in the day of trouble

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)

lessons from the past

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.

my expert opinion

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?

“Titanic insanity”

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

on misunderstanding critical theory

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.

serious questions for churches

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:

JPMH

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. It’s still dangerous, but we’re putting our trust in God, counting on Him to protect us.
  5. 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.

thread

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.

Wittgenzen

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.

deep literacy?

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:

  1. How, specifically, do we distinguish deep literacy from more basic kinds of literacy?
  2. Where and when have rates of basic literacy been highest?
  3. 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?

QAnon: costs and benefits

Adrienne LaFrance on QAnon:

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.

how hard

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.)

free as in more coffee

I use the Freedom app to keep me off Twitter for 22 hours a day. I get an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to check what’s happening.

Freedom isn’t perfect: especially on iOS it sometimes fails to kick in until I open the app. (Today mid-morning I reflexively checked Tweetbot and chatted with folks for a few minutes before I realized that I shouldn’t be able to do that. I quickly opened Freedom and then found my way blocked. Relief!) But overall it’s great.

I tend to think of Freedom in theological terms, as a technological instrument to produce instant infused righteousness. After all, did not Augustine say — see the last paragraph of the City of God — that the blessed are truly free because they are unable to sin? And does not Freedom prevent me from tweet-sinning? (I see that I need to add prevenient grace to my theology-of-social-media vocabulary.)

Anyway, here’s the best thing about Freedom: It allows whole cycles of tweet-rage to pass me right by. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and check Twitter and see some outrageous thing that some dunce tweeted the previous day or evening, something that I might be very tempted to respond to — but by the time I see it that person has already been raked over the coals so thoroughly that he’s already dead. It’s great. Thanks, friends, for doing the Lord’s work for me so I can have another peaceful cup of coffee.

another case for the humanities

Samuel Johnson was impressed by the intelligent and ambitious structure of learning that Milton laid out in “Of Education,” but, as he explains in his Life of Milton, he thought the scheme gave too much attention to what Milton would have called “natural philosophy” and what we call “science.”

But the truth is that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and Justice are virtues and excellences of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance.

Ravi Zacharias

When I was a college student and a brand-new Christian, I attended a talk by Ravi Zacharias at a church in my home town of Birmingham, Alabama. At the time I was wondering how my new faith would affect my interests in literature, philosophy, and history. Was all that something I needed to give up in order to dedicate my life to God? I approached Ravi after his talk to ask him what he thought about that, and he warmly reassured me. Not only is the life of the mind — even the humanities mind! — compatible with Christian faith and practice, he said, but, more, God really needs faithful people in those fields.

When I walked up to him I didn’t think he would say that my new faith demanded the flat rejection of worldly wisdom, but I suppose I expected to hear a note of caution about reading dangerous books, or something along those lines. But no. His encouragement was straightforward and unreserved.

Perhaps I would have ended up on this same path anyway — it’s hard for me to imagine, now, a radically different one — but I really do think that was a key moment for my young self, and I have always been grateful to Ravi for his words. Many years later, when Ravi’s daughter Naomi was my student at Wheaton and my son’s regular babysitter, I thought that a lovely closing of the circle.

It seems that Ravi’s race is nearly run now. I pray for him a peaceful and even joyous crossing of the finish line. Well done, good and faithful servant.

sticky

The best thing about paper sticky notes is that they’re sticky — that is, you can easily attach them to another sheet of paper, to a computer, to a wall, whatever. and then detach and move them when necessary. I want a digital version of that. That is, I want the ability to create a digital sticky note and attach it to any file on my computer — so that when I open a particular PDF, for instance, I see the sticky on the page to which I have attached it. Ditto with a text file or a photo or a movie — any file. I’d like each note to have the features that Stickies on the Mac have: multiple background colors, rich text, live links, and a clickable title bar that shrinks the note. Oh, I’d also like this on iOS, and there it should be possible to create handwritten stickies with an Apple Pencil.

Ideally each sticky note would have an ID that’s representable in a link, so you could put in one note attached to a file a link to another note attached to another file.

Because of the way Apple sandboxes apps these days such a thing could probably be created only by Apple itself, and that’s not going to happen. Still, a guy can dream. Such a feature would be incredibly useful to me.

against “the common good”

Wendell Berry once wrote, “Community is a concept, like humanity or peace, that virtually no one has taken the trouble to quarrel with; even its worst enemies praise it.” Precisely the same is true of “the common good.” No one will claim to be against the common good; everyone will claim to be for it, from Viktor Orban to Xi Jinping, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Adrian Vermeule. It appears on both sides of every political equation, so those equations can therefore be simplified by crossing it out. Its invocation leaves us precisely where we were before it was mentioned.

enlightenment for ninepence

I know you didn’t ask — and you’re not going to read this anyway — but all the same, I have some advice for those of you who are going around proclaiming that COVID–19 is no worse than the flu, maybe not as bad as the flu. What I see you doing is looking for somewhere, anywhere, where the death rate seems to be small, and then declaring that that is the official universal death rate, on the basis of which you deny that anything truly serious is going on. And then you stop looking for data, because you’re no Lew Archer.

What I’m asking you to do is to act like a grown-up.

Don’t just cherry-pick the one number that seems to fit your narrative. Do a comparative study. Look at numbers from all over. Add and divide.

Discover how many people have died in this country from COVID–19 and over what period of time. Now compare that to deaths in the last few flu seasons, and ask yourself this: How long is a flu season? This page might give you a hint. Do the adjustments to correct for differences in the lengths of time you’re looking at, because that’s what grown-ups do.

Don’t just ask how many people die. Reflect also on the costs, both human and economic, of people spending extended periods in hospitals. Look at the evidence for COVID–19’s damage to lungs and to other organs. Do some more addition. Do some multiplication. Get out your calculator if you’re straining your brain.

Read something like this article by Ed Yong. Look at all those links. Follow them up, see what evidence he is citing and where the evidence comes from. This is the work of a grown-up writer. Try to imitate it, as best you can.

There’s a lot about this situation that we don’t know, and there are many things that we may never know. But there is a metric shitload of data out there for you to consult and reflect on. Consult it.

C. S. Lewis’s old tutor, whom he called Kirk or Knock or The Great Knock, was an irascible old Ulsterman who would regularly get exasperated by people who lacked intellectual discipline and even basic curiosity. He would sometimes say to such people, “You can have enlightenment for ninepence but you prefer ignorance.” That’s you. You can do better, and God help your sorry-ass soul if you don’t try.

after the storm

We had a massive thunderstorm around 3 this morning: crashing thunder, torrential rain, and lightning that was nearly constant for an hour, almost like a strobe light on the walls of my bedroom. This morning everything looks washed clean: the sky is the bluest of blues and the trees all vibrant in their greenness.

trees1

Shira Ovide: “This will sound weird coming from a professional tech writer: Technology will not end a pandemic. People will.” I’ve written about this a zillion times, but once more: this is the falsest of false dichotomies. If a successful vaccine is developed — and pray God that that happens — it will be a great benefit to humankind arising from people using technology.

the seductions of prediction

Derek Thompson is an outstanding journalist, but this piece strikes me as way premature. I mean, good heavens, we’re not even two months into our current order. Even the Italian lockdowns only started in late February, and the shelter-in-place directives in American cities several weeks later. The most essential questions about the long-term effects of COVID–19 — How much long-term damage does it do to people who survive it? Will it weaken in the summer months? Will it come back in the fall, and if so, how strongly? When will we get a vaccine, and how effective will the vaccine be? — remain unanswered, and only when we have answers to them will we have any reasonable sense of the long-term effects on the economy. This is an article that simply should not have been written.

But everyone’s doing it, I guess. The seductions of prediction are irresistible. Note how Thompson regularly slips from the conditional — “The year 2020 may bring the death of the department store”; “The pandemic will also likely accelerate the big-business takeover of the economy” — to the unconditional: “Many of these spaces will stay empty for months, removing the bright awnings, cheeky signs, and crowded windows that were the face of their neighborhood. Long stretches of cities will feel facelessly anonymous.” It’s hard to tell whether these alternating verb forms reflect different levels of confidence, or whether Thompson just gets caught up in the mug’s game of prophecy and forgets to hedge his bets. I suspect the latter.

But in any case, if I were the world’s greatest computer hacker, I’d inject some code into stories like this that would insert, every five sentences, William Goldman’s justly famous and transcendently wise line: “Nobody knows anything.”

rocketing the mind

In his glorious poem “Advice to a Prophet,” Richard Wilbur begins:

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,   
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,

Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.

Oddly enough, perhaps, I think this is relevant to the proposal that has emerged today to give all Americans a thousand bucks — or, in some proposals, more — to compensate for the afflictions many will experience because of the economic consequences of the coronavirus. The idea of giving everyone in America that much money strikes us, initially and instinctively, as an insane amount of money. But let’s run the numbers.

There are 330 million Americans, more or less. Giving a thousand bucks to each of then would be $330 billion. But the federal budget that Donald Trump has just proposed is $4.8 trillion. So a thousand bucks for everyone is doable — not easily, mind you, but doable. It’s even doable more than once, especially if people like me, who are financially secure, donate our thousand to charity.

It doesn’t feel doable. The numbers “rocket the mind.” But I think we owe it to Andrew Yang that many people are able to overcome their initial feelings — their “unreckoning hearts” — and realize that this is something we can do, if we want to.

folly

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defence. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.

If we are to deal adequately with folly, we must try to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are people who are mentally agile but foolish, and people who are mentally slow but very far from foolish — a discovery that we make to our surprise as a result of particular situations. We thus get the impression that folly is likely to be, not a congenital defect, but one that is acquired in certain circumstances where people make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. We notice further that this defect is less common in the unsociable and solitary than in individuals or groups that are inclined or condemned to sociability. It seems, then, that folly is a sociological rather than a psychological problem, and that it is a special form of the operation of historical circumstances: on people, a psychological by-product of definite external factors. If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of the others.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years” (1943)

reading in a time of anxiety

One of the first things to go in a time of stress like ours is concentration. We know so little about the coronavirus: whether we will get it and how many people we know will, how serious the disease will be if we do, how long schools and businesses will be closed, the long-term effect on the economy — not to mention the possibility of the virus’s return at some later stage. With all these uncertainties, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, buzzing about in our heads the prospect of sitting down to read a book seems … remote, alien, impossible. And yet all of us could use a vacation from our anxieties, something to occupy our minds. My suggestion: Take some time to read short stories and essays.

Many of the finest short stories ever written are available for free at Project Gutenberg: 

And then if you want to turn to essays: 

That’s just selecting from the freebies! Maybe I’ll have another post later on things you’d actually need to buy. 

A Long Defeat, A Final Victory

Here’s something I wrote several years ago at The American Conservative, something I still believe, something I need occasionally to remind myself that I believe.


What people call political realism often seems to me a kind of short-sightedness. The idea that valid political action requires us to choose from among the most prominent current alternatives — in short, to decide whether you’re going to be a Republican or a Democrat and then work to bring your chosen party more closely in line with your convictions — makes sense if your chief goal is to gain a political victory and to gain it now. Or soon.

Sometimes for good and often for ill, I am temperamentally incapable of thinking in that way. I tend to see politics in terms of a history that’s considerably longer than that of today’s political parties, or indeed of America itself. My political vision, such as it is, has two components: a long defeat followed by a long joy.

The phrase “long defeat” comes from J. R. R. Tolkien, who in The Lord of the Rings puts it in the mouth of Galadriel, and in a letter uses it himself: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

The promise of a “final victory” is the context of the “long joy.” Stanley Fish coined that phrase in response to a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Adam gets too readily excited about a scene from the future revealed to him by the archangel Michael, so that when the darker realities of the situation are revealed to him he finds himself “of short joy bereft.” Michael warns Adam that he needs to cure himself of political and social idealism and focus instead on the simple but challenging work of obedience to God. Fish explains the “politics” that Michael recommends to Adam: “It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being — the politics of long joy — is not quietism. Its relative indifference to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and and history are not in man’s control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one’s resolve.”

When I wrote about this passage some years ago I commented,

It seems to me that this politics of long joy is the one thing needful for the Christian cultural critic, as for a warring angel like Abdiel or a poetic polemicist like Milton. Perhaps the chief problem with the “culture wars” paradigm that governs so much Christian action and reflection, in the North American context anyway, is that it encourages us to think in terms of trophies rather than testimonies. It tempts us to think too much about whether we’re winning or losing, and too little about the only thing we ultimately control, which is the firmness of our own resolve. If the culture warrior would prefer not to be governed by Stanley Fish, or even by John Milton, maybe Koheleth provides an acceptable model: “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

It may be that the most important political acts I can perform do not involve siding with one of the existing parties, or even necessarily to vote at all, but to try to bear witness through word and action to this double vision of the earthly city: a long defeat followed by a longer joy.

We are too prone, I believe, to think that voting is the definitive political act. That would be true only if politics simply belongs to the government. There is a far vaster sphere of politics — the life of the polis — that belongs to everyday acts of ordinary people. In this maybe Gandalf is a pretty good guide: “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

what’s in my bag

The Cool Tools site does a regular series in which people describe what they carry around and what they carry it around in. I thought I might do my own entry in the series, even though I don’t have affiliate links. 

First comes my Tom Bihn Synapse 19 backpack, which I find to be brilliantly designed — with the right number of pockets in all the right places — extremely comfortable to wear, and sufficiently rugged that I will probably have it for the rest of my life. (I’ve had it for seven or eight years and it still looks basically new.) The chief things you’ll find inside it are … 

  • My 12” MacBook, in Tom Bihn’s bespoke sleeve
  • Apple AirPods Pro 
  • Pentel Energel pens 
  • Palomino Blackwing pencils + sharpener 
  • Leuchtturm A5 Hardcover notebook 
  • Kindle Voyage
  • Whatever books I happen to be teaching at the moment 
  • Ibuprofen and hand sanitizer 

Other things come and go but those are the permanent essentials. I’m not adding links (except to the Tom Bihn site) because the most obvious place to link to is Amazon and I don’t really want to promote Amazon. Just search for items you’re interested in! 

one more post about Twitter

I deactivated my Twitter account more than a year ago, and set a recurrent reminder to log in every 28 days to reactivate and then deactivate again. I wasn’t sure I wanted to let my handle go to some other person who would no doubt bring shame onto the noble ayjay name. This little dance became tiresome, and my publishers like it when I broadcast useful (read: sales-related) info on social media, so I decided to make the account active again and leave it that way.

Twitter is even worse than I remember it being. The same compulsive temporary madness-of-crowds obsessions — sure, of course, Kobe Bryant is the most important person in your life, even though you’ve never mentioned him before and will probably never mention him again — but conducted with a greater intensity than I had remembered. Also, it seems that the reply function is now reserved as a dedicated performance space for sociopaths (if you don’t believe me, look at the first ten replies to any widely-read tweet).

What a horrible, horrible thing Twitter is. If the people who work there weren’t sociopaths themselves they’d shut the whole thing down for the good of humanity.

So I’m bringing back Freedom, which I had used in the past but set aside when I left Twitter. There will be 20 minutes a day when I can see Twitter, mainly to be sure that things I post here actually show up there. I’ll spend the rest of my time praying that the whole platform will die a swift and irreversible death.

a perfect ratio

There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be….

Time and the winds will sooner or later bury the Seven Cities of Cibola — Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, all of them — under dunes of glowing sand, over which blue-eyed Navajo bedouin will herd their sheep and horses, following the river in winter, the mountains in summer, and sometimes striking off across the desert toward the red canyons of Utah where great waterfalls plunge over silt-filled, ancient, mysterious dams.

— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968)

reading Paul

This blog has been on hiatus, mainly, but now I’m thinking that I should return from time to time. My classes this term are really enjoyable and I’m learning a lot, but I have an unusually heavy teaching load, and I fear that if I don’t take note of some of the things I’m thinking I’ll forget them. And a blog is a good way to give a responsible account of one’s thoughts. So I’ll be here occasionally with field reports. 


A small group of Baylor University Scholars and I are reading the New Testament, in a slightly peculiar fashion. I’ve asked them to read each book not in the canonical order, but in the likely order of composition, and to imagine themselves as followers of the Way, this new faith centered on Jesus of Nazareth, whom we believe to be the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the whole world. But we don’t know whether we’re doing it right. The Way is quite recent, has spread by word of mouth, and no one account of its essentials meshes perfectly with the others. When someone brings to us a painstakingly-copied letter or narrative from what we believe to be an authoritative source, we pounce on it, we treasure it, we read it with forensic attention. And what do we learn?

We have all been struck by certain matters of tone.

We begin with some of the letters of Paul. He begins hopefully. Most scholars believe that the earliest of Paul’s letters is is his first to the Thessalonians, and while he’s happy to answer some of the Thessalonians’ questions about when Jesus will return, his main concern in this letter is to praise them for their faithfulness in following the Gospel that he taught to them. Maybe at that point in his career he thought that this whole “evangelist to the Gentiles” thing was going to be relatively simple.

But his very next letter, most scholars think, is that to the Galatians, and it radiates utter exasperation. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” Here we discern a note of high anxiety creeping into Paul’s letters: he can visit and teach the members of a particular church, but once he has departed to teach elsewhere, he has no idea how faithful a given community will be to his instruction. He spends a lot of time reminding the Galatians of his God-given authority, of how he was converted not by human persuasion but by the direct intervention of Christ himself. (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”) Nevertheless, he notes, the other apostles, the ones who knew Jesus in the flesh, have heard from him and have accepted his apostolic authority. Why do “you foolish Galatians” fail to do so? The self-commendation here is relentless and, to some of us, rather off-putting.

In the next letter, the first to the Corinthians, Paul continues to fret: in this case, about divisions within the community. There are soaring heights of rhetoric in this letter, most famously the great paean to love in chapter 13, and soon afterwards the hopeful looking forward to the resurrection of the dead, but the overall tone is anxious. Paul sees this church beginning to pull apart and from the distance at which he writes to them there is nothing he can do about it. In order to convince them to heed his advice he once again beats the drum of his apostolic authority.

We are accustoming ourselves to this Paul, this stressed and determined man, confident in his own calling but increasingly doubtful that that calling will be recognized by his fellow followers of the Way. There are so many false teachers out there, so many ways to go astray. He is like a shepherd whose sheep are scattering over a vast field.

But then we come to the letter to the Philippians, and it is difficult to imagine a greater contrast to what we have been reading.

For at this point Paul is in prison, and clearly doesn’t think he has much of a chance of getting out again. But instead of leading him to despair, this miserable situation gives him a mysterious peace. He realizes that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is infinitely greater than he is, and that even if he dies it will live and thrive. All of his anxiety passes away, and he can earnestly counsel the members of the assembly at Philippi to “be anxious for nothing”: if they but make their requests known unto God, then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep their hearts and minds in Jesus Christ their Lord. There is no self-defense here, no self-commendation, no stress — just the serenity of a man who has resigned himself to his own death, who suspects that his earthly story will soon be over, at which point he will enter the company of his loving Lord.

But Paul is not killed; instead, he is released. And when we come to the second letter to the Corinthians we see that the memory of the peace he gained in prison remains, but his old habits of worry return to gnaw at him. He begins again to defend himself, to assert his authority, but now admits that when he does so he is “speaking as a fool.” He seems to know that the profound gift of peace that he received in prison is slipping from his grasp, but he just can’t help himself. The instinct to self-defend is too strong, even though he knows the absurdity of it, when he thinks about the Corinthians ignoring him and giving their homage to those whom he derisively calls Super-Apostles, Hyper-Apostles (Ὑπερλίαν ἀποστόλων).

But whatever anyone dares to boast of — I am speaking as a fool — I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman — I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

It’s that last line that really catches me: Paul has had all sorts of afflictions heaped upon him, but what weighs heaviest on him is this: I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. The peace that overwhelmed him in prison when he thought his race was run has evaporated. And maybe this is the strongest sense in which he has become a fool, ἄφρονα, without wisdom: he has forgotten that, great though his responsibility is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ can survive and even thrive without his interventions.

IMG 0615

Oh, how this northern Illinois boy misses the snow he used to play in. So this morning he sits in the dusting that is all central Texas can muster, and remembers deep drifts. 

understanding Christians (and others) on social media

The Devil chooses to deceive some people in the following way. He will marvelously inflame their brains with the desire to uphold God’s law and destroy sin in everyone else. He will never tempt them with anything that is manifestly evil. He makes them like anxious prelates watching over the lives of Christian people of all ranks, as an abbot does over his monks. They will rebuke everyone for their faults, just as if they had their souls in their care; and it seems to them that they dare not do otherwise for God’s sake. They tell them of the faults they see, claiming to be impelled to do so by the fire of charity and the love of God in their hearts; but in truth they are lying, for it is by the fire of hell surging in their brains and their imaginations.

The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century), Chapter 55

a few items added

One little project that I’ve been working on as time allows — and time very rarely allows — is to move some things I’ve written from somewhere else online where they might disappear to this here site o’ mine. Here are three essays I originally published on Medium before I decided that Medium is a deceptive hellhole: 

And one more thing, not published elsewhere: An annotated anthology I was invited to edit — and then disinvited. 

summing up

I said in my previous post that I would be taking a break from this blog, but it occurred to me that a good way to mark that break would be to take a look back at the decade that’s just now concluding (or that everyone thinks is just now concluding, except for the precisians who insist that the decade will end a year from now).

For my family, it’s been eventful. Teri and I moved to Texas after twenty-nine years in Illinois, and have come to love Texas very much. Our son graduated from college and started his own life as a grown-ass man. I once again became a member of an Episcopal parish, something that in 2010 I would have deemed inconceivable. I entered my sixties. I am still a teacher.

I published six books, a few dozen articles, hundreds of blog posts, and thousands of tweets. I regret all the tweets and some of the blog posts. The rest of the blog posts did no harm, but also did precious little good. Given that I don’t regret the books or the articles, maybe I should focus on that kind of thing in the decade to come.

I miss Books & Culture, and the First Things that was: for many years those were my two periodical-publishing homes. I now write for several venues that I never imagined I would be able to write for, but I would have been very happy to spend the whole of my career writing long reviews for Books & Culture and essays for First Things. Now B&C is defunct and FT is not interested in the kind of thing I write — which is fair enough, I suppose, because I’m not interested in the kind of thing they now publish.

The world overall is not in the worst shape it could be in, but online life seems to be chiefly a cesspool. I am glad that it is only a part of life; I hope that in the coming decade it will be, for me and for others, a decreasing part. One can always hope.

I won’t say that I’ll never return here, but right now I feel that the blogging season of my life, which started around 2007, is over. I’m excited about the work to come, the reading and thinking and writing that awaits me, and I’m especially excited about doing all of it in a less internet-connected way.

A blessed next decade to us all!

unforthcoming attractions

This is why algorithmic time is so disorienting and why it bends your mind. Everything good, bad, and complicated flows through our phones, and for those not living some hippie Walden trip, we operate inside a technological experience that moves forward and back, and pulls you with it. Using a phone is tied up with the relentless, perpendicular feeling of living through the Trump presidency: the algorithms that are never quite with you in the moment, the imperishable supply of new Instagram stories, the scrolling through what you said six hours ago, the four new texts, the absence of texts, that text from three days ago that has warmed up your entire life, the four versions of the same news alert. You can find yourself wondering why you’re seeing this now — or knowing too well why it is so. You can feel amazing and awful — exult in and be repelled by life — in the space of seconds. The thing you must say, the thing you’ve been waiting for — it’s always there, pulling you back under again and again and again. Who can remember anything anymore?

Buzzfeed. It’s really great to be out of all this. I’ve been away from Twitter and Instagram for more than a year now, and the thought of going back to either of them prompts nightmares. Partly, but not wholly, because of my recent troubles with WordPress, I have even become disillusioned with this blog. Step by step by step I’m removing more of my life from the online world.

I still love posting to my Pinboard page and writing my newsletter, so those are the primary places to find me in 2020. It’s also possible that I will post the occasional photo here, though I’m not sure about that. I will have another little project to announce … later. But I expect I will make that announcement, and others, on my official home page. There won’t be much, if anything, going on here for the near future.

a partial fix

Still lots of weird things going on in my WordPress installation; a complete fix would take, yeeeesh, weeks probably. ButI’ve sorted out a few things. More of the recent posts at least should appear in the timeline, and the posts tagged “Christmas” should all be there. So there’s that.