Stagger onward rejoicing

Author: ayjay (page 3 of 157)

excerpt from my Sent folder: the day of reckoning

About fifteen years ago I started moving away from the standard research essay assignment. In my Literary Theory classes I assigned dialogues; in Christianity and Fantasy I asked students to make critical editions of texts; since I got to Baylor I’ve used dialogues in some classes and in others have given take-home exams asking people to do close-reading explications of passages I’ve chosen for them. The LLMs do not yet know how to do any of these things, so I am not having to think too much about their effects on my classes; my chief challenge is to avoid smug self-satisfaction. But I remind myself that the day of reckoning is surely coming for me also.

(And yes, I know this courts that smugness, but: I stopped assigning research essays because what my students gave me was so maddeningly predictable — predictable because formulaic — that I just couldn’t bear to grade them any more, not after thirty-plus years of doing it. Now I think: the predictability was in some crucial pedagogical respects the whole point, and so of course LLMs can do those assignments!)

I’m no Mr. Miyagi

KarateKid WaxOnWaxOff

My friend Richard Gibson:

Emerging adults need to see, as one of my colleagues put it, “the benefits of the struggle” in their own lives as well as their instructors’. The work before us — to preserve old practices and to implement new ones — provides the ideal occasion to talk to our students about not only the intellectual goods offered by our fields that we want them to experience. It is also a chance to share how we have been shaped for the better by the slow, often arduous work of joining a discipline. Our students need more than technology, and the answer cannot simply come in the form of another list of dos-and-don’ts in the already crowded space of a syllabus. They need models for how to navigate these new realities — paradigms for their practice, life models. AI’s foremost challenge for higher education is to think afresh about forming humans.

My heart says Yes, but my head says I think it’s impossible. That is, I suspect the owl of Minerva really does fly only at night, and one cannot learn the value of “the slow, often arduous work of joining a discipline” in advance. That value can only be discerned in retrospect. 

Imagine that Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel the wax-on/wax-off technique and leaves him to get to work. Then, as Daniel is straining and sweating, a guy comes up to him with a little machine labeled WaxGPT. “Hey kid! Wow, you’re working hard there. But I have good news: this machine will do the waxing for you. And it’s free! All you have to do is give me your phone number.”

You think Daniel will hesitate? You think his reverence for Mr. Miyagi will keep him in line? Unlikely; but just possible, I guess, since Daniel has seen Mr. Miyagi’s prowess and has asked to be taught by him. That’s not how it is for many of us who teach university students. My students are not free agents making free choices. I haven’t saved any of them from vicious thugs. A few of them may admire me in certain respects, but almost all of them think of my assignments as mere impediments, and I don’t think I can change that view in advance of their maturation. Later they may thank me — a good many have, over the years — but they don’t thank me in the moment. Even Daniel is likely to think that WaxGPT can do the dirty work for him so that, in his own good time, Mr. Miyagi will teach him something useful. 

So while I don’t disagree with Rick’s overall emphasis on personal formation, I believe we should reassess — radically reassess — the relationship between such formation and our assignments, assessment, and testing. I think that’s where we have to begin learning to live in the Bot Age. My guess is that those schools that are already disconnected from the standard assessment metrics — places like Reed College and the two St. John’s colleges — will be best placed to deal with the challenges of this era. 

Michael Luo in the New Yorker

In June, 2020, Keller announced that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. One of his final projects, completed earlier this year, was an eighty-three-page white paper he called “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church.” It offers a wide-ranging set of prescriptions for what he viewed as the profound afflictions of the evangelical movement, including its anti-intellectualism, its problems with race, and the politicization of the church that has “turned off half the country.” The document is an exhaustive blueprint, but the question now is who will carry it out. 

That is precisely the question. 

(Also, maybe I should annotate that white paper the way I annotated the terrific new essay on postrationalism by Tara Isabella Burton.) 

Tim Keller

Well, this is a day for tears. I don’t know Tim intimately, but he is a friend, and his presence in my life has been a great gift. When I look back through Tim’s emails to me over the years, the thread that runs through them is encouragement. The last words of his last email to me: “Main thing I wanted to say is how much I appreciate all you are doing.”

The main thing Tim wanted to say was always about someone other than himself: his mind seemed always to be focused on his family, his friends, those he pastored and mentored, and above all the God who is known to us in Jesus Christ. The criticism he received — almost all of it irrational and misinformed — slightly bemused him but otherwise left him unaffected; he had more important things to think about than his own reputation. 

In one of his last books he wrote of 

Christianity’s unsurpassed offers — a meaning that suffering cannot remove, a satisfaction not based on circumstances, a freedom that does not hurt but rather enhances love, an identity that does not crush you or exclude others, a moral compass that does not turn you into an oppressor, and a hope that can face anything, even death. 

All I can say is Amen to that. 

Above I spoke of my friendship with Tim in the present tense, for a good reason. I don’t know Tim intimately; but I hope to some day. Until then, I will miss him very much. 

the culture question revisited

I want to get back to the question of what theologians talk about when they talk about culture. Earlier entries: 

In that follow-up, Brad writes, 

First, “culture” is one of those words (as Alan agrees) that is nigh impossible to pin down. You know it when you see it. You discover the sense of what a person is referring to through their use. The term itself could call forth an entire lifetime’s worth of study (and has done so). In that case, it’s reasonable simply to get on with the discussion and trust we’ll figure out what we’re saying in the process.

And yet — this intuition may well be wrong, and its wrongness may be evidenced in the very interminability of the post-Niebuhrian conversation. Granted! I’m honestly having trouble, however, imagining everyone offering a hyper-specific definition of “culture” or avoiding the term altogether. 

But I don’t think we have to choose between (a) “a hyper-specific definition” and (b) no account at all of what we’re talking about. I’d be willing to settle for something a little hand-wavy in preference to nothing. So let me do a little hand-waving of my own. 

Sometimes when people talk about “culture” they seem to mean pretty much everything that human beings do together. In such a case a theology of culture would be nearly indistinguishable from a complete theological anthropology. At other times when people talk about “culture” they seem to be talking primarily about the arts — music, literature, movies, etc. — in which case what’s called for is simply a theology of the arts. 

One of the primary reasons I find Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture — or anyway the categorical scheme deployed therein — completely useless is that he very clearly hasn’t thought about these issues at all. (As can be seen when he opposes “revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason” to culture, which he can do only if he thinks of culture as something like a stable social order — a place for “cultured” people. But that is a manifestly inadequate understanding of culture, and in any case is different than the implicit — always implicit, never explicit — understandings he gestures at in other parts of the book.) 

So let’s try this. When some hunter-gatherers try to frighten off would-be predators, that’s not yet culture. But when they designate certain persons in the group to be their protectors, and find some means — clothing, decoration, modes of address, increased shares of food — to acknowledge the distinctive social role of the protectors, then they’re making culture. This is why James Davison Hunter speaks of “‘spheres of symbolic activity,’ that is, areas of human endeavor where symbols are created and adapted to human needs.” 

But hang on — aren’t we approaching politics here? Isn’t the creation of a group or class of protectors-of-the-community a political act? Indeed it is. So we need to decide whether when we’re articulating a theology of culture we need to include political theology as a component of it. Do we want to do that? Maybe, maybe not. We could

  1. envision a theological anthropology that contains a theology of culture that in turn contains a political theology. Russian dolls. Or we could
  2. envision a theological anthropology that contains a theology of culture and a conceptually distinct political theology. 

I would prefer the former, because I think politics is one of the permanent and necessary expressions of the broader and more fundamental human activity that we call culture; but as far as I can tell most theologians think of political theology and theology of culture as effectively two different things — not wholly disconnected from each other, but different enough that you can discuss one without feeling obliged to discuss the other. If you take the latter course, you can write a book the size of, say, Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations; if you take the former course, you’ll need to write one the size of Augustine’s City of God. You pays your money and you takes your chance. But I think theologians need to be more explicit about the scope of their inquiries. 

For what it’s worth: I think the theology of culture we need would combine an inquiry into the character of our power-knowledge regime — a study of powers and demons — with an iconology, an account of the deployment of the images and symbols meant to govern our perceptions and affections. Which is to say, I think we need a new City of God — though one produced by many scholars working in more-or-less conscious coordination with one another. We can’t expect another Augustine. 

UPDATE: I think … I think … I think maybe I need to blog my way through the City of God. There, I said it. 

the three paths of micro.blog

I’ve written here from time to time about the excellent service known as micro.blog — and I still want to commend it to those of you who have had enough of the big social-media platforms. You have to pay for it, but you get a lot for your money, including freedom from advertising. 

Micro.blog is a highly flexible service with many intriguing features, and it may be hard for new users to decide just which ones are most useful for them. Perhaps it would help if you think of micro.blog as offering three different (though overlapping) paths, and spend some time considering which path best meets your needs. 

Path One: Community. For many users, micro.blog is a smallish community of like-minded people — a place to connect with interesting folks, in a much more low-key and undramatic way than what places like Facebook and Twitter (and even Mastodon) offer. If you go to the Discover page you’ll find something that looks like this: 

Screenshot 2023 05 15 at 10 26 41 AM

That’s a great way to find people who share your interests. 

Path Two: Blog. Micro.blog is also a great blogging platform. It was, as its name suggests, originally designed for small posts, but it scales up to posts of any size. When your post gets longer than 300 characters, you get the option to add a title to the post; then people looking at your timeline will see that title as a link, which they can click on to see the full post. Micro.blog also offers categories that you can use to organize different kinds of posts. Basically, it can replace any of the cruftier and less agile blog platforms, like WordPress — but it has a much more streamlined and elegant UI for posting. Best of both worlds, I think. (For longer posts, like this one, I still use the WordPress-powered blog you’re reading, because I have 15 years of tags here, but for everything else I use micro.blog because it provides such a comfortable environment for writing.) 

Path Three: Journal. This has become my primary way to use micro.blog. I mainly post (a) photos, (b) links to what I’ve been reading — micro.blog is definitively the best blogging platform for readers — and listening to, and (c) the occasional brief audio post (AKA microcast). It’s a great way for me to share what I’m up to for folks who may be interested — but also, and for me primarily, to keep a kind of life journal. 

Here’s the key takeaway for you: Micro.blog is equally useful for each of these paths. So if you start out using it just for blogging but then decide you want more of an interactive community, you can shift in that direction. It will accommodate your needs. Now, as I have said before, it will — by design — never be a place for you to monetize your brand, troll, shitpost, or become an influencer. But hey, there are plenty of other platforms better suited for that kind of thing. Micro.blog is better suited for the more human and humane paths I have identified here. 

Book Review: Heidegger in Ruins

Richard Wolin’s Heidegger in Ruins is a compelling synthesis of what scholars have learned about Heidegger over the past decade – and also an account of what has been known about him all along, but rarely directly confronted. Indeed, the greatest value of the book is not what it tells us about Heidegger, but rather what it shows about the fecklessness and dishonesty of a certain wing of the academic enterprise.

Wolin patiently lays out a series of claims and defends them in great detail:

  1. Heidegger persisted all his life in loyalty to the key principles of National Socialism, especially the conviction that the German people are the world’s chosen Volk and the corresponding belief in what he called “world Jewry’s predisposition to planetary criminality.”
  2. When confronted with his history of unswerving commitment to Nazi principles, Heidegger consistently took evasive action, declaring himself one of the victims of the regime. (For instance, he often said that he had to make his criticisms indirectly because the Gestapo was surveilling him.)
  3. He pursued his self-defense through two strategies: addition and omission. That is, he added self-exculpatory passages to texts that had been written in the Nazi era, and then claimed that they had been there all along; and, in other cases, he removed incriminating passages when he had works of that period re-published later in his life. In one case he claimed that he had said something critical of National Socialism, and when it was pointed out that the transcript of his lecture contained no such statement, he countered that he couldn’t account for that but that the statement was definitely in his manuscript. When the manuscript was inspected, the relevant page was missing. This kind of thing happened over and over again.
  4. Editors of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe (Complete Works) – several of whom are members of Heidegger’s own family, including first his son and now his grandson – have consistently aided and abetted Heidegger’s own obfuscations. For instance, in one lecture Heidegger uses the abbreviation “N. soz.”; the lecture’s editor helpfully explains that this means not Nationalsozialismus but rather, somehow, Naturwissenschaften (the natural sciences). And in the 1980s, when Peter Trawny was preparing an edition of Heidegger’s lectures, the philosopher’s literary executors pressured him to silently delete the phrase I quote above: “world Jewry’s predisposition to planetary criminality.” Their pressure worked, as Trawny admitted – but he didn’t admit it until 2014.

This last point is perhaps the most interesting and significant one. Wolin convincingly argues that “As a result [of such additions and omissions], for decades, the public has been presented with a misleading, politically ‘sanitized’ image of Heidegger’s thought: a bowdlerized version in which Heidegger’s profascist political allegiances have been extensively airbrushed.”

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. “Much of the damage that has been done appears to be irreparable,” because no one outside the Heidegger “family business,” as Wolin calls it, can edit the Gesamtausgabe, and “as far as the numerous translations and foreign-language editions of Heidegger’s works are concerned, from a publishing standpoint, it is essentially too late too cumbersome and too expensive to implement the requisite corrections and emendations.” He thus concludes,

As a result, for the foreseeable future, generations of students encountering Heidegger’s work for the first time will be exposed to editorially doctored, politically cleansed versions of Heidegger’s thought. These significantly flawed texts have, meretriciously, become the de facto standard editions.

Moreover, in the voluminous secondary literature on Heidegger, this web of editorial deception is rarely mentioned. Were it acknowledged, it would risk exposing a deliberate policy of textual manipulation that, by masking the philosopher’s ideological loyalties, has sought to marginalize fundamental questions bearing on the intellectual and moral integrity of his work.

Therefore, many of those defending Heidegger, especially if they have read him in English translations, have never seen the whole of what he actually wrote; they have only seen the sanitized versions. 

One of the chief airbrushers over the decade since the publication of Heidegger’s revelatory and appalling Black Notebooks – which make it abundantly clear just how obsessed Heidegger was for the last fifty years of his life by the belief in German cultural superiority, its vocation to save the world – has been Giorgio Agamben, who has said that “Si tout propos critique ou négatif sur le judaïsme, même contenus dans des notes privées, est condamné comme antisémite, cela équivaut à mettre le judaïsme hors langage” – “If any critical or negative statement about Judaism, even in private notes, is condemned as anti-Semitic, that is the equivalent to putting Judaism outside of language.” But if the claim that Jews have a “predisposition to planetary criminality” – a claim that was not made in une note privée but rather in a public lecture – is not anti-Semitic, then what is it? Does Agamben really want to insulate such statements from critique? Apparently he does. But this is to put not Judaism but rather anti-Semitism hor langage.

Much of this airbrushing, by Agamben and many others, has been built around the insistence that critics of Heidegger are over-interpreting common words. Blut just means “blood,” Boden just means “soil,” Heimat just means “home,” and Führer is the common German word for “leader.”

(As Wolin points out, Führer is one German word for “leader,” another one being Leiter – why does Heidegger always choose the former? I would suggest that you can get a clue by reading Max Weber’s famous 1917 lecture “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” or “Science as a Vocation,” in which he sternly warns students against the desire for ein Führer – by which he clearly means not a plain old leader but a charismatic figure who will give your life purpose and direction.)

Wolin patiently works his way through these and other words, repeatedly showing us the very distinctive character certain previously ordinary German words assumed under Nazism. Wolin points out that in his 1946 book The Myth of the State, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer had mused on what Nazism had done to the German language:

If nowadays I happen to read a German book, published in these last ten years, not a political but a theoretical book, a work dealing with philosophical, historical, or economic problems — I find to my amazement that I no longer understand the German language. New words have been coined; and even the old ones are used in a new sense; they have undergone a deep change of meaning. This change of meaning depends upon the fact that those words which formerly were used in a descriptive, logical, or semantic sense, are now used as magic words that are destined to produce certain effects and to stir up certain emotions. Our ordinary words are charged with meanings; but these new-fangled words are charged with feelings and violent passions.

The defenders of Heidegger’s use of these “magic words” have to assume, and have to encourage us to assume, that Heidegger was somehow ignorant of or indifferent to this change in the character of the German language — deaf to the “magic words.” As early as 1939, Heidegger’s former student Karl Löwith wrote – though he did not then publish – an essay showing how implausible such an idea was:

Given the significant attachment of the philosopher to the climate and intellectual habitus of National Socialism, it would be inappropriate to criticize or exonerate his political decision in isolation from the very principles of Heideggerian philosophy itself. It is not Heidegger, who, in opting for Hitler, “misunderstood himself;” instead, those who cannot understand why he acted this way have failed to understand him.

Heidegger understood the Nazi language and the habitus it embodied and reflected; and he wholly endorsed the whole package — and, Löwith says, did not simply do so personally but also as a thinker. If belief in Heidegger’s innocence was implausible to a knowledgable observer in 1939, it is, as Wolin patiently and thoroughly shows, completely indefensible today.

Finally: I should mention something in Wolin’s argument that troubles me personally. I am among those who have found some value in the critique of technology that Heidegger developed in the decade or so after the end of World War II. But Wolin indicates that already in the 1950s a young philosopher named Jürgen Habermas had called the logic of Heidegger’s critique into question: By arguing that the real crisis of the mid-twentieth century was “the planetary imperialism of the technically organized human beings,” the rise of technology as “the instrument for total … dominion over the earth,” Heidegger was implicitly reducing the significance of the Holocaust, reducing the guilt of the German Volk. And not always implicitly: in his “Bremen Lectures” of 1949, he straightforwardly claimed that “mechanized agriculture [is] in essence, the same as the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps.” A farmer sitting on a tractor and a German soldier shoving emaciated Jews into a gas chamber – who can say which is the more wicked? I am always drawn to a strong critique of modern technology, but Wolin’s account makes me wonder what that inclination might have led me to overlook. This is a point I may develop in future posts. 

Scott Alexander:

If you could really plug an AI’s intellectual knowledge into its motivational system, and get it to be motivated by doing things humans want and approve of, to the full extent of its knowledge of what those things are3 – then I think that would solve alignment. A superintelligence would understand ethics very well, so it would have very ethical behavior. 

Setting aside the whole language of “motivation,” which I think wildly inappropriate in this context, I would ask Alexander a question: Are professors of ethics, who “understand ethics very well,” the most ethical people? 

The idea that behaving ethically is a function or consequence of understanding is grossly misbegotten. Many sociopaths understand ethics very well; their knowledge of what is generally believed to be good behavior is essential to their powers of manipulation. There is no correlation between understanding ethics and living virtuously. 

locating intellectuals

In his great book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Wilken writes: 

In an age in which thinkers of all kinds, even poets, are creatures of the academy, it is well to remember that most of the writers considered in this book were bishops who presided regularly at the celebration of the Eucharist, the church’s communal offering to God, and at the annual reception of catechumens in the church through baptism at Easter. The bishop also preached several times a week and could be seen of a Wednesday or Friday or Saturday as well as on Sunday seated before the Christian community expounding the Sacred Scriptures. Some of the most precious sources for early Christian thought are sermons taken down in shorthand as they were being preached in the ancient basilicas. In them the bishop speaks as successor of the apostles to a community that looks to him as teacher and guide. For intellectuals of this sort, even when they were writing learned tomes in the solitude of their studies, there was always a living community before their eyes. Faithfulness, not originality, was the mark of a good teacher. 

This reminds me that his his biography of Lesslie Newbigin, Geoffrey Wainwright comments that the bishop-theologian was once a common type of Christian intellectual, indeed in some senses the characteristic type — but that is no longer the case: 

Christian theology is more immediately a practical than a speculative discipline, and such speculation as it harbors stands ultimately in the service of right worship, right confession of Christ, and right living. Right practice demands, of course, critical and constructive reflection, and the best Christian theology takes place in the interplay between reflection and practice. That is why honor is traditionally given to those practical thinkers and preachers who are designated “Fathers of the Church.” Most of them were bishops who, in the early centuries of Christianity, supervised the teaching of catechumens, delivered homilies in the liturgical assembly, oversaw the spiritual and moral life of their communities, gathered in council when needed to clarify and determine the faith, and took charge of the mission to the world as evangelistic opportunities arose. A figure of comparable stature and range in the ecumenical twentieth century was Lesslie Newbigin. 

I have often written about the ways in which the modern university is built on perverse incentives, and, putting that together with these comments on bishops, I am mulling over two questions: 

  1. Should Christians look primarily to scholars and thinkers outside the academy for theological leadership? 
  2. Should our society in general look primarily to scholars and thinkers outside the academy for intellectual leadership? 

Or, more concisely: Where are the thinkers who always have “a living community before their eyes”? 

without principle

‘The Godfather of AI’ Quits Google and Warns of Danger Ahead:

Dr. Hinton said that when people used to ask him how he could work on technology that was potentially dangerous, he would paraphrase Robert Oppenheimer, who led the U.S. effort to build the atomic bomb: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it.”

He does not say that anymore. 

As someone who has been writing for some years now about what I call the Oppenheimer Principle, I find this moment piquant. 

But I was also troubled by President Biden’s Grandpa Joe moment when he wandered into a meeting between the Vice-President and the nation’s leading professional sociopaths and then asked those sociopaths to “educate us.” Ah well. It could be worse, and we all know how it could be worse. 

cosplaying Kingship

In a much-celebrated essay on King Lear, Stephen Greenblatt writes about theatrical costumes: 

During the Reformation Catholic clerical garments – the copes and albs and amices and stoles that were the glories of medieval textile crafts – were sold to the players. An actor in a history play taking the part of an English bishop could conceivably have worn the actual robes of the character he was representing. Far more than thrift is involved here. The transmigration of a single ecclesiastical cloak from the vestry to the wardrobe may stand as an emblem of the more complex and elusive institutional exchanges that are my subject: a sacred sign, designed to be displayed before a crowd of men and women, is emptied, made negotiable, traded from one institution to another. Such exchanges are rarely so tangible; they are not usually registered in inventories, not often sealed with a cash payment. Nonetheless they occur constantly, for through institutional negotiation and exchange differentiated expressive systems, distinct cultural discourses, are fashioned.

What happens when the piece of cloth is passed from the Church to the playhouse? A consecrated object is reclassified, assigned a cash value, transferred from a sacred to a profane setting, deemed suitable for the stage. The theater company is willing to pay for the object not because it contributes to naturalistic representation but because it still bears a symbolic value, however attenuated. On the bare Elizabethan stage costumes were particularly important – companies were willing to pay more for a good costume than for a good play – and that importance in turn reflected the culture’s fetishistic obsession with clothes as a mark of status and degree. 

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was a genuinely sacral occasion; the coronation of her son will be a theatrical one. The regalia of sacred Christian kingship has been sold to the players — because they, and their international television audience, are the only ones interested. 

But perhaps, through the scrim of spectacle and costume, some observers will catch a glimpse of what the whole business once meant, a brief vision of something I’ve written about occasionally here: the deep human longing for a righteous anointed King. 

P.S. This “deep human longing for a righteous anointed King” is central to my argument for anarchism. But an explanation of that will have to wait for another day.

P.P.S. After the ceremony: Some of my English friends are telling me that I was too cynical in the above. I hereby repent. 

Christine Emba:

This story idealized detachment, “liberation” from mutual care, ensuring that relationships never came before career goals. It looked like bringing a capitalist mindset into our interactions, making it normal to use, discard, and objectify other people. And as they often do, our rapacious markets and short-term desires won out.

My second question is: Cui bono? Whom did this new story serve? Who benefits from a world of consequence-free sex, weak ties, the putting off of childbearing and family? Today, the pharmaceutical and medical industries benefit, by selling decades-long prescriptions for contraceptives, and then various attempts at ART later on. Corporations and employers benefit: they gain a new labor force unsaddled by commitments to family, place, or other less-than-profitable concerns. 

(Intrinsic in Rethinking Sex’s critique of modern feminism’s dependence on contraception is a critique of the free-market values that many who would term themselves conservatives or reactionaries still—oddly to my mind—hold dear.) 

A thousand times Yes. See also my description of the three governing axioms of our dominant discourse about gender. And as Mary Harrington says, this dominant understanding, this metaphysical capitalism, “views ‘freedom’ as best served by reframing embodied men and women as atomized, de-sexed, fungible, and interchangeable ‘humans’ composed of disembodied ‘identity’ plus body parts that can be reordered at will, like meat LEGOs.” 

the Return of the King

I just finished teaching Susanna Clarke’s marvelous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and probably my favorite scene in that book comes in the third volume, at a moment when magic, after several hundred years of absence, is rapidly returning to England. Many think this portends the return of the greatest magician and greatest King in the history of Northern England, John Uskglass, the Raven King, who in the Middle Ages reigned for three hundred years before suddenly disappearing — and, it seems, taking the strength of English magic with him. As Mr. Norrell, his cynical companion Lascelles, and his manservant Childermass make their way from London to Yorkshire — the county of which Norrell and Childermass are natives, and to which Lascelles is a stranger — Lascelles declares that it might be time to launch a renewed attack, in a periodical for which he writes, on the Raven King, a new declaration of his pernicious influence. Then:

“If I were you, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass, softly, “I would speak more guardedly. You are in the north now. In John Uskglass’s own country. Our towns and cities and abbeys were built by him. Our laws were made by him. He is in our minds and hearts and speech. Were it summer you would see a carpet of tiny flowers beneath every hedgerow, of a bluish-white colour. We call them John’s Farthings. When the weather is contrary and we have warm weather in winter or it rains in summer the country people say that John Uskglass is in love again and neglects his business. And when we are sure of something we say it is as safe as a pebble in John Uskglass’s pocket.”

Lascelles laughed. “Far be it from me, Mr Childermass, to disparage your quaint country sayings. But surely it is one thing to pay lip-service to one’s history and quite another to talk of bringing back a King who numbered Lucifer himself among his allies and overlords? No one wants that, do they? I mean apart from a few Johannites and madmen?”

“I am a North Englishman, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass. “Nothing would please me better than that my King should come home. It is what I have wished for all my life.”

Among the most neglected biblical images  — neglected in comparison to its importance — is that of the Return of the King. When your King has gone on progress, or for some other reason has left the kingdom or left the capital city, then you patiently but attentively await his return. You look for his appearance on the horizon and while you are waiting, you prepare the way of the Lord. You make a highway for him in the wilderness; you make the crooked places straight and the rough places plain; and then when you see him in the distance, you come out to meet him and escort him home. That’s how it’s done.

A failure to understand this essential practice is the primary cause of the wholly mistaken idea of the Rapture. Paul tells the Thessalonian church: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The assumption of Rapture theology is that when believers go up to meet the Lord in the air, he immediately does a 180 and heads back to heaven, taking them with him. But that’s not what the text says, because it wouldn’t make any sense. Why would he come halfway between heaven and earth only in order to turn around? He could just summon them to heaven if that’s where they’re meant to be going. But the faithful, patient believers are not meeting the Lord in the air so that they can then go to heaven with Him. They’re meeting the Lord in the air so they can escort him into his Kingdom, what will become the New Earth, with its capital the New Jerusalem, where he shall reign for ever and ever.

It’s in response to this story that N. T. Wright wrote a delightful little essay, “Jesus Is Coming – Plant a Tree!” You plant a tree because every tree that you plant is a token of faith in the New Creation, and a means of preparing for the New Earth. Christians don’t often think that way because they assume that the idea of the New Creation means that everything that currently exists will simply be destroyed and then God will start all over from scratch. But that can’t be the case, because the first fruit of the New Creation is the resurrected Lord Himself, and His resurrected body bears upon it the marks of his crucifixion. Therefore his resurrection body is a glorified body, yes, but continuous with the body that was born into this world, and that left this world by means of crucifixion. Indeed, a different body might be glorious, but not glorified.

When you look at matters in that light, then, if you are a Christian, you have a very specific reason to practice repair. Every act of repair is a means of preparing the way of the Lord. Every act of repair is a preparation for and a contribution to the New Creation. Every act of repair is a step towards the renewal of this broken world. And that’s what God intends to do — make all things new, not simply erase them, not simply delete them and start over ab initio. Make them new.

P.S. If you understand this practice of greeting the returning King, then you will grasp what may be the most important element in the story of the Prodigal Son: the fact that when the disconsolate, dissolute, and broken young man decides to come home and beg to be no more than a slave in his father’s house, his father sees him a long way off – and comes running to greet him, to escort him home. The son thinks that his sins make him worthy to be no more than a slave, and that may be, in the world’s accounting, a sound judgment. But that’s not how the Kingdom of Heaven works. In the upside-down logic of the Kingdom of Heaven, a righteous father sees his self-ruined son – sees him from a long way off — and runs as a slave might run to greet his Lord, seeing the young man not as a debauched sinner to be judged and found wanting, but as a cherished and beloved one in whose honor a great feast must be held.

P.P.S. Only after posting this did I remember that, three years ago, I wrote about the same passage from Clarke, but in the context of what Jung might have called the Shadow — tragic or farcical, it’s hard to say which — of this longing for the King.

Greg Afinogenov:

Kropotkin’s understanding and appreciation of societies then regarded as primitive, from Africa to the Arctic, forms a striking contrast both to Social Darwinist racism and the historical developmentalism of traditional Marxism. It shares the Romantic impulse that drove his old populist comrades to lionise Russian peasant communities, but instead of fixating on the national particularity of rural Russia it takes in the whole human and natural world.

The last century of human history has dampened the appeal of Kropotkin’s optimism. The anarchist trade unions and co-operative movements that inspired him in his own time have lost much of their significance, and it would be hard for an outside observer to dispute Eric Hobsbawm’s claim that ‘the history of anarchism, almost alone among modern social movements, is one of unrelieved failure.’ 

Perhaps so; but its failures are different and less shameful than the failures of Marxism. There are many ways for a social movement to fail, and I prefer those that don’t result in the murder of tens of millions of human beings. 

a revaluation

Here is the great Takashi Shimura as Kambei Shimada, the leader of The Seven Samurai (1954):


A man to be reckoned with. A calm but unyielding and fearless leader of warriors. And here’s Shimura two years earlier, as the dying bureaucrat Mr. Watanabe in Ikiru — a timid man, a man so lifeless and dull that one of his co-workers nicknames him “the Mummy”:


He was also the kindly peasant woodcutter in Rashomon and the professor in the original Godzilla! Which is a pretty remarkable string of major roles, comparable perhaps to Harrison Ford’s run in the early 80s as Indiana Jones, Han Solo, and Rick Deckard. But Shimura’s sheer range is unmatched, I think. Even now, forty years after his death, we ought to be talking about what an astonishingly versatile actor Shimura was, compelling in every role.

But that’s just by-the-way. What I really want to talk about here is the filmmaker most closely associated with Shimura, the director of Rashomon and The Seven Samurai and Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa. (No, Kurosawa didn’t direct Godzilla, but if he had….) The argument I want to make here is that Kurosawa has experienced a fate that no one would have predicted of him fifty years ago: as a director, he is significantly underrated.

For many years, starting with the overwhelmingly delighted response to Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, Kurosawa was the Japanese film director — he eclipsed all others, at least in the eyes of Western audiences. (Indeed, you could make the case that The Seven Samurai is the most influential film ever made — even if you think only of how many movies have stolen its most obvious plot device, the let’s-assemble-the-gang first act. But the way Kurosawa films his action scenes, copied by filmmakers ever since, has been equally influential.) But this celebration of Kurosawa did nothing to elevate the status of other Japanese filmmakers, including the two who have a strong claim to be his superiors: Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. They only gradually made their way into the public consciousness.

One of the best film critics alive — one of the best ever —, David Thomson, has written that he has often been rather hard on Kurosawa precisely because he is annoyed that Kurosawa’s reputation has displaced Ozu and Mizoguchi, whom he thinks obviously the greater artists. But that was a mistake, for two reasons: first, because you cannot elevate the reputation of some by attacking the reputation of others — it just doesn’t work that way; and second, because it is not at all obvious (to me, anyway) that Kurosawa is a lesser filmmaker than Ozu and Mizoguchi.

I don’t say this carelessly. If I had to pick a Greatest Director, it would probably be either Ozu or Jean Renoir. But lately I have been thinking about this: Kurosawa is best known for his historical films, especially the ones focused on samurai culture, and yet Ikiru — a film set in 1950s Japan, in an urban setting, focusing on family and the workplace — in short, a film very like Ozu’s most famous ones, a perfect example of the shomin-geki — may well be Kurosawa’s masterpiece. And it is in every way worthy to be compared with Ozu’s transcendentally great Tokyo Story and Late Spring.

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That still could easily have been from Ikiru, though in fact it’s from Late Spring. The two films occupy much the same world.

To be sure, anyone who knows Ozu’s cinematic grammar would never for a moment think that Ikiru was one of his films. The camera is too mobile; the height of the shots too variable; the transitions too different. (Kurosawa frequently employs horizontal wipes to change scenes, something Ozu probably never did in any of his forty or more films.) Still, Ikiru and Ozu’s masterpieces of the same era are spiritually kin — closely kin; they tug at my heartstrings in very similar ways, with very similar effects. And if Kurosawa could make an Ozu-like film, Ozu could never in a million years have made The Seven Samurai.

So I’m on something of a Kurosawa kick right now, and re-evaluating his body of work. He’s much less subtle than Ozu and Mizoguchi … but subtlety isn’t everything. Sometimes the direct approach is the best. And rarely did any director make the direct approach more skillfully and compellingly than Kurosawa does.

Early chapter outline of True Grit using Portis’s original character names. (Copyright Charles M. Portis Estate. All rights reserved.)

Oklahoma and Muswell Hill

Here I’ve joined together two posts that I wrote a decade or so ago at The American Conservative (which has memory-holed most if not all I wrote for it). The first one: 

The Kinks’ “Come Dancing” (1982) is a bouncy, catchy, almost silly little song with one of the saddest back-stories I’ve ever heard.

Ray Davies, the leader and songwriter of the Kinks, grew up in a large and eccentric working-class family in north London. He was the seventh of eight children, a somewhat shy and easily frightened child whose chief comforter was his sister Rene, who was eighteen years older than him. During the Second World War, when Ray was just an infant, Rene had fallen in love with a Canadian soldier posted in London, married him, and moved to Canada.

But their marriage was unhappy. Rene’s husband drank heavily and sometimes beat her; they argued constantly, and to escape him she would frequently return to the family home in Muswell Hill for extended stays, at first alone, later with her son. Like all of the Davieses she was musical, and enjoyed playing show tunes on the piano; the family tended to sing and play its way through hard times, of which they had plenty.

Rene was making one of her visits home when her kid brother turned thirteen, which she believed to be a special birthday deserving of a special present: she bought him a Spanish guitar he had been coveting for some time. She sat at the piano and they played a song together.

That evening, Rene decided to go dancing with friends at the Lyceum Ballroom in the West End. This was not, in the opinion of her doctor or her mother, a good idea: Rene had had rheumatic fever as a child, and it had weakened her heart. But, as Ray would write later in his autobiography, she had always loved to dance, and her life was hard and her violent husband very far away; she was not inclined to deny herself a cherished pleasure. On the dance floor of the Lyceum that evening she collapsed and died, as the big band played a tune from Oklahoma!

Only a quarter-century later did Ray Davies write the lively song that celebrated his sister Rene’s love of dancing: a song that gave her a longer, and happier, life than had been her actual lot. Ever since I learned what lies behind this little song, it has touched me.

Come dancing,
Come on sister, have yourself a ball,
Dont be afraid to come dancing,
Its only natural.

Come dancing,
Just like the Palais on a Saturday,
And all her friends will come dancing
Where the big bands used to play.

And here’s the second post:

In the comments to my previous post on Ray Davies of The Kinks, one reader linked to a YouTube version of a lovely ballad called “Oklahoma U.S.A.” The kind person who made that video (which I’ve not linked to here) seems to be under the impression that the song is about Oklahoma, but it’s not: it’s about the romance of America for working-class Brits half-a-century ago, as they saw America on the movie screen.

That is, the song isn’t about Oklahoma but Oklahoma!, which Davies’s sister Rene especially loved — she was dancing to a song from that musical when she died. For people who lived in Muswell Hill — and the song comes from the Kinks’ album Muswell Hillbillies — images of Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae and the sound of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” offered a powerful alternative to the shabby workaday world they struggled through.

And yet the Muswell Hillbillies loved their place in the world. Rene repeatedly escaped from her unhappy marriage by returning to a home which, however shabby it may have been, gave her love and stability. It seems that for her there was something particularly consoling about hearing those American show tunes at the Lyceum Ballroom not far away, and playing them on the beaten-up old piano in her parents’ front parlor. And Ray Davies’s nostalgia for the world of his childhood is palpable throughout his music and well as in his autobiography.

I’m reminded here of several books by the remarkable English writer Richard Hoggart in which he celebrates his own urban working-class upbringing, in Leeds rather than London, and laments its displacement by an electrically-disseminated mass culture. But as he describes the place of singing in his upbringing — his community was intensely musical in much the same way that Davies’s family was — something odd emerges: these people weren’t singing English folk songs, but rather hit tunes they had heard on the wireless. He describes, for instance, the huge influence of Bing Crosby’s “crooning” style on the amateur singers in the local “workingmen’s clubs.”

There seems to have been a period, then, in England and I think in America too, when electrical technologies (primarily radio and movies) connected people with a larger world that shaped their dreams and aspirations — but without wholly disconnecting them from their local culture. Instead, it seems, they managed to incorporate those new and foreign songs into their local culture. Oklahoma! might show you some of the shortcomings of your world, but it didn’t necessarily make you hate it. There was a way to bring those distant beauties into your everyday life.

But perhaps this can only be done if you’re a creator and performer as well as a consumer. Davies’s sister Rene went to the movies, yes, but she also danced in the ballrooms and played piano with her brother. She made those songs her own by using her body and her voice, rather than merely observing the words and movements of others. Perhaps we have the power to incorporate mass culture into our lives — but not by just consuming it.

an unresizeable window

Does any society ever grow more tolerant? That is: Does acceptance of a position or a group hitherto untolerated ever come without the rejection of another position or group previously tolerated?

My suspicion is that the Overton window of any given place and time can’t be resized, it can only be moved. That is, there’s a politico-ethical equivalent of Dunbar’s number, a relatively fixed range of positions that at any one time can be accepted as potentially valid, or at least not-to-be-extirpated. Greater inclusion, if my suspicion is correct, never happens: an extension of toleration in one direction requires a constriction of toleration in the other, in order to avoid social chaos.

I’m sure I’m not the first to say this. But I think it’s important.

Christianity and … ?

This essay by Brad East is very smart, and takes the Christianity-and-culture conversation usefully beyond H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories. But I have one big question: What is “culture”?

Almost everyone who writes on this subject treats it as unproblematic, yet it is anything but. In the late 18th century Herder wrote of Cultur (the German spelling would only later become Kultur): “Nothing is more indeterminate than this word, and nothing more deceptive than its application to all nations and periods.”

I suspect that (a) when most people use the term they have only the haziest sense of what they mean by it, and (b) no two writers on this subject are likely to have a substantially similar understanding of it.

I certainly don’t believe Niebuhr had any clear idea at all what he meant by “culture”: though he devotes many pages to defining it, he also uses it interchangeably with both “civilization” and “society,” which is, I think, indefensible. And he writes things like this:

Culture is social tradition which must be conserved by painful struggle not so much against nonhuman natural forces as against revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason.

So “revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason” are not part of culture? Coulda fooled me. Brad says that Niebuhr’s book “stubbornly resists … dismissal,” but I — waving my elegantly manicured hand through the haze of smoke from my expensive cigar — I dismiss it. I think its influence has been wholly pernicious: it has confused and distracted.

Brad’s essay, for all its virtues, suffers from its reluctance to dismiss the eminently dismissable Niebuhr. He doesn’t straightforwardly say what he means by “culture,“ but he begins his essay thus: “Christendom is the name we give to Christian civilization, when society, culture, law, art, family, politics, and worship are saturated by the church’s influence and informed by its authority.” This suggests that culture is something distinct from the other items in the list, but if culture does not include “society, … law, art, family, politics, and worship” I’m not sure what’s left over for it to be.

In his still-magisterial book Keywords, Raymond Williams famously wrote that “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” And near the end of his entry on it, he writes,

Between languages as within a language, the range and complexity of sense and reference indicate both difference of intellectual position and some blurring or overlapping. These variations, of whatever kind, necessarily involve alternative views of the activities, relationships and processes which this complex word indicates. The complexity, that is to say, is not finally in the word but in the problems which its variations of use significantly indicate.

Indeed. That entry, along with Williams’s book Culture and Society: 1980-1950, ought to be the the starting points for any discourse (Christian or otherwise) about culture. Another helpful orienting element: the distinction between “private culture” and “public culture” that James Davison Hunter makes in Chapter 2 of Culture Wars.

A quotation from Hunter

Both public culture and, for lack of a better term, “private culture” can be understood as “spheres of symbolic activity,” that is, areas of human endeavor where symbols are created and adapted to human needs. At both levels, culture orders our experience, makes sense of our lives, gives us meaning. The very essence of the activity taking place in both realms — what makes both public and private culture possible — is “discourse” or conversation, the interaction of different voices, opinions, and perspectives. Yet, while public and private culture are similar in constitution, they are different in their function — one orders private life; the other orders public life.

If we can agree on some boundaries for this elusive concept we might be able to have a more profitable conversation. I’m trying here to start a conversation, not to conclude one, but I will just end with this: More often than not, when Christians oppose Christianity to or distinguish it from culture, what they mean by “culture” is what Foucault famously called the power-knowledge regime. And if that’s what you mean, that’s what you should say — because there is no form of Christian belief or practice that is not cultural through-and-through.

Reporting World War II

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This is the two-volume Library of America anthology of World War II journalism — reports sent back from the field, or written on the home front, tracking the war week by week — and these books have given me one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life. It has taken me a long time to get through them; sometimes after only twenty or thirty pages I had to set the book aside for a while, for a few days or a week, and return to it when my nerves had settled. 

That war is arguably (I want to say “surely”) the worst thing to have happened to humanity — any true account of it features horror after horror after horror; so much so that after a while you wonder whether you should be reading about it at all. Something James Agee wrote about watching documentary footage of the war — originally published in The Nation in March of 1945 and included in the second of these volumes — is compelling about its specific topic, but also about even reading these accounts of the nightmare: 

I am beginning to believe that, for all that may be said in favor of our seeing these terrible records of war, we have no business seeing this sort of experience except through our presence and participation…. Perhaps I can briefly suggest what I mean by this rough parallel: whatever other effects it may or may not have, pornography is invariably degrading to anyone who looks at or reads it. If at an incurable distance from participation, hopelessly incapable of reactions adequate to the event, we watch men killing each other, we may be quite as profoundly degrading ourselves and, in the process, betraying and separating ourselves the farther from those we are trying to identify ourselves with;  none the less because we tell ourselves sincerely that we sit in comfort and watch carnage in order to nurture our patriotism, our conscience, our understanding, and our sympathies. 

A necessary point powerfully put. Yet on balance I do think the war is worth reading about, if for no reason than to cure the reader of the sheer frivolity endemic to our current political discourse, especially the discourse of our politicians. Our political world is a room in which there are no grownups, and if it does nothing else reading these accounts will bring that fact quite forcibly home to you. But it also reminds us of — here I want to avoid the all-too-common phrase “what human beings are capable of,” because the real point to be noted is not what we can do but what so often we gleefully or determinedly do. What we seem hard-wired to do, and to do more effectually as the power of the nation-state (supported by its corporate allies) increases. But that’s a topic for another day. 

Some writers appear frequently here, and two stand out most vividly in my mind. The first is A. J. Liebling — after reading a few of his pieces I was so taken by their brilliance that I stopped reading them and bought the LoA volume devoted to his war writing. I’ll read that one straight through when I can. The other is Martha Gellhorn, who spent much of the war writing for Collier’s.

I’ll end here by quoting one passage in particular, in part because it reminds me that even in the midst of the horror there were dignity and grace and … something still more. In the immediate aftermath of D-Day Gellhorn, having been denied a press pass, disguised herself as a nurse and slipped onto the first hospital ship sent to gather and treat the wounded from the beaches of Normandy. Having been loaded with injured soldiers, Allied and German alike, the ship moved back into open water, headed for England. As the doctors (four of them), nurses (six), and orderlies (fourteen) worked desperately and nonstop to treat hundreds of men, German fighters swarmed overhead trying to kill them all. Gellhorn:  

The American medical personnel, most of whom had never been in an air raid, tranquilly continued their work, asked no questions, showed no sign even of interest in this uproar, and handed out confidence as if it were a solid thing like bread. If I seem to insist too much in my admiration for these people, understand that one cannot insist too much. There is a kind of devotion, coupled with competence, which is almost too admirable to talk about; and they had all of it that can be had. 


Over the last few days I have received several emails from Substack telling me that I have new subscribers. Wait … what? I don’t have a newsletter, and I have never commented on a Substack post. But it seems that my Substack profile is public, and I guess anyone who searches for my name will find me — and the newsletters I subscribe to. I had no idea. 

Now, it seems that I can choose which of my subscriptions to show on my profile — though the default is to show all of them, and you have to toggle that off one at a time — but there appears to be no way to make my entire profile private. I say “appears” because I cannot find a help document that addresses this issue, and Substack makes no email address available to those who need assistance for matters not covered on their help pages. 

All of this is really bad form, I think, so: account canceled. I might start a new account (with a different email address) to see if I can build in more privacy from the start, but I dunno … I’m getting closer and closer to an “open web or nothing” position. 

the spoils of victory

In his Apologeticus — written almost certainly in Carthage around 197 AD — Tertullian writes about the persecution suffered by Christians throughout the Roman Empire: 

If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves, who can suffer injury at our hands? In regard to this, recall your own experiences. How often you inflict gross cruelties on Christians, partly because it is your own inclination, and partly in obedience to the laws! How often, too, the hostile mob, paying no regard to you, takes the law into its own hand, and assails us with stones and flames! With the very frenzy of the Bacchanals, they do not even spare the Christian dead, but tear them, now sadly changed, no longer entire, from the rest of the tomb, from the asylum we might say of death, cutting them in pieces, rending them asunder. Yet, banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to, though, if it were held right among us to repay evil by evil, a single night with a torch or two could achieve an ample vengeance? But away with the idea of a sect divine avenging itself by human fires, or shrinking from the sufferings in which it is tried. If we desired, indeed, to act the part of open enemies, not merely of secret avengers, would there be any lacking in strength, whether of numbers or resources? The Moors, the Marcomanni, the Parthians themselves, or any single people, however great, inhabiting a distinct territory, and confined within its own boundaries, surpasses, forsooth, in numbers, one spread over all the world! We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you — cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum, — we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods…. Yet you choose to call us enemies of the human race, rather than of human error. Nay, who would deliver you from those secret foes, ever busy both destroying your souls and ruining your health? Who would save you, I mean, from the attacks of those spirits of evil, which without reward or hire we exorcise? This alone would be revenge enough for us, that you were henceforth left free to the possession of unclean spirits. But instead of taking into account what is due to us for the important protection we afford you, and though we are not merely no trouble to you, but in fact necessary to your well-being, you prefer to hold us enemies, as indeed we are, yet not of man, but rather of his error. 

It’s clear from the context that Christians were charged with being “enemies of the human race,” but no, Tertullian says, we wish only to offer a better understanding of our relationship to (and our alienation from) God. There are a great many of us, Tertullian says, and though “we are but of yesterday,” we’re everywhere in your society — except of course in the temples of your gods, whom we do not and will not worship — so if we were to rise up in violence you’d have a big problem on your hands. 

But we don’t rise up in violence. You persecute us, you torment us, you even kill us; and instead of answering violence with violence, we pray for you. We constantly intercede for you with God so that the demonic forces you (wittingly or unwittingly) invoke will not destroy you. The very strength you employ against us you possess because of our prayers for you. Sometimes it feels that all of you are our declared enemies; and if so, well, then, we must love all — for we are forbidden to hate our enemies and commanded to bless them. So be it. 

And your persecution in any event will not work: as Tertullian famously says elsewhere in his treatise, semen est sanguis Christianorum — the blood of Christians is seed. From it new spiritual life emerges. 

A great many American Christians these days want to “take back their country,” dominate their enemies, and then “enjoy the spoils of victory.” Tertullian shows us what the real spoils of victory look like. Who wants them?  

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Gregory Nazianzus: “Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with him; yesterday I died with him, today I am made alive with him; yesterday I was buried with him, today I rise with him. But let us make an offering to the one who died and rose again for us. Perhaps you think I am speaking of gold or silver or tapestries or transparent precious stones, earthly matter that is in flux and remains below, of which the greater part always belongs to evil people and slaves of things below and of the ruler of this world (John 14:30). Let us offer our own selves, the possession most precious to God and closest to him. Let us give back to the Image that which is according to the image, recognizing our value, honoring the Archetype, knowing the power of the mystery and for whom Christ died.” 

beyond daylight ethics

In a 1975 essay called “The Child and the Shadow,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote:

In many fantasy tales of the 19th and 20th centuries the tension between good and evil, light and dark, is drawn absolutely clearly, as a battle, the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other, cops and robbers, Christians and heathens, heroes and villains. In such fantasies I believe the author has tried to force reason to lead him where reason cannot go, and has abandoned the faithful and frightening guide he should have followed, the shadow. These are false fantasies, rationalized fantasies. They are not the real thing. Let me, by way of exhibiting the real thing, which is always much more interesting than the fake one, discuss The Lord of the Rings for a minute.

It’s a sweet little pivot that Le Guin executes in that paragraph’s last sentence, because many of her readers would have assumed that her critique included Tolkien – but no. She admits that “his good people tend to be entirely good, though with endearing frailties, while his Orcs and other villains are altogether nasty. But,” she continues, “all this is a judgment by daylight ethics, by conventional standards of virtue and vice. When you look at the story as a psychic journey, you see something quite different, and very strange.” Daylight ethics is insufficient to account for the greatness of The Lord of the Rings: it may in certain respects be “a simple story,” but “it is not simplistic. It is the kind of story that can be told only by one who has turned and faced his shadow and looked into the dark.” And: 

That it is told in the language of fantasy is not an accident, or because Tolkien was an escapist, or because he was writing for children. It is a fantasy because fantasy is the natural, the appropriate, language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul.

Which is why when she herself had a story like that to tell, she turned to fantasy.

In most respects, Earthsea is a radically different world than Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but that perhaps makes the correspondences all the more worth noting. As I was rereading The Farthest Shore recently it struck me how faithfully the journey of Ged and Arren to the Dry Land echoes the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mordor – down to the point that Ged’s helper Arren has to carry him for a brief period, in much the same way that Frodo is carried by Sam (though in Le Guin’s tale after the decisive moment rather than before).

That said, Le Guin has created a world in which the protagonist has a different kind of helper than Frodo does. The relationship between Frodo and Sam is that of master and servant – as Sam’s deferential language continually reminds us – but the young man who accompanies Ged to the Dry Land is not a servant at all. He is a prince, soon to be a king, and had been shocked to learn just after meeting Ged that this Archmage, this titan among wizards, had been in his childhood a goatherd on a distant dirty island. But he is much younger and less experienced than Ged, and Ged is, after all, a mage, which Arren is not. So matters of status are very much in question here. Ged takes upon himself the burden of teaching Arren, assumes an authority over him in certain respects, an authority that Arren sometimes accepts and sometimes resents. Their relationship is much more complex than that of Frodo and Sam; it is constantly in negotiation.

What is Le Guin doing with this acknowledgement of and then swerving from the Tolkienian model? Well, I think this is very closely related to her fascination with Daoism, and illuminates certain contrasts between Confucianism and Taoism – especially as regards the purpose of education. Among other things, Confucianism is a way of breeding rulers. It emphasizes righteousness (yi 義) as a key virtue – but especially for rulers. (See this overview by Mark Csikszentmihalyi.) The practice of yi is essential to legitimizing and consolidating political authority – and this is why the famous Imperial Examination, used to identify candidates for civil service, was so deeply grounded in the neo-Confucian classics.

By contrast, Daoism does not make governors but rather sages, and the Daoist sage has no interest in ruling. If the key virtue of the Confucian ruler is righteousness, the key virtue of the Daoist sage is inaction: wuwei. And this is the virtue that Ged, knowing who Arren will become, tries to teach him. That is, Ged believes that even for a king righteousness sometimes may be inadequate. He says to Arren,

“It is much easier for men to act than to refrain from acting. We will continue to do good and to do evil. … But if there were a king over us all again and he sought counsel of a mage, as in the days of old, and I were that mage, I would say to him: My lord, do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.”

Ged is preparing Arren not for kingship as it is typically understood – the “daylight ethics” of Confucianism would be adequate for that – but rather the the possibility of a “psychic journey,” a spiritual challenge.

When in the Dry Land they meet the undead mage who goes by the name of Cob, they are encountering one whose path to power, and to great evil, had years earlier been opened for him by Ged. That opening was quite inadvertent, to be sure: Ged wished to act righteously in disciplining Cob, who had dabbled in necromancy, but his actions – driven in part, he admits, by his pride, his desire to demonstrate his greater power – had precisely the opposite effect than he had intended. Cob became more, not less, obsessed with necromancy and the conquest of death. (He is in some ways the proto-Voldemort, a would-be Death Eater.) Ged acted thus because he thought it “righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so”; but it was not what he had to do, and it could have been done in some other way, some less humiliating and degrading way. The problem with action, as Daoism teaches and as Ged tries to teach Arren, is that it always, always, has unexpected consequences, often profoundly unwelcome ones. 

To their final confrontation with Cob Arren brings an instrument appropriate to a ruler and a warrior: a sword. Again and again he strikes Cob, severing his spinal cord, splitting his skull … but Cob simply reassembles himself. “There is no good in killing a dead man.” Ged, by contrast, brings but “one word” that stills Arren and Cob alike. (We do not hear the one word is, but Ged says that it is “the word that will not be spoken until time’s end.”)

And then what Ged must do – must do, and cannot do in any other way – is to pour out all his own magical power, leaving nothing inside, not to inflict a wound but to close one; not to sever but to knit together. Cob had made a gap in the cosmos through which Death entered the world of the living; and that could be healed not by a Confucian king but by a Daoist sage.

But something a little, or a lot, more than a Daoist sage: here, I think, the guiding shape of Tolkien’s story takes Le Guin a step beyond what Daoism can envisage. Like Frodo, Ged undertakes a kenosis, a self-emptying; except that what Frodo cannot do without the intervention of his Shadow, Ged completes. “It is done,” he says. It is finished. And when Arren takes up his crown, he knows that he owes it to Ged; the same knowledge leads Aragorn to kneel before Frodo.  

Near the novel’s end, the Doorkeeper of Roke says of Ged, “He is done with doing. He goes home.” And still later Ged will wonder why he outlived his magic. Which raises the question: What happens after “it is finished”? There, I think, our three stories diverge.

P.S. re: where a story can take a writer

Le Guin, from her Afterword to The Farthest Shore: “It would be lovely if writing a story was like getting into a little boat that drifted off and took me to the promised land, or climbing on a dragon’s back and flying off to Selidor. But it’s only as a reader that I can do that. As a writer, to take full responsibility without claiming total control requires a lot of work, a lot of groping and testing, flexibility, caution, watchfulness. I have no chart to follow, so I have to be constantly alert. The boat needs steering. There have to be long conversations with the dragon I ride. But however watchful and aware I am, I know I can never be fully aware of the currents that carry the boat, of where the winds beneath the dragon’s wings are blowing.”

the Oppenheimer Principle revisited

Eight years ago, I wrote about a dominant and pernicious ideology that features two components: 

Component one: that we are living in a administrative regime built on technocratic rationality whose Prime Directive is, unlike the one in the Star Trek universe, one of empowerment rather than restraint. I call it the Oppenheimer Principle, because when the physicist Robert Oppenheimer was having his security clearance re-examined during the McCarthy era, he commented, in response to a question about his motives, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

The topic of that essay was the prosthetic reconstruction of bodies and certain incoherent justifications thereof, so I went on: “We change bodies and restructure child-rearing practices not because all such phenomena are socially constructed but because we can — because it’s ‘technically sweet.’” Then:

My use of the word “we” in that last sentence leads to component two of the ideology under scrutiny here: Those who look forward to a future of increasing technological manipulation of human beings, and of other biological organisms, always imagine themselves as the Controllers, not the controlled; they always identify with the position of power. And so they forget evolutionary history, they forget biology, they forget the disasters that can come from following the Oppenheimer Principle — they forget everything that might serve to remind them of constraints on the power they have … or fondly imagine they have.

In light of current debates about the development of AI – debates that have become more heated in the wake of an open letter pleading with AI researchers to pause their experiments and take some time to think about the implications – the power of the Oppenheimer Principle has become more evident than ever. And it’s important, I think, to understand what in this context is making it so powerful.

Before I go any further, let me note that the term Artificial Intelligence may cover a very broad range of endeavors. Here I am discussing a recently emergent wing of the overall AI enterprise, the wing devoted to imitating or counterfeiting actions that most human beings think of as distinctively human: conversation, image-making (through drawing, painting, or photography), and music-making.

I think what’s happening in the development of these counterfeits – and in the resistance to asking hard questions about them – is the Silicon Valley version of what the great economist Thorstein Veblen called “trained incapacity.” As Robert K. Merton explains in a famous essay on “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality,” Veblen’s phrase describes a phenomenon identified also by John Dewey – though Dewey called it “occupational psychosis” – and by Daniel Warnotte – though Warnotte called it “Déformation professionnelle.” It is curious that this same phenomenon gets described repeatedly by our major social scientists; that suggests that it is a powerful and widespread phenomenon indeed. 

Peggy Noonan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal of the leaders of the major Silicon Valley companies,

I am sure that as individuals they have their own private ethical commitments, their own faiths perhaps. Surely as human beings they have consciences, but consciences have to be formed by something, shaped and made mature. It’s never been clear to me from their actions what shaped theirs. I have come to see them the past 40 years as, speaking generally, morally and ethically shallow—uniquely self-seeking and not at all preoccupied with potential harms done to others through their decisions. Also some are sociopaths.

I want to make a stronger argument: that the distinctive “occupational psychosis” of Silicon Valley is sociopathy – the kind of sociopathy embedded in the Oppenheimer Principle. The people in charge at Google and Meta and (outside Silicon Valley) Microsoft, and at the less well-known companies that are being used by the mega-companies, have been deformed by their profession in ways that prevent them from perceiving, acknowledging, and acting responsibly in relation to the consequences of their research. They have a trained incapacity to think morally. They are by virtue of their narrowly technical education and the strong incentives of their profession moral idiots.

The ignorance of the technocratic moral idiot is exemplified by Sam Altman of OpenAI – an increasingly typical Silicon Valley type, with a thin veneer of moral self-congratulation imperfectly obscuring a thick layer of obedience to perverse incentives. “If you’re making AI, it is potentially very good, potentially very terrible,” but “The way to get it right is to have people engage with it, explore these systems, study them, to learn how to make them safe.” He can’t even imagine that “the way to get it right” might be not to do it at all. (See Scott Alexander on the Safe Uncertainty Fallacy: We have absolutely no idea what will result from this technological development, therefore everything will be fine.) The Oppenheimer Principle trumps all.

These people aren’t going to fix themselves. As Jonathan Haidt (among others) has often pointed out – e.g. here – the big social media companies know just how much damage their platforms are doing, especially to teenage girls, but they do not care. As Justin E. H. Smith has noted, social media platforms are “inhuman by design,” and some of the big companies are tearing off the fig leaf by dissolving their ethics teams. Deepfakes featuring Donald Trump or the Pope are totally cool, but Chairman Xi gets a free pass, because … well, just follow the money.

Decisions about these matters have to be taken out of the hands of avaricious professionally-deformed sociopaths. And that’s why lawsuits like this one matter. 


“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”


As many of my readers will know, I am continually fiddling around with my online presence, to such a degree that I try my own patience. The one element that’s fixed is my newsletter, which (IMHO) has a clear identity and purpose. I always know when something I’ve come across will be a fit for the newsletter. 

Deciding how to use my micro.blog page has been a bit more of a challenge, but in recent months I have settled on what strikes me as a good approach: It’s a kind of journal, with photos and links to what I’m reading and listening to. And that’s all. 

Everything else goes here — but what should that “everything else” be? As I’ve been mulling this over, I’ve come to two conclusions: 

  1. I share too much nasty stuff. I’ve become like those Geico raccoons: “This is terrible, you gotta try it.” No more of that. You can find plenty to alarm and disgust you elsewhere. I need to remember my own tagline for this blog. That doesn’t mean that I won’t write about unpleasant topics, but … 
  2. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, the stuff I share — if it’s worth sharing at all — needs more commentary than I typically give it. So I’m going to try to post less often but in more detail. Maybe only a couple of posts per week, but I want them to be more like essays that offhand comments. 

Let’s see how well I keep my resolutions! 

UPDATE: A reader has rightly questioned my comment about “nasty stuff.” Not the best phrase for what I mean, which is “current events that call for critique or denunciation.” So many people are already in the critique-and-denunciation game, I don’t need to add to their number. (That said, my next major post will be, um, a critique and denunciation. Oh well.) 

Teens on screens: Life online for children and young adults revealed – Ofcom:

This year also saw the rise of ‘split-screening’. Split-screen social media posts allow children to watch more than one short-form video simultaneously, on a single-screen, side-by-side or stacked on top of one another. This appears to be a progression of the ‘multi-screening’ behaviours seen in previous research waves, where children reported difficulties focusing on one screen-based activity at a time. 

Distinctions needed here: There is a difference between genuinely watching “more than one short-form video simultaneously” and merely having more than one short-form video on one’s screen at a given time. I seriously doubt that it is possible for any human being to watch two videos at the same time; the best we can do, I suspect, is to switch rapidly between two videos, and a good deal of research indicates that we’re not good at doing even that. Every time our attention switches to one information source we cease to attend to the other. 

Freddie deBoer:

This is a very basic point, but I find that it’s consistently under-discussed: to close achievement gaps like the racial achievement gap, not only must Black and Hispanic students learn more, white and Asian students must learn less than they do. Closing any gap has to entail the poorly-performing students not just learning but learning at a sufficiently faster pace than the high-performing students that the gap closes. This is not a minor point! American students of all races have been improving over time. But gaps have persisted because… students of all races have been improving over time. As long as white and Asian students learn as much as Black and Hispanic, the gap cannot close. This is so obvious it feels like it should go without saying, but the point is frequently obscured, for a couple of reasons. First, because “every kid can learn” is a more pleasing and simplistic narrative than “kids from disadvantaged subpopulations can not only learn but can learn sufficiently to close large gaps against competitors who are still learning more themselves.” Second, because the problem suggests a solution that is politically untenable, to put it mildly — to close gaps, we need to prevent the students who are ahead from learning at all. 

I think there are a great many people on the so-called left who would be glad to accept that deal. Close the gap by any means necessary. There’s no necessary connection between wanting equality of outcomes and wanting better outcomes. 

my proposed law

“Any online platform and/or application that delivers content to users may deliver only content explicitly requested by said users.” 

That’s it. No algorithms, no autoplay, no “You may also like,” no “Up next.” Only what human beings (AKA “consumers”) choose. Now you don’t have to ban TikTok, and you will reduce the power that Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social-media platforms have over the minds and emotions of their users. It will even reduce, though not eliminate, the ability of Spotify and other streaming platforms to ruin music. 

(I’m sure many other people have made this suggestion.) 

libraries vs. publishers

Dan Cohen:

Libraries have dramatically increased their spending on e-books but still cannot come close to meeting demand, which unsurprisingly rose during the pandemic. Because publishers view each circulation of a library e-book as a potential missed sale, they have little incentive to reduce costs for libraries or make it easier for libraries to lend digital copies.

All digital transitions have had losers, some of whom we may care about more than others. Musicians seem to have a raw deal in the streaming age, receiving fractions of pennies for streams when they used to get dollars for the sales of physical media. Countless regional newspapers went out of business in the move to the web and the disappearance of lucrative classified advertising. The question before society, with even a partial transition to digital books, is: Do we want libraries to be the losers? 

The answer certainly appears to be Yes. But, as Dan writes later in the essay, 

libraries are where the love of reading is inculcated, and hurting libraries diminishes the growth of new readers, which in turn may reverse the recent upward trend in book sales. This will be particularly true for communities with fewer resources to devote to equitable access. Ultimately, we should all seek to maximize the availability of books, through as many reasonable methods as we can find. The library patron who is today checking out an e-book, or a digitized book through Controlled Digital Lending — should the practice be upheld on appeal — will be the enthusiastic customer at the bookstore tomorrow. 

Dan does’t emphasize this point in his essay, but one of the fruits of the last few decades’ Merger Madness in publishing is that the industry — a telling word, that — is now controlled by international mega-conglomerates who have the financial muscle to bring massive legal pressure to bear against libraries, whom they obviously consider their enemies. And then when our political representatives try to take action to protect libraries and readers, that same financial muscle is used to throw angry lobbyists at those representatives. Nice elected office you have there, shame if something happened to it.

Whatever forces are arrayed against libraries are also arrayed against readers. But publishing conglomerates don’t care about readers; they only care about customers. If they had their way reading would be 100% digital, because they continue to own and have complete control over digital books, which cannot therefore be sold or given to others. They are the enemies of circulation in all its forms, and circulation is the lifeblood of reading. 

beseball revisited

Five years ago I wrote about giving up on baseball — after a lifetime of fandom. Should the new pitch clock bring me back? I’m not sure it will. A speedier game — which is to say, a return to the pace of the past — will certainly be an improvement, but it won’t change the fact that running has largely disappeared from baseball, as pitchers go for strikeouts and batters are happy to oblige them if they can just increase their chances of hitting dingers. It’s a very static game now, and that seems unlikely to change. 


Lorna Finlayson · Diary: Everyone Hates Marking:

Students want – or think they want – more and faster feedback. So tutors write more and more, faster and faster, producing paragraph on paragraph that students, in moments of sheepish honesty, sometimes admit they don’t read. However infuriating, it’s understandable. This material is far from our best work. Much of it is vague, rushed or cribbed. In order to bridge the gap between staff capacity and student ‘demand’, some universities are outsourcing basic feedback to private providers. One company, Studiosity, lists thirty institutions among its ‘partners’, including Birkbeck and SOAS.

Managers often seem to assume that marking is a quasi-mechanical process whereby students are told what is good and bad about their work, and what they need to do to improve. But students don’t improve by being told how to improve, any more than a person learns to ride a bicycle by being told what to do – keep steady, don’t fall off. There’s a role for verbal feedback, but the main way that learning happens is through practice: long, supported, unhurried practice, opportunities for which are limited in the contemporary university. 

Of course universities are going to outsource commentary on essays to AI — just as students will outsource the writing of essays to AI. And maybe that’s a good thing! Let the AI do the bullshit work and we students and teachers can get about the business of learning. It’ll be like that moment in The Wrong Trousers when Wallace ties Gromit’s leash to the Technotrousers, to automate Gromit’s daily walk. Gromit merely removes his collar and leash, attaches them to a toy dog on a wheeled cart, and plays in the playground while the Technotrousers march about. 

Let the automated system of papers and grading march mindlessly; meanwhile, my students and I are are gonna play on the slide. 

If an AI can write it, and an AI can read it and respond to it, then does it need to be done at all? 

The Decline of Liberal Arts and Humanities – WSJ:

The liberal arts are dead. The number of students majoring in liberal arts has fallen precipitously with data from the National Center for Education Statistics showing the number of graduates in the humanities declined by 29.6% from 2012 to 2020. This decline has worsened in the years since. Notre Dame has seen 50% fewer graduates in the humanities over the same period, while other schools have made headlines recently for cutting liberal-arts majors and minors including Marymount University and St. John’s University. The shuttering of liberal-arts programs has even led to Catholic colleges and universities ending theology programs. 

That’s Danielle Zito, one of several participants in this conversation. I’ll just say once more what I always say: The liberal arts, and the humanities, do not live only or even primarily in universities. They can, and they do, flourish elsewhere, among people who ain’t got time for academic bullshit. 


Forthcoming from my friend and colleague Philip Jenkins. A kind of intro or overview here. I’m excited that this is coming. 

Fear of a Female Body – Jill Filipovic:

I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are “deeply problematic” or event violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life — to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean — are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response. That isn’t to say that people who experience victimization or trauma should just muscle through it, or that any individual can bootstraps their way into wellbeing. It is to say, though, that in some circumstances, it is a choice to process feelings of discomfort or even offense through the language of deep emotional, spiritual, or even physical wound, and choosing to do so may make you worse off. Leaning into the language of “harm” creates and reinforces feelings of harm, and while using that language may give a person some short-term power in progressive spaces, it’s pretty bad for most people’s long-term ability to regulate their emotions, to manage inevitable adversity, and to navigate a complicated world. 

Two thoughts about this: 

Cf. Matt Yglesias’s comment: “Our educational institutions have increasingly created an environment where students are objectively incentivized to cultivate their own fragility as a power move.” This is especially true in elite institutions, and I wonder if we are approaching the point — think for instance about the recent behavior of students at Stanford’s law school — at which some organizations will begin to see a degree from an elite institution as prima facie evidence of unemployability. 

I also wonder if some on the left are beginning to perceive the problem with this power move of claiming “harm” now that — as in the situation Filipovic is commenting on — religious and social conservatives are learning how to use the same language. It’s like that moment in the Harry Potter books when Cornelius Fudge has to explain to the Prime Minister that both sides in the wizarding war can use magic. 

Zena Hitz:

The traditional monastic rule against particular friendship is the great bogeyman of the cinematic representation of religious life. Who can forget, once seen, the dreadful episode in The Nun’s Story (1959), where the nun befriended by the protagonist confesses their attachment in the chapter of faults, and both are asked to scrub the floor in atonement?  

[Dumb comment deleted. I misread this! I am so accustomed now to seeing singular “they” and “their” that I read it here when it didn’t exist. It’s not “the nun’s attachment” but “the attachment of the two women.” Duh. I do think, though, that while this certainly bears witness to my dim-wittedness it also bears witness to the ways that the overuse of singular “they” and “their” — overuse, I say, because it’s perfectly appropriate in many circumstances and always has been — sows confusion among readers.] 


Description of the first-year seminar I’ll be teaching in the fall. 

RETRO: How and Why the Past Comes Back

In this course we will explore retro culture – our persistent tendency to become infatuated with cultural modes and artifacts of the past, often in ways that idealize that past. We’ll look at retro movements in music, movies, television, gaming, fashion, and especially technology – because using technologies from the past is one of the most common ways we express our fascination with it. We’ll explore the phenomenon of nostalgia. And we’ll try to understand how retro culture differs from the preservation of a living past – a past that still thrives in the present.

Readings for this class will be in the form of PDFs that you will be asked to download and print out; you will sometimes be asked to watch videos and listen to music; and we will bring objects to class that in some way exemplify retro culture.

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

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

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

The Jellyfish Tribe – by Paul Kingsnorth:

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

just purchased

IMG 1901

IMG 1902

IMG 1903

IMG 1904

An excellent find, in excellent condition, and for eight bucks! Also a neat little window into classical music culture ca. 1972. 

humanism renewed

I often see quoted a line by Carl Schmitt:

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

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

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

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

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

Stanford Law School Dean Jenny S. Martinez

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

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

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

Caprock Bison release MG 1243A opti

Bison at Caprock Canyons State Park in the Texas panhandle, which I visited a couple of weeks ago. With that experience in mind I was glad to see this essay: “The Return of the Bison.” And yes, though you may not be able to see them in that photo above, there really are canyons at Caprock Canyons: 

IMG 1613

the arbiters

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

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

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

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

as it must to all men…

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

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

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

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

Brewster Kahle, Internet Archive:

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