Hogarth

Ferdinand Mount on the new Hogarth exhibition at the Tate Britain:

Here we need, I think, to notice two large absences from Hogarth and Europe. These absences are not unique to the treatment of Hogarth – I have seen similar curatorial treatment in other recent exhibitions – but they are certainly conspicuous here. The first is the virtual absence of any aesthetic discussion. The emphasis instead is on the social background, the changing nature of the cities where the artists worked, the systems of patronage, the commercial networks. The sole mention of [Hogarth’s book] The Analysis of Beauty comes en passant, to explain the inscription of “the serpentine line of beauty” in the margin of the self-portrait with the pug. Yet the argument in The Analysis is highly relevant to any discussion of Hogarth’s Europeannness. As Joseph Burke points out, it is “in part, a sustained and at times brilliant rationalization of observed rococo principles”, the same principles which animated Watteau and Boucher. The serpentine line is intended not as another mechanical principle, such as the Golden Section, but rather as a means of imbuing art with life and movement. […] 

A second and no less conspicuous absentee from these walls and these pages is religion. There is no mention at all of Hogarth’s huge early paintings, “The Pool of Bethesda” (1736) and “The Good Samaritan” (1736–7), on the staircase at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, or of the even more gigantic triptych of “The Ascension” (1755–6) at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. Most striking of all these absences perhaps is that of the Foundling Hospital’s “Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s daughter” (1746). In the catalogue the only reference to the Foundling Hospital, to which Hogarth devoted so much of his time and energy, is an illustration of the elaborate plaster ceiling in the Court Room there.

Interesting that this critique touches on the same general points as my essay on the Tate’s Blake exhibition of two years ago. There is a kind of nervous narrowness to so many exhibitions and catalogues these days, an ongoing fear that the curators will speak of artistry or religious belief and fail to be sufficiently rigorous in focusing on the purely social and political. 

CDNII FOM FM34 001

language, language

Ian Leslie:

Capitalism, fascism, neo-liberalism, structural racism, transphobia, wokeness: these giant, airborne nouns, which float around the discourse like zeppelins, are unavoidable in some ways. We probably have to use them. But we should be aware that there is a price to be paid, in clarity and intelligence, for doing so. I sometimes read passages of writing that consist of almost nothing else. I try and use them as sparingly and as precisely as possible, wincing a little inside as I do so. And sometimes when I search for a way to say what I’m saying without using the obvious word, I find a more powerful way of saying it.

On the other hand, keeping your language vague and abstract can be a smart rhetorical tactic. It minimises your exposure to counter-evidence and argument. It means you can send luridly coloured smoke signals about where you stand without having explain or defend your position in any depth (cough, Judith Butler). It allows you to pump out feelings of animosity and outrage without defining the offence, which is why culture wars thrive in this environment.

I used to complain that people just recite the currently approved phrases (“diversity, equity, and inclusion”) and therefore should look for less predictable and more vivid ways to say what they mean. Then I realized that reciting the approved phrases is the whole point. I might as well have been asking people to vary the language in the Pledge of Allegiance.

In closely related news, I have a post up at the Hog Blog on why people say that stanning for an Anglo-Saxon king is “woke tosh.” 

tribulation

Hannah Anderson in Christianity Today:

Just as we do not choose our biological families of origin, there’s a sense in which we do not choose our religious families of origin either. Those of us who have been birthed or shaped by evangelicalism will never not be affected by it. You can be a former evangelical or a postevangelical. You can be a neo-evangelical. You can be a recovering evangelical — even a reforming evangelical. But you will never not be defined by your relationship to evangelicalism.

At the same time, acknowledging your evangelical roots does not mean turning a blind eye to the challenges facing the movement, nor does it mean defining evangelicalism so narrowly that you can absolve yourself of responsibility for it. To extend the family metaphor, evangelicalism may be comprised of your crazy cousins, embarrassing uncles, and perhaps even dysfunctional homes, but it’s still your family.

One thing that I almost never see in the current Discourse about evangelicalism is an acknowledgement by people who were raised evangelical that their upbringing might have provided something, anything to be grateful for. When I hear people denouncing their evangelical or fundamentalist “family,” I remember something Auden said about Kierkegaard: “The Danish Lutheran Church may have been as worldly as Kierkegaard thought it was, but if it had not existed he would never have heard of the Gospels, in which he found the standards by which he condemned it.” 

For decades now I have been puzzled, bemused, and sometimes frustrated by people who speak as though being raised a fundamentalist Christian is a uniquely terrible tribulation. And I have met many such people. I was not raised evangelical myself, and only in a nominal sense was I raised a Christian. We knew we were Baptists, because denomination was a social marker in Alabama sixty years ago, but we very rarely went to church. (Occasionally someone would feel a sense of responsibility and we’d attend for three or four weeks in a row, but then a year or more might pass before we returned.) We didn’t pray; I don’t believe I ever prayed or was prayed for at home. At some point in my childhood — during one of those brief spasms of church attendance, I suppose — I learned John 3:16, for which I’m very grateful! But I didn’t learn the Lord’s Prayer until I became interested in Christianity in college. 

Moreover, my father was in and out of prison throughout my childhood, and the best years were the ones when he was locked up, because when he was home he was usually drunk and when drunk was often violent. Once, when I was 12 or 13, I injured my arm playing a pickup football game and came home holding it gingerly, which for some reason caused him to fly into a rage and smash my injured arm with his fist. The next day we learned that my arm was broken. On another occasion he became angry with me for something and snatched my glasses off my face and crumpled them in his hand. I’m very nearsighted, so I stumbled around at school for the next couple of weeks until he allowed my mother to buy me a new pair. He never once in all his life told me he loved me; never once offered me a word of praise. My mother, while peaceable, was mostly silent and didn’t express affection either, though I’m now sure that she felt it. (Curiously, I never once saw my father angry with my mother.) We lived with my paternal grandmother, who was very loving towards me; without her, I don’t know how I could have made it into adulthood in one piece. My father regularly berated her for “spoiling” me. 

That was home life. At school, because I started first grade at age five and skipped second grade, I was two years younger than my classmates and therefore the subject of relentless bullying until in high school I finally grew to slightly-above-average height. So I spent my childhood in more-or-less constant fear. My only refuges were (a) my books and (b) the friends I hung out with during school vacations. On days without school I made a point of leaving our house right after breakfast every day and not returning until dinner. I spent a lot of time hanging out in friends’ houses or yards and sitting under trees with books, dreading the time when I had to return home. (Another thing I’m grateful for, as I have often remarked: we had a house full of cheap paperbacks so there was always something to read.)  

I don’t know how much it would have helped if anyone had taught me to cry out to God for support, or explained that Jesus encouraged those who are heavily-burdened to come to him for rest, or noted that he had sent the Holy Spirit to comfort his disciples. But such instruction wouldn’t have hurt; and it might have been a lifeline.

So when people whose parents loved them and expressed that love, cared for them and prayed for them, encouraged them in goodness and consoled them when they were hurt, tell me that their upbringing was terrible because those same parents were legalists and fundamentalists, well … let’s just say that I have a somewhat different perspective. I am not referring, of course, to those who suffered genuine abuse, and I see how abuse done in the name of God can be especially traumatizing. But those whose parents were merely legalistic and moralistic, narrow in their views, suspicious of mainstream culture, strict about movies and music — sure, all that’s not cool. But it could have been so, so much worse.

To those people, I say: While you’re rejoicing in your discovery of a more gracious and merciful God than your parents taught you to believe in — which is indeed something to rejoice in! — try to extend to them some of the same grace and mercy that you’ve received. And while duly noting what they failed to teach you, seek to have some gratitude for what they managed to provide. It was more and better than a lot of us get. 

A brother once came to one of the desert fathers saying, “My mind is intent on God.” The old man replied: “It is no great matter that thy mind should be with God; but if thou didst see thyself less than any of His creatures, that were something.” I am sure Dr Niebuhr knows this: I am not sure, though, that he is sufficiently ashamed. The danger of being a professional exposer of the bogus is that, encountering it so often, one may come in time to cease to believe in the reality it counterfeits.

One has an uneasy suspicion that, were Dr Niebuhr to meet the genuine, he might be as embarrassed as an eighteenth-century bishop or as an army chaplain. The question is: Does he believe that the contemplative life is the highest and most exhausting of vocations, that the church is saved by the saints, or doesn’t he? 

— W. H. Auden, in a review of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christianity and Power Politics (The Nation, 4 January 1941). Let the reader understand. 

imagination

Adrian Vermeule:

The radicals, the extremists, the idealists, the critics, the dissenters, the activists of social change, have in my lifetime been far more realistic, and simultaneously more imaginative, [than the so-called “realists’] about the capacious and flexible limits of political and legal change. The activists who pushed for same-sex marriage, even when Congress and dozens of states had passed statutes barring it — and who, after the Obergefell decision, turned on a dime to promoting transgenderism; the Trump voters who ignored the ironclad predictions of their betters; Chris Rufo, who has achieved the nearly unimaginable in the wars over critical race theory and public education — all these have had a sense of the possible, a breadth of vision, that the myopic realist can only imagine possessing.

Vermeule makes a very strong historical argument here for the ways in which passionate and committed political imagination makes the formerly impossible first possible and then inevitable.

But I would like to suggest — channelling Dr. Ian Malcolm, of course — that political imagination doesn’t simply involve asking whether we could, it also requires us to think about whether we should. And I believe that for Christians such reflection should lead to a question: How must I be formed as a Christian in such a way that I can be worthy of the power and influence I desire? That the integralists and Christian nationalists I read don’t seem to be asking that question is, I think, cause for concern.

(If they believe that their profession of faith is sufficient to qualify them, then I would suggest that they take the time to read The Brothers Karamazov — attending particularly to the debate about Ivan’s article in Part I, Book II, Chapter 5, and Ivan and Alyosha’s discussion of Ivan’s “poem” of the Grand Inquisitor in Part II, Book V, Chapter 5.)

And I would also suggest that political imagination, properly exercised, expands our sense of what counts as political — that is, as contributing to the health of the polis. Later in his essay Vermeule argues that

the rich and varied apprehension of higher things, the glorious pageant of Catholicism, spills over to broaden the political and active imagination. It is a paradox that the massively multigenerational projects of the Middle Ages, the cathedrals and castles, were undertaken by men whose life spans were on average shorter than our own. A paradox, but perhaps no accident; after all they inhabited a richer imaginative world.

This also is true, but I wonder whether Vermeule has fully grasped his own point. Because if our common life is greatly enriched by “multigenerational projects” like cathedrals — and beautiful parish churches, and universities and other schools — then should politically concerned Christians be quite so focused on who’s going to win the next elections?

Raymond Tallis, making a profound point: “Irrationality is a luxury that can be enjoyed only because it sits securely in the landscape of sedimented rationality composed of technologies and techniques and the institutions that make them available in our daily lives.” 

The Coddling of American Children Is a Boon to Beijing – WSJ:

My son is not a genius, but he started studying math at an early age. When he was 5, I taught him fractions. Two years later, I introduced him to algebra. It is a core belief in Chinese society that talent can be trained, so schools should be tough on children. Chinese students score at the top of international math and science tests.

This is not a philosophy shared by American schools. On Friday night my son came home announcing in bewilderment that he didn’t have any homework. In China students tend to receive twice as much homework on the weekend, given the two days to complete it. How will America compete with a China determined to train the best mathematicians, scientists and engineers? 

Two quite different issues are being conflated here, and the difference can be put in the form of two questions: Do American schools do enough to challenge and educate our children? Do students learn more when they get a lot of homework? 

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation | MIT Technology Review:

Over the last few weeks, the revelations from the Facebook Papers, a collection of internal documents provided to Congress and a consortium of news organizations by whistleblower Frances Haugen, have reaffirmed what civil society groups have been saying for years: Facebook’s algorithmic amplification of inflammatory content, combined with its failure to prioritize content moderation outside the US and Europe, has fueled the spread of hate speech and misinformation, dangerously destabilizing countries around the world.

But there’s a crucial piece missing from the story. Facebook isn’t just amplifying misinformation.

The company is also funding it.

two quotations on disagreement

Michael Oakeshott

The view dies hard that Babel was the occasion of a curse being laid upon mankind from which it is the business of philosophers to deliver us, and a disposition remains to impose a single character upon significant human speech.

Bernard Williams

Disagreement does not necessarily have to be overcome. It may remain an important and constitutive feature of our relations to others, and also be seen as something that is merely to be expected in the light of the best explanations we have of how such disagreement arises.

I don’t think that Freddie needs to, or for that matter should, reply further to any screeching about him on Twitter, but in relation to this I have a thought. Freddie writes, “To those of you who are not people I harmed in my psychotic episode in August 2017 … What do you want from me?” The answer seems to me clear: they want Freddie to keep writing, to keep publishing, to keep being in the public eye so he can be their Emmanuel Goldstein

symbolic manipulation

Matt Yglesias:

A lot of today’s politics is taken up with issues that are not just cultural, but symbolic — what do we teach in middle school U.S. history classes, which meaning of the word “racism” do we use, is it okay to watch Dave Chappelle, which statues do we pull down, etc.

People care about symbols for a reason, and I’m not going to try to talk anyone out of it. I, personally, enjoy the symbolism of living in a neighborhood named after Robert Gould Shaw near a traffic circle named after John Logan and sending my kid to a school named for William Lloyd Garrison, and I would be upset if it was all named after old racists instead. That being said, with my rational brain turned on, it is obvious that this symbolism is less important than whether zoning rules in the neighborhood promote displacement of working-class Black people, and the answer is that they do. And given those bad zoning rules, everything else you might try to do in the neighborhood (better schools and parks, better transportation, safer streets) has weirdly perverse impacts via rent increases.

I think everyone agrees on some level that these material impacts matter more than the symbolism, but we seem to really struggle as a society to focus on concrete things. And that’s a shame. Concrete things are not only more important, but precisely because they are concrete, they are more amenable to compromises and win-win solutions than zero-sum symbolic battles over symbolism and social status. 

This is an old theme for me also. As I wrote seven years ago — almost to the day! — “people who habitually traffic in symbolic manipulation — which includes pretty much everyone who spends a great deal of time, vocationally or avocationally, on the internet — tend to overestimate quite dramatically the power of symbolic manipulation. These people are so scrupulously attentive to how symbols (images and words, above all) are being handled in their corner of the online world that they can scarcely be brought to think about the quite concrete suffering and injustice that happen away from their (and everyone else’s) screens.” 

incremental

Ross Douthat:

Both decadence and chronic ailments cut against the human tendency to imagine a crisis as something that either leads to some kind of fatal endgame quickly or else resolves itself and goes away. Being sick for a long period of time has a baffling effect on friends and family and acquaintances, not because they’re unsympathetic or unwilling to help, but because our primary image of sickness is something that comes and quickly leaves, or comes and threatens your life and needs to be treated intensely with the highest stakes — and it’s harder to know how to respond to having something that apparently isn’t life-threatening but also doesn’t go away.

In the same way people analyzing cultural and political conditions are drawn, very naturally, to the sharp alternatives of progress or decline, full cultural health or late-imperial collapse. Indeed they tend to swing back and forth between the two poles, so that often the same people most confident in the arc of history bending inexorably toward liberal progress turn into the deepest here-comes-Hitler pessimists when the arc seems to bend instead in some dark or unexpected direction. So to suggest that there’s actually another category of civilizational condition, one defined by stagnation and repetition over a potentially extended horizon — saying, for instance, that the American republic is decaying and gridlocked and sclerotic but also not yet particularly like Weimar Germany or 1990s Russia, let alone 5th century Rome — is a way of conveying the same kind of truth that’s conveyed by living through a chronic illness, or loving someone who’s living with one: That the drama of human existence is replete with long unhappy interludes that feature neither an immediate Nemesis nor a simple cure, and those interludes require a distinctive response from their inhabitants, neither complacent nor hysterical, but constructive in ways that are intended to bear fruit across a longer haul — years for the individual, decades for society — than the response to an immediate all-or-nothing crisis.

An obsessive focus on the immediate moment is what makes catastrophists and triumphalists; their lack of temporal bandwidth renders them wholly insensible to the incremental. 

O God, who endowed your servant Hugh with a wise and cheerful boldness and taught him to commend to earthly rulers the discipline of a holy life: give us grace like him to be bold in the service of the gospel, putting our confidence in Christ alone, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

against the state

Justin E. H. Smith:

Who among these groups is “Indigenous”? We might in this case feel this is the wrong question to ask, but this feeling may in turn help to prime us for the further realization that the encounter zone of the Slavic, Turkic, Tungusic, and Paleo-Siberian peoples is in fact fairly representative of every corner of the inhabited globe, even those we take to be the most hermetic and (therefore?) the most pristinely representative of humanity in its original state. In their half-posthumous new book, the anthropologist David Graeber (1961-2020) and the archeologist David Wengrow (1972-) suggest that “even” the pre-contact Amazonian groups we generally take to conform most closely to the definition of “tribe” or “band” were likely aware of the Andean empires to their west, and may also have had, at an earlier time, relatively complex state structures that they consciously abandoned because they were lucid enough to come to see these as inimical to human thriving. The groups Europeans first encountered in the rainforest, in other words, may also have been splinters that broke away from tyrannies, just like the Sakha fleeing the Mongols, and to some extent also like the Mountain Time Zone libertarians grumbling about the tax agents from the mythical city of Washington.

It may be that more or less all societies that appear to us as “pre-state” would be more accurately described as “post-state” — even if the people who constitute them are not in fact fleeing from the center to the margins of a real tyranny, they are nonetheless living out their statelessness as a conscious implementation of an ideal of the human good. […] 

This is the sense of Pierre Clastres’s “society against the state”: societies that lack state structures are not in the “pre-” stage of anything, but are in fact actively working to keep such structures from rising up and taking permanent hold.

I’ll be starting Graeber and Wengrow’s book soon, but I suspect that — like much I have been reading in the last couple of years — it will further incline me to the suspicion that there is no remedy for technocracy that does not rely heavily and consistently on the best practices of the anarchist tradition. It’s time for a renewal of Christian anarchism — one that begins by accepting the clear fact that Anarchy and Christianity is Jacques Ellul’s worst book, by miles. 

FiveThirtyEight:

I asked each of the interviewees what they would do if I waved a magic wand and gave them total control over Facebook. “I would turn off Facebook and apologize to the people of the world,” said Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist and algorithmic auditor. “They can’t actually solve their problems.”

corruption

From a brilliant essay by Matt Crawford:

One of the most striking features of the present, for anyone alert to politics, is that we are increasingly governed through the device of panics that give every appearance of being contrived to generate acquiescence in a public that has grown skeptical of institutions built on claims of expertise. And this is happening across many domains. Policy challenges from outsiders presented through fact and argument, offering some picture of what is going on in the world that is rival to the prevailing one, are not answered in kind, but are met rather with denunciation. In this way, epistemic threats to institutional authority are resolved into moral conflicts between good people and bad people.

representation

Adam Roberts:

Representation in the sense of ‘how texts figure and inscribe the world and its concerns’ overlaps with another sense of the word: representation in the sense of not occluding or effacing the variety of groups and peoples that actually make up the world….

Here’s an example of what I mean. There are no churches or temples in Middle Earth; no priests or popes among the population. This is not because Lord of the Rings is an irreligious book. On the contrary, as Tolkien said (in a letter to his friend, the Jesuit priest, Robert Murray): ‘the Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’

We could put it this way: LotR is not a mimetic novel — there is no actual Middle Earth which it aims, accurately, to reproduce. It is a metaphorical novel: a novel about Christian revelation, about power and temptation, about resilience, hope and love.

So here’s the question: would it enhance the way LotR expresses its religious meanings to add temples, priests and congregations to its storytelling and worldbuilding? Or would it (as Tolkien believed) dilute and undermine it? 

It seems clear to me that Tolkien’s choice was, in the long run, a wise one — even though it was risky in the sense that millions of readers did not and do not perceive the “fundamentally religious and Catholic nature” of the book. But then, a good many of those readers probably would not have been receptive to a more direct appeal to their spiritual sensibilities, which they may not have had or may have had only to a small degree. Insofar as Tolkien wants to commend his own understanding of the cosmos, he directs his writing to those who are if not open-minded at least open-hearted, willing to entertain at least in their imaginations a richer and deeper world than the everyday. To use George Macdonald’s terms, Tolkien is more interested in awaking a meaning than conveying one. 

But in the present moment, and in relation to present concerns — concerns that Adam turns to elsewhere in his post — any such indirection will probably be ineffective. For the Extremely Online Discourse Police, the sole purpose of language is to declare allegiances and repudiations, and you can’t do that effectively if you “tell the truth but tell it slant.” The good news is that this moment will not last, and (again) in the long run Dickinson is exactly right to say that “Success in Circuit lies.” 

a way forward

An outstanding contribution to my Invitation and Repair project (see the tag at the bottom of this post) from Samuel Arbseman: “The Way-Forward Machine”

Some have begun to look for inspiration at long-lived institutions, from religious establishments to multigenerational businesses — for example, Kongō Gumi is a Japanese construction company still operating after over 1,400 years and the Ise Jingu Shrine is about 2,000 years old. But there is one conspicuously overlooked group, one “community of practice” that has persisted, with surprising consistency, over millennia: the Jews. If what we’re really interested in is how to plan for millennia hence, why not ask how Judaism has managed to persist in a coherent way, benefiting humanity for millennia? By combining a deep reverence for history and text — one that can be drawn upon in times of catastrophe and rapid change — with the understanding that each generation needn’t be content with just revering the past, Jews have created a distinctive mechanism for creating while also maintaining

And: 

When we think about building something for the long term, most long-term thinking involves a burst of creation at the beginning, followed by maintenance, whether it’s for large-scale construction projects or long-lived institutions. While caretaking is far from a bad thing, future generations can be locked into the vision of those who have come before them, and are denied a certain amount of agency. And if the choice is simply maintainer or creator, too many of us are going to choose to build the new, rather than preserve the old. That’s simply what our modern age prizes: novelty. There have been attempts to rekindle the excitement at maintenance, such as with the group The Maintainers, a research community focused on the repair and maintenance of infrastructure. It’s a sympathy I share. But, by and large, people would far prefer to create the new than be a caretaker to the old. However, Judaism recognizes that this is a false dichotomy; it provides for a certain amount of innovation for each generation, a balance of the creative and the caretaker. 

Fantastic stuff — much to be reflected on here … assuming that I eventually return to blogging. 

unbribed

The Magnificent Bribe — Real Life:

Nearly 50 years ago, long before smartphones and social media, the social critic Lewis Mumford put a name to the way that complex technological systems offer a share in their benefits in exchange for compliance. He called it a “bribe.” With this label, Mumford sought to acknowledge the genuine plentitude that technological systems make available to many people, while emphasizing that this is not an offer of a gift but of a deal. Surrender to the power of complex technological systems — allow them to oversee, track, quantify, guide, manipulate, grade, nudge, and surveil you — and the system will offer you back an appealing share in its spoils. What is good for the growth of the technological system is presented as also being good for the individual, and as proof of this, here is something new and shiny. Sure, that shiny new thing is keeping tabs on you (and feeding all of that information back to the larger technological system), but it also lets you do things you genuinely could not do before. For a bribe to be accepted it needs to promise something truly enticing, and Mumford, in his essay “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” acknowledged that “the bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe.” The danger, however, was that “once one opts for the system no further choice remains.”

This is a useful survey of Mumford’s work, and a reminder of how little what I call the Standard Critique of Technology has progressed in the intervening half-century. That’s why I am increasingly focused on seeking some way of evading the situation that Mumford so incisively and disturbingly identifies: “once one opts for the system no further choice remains.” There is of course a radical way to become unbribed: to go off the grid, to disconnect wholly. But is there a way less radical? Throwing the toothpaste away is simple enough, though perhaps not easy; but can you get it back into the tube? That’s what I, coward and weakling that I am, want to know. 

alliances

George Scialabba:

[Wendell] Berry is a serious Christian, and also a serious reader of poetry. His prose is studded with quotations from the Bible and the poetic canon. It may be surprising (though it shouldn’t be, really) how easy it is to find a text in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Blake, or Wordsworth celebrating humility, fortitude, magnanimity, chastity, marital fidelity, or some other Christian (though not exclusively Christian) virtue. Character and virtue are indeed fragile, and it’s reasonable to exploit all the resources of human culture to shore them up. But although it lends his writing gravity and grace, I’m sorry that Berry insists on giving the agrarian ethos a religious framework and on situating human flourishing within a “Great Economy,” by which he means not Gaia but the “Kingdom of God.” As a result, he speaks less persuasively than he might to those of us who feel that our civilization has somehow gone wrong, and that at least some part of traditional wisdom is indeed wisdom, but who cannot believe that this universe is the work of the Christian God, or of any God. And yet we need Berry’s preaching as much as anyone. Jesus came, after all, to call sinners, not the just, to good farming practices.

Our culture’s great need today is for a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism, skeptical and science-loving but skeptical even of science when necessary, aware that barbarism is as likely as progress and may even arrive advertised as progress, steadily angry at the money-changers and mindful of the least of our brethren. I don’t see how anyone who shares Berry’s Christian beliefs could fail to adopt his ideal of stewardship. But if those religious beliefs are necessary as well as sufficient — if there is no other path to that ideal, as he sometimes seems to imply — then we may be lost. One cannot believe at will. 

Brad East:

Of another ex-Marxist, Dwight Macdonald, Scialabba once wrote that though Macdonald “despaired of politics,” he “was an exemplary amateur,” for he “sought to apply to our politics and culture the strict critical standards of an honest intellectual craftsman — standards at once deeply conservative and deeply subversive.” That last phrase encapsulates why Scialabba’s detection of a final incompatibility between the ideas of those like himself and those of people like Berry — a group that includes me, at least by distant aspiration — is too quick. What irks, finally, is not that he misreads or fails to sympathize with Berry’s work, but that he misses that Berry is, or can be, a co-belligerent, if not a comrade, in a shared project. Scialabba can see this clearly in the case of former communists “hurt into” disenchantment and exile; he should see it too in Berry.

True, Berry is a certain kind of Christian and a certain kind of conservative, but just for that reason he is also a certain kind of friend to Scialabba’s goals for the world’s improvement. Not all of them, to be sure, but who can find a friend like that? On the contrary: given the overturned table of contemporary politics, it’s catch as catch can. All the more so if Berry’s art, like Chiaromonte’s, like Macdonald’s, avoids a moralistic reduction of politics to personal responsibility, and embodies instead the refusal to separate what belongs together: truth and justice, art and activism, private and public. That refusal was radical in their time, and it remains radical today.

Freddie deBoer:

Those institutions that actually hurt the oppressed you can only oppose with the slow, unsexy, decidedly uncool work of mundane political organizing, knocking on doors and putting up flyers and patiently speaking to people whose minds might be changed. The threat of investment banks is vastly larger to the average poor person of color than the threat of Boogaloo Boys, but antifa have no tools for confronting the former.

Katharine Hayhoe:

We think of climate change as a separate issue on our priority list, but the only reason you care about climate change is because of what’s already at the top of your list – keeping your job, taking care of your family, worrying about your health, worrying about your kids, worrying about the place where you live – whatever it is that you’re already worrying about.

When you are taking action for climate, it’s not for climate change, it’s for you. It’s for your family, it’s for everything you love, everyone you love, every place that you love – that’s why you’re doing it. There’s a significant mind shift there, so that we don’t see it as an extra “to do” on our list.

Wendell Berry (1991):

I. Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Those who have “thought globally” (and among them the most successful have been imperial governments and multinational corporations) have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought. Global thinkers have been, and will be, dangerous people. National thinkers tend to be dangerous also; we now have national thinkers in the northeastern United States who look upon Kentucky as a garbage dump.

II. Global thinking can only be statistical. Its shallowness is exposed by the least intention to do something. Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place. Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground. On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large, and full of beguiling nooks and crannies.

Gladden Pappin:

Many conservatives tend to assume that economic outcomes in capitalist economies are “natural.” Yet there is nothing less natural than severing the connection between economic growth and family formation. For millennia, human beings have viewed children as an asset, not a cost, for the simple reason that children provided additional labor and looked after their parents in old age. It is only in the last century that this link has been severed.

We now have a system that forces would-be parents to think of their children as a cost and not an asset. Yet these children are quite literally the most valuable asset that any country could possibly possess. Without children, a society withers and dies while its economy is converted into something resembling a chaotic nursing home, where a shrinking workforce slaves away to service a growing pool of retirees (as the specter of forced euthanasia lurks in the background).

UATX

Pano Kanelos:

We expect to face significant resistance to this project. There are networks of donors, foundations, and activists that uphold and promote the status quo. There are parents who expect the status quo. There are students who demand it, along with even greater restrictions on academic freedom. And there are administrators and professors who will feel threatened by any disruption to the system.

We welcome their opprobrium and will regard it as vindication.

To the rest — to those of you who share our sense that something fundamental is broken — we ask that you join us in our effort to renew higher education. We welcome all who share our mission to pursue a truly liberating education — and hope that other founders follow our example.

It is time to restore the meaning to those old school mottos. Light. Truth. The wind of freedom. You will find all three at our new university in Austin.

I don’t know whether this is going to work, but I think it’s a wonderfully exciting endeavor. In the American university today, the systemic and/or emergent silencing of those who dissent from or even merely question the Successor Ideology is made possible by the belief, by all parties involved, that the dissidents have nowhere else to go. But what if they do have somewhere else to go? And what if philanthropists who wish to support higher education have a choice between institutions with long-recognized prestige — always an irresistible draw in the past — and institutions that fit the philanthropists’ ideals? 

(One thing I don’t understand: the presence of Sohrab Amari on the university’s Board of Advisors. Isn’t its classical liberalism antithetical to his frequently-articulated vision of the social world as an arena for defeating your enemies in ideological combat and enjoying the spoils of your victory?)

This will be very, very interesting. A tiny bit of me wants to check Twitter to enjoy the inevitable DEFCON 1 meltdown — but all the rest of me immediately slapped down that tiny bit and I don’t think we’ll be hearing from it again. 


This was a blog post, wasn’t it? Dammit

John Tooby:

To earn membership in a group you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it, compared to rival groups. Hence, optimal weighting of beliefs and communications in the individual mind will make it feel good to think and express content conforming to and flattering to one’s group’s shared beliefs and to attack and misrepresent rival groups. The more biased away from neutral truth, the better the communication functions to affirm coalitional identity, generating polarization in excess of actual policy disagreements. […] 

This raises a problem for scientists: Coalition-mindedness makes everyone, including scientists, far stupider in coalitional collectivities than as individuals. Paradoxically, a political party united by supernatural beliefs can revise its beliefs about economics or climate without revisers being bad coalition members. But people whose coalitional membership is constituted by their shared adherence to “rational,” scientific propositions have a problem when — as is generally the case — new information arises which requires belief revision. To question or disagree with coalitional precepts, even for rational reasons, makes one a bad and immoral coalition member — at risk of losing job offers, one’s friends, and one’s cherished group identity. This freezes belief revision.  

Forming coalitions around scientific or factual questions is disastrous, because it pits our urge for scientific truth-seeking against the nearly insuperable human appetite to be a good coalition member. Once scientific propositions are moralized, the scientific process is wounded, often fatally.  No one is behaving either ethically or scientifically who does not make the best case possible for rival theories with which one disagrees.

This by Kevin Kelly is useful: “Class 1 problems are caused by technology that is not perfect, and are solved by the marketplace. Class 2 problems are caused by technology that is perfect, and must be solved by extra-market forces such as cultural norms, regulation, and social imagination.”

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

Wendell Berry (2005)

No one is sure what Blake meant by mentioning ‘dark, Satanic mills’ as part of what Jesus would have seen and moved among, but the candidates include early industrial sites, Druidic temples and (I’m afraid) Anglican parish churches. The point, though, is that we are being asked to imagine that the incarnate God moved and worked even in the middle of the cruelty, hypocrisy and exploitation that are an inseparable part of every human community’s history. ‘Jerusalem’ is being built, even while all the signs in society around us seem to negate the vision.

What we need is the rekindling of desire – the sheer passionate longing to see a social order at which the Holy Lamb of God might look without heartbreak. Arrows of desire; the courage and endurance of mental fight; the struggle to keep this imagination alive and burning – this is what we pray for. The poem looks back to an imaginary past and forward to an imagined future, but at its heart is the question: ‘do you truly want to live in Jerusalem? Because if you do, you need to remember that it is always already here and now; because even where justice and love seem to be defeated, the Holy Lamb of God is present.’ 

— Rowan Williams, from Candles in the Dark

Charlie Eaton:

Between 1980 and 2016, the wealthiest 1 percent of university endowments had already grown tenfold — from an average of $2 billion to $20 billion, after adjusting for inflation. Harvard University, Yale and Princeton University did this by averaging annual return rates nearly double those of endowments valued below $100 million, as are those of most investment funds for public, private and community colleges. Similarly, this year’s median endowment among all schools gained 27 percent, roughly half the rate for the top Ivies.

In my forthcoming book “Bankers in the Ivory Tower,” I show that elite schools grew their endowments by investing large amounts early in private equity and hedge funds led by their own alumni — which helped both the schools and their graduates.

As has often been noted, institutions like Harvard, Yale, and MIT are hedge funds that happen to have universities attached to them. “Charitable” giving to them is little different than “charitable” giving to Elon Musk. 

Michael Lind:

The contemporary American university is an enormous Kafkaesque bureaucracy teetering on top of a small Dickensian sweatshop. If we don’t count the sports teams and the research institutes, the university consists of preindustrial artisans, the instructors, divided between a small and shrinking group of elite tenured artisans and a huge and growing number of impoverished apprentices with no hope of decent jobs — with all of the artisans, affluent and poor, crushed beneath the weight of thickening layers of middle managers.

Apart from useful research, most of which could be done just as well in independent institutes, the product of all but the most prestigious American universities consists of diplomas which are rendered progressively more worthless each year thanks to credential inflation. According to the Federal Reserve of New York, the underemployment rate for recent college grads — that is, the percentage working in jobs that do not require a college diploma — was 40% at the end of March 2021. True, workers with college diplomas tend to make more than those without them — but at least some of the premium comes from Starbucks baristas with B.A.s pushing high school graduates into even worse jobs.

In a productive economic sector, labor-saving technology and/or the factory-style division of labor result in what might be called the virtuous circle of industrialism: Prices for consumers fall, wages for workers rise, and the ratio of managers to productive workers stays the same or shrinks. In the American university, however, technological stagnation, artisanal production, and administrative bloat result in rising prices for consumers, falling wages for the majority of productive workers (nontenured instructors) and more and more bureaucrats per worker over time.

two quotations on the metaverse

Nick Carr:

Facebook, it’s now widely accepted, has been a calamity for the world. The obvious solution, most people would agree, is to get rid of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has a different idea: Get rid of the world. […] 

His goal with the metaverse is not just to create a virtual world that is more encompassing, more totalizing, than what we experience today with social media and videogames. It’s to turn reality itself into a product. In the metaverse, nothing happens that is not computable. That also means that, assuming the computers doing the computing are in private hands, nothing happens that is not a market transaction, a moment of monetization, either directly through an exchange of money or indirectly through the capture of data. With the metaverse, capital subsumes reality. It’s money all the way down.

Clive Thompson:

The truth is, a thriving metaverse already exists. It’s incredibly high-functioning, with millions of people immersed in it for hours a day. In this metaverse, people have built uncountable custom worlds, and generated god knows how many profitable businesses and six-figure careers. Yet this terrain looks absolutely nothing the like one Zuckerberg showed off.

It’s Minecraft, of course. 

(I am not returning to blogging as such, not until 2022 at the earliest, but it occurred to me this morning that I still need a place to put quotes I want to remember and use later, so I’ll keep using the blog for that.

hiatus

This will be my last post on this blog in 2021: I’m shutting down for the rest of the year. I’ll revisit things in January to see if I want to resume. 

In the meantime, I’ll still be doing my weekly newsletter and my utterly-boring-to-everyone-except-me photo blog

topics

This is related, in a way, to my previous post: After reading yet another invitation-disinvitation story, I think every university should – in the interests of full disclosure, honesty, and charity – prepare a list of Topics On Which Dissent Is Not Permitted and send that list to everyone who is invited to speak. That way prospective lecturers will know in advance whether they hold views that are not tolerated at those universities and can decline the invitation immediately rather than having to be canceled later on.

motives

For more than 20 years now, I’ve been writing occasionally on the theme of motives, always making the same points:

  1. Because, as Rebecca West famously said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive,” it’s very hard to tell what anyone’s truly dominant motives are;
  2. What people actually do is more important than what you think their motives are;
  3. There’s no reason to think you can understand the motives of others if you don’t have a firm grasp on your own.

I was thinking about that third point especially last night while listening to the most recent episode of FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast. The hosts prided themselves on looking into the motives of the people who make polls, but it never occurred to them that their own project might be motivated also.

Some writers in the so-called “rationalist community” will preface their posts or essays with some statement of “confidence interval” or “epistemic status” – Scott Alexander does this, for example. I think everyone who writes about the motives of others should append to their discourse a “personal motive estimation” – an account of what they believe their own motives to be. In the spirit of full disclosure.

engagement

Marianna Spring, BBC News:

All the main social media companies say they don’t promote hate on their platforms and take action to stop it. They each have algorithms that offer us content based on things we’ve posted, liked or watched in the past. But it’s difficult to know what they push to each user.

“One of the only ways to do this is to manually create a profile and seeing the kind of rabbit hole that it might be led down by the platform itself, once you start to follow certain groups or pages,” explains social media expert Chloe Colliver, who advised me on the experiment.

So Spring set up a fake account: a man called Barry.

Like my trolls, Barry was mainly interested in anti-vax content and conspiracy theories, and followed a small amount of anti-women content. He also posted some abuse on his profile — so that the algorithms could detect from the start he had an account that used abusive language about women. But unlike my trolls, he didn’t message any women directly.

Over two weeks, I logged in every couple of days and followed recommendations, posted to Barry’s profiles, liked posts and watched videos.

After just a week, the top recommended pages to follow on both Facebook and Instagram were almost all misogynistic. By the end of the experiment, Barry was pushed more and more anti-women content by these sites — a dramatic increase from when the account had been created. Some of this content involved sexual violence, sharing disturbing memes about sex acts, and content condoning rape, harassment and gendered violence.

As I keep saying: for the social media companies, hatred isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It promotes engagement. 

mediocrity and acceptance

This reflection by Tim Stillman articulates a lot of what I, as an often unwilling but helpless Arsenal supporter, have been feeling lately. The petro-plutocrat takeover of Newcastle United adds to the list of clubs that Arsenal will simply not have the financial resources to compete with, and in a weird sort of way that’s a relief. It has been some time since Arsenal could plausibly contend for the Premier League title, but we fans have hoped for a return to the Champions League. Now, as Stillman notes, “What is the ceiling of this project? ‘If things go really well this season, we could finish 5th!’ It’s difficult to get excited about that but, unless there is a change in owners or a change in owner MO at Arsenal, qualifying for the Europa League is what success looks like for Arsenal.” Yep. For the foreseeable future Arsenal will simply be a mid-table side – and it’s strangely nice not to have to think about any higher aspirations. 

Those circumstances can improve in one way only: If Stan Kroenke sells the club to some massively rich owner or consortium. (Stillman writes of a change in the Kroenke MO but I don’t consider that even a possibility.) And as frustrated as I have been by the Arsenal ownership, new ownership is probably the one thing that would end my Arsenal fandom – because in the current environment it’s hard to imagine any sufficiently wealthy ownership that doesn’t have the problem that Newcastle’s new owners have: deep entanglement with massive corruption. I prefer mediocrity to that. 

bad dispensations

The idea that we must choose between two intolerant illiberalisms, one on the Right and one on the Left, is, it seems to me, increasingly common today. It was also quite common in the 1930s. For instance, in 1937 the British House of Commons was debating whether or how to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, and a number of M.P.s insisted that it was necessary to choose between the Fascists and the Communists. But one Member of the House replied,

I will not pretend that, if I had to choose between Communism and Nazi-ism, I would choose Communism. I hope not to be called upon to survive in the world under a Government of either of those dispensations…. It is not a question of opposing Nazi-ism or Communism; it is a question of opposing tyranny in whatever form it presents itself; and, having a strong feeling in regard to the preservation of individual rights as against Governments, and as I do not find in either of these two Spanish factions which are at war any satisfactory guarantee that the ideas which I personally care about, and to which I have been brought up in this House to attach some importance, would be preserved, I am not able to throw myself in this headlong fashion into the risk of having to fire cannon immediately on the one side or the other of this trouble…. I cannot feel any enthusiasm for these rival creeds. 

The Member who so refused to make that choice was Winston Churchill. When many thought that liberalism and democracy were unsustainable, were not long for this world, he stood up for liberalism and democracy anyway. That was the wise course then, and it’s the wise course today. 

It is not that the documentary hypothesis is necessarily wrong in substance; Genesis is clearly made up of a number of traditions which have been combined at different stages. But is it not the task of the critic to try and come to grips with the final form as we have it, and to give the final editor or reactor the benefit of the doubt, rather than to delve behind his work to what was there before? The inventors of the documentary hypothesis believed that by trying to distinguish the various strands they were getting closer to the truth, which, in good nineteenth-century fashion, they assumed to be connected with origins. But in practice the contrary seems to have taken place. For their methodology was necessarily self-fulfilling: deciding in advance what the Jahwist or the Deuteronomist should have written, they then called whatever did not fit this view an interpolation. But this leads, as all good readers know, to the death of reading; for a book will never draw me out of myself if I only accept as belonging to it what I have I already decreed should be there.

— Gabriel Josipovici, The Book of God (1988)

“This time the old mother has forgotten the old creature’s birthday, which if I am not mistaken falls on October 15.” — Nietzsche in a letter to his mother. My friend and colleague Rob Miner explains why Nietzsche loved birthdays

the beginning of politics

Leah Libresco Sargeant on an “illiberalism of the weak”

To give an honest accounting of ourselves, we must begin with our weakness and fragility. We cannot structure our politics or our society to serve a totally independent, autonomous person [which is the person imagined by liberalism] who never has and never will exist. Repeating that lie will leave us bereft: first, of sympathy from our friends when our physical weakness breaks the implicit promise that no one can keep, and second, of hope, when our moral weakness should lead us, like the prodigal, to rush back into the arms of the Father who remains faithful. Our present politics can only be challenged by an illiberalism that cherishes the weak and centers its policies on their needs and dignity. 

This is a strong and vital word. But genuinely to hear it we will have to dethrone the two idols that almost everyone with a political opinion worships: My People and Winning. The goal of almost every political activist and pundit is the same: My people must win, and those who are not my people must lose. Do not be deceived by talk of the “common good,” because the often quite explicit message of the common-good conservatives is: My people are the ones who know what the common good is, and that common good can only be achieved if my people win. A politics of weakness and dependence, a politics of bearing one another’s burdens, can only begin when those two idols are slain. 


UPDATE: Rowan Williams, from a review of God: An Anatomy, by Francesca Stavrakopoulou: 

Stavrakopoulou … takes Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous picture of the dead (and prematurely decaying) body of Christ as illustrating the way in which Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy ends up in a conspicuously unbiblical position, presenting human bodies as “repulsive” (her word), unfit to portray the divine. But – apart from the fact that in Holbein’s lifetime the glory of the human form as representing divinity was being reaffirmed by artists in southern Europe as never before – the point of a picture like this, or of any other representation of the torment and suffering of Jesus, was to say that “the divine” does not shrink from or abandon the human body when it is humiliated and tortured.

In contrast to an archaic, religious sacralising of the perfect, glowing, muscular, dominant body, there is a central strand in Jewish and Christian imagination which insists that bodies marked by weakness, failure, the violence of others, disease or disability are not somehow shut out from a share in human – and divine – significance. They have value and meaning; they may judge us and call us to action. The biblical texts are certainly not short of the mythical glorifications of male power that Stavrakopoulou discusses; but they also repeatedly explore divine solidarity with vulnerable bodies, powerless bodies. Is this a less “real” dimension of the Bible? Even a reader with no theological commitments might pause before writing it off.

Arnold Kling:

If you use your economics, then no matter how complex the supply-chain problems might appear, they can be solved using the price system. The price system may or may not be able to call forth more supply, but it certainly can ration demand, and it can do so more efficiently than is being done at present. Everywhere the supply chain is “broken,” higher prices can ensure that scarce goods are allocated to the highest-priority uses.

Wherever you see buyers unable to find goods, you should ask why the rationing takes place by availability rather than by price. If the market were operating smoothly, the shelves would be fully stocked, but prices would be higher.

My hypothesis for why we observe price stickiness is that businesses fear consumer backlash. When the price is high, the consumer blames the business. If instead the product is not in the store, the consumer blames “the supply chain.” In fact, it should be the other way around—the business should be blamed for not raising prices to prevent a shortage, and the higher prices should in turn be blamed on higher costs in the supply chain.

a brief note on narrative

Recently I’ve come across a number of pieces dismissing or critiquing the idea of “narrative” – the idea being that when you call something a narrative you’re turning it into a subjective account that isn’t subject to empirical verification, or external assessment of any kind. I suppose this critique arises from the increasingly common use over the past decade of phrases like “my truth” and “my story.” 

But maybe it’s worth noting that for a long time the primary meaning of the word “narrative” was “faithful account” – that is, to call something a narrative is to proclaim that it tells the truth about something that happened. In the early modern period the word was primarily used in legal contexts; it meant what we might now call “the facts of the case.” 

That’s why Frederick Douglas’s autobiography is not called an autobiography but rather a narrative: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass’s point in so titling his autobiography wasn’t “This is my truth” but rather “This is what actually happened, so help me God.” Fiction writers who wanted to add an aura of verisimilitude to their stories would sometimes appropriate this usage, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. But this only worked because people generally understood the word “narrative” to mean “true account.” 

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