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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.

Psalm

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

Kingdom

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

Durham

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

web design is getting worse and worse

For instance, ESPN’s site is so ugly, so crowded, so impossible to navigate that when I really want to read ESPN stories this is how I’m doing it:

Etno Hut

Issa Megaron

Breaking Bread with the Dead

I tweeted this news a while back, but am only now finding time to write about it at greater length: My next book will be called Breaking Bread with the Dead: The Case for Temporal Bandwidth, and will be published by Penguin Press (probably in 2020). You can find a kind of preview of the book by reading this essay I wrote for the Guardian.

I think of this book as the conclusion of my Pedagogical Trilogy, the first volume of which was The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and the second of which was How to Think. Finding delight in reading, learning to think well in opposition to all the social forces that impede thinking, drawing on the wonderfully diverse intellectual resources of the past — these three themes encapsulate much of what I have tried to teach my students for the past thirty-five years.

I have found over those years that when I’m working on a book I don’t do well when I have only that book to work on. Some days I just can’t make progress — most often because I’ve been thinking too much about the issues involved — and I need to get away from the project. I can achieve that best when I have a very different, but also intellectually demanding, project that I can turn to for a brief time. (This is why I sometimes have two books appear within a relatively short period of time: I had two come out in 2008, two in 2011, two in 2013, and two within nine months in 2017 and 2018.)

The second project that I’ll occasionally turn to while my primary attention goes to Breaking Bread with the Dead is my long-meditated treatise on what I have sometimes called Anthropocene Theology — though the working title is now The Far Invisible: An Anthropology for Failed Gods. I have about 80,000 words of that book written, though many of the current words will be replaced by others and there is still a great deal yet to write. But here I want to emphasize that I have not abandoned that project; indeed I am more committed to it than ever. It’s just going to take longer than I had originally thought.

One interesting thing about this particular pairing of projects is that one is very much oriented to the past and the other very much occupied by the future. I’m excited to see how each influences the other.

Writing well ≠ dumbing down

This by Ian Bogost is exactly right:

I suspect that what scholars and other experts really mean when they express worry about “dumbing down” is that they don’t want to be bothered to do the work of reframing their work for audiences not already primed to grasp it. It’s hard to do and even harder to do well. That’s a fine position; after all, it’s the full-time job of journalists and non-fiction writers to translate ideas for the general public from their specialized origins. Not every scholar can, or should, try to do this work themselves (although, to do so exercises the generosity that comes from service.)

But to assume that even to ponder sharing the results of scholarship amounts to dumbing down, by default, is a new low in this term for new lows. Posturing as if it’s a problem with the audience, rather than with the expert who refuses to address that audience, is perverse.

I have done a great deal of writing for my scholarly peers and for broader audiences, and there is no doubt that the latter is more challenging. The great difficulty is to make what you have to say as simple as possible but no simpler — which means that you often have to work very hard to express certain ideas in ways that are accessible but non-reductive.

And — I hesitate to say this, but here goes — I think you usually have to know your stuff better to write well for a general audience. If you’re writing for your scholarly peers, there are certain critical buzzwords, voguish phrases, and terms of art that you can use to gesture in the direction of a concept, trusting that people who have used those terms themselves will pick up on what you’re saying. But you don’t even have to have a very clear understanding of the concepts in order to deploy the terms — you just have to have a sense of the kind of sentence in which they belong. By contrast, when you’re writing for a general audience who does not know the language of your guild, you have to understand those concepts well enough to translate them into a more accessible idiom.

Many academics who haven’t tried to write for broader audiences fail to understand the challenges. But I bet at least some of them have a pretty shrewd intuition of how hard it is — which gives them a good reason to sneer at it.

angel

Lichfield Cathedral

“drive out the wicked person”

Michael Ramsey, from The Anglican Spirit:

While holiness is both a fact and a potentiality, it is impossible to enforce the holiness of the church by rejecting people who do not conform to certain moral canons. That has been tried often in the history of the church, most notably by the early Puritans. When one says that the church is meant to be holy and therefore we will exclude those who are not holy, the inevitable happens. You can turn out the fornicators, the murderers, and those who apostasize in times of persecution; you can turn out sinners of every kind, but you cannot turn out the sin of pride. This sin, the most deadly of all, is always present but not always easily identifiable. So if you are going to purge the church of sinners, you will need to purge it of the sin of pride and turn everybody out. As Anglicans, we believe these attempts to purify the church by certain ethical criteria cause it to lose the reality of what it means to be dedicated to the holiness of God.

St. Paul, from his first letter to the church at Corinth:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons — not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

So Ramsey is simply wrong, isn’t he? For when he says “we believe these attempts to purify the church by certain ethical criteria cause it to lose the reality of what it means to be dedicated to the holiness of God,” he certainly seems to be flatly disagreeing with St. Paul. And surely this is not acceptable — even for Anglicans.

Whether we leave it at that will depend, I suspect, on whether we think Paul’s list of those who must be driven from among us (“sexually immoral or greedy … an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber”) is exhaustive or illustrative. If the former, then Ramsey is absolutely and totally wrong, full stop. For Paul does not say that we are to drive the prideful from among us — nor, for that matter, the violent, the habitually dishonest, and so on.

But if Paul’s list is illustrative, and his point is that ecclesial communities should shun what the old prayer book calls the “open and notorious evil liver,” then Ramsey is still wrong, I believe — but despite being wrong he calls us to reflect on something important: that is is very easy to be highly selective, and selective in a fundamentally unprincipled way, about which sinners we shun. For in an environment where declining church attendance makes pastors disinclined to shun anyone, the low-hanging fruit is to drive out from among you those (a) whose sins are really obvious and (b) who are already unpopular with your regular attenders, your most generous givers.

It’s easy enough to say that when pastors discipline big donors — which no doubt sends said donors headed straight for the door — their people will really respect them for it. Unfortunately that isn’t true. People will just think those pastors are stupid. And few pastors actually are that stupid.

I really feel for pastors in this situation. I don’t know what they can do that isn’t either disobedient, self-destructive, or inconsistent (inconsistent at best, hypocritical at worst). The state of American Christianity today, with its inherent consumerism, means that any pastors who try to impose church discipline impartially will find themselves with an empty church or, more likely, find themselves out of a job. But, as Lyle Lovett once said in a rather different context, we have to try. What would we be if we didn’t try?

So the question is: What would a truly Christian, truly biblical, model of church discipline look like?

back to the Mac

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year trying to leave the Mac behind and move full-time to iOS. I’ve done this in large part because the many and various problems I’ve had with the last several versions of Mac OS have convinced me that it’s not getting Apple’s best attention, that iOS is likely to be the more reliable platform in the future, and that I’d do well to start adapting my patterns and habits accordingly.

Of course, iOS isn’t the only option, and in fact, a couple of years ago I tried to move to Linux. But not only am I pretty heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, my family members are also, and on Linux I really missed the convenience of sharing apps, answering phone calls on my computer, Messages, FaceTime, etc. So I was gradually sucked back into Cupertino’s orbit.

So, I tried Linux, and then I tried iOS. Now I’m back to the Mac. Why? There are many reasons, but here are the biggies:

  • As many, many people have pointed out, text selection has never worked consistently in iOS and has not improved even a little bit over the past few years. And text selection is something I do a lot of.
  • I have often sung the praises of pandoc — it is essential to my work — and there is simply no equivalent of pandoc on iOS. You can do most of the things pandoc does there, but with more steps, more effort, and less consistent results.
  • Mojave has fixed all the problems I had with the previous two or three versions (I’m especially pleased that wifi and Bluetooth both work flawlessly now).
  • On iOS, TextExpander works in some apps; on the Mac, it works everywhere. This is huge for me. I have developed a very large library of TextExpander snippets over the years, and when I’m writing in an app and they don’t work I get weird glitches in my neural software.

And I don’t enjoy getting weird glitches in my neural software. So I’m back on a Mac.

American Airlines rejects my reality and substitutes its own

Yes, this is a kind of rant, but it’s also something more: an account of how transcendentally weird air travel can be these days.

A few days ago my wife and I were scheduled to fly on American Airlines from Dallas to Charleston. But our flight, which was to leave just after 11am, was delayed and delayed and delayed, and when we were told that our plan couldn’t be repaired and a new plane had to be found, Teri and I decided to see if we could be rebooked on another flight, the AA rep at the gate said that neither she nor anyone else at the airport could help us (!?) — we would have to call AA’s toll-free number. So, around 1pm, we did, and here’s what the customer service rep told us: “I can’t help you because your flight is already in the air.” I said, “I’m sitting here at the gate with maybe a hundred other people waiting for a new plane.” “I’m sorry, your flight is already in the air. It departed at 12:53pm.” And then she hung up. That’s when I took this screenshot of my just-updated AA app:

At this point we were at a loss, but as more time went by and there was no sign of a plane, we decided to give up and go home. Then each of us got busy seeking a refund (Teri’s return flight was different than mine, and her fare was purchased separately.)

Today I got an email from AA reading thus: “In fact flight AA2646 was only delay for 14 minutes before taking off on October 19, 2018. I would not be able to offer a refund for the ticket or waive the change fee.” Wait, 14 minutes??? Even the person who insisted that the flight was already in the air at 1pm thought it had just taken off, nearly two hours late.

Apparently no one in customer service at American Airlines has even remotely accurate data about the status of their flights. Moreover, that data seems to be in constant flux.

Well, maybe someone does, because about an hour before I got that email here’s what Teri got:

So, though we were booked on the same flight, hers was either cancelled or delayed so long that she got a refund, while mine was only 14 minutes late. Proof of the multiverse hypothesis, I guess?

But I’ll tell you this: I ain’t flying American Airlines again.

WE REACH FOR A BOOK

Img 1474

William Kentridge

ancient feelings

Why doesn’t ancient fiction talk about feelings? “I’d often wondered,” says Julie Sedivy, “when reading older texts: Weren’t people back then interested in what characters thought and felt?” Let me put this as politely as I can: What the hell are you talking about?

If you read the Iliad you’d know how Achilles felt when Agamemnon took his “prize,” or how he felt when his beloved friend Patroclus was killed. If you read the Odyssey you’d know how Odysseus felt when his men were being eaten by Polyphemus, and how he felt when he fell, at last, into the arms of his beloved wife Penelope. If you read the Oresteia you’d know how Orestes felt when faced with the task of killing his mother. If you read Antigone you’d know how the title character felt when told she could not bury her brother. If you read the Aeneid you’d know how Aeneas felt when he saw his fellow Trojans painted on the walls of a palace in Carthage — sunt lacrimae rerum, there are tears for things, possibly the most famous line in ancient literature — and how Dido felt when she learned that Aeneas would leave her. If you read Beowulf you’d know how Beowulf felt when, after slaying a dragon, he lay dying, abandoned by all but one companion. If you read the Divine Comedy you’d know how Dante the pilgrim felt about everything, from getting lost in a selva oscura to disappointing his guide Vergil to meeting his old friend Casella the musician to being reunited with Beatrice.

I’m old as dirt and have seen people take many ridiculous positions in my time, but none more ridiculous than this.

Hastings House Book of Hours

The Hastings Hours add ms 54782 ff250 1

The lovely Hastings House Book of Hours, from this great I Love Typography post, which has other cool images as well. 

extremely spoilery thoughts about Better Call Saul

I’m a deeply committed fan of Better Call Saul, to the extent that after each episode I listen, hungrily, to the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast. I am endlessly fascinated to learn about the enormously complex, deeply intelligent, technically sophisticated, emotionally sensitive collaborative energy that goes into making a show like this. Every time I listen I discover something about the show that I had missed, something that makes its already-powerful story even more powerful.

It’s also fun to hear how closely the actors (there’s usually, though not always, one each episode) identify with their characters, in ways that reveal them, the actors, as often insightful and sometimes unreliable. When Michael Mando explains how he sees Nacho as motivated largely by shame — shame before his honorable father — I immediately see the truth of it. When Bob Odenkirk defends Jimmy’s indefensible actions, I just shake my head in disbelief. By far the most interesting of the actors on the podcast, though, is Rhea Seehorn, who is extremely articulate in analyzing Kim but insightful into other characters as well.

In sum: the podcast is a great supplement to the show.

What follows is super-spoilery.

In a vital scene in the just-released final episode of Season 4, Jimmy McGill breaks down weeping in his car. When that scene was discussed on the podcast, I was struck by the number of participants who believe that he was finally weeping for his dead brother Chuck. No, he definitely wasn’t.

Many of the people on the podcast, regulars and guests, believe that Jimmy is in the denial stage of grief, or something like that. On the show itself, Kim seems to think the same — you can’t be sure because neither Kim nor Jimmy tends to speak what they feel — but I believe that it’s her sense that Jimmy hasn’t processed Chuck’s death that prompts her to press him to seek counseling. But when, briefly, he says he will, it’s not because of Chuck: it’s because he got mugged by some punks when trying to run a scam and he’s concerned that he’s still acting like he’s 20 years old.

In my judgment Jimmy has never grieved Chuck’s death and never will. The last words Chuck said to him were, “The truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.” And I believe that from that moment on Chuck was completely dead to Jimmy already.

So why does he cry in his car?

In the previous scene, Jimmy has sat in a conference room with a bunch of other lawyers interviewing high school students who have applied for a scholarship. Jimmy argues on behalf of a girl who had been convicted of shoplifting when younger but has put her life together; he says that at least one of their scholarships (there are three to distribute) should go to someone who isn’t perfect, who has made mistakes and triumphed over them. But that argument falls on deaf ears, and after the decision is made Jimmy catches up with the girl and gives her an impassioned speech explaining that people like her never get a fair shake and never will, and that she has to be bold, has to cut corners, has to do everything she can, no matter how ruthless, to maneuver around those people. So what, Jimmy says, if they’re sitting there on the 35th floor judging you? You don’t care because you’re gonna be on the 50th floor looking down at them.

And then he goes back to his car. His old, beat-up car, with a mismatched door, the same one he’s had since we first saw him. And, as is often the case, it won’t start. And that’s when he starts crying.

This episode begins with a flashback to Jimmy and Chuck, right after Jimmy is sworn in as a lawyer, going to a karaoke bar with friends and singing Abba’s “Winner Takes It All.” And Jimmy actually quotes that song to the girl who didn’t get the scholarship. (He doesn’t say, but he means, this line: “But I was a fool / Playing by the rules.”) The song tells us that the winner takes it all, but is also tells us that “the loser has to fall.” And what Jimmy is facing at this moment is, simply: he’s a loser. As Kim told him in a previous eposode, when he complained that she was “kicking a man when he’s down,” “Jimmy, you’re always down.” He’s not on the 50th floor looking down on anyone. He’s sitting in an old beater that won’t start, because that’s all he can afford. The loser has to fall, and does.

And I think this is the point of no return for Jimmy — the point at which it’s absolutely inevitable that he’ll become Saul Goodman, unscrupulous, lying, deceitful, dishonest, crooked as crooked can be. Because he tried, at least sometimes, playing by the rules and the result is, he’s always down. I don’t think he’ll play by the rules any more.

At the end of the episode and the season, Jimmy has just regained his law license — by faking sincerity more skillfully than he had faked it before —, and we learn that he’s not going to practice under his own name but under the name Saul Goodman. The key point is that Kim learns it at the same moment that we do. He hasn’t told her. He has shut her out, just as he had earlier shut out Chuck, though for far less reason, since Kim has been far better to him than he ever deserved. Kim now sees that there is nothing fully human behind the mask. I don’t see how she can ever trust him again.

a parable for our moment

In this moment when more and more people are calling us to denounce family members who vote the wrong way, I find myself thinking of a passage from an essay I wrote many years ago about Albert Camus:

Camus…  was himself a pied noir; his family’s roots in Algeria went back a century and a half. Members of his family, including his mother, still lived in Algeria and were endangered daily by the FLN’s random shootings and bombings. Yet Camus was not, nor had he ever been, indifferent to the abuses the French had inflicted on the Arabs of Algeria. Indeed, in the 1930s, at the beginning of his career as a writer, Camus had striven ceaselessly to call attention to these abuses, but he was generally ignored — by the French Left no less than the Right.

So he was not pleased to have a difficult and morally complex political situation reduced to an opportunity for French intellectuals to strike noble poses: to those who would ‘point to the French in Algeria as scapegoats (‘Go ahead and die; that’s what we deserve!’),’ Camus retorted, ‘it seems to me revolting to beat one’s mea culpa, as our judge-penitents do, on someone else’s breast.’ Those who are really so guilt-stricken at the French presence in Algeria should ‘offer up themselves in expiation.’

Camus boldly affirmed that his family, ‘being poor and free of hatred’ — and Camus really was raised in abject poverty — ‘never exploited or oppressed anyone. But three quarters of the French in Algeria resemble them and, if only they are provided reasons rather than insults, will be ready to admit the necessity of a juster and freer order.’ It should, then, be possible to give the proper rights and freedoms to Algerian Arabs without condemning and destroying the pieds noirs indiscriminately, or forcing them out of the only country they had ever known.

But such subtleties were lost on almost everyone involved in this conflict. When Camus received the Nobel Prize in 1957 and gave a press conference in Stockholm, he was bitterly condemned by an Arab student for failing to endorse the FLN. His reply was simple, direct, and forceful: ‘I have always condemned the use of terror. I must also condemn a terror which is practiced blindly on the Algiers streets and which may any day strike down my mother or my family. I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before justice.’

two quotations on democracy and the judiciary

Samuel Moyn, 2018

In the face of an enemy Supreme Court, the only option is for progressives to begin work on a long-term plan to recast the role of fundamental law in our society for the sake of majority rule—disempowering the courts and angling, when they can, to redo our undemocratic constitution itself. This will require taking a few pages from the conservative playbook of the last generation. It is conservatives who stole the originally progressive talking point that we are experiencing “government by judiciary.” It is conservatives who convinced wide swathes of the American people that it is the left, not the right, that too routinely uses constitutional law to enact its policy preferences, no matter what the text says. The truth is the reverse, and progressives need to take back the charge they lost. To do so, they need to abandon their routine temptation to collude with the higher judiciary opportunistically. Progressives must embrace democracy and its risks if they want to avoid the stigma of judicial activism that still haunts them from the past.

The editors of First Things, 1996: 

With respect to the American people, the judiciary has in effect declared that the most important questions about how we ought to order our life together are outside the purview of ‘things of their knowledge.’ Not that judges necessarily claim greater knowledge; they simply claim, and exercise, the power to decide. The citizens of this democratic republic are deemed to lack the competence for self-government…. The courts have not, and perhaps cannot, restrain themselves, and it may be that in the present regime no other effective restraints are available. If so, we are witnessing the end of democracy. 

I have so many questions

These are all serious questions — not gotchas – they’re questions I don’t know the answers to and wish I did. And of course knowing the answers from any one person wouldn’t help very much: what I really need is access to the Zeitgeist on these points. But that knowledge isn’t available. Still, I can’t stop wondering. So here goes:

If you’re, let’s say, Alexis Grenell and you believe that women who supported the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh are “gender traitors” who have made a “blood pact with white men,” what do you do if you find yourself sitting at dinner with such a woman? Say six of you are eating out somewhere and one woman you hadn’t previously met says that she would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh. Do you get up and leave? Try to persuade her that she’s wrong? Throw water in her face? Sit and steam?

What if you don’t throw water in her face but another woman at the table does? Are you okay with that?

If you could get her dismissed from her job, would you consider doing that?

What if the person who supports Kavanaugh is an old friend? Does that, for you, end the friendship?

Now, a question for people who support confronting and challenging politicians at restaurants and other public places. What is your goal? Is it simply punitive, or do you believe that by doing that kind of thing you can change a politician’s mind? (NB: If you’re the sort of person who shows up at a pizza parlor with a gun because of something you read online, you need not answer this question.)

How do you think you would respond if you were subject to the same protests? Would you be intimidated into voting the way the protestors want you to vote? Would you become more sympathetic to their cause?

Presumably you know that what one side does the other will soon copy. So if this escalates to the point where very few politicians of either major party are able to eat at restaurants, what precisely will we, as a nation and a society, have gained?

If you believe that, for example, Brendan Eich could not serve as the CEO of Mozilla because he opposed the legalization of gay marriage, do you think it would be okay for him to have some other, lesser job at Mozilla? If not, what sort of job do you think it would be acceptable for Eich to have?

Obviously the intensity of feeling on the left right now stems from the conviction that a Trump presidency + a long-term conservative majority on the Supreme Court = something close to an extinction event for American democracy — just as many on the right two years ago believed that the prospect of a Clinton presidency was so horrifying that America was faced with the “Flight 93 Election.” But most of these questions are addressed to the left because that’s where most of the anger is right now. (And if you think I’m soft on the right, use the search box on the left side of this page and enter the word “Trump.”)

Presumably not all positions held by the party you oppose are equally reprehensible; not all prompt your activist anger. For example, I doubt that very many people would confront a politician at a restaurant because he or she supports President Trump’s new tariffs, even if they think those tariffs are a very bad idea. So what are the issues that, if someone gets them wrong, place that person beyond the pale, mark him or her as someone you can’t have table fellowship with, as someone who can’t be allowed to live unconfronted? Kavanaugh, yes, but what else?

  • Supporting Trump’s immigration policies?
  • Opposing abortion on demand?
  • Opposing abortion before viability?
  • Believing that the killer of Laquan McDonald should have been acquitted?
  • Supporting legislation like the North Carolina bathroom bill?

That is, what are the issues on which you can agree to disagree with someone — or at least to remain on speaking terms with that person, even if you keep arguing — and what issues, by contrast, demand a break of relationship?

Almost all of these questions center on a particular concern of mine. There’s no doubt that we live in a rhetorically heated time — the most heated moment of my lifetime, I believe (though I can’t be sure about that). But what actions does our verbal anger lead to? If we speak about one another in the extreme ways we do today, how will we treat one another?

the lustful sex

Faramerz Dabhoiwala:

This is a point in history where the old idea that women are the more lustful sex – which dominated western culture until the 17th century – is suddenly overturned and replaced by exactly the opposite presumption, that men are naturally promiscuous and can’t help it, and women are more chaste and naturally asexual.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t true. Go all the way back to the Odyssey, where Penelope is expected to remain faithful to Odysseus — indeed, it’s pretty clear that if she were to shack up with one of the suitors the returning Odysseus would kill her — while when Odysseus and his men have sex with Circe and her fun girls they excuse themselves: “As we were men, we could not help consenting.”

Or think about Boccaccio’s great tale (the tenth story of day 3) about putting the Devil in Hell. It’s a story about a woman’s sexual passion, but note that Alibech shows no interest in sex until Rustico teaches her; that she becomes more enthusiastic about this, um, spiritual exercise than he is the reversal, the incongruity, that gives the story its humor.

A thousand more examples could be cited. Dabhoiwala‘s claim seems completely unsustainable to me.


UPDATE: But what do I know? I got an email from my former student Sarah Brom Lindsay, an  actual medievalist, who sets me straight and reminds me — once again! I never learn! — of the dangers of too-quick reactions. Here’s Sarah:

I can’t speak to ancient Greek ideas about sexuality, but certainly in the middle ages women were generally viewed as the more lustful sex. This arises partially from the anti-feminist tradition that saw women as simply more sinful than men; Chaucer’s Wife of Bath rails against this tradition while simultaneously embodying its worst suspicions about women’s uncontrollable sexuality.

The idea of women as more lustful also gained support from the association of women with the body and sensation rather than the intellect; while men could be expected to rationally control their impulses, women were seen as both feeling those impulses more strongly and lacking the rational ability to control their sexuality.

For an example, in her Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan spends a section addressing and refuting the ideas that few women are chaste and that women, even if they object, actually want to be forced. Christine’s work is one of the early entry in the Querelle des femmes and she is responding to broad claims about the inferiority of women, including the commonly-made claim that women are less chaste.

As for Boccaccio’s tale, I’d read the humor differently: the seduced woman may not have been interested in sex at first, but the priest should have known better than to awaken that desire precisely because it would soon outstrip his (although with the caveat that I’m not an Italianist or a Boccaccio scholar).

So the claim that the idea of woman as “the lustful sex” dominated western culture all the way back to ancient Greece may be overstated. But it certainly dates as far back as Jerome.

credibility

When a person testifies about some past event, and his or her listeners have no external evidence to corroborate or refute that testimony, those listeners will place a great deal of emphasis on credibility. “I find her a very credible witness.” “I just didn’t find him credible.” We know that con men make opulent livings through seeming credible to large numbers of people; if we search our memories we will discover scenes in which we believed people we shouldn’t have believed and disbelieved people we should have believed; but in the moment we human beings seem to have a nearly absolute confidence in our ability to assess credibility.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. None of us has the superpower of looking into speakers’ souls to discern their true character. Each of us is, in many circumstances, easily fooled. And perhaps on some level, somewhere deep in the recesses of our minds, we realize this. We remember those moments when we were so sure someone was lying when they weren’t, or telling the truth when they weren’t. So we peek around at our ingroup for confirmation. And we get it. They have the same impressions, the same feelings, the same assessments of credibility.

And that can scarcely be surprising, because we share our prejudices and presuppositions and assumptions and tendencies with other members of our ingroup — that’s in large part what makes them our ingroup. So tribalism both produces our impressions of credibility and confirms them. Which makes our impressions of credibility epistemically worthless.

But without them, what do we have? That’s a question that, it seems, few are willing to face. To doubt our impressions is to doubt much of what sustains us day by day. This morning Ross Douthat writes, “Only the Truth Can Save Us Now.” Yeah, good luck with that.

“in fact the mind was poorly understood”

Astounding, really, that Michel could consider psychology any kind of science at all. So much of it consisted of throwing together. Of thinking of the mind as a steam engine, the mechanical analogy most ready to hand during the birth of modern psychology. People had always done that when they thought about the mind: clockwork for Descartes, geological changes for the early Victorians, computers or holography for the twentieth century, AIs for the twenty-first…. and for the Freudian traditionalists, steam engines. Application of heat, pressure buildup, pressure displacement, venting, all shifted into repression, sublimation, the return of the repressed. Sax thought it unlikely steam engines were an adequate model for the human mind. The mind was more like — what? — an ecology — a fellfield — or else a jungle, populated by all manner of strange beasts. Or a universe, filled with stars and quasars and black holes. Well — a bit grandiose, that — really it was more like a complex collection of synapses and axons, chemical energies surging hither and yon, like weather in an atmosphere. That was better — weather — storm fronts of thought, high-pressure zones, low-pressure cells, hurricanes — the jet streams of biological desires, always making their swift powerful rounds…. life in the wind. Well. Throwing together. In fact the mind was poorly understood.

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars

“a large superfluous establishment of words”

We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannise over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important, and sounds well. As we are not particular about the meaning of our liveries on state occasions, if they be but fine and numerous enough, so, the meaning or necessity of our words is a secondary consideration, if there be but a great parade of them. And as individuals get into trouble by making too great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.

— Dickens, David Copperfield 

N.B.  Quote posted by a man who has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

the methods of the Official Straighteners

Two recent stories — one involving a Chicago priest named Paul Kalchik and one involving Marine le Pen — have something significant in common. Neither figure is being punished but each is being examined. In Le Pen’s case a psychologist will be tasked with determining whether she is “capable of understanding remarks and answering questions.” Fr. Kalchik’s psychological examination, Cardinal Blaise Cupich wrote, is to ensure that he “receive[s] pastoral support so his needs can be assessed.”

These are perfect embodiments of what C. S. Lewis called “the humanitarian theory of punishment.” Those holding this theory

maintain that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable?

Thus Cupich’s claim that his actions are focused on Fr. Kalchik’s “needs.” But Lewis’s continuation is vital: “One little point which is taken for granted in this theory needs, however, to be made explicit. The things done to the criminal, even if they are called cures, will be just as compulsory as they were in the old days when we called them punishments.” And, from the point of view of the state or any other governing body, this shift from punishment to healing has certain desirable consequences. More from Lewis, on an article he had recently read:

The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts — and they are not experts in moral thology nor even in the Law of Nature — who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

It is not clear, of course, that there will be any “sentence” of Fr. Kalchik or Marine Le Pen. But the remote possibility of lengthy punishment is coupled with the immediate certainty of compulsory therapy at the hands of people who wield enormous power over their future. This is certainly meant to have a profound deterrent effect not only on them but in the one case on all priests in the Diocese of Chicago and in the other on the French public as a whole. Pour encourager les autres and all that.

Lewis is at pains to emphasize that his case against the Humanitarian theory of punishment assumes “no evil intentions on the part of the Humanitarian.”

My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

But what if the official straighteners are not good people? You’ll have to read the rest of his essay to find out.

is it okay to share praise?

Philip Jenkins in the Englewood Review of Books on my book The Year of Our Lord 1943:

Alan Jacobs has written a brilliant contribution to the study of modern Christian thought. By focusing on a single pivotal year during the Second World War, he traces the reactions of a stellar group of Christian thinkers to the ethical and spiritual crises of the age, and how they saw the prospects for building a new Christian civilization in the postwar era. The discussions of individual thinkers are impressive enough, but the conspectus approach allows us to comprehend the critical issues with special clarity. In its innovative structure, the book offers an exemplary model for the writing of intellectual history.

Christian language policing

Mary Eberstadt:

The word gay and related terms like LGBTQ should be avoided for a deeper reason. They are insufficiently respectful of the human beings who are described in this way. Such identifiers sell humanity short by suggesting that sexual desire amounts to the most important fact about an individual. However well-intentioned (or not), these terms advance a reductionist view of men and women incommensurate with the reality that we are infinitely rich and complicated beings, created in the image of God.

It is bad enough when the wider culture, interested in exploiting carnal desires for commercial or prurient reasons, objectifies human beings in this way. When religious authorities do the same, the damage is worse. I’m reminded of Fr. Arne Panula, a prominent Washington, D.C., priest of manifest goodness and wisdom who died last year. In one of our last conversations, he mentioned meeting a friend-of-a-friend in Italy. This friend felt compelled to tell him, “Fr. Arne, I’m gay.” To which the priest replied, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God.” Fr. Arne was making the point that the most important fact about this man was not his erotic leanings.

I have heard some version of this argument many times and I have never understood it. Are there any other adjectives or descriptors that Eberstadt sees as having the same character?

For instance, imagine that I had just met Fr. Arne, and as we chatted he started telling me, with the evident sense that this would mean something to me, that he loved the city of Montreal and thought that the RCMP is an especially admirable institution that other countries should imitate. Imagine further that, in order to head off any misunderstanding, I said, “Fr. Arne, I’m American.” Would he reply, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God”? And if not, why not? (We can easily imagine other situations in which I might say “I’m white” or “I’m Southern.”)

Adjectives and similar descriptors tend to be circumstantial in this way. Were I to say, in the imagined context, “I’m American,” I would not therefore be affirming that being American is intrinsic to my identity or the most important thing about me. I would, rather, be affirming that my status as an American was contextually relevant. And aren’t there other contexts in which “I’m gay” or “I’m straight” would be similarly relevant?

At this point in writing this post I realized that what I’m saying sounded familiar to me, and I thought a while, and remembered that Ron Belgau has already made my point: “English speakers say, ‘I am X’ all the time without meaning that ‘X’ is either a defining or constitutive element in their identity….” Belgau concludes, definitively: “I do not think that ‘gay’ describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ.” And yet no matter how many times he and his colleagues make these denials, someone always turns up to say Yes you do, you totally think that.

The insistence I see in so many quarters on policing this very particular bit of English usage is very strange to me, and I am losing the ability to see it as anything but a power play, a way of saying to gay and lesbian Christians You’ll use the language we decide you should use, or else. It’s become a non-fatal shibboleth, this demand that a certain word or set of words be used or not be used as a precondition of full fellowship. Isn’t it past time just to let this go?

remembering Doc

I am grieved to hear of the death of Donald Sniegowski, known to one and all as Doc. Doc is father to my dear friends Paul Sniegowski and Gail Kienitz — “father-in-law” seems a little too distant to describe his relationship with Gail — and grandfather to my goddaughter Emma. My wife Teri and I first met Doc many years ago at his and Barbara’s home in South Bend, where we were immediately welcomed with great warmth and festivity. There tended to be a lot of festivity when you were around Doc.

Some years later, after our son Wesley came along, we connected with Doc and Barbara in England, and they swept Teri and Wes away on a day trip to the Cotswolds. Here’s a photo of Doc explaining to Wes how to look for fish in the stream:

(Wesley adored Doc. When he was even younger than he is in this picture he would sit in a high chair at the Sniegowskis’ dinner table and imitate Doc’s voice, which made Doc laugh, which made Wesley laugh, which made Doc laugh even more, in  a marvelous escalation of hilarity.) You can tell just from that pose that Doc would become a wonderful grandfather — which happened, and soon, for Emma came along not long after this, and then eight more grandchildren.

Doc understood the vocation of teacher to be a one of service — it was in helping his students that he fulfilled his calling, as many of them (including Gail) will readily testify. I have always wanted to be more like him than I am, and not just in this. Frederick Buechner says that a saint is a life-giver, and by that criterion anyway Doc was a saint. You always felt a little more alive, a little more aware, and little more delighted with the world when you were around him — so much so that I have struggled to use the past tense in this post.

I last saw Doc when I gave a talk at Notre Dame, maybe six years ago, and over dinner after the talk there was much laughter between us. I deeply regret how rarely our paths crossed in these recent years. But I have thought of him often, and will continue to remember him, and to be grateful for his example, and for his great, great kindness.

on wrath and the feast day of St. Jonathan Swift

Here’s an excellent review by John Wilson of Martha Nussbaum’s new book. With John, I too doubt that fear is the dominant emotion of our moment. My candidate is wrath, which is one reason why I have argued for the canonization of Jonathan Swift. If we must be wrathful, at least let our wrath be truly righteous. Do please click through for the Litany I have written for St. Jonathan’s feast day — soon may it come — but for what it’s worth here’s the collect I composed:

Almighty and most wrathful God, who hate nothing You have made but sometimes repent of having made Man; we thank you this day for the life and work of Your faithful servant Jonathan Swift, who constantly imitated and occasionally exceeded Your own anger at the folly of sin, and who in his works excoriated such folly with a passion that brought him nigh unto madness; and we pray that You may teach us to be imitators of him, so that the follies and stupidities of our own time may receive their proper chastisement; through Christ our Lord, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

a clash of cultures in London

Bridging Home, London, 2018 © Do Ho Suh

how to evaluate a strong but disputable claim

This from John D. Cook is a great example of how to respond to strong but highly disputable scientific claims — in this case Michael Atiyah’s claim to have proven the Riemann hypothesis:

Atiyah’s proof is probably wrong, just because proofs of big theorems are usually wrong. Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem had a flaw that took a year to patch. We don’t know who Atiyah has shown his work to. If he hasn’t shown it to anyone, then it is almost certainly flawed: nobody does flawless work alone. Maybe his proof has a patchable flaw. Maybe it is flawed beyond repair, but contains interesting ideas worth pursuing further.

The worst case scenario is that Atiyah’s work on the fine structure constant and Todd functions is full of holes. He has made other big claims in the last few years that didn’t work out. Some say he should quit doing mathematics because he has made big mistakes.

I’ve made big mistakes too, and I’m not quitting. I make mistakes doing far less ambitious work than trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis. I doubt I’ll ever produce anything as deep as a plausible but flawed proof of the Riemann hypothesis.

Fantastic. Would that we had more people who think this way.

the instrumentalist chain

Earlier I wrote of goods that can’t be aimed at directly, and here’s another example of that.

Like all college teachers, I have heard many times — many, many times — more times than I can count — something along these lines: If I don’t get an A in your class then I won’t be able to get into medical school [or law school, or business school, or engineering school, or dental school] so just tell me what I need to do to get that A.

Here’s how I usually respond:

First, I understand and sympathize with your anxiety, but please don’t say that. Whether you mean it to or not, it sounds manipulative. (“If all my dreams are crushed it’ll be your fault!”) And teachers are no exception to the general rule that most people don’t like feeling manipulated and will often do the opposite of what they think others are trying to get them to do.

But second, and more important for our purposes, you’re really not thinking of this problem in the right way. The problem is not I’m getting a lower grade than I want, the problem is I’m not doing excellent work. Your grade is only a marker or token of the quality of your work. You can’t get a better grade by focusing on getting a better grade. Your grades will improve when your work improves.

This is the pitfall of all instrumentalist thinking — even when it’s properly instrumentalist. By which I mean that there are some things it’s perfectly okay to think of as means to other ends. I exercise so I can be healthier: if I don’t love exercise in itself and for itself, that’s not a problem — unless I fail to pay sufficient attention to what I’m doing when I exercise that in the end I don’t improve my health as much as I want. The way for me to fix that is to start focusing on the exercise itself. Wanting ever more intensely to be super-healthy doesn’t actually help me.

Many of my students don’t care about the quality of the work they’re doing. They care about the grades they get, and they care about grades because the grades will determine whether they get into med school, and they care about getting into med school because that will determine whether they get to be doctors, and they want to be doctors because … well, who am I to judge? My point here is just that there’s a lengthy chain of instrumentalist motivation here, acts that are meaningful only because they lead to other acts that are only meaningful because they lead to still other acts, in regressive links that I can’t see the end of. But the only way people are ever going to get to their goal, whatever that happens to be, is by starting to care about the work they’re doing today.

on conversation

Tim Herrera’s tips for having better conversations are not tips for having better conversations. They’re tips for being better liked. They’re strategies for getting people to have a higher opinion of you, for (as one of the people Herrera interviews puts it) making people ”think you’re a great conversationalist.” Herrera’s piece isn’t about conversation at all, it’s about becoming “a true conversation superstar.”

Tyler Cowen’s alternative suggestions aren’t much, or any, better. Cowen isn’t worried about being liked, but he does seem to be worried about … I don’t know, let’s call it conversational productivity. “Rapidly signal what kind of conversation you are good at, if anything going overboard in the preferred direction, again to establish whether the proper conversational match is in place.” I imagine Cowen going home ay the end of the day and writing in his diary, “I had seven conversational opportunities today, and after employing my signaling technique discovered that two of them yielded productive interchange. My records show that 28% productivity is slightly above average for conversations, so it was a pretty good day.”

If someone were to ask me “How can I become a better conversationalist?” my first thought would be a question: “Why do you want to know?” Because if what you want is popularity or productivity, then conversation is no more than a means to some other end and maybe not even an especially useful means.

Genuine conversation, it seems to me, is not something that one can aim directly at. (In this sense it’s like happiness.) Genuine conversation happens not when you’ve decided you want to have some conversation but when you’re actually engaged with another person. Conversation emerges from a degree of leisure, from patience, and from the trust that enables people to be truly present with each other and to be well-disposed to each other. Rather than asking “how can I have good conversations” or (worse) “how can I be a good conversationalist,” I think we’d all do better to ask this: How can I live in such a way that conversations naturally emerge from my form of life?

Yahweh’s unearthly patience

The impression we get from 1–2 Kings is not that God is a stingy disciplinarian with an anger problem. If anything, the God of 1–2 Kings is irresponsibly indulgent toward his people, a God who does not seem to realize he cannot run the world without a dose of law and order. By the time Judah is sent into Babylonian exile in 2 Kgs. 25, we are not saying, “My, what a harsh God”; if we read attentively, we are saying, “It’s about time! What took him so long?” The offense of the theology proper of 1–2 Kings is not that God is angry with the innocent. The offense is the offense of Jonah — the offense of God’s mercy, the offense of Yahweh’s unearthly patience with the irascible and unresponsive.

Peter Leithart

on firing Ian Buruma

Damon Linker thinks the firing of Ian Buruma is taking the #MeToo movement a step too far:

Buruma made a serious editorial misjudgment. But he became the focus of intense fury on Twitter and was fired for something else — for displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi’s actions, and for seeing value in using Ghomeshi’s personal experience as an occasion for thinking about an aspect of the subject without first and foremost engaging in scorched-earth excoriation.

That is what is fast becoming unacceptable.

Damon is, as I have said often, one of the best columnists around, so I always take his views seriously, but I’m not convinced by his argument here. First, I wonder if Damon has accurately described the reasons for Buruma’s firing. None of us were privy to the conversations between Buruma and his employers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they had asked him to apologize for his actions and words in ways he wasn’t prepared to do. Maybe the details will emerge later.

But even if he was simply summarily fired after his Slate interview I’m not sure that it’s right to say that Buruma simply “displayed insufficient outrage and indignation.” I want to look a little more closely at the details of that interview.

What is Buruma willing to say that Jian Ghomeshi did? He speaks of Ghomeshi as “being a jerk in many ways” and as belonging to a general class of people who “behaved badly sexually, abusing their power in one way or another” — people who “misbehaved.”

But his great emphasis is on the fact that Ghomeshi was not (or has not yet been) convicted of any crime: “in cases like his, where you have been legally acquitted … I am not talking about people who broke the law. I am not talking about rapists … What is much murkier is when people are not found to have broken the law … All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime … My concern is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense … All I know is that he was acquitted … People very quickly conflate cases of criminal behavior with cases that are sometimes murkier and can involve making people feel uncomfortable, verbally or physically, and that really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence.”

That last sentence seems especially troublesome. Isaac Chotiner, the interviewer, keeps reminding Buruma that several women have accused Ghomeshi of biting, choking, and punching them during sex. Buruma tries to wave this away: “Take something like biting. Biting can be an aggressive or even criminal act. It can also be construed differently in different circumstances.” No doubt this is literally true. But to assert that such behavior “really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence” is effectively to say that the women who claimed that Ghomeshi bit and punched and choked them in violent ways were wrong. The suggestion is very strong here that maybe all Ghomeshi did was “make them feel uncomfortable.”

Buruma repeatedly says — and in itself this is certainly defensible — that he doesn’t know what Ghomeshi did. “I don’t know if what all these women are saying is true. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t…. The exact nature of his behavior — how much consent was involved — I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”

But what, then, is his concern? It is to learn what it feels like to be publicly “pilloried” as Ghomeshi has been. Again and again he characterizes Ghomeshi as someone who is the passive victim of something: Buruma claims to be interested in the experience of “finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried,” of what it’s like to “have been legally acquitted but you are still judged as undesirable in public opinion…. My interest in running this piece, as I said, is the point of view of somebody who has been pilloried in public opinion and what somebody like that feels about it.”

So when we put all this together, we see that Buruma has no interest at all in what Ghomeshi did, but rather cares only about what has been done to him: the fact that he has been “pilloried,” not whether he has done anything to deserve such treatment. It’s especially telling that Buruma does not think Ghomeshi has ruined anything, but rather is “finding” his life ruined — like finding out you have cancer, or finding that your job has been eliminated. Buruma simply erases the causal links between Ghomeshi’s behavior and his experiences. And it is hard to see how this isolating of the experiences from their causes can have any effect other than to increase sympathy for Ghomeshi.

And the women who have complained about Ghomeshi’s treatment of them? Buruma says not one word about them. They too have been erased. What does it feel like to be them? That’s a question Buruma never asks. And he doesn’t ask it because, as he says, it isn’t his “concern.” It is not something that, editorially at least, he cares about.

Looking at this whole picture, I don’t think we see someone merely “displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi’s actions.” I think we see a much deeper moral blindness — an excessive interest in one person’s sufferings and an utter lack of interest in the sufferings of others — that, to me, calls Buruma’s judgment seriously into question. If I had been his boss, I don’t know that I would have fired him; but after I saw that interview in Slate, firing him would have been my first option.

on Sloan and Sherlock

The super-cool Robin Sloan has a super-cool newsletter — only occasional, alas, but Robin has many irons in the fire these days. He even makes olive oil. But anyway, in a recent edition of the newsletter, he makes in passing a fascinating point:

There’s something happening in fiction now, and to a degree in film and TV too: the time in which stories are set is scootching back, with writers fleeing to the safety of 1994 or 1987 or much earlier. Why? Because we didn’t have smart phones then. We didn’t have social media. The world didn’t have this shimmering overlay of internet which is, in a very practical way, hard to write about. Writers of novels and teleplays have well-developed tools for the depiction of drama in real space. Drama that plays out through our little pocket-sized screens is just as rich — but how do we show it? We’re now seeing film and TV figure this out in real-time. Novels have been (oddly?) less successful. Because digital action relies on so many Brands™, it feels risky and/or distasteful to send your narrative too deep into that realm. Who wants to be the person who called it wrong and wrote the Great MySpace Novel? (Actually, the Great MySpace Novel would be amazing. But see, that’s not now anymore! MySpace has stabilized into historical artifact. We can look at it; describe it; maybe even understand it. That’s not the case with the systems we’re using right now. We’re lost inside of them.)

Remember the first episode of Sherlock? Came out eight — yes, eight — years ago, and one of the most-discussed elements of the first episode was its use of texting. Sherlock texted and received texts all the time, and the content of those texts was regularly displayed our TV screens. For a thoughtful take on how the series did this, see this video essay on “Visual Writing in Sherlock” — visual writing that is by no means confined to the display of texting. I believe there’s general agreement that the makers of the series not only got this right but also used it to great dramatic, and sometimes comic, effect.

I don’t want to take Robin’s point too far, but I’m taken by the suggestion that a particular technology only becomes available for artistic representation when artists and audience are not “lost inside of it.” In this context it might be worth noting that Sherlock’s representation of texting happened right after the first widespread availability of smartphones, and therefore right after people began regularly interacting with the phones in non-textual ways (especially through photos and video). Sherlock’s representation of visual writing is, then, what BlackBerry use looks like when you have an iPhone.

You know what else appeared in 2010? The Social Network — a movie about Facebook that showed up just when people were dismissing Facebook as uncool and turning instead to Twitter — and then to Instagram (which was also released in 2010, though it didn’t become huge right away).

One more artifact from that same year: Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story, much of which is told through emails.

So: what technologies are going to dominate the books and movies and TV shows of 2020?

dare to make a Daniel

In a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Adrian Vermeule offers an alternative to Deneen’s plea for a renewed localism, and to the related counsel of Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option. Vermeule sees in a handful of biblical figures a model of civic engagement for Christians to follow:

Joseph, Mordecai, Esther, and Daniel, however, mainly attempt to ensure the survival of their faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession. They do not evangelize or preach with a view to bringing about the birth of an entirely new regime, from within the old. They mitigate the long defeat for those who become targets of the regime in liberalism’s twilight era, and this will surely have to be the main aim for some time to come. In the much longer run, it is permissible to dream, however fitfully, that other models may one day become relevant, in a postliberal future of uncertain shape. One such model is St. Cecilia, who, forced into marriage against her vows, converted her pagan husband; their joint martyrdom helped to spark the explosive growth of the early church. Another is of course St. Paul himself, who by the end of Acts of the Apostles preached the advent of a new order from within the very urban heart of the imperium.

Here too there is no hint of retreat into localism. There is instead a determination to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core. It may thus appear providential that liberalism, despite itself, has prepared a state capable of great tasks, as a legacy to bequeath to a new and doubtless very different future. The vast bureaucracy created by liberalism in pursuit of a mirage of depoliticized governance may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.

This is a powerful and in many ways beautiful vision. Perhaps the most attractive element of it, to me, is the commendation of limited goals on our part — the mere “attempt to ensure the survival of [our] faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession” — that may, in the providential wisdom of God, lead to something much greater: the transformation of a “decaying regime” into a “great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.” One should never expect something like that but it is meet and right to hope for it.

But I think Vermeule’s vision is missing one absolutely essential element. My question for him is: Where will these Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels come from? People who are deeply grounded in and deeply committed to their faith tradition who are also capable of rising to high levels of influence in government and education don’t exactly grow on trees. Vermeule’s model reminds me of someone who says he knows how I can become a billionaire and begins by saying, “First, get a million dollars.” Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels can indeed do great things — if we can come by them. But how are Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels produced?

What Vermeule is overlooking, it seems to me, is the simple fact that the liberal order catechizes. One of the wings of the liberal order that does this especially effectively is graduate school. Time and again over the years I have seen idealistic young scholars-in-training say, “Oh, I don’t really believe all that stuff they try to inculcate you with in grad school; I’ll just learn the language and use it until I get my PhD, and then I’ll be free to be myself.” But then “until I get my PhD” becomes “until I get a job”; and then “until I get tenure”; and then “until I get promoted to full professor.” Sooner or later — and often sooner — the face becomes indistinguishable from the mask. And this kind of gradual transformation of personal sensibility happens in a thousand different ways, in a thousand different cultural locations.

So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West – all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse across the board of participation in church life.

What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects. Though I also might reject certain elements and emphases of the communities that Deneen and Dreher advocate, I don’t see a likely instrument other than highly dedicated, counter-cultural communities of faith for the Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels to be formed. Those who do see other means of such rigorous formation need to step up and explain how their models work. Otherwise we will be looking in vain for the people capable of carrying out Vermeule’s beautiful vision.

“earthquakes and hurricains of the moral World”

Revolutions are sudden to the unthinking only. Political Disturbances happen not without their warning Harbingers. Strange Rumblings and confused Noises still precede these earthquakes and hurricains of the moral World.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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