I think we’re all bozos on this bus

For the last few weeks I’ve been tinkering with a draft of a post on American incompetence — on the basic inability of almost everyone in this country simply to do their jobs. That was time ill spent, because Kevin Williamson has performed the task it for me, and done it well:

It is easy to see the advantage of offering not ideology or even innovation but bare competence — competence is an increasingly rare commodity in American life. Consider the 21st century so far: the intelligence and security failures that led to 9/11, the failure to secure American military and political priorities in Afghanistan and Iraq, the subprime-mortgage boom that sparked the financial crisis of 2008–09 and the subsequent recession, business bailouts, the failures and abuses of American police departments and the riots and arson that have accompanied them, the COVID–19 epidemic, the troubles in the universities, the fecklessness and mischief of the big technology companies, the political failure to deal with serious issues from illegal immigration to environmental degradation, American frustration at the rise of China as a world power and the geopolitical resurgence of such backward countries as Turkey and Russia, the remorseless piling up of the national debt and unfunded entitlement liabilities, bankrupt and nearly bankrupt cities and public agencies — the list goes on. Americans are not wrong to question the competence of American government and American institutions, nor are they alone in doing so: The rest of the world is reevaluating longstanding presumptions of American competence, too.

And furthermore:

If things go wonky on Tuesday, if the presidential election goes unresolved and the subsequent contest is marked by political violence and civil disorder, American credibility will slide further still. In the event of an electoral crisis, we will be forced to rely on institutions that already have been tested and found wanting: Congress, many state governments, the news media, the professional political caste. And Americans will turn for information and insight … where, exactly? Twitter? Facebook? Fox News? Talk radio? The New York Times? Even the police upon whom we rely for basic physical security have shown themselves all too often unable or unwilling to perform their most basic duties.

What we need as a nation, more than anything else I can think of, is a recommitment to basic competence, and, especially, a refusal to accept ideological justifications for plain old ineptitude. Too often Americans give a free pass to bunglers and bozos who belong to their tribe. We have for decades now operated under the assumption that our material and social world will function perfectly well on its own even if we cease to attend to it. It won’t.

individualism

For the past hundred years or so, we have had a vast multifarious culture industry devoted to the critique of individualism. Individualism, we have been told over and over again, is the acid bath in which all previous forms of social attachment have been dissolved.

Take — as just one example among a thousand possible ones — Allan Bloom’s famous diatribe The Closing of the American Mind (1987): 

Tocqueville describes the tip of the iceberg of advanced egalitarianism when he discusses the difficulty that a man without family lands, or a family tradition for whose continuation he is responsible, will have in avoiding individualism and seeing himself as an integral part of a past and a future, rather than as an anonymous atom in a merely changing continuum. The modern economic principle that private vice makes public virtue has penetrated all aspects of daily life in such a way that there seems to be no reason to be a conscious part of civic existence.

And:

They know the truth of Tocqueville’s dictum that “in democratic societies, each citizen is habitually busy with the contemplation of a very petty object, which is himself,” a contemplation now intensified by a greater indifference to the past and the loss of a national view of the future. The only common project engaging the youthful imagination is the exploration of space, which everyone knows to be empty. The resulting inevitable individualism, endemic to our regime, has been reinforced by another unintended and unexpected development, the decline of the family, which was the intermediary between individual and society, providing quasi-natural attachments beyond the individual, that gave men and women unqualified concern for at least some others and created an entirely different relation to society from that which the isolated individual has. 

And:

The question is whether reasonings really take the place of instincts, whether arguments about the value of tradition or roots can substitute for immediate passions, whether this whole interpretation is not just a reaction unequal to the task of stemming a tide of egalitarian, calculating individualism, which the critics themselves share, and the privileges of which they would be loath to renounce.

Bloom’s diagnosis describes a now-vanished world. Has any dominant social ethos, any regnant model of the self-in-the-world, ever died as quickly as individualism has? For indeed it is gone with the wind. 

The self as monad — the self “lost in the cosmos,” as Walker Percy described it — was blown far away by the derecho of social media. What remained was not, Lord knows, an identification with humanity or even with a body of belief, but rather merger with some amorphous body of people with the same sexual orientation, or gender identity, or race, or ethnicity, or designation as a “deplorable.” Think of how many sentences now begin with “As a [fill in the blank]” — sentences spoken and written by people who do not know how to express ideas of their own but only to begin by attaching themselves to a group and claiming the authority they perceive intrinsic to that group. 

In this environment, John Danaher and Steve Petersen’s forthcoming essay “In Defence of the Hivemind Society” was inevitable. It’s an articulation in philosophical form of what has already become a felt reality, the dominant felt reality for at least a billion people.  

The question, for me, is whether this increasingly widespread abandonment of individualism in favor of group identities can be leveraged to argue on behalf of the kinds of group identities that individualism discarded, especially the ties of family and membership in religious communities. I have my doubts, but I can’t think of anything more essential for those of a conservative disposition or of Christian faith to think about. 

So long, individualism. It wasn’t all that nice knowing you. 

out-wrathing

In 2017, I was interviewed by Emma Green of the Atlantic about my book How To Think. Here’s an excerpt:

Green: Ideologically speaking, people are often stuck in their own “truths” — they’re like circles in Venn diagrams that don’t necessarily overlap. Your proposal of generous listening and consideration is almost impossible to imagine.

Jacobs: You’re right that it is hard to envision. What I’m trying to do is slow people down. One of the most important passages in the book is where the software developer Jason Fried is wanting to argue with a guy who is giving a talk, and the guy says, “Just give it five minutes.” If we could just give it five minutes — even five minutes — we might be able to cool down enough to say, “Maybe this is different than what I first thought,” or “Maybe there’s a point here. Maybe this isn’t completely insane.”

Green: Is the right or the left more to blame for this fracture?

Jacobs: They’re bad in different ways. There’s a smugness on both sides. But I am more worried about the condition of the right in America right now. I think the primary moral fault of the left is a kind of smug contemptuousness toward people who don’t agree. And I think that’s a bad fault. But the primary fault of the right at this moment in America is wrath. I worry about the consequences of wrath more than I worry about the consequences of contemptuous smugness.

After re-reading this today, I have two thoughts. First, things have gotten worse. Second, the Left now our-wraths the Right.

as essential as bread

People often talk about the death of the humanities, or hard times for the humanities, but when they do what they really mean is the death of or hard times for humanities departments in universities. But humanities departments in universities are not the humanities. There’s a really interesting passage in Leszek Kołakowski’s book Metaphysical Horror in which he discusses the many times that philosophers have made a “farewell to philosophy,” have declared philosophy dead or finished. Kołakowski says that when all of the “issues that once formed the kernel of philosophical reflection” have been dismissed by professional philosophers, that doesn’t actually silence the ancient questions that once defined philosophy.

But such things, although we may shunt them aside, ban them from acceptable discourse and declare them shameful, do not simply go away, for they are an ineradicable part of culture. Either they survive, temporarily silent, in the underground of civilization, or they find an outlet in distorted forms of expression.… Excommunications do not necessarily kill. Our sensibility to the traditional worries of philosophy has not weathered away; it survives subcutaneously, as it were, ready to reveal its presence at the slightest accidental provocation.

I believe this to be true, and therefore, while I am concerned by the likely fate of our universities and by the ways that so many professors in the humanities have been stupidly complicit in their own demise, I don’t worry about the death of the humanities. Though I don’t agree with Philip Larkin’s view that people will eventually stop worshipping in churches, I think he’s right when he says, near the end of “Church Going,” that ”someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious,” and when that happens such a person will gravitate towards all the great works of the past — and of the present too, though that will feel less necessary — even though the whole of society heaps scorn on all that our ancestors have done.

Here’s how we’ll know that things have gotten really bad in our society: People will start turning to Homer and Dante and Bach and Mozart. Czeslaw Milosz — like Kołakowski, a Pole, perhaps not a trivial correspondence — wrote that “when an entire community is struck by misfortune, for instance, the Nazi occupation of Poland, the ‘schism between the poet and the great human family’ disappears and poetry becomes as essential as bread.”

I think often, those days, of Emily St. John Mandel’s haunting novel Station Eleven, in which the great majority of human beings have been killed by a deadly plague, and those who remain live at a near-subsistence level. Even so, some musicians and actors have banded together to form an itinerant troupe, the Travelling Symphony.

The Symphony performed music — classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs — and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.

“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said.

on social acceleration

Recently I’ve read two of the most stimulating, provocative, generative books I’ve read in a long time. One of them is Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. I hope to have something to say about that in the near future.

The other, and the one I want to talk about here, is Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration. This one poses some real challenges to me, primarily because it bears so directly on the book I’m writing but is not the sort of thing — it gets deep into the weeds of social theory — that I can treat at length in a book for a general audience. So as relevant as it is to the argument of Breaking Bread with the Dead, I won’t say much about it there, though it will surely end up in the notes a few times. (One of the things I most want to do in my writing for general audiences is to translate complex work in theology, philosophy, and social, cultural, and literary theory into terms accessible to the common reader — and to do so without defacing the ideas by oversimplifying them.) 

I’ll unpack a bit of Rosa’s argument here, then. Rosa looks at the phenomenon of acceleration in three dimensions:

  1. “technical acceleration, that is, the intentional acceleration of goal-directed processes”; 
  2. “acceleration of social change, that is, the escalation of the rate of social change with respect to associational structures, knowledge (theoretical, practical, and moral), social practices, and action orientations”; 
  3. “acceleration of the pace of life represents a reaction to the scarcity of (uncommitted) time resources. This is why, on the one hand, it is expressed in the experience of stress and a lack of time, and, on the other, it can be defined as an increase in the number of episodes of action and/or experience per unit of time.”

The relationship between these three dimensions, Rosa shows, is complex: after all, when you have technical acceleration, especially in the form of what we call “labor-saving devices,” shouldn’t our pace of life slow down? And yet it often doesn’t — or, perhaps more accurately, we don’t feel that it does.

Rosa also discusses various “decelerating” forces or institutions, and it’s the last of those that I want to focus on here. Unlike the deceleration of a technologically backward society with scant or no access to the most current technologies — and also unlike the deliberate choice, long term or short, of technological limitation (the family living “off the grid” or the techbro vacationing in a monastery) — this final kind of deceleration is “the paradoxical flip side of social acceleration.” Many people in our time have “the experience of an uneventfulness and standstill that underlies the rapidly changing surface of social conditions and events, one that accompanies the modern perception of dynamization from the very beginning as a second fundamental experience of modernization.” Rosa often uses in the book a phrase by the cultural theorist Paul Virilio: “frenetic standstill” — the widespread sense that the world around us is in constant flux and yet nothing essential is happening — nothing essential can happen. (There’s a fascinating section of the book on the ways that depression is a natural response to this and therefore the characteristic disease of late modernity.) 

This sense of “frenetic standstill” is especially common when the second dimension, acceleration of social change, crosses a certain threshold. Rosa looks at three social conditions, divided by two thresholds. In the first condition no obviously major change happens over several generations, or if it does happen it happens with imperceptible slowness, which lends to everyone in that society a feeling of stability, even permanence. Thus it was, thus it is, thus it shall ever be.

But when a major change occurs fast enough so that one generation of people can see that they’re living in a different form of life than their parents, or grandparents, did, then a threshold has been crossed. And Rosa argues that when this happens people tend to perceive that change as progressive: the world is going somewhere, it has a direction, and if I go with it my life can have a progressive direction too.

However: there’s another threshold to cross, as we have recently learned, and that’s when significant social change happens within a generation. Not only is your social world different than the one your parents experienced and came to count on, it’s different than the social world you experienced even a short time ago. When that happens, you see a couple getting a divorce because when they married they were “different people.” You get Farhad Manjoo feeling that the gender that he absolutely took for granted just a few years ago is now an “ubiquitous prison for the mind.” You get a Christian academic like David Gushee making a career of chastising people for holding views he himself held quite recently. And everyone thinks this kind of thing is normal: to look upon your very self of five years ago as a stranger, and presumably one for whose beliefs and actions your NowSelf cannot possibly be held responsible.

But, Rosa reminds us, we don’t really how what life on this side of that second threshold is going to do to us.

An intragenerational tempo of change thus undeniably raises the question of the temporally specific, so to speak, load-bearing capacity of cultural reproduction and social integration. The consequences of the growing intergenerational divide in lifeworld orientations and everyday practices as well as the ongoing devaluation of experience for the exchange between generations, for the passing on of cultural knowledge, and for the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity have hardly been studied at all.

It hasn’t been studied, but the consequences are going to be interesting (and, I think, not pleasant) to see unfold. For instance, here’s one aspect of the “ongoing devaluation of experience for the exchange between generations, for the passing on of cultural knowledge, and for the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity”: a currently small but increasing number of parents live in absolute terror of “assigning” gender to their children. Some decades from now there will surely be some powerfully embittered people who will despise their parents for having forced such choices on them when they were wholly unprepared to make them.

And yet many of those same parents don’t hesitate to forbid the eating of meat or Twinkies or Doritos to those same children, and will be deeply grieved when, as is inevitable, some of those kids end up as junk-food junkies. So I don’t think there will ever be a wholesale abandonment of “the passing on of cultural knowledge,” or of a desire for “the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity.” But what, specifically, people will want to pass down to their children will change. And there’s no doubt that as long as social change happens, or is felt to, at the current rate, parents will want to give their children free choices as often as they can possibly bear to. The “load-bearing capacity of cultural reproduction and social integration” will continue to decline, it seems likely. 

And yet maybe not inevitable. There’s a passage from Adorno’s Minima Moralia that I think of often — and that Rosa refers briefly to at one point: “Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars.”

on cultural socialism and metaphysical capitalism

My buddy Rod Dreher is talking a lot these days about “cultural socialism.” I wish he wouldn’t. Rod believes that the term “cultural socialism” is justified because, like actual socialism, it’s about the redistribution of resources — in this case the resources of access, prestige, etc. But if so, then much of McCarthyism was cultural socialism. McCarthy sought to pull down the privilege of communist fellow travelers in cultural high places (Hollywood) and replace them with God-fearing Americans. The social wing of Wilberforce’s movement, which sought to drive slave-owners from polite society while bringing in formerly excluded people like Olaudah Equiano: cultural socialism!

If Rod places a lot of emphasis on this term, then here’s a preview of the first review of his forthcoming book: “We’ve already read this book, under a slightly different title: Jonah Goldberg wrote it and called it Liberal Fascism. This is just Goldberg’s idea but with a hat-tip to the alt-right’s cries against ‘cultural Marxism.’”

Rod absolutely right, and right in a very important way, that the strategies that Christians and conservatives and, in general non-socialists used to survive under Soviet-sponsored socialism are likely to become immensely relevant to many American Christians and conservatives in the coming years. (I may say more about that in another post.) But that doesn’t mean that what we’re battling against is a form of socialism, cultural or otherwise. I would argue rather that it’s the ultimate extension of the free market — a kind of metaphysical capitalism. The gospel of the present moment is, as I have frequently commented, “I am my own.” I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want; any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny. That some kind of redistribution of access/prestige/attention and even economic resources might be needed to bring this gospel to those who have not previously been able to enjoy its benefits should not obscure for us what the core proclamation really is.

once more on generational thinking

Reading this post by Rod Dreher, I am moved to say a couple of things I’ve said often before:

  1. I believe that thinking in terms of generations is far more likely to lead us astray than to help us understand. It encourages us to ignore a whole series of factors (class, region, religious belief or unbelief, level and kind of education, etc.) that are at least as important as date of birth.
  2. If you must think in generation terms, then use Joshua Glenn’s more fine-grained and thoughtful scheme. Otherwise you’ll use absurd categories like “Boomer,” which has Donald Trump and Barack Obama in the same generation, which is manifestly absurd.

That said, people do think in rather crude generational terms and it has a major effect on our social discourse — but not one that is equally distributed. As a rule, your ideas get attributed to your generation when you’re under 30 or over 60. In between your ideas might be popular or they might be scorned, but they generally won’t be explained by your generational placement — though they might be explained by your gender or sexuality or (rarely) social class, for Bulverism we shall always have with us.

When you’re noticeably younger than the people we tend to see in leading roles on TV and in the movies, or noticeably older, your age is registered and then deployed as a causal agent — almost always in order to dismiss your ideas. (Rod’s post is unusual in that it gives equal weight to the influence of generations on people in the in-between years.)

I’ve been told that I think the way I do because I’m white, because I’m straight, because I’m a Christian, because I’m Southern — but rarely, to my recollection, because of my age. I’m pretty sure that’s about to change. In a few weeks I’ll turn sixty, and then I will have the rest of my life in which to enjoy having my ideas waved away because of the year in which I was born. Which ought to be fun.

engagement 24/7

I’ve talked about this before, in bits and pieces, but just for the record: My wife Teri and I believe that our calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to tend to the seamless garment of life — our understanding of which I’ve tried to describe in some detail here — and we try to back that up in various ways. Teri does more of this than I do: she tutors a middle-schooler who lives in poverty and a broken home, and has been supportive of Waco’s immigrant population. In addition to tithing to our church, we have contributed to Sandy Hook Promise and are members of the Nature Conservancy. But we also are strongly, passionately pro-life in the everyday use of that term, so we also support, among other like-minded organizations, Anglicans for Life.

All that by way of context.

Yesterday we were watching one of our favorite shows, The Starters on NBA TV, and to our surprise were treated to a little in-show infomercial for Planned Parenthood … and our hearts sank like stones. Now you may adore PP — and if so, there’s no need to tell me why, I’ve heard it all before — but just understand: in our view, there’s no nonprofit organization in America that does as much harm as PP. (The NRA doesn’t come within miles of it, though, speaking more objectively, it may be the only nonprofit that’s more controversial than PP). So we were no longer in the mood to enjoy funny banter about basketball; we turned off the TV, and may not watch the show again. Time will tell. We’re not the boycotting type, but that was a serious annoyance. 

Later on I was thinking about my reaction, and recalled the recent absurd kerfuffle about that arose when some Fox News yammerer chastised NBA players for their political activism and told them to shut up and dribble. I asked myself: How am I any different? Am I not saying to The Starters, “Shut up and make basketball jokes”? 

I’ve been turning over the question in my mind, and I think there is a difference. As it happens, when players like LeBron James speak out about racism in America I almost always agree with them, but even if I didn’t, their views don’t alter my experience of the game they play. (The same is true of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, though I don’t watch the NFL. If I did, I could just wait until kickoff to turn the TV on.) Similarly, I don’t care whether the chef at my favorite restaurant has totally different politics than mine, nor am I interested in what charities he or she supports. 

But if that chef came out between the appetizer and the entrée to explain what charities she supports and to press me to support them too, I would be pretty pissed off (even if I supported those charities myself). If LeBron could call a time out in the middle of the third quarter, grab a microphone, and give the audience a lecture about Black Lives Matter, I would be seriously annoyed (even if I were a fervent supporter of BLM). 

So that was my problem with what happened on The Starters. I would never try to find out what charities the hosts of a show I watch supports or what their politics are, and if I happened to find out I wouldn’t stop watching the show. But for them to use show time to cheerlead for one of the most controversial, one of the most widely despised, nonprofits in America — that strikes me as a violation of the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience. And once that implicit contract is violated, then there’s no way to know whether or not it will become a regular feature — which is why I may not be watching the show again. 

But here’s the thing: what I have called “the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience” no longer holds, at least not generally. The infiltration of every corner of culture by politics, of every former site of pleasure by culture wars, is nearly complete now. I have no doubt that The Starters see promoting their politics on the show as a mark of seriousness, a mark of true virtue, and will therefore be pleased rather than chagrined by any pushback they get.

If you don’t want to be engaged in the struggle 24/7, your only refuge now — if you’re lucky — is your dreams.