So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today. Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe out political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?
You want to argue that free speech is bad, fine. You want to adopt a dominance politics that (you imagine) will result in you being the censor, fine. But just do that. Own that. Can we stop with this charade? Can we stop pretending? Can we just proceed by acknowledging what literally everyone quietly knows, which is that the dominant majority of progressive people simply don’t believe in the value of free speech anymore? Please. Let’s grow up and speak plainly, please. Let’s just grow up.
People often talk about the death of the humanities, or hard times for the humanities, but when they do what they really mean is the death of or hard times for humanities departments in universities. But humanities departments in universities are not the humanities. There’s a really interesting passage in Leszek Kołakowski’s book Metaphysical Horror in which he discusses the many times that philosophers have made a “farewell to philosophy,” have declared philosophy dead or finished. Kołakowski says that when all of the “issues that once formed the kernel of philosophical reflection” have been dismissed by professional philosophers, that doesn’t actually silence the ancient questions that once defined philosophy.
But such things, although we may shunt them aside, ban them from acceptable discourse and declare them shameful, do not simply go away, for they are an ineradicable part of culture. Either they survive, temporarily silent, in the underground of civilization, or they find an outlet in distorted forms of expression.… Excommunications do not necessarily kill. Our sensibility to the traditional worries of philosophy has not weathered away; it survives subcutaneously, as it were, ready to reveal its presence at the slightest accidental provocation.
I believe this to be true, and therefore, while I am concerned by the likely fate of our universities and by the ways that so many professors in the humanities have been stupidly complicit in their own demise, I don’t worry about the death of the humanities. Though I don’t agree with Philip Larkin’s view that people will eventually stop worshipping in churches, I think he’s right when he says, near the end of “Church Going,” that ”someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious,” and when that happens such a person will gravitate towards all the great works of the past — and of the present too, though that will feel less necessary — even though the whole of society heaps scorn on all that our ancestors have done.
Here’s how we’ll know that things have gotten really bad in our society: People will start turning to Homer and Dante and Bach and Mozart. Czeslaw Milosz — like Kołakowski, a Pole, perhaps not a trivial correspondence — wrote that “when an entire community is struck by misfortune, for instance, the Nazi occupation of Poland, the ‘schism between the poet and the great human family’ disappears and poetry becomes as essential as bread.”
I think often, those days, of Emily St. John Mandel’s haunting novel Station Eleven, in which the great majority of human beings have been killed by a deadly plague, and those who remain live at a near-subsistence level. Even so, some musicians and actors have banded together to form an itinerant troupe, the Travelling Symphony.
The Symphony performed music — classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs — and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.
“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said.
Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon is a remarkable book, beautifully written and narrated with great verve. However, I do not find its argument persuasive. You can only find the argument persuasive if you accept the book’s two key axioms, and I don’t. I say “axioms” because McCarraher doesn’t argue either of them, he takes them as … well, axiomatic.
The first axiom is that the Middle Ages in Europe, especially western Europe, constituted a great coherent sacramental order — McCarraher loves the word “sacramental” and uses it to designate pretty much everything he approves of — a “moral economy,” a “theological economy,” in which “preparation for [God’s] kingdom was the point of economic life.” Even the vast waves of rebellion and protest that occurred throughout the Middle Ages weren’t protests against that order as such, only complaints that the political and ecclesial authorities weren’t properly fulfilling their duties. McCarraher cites rebellions (e.g. Wat Tyler’s) of which this could plausibly be said as characteristic, and ignores all the more radical protests. (See Chapter 3 of Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium for examples.) Similarly, he presents the political-eschatological vision of Piers Plowman as though it’s typical of its age, when it isn’t typical at all, any more than William Blake’s poems are typical of England circa 1800. A fair look at what we know suggests that the Middle Ages was as governed by greed and lust and the libido dominandi as any other era, and if God had spoken to the rulers of that age he would have asked them, “What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor?” I think the great preponderance of the evidence suggests that McCarraher’s portrait of the Middle Ages is a pious fiction.
The second governing axiom of The Enchantments of Mammon is that modern capitalism, which was, he says, created by Protestantism, sacralizes wealth in a way that no previous system did. But I don’t think that’s true. In all times and all places that I know of, wealth is generally perceived as a sign of divine favor. The peculiarity of the Axial Age is that in that era there arise, in various places around the world, philosophical and theological traditions suggesting that human flourishing cannot be measured in money and possessions. (After all, one of the key features of the land that Yahweh promises to the wandering Israelites is that it flows with milk and honey, is a place in which the people can prosper economically. It’s only when we get to the book of Proverbs that we discern a serious ambivalence about all this. Proverbs 22:4: “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” But also Proverbs 11:4: “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.”)
At one point early on McCarraher writes, “Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism.” This is true. However, it could equally well be said that talking about capitalism is a way of not talking about money. “The love of money is the root of all evil” was written long, long before the rise of the capitalist order that McCarraher denounces. Moreover, talking about money can be a way of not talking about human acquisitiveness, about the sin of greed. The tension between acquisitiveness and a dawning awareness that acquisitiveness isn’t everything goes as far back as the Odyssey, the great predecessor (or maybe great initiator) of the Axial Age sensibility, the first major work of art against greed, which suggests that only tragic suffering — like that of Odysseus, exiled and imprisoned far from his homeland, or Menelaus, whose family is destroyed as he gains godlike riches — is sufficient to break the hold of greed upon us. It seems to me that McCarraher is blaming capitalism for something that is a permanent feature of human life.
Anyway: If you believe that the Middle Ages were a veritable paradise of sacramental order and that the sacralizing of greed is an invention of modern capitalism — which is to say, if you believe that pretty much everything bad in the world is the result of Protestantism — then you may well find McCarraher’s case compelling. But even if you don’t accept those axioms, it’s a terrific read full of fascinating anecdotes. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.
My employer, Baylor University, graciously provides me with a computer, a MacBook Pro; but it also loads that computer with a whole bunch of enterprise software apps that from the perspective of an IT manager are useful but from the perspective of a user are sheer malware. The chief problem: these apps eat CPU cycles at a terrifying rate — consistently over 100%, sometimes spiking to 300% or more, which I didn’t even know was possible — which means that the computer’s fan runs full-speed all the time and the computer is still too hot to touch. As a result, I’ve had to turn the laptop into a desktop by hooking it up to an external monitor and keyboard, which works just fine … but I really need a machine I can carry around. So I started shopping for one.
If this had happened a year ago, I would have bought another MacBook straightaway; but the release of the new iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard complicated the choice for me. Not to prolong the suspense: I bought the iPad, and have been using it for a couple of months now; recently I’ve been using it full-time, because the MacBook Pro is in the shop to have its battery replaced.
How do I feel about my choice? It’s complicated.
On the plus side:
- Everything about the iPad is faster: It starts up, wakes from sleep, connects to Bluetooth devices faster, and connects to WiFi networks far more quickly than the Mac does.
- Its battery life is roughly three times that of my Mac. (No matter what Apple promises, my portable Macs always get 4–5 hours of battery life at most. If I get on a Zoom call that goes down to two hours.)
- The Magic Keyboard is fabulous to type on, better than any other keyboard I own (and I have several).
- Annotating PDFs with an Apple Pencil is an elegant experience (and using the Pencil is only going to get better with iPad OS 14). This matters because I read a lot of PDFs.
- Generally, the modularity of the iPad, its usability in a variety of configurations, is delightful.
On the minus side:
- The best software for the iPad is elegant, but rarely is it as powerful as its Mac equivalents. For instance, no text editor on the iPad has even a quarter of the functionality of BBEdit. There’s no blogging app remotely like MarsEdit.
- Because the iPad is so thoroughly sandboxed, it is impossible to create the kind of system-wide utilities that accelerate and simplify work on the Mac, especially repeated tasks. There are a number of individual apps on the iPad that support TextExpander, but on the Mac TextExpander works everywhere. You can’t have a Keyboard Maestro or a Hazel for the iPad. You can, of course, create Shortcuts that perform some of the tasks those utilities perform, but you have to run those shortcuts. Nothing happens automatically.
- For similar reasons, you can’t control the sound inputs and outputs on an iPad the way you can on the Mac: the magnificent audio software from Rogue Amoeba simply can’t be made for the iPad. (By the way, Apple’s App Store polices make it difficult for Rogue Amoeba even to make Mac apps, as they explain here.)
- While the Magic Keyboard’s trackpad works quite well most of the time, some apps don’t support it well, and it still behaves inconsistently at times. That should get better over time, though.
- The iPad has no Terminal.
What’s my overall verdict? Honestly, I just don’t know. I wrote this post for myself, as a way of trying to figure out whether I should have bought the iPad, but also as a way of figuring out what I should to in the future. Right now I don’t have much of a choice: I have to make the iPad work for me. But I have a feeling that as time goes by I’m going to be increasingly frustrated with its limitations.
A year-and-a-half ago or thereabouts I deactivated my Twitter account and was very happy to escape the place. But I have a new book coming out, and one’s publisher always reminds one that social media are super-important for promoting books, and Twitter is the only mainstream social media platform I have ever used, so … earlier this year I re-activated the account. Round and round.
At first it didn’t go badly. Twitter created a new setting that allows users to hide replies from anyone they’re not following — an important and decade-overdue step. Also, when the lockdown started a good many people enjoyed using Twitter as a place to re-connect with people they had fallen out of touch with. There was a positive vibe.
For a while. It didn’t last long. The old habits of malice and ignorance soon reasserted themselves. And even the best-natured, gentlest people would regularly feel compelled to share some horrific news item or appalling celebrity/politician/journalist tweet. I could get Twitter’s filtering of my replies only by using its own apps — its API doesn’t provide that feature to third-party apps, naturellement — which regularly served me ads I didn’t want to see and promoted tweets I would’ve paid to avoid. (I have been asking for at least ten years why Twitter doesn’t create a paid level where that kind of shit can be escaped.) Frustrated by all that, I would return to a third-party app — I like Tweetbot best — only to be confronted by replies I was even more eager to avoid.
My feelings about replies from strangers, I realized some time ago, are largely a function of my Southern upbringing. For years, whenever I got some random question or comment from someone I didn’t know, I would feel honor-bound to reply. That’s what a gentleman does, isn’t it? I was certainly raised to believe that when someone addresses you you have an obligation to respond, and to do so politely. (I didn’t always manage the “politely,” though.) After some years of obeying the promptings of conscience, I finally understood that four out of five strangers who addressed me on Twitter were not seeking good-faith conversation but rather were angry or needy or some combination of the two. And yet my felt need for politeness had me answering them for far longer than was healthy for me. That’s why being able to hide replies from people I don’t follow relieved me of my burden: I can’t respond to tweets directed at me if I never see them.
However, that didn’t altogether solve my problem. I still felt an obligation to reply to the people I do follow, almost all of whom are friends or at least acquaintances. So if any of them addressed me or tagged me in a tweet I had to come onto the site at least to like the tweet, maybe to comment. But that always ended up exposing me to a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t want to see. And so I would fulfill my felt duty to my friends but go away frustrated by what I heard and saw. Round and round and round.
That’s why I was I was really content during that year or so my account was deactivated: my friends couldn’t tag me there, so if they wanted to get in touch with me they had to send me an email. I wasn’t failing them by not answering their tweets, because there were no tweets to answer. Perfect!
But when I returned to Twitter to promote my new book, I fell back into the same frustrations as before. If I just didn’t have this Southern training that makes me feel an obligation to anyone who asks anything of me, I probably wouldn’t be in this situation, but you can’t unlearn your rearing. Or I can’t anyway.
My friends make fun of me for my long-standing ambivalence about Twitter, but since the 2016 election season I haven’t been ambivalent. I have despised it wholly. I believe that Twitter and Facebook have done unprecedented and unhealable damage to our social fabric — I believe that they are evil, and that no morally sane person should be comfortable using either of them. I do not say that every morally sane person should refuse to be on them — for some people the decision to be on social media is wholly justifiable and maybe even admirable — but if you’re happy on social media then you need to reset your moral compass.
So I wrote to my peeps at Penguin Random House and asked if I would be betraying them if I deactivated my Twitter account again. My wonderful editor Ginny Smith wrote back reminding me that Twitter is a “useful tool” — “but it’s not worth your sanity.” Exactly. Thank you. I’m outta there.
In a career spanning seventy years, Carl Reiner shaped the nation’s sense of humor through his writing, directing, and performances on stage and screen.
He used this typewriter to write “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” pic.twitter.com/rafXr9hrh4
— National Museum of American History (@amhistorymuseum) June 30, 2020
As it happens, I have the same model of typewriter, which I used to write all my papers from my junior year in high school through graduate school (only turning to a computer when I started my dissertation):
I even have the original case for it:
Every time I read an entry on Richard Polt’s Typewriter Revolution blog, or look at his very cool book — thanks for the complimentary copy, Richard! — I tell myself that I am going to bring this thing out of the closet and start writing on it again. It hasn’t happened yet, but … someday. In my beginning is my end.
But I won’t do anything nearly as cool as writing The Dick Van Dyke Show.
My buddy Rod Dreher has a book coming out soon called Live Not By Lies, and it’s about what American Christians can learn about living under an oppressive regime by studying what believers did under the old Soviet Union. I think this is a story that Christians ought to be interested in, whether they agree with Rod’s politics or not. Every thoughtful Christian I know thinks that the cause of Christ has powerful cultural and political enemies, that we are in various ways discouraged or impeded in our discipleship by forces external to the Church. Where we differ is in our assessment of what the chief opposing forces are.
Rod is primarily worried about the rise of a “soft totalitarianism” of the left, what James Poulos calls a “pink police state.” Other Christians I know are equally worried, but about the dangers to Christian life of white supremacy, or the international neoliberal order. For me the chief concern (I have many) is what I call “metaphysical capitalism.” But we all agree that the Church of Jesus Christ is under a kind of ongoing assault, sometimes direct and sometimes indirect, sometimes blunt and sometimes subtle, and that living faithfully under such circumstances is a constant challenge. Why wouldn’t we want to learn from people who faced even greater challenges than we do and who managed to sustain their faith through that experience? Isn’t that valuable to all of us?
I felt the same way about The Benedict Option, which was mostly not an argument but rather a job of reporting, reporting on various intentional Christian communities. I read the book with fascination, because I was and am convinced that the primary reason American Christians are so bent and broken is that we have neglected catechesis while living in a social order that catechizes us incessantly. What can I learn from those communities that would help me in my own catechesis, and that of my family, and that of my parish church? I read The Benedict Option with the same focus I brought to my reading of a marvelous book by another friend of mine, Charles Marsh’s The Beloved Community. Charles’s politics are miles away from Rod’s, but their books share an essential concern: How can the church of Jesus Christ, how can Christ’s followers, be formed in such a way that they can flourish in unpropitious conditions?
That’s exactly the right question, I think, and both The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies introduce me to people who help me — even when I don’t agree with their strategies! — to think better about what its answers might be. (And The Beloved Community as well. Christians under Marxism and the Black church under Jim Crow offer remarkably similar kinds of help to us, a point that deserves a great deal more reflection than it is likely ever to get in our stupidly polarized time.)
Often when I make this argument people acknowledge the force of it but tell me that Rod is the “wrong messenger.” I understand what they mean. Rod is excitable, and temperamentally a catastrophist, as opposed to a declinist. (That’s Ross Douthat’s distinction.) Like the prophet of Richard Wilbur’s poem, he’s gotten himself “Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,” and I often think that if he writes the phrase “Wake up, people!” one more time I’m gonna drive to Baton Rouge and slap him upside the head.
Also, when Rod rails against “woke capitalism,” he clearly thinks that “woke” is the problem, without giving real assent to the fact that Christians are susceptible to woke capitalism because they were previously susceptible to other kinds. He perceives threats to the Church from the Right, from racism and crude nationalism and general cruelty to whoever isn’t One Of Us, and writes about them sometimes, but they don’t exercise his imagination the way that threats from the Left do. I can see why people whose politics differ from Rod’s don’t what to hear what he has to say.
But, you know, Jonah was definitely the wrong messenger for Ninevah — he even thought so himself — and yet the Ninevites did well to pay attention to him.
And if you think Rod has a potentially useful message but is the wrong conveyer of it, then get off your ass and become the messenger you want to see in the world. Lord knows we need more Christians, not fewer, paying attention to the challenges of deep Christian formation. Wake up, people!
Everyone’s got their wishlist, and mine, like yours, starts with an effective vaccine for COVID–19 and peace and justice in the world. But after than mine probably diverges from yours: I want an end to essays and articles about literary and cultural theory written by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. Like this one by Elizabeth Powers:
These dogmas go by various names (among others, “postmodernism,” “multiculturalism”), but I will gather them under the term “deconstruction,” as it best encapsulates what is at their core. It consists of critiquing the writings of past authors, especially male ones, “deconstructing” them, which means exposing the submerged ideology of power, racism, misogyny, repression, and so on that is hidden below the overt text of a novel. This French cultural product, which began to occupy a prominent place in American university literature departments in the 1970s, has had the effect, over several student generations, of bringing literature departments, especially those of foreign languages, to extinction. Why? It is in the DNA of adolescents, even of those who have never heard of Jacques Derrida, to deconstruct, to tear apart the assumptions of their forebears. When professors stopped talking about Milton’s prose and began pointing out his treatment of his daughters, students got the point immediately. Why would 18-year-olds hang around to confirm what they knew only a year or two earlier, anyway: that anyone born before their own birth year doesn’t have a clue?
In the immortal words of Bob Marley, I got so much things to say.
I will try to set aside my small annoyances — If students think anyone older than them is clueless, why would they listen to Derrida? Don’t literature classes read texts other than novels? — and focus on the bigger problem.
All the strategies of reading Powers despises — “exposing the submerged ideology of power, racism, misogyny, repression, and so on that is hidden below the overt text of a novel” [sigh] — are not examples of deconstruction, they are repudiations of deconstruction.
Several generations of students, and their professors too, have learned what literary theory is about primarily from one book: Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, now in its third edition (the first was published in 1983). I think almost everyone in my profession, including me, has assigned it at one time or another. A 2001 article in Times Higher Education says that at that point it had sold 750,000 copies, so surely it’s well over a million at this point.
Here’s Eagleton’s wittily polemical summation of deconstruction:
Anglo-American deconstruction largely ignores this real sphere of struggle, and continues to churn out its closed critical texts. Such texts are closed precisely because they are empty: there is little to be done with them beyond admiring the relentlessness with which all positive particles of textual meaning have been dissolved away. Such dissolution is an imperative in the academic game of deconstruction: for you can be sure that if your own critical account of someone else’s critical account of a text has left the tiniest grains of ‘positive’ meaning within its folds, somebody else will come along and deconstruct you in turn. Such deconstruction is a power-game, a mirror-image of orthodox academic competition. It is just that now, in a religious twist to the old ideology, victory is achieved by kenosis or self-emptying: the winner is the one who has managed to get rid of all his cards and sit with empty hands.
There are several things to be learned from this passage:
- Deconstruction is fundamentally an inquiry into language and meaning, and in that sense continues the “close reading” model that traditionalists in our time tend to like, especially when it’s exemplified by the American New Critics rather than foreigners. It’s essentially formalist, even if it’s concerned with the dissolution of form rather than formal coherence.
- It is therefore politically quietist.
- Eagleton, as a Marxist, deplores this.
I think literary scholars were already tiring of deconstruction at this point — it seemed to offer a rather limited repertoire of critical gestures, and they had begun to feel rather foolish hunting around for some text that hadn’t been deconstructed yet in order to perform that repertoire on it — but Eagleton hammered some big nails into deconstruction’s coffin. And he did so by arguing that deconstruction “ignores this real sphere of struggle” — the struggle for social justice.
I don’t want to overstress this point. There were influential critics — Robert Scholes most notable among them in his 1985 book Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English — who tried to redescribe deconstruction as a tool in the toolbox of the politically motivated professor. Scholes’s book is important because it explicitly describes the task of the teacher as liberating students from texts that have power over them, and giving those students the power to dominate texts. But in general the rise of theories of power — above all those articulated by Michel Foucault — meant an end to the dominance of theories of language. Deconstruction was not the beginning of our current regime of critique, it was the end of the previous regime.
Re: Yascha Mounk’s article on leftist mobs punishing the innocent: For the ones doing the mobbing, ruining the lives of innocent people is not a bug in their program, it’s an essential feature. There can be no reign of terror when only the guilty are punished.
Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is the great text for understanding this phenomenon. Punishment of the guilty is, from the perspective of social control, an implicit confession of failure. A social order that has proper control over its members will not have to punish them, because they will be obedient. And you make people obedient by instilling discipline: you carefully and thoroughly train them to say what you want them to say and do what you want them to do, and to refrain from saying or doing what you think inappropriate.
However, the disciplinary systems that do this work — schools, for instance — are scarcely less efficient than punishment. What must be created is an environment in which people discipline themselves. But they will only do this when they fear exposure (and subsequent punishment) so much that they will go to extreme lengths to perform their obedience. And people will only exert the energy to enact this ongoing self-policing if they believe that anything they do or say can be seen. They need to believe that they are living in a Panopticon.
This is where social media come in. If everyone has a smartphone and access to social media accounts, then anything you do or say might be recorded and published. Anything those to whom you are related do or say may be recorded and published, to shame you before the entire world. From the perspective of those who lust for social control, this is an ideal situation, because if they make you sufficiently fearful of exposure then you will not only police yourself, you will police your friends and family. And if you can be exposed and punished not only for what you intentionally do and say, but for what you inadvertently do and say, and for what people you know do and say, then you will become obsessively vigilant in your policing.
That is why, for those who want to effect social change by exposure and shaming, punishing the innocent is a feature of their system, not a bug. It increases fear, which increases discipline, not only of oneself but of others. And every employer who fires an employee because they’re afraid of a social-media mob draws us closer to a fully Panoptic society, a social tyranny with an efficiency beyond the dreams of totalitarian societies of the past.
Here in America, it’s a news week like any other.
- The President retweets, for political effect, a doctored video.
- Tucker Carlson says that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is “a special carve-out Google has received from the United States Congress,” even though, as Senator Mike Lee points out, Section 230 was passed by Congress in 1996, two years before Google was founded.
- The ACLU says that “The death penalty evolved from lynching.” Yes, really. Read the tweet and see.
I could go on. And on, and on. And there will be more of the same next week, and the week after that, and the week after that, ad infinitum and especially nauseam.
Here’s what I’m trying to do, and what I would encourage you all to do the same: First, take note of the people, like the ones listed above, who do not care whether what they say is true, but only about whether it serves their preferred narrative.
Second, look for people — politicians, journalists, academics — who do care whether what they say is true.
Third, studiously ignore the people in the first group and pay close attention to the people in the second one.
It won’t be easy to find those truth-concerned people. Sometimes you’ll feel like Diogenes with his lantern. But it must be done, for the sake of our collective sanity.
I bought my first Apple products — the original (512k!) Macintosh and an ImageWriter printer — in the spring of 1985, and in the decades since have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on things made by you. Do you know why I have been so loyal all these years? Two reasons. One, the quality of your hardware. Two, the quality of the software made by independent developers who create for your platform.
Your own software — operating system and apps alike — has been woefully inconsistent. Every OS release, on all your platforms, brings new features but also new bugs. Especially on the Mac I have perpetual problems with wi-fi, Bluetooth, window management, and support for external monitors. iOS is comparatively more stable but after ten years it’s still impossible even to select text reliably. Your apps are mediocre to poor, with only a few exceptions: GarageBand is a great app, as is Keynote; Preview for the Mac is excellent, and Pages and Numbers have gotten better and better. But again, those are exceptions. Mail is an unmitigated disaster. Safari is adequate but feature-poor and only to a limited degree extensible (though at least it doesn’t eat memory the way Chrome does). Messages is barely adequate on iOS, seriously underpowered on the Mac. Even your Settings and System Preferences apps are poorly designed, in the case of iOS shockingly so.
But you have some amazing developers writing apps for your platforms. Some of the best apps, in my experience:
- BBEdit for Mac
- MarsEdit for Mac
- Pixelmator for Mac and iOS
- Omnigraffle for Mac and iOS
- Drafts for Maxc and iOS
- All of Rogue Amoeba’s software for Mac
- All of Panic’s software for Mac and iOS
I could go on. But what I want to say in this post is simply this: Apple, you need to realize that these developers, whose work is better than that of almost any of your own software designers, drive the success of your platform. And yet, as recent events have reminded us, your treatment of them is shabby at best and in some cases indefensible. You charge them extortionate rates for appearing in your App Stores — some are not well-known enough to survive outside an App Store and yet your 30% cut eats so heavily into their profits that it’s barely worth their time to make software — and you apply your rules for appearing in those store inconsistently, even capriciously.
Your behavior has been so frustrating to the people at Rogue Amoeba that they have gotten out of the Mac App Store almost wholly — as Bare Bones, the makers of BBEdit, also did for a few years — but not every developer has the kind of widespread and loyal user base that Rogue Amoeba and Bare Bones do. And of course the iOS App Store is the only source for iOS apps, which may explain why Rogue Amoeba doesn’t make any iOS apps.
Apple, your arrogant and dictatorial behavior makes no sense. It’s not in your interest to frustrate your best independent developers. It’s in your interest to get smart, talented people excited about developing for your platforms. Heck, maybe you should be paying them. But short of that, there are three things you need to do:
- Apply your existing rules consistently.
- Alter those rules to promote maximum creativity and ambition in Mac/iOS software development.
- Take a smaller cut so more developers can stay in the game.
In these posts on “critical theory,” I’m doing what I pretty much always do: I am separating and sorting questions that tend to be conflated. That’s my thing, right? It’s why I wrote a book called How to Think, and why I say, in a blog post, that “it seems to me that arguments about Christianity and politics have an almost unique ability to reduce the intelligence of the people involved by at least a third. We desperately need clarity about what, exactly, we’re arguing about.”
So, in that spirit, onward! — with apologies for self-quotation. A number of these issues I have dealt with before, sometimes at greater length. Here I’m trying to sum up what I think are the key theological themes we need to keep in mind when evaluating what people are determined to call “critical theory.” It’s a bit of a stepping back from the details.
ONE: As noted in an earlier post, some of the questions raised by “critical theory” are empirical ones. Has the history of what became the United States been deeply, indeed essentially, implicated in the slave trade since 1619? Is our society still dominated by white supremacy? Is our social and political order structurally racist? To answer these questions is to evaluate historical and sociological evidence. You could be a deeply orthodox Christian and answer “Yes” to all those questions. You could also be a deeply orthodox Christian and answer “No” to them all. It would depend on the evidence you gather and how you evaluate it.
TWO: But — and here’s where things get complicated — the people who hold the political views mentioned above tend to hold other views that are philosophically unrelated to the historical claims. Indeed many people who are not “woke” at all in their thinking about race also hold these views, which cluster around what I have called “metaphysical capitalism”: I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want; any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny. I am what I say I am. I am my own. As a Christian I do not and cannot believe this. My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.
But how can I communicate this to people who aren’t Christians? Can I give them any reason to believe that they are not their own without invoking Jesus? Is there some kind of political principle accessible to non-believers that would encourage them to overcome the I-am-my-own principle? I hope so, because I think that self-ownership is destructive to the self and damaging to that self’s community. But in a plural and indeed pluralist society it’s difficult to know how to make such arguments effectively. I have tried to explore some of these issues in this essay, which, though it is largely about intra-Christian disputes, has relevance for the larger social body. I hope.
THREE: More generally, we need a great disentangling. You can see from the above how philosophically unrelated claims get entangled with one another and can seem to belong to the same general movement even when that’s logically impossible. One cannot simultaneously be fundamentally defined by one’s group identity and free to be whatever one wants to be. The attempt to hold both views at once without acknowledging their incompatibility is what leads to situations like the Hypatia transracialism controversy, in which a single academic article shorted out the entire system. Similarly, the doctrine of “intersectionality” tends, as I have written in this blog post, to focus on intersections that intensify but to ignore intersections that cancel each other out. The problem with the Ongoing Oppression Thesis is not that it’s wrong about ongoing oppression, but that the people who deploy it tend to think they need in any given situation to have a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. That’s morally simplistic, and also cannot account for the distributed character of power, as I explain in this interview: “I’ve got a chapter in my book [The Year of Our Lord 1943] called ‘Demons,’ about demonic activity. Or if you don’t want to say ‘demonic’ activity, you can call it the activity of what St. Paul calls the ‘principalities and powers.’ It’s interesting, Foucault is a kindred spirit — the ‘principalities and powers’ is a kind of Foucauldian argument, right? In the sense that it is power — and what Weil would call force — disseminated through social and political structures.” That whole interview is relevant to a lot of the questions I’ve been exploring in these posts. It’s an attempt to think in as thoroughly biblical a way as I can manage about these questions.
FOUR: The final set of questions relates to what I will call, for lack of any catchy and concise term, the practical implications of theological anthropology. My point here is closely related to the previous one. Whatever Christians think about the issues I have raised above, we are obliged to conduct ourselves in ways that avoid what I call “rhetorical Leninism.” We have to extend mercy to those whom we believe to be wrong, even tragically wrong, because this is how God treats us. He loves the unlovely, and is gracious to the wicked — like me. We are to be imitators of Him. For us there can be no “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that racist over there,” or “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that pathetic cuck over there” – there can only be “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Because when we choose to measure others according to a certain standard, we are asking that that same measure be used to measure us.
Okay, that’s it, I’m done. No more from me about this — though I am, as I mentioned earlier, engaged with some colleagues on a project that will address many of the issues at stake here. But that has to remain a Big Secret for now.
Here’s the question I mentioned in my last post: What should be the Christian’s response to critical theory? Note that this is not a question that is equally relevant to everyone concerned with the debates over “critical theory.” (I still hate that term.) Neil Shenvi is a Christian, but James Lindsay is an atheist, last I heard anyway. What follows is specifically for Christians and will likely be of no interest to anyone else.
But note: this will not be good. Because of other commitments I don’t have time to do this thoroughly, and anyway I have serious doubts that anyone will pay attention to anything I say — the whole discourse is now running like a perpetual-motion machine and I can’t do anything even to slow it down, much less stop it. But I have promised some people that I would say something, and this is something.
Let’s begin by trying to replace the question by a more specific and more accurate one. How should Christians respond to a workplace environment in which employees are pressured to acknowledge the historic and ongoing systematic oppression of racial and sexual minorities by white straight people, and to welcome and support all efforts to remedy that oppression? I think that’s the really substantive question for the church to deal with. The questions of intellectual genealogy that I pursued in my previous post are not especially relevant here, though they might be relevant in another context.
Before going any further, it’s important to recognize that this whole question feels a lot different to a person of color than it does to a white person. I do not mean that all persons of color will agree with the Ongoing Oppression Thesis, or that all white persons will disagree with it; neither is true. But the Thesis will have different valences for different people, and much of what I say below will be more directly relevant to the fears of white people than to the experiences of others. This makes me slightly uncomfortable, but it’s white people, by and large, who are asking the question. I do believe that the general principles I articulate are valid for all Christians, as will become evident. What I’m exploring here today provides but a particular instance of the kind of challenge that most Christians regularly face, in infinitely varied forms. In one sense it represents nothing new under the sun, and there is a great tradition of faithful Christian response throughout our history for you to draw upon for instruction and courage. You’ll see what I mean.
Now, let’s get to the substance. Any valid response to the question I’m addressing will necessarily have three components: the empirical, the prudential, and the principial.
Empirical: If you claim that our society is characterized by “historic and ongoing systematic oppression of racial and sexual minorities by white straight people,” you’re making an empirical claim, a claim that is to be assessed by gathering and sifting evidence. It’s not clear to me that Christians will, or should, do this any differently than anyone else. Some Christians will believe the claim to be warranted, and some will not; but I don’t see that what they believe about these matters has any necessary relation to their Christian faith. After all, a Christian might believe — many Christians do believe! — at one and the same time that (a) homosexual acts are forbidden to Christians and (b) straight Christians have singled out gays and lesbians for demonization while turning a blind eye to their own sexual sins. The empirical questions are distinct from the theological ones.
Prudential: It’s when we get to remedies that things get complicated. If your employer is suggesting remedies that you don’t think are ideal — let’s suppose that you’re not opposed to “diversity” hires but think that not enough attention is being paid to professional qualifications; or, again let’s suppose, you think an enormous amount of valuable company time is being devoted to woke “training exercises” — what, as a Christian, do you do? You do what every intelligent person does: You try to exercise prudence. You reflect on the difference between major and minor problems; you think about who in your workplace might serve as your advocate or ally; you look for ways to gently nudge the company in what you believe to be a healthier direction. Meditate on Joseph and Daniel: you think they didn’t have to deal with some messed-up stuff? They put up with certain practices and policies that troubled or even offended them because they had a strategy for faithfulness. If you don’t have one of those, you should think about getting one.
Principial: But of course, as the example of Daniel illustrates, sometimes you’re invited — or rather ordered — to cross a line that you can’t in conscience cross. Most of you will know what that line is when you’re presented with it; it’s very difficult to say in the abstract what it might be. Indeed for me it’s impossible, not knowing your situation. But that will be at the very least a small martyrdom for you, and the rule about martyrdom is very simple: Lord, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will but yours be done. That said, do, please, take prayerful thought to distinguish faithfulness to the True God from obeisance to any of many false gods who forever seek to occupy the highest place. It was the tragedy of Stonewall Jackson’s life that he conflated the cause of the Confederacy with the cause of Christ.
One more post is coming on all this, connecting these general reflections to some of the more technical theological issues. It also will be bad.
This is not the promised follow-up to my recent post on fear, but it certainly concerns related matters. This is a follow-up to my earlier post on “critical theory.” Neil Shenvi has emailed to alert me to people responding to my post. So let me respond to the responses! But just as an initial clarification, I don’t reply on Twitter to people I don’t follow because I never see their tweets. That’s how I have Twitter set up. I recommend that policy to everyone.
I am truly sorry I didn’t know that Lindsay and his colleagues have written frequently about the very terminological confusion I point to in my post. That must be frustrating to them, and I apologize for adding to their frustration. I can only plead as an excuse that I wasn’t aware of the extent of their empire!
The quotes in Shenvi’s post indicate that there’s disagreement among those who critique critical theory about how confusing the term is. Such disagreement confirms the relevance of my post, which, after all, wasn’t meant primarily as criticism of Lindsay et al. so much as a capsule history lesson on all the confusion the term “critical theory” has been causing for decades.
I wish I had time to support these claims in detail, but I don’t, so just for what little it’s worth, here’s my take: The movement Lindsay et al. are opposed to did not originate with the Frankfurt School, and would be largely what it is if Horkheimer and Adorno had never lived. Its raw materials derive from Franz Fanon and Paulo Freire and bell hooks and Edward Said etc. — the people who get quoted by today’s activists! — scholars who rarely if ever refer to the Frankfurt School or, in the case of Said, claim that that school was culpably negligent in its failure to combat racism and colonialism. The crisis of colonialism, and maybe more than anywhere else in French Algeria, has had an almost infinitely greater role in shaping today’s discourse than the Frankfurt School. It was French thought, not German, that dominated American humanities departments in the last third of the 20th century, and bequeathed a vocabulary that people are still using. (Beyond that lie the “masters of suspicion” I mentioned in my post.) One reason that that French discourse — along with certain English-language writers like C. L. R. James and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose “Decolonising the Mind” is hugely influential — has been so dominant is that France and England had vast colonial enterprises and Germany did not. You can hardly overstate the extent to which colonialism has established the terms for current discourse about race and ethnicity and even gender and sexuality. I really do believe that the term “critical theory” misleads people about the relevant history. (By the way, Ngũgĩ decolonized his own mind by ceasing to write in English and turning to Gikuyu instead.)
One might of course argue that all of this intellectual genealogy is beside the point, and what really matters is combating false and dangerous ideas. But the genealogy is what my post was about. Also, I don’t mean that Lindsay and colleagues are wrong about everything, or even about many things. I mean to suggest only that they get the genealogy wrong. I am actually at work, with some other folks, on a project that will address these issues, but I am sworn to secrecy about that right now. More in due course.
Randomly: James Lindsay thinks I’ve been irresponsible in failing to … I’m not sure, do what he does, maybe? I suppose my most recent essay to addresses the same movements that Lindsay does is this one, from 2017; my first one, an ethical critique of deconstruction, and in fact my first published scholarly article, appeared in 1987. So I’ve been at this for a while. But indeed that kind of thing isn’t my chief focus, because quite early on I came to believe that pure critique is a high-demand, low-reward kind of work. It can be helpful if you want to rally your base, but I find it more useful to celebrate what I believe to be true, and true, and beautiful, and embed critique in a larger, more constructive enterprise.
Okay, all that duly noted, I suppose I need to say something in response to a question I get asked all the time: What should be the Christian’s response to this “critical theory”? I’ll do that in my next post — but I will do it badly. This I pledge to you.
In the most recent issue of his newsletter, David French writes,
The fear of the Christian “best” is harming this nation…. [Some], in spite of Christ’s admonition to deny yourself and take up your cross to follow Him, are not willing to risk tweetings when the apostles braved beatings. Their jobs are too precious to risk. Though they enjoy greater freedom from actual censorship than arguably any people in the history of the planet, self-censorship suffices to drive too many thoughtful Christian voices from the academy, the boardroom, and the office. But shrinking back in the face of challenges to career and reputation communicates fear, not faith, to a broken world. While the fearful Christian would never say this out loud, they’re functionally treating the “strong gods” of the partisan political moment as greater and more powerful than the God of the universe they seek to serve.
He also says, “My friend Rod Dreher’s influential blog has become a clearing-house for frightened Christian professionals to (anonymously) express their deep fears.“
So it’s not surprising that Rod replied, thus:
I like and respect David. Let nobody deny his courage in the public arena. I’m serious about that. I agree with him that Christians cannot be silent, that we have to be willing to be criticized, and even suffer for our faith. The most important chapter in Live Not By Lies is the chapter on suffering as Christian witness. But I read David’s essay as way more optimistic than facts warrant. There really is a difference between hard totalitarianism and soft totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is a mindset before it is anything else. Totalitarianism is the idea that there is no area of life that is free from politics — and that also means cultural politics. I don’t believe that we will have a Woke Stasi in this country. But I also believe we won’t need one for the progressive radicals to achieve what they want to do. Justice Alito said in his dissent today that the ruling raises the question of whether employers will force employees to keep quiet regarding their opinions critical of homosexuality and transgenderism. Might you lose your job over your private social media posts affirming what your church teaches? Yes, you might — and you might have no recourse.
So yes, I completely agree with David that Christians should be more bold … but let’s not downplay how much they (we) are going to be made to suffer under the new and emerging cultural and legal regime.
There’s a lot here that needs to be sorted out. Let me make my best effort at the sorting. Here are the key questions:
- Are Christians as such widely in danger of losing their jobs?
- Or, are they merely in danger of losing their social standing, or of getting dragged on Twitter?
- Or, are Christians as such okay, but those Christians who hold traditional views on marriage and sexuality have become personae non gratae in polite society?
- Assuming that you are a Christian in some sort of genuine professional or personal danger, what is the proper Christian response to that?
These are difficult questions, and I would just encourage everyone engaged in these debates to be clear about what specifically they are talking about and what their answers to the above are. Then we can have more meaningful discussions.
In this post I just want to make a couple of points that may provide grist for our common mill.
I’ve met a shockingly large number of closeted academic Christians over the years, and received emails from them. I can think of one visit I made a few years ago to a university that everyone would recognize and recognize as thoroughly secular, at which no fewer than three faculty members approached me when no one else was around to confess, sotto voce, their Christian faith and thank me for my witness. It was obvious that outing themselves as Christians was unthinkable to them. But none of the three had tenure, so I understood. I really doubted whether they would’ve been in danger, because none of them struck me as conservative in their politics or their theology, but people on the tenure clock are easily spooked. The question I found myself asking, though, was: Do they know about one another? I doubted it. But wouldn’t they have been encouraged to know they had company? If even one of them had come out it might have meant a lot to the others.
Which brings me to the person Rod Dreher calls Professor Kingsfield. Professor Kingsfield is a tenured law professor “at one of the country’s elite law schools” who secretly confessed his views to Rod a few years back, and in my judgment Professor Kingsfield ought to be ashamed of himself. Just think of how much encouragement he could have given to other Christians at his law school and elsewhere! He could not have feared losing his job, only potentially the approval of some of his colleagues. The very worst possibility would have been something like being denied promotion from associate to full professor. And he couldn’t face that? He should spend some time reflecting on Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69–155), who, when as an elderly man he was threatened with being burned to death if he did not renounce Christ, replied, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?”
Setting aside whatever judgment he may face when the Lord Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead and he has to explain why he could not bring himself to utter the name of Jesus for terror of the Associate Dean, Professor Kingsfield has dug a hole to hide himself into which others have fallen. A pox, then, on Kingsfield, who has made it more difficult for people who come after him to navigate these difficult days, and a murrain on all of his ilk. On all of them David French’s critique falls forcefully and unambiguously.
However. The situation of the tenured faculty member is an extremely rare one in our world. Very few Americans have the kind of job security Professor Kingsfield and I have, and David French needs to have more sympathy for those who don’t — and who don’t have the benefit that he has, and as far as I can tell has had his entire career, of working for institutions that are either explicitly Christian or explicitly open to Christians. (I have that benefit too!) Should The Dispatch fail, French, thanks to his prominence and a writer and to his previous career as a lawyer, has options to fall back on that few of his fellow American believers have. For them it’s not just a matter of risking “tweetings”: as we have seen countless times, people lose jobs because of what they post on social media or what someone with a smartphone captures them saying on video. And for many millions of Americans, losing a job means losing the ability to feed the family and pay the rent. French’s failure to acknowledge the real potential costs for such Christians is insensitive at best.
That said, I can’t help wondering what would happen if the Christians of America en masse started confessing their faith openly. Not going on a crusade against sexual deviancy or whatever — but simply saying that they believe that Jesus is Lord and that they hope to serve Him, which means to love the Lord their God with all their heart and all their soul and all their mind, and love their neighbors as themselves. To comfort the widows and orphans in their distress. To do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. To put no other gods before Him, even the “strong gods” who preen and strut on social media. (Facebook and Twitter are “principalities and powers,” and we should never forget it.)
I don’t know whether that would “work,” whether it would be “effective.” But those aren’t Christian categories anyway. What matters is being faithful to the God who saves us, and that necessarily has a public dimension.
In his famous Divinity School address, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained about those Trinitarian Christians who “dwell with noxious exaggeration upon the person of Jesus.” I often tell people that I want that to be on my tombstone: He dwelt with noxious exaggeration upon the person of Jesus. If Even a relative handful of us did that, what might happen? One thing’s for sure: We and our neighbors would realize that there are more of us than anyone had thought.
I hope to revisit these and related matters in subsequent posts.
I was a Kickstarter backer of micro.blog and an early enthusiast, but I eventually drifted away from it because I was having trouble getting it to do what I want it to do. In some cases there were bugs in the system — it’s still a new platform, after all — and in some cases my brain was just not getting in sync with it. But I have continued to pay my monthly fee and to cheer it on, and micro.blog’s founding genius Manton Reece has been working away at improving the platform and extending its capabilities. Now I’ve decided to come back. Here’s why:
- My micro.blog page is part of my own domain — it’s on my turf. My data belongs to me.
- I need, for the usual professional reasons, to have a Twitter account, and the frictionless cross-posting from micro.blog allows to me to do so without stepping into the minefields of Twitter itself.
- I used to have an Instagram account, but I hated having even a tiny place in Zuckerworld, and micro.blog offers easy and clean image posting, plus a dedicated page for all my photos.
- Also, I devoted many years to using Pinboard as a bookmark manager, but (a) I was saving too much stuff; (b) the site has only been minimally improved over the past decade — it still lacks a responsive design, which is a crime in 2020; and (c) it’s not on my turf. Why not use micro.blog to post links with brief quotes?
- I’ve been thinking about doing — well, not a podcast as such, but occasional short audio, posts, microcasts one might say. The ability to do that is baked into micro.blog.
So basically micro.blog is a way for me to put everything I do online that is visually small — anything small enough not to require scrolling: quotes, links, images, audio files — in one place, and a place on my own site. The only weird thing about this setup is that it will make me look like I’m super-active on Twitter when I’m barely ever on Twitter. But that’s a small price to pay for moving my stuff out of the walled gardens and onto the open web. And maybe when I don’t have a new book to promote I can deactivate my Twitter account — again.
I’ll continue to use this particular wing of the ayjay.org empire for occasional longer posts, but most of the action will be happening over there. Oh, and it has its own RSS feed too — I recommend that in preference to finding my microposts through Twitter.
UPDATE: Deleted my Twitter. Yes.
Lewis Hamilton, the six-time world champion British Formula One driver, recently criticised his colleagues in the sport for saying nothing in the wake George Floyd’s death.
If any answer to this accusation were required, a reasonable one might have been that it was not their place as mere car racers to comment on such matters. If they had wanted to engage in polemics, however, they might have pointed out that Hamilton had remained silent about many terrible events in the world, for example (to take only one such) the war around the Great Lakes of Central Africa, which so far has claimed not one life, but several million lives. Black lives matter to Hamilton, they might have said, but apparently not the lives of these Africans.
Now, Dalrymple is nothing if not a curmudgeonly traditionalist; and he fails to note that Hamilton linked racism in the U.S. with racism in his own country and the rest of Europe; but still, doesn’t Dalrymple raise an interesting question here? That is: How exactly does a narrative coalesce such that “silence is violence” about some forms of suffering but not others, even if the others have greater scope?
Consider this: Several of the largest tech companies in the world have banded together as The Technology Coalition: “We seek to prevent and eradicate online child sexual exploitation and abuse.” Why is no one — literally no one — demanding that businesses and other institutions make statements against the sexual exploitation of children? Why, for that matter, did I feel that I needed to write something about police brutality in America but not one word about Central African wars, or child sexual exploitation, or China’s treatment of the Uighurs, or a dozen other atrocities that by any rational comparative assessment are worse than police brutality in America?
Well, at least in part I felt the need to write because, as I commented in this earlier post, I’ve been thinking and writing about American racism all my adult life. But as I also note in that post, it wasn’t that long ago that I had to deal with people who criticized me for focusing too much on racial relations. Why has that topic now become something about which there are universal demands for public statements?
Three reasons. The murder of George Floyd (1) happened in America, (2) was captured on a video that seems agonizingly long but is just short enough for people to watch fully, and (3) was shared widely on social media — American social media.
(1) What happens in this country will for obvious reasons be more evident and relevant to Americans than what happens elsewhere, but the U.S. is also the media center of the world, and all eyes are typically drawn here. That’s why anything that Americans obsess over is likely to become at least a point of interest for non-Americans.
(2) George Floyd’s murder was captured on video, and video has power that text does not have. Everyone could see just how long Derek Chauvin crushed George Floyd’s neck, the remorseless asphyxiation as onlookers pleaded with him to stop. But the murder wasn’t bloody and wasn’t grossly violent, and so it could be shown. (The very slowness that makes it horrible also makes it publishable.) Compare that with child sexual exploitation, which is often recorded on video but which Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t allow anyone to post; or with depredations that never get filmed at all. We are often at the mercy of the emotions aroused by what’s put before our eyes. We feel the need for catharsis, for some kind of purging of what we have seen. Our visual cortex orients our attention and our moral response.
(3) Social media are force multipliers for America-centrism and visual stimulation; and they multiply these forces in the way they always do, by generating herd effects and the madness of crowds. The particular kind of madness generated here is a mania for unanimity that doesn’t just punish dissent, but even punishes agreement if the agreement isn’t loud enough or phrased in precisely the correct way. And this moment certainly leaves no room for those who aren’t paying much attention to George Floyd because they’re concerned with the seemingly endless wars in Central Africa or with the horrific specter of child sexual exploitation.
By contrast, I think there are so many cruelties and injustices in this world that anyone who is working to constrain any of them should be applauded. And no one should assume that others are inactive simply because they’re not strutting and fretting their hour upon the social-media stage. It turns out that the biggest problem with the herd mentality is the hatred generated for anyone who won’t — for any reason — join that herd. There’s no violence in silence about a problem the great majority of the angriest weren’t thinking about in April and won’t be thinking about in August either. I am glad that the death of George Floyd has forced many Americans to confront injustices that we have ignored or minimized for far too long; but if you’re just using Floyd’s death as an excuse to coerce and threaten others, you’re not helping.
Stochastic resonance (SR) is a phenomenon where a signal that is normally too weak to be detected by a sensor, can be boosted by adding white noise to the signal, which contains a wide spectrum of frequencies. The frequencies in the white noise corresponding to the original signal’s frequencies will resonate with each other, amplifying the original signal while not amplifying the rest of the white noise (thereby increasing the signal-to-noise ratio which makes the original signal more prominent). Further, the added white noise can be enough to be detectable by the sensor, which can then filter it out to effectively detect the original, previously undetectable signal.
This works for sound and image alike, for example:
SR may help to explain why some people learn better when surrounded by white noise — thus writers who hang out in coffee shops. SR has been identified in the sensory neurobiology of many creatures, but I don’t understand that stuff at all, so please don’t have any illusions about my competence to grasp serious scientific ideas.
I mention all this because I think reading texts from the past — something about which I have written a book — is a way of usefully introducing stochastic resonance into our mental lives. Maybe I’m stretching a metaphor here, but bear with me.
Some people say we live in an age of information overload. Clay Shirky has said that it’s not information overload but rather “filter failure.” A slightly different way to put Shirky’s point is to say that a super-surplus of input makes it difficult for us to discern genuine information, to distinguish signal from noise. We can’t sift and sort and bring order to all the stuff assaulting us.
But if you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.
When you approach the text from the past on its own terms and for its own sake, it becomes a kind of white noise in relation to present concerns. Your attention to the long ago and far away makes the tumult and the shouting die, the captains and the kings depart. (Allusion alert!) It’s when the current environment lies outside the scope of your attention, when you neither seek nor expect any connection to it, that you make room for random resonances to form.
And when they do form, you begin to discern the really key features of your moment more clearly. An image begins to appear where there had been formlessness. Useless and pernicious statements start to recede into the background as you perceive them for what they are. The salient and the helpful points move to the forefront of your attention.
You can’t force this to happen — indeed, any attempt to force it will result in the simple confirmation of what you already think. It’s only when the resonances feel truly random — when they arise at moments when you’re not looking for or expecting them — that they have the power of clarification. You can predict that resonances will occur; but you can’t predict when they’ll show up or what they’ll be.
This may be a subset of the Eureka phenomenon, but at the moment I’m inclined to think that it’s largely distinct from that, though not unrelated.
By the way, I think all that I’ve described here describes equally well the experience of reading much science fiction and fantasy. The fact that almost all of my leisure reading is (a) old books, (b) SF, (c) fantasy suggests that my fundamental orientation as a reader is a hopeful openness to stochastic resonance.
On January 25, Joe Biden tweeted that “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.” The. I texted a friend, “Because we’ve fixed all the problems Martin Luther King was concerned about?”
When the #MeToo movement was dominating public attention, I remember hearing Christian commentators say that if you‘re a preacher and you’re not preaching about #MeToo you’re failing your congregation. Later, or maybe before, it was the border crisis that was the obligatory homiletic topic. Those same commentators are now equally insistent about preaching on George Floyd and systemic racism — and yet, as far as I know, neither systemic sexism nor government-sponsored xenophobia have been conquered.
I’m reminded of a motif in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. From time to time in the book some character comments that “Time passes” — to which some other character replies, “That’s how it goes. But not so much.” This is the correct reply: Not so much.
A couple of years ago I gave a lecture at a university on difference and civility — it wasn’t this talk but it was on similar themes — and in the Q&A afterwards I got some pushback against my reliance on examples from the Civil Rights Movement and the broader history of American racial politics. The people pushing back thought I should’ve been talking about … topics of more recent attention. I replied with two points. First, I said, I grew up in Alabama during the Civil Rights era and what happened there and then has left a permanent mark on me. I didn’t end up making it my academic speciality to work on such matters, but I have written about them off and on my entire career, and expect that I will continue to do so. Second, I said, I don’t believe matters of race are any less fraught in America 2018 than they were in America 1968.
Human beings have overwhelmingly powerful cravings for novelty and unanimity. We want new problems to face, because we’re tired of the old ones: they bore us, and remind us of our failures to solve them. And, especially in times of stress, we crave environments in which dissent is silenced and even mere difference is erased. We call that “solidarity,” but it‘s more like an instinctual bullying. You must attend to the thing I am attending to. I despise both of those tendencies. They’ve turned everyone into attention muggers.
If three months ago you were primarily focused on addressing sexism in the workplace, it seems to me that you ought to be allowed, indeed encouraged, to keep thinking about and working on that now, when everyone else is talking about police brutality. If your passionate concern is the lack of health care in poor communities, here or abroad, I think you should feel free to stick with that, even if it means not joining in protests against police racism. If you’ve turned your farm into a shelter for abused or neglected animals, and caring for them doesn’t leave you time to get on social media with today’s approved hashtags, bless you. You’re doing the Lord’s work.
As for me, I will probably continue to do what I’ve done most of my life, which is to think and pray and sometimes write about racism — even when Twitter and the media that are governed by Twitter have moved on, as assuredly they will, to some new topic about which they will insist that everyone state the correct opinion. Neither novelty nor unanimity is a social good.
Anywhere you like, somewhere
on broad-chested life-giving Earth,
anywhere between her thirstlands
and undrinkable Ocean,
the crowd stands perfectly still,
its eyes (which seem one) and its mouths
(which seem infinitely many)
expressionless, perfectly blank.
The crowd does not see (what everyone sees)
a boxing match, a train wreck,
a battleship being launched,
does not wonder (as everyone wonders)
who will win, what flag she will fly,
how many will be burned alive,
is never distracted
(as everyone is always distracted)
by a barking dog, a smell of fish,
a mosquito on a bald head:
the crowd sees only one thing
(which only the crowd can see)
an epiphany of that
which does whatever is done.
Whatever god a person believes in,
in whatever way he believes,
(no two are exactly alike)
as one of the crowd he believes
and only believes in that
in which there is only one way of believing.
Few people accept each other and most
will never do anything properly,
but the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
is the only thing all men can do.
I’ve read several articles and posts recently featuring the same conceit: that COVID–19 and police violence are the “twin plagues” or “parallel plagues” of black America. This is in one important sense highly misleading. It’s too simple and therefore easy to refute or ignore. But that’s not the whole story.
If you visit the Mapping Police Violence site, you’ll see near the top of the page this statement: “Police killed 1,098 people in 2019.” Then, a little farther down the page, you get the information that “Black people were 24% of those killed despite being only 13% of the population.” Which means that American police killed 263 black people last year. It’s not clear how many black people have died from COVID–19, but a reasonable estimate would be 25,000. That means that the coronavirus has killed 95 times more black Americans in just a few months than police killed in all of 2019. Put that way, the plagues scarcely seem comparable, do they?
But let’s not leave it at that. What we need here, if we’re going to continue to speak the language of plague, that is, the language of disease, is the distinction between acute and chronic affliction. I’m speaking metaphorically here, in terms of how whole populations are affected by some invasive, destructive force, whether it’s a literal biological disease or not. I’m thinking of the black population of America as a single body. And in relation to that body COVID–19 is an acute disorder. It has sprung up quickly, out of nowhere, and afflicted people intensely. It just might go away. (From my keyboard to God’s ears.)
Police violence, by contrast, is a chronic disorder. It goes on year after year after year, decade after decade after decade. I have not experienced anything like that, but I expect that something of the endless tension of it is captured in this famous passage from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n****r,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Take a look again at that long, long sentence in the middle of the passage, how it goes on and on, how you keep pausing for a second but only a second, never being able to stop long enough to catch your breath. “Living constantly at tiptoe stance.” A chronic affliction.
My dear friend Garnette Cadogan just posted a reflection on these matters, and if you listen to the music he chose to accompany his words you’ll note this theme again and again. To cite just one example, this from KRS-One:
My grandfather had to deal with the cops
My great-grandfather dealt with the cops
My great grandfather had to deal with the cops
And then my great, great, great, great — when it’s gonna stop?
That’s why Toni Morrison, in a passage also quoted by Garnette, speaks of a cry that has “no bottom and no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
If you think of the black population of this country as a body, then COVID–19 is indeed a terrible plague ravaging it. The fear, the expectation, of police violence isn’t like that: it’s instead a misery that the body (the whole body of black Americans) must suffer and suffer and suffer, with no end in sight. People who have chronic diseases know that what’s attacking them probably won’t kill them — but even if it doesn’t, it might make them wish they were dead. It frays their nerves. It disrupts their sleep. It damages their relationships and weakens their judgment. It makes them vulnerable to other afflictions that really could kill them.
If you’re a black person in America, walking down the streets of a city, the cops probably won’t stop you. But they might. If a cop stops you, he probably won’t kill you. But he might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. The constant awareness of that possibility is itself an affliction. Garnette’s essay and the music associated with it testify to that.
We shouldn’t conflate the sudden onset of COVID–19 and the endless tension that arises from walking, or doing anything else, while black. But keeping them conceptually distinct, we can still see them as have this essential thing in common: they attack the bodies of black Americans, they attack the social body that is Black America.
Those of us who are white don’t know much, firsthand, about that chronic affliction. But you know, while the coronavirus itself might be acute, for all of us concern about it has become chronic. Buying groceries probably won’t make us ill. But it might. And if we get ill, we probably won’t die. But we might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. We’re learning how to live at tiptoe stance. Our nerves are fraying after just a few months. Imagine what it would be like to live this way all our lives long.
I am not arguing for a return to some sort of view-from-nowhere style of journalism. I have no problem identifying as both a journalist but also as a progressive and someone who dislikes Trump rather fiercely. There is nothing wrong with having your journalism be driven by a sense of general ideological mission; some of the best journalists covering the working poor care deeply about the working poor, believe they are treated unfairly, and want to see their station improved. They’re still capable of, and produce, honest journalism.
What I am saying is that if you call yourself a journalist, there needs to be some distance, somewhere, between your tribal allegiances and the way you do your job.
Accuracy norms are about, well, accuracy: People who subscribe to accuracy norms are most concerned with spreading true claims, and with debunking false ones. Rightside norms are about being on the right ‘side’ of a given controversy: People who subscribe to rightside norms are more concerned with showing that they are on the right side of a given controversy, and that the people on the other side are morally suspect, than they are with accuracy, at least in a zoomed-in sense. […]
If you’re in a group in which rightside norms prevail, you face a weird set of incentives:
1) It will often harm your group standing to point out that a false claim is false
2) It will often benefit your group standing to pile on a figure who has been unfairly accused of something by broadcasting evidence pertaining not to the claim in question, but to his or her broader (ostensible) moral worthlessness
3) It will often benefit your group standing to punish those who seek to debunk false claims against ‘bad’ figures
Imagine experiencing all this over and over, outrage after outrage.
I’m re-reading Kim Stanley Robinson‘s magnificent Mars trilogy right now, which might be something to blog about in the coming days and weeks, so why not get started?
Not long ago I was in a Zoom conversation with several people, one of whom is a very distinguished scientist, and he told me that when he read my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 and got to the end, he felt that I had given short shrift to the virtues of technocracy. He thinks technocracy would be a pretty good thing, especially as compared with the plausible alternatives. The conversation veered onto other paths soon after that, possibly more fruitful ones, but before it did I sketched out an answer that I want to develop a little more fully here — because it’s a little different than the view I (implicitly) endorse in that book, which is that Technocracy Is Bad. What I think I now want to say is Technocracy Is Impossible.
You see, in the strict sense there cannot be a technocracy as such, and Mars trilogy proves that point. If you read that story, you will discover that it is really more about politics than it is about the exploration of Mars, or perhaps it would be better to say, it demonstrates irresistibly that none of our scientific or technological pursuits can be detached from deliberations about the character of our lives together, that is to say, deliberations about politics.
Right from the beginning of the story there is great debate, forceful and even sometimes hostile debate, among the First Hundred — the 100 (or, to be precise, 101) people who are sent from Earth to start the first Mars colony — about what sort of society they should form once they get there. They are theoretically responsible to the national governments that sent them and to the U.N., but one of the things that becomes clear to them as even as they’re on their way to Mars is that upon arrival they’re going to have to make their own decisions about how to order their common life. And so a great deal of the book is about, for lack of a better phrase, political philosophy.
One of the things we are occasionally reminded of in the first book of the trilogy, Red Mars, is the international celebrity of the First Hundred. People back on Earth obsessively watch video of the colonists, and enter passionately into their debates:
So nearly everyone had an opinion. Polls showed that most supported the Russell program, an informal name for Sax’s plans to terraform the planet by all means possible, as fast as they could. But the minority who backed Ann’s hands-off attitude tended to be more vehement in their belief, insisting that it had immediate applications to the Antarctic policy, and indeed to all Terran environmental policy. Meanwhile different poll questions made it clear that many people were fascinated by Hiroko and the farming project, while others called themselves Bogdanovists; Arkady had been sending back lots of video from Phobos, and Phobos was good video, a real spectacle of architecture and engineering. New Terran hotels and commercial complexes were already imitating some of its features, there was an architectural movement called Bogdanovism, as well as other movements interested in him that were more concentrated on social and economic reforms in the world order.
All of this makes more sense if you have read the books and know the characters, but even if you haven’t, I think you’ll get the general picture. Terrans are not only interested in what the colonists will do to organize life on Mars, they‘re reflecting on the implications of those ideas for life on Earth.
For me, here’s the key thing: When you have an environment completely dominated by scientists and engineers — the only non-scientist we meet is a psychologist, sent to provide therapy to the colonists — there is no agreement among them about what kind of life they should live together. That is, scientific and technological expertise does not correlate with any particular mode of social and political organization. Scientists can vary just as much in their beliefs about what kind of life is worth living as any randomly selected group of people in a society. They don’t even agree about the importance of technology. Rule could theoretically be given over to people who have demonstrated certain kinds of scientific or technical knowledge, but we would be wrong to think that everyone who has the same level of STEM achievement will have the same views about politics. When you read Robinson’s great trilogy you will understand not only why this might be so but why it must be so.
Therefore it makes no sense to say that the decisions of political leaders should be governed by “the science.” Leaders should pay attention to scientists, dramatically more than the current Presidential administration does, but an immunologist will say one thing, an epidemiologist something slightly different, an economist something altogether other. The various sciences and academic disciplines will not speak with a single voice, indeed will not speak at all: individual scholars will speak, and what they say will arise from a combination of their scholarly expertise and their beliefs (derived from non-scientific sources) about what matters most in life, and a good political leader will have the general intelligence and moral discernment to sift the various messages he or she receives and make a decision based on all the relevant input. Which is another way of saying that there are not, nor will there ever be, charts and algorithms that can substitute for political judgment. Alas for the U.S.A. that political judgment is precisely what our leadership lacks.
Yesterday I got a sweet email from my friend Francis Spufford, expressing his prayerful concern for the condition of my country right now, and I replied,
It’s getting harder to maintain hope, and harder still to maintain charity towards Certain People. I told Teri yesterday that I’m ready to move to a cabin in the desert of West Texas and check back in with humanity in 2030. In the unlikely event that things will be better.
Francis answered that “If you do that, you may of course find yourself operating a scriptorium, where the works of St Wystan are copied by hand so they may survive the dark age to come….”
In the current circumstances, that doesn’t seem like the worst way to pass my remaining years.
But Francis also pointed me to this reflection by the Reverend Canon Jessica Martin — whom Francis happens to be married to — about a very small moment very long ago, featuring two very small people, that carries, for those with ears to hear, a very large hope.
Public health depends on economic balance. Basil and Ambrose both condemned as toxic the economic profiteering of high-interest loans, describing the devastating losses they caused for those afflicted with unemployment and need. For Basil usury was a fatal, chronically self-devouring disease like a wild animal; its metastasizing growth, he implied, feeds on itself and its host to the destruction of differentiation, a disordered body, family, and property undermining civic stability. (Hom. Ps. 14b). If you are the financier, better to forgive the interest at least—or, best, write off the entire loan as a gift. The godly capitalism of right material practices was, he said, at core about thanksgiving. Addressing grain-hoarders during a famine, he wrote: “As costly capital, preserve thanksgiving in your soul….Cling twice as tenaciously to thanksgiving as you do to luxury.” (Hom. 8.6)
Economics are so bound to illness that the sick poor are “twice poor,” say Gregory of Nazianzus’ and Gregory of Nyssa’s respective sermons titled “On the love of the poor.” A Christian’s right response to their plight demands direct identification of them with the body of Christ, modeling aid action on God’s liberal and indiscriminate generosity for creation. Such “love” is not simply mercy but righteousness.
Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
— Book of Common Prayer (1928)
Once I saw how things were going I got away from Twitter and stopped checking my RSS reader. I didn’t want to hear any news, mainly because I knew that there wouldn’t be much news as such — though there would be vast tracts of reason-bereft, emotionally-incontinent opinionating. And I don’t need that. Ever.
Instead, I’ve just read Ron Chernow‘s massive and quite excellent biography of George Washington. It’s been a useful as well as an enjoyable experience. For one thing, it reminds me what actual leadership looks like; and for another, it reminds me of how deeply flawed even the best leaders can be, and how profoundly wrong. As is always the case when I spend some serious time with the past, I get perspective. I see the good and the bad of my own time with more clarity and accuracy. And if anything vital has happened over the past few days while I’ve been reading, I’ve got plenty of time to catch up. As I’ve said before, I prefer to take my news a week at a time anyway, not minute by minute.
One theme in Chernow’s biography particularly sticks with me. It concerns the end of Washington’s second administration and his brief period as an ex-President (he lived only two-and-a-half years after departing the office). That was a time when when political parties in something like the modern sense of the term — though many of the Founders referred to the power and danger of “Factions” — dramatically strengthened. It was also a time when journalists who supported one faction would say pretty much anything to discredit the other one, would make up any sort of tale. John Adams, violently angered by all the lies told about him and his colleagues — and there really were lies, outrageous lies, about him, just as there were about Washington near the end of his second term — strongly supported and oversaw the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts to punish journalistic bias and fake news, as well as to deter immigration — though Adams and his fellow in-power Federalists were only concerned to punish the lies that worked against their policies, not the lies that worked in their favor. (Plenty of those circulated also.) Washington, rather surprisingly and disappointingly, thought these laws good ones.
I draw certain lessons from this whole sordid history. Habitual dishonesty, on the part of politicians and journalists alike, inflames partisanship. You exaggerate the nastiness of your political opponents, and that leads people in your camp to think of the other side not as fellow citizens with whom you disagree on policy, but rather something close to moral monsters. Gratified by your increasingly tight bond with the like-minded, you stretch your exaggerations into outright lies, which gain even more rapturous agreement within your Ingroup and more incandescent anger against the Outgroup. Dishonesty begets partisanship, and partisanship begets further dishonesty. It’s a classic vicious circle.
And one more phenomenon is begotten by all this malice. Wheeled around in this accelerating circle of your own devising, you become incapable of comprehending, or even seeing, something that it is absolutely necessary for every wise social actor to know: In some situations all parties act badly. Sometimes there are no good guys, just fools and knaves, blinded to the true character of their own behavior by their preening partisan self-righteousness.
Americans have never more desperately needed reliable knowledge than we do now; also, Americans have never been less inclined to trust experts, who are by definition the people supposed to possess the reliable knowledge. There are many reasons why we have landed ourselves in this frustratingly paradoxical situation, and there’s no obvious way out of it. But I want to suggest that there’s one small thing that journalists can do to help: Stop using the word “experts.”
Of course, expertise is a real thing! — though perhaps not quite as commonplace a thing as is widely believed. In most of life’s situations we understand the value of expertise: few of us try to repair our own computers, and none of us decides to remove his own spleen. But occasionally we draw a line.
Some are inclined to draw that line in strange places — say, believing that the moon landing was faked, or that the world is ruled by lizard people. But the really common dissents seem to come in matters of health: you might not know any moon-landing skeptics or lizard-people True Believers, but you surely have an anti-vaxxer cousin, or an aunt whose belief in the healing power of essential oils persists in defiance of her doctor’s counsel. And if you’re going to try to persuade those dissenters from standard opinion to change their minds, almost the worst thing you can do it appeal to “experts.”
There are three reasons for this. The first is that many people with genuine expertise in a given field have a difficult time staying in their lane. I have long thought that the perfect example of this is the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The question of whether we are close to nuclear war is a political question, not a scientific one; an “atomic scientist” has no reasonable claim to knowing any more about it than you do, at least, not by virtue of being an atomic scientist. (Factoring climate change into the Doomsday scenario doesn’t help matters much, because atomic scientists aren’t climate scientists any more than they are psychiatrists or nutritionists.)
A second reason that invocations of expertise often fail is simply that people with equivalent expertise in the same field often disagree. This leads to the phenomenon, familiar to anyone who has ever flipped from one cable news station to another, of Dueling Experts.
The third, and most important, reason why appeals to expertise are futile is that the term “expert” functions as a kind of class marker. An expert is One Who Knows, a member of the noocracy or epistocracy — and you are not. “Experts say” is a phrase that often carries a strong implication: “So shut up and heed your betters.” This is not the sort of message that Americans like, even when maybe they ought to.
My suggestion to journalists, then, is simple: Never use the word “expert.” If you are tempted to say “We talked to an expert,” say instead that you talked to an immunologist, or an epidemiologist — and then take a moment to explain what an immunologist or epidemiologist actually is. Tell us that you talked to someone who has spent twenty years studying the ways that diseases are transmitted, especially from one person to another. Yes, that takes longer than saying “expert,” but it’s worth it. To describe the person you’re interviewing or quoting in that more detailed way tells a little story, a story not about someone standing on a pedestal labeled “EXPERT,” but rather a person who is continually working to learn more. A person who has thought hard, and tested her ideas, and worked with colleagues who care about the same things. A person whom we should listen to not because she belongs to a certain class that’s higher than ours, but rather because she‘s dedicated to gaining knowledge — and knowledge directly relevant to the questions we’re all asking right now.
It should be obvious that this discipline will also ensure that journalists rely on people with the appropriate knowledge. When you’re scrambling to find someone to interview or cite and can only find someone whose field is but tangentially related to the question at hand, he word “expert” can neatly obscure your problem.
All this takes more time and effort. But the word “expert” has been poisoned now for millions of people, and not always for bad reasons. I know that in journalism time is often short and word-count limited, but journalists have a responsibility to educate as well as inform their public, and this is a way to do that better. After all, you want to be an expert communicator, don’t you?
And among such false means largeness of scale in the dwelling-house was of course one of the easiest and most direct. All persons, however senseless or dull, could appreciate size: it required some exertion of intelligence to enter into the spirit of the quaint carving of the Gothic times, but none to perceive that one heap of stones was higher than another. And therefore, while in the execution and manner of work the Renaissance builders zealously vindicated for themselves the attribute of cold and superior learning, they appealed for such approbation as they needed from the multitude, to the lowest possible standard of taste; and while the older workman lavished his labor on the minute niche and narrow casement, on the doorways no higher than the head, and the contracted angles of the turreted chamber, the Renaissance builder spared such cost and toil in his detail, that he might spend it in bringing larger stones from a distance; and restricted himself to rustication and five orders, that he might load the ground with colossal piers, and raise an ambitious barrenness of architecture, as inanimate as it was gigantic, above the feasts and follies of the powerful or the rich.John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice
Recently there’s been a lot of talk among conservatives about “critical theory,” and it’s been puzzling me. So finally I looked into the matter and think there’s some confusion that needs to be sorted out.
The person who has been leading the charge in the identification and denunciation is James Lindsay, of the grievance studies hoax fame, and he has helped to generate a whole discourse about critical theory, much of which you can find at Areo Magazine. If you look at the essays there, you’ll see some that identify critical theory quite closely with the works of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer — the leading members of the so-called Frankfurt School — but then others, who clearly think that they’re talking about the same phenomenon, lump Adorno and Horkheimer together with thinkers who differ from them quite dramatically, like Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Lindsay himself uses the term “critical theory” in extraordinarily flexible ways, sometimes quite narrowly and sometimes expansively. It can be hard to tell in any given sentence of his what the intended range of reference is.
To someone like me who has been studying and teaching and writing about this stuff for thirty years, the whole discourse is pretty disorienting because, frankly, so much of it is just wrong. It’s like listening to people talking about a “Harvard school” of political theory that features John Rawls and Robert Nozick; or a “California school” of governance to which both Ronald Reagan and Gavin Newsom belong.
However, the folks who write for Areo didn’t arrive at this confusion all by themselves. It’s endemic to the humanistic disciplines, in which “theory” can be used in many ways, some of which involves the acts of social and cultural and literary “criticism” — which of course is also an ambiguous word, since it can denote close attentiveness or a negative view of something. I am an Auden critic, but that doesn’t mean I am critical of Auden. All these things get mixed up together, and have done so for a long time. Decades ago, when I started teaching a class on these themes at Wheaton College, the class was called “Critical Theory,” but what it was really about was “Literary Theory.” I asked for the name of the course to be changed because I thought that the phrase “critical theory” should be reserved for the Frankfurt School tradition, but several of my colleagues were puzzled by this request, thinking that “critical theory” and “literary theory” were functionally synonymous terms. I seem to recall one saying that the existing description was better because the class was really about literary criticism rather than literature as such. Theory of criticism = critical theory.
So no wonder Lindsay and his colleagues get confused. But let’s try to straighten things out a bit.
In the broadest sense, literary theory and cultural theory are academic disciplines based on the conviction that the ways we think about our humanistic subjects are not self-evidently correct and require investigation, reflection, and in some cases correction. This impulse arises in part from the experience of teaching, in which we discover that our students tend to do things with literary and historical texts — for instance, decide whether they like a book or a historical account on the basis of whether or not they “relate” to its most prominent characters — that we would prefer them not to do. But also, there was some 80 years ago a fight in America (it happened earlier and rather differently in the U.K.) to convince academic administrations that the study of literature was not simply impressionistic, like some higher book club, and writing about literature was not merely belletristic. Rather, we’re doing serious, disciplined academic work over here! And to prove it, and then to teach our students, we’re developing a theory.
All this ferment is of course related to science envy: the need to reckon with the fear that science has a method and humanistic study does not. A theory at least approximates a method, and there arose some considerable agitá about whether there’s anything scientific (truly methodical) about what literary critics do. The most influential literary critic of the middle of the twentieth century, Northrop Frye, said in his landmark book Anatomy of Criticism that literature is not a science but literary criticism is, or should be. Not everyone agreed, but everyone did seem to think that literary criticism needed to give an account of itself, needed to specify and enumerate its procedures. In a famous essay, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels defined theory as “the attempt to govern interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general.” They didn’t think this could actually work, which is why they called their essay “Against Theory,” but even people who agreed that it didn’t work, like Stanley Fish, still acknowledged the necessity of “theory talk.”
So this theory talk — which started in Europe well before the likes of Northrop Frye came around — spawned a proliferation of schools, and not just in literary study but also in other humanistic disciplines, among which there was a great deal of overlap in terminology and approach. And, in relation to the arguments that James Lindsay makes, almost none of this was closely related to the Frankfurt School’s “critical theory.” Adorno and Horkheimer and friends had some influence, to be sure, but not not nearly as much as, say, the structuralism that made its way into literary study via Claude Levi-Strauss’s anthropology, or the various psychological theories that stemmed from the work of Freud and Jung. Then came post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, gender theory, body theory, postcolonial theory, ecocriticism — all of which were critical and theoretical but usually had only minimal overlap with the concerns of the Frankfurt School. (The figure that I think most generative for Critical Race Theory, Franz Fanon, was in no way connected to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, as far as I can tell. All of his guiding lights were French.) Certainly each movement operated according to their own internal logic.
But there is among all of these a family resemblance, just not one in which the Frankfurt School has any kind of initiating role. All of these movements assume that (a) most of the time we don’t really know what we’re doing and (b) we’d rather not know, because if we did know why we do the things we do we might not like it. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously wrote that all of these recent movements descend from the three great nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century “masters of suspicion”: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, the “destroyers” of the common illusions from which we derive so much of our placid self-satisfaction. So if you’re going to blame anyone for the corrosive skepticism of Critical Race Theory and the like, you’ll need to start well before the Frankfurt School.
And one more thing: as Ricoeur knew perfectly well, there were other great destroyers of illusions in the nineteenth century, perhaps chief among them Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky — but those two did it in the name of the Christian faith. Because no less than Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky knew that the human heart is deceitful above all things, and added that it is deceitful in ways that we cannot through our own efforts fix. Perhaps the chief problem with the masters of suspicion, and their heirs, is not that they are too suspicious but that they are not suspicious enough. Especially about themselves.
The question I would ask churches that are re-opening without masks or distancing, but with lots of congregational singing, is: How do you think infectious disease works, exactly? How do you think COVID–19 is transmitted? What’s the theory you’re operating on?
I’m going to assume that the leaders of such churches believe that infectious diseases exist, that there are illnesses that pass from person to person via contact or proximity. I am also going to assume that they believe that COVID–19 is one of these infectious diseases.
I wonder how many such leaders are aware that health organizations all over the world — not just American organizations run by Trump-hating libtards — generally agree about how COVID–19 is transmitted? See for instance this poster from the Japanese Ministry of Health:
And perhaps they have read about the dramatic and terrible rate of illness among the members of this community choir?
Given all the information available, I’m wondering what they actually believe — not just about what their rights are, or about what they should be allowed to do — but rather about this disease. Some of the more likely options:
- It’s all fake news, even that thing from Japan. There’s nothing to worry about, COVID–19 is no worse than the flu. All those reports of death? FAKE NEWS. Massive conspiracy concocted by global elites.
- Some of it is true, but the dangers are dramatically exaggerated by the global elites, we’ll probably be fine. Also, masks don’t work.
- It was very dangerous, but it’s all over now — the President wouldn’t be telling us to open up if it weren’t safe to do so.
- It’s still dangerous, but we’re putting our trust in God, counting on Him to protect us.
- It doesn’t matter whether it’s dangerous or not. If we perish, we perish. We may all get sick, we may all even die, but we’re not supposed to count the cost of following the Lord.
My guess is that the churches choosing to open — when they can; some that want to are now forbidden to do so — are using any and all of the above options as needed. Theirs is a castle with many mottes and many baileys. I don’t believe that churches re-opening for business-as-usual, or seeking to re-open for business-as-usual, have assessed the evidence and made prudential judgments in light of that evidence. They have decided to act on what they want to do, and then will employ whatever ex post facto justifications seem best in the moment, according to the arguments marshaled against them.
So we should expect to see any of the five defenses listed above, and perhaps others I have neglected, deployed from once moment to the next, even though those defenses aren’t necessarily consistent with one another. The answer to my initial question, then, is that the leaders and members of such churches will believe whatever at a given moment seems useful to justify acting on their desires. ’Cause in much of America today, that’s how we roll.
Nothing is stupider than using Twitter to write anything longer than, you know, a tweet. This we know.
It’s a terrible experience first for the writer and then for the reader. Thread Reader is meant to make things less miserable for readers, and to some degree it accomplishes that, but whenever someone sends me a thread — I would never choose to look at one — you know what I inevitably think? Lordy, this is badly written. See, Thread Reader can’t do anything to reverse the damage the 280-character limit inflicts on a person’s writing: such writing is invariably choppy, imprecise, abstract, syntactically naïve or incompetent, lacking in appropriate transitions — a total mess in every respect. (Some of this happens because the writers get distracted by comments that start coming in before they’ve finished the thread, but an undistracted threader is still a poor writer.)
When you write a Twitter thread, what you are telling me is that you don’t care about your own ideas enough to articulate and display them in a proper venue. And if you don’t have respect for your own ideas, you certainly can’t expect me to.
You don’t have to create a blog of your own to post something to the web. You can use a free service like Rentry — I used to recommend also txt.fyi but I think it’s dead. You can even do what the celebs do and write something in Apple Notes, screenshot it, and tweet it as an image. There are a hundred ways to post longer-than–280-characters writing to Twitter, and when you write threads you are choosing the very worst one.
In a new and extra-special edition of his newsletter, Robin Sloan writes about why he likes texts that have “a modular structure, an accelerated pace — a bit of TV’s DNA grafted into the capacious form of the book.” And he thinks about how this kind of writing, as exemplified by Georges Simenon’s brief, arrowing Maigret novels, court the world of pulp:
And while the utter disposability of a lot of pulp (culturally as well as physically) isn’t appealing, some of its other characteristics are VERY appealing. Speed! Unpretentiousness. Accessibility. And seriality, of course: the feeling of discovering the first installment in a series and, if you like it, zooming forward, absolutely devouring it, until you join the mass of readers who are caught up, waiting for the next release.
And then he says, “Okay, so, for many years, I’ve thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to produce something with that shape? — an ongoing series of relatively small pieces published at a steady clip, gathered up later into something substantial.”
I find this thought both interesting and appealing, and I want to expand it. because Robin is also helping to write a video game, creating his own video game, sending little stories in the mail … and I wonder whether the idea of many “small pieces published at a steady clip, gathered up later into something substantial” might encompass not just pieces that are published in the familiar genres of fiction but might also extend to other genres and even other media altogether. You could end up with something like a multifaceted jewel, a body of work that has a kind of thematic integrity, but an integrity that might be discernible in full only by the person who made it.
But maybe to some considerable degree by the most sympathetic and attentive of readers/viewers/listeners/players. Owen Barfield once wrote of his friend C. S. Lewis, “There was something in the whole quality and structure of his thinking, something for which the best label I can find is ‘presence of mind.’ If I were asked to expand on that, I could say only that somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he thought about anything.”
A consummation devoutly to be wished, as I think about my own career anyway.
Bruce Sterling has just announced that he’s wrapping up his 17-year run on his blog. I’m going to quote at length:
I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.
It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use….
A blog evaporates through bit-rot. Yet even creative work which is abandoned and seen by no one is often useful exercise. One explores, one adventures by finding “new ground” that often just isn’t worth it; it’s arid and lunar ground, there’s nothing to farm, but unless you venture beyond and explore, you will never know that. Often, it’s the determined act of writing it down that allows one to realize the true sterility of a silly idea; that’s how the failure gets registered in memory; “oh yes, I tried that, there’s nothing there.”
Or: maybe there is nothing there yet. Or: it may be ‘nothing’ for me in particular, but great for you. “Nothing” comes in many different flavors.
What I find interesting is how Sterling thinks of the whole set of writing venues, from private notebook to blog to published fiction and nonfiction, as a single endeavor, each element of which is necessary but not in predictable ways. And what those elements are necessary to is the development of his own thinking.
I think what Robin Sloan and Bruce Sterling in their posts are pointing me towards, whether they mean to or not, is a different way of looking at these matters. Maybe the really important thing is not whether an idea gets published, or the genre or medium in which it makes its way into the world, but the integrity of my Gedankenwelt, my thoughtworld. A kind of Wittgensteinian reorientation in which publication may happen, but whether it does or not is effectively external to the real project.
I’d like to get to that posture of serenity and unconcern, but instead I spend a lot of time worrying over the relations among the various kinds of writing I do. And it occurs to me that the major impediment to my achieving what I have just decided to call Wittgenzen is the publishing industry.
Now, to be sure, and without any doubt, the publishing industry has been very good to me. I am enormously grateful to my agent and my editors for bringing my voice before the public. But one thing the publishing industry, for understandable reasons, doesn’t like is to pay for something that has been made public, even in part, somewhere else. The more I write about something on this blog, the lower the chance that I will be able to sell a more-fully-developed version of it to a publisher.
And yet blogging, for reasons Bruce Sterling has laid out, is good for thinking, for my thinking anyway. To borrow a metaphor from my friend Sara Hendren, who borrow it from engineering, blogging is a kind of sketch modeling: something more ordered and structured that notebook jottings, and less fixed and complete than a published book. Moreover, blogging is formally networked in ways that neither notebooks or books are: each post is linked not only to the online writings, or images, or films that it interacts with, but also via tags to other similar posts. Properly executed, a blog can approximate Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, for reasons suggested by Eli Friedlander in this essay on Benjamin. Or, to put it another way, a blog is a Wittgenzen garden.
So here’s my situation: the more I write at this blog, the less opportunity I will have to publish my work in book form; but also, the more I write on this blog, the better I will think. I still believe in lateral thinking with seasoned technology; I am still trying to put myself in a position where I don’t know where I’m going. But it’s not only easier, it somehow feels more responsible to take advantage of my publishing opportunities, which so many people would love to have. (Also: cash money.)
As those posts I just linked to will show, I’ve been going around in this circle for years now. But one of these days I’m gonna figure it out. One of these days I’m gonna take the plunge into the who-knows-what of Wittgenzen. These posts are here to give me courage and wisdom for that day.
The problem here is the lack of evidence that “deep literacy” really is in decline. Decline from what height? Starting when? Also:
The rise of deep literacy in enough people in early modernity — mightily aided, of course, by Gutenberg’s invention of movable type — was a precondition of Protestantism’s firm establishment and rapid growth, and its establishment was in turn a major accelerator of deep literacy in the societies in which it became the principal faith community, in large part because Protestants ordained compulsory schooling for all children. The Reformation found a very powerful engine in the establishment of these schools: Wherever Protestant beliefs spread, state-mandated education soon followed, each reinforcing the other.
“Protestants ordained compulsory schooling for all children” — all of them? Everywhere? I don’t think so. When and where did this happen? Perhaps Maryanne Wolf provides evidence for these claims in her book, but if so citations of some kind would have been useful. And in any case Wolf is not a historian. Here’s a widely-cited article from 1984 that asks about the relationship between literacy and the Reformation in Germany. The authors conclude that the early Lutherans weren’t especially interested in promoting general literacy — they devoted themselves to promoting catechesis in schools, and this was done orally — and relatively little progress was made in promoting general literacy until the Pietists in the eighteenth century became influential. And even then the achievements were modest:
Besides reorganizing and revitalizing school systems still suffering from the effects of the Thirty Years War, the eighteenth-century ordinances set targets gradually achieved over time. Indicative of the type of incremental progress that was made are some statistics from East Prussia, one of the poorest rural areas in Germany. The percentage of peasants who could sign their names rose from 10 per cent in 1750, to 25 per cent in 1765, to 40 per cent in 1800. Another sign of increasing literacy was the exponential growth in the book trade in the last half of the eighteenth century as the number of titles for sale at the Leipzig book market, the largest in Germany, increased by over 50 per cent between 1740 and 1770 and more than doubled between 1770 and 1800. To be sure, the increase in literacy and reading in the late eighteenth century was still spotty and varied widely in depth and intensity from place to place. Best estimates of school attendance in the second half of the eighteenth century range from one-third to one-half of German school-age children.
How much deep literacy could there be in an environment in which basic literacy was by no means complete — in some areas not even widespread? That’s just in Germany, of course; comparative study needs to be done to make a more general case.
You can’t effectively make an argument like this without being able to answer some questions:
- How, specifically, do we distinguish deep literacy from more basic kinds of literacy?
- Where and when have rates of basic literacy been highest?
- What data do we have, for any of those places and times, to indicate the proportion of people achieving deep literacy (measured in relation both to basically-literate persons and to the whole population)?
Just to start. And I would ask a deeper and harder-to-answer question: For the overall health of a society, is it the number of people who achieve deep literacy that matters? Or is it the social and political influence of the deeply literate?
In Toledo, I asked [a woman named Lorrie] Shock if she had any theories about Q’s identity. She answered immediately: “I think it’s Trump.” I asked if she thinks Trump even knows how to use 4chan. The message board is notoriously confusing for the uninitiated, nothing like Facebook and other social platforms designed to make it easy to publish quickly and often. “I think he knows way more than what we think,” she said. But she also wanted me to know that her obsession with Q wasn’t about Trump. This had been something she was reluctant to speak about at first. Now, she said, “I feel God led me to Q. I really feel like God pushed me in this direction. I feel like if it was deceitful, in my spirit, God would be telling me, ‘Enough’s enough.’ But I don’t feel that. I pray about it. I’ve said, ‘Father, should I be wasting my time on this?’ … And I don’t feel that feeling of I should stop.”
Why do people believe such things? After all, there is no evidence that anything Q says is true; there is no reason to believe in Q’s Gospel. Or even to believe that Q is a single person. Or, if Q is a single person, that he or she isn’t doing it for the lulz.
The answer, I think, is pretty straightforward: Believing in Q has many benefits but very low marginal costs. Believing in Q gives people a sense of having tapped into the hidden meaning of things, an explanation for their low social status, and a strong network of like-minded people. WWG1WGA, as the QAnon mantra goes: “Where we go one, we go all.” These are significant benefits!
And those marginal costs? I suppose time spent on matters Q is time one can’t spend on Netflix; and if educated people mock and laugh at the followers of Q, well, weren’t they already mocking and laughing at people like Lorrie Shock? How does believing in Q change anything in that respect? Nor does Q-following affect the ability of those followers to do their jobs or raise their children.
Again: significant benefits, low marginal costs. Looked at from that point of view, belief in Q demonstrates a kind of rationality.
LaFrance writes, near the end of her excellent report,
The Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America. Do not be surprised if QAnon becomes another. It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Q drops as installments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Does it matter that basic aspects of Q’s teachings cannot be confirmed? The basic tenets of Christianity cannot be confirmed. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.
In order to evaluate this view of the matter, I think we need to press hard on the word “adherents.” People who spend a lot of time chasing down Q on the internet don’t really qualify. Even the occasional IRL meetup won’t do it. A movement gains genuine adherents when the costs of belonging to it — financial, social, intellectual, legal — reach a kind of critical mass of pain. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of every church.
I know that one of the most frustrating things you can say to a software developer is “It can’t be that hard.” Because unless you actually are a developer you really don’t know how hard something can be. That said …
I was very excited about the new release of iA Writer because it promises something that I’ve been hoping for for years: the ability to post directly, from its iOS app, to a self-hosted WordPress site. All that the app has previously offered is a super-kludgy way to, basically, copy what you’ve written and paste it into a text field in the WordPress app. (In which case you might as well, you know, write in the WordPress app.) So I downloaded the new version, fired it up … and found out that it requires me to install a WordPress plugin before it can publish. But the required plugin, it seems, does not work with my hosting provider — or something: for whatever reason, it doesn’t work.
Here’s the thing, though: Byword is not nearly as elegant or capable a text editor as iA Writer, but it has featured the ability to post to any WordPress-based site, directly and frictionlessly, for years. No kludges, no plugins; just write and publish. So, I just can’t help saying to the people at iA Writer: It can’t be that hard, can it?
(Post written in, and published from, Byword.)