return of the Dish

I’m really glad to learn that The Dish is returning — especially in a form that will allow Andrew to write fewer but longer pieces than he did in the old days, and, I trust, by such means to retain his sanity. The former Dish was pedal-to-the-metal every single day, and even Andrew, the hack than whom no sharper can be conceived, couldn’t over the long term flourish at that pace, either emotionally or intellectually.

A slower-paced Dish of his own is surely the best venue for Andrew, who is the most independent of thinkers and therefore a constant threat to the “safety” of any colleagues whose mental cabinets have just two pigeonholes, Correct people and Evil people. (Apparently at New York most of his colleagues were two-pigeonholers.) I subscribed instantly, and I know I won’t regret it.

But Andrew is not the only thoughtful and unclubbable journalist who’s going indie these days, and that poses a problem for me. In that introductory message I linked to above, Andrew mentions the similar Substack-based endeavors of Jesse Singal and Matt Taibbi, and while I think both of those guy as are superb journalists, if I were to subscribe to their work as well as Andrew’s that would cost me 150 bucks a year. I still might do it — but that’s a lot of coin for three voices.

There’s an economies-of-scale problem here. At a newspaper or magazine, writers share an editorial and technical infrastructure, so costs of production are distributed. Those who go it alone don’t get to benefit from that, and neither do their readers. So the cash outlay for those readers can escalate in a hurry.

On the other hand, it’s nice when the money you send to pay the writer actually pays the writer (minus Substack’s cut, of course). I have long wished that places like the New York Times and Washington Post had tip jars for the good writers — if I subscribed to the damned things I would have to subsidize the clueless, pompous, self-righteous, yappy-dog incompetents who dominate those once-distinguished institutions.

One hand, other hand, one hand, other hand. The work of the subscriber-supported solo practitioner doesn’t get seen by nearly as many people as something on the open web — but maybe that’s a feature rather than a bug! Fewer morons to insult you without reading what you write.

Given the hostility of our major media venues to anything that even resembles thinking, there’s no easy solution to this problem. Perhaps some kind of non-partisan, non-ideological journal of ideas will eventually emerge — Lord knows there are enough tech zillionaires to fund one — but in the meantime what does a reader do? This reader is gonna look for some fat to cut from his media budget and pay one or two more writers.

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. 

totalitarian presentism

Senator Ben Sasse doesn’t read modern fiction, only old books, and people on social media are getting seriously freaked out.

Let’s stop and think about this. Sasse’s day job requires him to spend dozens of hours a week immersed in the affairs of the moment. When he turns on his TV: affairs of the moment. When he ferries people around as an Uber driver, he hears about people’s take on the affairs of the moment. When he listens to the radio: affairs of the moment. When he’s on social media: affairs of the moment. But if, in his leisure hours, he wants to read old books, he’s THE WORST. He has committed the unpardonable sin.

It is not enough for many people that they be so utterly presentist in their sensibility that their temporal bandwidth is a nanometer wide. Everyone must share their obsession with the instant. No one may look to other times. It’s not just presentism, it’s totalitarian presentism.

Yeah, I really do need to write this book.

the call to maintenance

I’m full of ideas after reading this amazing essay by Shannon Mattern, “Maintenance and Care: Fixing a Broken World”:

In many academic disciplines and professional practices — architecture, urban studies, labor history, development economics, and the information sciences, just to name a few — maintenance has taken on new resonance as a theoretical framework, an ethos, a methodology, and a political cause. This is an exciting area of inquiry precisely because the lines between scholarship and practice are blurred. To study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance. To fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines, is an act of repair or, simply, of taking care — connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.

Mattern links to the site of The Maintainers, who set themselves in ironic opposition to “the innovators”:

“Innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

The Maintainers is a global, interdisciplinary research network that takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

This converges with David Edgerton’s marvelous book The Shock of the Old, with its account of how familiar technologies get continually renewed and repurposed, but also resonates with the great call of Tikkun olam: the repair, the renewal, the maintenance, of the world.

As a Christian and a professor of humanities, I find all this especially intriguing because it offers a subtle but vital correction to more familiar ideas of “conserving” or “upholding” a tradition. Traditions, seen from the perspective of a Maintainer, need active caring for. They must be kept in constant repair. To put them away in glass cases is to render them useless, so they must be taken out and used, but that exposes them to wear and tear to which the Maintainer must always be sensitive. They must be actively tended to, like an internal combustion engine, or a garden. There’s a whole Theory of Life here. Or my life, anyway.

excerpts from my Sent folder: on exhausted languages

What I really am, by vocation and avocation, is a historian of ideas, and when you’ve been a historian of ideas for several decades you’re bound to notice how a certain vocabulary can take over an era — and not always in a good way. Consider for instance the period of over half the 20th century in which Freudian language completely dominated humanistic discourse, despite the fact that it had no empirical support whatever and was about as wrong-headed as it is possible for a body of ideas to be. Some tiny number of people flatly rejected it, a rather larger group enthused over it, and the great majority accepted it as part of their mandatory mental furniture, like having a coffee table or refrigerator in your house. (“It’s what people do, dear.”) Eventually it passed not because it had been discredited — it had never been “credited” in the first place — but because people got tired of it.

This exhaustion of a vocabulary happens more and more quickly now thanks to the takeover of intellectual life by a university committed to novelty in scholarship. But that’s a topic for another day.

Anyway, when you do this kind of work you develop — or you damn well ought to develop — an awareness that many of our vocabularies are evanescent  because of their highly limited explanatory power. You see, in a given discipline or topic area, one vocabulary coming on as another fades away, and you don’t expect the new one to last any longer than the previous one did. I think this makes it easier for you to consider the possibility that a whole explanatory language is basically useless. But while those languages last people get profoundly attached to them and are simply unwilling to question them — they become axioms for their users — which means that conversations cease to be conversations but rather turn into endlessly iterated restatements of quasi-religious conviction. “Intersecting monologues,” as Rebecca West said.

Often when I’m grading essays, or talking to my students about their essays, I notice that a certain set of terms are functioning axiomatically for them in ways that impede actual thought. When that happens I will sometimes ask, “How would you describe your position if you couldn’t use that word?” And I try to force the same discipline on myself on those occasions (too rare of course) when I realize that I am allowing a certain set of terms to become an intellectual crutch.

Moreover, I have come to believe that when a conversation gets to the “intersecting monologue” stage, when people are just trotting out the same limited set of terms in every context, that says something about the inadequacy of the vocabulary itself. Not just its users but the vocabulary itself is proving resistant to an encounter with difference and otherness. And that’s a sign that it has lost whatever explanatory power it ever had.

I think that’s where we are in our discourse of gender. And that’s why I am strongly inclined to think that there’s nothing substantial behind that discourse, it’s just a bundle of words with no actual explanatory power. And even if that’s not the case, the only way we can free ourselves from bondage to our terministic axioms is to set them aside and try to describe the phenomena we’re interested in in wholly other terms.

This, by the way, is the origin of all great metaphors, the “metaphors we live by”: the ones that make a permanent mark on culture are the ones that arise from an awareness of how our conventional terms fail us. Those coinages are (often desperate) attempts to throw off the constricting power of those terms. It was when Darwin realized that the explanatory language of natural history had reached a dead end that he coined “natural selection,” a term whose power is so great that it is hard for most people to realize that it is after all a metaphor. Our whole discourse of gender needs Darwins who can’t bear those constrictions any more and decide to live without them. And the first term that should go, as I suggested to you earlier, is “gender” itself.