[Originally published July 16, 2014.]
I am not on Twitter. I am not a snob about it. Some of my best friends tweet. Nor do I believe that my absence from the lists makes me pure; I suffer from other forms of digital narcosis. But the interminable hectoring of Twitter, its infinite discharge of emotion and promotion, holds no attraction for me. It is a medium of communication in which nothing intellectually or linguistically substantial can be accomplished. I refuse to operate mentally at its speed: I have already been sufficiently accelerated, thank you. And I hate the din.
And with that showily dismissive, hand-dusting flourish (as well as what appears to be a veiled confession of an addiction to deviant forms of pornography), his bona fides as a man of the digital people reinforced, Wieseltier proceeds to inform us that he nonetheless simply cannot abide an ersatz intellectual like Alain de Botton being dismissive of Twitter, or digital interconnectedness in general, however mildly. You see, de Botton has a new book out in which he voices the, uh, less-than-startling notion that we might do well to take “Twitter Sabbaths,” along with other anodyne suggestions for calmer digital living:
“We need, on occasion, to be able to go to a quieter place…”
“We should at times forego the Twitter feed…”
On occasion! At times! Goodness gracious, summon the constabulary and get this madman off the street!
The ostensible thrust of Wieseltier’s “defense” is that de Botton’s meek advice is actually subversive encouragement to the “haute bourgeoisie” to be derelict in their duty of being well-informed citizens of the world. A good editor might have pointed out that this might appear quite a foolish tack to take, seeing as how Wieseltier had just got done harrumphing about how nothing intellectually substantial could possibly be encountered on social media anyway. Couldn’t this, however inadvertently, be good advice for anyone who wants to be genuinely informed? But he and TNR in general have never bothered to hide their disdain for de Botton or the type of shallow dunces who read him (none of whom are even likely to know how to casually drop a term like “haute bourgeoisie,” I mean, ugh), so I think it’s safe to say that this conceit, like the self-aggrandizing opening paragraph, is merely a way for Wieseltier to signal his superiority (and, by extension, that of the average TNR reader) under the guise of a broader humanitarian instinct. Too bad he’s so clumsy and artless about it. Aren’t highfalutin snobs supposed to be naturally good at this?
Everybody is after that feeling: the flat-Earthers, the Q-Anon dopes who have got themselves so torqued up that the feebs are worried about them as a terrorism threat, the Bernie Sanders partisans whispering darkly about the “rigged” economy and the shadowy billionaires acting behind the scenes, who control the media, the corporations, the government . . . The social exclusion and isolation that comes from joining a mystery cult isn’t a terrible price to pay but one of the main benefits, the mechanism by which the cult imbues its members with a sense of new identity. They speak about flat-Earth belief as something that follows a conversion experience and sadly note the apostasy of one high-profile social-media advocate who recently left their community. Which is to say: One conspiracy theory is very like another.
Speaking of flat-Earthers, in Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, Alec Ryrie wrote about the intellectual character of skeptics in general:
To wonder nowadays whether the earth really is moving, and whether five centuries’ worth of accumulated astronomy is a hoax, you do not need to be a drunkard or a fool. You need to be suspicious: ready to believe you are being lied to. And it helps if you are not very well educated. If you are woven too tightly into our civilisation’s web of knowledge, you will not be able to kick against it. To see this at work, I recommend visiting the websites of modern flat-earther organisations which, in their stubborn refusal to be hoodwinked by the intellectual consensus of their age, are the closest thing our own world has to medieval atheists. Of course, whether you are a modern flat-earther or a medieval atheist, the lack of deep engagement with the dominant intellectual systems of your age which makes your doubts possible also blunts their power. You may have some slogans and some hunches, but you will be unable to refute astronomers who come at you with their orbits and laws of motion, or theologians wielding essences and ontologies. You can only reply with the perennial mulish wisdom of the sceptic who is told to admire the stitching on the emperors clothes: I just don’t see it.
My brother called me out of the blue on my birthday a couple months ago. To my additional surprise, he proceeded to talk my ear off for six hours. It was a good time, though slightly surreal, as we’ve never been particularly close as adults. Anyway, among the many topics that came up was conspiratorial thinking. He asked me what I thought about the JFK assassination. I said I really didn’t have an opinion about it. He pressed a bit as to whether I found the official story plausible. I replied that I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if someone produced definitive evidence tomorrow that it was all a gigantic cover-up, but that it was just one rabbit hole I had no interest in investigating. Life is too short to dabble in X-Files paranoia, there are too many enjoyable things to do, and what would I do with any conclusions I drew anyway? In general, I told him, I think the common denominator of conspiratorial thinking is that it overvalues intention and undervalues accidents, side effects, and unintended consequences. Events are too often assumed to have turned out precisely as they were planned, and I think humans can only dream of having that level of control over countless variables.
My mom has always had a propensity for accepting outlandish beliefs. Everything from JFK to alien abductions to “ancient astronauts” to miracle health quackery to New Age gobbledygook in general. I long ago decided that what she really loved was the thrill of believing and sharing the good word. It’s easy to speculate that, as a lapsed Catholic baby-boomer, she responded to the crisis of authority common to her generation by adopting a reflexive skepticism that “they” control everything and don’t want us to know the truth. She may not have that clichéd God-shaped hole in her heart, but she does seem to enjoy looking for something to believe in. I count myself lucky that I didn’t unthinkingly follow in her footsteps. I remember reading a book that claimed Kurt Cobain was murdered instead of committing suicide and finding it plausible enough to wonder about, but a few years later, when I was in my libertarian/anarchist phase, I was already rolling my eyes at those who insisted that the Oklahoma City bombing was some sort of set-up by the feds/Jews/Illuminati/whomever. I was convinced by the conclusion of an article I read following Princess Diana’s death, which suggested, in response to the speculation that she was murdered, that what all these conspiracies tended to have in common was a desperate need to believe that someone, somewhere, is in control of things. It would be far scarier, the author wrote, to accept that sometimes, maybe even often times, reality is what happens despite all our best-laid plans. Shortly after that, I saw the same arguments from Oklahoma City being recycled for the 9/11 attacks, and I nodded sagely: some people find it strangely comforting to imagine living under a tyrannical, omnipotent government or demiurge.
In their most recent conversation, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter talked about a new book/film which claims that the official narrative surrounding the Trayvon Martin case of 2012 is a hoax. Loury and McWhorter are, while open to correction, fairly convinced that there is something to it, despite the filmmaker’s disreputability. (He has previously claimed that Barack Obama’s real father is someone other than who it’s purported to be, a claim which neither Loury or McWhorter are inclined to accept.) As with most such cultural events, I don’t know and largely don’t care. Only two people know for certain what happened that night, and one of them is dead. There is no certainty, only varying degrees of plausibility, and again, what am I, one of the Hardy Boys or the Three Investigators? (Tell me at least some of you remember those books.) What use is there in me pretending to be an amateur sleuth and getting invested in this sort of thing?
No, what I found fascinating are the meta-issues surrounding the topic, the epistemology. How do we know what we know? How much of what we know is just an official narrative put forth to serve an agenda of which we’re unaware? How much are we interested in truth for truth’s sake, and how much are we simply looking to signal by our declarations of belief where we stand in relation to our peers and how much they can trust and depend on us? As individuals, most of us barely know anything. The division of labor and our systematized structures of cumulative knowledge have simply made it easier for us to know where to look for an answer if needed. My lamps and vacuum cleaner might as well be magic for all I know, but if forced to, I could figure out how to ask the questions to get the information I need to explain how they actually work. Much of our knowledge, in practice, exists in common. As Burke said, our private stocks of reason are small, and we do better to avail ourselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages. When you start passing around intellectual greenbacks like “Trayvon Martin’s lawyer perpetrated a hoax,” or “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,” people look upon that as unkindly as they would upon counterfeiting or stock swindling. You’re devaluing the currency that we all depend on. Without that trust, we have nothing. We can live with untruths, but we can’t live without something approaching a general consensus about fundamental aspects of reality. Besides, even if you’re right, it’s not like anyone is going to thank you for exposing their deceit or correcting their ignorance. How many of us care enough about truth to risk our reputations on a lonely crusade? How many of us could be persuaded with minimal effort to lie for the sake of a “higher” truth?
And in this particular case, as Loury and McWhorter wonder, what does it mean if it’s true that the official narrative was a lie? Where were the investigative journalists? Were they all just woke cheerleaders? Why didn’t the defense attorneys catch any of these discrepancies? How can it be that we have to get the truth of the matter from a suspiciously partisan source? If the integrity of all the official authorities is compromised and we have to depend on a Cretan liar for information, how can we know anything reliably? “Whenever I hear a fact reported and my first question is, ‘Well, who’s saying that before I’m prepared to believe that it’s true?’ rather than ‘What’s the evidence for that?’, it feels to me like we’re in trouble!” Loury is correct, but I have no idea what the solution is. I can feel my own intellectual horizons contracting somewhat, as I’m forced to live in something like Keats’s negative capability, surrounded by uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, with facts and reason out of reach. It’s a humbling discipline to refrain from the innate urge to follow a logical scent like a bloodhound, to run certainty to ground, and instead, just shrug and attempt to maintain a sanguine equilibrium despite the constant fluctuations in the intellectual weather.
Funny enough, I’ve long held postmodern philosophers like Foucault responsible for the ad-hominem style of argument that Loury bemoans. Keith Windschuttle offered what seemed to me to be the definitive criticism of Foucault’s “genealogical” method of investigation, in which “any question about the facts of a statement is ignored and the focus is directed to the way what is said reflects the prevailing ‘discursive formation’ or how it is a form of knowledge that serves the power of the authorities concerned.” But recently, Alan Jacobs distinguished between intellectual archaeologists and genealogists, suggesting that the former are the ones who are interested in tracing the origin of ideas in order to find a source to blame, whereas the genealogists are interested in tracing the descent of an idea, its ramifications and modifications throughout history, to understand it more completely. Well, that seems…plausible. Is it true? Have I been unfair to Foucault? Does he deserve a closer look? But…it’s so satisfying to hate him! Can’t I just substitute a different reason to hate him and keep on going? Is Jacobs in the pocket of Big French Pseudo-Philosophy? He is bald, just like Foucault. You know, I never did entirely trust him, come to think of it…
Sigh. Negative capability is a real bitch.
Intellectuals and philosophers may think they make the weather, but they are more often driven by it. People who read and write books, like you and me, have a persistent tendency to overestimate the power of ideas. Some of us may occasionally change our beliefs and our lives as a result of a chain of conscious reasoning, but not very often or very honestly. Our own age has forcibly reminded us that intellectual elites often struggle to bring their societies with them. Their default role is to tag along, explaining with perfect hindsight why things inevitably turned out as they did.
— Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt
It’s been said many times that humanity has suffered a series of shocks to its self-image thanks to Copernicus, Darwin and Freud, who demoted us from our position at the center of the universe, the pinnacle of the animal kingdom, and the command center of our own consciousness, respectively. Those of us who still read books for pleasure are constantly reminded that we’re like Amish who insist on riding our horses and buggies down the information superhighway as all the kids zip by us in their text messages at the speed of 5G, laughing at our quaint old habits. One could take this particular excerpt as another diminishment of the bibliophile self-image, but I prefer to think of the ideas and concepts I encounter in my reading as akin to melodies, not blueprints. Music doesn’t make me a “better” person; reading doesn’t make me smarter. Neither one is leading to anything in a progressive, cumulative sense; they’re just here to make the present moment a little bit brighter or tastier. Humming a sweet snippet of Tchaikovsky at Christmastime; reading an elegant expression of a feeling or an idea — these need no external justification.
[Originally published Feb. 25, 2014.]
I saw my old car off to the scrapyard after it finally died last week. That mileage is all on the original engine. Allow me to get all old-folksy for a moment and aver that they don’t make ’em like that any more, no sir.
There’s a lot of things I won’t miss about it. As you can imagine, a car that’s traveled that much isn’t the most comfortable ride anymore. I hate bucket seats as a rule, especially since it takes more effort to haul my rheumatic joints up and out of them. Stickshifts are just an unnecessary pain in the ass. Cars in general never seem to have enough room to suit me, and I’m a pretty average-sized fellow, not particularly tall or wide. The rear windows wouldn’t go up all the way, leaving about a half-inch open. The automatic window motors would have cost over $200 apiece, though, whereas a strip of black duct tape across the opening only cost a couple dollars — easy choice. The glovebox latch had first broken loose, then mysteriously vanished, so it was held slightly ajar with a velcro strip. The AC stopped working a long time ago and would have needed to be completely replaced to bring it up to current standards anyway, but I never wanted to go to that much expense — getting from point A to B has always been my main concern. Still, the fan only blew hot air no matter how far the dial was turned toward the blue. A dark-colored car with hot air leaking out of the vents on an August day in the South — it was like riding around in a four-wheeled toaster.
Perhaps I’m just inclined to be a little bit mournful today anyway, but despite those gripes, I did feel genuinely sad to see it go. I’ve heard it said in many ways, and I agree, that significant changes in life make us a bit uneasy because they remind us of the inevitability of the most significant change of all. However easy it will be to replace my means of transportation as opposed to a loved one, there’s still a noticeable hole in my routine. Another chapter, however banal, has been brought to a close. Watching it rise onto the back of the tow truck was like plucking a string on a web, sending vibrations through all sorts of dormant memories — the places it had been, the passengers it had carried, and all the myriad associations attached to each. No, I won’t really miss the car, but I will take a moment to rue the separation.
Well, this is interesting. This evening, I stumbled across a site I’ve never seen before, which— oh, I’ll just get out of the way and let them explain it:
After Montaigne—a collection of twenty-four new personal essays intended as tribute— aims to correct this collective lapse of memory and introduce modern readers and writers to their stylistic forebear.
Though it’s been over four hundred years since he began writing his essays, Montaigne’s writing is still fresh, and his use of the form as a means of self-exploration in the world around him reads as innovative—even by modern standards. He is, simply put, the writer to whom all essayists are indebted. Each contributor has chosen one of Montaigne’s 107 essays and has written his/her own essay of the same title and on the same theme, using a quote from Montaigne’s essay as an epigraph. The overall effect is akin to a covers album, with each writer offering his or her own interpretation and stylistic verve to Montaigne’s themes in ways that both reinforce and challenge the French writer’s prose, ideas, and forms. Featuring a who’s who of contemporary essayists, After Montaigne offers a startling engagement with Montaigne and the essay form while also pointing the way to the genre’s potential new directions.
…This site contains all 107 of Montaigne’s essays, in Charles Cotton’s 1685 translation (John Florio produced the first English translation, in 1605, and several other twentieth-century translators have made their attempts at rendering Montaigne’s mind in English as well). We hope that you will enjoy spending time with this quirky sixteenth-century Frenchman, that by reading his essays you will find yourself pondering timeless ideas, and that in reading his essays, you will begin to create your own essays.
Stranger still, commercials may appear anywhere in a news story—before, after, or in the middle. This reduces all events to trivialities, sources of public entertainment and little more. After all, how serious can a bombing in Lebanon be if it is shown to us prefaced by a happy United Airlines commercial and summarized by a Calvin Klein jeans commercial? Indeed, television newscasters have added to our grammar a new part of speech—what may be called the “Now…this” conjunction, a conjunction that does not connect two things but disconnects them. When newscasters say, “Now…this,” they mean to indicate that what you have just heard or seen has no relevance to what you are about to hear or see. There is no murder so brutal, no political blunder so costly, no bombing so devastating that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, Now…this.” He means that you have thought long enough on the matter (let us say for forty seconds) and you must now give your attention to a commercial. Such a situation is not “the news.” It is merely a daily version of Springtime for Hitler, and in my opinion accounts for the fact that Americans are among the most ill-informed people in the world. To be sure, we know of many things; but we know about very little.
…In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice; we watch him, by ours. When a culture becomes distracted by trivia; when political and social life are redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments; when public conversation becomes a form of baby talk; when a people become, in short, an audience and their public business a vaudeville act; then—Huxley argued—a nation finds itself at risk and culture death is a clear possibility. I agree.
In the online age, it seems almost quaint to be worried about the corrupting influence of commercials, when most people use ad-blockers on their browsers and only watch TV news in an à la carte format of individual clips selected for virality. That strange “flattening” phenomenon still exists, though, where news, entertainment and commentary are all mashed together into digital gruel. It reminds me of English class in high school, where we would read plays out loud in class, with different kids assigned to various characters — there would always be at least one dull kid who read hizzorher parts in a flat, monotone voice, failing to add any dramatic inflection where needed, making even Shakespearean poetry sound insipid and boring. Social media has only intensified this leveling effect, and Twitter, the motherland of journalists, “creatives” and other cultural tastemakers, is the most surreal of all. The lingua franca of the realm consists mostly of memes (formerly known as “inside jokes,” now in picture form), slang catchphrases, and other forms of baby talk. Histrionic emotings about the latest school shooting or political outrage are quickly replaced in the “trending” column by Baby Yoda gifs or jokes about the Peloton commercial, sometimes all in the same individual’s timeline. Adult infants, transfixed by their glowing screens, alternate between squalling in anger and cooing in pleasure. No one needs to interrupt to say, “Now…this,” because it’s intuitively understood that flux is the norm, and there is no significant distinction between one novelty and the next. Deeply serious, utterly frivolous; all are presented in exactly the same deracinated sentence fragments, with the same tiny displays of metrics attached beneath, like tin cans tied to newlyweds’ bumpers, letting us quantify how many people responded with sentence fragments of their own, versus how many responded by pushing a button to signal affirmation. The overall effect is to increase one’s sense of being a spectator, distant and detached, as all this flotsam and jetsam passes by.
And yet, if I’m being fair, how many of us strictly segregate our thoughts through the course of the day? Don’t we mix the frivolous and serious in varying amounts? Don’t we pause to play with the cat while working on something important, or crack jokes in the middle of otherwise serious conversations? Don’t our conversations veer wildly between the silly and profound? I’m pretty sure a detailed log of the contents of my thoughts on any given day would be embarrassingly unimpressive, especially if presented in the form of a list, sans context. Maybe our real gripe with social media is that it makes public that which should be kept private. Maybe, rather than distracting us with with illusions and fantasies, it acts as a pitiless mirror, revealing just how many of our everyday thoughts and actions fail to measure up to our ideals. Maybe we just can’t stand that much honesty, so we console ourselves by witnessing proof that our friends and acquaintances are just as foolish and petty as we are.
It is true enough that in Russia writers with serious grievances are arrested, while in America they are merely featured on television talk shows where all that is arrested is their development. This is an important difference, but it does nothing to change the fact that grievance is the source of all interesting prose. Without grievance, a writer tends to become a celebrant, which is an agreeable but repetitious state. After you have sung two choruses of “God Bless America,” what else is there to say?
If this is so, and I think it often is, why should it be? Are we naturally belligerent and inclined to argument? Or does our lust for novelty prod us to differentiate ourselves from others, thus leading to contrast and conflict? Why is it so difficult to be interesting without being provocative?
I think I’ve finally learned my lesson: the left never stops. Never, ever, ever, ever stops. That’s the logic of the left: leftward, always leftward. It’s never enough until the dystopian utopia is achieved, and all the counterrevolutionaries are in the Gulags.
I suspect most of us get there eventually in our own way. As Granger said to Montag:
“Right now we have a horrible job; we’re waiting for the war to begin and, as quickly, end. It’s not pleasant, but then we’re not in control, we’re the odd minority crying in the wilderness. When the war’s over, perhaps we can be of some use in the world.”
“Do you really think they’ll listen then?”
“If not, we’ll just have to wait. We’ll pass the books on to our children, by word of mouth, and let our children wait, in turn, on the other people. A lot will be lost that way, of course. But you can’t make people listen. They have to come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them. It can’t last.”
Sixty years after the French Nobel laureate Albert Camus died in a car crash at the age of 46, a new book is arguing that he was assassinated by KGB spies in retaliation for his anti-Soviet rhetoric.
Italian author Giovanni Catelli first aired his theory in 2011, writing in the newspaper Corriere della Sera that he had discovered remarks in the diary of the celebrated Czech poet and translator Jan Zábrana that suggested Camus’s death had not been an accident. Now Catelli has expanded on his research in a book titled The Death of Camus.
Camus was one of my earliest intellectual heroes. Orwell, despite his reputation for moral integrity, comes across to me now as a little too much a product of his time and place, too concerned with wanting to rehabilitate a “true” socialism from its real-world manifestation, which makes much of his work seem provincial and outdated. Camus, by contrast, planted his flag on more broadly humanistic terrain, for lack of a better term, and consequently seems more timeless in his outlook. Coincidentally, I was just leafing through The Rebel the other day in search of a particular passage, and I thought I should really get around to re-reading the entire book.