public health and economic balance

Public health depends on economic balance. Basil and Ambrose both condemned as toxic the economic profiteering of high-interest loans, describing the devastating losses they caused for those afflicted with unemployment and need. For Basil usury was a fatal, chronically self-devouring disease like a wild animal; its metastasizing growth, he implied, feeds on itself and its host to the destruction of differentiation, a disordered body, family, and property undermining civic stability. (Hom. Ps. 14b). If you are the financier, better to forgive the interest at least—or, best, write off the entire loan as a gift. The godly capitalism of right material practices was, he said, at core about thanksgiving. Addressing grain-hoarders during a famine, he wrote: “As costly capital, preserve thanksgiving in your soul….Cling twice as tenaciously to thanksgiving as you do to luxury.” (Hom. 8.6)

Economics are so bound to illness that the sick poor are “twice poor,” say Gregory of Nazianzus’ and Gregory of Nyssa’s respective sermons titled “On the love of the poor.” A Christian’s right response to their plight demands direct identification of them with the body of Christ, modeling aid action on God’s liberal and indiscriminate generosity for creation. Such “love” is not simply mercy but righteousness.

Susan Holman

in the day of trouble

Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

— Book of Common Prayer (1928)

lessons from the past

Once I saw how things were going I got away from Twitter and stopped checking my RSS reader. I didn’t want to hear any news, mainly because I knew that there wouldn’t be much news as such — though there would be vast tracts of reason-bereft, emotionally-incontinent opinionating. And I don’t need that. Ever.

Instead, I’ve just read Ron Chernow‘s massive and quite excellent biography of George Washington. It’s been a useful as well as an enjoyable experience. For one thing, it reminds me what actual leadership looks like; and for another, it reminds me of how deeply flawed even the best leaders can be, and how profoundly wrong. As is always the case when I spend some serious time with the past, I get perspective. I see the good and the bad of my own time with more clarity and accuracy. And if anything vital has happened over the past few days while I’ve been reading, I’ve got plenty of time to catch up. As I’ve said before, I prefer to take my news a week at a time anyway, not minute by minute.

One theme in Chernow’s biography particularly sticks with me. It concerns the end of Washington’s second administration and his brief period as an ex-President (he lived only two-and-a-half years after departing the office). That was a time when when political parties in something like the modern sense of the term — though many of the Founders referred to the power and danger of “Factions” — dramatically strengthened. It was also a time when journalists who supported one faction would say pretty much anything to discredit the other one, would make up any sort of tale. John Adams, violently angered by all the lies told about him and his colleagues — and there really were lies, outrageous lies, about him, just as there were about Washington near the end of his second term — strongly supported and oversaw the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts to punish journalistic bias and fake news, as well as to deter immigration — though Adams and his fellow in-power Federalists were only concerned to punish the lies that worked against their policies, not the lies that worked in their favor. (Plenty of those circulated also.) Washington, rather surprisingly and disappointingly, thought these laws good ones.

I draw certain lessons from this whole sordid history. Habitual dishonesty, on the part of politicians and journalists alike, inflames partisanship. You exaggerate the nastiness of your political opponents, and that leads people in your camp to think of the other side not as fellow citizens with whom you disagree on policy, but rather something close to moral monsters. Gratified by your increasingly tight bond with the like-minded, you stretch your exaggerations into outright lies, which gain even more rapturous agreement within your Ingroup and more incandescent anger against the Outgroup. Dishonesty begets partisanship, and partisanship begets further dishonesty. It’s a classic vicious circle.

And one more phenomenon is begotten by all this malice. Wheeled around in this accelerating circle of your own devising, you become incapable of comprehending, or even seeing, something that it is absolutely necessary for every wise social actor to know: In some situations all parties act badly. Sometimes there are no good guys, just fools and knaves, blinded to the true character of their own behavior by their preening partisan self-righteousness.

my expert opinion

Americans have never more desperately needed reliable knowledge than we do now; also, Americans have never been less inclined to trust experts, who are by definition the people supposed to possess the reliable knowledge. There are many reasons why we have landed ourselves in this frustratingly paradoxical situation, and there’s no obvious way out of it. But I want to suggest that there’s one small thing that journalists can do to help: Stop using the word “experts.”

Of course, expertise is a real thing! — though perhaps not quite as commonplace a thing as is widely believed. In most of life’s situations we understand the value of expertise: few of us try to repair our own computers, and none of us decides to remove his own spleen. But occasionally we draw a line.

Some are inclined to draw that line in strange places — say, believing that the moon landing was faked, or that the world is ruled by lizard people. But the really common dissents seem to come in matters of health: you might not know any moon-landing skeptics or lizard-people True Believers, but you surely have an anti-vaxxer cousin, or an aunt whose belief in the healing power of essential oils persists in defiance of her doctor’s counsel. And if you’re going to try to persuade those dissenters from standard opinion to change their minds, almost the worst thing you can do it appeal to “experts.”

There are three reasons for this. The first is that many people with genuine expertise in a given field have a difficult time staying in their lane. I have long thought that the perfect example of this is the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The question of whether we are close to nuclear war is a political question, not a scientific one; an “atomic scientist” has no reasonable claim to knowing any more about it than you do, at least, not by virtue of being an atomic scientist. (Factoring climate change into the Doomsday scenario doesn’t help matters much, because atomic scientists aren’t climate scientists any more than they are psychiatrists or nutritionists.)

A second reason that invocations of expertise often fail is simply that people with equivalent expertise in the same field often disagree. This leads to the phenomenon, familiar to anyone who has ever flipped from one cable news station to another, of Dueling Experts.

The third, and most important, reason why appeals to expertise are futile is that the term “expert” functions as a kind of class marker. An expert is One Who Knows, a member of the noocracy or epistocracy — and you are not. “Experts say” is a phrase that often carries a strong implication: “So shut up and heed your betters.” This is not the sort of message that Americans like, even when maybe they ought to.

My suggestion to journalists, then, is simple: Never use the word “expert.” If you are tempted to say “We talked to an expert,” say instead that you talked to an immunologist, or an epidemiologist — and then take a moment to explain what an immunologist or epidemiologist actually is. Tell us that you talked to someone who has spent twenty years studying the ways that diseases are transmitted, especially from one person to another. Yes, that takes longer than saying “expert,” but it’s worth it. To describe the person you’re interviewing or quoting in that more detailed way tells a little story, a story not about someone standing on a pedestal labeled “EXPERT,” but rather a person who is continually working to learn more. A person who has thought hard, and tested her ideas, and worked with colleagues who care about the same things. A person whom we should listen to not because she belongs to a certain class that’s higher than ours, but rather because she‘s dedicated to gaining knowledge — and knowledge directly relevant to the questions we’re all asking right now.

It should be obvious that this discipline will also ensure that journalists rely on people with the appropriate knowledge. When you’re scrambling to find someone to interview or cite and can only find someone whose field is but tangentially related to the question at hand, he word “expert” can neatly obscure your problem.

All this takes more time and effort. But the word “expert” has been poisoned now for millions of people, and not always for bad reasons. I know that in journalism time is often short and word-count limited, but journalists have a responsibility to educate as well as inform their public, and this is a way to do that better. After all, you want to be an expert communicator, don’t you?

St. Mark’s

I love these pencil sketches by Ruskin that he later filled in with watercolor or colored pencil

Leaves

John Ruskin

Loggia of the Doge’s Palace

John Ruskin

Palazzo Dario, Venice

By Giacomo Boni; owned by Ruskin

This thing is going crazy

“Titanic insanity”

And among such false means largeness of scale in the dwelling-house was of course one of the easiest and most direct. All persons, however senseless or dull, could appreciate size: it required some exertion of intelligence to enter into the spirit of the quaint carving of the Gothic times, but none to perceive that one heap of stones was higher than another. And therefore, while in the execution and manner of work the Renaissance builders zealously vindicated for themselves the attribute of cold and superior learning, they appealed for such approbation as they needed from the multitude, to the lowest possible standard of taste; and while the older workman lavished his labor on the minute niche and narrow casement, on the doorways no higher than the head, and the contracted angles of the turreted chamber, the Renaissance builder spared such cost and toil in his detail, that he might spend it in bringing larger stones from a distance; and restricted himself to rustication and five orders, that he might load the ground with colossal piers, and raise an ambitious barrenness of architecture, as inanimate as it was gigantic, above the feasts and follies of the powerful or the rich.

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

JRSV1
JRSV2

“I hated it with, like, a powerful hate”

on misunderstanding critical theory

Recently there’s been a lot of talk among conservatives about “critical theory,” and it’s been puzzling me. So finally I looked into the matter and think there’s some confusion that needs to be sorted out.

The person who has been leading the charge in the identification and denunciation is James Lindsay, of the grievance studies hoax fame, and he has helped to generate a whole discourse about critical theory, much of which you can find at Areo Magazine. If you look at the essays there, you’ll see some that identify critical theory quite closely with the works of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer — the leading members of the so-called Frankfurt School — but then others, who clearly think that they’re talking about the same phenomenon, lump Adorno and Horkheimer together with thinkers who differ from them quite dramatically, like Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Lindsay himself uses the term “critical theory” in extraordinarily flexible ways, sometimes quite narrowly and sometimes expansively. It can be hard to tell in any given sentence of his what the intended range of reference is.

To someone like me who has been studying and teaching and writing about this stuff for thirty years, the whole discourse is pretty disorienting because, frankly, so much of it is just wrong. It’s like listening to people talking about a “Harvard school” of political theory that features John Rawls and Robert Nozick; or a “California school” of governance to which both Ronald Reagan and Gavin Newsom belong.

However, the folks who write for Areo didn’t arrive at this confusion all by themselves. It’s endemic to the humanistic disciplines, in which “theory” can be used in many ways, some of which involves the acts of social and cultural and literary “criticism” — which of course is also an ambiguous word, since it can denote close attentiveness or a negative view of something. I am an Auden critic, but that doesn’t mean I am critical of Auden. All these things get mixed up together, and have done so for a long time. Decades ago, when I started teaching a class on these themes at Wheaton College, the class was called “Critical Theory,” but what it was really about was “Literary Theory.” I asked for the name of the course to be changed because I thought that the phrase “critical theory” should be reserved for the Frankfurt School tradition, but several of my colleagues were puzzled by this request, thinking that “critical theory” and “literary theory” were functionally synonymous terms. I seem to recall one saying that the existing description was better because the class was really about literary criticism rather than literature as such. Theory of criticism = critical theory.

So no wonder Lindsay and his colleagues get confused. But let’s try to straighten things out a bit.

In the broadest sense, literary theory and cultural theory are academic disciplines based on the conviction that the ways we think about our humanistic subjects are not self-evidently correct and require investigation, reflection, and in some cases correction. This impulse arises in part from the experience of teaching, in which we discover that our students tend to do things with literary and historical texts — for instance, decide whether they like a book or a historical account on the basis of whether or not they “relate” to its most prominent characters — that we would prefer them not to do. But also, there was some 80 years ago a fight in America (it happened earlier and rather differently in the U.K.) to convince academic administrations that the study of literature was not simply impressionistic, like some higher book club, and writing about literature was not merely belletristic. Rather, we’re doing serious, disciplined academic work over here! And to prove it, and then to teach our students, we’re developing a theory.

All this ferment is of course related to science envy: the need to reckon with the fear that science has a method and humanistic study does not. A theory at least approximates a method, and there arose some considerable agitá about whether there’s anything scientific (truly methodical) about what literary critics do. The most influential literary critic of the middle of the twentieth century, Northrop Frye, said in his landmark book Anatomy of Criticism that literature is not a science but literary criticism is, or should be. Not everyone agreed, but everyone did seem to think that literary criticism needed to give an account of itself, needed to specify and enumerate its procedures. In a famous essay, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels defined theory as “the attempt to govern interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general.” They didn’t think this could actually work, which is why they called their essay “Against Theory,” but even people who agreed that it didn’t work, like Stanley Fish, still acknowledged the necessity of “theory talk.”

So this theory talk — which started in Europe well before the likes of Northrop Frye came around — spawned a proliferation of schools, and not just in literary study but also in other humanistic disciplines, among which there was a great deal of overlap in terminology and approach. And, in relation to the arguments that James Lindsay makes, almost none of this was closely related to the Frankfurt School’s “critical theory.” Adorno and Horkheimer and friends had some influence, to be sure, but not not nearly as much as, say, the structuralism that made its way into literary study via Claude Levi-Strauss’s anthropology, or the various psychological theories that stemmed from the work of Freud and Jung. Then came post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, gender theory, body theory, postcolonial theory, ecocriticism — all of which were critical and theoretical but usually had only minimal overlap with the concerns of the Frankfurt School. (The figure that I think most generative for Critical Race Theory, Franz Fanon, was in no way connected to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, as far as I can tell. All of his guiding lights were French.) Certainly each movement operated according to their own internal logic.

But there is among all of these a family resemblance, just not one in which the Frankfurt School has any kind of initiating role. All of these movements assume that (a) most of the time we don’t really know what we’re doing and (b) we’d rather not know, because if we did know why we do the things we do we might not like it. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously wrote that all of these recent movements descend from the three great nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century “masters of suspicion”: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, the “destroyers” of the common illusions from which we derive so much of our placid self-satisfaction. So if you’re going to blame anyone for the corrosive skepticism of Critical Race Theory and the like, you’ll need to start well before the Frankfurt School.

And one more thing: as Ricoeur knew perfectly well, there were other great destroyers of illusions in the nineteenth century, perhaps chief among them Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky — but those two did it in the name of the Christian faith. Because no less than Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky knew that the human heart is deceitful above all things, and added that it is deceitful in ways that we cannot through our own efforts fix. Perhaps the chief problem with the masters of suspicion, and their heirs, is not that they are too suspicious but that they are not suspicious enough. Especially about themselves.

fifteen years ago

Teri took this picture of Wes and me on our visit here
This is where we were headed (photo by me)

serious questions for churches

The question I would ask churches that are re-opening without masks or distancing, but with lots of congregational singing, is: How do you think infectious disease works, exactly? How do you think COVID–19 is transmitted? What’s the theory you’re operating on?

I’m going to assume that the leaders of such churches believe that infectious diseases exist, that there are illnesses that pass from person to person via contact or proximity. I am also going to assume that they believe that COVID–19 is one of these infectious diseases.

I wonder how many such leaders are aware that health organizations all over the world — not just American organizations run by Trump-hating libtards — generally agree about how COVID–19 is transmitted? See for instance this poster from the Japanese Ministry of Health:

JPMH

And perhaps they have read about the dramatic and terrible rate of illness among the members of this community choir?

Given all the information available, I’m wondering what they actually believe — not just about what their rights are, or about what they should be allowed to do — but rather about this disease. Some of the more likely options:

  1. It’s all fake news, even that thing from Japan. There’s nothing to worry about, COVID–19 is no worse than the flu. All those reports of death? FAKE NEWS. Massive conspiracy concocted by global elites.
  2. Some of it is true, but the dangers are dramatically exaggerated by the global elites, we’ll probably be fine. Also, masks don’t work.
  3. It was very dangerous, but it’s all over now — the President wouldn’t be telling us to open up if it weren’t safe to do so.
  4. It’s still dangerous, but we’re putting our trust in God, counting on Him to protect us.
  5. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dangerous or not. If we perish, we perish. We may all get sick, we may all even die, but we’re not supposed to count the cost of following the Lord.

My guess is that the churches choosing to open — when they can; some that want to are now forbidden to do so — are using any and all of the above options as needed. Theirs is a castle with many mottes and many baileys. I don’t believe that churches re-opening for business-as-usual, or seeking to re-open for business-as-usual, have assessed the evidence and made prudential judgments in light of that evidence. They have decided to act on what they want to do, and then will employ whatever ex post facto justifications seem best in the moment, according to the arguments marshaled against them.

So we should expect to see any of the five defenses listed above, and perhaps others I have neglected, deployed from once moment to the next, even though those defenses aren’t necessarily consistent with one another. The answer to my initial question, then, is that the leaders and members of such churches will believe whatever at a given moment seems useful to justify acting on their desires. ’Cause in much of America today, that’s how we roll.

thread

Nothing is stupider than using Twitter to write anything longer than, you know, a tweet. This we know.

It’s a terrible experience first for the writer and then for the reader. Thread Reader is meant to make things less miserable for readers, and to some degree it accomplishes that, but whenever someone sends me a thread — I would never choose to look at one — you know what I inevitably think? Lordy, this is badly written. See, Thread Reader can’t do anything to reverse the damage the 280-character limit inflicts on a person’s writing: such writing is invariably choppy, imprecise, abstract, syntactically naïve or incompetent, lacking in appropriate transitions — a total mess in every respect. (Some of this happens because the writers get distracted by comments that start coming in before they’ve finished the thread, but an undistracted threader is still a poor writer.)

When you write a Twitter thread, what you are telling me is that you don’t care about your own ideas enough to articulate and display them in a proper venue. And if you don’t have respect for your own ideas, you certainly can’t expect me to.

You don’t have to create a blog of your own to post something to the web. You can use a free service like Rentry — I used to recommend also txt.fyi but I think it’s dead. You can even do what the celebs do and write something in Apple Notes, screenshot it, and tweet it as an image. There are a hundred ways to post longer-than–280-characters writing to Twitter, and when you write threads you are choosing the very worst one.

Wittgenzen

In a new and extra-special edition of his newsletter, Robin Sloan writes about why he likes texts that have “a modular structure, an accelerated pace — a bit of TV’s DNA grafted into the capacious form of the book.” And he thinks about how this kind of writing, as exemplified by Georges Simenon’s brief, arrowing Maigret novels, court the world of pulp:

And while the utter disposability of a lot of pulp (culturally as well as physically) isn’t appealing, some of its other characteristics are VERY appealing. Speed! Unpretentiousness. Accessibility. And seriality, of course: the feeling of discovering the first installment in a series and, if you like it, zooming forward, absolutely devouring it, until you join the mass of readers who are caught up, waiting for the next release.

And then he says, “Okay, so, for many years, I’ve thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to produce something with that shape? — an ongoing series of relatively small pieces published at a steady clip, gathered up later into something substantial.”

I find this thought both interesting and appealing, and I want to expand it. because Robin is also helping to write a video game, creating his own video game, sending little stories in the mail … and I wonder whether the idea of many “small pieces published at a steady clip, gathered up later into something substantial” might encompass not just pieces that are published in the familiar genres of fiction but might also extend to other genres and even other media altogether. You could end up with something like a multifaceted jewel, a body of work that has a kind of thematic integrity, but an integrity that might be discernible in full only by the person who made it.

But maybe to some considerable degree by the most sympathetic and attentive of readers/viewers/listeners/ players. Owen Barfield once wrote of his friend C. S. Lewis, “There was something in the whole quality and structure of his thinking, something for which the best label I can find is ‘presence of mind.’ If I were asked to expand on that, I could say only that somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he thought about anything.”

A consummation devoutly to be wished, as I think about my own career anyway.

Bruce Sterling has just announced that he’s wrapping up his 17-year run on his blog. I’m going to quote at length:

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use….

A blog evaporates through bit-rot. Yet even creative work which is abandoned and seen by no one is often useful exercise. One explores, one adventures by finding “new ground” that often just isn’t worth it; it’s arid and lunar ground, there’s nothing to farm, but unless you venture beyond and explore, you will never know that. Often, it’s the determined act of writing it down that allows one to realize the true sterility of a silly idea; that’s how the failure gets registered in memory; “oh yes, I tried that, there’s nothing there.”

Or: maybe there is nothing there yet. Or: it may be ‘nothing’ for me in particular, but great for you. “Nothing” comes in many different flavors.

What I find interesting is how Sterling thinks of the whole set of writing venues, from private notebook to blog to published fiction and nonfiction, as a single endeavor, each element of which is necessary but not in predictable ways. And what those elements are necessary to is the development of his own thinking.

I think what Robin Sloan and Bruce Sterling in their posts are pointing me towards, whether they mean to or not, is a different way of looking at these matters. Maybe the really important thing is not whether an idea gets published, or the genre or medium in which it makes its way into the world, but the integrity of my Gedankenwelt, my thoughtworld. A kind of Wittgensteinian reorientation in which publication may happen, but whether it does or not is effectively external to the real project.

I’d like to get to that posture of serenity and unconcern, but instead I spend a lot of time worrying over the relations among the various kinds of writing I do. And it occurs to me that the major impediment to my achieving what I have just decided to call Wittgenzen is the publishing industry.

Now, to be sure, and without any doubt, the publishing industry has been very good to me. I am enormously grateful to my agent and my editors for bringing my voice before the public. But one thing the publishing industry, for understandable reasons, doesn’t like is to pay for something that has been made public, even in part, somewhere else. The more I write about something on this blog, the lower the chance that I will be able to sell a more-fully-developed version of it to a publisher.

And yet blogging, for reasons Bruce Sterling has laid out, is good for thinking, for my thinking anyway. To borrow a metaphor from my friend Sara Hendren, who borrow it from engineering, blogging is a kind of sketch modeling: something more ordered and structured that notebook jottings, and less fixed and complete than a published book. Moreover, blogging is formally networked in ways that neither notebooks or books are: each post is linked not only to the online writings, or images, or films that it interacts with, but also via tags to other similar posts. Properly executed, a blog can approximate Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, for reasons suggested by Eli Friedlander in this essay on Benjamin. Or, to put it another way, a blog is a Wittgenzen garden.

So here’s my situation: the more I write at this blog, the less opportunity I will have to publish my work in book form; but also, the more I write on this blog, the better I will think. I still believe in lateral thinking with seasoned technology; I am still trying to put myself in a position where I don’t know where I’m going. But it’s not only easier, it somehow feels more responsible to take advantage of my publishing opportunities, which so many people would love to have. (Also: cash money.)

As those posts I just linked to will show, I’ve been going around in this circle for years now. But one of these days I’m gonna figure it out. One of these days I’m gonna take the plunge into the who-knows-what of Wittgenzen. These posts are here to give me courage and wisdom for that day.

deep literacy?

The problem here is the lack of evidence that “deep literacy” really is in decline. Decline from what height? Starting when? Also:

The rise of deep literacy in enough people in early modernity — mightily aided, of course, by Gutenberg’s invention of movable type — was a precondition of Protestantism’s firm establishment and rapid growth, and its establishment was in turn a major accelerator of deep literacy in the societies in which it became the principal faith community, in large part because Protestants ordained compulsory schooling for all children. The Reformation found a very powerful engine in the establishment of these schools: Wherever Protestant beliefs spread, state-mandated education soon followed, each reinforcing the other.

“Protestants ordained compulsory schooling for all children” — all of them? Everywhere? I don’t think so. When and where did this happen? Perhaps Maryanne Wolf provides evidence for these claims in her book, but if so citations of some kind would have been useful. And in any case Wolf is not a historian. Here’s a widely-cited article from 1984 that asks about the relationship between literacy and the Reformation in Germany. The authors conclude that the early Lutherans weren’t especially interested in promoting general literacy — they devoted themselves to promoting catechesis in schools, and this was done orally — and relatively little progress was made in promoting general literacy until the Pietists in the eighteenth century became influential. And even then the achievements were modest:

Besides reorganizing and revitalizing school systems still suffering from the effects of the Thirty Years War, the eighteenth-century ordinances set targets gradually achieved over time. Indicative of the type of incremental progress that was made are some statistics from East Prussia, one of the poorest rural areas in Germany. The percentage of peasants who could sign their names rose from 10 per cent in 1750, to 25 per cent in 1765, to 40 per cent in 1800. Another sign of increasing literacy was the exponential growth in the book trade in the last half of the eighteenth century as the number of titles for sale at the Leipzig book market, the largest in Germany, increased by over 50 per cent between 1740 and 1770 and more than doubled between 1770 and 1800. To be sure, the increase in literacy and reading in the late eighteenth century was still spotty and varied widely in depth and intensity from place to place. Best estimates of school attendance in the second half of the eighteenth century range from one-third to one-half of German school-age children.

How much deep literacy could there be in an environment in which basic literacy was by no means complete — in some areas not even widespread? That’s just in Germany, of course; comparative study needs to be done to make a more general case.

You can’t effectively make an argument like this without being able to answer some questions:

  1. How, specifically, do we distinguish deep literacy from more basic kinds of literacy?
  2. Where and when have rates of basic literacy been highest?
  3. What data do we have, for any of those places and times, to indicate the proportion of people achieving deep literacy (measured in relation both to basically-literate persons and to the whole population)?

Just to start. And I would ask a deeper and harder-to-answer question: For the overall health of a society, is it the number of people who achieve deep literacy that matters? Or is it the social and political influence of the deeply literate?

mail time

When I was writing my previous post I dug through my ancient folder of correspondence — which documents the pre-Cambrian era during which people wrote letters to one another — to find my exchanges with Father Neuhaus, and in so digging I found a couple of other things of interest. 

On of my first essays linked some of Auden’s work to the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre, and I decided to send an offprint of the article to that philosophical hero of mine, with my compliments. I was, as you might expect, delighted with this reply: 

AM

A few years later, I wrote for First Things an essay that was rather critical of Stanley Hauerwas, so I didn’t send that one to its subject. But Stanley read it and soon thereafter I got this in the mail: 

Stanley

“I like your style.” What a guy. Even if he spelled my name wrong. 

what to say about First Things?

People keep writing to me about the Reno Incident, usually wanting to know what I think it says about First Things as a magazine, and aside from saying, on Twitter, that I think this post by Rod Dreher puts the whole business in the proper context, I’m not sure what to add. But I’m gonna give it a try. 

My history with First Things is long and rather complicated. I’ve written about it before, in bits and pieces, but let me sum up here. When the magazine was just a few months old, I found a copy when, on a visit to the University of Chicago, I ducked into 57th Street Books to browse the periodical shelves. There was nothing like it at the time, at least that I knew of, and I fell in love right away. A magazine that took both religion and ideas seriously! First I subscribed, and then I submitted two shortish essays to the editors. Jim Neuchterlein wrote back accepting one of them — strangely enough, it was about Talking Heads — and a beautiful friendship was born. Over the next two decades I appeared in the magazine approximately fifty times: feature essays, shorter opinion pieces, book reviews. 

I did sometimes feel, after Richard John Neuhaus became a Roman Catholic and then a priest — having before that been a Lutheran minister —, that the evangelical wing of small-o orthodox Christendom was occasionally slighted in the pages of the journal, and once I wrote to Father Neuhaus to tell him so. After a few days he replied: 

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Well, I thought, that’s generous. And then a bit of gentle pushback, followed by further reassurances: 

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And, as if he hadn’t completely won me over, this concluding flourish: 

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He could charm, that man. 

I loved writing for First Things, and if I had had my way, I’d have spent the rest of my career writing for that magazine and for John Wilson at the late and so-deeply-lamented Books & Culture. (John’s greatest gift to me, as an editor, was to connect me with books that I could interact with creatively; Jim Neuchterlein’s greatest gift was to teach me about the control of tone, something I really struggled with early in my career.) But I did not get my way. B&C was shut down, and even before that things started getting weird at FT. I have always liked Jody Bottum, and admire him as a writer, but as an editor he was difficult to work with, and when Jim retired and Jody took over, he simply rejected everything I sent him. I had had no rejections from FT in twenty years, and now I could get no acceptances! It was never clear to me exactly what was going on — especially since Jody kept telling me what a wonderful writer I was — but eventually I gave up and started looking elsewhere. Which is how I ended up writing for places like the Atlantic and Harper’s and the New Yorker — because I wasn’t good enough for First Things. Or was no longer “a fit,” anyway. It was, and still is, hard for me to know how much I had changed and how much they had. 

Not, for a long time, being willing to give up altogether, I managed to get a handful of things in the magazine, but it was obvious that my relationship with it was never going to be the same. And then things started getting more generally strange. A kind of … I’m not quite sure what the word is, but I think I want to say a pugilistic culture began to dominate the magazine. When I submitted a piece to an editor, another editor wrote me an angry email demanding to know why I hadn’t submitted it to him; whenever I disagreed with Rusty Reno about something, he would, with such regularity that I felt it had to be intentional, accuse me of having said things I never said; once, when I made a comment on Twitter about the importance of Christians who share Nicene orthodoxy working together, another editor quickly informed me that I’m not a Nicene Christian. (Presumably because, since I’m not a Roman Catholic, I don’t really believe in “the holy Catholic church.”) 

I suspect all these folks would tell a different story than the one I’m telling, so take all this as one person’s point of view, but more and more when I looked at First Things I found myself thinking: What the hell is going on here? Sometimes the whole magazine seemed to be about picking fights, and often enough what struck me as wholly unnecessary and counterproductive fights. (Exhibit A: the Mortara kerfuffle.) So I stopped submitting, and then I stopped subscribing, and then for the most part I stopped reading. This isn’t a matter of principle for me: Whenever someone recommends a piece from the FT magazine or website to me, I read it, and if I like it I say so (usually on Twitter). But effectively there is no overlap any more between my mental world and that of First Things. I regret that. 

Rod Dreher is correct to say, in a follow-up to the post I linked to at the top of this piece, that no other magazine of religion and public life, or religion and intellectual life, has the reach of First Things. But I think the decision by the editors of FT to occupy the rather … distinctive position in the intellectual landscape that they’ve dug into for the past few years has left room for a thousand flowers to bloom in the places that FT is no longer interested in cultivating. I have gotten more and more involved with Comment; they’re publishing some outstanding work at Plough Quarterly; even an endeavor like The Point, not specifically religious at all, makes room for religious voices: My recent post there on Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life would surely have been an FT essay in an earlier dispensation of the magazine. All is not lost. But I fear that First Things — at least in relation to the mission it pursued so enthusiastically for a quarter-century — is lost. 

QAnon: costs and benefits

Adrienne LaFrance on QAnon:

In Toledo, I asked [a woman named Lorrie] Shock if she had any theories about Q’s identity. She answered immediately: “I think it’s Trump.” I asked if she thinks Trump even knows how to use 4chan. The message board is notoriously confusing for the uninitiated, nothing like Facebook and other social platforms designed to make it easy to publish quickly and often. “I think he knows way more than what we think,” she said. But she also wanted me to know that her obsession with Q wasn’t about Trump. This had been something she was reluctant to speak about at first. Now, she said, “I feel God led me to Q. I really feel like God pushed me in this direction. I feel like if it was deceitful, in my spirit, God would be telling me, ‘Enough’s enough.’ But I don’t feel that. I pray about it. I’ve said, ‘Father, should I be wasting my time on this?’ … And I don’t feel that feeling of I should stop.”

Why do people believe such things? After all, there is no evidence that anything Q says is true; there is no reason to believe in Q’s Gospel. Or even to believe that Q is a single person. Or, if Q is a single person, that he or she isn’t doing it for the lulz.

The answer, I think, is pretty straightforward: Believing in Q has many benefits but very low marginal costs. Believing in Q gives people a sense of having tapped into the hidden meaning of things, an explanation for their low social status, and a strong network of like-minded people. WWG1WGA, as the QAnon mantra goes: “Where we go one, we go all.” These are significant benefits!

And those marginal costs? I suppose time spent on matters Q is time one can’t spend on Netflix; and if educated people mock and laugh at the followers of Q, well, weren’t they already mocking and laughing at people like Lorrie Shock? How does believing in Q change anything in that respect? Nor does Q-following affect the ability of those followers to do their jobs or raise their children.

Again: significant benefits, low marginal costs. Looked at from that point of view, belief in Q demonstrates a kind of rationality.

LaFrance writes, near the end of her excellent report,

The Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America. Do not be surprised if QAnon becomes another. It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Q drops as installments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Does it matter that basic aspects of Q’s teachings cannot be confirmed? The basic tenets of Christianity cannot be confirmed. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.

In order to evaluate this view of the matter, I think we need to press hard on the word “adherents.” People who spend a lot of time chasing down Q on the internet don’t really qualify. Even the occasional IRL meetup won’t do it. A movement gains genuine adherents when the costs of belonging to it — financial, social, intellectual, legal — reach a kind of critical mass of pain. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of every church.

how hard

I know that one of the most frustrating things you can say to a software developer is “It can’t be that hard.” Because unless you actually are a developer you really don’t know how hard something can be. That said …

I was very excited about the new release of iA Writer because it promises something that I’ve been hoping for for years: the ability to post directly, from its iOS app, to a self-hosted WordPress site. All that the app has previously offered is a super-kludgy way to, basically, copy what you’ve written and paste it into a text field in the WordPress app. (In which case you might as well, you know, write in the WordPress app.) So I downloaded the new version, fired it up … and found out that it requires me to install a WordPress plugin before it can publish. But the required plugin, it seems, does not work with my hosting provider — or something: for whatever reason, it doesn’t work.

Here’s the thing, though: Byword is not nearly as elegant or capable a text editor as iA Writer, but it has featured the ability to post to any WordPress-based site, directly and frictionlessly, for years. No kludges, no plugins; just write and publish. So, I just can’t help saying to the people at iA Writer: It can’t be that hard, can it?

(Post written in, and published from, Byword.)

free as in more coffee

I use the Freedom app to keep me off Twitter for 22 hours a day. I get an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to check what’s happening.

Freedom isn’t perfect: especially on iOS it sometimes fails to kick in until I open the app. (Today mid-morning I reflexively checked Tweetbot and chatted with folks for a few minutes before I realized that I shouldn’t be able to do that. I quickly opened Freedom and then found my way blocked. Relief!) But overall it’s great.

I tend to think of Freedom in theological terms, as a technological instrument to produce instant infused righteousness. After all, did not Augustine say — see the last paragraph of the City of God — that the blessed are truly free because they are unable to sin? And does not Freedom prevent me from tweet-sinning? (I see that I need to add prevenient grace to my theology-of-social-media vocabulary.)

Anyway, here’s the best thing about Freedom: It allows whole cycles of tweet-rage to pass me right by. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and check Twitter and see some outrageous thing that some dunce tweeted the previous day or evening, something that I might be very tempted to respond to — but by the time I see it that person has already been raked over the coals so thoroughly that he’s already dead. It’s great. Thanks, friends, for doing the Lord’s work for me so I can have another peaceful cup of coffee.

another case for the humanities

Samuel Johnson was impressed by the intelligent and ambitious structure of learning that Milton laid out in “Of Education,” but, as he explains in his Life of Milton, he thought the scheme gave too much attention to what Milton would have called “natural philosophy” and what we call “science.”

But the truth is that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and Justice are virtues and excellences of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance.

Ravi Zacharias

When I was a college student and a brand-new Christian, I attended a talk by Ravi Zacharias at a church in my home town of Birmingham, Alabama. At the time I was wondering how my new faith would affect my interests in literature, philosophy, and history. Was all that something I needed to give up in order to dedicate my life to God? I approached Ravi after his talk to ask him what he thought about that, and he warmly reassured me. Not only is the life of the mind — even the humanities mind! — compatible with Christian faith and practice, he said, but, more, God really needs faithful people in those fields.

When I walked up to him I didn’t think he would say that my new faith demanded the flat rejection of worldly wisdom, but I suppose I expected to hear a note of caution about reading dangerous books, or something along those lines. But no. His encouragement was straightforward and unreserved.

Perhaps I would have ended up on this same path anyway — it’s hard for me to imagine, now, a radically different one — but I really do think that was a key moment for my young self, and I have always been grateful to Ravi for his words. Many years later, when Ravi’s daughter Naomi was my student at Wheaton and my son’s regular babysitter, I thought that a lovely closing of the circle.

It seems that Ravi’s race is nearly run now. I pray for him a peaceful and even joyous crossing of the finish line. Well done, good and faithful servant.

sticky

The best thing about paper sticky notes is that they’re sticky — that is, you can easily attach them to another sheet of paper, to a computer, to a wall, whatever. and then detach and move them when necessary. I want a digital version of that. That is, I want the ability to create a digital sticky note and attach it to any file on my computer — so that when I open a particular PDF, for instance, I see the sticky on the page to which I have attached it. Ditto with a text file or a photo or a movie — any file. I’d like each note to have the features that Stickies on the Mac have: multiple background colors, rich text, live links, and a clickable title bar that shrinks the note. Oh, I’d also like this on iOS, and there it should be possible to create handwritten stickies with an Apple Pencil.

Ideally each sticky note would have an ID that’s representable in a link, so you could put in one note attached to a file a link to another note attached to another file.

Because of the way Apple sandboxes apps these days such a thing could probably be created only by Apple itself, and that’s not going to happen. Still, a guy can dream. Such a feature would be incredibly useful to me.

against “the common good”

Wendell Berry once wrote, “Community is a concept, like humanity or peace, that virtually no one has taken the trouble to quarrel with; even its worst enemies praise it.” Precisely the same is true of “the common good.” No one will claim to be against the common good; everyone will claim to be for it, from Viktor Orban to Xi Jinping, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Adrian Vermeule. It appears on both sides of every political equation, so those equations can therefore be simplified by crossing it out. Its invocation leaves us precisely where we were before it was mentioned.

enlightenment for ninepence

I know you didn’t ask — and you’re not going to read this anyway — but all the same, I have some advice for those of you who are going around proclaiming that COVID–19 is no worse than the flu, maybe not as bad as the flu. What I see you doing is looking for somewhere, anywhere, where the death rate seems to be small, and then declaring that that is the official universal death rate, on the basis of which you deny that anything truly serious is going on. And then you stop looking for data, because you’re no Lew Archer.

What I’m asking you to do is to act like a grown-up.

Don’t just cherry-pick the one number that seems to fit your narrative. Do a comparative study. Look at numbers from all over. Add and divide.

Discover how many people have died in this country from COVID–19 and over what period of time. Now compare that to deaths in the last few flu seasons, and ask yourself this: How long is a flu season? This page might give you a hint. Do the adjustments to correct for differences in the lengths of time you’re looking at, because that’s what grown-ups do.

Don’t just ask how many people die. Reflect also on the costs, both human and economic, of people spending extended periods in hospitals. Look at the evidence for COVID–19’s damage to lungs and to other organs. Do some more addition. Do some multiplication. Get out your calculator if you’re straining your brain.

Read something like this article by Ed Yong. Look at all those links. Follow them up, see what evidence he is citing and where the evidence comes from. This is the work of a grown-up writer. Try to imitate it, as best you can.

There’s a lot about this situation that we don’t know, and there are many things that we may never know. But there is a metric shitload of data out there for you to consult and reflect on. Consult it.

C. S. Lewis’s old tutor, whom he called Kirk or Knock or The Great Knock, was an irascible old Ulsterman who would regularly get exasperated by people who lacked intellectual discipline and even basic curiosity. He would sometimes say to such people, “You can have enlightenment for ninepence but you prefer ignorance.” That’s you. You can do better, and God help your sorry-ass soul if you don’t try.

after the storm

We had a massive thunderstorm around 3 this morning: crashing thunder, torrential rain, and lightning that was nearly constant for an hour, almost like a strobe light on the walls of my bedroom. This morning everything looks washed clean: the sky is the bluest of blues and the trees all vibrant in their greenness.

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Shira Ovide: “This will sound weird coming from a professional tech writer: Technology will not end a pandemic. People will.” I’ve written about this a zillion times, but once more: this is the falsest of false dichotomies. If a successful vaccine is developed — and pray God that that happens — it will be a great benefit to humankind arising from people using technology.

the seductions of prediction

Derek Thompson is an outstanding journalist, but this piece strikes me as way premature. I mean, good heavens, we’re not even two months into our current order. Even the Italian lockdowns only started in late February, and the shelter-in-place directives in American cities several weeks later. The most essential questions about the long-term effects of COVID–19 — How much long-term damage does it do to people who survive it? Will it weaken in the summer months? Will it come back in the fall, and if so, how strongly? When will we get a vaccine, and how effective will the vaccine be? — remain unanswered, and only when we have answers to them will we have any reasonable sense of the long-term effects on the economy. This is an article that simply should not have been written.

But everyone’s doing it, I guess. The seductions of prediction are irresistible. Note how Thompson regularly slips from the conditional — “The year 2020 may bring the death of the department store”; “The pandemic will also likely accelerate the big-business takeover of the economy” — to the unconditional: “Many of these spaces will stay empty for months, removing the bright awnings, cheeky signs, and crowded windows that were the face of their neighborhood. Long stretches of cities will feel facelessly anonymous.” It’s hard to tell whether these alternating verb forms reflect different levels of confidence, or whether Thompson just gets caught up in the mug’s game of prophecy and forgets to hedge his bets. I suspect the latter.

But in any case, if I were the world’s greatest computer hacker, I’d inject some code into stories like this that would insert, every five sentences, William Goldman’s justly famous and transcendently wise line: “Nobody knows anything.”

more things happening




breaking habits

Reading this post by Jonathan V. Last, I find myself meditating on the role that habit plays in our choices of activity, in small things and large. Last looks at two elements of our current economy — the conglomeration of entertainment options that we call “Las Vegas” and the movie-theater industry — and asks how they can possibly survive the current economic crisis in anything like their current form.

I’ve also been reading many reflections on the future of higher education in America, most of which acknowledge that the current situation is simply accelerating the arrival of a crisis we have long known is coming: fewer American young people. “Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota, predicts that the college-going population will drop by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline by another percentage point or two thereafter.”

All of this has me wondering about the future, of course, but it also has me thinking about the role of habit in our voluntary pursuits. The biggest concern for the movie-theater companies ought to be this: What happens when people get out of the habit of going out to see first-run movies and instead develop the habit of seeing first-run movies at home? What happens when streaming a new release on your TV is the normal thing to do? My guess is that for many people going out to the movies will eventually feel like a chore, and the movie industry will need to adapt to new preferences. It seems likely to me that the theaters that will survive into the new era will be places like Alamo Drafthouse, oriented towards foodie-cinephiles. And I sure hope Alamo survives, because man do I love going there.

I tend to think that Las Vegas will bounce back, because going to Vegas is, for most people anyway, not a regular habit but an occasional festivity. But a lot will depend on how people feel, long-term, about getting on airplanes. And this is one of Last’s points: so many of our industries are entangled with other industries that it’s impossible to calculate how all the dominoes will fall. (Which isn’t stopping journalists from making confident predictions.)

But about higher education … obviously the stakes are much higher there: the choice of what university to attend is widely believed to be one of the most important a person will make in his or her life. But that assumes that you will choose one, and I find myself wondering whether attending a university at all is a practice that is subject to change in our new circumstances. That is, for many millions of American high-graduates, and for several generations now, going to college has not been perceived as a choice but rather as an inevitability. Nor “whether” but only “where.” It’s hard for me to imagine that in the coming years it won’t also become a “whether.”

Everyone assumes that this fall there will be a significant rise in high-school graduates deferring their college enrollment and taking a gap year. It is easy to imagine circumstances in which this becomes more commonplace, not just for the next year or two, but permanently. And, further, it is easy to imagine a significant number of those gap-year students finding jobs that they are not eager to give up in order to go to college. Further still, one can conceive of circumstances in which certain industries that flourish in an altered environment, industries that had previously chiefly hired people with college degrees, realize that their employees don’t really need college degrees. That is to say, it’s not hard to envision a future in which young people and employers alike realize that higher education has become a habit, and a habit one can break.

A big part of me doesn’t want to see this happen, because I have been involved in higher education since I started college at age 16, and I love this little world. Plus, I have many, many friends who are professors, or who work in other capacities in colleges and universities, and I worry about their future. But if I could set all that aside — which I can’t, quite — I believe I would think that, over the long haul, a significant lowering of the number of young Americans who attend university would be a social good. And I hope it will be, because I think that’s what’s coming.

I would love to live in a world in which higher education continues to flourish and the charms of Las Vegas wane. I think I’m living in the opposite of that world.

 

things happening in my yard

le mot unjuste

I’ve written before about the dual and mutually reinforcing social problems of (a) stupid resistance to expertise and (b) dubious claims of expertise. Here’s the New York Times making the situation worse: 

“Some experts” is as bad a phrase as you could employ in this context. Such shorthand might be defensible in a tweet, but if you follow the link in the tweet and read the article you see the same usage. It’s sheer laziness. Who are these experts? What are they experts in? (Further laziness: one of the links in the article goes to yet another tweet, this one by the Washington Military Department and its Emergency Management Division. That’s your expert?) 

Saying that some unnamed experts in some unnamed field think Trump is wrong is weak and misleading. Better would be something like this: Our investigations indicate there are no epidemiologists, virologists, or infectious disease doctors in the entire freaking world who think Trump is right about this stuff. The President is talking through his hat and wishing on a star

why Blake is terrifying

The Vision of the Last Judgment

Last December, when I was in London, I spent a good deal of time at the Tate Britain’s big exhibition of Blake’s work, and found it frustrating. I ended up writing a long reflection on the exhibition, and on what it doesn’t tell us about Blake’s career, which has just been posted at the Harper’s website. (Why it took several months to be posted is a long and odd but not especially interesting story.)  

One point I didn’t pursue in the essay, but which I think is important, concerns why the curators of the exhibition might have worked so hard to downplay Blake’s religious sensibilities. In the catalogue for the exhibition, they emphasize that their goal was to display “a Blake for all,” and hint that their choices were constrained by the need to construct an exhibition that would attract corporate funding. A weirdo mystic who had visions of angels in trees and “the Ghost of a Flea” doesn’t fit the bill.

The Guardian’s review of the exhibition, by Jonathan Jones, enthusiastically echoes the exhibition’s view of Blake: 

The poster for Tate Britain’s exhibition of William Blake uses the three Rs to sell this icon of the Napoleonic age to the turbulent Britons of 2019: “Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary.” It may seem an over-eager attempt to contemporise him – but Blake was all these and more. You could add pacifist (albeit a militant one who once got arrested after a heated debate with a soldier) and anti-racist, for as Blake’s devastating portrayal of a hanged slave in this show illustrates, he passionately protested against Africa’s subjugation.

And how about feminist? There is even a book of children’s stories that he illustrated for Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the 1792 manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This hackish kids’ book wasn’t the finest hour for either, but it shows their connection through the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, while Blake’s great frontispiece to his own original work Visions of the Daughters of Albion, done in about 1795, shows what he learned from Wollstonecraft: a man and woman are chained back to back, the woman’s head lowered in despair. “Enslaved, the Daughters of Albion weep …”

This is not an exhibition of some old master honoured by kings and collected by aristocrats. It is a raw encounter with a heretical artisan who was ignored and despised in his lifetime and whose self-taught genius comes out of the popular culture of 18th-century London.

Politically radical? Check. Pacifist? Check. Feminist? Check. Pop culture maven? Check. In short, Blake was basically a Guardian reader. And that’s the kind of “Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary” that the corporate world is happy to support. Meanwhile, the visionary imagination that drove Blake’s entire career, which he believed to be pursuing in response to a Divine command — all that is to be passed over in discreet and embarrassed silence. Rebels, radicals, and revolutionaries can be commoditized and can therefore be “for all”; but ecstatic visionaries? The less said the better. T. S. Eliot found Blake “terrifying,” for reasons which the Tate exhibition tried to obscure. Fortunately, the attempt was not wholly successful. 

Saul: Season 5, final comment

Bettre call saul finale

In an earlier comment on this season I noted that Jimmy’s character arc is basically complete by the end of Season 4, when he registers to practice law under the name Saul Goodman. Insofar as anything substantial has happened to Jimmy’s insides this season, it has been his dawning awareness that he isn’t going to change, and because he isn’t going to change he has gone down what one episode calls “Bad Choice Road” — a road doesn’t have an exit or room to turn around. What remains is simply to find out where the road goes, because there is no alternative to it. And of course all of us who watched Breaking Bad know basically what’s ahead for Jimmy. 

Similarly, Mike’s character arc is completed this season when he decides to “play the hand he was dealt” and work full-time for Gus. And we know where his road leads him also. These two characters may participate in interesting events, and those may surprise us, but neither of these characters will surprise us. 

Nacho has not really had a character arc. He has been the same person since we first met him: a person who wants to be decent but who lacks the strength of character, or the resourcefulness, or both, to extricate himself from involvement with the cartel. We want him to get out of the bind he’s in; we are eagerly waiting to see if he does; but he is not going to change in any significant way. And meanwhile the blood on his hands is growing thicker. 

Which leaves us with Kim. At a certain point in this episode Kim learns — or thinks she learns — that Lalo Salamanca is going to die and she won’t have to fear him any more. And it is immediately after that, though the causal connection is unclear, that she seems to morph into a different person. Something seems to have been released in her, and it’s not altogether pleasant to see. It is a very strange thing to watch. When she starts musing about how she and Jimmy might destroy Howard Hamlin’s career — even though Howard has not, as Jimmy points out, done “something unforgivable,” the phrase that provides the title of the episode — Jimmy tells her that of course she wouldn’t actually do that. To which she replies, “Wouldn’t I?” And a silence ensues. 

Season 4 ended with Jimmy surprising Kim by deciding to practice under the name Saul Goodman — immediately after shocking her by revealing that his moving speech to the board reviewing his reinstatement was total bullshit.  

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Jimmy bold, confident, assured; Kim stunned, disoriented, destabilized. Our last encounter with Jimmy and Kim in Season 5 ends this way: 

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The same turn, the same gesture — but with the fingers made explicitly into pistols, rather a bold thing to do to a guy who has just been threatened at gunpoint — and now it’s Kim who is bold and assured, and Jimmy who is disoriented. 

Kim knows what she is echoing. She remembers how Jimmy played her. But what does her echo of his gesture mean? It makes me wonder whether all the changes in Kim’s relationship with Jimmy, including their marriage of convenience, have been part of a plan. But what plan? I also find myself thinking about something apparently unrelated: We are allowed in this very eventful episode to spend several minutes with Kim in a room filled with the files of people in need of legal defense. From those she selects people to represent — but how does she decide? Does she choose at random, at least among those accused of felonies (which she has specifically requested)? Or is she looking for something? And if so … what? 

All of which leads me to one more question: What do we really know about Kim Wexler? 

thoughts

Screen Shot 2020 04 21 at 8 04 52 AM

thinking during Covidtide

Content warning: the second half of this post is mainly for my fellow Christians 

 

For me, this Covidtide has been an unwelcome opportunity to revisit the experience of writing my book How to Think. Again and again my reading in these past two months has drawn me back to that book’s themes. On my Pinboard page, a good many of the links tagged covid19 are also tagged HTT for “How To Think.” (HTT is a tag on this blog too: see the bottom of this post.) 

Three themes of that book, focusing on the sources of erroneous thinking, have proven to be especially relevant to this moment: 

  • The “Repugnant Cultural Other” 
  • The sunk costs fallacy
  • The necessity of finding people who are trustworthy to think with 

The RCO. I borrow that term from the anthropologist Susan Friend Harding, and you can find a nice summary of the ongoing relevance of the concept to anthropology here. To understand the phenomenon (though without the term) you might also look at this superb post by Scott Alexander. In times of crisis people desperately crave moral and practical clarity, and one of the most efficient means of achieving such clarity is by designating an Outgroup, an Other, which you find repugnant, so you can take your bearings by opposition. This can be seen everywhere — see these quotes from a recent Wall Street Journal piece for an international perspective — but I have been especially distressed to see it among my fellow Christians, who think that if academics and people on CNN are saying that the coronavirus is dangerous then it must be fake news. 

Sunk Costs. I recently wrote about this problem at some length here, so I won’t repeat myself. I’ll just add that this also is universal, and related to the RCO problem. If your moral framework is built upon your opposition to an Other, then it will be very hard for you to let go of, or even modify, a narrative that you’re so heavily invested in. 

Whom to Think With. Again and again in my book I emphasize that we cannot “think for ourselves,“ that we always think in response to and in relation to others, and so the real challenge for all of us is not to become independent from others but rather to find the people who are most trustworthy to think with. When people let their thinking about the coronavirus, and responses to it, be guided by TV networks desperate for viewers and websites desperate for clicks, they are not choosing their interlocutors wisely. 

Again, these three sources of cognitive error interact with one another, and interact as certain combinations of drugs do to magnify and multiply consequences. You can see how this destructive multiplication works, especially among conservatives and Christians, in several anecdotes told by my friend Rod Dreher in this post. You can see Christians who are driven by enmity invest their whole lives in a narrative of binary opposition and then choose to think, or “think,” only with those who share that investment, that enmity, and then dismiss any countervailing evidence as “fake news.“ 

It’s tragic when this happens to anyone, but it’s especially tragic when it happens to Christians, who are supposed to be known for their compassion, their kindness, their self-sacrifice, their love of God and neighbor. But if you listen to the Christians whom Rod quotes in that post, you’ll see that a very different theme eclipses all of that stuff: They talk ceaselessly, not about love or service or obligation, but about their rights. (Never the rights of others — only their rights.) As Rod, in response to this talk, rightly says, 

Mother Teresa, speaking about abortion, said, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” Along those lines, we might say, “It is a poverty to decide that old people, those with weak immune systems, obese people, and others must die so that you may live as you wish.” 

Allow me to emphasize once more a recurrent theme on this here blog: We are looking here at the consequences of decades of neglect by American churches, and what they have neglected is Christian formation. The whole point of discipleship — which is, nota bene, a word derived from discipline — is to take what Kant called the “crooked timber of humanity” and make it, if not straight, then straighter. To form it in the image of Jesus Christ. And yes, with humans this is impossible, but with a gracious God all things are possible. And it’s a good thing that with a gracious God it is possible, because He demands it of those who would follow Jesus. Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He doesn’t bid us demand our rights. Indeed he forbids us to. “Love is patient and kind,” his apostle tells us; “love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Christians haven’t always met that description, but there was a time when we knew that it existed, which made it harder to avoid. 

We are unlikely to act well until we think well; we are unlikely to think well until our will has undergone the proper discipline; and that discipline begins with proper instruction. Maybe Christians who want to act wisely and well in this vale of tears should start by memorizing 1 Corinthians 13

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Saul: Season 5, Comment 3

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Earlier in this season, Mike Ehrmantraut is so disturbed at the way his life is going — at the decisions he has made, and the people he’s connected to — that, working over his troubles in his head, he lashes out (verbally) at his young granddaughter, which leads his daughter-in-law to suggest, as gently as she can, that maybe Mike shouldn’t be around that granddaughter any more. This drives Mike to certain self-destructive actions that result in his waking up in a tiny Mexican village with a stab wound in his side. 

Gus Fring — who has transported Mike there — visits him and initiates a conversation. He says, “It seems to me that you are at a crossroads. You can continue as you are … drinking, estranged from your family, brawling with street hoods. We both know how that ends.” 

And to this Mike says: “Yeah.” (Jonathan Banks should get an Emmy just for that one line reading.) Ultimately, Mike agrees to continue to work with Gus. Later, when he visits his daughter-in-law again, he tells her that he is better, and when she asks why he is better, he says, “I decided to play the hand I was dealt.” 

I decided to play the hand I was dealt. It’s this hard-earned and bitterly worldly wisdom that Mike shares with Jimmy in Episode 9. “Look. We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off … but eventually, you’re back on it. And the road we’re on led us out to the desert, and everything that happened there, and straight back to where we are right now … and nothing — nothing — can be done about that. Do you understand that?” 

But Jimmy doesn’t want to understand that. He doesn’t want to believe it. He wants to think that there is always a way out, that if you’re clever enough and resourceful enough you can slip out of the consequences of your actions, and play a better hand that the one that you’ve been dealt. (Or that you’ve dealt yourself.) And yet, confronted by an angry Lalo Salamanca who knows that Jimmy has been lying to him, he’s helpless. He has no answers, no strategy — he can’t even muster evasive action. 

It’s Kim who saves Jimmy’s ass. It’s Kim who has the brains and the resourcefulness and the sheer guts to confront a terrifying man, a drug cartel kingpin, a cold-blooded murderer — and to send him away in silence, defeated. It’s Kim who can find a way out of playing the hand she’s been dealt, if anyone can. 

But can anyone so escape? Can anyone get off that road that Mike tells Jimmy you can’t get off? It’s the theme of this season, and in some ways of the whole series. Earlier in the season, Jimmy is talking with Nacho about the consequences of some work he’s doing for the Salamancas: “I mean, if there’s gonna be blowback, I don’t wanna be in the middle of it.” To which Nacho: “It’s not about what you want. When you’re in — you’re in.”

Kim is cracking under the strain of trying to get out. Kim, who always keeps herself together, is on the verge of collapse at the beginning and the end of this episode. And it’s all because she got drawn into the world of Jimmy effing McGill. 

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My newsletter this Easter week is devoted to Arcabas

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Tom Holland

That a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque. Nero, charging the Christians with arson and hatred of humanity, seems not to have undertaken any detailed interrogation of their beliefs — but doubtless, had he done so, he would have been revolted and bewildered.

Radically though Nero had sought to demonstrate to the world that the divine might be interfused with the human, the Christians he had tortured to death believed in something infinitely more radical. There was but the one God, and His Son, by becoming mortal and dying the death of a slave, had redeemed all of humanity. Not as an emperor but as a victim he had come. The message was novel beyond the wildest dreams even of a Nero; and was destined to endure long after all his works, and the works of the Caesars, had crumbled into dust.

This Sunday, when billons of people around the globe celebrate the triumph over death of a man laid in a tomb in a garden, the triumph they celebrate will not be that of an emperor. “For God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Arcabas, Le retour du fils

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I have some questions

My questions concern Adrian Vermeule’s already-much-talked-about argument for “Common-Good Constitutionalism” — especially this paragraph: 

As for the structure and distribution of authority within government, common-good constitutionalism will favor a powerful presidency ruling over a powerful bureaucracy, the latter acting through principles of administrative law’s inner morality with a view to promoting solidarity and subsidiarity. The bureaucracy will be seen not as an enemy, but as the strong hand of legitimate rule. The state is to be entrusted with the authority to protect the populace from the vagaries and injustices of market forces, from employers who would exploit them as atomized individuals, and from corporate exploitation and destruction of the natural environment. Unions, guilds and crafts, cities and localities, and other solidaristic associations will benefit from the presumptive favor of the law, as will the traditional family; in virtue of subsidiarity, the aim of rule will be not to displace these associations, but to help them function well. Elaborating on the common-good principle that no constitutional right to refuse vaccination exists, constitutional law will define in broad terms the authority of the state to protect the public’s health and well-being, protecting the weak from pandemics and scourges of many kinds — biological, social, and economic — even when doing so requires overriding the selfish claims of individuals to private “rights.” Thus the state will enjoy authority to curb the social and economic pretensions of the urban-gentry liberals who so often place their own satisfactions (financial and sexual) and the good of their class or social milieu above the common good.

The entire paragraph is cast in the future tense: the auxiliary verb “will” appears seven times. But note that it undergoes a transformation. At the beginning we learn about what common-good constitutionalism (CGC, let’s call it) will favor; but most of the paragraph concerns what will happen under the beneficent rule of CGC. Vermeule starts with a dream and then assumes that the dream will come true. 

But what are the chances? How will CGC manifest itself electorally? Will the Republican Party be converted to CGC, or will there be a new party that emerges to promote and embody it? 

More: What is the role of Congress in this vision of CGC-in-action? At one point Vermeule says that “the general-welfare clause, which gives Congress ‘power to … provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States,’ is an obvious place to ground principles of common-good constitutionalism,” but if so, why does he describe how it works exclusively in terms of “a powerful presidency ruling over a powerful bureaucracy”? The whole vision seems to be focused on policies created and overseen by the Executive branch — what need has CGC for Congress?

And if there is no substantive role for Congress, then in what sense is CGC “constitutionalism”? It sounds more like Viktor Orban’s Hungary than the United States of America. It’s hard for me to see how CGC emerges, at least as it’s described here, without significant changes to the Constitution itself, including perhaps changes to the Bill of Rights. (In one mention of rights he puts the word in scare-quotes, in another he writes, “Libertarian conceptions of property rights and economic rights will also have to go.”) What are the rights recognized by CGC? Or, to put the point another and more general way, what is the constitution in relation to which this is constitutionalism? 

Finally: Who, in Vermeule’s vision of CGC, determines what the common good actually is? As I read the essay I kept thinking of Rousseau’s “general will,” which does not know itself and therefore has to be instructed, in a sense created, by Those Who Know. 

ecclesial bricolage

I see a whole bunch of Christian pastors and intellectuals going online to articulate a Theory of Worship for Coronavirustide. But of course those theories widely diverge. Here’s why we must livestream … Here’s why we must not livestream. Here are our precedents. Here are our theological guardrails

Come on, folks. We’re trying to build this plane while flying it. We don’t get to patiently articulate a theory and then generate from that theory a practice. The only theory applicable to our situation is the theory of bricolage — of DIY, of making-it-up, of using-what’s-to-hand.

In The Savage Mind (1952) Claude Levi-Strauss writes, “The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage.’” In coronavirustide, ritual action takes on the traits of mythical thought: it has to have recourse to a “heterogeneous repertoire” of acts and gestures, ways and means.

Let’s just accept the necessity of so heterogeneous a repertoire and see what comes of it. And let us do this in good hope! Levi-Strauss writes, “Like ‘bricolage’ on the technical plane, mythical reflection can reach brilliant unforeseen results on the intellectual plane.” I think I’m already seeing some of those “brilliant unforeseen results.” Let’s not worry too much about the theory and just play this out, using whatever resources are to hand, and while we’re doing so make sure to say, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”