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Kuhn’s world

This is very good by Philip Kitcher on Errol Morris’s rather misguided attack on Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When I teach Kuhn I always try to show my students that there is a big difference between (a) epistemology and (b) the sociology of knowledge, and what people think about Kuhn largely depends on which of those two genres Structure belongs to.

Aristotle the colonizer

Agnes Callard:

Recently a historian of philosophy named Wolfgang Mann wrote a book called The Discovery of Things. He argues, just as the title of his book suggests, that Aristotle discovered things. It’s a bookabout the distinction between subject and predicate in Aristotle’s Categories—between what is and how it is. You may not have realized this but: someone had to come up with that! Many of the things that seem obvious to you—that human beings have basic rights, that knowledge requires justification, that modus ponens is a valid syllogistic form, that the world is filled with things—people had to come up with those ideas. And the people who came up with them were philosophers.

So you are pretty much constantly thinking thoughts that, in one way or another, you inherited from philosophers. You don’t see it, because philosophical exports are the kinds of thing that, once you internalize them, just seem like the way things are. So the reason to read Aristotle isn’t (just) that he’s a great philosopher, but that he’s colonized large parts of your mind.

the story of Francis

Ross Douthat, in this interview with David Moore, sums up his hopes for his new book concisely and cogently:

I suppose there are three levels in what I’m trying to do. First, tell the story of the Francis era well enough to make it come alive as the great, gripping narrative that it is – a fascinating story about a charismatic leader trying to change an officially unchanging church, with all the theological complexity and human drama that entails. Second, persuade the reader of this story’s importance – that not only is the Francis era fascinating in its own right, but that in its drama the trajectory and ultimate fate of the world’s largest Christian body may be decided, and with it the trajectory of all traditional religion in the modern world. Finally, persuade the reader that I’m right not only about the stakes, but that I’m right about the merits – that the liberalization Francis is pursuing really does risk breaking faith with something essential to Catholic Christianity, to the words of Jesus Christ

the higher selfishness and the long defeat

Here’s a typical passage from Jordan Peterson:

We have two general principles of discipline. The first: limit the rules. The second: Use the least force necessary to enforce those rules.

About the first principle, you might ask, “Limit the rules to what, exactly?” Here are some suggestions. Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture and bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilized and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around. A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.

On the one hand, Peterson teaches children to be generous, polite, thoughtful, caring of others, responsible for others, and so on. On the other hand, he tells them to behave in these ways because it is in their own interest to do so. The consistent theme is: act generously to others not because those others will benefit but because you will benefit.

There are, it seems to me, several possible ways to evaluate this theme in Peterson’s writing. One could say that Peterson is simply counseling selfishness and that that’s wrong. Or one could say that Peterson knows that people in general and children in particular won’t accept any rule that commands discipline and sacrifice of personal desire unless they see what’s in it for them, so he starts there. Or one could say — this is the view that I think I prefer — that Peterson believes in a kind of higher selfishness, that if we all act not in a narrowly and stupidly self-interested way but in the kind of self-interested way he sketches here, where my self-interest coincides with generosity towards others, then everybody wins. Or, anyway, more people win. And Peterson is deeply committed to winning. He especially disdains “victimizing yourself in the service of others,” and believes that if you stand up for yourself against unfairness and (petty or grand) tyranny you are reducing the scope of unfairness and tyranny in the world and therefore helping others too. He’s trying really hard to imagine a social situation in which each individual is trying to win but somehow in the process makes more winning possible for everyone.

Maybe this makes a kind of sense, I don’t know. I just know that in this context I find myself thinking of what Paul Farmer, the co-founder of Partners in Health, says to Tracy Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains: “WLs [White Liberals] think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.” And then, late in the book, borrowing a line from Tolkien:

I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory…. You know, people from our background — like you, like most PIH-ers, like me — we’re used to being on a victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to do in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.

Reclaiming Jesus

This is a great statement, and I agree with every word of it. But how I wish it were possible for Christians to speak prophetically to the abortion regime in this country in the same way they can speak — so confidently, with such unity — to the evils of racism and sexism. I wonder if the subject even came up during the Ash Wednesday gathering that led to this statement. I suspect it did not, because I suspect that everyone there understood that abortion was an issue that would threaten their agreement on other points.

POTUS, tweetblocker

Maybe there’s some legal element I don’t understand, but this ruling seems wrong to me. Not that I don’t want to see the Donald discomfited in every way possible, but

  1. Twitter is a service provided by a private company, it’s not a public forum; and

  2. Blocking people on Twitter doesn’t impede them from saying whatever they want to say, and saying it on Twitter. I don’t see how anyone, including POTUS, has an obligation to listen to anyone and everyone.

a Communist and a Tory

Clive Wilmer on Ruskin:

This Toryism, comparable to that of Swift and Johnson and Coleridge, is based on a belief in hierarchy, established order and obedience to inherited authority. He detested both liberty and equality, blaming them, more than privilege, for the injustices he condemned. Only those who held power by right, as he saw it, could be moved by a sense of duty to serve and protect the weak. This is a side of Ruskin that is likely to confuse and even repel the modern reader, in particular the radical who finds his apparent socialism attractive. But in the nineteenth century political attitudes were not so neatly shared out between left and right as they are — or seem to be — today. Modern capitalist economics were then thought progressive, being associated with the expansion of personal liberty. A radical liberal like John Stuart Mill, who championed democracy and the extension of personal rights and liberties, was also an advocate of doctrines which can be blamed for the degradations of the workhouse (Utilitarianism) and the extremes of Victorian poverty (laissez-faire). By contrast, Shaftesbury and Wilberforce, famous respectively for the Factory Acts and the abolition of slavery, were high Tories. State intervention in the economy and social welfare policies belonged to the right, for the right believed in the duty of government to govern — to secure social order and administer justice impartially.

No political label quite fits Ruskin’s politics. Though he detested the Liberals, he was far from being a supporter of the Conservatives. His ‘Toryism’ was such that it could, in his own lifetime, inspire the socialism of William Morris and the founders of the Labour Party; and when he called himself a ‘conservative’, he usually meant a preserver of the environment — what we should call a ‘conservationist’. The truth is that, despite an exceptional consistency of view, throughout his life, on most matters of principle, his specific opinions changed and developed as he grew older. His attitudes to war and imperialism and the rights of women, for instance, oscillate wildly between reaction and radicalism; and he in effect concedes the ambiguity of his position when, in Fors Clavigera, he calls himself, with conscious irony, both a Communist and a Tory.

the right not to be addressed

To engage in inventive thinking during those idle hours spent at an airport requires silence. But other people’s minds, over in the peon section, can be treated as a resource — a standing reserve of purchasing power to be steered according to the innovative marketing schemes hatched by those enjoying silence in the business lounge. When some people treat the minds of others as a resource, this is not “creating wealth” — it is a transfer.

There are many causes for the increasing concentration of wealth in a shrinking elite, but let us throw one more into the mix: the ever more aggressive appropriations of the attentional commons that we have allowed to take place.

I think we need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face to face as individuals, but to those who never show their faces, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested. 

contemplation

Contemplation is not simply one possible form among others of the act of knowing. Its special character does not flow from its being a particular aspect of the process of knowing. What distinguishes — in both senses of that word — contemplation is rather this: it is a knowing which is inspired by love. “Without love there would be no contemplation.”

Contemplation is a loving attainment of awareness. It is intuition of the beloved object.

— Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation

listening in museums

Khoi Vinh:

The [David Bowie Is] exhibition itself is designed thoughtfully and executed with a fair amount of technologically forward-leaning imagination, especially the audio component. Each visitor is issued a pair of over-the-ear headphones (Sennheiser is a prominent sponsor of the show) attached to a Bluetooth receiver that automatically plays audio based on your specific location within the exhibition halls at any given time. Step towards one artifact and you might hear one of Bowie’s many immortal songs; step towards a different one and you might hear an excerpt from his appearance on an old TV show synced with a video projected on the wall. Everything changes automatically; all you need to do is walk and look.

I would’ve loved having a set-up like this when I visited, as I did recently, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC seems to be the official acronym, but wow that’s ugly). The museum has an astonishingly rich and varied soundscape: music of all kinds, interviews, speeches. But often the sounds conflict with one another: it can be difficult to position yourself in such a way that the clip you want to hear is clearly audible above the other clips that are playing nearby.

polyglot politics

Peter Leithart:

Contemporary politics is polarized between multiculturalists and (for lack of a better term) populists, and the problem of language, as practice and symbol, often takes center stage. Many Christians have allied themselves with the populists. It’s an understandable alliance. Lovers of the local, Christians want to protect their nations from Babelic fragmentation.

At bottom, though, the church must regard monolingual populism with deep ambivalence. The Spirit forms the church as a polyglot polity in the midst of existing polities. When we defend the church’s rights as a public institution, we are necessarily defending a form of multiculturalism. Alt-rightists see this, and find the “foreign tongue” of, say, immigrant churches profoundly threatening.

The policy and cultural import of Pentecost isn’t straightforward. Nations, after all, aren’t churches. But Christians labor in hope that Spirit will make his presence felt among the nations. While acting and speaking in and to the cities of men, we must act and speak as citizens of a Pentecostal society.

children v. books

If I had followed the great man’s advice and never burdened myself with the gift of my children, or if I had never written any novels at all, in the long run the result would have been the same as the result will be for me here, having made the choice I made: I will die; and the world in its violence and serenity will roll on, through the endless indifference of space, and it will take only 100 of its circuits around the sun to turn the six of us, who loved each other, to dust, and consign to oblivion all but a scant few of the thousands upon thousands of novels and short stories written and published during our lifetimes. If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that. Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back. Anyway, if, 100 years hence, those books lie moldering and forgotten, I’ll never know. That’s the problem, in the end, with putting all your chips on posterity: You never stick around long enough to enjoy it.

Michael Chabon

privileges and rough rides

I hate Twitter threads and really wish people would turn them into blog posts instead, and I’m never gonna stop saying that, but this thread by Corinne McConnaughy speaks to my experience in powerful ways. I’ve said all this before, but let me put it succinctly: There is no question that being white was enormously important in my social rise — but there is also no question that I had a long and not always easy climb. A black man who, like me, was raised largely by his grandmother because his mother worked long hours to make ends meet while his father was in prison, and who, when his father returned home, spent years dodging the old man’s drunken rages, and who could only go to college because he paid his own way – well, it’s almost unimaginable, especially in the South in the 1970s. There can’t have been more than a handful of black people of my place and time who did what I did. But that doesn’t mean it was a picnic for me, and nothing tries my patience more than being lectured about my white privilege by people whose way was paved by well-off and well-educated parents.

all us exiles

More than once already in the preceding pages mention has been made of the obliteration of English villages. The process is notorious and inevitable. Expostulation is futile, lament tedious. This is part of the grand cyclorama of spoliation which surrounded all English experience in this century and any understanding of the immediate past … must be incomplete unless this huge deprivation of the quiet pleasures of the eye is accepted as a dominant condition, sometimes making for impotent resentment, sometimes for mere sentimental apathy, sometimes poisoning a love of country and of neighbours. To have been born into a world of beauty, to die amid ugliness, is the common fate of all us exiles.

— Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning

1041uuu

a brief comment on stories

There’s a lot of sentimental and just plain dopey talk about “story” these days. “Tell me your story.” “Everyone has a story.” Yuck. But the remedy for this problem, for Christians anyway, is not to eschew storytelling but to tell better stories – tell stories that are connected to the Great Narrative of salvation history. The only account that Christians can give of what they believe centers on a series of unrepeatable events in history that are invariant in sequence: Creation comes before Fall, Fall before Incarnation, Incarnation before the Four Last Things, and so on. All Christian theology is, intrinsically and inevitably, narrative theology. And that has a personal dimension as well as a world-historical one. I tried to write about that personal dimension in this book, which is summed up, sketchily, in this essay.

(And while fetching the Amazon link for the book I just discovered that the Kindle edition is on sale for $.99. What a deal.)

liberalism and democracy

This is very shrewd and thought-provoking from Adrian Vermeule:

Liberalism both needs and fears democracy. It needs democracy because it needs the legitimation that democracy provides. It fears, however, that its dependence on, yet fundamental difference from, democracy will be finally and irrevocably exposed by a sustained course of nonliberal popular opinion.

In this environment, the solution of the intellectuals is always to try to idealize and redescribe democracy so that “mere majoritarianism” never turns out to count as truly democratic. Of course the majority’s views are to count on certain issues, but only within constraints so tightly drawn and under procedures so idealized that any outcomes threatening to liberalism can be dismissed as inauthentic, often by a constitutional court purporting to speak in the name of a higher form of democracy. Democracy is then reduced to a periodic ceremony of privatized voting by secret ballot for one or another essentially liberal party, safely within a cordon sanitaire. In the limit, as Schmitt put it, liberalism attempts to appeal to a “democracy of mankind” that erases nations, substantive cultures, and the particularistic solidarities that are constitutive of so many of the goods of human life. In this way, liberalism attempts to hollow out democracy from within, yet retain its outward form as a sort of legitimating costume, like the donkey who wore the lion’s skin in the fable.

There are no ideas, no beliefs, no positions that reliably correspond to the phrase “cultural Marxism.” It is a phrase whose use is purely emotive and without denotative value.

time machine

I longed for the loan of the Time Machine — a contraption with its saddle and quartz bars that was plainly a glorification of the bicycle. What a waste of this magical vehicle to take it prying into the future, as had the hero of the book! The future, dreariest of prospects! Were I in the saddle I should set the engine Slow Astern. To hover gently back through centuries (not more than thirty of them) would be the most exquisite pleasure of which I can conceive.

— Evelyn Waugh, from the first page of A Little Learning

two quotations

I ate my breakfast, checked my email, and stood up to head to my gate. As I did, I looked down at the small section of my life situated at that airport dining table: my new Nike Air Max sneakers, my cashmere swacket (that’s 50% jacket, 50% sweater, 100% cozy), my almost-too-soft-to-be-taken-outside leather duffel bag, and my iPhone. All of these objects were central to me – I felt like they defined me – and it was my iPhone that was at the core of it.

Benjamin Clymer

You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product. And then you die.

Louis C. K.

deracination by decree

Thomas Chatterton Williams:

Is Coates seriously arguing, as he seems to be, that the desire for “liberation from the dictates of that we”—or any we, any tribe!—is ipso facto a kind of moral violation? He claims for himself, here and elsewhere, a Mullah-like authority to assert communal possession of other people he deems to be a part of his community. And when those people deviate from what Coates pronounces to be the acceptable group perspective—“West calls his struggle the right to be a ‘free thinker,’ and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom”—he claims for himself the right, not merely to refute a person’s arguments but to deracinate them entirely.

More chilling than the essay has been the rapturous response it has generated among many white liberals who seem somehow too eager to reinforce its dire racial proscriptions. It is undeniable that West has gotten an astonishing amount wrong, but one thing he gets just right is this: Too many people of all persuasions act as though there are views, based on one’s perceived identity alone, that others must share. No matter what else might be said, that is an extraordinarily warped view of freedom.

ride-hailing and restaurants

It’s interesting sometimes to reflect on the major cultural trends that have completely passed you by – and when you get to be my age there are more and more of those every day. I read this and I realize: Wow, vaping is a Really Big Deal. Similarly, since I rarely watch anything except sports on TV, I am regularly semi-surprised, semi-bemused by how much emotional energy people invest in Westworld or The Handmaid’s Tale or whatever it happens to be.

But, as common as this missing-out experience is for me, it went to a whole new level the other day when I was listening to the second episode of the Dave Chang Show and learned just how radically Uber and Lyft have changed the restaurant business. There are, Chang and his interviewer Bill Simmons agree, two elements to this transformation:

  1. It doesn’t matter so much now where your restaurant is located. If you’ve created a place that has really great food, then people will find their way to you: they just have to be able to give the address to a ride-hailing service.
  2. People can now drink as much as they want. Simmons commented that for years when he went out with friends there was always a complicated negotiation about who was going to drive and therefore could not have more than a single drink – but those days are (for him) over. “The 40-year old drunk is back!”

There’s typically no reason for me to use Uber/Lyft – certainly not here in Waco (though visitors have told me that Uber/Lyft works just as well here as it does in New York or L.A.). And in big cities I usually combine public transportation and walking. I have ridden with friends who have called Uber/Lyft, but have never had either app on my phone. So I was kinda stunned to learn that there are whole industries that have been significantly altered by the ride-hailing revolution.

I may be old, but I can still learn!

It’s ten minutes till eight on Sunday morning. It’s a lovely and cool and I have my windows open so I can feel the breeze and hear the birds — except I can’t hear the birds any more because of the leaf blower that just started up across the street. Leaf blowers, mowers, trimmers, chainsaws — there are no quiet mornings these days. I might as well be in New York City with the garbage trucks crashing down the street.

excerpts from my Sent folder: my goal in life

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.

“I like this God”

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.

Eugene Genovese in The New Republic (1992)

excerpts from my Sent folder: the Mortara case

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.

Steve diBenedetto

Steve DiBenedetto: Roman’s Smoke, 2015–2016 / Derek Eller Gallery / click image for more details

… to have my name misspelled on my very own book.

😉

apologies and clarifications (re: First Things)

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.

The Huntsman 

https://britishmuseum.tumblr.com/post/120605985962/huntsman-automaton

Christians and the academic humanities

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.

the just and redemptive image of God

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.

Michael Eric Dyson

it me

phrenological examination

Wellcome Collection (click image for details)

eye massager

This eye massager from the Wellcome Collection looks like something out of Harry Potter

Resynth

National Gallery

Craeft

Lenin

academic patricians and plebes

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.

Craigie Aitchison, Crucifixion 9

a Holy Week thought on rhetorical Leninism

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.

what philosophy is for

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….

children’s crusades

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.

speaking truth to the professoriate

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.

Prescription: Poem

William Carlos Williams prescribes himself an epic poem (click image for more details)

The History of Life Through Time

Austin Kleon’s post about his son Owen’s book — finished before Dad’s book has even put its pants on — reminds me of this conversation I had with my son Wesley when he was six:

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