As a conservative-liberal-socialist, I don’t fit onto any political maps that I know of, and I am accustomed to feeling slightly out of place — more, out of focus — in any given policy debate. But despite the sizable liberal element in my own personal political constitution, in times of serious conflict — today’s Brexit contretemps, for instance — I am always temperamentally alienated from liberalism. For what distinguishes many (most?) liberals from both conservatives and socialists, as today’s social media torpedoes reveal, is genuine incomprehension that any sane and decent person could disagree with them.
Yuval Levin said once that the right and left in this country are both liberal. By this, he meant that they share a common heritage of classical liberalism, which has a conservative and a progressive tendency. They both believe in inalienable rights, representative democracy, and free markets; they just differ in the details. If that sounds ridiculously counterintuitive, it’s because a lot of time and rhetorical energy has been invested in claiming that “conservatives” and “liberals”, conventionally defined, occupy opposite sides of a vast, unbridgeable chasm, but it would be more accurate to see them as two wings of one political tradition, with the differences between them often being of the small, narcissistic kind. “Conservatives” do not seriously want to restructure society around the divine right of kings, a landed aristocracy, and other elements of a feudal society, nor do they yearn for life under a fascist dictator, and “liberals” do not actually want to impose a godless communist tyranny.
Yeah, that disturbance in the force you just felt was as if millions of bloggers cried out in terror upon hearing the legitimacy of their entire identity and life’s work called into question. Ignore it; it’ll pass.
Assuming all this is accurate, Jacobs’ comment clarifies for me the way that much political argument has become nothing more than fashionable posturing, an argument rooted in the idiosyncrasy of taste rather than irreconcilable principles. I, too, lean left on certain issues and right on others, but I, too, can’t stand the entitled, bitter, moralistic flavor of today’s Progressivism™️ — those ads with the “Now containing more social justice!” thing, the attempt to rebrand it for the millennial generation, that was all a mistake, I think. Hopefully they’ll recover soon, though I’m not too optimistic over the new CEO they’ve got coming in, you know? We’ll see, I guess, but for the time being, I’m switching to small, independent craft politics.
Anyway, without a serious opponent like fascism or communism to challenge it from without, liberalism seemingly devolves into status competition within. Everyday life proceeds as reliably and predictably as ever, even as political partisans work themselves into feverish delirium trying to portray the next election as the last chance to stave off certain apocalypse. The more our lifestyles converge, the more significance we have to invest in trivial distinctions of language, manners, hobbies, education and consumption to keep a semblance of deep, existential meaning alive. And all of these tendencies are magnified and amplified in the online world, as people separated by a mere few cubicles can spend the workday unknowingly raging at each other’s pseudonyms in a blog comment section, before wishing each other good evening at quitting time and returning to their personal lives. When people are too comfortable, they get bored, and rather than do something uplifting, they create drama and conflict just to entertain themselves. That’s the conservative in me talking.
Progressivism is currently in power, both politically and culturally. Power makes people stupid, complacent and arrogant. I don’t think that’s peculiar to progressivism. Should they ever find themselves in the political and cultural wilderness, they’ll quickly relearn how to argue uphill against a hostile reception.
I’ve started re-reading Isaiah Berlin’s books, and they’re even better than my rose-tinted memory pictured them. By the way, for newer readers, it is a requirement that you, too, familiarize yourself with Sir Isaiah’s works, in order to be permitted to read here. An usher will be around shortly to check that you have your copies on hand, and there may even be a pop quiz to follow. Just so you know.
Anyway, that’s from Freedom and Its Betrayal, in the chapter on Claude Helvétius, a French philosopher from the mid-eighteenth century. Berlin describes him as the first utilitarian, a man to whom Bentham was deeply indebted, and one of the first to formulate the idea that politics could be turned into a science, with final answers to political questions existing a priori, waiting to be discovered by a sufficiently dedicated scientist with the proper tools and methods. For three hundred years, progressive minds have dreamed of the day when politics, with all its frustrations and compromises, could be brushed into the dustbin of history, and an elite ruling caste of enlightened technocrats could take power and give the people what they really want, as proven by the latest data and neuroimaging techniques, even if the poor, deluded cud-chewers don’t know it yet, and for those who still can’t adapt to the program, there’s always lobotomies, of either the pharmaceutical or old-fashioned kind.
This idea is still alive and well in our own age, as a glance through this morning’s news can tell you. I almost needed a lifejacket to surf the web today, what with all the crashing waves of progressive tears over the Brexit vote. Site after site featured the spleen-ventings of apoplectic proggies, furious that anything so outdated as a popular vote could have been allowed to interfere with their vision of a bureaucratic superstate. As you’d expect from uptight, moralistic prigs who spend every moment patrolling the police state of their minds, looking for any problematic words or ideas which could conceivably cause offense should they ever tunnel under the walls and wire and run amok among polite company, there has been a shuddering, gasping explosion of ecstatic release as they are finally allowed to vent their hatred of another group of people in the most positively un-enlightened language. Lower-class white Westerners? Racist white Westerners, you say? Oooooh, God, yes, okay, wait, wait, just let me slip my hand under here, and — ahhh, yes. Terminate with extreme prejudice! Scorch the earth and salt it so they can never grow back! Why did we ever let these subhumans vote in the first place?
I have no informed, meaningful opinion on Brexit, and my guiding assumption is that, as usual, the loudest, boldest predictions making the rounds right now are likely to be wrong, and the eventual results, once we’ve attained enough perspective to judge, will likely contain surprises no one anticipated, but which will seem obvious in hindsight. I realize that can’t compete with lurid prophecies of apocalypse and revolution, but I never said I was a pundit. No, what interests me is, one, as already mentioned, the way in which the ideas of a three hundred year-old philosopher are still entirely relevant today, and two, what this says about the political left in general.
Christopher Lasch, as I noted recently, wrote about how, a century ago, just before technocratic liberalism was about to reach its zenith, strangely enough, the mood among progressive thinkers was already shifting, becoming gloomier and self-pitying. As Lasch said, the Nation in 1922 was already developing the progressive aesthetic which loves to portray itself as a small, beleaguered outpost of impeccable taste and civilized values marooned in a wasteland of fundamentalists, rednecks and other savages. Even more recently, though, Peter Dornan, in the course of demolishing Naomi Klein’s latest screed, said it succinctly: the left has adapted to powerlessness. It has largely given up on seeing itself as the true vox populi, wanting nothing to do with those unwashed barbarians, and seems to be content with impotent fantasies about a society in which social scientists and academics have finally taken over the government. As he says, this is why a book like Klein’s, an incoherent grab-bag of sloganeering, wishful thinking and leftist bromides can find praise along the entire spectrum of left-wing media; it’s not like anything’s riding on it, after all. None of them expect it to be taken seriously or acted upon. It’s merely a way of signaling one’s membership among the elect, whether you wrote the book or whether you just wave it.
Jonathan Bronitsky said in a recent book review:
To this day, liberals and their other non-revolutionary siblings on the left might disagree with communists over the extent to which the state should engineer “fairness,” yet they still share with them a vision of what constitutes fairness and an image of a properly re-engineered people. For all ideologies of the left are tied to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis upon predetermined progress via reason and the accumulation of quantifiable knowledge.
“They still share with them a vision of what constitutes fairness and an image of a properly re-engineered people.” This, more than anything, is what strikes me about today’s left. They may have been forced to grudgingly admit that the state couldn’t remold society from the top down, but they have yet to admit that their ideal of what a just, equitable society would look like is incoherent. A chimera. A crackbrained fantasy. Like Wile E. Coyote, they’re running in place in midair, afraid to look down lest political gravity finally kick in. Thus the insular, self-congratulatory smugness. Thus the self-serving mythology about how only they can truly be opposed to all the insidious -isms which haunt the world like the imps and demons of a bygone age. Thus the need to make a virtue out of necessity — when confronted with their failure to persuade a majority of people to support their views, rather than adjust their tactics and redouble their efforts, they rationalize it as further proof that they’re just too pure for this fallen world.
Bear in mind, I’m not saying there aren’t perfectly valid-but-tediously-wonky arguments to be had over marginal tax rates and other specific policies. I’m talking about progressivism as an identity, as a surrogate religion, as the tiresome posturing that dominates social media. I’m talking about people who still, after three centuries, refuse to lose faith in a future Newton of politics who will finally reduce the maddening, complicated business of living and cooperating together in society into a few clear, inviolable rules that can be objectively applied by the credentialed experts. That vision appalls me, and furthermore, as Ben Cobley says, I don’t see any meaningful way to disentangle an essence of progressivism worth keeping from the insular, identity-obsessed cult it has become.
But this study reminds us that there is a vast difference between knowingness and knowledge. Knowingness can be achieved simply by scanning your Twitter account. Knowledge requires more discipline, direction, and—the quality perhaps most absent on social media—patience. Knowledge is power; knowingness, by contrast, risks creating a world of Know-Nothings.
Trash collected by the eyes and dumped into the brain;
Discriminate, said Schopenhauer. Learn when to abstain.
(He might say, were he here today, of media old and new:
Give a book a face and it will gaze back into you.)
Monkeys chatter, bluebirds tweet. Withdraw and go your way.
Restore your soul with knowledge and let knowingness decay.
Well, well, well. In news that will shock absolutely no one, another right-wing, pro-family, homophobic fundamentalist preacher has been outed as a participant in the sinful lifestyle he railed against from the pulpit. Except by “right-wing”, we mean “left-wing”. And by “pro-family”, we mean “conspicuously poly“. Also, by “homophobic fundamentalist”, we mean “doctrinaire social justice-atheist“.
(With apologies to the original.)
…adding, this is a pretty good summary too.
I also know that I’m not the only “content creator” who’s struggled with this dilemma. There’s so many of us, all exhausted, all trying to keep up with the internet’s short attention span by constantly reaffirming our presence. But all good things must come to an end, as they say. And I’ll add to that: Anything that doesn’t end isn’t good. So I’m ending this good thing, knowing full well that it may cost me the attention, the respect, and the reassurance of the people I have entertained over the years. But I will make another thing, and hopefully people will like it, and when that thing ends I will make another thing, and another, and another.
Well, I’ll certainly miss this particular shtick. Blog years are almost like dog years, aren’t they? I’m starting to feel like an old-timer opening a newspaper and turning straight to the obituaries to see which blogs I know that have recently passed on. But he’s right. That’s the thing with having a shtick and an audience; they quickly start dictating the terms of you how you operate, and before you know it, what was once your passionate hobby has become another job. I’m fortunate that I knew early on that amateur writing for its own sake was enough to sustain me; I never wanted a large readership, and I had no interest in trying to figure out how to monetize my blog. My family and most of my friends have absolutely no idea that I do this. That anonymity and solitude has kept my enjoyment of writing as pure as I could have possibly hoped. As in so many things, Montaigne understood this a long time ago:
For me, as long as there are books and web content that inspire me to think a little more deeply, or at least crack a joke, I can’t see ever getting to the point where I think a blog is a creative dead end. The semi-epistolary blogging format works well to keep things evolving slowly without becoming stale. Many of the topics that were interesting to me several years ago are boring to me now. Many of the perspectives I voiced then make me wince with embarrassment now. That’s as it should be. If I didn’t have the freedom to grow and change like that, if I felt pressure to keep “in character” and keep giving the customers what they want, I would have burnt out a long time ago. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, when a man is tired of wrestling with his thoughts and setting them down in writing, he’s tired of life itself.
During the first wave of New Atheism, Sam Harris popularized a certain argument in which moderate religion is said to “provide cover” for fundamentalism. Think of it as the “broken windows” theory applied to the Overton Window — if we refuse to tolerate an intellectual misdemeanor, such as mainstream religious belief, we will create a cultural atmosphere of lawful order where a serious crime wave of fundamentalist terrorism has no chance of breaking out. Now, Henry Rambow has written an essay restating the idea based on his own experience as a former fundamentalist. Like Harris, Rambow seems to conflate religion with culture, which only increases the perception that this is all a futile exercise in tilting at windmills.
Second, moderate religion propagates and legitimizes the vehicles of fundamentalist ideology — both the texts and the rituals. The fact that millions upon millions of Americans believe that the Bible is a holy book drives publishers to print millions upon millions of copies every year. Bibles are available in every home and on the back of every church pew. And all it takes for a fundamentalist to be born is for one lost soul to pick up a copy and find a powerful sense of purpose in a literal interpretation of the text. The same is true of the Koran.
Ergo, if there were no moderate religion, there would be no fundamentalism. Sort of like how if there were no football games, there would be no hooliganism (I honestly can’t tell if that’s a serious anti-football perspective or a pinpoint-accurate parody of the anti-Islam rhetoric). Or if only the public had never been exposed to the study of biology, we would have never had a half-century of progressives being infatuated with Social Darwinism and eugenics (in case you need to be reminded that religion does not have a unique power to inspire men to commit atrocities in service to an imaginary future paradise). Or if there had never been a field of economics, there would have never been a Karl Marx to addle the brains of leftists right up to the current day.
You can use this formula to come up with any number of your own absurd counterfactuals and hypotheticals, but the important thing is, at this point, we are simply at loggerheads: you either believe the human race is capable of being perfected through education and social engineering, or you believe that no matter what, the diabolical genius of our species is that we can make a miserable mess out of absolutely anything, we will always find a way to sabotage our contentment, and therefore, it is not worth confiscating or destroying what makes nine people happy in the vain hope of teaching the tenth a lesson. If religion didn’t exist, people would find another justification for murdering each other.
To give Rambow credit, he does offer a solution other than aggressively attempting to morally shame people out of religious belief. Unfortunately, that solution is to demand that moderate religions essentially perform the same surgical operation on their scriptures that Thomas Jefferson did and excise all the malignant verses that don’t conform to the ethical fashions popular among modern, educated progressive sensibilities. A pretty tall order in itself, this seems reminiscent to me of the naive arguments from social conservatives claiming that if only kids weren’t exposed to rock and rap lyrics glorifying sex and drugs, they would never be tempted to experiment with them. Not to mention, I don’t see what’s to prevent the black market allure of scriptures promising the true, unexpurgated version from attracting the lost souls Rambow fears. The genie is out of the bottle, the apple has been eaten, and violence of some sort will always be with us.
Alice More: Arrest him!
Sir Thomas More: Why, what has he done?
Margaret More: He’s bad!
More: There is no law against that.
Will Roper: There is! God’s law!
More: Then God can arrest him.
Alice: While you talk, he’s gone!
More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast– man’s laws, not God’s– and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.
But the horrible irony is that PC is actually a horribly ineffective weapon against the devil of intolerance. Real bigots, like real rapists who we are told should be taught “not to rape,” care nothing whatsoever for shaming or moral chastising. To the contrary, they take pride in being monsters. To call them bigots or racists or what-have-you is for them a badge of honor.
No, as Professor Tom Nichols pointed out in his excellent article on PC and Donald Trump, what PC did was something else: utterly destroy the political center. Once upon a time, you could hold a middle ground, nuanced position on any given issue in public discourse. Now? You’re either all the way one way or all the way another way.
In going after the devil, PC has slain the good men, the knights who could fight the danger, or at least check or weaken it. It searched for enemies where none existed only to release the ones that did. It reminds me, sadly, of Europe of the 1930s, when democracy and any hint of moderation was so thoroughly discredited and weakened in the name of instant solutions and hatred of “the system” that everyone ultimately had no choice but to pick which side was less awful: Stalin or Hitler.
Radical Islamist terrorists certainly exist. We all know that. But fifteen or so years ago, to many of us on the political left, center, or even moderate right, it seemed at times that the threat of Islamic terrorism was a rhetorical trope more than a geopolitical reality. The Bush administration used the shock of 9/11 in service to an incredibly radical agenda, cynically conflating honest critics of particular policies with reflexive anti-American radicals, smearing the patriotism of people who had supported them in Afghanistan, but balked at invading Iraq. You’re either with us, or you hate America and you want the terrorists to win. We all know this by now as well.
Likewise, racists, sexists and rapists certainly exist. However, this generation of freshly-hatched university students, their heads filled with academic grievance-mongering and their hearts yearning for a grand, significant civil rights battle of their very own, started training analytical floodlights on language, video games and other harmless phenomena in order to make shadows appear larger and more threatening. The undeniable progress that society has made over recent decades regarding race and gender issues wasn’t good enough; in fact, it only added to the crusaders’ frustration. If devils couldn’t be easily found, they’d have to be invented. As should have been expected, the people who bore the brunt of their fanatical fury weren’t the proudly racist or the crudely sexist, but the mostly-liberal people who, up to the point of their own show trials, had thought themselves part of the fight against those reactionary ills. You’re either with us, or you’re with the misogynists. And the line defining who was a misogynist kept creeping closer. If you protested, you became a rape apologist.
The moderate Democrats circa 2003 thought that by giving the administration the benefit of the doubt, and by rhetorically distancing themselves from anyone to their left, they might be respected as loyal opposition. Likewise, many progressives made excuses for the social justice warriors, rationalizing that “at least they’re not Republicans”. They urged critics to soften their oppositional stance and inevitably smeared the character of anyone who refused. Honestly, though, I expect nothing less than fanaticism from those who would hunt devils, which is why I reserve the bulk of my contempt for the foolish cowards who make excuses for them in hopes of saving their own skins.
The immediacy and excitement of social media and online journalism have encouraged people to ignore this and hold forth on everything. Mouthing off with insufficient knowledge of one’s subject can entail devising and promoting arrant nonsense. What it also does, however, which is far less acknowledged, is make it more difficult to stop promoting nonsense as having publically endorsed a particular opinion one has made a personal investment in its success, integrating the idea into one’s identity and gambling one’s social status on it being impressive.
In the depths of an old-growth forest, a tree falls. In a study, a blogger glances over the headlines and trending topics in his feed reader and rolls his eyes in disdain before closing the laptop and picking up a book. Do either of them make a sound? It depends, of course, on how you define the term. Are the soundwaves that ripple out from the tree’s crash into the undergrowth significant if they’re only registered by the ears of forest creatures incapable of recursively reflecting on them? Is the blogger’s weariness with the fatuity of social media meaningful if it isn’t publicly performed in that same venue in return for validation by clicks, likes and retweets?
It’s no fun ignoring people if they don’t know they’re being ignored, is it? How are people to know that the weeklong lapse between posts is due to my principled rejection of the popular topics and viral essays on offer, rather than my being occupied with work or other hobbies, if I don’t say so? However, conspicuous disdain, the kind that wants to make sure the audience knows just how unworthy of your attention you find the current object of your attention, should be beneath us. It’s akin to the fraudulent spectacle of a football player peeking through his fingers to see if the referee has taken note of his simulation of mortal injury. In the social media marketplace, sense and nonsense are not polar opposites, however invested consumers might be in believing otherwise; they’re competing products, like Coke and Pepsi. Performance, signaling, and seeking validation — these are the currency, the bills and coins which dirty the hands of the enlightened and benighted alike.
Oh, yeah, just so you know, if I’m not around as much for the next month or so, I’m busy. Today, f’rinstance, I just wanted to enjoy the Spain-Czech Republic game without encountering my longtime nemesis, Commentators Whose Pattern-Seeking Software Has Gone Haywire. Is that too much to ask? Apparently so.
Alejandro Moreno: If you’re a Spanish national team fan, you may want to turn away right now and not listen to this.
Max Bretos: *Giggles*
AM: Spain — this is fact —
MB: A great tease, by the way! You have my undivided attention!
AM: Spain has never won on June thirteenth. Never. Five matches. One draw —
MB: Start the bus, everybody!
AM: Four losses, including the catastrophe and the disaster against the Netherlands in the World Cup.
MB: And this is — it’s just a date, but then you said, it’s a, it’s a big sample size of games, so suggests there’s something more to it.
AM: Just make of it what you will. Just giving you a fact.
A fact! Why, it’s practically a scientific certainty, I’d say! How’d that turn out? Oh. Even with that, uh, big sample size? Golly!
Anyway, once I pried my palm off my face, I promised the gods a year off the end of my lifespan if they would let Spain win. Well worth it.