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unforeseen consequences

Another follow-up on my baseball post. I’m getting two kinds of feedback: (a) you’re a moron, sabermetrics is awesome, and (b) you’re absolutely right, sabermetrics is terrible.

Let me emphasize a point that I think is perfectly clear in the piece itself: I love sabermetrics. I started reading Bill James in, I think, 1981; I have written fan letters to him, Rob Neyer, and (later) Voros McCracken (for heaven’s sake); when James came up with the earliest serious attempt to evaluate fielding, Range Factor, I spent countless hours that should have been devoted to my doctoral dissertation trying to improve it — using (by the way) pencil, paper, and a TI SR-50 calculator. I was pontificating about the uselessness of assigning wins and losses to pitchers when Brian Kenny was scarcely a gleam in his father’s eye. If in those days one of those sabermetricians had offered me a job as an assistant, I would’ve dropped out of grad school in an instant.

So in many ways it has been enormously gratifying to me to see the undoubted insights and revelations of serious statistical study make their way into the practices of professional baseball. But such changes have had some unforeseen consequences, and my post was largely about those.

This, by the way, is what those of us with a conservative disposition are supposed to do: When everyone else is running to embrace some new exciting opportunity, we warn that there will be unforeseen consequences; and then, when we have been (as we always are) ignored, we help conduct the postmortem and point out what those consequences actually were. (I was, needless to say, not allowing my conservative side to have a voice when I was so absorbed in sabermetrics — but that was because I never for one second imagined that people running professional baseball organizations would pay attention.)

Now, we might actually like the new opportunity. We might think that on balance it’s worthy to be pursued. So we don’t necessarily stand athwart history shouting Stop. We might instead stand judiciously to the side and quietly ask Do you know what you’re getting into? Because there will be trade-offs. There are always trade-offs.

suffering and not triumph

Are we then to deduce that we should forget God, lay down our tools, and serve men in the Church – as though there were no Gospel? No, the right conclusion is that, remembering God, we should use our tools, proclaim the Gospel, and submit to the Church, because it is conformed to the kingdom of God. We must not, because we are fully aware of the internal opposition between the Gospel and the Church, hold ourselves aloof from the Church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility, and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it. — I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Ghost, that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart. This is the attitude to the Church engendered by the Gospel. He who hears the gospel and proclaims it does not observe the Church from outside. He neither misunderstands it and rejects it, nor understands it and – sympathizes with it. He belongs personally within the Church. But he knows also that the Church means suffering and not triumph.

— Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

The Event

An eye-opening post from Douglas Rushkoff, describing what happened when he was asked to give a talk about “the future of technology” — and ended up instead being peppered with questions by five high-powered hedge-fund managers:

They had come with questions of their own. They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern.

Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

What a world we live in.

Trollope and Brexit

Trollope’s Phineas Redux, like the other Palliser novels, has a domestic plot and a political plot, and the political plot here spins out from the decision by Mr. Daubeny, the Prime Minister, to come up with a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England. (Daubeny is a stand-in for Benjamin Disraeli, who never did anything quite like this. But we’ll set aside the real-life correspondences for this post.) This a curious, indeed a shocking, decision because Daubeny is a Conservative, and the Conservative Party in the Victorian era was very much the party of the Church. How could be betray the very heart of his constituency this way?

The answer is that in the recent election his party lost their majority, and in ordinary circumstances it would be incumbent on him to resign. So he creates extraordinary circumstances. His idea, it appears — we are not privileged to know his mind — is that most of his own party will stand with him as a matter of disciplinary obedience, while the many Liberals who have long wanted disestablishment will vote with him across party lines. Thus, on the basis of this single bill-to-come — he hasn’t produced it yet, only announced his plan to — Daubeny can remain in his place as P.M.

Some Liberals are willing to join Daubeny; some, following their leader Mr. Gresham (= Gladstone), are determined to oppose him; some are uncertain. Those uncertain ones want to see the Church disestablished — and, by the way, not necessarily because they dislike the Church: some of the most devoted churchmen in England have long wanted disestablishment in order to free the Church to preach and teach the Gospel without political interference — but they do not believe that Daubeny would do the job properly. They suspect that anyone capable of acting as cynically as Daubeny does cannot possibly carry through the process of disestablishment in a competent and appropriate way.

All of which puts me in mind of Brexit. As a strong proponent of subsidiarity, I am temperamentally disposed to welcome any effort at devolution. I’d love to see Britain freed from accountability to Brussels — and, for that matter, Scotland freed from accountability to England. (I’m even open to the restoration of the Republic of Texas — but that’s a story for another post.) I will always seek to move in the direction of localism and will always be suspicious of institutional cosmopolitanism. I am therefore supportive of Brexit in principle.

But a Brexit designed and managed by these people? I don’t think so. They are more cynical than Mr. Daubeny and less — far less — competent. It’s a feeling I often have with the Trump administration as well: even on those relatively rare occasions when I think they have a good policy in mind, I simply don’t believe that they can carry out that policy honestly, fairly, and successfully. In politics, principle is important; but good principles can produce political disasters when implemented by buffoons.

Boxes

Peter Tarka, Boxes; via Things Magazine

the blog garden

My friend Dan Cohen recently wrote,

Think about the difference between a blog post and a book: one can be tossed off in an afternoon at a coffee shop, while the other generally requires years of thought and careful writing. Not all books are perfect — far from it — but at least authors have to wrestle with their subject matter more rigorously than in any other context, look at what others have written in their area, and situate their writing within that network of thought and research.

This is absolutely true — as I know from long experience with both genres. But what if there’s a more enlightening comparison? What if, instead of comparing a book to a blog post, you compared it to a blog? If a bog post is too small to compare to a book, a blog might be too big — keep on blogging long enough and you can have enough words to fill several books. If that’s the case, then one might find it interesting to compare a book to, say, a particular tag on a long-standing blog.

An example: For some time now I’ve been thinking of writing a book about John Ruskin. And I still might. But I’ve been led to consider such a book by gradually gathering drawings and quotes by Ruskin on this blog (there are also a few Ruskin entries at Text Patterns). Suppose that, instead of architecturally writing that book, I simply contented cultivating my Ruskin garden? (See this post for the architecture/gardening distinction.) More images and more quotations, more reflection on those images and quotations. What might emerge?

Well, certainly nothing that any scholar would cite. (How would that even be done? All the handbooks to scholarly documentation are still struggling with how to cite websites and individual articles — citing tags is not even on their radar, I suspect.) But I would certainly learn a lot about Ruskin; and perhaps the sympathetic reader would also.

In some ways this would be a return to what I did a few years ago with my Gospel of the Trees site, which arose because what I wanted to say about trees just couldn’t be made to fit into a book, in part because it refused to become a linear narrative or argument and in part because it was so image-dependent and book publishers don’t like the cost of that. But the advantage of a tag over a standalone site is that each post can have other tags as well, which lead down other paths of reflection and information, in a Zettelkasten sort of way.

My friend Robin Sloan tweeted the other day — I’m not linking to it because Robin always deletes his tweets after a few days — that, despite the many calls these days to return to the good old days of Weird Indie Blogging, there are still plenty of charmingly weird things being posted on the Big Media sites, especially YouTube. Point taken: no doubt this is true. But for my purposes the problem with the Big Media sites is the absolute control they have over association: you don’t decide what is related to your post/video/audio, they do. “If you liked this you may also like….” A well-thought-out tagging system on a single blog creates chains of associated ideas, with the logic of association governed by a single mind (or in the case of a group blog, a set of intentionally connected minds). And such chains are powerful generators of intellectual and aesthetic value.

I really do think that the Back to the Blog movement, if we can call it a movement, is so timely and so important not only because we need to, as I have put it, tend the digital commons, but also because we were just beginning to figure out what blogs could do when their development was pre-empted by the rise of the big social media platforms. Given the accelerated pace at which our digital platforms have been moving in recent years, blogs may best be seen as an old, established, and now neglected technology.

I think it was also Robin Sloan who recently directed my attention to this Wikipedia page on the late Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi, who promoted what he called “Lateral Thinking with Seasoned Technology”: finding new and unexpected uses for technologies that have been around for a while and therefore (a) have clear patterns of use that you can rely on even when deviating from them, and (b) have decreased in price. Nintendo’s Wii system is the classic example in the gaming world of this way of thinking: some of us will remember that when the Wii was introduced critics were flabbergasted by its reliance on previous-generation processors with their limited graphics capabilities, and were certain that the console would be a total flop. Instead, everyone loved it.

Blogging, I want to argue, is a seasoned technology that is ripe for lateral thinking. The question for me, as I suggested in my previous post, is whether I am willing to set aside the conventional standards and expectations of my profession in order to pursue that lateral thinking — in order, that is, to give up practicing architecture and going in for a good deal of gardening.

new uses for old blogs

More ideas about ideas: Given my current interest in intellectual gardening rather than architecture, in allowing ideas to emerge rather than trying to generate them by a brute-force attack, I am reconsidering the way I have historically used my blogs, and wondering whether there’s not a better path to intellectual substance than the one I’ve been following.

This has been my M.O. going back to the relatively early days of Text Patterns, when I was working on The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction: Use the blog to generate and try out ideas, get feedback from readers, develop the ideas a little further … and then put on the brakes. But why did I put on the brakes? Because I knew that I was getting close to the point at which there would be so much of the book’s contents online that a publisher wouldn’t want to buy it. And so the idea-generating stage of the project would effectively come to an end.

Not altogether, of course; I could still write in notebooks or sketch ideas or whatever. But two things were missing: the felt need in writing a public post to achieve at least some minimal level of coherence, and the feedback from readers. Moreover, when you’ve been generating ideas using a particular method and then are forced to switch to another one, you tend to lose momentum. So effectively I found myself working with the ideas that I had generated to that point in the project — even when I didn’t feel that I had explored my chosen topics as thoroughly as I would have liked. And this happened more than once, most recently with my idea for a book on what I called Anthropocene theology.

So in these situations the limits and boundaries of my projects are set, not by the inner logic and impetus of those projects, but by the preferences of the publishing industry. But that’s a superficial take. Why, after all, should I allow the publishing industry to set those boundaries? Because in my line of work the highest-denomination currency is the book. I have my current job because of publishing books — Baylor simply would not have sought me out and hired me had I not been able to list several books on my CV.

Put it this way: If I had never blogged a single word I would have precisely the same job I have now; if I had blogged millions of words without publishing books I would not have a job.

But, you may say, at this point in my career why don’t I just do what I want? I have tenure; I have no administrative ambitions (indeed, just the reverse); I am a Distinguished Professor and there’s no such thing as an Extremely Distinguished Professor or Sun-God Professor. If I am feeling the demands of the publishing world as a heavy yoke why not just throw it off?

Well, I might. But I hesitate for two reasons, or maybe it’s one reason with two parts.

  1. My profession has never figured out what to do with online writing, except for a few peer-reviewed online journals. It is still devoted to finished products — and vetted products too, despite the manifest problems with peer review. Scholars will cite a dozen mediocre peer-reviewed published papers before they’ll cite even the most brilliant blog post.
  2. And working to the established standards of my profession is, as I have noted, what got me my current position, so that I can’t help feeling that if I were to strike out into unfamiliar writing territory I wouldn’t be keeping the implicit contract I made when I took this job.

So if I were to do the thing I am contemplating — pursue big intellectual projects all the way to their completion here on this blog — my university’s administrators would be unhappy, the publishers who want to publish my stuff would be unhappy, my magnificent literary agent would be unhappy, and some part of me would be unhappy.

But what if, by following SOP for my profession, I limit my ability to think? What if I curtail the development of ideas and end up fitting them into familiar boxes rather than following them to surprising and new and fascinating places? Isn’t that a heavy price to pay for professional adequacy?

More on all this in the next post.

we work in the dark

work

Tom Phillips

control and surrender, architecture and gardening

Eno

Tom Phillips, Brian Eno
oil on canvas
35.6 x 25.4 cm
1984-85
collection: the artist

Phillips writes:

I once devised a television project whose abbreviated ghost now forms, not inappropriately, an introduction to the film I worked on with Jake Auerbach (Artist’s Eye: Tom Phillips, BBC2 1989). The title was to be Raphael to Eno: it traced the lineage of pupil and teacher back through Frank Auerbach, Bomberg, Sickert etc. until, after an obscure group of French Peintres du Roy, it emerged via Primaticcio into the light of Raphael. Thus I find that at only twenty removes I am a pupil of Raphael. Brian Eno as a student of mine (initially at Ipswich in the early sixties) therefore continues that strange genealogy of influence as the twenty-first.

I cite that simply because it’s awesome.

The relationship between Phillips — one of whose most famous works is A Humument, an ongoing-for decades collage/manipulation/adaptation of a Victorian book — and Eno is a fascinating one in the history of aleatory or, as I prefer, emergent art.

I’ve been talking about all this with Austin Kleon — whose newspaper blackout poems are descendants or cousins of A Humument — who not only knows way more about all this than I do but who also has been posting some great stuff lately on the themes of patience, waiting, and what I recently called “re-setting your mental clock.” See for instance this post on Dave Chappelle’s willingness to wait for the ideas to show up at his door.

And of course that post circles back to Eno — so many useful thoughts about being a maker of something circle back to Eno — quoting from this article:

“Control and surrender have to be kept in balance. That’s what surfers do – take control of the situation, then be carried, then take control. In the last few thousand years, we’ve become incredibly adept technically. We’ve treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part.” Eno considers all his recent art to be a rebuttal to this attitude. “I want to rethink surrender as an active verb,” he says. “It’s not just you being escapist; it’s an active choice. I’m not saying we’ve got to stop being such controlling beings. I’m not saying we’ve got to be back-to-the-earth hippies. I’m saying something more complex.”

In another talk, one in which he also spoke of control and surrender, he developed another contrast, between creativity-as-architecture and creativity-as-gardening:

And essentially the idea there is that one is making a kind of music in the way that one might make a garden.  One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life.  And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them.  It’s characteristic of the kind of work that I do that I’m really not aware of how the final result is going to look or sound.  So in fact, I’m deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the same position as any other member of the audience.  I want to be surprised by it as well.  And indeed, I often am.

What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator.  You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together.  Gardener included.  So there’s something in the notes to this thing that says something about the difference between order and disorder.  It’s in the preface to the little catalog we have.  Which I take issue with, actually, because I think it isn’t the difference between order and disorder, it’s the difference between one understanding of order and how it comes into being, and a newer understanding of how order comes into being.

I was texting with Austin about all this earlier today:

austin

This is all good for me to reflect on right now, in this season of heat and uncertainty.

victory paper

Made by the Randolph Novelty Company in Chicago during World War II; via the Newberry Library’s Instagram

Letterbugs

William Moran, from the Newberry Library

I’m already getting some emails in response to my earlier post, and they’re incredibly generous and kind. The message tends to be: Your writings do make a difference, so please write that book! Again, that’s amazingly kind, and God bless y’all for the support. But at the risk of sounding totally ungrateful and churlish, I have to admit that that’s just the response I was afraid I would get. Afraid, because that’s a message that encourages me to consider results and effect — the kinds of considerations that are always subject to counter-evidence, and to unhealthy externalizations of the motives for writing. What I need instead is to think — and to take plenty of time to think — of what I need to do, of what projects I myself most completely believe in. Simply put: I am past the point in my career at which I can write books because other people want them. So if you would like for me to keep writing books, and if you would I bow before you, then maybe instead of exhorting me you might pray for me? If you did I would be even more in your debt.

Episcopalian exclusionism

Andrew McGowan:

It is worrisome that despite the soaring temperatures of Austin, the current Prayer Book conversations take place in an ecumenical winter. There are numerous important reasons why things have changed in our dialogues with other groups since the 1960s and ’70s, but a profound question remains largely untouched in this debate: How will our liturgy reveal and help create the unity of the Body of Christ, whose relationship with the Episcopal Church is, well, inexact and incomplete?

This shouldn’t mean we just borrow the insights of other traditions as ritual toys. One of the faintly tragic elements on display in the 1979 Prayer Book are the numerous borrowings from Orthodox liturgy, which reflect not just scholarly knowledge, but prayerful conversations with Russian and Greek scholars of the mid-20th century who were then genuine dialogue partners. It is hard to find such engagement with eastern Christianity in the Episcopal Church now, beyond the somewhat hollow testimony of facsimile icons in Church bookstores.

McGowan here identifies what I think is most worrisome about the current push for revision of the BCP: it is radically exclusionist. The Orthodox don’t matter, Catholics don’t matter, Anglicans outside of the U.S. don’t matter, non-revisionist Episcopalians don’t matter. Literally no one in the world matters except the revisionists themselves.

re-setting my mental clock

A couple of months I submitted to my brilliant agent, Christy Fletcher, a proposal for a general-interest book, a book I had been thinking of as a kind of completion of a trilogy that began with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and continued with How to Think. The three books together would distill most of what has been central to my teaching over the decades.

And then I wrote back to Christy and asked her to withdraw the proposal.

Why? Because I kept asking myself What is the point? and could not come up with any answers. As an evangelical Anglican Christian and a professor of the humanities, I have spent my adult life in service to the church and the academy, and I don’t know how anyone could look at either of those institutions right now and see them as anything but floundering, incoherent messes, helmed largely by people who seem determined to make every mess worse. I want to grab those leaders by the lapels and shout in their faces, “I’m trying to contain an outbreak here, and you’re driving the monkey to the airport!” What good has anything I’ve written ever done? Why bother writing anything else? What is the point? The monkey’s already at the airport, securely stashed in the airliner’s cargo hold, and the plane is taxiing down the runway.

Now, around the same time that I arrived at this melancholy judgment about my past and future as a writer, I also decided that I needed to make some serious changes to my encounters with social media. I deleted Twitter from my mobile devices, and, just to make sure that I couldn’t access it even from the web more than a time or two a day, scheduled daily blockages via Freedom.

Of course, this did not remove the posting itch, so I moved my social-media posts and photos away from Twitter and Instagram and to micro.blog, the wonderful new creation of Manton Reece where I can post to my heart’s content but can’t retweet, can’t be retweeted, can’t see how many followers I have — it’s amazing: just conversation without posturing or signaling or bots. (You can, and I do, cross-post to Twitter, which means that when I want to point to something cool that I’ve read I can do so to a much, much larger audience than I currently have on my micro.blog account, but, thanks to Freedom, without even being able to see whether people are liking it.)

Please do consider signing up: it’s not free (though there’s a free trial), but there are also no ads, which means that Manton has no agenda except to make the service fun and useful for his users. Also, following the example of my friends Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Dan Cohen, I connected my micro.blog to my own domain, keeping my stuff on my turf.

In related moves, I purged a number of news sites from my RSS feed, deleted Apple News from my devices, and canceled my subscription to the Washington Post (which in any case has been interspersing more and more and more Florida Man-style stories among the actual news and analysis pieces). I have come to rely on the weekly news summaries provided by, for instance, National Review and the Spectator — more leftish magazines should do this kind of thing; also monthlies and quarterlies. It would be interesting to see what the “top news stories” looked like if you could only gather them every three months.

There has been one significant consequence of all these moves, and I find it an interesting one. Curiously, though in a way logically, my escape from Twitter’s endless cycles of intermittent reinforcement and its semi-regular tsunamis has made me significantly calmer about my own future as a writer, in large part because it has re-set my mental clock. I have always told myself that I have time to think about what, if anything, I want to write next, but I haven’t really believed it, and I think that’s been due to my immersion in the time-frame of Twitter and other social media. Now that I’ve climbed out of that medium, I can give not merely notional but real assent to the truth that I have time, plenty of time, to think through what I might want to say.

And who knows, maybe I’ll even come back to that third volume of my Pedagogical Trilogy.

ages of revolution

If a man in the fullness of his days, at the end of his life, can pass on the wisdom of his experience to those who grow up after him; if what he has learned in his youth, added to but not discarded in his maturity, still serves him in his old age and is still worth teaching the then young — then his was not an age of revolution, not counting, of course, abortive revolutions. The world into which his children enter is still his world, not because it is entirely unchanged, but because the changes that did occur were gradual and limited enough for him to absorb them into his initial stock and keep abreast of them. If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise — then we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, “revolutionary.”

— Hans Jonas, from Philosophical Essays (1974), p. 46

soccer and the impediments to success

Brian Phillips:

Soccer is beautiful because soccer is hard. Most popular sports artificially enhance the human body. Soccer diminishes it. Instead of giving players a bat, a racket, protective armor, or padded gloves — tools that allow players to reach farther, return a ball faster, absorb harder hits, or hit harder themselves — soccer takes away players’ hands. It prohibits the use of the nimblest part of the body, and then it says, “Be nimble.” Moreover, because the action in soccer so seldom stops, because there are so few moments when play resets to a familiar starting point, soccer requires players to work within the limitations it imposes for much longer, and through many more situational complications, than other sports.

Clumsiness and confusion are thus inherent to the game, and this is soccer’s perverse genius, because what happens when you force people to move a ball around in a highly unnatural way is that they find a way to do it. Human ingenuity and talent manage to outwit the restrictions the game places on them. And when this happens at a high enough level — when a goal is scored after a breathtaking run, or when a series of one-touch passes makes it seem as though players are telepathically linked — then what results is beauty, because creativity and grace have momentarily overcome the forces that oppose them.

This is perfect. I might suggest that Brian’s description pairs nicely with the account of the offside rule, and the emergent complexity of on-pitch action, I give here.

and he cried when he realized that there were no more stars to exploit

MIT Technology Review:

The cosmic horizon is changing. Hooper has worked out how this will affect our neighborhood in the universe, which astronomers call the Local Group. This is the set of about 50 nearby galaxies that are gravitationally bound to the Milky Way and on course to collide sometime within the next trillion years to form a single supergalaxy. Consequently, the Local Group will be humanity’s home for the foreseeable future. Over billions of years, we might even colonize it, hopping from one star system to another and exploiting each sun’s energy along the way.

However, the accelerating expansion of the universe is sending galaxies over the horizon at a rate that is increasing. “As a result, over the next approximately 100 billion years, all stars residing beyond the Local Group will fall beyond the cosmic horizon and become not only unobservable, but entirely inaccessible,” says Hooper.

That’s a problem for an advanced civilization because it limits the number of new stars that are available to exploit. So the question that Hooper investigates is whether there is anything an advanced civilization can do to mitigate the effects of this accelerating expansion.

I have to say, this concern is high on my list also: the possibility of running out of stars for human beings to exploit.

More seriously, I am bemused by this line of thinking. Billions of humans live in poverty, are daily endangered by hunger or disease or war; we lack a cure for cancer — we lack a cure for the common cold — we lack a cure for male pattern baldness —; and yet there are people worrying that we will eventually have no more stars to plunder to satisfy our energy demands.

Well, enough of this. Time for me to get back to planning the first year of my reign as God-Emperor of Terra. Because it could happen, you know, and I’d rather not be caught unprepared.

Milton’s God (and Google’s)

Franklin Foer:

What is God? It is only a subject that has inspired some of the finest writing in the history of Western civilization—and yet the first two pages of Google results for the question are comprised almost entirely of Sweet’N Low evangelical proselytizing to the unconverted. (The first link the Google algorithm served me was from the Texas ministry, Life, Hope & Truth.) The Google search for God gets nowhere near Augustine, Maimonides, Spinoza, Luther, Russell, or Dawkins. Billy Graham is the closest that Google can manage to an important theologian or philosopher. For all its power and influence, it seems that Google can’t really be bothered to care about the quality of knowledge it dispenses. It is our primary portal to the world, but has no opinion about what it offers, even when that knowledge it offers is aggressively, offensively vapid.

If Harold Bloom or Marilynne Robinson had engineered Google, the search engine would have responded to the query with a link to the poet John Milton, who is both challenging on the subject of God and brave on the subject of free speech—and who would have been a polemical critic of our algorithmic overlords, if he had lived another four hundred years.

The Rings of Saturn

On Monday Robert Macfarlane will be hosting a Twitter book club on W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which is one of the most compelling and memorable books I have ever encountered. I’ve read it three times now and hope to read it at least twice more.

Years ago, in the first flush of my fascination with it, I bought a copy and sent it to Frederick Buechner, who, if you don’t know, is one the best writers of English now living. He read it, and wrote back to say, “I have no idea what any of that means but it is absolutely mesmerizing.” Which is a pretty good summary.

the Ministry of Amnesia

I’ve just read, with great interest, John Lanchester’s latest essay on the global financial situation, and as always, Lanchester is informative, precise, lucid, and compelling — though maybe not wholly compelling. At one point he writes,

Remember that remark made by Robert Lucas, the macroeconomist, that the central problem of depression prevention had been solved? How’s that been working out? How it’s been working out here in the UK is the longest period of declining real incomes in recorded economic history. ‘Recorded economic history’ means as far back as current techniques can reach, which is back to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Worse than the decades that followed the Napoleonic Wars, worse than the crises that followed them, worse than the financial crises that inspired Marx, worse than the Depression, worse than both world wars. That is a truly stupendous statistic and if you knew nothing about the economy, sociology or politics of a country, and were told that single fact about it – that real incomes had been falling for the longest period ever – you would expect serious convulsions in its national life.

Right — and yet — there aren’t any “serious convulsions” in the UK, or the USA for that matter, are there? Lanchester also writes, “In the US there is enormous anger at oblivious, entitled, seemingly invulnerable financial and technological elites getting ever richer as ordinary living standards stay flat in absolute terms, and in relative terms, dramatically decline.” But is the anger really so enormous? I’d say there’s not nearly as much as there ought to be, or that one would (as Lanchester suggests) expect there to be.

And many of the people who have been hit hardest by an economic system in which, Lanchester rightly says, the rich in pursuing with laser-focus their own further enrichment “have seceded from the rest of humanity,” say almost nothing about that situation but wax eloquent and wroth about the supposedly imminent danger of their being murdered by vast roaming gangs of illegal immigrants. Brexit and Trump are not about fixing economic inequality — which is why Trump’s version of populism has almost nothing to do with the “Share Our Wealth” vision of Huey Long, back in the day, but rather focuses with a passionate intensity on stoking fear of anyone and everything not-American.

So why is that? Why, though certainly there is some anger at the global-capitalist system, is there, relative to reasonable expectations, so little? Why don’t people care that, since the massively reckless incompetencies of 2008, almost nothing has changed? (Lanchester documents the insignificant of the changes very thoroughly.)

The first answer is that almost nobody — almost nobody — remembers what happened in 2008. And why don’t they remember? Because of social media and smartphones.

I cannot, of course, provide documentary proof for that claim. But as the Marxists used to say I believe it is no accident that the shaking of the foundations of the global economy and “the longest period of declining real incomes in recorded economic history” happened just as the iPhone was taking serious hold on the imagination of the developed world, and Facebook and Twitter were becoming key components of everyday life in that world. On your smartphones you can get (a) a stream of prompts for visceral wrath and fear and then (b) games and distractions that accomplish the suddenly-necessary self-soothing. Between the wrath and fear and the subsequent soothing, who can remember what happened last week, much less ten years ago? Silicon Valley serves the global capitalist order as its Ministry of Amnesia. “What is it I was so concerned about?”

re-reading Trollope

I am re-reading the Palliser novels, for the first time in 20 years, which means I have largely forgotten what happens in them, and I am reminded that Trollope really is the most underrated novelist in the world. The casualness of his manner, and his intermittent insistence is that he is telling simple and insignificant stories, disguise from us just how penetrating his mind was, how clearly he sees the inmost workings of his characters’ lives, and how justly he deals out condemnation and mercy alike. I’m reading Can You Forgive Her? right now, and there is an extraordinary moment when George Vavasor has entered Parliament, having run a successful race thanks to the money he has extracted from his cousin Alice, whom he has manipulated into agreeing to marry him though he knows perfectly well that she does not love him. So when he comes to see her immediately after his election, he begins by thanking her for her financial contribution to his success – thanks which she does not want – but then strives to extract from her some expression of affection which she knows she does not feel. And Trollope pauses in the middle of George’s conversation with Alice and says, with brutal simplicity, “He should have been more of a rascal or less.” It’s one of the most devastating comments that any novelist has made about one of his characters.

George wants to be treated as an honorable man without being one. He wants Alice to give him credit for virtues and intentions which he has in a thousand ways made it clear that he does not possess. He insists upon being given credit for traits which as soon as he walks away from her he repudiates mockingly. He should have been more of a rascal or less. He should have frankly acknowledged the terms on which he and Alice have come to an agreement, or realized that he desperately needed to amend his life. But he does neither, and by doing neither makes himself and Alice equally miserable.

Can You Forgive Her? contains plenty of the broadish comedy that Trollope did so well – the protracted attempts of the farmer Mr Cheeseacre to woo the widow Greenow really are funny, even if there is more of it than one might think ideal – but the effect of these scenes is primarily to relieve the tension of what in other respects is a rather agonizing novel to read. Some may think “Ah, well, we know that everything will turn out all right in the end” – but we do not know that, not in a Trollope novel. Some of his most appealing and memorable characters (Lady Laura Kennedy, Lily Dale) do not receive the eucatastrophic resolution we would rightly expect from a lesser writer. If you know that, you know that you cannot simply expect a happy ending for his protagonists.

Which makes it all the more delightful when they get one.

Principalities, Powers, and BLM

Eugene Rivers:

For the most part, BLM activists – like the post-1965 SNCC activists, the Black Panther Party, and assorted other radical black groups before them – exhibit little interest in, or comprehension of, the larger lessons of history. This is because they lack the deep spiritual and moral insight that must be the grounding for any sustainable movement. Having rejected the God of their fathers, they have also rejected the fatherhood of God.

This philosophical rejection is an act of spiritual and cultural suicide. Failure to discern the demonic character of white supremacy limits these activists’ ability to understand the fight they are engaged in, and hinders their efforts to develop long-term strategies. They can only describe the sadistic violence they witness and never fully understand or conquer it, so long as they ignore its spiritual source.

More importantly, they fail to use the only means of combatting the demonic: intercessory prayer. Instead, they are easily sucked into the spirit of the demonic themselves as they resort to violence, anger, and hate – a failing less common in the BLM movement than in Antifa, though the danger applies to both.

signed with that cross

Al Raboteau:

African-American Christianity has continuously confronted the nation with troubling questions about American exceptionalism. Perhaps the most troubling was this: “If Christ came as the Suffering Servant, who resembled Him more, the master or the slave?” Suffering-slave Christianity stood as a prophetic condemnation of America’s obsession with power, status, and possessions. African-American Christians perceived in American exceptionalism a dangerous tendency to turn the nation into an idol and Christianity into a clan religion. Divine election brings not preeminence, elevation, and glory, but — —as black Christians know all too well — —humiliation, suffering, and rejection. Chosenness, as reflected in the life of Jesus, led to a cross. The lives of his disciples have been signed with that cross. To be chosen, in this perspective, means joining company not with the powerful and the rich but with those who suffer: the outcast, the poor, and the despised.

where citizens were, there shall users be

Farhad Manjoo:

The real problem is that [the scooters] just appeared out of nowhere one day, suddenly seizing the sidewalks, and many citizens felt they had no real agency in the decision. They were here to stay, whatever nonusers felt about them.

Which was all by design. The scooter companies were just following Travis’s Law. In Santa Monica, Bird’s scooters appeared on city streets in September. Lawmakers balked; in December, the city filed a nine-count criminal complaint against Bird.

Bird responded with a button in its app to flood local lawmakers with emails of support. The city yielded: Bird signed a $300,000 settlement with Santa Monica, a pittance of its funding haul, and lawmakers authorized its operations.

If you love the scooters, you see nothing wrong with this. But there was a time, in America, when the government paid for infrastructure and the public had a say in important local services. With Ubers ruling the roads, Birds ruling the sidewalks, Elon Musk running our subways and Domino’s paving our roads, that age is gone.

The Atomic Theory of Human Life

To me, the most interesting and significant element of the opposition to Amy Coney Barrett is the inability of some of her critics to achieve even the most basic comprehension of the character of an organization like People of Praise. Many Americans are so thoroughly catechized into the Atomic Theory of Human Life — the belief that all significant life-decisions are properly made by autonomous monads, with only the State to set boundaries and provide a safety net — that a genuinely functional community, in which some of the burdens of decision-making are distributed throughout a network of people bound to one another by mutual affection, can only be seen as a “cult.”

Alan Jacobs is a writer who

Alan Jacobs is a writer who has a degree of talent in this app that I would love for you haven’t heard anything from the app that I would love for you haven’t seen you haven’t been able for you a couple weeks was a couple weeks is a couple weeks I would like a couple more opportunities for y’all and I will make you happy again if I can get it done

a position in life

It happens that I have practically some connexion with schools for different classes of youth; and I receive many letters from parents respecting the education of their children. In the mass of these letters I am always struck by the precedence which the idea of a “position in life” takes above all other thoughts in the parents’—more especially in the mothers’—minds. “The education befitting such and such a STATION IN LIFE”—this is the phrase, this the object, always. They never seek, as far as I can make out, an education good in itself; even the conception of abstract rightness in training rarely seems reached by the writers. But, an education “which shall keep a good coat on my son’s back;—which shall enable him to ring with confidence the visitors’ bell at double-belled doors; which shall result ultimately in establishment of a double-belled door to his own house;—in a word, which shall lead to advancement in life;—THIS we pray for on bent knees—and this is ALL we pray for.” It never seems to occur to the parents that there may be an education which, in itself, IS advancement in Life;—that any other than that may perhaps be advancement in Death; and that this essential education might be more easily got, or given, than they fancy, if they set about it in the right way; while it is for no price, and by no favour, to be got, if they set about it in the wrong.

— John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies. I know a number of people who work to recruit students to Baylor (where I now teach) and to other universities, and they have commented that it is virtually impossible to get parents interested in what kind of education, what kind of experience, their children will have in their undergraduate years. Parents only want to know whether their children will get into medical school or dental school or law school — the four years of undergraduate education are simply a very large hurdle to be leaped over to get to that STATION IN LIFE that they want for their children. Many, many parents do not care one iota about what their offspring will actually do and read and think between the ages of 18 and 22, as long as whatever it is helps (or at least does not impede) their admission to professional training.

Update: I should add that I don’t blame the parents for this — they’re being asked to pay a shocking amount of money for their children’s education, and they are desperately hoping for a return on investment. I get that. But when your job is to teach those young people, the situation is regrettable — especially since so many of the students have adopted the attitudes of their parents.

the social utility of religious freedom

Reading this post by Rod Dreher, which considers (among other things) the extent to which overt hostility towards tradition-minded Christians is a product of the Trump years or, by contrast, predates the current shitstorm — spoiler alert: it’s the latter — I was reminded of a conversation I had on Twitter some years ago with a friendly, easygoing academic acquaintance. I had posted something in relation to religious freedom, and he replied along these lines: I just want you to know that religious freedom is not something I see any value in.

I said, You know religious freedom is deeply embedded in the Constitution, right? And of course he did. And that it’s a key part of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Yeah, he knew that too. I don’t expect legal commitments to religious freedom to go away any time soon, he said, but I wish I could get rid of them. They have negative social utility.

The conversation has stuck with me primarily because, as I noted above, this is a perfectly friendly and easygoing guy, and someone that I am confident strives to treat all his students fairly, even when they’re Christian fundamentalists. But if he could wave a magic wand and eliminate all legal protections of religious freedom, he would, simply because he thinks religion in general does more harm than good. It occurred to me that there are probably millions of people like him in America, which I find a sobering thought, to say the least.

intra-Anglican ecumenism

Bishop George Sumner:

TEC and ACNA are still suing one another. The day, now foreseeable, when the suits are over, one way or another, is the day when a serious conversation between them could occur. As an Episcopalian, I would challenge my own church with this question: If we can consider full communion with Methodists, why could we not, on that post-litigious day, open ecumenical talks with our own fellow Anglicans? Perhaps the offer would be refused. But then again, a day finally came, for example, when combatants in Northern Ireland were willing to talk with one another. Could such a day come for us? Would the Archbishop of Canterbury not be an appropriate convener of such a meeting, someday, given his own evangelical commitments and his interest in reconciliation?

Let us hope.

but how far Underground?

This is amazing. Daniel Silva has created a series of maps showing just how far underground any given station of the London Underground is. Note that the brown dotted line traces the changes in ground elevation, while the blue line below shows the depth of the railway. Some of the lines (like the Victoria, above) maintain a general consistency of depth in relation to the ground, but others don’t. Silva has created a simple representation of what had to have been some very complicated engineering decisions.

the Aspen Tech Solutionism Festival

I have long loved the Atlantic and am proud of my association with it, but every time the Aspen Ideas Festival rolls around my inner Unabomber emerges and wants to burn the entire endeavor to the ground. It’s the only time of year when reading posts in the Atlantic makes me so angry I want to go kick something.

I think I would be okay with it if the shindig had a more accurate name, like the Ideas from Our Technocratic Overlords Festival. Often it seems that there are no ideas at the Aspen Ideas Festival that don’t serve to consolidate transnational technocracy, even the ones that seem to be offering critiques.

Maybe Code for America is reconsidering some of its priorities but it’s still Code for America and its “solutions” inevitably involve deepening people’s dependence on Big Tech. (“We can give you a texting tool that allows you to text with people and it’s been shown to decrease the rates of failure to appear.”)

Is there a crisis of affordable housing in Silicon Valley? Indeed there is. So let’s see what Google can do about it!

This is how it goes, session after session, year after year.

My recommendation: stop calling it an Ideas festival until at least two or three ideas featured there don’t defer to, appeal to, or consolidate the authority of, the world’s biggest technology corporations.

I’m exaggerating, of course. There are always a few sessions about “sustainable development” and “rethinking nutrition” and “civic engagement.” But nine times out of ten there’s an app for that — and, probably, an accelerated Master’s degree at a mid-tier university for only $80,000, please click through to apply for a loan.

For those of us who think there are interesting non-smartphone-connected ideas to be had about family, or faith, or poetry, Aspen is the one place you don’t want to be this summer, or any other.

memory and invention

In her book The Craft of Thought, Mary Carruthers identifies the purpose of memorization in medieval intellectual culture:

The orator’s “art of memory” was not an art of recitation and reiteration but an art of invention, an art that made it possible for a person to act competently within the “arena” of debate (a favorite commonplace), to respond to interruptions and questions, or to dilate upon the ideas that momentarily occurred to him, without becoming hopelessly distracted, or losing his place in the scheme of his basic speech. That was the elementary good of having an “artificial memory.” …

I repeat: the goal of rhetorical mnemotechnical craft was not to give students a prodigious memory for all the information they might be asked to repeat in an examination, but to give an orator the means and wherewithal to invent his material, both beforehand and — crucially — on the spot. Memoria is most usefully thought of as a compositional art. The arts of memory are among the arts of thinking, especially involved with fostering the qualities we now revere as “imagination” and “creativity.”

Today people will tell you that memorization is the enemy of creativity; these medieval thinkers understood that precisely the opposite is true: the more you have memorized the greater will be your powers of invention.

why hospitality matters: ancient poetry edition

I’m looking forward to reading Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, though I will admit to being put off a bit by the intensity of some of the praise, which tends to give Wilson credit for something that Homer does and that is fairly represented in pretty much every other translation. (Thus Alexander Pope and/or William Brooke in 1726: “By Jove the stranger and the poor are sent; / And what to those we give to Jove is lent. / Then food supply, and bathe his fainting limbs / Where waving shades obscure the mazy streams.” Etc. etc.) That emphasis is in the poem, not the translation.

It is a key theme in the Odyssey, though, and one that I often call particular attention to when teaching. This is the second major point at which the importance of hospitality to the stranger appears. Earlier, when Athena (disguised as Mentor) is escorting Telemachus around to see a bit of the world, they arrive at Nestor’s home at Pylos and are welcomed warmly and offered roasted meat and red wine and “deep-piled rugs” to sleep on — but when they come to the much grander home of Menelaus at Sparta they are greeted with considerable suspicion by one of Menelaus’s companions. Now, to be sure, Menelaus chastises the man for not being more generous, but Homer is showing us something here about the difference between a household that’s instinctively and naturally welcoming and, on the other hand, one where the welcome is grudging at best. Mentor wants Telemachus to learn the right way to live, and the right way to live requires hospitality to strangers.

When correcting his companion, Menelaus explains why: Could we have made it home from Troy, he asks, if people had not been hospitable to us? This was not a world, as I remind my students, in which you could drive up to a Holiday Inn and pull our your credit card. We do best when we extend a helping hand to those in need, not least because one day soon we could be among the endangered and dependent.

But the lessons of hospitality don’t come easily to those — like the suitors of Penelope, hanging out in Odysseus’s house and eating his food without earning a damned thing for themselves — who think that what they need will always be within reach. They are spoiled, arrogant, grasping; and in all these respects just the opposite of Nestor and his family, of the princess Nausicaa, and even of Odysseus’s poor old goatherd Eumaeus, who even in his poverty takes care of a man he thinks to be a ragged beggar, because “strangers and beggars come from Zeus.”

So be generous to the homeless because it’s the right thing to do; but if you’re not going to do it because it’s right, do it because someday you may need some generosity yourself. And if you don’t, you could end up like those suitors, whose end is — spoiler alert — not pretty.

quality of life

Sara Hendren:

When does a life worth living cease to become so? When one can no longer eat and must use a feeding tube? A ventilator? When one loses mobility, or memory? What about pain—can one live with a little, but not a lot? How much is a lot, exactly? And then there is the monster in its own category that is depression. I know many people living with each of these conditions, and the thing I know is this: the view from outside is invariably impoverished. The human brain just lacks the imagination to fathom a life lived well that is so physically or neurologically different from one’s own. Living without capacities one has come to take for granted is only seen as loss of capacity, and therefore loss in total. A life no longer a life. But ask disabled people, and they will tell you: their lives are worth having.

American Legothic

(click link for details)

when critique dissolves

From Ross Douthat’s column today:

But perhaps the simplest way to describe what happened with the surrogacy debate is that American feminists gradually went along with the logic of capitalism rather than resisting it. This is a particularly useful description because it’s happened so consistently across the last few decades: Whenever there’s a dispute within feminism about a particular social change or technological possibility, you should bet on the side that takes a more consumerist view of human flourishing, a more market-oriented view of what it means to defend the rights and happiness of women.

This reminds me very much of an argument Paul Kingsnorth makes in his provocative Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist:

We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called ‘sustainability’. What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the non-human world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.

It is, in other words, an entirely human-centred piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet’. In a very short time – just over a decade – this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total – at the price of its soul.

“Sustainability,” then, is the magic word that allows the worldwide corporate-scaled environmental movement to become utterly comfortable with transnational capitalism. As Kingsnorth points out, the movement’s single-minded focus on reducing carbon emissions allows the energy companies to offer lucrative-for-them “solutions” to carbon-based “problems,” which may well lead to the utter despoiling of places that environmentalists used to care about preserving, even when that meant not sustaining our current levels of consumption. “Motorway through downland: bad. Wind power station on downland: good. Container port wiping out estuary mudflats: bad. Renewable hydro-power barrage wiping out estuary mudflats: good. Destruction minus carbon equals sustainability.”

Environmentalism has made the same deal that (per Douthat’s argument) today’s American feminism has made. Both movements were scrupulously attentive to the depredations of transnational capitalism up to the moment when transnational capitalism said “We can give you stuff you want at no additional cost — to you, anyway.” Then the critiques dissolved.

the world of the deal

In Trump’s world, you fit into one of three categories. You may be a mark, you may be leverage, you may be a loser.

Trump wants to make deals, which means he wants to win deals. His understanding of deal-making is that someone fleeces and someone gets fleeced. It is his ambition to be the fleecer.

So you could be his mark, the one he wants to fleece. That’s what the American electorate was in the 2016 election. That’s what Kim Jong Un was recently, which is why Trump didn’t mind flattering him. (As a general rule, if Trump praises you that means he hopes to fleece you.)

Or you could be leverage, which is what the children in the Trump/Sessions detention centers are. They are not human beings, they are tokens or counters to be used to try to get a deal with the current mark, which is Congress.

But if you attempt in any way to impede the deal, or if you refuse to participate in it, or protest it, or even just call it what it is, you are a loser.

In Trump’s world there can be no compassion, no fairness, no justice, no truthtelling, no principles, no standards, no ethics, no convictions, no respect for others, no self-respect, no friends, no allies, no prudence, no thought for the future, no discernment, no wisdom, no religion, no humanity. Only deals. Only marks, leverage, and losers.

credit and debt

David Bentley Hart:

The Law not only prohibited interest on loans, but mandated that every seventh year should be a Sabbatical, a shmita, a fallow year, during which debts between Israelites were to be remitted; and then went even further in imposing the Sabbath of Sabbath-Years, the Year of Jubilee, in which all debts were excused and all slaves granted their liberty, so that everyone might begin again, as it were, with a clear ledger. In this way, the difference between creditors and debtors could be (at least, for a time) erased, and a kind of equitable balance restored. At the same time, needless to say, the unremitting denunciation of those who exploit the poor or ignore their plight is a radiant leitmotif running through the proclamations of the prophets of Israel (Isa 3:13-15; 5:8; 10:1-2; Jer 5:27-28: Amos 4:1; etc.).

So it should be unsurprising to learn that a very great many of Christ’s teachings concerned debtors and creditors, and the legal coercion of the former by the latter, and the need for debt relief; but somehow we do find it surprising—when, of course, we notice. As a rule, however, it is rare that we do notice, in part because we often fail to recognize the social and legal practices to which his parables and moral exhortations so often referred, and in part because our traditions have so successfully “spiritualized” the texts—both through translation and through habits of interpretation—that the economic and political provocations they contain are scarcely imaginable to us at all.

“We men have an important but-as-yet-unknown mission.” Can’t wait to find out what it is.

When a famous person commits suicide, there are roughly ten million words of sympathy and pity for that person to every one word of sympathy and pity for the family, friends, and lovers left behind. It would be nice if that proportion could be adjusted just a little. Even if you think (as I do not) that our lives are our own to dispose of as we wish, and even if you believe (as I do) that people who take their own lives are often in a state of horrific agony, suicide is very rarely a victimless act.

Tolkien and the possibility of healing

This is a typically rich Adam Roberts post, bubbling over with a range of wonderful ideas, any one of which blazes a trail that it would be delightful to follow and extend. I just want to take up one theme here.

This is the passage I’m especially interested in:

This is part of a much larger project for Tolkien. He saw the world as broken, but his interest was in trying to making it whole again. He believed healing is possible (specifically, he believed healing is possible through Christ, because his Catholic faith was a central part of who he was) and he wrote his fantasy to explore that conviction. This is the core thing that separates his art, and therefore the promiscuous body of commercial fantasy written in imitation of his art, from the High Modernist stream. And it’s this that brings me back to Greek tragedy, and the reason why it so captured my spirit back when I was young: an individual broken, in my various unexceptional if painful ways, as I was and am; living in a society fragmented in a larger and more dangerous manner as we all are. The thought that healing might be possible evidently spoke to me profoundly, as it continues to do.

I would say that healing is not only possible for Tolkien but inevitable — and yet inevitable in a very curious way. That magnificent moment in The Lord of the Rings when Sam, having expected to die on Mount Doom, awakens to find that he is alive and so is Frodo and so is Gandalf and so cries, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” — surely this is the most perfect embodiment in his writings of what Tolkien calls “eucatastrophe”:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

I think the key phrase here is “fleeting glimpse” — fleeting, not lasting. The Prologue of LOTR, “Concerning Hobbits,” tells us that hobbit were “more numerous formerly than they are today,” and that they “avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find.” Then, in the second chapter, after the description of Bilbo’s disappearance, we’re told that “eventually Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold, became a favourite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten.” So right from the beginning Tolkien is emphasizing that he is telling a story about a world long-forgotten and cultures long in decline, that even the people most affected by the titanic events he’s about to relate eventually lost all memory of them.

Then, near the end of the book, Gandalf reminds his colleagues that, should Sauron triumph, his rule will be “so complete that none can foresee the end of it while the world lasts.” Yet, should they manage to defeat him, their triumph cannot possibly be so permanent:

Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

That all victories over evil are contingent and limited and temporary is a strong theme here — and the forgetfulness of all the races of Middle Earth tends to reinforce those limits, and makes the return of evil more likely even among those who start out with “clean earth to till.” This is why Galadriel says of herself and Celeborn that “together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat” — a phrase that Tolkien adopted for himself, as in this letter: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

There will be, then, a “final victory,” but that will be (to return to the quotation from “On Fairy Stories”) “beyond the walls of the world.” Within the walls of the world all victories, all healing, will be temporary and imperfect — eucatastrophic only in the short term. In the longer term the effects of even the most heroic and righteous deeds will seem so narrow and brief that they will scarcely seem worth doing.

Which is why, for Tolkien, the best impetus to heroic and righteous deeds comes from some intuition of a final victory not in history but beyond history. To lack that intuition while clearly seeing the “long defeat” of history clearly is the curse of Denethor — not a person, for all his wisdom, to envy. For Tolkien, the suspicion that there is some perfect righteousness “beyond the walls of the world” is what prompts righteousness and generosity in the here and now. It’s what might make some of us strive to “uproot evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after might have clean earth to till.” It’s what might make someone pity Gollum and be kind to him, an act which, as Tolkien says in another letter, can be seen only as “a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time.”

It’s a tricky thing that Tolkien is asking: neither to succumb to despair (like Denethor) nor indulge the presumptuous delusion that one’s victories can be everlasting, but rather to live, simply, in hope.

how Rebecca West set fire to everything

Sam Jordison on Rebecca West:

She had written troubling accounts of the Nuremberg trials, spoken up about repression under communist regimes (and had done the same for fascist ones in the decades before the second world war) and taken to the streets with suffragettes (later falling out with many of their leaders). She had set down hundreds of thousands of sparkling words in novels, non-fiction books, reviews and journalism. And throughout it all she had demonstrated an enviable ability to set fire to everything.

Zona

Zona

“What are they going to break this time?”

Riccardo Mori:

The WWDC will start in less than a day at this point, and I have no wishlist to share. I used to get excited before this kind of Apple event; now I’m just trepidatious. Once I used to look forward to the next thing Apple would introduce, I used to wonder What are they going to show us? Now I anxiously wonder, What are they going to break this time? The list of things I wish Apple would fix is getting longer and I won’t bore you once again with my complaints, so I’ll condense everything into a single wish — I would like for Apple to reassure me as a long-time user and customer. Reassure me that they have a plan, that they have the most important things under control, that they’re not like one of those motorised toy cars that keep crashing against obstacles at maximum speed, then change direction randomly until they hit the next obstacle, and so forth.

knowing and acting

Freddie deBoer sent me this:

In Roman times, “belief” in the gods, as we understand it, was irrelevant. An atheist was not someone who didn’t “believe”, but someone who refused to take part in the civic rituals which kept the city and republic healthy. Someone (maybe Cicero?) might privately be as skeptical as they wished, as long as they performed the rites; failing to do so, regardless of private belief, would be to put the community in danger for no reason. In the American liberal bourgeois civic religion, there are two central rites the neglect of which makes you an “atheist” in that sense, someone letting down the side: voting, and awareness. Many, even some of the most self-righteous about voting, do not believe that it changes anything, but not to vote is unthinkable. The rage expressed about the man in the NYT who, unable to deal with the constant outrages of the age of Trump, refused to read or watch the news media, shows that awareness, too, is a civic sacrament. Despite the fact that he was doing some physical action to improve the world, his refusal to perform the holy rite of awareness was endangering the community out of some perverse selfishness, like a Roman sitting out an imperial triumph. “I don’t do enough,” they say, “But at least I know what’s going on in the world.”

Which put me in mind of a passage from Paul Kingsnorth’s fascinating book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist:

After years of living in cities with barely any contact with the ground, fuelled by anger and righteousness, driving myself into the ground, I decided to exchange activism for action. I decided to dig in, to use my limited powers to improve at least one small square of Earth, and to write, sometimes, about what I discovered by doing so.

Not everyone has been impressed with this approach. Some environmental activists in particular have reacted with anger. All this talk of grief and acceptance has sounded to them like a dangerous abdication of responsibility. It’s all very well for you to run away from the ‘fight’, I have been told, but this is the fate of the Earth we’re talking about. Forests are falling; the climate is changing. Millions of people are going to die, and you are advocating doing nothing. Are you depressed? Are you burned out? Whatever is wrong with you, you need to stop talking, because you are getting in the way of the necessary work.

My first reaction to responses like these was to defend myself, but when I got past that, I found I could easily understand their perspective. But I still thought there was something missing. Only two ways of reacting to the current crisis of nature were offered. On the one hand, there was ‘fighting’. This fighting was to be aimed at the ‘elite’ that was destroying the planet – oil companies, politicians, corporate leaders, the rich. On the other hand, there was ‘giving up’. Giving up meant not fighting. It meant running away from a necessary battle. It meant being selfish. It meant ‘doing nothing’, and letting the planet go to hell.

All of this hinged on a narrow definition of what doing something involved, and what action meant. It seemed to suggest that action must be something grand and global and gestural. Small actions were not actions at all: if you couldn’t ‘change the world’ there seemed little point in changing anything.

meritocracy, schmeritocracy

David Brooks:

The real problem with the modern meritocracy can be found in the ideology of meritocracy itself. Meritocracy is a system built on the maximization of individual talent, and that system unwittingly encourages several ruinous beliefs:

Exaggerated faith in intelligence. Today’s educated establishment is still basically selected on the basis of I.Q. High I.Q. correlates with career success but is not the crucial quality required for civic leadership. Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions.

All his other points are excellent also, but I have been thinking a lot lately about the damage done to our culture by the trust we place in people simply because they score very high on texts designed to measure g. That’s how you end up with a world run by functionally sociopathic technocrats.

And if you want to know what I mean by “functionally sociopathic,” here you go.

This morning after church we stopped at Milo All Day to pick up kolaches, a cinnamon roll, a pain au chocolat, and, of course, biscuits. I told Teri to try the biscuits first, and after about three bites she said, ‘That may be the best thing I have ever put in my mouth.” If not, it’s pretty darn close. (Also, we have now eaten our week’s quota of carbs.)

Di•a•graph•i•a, by Sarah Hulsey

Karl Barth to his critics

Wesley Hill posted this recently. It’s a brilliant letter, and below I am going to put in bold the most important passages — and the ones that are most relevant to an age of social-media boundary-policing.

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put.

To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed.

Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the Church Dogmatics where they might at least have found out—not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. —where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions.

I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like [G.C.] Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to Church Dogmatics IV/2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.” These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

With friendly greetings,

Yours,

KARL BARTH

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today

It seems to me that far, far too many disputes among Christians — especially (God help us) on social media — resemble the approach American fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals took to Barth. What seem to be questions are usually veiled accusations (though often enough the accusations are explicit); the questioners have not worked to discover what the person they suspect really thinks; they (therefore) neglect actual quotation in favor of tendentious and inaccurate summaries in the form of what I call “in-other-wordsing”; and they show no signs of “seeking the truth that is greater than us all,” but rather seem merely to want to declare other people wrong in the name of doctrinal boundary-policing. There is no way to have a conversation under such terms, and no one should even try.

members of the family

C. S. Lewis, from “Membership”:

The very word membership is of Christian origin, but it has been taken over by the world and emptied of all meaning. In any book on logic you may see the expression “members of a class.” It must be most emphatically stated that the items of particulars included in a homogeneous class are almost the reverse of what St. Paul meant by members. By members he meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity. Thus, in a club, the committee as a whole and the servants as a whole may both properly be regarded as “members”; what we should call the members of the club are merely units. A row of identically dressed and identically trained soldiers set side by side, or a number of citizens listed as voters in a constituency are not members of anything in the Pauline sense. I am afraid that when we describe a man as “a member of the Church” we usually mean nothing Pauline; we mean only that he is a unit – that he is one more specimen of some kind of things as X and Y and Z. How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incomensurables.

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