Authorayjay

unfair, unbalanced, and afraid

I admire British journalism and have always thought American papers should be more like the British. But it is startling to see how vicious the New York Times has become and a little unfair to Trump. If he is paranoid, you can’t completely blame him. There is also the argument that you help him by encouraging victimisation, the idea that the eastern media elite is out to get him.

Michael Kinsley. I think Kinsley is right about this, and as a result, though I think Trump is a nightmarishly terrible President, I no longer read anything in the NYT except Ross Douthat’s columns. In general, and with only the occasional exception, the Times does not care whether what its reporters say about Trump and his supporters is fair or not. Trump’s description of the major news media as his “opposition” strikes me as an essentially accurate description, and while on one hand I think he deserves all the opposition he gets, on the other hand I’d like newspapers, magazines, and even some television networks to be places where I can go to find out what’s actually happening in the world — rather than places to accumulate anti-Trump ammunition.

Eno’s rough drafts

An iTunes playlist of rough drafts contains 4412 tracks; the most recent of them, something called “Jubilant Hair Sad,” was made just the night before. “I can’t remember what it is,” he says. We listen to it for a moment: slow string pads—the kernel of an idea, maybe, but not much more. “That’s not very interesting,” he says, turning it off. Perhaps part of genius is knowing when to give up on a ho-hum idea and move on.

— A Conversation With Brian Eno About Ambient Music | Pitchfork

good to go 

My social media are either deleted or shut off in some way, but it’s not hermitage, because friends and comrades know how to reach me. I’ve just turned the volume control down on the world, and I focus on other things, in other ways. It brings me peace, and peace brings me clarity, and clarity brings me energy. Good to go.

Warren Ellis

on narcissism

Allen Frances writes:

Fevered media speculation about Donald Trump’s psychological motivations and psychiatric diagnosis has recently encouraged mental health professionals to disregard the usual ethical constraints against diagnosing public figures at a distance. They have sponsored several petitions and a Feb. 14 letter to The New York Times suggesting that Mr. Trump is incapable, on psychiatric grounds, of serving as president.

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

This is surely a good cautionary word, but I have some questions, and the primary one is: How does Dr. Frances, who has not examined Trump and has probably never met him, know that Trump “does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder”? What empirical knowledge does he have about Trump’s distress or lack thereof? Frances claims that “Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it,” but surely it is possible for a person to cause and experience distress? It seems to me that if you can violate the Goldwater Rule by claiming that someone you have not examined definitely has a disorder, you can also violate it by claiming that someone you have not examined definitely does not have that disorder. Dr. Frances seems just as overconfident as the people whose letter he’s responding to.

The first two books of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy offered some of the most vividly, magnificently imagined fantasy I’ve ever read. Then the third book degenerated into an absurdly preachy, didactic, hectoring account of Wicked Wicked Bad Guys (anyone associated with the Church) and Blindingly Righteous Good Guys (anyone not associated with the Church). From the description Pullman has offered of the forthcoming Book of Dust — “at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free” — it sounds like he has decided to double down on the very worst features of his previous work. What a shame.

two descriptions of the university

It is not that I wanted to know a great deal, in order to acquire what is now called expertise, and which enables one to become an expert-tease to people who don’t know as much as you do about the tiny corner you have made your own. I hoped for a bigger fish; I wanted nothing less than Wisdom. In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form – though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, “Sorry, there’s no call for it.” But if you ask for Wisdom – God save us all! What a show of modesty, what disclaimers from the men and women from whose eyes intelligence shines forth like a lighthouse. Intelligence, yes, but of Wisdom not so much as the gleam of a single candle.

— Maria Magdalena Theotoky

Lots of youth in a university, fortunately, but youth alone could not sustain such an institution. It is a city of wisdom, and the heart of the university is its body of learned man; it can be no better than they, and it is at their fire the young come to warm themselves. Because the young come and go, but we remain. They are the minute-hand, we the hour-hand of the academic clock. Intelligent societies have always preserved their wise men in institutions of one kind or another, where their chief business is to be wise, to conserve the fruits of wisdom and to add to them if they can. Of course the pedants and the opportunists get in somehow, as we are constantly reminded…. But we are the preservers and custodians of civilization, and never more so than in the present age, where there is no aristocracy to do the job. A city of wisdom; I would be content to leave it at that.

— The Warden of Ploughwright College

(Both quotations from The Rebel Angels, that wicked and wonderful novel by Robertson Davies. There may be found in the book a third description of what a university is, and who its ultimate patrons are. But that the enterprising reader may discover.)

resourceful Christianity

Rod Dreher has been asking lately whether various Christian traditions possess the resources that need to practice a genuinely countercultural form of Christianity — what Rod is calling the Benedict Option. He’s been getting different answers about different traditions from different people, but for what it’s worth, my answer is that every Christian tradition that is a tradition has all the resources it needs — except, perhaps, the one resource without which all the others are useless.

In today’s post he quotes a passage from his forthcoming book in which he asks Marco Sermarini, one of the leaders of an intentional Christian community in Italy, what other Christians can learn from what Marco and his friends are doing: “Start by getting serious about living as Christians, he said. Accept that there can be no middle ground.”

That’s it, I think. You have to get to the end of your rope, you have to come to the point where you can’t live any longer as everyone around you is living. If you come to that point, then every serious Christian tradition, from Pentecostalism to Orthodoxy, has what it takes to nourish and support you. But none of those traditions can, in itself, bring you to that point. (I am not yet at that point myself: I am too caught up in the various rewards that this present age has to offer.)

Depending on where you live, you might look around you and find charismatics who are faithfully seeking to make their own countercultural way, or Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Catholics — heck, even Anglicans. It depends on whether in a given place there is a critical mass of people whom the Holy Spirit has moved to say: Enough. Lord, now give us the living water.

Austin Chronicle: Where are you, in an office or a small room fielding calls?

Tom Waits: I’m out on my own recognizance in the day room, gluing pieces of macaroni on cardboard and painting it gold. After that I get to make a belt that says, “Whipped by the forces within me” on the back.

current status

Mr. Penumbra in Japan

Japanese cover for Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (via Robin on Twitter)

good times in Waco

I live in Waco, Texas, which is a relatively small city and a relatively poor city, a city with its share of problems both historic and current — but also a place where some pretty cool things are happening.  Last night, for instance, my wife Teri and I enjoyed an early Valentine’s Day dinner at Balcones Distillery — maker of some of the finest and most celebrated spirits in the world — where the distillers had teamed up with Milo Biscuit Company, a local food truck and caterer, to create a lovely dinner in the tasting room.

Each course came paired with a cocktail or a straight Balcones spirit — their Baby Blue corn whisky, their classic Texas single Malt, their wonderful rum-like spirit called Rumble.

It was quite peculiar having a fine dinner without wine! — and I probably wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but the pairings were really well-chosen and the food was delicious, right there next to some of the aging barrels.

I had fresh Gulf snapper, perfectly cooked, and Teri had duck breast, also perfectly cooked, but perhaps the best taste of the evening was the cheese course, a Delice de Bourgogne paired with a whisky aged in rum barrels (not yet released to the public). It was truly memorable. I meant to take pictures of the food but was too occupied with eating it until I got to dessert, a flourless chocolate cake with rose cream and raspberries.

And then when we were on our way out we were given a piece of salted caramel that the chef, Corey, had made with a touch of Balcones Brimstone, a whisky smoked with scrub oak. That was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

All in all, big fun here in Waco! Our hearty thanks to chef Corey and the rest of the crew.

 

What We’re Fighting For

If we choose to believe in a morally diminished America, an America that pursues its narrow selfish interests and no more, we can take that course and see how far it gets us. But if we choose to believe that America is not just a set of borders, but a set of principles, we need to act accordingly. That is the only way we ensure that our founding document, and the principles embedded within, are alive enough, and honorable enough, to be worth fighting for.

Phil Klay

dealing with lies

Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie. Insist moreover that each lie is retracted — and journalists in press conferences should back up their colleagues with repeated follow-ups if Spicer tries to duck the plain truth. Do not allow them to move on to another question. Interviews with the president himself should not leave a lie alone; the interviewer should press and press and press until the lie is conceded. The press must not be afraid of even calling the president a liar to his face if he persists. This requires no particular courage. I think, in contrast, of those dissidents whose critical insistence on simple truth in plain language kept reality alive in the Kafkaesque world of totalitarianism. As the Polish dissident Adam Michnik once said: “In the life of every honorable man comes a difficult moment … when the simple statement that this is black and that is white requires paying a high price.” The price Michnik paid was years in prison. American journalists cannot risk a little access or a nasty tweet for the same essential civic duty?

— Andrew Sullivan: The Madness of King Donald. If this admirable and wholly proper strategy were to be widely followed, I predict that President Trump and his advisors and advocates will simply stop speaking to the press. Which would make somewhat more urgent the suggestion I moot in this little thought experiment.

productive smudging

“Another thing he talked about that’s actually useful, and this is my favorite one, he said that blackboards smudge productively, which is just a great line. You know, you’re writing on a blackboard and oops, you make a mistake, you can rub it out with your hand, or you rub it out with an eraser. And it’s really easy to do. But it’s really hard to do it completely; you can’t get rid of it entirely. There’s always a little bit of a smudge and you write over it. And I’ve always thought that was a bad thing. And he argues that for mathematics, and particularly mathematics research, it’s a good thing because a lot of math research involves taking existing concepts and applying them in new ways. And so if you’ve written an existing equation everybody’s familiar with and then rubbed out a part of it and written something new over it, there is a visual sign that you have taken an existing concept and tweaked it, which is sort of like a reminder to the people in the audience that this is how you approach it. This is not some new thing you’ve brought down from on high, it’s an alteration of an existing one.”

Why Do Mathematicians Love Blackboards So Much?

New Atheist axioms

1) The progress of science will make religious belief less and less plausible; that is, science cannot develop in ways that would make religious belief seem more reasonable and attractive;

2) Nothing in the history of unbelief has any relevance to current disputes, because our knowledge today is absolutely secure in ways that our atheist predecessors’ was not.

the experience of free will 

I think it’s generally known that one wing of the New Atheism, led primarily by Jerry Coyne, has made the denial of free will a major cause. Well, so have Calvinists! (Just for somewhat different reasons.) I think all aspects of the Great Free Will Debate are illuminated by this wonderful passage from Leszek Kolakowski’s magisterial book on Pascal and the Jansenist controversy, God Owes Us Nothing:

The belief that everything is preordained by God is psychologically compatible with the belief that I am free in my actions. Personal freedom is an irresistible and elementary experience; it is not analyzable any further because of its elementary character. The former belief acts as a source of trust in life: God rules and orders everything, thus everything is directed toward a good outcome, even if we cannot know or see the cunning tactics of providence. This psychological compatibility proves doubtful when exposed to theological scrutiny, and the task is then to make a coherent, logically sound whole out of the two experiences.… The most elementary facts of experience – “I,” existence, freedom – once converted into theoretical concepts, tend to resist logical examination and are therefore threatened with a verdict of theoretical annihilation; indeed, they have on many occasions been denounced as figments of the imagination. Still, they do not vanish from experience; they stubbornly refuse to evaporate, all philosophers’ condemnations notwithstanding. To accept all-embracing providence without denying the irresistible experience of freedom is psychologically possible even for people who cannot be accused of having simply failed to learn their first lesson in logic; they do not necessarily feel mental discomfort because they believe in, or experience, both. But to unite both in a consistent “theory” seems hopeless, and when theologians ultimately admit that there is a “mystery” in combining providence and freedom, they do not claim to explain anything, but accept the inadequacy of “human reason.” Rationalists normally shrug off the idea of “mystery” (as distinct from something not yet known) as a verbal cover for simple illogicality. However, when people think of ultimate realities, the experience of mystery, which often includes a logical helplessness, may be intellectually more fruitful than rationalist self-confidence that simply cancels metaphysical questions, relying on doctrinal dogmas. To be sure, we have only one logic at our disposal but we are not sure how far its validity can extend when dealing with those ultimate realities.

theatrical memories

Recently, Teri and I have been watching both Victoria and The Crown — an interesting pair of experiences which I may say something about in a future post — and one of the pleasures of both series has been Alex Jennings, who in The Crown plays the oleaginous and embittered  Duke of Windsor (i.e., the abdicated Edward VIII), and in Victoria plays the oleaginous and manipulative King Leopold of Belgium.

All of which reminds me that I first saw Jennings in 1990, at the Phoenix Theatre in London, playing Hjalmar Ekdal in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck alongside David Threlfall’s Gregers Werle. It was a magnificent production, and one of the reasons I remember it is that Teri and I had an extremely intense argument about it on our walk back to our hotel in Bloomsbury. All I can remember about the debate is that she thought the production was weighted towards the perspective of one character and I thought it was weighted towards the perspective of the other — which suggests that it was actually an ideal theatrical endeavor, capable of producing very different reactions in equally intelligent and attentive viewers. Even now I remember with great vividness the set, and a handful of crucial scenes.

I had already seen Threlfall on TV, in his amazing performance as Leslie Titmuss in John Mortimer’s Paradise Postponed — I can still see him in my mind’s eye, a working-class boy listening with passionate intensity to the radio and trying to mimic the BBC announcers’ intonations (in the days before the BBC thought it should represent the varieties of British speech patterns) — but Jennings was new to me, and was simply electric as Hjalmar. It’s so good to see him still at work.

The Christians of Nigeria

A terrifying and tragic story from the Spectator:

Nigerians have their own view as to what is really going on: a suspicion fuelled again as I leave one IDP camp at sunset and news comes in that another camp to the east has just been bombed by the Nigerian military, killing and maiming scores of people.

The army later apologises for this ‘error’.But the bigger picture is not about error. If the international community meant anything by its promises such as the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine, then what is happening could not go on. But the international community is uninterested. Governments like ours are uninterested. The world’s media is uninterested.

At morning service in the city of Jos, the congregation sing and pray using the 19th-century hymnals and prayer books by which their faith was delivered. When we reach the plea to ‘Deliver us from the hands of our enemies’, the closely packed room hums with the literalness of the words. The Christians of Nigeria are alone. Even if we do not care about this, we ought to know.

A great many of the Christians so suffering are Anglicans. (There are more baptized Anglicans in Nigeria than anywhere in the world except England, and a far smaller percentage of those in England actually attend church.) I would like for my Catholic and Reformed friends who specialize in mocking and snickering at Anglicans to remember this.

judging judges

It has long been frustrating to me that the only criterion by which Americans — almost without exception — evaluate judges is: Did he or she make decisions that produce results I’d like to see? Virtually no one asks whether the judge has rightly interpreted existing law, which is of course what the judge is formally required to do. Americans — again, almost without exception — want judges to be politicians and advocates. The idea that a judge should strive to interpret existing law regardless of whether it does or doesn’t promote politically desirable ends never crosses anyone’s mind, and if by some strange chance it did, the person whose mind was so crossed would reject the proposal indignantly. Americans in this respect resemble toddlers and their own President: they evaluate everything in terms of whether it helps or hinders them in getting what they want.

This devaluation of interpretation amounts to a dismissal of the task of understanding: everything that matters is already understood, so the person who would strive to understand is not only useless, but an impediment to the realization of my political vision. To the partisan, the absence of partisanship is always a sin, and perhaps the gravest of sins.

Henri Nouwen’s Weakness Was His Strength

Initially Nouwen looks like a poster boy for activism. Climbing the ladder to the highest echelons of the ivy-covered ivory tower, jetting around the world as a conference speaker and lecturer, publishing books with prestigious New York houses, Nouwen was a high achiever. He relished the stage and often fell prey to its attendant trials of loneliness and overly sensitive self-awareness. But the arc of Nouwen’s whole life paints a different picture. Disillusioned with his successes, he sought what one evangelical pastor has described as the “liberation of ministry from the success syndrome.” For Nouwen, “the true task of life might be the task to live our life faithfully in communion with the Lord [rather] than to change it.”

After withdrawing from his teaching post at Harvard and moving to the Daybreak community in Toronto, Nouwen was given the task of caring for a 25-year-old epileptic patient named Adam Arnett, about whom Nouwen wrote his final book. In it, he describes what Adam taught him about the limits of activism. Caring for Adam, Nouwen had to slow down, to realize the futility of pushing Adam beyond his limits, to accept the inability of Adam to achieve anything. “I found myself beginning to understand a new language,” Nouwen wrote. It was the language of stillness, the language of simply being present to another. Nouwen learned what he had so often tried to teach others: that offering one’s wounded self to a needy other is achievement enough. It’s a lesson evangelicals might continue to learn from Nouwen too.

Wesley Hill

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