Snakes and Ladders

by Alan Jacobs

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excerpts from my Sent folder: localism

More broadly, you should understand that I am a deeply committed localist and doubt the legitimacy of all nation-states and all ecclesiastical structures larger than the diocese (and ideally the old city-sized diocese, not the hypertrophied things we have today). I don’t think there should be any polis larger than McClennan County, and within that local structure I advocate a fruitful hybrid of distributism and anarcho-syndicalism. And yes, I’m serious.

I have sometimes said that future generations will refer to this period of history as the Late Roman Era, because church and state alike have borrowed their understanding of political action and political legitimacy from the Roman model. When the church decided that the Roman administrative structure was what it should imitate, it drank from a poisoned chalice. (Hodie venenum effusum est in ecclesiam Christi.) The church should have seen the Roman way of organizing and disciplining people across great distances as the antithesis of the ecclesia, not something to imitate.

In the first 200 years or so of the Way, the church at Rome considered itself bound to offer other churches prayer, encouragement, and sometimes money. It was first not in power but in service. Then its bishops increasingly began to demand obedience from other dioceses. That was the Original Ecclesial Sin from which we have never recovered.

Or so I think.

after the platforms

Ross Douthat:

Yes, it’s understandable for conservatives to worry that if Silicon Valley censors the likes of Molyneux, it will end up censoring them. It’s sensible for them to join parts in the left in worrying about the concentrated power over information that the stewards of social-media platforms enjoy. And it’s necessary for them to recognize that the influence of redpillers and white-identitarians reflects their own failure, across the decades of movement-conservative institution building, to create something that seems more compelling to fugitives from liberalism than the Spirit of the Reddit Thread.

With all that said, though, a humane conservatism should still be able to thrive in a world where white nationalists have trouble monetizing their extremism, in which YouTube algorithms are built to maximize something other than addiction.

I’m not sure what Ross means in the last sentence I’ve quoted by “should.” Does he mean that “humane conservatism” is likely to thrive, or that if the system is fair it ought to be able to do so? I doubt the first and doubt the conditional of the second.

Here’s the situation as I see it. First, as Alexis Madrigal has recently written, the big social media companies will from now on find it less likely to take refuge in the claim that they are “merely platforms”:

These companies are continuing to make their platform arguments, but every day brings more conflicts that they seem unprepared to resolve. The platform defense used to shut down the why questions: Why should YouTube host conspiracy content? Why should Facebook host provably false information? Facebook, YouTube, and their kin keep trying to answer, We’re platforms! But activists and legislators are now saying, So what? “I think they have proven — by not taking down something they know is false — that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election,” Nancy Pelosi said in the wake of the altered-video fracas.

If you can’t plead platform neutrality, what do you do? Well, these companies being what they are, they’ll write algorithms to try to filter content. But the algorithms will often fail — after all, they can’t tell the difference between sites that promote hatred and sites that seek to combat it.

Where does that leave you? As Will Oremus points out, it leaves you with mob rule:

What should be clear to both sides, by now, is the extent to which these massive corporations are making up the rules of online speech as they go along. In the absence of any independent standards or accountability, public opinion has become an essential part of the process by which their moderation policies evolve.

Sure, online platforms have policies and terms of service that run thousands of words, which they enforce on a mass scale via software and a bureaucratic review process. But those rules have been stitched together piecemeal and ad hoc over the years to serve the companies’ own needs — which is why they tend to collapse as soon as a high-profile controversy subjects them to public scrutiny. Caving to pressure is a bad look, but it’s an inevitable feature of a system with policies that weren’t designed to withstand pressure in the first place.

Whatever should happen to humane conservatism on the internet, I don’t know what will, but as a person who is somewhat conservative and who would like to be humane, I wish I knew. In light of all the above, one thing seems nearly certain to me: If I were on a major social media service and a vocal group of that site’s users started calling me homophobic or transphobic or a white supremacist and demanded that I be banned, I would be banned.


A little less than a year ago I wrote a post about cultivating my blog as a kind of garden. I made reference there to something I heard about from Robin Sloan, the game designer Gunpei Yokoi’s idea of “lateral thinking with seasoned technology” — taking established and perhaps unsexy technologies and finding unexpected new uses for them.

Since I wrote that post I have started a newsletter, because a email newsletter is also a seasoned technology, and I wondered if I might be able to do some things with it that I can’t do with this blog. I’m still experimenting, still learning, still looking for what will make that project sing — but I am really enjoying it so far, and getting some lovely responses from people, and this morning I realized that one of the reasons I like doing the newsletter so much is that I have (quite unconsciously) understood it as a place not to do analysis or critique but to share things that give me delight.

What brought about that realization was reading the most recent edition of Warren Ellis’s newsletter, in which he writes this:

Here’s a thing that came up in an email conversation the other week, that I don’t think I’ve ever made explicit to you: herein, I only talk about the things I like.

This was an important decision for me, made some years ago. It is great fun to annihilate something in a storm of arch Menckenesque hail, and I’ve done it in the past. But I came to the place where I questioned its utility here. If I’m spending time and space on something that is bad, then that is time and space not used to boost the awareness of something good. And that is a poor trade-off, these days.

A thousand times yes.

I mentioned earlier that I learned about “lateral thinking with seasoned technology” (LTST) from Robin Sloan, and Robin with his Year of the Meteor project is doing just that, employing Risograph printing, the U.S. Postal Service, a print-and-mail service called Lob that’s typically used by businesses for mass mailings, and who knows what else in the future.

Similarly, for his Ridgeline project, Craig Mod, while on a long-distance walk in Japan, tried sending brief messages and photos to subscribers all over the world by plain old SMS. The project ended up having some bugs, but the idea is enormously generative. As Robin wrote about Craig’s project, “Craig is always making new tools, trying new things, like the SMS experiment. Like he is really TRYING. What if 10X more people were TRYING?” I want to be one of those people who is trying, too. Trying to share things I like in unexpected ways.

excerpts from my Sent folder: civility

I think the question [of whether civility is a Christian virtue] hinges on whether “civility” is a useful shorthand proxy for a series of traits that certainly are Christian virtues: patience, forbearance, kindness, generosity, turning the other cheek, blessing those who spitefully use you, etc.

responsible scholarship and the growth of Christianity

I’ve talked a bit lately about what Christians today might be able to learn from the early church. Let’s do that again.

Celsus was a second-century Greek philosopher who, around 175 A.D., wrote an extremely thorough critique of Christianity, which he believed to be a philosophical and moral abomination. Alas, no copies of it have survived. And yet we know in detail not just what Celsus argued but also the specific words in which he argued it. How?

Because 75 years later, when a Christian theologian named Origen wrote a book called Against Celsus, he quoted his opponent often and at great length — and in such a way that we can see that Celsus knew Jewish and Christian writings and history pretty thoroughly. That is, thanks to Origen’s scholarly integrity, it is possible for readers to follow the dispute and decide that Celsus got the better of it.

In short, Celsus was scrupulously fair to the person whose ideas he wanted desperately to refute. He did not take refuge in the kinds of phrases we see so often today, from Christian and non-Christian alike: “In other words, Celsus believes…” or “In effect, Celsus is saying….” Nor does he take up the evasive strategy of “some critics have claimed” — evasive, but tempting, because you can’t be accused of misreading someone when you won’t say who you’re responding to. Origen wasn’t trying to dunk on his enemies on social media. Instead, he said: (a) Here are Celsus’s words, (b) Here’s why I think he’s wrong.

A surprising large amount of the Christian theology and philosophy produced in the period between, say, Tertullian and Augustine was extremely vigorous: responsible but also bold and imaginative, and considerably more of all of that than the pagan thought of the period. Eric Osborn, in his book The Emergence of Christian Theology, claims that the power of Christian intellectual life was a kind of secret ingredient in the faith’s phenomenal growth throughout the third century. A word to the wise — and especially to the not-yet-wise.

Rusty Reno:

Many of my friends find Donald Trump intolerable. I tell them, “He is a symptom, not a cause, of what you dislike and fear.” It’s past time for leaders of the conservative movement to acknowledge that they’re part of the problem, promoting a right-leaning liberalism that is cruel, soulless, and lacking in civic nobility. It is time for religious and social conservatives to speak up and take the lead.

Amen! So let’s get out there and demonstrate our commitment to true leadership by … attacking David French!

the theater of concurrence

Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House was one of the sensations of the nineteenth century because of its portrayal of Nora Helmer, a wife and mother who ultimately finds the confines of bourgeois life unbearable and leaves her family. Even the suggestion that Nora might be right to do so was outrageous at the time — so much so that one of Ibsen’s contemporaries said that the play “pronounced a death sentence on accepted social ethics.”

Indeed, when the play was first performed in Germany the famous actress playing Nora refused to perform the final scene: “I would never leave my children!” Since Ibsen had no copyright laws to protect his play, and anyone could change it in anyway they wished, he, with gritted teeth, wrote an alternative ending in which Nora, on the verge of departing her home, is forced to look into her children’s bedroom, whereupon she sinks to the floor in mute acknowledgment that she could never leave her children. Fade to black. Ibsen called this ending a “barbaric outrage” upon his play, but figured that changes made by other hands would have been even worse.

In 2017, a new play reached Broadway: A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath, which revisits Nora and her family fifteen years after she walked out of the “doll’s house” in which she had been kept by her husband, slamming the door behind her. And in Hnath’s sequel Nora is very glad that she left her husband and children all those years ago.

To which the shrewd critic Terry Teachout said: Well of course. Can you imagine a play on Broadway in 2017 suggesting that Nora perhaps should have swallowed her frustrations and remained to raise her children?

The favorable reception of A Doll’s House, Part 2 was as much a foregone conclusion as is its ending, which is a quintessential example of what I call the “theater of concurrence,” a genre whose practitioners take for granted that their liberal audiences already agree with them about everything. The success of such plays is contingent on the exactitude with which the author tells his audience what it wants to hear, and Hnath obliges in every particular. Above all, the viewer is never allowed to doubt that Nora was right to abandon her family for the sake of her own fulfillment.

I haven’t seen the play, but I have read it, and I don’t think Teachout is right about Hnath — though he might be right about the performance he saw. Reading Hnath’s play I found myself disliking Nora very much, especially the way she recasts her abandonment of her family in terms of heroic sacrifice. For instance, she tells the family’s servant Anne Marie about the great personal “discipline” she had to exercise in order to prevent herself from sending Christmas presents to the three children she left without a mother. How brave of you, Nora! (Later, whern Anne Marie tells Nora it was terrible for her to leave her children, Nora replies that it’s not a big deal, men leave their families all the time.)

And there’s a powerful moment when Nora meets her daughter Emmy — the daughter who doesn’t remember her because she was so young when Nora left. Emmy knows that Nora has written books denouncing the institution of marriage, and so is reluctant to tell Nora that she herself is engaged. “You think no one should get married,” she says, which Nora at first denies, but then goes into a lecture about how “Marriage is this binding contract, and love is — love has to be the opposite of a contract — love needs to be free.” And when Emmy resists this (I’m adjusting Hnath’s eccentric punctuation):

NORA: How much do you even know about marriage?
EMMY: Nothing.
NORA: Exactly.
EMMY: Because you left, I know nothing about what a marriage is and what it looks like. But I do know what the absence of it looks like, and what I want is the opposite of that.

And ultimately Emmy forces Nora to admit that the only reason Nora is speaking to her is to enlist her help in getting Torvald to give Nora a formal divorce.

This does not, to me, look like a situation in which “the viewer is never allowed to doubt that Nora was right to abandon her family for the sake of her own fulfillment.” You could perhaps play it that way. You could do something to make Emmy unattractive — in fact, perhaps the only way to make Nora seem unquestionably right is to make every other character in the play seem unquestionably awful — but Hnath’s writing is not handing you that interpretation on a platter. (Very much the same is true of his earlier play The Christians.) If the director and cast of the performance Teachout saw managed to make the play’s meaning unambiguous, then that’s a sign of how desperately the performers as well as the viewers of plays can feel the need for a “theater of concurrence” — even when the playwright wants to deny them that comfort.


The Epistle to Diognetus is a second-century letter, a brief work of Christian apologetics. In the fifth section of the letter, the author talks about what sets Christians apart from other peoples in the Roman world. Christians are peculiar, he admits that. To be sure, they live with everyone else, and in many ways they live like everyone else: they work in the same kinds of jobs, they wear the same kinds of clothes.

But they are also different in significant ways: they are sexually chaste, they don’t kill unwanted children, they are generous and committed to sharing both within their churches and with people outside those churches; and, above all, they refuse to worship the Roman gods. For these differences they are hated, and hated the more the kinder they are.

And there’s one more thing that sets the Christians apart: when they are attacked, when they are persecuted, they don’t reply in kind. Others say to the Christians, “You are my enemy”; Christians say to the others, “You are my neighbor.”

Were they wrong to live this way?

The best scholarly estimates we have — I’ve seen these numbers in several places but most recently in Larry Hurtado’s book Destroyer of the Gods — suggest the following:

  • In 40 A.D. there were about a thousand Christians
  • In 100 A.D. no more than ten thousand
  • In 200 A.D. around two hundred thousand
  • In 300 A.D. around six million

Note that the stratospheric growth occurs before Constantine, and in a period of intermittent persecution.

Here’s a passage from an essay by the theologian Brad East:

In Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, Paul Griffiths imagines what it might mean for the final rest (quies) of heaven to be enacted by the church in via. His proposal is a particular kind of quietism: a quietism, that is, “with respect to political interest, not with respect to politics simpliciter.” It is a quietism “of consequentialist interest in the consequences of political advocacy, a cultivation of a sancta indifferentia” regarding the narrowly measurable and altogether unknowable effects of political advocacy — advocacy that Christians should continue, note, but because of the intrinsic rightness of the cause, or because of a policy’s beauty or fittingness, or because the Lord wills it. Not because “studies show …” Such “quietist ascesis of political interest in the consequences of what we advocate in the sphere of politics” is one pole of a continuum. The other pole is Vox.

In a follow-up blog post, East writes:

The martyrs teach us, at a minimum, that sometimes letting go is more faithful than fighting, dying more faithful than continuing to live. The first three centuries of the church’s life attest to the vitality of this witness precisely in the arena of politics, as does the church’s experience across the globe at present and in recent centuries.

The martyrs were not doormats, and martyrdom is not despair or acquiescence before evil or persecution. It is the power of the cross made manifest in the world. Surely that power has a word to speak to our moment, and to the dispute alluded to above. If we listened, what might it say?

Quick addendum to my previous post: As much as I am convinced that hegemonic liberalism will never be fair to even vaguely traditionalist religious believers, I’m not convinced that I personally would be any better off in Ahmari’s Utopia of Enforced Orthodoxy. I joked to a friend today that I’ve been able to get my hands on the initial sketches by the staff of First Things for the social order they’ll impose when they take over and enforce [their] orthodoxy and it looks like this: 

Senatores: Catholics
Equites: Orthodox
Plebs: atheists
Proletarii: Protestants

At least I think I’m joking. I’m truly not sure whether hegemonic liberalism or Orthodox Utopia would be more likely to let me keep my children. But hegemonic liberalism is happening now and Ahmari’s vision (like that of the Catholic integralists, if there’s a difference) hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in Hell. 

fair play to you

I’m getting a good bit of email today, most of it saying, in cleaned-up language: How dare you accuse us on the left of not playing fair, you Trump-supporting jerk?? (Maybe try entering “Trump” in the search box on this site?) Here’s why I say what I said, courtesy of my colleague Frank Beckwith

For the political liberal, the government should not only restrain its hand on matters of moral controversy, it should in some cases go out of its way to offer exemptions to generally applicable laws to idiosyncratic sects for the sake of civic peace (e.g. conscientious exemption statutes, Wisconsin v. Yoder, Sherbert v. Verner). But for the hegemonic liberal, the role of the state is to make men moral, as he understands morality. It is to scrupulously enforce “social justice” by direct coercion of the actions, speech, and private associations of those who remain unconvinced of the wisdom of the left side of the culture war. So, for example, the Little Sisters of the Poor must assist in providing contraception contrary to their Church’s teachings, a Christian baker must use her talents to help celebrate what she believes is a faux liturgical event or face crippling fines, and a religious college may have to set aside its moral theology or be singled out for special retribution by the government. 

(Go to the original to read the whole thing and get the links.) (Also read other posts on this site tagged “religious freedom.”) And that trend has continued. Conscience exemptions ain’t what they used to be — about that there is surely no disagreement. The dispute is simply whether that’s good or bad. For many on the secular left — for, as far as I can tell, the significant majority, though numbers on this are hard to come by —, the elimination of religious-conscience protections is a wholly good thing. But it’s indubitable that the goalposts have moved dramatically in the past decade — remember, in 2008 few Democratic voters were bothered that Barack Obama didn’t support same-sex marriage — so that religious commitments that were legally acceptable (if socially disapproved) from time out of mind have very quickly become altogether forbidden. For the (declining) “political liberal” fairness towards religious conscience was a virtue; for the (ascendent) “hegemonic liberal” it’s a vice. 

There’s a conversation on these matters that I’ve had a number of times, and it goes something like this:

Me: I’m concerned about the erosion of support on the left for religious liberty.

They: That’s a disgraceful calumny, we are passionately devoted to religious liberty.

Me: Only when you agree with, or at least are not offended by, the religious beliefs involved.

They: Another disgusting lie!

Me: So what do you think about that Masterpiece Cakeshop guy?

They: What a bigot! I hope the law comes down on him like a ton of bricks.

Me: But he says he’s acting out of his long-held religious convictions.

They: I despise it when people use religion to cover for their bigotry.

Me: So it’s like I said, you only support religious liberty when you agree with, or at least are not offended by, the beliefs involved — the ones you think are not bigoted.

They: Bigotry and religion are not the same thing! Religion is about a person’s relationship with whatever God they happen to believe in, it’s not about passing judgment on their neighbors.

Me: So having claimed the right to define what bigotry is, you’re now defining what religion is?

They: Look, you can go ahead and defend bigotry if you want to, but thank goodness there are laws against that in this country.

I’ve been trying to remember what these conversations remind me of and I finally figured it out. It’s this:

“And you can’t get away from it that, fundamentally, Jeeves’s idea is sound. In a striking costume like Mephistopheles, I might quite easily pull off something pretty impressive. Colour does make a difference. Look at newts. During the courting season the male newt is brilliantly coloured. It helps him a lot.”

“But you aren’t a male newt.”

“I wish I were. Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semi-circle. I could do that on my head. No, you wouldn’t find me grousing if I were a male newt.”

“But if you were a male newt, Madeline Bassett wouldn’t look at you. Not with the eye of love, I mean.”

“She would, if she were a female newt.”

“But she isn’t a female newt.”

“No, but suppose she was.”

“Well, if she was, you wouldn’t be in love with her.”

“Yes, I would, if I were a male newt.”

A slight throbbing about the temples told me that this discussion had reached saturation point.

Ahmari revisited

This morning I have a post up at the Atlantic website on the scuffle Sohrab Amari kicked off with his recent attacks on David French. I want to add some cars to that train in the form of two sets of questions, and then a caboose.

First, though, I want to emphasize something that I said in passing in that post: that I basically share Ahmari’s view that the liberal order has become the Bad Liberalism — “tyrannical liberalism” — Neuhaus feared, and I agree that proceduralism is dying, is mostly dead maybe. Here’s one post, on matters closely related to the ones I’m dealing with today; and here’s the logic of Bad Liberalism in brief summary; and here’s a moment in which I grow nostalgic for a Proceduralism Lost. My critique does not concern Ahmari’s diagnosis, but rather some elements of his prescription. So, on to the questions.

First: Ahmari’s essay isn’t just a critique of David French – it contains a positive program as well:

Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.

And when you recognize your moral duty, you will realize that your job is “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

Nothing about this is clear.

  • Who are the “we” implied in “our order and our orthodoxy”? Social conservatives? Religious social conservatives? Christian social conservatives? Catholic social conservatives? What about Muslim social conservatives? What about faithful Catholics who aren’t social conservatives? Who, in short, gets access to the control room?
  • Who is “the enemy”? This would be determined, I guess, by how you answer the questions above, but I wonder if David French — and any other Christian who defends the liberal social order — belongs to the enemy. (Probably not? Probably French is just an unreliable ally, like Mussolini to Hitler?)
  • How, specifically, would “we” “enforce our orthodoxy”? Would atheists be denied citizenship, or have their civil rights abridged in some way? And by what means would this enforcement be achieved? “Weakening or destroying their institutions” presumably means, for instance, something more dramatic than, say, removing federal funding from Planned Parenthood — so, maybe, finding legal means to punish systemically left-wing companies like those in Hollywood and Silicon Valley? But even that doesn’t seem nearly enough….

Unpacking that last bullet point: I’m going to assume that Ahmari is not counting on an angelic army to descend and impose the reordering of the public square to the Highest Good; I’m also going to assume that he’s not advocating a coup by the American armed forces. I think that leaves winning a great many elections and winning them by large majorities. (I mean, reordering the public square to the Highest Good is not something that could possibly be accomplished without amendments to the Constitution.) And that leads me to my …

Second question: If you believe that there is a “crisis facing religious conservatives” arising from the dominance of a tyrannical liberalism, and you want to defeat those enemies, drive them before you, and hear the lamentations of their (trans) women, how, exactly, do you further that goal by attacking … David French? What precisely is the strategic benefit of that? If you’re Ahmari, don’t you need people like French on your side? Or do you think you’re such a massive movement that you can do without people like French? Or do you think that French will be abashed by the incisiveness of your attack, your mockery of “Pastor French,” and will come over to your side, ultimately meekly submitting to the claims of the Catholic Magisterium? Or do you think that other people will read your attack and think “Wow, just look at how Ahmari dealt with that pathetic loser French, I want to be on his side”? Seriously: How’s this supposed to work?

And now the caboose — something I said in my essay that I want to re-emphasize here. I noted earlier that I largely agree with Ahmari that there is a “crisis facing religious conservatives.” But I dissent from his claim that Christians should let the urgency of the situation determine their behavior. (“It is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of [French’s] that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives.”) If David French is right that civility and decency are commanded to Christians, then they are always commanded to us. We don’t get to set aside the commandments of God when we find them “unsuitable” to the demands of the present moment. That way tyranny lies, and a tyranny that clothes itself in (misdirected) obedience.

In these contexts, and especially when I am feeling discouraged about the course of events, I often think of a passage from the Lord of the Rings, the moment when Eomer of Rohan meets Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas. Eomer:

‘It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’

‘As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.’

P.S. For a further exposition of the two liberalisms that Father Neuhaus discussed — “political liberalism” and “hegemonic liberalism” — see this essay by my friend and colleague Frank Beckwith.

to put the point plainly

Nolan Lawson:

Get off of Twitter.

You can’t criticize Twitter on Twitter. It just doesn’t work. The medium is the message.

There’s an old joke where one fish says to the other, “How’s the water today?” And the fish responds, “What’s water?” On Twitter, you might ask, “How’s the outrage today?” (The answer, of course, is “I hate it! I’m so outraged about it!”)

Get off of Twitter.

Wait, have I said this before? Maybe only two or three hundred times. 

But here’s why I keep saying it: The decision to be on Twitter (or Facebook, etc.) is not simply a personal choice. It has run-on effects for you but also for others. When you use the big social media platforms you contribute to their power and influence, and you deplete the energy and value of the open web. You make things worse for everyone. I truly believe that. Which is why I’m so obnoxiously repetitive on this point.

Just give it a try: suspend your Big Social Media accounts and devote some time to the open web, to a blog of your own — maybe to micro.blog as an easy, simple way in. Give it a try and see if you’re not happier. I know I am. 

Middle-Aged Moralists

When C. S. Lewis gave the Memorial Address at King’s College, London in 1944 — the occasion being very like an American university commencement — he began by commenting, “When you invite a middle-aged moralist to address you, I suppose I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralising. I shall do my best to gratify it.”

It was a shrewd move. Lewis himself always loathed the pompous didacticism he had found endemic to the English educational system, and expected that his audience would too. “Everyone knows what a middle-aged moralist of my type warns his juniors against. He warns them against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.” But with a smile on his face, he declared that he would play to type: “I shall, in fact, give you advice about the world in which you are going to live.”

Let’s fast-forward about sixty years, to a commencement address at Stanford University. The speaker this time is not a professor but rather a businessman named Steve Jobs, and he makes it clear from the outset that he’ll not be doing any “middle-aged moralising.” Rather, he says, “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”

And yet it’s not clear, when you think about it, that Jobs’s message is any less moralistic than Lewis’s. It just bears a different moral.

Lewis warns his listeners against the power of what he calls the “Inner Ring” — the desire to belong to a certain admirable group, to be allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table — because he believes that, among all our desires, that one is the most likely to make un-wicked people do wicked things.

Jobs also warns his listeners, but warns them not to allow Death, when he knocks on their door, to find them “living someone else’s life.” Lewis points to the dangers of letting the desire to belong make you a “scoundrel,” and while Jobs too thinks others can endanger us, he frames that danger very differently: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

This is the permissible moralism of 2005: College graduates can be exhorted, but not to the old-fashioned virtues that Lewis implicitly appeals to, but rather to self-fulfillment: For Jobs, what is “most important” is this: “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

This makes a neat story, once which can be read either as emancipation from constricting rules or as a decline into egotism. But the story gets slightly more complex if we look at one more middle-aged moralist: David Foster Wallace.

Wallace was, I’d say, barely middle-aged when he delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College just a few weeks before Jobs spoke at Stanford: he was 43. (Jobs was 50, and when Lewis gave his “Inner Ring” address he was 45.) If Lewis acknowledges that the genre invites moralism and cheerfully accepts the invitation, and Jobs disavows moralism but delivers it anyway, in a new form, Wallace seems almost desperate to avoid any such thing.

Having begun with a little story about fish, he continues, “If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish.” Then: “But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called ‘virtues.’” And: “Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re ‘supposed to’ think this way.” Finally: “Obviously, you can think of [this talk] whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon.” Please.

Yet for all those disavowals, Wallace’s speech may be the most passionately moralistic of them all, though in a complex way. He tells us to be suspicious of that inner inner voice that Jobs wants us to listen to, because that voice always says the same thing: “There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.” Consequently, our “natural, hard-wired default setting … is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

And why should we want to think otherwise? Why should we turn outward? Not in order to avoid becoming scoundrels, Wallace says, but because such other-directedness can bring us freedom. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”

Substantively, it seems to me, Wallace’s ethic is far closer to that of Lewis than to that of Jobs, though he and Jobs were near-contemporaries and formed by much the same culture. (Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters was one of Wallace’s favorite books.) But he could not, and knew he could not, speak as Lewis spoke — even with an ironic nod towards the inevitable clichés of the commencement-speech genre.

Universities still invite middle-aged moralists (professors rarely, writers and business leaders more often) to give speeches to their graduating students, even though those students are generally inoculated against middle-aged moralism — the moralism of self-fulfillment always excepted. What’s remarkable about Wallace’s speech, which has become the great canonical example of the genre, is that he found a way to rescue the occasion; and that he rescued it by pretending to refuse it.

activists and administrators

Conor Friedersdorf on “an under-appreciated tension in the approach of today’s student activists, who simultaneously express outrage at the bad behavior of administrative bureaucracies — and fight to expand their size and power.” So students join with administrators in the belief that the fix for pretty much everything on college campuses today is: Hire more administrators.

Faculty have always been odd, but increasingly we’re the odd people out in the current university, with our belief in “free inquiry” and “critical thinking” and “intellectual curiosity” and crap like that. Which, I suppose, is why our numbers are decreasing while those of administrators continue to skyrocket. Our ideas of what college is for have been quite thoroughly repudiated by the market.

So, verdict rendered. But: beware the corporate monster.

waking into the world

Auden’s single greatest poetic achievement, I think, is his sequence “Horae Canonicae,” which begins with the first hour of the prayerful day, Prime. Here is a stanza from Auden’s poem in which he describes something that always interested him, the experience of waking up:

Holy this moment, wholly in the right,
As, in complete obedience
To the light’s laconic outcry, next
As a sheet, near as a wall,
Out there as a mountain’s poise of stone,
The world is present, about,
And I know that I am, here, not alone
But with a world and rejoice
Unvexed, for the will has still to claim
This adjacent arm as my own,
The memory to name me, resume
Its routine of praise and blame
And smiling to me is this instant while
Still the day is intact, and I
The Adam sinless in our beginning,
Adam still previous to any act.

Most of Auden’s critics know that he read Heidegger, and it’s easy to hear here an echo of Heidegger’s idea of “being thrown” (Geworfen) into the world. John Fuller also finds here echoes of Husserl and Paul Valéry. And all that may be true, but I wonder if there might be another source: Beowulf.

In the genealogical section with which Beowulf begins, we’re told that Halfdane had four children, though that’s not quite how the poet puts it. The poet says that four bearn — as some Scots still say, bairns — “woke into the world”:

ðaém féower bearn | forðgerímed
in worold wócun

And isn’t that what Auden is talking about? The daily birth, the daily waking into the world.

Maybe, maybe not. But it would be very characteristic of Auden to write a poem which blends an idea of Heidegger’s with a phrase made by the Beowulf poet.

Also, if when we are born we wake into the world, in death, we part from it: worulde gedál. That word gedál means “parting” or “separation,” but the Germanic root also means “valley.” When we die we are parted from the world: we take a last look at it, perhaps, across the great valley that separates us. Late in Auden’s sequence, at the hour of Compline, as he moves towards sleep at the end of a day that has seen the incomprehensible sacrifice of “our victim,” he writes:

Nothing is with me now but a sound,
A heart’s rhythm, a sense of stars
Leisurely walking around, and both
Talk a language of motion
I can measure but not read: maybe
My heart is confessing her part
In what happened to us from noon till three,
That constellations indeed
Sing of some hilarity beyond
All liking and happening,
But, knowing I neither know what they know
Nor what I ought to know, scorning
All vain fornications of fancy,
Now let me, blessing them both
For the sweetness of their cassations,
Accept our separations.


I very much enjoyed this tribute to HyperCard. I kept all the research notes for most of my early essays and my first book in HyperCard. And I wrote in Word 5.1. It was a really great system — I’m not sure I have ever had a better one since.

death recorded

This is certainly an embarrassing moment for Naomi Wolf, but I ain’t gloating, for reasons I spelled out in this recent post. In this case, the author in me, who feels for fellow authors who have made mistakes, is a lot stronger than the conservative in me who likes to see leftish prejudices (especially about the past) confuted.

In How to Think I wrote about the power of what C. S. Lewis called the Inner Ring: “Once we are drawn in, and allowed in, once we’re part of the Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post hoc rationalizations that confirm our group identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those who are Outside, who are Not Us.” Wolf’s mistake looks like a classic example of that very kind of confirmation bias: See, those people from the past are every bit as nasty as we thought they were! And certainly Wolf and editors should learn something about assumptions that too readily confirm their priors.

But: Wouldn’t you — wouldn’t anyone — assume that the phrase “death recorded” means “death sentence carried out”? I know that’s what I would assume. Now, someone might say, “Well, she should have looked it up.” But we only look words or phrases up when we have reason to think that we have misunderstood them. Wolf fell victim to what C. S. Lewis (there he is again), in his book Studies in Words, called the “dangerous sense” of an old word or phrase:

The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.

Words don’t tell you that they mean something other than what you assume they mean. When our assumption “makes tolerable sense” of a text’s meaning we don’t pause — we have no reason to pause. And that’s why, though I have no high opinion of Naomi Wolf as a thinker or writer, in this case I simply I feel sorry for her.

UPDATE: Or am I being too generous? The fact that she chastised earlier historians for getting it wrong inclines me to less sympathy. If, as an amateur historian, you see professional historians making a claim that your own research leads you to doubt, then surely you should double-check your findings. As I say above, it’s reasonable that the term “death recorded” would raise no alarms; but it’s far less reasonable to blithely assume that all previous professional historians simply missed information that was there to be read.

plain text and WordPress

Here’s something I often find myself wanting to do: write plain-text files in a text editor using Markdown and then publish directly to WordPress. As far as I can tell, there’s only one way to do that on the Mac: Byword.

There are other apps that give you some of what I want: for instance, you can publish directly from MarsEdit, which is a great app, but it’s a full-scale blogging engine with a database, not an editor of simple text files, and while you can write there in Markdown, you don’t get syntax highlighting. iA Writer is a beautiful environment to write in — its bespoke typefaces (Mono, Duo, Quattro) really are a delight to the eyes — but when you’re ready to publish in WordPress it opens a draft in your default browser using WordPress’s horrifically ugly and user-unfriendly editing environment. And avoiding opening WordPress is one of my chief goals in life. Ulysses lets you publish directly to WordPress but it saves your files as weird little .ulysses packages, and while you can extract your text files from them, that’s a pain, and you can’t use your own file and folder structure.

As far as I can tell, on iOS Ulysses and Byword are the primary options for posting directly, and Byword only allows you to choose from five typefaces only, the single monospace option being Courier, and I don’t especially like Courier. I’ve been trying to do this in Drafts, through Drafts actions or Shortcuts or some combination thereof, and I’m sure someone with more skills than mine could make that happen, but to this point I have failed. Though I can post to micro.blog directly from Drafts, which is nice. But Drafts saves its files to a database. I want individual text files because you can open and edit them on any computer in a myriad of apps.

I’m writing this on my iPad in iA Writer, and I suppose that when I’m ready to publish I’ll open it in Byword and publish from there, but that’s a lame workaround. Given the ubiquity of WordPress, this ought to be easier.

Musée à croissance illimitée


Thanks to that excellent blog Futility Closet I’ve learned about Le Corbusier’s idea for a Musée à croissance illimitée, a museum “that would grow like a snail’s shell, coiling in a rectangular spiral as needs required and as funds became available.” Corbu explained that “Every time a visitor, in the course of his wanderings, finds himself under a lowered ceiling he will see, on one side, an exit to the garden, and on the opposite side, the way to the central hall. The Museum can be developed to a considerable length without the square spiral becoming a labyrinth.”

This strikes me as a wonderful model for developing a complex set of ideas over time, and one for which the blog, or more generally the hyperlinked online site, is especially well-suited. As a number of commentators have pointed out, this is what Walter Bemjamin was doing with his Arcades project, which was hypertext before hypertext: “the theater,” he said, “of all my struggles and all my ideas,” precisely because it was necessarily unordered and unfinished. When Arcades was published in book form, many critics complained about the way it was ordered, but of course any and every ordering was subject to the same criticism. The very idea of the project defies the structuring of the codex.

For some years I wanted to write a book called The Gospel of the Trees, but couldn’t make it cohere into a linear form, and a finally realized that it would be better as a website comprised of text and images that can only be navigated randomly. That project is only somewhat Benjaminesque, because while it’s nonlinear and (theoretically) open-ended, it has a single theme, whereas Arcades represents all of Benjamin’s thinking.

I like writing books, and my employer likes for me to write books, but I really do think that if I were independently wealthy I’d spend the rest of my life making my own universal, non-linear Musée à croissance illimitée right here on this blog. And see, after many years, what it all adds up to.

voting with the Sparrows

From the new issue of the Economist:

A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, divides Europe’s voters into four groups named catchily, if not entirely convincingly, for factions from “Game of Thrones”, a television series about failures in governance. People confident in both their national governments and the EU sit in the stalwart House of Stark; those who think that their country is broken but that Europe works are Daeneryses. Both will tend towards incrementalism. Those confident in their national government but not the EU are the Free Folk: those who think both are broken are the millenarian Sparrows. Both those factions tend towards radical reform.

If I were English I’d definitely be a Sparrow.

the shy voter problem

Tom Switzer

In 2016 U.S. pollsters had to deal with the “shy Trump” factor. People feared admitting they’d vote for the Republican nominee because he was socially unacceptable. The same dynamic was at work in Britain during the 2016 referendum on whether to leave the European Union. Polls pointed to a Remain victory, but millions of shy Brexiteers crept into the polling booths and voted Leave. By depicting its opponents as backward and deplorable, the left intimidated them into going underground, making it impossible to gauge their strength before an election.

Shy voters now shape Australian politics. During the past three years, television and social-media outlets created a climate of opinion in which it was politically incorrect to oppose identity politics, high taxes, wealth redistribution and costly climate-mitigation policies. In the privacy of the voting booth, “quiet Australians,” as Mr. Morrison calls them, decided that their interests lay in a low-tax and resource-rich market economy. 

Prediction: Increasing calls from the left for ending the secret ballot. “People should have to take responsibility for their votes!” Intimidating the non-woke and moderates into silence has, generally speaking, worked throughout the English-speaking world; intimidating them into voting “correctly” has not. When faced the the choice between (a) abandoning the strategy of mocking and belittling all the unconvinced and (b) changing laws to make mockery and belittlement more effective, I bet I know which way many, and especially the most vocal, of the left will turn. 

indie web in the New Yorker

As a consistent and perhaps obnoxious advocate for the open web — see here and especially here — I was thrilled to see this article by Cal Newport, and more than thrilled to see the shout-out to micro.blog. Please come check it out, along with me.

Just one point for now: Newport writes, “Despite its advantages, however, I suspect that the IndieWeb will not succeed in replacing existing social-media platforms at their current scale.” This is precisely right, but as I commented a few weeks ago, that’s a feature, not a bug. Scale is the enemy.

reasonably worthwhile blog posts from last year

It occurred to me recently that I do a lousy job of keeping track of my own blog posts — I regularly forget that I have written about something, and occasionally I discover a post that it would have been useful to me to remember. So I’m going to start keeping better records. As a beginning, here are the posts I wrote in 2018 that I want to remember:

“the corporate monster is always the corporate monster”

That’s the basic idea, that power is power always and that it’s exceedingly unwise to presume that power stops being power when you want to access it. So take student protesters. When they go begging to the campus administration to solve their problems, they are forgetting that power is always power. It happens that the peculiar financial dynamics of elite universities means that administrators will often side with students. But that should only make students more suspicious and less likely to supplicate before the administrators; they are most certainly not doing what students want out of an authentic endorsement of the principles the students fight for. When Screaming Woke Twitter asks Twitter, the huge evil Silicon Valley corporation, to censor someone, they are forgetting that the corporate monster is always the corporate monster. Sure, they might give you what you think you want in the short term. But you’re writing a check, and they will cash it.

It should go without saying: running to someone else’s boss to get them fired means that you’re validating and endorsing the power of bosses. You don’t get to pick and choose. You believe in the boss having arbitrary power over people or you don’t. That’s it.

Freddie deBoer. Cf. this recent post of mine that I still need to revisit and correct.

Screen Shot 2019 05 17 at 7 59 07 AM

I first saw this as “Biblical Safety Glasses” and now I’m thinking that there should definitely be such a thing: spectacles that protect readers from offensive or overly challenging passages in the Bible. 

This essay by James Carroll arguing for the abolition of the Catholic priesthood — and, along the way, almost as an afterthought, the whole Magisterium — is a good reminder of why it can be so hard to have a productive debate with progressives (whether religious or political or both). In Carroll’s telling, the complete transformation of the Church along lines that he prefers is (a) absolutely necessary, (b) absolutely inevitable, and (c) cost-free — everything that he hates about there Church will disappear while everything that he likes will remain. To someone like Carroll, resistance to his plan is not only futile, it’s pointless at best and at worst wicked. What’s to debate?  

James Madison

Last week when I was in Virginia I got to visit James Madison’s home Montpelier. Madison has long been my favorite of the Founders, but during my visit I realized that I had never read a complete biography of him. I have now remedied that by reading Richard Brookhiser’s concise and vigorous narrative, and I am moved to contemplate the extraordinary success that Madison had at guiding groups of politicians towards his preferred ends. Though he spent eight years as President and, before that, eight years as Jefferson’s Secretary of State, he belonged by temperament and character to the legislative rather than the executive branch. He was an unprepossessing figure, at just over five feet tall and a hundred pounds, and had a weak voice, but no greater committee man has ever lived. In a later era he would surely have been the greatest of American Senators.

It seems to me that there are three traits that, in combination, set Madison apart from his contemporaries and from almost every leading political figure before since.

First, he simply worked harder than anyone else. When he was chosen a delegate to the Constitutional Convention he arrived several days early to scope out the area and make relevant connections; each day of the convention — and unlike many other delegates who came and went, some of whom took lengthy vacations from the proceedings when the weather got hot, he was there every damned day — he arrived early, got a choice seat and then took incredibly extensive shorthand notes to document every single thing that happened in each of those meetings. (He would even check with other delegates to make sure that he had taken down their words accurately. This gave him a well-earned reputation for scrupulousness, which he later made good use of: he would always quote with absolute faithfulness from his notes — but was also shrewdly selective in what he chose to share. )

Second, Madison made himself the best informed person at every meeting. Even people who hated Madison acknowledged that he always had more information at his disposal than anyone else. Long before before the Convention began he wrote to Jefferson, who was in Paris, to ask him for books on government and political history. Jefferson sent two hundred volumes, which Madison devoted months to reading, annotating, and sifting. This was simply characteristic.

Third, he didn’t care who got credit. Madison was happy to let other people stand up to make noble speeches on behalf of some cause that he advocated, and to receive great applause — as long as he determined the content of those speeches.

These are all lessons worth learning, it seems to me.

Finally, I was taken by this passage from the end of Brookhiser’s biography:

Madison lies in the family cemetery, a five-minute walk from the front door of Montpelier; the graveyard was more convenient to the original house on the property, which the Madisons vacated when he was a boy. His grave is in a corner of the plot, marked by an obelisk; the shaft surmounts a blocky base, simply inscribed MADISON, along with his dates.

When it was first shown to me, I learned that the stone was not contemporary with his burial, but had been put up in 1857, twenty-one years later. What was his original marker, I asked. There was none, I was told; your marker was your family plot. Your dead relatives indicated who you were, and your living ones would remember where you were.


Almost everyone knows that one of the great banes of online life is unsolicited advice. The compulsion some people feel to advise strangers is a continual puzzlement to me. You can see it especially vividly when someone says online that she really likes X or is very much enjoying Y, where X and Y can be anything from moisturizer to a typeface. Immediately someone will hop up and say, “Have you tried Z?” — or, worse, “You should try Z.” Why should she try Z? She just told you that she’s happy with X. Leave her to her enjoyment, you obnoxious person.

But as Agnes Callard points out in this excellent essay, the giving of advice is as fraught an activity when you’re being asked for it.

When starry-eyed students come to my office to ask for tips and strategies for becoming a philosopher, I find myself cringing in anticipation of the drivel I am about to spout. My advice isn’t “bad” in the sense that it will lead them astray, but it is bad nonetheless, in that it won’t lead them anywhere. It’s as though right before I give the advice, I push a button that sucks all the informational content out of what I’m about to say, and I end up saying basically nothing at all.

And then, later in the essay:

I do not have tips or tricks for becoming a philosopher to hand over to my students; my wisdom is contained in the slog of philosophical argument — the daily grind of reading old books, picking out the premises, tearing them apart. I can make you better at that, by showing you how to do more of this and less of that. I can’t help you become a philosopher without being your philosophy teacher, any more than I can massage you without touching you. Someone who wiggles her fingers and pretends she has magical powers isn’t actually getting you anywhere.

I think this is right, and what it suggests to me is something along these lines: Useful advice can only be given in response to a very specific question. “How can I become a philosopher?” (or, as I often hear, “How can I become a writer?”) is so vague and abstract a question that no meaningful answer is possible. But if you ask me “Does this sentence make sense?” or “How am I supposed to read this article?” or “Is this a good letter of application?” then perhaps I can help.

glitches, brain farts, errors

When you publish a book and look back over it later, you will find that some things are wrong. Those wrongnesses come in three varieties:

  1. Mechanical glitches: typos and malformatting.
  2. Brain farts.
  3. Actual errors.

People who have not published books are often appalled at typos, because they think their presence means that the book has been proofread carelessly or not at all. And sometimes proofreading can indeed be careless. But no reputable publisher wants books to go out with typos, so typescripts get read by several people — the author, the proofreader and/or copy editor, the book editor — and each of them pores over the typescript (and later the typeset text) several times. And yet some typos, and similar errors, always remain.

On the first page of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude the gypsy Melquiades comes to Macondo carrying powerful magnets, which pull all sorts of metal things along behind them, and “even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most.” Typos are like that: they appear from where they had been searched for most. At times you’re tempted to attribute them to poltergeists. When you see them you make a note to correct them in future editions (should you be so fortunate as to have a future edition), shrug, and move on with your life.

I think of typos as mechanical problems: glitches in the mechanics of typing. These can happen in formatting too. One of the most peculiar problems I have experienced happened in the printing of my Theology of Reading, where the last two pages of the footnotes got flipped. They’re accurate but out of order. Once someone wrote to me in high dudgeon, claiming that some footnotes in the last chapter were missing and that that demonstrated my carelessness as a scholar. When I explained what had happened he wrote back in still higher dudgeon that it was outrageous that I had “allowed” so gross an error to get through. I replied that I was not present when the book was printed.

Then, sometimes you just get things wrong. Maybe you got your notes mixed up and attribute a quotation to the wrong person, maybe you thought you knew something you did not in fact know. When such errors are called to my attention, I smile a grim smile, make a note to correct the mistake in a future printing, and inwardly pledge to do better the next time.

But brain farts are the worst. A brain fart happens when you know the right thing but somehow write the wrong thing. One reviewer of my biography of the Book of Common Prayer declared that I was clearly out of my depth because I thought that Thomas Cranmer had studied at Jesus College Oxford, rather than Jesus College Cambridge. Of course I knew that Cranmer was a Cambridge man! He spent nearly thirty years at Cambridge! How could I not know that? I just had a brain fart! Thinks the skeptical reviewer, Sure you did, buddy.

And that’s why brain farts are the worst.

But sometimes they’re funny. Also in my BCP book, I mention priests bearing thurifers. In fact they bear thuribles. The thurifer is the guy who carries the thurible. So thanks to my brain fart I inadvertently conjured up an image of a priest entering the nave staggering under the weight of an altar server who, in turn, is presumably striving gamely to swing the thurible to disperse the smoke of the incense.

It strikes me that the dismissal of whole books on the basis of a few typos, or brain farts, or even factual errors is characteristic of our cultural moment, in which people tend to be categorized and defined by the worst thing they are known to have done, and often accordingly expelled from polite society. And if people, why not books? But a book is an enormously complicated project that it is simply impossible to carry out perfectly. As is life.


Last week I walked into one of my classes to discover fourteen students sitting in complete silence. Each one of them — I believe; there may have been a single exception — was reading or typing on a phone. I said, “Hey everybody!” No one looked up or spoke. I suppose I should be grateful that when I pulled out the day’s reading quiz they put their phones away.

If I wanted to produce a #HotTake, boy, did I have a prompt for one.

But: two hours earlier I had walked into another classroom to find the students already in animated conversation about the reading for the day. I sat and listened for several minutes, gradually realizing that I could ignore my plan for the class session because the students had, without my assistance, set the agenda for the discussion.

I’d advise all of you who read this post to remember those two moments the next time someone tries to tell you what an entire generation is like. Those two classes were occupied not only by people of the same generation, but by people who are studying in the same program (the Honors Program) in the same university. And yet, for complicated reasons, their behavior in my classes was very different.

Most things that happen happen for complicated reasons. Don’t stop looking and enquiring the moment you find an anecdote that confirms your priors.


working the refs

Last Sunday afternoon, in the aftermath of the first game of the NBA playoff series between the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, there was much online huffing and puffing about whether the game’s referees had failed to call fouls against the Rockets’ James Harden and Chris Paul.

But something important was overlooked in said huffing and puffing: the fact that, whether Harden and Paul were fouled or not, they were desperately trying to get fouls called against their opponents. And that makes the last few seconds of that game a kind of parable of our cultural moment.

It’s possible that the Warriors’ Draymond Green grazed James Harden as Harden came to earth after shooting — after, that is, missing a shot quite badly, possibly because he was thinking less about making the shot than about getting the ref to believe that Green had fouled him, which he did by falling, completely unnecessarily, to the ground. The ball ended up in Chris Paul’s hands, and Paul charged into the Warriors’ Klay Thompson while flailing his arms wildly, determined to force a call. (He did not get the call, and in his rage shouldered the referee, which has earned him a fine.)

This kind of thing has, of course, long been the bane of soccer: players who might have a legitimate chance to score a goal, or at least got off a shot on goal, fling themselves to the ground and roll about in feigned agony hoping that they will get a penalty called or a yellow card assigned to the opponent.

I have come to believe that this is what almost all of our culture is about now: working the refs. Trying to get the refs, whoever the refs might be in any given instance, to make calls in our favor — to rule against our enemies and for us, and therefore justify us before the whole world.

What are students doing when they try to get speakers disinvited from their campus? Or when Twitter users try to get other Twitter users banned from the platform? Or when people try to get executives or members of some board of directors fired from their jobs? In each case, it’s an appeal to the refs. These people are not trying to persuade through reasoned argument or to attract public opinion to their side through the charm of their personality. They’re demanding that the designated arbitrators arbitrate in their favor. (Sometimes, as in the case of the college admissions, scandal, they just bribe the refs.)

And it’s easy to see why people would think this way: If I assume the point of view underlying this habit, it means that nothing that goes wrong is ever my fault. If anything that I want to go my way doesn’t go my way, it’s because the referees didn’t make the right call. It’s never because I made any dumb mistakes, or indeed had any shortcomings of any kind. Things didn’t go my way because, whether through incompetence or bias, the refs suck. I would’ve won if it hadn’t been for the stupid refs.

I think this is a particularly attractive strategy in our current moment, especially on social media. As I wrote a couple of years ago,

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

Call-out culture has many, many mechanisms of enforcement but none of forgiveness or restoration. A culture that knows only how to punish creates an environment in which, as Freddie deBoer has said, “everyone’s a cop”; but it simultaneously creates disincentives for people to admit they they might themselves need policing. Because who wants to apply the single-sanction one-strike-and-you’re-out criterion to themselves?

These reflections might help to explain a phenomenon that Michael Lewis describes on his new podcast “Against the Rules”: that the NBA is dealing with unprecedented levels of complaint about its officials at the moment when the league gives those very officials unprecedented levels of scrutiny, and unprecedented levels of training, and unprecedented opportunities to review and correct bad calls.

If refs are doing their job better than ever and simultaneously catching more grief for their errors, that just might be a result of our expecting more of them than is reasonable. In the NBA, and also in society at large, we do better when we try to solve problems ourselves rather than try to manipulate the refs into solving them all for us. I hope the Rockets get swept by the Warriors. (And that the Warriors swept in the next round, because their moaning and bitching are almost as bad.)

UPDATE: I realized something right after I posted this — that’s always how it happens, isn’t it? — which is that by circling back to the NBA at the end of the post I elided a major distinction: The NBA refs may be “doing their job better than ever,” but that doesn’t mean that the same can be said for all our society’s referees. Indeed, many of them are doing a very bad job indeed. More on that in another post. (This is also what I get for writing a short post about an issue that needs to be treated at length.)

what dogs think

The spate of dog mind-focused books raises the question: After at least 14,000 years of living with dogs, why are we only now getting around to considering what goes on inside their heads? There are many possible explanations, but one is that in the last two decades science has discovered more about dog cognition than in the previous two centuries combined.”

Vanessa Woods and Brian Hare. Hey folks, ever heard of a guy named Jack London? And of course, London didn’t invent the idea of a story told from a dog’s point of view. Heck, there’s a moment told from a dog’s point of view in the Odyssey.

This is what happens when you are formed, as these scholars apparently were formed, in a radically presentist soocial order: you make the most ridiculous assumptions about everyone born more than a few decades ago. The idea that people could have lived with dogs for “at least 14,000 years” without ever growing curious about what dogs think doesn’t bear a moment’s scrutiny. But then, Woods and Hare don’t give the idea a moment’s scrutiny. They unreflectively assume that all generations preceding Us were just plain stoopid.

Les Murray is dead

I am grieved to learn that Les Murray has died. For many years, if anyone asked me to name the greatest poet writing in English, I knew the answer. Now I don’t. This post is tagged with his name, as are several others on this blog — please read them, since they include some of his poems. I wrote a piece about him here. You were one of the few truly great ones, Les. Rest in peace and rise in glory.

We’re still using your imagination,
It was stronger than all ours.

the strange pleasure of the mob

What would Freud make of group minds in the digital age? I don’t think he’d be surprised by the witch hunts, call-outs, draggings, and pile-ons. On the other hand, social media allow for the creation of micro-communities and the fostering of niche interests. Digital affiliations may discourage collective action, insofar as online discourse can substitute for “live” interaction, or they may send more of us into the street – like my Canadian friends and I, stirred into action by the online calls to march on Washington. Social media may alter the way we join and negotiate our group memberships, but it’s unlikely to change our fundamental need to be part of something larger than ourselves. Humans are social animals by nature and by evolution; we thrive by working together. This will always be something of a paradox to an introvert like me, whose idea of a party is a locked door and a good book. And yet, having tasted the strange pleasures of the mob, I’m certain I could be lured out from my behind my own barricades again. For a good cause, of course.

Sarah Henstra. One of the major themes of my How to Think is the vital importance of distinguishing between the “mobs” and “crowds” and “Inner Rings” who discourage or forbid thinking from the kinds of groups that offer us the possibility of genuine membership and that, accordingly, encourage us to think — and are, therefore, good people to think with.

plugged into the machine

Alexis Madrigal:

As the platforms age, their devotees become more and more distinct from the regular person. For more than a decade now, many people in media and technology have been feeding an hour or two of Twitter into our brains every single day. Because we’re surrounded by people who live their lives like this — and, crucially, because so many of the journalists who write about the internet experience the internet in this way — it might feel like this is just how Twitter is, that a representative sample of America is plugged into the machine in this way.

And thus I renew my plea to journalists.

debt and forgiveness

For me, the obvious question about the proposal to forgive student loans — as made, for instance, by Astra Taylor here — is this: Why only student loans? Millions of Americans who have never attended college are being crushed by debt. Why shouldn’t something be done for them? 

Imagine how this looks to all those working-class people who aren’t sure how they’re going to pay their rent next month, who have made far too many visits to payday lenders. “We’re going to have everything we own taken away while all you super-woke people campaign to have the government pay for your MFA in set design. And you call that being progressive.”

UPDATE: Freddie’s position is the right one to take about these matters. If people who are currently focused obsessively on getting their own loans canceled took their bearings from what he says here, this conversation would be a more productive once.

Before you take seriously Bret Easton Ellis’s claim that millennials don’t read, look at the tag on this post and read the other posts with that tag. A consistent theme of this kind of discourse is that the people with the most confident opinions about millennials and Gen Z’ers don’t spend much time around the people they have such confident opinions about. Which is also true of every other person who likes to make summative judgments about vast cohorts.

Amazon’s Project Kuiper, with its plan to put thousands of satellites into low-earth orbit to provide internet access to people who don’t have it, reminds me of the scheme by the Bob and Ray Laboratories to build the Bob and Ray Orbiting Satellite and sell advertising space on it. To those who asked whether a satellite might be too far away for the billboards on it to be readable, Bob and Ray replied that they planned for it to orbit 28 feet above the earth’s surface. 

the building on the Île de la Cité

Today I found myself thinking that someone should perhaps inform French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe that the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is a church. How dare he — and so many dead-to-beauty architects — talk about this glorious place of worship as though it were a mere artifact of culture?

And yet … this Catholic cathedral is not owned by the Catholic Church. It is owned by the French Ministry of Culture. “A mere artifact of culture” is what it legally is. As far as I can tell, Notre Dame de Paris is a place of worship by sufferance only. If the government of France wants to leave it in ruins as a testimony to the evils of colonialism, homophobia, and clerical sexual abuse — which seems possible — or to rebuild it as a shiny new monument to the evils of colonialism, homophobia, and clerical sexual abuse — which seems slightly more possible — it can do so. If the government of France wants to turn it into a disco, then into a disco it shall be turned, with a giant glimmering disco ball hanging from the rebuilt roof.

I have no idea what the Ministry of Culture will decide to do, but I seriously doubt that Catholic Christians will have any real say in the matter. Oh, to be sure, bishops and priests and a few devout laypeople will be assigned to committees. But they’ll have no ability to dictate or even to veto. Bureaucrats may decide that the principles of PR recommend a respectful stance towards believers, and no doubt they’ll make friendly noises. But I don’t see how the final product can fail to embody the interests of the European technocratic elite, as opposed to those of faithful Christians.

And that’s one of the more significant elements of this story: What it reminds us about the long and complex intertwining of the western church with the modern nation-state. You can’t understand the current rebuilding project without understanding the crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III, in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day of the year 800; and Pope Gregory VII’s role the Investiture Controversy, with its culmination in the humiliation of Henry IV in the snow at Canossa; and the emergence of the Cuius regio, eius religio principle in the Reformation era; and the violent dechristianizing of France during the Revolution; and the vain struggle of Pio Nono against the unification of Italy, ending in the elimination of the Papal States and the loss of all secular power for the Papacy; and the emergence of the Deutsche Christen in the Nazi era, when German pastors competed with one another to defend the celebrate the subservience of (especially but not only) the Lutherans to Hitler.

That long slow transfer of power is over now. The tiger the Church hoped to tame has eaten it. The building on the Île de la Cité dedicated 800 years ago to the Blessed Virgin Mary belongs wholly to the bureaucrats now. The rest of us will just have to stand by to see what they do with it.

“Entering his eightieth decade he hasn’t lost his taste for that whiff of adventure, either in his walking or his writing.” — from this profile of Ian MacEwan. Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought him a day over 600.

This reflection by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson makes me think that churches should regularly run Bible studies specifically on the parts of Scripture that never make it into the lectionary.

scale is the enemy

Jeffrey Zeldman:

Along those same lines, can the IndieWeb, and products of IndieWeb thinking like Micro.blog, save us? Might they at least provide an alternative to the toxic aspects of our current social web, and restore the ownership of our data and content? And before you answer, RTFM.

On an individual and small collective basis, the IndieWeb already works. But does an IndieWeb approach scale to the general public? If it doesn’t scale yet, can we, who envision and design and build, create a new generation of tools that will help give birth to a flourishing, independent web? One that is as accessible to ordinary internet users as Twitter and Facebook and Instagram?

I think that’s the wrong question. Of course the indie web cannot scale. But that’s a feature, not a bug. Scale — as-big-as-possible, universal-not-local, something-for-everyone scale — is the enemy. It’s the biggest enemy that community and fellowship and friendship can possibly have. If it scales, I want no part of it. 

“Lord, make me an idiot”

NB: I’m writing this only for my fellow Christians.

In this blog post, my buddy Rod Dreher says something that he says, in one way or another, in many blog posts:

What Christians who live in parts of the US where the faith hasn’t declined as steeply as it has in New England don’t understand is that the virus is coming for us too. There is no effective quarantine. Of course it’s frightening to face all this, but the failure to face it and figure out what we in the churches can and must do to deal with the crisis is going to result in the total collapse of the faith within our own families and communities. Waiting for a miracle is not a plan.

I’m not going to rehash here the facts about the state of the church and the Christian faith in the US. You’ve heard them all from me here before, and anyway, they’re in my book. If you go to a church that has a lot of people in it, and everybody is engaged with their faith, well, that’s great! But look beyond the walls of your congregation. Look beyond the bounds of your Christian community. Things are not okay. Things are not remotely okay. There are no relatively minor adjustments we can make that will enable the churches to manage this without radical change.

Got that? Okay, so: I’m going to ask you to imagine that Rod is absolutely correct about all this.

Have you done that? Okay, now do this: Imagine that Rod is not correct, that for the foreseeable future Christianity in America is going to stumble along in much the same way that it has been stumbling for all these many decades now.

Now let me ask you to think a third thought: How would God’s call upon your life differ depending on whether Rod’s reading of the signs of the times is correct?

I’m going to argue that it shouldn’t be different at all, in any respect whatsoever. For the Christian, genuine faithfulness always makes the same demand: the whole of your life. As Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He does not say, “When Christ calls a man in Nazi Germany, he bids him come and die.” Indeed, in a society that is comfortably Christian, this call may be harder to hear than in a society where Christian faith and practice are under assault — this is indeed the foundational insight of Kierkegaard’s work, from beginning to end. Jesus wants the people who hear his teachings to “read the signs of the times,” but what he means by that is: Understand that your Lord is among you — which is something that it’s difficult for all of us truly to apprehend.

Further, I want to suggest that “reading the signs of the times” in a more familiar sense of those words has always been the chief bane of the Church. Christians have often looked about them and seen a world that seemed fundamentally hospitable to the Gospel, a world in which Christians can be at home, and that interpretation of their environment has led them to neglect the formation of their children and the strengthening of the bonds of community in their local church, leading to “the total collapse of the faith within our own families and communities.” We would do better to ignore the so-called signs of the times in order to focus on what Jesus demands of every Christian everywhere, without exception. Evil days may well come; but “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

In the third book of The Lord of the Rings — otherwise known as the first part of The Two Towers — when the Riders of Rohan meet Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas, Eomer is confused. “It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” And Aragorn’s answer is: “As he ever has judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”

There is great wisdom here, I think. It reminds me of what C. S. Lewis says in his sermon on “Learning in Wartime,” in which he reminds his hearers that in one important sense war doesn’t change anything: in time of perfect peace we have not one more breath of life guaranteed to us than the one we currently take in. I think Karl Barth had something similar in mind when, in his glorious commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says that there has only ever been one crisis (Krisis) — one uniquely decisive moment — in history, and that came when the Second Person of the Trinity became human for our sake.

What I’m about to say may sound frivolous, but I assure you it isn’t. I link all this in my mind with a passage from Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which, as some of you may know, I believe to be the greatest book of the twentieth century. I need to preface the passage I am about to quote with this but of information: At several points in the book West states her belief that, by nature, men are lunatics and women are idiots. That is, men are changeable like the moon, waxing and waning, running this way and that full tilt; whereas women are idiotes, private persons, caught up wholly in their own small world, dwelling within its narrow dimensions.

With that in mind, here’s a passage from near the end of the book, depicting a moment in which West is listening to her husband having an intense political argument with a Yugoslavian.

Just then my eye was caught by two large, loosely formed spheres in neutral colours, one blackish grey, the other brownish black. These were the behinds of two peasant women who were employed by the municipalities to weed the flower-beds at the corners of the square. They were being idiots, private persons in the same sense as the nurse in my London nursing-home, who was unable to imagine why the assassination of King Alexander should perturb anybody but his personal friends. They were paid to pull up weeds, and they wanted the money, so they continued to pull them up, even when the students raised a shout and brought some gendarmes down on them not fifteen yards away. As I looked at those devoted behinds, bobbing up and down over their exemplary task, and the smug face of the automatic rebel, I thanked God for the idiocy of women, which must in many parts of the world have been the sole defender of life against the lunacy of men.

I read this passage and I think: Lord, make me an idiot, an idiot for Thy Kingdom. Keep me focused on the weeds I need to pull, the garden I am charged with tending. Let the lunatics run and shout as they will, but keep me at work on my humble daily “exemplary task.” In the name of Jesus I ask this. Amen.

British eco-fascism

The website for the 2017 documentary film Arcadia says that it’s “a sensory journey into the beauty and brutality, magic and madness of our changing relationship with land and each other. The film combines over 100 years of archive film with a grand, expressive new score by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp.” It’s a kind of nonlinear survey of the various survivals of paganism — sometimes scary forms of paganism — in modern Britain.

Arcadia excited the writer Paul Kingsnorth (author of, among other things, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist) very much. In an essay written to accompany the film — an essay he later withdrew; more about that in a moment — he wrote,

The guardians of our civilisation tell us that attachment to place and tradition is reactionary, backward, dangerous. Like magic and mystery, attachment to land and history are things which belong to a dark and grim past, and should stay there. We are all progressives now. You are romanticising a past that never existed, they tell us. But it did exist, and not long ago. You can see it here, flickering in black and white. I defy any Briton to watch Arcadia and not feel a surge of patriotism; the real kind, the old kind. Not an attachment to monarchy or church, institution or government, idea or ideal, but the old pull of the land you walk on. The ground beneath your feet.

For Kingsnorth, the film Arcadia reminds us that the old “magic and mystery” of the land are not dead. The land still calls to its inhabitants, though faintly. Kingsnorth wants us to watch the film and have our attention to that call renewed.

What happened to our Arcadia? We stopped listening to it. We stopped dancing, we moved away, we started listening to the chant of the Machine instead. It is debt we chase now, not the moon. We are individuals, not parts in a wider whole. In a broken time, it is taboo to remember what was lost, and that fact alone makes Arcadia a revolutionary document. Look, it says. This is how it was. This is what was broken. At night, when you lie awake with your phone flashing under your pillow – do you miss it?

Thus Kingsnorth. Now, Warren Ellis, the great comics writer, in response:

That creepy Heideggerian dasein that fronts as meaning being-in-the-world but actually means being in a familiar landscape surrounded by lovely white people with no connection to the wider culture, preferring localism over multiculturalism and not being disturbed in your eternal idyll in the black forest (or on the dark mountain) by any of those nasty foreign types. This is where landscape writing sheds its leafy cloak and lets you glimpse its colder face – sounding like Steve Bannon, quoting Steve Bannon, black notebooks in hand, gazing from its bench at the little woodland of little England and trying to decide if “benevolent green nationalism” sounds too much like “… well, a nice kind of Hitler.”

We see you for what you are.

So: just as Heidegger wove together the experience of dwelling in his little hut in the Black Forest with his support for the Nazi regime, his black notebooks full of antisemitism, so too Kingsnorth with his racist Arcadia, his Brexit Arcadia, his doors-closed-to-colored-immigrants Arcadia?

This seems … a bit of a stretch to me. But Ellis is not the only one who reads Kingsnorth that way. Richard Smyth digs up nature writing’s fascist roots; “London Permaculture” teases out the fascist, racist snake lurking in the grass of England’s green and pleasant land. And this outcry led to Kingsnorth withdrawing his essay and then posting an explanation — which he also deleted.

I think what prompts these fierce denunciations is this: When we look back on the old ways of English culture — and this would apply to England’s Christian history almost as completely as its pagan one — we see white people, and only white people, enacting them. So how can those ways be praised without also praising exclusive whiteness?

Which raises for me another question: For these critics of Kingsnorth, is there any legitimate way to praise, and to seek to conserve, old rituals and practices? Can you love harvest festivals or Morris dancing or Druidic rites or for that matter Ember Days without being a racist, a fascist, a Nazi? Or is urban cosmopolitanism the only ethically acceptable ideal of human life?

And if you can love and practice those old ways without being a racist — How? What would distinguish morally legitimate attitudes from the ones that Kingsnorth is being pilloried for?

This inquiring mind would really like to know.

Reading this Vulture piece, I took a while to grasp that, for the musicians interviewed, touring — which used to be what bands had to do to make money their records didn’t make — is a net loser. These people are basically paying to go on tour. 

Rodger Sherman

What if the UMBC loss was Virginia’s last major letdown before the dawn of a dynasty, the fuel for a fire that burned brighter than any other in college basketball? What if that was the moment that freakishly bad things stopped happening to Virginia in March and freakishly good things started happening instead? What if the Book of Job ended with Job dunking while Satan wept during the “One Shining Moment” montage? (Job’s garbage friends, who argued that God would not punish an innocent man and therefore that Job must have sinned to deserve so much pain in life, wrote the original “Virginia’s system explains why they lost to UMBC” takes.)

I’m a big fan of using Biblical narrative to explain sports. 



The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is concerned about extremism, and with good reason—but not quite (or not only) in the way you might think. The focus of a briefing paper issued by the commission, an advisory body appointed by Congress and the White House to monitor liberty of conscience, is not on violent extremism as such. Rather it is concerned with the way that sloppy charges of “extremism” are used ever more often by authoritarian regimes to clamp down hard on almost any religious group which, for some reason, they don’t like. China, Russia and Tajikistan are mentioned as examples. 

One might add to that list Québec. As I have said before, the logic here is very simple

Buruma reflects

One question that Ian Buruma has never faced — not when he ran Jian Ghomeshi’s essay, not when he gave interviews in response to the protests, and not in this reflection: Why, when women accuse a man of sexual misconduct, is the man’s story the one worth telling? Throughout this essay he talks about accused men, many accused men, he thinks we should hear from. Not once — not once — does he consider the stories that might be told by the women who claim to have been assaulted. Those women simply do not appear on his mental map.


If you’re a writer for the Economist: the people to the left of you are socialists, and the people to the right of you are “alt-right” or “far right” (the terms are interchangeable).

If you’re an AOC worshipper or you feel the Bern: anyone to the immediate right of you is a neoliberal and anyone farther in that direction is “alt-right” or “far right” (again, interchangeable terms).

If you’re a Fox News watcher: the people just to the left of you are liberals pretending to be centrists; the people to the left of them are socialists pretending to be liberals; the people to the left of them are communists pretending to be socialists.

getting a new Mac up and running

Things I do when I get a new Mac, more or less in order:

  • install Homebrew
  • use Homebrew to install pandoc
  • install BBedit
  • install MacTex
  • type this into the terminal: defaults write com.barebones.bbedit FullScreenWindowsHogScreen -bool NO
  • type this into the terminal: defaults write com.apple.dock single-app -bool true (followed by killall Dock)
  • enable Night Shift
  • install TextExpander
  • install Alfred
  • install Hazeover
  • install Hazel

Everything else can wait; once I have the above in place — plus of course syncing all my existing TextExpander snippets — I can do almost everything I really need to do on a computer, with maximum focus and speed.