My goal at this stage of my life is to get to the point where I don’t know who any public figure is and therefore can’t have an opinion about any of them.
My generation of writers — and yours, if you are reading this — lives in the shadow of Auden’s famous attack on the relevance of writing to life, when he wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” I had heard the remark repeated so often and for so long I finally went looking for its source, to try to understand what it was he really meant by it. Because I knew it was time for me to really argue with it. If not for myself, for my students.
The thing is, Chee makes no attempt whatsoever to find out what Auden meant when he wrote “Poetry makes nothing happen.” If he had, he might have learned that Auden never in any way made an “attack on the relevance of writing to life.” That line was a response by Auden to the political poets of the Thirties who convinced themselves that in writing poetry they were changing the social and political order. But, Auden believed, they weren’t. Poetry does many wonderful things, Auden believed, but in the sphere of politics it can make nothing happen.
When years ago, I finished reading [John Crowe Ransom’s] God Without Thunder , I threw it aside, muttering that I would rather burn eternally in hell than submit to the will of such an arbitrary, not to say monstrous, God. But then, as an atheist, I am at liberty to indulge in such grandstanding. Were I in grace and in fear of the wrath of a God who proclaims himself ‘a jealous God,’ I would think again. Liberal (and liberationist) theology, in white or black, should warm every atheist’s heart. For if God is a socially conscious political being whose view invariably corresponds to our own prejudices on every essential point of doctrine, he demands of us no more than our politics require. Besides, if God is finite, progressive, and Pure Love, we may as well skip church next Sunday and go to the movies. For if we have nothing to fear from this all-loving, all-forbearing, all-forgiving God, how would our worship of him constitute more than self-congratulation for our own moral standards? As an atheist, I like this God. It is good to see him every morning while I am shaving.
The second, and harder, task of [an imagined book called] Christianity and Evangelicalism, would be to suggest some steps by which the latter could become Christian again. Here, ironically, the attempt by some evangelicals to sanctify Donald Trump might work well if given a quarter turn: he is no Cyrus, a pagan ordained of God to restore Jews to Israel, but Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan invader of Israel ordained of God to punish them for their unfaithfulness, and banishing the best of them from the promised land in the bargain. As intriguing might be the possibility of seeing that pagan’s later fate play out again—that is, to see the proud trumpet of egotistical greatness reduced to crawling around like a beast in the field, eating grass and growing literal instead of just figurative claws (Daniel 4)—one’s relish at the prospect bespeaks an unsanctified longing of its own.
The better role might be to follow after a truly scandalous prophet, Ezekiel; to describe and survey the scattered dry bones of a once favored people; and to ask by what means they might possibly live again. No mistake: this option entails death, exile, and damnation. Perhaps we’re left just there, right with the founder of Christianity. Perhaps this, and only this, is the path to resurrection and redemption.
No, Cessario is quite explicit about this: “Both the law of the Church and the laws of the Papal States stipulated that a person legitimately baptized receive a Catholic upbringing.” Not merely a Christian upbringing, but specifically a Catholic one. In terms of canon law and the law of Vatican City, what mattered about Mortara’s case was not that the Mortaras were Jewish but that they were not Catholic. Though it’s hard for me to believe that the actuating motive here wasn’t antisemitism, if David Kertzer is right in his book on the case, Pio Nono might have been even stricter with a Protestant family:
Events of 1848-49 only strengthened Pius IX’s opposition to the idea of freedom of religion. He was committed to the principle of the Catholic state, one in which any other religion had to be viewed with suspicion and closely regulated, if not banned. This principle extended not only to the Jews but to other Christian denominations as well. Indeed, the Pope was more favorably inclined toward the Jews, who represented no threat to the Holy Church, than toward the Protestants, who did. To the complaints of those who said that the Jews were poorly treated in the Papal States, the Pope and his defenders could argue that, on the contrary, they were accorded privileged treatment, allowed to have their own synagogues and practice their religion undisturbed. By contrast, Protestants were not permitted such freedoms, and Rome itself had no real Protestant church, other than a converted granary outside town used by diplomatic personnel and other foreigners. Papal police stood guard at its doors to ensure that no native went inside.
There are of course legitimate arguments to be had about whether true Christian faith is compatible with the liberal order, whether separation of church and state is a good idea, what Pio Nono’s true motives were, and so on — but there’s no doubt that the politico-theological principle at stake in the Mortara case does not concern the relations between Christians and Jews but rather the relations between the Catholic Church and everybody else.
From a national perspective, the number of people earning communications degrees (which was negligible in the heyday of English majors 50-60 years ago), surpassed the number getting English degrees around 20 years ago. Since then Communications has held a fairly steady share of graduates as the college population grew, while English has lost its share and in recent years even shrank in total number, as this NCES table records. In short, students voted with their feet and, for the most part, they aren’t interested in the curricular experience English has to offer (i.e. read books, talk about books, write essays about books).
Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.
And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.”
So maybe — just maybe — it’s not “read books, talk about books, write essays about books” that’s the problem.
(Cross-posted at Text Patterns)
I don’t think I’m flattering myself when I say that I have a fairly broad range of interests — and keeping track of all those interests has always been a challenge for me. I’ve mostly tried to do the online part of it by creating silos, so that people who care about only some of the things I care about don’t have to see a lot of stuff that bores them. The most general of those has been my Pinboard page. More focused sites include my blog on technologies of knowledge, Text Patterns; my soccer blog, The Pacey Winger; the blog for my book, How to Think; my long-neglected but still much-loved site Gospel of the Trees. That last is a coherent and self-sufficient project, but the others could conceivably be brought together — and there would be some advantage to me if they were. (Thanks in large part to the beauty of tags.)
So I’m taking some steps in that direction. Interesting things I read that I have been posting to Pinboard I’ll now post here; and any reflections related to How to Think will be posted here also. Text Patterns will remain where it is, though I might cross-post more often; and I’m still thinking about what to do with The Pacey Winger.
Anyway, it’s gonna be a little busier around here from now on. And I have some further ideas for how to make this place more interesting that I will share soon.
I have had many discussions with readers of First Things, some of whom are good friends and many of whom I rely upon for counsel and guidance. These conversations have convinced me that I made a mistake in publishing “Non Possumus,” a review of Kidnapped by the Vatican? The review raises perplexing, technical theological questions and brings the vexed matter of religious and secular authority into sharp focus. But featuring it in our pages could not help but give the impression that I intend to lead First Things in a new direction that undermines our commitment to the vital conversation between Christians and Jews. That is not the case. I regret that my decision to publish the review brought unnecessary anguish to my friends and to readers who care so deeply about our common project.
— Rusty Reno. I very much appreciate this from Rusty, but it needs a clarification. The thrust of Romanus Cessario’s review was not that the Pope has the moral right and ecclesial responsibility to take baptized children away from Jewish parents only, but that the Pope has that right and that responsibility in relation to any non-Catholic children baptized in the name of the Triune God who come within his legal jurisdiction. For Cessario such removal is not merely an option, but rather one of the “imperatives of faith” — thus Pio Nono’s “non possumus“: he could not do otherwise. (I discuss these matters in a bit more detail here.)
In running that review, then, Rusty — as the editor of a putatively interreligious journal of religion and public life — was opening the question of whether, if I and my family had become residents of Vatican City in 1995 or thereabouts, my son Wesley should have been forcibly taken away from his parents and raised as a Catholic. After all, he had been baptized, but in an Episcopalian parish, and we had no intention of raising him as a Catholic. In respect to the imperatives of faith Cessario identifies and defends, Wesley was in precisely the same situation as Edgardo Mortara had been a century-and-a-half earlier. Cessario is quite explicit about the ecclesial principles involved: “These articles of faith bound Pius to give Mortara a Catholic upbringing that his parents could not.” So Cessario’s position has implications not only for the relations between Christians and Jews, but for the relations between Roman Catholics and all other Christians.
And (far less significantly, of course!) this kerfuffle raises questions about whether the editorial staff of First Things (Catholics all, as far as I know) are willing and able to make their journal genuinely interreligious, or whether, conversely, they should just redesignate themselves as a Catholic journal and be done with it. I am grateful for Rusty’s straightforward apology, but these are issues about the magazine’s identity that still remain to be resolved.
Sohrab Amari writes in Commentary about two kinds of Christian response to the dominant liberal order, the compatibilists and the non-compatibilists:
The “compatibilists” (like yours truly) argued that liberalism’s foundational guarantees of freedom of speech, conscience, and association sufficed to protect Christianity from contemporary liberalism’s censorious, repressive streak. The task of the believer, they contended, was to call liberalism back to its roots in Judeo-Christianity, from which the ideology derives its faith in the special dignity of persons, universal equality and much else of the kind. Christianity could evangelize liberal modernity in this way. Publicly engaged believers could restore to liberalism the commitment to ultimate truths and the public moral culture without which rights-based self-government ends up looking like mob rule.
The latter camp — those who thought today’s aggressive progressivism was the rotten fruit of the original liberal idea — were more pessimistic. They argued that liberal intolerance went back to liberalism’s origins. The liberal idea was always marked by distrust for all non-liberal authority, an obsession with promoting maximal autonomy over the common good, and hostility to mediating institutions (faith, family, nation-state, etc.). Yes, liberalism was willing to live with and even borrow ideas from Christianity for a few centuries, the non-compatibilists granted. But that time is over. Liberalism’s anti-religious inner logic was bound to bring us to today’s repressive model: Bake that cake — or else! Say that men can give birth — or else! Let an active bisexual run your college Christian club — or else!
I have been for most of my career what I call a sad compatibilist: I have tried to describe and promote a model of charity, forbearance, patience, and fairness in disputation to all parties concerned, not because I think my approach will work but because I am trying to do what I think a disciple of Jesus should do regardless of effectiveness. In these matters I continue to be against consequentialism. For reasons I explain in that post I just linked to, I’ll keep on pushing, but it feels more comically pointless than ever in this age of rhetorical Leninism. (And by the way, if you weren’t convinced by the example I give, take a gander at some of the responses to Jordan Peterson that Alastair Roberts collects in this post.)
Speaking of pushing, Amari concludes his post thus: “It is up to liberals to decide if they want to push further.” But as far as I can tell that decision has been made. There are two kinds of liberals now: the Leninists and the Silent — the latter not happy with the scorched-earth tactics of their confederates but unwilling to question them, lest they themselves become the newest victims of such tactics. The Voltairean [sic] liberal is, I believe, extinct. “Not only will I not defend to the death your right to say something that appalls me, I won’t even defend it to the point of getting snarked at in my Twitter mentions.”
What I find myself wondering, in the midst of all this, is whether there is a different way to do sad compatibilism than the one I’ve been pursuing. Do I just keep on banging my head against the same wall or do I look for a different wall? I’m thinking about this a lot right now.
This post, describing the experience of a friend of my friend Rod Dreher, makes universal judgments about the world of the humanities based on a narrow and particular set of experiences. Take, by contrast, another friend of mine, Chad Wellmon, who commented briefly on the story here. Chad is a straight white Christian man, married with children, who, while not a conservative, has even written for the Weekly Standard — and he’s flourishing in the humanities at an elite public university. He’s not looking over his shoulder; he’s not afraid of persecution. Rod’s friend says that “the academic humanities, as a whole and at their highest levels, just are not interested in what would have been recognizable as quality scholarship even two decades ago”; okay, well, take a look at Chad’s book on the German university in the age of Enlightenment. I’ll wait.
Now: Does that look like something other than quality scholarship to you? It’s a book based heavily on archival research in a language other than English — in short, just the kind of philological scholarship that would have been recognized as such by Erich Auerbach, for heaven’s sake. But according to Rod’s friend, Chad’s kind of career ought to be impossible.
You might reply that that’s just one example of academic tolerance. Indeed — but then, Rod’s friend offers just one example of academic intolerance. Which one is the norm and which the exception? Do you think you know? If you do, does your opinion rest on any evidence?
I’m not exactly a pollyanna about these matters. I have said over and over again that, thanks to my long career at a Christian college and the specifically Christian character of much of my writing, I am almost certainly unemployable in my field (English literature) outside the world of Christian higher education. And there’s bigotry at work there — no doubt about it. On the other hand, I have been able to publish at some of the best university presses in the world, which also shouldn’t be possible if Rod’s friend’s account of the academic humanities is accurate.
What my experience — and that of several of my friends, not just Chad — tells me is that the state of the humanities in the American university is far, far more complex and variable than Rod’s friend thinks. Look at how universal his judgments are, how often he speaks of “all,” “every,” “no one,” “always.” These statements are simply incorrect. I know first-hand many exceptions to his universal judgments.
Generally speaking, Christians in the academy have a pretty tough go of it these days. But there are, occasionally, open doors for people who have the wit and the strategic nous to get through them. Rather than throw up our hands and walk away, I think we should redouble our efforts to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. There are some good examples out there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
One further comment: after decades of reading screeds about the turgid impenetrability of academic prose, I am somewhat bemused to learn that the real problem with scholarly writing today is that “professors of English and Sociology are able to read it.” One of the interesting thoughts that might occur to someone making a mental survey of the greatest humanistic scholars of the past hundred years or so — A. E. Housman, Karl Barth, Erich Auerbach, J. R. R. Tolkien, Fernand Braudel, Charles Norris Cochrane, Leo Spitzer — is how elegantly many of them wrote, and often in more than one language. So elegantly that even professors of English or sociology might be able to enjoy them. Perhaps they weren’t such great scholars after all.
As America in its present incarnation, with its present leadership, teeters toward an arrogance, isolationism and self-importance that are the portals of moral decline and political self-destruction, the nation must recall the faith of Martin Luther King Jr. He saw faith as a tool for change, a constant source of inspiration to remake the world in the just and redemptive image of God. On this holy day, instead of shrinking into the safety of faith, we should, as Dr. King did, bear the burdens of the less fortunate and rise again to serve humanity.
When I wrote in a recent post about “rhetorical Leninism,” what did I mean?
I recently read Victor Sebestyen’s biography of Lenin, and one of the most striking elements of it was the consistency with which Lenin adhered to a particular strategy — a strategy which almost everyone around him believed was counterproductive, but which he never abandoned: Abuse, condemn, and denounce every person in every party other than yours, and do the same to the doubters or waverers in your own ranks. “No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people!” — so Lenin famously cried, but for him the Mensheviks were the enemies of the people just as fully as were the social democrats like Kerensky and the most fervent supporters of Tsarist autocracy. For Lenin they were all the same. He who is not with us, and with us 100%, is against us and must be condemned. Again and again, people who considered themselves strong allies of Lenin and faithful adherents to his cause, expressed some minor dissent or critique and found themselves, to their great surprise, denounced and excluded, treated as though they were no different than the Tsarists. And for Lenin they weren’t.
To some degree Lenin’s policy reflects human nature. We often get more upset when we feel that we’ve been betrayed, or simply not supported, by friends than when we’re attacked by known enemies. What’s distinctive about Lenin is his elevation of this emotional tendency into an absolute political and rhetorical principle. And guess what? It worked. It brought people into line. It kept the Bolsheviks together, and when all the other factions of Russian political life had splintered, Lenin’s party, though it was small and weak, was the only one able to fill the vacuum created by the fall of the Tsar, and so came to power. And stayed in power for seventy years.
The Leninism of our moment is, as I have said, largely rhetorical, for which I suppose we should be thankful. But the real thing isn’t dead, and absolute itself most obviously in the White House, where anything except perfect loyalty to His Orangeness tends to meet with dismissal or, at best, internal isolation (hello, Jeff Sessions). The rhetorical element of the administration’s Leninism is left largely to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who faithfully imitates the style of her boss’s tweets. Now, the parallels are not perfect: Lenin was smart enough to insist, always, that he only cared about loyalty to the Cause, not to him personally, and this was a shrewd move — but one not available in Trumpworld, which manifestly has no cause or for that matter any principles other than self-aggrandizement. But the Leninist strategy is still doing hard work in the White House.
The purely rhetorical Leninism of our moment is largely, it seems to me, a strategy of the political and cultural left and is deployed most forcefully, it seems to me, against the nearer rather than the further enemy. Michael Sean Winters is going to be far more viciously mocking of Ross Douthat than of a fire-breathing integralist trad, because Douthat’s epistemic modesty and willingness to treat his opponents as decent people arguing in good faith, who might even have a good point or two to make, just might incline some people otherwise sympathetic to Winters’s own liberalism to have second thoughts. This cannot be allowed, and therefore Douthat cannot be allowed to make a good point or two either. He has no legitimate concerns, no legitimate viewpoints, no legitimate arguments. Please move along, nothing to see here.
Similarly, while there are plenty of real fascists out there, people might not think that Jordan Peterson, who holds plenty of recognizable liberal views, is dangerous, so: Fascist Mysticism! And since Charles Murray is pretty evidently no Richard Spencer: White supremacist! And the very idea that one should distinguish between what Murray wrote (or is thought to have written) in The Bell Curve and what he comes to campuses to talk about these days — I mean, come on.
As I wrote in How to Think, we live in an age of lumping, and the general goal seems to be to create just two big lumps, the goats and the sheep, the Wrong and the Right. Which is great, I suppose, if you want to run a dictatorship. There is precedent. But sometimes I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong. There’s got to be some better way for people to live.
Stanford has 7000 undergraduates. Next quarter I’ll be teaching 5% of them (350) in classes that read Luther, Butler, Kant, @SaraNAhmed, Freud, Heine and the SCUM manifesto. How am I supposed to find the time to pen my obligatory “death of the humanities” think piece???
— Adrian Daub (@adriandaub) March 31, 2018
Maybe if you pause to reflect that not everyone gets to teach at institutions with the resources that Stanford commands — if you meditate for a moment on places like the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which has an undergraduate population slightly larger than that of Stanford and is eliminating, among other programs, American Studies, English literature, French, German, Philosophy, and Spanish — then you might find time, if not to write that think piece, then at least to reconsider your smugness. Unless, of course, you believe that as long as the patricians are flourishing nobody need give a shit about the plebes.
If you’re the kind of writer who works to be generous and fair-minded; if you admit that you have priors that incline you towards certain positions and away from others; if you’re willing to acknowledge that your preferred positions on a given issue are not without weaknesses, that there are trade-offs involved, and that those who choose the other side are not acting irrationally (even if you think they ultimately make the wrong call); then you should pursue that path only because you think it’s the right thing to do and not because you expect or even hope that people who disagree with you will extend similar courtesies to you. Because they almost certainly won’t.
Here’s a recent example: Michael Sean Winters reviewing Ross Douthat’s new book. Douthat exhibits all the traits I mentioned in the previous paragraph — I would call them “virtues,” though YMMV — and Winters, with the assurance characteristic of those who feel themselves enfolded by the wings of the Angels of Righteousness, announces his Judgment: Douthat’s “facts are nonsense, his arguments tendentious, and his thesis so absurd it is shocking, absolutely shocking, that no one over at Simon & Schuster thought to ask if what he writes is completely or only partially unhinged. I incline to the former adverb.” You can read further from there if you want; the review grows less restrained as it goes along.
Is Winters right? You will not be surprised to learn that I’m not convinced. (Even if didn’t call Ross a friend, I am always profoundly suspicious of declarations that definitive, whether they are positive or negative.) He quotes unnamed sources who say that Douthat is wrong, while ignoring Douthat’s own sources. He says that “thoughtful, learned churchmen” see things as he himself does — which I suppose leaves us to conclude that the churchmen Douthat quotes are neither thoughtful nor learned, though it seems to this observer that that point might profitably be debated. Again and again he assures us that there are no arguments for positions other than his own. I’m pretty sure that these matters are not as crystal-clear as Winters claims, but I don’t want to debate the substance here. What I am interested in, rather, is Winters’ scorched-earth approach.
It’s especially noteworthy, I think, that he simply ignores 95% of Douthat’s book, presumably because he doesn’t find anything in it to loathe. Which should remind us that, despite superficial appearances, what Winters has written is not a book review: it is a skirmish in a great War for the future of the Roman Catholic Church. And Winters quite evidently believes that the stakes of this war are such that generosity, or even elementary fairness, to one’s enemies is no virtue. The proper name for Winters’s strategy is rhetorical Leninism. “No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people!” No mercy for the enemies of Pope Francis!
Always remember, those of you who strive for fairness and humility and charity and (yes) mercy: this is the coin in which you will surely be paid. And with that, a blessed Triduum to you all.
Jean-Paul Sartre was working furiously on his second play, Les Mouches (The Flies), while finishing his major philosophy treatise, L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness). Jean Paulhan had convinced Gallimard to publish the 700-page essay even if the commercial prospects were extremely limited. However, three weeks after it came out in early August, sales took off. Gallimard was intrigued to see so many women buying L’Être et le néant. It turned out that since the book weighed exactly one kilogram, people were simply using it as a weight, as the usual copper weights had disappeared to be sold on the black market or melted down to make ammunition.
— Agnès Poirier, via Warren Ellis
In one of my classes today I’m teaching the Dark Mountain Manifesto and in the other I’m teaching the Tao Te Ching, and let me tell you, the resonances between those two texts are extraordinary. So much to contemplate here. I find myself imagining a Daoist post-environmentalist Utopia….
One clever little speciality of adult humans works like this: You very carefully (and, if you’re smart, very subtly) instruct children in the moral stances you’d like them to hold. Then, when they start to repeat what you’ve taught them, you cry “Out of the mouths of babes! And a little child shall lead them!” And you very delicately maneuver the children to the front of your procession, so that they appear to be leading it — but of course you make sure all along that you’re steering them in the way that they should go. It’s a social strategy with a very long history.
So, for instance, when you hear this:
“It’s the children who are now leading us,” said Diane Ehrensaft, the director of mental health for the clinic. “They’re coming in and telling us, ‘I’m no gender.’ Or they’re saying, ‘I identify as gender nonbinary.’ Or ‘I’m a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I’m a unique gender, I’m transgender. I’m a rainbow kid, I’m boy-girl, I’m everything.'”
— certain alarms should ring. No child came up with the phrase “I identify as gender nonbinary.” It is a faithful echo of an adult’s words.
Now, maybe you think it’s great that these children can begin to transition from one sex to another at an early age. I don’t, but I’m not going to argue that point now. My point is simply that if you say “It’s the children who are now leading us,” you’re lying — perhaps not consciously or intentionally, but it’s lying all the same because the truth is so easy to discern if you wish to do so. (As Yeats wrote, “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbors, / The sentimentalist himself.”)
This is why I think one of the most important books you could possibly read right now, if you care about these matters, is Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. Beck is anything but a conservative — he’s an editor for n+1 — and his book is highly critical of traditionalist beliefs about families. And a “moral panic” might seem to be the opposite of the celebration of new openness to gender expressions and sexualities. But if you read Beck’s book you will see precisely the same cultural logic at work as we see in today’s children’s crusades.
In this “moral panic” of thirty years ago, social workers and, later, prosecutors elicited from children horrific tales of Satan-worship, sexual abuse, and murder — and then, when anyone expressed skepticism, cried “We believe the children!” But every single one of the stories was false. The lives of many innocent people, people who cared for children rather than exploiting or abusing them, were destroyed. And — this may be the worst of all the many terrifying elements of Beck’s story — those who, through subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, extracted false testimonies from children have suffered virtually no repercussions for what they did.
Moreover — and this is the point that I can’t stop thinking about — the entire episode has been erased from our cultural memory. Though it was headline news every day for years, virtually no one talks about it, virtually no one remembers it. Beck might as well be writing about something that happened five hundred years ago. And I think it has been suppressed so completely because no one wants to think that our good intentions can go so far astray. And if forced to comment, what would the guilty parties say? “We only did what we thought was best. We only believed the children.”
So if you want to celebrate the courage of trans tweens, or for that matter high-schoolers speaking out for gun control, please do. But can you please stop the pretense that “the children are leading us”? What you are praising them for is not courage but rather docility, for learning their lessons well. (I wonder if anyone who has praised the students who speak out on behalf of gun control has also praised the students who participate in anti-abortion rallies like the March for Life.) And perhaps you might also hope that, if things go badly for the kids whose gender transitions you are cheering for, your role will be as completely forgotten as those who, thirty years ago, sent innocent people to prison by doing only what they thought was best.
I’m probably going to write more about Scott Alexander’s take on Jordan Peterson, but for now I just want to note that he’s absolutely right to say that Peterson is playing a role that (a) most of us who teach the humanities say we already fill but (b) few of us care about at all:
Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.
And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.” And maybe this isn’t totally disconnected from the question of how to live. Maybe being able to understand this kind of thing is a necessary part of being able to get anything out of the books at all.
But just like all the other cliches, somehow Peterson does this better than anyone else. When he talks about the Great Works, you understand, on a deep level, that they really are about how to live. You feel grateful and even humbled to be the recipient of several thousand years of brilliant minds working on this problem and writing down their results. You understand why this is all such a Big Deal.
When I see young people out there marching and demonstrating and making their voices heard on behalf of causes I already believe in, wow, does that give me hope for the future. There are few experiences in this vale of tears that lift my heart like watching the youth of our nation so vigorously confirming all my priors. Now, to be sure, sometimes they speak up on behalf of causes that I don’t believe in, in which case it’s totally pathetic how their parents and other authority figures so shamelessly use kids to promote their own agendas. But as long as those future voters agree with me, they’re a shining beacon for our nation. As I say every time their politics match mine: The kids are all right.
Much of Paul Baumann’s review of Ross Douthat’s new book is devoted to intra-Catholic disputes that I won’t presume to adjudicate, but there’s one passage that strikes me as extremely odd:
Douthat is right about Jesus’ intransigence regarding marriage in Mark’s Gospel : “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder” (10:9). Matthew, however, finds this teaching too hard, and exercising his authority as an Apostle, an authority conferred by Jesus, grants an exception for “unchastity” (5:32; 19:9).
Now, the passages Baumann cites are from extended teachings by Jesus. So Baumann’s interpretation of those passages is that when Matthew claims to be reporting what Jesus said, what he’s actually doing is presenting his own teaching about marriage — but that’s okay because his authority to do so was conferred on him by Jesus. Which is one of the more peculiar bits of exegesis I have ever come across.
The best thing about Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy is its uncompromising weirdness — its straightforward facing of the possibility that, should we ever make contact with an alien intelligence, that intelligence might be so alien that we simply cannot understand it at all, in any way — that its motives (if it has “motives”) and its technology (if it has “technology”) could be so utterly disconnected from what we think of as motives and technology as to be utterly inscrutable. The movie Annihilation is pretty weird at times, but not nearly as weird as its source material, and its steady domestication of that material takes the edge off the story. In the moments that it embraces the weirdness, it’s memorable, but there aren’t very any such moments. It’s okay; but no more than okay.
I’ve talked about this before, in bits and pieces, but just for the record: My wife Teri and I believe that our calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to tend to the seamless garment of life — our understanding of which I’ve tried to describe in some detail here — and we try to back that up in various ways. Teri does more of this than I do: she tutors a middle-schooler who lives in poverty and a broken home, and has been supportive of Waco’s immigrant population. In addition to tithing to our church, we have contributed to Sandy Hook Promise and are members of the Nature Conservancy. But we also are strongly, passionately pro-life in the everyday use of that term, so we also support, among other like-minded organizations, Anglicans for Life.
All that by way of context.
Yesterday we were watching one of our favorite shows, The Starters on NBA TV, and to our surprise were treated to a little in-show infomercial for Planned Parenthood … and our hearts sank like stones. Now you may adore PP — and if so, there’s no need to tell me why, I’ve heard it all before — but just understand: in our view, there’s no nonprofit organization in America that does as much harm as PP. (The NRA doesn’t come within miles of it, though, speaking more objectively, it may be the only nonprofit that’s more controversial than PP). So we were no longer in the mood to enjoy funny banter about basketball; we turned off the TV, and may not watch the show again. Time will tell. We’re not the boycotting type, but that was a serious annoyance.
Later on I was thinking about my reaction, and recalled the recent absurd kerfuffle about that arose when some Fox News yammerer chastised NBA players for their political activism and told them to shut up and dribble. I asked myself: How am I any different? Am I not saying to The Starters, “Shut up and make basketball jokes”?
I’ve been turning over the question in my mind, and I think there is a difference. As it happens, when players like LeBron James speak out about racism in America I almost always agree with them, but even if I didn’t, their views don’t alter my experience of the game they play. (The same is true of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, though I don’t watch the NFL. If I did, I could just wait until kickoff to turn the TV on.) Similarly, I don’t care whether the chef at my favorite restaurant has totally different politics than mine, nor am I interested in what charities he or she supports.
But if that chef came out between the appetizer and the entrée to explain what charities she supports and to press me to support them too, I would be pretty pissed off (even if I supported those charities myself). If LeBron could call a time out in the middle of the third quarter, grab a microphone, and give the audience a lecture about Black Lives Matter, I would be seriously annoyed (even if I were a fervent supporter of BLM).
So that was my problem with what happened on The Starters. I would never try to find out what charities the hosts of a show I watch supports or what their politics are, and if I happened to find out I wouldn’t stop watching the show. But for them to use show time to cheerlead for one of the most controversial, one of the most widely despised, nonprofits in America — that strikes me as a violation of the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience. And once that implicit contract is violated, then there’s no way to know whether or not it will become a regular feature — which is why I may not be watching the show again.
But here’s the thing: what I have called “the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience” no longer holds, at least not generally. The infiltration of every corner of culture by politics, of every former site of pleasure by culture wars, is nearly complete now. I have no doubt that The Starters see promoting their politics on the show as a mark of seriousness, a mark of true virtue, and will therefore be pleased rather than chagrined by any pushback they get.
If you don’t want to be engaged in the struggle 24/7, your only refuge now — if you’re lucky — is your dreams.
(Cross-posted, with edits, from Text Patterns)
A few weeks ago I deleted my private Twitter account — it was a good way to keep up with friends, but I found it impossible to control it (via disabled RTs, muted strings, etc.) well enough to prevent the frustration from exceeding the pleasure. That left me just with my public account, which I have been using primarily for linking to my own writing (e.g. blog posts like this one) and to cool things I’ve read by others. But I really really want to be out of the Twitter ecosystem completely — for obvious reasons: everybody knows that Twitter is horrible, there’s no need to belabor that point — so I have now deleted the public account too.
My chief concern with being off Twitter altogether is that I’ll be unable to provide a signal boost to people who are writing or making interesting things that other folks might not notice — and for that reason I could, I must admit, come back. So when Twitter notifies me, 29 days from now, that my account is about to be deleted, I might have a moment of weakness and log back in. (Twitter does prompt you when your account is about to be deleted … doesn’t it?)
I am aware, of course, that most people who read this blog get to it via my Twitter links, so I am perhaps making myself more marginal than ever. Who will even see this post? But if you happen to see it, and want to see more, please try RSS. It’s great. Most of the cool things I read or see are posted here, or on Text Patterns, or on my Pinboard page. And all of those have RSS feeds.
P.S. Have I written before about quitting Twitter? Have I quit Twitter before? Yes on both counts. I am pathetically irresolute.
UPDATE (a few days later): Several people emailed me pleading with me to come back to Twitter, just for linkage. I guess for a great many people RSS is just a foreign technology. And since I can set up automatic posting to Twitter, why not? So that little experiment didn’t last long….
The newest outpost of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s local empire is Magnolia Table, and Teri and I had breakfast there this morning. It was really good. The restaurant is located in the building that for many years housed the Elite Café, and it’s nice to see the predecessor acknowledged on one wall:
It’s a lovely space:
And the food was really good:
But I was fascinated by how thoroughly designed (and therefore, of course, branded) everything in the place is:
(That leather folder is what they bring your check in.) Imagine the money that went into all this! Such attention to detail is simply impossible for most new businesses, but the Gaineses have made so much money from Fixer Upper and the Magnolia Silos — which gets more visitors than the Alamo — that they can make the investment up front.
We moved here in 2013, before the first season of Fixer Upper, and it has been quite remarkable to see a city changed so much, in so short a time, by the energy and ambition of two people. Houses and hotels are being built, restaurants and bars opened, existing properties renovated — the city of Waco has even begun to realize that they can now fix some of the terrible roads around here. It’s wonderful … and yet it feels so, so fragile. Here’s hoping that the cult of Chip and Jo lasts long enough to bring permanent improvements to this shabby old town.
I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me
Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade
House on fire, debts unpaid
Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid
Have you seen dignity?
It was very interesting next day to see Cambridge. In many ways it is a contrast: there is something, I can hardly say whether of colour or of atmosphere, which at once strikes a more northern, a bleaker and a harder note. Perhaps the flatness of the country, suggesting places seen from the railway beyond Crewe, has something to do with it. The streets are narrow and crowded: the non-university parts depressing enough. Some things – such as King’s College Chapel, in which I was prepared to be disappointed – are indeed beautiful beyond hope or belief: several little quadrangles I remember, with tiled gables, sun dials and tall chimnies like Tudor houses, were charming. One felt everywhere the touch of Puritanism, of something Whiggish, a little defiant perhaps. It has not so much Church and State in its veins as we. The stained windows in the Halls show figures like Erasmus and Cranmer. Oxford is more magnificent, Cambridge perhaps more intriguing. Our characteristic colour is the pale grey, almost the yellow of old stone: theirs the warm brown of old brick. A great many Cambridge buildings remind one of the Tower of London.
— C. S. Lewis, undergraduate at University College Oxford, writing to his father after making his first visit to Cambridge (8 December 1920).
For what it’s worth, I have never seen trailers that look as bad as Ready Player One and A Wrinkle in Time. Both of them give every indication of being absolute turkeys — Ishtar-level turkeydom. Yeeessh.