Well, somebody seems to be all eaten up with ressentiment:
The Winter Scene
The rutted roads are all like iron; skies
Are keen and brilliant; only the oak-leaves cling
In the bare woods, or the hardy bitter-sweet;
Drivers have put their sheepskin jackets on;
And all the ponds are sealed with sheeted ice
That rings with stroke of skate and hockey-stick,
Or in the twilight cracks with running whoop.
Bring in the logs of oak and hickory,
And make an ample blaze on the wide hearth.
Now is the time, with winter o’er the world,
For books and friends and yellow candle-light,
And timeless lingering by the settling fire.
While all the shuddering stars are keen with cold.
Out from the silent portal of the hours,
When frosts are come and all the hosts put on.
Their burnished gear to march across the night
And o’er a darkened earth in splendor shine,
Slowly above the world Orion wheels
His glittering square, while on the shadowy hill
And throbbing like a sea-light through the dusk,
Great Sirius rises in his flashing blue.
Lord of the winter night, august and pure,
Returning year on year untouched by time,
To hearten faith with thine unfaltering fire,
There are no hurts that beauty cannot ease,
No ills that love cannot at last repair,
In the victorious progress of the soul.
Russet and white and gray is the oak wood
In the great snow. Still from the North it comes,
Whispering, settling, sifting through the trees,
O’erloading branch and twig. The road is lost.
Clearing and meadow, stream and ice-bound pond
Are made once more a trackless wilderness
In the white hush where not a creature stirs;
And the pale sun is blotted from the sky.
In that strange twilight the lone traveller halts
To listen to the stealthy snowflakes fall.
And then far off toward the Stamford shore,
Where through the storm the coastwise liners go,
Faint and recurrent on the muffled air,
A foghorn booming through the Smother–hark!
When the day changed and the mad wind died down,
The powdery drifts that all day long had blown
Across the meadows and the open fields,
Or whirled like diamond dust in the bright sun,
Settled to rest, and for a tranquil hour
The lengthening bluish shadows on the snow
Stole down the orchard slope, and a rose light
Flooded the earth with beauty and with peace.
Then in the west behind the cedars black
The sinking sun stained red the winter dusk
With sullen flare upon the snowy ridge,–
As in a masterpiece by Hokusai,
Where on a background gray, with flaming breath
A scarlet dragon dies in dusky gold.
— Bliss Carman
You Will be Hollow. We Shall Squeeze You Empty and Then We Shall Fill You With Ourselves.
One of my frequent criticisms of religious believers has been the dishonest way in which they profess to humble themselves before a transcendant ideal which, upon closer examination, turns out to be nothing but a projection of their own narcissism. The “true” message of Christianity, for example, amazingly, incredibly, shockingly turns out to be identical with the temperament and culturally shaped beliefs of the speaker. They proclaim themselves lowly servants of a greater whole upon which they nonetheless assert unrestrained creative control. They feign innocence while digging up buried treasure which they themselves planted under cover of psychological darkness.
It’s not much different when it comes to identity politics. White social justice warriors pride themselves on their magnanimity upon ceding “control of the dialogue” to representatives of marginalized groups. If you think you detect a conveniently self-fulfilling prophetic aspect to how those “true” representatives of black interests, feminist interests, etc. are chosen, never fear. There’s a white guy over there with polls, graphs, statistics and unimpeachable rationality who has already figured it all out for you.
Our Way Lighted by Burning Men
Jonathan Haidt, following Jerry Muller’s lead, distinguishes conservatism from orthodoxy:
Orthodoxy is the view that there exists a “transcendant moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under sharia, are examples of orthodoxy. They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change. This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.
Muller next distinguished conservatism from the counter-Enlightenment. It is true that most resistance to the Enlightenment can be said to have been conservative, by definition (i.e., clerics and aristocrats were trying to conserve the old order.) But modern conservatism, Muller asserts, finds its origins within the main currents of Enlightenment thinking, when men such as David Hume and Edmund Burke tried to develop a reasoned, pragmatic and essentially utilitarian critique of the Enlightenment project.
…Muller went through a series of claims about human nature and institutions, which he said are the core beliefs of conservatism. Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed. Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience.
A similar theme which I heard years ago differentiated conservative from radical, not from liberal. Liberal is rather the opposite of authoritarian. Others have juxtaposed empiricism and rationalism in a similar manner. And this theme is also characteristic of the thinking of John Gray and Isaiah Berlin, two of my favorite authors:
Gray, like his friend and mentor Isaiah Berlin, sets himself against all proponents of the grand idea – of progress, of perfectibility, of the right and only way to live. He would, one suspects, champion the bureaucrat over the ideologue any day. We love to castigate bureaucracies – look what a hate-word “Brussels” has become for our latter-day Jacobins of right and left – but consider the alternative. People who kiss their spouses goodbye in the morning, stick from nine-to-five at their humdrum desks, and come home in the evening looking forward to a nice dinner and something on the telly, are surely to be preferred to those cold-eyed demagogues, “the prophets with armies at their backs”, as Isaiah Berlin has it, who conceive a burning vision of exactly how the world should work and are prepared to spill the blood of millions to ensure the imposition of their system.
A Pig Satisfied
This problem pervades our efforts to think about the other animals, for when we try to think about what it is like to be another animal, we bring our human standards with us, and then the other animals seem to us like lesser beings. A human being who lives a life governed only by desires and instincts, not by values, would certainly be a lesser being. But that doesn’t mean that the other animals are lesser beings. They are simply beings of a different kind. When we look at the other animals through the lens of our own standards, just as when we look at them through the lens of our own interests, we cannot get them properly in view.
We are all born, as Eliot says, in moral stupidity, unable to see others except through the lens of our own interests and standards. Kant suggested that it took four steps for us to emerge from this moral stupidity, but perhaps there is a fifth step we have yet to take. That is to try to look at the other animals and their lives unhindered by our own interests and specifically human standards, and to see them for what they really are. What is important about the other animals is what we have in common: that they, like us, are the kinds of beings to whom things can be important. Like us, they pursue the things that are important to them as if they were important absolutely, important in deadly earnest—for, like us, what else can they do?
Get Yourself Correct
When I saw, in this Atlantic Wire piece, that Internet personality “Jay Smooth” was lecturing Radley Balko on his attitude towards people of color, I laughed out loud. It’s like God decided, “I’m going to create the perfect possible example of cultural liberalism’s preference for feelings over material conditions.”
Jay Smooth makes videos on the Internet. So he’s got that going for him. Radley Balko, meanwhile, has gotten actual black people out of actual jail. He has worked tirelessly against police abuse and corruption, the drug war, and mass incarceration, and specifically the mass incarceration of young black men. He’s been cited in court cases where innocent people were freed. His journalism– you know, the kind where you go out into the world and find out facts in order to create change, rather than sit in front of a webcam and use tired slang– has helped to create material change in the world. That matters. You know what doesn’t matter? Tweets about how offended you are by something. Your tweets do nothing. They accomplish nothing, make nothing happen. They do less than nothing: they are nothing that you mistake for something, and thus make it harder to actual apprise the actual situation. Let’s check the percentages, please.
If you’re a white person who thinks that “Jay Smooth” has the right to lecture Radley Balko about race in America, you care more about your social positioning than about the material conditions of the nonwhite people you claim to be speaking for. Period. But then that’s true of white, web-enabled social liberalism in general: it is fodder for the endless cultural and social status competitions of the people undertaking it, and not for the productive purpose of ending racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or other ills. Online social liberalism is a cul de sac.
It’s all just so goddamned good. I can’t add anything but applause! (I only wish Freddie were black, so I could watch good progressives like TBogg and DougJ call him a house liberal and a lawn jockey in response.)
What I got from Gray’s book on Berlin was a sense of the tragic and intractable nature of the human condition. Gray writes that the first implication of Berlin’s perspective is a rejection of any idea of a perfect society or a perfect human life. Its second implication is that a developed morality cannot have a settled hierarchical structure that solves our dilemmas by telling us how to act. In political and moral life, we are engaged in endless trade-offs between conflicting goods and evils and there is no infallible system against which we can measure these values against each other. That is why we often arrive at situations in which more deliberation will take us no further and we have no choice but to act.
As Denis Healey reminded us, though we never reach conclusions in politics we have to make decisions. The way I like to describe this approach to life is as a kind of flowing improvisation or existential jazz in which we constantly adapt to new circumstances in order to keep the music going. It is possible to understand the operations of natural evolution in this way and Gray believes that other animals are better performers than we are because they don’t get stuck on fixed scripts the way we do.
…While Gray believes that life can be lived well without such metaphysical comfort, the gentle side of him has sympathy for those who find consolation in these myths of final redemption. The real illusion that Gray is trying to overthrow, in both Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals, is what philosophers call “teleology”, which is the belief that there is a purpose to life that can be discovered by thought or mediated by revelation. In our determined pursuit of both religious and secular versions of this grand illusion, we have tortured and destroyed each other in unimaginable numbers throughout our history.
…Yet in this book, a new note has entered his writing. To his prophetic contempt for those who destroy others in the name of their theories has been added a lyrical new theme he calls “godless mysticism”, through which he calls us to an attitude of contemplative gratitude for the only life we will ever have.
He writes: “Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.”
Cool, daddy-o. I can dig that.
Wading Through the Market’s Waste, We Locked Eyes, Felt Our Loneliness Abate
Thom Yorke, answering readers’ questions:
You said in an interview once that you don’t like the idea that a banker could be listening to your music. Have you lost hope in people in the banking system? Or do you think artists can influence bankers? Katarzyna Slopien
I think artists can influence only through making music that challenges people, excites them and flips them out. Music that repeats what you know in ever-decreasing derivation, that’s unchallenging and unstimulating, deadens our minds, our imagination and our ability to see beyond the hell we find ourselves in. My problem with bankers or, rather, the banking system is, that it’s the ultimate expression of “Fuck you, buddy”. There is no communal human consciousness, no will to co-operation, we are all slaves to the market. It’s as if it has always been thus. It hasn’t.
These bankers have made personal fortunes by stealing, exploiting and destroying our assets, our workforce, our resources and our planet. All protected, assisted and now bailed out by our governments using our money. High priests to a false god that they’ve done very nicely out of, thank you very much.
That’s the rant over. In answer to your question, I guess lots of them are around my age and I know a few, and I am very aware of having led a very different life to most people my age. I hate to judge on an individual basis but I think whatever wealth has been accumulated in this sphere has not made those who have done it necessarily happy.
I hope, like I said, that sometimes music, maybe even my music, would help unravel the fear, cynicism and greed that stands between us and changing this shit for good. Who knows? Perhaps they’ll wake up tomorrow and say: “You know what? Fuck this. I’ve found my conscience, it was in the suit that’s just come back from the dry cleaner’s and I’m going to jolly well use it.”
Oh, Thom. Are you still on this silly romantic kick? There is no salvation for abstractions like “humanity” through some sort of objectively inspiring “art”; there are only individuals finding contingent meaning and inspiration where they can. What I mean to say is, fuck your derivative, unchallenging, snobbish clichés about how we will finally be free when the last bankster has been strangled with the guitar strings of the last Nickelback. Fear, cynicism and greed are equally integral parts of what it means to exist as a human, both collectively and individually; the progressivist notion that they can be neatly delineated and surgically excised, leaving only the “good” bits behind, is one of the oldest delusions of humankind, and ironically responsible for no small amount of suffering itself. We’re never going to all be inspired by the same things at the same time or desirous of the same ends by the same means. Let me guess: that thought depresses you? Let me reassure you: it doesn’t necessarily have to.
But then something unexpected occurred. Suddenly and paradoxically I only saw the world through the lens of this research. I made inaccurate judgments, illogical conclusions and was irrational about irrationality because I filtered my beliefs through the literature on decision-making – the same literature, I remind you, that warns against the power of latching onto beliefs. Meanwhile, I naively believed that knowledge of cognitive biases made me epistemically superior to my peers (just like knowing Sartre made me more authentic).
Only later did I realize that learning about decision-making gives rise to what I term the confirmation bias bias, or the tendency for people to generate a narrow (and pessimistic) conception of the mind after reading literature on how the mind thinks narrowly. Biases restrict our thinking but learning about them should do the opposite. Yet you’d be surprised how many decision-making graduate students and overzealous Kahneman, Ariely and Gilbert enthusiasts do not understand this. Knowledge of cognitive biases, perhaps the most important thing to learn for good thinking, actually increases ignorance in some cases. This is the Sartre Fallacy – we think worse after learning how to think better.
I can’t recall any particular examples off the top of my head, but this theme is prevalent in a lot of writing about Zen, too — if you think you’ve become enlightened, it’s a pretty good sign you haven’t. But if you think denying that you’re enlightened means that you are, then you’re wrong.
Adjacent to Refuse is Refuse
These are “Facebook abstainers,” people who engage in a “performative mode of resistance, which must be understood within the context of a neoliberal consumer culture, in which subjects are empowered to act through consumption choices—or in this case non-consumption choices—and through the public display of those choices.” In other words, is dropping your Facebook account an act of political defiance?
According to Portwood-Stacer, those who commit “Facebook suicide” or frequent the @NotOnFacebook Twitter account, or post to the hashtag #facebooksucks (Facebook no, Twitter si?) or flee to the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine may be embracing a form of reverse snobbery: “taste and distinction are invoked by refusers through their conspicuous display of non-consumption.” Call it reverse Veblenism or maybe just imagine retro hipsters from Williamsburg casting off the psychological bondage of keeping up with social media commitments.
…One refuser named Bruce and his male family members “felt that masculine norms of rugged independence and seriousness—in contrast to the implicit femininity of playfulness and dependence—were bound up in the men’s vocal disidentification with social networking activities.”
I am easily amused.