the unpundit

In what has become a famous passage, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” My view of this matter, which is of course the correct one, is that GKC wasn’t in fact encountering people who were modest but rather people who wished to be polite. And in such circumstances “Of course I may be wrong” is easy to say — whether you believe it or not. 

Our moment is not a polite one, so rarely do I encounter even the pro forma I-may-be-wrong kind of statement. All of our politicians evidently believe that the problems they want to solve have simple solutions, solutions to which only the stupid or wicked could be blind. Whatever it is, they have an infallible plan for that. And partisans and pundits follow in the politicians’ train. (Though perhaps the politicians occupy the caboose rather than the engine.) 

What’s missing in our whole political discourse is something that Edmund Burke understood: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.” Prudence is therefore required, and discernment, and a wise balancing of acts and policies, and an awareness of how often the best-laid plans go awry. “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught à priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens: and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions.”

Politicians and pundits alike believe that it’s in their interest not to know this; and it may well be the that the series of echo-chambers that many of us live in have ensured that they genuinely don’t know it. You get the sense when you listen to Bernie Sanders that he hasn’t reflected on views other than his own in at least half-a-century. He just waits for the other person to stop talking and resumes his habitual harangue. And in this he’s not unusual. Any regular reader of any major political columnist can predict that pundit’s views on any subject — and can probably anticipate the details of how those views will be expressed.

Ross Douthat is the unpundit. You know the general tendency of his thought, of course, but you don’t know what he’s going to emphasize at any given time. That’s because he’s the most temperamentally Burkean of our political writers, always aware that “the nature of man is intricate” and that “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity.” This makes him self-reflective and self-doubting to a remarkable degree. For instance, in his new book The Decadent Society, Douthat argues that our society is far more likely to continue a long slide into acedia than to suffer a cataclysm. Then, having made that argument, he concludes: 

I think it is precisely the history-as-morality-play element in all these narratives that makes me skeptical that the catastrophe will come, or that it will come in the semipredictable high temperatures plus population imbalances plus migration equals fatal political and economic crisis that this chapter has described. But perhaps that is my own fatal participation in decadence at work — the extent to which, as a member of a decadent American conservatism, I have imbibed too much climate change skepticism over the years, and the extent to which, as a member of a decadent society, I cannot lift my eyes to see the truth: that “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” is already written on the wall. 

The interesting thing about this, to me, is that Douthat doesn’t just say “I may be wrong” but says “If I am wrong, then here are the likely reasons.” Which suggests that he has actually thought it over. Again: the unpundit. 

There are basically three stages to Douthat’s argument in The Decadent Society, and three corresponding levels of confidence. 

  1. He is quite confident that our society has descended into a decadent period. 
  2. He is pretty confident that he knows the primary causes of this decadence. 
  3. He is unsure how, or even if, we might at some point emerge from our decadent state. 

This distribution of confidence seems about right to me. 

I think everything about this book is worthy of serious consideration and debate, but I find myself meditating especially on an idea that Douthat raises near the end: 

But I would be a poor Christian if I did not conclude by noting that no civilization — not ours, not any — has thrived without a confidence that there was more to the human story than just the material world as we understand it. If we have lost that confidence in our own age, if the liberal dream of progress no less than its Christian antecedent has succumbed to a corrosive skepticism, then perhaps it is because we have reached the end of our own capacities at this stage of our history, and we need something else, something extra, that really can come only from outside our present frame of reference. “Fill the earth and subdue it,” runs one of the earliest admonitions ever given to humanity. Well, we have done so, or come close; maybe it does not fall to us to determine what comes next. 

Note the diffidence: perhaps, maybe. I can’t help thinking that this is how a conservative keeps a job at the New York Times — a more assertive character wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place, and if he had gotten it, wouldn’t have kept it — but any speculation about divine interference in human plans has to be tentative to be worthy of our attention. It’s something I hope to be discussing with some intelligent people in the coming months: What might religious revival in America look like? “Mentally modest” as always, I have to admit that I’m not sure, but I’ll say this: Given the choice between the most likely options and decadence, I’ll take decadence. 


UPDATE: Just after posting this, I came across Farhad Manjoo’s new column, which says: 

Now, I’ve been a pundit for a long time, and I learned early on not to sweat being occasionally wrong about the future. I figure if I’m not wrong sometimes, I’m probably thinking too small. What I do regret about my virus column, though, is its dripping certainty. I wasn’t just pooh-poohing the virus’s threat; using the history of two other coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, as my guide, I all but guaranteed that this one, too, would more or less fizzle out.

In retrospect, my analytical mistake is obvious, and it’s a type of error that has become all too common across media, especially commentary on television and Twitter. My mistake was that I hadn’t properly accounted for what statisticians call tail risk, or the possibility of an unexpected “black swan” event that upends historical expectation.

A projection of certainty is often a crucial part of commentary; nobody wants to listen to a wishy-washy pundit. But I worry that unwarranted certainty, and an under-appreciation of the unknown, might be our collective downfall, because it blinds us to a new dynamic governing humanity: The world is getting more complicated, and therefore less predictable.

Maybe. Or maybe it’s been too complicated for us all along, but we took great pains not to admit it. 

futurity: an Advent thought

It seems to me that most of those who don’t think Christianity is true believe that it will soon disappear from the world, or all but disappear; that the solvent of liquid modernity really is universal and will inevitably come to all the places where Christianity is now strong, from Nigeria to South Korea. Most of the Christians I talk to about such matters are naturally more hopeful, at least about the Global South. (They tend to be resigned to the marginalization of Christianity in the West.)

But what strikes me about all such expectations (hopes, fears) for the future is how short-term they are. But that’s appropriate for one of those groups only. If you think that Christianity will soon be dead then there’s no reason to think about its long-term future. But if you think Christianity will be around as long as this world lasts, then what’s your excuse for short-term thinking? 

For Western (especially American) fundamentalists that excuse has tended to be: We’re in the end times. Jesus is coming soon. People obsessed with end-times thinking see Christianity as having an even shorter lifespan than the more skeptical atheists do, though that’s only because they’re expecting the whole shebang, “the great globe itself,” to go up in flames. But if you don’t see any reason to believe that Jesus is returning in the immediate future — though of course no one knows the hour — then wouldn’t it be a useful exercise to stretch your imaginative capacities a little bit? Whatever frustrations we Christians are experiencing right now would surely look rather different, and considerably less significant, if we thought in terms of what Mikhail Bakhtin called great time. Someone should write a book called Christianity: The Next Ten Thousand Years

futurists and historians

Martin E. P. Seligman and John Tierney:

What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to “commencement” speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.

I wonder what evidence exists for the claim that “What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future.” What if we are more clever and resourceful readers of the past than other species? What if it was our singular power of retrospection that “created civilization and sustains society”? After all, while it’s true that we homo sapiens alone give commencement speeches, it’s also true that we homo sapiens alone build things like the Lincoln Memorial and inter our distinguished dead in places like Westminster Abbey. Why should the former count for more than the latter? 

In the preface to his translation of Thucydides (1629), Thomas Hobbes wrote that “the principal and proper work of history [is] to instruct and enable men, by the knowledge of actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently towards the future.” That is to say, validity of prospection depends upon accuracy of retrospection. Those who do not understand the past will not prepare themselves well for the future. Even if they read fizzy opinion pieces in the New York Times

our airport future

NewImage

Two quotes from this interview with Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon. One:

SD: The airport is where different promises of the modern world are concentrated: the promise of moving freely around the globe, the promise of unlimited shopping, the promise of a completely rational organisation and the promise of a perfect surveillance. It embodies the desire of mastering the world. Yet, it is also the place where these promises meet their limits and their contradictions.

And two: 

GW: The airport is an archetypal place, in terms of both space and behaviour. In the book, we have a chapter about what we call “Cultural LCD”, which can be defined as the Least Common Denominator of world cultures. A universal code that would be as neutral as possible, a standardized interface that allows different individuals or cultural groups to communicate with each other. However, the airport model is expanding further and further and contaminating railway stations, institutions, monuments, stadiums, concert halls, museums, international hotels, malls and urban duty-free shops, restaurants, museums, schools, universities, offices, motorway service areas, etc.

This is fascinating and … horrifying. 

the church in Imminent America

My colleague Philip Jenkins:

So just as an intellectual exercise, let’s make a bold prophecy for the 2040s or so. Imagine a near future US where a state’s population corresponds to its degree of urbanization, and thus to its relative secularity. Imagine the most thriving regions of church loyalty being concentrated strongly in The Rest, those 34 states containing thirty percent of the nation’s people, especially in the Midwest and the Upper South. The metroplexes, in contrast, are very difficult territory indeed for believers of any kind, a kind of malarial swamp of faith. A situation much like contemporary Europe, in fact.

Catholics, of course, face special issues in this Imminent America, and all depends on how far they can retain the loyalty of that very large Latino presence.

Hmm, planning a church for the hyper-urban future ….

These are enormously complex demographic issues that every thoughtful Christian should be considering. I wonder whether the existing national structure of Christian denominations can survive a future in which the 16 states of Metroplex America and the 34 states of The Rest experience greater and greater cultural divergence. It might be that the forms of faithful Christian living in the one context look very different than those in the other, even when there is substantial theological agreement. 

I’m inclined to think that every church that wants to live into the urban future should read the work of Mark Gornik, especially his book on African Christianity in New York City — an amazing tale. Very few people would believe just how many Christians there are in New York, especially (but not only) from the African diaspora. There are wonderfully thriving Christian communities that fly wholly under the radar of our cultural attention, and will probably never be noticed by the culture at large. But Christians who want to bear witness into the future ought to notice them. 

And City Seminary, of which Mark was a founder, should be observed also, especially as a model for how to train bivocational Christian leaders for a world in which full-time ministry will, in all likelihood, be rarer and rarer. 

The Event

An eye-opening post from Douglas Rushkoff, describing what happened when he was asked to give a talk about “the future of technology” — and ended up instead being peppered with questions by five high-powered hedge-fund managers:

They had come with questions of their own. They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern.

Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

What a world we live in.