He says to himself what we all say to ourselves in comparable periods of mass insanity: never mind the world! You cannot change it, or improve anything. Focus on yourself, save in yourself what can be saved. Build as the others destroy, strive to remain sane in the deluge of madness. Close yourself off. Construct your own world. But now comes the year 1580. For ten years, he has remained sequestered in his tower, cut off from the world, and he imagines that this is how he will end his days. But now he realizes his error, or rather his errors. The first was to believe himself old at thirty-eight, to prepare himself for death prematurely and to inter himself alive. Now, at forty-eight, he notes with surprise that his senses have not declined, that on the contrary they are more lucid, his thought is more illumined, his soul more serene, more voracious, more eager. He cannot renounce it all so early, close the book of life as if already at the final page. It was a beautiful thing to read books, to spend an idle hour in Greece with Plato, to savour an hour of Seneca’s wisdom, it was restful and calming to live alongside these companions from previous centuries, with the greatest minds of history. But one lives in one’s own century, for better or for worse, and the air of the time penetrates into even the most cloistered space, especially when it is a restive and feverish air, an oppressive, tempestuous time. We have all known it: even when closed in, the soul cannot remain at peace when the world beyond is in uproar. Through walls and windows we receive the tremors of the time; you might win a moment’s respite, but you cannot withdraw completely from the world.
— Stefan Zweig, Montaigne
It’s especially poignant to reflect that within weeks of writing this, Zweig himself would succumb to the soul-sickness he carried along in exile from Europe and end his life. To the gods of Politics and Society, we may well be as flies are to wanton boys, but that doesn’t mean we have to obliviously wait to have our wings pulled off. I subscribe to a homeopathic philosophy when it comes to worldly events — ingesting daily trace amounts of that poison builds up my immunity to mass outbreaks of insanity. (It helps to always end the day with more elevated reading material.)
I have a vivid memory of sitting in a grocery store parking lot early one morning, during what was probably the lowest point in my life, listening to Scott Weinrich, in his world-weary storyteller’s voice, sing the line, “This painful darkness/is shrouding my soul.” And yet, I distinctly realized at that moment that even music’s catharsis and comforts had its limits. The same goes for literature and philosophy. Scott could sing, Marcus Aurelius could preach, but some painful experiences had to be faced and overcome with no distractions or reassurances. I wanted to avoid or soften my own fear and pain by vicariously wallowing in someone else’s artistically-rendered suffering, but there was a bleak freedom in the resigned acceptance of that impossibility.
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra said that one must be like an ocean in order to receive a river of filth and not be contaminated by it. I’m not worthy of being an ocean, but maybe I can be a tree, or even just a houseplant — breathing in the restive and feverish air of my time, and breathing out some humor or perspective in return.
If Twitter were a city it would be the sort of city where the authorities allow people to defecate in public or shoot up outside a school, and then express surprise when middle-class families wish to leave because of “the better quality of life” found in a four-hour commute away exurb.
So…like San Francisco, then? I mean, considering the father, is it any wonder the kid turned out the way it did?
This was not theater, because a play is a safe and riskless activity, but it was roleplaying, which can be decidedly more dangerous for the participants—five people have died in these events. The “coup” ended, appropriately, when the main plotter was banned temporarily from social media. It was not a coup in the real world, but it was experienced as one by those taking part. More interestingly, those shocked by the events in the Senate were no less captured by the fantasy and might still believe that a real coup was attempted and defeated. In Washington, you can apparently now have the full “coup” experience in just a few hours. The action takes place in a kind of virtual reality, where terrible accidents can and do happen, but more tragic consequences to the political regime and the viewers at home are somehow prevented.
Does this mean that the Capitol extravaganza was trivial or unimportant? Not at all. In some strange way it was more significant than a real coup. A coup would at least make sense, while the almost complete replacement of serious politics by subterranean fantasy and roleplaying induces a sense of vertigo. Our traditional way of relating to the world has increasingly collapsed. Nothing seems real, and doubts persist about what to think or say in the face of this new situation.
Well, we’ve been LARPing revolutionary anarchism and fascism for a while now; why wouldn’t we try LARPing a coup as well? I can’t wait for the new “civil war” as performed by tinfoil hatters and spoiled rich kids. Simulacra, simulation, society of the spectacle — maybe the worst consequence of all of this is that postmodern theorists like Debord and Baudrillard look prescient now.
Remove your hats, gentlemen. We’re in the presence of greatness.
During a conversation over yonder at Idlings, Dave Lull shared a link to one of the most interesting interviews I’ve read in a long time. Really, the whole thing is worth reading, but this part made me literally laugh out loud:
Plus, the first time around, my book was excerpted for a magazine, only the magazine altered many of my sentences to make them more sensational, and kept my name on the byline. When I objected, I was told, by the publishing company, “Well, Sam, we can pull it, but, remember, we’ve made an investment in you and we need to see an economic return on our investment. etc.”
As in, the subtitle of my book.
Muscle, as a title, I love.
But the subtitle, “Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder”? Are you kidding me?
When the editor called me up to tell me that subtitle, she cooed into the phone, “But Sam, it will make readers think of Rousseau!”
25 years later, and not one human being on this planet has ever said to me, ‘Sam, I love the subtitle. It’s so very Rousseau!”
Rummaging briefly through my memory and Amazon, I find a few other sterling examples of the “Confessions of a…” genre of book titles. A curious bookseller. A Buddhist atheist. An economic hit man. A hockey parent. A sociopath. A gay priest. A funeral director, a public speaker, and a yakuza. An investigative reporter, an advertising man, and a video vixen. I can certainly believe that an English major-turned-editor thought it was just oh-so-clever to reference Rousseau (not Augustine?), that all her friends would approve of her learned wit, but the truth is, well, first of all, Rousseau should be forgotten altogether, but secondly, when it comes to clichés, “Confessions of a…” might as well be “It was a dark and stormy night.” It is a desiccated mummy of a cliché lying exposed in the Sahara of imagination. There is not one ounce of juice left in it. For the love of God, stop it.
It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.
—G. K. Chesterton, “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family,” Heretics
Micah Mattix deftly sums up my own thoughts about the mainstream media’s efforts to paint Substack (and podcasts, YouTube, Reddit, or any platform beyond their control, for that matter) as a wretched hive of scum and villainy. One part in particular made me think of the Chesterton quotation above:
Of course, newsletters can contribute to this bifurcation of society, too, but they can also bring people together in ways that national publications can’t. Because of their smaller size, they offer readers the opportunity to interact with writers and editors, where readers might influence the coverage of a topic or change how a writer or editor sees particular states of affairs. Some newsletters have the potential to put readers of different socio-economic classes in direct contact. I’d like to think this column (which is also a newsletter) one does. I can tell you that you are all over the map, politically, religiously, and professionally. I am not saying that newsletters are a contemporary version of what Lasch (citing Oldenburg) called “third places.” They’re not. Still, they are closer to them in some ways than our current national publications.
The same people who are complaining about Substack (and podcasts, et al.) are the same people who have made Diversity and Inclusion™️ such a clichéd example of cant. The same people who prattle on about Diversity and Inclusion™️ are the same people who are highly allergic to genuine diversity, who would break out in hives upon being forced to converse with someone who sees the world differently. Only a few short years ago, it was all the rage to read behavioral economists and talk about “confirmation bias,” “intellectual silos,” and “filter bubbles.” One shock election result and one pandemic later, and suddenly it’s epistemological anarchy and hysterical tribalism. But I digress. My real point is to suggest that all the wailing we hear about our terribly polarized society is based upon an illusion of unity fostered by the golden age of mass media. Prior to radio and television, news and current events had a much more regional flavor. For a brief few decades, when everyone saw the same few television shows, the same movies, and the same nightly newscasts, while listening to the same music on the radio, it was possible to believe that we were more alike than we really were. The internet came along to re-fragment everything and introduce some genuine, possibly dangerous diversity once more. Media figures bemoaning their vanishing respect and influence are essentially the new Luddites, trying to smash the new narrative-weaving machines, unable to come to grips with a changing world.
To put it briefly; it is now the custom to say that most modern blunders have been due to the Common Man. And I should like to point out what appalling blunders have in fact been due to the Uncommon Man. It is easy enough to argue that the mob makes mistakes; but as a fact it never has a chance even to make mistakes until its superiors have used their superiority to make much worse mistakes. It is easy to weary of democracy and cry out for an intellectual aristocracy. But the trouble is that every intellectual aristocracy seems to have been utterly unintellectual. Anybody might guess beforehand that there would be blunders of the ignorant. What nobody could have guessed, what nobody could have dreamed of in a nightmare, what no morbid mortal imagination could ever have dared to imagine, was the mistakes of the well-informed. It is true, in a sense, to say that the mob has always been led by more educated men. It is much more true, in every sense, to say that it has always been misled by educated men. It is easy enough to say the cultured man should be the crowd’s guide, philosopher and friend. Unfortunately, he has nearly always been a misguiding guide, a false friend and a very shallow philosopher. And the actual catastrophes we have suffered, including those we are now suffering, have not in historical fact been due to the prosaic practical people who are supposed to know nothing, but almost invariably to the highly theoretical people who knew that they knew everything. The world may learn by its mistakes; but they are mostly the mistakes of the learned.
—G.K. Chesterton, “The Common Man“
The first important lesson from the past year is that this revolt against the experts is not a fringe phenomenon driven by QAnon loons, hysterical anti-vaxxers and other untouchables. It is widespread and its consequences are already profound. On the surface, people are simply rejecting the authority of institutions such as the CDC, which now openly advocates for racial preferences and places political calculations before the public good. But beneath that rejection, there is a cultural shift at the level of animating beliefs.
For millions of people, a disenchantment has broken the spell which upheld their faith in rational, scientific knowledge as the best means to tame the natural chaos of reality and administer the business of society. On top of all the other disenchantments undermining America’s founding myths, this one erodes the foundation on which the entire technocratic regime of modern society rests.
“I don’t know if there even is a virus!” I have to hand it to the incompetent public-health experts — if you can get my mildly-hypochondriacal mother to say things like that, you’ve really done a stellar job of screwing things up. To be sure, I understood that statement to be less of an epistemological manifesto and more a simple expression of frustration. The Lady of the House’s mother, though, is a former nurse, and she’s all in on the Great Barrington Declaration. Apparently there’s something of an Underground Railroad in their area for virus-skeptics — safe places to shop where anti-maskers won’t get ratted out, names of known snitches, etc. It would be a lot easier to feel exasperated by this had we not been treated to a year of galling hypocrisy from the people who opportunistically claim to be against this sort of “anti-science” behavior. But what do I know? A year ago, had you asked me, I would have guessed that something as serious as a global pandemic would have acted as a brake on our desire to wallow in virtual-reality kulturkampf. Instead, it turns out that the pandemic was an accelerator, and many, perhaps most of us love kulturkampf enough to risk our lives over it.
Pace this fellow, I think that there have been two parallel societies with different sets of foundational truths for a long time now; the pandemic was just the match tossed on a kerosene-soaked pile of debris. Probably this sort of tribalism has always been the norm, and the brief postwar interlude of a rational, technocratic, mostly-unified society will forever be the Garden of Progressive Eden from which we were cast out by our refusal to heed the experts. A myth for people who fancy themselves too sophisticated to believe in myths, in other words.
Declaring those with views and priorities different from your own scary — or extreme or whatever other moralistic adjective is in vogue at the moment — isn’t a way to advance that debate, but a way to avoid having the debate at all, and to prevent its being had by others.
On that note, I happened to see a tweet from Bari Weiss today, enthusing over her discovery of Christopher Lasch:
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) December 27, 2020
So far, so anodyne, you might think. Lasch is indeed a writer worth reading. However, this is Twitter, so:
Although he saw around the bend in terms of critique of US meritocratic society, social sciences, and the left abandoning economic reform, his conclusions i.e. “family life” made his whole efforts a regression into a mild-mannered conservatism.
— Etan Nechin (@Etanetan23) December 27, 2020
“Mild-mannered conservatism”! Bring me the smelling salts; I feel faint!
Someone makes the obvious response, to which our Twitter Torquemada retorts:
Not only bad, but evil.
— Etan Nechin (@Etanetan23) December 27, 2020
A lyric from the late, great Lemmy Kilmister, who died five years ago yesterday, comes to mind: “You are the spooks you’re chasing; you know not what you do.” There’s a certain “chef’s kiss” perfection to this little vignette that just delights me — “His observations were accurate, but his conclusions were unacceptable to me, so he’s not just mistaken, he’s evil.” I see we’ve learned absolutely nothing from the last four years of squandered intellectual integrity. When your entire political identity is based upon opposition to “conservatism,” however reasonable and mild-mannered, this is the sort of logical dead-end you end up in. Well, if you’re going to demonize someone as inoffensive as Lasch, don’t be surprised when forbidden fruit like Joseph de Maistre or Carl Schmitt start to seem tempting to people who are tired of your neverending hysterics.