Posts by Damian :
I’m bothered by the fact
You cannot take it back
It goes on record and multiplies at that
Subtlety under political correctness is out. So, too, complexity of character. To be politically correct one must also firmly believe that people do not change: If they were the least racist, sexist, homophobic forty years ago, they must still be so now.
Eh, I don’t think that’s true. The same double-standards of tribal solidarity apply here, as always. The rhetorical jazz hands of justification aside, Sarah Jeong and Joy Reid’s social media histories, for example, didn’t ruin them because they’re both members of the right tribe. They were allowed to “learn” and “grow” when someone less well-connected or less useful to other people’s ambitions (Razib Khan, Kevin Williamson) would have been abandoned. “Belief” can be as flexible as a yogi in service to political maneuvering. What’s more interesting, in my view, is to wonder why so many people go along with this charade. We all know better. We’ve all made off-color jokes and entertained scandalous thoughts. Not one of us would survive the Intersectional Inquisition with our reputations intact, even, or especially, those who are most loudly and fervently denouncing others. So why do we pretend that a decades-old photo or a disowned remark say anything significant about a person’s character? Laziness? Cowardice? Both?
Like quite a few people in this area, my next-door neighbor has a Confederate flag flying underneath his American one. That alone would be enough to make him persona non grata in the eyes of most bien-pensants, should he ever rise to their attention. But he and his family are good people. He’s given us much free advice and free labor when we’ve needed it. After every major snowstorm here, he gets on his small tractor first thing in the morning and goes up and down the road, clearing people’s driveways for them. When we had the severe ice storm in November, he and his son were awake for more than 24 hours straight, helping to chainsaw and remove all the downed trees in the area. Years ago, when a corner of the embankment by our bridge washed out, he had one of his crew come over with a backhoe and spend several hours digging out the creekbed and filling in the collapsed area (refusing to even allow us to reimburse him for the gas). When we offered to pay, or even feed, the guy doing the work, he told us no. Our neighbor, he said, had been the man willing to give him a job when he was fresh out of jail for drug possession, so as far as he was concerned, he was just paying that kindness forward.
I don’t know why he flies the Confederate flag. I don’t know if it’s just a generic expression of affection for rural Virginia or something more sinister. If I wanted to know, I’d have to ask him, but of course, I really don’t care. I know enough about him to have a sense of his character without having to rely on superficial clues. Again, we all know people like this, and we all know better than to entertain snap judgments and assume the worst. The most corrosive thing about this trend of replacing the personal with the political is that it destroys precisely that sort of nuance which allows people to forgive and trust each other without expecting perfection. In our laziness and cowardice, we willfully forget that most people are too complex to be reduced to a snapshot or a soundbite, even though our complicity won’t protect us when it’s our turn.
“Do not imagine that you will save yourself, Winston, however completely you surrender to us. No one who has once gone astray is ever spared. And even if we chose to let you live out the natural term of your life, still you would never escape from us. What happens to you here is forever. Understand that in advance. We shall crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back. Things will happen to you from which you could not recover, if you lived a thousand years. Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”
“They can’t get inside you,” she had said. But they could get inside you. “What happens to you here is forever,” O’Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover.
One thing to add: Writers who are not so adept at linking their sentences habitually toss in a “But” or a “However” to create the illusion that a second thought contradicts a first thought when it doesn’t do any such thing. It doesn’t work, and I’m on to you.
Funny enough, I’ve recently encountered the mirror-image problem — using an agreeable word to preface disagreement. The Lady of the House has a cousin who works in marketing for a mega-corporation, and he was telling us how, in recent communication training, they were strongly encouraged to use the word “and” instead of “but” — the latter being too abrupt, too argumentative, too likely to shut down discussion and make people feel unappreciated. “And that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” you probably said, with an unwelcoming look of disdain on your face. See, that’s why you’re having trouble climbing the corporate ladder. You’re too belligerent and confrontational. Perhaps you need to try some trust-building exercises.
Elsewhere, in Sarah Lyall’s review of Dreyer’s new book, she says:
Meanwhile, the president of the United States thinks “seperation” is a word, once referred to his own wife on Twitter as “Melanie” instead of “Melania” and has explained his personal philosophy of capitalization by declaring: “I capitalize certain words only for emphasis, not b/c they should be capitalized!” (He also uses exclamation points like a text-crazed teenager, but that is another issue.)
As it happens, a reader emailed me last week, wondering if I had indeed meant to title a recent post “They Know What’s Best for You and I.” I greatly appreciated his discreet efforts to help me maintain a respectable appearance, like a pal calling your attention to the fact that you returned from the restroom with a yard of toilet paper stuck to your heel, but yes, I replied, I was quoting a lyric in that title and thus favored fidelity to the source over grammatical accuracy. (Later on in that same song, Mark Sandman sang, even more awkwardly, “They’re tryin’ to psyche us up for number World War Three.” I can’t begin to explain that one. It’s not like the modifier had to be misplaced in order to maintain the rhythm.) I added, just for the record, that I often disobey the conventional rules of capitalization in post titles as well. This is purely an idiosyncratic, aesthetic choice. Certain articles, conjunctions and prepositions just don’t look pleasing to me in lowercase, so I capitalize them. (I’ve served time as a paid copywriter, knowing and observing all the rules, so in my own space, I DO WHAT I WANT.) The alternatives — capitalizing each word or simply surrendering and going all-lowercase all the time — strike me as equally unattractive.
As recently as four years ago, I was still a practitioner of “logical punctuation,” an affectation I have since outgrown, as you can see by the fact that the previous comma resides inside the quotation marks. I simply decided I preferred aesthetic tradition to logical precision in this instance. Sometimes my aesthetic compass leads me off toward uncharted frontiers, other times back to the warm embrace of accepted standards. That’s not to say I’m a grammatical anarchist, of course. As I told my correspondent, I tend to be a descriptivist in linguistic matters, though not a contented one. I have one client who lives in Italy, for whom English is a second or third language. Swell guy. Very gregarious and communicative. The problem is, his emails read as if they were assembled by a combination of Google Translate and a thesaurus. The words are spread across the page like highway rumble strips, or even speed bumps, which rattle my eyeballs hard enough to nearly detach my retinas as I traverse each line. Nothing makes me appreciate the rules of syntax more than staring into that abyss in my inbox. And yet we hear and read native English-speakers every day who are scarcely any more coherent. There may be no one true way to use language, but I’m convinced that some ways are more false than others.
Once I realized I was old enough to die, I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life. I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and that will stave off hunger for as long as possible, like protein, fiber, and fats. I exercise—not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care: I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to me.
In her recent article for Harper’s, Lionel Shriver raised a point that I hadn’t precisely considered before. Comparing it to the current enthusiasm for demanding “total social and professional exile” for thought-criminals, she noted that during the O.J. Simpson trial in the mid-’90s, for the infinitely more serious crime of double murder, there was no equivalent demand to give his previous sporting and acting careers the collective silent treatment, to erase them from cultural memory. Were we more mature and sagacious then, capable of handling ambiguity, or did our vindictiveness simply lack the laserlike intensity that social media would later provide?
Anthony Kronman, in his magnum opus Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, explored the theme at length: having posited that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely free to act according to his own uncaused will, envious Westerners set out to usurp his throne and claim these qualities for themselves through scientific mastery. But what would we do if we had a God-like power to control and optimize existence? What vision of the Good motivates us, exactly? A life of unrestricted choice, free of suffering? What if our desire to eradicate all the “bad” parts of life, from the personal to the political, is just the immaturity of the perpetual adolescent who only wants to affirm a comfortable life of video games and junk food while wearing earbuds to ignore the sound of the responsibilities and tragedies of adulthood pounding on the locked bedroom door?
Ehrenreich has come to the conclusion that freedom paradoxically comes from relinquishing the obsessive desire for control, from accepting that ultimately “only one ship is seeking us.” A life spent in paranoid anxiety over optimizing one’s health is not worth extra decades or centuries of existence, no matter how many tools we develop to make it possible. Likewise, a life spent enraged by the idea that our fellow citizens are thinking the wrong thoughts or pressing the wrong button in the voting booth is a waste of time. The body politic can’t be purified and indefinitely preserved any more than ours can, and the efforts to do so will be rife with unintended consequences.
During this time, he also developed a love of pseudonyms. Franklin penned at least one hundred items under fake names throughout his life: Ephraira Censorius, Patience, the Casuist, the Anti-Casuist, Anthony Afterwit, Margaret Aftercast, and Silence Dogood, to name but a few. Pseudonyms were not uncommon for many eighteenth-century writers, in part because they reduced one’s chances of being prosecuted for sedition and because the writing could be evaluated on its own merits, instead of being subjected to personal attacks.
— Kembrew McLeod, Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World
On the pre-social media web of message boards and blogs, fifteen to twenty years ago, pseudonymity was still common. I loved thinking up a different nym for each blog I commented on. Now, of course, we’ve “progressed” to the Orwellian panopticon of SocMed, where most travelers have their Facebook or Google barcode tattooed on their foreheads for easy identification. This trend has dovetailed with the emergence of the new identitarianism, according to which there is no rational argument, only predictable expressions of racial/gender/class identity. The web has gotten no less vicious with the elimination of pseudonymity; if anything, the fanatical conviction that “error has no rights” has encouraged even more brazen assaults on reputations and livelihoods. Naïve reformers (and would-be totalitarians) insist that transparency is equivalent to honesty; in reality, a world in which everyone is exposed is a world in which everyone is suspicious and reticent. There is no honesty without the freedom to fib. Ask me no invasive questions and I’ll tell you no serious lies.
To follow that upward ascent and turn his words into lively vessels of spiritual growth, Plato chose to present his philosophical ideas through dialogues. The choice was dictated by the belief that the forward mental motion produced by dialogue was the only way to enliven the verbal message, above the tomb-like rigidity of the dead written word — the sema, or tomb of the word, which we’ve discussed before.
— Ingrid Rossellini, Know Thyself: Western Identity from Classical Greece to the Renaissance
It’s funny how you only notice some obvious things belatedly, once you’re ready for them. I’ve long known of Plato’s famous antipathy to the written word, but the perfunctory reminder here was accompanied by the surprising realization that somewhere along the way, I’ve come to largely agree with him. No, I don’t mean that I’ve KonMari’d all my books or anything. If books are the tombs of thoughts, I’m still quite gothic insofar as I prefer to spend my time brooding in graveyards, playing with bones. But I read mostly nonfiction, and I can’t help but think that for the earnest truthseeker, many contentious topics in that genre would be better illuminated by verbal dialogue than the laborious process of reading the book, searching out critical responses, waiting for the potential rebuttal, etc. It’s like trying to reassemble a vibrant conversation out of dusty fragments. Watching Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton in dialogue, for example, is subtly but powerfully different than reading either in isolation. So many other topics would flourish more as conversations than monographs.
The “moment” is brokenly understood by moderns who assign it a hedonism of spirit, a false epicureanism. For the ancient Chinese poets, as Taoists or Buddhists, the moment is the instance of the Tao to be understood. It is to treasure the snow in winter and not long for the flowers of spring. It is to treasure the fruit of summer and not rue the coming autumn; it is to treasure the falling leaves of autumn and not reflect on the snows of winter. It is to appreciate the moment before it is gone and not to resent its passing, not to rue what is gone or what is to follow.
Alan Watts wrote about the way self-consciousness interferes with our ability to do this — “as when, in the midst of enjoying myself, I examine myself to see if I am getting the utmost out of the occasion. Not content with tasting the food, I am also trying to taste my tongue. Not content with feeling happy, I want to feel myself feeling happy—so as to be sure not to miss anything.” I recognized the reflection of my own restless monkey-mind in these words when I encountered them, but even now, two decades later, it hardly seems to have aged a day.
It has been a very busy, tiring week. Too often I found myself out of sorts, wanting to be somewhere else doing something else, even as I recognize that the grass will be just as dry and brown on that side of the fence too. In a moment of late-night reflection, I remind myself that if I can’t return to these necessary tasks in good humor tomorrow, when will I ever? What miracle do I imagine will come along and transform the tedium of everyday maintenance into playfulness? It will come from me or not at all. And yet, as Auden wrote:
We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
Glenn Loury’s calls for personal responsibility in the black community, his defense of patriotism—even his disposition—indicate that he is a conservative. Yet he remains hesitant to adopt the “conservative” label, and especially the “black conservative” label. When I ask him about this reluctance, he replies with characteristic sense of humor. Social pressure, he answers, makes it difficult for professors to come out as conservatives. “When they get finished with you on Twitter for being a black conservative,” he laments, “there’s not very much left of your reputation.”
There has been a significant increase in recent years of posts and articles which mull over the precision, or lack thereof, in political taxonomy. Is you is or is you ain’t? Max Boot’s recent book notwithstanding, this seems to be largely one-way traffic; if there are dozens of examples of conservatives wondering if they have suddenly become liberal or been liberal all along, I’m unaware of them. I figure this correlates with the leftward lurch over the same period known as the Great Awokening, which abruptly stopped the music and left many liberals standing without a seat to endure the jeering of their former peers. Well, throughout history, exile has often produced great poetry and literature. So far, we’re only getting a lot of navel-gazing and linguistic quibbling, but we can hope.
Personally, I find David Warren’s schematic to be as useful and accurate as any: rather than left and right, fashionable and unfashionable; rather than red vs. blue, a color wheel. It sounds almost facetious at first, but as Bertie Wooster would say, he has rung the bell. I examine it narrowly and I find no flaw in it. It is the goods. From now on, I identify as hexcode #587b56.
I want to return to that Alan Jacobs post I linked to yesterday:
Facebook is the Sauron of the online world, Twitter the Saruman. Let’s rather live in Tom Bombadil’s world, where we can be eccentric, peculiar perhaps, without ambition, content to tend our little corner of Middle Earth with charity and grace. We’ve moved a long way from Tim Carmody’s planetary metaphor, which, as I say, I feel the force of, but whether what I’m doing ultimately matters or not, I’m finding it helpful to work away in this little highland garden, above the turmoil of the social-media sea, finding small beautiful things and caring for them and sharing them with a few friends. One could do worse.
I wholeheartedly concur, of course. I’ve been amused for almost a decade now by the insistence that blogs are passé, and I’ve championed the idea of unambitious, self-contained satisfaction within a writing practice for even longer. I realized while reading this, though, that for all the true and necessary complaints about Facebook and Twitter, you rarely see anyone include Reddit in the pantheon of online deities. Doing so would complicate the picture somewhat, I think. (The rise of podcasting and YouTube channels complicates the declinist view of social media even more, given that huge numbers of people are eager to absorb hours of lectures and discussions about weighty topics, but I’m sticking to the mostly-text-based platforms here.)
Let me be fair: there are genuine positives about any media platform. I don’t belong to any of them, but I’m aware that they can be used intelligently. As much as I would love to see Facebook and Twitter disappear, I worry that it’s starting to become a reverse-status symbol, a new countercultural badge, to say so. The negative narrative crystallizing around social media resonates because most people think of pop culture and current events as the cultural center of gravity, the place where all the important action and discussion is. On Facebook, this means seeing your relatives and friends argue vehemently about politics. On Twitter, this means seeing increasingly-unhinged media figures incite mobs to savage the reputations and livelihoods of thought-criminals. On Reddit, though, things can’t be summarized so neatly.
Reddit is somewhat the black sheep of the social media family, referred to obliquely as a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much free speech. Years ago, as the Great Awokening was taking shape, one would easily get the impression from the chattering classes that Reddit was the seedy downtown of the Internet where all the lowlifes lurked, waiting to prey on passers-by. The pseudonymity of the platform played a significant part in that perception, as did the fact that interests are followed on Reddit, not individuals. If Facebook increasingly resembles the Party of 1984, Reddit might represent the proles of Winston Smith’s fantasy, “those swarming disregarded masses” whose anarchic energy could bring the whole dystopian edifice down. (Twitter is just where journalists and other media figures conduct a perpetual Maoist struggle session in sentence fragments.) But as I said at the time, being leery of Reddit is like being agoraphobic — it’s far too diverse and eclectic. For every subreddit devoted to radical politics or porn, there’s the structured format of r/changemyview, which strikes even this jaded observer as a laudable attempt to make online debate constructive and informative, or there’s the general interest of r/askhistorians. If there’s an interest, there’s probably a subreddit devoted to it, and even as the web devolves toward communicating through memes, gifs and emoticons, there are still plenty of people who write well and at length to be found on Reddit. It’s like the entire human pageant in miniature, both good and bad.
If we do include Reddit alongside its social media brethren, one thing we can say in general about all of them is that they represent not the death of blogging so much as the expansion of the comment section. Few people have the discipline or depth to sustain a writing practice of any substance. The model of online discussion now is a crowded pub, where anyone who isn’t shouting or gesturing excitedly will struggle to be heard. I don’t see any point in bemoaning this, unless people are nostalgic for the attention that blogs used to command. As far as technological evolution is concerned, the comment section is perfectly adapted to our new digital environment; the blog was just a necessary link in the ancestral chain. Like the great apes, those of us who prefer to reflect and write at moderate length for a devoted, small audience will have to find our niche in remote forests and jungles, hoping that our descendants don’t completely despoil our habitat or start hunting us for sport.
I don’t wanna work for the corporation, but they’re tryna tell me that I must…
You know the left has really changed in this country when you find its denizens glorifying America’s role in the Vietnam War and lionizing the social attitudes of the corporate monolith Procter & Gamble.
The Lady of the House was telling me about a conversation between two Facebook friends over the recent Gillette “toxic masculinity” ad. One person griped about it, and the other responded by saying, “Well, I think it’s great that the message is getting out there!” The message? Who looks to corporate ad agencies for moral instruction? What kind of frivolous egotist is so easily flattered by a barely-concealed sales pitch? And these true believers volunteer to proselytize for the product! It struck me that however irreligious these people consider themselves, their appetite for sermons and missionary work is insatiable. If priests and ministers would adorn their vestments with corporate logos à la NASCAR drivers, they could probably get people to start attending church again.