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on necks that need millstones around them

In the Diocese of Allentown, for example, documents show that a priest was confronted about an abuse complaint. He admitted, “Please help me. I sexually molested a boy. “The diocese concluded that “the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma” for the victim, and that the family should just be given “an oportunity to ventilate.” The priest was left in unrestricted ministry for several more years, despite his own confession.

Similarly in the Diocese of Erie, despite a priest’s admission to assaulting at least a dozen young boys, the bishop wrote to thank him for “all that you have done for God’s people. The Lord, who sees in private, will reward. “Another priest confessed to anal and oral rape of at least 15 boys, as young as seven years old. The bishop later met with the abuser to commend him as “a person of candor and sincerity, “and to compliment him” for the progress he has made “in controlling his “addiction.” When the abuser was finally removed from the priesthood years later, the bishop ordered the parish not to say why; “nothing else need be noted.”

— The grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses. You need a strong stomach to read much of it; I couldn’t manage more than a few pages. But this was the passage that, though not explicit about what the priests did to children, most caught my eye. Even when the priests knew they were doing terrible things, even when they wanted to be held accountable, even when they desperately desired for children to be protected from them, the bishops refused. Faced not only with horrifically abused children, but also with abusers who cried out to be restrained, they did nothing. They all but forced the abuse to continue — they could not have done more if they had themselves desired above all things the destruction of lives.

The Lord, who sees in private, will reward.

more to come

I am very grateful to Jeffrey Bilbro for this extremely thoughtful and thorough response to my new book. For now I just want to respond to one passage:

Jacobs’s project includes elements of both history and argument; he’s narrating a particular intellectual history, and he’s defending the wisdom these figures provide. For the most part, these dual purposes are compatible, but at times I found myself wanting more synthesis and analysis. Much of the book is content to interweave the thinking of his five protagonists without teasing apart the inherent tensions among them or mustering an argument about which view Jacobs thinks is best. He compares his narrative mode to the cinematic method of Orson Welles, and I appreciate the challenges of crafting a unified story from the lives of five individuals who rarely, if ever, interacted directly with each other. Nevertheless, I kept wishing Jacobs was more explicit regarding his own evaluation of their ideas.

My response: God willing, I am not done writing books yet. Stay tuned.

A brief addendum to the previous post:

  1. It goes a long way towards explaining why in my writing I so often try to resurrect abandoned metaphors and neglected or forgotten terms. These are not necessarily better than the languages that are dominant today, but they are different and than in itself is valuable.
  2. Difference is valuable in itself because of a phenomenon that has never been described better than Kenneth Burke described it decades ago in his great essay on “Terministic Screens”: every vocabulary brings certain aspects of reality into clear view while simultaneously screening out others.

excerpts from my Sent folder: on exhausted languages

What I really am, by vocation and avocation, is a historian of ideas, and when you’ve been a historian of ideas for several decades you’re bound to notice how a certain vocabulary can take over an era — and not always in a good way. Consider for instance the period of over half the 20th century in which Freudian language completely dominated humanistic discourse, despite the fact that it had no empirical support whatever and was about as wrong-headed as it is possible for a body of ideas to be. Some tiny number of people flatly rejected it, a rather larger group enthused over it, and the great majority accepted it as part of their mandatory mental furniture, like having a coffee table or refrigerator in your house. (“It’s what people do, dear.”) Eventually it passed not because it had been discredited — it had never been “credited” in the first place — but because people got tired of it.

This exhaustion of a vocabulary happens more and more quickly now thanks to the takeover of intellectual life by a university committed to novelty in scholarship. But that’s a topic for another day.

Anyway, when you do this kind of work you develop — or you damn well ought to develop — an awareness that many of our vocabularies are evanescent  because of their highly limited explanatory power. You see, in a given discipline or topic area, one vocabulary coming on as another fades away, and you don’t expect the new one to last any longer than the previous one did. I think this makes it easier for you to consider the possibility that a whole explanatory language is basically useless. But while those languages last people get profoundly attached to them and are simply unwilling to question them — they become axioms for their users — which means that conversations cease to be conversations but rather turn into endlessly iterated restatements of quasi-religious conviction. “Intersecting monologues,” as Rebecca West said.

Often when I’m grading essays, or talking to my students about their essays, I notice that a certain set of terms are functioning axiomatically for them in ways that impede actual thought. When that happens I will sometimes ask, “How would you describe your position if you couldn’t use that word?” And I try to force the same discipline on myself on those occasions (too rare of course) when I realize that I am allowing a certain set of terms to become an intellectual crutch.

Moreover, I have come to believe that when a conversation gets to the “intersecting monologue” stage, when people are just trotting out the same limited set of terms in every context, that says something about the inadequacy of the vocabulary itself. Not just its users but the vocabulary itself is proving resistant to an encounter with difference and otherness. And that’s a sign that it has lost whatever explanatory power it ever had.

I think that’s where we are in our discourse of gender. And that’s why I am strongly inclined to think that there’s nothing substantial behind that discourse, it’s just a bundle of words with no actual explanatory power. And even if that’s not the case, the only way we can free ourselves from bondage to our terministic axioms is to set them aside and try to describe the phenomena we’re interested in in wholly other terms.

This, by the way, is the origin of all great metaphors, the “metaphors we live by”: the ones that make a permanent mark on culture are the ones that arise from an awareness of how our conventional terms fail us. Those coinages are (often desperate) attempts to throw off the constricting power of those terms. It was when Darwin realized that the explanatory language of natural history had reached a dead end that he coined “natural selection,” a term whose power is so great that it is hard for most people to realize that it is after all a metaphor. Our whole discourse of gender needs Darwins who can’t bear those constrictions any more and decide to live without them. And the first term that should go, as I suggested to you earlier, is “gender” itself.

on sharpness and gentleness

I appreciate this from Joe Carter on the times when theological correction needs to be “sharp” — which I think is a better term than “harsh,” the term Joe uses through most of his post. (“Harsh” almost always has pejorative connotations.) But of course I have some doubts about the argument.

First, if you’re going to say that St. Paul tells us to be sharp (Titus 1:11–12), you really need also to acknowledge some of his other advice. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:12). “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling you have received: with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, and with diligence to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3). “A servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome, but he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, and forbearing. He must gently reprove those who oppose him, in the hope that God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). It’s a very strong theme in Paul.

And before any of us presumes to correct anyone, we would do well first to meditate — and I mean very seriously to meditate — on this: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” This doesn’t mean that we never presume to correct; but it definitely does mean that correction can properly be risked only after the would-be corrector has engaged in some serious self-examination and penitence. Even when I do seek to correct my brother or sister, I need to face the very real possibility that I am in greater need of correction than he or she is. (And when it comes, how will I receive it?)

Might that discipline make correction less frequent? Probably. But a dominical commandment is a dominical commandment. We just have to deal with it.

Finally: A great many of intra-Christian disputes these days happen on social media. What do we have more of there? Meekness and gentleness? Or excessive harshness?

saving America from exploding Cadbury bars

“What do you do for a living?” the supervisor asked.

I knew this question was coming. I detest this question. I know from experience that if I tell CBP up front that I’m a civil rights lawyer, they’ll let me go in a flash. As a general rule, I don’t — because it’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to get equal treatment under the law. I travel internationally six to eight times per year, and it doesn’t surprise me to get stopped at least half of those times. Every time I mention I’m a lawyer, they release me immediately. Funny how that works — they know they’re illegally profiling me because of my name, skin color or religion.

Qasim Rashid

not for fun

At the beginning of Two Serious Ladies, the great Jane Bowles novel, one little girl asks another to play a new game. “It’s called ’I forgive you for all your sins,’” she says. “Is it fun?” asks the other. “It’s not for fun that we play it, but because it’s necessary to play it.” This, undoubtedly, is just why religion is so queer; it’s not for fun that we play it.

— Michael Warner, “Tongues Untied”

excerpts from my Sent folder: authority

There are three models of writing I despise: “I am old and have seen everything and therefore can speak with absolute authority”; “I am middle-aged and at the height of my powers and therefore can speak with absolute authority”; “I am young and have mastered the moment in which I live and therefore can speak with absolute authority.”

The Profumo Option

The other day, in one of his many recent posts on the waves of sexual scandal that are afflicting American churches, Rod Dreher made a passing mention of John Profumo. In the early 1960s Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War and got caught up in a sexual scandal that led to his resignation.

So much so ordinary (sad to say). But what happened afterwards wasn’t so ordinary. Profumo — a very well-connected man with many friends and supporters who would gladly have eased him back into some significant political or business role — simply left public life and never fully returned. He began to work as a volunteer for Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, doing menial work at first and gradually, over the course of decades, becoming a primary fundraiser. He never sought office again. For the rest of his life he worked out of the public eye to serve the poor.

Will a Profumo arise from our current situation? Will even one, single, solitary Christian leader who has been caught doing or enabling or covering for nasty things decide that the proper response is to perform extensive penance? And by performing extensive penance I don’t mean just taking a few months off to plan a comeback tour. I mean, rather, embracing humble service as medicine for the soul.

Will there be even one? Will any our currently disgraced leaders do for even a few weeks what John Profumo did for fifty years?

I doubt it. There are multiple forces conspiring against it. One is a religious-celebrity culture that produces no shortage of people who want to rub shoulders with the famous even when they have become infamous. Another is the almost complete disappearance of penance from the life of the Church — of churches in the west, anyway, including Catholicism, where it remained structurally embedded the longest.

Will anyone take the Profumo Option? I doubt it. But I hope.

excerpts from my Sent folder: LP & MTD

One of these days we’ll be drooling in our wheelchairs in the old folks’ home and saying, “Remember liberal proceduralism and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Good times, good times….”

Re: the previous post, I often wonder whether the people who claim to reject proceduralism

(a) believe they can win and win forever;

(b) don’t have that confidence but are so miserable under the current regime that they’d rather blow it up than allow it to stay alive — like Tolkien’s Denethor, if they can’t have things the way they prefer they will have nought; or

(c) deep down inside, don’t think they can blow it up, don’t think they can even put a real dent in it, but love the posture of radicalism.

 

nostalgia for proceduralism

One of the classic critiques made against the liberal social order is that it is philosophically thin, characterized by an inadequate, narrow, limited account of human being and human flourishing. It effectively waives essential questions of what the human animal is and replaces those questions with a commitment to certain fixed procedures applied to all. These procedures, philosophical liberals believe, are the best preservers of peace in a highly plural society such as ours. This “liberal proceduralism” is most often associated with the work of John Rawls, but its pedigree goes back at least to Locke.

I have often joined in those critiques, and have been especially attracted to the anti-proceduralist arguments of Alasdair MacIntyre, but now that proceduralism is greatly weakened and perhaps dying, I am starting to miss it. Some time back Ross Douthat tweeted that if you thought you hated the religious right, wait till you see the post-religious right. Similarly, I thought I disapproved of the proceduralist liberal order, but that was before I met the post-proceduralist liberal order.

Here is a classic argument based on the assumption that we are living in, and that arguments can appeal to, proceduralism. It concerns no-platforming strategies by leftist protestors on university campuses, and here’s a characteristic sample of the substance and tenor of the argument:

If [students] are led to think that it is appropriate for them to shout down speakers whose views they dislike or that they find offensive, then, to act with intellectual integrity and in good faith, students would have to support people shouting them down when they express views that others find distasteful or offensive.

But protesters who shout down others without acknowledging that they too could be shouted down are acting without “intellectual integrity” and “good faith” only under the assumptions of proceduralism. And student protestors do not share those assumptions. For them, what matters is that their positions are correct and the positions of those they are shouting down are profoundly wrong.

Similarly, you often hear political pundits contend that Republicans act in bad faith when they cheerfully allow President Trump to behave in precisely the same ways that they fiercely denounced when President Obama did them, or that Democrats lack intellectual integrity when they protest behavior by the current President that they cheerfully embraced in the previous administration. These arguments too appeal to proceduralist norms in conditions where they simply have no force. Few of our politicians are willing to share a common set of rules and norms with those they are convinced will ruin the country if they get a chance (or are beholden for their seats to voters and donors who think that).

When Conan the Barbarian was asked “What is best in life?” he replied, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” Had you been there, would you have replied, “Now Conan, you need to think about how you’d feel if the tables were turned, and it was your women who wailed in lamentation”? I trust that the question answers itself.

Proceduralism depends on the belief that my fellow citizens, while often wrong, indeed in some cases profoundly wrong, can be negotiated with. It depends on the belief that, while a world made precisely in my image may not be in the cards, if I and my fellow citizens agree to be bound by a common set of norms, then we can probably negotiate a tolerable social order. It depends on the belief that people whose politics differ from my own are not ipso facto evil, nor do they need to be pushed to the margins of society or forced out of it altogether. When those stances are not in play — and especially when all sides agree that error has no rights — proceduralism withers.

And that’s why, though I agree that proceduralism is morally limited and metaphysically thin to the point of invisibility, I am already missing it. I can feel the nostalgia coming on.

an apology

A few days ago I wrote a post in which I sought to express solidarity with what many of my faithful Catholic friends are going through these days. I also sent the link to some of those who have been on my mind. Very few of them responded at all, and among those who did respond, while a small handful were grateful, the predominant tone was one of irritation. I clearly touched a raw nerve, or struck the wrong tone, or something. I honestly do not know what went awry, but something did, and I am sorry for it. I never would have published the post if I had known that it would bring no comfort.

And if you are one of those friends who found my post somehow inappropriate, I would be grateful to you if you wrote to explain where and how I went astray. I will listen with open ears and heart.

the Clientele, the Public, the Person

Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon:

The multiversity [Clark] Kerr described was not the result of any considered plan or coherent philosophy. Rather, it emerged inadvertently as a congeries of historical conceptions of the university. Kerr identified three salient traditions. The first was represented by Cardinal Newman, founder of the University of Dublin in the mid-19th century. Newman regarded the purpose of the university as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, cultivating gentlemen suited to lives of erudition, taste, and intellectual refinement. The second was embodied in Abraham Flexner, an American educational reformer who, in 1930, founded the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. He invoked a German model that defined the university as an institution devoted to specialized research.

Finally, Kerr described the “American model,” which he saw most strongly reflected in the land-grant movement of the latter half of the 19th century. This distinctly American idea of the university was born of an explicit twinning of higher education and the democratic project, opening the doors of the academy to a broader public and emphasizing such “practical” fields of study as engineering and agriculture. If Newman’s university served the generalist and Flexner’s the specialist, the American model was to serve the demos.

Kerr saw all three models as coexisting in the multiversity. The balance among them varied by institution, but, under the watchful stewardship of presidents, they remained in a general state of homeostasis. In the 55 years since Kerr’s treatise, however, the “American model” has increasingly eclipsed the other two. Regardless of what they do or how they fund and organize themselves, American universities understand themselves as institutions in service to the public.”

With all due respect to my good friend Chad and his colleague, I must disagree. It is true that universities often describe themselves in this way, but that is a smokescreen. American universities actually understand themselves as institutions in service to their clientele. They make occasional face-saving and conscience-salving gestures in the direction of the public good, but the reality is this: Universities, and especially top-tier universities, compete with one another for a shrinking pool of customers, whom they lure with promises of (a) a variety of recreational activities during their four years of undergraduate life and (b) admission to graduate school or a relatively lucrative job afterwards.

Professors and some administrators will tell a different tale, but I believe that the decisions of the people who actually run our universities clearly confirm my account. As I said in an earlier post, if you pay attention to actions rather than words the math isn’t hard to do. Just follow the money.

This is why, as Chad himself has argued, those of us who care about learning must promote and nourish the Academy that stealthily functions within the University. But I would argue that that Academy doesn’t exist “in service to the public” any more than the University does.

Many years ago, W. H. Auden wrote,

A man has his distinctive personal scent which his wife, his children and his dog can recognize. A crowd has a generalized stink. The public is odorless.

A mob is active; it smashes, kills and sacrifices itself. The public is passive or, at most, curious. It neither murders nor sacrifices itself; it looks on, or looks away, while the mob beats up a Negro or the police round up Jews for the gas ovens.

The public is the least exclusive of clubs; anybody, rich or poor, educated or unlettered, nice or nasty, can join it….

Auden gets his notion of the Public from Kierkegaard, who said, in The Present Age, that “the public is a host, more numerous than all the peoples together, but it is a body which can never be reviewed, it cannot even be represented, because it is an abstraction. Nevertheless, when the age is reflective and passionless and destroys everything concrete, the public becomes everything and is supposed to include everything. And that again shows how the individual is thrown back upon himself.”

I want to argue that the secret function of the Academy within (and sometimes without) the University is to nurture the human formation to which the gaping maw of a Clientele and the featureless abstraction of a Public are alike inimical. And to this formation the arts are absolutely central. Auden again:

Before the phenomenon of the Public appeared in society, there existed naïve art and sophisticated art which were different from each other but only in the way that two brothers are different. The Athenian court may smile at the mechanics’ play of Pyramus and Thisbe, but they recognize it as a play. Court poetry and Folk poetry were bound by the common tie that both were made by hand and both were intended to last; the crudest ballad was as custom-built as the most esoteric sonnet. The appearance of the Public and the mass media which cater to it have destroyed naïve popular art. The sophisticated “highbrow” artist survives and can still work as he did a thousand years ago, because his audience is too small to interest the mass media. But the audience of the popular artist is the majority and this the mass media must steal from him if they are not to go bankrupt. Consequently, aside from a few comedians, the only art today is “highbrow.” What the mass media offer is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs.

The purpose of the Academy should be to encourage and nourish a richly human cultural world in which one may transcend the subhuman status of Clientele and Public without succumbing to the equally dehumanizing lure of the Highbrow.

getting real about Facebook

Nikhil Sonnad:

The solution, then, is for Facebook to change its mindset. Until now, even Facebook’s positive steps — like taking down posts inciting violence, or temporarily banning the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — have come not as the result of soul-searching, but of intense public pressure and PR fallout. Facebook only does the right thing when it’s forced to. Instead, it needs to be willing to sacrifice the goal of total connectedness and growth when this goal has a human cost; to create a decision-making process that requires Facebook leaders to check their instinctive technological optimism against the realities of human life.

Absent human considerations, Facebook will continue to bring thoughtless, banal harm to the world. The 2.5 billion people who use it, as part of their real lives, won’t put up with that forever.

My reply:

  1. Facebook will not “change its mindset.” Ever.
  2. Facebook’s “goal” is not “total connectedness,” it is the monopolization and monetization of your attention.
  3. “Facebook will continue to bring thoughtless, banal harm to the world.” Period. There are no “human considerations,” nor will there ever be.
  4. Billions of people will indeed “put up with that forever.”

I really cannot see the point of these arguments that assume the possibility that Facebook will radically reconfigure its corporate ethics. That’s like building hen houses with the hope that the local foxes will become vegetarians. The “what to do about Facebook” question must begin with the understanding that Facebook will (a) try to buy off its fiercest legislative critics and (b) make only such changes as it must to avoid being legally constrained.

the value of emotional resilience

“Trogger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead”:

Participants in the trigger warning group believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma. Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm. Warnings did not affect participants’ implicit self-identification as vulnerable, or subsequent anxiety response to less distressing content… .

Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience. Further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories.

Right — but what if you don’t think that being emotionally resilient is desirable? What if emotional resilience is perceived as a failure to feel pain with sufficient intensity?

Chuck Berry, 1958

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

CPU

from Introduction to IBM Data Processing Systems (1968)

the moral ideal

When the guide of conduct is a moral ideal we are never suffered to escape from perfection. Constantly, indeed on all occasions, the society is called upon to seek virtue as the crow flies. It may even be said that the moral life, in this form, demands a hyperoptic moral vision and encourages intense moral emulation among those who enjoy it…. And the unhappy society, with an ear for every call, certain always about what it ought to think (though it will never for long be the same thing), in action shies and plunges like a distracted animal….

Too often the excessive pursuit of one ideal leads to the exclusion of others, perhaps all others; in our eagerness to realize justice we come to forget charity, and a passion for righteousness has made many a man hard and merciless. There is indeed no ideal the pursuit of which will not lead to disillusion; chagrin waits at the end for all who take this path. Every admirable ideal has its opposite, no less admirable. Liberty or order, justice or charity, spontaneity or deliberateness, principle or circumstance, self or others, these are the kinds of dilemma with which this form of the moral life is always confronting us, making a see double by directing our attention always to abstract extremes, none of which is wholly desirable.

— Michael Oakeshott, “The Tower of Babel”

truth and lies

I’ve always had great admiration for those who, in the chaos that generally characterises the present, sensed from the start the enormous dangers of Nazi-fascism and courageously denounced it. But do we still have the capacity to be as far-seeing? Do the conditions exist today for the long view?

Sometimes I think I understand why we women increasingly read novels. Novels, when they work, use lies to tell the truth. The information marketplace, battling for an audience, tends, more and more, to transform intolerable truths into novelistic, riveting, enjoyable lies.

Elena Ferrante

unforeseen consequences

Another follow-up on my baseball post. I’m getting two kinds of feedback: (a) you’re a moron, sabermetrics is awesome, and (b) you’re absolutely right, sabermetrics is terrible.

Let me emphasize a point that I think is perfectly clear in the piece itself: I love sabermetrics. I started reading Bill James in, I think, 1981; I have written fan letters to him, Rob Neyer, and (later) Voros McCracken (for heaven’s sake); when James came up with the earliest serious attempt to evaluate fielding, Range Factor, I spent countless hours that should have been devoted to my doctoral dissertation trying to improve it — using (by the way) pencil, paper, and a TI SR-50 calculator. I was pontificating about the uselessness of assigning wins and losses to pitchers when Brian Kenny was scarcely a gleam in his father’s eye. If in those days one of those sabermetricians had offered me a job as an assistant, I would’ve dropped out of grad school in an instant.

So in many ways it has been enormously gratifying to me to see the undoubted insights and revelations of serious statistical study make their way into the practices of professional baseball. But such changes have had some unforeseen consequences, and my post was largely about those.

This, by the way, is what those of us with a conservative disposition are supposed to do: When everyone else is running to embrace some new exciting opportunity, we warn that there will be unforeseen consequences; and then, when we have been (as we always are) ignored, we help conduct the postmortem and point out what those consequences actually were. (I was, needless to say, not allowing my conservative side to have a voice when I was so absorbed in sabermetrics — but that was because I never for one second imagined that people running professional baseball organizations would pay attention.)

Now, we might actually like the new opportunity. We might think that on balance it’s worthy to be pursued. So we don’t necessarily stand athwart history shouting Stop. We might instead stand judiciously to the side and quietly ask Do you know what you’re getting into? Because there will be trade-offs. There are always trade-offs.

suffering and not triumph

Are we then to deduce that we should forget God, lay down our tools, and serve men in the Church – as though there were no Gospel? No, the right conclusion is that, remembering God, we should use our tools, proclaim the Gospel, and submit to the Church, because it is conformed to the kingdom of God. We must not, because we are fully aware of the internal opposition between the Gospel and the Church, hold ourselves aloof from the Church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility, and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it. — I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Ghost, that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart. This is the attitude to the Church engendered by the Gospel. He who hears the gospel and proclaims it does not observe the Church from outside. He neither misunderstands it and rejects it, nor understands it and – sympathizes with it. He belongs personally within the Church. But he knows also that the Church means suffering and not triumph.

— Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

The Event

An eye-opening post from Douglas Rushkoff, describing what happened when he was asked to give a talk about “the future of technology” — and ended up instead being peppered with questions by five high-powered hedge-fund managers:

They had come with questions of their own. They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern.

Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

What a world we live in.

Trollope and Brexit

Trollope’s Phineas Redux, like the other Palliser novels, has a domestic plot and a political plot, and the political plot here spins out from the decision by Mr. Daubeny, the Prime Minister, to come up with a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England. (Daubeny is a stand-in for Benjamin Disraeli, who never did anything quite like this. But we’ll set aside the real-life correspondences for this post.) This a curious, indeed a shocking, decision because Daubeny is a Conservative, and the Conservative Party in the Victorian era was very much the party of the Church. How could be betray the very heart of his constituency this way?

The answer is that in the recent election his party lost their majority, and in ordinary circumstances it would be incumbent on him to resign. So he creates extraordinary circumstances. His idea, it appears — we are not privileged to know his mind — is that most of his own party will stand with him as a matter of disciplinary obedience, while the many Liberals who have long wanted disestablishment will vote with him across party lines. Thus, on the basis of this single bill-to-come — he hasn’t produced it yet, only announced his plan to — Daubeny can remain in his place as P.M.

Some Liberals are willing to join Daubeny; some, following their leader Mr. Gresham (= Gladstone), are determined to oppose him; some are uncertain. Those uncertain ones want to see the Church disestablished — and, by the way, not necessarily because they dislike the Church: some of the most devoted churchmen in England have long wanted disestablishment in order to free the Church to preach and teach the Gospel without political interference — but they do not believe that Daubeny would do the job properly. They suspect that anyone capable of acting as cynically as Daubeny does cannot possibly carry through the process of disestablishment in a competent and appropriate way.

All of which puts me in mind of Brexit. As a strong proponent of subsidiarity, I am temperamentally disposed to welcome any effort at devolution. I’d love to see Britain freed from accountability to Brussels — and, for that matter, Scotland freed from accountability to England. (I’m even open to the restoration of the Republic of Texas — but that’s a story for another post.) I will always seek to move in the direction of localism and will always be suspicious of institutional cosmopolitanism. I am therefore supportive of Brexit in principle.

But a Brexit designed and managed by these people? I don’t think so. They are more cynical than Mr. Daubeny and less — far less — competent. It’s a feeling I often have with the Trump administration as well: even on those relatively rare occasions when I think they have a good policy in mind, I simply don’t believe that they can carry out that policy honestly, fairly, and successfully. In politics, principle is important; but good principles can produce political disasters when implemented by buffoons.

Boxes

Peter Tarka, Boxes; via Things Magazine

the blog garden

My friend Dan Cohen recently wrote,

Think about the difference between a blog post and a book: one can be tossed off in an afternoon at a coffee shop, while the other generally requires years of thought and careful writing. Not all books are perfect — far from it — but at least authors have to wrestle with their subject matter more rigorously than in any other context, look at what others have written in their area, and situate their writing within that network of thought and research.

This is absolutely true — as I know from long experience with both genres. But what if there’s a more enlightening comparison? What if, instead of comparing a book to a blog post, you compared it to a blog? If a bog post is too small to compare to a book, a blog might be too big — keep on blogging long enough and you can have enough words to fill several books. If that’s the case, then one might find it interesting to compare a book to, say, a particular tag on a long-standing blog.

An example: For some time now I’ve been thinking of writing a book about John Ruskin. And I still might. But I’ve been led to consider such a book by gradually gathering drawings and quotes by Ruskin on this blog (there are also a few Ruskin entries at Text Patterns). Suppose that, instead of architecturally writing that book, I simply contented cultivating my Ruskin garden? (See this post for the architecture/gardening distinction.) More images and more quotations, more reflection on those images and quotations. What might emerge?

Well, certainly nothing that any scholar would cite. (How would that even be done? All the handbooks to scholarly documentation are still struggling with how to cite websites and individual articles — citing tags is not even on their radar, I suspect.) But I would certainly learn a lot about Ruskin; and perhaps the sympathetic reader would also.

In some ways this would be a return to what I did a few years ago with my Gospel of the Trees site, which arose because what I wanted to say about trees just couldn’t be made to fit into a book, in part because it refused to become a linear narrative or argument and in part because it was so image-dependent and book publishers don’t like the cost of that. But the advantage of a tag over a standalone site is that each post can have other tags as well, which lead down other paths of reflection and information, in a Zettelkasten sort of way.

My friend Robin Sloan tweeted the other day — I’m not linking to it because Robin always deletes his tweets after a few days — that, despite the many calls these days to return to the good old days of Weird Indie Blogging, there are still plenty of charmingly weird things being posted on the Big Media sites, especially YouTube. Point taken: no doubt this is true. But for my purposes the problem with the Big Media sites is the absolute control they have over association: you don’t decide what is related to your post/video/audio, they do. “If you liked this you may also like….” A well-thought-out tagging system on a single blog creates chains of associated ideas, with the logic of association governed by a single mind (or in the case of a group blog, a set of intentionally connected minds). And such chains are powerful generators of intellectual and aesthetic value.

I really do think that the Back to the Blog movement, if we can call it a movement, is so timely and so important not only because we need to, as I have put it, tend the digital commons, but also because we were just beginning to figure out what blogs could do when their development was pre-empted by the rise of the big social media platforms. Given the accelerated pace at which our digital platforms have been moving in recent years, blogs may best be seen as an old, established, and now neglected technology.

I think it was also Robin Sloan who recently directed my attention to this Wikipedia page on the late Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi, who promoted what he called “Lateral Thinking with Seasoned Technology”: finding new and unexpected uses for technologies that have been around for a while and therefore (a) have clear patterns of use that you can rely on even when deviating from them, and (b) have decreased in price. Nintendo’s Wii system is the classic example in the gaming world of this way of thinking: some of us will remember that when the Wii was introduced critics were flabbergasted by its reliance on previous-generation processors with their limited graphics capabilities, and were certain that the console would be a total flop. Instead, everyone loved it.

Blogging, I want to argue, is a seasoned technology that is ripe for lateral thinking. The question for me, as I suggested in my previous post, is whether I am willing to set aside the conventional standards and expectations of my profession in order to pursue that lateral thinking — in order, that is, to give up practicing architecture and going in for a good deal of gardening.

new uses for old blogs

More ideas about ideas: Given my current interest in intellectual gardening rather than architecture, in allowing ideas to emerge rather than trying to generate them by a brute-force attack, I am reconsidering the way I have historically used my blogs, and wondering whether there’s not a better path to intellectual substance than the one I’ve been following.

This has been my M.O. going back to the relatively early days of Text Patterns, when I was working on The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction: Use the blog to generate and try out ideas, get feedback from readers, develop the ideas a little further … and then put on the brakes. But why did I put on the brakes? Because I knew that I was getting close to the point at which there would be so much of the book’s contents online that a publisher wouldn’t want to buy it. And so the idea-generating stage of the project would effectively come to an end.

Not altogether, of course; I could still write in notebooks or sketch ideas or whatever. But two things were missing: the felt need in writing a public post to achieve at least some minimal level of coherence, and the feedback from readers. Moreover, when you’ve been generating ideas using a particular method and then are forced to switch to another one, you tend to lose momentum. So effectively I found myself working with the ideas that I had generated to that point in the project — even when I didn’t feel that I had explored my chosen topics as thoroughly as I would have liked. And this happened more than once, most recently with my idea for a book on what I called Anthropocene theology.

So in these situations the limits and boundaries of my projects are set, not by the inner logic and impetus of those projects, but by the preferences of the publishing industry. But that’s a superficial take. Why, after all, should I allow the publishing industry to set those boundaries? Because in my line of work the highest-denomination currency is the book. I have my current job because of publishing books — Baylor simply would not have sought me out and hired me had I not been able to list several books on my CV.

Put it this way: If I had never blogged a single word I would have precisely the same job I have now; if I had blogged millions of words without publishing books I would not have a job.

But, you may say, at this point in my career why don’t I just do what I want? I have tenure; I have no administrative ambitions (indeed, just the reverse); I am a Distinguished Professor and there’s no such thing as an Extremely Distinguished Professor or Sun-God Professor. If I am feeling the demands of the publishing world as a heavy yoke why not just throw it off?

Well, I might. But I hesitate for two reasons, or maybe it’s one reason with two parts.

  1. My profession has never figured out what to do with online writing, except for a few peer-reviewed online journals. It is still devoted to finished products — and vetted products too, despite the manifest problems with peer review. Scholars will cite a dozen mediocre peer-reviewed published papers before they’ll cite even the most brilliant blog post.
  2. And working to the established standards of my profession is, as I have noted, what got me my current position, so that I can’t help feeling that if I were to strike out into unfamiliar writing territory I wouldn’t be keeping the implicit contract I made when I took this job.

So if I were to do the thing I am contemplating — pursue big intellectual projects all the way to their completion here on this blog — my university’s administrators would be unhappy, the publishers who want to publish my stuff would be unhappy, my magnificent literary agent would be unhappy, and some part of me would be unhappy.

But what if, by following SOP for my profession, I limit my ability to think? What if I curtail the development of ideas and end up fitting them into familiar boxes rather than following them to surprising and new and fascinating places? Isn’t that a heavy price to pay for professional adequacy?

More on all this in the next post.

we work in the dark

work

Tom Phillips

control and surrender, architecture and gardening

Eno

Tom Phillips, Brian Eno
oil on canvas
35.6 x 25.4 cm
1984-85
collection: the artist

Phillips writes:

I once devised a television project whose abbreviated ghost now forms, not inappropriately, an introduction to the film I worked on with Jake Auerbach (Artist’s Eye: Tom Phillips, BBC2 1989). The title was to be Raphael to Eno: it traced the lineage of pupil and teacher back through Frank Auerbach, Bomberg, Sickert etc. until, after an obscure group of French Peintres du Roy, it emerged via Primaticcio into the light of Raphael. Thus I find that at only twenty removes I am a pupil of Raphael. Brian Eno as a student of mine (initially at Ipswich in the early sixties) therefore continues that strange genealogy of influence as the twenty-first.

I cite that simply because it’s awesome.

The relationship between Phillips — one of whose most famous works is A Humument, an ongoing-for decades collage/manipulation/adaptation of a Victorian book — and Eno is a fascinating one in the history of aleatory or, as I prefer, emergent art.

I’ve been talking about all this with Austin Kleon — whose newspaper blackout poems are descendants or cousins of A Humument — who not only knows way more about all this than I do but who also has been posting some great stuff lately on the themes of patience, waiting, and what I recently called “re-setting your mental clock.” See for instance this post on Dave Chappelle’s willingness to wait for the ideas to show up at his door.

And of course that post circles back to Eno — so many useful thoughts about being a maker of something circle back to Eno — quoting from this article:

“Control and surrender have to be kept in balance. That’s what surfers do – take control of the situation, then be carried, then take control. In the last few thousand years, we’ve become incredibly adept technically. We’ve treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part.” Eno considers all his recent art to be a rebuttal to this attitude. “I want to rethink surrender as an active verb,” he says. “It’s not just you being escapist; it’s an active choice. I’m not saying we’ve got to stop being such controlling beings. I’m not saying we’ve got to be back-to-the-earth hippies. I’m saying something more complex.”

In another talk, one in which he also spoke of control and surrender, he developed another contrast, between creativity-as-architecture and creativity-as-gardening:

And essentially the idea there is that one is making a kind of music in the way that one might make a garden.  One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life.  And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them.  It’s characteristic of the kind of work that I do that I’m really not aware of how the final result is going to look or sound.  So in fact, I’m deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the same position as any other member of the audience.  I want to be surprised by it as well.  And indeed, I often am.

What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator.  You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together.  Gardener included.  So there’s something in the notes to this thing that says something about the difference between order and disorder.  It’s in the preface to the little catalog we have.  Which I take issue with, actually, because I think it isn’t the difference between order and disorder, it’s the difference between one understanding of order and how it comes into being, and a newer understanding of how order comes into being.

I was texting with Austin about all this earlier today:

austin

This is all good for me to reflect on right now, in this season of heat and uncertainty.

victory paper

Made by the Randolph Novelty Company in Chicago during World War II; via the Newberry Library’s Instagram

Letterbugs

William Moran, from the Newberry Library

I’m already getting some emails in response to my earlier post, and they’re incredibly generous and kind. The message tends to be: Your writings do make a difference, so please write that book! Again, that’s amazingly kind, and God bless y’all for the support. But at the risk of sounding totally ungrateful and churlish, I have to admit that that’s just the response I was afraid I would get. Afraid, because that’s a message that encourages me to consider results and effect — the kinds of considerations that are always subject to counter-evidence, and to unhealthy externalizations of the motives for writing. What I need instead is to think — and to take plenty of time to think — of what I need to do, of what projects I myself most completely believe in. Simply put: I am past the point in my career at which I can write books because other people want them. So if you would like for me to keep writing books, and if you would I bow before you, then maybe instead of exhorting me you might pray for me? If you did I would be even more in your debt.

Episcopalian exclusionism

Andrew McGowan:

It is worrisome that despite the soaring temperatures of Austin, the current Prayer Book conversations take place in an ecumenical winter. There are numerous important reasons why things have changed in our dialogues with other groups since the 1960s and ’70s, but a profound question remains largely untouched in this debate: How will our liturgy reveal and help create the unity of the Body of Christ, whose relationship with the Episcopal Church is, well, inexact and incomplete?

This shouldn’t mean we just borrow the insights of other traditions as ritual toys. One of the faintly tragic elements on display in the 1979 Prayer Book are the numerous borrowings from Orthodox liturgy, which reflect not just scholarly knowledge, but prayerful conversations with Russian and Greek scholars of the mid-20th century who were then genuine dialogue partners. It is hard to find such engagement with eastern Christianity in the Episcopal Church now, beyond the somewhat hollow testimony of facsimile icons in Church bookstores.

McGowan here identifies what I think is most worrisome about the current push for revision of the BCP: it is radically exclusionist. The Orthodox don’t matter, Catholics don’t matter, Anglicans outside of the U.S. don’t matter, non-revisionist Episcopalians don’t matter. Literally no one in the world matters except the revisionists themselves.

re-setting my mental clock

A couple of months I submitted to my brilliant agent, Christy Fletcher, a proposal for a general-interest book, a book I had been thinking of as a kind of completion of a trilogy that began with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and continued with How to Think. The three books together would distill most of what has been central to my teaching over the decades.

And then I wrote back to Christy and asked her to withdraw the proposal.

Why? Because I kept asking myself What is the point? and could not come up with any answers. As an evangelical Anglican Christian and a professor of the humanities, I have spent my adult life in service to the church and the academy, and I don’t know how anyone could look at either of those institutions right now and see them as anything but floundering, incoherent messes, helmed largely by people who seem determined to make every mess worse. I want to grab those leaders by the lapels and shout in their faces, “I’m trying to contain an outbreak here, and you’re driving the monkey to the airport!” What good has anything I’ve written ever done? Why bother writing anything else? What is the point? The monkey’s already at the airport, securely stashed in the airliner’s cargo hold, and the plane is taxiing down the runway.

Now, around the same time that I arrived at this melancholy judgment about my past and future as a writer, I also decided that I needed to make some serious changes to my encounters with social media. I deleted Twitter from my mobile devices, and, just to make sure that I couldn’t access it even from the web more than a time or two a day, scheduled daily blockages via Freedom.

Of course, this did not remove the posting itch, so I moved my social-media posts and photos away from Twitter and Instagram and to micro.blog, the wonderful new creation of Manton Reece where I can post to my heart’s content but can’t retweet, can’t be retweeted, can’t see how many followers I have — it’s amazing: just conversation without posturing or signaling or bots. (You can, and I do, cross-post to Twitter, which means that when I want to point to something cool that I’ve read I can do so to a much, much larger audience than I currently have on my micro.blog account, but, thanks to Freedom, without even being able to see whether people are liking it.)

Please do consider signing up: it’s not free (though there’s a free trial), but there are also no ads, which means that Manton has no agenda except to make the service fun and useful for his users. Also, following the example of my friends Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Dan Cohen, I connected my micro.blog to my own domain, keeping my stuff on my turf.

In related moves, I purged a number of news sites from my RSS feed, deleted Apple News from my devices, and canceled my subscription to the Washington Post (which in any case has been interspersing more and more and more Florida Man-style stories among the actual news and analysis pieces). I have come to rely on the weekly news summaries provided by, for instance, National Review and the Spectator — more leftish magazines should do this kind of thing; also monthlies and quarterlies. It would be interesting to see what the “top news stories” looked like if you could only gather them every three months.

There has been one significant consequence of all these moves, and I find it an interesting one. Curiously, though in a way logically, my escape from Twitter’s endless cycles of intermittent reinforcement and its semi-regular tsunamis has made me significantly calmer about my own future as a writer, in large part because it has re-set my mental clock. I have always told myself that I have time to think about what, if anything, I want to write next, but I haven’t really believed it, and I think that’s been due to my immersion in the time-frame of Twitter and other social media. Now that I’ve climbed out of that medium, I can give not merely notional but real assent to the truth that I have time, plenty of time, to think through what I might want to say.

And who knows, maybe I’ll even come back to that third volume of my Pedagogical Trilogy.

ages of revolution

If a man in the fullness of his days, at the end of his life, can pass on the wisdom of his experience to those who grow up after him; if what he has learned in his youth, added to but not discarded in his maturity, still serves him in his old age and is still worth teaching the then young — then his was not an age of revolution, not counting, of course, abortive revolutions. The world into which his children enter is still his world, not because it is entirely unchanged, but because the changes that did occur were gradual and limited enough for him to absorb them into his initial stock and keep abreast of them. If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise — then we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, “revolutionary.”

— Hans Jonas, from Philosophical Essays (1974), p. 46

soccer and the impediments to success

Brian Phillips:

Soccer is beautiful because soccer is hard. Most popular sports artificially enhance the human body. Soccer diminishes it. Instead of giving players a bat, a racket, protective armor, or padded gloves — tools that allow players to reach farther, return a ball faster, absorb harder hits, or hit harder themselves — soccer takes away players’ hands. It prohibits the use of the nimblest part of the body, and then it says, “Be nimble.” Moreover, because the action in soccer so seldom stops, because there are so few moments when play resets to a familiar starting point, soccer requires players to work within the limitations it imposes for much longer, and through many more situational complications, than other sports.

Clumsiness and confusion are thus inherent to the game, and this is soccer’s perverse genius, because what happens when you force people to move a ball around in a highly unnatural way is that they find a way to do it. Human ingenuity and talent manage to outwit the restrictions the game places on them. And when this happens at a high enough level — when a goal is scored after a breathtaking run, or when a series of one-touch passes makes it seem as though players are telepathically linked — then what results is beauty, because creativity and grace have momentarily overcome the forces that oppose them.

This is perfect. I might suggest that Brian’s description pairs nicely with the account of the offside rule, and the emergent complexity of on-pitch action, I give here.

and he cried when he realized that there were no more stars to exploit

MIT Technology Review:

The cosmic horizon is changing. Hooper has worked out how this will affect our neighborhood in the universe, which astronomers call the Local Group. This is the set of about 50 nearby galaxies that are gravitationally bound to the Milky Way and on course to collide sometime within the next trillion years to form a single supergalaxy. Consequently, the Local Group will be humanity’s home for the foreseeable future. Over billions of years, we might even colonize it, hopping from one star system to another and exploiting each sun’s energy along the way.

However, the accelerating expansion of the universe is sending galaxies over the horizon at a rate that is increasing. “As a result, over the next approximately 100 billion years, all stars residing beyond the Local Group will fall beyond the cosmic horizon and become not only unobservable, but entirely inaccessible,” says Hooper.

That’s a problem for an advanced civilization because it limits the number of new stars that are available to exploit. So the question that Hooper investigates is whether there is anything an advanced civilization can do to mitigate the effects of this accelerating expansion.

I have to say, this concern is high on my list also: the possibility of running out of stars for human beings to exploit.

More seriously, I am bemused by this line of thinking. Billions of humans live in poverty, are daily endangered by hunger or disease or war; we lack a cure for cancer — we lack a cure for the common cold — we lack a cure for male pattern baldness —; and yet there are people worrying that we will eventually have no more stars to plunder to satisfy our energy demands.

Well, enough of this. Time for me to get back to planning the first year of my reign as God-Emperor of Terra. Because it could happen, you know, and I’d rather not be caught unprepared.

Milton’s God (and Google’s)

Franklin Foer:

What is God? It is only a subject that has inspired some of the finest writing in the history of Western civilization—and yet the first two pages of Google results for the question are comprised almost entirely of Sweet’N Low evangelical proselytizing to the unconverted. (The first link the Google algorithm served me was from the Texas ministry, Life, Hope & Truth.) The Google search for God gets nowhere near Augustine, Maimonides, Spinoza, Luther, Russell, or Dawkins. Billy Graham is the closest that Google can manage to an important theologian or philosopher. For all its power and influence, it seems that Google can’t really be bothered to care about the quality of knowledge it dispenses. It is our primary portal to the world, but has no opinion about what it offers, even when that knowledge it offers is aggressively, offensively vapid.

If Harold Bloom or Marilynne Robinson had engineered Google, the search engine would have responded to the query with a link to the poet John Milton, who is both challenging on the subject of God and brave on the subject of free speech—and who would have been a polemical critic of our algorithmic overlords, if he had lived another four hundred years.

The Rings of Saturn

On Monday Robert Macfarlane will be hosting a Twitter book club on W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which is one of the most compelling and memorable books I have ever encountered. I’ve read it three times now and hope to read it at least twice more.

Years ago, in the first flush of my fascination with it, I bought a copy and sent it to Frederick Buechner, who, if you don’t know, is one the best writers of English now living. He read it, and wrote back to say, “I have no idea what any of that means but it is absolutely mesmerizing.” Which is a pretty good summary.

the Ministry of Amnesia

I’ve just read, with great interest, John Lanchester’s latest essay on the global financial situation, and as always, Lanchester is informative, precise, lucid, and compelling — though maybe not wholly compelling. At one point he writes,

Remember that remark made by Robert Lucas, the macroeconomist, that the central problem of depression prevention had been solved? How’s that been working out? How it’s been working out here in the UK is the longest period of declining real incomes in recorded economic history. ‘Recorded economic history’ means as far back as current techniques can reach, which is back to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Worse than the decades that followed the Napoleonic Wars, worse than the crises that followed them, worse than the financial crises that inspired Marx, worse than the Depression, worse than both world wars. That is a truly stupendous statistic and if you knew nothing about the economy, sociology or politics of a country, and were told that single fact about it – that real incomes had been falling for the longest period ever – you would expect serious convulsions in its national life.

Right — and yet — there aren’t any “serious convulsions” in the UK, or the USA for that matter, are there? Lanchester also writes, “In the US there is enormous anger at oblivious, entitled, seemingly invulnerable financial and technological elites getting ever richer as ordinary living standards stay flat in absolute terms, and in relative terms, dramatically decline.” But is the anger really so enormous? I’d say there’s not nearly as much as there ought to be, or that one would (as Lanchester suggests) expect there to be.

And many of the people who have been hit hardest by an economic system in which, Lanchester rightly says, the rich in pursuing with laser-focus their own further enrichment “have seceded from the rest of humanity,” say almost nothing about that situation but wax eloquent and wroth about the supposedly imminent danger of their being murdered by vast roaming gangs of illegal immigrants. Brexit and Trump are not about fixing economic inequality — which is why Trump’s version of populism has almost nothing to do with the “Share Our Wealth” vision of Huey Long, back in the day, but rather focuses with a passionate intensity on stoking fear of anyone and everything not-American.

So why is that? Why, though certainly there is some anger at the global-capitalist system, is there, relative to reasonable expectations, so little? Why don’t people care that, since the massively reckless incompetencies of 2008, almost nothing has changed? (Lanchester documents the insignificant of the changes very thoroughly.)

The first answer is that almost nobody — almost nobody — remembers what happened in 2008. And why don’t they remember? Because of social media and smartphones.

I cannot, of course, provide documentary proof for that claim. But as the Marxists used to say I believe it is no accident that the shaking of the foundations of the global economy and “the longest period of declining real incomes in recorded economic history” happened just as the iPhone was taking serious hold on the imagination of the developed world, and Facebook and Twitter were becoming key components of everyday life in that world. On your smartphones you can get (a) a stream of prompts for visceral wrath and fear and then (b) games and distractions that accomplish the suddenly-necessary self-soothing. Between the wrath and fear and the subsequent soothing, who can remember what happened last week, much less ten years ago? Silicon Valley serves the global capitalist order as its Ministry of Amnesia. “What is it I was so concerned about?”

re-reading Trollope

I am re-reading the Palliser novels, for the first time in 20 years, which means I have largely forgotten what happens in them, and I am reminded that Trollope really is the most underrated novelist in the world. The casualness of his manner, and his intermittent insistence is that he is telling simple and insignificant stories, disguise from us just how penetrating his mind was, how clearly he sees the inmost workings of his characters’ lives, and how justly he deals out condemnation and mercy alike. I’m reading Can You Forgive Her? right now, and there is an extraordinary moment when George Vavasor has entered Parliament, having run a successful race thanks to the money he has extracted from his cousin Alice, whom he has manipulated into agreeing to marry him though he knows perfectly well that she does not love him. So when he comes to see her immediately after his election, he begins by thanking her for her financial contribution to his success – thanks which she does not want – but then strives to extract from her some expression of affection which she knows she does not feel. And Trollope pauses in the middle of George’s conversation with Alice and says, with brutal simplicity, “He should have been more of a rascal or less.” It’s one of the most devastating comments that any novelist has made about one of his characters.

George wants to be treated as an honorable man without being one. He wants Alice to give him credit for virtues and intentions which he has in a thousand ways made it clear that he does not possess. He insists upon being given credit for traits which as soon as he walks away from her he repudiates mockingly. He should have been more of a rascal or less. He should have frankly acknowledged the terms on which he and Alice have come to an agreement, or realized that he desperately needed to amend his life. But he does neither, and by doing neither makes himself and Alice equally miserable.

Can You Forgive Her? contains plenty of the broadish comedy that Trollope did so well – the protracted attempts of the farmer Mr Cheeseacre to woo the widow Greenow really are funny, even if there is more of it than one might think ideal – but the effect of these scenes is primarily to relieve the tension of what in other respects is a rather agonizing novel to read. Some may think “Ah, well, we know that everything will turn out all right in the end” – but we do not know that, not in a Trollope novel. Some of his most appealing and memorable characters (Lady Laura Kennedy, Lily Dale) do not receive the eucatastrophic resolution we would rightly expect from a lesser writer. If you know that, you know that you cannot simply expect a happy ending for his protagonists.

Which makes it all the more delightful when they get one.

Principalities, Powers, and BLM

Eugene Rivers:

For the most part, BLM activists – like the post-1965 SNCC activists, the Black Panther Party, and assorted other radical black groups before them – exhibit little interest in, or comprehension of, the larger lessons of history. This is because they lack the deep spiritual and moral insight that must be the grounding for any sustainable movement. Having rejected the God of their fathers, they have also rejected the fatherhood of God.

This philosophical rejection is an act of spiritual and cultural suicide. Failure to discern the demonic character of white supremacy limits these activists’ ability to understand the fight they are engaged in, and hinders their efforts to develop long-term strategies. They can only describe the sadistic violence they witness and never fully understand or conquer it, so long as they ignore its spiritual source.

More importantly, they fail to use the only means of combatting the demonic: intercessory prayer. Instead, they are easily sucked into the spirit of the demonic themselves as they resort to violence, anger, and hate – a failing less common in the BLM movement than in Antifa, though the danger applies to both.

signed with that cross

Al Raboteau:

African-American Christianity has continuously confronted the nation with troubling questions about American exceptionalism. Perhaps the most troubling was this: “If Christ came as the Suffering Servant, who resembled Him more, the master or the slave?” Suffering-slave Christianity stood as a prophetic condemnation of America’s obsession with power, status, and possessions. African-American Christians perceived in American exceptionalism a dangerous tendency to turn the nation into an idol and Christianity into a clan religion. Divine election brings not preeminence, elevation, and glory, but — —as black Christians know all too well — —humiliation, suffering, and rejection. Chosenness, as reflected in the life of Jesus, led to a cross. The lives of his disciples have been signed with that cross. To be chosen, in this perspective, means joining company not with the powerful and the rich but with those who suffer: the outcast, the poor, and the despised.

where citizens were, there shall users be

Farhad Manjoo:

The real problem is that [the scooters] just appeared out of nowhere one day, suddenly seizing the sidewalks, and many citizens felt they had no real agency in the decision. They were here to stay, whatever nonusers felt about them.

Which was all by design. The scooter companies were just following Travis’s Law. In Santa Monica, Bird’s scooters appeared on city streets in September. Lawmakers balked; in December, the city filed a nine-count criminal complaint against Bird.

Bird responded with a button in its app to flood local lawmakers with emails of support. The city yielded: Bird signed a $300,000 settlement with Santa Monica, a pittance of its funding haul, and lawmakers authorized its operations.

If you love the scooters, you see nothing wrong with this. But there was a time, in America, when the government paid for infrastructure and the public had a say in important local services. With Ubers ruling the roads, Birds ruling the sidewalks, Elon Musk running our subways and Domino’s paving our roads, that age is gone.

The Atomic Theory of Human Life

To me, the most interesting and significant element of the opposition to Amy Coney Barrett is the inability of some of her critics to achieve even the most basic comprehension of the character of an organization like People of Praise. Many Americans are so thoroughly catechized into the Atomic Theory of Human Life — the belief that all significant life-decisions are properly made by autonomous monads, with only the State to set boundaries and provide a safety net — that a genuinely functional community, in which some of the burdens of decision-making are distributed throughout a network of people bound to one another by mutual affection, can only be seen as a “cult.”

Alan Jacobs is a writer who

Alan Jacobs is a writer who has a degree of talent in this app that I would love for you haven’t heard anything from the app that I would love for you haven’t seen you haven’t been able for you a couple weeks was a couple weeks is a couple weeks I would like a couple more opportunities for y’all and I will make you happy again if I can get it done

a position in life

It happens that I have practically some connexion with schools for different classes of youth; and I receive many letters from parents respecting the education of their children. In the mass of these letters I am always struck by the precedence which the idea of a “position in life” takes above all other thoughts in the parents’—more especially in the mothers’—minds. “The education befitting such and such a STATION IN LIFE”—this is the phrase, this the object, always. They never seek, as far as I can make out, an education good in itself; even the conception of abstract rightness in training rarely seems reached by the writers. But, an education “which shall keep a good coat on my son’s back;—which shall enable him to ring with confidence the visitors’ bell at double-belled doors; which shall result ultimately in establishment of a double-belled door to his own house;—in a word, which shall lead to advancement in life;—THIS we pray for on bent knees—and this is ALL we pray for.” It never seems to occur to the parents that there may be an education which, in itself, IS advancement in Life;—that any other than that may perhaps be advancement in Death; and that this essential education might be more easily got, or given, than they fancy, if they set about it in the right way; while it is for no price, and by no favour, to be got, if they set about it in the wrong.

— John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies. I know a number of people who work to recruit students to Baylor (where I now teach) and to other universities, and they have commented that it is virtually impossible to get parents interested in what kind of education, what kind of experience, their children will have in their undergraduate years. Parents only want to know whether their children will get into medical school or dental school or law school — the four years of undergraduate education are simply a very large hurdle to be leaped over to get to that STATION IN LIFE that they want for their children. Many, many parents do not care one iota about what their offspring will actually do and read and think between the ages of 18 and 22, as long as whatever it is helps (or at least does not impede) their admission to professional training.

Update: I should add that I don’t blame the parents for this — they’re being asked to pay a shocking amount of money for their children’s education, and they are desperately hoping for a return on investment. I get that. But when your job is to teach those young people, the situation is regrettable — especially since so many of the students have adopted the attitudes of their parents.

the social utility of religious freedom

Reading this post by Rod Dreher, which considers (among other things) the extent to which overt hostility towards tradition-minded Christians is a product of the Trump years or, by contrast, predates the current shitstorm — spoiler alert: it’s the latter — I was reminded of a conversation I had on Twitter some years ago with a friendly, easygoing academic acquaintance. I had posted something in relation to religious freedom, and he replied along these lines: I just want you to know that religious freedom is not something I see any value in.

I said, You know religious freedom is deeply embedded in the Constitution, right? And of course he did. And that it’s a key part of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Yeah, he knew that too. I don’t expect legal commitments to religious freedom to go away any time soon, he said, but I wish I could get rid of them. They have negative social utility.

The conversation has stuck with me primarily because, as I noted above, this is a perfectly friendly and easygoing guy, and someone that I am confident strives to treat all his students fairly, even when they’re Christian fundamentalists. But if he could wave a magic wand and eliminate all legal protections of religious freedom, he would, simply because he thinks religion in general does more harm than good. It occurred to me that there are probably millions of people like him in America, which I find a sobering thought, to say the least.

intra-Anglican ecumenism

Bishop George Sumner:

TEC and ACNA are still suing one another. The day, now foreseeable, when the suits are over, one way or another, is the day when a serious conversation between them could occur. As an Episcopalian, I would challenge my own church with this question: If we can consider full communion with Methodists, why could we not, on that post-litigious day, open ecumenical talks with our own fellow Anglicans? Perhaps the offer would be refused. But then again, a day finally came, for example, when combatants in Northern Ireland were willing to talk with one another. Could such a day come for us? Would the Archbishop of Canterbury not be an appropriate convener of such a meeting, someday, given his own evangelical commitments and his interest in reconciliation?

Let us hope.

but how far Underground?

This is amazing. Daniel Silva has created a series of maps showing just how far underground any given station of the London Underground is. Note that the brown dotted line traces the changes in ground elevation, while the blue line below shows the depth of the railway. Some of the lines (like the Victoria, above) maintain a general consistency of depth in relation to the ground, but others don’t. Silva has created a simple representation of what had to have been some very complicated engineering decisions.

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