A bluntly powerful essay by my friend and colleague Jonathan Tran:

What began as a struggle of and for the dispossessed has devolved into a culture war fixated on harms, microaggressions, and sensitivity trainings. No one can live up to the standard of being sensitive to every possible sensitivity, setting everyone up to fail. More importantly, almost none of this has anything to do with repairing and redistributing structures and systems.

Nothing captures antiracism’s mission drift better than the explosive growth of its billion-dollar diversity industry, which promises to address inequality by diversifying the faces of gatekeeping institutions—the very institutions that facilitate upper-middle-class mobility precisely by leaving inequality in place. These antiracist initiatives, often staffed by well-meaning and high-minded people, bring with them all the conviction but little of the power to actually get anything done, at the end of the day achieving so little that one begins to wonder if futility was the point.

The Jellyfish Tribe – by Paul Kingsnorth:

The growing loss of faith across the West in our institutions, leaders and representatives in recent years is like nothing else I’ve seen in my lifetime. When, I wonder, did that contract begin to expire? Maybe in 2003, when the lies with which the US and UK launched the Iraq war were so blatant that even those telling them seemed unconvinced. Or perhaps when the near-collapse of the global economy in 2008 brought the real impact of Machine globalisation, which had long been felt in the poor parts of the world, home to people in the West. Or maybe in 2016, when Brexit happened and Donald Trump happened and European ‘populism’ happened, and suddenly liberal globalism was under attack in its heartlands. From then on, we learned that populism was fascism and elected presidents were Russian agents and nationhood was white supremacy and free speech was ‘hate speech’, and while we were still trying to work through all that, along came covid and we all fell into the rabbit hole forever.

humanism renewed

I often see quoted a line by Carl Schmitt:

The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism. Here one is reminded of a somewhat modified expression of Proudhon’s: whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat.

But I don’t think we can understand Schmitt’s point by quoting that sentence alone; we also need to quote the one that follows it: 

To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity. 

If you only quote the first sentence, then you have a version of a famous but inevitably misattributed line: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun.” But Schmitt is not dismissing the very concept of “humanity”; he is making a more complicated (though still cynical) point. “Humanity” and “humanism” are “ideological instruments”: they can be and often are used as levers of power, as means by which one may gain dominance over one’s political enemies. The danger lies not in the very notion of humanity but rather in the ways that that notion is susceptible to being monopolized and weaponized by parties in power. That Schmitt does not want to do away with the notion altogether may be seen in his condemning accusation of “inhumanity.” 

Given the enormous damage the reign of identity politics has inflicted on our common weal, our ability to live in peace together, what we need, I believe, is serious work to restore and renew the concept and practice of humanism. My recent essay “A Humanism of the Abyss” is a step in that direction. This is a matter I will return to — and, also, see the tag for my earlier reflections on the topic. 

Stanford Law School Dean Jenny S. Martinez

I want to set expectations clearly going forward: our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not going to take the form of having the school administration announce institutional positions on a wide range of current social and political issues, make frequent institutional statements about current news events, or exclude or condemn speakers who hold views on social and political issues with whom some or even many in our community disagree. I believe that focus on these types of actions as the hallmark of an “inclusive” environment can lead to creating and enforcing an institutional orthodoxy that is not only at odds with our core commitment to academic freedom, but also that would create an echo chamber that ill prepares students to go out into and act as effective advocates in a society that disagrees about many important issues. Some students might feel that some points should not be up for argument and therefore that they should not bear the responsibility of arguing them (or even hearing arguments about them), but however appealing that position might be in some other context, it is incompatible with the training that must be delivered in a law school. Law students are entering a profession in which their job is to make arguments on behalf of clients whose very lives may depend on their professional skill. Just as doctors in training must learn to face suffering and death and respond in their professional role, lawyers in training must learn to confront injustice or views they don’t agree with and respond as attorneys.

Law is a mediating device for difference. It therefore reflects all the heat of controversy, all the pain and suffering, and all the deeply felt moral urgency of our differences in position, power, and cherished principles. Knowing all of this, I believe we cannot function as a law school from the premise that appears to have animated the disruption of Judge Duncan’s remarks — that speakers, texts, or ideas believed by some to be harmful inflict a new impermissible harm justifying a heckler’s veto simply because they are present on this campus, raised in legally protected speech, and made an object of inquiry. Naming perceived harm, exploring it, and debating solutions with people who disagree about the nature and fact of the harm or the correct solutions are the very essence of legal work. Lively, candid, civil, and evidence-based discourse in disagreement is not just positive for our community, constituted as it is in difference, it is a professional duty. Observance of this duty matters most, not least, when we are convinced that others haven’t. 

I think Dean Martinez has navigated this mine field about as well as it could be navigated, and in the process has made some vital salient points about the nature of legal education — and of true education more generally. 

the arbiters

The impossible job: inside the world of Premier League referees: An excellent in-depth study. None of the problems identified here are easily addressed, but I think the first steps should be: 

First: retrospective punishment for players who (a) surround the ref to intimidate him and (b) simulate being fouled. And not fines — the players are too rich to care about fines. I think the best option would be for players found guilty in these matters to begin their next match with a yellow card. That may seem strong, but there is a deeply-ingrained culture of bullying and deceiving that needs to be addressed. 

Second: eliminate VAR. Just get rid of it. Many years ago my persistent back pain led me to consult a surgeon, who told me that one-third of the people who had the operation I needed got relief from their pain, one-third were left unchanged, and one-third experienced increased pain. VAR is like that; and even when its decisions are correct it makes every single match in which it’s used worse, because fans don’t have any idea whether to celebrate a goal or not — it might be overturned. Almost any idea — including adding a second referee — would be preferable to VAR. 

One more thing about VAR: it’s even less reliable than people think, because one of its weaknesses is almost never noted. When VAR is looking at a potential offside, we’re always shown the players at the offside point and the line that indicates whether the attacking player is ahead of the defender or even with him. What no one looks at is the ball: Has VAR captured the precise moment at which the ball is struck? Typically you can’t tell, because the ball itself obscures the player’s foot. (Here’s an example, from the Premier League website.) VAR might have frozen the video at the precise instant that the player’s foot strikes the ball, but that’s highly unlikely. It’s much more likely that the video is stopped a fraction of a second early or a fraction of a second late; and that might make the difference between whether a player is offside or not. VAR is thus tasked with making decisions that it simply cannot make. Be done with it, I say! 

as it must to all men…

When Charlie Watts died in August of 2021, I wrote: “This feels like a big one, and is certainly a harbinger of things to come.” I didn’t know at the time that Damon Linker had written two years earlier about “The coming death of just about every rock legend.” 

But it’s not just musicians, is it? Consider some of our most famous film directors: 

  • Woody Allen is 87
  • Francis Ford Coppola is 83 
  • Werner Herzog is 80 
  • David Lynch is 77 
  • George Lucas is 78 
  • Terrence Malick is 79 
  • George Miller is 78 
  • Hayao Miyazaki is 82 
  • Martin Scorsese is 80 
  • Ridley Scott is 85 
  • Steven Spielberg is 76 
  • Wim Wenders is 77 

(Obviously, other distinguished names could be added to the list.) Interesting how closely their ages correlate with those of the great rock stars — though the rock stars became famous a decade or more earlier. Won’t be terribly long before we’re saying “There were giants on the earth in those days.”  

Brewster Kahle, Internet Archive:

The dream of the Internet was to democratize access to knowledge, but if the big publishers have their way, excessive corporate control will be the nightmare of the Internet. That is what is at stake. Will libraries even own and preserve collections that are digital? Will libraries serve our patrons with books as we have done for millennia? A positive ruling that affirms every library’s right to lend the books they own, would build a better Internet and a better society.

slight return

I’m back! — well, partially. Posting will be light for a while. But I certainly learned that for me micro.blog works best as a place to post images and sounds (and to make note of books I’m reading).  


Heads up, friends: I’ll be taking a break from this blog in order to work on several projects — some essay-length, one (or maybe two) book-length — that my daily commentary here has been distracting me from.

But while I’m away from here, I’ll be more active than usual at my micro.blog page, because links and images that I would ordinarily post here I’ll be posting there. The plus for you, dear readers, of my relocating to micro.blog is that there you can subscribe to a weekly digest of my posts.

And of course my weekly newsletter will continue. 

of bad book reviewers and writerly cults

A book can go wrong in a nearly infinite number of ways, but a book review has a narrower range of ways to fail. In what follows I’ll be writing about book reviews that are published in professional venues, not what people write on their blogs and on social media. (Those reviews tend to be more honest.)

The chief modes of book-review failure are as follows:

Reviewer A didn’t read the book at all. This happens more often than most people think, especially now that information about a book can be searched for online. I’d say maybe 10% of book reviews are written by people who haven’t read the book they’re reviewing.

Reviewer B read the book only in part or cursorily, and is aware of his or her limited knowledge and consequently is careful and measured in criticism. This kind of reviewer thinks you may have failed to mention something X, but realizes that you may well have done so, somewhere in your too-long-to-read book, and so says something like “More attention to X would have been welcome.”

Reviewer C read the book only in part or cursorily but is unaware of or indifferent to his or her carelessness. This is the kind of reviewer who asserts with breezy confidence that the author failed to acknowledge X, when in fact the author at five different points in the book – all of which are findable in the index – acknowledged X. This is the kind of reviewer who gathers some vague sense that the author probably believes Z and then flatly asserts that the author said Z. (And if the author replies “I never said Z!” this kind of reviewer says “Well, you implied it.”)

Reviewer D has an axe to grind and either isn’t sufficiently self-aware to know it or deliberately obscures it – and the “or” there indicates that I’m putting into this one category attitudes and approaches that perhaps could be separated into different categories. Axe-grinding could be seen as a single flaw, but there are many and various axes. Maybe the reviewer has a personal hostility to the author that has nothing to do with the book, but the book provides a convenient outlet for that hostility. Maybe the reviewer thinks that he should have been asked to write the book, or is angry that his own book on a similar subject didn’t get widely reviewed. Maybe the reviewer has turf to protect.

Reviewer E just wants to show off. Auden: “Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.” And if you want to show off, then you will contrive to say a book is bad even when it’s not. 

I have these thoughts in mind because I just read my old friend Charles Marsh’s brief book Resisting the Bonhoeffer Brand, in which he responds to some critics of his powerful biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory. Now, this immediately raises the question: Should a writer respond to negative reviews at all? Many writers say no, but opinions vary. My own feeling is that when the reviewer says something that is just factually wrong, and can be shown to be factually wrong, then it’s fine for the writer to say so – in some cases it’s necessary to say so. But you can’t effectively contest someone’s judgments about your work.

The matter gets complicated, though, when a critic combines factual errors with implausible judgments. That’s the case with Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, who seems recently to have made a career of criticizing Marsh’s biography, largely on the Bulverist logic that since Americans can’t really understand Bonhoeffer and Charles Marsh is an American, Marsh’s biography must be wrong – it remains only to discover how it is wrong. Schlingensiepen takes his task seriously enough that when he discovers that Marsh has misnamed a Berlin department store, he cries that such an error is “grotesque.” Can you really answer someone who thinks that way? I doubt it.

But Marsh’s attempt to do so leads into some really interesting reflections on – here’s where the book’s title comes in – how a certain kind of author can become the object of a branding exercise, in a way that blurs the boundaries between a brand and a cult.

I’ve written before about the pleasure of working with Auden’s literary executor Edward Mendelson, who has consistently aided and abetted Auden scholars, extending the same courtesy to those whose views of Auden he strongly disagrees with as to those whose views resemble his own. That is to say, Mendelson has refused to be the custodian of a cult. This attitude is rarer than it should be. For instance, it’s clear that there is a strong network of Bonhoeffer scholars, centered in Germany but not confined there, for whom Bonhoeffer’s dear friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge is the one authoritative Keeper of the Bonhoeffer Flame, whose judgments must be acknowledged correct and thus made the grounding of all future scholarship on Bonhoeffer. Marsh knew and greatly admires Bethge but does not take quite that view. (How American of him!) And even mild dissent from the Authorized View – Strange Glory is certainly no “revisionist” biography of Bonhoeffer, though it has many new insights – must be policed by (see Reviewer D above) the protectors of turf. Thus: turf protection as brand management; and book reviews as an instrument of brand management.

ALl this interests me because precisely the same kind of behavior can be seen in the world of C.S. Lewis scholarship. Here Walter Hooper plays the role that Bethge plays for Bonhoeffer: the officially designated custodian of the Cult. The majority of Lewis scholars, I think, see themselves as continuing and extending the work of Hooper, and are typically not happy with work that dissents from Hooper’s understanding of Lewis. (Everyone who reads deeply in Lewis is indebted to Hooper for his energetic editorial labors, but his interpretations of Lewis are another matter.) Thus A. N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis – which is to some degree a revisionist one – was generally excoriated by the Lewisites, though it is in fact a mixed bag, deeply insightful in some ways and grossly mistaken in others. My own biography of Lewis has been largely ignored by the disciples of Hooper, I think because I am neither fish nor fowl: by no means a revisionist or skeptic, but also not following in Hooper’s interpretative footsteps. I am outside the Cult, but the way in which I am outside the Cult is not legible to them.

The interesting question for me is this: Is there a specific kind of thinker who generates a cult, a cult that then creates and manages a brand? There are certainly thinkers who intend to build a cult around themselves – Ayn Rand comes first to mind – but that’s not something that Bonhoeffer or Lewis would ever have done. Yet readers’ devotion to them is so intense that cults happen, as it were. By contrast, though Auden is just as celebrated as Bonhoeffer and Lewis, it is impossible to imagine a cult growing up around him. Perhaps this is because he saw one starting to grow when he was a young writers and took measures to prevent it from happening.

In any event, Marsh’s little book is a really interesting one – and I haven’t even mentioned the thing that mosts interests me, which is its meditations on the relationship between theology and biography. I’ll come to that another day, another way. 

A Nighttime Walk with Garnette Cadogan:

GC: Night walks are incredibly important. The city becomes a different creature at night. There are levels of intimacy, of openness, of freedom, of control, of interaction, of encounter, that far surpasses—or, at least, offers a very different quality than—those of the day. People get drawn into associations and affinities that come from seeing each other regularly at night. In part, because places are more sparse; less obstructions to a welcoming eye contact. You feel it on the sidewalks, in the streets, and in the alleyways. The stoops are yours much more so than during the day. The very atmosphere feels more ready to accommodate you. Many places have one, singular, ingrained core story during the daytime, but at night? At night, these places give up many stories. A multiplicity of stories waiting to reveal themselves to you.

I: Do you have a preference between, let’s call them Day New York and Night New York?

GC: Give me Night New York over Day New York a million times over. That may partly be due to my constitution, and less to do with New York. I come alive at night. My friends say I get my second wind at midnight, but the truth is I get my first wind at midnight. My second wind hits at around three o’clock. I love the night. I love the sense of mystery that comes with it. 

Garnette even walks my neighborhood in Waco in the middle of the night, when he comes to visit. I sort of feel that I ought to be with him, but I keep on snoozing…. Garnette is our great documentarian of city walking. He’s mainly in Boston now, but to go for a long walk with Garnette in Manhattan is a great thing. On one walk I think we covered the whole of Greenwich Village. 

The Art of Computational Narrative – by Samuel Arbesman:

Perhaps there are specific features of computer programs that might be (a tiny bit) like prose. For example, just as literary texts have specific properties and rhythms, it could be useful to compare programming languages based on their literary properties. Is there a rhythm to a Python program, or something written in Lisp? And what are the nuances behind keyword choices within each programming language? For despite the limitations on syntax and vocabulary that each language contains, the resulting code may have a particular expressive power.

The corruption of California – UnHerd:

You, tender reader, might be scandalised by the ways of California’s DMV, but such a response is a hangover from another era. Under conditions of bureaucratic dysfunction typical of a party-state, corruption isn’t a problem, it is the solution. These new populations have found ways to get things done. Bribery is more efficient (and far less crazy-making) than clinging to first-world expectations in a world that has changed. 

This is a genuinely and deeply fascinating essay by Matt Crawford. I think it describes a small but significant chunk of America’s future. 

Melody Moezzi:

This brings me to the most embarrassing reason I stayed on social media for so long: ego. I genuinely believed that my posts, tweets, likes, and retweets and the blue check mark on my account actually meant something, that all the followers I’d amassed proved that I was worthy and important. I also embraced the delusion that social media was vital to my personal and professional success as a writer and activist. Without it, I was sure I’d miss out on parties, protests, and publishing contracts. Yet an honest accounting forced me to admit that my ability to party, protest, and publish has been far more enfeebled than enabled by social media. In short, I haven’t built my career on posts, tweets, and feeds. I’ve built it on books, essays, and speeches. And I haven’t built my strongest communities on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I’ve built them on porches, around firepits, and under the stars.

excerpt from my Sent folder: progressive

I do believe in what Cardinal Newman called the “development of doctrine” — though not precisely in the way that Newman did — but I am skeptical of the idea of “progressive revelation.” It leads to the belief that whatever is progressive — whatever has developed, has emerged — is ipso facto revelation. But if you don’t believe that, then you have to be able to distinguish between progressive developments that really are authentic expressions of the Gospel and those that aren’t. And in order to do that you have to criteria for deciding, and those criteria will necessarily not involve the notion of what’s “progressive” because the progressive is precisely what you’re evaluating. The idea of progressive revelation is therefore a problem, not a solution.

same old song

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression:

HB 999 [in Florida] would require faculty to censor their discussion and materials in general education courses, to the detriment of both faculty and their students. The measure would prohibit faculty teaching these courses from including material that “teaches identity politics,” which the bill defines as “Critical Race Theory” — something the bill does not define. Faculty teaching courses on history, philosophy, humanities, literature, sociology, or art would be required to guess what material administrators, political appointees, or lawmakers might label “identity politics” — no matter how pedagogically relevant the material is to the course.

HB 999 would also require that general education courses rewrite “American history,” prohibiting teaching that would suggest that America was anything other than “a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” And faculty would be required to guess what it means — again, in the eyes of administrators and political appointees — to “suppress or distort significant historical events.”

But perhaps the most vague restriction in HB 999 is its prohibition on the inclusion of “unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content” in general education courses. A broad range of academic content — including quite literally all scientific theories — is contested and theoretical. State officials would have unfettered discretion to determine which views are “theoretical” and banned from general education courses. A bill so vague that it allows officials the discretion to declare that professors cannot discuss new theories and ideas in a particular public university class should be rejected, flat out. 

Meanwhile, in Hungary

According to draft legislation seen by Reuters on Friday, the government would set up a National Cultural Council, headed by a minister, with the task of “setting priorities and directions to be followed in Hungarian culture.” 

The minister would also have a say in the appointment or sacking of theater directors at institutions that are jointly financed by the state and municipality.

“It is a fundamental requirement for activities belonging under the auspices of this law to actively defend the interests of the nation’s wellbeing,” the bill says. 

Because nothing says “stop woke tyranny” like imposing an alternative tyranny. Let me sing the chorus once more: EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY

Academics and artists are typically not well-equipped to resist this kind of bullying, because they have spent much of their lives seeking the approval of others. (It’s one of the hazards of pursuing a career in symbolic manipulation. If you’re a good plumber or carpenter, you don’t have to care whether people approve of your personality.) Faced with challenges to our core values, we’re more likely than not to fold like an origami bird. Thus, as Russell Jacoby reports, the minimal response to the attack on Salman Rushdie: 

An August 19 New York City rally of writers gathered in support of Rushdie reprised a 1989 demonstration against the fatwa in which Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Christopher Hitchens, and others participated, but the later iteration “paled in comparison,” a Le Monde editorial remarked. Across social media, writers expressed concern for Rushdie’s health, but an instinctual solidarity with him and the sense — so strong at the time of the fatwa — that his fate spoke to all of us as members of a liberal society did not materialize. Even among his defenders, free speech took a back seat.

Why? One reason is fear. In 2009, the British writer Hanif Kureishi told Prospect Magazine that “nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses.” He might have added that no one would have the balls to defend it. Most writers, Kureishi continued, live quietly, and “they don’t want a bomb in the letterbox.” 

Actually, they’re probably more afraid of being dragged on Twitter than receiving the letterbox bomb. And in such a climate of fear-to-offend, this is the key paragraph in Jacoby’s essay: 

Censorship by fear can take two forms: top-down or bottom-up. From the top, a publisher or editor can stop publication over concern about a potential reaction. If the right to free expression is qualified by the condition that you not “upset someone, especially someone who is willing to resort to violence,” Rushdie noted in Joseph Anton, it is no longer a right. However, the text or cartoon still exists, and might appear elsewhere (a small publisher picked up The Jewel of Medina after Random House scrapped it). But bottom-up censorship — self-censorship — is more nefarious, more widespread, and more difficult to track. Writers shelve projects before they see the light of day. The cartoon is undrawn, the novel or the scene unwritten. “The fight against censorship is open and dangerous and thus heroic,” the Yugoslavian novelist Danilo Kiš observed in 1985, “while the battle against self-censorship is anonymous, lonely and unwitnessed.” 

And this is why it is virtually impossible for good art to be made in our place, in our moment. And also why we need to treasure and protect the works of the past that both disturb our comfortable assumptions and open to us new vistas of moral and intellectual possibility. Reading those books used to be compulsory; soon enough it will be forbidden. 

Mary Harrington:

Increasingly, wave after wave of young people reaches adulthood armed with pop-Butlerism via university and Tumblr alike. No wonder growing numbers long to edit their meat avatars as they might their online ones, and that this isn’t confined to young girls pursuing unattainable beauty ideals. Reddit hosts anecdotal reports from individuals who decided to transition after using the digital funhouse mirror to feminise themselves, and deciding they liked that look better.

But the trouble is that this is only true until you log off. The digital age holds out a promise of total emancipation from material reality — one that, in politics, is now driving an increasingly bitter divide between those who can sustain this illusion and those still forced to deal with the real world. And, implicitly, we’re told we can apply this digital Prometheanism to our bodies, too. But it doesn’t work: the gap between protean sex-swap fantasy and sutured, bleeding, often complication-filled reality can be the stuff of nightmares — one that’s now prompting a surge of lawsuits. All that happens is that we open up a new, futile (but still highly profitable) war of attrition against our own nature. 

As I have often noted, the highlighted phrase is absolutely key. Maybe one way to talk to people who have been captured by the allure of transformation-by-biotech is to ask them to think about all the really cool things they could do with that money. (Though, come to think of it, I’m sure they expect insurance — i.e., everyone contributing insurance premiums — to pay for whatever they want.) 


This afternoon, after I got some dreary-but-necessary work done, I took some time to browse through a goodly number of Substack newsletters that various folks have recommended. Now, this is by no means a random sample of Substacks, so I don’t claim any general validity for the judgments I am about to make. But in reading through a whole bunch of these newsletters, I noticed two major themes: 

  1. The great majority of these writers consider themselves to be the World’s Greatest Expert in something. They truly believe they know more than anyone else about how to fix AI, or what various literary classics really mean, or how to renew Christendom, or who the next POTUS will be. Again, no random sample here, but holy moly is there a lot of pontificating, asserting from on high, dictating, declaring. Is there some narcissism-elevating chemical in the Substack water? I ask because while there are obnoxious bloggers — that is to say, other writers who don’t have editors — they do not, in my experience, nearly as often assume the tone of relentlessly pedagogical arrogance that characterizes many of the Substacks I’ve been reading.     
  2. Almost all of them write four times more posts than they have ideas to fill.  

There are probably some hidden Substack gems out there, but … then again, maybe not. Please don’t recommend any to me. 

UPDATE: I’m thinking maybe this is the value proposition of Substack — i.e. You should pay me money because I am bringing something super-special that you can’t get anywhere else. There might be a little more of that tone among Substackers who haven’t already made a career elsewhere. If you’re already known quantity, then perhaps you can afford to be a little more modest. 

Yair Rosenberg:

In 2013, Google shut down its celebrated RSS client, Google Reader, citing a decline in RSS usage. Today, millions of people still use RSS readers, but many times more use social-media sites and don’t even know that RSS exists. This imbalance means that media outlets and other content providers have greater incentive to invest in social-media infrastructure rather than RSS support, leading some to drop the latter entirely. But though the internet’s creative output deserves our attention, social-media companies do not. When the primary way we read online is filtered through the algorithms of capricious corporations that can change what we see on a whim, both writers and readers suffer. RSS is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Long-time readers know that I’ve been preaching this message for years and years (see the “RSS” tag at the bottom of this post). If you don’t believe me maybe you’ll believe Yair.

the sovereignty of mercy

In his sixth-and-lastly LOTR post, Adam Roberts graciously responds to my recent attempts to correct his errors, and this leads him into some fascinating territory, e.g. “the lack, or apparent lack, of the death penalty in Middle Earth.” 

I can think of two examples in LOTR of a death penalty having been decreed, and they come close together: those who wander in Ithilien without the permission of the Lord Steward of Gondor, and those who come to Henneth Annûn, the Forbidden Pool, are alike to be killed. Yet Faramir overrides both decrees, in the full knowledge that his decisions, if his father hears about them, could cost him his own life. What underlies those decisions he explains to Sam, when the young hobbit rashly challenges Faramir’s treatment of Frodo: 

‘Patience!’ said Faramir, but without anger. ‘Do not speak before your master, whose wit is greater than yours. And I do not need any to teach me of our peril. Even so, I spare a brief time, in order to judge justly in a hard matter. Were I as hasty as you, I might have slain you long ago. For I am commanded to slay all whom I find in this land without the leave of the Lord of Gondor. But I do not slay man or beast needlessly, and not gladly even when it is needed. Neither do I talk in vain. So be comforted. Sit by your master, and be silent!’  

That is, Faramir has internalized the very standards that, as Adam notes, Gandalf articulates in the second chapter of the whole novel, “The Shadow of the Past”: the sovereignty (among moral imperatives) of pity and mercy. Gandalf on Bilbo: “It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.” Faramir is indeed what his father accuses him of being: “a wizard’s pupil.” 

“Sovereignty” is a key concept here, as Carl Schmitt realized when he said that the sovereign is whoever or whatever can “declare the state of exception.” Faramir assumes a local sovereignty when he overrides the death penalty in these two cases — as, by the way, do Eomer (when he allows Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas to ride free in the Mark rather than bring them back to Theoden) and Háma, the doorward of Theoden, whose charge is to deprive visitors of their weapons:  

‘The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a prop for age,’ said Háma. He looked hard at the ash-staff on which Gandalf leaned. ‘Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in.’ 

So you can see that one of the great themes in the middle two books of the novel is the necessity of wisdom — of prudential judgment that overrides the letter of the law. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says that any law is necessarily deficient because of its generality, so wise rulers will need to develop the virtue of ἐπιείκεια (epieikeia), a word impossible to translate: in many contexts it means clemency, gentleness, or, yes, mercy, but Aristotle seems to mean something broader: perhaps discretion is the best one-word translation. But discretion will typically, for Aristotle, involve relaxing or modulating the demands of the law. In any case, again and again in LOTR the success of our heroes depends on their encountering people in power who manifest such ἐπιείκεια. 

But what is the origin of the laws they they thus relax? It seems that in every case they arise from personal decrees by rulers. (Denethor speaks and it is so.) Because the Shire doesn’t have a ruler, the hobbits who live there seem to depend not on law at all but rather custom. The law in any sense recognizable to us — an entity like the Code of Hammurabi or the Mosaic law — doesn’t appear to exist in Middle-Earth. 

And I wonder if this absence of Law-as-such is related to the (oft-noted) absence of Religion-as-such. Our word religion comes from the Latin religio which in turn probably comes from religare, to bind. To be “religious” is to bind oneself to certain beliefs and practices. But in this context to bind is a reverberant notion: we may well think of the One Ring as the One Religion and One Law of Middle-Earth in the Third Age. It is noteworthy that most of the various decrees which good men exercise their ἐπιείκεια to relax were created in response to the increasing power and ambition of Mordor. Those who act wisely in this book seem to be aware, perhaps not quite consciously, that decrees made in order to respond to Mordor will likely be tainted by Mordor’s logic of power. Eomer and Háma and especially Faramir seem to intuit another logic, a greater logic of ἐπιείκεια that comes not from the decrees of the sovereign but rather … well, from where? 

When I teach The Lord of the Rings I take my students through the book’s oddly pervasive use, in certain circumstances, of the passive voice. Gandalf  tells Frodo that he and Bilbo were meant to find the Ring; Frodo asks, “Why was I chosen?” — by whom, we wonder; Elrond tells the council gathered at Rivendell that they were called there (“though I did not call you.”) There are many more examples. Says Gandalf, “Behind that” — Bilbo’s finding of the Ring — “there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.” But what? No one seems to know, though perhaps Gandalf does know and is reluctant (or forbidden) to say. But whatever it is, it seems to whisper of the sovereignty of mercy above that of legal decree. It shows us a world in which penalties of death are declared, but are then abrogated by the wise and kind. A world in which Schmitt’s “state of exception” is indeed instituted, but not by the power-hungry — rather, by the merciful, no matter what it costs them. 

IMG 1729

“What it will be Questioned When the Sun rises over Amarillo do you not see a series of metal pylons connected to the electrical grid O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host raising their arms in praise and crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow Turns 50 – by Ted Gioia:

Pynchon may still have many admirers, but few who are willing to follow in his footsteps. Even an explicitly Pynchonian novel of more modern times, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, eventually rests its fictive universe on a compassionate, humanistic foundation, one that has no equivalent in Pynchon’s worldview. If Pynchon’s books were boats, they would be ones without a sea floor on which to set anchor. 

Ted is wrong about this, as I explain at some length — as in fifteen thousand words — in a forthcoming essay for the Hedgehog Review: “The Far Invisible: Thomas Pynchon as America’s Theologian.”  

I appreciate the respectful tone of this essay, but … I guess I am bemused by the widespread feeling that the American South needs to be explained. (And is susceptible to explanation.) The view seems to be that people born elsewhere — Iowa, in Jeff Taylor’s case — constitute a norm from which the South is in various ways, some good and some bad, a deviation. Taylor is a native midwesterner who lived in the South for three years and is now explaining it; I am a native Alabaman who lived in northern Illinois for twenty-nine years, but it would never occur to me to write an essay explaining the Midwest. 

Dishonor Code: What Happens When Cheating Becomes the Norm?:

Most professors, students said, grasp that the American campus has changed—big time. That the paradigm has shifted. Professors want a comfortable perch that looks nice on their résumés where they can write their articles and books and get ahead—just like the students want to get ahead, just like the universities want to get ahead. (Sam Beyda, the Columbia economics major, pointed out that his own school’s administration had been accused of manipulating data to game the U.S. News & World Report rankings.)

A recent Yale University graduate said his professors had encouraged him to get diagnosed with ADHD so he could get more time to finish homework or take exams. One student he knew received extra time for “academic-induced depression.” He smirked when he said it. 

I hear from my fellow professors all the time that recent technologies (and not just the new chatbots) have simply exposed for all to see the heretofore unspoken deal between teachers and students: We pretend to teach them and they pretend to learn. Henry James Sumner Maine may have talked about the move from status to contract as the foundation of the social order, but what we have in academia is an unwritten contract that allows both parties to increase their status. 

I know this will be hard to believe, but: We genuinely do things differently here in Baylor’s Honors College. Why? I think it’s a combination of (a) the presence of Christian commitments, among both professors and students, that encourage us to remember that education is personal formation; and (b) the fact that Baylor as a whole is not an elite institution. Students who come here tend not to think that they’re gonna rule the world someday; they want to do well in life, of course, but they’re not set on a lifetime of climbing Success’s greasy pole. And we can help them think about how to pursue good things in life that don’t involve stock options. 


Over at Plough, the tag is: Another life is possible. This ought to be a mantra for most of us. We can live in defiance of the mandates of technocracy and metaphysical capitalism; we can’t make those demonic Powers go away, and we probably can’t live uninfluenced by them — but we can reduce their power over our lives, one small step at a time. Independence is not gained in an instant, but I think there’s a growing body of people who want it. 

There’s a funny passage in James Pogue’s recent report on right-wingers relocating to the West: 

Resistance to “globalism” is a new organizing force of right-wing politics. “These people at the World Economic Forum,” DeSantis told the National Conservatism Conference in September, “they just view us as a bunch of peasants. I can tell you, things like the World Economic Forum are dead on arrival in the state of Florida.” It could have been Alex Jones talking. 

Well, maybe. But it certainly could’ve been Bernie Sanders talking. And isn’t that noteworthy? 

It would be nice if people found it so. Recently Michelle Goldberg wrote about recent studies showing the damage that social media platforms are doing to the mental health of young people — but as soon as some politicians on the right called attention to those studies, reactive nitwits on the left, of which there are many, fled to alternative explanations. Because Josh Hawley can’t be allowed to make a valid point about anything, now can he? Goldberg: 

The idea that unaccountable corporate behemoths are harming kids with their products shouldn’t be a hard one for liberals to accept, even if figures like Hawley believe it as well. I’m not sure if banning social media for young people is the right way to start fixing the psychic catastrophe engulfing so many kids. But we’re not going to find any fix at all if we simply start with our political priors and work backward.

If people — people on social media all the freaking time, naturally — could manage to take a few minutes’ break from their Pavlovian virtual cages, they might discover the possibility of consensus — consensus on the vital necessity to restrain the predatory megacorporations that are destroying our society, and, if their recent adventures in chatbots are any indication, are very much looking for new worlds to ruin. 

Any day I can take a step back from my political priors, take a step back from absorption in Technopoly, take a step back from the commodification of myself, is a good day. That some of us find that extremely difficult is perhaps a good Lenten meditation. 

Culture as Metastasis – by Mary Harrington:

All the way back in 1994, Baudrillard could see that the emerging culture after the revolutionary “orgy” of the 1960s was one increasingly free of any grounding in material causality, constraint, or telos. He characterises art, sexuality and finance alike in these terms, sketching how each of these domains has become a kind of metastasising domain that refers only to itself:

“Ours is a society founded on proliferation, on growth which continues even though it cannot be measured against any clear goals […] There is no better analogy here than the metastatic process in cancer: a loss of the body’s organic ground rules such that a given group of cells is able to deploy its incoercible and murderous vitality, to defy genetic programming and to proliferate endlessly.” 

In Baudrillard’s view, stagnation is also endless, directionless self-replication: “where there is stasis, there is metastasis”. He could be writing today, about the endless recycling that now dominates the culture industries — a model of production that realises, at scale, what that since-vanished visionary of fandom-first culture recycling envisaged back in my noughties wilderness years.

beyond creepiness

One thought about that incredibly creepy Snapchat TV ad — so creepy that I’m not even going to link to it — the interesting thing to me about it is not, in fact, the creepiness, it’s the fact that the big selling point is using augmented reality to deprive the people around you of their own faces and substitute faces (human, animal, vegetable, whatever) you prefer. It’s not accidental, I think, that the ad is set in a subway car, because public transportation confronts you with the plain old humanity of those you live among. Snapchat, the ad says, can relieve you of the burden of living among other human beings. It’s an ad made by sociopaths for sociopaths. 


Re: this essay by Alexa Hazel — of course people think we’re in a computer simulation. We always conceive of our minds as a dominant technology of our moment. As Gary Marcus wrote a few years ago, “Descartes thought that the brain was a kind of hydraulic pump, propelling the spirits of the nervous system through the body. Freud compared the brain to a steam engine. The neuroscientist Karl Pribram likened it to a holographic storage device.” But, Marcus insists, when we say a mind is a computer this time we’re right. Say others, No we’re not

Me, I think we’re always wrong. We make idols and worship them — we remake ourselves in the image of our own technologies. See Brad Pasanek’s Metaphors of Mind: An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary to understand how this works, but John Calvin put the point most forcibly when he said that “the mind is a perpetual forge of idols” — thus critiquing this practice and exemplifying it at the same time, a neat trick. 

Hazel continues:  

When I talk to friends who don’t live in Palo Alto, they suggest that I have been here too long. I hear things like, you have drunk the Kool-Aid. No one wants this, they say. No one will use these devices.

Meanwhile, a lab at Stanford has already manufactured an effective retinal implant. The clunkiness of existing VR headsets is beside the point. How our lives will become more digital is undecided. That they will become more digital seems to me basically inevitable. To gesture to Meta’s slumping stock price in order to clinch the argument for VR’s irrelevance is to draw attention away from the question of who’s steering the ship, to what end, and why. 

This strikes me as the despair of a humanist forced to dwell in the molten core of the Californian ideology. The truth is that many lives will become more digital, but some will opt out of that bullshit. Be one of the opt-outers. 

in brief

If I were a journalist and given the task that Nathan Heller had, here’s the primary (though not the only) thing I’d have done: 

First, I’d have approached professors of English and related humanities fields and said this: “Enrollments in your discipline have been declining for quite some time, and declining dramatically — a decline I assume you’d like to reverse. What do you do in your classes? That is, how do you teach the books you assign? What are your key concerns, your primary educational purposes? What do you most want for your students? And why should they want for themselves what you want for them?” 

Then, having gathered and sorted through answers, I’d have approached students and told them what the professors had said in reply to my questions, and I’d have asked: “Does that sound like something you’d want to pursue?” 

Nathan Heller didn’t do any of this, as far as I can tell. 

Re: my buddy Austin’s recent post on indexing notebooks, for most of the last decade I have used Leuchtturm notebooks, which helpfully have index pages at the beginning. And I have faithfully used those, but I have not found them especially useful. What works best for me is this: Whenever I start a new notebook I devote the first few pages to summarizing the most important ideas from the previous notebook. I also have a monthly text-file journal on my computer, and each time I start a new month I do the same: write down what seems most important from the previous month.

a better way

I’ve often written in praise of RSS — see the tag — as a Better Way to read stuff online than any social media platform could possibly be. There are a thousand ways to use RSS, but if you happen to have a Mac an especially good one is NetNewsWire, the app that, many years ago, introduced me to RSS reading. NetNewsWire is free, and here’s a post from its developer Brent Simmons explaining why. I also like the document on NetNewsWire’s Github page — it’s open-source — explaining what you can do to support the app, since you can’t pay money for it. Excerpt:

Write a blog instead of posting to Twitter or Facebook. (You can always re-post to those places if you want to extend your reach.) Micro.blog is one good place to get going, but it’s not the only one.

Use an RSS reader even if it’s not NetNewsWire. (There are a bunch of good ones!)

Teach other people to use RSS readers. Blog about RSS readers. And about other open web technologies and apps.

Suggest apps for macopenweb.com.

Write Mac and iOS apps that promote use of the open web.

Donate to charities that promote literacy.

Tell other people about cool blogs and feeds you’ve found.

Support indie podcast apps.

For Chat-Based AI, We Are All Once Again Tech Companies’ Guinea Pigs – WSJ:

Celeste Kidd, a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, studies how people acquire knowledge. Her research has shown that people learning about new things have a narrow window in which they form a lasting opinion. Seeing misinformation during this critical initial period of exposure to a new concept—such as the kind of misinformation that chat-based AIs can confidently dispense—can do lasting harm, she says.

Dr. Kidd likens OpenAI’s experimentation with AI to exposing the public to possibly dangerous chemicals. “Imagine you put something carcinogenic in the drinking water and you were like, ‘We’ll see if it’s carcinogenic.’ After, you can’t take it back—people have cancer now,” she says.

Charlie Stross:

The thing I find most suspicious/fishy/smelly about the current hype surrounding Stable Diffusion, ChatGPT, and other AI applications is that it is almost exactly six months since the bottom dropped out of the cryptocurrency scam bubble.

This is not a coincidence.

The Economist:

Wilmore, Kentucky, is the kind of quaint town (population 6,027) you might drive through and forget. Perhaps if you stop at the intersection of Main Street and Lexington Avenue you may notice a white Presbyterian chapel and a redbrick Baptist church on opposite corners — reminders of a bygone era when America was staunchly Christian. 

Maybe someone should tell The Economist that those churches are not museums devoted to “a bygone era” — people today actually attend them. 

If you’re going to read only one piece about the Asbury revival, make it this one by Ruth Graham. (I won’t let the fact that Ruth was once my student prevent me from saying that she’s the best religion reporter in this country, and it’s not close.)

I don’t have anything further to say about this event, though. Whether this is a genuine fruit-bearing revival is something that can’t be discerned now, and perhaps won’t ever be discernible. As George Eliot teaches us in the famous concluding words of Middlemarch, we don’t really understand the causes of the changes in our lives: sometimes the most important influences, and the most important people, work in ways too subtle for us to perceive. Maybe — and please, Lord, let it be so — this will be a great revival with lasting effects; but we’re unlikely to know what those effects are or how they have shaped people’s hearts. God works in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. 

the evacuation of choice

A. O. Scott’s reflection in the NYT on the video record of the horrific murder of Tyre Nichols begins with a question that in so many ways encapasulates our cultural moment: “Do you have a civic duty to watch, or a moral obligation not to?” An important question! — because it has to be one or the other, doesn’t it? 

I find myself thinking all the time — because the world I live in gives me constant cause so to think — about the moment early in The Once and Future King when Merlyn turns the Wart into an ant, and the Wart sees this inscription over the doorway to a tunnel: 


And that’s our world, isn’t it? Everything not forbidden is compulsory. 

You can see this playing out in the Education Wars conducted especially by this nation’s three most populous states. As David French pointed out in a recent episode of the Advisory Opinions podcast, the governors and legislatures of California, Florida, and Texas are engaged in a strenuous competition to see how thoroughly they can eviscerate the First Amendment rights of their citizens — especially, though not only, in educational contexts. Within public schools at all levels, no position on the hot-button issues of our time can be left to individual or professional discretion. 

(Which, among other things, makes me grateful to be employed by a private university — where, by the way, we are also free, unlike this state’s public universities, to make our own decisions about whether people on campus can carry guns.) 

Re: Ron DeSantis in particular, I have never — literally never — seen a politician so often and so consistently lied about, by the media and by his political opponents; but whatever your views about the Woke he wants to Stop, if you think him to be a defender of academic freedom you should think again. No, he doesn’t want to prohibit the study of Black people — as lies go that’s an especially stupid one — but he certainly does have an intellectual orthodoxy he wants to enforce. And these days, who doesn’t? What he compels, others would forbid; what he forbids, others would compel. There are limits to political horseshoe theory, but this is one arena where it definitely applies. Some good things may emerge from our current culture ward unscathed, but academic freedom is highly unlikely to be one of them. 

Kevin Williamson:

Speaking about the prospect of “national divorce” on his radio program, Matt Walsh voiced what I fear is a typical view on the right: He rejects the idea on logistical grounds but is not entirely unsympathetic to it on cultural ones. “Can you name one shared value that binds Americans together?” he asks. “There really is nothing. … In what sense are we a people? The only thing is that we all happen to live within the same borders.” That is, of course, foolishness. If we could force Matt Walsh and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to live as neighbors in a village in rural Pakistan (and I do like the idea!), they would soon find out that they not only have a great deal in common but that as a cultural matter they have so much in common that they are very nearly identical.

Cal Newport:

Imagine if the Supreme Court threw caution to the wind and radically rolled back Section 230 protections; to the point where it became legally unviable to operate any sort of major platform that harvests attention using algorithmic-curation of user-generated content. In this thought experiment, Facebook disappears, along with Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, and even YouTube.

This certainly would devastate the tech sector for a while. It would also hurt the portfolios of those invested in these companies. But what would the impact be on the average internet user? It might not actually be so bad.

I would quaver a bit at the loss of YouTube, but … okay. You’ve got a deal. Sign me up. 

Bishop George Sumner:

The See of Canterbury combines, impossibly, leadership of the Church of England and of the Anglican Communion. It is hedged in by ancient canonical legal requirements and political pressures born of establishment. But its symbolic weight is irreplaceable. Leave the Archbishop of Canterbury in place, as one of the two primates of the English church, with all that goes with that office. And then create a new episcopal office, the Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral, within the bounds of the grounds. This could be by analogy with the Secretary General, though it would need the agreement of the Church of England. Together build a second cathedra, from the wood of every province, and place it off-center in the sanctuary.

Pause for a moment to consider such a symbol. The Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral, most likely now from the Global South, sits in the chair of the grandparent, spiritually speaking. It will be a chair for an apostolic envoy to the communion, a chair filled with 1,500 years of history, a missionary chair not only in the line of Augustine, but also of Kivebulaya, Azariah, and Luwum and all their global mission colleagues. It will embody the reach of the gospel to the ends of the earth and back to the apostles. And yet the Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral inhabits a cathedral now with two bishops, itself a symbol of complexity and differentiation, and in the midst of that a symbol of collegiality too. The second cathedra evokes deep and ancient memory, of the martyrs, of the margins of the church, whose representative now sits on the chair of authority. 

An extraordinary and (to my mind) moving proposal from the good bishop. It is an image of the irresolvable contradictions inherent in the See of Canterbury, but an image also of the Anglican Communion’s determination to live somehow with those contradictions, rather than cutting one another off. It is an acknowledgment of brokenness and a hope for ultimate union. It is as though the whole Anglican world were speaking to one another in the words of Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” 


Three Temptations, and Three Triumphs | Philip Jenkins:

Psalm 91 was very famous and well-used, and quoting verse 12 naturally sent you into verse 13. But at this point, the Devil stops. In a sense, he has already said far too much, because any reader of the Psalm knew what came next, and what horribly bad news that was for Satan and his cause. Of course he stops there, because this next verse proclaims the fall of evil forces (like himself), and moreover it contained what were at the time read as evocative messianic references to trampling and serpents.

Naturally, thought some commentators, the Devil would not want to undermine his argument by citing such an embarrassing line. Origen noted this failure to follow through. Incidentally, he also thought that Satan had committed an “exegetical blunder” in suggesting that the Son of God would actually need the help of angels to accomplish anything.

So where did verse 13 go? Why did Jesus not hit Satan back with it? It makes the whole story annoyingly incomplete, and even mysteriously so. In fact, however, if we read Luke’s gospel as a whole, that very v. 13 shortly reappears, centrally and memorably, as Jesus openly proclaimed his messianic mission. Jesus caps Satan’s quotation.

When we read the story of the temptations and the wilderness, we normally read an ending at Luke 4.13: “And when the Devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season.” But that is not the end of the story. Satan and Jesus would meet again, and sooner in the story than we might expect.

books as toys

C. S. Lewis, letter to Arthur Greaves, 1932: 

To enjoy a book like [Froissart’s Chronicles] thoroughly I find I have to treat it as a sort of hobby and set about it seriously. I begin by making a map on one of the end leafs: then I put in a genealogical tree or two. Then I put a running headline at the top of each page: finally I index at the end all the passages I have for any reason underlined. I often wonder — considering how people enjoy themselves developing photos or making scrapbooks — why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way. Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book. 

UPDATE: A terrific response to this post by my buddy Austin Kleon