argumentum ad Hitlerum

Graeme Wood:

Less persuasive, though, are Sullivan’s two other claims about New Religions, in the American context. The first is that liberalism lacks meaning and various forms of illiberalism (nationalism, theocracy, authoritarianism, etc.) do not…. Nazi philosophers favored meaning (“the triumph of the will”) and said that procedural liberalism, divorced from nationhood, was a Jewish, internationalist poison that would weaken the only true source of German power.

You know who else was a critic of liberalism?



Neopagans come in many styles, from celebrants of white-supremacist revisions of Norse religion to witches who cast binding spells against Donald Trump, but they generally have a few things in common:

  • They’re interested in the past only insofar as it supports what they already want and believe on thoroughly presentist grounds;
  • They hate Jews;
  • They hate Catholics almost as much as they hate Jews;
  • They hate other Christians almost as much as they hate Catholics.

excerpts from my Sent Folder: to someone who wants to be a writer

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Wanting to “be a writer” is, generally speaking, not a good sign. That suggests not a commitment to a vocation but wanting to see yourself, or to be seen, in a particular way by others. By contrast, to have a story that you’re desperate to tell; to have some truth you want to serve, and share with others; to find the crafting of sentences irresistible — those are good signs, because they suggest a person turned outward rather than inward, and the most worthwhile writing is done by people who are turned outward.
  2. Writing that matters will therefore be in service to something or someone, and in order to serve well, you must undergo training and discipline. You have to learn things. You have to have a full mind as well as a lively heart. First you must develop the expertise of crafting sentences, and this can only be done by, first, reading and reading and reading. There is no other path than hard-earned expertise to producing anything that’s worth the time and attention of readers. Why should anybody care what you think? You must earn their care through especially vivid writing, or especially clear thinking, or especially detailed knowledge — or (ideally) some combination of the above.
  3. It takes many years to develop any genuine expertise. That doesn’t mean you don’t share your thoughts along the way, but remembering it should keep your expectations in line. Remember, Jesus didn’t begin his public ministry until he was thirty; all those previous years were spent in preparation.
  4. Normally I despise self-help books and “creativity” books, but there are two exceptions, and both of them are by the same person, Austin Kleon: Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work. Small books, but really wise. They’ll lead you to some other good things, also.

praise and worship

This long article about the state of praise and worship music today provokes several thoughts:

  • Very few things depress me to the extent that praise music does. Many things anger me more, frustrate me more, arouse my righteous indignation, but praise music has an extraordinary power to depress my spirits and make me want to do away with myself.
  • It’s not going away, though, is it? Its empire shall increase. 
  • Because what Christians (leaders and lay people alike) can’t seem to unlearn is the idea that church should resemble as closely as possible our everyday lives. The buildings should look the same, the people should dress the same, the technology should be the same, and the music should sound the same. Church cannot under any circumstances be allowed to differ, to set itself apart. 

Sincerely, Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey to a correspondent:

The ideal off-road journey? I’ll tell you: under water. I would like to see every four-by-four on earth, every three-wheeler, every dirt bike, trail bike and Big Foot truck driven straight into the Marianas Trench, three thousand feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, and parked there — left there — for the duration.

For the duration of what? For the duration of this techno-industrial-commercial slime-mold that is transforming our planet into one vast battleground of Cretins against Nature. With the Cretins winning.

What’s wrong with the horse? Or the burro? Or the bicycle? Or even, God help us, the human foot? Why should not Americans especially learn to walk again? There is this to be said for walking: it is the one method of human locomotion by which a man or woman proceeds erect, upright, proud and independent, not squatting on the haunches like a frog.

counsel for preachers (and other Christians)

From a letter by John Wesley, written in August 1760 to a preacher named John Trembath:

Certainly some years ago you were alive to God. You experienced the life and power of religion. And does not God intend, that the trials you meet with, should bring you back to this? You cannot stand still; you know this is impossible. You must go forward or backward. Either you must recover that power, and be a Christian altogether, or in awhile you will have neither power, nor form, inside nor outside.

Extremely opposite both to one and the other, is that aptness to ridicule others, to make them contemptible, by exposing their real or supposed foibles. This I would earnestly advise you to avoid. It hurts yourself. It hurts the hearers. And it greatly hurts those who are so exposed, and tends to make them your enemies. It has also sometimes betrayed you into speaking what was not strictly true. Oh beware of this, above all things; never amplify; never exaggerate any thing. Be rigorous in adhering to truth. Be exemplary therein…. I pray, be exact in this. Be a pattern of truth, sincerity, and godly simplicity.

What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarcely ever knew a Preacher read so little. And, perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep: there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with daily meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep Preacher without it: any more than a thorough Christian. Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: what is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life: there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial Preacher. Do justice to your own soul: give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you; and, in particular, yours, &c.


I think this is an extraordinary letter, and profoundly applicable to Christianity as it is (mal)practiced today, not least by many of its leaders. Wesley grasps here some vital points:

  • That in the Christian life one cannot simply maintain a status quo. “You must go forward or backward.”
  • That it’s cheap and easy, in preaching and teaching and writing, to attack those you believe to be wrong, and that in so doing you do not help anything but rather hurt everyone involved — including yourself. (Seeking to expose the foibles of others is a sure way to “go backwards.”)
  • That the desire to expose and ridicule others will lead you away from strict adherence to truthfulness.
  • That nothing is more to be shunned, by the faithful Christian, than looseness with the truth.
  • That — this is only implied, but it is strongly implied — preachers are led into these temptations by a failure to read: a failure to fill their minds with substantive knowledge, in the absence of which they can only be superficial “triflers.”
  • That such reading is vital because preachers cannot feed others unless they first feed themselves. (“Do justice to your own soul: give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”)
  • That taking on this kind of intellectual discipline is one of the ways that Christians must take up their Cross.

why you need to take a break from social media

Imagination is strong in a man when that particular function of the brain which enables him to observe is roused to activity without any necessary excitement of the senses. Accordingly, we find that imagination is active just in proportion as our senses are not excited by external objects. A long period of solitude, whether in prison or in a sick room; quiet, twilight, darkness — these are the things that promote its activity; and under their influence it comes into play of itself. On the other hand, when a great deal of material is presented to our faculties of observation, as happens on a journey, or in the hurly-burly of the world, or, again, in broad daylight, the imagination is idle, and, even though call may be made upon it, refuses to become active, as though it understood that that was not its proper time.

However, if the imagination is to yield any real product, it must have received a great deal of material from the external world. This is the only way in which its storehouse can be filled. The phantasy is nourished much in the same way as the body, which is least capable of any work and enjoys doing nothing just in the very moment when it receives its food which it has to digest. And yet it is to this very food that it owes the power which it afterwards puts forth at the right time.

Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism

abandoned mansions

Mr Wellmon’s university

For the last couple of years I’ve read several essays by my friend Chad Wellmon about the state of the American university, and the place of the humanities in that university, and while I have found each of those essays enormously thought-provoking, I have also struggled to discern an overall account of the university in Chad’s writings. He seems to do a lot of “on the one hand, on the other hand” stuff. But today, listening to this talk, I think I see some pieces of the puzzle fall into place. I now discern three interrelated themes in Chad’s recent writing on these subjects.

Utopian promises lead to dystopian responses. The more dramatic the claims that university leaders make on behalf of their institutions — We create great citizens! We’ll make you rich! We have the best sports teams, and they will fill your leisure hours with delight! We’ll be a home for you better than your actual home! We are the sole source of Knowledge! — the more certainly they create a backlash that portrays universities as cynical, corrupt exploiters of its students, sold out completely to the neoliberal order or to every leftist trend — depending on your politics. (My politics are such that I suspect selling out on both sides, but that’s a story for another day.)

Proximate goods are not ultimate, but they’re still goods. The purpose of the university is not to reveal to you The Meaning of Life, or to Save the World — though some university presidents might hint at such powers — but at the university you can learn to think better, to evaluate evidence, to test hypotheses, to formulate arguments, and to do all this in daily relation with others who are developing the same skills — though perhaps not always in quite the ways, or with the results, that you’d prefer. But this too, this negotiating with imperfect partners, is a discipline and a skill.

Institutions, even deeply flawed institutions, are where the formation of persons happens. And in a society that is rapidly disempowering or dismantling so many institutions, from the family on up, do we really want to destroy one that, however inconsistently and imperfectly, does the pedagogical work described above? If there were no university, then where, in our society, would those disciplines and skills be pursued? Twitter? Facebook groups? (Clay Shirky used to think so. Not so much anymore.) Or do you expect individuals to do the necessary work themselves, asocially and non-institutionally?

In brief: If you pay attention to what universities actually do — again, however inconsistently and imperfectly — as opposed to what their PR-driven leaders promise — you might be better positioned to understand their value, and our society’s complete inability to build other institutions that might provide similar value.

Chad thinks he’s a liberal, but this sure looks like a conservative argument to me — an old-fashioned case for the wisdom of limiting one’s ambitions and expectations alike — a Chesterton’s fence kind of argument. I like it. (Assuming, that is, that I have understood Chad properly.)

one person here understands what Easter is all about

Mikhail Svetlov / Getty

Tending the Digital Commons

Facebook is unlikely to shut down tomorrow; nor is Twitter, or Instagram, or any other major social network. But they could. And it would be a good exercise to reflect on the fact that, should any or all of them disappear, no user would have any legal or practical recourse. I started thinking about this situation a few years ago when Tumblr—a platform devoted to a highly streamlined form of blogging, with an emphasis on easy reposting from other accounts—was bought by Yahoo. I was a heavy user of Tumblr at the time, having made thousands of posts, and given the propensity of large tech companies to buy smaller ones and then shut them down, I wondered what would become of my posts if Yahoo decided that Tumblr wasn’t worth the cost of maintaining it. I found that I was troubled by the possibility to a degree I hadn’t anticipated. It would be hyperbolic (not to say comical) to describe my Tumblr as a work of art, but I had put a lot of thought into what went on it, and sometimes I enjoyed looking through the sequence of posts, noticing how I had woven certain themes into that sequence, or feeling pleasure at having found interesting and unusual images. I felt a surge of proprietary affection—and anxiety.

Many personal computers have installed on them a small command-line tool called wget, which allows you to download webpages, or even whole websites, to your machine. I immediately downloaded the whole of my Tumblr to keep it safe—although if Tumblr did end up being shut down, I wasn’t sure how I would get all those posts back online. But that was a problem I could reserve for another day. In the meantime, I decided that I needed to talk with my students.

— Me, earlier this year. With Tumblr in the news I was reminded of my argument here, and would like to remind you of it as well.


Despite its subtle and not-so-subtle ravishments, a Warhol canvas is expressively vacant. “There’s no place for our spiritual eye to penetrate it,” the art historian Neil Printz has said of the work. “We’re just thrown back on the surface.” That’s true, though the effect is more dreadful than that. What made Warhol so perishingly cold was the implication that the “spiritual eye” never existed in the first place. Warhol, one observer put it, “wanted to be Greta Garbo, he wanted to be Marilyn Monroe,” and to better convert himself into an icon, he withdrew behind an affect as lifeless as one of his Marilyn paintings. The deadpan rigmarole was total. It functioned as an anti-elegy. It said that nothing was lost, that nothing of depth or value had been surrendered to the image.

Stephen Metcalf. Is it Warhol who is “expressively vacant”? Or is it the world that he so faithfully represents? Imagine if Warhol, a faithful Ruthenian Catholic, had been born not in Pittsburgh but in the Carpathians two hundred years ago: Would you expect that an artist of his gifts, so culturally placed, would produce “expressively vacant” work?

maybe it’s time to give up

For the past few years I have taught a first-year seminar, here in Baylor’s Honors College, focusing largely on technological and media literary. If I am honest with myself, I will have to admit that it has never gone particularly well.

If there is one argument that I make most relentlessly in the class, it is this: Every technology proferred to us by our technocracy has powerful affordances that are encoded in those technologies’ default settings. You do not have to stick with those defaults, and in some cases it can be dangerous or even unethical to do so. So what I’m trying to teach my students is what the Hebrew Bible calls bin, discernment, and what Aristotle and his heirs call phronesis, prudence or judgment. I don’t tell them to delete their Facebook accounts, but I do want them to know precisely what is involved in having a Facebook account, what the costs and benefits are; I want them to be thoughtful and mindful in how they use these technologies.

Some of them thank me for opening their eyes to the realities of our current socio-technological order, but more of them admit, either ruefully or a little defiantly, that nothing we’ve read or discussed is going to change their habits, because it’s just not important enough to invest time and energy in. They’re worried about whether they’re going to get into law school or medical school, and they want to have fun at football games, and when you add up the work hours and the leisure hours there just aren’t any left over for questioning the moral legitimacy of Instagram. And anyway that’s where their friends are. Usually there’s a shrug at this point.

And you know what? I don’t think I can say that they’re wrong. Maybe that’s a rational decision they’re making, all things considered. In which case I need to find a new topic for my first-year seminar.

the BAD problem

As it happens, a large amount of carbon sits in American dirt. If that carbon escapes into the atmosphere, it will worsen climate change. Should a small nation ever appoint you despot of all climate laws, please do something about dirt. But generally and politically speaking, dirt does not get the people going. Upon hearing the slogan “Dirt: Now More Than Ever,” most voters will not picture overflowing cornucopias of prosperity. They will picture bath time.

I have come to think of this tension as climate policy’s Boring-as-Dirt Problem: the BAD problem. The BAD problem recognizes that climate change is a very interesting challenge. It is scary and massive and apocalyptic, and its attendant disasters (especially hurricanes, wildfires, and floods) make for good TV. But the policies that will address climate change do not pack the same punch. They are technical and technocratic and quite often boring. At the very least, they will never be as immediate as climate change itself. Floods are powerful, but stormwater management is arcane. Wildfires are ravenous, but electrical-grid upgrades are tedious. Climate change is scary, but dirt is boring. That’s the BAD problem.

Robinson Meyer. As Rob suggests, almost every social problem in desperate need of addressing shares the BAD problem.


1 Maitreya Dhoti full

two comments on a review

Two brief thoughts about David Sessions’s review of my recent book:

  1. I don’t treat the works and writers that Sessions thinks I should have (see his penultimate paragraph) because they’re beyond the scope of my book. I didn’t write a book about Christian responses to World War II or technocracy or liberalism, but rather one about a small collection of people who were particularly interested in education. I’m selective even in treating my five protagonists, as I explain in the Preface: “All that they did and thought and suffered and wrote that does not relate to the circulation of these questions will be set aside here, though sometimes referred to parenthetically and in notes for the benefit of those who may be curious.” But in order to remind my readers that the concerns these writers shared are not the only valid ones, I have an Interlude called “Other Pilgrims, Other Paths” in which (pace Sessions) I do in fact mention the Catholic Worker Movement.
  2. Sessions says that my “reading of the Christian humanists proposes retreat into literature at precisely the moment bold thinking about power and technology are most needed.” I am not aware of proposing anything, and I don’t know what a “retreat into literature” might be. My protagonists are not strictly literary in their interests (indeed, Maritain says almost nothing about literature). But for what it’s worth, I do think that reading literature can be quite valuable, and would be happy to provide, on request, a list of literary works that in my judgment constitute “bold thinking about power and technology.”

how Steve Reich discovered his own Judaism

I was brought up a secular, Reform Jew, which means I didn’t know Aleph from Bet. I knew nothing, and therefore I cared nothing. My father cared culturally, but that’s all. So when I came home from Africa, I thought to myself, there’s this incredible oral tradition in Ghana, passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, for thousands of years. Don’t I have something like that? I’m a member of the oldest group of human beings still known as a group that managed to cohere enough to survive – and I know nothing about it. So I started studying at Lincoln Square Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, an Orthodox temple, that had an incredible adult-education program for the likes of me – and I asked whether they would teach a course in biblical Hebrew, and they said sure, and they brought a professor down from Yeshiva University to teach that, and I studied the weekly portion – I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a weekly portion and commentaries thereon.

So this whole world opened up for me – it was 1975, at about the same time as I met my wife, Beryl, and so all of this sort of came together and it did occur to me – isn’t it curious that I had to go to Ghana to go back to my own traditions because I think if you understand any historical group, or any other religion for that matter, in any detail, then you’ll be able to approach another one with more understanding. So the answer to your question is yes. The longest yes you’ve ever heard.

Steve Reich

excerpts from my Sent folder: Gollum

… let me tell you why Gollum has been on my mind for the last 24 hours or so. Once Gollum takes the Ring, he could slip it on his finger and hightail it out of there, but what does he do? He dances. He takes a victory lap. He celebrates too soon, and so falls to his death. You know who this reminds me of? ERIC DIER. The parallels are so obvious. Dier scores a goal — which should have been disallowed for offside, mind you — and then shushes the crowd and taunts his opponents. Which at that moment results merely in a few handbags, but later results in his playing a part in not one but TWO Arsenal goals (one deflects off him, the other happens after he brainlessly tries to intercept a ball he can’t reach), which is to say, as the inevitable consequence of his dancing and celebrating he falls into a pit of fire where he is burned beyond recognition.

People just don’t learn from Moral Fiction, do they? If I were an Arsenal supporter I’d make much hay from this.


Trump is not inarticulate, though people often say that. Rather, he is hyperarticulate in the mode that used to be called “garrulous.” Words constantly emerge from his mouth, and he clearly likes saying them and believes that his eloquence flows; but his words flow in the way that debris floats down a swollen stream, quickly or slowly spinning, drifting, knocking into one another, getting caught on overhanging branches, submerging and then popping again into view.

Trump is not inarticulate, he is asyntactic. “Syntax” means to arrange together, and Trump’s utterances have no discernible arrangement, and possess no unity. Consider the passage — but of course you could choose almost anything he says — this passage:

One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty … if you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion. There is movement in the atmosphere. There’s no question. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it.

He doesn’t see it — he doesn’t see the relations among events: cause and effect, ground and consequent, subject and object. To this asyntactic mind the world itself is asyntactic, just one damned thing after another, and the only means he has to distinguish among those things is to ask whether they please or displease him.

a handout


enough with the “Cultural Marxism” already

Alexander Zubatov tries to rescue the term “Cultural Marxism” in this post, and I don’t think he succeeds. Now, he might succeed in defending some users of the term from some of the charges Samuel Moyn makes here, but that’s a different matter (and one I won’t take up here). I simply want to argue that the term ought to be abandoned.

Here’s Zubatov’s definition:

So what is cultural Marxism? In brief, it is a belief that cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures, so we must scrutinize and judge all culture and ideas based on their relation to power.

The problem here, put as succinctly as I can put it, is that you can take this view of culture without being a Marxist, and you can be a Marxist without taking this view of culture.

Taking the latter point first: in The German Ideology Marx and Engels state quite clearly that there is a relationship between the art that is produced at a given time and place and the overall character of that time and place:

Raphael’s work of art depended on the flourishing of Rome at that time, which occurred under Florentine influence, while the works of Leonardo depended on the state of things in Florence, and the works of Titian, at a later period, depended on the totally different development of Venice. Raphael as much as any other artist was determined by the technical advances in art made before him, by the organization of society and the division of labour in his locality, and, finally, by the division of labour in all countries with which his locality had intercourse. Whether an individual like Raphael succeeds in developing his talent depends wholly on demand, which in turn depends on the division of labour and the conditions of human culture resulting from it.

But notice that there is a lot more going on here than “underlying power structures.” Marx and Engels are making a rather commonsensical point, which is that the history and social organization of Florence meant that the work produced in it would (of course!) be different than the work produced at the same time in a society such as that of Venice. They are implying that those who really want to understand a work of art will make themselves familiar with the wide range of circumstances that form a given culture, only some of which are political or economic. Certain “technical advances in art” — the use of varying pigments, for instance — might arise in a given place less because of the economic conditions than because of a particular artist’s ingenuity.

To be sure, many later Marxists would get highly agitated by Marx and Engels’s use of the word “determined” in the passage just quoted. But a decade after The German Ideology, in an appendix to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx would clarify this point:

As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society, nor do they therefore to the material substructure, the skeleton as it were of its organisation. For example the Greeks compared with modern [nations] …. It is even acknowledged that certain branches of art, e.g., the epic, can no longer be produced in their epoch-making classic form after artistic production as such has begun; in other words that certain important artistic formations are only possible at an early stage in the development of art itself.

Marx believed that capitalism was an advance over feudalism, which was in turn an advance over more primitive forms of political organization; that did not mean that he thought Benjamin Disraeli a superior writer to Homer — or that you could explain Homer’s greatness by invoking the politics of his world. But if you want to understand a given work of art you need to pay attention to what Marx and Engels habitually called its “material conditions.”

So, if we grant that Marx and Engels are Marxists, we must then conclude that Marxists do not necessarily believe that “cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures.” And many later Marxists, including some of the ones Zubatov quotes, go even further in separating the superstructure of cultural production from the economic base. (Georg Lukács, for instance, was taken to task by Bertolt Brecht for writing criticism insufficiently attentive to the base and therefore to the revolutionary imperative: “It is the element of capitulation, of withdrawal, of utopian idealism which still lurks in Lukács’s essays and which he will undoubtedly overcome, that makes his work, which otherwise contains so much of value, unsatisfactory; for it gives the impression that what concerns him is enjoyment alone, not struggle, a way of escape, rather than a march forward.”)

Moreover, the one figure who did the most to consolidate the idea that all culture is deeply implicated in the “underlying power structures,” the power-knowledge regime, is Michel Foucault, and there has always been the suspicion on the academic Left that Foucault is actually a conservative.

It is equally clear that one can believe that an advocate “for the persecuted and oppressed must attack forms of culture that reinscribe the values of the ruling class, and disseminate culture and ideas that support ‘oppressed’ groups and ‘progressive’ causes,” without endorsing any of the core principles of Marx’s system. (There are forms of conservatism and Christianity that are as fiercely critical of the ruling class as any Marxist, while having no time for dialectical materialism or communism.)

I am not convinced by Moyn’s claim that there is something strongly antisemitic about the contemporary use of the term “Cultural Marxism” — though I’d be interested to hear him develop that argument at greater length. I tend to see there term deployed in the classic Red Scare mode of the McCarthy era: in some circles, now as then, there’s no quicker and easier way to discredit an idea than to call its proponents Commies. And that’s the work that the “Marxism” half of “cultural Marxism” does.

the imperative of silence

The casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety.

Christian Wiman. This is true. It is also, for some of us, very, very convenient.

the impeded stream

I remember sitting in an empty classroom at Washington and Lee late into the night, working on a poem instead of studying for an exam on international trade. I had spent three years as an economics major: endless afternoons in dead-aired classrooms from which I can’t remember a thing in the world except that I wanted, wanted, wanted something so vague it might as well be money. By the time of my last class in the “C-School” I was so hungry for meaning that everything was instantly allegorical—the blind professor who taught international trade, the desk he clung to like a life raft, the random dog that sauntered into that third-floor classroom one afternoon as if he owned the place. He stopped right in front of my desk, turned around twice before taking a disconcertingly deliberate shit, then trotted lightly out like an ironic angel.

Not that the true path was by any means clear. I still had twenty years to writhe on the high hook I knew only as Ambition. It’s almost the definition of a calling that there is strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical—how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc.—but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself within it? Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it. “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” (Wendell Berry)

Christian Wiman

tallgrass prairie

Bluestem grassland, Chase County, Kansas, 31 October, 1979. Photograph by Terry Evans. Click image for story.

the position of power redux

Robin Hanson begins this post by quoting a passage in Tyler Cowen’s new book Stubborn Attachments in which Cowen talks about whether economics is about satisfying people’s preferences. Hanson wants to reflect on this, but he also wants to talk about something else:

Tyler seems to use a standard moral framework here, one wherein we are looking at others and trying to agree among ourselves about what moral choices to make on their behalf. (Those others are not included in our conversation.)

It has long been remarkable to me how often social scientists, and philosophers when they concern themselves with public issues, consider their subjects from the position of power. As I say in that post I just linked to,

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. Pronouns matter a good deal here. Note that in Roache’s comments “we” are the ones who have the power to inflict punishment on “someone.” We punish; they are punished. We control; they are controlled. We decide; they are the objects of our decisions. Would Roache’s speculations have taken a different form, I wonder, if she had reversed the pronouns?

I’m therefore glad to see Hanson push back on this habit. He envisions “a more inclusive conversation, one where the people about whom we are making moral choices become part of the moral ‘dealmaking’ process. That is, when it is not we trying to agree among ourselves about what we should do for them, but when instead we all talk together about what to do for us all.“

But consider how rare this perspective is, especially among academics dealing with public policy in any form. Imagine academic treatises on policy written from the perspective of people who have policies imposed on them whether they like those policies or not. Maybe there are such treatises, but I haven’t seen them.


Coralie Bickford-Smith

Spanish Is the Loving Tongue

Barry Feinstein

One of the most surprisingly interesting, and moving, moments on Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks comes on the third disc, when, a few songs in, you suddenly hear the zzzzz of a tape recorder starting up. Apparently the engineer had just realized that something was going on worthy of being recorded.

So we come in near the end of the first verse of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue.” This is not one of Dylan’s originals: it’s an early-20th-century cowboy poem that was set to music in the 1920s. Almost everyone has recorded it, and Dylan seems to have loved the song deeply. He has played it many times in concert over the years — as YouTube amply demonstrates — and recorded two versions in studios. One of those, done when he had stopped smoking and found that weird crooning voice that you hear, most famously, on “Lay Lady Lay,” just might be the worst recording of his entire career. I can’t even bring myself to link to it.

Here, when the recording engineer flips his switch, Dylan is playing guitar and is accompanied by the bassist Tony Brown and the pianist Paul Griffin. Griffin, by the way, is a remarkable figure. He played with Dylan on his great trio of mid-60s electric albums — you can see him with the whole band here, and there’s an unfortunately tiny photo of him and Dylan here — but he turns up all over American pop music, and often very distinctively. Yes, that’s him on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” but that’s also him on Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By”; that’s him playing electric piano on Steely Dan’s “Peg,” and, perhaps most famous of all, that’s him on “American Pie.” What a career.

Anyway, here he is with Dylan again. Bob has, I suspect, just launched into “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue,” and Griffin and Brown are finding their slots in the song. I’m sure Dylan had no thought of putting it on his new record; he just loved the song and started playing it. And it’s magnificent.

“Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” is a thoroughly inauthentic song. It’s not a real cowboy ballad; it’s belated, imitative. Like “Loch Lomond,” a 19th-century parlor song pretending to be an ancient Scots ballad, it’s completely fake and completely wonderful. And here, fooling around in the studio, Dylan finds something deep inside the song — something emotionally real and raw and utterly compelling.

Dylan and his wife Sara were going through their divorce at this time, and it is almost universal to hear Blood on the Tracks as a breakup record — perhaps the greatest breakup record ever made. In his liner notes for this collection, Jeff Slate notes that Dylan has disavowed such an interpretation, claiming that he got his lyrical ideas for the album from reading Chekhov stories. Slate treats that disavowal as definitive. Please. Blood on the Tracks is the greatest breakup record ever made, and the pain of that divorce is etched into every song. It’s also etched into many of the takes and rehearsals here: I defy you to listen to the first four cuts of disc 1 — two takes of “If You See Her, Say Hello” and two of “You’re a Big Girl Now” — and conclude that they arise from thoughtful reflection on Chekhov.

And all that pain makes its way into this performance of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue.” Brown quietly accents the melody with his bass, and Griffin finds a wonderfully appropriate groove, like a barrelhouse piano player who’s had too much to drink and is noodling through an old tune before heading off for bed. It’s relaxed and meditative; it sounds almost designedly unprofessional. It perfectly suits the deep melancholy of Dylan’s voice, which gives itself over unreservedly to this sentimental old song and makes of it something unforgettable.

my Zettelkasten

Over the last few years I have adopted, with increasing confidence and pleasure, a new means of organizing my research. For my most recent book and the one I’m working on now, I have developed a version of Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system, and it it by far the best system of research-based note-taking I’ve employed.

For a long time I hesitated to try the Zettelkasten system because I believed that Luhmann depended on a single system, a single collection of cards that ramified and extended indefinitely. Now, that may not be strictly true, but it was certainly his ideal. And I felt that I had come upon the Zettelkasten model too late in life to adopt it. It would have been wonderful if I had learned about it when I was 30, or even 40, but in my fifties? Too late.

So I thought. But ultimately, when I was working on The Year of Our Lord 1943, I realized that the demands of my research — trying to track the thought and writing of five figures working in complete isolation from one another — called for something like a Zettelkasten system. (It would take a long time to explain why, but it had to do with cross-referencing ideas that were related to one another in a variety of ways: by author, by date, by theme.) Well, I thought, why not have a collection of Zettel that is based not on a lifetime of research but on a single project? So I tried that. And it worked wonderfully.

Now I’m back to work on another book, and again I’m finding Zettel the best way to keep track of quotes and ideas. Don’t Zettel for less than the best, is what I say!


Just a random note before I go further, from Wiktionary:

Early Modern High German zeddel, zedel, from Middle High German zedele, zedel, a loan from Italian cedola, from Medieval Latin cedula, schedula, the diminutive of scheda, scida (“strip of papyrus”), ultimately from Ancient Greek σχίδη (skhídē, “splinter, fragment”).

That’s an interesting history, no?

One of the best things about making Zettel is the ability to go back to an old card and add related cards. So if I make a note about Barbara Tuchman’s idea of history as a distant mirror, I can make a note on that, and label it BBD26. (BBD because this project is called Breaking Bread with the Dead.) And then when I come upon a fascinating essay by Daniel Mendelsohn that treats the Aeneid as a kind of “distant mirror” of our own time, I can add a card to that effect and label it BBD26a. And if later still I have a further thought about Mendelsohn’s essay I can add another card and label it BBD26a1; or, if I want to return to the “distant mirror” theme but with reference to a different text, I can label that card BBD26b. And then if I realize that some other card already in my stack treats a similar theme, I can add cross-references at the bottom or on the back of the relevant cards. (This is not quite how Luhmann numbered his cards but it’s what I like to do.)

I could of course use any number of apps to build a digital Zettelkasten, and indeed I have tried, but paper cards work much better for me. I like keeping my text editor in full screen mode in front of me and then arranging the relevant cards around the computer. I like sifting through the pack and being reminded of things I wasn’t looking for (Luhmann thought this proximity to serendipity one of the most important features of his system.) I enjoy “building a deck,” as it were.

And then, when I’m done with this project, I can put all the cards in a box with my other cards, most of which, by the way, are about the books I teach rather than those I write. (Whenever I am preparing for class I make notes about the themes and passages I want to explore on index cards.) By the time I retire, from teaching and writing alike, I’ll have a pretty interesting collection of cards. Nothing like Luhmann’s, but interesting. Something to look over between sips of my well-earned single malt….

maintaining lines of connection

Warren Ellis:

I feel like I want to see some more thought around getting the fuck off social networks but being able to maintain lines of connection between friends, comrades and fellow-travellers in addition to the Republic Of Newsletters and the Isles Of Blogging. Status pages as the signals from the Invisible Monastery, or, possibly, Hobo Code marks on the walls of the web. Planning for the oncoming dark age?

Radio beacons.

I dunno. I feel like it’s either a fragment of an idea for maintaining connections while routing around toxic internet, or it’s MySpace pages.

I’ve been getting a good many ideas from Ellis lately: he mentions here status pages, for the second time in a week, and I decided to make one — there a link to it at the bottom of my home page. And status pages are indeed nice — I wish more of my friends had them — but they do sort of belong to the monastic world, the world of people who need to hole up for long periods of time to get work done but don’t want to be hermits.

But if you’re somewhere between being a monk and being an incessant chatterbox, it’s hard to know what to do, online anyway.

Here’s what I’m doing now: I still see Twitter and Instagram occasionally, but it’s very occasionally. I have Freedom set up to block those apps, on all my devices, for all but two hours each day (an hour in the morning and another in the evening). And that’s sufficient — more than sufficient: there are days when I forget to check either of them. I post to my blog and my micro.blog, and those posts get auto-cross-posted to Twitter.

As much as I still love, and will always love, RSS, I have purged it of almost all news and current-events sites. I have unsubscribed from all newspapers — though I get free access to the WSJ through Baylor — and try to get my news through weekly and monthly magazines. That’s much saner. I subscribe to a dozen or so newsletters, but for me, newsletters are just not All That.

Overall I am reading more codex and less internet.

But I never have stopped missing the friendships I used to experience through Twitter. For a while I tried chatting with people on micro.blog, but that didn’t work — which may be because I just don’t have the knack of social-media chatting any more, but also may be because people have learned certain discursive habits from Twitter and Facebook that they then bring to every other platform, and I don’t like those discursive habits. In any case, for now I’m just posting to micro.blog and not trying to converse. Maybe that will change. Or maybe I’ll move everything back to the blog. Time will tell.

My guess is that social media are dead to conversation and conversation on them cannot be revived. But if that’s true, how to “maintain lines of connection between friends, comrades and fellow-travellers” while “routing around the toxic internet”? That is indeed the question, and I don’t have a clue how it might be answered. I suspect that there is no answer: that it’s the toxic internet or hermetic life or, for those who are blessed, what Auden called “local understanding.” And if so, though I don’t want to be a hermit, I’d definitely prefer that to trying, yet again, to talk to strangers on social media.

Anyway: like Ellis, I am waiting and hoping for ideas. Maybe a revival of listservs? That’d be way better than Slack.

totalitarian presentism

Senator Ben Sasse doesn’t read modern fiction, only old books, and people on social media are getting seriously freaked out.

Let’s stop and think about this. Sasse’s day job requires him to spend dozens of hours a week immersed in the affairs of the moment. When he turns on his TV: affairs of the moment. When he ferries people around as an Uber driver, he hears about people’s take on the affairs of the moment. When he listens to the radio: affairs of the moment. When he’s on social media: affairs of the moment. But if, in his leisure hours, he wants to read old books, he’s THE WORST. He has committed the unpardonable sin.

It is not enough for many people that they be so utterly presentist in their sensibility that their temporal bandwidth is a nanometer wide. Everyone must share their obsession with the instant. No one may look to other times. It’s not just presentism, it’s totalitarian presentism.

Yeah, I really do need to write this book.

race and ethnicity in the Potterverse

Race and ethnicity are pretty weird in the Potterverse  because of the peculiar ways that fictional world overlaps with our own. This weirdness emerges frequently in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, as my friend Adam Roberts recently commented to me. What follows is an expansion of my response to Adam.

Consider Lela Lestrange: a member of a family notorious for its obsession with purity of wizarding blood, and yet also a mixed-race woman. If you were reading her story in a book, you’d be able to focus on her pure-blood status; watching her in a movie, you are continually reminded of the color of her skin and how it differs from that of the very white Scamander boys who love her.

Or think of Nagini: a Maledictus, a woman under a curse that transforms her into a snake, a woman (we are told) from Indonesia — and who is played in the film by a South Korean actress. That she is a Maledictus is the only thing that matters in the context of the story; but that may not be the only thing that viewers see.

Strangest of all, note this scene: a group of Aurors from various Ministries of Magic find themselves in the midst of a rally led by Gerrit Grindelwald. There is also among them one Muggle, Jacob Kowalski, and one might think that he would be especially frightened and endangered, since Grindelwald’s message is implicitly anti-Muggle. (Grindelwald keeps saying that he doesn’t hate Muggles, that he only wants wizards to live freely in the open — to have Lebensraum, one might say — but come on.) Yet when the camera looks away from Grindelwald, it tends to linger on the anxious face of one of our lead characters, Tina. Why is she so anxious?

The immediate and obvious reason is that she is an Auror, and Grindelwald has just announced to the crowd that there are Aurors among them. (This leads one witch to pull her wand threateningly on someone she perceives to be an Auror, which leads in turn to his killing her — an event which suits Grindelwald’s purposes very nicely, because it allows him to portray his movement as a peaceable one, its members constantly under threat from the violent policing of the magical world’s official bodies.) So Tina could well be fearful that the crowd will turn on her.

Might there be another reason for her to fear? Well, the sleuths of Potter fandom have discovered that she is a half-blood. (Their primary evidence: this.) Does that make her vulnerable among Grindelwald’s supporters? Maybe not: so far he has not sounded the pure-blood clarion the way Voldemort will later do — at least, not that I recall. His emphasis is strongly on the Magic-Muggle dichotomy. So maybe half-blood status doesn’t matter. Yet.

But then there’s this: Tina’s full name is Porpentina Goldstein, something that’s very hard to forget when she stands in a crowd of people who follow the extravagantly Aryan Grindelwald. Does being Jewish matter in the wizarding world? Do the various prejudices and racial identifications that do such powerful work in our Muggle world have any purchase among the magical? The general tone and tenor of the Potterverse would suggest not, but at moments like these….

Adam Roberts also recently pointed me to a series of poets by Phil Edwards on Rowling’s worldmaking. Edwards posits a rough taxonomy of fantasy worlds — the nuts-and-bolts, the numinous, and the satirical/polemical — and suggests that the Potterverse is “a hazy amalgam of all three, covered by repeated register-switching between them.” This seems right to me, and it helps to explain why the racial logic of our social order keeps floating in and out of view. It’s a rather disorienting phenomenon.

To some extent this kind of thing happens in all Fantasy — thus the permanent tendency of readers to see The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of the Second World War, and thus also Tolkien’s endless frustration with that reading. In Edwards’s terms, Tolkien had, he thought, done enough nuts-and-bolts work to rescue his story from such easy analogies. But Rowling seems positively to court such allegorical readings — only to swerve away from them later.

the call to maintenance

I’m full of ideas after reading this amazing essay by Shannon Mattern, “Maintenance and Care: Fixing a Broken World”:

In many academic disciplines and professional practices — architecture, urban studies, labor history, development economics, and the information sciences, just to name a few — maintenance has taken on new resonance as a theoretical framework, an ethos, a methodology, and a political cause. This is an exciting area of inquiry precisely because the lines between scholarship and practice are blurred. To study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance. To fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines, is an act of repair or, simply, of taking care — connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.

Mattern links to the site of The Maintainers, who set themselves in ironic opposition to “the innovators”:

“Innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

The Maintainers is a global, interdisciplinary research network that takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

This converges with David Edgerton’s marvelous book The Shock of the Old, with its account of how familiar technologies get continually renewed and repurposed, but also resonates with the great call of Tikkun olam: the repair, the renewal, the maintenance, of the world.

As a Christian and a professor of humanities, I find all this especially intriguing because it offers a subtle but vital correction to more familiar ideas of “conserving” or “upholding” a tradition. Traditions, seen from the perspective of a Maintainer, need active caring for. They must be kept in constant repair. To put them away in glass cases is to render them useless, so they must be taken out and used, but that exposes them to wear and tear to which the Maintainer must always be sensitive. They must be actively tended to, like an internal combustion engine, or a garden. There’s a whole Theory of Life here. Or my life, anyway.

what I hear in church

The Episcopal Church, on the other hand, couldn’t trick me with promises of divinely ordained succession or sharply define anything that happened in any given sacrament. I appreciated the humility about what we could know and the sense of contingency. Everything could have been different, but this is how things turned out. The Book of Common Prayer was beautiful, its language homely in the most exalted meaning of the term. It was human-sized.

But alongside this humility, there was something else, a kind of stiff-necked quality — attractive at the human scale but less so when applied to the divine. Don’t trouble God, he’s busy and has other things to do; no hysterical weeping, no over-the-top saints, nothing to touch, nothing to consult. Mary, when she’s present, stays decently off to the side. Instead of reaching over the gap toward a God who reaches back to you, you quietly stay in your place.

And if you cross over some bright red line, that’s it. Your sins are yours to bear. There’s nothing else that can be done for you. Assessing what you’ve done and what to do about it are up to you. Up to you to figure out when you’d done enough. But you won’t ever do enough, and you’ll never be forgiven. And why, with all the advantages afforded to you, and with the harm you will always have done, should you be?

B. D. McClay. If that’s what I had learned in Anglican churches — that I shouldn’t trouble God, that there’s nothing to touch and nothing to consult, that I shouldn’t or can’t reach toward a God who reaches toward me (or maybe doesn’t), that if I crossed “some bright red line” my sins would be mine to bear, without the hope of forgiveness — then I might well be a Catholic too. Certainly I wouldn’t be an Anglican.

But when I go to church, I (with the rest of the congregation) ask for God’s forgiveness, and then the priest says these words to me:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who in his great mercy has promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with heartfelt repentance and true faith turn unto him: have mercy on you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And then that priest says to me the Comfortable Words, which conclude with this sentence from St. John: “If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.” And that’s what I count on.

To any churches out there that proclaimed the message that B. D. McClay heard, and that brought her so much pain: great is your sin.

Tim Larsen on John Stuart Mill

My friend Tim Larsen has written an absolutely fascinating brief biography of John Stuart Mill. (It appears in the Oxford Spiritual Lives series, of which Tim is also the editor.) Everyone knows that Mill had little time for or interest in religion, and that his father James Mill, aide-de-camp to that great enemy of faith Jeremy Bentham, was even more hostile than JSM himself. Given JSM’s secular and rationalist upbringing, it cannot be surprising that, as he put it, “I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men I read of in Herodotus should have done so.”

However, as Tim shows convincingly, this statement is seriously misleading to the point of being simply untrue. The same must be said for the familiar family story. James Mill was a licensed preacher and had turned to the life of a writer and public intellectual only after failing to get the kind of pastoral position he thought he was qualified for — a fact he carefully hid from his children — and probably didn’t become a complete unbeliever until he was in his mid-forties, by which point JSM was already a ten-year-old, or older, prodigy. James’s wife Harriet was a Christian, each of their nine children was baptized in the Church of England, and probably only two of them (JSM and his youngest sibling George Grotesque) departed in any significant way from standard-issue Victorian religion. JSM grew up learning not only the Bible but the worship of the Church of England. Nothing about that religion was strange to him.

Moreover, Tim also demonstrates that throughout the course of his life JSM held to a minimal but stable theology, which he summarizes thus:

Even from a scientific point of view and without any intuitive sense or direct experience of the divine, there is still sufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that God probably exists; God is good, but not omnipotent; the life and sayings of Christ are admirable and deserve our reverence; the immortality of the soul or an afterlife are possible but not certain; humanity’s task is to co-labour with God to subdue evil and make the world a better place; the affirmations in the previous points such as that God exists and is good cannot be proven, but it is still a reasonable act to appropriate these religious convictions imaginatively not he basis of hope.

(One of the most interesting parts of Tim’s book is his exploration of the potent role “hope” played in Mill’s moral and intellectual lexicon.) There is much more than I might comment on, especially Mill’s alliances with evangelical Christians in his campaign for the rights of women — his rationalist friends were generally cold to this idea — and the interestingly varied religious beliefs of his family, but I will just strongly suggest that you read the book. Its subtitle is “A Secular Life,” and JSM’s life was indeed secular, but not in a modern sense. As Tim puts it, in the Victorian era, even for atheists “the sea of faith was full and all around.”

A sermon by the Rev. Jessica Martin, for Remembrance Day

Solemn Orchestral Requiem Eucharist, 11 November 2018, Ely Cathedral

  • Epistle: 1 Peter 1.3–9
  • ​Gospel: John 5.19–25

The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. — John 5.24

From where we stand, on the shore where the living are confined, we see only the impassable swift stream set between us and the dead who have gone before us. Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play, talked despairingly of ‘the bourn from which no traveller returns’. A ‘bourn’ is a river – Northern and Scottish usage still calls rivers ‘burns’. It is a one-way crossing, says Hamlet; we do not come back.

But in our Christian hope we give that river a name. We call it ‘Jordan’. Because for us it is the baptismal river, through which our Lord Jesus passed and, as he came up out of the water, was acclaimed by God as his Beloved Son. When we call the death-crossing ‘Jordan’ we remember that Jesus passed through the deep waters of death in order to be embraced by the everlasting life of God.

So Jesus, human and finite as we are, mortal as we are, yet carrying within him the power and glory of God, joins together death and life. He bridges the unbridgeable crossing. He speaks the words of life in the place to which the dead have gone, and the impossible happens: the dead hear his voice, and live.

Today we remember especially the dead who died with their lives and their promise unfinished and unfulfilled. They died by violence, and their loss is beyond our understanding. We see the waste of the lives they did not live as we look upon the tossing waste of waters between them and us, and we mourn for them even as we thank them for the actions of their often brief lives. As we do these things, we grieve that the dead cannot hear us.

But the dead can hear one voice. They can hear the voice of the one whom death could not hold, the one through whom death is joined back into life. In our Lord Jesus Christ, who knows our griefs and has carried our sorrows, the unspeakable joy of God’s life beyond loss is his gift to the dead and to those who die. He joins us, in himself, to the Creator of all things, redeeming all the lost time, and saving everything that is good and true. For the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. Amen.

Amazon’s exploitative lust

Alana Semuels writes,

If nothing else, Amazon’s HQ2 decisions may accelerate America’s great divergence, where highly educated urbanites are doing better and better, and everyone else is doing worse. Amazon has jobs outside of cities too, of course, but those are often low-paying and grueling jobs that don’t have much room for upward mobility. “If you project forward to the dismal geography of a future in which Amazon utterly dominates, you have a handful of places that are doing well, where there are high-paid tech jobs,” Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told me. “Then you have a bunch of cities and neighborhoods, that if they’re lucky, will maybe they get some warehouse jobs at $15 an hour and nothing else.”

Yep. I used to be suspicious of the phrase “costal elites,” but it seems more apt every day. And as those elites congregate with one another, and concentrate their wealth in ever-smaller enclaves, and increasingly see the 95% of the American landmass between the coasts as material (human and natural) to be exploited for their economic purposes, they also complain ever more vociferously that the American political system — with its “undemocratic” institutions like the Senate — prevent them from exercising even more complete domination over places they will never see and people they will never know.

the imminent collapse of an empire

Writers generally don’t get to choose the titles of their pieces, but the confusion in the title and subtitle of this report by Alexandra Kralick — Are we talking about sex or gender? I mean, it’s not like bones could tell you anything about gender — is reflected in the report itself. Sometimes it’s about “the nature of biological sex”; at other times it’s about the false assumptions that arise from gender stereotypes. Kralick weaves back and forth between the two in unhelpful ways.

On the specific question of whether sex is binary, and the contexts in which that matters, if you want clarity you’d do well to read this essay. But for the moment I’m interested in something else.

There’s a passing comment in Kralick’s essay that caught my attention: “The perception of a hard-and-fast separation between the sexes started to disintegrate during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and ’80s.” The phrase “second-wave feminism” has been used in various and inconsistent ways, but it is typically associated with “difference feminism,” an emphasis on “women’s ways of knowing” being different than those of men. And in that sense it’s better to say that “the perception of a hard-and-fast separation between the sexes started to disintegrate” as a result of the critique of second-wave feminism as being too “essentialist” in its modeling of sexuality and gender. The most influential figure in that critique was Judith Butler, whose book Gender Trouble set in motion the discourse about gender as choice, gender as performance, gender as fluid and malleable, that we see embodied in Kralick’s essay.

So while I don’t think Kralick has the details of the history quite right, she’s definitely correct to suggest that scientists are having this conversation right now — or not so much having a conversation as making declarations ex cathedra — as a direct result of intellectual movements that began in humanities scholarship twenty-five years ago.

So for those of you who think that the humanities are marginal and irrelevant, put that in your mental pipe and contemplatively smoke it for a while.

Many years ago the great American poet Richard Wilbur wrote a poem called “Shame,” in which he imagined “a cramped little state with no foreign policy, / Save to be thought inoffensive.”

Sheep are the national product. The faint inscription
Over the city gates may perhaps be rendered,
“I’m afraid you won’t find much of interest here.”

The people of this nation could not be more overt in their humility, their irrelevance, their powerlessness. But …

Their complete negligence is reserved, however,
For the hoped-for invasion, at which time the happy people
(Sniggering, ruddily naked, and shamelessly drunk)
Will stun the foe by their overwhelming submission,
Corrupt the generals, infiltrate the staff,
Usurp the throne, proclaim themselves to be sun-gods,
And bring about the collapse of the whole empire.

Hi there scientists. It’s us.

how I drew my mental map of politics

Over at Rod Dreher’s joint, he’s got a great series going in which people explain how they have have formed their mental maps of the political world. I’ve been reflecting on my answer to this question.

I voted for the first time in the 1976 Presidential election, for Jimmy Carter. (I was old enough by a few weeks.) I had high hopes for Jimmy. They were not fulfilled. I was a pretty serious lefty at the time — the two magazines I subscribed to were New Times (look it up) and the Village Voice — but in the Carter years I started reading and seriously considering the conservative critique of American liberalism. George Will’s columns meant a lot to me in those days. Gradually I came to believe that the American left, or the Democratic Party anyway, talked a good game about the poor and disenfranchised but wasn’t interested in taking meaningful action; and that in relation to political and economic life generally Margaret Thatcher was right to say (if indeed she did say) that “the facts are conservative.” In 1980 I voted for Reagan.

Over the next few years I became convinced that Republicans were no more likely to live up to their rhetoric than Democrats. They preached about defending liberty and yet supported some of the world’s worst and cruelest tyrants. The trumpeted their pro-life commitments and yet took no meaningful action against the country’s abortion regime, even when they had a great deal of power. They claimed to speak for ordinary people like me and yet did nothing but help the rich get richer. They were no more likely to assess their economic policies in the light of evidence than Democrats were likely to assess their social policies in that light.

The Reagan years were for me an education in political cynicism. In the 1980s I came to believe what I still believe: That almost no elected politicians have principles that they’re willing to stake their careers on, and those who have such principles typically last a single term in office; that the rare politician who has integrity almost certainly lacks courage, while those who have courage lack integrity; that the extremely rare politician who has both courage and integrity will surely lack judgment; that the members of both major parties care primarily about getting and keeping power, secondarily about exerting that power over the powerless, and beyond that about nothing else whatsoever; that both parties are parties of death, differing only on their preferred targets (though they are equally fond, it seems, of military action in Asia); that the only meaningful criterion by which to judge who to vote for is encapsulated in the question Who will do less damage to our social fabric?

And because they’re all going to do damage, just of different kinds, for the last thirty years I have voted for third-party or write-in candidates. For much of that time I knew that I couldn’t vote for Democrats and debated whether I could vote for Republicans. The answer to that question was always No. But recently I have come to be absolutely certain that I can’t vote for Republicans, and have debated whether I can vote for Democrats. The answer to that question is, so far, also No, and I cannot envision that changing.

I oppose false equivalences as forcefully as anyone. But there are also true equivalences. And so I say, as I have said for three decades now: A plague on both their houses.


God, give me enough light and will
To say just what I see,
See what I do,
Do what I say,
Say what you will.

Laurance Wieder


Jon McNaught, Kingdom

the contingency of collaborative art

Big day for me yesterday: More Blood, More Tracks arrived. It’s extraordinary — could be the best of the bootleg series, but then I might well think that, since I believe Blood on the Tracks to be Dylan’s masterpiece, and one of the great achievements of American music.

On the first disc — the six of them closely follow the order of recording — Dylan plays solo, and there are some harrowing moments there. At one point Dylan is playing “You’re a Big Girl Now” solo, and it’s a totally devastating performance. But you keep hearing the buttons of his vest clicking against the back of his guitar as he plays. Somebody later asked the engineers why they didn’t stop him, and the chief engineer said that they just couldn’t. “We were awed and freaking out and scared. It was intense.”

But then on the second disc he brings in Eric Weissberg and his band (called Deliverance, in those days, because they had played in the great film of that name). At one point you hear the engineer ask what Dylan wants to play next, does he want to continue with what they’ve been working on? Dylan replies, “No, the one we’re gonna do is,” and he starts strumming and wordlessly singing the tune to “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Suddenly the band kicks in: drums and bass, then, quickly, an organ fill, a little electric guitar — and it’s magic. They’re in a perfect groove. It’s butter. But of course they have to stop, because they’re not recording yet. Dylan says, “Okay, we’re about ready,” and the engineer starts the tape, and the band tries to get right back into that groove they were in, and for about thirty seconds they’ve got it — and then it falls apart. They do another take, but this time it’s too fast. On every take someone messes up. Finally, Dylan gives up in frustration.

And that’s it for Eric Weissberg and Deliverance. From then on Dylan plays basically with a string band (guitars, acoustic bass, mandolin, with a few occasional additions). The recorded version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” is a great song, but I really think that the full-band version could’ve been even better — if they had been able to get that groove back. But it didn’t happen. And then Dylan took the whole recording session in another direction, which was surely for the best — I can’t think of any other songs on the album that would have benefitted from adding drums and electric instruments, and I can think of several that would have been greatly compromised by that kind of sound.

But the whole sequence is a reminder of just how contingent recording music is — of the number of elements that need to come together to create a certain vibe and mood; of the constant danger of those elements not coalescing, which might leave the whole project teetering on the brink of failure; of how that failure might be the fortuitous opening to something new and better; of layers and layers of possibilities lost and new possibilities gained. To a guy who does most of his creative work alone, it’s scary and fascinating.

academic labor as social media

The current argument about whether scholars should cite the work of nasty people — here is the argument against citing them, and here is a rebuttal — is interesting primarily as a reminder of how citation actually functions in many academic fields, including my own. It is not, typically, an acknowledgment of genuine intellectual indebtedness, but rather a signaling mechanism, a way to mark tribal affiliation.

Pick any recent article in a humanities journal and you’re likely to see several citations that don’t acknowledge the source for a specific idea, or an argument to which the author is responding (positively or negatively), but rather what one might call affiliational suggestion. Here’s an example from a recent article, chosen at random:

My language of counts and miscounts obviously owes a debt to Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis, 1999).

But what debt, specifically, is owed? This the footnote does not say, nor is is meant to say. The message is: “I have read and approved of appropriate critical texts.”

Note that in the essay that promoted this conversation Nikki Usher concludes, “We need to start asking questions about whether there are ways to have frank discussions with editors and even reviewers about why we might not want to keep reinforcing the academic fame and reputation of someone who would not do the same were the situation reversed.” And Usher is exactly right that this is how much academic citation works. By citing someone you pay them in the currency of reputation, because reputation itself is largely a function of simplistic metrics. I have seen departmental websites that list, alongside the name of faculty members, sparklines showing the history of their numbers of citations. Basically, academic citation works, nowadays, like a social media platform. To cite someone in your article or books is, effectively, a retweet. Except that you don’t get to say, and no one would believe you if you did say, “Retweets are not endorsements.”

I am tempted to formulate a new Law: Over time all cultural work asymptotically approaches the condition of Twitter.

what’s the point?

Tim Burke:

It’s hard to feel like there’s a point to public writing at the heart of Trump’s ascendancy. Certainly there’s no point to even trying to speak to self-identified conservatives who have aligned themselves with Trump: the will-to-power mendacity and moral vacuity melts anything like honest engagement like a butterfly tossed in a furnace. But it is not merely Trump and his followers. When is the last time you can recall seeing anyone who was meaningfully persuaded by arguments or evidence that contradicted or challenged a belief or position they had previously articulated? When I see people telling me that the only way to deal with people who hold dangerous, untrue or morally bankrupt views is to engage them in a persistently reasonable way, to have a dialogue, I can’t help but think that this is just another untrue idea. Or at least it is a kind of religious dogma by self-anointed rationalist thinkers. It is not an evidence-based proposition about how people shift their values or come to hold new thoughts or ideas. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about people with whom one has personal or familial standing or total strangers, whether this is about a neighborhood or a nation. What passes for reason and evidence among educated readers and writers often feels as if it is just a value system local to them, and no more likely even so to lead to thoughtful changes in perspectives or beliefs among them. I feel no more likely to persuade a person who is in every respect a peer to change a view they have committed to, no matter how strong my arguments or evidence might be, than I am to persuade a stranger with completely different values and social location. And yet, I feel I am persuadable: that I change what I think about specific issues and arguments quite frequently in response to what others say and argue. Perhaps I am wrong even about myself; perhaps this is an unearned vanity. If I am right, then it feels as if I have chosen the worst strategy in Prisoner’s Dilemma: vulnerable to persuasion in a world that increasingly sees persuadability as a vulnerability to be exploited.

Tim, I feel you. Boy do I feel you. Indeed, so strongly do I share this sense of pointlessness that a few months ago I withdrew a book proposal because I could see no reason to write in the face of the current maelstrom of wrath and bullshit. But then, a little later, I decided to write that book after all. Why?

Certainly not because I think that “the only way to deal with people who hold dangerous, untrue or morally bankrupt views is to engage them in a persistently reasonable way, to have a dialogue.” Most people who hold such views are indeed unpersuadable in the absence of some fairly dramatic intervention in their lifeworld, some experience that forces a rethinking. In the ordinary course of rhetorical events, I have no means of reaching them.

Nor are they interested in reaching me — and by “they” I mean people on the extremes of the right and left. What such folks share, generally speaking, are the following traits:

  • vociferousness
  • a deep commitment to the political power of social media
  • a preference for saying the same things over and over and over again
  • a belief in the usefulness of either intimidating or humiliating dissenters

There’s nothing to be gained by engaging with people who share those traits.

But I console myself by thinking that there aren’t as many of them as hanging out on Twitter might make you think. There are reasons to believe that many Americans are more politically complex than is commonly believed, and you don’t have to be a Beltway centrist to think so. (It’s odd how many commentators seem genuinely afraid of anything that would give aid and comfort to centrist politics, and who conflate an awareness of political complexity with a commitment to centrism.) Those are the people I want to write for, and listen to; and both acts are worth doing whether there are a great many of them or whether, like Milton, I will have “fit audience though few.” The clan of those who, like Tim, are “vulnerable to persuasion in a world that increasingly sees persuadability as a vulnerability to be exploited.” My people.

And then: writing is what I do. I don’t know how to be a not-writer. Maybe no one will read this book, but I think I have to write it anyway. Saith the Preacher, “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.”

The Plantin Polyglot Bible

it’s not gonna change

Kara Swisher:

Social media platforms — and Facebook and Twitter are as guilty of this as Gab is — are designed so that the awful travels twice as fast as the good. And they are operating with sloppy disregard of the consequences of that awful speech, leading to disasters that they then have to clean up after.

And they are doing a very bad job of that, too, because they are unwilling to pay the price to make needed fixes. Why? because draining the cesspool would mean losing users, and that would hurt the bottom line. Consider this: On Monday, New York Times reporters easily found almost 12,000 anti-Semitic messages that had been uploaded to Instagram in the wake of the synagogue attack.

The social media companies have shown who they are over and over and over and over. It’s not gonna change. Ever.

Warren Ellis is extremely correct

Usual Hermitage Bullshit Notice – MORNING, COMPUTER:

On Saturday at 1201am I turned off my social media. I have a private IG account for looking at nice pictures, and Twitter lists for news, but I’m not posting on or participating in the public internet for the next several months. I tell people on my newsletter, all the time, to tune their internet connections until they are useful and fun.  The public internet stopped being fun for me some years ago, and I disconnect from it for half of each year at least. I like newsletters, blogs and RSS, podcasts, email, messaging apps and complete thoughts. The public network turned into something I don’t really enjoy or get anything out of.

how could we be convinced?

George Scialabba is one of the best essayists around, but his review of John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism is not one of his better efforts. It begins thus:

Our hominid ancestors first appeared around six million years ago. They started to use symbols around 150,000 years ago, and the first of the major religions began 5,000 years ago. What are we to make of this? Did humans have souls before then? If not, how did we acquire them? If so, why didn’t God reveal Himself throughout 99.9 percent of humanity’s life span? What was He thinking? And God’s puzzling silence didn’t end with the advent of religion. The God of the Old Testament was fairly communicative, and the gods of the Hindu pantheon made frequent appearances, at least for a while. But since Jesus ascended to heaven (or, if you prefer, since the angel Gabriel finished dictating to Muhammad), transmissions have all but ceased.

This would seem to call for some explanation. As the infidel Tom Paine scoffed: “A revelation which is to be received as true ought to be written on the sun.” The devout Cardinal Newman agreed but thought it had been: “The Visible Church was, at least to her children,” he wrote in 1870, “the light of the world, as conspicuous as the sun in the heavens, and the Creed was written on her forehead.” Unfortunately, the Church’s radiance has dimmed somewhat since then, and many unbelievers have wondered why God can’t write “YES, I EXIST” across the night sky in mile-high flaming letters visible (to each viewer in her own language, of course) everywhere on earth, each night for a week, once a year. Is that too much to ask of an omnipotent, infinitely loving Being?

To which my first reply is: You really haven’t thought this through, have you? Let’s set aside any doubts about the assumption that our hominid ancestors of six million years ago belong naturally in the category “humanity.” Let’s also not ask too many hard questions about what a “major religion” would have looked like among the early symbol-using hominids. (Does Scialabba expect to find prayer books and sacred vestments in the remnants of the Pleistocene? He might as well say that we know those ancestors didn’t war with each other because they had no guns.) Let’s not bring in a Pentecostal or Sufi to address the question of whether transmissions from the Divine “have all but ceased.”

Let’s focus instead on the second paragraph quoted above. I would like to ask Scialabba this: If you looked up one starry evening and saw “YES, I EXIST” — presumably signed “Love, God” or something, because otherwise the point would scarcely be obvious — written across the night sky in mile-high flaming letters, would you immediately start believing in God?

And the answer is: Of course not. You’d think that this was some kind of high-tech prank, or a covert operation of the Koch Brothers. Later, when you discovered that other people had seen the same thing in their own language you’d be more concerned, but you’d doubt that it could be God, because why would God want to reveal Himself or Itself only to the literate? Surely the committed atheist would attribute this sky-writing to some powerful extraterrestrial civilization with a weird sense of humor — the Culture, maybe — before admitting the existence of God on these grounds.

Now, gentle readers, some of you may be saying that I am missing the point, the point being not that God, if there were a God, would reveal His existence to us in precisely this way, but that He would reveal it in some way, in some unmistakable way. But what would that unmistakable way be? What method of communication might avoid the rather obvious drawbacks, the clearly limited power to convince, of fiery skywriting?

I’m not sure it’s even possible to convince everyone that a given being is the Biggest Baddest Being of Them All — who knows what lurks out there in the universes? But even if that were possible it wouldn’t address the God of classical theism. David Bentley Hart puts this point with exemplary precision and clarity in The Experience of God:

To speak of “God” properly, then — to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism , Bahá’í, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth — is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

How might that God impress Himself upon our understanding in unmissable, unambiguous, indisputable ways? I confess that I can think of no way except to write a conviction of His existence on every human heart. And whether that has been done, who can know? It’s not the kind of point on which it would be safe to take anyone’s word for Yes or No.

I’ll end with this. In Book V of Milton’s Paradise Lost, an angel named Abdiel asserts that God the Father created every creature, including the angels themselves, through the mediation of the Son. To this Lucifer replies scornfully:

That we were formd then saist thou? and the work

Of secondarie hands, by task transferd

From Father to his Son? strange point and new!

Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw

When this creation was? rememberst thou

Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?

We know no time when we were not as now;

Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d

By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course

Had circl’d his full Orbe, the birth mature

Of this our native Heav’n, Ethereal Sons.

Our puissance is our own, our own right hand

Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try

Who is our equal: then thou shalt behold

Whether by supplication we intend

Address, and to begirt th’ Almighty Throne

Beseeching or besieging.

“Created by someone else? I don’t recall being created by someone else. We must be self-begot, self-raised by our own quickening power. I am my own maker.”

Waco Creek

Erika Huddleston, Waco Creek VI NEW ROAD, 27 x 27 inches, oil on canvas


Dennis Creffield, ‘Durham: the Central Tower’ (1987); Tate Gallery

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