But, overall, knowledge does give us power?
That is true. It doesn’t, by itself, free us. It is a two-edged sword. You can use certain technologies to promote freedom but also to spy on people. One of the core thoughts of the book where I descend from a strong philosophical and religious tradition, in philosophical terms from Socrates, is that I hold that the advancement of knowledge is not in itself liberating.
The general view today is, I think, that the growth of knowledge leads to a growth of human freedom. But the human world isn’t accretive in that way as the sciences. In human history what often happens is the destruction of whole civilizations.
There seems to be a certain monoculture in our thinking today, in our view of the world. Whatever side you’re on, most people would believe in inevitable ethical progress that is attached to the sciences.
There’d be different content, but still the general assumption is that we are moving to a better state. Now, my view is that politics and ethics aren’t like that. I take that ethics and politics are more erratic and discontinuous. There are serious advances, but then they are regularly lost.
And, unfortunately, good things are lost. For example, in the ancient world, pre-Christian Europe, there wasn’t a persecution of gay people! That was then lost for 2,000 years. That’s quite a long regression. People who believe in progress must allow the question, “But what about those 2,000 years?”
There are good events in history—there are genuine advances—but they are inherently fragile. That’s my key message.
The talk suggests that Trudeau has surprisingly little knowledge of his subject. He appears to think, for instance, that Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who commissioned the ‘Danish cartoons’, is a woman, and that in France, a country that has some of the toughest hate speech laws in Europe, ‘hate speech…is only illegal if it directly incites violence.’
More problematic, though, is his argument that Charlie Hedbo had ‘wandered into the realm of hate speech’, that it was ‘punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority’, that it was responsible for ‘triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died’ and that it would be better had its anti-Islam cartoons not been published. All this raises questions that echo those in the Barney & Clyde cartoon, questions about how a liberal like Trudeau imagines Muslim communities, whom he imagines represents those communities, and what he imagines constitutes free speech and hate speech.
…I have no problem with the claim that satire is best directed at the powerful, not the powerless (though that should be a moral goal, not a reason for censorship). I do have a problem, however, with the way many people, including Trudeau, understand ‘punching up’ and ‘punching down’.
Free, do you call yourself? Then I would hear your ruling thought, and not merely that you have escaped from a yoke.
The World Beyond Your Head begins with a terrific introduction, “Attention as a Cultural Problem.” The concern isn’t just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we’ve come to depend on; it’s that we can’t control our own responses to them. “Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value,” Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that “silence is now offered as a luxury good.”
That isn’t just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: “Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.” And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it’s really bad for us. “Distractibility,” Crawford tells us, “might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.”
We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us. Against this tendency, Crawford argues for a situated self, one that is always linked to (not independent of) the environment, including other people.
Thinkers who prioritise meaning and authenticity often have an uneasy attitude to liberty, and Crawford is no exception. There is some psychological truth here: the more constrained our situation is (short of actual imprisonment), the more we seem to enjoy what we have, while near-limitless freedom often brings anxiety and a loss of joy and value. Being able to do what we like robs our actions of their weight. As Philip Roth observed in the 1970s of communist Czechoslovakia, in the unfree world “nothing goes and everything matters”, while in the west “everything goes and nothing matters”. Communism has (almost) gone now, but in the techno-utopia promised by Google and Facebook, we continue to suffer the curse of existential weightlessness.
Personally, I think we should try for it all. I do want to spend idle moments picking up fascinating facts from Twitter, dropping in on absent friends, and sharing photos, and I cannot accept that this inevitably leads to my meaningful existence disappearing in a mist. Can there be no way of enjoying our liberties while still ploughing a disciplined furrow in the world? Can we not prize our Enlightenment freedoms and have an authentic connection to the real?
I haven’t read anything by Crawford before, but he sounds interesting. The point about distractibility and value-agnosticism echoes one I’ve made here many times — feeling a lack of direction or control in your life might be an indication that you simply can’t decide what you really want, and rather than own up to that indecisiveness, you retreat to comforting stories about how your agency was stripped from you. And the paradox of choice has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time. But “distractibility as mental obesity” is what really leaped off the page and grabbed me here. That’s such a perfect way of putting it — an excess of temptations combined with a lack of discipline or purposeful mission leads to a lot of impulsive, aimless consumption of whatever is conveniently available. But talk like that tends to make us mostly-liberal folk leery. Sounds a little too conservative to focus on “discipline”, “purpose”, “meaning”, “mission” or “values”, doesn’t it?
There’s an interesting question here over what constitutes human flourishing. The classical liberal view is concerned primarily with maximizing personal choice and minimizing the restraints, pressures and compulsions of family, community, nation and religion. The conservative view, which I’m guessing is what Crawford is emphasizing (like I said, I’m only going by these two reviews), finds it absurd to talk as if the ideal of a neutral, yet rationally self-aware subject could ever exist. Long before we ever begin clumsily shaping our own character and inclinations, it is being shaped in countless ways by our genetics, our home environment, our peers, and our culture. A truly well-rounded character can’t be understood apart from the context in which it was formed. (Of course, the stark differences here are more rhetorical than actual. In practice, most people understand to different degrees that neither the individual nor the collective can meaningfully exist without the other.) At some stages in an individual’s life, then, a narrowing of perspective and a restricting of options might be more beneficial to one’s ultimate well-being.
A friend of mine once explained her decision to send her granddaughter to a Catholic school (despite her antipathy toward organized religion, having been raised Catholic herself) by saying that “If you don’t believe in something, you’ll fall for anything.” Her view was that it’s fine, indeed, even necessary, to outgrow the identity with which you were raised, but it would be negligent to take a laissez-faire approach and start a child with nothing but a generic, default concept of identity in a neoliberal consumer society. As she put it, people like that are the ones who end up joining whacko cults once they grow up just to have something to believe in besides earning more money and buying new toys.
I think she overstated her case. Personally, I think shallow, pathetic twits like this woman, rather than cultists, are the more typical result of a culture in which people have no depth to their values. Still, I understand her basic point. People tend not to appreciate things they haven’t had to work or sacrifice for. The wisdom you’ve accumulated through trial and error is not cumulative. Your children will have to learn all those same lessons through their own experiences; you can’t give them a cheat sheet. A flourishing life needs to develop along a certain trajectory. A life of little struggle faced with an ever-expanding smorgasbord of available options will only inspire ennui and possibly self-destruction.
I was raised in middle-class comfort. My mom was a lapsed Catholic-turned-spiritual-not-religious-New Ager. My dad was culturally Protestant and very classically liberal (in modern terms, libertarian). There was a definite emphasis on personal freedom from compulsion, is what I’m saying. Even my otherwise conservative parents bowed to the zeitgeist and went out of their way to avoid tyrannically imposing their own values on their kids. “We just want you to be happy in whatever you do” and “we just want to do what we can to make sure you have more options in life” were two common themes I heard growing up. Well, I’m going to suggest to you that when life is pretty nice and comfortable in general, it’s difficult to have any strong idea of what exactly makes you “happy”. I had absorbed from the cultural atmosphere that it was a good thing to “think for yourself” and not let anyone else tell you what to do, and I had a dim idea that “passion” was somehow important in deciding what to do with your life. But no one had taught me how to think effectively, and I spent a long time waiting for one of the many generally pleasant aspects of life to seize me with the sense of purpose I was waiting for, becoming increasingly anxious as none of them did.
As it happened, music and a philosophy 101 course taken on a whim turned out to give me sufficient passion and direction in my life, and my solitary nature kept me from falling under any malign influences during those confused, impressionable years. I’m perfectly content with how things have gone for me personally. But as a general rule, as a utilitarian standard for society as a whole? I’m not sure I’d recommend it. I suspect that many people who suffer from the strange modern inability to find contentment in the midst of plenty would have benefitted from a stronger influence during their formative years, someone willing to impose a “ruling thought”, more or less.
Having just read a couple books by David Grambs, it occurs to me it’s been a long time since I compiled a list of interesting words. Some of these are from Grambs’ books, and some of them have been acquired over the last few years from various sources. I like to jot words like this down when I encounter them. I don’t really expect to find a use for them, but I like to read over the list periodically and familiarize myself with them. Whether it’s because of their interesting meaning, or their sheer musicality, these are words that I think deserve to be better known and appreciated, even if they’ve outlived their usefulness to everyday conversation. Feel free to adopt any which catch your eye; there aren’t enough good homes for all of them!
ultracrepidarian: one of those presumptuous overreachers who try to address something outside their knowledge or field of expertise and shouldn’t, who should know their own limits and don’t.
advesperate: to get dark or late.
nemophilist: the lover of forests and woods, or of the sylvan world. The nature lover who most likes the unbeaten paths in tracts of trees and the beauties of coppices, groves and dells; and who of necessity must also be a dendrophile, or tree lover.
vertumnal: pertaining to spring; vernal.
nullibist: a disbeliever in any kind of spirit, soul, or incorporeal being.
henhussy: a husband or live-in male who busies himself with housework more commonly done by women. Not a nice-sounding word for the modern house-husband, but for some women the henhussy is the true man around the house — one who has no ego or identity problem. Two other words for henhussy are cotquean and betty.
vespertine: during the evening.
asteism: a cleverly polite insult.
lucubrator: one who studies long into the night (or ‘composes by lamplight’ as the original Latin has it), or who gives deep thought to something. One who keeps an all-night vigil without books is not a lucubrator but a pernoctalian.
shunpiker: the driver who avoids highways for byways, taking slower but more relaxing and scenic back roads instead.
callithumpian: boisterous and noisy.
genicon: that fantasied sexual partner, as opposed to the one you’re actually stuck with.
solitudinarian: the loner who prizes the solitary life, who wants to be alone, thank you.
clatterfart: a chatterer or babbler.
ephectic: always suspending judgment.
rejectamenta: things or matter rejected as useless or worthless.
cockalorum: a self-important little man.
sciamachy: an act or instance of fighting a shadow or an imaginary enemy.
misoneism: hatred or dislike of what is new or represents change.
isolato: a person who is spiritually isolated from or out of sympathy with his or her times or society.
aleatory: 1. of or pertaining to accidental causes; of luck or chance; unpredictable: an aleatory element. 2. Law. depending on a contingent event: an aleatory contract. 3. Music. employing the element of chance in the choice of tones, rests, durations, rhythms, dynamics, etc.
percipient:1. having perception; discerning; discriminating: a percipient choice of wines. 2. perceiving or capable of perceiving.
brabble: To argue stubbornly about trifles; wrangle.
sizzard: unbearably humid heat.
decathect: To withdraw one’s feelings of attachment from (a person, idea, or object), as in anticipation of a future loss.
parviscient: uninformed or knowing little.
hamartia: Tragic flaw.
pharisaic: Practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.
incondite: 1. Ill-constructed; unpolished: incondite prose. 2. Crude; rough; unmannerly.
banausic: Serving utilitarian purposes only; mechanical; practical: architecture that was more banausic than inspired.
mumpsimus: 1. Adherence to or persistence in an erroneous use of language, memorization, practice, belief, etc., out of habit or obstinacy. 2. A person who persists in a mistaken expression or practice.
apotropaic: Intended to ward off evil.
ruck: 1. A large number or quantity; mass. 2. The great mass of undistinguished or inferior persons or things.
graveolence: a strong or offensive smell.
vilipend: 1. To regard or treat as of little value or account. 2. To vilify; depreciate.
expostulate: To reason earnestly with someone against something that person intends to do or has done.
solecism: 1. A breach of good manners or etiquette. 2. A nonstandard or ungrammatical usage, as unflammable and they was. 3. Any error, impropriety, or inconsistency.
veriest: 1. Utmost; most complete. 2. Superlative of very.
pansophy: Universal wisdom or knowledge.
thanatopsis: A view or contemplation of death.
hobson jobson: The alteration of a word borrowed from a foreign language to accord more closely with the linguistic patterns of the borrowing language.
amaranthine: 1. Unfading; everlasting. 2. Of or like the amaranth flower. 3. Of purplish-red color.
gnathonic: sycophantic or parasitic.
apodictic: 1. Necessarily true or logically certain. 2. Incontestable because of having been demonstrated or proved to be demonstrable.
cater-cousin: An intimate friend.
irenic: Tending to promote peace; conciliatory.
corybantic: Frenzied; agitated; unrestrained.
canorous: Richly melodious; pleasant sounding; musical.
vulpine: 1. Cunning or crafty. 2. Of or resembling a fox.
fastuous: haughty, overbearing, pretentious or showy.
liminal: Relating to the point beyond which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced.
But then there are the people Nicholas Carr interviewed, and Carr himself: people who know what it is like to be lost in a book, who value that experience, but who have misplaced it — who can’t get back, as Lucy Pevensie for a time can’t get back to Narnia: what was an opening to another world is now the flat planked back of a wardrobe. They’re the ones who need help, and want it, and are prepared to receive it…I don’t know whether an adult who has never practiced deep attention — who has never seriously read for information or for understanding, or even for delight — can learn how. But I’m confident that anyone who has ever had this facility can recover it: they just have to want that recovery enough to make sacrifices for it, something they will only do if they can vividly recall what that experience was like.
What do I want? What do I need? Why do I want it? What’s in it for me? Thus did the Beastie Boys provide us with a rhythmic, rhyming conceptual framework for investigating those goals which remain unmet despite our professed intentions.
Jacobs talks earlier in the book about the different reasons why people read. Some people are after an experience of raptness, of being immersed in a book to the point of forgetting to eat dinner or go to bed on time. But some are not so much interested in reading books as in having read them — books are merely instrumental, a means by which to have improved one’s character, raised one’s I.Q., or boosted one’s status. (Both tendencies can coexist in the same individual at different times, of course; I speak from experience.)
We understand this in other contexts. Some people genuinely enjoy exercise, and being fit is just a nice bonus for something they would do anyway. Some people would like to have exercised, and would like for other people to see them as fit, but aren’t so keen on actually doing it. They like the idea of being healthy and slender, but they also like the experience of relaxing and indulging. The irresistible force of their vanity meets the immovable object of their laziness.
Being conflicted like that is, I would suggest, much more of a “natural” human state than being highly motivated and disciplined. We vacillate between different impulses all the time. We desire mutually exclusive things and avoid making a hard choice between them. We fear that what we really want isn’t what we should want. Our tastes and appetites change over time. And we inevitably frame our choices in the most flattering way possible. No, really, I would have exercised if not for… Honestly, I love reading books, but these gadgets, see, they’re rewired my brain…
We feel the trembling uncertainty along these fault lines in our character and hurriedly dash back to the safety of such comforting narratives. But it is precisely those cracks in the tectonic plates of our personality which invite us to explore a little deeper. What if you’re not truly the person you thought you were, or the person you’d like to be? Would that be such a bad thing? What are you willing to sacrifice to get there, then?
But where is the prescriptive element? I mean, I get that Ramsey wants white Americans to rise up and work to fix things. But how does he propose that we actually inspire them to do so? Sure, it should be enough to show them the reality to provoke them to fight for change. But should is a word of remarkably little relevance in the real world. 50 years after the most important Civil Rights legislation, it seems obvious that just pointing out that our society is unjust is not enough to provoke the white majority to create change.
In other words, the piece recounts in exacting detail a political problem but does nothing to establish a political solution. It begs for a next step– “here’s what I would do to convince white Americans to get on board with a political movement against racial inequality”– that it never takes. And in not taking that next step, it falls perfectly into line with the general, bizarre trend, the trend to say “it’s not the job of oppressed people to educate you.” Really? Then whose job, exactly, is it? I hear that all the time, and I find it such a bizarre attitude for self-described activists to take. To call yourself an activist is precisely to say “It is my job to educate you.” Change is active by its nature. The status quo doesn’t need activists. Change requires that you make it your job. So where’s the political strategy? I don’t pretend that it would be obvious or easy– in fact I think it’ll be incredibly hard– but, well, 200 years ago you could buy people, and the ability to do so was deeply embedded in the economy. Things can change, but you’ve got to make them happen and you have to motivate people who aren’t inherently predisposed to be motivated in order to do so.
Freddie is asking rhetorical questions, of course. He’s patiently trying to lead some incredibly stupid horses to water. I, on the other hand, don’t believe that these particular horses actually want to drink. That bumper sticker image up above (courtesy of Tom Tomorrow) perfectly encapsulates what they’re all about. The “political” twitosphere is nothing more than a bunch of people complaining that “somebody should do something about this, that and the other fucked-up thing!” Not them, of course. They’ve already done their part by writing a multi-part tweet that went viral, dintjasee? They’re the “ideas” crew. They just want to heave the ball of their righteous wisdom down the online lane and watch all the opponents of progress scatter like pins.
That’s why I put “political” in scare quotes. These people are not activists, they just play them online. They’re the political equivalent of Monday-morning quarterbacks. Real activists are far too busy with the never-ending, thankless hard work required to make actual political change happen in a world where, honest to God, believe it or don’t, three-quarters of the inhabitants don’t even use Twitter, let alone know that some celebrity totally won the Internet with their post about gun control in the wake of another mass shooting (which continue apace despite near-unanimous opposition on social media, strangely enough). They don’t have time to waste on social media posturing and performing for several hours a day.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not condemning a tabloid site like Gawker for failing to draft intelligent policy proposals, as if they’re capable or willing. They’re only playing their role as the cool kids’ table in the social media cafeteria, just as they were designed. I’m merely underlining the point that the “political” web exists almost entirely for signaling and venting, nothing more. It’s a way for people to yell at their TV in public. As Freddie keeps saying, if you want to win enough support for unpopular ideas to turn them into policies and laws, it’s suicidal to act as if the truth and righteousness of your position is self-evident, and if your opponents can’t see that, well, it sucks to be as stupid as them. And yet, that’s the attitude you see displayed time and again. Even at a more intellectual site devoted to the history of ideas, where you might reasonably expect a post titled What Is The Left, Anyway? to offer up a more substantial vision of what it even means to be a leftist today, you get this kind of vapid rambling, where empty snark is about as close to a serious point as you come.
If you want to put your politics into action, put the computer to sleep and go find some activist groups in your area to get involved with. Spend your free time and weekends working with them. Or go find people who don’t already agree with you, but are at least reasonable enough to converse with, and try to sway them to your way of thinking. Any of those things would be more meaningful than sitting on your ass reading yet another post about how awful and stupid your opponents are. What are you going to do with that information? Vote for Democrats? You were doing that already! Vote even harder for Democrats? Please. The “political” web is just another form of entertainment for people who are too status-conscious to be seen keeping up with the Kardashians.
The Huffington Post picked up on this and reported that the pizza place “publicly vow(ed)” to “reject gay weddings.” This entirely inaccurate description of what actually transpired was seized upon by countless folks all around the Interwebs. The pizza shop’s Yelp page was spammed with eight pages negative reviews, most of them quite obviously from people who had never been there. Their phone rang off the hook with fake orders. Someone on Twitter threatened to burn the shop down. The folks at Memories Pizza temporarily closed their restaurant.
In balancing a systematic critique on a single person’s story, Erdely essentially used a rightwing strategy to make a leftist point. The trouble is only that the right is skilled at this game, and correctly deduced that undoing Jackie’s story would go a long way to endangering Erdely’s larger structural point. It’s an opportunity they never should have been given, both for Jackie’s sake, and for the sake of the victims who really do find themselves struggling for protection within a hostile justice system.
In case you were wondering how the Rolling Stone rape story debacle was still somehow the right-wing’s fault, Stoker-Bruenig is here to bolster your faith. Amidst all the obfuscatory hand-waving, though, there’s a noticeable lack of two simple points. One, for deep-rooted psychological reasons, people will always grasp lessons better when they’re couched in compelling narratives as opposed to dry statistical analysis. (Progressives usually understand this, as evidenced by their almost-religious levels of faith in the dubious idea that reading novels makes you a better, more emotionally-intelligent person.) Rather than bemoaning that fact, perhaps you should simply make a stronger effort to tell the truth in your own narratives. Which leads us to the second point: fudging factual details in service to a “higher” truth is a bipartisan phenomenon, regardless of what partisan hacks will tell you to the contrary.
(Bonus third point: this post of Scott Alexander’s is a far more penetrating look at why partisans reliably choose the most sketchy stories to go to war over.)
Not having seen the commercial being referenced, I thought this comic was playing on those old Chuck Norris jokes. I like my interpretation better, to be honest.
To a modern reader, the relaxed egalitarianism of the open road and the open table can seem undermined by the other part of Jesus’ message, a violent and even vengeful prediction of a final judgment and a large-scale damnation. In Mark, Jesus is both a fierce apocalyptic prophet who is preaching the death of the world—he says categorically that the end is near—and a wise philosophical teacher who professes love for his neighbor and supplies advice for living.
…One thing, at least, the cry assures: the Jesus faith begins with a failure of faith. His father let him down, and the promise wasn’t kept. “Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God,” Jesus announced; but none of them did. Jesus, and Paul following him, says unambiguously that whatever is coming is coming soon—that the end is very, very near. It wasn’t, and the whole of what follows is built on an apology for what went wrong. The seemingly modern waiver, “Well, I know he said that, but he didn’t really mean it quite the way it sounded,” is built right into the foundation of the cult. The sublime symbolic turn—or the retreat to metaphor, if you prefer—begins with the first words of the faith. If the Kingdom of God proved elusive, he must have meant that the Kingdom of God was inside, or outside, or above, or yet to come, anything other than what the words seem so plainly to have meant.
Secularism is all that matters to me regarding religion and society. I got bored by hair-splitting philosophical and theological arguments a long time ago, and unlike many New Atheists, I don’t believe that religion has the power to make otherwise good people do bad things, so I couldn’t care less to harangue people about how logic and decency compel them to abandon their faith. Whatever gets you through the night is all right, as long as you’re not being an asshole about it. On this point, however, I do think it’s worth standing polite-yet-firm. There’s a thin line between metaphorical interpretation and intellectual dishonesty, and people who refuse to acknowledge what Biblical scholarship has revealed about the historical circumstances of Jesus the person are on the latter side, in my opinion.