Tag: LCP


I don’t blame people for getting alarmed by stories like this one from Bari Weiss. But there’s one question that I think everyone reading such stories should ask: Will the students believe what they are taught? 

There’s plenty to be worried about in any case: the intellectual bankruptcy, the moral callousness, the preening self-righteousness of such schools’ leaders; their substitution of indoctrination for education. But much of the alarm, in some circles sheer panic, arises from the unconfronted assumption that such indoctrination works. Does it?

I don’t know, but I have my doubts. I suspect that such a system is less likely to produce True Woke Believers than to produce young people who are thoroughly cynical about education and about the dishonesty and hypocrisy of educators. And that might be a worse outcome. 

up the Amazon

I find that life is full of lines, lines I may not even know the existence of until I cross them. There’s an annoyance, say, an annoyance I can live with until one day something happens and I can’t live with it any more. The line has been crossed. Sometimes it’s not a thick clear line; it may be as thin as a hair. But once it’s crossed it’s crossed. 

Buying from Amazon has, for many years now, made me uncomfortable, but I’ve continued to do it … until now. I have had plenty of reasons to ditch Amazon — it is obviously, and in multiple ways, a predatory and intentionally unethical company — but I could never quite resist the convenience. But when Amazon decided to memory-hole a perfectly reasonable book simply because it outrages a handful of “activists” who claim — primarily on Twitter, and quite falsely — to represent all trans people, that brought me right up to the invisible line.

And then, oddly enough, the thing that pushed me across it was the deletion of Anderson’s book from AbeBooks — which is to say, Amazon decided to prevent hundreds (thousands?) of independent used bookstores who post their inventory on AbeBooks from selling When Harry Became Sally, obviously without asking those bookstores their views on the subject. 

(By the way, I don’t think the loud activists who have enlisted Amazon to act own their behalf really want to silence people like Ryan T. Anderson. The people they desperately want to muzzle are the detransitioners Anderson cites and quotes.) 

Anyway: I won’t be buying anything else from Amazon. I have canceled Amazon Prime, and the only reason I haven’t closed my account altogether is that, as Amazon helpfully explains on this page, if I did so all of my Kindle books would disappear. (I could actually strip the DRM from my older Kindle books, the ones in the .azw3 format, but as far as I can tell no one has figured out how to strip the DRM from the newer .kfx format. The various apps and sites that claim to de-DRM Kindle books are reluctant to admit this, but it’s true. Also, I could disconnect my Kindle from the internet, which would keep Amazon from erasing it, but that’s a solution that would last only as long as the Kindle itself is functional.) So I figure that if I never give Amazon any more of my money, that is a compromise I can live with. But goodness, I wish I had never bought a Kindle. 

All this is a reminder — as if we needed another one — of how deeply implicated we all are in Big Tech. There’s a new plug-in for Chrome and Firefox called Big Tech Detective that “will alert you if the website you are on is exchanging data with Big Tech by identifying and measuring connections to internet protocol (IP) addresses owned by Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.” If you have any doubts about how much of the so-called “open web” those companies control, an hour or two of using Big Tech Detective will eliminate them. 

But we’re not completely helpless. I can decline to give another penny to Amazon, and you can too. I encourage you to make your own break. It feels really good to be out of the Amazon orbit, in much the same way, interestingly enough, that it feels really good to have achieved escape velocity from the gravity well of Twitter. These days, whenever I take a look at Twitter I think, “I can’t believe I ever tweeted.” Maybe next year I’ll take a look at amazon.com and think, “I can’t believe I ever bought stuff from this place.” 

critique and myth

In a famous footnote to the Preface of his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant wrote,

Our age is the genuine age of criticism, to which everything must submit. Religion through its holiness and legislation through its majesty commonly seek to exempt themselves from it. But in this way they excite a just suspicion against themselves, and cannot lay claim to that unfeigned respect that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination.

Kant’s purpose here is to announce the sovereignty of critique, its power as a universal solvent of all claims to legitimacy and truth, and indeed the Western intellectual world for the next two centuries largely endorsed that sovereignty and paid due fealty to it.

What rational critique does above all is the dispelling of myths, and what we are seeing in America right now, as I have suggested in this essay, is a powerful restoration or recrudescence — depending on how you assess it — of mythical thinking. This is occurring chiefly among (a) the white-populist Right and (b) the black-liberationist Left, along with its various encouragers and supporters in the media and the universities.

This “return of the repressed” leads to a question, or set of questions, concerning cause and another concerning consequence:

  1. Is the return of mythical thinking a result of the failure of critique or rather its success? That is, are those now taking their bearings from coherent and compelling myths about the order of the world people who have never been exposed to, never been initiated into, the power of critique? Or are they people, or the pupils of people, who have followed critique into the moral and emotional deserts it inevitably produces and then turned away, looking for oases? Another way to put the question: Does critique when successful create the conditions for its repudiation?
  2. Is the current return to myth an evanescent or a lasting phenomenon? Are we looking at a widespread repudiation of the liberal order — of which critique, and socio-political practices related to it, like proceduralism, are essential parts — or is this moment just a temporary flare-up of impatience and frustration sparked by people who spend far too much time online? A moral panic that has come but will soon go? Perhaps the social and political structures built by liberalism are strong enough to resist the current upheavals and, over the long term, retain their power.

UPDATE: A while back I wrote, “If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kołakowski.” So I took my own advice and re-read his great essay “The Idolatry of Politics,” originally delivered as the NEH’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in 1986. It was later published in The New Republic, but I think that once-vital journal has deposited its entire history in the Memory Hole; fortunately I was able to find Kołakowski’s original typescript at the NEH website. Who says government is good for nothing?

The whole essay, which if you read actual codex books you can find in Modernity on Endless Trial, is brilliant and full of fascinating thoughts that I may well return to — it was Kołakowski who originally got me thinking about the diverse and subtle powers of myth to shape political life — but for now I want to call attention to one passage near the end of the essay. Again, remember that this was written in 1986:

In political decisions and attitudes people can appeal to the divine law, to the natural law and the theory of social contract, or to the feeling of historical continuity of which they are agents even if they revolt against it. It appears that we are about to lose all those three reference points; thus we either reduce politics to the technical rules of success or try to dissolve our existence in a mindless and fanatical devotion of one kind or another, or else we are escaping from life into drugs and other self-stunning devices. I believe that we can be cured but not painlessly.

These sentences have been proven true, in the following ways:

  1. Our culture has indeed lost the three “reference points” for thinking and acting politically, largely because of the complete abdication of social responsibility by our educational system.
  2. Some experiencing this loss have indeed taken refuge in finding “technical rules of success,” in flourishing-by-bureaucratic-regulation. The neoliberal core of the Democratic Party, and the elite universities that provide that core its ideas, take this view of the world.
  3. Others — the populist right and liberationist left I mention above — have found their compensations in “a mindless and fanatical devotion of one kind or another.”
  4. Still others, and maybe the largest number, “are escaping from life into drugs and other self-stunning devices,” the most effective of those devices being social media, television, and video games.

How can politics be done under these circumstances?

UPDATE 2: In response to a friend who asked, “Does the return of mythical thinking signify a natural recognition that something sacred must inform shared life? And can the proceduralism you long to sustain adequately honor a communal recognition of what is truly sacred?” I replied:

My answers are Yes and Definitely Not! But I would add that proceduralism is a means of reckoning with a plurality you can’t erase, not a means of honoring the sacred. Indeed, the idea that the political realm is supposed to be both the school and the panoptic enforcer of absolute values is the belief that binds Sohrab Amari and Ibram X. Kendi. They only differ on the details. 😉

I prefer a political order that is as ignorant of the sacred as it possibly can be. John Adams thought that only a virtuous people could thrive under our Constitution, but he did not think it the job of the government so constituted to make them virtuous.

And I agree 100% that critique is not what it claims to be. As MacIntyre says, it is the tradition that denounces tradition; as Gadamer says, it is constituted by a prejudice against prejudice. Its claims to be above all traditions and all prejudices constitute a self-glamorizing fiction. But my post isn’t about the fundamental character of critique, it only concerns the relationship between the reign of critique and the re-emergence of mythic thought. That said, I could have made it more clear in the post that I do not take critique at its own self-valuation, or even self-description; but many have, and their credulity has been immensely consequential for our social order.

so sue me

I have developed a theory about academic life in America today, one that started as a kind of joke but has developed into a genuinely held view. Here’s my theory: A great many university administrators want to get sued, or at least to get seriously threatened with lawsuits.

Many university administrators are under heavy, heavy pressure from politically agitated students and faculty to combat racism by introducing speech codes, implementing racial quotas in hiring, expelling noncompliant students, firing noncompliant faculty members even when they’re tenured, compelling speech in favor of their policies, and essentially creating an enormous panoptic surveillance state to discipline and punish. The whole business is logistically impossible and would be a nightmare to build and an even worse nightmare to maintain.

Fortunately for these administrators, almost all of the proposed remedies for racism are legally forbidden to public institutions, and many of them are forbidden to private ones as well. When organizations like FIRE show up to remind administrators of that, those administrators have a card to play in their tense poker game with protestors. FIRE has actually had a good deal of success in getting colleges and universities to rescind fundamentally illiberal and often illegal policies, and the success has come through meaningful threats to take the universities to court. (FIRE itself has no standing to sue, of course, but its lawyers can represent those who do have such standing.)

My theory is that many administrators love it when FIRE shows up, or when other plausible threats of legal action come across their desk. Then they can go to the protestors and say, I did everything in my power to create Social Justice U, and I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky Bill of Rights!

wokeness as Counter-Reformation

My old friend Jody Bottum thinks that the various Woke movements amount to a kind of post-Protestantism. I think this is wholly wrong. Wokeness is aspirationally Roman Catholic in its structure. It already has:

  • magisterial teaching that one must hold de fide in order to belong
  • the pronouncing of anathemas upon those who dissent from that magisterial teaching
  • a distributed Inquisition devoted to unearthing and prosecuting heresy
  • an ever-growing Index of Prohibited Books

Wokeness despises the fissiparousness of Protestantism and wants to replace it with Real, Substantial, and Visible Unity under its banner. It’s basically a secularized Counter-Reformation.

dog whistles

A friend kindly explained to me that this post was quite badly written, so I have fixed it. Sort of. 

Perhaps the most tiresome — not the worst, probably, but the most tiresome — feature of journalistic/social-media discourse today is its fervent belief in the near-universality of dog whistles. Consider, for example, the convulsive and dyspeptic responses to the letter on justice and open debate recently posted by Harper’s. No reasonable person could object to the letter’s actual statements, and so those who pretend to be reasonable don’t even try. They ignore what the letter says in order to focus on what it really and secretly means, its inner and essential nastiness and cruelty so carefully concealed by a thin veneer of decent common sense. As Sam Kriss says, this kind of exercise in the hermeneutics of suspicion is “a virulent form of paranoid signification.”

You adopt the ugliest possible interpretation of something, and then you convince yourself that it’s true. In fact, it’s not just true, it’s so shiningly, obviously true that anyone who doesn’t have your particular psychotic read on events is immediately suspect. Don’t believe Corbyn was activating secret Nazi programming implanted in people’s brains? Well, then you’re probably an antisemite yourself. Bad-faith positions are never cautious or provisional. You scream them loud to drown out the doubt inside your own head. And because the other side is screaming too, you have to pump up your agony to match their pitch. The thing spirals faster with every improvement in our communications infrastructure.

Everyone is furious and nobody really cares. Emphasis mine. Because if you really cared you’d understand that there are differences between good-faith disagreement and malicious hatred and you’d try to read carefully enough to discern those differences. I mean, there are certainly plenty of dog-whistly statements out there — POTUS specializes in them to a perhaps unprecedented degree — but there is something perverse about people who make it their default reading stance to presume hidden malice in any old text.

Reading these people puts me in mind of a sadly funny passage in C. S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy in which he’s describing one of the strongest features of his father’s personality:

It was axiomatic to my father (in theory) that nothing was said or done from an obvious motive. Hence he who in his real life was the most honorable and impulsive of men, and the easiest victim that any knave or imposter could hope to meet, became a positive Machiavel when he knitted his brows and applied to the behavior of people he had never seen the spectral and labyrinthine operation which he called “reading between the lines.” Once embarked upon that, he might make his landfall anywhere in the wide world: and always with unshakable conviction. “I see it all” — “I understand it perfectly” — “It’s as plain as a pikestaff,” he would say; and then, as we soon learned, he would believe till his dying day in some deadly quarrel, some slight, some secret sorrow or some immensely complex machination, which was not only improbable but impossible. Dissent on our part was attributed, with kindly laughter, to our innocence, gullibility, and general ignorance of life.

We can only hope that the Machiavels of this moment are even a fraction as honorable as Lewis’s father was. Not much hope of that, I fear. Albert Lewis’s practice of “reading between the lines” wasn’t founded on an unshakeable faith in his own perfect righteousness.

The point of the reading-between-the-lines is usually to discover the hidden bad motives of the people who hold a particular position — but once you have done that … so? Let’s suppose that you are absolutely correct, that you, with your profound insight and utter purity of soul, have peered into the hearts of the people who hold Position X and have genuinely discerned impurities there. Now what? Every good thing in this world, without exception, is commended by at least some people of impure motive and gross sin. Love is celebrated by the cruel, justice by the misogynist, kindness by the rapacious. No virtue or good deed is exempt from this taint, not free inquiry or free speech or free beer. Only a dimwit would think that the patronage of Bad People discredits justice or kindness or free beer themselves.

So even on its own terms, presuming bad faith is a useless exercise that typically disables you from reflecting on the validity, or otherwise, of stated claims. It shits down your own intellectual equipment. So as for me, I’ll keep trying to respond to what people actually say as opposed to what reading between the lines, AKA listening for the dog whistles, might lead me to suspect. I mean, probably Salman Rushdie signed that Harper’s letter because he just wants to protect his great fame and privilege, but there’s the tiniest sliver of possibility that he signed it because he prefers living in a society that responds to offensive speech by argument to living in one that responds by offering a rich bounty to anyone who murders him.

Freddie is right

Freddie deBoer:

So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because

social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech

. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today. Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe out political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?

You want to argue that free speech is bad, fine. You want to adopt a dominance politics that (you imagine) will result in you being the censor, fine. But just do that. Own that. Can we stop with this charade? Can we stop pretending? Can we just proceed by acknowledging what literally everyone quietly knows, which is that the dominant majority of progressive people simply don’t believe in the value of free speech anymore? Please. Let’s grow up and speak plainly, please. Let’s just grow up.

the fish in the fish store window

A writer was invited to teach a religion-and-literature course at a prestigious divinity school, but found himself rather in trouble with his students. One of the works he assigned was King Lear, and some students found it rife with “sexist language.” Another was Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and had he noticed that all of the characters were men? A third text was Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and its intrinsic racism should have been obvious.

The school was Harvard Divinity School, the professor was Frederick Buechner, and the year was 1982. He describes the experience in his memoir Telling Secrets. It all happened thirty-seven years ago, if you weren’t counting: sometimes today’s kerfuffles were also the kerfuffles of yesteryear, which more of us would know if we had some temporal bandwidth. That could help us to get some context, and a grip.

You might take Buechner’s side on all this, or you might take his students’, but in either case the really interesting thing, to me, is how much more confident those students were about their political commitments than about anything that could even half-plausibly be described as “religious belief.” Thus this memorable passage:

Harvard Divinity school was proud, and justly so, of what it called its pluralism – feminists, humanists, theists, liberation theologians, all pursuing truth together – but the price that pluralism can cost was dramatized one day in a way I have never forgotten. I had been speaking as candidly and personally as I knew how about my own faith and how I have tried over the years to express it in language. At the same time I had been trying to get the class to respond in kind. For the most part none of them were responding at all but just sitting there taking it in without saying a word. Finally I had to tell them what I thought. I said they reminded me of a lot of dead fish lying on cracked ice in a fish store window with their round blank eyes. There I was, making a fool of myself spilling out to them the secrets of my heart, and there they were, not telling me what they believed about anything beneath the level of their various causes.

And then one of his students, an African, said: “The reason I do not say anything about what I believe, is that I’m afraid it will be shot down.” But no one was afraid that their political commitments would be shot down. Perhaps — and perhaps for that reason — there wasn’t anything “beneath the level of their various causes.”

I’ll leave you with Buechner’s reflection on this exchange: “At least for a moment we all saw, I think, that the danger of pluralism is that it becomes factionalism, and that if factions grind their separate axes too vociferously, something mutual, precious, and human is in danger of being drowned out and lost.”

defilement and expulsion

A couple of years ago I wrote this:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’d like to pair that brief reflection with an essay I published around the same time, in which I made this claim: “For those who have been formed largely by the mythical core of human culture, disagreement and alternative points of view may well appear to them not as matters for rational adjudication but as defilement from which they must be cleansed.”

It is this sense of defilement that makes people want to cast out wrongdoers, to expel the contagion they carry. It seems increasingly common on the right to cast all this in Girardian terms — my friend Rod Dreher does this a lot — but that wouldn’t be quite right even if Girardian terms were valid, which they are not. (The nearly absolute uselessness of Girard’s thought is patiently and thoroughly demonstrated by Joshua Landy in this essay.) The scapegoat is by definition innocent; the malefactors our punitive society casts out are not, but their crimes are so small in comparison to their punishment that they seem like scapegoats.

But if we understand how the experience of defilement functions we will also understand its punishment. The University of Virginia has an honor code which punishes violators with the “single sanction” of expulsion: one either has honor or one does not. Similarly, the woke social order has a single sanction: either your presence does not defile me or it does, and in the latter case the response is and must be expulsion. This is what Phillip Adamo of Augsburg University learned when he used the n-word in class — or rather, quoted James Baldwin doing so. This he was removed from the class he was teaching and then suspended from all teaching, “pending the outcome of a formal review.” The separation of the source of defilement from the community must always be the first step, when one’s responses arise from what Kolakowski calls mythical core.

If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kolakowski.

Karma Police, arrest … well, pretty much everybody 

The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged. Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense. Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7. You search and search for someone Bad doing Bad Things, finding ways to indict writers and artists and ordinary people for something, anything. That movie that got popular? Give me a few hours and 800 words. I’ll get you your indictments. That’s what liberalism is, now — the search for baddies doing bad things, like little offense archaeologists, digging deeper and deeper to find out who’s Good and who’s Bad. I wonder why people run away from establishment progressivism in droves.

Planet of Cops – Freddie deBoer. (Freddie notes the omnipresent conservative cops too.) I’d suggest one slight correction, and I think it’s consistent with what Freddie says elsewhere in the essay: It’s not so much about finding out who’s Good and who’s Bad, but rather finding out who’s Bad and who has not yet been demonstrated to be Bad. Sooner or later everyone commits thoughtcrime and has to pay for it. This is the opposite of the Caucus-Race in Alice in Wonderland: there “All have won and all must have prizes”; on social media all have sinned and all must be punished.