in ordinary circumstances it would be incumbent on him to resign. So he creates extraordinary circumstances. His idea, it appears — we are not privileged to know his mind — is that most of his own party will stand with him as a matter of disciplinary obedience, while the many Liberals who have long wanted disestablishment will vote with him across party lines. Thus, on the basis of this single bill-to-come — he hasn’t produced it yet, only announced his plan to — Daubeny can remain in his place as P.M.

Some Liberals are willing to join Daubeny; some, following their leader Mr. Gresham (= Gladstone), are determined to oppose him; some are uncertain. Those uncertain ones want to see the Church disestablished — and, by the way, not necessarily because they dislike the Church: some of the most devoted churchmen in England have long wanted disestablishment in order to free the Church to preach and teach the Gospel without political interference — but they do not believe that Daubeny would do the job properly. They suspect that anyone capable of acting as cynically as Daubeny does cannot possibly carry through the process of disestablishment in a competent and appropriate way.

All of which puts me in mind of Brexit. As a strong proponent of subsidiarity, I am temperamentally disposed to welcome any effort at devolution. I’d love to see Britain freed from accountability to Brussels — and, for that matter, Scotland freed from accountability to England. (I’m even open to the restoration of the Republic of Texas — but that’s a story for another post.) I will always seek to move in the direction of localism and will always be suspicious of institutional cosmopolitanism. I am therefore supportive of Brexit in principle.

But a Brexit designed and managed by these people? I don’t think so. They are more cynical than Mr. Daubeny and less — far less — competent. It’s a feeling I often have with the Trump administration as well: even on those relatively rare occasions when I think they have a good policy in mind, I simply don’t believe that they can carry out that policy honestly, fairly, and successfully. In politics, principle is important; but good principles can produce political disasters when implemented by buffoons.

Boxes

Peter Tarka, Boxes; via Things Magazine

the blog garden

My friend Dan Cohen recently wrote,

Think about the difference between a blog post and a book: one can be tossed off in an afternoon at a coffee shop, while the other generally requires years of thought and careful writing. Not all books are perfect — far from it — but at least authors have to wrestle with their subject matter more rigorously than in any other context, look at what others have written in their area, and situate their writing within that network of thought and research.

This is absolutely true — as I know from long experience with both genres. But what if there’s a more enlightening comparison? What if, instead of comparing a book to a blog post, you compared it to a blog? If a bog post is too small to compare to a book, a blog might be too big — keep on blogging long enough and you can have enough words to fill several books. If that’s the case, then one might find it interesting to compare a book to, say, a particular tag on a long-standing blog.

An example: For some time now I’ve been thinking of writing a book about John Ruskin. And I still might. But I’ve been led to consider such a book by gradually gathering drawings and quotes by Ruskin on this blog (there are also a few Ruskin entries at Text Patterns). Suppose that, instead of architecturally writing that book, I simply contented cultivating my Ruskin garden? (See this post for the architecture/gardening distinction.) More images and more quotations, more reflection on those images and quotations. What might emerge?

Well, certainly nothing that any scholar would cite. (How would that even be done? All the handbooks to scholarly documentation are still struggling with how to cite websites and individual articles — citing tags is not even on their radar, I suspect.) But I would certainly learn a lot about Ruskin; and perhaps the sympathetic reader would also.

In some ways this would be a return to what I did a few years ago with my Gospel of the Trees site, which arose because what I wanted to say about trees just couldn’t be made to fit into a book, in part because it refused to become a linear narrative or argument and in part because it was so image-dependent and book publishers don’t like the cost of that. But the advantage of a tag over a standalone site is that each post can have other tags as well, which lead down other paths of reflection and information, in a Zettelkasten sort of way.

My friend Robin Sloan tweeted the other day — I’m not linking to it because Robin always deletes his tweets after a few days — that, despite the many calls these days to return to the good old days of Weird Indie Blogging, there are still plenty of charmingly weird things being posted on the Big Media sites, especially YouTube. Point taken: no doubt this is true. But for my purposes the problem with the Big Media sites is the absolute control they have over association: you don’t decide what is related to your post/video/audio, they do. “If you liked this you may also like….” A well-thought-out tagging system on a single blog creates chains of associated ideas, with the logic of association governed by a single mind (or in the case of a group blog, a set of intentionally connected minds). And such chains are powerful generators of intellectual and aesthetic value.

I really do think that the Back to the Blog movement, if we can call it a movement, is so timely and so important not only because we need to, as I have put it, tend the digital commons, but also because we were just beginning to figure out what blogs could do when their development was pre-empted by the rise of the big social media platforms. Given the accelerated pace at which our digital platforms have been moving in recent years, blogs may best be seen as an old, established, and now neglected technology.

I think it was also Robin Sloan who recently directed my attention to this Wikipedia page on the late Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi, who promoted what he called “Lateral Thinking with Seasoned Technology”: finding new and unexpected uses for technologies that have been around for a while and therefore (a) have clear patterns of use that you can rely on even when deviating from them, and (b) have decreased in price. Nintendo’s Wii system is the classic example in the gaming world of this way of thinking: some of us will remember that when the Wii was introduced critics were flabbergasted by its reliance on previous-generation processors with their limited graphics capabilities, and were certain that the console would be a total flop. Instead, everyone loved it.

Blogging, I want to argue, is a seasoned technology that is ripe for lateral thinking. The question for me, as I suggested in my previous post, is whether I am willing to set aside the conventional standards and expectations of my profession in order to pursue that lateral thinking — in order, that is, to give up practicing architecture and going in for a good deal of gardening.

new uses for old blogs

More ideas about ideas: Given my current interest in intellectual gardening rather than architecture, in allowing ideas to emerge rather than trying to generate them by a brute-force attack, I am reconsidering the way I have historically used my blogs, and wondering whether there’s not a better path to intellectual substance than the one I’ve been following.

This has been my M.O. going back to the relatively early days of Text Patterns, when I was working on The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction: Use the blog to generate and try out ideas, get feedback from readers, develop the ideas a little further … and then put on the brakes. But why did I put on the brakes? Because I knew that I was getting close to the point at which there would be so much of the book’s contents online that a publisher wouldn’t want to buy it. And so the idea-generating stage of the project would effectively come to an end.

Not altogether, of course; I could still write in notebooks or sketch ideas or whatever. But two things were missing: the felt need in writing a public post to achieve at least some minimal level of coherence, and the feedback from readers. Moreover, when you’ve been generating ideas using a particular method and then are forced to switch to another one, you tend to lose momentum. So effectively I found myself working with the ideas that I had generated to that point in the project — even when I didn’t feel that I had explored my chosen topics as thoroughly as I would have liked. And this happened more than once, most recently with my idea for a book on what I called Anthropocene theology.

So in these situations the limits and boundaries of my projects are set, not by the inner logic and impetus of those projects, but by the preferences of the publishing industry. But that’s a superficial take. Why, after all, should I allow the publishing industry to set those boundaries? Because in my line of work the highest-denomination currency is the book. I have my current job because of publishing books — Baylor simply would not have sought me out and hired me had I not been able to list several books on my CV.

Put it this way: If I had never blogged a single word I would have precisely the same job I have now; if I had blogged millions of words without publishing books I would not have a job.

But, you may say, at this point in my career why don’t I just do what I want? I have tenure; I have no administrative ambitions (indeed, just the reverse); I am a Distinguished Professor and there’s no such thing as an Extremely Distinguished Professor or Sun-God Professor. If I am feeling the demands of the publishing world as a heavy yoke why not just throw it off?

Well, I might. But I hesitate for two reasons, or maybe it’s one reason with two parts.

  1. My profession has never figured out what to do with online writing, except for a few peer-reviewed online journals. It is still devoted to finished products — and vetted products too, despite the manifest problems with peer review. Scholars will cite a dozen mediocre peer-reviewed published papers before they’ll cite even the most brilliant blog post.
  2. And working to the established standards of my profession is, as I have noted, what got me my current position, so that I can’t help feeling that if I were to strike out into unfamiliar writing territory I wouldn’t be keeping the implicit contract I made when I took this job.

So if I were to do the thing I am contemplating — pursue big intellectual projects all the way to their completion here on this blog — my university’s administrators would be unhappy, the publishers who want to publish my stuff would be unhappy, my magnificent literary agent would be unhappy, and some part of me would be unhappy.

But what if, by following SOP for my profession, I limit my ability to think? What if I curtail the development of ideas and end up fitting them into familiar boxes rather than following them to surprising and new and fascinating places? Isn’t that a heavy price to pay for professional adequacy?

More on all this in the next post.

we work in the dark

work

Tom Phillips

control and surrender, architecture and gardening

Eno

Tom Phillips, Brian Eno
oil on canvas
35.6 x 25.4 cm
1984-85
collection: the artist

Phillips writes:

I once devised a television project whose abbreviated ghost now forms, not inappropriately, an introduction to the film I worked on with Jake Auerbach (Artist’s Eye: Tom Phillips, BBC2 1989). The title was to be Raphael to Eno: it traced the lineage of pupil and teacher back through Frank Auerbach, Bomberg, Sickert etc. until, after an obscure group of French Peintres du Roy, it emerged via Primaticcio into the light of Raphael. Thus I find that at only twenty removes I am a pupil of Raphael. Brian Eno as a student of mine (initially at Ipswich in the early sixties) therefore continues that strange genealogy of influence as the twenty-first.

I cite that simply because it’s awesome.

The relationship between Phillips — one of whose most famous works is A Humument, an ongoing-for decades collage/manipulation/adaptation of a Victorian book — and Eno is a fascinating one in the history of aleatory or, as I prefer, emergent art.

I’ve been talking about all this with Austin Kleon — whose newspaper blackout poems are descendants or cousins of A Humument — who not only knows way more about all this than I do but who also has been posting some great stuff lately on the themes of patience, waiting, and what I recently called “re-setting your mental clock.” See for instance this post on Dave Chappelle’s willingness to wait for the ideas to show up at his door.

And of course that post circles back to Eno — so many useful thoughts about being a maker of something circle back to Eno — quoting from this article:

“Control and surrender have to be kept in balance. That’s what surfers do – take control of the situation, then be carried, then take control. In the last few thousand years, we’ve become incredibly adept technically. We’ve treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part.” Eno considers all his recent art to be a rebuttal to this attitude. “I want to rethink surrender as an active verb,” he says. “It’s not just you being escapist; it’s an active choice. I’m not saying we’ve got to stop being such controlling beings. I’m not saying we’ve got to be back-to-the-earth hippies. I’m saying something more complex.”

In another talk, one in which he also spoke of control and surrender, he developed another contrast, between creativity-as-architecture and creativity-as-gardening:

And essentially the idea there is that one is making a kind of music in the way that one might make a garden.  One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life.  And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them.  It’s characteristic of the kind of work that I do that I’m really not aware of how the final result is going to look or sound.  So in fact, I’m deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the same position as any other member of the audience.  I want to be surprised by it as well.  And indeed, I often am.

What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator.  You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together.  Gardener included.  So there’s something in the notes to this thing that says something about the difference between order and disorder.  It’s in the preface to the little catalog we have.  Which I take issue with, actually, because I think it isn’t the difference between order and disorder, it’s the difference between one understanding of order and how it comes into being, and a newer understanding of how order comes into being.

I was texting with Austin about all this earlier today:

austin

This is all good for me to reflect on right now, in this season of heat and uncertainty.

Just one more quick thought about yesterday’s post: I’ve done this kind of thing before, but usually by trying to delete Twitter altogether. This time I’m continuing to use Twitter to share links, but I am making it very difficult to look at Twitter. And that seems to work much better for me. 

victory paper

Made by the Randolph Novelty Company in Chicago during World War II; via the Newberry Library’s Instagram

Letterbugs

William Moran, from the Newberry Library

I’m already getting some emails in response to my earlier post, and they’re incredibly generous and kind. The message tends to be: Your writings do make a difference, so please write that book! Again, that’s amazingly kind, and God bless y’all for the support. But at the risk of sounding totally ungrateful and churlish, I have to admit that that’s just the response I was afraid I would get. Afraid, because that’s a message that encourages me to consider results and effect — the kinds of considerations that are always subject to counter-evidence, and to unhealthy externalizations of the motives for writing. What I need instead is to think — and to take plenty of time to think — of what I need to do, of what projects I myself most completely believe in. Simply put: I am past the point in my career at which I can write books because other people want them. So if you would like for me to keep writing books, and if you would I bow before you, then maybe instead of exhorting me you might pray for me? If you did I would be even more in your debt.

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