This is what happens when the only US history you’ve ever learned was a single PowerPoint slide repeated ad infinitum.
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) June 24, 2020
To be more precise, this is what happens when mobs form, regardless of the supposed reason for their formation. “The joy of violent movement pulls you under,” as James Hetfield sang. Mobs, by their nature, are thoughtless, destructive beasts. Arguing about whether this is all in response to police brutality or systemic racism or three months of lockdown is like arguing about which flea on the elephant’s back is responsible for steering it. In one sense, a careful study of history could possibly inoculate people against the mob virus, by reminding us how little we know, by illustrating how little actually changes throughout history, and by instilling in us humility and gratitude for the past achievements of those wiser, better, and more courageous than we’ll ever be. On the other hand, one doesn’t have to look far to find many conventionally-intelligent people who have managed to study history without learning anything important, except for how to cherry-pick grievances to fuel their insatiable resentment. Anyone who looks into the face of the mob hoping to see a reflection of reason and idealism will only find the abyss of impulsive nihilism gazing back at them.
One of the most original and mind-opening studies of practical philosophy to have appeared for many years, Why We Drive spells out in vivid detail what is wrong with the prevailing idea of the human subject. Seemingly diverging from Kant’s idea of rational autonomy, a utilitarian account of human action has developed in which reason means the calculation of outcomes. In fact this is another version of the disembodied humanity Kant imagined. Most fully elaborated in economics but pervasive throughout much of today’s political discourse, it is a view in which human beings are preference-satisfying machines. These homunculi attach no intrinsic significance to how they live. The quality of their experience is relevant only insofar as it enables them to gratify their desires as efficiently as possible. It is as if their lives were simply means whereby they get from one satisfaction to another.
Rather than rehearsing philosophical arguments against this position, Crawford reveals its limitations through examples.
Somehow, Matthew Crawford has managed to sneak up on me with a new book that was already released earlier this month. I greatly enjoyed Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head, so I’m looking forward to this one. It should be especially interesting because of my conflicted feelings about driving. Many writers and philosophers claim that walking is good for stimulating thought, but for me, driving while listening to music is even better. I had various driving jobs for many years, and many of my scribblings here were actually done in my head while driving down interstates and lonely county roads. On the other hand, those same years spent maneuvering through traffic (or sitting motionless behind a pile-up) have instilled in me a boundless contempt for the careless stupidity with which many people operate their vehicles. I admit I am often tempted by the idea that people are too stupid to be trusted with the responsibility of driving, and that the machines should take over, but if anyone can make me appreciate driving as an arena for exercising freedom, a skill that must be practiced regularly to avoid atrophy, I suppose it would be Crawford.
I don’t believe there’s any problem in this country, no matter how tough it is, that Americans, when they roll up their sleeves, can’t completely ignore.
— George Carlin
More than a third of black students will drop out of high school in Milwaukee. But Forbes has announced a change in its in-house stylebook and will henceforth honor the woke convention of uppercase Black vs. lowercase white. And George Floyd is still dead. Jacob Frey is still mayor of Minneapolis. Medaria Arradondo is still the chief of police.
…Bennet was pushed out on behalf of marginalized black Americans, which necessitated that Bennet immediately be replaced by . . . a well-off white woman who went to Georgetown and Columbia and won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about that great loathsome theater of American middle-class anxiety: restaurants. (“The real price of inexpensive menu items,” the Pulitzer people summarized.) Well-off white women from elite colleges run the diversity-and-sensitivity racket like the 17th-century Dutch ran the tulip racket, like the De Beers cartel used to run diamonds. Big Caitlyn is getting paid. Affluent white women are the main E-Class beneficiaries of the current headhunting project to clear a little room at the top, just as they have historically been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs, contracting set-asides, and other programs to help out the poor disenfranchised Georgetown alumni out there in the cold and dark.
George Floyd is still dead. Jacob Frey is still mayor of Minneapolis. Medaria Arradondo is still the chief of police. But Kathleen Kingsbury — do I have to tell you she’s from Portland? she’s from Portland — has moved up a step at the New York Times, and promises not to publish any opinions someone might have an opinion about. And George Floyd is still dead. Jacob Frey is still mayor of Minneapolis. Medaria Arradondo is still the chief of police.
They always come for pop culture eventually. When I was an adolescent, the crusade du jour was about putting parental warning labels on records with “explicit content,” a worthless gesture intended to vaguely relieve the widespread anxiety caused by the complex problem of broken families and latchkey kids. I can’t help but recall that the effort was spearheaded by a well-off white woman, the wife of a soon-to-be Vice President. Today’s purgeoisie (credit to Neontaster for that coinage), confronted with intractable social ills, has risen to the challenge by disarming mass murderers like Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, decolonizing the breakfast table, and using national newspapers as a platform to publicly humiliate private citizens for once wearing blackface, even when it was done in the spirit of parody against the earnest wearing of blackface. When we roll up our sleeves, there is no ambiguously-symbolic representation tangentially associated with something which could conceivably be construed as “bad” that we can’t dispose of in short order.
You think I care about losing followers? Buddy in my day we wrote a 3 paragraph blog post to NOBODY and we freakin loved it
— Pigeon Fancier (@isabelzawtun) June 17, 2020
Nobody?!! We dreamed of writing to nobody. We lived on the abandoned planet of Usenet after people left in the great commercial internet exodus. 7 of us accessing the internet on a CD32 with an SX-1 expansion with 2 megs of Chip ram. And youngsters today talk about followers FFS! pic.twitter.com/1kJiOijf9a
— Angus (@000Angus000) June 17, 2020
Let us not forget the glorious href years of pre-rich-text editing! That little chain link icon is weak. 😉
— ProfD (@ProfD19) June 18, 2020
The imbeciles on Twitter are unserious people, but unserious people can produce serious problems. There is a word for the situation in which there is no room for disagreement. The word is not “justice.” It is “totalitarianism.” That is what cancel culture is, and we have seen it in highly developed form in such places as East Germany under Honecker and China under Mao and the Cultural Revolution.
A couple days later, Williamson linked to an interview with the high priestess of the state religion of anti-racism, Robin DiAngelo, in which she informed us:
Racism is the foundation of the society we are in. And to simply carry on with absolutely no active interruption of that system is to be complicit with it. And in that way, we can say that nice, white people who really aren’t doing anything other than being nice people are racist. We are complicit with that system. There is no neutral place.
Ah, yes, “Everything within the cause, nothing outside the cause, nothing against the cause,” as Mussolini might have said, had he been willing to interrogate his own whiteness. I’ll bet you that DiAngelo has one of those motivational office posters hanging up in her workspace emblazoned with O’Brien’s promise from 1984: “We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.” However, things aren’t as harsh as they seem. They’re at least willing to pay for our therapy and retraining:
Look at it this way: this might be the only way we’re allowed to go to summer camp anytime soon. If any of you get assigned to my cabin, let’s start a clandestine reading group.
I had managed to make it this far in life without ever hearing of this carpet-chewing lunatic, which I take to be a healthy sign for both me and society in general. I think it’s noteworthy, however, that he has 331,000 followers. It gives slight pause to consider that the population of a fair-sized city could encounter a Streicher-like screed like this and say, “Now, there’s a fellow making good sense. I’d like to be kept abreast of all his further thoughts, please.” Signal? Noise? Who can tell anymore? Is this feverish sentiment a meaningless outlier, or an ominous harbinger?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no such thing as a happy political junkie. I have never once encountered a person intimately familiar with everything from palace intrigue to policy minutiae who could be described as well-rounded, genial, or content. Political obsession invariably deforms its victims. They can’t change their minds and they won’t change the subject. A healthy person would be indulging in a hobby, or enjoying time spent with loved ones, not fantasizing about throwing political opponents in re-education camps, or preaching the good word of anti-racism to people who are inching the door closed in your face. The fanatic is convinced that his monomaniacal political awareness is the gravitational force keeping the world from falling apart. In reality, it’s more like a magnifying glass being used to burn a hole through the delicate bonds of “sympathy” as described by thinkers like Adam Smith, the fellow-feeling which makes life tolerable despite its countless imperfections.
Like Bartleby, I look at most of the activities that society offers me and offer a polite demurral. I would be happy to leave it at that, but apparently my attitude is increasingly unacceptable. I’m tired of being pursued by zealots who want to paw me with their dirty institutions and constrain me to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. I will vote for whoever promises to build a wall between me and fanatics like DiAngelo and Palmer, a wall topped with razor wire and machine-gun turrets. We used to be able to depend on the much-more aesthetically-pleasing bulwark of manners, mores, civil society, or whatever else you want to call it, but the religious vacuum in society has been filled by politics-as-religion, so here we are.
If you’re thinking that no one could possibly disagree with any of that, you’re underestimating just how disagreeable people are right now. Capillary-exploding fury greeted the statement above, via an open letter dated June 6 and signed by 1,800 people you’ve never heard of. Scores of them are remarkably ungrateful previous or current recipients of the foundation’s largesse. This virtual mob of versifiers, subscribers to Poetry magazine, and assorted random worked-up individuals inveighed against the foundation’s brief note for being wholly inadequate to the task of ending racism, calling it “an insult to the lives and families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other victims of the racist institution of police and white supremacy” as well as “an insult to the lives of your neighbors who have been targeted, brutalized, terrorized, and detained by the Chicago Police.” Further, the letter proclaimed that “the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence.” Threatening to withhold its submissions from Poetry magazine, the mob of signatories issued a list of five demands, not counting its call for the immediate resignation of President Henry Bienen and board of trustees chair Willard Bunn III.
In the course of denouncing the Poetry Foundation for not “creating a world that is just and affirming for people of color, disabled people, trans people, queer people, and immigrants,” the authors of the letter offered a hint that the ideal way to placate them would be to turn over all of its money to them: “Ultimately, we dream of a world in which the massive wealth hoarding that underlies the Foundation’s work would be replaced by the redistribution of every cent to those whose labor amassed those funds,” read the letter. Failing that, the angry poets suggested they might settle for “large contributions to organizations” of which they approved, together with “redistribution of wealth toward efforts fostering social justice.”
— Kyle Smith, “Insanity at the Poetry Foundation”
So Cisco created a public Google spreadsheet and titled it “Theaters Not Speaking Out.” It was open for anyone to edit, and it had a simple directive: “Add names to this document who have not made a statement against injustices toward black people.”
…“I went to bed afterwards and thought 50 names will be on this list in the morning and I’ll be over it,” Cisco said by phone from Atlanta, where she has been living since March. “But it started to get a lot of traction, and there are now over 400 theaters on it listed from across the country.”
Theaters are listed alphabetically by city, beginning with Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va., and ending with the Palace Theatre in Wisconsin Dells, Wisc. In between are some big institutions — companies that produce plays and musicals as well as venues that largely present touring productions — including the Wallis Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, the Goodman Theatre and the Second City in Chicago, Yale Repertory Theater in Connecticut and Playwrights Horizons in New York.
It did not appear to be a coincidence that the following day, and into June, theaters began posting messages of solidarity with Black Lives Matter en masse, black theater artists said. The response was problematic because often the statements were perceived to have come from a place of shame and felt slapped together and hollow, Cisco said.
More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.
Custine grasped that the propensity to deceive and to be (or to pretend to be) deceived lay at the heart of Russia’s evident malaise. The maintenance of despotism depended upon this universal vocation for untruth, because without the fiction that the despotism was necessary, that it conduced to the happiness and well-being of all, and that any alternative would be disastrous, the subject population would cease to be controllable. The inability to speak even the most evident truth perverted all human relationships and institutions. And of course the lie came to be the foundation of all twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, without which they could not survive. “The political system of Russia,” wrote Custine, “could not withstand twenty years of free communication with Western Europe.”
…For example, shortly after his arrival in Russia, Custine went to the annual festival at the palace of Peterhof, a festival of such magnificence that it took 1,800 servants to light 250,000 lamps for it. Visitors reached the palace by boat from Saint Petersburg, and one boat had sunk in a storm on the way to the festival with the loss of all its passengers and crew. But because “any mishap [in Russia] is treated as an affair of State” in Russia, and because “to lie is to protect the social order, to speak the truth is to destroy the State,” there followed “a silence more terrifying than the disaster itself.” In Russia, people of the highest social class—as were the boat’s passengers—could disappear not only without a trace but without comment. Who in such a country could ever feel safe?
The silence encompassed not only current events, but extended back into history. A Russian nobleman, Prince Peter Koslovsky, had warned Custine before his arrival in Russia that in his country “despotism not only counts ideas and sentiments for nothing, but remakes facts. It wages war on evidence and triumphs in the battle. . . . [The Emperor’s] power is more far-reaching than God’s, for God makes only the future, while the Czar remakes the past.” Custine’s experience repeatedly proved this insight true. No previous czar was ever mentioned in conversation, he learned, to avoid the suggestion that the present czar was not immortal. For this same reason, Custine noted that Russians did not dare look at the palace in which the czar’s father, the emperor Paul, was murdered: for “it is forbidden to recount, in the schools or elsewhere, the story of the death of the Emperor Paul.”
When a man fell from grace, he not only ceased to exist, he ceased ever to have existed. “M. de Repnin governed the Empire and the Emperor. M. de Repnin has been in disfavour for two years and for two years Russia has not heard this name spoken—this name which two years ago was on every tongue. No one dares to remember him or even to believe in his existence—either his present existence or his past existence. In Russia, the day a minister falls, his friends become deaf and blind. A man is buried as soon as he appears to be in disfavour.”
Communist regimes went yet further in the creation of unpersons, of course, striking them out of photographs and encyclopedias (on the fall of a formerly prominent Soviet personage, the publishers of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia would send out substitute entries to paste over that unpersonage’s entry). But the precedent had been set many years before.
Custine appreciated only too well the violence that this remaking of history did to the minds of men, and the consequences it had for their character and behavior. In order not to look at the palace in which the emperor Paul was murdered, a person had to know that he was killed there; but his whole purpose in not looking at the palace was to demonstrate in public his ignorance of the murder. He thus had not only to assert a lie but also to deny that he knew it was a lie. And all officials—the emperor included—had likewise to pretend that they did not know they were being lied to, or else the whole edifice of falsehood would have come tumbling down.
The need always to lie and always to avoid the truth stripped everyone of what Custine called “the two greatest gifts of God—the soul and the speech which communicates it.” People became hypocritical, cunning, mistrustful, cynical, silent, cruel, and indifferent to the fate of others as a result of the destruction of their own souls. Moreover, the upkeep of systematic untruth requires a network of spies: indeed, it requires that everyone become a spy and potential informer. And “the spy,” wrote Custine, “believes only in espionage, and if you escape his snares he believes that he is about to fall into yours.” The damage to personal relations was incalculable.
If Custine were among us now, he would recognize the evil of political correctness at once, because of the violence that it does to people’s souls by forcing them to say or imply what they do not believe but must not question. Custine would demonstrate to us that, without an external despot to explain our pusillanimity, we have willingly adopted the mental habits of people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship.
— Theodore Dalrymple, “How to Read a Society”
The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.
Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome his complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.
Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.
Why in fact did our greengrocer have to put his loyalty on display in the shop window? Had he not already displayed it sufficiently in various internal or semipublic ways? At trade union meetings, after all, he had always voted as he should. He had always taken part in various competitions. He voted in elections like a good citizen. He had even signed the “antiCharter.” Why, on top of all that, should he have to declare his loyalty publicly? After all, the people who walk past his window will certainly not stop to read that, in the greengrocer’s opinion, the workers of the world ought to unite. The fact of the matter is, they don’t read the slogan at all, and it can be fairly assumed they don’t even see it. If you were to ask a woman who had stopped in front of his shop what she saw in the window, she could certainly tell whether or not they had tomatoes today, but it is highly unlikely that she noticed the slogan at all, let alone what it said.
It seems senseless to require the greengrocer to declare his loyalty publicly. But it makes sense nevertheless. People ignore his slogan, but they do so because such slogans are also found in other shop windows, on lampposts, bulletin boards, in apartment windows, and on buildings; they are everywhere, in fact. They form part of the panorama of everyday life. Of course, while they ignore the details, people are very aware of that panorama as a whole. And what else is the greengrocer’s slogan but a small component in that huge backdrop to daily life?
The greengrocer had to put the slogan in his window, therefore, not in the hope that someone might read it or be persuaded by it, but to contribute, along with thousands of other slogans, to the panorama that everyone is very much aware of. This panorama, of course, has a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don’t want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquility and security.
The woman who ignored the greengrocer’s slogan may well have hung a similar slogan just an hour before in the corridor of the office where she works. She did it more or less without thinking, just as our greengrocer did, and she could do so precisely because she was doing it against the background of the general panorama and with some awareness of it, that is, against the background of the panorama of which the greengrocer’s shop window forms a part. When the greengrocer visits her office, he will not notice her slogan either, just as she failed to notice his. Nevertheless, their slogans are mutually dependent: both were displayed with some awareness of the general panorama and, we might say, under its diktat. Both, however, assist in the creation of that panorama, and therefore they assist in the creation of that diktat as well. The greengrocer and the office worker have both adapted to the conditions in which they live, but in doing so, they help to create those conditions. They do what is done, what is to be done, what must be done, but at the same time-by that very token-they confirm that it must be done in fact. They conform to a particular requirement and in so doing they themselves perpetuate that requirement. Metaphysically speaking, without the greengrocer’s slogan the office worker’s slogan could not exist, and vice versa. Each proposes to the other that something be repeated and each accepts the other’s proposal. Their mutual indifference to each other’s slogans is only an illusion: in reality, by exhibiting their slogans, each compels the other to accept the rules of the game and to confirm thereby the power that requires the slogans in the first place. Quite simply, each helps the other to be obedient. Both are objects in a system of control, but at the same time they are its subjects as well. They are both victims of the system and its instruments.
If an entire district town is plastered with slogans that no one reads, it is on the one hand a message from the district secretary to the regional secretary, but it is also something more: a small example of the principle of social auto-totality at work. Part of the essence of the post-totalitarian system is that it draws everyone into its sphere of power, not so they may realize themselves as human beings, but so they may surrender their human identity in favor of the identity of the system, that is, so they may become agents of the system’s general automatism and servants of its self-determined goals, so they may participate in the common responsibility for it, so they may be pulled into and ensnared by it, like Faust by Mephistopheles. More than this: so they may create through their involvement a general norm and, thus, bring pressure to bear on their fellow citizens. And further: so they may learn to be comfortable with their involvement, to identify with it as though it were something natural and inevitable and, ultimately, so they may—with no external urging—come to treat any non-involvement as an abnormality, as arrogance, as an attack on themselves, as a form of dropping out of society. By pulling everyone into its power structure, the post-totalitarian system makes everyone an instrument of a mutual totality, the auto-totality of society.
The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself.
Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.
The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children’s access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him. Most of those who apply these sanctions, however, will not do so from any authentic inner conviction but simply under pressure from conditions, the same conditions that once pressured the greengrocer to display the official slogans. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama, to which belongs an awareness that this is how situations of this sort are dealt with, that this, in fact, is how things are always done, particularly if one is not to become suspect oneself. The executors, therefore, behave essentially like everyone else, to a greater or lesser degree: as components of the post-totalitarian system, as agents of its automatism, as petty instruments of the social auto-totality.
Thus the power structure, through the agency of those who carry out the sanctions, those anonymous components of the system, will spew the greengrocer from its mouth. The system, through its alienating presence in people, will punish him for his rebellion. It must do so because the logic of its automatism and self-defense dictate it. The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.
The first conclusion to be drawn, then, is that the original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately, and organizing this service. This is only natural, after all: if living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the “dissident” attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest “dissent” could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life.
— Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless
Broken record here:
Our information ecosystem is REALLY messed up right now. When sharp, reasonable, even-handed people are unable to figure out what’s true because of a justified suspicion of *all* outlets, the result will be collective epistemic collapse.
“I trust nothing”
— Alan Levinovitz (@AlanLevinovitz) June 11, 2020
At its core, the argument being leveled against public-health experts is that the reason for the protests shouldn’t matter. The coronavirus doesn’t care whether it’s attending an anti-lockdown protest or an anti-racism one. But these two kinds of protests are not equivalent from a public-health perspective. Some critics might argue that the anti-lockdown protests promoted economic activity, which can help stave off the health implications of poverty. (On this count, public-health experts were ahead of the curve: Many—including one of us—were advocating for a massive infusion of assistance to individual Americans as early as March.) But these protests were organized by pro-gun groups that believe the National Rifle Association is too compromising on gun safety. Egged on by the president to “save your great 2nd Amendment,” anti-lockdown protesters stormed government buildings with assault rifles and signs reading covid-19 is a lie. The anti-lockdown demonstrations were explicitly at odds with public health, and experts had a duty to oppose them. The current protests, in contrast, are a grassroots uprising against systemic racism, a pervasive and long-standing public-health crisis that leads to more than 80,000 excess deaths among black Americans every year.
One epidemiologist from Harvard, and one from Yale. Again, I stress, these are not “anti-science” fundamentalists telling us we can pray the virus away; it’s doctrinaire progressives indulging in sheer sophistry for the sake of political tribalism. “It’s okay when we do it, because our cause is righteous.”
Even if, just for the sake of argument, we grant the dubious assertion that “systemic racism” is a “public-health crisis” responsible for 80,000 deaths a year, it would still be ridiculous to compare a chronic crisis to an acute one, which is what the pandemic is. If I slice open my femoral artery with a saw, the chronic arthritic pain in my lower back becomes a lesser problem for the time being. Granted, I’m not trained in the new math of progressivism, but it appears inarguable that if one health crisis causes over 100,000 deaths in three months, and another supposedly causes 80,000 deaths per year, the former crisis is still more dangerous and a greater priority, however passionate you are about the latter. No matter how creative you get in playing with words and numbers to define “systemic racism,” I don’t think even these propagandist hacks are going to claim that “systemic racism” is in danger of deluging emergency rooms and intensive care units, which is the entire reason we were told that our individual assessment of risk was immaterial. You may be willing to risk your own life, but you will almost surely spread the virus to other, more vulnerable people who did not choose to take that risk, and furthermore, in doing so, you will contribute to overloading the limited resources of the hospitals. These dangers are unique to the acute crisis. Or so we were told until it became politically convenient to ignore it.
In truth, it’s probably the case that people were simply sick of being cooped up and would have seized on any pretext to leave their houses and assemble together again. Everyone loves to have a good excuse to do things they know they’re not supposed to do. If millions of people decide to engage in mass civil disobedience, there’s little any government can do to stop them. But telling the truth is always an option, and too many public health experts have chosen to be cowards and engage in flimsy rationalizations instead.
“Even so, people must remain open to the possibility that if a second wave of infections occurs, public-health officials may need to suggest stricter lockdown measures once again.” Yeah, good luck with that. And good luck with expecting anyone to listen to what “the science says” on vaccines and climate change ever again, now that you’ve openly sacrificed your professional integrity to political correctness. I swear, these idiots are too stupid to even realize what long-term damage they’ve done.
And while I shall keep silent about some points, I do not want to remain silent about my morality which says to me: Live in seclusion so that you can live for yourself. Live in ignorance about what seems most important to your age. Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries. And the clamor of today, the noise of wars and revolutions should be a mere murmur for you. You will also wish to help – but only those whose distress you understand entirely because they share with you one suffering and one hope – your friends – and only in the manner in which you help yourself. I want to make them bolder, more persevering, simpler, gayer. I want to teach them what is understood by so few today, least of all by these preachers of pity: to share not suffering but joy.
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science
We would prefer that people be treated with grace rather than opportunistic cruelty and with charity rather than pettiness. We would prefer that employers not appoint themselves the moral guardians of every employee and the censor of every employee’s every utterance in his private life. And here is something close to the fundamental issue: We believe in private life, that people are entitled to their own associations and opinions (even bad ones!), and entitled to make their own mistakes, too — and that, barring some direct connection to work life or extraordinary circumstance, that none of this is the concern of the little platoons of finks lurking down in human resources.
We worry about the consequences of cancel culture. But we are much more intensely ashamed of it and what it says about the current state of the American heart.
The Mighty Boosh? Seriously? Good thing I already have the DVD collection. This is partially why I still prefer to own physical copies of media rather than trust the cloud to always have it.
Let me state some basic principles. I assume, in keeping with my Taoist influences, that anyone who seeks political power is probably a budding sociopath who ought not be trusted with it, and that if they manage to do something good while in power, it’s probably by accident. I think that politics is a necessary evil, emphasis on the evil, one of the most unsatisfying and soul-destroying activities in human existence, and that only defective people pay more than the bare minimum of attention to it. I think that the desire to leave and be left alone is the mark of a healthy mind, and I think that the entire spectrum of authoritarians, from neighborhood busybodies to cultural commissars, should be energetically abused with the most hair-curling, obscene invective possible. I try, to the best of my abilities, to do what the man said with my limited influence and share not suffering but joy: the books I appreciate, the music I love, and the most interesting thoughts I can muster up. It’s saddening and worrisome that so many people can think of nothing better to do with their time and energy than act like vengeful petty tyrants, haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, is having an unapproved good time without their supervision. The Venn diagram between people who want to abolish/defund/etc. the police and people who pleasure themselves to the thought of having police-like powers to arrest and punish others for thoughtcrimes is a circle.
I’m reminded of an interview with Michael Ignatieff about Isaiah Berlin, one of my intellectual heroes:
IL: Yes, they are. But back to Berlin. You say that he was highly sceptical about the Aristotelian idea that people are “political animals”. Is it possible nowadays not to be a political animal? How possible is it to stay out of it all?
MI: One of the freedoms that Isaiah valued, which is not very popular, was the freedom not to be a political animal. The luxury of a truly free society is that political involvement is a choice, not an obligation.
IL: That may be true regarding active political involvement, but there is also the argument that you may not be interested in politics…
MI: …but that politics may take an interest in you. Oh, sure, sure. And he understood that. He understood that the freedom to be disengaged was possible only in societies like the British one in which he lived in for most of his life. Whereas there are other societies where politics taps you on the shoulder or knocks on your door and can carry you away. In that case, involvement becomes compulsory, in the sense that it’s a matter of your survival and your dignity. He understood that. But a good society, I think, is a society where politics leaves you alone and where you choose to get involved or not. I think he was right to say that there are a lot of things that shouldn’t be politicized. Healthy societies are societies that don’t politicize everything. You choose the best judge, not the politically well-placed judge; you choose the best director of the orchestra, not the one with the best political friends; you choose the best editor for a magazine, not the one who has political connections. If everything is politicized, then everything becomes a zero sum game between those who are in and those who are out. Smart societies just don’t do that because it means you don’t get the best people.
I think it’s safe to say we are not a good or healthy society, and in the current climate, it’s only getting worse. The woke Maoists who are busy seizing everything from the opinion pages of the NYT to the downtown streets of Seattle have made clear that neutrality is not a valid option in their vision of class war. Sure, they’re just drunk with revolutionary fervor right now, but even in slightly-calmer times, the ratchet only seems to turn one way, in the direction of increased politicization. Social media has always brought out the worst “revillaging” aspects of people’s personalities, and organizing boycotts/cancellations has been a favorite sport of authoritarians for as long as I’ve been reading online. But if there’s any sign that the general public has lost its appetite for this madness, let alone become nauseated by it, I haven’t seen it yet.
Irony of ironies: I wish there were an actual “resistance” I could join in opposition to the hashtag version.