Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: normies (page 1 of 1)

normie wisdom 7: politics

Towards a Normie Politics – Freddie deBoer:

The association with the mainstream and centrism in American political life depends on a very selective view of the normal. The current state of affairs in American healthcare, for example, is not remotely left-wing and also not remotely “normal,” compared to other developed countries, especially in terms of our costs and bad outcomes. Normie politics allow for far-left alternatives, if they are presented intelligently. Fetterman, after all, supports Medicare for All, a radical (and badly needed) proposal to rip America’s system for funding healthcare up from its roots. The viability of this proposal is of course fiercely debated, but it enjoys consistently strong polling support, and benefits from its great moral simplicity: tax people more and let the government fund everyone’s healthcare. This is a far-left goal, but it’s quintessentially normie politics. In contrast, I would say that Obamacare’s bewildering subsidies and exchanges and tiers of coverage stand as the antithesis of normie politics. In contrast to normie politics, Obamacare was the apotheosis of wonk politics, politics for people who ride the Acela every day. In other spaces, the normie demand might indeed be more centrist than alternatives, but it’s fundamentally not the centrism that makes politics normie. It’s the constant return to framing that emphasizes the comfortable and the mundane.

Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaigns in 2016 and 2020 failed, but they dramatically outperformed what was expected of an avowed socialist, in no small measure because Sanders is one of the most effortlessly down-to-earth politicians in modern history. Bernie is down-to-earth, but I would phrase Freddie’s point slightly differently. If you reflect on, for instance, the way a Fox News audience in 2016 responded to Bernie, you can see that the key thing is not so much being down-to-earth but rather his communicating something essential to that audience: I care about the same things you do. He cares about people having to work for below-subsistence wages, he cares about people who can’t get access to higher education, he cares about not leaving an environmental mess for our children. Basic stuff. Normie stuff.

Probably the typical Fox viewer is skeptical of Bernie’s proposals for dealing with all that stuff, but they can’t deny that he’s asking the right questions and raising the right issues. Which means that he at least has a chance to win them over to his proposals; whereas when Joe Biden says that “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time,” he’s just alienating people he can’t afford to alienate – including Black voters who wonder when, exactly, the civil rights of Black Americans got totally sorted out.

As I have said many times, I am dispositionally a conservative, but that just makes me homeless in our current political landscape. If we had a genuine Left — not the virtue-signaling cosplaying on social media with its limited roster of mindless buzzwords, but a Left that draws on its own best history of caring for the insulted and the injured, the downtrodden and the hopeless — this dispositional conservative would find that a lot more appealing than the politics of ressentiment and hatred that the Republican Party now largely embraces. But, you know, if a frog had wings he wouldn’t whomp his ass every time he jumped.

Speaking of taste….

I don’t listen to many podcasts, but one I never miss is John Spong’s Texas Monthly podcast One By Willie, each episode of which features a guest talking about one Willie Nelson song that he or she especially likes. In a recent episode Buddy Cannon, who has ben Willie’s primary producer for the past decade and has co-written many songs with him, got into a conversation with Spong about the lack of radio airplay for Willie’s music these days — they discussed a song, “Something You Get Through,” that they both agreed would have been a big hit a few decades ago but remains largely unknown in this era of bro-country. Cannon said that he isn’t worried about that, that he believes that in the long run “the good will overpower the mediocre.” Maybe! We hope!

But what caught my attention was Cannon’s reason for being thus hopeful: He said, “People can only think they like something for so long.” I love that. People can only think they like something for so long. The power of mimetic desire, mimetic taste, isn’t infinite: sooner or later you’ll have to admit to yourself what you really like. And what a day that will be.

normie wisdom 6: fear

I draw breath; this is of course to wish
No matter what, to be wise,
To be different, to die and the cost,
No matter how, is Paradise
Lost of course and myself owing a death…. 

— W. H. Auden 

As noted in earlier posts, “normie” is a disparaging word, meant to mock those who aren’t distinctive enough in their tastes. It’s a concept that arises from fear, fear of not being different. When people sneer at normies they’re casting a spell to ward off the basic

But of course, we are social animals and are drawn irresistibly to the Inner Ring, which means that to reject being a normie is not to be independent and free but rather to embrace the norms of a subculture. No one is more enslaved to norms than the person who is terrified of being a normie. 

But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe there’s a more charitable way to describe this fear: as a worry about being sold a bill of goods, of having one’s tastes shaped in a way that maximizes profit for big corporations. This was the primary theme of the social criticism of Dwight Macdonald, who, in a famous essay, worried that one can escape the gravitational pull of Masscult only by being dragged into the orbit of Midcult — of philistinism. After all, companies are always ready to sell you identity markers of all descriptions; moreover, capitalism doesn’t care whether you’re wearing your hat earnestly or ironically; it usually costs the same either way, though sometimes people pay a premium for irony. And when the megacorporations control Masscult, well, that just offers opportunities for smaller businesses to do Midcult, and smaller ones still to do Weirdcult. (Or whatever.) 

Macdonald’s essay is still interestingly provocative, though its categories may not be directly applicable to our own moment, given how fragmented the media landscape has become and how hard it is to get reliable and consistent information. Nielsen will tell you how many people watch America’s Got Talent every week, but Netflix won’t tell you how many people watch Stranger Things — it only tells you about total hours viewed, a stat that makes no sense to me at all. I tend instinctively to think of anything on network TV as Masscult and anything on Netflix as Midcult, but that may not be adequate. We probably should invoke more complex generational and economic categories — though, if we want to achieve a view from 30,000 feet, we should see the entire media landscape as something controlled by a distributed technocratic elite that caters to a wide variety of tastes in ways that grow more precise as the algorithms get better. 

In such an environment — complex, but technocratically managed — the “normie” category might seem useless, but maybe we can still find a place for it. My reasons for wanting to salvage it will appear in a later post. But first, there’s an important element to all this that we haven’t inspected closely enough: the word (a word I just used in the previous paragraph) taste. Because don’t we think that people who predominantly watch network TV tend to have different tastes than people who watch a lot of Netflix? 

We still use the word taste but we don’t think about it much, I suspect, and don’t have a very clear sense of what precisely it means. The term may have had its heyday in the 18th century, with Hume’s great essay “On the Standard of Taste”; but it ought to be retrieved and renewed, because I think it’s essential for us, if we are going to develop into genuine persons of depth and character, is to figure out what we really like — what our own tastes incline us towards. To be a mature person is, among other things, not to be afraid of acknowledging what we enjoy. (Even if what we enjoy is mocked by others as “normie” — which often leads us, in turn, to talk about our “guilty pleasures,” which acknowledges a “standard of taste” as much in the breach of it as in the observance.)  

Achieving one’s own genuine taste is not an individualistic pursuit — not if it’s done properly. You develop your own taste in part by noticing what people you admire enjoy — though René Girard is wrong about most things, he’s generally correct to say that desire is mimetic. But it’s not indiscriminatingly mimetic: you follow the tastes of some other people, not all, and over time you can discern the pattern that your tastes are tracing, the form that they’re converging on. And I think that’s key to personal growth. 

I began with Auden, so let me conclude with him too, a passage from The Dyer’s Hand specifically about reading (though it applies to all the arts): 

A child’s reading is guided by pleasure, but his pleasure is undifferentiated; he cannot distinguish, for example, between aesthetic pleasure and the pleasures of learning or daydreaming. In adolescence we realize that there are different kinds of pleasure, some of which cannot be enjoyed simultaneously, but we need help from others in defining them. Whether it be a matter of taste in food or taste in literature, the adolescent looks for a mentor in whose authority he can believe. He eats or reads what his mentor recommends and, inevitably, there are occasions when he has to deceive himself a little; he has to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little more than he actually does. Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology. When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, “I know what I like,” he is really saying “I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,” because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.

normie wisdom 5: idiocy

A great deal of survey research in recent years points to an important truth: That most Americans are not online much; most people aren’t political extremists; most people don’t hate their neighbors for disagreeing with their politics. Could it be, then, that normies just mind their own business? — that a normie is, basically, an idiot, the kind of idiot I want to be

normie wisdom 4: quirky vs. basic

Scott Alexander:

Right now, our society demands you be a Special Snowflake. Women who aren’t quirky enough are “basic bitches”, men who aren’t quirky enough are “yet another straight white dude”. Just today, I read some dating advice saying that single men need to develop unusual hobbies or interests, because (it asked, in all seriousness) why would a woman want to date someone who doesn’t “stand out”?

Someone on Twitter complained that boring people go to medical school because if you’re a doctor you don’t need to have a personality. Edward Teach complains that people get into sexual fetishes as a replacement for a personality. I’ve even heard someone complain that boring people take up rock-climbing as a personality substitute: it is (they say) the minimum viable quirky pastime. Nobody wants to be caught admitting that their only hobbies are reading and video games, and maybe rock climbing is enough to avoid being relegated to the great mass of boring people. The complainer was arguing that we shouldn’t let these people get away that easily. They need to be quirkier!

A friend read an article once about someone who moved to China for several years to learn to cook rare varieties of tofu. She became insanely jealous; she doesn’t especially like China or tofu, but she felt that if she’d done something like that, she could bank enough quirkiness points that she’d never have to cultivate another hobby again.

In this kind of environment, of course mentally ill people will exploit their illness for quirkiness points! We place such unreasonable quirkiness demands on everybody that you have to take any advantage you can get!

normie wisdom 3: two quotations on common responses

G. K. Chesterton:

The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just as there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists. But the average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as their bonnets. It may be a very limited aim in morality to shoot a “many faced and fickle traitor,” but at least it is a better aim than to be a many faced and fickle traitor, which is a simple summary of a good many modern systems from Mr. d’Annunzio’s downwards. So long as the coarse and thin texture of mere current popular romance is not touched by a paltry culture it will never be vitally immoral. It is always on the side of life. The poor — the slaves who really stoop under the burden of life — have often been mad, scatter-brained, and cruel, but never hopeless. That is a class privilege, like cigars. Their drivelling literature will always be a “blood and thunder” literature, as simple as the thunder of heaven and the blood of men. 

C. S. Lewis

By a Stock Response Dr. I. A. Richards means a deliberately organized attitude which is substituted for ‘the direct free play of experience’. In my opinion such deliberate organization is one of the first necessities of human life, and one of the main functions of art is to assist it. All that we describe as constancy in love or friendship, as loyalty in political life, or, in general, as perseverance — all solid virtue and stable pleasure — depends on organizing chosen attitudes and maintaining them against the eternal flux (or ‘direct free play’) of mere immediate experience. This Dr. Richards would not perhaps deny. But his school puts the emphasis the other way. They talk as if improvement of our responses were always required in the direction of finer discrimination and greater particularity; never as if men needed responses more normal and more traditional than they now have. To me, on the other hand, it seems that most people’s responses are not ‘stock’ enough, and that the play of experience is too free and too direct in most of us for safety or happiness or human dignity. […]

The older poetry, by continually insisting on certain Stock themes — as that love is sweet, death bitter, virtue lovely, and children or gardens delightful — was performing a service not only of moral and civil, but even of biological, importance. Once again, the old critics were quite right when they said that poetry ‘instructed by delighting’, for poetry was formerly one of the chief means whereby each new generation learned, not to copy, but by copying to make, the good Stock responses. Since poetry has abandoned that office the world has not bettered. […]

We need most urgently to recover the lost poetic art of enriching a response without making it eccentric, and of being normal without being vulgar.

normie wisdom 2: philistines

A continuation of this post 

Hugh Trevor-Roper doesn’t use the term normie, of course – his key term of disparagement is “philistine.” Paul Fussell: “A Modernist is a late-nineteenth- or twentieth-century artist or artistic theorist who has decided to declare war on the received, the philistine, the bourgeois, the sentimental, and the democratic,” and I think it’s fair to say that the philistine in this sense simply is someone whose affections gravitate towards the received, the bourgeois, the sentimental, and the democratic. (One could say that those are the four cardinal points of the culture of the Shire.)

We owe this use of the word “philistine” to Matthew Arnold, who in turn borrowed it from a town-and-gown dispute in the German city of Jena. In his great book Culture and Anarchy Arnold sets the Philistine on the side of money over against culture:

The people who believe most that our greatness and welfare are proved by our being very rich, and who most give their lives and thoughts to becoming rich, are just the people whom we call the Philistines. Culture says: “Consider these people, then, their way of life, their habits, their manners, the very tones of their voices; look at them attentively; observe the literature they read, the things which give them pleasure, the words which come forth out of their mouths, the thoughts which make the furniture of their minds; would any amount of wealth be worth having with the condition that one was to become just like these people by having it?”

The condescension drips and drips. But like Trevor-Roper, Arnold did not confuse philistinism with stupidity: in a later essay he picks up a category he had briefly mentioned in Culture and Anarchy: the “Philistine of genius.” This category is dominated by three giants: “So we have the Philistine of genius in religion — Luther; the Philistine of genius in politics — Cromwell; the Philistine of genius in literature — Bunyan.” Though appalled by these figures, he has to concede their greatness. The whole project of Culture and Anarchy might be described as a thought experiment for creating a world in which such people could never be recognized as great; but in our real, existing world, such recognition is unavoidable to the honest. 

However, did any of these figures desire money? If so, they went about the pursuit of it in very odd ways. I think the love of money is, for Arnold, just one of the ways a person can live in opposition to true Culture. One also opposes culture by a leveling impulse: Luther against the papacy; Cromwell against the aristocracy; and Bunyan against the state church and its confinement of the ability to preach to the formally educated. And over the course of his career I think Arnold much more consistently focuses on the Philistinism of Leveling rather than the Philistinism of Lucre.  

Many artists and writers – and, I think it’s fair to say, most academics in the humanities – have inherited from Arnold a settled contempt for philistines — which is to say, for normies. This is a bit ironic, because Arnold’s famous dedication to cultivating “the best that has been thought and said in the world” – also from Culture and Anarchy – is now thought a normie ideal to uphold. But Arnold believed that such dedication to high and unphilistine culture was the best means of “turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” That is – and it is important to remember that Arnold’s day job was as an inspector of schools – the cultivation of “the best that has been thought and said” will not reinforce existing prejudices and assumptions but rather will bring about necessary social change. And indeed this is how things worked out: as Jonathan Rose shows in his masterful book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes,

Even literature that appeared to be safely conservative was potentially explosive in the minds of readers. This may seem counterintuitive: in the recent “canon wars,” the Left and Right agreed that a traditional canon of books would reinforce conservative values (the Right arguing that this was a good thing). But both sides in this debate made the mistake of believing each other’s propaganda. Contrary to all the intentions of the authors, classic conservative texts could make plebeian readers militant and articulate.

Militant, articulate normies.

normie wisdom: 1

First post in a series 

2054 jpg

When Hugh Trevor-Roper was a young historian he became friends with with the art connoisseur Bernard Berenson. Berenson was fifty years older than Trevor-Roper, and rarely left his home outside Florence, so Trevor-Roper enlivened his octogenarian friend’s dull days with maliciously gossipy letters, especially about his colleagues at Oxford. Here is what he had to say (on 18 January 1951) about C.S. Lewis:

Do you know C.S. Lewis? In case you don’t, let me offer a brief character-sketch. Envisage (if you can) a man who combines the face and figure of a hog-reever or earth-stopper with the mind and thought of a Desert Father of the fifth century, preoccupied with meditations of inelegant theological obscenity; a powerful mind warped by erudite philistinism, blackened by systematic bigotry, and directed by a positive detestation of such profane frivolities as art, literature, and, of course, poetry; a purple-faced bachelor and misogynist, living alone in rooms of inconceivable hideousness, secretly consuming vast quantities of his favorite dish, beefsteak-and-kidney pudding; periodically trembling at the mere apprehension of a feminine footfall; and all the while distilling his morbid and illiberal thoughts into volumes of best-selling prurient religiosity and such reactionary nihilism as is indicated by the gleeful title, The Abolition of Man.

The first thing to say about this is that it’s very funny. The second thing to say is that it makes no pretense to accuracy. I’m sure Trevor-Roper knew perfectly well that The Abolition of Man is not what Lewis hopes for but what he fears, and that he does not detest literature and poetry but rather adores them. Old Hughie’s having his bit of fun.

Still, there’s no doubt that the letter reflects Trevor-Roper’s actual attitude towards Lewis, and I want to zero in on the key phrase: “a powerful mind warped by erudite philistinism.” It’s a double judgment: he detests Lewis as a philistine – but he doesn’t hesitate to credit him with “a powerful mind.” I think that’s very important, not just for understanding how Trevor Roper thought but for understanding how the intelligentsia, especially within the academy, has been orienting itself to the world for the past hundred years or so.

For Trevor-Roper, the problem with Lewis isn’t that he stupid. Trevor-Roper is perfectly aware of Lewis’s exceptional intelligence, and if pressed he might even have acknowledged that Lewis was more intelligent than he himself – certainly more profoundly learned. What Trevor-Roper despises is Lewis’s aesthetic and emotional response to the world, his moral taste – in a word, his affections, in the Augustinian and Jonathan-Edwardsian sense. Trevor-Roper was appalled by Lewis because Lewis showed that a person could be prodigiously intelligent and nevertheless in other respects be – well, a normie.

I’m going to use that as a technical term here: a normie is someone whose responses to the world, whose affections, are close to those of the average person. This is not the only way it’s used, of course: in Angela Nagle’s 2017 book Kill All Normies normies are essentially political centrists, people who accept the status quo rather than embracing revolutionary change from the right or the left. But I think a more accurate sense of the word’s connotations is outlined in a post on the Merriam-Webster “Words We’re Watching” blog that wrestles with it: “The term normie has emerged as both a noun and an adjective referring to one whose tastes, lifestyle, habits, and attitude are mainstream and far from the cutting edge, or a person who is otherwise not notable or remarkable” – but then, at the end of the post, there’s an acknowledgment that “the word has lately flattened out and is now occasionally embraced as a term of ironic self-mockery. The emergence of the term normcore, which evokes a fashion style noted for being deliberately bland and unremarkable, might have helped to neutralize normie and bring the word back into the realm of cool — however that adds up.”

A rather hand-wavy conclusion. But in essence: “Normie” began as a term of disparagement but has been claimed by (a) the committed ironists and (b) the very people against which it was originally deployed – a relatively common event in the history of disparagement, as illustrated by the history of such words as “Methodist” and “Quaker.”

But whether you use the word in a pejorative or a commendatory sense, it’s important to recognize that normieness is a matter of “tastes, lifestyle, habits, and attitude” – or, as I prefer, affections – rather than intelligence. It is hard for people who disparage normies to keep this in mind, and maybe even for the rest of us. To stick with the Inklings for a moment: early in his wonderful book about Tolkien, The Road to Middle-Earth, Tom Shippey makes the offhand comment that “Tolkien’s mind was one of unmatchable subtlety, not without a streak of deliberate guile.” When I first read those words I was somewhat taken aback, because I was not accustomed to thinking of Tolkien’s mind as a subtle one. But the more I reflected on it the more convinced I became that Shippey is correct: Tolkien’s mind is exceptionally subtle, though his tastes and affections are simple – hobbitlike, as he himself often said: he once wrote in a letter, “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size).”

My initial reflexive skepticism about Shippey’s claim suggests a deeply-buried sense that the normie is unreflective in comparison to the person who takes a more adversarial attitude towards the conventional; an unfortunate assumption for me to be making, since I am pretty much a normie myself – but perhaps an understandable one, since I am a scholar of modernism, and modernism is essentially, as Paul Fussell pointed out many years ago, adversarial to the norm. So all the more credit to Hugh Trevor-Roper for managing to despise Lewis as a normie while crediting him with a powerful mind. 

But the specific term that Trevor-Roper uses to describe Lewis’s orientation is not “normie” but rather “philistinism.” We’ll get into that in the next post in this series (whenever that may be).