I’ve said before, with only the tip of my tongue in my cheek, that Oprah Winfrey is “no more a person now, but a whole climate of opinion under which we conduct our differing lives.” (Yes, technically, Auden first said that about Freud, but Sigmund has nothing on Oprah when it comes to the reach of their respective pernicious influence. I’m confident that W.H., were he around today, would agree with me.) Now, with the news that Oprah is going to bring the risible 1619 Project to film and TV, it looks like she’s going to add pseudo-history to her legacy, in addition to the pseudo-spirituality and maudlin therapeutic sensibility she’s already known for. As if we weren’t already close enough to living in Idiocracy.
waiting for the barbarians
Everyone you know has a “good reason” to break quarantine. Some wish to bury a relative, while others want to visit a lonely elder in a nursing home. Parents want to baptize their children to save their souls, and first-generation college students want to attend graduation. All of them were told to abstain from these things in the name of public health. Following those orders had human costs — rates of domestic violence increased during the lockdowns. Calls to suicide hotlines skyrocketed. Millions were thrown out of work. Businesses built over generations filed for bankruptcy, Some will never recover.
By nature and design, I’m one of those “whose only aim is to observe how and why everything is done, and to be spectators of other men’s lives, in order to judge and regulate their own,” as Montaigne put it. I live my ordinary life doing ordinary things, and when I have some spare time, I like to amble out to my little blog-porch here to sit a spell and watch the world go by as I mutter to myself about it. Most of the time, I maintain an amused, ironic distance from it all. Even the great Covid pause hardly made a difference to me personally. Our health and business are fine, and our routine is back to normal tomorrow with our gym reopening. I’m as comfortable and content as a person has any right to be.
Over the last several days, though, I admit I’ve felt uncharacteristically angry and despairing. I feel like I’ve just watched an enormous stockpile of social capital go up in flames while a bunch of gibbering idiots danced around it, oblivious to what they’ve done in their imbecilic glee, and I’m still stunned.
Not by the riots and literal flames. That’s horrible, of course, but I’ve never been under the illusion that civilized behavior is anything but a thin crust over the fault lines of dangerous passions. No, it’s the good old trahison des clercs that’s so unforgivable. The damage to the cities will last for decades; some of them haven’t fully recovered from the last round of urban rioting. How much longer will the damage to the crumbling remains of moral/intellectual/professional authority last? There’s nothing even remotely defensible about this ridiculous about-face.
Again, I hardly consider myself one of the trumpenproletariat. I don’t spend my time consumed with resentment for “coastal elites.” But what else are we supposed to conclude from this? Oh, I see. We all need to spend three months under house arrest. We need to give up everything for the greater good, the common sacrifice. The SCIENCE™️ said so. Did your small business expire after being asphyxiated for weeks? Andrew Cuomo helpfully tells you that maybe you should get a job in an “essential” field. Economic hardship isn’t death, after all, and if anyone knows about death, I suppose it would surely be the motherswiver who forced nursing homes to accept Covid patients before suffering the glaring scrutiny of…a goofball interview with his somehow-even-more-useless brother, who apparently cosplays as a cable news anchor when he’s not staging fake endings to a quarantine he didn’t even abide by while infected. Rules are for little people; we’re busy creating reality TV spectacles here and burnishing our personal brands.
And all of it was for nothing. Even epidemiologists and other public health officials have to pay obeisance to the Church of Anti-Racism. Even The SCIENCE™️ lies awake in the wee hours in a cold sweat at the thought of being accused of racism on social media. You can’t catch the plague if your cause is righteous enough, apparently. Never mind the fact that all this protesting is an after-the-fact reaction that changes nothing and will prevent nothing in the future. The cop responsible was quickly arrested and charged. What are we supposed to do as a response to the vox populi, arrest him harder? Charge him with double murder, triple murder, infinity murder? More useless theater for the sensation-addicted, more reality TV for people who find the nuances of professional wrestling too ambiguous. What’s most important of all is demonstrating that we’re the good people and we’re going to progressive heaven. My doctor’s office has been sending me emails since March saying I shouldn’t come anywhere near the premises without a hazmat suit lest I contaminate the staff, but the staff of a NYC hospital can walk outside to applaud a protest? Siiigh, says Charlie Warzel, NYT opinion writer. How exhausting it is for poor Charlie and the rest of the credentialed class to have the commoners persist with these impertinent questions, like they think they’re owed an explanation. How dare you expect me to abide by an eight p.m. curfew during looting and rioting, says the bint who accused Georgia of conducting experiments in “human sacrifice” for attempting to re-open the state.
Privilege is being children of the cultural aristocracy and getting to cosplay as sans-culottes. Privilege is being able to destroy other people’s property and have media intellectuals bend over backwards to make excuses for you. Privilege is affecting to despise the fruits of capitalism while you pop them one after another into your gaping maw. Privilege is being able to declare a bacchanalia in the midst of the worst public health crisis in our lifetime and know that the consequences will be borne by others. And in the most amazing of coincidences, that sort of privilege is the exclusive property of the very people who claim to see it everywhere else.
In any case, more alarming statistics and other such reports are not going to do me any good. I’ve put myself on a media blackout for the time being. I trust that the information I actually need will find its way to me. It always has before.
Contrary to the scurrilous rumors being spread by my enemies, I did not wish upon a monkey’s paw for more time to spend reading and writing. Nevertheless, supply chain disruptions have led to my workload being temporarily lightened by about fifty percent. Unfortunately, that’s the fifty percent that we actually get paid for. Three weeks without income is something of a bracing jolt for a small business, but whuddayagunnado? Things will work out, unless they won’t. That’s how it’s always been before. All we can do is stick to the common-sense routines: drink a bottle of Purell every day, make sure the moat is fortified with alligators, and keep the cauldrons atop the walls filled with boiling oil.
Glancing around the web, I see that most people have united around the one thing we all hold in common, namely, the conviction that this pandemic proves, beyond any doubt, every political dogma I’ve been banging on about for the last three decades. I’m no different, of course. This pandemic proves, beyond any doubt, that most media, social and otherwise, is worse than useless, that most people have very little of interest to say but prefer chattering to silent reflection, and that it would be better to sit down with a book than add my own voice to the incessant, frenzied din. My greatest fear is that, once things get more-or-less back to normal, the only shared frame of reference our juvenile culture will have is Marvel movies, and thus we’ll see countless comparisons of that time we couldn’t leave the house to search for nonexistent toilet paper to that time Thanos “snapped” half of the universe into oblivion. There are some things worse than death.
Western populations have suffered a profound degradation of reason, intellect, and moral integrity. The symptoms of this are many and flagrant. Among the most telling: Americans are rapidly losing both passive and active vocabulary. Both declined at a fairly steady pace postwar until the advent of e-mail and the text message; vocabulary loss then accelerated.
Reading skills have been lost. Only a small minority of Americans now have the ability to read and understand a book—book-reading now is the purview of the personality type drawn to endurance sports—which means most of us are functionally illiterate for democratic purposes. Those who can’t read at book length cannot follow a sustained, linear argument. The brain is highly plastic, and we have changed ours in a way that makes it much harder for most of us to think beyond 140 characters—slogans, not arguments—even as we have created in the Internet such a riveting system of rival entertainment that reading a book now requires exceptional personal discipline whereas once it required only the desire to be relieved of boredom.
That last part gets to the heart of it, I think. The effect of the Internet on book-reading has been like the effect of European diseases upon isolated native populations. The few of us who still read at length, for pleasure, are like the fraction of American Indians who managed to survive smallpox, cholera and whiskey. Many of those who formerly thought of themselves as dedicated readers didn’t have mental immune systems capable of resisting exposure to the bacilli of social media and digital cameras. Articles like the one in yesterday’s post are a modern form of ghost dancing — a delusive, futile attempt to cope with the tragic loss of an entire way of life. But no matter how the English majors wail and beat their breasts, the ghosts of Henry James and Marcel Proust are not coming back to roll up the fiber optic cables and wash all the smartphones into the sea. It’s time to stop lamenting and get on with the hard work of preserving what remnants we can through an uncertain future.
Can we re-learn the habits of polite disagreement, and address each other as rational beings, capable of forming real communities in which differences are respected and decencies honoured? I want to answer yes to those questions. But as someone who has suffered more than most from the prevailing madness I have my doubts.
My own solution — which is to ignore social media and to address, in my writings, only the interest in the true and the false, rather than in the permitted and the offensive — confines me within a circle that is considerably narrower than the Twittersphere. But here and there in this circle, there are people who do not merely see the point of truthful discourse, but who are also eager to engage with it. And I cling to the view that that is enough, as it was for the Irish monks who kept the lamp of learning alight during the Dark Ages. They may have thought they were losing, but they won in the end.
In my youth, I was much impressed with a book by Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture. In a spirit of pessimistic despair, he likewise called for “new monastic individuals” to preserve culture through the dark ages of idiocracy. (In hindsight, I suppose this sounds a bit like Ayn Rand for people who prefer reading books to undertaking feats of heroic entrepreneurship.) Unfortunately, Berman’s spirit wasn’t steely enough to contain the acidic bile of his despair, which began spilling out in his subsequent writing to a near-comical degree, and now he’s just a buffoon, too cartoonishly bitter to even laugh at anymore. I still like the image, but Berman’s cautionary example shows us that a monk’s hood by itself won’t be enough to save us. We still have to love the world in all its grotesque folly.
Claire Berlinski reminds me that I belong to a small circle of my own, namely, those of us who voluntarily read for pleasure. “33% of high school graduates never read another book the rest of their lives and 42% of college grads never read another book after college. 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years and 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.” That’s grim, no doubt. I imagine that the circle of people who not only read for pleasure but make some sort of regular effort to write down their own thoughts for the sheer enjoyment of doing so is even smaller still. But I, too, cling to the view that it is enough. I don’t mean that blogs and personal essays will ever become popular again, or that most of us are doing anything of cultural significance in our little electronic gardens. But we can still pay tribute to all things good, true, and beautiful in our own humble ways. A few years ago, I responded to a friend who mentioned being anxious and depressed at the fate of Western civilization after paying too much attention to the news:
“Come on, now, buddy. It’s not as bad as all that. To paraphrase Epicurus, where the death of Western civilization is, we are not, and where we are, the death of Western civilization is not. So why worry? As long as there are even a few hundred of us to play the role of Irish monks or ancient Arabic scholars in keeping the old traditions and values alive, they will have their moment again. If the great things about the West could survive barbarians, plagues and wars galore, they can surely survive an auto-immune flare-up of ressentiment-filled intellectuals. If nothing else, once the baby boomers start to die off (no offense; present company excluded, of course), the malignant ’60s influence should start to fade. What are the odds, I mean, seriously, what are the odds that you and I, two schmucks who just happen to know each other, would be the only two people in this great land of ours who have stopped, done a double-take, and rethought some basic convictions in the last decade or so? You’ve got to keep in mind that media are like funhouse mirrors; they distort everything they reflect. We already know how slanted most journalist/literary types are, but their polar opposites are just as heavily invested in the culture wars as they are. If you consume too much of a media diet, you come away thinking that the whole world consists of ideological fanatics bringing on the apocalypse, and you forget that history almost never turns out according to predictions, because there are countless variables out there that never rise to the level of being newsworthy events, except in hindsight. Like, perhaps, a quiet revolution taking place in the minds of people like ourselves.
As long as there is a place for saner voices to be heard, there’s no reason to despair. And there are still plenty such places.”
Erasmus was weary of the life he had once loved so well. We are shaken profoundly when we read his plaintive prayer, “May God gather me soon unto Himself so that I quit this mad world.” For where had the spirit room to live and to grow, now that fanaticism raged through the land? The sublime realm of humanism which Erasmus had built had been overran by enemy hordes and wellnigh conquered; gone were the days of “eruditio et eloquentia”; men no longer hearkened to the subtle and delicate message of imaginative genius, but turned their ears to listen to the rough and passion-wrought babble of politics. Thought had succumbed to mob-frenzy, it had donned the uniform of Luther or of the Pope; the erudite no longer waged war in elegantly phrased epistles and books, but, like fishwives, hurled gross invectives at each other’s heads; none was willing to understand what his neighbour said, but instead each tried to impose his own pet belief, his particular doctrine, upon all the rest. Woe unto him who stood aside and took no part in the game! Twofold hatred was hurled against those who remained aloof. Those who live for the spirit are lonely indeed at times when passion rages. Who is there left to write for when ears are deafened with political yappings and yelpings?
— Stefan Zweig, Erasmus of Rotterdam
Zweig clearly identified with Erasmus, and it’s even more moving when you consider that he published this book in 1934. Eight years later, he and his wife committed suicide in exile, no longer willing to hope for the return of the cosmopolitan ideal destroyed by the world wars. (Theodore Dalrymple wrote a wonderful essay about him that’s also worth reading.) We are fortunate enough to live in more comfortable and peaceable times, which is why I find it especially hard to forgive those who blow on the embers of ideological conflict out of ignorance, boredom, or both. Today’s political arguments, both professional and amateur, make professional wrestling promos look subtle and subdued. However impractical one might find Zweig’s pacifistic ideal, he was at least willing to die rather than compromise it. The least we can do, in our far more advantageous circumstances, is refuse to dignify today’s clownfights with our participation.
My generation has seen the West undone by consumerism, lax divorce laws, the Sexual Revolution, outsourcing, urbanization, and centralization. All are defended (even if only half-heartedly) by modern conservatives as “the price we must pay” to live in a free and prosperous country. They’re wrong. Liberty without morality is mere license; prosperity without charity is mere decadence. The traditionalist rejects both perversions while upholding the essential Good that they distort.
To quote Burke: “Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” And what is it that Millennial traditionalists want? Friendship, family, community, an honest day’s work, real music, good books, and above all God. Kirk summed it up very nicely when he said that “conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship, and Christians call love of neighbor.”
— Michael Warren Davis, “The Radicalism of Russell Kirk”
What we call “globalization” is a sudden radical expansion in the worldwide division of labor—a miracle of human cooperation that, as such miracles so often are, goes mostly unappreciated and unloved, and often hated. Our globalization is hated for the same reason that Renaissance globalization was hated: It disrupts existing status arrangements and introduces new elements of insecurity and anxiety into communities whose members had believed their situations to be fixed, if not ordained—and who believe that they have a natural right to the fixity of those situations, and that the duty of the state is to secure them.
— Kevin D. Williamson, “The Division of Labor Is the Meaning of Life“
Traditional bonds to families, communities, and churches are subjected to rationalist criticism and, eventually, demolition, without much consideration for the personal and societal crises that might be produced, and without any presentation of alternate forms of social and cultural order to put in the place of the destroyed forms of life. Totalizing individualism burns away supportive webs of mutual dependence. This erosion is modernity’s baseline force. It works against the collective symbols, norms, and rites that have been the glue of human society from time immemorial. The shared body of symbolic and ritual material was what Durkheim described as the object of religion: the sacred.
— Alexander Riley, “A Religion of Activism”
Consolation of a desperate progress. Our age gives the impression of being an interim; the old views on life, the old cultures are still evident in part, the new ones not yet sure and habitual, and therefore lacking in unity and consistency. It looks as if everything were becoming chaotic, the old dying out, the new not worth much and growing ever weaker. But this is what happens to the soldier who learns to march; for a time he is more uncertain and clumsy than ever because his muscles move, now to the old system, now to the new, and neither has yet decisively claimed the victory. We waver, but we must not become anxious about it, or surrender what has been newly won. Besides, we cannot go back to the old system; we have burned our bridges behind us. All that remains is to be brave, whatever may result.
Let us step forward, let’s get going! Perhaps our behavior will indeed look like progress; but if it does not, may we take consolation in the words of Frederick the Great: “Ah, mon cher Sulzer, vous ne connaissez pas assez cette race maudite, à laquelle nous appartenons.” (“My dear Sulzer, you know too little this accursed race to which we belong.”)
— Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
It will be very long before political subjects will be reduced to geometric certitude. At present the reasoning on them is a kind of arithmetic of infinity, when the best information, the coolest head, and clearest mind can only approach the truth. A cautious man should therefore give only sibylline predictions, if, indeed, he should hazard any. But I am not a cautious man. I therefore give it as my opinion that they will issue the paper currency, and substitute thereby depreciation in the place of bankruptcy, or, rather, suspension. Apropos of this currency, this papier terré, now mort et enterré, the Assembly have committed many blunders which are not to be wondered at. They have taken genius instead of reason for their guide, adopted experiment instead of experience, and wander in the dark because they prefer lightning to light.
— Gouverneur Morris, letter to William Short, The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris, Vol. 1
Oh, that concluding sentence! Those old-time poet-statesmen make me swoon like a teenage girl. They weren’t just lawyers and they weren’t MBA’s: they had literary educations that included a knowledge of Greek and Latin. They knew poetry not as gut-spilling splotches of formless free verse but as a craft with a prosody that included rhyme and meter. They were taught to read it and write it, in English and the Classical languages. They didn’t have TV and the Internet so they had nothing to do with their spare time but read Shakespeare, Gibbon and Thucydides. Three cheers for progress! We have cable news and Twitter.
Aristotle told us that virtue taken to excess becomes a vice. “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded,” reads the first sentence of the conclusion of Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed, a study of the unintended consequences that Deneen claims were inherent in liberal philosophy from the beginning. Liberalism may have been virtuous in opposition to the divine right of kings and wars of religion, but having vanquished all recent ideological challengers, it has been able to uninterruptedly pursue its philosophical principles to excess, and thus become a vice.
At times, Deneen sounds positively Hegelian in his insistence that a 500-year-old political philosophy founded on the ideal of liberty from arbitrary and unjust authority is destined by its nature to dialectically produce its own antithesis in the form of a massive, invasive state responsible for the upkeep of millions of atomized, infantilized individuals in thrall to their boundless appetites. As a Marxist would say, the contradictions have been heightened, and now we near the inevitable collapse into what Deneen thinks most likely to be either an Orwellian administrative state, a military autocracy, or populist nationalist authoritarianism.
The social ills he describes certainly exist, of course. The question is how widespread, let alone inevitable or terminal, these ills are. Intellectuals in general are overly inclined to put the theoretical cart ahead of the practical horse, and conservative intellectuals are no exception. In theory, A may produce B which leads inexorably to C, but in practice, most people are inconsistent about connecting those logical dots and not particularly bothered about it. In other words, people are perfectly capable of adopting the aspects of liberalism which appeal to them, such as sexual liberation and increased consumer choice, while supplementing them with practices, such as community involvement, church attendance, and striving after virtue, which are, in theory, being crushed by the juggernaut set into motion by Hobbes and Locke. The selfish, short-sighted hedonism that Deneen takes to be illustrative of liberalism per se may eventually become integrated as just another stage in the typical life cycle of an individual, a sort of equivalent to the Amish Rumspringa, where people in their late teens and early twenties have to indulge their appetites in order to learn the hard way how empty that way of life is. Some would probably argue that this is already how things are. In politics, as in the natural world, mass extinction events are extremely rare; slow, piecemeal evolution is the rule. Liberalism will probably shed a few vestigial organs and grow some gangling appendages; the question of when it deserves a new Linnaean classification is only of interest to specialists.
Deneen repeatedly stresses that the conventional distinction between conservatives and liberals only masks the ways in which these two wings of liberalism act in tandem to advance its inner logic. The state and the market are like two competing apps, he says; the real problem is the operating system which in both cases promotes the satisfaction of impulsive appetites, restlessness, and the technical mastery of the natural world. Late in the book, he criticizes Charles Murray, a libertarian, for failing to see that the ills of liberalism can’t be tamed by “moral admonition” — no amount of moralizing can divert the wheels of runaway history. And yet, all Deneen offers in the conclusion are typical “crunchy con” suggestions for how to live while preparing for whatever follows liberalism. Murray, who is supposedly too captive to the logic of liberalism to think outside the Lockean box, has at least written a book suggesting ways in which citizens can practice a sort of passive resistance, or civil disobedience, while waiting for a sclerotic, overreaching state to collapse on itself. I hardly see enough difference between these two approaches worth elaborating, just as I hardly see any point in being exercised about what may or may not happen to liberalism over the next few generations. What will be, will be. We’ll muddle through like we always have.