Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: culture (page 1 of 1)

the wisdom of Sturgeon

It seems that literary fiction is dead — it even has a gravestone. Capitalism? Also dead. Tradition and conservatism apparently achieved a murder-suicide pact, which I guess makes it inevitable that the Judeo-Christian tradition is equally defunct; the fact is pushing up daisies; a consensus of some kind has shuffled off its mortal coil; the metabolic processes of socialism have long been history; liberalism joined the Choir Invisible some time back; even Trumpism has expired and gone to meet its maker. At this point, wouldn’t it be simpler for someone to write to tell us what isn’t dead? Maybe something out there is merely pinin’ for the fjords? 

It’s a regrettable rhetorical tic, closely related to others, like the claim that “the internet” — all of it! All trillion pages! — is no fun any more, or the even vaster claim that “culture” — all of it! Everything that humans do together! — has come to a standstill. These vast sweeping hand-wavy universal assertions … is there no end to them? Why can’t they come to a standstill? Why can’t they shuffle off their mortal coil? 

You need a generalization you can rely on, and I’ve got one for you. It’s called Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” You can do the hand-wavy thing and moan the words “over” and “dead” and “no fun,” or you can follow a better path: sift through the cascade of human productions that come your way to find, and then preserve, the small percentage of it that’s golden.

My name for that pursuit is the Gandalf Option, and I recommend it to you, because (to shift metaphors) it is always better to light a candle than curse the darkness. 

the culture question revisited

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

In that follow-up, Brad writes, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity and … ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quotation from Hunter

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

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

The Jellyfish Tribe – by Paul Kingsnorth:

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

The corruption of California – UnHerd:

You, tender reader, might be scandalised by the ways of California’s DMV, but such a response is a hangover from another era. Under conditions of bureaucratic dysfunction typical of a party-state, corruption isn’t a problem, it is the solution. These new populations have found ways to get things done. Bribery is more efficient (and far less crazy-making) than clinging to first-world expectations in a world that has changed. 

This is a genuinely and deeply fascinating essay by Matt Crawford. I think it describes a small but significant chunk of America’s future. 

Culture as Metastasis – by Mary Harrington:

All the way back in 1994, Baudrillard could see that the emerging culture after the revolutionary “orgy” of the 1960s was one increasingly free of any grounding in material causality, constraint, or telos. He characterises art, sexuality and finance alike in these terms, sketching how each of these domains has become a kind of metastasising domain that refers only to itself:

“Ours is a society founded on proliferation, on growth which continues even though it cannot be measured against any clear goals […] There is no better analogy here than the metastatic process in cancer: a loss of the body’s organic ground rules such that a given group of cells is able to deploy its incoercible and murderous vitality, to defy genetic programming and to proliferate endlessly.” 

In Baudrillard’s view, stagnation is also endless, directionless self-replication: “where there is stasis, there is metastasis”. He could be writing today, about the endless recycling that now dominates the culture industries — a model of production that realises, at scale, what that since-vanished visionary of fandom-first culture recycling envisaged back in my noughties wilderness years.

two quotations on culture wars

Ian Leslie:

I have long thought it’s a bit odd quite how much people on the left love to bemoan culture war discourse. They talk about it all the time, despite or perhaps because of the fact the left has made a lot of progress on the cultural battles of recent years and met surprisingly little resistance. But it’s always the other side which makes war, never ‘us’. Meanwhile, to most voters, it’s probably the other way around. The left comes across as more culturally aggressive than the right, the more likely to ‘call out’ incorrect language or behaviour. I don’t think trying to make or police cultural change is necessarily a bad thing, by the way — the left has changed society for the better that way in the past. I just think it’s a bad thing not to be honest about it. […] 

I think we should stop using culture war as an insult. After all, culture is very important to society and worth arguing over. I’ve written a whole book about how conflict can be productive. But for conflict to be healthy it has to happen out in the open rather than under the table or behind closed doors. It shouldn’t disguise itself as something else. If you think ‘decolonisation’, for example, is a meaningful and necessary activity, then recognise it as a contentious political goal, argue for it on that basis, and welcome counter-arguments. Instead, it gets presented as a neutral, merely bureaucratic term, and the pearl-clutching epithet of ‘culture war’ is wheeled out when anyone questions it. All of the actual arguments are thereby avoided. 


Yuval Levin

By allowing the chimeric ethos of the culture war to infiltrate every part of our lives, we have come to mistake the mores of cultural-political combat for all-purpose norms of social interaction. When we ignore them at work or in church, and just do our work without regard for party, we feel like we have made a sordid concession. If our entire common life is one big yes-or-no question, then we must always make sure to answer it correctly.

But that is not what our entire common life consists of, and acknowledging that fact need not mean cordoning off your conscience. There are core moral commitments that must apply to every part of our experience. We must always respect the equal dignity of others, and live by the truth and not by lies. We can never let economic imperatives or team spirit overwhelm our fundamental religious and ethical obligations. But such core matters of conscience leave a lot of room for legitimate differences and circumstantial norms. And they are broad enough to let us apply distinct standards to distinct circumstances. […] 

Such compartmentalization is not an alternative to an integrated moral framework for our lives but an embodiment of such a framework. Properly conceived, it is a grace given to our limited selves from beyond ourselves—a reminder that we are not fully merged with the world and defined by our society’s categories, but have our own dignity and agency, shaped and provoked by distinct invitations and circumstances. And it is a way to moderate our partisan passions and to recognize the multifaceted complexity of other human beings. No one is simply a partisan. Everyone has a more layered array of identities. That’s why we can respect people and engage with them in those domains that are not set out for cultural contention but for cooperation.

Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly – by Adam Mastroianni:

We haven’t fully reckoned with what the cultural oligopoly might be doing to us. How much does it stunt our imaginations to play the same video games we were playing 30 years ago? What message does it send that one of the most popular songs in the 2010s was about how a 1970s rock star was really cool? How much does it dull our ambitions to watch 2021’s The Matrix: Resurrections, where the most interesting scene is just Neo watching the original Matrix from 1999? How inspiring is it to watch tiny variations on the same police procedurals and reality shows year after year? My parents grew up with the first Star Wars movie, which had the audacity to create an entire universe. My niece and nephews are growing up with the ninth Star Wars movie, which aspires to move merchandise. Subsisting entirely on cultural comfort food cannot make us thoughtful, creative, or courageous.

Fortunately, there’s a cure for our cultural anemia. While the top of the charts has been oligopolized, the bottom remains a vibrant anarchy. There are weird books and funky movies and bangers from across the sea. Two of the most interesting video games of the past decade put you in the role of an immigration officer and an insurance claims adjuster. Every strange thing, wonderful and terrible, is available to you, but they’ll die out if you don’t nourish them with your attention. Finding them takes some foraging and digging, and then you’ll have to stomach some very odd, unfamiliar flavors. That’s good. Learning to like unfamiliar things is one of the noblest human pursuits; it builds our empathy for unfamiliar people. And it kindles that delicate, precious fire inside us — without it, we might as well be algorithms. Humankind does not live on bread alone, nor can our spirits long survive on a diet of reruns. 

This is good, but notice that there’s no reference here to the possibility of searching the past for worthwhile art. 

Gary Saul Morson:

“You have Putin’s Russia and Pushkin’s Russia,” Krielaars observed. To blame a whole culture, past and present, for a current political action implies that everything about that culture contributed to that action. If Germany succumbed to the Nazis, don’t listen to Beethoven; because of Mussolini, cancel Dante and Raphael; if you reject American actions in Vietnam, the Middle East, or anywhere else, no more Thoreau or Emily Dickinson. Could there be a better way to encourage national hatred than to treat a whole culture and its history as a unified whole, carrying, as if genetically, a hideous quality? […]

If Russian history teaches anything, it is that such “moral clarity” has no limits. If all right is on one side, then anything — literally anything — one says or does is justified. Indeed, to stop short of the most extreme measures is to indulge evil, which means risking the charge of complicity. When Stalin sent local officials quotas of people to be arrested, they responded by demanding still higher quotas. It was the safest thing to do to prove one’s loyalty. No one ever secured his position by calling for less severity to enemies. When everything is black and white, sooner or later everyone is at risk.

consecration to culture

Culture is the child of each individual’s self-knowledge and dissatisfaction with himself. Anyone who believes in culture is thereby saying: ‘I see above me something higher and more human than I am; let everyone help me to attain it, as I will help everyone who knows and suffers as I do: so that at last the man may appear who feels himself perfect and boundless in knowledge and love, perception and power, and who in his completeness is at one with nature, the judge and evaluator of things.’ It is hard to create in anyone this condition of intrepid self-knowledge because it is impossible to teach love; for it is love alone that can bestow on the soul, not only a clear, discriminating and self-contemptuous view of itself, but also the desire to look beyond itself and to seek with all its might for a higher self as yet still concealed from it. Thus only he who has attached his heart to some great man receives thereby the first consecration to culture.

— Nietzsche, from “Schopenhauer as Educator”

songs you’re entitled to sing

Edwin Muir was born and raised in the Orkneys at the end of the 19th century, and in his Autobiography (1954) recalls the songs he and his family sang — some of which were old ballads in Scottish English; but a few, in standard English and featuring references to such exotic locales as Paddington Green, had somehow been acquired from books and magazines: 

There was a great difference between the earlier and the later songs. The ballads about James V and Sir James the Rose had probably been handed down orally for hundreds of years; they were consequently sure of themselves and were sung with your full voice, as if you had always been entitled to sing them; but the later ones were chanted in a sort of literary way, in honour of the print in which they had originally come, every syllable of the English text carefully pronounced, as if it were an exercise. These old songs, rooted for so long in the life of the people, are now almost dead. 

I wonder what it would be like to sings songs “as if you had always been entitled to sing them” — entitled because they were the songs of your people, your world — and songs neither bought nor sold but rather inherited and passed along.

(When my late father-in-law was a child in Columbiana, Alabama, his family was very poor, and could afford no musical instruments; so evening after evening, they just sat on the front porch and sang in four-part harmony. All of them experienced music in a way I never have and never will. Eventually they did a little better, financially, and Daddy C — as I would call him, decades later — got a cheap guitar from Sears as a Christmas present. But he had no one to teach him to play until a friend of his sister’s, a fellow his own age but from Montgomery, came by one day and taught him a few chords. That friend was named Hank Williams — and yep, it was that Hank Williams.)  

I think often of something Muir wrote, in his diary, about himself: 

I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped about a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. 

He grew up in a world technologically and socially little different than that of his distant ancestors: the family had a few books and a couple of fiddles, but their culture was largely shared and maintained by voice. Can anyone today born into the Western world say the same? Some, perhaps; but few.

A book I admire tremendously is Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, and in her Introduction to a recent edition of the book Marina Warner raises an inevitable question: 

How perennial is the lore and language that the Opies chronicled? Much of the material is ancient, reported in the first printed records of children’s sayings and doings, with echoes reverberating much further back; certain themes and attitudes, certain rhythms and prosody, especially the humor and the daring, are eternal and inextinguishable. The Opies themselves invoke the bugbear of the mass media, which was already, even in the 1950s, accused of extinguishing children’s spontaneity in play and expressiveness. The sociologist David Holbrook, in his book Children’s Games [1957], lamented the disappearance of traditional play, citing as causes “recent developments in television, in the mass-production of toys, in family life, and the tone of our ways of living,” but for their own time at least the Opies confidently refuted this. 

Could they “confidently refute” such a lament today? While Warner insists that “children haven’t forgotten how to play,” she also says this: “We are in danger of cultural illiteracy, of losing the past. If nestlings are deprived of their parents’ song during a certain ‘window’ at the beginning, they will not learn to sing. This sounds uncomfortably recognizable.” 

Children will always play, when allowed to, and people will always sing. But will they play or sing anything that can’t be bought and sold? Will playing and singing, in the Western world anyway, ever again be anything other than a set of commercial transactions? I’m glad that I can listen to almost any music in the world that I want to listen to; but I can’t help wondering sometimes whether music would mean something more to me, and certainly something different, if most of the songs I knew were the ones that, in that imagined life, I’d be entitled to sing. 


Ross Douthat:

Both decadence and chronic ailments cut against the human tendency to imagine a crisis as something that either leads to some kind of fatal endgame quickly or else resolves itself and goes away. Being sick for a long period of time has a baffling effect on friends and family and acquaintances, not because they’re unsympathetic or unwilling to help, but because our primary image of sickness is something that comes and quickly leaves, or comes and threatens your life and needs to be treated intensely with the highest stakes — and it’s harder to know how to respond to having something that apparently isn’t life-threatening but also doesn’t go away.

In the same way people analyzing cultural and political conditions are drawn, very naturally, to the sharp alternatives of progress or decline, full cultural health or late-imperial collapse. Indeed they tend to swing back and forth between the two poles, so that often the same people most confident in the arc of history bending inexorably toward liberal progress turn into the deepest here-comes-Hitler pessimists when the arc seems to bend instead in some dark or unexpected direction. So to suggest that there’s actually another category of civilizational condition, one defined by stagnation and repetition over a potentially extended horizon — saying, for instance, that the American republic is decaying and gridlocked and sclerotic but also not yet particularly like Weimar Germany or 1990s Russia, let alone 5th century Rome — is a way of conveying the same kind of truth that’s conveyed by living through a chronic illness, or loving someone who’s living with one: That the drama of human existence is replete with long unhappy interludes that feature neither an immediate Nemesis nor a simple cure, and those interludes require a distinctive response from their inhabitants, neither complacent nor hysterical, but constructive in ways that are intended to bear fruit across a longer haul — years for the individual, decades for society — than the response to an immediate all-or-nothing crisis.

An obsessive focus on the immediate moment is what makes catastrophists and triumphalists; their lack of temporal bandwidth renders them wholly insensible to the incremental. 


George Scialabba:

[Wendell] Berry is a serious Christian, and also a serious reader of poetry. His prose is studded with quotations from the Bible and the poetic canon. It may be surprising (though it shouldn’t be, really) how easy it is to find a text in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Blake, or Wordsworth celebrating humility, fortitude, magnanimity, chastity, marital fidelity, or some other Christian (though not exclusively Christian) virtue. Character and virtue are indeed fragile, and it’s reasonable to exploit all the resources of human culture to shore them up. But although it lends his writing gravity and grace, I’m sorry that Berry insists on giving the agrarian ethos a religious framework and on situating human flourishing within a “Great Economy,” by which he means not Gaia but the “Kingdom of God.” As a result, he speaks less persuasively than he might to those of us who feel that our civilization has somehow gone wrong, and that at least some part of traditional wisdom is indeed wisdom, but who cannot believe that this universe is the work of the Christian God, or of any God. And yet we need Berry’s preaching as much as anyone. Jesus came, after all, to call sinners, not the just, to good farming practices.

Our culture’s great need today is for a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism, skeptical and science-loving but skeptical even of science when necessary, aware that barbarism is as likely as progress and may even arrive advertised as progress, steadily angry at the money-changers and mindful of the least of our brethren. I don’t see how anyone who shares Berry’s Christian beliefs could fail to adopt his ideal of stewardship. But if those religious beliefs are necessary as well as sufficient — if there is no other path to that ideal, as he sometimes seems to imply — then we may be lost. One cannot believe at will. 

Brad East:

Of another ex-Marxist, Dwight Macdonald, Scialabba once wrote that though Macdonald “despaired of politics,” he “was an exemplary amateur,” for he “sought to apply to our politics and culture the strict critical standards of an honest intellectual craftsman — standards at once deeply conservative and deeply subversive.” That last phrase encapsulates why Scialabba’s detection of a final incompatibility between the ideas of those like himself and those of people like Berry — a group that includes me, at least by distant aspiration — is too quick. What irks, finally, is not that he misreads or fails to sympathize with Berry’s work, but that he misses that Berry is, or can be, a co-belligerent, if not a comrade, in a shared project. Scialabba can see this clearly in the case of former communists “hurt into” disenchantment and exile; he should see it too in Berry.

True, Berry is a certain kind of Christian and a certain kind of conservative, but just for that reason he is also a certain kind of friend to Scialabba’s goals for the world’s improvement. Not all of them, to be sure, but who can find a friend like that? On the contrary: given the overturned table of contemporary politics, it’s catch as catch can. All the more so if Berry’s art, like Chiaromonte’s, like Macdonald’s, avoids a moralistic reduction of politics to personal responsibility, and embodies instead the refusal to separate what belongs together: truth and justice, art and activism, private and public. That refusal was radical in their time, and it remains radical today.

news as religion

Matt Taibbi:

Surveys found a third of Republicans think the asymptomatic don’t transmit Covid-19, or that the disease kills fewer people than the flu or car crashes. But Democrats also test out atrociously, with 41% thinking Covid-19 patients end up hospitalized over half the time — the real number is 1%-5% — while also wildly overestimating dangers to children, the percentage of Covid deaths under the age of 65, the efficacy of masks, and other issues.

This is the result of narrative-driven coverage that focuses huge amounts of resources on the wrongness of the rival faith. Blue audiences love stories about the deathbed recantations of red-state Covid deniers, some of which are real, some more dubious. A typical Fox story, meanwhile, might involve a woman who passed out and crashed into a telephone pole while wearing a mask alone in her car. Tales of each other’s stupidity are the new national religion, and especially among erstwhile liberals, we take them more seriously than any religion has been taken in the smart set in a long, long time. 

I know I have been banging this drum for a long time — here, here, and in greatest detail here — but I think it’s better to consider these systems of beliefs as myths, as emerging from what Kołakowski calls “the mythical core of culture,” rather than religion. 

UPDATE: This from Sally Satel is relevant: 

An ambitious new study … by the Emory University researcher Thomas H. Costello and five colleagues … proposes a rigorous new measure of antidemocratic attitudes on the left. And, by drawing on a survey of 7,258 adults, Costello’s team firmly establishes that such attitudes exist on both sides of the American electorate. (One co-author on the paper, I should note, was Costello’s adviser, the late Scott Lilienfeld — with whom I wrote a 2013 book and numerous articles.) Intriguingly, the researchers found some common traits between left-wing and right-wing authoritarians, including a “preference for social uniformity, prejudice towards different others, willingness to wield group authority to coerce behavior, cognitive rigidity, aggression and punitiveness towards perceived enemies, outsized concern for hierarchy, and moral absolutism.” 

But before conservatives start up the “the left is worse” chorus, note this: 

I asked Costello whether left-wing and right-wing authoritarians exist in equal proportions. “It is hard to know the ratio,” he said, making clear that a subject’s receptivity to authoritarianism falls on a continuum, like other personality characteristics or even height, so using hard-and-fast categories (authoritarian versus nonauthoritarian) can be tricky. “Still, some preliminary work shows the ratio is about the same if you average across the globe,” he said. In the U.S., though, Costello hypothesizes that right-wing authoritarians outnumber left-wing ones by roughly three to one. Other researchers have concluded that the number of strident conservatives in the U.S. far exceeds the number of strident progressives and that American conservatives express more authoritarian attitudes than their counterparts in Britain, Australia, or Canada.


Samuel Goldman:

While it’s not much like European nation-states, the U.S. has plenty of similarities to other post-colonial, pluralistic societies in North and South America.

Take religiosity. Despite trends toward non-affiliation, Americans’ largely favorable attitudes toward religion contrast sharply with most European countries’ secularism. That quality isn’t specific to the U.S., though. In fact, we rank around the middle of North and South American religiosity, similar to Mexico but lower than Brazil and most Central American countries. The continental outlier isn’t the U.S. but Canada, which reports the lowest religiosity in the Western hemisphere. Yet even there, 27 percent report religion is very important in their lives, more than double the rate in comparably rich parts of Europe.

Murder rates are another good illustration. Here too, the U.S. resembles our neighbors more than our European cousins. Our national murder rate of around five homicides per 100,000 inhabitants is about four times that of the United Kingdom, France, Germany. But it’s lower than every country in the Americas except Chile, Martinique, Aruba, and Canada. (Even Greenland has a higher murder rate than we do.)

And so on. Fascinating essay on the ways the U.S. more closely resembles other nations in the Americas than it does any place in Europe.  

underwriting democracy

From an interview with James Davison Hunter:

In this tangle between very powerful institutions and very powerful cultural logics, there are serious problems that are deeply rooted. The great democratic revolutions of Western Europe and North America were rooted in the intellectual and cultural revolution of Enlightenment; the Enlightenment underwrote those political transformations. If America’s hybrid Enlightenment underwrote the birth of liberal democracy in the United States, what underwrites it now?

What is going to underwrite liberal democracy in the 21st century? To me, it’s not obvious. That’s the big puzzle I’m working through right now. But it bears on this issue of culture wars, because if there’s nothing that we share in common — if there is no hybrid enlightenment that we share — then what are the sources we can draw upon to come together and find any kind of solidarity? … 

I have this old-fashioned view that what we’re supposed to do is to understand before we take action, and that wisdom depends upon understanding. That basically makes me a conservative today — but it also makes me a progressive by conservative standards.

James is a friend, but still, it’s true: His work becomes more and more important, its prescience becomes more and more clear, as time goes by. I have recently been re-reading To Change the World and am really struck by the ways it anticipated all the pathologies that have wounded American Christianity in the past decade. 

the airless room

This is an interview with Kathryn Scanlan about her very peculiar new book, which is made up of selections from a person’s diary — read the interview to learn more, it’s really fascinating.

But I want to talk about a distraction from the real subject of the interview. Here’s a passage:

Etter: Now this is a question I have coming from a journalism background: what does it mean for fiction to take a real life and remix it, scramble it, and fine tune it into something that becomes non-real? What is it like to play with that?

Scanlan: A little bit weird. From the beginning, I felt like it was a weird thing I was doing. I don’t necessarily think it’s any particular genre, I think it has elements of all genres. I think it can be called fiction and I would call it that because of the way it’s been selected. If you are only showing part of something, it’s fiction. If you’re omitting lots of things, or if you’re focusing on only something particular, it’s fiction in my mind.

Etter: I think most journalists would probably agree with that definition — maybe not our president.

I read that and thought: Is there any chance of my getting through a recent essay, an article, a story, an interview, without a reference to That Man? Is it really necessary for every member of The Cultured to signal their disdain for him in every single conversation?

I want to say: He’s not sucking the air out of the room, you are.

Yes, I know, it’s just a passing comment. But when “passing comments” of that kind show up twenty times a day, it wears on a fella.

This is why I make my newsletter. It’s a place that I can guarantee will be free from that kind of thing, that will allow me and my readers to spend time in a broader world than that of posted and tweeted and retweeted political vaporing, posturing, and rancor.

Many of you will know this famous letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail: “The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Let not Adams have studied in vain.

on social acceleration

Recently I’ve read two of the most stimulating, provocative, generative books I’ve read in a long time. One of them is Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. I hope to have something to say about that in the near future.

The other, and the one I want to talk about here, is Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration. This one poses some real challenges to me, primarily because it bears so directly on the book I’m writing but is not the sort of thing — it gets deep into the weeds of social theory — that I can treat at length in a book for a general audience. So as relevant as it is to the argument of Breaking Bread with the Dead, I won’t say much about it there, though it will surely end up in the notes a few times. (One of the things I most want to do in my writing for general audiences is to translate complex work in theology, philosophy, and social, cultural, and literary theory into terms accessible to the common reader — and to do so without defacing the ideas by oversimplifying them.) 

I’ll unpack a bit of Rosa’s argument here, then. Rosa looks at the phenomenon of acceleration in three dimensions:

  1. “technical acceleration, that is, the intentional acceleration of goal-directed processes”; 
  2. “acceleration of social change, that is, the escalation of the rate of social change with respect to associational structures, knowledge (theoretical, practical, and moral), social practices, and action orientations”; 
  3. “acceleration of the pace of life represents a reaction to the scarcity of (uncommitted) time resources. This is why, on the one hand, it is expressed in the experience of stress and a lack of time, and, on the other, it can be defined as an increase in the number of episodes of action and/or experience per unit of time.”

The relationship between these three dimensions, Rosa shows, is complex: after all, when you have technical acceleration, especially in the form of what we call “labor-saving devices,” shouldn’t our pace of life slow down? And yet it often doesn’t — or, perhaps more accurately, we don’t feel that it does.

Rosa also discusses various “decelerating” forces or institutions, and it’s the last of those that I want to focus on here. Unlike the deceleration of a technologically backward society with scant or no access to the most current technologies — and also unlike the deliberate choice, long term or short, of technological limitation (the family living “off the grid” or the techbro vacationing in a monastery) — this final kind of deceleration is “the paradoxical flip side of social acceleration.” Many people in our time have “the experience of an uneventfulness and standstill that underlies the rapidly changing surface of social conditions and events, one that accompanies the modern perception of dynamization from the very beginning as a second fundamental experience of modernization.” Rosa often uses in the book a phrase by the cultural theorist Paul Virilio: “frenetic standstill” — the widespread sense that the world around us is in constant flux and yet nothing essential is happening — nothing essential can happen. (There’s a fascinating section of the book on the ways that depression is a natural response to this and therefore the characteristic disease of late modernity.) 

This sense of “frenetic standstill” is especially common when the second dimension, acceleration of social change, crosses a certain threshold. Rosa looks at three social conditions, divided by two thresholds. In the first condition no obviously major change happens over several generations, or if it does happen it happens with imperceptible slowness, which lends to everyone in that society a feeling of stability, even permanence. Thus it was, thus it is, thus it shall ever be.

But when a major change occurs fast enough so that one generation of people can see that they’re living in a different form of life than their parents, or grandparents, did, then a threshold has been crossed. And Rosa argues that when this happens people tend to perceive that change as progressive: the world is going somewhere, it has a direction, and if I go with it my life can have a progressive direction too.

However: there’s another threshold to cross, as we have recently learned, and that’s when significant social change happens within a generation. Not only is your social world different than the one your parents experienced and came to count on, it’s different than the social world you experienced even a short time ago. When that happens, you see a couple getting a divorce because when they married they were “different people.” You get Farhad Manjoo feeling that the gender that he absolutely took for granted just a few years ago is now an “ubiquitous prison for the mind.” You get a Christian academic like David Gushee making a career of chastising people for holding views he himself held quite recently. And everyone thinks this kind of thing is normal: to look upon your very self of five years ago as a stranger, and presumably one for whose beliefs and actions your NowSelf cannot possibly be held responsible.

But, Rosa reminds us, we don’t really how what life on this side of that second threshold is going to do to us.

An intragenerational tempo of change thus undeniably raises the question of the temporally specific, so to speak, load-bearing capacity of cultural reproduction and social integration. The consequences of the growing intergenerational divide in lifeworld orientations and everyday practices as well as the ongoing devaluation of experience for the exchange between generations, for the passing on of cultural knowledge, and for the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity have hardly been studied at all.

It hasn’t been studied, but the consequences are going to be interesting (and, I think, not pleasant) to see unfold. For instance, here’s one aspect of the “ongoing devaluation of experience for the exchange between generations, for the passing on of cultural knowledge, and for the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity”: a currently small but increasing number of parents live in absolute terror of “assigning” gender to their children. Some decades from now there will surely be some powerfully embittered people who will despise their parents for having forced such choices on them when they were wholly unprepared to make them.

And yet many of those same parents don’t hesitate to forbid the eating of meat or Twinkies or Doritos to those same children, and will be deeply grieved when, as is inevitable, some of those kids end up as junk-food junkies. So I don’t think there will ever be a wholesale abandonment of “the passing on of cultural knowledge,” or of a desire for “the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity.” But what, specifically, people will want to pass down to their children will change. And there’s no doubt that as long as social change happens, or is felt to, at the current rate, parents will want to give their children free choices as often as they can possibly bear to. The “load-bearing capacity of cultural reproduction and social integration” will continue to decline, it seems likely. 

And yet maybe not inevitable. There’s a passage from Adorno’s Minima Moralia that I think of often — and that Rosa refers briefly to at one point: “Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars.”

the most literary decade

Popular radio shows featured literary critics talking about recent poetry and fiction. The New Yorker’s book-review editor hosted one of the most popular radio shows in America, and his anthology, Reading I’ve Liked, ranked seventh on the bestseller list for nonfiction in 1941. At the Democratic Primary Convention in 1948, F. O. Matthiessen, a professor of American literature, delivered a nominating speech for Henry Wallace, the late FDR’s vice president. Writers were celebrities. Literature was popular. The 1940s was the most intensely literary decade in American history, perhaps in world history. Books symbolized freedom.

Posters of 1942 quoted the president: “Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons.” During the Blitz, Muriel Rukeyser recalled, “newspapers in America carried full-page advertisements for The Oxford Book of English Verse, announced as ‘all that is imperishable of England.’ ” For the first and only time in history, protecting books in war zones became an official aim of armed forces.

— George Hutchinson, Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s. Compare the argument I made in my essay “The Watchmen.”

how Steve Reich discovered his own Judaism

I was brought up a secular, Reform Jew, which means I didn’t know Aleph from Bet. I knew nothing, and therefore I cared nothing. My father cared culturally, but that’s all. So when I came home from Africa, I thought to myself, there’s this incredible oral tradition in Ghana, passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, for thousands of years. Don’t I have something like that? I’m a member of the oldest group of human beings still known as a group that managed to cohere enough to survive – and I know nothing about it. So I started studying at Lincoln Square Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, an Orthodox temple, that had an incredible adult-education program for the likes of me – and I asked whether they would teach a course in biblical Hebrew, and they said sure, and they brought a professor down from Yeshiva University to teach that, and I studied the weekly portion – I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a weekly portion and commentaries thereon.

So this whole world opened up for me – it was 1975, at about the same time as I met my wife, Beryl, and so all of this sort of came together and it did occur to me – isn’t it curious that I had to go to Ghana to go back to my own traditions because I think if you understand any historical group, or any other religion for that matter, in any detail, then you’ll be able to approach another one with more understanding. So the answer to your question is yes. The longest yes you’ve ever heard.

Steve Reich

on firing Ian Buruma

Damon Linker thinks the firing of Ian Buruma is taking the #MeToo movement a step too far:

Buruma made a serious editorial misjudgment. But he became the focus of intense fury on Twitter and was fired for something else — for displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi’s actions, and for seeing value in using Ghomeshi’s personal experience as an occasion for thinking about an aspect of the subject without first and foremost engaging in scorched-earth excoriation.

That is what is fast becoming unacceptable.

Damon is, as I have said often, one of the best columnists around, so I always take his views seriously, but I’m not convinced by his argument here. First, I wonder if Damon has accurately described the reasons for Buruma’s firing. None of us were privy to the conversations between Buruma and his employers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they had asked him to apologize for his actions and words in ways he wasn’t prepared to do. Maybe the details will emerge later.

But even if he was simply summarily fired after his Slate interview I’m not sure that it’s right to say that Buruma simply “displayed insufficient outrage and indignation.” I want to look a little more closely at the details of that interview.

What is Buruma willing to say that Jian Ghomeshi did? He speaks of Ghomeshi as “being a jerk in many ways” and as belonging to a general class of people who “behaved badly sexually, abusing their power in one way or another” — people who “misbehaved.”

But his great emphasis is on the fact that Ghomeshi was not (or has not yet been) convicted of any crime: “in cases like his, where you have been legally acquitted … I am not talking about people who broke the law. I am not talking about rapists … What is much murkier is when people are not found to have broken the law … All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime … My concern is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense … All I know is that he was acquitted … People very quickly conflate cases of criminal behavior with cases that are sometimes murkier and can involve making people feel uncomfortable, verbally or physically, and that really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence.”

That last sentence seems especially troublesome. Isaac Chotiner, the interviewer, keeps reminding Buruma that several women have accused Ghomeshi of biting, choking, and punching them during sex. Buruma tries to wave this away: “Take something like biting. Biting can be an aggressive or even criminal act. It can also be construed differently in different circumstances.” No doubt this is literally true. But to assert that such behavior “really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence” is effectively to say that the women who claimed that Ghomeshi bit and punched and choked them in violent ways were wrong. The suggestion is very strong here that maybe all Ghomeshi did was “make them feel uncomfortable.”

Buruma repeatedly says — and in itself this is certainly defensible — that he doesn’t know what Ghomeshi did. “I don’t know if what all these women are saying is true. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t…. The exact nature of his behavior — how much consent was involved — I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”

But what, then, is his concern? It is to learn what it feels like to be publicly “pilloried” as Ghomeshi has been. Again and again he characterizes Ghomeshi as someone who is the passive victim of something: Buruma claims to be interested in the experience of “finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried,” of what it’s like to “have been legally acquitted but you are still judged as undesirable in public opinion…. My interest in running this piece, as I said, is the point of view of somebody who has been pilloried in public opinion and what somebody like that feels about it.”

So when we put all this together, we see that Buruma has no interest at all in what Ghomeshi did, but rather cares only about what has been done to him: the fact that he has been “pilloried,” not whether he has done anything to deserve such treatment. It’s especially telling that Buruma does not think Ghomeshi has ruined anything, but rather is “finding” his life ruined — like finding out you have cancer, or finding that your job has been eliminated. Buruma simply erases the causal links between Ghomeshi’s behavior and his experiences. And it is hard to see how this isolating of the experiences from their causes can have any effect other than to increase sympathy for Ghomeshi.

And the women who have complained about Ghomeshi’s treatment of them? Buruma says not one word about them. They too have been erased. What does it feel like to be them? That’s a question Buruma never asks. And he doesn’t ask it because, as he says, it isn’t his “concern.” It is not something that, editorially at least, he cares about.

Looking at this whole picture, I don’t think we see someone merely “displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi’s actions.” I think we see a much deeper moral blindness — an excessive interest in one person’s sufferings and an utter lack of interest in the sufferings of others — that, to me, calls Buruma’s judgment seriously into question. If I had been his boss, I don’t know that I would have fired him; but after I saw that interview in Slate, firing him would have been my first option.

unexpected moderation

Wesley Yang:

Peterson is virtually always more nuanced than the straw target his detractors have built out of his ideas. He uses the fact that the moods of both lobsters and humans are regulated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter that waxes and wanes in accordance with both creatures’ place in a dominance hierarchy to illustrate the point that the “problem of hierarchy is much deeper” than capitalism or any other set of human institutions. The claim is not that the continuity between our mental architecture and that of much older organisms does or should determine the way we organize society, but rather that it necessarily exerts a degree of influence on it, and constrains the set of viable ways of organizing our society. This modest claim should be self-evident to all but the most insistent denialist. Peterson acknowledges that inequality is a problem in that it causes society to destabilize when it moves past a certain threshold, and acknowledges the necessity of left-wing redistributive political movements — but is wary of left-wing doctrines that call for mandated equality, for the simple and very good reason that the grand experiments in mandated equality of the 20th century tended to be catastrophic. This does not mean that Peterson is a libertarian radical but a moderate conservative. He accepts nearly every facet of the status quo of 2014: he is on video explaining his acceptance of legal abortion, gay marriage, progressive taxation, the welfare state, and the Canadian socialistic healthcare system.

Anyone who listens to Peterson’s actual words without the intent of discovering in them the horrors they already believe that they will find there — i.e., without letting confirmation bias guide them by the nose — will discover that, in fact, his thinking on most discrete problems nearly always bends toward moderation.

the horror of homeschooling

Damon Linker has a recommendation for dealing with the enormous social problem of homeschooling:

There can and should be greater oversight. As [Jeremy] Young suggests, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse and evidence that kids are actually being educated, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the children involved. Sure, the home-school lobbyists will object. But then they will find themselves in the awkward position of defending the right of the Turpins to torture their kids undetected.

Excellent idea! But why stop there? Spousal abuse is surely a greater blight on our society than child abuse by homeschoolers, so I make this proposal: In households of married people, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse by one spouse of another, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the adults involved. Sure, some pro-marriage lobbyists will object. But then they will find themselves in the awkward position of defending the right of men to beat their wives undetected.

Please don’t try to tell me that children can’t choose their parents while marriage is a voluntary arrangement that can be ended by either party. We know from long experience how many people, especially women, remain in profoundly abusive relationships because they fear something worse. As in sexual relations more generally, “consent” is a vexed concept.

Though perhaps you have another objection: my plan is unworkable. There are not, and could never be, enough state government employees to visit every household of married people. If so, you have a point. It is, I admit, far easier to direct the suspicious attentions of state power on tiny minorities of people whom you despise for cultural reasons than to address truly widespread social tragedies.

And in any case, the level of intrusion is so minimal, especially from the child’s point of view. Once a year or so, a stranger comes into your home and asks you to take your clothes off so he can see whether your parents have been hurting you, because if he decides they have been, then he’ll take you away to foster care and your parents will be arrested, almost as if they had allowed you to play alone at a playground. What could possibly go wrong?

(Am I unfairly generalizing about government employees on the basis of a few bad apples? Perhaps; but that’s not an argument you can make when you’re proposing a massive expansion of state power over all homeschooling families because of what the Turpins did.)

I confess that I speak as an interested party here, because my wife and I taught our son at home — in conjunction with a homeschooling co-op — from seventh grade through high-school graduation. And we did not do it out of conviction that public schools are intrinsically evil. We are products of public schools ourselves, throughout our entire education. We did it because he was relentlessly bullied over the course of an entire year, and no teacher or administrator or local government employee or state government employee did a damned thing about it. We did it because I myself had been relentlessly bullied for several years in elementary school — I was two years younger than most of my classmates and a very easy target — and no teacher or administrator or local government employee or state government employee had done a damned thing about that either, and after what I had been through I could not stand by and watch my once-happy son descend into sheer and constant misery.

When people who cry out for mass surveillance of homeschooling families articulate some strategy for addressing the far, far larger problem of bullying in schools — I’ll even allow them to ignore spousal abuse — then I’ll believe that they care about the children. Until then, I’ll continue to believe that recommendations like Damon’s exemplify plain, straightforward bigotry against religious conservatives.

P.S. The Linker-Young argument is a classic example of what my friend Ashley Woodiwiss has called “ecclesial profiling.”

Student Activism Is Serious Business

Student Activism Is Serious Business

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell


One must not, however, imagine the realm of culture as some sort of spatial whole, having boundaries but also having internal territory. The realm of culture has no internal territory: it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, through its every aspect…. Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries: in this is its seriousness and significance; abstracted from boundaries it loses its soil, it becomes empty, arrogant, it degenerates and dies.

— Mikhail Bakhtin, from a late essay translated by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. This is one of my foundational beliefs: it governs many of my choices, especially about what I read and whom I converse with — and on social media also. Choose wisely and carefully the people you follow on Twitter and you can create a digital version of Bakhtinian/Dostoevskian polyphony.