Contemporary politics is polarized between multiculturalists and (for lack of a better term) populists, and the problem of language, as practice and symbol, often takes center stage. Many Christians have allied themselves with the populists. It’s an understandable alliance. Lovers of the local, Christians want to protect their nations from Babelic fragmentation.
At bottom, though, the church must regard monolingual populism with deep ambivalence. The Spirit forms the church as a polyglot polity in the midst of existing polities. When we defend the church’s rights as a public institution, we are necessarily defending a form of multiculturalism. Alt-rightists see this, and find the “foreign tongue” of, say, immigrant churches profoundly threatening.
The policy and cultural import of Pentecost isn’t straightforward. Nations, after all, aren’t churches. But Christians labor in hope that Spirit will make his presence felt among the nations. While acting and speaking in and to the cities of men, we must act and speak as citizens of a Pentecostal society.
If I had followed the great man’s advice and never burdened myself with the gift of my children, or if I had never written any novels at all, in the long run the result would have been the same as the result will be for me here, having made the choice I made: I will die; and the world in its violence and serenity will roll on, through the endless indifference of space, and it will take only 100 of its circuits around the sun to turn the six of us, who loved each other, to dust, and consign to oblivion all but a scant few of the thousands upon thousands of novels and short stories written and published during our lifetimes. If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that. Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back. Anyway, if, 100 years hence, those books lie moldering and forgotten, I’ll never know. That’s the problem, in the end, with putting all your chips on posterity: You never stick around long enough to enjoy it.
I hate Twitter threads and really wish people would turn them into blog posts instead, and I’m never gonna stop saying that, but this thread by Corinne McConnaughy speaks to my experience in powerful ways. I’ve said all this before, but let me put it succinctly: There is no question that being white was enormously important in my social rise — but there is also no question that I had a long and not always easy climb. A black man who, like me, was raised largely by his grandmother because his mother worked long hours to make ends meet while his father was in prison, and who, when his father returned home, spent years dodging the old man’s drunken rages, and who could only go to college because he paid his own way – well, it’s almost unimaginable, especially in the South in the 1970s. There can’t have been more than a handful of black people of my place and time who did what I did. But that doesn’t mean it was a picnic for me, and nothing tries my patience more than being lectured about my white privilege by people whose way was paved by well-off and well-educated parents.
More than once already in the preceding pages mention has been made of the obliteration of English villages. The process is notorious and inevitable. Expostulation is futile, lament tedious. This is part of the grand cyclorama of spoliation which surrounded all English experience in this century and any understanding of the immediate past … must be incomplete unless this huge deprivation of the quiet pleasures of the eye is accepted as a dominant condition, sometimes making for impotent resentment, sometimes for mere sentimental apathy, sometimes poisoning a love of country and of neighbours. To have been born into a world of beauty, to die amid ugliness, is the common fate of all us exiles.
— Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning
There’s a lot of sentimental and just plain dopey talk about “story” these days. “Tell me your story.” “Everyone has a story.” Yuck. But the remedy for this problem, for Christians anyway, is not to eschew storytelling but to tell better stories – tell stories that are connected to the Great Narrative of salvation history. The only account that Christians can give of what they believe centers on a series of unrepeatable events in history that are invariant in sequence: Creation comes before Fall, Fall before Incarnation, Incarnation before the Four Last Things, and so on. All Christian theology is, intrinsically and inevitably, narrative theology. And that has a personal dimension as well as a world-historical one. I tried to write about that personal dimension in this book, which is summed up, sketchily, in this essay.
(And while fetching the Amazon link for the book I just discovered that the Kindle edition is on sale for $.99. What a deal.)
This is very shrewd and thought-provoking from Adrian Vermeule:
Liberalism both needs and fears democracy. It needs democracy because it needs the legitimation that democracy provides. It fears, however, that its dependence on, yet fundamental difference from, democracy will be finally and irrevocably exposed by a sustained course of nonliberal popular opinion.
In this environment, the solution of the intellectuals is always to try to idealize and redescribe democracy so that “mere majoritarianism” never turns out to count as truly democratic. Of course the majority’s views are to count on certain issues, but only within constraints so tightly drawn and under procedures so idealized that any outcomes threatening to liberalism can be dismissed as inauthentic, often by a constitutional court purporting to speak in the name of a higher form of democracy. Democracy is then reduced to a periodic ceremony of privatized voting by secret ballot for one or another essentially liberal party, safely within a cordon sanitaire. In the limit, as Schmitt put it, liberalism attempts to appeal to a “democracy of mankind” that erases nations, substantive cultures, and the particularistic solidarities that are constitutive of so many of the goods of human life. In this way, liberalism attempts to hollow out democracy from within, yet retain its outward form as a sort of legitimating costume, like the donkey who wore the lion’s skin in the fable.
There are no ideas, no beliefs, no positions that reliably correspond to the phrase “cultural Marxism.” It is a phrase whose use is purely emotive and without denotative value.
I longed for the loan of the Time Machine — a contraption with its saddle and quartz bars that was plainly a glorification of the bicycle. What a waste of this magical vehicle to take it prying into the future, as had the hero of the book! The future, dreariest of prospects! Were I in the saddle I should set the engine Slow Astern. To hover gently back through centuries (not more than thirty of them) would be the most exquisite pleasure of which I can conceive.
— Evelyn Waugh, from the first page of A Little Learning
I ate my breakfast, checked my email, and stood up to head to my gate. As I did, I looked down at the small section of my life situated at that airport dining table: my new Nike Air Max sneakers, my cashmere swacket (that’s 50% jacket, 50% sweater, 100% cozy), my almost-too-soft-to-be-taken-outside leather duffel bag, and my iPhone. All of these objects were central to me – I felt like they defined me – and it was my iPhone that was at the core of it.
You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product. And then you die.
Is Coates seriously arguing, as he seems to be, that the desire for “liberation from the dictates of that we”—or any we, any tribe!—is ipso facto a kind of moral violation? He claims for himself, here and elsewhere, a Mullah-like authority to assert communal possession of other people he deems to be a part of his community. And when those people deviate from what Coates pronounces to be the acceptable group perspective—“West calls his struggle the right to be a ‘free thinker,’ and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom”—he claims for himself the right, not merely to refute a person’s arguments but to deracinate them entirely.
More chilling than the essay has been the rapturous response it has generated among many white liberals who seem somehow too eager to reinforce its dire racial proscriptions. It is undeniable that West has gotten an astonishing amount wrong, but one thing he gets just right is this: Too many people of all persuasions act as though there are views, based on one’s perceived identity alone, that others must share. No matter what else might be said, that is an extraordinarily warped view of freedom.
It’s interesting sometimes to reflect on the major cultural trends that have completely passed you by – and when you get to be my age there are more and more of those every day. I read this and I realize: Wow, vaping is a Really Big Deal. Similarly, since I rarely watch anything except sports on TV, I am regularly semi-surprised, semi-bemused by how much emotional energy people invest in Westworld or The Handmaid’s Tale or whatever it happens to be.
But, as common as this missing-out experience is for me, it went to a whole new level the other day when I was listening to the second episode of the Dave Chang Show and learned just how radically Uber and Lyft have changed the restaurant business. There are, Chang and his interviewer Bill Simmons agree, two elements to this transformation:
- It doesn’t matter so much now where your restaurant is located. If you’ve created a place that has really great food, then people will find their way to you: they just have to be able to give the address to a ride-hailing service.
- People can now drink as much as they want. Simmons commented that for years when he went out with friends there was always a complicated negotiation about who was going to drive and therefore could not have more than a single drink – but those days are (for him) over. “The 40-year old drunk is back!”
There’s typically no reason for me to use Uber/Lyft – certainly not here in Waco (though visitors have told me that Uber/Lyft works just as well here as it does in New York or L.A.). And in big cities I usually combine public transportation and walking. I have ridden with friends who have called Uber/Lyft, but have never had either app on my phone. So I was kinda stunned to learn that there are whole industries that have been significantly altered by the ride-hailing revolution.
I may be old, but I can still learn!
It’s ten minutes till eight on Sunday morning. It’s a lovely and cool and I have my windows open so I can feel the breeze and hear the birds — except I can’t hear the birds any more because of the leaf blower that just started up across the street. Leaf blowers, mowers, trimmers, chainsaws — there are no quiet mornings these days. I might as well be in New York City with the garbage trucks crashing down the street.
Intellectual diversity addresses a fundamental problem in human cognition: we seek out information that confirms the views we already have. As Jonathan Haidt has argued, this instinct is well-adapted to creating intra-group solidarity, which is useful when competing for power with other groups. But if the goal is to seek the truth, it’s poison. If everyone in your group shares the same biases, that group will block new information that doesn’t conform to those biases. Since no one is right 100 percent of the time, this dynamic guarantees that falsehoods will persist.
One solution is to attempt to purge individuals of their biases. But cognitive psychologists don’t yet understand how to do this. The only method that reliably solves the confirmation bias problem is to create groups made up of individuals with different biases. In such an environment, countervailing biases checks one another, prodding at weak points and raising questions a colleague didn’t think to ask. This dynamic is highly adapted to truth-seeking, because it forces every person to justify their biases on grounds other than tribalism.
(See also this 2009 article on “debiasing.”)
Studies have a way of ceasing to be studies once they are taken up by politicians-in-print like Ezra Klein. They become dueling implements. Mary Branham of the Council of State Governments: “Evidence Shows Raising Minimum Wage Hasn’t Cost Jobs” vs. Max Ehrenfreund of the Washington Post: “‘Very Credible’ New Study on Seattle’s $15 Minimum Wage Has Bad News for Liberals” vs. Arindrajit Dube of the New York Times: “Minimum Wage and Job Loss: One Alarming Seattle Study Is Not the Last Word.” Much of this is predictable partisan pabulum. The study that confirms my priors is science. The study that challenges my preferences is … just one study. Our friends among the global-warming alarmists, embarrassed by the fact that every time Al Gore shows up to give a speech it turns out to be the coldest March day in 30 years, are forever lecturing us that weather doesn’t tell us anything useful about climate — except when it’s hot in the summer, or there’s a drought in California, or there’s a hurricane in Florida.
I am a registered “global-warming alarmist,” but Williamson is absolutely right about all this.
: 1 :
On a summer day in 1978, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, I took the woman I was dating to lunch at our favorite deli. It was a new place, but already popular, and the owners had squeezed as many tiny tables into their tiny space as they could manage. Teri and I wedged ourselves in among the other diners, but without heeding them: we had eyes only for each other.
At one point we discussed the unfortunate fact that, despite the abundant Alabama sunshine, we remained pale as ghosts and needed to find some way to get tanned. And then we heard what sounded like giggles from the seat next to me. I darted my eyes over and saw a young black woman, quietly laughing as she looked down at her food. She was alone, probably on her lunch break from a nearby office.
She looked up at us in an obviously friendly way, so I held my arm up next to hers and commented that I had a long way to go if I was going to catch up with her. She said, in a tone that was half comment and half incredulous question, “Some white people pay to make their skin darker.” We admitted that that was true. “Didn’t cost me anything to get this skin,” she said, “but I’ve been paying for it ever since I got it.” And then she smiled so warmly that we knew it was okay if we smiled too.
Maybe you had to be there, and there then, but the whole scene felt like a small victory. A bittersweet one, to be sure, and please don’t ignore the “bitter”; but a kind of victory none the less. Because what we were laughing about together were anything but a laughing matter in Birmingham, Alabama even a few years earlier.
: 2 :
A little more than a decade before our encounter, that young woman wouldn’t have been served at any cafe or diner or restaurant in Birmingham that catered to white people. And though the Jim Crow laws designed to enforce such segregation had been abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I found myself wondering: When did that young woman first dare to come, alone, to a restaurant owned and patronized by the white people of Birmingham? She seemed so at ease sitting there next to Teri and me, evidently as comfortable there as we were. But appearances can deceive. I am not sure of her age, but she was at most a handful of years older than we were, and of course she remembered what it had been like — the social world into which all three of us were born. I myself can even remember, from my earliest visits to the Birmingham Zoo, the WHITE and COLORED drinking fountains. Such things would have been far more vivid to her.
Though the public schools of Birmingham were supposed to be desegregated by the time I got to them, they weren’t; or not all of them were. I went to an all-white school through fourth grade, and then, when I transferred to Elyton School in one of the oldest parts of the city to join what they called an “enrichment class,” I found that I had, among my twenty-three classmates, two black ones. It didn’t take long to get used to them: Johnny was shy and diffident, Esther was kind of nerdy and had a crush on a guy named Eddie — which, unless my memory flatters us all, was hysterically funny to us not because Esther was black but because she was a girl. Integrated schools quickly seemed normal, not the sort of thing we thought about much; not even when Johnny didn’t return to the “enrichment class” the next year, and Esther left the year after that, and our class was wholly white.
I came to Elyton in 1967. By the time I began high school, in 1971, things has changed. In our old neighborhood on the west side of Birmingham I was zoned to what had been an all-black school, Parker High, and my mother told me that I would have been one of only six white students there. (I do not know where she got this information, though my mother is the kind of person to discover information when it can be had.) So we moved to another neighborhood, within the zone of a different school, Banks High, where 70% of the students were white. And in my first semester there, we had a riot: a proper race riot.
It happened at a pep rally for the football team. At a suitably exalted moment in the proceedings, a white boy sitting in the front row of the gym unfurled an enormous Confederate battle flag and started waving it about — until a dark form leaped from above, right onto his back, and began whaling away on him. The fighting soon became more general, and those of us who were small or nonviolent or both drifted away. A couple of friends and I shrugged and walked home. I don’t recall any other major racial tensions in my high school days, though of course there were plenty of minor ones; but an event like that is not the sort of thing that simply evaporates. It hovers in the memory.
And that’s how things seemed to go for a while in Birmingham: a step forward, a step back. In my freshman or sophomore year of college I ran into one of my high school classmates — the closest I had to a black friend at that school, a lively and funny woman who later became a preacher — and we greeted each other with a hug. We talked a few minutes and then parted, and as I walked away I noticed a white student in a baseball cap staring at me with open disgust. Only then did I realize that I had done something that until very recently had been almost unthinkable in Birmingham: I had made affectionate physical contact with a person of another race. It was apparently still unthinkable to that guy, I saw, and then (if the truth must be told) I congratulated myself for not having considered, until that moment, the color of my friend’s skin. I didn’t spare the time to ask why she and I had fallen so completely out of touch. Indeed, I have never seen her again. But at the time the encounter seemed to be another of those bittersweet victories — very like that moment in the deli, which happened a year or two later.
: 3 :
That’s what it was like in Birmingham for a long time: a step forward, a step back, a step back, a step forward. And then — after I left the city for good in 1979, and came back only for occasional visits to see my family — fewer and fewer of the steps seemed to be towards racial integration, racial equality, racial healing. Just as I left, Birmingham elected its first black mayor, Richard Arrington; but that was possible in part because of white flight. As whites decamped for the suburbs and places further afield, the political leadership of the city became overwhelmingly and then uniformly black.
As did the city itself. The most recent statistics I’ve seen say that 1.2% of the students in the Birmingham public schools are white. One point two percent. Most of the few whites who remain in Birmingham, in a handful of elegant neighborhoods on the slopes of Red Mountain, send their children to private schools. And, as Nikole Hannah-Jones has recently reported for the New York Times, for some years now the whites that have fled to the suburbs are trying to make the schools there more fully white. In my lifetime I have seen an enormously powerful apparatus of segregation dismantled … and then slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, reconstructed in another form.
: 4 :
One of my black high-school classmates, a tall, quiet, friendly guy named André, used to go around singing the old Sly and the Family Stone song “Everyday People” — and even then we thought of it as an old song: rock and roll moved fast in those days, and it seemed to us that the landscape had altered a good deal between 1968, when the song first appeared, and the early Seventies. The most famous line from the song, “different strokes for different folks,” already seemed cheesy to us. It’s an incredibly infectious tune and beat, though, and I doubt that André sang it ironically — but again, who knows? I just associate the song with him, and with an era of hopefulness about American, and especially Southern, race relations, that was slipping out of our grasp, perhaps already had slipped away.
That race riot at our school pep rally happened within a month or so of the release of a new LP by Sly and the Family Stone — an LP that had been eagerly anticipated, but that on its appearance generated some shock waves. The bouncy, happy tunes that had made the band famous were set aside; the mood was dark, bitter. Some of the band’s earlier hits were even parodied on the new record: the rhythms and lyrical patterns of 1969’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” get undermined and reworked in “Thank You For Talking to Me Africa.”
Lookin’ at the devil,
Grinnin’ at his gun.
Fingers start shakin’,
I begin to run.
Sly Stone had wanted to title the album Africa Talks to You, but in the end decided that he would answer the question posed by Marvin Gaye in his LP from earlier in 1971, What’s Going On? Sly’s answer: There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Yes, there was, at a high school in Birmingham, Alabama, across the continent from Sly Stone’s San Francisco. And in so many other places as well. Greil Marcus, in his classic book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music, describes There’s a Riot Goin’ On as “emerging out of a pervasive sense, at once public and personal, that the good ideas of the sixties had gone to their limits, turned back upon themselves, and produced evil where only good was expected.”
A few years ago I was in Birmingham and I drove through the neighborhoods near my old high school. The only white person I saw was an electrician talking animatedly to a black lady in her driveway. When I was fourteen I thought you were rich, or near enough, if you lived in a brick house, and all these nice neat brick houses on winding roads and hilly lots are occupied by black people now. And as I was driving along — I swear this happened — “Everyday People” came on the radio, and I remembered André singing it in the halls, and though I couldn’t stop myself from tapping my foot I thought of all the hopes the song had represented and how quickly — and then slowly — they had been betrayed, and I said to myself: This is the saddest song in the world.
The Chinese have developed a state system run by a technocratic elite of highly educated bureaucrats under party control. This is China’s age-old imperial system in modern form. The attraction that western-style democracy and free-market capitalism may have exercised on this elite has now withered. They stressed the failure of western states to invest in their physical or human assets, the poor quality of many of their elected leaders and the instability of their economies. One participant added that “90 per cent of democracies created after the fall of the Soviet Union have now failed”. This risk is not to be run.
All this has increased confidence in China’s unique model. Yet this does not mean a return to a controlled economy. On the contrary, as a participant remarked: “We believe in the fundamental role of the market in allocating resources. But government needs to play a decisive role. It creates the framework for the market. The government should promote entrepreneurship and protect the private economy.” One participant even insisted that the new idea of a “core leader” could lead to strong government and economic freedom.
This is by no means an irrational take on the global state of affairs. I wish it were.
My goal at this stage of my life is to get to the point where I don’t know who any public figure is and therefore can’t have an opinion about any of them.
My generation of writers — and yours, if you are reading this — lives in the shadow of Auden’s famous attack on the relevance of writing to life, when he wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” I had heard the remark repeated so often and for so long I finally went looking for its source, to try to understand what it was he really meant by it. Because I knew it was time for me to really argue with it. If not for myself, for my students.
The thing is, Chee makes no attempt whatsoever to find out what Auden meant when he wrote “Poetry makes nothing happen.” If he had, he might have learned that Auden never in any way made an “attack on the relevance of writing to life.” That line was a response by Auden to the political poets of the Thirties who convinced themselves that in writing poetry they were changing the social and political order. But, Auden believed, they weren’t. Poetry does many wonderful things, Auden believed, but in the sphere of politics it can make nothing happen.
When years ago, I finished reading [John Crowe Ransom’s] God Without Thunder , I threw it aside, muttering that I would rather burn eternally in hell than submit to the will of such an arbitrary, not to say monstrous, God. But then, as an atheist, I am at liberty to indulge in such grandstanding. Were I in grace and in fear of the wrath of a God who proclaims himself ‘a jealous God,’ I would think again. Liberal (and liberationist) theology, in white or black, should warm every atheist’s heart. For if God is a socially conscious political being whose view invariably corresponds to our own prejudices on every essential point of doctrine, he demands of us no more than our politics require. Besides, if God is finite, progressive, and Pure Love, we may as well skip church next Sunday and go to the movies. For if we have nothing to fear from this all-loving, all-forbearing, all-forgiving God, how would our worship of him constitute more than self-congratulation for our own moral standards? As an atheist, I like this God. It is good to see him every morning while I am shaving.
The second, and harder, task of [an imagined book called] Christianity and Evangelicalism, would be to suggest some steps by which the latter could become Christian again. Here, ironically, the attempt by some evangelicals to sanctify Donald Trump might work well if given a quarter turn: he is no Cyrus, a pagan ordained of God to restore Jews to Israel, but Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan invader of Israel ordained of God to punish them for their unfaithfulness, and banishing the best of them from the promised land in the bargain. As intriguing might be the possibility of seeing that pagan’s later fate play out again—that is, to see the proud trumpet of egotistical greatness reduced to crawling around like a beast in the field, eating grass and growing literal instead of just figurative claws (Daniel 4)—one’s relish at the prospect bespeaks an unsanctified longing of its own.
The better role might be to follow after a truly scandalous prophet, Ezekiel; to describe and survey the scattered dry bones of a once favored people; and to ask by what means they might possibly live again. No mistake: this option entails death, exile, and damnation. Perhaps we’re left just there, right with the founder of Christianity. Perhaps this, and only this, is the path to resurrection and redemption.
No, Cessario is quite explicit about this: “Both the law of the Church and the laws of the Papal States stipulated that a person legitimately baptized receive a Catholic upbringing.” Not merely a Christian upbringing, but specifically a Catholic one. In terms of canon law and the law of Vatican City, what mattered about Mortara’s case was not that the Mortaras were Jewish but that they were not Catholic. Though it’s hard for me to believe that the actuating motive here wasn’t antisemitism, if David Kertzer is right in his book on the case, Pio Nono might have been even stricter with a Protestant family:
Events of 1848-49 only strengthened Pius IX’s opposition to the idea of freedom of religion. He was committed to the principle of the Catholic state, one in which any other religion had to be viewed with suspicion and closely regulated, if not banned. This principle extended not only to the Jews but to other Christian denominations as well. Indeed, the Pope was more favorably inclined toward the Jews, who represented no threat to the Holy Church, than toward the Protestants, who did. To the complaints of those who said that the Jews were poorly treated in the Papal States, the Pope and his defenders could argue that, on the contrary, they were accorded privileged treatment, allowed to have their own synagogues and practice their religion undisturbed. By contrast, Protestants were not permitted such freedoms, and Rome itself had no real Protestant church, other than a converted granary outside town used by diplomatic personnel and other foreigners. Papal police stood guard at its doors to ensure that no native went inside.
There are of course legitimate arguments to be had about whether true Christian faith is compatible with the liberal order, whether separation of church and state is a good idea, what Pio Nono’s true motives were, and so on — but there’s no doubt that the politico-theological principle at stake in the Mortara case does not concern the relations between Christians and Jews but rather the relations between the Catholic Church and everybody else.
From a national perspective, the number of people earning communications degrees (which was negligible in the heyday of English majors 50-60 years ago), surpassed the number getting English degrees around 20 years ago. Since then Communications has held a fairly steady share of graduates as the college population grew, while English has lost its share and in recent years even shrank in total number, as this NCES table records. In short, students voted with their feet and, for the most part, they aren’t interested in the curricular experience English has to offer (i.e. read books, talk about books, write essays about books).
Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.
And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.”
So maybe — just maybe — it’s not “read books, talk about books, write essays about books” that’s the problem.
(Cross-posted at Text Patterns)
I don’t think I’m flattering myself when I say that I have a fairly broad range of interests — and keeping track of all those interests has always been a challenge for me. I’ve mostly tried to do the online part of it by creating silos, so that people who care about only some of the things I care about don’t have to see a lot of stuff that bores them. The most general of those has been my Pinboard page. More focused sites include my blog on technologies of knowledge, Text Patterns; my soccer blog, The Pacey Winger; the blog for my book, How to Think; my long-neglected but still much-loved site Gospel of the Trees. That last is a coherent and self-sufficient project, but the others could conceivably be brought together — and there would be some advantage to me if they were. (Thanks in large part to the beauty of tags.)
So I’m taking some steps in that direction. Interesting things I read that I have been posting to Pinboard I’ll now post here; and any reflections related to How to Think will be posted here also. Text Patterns will remain where it is, though I might cross-post more often; and I’m still thinking about what to do with The Pacey Winger.
Anyway, it’s gonna be a little busier around here from now on. And I have some further ideas for how to make this place more interesting that I will share soon.
I have had many discussions with readers of First Things, some of whom are good friends and many of whom I rely upon for counsel and guidance. These conversations have convinced me that I made a mistake in publishing “Non Possumus,” a review of Kidnapped by the Vatican? The review raises perplexing, technical theological questions and brings the vexed matter of religious and secular authority into sharp focus. But featuring it in our pages could not help but give the impression that I intend to lead First Things in a new direction that undermines our commitment to the vital conversation between Christians and Jews. That is not the case. I regret that my decision to publish the review brought unnecessary anguish to my friends and to readers who care so deeply about our common project.
— Rusty Reno. I very much appreciate this from Rusty, but it needs a clarification. The thrust of Romanus Cessario’s review was not that the Pope has the moral right and ecclesial responsibility to take baptized children away from Jewish parents only, but that the Pope has that right and that responsibility in relation to any non-Catholic children baptized in the name of the Triune God who come within his legal jurisdiction. For Cessario such removal is not merely an option, but rather one of the “imperatives of faith” — thus Pio Nono’s “non possumus“: he could not do otherwise. (I discuss these matters in a bit more detail here.)
In running that review, then, Rusty — as the editor of a putatively interreligious journal of religion and public life — was opening the question of whether, if I and my family had become residents of Vatican City in 1995 or thereabouts, my son Wesley should have been forcibly taken away from his parents and raised as a Catholic. After all, he had been baptized, but in an Episcopalian parish, and we had no intention of raising him as a Catholic. In respect to the imperatives of faith Cessario identifies and defends, Wesley was in precisely the same situation as Edgardo Mortara had been a century-and-a-half earlier. Cessario is quite explicit about the ecclesial principles involved: “These articles of faith bound Pius to give Mortara a Catholic upbringing that his parents could not.” So Cessario’s position has implications not only for the relations between Christians and Jews, but for the relations between Roman Catholics and all other Christians.
And (far less significantly, of course!) this kerfuffle raises questions about whether the editorial staff of First Things (Catholics all, as far as I know) are willing and able to make their journal genuinely interreligious, or whether, conversely, they should just redesignate themselves as a Catholic journal and be done with it. I am grateful for Rusty’s straightforward apology, but these are issues about the magazine’s identity that still remain to be resolved.
Sohrab Amari writes in Commentary about two kinds of Christian response to the dominant liberal order, the compatibilists and the non-compatibilists:
The “compatibilists” (like yours truly) argued that liberalism’s foundational guarantees of freedom of speech, conscience, and association sufficed to protect Christianity from contemporary liberalism’s censorious, repressive streak. The task of the believer, they contended, was to call liberalism back to its roots in Judeo-Christianity, from which the ideology derives its faith in the special dignity of persons, universal equality and much else of the kind. Christianity could evangelize liberal modernity in this way. Publicly engaged believers could restore to liberalism the commitment to ultimate truths and the public moral culture without which rights-based self-government ends up looking like mob rule.
The latter camp — those who thought today’s aggressive progressivism was the rotten fruit of the original liberal idea — were more pessimistic. They argued that liberal intolerance went back to liberalism’s origins. The liberal idea was always marked by distrust for all non-liberal authority, an obsession with promoting maximal autonomy over the common good, and hostility to mediating institutions (faith, family, nation-state, etc.). Yes, liberalism was willing to live with and even borrow ideas from Christianity for a few centuries, the non-compatibilists granted. But that time is over. Liberalism’s anti-religious inner logic was bound to bring us to today’s repressive model: Bake that cake — or else! Say that men can give birth — or else! Let an active bisexual run your college Christian club — or else!
I have been for most of my career what I call a sad compatibilist: I have tried to describe and promote a model of charity, forbearance, patience, and fairness in disputation to all parties concerned, not because I think my approach will work but because I am trying to do what I think a disciple of Jesus should do regardless of effectiveness. In these matters I continue to be against consequentialism. For reasons I explain in that post I just linked to, I’ll keep on pushing, but it feels more comically pointless than ever in this age of rhetorical Leninism. (And by the way, if you weren’t convinced by the example I give, take a gander at some of the responses to Jordan Peterson that Alastair Roberts collects in this post.)
Speaking of pushing, Amari concludes his post thus: “It is up to liberals to decide if they want to push further.” But as far as I can tell that decision has been made. There are two kinds of liberals now: the Leninists and the Silent — the latter not happy with the scorched-earth tactics of their confederates but unwilling to question them, lest they themselves become the newest victims of such tactics. The Voltairean [sic] liberal is, I believe, extinct. “Not only will I not defend to the death your right to say something that appalls me, I won’t even defend it to the point of getting snarked at in my Twitter mentions.”
What I find myself wondering, in the midst of all this, is whether there is a different way to do sad compatibilism than the one I’ve been pursuing. Do I just keep on banging my head against the same wall or do I look for a different wall? I’m thinking about this a lot right now.
This post, describing the experience of a friend of my friend Rod Dreher, makes universal judgments about the world of the humanities based on a narrow and particular set of experiences. Take, by contrast, another friend of mine, Chad Wellmon, who commented briefly on the story here. Chad is a straight white Christian man, married with children, who, while not a conservative, has even written for the Weekly Standard — and he’s flourishing in the humanities at an elite public university. He’s not looking over his shoulder; he’s not afraid of persecution. Rod’s friend says that “the academic humanities, as a whole and at their highest levels, just are not interested in what would have been recognizable as quality scholarship even two decades ago”; okay, well, take a look at Chad’s book on the German university in the age of Enlightenment. I’ll wait.
Now: Does that look like something other than quality scholarship to you? It’s a book based heavily on archival research in a language other than English — in short, just the kind of philological scholarship that would have been recognized as such by Erich Auerbach, for heaven’s sake. But according to Rod’s friend, Chad’s kind of career ought to be impossible.
You might reply that that’s just one example of academic tolerance. Indeed — but then, Rod’s friend offers just one example of academic intolerance. Which one is the norm and which the exception? Do you think you know? If you do, does your opinion rest on any evidence?
I’m not exactly a pollyanna about these matters. I have said over and over again that, thanks to my long career at a Christian college and the specifically Christian character of much of my writing, I am almost certainly unemployable in my field (English literature) outside the world of Christian higher education. And there’s bigotry at work there — no doubt about it. On the other hand, I have been able to publish at some of the best university presses in the world, which also shouldn’t be possible if Rod’s friend’s account of the academic humanities is accurate.
What my experience — and that of several of my friends, not just Chad — tells me is that the state of the humanities in the American university is far, far more complex and variable than Rod’s friend thinks. Look at how universal his judgments are, how often he speaks of “all,” “every,” “no one,” “always.” These statements are simply incorrect. I know first-hand many exceptions to his universal judgments.
Generally speaking, Christians in the academy have a pretty tough go of it these days. But there are, occasionally, open doors for people who have the wit and the strategic nous to get through them. Rather than throw up our hands and walk away, I think we should redouble our efforts to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. There are some good examples out there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
One further comment: after decades of reading screeds about the turgid impenetrability of academic prose, I am somewhat bemused to learn that the real problem with scholarly writing today is that “professors of English and Sociology are able to read it.” One of the interesting thoughts that might occur to someone making a mental survey of the greatest humanistic scholars of the past hundred years or so — A. E. Housman, Karl Barth, Erich Auerbach, J. R. R. Tolkien, Fernand Braudel, Charles Norris Cochrane, Leo Spitzer — is how elegantly many of them wrote, and often in more than one language. So elegantly that even professors of English or sociology might be able to enjoy them. Perhaps they weren’t such great scholars after all.
As America in its present incarnation, with its present leadership, teeters toward an arrogance, isolationism and self-importance that are the portals of moral decline and political self-destruction, the nation must recall the faith of Martin Luther King Jr. He saw faith as a tool for change, a constant source of inspiration to remake the world in the just and redemptive image of God. On this holy day, instead of shrinking into the safety of faith, we should, as Dr. King did, bear the burdens of the less fortunate and rise again to serve humanity.
When I wrote in a recent post about “rhetorical Leninism,” what did I mean?
I recently read Victor Sebestyen’s biography of Lenin, and one of the most striking elements of it was the consistency with which Lenin adhered to a particular strategy — a strategy which almost everyone around him believed was counterproductive, but which he never abandoned: Abuse, condemn, and denounce every person in every party other than yours, and do the same to the doubters or waverers in your own ranks. “No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people!” — so Lenin famously cried, but for him the Mensheviks were the enemies of the people just as fully as were the social democrats like Kerensky and the most fervent supporters of Tsarist autocracy. For Lenin they were all the same. He who is not with us, and with us 100%, is against us and must be condemned. Again and again, people who considered themselves strong allies of Lenin and faithful adherents to his cause, expressed some minor dissent or critique and found themselves, to their great surprise, denounced and excluded, treated as though they were no different than the Tsarists. And for Lenin they weren’t.
To some degree Lenin’s policy reflects human nature. We often get more upset when we feel that we’ve been betrayed, or simply not supported, by friends than when we’re attacked by known enemies. What’s distinctive about Lenin is his elevation of this emotional tendency into an absolute political and rhetorical principle. And guess what? It worked. It brought people into line. It kept the Bolsheviks together, and when all the other factions of Russian political life had splintered, Lenin’s party, though it was small and weak, was the only one able to fill the vacuum created by the fall of the Tsar, and so came to power. And stayed in power for seventy years.
The Leninism of our moment is, as I have said, largely rhetorical, for which I suppose we should be thankful. But the real thing isn’t dead, and absolute itself most obviously in the White House, where anything except perfect loyalty to His Orangeness tends to meet with dismissal or, at best, internal isolation (hello, Jeff Sessions). The rhetorical element of the administration’s Leninism is left largely to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who faithfully imitates the style of her boss’s tweets. Now, the parallels are not perfect: Lenin was smart enough to insist, always, that he only cared about loyalty to the Cause, not to him personally, and this was a shrewd move — but one not available in Trumpworld, which manifestly has no cause or for that matter any principles other than self-aggrandizement. But the Leninist strategy is still doing hard work in the White House.
The purely rhetorical Leninism of our moment is largely, it seems to me, a strategy of the political and cultural left and is deployed most forcefully, it seems to me, against the nearer rather than the further enemy. Michael Sean Winters is going to be far more viciously mocking of Ross Douthat than of a fire-breathing integralist trad, because Douthat’s epistemic modesty and willingness to treat his opponents as decent people arguing in good faith, who might even have a good point or two to make, just might incline some people otherwise sympathetic to Winters’s own liberalism to have second thoughts. This cannot be allowed, and therefore Douthat cannot be allowed to make a good point or two either. He has no legitimate concerns, no legitimate viewpoints, no legitimate arguments. Please move along, nothing to see here.
Similarly, while there are plenty of real fascists out there, people might not think that Jordan Peterson, who holds plenty of recognizable liberal views, is dangerous, so: Fascist Mysticism! And since Charles Murray is pretty evidently no Richard Spencer: White supremacist! And the very idea that one should distinguish between what Murray wrote (or is thought to have written) in The Bell Curve and what he comes to campuses to talk about these days — I mean, come on.
As I wrote in How to Think, we live in an age of lumping, and the general goal seems to be to create just two big lumps, the goats and the sheep, the Wrong and the Right. Which is great, I suppose, if you want to run a dictatorship. There is precedent. But sometimes I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong. There’s got to be some better way for people to live.
Stanford has 7000 undergraduates. Next quarter I’ll be teaching 5% of them (350) in classes that read Luther, Butler, Kant, @SaraNAhmed, Freud, Heine and the SCUM manifesto. How am I supposed to find the time to pen my obligatory “death of the humanities” think piece???
— Adrian Daub (@adriandaub) March 31, 2018
Maybe if you pause to reflect that not everyone gets to teach at institutions with the resources that Stanford commands — if you meditate for a moment on places like the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which has an undergraduate population slightly larger than that of Stanford and is eliminating, among other programs, American Studies, English literature, French, German, Philosophy, and Spanish — then you might find time, if not to write that think piece, then at least to reconsider your smugness. Unless, of course, you believe that as long as the patricians are flourishing nobody need give a shit about the plebes.
If you’re the kind of writer who works to be generous and fair-minded; if you admit that you have priors that incline you towards certain positions and away from others; if you’re willing to acknowledge that your preferred positions on a given issue are not without weaknesses, that there are trade-offs involved, and that those who choose the other side are not acting irrationally (even if you think they ultimately make the wrong call); then you should pursue that path only because you think it’s the right thing to do and not because you expect or even hope that people who disagree with you will extend similar courtesies to you. Because they almost certainly won’t.
Here’s a recent example: Michael Sean Winters reviewing Ross Douthat’s new book. Douthat exhibits all the traits I mentioned in the previous paragraph — I would call them “virtues,” though YMMV — and Winters, with the assurance characteristic of those who feel themselves enfolded by the wings of the Angels of Righteousness, announces his Judgment: Douthat’s “facts are nonsense, his arguments tendentious, and his thesis so absurd it is shocking, absolutely shocking, that no one over at Simon & Schuster thought to ask if what he writes is completely or only partially unhinged. I incline to the former adverb.” You can read further from there if you want; the review grows less restrained as it goes along.
Is Winters right? You will not be surprised to learn that I’m not convinced. (Even if didn’t call Ross a friend, I am always profoundly suspicious of declarations that definitive, whether they are positive or negative.) He quotes unnamed sources who say that Douthat is wrong, while ignoring Douthat’s own sources. He says that “thoughtful, learned churchmen” see things as he himself does — which I suppose leaves us to conclude that the churchmen Douthat quotes are neither thoughtful nor learned, though it seems to this observer that that point might profitably be debated. Again and again he assures us that there are no arguments for positions other than his own. I’m pretty sure that these matters are not as crystal-clear as Winters claims, but I don’t want to debate the substance here. What I am interested in, rather, is Winters’ scorched-earth approach.
It’s especially noteworthy, I think, that he simply ignores 95% of Douthat’s book, presumably because he doesn’t find anything in it to loathe. Which should remind us that, despite superficial appearances, what Winters has written is not a book review: it is a skirmish in a great War for the future of the Roman Catholic Church. And Winters quite evidently believes that the stakes of this war are such that generosity, or even elementary fairness, to one’s enemies is no virtue. The proper name for Winters’s strategy is rhetorical Leninism. “No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people!” No mercy for the enemies of Pope Francis!
Always remember, those of you who strive for fairness and humility and charity and (yes) mercy: this is the coin in which you will surely be paid. And with that, a blessed Triduum to you all.
Jean-Paul Sartre was working furiously on his second play, Les Mouches (The Flies), while finishing his major philosophy treatise, L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness). Jean Paulhan had convinced Gallimard to publish the 700-page essay even if the commercial prospects were extremely limited. However, three weeks after it came out in early August, sales took off. Gallimard was intrigued to see so many women buying L’Être et le néant. It turned out that since the book weighed exactly one kilogram, people were simply using it as a weight, as the usual copper weights had disappeared to be sold on the black market or melted down to make ammunition.
— Agnès Poirier, via Warren Ellis
In one of my classes today I’m teaching the Dark Mountain Manifesto and in the other I’m teaching the Tao Te Ching, and let me tell you, the resonances between those two texts are extraordinary. So much to contemplate here. I find myself imagining a Daoist post-environmentalist Utopia….
One clever little speciality of adult humans works like this: You very carefully (and, if you’re smart, very subtly) instruct children in the moral stances you’d like them to hold. Then, when they start to repeat what you’ve taught them, you cry “Out of the mouths of babes! And a little child shall lead them!” And you very delicately maneuver the children to the front of your procession, so that they appear to be leading it — but of course you make sure all along that you’re steering them in the way that they should go. It’s a social strategy with a very long history.
So, for instance, when you hear this:
“It’s the children who are now leading us,” said Diane Ehrensaft, the director of mental health for the clinic. “They’re coming in and telling us, ‘I’m no gender.’ Or they’re saying, ‘I identify as gender nonbinary.’ Or ‘I’m a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I’m a unique gender, I’m transgender. I’m a rainbow kid, I’m boy-girl, I’m everything.'”
— certain alarms should ring. No child came up with the phrase “I identify as gender nonbinary.” It is a faithful echo of an adult’s words.
Now, maybe you think it’s great that these children can begin to transition from one sex to another at an early age. I don’t, but I’m not going to argue that point now. My point is simply that if you say “It’s the children who are now leading us,” you’re lying — perhaps not consciously or intentionally, but it’s lying all the same because the truth is so easy to discern if you wish to do so. (As Yeats wrote, “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbors, / The sentimentalist himself.”)
This is why I think one of the most important books you could possibly read right now, if you care about these matters, is Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. Beck is anything but a conservative — he’s an editor for n+1 — and his book is highly critical of traditionalist beliefs about families. And a “moral panic” might seem to be the opposite of the celebration of new openness to gender expressions and sexualities. But if you read Beck’s book you will see precisely the same cultural logic at work as we see in today’s children’s crusades.
In this “moral panic” of thirty years ago, social workers and, later, prosecutors elicited from children horrific tales of Satan-worship, sexual abuse, and murder — and then, when anyone expressed skepticism, cried “We believe the children!” But every single one of the stories was false. The lives of many innocent people, people who cared for children rather than exploiting or abusing them, were destroyed. And — this may be the worst of all the many terrifying elements of Beck’s story — those who, through subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, extracted false testimonies from children have suffered virtually no repercussions for what they did.
Moreover — and this is the point that I can’t stop thinking about — the entire episode has been erased from our cultural memory. Though it was headline news every day for years, virtually no one talks about it, virtually no one remembers it. Beck might as well be writing about something that happened five hundred years ago. And I think it has been suppressed so completely because no one wants to think that our good intentions can go so far astray. And if forced to comment, what would the guilty parties say? “We only did what we thought was best. We only believed the children.”
So if you want to celebrate the courage of trans tweens, or for that matter high-schoolers speaking out for gun control, please do. But can you please stop the pretense that “the children are leading us”? What you are praising them for is not courage but rather docility, for learning their lessons well. (I wonder if anyone who has praised the students who speak out on behalf of gun control has also praised the students who participate in anti-abortion rallies like the March for Life.) And perhaps you might also hope that, if things go badly for the kids whose gender transitions you are cheering for, your role will be as completely forgotten as those who, thirty years ago, sent innocent people to prison by doing only what they thought was best.
I’m probably going to write more about Scott Alexander’s take on Jordan Peterson, but for now I just want to note that he’s absolutely right to say that Peterson is playing a role that (a) most of us who teach the humanities say we already fill but (b) few of us care about at all:
Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.
And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.” And maybe this isn’t totally disconnected from the question of how to live. Maybe being able to understand this kind of thing is a necessary part of being able to get anything out of the books at all.
But just like all the other cliches, somehow Peterson does this better than anyone else. When he talks about the Great Works, you understand, on a deep level, that they really are about how to live. You feel grateful and even humbled to be the recipient of several thousand years of brilliant minds working on this problem and writing down their results. You understand why this is all such a Big Deal.
When I see young people out there marching and demonstrating and making their voices heard on behalf of causes I already believe in, wow, does that give me hope for the future. There are few experiences in this vale of tears that lift my heart like watching the youth of our nation so vigorously confirming all my priors. Now, to be sure, sometimes they speak up on behalf of causes that I don’t believe in, in which case it’s totally pathetic how their parents and other authority figures so shamelessly use kids to promote their own agendas. But as long as those future voters agree with me, they’re a shining beacon for our nation. As I say every time their politics match mine: The kids are all right.