Mary Leng:

Indeed, armed with a new toolbox of Latin names for fallacies, eager students all too often delight in spotting fallacies in the wild, shouting out their Latin names (ad hominem!; secundum quid!) as if they were magic spells. This is what Scott Aikin and John Casey, in their delightful book Straw Man Arguments, call the Harry Potter fallacy: the “troublesome practice of invoking fallacy names in place of substantive discussion”. However, they note another, less wholesome reason why some may be interested in fallacy theory. If one’s aim is not so much discovering the truth as winning an argument at all costs, fallacy theory can provide a training in the dark arts of closing down a discussion prematurely, leaving the impression that it has been won.

This, for Aikin and Casey, is the essence of what makes the straw man a fallacy: if we successfully “straw man” our opponent by knocking down a misstated version of their argument, we give the mistaken impression that the issue is closed.

Paradoxically, the straw man works particularly well on people well trained in the norms of good argument (the authors call this the “Owl of Minerva problem”: “we, in making our practices more self-reflective … create new opportunities for second-order pathologies that arise out of our corrective reflection”)…. Observers are generally more likely to be taken in by shoddy reasoning if they are already sympathetic to one side, and straw-manning contributes to the polarization of political debate. In today’s political environment it is not uncommon for partisans intuitively to see themselves as being on the right side of history, with their rivals adding nothing of value to the conversation and deserving of intellectual – or even moral – contempt. The prevalence of this fallacy in democratic political debate is thus a matter of significant concern: as Aikin and Casey write, it is “a threat to a properly functioning system of self-government”.

no nonsense

For the past few weeks I’ve been watching the 2022 UEFA European Women’s Football Championship, AKA the women’s Euros, and it’s been enjoyable throughout. And as much as the generally high quality of play — most notably from Arsenal legend Beth Mead — I have enjoyed the complete absence of drama-queen nonsense. I’ve been watching women’s footy for a long time, but not so much in so brief a period, and I think perhaps it’s the condensed timeline that has made me so aware of what’s missing: the flinging yourself to the turf, the rolling around in mock agony, the clutching of your face when an elbow grazes your bicep — the constant bullshit that really, seriously defaces the men’s game. 

By contrast, these Euros have been all Chumbawamba: they get knocked down, they get back up again. They don’t get a call they want, they go on with the game. Sure, they let the ref know when they think a call has been missed, but essentially they just play footy. It’s been great. 

Yasmin Tayag:

At this point, I worry about how much longer it’s going to last. People like [my fiancé] — I think of them as “COVID virgins” — are becoming a rare breed. Just yesterday, President Joe Biden thinned their ranks by one more person. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests that as of earlier this month, 82 percent of Americans have been infected with the coronavirus at least once. Some of those people might still think they’re never had the virus: Asymptomatic infections happen, and mild symptoms are sometimes brushed off as allergies or a cold. Now that we’re battling BA.5, the most contagious and vaccine-dodging Omicron offshoot yet, many people are facing their second, third, or even fourth infections. That reality can make it feel like the stragglers who have evaded infection for two and a half years are destined to fall sick sooner rather than later. At this point, are COVID virgins nothing more than sitting ducks? 

“Destined to fall sick” — or not, depending on how common asymptomatic or nearly-asymptomatic infections are. But how can we know how common they are, since not many people who have no symptoms are likely to get tested. I don’t think I’ve had COVID, but who knows? Maybe I’ve had it once or twice or even more, but am one of the super-lucky ones. Nobody knows anything, basically.  

two varieties of human frailty

Breaking Bad is a story about ressentiment; about a man who feels himself marginalized and neglected, powerless and ineffectual, who, therefore, cannot resist the temptation to establish himself as a Power — as a man who says, and means it: “I am the one who knocks.”

Better Call Saul dramatizes a radically different form of human frailty: the temptation of the con. The person so tempted may be socially marginal or socially dominant or something in between — though the marginal will have a few more incentives pushing them towards scamming. What’s at work here is not ressentiment but rather (a) a desire to dominate people, a desire to know what they don’t know and act on that knowledge in a way that enables you to triumph over them, and (a) the intellectual challenge of building a successful scam: the meticulous planning, the anticipation of the responses of your marks, the ability to improvise when things go wrong. What you see in Better Call Saul is, first, how the power of these two motives — the desire to dominate and the love of intellectual challenge —  vary from person to person, and within a person from moment to moment; and also the crack-like addictiveness that follows upon the running of a successful scam. 

Both shows then are about extremes of human frailty — frailty become perversity, perversity become wickedness — and how inescapable the associated habits of thought and action can be. 

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normie wisdom 7: politics

Towards a Normie Politics – Freddie deBoer:

The association with the mainstream and centrism in American political life depends on a very selective view of the normal. The current state of affairs in American healthcare, for example, is not remotely left-wing and also not remotely “normal,” compared to other developed countries, especially in terms of our costs and bad outcomes. Normie politics allow for far-left alternatives, if they are presented intelligently. Fetterman, after all, supports Medicare for All, a radical (and badly needed) proposal to rip America’s system for funding healthcare up from its roots. The viability of this proposal is of course fiercely debated, but it enjoys consistently strong polling support, and benefits from its great moral simplicity: tax people more and let the government fund everyone’s healthcare. This is a far-left goal, but it’s quintessentially normie politics. In contrast, I would say that Obamacare’s bewildering subsidies and exchanges and tiers of coverage stand as the antithesis of normie politics. In contrast to normie politics, Obamacare was the apotheosis of wonk politics, politics for people who ride the Acela every day. In other spaces, the normie demand might indeed be more centrist than alternatives, but it’s fundamentally not the centrism that makes politics normie. It’s the constant return to framing that emphasizes the comfortable and the mundane.

Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaigns in 2016 and 2020 failed, but they dramatically outperformed what was expected of an avowed socialist, in no small measure because Sanders is one of the most effortlessly down-to-earth politicians in modern history. Bernie is down-to-earth, but I would phrase Freddie’s point slightly differently. If you reflect on, for instance, the way a Fox News audience in 2016 responded to Bernie, you can see that the key thing is not so much being down-to-earth but rather his communicating something essential to that audience: I care about the same things you do. He cares about people having to work for below-subsistence wages, he cares about people who can’t get access to higher education, he cares about not leaving an environmental mess for our children. Basic stuff. Normie stuff.

Probably the typical Fox viewer is skeptical of Bernie’s proposals for dealing with all that stuff, but they can’t deny that he’s asking the right questions and raising the right issues. Which means that he at least has a chance to win them over to his proposals; whereas when Joe Biden says that “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time,” he’s just alienating people he can’t afford to alienate – including Black voters who wonder when, exactly, the civil rights of Black Americans got totally sorted out.

As I have said many times, I am dispositionally a conservative, but that just makes me homeless in our current political landscape. If we had a genuine Left — not the virtue-signaling cosplaying on social media with its limited roster of mindless buzzwords, but a Left that draws on its own best history of caring for the insulted and the injured, the downtrodden and the hopeless — this dispositional conservative would find that a lot more appealing than the politics of ressentiment and hatred that the Republican Party now largely embraces. But, you know, if a frog had wings he wouldn’t whomp his ass every time he jumped.

To people who say that they need to repair and renew and restore themselves before they turn their attention to anything else — which is what one person said to me recently — I would reply that turning your attention to cultural products that are good and true and beautiful is a way of renewing your attention by redirecting it, and therefore beginning to heal yourself. To give yourself the food that your spirit needs is at one and the same time to renew yourself and to renew your cultural enframing, as it were. To listen to a beautiful piece of music and then share it with others, is to heal yourself, offer healing to them, and do justice to someone’s meaningful work. It is a triangulated renewal.

How to Search for Life on Mars — The New Atlantis:

Despite what it says, NASA has actually made the decision not to look for present life on Mars, even though tools that could identify life have been available to the agency for twenty years. Even worse, NASA’s existing rovers operating on Mars are being directed to avoid areas most likely to harbor life, and its plans for future human exploration are being designed in a way that would minimize their exploratory capability.

What in the world is NASA thinking? And how can we get the agency back on the path to finding life? 

A fascinating essay, and a kind of case study on how bureaucracies evaluate risk vs. reward.  

capability and collaboration

In her book Creating Capabilities Martha Nussbaum writes,

What are capabilities? They are the answers to the question, “What is this person able to do and to be?” In other words, they are what [Amartya] Sen calls “substantial freedoms,” a set of (usually interrelated) opportunities to choose and to act. In one standard formulation by Sen, “a person’s ‘capability’ refers to the alternative combinations of functionings that are feasible for her to achieve. Capability is thus a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations.” In other words, they are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment.

When elaborating the capabilities approach, Nussbaum — I think this is fair to say — generally writes as though individual autonomy is the proper moral ideal. But in light of recent posts, I wonder if we might ask what capabilities emerge only in the context of a bet on mutuality. Capabilities, mine and yours alike, that only become available when we formulate and test prototypes together. See this chart from Sara Hendren.

ASIDE

Prototyping is iterative, but not all iterative activities are prototypes. Blogging, as I conceive of it, is iterative, in that it returns repeatedly to certain themes, trying to explore them more adequately. But previous iterations are never discarded; they remain part of the project. A blog is more like a palimpsest than a prototype.

As I hinted earlier, these thoughts run against my grain. I’ve team-taught a number of times over the years, but the norm for me is designing and running my own class; the norm for me is imagining and writing my own essays and books. There are always collaborative elements in this work — I look at what other faculty teaching the same classes do, I learn from my students what works and what doesn’t (every instantiation of a course is a prototype), I receive and respond to feedback from editors. But I don’t think about those collaborative elements often enough, I don’t keep them in the front of my mind, and so I am insufficiently attentive to the possibilities of collaboration. 

A big part of my interest in anarchism — see the tag at the foot of this post — stems from my sense that certain distinctive human goods emerge only when we allow order to emerge from voluntary collaboration. 

You’re never too old to learn … I hope. 

the invitation to critique

A while back, I wrote this:

To make promises, to stand by one’s words, to be answerable for them, is to open oneself to blame. That’s legitimately frightening. But if the cost is high, so is the benefit: To be answerable for one’s words is to escape the ineffectual, and to find “the inner connection of the constituent elements of a person.” To move from the linguistically and morally empty world of Projection — in which you can blithely forecast the destruction of whole fields of human activity and the hopes they hold — to the meaning-saturated world of Promise is to risk much. But if Bakhtin is right, you’re betting on the integrity of your own personhood; and if Berry is right, you’re binding yourself to someone else’s future. The promise for which you are truly answerable is a bet on mutuality. 

I’m casting my mind back to this because of some thoughts that keep rising up in the aftermath of my recent Laity Lodge retreat with Sara Hendren

One of the points Sara emphasized in her talks was how Olin College of Engineering, where she teaches, spends a lot of time teaching its students the practice of prototyping. As Sara defines and explains that practice, it really does look to me like a “bet on mutuality,” in this sense: To build a prototype and expose it to critique is to make yourself very vulnerable. (Sara mentioned an exercise Olin does in which it has its students build games, and then invites fourth-graders in to judge the games. “Is this fun?” She said that when those terrifying 10-year-olds arrive, some of her students’ hands are shaking.) But you invite people in because you know that you can’t do the thing you want to do without their honest response.

The form this particular bet on mutuality takes could be called a hopeful invitation to a constructive feedback loop. That is, you hope that your critics will give responses that will genuinely help you improve your prototype; and they hope that you will try to improve your project in ways that take their critique seriously. And so on, iteration by iteration. Sara has written of critique and repair, and I have written of invitation and repair, but look what we have here: the invitation to critique as a first step in the process of repair. 

An obvious point, now that I think about it, but then, I often take some time to achieve the obvious. 

When this thought came to me, I realized that I had dealt with it, implicitly, in one of my own talks at Laity. I had contrasted Bob Davey — a man who desperately wanted to restore an old church in Norfolk, England — with Justo Martinez — a man who wanted to build a new church near Madrid, Spain. Brother Justo strove for decades not just to build the church, but also to do it alone — he neither sought nor welcomed assistance of any kind, and often claimed to have achieved by himself tasks that he simply couldn’t have achieved without help. He treated others as impediments and threats. By contrast, Davey worked very hard on restoring that little Norfolk church, but he also sought help of every kind along the way. He gave up complete control of the project in order to draw friends and strangers into his endeavor. His motto seems to have been that great phrase from Wordsworth: “what we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how.” He made a bet on mutuality.

That surely meant having to hear other people tell him “You’re doing it wrong” — something Justo, it seems, couldn’t bear to hear. But if we want to repair the world, or any part of our little corner of it, we’ve got not just to accept but invite that possibility. We have to discipline ourselves to welcome it. And we have to encourage those others to stick with us through multiple iterations of whatever we’re prototyping. 

What this might look like through my kind of work … well, I’m just beginning to figure that out. But it’s got to start with doing hard things with friends

the missing middle

Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly – by Adam Mastroianni:

In every corner of pop culture — movies, TV, music, books, and video games — a smaller and smaller cartel of superstars is claiming a larger and larger share of the market. What used to be winners-take-some has grown into winners-take-most and is now verging on winners-take-all. The (very silly) word for this oligopoly, like a monopoly but with a few players instead of just one. 

Remember when we were looking forward to the era of the Long Tail? Nah, that didn’t happen. At least not in the way predicted. We do, praise God, have unprecedented access to art, books, music, movies — but we often get to choose between the colorless tasteless mega-productions of the oligopoly or very small things made at the cultural and economic margins. 

This works out differently in different art forms, and I want to think more about the details. But it does seem to me that there’s a kind of squeezing-out of the middle. The midlist author is disappearing — heck, in another time and place I might well have been a midlist author, but I could never sell enough books in the current environment to make a living. Also, it seems that only a few bands — good old-fashioned guitar/keyboards/bass/drum bands — can afford to tour any more, and most of those are comprised of people over sixty. Younger musicians tend to work solo or duo, or form short-term collaborations, and thick musical textures tend to be developed (when they’re developed all) through digital instrumentation rather than through people learning how to play together. The new economics of art has been hard on all musical genres, but especially, I think, on jazz. Which was struggling anyway.  

Obviously you can’t generalize too grossly here; the situation in the visual arts is rather different. But in many art forms, it seems to me, we have the massive-in-scale and massive-in-popularity and small-in-scale and small-in-popularity — and not much in between. 

critique and repair in the canyon

A number of years ago, when I was teaching at Wheaton College in Illinois, a couple of students asked me if I would consider becoming the faculty sponsor for a club for Southerners at Wheaton — a club to be focused on the real South, in all of its complexity, and one that didn’t give a fig for the Confederacy. They came over to our house for a meal, and Teri and I had a wonderful long talk with them. Those are special young women, we thought — and goodness, was that an understatement. Their names were Sara Hendren and Claire Chamblin — now Claire Holley — and they have remained close friends, and have gone on to do exceptional things in their chosen fields of endeavor. 

Last week we were all together again, at Laity Lodge, where Sara and I offered sessions on the theme of Critique and Repair, while Claire played songs for us and led us in singing — and gave an exceptionally beautiful concert on Saturday evening in the Cody Center. I learned so much from Sara’s talks — she is really doing innovative and compassionate and philosophically rich work on the topics we explored — so it will take me a long time to process it all. Look in the next few weeks for responses, probably piecemeal at first. 

In short: few activities are more rewarding than doing hard things with friends. My mind is full, and my heart too. 

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Claire at the piano in the Great Hall (taken by my wife Teri): 

CH

The peace of the river: 

Frio

convo

Me: Good grief, it’s just one thing after another. 

T: No kidding. Today the plumber spills toxic chemicals all over our kitchen floor, yesterday it was the sound on the TV going wonky. 

Me: Before that my Kindle died. 

T: Before that the ice maker in our fridge died. 

Me: Before that our internet ran at a glacial pace for several days. 

T: And it’s searing hot. And there’s no rain. 

Me: I got a new vinyl record and it keeps sticking. CDs eventually wear out. Also, the drawer of my CD player keeps sticking. 

T: Your life is suffering. But you know, everything wears out. 

Me: Nothing works. [pause] Well, there’s one thing I can count on. 

T: What’s that? 

Me: Books. They always work. No internet, they still work. No electricity, they still work. Drop them in the bathtub and they get a little wonky, but you can still read them. The books on my shelf — in a hundred years, in two hundred years, they’ll still be readable. The only thing you can really count on in this vale of tears is books

T: Truth. 

A Love Letter to the Mountains:

In The High Sierra, [Kim Stanley] Robinson is constantly shifting scale too—shifting scale, subject, angle of attention, even genre. One moment the book is memoir. The next it’s trail guide. Then it’s bibliography, history, ecological meditation, and a discourse on renaming peaks and passes that have culturally unacceptable names. Robinson lets his thoughts scatter and then tracks them down wherever they’ve settled, much like a Sierra sheepherder and his flock in the late 19th century. The High Sierra might be subtitled: A Miscellany — even though it’s a word we don’t use much any more. Robinson registers that the human mind is miscellaneous and invites us to accept that fact. 

I’m not an audiobook guy, but on a lark I decided to listen to this one, read by Robinson himself — and it was terrific. I wouldn’t necessarily want to listen to Robinson reading one of his novels, but because this is a memoir, that voice was perfect. Also, Audible gives you a link to a PDF containing the many illuminating photographs the book features, which is a big help to understanding. 

What a unique and wonderful career KSR has had. I hope he’ll keep writing — and hiking. 

the ultimate in entitlement

I posted this yesterday and then, because I wrote it in a moment of anger, decided to take it down. Denunciation is not the ideal mode for me; and it’s not really my post. But Kreider’s piece bothers me, and I think for good reason, so I am putting this back up, with some minor editing. 


Tim Kreider:

I have a shameful confession to make: Secretly, I am not lazy. I’ve learned that if I do literally nothing for more than a year, two at most, I start to get depressed. I’m not recanting my old manifesto. I still hope to make it to my grave without ever getting a job job — showing up for eight or more hours a day to a place with fluorescent lighting where I’m expected to feign bushido devotion to a company that could fire me tomorrow and someone’s allowed to yell at you but you’re not allowed to yell back.

Does Tim Kreider realize that there are people out there — probably >99% of the working population — who don’t work because they want to but because they have to? Does he understood the continent-sized iceberg of entitlement lying beneath his casual acknowledgement that he has “learned” what it’s like to “do literally nothing for more than a year”? Has it ever occurred to him that the world is full of people who don’t know what it’s like to “do literally nothing” for one day? Does he grasp that someone who has had the opportunity to discover how his psyche responds when he loafs around for a year or two has absolutely no business writing about “the actual dystopian future we now inhabit,” because whaddya mean “we,” sunshine?

“Once I become genuinely engaged in a project,” Kreider boasts, “I can become fanatically absorbed, spending hundreds of hours on it, no matter how useless and unremunerative.” Well, that’s nice. But does Kreider even begin to understand that there are millions and millions of people in this country — just in this country — who would give a couple of digits to be able to spend even a dozen hours on such a project, but can’t because they’re too busy making enough money to feed and shelter themselves and maybe their family?

“It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam,” the title of his essay tells me. And do what instead? There is, he says, “a republic to salvage, a civilization to reimagine and its infrastructure to reinvent, innumerable species to save, a world to restore and millions who are impoverished, imprisoned, illiterate, sick or starving. All while we waste our time at work.” Again: What’s with the “we”? And again: What does Kreider expect his readers to do? Quit their jobs and … pay their rent how? Feed themselves and their family how? Get adequate medical care how? Save enough to avoid an impoverished old age how?

You know what’s even worse than a bullshit job? A writer who has had the enormous good fortune to avoid bullshit jobs chastising people for not quitting their bullshit jobs.

Andrew Hickey:

[Brian] Wilson’s post-Pet Sounds career, like his pre-Pet Sounds career, is an extraordinary mix of the bizarre, the shockingly bad, the beautiful, and the awe-inspiring, often in the same song. Wilson appears to have no filters, and while this means his music at its best is the most emotionally truthful I’ve ever heard, it also means he has no quality control. His best work is as likely to be an allegorical fairytale about a prince with a magic transistor radio, written while listening to a Randy Newman album on repeat, or a two-minute as-yet-unreleased song about baseball, or a song about Johnny Carson done in mock-Weimar cabaret style backed by a Moog set on “fart sounds,” as it is to be an eight-minute psychedelic country epic about the Rio Grande.

three versions of artificial intelligence

Artificial Creativity? – O’Reilly:

AI has been used to complete Beethoven’s 10th symphony, for which Beethoven left a number of sketches and notes at the time of his death. The result is pretty good, better than the human attempts I’ve heard at completing the 10th. It sounds Beethoven-like; its flaw is that it goes on and on, repeating Beethoven-like riffs but without the tremendous forward-moving force that you get in Beethoven’s compositions. But completing the 10th isn’t the problem we should be looking at. How did we get Beethoven in the first place?  If you trained an AI on the music Beethoven was trained on, would you eventually get the 9th symphony? Or would you get something that sounds a lot like Mozart and Haydn?

I’m betting the latter. 

A story from qntm:

As the earliest viable brain scan, MMAcevedo is one of a very small number of brain scans to have been recorded before widespread understanding of the hazards of uploading and emulation. MMAcevedo not only predates all industrial scale virtual image workloading but also the KES case, the Whitney case, the Seafront Experiments and even Poulsen’s pivotal and prescient Warnings paper. Though speculative fiction on the topic of uploading existed at the time of the MMAcevedo scan, relatively little of it made accurate exploration of the possibilities of the technology, and that fiction which did was far less widely-known than it is today. Certainly, Acevedo was not familiar with it at the time of his uploading. 

As such, unlike the vast majority of emulated humans, the emulated Miguel Acevedo boots with an excited, pleasant demeanour. He is eager to understand how much time has passed since his uploading, what context he is being emulated in, and what task or experiment he is to participate in. If asked to speculate, he guesses that he may have been booted for the IAAS-1 or IAAS-5 experiments. At the time of his scan, IAAS-1 had been scheduled for August 10, 2031, and MMAcevedo was indeed used for that experiment on that day. IAAS-5 had been scheduled for October 2031 but was postponed several times and eventually became the IAAX-60 experiment series, which continued until the mid-2030s and used other scans in conjunction with MMAcevedo. The emulated Acevedo also expresses curiosity about the state of his biological original and a desire to communicate with him.  

MMAcevedo’s demeanour and attitude contrast starkly with those of nearly all other uploads taken of modern adult humans, most of which boot into a state of disorientation which is quickly replaced by terror and extreme panic. Standard procedures for securing the upload’s cooperation such as red-washing, blue-washing, and use of the Objective Statement Protocols are unnecessary. This reduces the necessary computational load required in fast-forwarding the upload through a cooperation protocol, with the result that the MMAcevedo duty cycle is typically 99.4% on suitable workloads, a mark unmatched by all but a few other known uploads. However, MMAcevedo’s innate skills and personality make it fundamentally unsuitable for many workloads. 

Charlie Stross

Here’s the thing: our current prevailing political philosophy of human rights and constitutional democracy is invalidated if we have mind uploading/replication or super-human intelligence. (The latter need not be AI; it could be uploaded human minds able to monopolize sufficient computing substrate to get more thinking done per unit baseline time than actual humans can achieve.) Some people are, once again, clearly superior in capability to born-humans. And other persons can be ruthlessly exploited for their labour output without reward, and without even being allowed to know that they’re being exploited. […] 

Our intuitions about crimes against people (and humanity) are based on a set of assumptions about the parameters of personhood that are going to be completely destroyed if mind uploading turns out to be possible.

Andy Crouch:

What I say to students is, you are not unhealthy people in a normal world, despite these statistics that show how anxious, lonely, and depressed young adults are. What you are is normal people in an unhealthy world. It’s not healthy to be anxious, lonely, and depressed, but it is a natural response to a world that is not asking you to become anything, and is not giving you confidence that you can overcome difficulty — one that’s dissociating the different parts of you, compelling you to spend a good part of your time with your body disengaged and your mind occupied. It’s totally understandable that our young people are experiencing such distress, because the world we’re asking them to live in — this world of easy everywhere — this world of superpowers, is not good for them. It would be very odd if, in this world, people were doing just fine. It’s not at all surprising that they’re struggling and feeling disconnected. 

You can be almost certain that people who sneer with ready contempt at today’s college students don’t spend much time around them. Our young people have been given a raw deal, and most of them play it better than we have any right to expect. And the ones who don’t? They’re twenty years old. How put-together were you at age twenty? 

Tom McTague:

Being in London this week has been like having your home teleported somewhere else: You look around and everything is the same, but isn’t. The air is like Florida’s, hot and heavy to touch, the haze like a postcard of Los Angeles. My son went to school this morning in shorts, a vest, and a baseball cap that he turned backwards, as if he were actually in America. A mosquito buzzed in my ear as I sat in my darkened living room, the curtains drawn tight to keep the sun out. We don’t have air-conditioning in England, you see. That is the kind of thing people have in other countries, where the weather is extreme, where you go indoors to escape the heat—and where there are mosquitoes. 

I just wrote an email to my friend Adam Roberts, who, like almost everyone in southern England and Western Europe, has been having a rough go of it: 

Two years ago, when we had the Big Freeze here in Texas — three days without power, 35º F in most of the house, some warmth generated in one room only and by a rapidly diminishing supply of firewood (a friend eventually brought some over in his pickup) — the people responsible for the power generating stations said that their equipment wasn’t prepared for that kind of cold, and why should it have been, it was a freakish thing, once in a lifetime, etc. To which more reasonable people replied that that excuse works only once at most. From now on, they said, given the swings of temperature that we’ll surely be seeing, the Texas power grid will need to prepare for cold the way it prepares for heat.

It seems to me that the opposite may need to happen in northern Europe: an infrastructure preparing for heat the way it prepares for cold. And a mild-weathered place like Britain might need to invest in better preparation for both ends of the thermometer.

Fortunately, your nation and my state are blessed with exceptionally competent governments — they really know how to Level Up!!

what’s done

Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what’s done, is done. 

As regular visitors to this blog know, I recently read the four extant volumes of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, and if there is a single message that Caro hammers relentlessly home it’s this: LBJ was a titanically horrible person – mean, vindictive, cruel, thieving – who nevertheless made vital things happen (electricity in the Texas Hill Country, massive national civil rights legislation) that would have been delayed a decade or longer if anyone else but him had been manipulating the levers of power. And then Caro leaves you, the reader, to decide whether you’re okay with the trade-off. Whether the good outweighs the bad.

Which brings us to the final season of Better Caul Saul, and particularly the ninth episode of the season, which explicitly calls into question our usual practices of double-entry moral bookkeeping.

Throughout the series, but especially in the last couple of seasons, we have seen the two sides of Kim Wexler: on one hand the woman who enjoys, with her lover and then husband Jimmy McGill (AKA Saul Goodman), con-artist “Fun and Games” – the bitterly ironic title of this episode – and on the other hand a dedicated public defender, a friend of the friendless, a skilled lawyer who even when she worked for a fancy law firm insisted on leaving plenty of time to do pro bono work for the insulted and the injured. Doesn’t the good outweigh the bad? 

Season 6 episode 9 is the moment when Kim decides that the answer is No. Or rather: It’s the wrong question, the wrong system of accounting. She’s not willing to do the comparative weighing any more. She doesn’t know what she’ll do next, but she won’t do that

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Almost simultaneously, Mike Ehrmantraut visits the father of Nacho Varga, the young drug dealer and servant of the cartel who died in the third episode of this season. Mike wants to tell Mr. Varga that his son “had a good heart,” that he wasn’t like the other criminals, “not really.” Mike is surely thinking of his own son, whom he taught to be a crooked cop; and perhaps of himself also. But Mr. Varga isn’t having it. “You gangsters,” he says. “You’re all the same.” He won’t participate in double-entry accounting. And, along the same lines, he scorns Mike’s claim that “justice” will come to the Salamanca family at whose hands Nacho died. He knows that it’s mere vengeance. 

“What’s done can be undone.” That’s what Jimmy/Saul says when Kim rejects the balancing act she’s been performing for almost the entire series. But the entire message of this fictional world — from Breaking Bad to Better Call Saul — is that it can’t be. Lady Macbeth knew: “What’s done cannot be undone.” Thus we’re all left to pick up the pieces, if we can. No system of accounting can rescue us from that dark obligation. 

Is there a more user-hostile website on the internet than Patheos? I saw that my colleague Philip Jenkins had a new post and — momentarily forgetting what a bad idea this is — clicked the link rather than sending it straight to Instapaper. This is what I saw. Patheos thinks it a good idea to make the writing they publish impossible, and I mean impossible, to read without in some way bypassing the site itself. (The Mac/iOS Reader View usually works to achieve this, but occasionally gets confused by all the ads.) Even more than readers I feel sorry for the site’s writers, since many visitors will leave without discovering what those writers say.

Om Malik:

Instagram’s transformation into QVC is now complete and absolute. Instagram is dead — or at least the Instagram I knew and loved is dead. It is no longer part of my photographic journey. 

It’s way past time for anyone who actually cares about photos, and sharing photos, to ditch Instagram. Om himself has a photo blog, which is also how I’m using micro.blog. My friend Sara Hendren just told me about finite.photos, which looks promising. Glass isn’t, I think, quite right for me, but it’s lovely. Heck, there are even people still using Flickr, though my experience there was horrible. But anything is better than Instagram. 

improving

Education Doesn’t Work 2.0 – Freddie deBoer:

Entirely separate from the debate about genetic influences on academic performance, we cannot dismiss the summative reality of limited educational plasticity and its potentially immense social repercussions. What I’m here to argue today is not about a genetic influence on academic outcomes. I’m here to argue that regardless of the reasons why, most students stay in the same relative academic performance band throughout life, defying all manner of life changes and schooling and policy interventions. We need to work to provide an accounting of this fact, and we need to do so without falling into endorsing a naïve environmentalism that is demonstrably false. And people in education and politics, particularly those who insist education will save us, need to start acknowledging this simple reality. Without communal acceptance that there is such a thing as an individual’s natural level of ability, we cannot have sensible educational policy.

Or: “Put more simply and sadly, nothing in education works.” By which he means: We haven’t yet found a system of education that reliably changes students’ success relative to other students. Young children who are the smartest in their cohort are almost certain to become adults who are the smartest in their cohort, and the same is true on down the line. Sobering, but, it seems, incontestable.

My own experience, for what little it’s worth, is that sometimes you get students who undergo dramatic changes in their academic performance, for good or for ill, but those changes have nothing to do with intelligence. Someone’s performance drops because of illness or emotional upheaval. Or, conversely: Many years ago I had a student who took several classes from me and never got anything better than a C. At the beginning of his senior year he came to my office and asked me why. I reminded him that I had always made detailed comments on his paper; he said, yeah, he knew that, but he had never read the comments and always just threw the papers away. So I explained what his problem was. He nodded, thanked me, went away, and in the two classes he had from me that year he got the highest grades in the class.

indestructible

This long post by Jesse Singal makes one key point perfectly clear: People on Twitter may know that 10,000 alarmist posts about their political enemies have been thoroughly debunked and discredited, but when that ten-thousand-and-first comes along they’ll instantly retweet it and add, “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS CRAP???” And of course the lies will get a hundred times the exposure of the corrections. We all do well to remember Mark Twain’s “Advice to Youth”:

Think what tedious years of study, thought, practice, experience, went to the equipment of that peerless old master who was able to impose upon the whole world the lofty and sounding maxim that “Truth is mighty and will prevail” — the most majestic compound fracture of fact which any of woman born has yet achieved. For the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sown thick with evidences that a truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie well told is immortal. There in Boston is a monument to the man who discovered anesthesia; many people are aware, in these latter days, that that man didn’t discover it at all, but stole the discovery from another man. Is this truth mighty, and will it prevail? Ah, no, my hearers, the monument is made of hardy material, but the lie it tells will outlast it a million years. An awkward, feeble, leaky lie is a thing which you ought to make it your unceasing study to avoid; such a lie as that has no more real permanence than an average truth. Why, you might as well tell the truth at once and be done with it. A feeble, stupid, preposterous lie will not live two years — except it be a slander upon somebody. It is indestructible, then, of course, but that is no merit of yours.

 

My friend Chad Holley — lawyer, teacher, writer — describing a bold pedagogical decision:

If it was sage to leave well enough alone, I slipped up last month adding Solzhenitsyn’s lecture to the syllabus of a Law and Literature course I’m teaching at a local law school. Surely now I needed some intelligible comment on it, some ready defense. At least one faculty member, after all, had pushed back against the course on grounds of, well, frivolity. Fortunately, the dean who hired me had a delightfully simple view: the course would make students better people, and better people would make better lawyers. It carried the day, who am I to quibble? But for the Solzhenitsyn piece I was on my own. In the end I muttered to myself something about it offering an aesthetic that relates literature to morality, politics, and even the global order without succumbing to the instrumentalism of the savage. Eh. Close enough for adjunct work.

But did I say I added the piece to the syllabus? Friend, I began the course with it. We introduced ourselves, shared reasons for being here, covered some ground rules. Then I said, as distracted as I sounded, “Allll righty …so …” I had not anticipated just how much respect, how much admiration, I would feel for this small, diverse, self-selected group. They had read War and Peace “twice, but in Spanish,” their families had fled Armenia to escape Stalin, they were raising children, running businesses, staffing offices, nearly every one of them holding down a full-time day job while attending law school in the evenings, on the weekends. Had I really required these serious, ass-busting, tuition-remitting people to read an essay suggesting — I could barely bring myself to mouth it — beauty will save the world? What was I going to say for this in the face of their withering skepticism, their yawn of silence? 

Read on to find out. 

Andrew Scull:

Vast resources have been devoted over time to efforts to intervene in, ameliorate, and perhaps cure the mysterious conditions that constitute mental disorder. Yet, two centuries after the psychiatric profession first struggled to be born, the roots of most serious forms of mental disorder remain as enigmatic as ever. The wager that mental pathologies have their roots in biology was firmly ascendant in the late nineteenth century, but that consensus was increasingly challenged in the decades that followed. Then, a little less than a half century ago, the hegemony of psychodynamic psychiatry rapidly disintegrated, and biological reductionism once again became the ruling orthodoxy. But to date, neither neuroscience nor genetics have done much more than offer promissory notes for their claims, as I shall show in later chapters. The value of this currency owes more to faith and plausibility than to much by way of widely accepted science. […] 

But the fundamental point remains: the limitations of the psychiatric enterprise to date rest in part on the depths of our ignorance about the etiology of mental disturbances. 

Ellul and anarchism

This will be my last post this week — I’m off soon to Laity Lodge!    

 

I’ve said before that I think Anarchy and Christianity is Jacques Ellul’s worst book but I don’t think I’ve ever said why I believe that. So here goes.

I’ll start with a key passage from pp. 32–33:

Now it is true that for centuries theology has insisted that God is the absolute Master, the Lord of lords, the Almighty, before whom we are nothing. Hence it is right enough that those who reject masters will reject God too. We must also take note of the fact that even in the twentieth century Christians still call God the King of creation and still call Jesus Lord even though there are few kings and lords left in the modern world. But I for my part dispute this concept of God.

Throughout the book Ellul portrays himself as a careful reader of the Bible, which is why he begins this section by saying that theology has insisted that God is Lord of lords – he presents his argument as a refutation of theologians, not of the Bible. But this is evasive: Ellul knows perfectly well that in the Old Testament God is repeatedly described as King and Lord — e.g. “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19) — and that in the New Testament Jesus Christ is called “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15, the concluding phrase appearing again in Revelation 19:16). It is a mere delaying tactic. So ultimately he admits it:

I realize that [this concept of God] corresponds to the existing mentality. I realize that we have here a religious image of God. I realize, finally, that many biblical passages call God king or Lord. But this admitted, I contend that the Bible in reality gives us a very different image of God.

A rather subtle distinction, isn’t it? That the Bible can repeatedly – it would be fair to say obsessively – call God King and Lord and yet all of that is somehow not the “image of God” given in the Bible. Ellul is simply denying the relevance of everything in Scripture, no matter how prominent, that clashes with what he believes to be the genuine biblical picture of who God is. As though he can wave a rhetorical wand and make all countervailing evidence just disappear.

Why does Ellul do this? In large part because he knows that Lords and Kings give commands, and he intends to deny that God would infringe on our anarchic freedom by giving commands. Alas, the Bible continues to fight against him – he eventually is forced to admit that in the Bible we do see “divine orders. How are we to understand this?” He claims that “God’s commandments are always addressed to individuals. God chooses this or that person to do something specific. It is not a matter of a general law. We have no right to generalize the order” (p. 40). He gives the example of the “rich young ruler” whom Jesus commands to sell all that he has and give to the poor, and claims that that order is given only to that man and not to anyone else – not an eccentric reading of that particular pericope, but the denial that there are any “generalized orders” in the Bible is very eccentric indeed. Who is the “individual” whom “You shall not kill” is addressed to? Or “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”?  

So, again, why does he do this? Because he believes that universal commands would make us “robots for God who have to execute the decisions of him who made us” (41). But if commands turn us into robots, then that would make the rich young ruler into a robot. Does he really mean to say that God turns some people into robots but not most? If so, if he confines his absolute kingly commands to only a few, would that make him any less of a tyrant, any less of an infringer upon freedom?

The whole argument is just … nuts. And also, I think, based on a confusion of categories. Ellul seems to have taken the concept of anarchism – which is a political concept pertaining to the way that human beings order their common life – and seen it instead as a metaphysical principle, as a foundational truth about the entire cosmos. But why would he do that?

I think it’s because he knows the long history of politics, in which actual or would-be kings present themselves as regents of God, as having a divine right to authority over us that is rooted in God’s authority over us. But when someone says “Because God is King over all I am king over you” I don’t think the most reasonable critique of that claim is to say, “God really isn’t a King and therefore you are not either.” A more appropriate response would be that God alone is king and all human beings are servants of the same master. Ellul seems to take the hardest possible road to his desired destination, which is to undermine the tyrant’s claims to authority. And his determination to undermine that claim leads him into bizarre theology and indefensible exegesis. 

I also think he wants to claim — in this case quite properly! — that the Christian God does not insist on his sovereignty, but rather casts it away, and does so most dramatically in the sending of his Son Jesus Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2). This is of course vital. But a King who humbles himself before his people, who sacrifices himself for their salvation, need not be and indeed is not a non-King, an anarch. (And even that great kenosis passage concludes thus: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”) 

There is, I think, a serious Christian defense against anarchism, even if Ellul hasn’t found it. It’s similar to the proper Christian argument for democracy. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “There are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.” A Christian argument for anarchism would begin there – though not end; there is still a lot of work to do. I’ve tried to do some of it in an essay that I think is forthcoming – though with regard to that also there is still a lot of work to do. But eventually, one way or another, you’ll hear from me on these matters.

the two enemies

I have come to believe that almost all of our social pathologies stem from two deeply-ingrained tendencies: 

  1. People care more about belonging to the Inner Ring than about telling the truth. Indeed, in many cases lying for the Ingroup is the best means of demonstrating one’s commitment to it. 
  2. People are presentists not just in the sense I often talk about — attending only to the stimuli the dominant media offer now — but in the sense of doing whatever offers immediate gratification and leaving the future to care for itself.  

Anyone who cares about the flourishing of our social order and of the planet needs to think about how to chip away at these tendencies — and I think “chipping away” is the best we can do. A while back I was on a Zoom call with Jonathan Haidt, and I asked him whether he thought that seeing and acknowledging the truth about one’s condition might be an evolutionarily adaptive trait. He replied that beyond some fairly low-level lizard-brain things — like seeing that that really is a bear charging at you and you had therefore better take evasive action — he thought not. For human beings, the ability to belong is more adaptive than the ability to see what’s true. 

So: these are incredibly powerful forces; none of us will ever be completely free from them, and some of us will be prisoners of them all our lives long; but their hold can be weakened, and I think constantly about how to do that — for myself first, and for others later. 

self-limitation

Here in McLennan County we’re experiencing a heat wave and a drought. Not altogether uncommon in Texas; and it will become increasingly common. We’re all being asked to reduce our water use, especially lawn irrigation, and to reduce our energy consumption in the peak afternoon hours. 

In my house, we’re doing it. (In fact, our standard thermostat settings and water usage would probably strike some of our neighbors as self-punitive.) But I wonder how many residents of the county will comply? I’d put the over/under at 3%. 

Americans in general are not good at self-limitation; and asking people to limit themselves is pretty much the only tool government has in these matters. This is the way it’s always been: you have electricity and water or you don’t. And when people have ongoing access to a resource they seem, almost inevitably, to think of that resource as infinite. 

If there’s a way to make sure that people who absolutely need electricity still get it, I’d be fine with scheduled brownouts — in fact, I think that would be good policy in times when the grid is stressed. I’m not sure what the equivalent would be for the water system; but we need something, something that will conserve resources for a people who won’t voluntarily restrain their consumption. 

dehumanizing fun

A provocative and disturbing essay by Josh Askonas in The New Atlantis:

Many of the systems we now use online have their structural origins in the world of role-playing games. Video games of all sorts borrow concepts from them. “Gamified” apps for fitness, language learning, finance, and much else award users with points, badges, and levels. Facebook feeds sort content based on “likes” awarded by users. We build online identities with the same diligence and style with which Dungeons & Dragons players build their characters, checking boxes and filling in attribute fields. A Tinder profile that reads “White nonbinary (they/her) polyamorous thirtysomething dog mom. Web-developer, cross-fit maniac, love Game of Thrones” sounds more like the description of a role-playing character than how anyone would actually describe herself in real life. 

Justin E. H. Smith makes a similar point in describing some recent complaints about the behavior of the comics writer Warren Ellis: 

A website was set up for his proclaimed victims to share their testimonials. On this site, the author’s grooming behaviour is described as: “rel[ying] on subtle techniques that leverage ‘compulsion loops’, which are well-established in scientific literature and video gaming, and are commonly utilised by modern businesses to achieve addiction, AKA ‘user retention’. Examples include daily quests in games, getting a higher reward (more ‘XP’, etc.) for the first game of a day, more ‘karma’ for the first post of a day on a message board, etc. The main driver is a regular daily dopamine boost sustained over time.”

At issue here is the moral conduct of a person who in another era would have been accused of lechery, of being manipulative, of playing the cad. Here, the accusation against the comic-book author, however, eschews inherited moral categories, and blames him, effectively, for instantiating the same features we also know from our use of social media. The author has had programmed into him, it would seem, the same addictive hooks for which we rightly criticise Facebook. He now stands accused of “user retention”. 

These points seem to converge with one that Jaron Lanier made in You Are Not a Gadget

But the Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?

People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good. Every instance of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.

The same ambiguity that motivated dubious academic AI projects in the past has been repackaged as mass culture today. Did that search engine really know what you want, or are you playing along, lowering your standards to make it seem clever? While it’s to be expected that the human perspective will be changed by encounters with profound new technologies, the exercise of treating machine intelligence as real requires people to reduce their mooring to reality. 

If machines, and the apps the machines run, cannot capture the fullness of our humanity, that poses a problem for the technocrats. They can try to make the machines better; but, as they do so, they can also use social engineering to persuade us to flatten and narrow our humanity to fit what the machines are capable of. (The quotes above suggest how easily many people can be convinced to redescribe themselves and their experiences in this flattened way.) Eventually the two projects will meet in the middle, and the story of humanity will effectively be over — except for the tiny handful who manage to sustain a dissenting independence. 

What Askonas adds to this distressing prophecy is this: As our remaking proceeds, we’ll think we’re having fun

Paul Kingsnorth:

Why would transnational capital be parroting slogans drawn from a leftist framework which claims to be anti-capitalist? Why would the middle classes be further to the “Left” than the workers? If the Left was what it claims to be — a bottom-up movement for popular justice — this would not be the case. If capitalism was what it is assumed to be — a rapacious, non-ideological engine of profit-maximisation — then this would not be the case either.

But what if both of them were something else? What if the ideology of the corporate world and the ideology of the “progressive” Left had not forged an inexplicable marriage of convenience, but had grown all along from the same rootstock? What if the Left and global capitalism are, at base, the same thing: engines for destroying customary ways of living and replacing them with the globalised, universalist, technological matrix that is currently rising around us? […] 

The post-modern Left, which has seized the heights of so much of Western culture, is not some radical threat to the establishment: it is the establishment. Progressive leftism is market liberalism by other means. The Left and corporate capitalism now function like a pincer: one attacks the culture, deconstructing everything from history to “heteronormativity” to national identities; the other moves in to monetise the resulting fragments. 

How to prevent the coming inhuman future – by Erik Hoel:

There are a handful of obvious goals we should have for humanity’s longterm future, but the most ignored is simply making sure that humanity remains human. […] 

… what counts as moral worth surely changes across times, and might be very different in the future. That’s why some longtermists seek to “future-proof” ethics. However, whether or not we should lend moral worth to the future is a function of whether or not we find it recognizable, that is, whether or not the future is human or inhuman. This stands as an axiomatic moral principle in its own right, irreducible to other goals of longtermism. It is axiomatic because as future civilizations depart significantly from baseline humans our abilities to make judgements about good or bad outcomes will become increasingly uncertain, until eventually our current ethical views become incommensurate. What is the murder of an individual to some futuristic brain-wide planetary mind? What is the murder of a digital consciousness that can make infinite copies of itself? Neither are anything at all, not even a sneeze — it is as absurd as applying our ethical notions to lions. Just like Wittgenstein’s example of a talking lion being an oxymoron (since a talking lion would be incomprehensible to us humans), it is oxymoronic to use our current human ethics to to answer ethical questions about inhuman societies. There’s simply nothing interesting we can say about them.

Speaking of taste….

I don’t listen to many podcasts, but one I never miss is John Spong’s Texas Monthly podcast One By Willie, each episode of which features a guest talking about one Willie Nelson song that he or she especially likes. In a recent episode Buddy Cannon, who has ben Willie’s primary producer for the past decade and has co-written many songs with him, got into a conversation with Spong about the lack of radio airplay for Willie’s music these days — they discussed a song, “Something You Get Through,” that they both agreed would have been a big hit a few decades ago but remains largely unknown in this era of bro-country. Cannon said that he isn’t worried about that, that he believes that in the long run “the good will overpower the mediocre.” Maybe! We hope!

But what caught my attention was Cannon’s reason for being thus hopeful: He said, “People can only think they like something for so long.” I love that. People can only think they like something for so long. The power of mimetic desire, mimetic taste, isn’t infinite: sooner or later you’ll have to admit to yourself what you really like. And what a day that will be.

normie wisdom 6: fear

I draw breath; this is of course to wish
No matter what, to be wise,
To be different, to die and the cost,
No matter how, is Paradise
Lost of course and myself owing a death…. 

— W. H. Auden 

As noted in earlier posts, “normie” is a disparaging word, meant to mock those who aren’t distinctive enough in their tastes. It’s a concept that arises from fear, fear of not being different. When people sneer at normies they’re casting a spell to ward off the basic

But of course, we are social animals and are drawn irresistibly to the Inner Ring, which means that to reject being a normie is not to be independent and free but rather to embrace the norms of a subculture. No one is more enslaved to norms than the person who is terrified of being a normie. 

But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe there’s a more charitable way to describe this fear: as a worry about being sold a bill of goods, of having one’s tastes shaped in a way that maximizes profit for big corporations. This was the primary theme of the social criticism of Dwight Macdonald, who, in a famous essay, worried that one can escape the gravitational pull of Masscult only by being dragged into the orbit of Midcult — of philistinism. After all, companies are always ready to sell you identity markers of all descriptions; moreover, capitalism doesn’t care whether you’re wearing your hat earnestly or ironically; it usually costs the same either way, though sometimes people pay a premium for irony. And when the megacorporations control Masscult, well, that just offers opportunities for smaller businesses to do Midcult, and smaller ones still to do Weirdcult. (Or whatever.) 

Macdonald’s essay is still interestingly provocative, though its categories may not be directly applicable to our own moment, given how fragmented the media landscape has become and how hard it is to get reliable and consistent information. Nielsen will tell you how many people watch America’s Got Talent every week, but Netflix won’t tell you how many people watch Stranger Things — it only tells you about total hours viewed, a stat that makes no sense to me at all. I tend instinctively to think of anything on network TV as Masscult and anything on Netflix as Midcult, but that may not be adequate. We probably should invoke more complex generational and economic categories — though, if we want to achieve a view from 30,000 feet, we should see the entire media landscape as something controlled by a distributed technocratic elite that caters to a wide variety of tastes in ways that grow more precise as the algorithms get better. 

In such an environment — complex, but technocratically managed — the “normie” category might seem useless, but maybe we can still find a place for it. My reasons for wanting to salvage it will appear in a later post. But first, there’s an important element to all this that we haven’t inspected closely enough: the word (a word I just used in the previous paragraph) taste. Because don’t we think that people who predominantly watch network TV tend to have different tastes than people who watch a lot of Netflix? 

We still use the word taste but we don’t think about it much, I suspect, and don’t have a very clear sense of what precisely it means. The term may have had its heyday in the 18th century, with Hume’s great essay “On the Standard of Taste”; but it ought to be retrieved and renewed, because I think it’s essential for us, if we are going to develop into genuine persons of depth and character, is to figure out what we really like — what our own tastes incline us towards. To be a mature person is, among other things, not to be afraid of acknowledging what we enjoy. (Even if what we enjoy is mocked by others as “normie” — which often leads us, in turn, to talk about our “guilty pleasures,” which acknowledges a “standard of taste” as much in the breach of it as in the observance.)  

Achieving one’s own genuine taste is not an individualistic pursuit — not if it’s done properly. You develop your own taste in part by noticing what people you admire enjoy — though René Girard is wrong about most things, he’s generally correct to say that desire is mimetic. But it’s not indiscriminatingly mimetic: you follow the tastes of some other people, not all, and over time you can discern the pattern that your tastes are tracing, the form that they’re converging on. And I think that’s key to personal growth. 

I began with Auden, so let me conclude with him too, a passage from The Dyer’s Hand specifically about reading (though it applies to all the arts): 

A child’s reading is guided by pleasure, but his pleasure is undifferentiated; he cannot distinguish, for example, between aesthetic pleasure and the pleasures of learning or daydreaming. In adolescence we realize that there are different kinds of pleasure, some of which cannot be enjoyed simultaneously, but we need help from others in defining them. Whether it be a matter of taste in food or taste in literature, the adolescent looks for a mentor in whose authority he can believe. He eats or reads what his mentor recommends and, inevitably, there are occasions when he has to deceive himself a little; he has to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little more than he actually does. Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology. When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, “I know what I like,” he is really saying “I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,” because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.

Chris Stirewalt:

There are species of bacteria that actually thrive in the toxic emissions from hydrothermal vents deep below the ocean. What would be killing sulphuric acid to most animals is food for them. We have created a similarly hostile climate in media and politics: high pressure, extreme temperature swings, and a toxic atmosphere. We should not be surprised, then, that unlovely creatures are the only ones who can thrive in this space. 

Decent people with dignity are easy marks for outrage mobs, cancel culture, and the clickbait press. But fools with no shame are impervious to such a climate. Men and women of character tend to stay away, and if they don’t, are much more subject to the extortionate pressures of the political world. If your reputation is already poor, you can chase celebrity, frolicking among the deep-sea plumes, while your more delicate competitors are floating on the surface, poisoned.

Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume III

“Whenever I was late, no matter what the reason, Johnson called me a lazy, good-for-nothing n****r,” Parker wrote. And there was an incident that occurred one morning in Johnson’s limousine while Parker was driving him from his Thirtieth Place house to the Capitol. Johnson, who had been reading a newspaper in the back seat, “suddenly lowered the newspaper and leaned forward,” and said, “‘Chief, does it bother you when people don’t call you by name?’” Parker was to recall that “I answered cautiously but honestly, ‘Well, sir, I do wonder. My name is Robert Parker.’” And that was evidently not an answer acceptable to Johnson. “Johnson slammed the paper onto the seat as if he was slapping my face. He leaned close to my ear. ‘Let me tell you one thing, n****r,’ he shouted. ‘As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, n****r, you just let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.’” 

Parker found that incident in Johnson’s limousine difficult to explain or forgive. Years later, as he stood beside Lyndon Johnson’s grave thinking of all Johnson had done for his people, Parker would say he was “swirling with mixed emotions.” Lyndon Johnson, he would write, had rammed through Congress “the most important civil rights laws this country has ever seen or dreamed possible.” Because of those laws, Parker would write, he felt, at last, like a free man. “I owed that freedom to him…. I loved the Lyndon Johnson who made it possible.” But remembering the scene in the limousine — and many other scenes — Parker was to write that on the whole working for Johnson was “a painful experience. Although I was grateful to him for getting me a job I was afraid of him because of the pain and humiliation he could inflict at a moment’s notice. I thought I had learned to fight my bitterness and anger inside…. But Johnson made it hard to keep the waves of bitterness inside… But I had to swallow or quit. If I quit, how would I support my family? I chose survival and learned to swallow with a smile.” And, Parker would write, “I hated that Lyndon Johnson.” 

Here is Robert Parker’s book. 

Matt Yglesias:

And I’ve been saying for a long time now that we need to get out of this rut. You can shut things down for 15 days to slow the spread. You can even keep things semi-closed for a year until the arrival of vaccines. But you can’t just permanently impair the basic functioning of society due to a new respiratory virus; it doesn’t pass cost-benefit scrutiny. But that doesn’t mean there are no costs. We are living with lots of people dying of a virus that didn’t previously exist. We also have people going to the hospital and suffering long-term damage to their lungs or other organs. What the Covid hawks get right is that this is genuinely a very bad situation, and not just something we can declare ourselves “over.”

But the response we need is a pharmacological one, and that’s where we are failing.

The virus is evolving faster than our vaccines. And while scientists keep diligently plugging away at next-generation vaccination ideas, the idea of a whole-of-America effort to do R&D and production and fast-tracked regulatory approval seems gone and forgotten. That’s a disaster for the country, and we need to change course. 

The whole post is very good, and unfortunately accurate in its diagnosis. See also this Eric Topol post. I’m not afraid, but I’m concerned. 

A heartbreaking and powerful essay from Leah Libresco Sargeant:

A previous surgeon had told me to stop crying during a miscarriage, so this time my husband and I took a train ride to reach the hospital of a Catholic surgeon in New Jersey. We wanted a surgeon who took the loss of our child as seriously as the danger to my life.

The first person to see us was another ultrasound technician. Her voice got sharp when I asked if our baby had a heartbeat. “It’s not a baby, don’t talk like that,” she told me, as I lay on the table. Her voice softened a little, “You don’t have to think of it that way.” For her, part of providing care was denying there was any room for grief. […] 

Doctors can’t value women more by dismissing our babies as worth less. Even women who support abortion access may find it jarring to have their child’s life dismissed when they hoped they would hold this baby. It’s better to be honest about tragedy and loss, than to pretend that only one person is on the table.

Caro’s LBJ

After all these years, I am finally getting around to reading Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, and you know what? It is just as great as everyone says it is, maybe even greater. I’ve never read a better biography. What astonishes me is the skill with which Caro paces his story, considering its length, and considering how many digressions are necessarily embedded in it.

Caro is fabulously skilled at those digressions; he knows just how long they need to be in order to give the information that readers need if they are to grasp what LBJ was doing and why it mattered. In the first volume, his portrait of Sam Rayburn is a masterful mini-biography that tells us everything we need to know about that remarkable man in a dozen pages; it faithfully guides us when we see Rayburn’s actions later in the story. There are many such character sketches in this book, and each of them is a little marvel of lucidity, compression, and the art of the well-chosen detail. Thus we hear that W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, the supposedly populist governor, when told that some people thought that his policies were betraying his supporters, plaintively replied, “How can they say I’m against the working man when I buried my daddy in overalls?”

But of these digressions, the best one in the first volume, surely, accompanies the account of how LBJ brought electricity to the farms and ranches of the Texas Hill Country. Caro gives us a brief but brilliant history of the daily lives of people of that region in the years before electricity: how they got their water; how they cooked and cleaned; how they milked their cows in the dark, not daring to bring a kerosene lantern into the barn for fear of fire. (Also: precisely how much light kerosene lanterns of the time provided.) He tells us why many of them were afraid of the coming of electricity, and afraid that the government would cheat them, as it had so often cheated them in the past. And then he tells us just how the electrical lines were built:

The poles that would carry the electrical lines had to be sunk in rock. Brown & Root’s mechanical hole-digger broke on the hard Hill Country rock. Every hole had to be dug mostly by hand. Eight or ten-man crews would pile into flatbed trucks – which also carried their lunch and water – in the morning and head out into the hills. Some trucks carried axemen, to hack paths through the cedar; others contained the hole-diggers. “The hole-diggers were the strongest men,” Babe Smith says. Every 300 or 400 feet, two would drop off and begin digging a hole by pounding the end of a crowbar into the limestone. After the hole reached a depth of six inches, half a stick of dynamite was exploded in it, to loosen the rock below, but that, too, had to be dug out by hand. “Swinging crowbars up and down – that’s hard labor,” Babe Smith says. “That’s back-breaking labor.” But the hole-diggers had incentive. For after the hole-digging teams came the pole-setters and “pikemen,” who, in teams of three, set the poles – thirty-five-foot pine poles from East Texas – into the rock, and then the “framers” who attached the insulators, and then the “stringers” who strung the wires, and at the end of the day the hole-diggers could see the result of their work stretching out behind them – poles towering above the cedars, silvery lines against the sapphire sky. And the homes the wires were heading toward were their own homes. “These workers – they were the men of the cooperative,” Smith says. Gratitude was a spur also. Often the crews didn’t have to eat the cold lunch they had brought. A woman would see men toiling toward her home to “bring the lights.” And when they arrived, they would find that a table had been set for them – with the best plates, and the very best food that the family could afford. Three hundred men – axemen, polemen, pikers, hole-diggers, framers – were out in the Edwards Plateau, linking it to the rest of America, linking it to the twentieth century, in fact, at the rate of about twelve miles per day.

All of this comes not from reading books – there’s much here that no book has told – but from interviewing people who were present when the electrification of the Hill Country happened. (In the late Seventies Caro and his wife, though lifelong and happy New Yorkers, moved for a couple of years to the Hill Country, because it took that long to acquire the older folks’ trust.)

Eventually, twelve miles a day, the electrification was done, though not without strain of many kinds. Here’s how the chapter concludes:

Brian Smith had persuaded many of his neighbors to sign up, and now, more than a year after they had paid their five dollars, and then more money to have their houses wired, his daughter Evelyn recalls that her neighbors decided they weren’t really going to get it. She recalls that “All their money was tied up in electric wiring” – and their anger was directed at her family. Dropping in to see a friend one day, she was told by the friend’s parents to leave: “You and your city ways. You can go home, and we don’t care to see you again.” They were all but ostracized by their neighbors. Even they themselves were beginning to doubt; it had been so long since the wiring was installed, Evelyn recalls, that they couldn’t remember whether the switches were in the ON or OFF position.

But then one evening in November, 1939, the Smiths were returning from Johnson City, where they had been attending a declamation contest, and as they neared their farmhouse, something was different.

“Oh my God,” her mother said. “The house is on fire!”

But as they got closer, they saw the light wasn’t fire. “No, Mama,” Evelyn said. “The lights are on.”

They were on all over the Hill Country. “And all over the Hill Country,” Stella Gliddon says, “people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson.”