...

Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: ethics (page 1 of 4)

counterparts

More Trollopean spoilers here. 

One of Trollope’s more interesting habits as a novelist is the tendency to create counterparts: a character in one novel will mirror a character in another. The proper counterpart of Lady Arabella in Doctor Thorne, whom I discussed in my previous post, appears in the next Barsetshire novel, Framley Parsonage: I refer to Lady Lufton. Like Lady Arabella, Lady Lufton is a woman of high rank who treasures that rank, and a woman with one son who treasures that son and desperately wants him to marry appropriately. 

But whereas Lady Arabella is fretful and nervous, Lady Lufton is a masterful woman. Her circumstances are different: she is a widow and must make her own decisions; and far from being financially embarrassed she is quite rich. Moreover, she is exceptionally generous with her wealth. Mark Robarts, a clergyman who is a recipient of her patronage, thinks of her thus: 

He knew a good deal respecting Lady Lufton’s income and the manner in which it was spent. It was very handsome for a single lady, but then she lived in a free and open-handed style; her charities were noble; there was no reason why she should save money, and her annual income was usually spent within the year. Mark knew this, and he knew also that nothing short of an impossibility to maintain them would induce her to lessen her charities. She had now given away a portion of her principal to save the property of her son — her son, who was so much more opulent than herself, — upon whose means, too, the world made fewer effectual claims. 

But Lady Lufton’s habit of generosity has this effect on her: it makes her more accustomed to getting her way. She does not give with conditions, but she expects her generosity to be properly acknowledged. She loves Mark Robarts, who has been her son Lord Lufton’s closest friend since childhood; but she expects that a mere country vicar, the son of a provincial doctor, and his wife Fanny will know better than to think that his sister Lucy could be a proper mate for her son. Mark and Fanny do nothing to promote the match; but they don’t send Lucy away either. 

Lucy herself is mindful that she is far below Lord Lufton on the social scale, and, though she loves him, refuses his proposal of marriage; then, when he renews it, she tells him that she will only marry him if his mother explicitly endorses the marriage. When Lufton presses his mother to accept Lucy, she is in agony. She knows that her son loves Lucy, but all along she has hoped for him to marry the stately and elegant Griselda Grantly (daughter of Archdeacon Grantly, whom we came to know back in Barchester Towers). 

When pressed to explain her disapproval of Lucy, Lady Lufton feels that she can’t risk being too blunt. (“But her father was a doctor of medicine, she is the sister of the parish clergyman, she is only five feet two in height, and is so uncommonly brown! Had Lady Lufton dared to give a catalogue of her objections, such would have been its extent and nature. But she did not dare to do this.”) So she equivocates: 

And then at last Lady Lufton spoke it out. “She is — insignificant. I believe her to be a very good girl, but she is not qualified to fill the high position to which you would exalt her.”

“Insignificant!”

“Yes, Ludovic, I think so.”

“Then, mother, you do not know her. You must permit me to say that you are talking of a girl whom you do not know. Of all the epithets of opprobrium which the English language could give you, that would be nearly the last which she would deserve.”

“I have not intended any opprobrium.”

“Insignificant!”

“Perhaps you do not quite understand me, Ludovic.”

“I know what insignificant means, mother.”

“I think that she would not worthily fill the position which your wife should take in the world.”

“I understand what you say.”

“She would not do you honour at the head of your table.” 

Lady Lufton’s objections are largely pictorial — they involve her sense that the grace and stature and elegance of the Lufton family must be visually manifested in the next Lady Lufton, a personage so “exalted.” And these objections loom large in her mind; but, it turns out, not as large as her genuine love for her son, and her desire that he be happy. 

After much soul-searching and inward struggle, Lady Lufton visits Lucy Robarts — who has in the meantime (and Lady Lufton has noticed this) devoted herself to charity not through money but through self-sacrificial generosity, at some risk to her own health — to put a question to her: 

“He is the best of sons, and the best of men, and I am sure that he will be the best of husbands.”

Lucy had an idea, by instinct, however, rather than by sight, that Lady Lufton’s eyes were full of tears as she spoke. As for herself she was altogether blinded and did not dare to lift her face or to turn her head. As for the utterance of any sound, that was quite out of the question.

“And now I have come here, Lucy, to ask you to be his wife.” 

Trollope can be fierce, as I noted in my previous post, but he can also be sweet, and one of the sweetest moments in all his voluminous works comes in Lady Lufton’s final words, in this scene, to Lucy, when they agree on a time for Lucy to return to Framley Court: 

“Well, dearest, you shall be quiet; the day after to-morrow then. — Mind we must not spare you any longer, because it will be right that you should be at home now. He would think it very hard if you were to be so near, and he was not to be allowed to look at you. And there will be some one else who will want to see you. I shall want to have you very near to me, for I shall be wretched, Lucy, if I cannot teach you to love me.” 

Here Lady Lufton has wholly humbled herself: she is no longer “stern and cross, vexatious and disagreeable,” demanding and censorious. She does not insist on her status, but casts it aside and woos Lucy. “I shall be wretched, Lucy, if I cannot teach you to love me.” Her desire to love and be loved proves stronger than her image of Lufton greatness. 

Needless to say, Lady Arabella Gresham would be capable of none of this: not the self-critique, not even a moment of self-reflection; not the weighing of the claims of rank against the claims of happiness. Lady Arabella is by birth a de Courcy, and one of the regular themes of the Barsetshire novels is the sheer rapacity of the de Courcys. In the next novel in the series, The Small House at Allington, we see them ceaselessly working to consolidate their status, like a mafia clan. (The Countess de Courcy is like a British female equivalent to the mature Michael Corleone, only less decent.) They represent the British class system at its worst; in Lady Lufton we see — it is a rare enough thing in Trollope — a path to moral redemption for the rich and lofty. 

money is magic

Spoilers ahead, but come on, you know how books like this end.

Trollope’s Doctor Thorne is the classic story about the poor orphan girl who turns out to be a princess, but with a twist: Trollope asks how a poor orphan girl can become a princess, and his answer is: With money. Mary Thorne doesn’t have a fairy godmother; but she has an unexpected inheritance. That is to say: money is magic. Money is indeed the most powerful magic imaginable, at least in some circumstances, and all of the major characters in Doctor Thorne know it, and indeed talk about it openly.

Look for instance at this extraordinarily blunt conversation between Frank Gresham and his father. Frank is pressing his father to explain why, if he thinks Mary’s illegitimate birth so terrible, he allowed Mary to associate with his own children. At first Mr. Gresham is somewhat evasive:

“It is a misfortune, Frank; a very great misfortune. It will not do for you and me to ignore birth; too much of the value of one’s position depends upon it.”

“But what was Mr Moffat’s birth?” said Frank, almost with scorn; “or what Miss Dunstable’s?” he would have added, had it not been that his father had not been concerned in that sin of wedding him to the oil of Lebanon.

(Mr Moffatt is a rich man without birth whom the Greshams eagerly sought as a husband for their eldest daughter Augusta; and Frank’s mother and aunt had flatly ordered him to woo Miss Dunstable — one of Trollope’s finest creations, incidentally —, the heiress to a fortune her father acquired through inventing and selling a patent medicine.)

“True, Frank. But yet, what you would mean to say is not true. We must take the world as we find it. Were you to marry a rich heiress, were her birth even as low as that of poor Mary —“

“Don’t call her poor Mary, father; she is not poor. My wife will have a right to take rank in the world, however she was born.”

“Well, — poor in that way. But were she an heiress, the world would forgive her birth on account of her wealth.”

“The world is very complaisant, sir.”

“You must take it as you find it, Frank. I only say that such is the fact. If Porlock [a cousin] were to marry the daughter of a shoeblack, without a farthing, he would make a mésalliance; but if the daughter of the shoeblack had half a million of money, nobody would dream of saying so. I am stating no opinion of my own: I am only giving you the world’s opinion.”

“I don’t give a straw for the world.”

“That is a mistake, my boy; you do care for it, and would be very foolish if you did not. What you mean is, that, on this particular point, you value your love more than the world’s opinion.”

Mr. Gresham is simply pointing out to his son that birth and money alike are means of exchange — tradable in the social marketplace. (The social marketplace, in which people bargain and buy and sell to raise their position, is what Mr. Gresham means by “the world.”) That one must do one’s best in that marketplace is a given for all of the Greshams except Frank. Mr. Gresham is the only member of his family who in any way questions this view of things, the only one who, as can be seen in the quotation above, understands Frank’s love for Mary; but he will not rock that boat, even though he knows that he and his wife are wholly responsible for Frank’s financial difficulties. He expects Frank to blame him for his fiscal imprudence, perhaps even to hate him for making marriage with Mary impossible; but he also expects that Frank will acknowledge and obey the cold logic of the marketplace. “We must take the world as we find it.”

Similarly, Frank’s sister Beatrice, Mary Thorne’s most intimate friend, thinks it obviously impossible that Mary should marry Frank and is disconcerted to discover that Mary does not necessarily agree.

The great ogress in this story — or, the wicked witch who stands in the way of the hidden princess — is Frank’s mother, Lady Arabella, and she is truly horrible. But late in the book, when she is making one more attempt to dissuade her son from pursuing Mary Thorne, Trollope pauses in his narration to say this:

Before we go on we must say one word further as to Lady Arabella’s character. It will probably be said that she was a consummate hypocrite; but at the present moment she was not hypocritical. She did love her son; was anxious — very, very anxious for him; was proud of him, and almost admired the very obstinacy which so vexed her to her inmost soul. No grief would be to her so great as that of seeing him sink below what she conceived to be his position. She was as genuinely motherly, in wishing that he should marry money, as another woman might be in wishing to see her son a bishop; or as the Spartan matron, who preferred that her offspring should return on his shield, to hearing that he had come back whole in limb but tainted in honour. When Frank spoke of a profession, she instantly thought of what Lord de Courcy might do for him. If he would not marry money, he might, at any rate, be an attaché at an embassy. A profession — hard work, as a doctor, or as an engineer — would, according to her ideas, degrade him; cause him to sink below his proper position; but to dangle at a foreign court, to make small talk at the evening parties of a lady ambassadress, and occasionally, perhaps, to write demi-official notes containing demi-official tittle-tattle; this would be in proper accordance with the high honour of a Gresham of Greshamsbury. We may not admire the direction taken by Lady Arabella’s energy on behalf of her son, but that energy was not hypocritical.

Her position, and the “energy” with which she defends it, are not hypocritical because neither she nor any other member of her family pretends to think in any other way. Their vice pays no tribute to any virtue. When dissuading Frank from pursuing Mary, they could have found a thousand ways to camouflage their greed, to disguise it as something else altogether, but they never bother to do so. They simply say, in precisely these words, “Frank, you must marry money.” And when Lady Arabella says to Mary that Frank is regrettably pledging himself to “you who have nothing to give in return,” she doesn’t even think she is insulting Mary: she is merely describing the plain facts of the case, for Mary has neither family nor rank nor money — she has no currency.

Trollope’s forthrightness on these points is rarely matched in novelists; one of his few peers in this regard is his great predecessor Jane Austen. As Auden writes in his “Letter to Lord Byron,”

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

Ditto with Trollope. And both writers disguise with brightness of tone the fierceness of their condemnation.

But Trollope bites deeper than Austen does, at least in this novel. The scene in Doctor Thorne in which Lady Arabella tries to compel Mary to renounce Frank is closely modeled on the scene in Pride and Prejudice in which Lady Catherine tries to compel Elizabeth Bennett to renounce Mr. Darcy. Neither attempt works; in each case the socially inferior younger woman proves capable of resisting the demands of the socially superior older one. But Elizabeth benefits from no unexpected inheritance; in the end she is accepted simply because Mr. Darcy need please no one, and his enormous wealth ensures that everyone will want to please him. (Elizabeth’s father slyly notes this.) And her path is smoothed, to some extent anyway, by the social currency she does have: as she says to Lady Catherine about Mr. Darcy, “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”

In Doctor Thorne, by contrast, we enjoy the spectacle of an entire family who had found the bastard Mary Thorne unthinkable as a mate for Frank welcome her with hosannas as soon as she acquires a shitload of cash; not one of them learns a damned thing or changes in any way — indeed, if anything they are confirmed in the rightness of their views of the world, because in the end they get precisely what they want. And Trollope makes no comment on this at all; he reports, we decide.

what love wants to say

Cheryl Mendelson is a philosopher, a lawyer, a novelist, and the author of a legendary book about housekeeping. (We’ve been using our copy for a quarter-century now.) And her new book, Vows: The Modern Genius of an Ancient Rite, stands somehow at the intersection of all those things. After all, a wedding ceremony, with vows at its center, is a peculiar rite indeed. To make such a vow is to promise; is to enter into a kind of contract; is the fruit of a decision for two people to make a home together. And of course, the events that lead up to a marriage, the events that constitute a marriage, and (sometimes) the events that end a marriage, are endlessly productive of stories. This is all to say that Cheryl Mendelson is probably the perfect person to write this book. 

(Disclosure: I don’t know Cheryl Mendelson but have known her husband Edward for many years now. He is W. H. Auden’s literary executor and has always been of inestimable aid and support to my work on Auden.)  

Mendelson begins the book by describing her first marriage, one made impulsively when she was quite young; she concludes by describing her happily enduring second marriage. And it is her belief that we can grasp why one marriage failed and the other succeeded by understanding how the couples felt about, how they thought about, how they understood (or failed to understand) the vows with which they began their lives together. It’s a brilliant notion and one that frames the whole narrative, which is largely historical but also sociological, psychological, moral — and (often) religious, since the wedding vows we all know arose through the long development of Christian rites of Holy Matrimony. 

After describing her hasty first marriage, Mendelson writes, 

It’s hard to imagine a world in which our absurd decision to marry wouldn’t have ended in divorce. But I could see that friends whose marriages had more propitious beginnings than ours had to fight many of the same battles. The general atmosphere of suspicion toward the institution seemed to me to seep into actual marriages, exaggerating their frustrations and minimizing their satisfactions. Most marriages in our circle of friends broke up. Social hostility toward marriage and even toward love, expressed in contempt, disapproval, and unfriendly theorizing, took a toll on both. 

This widespread social hostility to, or at best irony about, marriage is, it seems to me, the primary impetus for the book. Mendelson challenges it, and challenges it compassionately but forcefully. She knows that her celebration of marriage (and its classic vows) will be a hard sell for many: 

To write about the marriage vows … is to pick one’s way through a cultural minefield. Whether wedding vows need rethinking, updating, or, possibly, discarding is now a wide-open question. Having thought, read, and rethought, I concluded – for reasons that this book exists to lay out – that the answer is a solid no. The traditional marriage vows, though they contain phrases composed a thousand or more years ago, are a form of words that say exactly what love still wants to say. 

Vows is a remarkable book, and I hope it gets a wide readership. The defense and, more, celebration of fidelity (Chapter 9) is itself worth the price of admission, and I wonder how many readers will reckon seriously with the case Mendelson makes. More generally, I would be especially interested to hear how people who despise marriage reckon with the book’s arguments. They won’t find Mendelson easy to refute. 

intrinsic values

Adam Kirsch:

In his poem “Little Gidding,” written during World War II, T. S. Eliot wrote that the Cavaliers and Puritans who fought in England’s Civil War, in the 17th century, now “are folded in a single party.” The same already seems true of Vendler and Perloff. Today college students are fleeing humanities majors, and English departments are desperately trying to lure them back by promoting the ephemera of pop culture as worthy subjects of study. (Vendler’s own Harvard English department has been getting a great deal of attention for offering a class on Taylor Swift.) Both Vendler and Perloff, by contrast, rejected the idea that poetry had to earn its place in the curriculum, or in the culture at large, by being “relevant.” Nor did it have to be defended on the grounds that it makes us more virtuous citizens or more employable technicians of reading and writing.

Rather, they believed that studying poetry was valuable in and of itself.

I like this essay, but I’m mentioning it here because Kirsch makes use of a common phrase that has always puzzled me: “valuable in and of itself.” Variants: “intrinsically valuable” and “valuable for its own sake.” I have never known what that means — or even could mean. Because: if you ask people to say more about valuing something for its own sake, they end up saying that it gives them pleasure or delights them or fascinates them. But to pursue something because it delights or fascinates you is not pursuing it for its own sake — it’s pursuing it for the sake of the delight or fascination.

When people say that something is “valuable in and of itself,” I think what they mean is simply that it has no economic or social value — note Kirsch’s contrast between intrinsic value and something valued because it “makes us more virtuous citizens or more employable technicians of reading and writing.” Someone might say that when we say some artifact or experience is intrinsically valuable we’re saying that it does not have any instrumental value — but isn’t a song that delights me instrumental to that delight? And isn’t that okay? 

So I think that when we describe something as having intrinsic value, what we really mean is that the value it provides is higher than or nobler than any furthering of crassly economic or social ambitions. We’re indirectly and somewhat sloppily appealing to a hierarchy of goods. And maybe — especially in the context of debates about liberal education, which is at least partly the context of Kirsch’s essay — we should be more explicit about that, and conscious of what our hierarchy is and why we affirm it. 

the integrity of science

I haven’t forgotten about middlebrow matters, but right now my mind is on something else. Something related, though. 

Readers of Gaudy Night (1935) will recall — stop reading if you haven’t read Gaudy Night and don’t want any spoilers — that the plot hinges on an event that occurred some years before the book’s present-day: a (male) historian fudged some evidence and a (female) historian caught him at it and reported the malfeasance, which led to his losing his job. Late in the book, but before the full relevance of this event to the plot has been revealed, there’s a conversation about scholarly integrity, which I will now drop into the middle of: 

“So long,” said Wimsey, “as it doesn’t falsify the facts. But it might be a different kind of thing. To take a concrete instance — somebody wrote a novel called The Search — “

C. P. Snow,” said Miss Burrows. “It’s funny you should mention that. It was the book that the — ”

“I know,” said Peter. “That’s possibly why it was in my mind.” 

A person has been vandalizing Shrewsbury College and a copy of that novel, with certain pages torn out, has been found. The novel, by the way, appeared in 1934, around the time that Sayers began writing Gaudy Night. It would be interesting to know whether it was the direct inspiration for her story, or whether she read it after some elements were already in place. I hope to find out more about that.

And by the way, I am going to be spoiling that novel far more thoroughly than I will spoil Gaudy Night — but it’s not one that many people read, these days. 

 

“I never read the book,” said the Warden.

“Oh, I did,” said the Dean. “It’s about a man who starts out to be a scientist and gets on very well till, just as he’s going to be appointed to an important executive post, he finds he’s made a careless error in a scientific paper. He didn’t check his assistant’s results, or something. Somebody finds out, and he doesn’t get the job. So he decides he doesn’t really care about science after all.”  

“Obviously not,” said Miss Edwards. “He only cared about the post.”

Neither the Dean, who has read the book, nor Miss Edwards, who hasn’t, is quite accurate. The scholar, whose name is Arthur Miles, probably would have gotten the post even without the paper; but it’s perfectly possible that he rushed the paper, failed to be appropriately self-critical, because he knew that the vote for the Director of a new scientific institute would be coming soon. Miles doesn’t know; he can’t be sure; maybe he would’ve made the mistake anyway. But in any case, as soon as he is told that there’s a problem with his paper, he runs the numbers again, sees the error, and immediately admits that he was wrong. 


Let me pause for two digressions: 

  1. Sayers specifies what pages were torn from the book — but I don’t have access to the edition that Sayers had read, which I assume was the first hardcover edition, so I don’t know what exactly was excised, but I suspect that it was the part where Miles admits his mistake. (The whole business is a flaw in Sayers’s plot, because it’s impossible to imagine the Responsible Party having read Snow’s book and known which pages to tear out; but DLS clearly was determined to get a discussion of The Search into her own novel, so she found a way.)   
  2. As it happens, this is Snow’s most autobiographical novel: what happened to Miles also happened to him. He began his career as a chemist, and wrote a paper (published in Nature) which was then discovered to contain an embarrassing mistake — upon which he abandoned his work as a scientist and became a novelist and bureaucrat.    

Now, back to Gaudy Night

“The point about it,” said Wimsey, “is what an elderly scientist says to him. He tells him: ‘The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.’ Words to that effect. I may not be quoting quite correctly.“

Wimsey’s summary is a good one. This is indeed what the “elderly scientist,” a man named Hulme, says to him. And Miles does not disagree. What’s more on his mind, though, is the picture of his future laid out for him by another senior scientist: 

“You’ve got to work absolutely steadily, without another suspicion of a mistake. You’ve got to let yourself be patronised and regretted over. You’ve got to get out of the limelight. Then in three or four years, you’ll be back where you were; though it will be held up against you, one way and another, for longer than that. It will delay your getting into the Royal [Society], of course. That can’t be helped. You’ll have a lean time for a while; but you’re young enough to get over it.” 

Faced with this prospect, Miles realizes that he could only manage all this (“Watching the dullards gloat. Working under Tremlin. Having every day a reminder of the old dreams”) if he had a genuine devotion to science. But: “It occurred to me I had no devotion to science.”

N.B.: the point is not that the event has taken away his devotion to science, but rather, “I am not devoted to science, I thought. And I have not been for years, and I have kept it from myself till now.” The revelation of his error leads to a revelation of what had been true about him all along: “There were so many signs going back so far, if I had let myself see, if it had been convenient to see.” Indeed, it now becomes clear to him that his desire to become the director of a scientific institute — an administrative position, not one that would involve him directly in research — precisely because on some unconscious level he didn’t want to be a scientist any more: “I had thrown myself into human beings — to escape the chill when my scientific devotion ended.” 

It should be clear, then, that “he decides he doesn’t really care about science after all” is not an adequate explanation of what happens. 

But there’s also a twist in the tail of this story, which in Gaudy Night Sayers calls attention to: 

“In the same novel,” said the Dean, “somebody deliberately falsifies a result — later on, I mean — in order to get a job. And the man who made the original mistake finds it out. But he says nothing, because the other man is very badly off and has a wife and family to keep.”

”These wives and families!“ said Peter.

”Does the author approve?“ inquired the Warden.

”Well,“ said the Dean, ”the book ends there, so I suppose he does.” 

Or does he? And is that an accurate description of the case? Several facts here are relevant:

  • The man who has falsified the data, Sheriff, is one of Miles’s oldest friends.  
  • Miles got Sheriff his current job and has been guiding his research, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow — he’s a feckless fellow, and a habitual liar, but Miles had hoped that he was ready to reform.   
  • Sheriff had promised Miles, and also his own wife, that he was working on a safe project when he was in fact working on a high-risk, high-reward one — one he thought likely to lead to a prestigious position that, now that the paper has been published, he is indeed about to be offered.   
  • Miles has a sense of responsibility for Sheriff because he had hoped to hire him for a position at the aforementioned Institute, but gave up on the idea when he realized that his own position was compromised. He thinks perhaps he should have pushed harder for Sheriff anyway. 
  • Early in his career Miles had had the opportunity to consciously fudge data himself, and seriously considered it — he thought that he might eventually be found out, but only after achieving a brilliant career from which summit he could just say “Whoops, I made a mistake” — but instead abandoned the research project. He thought, though, that in the future he would have compassion for any scientist who succumbed to a similar temptation.  
  • And most important of all, Sheriff is married to Audrey, Miles’s former lover, for whom, though he himself is now happily married, he cherishes a strong and lasting tendresse — despite the fact that Sheriff basically stole her affections while Miles was abroad.  

The Search is not a great novel, but this is perhaps its best element: the faithful portrayal of Miles’s complex and ever-shifting and deeply human responses to Sheriff’s lying. (It reminds me a bit of the greatest scene of this kind I know, the moment in Middlemarch when Lydgate has to decide how to vote for the chaplaincy of a new hospital. I wrote about that thirty years ago [!!] near the end of this essay.)

On the one hand, he knows exactly what Sheriff did and why:  

I had no doubts at all. It was a deliberate mistake. He had committed the major scientific crime (I could still hear Hulme’s voice trickling gently, firmly on).

Sheriff had given some false facts, suppressed some true ones. When I realised it, I was not particularly surprised. I could imagine his quick, ingenious, harassed mind thinking it over. For various reasons, he had chosen this problem; it would not take so much work, it would be more exciting, it might secure his niche straight away. … But I must not know, half because he was a little ashamed, half because I might interfere. So [his research assistant] and Audrey must, for safety’s sake, also be deceived.

All this he would do quite cheerfully. The problem began well. … Then he came to that stage where every result seemed to contradict the last, where there was no clear road ahead, where there seemed no road ahead at all. There he must have hesitated. On the one hand he had lost months, there would be no position for years, he would have to come to me and confess; on the other his mind flitted round the chance of a fraud.

There was a risk, but he might secure all the success still. I scarcely think the ethics of scientific deceit troubled him; but the risk must have done. For if he were found out, he was ruined. He might keep on as a minor lecturer, but there would be nothing ahead. 

Miles does not excuse Sheriff at any point; he knows that the man’s dishonesty is habitual, perhaps pathological. But he also knows that Sheriff and Audrey have reached a certain accommodation in their marriage, that Audrey understands who her husband is but loves him and needs him anyway. Miles writes a letter that would expose and run Sheriff, and then, realizing that it would also ruin Audrey, … 

I shall not send the letter, I was thinking. Let him win his gamble. Let him cheat his way to the respectable success he wants. He will delight in it, and become a figure in the scientific world; and give broadcast talks and views on immortality; all of which he will love. And Audrey will be there, amused but rather proud. Oh, let him have it.

For me, if I do not send the letter, what then? There was only one answer; I was breaking irrevocably from science. This was the end, for me. Ever since I left professionally, I had been keeping a retreat open in my mind; supervising Sheriff had meant to myself that I could go back at any time. If I did not write I should be depriving myself of the loophole. I should have proved, once for all, how little science mattered to me.

There were no ways between. I could have held my hand until he was elected, and then threatened that either he must correct the mistake, or I would; but that was a compromise in action and not in mind. No, he should have his triumph to the full. Audrey should not know, she had seen so many disillusions, I would spare her this.

The human wins out over the scientific. Maybe, Arthur thinks, it always does. But Gaudy Night shows that sometimes the scientific — in the sense of a strict commitment to the sacredness of honest research — can sometimes have its own victories. And Gaudy Night also suggests that the choices might not be as stark as Snow’s story suggests. More on that in another post. 

Gilead revisited

The way we speak and think of the Puritans seems to me a serviceable model for important aspects of the phenomenon we call Puritanism. Very simply, it is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved. And it demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry. I know from experience that if one says the Puritans were a more impressive and ingratiating culture than they are assumed to have been, one will be heard to say that one finds repressiveness and intolerance ingratiating. Unauthorized views are in effect punished by incomprehension, not intentionally and not to anyone’s benefit, but simply as a consequence of a hypertrophic instinct for consensus. This instinct is so powerful that I would suspect it had survival value, if history or current events gave me the least encouragement to believe we are equipped to survive.

– Marilynne Robinson, “Puritans and Prigs” (1996)


I’m re-reading Gilead now, in preparation for teaching it, and I am struck all over again by what an extraordinary book it is, what a gift it has been to so many readers — millions of them, maybe. (Promotional material for the book has long shouted A MILLION COPIES SOLD, but the count might be two million by now, and of course many thousands of people have read used and library copies.) Really, it’s some kind of miracle. The novels that have followed it are excellent novels indeed, but they aren’t miraculous. Gilead certainly is. 

But today, twenty years later, would Gilead even be published by a big trade house? As long as the author could say that she teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, probably. Would it be widely read and celebrated? Almost certainly not. The self-appointed cultural gatekeepers would denounce it as a project of white cis-het imperialism, and trepidatious reviewers would either ignore it or offer, at best, muted praise. And if it were a first novel, it might not get published at all — though perhaps an outfit like Belt Publishing would take it on.

As I read Gilead today it still feels like a great gift, but also an artifact of a lost era. 

Silence, Violence, and the Human Condition

I don’t believe that “silence is violence,” ever. And I doubt that anyone else would either, if they were to spend a bit of time thinking about it. People remain silent when they see violence (either threatened or performed) for a wide variety of reasons: sometimes they are indifferent to the sufferings of others, sometimes they enjoy the sufferings of others, but sometimes they have quite legitimate fears that any protest will lead to violence being inflicted upon them without anyone else being saved. Protest is not inevitably successful, and truthful accusation does not inevitably lead to arrest and conviction. Moreover, there are ways other than speech of responding to, or striving to prevent, impermissible violence.

Even when one’s silence does make it more likely that someone will be hurt, we do not benefit from erasing the distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission. Indifference to the suffering of others is a grave sin, but there are sins still graver. And different. As Auden wrote in his poem “The More Loving One,”

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

So, no: it is untrue that silence is violence. 

Shall we say, then, that silence is complicit in violence? It’s obvious why that is a more defensible argument, but it is not as dispositive as people who use it believe. I recently wrote something about Israel and Gaza, but I didn’t do it because people told me that otherwise I would have been complicit in the violence done there – though indeed people did tell me that. I wrote it for my own reasons, not because I felt that I was complicit in anything.

There are more evil things going on in the world than any one person can respond to. You could spend all day every day on social media just declaring that you denounce X or Y or Z and never get to the end of what deserves to be denounced. If my silence about Gaza is complicit in the violence being done there, what about my silence regarding the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uighurs? Or the government of Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya? Or what Boko Haram has done in Nigeria? Or what multinational corporations do to destroy our environment? Or dogfighting rings? Or racism in the workplace? Or sexism in the workplace?

There are two possible responses to this problem. One is to say that I am inevitably complicit in every act of violence I do not denounce, even if it would be impossible for me to denounce all such acts. But that position leads to a despairing quietism: Why should I denounce anything if in so doing I remain guilty for leaving millions of violent acts undenounced?

The second way is better: pick your spots and pick them unapologetically. It’s perfectly fine for people to have their own causes, the causes that for whatever reason touch their hearts. We all have them, we are all moved more by some injustices than by others; not one of us is consistently concerned with all injustices, all acts of violence, nor do we have a clear system of weighting the various sufferings of the world on a scale and portioning out our attention and concern in accordance with a utilitarian calculus.

Some effective altruists, especially the so-called longtermists, try to do this, but their endeavor is full of errors. One is longtermism’s inevitably speculative character, its belief that future dangers to humanity can be predicted with sufficient reliability to guide our actions. A greater error inheres in the great unstated axiom of effective altruism: Money is the only currency of compassion. (As the Archbishop of Canterbury says in Charles Williams’s poem Taliessen through Logres, “Money is a medium of exchange.”)

The silence-is-violence crowd, to their credit, don’t think that money is the only commodity we have to spend: they think we can and must spend our words also. And they always believe they know what, in a given moment, we must spend our words on. What they never seen to realize, though, is that some words are a debased currency. As the Lord says to Job, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” To speak “words without knowledge” is to “darken counsel,” that is, confuse the issue, mislead or confuse one’s hearers. The purpose of counsel is to illuminate a situation; one does not illuminate anything by speaking out of ignorance or mere rage. 

Above all we need to acknowledge that no one — no one — operates with consistency in these matters. As David Edmonds writes in his recent biography of the philosopher Derek Parfit, Parfit refused to meet with a dying friend, Susan Hurley — a fellow philosopher who was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford — because he considered it more important to work on his philosophical writing. Yet Edmonds reports on several acts of generosity by Parfit, acts which also deprived him of work time. Similarly, as Julian Baggini writes in a review of Edmonds’s book,

He objected to the effective altruism movement’s Giving What We Can pledge to donate at least 10 per cent of signees’ incomes to relieve poverty, because he thought it was obvious that people could donate more. He also objected to the word “giving” for implying that this was optional, when he thought we were not morally entitled to our wealth. Yet in the years when he pursued photography as a serious hobby, he would spend thousands of pounds on a single print. Obsessed with typesetting, he offered to reimburse his publisher Oxford University Press for the extra costs of following his strict instructions, on one occasion paying £3,000 for wet proofs to check how the pages would actually come out from the plates. He also overpaid for a house by £50,000 just because he fell in love with it.

I am sure that Parfit thought of himself as a principled actor, but he certainly wasn’t: like almost all of us, he acted according to his own preferences. I’m sure that when he was kind and generous it was because that felt good to him, and I’m sure that when he declined to meet with a dying friend he declined not for philosophically defensible reasons but because he found such a meeting unpleasant.

Now, I am not suggesting that Derek Parfit should be a role model for anyone. To judge from Edmonds’s biography, he was an exceptionally unpleasant man, though Edmonds treats him not as wicked but rather as profoundly strange. I am merely pointing out that, for all his fierce labor to identify and describe the objective roots of morality, Parfit’s own behavior was as inconsistent and unprincipled as yours and mine or the Effective Altruist next door.

I think what we should learn from all this is simply that one should have principles — ideally better ones than Derek Parfit had — but we should not be ashamed of the subjectivity inherent in them. I know people who care for abandoned dogs, and whose attention to those abandoned dogs makes them effectively, if not theoretically, indifferent to matters that many people believe to be much greater concern: what’s happening in Gaza, who the next President of the United States will be, global climate change, etc. I think that’s just fine. The world has so much more suffering than any of us could possibly address that any remediation, any limiting of harm and pain and suffering, is a good thing. And we are not wired in such a way that we can maintain our commitment to undoing or preventing harm that (for whatever reason) doesn’t really touch our hearts. We should not feel guilty for failing to think about — still less for failing to speak about — climate change when there is something else, some other suffering or violence right before us that we can to some degree ameliorate. That’s the human condition and we ought to embrace it. In enables us to leave the world in at least a slightly better condition than we found it. 

The Next Turn of the Wheel

This is the novelist Janet Burroway, writing about her experience making a fifth edition of a textbook for creative writing classes:

Unusually, this time around my publisher asked for no refreshing of my ideas, no major swaths of rewriting, only that I conform to the new sensibility. I was asked to change the binary “he/she,” for example, and to substitute they as a neutral nonbinary, or to refashion the sentence so that the plural made sense. The latter was often easy. The former not so much.

My instructions suggested that even if I was positing a hypothetical stage scene, I should not designate an actor as male or female. I was asked not to say “pregnant woman” since trans men can sometimes give birth. I was asked to substitute “home” where I had said “house,” on the grounds that some people don’t have houses. (What of those who have a house but no home?) I was to add “or caregiver” to every mention of mother, father, or parents. “Heroine” and “hero” are out. “God” should not be referenced, since different people have different gods, or none. Likewise, “Him” should not be capitalized. Noah’s Ark should not be mentioned, since non-Bible-savvy students might not know the story. “First year” must be used instead of the sexist “freshman.” “Foreign” and “foreigners” are offensive in any context. “Nerd,” “tribal,” “naïve,” “’hood,” “ugliness,” and “race” should not be said. Don’t mention shame, straitjacket, suicide, Donald Trump, or Kevin Spacey!

To virtually all of these admonitions, even when I thought them misguided or silly, I agreed. My own prose was not after all sacred. But when it came to the imaginative prose of other writers, trouble began. 

Trouble began because whenever those authors — many of whom are racial or sexual minorities — had written, or simply had made their characters say, something deemed offensive, then Burroway was instructed to delete that example of their writing and find another example, one that could not possibly offend any member of any protected group. The previous edition of her textbook had quoted one memoirist describing the nasty names he was called as a child, so she was asked to remove that quotation and choose another (properly sanitized) one that avoids potential harm to an imaginary reader. 

Burroway doesn’t say this, but these principles, consistently followed, would prevent people who have suffered racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and any other form of trauma from writing honestly about their experience, since such honest writing might perpetuate the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. etc. Every offense is The Offense That Dare Not Speak Its Content. 

As I read, I was reminded of a book I wrote about many years ago, Ruth Bottigheimer’s The Bible for Children. Here’s a passage from my essay: 

Problems usually arise for the makers of children’s Bibles not because they are uncertain how to interpret a story, but rather because they do not know how bluntly they dare relate that story. No one questions the evil of David’s adultery with Bathsheba; but how do you explain that adultery to children who may not yet know anything about human sexuality? Some writers, Bottigheimer shows, said that David “took another’s wife,” leaving the concept of “taking” ambiguous. Others (especially in the nineteenth century) made no reference whatsoever to the sexual nature of the sin: David committed “a shocking offense,” one said, while another noted still more vaguely that “he grew tyrannical and began to sin.” 

But those were Bibles for small children. Burroway’s publisher (like many others) thinks that university students are children; maybe that we all are. 

I happened to read Burroway’s depressing account immediately after reading a wonderful essay by Witold Rybczynski on ornament in architecture. Rybczynski describes 

a lecture given in Vienna on January 21, 1910. The venue was the Akademischer Verband für Literatur und Musik, an association of university students and their friends that organized avant-garde concerts by the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and exhibits by young firebrands such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. The lecturer that January evening was not so young, a 39-year-old Moravian-born architect named Adolf Loos, but he was definitely a firebrand. He titled his talk “Ornament und Verbrechen” (Ornament and Crime), and his theme, encapsulated in the title, was that ornamentation was both uneconomical and morally wrong; therein lay the crime. The lecture, which was actually more like an extended harangue, consisted of stirring if unproven pronouncements: “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use” — an assertion difficult to prove, since in 1910 both machine tools and steam locomotives often incorporated ornament. Nevertheless, to Loos, ornament was a throwback to a primitive time and had no place in the modern world. “Ornament is wasted labor and hence wasted breath,” he declared. “That’s how it has always been.” One can hear the outrage in his voice. 

What do Adolf Loos and Janet Burroway’s publisher have in common? The belief that one can achieve virtue through omission and excision. This is the belief shared by all forms of purity culture — and purity culture always leads to katharsis culture, that is, the practice of cleansing yourself, restoring your purity, by casting out the unclean thing. 

But what if that’s not how virtue works? What if after having cast out every unclean thing you can find you just end up in the foul rag and bone shop of your own heart? What then? 

That’s why these periods of desperate and manic katharsis always burn themselves out — why Robespierre ends by executing the executioner. And when they’ve done all they can do, they are succeeded by a bacchanal, an era of pseudo-festive delight in transgression. Our culture oscillates between “cast out the unclean thing” and “let us sin the more that grace may abound” — that is, between legalism and antinomianism, the very pairing that St. Paul in his letters is always trying to subvert.

Paul is the greatest of psychologists: he knows that human beings perfectly well understand legalism, which they rename “justice,” and perfectly well understand antinomianism, which they rename “freedom.” What we can’t understand is the grace of God

So we keep turning our simple wheel. Today it’s justice prized and freedom despised; tomorrow will be the opposite. The bacchanal is coming. Get ready. 

undefined

multiple social diseases

18 Warning Signs of a Deadly New Lifestyle – by Ted Gioia: — but they’re not all symptoms of the same disorder — or anyhow not in the same way.

“Anthropophobia — the fear of other people — is on the rise” is the chief theme, and “Time spent alone is rising for all demographic groups” and “People no longer build friendships” are related phenomena. But others may reflect quite different motives and concerns.

For instance: “After centuries of intense urbanism, more people now want to live in the country — away from bustling cities, suburbs, or even small towns.” This could be a symptom of anthropohobia, but it also could arise from a desire to reconnect with the natural world, a world our social order hopes to make irrelevant. (“Why move to the country when you can watch this YouTube video of snow falling in a wilderness cabin? — and without ads for a nominal monthly fee!”) So a desire to move to the country might be related to a settled and well-earned suspicion of Technopoly’s ability to meet all our needs.

(I know some folks who left big cities for small towns or the countryside during Covid and now couldn’t be brought back at gunpoint — and it’s not because they dislike people. They meet fewer people in the course of any given day, but the ones they know they know better, more meaningfully, than they knew the people they saw on a daily basis in the city.)

And: “Even humanities professors don’t want to deal with human beings.” The essay that Ted links to discusses, among other things, the difficulty that editors of academic journals have in getting peer reviewers for the submissions they receive. Until fairly recently, here’s how that worked: A journal editor wrote to me and asked me to review a manuscript. If I said yes, he sent me the manuscript and I wrote back with my thoughts. But now? An editor writes to me, tells me that he or she has taken the liberty of assigning me a username and a password at a website that manages a “reviewer database,” and at which I may fill out various forms and click various checkboxes on my way to providing a review that meets certain pre-specified criteria.

To that I say: Oh hell no. And my refusal is the opposite of not wanting “to deal with human beings”; it’s my declining to accept a transaction from which the humanity has been surgically removed by robots.

(Also: Why do editors have recourse to such semi-automated systems? Because they get so many submissions. Why do they get so many submissions? Because publish-or-perish is still the core principle of academic employment, and in an ever-shrinking academic job market humanities professors are cranking out scholarly articles at an unprecedented pace to try to make themselves viable candidates for the tiny handful of jobs still available. The real problem lies far, far upstream of my refusal to become another entry in someone’s database.)

So the various examples that Ted gives of this “deadly new lifestyle” point in varying and in some cases opposite directions. Some of these developments show people succumbing to Technopoly; others involve resistance to Technopoly. And that’s a big difference.

Scott Alexander suggesting the criteria that make someone an Effective Altruist:

1. Aim to donate some fixed and considered amount of your income (traditionally 10%) to charity, or get a job in a charitable field.

2. Think really hard about what charities are most important, using something like consequentialist reasoning (where eg donating to a fancy college endowment seems less good than saving the lives of starving children). Treat this problem with the level of seriousness that people use when they really care about something, like a hedge fundie deciding what stocks to buy, or a basketball coach making a draft pick. Preferably do some napkin math, just like the hedge fundie and basketball coach would. Check with other people to see if your assessments agree.

3. ACTUALLY DO THESE THINGS! DON’T JUST WRITE ESSAYS SAYING THEY’RE “OBVIOUS” BUT THEN NOT DO THEM! 

Alexander then says, “I think most of the people who do all three of these would self-identify as effective altruists.” I don’t know how we’d go about measuring that, but I know a great many people who do all three of these things and none of them call themselves effective altruists; I suspect that very few of them have ever heard the term “Effective Altruism.” (For instance, I have been involved in many debates within churches about what charitable organizations to support, and those have invariably been serious conversations that involve, among other things, close scrutiny not just of those organizations’ mission statements but also of their financial reports.) Like many people who either live in Silicon Valley or dwell in the penumbra of its culture, Alexander has no idea how tiny his bubble is; nor is he aware of how many thoughtful givers to charity there are in the world.  

costs, continued

Once you face the real human costs of your preferred policies in peace or war, you may then

  1. Warmly embrace them;
  2. Accept them with a shrug;
  3. Work to mitigate them;
  4. Decide that they’re too high and look for alternative policies. 

A combination of the sunk costs fallacy and the fear of shame makes the fourth option very rare indeed. Would that it were more common. 

an update on motives

The other day I wrote:

Freddie (like many people, it seems) is critical of the reasons Ayaan Hirsi Ali has cited for her conversion to Christianity. I’m not. My view is that everyone has to start somewhere — she’s very forthright about being a newcomer to all this — and what matters is not where you start but where you end up. One person may seek a bulwark against relativism; another may long for architectural or linguistic or musical beauty; another may crave community. Christian life is a house with many entrances. I became a Christian because I fell head-over-heels for a Christian girl who wouldn’t date me otherwise, so how could I judge anyone else’s reasons for converting? As Rebecca West said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive”; and God, as I understand things, is not the judge but the transformer of motives. 

This reminded the excellent Yair Rosenberg of something — something I knew nothing about. Yair wrote to me to share a passage from Pesachim 50b of the Babylonian Talmud: 

On the topic of reward for a mitzva fulfilled without intent, Rava raised a contradiction: It is written: “For Your mercy is great unto the heavens, and Your truth reaches the skies” (Psalms 57:11); and it is written elsewhere: “For Your mercy is great above the heavens, and Your truth reaches the skies” (Psalms 108:5). How so? How can these verses be reconciled? The Gemara explains: Here, where the verse says that God’s mercy is above the heavens, it is referring to a case where one performs a mitzva for its own sake; and here, where the verse says that God’s mercy reaches the heavens, it is referring to a case where one performs a mitzva not for its own sake. Even a mitzva performed with ulterior motives garners reward, as Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if he does so not for their own sake, as through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.

Those old rabbis, they knew a thing or two about human nature. 

Me, writing in 1996:

In Sartre’s political world there were only oppressors and oppressed: fascism stood for the former, communism for the latter. Likewise, in Algeria, since the native Algerians were by definition the oppressed, they were incapable of sin; conversely, the pieds noirs, the French colonists, were reprobate and irredeemable. Thus Sartre endorsed the decision of the Algerian FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) to kill any and all French men, women, and children in Algeria whenever possible, a position he was still taking in 1961 when he wrote a famous and lengthy introduction to The Wretched of the Earth, the major work by one of this century’s greatest theorists of terrorism, Franz Fanon.

Camus, on the other hand, was himself a pied noir; his family’s roots in Algeria went back a century and a half. Members of his family, including his mother, still lived in Algeria and were endangered daily by the FLN’s random shootings and bombings. Yet Camus was not, nor had he ever been, indifferent to the abuses the French had inflicted on the Arabs of Algeria. Indeed, in the 1930s, at the beginning of his career as a writer, Camus had striven ceaselessly to call attention to these abuses, but he was generally ignored — by the French Left no less than the Right.

So he was not pleased to have a difficult and morally complex political situation reduced to an opportunity for French intellectuals to strike noble poses: to those who would “point to the French in Algeria as scapegoats (‘Go ahead and die; that’s what we deserve!’),” Camus retorted, “it seems to me revolting to beat one’s mea culpa, as our judge-penitents do, on someone else’s breast.”

diseases of the intellect

Twenty years ago, I had an exceptionally intelligent student who was a passionate defender of and advocate for Saddam Hussein. She wanted me to denounce the American invasion of Iraq, which I was willing to do — though not in precisely the terms that she demanded, because she wanted me to do so on the ground that Saddam Hussein was a generous and beneficent ruler of his people. That is, her denunciation of America as the Bad Guy was inextricably connected with her belief that there simply had to be on the other side a Good Guy. The notion that the American invasion was wrong but also that Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule was indefensible — that pair of concepts she could not simultaneously entertain. Because there can’t be any stories with no Good Guys … can there? 

This student was not a bad person — she was, indeed, a highly compassionate person, and deeply committed to justice. She was not morally corrupt. But she was, I think, suffering from a disease of the intellect

What do I mean by that? Everyone’s habitus includes, as part of its basic equipment, a general conceptual frame, a mental model of the world that serves to organize our experience. Within this model we all have what Kenneth Burke called terministic screens, but also conceptual screens which allow us to employ key terms in some contexts while making them unavailable in others. We will not be forbidden to use a word like “compassion” in responding to our Friends, but it will not occur to us to use it when responding to our Enemies. (Paging Carl Schmitt.) 

My student’s conceptual screens made certain moral descriptions — for instance, saying that a particular politician or action is “cruel” or “tyrannical” — necessary when describing President Bush but unavailable when describing Saddam Hussein. But I seriously doubt that this distinction ever presented itself to her conscious mind. It worked in the background to determine which thoughts were allowed to rise to conscious awareness and therefore become a matter for debate. To return to a distinction that, drawing on Leszek Kołakowski, I have made before, the elements of our conceptual screens that can rise to consciousness belong to the “technological core” of human experience, while those that remain invisible (repressed, a Freudian would say) belong to the “mythical core.” 

I could see these patterns of screening in my student; I cannot see them in myself, even though I know that everything I have said applies to me just as completely as it applies to her, if not more so. 

Certain writers are highly concerned with these mental states, and the genre in which they tend to describe them is called the Menippean satire. (That link is to a post of mine on C. S. Lewis as a notable writer in this genre, though this has rarely been recognized.) In his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye wrote, 

The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent…. The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect. [p. 309] 

Thus the title of my post. 

I think much of our current political discourse is generated and sustained by such screening, screening that an age of social media makes at once more necessary and more pathological. Also more universally “occupational,” because in some arena of our society — journalism and the academy especially — the deployment of the correct conceptual screens becomes one’s occupational duty, and any failure so to maintain can result in an ostracism that is both social and professional. And that’s how people, and not just fictional characters, become “mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.” 

None of this is hard to see in some general and abstract sense, but it’s hard to see clearly. What Lewis calls the “Inner Ring” is largely concerned to enforce the correct conceptual screens, and because those screens don’t rise to conscious awareness, much less open statement, the work of enforcement tends to be indirect and subtle, and perhaps for that very reason irresistible. It’s like being subject to gravity. 

In certain cases the stress of maintaining such conceptual screens grows to be too much for a person; the strain of cognitive dissonance becomes disabling. Crises in one’s conceptual screening, as Mikhail Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, were of particular interest to Dostoevsky:

In the menippea there appears for the first time what might be called moral-psychological experimentation: a representation of the unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states of man — insanity of all sorts (the theme of the maniac), split personality, unrestrained daydreaming, unusual dreams, passions bordering on madness, suicides, and so forth. These phenomena do not function narrowly in the menippea as mere themes, but have a formal generic significance. Dreams, daydreams, insanity destroy the epic and tragic wholeness of a person and his fate: the possibilities of another person and another life are revealed in him, he loses his finalized quality and ceases to mean only one thing; he ceases to coincide with himself. [pp. 116-19]

This deserves at least a post of its own. But in general it’s surprising how powerful people’s conceptual screens are, how impervious to attack. But maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, since those screens are the primary tools that enable us to “mean only one thing” to ourselves; they allow us to coincide with ourselves in ways that soothe and satisfy. The functions of the conceptual screens are at once social and personal. 

All this helps to explain why the whole of our public discourse on Israel and Palestine is so fraught: the people participating in it are drawing upon some of their most fundamental conceptual screens, whether those screens involve words like “colonialism” or words like “pogrom.” But this of course also makes rational conversation and debate nearly impossible. The one thing that might help our fraying social fabric is an understanding that, when people are wrong about such matters — and that includes you and me —, the wrongness is typically not an indication of moral corruption but rather the product of a disease of the intellect.

And we all live in a social order whose leading institutions deliberately infect us with those diseases and work hard to create variants that are as infectious as possible. So my curse is straightforwardly upon them

I don’t want to pretend that I am above the fray here. I have Opinions about the war, pretty strong ones at that, and I have sat on this post for a week or so, hemming and hawing about whether I have an obligation to state my position, given the sheer human gravity of the situation. But while I’m not wholly ignorant, I don’t think that my Opinions are especially well-informed, and if I put them before my readers — well, I feel that that would be presumptuous. (Even though I live in an era in which most people find it disturbing or even perverse if you hold views without proclaiming them.) There are thousands of writers you could read to find stronger and better-informed arguments than any I could make.

But I do think I can recognize and diagnose diseases of the intellect when I see them. That’s maybe the only contribution I can make to this horrifying mess of a situation, and I’m counting on its being more useful if it isn’t accompanied by a statement of position.   

I hope this won’t be taken as a plague-on-both-your-houses argument, though I’m sure it will. (I have made such arguments about some things in the past, but I am not making one here.) When you write, as I do above, about the problem with a conceptual screen that requires one purely innocent party and one purely guilty party, you will surely be accused of “false equivalency” or “blaming the victim.” But you don’t have to say that a person, or a nation, or a people is utterly spotless in order to see them as truly victimized. Sometimes a person or a nation or a people is, to borrow King Lear’s phrase, “more sinned against than sinning” without being sinless. And I think that applies no matter what role you assign to which party in the current disaster. 

With all that said, here are some concluding thoughts: 

  1. A monolithic focus on assigning blame to one party while completely exonerating the other party is a sign of a conceptual screen working at high intensity. 
  2. Such a monolithic focus on blame-assignation is also incapable of ameliorating suffering or preventing it in the future. (Note the use of the italicized adjective in these two points: the proper assessment of blame is not a useless thing, but it’s never the only thing, and it is rarely the most important thing, for observers to do.) 
  3. If you are consumed with rage at anyone who does not assign blame as you do, that indicates two things: (a) you have a mistaken belief that disagreement with you is a sign of moral corruption, and (b) your conceptual screen is under great stress and is consequently overheating. 
  4. It is more important, even if it’s infinitely harder, for you to discover and comprehend your own conceptual screens that for you to see the screens at work in another’s mind. And it is important not just because it’s good for you to have self-knowledge, but also because our competing conceptual screens are regularly interfering with our ability to develop practices and policies that ameliorate current suffering and prevent future suffering. 
  5. A possible strategy: When you’re talking with someone who says “Party X is wholly at fault here,” simply waive the point. Say: “Fine. I won’t argue. So what do we do now?” Then you might begin to get somewhere — though you’re more likely to discover that your interlocutor’s ideas begin and end with the assigning of blame. 

back to my books

Pretty much all my life I have been fighting against my instinctive introversion, and now that I have turned 65, I’ve decided to stop fighting. I hope people will see this as the legitimate prerogative of a senior citizen.  

When someone – anyone, except those I know very well indeed – asks me to have coffee or a beer, I am filled with a feeling not far from dread. But I have always thought that I shouldn’t give in to the anxiety; instead I have tried to push back. It’s just grabbing a cup of coffee and having a little chat, for heaven’s sake! I tell myself. You’re not being taken in by the Stasi for interrogation. So I make myself say yes, and I make myself go … and while I can manage to be friendly and engaged during the meeting — indeed, more than friendly, way too talkative, out of sheer nervousness — when we’re done I want to go home and sleep for a day or two. 

There’s nothing wrong with the people who invite me — indeed, they’re often interesting or even charming, which is the primary reason why I feel I should push back against my instincts. But it’s still taxing to push back. If I were invited to dinner by Bob Dylan or Thomas Pynchon, I’d think, Do I really have to? (But I doubt I can make you believe how serious I am about that.)  

There’s a passage in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s delightful book Ruined By Reading that I think about at least once a week:

Were books the world, or at least a world? How could I “live” when there was so much to be read that ten lives could not be enough? And what is it, anyway, this “living”? Have I ever done it? … Reading is not a disabling affiction. I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing. Can I go back to my books now? 

I will continue to attend required meetings, and make plans with my colleagues, and connect with my students during my office hours; and I will with great delight have coffee or beer or dinner with my dearest friends, of whom I am blessed (despite my weird disability) to have a few. 

But the main thing is this: I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing. I have a house full of books and music and movies, and I shall go back to them now. If you write to invite me out for coffee or a beer, I will probably send you a link to this post. So please remember: It’s not you, it’s me. 

Austen and parents

One of the most notable traits of Jane Austen’s fiction is its gently ironical attitude towards many of its own readers. Consider Emma, for instance. Here is Austen’s description of the key event in Emma Woodhouse’s life: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Every reader of the novel (myself included) will tell you that this is a glorious moment. But note: the novel consists of 55 chapters, and this decisive moment occurs in the 47th of them; in the 49th Mr. Knightley proposes to her and is accepted; and so everything that the reader most cares about is wonderfully sorted out. But six whole chapters remain. And why is that? Because Jane Austen is interested in certain matters that her audience is not especially interested in – but (she thinks) ought to be.

Or consider Mansfield Park, in which Austen signals her deviance from popular expectation in a different way. Fanny Price has carried her torch for her cousin Edmund helplessly and hopelessly for several hundred pages – this is the longest of Austen’s novels – and then, a mere seven paragraphs from the end, we get this:

I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.

As much as to say: “Oh, you still want Edmund and Fanny to marry, do you? Well, if you insist, be it so – but I really can’t be bothered to narrate their courtship.”

What Austen cares about – what she devotes her extraordinary intellectual energies to – is the moral and intellectual formation of young women. Austen perceives her society to be one in which people have great expectations for young women, and place exceptionally great demands upon them, but does almost nothing to prepare them to meet either the expectations or the demands.

In Mansfield Park Sir Thomas Bertram, the head of the family with whom the story is concerned, is a good man, an admirable man in many respects, but is regularly described as “cold” and “severe”; his wife, Lady Bertram, is called “indolent”; and Lady Bertram’s sister, the Mrs. Norris, who has the greatest influence over their daughters precisely because the parents are either cold or indolent, is “indulgent.” In Emma, Emma’s mother is dead and her father a hypochondriac whole manifold sensitivities make him, in his own way, as indolent as Lady Bertram.

Pride and Prejudice is more conventionally structured around the marriage of its heroine – which is perhaps why Austen thought that “The work is rather too light, bright and sparkling: it wants shade” – but even there one might argue that Elizabeth Bennett suffers in several ways from the moral idiocy of her mother and the ironic detachment of her father. But these, I submit, are not the typical dispositional errors of parents: the typical ones are laid out in Mansfield Park: severity, indolence, and indulgence. 

Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse from their childhood have older men in their lives who provide them guidance, counsel, and (in the end, as we have seen) matrimony. But along the way to that conventional Happy Ending they suffer many vicissitudes, painful episodes that, Austen suggests, they might not have suffered if their parents had provided them with consistent and loving guidance. When parents are badly formed, Auden consistently indicates, their children will be badly formed as well; and while poor moral formation is unfortunate for any children, in that particular society the girls consistently paid a bigger price. And not many girls are fortunate enough to have the regular attention of a Mr. Knightley or cousin Edmund. 

repetition and summation

When you blog for a long time, as I have done, you inevitably repeat yourself. Sometimes this is conscious and intentional, as you work to develop themes: I have listed some of the main themes of this blog here. At other times you just forget that you’ve said something before. 

But there’s a third kind of repetition: the kind that arises when similar events prompt you to respond in similar ways. This has a good side and a bad side. If you do respond to these related provocations consistently, that suggests a certain stability of outlook; you’re not just blown about by the winds of mood or whim, you have a genuine point of view. On the other hand, you could’ve just saved yourself some time and effort by citing one of your earlier posts on the subject. “I refer the honorable gentlemen to the reply I gave some months ago.” 

I just realized recently how often I have responded in very similar ways to the desperate-times-demand-desperate-measures Christians, the ones who believe that our current circumstances are so horrific that we have to throw out our historic practices and habits out the window. To cite just one common topic of recent years: There are a great many Christians who say that Tim Keller’s approach to evangelism and apologetics might have been okay Back In The Day — you know, fifteen years ago, in a previous geological era — but simply won’t work in our current Negative World. I have of course questioned the Negative World thesis — I’ll return to that in a moment — but more than that I have insisted that such people are making a category error: the question to ask is not whether this or that approach works, but rather whether it’s faithful, whether it’s obedient to Jesus. As I said in that post, 

To think only in terms of what is effective or strategic is to fight on the Devil’s home ground. As Screwtape said to Wormwood about the junior tempter’s patient: “He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’, ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.” Christians who evaluate Keller not by asking whether his message is faithful to Jesus’s message but rather by asking whether it’s suited for this moment are inadvertently following Screwtape’s advice. 

And in another, closely related, post, I called attention to this challenging statement from George Macdonald: “Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said, Do it, or once abstained because He said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him, if you do not do anything He tells you.” 

That is what counts, whether this is a Negative World or a Positive World or any other kind of world. Our obligations remain the same in every world. What we need is to stop trying to read the tea-leaves of politics and instead learn to be idiots

Obedience is both difficult and boring; and the boring part is especially challenging in our neophilic age, in which we cannot readily perceive the renewing power of repetition. It’s no wonder that people would rather think about plans and strategies than to strive to practice obedience. But “strategic thinking” is the classic excuse for disobedience

Finally, I have consistently found it useful (or sometimes just fun) to see the various stances I’ve described here as exemplified by characters from The Lord of the Rings, e.g.: 

  • Denethor: the evangelist of despair who’d rather blow everything up than be faithful through hard times; 
  • Boromir: one who thinks that if he could just seize the reins of power then everything would be great, because he is committed to all the Right Things and therefore couldn’t possibly rule badly or tyrannically;  
  • Faramir: one who has immersed himself in ancient lore and by so doing has learned humility and mercy;  
  • Aragorn: one who understands that we must judge between “good and ill” today as we have ever judged; they don’t change their character, nor is the need for discernment ever abrogated; 
  • Gandalf: one who is content to be a steward rather than a ruler, and to strive to give to the next generation “clean earth to till.” 

Okay, thus endeth the summing up. Now whenever these issues come up again in the future, I will try to remember to link to this post, rather than write a new one that makes the same points.

Becca Rothfeld on “Sanctimony Literature”

Sanctimony literature errs, then, not because it ventures into moral territory, but because it displays no genuine curiosity about what it really means to be good, and is blind to the distinction between morality and moralism, and exhibits no doubt about its own probity. Isn’t it funny that a good person, as envisioned by Lerner and Rooney, is exactly like Lerner and Rooney and all of their readers? And isn’t it striking that all these Lerner-clones and Rooney-clones are depicted as irreproachably upstanding, while all of their enemies are represented as one-dimensionally irredeemable? The heroes and heroines of sanctimony literature are so steeped in self-satisfaction that they provide an inadvertent moral lesson. It turns out that someone can have all the de rigueur political opinions without thereby achieving any measure of meaningful ethical success. A novel’s goodness is bound up with its beauty, but there is more to goodness than boilerplate leftist fervor.

the system

chancery

I’m going to begin by quoting a very long passage from Bleak House, one involving a suitor in the court of Chancery, generally known as “the man from Shropshire,” an oddity who in every session cries out “My Lord!” – hoping to get the attention of the Lord Chancellor; hoping always in vain. His name is Mr. Gridley and Esther Summerson relates an encounter with him:

“Mr. Jarndyce,” he said, “consider my case. As true as there is a heaven above us, this is my case. I am one of two brothers. My father (a farmer) made a will and left his farm and stock and so forth to my mother for her life. After my mother’s death, all was to come to me except a legacy of three hundred pounds that I was then to pay my brother. My mother died. My brother some time afterwards claimed his legacy. I and some of my relations said that he had had a part of it already in board and lodging and some other things. Now mind! That was the question, and nothing else. No one disputed the will; no one disputed anything but whether part of that three hundred pounds had been already paid or not. To settle that question, my brother filing a bill, I was obliged to go into this accursed Chancery; I was forced there because the law forced me and would let me go nowhere else. Seventeen people were made defendants to that simple suit! It first came on after two years. It was then stopped for another two years while the master (may his head rot off!) inquired whether I was my father’s son, about which there was no dispute at all with any mortal creature. He then found out that there were not defendants enough—remember, there were only seventeen as yet!—but that we must have another who had been left out and must begin all over again. The costs at that time — before the thing was begun! — were three times the legacy. My brother would have given up the legacy, and joyful, to escape more costs. My whole estate, left to me in that will of my father’s, has gone in costs. The suit, still undecided, has fallen into rack, and ruin, and despair, with everything else — and here I stand, this day! Now, Mr. Jarndyce, in your suit there are thousands and thousands involved, where in mine there are hundreds. Is mine less hard to bear or is it harder to bear, when my whole living was in it and has been thus shamefully sucked away?”

Mr. Jarndyce said that he condoled with him with all his heart and that he set up no monopoly himself in being unjustly treated by this monstrous system.

“There again!” said Mr. Gridley with no diminution of his rage. “The system! I am told on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system. I mustn’t go into court and say, ‘My Lord, I beg to know this from you — is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?’ My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn’t go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied — as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don’t I? — I mustn’t say to him, ‘I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!’ HE is not responsible. It’s the system. But, if I do no violence to any of them, here — I may! I don’t know what may happen if I am carried beyond myself at last! I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”

His passion was fearful. I could not have believed in such rage without seeing it.

Now, please bear Mr. Gridley, and his rage, in mind as I turn to George Orwell’s great essay on Dickens. It’s possibly the finest thing ever written about Dickens – even though it’s often wrong – and is a wonderful illustration of Orwell’s power of inquiring into his own readerly responses. (A topic for another post.) 

The first point I want to call attention to is this: Orwell was of course a socialist, a person who believed that British society required radical change; and there were people who saw Dickens as a kind of proto-socialist. This, Orwell points out, is nonsense on stilts. If you want to know what Dickens thinks about revolutionary political movements, just read A Tale of Two Cities. He’s horrified by them.

Orwell then goes on to note that Dickens’s early experiences as a reporter on Parliament seem to have been important for shaping his attitude towards government as a whole: “at the back of his mind there is usually a half-belief that the whole apparatus of government is unnecessary. Parliament is simply Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle, the Empire is simply Major Bagstock and his Indian servant, the Army is simply Colonel Chowser and Doctor Slammer, the public services are simply Bumble and the Circumlocution Office — and so on and so forth.”

Such a man could never be a socialist. And yet, “Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached.” So what is the nature of this attack?

The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power. Of course one can draw this inference for oneself, and one can draw it again from the remarks about Bounderby’s will at the end of Hard Times, and indeed from the whole of Dickens’s work one can infer the evil of laissez-faire capitalism; but Dickens makes no such inference himself. It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism’. Obviously Macaulay is here using the word ‘Socialism’ in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as ‘Bolshevism’. There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

And here’s what I love about Orwell: he says that Dickens’s position “at first glance looks like an enormous platitude” – but he is not content with a first glance. He continues to think about it, and as he does he realizes that Dickens, after all, has a point. This I think is the most extraordinary moment in the essay:

His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘Behave decently’, which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence.

Most revolutionaries are potential Tories – that is, their revolutionary sensibility would erase itself if they could just get Their Boys into power. Once they and people like them are in charge, then they will do anything they can to thwart change. But what that means is: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (As I note in this essay, following Ursula K. LeGuin, even an anarchist society would have its petty tyrants.) Most would-be revolutionaries ignore this problem, but “Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness.” And that’s why he’s vital.

This point takes us back to the man from Shropshire, Mr. Gridley. He will not be calmed by invocations of “the system,” the broken system in which everyone is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not trapped as he is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not a victim as he is a victim. The people who enable the system, and profit from it, must be held accountable – or nothing important will change. The salon of politics will only be redecorated. So: “I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”

And this, Orwell suggests, is what the novelist can do, what the novelist can bring before our minds and lay upon our hearts. Some political systems are clearly superior to others; but Dickens understands that whatever political system we build, its chief material will be what Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity,” of which “no straight thing was ever made.”  To force us to look at that truth — which, properly understood, will result not in political quietism but a genuine and healthy realism — is what the novelist can do for us. “That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician.” The novelist-as-moralist has the power to drag the individual workers of the system, any system, “before the great eternal bar” — but not God’s bar as such, which is what Mr. Gridley means, but rather, the bar of our readerly witness, our readerly judgment, whoever and whenever we are.  

Cities 5: a digression on longtermism

Not closely related to my main argument, but just a brief note: 

Longtermism is the version of effective altruism that wants us to think about our ethical imperatives on a much vaster historical scale; it warns us against discounting the value of the lives of future people. (In his retelling of the Good Samaritan story, Phil Christman could have added a longtermist who would have scorned the Effective Samaritan for thinking only of the local and immediate. A longtermist, seeing a wounded man by the side of the road, would surely have “passed by on the other side.”)

Augustine is a kind of longtermist, in the sense that he thinks we should focus not on our immediate desires and concerns but on our eternal destiny. Thus his indifference to politics as we usually conceive of it: “As for this mortal life, which ends after a few days’ course, what does it matter under whose rule a man lives, being so soon to die, provided that the rulers do not force him to impious and wicked acts?” (CD V.17) 

C. S. Lewis is writing very much under the sign of Augustine when, in his great sermon “The Weight of Glory,” he says this: 

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. 

It is a view that, if does not consign politics to the realm of adiaphora, quite radically decenters it.

We often hear that evangelicalism — and, often, other forms of orthodox Christianity — has been “too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good.” It has been so focused on “pie in the sky by and by” that it has neglected the prophets’ call to seek shalom — justice and peace in the City. And that critique is absolutely valid. But maybe we could use a little more longtermist decentering of politics these days. 

Scott Alexander:

If you could really plug an AI’s intellectual knowledge into its motivational system, and get it to be motivated by doing things humans want and approve of, to the full extent of its knowledge of what those things are3 – then I think that would solve alignment. A superintelligence would understand ethics very well, so it would have very ethical behavior. 

Setting aside the whole language of “motivation,” which I think wildly inappropriate in this context, I would ask Alexander a question: Are professors of ethics, who “understand ethics very well,” the most ethical people? 

The idea that behaving ethically is a function or consequence of understanding is grossly misbegotten. Many sociopaths understand ethics very well; their knowledge of what is generally believed to be good behavior is essential to their powers of manipulation. There is no correlation between understanding ethics and living virtuously. 

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. 

possibility

Over at Plough, the tag is: Another life is possible. This ought to be a mantra for most of us. We can live in defiance of the mandates of technocracy and metaphysical capitalism; we can’t make those demonic Powers go away, and we probably can’t live uninfluenced by them — but we can reduce their power over our lives, one small step at a time. Independence is not gained in an instant, but I think there’s a growing body of people who want it. 

There’s a funny passage in James Pogue’s recent report on right-wingers relocating to the West: 

Resistance to “globalism” is a new organizing force of right-wing politics. “These people at the World Economic Forum,” DeSantis told the National Conservatism Conference in September, “they just view us as a bunch of peasants. I can tell you, things like the World Economic Forum are dead on arrival in the state of Florida.” It could have been Alex Jones talking. 

Well, maybe. But it certainly could’ve been Bernie Sanders talking. And isn’t that noteworthy? 

It would be nice if people found it so. Recently Michelle Goldberg wrote about recent studies showing the damage that social media platforms are doing to the mental health of young people — but as soon as some politicians on the right called attention to those studies, reactive nitwits on the left, of which there are many, fled to alternative explanations. Because Josh Hawley can’t be allowed to make a valid point about anything, now can he? Goldberg: 

The idea that unaccountable corporate behemoths are harming kids with their products shouldn’t be a hard one for liberals to accept, even if figures like Hawley believe it as well. I’m not sure if banning social media for young people is the right way to start fixing the psychic catastrophe engulfing so many kids. But we’re not going to find any fix at all if we simply start with our political priors and work backward.

If people — people on social media all the freaking time, naturally — could manage to take a few minutes’ break from their Pavlovian virtual cages, they might discover the possibility of consensus — consensus on the vital necessity to restrain the predatory megacorporations that are destroying our society, and, if their recent adventures in chatbots are any indication, are very much looking for new worlds to ruin. 

Any day I can take a step back from my political priors, take a step back from absorption in Technopoly, take a step back from the commodification of myself, is a good day. That some of us find that extremely difficult is perhaps a good Lenten meditation. 

self-sacrifice and despair

Adam Roberts:

And in the middle (round about the two-thirds point, actually) there is the odd, striking scene of Denethor’s suicide. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, actually. In one sense he has to die, in order for the rule of the Stewards to end and the rule of the King to begin. But suicide is a semiotically tangled and troubled a thing for JRRT’s imagination. He doesn’t want to parse it as a nobly Roman action, and strains it into the straight-jacket of over-coded pseudo-Christian moralising: ‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death’ snaps Gandalf — perhaps forgetting that he himself effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum in order to save his comrades. Or perhaps it’s one law for wizards, another for Gondor. ‘Only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair …’ [III:129]

It’s tempting to see this as a double standard. For in point of fact one of the general trajectories of this book is precisely that pseduo-samurai or Horatius-at-the-Bridge sacrifice of self: Frodo and Sam going (as they think) into certain death; the Rohirrim galloping will-nill towards a massively larger army; Gandalf rejecting the truce terms and dooming (they all think) the entire army to destruction. More, Gandalf does not lecture Denethor to prevent him from ending his life, only to stop him from doing so by his own hand: ‘your part,’ he tells the Steward, ‘is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.’ If you want to die, fine: go out into the city and get cut down by an orc. That would be OK! This sees to me a strange logic, as if we might say ‘suicide is wrong, but suicide-by-cop is fine’. 

I think Adam is wrong about this. (As I’ve said before, he is rarely wrong; maybe it’s only about The Lord of the Rings that he’s wrong.)  

Let’s make some distinctions — but before I jump in, let me say this: I don’t think that suicide is always (maybe it is not even usually) the result of despair. Many people who take, or try to take, their own lives have not come to a conclusion about the meaningless of life, or of their lives. When someone tells a suicidal person that things will get better, the suicidal person doesn’t necessarily disagree with that — doesn’t necessarily have a view about it at all. Often, those who take their own lives simply cannot bear their pain any longer and will do whatever they have to to make it stop. 

Okay, having made that sobering statement, now let me move on. 

Point the First: There’s a difference between fighting a battle you’re sure you’ll lose and “suicide-by-cop.” The point of the former action is not to be killed by an orc, but to kill orcs — and by killing them maybe saving a friend from being killed, or slowing the advance of your enemies long enough for some of the women and children to escape. You may be certain that eventually an orc will kill you, but you’re going to try to take as many with you as you can, and you’re doing that for a cause larger than yourself. Similarly, even if we grant that Gandalf “effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum” (a point that as it happens I do not grant), the fact that he did it “to save his comrades” — to keep the Quest going, to give Frodo a chance to make it to Mount Doom with the ring — makes it an act not of despair but of hope

Point the Second: It is important to note that Denethor is the Steward of Gondor, which is to say, he has sworn vows to preserve and protect that land. This is what Gandalf is reminding him of in this exchange, in which Denethor speaks first: 

“The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.” 

“Unless the king should come again?” said Gandalf. “Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for.”  

To accept the mantle of the Steward of Gondor is like getting married in that one does it “for better or worse.” By taking his own life Denethor is simply, and disgracefully, renouncing and mocking his own vows. (It is telling that he refers to himself simply as “The Lord of Gondor,” whereas Gandalf more precisely refers to him as “my lord Steward.”) By contrast, if he were to go out and fight, even in the certainty of his own death, he would be faithful to his vows, for reasons noted above. 

Point the Third: Denethor couldn’t be more explicit that his despair arises from the thwarting of his personal preferences: 

“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life … and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”

My way or the fire way, as it were. This is not a decision born of intolerable pain but rather one born of a childish indulgence in ressentiment.

In all these ways we see that even by the standards of his own pagan warrior culture — as opposed to Tolkien’s own Christian standards — Denethor’s despair is clearly blameworthy, and Tolkien doesn’t have to tie himself in knots or smuggle in Christian ethics in order to show that. As Aragorn says much earlier in the novel, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others. There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.” 

Point the Fourth: But there is an interesting difference between the pagan understanding of despair and the Christian one. The pagan denunciation of despair is not, as we have seen, based on a commandment to have hope, for yourself or for others. This is a point that C. S. Lewis often made when he described his own deep attachment to the ethic of the Norse gods. In his late book Letters to Malcolm he wrote, 

You know my history. You know why my withers are quite unwrung by the fear that I was bribed — that I was lured into Christianity by the hope of everlasting life. I believed in God before I believed in Heaven. And even now, even if — let’s make an impossible supposition — His voice, unmistakably His, said to me, ‘They have misled you. I can do nothing of that sort for you. My long struggle with the blind forces is nearly over. I die, children. The story is ending’ — would that be a moment for changing sides? Would not you and I take the Viking way: ‘The Giants and Trolls win. Let us die on the right side, with Father Odin.’ 

(I suspect that in writing that last sentence Lewis had in mind this fable by Robert Louis Stevenson.) The key thing here is not the belief that the Good will win out — that’s as may be — but rather the belief that the Good is the Good, and deserves on that account alone our loyalty. 

But Christianity raises the stakes by asking us to believe not just that Good is Good, but that Good will in the end prevail. For the Christian, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the prefiguration and guarantor of one’s own personal resurrection and also, and more important, the renewal of the world, the eventual coming of the New Creation. Despair in this account is the loss of hope for one’s own future and for that of the world. (And again, though Christian theology has often associated suicide with despair, I deny that there is any necessary association. Many people have left suicide notes asking for God’s forgiveness and — rightly, I think — hoping that He will raise them up on the last day.)

Is this understanding present in The Lord of the Rings? A question to be asked. In the great chapter called “The Last Debate,” the one in which our heroes decide to take the battle to Sauron even though his armies dwarf theirs, Aragorn says that their decision “is the last move in a great jeopardy, and for one side or the other it will bring the end of the game.” This holds out more hope for the triumph of the Good than Norse mythology does, but not much more. Gandalf had said something similar a couple of pages earlier: 

“We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless — as we surely shall, if we sit here — and know as we die that no new age shall be.” 

That’s as much as to say: We have a tiny chance (“only a fool’s hope,” he says elsewhere) of prevailing, but if we do not fight, then Sauron will most certainly win — he will eventually get the Ring, and “his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.” Whether there might be something more to come after this world ends Gandalf does not say, though surely he knows something more than Aragorn and the others do.

It seems to me, though, that we’re not really invited to speculate about such things here: the whole context of the story is the life of Middle-Earth, not any other world that lies beyond it. The calculations to be made are purely this-worldly, and therefore one makes one’s decisions about which side to take not from prudential calculation but from a clear-eyed perception of the difference between good and evil. When Eomer asks “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” Aragorn briskly replies: “As he ever has judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden wood as in his own house.” 

Robert Joustra:

I think the importance of [Katelyn Beaty’s Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church] is the conversation it opens about ethics in institutions, not (just) pious personal practices. The scandal at the heart of her book is not the celebrity pastors; their corruption and scandal is the least interesting and most predictable part of the package. The scandal is the enabling organizations and the collapse of institutional ethics — a dangerous pragmatism married to a startlingly idealistic naïveté. 

Thus the need for the repair of institutions, something that I think requires the cultivation of piety

Matthew Loftus:

The option to kill always punishes the most vulnerable. Those who are wealthy and currently fly to a jurisdiction where the killing is legal will find options for themselves, while laws that prevent killing are there to protect those who would otherwise want to live if not for the system that tells them they are or would be a burden. Laws that allow killing entrench and reinforce a culture that values the intelligent and able-bodied while making the disabled and infirm disappear. 

Those who have struggled with severe depression will tell you that one of the worst thoughts to haunt their minds is the one that says they would have been better off having never been born. When I treat patients with depression, it is my duty as their doctor to assure them, no matter what they may have done (and some of them have done very bad things), that the demonic voice in their head is not speaking the truth. They, like every other human being, are better off alive than dead. To make the opposite judgment on behalf of another person — most of whom, if they were allowed to grow up, would be able to have some opinion on whether they prefer being alive or dead — is taking the side of the suicidal voices against the God who created us all. 

Richard Hanania:

I don’t like inconveniencing others, and for many parents the possibility that one day they could be a burden on their children scares them much more than death. I think this is a noble sentiment, and would gladly sacrifice myself when I’m old so that those I care about can live better and more fulfilling lives. If we’re going to talk about human dignity, I could think of nothing less dignified than ending a proud and successful life in diapers and with your brain rotting away, making your children miserable and preventing them from reaching their full potential. 

Just want to flag the planted axioms (unstated governing assumptions) here: 

  1. A “proud and successful life” is an independent life; 
  2. Conversely, dependence on others is shameful; 
  3. To care for a person who is dependent on you is only a source of misery

Paging Leah Libresco!

What if human dignity isn’t to be found in being proudly independent, but in loving and being loved, in caring-for and being-cared-for? 

Nick Cave:

Grief can be seen as a kind of exalted state where the person who is grieving is the closest they will ever be to the fundamental essence of things. You either go under, or it changes you, or, worse, you become a small, hard thing that has contracted around an absence. Sometimes you find a grieving person constricted around the thing they have lost; they’ve become ossified and impossible to penetrate, and, well, other people go the other way, and grow open and expansive.

Arthur’s death literally changed everything for me. Absolutely everything. It made me a religious person. I am not talking about being a traditional Christian. I am not even talking about a belief in God, necessarily. It made me a religious person in the sense that I felt, on a profound level, a deep inclusion in the human predicament, and an understanding of our vulnerability and the sense that, as individuals, we are, each of us, imperilled. Each life is precarious, and some of us understand it and some don’t. I became a person after my son died.

No Other Options — The New Atlantis:

One of the greatest reasons for concern is the sheer scale of Canada’s euthanasia regime. California provides a useful point of comparison: It legalized medically assisted death the same year as Canada, 2016, and it has about the same population, just under forty million. In 2021 in California, 486 people died using the state’s assisted suicide program. In Canada in the same year, 10,064 people used MAID to die.

Important people — prominent politicians, physicians, and judges — promised Canadians that their rights to autonomy would be expanded. But the picture that emerges is not a new flowering of autonomy but the hum of an efficient engine of death. 

It is quite remarkable to hear from doctors and other medical practitioners who find great satisfaction in killing their patients. 

Space debris expert: Orbits will be lost—and people will die—later this decade | Ars Technica:

Ars: Given what has happened over the last few years and what is expected to come, do you think the activity we’re seeing in low-Earth orbit is sustainable?

Moriba Jah: My opinion is that the answer is no, it’s not sustainable. Many people don’t like this whole “tragedy of the commons” thing, but that’s exactly what I think we’re on a present course for. Near-Earth orbital space is finite. We should be treating it like a finite resource. We should be managing it holistically across countries, with coordination and planning and these sorts of things. But we don’t do that. I think it’s analogous to the early days of air traffic and even maritime and that sort of stuff. It’s like when you have a couple of boats that are coming into a place, it’s not a big deal. But when you have increased traffic, then that needs to get coordinated because everybody’s making decisions in the absence of knowing the decisions that others are making in that finite resource.

Ars: Is it possible to manage all of this traffic in low-Earth orbit?

Jah: Right now there is no coordination planning. Each country has plans in the absence of accounting for the other country’s plans. That’s part of the problem. So it doesn’t make sense. Like, if “Amberland” was the only country doing stuff in space, then maybe it’s fine. But that’s not the case. So you have more and more countries saying, “Hey, I have free and unhindered use of outer space. Nothing legally has me reporting to anybody because I’m a sovereign nation and I get to do whatever I want.” I mean, I think that’s stupid. 

It is stupid, but a familiar kind of stupid. I must have seen a dozen essays arguing that if you can find any examples of people collaborating with regard to shared goods then the tragedy of the commons argument is wrong. Which is also stupid! If we can sometimes resist the temptations to abuse any given commons, that’s not an argument that such abuse is unlikely to happen. Of course the abuse of common goods isn’t inevitable; but it is distressingly common and we should always be on the lookout for it. In space we aren’t paying sufficient attention. 

lies, yours and mine

Staying for the Truth | The Hedgehog Review:

Bacon … thinks it is good, very good indeed, to be “well fortified by doctrines of the wise” and thereby to be protected from the storms of lies that toss many people about so violently. It is indeed gratifying, Bacon says, paraphrasing Lucretius, to be “standing upon the vantage ground of truth,” because up there “the air is always clear and serene.” But, he adds, the pleasure one feels is appropriate “so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride.” If you have been able to discover something that is true, then you should have compassion for those who are laboring under the spell of falsehood. And if instead of pitying them, you mock and belittle them, then you will become swollen with pride — and then, when the lies that comfort you come around, you will be unable to resist them. 

That’s me. Let me add to the argument I make there a corollary thesis: In any given community, there will be a profound divide between those who believe that the most dangerous lies are the ones told by our enemies and those who believe that the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves

Rules: A short study of what we live by by Lorraine Daston | Book review

All history is, it would seem, the history of regulative struggles. After surveying two thousand years of western civilization, and reconstructing battles between manic regulators and recalcitrant regulatees in fields ranging from monasticism through cookery to astronomy and military tactics, Daston is able to discern a few long-term trends. In the beginning, she finds, rules tended to be “thick”, in the sense of being replete with examples, observations and exceptions; but with the passage of time they have grown thinner and thinner and are now approaching the extreme etiolation of the absolute algorithm. At the same time rules that used to be flexible have become more and more rigid, and the specificity of old-world regulations has been replaced by universality, or rather – as Daston surmises – by the pretence or illusion of it. Behind all of these changes she notices a larger one, in which rules have followed a “rough historical arc” that leads from an ancient world of “high variability, instability and unpredictability” to a modern one in which we all tend to assume, without much justification, that “the future can be reliably extrapolated from the past, standardisation ensures uniformity, and averages can be trusted”.

This is fascinating. I don’t know what to do with it, except read the book, but it’s fascinating. 

capitaltruism

Effective altruism is an admirable movement, and I hope it spreads. But one of my chief concerns about the movement is how obsessively focused it is on financial matters. The question seems always to be “Where should I put my money?” This is not surprising, since the movement is so closely associated with wealthy engineers, and more specifically with Silicon Valley, where “scaling up” is often treated as a necessity. The EA emphasis is always on measurable goods, and on “maximizing utility,” with maximization primarily defined as “numbers of people helped.” If that’s how you orient yourself, then of course you end up with longtermism, because the future gives you the requisite scale. EA is thus the most perfect distillation yet of metaphysical capitalism

So: Imagine a person who is both chronically ill and desperately lonely.

An EAer committed to longtermism would be on principle opposed to paying for the medical treatment of one person living now: that doesn’t scale and therefore doesn’t maximize utility. (I don’t think any effective altruist would disagree with this; the movement places a premium on eschewing sentimentality.) 

The matter of loneliness is more interesting. It would probably be invisible to the EAer because nothing about loneliness or human connection is easily measurable, nor obviously addressable with money. (Not that people haven’t tried.) The ill and lonely person, if given a choice, might prefer illness within a loving community to rude good health in continued isolation; but that’s not something that the EAer can readily factor in. 

But EAers need to think about this. Perhaps their monetary gifts can contribute to a future world in which disease is unknown and lifespans are dramatically extended; but what if those magnificently healthy people are miserable? What if they despise their long lives? It is certainly true that “thousands have lived without love, not one without water” — but have the loveless ones lived well?

What would EA look like if it asked not just about physical well-being but about the human need to love and be loved? For one thing, it would be less tempted by the abstractions and airy speculations of longtermism; for another, it would have to reckon with the limited power of money to address human ills. It would call into question its commitment to what Dickens, in Bleak House, called “telescopic philanthropy.” It would have to consider the possibility that the best way to ensure human flourishing in the future would be to strengthen our bonds with one another today. 

This alternate-world EA might even take as its model someone I have mentioned in an earlier post, a character from that same novel, Esther Summerson. Esther is trying to avoid being recruited by Mrs. Pardiggle, a Victorian predecessor of EA perhaps, who has a “mechanical way of taking possession of people” and wants Esther to do the same.  

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. 


P.S. Maybe, given the clear correlation between religious commitment and happiness, even in the absence of robust physical health, the best thing the altruist who wants to be truly effective could do is support religious institutions. Making them stronger today would help them to be stronger in the future, so even the longtermist could sign on to such a project. Yay utilitarianism! 

homelessness

Paul Kingsnorth:

When you can no longer grow your own wood or cut your own turf to heat your own parlour, you are made that little bit more dependent on the matrix of government, technology and commerce that has sought to transmute self-sufficiency into bondage since the time of the Luddites. The justification for this attack on family and community sufficiency changes with the times — in 17th-century England, the enclosures were justified by the need for agricultural efficiency; today they are justified by the need for energy efficiency — but the attack is always of the same nature. Each blow struck against local self-sufficiency, pride and love of place weaves another thread into the pattern which has been developing for centuries, and which is almost complete now in most affluent countries.

Kingsnorth quotes John Michell on “Fireside Wisdom”: the hearth as the center of the home, the family, and the stories that hold the family together. “Modern house-builders have given us high levels of convenience and hygiene while ignoring the psychological necessity of a focus; and through the absence of a cosmologically significant centre our minds have become unbalanced.”

This reminds me of certain passages from Albert Borgmann’s Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, especially those on what Borgmann calls “focal practices”:

To focus on something or to bring it into focus is to make it central, clear, and articulate. It is in the context of these historical and living senses of “focus” that I want to speak of focal things and practices. Wilderness on this continent, it now appears, is a focal thing. It provides a center of orientation; when we bring the surrounding technology into it, our relations to technology become clarified and well-defined. But just how strong its gathering and radiating force is requires further reflection. And surely there will be other focal things and practices: music, gardening, the culture of the table, or running. […]

We can now summarize the significance of a focal practice and say that such a practice is required to counter technology in its patterned pervasiveness and to guard focal things in their depth and integrity. Countering technology through a practice is to take account of our susceptibility to technological distraction, and it is also to engage the peculiarly human strength of comprehension, i.e., the power to take in the world in its extent and significance and to respond through an enduring commitment. Practically a focal practice comes into being through resoluteness, either an explicit resolution where one vows regularly to engage in a focal activity from this day on or in a more implicit resolve that is nurtured by a focal thing in favorable circumstances and matures into a settled custom.

In considering these practical circumstances we must acknowledge a final difference between focal practices today and their eminent pre-technological predecessors. The latter, being public and prominent, commanded elaborate social and physical settings: hierarchies, offices, ceremonies, and choirs; edifices, altars, implements, and vestments. In comparison our focal practices are humble and scattered. Sometimes they can hardly be called practices, being private and limited. Often they begin as a personal regimen and mature into a routine without ever attaining the social richness that distinguishes a practice. Given the often precarious and inchoate nature of focal practices, evidently focal things and practices, for all the splendor of their simplicity, and their fruitful opposition to technology, must be further clarified in their relation to our everyday world if they are to be seen as a foundation for the reform of technology.

Sigal Samuel at Vox:

The world has no real plan to stop the genocide underway in China. Some Uyghurs are at the point where they wish the world would just cop to that harsh fact, rather than paying lip service and raising their hopes over and over.

“We had an illusion that the world would do its best to stop China from this genocide,” said Tahir Imin, a US-based Uyghur academic who believes many of his relatives are in the camps. “But the world has no plan to stop this genocide. It’s not happening. The governments should clearly say that. Either stop the genocide — or admit you will not.” 

 Have been trying got the past couple of years to avoid buying anything made in China, because much of it is made by slave labor — but it seems that everything I might want to buy is made there. So I just have to redouble my efforts. 

I keep thinking about what the late great Paul Farmer said: “I love WL’s [White Liberals], love ’em to death. They’re on our side. But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.” 

Ken Burns’s ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ – Dara Horn:

Burns has a soft spot for Franklin and Eleanor, the subjects of one of his prior films, and here he treats them with kid gloves, blaming most of the missteps on State Department antagonists. The series makes a point of establishing the bigoted, racist atmosphere of the U.S. at the time, showing Nazi rallies in New York, clips of the popular anti-Semitic broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin, and colorized footage of a Nazi-themed summer camp in New Jersey. But the film goes out of its way to outline the pros and cons of Roosevelt’s decisions, leaving his reputation intact. To be clear, Roosevelt is an American icon and deserves to remain one. The problem with this approach is less about Roosevelt (there are plenty of convincing arguments in his favor, not least that he won the war) than about how it contradicts the rest of the film’s premise. The goal of the series is seemingly to reset America’s moral compass, using hindsight to expose the costs of being a bystander. But every bystander, including Roosevelt, can explain his choices. The film’s refusal to judge the commander in chief plays into a larger political pattern: offering generosity only toward those we admire.

Or whom we perceive to be on Our Team. The whole essay is excellent, but I especially appreciate the unpacking of this point: “Democracies, for all their strengths, are ill-equipped for identifying and responding to evil.” 

the end of The This

Start with Adam’s post about this podcast. In the podcast, Bill, Joel, and their guest Phil do a great deal to illuminate Adam’s novel The This — if you haven’t read the novel, you should, and if you have read it, you should listen to the podcast because you’ll learn a lot. I certainly did. 

(And if Adam hadn’t warned me, I would have been greatly surprised to hear my name come up in the discussion! As Phil — I think it was Phil — says, Adam and Francis Spufford and I aren’t quite an -ism but we do form a kind of “vector.” I should think more about what that vector is. All I know for sure is that I greatly value my friendship with these two and don’t think that as a writer I am worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence with them.) 

There are a thousand things I could say about The This, but for now — prompted by the podcast — I just want to talk about the brief final chapter. Because what I think is going on there is Adam playing the role of Alcibiades.

That final chapter says, 

You are an old man, living in a European city big for its era, small by later standards, a philosopher, a teacher, a student. You, a subject of the king, have made Spirit the object of your study. You, objectively, wrote a book whose subject is Spirit. The bacterium Vibrio cholera enters your system and propagates through your gut. You experience fever, shivers, severe stomach pains. There is no diarrhoea and no swelling, and initially the physicians are hopeful. But you grow iller. You vomit gall. You cannot urinate. You begin hiccuping violently. You lie in your bed, on your side, the sheets damp from your sweat. You are shaking. You cannot stop hiccuping. You stare at the wall.

The dying old man is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and here you should know two things. The first is that a very similar chapter concludes Adam’s earlier novel The Thing Itself, only in that one it’s Immanuel Kant dying. Philosophers die, just as the rest of us do. The second thing you should know is Kierkegaard’s comment that Hegel’s philosophical System is a vast magnificent castle, and he lives in a little shack just outside it. Because all of us live in those little shacks, no matter how glorious our external constructions. 

You are a man, you live a lonely life, you grow old and die. You are a man, you live a life rich with friends and lovers, you grow old and die.

You live, you die. Not another person. Nobody can die for you. You have to do this yourself. 

That’s how it is. And here’s how else it is: 

You see, love is not an abstraction. It’s not a theory or a cosmic force or a slogan or any kind of diffuseness spread across the world. Love is particular. You do not love in general, you love this person, this thing, this life, you love this, this, this, this, this, and this, and this, and this loves you back. This is the only thing in the world, and it is precise and specific and real, and it is everything and infinitude. 

Which brings us to Alcibiades. 

Plato’s Symposium, many scholars over the years have said, — well, here’s one of them, Gregory Vlastos: the “cardinal flaw in Plato’s theory” is that “it does not provide for love of whole persons, but only for love of that abstract version of persons which consists of the complex of their best qualities. This is the reason why personal affection ranks so low in Plato’s scala amoris.” But as Martha Nussbaum points out, to say this is to assume that the speech of Diotima in the Symposium, narrated by Socrates and described by him as a view that has “persuaded” him, is Plato’s view. The problem, Nussbaum says, is that that’s not a safe assumption. 

For after all the participants in this symposium (including Diotima-by-way-of-Socrates) have had their say about the nature of love, Alcibiades shows up, drunk and voluble, and he provides the dialogue’s final account. Nussbaum: “Diotima connects the love of particulars with tension, excess, and servitude; the love of a qualitatively uniform ‘sea’ with health, freedom, and creativity.” But Alcibiades says this is all horseshit. “Asked to speak about Love, Alcibiades has chosen to speak of a particular love; no definitions or explanations of the nature of anything, but just a story of a particular passion for a particular contingent individual. Asked to make a speech, he gives us the story of his own life: the understanding of eros he has achieved through his own experience.” Asked to speak about Love, that distinguished abstraction, he instead tells stories about how much he loves Socrates — and in that way gives the lie to the account of Love by which Socrates himself has been persuaded. (Alcibiades has no “account of Love” — he doesn’t think it exists.) 

Much of the The This portrays our various attempts to escape from … well, from this world, this space/time nexus, this life. Just on the pages that immediately precede the one I have quoted from we have the Hegelian Absolute, the timeless aesthetic perfection of Kubla Khan’s “stately pleasure dome,” the cyclical temporality of Joyce’s (and Vico’s) “commodious recirculation” — all ways to answer the question “Is this all there is?” with a strong firm NO. But the brief final chapter of the novel, in which Adam seems to speak in his own voice, rejects all such Systems and schemes as false comfort — or rather, as false and ultimately comfortless. What we have is not the Absolute but the This: this life, this love, and, in the end (there is an end), this death. 

My view as a Christian is, of course, that they’re all wrong. (A topic for another post, which would begin by quoting Auden’s poem “Friday’s Child.”) But Adam is less wrong than those who seek to escape the this. He sees that, if we would understand our quotidian vale of tears and our place in it, we need poems and novels — accounts of our particulars — more than we need Systems “or any kind of diffuseness spread across the world.” 

And maybe that’s the vector where Adam and Francis and I meet: Love calls us to the things of this world

another friendly reminder

Spy Vs Spy

Here’s the good news: Most Americans are not hateful conspiracy-theorists who want to destroy their wrongthinking neighbors.

Here’s the bad news: The hateful conspiracy-theorists who want to destroy their wrongthinking neighbors dominate social media – they’re on it all the time. They toil not, neither do they spin, but they never stop posting and tweeting and reposting and retweeting and shitposting and shittweeting.

And here’s more bad news: the professional media make bank by showcasing the hateful conspiracy-theorists who want to destroy their wrongthinking neighbors – and they too never stop their destructive work. There is a malice there that does not sleep.

But – finally – here’s more good news:

  1. You can stop reading Twitter and Facebook, you can stop watching TV “news,” you can stop listening to loudmouthed podcasters.
  2. You can change your news consumption to a weekly cycle rather than a daily – or hourly – one.
  3. You can spend more time with monthly or quarterly periodicals; you can read books — even old books. 
  4. You can also listen to music, ideally music not served up to you algorithmically. Buy one CD or vinyl record per month and listen to it all the way through, multiple times. Retrain your attention.
  5. Go outside as often as you can, ideally without devices. Work in the yard, or just walk around. Pause occasionally to take a few deep breaths. When you come back in, do not head straight for your device; instead, make a cup of tea, straighten your shelves, or pray.

We can do this! 

Le Guin and forgiveness

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote very few bad stories, but among those few is, surely, The Word for World is Forest. And though she never called it a bad story, she knew that in it something had gone awry. In an introduction to the novella that she wrote some years after its first publication, she explains that she wrote it in a period in which she was much occupied with organizing and participating in demonstrations “first against atomic bomb testing, then against the pursuance of the war in Vietnam.” And these were not pleasant times for her, because the protests against atomic bomb testing proved futile, and the situation in Vietnam was only getting worse, and the deterioration of that situation was accompanied by an increase in and intensification of lies from the government. She writes,

It was from such pressures, internalized, that this story resulted: forced out, in a sense, against my conscious resistance. I have said elsewhere that I never wrote a story more easily, fluently, surely – and with less pleasure.

I knew, because of the compulsive quality of the composition, that it was likely to become a preachment, and I struggled against this.

In parts of the story, and some of the characters, she feels that she succeeded in her struggle. But not in the case of the villain of the piece, a man named Davidson, a pretty transparent representative of the American military in Vietnam, just moved to a different planet. “Davidson is, though not uncomplex, pure; he is purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions. It looked into itself and produced, from itself, Captain Davidson. I do not disclaim him.”

Her refusal to “disclaim” – it’s an interesting word – a character whose over-simplicity she acknowledges is an important thing. It’s like Prospero on Caliban: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” But it’s also a way of accepting the consequences of what, elsewhere in this same introduction, she designates as the strongest imperative of the artist: freedom.

She had sought and claimed for herself artistic freedom, the liberty to raise up characters from her own mind, and having exercised that liberty, she now sees that the results are not always what she would want, are not always admirable. Well. Such is freedom’s price. In the last paragraph of her introduction, she writes:

American involvement in Vietnam is now past; the immediately intolerable pressures have shifted to other areas; and so the moralizing aspects of the story are now plainly visible. These I regret, but I do not disclaim them either. The work must stand or fall on whatever elements it preserved of the yearning that underlies all specific outrage and protest, whatever tentative outreaching it made, amidst anger and despair, toward justice, or wit, or grace, or liberty.

That’s an extraordinarily complex statement, and, moreover, one that I think is relevant to our own moment. Because what Le Guin understood, especially later in her career, looking back on her story in retrospect, is that “of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing is ever made,” and therefore one’s own work will inevitably contain the residue of one’s own unresolved internal conflicts. And she forgives herself for any impurities in the story. (It’s noteworthy that she titled a later story-suite Five Ways to Forgiveness – I should do a post on those stories at some point.)

I have said before that our society is so miserable right now because it combines judgementalism with an inability to offer or receive forgiveness, which essentially means that every error is infinitely punishable. And it also means that in such an environment there can be no artistic freedom. Le Guin believed that a society in which artistic freedom is impossible is necessarily a sick society. And she was correct. 

It’s common these days to believe that strict scrutiny — to borrow a legal term — must be applied to imaginative works to be sure that no wrongthink is published. But what if that scrutiny also impedes works of major creativity, works that enable new worlds of thought and sympathy? Unlike people on Twitter, Le Guin was an adult, and understood that every decision involves trade-offs: freedom to imagine and write and publish means that some of what is imagined and published is regrettable — even one’s own imaginings. She counted and cost, made her decision, and lived with the consequences. Like an adult.  

Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become. 

— James Baldwin, No Name in the Street 

incentives

Consider this an addendum to my recent post on an influential study of Alzheimer’s that looks to have featured manipulated data. Retraction Watch has been in business for quite some time now, and is likely to get busier because of the extra opportunities for dishonesty available through machine learning. This situation will continue to get worse until science — and academia more generally — begins to get serious about correcting its perverse incentives. Every scientist knows that certain kinds of results get (a) attention and (b) citations, resulting in (c) prestige for the researchers’ institutions and (d) promotions and raises and maybe better jobs elsewhere for the researchers. 

Again, this is a problem for all of academia: as I have written elsewhere, “the academic enterprise is not a Weberian ‘iron cage,’ it’s a cage made from a bundle of thin sticks of perverse incentives held together with a putty of bullshit.” But when the bullshit takes over the sciences, especially the health sciences, people die. The incentive structure has to change. 

All forms of privilege — including the ones I benefit from — are morally dangerous, but I think the form of privilege that does the greatest social and political damage is that of never having to live among or even talk to people who disagree with you about the Good.

Wendell Berry:

I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the necessity of getting out of movements — even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us — when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “peace movement” becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough.

And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they cannot be achieved alone. They cannot be responsibly advocated alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behavior. 

A vital reminder from Berry that all of us who want to recommend significant social change need to think economically and ecologically

two varieties of human frailty

Breaking Bad is a story about ressentiment; about a man who feels himself marginalized and neglected, powerless and ineffectual, who, therefore, cannot resist the temptation to establish himself as a Power — as a man who says, and means it: “I am the one who knocks.”

Better Call Saul dramatizes a radically different form of human frailty: the temptation of the con. The person so tempted may be socially marginal or socially dominant or something in between — though the marginal will have a few more incentives pushing them towards scamming. What’s at work here is not ressentiment but rather (a) a desire to dominate people, a desire to know what they don’t know and act on that knowledge in a way that enables you to triumph over them, and (a) the intellectual challenge of building a successful scam: the meticulous planning, the anticipation of the responses of your marks, the ability to improvise when things go wrong. What you see in Better Call Saul is, first, how the power of these two motives — the desire to dominate and the love of intellectual challenge —  vary from person to person, and within a person from moment to moment; and also the crack-like addictiveness that follows upon the running of a successful scam.

Both shows then are about extremes of human frailty — frailty become perversity, perversity become wickedness — and how inescapable the associated habits of thought and action can be.

BCS 610 GL 1019 0051 RT70 jpg

My friend Chad Holley — lawyer, teacher, writer — describing a bold pedagogical decision:

If it was sage to leave well enough alone, I slipped up last month adding Solzhenitsyn’s lecture to the syllabus of a Law and Literature course I’m teaching at a local law school. Surely now I needed some intelligible comment on it, some ready defense. At least one faculty member, after all, had pushed back against the course on grounds of, well, frivolity. Fortunately, the dean who hired me had a delightfully simple view: the course would make students better people, and better people would make better lawyers. It carried the day, who am I to quibble? But for the Solzhenitsyn piece I was on my own. In the end I muttered to myself something about it offering an aesthetic that relates literature to morality, politics, and even the global order without succumbing to the instrumentalism of the savage. Eh. Close enough for adjunct work.

But did I say I added the piece to the syllabus? Friend, I began the course with it. We introduced ourselves, shared reasons for being here, covered some ground rules. Then I said, as distracted as I sounded, “Allll righty …so …” I had not anticipated just how much respect, how much admiration, I would feel for this small, diverse, self-selected group. They had read War and Peace “twice, but in Spanish,” their families had fled Armenia to escape Stalin, they were raising children, running businesses, staffing offices, nearly every one of them holding down a full-time day job while attending law school in the evenings, on the weekends. Had I really required these serious, ass-busting, tuition-remitting people to read an essay suggesting — I could barely bring myself to mouth it — beauty will save the world? What was I going to say for this in the face of their withering skepticism, their yawn of silence? 

Read on to find out. 

the two enemies

I have come to believe that almost all of our social pathologies stem from two deeply-ingrained tendencies: 

  1. People care more about belonging to the Inner Ring than about telling the truth. Indeed, in many cases lying for the Ingroup is the best means of demonstrating one’s commitment to it. 
  2. People are presentists not just in the sense I often talk about — attending only to the stimuli the dominant media offer now — but in the sense of doing whatever offers immediate gratification and leaving the future to care for itself.  

Anyone who cares about the flourishing of our social order and of the planet needs to think about how to chip away at these tendencies — and I think “chipping away” is the best we can do. A while back I was on a Zoom call with Jonathan Haidt, and I asked him whether he thought that seeing and acknowledging the truth about one’s condition might be an evolutionarily adaptive trait. He replied that beyond some fairly low-level lizard-brain things — like seeing that that really is a bear charging at you and you had therefore better take evasive action — he thought not. For human beings, the ability to belong is more adaptive than the ability to see what’s true. 

So: these are incredibly powerful forces; none of us will ever be completely free from them, and some of us will be prisoners of them all our lives long; but their hold can be weakened, and I think constantly about how to do that — for myself first, and for others later. 

self-limitation

Here in McLennan County we’re experiencing a heat wave and a drought. Not altogether uncommon in Texas; and it will become increasingly common. We’re all being asked to reduce our water use, especially lawn irrigation, and to reduce our energy consumption in the peak afternoon hours. 

In my house, we’re doing it. (In fact, our standard thermostat settings and water usage would probably strike some of our neighbors as self-punitive.) But I wonder how many residents of the county will comply? I’d put the over/under at 3%. 

Americans in general are not good at self-limitation; and asking people to limit themselves is pretty much the only tool government has in these matters. This is the way it’s always been: you have electricity and water or you don’t. And when people have ongoing access to a resource they seem, almost inevitably, to think of that resource as infinite. 

If there’s a way to make sure that people who absolutely need electricity still get it, I’d be fine with scheduled brownouts — in fact, I think that would be good policy in times when the grid is stressed. I’m not sure what the equivalent would be for the water system; but we need something, something that will conserve resources for a people who won’t voluntarily restrain their consumption. 

David Brooks:

The great thing about humility tweets is that you’re not trying to show that you are better than anybody else. You are showing that you are a regular, normal person, despite the fact that your life is so much more fabulous than those of the people around you. You are showing the world that you haven’t let your immense achievements go to your head! You’ve remained completely egalitarian — you just happen to be a better egalitarian than most people (and you are humbled by that fact). It’s easy to be humble when you’re most people. But just think about how amazing it is to be humble when you’re as impressive as you!

Elvia Wilk:

While plants do not demonstrate ESP or identify murderers, the fact that they are to some extent sentient, communicative, and social has been borne out by lots of recent scientific research far beyond what the polygraphers of Backster’s era might have imagined. At this point we know that plants can and do communicate among themselves and with other species: in forests, trees share information through underground mycelial networks, transmitting nutrients and news of climatic conditions through veins and roots and spores. It is through plant root structures that “the most solid part of the Earth is transformed into an enormous planetary brain,” according to Emanuele Coccia in The Life of Plants.

In an essay about nonhuman sociality, the anthropologist Anna Tsing says that plants do not have “faces, nor mouths to smile and speak; it is hard to confuse their communicative and representational practices with our own. Yet their world-making activities and their freedom to act are also clear — if we allow freedom and world-making to be more than intention and planning.” Tsing points out how bizarre it is that we have long assumed plants are not social beings — and that when we try to imagine them as such, it is through anthropomorphism: they are carnivorous murderers, or kindly creatures transmitting nature’s wisdom. Either way, the extent to which the plant is social depends on the extent to which the plant can socialize on our terms, with us. Who should speak for plants? Scientists? Filmmakers? Novelists? 

Cf. this post

Leah Libresco Sargeant:

To give an honest accounting of ourselves, we must begin with our weakness and fragility. We cannot structure our politics or our society to serve a totally independent, autonomous person who never has and never will exist. Repeating that lie will leave us bereft: first, of sympathy from our friends when our physical weakness breaks the implicit promise that no one can keep, and second, of hope, when our moral weakness should lead us, like the prodigal, to rush back into the arms of the Father who remains faithful. Our present politics can only be challenged by an illiberalism that cherishes the weak and centers its policies on their needs and dignity.

css.php