Trump hasn’t had a stroke or suffered a neurological disaster, and his behavior in the White House is no different from the behavior he manifested consistently while winning enough votes to take the presidency.
But he is nonetheless clearly impaired, gravely deficient somewhere at the intersection of reason and judgment and conscience and self-control. Pointing this out is wearying and repetitive, but still it must be pointed out.
You can be as loyal as Jeff Sessions and still suffer the consequences of that plain and inescapable truth: This president should not be the president, and the sooner he is not, the better.
— Ross Douthat. The point could hardly be put more neatly, more accurately, and more depressingly.
“The pseudo-Gothic was much ridiculed, and nobody builds like that anymore. It is not authentic, not an expression of what we are, so it was said. To me it was and remains an expression of what we are. One wonders whether the culture critics had as good an instinct about our spiritual needs as the vulgar rich who paid for the buildings.” — Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. Reading the book again after so many years I find it deeply wrong-headed, and yet also full of wonderful passages, as for example this one about how as a fifteen-year-old freshman he fell in love with the University of Chicago.
I’ve already had some people asking me what I think about this review. The answer is: Not very much. Levinovitz says that Dreher’s and Esolen’s books share a central premise which he deems a “lie,” though without providing evidence: he chiefly quotes them with the expectation that their claims will be evidently self-refuting. His chief interest is not in Dreher’s and Esolen’s arguments but in their diseased personalities: they are “sadomasochistic” “holy pornographers” — in short, “madmen.” Unlike Levinovitz (and The Shadow), I don’t know what evil lurks in the hearts of men: I can only read and evaluate their arguments. That’s why I don’t have much to say about this review.
The influence, which has not been sufficiently noted, of Southern writers and historians on the American view of their history has been powerful. They were remarkably successful in characterizing their “peculiar institution” as part of a charming diversity and individuality of culture to which the Constitution was worse than indifferent. The ideal of openness, lack of ethnocentricity, is just what they needed for a modern defense of their way of life against all the intrusions of outsiders who claimed equal rights with the folks back home. The Southerners’ romantic characterization of the alleged failings of the Constitution, and their hostility to “mass society” with its technology, its money-grubbing way of life, egoistic individuals and concomitant destruction of community, organic and rooted, appealed to malcontents of all political colorations. The New Left in the sixties expressed exactly the same ideology that had been developed to protect the South from the threat to its practices posed by the Constitutional rights and the Federal Government’s power to enforce them. It is the old alliance of Right and Left against liberal democracy, parodied as “bourgeois society.”
— Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. This particular beat goes on, and on, and on, just in slightly different forms.
A quick follow-up to my previous post on ditching FastMail: After telling tech support that I had scheduled my account for deletion — FastMail doesn’t allow instant deletion, reasonably enough — I did hear from someone higher up the chain who looked into what happened. The suggestion from the engineers at FastMail was that, while using their web client, I went into my Archive folder, accidentally selected a message, then accidentally command-selected another message 68,000 conversations further down (which selected all the intervening messages), then accidentally issued the delete command. Later, when (after installing iOS 11) I opened Mail in iPad, either I accidentally emptied the trash of the 68,000 conversations (comprised of 95,000 messages) or the app did it for me.
This does not strike me as a plausible sequence of events.
Now, as I’ve noted, I could restore the deleted items — either from my own backups or (if I caught the problem within a week) from FastMail’s own restore option — and indeed the last person I talked with encouraged me to keep my account open and let them look into the matter further. But at that point I was spooked, and had already moved my mail elsewhere. Maybe if I had gotten a more constructive response early in the process I would have given it another try, and devoted the time to trying to figure out what happened. But I only got that kind of involvement after I had moved my mail and asked them to delete my account.
I truly do appreciate the willingness of the last person I talked to at FastMail to address the problem. But that didn’t make me change my mind about moving on, and I think that’s because our communications technologies today are dependent on trust — trust, above all, that the data you’ve put somewhere will remain where you’ve put it. And because we rely so much on these technologies to get essential work done, when you lose that trust you tend to get anxious, and who needs more anxiety? When I put on my Objectivity Hat, I don’t think that FastMail is any less secure and reliable than other email services I do or might use. But it now feels insecure to me, and that is enough to take me elsewhere.
The preacher in most Anglican traditions works under strict time constraints: what one has to offer must be given in just a few minutes. When anything of substance gets said in such a brief compass, it is a great blessing. Also: when a sermon of any length works from poems or stories in ways that are richly theological and deeply biblical, that too is a great blessing. And when a single briefly sermon uses literature imaginatively, unexpectedly, and profoundly … Well. The following homily was preached a few days ago by Jessica Martin, residentiary canon at Ely Cathedral. I am posting it here with her permission.
Southern Cathedrals Festival Eucharist: Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2017
1st lesson: 2 Cor. 5.14-17
Gospel: John 20.1-2,11-18
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Jn.20.11
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
She turned her eyes towards him for the first time… — & he was looking at her with all the Power & Keenness, which she beleived no other eyes than his, possessed…. — It was a silent, but a very powerful Dialogue; — on his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance . — Still, a little nearer — and a hand taken and pressed — [and her name, spoken] — bursting forth in the fullness of exquisite feeling — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. — They were re-united. They were restored to all that had been lost.
Only — it wasn’t like that, quite, — was it? Perfect happiness, the same writer observed, even in memory, is not common. Yet how the soul yearns for that moment, for the overplus of bliss that comes when you turn, blinded by tears, and your beloved that you thought lost for ever is there before you speaking your name, and you say, ‘How could it ever have been otherwise? My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?’
The dying woman who, in Winchester, in the relentlessly rainy spring of 1817, wrote that scene of fulfilment beyond loss, was of course Jane Austen. We mark the bicentenary of her death this year at the time and place of her dying. Some among you will recognise the encounter as being from the close of her last novel Persuasion, but some will not know it — because she discarded the draft. She was unhappy with the ending she had written and replaced it instead with one of more indirection, where a letter stands in for the ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’ and the fulfilment of the plot upon words only overheard. Neither touch, nor voice is retained in the moment of reconciliation as it went to press, months after Jane Austen herself was dead and buried. The body was absent. Clear-eyed and unsparing to the last, she would not allow herself even the dream of so impossible a meeting. The most she would allow us to see of immediate, passionate felicity was the sensation of an ‘overpowering happiness’ in solitude as her character, Anne Elliott, read to herself words of love.
Yet the prospect of fulfilment beyond absolute loss stands like a promise and we cannot look away. The novel, a literary form which has dominated our cultural imaginations for the two-and-a-half centuries since Austen’s lifetime, offers that fulfilment in terms of marriage. On the last pages of novel after novel, the apparently impossible union — whether for emotional, or family, or even more often economic reasons — proves miraculously possible after all. Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth.
The marriage plot’s satisfactions are so potent that readers across those centuries have been outraged when, exceptionally, such human fulfilment is withheld by the author — by Charlotte Bronte in Villette, for example, where the marriage between M. Heger and Lucy Snowe is frustrated by a probably-fatal storm at sea, or in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, where Lily’s constancy to her Adolphus survives her discovery that he is selfish and shallow, and brings her to remain single even though she is passionately loved by another decent man she will never accept. In making that choice to be single, Lily allows herself to subsist beyond the fleeting moment of fulfilled desire, beyond that vision of youth and beauty and pleasure, into tiredness, old age and mortality. She stops being a cipher of promise and becomes fully human. Marriage can only be guaranteed to be absolute fulfilment if you stop time on the wedding day.
So it is that marriage is only ever a metaphor — though a powerful one — for fulfilment, pointing beyond itself to a love which is both more elusive and more durable. When Mary stands weeping in the garden she is more like the single Jane, dying in discomfort during a rain-filled summer on the three chairs she allowed herself in order to leave the sofa for her grandmother to lie upon, alone in the contemplation of her mortality and keeping others at a distance with stoical letter-writing. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth are pleasant fantasies, not part of the realities of life. It is death, not love, which beckons at the end of the long vista of patient endurance.
That, at any rate, is the human point of view.
But — from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view. We cannot avoid being the one who stands weeping outside the tomb; Christ has died for all; therefore all have died. Mary Magdalene, associated traditionally with all the betrayals and bad faith that go with an over-reliance upon human desire, yearns beyond it to a love which seems extinguished by death. She stands by a tomb puzzlingly empty yet peopled by angels who ask the crazy question, ‘Why are you weeping?’ For Mary, the absence of the beloved body, marred by death and empty of its spirit, is not a sign of resurrection but a final cruelty. She had hoped to care for that body, to wrap it in linen and honour it with spices — not because it would do any good, but because love is like that. ‘They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him’. She has been cheated of any direct encounter, and cannot hope even for a love-letter.
But then she turns around. She turns away from the tomb, and towards a living presence she cannot as yet name, and which has not as yet named her. This is, for a moment, a ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’. The person before her asks her the same question as the angels; she gives him the same answer; nothing new has yet happened. The point of recognition is when he calls her by name — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. They were reunited. They were restored to all that had been lost.
Yet this Now, this joy, is also ‘not yet’. It is not only fulfilment — it is promise, it is something still happening and still growing. ‘Do not hold on to me’, says the risen Jesus, ‘…go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ And Mary Magdalene becomes transformed from weeping woman to messenger and witness: she went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
In our human point of view, we cannot avoid standing with Mary. Loss is real, and death is the certain vista for every life, the standing condition for every hope. But look at your life carefully. Study the tomb by which you mourn and wonder why it is empty, full not of corruption but of animated light which asks you the question, why are you weeping? Someone in your life is standing behind you, waiting for you to turn. When you look away from the tomb and towards the presence, what might happen next? What could happen? On his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance. Somebody is speaking your name. And you think, amazed: How could it ever have been otherwise? My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?
On his blog this morning, Rod Dreher publishes a fascinating letter from a reader in China, who suggests that the work of Xún Zǐ might be a good entryway into Chinese culture.
As it happens, I wrote about Xún Zǐ in my book on original sin. I introduce him after briefly describing the thought of Confucius’s disciple Mencius, who believed that human beings are intrinsically good. Here’s the relevant passage:
But some generations later there came along another great sage, one who also considered himself a faithful disciple of Confucius, who believed that Mencius had gotten it all wrong. His name was Xún Zǐ (310-237 BCE), and it is probably not coincidental that he lived in what has long been called the Warring States Period, when the unifying power of the Zhou dynasty was weakening and the social order crumbling. “The nature of man is evil,” Xún Zǐ wrote; “man’s inborn nature is to seek for gain. If this tendency is followed, strife and rapacity result and deference and compliance disappear. By inborn nature one is envious and hates others. If these tendencies are followed, injury and destruction result and loyalty and faithfulness disappear.” If we feel a pang of compassion or anxiety for a child falling into a well, that is because the life or death of that child does not affect our interests — we do not gain by it. If we knew that we would gain by that child’s death, then not only would we feel no anxiety, we’d give the kid a good push.
But then, someone might say, people often, or at least sometimes, do virtuous deeds. If our nature is evil, where does goodness come from? Xún Zǐ has a ready reply: “I answer that all propriety and righteousness are results of the activity” — this word carries connotations of creativity and artifice — “of sages and not originally produced from man’s nature…. The sages gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles, and thus produced propriety and righteousness and instituted laws and systems.”
So it would seem that the news from Xún Zǐ is not so bad after all, and not so different from the model of Mencius. Yes, we have an innately evil nature, and come into this world predisposed to greed and strife; however, these tendencies are correctable by the judicious enforcement of well-made laws. The one thing needful is that the sages, who have “gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles,” are the ones given charge of “laws and systems.” Philosophers rule — or should.
So for Xún Zǐ inborn evil is not so much a curse as an annoyance. Thanks to basic human intelligence, which allows us to see when things aren’t working properly and then take the necessary steps to address the problems, we can find sages (“sage-kings,” he later says) to establish laws and social structures that mitigate evil and build up good. And, not incidentally, Xún Zǐ believes that “Every man in the street possesses the faculty to know [humanity, righteousness, laws, and correct principles] and the capacity to practice them.” Therefore, almost anyone can become a sage; there is no reason why there should ever be a shortage of them.
It’s Xún Zǐ’s matter-of-factness that’s noteworthy here, and really rather attractive. What his philosophy indicates is that one can have a very low view of human nature without being what William James, in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) calls a “sick soul”: a person tormented by consciousness of sin and helpless in the face of temptation. James spoke of such people as “these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth,” and it was almost axiomatic to him that their personality is antithetical to the confidence and assurance and warmth of what he calls “the religion of healthy-mindedness.” But Xún Zǐ, for all his insistence on the depths of our innate sinfulness, seems the very embodiment of healthy-mindedness. How is this possible? It turns out that what matters more than your view of “human nature” is your view of the relative importance of nature and nurture. For Xún Zǐ human nature is evil, but nature is also easily controllable and eminently improvable. All you have to do is put the philosophers in charge.
There’s an argument on the Wikipedia page for the story of Dick Whittington and his cat about whether young Whittington could have heard the ringing of the Bow bells from Holloway. Sometimes I love Wikipedia. Also, that delightful story is a rare example of a genuine folktale arising almost in modern times – possibly as late as the early 17th century – and based on a well-known historical figure.
We’re in a society that thinks entirely about faith, because of our sense of encroachment by Islam, and our defiance against that because we have our own way of being, which of course is based in Christianity. But no one is Christian. So we’re trying to defend an ideal which we can’t really define ourselves, which we almost entirely don’t believe in. And we’re coming up against something which is quite overwhelming and encroaching and dictatorial – some aspects of Islam – and yet at another level, there’s something so beautiful and glorious about it. And so I feel as if this conflict is entirely about faith, and yet the one thing no one wants to talk about is faith.
In his influential “The Road to Serfdom,” the economist Friedrich Hayek argued that the state should “assist the individual in providing for those common hazards of life” — among them poor health and unexpected accidents. And in his illuminating analysis of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism,” the political scientist Henry Olsen uncovered some timely insights. “Any person in the United States,” Reagan said in 1961, “who requires medical attention and cannot provide it for himself should have it provided for him.”
These sentiments conflict with recent iterations of Republican health care reform. The “full repeal” bill is nothing of the sort — it preserves the regulatory structure of Obamacare, but withdraws its supports for the poor. The House version of replacement would transfer many from Medicaid to the private market, but it doesn’t ensure that those transferred can meaningfully purchase care in that market. The Senate bill offers a bit more to the needy, but still leaves many unable to pay for basic services. In the rosiest projections of each version, millions will be unable to pay for basic health care. This wasn’t acceptable to Reagan in 1961, and it shouldn’t be acceptable to his political heirs.
Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.
— Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
Please read the whole of this beautiful post by Sara Hendren — and then I want to reflect on its conclusion:
I want a world full of disabled voices, people telling their stories in their own ways, with their own voices intact. But I also want a world of people to read about the collective stakes inherent in disability — and not just the rights issues that are being ignored, urgent as they are. I want people to see that spending time thinking about disability is an invitation to see the world differently, and to locate one’s own experiences differently. Not to erase the particularity of any one person’s very material experiences, but to help remedy the invisibility of disabled experience outside the inner circle of people who talk to one another, who know that these issues are important. And some audiences will need some interpretation, some cognitive-linguistic bridges to understand the import of disability — its wonder, its overlooked importance, and yes, even its lessons, if we may call them such. Lessons without moralizing, lessons without abstractions.
Sara has a history of thinking wisely and humanely about these matters, and in ways that grow organically out of her own humanity, her own path through the world. In that regard, I very strongly recommend — I don’t like to say insist, but … I exhort you all, let me put it that way, to watch this talk that Sara gave in 2015. And if you’re a young smart person trying to make you way in the world, trying to discern your calling, then yeah, I insist that you watch it. Absolutely.
Anyway, I want to respond to the conclusion of Sara’s post because I think it leads to some vital stuff. And I want to start by disagreeing with this: “Lessons without moralizing, lessons without abstractions” — disagreeing because I think that all lessons are both moralizing and abstracting. Moralizing because if you haven’t come to believe that some decisions are better than others, or some clearly worse than others, then you haven’t learned a lesson; and abstracting because if you don’t in some way and to some degree generalize from (abstract from) someone else’s story or experience, than you also haven’t learned a lesson. The real question, then, I think, is to learn how to be genuinely moral without being moralistic, that is to say, without dictating the terms on which a lesson must be learned; and how to abstract only to the degree necessary, and without losing awareness of the specific textures of another life. The goal, I think, to borrow a phrase from Henry James that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has made much of, is to be “finely aware and richly responsible.”
But I also think part of being “richly responsible” is to be willing to take the chance of telling the story wrong, of drawing something other than the perfect lesson, of abstracting too much or too little according to some (abstract!) universal ideal. And that’s why I applaud this statement by Sara, which comes just before the passage that I’ve already quoted: “Lately I’m thinking that I can only write what I can write, knowing that it will be incomplete and partial in its rendering.” Exactly. Riffing on Emily Dickinson: Tell the truth that you can tell, even if you can’t help telling it slant.
But it takes courage to do this because there are always critical panthers tensed and ready to pounce. Sara quotes Tom Shakespeare’s dismissal of Oliver Sacks’s whole career of writing about his patients as a “high-brow freak show,” a charge that it is hard to see how Sacks could have avoided except by refraining from writing at all about his clinical encounters. What I want to say to Tom Shakespeare is this: Wave your wand and eliminate Sacks’s books from the world. Now, tell me: How is the world better?
“But,” the answer will come back, at least from some, “Sacks should have done things differently. He should have included this and excluded that,” etc. etc. But perhaps he couldn’t have. Perhaps he wrote the books he was capable of writing. This is a real and important possibility. (I speak with some authority here, as a person who has written a good many books, not one of which turned out to be precisely what I had imagined and wanted when I set out.)
I feel much the same about Alex Tizon’s much-maligned account of his family’s slave. He shouldn’t have presumed to tell anything about Lola’s story, people said; He should have denounced his parents more explicitly; he shouldn’t have … he should have … The story is so incomplete! Indeed it is. As are all stories. But it was moving and shocking and disturbing, and I suspect it cost Tizon a good deal to write it. I’m glad it’s in the world, whatever its errors, whatever its limitations of perspective.
In one of his most powerful poems, Auden writes,
Beloved, we are always in the wrong,
Handling so clumsily our stupid lives,
Suffering too little or too long,
Too careful even in our selfish loves …
We are always in the wrong. It’s the human condition. If people remembered it, remembered that it’s their condition too, they might be a little more forgiving of the limitations of others.
Though many don’t acknowledge their own always-in-the-wrongness, they know, they can’t help knowing, that if they speak from their fund of knowledge and experience, others will censure them in the way they have censured. (“By what measure ye mete….”) And so it becomes ever easier to take refuge in the tweet-sized dismissal of what others venture, and in the bogus rectitude of silence. That’s why Auden notes that we respond to our always-in-the-wrongness by becoming “too careful” — “Too careful even in our selfish loves.” But if you’re always wrong already, why not sin boldly? Why not risk greatly?
I hope Sara writes her book boldly, and without a qualm. I hope for many books written boldly and without qualms, even books I don’t end up liking. Let even a thousand weeds bloom. Haters gonna hate, and the pathologically scrupulous gonna scruple. Defy them.
For several years now I’ve enjoyed using FastMail, a paid email service. Email is sufficiently important that I don’t mind paying for it, especially if that delivers me from having my emails scanned and the data therefrom sold. I’ve recommended FastMail to a number of people, but I’m not going to be doing that any more.
A few days ago I took a look in my Archive mailbox, which is where I stash almost every email I’ve dealt with (I’m a search-rather-than-sort person), and noticed, to my great surprise, that it only had seven messages in it. I refreshed the mailbox a couple of times: still just seven messages. I use the FastMail web interface, because it’s very quick and has excellent keyboard shortcuts, and hadn’t opened an email client in at last a week — maybe considerably longer. So I decided to check my email client to see what things looked like there – but first, I turned off my wi-fi. When I opened the email client I discovered that the Archive mailbox had 68,000 messages in it. Which was what it should have had.
Now perhaps you will see why I turned off the wi-fi – I didn’t want to give the email client a opportunity to synchronize the mailboxes, or I could have lost everything from my hard drive as well. To be sure, I’m an obsessive backer-up, and I have plenty of earlier versions that I could have restored from … but still: the sudden disappearance of 68,000 messages is discomfiting.
When I contacted FastMail I had the kind of exchange you might expect: they told me that I must have deleted them without knowing about it — though how I would have done that, since it would have involved moving them to the trash and then deleting the trash, while carefully preserving seven messages, I have no idea — or that my mail client must have done it — though I explained (several times) that I wasn’t using a mail client.
In the end they basically just shrugged and said they didn’t know what happened. And I get that: the great majority of the time the client is at fault for this kind of thing, and any attempt to figure out what happened probably would be time-consuming and unlikely to yield a clear result. But in the absence of any effort to find out what went wrong, and in the absence of 68,000 messages, I don’t have a great deal of trust in the service. And under the circumstances, paying for it doesn’t make much sense.
Unfortunately, though, I have paid for the next 18 months of service. FastMail won’t give me a pro-rated refund, or any refund at all, but I’m deleting my account anyway — it’s not worth the uncertainty.
The fact that the body, and locality and locomotion and time, now feel irrelevant to the highest reaches of the spiritual life is (like the fact that we can think of our bodies as ‘coarse’) a symptom. Spirit and Nature have quarrelled in us; that is our disease. Nothing we can yet do enables us to imagine its complete healing. Some glimpses and faint hints we have: in the Sacraments, in the use made of sensuous imagery by the great poets, in the best instances of sexual love, in our experiences of the earth’s beauty. But the full healing is utterly beyond our present conceptions. Mystics have got as far in contemplation of God as the point at which the senses are banished: the further point, at which they will be put back again, has (to the best of my knowledge) been reached by no one.
– C. S. Lewis, Miracles
The articles Barrett links to are mostly about chronic stress — the stress elicited by, for example, spending one’s childhood in an impoverished environment of serious neglect and violence. Growing up in a dangerous neighborhood with a poor single mother who has to work so much she doesn’t have time to nurture you is not the same as being a college student at a campus where [Milo] Yiannopoulos is coming to speak, and where you are free to ignore him or to protest his presence there. One situation involves a level of chronic stress that is inflicted on you against your will and which really could harm you in the long run; the other doesn’t. Nowhere does Barrett fully explain how the presence on campus of a speaker like Yiannopoulos for a couple of hours is going to lead to students being afflicted with the sort of serious, chronic stress correlated with health difficulties. It’s simply disingenuous to compare the two types of situations — in a way, it’s an insult both to people who do deal with chronic stress and to student activists.
I often think I’m the only person in the world who cares about this, but … here’s a very nice piece on dystopian fiction that uses the terms “sacrament” and “sacramental” far too loosely. It’s an unfortunately common trope (especially but not only among Christians) to use “sacramental” as a synonym for “meaningful” or “comforting” or “reassuring.” Experience or objects can be deeply meaningful, even life-transforming, without being sacramental. Sacrament requires not just meaning but the divine promise of meaning: the Eucharist is a sacrament because God promises to be present in it. And the same is true of the other sacraments. Where there is no promise, there is no sacrament, though for the attentive person there will often be deep meaning.
In the aftermath of the blockade on April 6, the College learned important lessons that must further strengthen our resolve. Our Athenaeum must continue to invite the broadest array of speakers on the most pressing issues of the day. Our faculty must help us understand how to mitigate the forces that divide our society. Our students must master the skills of respectful dialogue across all barriers. Our community must protect the right to learn from others, especially those with whom we strongly disagree. And Claremont McKenna College must take every step necessary to uphold these vital commitments.
I see Rod is still engaging his critics, and now we’re into the deep weeds of just how important Obergefell is or is not for the future of American Christianity, something about which I don’t have any firm opinion. I wonder whether it might not be possible to simplify the issues at stake a bit, and in that cause I have prepared the following chart. You’re welcome.
What contemporary theorists of civility can and should take away from [Roger] Williams is his recognition of the inevitable disagreeableness of disagreement…. Faced with a heated disagreement, both participants and observers find it difficult to separate the condemnation of another’s position and contempt for her person. It’s precisely this difficulty that we call upon the virtue of “civility” to alleviate.
If we think all of the ethical work remains to be done by others, that our opponents alone are the uncivil ones, we are mistaken. As long as we are determined to trace every difference of opinion to some aspect of identity or perspectival privilege, we will continue to win arguments by proclaiming our own epistemic authority and to refute our opponents by impugning theirs. In the face of this politics of purity and the resultant proliferation of ad hominem, Williams reminds us that responses other than ostracism and outrage are possible, while providing a model of how coexistence and cooperation might work.
It strikes me that the future of the Roman Catholic Church in my lifetime, and perhaps well beyond, may largely be determined by which of his two predecessors Pope Francis takes as his model for the final stage of a papacy. For John Paul II, the increasing frailty and illness of his last years were almost a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inner radical dependence on God. (“Though he slay me, I will yet trust in him.”) For him, the public bearing of affliction was a necessary consequence of the burden he had taken on when he assumed the seat of St. Peter. For Benedict, by contrast, those burdens were to be set aside when honest self-reflection told him he could no longer stand under them.
I am not interested in judging either choice – indeed, only God can do that – but rather merely in pointing out that if Francis follows John Paul’s model he could be Pope for a very long time, and therefore, even if (or especially if) he gradually turns over more and more decisions to his subordinates and allies, could reshape the Church so thoroughly that it is hard to imagine how it could be set back on the path that both John Paul and Benedict set it on. Conversely, if he follows Benedict’s model and resigns – which it has been reported he has occasionally said he would do – then there is at least a chance for the next conclave to engineer a reversal of course.
I do not know whether any Pope has ever made a more significant decision than the one that Francis will make about how his papacy should end. And it is Deeply ironic that a decision must be made only because of a dramatic innovation by that great traditionalist, Benedict.
[Nancy MacLean] has continued this narrative of being “under attack” in various interviews, and most recently in a story in Inside Higher Ed, where fellow progressives echo this language.
This notion of being “attacked” is particularly fascinating to me. Let’s be clear what she means: people who know a lot about Buchanan, public choice theory, and libertarianism have taken issue with her scholarship and have patiently and carefully documented the places where she has made errors of fact or interpretation, or mangled and misused source materials and quotes. That is all that they have done.
None of this was coordinated nor was it part of a conspiracy from the Koch brothers. It was scholars doing what scholars do when they are confronted with bad scholarly work, especially when it touches on issues we know well.
None of these critics, and I am among them, have called for physical violence against her. None have contacted her employer. None have called her publisher or Amazon to have the book taken down. Contrary to her claim, the only silence in this whole episode is her own refusal to respond to legitimate scholarly criticism. We don’t want to silence her – we eagerly await her response.
— Steven Horwitz. The whole post gives some good recommendations for how to engage healthily in intellectual disputation.
1. A university is an institution with circumscribed responsibilities which engages in a contract with its students. Its main responsibility is to provide them with an education. It is not an arbiter over their lives, 24/7. What they do on their own time is none of the university’s business.
2. One of the essential values in higher education is that people can differ in their values, and that these differences can be constructively discussed. Harvard has a right to value mixed-sex venues everywhere, all the time, with no exceptions. If some of its students find value in private, single-sex associations, some of the time, a university is free to argue against, discourage, or even ridicule those choices. But it is not a part of the mandate of a university to impose these values on its students over their objections.
3. Universities ought to be places where issues are analyzed, distinctions are made, evidence is evaluated, and policies crafted to attain clearly stated goals. This recommendation is a sledgehammer which doesn’t distinguish between single-sex and other private clubs. It doesn’t target illegal or objectionable behavior such as drunkenness or public disturbances. Nor by any stretch of the imagination could it be seen as an effective, rationally justified, evidence-based policy tailored to reduce sexual assault.
4. This illiberal policy can only contribute to the impression in the country at large that elite universities are not dispassionate forums for clarifying values, analyzing problems, and proposing evidence-based solutions, but are institutions determined to impose their ideology and values on a diverse population by brute force.
Now, more than half of Republicans think that colleges and universities have a negative effect on our culture…. Why? Certainly in part because conservative media focused its attention on the idea of “safe spaces” on college campuses, places where students would be sheltered from controversial or upsetting information or viewpoints. This idea quickly spread into a broader critique of left-wing culture, but anecdotal examples from individual universities, such as objections to scheduled speakers and warnings in classrooms, became a focal point.
— The new culture war targeting American universities appears to be working – The Washington Post. I remember when blaming the media for reporting on bad behavior, rather than blaming the people behaving badly, was a Republican thing.
Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.
– the mass defunding of higher education that’s yet to come – the ANOVA. I think Freddie is clearly right about this, and it’s interesting to think about why so many in the academic left are so oblivious to the disaster they’re courting, so convinced that a right-wing smackdown of public (and, as Freddie explains, also private) universities can’t happen. To some extent this is a sunk-costs phenomenon: people who have invested their careers in a particular narrative, and in a particular set of rhetorical strategies associated with that narrative, have a great deal of difficulty accepting the failure of that narrative. In this sense leftish academics are just like the True Believers in free enterprise who simply can’t accept that climate change is both real and dangerous: after all, such acceptance would require them to change their ways! Dramatically!
But I think the left has an additional trait that makes adjusting to reality even harder for them: the belief, deeply embedded in the whole progressive Weltanschauung, that social and moral progress is inevitable and irresistible. Every defeat, then, is a mere blip on the screen, or a bit of static that momentarily disrupts the elegant music of enlightenment. The whole national government in the hands of Republicans? The great majority of state governments also in the hands of Republicans? No worries! This too will pass, and soon.
Well, we’ll see.
You learn a lot about people by noting what trivial things they obsess over, and today’s David Brooks column is a perfect example. Let me be really clear about this: people are freaking out about The Sandwich Bar Anecdote for one major reason, which is that they know the rest of the column is dead-on accurate and they’d prefer not to think about what it tells us about our social order.
But even The Sandwich Bar Anecdote itself isn’t bad — it makes a valid and important point, one that finds an analogue in the experience of many of us. Look at this post by Rod Dreher for some good examples, from his own experience and from some of his readers as well.
One Christmas I bought my parents the most expensive gift I had ever given them: a big basket of fruit and cheese and pastries and various other goodies from Harry & David. It arrived several days before I could get home myself, and when I arrived at their house I saw the basket sitting in a corner of the living room, removed from its box but unopened. They never did open it. They were pissed. They didn’t want to talk about it, but eventually it became clear to me that the basket was “fancy” in a way they thought totally inappropriate. “But it’s just fruit and cheese!” I said. “I can buy fruit and cheese at Kroger,” my dad growled. I started to explain that it was exceptionally good fruit and cheese, but then realized that that wouldn’t work: for one thing, it was the opposite of what I had just said (“It’s just fruit and cheese”), and for another, I knew that my parents would take any praise of the food in the basket as a criticism of the food they bought at Kroger. There was no way for me to win this one, so I just shut up. I expect they eventually threw the whole basket away without ever opening it.
It didn’t have to be food: I could have bought them clothes they also thought “fancy” and they probably would have been equally disdainful. But I think food is generally perceived as sending especially strong signals — perhaps because it involves “consumption” in a completely literal sense. It is what you take into yourself, and while Jesus may have said that it is what comes out of a man that defiles him, not what goes in, for most people that’s an unnatural point of view. I will always remember in this regard Rod’s story about how disgusted his family were when he and Julie made bouillabaisse for them — even though pretty much everybody in Louisiana has eaten fish stew.
I didn’t buy my parents any more food for Christmas, and from then on when I shopped for them I shopped at Wal-Mart.
Brooks writes, “Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else.” This is true, and true in very important ways; and the intuition that such rules are always in play can make people uneasy or angry when they think such rules are being enforced against them. If you can’t acknowledge this you’re just being willfully blind.
Suppose, I asked the students, an observant Jew has a florist shop. One day, a customer, who is also Jewish, comes to the shop to say she’s getting married and would like the florist to do the wedding. “That’s wonderful,” the florist says. “Where will you get married?” The customer replies that the wedding will be at a local nondenominational church, because her fiancé is Christian, and she, the customer, isn’t very observant. The florist thinks about it and then says, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do your wedding. It’s nothing personal; I’m sure your fiancé is a fine person, as are you. It’s just that as an observant Jew I don’t approve of interfaith weddings. For our community to survive, we must avoid intermarriage and assimilation. Please understand. There are many other florists who can do your wedding. I’ll even suggest some. But I can’t, in good conscience, participate, myself.” What result?
In posing this hypothetical, I was not so interested in how the case would come out under current law. Rather, in good law-school fashion, I was trying to show the students that these are complicated questions and that they need to consider both sides. Much to my surprise, the students were uniformly unsympathetic to the florist. There should be no right to decline services in this situation, they told me. The florist was not acting reasonably and in good faith. […]
Conservatives often assume that controversies like Masterpiece Cakeshop reflect changing sexual norms and an intolerance of resistance. That’s correct, in part; one definitely senses a “you-lost-get-over-it” sentiment on the other side. And yet, the students’ reaction to my hypothetical case suggests that something else is going on as well, that the dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist was doing in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students.
— Mark Movsesian, St. John’s Law School, New York. A fascinating case study for people who tend to think these disputes are all about the sexual revolution. As it turns out, and as I have sometimes suggested, demand for the affirmation of sexual choices may simply be an example of a greater demand, that for the affirmation of all the self’s choices. The real principles here are (a) I am my own and (b) the purpose of society is to empower and affirm my claim that I am my own.
Day and night addicted people come and go by the dozens through once-boarded windows. Some get high and collapse onto mattresses. Some come looking for prostitutes. Others have made it a home. Even in the depths of addiction, they are drawn to the familiar, the normal. First, a library lawn, now a church.
“I know it’s probably not the right thing to do,” said Josh Green, who is 28 and originally from Kensington. For three months he has been sleeping on blankets in the filth of a lower church office. “But I honestly feel a little more comfortable because I know I am in God’s house.”
Usually when I write a post, it’s not because I think the subject is the most important thing going on in the world. Sometimes I write about a topic because I don’t think anyone else will make the same point, or because I happen to know something about it, or because something caught my eye and I can write a quick comment about it. Very often that means there are other topics that I consider more important than the one I’m discussing, but about which I don’t feel I have anything to add to the conversation, or don’t have the time to address adequately, etc. …
It is certainly fair to look at someone’s body of work for a sense of what he thinks is most important – although even that exercise can go awry, because a person’s sense of his comparative advantage might not line up with his sense of importance – but it’s wrong to look at one or two posts that way. I find, though, that even the occasional tweet gets treated this way by some readers. So, for example, any jape about liberals, no matter how mild, is sure to draw the response that obviously I am trying to divert attention from some terrible thing Donald Trump is doing, which is what everyone really should be talking about. It seems to me that this is not a healthy way to read, think, or be.
— Ramesh Ponnuru. I co-sign this vigorously.
I wrote recently about not writing about politics, but I have been reminded this morning that such avoidance is more easily vowed than accomplished — and not because I’m tempted to crawl back into those fetid waters, but rather because the waters keep rising and contaminating the previously safe, dry ground.
Example: yesterday President Trump gave a bland, vacuous speech about Western values, the achievements of the West, blah blah blah — the kind of speech that politicians give all the time and that could have been given (with very few modifications) by Barack Obama — and now, as Rod Dreher points out, leftish people are freaking out over the secret alt-right dog-whistly meanings of the speech. Which means that if I want to comment here about the book I am currently reading, those comments — and probably the book itself — will be understood within the context of this ever-spreading and increasingly idiotic partisan wrangling.
Near the end of the post, Rod writes, “If standing against this kind of liberal insanity means I have to stand with Donald Trump, well, okay, I’ll stand with Donald Trump. I won’t like it, but at least Donald Trump doesn’t hate his own civilization.” Y’all know I love Rod, but I’m going to part company with him on this one. Donald Trump indeed does hate his civilization — or, more accurately, he despises it. He just doesn’t say he does. Like pitch, he defiles what he touches, and people obsessed by his every word, people whose hatred of him controls their minds, simply spread the defilement. It does not seem to occur to Trump’s most vocal denouncers that they are aiding and abetting his lust to own the world’s mindspace — and so helping him clinch his biggest real estate deal ever. His haters are his unpaid apprentices.
I will not choose between Trump and his haters. There are better ways to live, and the vital questions raised by the complex history (and even more complex inheritance) of the Western world extend far beyond this moment in electoral politics. Therefore “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one I have never asked to be a part of.” But exclusion from the narrative is much more easily wished-for than achieved.
Now commencement speakers are also expected to give some advice. They give grand advice, and they give some useful tips. The most common grand advice they give is for you to be yourself. It is an odd piece of advice to give people dressed identically, but you should — you should be yourself. But you should understand what that means. Unless you are perfect, it does not mean don’t make any changes. In a certain sense, you should not be yourself. You should try to become something better. People say ‘be yourself’ because they want you to resist the impulse to conform to what others want you to be. But you can’t be yourself if you don’t learn who are, and you can’t learn who you are unless you think about it.
Full transcript here. I’ve never seen a better commencement speech.
I am by most measures a pretty deeply committed Christian. I am quite active in my church; I teach at a Christian college; I have written extensively in support of Christian ideas and belief. Yet when I ask myself how much of what I do and think is driven by my religious beliefs, the honest answer is “not so much.” The books I read, the food I eat, the music I listen to, my hobbies and interests, the thoughts that occupy my mind throughout the greater part of every day – these are, if truth be told, far less indebted to my Christianity than to my status as a middle-aged, middle-class American man.
Of course, I can’t universalize my own experience – but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they’re not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.
Most of today’s leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like [Christopher] Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company’s products. Discerning a difference between people’s professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do.
Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It’s not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?
— Me, nine years ago. I still hold this view.
Only those narrow few who benefit from today’s system of elite rule could possibly see such rule as a good thing, or contemplate its further entrenchment. For the rest of us, the old cliché about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others remains as true as ever. It is certainly preferable to epistocracy and oligarchy, which empower the most arrogant and least self-aware segment of society to make decisions about the lives of those whom they do not understand or care about. However dysfunctional our democracies may get, it will remain true that the people least qualified for power are those who are most convinced that they should have it.
After Henrik Ibsen became a great man, a great artist, one of the most famous people in Europe, fans and scholars made their way to the places in Norway where he grew up to seek reminiscences. Michael Meyer, in his massive biography of Ibsen, records that one woman from Ibsen’s home town of Skien recalled seeing him, when he was a small boy, walking to school in the mornings, and what she remembered above all was that he often wore a red woolen cap. The snow on the banks of the path he walked would typically block the boy from sight, so that all she could see, from the window of her house, was the vivid color of the cap bouncing above the whiteness. Ibsen became the greatest dramatist of the nineteenth century, but to this woman he would always be, first and last, a small boy with a bright red cap on his head, walking to school through the snowy streets of a small Norwegian town.
The ugly secret of newspapers is that copy editors do a great deal of what non-journalism people think reporters or other editors, with fancier titles, do. They have for generations caught typos; deleted potentially horrifying factual errors; made 20 inches of bloated copy into a tight, bright, and juicy 12; noticed inconsistencies in a narrative and put a reporter on the phone to walk through fixing them; pushed back against the use of empty political jargon; made sure the photos matched the story; made sure stories get to the point before readers become bored; and done what is easily one of the most important jobs of all—crafting the headlines that make people read the stories.
The Christian church has another narrative, but we must teach it to ourselves over and over repeatedly, or the world will run away with it altogether. For at least fifty years, the majority of clergy in the majority of congregations have allowed the church’s teaching about death and funerals to deteriorate, and have let the traditional burial service slip away in favor of any number of generic, syncretistic intrusions. Returning to the power of the Christian gospel in life and in death is not only an affirmation; as such, it is a form of resistance to the story that the secular spiritualists are telling us. My husband and I are preparing to put our funeral wishes on file with the church from which we will be buried. The list will include such things as the presence of the body in the church (covered with the church’s funeral pall), real pallbearers (not undertakers), a significant sermon about death and resurrection, strong hymns, no “eulogies,” and the conspicuous absence of the phrase “a celebration of the life of…” on the front page of the program. In the Book of Common Prayer, the service is called “The Burial of the Dead.” If that is too stark, a fine alternative is “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”
When Jobs announced the device, he called it “a revolutionary product”, one of those that comes along and “changes everything”. In many ways he was right. Merchant describes it as an agent of “civilisation-scale transformation”, the first universally desired, portable technology since clothes. But by the end of the book he backs away from this a bit. A welcome note of humility comes from an engineer who helped build the software: he points out that devices tend only to dazzle in their moment: “My wife is a painter. She does oil painting. When she does something, it’s there forever. Technology – in 20 years, who’s going to care about an iPhone?”
— Jacob Mikanoswki. I suppose that depends on what you mean by “care about an iPhone”: in 20 years iPhones as such may not exist, but I suspect that most people will care very much about the always-connected way of life that the iPhone first made feasible and attractive. In the same way, if in the future every word of text is produced and distributed digitally, no one will care about the printing press; they may not even know what a printing press is; but they will care very much about the world the printing press first made possible. (I’m not saying that the iPhone as an invention is as important as the printing press. I’m also not saying that it won’t be.)
I’m trying to make myself stop talking about politics, for the most part — I will make the very occasional exception for the two issues I am, personally and professionally, deeply invested in: religious freedom and higher-education policy. And even then I want to speak only after a waiting period in which others may be able to state my position more knowledgeably and wisely than I can.
As I explained to a friend earlier today, I’m taking this path (or hoping to) because I worry about the health of many of the good things that politics, properly speaking, exists in order to protect and nurture. I thus find myself remembering this famous letter from John Adams to Abigail, written from Paris:
I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelain, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.
We can be thankful that John Adams made that decision. But it is not a decision to which we should apply a categorical imperative, because if every person of his time had made the same choice, then several generations could have gone by without the production of Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain (and most of these are not the sorts of arts that are readily learned from the mere observation of existing examples). I worry about a society that has so lost the taste for such things that it will no longer know what it’s missing when they’re gone. I worry about a politics that has become an all-encompassing end in itself — an endless series of victories and losses and more victories and more losses — rather than a means by which, as Adams understood, room is to be made for pursuits far better than partisan disputation and maneuvering.
The best of the human order is damaged by these political obsessions. The artist who neglects his craft in order to agitate full-time will soon have no craft to exercise — or to pass down to younger artists. The scholar who abandons the archive for the protest march may return — if she ever does return — to find the archive abolished, its contents destroyed, because when the time of decision came there was no one present with the knowledge and love necessary to protect it. Auden once wrote in praise of those who forget “the appetitive goddesses” in order to take the momentous step of pursuing their own weird private obsessions:
There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,
to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,
the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.
Likewise, there should be some people in our land unsure who the President is, wholly unaware of the latest legislative wrangle — even when such matters directly affect them — because they are absorbed in something else that they love, that they can’t help focusing on, that they can’t manage to turn aside from. I don’t know how many such people there should be, or whether you should join their company. But I strongly suspect that there ought to be more of them than Facebook and Twitter currently allow. And I want to be one too.
What I am finding is that the gospel, as a narrative, seems to function as a kind of attractor for me while I am telling stories. Without deliberately alluding to it, or meaning consciously to create any kind of counterpart of it, I seem to keep tracing around it, to keep drawing out partial, wandering, approximate, sometimes parodic or borderline-blasphemous outlines of its shape. Give me a story about a stranger who comes to town and instantly there, nearby, is the possibility that he may be a sin-eater or scapegoat, in some kind of redemptive relation to the ills, individual and shared, of the place he comes to. Give me a comedy of human fallibility, and I start to wonder whether the wisdom of God may be at work in it as well as the foolishness of man; but I also find myself reaching for some of the black paste of tragedy to stir in, because of the Christian story’s insistence on the mortal stakes for which we human idiots play. Conversely, give me a tragedy, and I seem to start tilting it towards laughter, because of the awareness that Easter Sunday follows Good Friday. It’s a tragi-comic religion, Christianity, hopelessly mixed in genre—the only one I know that ends with a death sentence and then a wedding.