voting with the Sparrows

From the new issue of the Economist:

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

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

the shy voter problem

Tom Switzer

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

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

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

indie web in the New Yorker

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

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

reasonably worthwhile blog posts from last year

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

“the corporate monster is always the corporate monster”

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019 05 17 at 7 59 07 AM

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

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

James Madison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

And then, later in the essay:

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

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

glitches, brain farts, errors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s why brain farts are the worst.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


working the refs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what dogs think

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

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

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

Les Murray is dead

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

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

the strange pleasure of the mob

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

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

plugged into the machine

Alexis Madrigal:

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

And thus I renew my plea to journalists.

debt and forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

the building on the Île de la Cité

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

scale is the enemy

Jeffrey Zeldman:

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

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

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

“Lord, make me an idiot”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British eco-fascism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We see you for what you are.

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

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

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

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

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

This inquiring mind would really like to know.

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

Rodger Sherman

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

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



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

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

Buruma reflects

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


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

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

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

getting a new Mac up and running

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

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

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


Re: “intersectionality”: Intersections can diminish as well as intensify. Take Kamala Harris as an example. A woman and a minority (a Jamaican father and an Indian mother): the intersection of these theoretically increases her cultural marginalization. But wait: both of her parents were also academics at elite universities, first as students and later as faculty and researchers. Such an economic and cultural placement forms a vector that, intersecting with others, diminishes Harris’s marginalization. (One could go into her story in more detail: for instance, her parents divorced when she was quite young — that adds another vector of social force that should be accounted for. One could also go into anyone else’s story in such detail, if one is interested in a full accounting of a person’s social placement. A big “If,” these days.)

People who fancy themselves theorists of intersectionality are only interested in intensifications: intensifications whether of privilege (white + male + heterosexual) or of marginalization (black + female + homosexual). The diminishments are just as real; but they’re not as useful. At least for those who, while they may like their gender identities on a spectrum, like their political narratives binary.

the right side

Ben Shapiro’s book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, relies heavily on the Miltonian conceit that the use of Reason alone, absent God’s moral law and universal will, dooms us to live in the abyss. And, like Milton, Shapiro’s attempt to demonstrate that secular civilization needs to rekindle the Judeo-Christian teachings upon which it is based, inadvertently shows us why we were right to leave them behind in the first place.

Jared Marcel Pollan. “We.”

when political prophecy fails

In his column today, Ross Douthat writes:

A good many members of the opposition to Donald Trump — a mix of serious journalists, cable television hosts, pop culture personalities, erstwhile government officials, professional activists and politicians — have been invested in what appears to be exactly the kind of conspiracy-laced alternative reality that they believed themselves to be resisting.

With the apparent “no collusion” conclusion to the Robert Mueller investigation, there will now be a retreat from this alternative reality to more defensible terrain — the terrain where Trump is a sordid figure who admires despots and surrounded himself with hacks and two-bit crooks while his campaign was buoyed by a foreign power’s hack of his opponent.

Will there be “a retreat from this alternative reality”? I don’t see why there would be, or why Ross thinks there will be. Similarly, listening on my morning walk to the National Review Editors podcast, I heard all the members of that distinguished panel agree that the release of the Mueller report will be very bad news for, a big black eye for, the media, and I thought: Really?

I mean, I’m sure a handful — more likely, a hand half-full — of journalists and media talking heads will say they got ahead of the story, but I’d be shocked if it were more than that. More likely scenario: the Rachel Maddows and Jonathan Chaits and Stacey Abramses of the world

(1) will say “We won’t really know anything until we see the full Mueller report”;

and if the entire report isn’t released

(2) will insist that whatever has been redacted contains the key to the whole mystery, and that it remains overwhelmingly likely that Trump and his entourage are guilty of collusion with the Russians and other high crimes and misdemeanors;

and if the entire report is released

(3a) will find something, anything, in it that, they insist, confirms their worst suspicions,

or, if the full report gives them nothing,

(3b) will say that Mueller was scared into silence or is part of the con.

And their followers and enablers will cheer them on. In short, I can imagine no circumstances in which the people most committed to the Trump-and-the-Russkies narrative would acknowledge that they got it wrong. And the people who trusted them before will continue to trust them, while the people who didn’t trust them before will continue not to trust them.

Changing your views because you realize you got the facts wrong? Or because you realize that you “theorized in advance of the facts,” as Sherlock Holmes warned you not to do? In American politics today that’s not how it works. To understand why, take some time to read a book — a book I explore fairly extensively in my How to Think — called When Prophecy Fails. It was published in 1956, but it tells you much of what you need to know about how politically invested people behave in 2019.

Apple News vs. RSS

What Michael Tsai says about Apple News is correct:

I continue to find Apple News to be disappointing. It’s like Apple reinvented the RSS reader with less privacy (everything goes through an Apple tracking URL) and a worse user experience (less control over fonts, text that isn’t selectable, no searching within or across stories). So the idea of content that must be accessed from the app — and likely can’t even be opened in Safari — is not attractive to me.

Those are among the reasons I deleted Apple News from my iOS devices — Apple won’t let you delete it from the Mac — some time ago. But I downloaded it again yesterday and signed up for the trial subscription to News+ just to check out developments. I found that the problems Tsai mentions are still there, along with what is for me the single greatest deterrent to using Apple News: Apple’s insistence on feeding you clickbaity stories, especially about celebrities, no matter how many times and in how many ways you try to indicate that you don’t want to see them.

When you sign up for News+, you get a list of suggested magazine content in a sidebar, and can click/tap a Like button to get stuff from that magazine or a not-Like button to … well, to do what? Because when I tapped the not-Like button next to Vanity Fair I still got stories from Vanity Fair in my feed. And I found this to be true of several other magazines as well.

Apple is taking a Facebook-like approach to News: “No, you don’t tell us what you want, we tell you what you want.” So I canceled my subscription after about an hour.

Here’s a cool fact for you all to keep in mind: Guess what you see when you look at your RSS reader? Exactly what you chose to subscribe to. Neither less nor more.

cost-benefit ratios

Now that Apple has announced its next-generation AirPods, I see that I can get a charging pad that will charge the charging case that will charge the earbuds that allow me to play audio on my phone.

It seems to me that we’ve reached a point in consumer electronics at which the cost/benefit ratios are all out of whack. Indeed it is convenient to have wireless earbuds — or it would be if the number of devices that need charging weren’t proliferating. Moreover, the battery life of the AirPods is continually declining, something that can be “fixed” only by buying another set of AirPods. I don’t like the tradeoffs here. When I use my wired earbuds, it’s true that I have to deal with the wire, but it’s also true that they always work. They work on a wide range of devices, and they don’t decline in usability over time. (Though by eliminating the headphone jack from their phones Apple has made it more difficult for people to have one set of [wired] headphones to use in every situation. Which I think is an asshole move.)

Or consider wireless charging of phones: It sounds cool, but because the charging is so slow experts recommend that you keep a wired charger around for when you’re in a hurry. Or, alternatively, you could just not buy a wireless charger and accept the additional eight-tenths of a second it takes to plug your phone into a cord.

A similar logic applies to the “smart home”: when I finally thought about the amount of time that I have spent trying to get smart lightbulbs to work, and then trying to get them up and running again after a power outage, I realized that the infinitesimal savings of time and energy they provided made them a net drain on my life. Get up and flip a switch on the wall! It’s not hard!

And now I’m reading about people who are struggling with the inability to reboot their shoes. It’s not that these products don’t offer benefits, but that the benefits are tiny in comparison to the investment of time/energy/money that you have to make in order to get them and keep them working. I think I’l continue to opt out of most of them.

a legal clarification

Let me expand on something I wrote in yesterday’s post: Copyright law is not relevant to the legal situation of Francis Spufford’s new Narnia novel. What matters is trademark law.

To illustrate: Many of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books, including many of his Tarzan books, are now in the public domain. But people are not publishing Tarzan novels. Why not? Because Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. has trademarked “Tarzan” (and several other names) and will sue your pants off if you try to publish a Tarzan book without paying them what they think it’s worth.

Fifteen years from now copyright will expire on C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels and they will come into the public domain. At that point anyone will be able to publish them, just as anyone today can publish a Charles Dickens novel. People will be able to edit and adapt them, making Susan Queen of Narnia and having Peter be the one who turns his back on Aslan, if they want. But they won’t be free to publish new Narnia novels because “Narnia” and its appurtenances are trademarked by C S Lewis PTE, and that won’t change in 2034.

Come to think of it, it’s possible that C S Lewis PTE will try to use its trademark to prevent, or at least control, publication of public domain books; which might even work, in some court or other. What happens when copyright law points in one direction and trademark law in another? If Disney holds a trademark on Mickey Mouse but Steamboat Willie is in the public domain, what does that mean for some auteur who wants to incorporate the film into a new film, a new work of art, from which she hopes to make money? As restrictive as copyright can be, it expires; trademarks, if they are defended, do not.

These issues have yet to be sorted out in court. But If we want to make books like The Stone Table possible, we need to revise not copyright law but trademark law.

in memoriam

Send me out into another life
lord because this one is growing faint
I do not think it goes all the way 

W. S. Merwin, “Words from a Totem Animal” 

a return to Narnia

(I had the privilege of reading Francis Spufford’s The Stone Table in draft, with what I believe the enthusiasts call “dawning wonder,” and also with increasing frustration at a copyright regime that made it unlikely to be published. So a few months ago I wrote the essay you see below. After some reflection I decided not to publish it; but now that the word is out about The Stone Table, I’m posting it here.) 

One of the best works of fiction I have read in the past several years was written by the acclaimed English writer Francis Spufford — and no, I do not refer to his award-winning novel Golden Hill, though indeed I loved that book too. The story I’m referring to is called The Stone Table, and before you Google it or look for it on Amazon, please understand that you will not find it. And that’s because of intellectual property law.

For Spufford’s book is set in Narnia, the fictional world created by C. S. Lewis. The Stone Table features characters who appear in other Narnia books: most notably, two children named Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke and the great lion Aslan. The seven Narnia books that Lewis wrote have already come into the public domain in some countries, and may even do so in the United States — though those of us who have seen the law extend copyright again and again may be pardoned for doubting that it will ever happen. But Spufford has written a new Narnia story, so copyright law doesn’t affect his: what matters is that the world of Narnia is a registered trademark of C. S. Lewis (PTE.) Ltd. — and trademarks, if they are consistently used and defended against infringement, last forever. (This is why so many companies will sue for trademark infringement even in apparently trivial cases: they’re afraid that if they don’t they’ll be accused of having abandoned their copyright.) Moreover, trademarks are often international in their scope.

So as long as there is money to be made from Narnia™, then books like The Stone Table cannot be published and sold without the express consent of C. S. Lewis (PTE.) Ltd.

Now, in many cases trademark holders are more than happy to give — or rather, sell — such consent. Certainly Middle-Earth Enterprises, the company that now holds the rights to Hobbit– and Lord of the Rings-related material, rights that Tolkien himself sold to United Artists in 1969, was pleased to make it possible for us to recreate Helm’s Deep in Lego. For instance. But the remainder of Tolkien’s writings are copyrighted, and several trademarks held, by Tolkien’s estate, which has sometimes led to confusing legal struggles: Wait, Tolkien is suing Middle-Earth? And Middle-Earth is suing him back?

And these different parties have not always had the same interests. Tolkien’s son Christopher, who directed the estate before his resignation in 2017 at the age of 93, did not like Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, would certainly have prevented the filming of The Hobbit if he could have, and would have been unlikely ever to approve a film or television version of his father’s vast legendarium, The Silmarillion — even though such a project could greatly enrich the Tolkien Estate’s coffers. Who knows what will happen now that the Estate is in other hands? But Christopher always had a strong sense of the character and purpose of his father’s work, and did not want that character and purpose to be violated. Money is not everything.

A very similar attitude seems to drive the C. S. Lewis estate, and especially Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham. When I was working on my biography of Lewis — in the year or so preceding the release of the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with which it was meant to coincide — a shadow of anxiety always hovered over the project, because no one knew exactly what Gresham would think of it. He couldn’t have stopped it from being published, but he certainly could have withheld the estate’s cooperation from my publisher, HarperOne, and made life more difficult and considerably less lucrative for them. That would have (de facto if not de jure) meant the quashing of my biography. I am certain that my editor, the shrewd and resourceful Mickey Maudlin, had to do some delicate negotiating both with Gresham, who wanted his stepfather’s memory properly honored, and with me, who wanted to be left alone to write the book I wanted to write. But Mickey played his cards very close to his vest, so I am not sure to this day how awkward those negotiations got.

Last year Mickey and I had a conversation about a new book, a collection of Lewis’s writings about reading. Lewis wrote very eloquently about the theory and practice of reading, and as his biographer and the author of a book about reading I might seem to be a good candidate to select and annotate his thoughts on the subject. But again approval of the estate was required; and approval, for reasons not wholly clear to me, was not granted.

It’s enough to make me long for estates driven by a list for filthy lucre. For, though I admire the determination of Christopher Tolkien and Douglas Gresham, and other directors of those estates, to be faithful custodians of rich and wonderful imaginative worlds, I am not convinced that they can legitimately offer the final, unquestionable verdict about what does in fact honor Lewis’s and Tolkien’s writings. Great writers — and I believe both Lewis and Tolkien to have been great writers — tend to have more comprehensive minds than those charged with their estates’ care. This is why I have for so long admired Edward Mendelson, W. H. Auden’s literary executor, who has for decades now offered unfailing support to scholars working on Auden, even when those scholars have views about Auden radically different than his own. Mendelson grasps what many literary executors and estates do not: that, just because Auden is a writer whose greatness is not reducible to a single point of view, it is better to be overly generous than overly restrictive.

The world will not much miss the book on Lewis and reading that I would have made. But The Stone Table deserves a very wide readership indeed. Spufford has suppressed his own distinctive and eloquent style and made himself a ventriloquist of Lewis: to read the story is really and truly to return to the Narnia millions of readers love. And this is not merely a matter of style: Spufford’s story is thematically and even theologically Lewisian. It is a marvelous and utterly delightful tale, as wise as it is thrilling. I so wish you could read it.

interim tech report

Over the past year I’ve been making some significant changes to certain elements of my technological life — significant, but incremental and slow. I have tried not to change too many things at once, because when I’ve tried that in the past it has never worked out for me. Here’s a summary of my progress:

  • I deleted my Instagram account. (I have not had a Facebook account since 2007.)
  • I deactivated my Twitter account. I haven’t yet deleted it — I still wonder whether I might find a use for it some day. But I am not on Twitter and do not miss it, so deletion remains a possibility.
  • I have been using a Micro.blog account for short posts. The community there is almost wholly pleasant, but I have had just enough tense exchanges to make me wary. I feel that all of us have learned our social-media habits from Twitter and Facebook and it may take us a little time to become fully decent again.
  • I started a newsletter
  • I have almost completely eliminated reading daily news, which, for me, has primarily meant deleting news sites from my RSS reader.
  • I have shifted instead to reading more weekly and monthly magazines, especially in print, but sometimes on the Kindle. My new favorite magazine is The Economist — at which I looked askance for many years because I thought it a key mouthpiece of the neoliberal order, which it kinda is, but overall it’s a great magazine. I begin by reading the summary of the week’s news, and then turn with particular interest to reports from parts of the world that I wouldn’t ordinarily think about. It does a lot to put American kerfuffles into meaningful context.
  • I am moving more and more of my data out of the cloud, and am moving back towards regular backups to hard drives, supplemented by key files stored in Apple’s iCloud. I have pared back my use of Google Docs and Dropbox to the bare nub, and may well delete my Dropbox account altogether in the coming months.
  • I have moved all my online calendars from Google to iCloud, have moved my personal email from Gmail back to Fastmail — despite some problems I had with Fastmail last year, I am giving them another chance — and have deleted Google Maps from all my devices. (That last one is tough, because in my experience Apple Maps continues to be significantly inferior.) I have also moved to DuckDuckGo as my default, and since the move only, search engine. You can see where this is headed. Within a year I would like to have my Google account deleted.

Other than the Great De-Googling, a consummation devoutly to be wished, what do I hope to accomplish in the next year?

I want to go back to the analog system of task management that I had been using for a couple of years previous to this one. I am happiest and most focused when I track my responsibilities in a notebook, but last year I found myself, during a period of particular stress, nearly dropping a few balls, and that led me back to my favorite digital task manager, Things. Things is a beautiful and exceptionally well-designed app — those are two different things, by the way: some apps are beautiful without being well-designed, and vice versa — but I don’t want to get too dependent on it, because….

Mainly I want to eliminate day-to-day use of a smartphone. I don’t imagine that I can do without one altogether — they’re too valuable when traveling and in other special circumstances. But for my everyday life I want to get back to a dumbphone like the one I was using three years ago — before it stopped working with my network and the iPhone dragged me back in. (There’s a new and updated version of the Punkt.) I want a life in which I have only one internet-connected device, and that device is my laptop, and my laptop spends a lot of time in a bag.

success robots

I go to schools a lot, have taught at uni­ver­si­ties and seen a ton of great kids and pro­fes­sors who’ve re­ally sacrificed them­selves to teach. A few years ago I worked for a few months at an Ivy League school. I ex­pected a lot of ques­tions about pol­i­tics, his­tory and lit­er­ature. But that is not what the stu­dents were re­ally in­ter­ested in. What they were in­ter­ested in — it was al­most my first ques­tion, and it never abated — was net­work­ing. They wanted to know how you net­work. At first I was sur­prised: “I don’t know, that wasn’t on my mind, I think it all comes down to the work.” Then I’d ask: “Why don’t you just make friends in­stead?” By the end I was saying, “It’s a mis­take to see peo­ple as com­modi­ties, as things you can use! Con­cen­trate on the work!” They’d get im­pa­tient. They knew there was a se­cret to get­ting ahead, that it was net­working, and that I was cru­elly with­holding success­ful strate­gies.

Peggy Noonan

a case of simple theft

I subscribed to the digital edition of the late, lamented Weekly Standard before its owner killed it and decided to throw his resources into a replacement, the Washington Examiner. Today I got an email thanking me for subscribing to the digital edition of the Examiner, which I did not do. 

Now that’s chutzpah: kill a magazine someone subscribes to and then, without even asking, take their money to support a wholly different magazine. It’s also fraud and theft. I have of course demanded that they cancel the subscription I never signed up for and delete my information. I wonder whether they will. 

I hope the Examiner gets its pants sued off for this. 

on rum and baseball

For decades, late February and early March were for me a season of preparation: preparation for baseball. I watched my favorite baseball websites come to life in my RSS reader, I bought some books that analyzed last year’s performances and predicted this year’s, I got excited about new signings and promising rookies.

But not this year.

John Thorn, the great historian of baseball, wrote in November,

The stolen base and the bunt are on the way out. The reasons for the decline in both have to do with analysts revealing that run expectations are radically lessened not only by the unsuccessful attempt but also, in the a case of the sacrifice bunt, by the successful execution. One may blame analysis, knowledge, and science for these outcomes, but it is hard to give three cheers for ignorance.

The dilemma for owners and players and fans may be understood as The Paradox of Progress: we know the game is better, so why, for so many, does it feel worse? I submit that while Science may win on the field, as clubs employ strategies that give them a better chance of victory, Aesthetics wins hearts and minds.

This is more or less precisely what I wrote last summer, when I described the complete victory of the Earl Weaver model of baseball strategy that I cheered on when I was a kid: “As boxing fans have always known, styles make fights. What made Earl’s Way so fascinating all those years ago was its distinctiveness; and that’s what made the arguments among fans fun too…. Strangely enough, baseball was better when we knew less about the most effective way to play it.”

Thorn is exactly right that “it’s hard to give three cheers for ignorance.” Me again:

It’s important to be clear about this: Coaches and players understand the percentages better than they ever have in the history of the game, and are acting accordingly. All of these changes I have traced are eminently rational. Players are giving themselves the best possible chance of success, in hopes of more money for them and more wins for their team. Even when they don’t try to bunt or slap a single into the vast open space on one side of a shifted infield, they’re being rational, because, as noted earlier, Earl was right: those base-at-a-time one-run strategies are highly inefficient.

So you can’t blame anyone for the way the game has developed. It has become more rational, with a better command of the laws of probability, and stricter, more rigorous canons of efficiency. But for those very reasons it’s not as fun to watch.

So it’s hard to see what the solution to this might be. What are the moguls of MLB supposed to do, mandate less rational tactics? In a way that’s precisely what they do plan to do, for instance by requiring pitchers to face at least three batters, even when bringing in, say, a lefty to face only the one left-handed hitter in the other team’s lineup might make more sense. But that kind of thing is just nibbling around the edges. It’s not going to do anything to change the overall strategies that are common today, as when batters are so committed to the long ball that they are content to have created a game in which there are more strikeouts than base hits.

In this context, I keep thinking about a passage from Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a passage that’s relevant to so much in our modern order:

In Martinique, I had visited rustic and neglected rum-distilleries where the equipment and the methods used had not changed since the eighteenth century. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, in the factories of the company which enjoys a virtual monopoly over the whole of the sugar production, I was faced by a display of white enamel tanks and chromium piping. Yet the various kinds of Martinique rum, as I tasted them in front of ancient wooden vats thickly encrusted with waste matter, were mellow and scented, whereas those of Puerto Rico are coarse and harsh. We may suppose, then, that the subtlety of the Martinique rums is dependent on impurities the continuance of which is encouraged by the archaic method of production. To me, this contrast illustrates the paradox of civilization: its charms are due essentially to the various residues it carries along with it, although this does not absolve us of the obligation to purify the stream. By being doubly in the right, we are admitting our mistake. We are right to be rational and to try to increase our production and so keep manufacturing costs down. But we are also right to cherish those very imperfections we are endeavouring to eliminate. Social life consists in destroying that which gives it its savour.

Note that Levi-Strauss speaks of “the paradox of civilization,” John Thorn about “the Paradox of Progress.” It’s the same point. I was right to be rational in cheering on the sabermetric revolution; and these days I cherish the very imperfections I once wanted to see eliminated. But the savor is now gone, and I don’t know how it can be restored.

academic wishful thinking

Elite Colleges Don’t Understand Which Business They’re In, says John Fabian Witt of Yale. Alas, they understand perfectly well. It’s just not the business Witt and I wish they were in. The Yale administrator who said that his university, and others like it, are a “high-level service industry to the 1%” understood the real business model.

a clarification, eighteen years later

I was at work, in the LRB office, when I first watched the first plane fly into the first tower: like half the planet, we’d turned the television on as soon as we heard the news. And then, at some point as we watched, a thought suddenly hit me with a physical force: a kind of punch in the gut that made me shout out an involuntary ‘Jesus!’ One of my colleagues turned to me and asked the question so many people were asking: ‘Oh no, do you know someone who’s there?’ I didn’t, but I didn’t want to explain what it was that had made me yell, and I never did. The thought was this: if someone had done this to America, what will the mightiest warrior nation on earth do back?

Daniel Soar. It seems to me quite characteristic of the LRB political sensibilities that, after all these years, Soar feels the need to insist that his emotional response to the destruction of the Twin Towers was in no way contaminated by compassion for the people who died in those buildings.

Remembering David Martin

The great sociologist of religion David Martin has died: you may read an overview of his incredibly wide-ranging career, written by a former colleague, here. (I was fascinated to learn there that he wrote a so-far-unpublished book on “secularization through the lens of English poetry”!) Today I am giving thanks for his life and witness, and remembering in prayer his family: his wife Bernice and his daughter Jessica Martin — my friend, and a priest whose sermons I sometimes quote or post in toto here.

Much attention will be given, in reflections on Martin’s career, to his work on secularization, and rightly enough, given its influence. But it will be very hard for us to get our minds around the totality of that work, for what it did, above all, was complicate all previous work on secularization. And the primary way it complicated that work was by decentering the Western European account (WEA, I’ll call it) of secularization, which Western intellectuals have always had a tendency to see as the normal or expected path of change in religious practice and experience. But, as Martin wrote in his concise and accessible Forbidden Revolutions (1996), “We can observe at least four distinct trajectories in Christian cultures: Eastern Europe, Latin America, Western Europe and North America. If social differentiation is the working core of the theory of secularization, it takes at least four forms, which do not necessarily converge.”

That WEA model of secularization, Martin argues, “acts as an implicit guide and censor on what we permit ourselves to see” — and therefore obscures from us how secularization happens, if it happens at all, elsewhere. The influence of the WEA model led to it being imposed in Eastern Europe, “the guiding spirit [of] an explicit programme to enforce secularization.” To a somewhat lesser extent attempts at enforced secularization happened in certain Latin American countries as well, and Forbidden Revolutions describes how stubborn practitioners of the Christian faith were able to resist such imposition. Why that resistance took Catholic forms in Eastern Europe and Pentecostal forms in Latin America is the meat of Martin’s story.

Forbidden Revolutions is not generally thought of as one of Martin’s central works — it’s less academic and more Christian than his most celebrated texts — but I find myself thinking of it often these days, even though I only read it once, many years ago. I think perhaps it is time for me to return to it. In the meantime, thanks be to God for the life and work of David Martin. Rest eternal grant unto him, O LORD: and let light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace.

a plea to journalists

Peter Hamby:

Candidates who make policy-by-Twitter, the ones who chase every micro-news-cycle, risk losing sight not just of what voters care about, but also why they’re running for president in the first place. […]

Those loudest voices on Twitter aren’t marginal. The platform has become a petri dish for the formation of elite opinion, with outsized power in the political press, and it has provided a lane for smart and clever people who deserve a voice to have one. But the convulsions of everyday Twitter, a small club of media elites and professional opinion-havers, are plainly disconnected from the concerns of most Democratic voters. There’s a real risk that otherwise smart, promising 2020 candidates begin to self-sabotage in their haste to appease this microscopic cluster of social-media activists just because they’ve got a megaphone.

This pattern of self-sabotage-by-Twitter is being repeated in various circles of our culture. Consider, for instance, the knots that publishers of young adult fiction are twisting themselves into by trying to appease tiny groups of angry people who have declared themselves the voices of their ethnic group — a pathetic phenomenon that Jesse Singal has recently been documenting, in depressing detail, in his excellent newsletter.

It’s really astonishing how few people can summon the critical facility necessary even to ask whether a person who claims to speak for all black or Latinx or trans people actually does. But I think it’s very relevant that this dance between triumphant resentment and instantaneous appeasement happens on Twitter: the pace of the medium seems to activate users’ fight-or-flight instinct. And then the ordinary mechanisms of human pride kick in, and people double down on their first responses rather than step back and question themselves.

I’m not even going to bother asking politicians to get off Twitter, because how many of them have ever declined the offer of a megaphone? But if we’re going to start repairing the damage that Twitter has done, and continues to do, to our social fabric, the leaders in this endeavor need to be journalists.

Recently a journalist commented to me that he is on Twitter because, for better or worse, that’s where the conversations in his profession take place. I think that’s definitely for worse, not better, and I think every journalist would be better off not participating in those conversations. Here’s why:

  1. Journalists talking to other journalists ad nauseam all day long leads to a kind of professional hermeticism, which in turns leads to limited intellectual horizons and a lack of independence.
  2. The utterly false assumption that people on Twitter are characteristic of the society as a whole leads to laziness: asking questions to the people who follow you on Twitter is something you can do in bed — way easier than putting on some clothes and going out to talk to your fellow citizens.
  3. That assumption also leads journalists to treat lunatic-fringe ideas as though they are commonplace. When your daily journalistic practices render you unable to distinguish between the most vitriolically-expressed ideas and the most widely-shared ones, you cannot do fair and accurate assessments of the national, or even the local, mood.

I truly believe that the climate of hatred that Thomas Edsall documents in his recent column has arisen in part — and maybe in large part — because of journalists who spend too much time on Twitter and as a result become mouthpieces of the anger and hatred that dominates the lives of some of the worst among us. American journalists, by immersing themselves so regularly in that anger and hatred, have extended its reach. They are passing along the contagion; they need to start washing their hands.

So, journalists on Twitter, for the sake of accuracy in reporting, for the sake of your professional integrity, for the sake of our nation: Delete your account.

futurists and historians

Martin E. P. Seligman and John Tierney:

What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to “commencement” speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.

I wonder what evidence exists for the claim that “What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future.” What if we are more clever and resourceful readers of the past than other species? What if it was our singular power of retrospection that “created civilization and sustains society”? After all, while it’s true that we homo sapiens alone give commencement speeches, it’s also true that we homo sapiens alone build things like the Lincoln Memorial and inter our distinguished dead in places like Westminster Abbey. Why should the former count for more than the latter? 

In the preface to his translation of Thucydides (1629), Thomas Hobbes wrote that “the principal and proper work of history [is] to instruct and enable men, by the knowledge of actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently towards the future.” That is to say, validity of prospection depends upon accuracy of retrospection. Those who do not understand the past will not prepare themselves well for the future. Even if they read fizzy opinion pieces in the New York Times

liturgical reform


here; see also this

Merton and the quest for God

I warmly encourage you to read this lovely and thought-provoking essay by my friend Matt Milliner. Here’s a key quotation from the essay:

For readers of my time and place, Thomas Merton remains an important guide. I had heard varying opinions as to whether he remained faithful to Christianity in his Eastern experiments. I was surprised, therefore, to realize that Merton never lost his bearings. Merton died in 1968, and in his 1967 Mystics and Zen Masters he insists, “[Zen] is not by itself sufficient. We must also look to the transcendent and personal center upon which this love, liberated by illumination and freedom, can converge. That center is the Risen and Deathless Christ.”

I think Matt is right to quote this passage, which is very important — though “deathless” is a carelessness — but there are other passages from the late Merton that may point in other directions. For instance, here’s a passage from my own recent essay on Merton, concerning the Asian Journal he wrote at the very end of his life:

The most interesting sentence here is: “May I not come back without having settled the great affair.” Two years earlier, when recuperating from back surgery in Louisville, he had fallen in love with a student nurse and had thought of abandoning his vows for her, though they never had sex. But that cannot be the “great affair” he had in mind; his rededication to the monastic life had been settled by then. It is hard to see “the great affair” as anything other than the status of Christianity among the religions of the world. Is Jesus Christ the world’s one Savior? Or is Christianity just one among several ways to reach toward the divine?

There are hints of how he might have settled it. For instance, he wrote of meeting an Indian hermit called Chatral Rinpoche, “The unspoken or half-spoken message of our talk was our complete understanding of each other as people who were on the edge of great realization and knew it and were trying, somehow or other, to go out and get lost in it.”

The passage Matt quotes from Mystics and Zen Masters is indeed very late Merton, but later still is this passage from Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968), the last book published in his lifetime:

Suffering, as both Christianity and Buddhism see, each in its own way, is part of our very ego-identity and empirical existence, and the only thing to do about it is to plunge right into the middle of contradiction and confusion in order to be transformed by what Zen calls ‘the great death’ and Christianity calls ’dying and rising with Christ.’

Is Christianity’s “dying and rising with Christ” the same thing as Zen’s “great death,” just under different names? My answer would be No: they are not the same, and indeed are utterly incompatible. But did Merton really mean to identify them as closely as he does here? Or was that just a concession to an ecumenical context? I don’t know, and I don’t think Merton knew. Trying to decide his answer to that question was, I think, “the great affair,” and I would not venture to say with any confidence where he might have settled if he had been spared. Matt seems sure that Merton “never lost his bearings”; I am not. Or maybe I should say that I am not sure that he never altered his bearings.

To be sure, there’s no doubt that Merton understood that he needed to pursue his spiritual vocation from within Christianity — that was effectively settled for him as early as his fateful 1938 meeting with Mahanambrata Brahmachari — but that’s not the same as saying that it would be best for everyone to follow Jesus. In the end I suspect that we are faced with a quite fundamental question of theological anthropology, and what may well be the incompatibility of two anthropologies.

I think in the last decade of his life Merton moved closer and closer to an understanding of human beings, or at least human beings called to the contemplative life, as people who seek God, who are on a quest for God. And indeed this model has a strong presence in Christian tradition: think, for instance, of Bonaventure’s great Itinerarium mentis in Deum. But over-reliance on this model can lead to an image of God as a kind of fixed monad, a transcendental Rome to which all roads at least potentially lead; or a sun which all contemplatives, Christians and Buddhist and Hindu alike, orbit. And I am not sure that that image can be wholly harmonized with one in which God is — not just might be figured as but fundamentally is — a loving Father who sees us in our self-chosen misery from a long way off and comes running to greet us and welcome us home.

Maybe the Merton model, or the model that he was flirting with, has a great appeal to those who have already dedicated their whole lives to the monastic life, who eagerly seek some “great realization” and hope to get lost in it; but for the rest of us, talk of “the human search for God” may sound as it did to the ears of the young C. S. Lewis: like “the mouse’s search for the cat.”

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