Little Platoons

Matt Feeney’s Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age is a fascinating and provocative book that, in my judgment anyway, cries out for a sequel.

Before I go any further I should say that I’ve known Matt for years – we used to be co-conspirators at The American Scene – and we’ve corresponded occasionally since then, though not recently.

If there is any one idea that conservatives are thought to share, it’s the belief that a healthy society needs healthy mediating institutions. This is the burden of Yuval Levin’s recent book A Time to Build, and Yuval (also a friend) makes this argument about as well as it can be made. We do not flourish either as individuals or as a society when there is nothing to mediate between the atomized individual and the massive power of the modern nation-state. That’s why it’s always, though especially now, “a time to build” those mediating institutions that collectively are known as “civil society.” 

The really brilliant thing about Matt’s book — written by someone who, like me, possesses a conservative disposition but might not be issued a card by the people who authorize “card-carrying conservatives” — is its claim that in some areas of contemporary American life the mediating institutions are not too weak but rather too strong. And what he demonstrates with great acuity is the consistency with which those institutions, from youth soccer organizations to college admissions committees, have conscripted the “little platoon” of the family to serve their needs — indeed, to get families to compete with one another to serve those institutions’ needs: 

What happens, though, when citizens direct their suspicion not at a coercive government but at their peers, with whom they find or feel themselves, as parents and families, in competition? I join a chorus of scholars and writers in observing that such a competitive mood abides among parents today. Less noticed is how such competition creates new forms of subservience and conformity among families. In this environment, the intermediate bodies of civil society, cornerstone of the conservative theory of republican liberty, sometimes become demanding bosses, taskmasters, and gatekeepers in the enterprise of winning advantage for our children in a system of zero-sum competition. 

As a result,  

Under these conditions, the anxious and competitive citizen-parent looks to certain “voluntary associations,” certain institutions within “civil society,” not as bulwarks against coercive government but as ways to gain advantage over other families, exclusive paths to better futures. From boutique preschools to competitive sports clubs to selective colleges and universities, desirable institutions become bidding objects for future-worried and status-conscious families. 

Thus, “the era of intensive parenting is defined by the rise of a sort of hybrid entity, an institutional cyborg that is part organization and part family.” 

Matt is not by any means opposed to these mediating institutions as such — there’s a wonderful section on how he learned, through walking his kids to school every day and then hanging out for a while with teachers and other parents, how a school really can be the locus of genuine community — but looks with a gimlet eye, a Foucauldian gimlet eye, on the ways that, right now, in this country, a few such institutions form, sustain and disseminate their power over families.  

He’s scathing about college admissions, especially the turn towards “holistic” admissions processes which serve to transform mid-level administrators into eager shapers of souls. He mentions a Vice Provost at Emory who laments the imperfection of his knowledge of the inner lives of applicants, and continues: 

If you recall that, twenty or thirty years ago, admissions departments weren’t even mentioning authenticity, were not treating the therapeutic search for true voices and true selves as the goal of their investigations, and if you devote a moment’s thought to the absurdity of this search, you will be tempted to laugh at Vice Provost Latting’s hysterical protest against imperfect knowledge. But, laughable as this and other admissions testimony is, on its merits, I would like to present a good reason not to laugh. Setting up a yearslong, quasi-therapeutic process in which you goad young people to lay bare their vulnerable selves to you, when this process is actually a high-value transaction in which you use your massive leverage to mold those selves to your liking, is actually a terrible thing to do. 

Yes, it is. And I am glad to hear someone say it so bluntly. 

In his conclusion, Matt admits his reluctance to give advice to parents in such a coercive and panoptic environment, and that’s perfectly understandable. In any case, the primary function of the the primary purpose of the book is diagnostic: he wants to show us the specific ways in which these various mediating institutions co-opt families, and even in some cases make the families hosts to which they are the parasites. I don’t think that the book would have held together as well if it had tried to include parenting advice in the midst of everything else. But it is obvious that Matt has thought quite a lot about what it means to be a responsible parent in our time – he has a great riff on why he’s okay with the fact that his oldest daughter is the only person in her class who doesn’t have a smartphone – and I would really like to hear more from him about how he conceives of the positive responsibilities of being a parent, the dispositions and actions which strengthen that little platoon. I don’t think he needs to do this in a pop-psychology self-help way; Matt is by training a philosopher and I think philosophical reflection on this topic, so essential to human flourishing, would be welcome from him.

But the book provides a great service simply by teasing out the ways in which families are not served by but rather are made to serve these parasitic institutions — and the ways in which we are manipulated to do so ever more intensely by our felt need to compete with other families. As we are always told, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem. 

Barney Ronay:

Chekhov came up with the idea of the shotgun above the mantelpiece. If there’s a gun on the wall in Act 1 of your drama, someone had better be firing it by Act 2. By the same token if you have an abundance of attacking talent – dribblers, speed-merchants, velvet-touch princelings – at some point you really do need to encourage them to show it on the pitch.

For now Southgate seems to have rejected this dramatic rule in favour of something more diffuse. We appreciate and welcome guns as a basic principle. We have a wealth of promising guns in the pathway. We will, in due course, be reviewing their use as part of a wider process. Now. Shall we talk about right-backs for a bit? 

Gareth Southgate indeed has “an abundance of attacking talent” at his disposal, and clearly considers this his cross to bear. What he wants is an entire team of Jordan Hendersons. 

UPDATE AFTER THE MATCH: If Southgate hadn’t acted decisively to get his three most creative and dangerous players (Saka, Grealish, Sterling) off the pitch, England might have scored again. What a nightmare that would have been. 

The players have mostly been very good, despite their manager’s desperate attempts to stifle them. I’m looking forward to the 8-1-1, with poor old Harry Kane lumbering along at the front of the line like one of the Walking Dead, that Southgate will deploy in the knockout round.

two poems in support of my recent posts

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
 

— from “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert  

 

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 

— from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry

A tiny pendant to the previous post: One of the ways I try to maintain the very possibility of thinking of this blog in gift-economy terms is by avoiding all analytics. I don’t know how many people read this blog — I’d guess that regular readers are probably in the high two figures — ; I don’t know which posts get more attention and which get less. (Not posting to Twitter helps here also.) My ignorance protects me from playing to the crowd. Since I crave attention as much as the next guy, preserving my ignorance is an important discipline for me. 

I also want to write at some point about how this blog can even potentially participate in the gift economy only because I do other things that participate in the market economy. 

managers and givers

I have written frequently on this blog about what I call metaphysical capitalism, and that orientation to the world takes several forms:

  1. Understanding human relationships in purely contractual terms: e.g., consent becomes the only criterion of sexual ethics.
  2. Believing that my happiness can be purchased in the marketplace, and further that a just society purchases my happiness for me (e.g. by paying for my sex-reassignment surgery or my MFA).  
  3. Conceiving of conflict as a matter to be resolved by appealing to The Authorities: as someone once said (extended searching hasn’t recovered the source), a disturbingly large number of people treat almost every conflict, at work or at play or on social media, as an excuse to Convince Management to Take Their Side — to take their side by getting some offending person fired, or banned from YouTube, silenced, excluded. This view is capitalist in a distinctively modern sense, because it assumes massive corporate bureaucracy as an immutable given, like what we used to call “a force of nature” before we decided that nature is not given but rather plastic and moldable according to our will. 

Each of these forms of metaphysical capitalism is a way of giving up — giving up on meaningful structural change to our social order, giving up on imagining an alternative to technocracy, giving up on thinking of my self as something other than a commodity (even if it’s a commodity I claim to own). It’s agreeing — probably unconsciously, unthinkingly — not just to live under the corporate constitution but to see that constitution as the only Power enabling our flourishing.

We typically don’t see it, but this is Lucifer as new management


Lately I’ve been re-reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which clearly describes the radical difference between the market economy and the gift economy, but struggles to articulate a way to escape the former and embrace the latter. The spread of the market economy into every area of life is exactly what I mean when I talk about metaphysical capitalism, and Hyde sees this spread arising from, made necessary by, bad faith: “Out of bad faith comes a longing for control, for the law and the police. Bad faith suspects that the gift will not come back, that things won’t work out, that there is a scarcity so great in the world that it will devour whatever gifts appear. In bad faith the circle is broken.” 

Again and again in this book Hyde makes three points.

  1. A gift is not a gift unless it circulates. 
  2. Circulation requires more than two people. “The gift moves in a circle, and two people do not make much of a circle. Two points establish a line, but a circle lies in a plane and needs at least three points.”
  3. The one who wishes to engage in the gift economy must give without expectation of return — must give in the knowledge that those who receive it will only be able, or willing, to do so in the terms of the market economy. The recipient, that is, may simply keep the gift rather than passing it on, thus failing to maintain the necessary circulation.

The implications of this argument are multiple. Here I just want to note one that Hyde acknowledges and one he does not. He sees the connection with a topic I have sometimes explored here and hope to explore further: anarchism. “There are many connections between anarchist theory and gift exchange as an economy – both assume that man is generous, or at least cooperative, ‘in nature’; both shun centralized power; both are best fitted to small groups and loose federations; both rely on contracts of the heart over codified contract, and so on…. Anarchism and gift exchange share the assumption that it is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.” 

The second implication is theological: This is my body, given for you. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross is offered, is graciously given — see John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift — to those who may not receive it at all, or who may receive it greedily, in hopes of keeping it as their own, their Precious, not forwarding the gift into circulation, not allowing community to appear. Again search is not helping, but I think it’s John Milbank who writes somewhere of “the tragic risk of kenosis,” the tragic risk of God’s self-emptying for people who neither deserve nor especially want that gift. (It would be seriously wrong to think that “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” is a statement only or even primarily about Israelites.) 

One of the things I love most about the structure of the modern Eucharistic rite is the way it enables, and calls our attention to, this circulation of gifts. We begin with the Liturgy of the Word: we hear Scripture read and preached, we make our profession of faith, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor, we exchange the Peace with one another; and then, in gratitude for this our reconciliation, we bring our gifts to the altar. (“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”) But that just leads to the Liturgy of the Table, at which the ultimate Gift is celebrated and received: the Gift of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. No matter what we try to give back, God always gives more, and more, and more. My cup runneth over. So those financial gifts we offered go out into a needy community, and we ourselves, at the end of the service, ask God to “Send us out into the world in peace, to love and serve You with gladness and singleness of heart.” It’s not a line, it’s a circle. 

Well. These are high thoughts. But what I am trying to do is connect these theological and social ideas with certain quotidian practices — for instance, writing blog posts. There are two major reasons why I am writing about these matters on my blog. One is that the blog format allows for ideas to be developed tentatively, to be returned to, to be revised and expanded. But the other reason is that blogging at its best can be a form of participation in a gift economy: I’m not asking you to pay anything for what I write here, and if you find that it has any value, you may easily share the URLs with others. It ain’t much, but it’s what I got. And who knows, maybe circulation will add to its currently quite limited value. 

two constitutions

Michael Lind:

Today Americans live under two constitutions: the political constitution and the corporate constitution. The political constitution is functioning reasonably well. The corporate constitution, by comparison, is a lawless realm of out-of-control tyranny.

The American political constitution’s system of checks and balances is not perfect, but it has been vindicated during the four tempestuous years of the Trump presidency. Donald Trump lost power in a free and fair election. Numerous courts and state officials and his own vice president have rejected his claims that the election was illegally stolen. He has now been impeached a second time, and his violent supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 are being arrested and those who committed crimes against persons and property will receive due process under the law.

But if our political constitution is that of a flawed but functioning democracy, the same cannot be said of our corporate constitution. In our corporate constitution, giant oligopolistic firms that are essential to commerce, communications, and finance operate in many cases without any regulations other than those which they themselves make.

giving breath back to the dead

Justin E. H. Smith:

History in general is easily manipulable, and can always be applied for the pursuit of present goals, whatever these may be. It has long seemed to me that one of the more noble uses of history is to help us convince ourselves of the contingency of our present categories and practices. And it is for this reason, principally, that I am not satisfied with seeing history-of-philosophy curricula and conferences “diversified” as if seventeenth-century Europe were itself subject to our current DEI directives.

One particularly undesirable consequence of such use of history for the present is that it invites and encourages your political opponents likewise to marshall it for their own present ends. And in this way history becomes just another forked node of presentist Discourse — the foreign and unassimilable lives of all of those who actually lived in 1619 or 1776 are covered over. But history, when done most rigorously and imaginatively, gives breath back to the dead, and honors them in their humanity, not least by acknowledging and respecting the things they cared about, rather than imposing our own fleeting cares on them. Eventually, moreover, a thorough and comprehensive survey of the many expressions of otherness of which human cultures are capable in turn enables us, to speak with Seamus Heaney in his elegant translation of Beowulf, to “assay the hoard”: that is, to take stock of the full range of the human, and to begin to discern the commonalities behind the differences. 

Anyone who happens to know what my most recent book was about will not be surprised at how vigorously I nod my head at this. 

Attention! (a summary)

I obviously write about a good many things, but over the last decade my work has been largely devoted to a single overarching theme: what we attend to and what we fail to attend to. This started with the work on my old Text Patterns blog that fed into my 2011 book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, and since then I have pursued the various connected issues and problems down several paths. My set of Theses for Disputation, “Attending to Technology,” is my most explicit articulation of these concerns, but even when I didn’t seem to be thinking about these things I really was. Even my biography of the Book of Common Prayer was an attempt to understand the prayer book as an instrument for the focusing of the attention of wayward Christians on that to which they should primarily attend. As the BCP almost says, “We have attended to those things we should not have attended to, and we have not attended to those things which we should have attended to, and there is no health in us.” The relevance of these questions to How to Think will be obvious to anyone who has read it, but I could say the same about the two books that I published since then, The Year of Our Lord 1943 and Breaking Bread with the Dead. In each case I am concerned with the forces in our culture that inhibit enriching attentiveness, that enforce enervating distraction, that direct our minds always towards the frivolous or the malicious. (This is of course why I despise Twitter so intensely.) 

The Invitation and Repair project might be understood as circling within this orbit of thought, but it’s also an attempt to go beyond my earlier, more purely diagnostic, thinking and to begin to understand how to embed concrete practices of life in concrete institutional structures. My most recent essay in The New Atlantis is likewise an attempt to forge a new and more constructive direction for thinking about and addressing our culture-wide attentional dysfunction. I have been interested in Chinese thought — looking into each of the Three Ways but especially Taoism — because the Chinese intellectual/spiritual traditions have always striven to identify and defeat the enemies of proper attention. Even something like the I Ching, which is commonly thought of as a straightforward manual of divination, is always said by its most eloquent and insightful proponents to be — as I have said the Book of Common Prayer is — a device for directing the attention. The I Ching doesn’t tell you what to do so much as tell you what you should be thinking about as you try to decide what to do – what your primary coordinates for judgment should be.

I’ve been intrigued by Chinese thought about these matters not because I think the Christian tradition, which I hold as my own, is deficient, though in fact I do believe that the Western church hasn’t been, well, sufficiently attentive to attention. Rather, I’m just trying to surprise myself. China Achebe used to say that he could write well about the traditional ways of the Igbo people because, while he observed them closely, they weren’t his ways, not when he was growing up. His Christian-convert father forbade him to consort with pagans, which just made pagans more interesting to him. He watched them more closely, and learned a lot from them, precisely because they were a step or two away from his ordinary beliefs and practices. 

And that’s the goal, right? — not to think about attention, which is like thinking about your flashlight instead of using it to find your way in the dark, but rather to see more clearly — and, ultimately, direct your mind and heart and spirit towards what can nourish you. Indeed that is the goal; gut sometimes you might be forced to notice that your flashlight is running out of batteries, or isn’t very strong even at its best, so maybe you should try a different one, or see if you have any fresh batteries? 

Such meta-reflection is dangerous, though. I find myself recalling Carlyle’s famous comment about talking with Coleridge: “He began anywhere: you put some question to him, made some suggestive observation: instead of answering this, or decidedly setting out towards answer of it, he would accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out.” People who talk and write about “productivity” and even “attention” are like that, in a more mundane way. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to achieve ever-more-precise diagnoses of our attentional disorders; I don’t want to continue looking at the light, I want to look along it to see what it illuminates. 

Thoughts on the Euros: 1

1. The Christian Eriksen story, of course, continues to loom large. It was a beautiful moment when his Inter teammate, Belgium striker Romelo Lukaku, ran to the camera after scoring against Russia to proclaim, “Chris, Chris, I love you!” And equally lovely when Belgium played Eriksen’s Denmark in the next match and the Danish fans, in gratitude, started chanting Lukaku’s name. 

2. Harry Kane desperately needs some rest, and the smart thing would be for Gareth Southgate to sit him down, but I am quite confident that Gareth Southgate will not do the smart thing. England would be better at this point with Calvert-Lewin as striker, Grealish behind him as the number 10, and Sancho on the right wing, with Kane, Sterling, and either Phillips or Rice having a seat. And yeah, I know that Sterling scored England’s only goal so far, but overall he hasn’t been great, and I believe a front three of Calvert-Lewin, Foden, and Sancho would be very dangerous. (In the first two games England’s front three had a total of three shots on target.) 

3. At the very end of France-Hungary, Endre Botka rugby-tackled Kimpembe in the box — ineptly, after which he fell to the ground in double humiliation, faking injury — and VAR said there was no foul. I am as sure as I can be that that happened because the game was played in a stadium full of delirious Hungarians. And after a year of players’ and coaches’ shouts echoing off empty seats, I’m kinda okay with that. The good thing about human error is that it’s human.

4. The two Ringer FC podcasts — Stadio and Wrighty’s House — are my very favorite podcasts, on any topic, and there was an especially <chef’s kiss> moment in the most recent episode of Wrighty’s House, in which Ian Wright, Musa Okongwa, and Ryan Hunn were discussing the England-Scotland draw. Wrighty opined that, in Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson, Scotland might have the best left side in world football. Sensing that the time had come for a Game of Thrones reference, Musa said “They’re the Iron Bank” — and then, to make it better, “the Iron Flank.” To which Ryan: “They’re the IRN-BRU Flank.” Too good.   

5. Barney Ronay: “The Italian anthem repeats the line ‘We are ready to die’ four times in its second verse. At the Stadio Olimpico Chiellini sang it like it was something beautiful and impossibly tender.” 

Chiellini italy

chirography

Dear reader, I’m sure you have a tough job, but reflect on this: You don’t have to try to decipher Auden’s handwriting. 

Audenhand

Betjeman & Burnham

You probably don’t expect to see an essay that links John Betjeman and Bo Burnham. I certainly didn’t expect to write one, but I did.

When I first came across Bo Burnham’s videos, several years ago now, I didn’t care for them at all. I thought he was childishly eager to pluck all the lowest-hanging comic-satirical fruit, and was all too eager to flatter the sensibilities of his audience. So I stopped paying attention to what he was doing. But people were praising his new Netflix special so extravagently that I had to check it out, if only so I could say how wrong everyone is.

Instead, I loved it. I think it is a tremendously successful and genuinely significant work of art. I keep thinking: I’m having this reaction to a Bo Burnham show?? And yeah, I am.

Gorey as designer

Rosemary Hill on Edward Gorey:

Gorey’s first book, The Unstrung Harp, was published in 1953, the year he moved to New York. He was working for Anchor Books, a new imprint of Doubleday, set up for the production of ‘quality literature … in mass-market paperback format’. Despite his own literary ambitions and the fact that he was trying and failing to write a novel, Gorey wasn’t employed on the editorial side but in the art department, where he worked variously as a cover artist and book designer. It was here that he hit on the form and order that [his former teacher John] Ciardi saw he needed. Having no training in typographic design, he found marking up layouts for the printer difficult. In an early example of what Dery calls his avant-retroism, Gorey decided that rather than look up all the fonts and calculate the point sizes it was ‘simply easier to hand-letter the whole thing’. The use of manual processes to imitate technical ones became an essential feature of his work. The delicate cross-hatching that gives his monochrome illustrations the velvety depth of 19th-century engravings was all done by hand with a crow quill dip pen. Having worked out his modus operandi, Gorey became ‘fast and competent’ at his job and used the rest of his time at the office to produce his own books.

Here’s an example, from a copy I bought at a used book store in, I think, 1976:

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MbM

People get paid to do minute-by-minute reports on matches, but they’re never as good as the ones my son and I do. The “Yorkshire Pirlo” is Kalvin Phillips, who has been the man of this match (England-Croatia), so far anyway.

Sourdough

Auden used to say that he had a kind of guardian angel who was always there to tell him what to read next. I sometimes I think I have one too, though my angel is rather less consistently attentive than Auden’s was. But she has one habit I like: she tells me when not to read something. Yes, you’ll want to read that, she whispers, but wait. Wait a while. Not now, but later.

One book she told me to delay the reading of is Robin Sloan’s novel Sourdough — but recently she gave me permission, and I eagerly, um, devoured it. What an absolutely delightful tale! I recommend it to you all, as soon as your reading angel — you have one, I trust — gives you the O.K.

One of the great things about Sourdough is that it’s an utterly charming story that opens up, at the end, towards a future that could be quite utopian … or, marginal chance, quite dystopian.

Thanks be to God that Christian Eriksen is alive, and I pray that he will make a full recovery. But I have to say, the sight of his teammates standing in a circle around their fallen comrade, protecting him, as the medics frantically worked to revive him, from prying and gawking eyes, is one that I will remember for the rest of my life. 

Wondering how to decide what to read? Here’s a simple but effective heuristic to cut down the choices significantly. Ask yourself one question: Does this writer make bank when we hate one another? And if the answer is yes, don’t read that writer.

a kind of parable

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In yesterday’s post I mentioned the upsurge in the British public’s interest in art during the Second World War. Exhibitions like the one advertised above were all over London — you see several of them in Out of Chaos — and the National Gallery could show the work of living artists because it had empty walls: all of the works of the dead ones had been packed up —

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— and moved to an unused mine, called the Manod Caves, in north Wales:  

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For certain staff members this was not the worst thing that could have happened. The two chief restorers, W.A. Holder and Helmut Ruhemann, now had the opportunity to attend to damaged or merely age-worn paintings in solitude and with all the time they needed. Here’s Holder with Sir Kenneth Clark — later to become world-famous thanks to Civilisation, but then the director of the National Gallery: 

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The windows in the background suggest that this photo was not taken in the Manod Caves but rather in one of above-ground locations in Wales where the pictures had originally been moved before Clark decided that they weren’t safe enough. (Many more excellent photos of the Great Removal may be found here.) 

Ruhemann didn’t stay in Wales long — he took other jobs during the war, though eventually he returned to the National Gallery — but Holder worked in the caves for the duration. I like to think of him there, laboring patiently, quietly, persistently to repair and restore beautiful objects — works born of insight, imagination, and craft but damaged by neglect and the relentless passage of time. Outside the world is convulsed, and God bless those who fight for all they’re worth against its evils, but some of us are called to protect and preserve and restore our inheritance, waiting and hoping for better days, days when we emerge bearing what we have repaired to announce our heartfelt invitation. 

Out of Chaos

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Jill Craigie (1911-1999) was an extraordinary and (in my country anyway) insufficiently well-known figure. Born in London to a Scottish father and Russian mother, she became an actress, a filmmaker, a feminist and historian of feminism, and spouse to the Labour Party giant Michael Foot. Marrying an exceptionally famous man eclipsed the rest of her varied career, alas. 

In the midst of World War II she wrote, directed, and narrated a fascinating short documentary called Out of Chaos (1944). If you’re in the U.K. you can follow that link to watch the whole film, but elsewhere you’ll need a VPN. The topic of the film is the dramatic upsurge in the British public’s interest in art during the war, and the film covers a remarkable array of people and activities in its 27 minutes. Here’s a picture, taken during the making of the film, of Craigie and the great Stanley Spencer: 

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That’s Spencer in the foreground (I don’t know who that is standing next to Craigie). Here they are again:

Stanley Spencer and Craigie

Craigie’s camera follows Spencer as he makes the first sketches for his magnificent  Shipbuilding on the Clyde paintings — and shows those sketches to the shipbuilders. 

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The elfin quickness of Spencer contrasts wonderfully with the calm solidity of Henry Moore, whom we see making sketches for his later-to-be-famous drawings of Londoners during the Blitz sheltering in the Underground. (I think the image below, and most of the scenes of Moore in the film, are re-enactments. In later years he explained that he and his wife had seen these sleepers in the Tube and had been greatly struck by them — the long lines of sleepers reminded him of Africans crowded into slave ships — but out of respect he waited until he was well out of their presence before beginning his sketches.) 

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Perhaps the most extraordinary scene in the film shows Moore, first with a wax pencil and then with paint, making one of his drawings:

Moore

this one

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There’s so much in this film — even with all this I have only scratched the surface. It’s a miracle of narrative complexity and compression. 

Not long ago a film about Craigie’s life was made — I hope to see it. And to get to know more of her work. 

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Bird Basket

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Henry Moore, Bird Basket (1939) 

All Saints Chapel

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John Piper, All Saints Chapel, Bath (1942); Tate Britain: “Piper already had a reputation as a painter of historic architecture, in particular of ruined buildings, when he was commissioned to record war damage. He had painted in Bristol and the Houses of Parliament when Bath was bombed on the nights of 25, 26 and 27 April 1942 in some of the first ‘Baedeker raids’, so called because the targets were cultural rather than strategic and said to be selected from the pre-war Baedeker guide books. Piper went quickly to Bath when, he recorded, the ‘ruins were still smouldering and bodies being dug out.’” 

Covehithe Church

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John Piper, Covehithe Church (1983); Tate Britain 

not giving up

One way to describe the Invitation and Repair project is to say that it’s for people who haven’t given up. One should always be hesitant to make broad social generalizations by haunting social media platforms or the websites that have become parasitical on social media — i.e., most newspapers and magazines —, but it’s clear that that world, at least, is dominated by people who have given up on some things that no healthy society ever gives up on.

People drag supposed racists or transphobes or whatever on Twitter because they have given up on achieving real social change.

Politicians strut and fret their hour on the social-media stage because they have given up on meaningful legislative work.

Partisans smear and mock those who disagree with them because they have given up on persuasion.

Journalists default to advocacy because they have given up on finding and telling the truth.

Readers and viewers of journalism seek and share misinformation because they have given up on learning the truth.

Violent thugs assault the U.S. Capitol or loot their own neighborhoods because they have given up on democracy.

All of the good things given up on require hard, patient work; none of the replacements do. They’re easy and quick; they promise immediate rewards (though whether what they in fact give amounts to “rewards” is a matter for debate). But when we invite and repair we manifest hope: we look towards a future of cooperative endeavor — cooperative discovery, cooperative healing.

The hopeful refuse mindslaughter; the hopeful join the United Front Against Bullshit.

Conservatives tell me that we’re right on the verge of a hard-left takeover of the entire country, which will inevitably put an end to democracy and personal freedom. Leftists tell me that we’re right on the verge of a Trumpist takeover of the entire country, which will inevitably put an end to democracy and personal freedom. So the only thing I know for sure is that I am about to be enslaved; I just don’t know who my enslavers will be.

le mot juste

Bowra

Maurice Bowra was an Oxford don legendary for his social activities, his malicious wit, and his bullhorn voice. Once, in the 1930s, he met an elegant German who was visiting England to participate in a kind of charm offensive on behalf of the Nazi regime. (This was common in those days: Hitler had people working hard to gain the approval of Oxford and Cambridge dons.) At one point in the conversation, Bowra stood up and told the man, “I know what you are. You are a Nazi.” And then he added, “I look forward one day to using your skull as an inkpot.” 

I am in awe of the ingenuity Bowra manifested that day, and will keep his lapidary phrase hidden away in my bosom in case I should require it. Someone writes a slashing review of one of my books? Dear X, I look forward one day to using your skull as an inkpot. Someone cuts me off on the interstate? I lean out the window: I look forward one day to using your skull as an inkpot. It’s absolutely perfect. 

Light Perpetual

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And speaking of novels by friends, Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual is now available in the U.S. I cannot recommend it to you too highly. This novel absolutely did me in — I found myself deeply invested in each of its five main characters, and at the end simultaneously heartbroken and exhilarated. Please do not miss this one. 

(I find it very interesting to reflect on the peculiar commonalities between two books that on most levels are dramatically different, Light Perpetual and — see previous post — Purgatory Mount. But I can’t talk about those connections without utterly spoiling both books….) 

the meaning of Purgatory

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I read Adam Roberts’s Purgatory Mount in draft, and struggled to know what to make of it. I have now read its final version, and find it an exceptionally resonant and moving story – though I acknowledge that people who aren’t comfortable with Adam’s peculiarly associative intelligence (imagine his mind comprised of chess pieces, all of them knights) may find some of the narrative linkages he forges here difficult to parse. And Adam shares with certain other writers, most notably Auden and Pynchon, a tendency to cast his most serious inquiries in comic form.

As I set the book aside, I found myself thinking several thoughts:

  • That culture is what we humans make together;
  • That culture is memory;
  • That memory is imperfect;
  • That among the things we remember will always be sins and wrongs, those done to us, and those we do to others;
  • That the Book of Common Prayer teaches us something utterly inevitable about “these our misdoings,” namely that “the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable”;
  • That, therefore, much of the essential work of culture – always – is the addressing of such remembrances and such burdens; and, finally,
  • That this work must often be done in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, not least because of the imperfections of memory and the imperfections of the people who remember.

Some years ago Adam and I joined with Rowan Williams and Francis Spufford for a theological conversation about Adam’s novel The Thing Itself; Purgatory Mount is also a novel that cries out for theological reflection. I hope it gets it.

The two epigraphs that Adam prepends to his story are wisely and wittily chosen, but I would like to suggest one more, from “East Coker”:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Berlins

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One of the best stories in Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin involves a luncheon hosted at 10 Downing Street in 1944. Berlin had been for almost the whole of the war living in the USA, socializing and schmoozing and conspiring in his inimitable fashion and then sending back briskly incisive weekly reports on American attitudes towards the war effort and towards Great Britain in general. Churchill appreciated those reports very much and was pleased to have the opportunity to meet the man who had written them. 

But when he started asking his guest questions about America, he was surprised and puzzled by the vagueness and diffidence of the answers. Eventually, having gotten nowhere and feeling a bit desperate, the Prime Minister asked him what he thought was the best thing he had written. 

Came the reply: “White Christmas.” 

Isaiah Berlin was in Washington. The P.M.’s luncheon guest, it turned out, was Irving.  

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One of Auden’s favorite books was Anthony Collett’s The Changing Face of England (1926), and it’s easy to see why — it’s absolutely delightful. Here’s a passage from the chapter seen above: 

It is curious to see how floods restore the ancient aspect of the valley landscape, by overflowing the modern chequer-work of fences and hedges, and showing where floods held the field before. Only new houses are flooded when Thames or Medway, or any stream of the populous half-urban valleys, breaks bounds. Bungalows become uninhabitable, swans cruise through rose-beds, but the old farmhouses stand securely dryshod, though scarcely fifty yards from the insurgent water, and perched on so slight a rise as to be invisible until the water came. Old farms and cottages were built with exact knowledge, from experience and tradition, of how far the flood would reach. New houses are plumped down into the channels by which the river disgorges, as though it would never return. 

And a luminous passage from another chapter, on Epping Forest

Yet even in England, woods with a touch of the terror of infinity still survive; and it is one of the strangest things about Epping Forest that, for all its nearness to the East End of London, and its permeation from end to end with the noise of traffic, it yields not only a hundred delightful pictures of the cheerful greenwood, but one or two of the more ancient and formidable type. From the hamlet of Baldwin’s Hill, near Loughton — red omnibuses run close behind it — there is a view across a narrow valley to a flank of the forest rising, beech beyond beech, hornbeam beyond hornbeam, pollarded and rounded, and innumerable as sheep streaming downhill to water, which is full of the true forest sense. Those who walk in the forest soon learn that the great road to Epping and the eastern counties is never a mile away, and that the air is seldom empty of its rumour. But while the ear tells continually of London, the eye carries us far back into Shakespeare’s age, and the old time beyond. Dull streets cease abruptly at the forest’s edge; the bell of the muffin-man echoes on autumn afternoons among the beech-boles hacked by spotted woodpeckers. Silence falls a moment, and we hear the deer belling in the glades; it is one step from Bethnal Green into Broceliande.

In the Hebrew school, sitting on plank benches with timber-cutters’ children, Isaiah received his first formal religious instruction. It was also his first experience of schooling, and to the end of his life he could still remember the words of a song he learned with the other children, about the stove in the corner that kept a poor family warm. From an old rabbi, he learned the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The rabbi too was never forgotten. Once he paused and said, ‘Dear children, when you get older, you will realise how in every one of these letters there is Jewish blood and Jewish tears.’ When Berlin told me this story, eighty years later, in the downstairs sitting room of his home in Oxford, Headington House, for a split second his composure deserted him and he stared out across the garden. Then he looked back at me, equanimity restored, and said, ‘That is the history of the Jews.’ 

— Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life 

re: Foucault

A brief and belated thought on Ross Douthat’s column on Foucault and conservatism: It’s worth noting that Jürgen Habermas called Foucault a “young conservative” back in 1981, a claim explicated and expanded brilliantly by Nancy Fraser in this essay from 1985. Fraser’s essay, combined with my own experience teaching Foucault to evangelical Christian undergraduates, led me to make this comment twenty-one years ago, in which I said that my students’ 

sympathetic openness means that they learn a lot from theory that makes them better, more acute readers and critics. And some theoretical approaches enable them to find sophisticated modes of interpretation that complement, develop, and add nuance to their Christian faith without emptying it of its power. (I have found them to be particularly engaged by Gadamer, Bakhtin, and Levinas, and by the rabbinical scrupulosity of much of Derrida’s work. They also get a sinister pleasure from reading Foucault, who is after all a kind of Calvinist, only without God — Michael Warner is right to say that if you think Foucault is suspicious of the human order, try reading Jonathan Edwards. So Foucault is in a weird way one of us.)

habituation

We all know — though we don’t think of it often enough — that through highlighting and repeating certain events, the media make them seem more common and therefore more characteristic than they really are. So while there’s been a lot of talk over the past week or so about the misbehavior of fans in American stadiums — the stadiums fans have only recently been allowed to reenter — I’m not sure whether this is a real phenomenon or rather just a random set of events magnified by our love of outrage and the media’s compliant provision of opportunities for us to enjoy that love.

But I do wonder whether something is going on here. One of the most common debates about social media centers on this question: Do social media exacerbate tensions among Americans and make us more likely to act badly towards one another in person, or, conversely, do social media give us a useful outlet for our frustrations, opportunities to purge our negative emotions in such a way that we can better maintain courtesy towards our neighbors? One possibility is that we are seeing now what happens when people simply get out of the habit of being in the physical presence of other human beings and instead spend a year and a half stoking their own fears and hatreds. Maybe some people have just forgotten, literally forgotten, how to act in public. If so, let’s hope that when they get little more practice they’ll do better.

excerpt from my Sent folder: mythos

About that Current Affairs essay … I think it’s pretty much wholly wrong. It’s true that fundamentalist Christianity is insistently literal about anything in the Bible that looks like historical narrative (seven literal days of creation, yes the sun did too stand still in the sky, etc.), but even more dominant than Pentateuchal literalism in the fundamentalist mindest is a fascination with prophecy, and especially with the Book of Revelation (plus parts of Daniel and Ezekiel) as a blueprint for the End Times — but the blueprint is legible only if its symbolism is properly deciphered. And especially in the 70s and 80s, such deciphering involved the most mythologically baroque interpretations imaginable. Precisely nobody thought that guys actually named Gog and Magog were going to show up when the parousia was near. When you claim, as Hal Lindsey did, that the the book of Daniel prophesied the European Common Market, your hermeneutical vice is not excessive literalism.  

The problem with things like D&D was not that they were mythoi as opposed to logoi, but rather that they were alternative mythoi — they were scary because they were potentially appealing in the same way that prophecy culture was supposed to be, by involving me as a kind of participant observer in a big coherent story. 

This would take a long time to explain, but I think the mythos/logos contrast is far less useful for describing the pathologies of fundamentalist exegesis in particular and fundamentalist culture more broadly than Kermode’s distinction in The Sense of an Ending between fictions and myths. Not that I would expect fundamentalists (or any other interpreters of Scripture) to see their exegeses as fictive! — but Kermode is brilliant, I think, on the ways that properly provisional narratives or explanations harden, calcify, into fixed myths.

Kevin Williamson:

On Memorial Day, we remember those who took up arms because they thought their civilization represented something good and worth preserving. But we increasingly take up arms for the opposite reason: because we believe this society to be corrupt, failing, doomed. We half dread the possibility of breakdown and bloodshed — and are made half-giddy by it, too.

And that is a dangerous state of affairs. Americans don’t have a well-regulated militia — we don’t have a well-regulated anything.

partners

Whenever I hear someone refer to their husband, wife, spouse — even their Significant Other, a phrase from a now-distant past — as their “partner,” I think of something Wendell Berry wrote decades ago: 

Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other. 

“Partner” is, in the context of marriage or even long-term cohabitation, an ugly word, connoting as it does a business relationship for mutual profit, ready to be dissolved when the profits aren’t high enough. It should never be used in the context of mutual love.  


UPDATE: My friend Andy Crouch has written to me in defense of the word “partner,” suggesting that it “has a wider frame of reference” than I allow, and pointing out that it’s the nearly-universal translation of koinonos in Philemon 17. This is a very good point! I’ll take this under further consideration, but for now, several thoughts:  

  1. The word certainly had a wider referential scope in the past. If you look at the OED you discover that Milton’s Adam says “I stand / Before my Judge, either to undergoe / My self the total Crime, or to accuse / My other self, the partner of my life.” And Robert Southey 150 years later: “So forth I set … And took the partner of my life with me.” 
  2. However, this kind of usage almost completely disappears for nearly two centuries, until it is revived largely by people looking for a word to describe committed gay and lesbian relationships, at a time when such people could not marry. But up until that time, again if the OED is any guide, the business-based meaning had for many decades almost completely displaced all others. 
  3. Thus one could reasonably conclude that the business-based uses of the word have become so dominant that they cast a strong dark shadow over any current use of the word — which is my view. Or recent uses of the term certainly could reasonably be heard as a renewal of older, more richly human meanings — which is Andy’s view.
  4. So the connotative situation is definitely more complex than I acknowledge above. 
  5. The economic overtones of the word would certainly be displaced if one were to follow Milton and Southey in making it a phrase, “the partner of my life,” or, more shortly, “life partner” — but that, I suspect, is a phrasing most people who employ the term wouldn’t want to commit to. 
  6. Finally: I wonder if, given the connotations the word has acquired, “partner” is a good translation of koinonos, or whether an alternative needs to be considered. I notice that the 14th-century Wycliffite version of Philemon 17 has “Therefore if thou has me as a fellow, receive him as me,” which captures the idea of koinonia as a fellowship — but we don’t use “fellow” that way any more. Maybe contemporary English has no real equivalent to koinonos. That would be a situation worthy of our reflection. 

the death of journalism

From Charlie Warzel’s newsletter:

Julia Marcus: I’m fairly new to Twitter but it’s felt to me that the people who are amplified in news media as experts are often the people who have large followings on Twitter, which creates this feedback loop that can build a false sense of consensus. And that makes it very difficult to put forth alternative perspectives. It’s hard to imagine how the pandemic would’ve played out without social media but it feels to me that social media contributed to an unhelpful polarization of the discussion.

Charlie Warzel: I’ve heard public health people say that before everyone flocked to social media a lot of these scientific discussions were happening on private listservs or messageboards and in those spaces there was room for disagreement or to express a greater spectrum of doubt. It was a safe space. And then the discussion moved into the public and it was distorted. Is that true in your experience?

JM: Twitter rewards certainty. How often do you see a tweet go viral when somebody is unsure about something? And it’s an addictive process. Certainty is rewarded, high emotion is rewarded, especially anger and fear, and it’s a self-perpetuating phenomenon. When the scientific discourse largely moves onto social media it begins to degrade. I think it moved to social media because it was the easiest way to get the word out, and because so many scientists were working at home and social media provided a forum for conversations in their fields. But sometimes it has felt more like a middle school cafeteria than a scientific discussion.

From Zeynep Tufekci’s newsletter:

Many top media outlets took this group of critics’ dismissal of a version of the lab leak hypothesis and then acted like that dismissal was universal and a scientific consensus, which it wasn’t, or was conclusive, which it couldn’t be simply because we … don’t know. We certainly didn’t have the evidence we need to be so conclusive, especially not at the time.

In addition, press reports suggested that everything that fell under the umbrella of the term ‘lab leak,’ which has been a conceptual mess, had also been dismissed, although it hadn’t been, even by some of the original opponents of that particular version.

Then, for a whole year, the coverage implied that any question or statement skeptical of the lab leak critics, broadly defined, was essentially unscientific and could only be motivated by racism. Social media sites took down posts, and even news articles that made such claims.

In the meantime, the reporters did not do the leg work to separate the pieces of the question or seek a broad range of experts. If they had, they might have realized that many experts were quiet on the topic partly because they didn’t want to die on this hill last year, and partly because many were actually eminent experts very very busy doing work on the pandemic itself. Unfortunately, many media outlets failed to do the work necessary to pull themselves out of the tight Twitter/media feedback loop that dominates so much of our media coverage.

Twitter has absolutely killed journalism. Killed it stone dead. And there’s not one journalist in a hundred who has brains enough to realize it.

Last year, over at the Hog Blog, I wrote a post on my sudden love-affair with garden shears. Now I am exploring the possibilities of muscle-powered push mowers. Am I as excited as I was about the garden shears? Spoiler: Nope

abandoned

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From Katie Wignall’s new book Abandoned London

Hockney’s Rake

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David Hockney’s set designs for the 1975 performance of The Rake’s Progress at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. 

I have long had an intense hatred of the telephone — even in the face of eloquent testimonials like this one from Suzanne Fischer — but finally I am ready to be won over. And the key to this change of direction, as Joanna Stern explains, is: Zoom. After a year-plus of Zooming, I now find myself delighted when I get to use the phone instead. I can talk while lying on the sofa with my eyes closed! 

When, in the 1930s, Auden was teaching at The Downs School, he decided that the students should perform a musical, so he wrote the lyrics, composed the music, and directed it. One of the lyrics goes like this: 

I’ve the face of an angel 
I’ve got round blue eyes 
And if you knew the things I do 
It would cause you some surprise 
But when ignorance is bliss my dears 
It’s folly to be wise 

Yet the noble despair of the poets
Is nothing of the sort; it is silly
To refuse the tasks of time
And, overlooking our lives,
Cry — “Miserable wicked me,
How interesting I am.”
We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die. 

— Malin, in The Age of Anxiety 

”The intellectual arrogance of clever people, intolerable though it often is, is nothing to the intellectual arrogance of ignorant people.” — Anthony Powell (in his notebook)

linkage

“Now there’s this fame business. I know it’s going to go away. It has to. This so-called mass fame comes from people who get caught up in a thing for a while and buy the records. Then they stop. And when they stop, I won’t be famous anymore.”

Bob Dylan, age 23


One of the highlights of my career: Long ago, I published an essay on bobdylan.com. Bob may even have read it — the guy who ran the website said he “usually” read what was posted there. Also awesome: I didn’t get paid in money but in music. I was told that they’d send me as many Columbia/Sony CDs as I wanted. I agonized over the question of how much would be too much to ask, and eventually settled on 20 CDs. A week later, they all showed up in my mailbox. 

My friend and former colleague Jason Long and his colleague Jeremy Cook have written a sobering essay on the long-term social and economic effects of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which happened 100 years ago. 

Arnold Kling’s proposal for making Twitter less rude assumes that there are people on Twitter who want to be less rude. I’m sure that there are plenty of Twitter users who would like to constrain other people — but certainly not themselves. 

William Deresiewicz’s essay at Harper’s on what the pandemic has done and is doing to artistic careers is powerful: 

The pandemic will likely extinguish thousands of artistic careers. And the devastation will extend to the businesses and institutions that connect artists to audiences. The big players with deep pockets — Live Nation, the mammoth concert, ticketing, and artist-management company, or Gagosian, which operates galleries in seven countries — will survive. The entities that founder will be the smaller ones — mid-tier galleries, independent music venues — the kind that are crucial for helping emerging artists gain exposure, for sustaining serious creators and performers who won’t or can’t sell out to the commercial mainstream, and for keeping alive the spirit and soul of the arts. […] 

But the most frightening prospect is precisely the degree to which this crisis has entrenched and extended the power of the platforms: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook; YouTube, which is part of Google; and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. Because it is that power that is ultimately behind what has been happening to artists. Art hasn’t really been demonetized. For the companies reaping the clicks and streams, free content is a bonanza. Along with Spotify and a few other players, the tech giants are diverting tens of billions of dollars a year away from creators and toward themselves. They have been able to do so only because of their size, which has given them leverage over labels, studios, publishers, publications, and above all, independent artists, and because of the influence it has given them in Congress. 

Finally, I wrote a post over at the Hog Blog about how workers reluctant to return to their morning commutes resemble English peasants after the Black Death. 

goods and harms

Jonathan Zimmerman:

A few years ago, I invited Mary Beth Tinker to meet with my undergraduate class on the history of American education. Tinker herself is an important figure in that history, because she was one of the students who wore black armbands to school in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1965 to protest America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Sent home as a punishment, she sued her school district on free-speech grounds. Tinker v. Des Moines made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor in 1969. In a ringing decision, the Court declared that neither students nor teachers need to “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

My students loved Tinker’s story, and who doesn’t? Adorable seventh grader confronts Big Bad Authority. Adorable seventh grader wins. Cut to the credits.

But when our class discussion turned to the present, the mood changed. Students insisted that schools and universities should prohibit hate speech, which hurts innocent people. Mary Beth Tinker was fighting the good fight, against the war in Vietnam. But racists and sexists and homophobes and transphobes are different, my students said. They cause harm, offense, and even trauma in their victims. We need to shut them down.

Tinker wasn’t having it. At her middle school in Des Moines, she said, there were students who had fathers, uncles, and brothers who were fighting in Southeast Asia. Don’t you think they were offended and hurt by a snot-nosed kid whose armband suggested that their loved ones were risking their lives for a lie?

Of course they were. Speech hurts, which is why censors across time have tried to stamp it out. So if you’re going to bar speech that hurts someone, well, forget about Tinker’s armband. Forget about free speech, period.

My students took this in, and then they tried another tack. Wasn’t free speech really just a tool of the powerful? That’s why white men like it so much, of course. It lets them have their say while it harms (there’s that word again) people with less status and influence in society.

Mary Beth Tinker wasn’t having that, either. In 1965, she told the class, she was a 13-year-old girl. Free speech was the only power she had! Take that away, and she would have nothing at all.

Welcome, folks, to the world of competing, irreconcilable goods. Also a reminder of why the harm principle will never solve these problems: an unconstrained use of the harm principle can silence anything and everything, because a claim to internal psychological harm can never be assessed independently.  

China’s intellectual future

Epistemic confidence level: very low. I don’t really know what I’m talking about here, though I’m trying to know more.


In an essay published a few months ago, I looked for a way beyond what I call the Standard Critique of Technology, and suggested that one such way could be found in certain Daoist ideas about the human-built world. And I speculated that, as China grows in power and influence, and insofar as the Chinese technosphere draws upon elements of ancient intellectual traditions, there is at least the possibility that some of those ideas could make their way to the U.S. 

In light of all that, I read with great interest this essay in the LRB by Peter C. Perdue. The essay is essentially an overview of the work of a Chinese historian Ge Zhaoguang, with a particular emphasis on this new book. Ge is a passionate advocate for the Confucian intellectual tradition, and sees it not just as valuable in itself but also a kind of binding agent for Chinese culture, a project towards which Perdue is extremely skeptical. He thinks such a return to the past is necessarily Han-centric and therefore manifestly inadequate to the multicultural society that China has become. 

Yet Perdue sees the need for some kind of project of cultural and moral renewal — that is, he fully understands why Ge writes as he does. He notes that 

In 1895, China suffered a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Japanese and then came under assault from its own intellectuals, who were heavily influenced by the Western thought that had arrived with the conquerors. The result was an almost complete rejection of the Confucian tradition over the next ninety years. Ge ends his Intellectual History of China in 1895, the year in which Yan Fu, the famous translator of Darwinist thought, wrote of the extreme ‘nervous anxiety’ afflicting intellectuals of his time. Ge does not follow the story into the next two decades, when genuine faith in the classical tradition almost completely collapsed. As he writes, by 1895, the loss of territory, cultural confidence, unity and common historical identity had ‘undermined the integrity of the classical tradition’. The abolition of the examination system in 1905 and the collapse of the dynasty in 1911 sealed its fate. But China had faced foreign invasion and cultural challenges before without the collapse of the Confucian tradition. 

Other forces have rushed in to fill the gap created by the collapse of the Confucian system, Maoist Marxism above all — but not only that: “After Mao, Chinese endorsed cowboy capitalism of the most corrupt, environmentally destructive kind. Like all of us, they struggle to restrain capitalist greed with moral or legal norms; many of them, amazingly enough, have turned to Christianity for answers, but others search for guidance in Buddhism, Daoism, popular cults, and even Confucius.”

Perdue himself is appalled by “cowboy capitalism,” appalled by the rise of Christianity in China, appalled by Ge’s desire for a return to Classical Chinese thought. Indeed, he seems appalled by every option except China coming to embody the worldview of — well, of the LRB and its readers, I guess. “Is an alternative intellectual history of China possible? If so, it would not seek to define the unity of Chinese civilisation, but to celebrate its multiplicity. It would look to centrifugal forces, marginal figures and frontier contacts as sources of innovation, not threats to order. It would include women, non-Han peoples and non-elite traditions without trying to co-opt them into an orthodoxy.” (I’m not saying that these would be bad things, but it’s noteworthy that, while lamenting the influence in China of Western models of political economy, Perdue can only imagine a good future for China that’s based on a Western leftist cultural frame. As though the possibilities for China’s future involve choosing items from a buffet laid out by the West.) 

In my essay for The New Atlantis I invoked the fascinating work of Tongdong Bai — especially his Against Political Equality — and speculated that there might be some interest within the CCP in renewing Confucianism or other elements of the classical tradition. Perdue thinks this is happening, at least on the level of public declaration: “The Chinese state now invokes the once despised Confucius as the bedrock of native values.” But Tongdong Bai isn’t so sure, as he explained in an email to me that he has graciously given me permission to quote from: 

I don’t think CCP is that friendly to Confucianism…. My interest in Confucian political philosophy is not directly related to the mainland Chinese government and policies. Although my dear friend Daniel Bell sometimes links his proposal to the present Chinese regime, I am fundamentally different from him in this regard. What I am proposing is normative, and I don’t think the contemporary Chinese regime offers any real-world exemplification of my proposals. 

So what do I — again, a novice, if a fascinated one — make of all this?  A few things: 

  • There is a kind of crisis of confidence among China’s intellectual elite, a sense that the power of their state is growing faster than the moral order of their culture; 
  • For many, capitalism (whether of the cowboy variety or any other) is inadequate to providing the necessary moral order; 
  • For those many, certain religious traditions — whether the embodied-in-religious-practice forms of the Three Ways (Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism) or Christianity — offer themselves as alternatives; 
  • None of these alternatives is yet strong enough to displace or even really to affect the juggernaut of CCP capitalism; 
  • The hopes I articulate in my essay for a renewal of Daoism seem unlikely, in part because, as both Ge and Perdue explain, Daoism has been largely incorporated into Confucianism, or redefined by Confucianism; 
  • Christianity might therefore be a better hope for providing a moral order for Chinese culture; 
  • But Christianity, though I believe it to be true, has never developed the kind of coherent critique of technocracy that Daoism has long embodied; 
  • So if that new moral center emerges, it’s unlikely to offer significant resistance to the increasingly technocratic character of the Chinese regime and therefore the Chinese nation. 

Most poets in the West believe that some sort of democracy is preferable to any sort of totalitarian state and accept certain political obligations, to pay taxes, to vote for the best man or programme, to serve as jurymen, to write letters of protest against this or that act of injustice or vandalism, but I cannot think of a single poet of consequence whose work does not, either directly or by implication, condemn modern civilisation as an irremediable mistake, a bad world which we have to endure because it is there and no one knows how it could be made into a better one, but in which we can only retain our humanity in the degree to which we resist its pressures.

— Auden in Encounter (April 1954)

pluralities

One of the most fundamental ideas that Auden held in the 1950s — the period of his career that I’m working on right now — was that “pluralities” of people come in three kinds. From an essay called “Nature, History, and Poetry” (published in Thought in 1950), with bold type added by me: 

  1. “A crowd consists of n members where n > 1, whose sole characteristic in common is togetherness. A crowd loves neither itself nor anything other than itself. It can only be counted; its existence is chimerical.” 
  2. “A society consists of x members, i.e. a certain finite number, united in a specific manner into a whole with a characteristic mode of behavior which is different from the behavior of its several members in isolation (e.g. a molecule of water or a string quartet). A society has a definite size, a specific structure and an actual existence.” 
  3. “A community consists of n members, all of them rational beings united by a common love for something other than themselves.” 

The tragedy of social media is this: Each given social-media platform consists of a crowd pretending to be either a society or a community. 

next steps

Work on the Invitation & Repair project has basically come to a halt, and there are three major reasons for that.

First of all, I really need to buckle down and get some work done on my project of editing Auden’s book The Shield of Achilles. I agreed to produce this edition a year or so ago, but thanks to Covid I’ve been unable to get into the archives of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which is where the key manuscripts are located. The Ransom Center is still closed to the public, but I expect that it will be opening pretty soon and so it’s time for me to get started on this project.

Second, I’ve lined up the project that will follow that one. Years ago I had a wonderful time writing about the Book of Common Prayer for the Princeton University Press series Lives of Great Religious Books, and I’m delighted that I have the opportunity to write another volume in that series. This time my subject will be Milton’s Paradise Lost. More about that in due course.

The third reason for putting Invitation & Repair on hold is that it has recently become clear to me that while I have done a good bit of thinking about the techno element of technopoly, I haven’t thought enough about the poly element, that is to say the political and economic structures and practices that make it possible for digital technologies to dominate so much of our lives. I’ve come to realize that I really need to educate myself in political economy, with a particular eye towards understanding what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” — with a special emphasis on what capitalism actually was, is, and might become — and also to try to figure out what plausible alternatives there are to that way of being in the world. I made a first stab at that when I wrote this essay on certain recent technological developments as a kind of distributism for creatives — and also, I guess, in the small things I’ve written about anarchism. But those are baby steps. So over the next couple of years, in my spare time, if I have any, I’m going to be trying to get a better understanding of the political economy of our moment. Because my imagination is reliably activated by fiction, one of the first things I’m going to do is read John Lanchester’s novel Capital.

Anyway, the Invitation & Repair idea continues to be important to me, but it’s going to be moving slowly for quite some time. You’re never too old to learn, but learning takes time. Which also means that there may not be much blogging here for a while, though I will still, I think, be posting photos to my micro.blog

thick and thin

I taught for many years at Wheaton College, which has a detailed Statement of Faith that everyone on campus signs. From this detailed statement emerges what we might call a thick theological anthropology, built up from layers of Biblical interpretation and historically orthodox theological formulations. By contrast, this is what my current employer, Baylor University, asks of its faculty:

Faculty members at Baylor University are expected to be in sympathy with and supportive of the University’s primary mission: “to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community.” The personal and professional conduct of each faculty member should be supportive of and consistent with this mission.

That’s it. There can be a lot of debate about what it means to be “in sympathy with and supportive of the University’s primary mission”: in the Honors College, where I teach, it certainly requires open and substantive Christian commitment, but that’s not the case everywhere at Baylor, and as I have said before I think of us in the HC as Baylor’s equivalent of Tom Bombadil. Baylor talks a lot about being “unambiguously Christian,” but the statement on expectations for faculty strikes me as an ambiguous one — and surely intentionally so, because it gives to the administration a great deal of leeway in determining whether a particular candidate is, as administrators like to say, a “good institutional fit.” It would be possible to interpret it in ways that do not require from the faculty any religious belief at all.

There are eminently defensible reasons to do things Baylor’s way rather than Wheaton’s; if I didn’t think so I wouldn’t have changed jobs. But it’s obvious that thin communal commitments do not lead to, and are not even conducive to, a thick theological anthropology, and it would be foolish to expect people held together by such weak confessional ties to share views that only make sense within the robust account of human life generated by historic Christian orthodoxy.

David French:

In white Evangelicalism the true challenge of “wokeness” isn’t that congregations will embrace critical race theory, it’s that fear of critical race theory will drive congregations away from thoughtful, necessary engagements with the world as it is — a world that is still too far removed from the hope of King’s dream.

Spot on, alas.