Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: conservatism (page 1 of 1)

Terry Teachout and the Last of the Conservative Critics | The Nation:

But Teachout, whose natural inclination was toward equanimity and collegiality, perhaps never fully confronted the politics of his conservative peers. Unlike Didion and Wills, Teachout never stopped writing for National Review. His review of a biography of Graham Greene ran in the magazine last year — a magazine that is no longer that of the Goldwater or Reagan right but one that that seems to have settled on a position of being anti-anti-Trump. Not only that, but Teachout eschewed a larger reckoning with the question of how Trump took over the GOP so quickly. It would have been a major contribution for a writer of Teachout’s caliber to make an inquiry into how the right had gone haywire, but he never made the effort. 

Why should Teachout have made that effort? He “eschewed” political controversy so he could write about the things he most cared about: the arts. Seems a reasonable decision to me, and one I wish more writers made. There aren’t enough writers who are conservative in Teachout’s mode. 

(Teachout was a terrific writer in so many ways, but I must pause to note that the one great outlier in his body of work was his absurdly unfair, tendentious, and just plain hostile biography of Duke Ellington. I’ve never understood his attitude towards the Duke. Ethan Iverson’s detailed critique of the biography, mentioned in the Nation essay, is very good, and is usefully supplemented by an equally detailed response by the Duke’s nephew.) 

starting from zero

The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince talked about “starting from zero.” One heard the phrase all the time: “starting from zero.” Gropius gave his backing to any experiment they cared to make, so long as it was in the name of a clean and pure future. Even new religions such as Mazdaznan. Even health-food regimens. During one stretch at Weimar the Bauhaus diet consisted entirely of a mush of fresh vegetables. It was so bland and fibrous they had to keep adding garlic in order to create any taste at all. Gropius’ wife at the time was Alma Mahler, formerly Mrs. Gustav Mahler, the first and foremost of that marvelous twentieth-century species, the Art Widow. The historians tell us, she remarked years later, that the hallmarks of the Bauhaus style were glass corners, flat roofs, honest materials, and expressed structure. But she, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel — she had since added the poet Franz Werfel to the skein — could assure you that the most unforgettable characteristic of the Bauhaus style was “garlic on the breath.” Nevertheless! how pure, how clean, how glorious it was to be … starting from zero!

— Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House

The new issue of Religion and Liberty features a long essay by Christine Rosen criticizing the we-have-nothing-to-conserve case presented by Jon Askonas in an essay I discuss here and here. Two points from me:

One: Rosen points out that Askonas’s hope for taking power through “a serious program of technological development” is just another version of Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” — a model of action which has repeatedly proven much better at destroying than building. Another way to put this is to borrow a phrase from N. S. Lyons and say that the members of several recent post-conservative movements – as exemplified by Askonas’s essay, but also by Patrick Deneen’s call for “regime change,” and by several more extreme calls from some corner of the right to Blow It All Up – tend to be “change merchants”:

Whether an academic, a journalist, a financial analyst, or a software developer, a member of this Virtual class makes his living — and, indeed, establishes his social and economic value — by manipulating, categorizing, and interpreting symbolic information and narrative. “Manipulate” is an important verb here, and not merely in the sense of deviousness. Such an individual’s job is to take existing information and change it into new forms, present it in new ways, or use it to tell new stories. This is what I am attempting to do as a writer in shaping this article, for example.

Members of this class therefore cannot produce anything without change. And they cannot sell what they’re producing unless it offers something at least somewhat new and different. Indeed, change is literally what they sell, in a sense, and they have a material incentive to push for it, since the faster the times are a-changin’ in their field, or in society, the more market opportunity exists for their products and services. They are, fundamentally, merchants of change.

Maybe I shouldn’t include either Askonas or Deneen in this description, because Askonas has walked back his strongest claims, and some reviewers say that Deneen does the same in the latter portions of Regime Change. (I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t yet read it, but the more hard-nosed hard-right critics of the book chastise Deneen for not following through on his more extreme denunciations of the System.) But as a general rule: To be a successful change merchant you have to include, as a necessary prelude to your sales pitch, the claim that nothing you’ll destroy along the way to your innovation is worth preserving. (Starting from zero!) That is, the genuine change merchant will always say that we have nothing to conserve, and the person who genuinely believes we have nothing to conserve will always be either a change merchant or a victim of despair (or maybe both).

Many changes are, of course, necessary, and others are not perhaps necessary but are good or useful or beautiful or all of the above. In my judgment, the people best placed to implement the better kinds of change are not neophiles, who are impatient with anything that exists and desirous to replace it with whatever happens to occur to them, but rather those with a well-founded appreciation for what already exists and from that very appreciation develop a desire to preserve, sustain — and improve. (As Wolfe points out, the neomania of the Bauhaus movement led to a situation in which “Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse.”) One of Burke’s most famous lines is germane here: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.” Conservation and change are not opposites, but, in what that great conservative Albus Dumbledore calls “the well-organized mind,” complementary impulses.

Two: Again, some of those who say that there’s nothing to conserve will qualify that statement when challenged; but there are many among us who think it’s really true. And when I hear that, I find myself thinking about a famous passage from Henry James’s study of Nathaniel Hawthorne:

The negative side of the spectacle on which Hawthorne looked out, in his contemplative saunterings and reveries, might, indeed, with a little ingenuity, be made almost ludicrous; one might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools — no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class — no Epsom nor Ascot!

It turns out that there’s a certain kind of person who looks at the world we’re living in and thinks: No legitimate government, no useful laws, no worthwhile political acts or actors; no schools, no books, no skills of reading or writing or mathematics or art-making; no charitable organizations that serve people in need; no churches, no inspiring sermons, no beautiful liturgies, no memorable hymns; no national forests and parks, nor well-tended fields; no beautiful architecture, no thriving neighborhoods — no families! Nope. Not a thing to conserve. Those who went before us left us absolutely nothing of value. What can we do but start from zero, says the true change merchant, with me as your guide?

absolutizing (slight return)

Jon Askonas has responded to my earlier post, and his response deserves a fuller counter-response than I can give it right now. These are matters worthy of deeper reflection! I appreciate the slight parting of the curtain Askonas gives late in his post, the peek at his positive vision, and that may provide matter for discussion later. I just want to make a few brief notes right now and then use this post as a bookmark — I’ll return when I have more bandwidth.

  1. I didn’t accuse Askonas of the “absolutizing of fright” — that was my comment on Michael Anton in his “Flight 93 Election” essay. My claim is that I’m seeing — really everywhere, but because of my own political and religious convictions I’m focusing on my confrères — the escalation of a rhetoric that absolutizes and abstracts. What Askonas absolutizes, I think, is not fright but rather defeat. For someone who holds any tradition dear, the declaration that “Tradition is over” is both absolute and defeatist — “defeatist” not in a pejorative sense but in a strictly descriptive one. 
  2. Askonas: “One of the frustrating things about the line of criticism Jacobs undertakes is that it is highly personalist and individualistic, as if it was within the power of any individual to always conserve the things that he loves.” Successful conservation is not within my power, but the practice of conserving is my responsibility. And to say that I have this responsibility is not to say that I must (or even should) pursue it alone. The question What then should I do? is not the only question to ask; but if not sufficient, it is necessary; I can’t evade it by decrying “individualism.” And if (as Askonas does) you’re asking me to join you in a brand-new endeavor, and I wonder what exactly you have in mind, and your primary response to that is Dude, you’re so individualistic! — that’s … not very reassuring. 
  3. Askonas: “Selection effects drive a local increase in virtue and faithfulness. The strength of the tradition in these unique, rare local places masks the global decline…. The question is not whether these, the best men and women, may pass on their traditions, but whether their number are increasing or decreasing in society on the aggregate.” (I think by “global” Askonas means “in the West.”) As far as I can tell, Askonas here has conceded my point and abandoned his own. For if tradition thrives anywhere, then tradition is certainly not “over”; and ”decreasing“ is not a synonym for ”over.“ And if tradition is not over, then the question becomes, not “What will we do instead of practicing our dead tradition?” but rather “How can we who are blessed by a living tradition share that blessing with others?” or “How can we who are missing a living tradition draw on resources that have been well-conserved elsewhere?” (All this applies to the Black community also, as Albert Murray well understood. He was so passionate an advocate of the best traditions of Black American life precisely because he saw them embattled and endangered. This is a constant theme in his work.) 
  4. But I don’t think Askonas believes he has abandoned his point, because he makes a strong contrast between ”organic outgrowths of tradition” and “intentional projects of retrieval or revival from the long-dead past.” (Thus on his reading the classical school movement, which he likes, does not count as an example of living tradition, or a practice of conserving, because, remember, “We can no longer conserve.”) The idea that tradition isn’t really tradition unless it is unselfconsciously inherited and inhabited is one of the classic errors of Romanticism, an error prompted by the inevitably fruitless longing to reverse what Harold Bloom, among others, called the “fall into self-consciousness.” No; Eliot, again, was right when he said that “Tradition … cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor.” This may be the single most crucial point of disagreement between Askonas and me, and the one from which all the others flow. 
  5. Askonas tells me the questions I should be asking instead of the one I asked him, under the apparent assumption that I haven’t asked them. That is, as it happens, not a safe assumption, though I don’t expect Askonas to know that. But for the record, this blog — not to mention dozens of essays and a few books — is full of my attempts to answer them.  
  6. Finally, it seems to me that Askonas replies to my critique of his tendency towards vague but alarming imagery by doubling down on that tendency. Anton had his plane crashing, Kingsnorth has his ocean liner sinking, and now Askonas gives us Troy burning. (It’s disasters all the way down! There are no gradual changes in the cosmos of this mentalité, just crises requiring instant and extreme action.) Troy is burning, he says, though I don’t know what it means to say that we live in a conflagration, nor do I know what the contemporary equivalent of sailing to Italy by way of Carthage might be. He is annoyed with me for not knowing “what time it is” — but I think I do know. It’s time to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. It’s time to seek the good of the city in which we live as pilgrims. It’s time to preach the Gospel in season and out of season. All these metaphors of disaster are just distractions from our undramatic daily calling. “The rest is not our business.” 

More later; maybe quite a while later. I need to get back to the City of God — posts on that topic will resume next week. And in a way they’ll be continuations of this debate. 

UPDATE: It occurs to me, looking at this again, that I probably don’t need to say any more on this subject. By acknowledging that tradition isn’t over (only under challenge in many places) and that we can conserve (but conservation is not sufficient), Askonas has retracted the chief points that I wished to dispute. And anyway, I just realized that his is yet another version of the “negative world” position that is impervious to evidence and that I promised myself I wouldn’t respond to any more. (Why can’t I remember my self-promises?) 

absolutizing and abstraction, conservation and piety

Some years ago I wrote a post on what I called “the absolutizing of fright”:

I have the same questions about the notorious “Flight 93 Election” essay, which says “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” And also says, “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.” And also says, “we are headed off a cliff.” Later our pseudonymous author says that conservatives will be “persecuted,” will be “crushed,” and under a Hillary presidency America will be “doomed.” But what precisely is he talking about? It’s absolutely impossible to tell. He doesn’t give even a hint.

Under a Clinton presidency, would socially-conservative evangelical Christians like me have been fired from our jobs, driven from our homes by the military, and sent to re-education camps? Would we have been forced to sign some sort of Pledge of Allegiance to the Sexual Revolution, under threat of imprisonment? What? 

This kind of rhetoric — featuring an undefined alarm and an undefined response to that alarm — has if anything escalated and spread since then. For instance, in a recent essay Paul Kingsnorth talks about allowing the concept of “the West” to die: 

Maybe we need to let this concept fall away. To let it crumble so that we can see what lies beneath. Stop all the ‘fighting’ to preserve something nobody can even define, something which has long lost its heart and soul. Stop clinging to the side of the sinking hull as the band plays on. We struck the iceberg long ago; it must be time, at last, to stop clinging to the shifting metal. To let go and begin swimming, out towards the place where the light plays on the water. Just out there. Do you see? Beyond; just beyond. There is something waiting out there, but you have to strike out to reach it. You have to let go.

I have never been sure what people mean by “the West” either, so I hold no brief for the term. But Kingsnorth’s counsel? I have absolutely no idea what he might mean. I can’t even guess. It’s in the same disaster-porn mode as “The Flight 93 Election,” though Kingsnorth features a sinking ocean liner rather than a crashing plane. But I don’t understand the image. I don’t know how it translates into beliefs or actions, though whatever it means, it’s consistent with having a Substack, I guess. Might it also be consistent with preserving and transmitting the best ideas and the greatest achievements of those cultures that we typically identify with “the West”? 

Along similar lines: last year Jon [not Josh, as I earlier wrote] Askonas published an essay called “Why Conservatism Failed,” in which he wrote, “We can no longer conserve. So we must build and rebuild and, therefore, take a stand on what is worth building.” I don’t understand this either. If you’re rebuilding something aren’t you conserving some elements of it — or at the very least the memory and the idea of it?

And can we really “no longer conserve”? To conserve is surely to inherit or discover something of value and then attempt (a) keep it in good condition when you can, (b) repair it when it needs repair, and (c) pass it along to the next generation. I’ve been doing that my entire adult life, in a thousand ways. I’ve tried to teach my son the manners, morals, and convictions that I learned from the family I married into. I hope he’ll teach them to his children. I have taught and written in defense and celebration of the great books that previous generations preserved for me; of certain strenuous but also illuminating and life-giving ways of reading; of the rich inheritance of liturgy and hymnody that the churches in my life have introduced me to; of the world-centering and world-transforming story of Jesus Christ. I hope that those I have taught will receive all this as their inheritance and in their turn preserve and transmit it. Many, many others I know have done the same work. Is this not conserving? 

Askonas writes that “we are living after tradition” — but are we? I have received rich and wonderful traditions, have been blessed by them, and work for their perpetuation. Askonas also writes, “Those who look to build a human future have been freed from a rearguard defense of tradition to take up the path of the guerrilla, the upstart, the nomad.” Again: what does this mean? Like me, Askonas is a professor at an American university. How is this being a “nomad”? How is this being a “guerrilla”? Those seem like better descriptors for these guys.

Like Paul Kingsnorth, Askonas is speaking an imagistic language that strongly resists translation into specific beliefs and practices. Even when he suggests the possibility of “wild new technological practices,” it’s impossible to tell whether he’s referring to biotechnology, information technology, architecture, infrastructure — it could be anything, or nothing. The sheer abstraction is stultifying. 

Are our circumstances difficult? In some ways, sure. I’m sympathetic with T. S. Eliot’s view: 

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

But at many points in the history of the traditions I have gratefully received, the conditions seemed (indeed were) even less propitious. And yet the faithfulness of those who loved those traditions was not exercised in vain. 

My friend Tim Larsen speaks of the cacophony of new faiths that sprang up in America in the first half of the nineteenth century as “do-over religions.” Some of the language in the pieces I have been quoting sounds like the rhetoric of a do-over religion, and I fear that to think in this way is to despise the great work of our faithful elders and faithful ancestors. My concern is that writers like Kingsnorth and Askonas have not tried conservation and found it impossible, but found it challenging and left it untried. 

On the Netflix series High on the Hog, in the episode “The Rice Kingdom,” the food historian Michael W. Twitty makes a crab and okra soup — okra of course being a vegetable that slaves brought from West Africa — and comments, “Despite the fact that we were in hell, that we were being worked to death, we created a cuisine.” And note that that cuisine depended on elements of old food traditions that they had conserved — conserved in the most unpropitious circumstances imaginable. I concluded my recent essay on Albert Murray by quoting the great man on just this point: 

And man prevails through his style, through his elegance, through his control of forces. Not through his power, but through his control. People who confuse art with attack forget that what art is mainly concerned about is … form, and adequate form, and the artist is the first to know when a form is no longer as serviceable as it was. You see? And that’s what innovation is about. He’s trying to keep that form going, and he finds it necessary to extend, elaborate it, and refine it; to adjust it to new situations. That’s what innovation is about. It’s not to get rid of something simply to be getting rid of it, or to turn something around. It’s to continue something that is indispensable. 

A people who underwent centuries of slavery could think this way, could create all that they have created, but we can’t conserve? Tradition is over? Give me a break. 

But maybe this rhetoric not what it sounds like. Maybe it’s more constructive than it sounds. But because of the relentless vagueness of the imagery, the hand-waving abstraction, I can’t tell. So what I wonder is this: By the lights of this new do-over religion, what, specifically, should I be doing instead of what I have been doing? Until I find out, I’m going to keep practicing piety

Jahan Ganesh

The controversies of the day expose a problem with the right and it isn’t corruption. It isn’t “sleaze”. It is the impossibility of chasing money and fighting the culture wars. [Nadhim] Zahawi is one person, but stands for millions of a conservative temper in each generation. They are entitled to choose lucrative work over a life in the institutions that set the cultural weather. They are entitled to deplore the success of the left in bending those institutions to their dogma. What is neither honest nor becoming is to do both: to forfeit terrain and then seethe at its capture by hostile elements. […] 

Some conservatives have rationalised this discrepancy between electoral triumph and cultural retreat as a kind of leftwing swindle. Or, worse, as proof of democracy’s futility. Their own complicity is lost on them. There are Republicans who can’t believe how leftwing universities are and also can’t believe that anyone would ever choose the unlucrative life of an academic. At some point, you’d hope, the irony will dawn on them. 

(Via Andrew Wilson) 


Dale Ahlquist:

While the Distributist movement gained a much larger following than most historians have acknowledged, and is even experiencing something of a revival these days, it has suffered from being dismissed. Conservatives (and capitalists) accuse Distributism of being too socialist, an enemy of free trade. Liberals (and socialists) accuse it of being too capitalist, an enemy of regulation and the public interest. But more often it is dismissed without a fair hearing – not only by established economists and academics but by most everyone else as well – simply because of its unfortunate name: Distributism. No one knows what it means, and usually people think it means something else. It is understandably conflated with redistribution, which means taking money from a wealthier segment of the citizenry and redistributing it to a less wealthy segment. Sort of like Robin Hood. Or taxation. Yet while the early Distributists recognized that some redistribution of land, wealth, and power would obviously be necessary to achieve their ends, redistribution was never their end goal nor what made their vision compelling to so many.

It is for this reason that the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton recently renamed Distributism. Now, I wish to make it clear that we don’t have any special control over the word “Distributism.” People can keep using the old word if they want. But we introduced a new word because the old word was … well, it was no good!

The new word we came up with is “Localism.” 

I see why they did this, but (a) “localism” is already a term used in other contexts and (b) at least “Distributism” captured the fact that the movement is not just cultural but also a project of political economy. 

Distributism/Localism, like anarcho-syndicalism and several other kinds of anarchism — which I am very much interested in — all think that our social and cultural problems cannot be fixed unless we can wrest economic control from Bosses and put it in the hands of local people. They are all subsidiarist movements, and these are all to some degree rooted in Catholic social teaching, so you would think that people who call themselves conservatives would at least be interested. Not so much, not any more. 

An Open Letter Responding to the NatCon “Statement of Principles” – The European Conservative:

In the end the National Conservative statement is neither conservative nor Christian. As critics of liberalism from both Left and Right, we must reject it. We acknowledge the importance of national cultures. We recognise the rightful place of the nation acting in defence of the common good on behalf of its citizens. But we cannot accept the idea that to fight globalisation we must uncritically embrace the nation-state as the one true political form, or the most complete community; or that the best good we can aim for is nation-states re-armed against each other, seeking their own interests in perpetual implied conflict. 

Agreed wholly. 

the sheepdog’s view

I’ve been thinking about the weirdly intense hatred many conservatives feel for people like David French and Liz Cheney — for anyone they think isn’t “fighting.” Here’s my conclusion: The conservative movement has too many sheepdogs and not enough shepherds.

Sheepdogs do two things: they snap at members of the herd whom they believe to be straying from their proper place, and they bark viciously at wolves and other intruders. Sheepdogs are good at identifying potential predators and scaring them off with noisy aggression. (Often they suspect innocent passers-by of being wolves, but that just comes with the job description. Better to err on the side of caution, etc.) 

What sheepdogs are useless at is caring for the sheep. They can’t feed the sheep, or inspect them for injury or illness, or give them medicine. All they can do is bark when they see someone who might be a predator. And that’s fine, except for this: the sheepdogs of the conservative movement think that everyone who is not a sheepdog – everyone who is not angrily barking — is a wolf. So they try to frighten away even the faithful shepherds. If they succeed, eventually the whole herd will die, from starvation or disease. And as that happens, the sheepdogs won’t even notice. They will stand there with their backs to the dying herd and bark their fool heads off. 

Little Platoons

Matt Feeney’s Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age is a fascinating and provocative book that, in my judgment anyway, cries out for a sequel.

Before I go any further I should say that I’ve known Matt for years – we used to be co-conspirators at The American Scene – and we’ve corresponded occasionally since then, though not recently.

If there is any one idea that conservatives are thought to share, it’s the belief that a healthy society needs healthy mediating institutions. This is the burden of Yuval Levin’s recent book A Time to Build, and Yuval (also a friend) makes this argument about as well as it can be made. We do not flourish either as individuals or as a society when there is nothing to mediate between the atomized individual and the massive power of the modern nation-state. That’s why it’s always, though especially now, “a time to build” those mediating institutions that collectively are known as “civil society.” 

The really brilliant thing about Matt’s book — written by someone who, like me, possesses a conservative disposition but might not be issued a card by the people who authorize “card-carrying conservatives” — is its claim that in some areas of contemporary American life the mediating institutions are not too weak but rather too strong. And what he demonstrates with great acuity is the consistency with which those institutions, from youth soccer organizations to college admissions committees, have conscripted the “little platoon” of the family to serve their needs — indeed, to get families to compete with one another to serve those institutions’ needs: 

What happens, though, when citizens direct their suspicion not at a coercive government but at their peers, with whom they find or feel themselves, as parents and families, in competition? I join a chorus of scholars and writers in observing that such a competitive mood abides among parents today. Less noticed is how such competition creates new forms of subservience and conformity among families. In this environment, the intermediate bodies of civil society, cornerstone of the conservative theory of republican liberty, sometimes become demanding bosses, taskmasters, and gatekeepers in the enterprise of winning advantage for our children in a system of zero-sum competition. 

As a result,  

Under these conditions, the anxious and competitive citizen-parent looks to certain “voluntary associations,” certain institutions within “civil society,” not as bulwarks against coercive government but as ways to gain advantage over other families, exclusive paths to better futures. From boutique preschools to competitive sports clubs to selective colleges and universities, desirable institutions become bidding objects for future-worried and status-conscious families. 

Thus, “the era of intensive parenting is defined by the rise of a sort of hybrid entity, an institutional cyborg that is part organization and part family.” 

Matt is not by any means opposed to these mediating institutions as such — there’s a wonderful section on how he learned, through walking his kids to school every day and then hanging out for a while with teachers and other parents, how a school really can be the locus of genuine community — but looks with a gimlet eye, a Foucauldian gimlet eye, on the ways that, right now, in this country, a few such institutions form, sustain and disseminate their power over families.  

He’s scathing about college admissions, especially the turn towards “holistic” admissions processes which serve to transform mid-level administrators into eager shapers of souls. He mentions a Vice Provost at Emory who laments the imperfection of his knowledge of the inner lives of applicants, and continues: 

If you recall that, twenty or thirty years ago, admissions departments weren’t even mentioning authenticity, were not treating the therapeutic search for true voices and true selves as the goal of their investigations, and if you devote a moment’s thought to the absurdity of this search, you will be tempted to laugh at Vice Provost Latting’s hysterical protest against imperfect knowledge. But, laughable as this and other admissions testimony is, on its merits, I would like to present a good reason not to laugh. Setting up a yearslong, quasi-therapeutic process in which you goad young people to lay bare their vulnerable selves to you, when this process is actually a high-value transaction in which you use your massive leverage to mold those selves to your liking, is actually a terrible thing to do. 

Yes, it is. And I am glad to hear someone say it so bluntly. 

In his conclusion, Matt admits his reluctance to give advice to parents in such a coercive and panoptic environment, and that’s perfectly understandable. In any case, the primary function of the the primary purpose of the book is diagnostic: he wants to show us the specific ways in which these various mediating institutions co-opt families, and even in some cases make the families hosts to which they are the parasites. I don’t think that the book would have held together as well if it had tried to include parenting advice in the midst of everything else. But it is obvious that Matt has thought quite a lot about what it means to be a responsible parent in our time – he has a great riff on why he’s okay with the fact that his oldest daughter is the only person in her class who doesn’t have a smartphone – and I would really like to hear more from him about how he conceives of the positive responsibilities of being a parent, the dispositions and actions which strengthen that little platoon. I don’t think he needs to do this in a pop-psychology self-help way; Matt is by training a philosopher and I think philosophical reflection on this topic, so essential to human flourishing, would be welcome from him.

But the book provides a great service simply by teasing out the ways in which families are not served by but rather are made to serve these parasitic institutions — and the ways in which we are manipulated to do so ever more intensely by our felt need to compete with other families. As we are always told, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem. 

Conservatism Inc.

Ross Douthat, in an exceptionally insightful column:

As Conservatism Inc. became more of a world unto itself, it sealed out bad news for conservative governance, contributing to debacles that doomed Republican presidents — Iraq for George W. Bush, Covid for Donald Trump. These debacles helped make conservatism less popular, closer to a 45 percent than a 55 percent proposition in presidential races, a blocking coalition but not a governing one. And this in turn made the right’s passionate core feel more culturally besieged, more desperate for “safe spaces” where liberal perfidy was taken for granted and the most important reasons for conservative defeats were never entertained.

Such a system, predictably, was terrible at generating the kind of outward-facing, evangelistic conservatives who had made the Reagan revolution possible. There are threads linking Reagan to Donald Trump or William F. Buckley Jr. to Sean Hannity, as the right’s liberal critics often note. But to go back and watch Reagan and Buckley is to see an entirely different approach to politics — missionary and confident, with a gentlemanly comportment that has altogether vanished.

In its place today is a fantasy politics, a dreampolitik, that’s fed by a deep feeling of grievance and dispossession. Part of this feeling is justified, insofar as liberalism really has consolidated cultural power everywhere outside Conservatism Inc. But the right’s infotainment complex is itself a major reason for that consolidation. Conservatives have lost real-world territory by building dream palaces, and ceded votes by talking primarily to themselves.

This is cogent, clear, and indisputably true. Who within the world of Conservatism Inc. is even making the slightest attempt at appealing to people who aren’t already on board?

P.S. Perhaps I should say that I stand in an odd relation to all of this because, as I have often noted, my conservatism is fundamentally theological and a conservative theology – a genuine Gospel of Life – yields a set of political policies that spans the spectrum of Left to Right. (Or at least, the Left as it used to be and the Right as it used to be.) But a constant awareness of human fallibility and the typical forms that that fallibility takes – have I mentioned that I wrote a book on Original Sin? – will, I think, push one towards an Oakeshottian mode of thinking about politics, a conserving tendency, a disposition to be skeptical about utopian hopes and plans, regular appeals to Chesterton’s Fence. So perhaps it’s not surprising that for a long time conservative outlets were very hospitable to my writing. And perhaps it’s also not surprising that as Conservatism Inc. has taken hold I have had to find other homes for my work, work which at one time might have been seen as an expression of the conservative temperament but now … not so much. Because the “conservative disposition” isn’t what it used to be: now it’s primarily a “deep feeling of grievance and dispossession.”

after the platforms

Ross Douthat:

Yes, it’s understandable for conservatives to worry that if Silicon Valley censors the likes of Molyneux, it will end up censoring them. It’s sensible for them to join parts in the left in worrying about the concentrated power over information that the stewards of social-media platforms enjoy. And it’s necessary for them to recognize that the influence of redpillers and white-identitarians reflects their own failure, across the decades of movement-conservative institution building, to create something that seems more compelling to fugitives from liberalism than the Spirit of the Reddit Thread.

With all that said, though, a humane conservatism should still be able to thrive in a world where white nationalists have trouble monetizing their extremism, in which YouTube algorithms are built to maximize something other than addiction.

I’m not sure what Ross means in the last sentence I’ve quoted by “should.” Does he mean that “humane conservatism” is likely to thrive, or that if the system is fair it ought to be able to do so? I doubt the first and doubt the conditional of the second.

Here’s the situation as I see it. First, as Alexis Madrigal has recently written, the big social media companies will from now on find it less likely to take refuge in the claim that they are “merely platforms”:

These companies are continuing to make their platform arguments, but every day brings more conflicts that they seem unprepared to resolve. The platform defense used to shut down the why questions: Why should YouTube host conspiracy content? Why should Facebook host provably false information? Facebook, YouTube, and their kin keep trying to answer, We’re platforms! But activists and legislators are now saying, So what? “I think they have proven — by not taking down something they know is false — that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election,” Nancy Pelosi said in the wake of the altered-video fracas.

If you can’t plead platform neutrality, what do you do? Well, these companies being what they are, they’ll write algorithms to try to filter content. But the algorithms will often fail — after all, they can’t tell the difference between sites that promote hatred and sites that seek to combat it.

Where does that leave you? As Will Oremus points out, it leaves you with mob rule:

What should be clear to both sides, by now, is the extent to which these massive corporations are making up the rules of online speech as they go along. In the absence of any independent standards or accountability, public opinion has become an essential part of the process by which their moderation policies evolve.

Sure, online platforms have policies and terms of service that run thousands of words, which they enforce on a mass scale via software and a bureaucratic review process. But those rules have been stitched together piecemeal and ad hoc over the years to serve the companies’ own needs — which is why they tend to collapse as soon as a high-profile controversy subjects them to public scrutiny. Caving to pressure is a bad look, but it’s an inevitable feature of a system with policies that weren’t designed to withstand pressure in the first place.

Whatever should happen to humane conservatism on the internet, I don’t know what will, but as a person who is somewhat conservative and who would like to be humane, I wish I knew. In light of all the above, one thing seems nearly certain to me: If I were on a major social media service and a vocal group of that site’s users started calling me homophobic or transphobic or a white supremacist and demanded that I be banned, I would be banned.