comparative study of real and fictional corbies

Carol Rumens:

There’s a human narrator, but s/he bows out after three lines. Of the two crows, one has a single, though essential, line: “Where sall we gang and dine today?” The other, having reconnoitred the scene already and worked out the feeding strategy, replies in vivid, uncompromising detail. Anthropomorphism of this kind can be justified on the grounds that the invented bird-talk reflects real, observable bird behaviour regarding food, territory and judicious co-operation. 

Really? That’s how the poem can be justified — by objective analysis of “real, observable bird behaviour regarding food, territory and judicious co-operation”? If the behavior of these poetic corbies should prove inconsistent with the most up-to-date ornithological findings, would we have to toss the poem in the dustbin? 

It’s very hard not to laugh at this: Twitter-addicted journalists decamping for Mastodon only to resume, immediately, their familiar habits of bullying, shaming, proclaiming their victimhood, and Trying to Get Management To Take Their Side. As I have said: “Which way I fly is Hellsite; myself am Hellsite….” 

Real Presence in Sex and Sacrament

Jessica Martin:

I am not sure that we meant to place the holy eucharist inside the temple to the marketplace gods; but we did. We put it there for consumption (along with a lot of the Church’s other highly marketised ‘missional’ activity).  Perhaps by doing it we have become subversives on the marketplace gods’ territory. Or perhaps we are the subverted. The internet is a strange platform upon which to choose to place the ritual that reverses all other greeds.

It might be the boldest thing we could do – placing communion in the heart of all commodification. Or it could be the silliest choice, the most foolhardy. Are we blaspheming? Or are we, urgently hungry, sick of gobbling shadows, filling ourselves with the bread of the Presence? 

This is a remarkable essay by Jessica Martin, meditation on what happens when two vital experiences — sex and Eucharist — are made virtual. Can there be a Real Presence in a medium predicated on absence? 

medical discourse

A follow-up on one element of this post: It would be uncharitable and just plain wrong to conclude that doctors and other health-care professionals lack compassion and want to make you suffer. Nevertheless, what Ivan Illich wrote in Medical Nemesis (1975) was true then and is true now: “Modern medicine is a negation of health. It isn’t organised to serve human health, but only itself, as an institution.” The system works by purposes that the workers within the system may not share — but they are compelled to serve those purposes anyway. 

I think the first thing to understand about the American health-care system is this: some people lose money from illness, and some people make money from illness. Some people pay, and some people get paid. This doesn’t mean that the people who get paid are motivated solely or even primarily by money, though some of them surely are; this doesn’t mean that those who pay always resent having to pay, though some of them surely do. What it means is that there is on this one significant point an opposition of interests between the two parties; and that opposition manifests itself in a thousand ways. You see it when sick people don’t go to the doctor because they don’t want to, or can’t, pay for the services that would be rendered there; you see it when doctors advocate for unnecessary procedures that line their pockets, or prescribe drugs because they have a lucrative relationship with particular drug companies; you see it when money-making procedures are deemed necessary while the poor get dramatically sub-par health care or none at all. 

Again: I don’t think there are many doctors who consciously make medical decisions based on their lust for money. But I do think there are a great many doctors who go along with the incentives established by the system, without thinking about it too much or at all, because on some level they know that thinking about it could well lead to their losing money.

And this opposition of interests cannot be eliminated; in the current system — where profit is God even for supposedly nonprofit hospital systems — it cannot even be diminished.  

But our discourse about medicine and health care is radically skewed towards the doctors and other health-care professionals. The voices of the patients — those who suffer, and those who pay — are rarely heard. This is the importance of books like Ross Douthat’s The Deep Places — and there ought to be a lot more of them. It’s not that we don’t have books and essays by people who have been abused or abandoned by the medical system — there are plenty of them — but they get tragically little attention, largely, I think, because journalists think of themselves as belonging to the same “Professional” category as doctors and don’t want to be class traitors. 

It’s good to have books by doctors who see the evils of the system and fight back against it — people like Oliver Sacks, about whom I have an essay coming out soon from The New Atlantis, and Victoria Sweet — but we really do need to hear more from patients, and especially patients the system doesn’t serve. Because the incentive structures of American health care ensure that, without major changes, things will get worse before they get better.

This is a cause worth fighting for, but it will be hard to get enough people on board if we don’t hear more from those most affected.  

lies, yours and mine

Staying for the Truth | The Hedgehog Review:

Bacon … thinks it is good, very good indeed, to be “well fortified by doctrines of the wise” and thereby to be protected from the storms of lies that toss many people about so violently. It is indeed gratifying, Bacon says, paraphrasing Lucretius, to be “standing upon the vantage ground of truth,” because up there “the air is always clear and serene.” But, he adds, the pleasure one feels is appropriate “so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride.” If you have been able to discover something that is true, then you should have compassion for those who are laboring under the spell of falsehood. And if instead of pitying them, you mock and belittle them, then you will become swollen with pride — and then, when the lies that comfort you come around, you will be unable to resist them. 

That’s me. Let me add to the argument I make there a corollary thesis: In any given community, there will be a profound divide between those who believe that the most dangerous lies are the ones told by our enemies and those who believe that the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves

hiding your hand

I don’t know who Noah Kulwin is — someone, I don’t remember whom, linked to this post, which among other things talks about the assassination of JFK. If this sounds like I’m picking on poor Mr. Kulwin, my apologies; I really don’t mean to. I just want to illustrate a point. 

In the post Kulwin quotes Don DeLillo’s comments on the Zapruder film. Here’s the key part: 

The Zapruder film is a home movie that runs about eighteen seconds and could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics. And every new generation of technical experts gets to take a crack at the Zapruder film. The film represents all the hopefulness we invest in technology. A new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis — not only of Zapruder but of other key footage and still photographs — will finally tell us precisely what happened. 

For the rest of his post Kulwin speaks of “DeLillo’s faith in technology” and wants to argue with it. But of course — as anyone would know after reading even a smidgen of his fiction — DeLillo doesn’t have any faith in technology. Kulwin has misunderstood the last sentence of the quote above. He thinks DeLillo is making a claim, but in fact the novelist is narrating a perspective

You can tell this is so by looking at the previous sentence, in which DeLillo speaks in broadly cultural terms of “all the hopefulness we invest in technology.” By “we” he doesn’t mean himself and his interviewer; he means Americans in general. And the sentence that follows — the one that Kulwin misunderstands — is not a statement of his own views, but a kind of expansion of or commentary on that hope. DeLillo is not saying that he believes that a new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis will finally tell us precisely what happened; he’s saying that the hope Americans invest in technology makes us — collectively, as a society — believe that a new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis will finally tell us precisely what happened. 

As I’ve said many times before — e.g. here — I don’t think my students today are any worse than my students from years or even decades ago. But I believe that students today need more explanation of how writers think, how fictional narrative works. They have grown up in a media environment in which, as far as I can see, language is almost exclusively used for three purposes: to praise cultural friends, to condemn or mock cultural enemies, and to declare the Truth. The idea that language might be used to explore a way of seeing the world without judging that way — without issuing a 👍 or a 👎 — is pretty foreign to most of them, especially since most of the literature they’ve been assigned in school is either intrinsically didactic or is taught to them didactically. 

This leads fairly regularly to misreadings of the type that Kulwin commits. Again, I know nothing about Kulwin, so I’m not trying to account for his error — only to note that it’s a very common kind of error these days. We live in a moment too polemical and defensive for undidactic art to flourish; most people, it seems, suspect any artwork that doesn’t declare its principles unambiguously. 

Some years ago Mandy Patinkin described the lunch meeting at which Rob Reiner recruited him to play in The Princess Bride. He recalled that 

He said to me, ‘The way I want everybody to play this is as though you have a hand of cards, and I want all of us to almost show the hand to the audience, but we never really show it. That’s how I want it to happen.’ So, he collected a bunch of people who would play cards that way. 

I think that’s actually a pretty good explanation for why The Princess Bride is such a brilliant movie, but whether it is or not, it’s a great way to describe what the greatest stories always do. You get a peek at the cards maybe, but not enough to be sure about the whole hand. You have to guess; you have to think; you have to ask difficult questions like “How might I behave if I had a great hand? A lousy one?” You have to imagine. All the great artists and writers do. 

Barney Ronay:

Qatar is not, when you look more widely, some kind of rogue state peopled by a different kind of human being. In fact, the best way to look at it is perhaps as a very literal-minded and efficient expression of the forces at work across every other modern state. Qatar just does it wilder, harder and without apology. It is a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of supremely wealthy overlords, of the surveillance state, of an underclass of workers, of increasingly repressive laws, of the global carbon addiction. Do any of these sound familiar? In many ways Qatar is like your furiously able and efficient younger colleague; who has essentially looked at this, learnt the mannerisms, and said, yeah, we can do that.

Sam Harris on Whether Religion Really Does Make Everything Worse:

Sam Harris: The God of Abraham is explicit in the Bible and in the Quran that the document you’re reading is the Word of God, and that it is not of human manufacture. And it’s just obvious that that can’t be. You look at the books, and there’s just no way they’re the product of omniscience. They betray their merely human origins on every page…. 

Only worth noting for one point: Sam Harris has been writing against religion for a couple of decades now, and still has only the vaguest idea of what any particular religion believes. When he started out, he had no idea what the Christian understanding of the inspiration of Scripture is and how radically it differs from the Muslim view, and he has no idea now. You would think that after all these years of polemic he would’ve learned something just by accident, but he’s done a remarkable job of making his ignorance invincible. Just shows what you can achieve if you put your mind to it. 

What We Owe Our Fellow Animals | Martha C. Nussbaum | The New York Review of Books:

Behind these biases lies a more general failing, which the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal calls “anthropodenial”: the denial that we are animals of a certain type (the anthropoid type), and the tendency to imagine ourselves, instead, as pure spirits, “barely connected to biology.” This mistaken way of thinking has a long history in most human cultures; it remains stubbornly lodged in people’s psyches even when they think they are examining the evidence fairly. Anthropodenial has led, until recently, to a reluctance to credit research findings that show that animals use tools, solve problems, communicate through complex systems, interact socially with intricate forms of organization, and even have emotions such as fear, grief, and envy. (This is a bait-and-switch: emotions have long been denigrated on the grounds that they are not pure spirit, and yet humans also want to claim a monopoly on what they despise.) 

The same idea — that we are “barely connected to biology” — underlies the idea that one can be born into “the wrong body.” 

ark head

Venkatesh Rao:

One mental model for this condition is what I call ark head, as in Noah’s Ark. We’ve given up on the prospect of actually solving or managing most of the snowballing global problems and crises we’re hurtling towards. Or even meaningfully comprehending the gestalt. We’ve accepted that some large fraction of those problems will go unsolved and unmanaged, and result in a drastic but unevenly distributed reduction in quality of life for most of humanity over the next few decades. We’ve concluded that the rational response is to restrict our concerns to a small subset of local reality — an ark — and compete for a shrinking set of resources with others doing the same. We’re content to find and inhabit just one zone of positivity, large enough for ourselves and some friends. We cross our fingers and hope our little ark is outside the fallout radius of the next unmanaged crisis, whether it is a nuclear attack, aliens landing, a big hurricane, or (here in California), a big wildfire or earthquake. […] 

… it’s gotten significantly harder to care about the state of the world at large. A decade of culture warring and developing a mild-to-medium hatred for at least 2/3 of humanity will do that to you. General misanthropy is not a state conducive to productive thinking about global problems. Why should you care about the state of the world beyond your ark? It’s mostly full of all those other assholes, who are the wrong kind of deranged and insane. At least you and I, in this ark, are the right kind of deranged and insane. It’s worth saving ourselves from the flood, but those other guys can look out for themselves.

I think this is largely true, but I think some other things as well — primarily that any such retreat-to-the-ark is an inevitable response to the inflexible limits of our Dunbar’s Number minds. 

“That’s perhaps the way out — keep trying to tell stories beyond ark-scale until one succeeds in expanding your horizons again.” Nope. We don’t need our horizons expanded, we need our attention narrowed and focused. 

Another book to read:

Gal Beckerman, too, is interested in political talk. His new book, The Quiet Before, is essentially a history of conversation, beginning in seventeenth-century France and ending in modern-day Cairo, Charlottesville, Miami, and Minneapolis. Beckerman concentrates not on the revolutionary moment, though — the capture of the Bastille, say, or Fidel Castro’s triumphant arrival in Havana — but on the antecedents of transformative political change. “The incubation of radical new ideas,” he writes, “is a very distinct process with certain conditions: a tight space, lots of heat, passionate whispering, and a degree of freedom to work toward a common, focused aim.”

The conversations that he documents occur not just in person — indeed, rarely in person — but through letters, petitions, newspapers, manifestos, samizdat journals, and feminist zines. And they take place, these days, on social media. Whether this constitutes a continuation of the radical tradition or its negation is a — perhaps the — crucial question that Beckerman explores. We know of the Twitter ranters, Facebook trolls, and Instagram influencers, but where are the passionate whisperers of today?

Rules: A short study of what we live by by Lorraine Daston | Book review

All history is, it would seem, the history of regulative struggles. After surveying two thousand years of western civilization, and reconstructing battles between manic regulators and recalcitrant regulatees in fields ranging from monasticism through cookery to astronomy and military tactics, Daston is able to discern a few long-term trends. In the beginning, she finds, rules tended to be “thick”, in the sense of being replete with examples, observations and exceptions; but with the passage of time they have grown thinner and thinner and are now approaching the extreme etiolation of the absolute algorithm. At the same time rules that used to be flexible have become more and more rigid, and the specificity of old-world regulations has been replaced by universality, or rather – as Daston surmises – by the pretence or illusion of it. Behind all of these changes she notices a larger one, in which rules have followed a “rough historical arc” that leads from an ancient world of “high variability, instability and unpredictability” to a modern one in which we all tend to assume, without much justification, that “the future can be reliably extrapolated from the past, standardisation ensures uniformity, and averages can be trusted”.

This is fascinating. I don’t know what to do with it, except read the book, but it’s fascinating. 

the media ecology of college writing

Richard Gibson:

Practically speaking, GPT-3 and the like demand that educators reconsider the writing process in fundamental ways. Symons entertains the possibility of returning to handwriting; other commentators have suggested collecting drafts at multiple stages and perhaps tweaking the assignment between drafts. Educators are now administering the Turing test in reverse: What are questions that only humans can answer well? What kinds of thinking does writing make possible for us? 

In 1987, Flusser worried that AI would outstrip human writers, assuming responsibility even for the recording of history. The current crop of AIs pose no such threat, since they are not autonomous understandings but dynamic reflections of human-built textual culture. Their danger lies instead in short-circuiting the development of human writers, at least if educators fail to adapt to our new media ecology in which the medium can compose humdrum messages on demand. 

My dear friend Rick is precisely correct. Some years ago, when I noted the dramatic increase in professors’ use of services like Turnitin, it seemed obvious to me that students and teachers in the humanities — or rather, students and teachers as puppets of a parasitical online ecosystem of “educational services” — were entering a kind of arms race, and one that could never have a winner. I also saw that the entire arms race was made possible by the overwhelming dominance of one particular assignment: the research paper. And then I asked a question: What if I stopped assigning research papers? 

After all, my goal is not to make my students better writers of research papers. My goal is to help them grow more skilled and more confident as readers, writers, and reasoners. (My proximate goal, anyway; I have deeper aspirations for the enriching of their humanity, but those are better described as hopes than as goals.) If the dominance of this one genre is actually impeding my pedagogical purposes, then wouldn’t it be wise for me to look for other kinds of assignment that could enhance my students’ reading, writing, and reasoning without getting us all sucked into that arms race? 

I’ve been giving unusual writing assignments my whole career, but not in all my classes. When I taught literary theory I always had my students write dialogues, in each one ventriloquizing two major theorists; in some classes I’ve had students build websites; in others I’ve had them prepare critical editions of texts, with introductions and annotations. But until fairly recently I felt an obligation to teach the good old research paper in at least some classes. Around 2016, I think, I ceased to feel that obligation. I haven’t assigned a research paper since, and I don’t expect ever to assign another one. 

Pretty soon, I think, my entire profession will need to go through a process of reconsideration similar to the one I’ve already been through. 

China wants to change, or break, a world order set by others | The Economist:

Nor does Mr Xi accept that the second world war created a mandate to draw up a liberal order. A China/EU summit in April was clarifying. The European Council president, Charles Michel, explained why Europe’s dark past, notably the Holocaust, obliged its leaders to call out rights abuses, from China to Ukraine. According to a readout shared with EU governments, Mr Xi retorted that the Chinese have even stronger memories of suffering at the hands of colonial powers. He cited treaties forcing China to open markets and cede territory in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and racist bylaws banning Chinese people and dogs from parks in European-run enclaves. Mr Xi recalled the massacre of civilians at Nanjing by Japanese invaders in 1937. Such aggression left the Chinese with strong feelings about human rights, he said, and about foreigners who employ double standards to criticise other countries. 

Hard to deny that they have a point. Hard also to deny that they’re trying to make way for permanent tyranny. 

Many developing countries see nothing magic about the year 1945, and have limited nostalgia for a time when the West dominated rulemaking. China is ready to offer them alternatives. Seven decades ago, at founding meetings of the un, Soviet-bloc delegates sought an order that deferred to states and promoted collective rather than individual rights, opposing everything from free speech to the concept of seeking political asylum. In the late 1940s communist countries were outvoted. China now seeks to reopen those old arguments about how to balance sovereignty with individual freedoms. This time, the liberal order is on the defensive. 

The Economist is doing great work on China these days. Their podcast series about Xi Jinping, The Prince, was outstanding — a kind of survey of recent Chinese history through the story of one man. And their new newsletter on China, Drum Tower, which is accompanied by a podcast, promises to be excellent also. 

Michelle Nijhuis:

Speakers of Luganda, the most common indigenous language in Uganda, don’t have a word for “depression.” They use the terms yo’kwekyawa and okwekubazida, which roughly translate as “self-loathing” and “self-pity” and describe two distinct conditions; the former, which can include thoughts of suicide, is considered more severe. In Zimbabwe in the 1990s, researchers learned that the local Shona language had one word for everyday sadness (suwa) and another for a persistent, ruminative state that fit the clinical description of depression. This term, kufungisisa, which literally translates to “thinking too much,” unlocked communication between practitioners and patients.

In the early 2000s the Zimbabwean psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda recognized that his rural patients, many of whom were severely stressed by poverty and the multifold impacts of the HIV epidemic, were dying from a lack of mental health care. He recruited a corps of rural community members, predominantly grandmothers, and trained them to conduct informal therapy sessions with their neighbors on open-air “friendship benches.” In clinical trials, the grandmothers and their benches proved to be so successful in relieving the most incapacitating symptoms of depression that the approach has since spread to Kenya, Botswana, the Caribbean, New York City, and elsewhere.

a change of attention

After the killing of George Floyd, my first response — after sympathy for poor Floyd, I hope — was to think that the protesters were overreacting to an event that, while tragic, was not nearly as common as they were saying. (No, there’s no “Black genocide” in America.) But then I started noticing the response of many white conservatives: an opposite exaggeration, in their case of the dangers of protests; a noticeable lack of sympathy for the victims of police violence, and a tendency to blame those victims; and in general a disinclination to see racial prejudice as a meaningful element of American culture. 

I wrote a few posts about all this, including one about the difference between acute and chronic suffering

Similarly, when the whole controversy over Critical Race Theory blew up, my first reaction was dismay at the ways that “activists” were using shoddy scholarship, or wholly bogus pseudo-scholarship, to implement a radical political agenda for America’s schools. But then, again, the white conservative pushback was both uncharitable and extreme, and seemed determined to treat any reckoning with America’s history of slavery and racism as “CRT” and therefore to be banished. Increasingly, white conservatives took up the view that explicit declarations of hatred for people of a certain color is the only kind of racism there is. 

This struck me as just as historically as blinkered and uninformed as, I dunno, maybe the views of the Black Hebrew Israelites. So, me being me, I started thinking about the past, listening to the voices of our ancestors — in this case mainly recent ones, which in my view is okay, because they always have a strong gravitational pull, and anyway people think that anything that they haven’t thought about in the past 72 hours is ancient history and therefore irrelevant. Ralph Ellison is as much a mystery to them as Homer. 

But I’ve been reading Ralph Ellison — a lot of Ralph Ellison, letters and essays; and that led me to Murray’s dear friend Albert Murray, whose curious and wonderful body of work I’m seriously into. (After all, Murray is my fellow native of Alabama.) There’s a tradition of thought and expression here that seems deeply relevant to the current scene, capable of illuminating much that otherwise remains dark for us. 

I posted a couple of passages relevant to all this stuff in a recent newsletter, and fifty or sixty people immediately unsubscribed. Okay, well, I guess that’s not really what my newsletter is about, so fair enough. But heads up: Here at the old blog you’ll be hearing more about some of the leading Black intellectuals of the past half-century or more. Because they’re fascinating in themselves — and they tend to illuminate our own weird moment. 

So my thanks to white conservatives for leading me into this fertile field of reading and thinking. I owe you, guys. 

Definitions:

An accu­rate def­i­n­i­tion of “influencer” is: a vir­tu­oso of a par­tic­u­lar inter­net platform; some­one who has learned to use its mech­a­nisms to achieve their own objectives, rather than the other way around.

An accu­rate def­i­n­i­tion of an inter­net “creator” would have to be: someone whose income is deter­mined by a platform’s algorithms.

That’s Robin Sloan, with a very good distinction. I’m not either of those things, so I wonder what I am? Maybe just a writer. 

From a lovely profile of Will Arbery by Chloé Cooper Jones:

One of the first stories Arbery ever told me was how, even as a child, he longed to protect [his sister] Julia’s nuanced way of speaking. When he was away at camp, and then later, as a young adult in college, he would receive letters and emails from Julia and could tell when they had been edited, her language standardized by someone else. But Arbery loved the particular cadence, rhythms and arrangements of her sentences and did not want them changed.

In the program note for “Corsicana,” Arbery says that he wrote the play thinking about the dances Julia makes up, the songs she sings in private, the art she makes that belongs only to her. “I’ve been thinking about the way Julia sings ‘O Holy Night,’ making everyone shut up and listen and watch her, and then getting too nervous to start. So we all have to sing it together, trudging through the notes until we reach the time-to-shine part — ‘fall on your knees, oh hear the angels’ voices’ — and that’s when her voice rises unmistakably above all of ours, and she finishes the song, and suddenly there’s a new thing in the air above our heads and we all get quiet.” 

I have some thoughts on Arbery’s play “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” in this essay

Matthew Loftus:

The Church universal also has a set of overlapping responsibilities, but how these responsibilities are translated into the work of individual churches is a tension of its own. Local churches are first obligated to their own members, to preach, worship, disciple, and administer the sacraments. Adding anything beyond this to any individual church is tying on a burden too great to bear. Yet the Body of Christ spread across the world is also responsible for sending messengers of the Gospel to places that have not yet heard it, meeting the needs of the poor (local and distant), and advocating for justice in whatever society they find themselves in. (I would draw primarily from Isaiah 58 as the source of the lattermost impetus.) The Body of Christ also has an obligation to be in communication with itself such that the hand can know if the eye is suffering and then do something about it.

This task might seem impossible, but the power of the Holy Spirit among God’s people allows us to order ourselves according to the moral obligations we have to one another and to the world. We seek in prayer to know which people in need we ought to be in proximity to, and we obey accordingly as we embark on whichever road to Jericho we are called to. Some may physically remain wherever they are; others may move across town, across the country, or across the world. The wealth of believers, once yielded to the direction of the Holy Spirit, also has centripetal and centrifugal forces acting upon it but should in general go to where there is the greatest need and the least knowledge of the Gospel. 

A long, complex essay, incisive and provocative. Every thoughtful Christian should read it. I hope to comment more fully later. 

Barney Ronay:

It feels like a theme park. There’s always been this ridiculous corporate circus, but generally it intersects with a real sense of joy, and you monetise the joy. Here, there’s no joy, just monetising. You feel that this is a place that should in no world be staging this, until you realise: the World Cup is not a festival of football, it’s a travelling city state, a TV show sold to people who can pay the most money. You want a World Cup? This is what a World Cup is.

subsidiarity

Dale Ahlquist:

While the Distributist movement gained a much larger following than most historians have acknowledged, and is even experiencing something of a revival these days, it has suffered from being dismissed. Conservatives (and capitalists) accuse Distributism of being too socialist, an enemy of free trade. Liberals (and socialists) accuse it of being too capitalist, an enemy of regulation and the public interest. But more often it is dismissed without a fair hearing – not only by established economists and academics but by most everyone else as well – simply because of its unfortunate name: Distributism. No one knows what it means, and usually people think it means something else. It is understandably conflated with redistribution, which means taking money from a wealthier segment of the citizenry and redistributing it to a less wealthy segment. Sort of like Robin Hood. Or taxation. Yet while the early Distributists recognized that some redistribution of land, wealth, and power would obviously be necessary to achieve their ends, redistribution was never their end goal nor what made their vision compelling to so many.

It is for this reason that the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton recently renamed Distributism. Now, I wish to make it clear that we don’t have any special control over the word “Distributism.” People can keep using the old word if they want. But we introduced a new word because the old word was … well, it was no good!

The new word we came up with is “Localism.” 

I see why they did this, but (a) “localism” is already a term used in other contexts and (b) at least “Distributism” captured the fact that the movement is not just cultural but also a project of political economy. 

Distributism/Localism, like anarcho-syndicalism and several other kinds of anarchism — which I am very much interested in — all think that our social and cultural problems cannot be fixed unless we can wrest economic control from Bosses and put it in the hands of local people. They are all subsidiarist movements, and these are all to some degree rooted in Catholic social teaching, so you would think that people who call themselves conservatives would at least be interested. Not so much, not any more. 

Interview with Yiyun Li:

Just as you were starting Tolstoy Together, you wrote in The New York Review’s pandemic journal: “Twice during the most difficult periods of my life, I could do little but read [War and Peace]. There were days when I would hand-copy passages from it just to keep my brain and hands in movement.” What did you appreciate about the experience?

My understanding, from my own experience, is that agitation does much harm to our minds. It is a most time-conscious state — every minute is devastatingly long when one’s perception of time becomes disoriented. I hand-copied passages from War and Peace during two difficult times of my life, several years apart: when I was suicidally depressed, and after I lost a child to suicide. The activity was a defiance against that harmful timelessness: here time does pass from one line to the next.

Lately, I’ve been hand-copying Moby-Dick first thing in the morning, before coffee, to carve out a space for my brain and my hands, to have a definite frame of time. I suppose I do that as others practice yoga or meditation.

Ayana Mathis:

When I first conceived of this essay, I imagined it would be purely literary. Then, the presidential election arrived with all of its turmoil. I suddenly cared very little about aesthetics and the nuances of figurative language. I was at a loss until I remembered that much of Baldwin’s writing came to exist during moments of American crisis: the civil rights movement and its aftermath, the decimation of the Black Power movement, the rise of Reaganomics, the devastating AIDS epidemic. Baldwin was forged in the crucible of an America perpetually teetering on the edge of self-destruction, unwilling to heed the warnings of those who understood the immensity of the peril. The result of that heedlessness, as we’ve seen in these pandemic months, is quite literally death. It occurred to me, then, that John’s experience, and Baldwin’s novel as a whole, is an act of bearing witness to the bitter realities of his life as a young man — and to the Black church as a place of existential and spiritual nourishment, even as it was parochial and unyielding.

Perhaps Baldwin left the church because he knew he would not have survived its stifling rigors, and had little desire to try. Certainly the exacting and capricious God of his upbringing — these characteristics that, not coincidentally, also describe Gabriel Grimes — was anathema to him. And yet in his 1962 essay “Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin wrote of his vexing childhood religion: “In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare.”

Mastodonic thoughts

After a brief period on Mastodon: It’s exactly like Twitter. People have taken all their Twitter habits — lecturing, hectoring, making demands, sneering, mocking, belittling, preening, self-congratulating — and transferred them unchanged to a new platform. No one, it appears, learned anything from what even they called the “hellsite.”

Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hellsite; myself am Hellsite;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hellsite I suffer seems a Heaven.
O, then, at last relent! Is there no place
Left for wisdom, none for kindness left? 3
None left but by deletion…. 

Account deleted. 

UPDATE 2022-11-22: It occurs to me that when Mastodon decided to implement its version of the retweet (they call it the “boost”) its fate as Undead Twitter was sealed. If you could blame only one thing for the ruination of Twitter, it should be the RT. The RT is a frictionless way to spread whatever arouses users emotionally, and what arouses users emotionally is almost always something deceitful and/or malicious. The RT is the death of charity, the death of peace, the death of truth. And therefore for me the death of Mastodon. 

Corner Club Cathedral Cocoon, by Sasha Frere-Jones:

I developed a new way of thinking about how we listen to music, together or alone. My alliterative schema for the various listening environments, designed to be annoyingly mnemonic, is corner, club, cathedral, and cocoon. The corner (as in street corner) is where people take priority over sound, and this model encompasses both a block party using a multi-speaker sound system on the street and the digital commons of web radio stations and streaming platforms like Mixcloud and SoundCloud. One of my favorite web radio stations, LYL Radio, was established by Lucas Bouissou, who stated his view firmly: “About audio quality, honestly, I don’t give a shit.” LYL Radio is very much the corner, in every sense.

The cathedral is an environment built by the audiophile, where reflection is the norm. You don’t have to be alone, but if there are a bunch of listeners together, you’re not talking to one another. You listen, and only listen. One arrives here with a certain amount of time and money, introducing an exclusive element, which I don’t love, but if I imagine a house of worship with its doors flung wide open, I am less uneasy, because the resources are oriented toward establishing a common good.

The club is halfway between these two points, presenting a certain level of audio quality, but not at the expense of interaction. If there is an emphasis in the club, it is about people connecting through music. The cocoon, meanwhile, is where most people find music now, through earbuds and headphones, locked into the cycle of wage labor or exercise. 

Emphases mine. I like this taxonomy. I am very much a cathedral guy, though without either the budget or the inclination to be an audiophile. (As Free-Jones says later in his excellent essay, “An obsession with the quality of recordings is, on some level, antithetical to the spirit of mindful listening.“) Let’s say that my preferred environment isn’t a cathedral but rather a mere chapel

peaceableness

It is noteworthy, and not in a good way, that an essay by Wendell Berry called “Peaceableness Toward Enemies” — written in response to the 1911 Gulf War — is relevant to the divisions that now exist among Americans. Two passages in particular stood out to me. The first:  

Peaceableness toward enemies is an idea that will, of course, continue to be denounced as impractical. It has been too little tried by individuals, much less by nations. It will not readily or easily serve those who are greedy for power. It cannot be effectively used for bad ends. It could not be used as the basis of an empire. It does not afford opportunities for profit. It involves danger to practitioners. It requires sacrifice. And yet it seems to me that it is practical, for it offers the only escape from the logic of retribution. It is the only way by which we can cease to look to war for peace. 

Notice how in all these ways peaceableness escapes the abuses inherent in hatred, which always is used for bad ends, always does offer opportunities for profit, etc. 

The second should be read with the thought that there are non-physical forms of violence: 

Peaceableness is not the amity that exists between people who agree, nor is it the exhaustion or jubilation that follows war. It is not passive. It is the ability to act to resolve conflict without violence. If it is not a practical and a practicable method, it is nothing. As a practicable method, it reduces helplessness in the face of conflict. In the face of conflict, the peaceable person may find several solutions, the violent person only one.

These passages should be read in conjunction with a poem Berry wrote around that time, called “Enemies.” 

a right bollocking

Well, this is surely Adam’s best post title ever, but the post is really fascinating also. A key passage: 

But let’s go back to this magic clod. What’s going on here? Pindar’s word is βῶλαξ (bōlax), a poetic form of the word βῶλος (bōlos) — a term still in use in English today, of course (though a bolus is more likely nowadays to refer to a lump of chewed food, than a lump of soil). In Homer the word ἐριβῶλαξ [Odyssey 13.235 and often in the Iliad] means ‘bountiful land’, literally ‘large-clod-place’, and in Theocritus [17:80] βῶλαξ is used to describe the abundant soils of the Nile. The connection, clearly, is with fertility. Pindar describes the magic clod as ἄφθιτον Λιβύας σπέρμα (afthiton Libyas sperma), ‘the indestructible sperm of Libya’, and the word βῶλος is etymologically linked to βολβός, ‘bulb’, which is to say: seed. This makes sense, I suppose. Egypt is dry and barren except where the Nile brings its fertile mud. Cyrene, Herodotus [4:158] tells us, has rain where the rest of Libya has none. Thira’s soil is enriched by its volcanic ash. Good for growing. 

Reflecting on the myth that underlies Pindar’s poem, Adam notes that in that tale “the βῶλαξ comes from a divine source — the clod of God — and that’s what makes it so powerful, so consequential.” When I read that I was immediately certain that βῶλαξ or βῶλος had to be the word used in the Septuagint for the earth from which Adam — Adam our common progenitor, not Adam the novelist — was formed (Genesis 2:7). I fairly ran to my reference books, and … nope. My certainty was misplaced. The only place in the whole Bible where βῶλαξ is used is Job 7:5: “My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust; My skin is broken, and become loathsome.” The Septuagint renders the Genesis passage as χοῦν (dust) from γῆς (earth). 

Oh well. I record this because one should acknowledge one’s strikeouts as well as one’s home runs. 

capitaltruism

Effective altruism is an admirable movement, and I hope it spreads. But one of my chief concerns about the movement is how obsessively focused it is on financial matters. The question seems always to be “Where should I put my money?” This is not surprising, since the movement is so closely associated with wealthy engineers, and more specifically with Silicon Valley, where “scaling up” is often treated as a necessity. The EA emphasis is always on measurable goods, and on “maximizing utility,” with maximization primarily defined as “numbers of people helped.” If that’s how you orient yourself, then of course you end up with longtermism, because the future gives you the requisite scale. EA is thus the most perfect distillation yet of metaphysical capitalism

So: Imagine a person who is both chronically ill and desperately lonely.

An EAer committed to longtermism would be on principle opposed to paying for the medical treatment of one person living now: that doesn’t scale and therefore doesn’t maximize utility. (I don’t think any effective altruist would disagree with this; the movement places a premium on eschewing sentimentality.) 

The matter of loneliness is more interesting. It would probably be invisible to the EAer because nothing about loneliness or human connection is easily measurable, nor obviously addressable with money. (Not that people haven’t tried.) The ill and lonely person, if given a choice, might prefer illness within a loving community to rude good health in continued isolation; but that’s not something that the EAer can readily factor in. 

But EAers need to think about this. Perhaps their monetary gifts can contribute to a future world in which disease is unknown and lifespans are dramatically extended; but what if those magnificently healthy people are miserable? What if they despise their long lives? It is certainly true that “thousands have lived without love, not one without water” — but have the loveless ones lived well?

What would EA look like if it asked not just about physical well-being but about the human need to love and be loved? For one thing, it would be less tempted by the abstractions and airy speculations of longtermism; for another, it would have to reckon with the limited power of money to address human ills. It would call into question its commitment to what Dickens, in Bleak House, called “telescopic philanthropy.” It would have to consider the possibility that the best way to ensure human flourishing in the future would be to strengthen our bonds with one another today. 

This alternate-world EA might even take as its model someone I have mentioned in an earlier post, a character from that same novel, Esther Summerson. Esther is trying to avoid being recruited by Mrs. Pardiggle, a Victorian predecessor of EA perhaps, who has a “mechanical way of taking possession of people” and wants Esther to do the same.  

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. 


P.S. Maybe, given the clear correlation between religious commitment and happiness, even in the absence of robust physical health, the best thing the altruist who wants to be truly effective could do is support religious institutions. Making them stronger today would help them to be stronger in the future, so even the longtermist could sign on to such a project. Yay utilitarianism! 

sprawling along the way: a polemic and an exhortation

In for a penny, in for a pounding, I always say. I really don’t want to talk about the whole “three worlds” thing again, but I’m going to, because it allows me to segue into something I do want to talk about. I just completed a book project, so I’m gonna take the time to do this stuff. Buckle up; it won’t be brief.

My friend Brad East claims that the “negative world” thesis is self-evidently true: “publicly professing to be a Christian in the 1950s was — on balance, no matter who you were or where you lived, with relatively minor exceptions — more likely than not to enhance your reputation and/or social status and/or professional-political-familial-marital-financial prospects.” In response to that I would again emphasize the distinction between the profession of faith and actual Christian living. As far as I’m concerned, a world in which the public profession of faith is rewarded but serious Christian practice is discouraged is not a positive world. It’s a Whited Sepulcher World. 

I would also add that the exceptions are not “relatively minor” unless you consider the experience of Black people in America to be minor. White Americans, especially but not only in the South, have long been suspicious of what gets taught in Black churches. In her Incidents in the Live of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs narrates how the slaveholding leaders of her community demolished the church the local Blacks had built with their own hands, and then made sure they were taught by preachers whose only biblical text was “Slaves, obey your masters.” And then, of course, if you were a churchgoing Black family in my home town of Birmingham during the supposedly “positive world” era you might find that your church is bombed and your children killed. Again, this isn’t ancient history to me: the girls killed in that bombing were born less than a decade before I entered this vale of tears, which I did in a hospital about two miles from their church. I lived close enough to that church that I could have heard or felt the explosion, though I don’t remember whether I did. 

So in the simplistic three-world formulation the word “world” is doing a lot of work, work it’s not capable of doing. A “positive world” for middle-class conservative white people who don’t speak out against the evils of segregation and naked hateful racism is not a positive world for Christians tout court. You can actually see Brad implicitly acknowledging that the whole debate is too vague when, at the outset of his post, he does what Aaron Renn does not do and narrows the frame of reference to the attitude of the “nation’s elite institutions” – which institutions, of course, are not our whole world.

But even if you do that, the story is more complicated than the three-worlds framework suggests. For instance, though a lunatic fringe insisted (and still insists) that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, millions of American voters were clearly reassured by his longstanding church membership and open affirmation of the Christian faith. There’s no way he could have been elected President without being explicitly Christian – and I think it’s fair to say that the Presidency is an “elite institution.” America has never elected an avowed atheist as President, nor a Jew, nor a Muslim, and indeed the electorate taken as a whole still seems to think of some profession of Christian faith an important qualification for office. (That may well change in the future, of course.) But the kind of straightforward profession of belief in Jesus Christ that we saw in Obama, and before him in Jimmy Carter, would at any previous time in our history have been a red flag. Too much religiosity!

So there are many vectors here of varying power and varying directionality. Let me turn, then, to Derek Rishmawy’s response:

Nevertheless, it does not seem inane, politically, or pastorally irrelevant to ask the question: is there a coherent sense in which one could say the Roman world shifted to a “neutral” or “positive” stance with respect to Christian practice and confession before or after Constantine’s Edict of Milan? Is that a question that is relevant to Christian political witness and pastoral practice?

I’m gonna say No. I’m gonna say that the question is indeed irrelevant, and for several reasons. First, because within the Empire conditions for Christians varied from time to time and place to place. Even at the height of Christian power there were pockets of pagan dominance; and let’s not forget that the reign of Julian the Apostate came after Constantine. Historians may be able to look back and see clear patterns, but no one at the time could have had that kind of assurance. No one knew that Constantine’s support for Christianity would succeed, or that Julian’s opposition to it would fail. Christians then had to face whatever reality confronted them in any given place, at any given moment — as do Christians today. And sometimes adherence to an abstract account of the-situation-in-general can obscure what’s right in front of your face. 

I’m emphasizing how contextually variable the circumstances of Christians always are because simplistic accounts lead to strategies. The most profound problem with the three-worlds account is not that it’s wrong, though it is wrong, but that it’s supposed to yield a strategy. And let me be blunt about this: Whenever Christians decide that they need a strategy, they’re writing a recipe for disobedience to the Lord Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas has always said in response to people who say that the Church needs a social strategy, “the Church is a social strategy.” And here’s Lesslie Newbigin:

When our Lord stretched forth His hand to heal a leper, there was no evangelistic strategy attached to the act. It was a pure outflow of the divine love into the world, and needed no further justification. Such should be the Church’s deeds of service.

The Church’s job is to be the Church, and the Christian’s task is to be like Christ, and strategies invariably get in the way of both. In fact, I believe that, generally speaking, though the people who hold them typically don’t realize this, that’s just what they’re designed to do.

One of the more curious ways Christian “strategic thinking” plays out these days is in the use, by people who hold some version or another (there are several) of the negative-world hypothesis, of the example of Israel. It seems to me telling that the Catholic integralist strategy for infiltrating the corridors of power relies exclusively on Old Testment examples. Likewise this recent post by Kirsten Sanders critiquing Tim Keller’s Areopagocentric emphasis on the need for Christian persuasion:

Certainly such a view on persuasion is one way to read the biblical text. But there are other biblical accounts, too, where Israel encountered a changed world and needed to learn how to live there. Israel in Babylon wasn’t doing a whole lot of cultural exegesis or persuasion. They were learning how to pray while they longed for home.

Indeed – but this neglects the essential fact that Israel were recipients of a Promise, while the Church, while inheriting that same Promise, has also been given a Commission. Jews typically don’t proselytize because they aren’t asked to. It’s always useful for Christians to look to “captive Israel” for consolation and example, but not at the expense of heeding the Commission that led Paul to Athens and the Areopagus.

Moreover, where would we Christians be if the Apostles and the holy martyrs had adopted the negative-world strategy? We would not be, is the answer. I don’t know whether there can be bitter laughter among the company of heaven, but if the martyrs know that we American Christians, beneficiaries of extraordinary legal protections for our professions of faith and inheritors of centuries of faithful stewardship, are complaining that we can’t try to persuade people because our world is too negative, then they are certainly laughing, and not in a way that would be musical to our ears.

• 

So if having a strategy is wrong, what’s right? This is the part I actually want to talk about. What follows may seem personal to the point of self-centeredness, but if you bear with me I think you’ll eventually see why I take this path.

A while back a friend, another Christian writer and scholar, paid me a visit and as we sipped our whisky commented, “You know, Alan, I can’t think of anyone else who has had a career remotely like yours.” And it’s true: I have had – for good or ill or (more probably) both – a very strange career. Just a few weeks ago I met with a group of Christians leaders, leaders in various fields quite different than mine, who wanted me to explain to them how I have ended up writing for the publications I write for. My response came in two parts. The first part was this: I asked them to reflect on the fact that they were the very first people ever to ask me that question. And the second part was this: The key, I said, is that I have never had a plan.

I mean, Do I really look like a guy with a plan?

A while back some Christian writers and editors stirred up an online contretemps by criticizing other Christian writers for seeking publication in “more prestigious” secular outlets. I didn’t weigh in because every online contretemps is definitionally stupid and anyway I had already made my views on this matter clear. But for those who haven’t memorized my blog history, here’s the story: I was perfectly content when I wrote my non-academic essays almost exclusively for Books and Culture and First Things, but then First Things started turning down everything I sent them and Books and Culture was shut down. I was asked to write for Christianity Today but when I suggested topics I was told that they were too academic. So when Alexis Madrigal encouraged me to write for the Technology channel of the Atlantic, and then, later, Chris Beha asked me to write for Harper’s, I did. I didn’t have a plan or a strategy – I just stopped knocking at the doors that had been slammed in my face and started going through the doors that were opened to me in welcome. Obviously there are limits to such a practice – if the Nazi Herald Tribune had asked me to write for them I would have declined – but I didn’t see anything wrong with writing for the Atlantic and Harper’s, especially they have always allowed me to make my Christianity known.

Whether I have been a good Christian witness in the public sphere I am not in a position to say. It’s very possible that I have totally wasted my opportunities, and I have often prayed that this topic not come up when I go before the Judgment Seat. But whether I have used those opportunities wisely or not, I got them precisely because I didn’t have a strategy. Instead, I had certain commitments – commitments that I wouldn’t abandon, some of which were overtly Christian and others of which were implicitly so: for instance, I wanted to write rigorously but also as elegantly as I could manage, I wanted to be deeply scholarly but also fair-minded and honest, and while non-Christians can do all those things, I am committed to them because I believe that I have been entrusted with the stewardship of certain gifts that come from God. That conviction also helps me to perceive that maybe, just maybe, if I get interested in something that doesn’t appear to be directly related to my Christian faith I may in the end discover connections I could not have anticipated. (See e.g. my persistent fascination with Daoism and anarchism.) 

My conviction, for what it’s worth, is that Christians should have commitments without strategies, but instead tend to have strategies without the requisite commitments. Let me tell you what I think that leads to.

Thomas Aquinas says that hope is the virtue that lies between the two vices of presumption (praesumptio) and despair (desperatio).

Integralists, by and large, are presumptuous: they want to rule the world, but decline to ask whether they are fit to rule the world. They think being on the right side is all the justification they need. It isn’t. When Thomas Merton was Master of Novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani, he would constantly remind those novices that they were in monastic life not because they were too pure for the world — which they thought they were: big stars for Team Catholic — but because they were too weak to flourish there. Christian formation begins and, I think, ends in the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

By contrast, those who decline to try to persuade others of the hope that is in them on the grounds that the “world” is too “negative” for that are in the grip of a kind of despair – not in relation to themselves (presumably they do not doubt that God is gracious to them) but in relation to their neighbors. To those people, I would just say that if God can speak through Balaam’s donkey He can speak through you. 

Thomas says that the presumptuous and the despairing alike have something important in common, which he calls the status comprehensor – they are fixed, immobile. The despairing don’t think they can go anywhere; the presumptuous don’t think they need to go anywhere. Having a strategy pushes you towards such a stasis: by choosing in advance a particular path to follow, you are foreclosing on all the other possible paths. You are making yourself deaf to God’s unexpected calls upon your life.

What characterizes the hopeful Christian, Thomas says, is the status viator – the state of being a wayfarer. Thus Josef Pieper refers to “the wayfaring character of hope.” Wayfarers know their destination but aren’t sure how to get there; all along the way they look for signs indicating the best path, and seek help both from their companions and from those they encounter on the road. They know that they have to be flexible and agile; they know that their enemies are Aimlessness and Fixity. They trust in a Guide they cannot see; they listen for His still small voice. Maybe things will be better than they expect; maybe worse; unquestionably different. But they make their way along the pilgrim road, because they hold firm to this twofold truth about Jesus Christ: “As God, he is the goal; as man, he is the way” (Augustine, City of God XI.3).

As a wayfarer you must have a destination but you must accept the inadequacy of any strategy. You must be willing to sprawl.

Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed,
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
And thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.

showing

You’ll probably not be shocked to learn that I agree with Adam about this. My agreement is on three grounds: 

First: If you want simply to tell — if you have a direct blunt message that you want to get across — there are genres for that: genres of expository and persuasive prose that have developed over the centuries for the specific purpose of communicating clear and straightforward messages. Whenever I read a didactic novel that tells me everything I am supposed to think about the story, I always think: Why did you write a novel, then? You’ve got all these “characters” and “events” getting in the way of your message. You’re not making your message better, you’re just making your story worse. Stories are best reserved for experiences and thoughts that simply won’t fit into the structure of an argument — this is, I think, what T. S. Eliot meant when he said that Henry James had “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Eliot thought James distinctively attentive to those aspects of our experience that can’t be condensed into a solid idea. 

Second: If you know precisely what message you want your story to convey, then your story almost certainly will never convey anything more than you explicitly intended. Which is to say, you will never learn anything more from writing it than you knew when you started. For writers who think they already know everything there is to know, this may not be a problem.  

Third: If you know precisely what message you want your story to convey but are a little too artful, make it too lively, then your readers may draw conclusions you don’t want them to draw — see the experience of Bertolt Brecht as related in the final paragraph of this post. That gives you an incentive to make your story as rigid and simplistic as possible. Which means, again, you’re not making your message better, you’re just making your story worse. 

Finally, I think it worth noting that this critique of show-don’t-tell appeared on Twitter, which is populated largely by people who are vigorously hunting heresies and people who are desperately trying to avoid being labeled as heretics. I can’t bring myself to read the replies to Tade Thompson’s original tweet, but from Adam’s description it seems that many of them are more hostile to “showing” than Thompson is (after all, he allows writers sometimes to show). Being on Twitter might be the worst thing writers of fiction can do, because it habituates them to the fear of Error and promotes practices of declarative belligerence. It makes them terrified of any experience that can’t be condensed into a solid idea; and that diminishes them as writers and as persons. 

In a 1939 poem called “Our Bias,” Auden contrasts human beings to a lion or a rose — those creatures that simply are what they are and can’t be other:  

For they, it seems, care only for success:
While we choose words according to their sound
And judge a problem by its awkwardness;

And Time with us was always popular.
When have we not preferred some going round
To going straight to where we are?

Corvo

I picked up The Quest for Corvo by A. J. A. Symons secure in the knowledge that I had read it before, many years ago. Turns out I did not remember one word …  so maybe I didn’t read it after all? What an extraordinary book. Just two brief notes: 

First: Frederick Rolfe (AKA Baron Corvo) was a paranoid’s paranoid, and spent the final years of his impoverished life writing abusive letters to the people who had been most kind to him. Apparently he devoted much creative energy to this task: “He wrote dozens of letters, all venomous and all different, though he seldom descended to mere abuse. One began ‘Quite cretinous creature’; another ended ‘Bitterest execrations’. ‘Your faithful enemy’ was perhaps his favourite termination.” 

I shall remember these rhetorical flourishes and make use of them in replying to my critics. 

Second: For a time Rolfe worked for one of his most constant supporters, Ernest Hardy, then the Vice-principal of Jesus College, Oxford. He was given the unenviable task of marking examination papers, and in a letter to a friend he described the work: 

This Examination (the Honour School of Literae Humaniores) is an experience. We are doing Ancient History, Logick, Roman History, Translation. The papers are perfectly appalling. The vilest, vulgarest scripts, the silliest spelling, infinitives split to the midriff. I asked Hardy what was to be done with these crimes against fair English, and he answered sedately, ‘Pass them over with silent contempt.’ 

That’s what I’m doing from now on when my students write poor essays or exams. Instead of explaining what went wrong and giving advice on how to do better, I shall pass over those writings with silent contempt. 

Ronald Blythe, age 100

Rowan Williams on Ronald Blythe at 100:

“He’s somebody who is very committed to the Christian tradition and he uses it to think with, he uses it as a structure – a Christian year, the round of festivals and commemorations, for him is woven into the round of the calendar year as it would have been for generations before him,” Williams says. “You can think more freely and you may be able to feel more deeply if you’re confident that there’s this steady backdrop. You don’t have to keep making things up. There’s a world you can inhabit, your feet are on the ground, and that means you can walk around, breathe deeply and look slowly. That’s faith.” 

Richard Mabey, in his introduction to the new collection of Blythe’s writings that Williams also contributes to, writes: 

Ronnie’s knowledge and practice of scripture are evident in many of his writings. But only in these Wormingford columns does he openly declare his quite unselfconscious, unquestioning, sometimes irreverent, and just occasionally pagan-tinged Christian faith. And as a friend but a non-believer I have to make a reckoning with this. By unspoken common consent we have never discussed religion. But at a dinner with village friends once, I betrayed my metropolitan prejudices by insisting that the church no longer had any influence on everyday social life. Ronnie turned to me and said, quietly, ‘Richard, you don’t know what you are talking about.’ And as far as Wormingford is concerned he was quite correct, as these pages abundantly show. It was the closest we have ever come to a row. 

rethinking work

Cal Newport

The battle for telecommuting is a proxy for a deeper unrest. If employees lose remote work, the last highly visible, virus-prompted workplace experiment, the window for future transformation might slam shut. The tragedy of this moment, however, is how this reform movement lacks good ideas about what else to demand. Shifting more work to teleconferencing eliminates commutes and provides schedule flexibility, but, as so many office refugees learned, remote work alone doesn’t really help alleviate most of what made their jobs frantic and exhausting. We need new ideas about how to reshape work, and anthropology may have something to offer. 

Newport, to his credit, acknowledges that the common tropes on this subject — “We are wired to do X because our hunter-gatherer ancestors did Z” — are simplistic at best and often misleading. But I’m still not sure his anthropological anecdotes tell us a lot that’s helpful.  

What’s more important is that modern office work is dehumanizing and stress-inducing in ways that even the office work of a hundred years ago was not. (Note: that doesn’t mean that those early patterns of work didn’t have their own problems, some of them major.) I don’t think any anthropological research, or any recent writing about work, captures the differences between the the computerized workplace and earlier modes of work than Mark Helprin’s 1996 essay “The Acceleration of Tranquility” — which even now I think about regularly because it’s not just about work but also about the kinds of material conditions, the furniture of everyday life as it were, that enable flourishing. 

One final note (in this post, anyway; I do want to return to the topic): What Newport is discussing here applies only to office work. There are other kinds of work — including my own, as a teacher — that are grossly diminished when done remotely, and of course many more (surgery, carpentry) that can’t be done remotely at all. But so many people in our society do office work that we really do need to be looking for ways to make it less miserable. 

Ian Bogost:

If Twitter does fail, either because its revenue collapses or because the massive debt that Musk’s deal imposes crushes it, the result could help accelerate social media’s decline more generally. It would also be tragic [me: tragic?] for those who have come to rely on these platforms, for news or community or conversation or mere compulsion. Such is the hypocrisy of this moment. The rush of likes and shares felt so good because the age of zero comments felt so lonely — and upscaling killed the alternatives a long time ago, besides.

If change is possible, carrying it out will be difficult, because we have adapted our lives to conform to social media’s pleasures and torments. It’s seemingly as hard to give up on social media as it was to give up smoking en masse, like Americans did in the 20th century. Quitting that habit took decades of regulatory intervention, public-relations campaigning, social shaming, and aesthetic shifts. At a cultural level, we didn’t stop smoking just because the habit was unpleasant or uncool or even because it might kill us. We did so slowly and over time, by forcing social life to suffocate the practice. That process must now begin in earnest for social media.

John Banville:

The English language is beautiful. It’s immensely rich and untidy with so many influences from other cultures, and I glory in it. People say to me that they have to go to the dictionary. Is that a great trouble? The dictionary is one of the most precious things you have in your house. You should be thanking me for the excuse to go to it. I say to them: “I bet when you went to look up whatever word, you came across four or five new ones. So you gained! I did you a favour!” 

Alas, most of Banville’s readers would’ve looked up the words on Google. It’s only the dictionary in codex form that works the way Banville wants it to work — the way it should work. Trust me on that — and also trust my buddy Austin Kleon. If you don’t have any other books in codex form, have a dictionary and a Bible. They’ll surprise you and teach you every time you pick them up. 


P.S. Unrelated, but here’a another great passage from that interview:

You know, someone said to me recently: “John, I suppose you’ll be writing your Covid novel?” I said: “I certainly will not, and I hope nobody else does either.” The art of fiction isn’t for commenting on events of the time. It may do that, but that’s not its object, which is to imagine the world. 

Thomas Harrison:

Musil was not the only writer of his time to think of the essay as the method and intellectual mode most appropriate to ethical reflection. A predilection for this flexible genre had taken strong root by the end of the nineteenth century, with brilliant standards established by Søren Kierkegaard, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and half a dozen prominent others. Their essays bent “positivistic” accounts of objective phenomena to the purposes of feeling and subjective need, to matters of spiritual and moral import. A loose manner of prose composition without fixed rules of method — incorporating aphorism, lyrical condensation, confession, invective, and satire — the essay straddled a spectrum along which Western metaphysics seemed to have arrayed two components of human experience: head and heart, science and art, truth and fiction, body and soul, law and desire.

This is why the essay is such a culturally vital and underrated genre, a topic on which I hope soon to write an … essay, I guess.  

[Some of you may have seen that I originally posted this as a screenshot from Instapaper, which was easy and looked pretty good … but because it was an image rather than text (a) the text so imaged didn’t resize properly in different-sized browser windows and (b) the content isn’t searchable. So I’m back to the usual way of posting. But I dunno, I might try again at some point; it not being searchable isn’t such a big deal if I have tags. The value for me is that it’s a way of sharing with less friction.] 

negative worlds all the way down

Here’s something people have been asking me to weigh in on for quite a while, but I’ve been putting it off, because … well, what’s the point? But here at last I am.

You know that argument by Aaron Renn about “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism”? Well, it’s wrong. Let me explain … no, there is too much. Let me sum up. 

I can sum up just by quoting one of the first parts, because that is where the argument goes wildly off the rails: 

Positive World (Pre-1994): Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity. To be known as a good, churchgoing man remains part of being an upstanding citizen. Publicly being a Christian is a status-enhancer. Christian moral norms are the basic moral norms of society and violating them can bring negative consequences. 

The “pre-1994” timeframe is obviously wrong. Few of the Founding Fathers held anything remotely approximating orthodox Christian faith; Abraham Lincoln had famously unknowable and shifting religious beliefs, and never joined a church. At the time of the Founding probably no more than 10% of Americans belonged to any church. You can get the details on all this in Mark Noll’s magisterial America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln; America became a markedly more religious country in the 1950s, a process described by George Marsden in another authoritative history, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment. Turns out that for much of America’s history, and in most of America’s places, whether someone was demonstrably a Christian or not really didn’t matter all that much. You can find that out, if you take the time.  

So, you see, we’re already in the midst of major difficulties. Renn has begun with a big historical claim that is demonstrably untrue. If instead of “Pre-1994” he had written “1945-1994” then we could at least have proceeded. So let’s pretend he did and come to his first sentence.   

That sentence is the general claim, the next three unpack it. Sentence 2 strikes me as being generally correct, but irrelevant or ambiguous in import. (Was Jesus considered “an upstanding citizen”?) Sentence 3 would be correct if the phrase “being a Christian” were replaced with “professing Christianity.” Sentence 4 would be correct if its first word were “Some,” but because it isn’t, the sentence is incorrect, and incorrect in a way that destroys the entire argument. 

Here’s what I mean: Some Christian moral norms carried social authority in many though not all parts of America. For instance, generally speaking, a married person could not openly conduct extramarital affairs, nor could an unmarried one be openly promiscuous. Certainly homosexuality was almost always seen as a sin. Whether divorce damaged you socially — well, that varied a lot from place to place. Renn doesn’t cite any examples, so I don’t know what else he might have in mind. Maybe “honor your father and mother”? — That certainly was a commandment held in far higher regard before the social upheavals of the Sixties. 

But for much of America’s history there were very large sections of the country in which, if you wanted to argue that all human beings are made in the image of God and the laws of America should in this respect follow the law of God, you were, shall we say, unlikely to get a respectful hearing. (And as David French recently pointed out, those problems, and other related ones, haven’t altogether gone away.) Does Renn seriously think that the slaves in the cotton fields singing their spirituals were living in a Christianity-positive world? But wait — that’s pre-1945, sorry. Does Renn think that six-year-old Ruby Bridges, praying for those who cursed and reviled her, was living in a Christianity-positive world? (And, to me anyway, this ain’t ancient history: Ruby Bridges is just four years older than I am.) Or Jonathan Daniels, who stood between a black woman and a deputy sheriff and got himself shot dead for his trouble — and whose killer was acquitted and lived out his life in peace? 

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Now, I’m sure many of those who screamed abuse at Ruby, or voted to acquit the murderer of Jonathan Daniels, would have insisted that they were good and faithful Christians — which takes me back to the distinction I made above, and that Renn failed to make, between “publicly professing Christianity” and “publicly being a Christian.” Those who hated Ruby may have professed Christianity, but did they live it? 

If they had not professed Christianity they probably would have suffered social disapproval; if they had sought to practice it in relation to Ruby Bridges and their other black neighbors they certainly would have been excoriated — or worse. (Look at what happened to my old colleague Julius Scott, for the crime of saying that Black people should be welcomed into all-white churches.)  

What David French means when he says that “It’s Always a ‘Negative World’ for Christianity” is simply this: Professing Christianity is what Renn calls a “status-enhancer” when and only when the Christianity one professes is in step with what your society already and without reference to Christian teaching describes as “being an upstanding citizen.” If you don’t believe me, try getting up on stage in an evangelical megachurch and reckoning seriously with Jesus’s teaching on wealth and poverty. Even a sermon on loving your enemies, like Ruby Bridges, and blessing those who curse you, can be a hard sell — as many pastors since 2016 have discovered. News flash: if you make a point of never saying anything that would make people doubt your commitment to their preferred social order, they’ll probably think you an upstanding citizen. (Who knew?)  

There are pretty much always some elements of Christian teaching that you can get away with publicly affirming; but you can never get away with affirming them all. If American Christians sixty years ago felt fully at home in their social world, that’s because they quietly set aside, or simply managed to avoid thinking about, all the biblical commandments that would render them no longer at ease in the American dispensation. Any Christians who have ever felt completely comfortable in their culture have already edited out of their lives the elements of Christianity that would generate social friction. And no culture that exists, or has ever existed, or ever will exist, is receptive to the whole Gospel. 

As I said at the outset: What’s the point even of writing this? Renn saw French’s essay, and he simply congratulated himself on getting attention. He didn’t answer any of the arguments made against his scheme, and I doubt he ever will. He’s articulated a tall tale that some people want to live by, and  that seems to be good enough for him. 

But there’s another reason why I doubt the usefulness of this whole debate: It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter one whit. I’ve said this over and over again: Whether it’s a positive world or a neutral world or a negative world or a multiverse or just a crazy old world, my job is the same: to strive for faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. What I hear him saying is, “What is all that to you? Follow me.” And following him is hard, because I am subjected to precisely the same pressures against faithful Christian witness that every other Christian faces. I’m fighting for my spiritual life here. So I’m done with this topic; my time is better spent in other ways.  

stats

How to Lie with Statistics

Just a quick reminder that the use of statistics to mislead is a never-ending thing: The Guardian, in an attempt to cast a skeptical eye on Ron DeSantis, notes that Florida “had the third-highest death toll of any US state.” Now, I am no fan of Ron DeSantis, to say the least, but come on: Florida is the third most populous state, so it would be very surprising if it didn’t have one of the highest death tolls. Plus, it has a very high percentage of elderly residents, and as we all know, the elderly are significantly more endangered by Covid than any other age group.

The relevant statistic here — if you’re interested specifically in deaths — is number of deaths per 100,000 residents, and by that measure Florida is 12th. Nothing to boast about, certainly, but better than Michigan and New Jersey and only slightly worse than Pennsylvania and New York — again, despite having an older population than any of those states. It’s also 21st in percentage of residents vaccinated.

I’m calling attention to this not because I want to defend DeSantis, but merely to note a reliable journalistic practice: If the relevant statistics don’t tell the story you want to peddle, then choose irrelevant statistics that do. Most readers won’t ask questions.

The actual story of Florida and Covid is extremely interesting, I think, precisely because the evidence doesn’t yield clear answers. Derk Thompson has a good piece on these complexities.

Pevearsion

Recently I had cause to remember Gary Saul Morson’s devastating critique of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of Russian literature. (When you’re done with Morson’s critique you might want to go on to Janet Malcolm’s.) I decided that I need to read War and Peace again — I used to teach it occasionally, but I haven’t read it in maybe twenty years — and I picked up the beautiful Knopf hardcover of the P&V translation that someone gave me years ago. 

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In the second chapter we’re introduced to Princess Bolkonskaya, Prince Andrei’s young wife. Here’s that introduction in the old Louise and Alymer Maude translation

The young Princess Bolkónskaya had brought some work in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty little upper lip, on which a delicate dark down was just perceptible, was too short for her teeth, but it lifted all the more sweetly, and was especially charming when she occasionally drew it down to meet the lower lip. As is always the case with a thoroughly attractive woman, her defect — the shortness of her upper lip and her half-open mouth — seemed to be her own special and peculiar form of beauty.

Here’s Ann Dunnigan’s translation

The young Princess Bolkonskaya had brought her needlework in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty little upper lip, shadowed with a barely perceptible down, was too short for her teeth and, charming as it was when lifted, it was even more charming when drawn down to meet her lower lip. As always with extremely attractive women, her defect — the shortness of her upper lip and her half-open mouth — seemed to be her own distinctive kind of beauty. 

And here is the P&V version: 

The young princess Bolkonsky came with handwork in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty upper lip with its barely visible black mustache was too short for her teeth, but the more sweetly did it open and still more sweetly did it sometimes stretch and close on the lower one. As happens with perfectly attractive women, her flaw — a short lip and half-opened mouth — seemed her special, personal beauty. 

Her black mustache? The down on a woman’s upper lip is very much not a mustache. What a bizarre word-choice. Horrified, I set the book down, lovely as it is to look at, and went back to the Dunnigan translation, the friend of my youth. 

But all that said: It’s remarkable, if inexplicable, how the P&V translations of Russian fiction have brought those wonderful books into the hands of many readers who otherwise might never have read them. So thanks be for that. 

Home invasion:

For those of us who have been using Mastodon for a while (I started my own Mastodon server 4 years ago), this week has been overwhelming. I’ve been thinking of metaphors to try to understand why I’ve found it so upsetting. This is supposed to be what we wanted, right? Yet it feels like something else. Like when you’re sitting in a quiet carriage softly chatting with a couple of friends and then an entire platform of football fans get on at Jolimont Station after their team lost. They don’t usually catch trains and don’t know the protocol. They assume everyone on the train was at the game or at least follows football. They crowd the doors and complain about the seat configuration.

It’s not entirely the Twitter people’s fault. They’ve been taught to behave in certain ways. To chase likes and retweets/boosts. To promote themselves. To perform. All of that sort of thing is anathema to most of the people who were on Mastodon a week ago. It was part of the reason many moved to Mastodon in the first place. This means there’s been a jarring culture clash all week as a huge murmuration of tweeters descended onto Mastodon in ever increasing waves each day. To the Twitter people it feels like a confusing new world, whilst they mourn their old life on Twitter. They call themselves “refugees,” but to the Mastodon locals it feels like a busload of Kontiki tourists just arrived, blundering around yelling at each other and complaining that they don’t know how to order room service. We also mourn the world we’re losing. 

I’m a bit concerned about micro.blog — I don’t use Mastodon — for just this reason. That’s why I wrote a few months ago, “On micro.blog, you have absolutely no incentive to flex, shitpost, self-promote, or troll. You’re there to post interesting things and/or chat with people. Nothing else makes sense.” 

End-Times Tales

Venkatesh Rao — End-Times Tales:

We are drowning in a sea of reboots, reruns, and recycled stories on television and movie screens for the same reason dying people supposedly see their lives flash before their eyes. The story is ending. Despite living through arguably the greatest era of storytelling technology in history, we have no new stories to tell ourselves.

Now this is not entirely true. I’ve found the occasional fresh new story. Station 11 is an example, a lovely recent TV show, but rather tellingly, set in a post-apocalyptic world where for some reason the survivors perform budget Shakespeare reboot productions in a slightly nicer Mad Max world (really? the world ended and Shakespeare is still the source of the most interesting stories you can tell yourself?).

Yep: really. Anyone who’s ever seen a good production of a Shakespeare play — budget or otherwise — can confirm. Possibly the most powerful evening of art I have ever experienced was a performance of Measure for Measure, by a small company of actors on a bare stage surrounded by folding chairs. (Also, FYI: new performances of a play are not “reboots.”) 

Also, w/r/t this: “Despite living through arguably the greatest era of storytelling technology in history, we have no new stories to tell ourselves” — replace “Despite” with “Because we are” and the sentence makes an important point. 

From a really helpful essay by my colleague David Corey:

Some people I know worry that genuine friendship is less possible in a pluralist age than in contexts where citizens share a robust conception of the good, or of God. But this is not my view. From experience I have learned that friendship does not require that friends love all the same things, much less that they love the same ultimate things. Friendships based on such common loves of course do exist, and perhaps they are of a higher order than those in which ultimate truths are not shared. But friendship is possible where what is loved is simply the person, not the person’s metaphysics or theology. Pluralism thus need not be the death of friendships that are genuine and deep.

But if pluralism does not render meaningful friendships impossible, the tendency to understand politics as a form of war certainly makes them less likely. That was the claim I supported above by distinguishing between friendship and allyship. The second claim I made was that how one understands friendship can affect how one practices politics. Why would this be so? It is because the experience of genuine friendship, which is not merely an intrinsic good but a peak intrinsic good, cannot help but put politics in its place. Politics today makes great claims about its own importance. Yet politics cannot bring meaning to our lives — not deep meaning at any rate — because it is never more than an instrumental good.