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Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: LPC (page 1 of 1)

department of corrections

danah boyd: “Over the last two years, I’ve been intentionally purchasing and reading books that are banned.” The problem here is that none, literally not one, of the books on the list boyd links to have been banned. Neither have they been “censored,” which is what the article linked to says. That’s why boyd can buy and read them: because they’ve been neither banned nor censored. 

What has happened is this: Some parents want school libraries to remove from their shelves books that they (the parents) think are inappropriate for their children to read. You may think that such behavior is mean-spirited or otherwise misconceived — very often it is! — but has nothing to do with either banning or censorship. 

But, of course, the American Library Association has been quite effective in redefining the words “banning” and “censorship” to include actions that are far less drastic — less drastic and not especially common: as Micah Mattix has documented here and here, there simply is no widespread movement to keep books off school library shelves.

In a sane world, the term “ban” would be reserved for books whose sale and circulation are illegal in some given place, and “censorship” would refer to the removal, by some legal or commercial authority, of certain portions of a text or film or recording. (I say “commercial” authority because sometimes companies that own the rights to works of art decide, without legal pressure, to delete some lyrics in a song or change certain words in a book.) But thanks to people who want to smear their RCOs, it is now common to use precisely the same words to describe (a) what the nation of Iran did to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and (b) a polite letter from a parent to a school librarian asking that books that offer anatomically detailed descriptions of sexual practices not be readily available to third graders. Of course, many concerned parents are not polite, but polite letters on this topic still count, for the ALA, as a “challenge,” and the organization defines a challenge as an attempt at censorship or banning.

This failure to make elementary distinctions is neither politically nor intellectually healthy. 

I sometimes wonder whether this kerfuffle isn’t something of a smokescreen, intended to distract our attention from more serious and troubling attempts at what George Orwell called “the prevention of literature” — for instance, removing books from sale altogether, pulping offensive books, or ensuring that they aren’t published at all. (In some cases that means that the authors aren’t published at all.) You can buy books that some parents have protested; you can’t buy books that, because of political pressure, have never seen the light of day. So you know what I’m craving today? A little perspective

bureaucratic sustainability

Matt Crawford:

The example of China’s explosive growth in the last thirty years showed that capitalism can “work” without the political liberalism that was once thought to be its necessary corollary. The West seems to be arriving at the same conclusion, embracing a form of capitalism that is more tightly tied to Party purposes. But there is a crucial difference in the direction given to the economy by the party-state in the two cases. In the West, the party-state is consistently anti-productive. For example, it promotes proportional representation over competence in labor markets (affirmative action). There are probably sound reasons for doing so, all things considered, but it comes at a cost that is rarely entered into the national ledger. Less defensibly, the party-state installs a layer of political cadres in every institution (the exploding DEI bureaucracy). The mandate of these cadres is to divert time and energy to struggle sessions that serve nobody but the cadres themselves. And the Party is consistently opposed to the most efficient energy technologies that could contribute to shared prosperity (nuclear energy, as well as domestic oil and gas), preferring to direct investment to visionary energy projects. The result has been a massive transfer of wealth from consumers to Party-aligned actors. The stylized facts and preferred narratives of the Party can be maintained as “expert consensus” only by the suppression of inquiry and speech about their underlying premises. The resulting dysfunction makes the present order unsustainable. 

This is an incisive essay by Matt, as always, and I agree with almost all of it — the exception being the last sentence quoted here. It seems to me that the current system is indeed sustainable, for quite some time, at least in many arenas.

For instance, in the American university system the vast expansion of DEI apparat simply follows the previous (and not yet complete) expansion of the mental-health apparat, all of which siphons resources away from the teaching of students. But that’s okay, because almost no one — least of all students and their parents — thinks that learning is the point of university. The university is for socialization, networking, and credentialing, and I expect to see a continuing expansion of the bureaucracies that promote these imperatives and a corresponding contraction of the number of teachers. And anyway, insofar as teaching and learning remain a burdensome necessity, if an annoying one, much of that work can be outsourced to ed-teach products and, now, to chatbots

Genuine teaching and genuine learning will always go on, but for the foreseeable future it will happen at the margins of our universities or outside the universities altogether. Meanwhile, the symbolic work of the party-state will grind on, because it must

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 

Prologue to an Anti-Therapeutic, Anti-Affirmation Movement:

As a leftist, my core political assumption is that we are all responsible for each other’s material well-being, that we have a duty to build the kind of society where everyone’s basic needs are met, where everyone enjoys a certain degree of material comfort, and where our rights are respected equally regardless of race, religious, sexual and gender identity, ethnicity, or creed. That is the kind of mutual caring that I signed up for when I became politically conscious as a teenager. I never signed up for a vision of a society that helps everyone out there to constantly feel valid, mostly because society could never achieve such a thing. Nobody walks around feeling good about themselves all the time! Where on earth did people get the idea that human beings are meant to enjoy a permanent sense of mental security and social validity? That’s a totally unworkable and in fact quite cruel standard. If you want to be good to yourself, I suggest that you stop expecting society to be your therapist and go see licensed medical professionals in private to address the issues in your life that are appropriately treated that way. And if you want to be good to your society, I suggest you help to defeat the medicalization of everything, the casualization of the concept of trauma, the celebration of mental disorders, the assumption that everything that makes us unhappy is an injustice, the insistence that all conflict is abuse, and the infantilization of the human animal. That’s the best way to help. 

One of Freddie’s best posts ever. 

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.

abnegation

A brilliant, angry, nearly-despairing essay by Justin Smith-Ruiu, one that grows out of a reading of William Gaddis’s brilliant, angry, almost-completely-despairing novel JR:

Is there any more vivid expression of the reduction of lived reality to two-dimensional catchphrases than the one conveyed in a sentence beginning with, “Speaking as an X …”? Our entire social reality is built up out of catchphrases now, and the people who really ought to be criticizing this nightmarish condition have instead abnegated their duty as intellectuals and have taken on the task of enforcing the repetition of certain catchphrases and of muffling other ones. And there is really no one left to perform that last doomed heroic gesture of [Edward] Bast’s, and to force us to hear something truly beautiful through all the noise, incessant and insane, of the Discourse. […] 

In fact the sorry truth is that [mass entertainments] may well be the best thing on offer, simply because the forces that produced them have absolutely bulldozed the last surviving hopes for art as a sphere of autonomous creation. But if that’s the case, well, then at least we have an archive of how things used to be, of postmodern novels from the late twentieth century, for example, which we are still free, for now, to go back and consult at our leisure, in order to remind ourselves how irreducibly complicated, and ultimately insaisissable, artists and intellectuals once knew the world to be. 

The “gesture” he refers to in the first paragraph quoted is the great moment when Bast, a failed or anyway failing composer, tries to make JR, an 11-year-old idiot savant of finance, pause in his manic quest for cash to take just a few moments to listen to Bach’s haunting and glorious cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis. Smith-Ruiu is right to call Bast’s desperate buttonholing of JR a mere gesture, because it’s hopeless, impossible … but perhaps all the more beautiful for that. 

For a moment I thought that, in the sentence I’ve highlighted, Smith-Ruiu meant to use the word “abdicated,” but on reflection decided that “abnegated” is indeed the right word. 

Fear of a Female Body – Jill Filipovic:

I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are “deeply problematic” or event violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life — to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean — are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response. That isn’t to say that people who experience victimization or trauma should just muscle through it, or that any individual can bootstraps their way into wellbeing. It is to say, though, that in some circumstances, it is a choice to process feelings of discomfort or even offense through the language of deep emotional, spiritual, or even physical wound, and choosing to do so may make you worse off. Leaning into the language of “harm” creates and reinforces feelings of harm, and while using that language may give a person some short-term power in progressive spaces, it’s pretty bad for most people’s long-term ability to regulate their emotions, to manage inevitable adversity, and to navigate a complicated world. 

Two thoughts about this: 

Cf. Matt Yglesias’s comment: “Our educational institutions have increasingly created an environment where students are objectively incentivized to cultivate their own fragility as a power move.” This is especially true in elite institutions, and I wonder if we are approaching the point — think for instance about the recent behavior of students at Stanford’s law school — at which some organizations will begin to see a degree from an elite institution as prima facie evidence of unemployability. 

I also wonder if some on the left are beginning to perceive the problem with this power move of claiming “harm” now that — as in the situation Filipovic is commenting on — religious and social conservatives are learning how to use the same language. It’s like that moment in the Harry Potter books when Cornelius Fudge has to explain to the Prime Minister that both sides in the wizarding war can use magic. 

Stanford Law School Dean Jenny S. Martinez

I want to set expectations clearly going forward: our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not going to take the form of having the school administration announce institutional positions on a wide range of current social and political issues, make frequent institutional statements about current news events, or exclude or condemn speakers who hold views on social and political issues with whom some or even many in our community disagree. I believe that focus on these types of actions as the hallmark of an “inclusive” environment can lead to creating and enforcing an institutional orthodoxy that is not only at odds with our core commitment to academic freedom, but also that would create an echo chamber that ill prepares students to go out into and act as effective advocates in a society that disagrees about many important issues. Some students might feel that some points should not be up for argument and therefore that they should not bear the responsibility of arguing them (or even hearing arguments about them), but however appealing that position might be in some other context, it is incompatible with the training that must be delivered in a law school. Law students are entering a profession in which their job is to make arguments on behalf of clients whose very lives may depend on their professional skill. Just as doctors in training must learn to face suffering and death and respond in their professional role, lawyers in training must learn to confront injustice or views they don’t agree with and respond as attorneys.

Law is a mediating device for difference. It therefore reflects all the heat of controversy, all the pain and suffering, and all the deeply felt moral urgency of our differences in position, power, and cherished principles. Knowing all of this, I believe we cannot function as a law school from the premise that appears to have animated the disruption of Judge Duncan’s remarks — that speakers, texts, or ideas believed by some to be harmful inflict a new impermissible harm justifying a heckler’s veto simply because they are present on this campus, raised in legally protected speech, and made an object of inquiry. Naming perceived harm, exploring it, and debating solutions with people who disagree about the nature and fact of the harm or the correct solutions are the very essence of legal work. Lively, candid, civil, and evidence-based discourse in disagreement is not just positive for our community, constituted as it is in difference, it is a professional duty. Observance of this duty matters most, not least, when we are convinced that others haven’t. 

I think Dean Martinez has navigated this mine field about as well as it could be navigated, and in the process has made some vital salient points about the nature of legal education — and of true education more generally. 

the evacuation of choice

A. O. Scott’s reflection in the NYT on the video record of the horrific murder of Tyre Nichols begins with a question that in so many ways encapasulates our cultural moment: “Do you have a civic duty to watch, or a moral obligation not to?” An important question! — because it has to be one or the other, doesn’t it? 

I find myself thinking all the time — because the world I live in gives me constant cause so to think — about the moment early in The Once and Future King when Merlyn turns the Wart into an ant, and the Wart sees this inscription over the doorway to a tunnel: 

EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY 

And that’s our world, isn’t it? Everything not forbidden is compulsory. 

You can see this playing out in the Education Wars conducted especially by this nation’s three most populous states. As David French pointed out in a recent episode of the Advisory Opinions podcast, the governors and legislatures of California, Florida, and Texas are engaged in a strenuous competition to see how thoroughly they can eviscerate the First Amendment rights of their citizens — especially, though not only, in educational contexts. Within public schools at all levels, no position on the hot-button issues of our time can be left to individual or professional discretion. 

(Which, among other things, makes me grateful to be employed by a private university — where, by the way, we are also free, unlike this state’s public universities, to make our own decisions about whether people on campus can carry guns.) 

Re: Ron DeSantis in particular, I have never — literally never — seen a politician so often and so consistently lied about, by the media and by his political opponents; but whatever your views about the Woke he wants to Stop, if you think him to be a defender of academic freedom you should think again. No, he doesn’t want to prohibit the study of Black people — as lies go that’s an especially stupid one — but he certainly does have an intellectual orthodoxy he wants to enforce. And these days, who doesn’t? What he compels, others would forbid; what he forbids, others would compel. There are limits to political horseshoe theory, but this is one arena where it definitely applies. Some good things may emerge from our current culture ward unscathed, but academic freedom is highly unlikely to be one of them. 

the classics are all right

Re: the recent kerfuffle over the vandalism of Roald Dahl’s books, Walter Kirn tweeted “I ran into two used book stores today and grabbed classics like I was saving them from a fire.” In fact “the classics” are fine — they’re in the public domain and thanks to endeavors like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive they are unlikely to be disappeared or bowdlerized. If you’re worried about them, just download the ones you most care about and do what you can, when the supersensitives come with their digital X-Acto knives and their infinite smugness, to let people know how to access the originals.

Likewise, living authors are safe: the supersensitives can demand changes to their works but they don’t have to agree. And if they do agree, well, that’s their business. (But if they agree against the prickings of their conscience, shame on them.) 

No, the supersensitives have a rather narrow target: dead writers whose works are still in copyright. Those are the ones vulnerable to vandalism — by those who control the copyright. 

Twits

Thetwits

It’s been widely reported that the U.K. children’s book publisher Puffin is producing a new edition of Roald Dahl’s books with all the wrongthink – or as much of it as possible; this is Roald Dahl, after all – taken out.

Sometimes they’re editing Dahl-as-such and sometimes his characters. The gluttonous Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no longer described as “fat” but rather as “enormous,” thus leaving readers free to imagine that he’s a powerlifter in a high weight classification. Dahl himself is the insensitive one there. When a character says of another character “I’d knock her flat,” Puffin’s supersensitives replace that fierce language with “I’d give her a right talking to.” (But what if the character speaking is the type to use strong language? Or do bad things? Shall we have a version of Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov skulks around St. Petersburg fantasizing about giving his landlady a right talking to?)

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what offense the supersensitives imagine: It’s not clear that calling someone a “trickster” rather than a “saucy beast” makes an improvement in manners; what is clear is that the meaning is completely different. But: while Dahl referred to Mrs. Twit as “ugly and beastly,” she is now just called “beastly,” though I cannot imagine why calling someone a “beast” is unacceptable but calling them “beastly” is hunky-dory.

One could go on about this silliness all day, and many are doing so, but I actually think there’s an important point to be made in response to these changes: the people doing it have no right to do so. They have the legal right, but what they’re doing is morally wrong.

It’s morally wrong first of all because it’s dishonest. The books will still be sold as Roald Dahl’s – it is his name that will draw readers to these volumes – but they are in fact Dahl’s involuntary collaboration with people who find some of his words and phrases intolerable. That this is so should be announced on the book’s covers – but you may be sure that it will not be. If you own the rights to Dahl’s books but passionately believe that what Dahl wrote is too offensive for today’s readers to face, then your only honorable option is to stop selling the freakin’ books.

This may sound like an odd digression, but bear with me: I’ve been re-reading The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which Ruskin confronts the widespread practice, in the England of his time, of either dramatically renovating or tearing down old buildings.

First, Ruskin says, when a building is stripped down to its shell and given an entirely new interior, those who do it should call it what it is: destruction. “But, it is said, there may come a necessity for restoration! Granted. Look the necessity full in the face, and understand it on its own terms. It is a necessity for destruction. Accept it as such, pull the building down, throw its stones into neglected corners, make ballast of them, or mortar, if you will; but do it honestly, and do not set up a Lie in their place.” So also I say: Do not set up a Lie in place of Roald Dahl’s actual books. If they are intolerable, do not tolerate them. Let them go out of print, take the digital editions off the market, and force those of us who are bad enough to desire the books to scour second-hand bookstores for them.

But let’s pursue Ruskin’s argument a bit further. Sometimes a building is torn down altogether, razed to the very ground. What does Ruskin say about that?

Of more wanton or ignorant ravage it is vain to speak; my words will not reach those who commit them, and yet, be it heard or not, I must not leave the truth unstated, that it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them: that which they laboured for, the praise of achievement or the expression of religious feeling, or whatsoever else it might be which in those buildings they intended to be permanent, we have no right to obliterate. What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death; still less is the right to the use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors. It may hereafter be a subject of sorrow, or a cause of injury, to millions, that we have consulted our present convenience by casting down such buildings as we choose to dispense with. That sorrow, that loss, we have no right to inflict.

As astonishingly eloquent and impassioned declaration, which, in regard to architecture, one might plausibly disagree with. (Though not easily, I think. I may return to this in another post.) Buildings take up a good deal of space, and the maintenance of them can be expensive; there certainly are circumstances in which demolition is indeed necessary. Ruskin, remember, grants this point, though not without certain hedgings.

But Ruskin’s argument is irrefutable when it comes to the other arts of the past – poetry, story, music, painting, sculpture. There can be no justification for mutilating or destroying them to suit “our present convenience.” We do not know whether later generations will think as we do, will share our preferences and our sensitivities; to preserve the art of the past is to show respect not only for that past but also for our possible futures. And it is to establish a standard for how we wish to be treated by our descendants.

Even the Victorians (and some of their successors) who thought sculptures of naked men too offensive for ladies to see merely covered the pudenda with plaster leaves — the penises themselves remained untouched, for later generations, and less delicate viewers, to see if they wish. (Some years ago I published an essay on this practice — and related matters.)

Perhaps Puffin — since there’s no way in hell they’re gonna give up the chance to make bank — can provide two versions, sort of like like New Coke and Coke Classic, clearly differentiated by label. They could advertise the one and not advertise the other; they could make their preferences clear; they could say “If you are a Good Person you will purchase our sanitized versions rather than the nastiness written by Roald Dahl himself.” And then people could buy the version they want.

Wanna place bets on which version readers would choose? But I don’t think we’ll find out. The one canonical rule of the supersensitives is: The reader is always wrong. Because any genuine reader is, by definition, not a supersensitive.

2010EE4343

burn after reading

Dear colleagues, 

I must congratulate you all on what is, so far, a perfect execution of our Plan. You will recall that when we first met, more than a decade ago, we found ourselves confronted with a dramatic decline in enrollment in university humanities courses — throughout the Western world, but especially in the U.S.A. The self-declared radicals who dominated teaching in the humanistic disciplines seemed determined to alienate students as thoroughly as possible from literature, philosophy, and the arts; meanwhile, parents were frantically pushing their offspring towards courses in business and computer science. Very few young readers and thinkers could resist this double discouragement, especially since the forces doing the discouraging seemed in other respects to stand for opposing visions of what the world should be.

We quickly came to agreement on two points: first, that our chances of restoring the university humanities to their proper calling were so small that we could scarcely justify extending any efforts in that direction; and second, that in any case what matters in the long term is not the university disciplines but rather the cultural achievements that those disciplines once cared for: the novels and plays and poems, the treatises and dialogues, the sonatas and symphonies, the paintings and sculptures and beautifully designed buildings.

The key moment in our deliberations, as I recall, came when one of you reminded us of a (probably apocryphal) statement by the novelist Stendhal, who upon eating ice cream for the first time declared, “This is perfectly delicious. What a pity it isn’t forbidden.” 

What a pity it isn’t forbidden. With that thought our Plan was born. The key, we realized, was to transform the works we love from objects of praise to objects of suspicion: things that required “trigger warnings”  and deserved skeptical critique — perhaps utter denunciation for racism or homophobia or racism or ableism or … anything else we could think of. 

Of course, we had to be careful — we had to work by suggestion and implication. We thought that if we made these accusations directly and explicitly we would be laughed at. Looking back, we can see that our caution was in one sense unnecessary: in this environment, no charge against great works of art could possibly be too outrageous. Still, our caution has served us well: We whispered the quiet part, and our colleagues eagerly said the quiet part out loud. Soon enough they were pronouncing their fatwas day in and day out. 

What a pity it isn’t forbidden — the universal human desire for what we are told to hate and despise is our greatest ally. If we persist in our efforts, perhaps one day even Bach will be wholly excluded from concerts, even Shakespeare from theaters, even Homer and Dante from literature classes … and then the Renewal can at last begin. 

Yours in the Great Cause, 

Comrade Gamma 

the post-literate academy and this blog

The Post-Literate Academy – by Mary Harrington:

When it’s so difficult to imagine the academy as we know it surviving the demise of ‘deep literacy’, the prospect of a post-literate academy leaves me wondering: what will be the character of the ‘knowledge’ such an institution produces?

It’s too early to be sure, but my bet is that such ‘knowledge’ will be (indeed, already is) much more directly moral in character than the abstract, analytical, and (aspirationally at least) objectively factual ideal of ‘knowledge’ produced by the print-era university. I also think we can connect this to the profoundly religious flavour of the ‘no debate’ activism now commonplace on universities. In [an essay since paywalled], Eliza Mondegreen describes being on the receiving end of such ‘knowledge’ at a heavily protested at McGill University talk by human rights professer Robert Wintemute — a talk eventually shut down, seemingly with if not the support at least zero objection from university administrators. And it’s my contention that we should get used to it. [Here is a description of the event.] 

That is: I don’t wish to add to the usual chorus of tutting at student activist mobs here, as though these could be fixed with more ‘free speech’. On the contrary: it is my gloomy contention that the more post-literate academia becomes, the more such aggressive and intransigent mob morality will become not the exception but the norm. And there will be no fixing it, because ‘free speech’ was a print-era ideal, and that’s indisputably not where we are any more. 

I think this is right — it rhymes with my argument about the resurgence of what Kołakowski calls the “mythical core” of the social order. 

In some ways the trend Harrington describes here, however otherwise regrettable, is a corrective to a pinched, narrow, and wholly inadequate understanding of “rational” inquiry based on principles thought by such advocates to arise from the Enlightenment. (There were several Enlightenments, no one of which is wholly reconcilable with the others.) Consider this recent essay by Steven Pinker — or, for now, just one brief passage from it: 

Though each of us is blind to the flaws in our own thinking, we tend to be better at spotting the flaws in other people’s thinking, and that is a talent that institutions can put to use. An arena in which one person broaches a hypothesis and others can evaluate it makes us more rational collectively than any of us is individually. 

Examples of these rationality-promoting institutions include science, with its demands for empirical testing and peer review; democratic governance, with its checks and balances and freedom of speech and the press; journalism, with its demands for editing and fact-checking; and the judiciary, with its adversarial proceedings. 

This all sounds lovely, but the peer-review system is fundamentally broken; the only thing that any journalistic outlet does reliably well is to point to the ways that other journalistic outlets don’t edit or fact-check; many institutions of representative democracy (the U.S. Congress, the U.K. Parliament) have effectively abandoned their responsibilities; and the Federal judiciary is widely believed to be made up of politicians in robes.

Whether things are quite as bad as the linked stories indicate may be debated, but that the public doesn’t trust any of these institutions is unquestionable. That’s at least in part because the public knows the truth one of the great maxims of the Enlightenment (that movement that Pinker claims to be a spokesman for): “Of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” You don’t have to be a fully-paid-up member of the Critical Theory Brigade to suspect that appeals to disinterested rational inquiry are often thinly disguised schemes by certain people to retain institutional and cultural power. 

But then, so also are the campaigns of what I call Left Purity Culture. I don’t know how you would decide whether our institutions — and especially our academic institutions, which I’m especially concerned with in this post and elsewhere — are worse when they adopt (a) a simplistic model of rational truth-seeking or (b) a simplistic model of myth-driven advocacy for supposed social justice. I certainly can’t decide. But my task here, on this blog, seems to me the same either way. If you don’t know what that is, I’ve described it in the following posts: 

And these posts also explain why this blog’s motto is “More lighting of candles, less cursing the darkness”: While some self-appointed instruments of Justice are hard at work extinguishing the candles of culture and art, while self-appointed custodians of Reason are screaming their denunciations of the destroyers, it often seems to be that there aren’t enough people cupping their hands around the candles that remain to keep them lit. So that’s my job here. 

And it’s worth remembering another point. In two of those posts I quote a passage from one of Tom Stoppard’s plays commending a certain kind of trust: trust that those who come after us will pick up and carry further what we have left behind. Most of our institutions, and above all the great majority of our academic institutions, have rejected the very idea of cultural preservation and transmission. They are occupied and dominated by consumers and destroyers; and precisely the same is true of the shouting, slavering haters who call themselves conservatives. They conserve nothing; none of these people, putatively Left or putatively Right, preserve anything, nor do they build and repair.

But we have so, so many artists — writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, architects — who have left us a wonderful inheritance; and many who even today are adding to that inheritance. At the very least we have to be sure that that inheritance doesn’t stop with us. Perhaps our circumstances militate against greatness in art; but we can do our part to make greatness possible again when the times are less craven.  

Dominic Sandbrook:

There’s no way our podcast, presented by two white Oxbridge-educated middle-aged men, would be commissioned by the BBC these days. Instead of just letting us talk, they would bring in some alleged comedian to make it ‘accessible’ to younger audiences.

And not a single week would pass without the appearance of some ultra-woke U.S. academic to lecture us about slavery or to flagellate us about the imagined sins of the British Empire.

The great irony is that while the average age of Radio 4 listeners is 56, more than half of our listeners are under 34. So if the BBC want to know what’s happened to its younger audience, the answer is that they have signed up to The Rest Is History.

That’s about the size of it.

Matt Crawford:

There appears to be a circle of mutual support between political correctness, technocratic administration, and the bloated educational machinery. Because smartness (as indicated by educational credentials) confers title to rule in a technocratic regime, the ruling class adopts a distinctly cognitivist view: virtue does not consist of anything you do or don’t do, it consists of having the correct opinions. This is attractive, as one may then exempt oneself from the high-minded policies one inflicts upon everyone else. For example, the state schools are turned into laboratories of grievance-based social engineering, with generally disastrous effects, but you send your own children to expensive private schools. You can de-legitimise the police out of a professed concern for black people, and the explosion of murder will be confined to black parts of the city you never see, and journalists are not interested in. In this way, you can be magnanimous while avoiding the moral pollution and that comes from noticing reality. 

I keep thinking about this piece Matt wrote two years ago, especially its conclusion: “If the ideal of a de-moralised public sphere was a signature aspiration of liberal secularism, it seems we have entered a post-secular age. Populism happened because it became widely noticed that we have transitioned from a liberal society to something that more closely resembles a corrupt theocracy.” 

defilement redux

What the Hell Happened to PayPal?:

Increasingly, it is becoming a police officer. It is deciding what is right and wrong, who gets to be heard, who is silenced. It is locking out of the financial system those people or brands that have slipped outside the parameters of acceptable discourse, those who threaten the consensus of the gatekeepers. The consensus is hard to articulate; it is an ideology lacking clearly defined ideological contours. But the tenets of that consensus are unmistakable: the new progressive politics around race and gender are a force for good, the Covid lockdown was just, the war in Ukraine is noble, and an unfettered exchange of ideas and opinions is an unacceptable threat to all of the above. 

An obvious point, but one worth making: We tend to think of social-credit systems as the province of governments, but the big American tech companies are right now imposing their own such system — and in some ways are better placed to do it than our government would be. 

As I have been saying for several years now, the “ideology [is] lacking clearly defined ideological contours” because it’s not an ideology, it’s a feeling of defilement and a consequent need to be purified, cleansed. I should do a long readthrough here on the blog of Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil…. 

why liberals should read smart conservatives

Liberals should read smart conservatives not because they need to be convinced by conservative arguments — though let’s face it, sometimes they do — but rather because conservatives frame issues differently than liberals do. They describe the conditions of history, and the circumstances of our debates, in a language that’s strange to liberals. And dealing with these alternative framings can be very clarifying indeed. 

An example: in The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties Christopher Caldwell argues that the grief over the assassination of President Kennedy led to more sweeping legislation than JFK himself would have dared to pursue: “A welfare state expanded by Medicare and Medicaid, the vast mobilization of young men to fight the Vietnam War, but, above all, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts — these were all memorials to a slain ruler, resolved in haste over a few months in 1964 and 1965 by a people undergoing a delirium of national grief.” And he then claims that this set in motion a dramatic transformation of the American legal and political order — a transformation that we have inherited: 

The changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core, were not just a major new element in the Constitution. They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible — and the incompatibility would worsen as the civil rights regime was built out. Much of what we have called “polarization” or “incivility” in recent years is something more grave — it is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation. The increasing necessity that citizens choose between these two orders, and the poisonous conflict into which it ultimately drove the country, is what this book describes.

Now, it is probably true that only someone who questions the wisdom of “the de facto constitution of 1964” would frame our recent history in this way; but it is certainly true that this framing is powerfully illuminating: it yields insight into both the nature and the intensity of our current political differences. You may not interpret or judge those differences as Caldwell does, but even so, he has presented their causes in ways that ought to earn your assent. 

Another example: Mary Harrington is not just a conservative, she is a self-described reactionary. But some of her recent work is, like that of Caldwell, extremely useful, especially her argument — in, for instance, this essay, which has many links to her earlier work — that what I have called Left Purity Culture (see the LPC tag at the bottom of this post) operates as a kind of de-personalized and even de-humanized swarm. And in certain recent controversies, especially the ones involving Twitter, that swarm is confronted by a version of what she calls Caesarism: 

The Biden administration is fond of talking about “democracy” versus “autocracy”, but it might be more accurate to talk about swarmism and Caesarism. Swarmism is a kind of post-democratic democracy: a mutant form of liberal proceduralism, characterised by collective decision-making in which no one is ever individually accountable. Instead, consequential decisions are as far as possible pushed out to supposedly neutral procedures or even machines. When NGO officials whom you can’t vote out of your political ecosystem talk about “our democracy”, they’re talking about swarmism.

Caesarism, on the other hand, looks substantially the same at lower levels. The main difference is that you get named humans in key decision-making roles — complete with human partiality, eccentricity, and occasional fallibility. Twitter was, until recently, a key vector of elite swarmism. And to swarmists, such rule by a named individual, rather than a collective and some committee-generated “guidelines”, is by definition morally wrong. This core assumption oozes, for example, from this report on the takeover, with its empathetic depiction of the anonymous, collegiate collective of sacked Trust and Safety workers sharply contrasted with the autocratic, erratic individual Elon Musk. 

This, like Caldwell’s framing of American history since the 1960s, is not just interesting but useful. It helps me to think about the structure, as it were, of the debates over Twitter. Now, I might prefer a swarm to a Caesar — and Harrington herself doesn’t see anyone to support here: “I’m not cheerleading for Musk as Caesar. Just because I dislike faceless proceduralism doesn’t mean I have much appetite to see political authority gathered into the mercurial hands of a transhumanist billionaire who wants to implant microchips in human brains.” But whether you take the swarm’s side or Caesar’s side or no side at all, this is a very helpful way of describing the conflict, and is a description that neither a a swarmist nor a Caesarist would have been likely to discern. 

a parable

Almost all of Tolstoy’s early stories were published by a journal called The Contemporary. Some of them focused on the miseries — and also the human dignity — of the serfs, whose emancipation Tolstoy fervently advocated. (Indeed, he freed his own serfs — he was a nobleman and a landowner — some time before universal emancipation was proclaimed by Tsar Alexander.) But The Contemporary fell under the influence of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who, while praising Tolstoy’s ability, chastised him for being insufficiently devoted to the most radical political positions. Tolstoy, unwilling to alter his writing to conform to Chernyshevsky’s demands for political purity, took his work elsewhere and became, along with his contemporary Dostoevsky, one of the two greatest writers of the nineteenth century. Chernyshevsky, meanwhile, took over The Contemporary and banished all writers who did not conform to his political preferences; after his death, though he was always a clunking and tub-thumping writer, he became a great influence — perhaps the greatest single influence — on V. I. Lenin. 

two quotations on memory holes, present and future

Peering down the Memory Hole: Censorship, Digitization, and the Fragility of Our Knowledge Base | The American Historical Review:

Abstract

Technological and economic forces are radically restructuring our ecosystem of knowledge, and opening our information space increasingly to forms of digital disruption and manipulation that are scalable, difficult to detect, and corrosive of the trust upon which vigorous scholarship and liberal democratic practice depend. Using an illustrative case from China, this article shows how a determined actor can exploit those vulnerabilities to tamper dynamically with the historical record. Briefly, Chinese knowledge platforms comparable to JSTOR are stealthily redacting their holdings, and globalizing historical narratives that have been sanitized to serve present political purposes. Using qualitative and computational methods, this article documents a sample of that censorship, reverse-engineers the logic behind it, and analyzes its discursive impact. Finally, the article demonstrates that machine learning models can now accurately reproduce the choices made by human censors, and warns that we are on the cusp of a new, algorithmic paradigm of information control and censorship that poses an existential threat to the foundations of all empirically grounded disciplines. At a time of ascendant illiberalism around the world, robust, collective safeguards are urgently required to defend the integrity of our source base, and the knowledge we derive from it. 

Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans — Nature

Advancing knowledge and understanding is a public good and, as such, a key benefit of research, even when the research in question does not have an obvious, immediate, or direct application. Although the pursuit of knowledge is a fundamental public good, considerations of harm can occasionally supersede the goal of seeking or sharing new knowledge, and a decision not to undertake or not to publish a project may be warranted.

Consideration of risks and benefits (above and beyond any institutional ethics review) underlies the editorial process of all forms of scholarly communication in our publications. Editors consider harms that might result from the publication of a piece of scholarly communication, may seek external guidance on such potential risks of harm as part of the editorial process, and in cases of substantial risk of harm that outweighs any potential benefits, may decline publication (or correct, retract, remove or otherwise amend already published content)

(N.B.: Nature’s policy does not address misinformation: the journal does not propose to be vigilant against falsehood, but rather to be vigilant against actual knowledge that risks harm to … well, to whatever groups Nature prefers to see unharmed.) 

liberalism vs. centrism, adjacency and action

I’ve written often about philosophical liberalism on this blog, because I have a complicated relationship to it. On the one hand, like John Milton, I don’t believe most of the things that philosophical liberals believe. On the other hand, it’s clear that at least some of the common critiques of liberalism fail to account for the complexity of the views of the smartest liberals, especially John Stuart Mill. Also, while the idea that liberalism provides a “level playing field” for all is and always has been a fiction, I believe that a more level playing field is something worth striving for, and that the current tendency among many Americans to make illiberal power grabs, or anyway to fantasize such power grabs, on the grounds that “politics ain’t beanbag,” is regrettable and makes me nostalgic for liberal proceduralism

When people stop wanting a level playing field, they opt for a more confrontational model of politics — but there are several such models on offer, or perhaps it would be better to say that there are several kinds of confrontational practices, from the snarky to the murderous. In a new essay at the Hog Blog, I have tried to offer a taxonomy of those confrontational practices, and a suggestion that those of us who would like to see a lowering in our current level of toxicity should probably focus our attention on the people whose behavior is closest to our own. Adjacency as a guide to action. 

Let me add to this gumbo one more idea — one that I should probably develop further at some point. 

I often hear it said that people who reject illiberalism (of the right and the left, insofar as those terms have any meaning today) and who are committed to proceduralism are “centrists,” and while that might often be the case, it’s isn’t necessarily. I do not consider myself a centrist — indeed, my recent move towards anarchism (about which I’d like to say more, but I have to wait until my essay on the subject comes out) takes me considerably farther from the “center” of the current system than the Left Purity Cultists or the MAGA-heads, both of whom basically just want Management to take their side. There’s a simple distinction between ends and means at work here: the political ends I envision are pretty radical, but the means by which I hope to achieve them are peaceable and centered on persuasion, fair-mindedness, respect for the integrity of my political opponents, even charity. By contrast, the illiberals of left and right want to employ drastic means, but their ends would leave transnational capitalism securely in place. They’d just have managed to climb the greasy pole to the top; I’d like to take down the pole. 

Sam Adler-Bell:

Of course, many good ideas, theories of change, and histories of oppression and struggle have been generated on campuses. The wider dissemination of such stories has been a salutary hallmark of our era. I, myself, am a beneficiary of a radical education. But I have had to unlearn many of the ways of speaking I cultivated as a student radical in order to be more convincing and compelling off campus. The obligation to speak to non-radicals, the unconverted, is the obligation of all radicals, and it’s a skill that is not only undervalued but perhaps hindered by a left-wing university education. Learning through participation in collective struggle how the language of socialism, feminism, and racial justice sound, how to speak them legibly to unlike audiences, and how others express their experiences of exploitation, oppression, and exclusion — that is our task. It is quite different from learning to talk about socialism in a community of graduate students and professors.

self-Haysing

As Nikil Saval pointed out some years ago, “The arc of scientific management is long, but it bends towards self-Taylorizing.” (See further development of these ideas in this essay by Alexa Hazel, and a few comments by me, on related matters, here.)  

I might coin an analogous phrase: The arc of creative product development is long, but it bends towards self-Haysing. 

Thou Shalt Not Whitey Schafer 1940

For several decades the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, governed what could and could not be shown in movies. I was thinking of it the other day while watching Ernst Lubitsch’s glorious Trouble in Paradise (1932), made just pre-Code and therefore full of Inappropriate Content.

A very funny moment early on comes when the two thieves-pretending-to-be-aristocrats, played by Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall, are having dinner together and gradually revealing what they’ve pinched from each other. He returns her brooch; she returns his watch. They resume their meal and then after a moment he says, “I hope you don’t mind if I keep your garter.” Her eyes widen and her hand inspects her leg as he displays the garter, kisses it tenderly, and replaces it in his pocket. 

Trouble 1200 1200 675 675 crop 000000

The Hays Code did away with such immoralities. Eventually it was repealed in favor of our current movie rating system, and now we can have anything, right? Right? Well…. 

Alan Rome has a fine essay in The New Atlantis on recent developments in the Star Trek world in which he points out that earlier installments in the series were governed by a kind of liberal idealism: “In Star Trek’s future, the United Federation of Planets is a liberal-democratic regime encompassing hundreds of different alien species, all devoted to peace, freedom, and equality. The Federation is the United Nations writ galactic, led by an Americanized humanity.” But more recently it has become necessary to cast strong doubt on all that nonsense: “Government is somehow both the only possible guarantor of justice and also structurally implicated in all social evils. The current system is therefore illegitimate and needs to be dismantled in favor of some sort of utopian solution.” That no one seems to know what that Utopia might look like is another of Rome’s points, but for now I just want to focus on the fact that a series like Picard cannot do anything but portray any existing social system as hypocritical, complicit in oppression, structurally unjust, etc. etc. That’s intrinsic to the Code. 

As Foucault spent his career demonstrating: Written Codes are strong, but Codes unwritten are stronger. And I don’t think I need to list the ways in which recent movies and TV shows have exhibited a frantic determination to depict all that Must Be Shown and to refrain from depicting all that Must Not Be Shown. I also don’t think I have to list the ways in which this kind of manaical ticking of checkboxes inhibits creativity. It’s self-Haysing: disciplining yourself in order to avoid being disciplined by others, and that’s always kind of pathetic. No need to belabor this point. I just want to make a few others: 

  1. Whether written or unwritten, Codes are always present, though some periods (like our own) are more prone to code fetishizing than others;
  2. While you will surely approve of some Codes and disapprove of others, they always inhibit creativity; 
  3. But they also inspire creativity, because real artists look for ways to evade the force of Codes or, through jujitsu moves, use them to advantage; 
  4. Figuring out whether in any given case a Code is more productive than destructive is not easy, though as a general rule, the more feverishly people strive to enforce a Code the more destructive it is; 
  5. And, finally, if you don’t like what the current Code is doing to movies and TV, there’s a vast body of work out there that you’ll like better.

I don’t know why people think it’s so important that there are always new products being developed that will suit them. If there’s one thing that our current moment does well, it’s to make available to us the great cultural achievements of the past, in multiple forms and formats. If I don’t like Old Disney, there’s Woke Disney; if I don’t like Woke Disney, there’s Old Disney. Break bread with the dead, is what I say. (But also maybe stock up, just in case.) 

unified

Czeslaw Milosz, from Unattainable Earth (1987):

I don’t like the Western way of thinking. I could say: the way Western intellectuals think, but then I would pass over the transformation that has occurred during the last few decades. And the transformation (not a sudden one, though suddenly present, like pubescence or senility) consists in the disappearance of a distinction between the enlightened — the knowledgeable, the progressive, the mentally liberated — and the so-called masses. That great schism has ended and we are returned to a unified world view, as was the case in the Middle Ages when a theologian, a cooper and a field hand believed the same things. Schools, television and newspapers have allied themselves to turn minds in the direction desired by the liberal intelligentsia, and so the victory came: an image of the world which is in force for all of us, under a penalty equivalent to the ancient penalties of pillory and stake: that is, ridicule.

Indeed, this project of unification, and ridicule for dissent, continued and, thanks to the panopticon of social media, intensified. But the attempt to impose Left Purity Culture seems finally to have generated a significant resistance, on several fronts.

Still, for “the knowledgeable, the progressive, the mentally liberated,” is this really such a bad thing? As long as they control the levers of cultural and economic power, isn’t it kind of nice to have the canaille to despise? Especially since, as I have often noted, the primary point of any purity culture is not to achieve specific social or political or moral goals, but to enforce ritual gestures that clearly distinguish those Inside from those Outside. Distinctions for the sake of tribalism simpliciter, not in service to any perceived good.

Thus Freddie deBoer’s recent post on definitional collapse:

Our moment is one in which anything is possible because nothing means anything. Every last set of orienting principles in politics is being dissolved in the acid bath of culture war, before our very eyes. I am telling you: never in my lifetime have political terms meant less. You can easily imagine a world where vaccine skepticism was left-coded — indeed, in the Trump years it was! — but in this particular reality your thoughts on vaccines overrule your feelings about the means of production. That condition is the product of pure contingency, chance; there is no a priori reason the left-of-center would treat vaccination status as a definitional landmark. But right now that is what yelling people yell about, and there is no ideology anymore, no ideas, only Yooks and Zooks.

In other words there is a vacuum of meaning, in our politics, and the really scary question is what will fill it.

What will happen if we get a genuine strongman, of the Right or the Left — that is, a politician shrewd and competent enough to stimulate and direct the forces of tribalism, and to put the government in service to those forces? (Trump sort of wanted to do this but wasn’t smart or focused enough.) We may ultimately be grateful for social media as an outlet for both ressentiment and bullying — people absorbed by fighting online may not have the time or energy for meaningful political action — but if a strongman ever takes over this country, I, like Freddie, doubt that more than a tiny minority of people will be capable of meaningful (as opposed to merely symbolic) resistance.

A fantastic point by my friend Noah Millman in response to the question of whether Pulp Fiction could be made today:

The answer is of course not. You couldn’t make Pulp Fiction today. You also couldn’t make Dumbo, a film I adore far more. But you also couldn’t make Blazing Saddles. Indeed, you couldn’t make The Wizard of Oz or The Philadelphia Story or Ghostbusters or whatever other movies you love from the past, because they are rooted in the past. The reason not to bowdlerize these films is precisely that we can’t make them anymore. To “fix” them we’d have to be able to make them from scratch, as wonderfully as they did then, and we can’t. The best proof is that we do keep trying to remake them, and the results are usually terrible. 

Read on for further wisdom from Noah. 

Alan Shapiro:

For good or ill, I have spent more time reading and writing poetry than doing anything else in my roughly three score and ten years of life. My poets, the poets I have grown to love, have become my second family, the family I chose; they constitute the better part of who I am. Diverse as this family is in language, gender, and race, it is still primarily (though not exclusively) a family of white Christian men and white pagan men. Some of them did terrible things off the page; some of them were fascists or fascist sympathizers. Some were spies. Some of them abused or neglected wives and children; some were mentally unstable. Many of them were drunks, perverts, drug addicts, sex addicts, sadists, brownnosers, backbiters. Some, furthermore, were colonialists, slave traders, slave owners. Some were themselves enslaved, or had once been slaves. Most were certainly anti-Semitic. Off the page, I probably would have detested them, and I have no doubt they would have detested me. But on the page they are guardian angels, beloved spirits, the most intimate and generous of guides. What they at their best have taught me is that the gold of the work is not reducible to the shit of the life. And that even the “wokest” of minds can never entirely escape the moral limits of their time and place. The miracle is what still manages to reach us, move us, expanding our understanding of what it means to be alive through someone else’s lived experience, not just despite our differences, but maybe, too, because of them.

touch not the unclean thing

I pay for four Substack newsletters, but am on the free tier for several others, and the writers I follow who are huffily declaring their departure from Substack because Substack will tolerate [insert taboo object here] perfectly illustrate Left Purity Culture. What’s sad/funny about this is that the platforms they are decamping for are no more pure than Substack. (You think no right-wingers use Tinyletter? Also: You’re announcing your purgative action … on Twitter? Wow, you can’t get more ideologically pure than that.) It’s a useful reminder that ritual cleanliness bears no resemblance to actual cleanliness. It’s just a matter of making the approved gestures. But it may have the self-fulfilling prophecy effect: Eventually the claim that “Substack is just a venue for right-wingers” may be largely true.

Left Purity Culture

Like many other people, I’m not happy with the terms “woke” and “wokeness,” but I haven’t been sure what a good alternative is. Then, just the other day, as I was reading a few of the thousands of op-eds that have recently been written about Christian “purity culture,” I realized that what people typically call “woke” culture is really a different sort of purity culture, one for the secular left. Just as the messages of Christian purity culture are

  • that you must be eternally vigilant in maintaining your purity;
  • that you must sign up to pledges of purity;
  • that you must denounce and separate yourself from those who are impure;
  • that if you lose your purity you can never get it back, your defilement marks you forever;

— well, the parallels are more than obvious. So instead of “wokeness” I will from now on refer to Left Purity Culture (LPC). I’ve altered the relevant tags for this blog accordingly.

UPDATE: My friend Brad East points out that his colleague Richard Beck wrote six years ago — as a self-described progressive Christian — about “The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity.” It’s a really interesting post, and there’s an equally interesting follow-up.

stocking up

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has a problem. Their business depends almost wholly on showing movies from the pre-woke world — movies that cannot possibly survive the strict moral scrutiny to which our major media institutions now must subject all artworks. So what to do? Well, show the movies but tag them as problematic; acknowledge the difficulties but try to defend the films anyway. We’ll see how that strategy works out. 

As I have said on a number of occasions, I think LPC (Left Purity Culture) will burn itself out, as it always does. In the end, when there’s no one left to execute, Robespierre has to guillotine the executioner: 

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But who knows when that day will come? Meanwhile, I realized after I read the stories I link to above, I don’t have my own copy of John Ford’s The Searchers — I had better remedy that deficiency. 

I’m also going to make a list of (a) great films that (b) I do not own and that (c) Amazon and other guardians of the virtue of late capitalism may decide to blackball. Then I’m going to buy one of them each month. 

katharsis culture

A great many people have criticized the use of the term “cancel culture,” but have done so for different reasons. One group of people simply wants to deny that cancellation is a widespread phenomenon; others are aware that something is going on but don’t think that “cancellation” is the right way to describe it. I myself don’t have a problem with the use of the phrase, but I think there are more accurate ways of describing the very real phenomenon to which that phrase points. I think the two key concepts for understanding what is happening are katharsis and broken-windows policing.

In an essay that I published a few years ago, I talked about the prevalence among those committed to social justice, especially on our university campuses, of a sense of defilement. The very presence in one’s social world of people who hold fundamentally wrong ideas about race and justice is felt as a stain that must somehow be scrubbed away. As long as such people are present, one experiences akatharsia: impurity, defilement. The filth must be cleansed, the community must be purged. (I’m choosing the spelling “katharsis” rather than “catharsis” to focus on this archaic meaning.)

This kind of thing is sometimes referred to as scapegoating, but it isn’t, not at all. Essential to scapegoating is the belief that the unclean social order can be made clean by casting out or sacrificing something that is itself pure and undefiled. In the cases I am discussing here, the logic is more straightforward: the one who is perceived to bring the defilement must himself or herself be expelled. Scapegoat rituals have a complex symbolism. Katharsis culture doesn’t.

Now, such katharsis may be accomplished in several ways. Sometimes it involves actions for which the term “cancellation” is the best one: an announced lecture is canceled and the lecturer disinvited, or a television program that had been scheduled is canceled. But katharsis takes many other forms. For instance, James Bennet had to be fired from the New York Times because by authorizing an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton in the newspaper he had defiled its pages. The op-ed itself could not be erased, so, through a compensatory kathartic action, Bennet had to be removed.

Our society has largely forgotten the symbolism of defilement and purgation, so we don’t know how to call it by its proper name. When people feel that they have been defiled, what they say is that they feel unsafe. Everyone knows that such people are not in any meaningful sense unsafe; it is a singularly inapt word; but people use it because living in a publicly disenchanted world has deprived them of the more accurate language.

All this explains why Ben Dreyfuss’s preference for the language of “snitching” is not especially helpful. But that word does capture something relevant, which is the way that katharsis culture always involves appeals to authority: rarely do we see attempts at direct action against the sources of defilement — which is good, because that would require the more drastic and clearly illegal actions we saw on January 6 in Washington D.C. Rather, the existing authorities are asked to assume a sacral role and to enact the necessary purging. This return of archaic religious impulse, then, serves to reinforce existing power structures rather than to undermine them, which is why so many leaders accede to the demands of the mob: it’s good for their authority, it establishes them more firmly in place. And also, like George Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant,” they are being driven by the mob which they may seem to be leading, and in the eyes of that mob they can’t bear looking like fools. Thus they are doubly incentivized to carry out the sacral duties of their leadership position.

But there is another element to this behavior that likewise could be described in religious terms but might be more easily graspable if a more mundane analogy is invoked. Those who demand the expulsion from their community, whatever they perceive their community to be, of the producers of defilement do not just address their acts to the presently guilty: they seek to address all of us as well. The message is: Our vigilance is constant and you cannot hope to escape our surveillance. No matter how small or insignificant you are, we will find you and we will punish you. This ceaseless surveillance of public space by self-appointed cops, then, is a kind of broken-windows policing. It’s a way of letting everybody know that the space is watched, the spaces cared for. If trivial offenses are so strictly punished, more serious violators have no hope of escaping undetected.

In this sense, the hyperaggressive and absolutist pursuit of purging the unclean thing – no one ever thinks it adequate for people like James Bennet to be to apologize or to take a leave of absence or even to undergo anti-bias training, they’re always given the ultimate punishment possible – is meant less for the offender of the moment then for all the bystanders: thus Voltaire’s famous line about the British Navy hanging admirals pour encourager les autres. You can see, then, that what I’m calling katharsis culture has a double character, the sacral and the disciplinary. We are all invited to look upon the holy rite — to look, and to tremble.

“the corporate monster is always the corporate monster”

That’s the basic idea, that power is power always and that it’s exceedingly unwise to presume that power stops being power when you want to access it. So take student protesters. When they go begging to the campus administration to solve their problems, they are forgetting that power is always power. It happens that the peculiar financial dynamics of elite universities means that administrators will often side with students. But that should only make students more suspicious and less likely to supplicate before the administrators; they are most certainly not doing what students want out of an authentic endorsement of the principles the students fight for. When Screaming Woke Twitter asks Twitter, the huge evil Silicon Valley corporation, to censor someone, they are forgetting that the corporate monster is always the corporate monster. Sure, they might give you what you think you want in the short term. But you’re writing a check, and they will cash it.

It should go without saying: running to someone else’s boss to get them fired means that you’re validating and endorsing the power of bosses. You don’t get to pick and choose. You believe in the boss having arbitrary power over people or you don’t. That’s it.

Freddie deBoer. Cf. this recent post of mine that I still need to revisit and correct.

working the refs

Last Sunday afternoon, in the aftermath of the first game of the NBA playoff series between the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, there was much online huffing and puffing about whether the game’s referees had failed to call fouls against the Rockets’ James Harden and Chris Paul.

But something important was overlooked in said huffing and puffing: the fact that, whether Harden and Paul were fouled or not, they were desperately trying to get fouls called against their opponents. And that makes the last few seconds of that game a kind of parable of our cultural moment.

It’s possible that the Warriors’ Draymond Green grazed James Harden as Harden came to earth after shooting — after, that is, missing a shot quite badly, possibly because he was thinking less about making the shot than about getting the ref to believe that Green had fouled him, which he did by falling, completely unnecessarily, to the ground. The ball ended up in Chris Paul’s hands, and Paul charged into the Warriors’ Klay Thompson while flailing his arms wildly, determined to force a call. (He did not get the call, and in his rage shouldered the referee, which has earned him a fine.)

This kind of thing has, of course, long been the bane of soccer: players who might have a legitimate chance to score a goal, or at least got off a shot on goal, fling themselves to the ground and roll about in feigned agony hoping that they will get a penalty called or a yellow card assigned to the opponent.

I have come to believe that this is what almost all of our culture is about now: working the refs. Trying to get the refs, whoever the refs might be in any given instance, to make calls in our favor — to rule against our enemies and for us, and therefore justify us before the whole world.

What are students doing when they try to get speakers disinvited from their campus? Or when Twitter users try to get other Twitter users banned from the platform? Or when people try to get executives or members of some board of directors fired from their jobs? In each case, it’s an appeal to the refs. These people are not trying to persuade through reasoned argument or to attract public opinion to their side through the charm of their personality. They’re demanding that the designated arbitrators arbitrate in their favor. (Sometimes, as in the case of the college admissions, scandal, they just bribe the refs.)

And it’s easy to see why people would think this way: If I assume the point of view underlying this habit, it means that nothing that goes wrong is ever my fault. If anything that I want to go my way doesn’t go my way, it’s because the referees didn’t make the right call. It’s never because I made any dumb mistakes, or indeed had any shortcomings of any kind. Things didn’t go my way because, whether through incompetence or bias, the refs suck. I would’ve won if it hadn’t been for the stupid refs.

I think this is a particularly attractive strategy in our current moment, especially on social media. As I wrote a couple of years ago,

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.

Call-out culture has many, many mechanisms of enforcement but none of forgiveness or restoration. A culture that knows only how to punish creates an environment in which, as Freddie deBoer has said, “everyone’s a cop”; but it simultaneously creates disincentives for people to admit they they might themselves need policing. Because who wants to apply the single-sanction one-strike-and-you’re-out criterion to themselves?

These reflections might help to explain a phenomenon that Michael Lewis describes on his new podcast “Against the Rules”: that the NBA is dealing with unprecedented levels of complaint about its officials at the moment when the league gives those very officials unprecedented levels of scrutiny, and unprecedented levels of training, and unprecedented opportunities to review and correct bad calls.

If refs are doing their job better than ever and simultaneously catching more grief for their errors, that just might be a result of our expecting more of them than is reasonable. In the NBA, and also in society at large, we do better when we try to solve problems ourselves rather than try to manipulate the refs into solving them all for us. I hope the Rockets get swept by the Warriors. (And that the Warriors swept in the next round, because their moaning and bitching are almost as bad.)

UPDATE: I realized something right after I posted this — that’s always how it happens, isn’t it? — which is that by circling back to the NBA at the end of the post I elided a major distinction: The NBA refs may be “doing their job better than ever,” but that doesn’t mean that the same can be said for all our society’s referees. Indeed, many of them are doing a very bad job indeed. More on that in another post. (This is also what I get for writing a short post about an issue that needs to be treated at length.)

“religious myths recycled as ersatz social science”

John Gray:

With the referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion, tolerance and personal freedom have advanced in Ireland – a latecomer to the liberal West. But there is no reason for thinking this a chapter in a universal story in which humanity is slowly being converted to these values. Theories that posit a long-term historical movement towards a liberal future are religious myths recycled as ersatz social science.

Despite everything, liberals cannot help thinking of history as a story of redemption. That is why they cannot help seeing Putin and Xi Jinping, Orbán and Salvini as reverting to the past. A future that contains hyper-modern tsars, technocratic emperors and intelligent demagogues is unthinkable. So facts are ignored or denied, and truth sacrificed for the sake of securing a consoling meaning in events. While post-truth populism has become one of the clichés of the age, a more defining feature of our time is the rise of post-truth liberalism.

It would be foolish to expect liberals to admit that their faith has been falsified. They would have to accept that they do not understand the present—an impossible demand, when they have seen themselves for so long as the intellectual vanguard of humankind. Whether secular or religious, myths are not refuted. Instead they fade and vanish from the scene, together with the people who embody them.  Gray’s point here converges nicely with my essay “Wokeness and Myth on Campus.”

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