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.
This is a fact we often miss about our Constitution. It works by setting competing interests and powers against each other, which critics sometimes caricature as substituting an almost mechanical proceduralism for morally substantive civic formation. But that is precisely wrong. This approach actually begins from the insight that, in order to be properly formative, our politics must always be in motion—that moral formation is a matter of establishing habits, and that civic habits are built up by civic action more than by a proper arrangement of rules. The different interests, priorities, and power centers set against each other in our system do not rest against each other, like interlocking beams holding up a roof. Rather, they push, pull, and tug at each other and unceasingly compete for position. They are living political actors, not inanimate structural supports. And none can achieve anything without dealing with the others, who are always in their way. The result is a peculiar style of politics, which feels frustrating and acrimonious at almost any given instant, but can be remarkably dynamic in the long run.
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.
The reasons for the Nobel Committee’s snub [of Milan Kundera], which occurred at the height of the award’s geopolitical if not literary significance, are not hard to fathom. Most obviously, Kundera was never particularly interested in or engaged by politics. Instead, his work was a passionate defence of the right to pursue one’s own individual desires and lusts against bureaucratic maniacs of whatever stripe who wished to colonise individual experience on behalf of the state. To his critics on both the Right and the Left, Kundera’s stance was borderline immoral, not to mention hopelessly bourgeois. While the Left preferred Che and the Right preferred Solzhenitsyn, Kundera insisted on the human right to be left alone.
Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
I’m going to begin by quoting a very long passage from Bleak House, one involving a suitor in the court of Chancery, generally known as “the man from Shropshire,” an oddity who in every session cries out “My Lord!” – hoping to get the attention of the Lord Chancellor; hoping always in vain. His name is Mr. Gridley and Esther Summerson relates an encounter with him:
“Mr. Jarndyce,” he said, “consider my case. As true as there is a heaven above us, this is my case. I am one of two brothers. My father (a farmer) made a will and left his farm and stock and so forth to my mother for her life. After my mother’s death, all was to come to me except a legacy of three hundred pounds that I was then to pay my brother. My mother died. My brother some time afterwards claimed his legacy. I and some of my relations said that he had had a part of it already in board and lodging and some other things. Now mind! That was the question, and nothing else. No one disputed the will; no one disputed anything but whether part of that three hundred pounds had been already paid or not. To settle that question, my brother filing a bill, I was obliged to go into this accursed Chancery; I was forced there because the law forced me and would let me go nowhere else. Seventeen people were made defendants to that simple suit! It first came on after two years. It was then stopped for another two years while the master (may his head rot off!) inquired whether I was my father’s son, about which there was no dispute at all with any mortal creature. He then found out that there were not defendants enough—remember, there were only seventeen as yet!—but that we must have another who had been left out and must begin all over again. The costs at that time — before the thing was begun! — were three times the legacy. My brother would have given up the legacy, and joyful, to escape more costs. My whole estate, left to me in that will of my father’s, has gone in costs. The suit, still undecided, has fallen into rack, and ruin, and despair, with everything else — and here I stand, this day! Now, Mr. Jarndyce, in your suit there are thousands and thousands involved, where in mine there are hundreds. Is mine less hard to bear or is it harder to bear, when my whole living was in it and has been thus shamefully sucked away?”
Mr. Jarndyce said that he condoled with him with all his heart and that he set up no monopoly himself in being unjustly treated by this monstrous system.
“There again!” said Mr. Gridley with no diminution of his rage. “The system! I am told on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system. I mustn’t go into court and say, ‘My Lord, I beg to know this from you — is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?’ My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn’t go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied — as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don’t I? — I mustn’t say to him, ‘I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!’ HE is not responsible. It’s the system. But, if I do no violence to any of them, here — I may! I don’t know what may happen if I am carried beyond myself at last! I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”
His passion was fearful. I could not have believed in such rage without seeing it.
Now, please bear Mr. Gridley, and his rage, in mind as I turn to George Orwell’s great essay on Dickens. It’s possibly the finest thing ever written about Dickens – even though it’s often wrong – and is a wonderful illustration of Orwell’s power of inquiring into his own readerly responses. (A topic for another post.)
The first point I want to call attention to is this: Orwell was of course a socialist, a person who believed that British society required radical change; and there were people who saw Dickens as a kind of proto-socialist. This, Orwell points out, is nonsense on stilts. If you want to know what Dickens thinks about revolutionary political movements, just read A Tale of Two Cities. He’s horrified by them.
Orwell then goes on to note that Dickens’s early experiences as a reporter on Parliament seem to have been important for shaping his attitude towards government as a whole: “at the back of his mind there is usually a half-belief that the whole apparatus of government is unnecessary. Parliament is simply Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle, the Empire is simply Major Bagstock and his Indian servant, the Army is simply Colonel Chowser and Doctor Slammer, the public services are simply Bumble and the Circumlocution Office — and so on and so forth.”
Such a man could never be a socialist. And yet, “Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached.” So what is the nature of this attack?
The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power. Of course one can draw this inference for oneself, and one can draw it again from the remarks about Bounderby’s will at the end of Hard Times, and indeed from the whole of Dickens’s work one can infer the evil of laissez-faire capitalism; but Dickens makes no such inference himself. It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism’. Obviously Macaulay is here using the word ‘Socialism’ in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as ‘Bolshevism’. There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.
And here’s what I love about Orwell: he says that Dickens’s position “at first glance looks like an enormous platitude” – but he is not content with a first glance. He continues to think about it, and as he does he realizes that Dickens, after all, has a point. This I think is the most extraordinary moment in the essay:
His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘Behave decently’, which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence.
Most revolutionaries are potential Tories – that is, their revolutionary sensibility would erase itself if they could just get Their Boys into power. Once they and people like them are in charge, then they will do anything they can to thwart change. But what that means is: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (As I note in this essay, following Ursula K. LeGuin, even an anarchist society would have its petty tyrants.) Most would-be revolutionaries ignore this problem, but “Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness.” And that’s why he’s vital.
This point takes us back to the man from Shropshire, Mr. Gridley. He will not be calmed by invocations of “the system,” the broken system in which everyone is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not trapped as he is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not a victim as he is a victim. The people who enable the system, and profit from it, must be held accountable – or nothing important will change. The salon of politics will only be redecorated. So: “I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”
And this, Orwell suggests, is what the novelist can do, what the novelist can bring before our minds and lay upon our hearts. Some political systems are clearly superior to others; but Dickens understands that whatever political system we build, its chief material will be what Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity,” of which “no straight thing was ever made.” To force us to look at that truth — which, properly understood, will result not in political quietism but a genuine and healthy realism — is what the novelist can do for us. “That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician.” The novelist-as-moralist has the power to drag the individual workers of the system, any system, “before the great eternal bar” — but not God’s bar as such, which is what Mr. Gridley means, but rather, the bar of our readerly witness, our readerly judgment, whoever and whenever we are.
The other day I mentioned some famous Supreme Court cases that were influenced by public opinion. I had forgotten that a few years ago I wrote a post, no longer online, about one of the most important of them. I’m reposting it here, with minor edits.
Let’s take a look at one of the most widely condemned of SCOTUS decisions, Korematsu vs. the United States. In Korematsu the court allowed the practice of evicting United States citizens, often native-born citizens, from their homes and moving them away from the West Coast simply because they were of Japanese descent. The vote was 6–3, and each of the justices in the majority was appointed by President Roosevelt, the man who issued that order. (In a separate but closely related ruling, issued on the same day, the Court ruled that such citizens, though they could be forced to leave their homes, could not be “detained,” thus depriving the internment camps for Japanese-Americans of legal sanction.)
The chief interest of Korematsu, for today’s reader of the history, is the dissent by Justice Robert Jackson, later to become the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. In the first stage of his dissent — which you may see in full by going here and scrolling aout three-fourths of the way down — Jackson points out that Fred Korematsu was a natural-born citizen of the United States whose loyalty to his country had never been questioned by anyone. He was merely living and working in the place of his birth (Oakland, California) but was by the Executive Order obliged to turn himself in to military authorities — an obligation that he would not have faced had he been “a German alien enemy, an Italian alien enemy, [or] a citizen of American-born ancestors, convicted of treason but out on parole.” Yet he was different from those others “only in that he was born of different racial stock.” Jackson continues:
Now, if any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable. Even if all of one’s antecedents had been convicted of treason, the Constitution forbids its penalties to be visited upon him, for it provides that ‘no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attained.’ Article 3, 3, cl. 2. But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign.
This point would have been sufficient in itself to declare Roosevelt’s order unconstitutional, but Jackson discerned a larger and greater issue at stake:
Much is said of the danger to liberty from the Army program for deporting and detaining these citizens of Japanese extraction. But a judicial construction of the due process clause that will sustain this order is a far more subtle blow to liberty than the promulgation of the order itself. A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency. Even during that period a succeeding commander may revoke it all. But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens.
Jackson’s point here is exceptionally acute: this is not as matter of rationalizing — that is, giving an implausible intellectual account of — the order, but rationalizing the Constitution itself. Which is a far more dangerous move.
The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. Every repetition imbeds that principle more deeply in our law and thinking and expands it to new purposes. All who observe the work of courts are familiar with what Judge Cardozo described as ‘the tendency of a principle to expand itself to the limit of its logic.’ A military commander may overstep the bounds of constitutionality, and it is an incident. But if we [i.e., we Justices of the Supreme Court] review and approve, that passing incident becomes the doctrine of the Constitution. There it has a generative power of its own, and all that it creates will be in its own image. Nothing better illustrates this danger than does the Court’s opinion in this case.
People are often automatically dismissive of “slippery-slope” arguments, as though no slopes are ever slippery; but once a metaphor is dead it’s dead. Justice Cardozo’s phrasing may be more useful: “the tendency of a principle to expand itself to the limits of its logic.” This tendency is almost inevitable in SCOTUS decisions, because of the power of precedent: only rarely is a decision walked back; rather, a “passing incident” very easily and naturally “becomes the doctrine of the Constitution” when justices see different situations in which it can be applied. All the pressure is on one side, towards expansion rather than contraction of the principle.
Such expansion of a principle is all the more likely to happen when popular opinion, especially elite popular opinion, is also strongly on one side. FDR’s decision to move Japanese-Americans from their homes was quite popular (as were the internment camps) and eight of the Justices had the further pressure of owing their positions on the Court to the Roosevelt. What the Justices needed was a jurisprudential principle substantial enough to make a counterweight to those pressures. All three of the dissenting judges had that principle, but it was most fully developed in and articulated by Jackson.
People keep talking about the Supreme Court being “out of step with public opinion.” You know when the Supreme Court was totally in step with public opinion? When it decided Korematsu. And when it decided Plessy v. Ferguson. You know when it was out of step? When it decided Miranda v. Arizona. So some of the worst decisions ever made by SCOTUS came when the justices heeded public pressure, and some of the best when they ignored it. This wasn’t always true; but sometimes. Often enough to be a matter of note.
Many people decry SCOTUS as “unaccountable,” which simply means that justices can’t be removed when they make unpopular decisions. But Justice Robert Jackson’s dissent in Korematsu, one of the greatest moments in the history of the Court, would probably have led to his removal if justices had been thus “accountable” — which in turn would have denied us his vital role in the Nuremberg trials and also his later SCOTUS opinions, for instance in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, a case that did much to set limits on Presidential power. Many other cases involving many other unpopular justices could be cited.
So be careful what you ask for. Public opinion won’t always be flowing in your preferred direction. In my view, the court is already — and probably always has been — too sensitive to public opinion. I’d prefer it to make more decisions that people don’t like, and to tell those people that if they want something different they should elect representatives who, instead of auditioning for careers on TV news, will pass better laws.
Richard Wolin’s Heidegger in Ruins is a compelling synthesis of what scholars have learned about Heidegger over the past decade – and also an account of what has been known about him all along, but rarely directly confronted. Indeed, the greatest value of the book is not what it tells us about Heidegger, but rather what it shows about the fecklessness and dishonesty of a certain wing of the academic enterprise.
Wolin patiently lays out a series of claims and defends them in great detail:
Heidegger persisted all his life in loyalty to the key principles of National Socialism, especially the conviction that the German people are the world’s chosen Volk and the corresponding belief in what he called “world Jewry’s predisposition to planetary criminality.”
When confronted with his history of unswerving commitment to Nazi principles, Heidegger consistently took evasive action, declaring himself one of the victims of the regime. (For instance, he often said that he had to make his criticisms indirectly because the Gestapo was surveilling him.)
He pursued his self-defense through two strategies: addition and omission. That is, he added self-exculpatory passages to texts that had been written in the Nazi era, and then claimed that they had been there all along; and, in other cases, he removed incriminating passages when he had works of that period re-published later in his life. In one case he claimed that he had said something critical of National Socialism, and when it was pointed out that the transcript of his lecture contained no such statement, he countered that he couldn’t account for that but that the statement was definitely in his manuscript. When the manuscript was inspected, the relevant page was missing. This kind of thing happened over and over again.
Editors of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe (Complete Works) – several of whom are members of Heidegger’s own family, including first his son and now his grandson – have consistently aided and abetted Heidegger’s own obfuscations. For instance, in one lecture Heidegger uses the abbreviation “N. soz.”; the lecture’s editor helpfully explains that this means not Nationalsozialismus but rather, somehow, Naturwissenschaften (the natural sciences). And in the 1980s, when Peter Trawny was preparing an edition of Heidegger’s lectures, the philosopher’s literary executors pressured him to silently delete the phrase I quote above: “world Jewry’s predisposition to planetary criminality.” Their pressure worked, as Trawny admitted – but he didn’t admit it until 2014.
This last point is perhaps the most interesting and significant one. Wolin convincingly argues that “As a result [of such additions and omissions], for decades, the public has been presented with a misleading, politically ‘sanitized’ image of Heidegger’s thought: a bowdlerized version in which Heidegger’s profascist political allegiances have been extensively airbrushed.”
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. “Much of the damage that has been done appears to be irreparable,” because no one outside the Heidegger “family business,” as Wolin calls it, can edit the Gesamtausgabe, and “as far as the numerous translations and foreign-language editions of Heidegger’s works are concerned, from a publishing standpoint, it is essentially too late too cumbersome and too expensive to implement the requisite corrections and emendations.” He thus concludes,
As a result, for the foreseeable future, generations of students encountering Heidegger’s work for the first time will be exposed to editorially doctored, politically cleansed versions of Heidegger’s thought. These significantly flawed texts have, meretriciously, become the de facto standard editions.
Moreover, in the voluminous secondary literature on Heidegger, this web of editorial deception is rarely mentioned. Were it acknowledged, it would risk exposing a deliberate policy of textual manipulation that, by masking the philosopher’s ideological loyalties, has sought to marginalize fundamental questions bearing on the intellectual and moral integrity of his work.
Therefore, many of those defending Heidegger, especially if they have read him in English translations, have never seen the whole of what he actually wrote; they have only seen the sanitized versions.
One of the chief airbrushers over the decade since the publication of Heidegger’s revelatory and appalling Black Notebooks – which make it abundantly clear just how obsessed Heidegger was for the last fifty years of his life by the belief in German cultural superiority, its vocation to save the world – has been Giorgio Agamben, who has said that “Si tout propos critique ou négatif sur le judaïsme, même contenus dans des notes privées, est condamné comme antisémite, cela équivaut à mettre le judaïsme hors langage” – “If any critical or negative statement about Judaism, even in private notes, is condemned as anti-Semitic, that is the equivalent to putting Judaism outside of language.” But if the claim that Jews have a “predisposition to planetary criminality” – a claim that was not made in une note privée but rather in a public lecture – is not anti-Semitic, then what is it? Does Agamben really want to insulate such statements from critique? Apparently he does. But this is to put not Judaism but rather anti-Semitism hor langage.
Much of this airbrushing, by Agamben and many others, has been built around the insistence that critics of Heidegger are over-interpreting common words. Blut just means “blood,” Boden just means “soil,” Heimat just means “home,” and Führer is the common German word for “leader.”
(As Wolin points out, Führer is one German word for “leader,” another one being Leiter – why does Heidegger always choose the former? I would suggest that you can get a clue by reading Max Weber’s famous 1917 lecture “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” or “Science as a Vocation,” in which he sternly warns students against the desire for ein Führer – by which he clearly means not a plain old leader but a charismatic figure who will give your life purpose and direction.)
Wolin patiently works his way through these and other words, repeatedly showing us the very distinctive character certain previously ordinary German words assumed under Nazism. Wolin points out that in his 1946 book The Myth of the State, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer had mused on what Nazism had done to the German language:
If nowadays I happen to read a German book, published in these last ten years, not a political but a theoretical book, a work dealing with philosophical, historical, or economic problems — I find to my amazement that I no longer understand the German language. New words have been coined; and even the old ones are used in a new sense; they have undergone a deep change of meaning. This change of meaning depends upon the fact that those words which formerly were used in a descriptive, logical, or semantic sense, are now used as magic words that are destined to produce certain effects and to stir up certain emotions. Our ordinary words are charged with meanings; but these new-fangled words are charged with feelings and violent passions.
The defenders of Heidegger’s use of these “magic words” have to assume, and have to encourage us to assume, that Heidegger was somehow ignorant of or indifferent to this change in the character of the German language — deaf to the “magic words.” As early as 1939, Heidegger’s former student Karl Löwith wrote – though he did not then publish – an essay showing how implausible such an idea was:
Given the significant attachment of the philosopher to the climate and intellectual habitus of National Socialism, it would be inappropriate to criticize or exonerate his political decision in isolation from the very principles of Heideggerian philosophy itself. It is not Heidegger, who, in opting for Hitler, “misunderstood himself;” instead, those who cannot understand why he acted this way have failed to understand him.
Heidegger understood the Nazi language and the habitus it embodied and reflected; and he wholly endorsed the whole package — and, Löwith says, did not simply do so personally but also as a thinker. If belief in Heidegger’s innocence was implausible to a knowledgable observer in 1939, it is, as Wolin patiently and thoroughly shows, completely indefensible today.
Finally: I should mention something in Wolin’s argument that troubles me personally. I am among those who have found some value in the critique of technology that Heidegger developed in the decade or so after the end of World War II. But Wolin indicates that already in the 1950s a young philosopher named Jürgen Habermas had called the logic of Heidegger’s critique into question: By arguing that the real crisis of the mid-twentieth century was “the planetary imperialism of the technically organized human beings,” the rise of technology as “the instrument for total … dominion over the earth,” Heidegger was implicitly reducing the significance of the Holocaust, reducing the guilt of the German Volk. And not always implicitly: in his “Bremen Lectures” of 1949, he straightforwardly claimed that “mechanized agriculture [is] in essence, the same as the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps.” A farmer sitting on a tractor and a German soldier shoving emaciated Jews into a gas chamber – who can say which is the more wicked? I am always drawn to a strong critique of modern technology, but Wolin’s account makes me wonder what that inclination might have led me to overlook. This is a point I may develop in future posts.
During the Reformation Catholic clerical garments – the copes and albs and amices and stoles that were the glories of medieval textile crafts – were sold to the players. An actor in a history play taking the part of an English bishop could conceivably have worn the actual robes of the character he was representing. Far more than thrift is involved here. The transmigration of a single ecclesiastical cloak from the vestry to the wardrobe may stand as an emblem of the more complex and elusive institutional exchanges that are my subject: a sacred sign, designed to be displayed before a crowd of men and women, is emptied, made negotiable, traded from one institution to another. Such exchanges are rarely so tangible; they are not usually registered in inventories, not often sealed with a cash payment. Nonetheless they occur constantly, for through institutional negotiation and exchange differentiated expressive systems, distinct cultural discourses, are fashioned.
What happens when the piece of cloth is passed from the Church to the playhouse? A consecrated object is reclassified, assigned a cash value, transferred from a sacred to a profane setting, deemed suitable for the stage. The theater company is willing to pay for the object not because it contributes to naturalistic representation but because it still bears a symbolic value, however attenuated. On the bare Elizabethan stage costumes were particularly important – companies were willing to pay more for a good costume than for a good play – and that importance in turn reflected the culture’s fetishistic obsession with clothes as a mark of status and degree.
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was a genuinely sacral occasion; the coronation of her son will be a theatrical one. The regalia of sacred Christian kingship has been sold to the players — because they, and their international television audience, are the only ones interested.
But perhaps, through the scrim of spectacle and costume, some observers will catch a glimpse of what the whole business once meant, a brief vision of something I’ve written about occasionally here: the deep human longing for a righteous anointed King.
P.S. This “deep human longing for a righteous anointed King” is central to my argument for anarchism. But an explanation of that will have to wait for another day.
P.P.S. After the ceremony: Some of my English friends are telling me that I was too cynical in the above. I hereby repent.
Does any society ever grow more tolerant? That is: Does acceptance of a position or a group hitherto untolerated ever come without the rejection of another position or group previously tolerated?
My suspicion is that the Overton window of any given place and time can’t be resized, it can only be moved. That is, there’s a politico-ethical equivalent of Dunbar’s number, a relatively fixed range of positions that at any one time can be accepted as potentially valid, or at least not-to-be-extirpated. Greater inclusion, if my suspicion is correct, never happens: an extension of toleration in one direction requires a constriction of toleration in the other, in order to avoid social chaos.
I’m sure I’m not the first to say this. But I think it’s important.
In his Apologeticus — written almost certainly in Carthage around 197 AD — Tertullian writes about the persecution suffered by Christians throughout the Roman Empire:
If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves, who can suffer injury at our hands? In regard to this, recall your own experiences. How often you inflict gross cruelties on Christians, partly because it is your own inclination, and partly in obedience to the laws! How often, too, the hostile mob, paying no regard to you, takes the law into its own hand, and assails us with stones and flames! With the very frenzy of the Bacchanals, they do not even spare the Christian dead, but tear them, now sadly changed, no longer entire, from the rest of the tomb, from the asylum we might say of death, cutting them in pieces, rending them asunder. Yet, banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to, though, if it were held right among us to repay evil by evil, a single night with a torch or two could achieve an ample vengeance? But away with the idea of a sect divine avenging itself by human fires, or shrinking from the sufferings in which it is tried. If we desired, indeed, to act the part of open enemies, not merely of secret avengers, would there be any lacking in strength, whether of numbers or resources? The Moors, the Marcomanni, the Parthians themselves, or any single people, however great, inhabiting a distinct territory, and confined within its own boundaries, surpasses, forsooth, in numbers, one spread over all the world! We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you — cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum, — we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods…. Yet you choose to call us enemies of the human race, rather than of human error. Nay, who would deliver you from those secret foes, ever busy both destroying your souls and ruining your health? Who would save you, I mean, from the attacks of those spirits of evil, which without reward or hire we exorcise? This alone would be revenge enough for us, that you were henceforth left free to the possession of unclean spirits. But instead of taking into account what is due to us for the important protection we afford you, and though we are not merely no trouble to you, but in fact necessary to your well-being, you prefer to hold us enemies, as indeed we are, yet not of man, but rather of his error.
It’s clear from the context that Christians were charged with being “enemies of the human race,” but no, Tertullian says, we wish only to offer a better understanding of our relationship to (and our alienation from) God. There are a great many of us, Tertullian says, and though “we are but of yesterday,” we’re everywhere in your society — except of course in the temples of your gods, whom we do not and will not worship — so if we were to rise up in violence you’d have a big problem on your hands.
But we don’t rise up in violence. You persecute us, you torment us, you even kill us; and instead of answering violence with violence, we pray for you. We constantly intercede for you with God so that the demonic forces you (wittingly or unwittingly) invoke will not destroy you. The very strength you employ against us you possess because of our prayers for you. Sometimes it feels that all of you are our declared enemies; and if so, well, then, we must love all — for we are forbidden to hate our enemies and commanded to bless them. So be it.
And your persecution in any event will not work: as Tertullian famously says elsewhere in his treatise, semen est sanguis Christianorum — the blood of Christians is seed. From it new spiritual life emerges.
A great many American Christians these days want to “take back their country,” dominate their enemies, and then “enjoy the spoils of victory.” Tertullian shows us what the real spoils of victory look like. Who wants them?
What began as a struggle of and for the dispossessed has devolved into a culture war fixated on harms, microaggressions, and sensitivity trainings. No one can live up to the standard of being sensitive to every possible sensitivity, setting everyone up to fail. More importantly, almost none of this has anything to do with repairing and redistributing structures and systems.
Nothing captures antiracism’s mission drift better than the explosive growth of its billion-dollar diversity industry, which promises to address inequality by diversifying the faces of gatekeeping institutions—the very institutions that facilitate upper-middle-class mobility precisely by leaving inequality in place. These antiracist initiatives, often staffed by well-meaning and high-minded people, bring with them all the conviction but little of the power to actually get anything done, at the end of the day achieving so little that one begins to wonder if futility was the point.
The growing loss of faith across the West in our institutions, leaders and representatives in recent years is like nothing else I’ve seen in my lifetime. When, I wonder, did that contract begin to expire? Maybe in 2003, when the lies with which the US and UK launched the Iraq war were so blatant that even those telling them seemed unconvinced. Or perhaps when the near-collapse of the global economy in 2008 brought the real impact of Machine globalisation, which had long been felt in the poor parts of the world, home to people in the West. Or maybe in 2016, when Brexit happened and Donald Trump happened and European ‘populism’ happened, and suddenly liberal globalism was under attack in its heartlands. From then on, we learned that populism was fascism and elected presidents were Russian agents and nationhood was white supremacy and free speech was ‘hate speech’, and while we were still trying to work through all that, along came covid and we all fell into the rabbit hole forever.
You, tender reader, might be scandalised by the ways of California’s DMV, but such a response is a hangover from another era. Under conditions of bureaucratic dysfunction typical of a party-state, corruption isn’t a problem, it is the solution. These new populations have found ways to get things done. Bribery is more efficient (and far less crazy-making) than clinging to first-world expectations in a world that has changed.
This is a genuinely and deeply fascinating essay by Matt Crawford. I think it describes a small but significant chunk of America’s future.
HB 999 [in Florida] would require faculty to censor their discussion and materials in general education courses, to the detriment of both faculty and their students. The measure would prohibit faculty teaching these courses from including material that “teaches identity politics,” which the bill defines as “Critical Race Theory” — something the bill does not define. Faculty teaching courses on history, philosophy, humanities, literature, sociology, or art would be required to guess what material administrators, political appointees, or lawmakers might label “identity politics” — no matter how pedagogically relevant the material is to the course.
HB 999 would also require that general education courses rewrite “American history,” prohibiting teaching that would suggest that America was anything other than “a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” And faculty would be required to guess what it means — again, in the eyes of administrators and political appointees — to “suppress or distort significant historical events.”
But perhaps the most vague restriction in HB 999 is its prohibition on the inclusion of “unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content” in general education courses. A broad range of academic content — including quite literally all scientific theories — is contested and theoretical. State officials would have unfettered discretion to determine which views are “theoretical” and banned from general education courses. A bill so vague that it allows officials the discretion to declare that professors cannot discuss new theories and ideas in a particular public university class should be rejected, flat out.
According to draft legislation seen by Reuters on Friday, the government would set up a National Cultural Council, headed by a minister, with the task of “setting priorities and directions to be followed in Hungarian culture.”
The minister would also have a say in the appointment or sacking of theater directors at institutions that are jointly financed by the state and municipality.
“It is a fundamental requirement for activities belonging under the auspices of this law to actively defend the interests of the nation’s wellbeing,” the bill says.
Academics and artists are typically not well-equipped to resist this kind of bullying, because they have spent much of their lives seeking the approval of others. (It’s one of the hazards of pursuing a career in symbolic manipulation. If you’re a good plumber or carpenter, you don’t have to care whether people approve of your personality.) Faced with challenges to our core values, we’re more likely than not to fold like an origami bird. Thus, as Russell Jacoby reports, the minimal response to the attack on Salman Rushdie:
An August 19 New York City rally of writers gathered in support of Rushdie reprised a 1989 demonstration against the fatwa in which Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Christopher Hitchens, and others participated, but the later iteration “paled in comparison,” a Le Monde editorial remarked. Across social media, writers expressed concern for Rushdie’s health, but an instinctual solidarity with him and the sense — so strong at the time of the fatwa — that his fate spoke to all of us as members of a liberal society did not materialize. Even among his defenders, free speech took a back seat.
Why? One reason is fear. In 2009, the British writer Hanif Kureishi told Prospect Magazine that “nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses.” He might have added that no one would have the balls to defend it. Most writers, Kureishi continued, live quietly, and “they don’t want a bomb in the letterbox.”
Actually, they’re probably more afraid of being dragged on Twitter than receiving the letterbox bomb. And in such a climate of fear-to-offend, this is the key paragraph in Jacoby’s essay:
Censorship by fear can take two forms: top-down or bottom-up. From the top, a publisher or editor can stop publication over concern about a potential reaction. If the right to free expression is qualified by the condition that you not “upset someone, especially someone who is willing to resort to violence,” Rushdie noted in Joseph Anton, it is no longer a right. However, the text or cartoon still exists, and might appear elsewhere (a small publisher picked up The Jewel of Medina after Random House scrapped it). But bottom-up censorship — self-censorship — is more nefarious, more widespread, and more difficult to track. Writers shelve projects before they see the light of day. The cartoon is undrawn, the novel or the scene unwritten. “The fight against censorship is open and dangerous and thus heroic,” the Yugoslavian novelist Danilo Kiš observed in 1985, “while the battle against self-censorship is anonymous, lonely and unwitnessed.”
And this is why it is virtually impossible for good art to be made in our place, in our moment. And also why we need to treasure and protect the works of the past that both disturb our comfortable assumptions and open to us new vistas of moral and intellectual possibility. Reading those books used to be compulsory; soon enough it will be forbidden.
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.
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.
Speaking about the prospect of “national divorce” on his radio program, Matt Walsh voiced what I fear is a typical view on the right: He rejects the idea on logistical grounds but is not entirely unsympathetic to it on cultural ones. “Can you name one shared value that binds Americans together?” he asks. “There really is nothing. … In what sense are we a people? The only thing is that we all happen to live within the same borders.” That is, of course, foolishness. If we could force Matt Walsh and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to live as neighbors in a village in rural Pakistan (and I do like the idea!), they would soon find out that they not only have a great deal in common but that as a cultural matter they have so much in common that they are very nearly identical.
Dominion might win its suit notwithstanding the general truth of what Kevin [Williamson] said in his piece, that “nothing short of a signed and notarized statement of intent to commit libel seems to satisfy judges or juries” in modern defamation litigation. What the company aimed to show in its nearly 200-page brief is that, by word and deed, Fox personnel from management on down did all but openly confess their intent to commit libel. They acknowledged privately that Trump’s conspiracy theories were false; they were warned repeatedly that those theories were false; they pressed ahead on the air with the big lie anyway.
But even if Dominion loses, it’ll have extracted a measure of moral compensation. Whatever else one might call programming that suppresses the truth if it might offend the audience, “news” ain’t it. (“Propaganda” sounds about right.) No one who reads Dominion’s pleading will ever look at Fox the same way. That’s why the company filed it.
I’ve been reading the pleading and … it’s something else. If Dominion doesn’t win this suit, then there is no law against defamation in this country, and “news” outlets can say anything they want about anyone at any time with absolute disregard for the truth. Which, come to think of it, is what they do already, I guess. Does anyone really believe that the NYT didn’t demonstrate “actual malice” against Sarah Palin when it repeatedly lied that she played a role in Gabby Giffords’ shooting? Of course not. It’s just that a lot of people believe that Palin is an official Bad Person and therefore deserves to be lied about.
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt defined bullshit as speech that is intended to persuade without regard for the truth. By this measure, OpenAI’s new chatbot ChatGPT is the greatest bullshitter ever. Large Language Models (LLMs) are trained to produce plausible text, not true statements. ChatGPT is shockingly good at sounding convincing on any conceivable topic. But OpenAI is clear that there is no source of truth during training. That means that using ChatGPT in its current form would be a bad idea for applications like education or answering health questions. Even though the bot often gives excellent answers, sometimes it fails badly. And it’s always convincing, so it’s hard to tell the difference.
So why not have chatbots replace our elected representatives, who also have benefitted from “no source of truth during training”? An experiment worth trying, I say.
The point of keeping Trump administration veterans out of positions of public trust is not to punish them — it is to keep them out of positions of public trust. We should do that because the public cannot trust them. We have norms, institutions, and procedures designed to protect the public trust from those who would abuse it or who, having been invested with some great authority, neglect that trust in the pursuit of private gains, be those financial or political. These are useful social tools, and we should use them.
About a month ago I started drafting an essay about how Richard Rorty both predicted the rise of Trump and in a certain sense prepared the way for it. I was about 1500 words in when I got the January 2023 edition of Harper’s and saw that Mark Edmundson had already written my essay. I have never before been so comprehensively pre-empted.
In The Point of View of My Work as an Author Kierkegaard explains why he writes sometimes under his own name and sometimes under pseudonyms. One of his primary goals — or, as he rather curiously puts it, one of the primary goals of “the authorship” — is to attack the illusions under which his fellow Danes are living, the chief among them being that they are living in a Christian society (which means that they believe themselves to have received Christianity as a kind of natural inheritance). The problem, Kierkegaard says, is that such illusions are hard to remove by direct attack — and indeed, the deeper the illusion is the more resistant it is to any direct confrontation.
No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed. If it is an illusion that all are Christians — and if there is anything to be done about it, it must be done indirectly, not by one who vociferously proclaims himself an extraordinary Christian, but by one who, better instructed, is ready to declare that he is not a Christian at all….
There is nothing that requires such gentle handling as an illusion, if one wishes to dispel it. If anyone prompts the prospective captive to set his will in opposition, all is lost. And this is what a direct attack achieves, and it implies moreover the presumption of requiring a man to make to another person, or in his presence, an admission which he can make most profitably to himself privately. This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy), so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God—that he has lived hitherto in an illusion.
I especially adore this: “for love is always shy.” See also the magnificent tale of the king and the lowly maiden in the Philosophical Fragments.
I think it was A. J. Ayer — one of those 20th century Oxford philosophers anyway — whose highest praise of any other philosopher was “Yes, he’s very well defended.” I think almost all of us are well-defended against the dispelling of our illusions. This is why Kierkegaard said that the person whose life is governed by some powerful illusion must be as it were approached from behind. But how could I approach myself from behind? After all, as I recently wrote, the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves. Shouldn’t I take seriously my own position?
Well, for the past couple of years I’ve been trying to do just that. I’m not any less interested in theological reflection (or in being a Christian!) that I used to be, but I’ve been reading theology for so long that it’s hard for me to be surprised by it — hard for me not to assimilate whatever I’m reading to my existing categories. So I’ve been trying to read more stuff that evades those categories, that forces me into a less predictable and (ideally) more creative response.
That’s why I’ve been trying to learn from Russian socialists and Daoists and anarchists — they’re all people who are trying to address the same social and ethical issues that concern me, but who do so from different perspectives and with the use of different intellectual tools. But I’m now thinking that, having been fortified by my encounters with those traditions of thought, it may be time to return to my specifically theological concerns and see what they look like in light of what I’ve learned. For instance:
What does Christian peaceableness look like in light of Alexander Herzen’s melioristic approach to social change?
Is there really, as I have suspected, a kind of familial resemblance between Daoism and Franciscan spirituality?
Can the “emergent order” of anarchism be a key to the building of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community”?
In short: Can I, through these oddball explorations, remove the illusions that prevent me from seeing what I should see about myself and the world? Can I learn through these exercises to think more wisely and act more justly? I dunno. I hope so.
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.”
Ars: Given what has happened over the last few years and what is expected to come, do you think the activity we’re seeing in low-Earth orbit is sustainable?
Moriba Jah: My opinion is that the answer is no, it’s not sustainable. Many people don’t like this whole “tragedy of the commons” thing, but that’s exactly what I think we’re on a present course for. Near-Earth orbital space is finite. We should be treating it like a finite resource. We should be managing it holistically across countries, with coordination and planning and these sorts of things. But we don’t do that. I think it’s analogous to the early days of air traffic and even maritime and that sort of stuff. It’s like when you have a couple of boats that are coming into a place, it’s not a big deal. But when you have increased traffic, then that needs to get coordinated because everybody’s making decisions in the absence of knowing the decisions that others are making in that finite resource.
Ars: Is it possible to manage all of this traffic in low-Earth orbit?
Jah: Right now there is no coordination planning. Each country has plans in the absence of accounting for the other country’s plans. That’s part of the problem. So it doesn’t make sense. Like, if “Amberland” was the only country doing stuff in space, then maybe it’s fine. But that’s not the case. So you have more and more countries saying, “Hey, I have free and unhindered use of outer space. Nothing legally has me reporting to anybody because I’m a sovereign nation and I get to do whatever I want.” I mean, I think that’s stupid.
It is stupid, but a familiar kind of stupid. I must have seen a dozen essays arguing that if you can find any examples of people collaborating with regard to shared goods then the tragedy of the commons argument is wrong. Which is also stupid! If we can sometimes resist the temptations to abuse any given commons, that’s not an argument that such abuse is unlikely to happen. Of course the abuse of common goods isn’t inevitable; but it is distressingly common and we should always be on the lookout for it. In space we aren’t paying sufficient attention.
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.
DHH argues that European nations should pursue digital sovereignty. I think this is right. So far the idea of a global internet has meant primarily an American internet, and I believe (a) it would be good for other nations to declare their independence from the American tech behemoths, and (b) it would be good for my country to be reminded that we cannot dictate technological and moral terms to the rest of the world.
[M]ore than twice as many Democrats agree that all students should learn about how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution advanced freedom and equality than Republicans think (92 percent versus 45 percent). Similarly, about twice as many Democrats believe students should not be made to feel guilty or personally responsible for the errors of prior generations than Republicans think (83 percent versus 43 percent). […]
[T]he proportion of Republicans who agree Americans have a responsibility to learn from our past is three times more than Democrats perceive it to be (93 percent versus 35 percent). Similarly, more than twice as many Republicans think schools should teach our shared national history as well as the history of specific groups such as Black, Hispanic and Native Americans than Democrats think Republicans believe (72 percent versus 30 percent).
One of my most vital convictions is summed up in this post: “Wondering how to decide what to read? Here’s a simple but effective heuristic to cut down the choices significantly. Ask yourself one question: Does this writer make bank when we hate one another? And if the answer is yes, don’t read that writer.” Americans have these wildly distorted views of people whom they perceive to be their political enemies because so many journalists and talking heads enrich themselves through stoking hatred. Those people should be utterly shunned.
Wedgwood seems to have thrown himself behind the cause of abolition out of genuine conviction. The medallion presented a marketing opportunity of sorts, but he manufactured it in large numbers at his own cost and ran the risk of alienating wealthy customers who opposed abolition. At the same time, as Hunt acknowledges, Wedgwood’s business was inextricable from the socioeconomic structures that sustained the slave trade. He depended on secure colonial shipping routes and sold extensively to the American colonies: Boston and Kingston were the perfect place to offload wares that had passed the peak of fashion back in Britain. Closer to home, many of his British customers derived their fortunes, one way or another, from colonial trade, including the trade in human beings. This trade helped to fuel the boom in domestic consumption that allowed Wedgwood to dream of selling high-quality artistic tableware to a growing middle-class market. Colonial commodities such as coffee, tea and sugar, with their accompanying social rituals, provided the raison d’être for many of Wedgwood’s most successful products.
It seems safe to say that beneath this admiration, there is still, for many Americans, a lurking sense of Iran as a geopolitical nemesis. The crypto-racist provocations of old Bush-era “Axis of Evil” rhetoric still have a residual influence on many people, as does the grainy mental afterimage of Ayatollah Khomeini ranting about the U.S. as the “Great Satan” in the 1980s.
I don’t even remember the last time I disagreed with Brian about soccer, but then, this really isn’t a point about soccer. My guess is that “many Americans” do not think of Iran as a nemesis, indeed do not think of Iran at all. I would estimate that the percentage of Americans who have any view of Iran at all is approximately .1%, and yes, I know how to use decimal points in percentages. Moreover, I don’t think that percentage is any higher among footy fans. People in this country don’t remember anything that happened before the election of Donald Trump, and very little of what happened before Covid.
On a totally different subject: I did not at all expect the USMNT to get through to the knockout rounds, so I am very pleasantly surprised. They look extremely solid defensively and have an absolutely dynamic midfield, but I don’t know where the goals are going to come from — especially if Pulisic’s “pelvic contusion” (ouch) keeps him out of the Netherlands match on Saturday.
Gal Beckerman, too, is interested in political talk. His new book, The Quiet Before, is essentially a history of conversation, beginning in seventeenth-century France and ending in modern-day Cairo, Charlottesville, Miami, and Minneapolis. Beckerman concentrates not on the revolutionary moment, though — the capture of the Bastille, say, or Fidel Castro’s triumphant arrival in Havana — but on the antecedents of transformative political change. “The incubation of radical new ideas,” he writes, “is a very distinct process with certain conditions: a tight space, lots of heat, passionate whispering, and a degree of freedom to work toward a common, focused aim.”
The conversations that he documents occur not just in person — indeed, rarely in person — but through letters, petitions, newspapers, manifestos, samizdat journals, and feminist zines. And they take place, these days, on social media. Whether this constitutes a continuation of the radical tradition or its negation is a — perhaps the — crucial question that Beckerman explores. We know of the Twitter ranters, Facebook trolls, and Instagram influencers, but where are the passionate whisperers of today?
It is noteworthy, and not in a good way, that an essay by Wendell Berry called “Peaceableness Toward Enemies” — written in response to the 1911 Gulf War — is relevant to the divisions that now exist among Americans. Two passages in particular stood out to me. The first:
Peaceableness toward enemies is an idea that will, of course, continue to be denounced as impractical. It has been too little tried by individuals, much less by nations. It will not readily or easily serve those who are greedy for power. It cannot be effectively used for bad ends. It could not be used as the basis of an empire. It does not afford opportunities for profit. It involves danger to practitioners. It requires sacrifice. And yet it seems to me that it is practical, for it offers the only escape from the logic of retribution. It is the only way by which we can cease to look to war for peace.
Notice how in all these ways peaceableness escapes the abuses inherent in hatred, which always is used for bad ends, always does offer opportunities for profit, etc.
The second should be read with the thought that there are non-physical forms of violence:
Peaceableness is not the amity that exists between people who agree, nor is it the exhaustion or jubilation that follows war. It is not passive. It is the ability to act to resolve conflict without violence. If it is not a practical and a practicable method, it is nothing. As a practicable method, it reduces helplessness in the face of conflict. In the face of conflict, the peaceable person may find several solutions, the violent person only one.
These passages should be read in conjunction with a poem Berry wrote around that time, called “Enemies.”
Jonah Goldberg: “You want to know what I think will happen if Republicans have a really good night on Tuesday? Not much.”
Jonah is correct. Even if the Republicans win both houses of Congress, they won’t have a veto-proof majority. Because the current GOP is purely performative and legislatively incompetent, they’ll put on some off-Broadway theater — e.g. an attempted impeachment of President Biden — that will be mildly entertaining to some but ineffectual. Fecklessness and gridlock will continue to rule the Nation’s Capital. People need to calm down.
One of the master keys to understanding our era is seeing all the ways in which conservatives and progressives have traded attitudes and impulses. The populist right’s attitude toward American institutions has the flavor of the 1970s — skeptical, pessimistic, paranoid — while the mainstream, MSNBC-watching left has a strange new respect for the F.B.I. and C.I.A. The online right likes transgression for its own sake, while cultural progressivism dabbles in censorship and worries that the First Amendment goes too far. Trumpian conservatism flirts with postmodernism and channels Michel Foucault; its progressive rivals are institutionalist, moralistic, confident in official narratives and establishment credentials.
I think about this all the time. It’s been so disorienting.
America’s superlatively poor performance cannot solely be blamed on either the Trump or Biden administrations, although both have made egregious errors. Rather, the new coronavirus exploited the country’s many failing systems: its overstuffed prisons and understaffed nursing homes; its chronically underfunded public-health system; its reliance on convoluted supply chains and a just-in-time economy; its for-profit health-care system, whose workers were already burned out; its decades-long project of unweaving social safety nets; and its legacy of racism and segregation that had already left Black and Indigenous communities and other communities of color disproportionately burdened with health problems. Even in the pre-COVID years, the U.S. was still losing about 626,000 people more than expected for a nation of its size and resources. COVID simply toppled an edifice whose foundations were already rotten.
It would be nice to say that the pandemic revealed deep-seated problems that we had managed to avoid facing — but now we must face them! Nah. We mustn’t, and we probably won’t. It turns out that reality has limited power over an infinitely distractible and distracted society.
Ukraine Can Win This War – by Liam Collins and John Spencer: Two or three times a day I see an article like this one: a confident prediction that Ukraine is in a winning position that never once considers the possibility that Russia will use nukes. I don’t see how this is anything other than the purest wishful thinking. The Ukrainian politician who says that Russia is like a monkey with a hand grenade is reckoning more seriously with the real conditions of this war.
Here’s my thesis about our current political discourse: The more controversial the topic, the more likely that writers on it will simply ignore any perspective other than their own. They won’t consider it even to refute it; they’ll just pretend it doesn’t exist.
My secondary thesis is that such people try really hard not to think of alternatives because they know they can’t deal with the objections. A. E. Housman used to say that many textual critics simply ignore possibilities for establishing a reading of a text other than the one they prefer because they’re like a donkey poised equidistant between two bales of hay who thinks that if one of the bales of hay disappears he will cease to be a donkey.
Epistemologists like to talk about defeaters of a particular proposition: it’s SOP, for them, when making an argument to ask: What eventuality would defeat my proposition? People writing enthusiastically that Ukraine will win this war never ask that question because the answer is both obvious and terrifying: Ukraine won’t win this war if Russia uses nuclear weapons against them.
Having written recently about the death of Queen Elizabeth, I’d like to call attention to some of the things I’ve written in the past about what I believe to be the essentially monarchical character of the human imagination:
Short version of all this: Every distinction we make between our “modern” selves and our “primitive” ancestors is wrong. We’re exactly like them in all the ways that really matter for our own self-understanding.
The world has no real plan to stop the genocide underway in China. Some Uyghurs are at the point where they wish the world would just cop to that harsh fact, rather than paying lip service and raising their hopes over and over.
“We had an illusion that the world would do its best to stop China from this genocide,” said Tahir Imin, a US-based Uyghur academic who believes many of his relatives are in the camps. “But the world has no plan to stop this genocide. It’s not happening. The governments should clearly say that. Either stop the genocide — or admit you will not.”
Have been trying got the past couple of years to avoid buying anything made in China, because much of it is made by slave labor — but it seems that everything I might want to buy is made there. So I just have to redouble my efforts.
I keep thinking about what the late great Paul Farmer said: “I love WL’s [White Liberals], love ’em to death. They’re on our side. But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.”
Today’s American evangelical Christianity seems to be more focused on hunting heretics internally than perhaps in any other generation. The difference, however, is that excommunications are happening not over theological views but over partisan politics or the latest social media debates.
I’ve always found it a bit disconcerting to see fellow evangelicals embrace Christian leaders who teach heretical views of the Trinity or embrace the prosperity gospel but seek exile for those who don’t vote the same way or fail to feign outrage over clickbait controversies.
But something more seems to be going on here — something involving an overall stealth secularization of conservative evangelicalism. What worries me isn’t so much that evangelical Christians can’t articulate Christian orthodoxy in a survey. It’s that, to many of them, Christian orthodoxy seems boring and irrelevant compared to claiming religious status for already-existing political, cultural, or ethnonational tribes.
A strong and sad Amen to this. It is perfectly clear that there is a movement in America of people who call themselves evangelicals but have no properly theological commitments at all. But what’s not clear, to me anyway, is how many of them there are. Donald Trump can draw some big crowds, and those crowds often have a quasi-religious focus on him or anyway on what they believe he stands for — but those crowds are not large in the context of the entire American population. They’re very visible, because both Left and Right have reasons for wanting them to be visible, but how demographically significant are they really?
I have similar questions about, for instance, the “national conservatism” movement. Is this actually a movement? Or is it just a few guys who follow one another on Twitter and subscribe to one another’s Substacks?
And I to him: ‘Who are these two wretches who steam as wet hands do in winter and lie so very near you on your right?’
‘I found them when I rained into this trough,’ he said, ‘and even then they did not move about, nor do I think they will for all eternity.
‘One is the woman who lied accusing Joseph, the other is false Sinon, the lying Greek from Troy. Putrid fever makes them reek with such a stench.’
And one of them, who took offense, perhaps at being named so vilely, hit him with a fist right on his rigid paunch.
It boomed out like a drum. Then Master Adam, whose arm seemed just as sturdy, used it, striking Sinon in the face,
saying: ‘Although I cannot move about because my legs are heavy, my arm is loose enough for such a task.’
To which the other answered: ‘When they put you to the fire, your arm was not so nimble, though it was quick enough when you were coining.’
And the dropsied one: ‘Well, that is true, but you were hardly such a truthful witness when you were asked to tell the truth at Troy.’
‘If I spoke falsely, you falsified the coin,’ said Sinon, ‘and I am here for one offense alone, but you for more than any other devil!’
‘You perjurer, keep the horse in mind,’ replied the sinner with the swollen paunch, ‘and may it pain you that the whole world knows.’
‘And may you suffer from the thirst,’ the Greek replied, ‘that cracks your tongue, and from the fetid humor that turns your belly to a hedge before your eyes!’
Then the forger: ‘And so, as usual, your mouth gapes open from your fever. If I am thirsty, and swollen by this humor,
‘you have your hot spells and your aching head. For you to lick the mirror of Narcissus would not take much by way of invitation.’
I was all intent in listening to them, when the master said: ‘Go right on looking and it is I who’ll quarrel with you.’ […]
‘Do not forget I’m always at your side should it fall out again that fortune take you where people are in wrangles such as this. For the wish to hear such things is base.’
Ché voler ciò udire è bassa voglia — to will to listen to such contemptible trash, to desire it, is base, low, self-degrading. Let me be Virgil to your Dante: When people online or on TV are going at each other, when they’re engaged in their spittle-flecked mutual recriminations — avoid it, flee it. Find something, almost anything, else to do with your time.
There’s a parallel between the seemingly unmoderated theorists of r/findbostonbombers and the Citizen app and those in QAnon: None feel any responsibility for spreading unsupported speculation as fact. What they do feel is that anything should be solvable. As Laura Hall, immersive environment and narrative designer, describes: “There’s a general sense of, ‘This should be solveable/findable/etc’ that you see in lots of reddit communities for unsolved mysteries and so on. The feeling that all information is available online, that reality and truth must be captured/in evidence somewhere.”
I would amend to “somewhere on the internet.” The assumption here is not simply that “the truth is out there” but “the truth is out there and I can find it without ever having to get off my ass.”
‘Man lives in the real world; but there’s also a parallel world: a paper one, a bureaucratic one. So the passport is the person’s double in this parallel world.’ The comment comes from a Russian woman in her thirties interviewed as part of a study in St Petersburg in 2008. She might have been channelling the philosopher Rom Harré, who called these bureaucratic doubles ‘file-selves’. It mattered a lot to Soviet citizens what their file-selves looked like: the wrong social class or nationality entered in an internal passport, or a notation restricting movement, could be a disaster. But file-selves matter elsewhere too. The Anglosphere – the UK, Canada, the US, Australia – may have eschewed the Russian/Soviet path of a compulsory internal passport, distinct from the passport required for foreign travel, but drivers’ licences and credit records often serve the same functions, and electronic identity cards may not be too far away. The British, while skittish about mandatory ID cards, have the largest number of surveillance cameras per capita of any country except China.
Burns has a soft spot for Franklin and Eleanor, the subjects of one of his prior films, and here he treats them with kid gloves, blaming most of the missteps on State Department antagonists. The series makes a point of establishing the bigoted, racist atmosphere of the U.S. at the time, showing Nazi rallies in New York, clips of the popular anti-Semitic broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin, and colorized footage of a Nazi-themed summer camp in New Jersey. But the film goes out of its way to outline the pros and cons of Roosevelt’s decisions, leaving his reputation intact. To be clear, Roosevelt is an American icon and deserves to remain one. The problem with this approach is less about Roosevelt (there are plenty of convincing arguments in his favor, not least that he won the war) than about how it contradicts the rest of the film’s premise. The goal of the series is seemingly to reset America’s moral compass, using hindsight to expose the costs of being a bystander. But every bystander, including Roosevelt, can explain his choices. The film’s refusal to judge the commander in chief plays into a larger political pattern: offering generosity only toward those we admire.
Or whom we perceive to be on Our Team. The whole essay is excellent, but I especially appreciate the unpacking of this point: “Democracies, for all their strengths, are ill-equipped for identifying and responding to evil.”
A: I don’t know, I think we need to get our own house in order before we launch into critiques of our enemies.
B: There’s no time for that! The situation is too dire.
A: But what if the situation is dire precisely because we never got our house in order, because we tolerated dishonesty, corruption, and short-term and shabby thinking for so long?
B: Maybe that’s true, but we can’t worry about that now. Our enemies are taking over and we have to stop them at all costs!
A: But isn’t that what you were saying years ago, in a situation that you now see as less dire than the current one?
B: This is a do-or-die moment. You’re just denying reality if you don’t see that.
A: You said that years ago also. If every moment is one of absolute crisis, then no moment is. I know a guy, a maker, a very successful small businessman, who is running way behind on his work. He’s facing a genuine crisis. And yet he just took six weeks off to completely reorganize his workflow and his workspace. He did so because he knows that (a) he should have done it long ago and (b) his problems won’t go away — unless people stop ordering his products because he doesn’t deliver. In that case his problems will have gone away because his business will have gone away. He’s taking a big hit to his business in the short term because that is the only way for him to be successful over the long haul. That’s precisely how we ought to be thinking. It is never the wrong time to get your house in order. And maybe the greater the crisis the more essential it is to take a good hard look at ourselves before flailing at our opponents.
When we are caked with the mud of political struggle, and tired of Pyrrhic victories that seed new hatreds, and frightened by our own capacity for contempt, the way of life set out by Jesus comes like a clear bell that rings above our strife. It defies cynicism, apathy, despair and all ideologies that dream of dominance. It promises that every day, if we choose, can be the first day of a new and noble manner of living. Its most difficult duties can feel much like purpose and joy. And even our halting, halfhearted attempts at faithfulness are counted by God as victories.
God’s call to us while not simplifying our existence does ennoble it. It is the invitation to a life marked by meaning. And even when, as mortality dictates, we walk the path we had feared to tread, it can be a pilgrimage, in which all is lost, and all is found.
Before such a consummation, Christians seeking social influence should do so not by joining interest groups that fight for their narrow rights and certainly not those animated by hatred, fear, phobias, vengeance or violence. Rather, they should seek to be ambassadors of a kingdom of hope, mercy, justice and grace. This is a high calling and a test that most of us (myself included) are always finding new ways to fail. But it is the revolutionary ideal set by Jesus of Nazareth, who still speaks across the sea of years.
Politics is exceptionally difficult. I mean, think about it: what could be more complex and challenging and fraught with landmines than the attempt to figure out ways for all of us, with all our differences, to live in some semblance of just harmony together. Moreover, as we have seen repeatedly throughout human history, even the most well-intentioned and well-informed of policies can have unfortunate or even disastrous unforeseen consequences. (What William Goldman said about the movies is even more true of politics: “Nobody knows anything.”) And, to add to all that: I have no specialized political knowledge or experience. Sure, like everyone else, I have my preferences and inclinations and aversions, but there is absolutely no reason for me or for anyone else to think that my opinions have any particular weight or value. So, in public I will remain largely silent about political matters, and will focus instead on writing and speaking within my areas of expertise. In that way I hope to provide some public service while also avoiding the dangers of darkening counsel by words without knowledge.