For April Fool’s Day, I thought a profane paean to the moral wasteland of the dark web by a pair of self-described wicked clowns would be just the thing.
Ibram X. Kendi is a human fortune cookie. His intellectual output is an endless buffet of word salad and phony wisdom: “Denial is the heartbeat of racism”; “In order to truly be anti-racist, you also have to truly be anti-capitalist”; “Whiteness is literally posing an existential threat to humanity.” In my investigative reporting, I’ve noticed something quite interesting: the core demographic of Kendi readers is liberal, white, middle-aged women who work in public institutions. On one hand, this is a surprise: Kendi embraces a radical vision of Black Power-style revolution. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense: Kendi’s politics provides a vicarious thrill, but is completely in line with conventional wisdom. It’s revolution without risk; it’s liberation without leaving the house. That’s really the best way to understand what he’s doing. He’s not a revolutionary; he’s a self-help guru for white liberals and a reputation-laundering mechanism for multinational corporations. He is an apostle of anti-whiteness, but a mouthpiece for elite white opinion. He preaches anti-capitalism, but accepts Visa, Mastercard, and American Express.
What intrigues me about the use of the concept of middlebrow, in these and other writers, is that they write of it with a warmth and respect that one can barely imagine anyone bringing to the concept of the highbrow as such (though people do, of course, still write lovingly about particular highbrow works). It is hard to coax a single definition of middlebrow out of all these essays, but there are a few threads we can pull together. Middlebrow unifies; it mediates; it educates. It addresses both heart and mind. (So do opera, ballet, epic poetry—but once we’ve called something “highbrow,” we no longer need to look at it.) Middlebrow is good for you. All of these writers frame middlebrow as a thing in need of defense, even though the specific works they want to defend seem quite safe—safer, surely, than the opera, the ballet, or the long, allusive, heady, postmodern novel. They talk about middlebrow in the way we talk about things we feel in danger of losing through a failure to appreciate them. How did a word that sounds like an insult come to acquire such emotional coloring? To answer that question, we must look to its history.
Having just mentioned middlebrow culture in a recent post, I had to smile as Christman’s excellent essay came along to make clear to me that I don’t exactly know what I meant by the term, or even how I feel about it. While I’m sitting here in my ambivalent confusion wondering if I know anything at all, you might enjoy reading the essay yourself.
From then on, I never laughed at anyone who mispronounced an artist’s name, because it usually only meant that what he had read had run far ahead of what he had heard, and I knew too well how that can happen. When you are learning a new language, there is a blissful moment when, from not knowing how to, you pass to not knowing how not to. The second phase is the dangerous one, because it leads to sophistication, and one of the marks of sophistication is a tendency to forget what it was like to be naïve. But it was when we were still naïve that we knew most intimately the lust of discovery, a feeling as concentrated and powerful as amorous longing, with the advantage that we never had to fear rejection. Art will always want us. It finds us infinitely desirable.
— Clive James, Cultural Amnesia
My mom still likes to tell the story of how, as an angry seven-year-old, I called someone an EYE-doyt. How embarrassingly ironic.
It’s not a heavy burden, but one of the definite downsides to autodidactic learning is an unfamiliarity with the sound of certain words, even when they’re familiar by sight. These days, most of the words I’m well-acquainted with through reading but not exactly sure how to pronounce are (mostly Latin) loan-words — pace, ne plus ultra, and several others which will no doubt spring to mind as soon as I press “publish” on this post. I have looked up their pronunciations, of course; they just never seem to stick. Words alone are too abstract until one becomes familiar with them through the melody of speech (I can still sing the lyrics to “Cielito Lindo,” which we learned in fifth-grade Spanish, even though I would probably stumble over the same words in a Duolingo session).
As for names, I only learned a couple years ago that apparently the great man’s name is officially pronounced mon-TEN rather than mon-TAYN. I remember having a Nietzsche reading group at a local coffee shop with a few friends, where they confirmed that “Hegel” rhymed with “bagel.” (Had I not first encountered Nietzsche’s name by hearing it pronounced by my philosophy teacher, I can only imagine what a mess I would have made of it on my own.) The most cringeworthy example was when I went to a book fair with a friend and attempted to impress her by casually mentioning that I had picked up a book of aphorisms by Goethe, which I pronounced as “Goath.” (Luckily, she was none the wiser, so I still looked suave.) Fortunately, I learned early on that only plebes pronounced it MOW-zart instead of MOAT-zart, but I’m not clear on whether I should say SHOE-bear, shoe-BEAR, SHOW-bear, or show-BEAR, despite having been informed (in an email, by the same friend who clued me in to Hegel/bagel) that he is the greatest composer of all time.
It occurs to me that these days, I could probably render all this moot by just looking up any unfamiliar word on YouTube, and find both pronunciation guides and videos of lectures where the words are used.
The best thing about the emergence of @SubstackInc is just reading people making arguments at a length greater than 240 characters! Actual, genuine exchange requires more space than tweets. There are lots of things I love about Twitter, but it’s bad for debate.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) March 22, 2021
Yes, if only there had existed some sort of platform prior to Substack where people could write at whatever length they desired, where conversations rather than snarky one-liners predominated. Something along the lines of a “web journal,” or “bjournal” for short. Hmm, maybe that wouldn’t have caught on. Oh, well, this is why I’m not a inventor.
In this, I’m a determinist. I agree with Alan Jacobs that Twitter was the logical endpoint of the sorts of blogs that existed to argue about politics and current events. Let’s skip all the verbose preamble and get straight to being enraged by the mere sight of our tribal enemies. Substack will probably end up being the preserve of dissident journalists, while old-fashioned blogs will continue to be the rocking chairs on the front porch where the old-timers get together to reminisce about everything under the sun.
Perhaps that’s something to differentiate human beings from other animals: the need for a calling. Have you noticed that almost no one – especially no one with any pretensions to being educated or enlightened – is satisfied with a simple “job” anymore? It’s not enough to have a job, a career, or even a profession; everyone wants a vocation. Even in business and industry, where metaphysical considerations used to nap from 9 to 5, people want a sense of calling, the conviction that the work they’re doing serves a higher purpose, a transcendent goal. The preacher-teachers of today are really no different from others in this respect.
It’s the “educated and enlightened” part that’s the key. I’ve walked widdershins around the idea of work as a calling for my entire adult life, and it seems to me that a pococurante attitude here puts one on the wrong side of a class divide, even more than income. “Jobs” are for people who, well, can’t do any better, poor things. For the educated and enlightened, work is both personal expression and public service. My goal regarding work has always been to find something at which I’m reasonably competent and that pays me well enough to get by. Self-expression? That’s for my free time; that’s why I have a blog.
Oh, you have a blog? Why don’t you join the exodus to Substack like all the cool kids and maybe get paid for your efforts, or pitch some essays to some digital journals? Because I don’t want to feel indebted to subscribers, or pressured to produce “content.” I want to have a hobby that’s about nothing but enjoyment. Turning my hobby into a job would bring with it all the things everyone hates about their job. When work is done, I get to read books and think and sometimes write down my thoughts about those books. Why would I need to see how far that could be pushed? Why mess with perfection?
Every so often, real-world people discover that I like to read a lot. Some of them suggest I should write a book. I don’t think they really mean it; it’s just a knee-jerk thing to say. Some of them ask if I’m reading for a class. Some of them even ask why I live where I do, in a small, unexciting town, rather than in, I don’t know, some literary hotspot, I guess. The guiding assumption is that any sort of interest or talent should be maximized, monetized, and merchandised, or else it’s just going to waste. Why would you read and write just for the fun of it?
I’m an ordinary guy with no great ambition who likes to read and write. Why should that be an oddity? Whatever happened to the golden age of middlebrow culture, which Susan Jacoby paid tribute to so affectionately? I remember being at a book sale a few years ago and being surprised at the weighty subjects that comprised some of the mid-century Book of the Month Club offerings. When did it stop being widely enjoyable to read biographies and works of history for fun? Off the top of my head, I’d name two potential causes. One, the explosion of entertainment options. There are countless ways to stupefy and titillate oneself, all of them easier and cheaper than a reading habit. And two, perhaps the idea of familiarizing oneself with “the great works” as a means of self-improvement came to seem naïve. Maybe that kind of striving only appealed to a mid-century belief in progress, before disillusionment and cynicism set in. Society isn’t getting any better. You’re not going to have a higher standard of living than your parents did. Everything is crass and insincere, and all that matters is finding an angle to get paid. Why are you giving away your writing for free, like an idiot?
It’s very fashionable to reclaim slurs these days. A while back, I announced my intention to reclaim the term “idiot” as an identity. Today, let me rededicate myself to that effort. Like my idiot forefathers, I will continue to hide my light under a bushel basket, too insignificant to even earn contempt, while sophisticated people go about their important business.
Last month, though, after being out of the gym for the better part of 2020, I found a place with a decent-enough weight room and decided to get back to work. At sign-up they talked me into personal training, which I’d never once opted for but seemed like a good idea: not only did eight months out of the game mean I probably need some help with form, but it seemed worth trying to address my mobility issues at a fraction of the cost of a physical therapist. Three sessions in, after some preliminary work on my squat, bench, and deadlift form, my trainer recommended some band exercises to address the tightness in my hips. I groaned through a few sets of silly exercises and felt a lightness in my leg I hadn’t experienced in years. I’ve been repeating these same exercises every other day with similar success, and for the first time in over three years I’ve been able to go about my life without tingling or burning in my leg or foot. It’s been a wonderful, totally unexpected change, and I suspect it also hides a more general principle.
The specialists I saw throughout the process were focused on just one thing: alleviation of symptoms. They attempted (minimal) interventions and suggested practices that would serve the singular goal of freeing me from pain, however momentarily, so I could go about everyday business with some sense of normalcy. All seemed to regard my interest in weightlifting as a “form of exercise,” something that “keeps one in shape,” staves off obesity, and kills time. All were either indifferent to or taken aback by my interest in weightlifting as a way to make oneself better, to reach the limits of and then deliberately extend one’s capacity for action, to make oneself “stronger, faster, and harder to kill.” Their expertise was meant to get people back to work, not to help them flip bigger tires for fun.
My trainer, on the other hand, is focused on my excellence. He wants me to get stronger, not only to get better at doing the things I’m in the gym to do, but to become better more generally. Of course, he’s not a philosopher: his sense of “better” is limited to the physical, to the cultivation of strength and the development of my body’s capacity to manipulate the world. Nonetheless, the mobility exercises he showed me were not merely for the sake of pain-alleviation—rather, the pain-alleviation was for the sake of self-improvement, because you can’t get stronger if the movements cause you pain.
A couple years ago, I started experiencing a strange burning pain in my lower back, accompanied by lightheadedness, usually within about five or ten minutes after finishing a session of walking on the treadmill. My doctor had me go for a scan in order to rule out an aortic aneurysm, and then wrote me a referral to a physical therapist. I diligently performed my prescribed series of core-strengthening exercises for a few months, but they didn’t seem to entirely help me.
I had always worked out at home, partially out of frugality, but largely out of pride. I didn’t need to go to a gym, you see. My willpower reserves were so deep that I could make myself exercise as easily as Average Joe could decide to push the on-button on his remote. But this time, I suspected that I could benefit from the kinesiological expertise of a personal trainer, so I offhandedly mentioned it to the Lady of the House, who, true to her nature, had already thoroughly researched the topic and had a nearby gym in mind. (I’ve known her for over a decade, and I’m still delighted to discover how often she has contingency plans for events I didn’t even know had ever crossed her mind.)
I told my new trainer about my symptoms, and she said, “Well, we’ll just work on strengthening your entire posterior chain.” I had done yoga most of my life, but flexibility wasn’t quite enough. I spent several months with her doing more intricate exercises to build up the stabilizing muscles, before graduating to working with her husband and concentrating on more traditional powerlifting exercises. The back pain/lightheadedness? That was gone within a few weeks; I’m not sure what it was, but apparently it wasn’t anything that having stronger glutes and hamstrings wouldn’t fix. (Speaking of which, I have a fine booty now, if I do say so myself, capable of filling out the seat of my jeans for the first time in my life.) There have been other improvements — when I started, I could only do frontal squats, because my arthritic shoulder would only allow me to hold an empty bar behind my neck. Any added weight would pinch the rotator cuff too much. Within a year, I was able to do normal squats with three hundred pounds, which additionally proved my knees to be more resilient than I would have guessed. Regular adductor exercises got me over my dread of incurring another inguinal hernia. I spend up to ten hours a day in a warehouse, on my feet the entire time, without any of the fatigue and back pain that would have resulted previously. It’s a great feeling to find yourself capable of more than you thought possible, and to be free of the fears that held you back.
It’s easy to make fun of the excesses of gym culture, and the narcissistic vanity that supposedly drives it. But lazy cynicism sometimes passes itself off as maturity or wisdom, in opposition to the supposedly-Romantic desire to prolong youth and vitality, to shake a defiant fist in the face of natural limits. Of course physical decline is an inevitability. I don’t think many, if any, of my fellow gym-goers are under the impression that they’re going to remain immune to the effects of time. Speaking for myself, lifting weights is an expression of both humility and gratitude. Getting rheumatoid arthritis at twenty-eight made me all too aware of my own fragility; being able to deadlift three hundred pounds at forty-eight feels like a gift. It’s my way of refusing to take my health for granted. Each training session is another lesson in humility, as I come up against my limits, while having to trust that soon enough, this too will feel easy. All of it is a reminder that nothing worth having comes easily, but can easily be lost through carelessness and inattention. Sure, I could pray in order to cultivate a similar outlook, but would prayer also give me such a fine booty?
Content moderation, in my opinion, isn’t really a movement but part of this delusional thinking. The idea is to make the great digital platforms look like the front page of the New York Times circa 1980. It won’t happen. The digital realm is too vast. There can be no question that, with Joe Biden as president, we have entered a moment of reaction — a revolt against the revolt. But all the techniques of control wielded by the elites are, like their dreams, stuck in the 20th century and ineffective in the current information landscape.
To take down an opinion, or an author, or a small platform like Parler would have had a shocking impact in 1980, but today is simply swarmed over by similar opinions, authors, and platforms. This is truly a Marshall McLuhan moment, in which the message is the medium, rather than little threads of contested content.
I’m still keeping a nervous eye on developments in the exciting new field of progressive censorship. From tech giants like eBay and Amazon imposing a social-justice morality standard on products sold on their platforms, to the mania among progressive journalists for censoring Substack, Fox News, podcasts, etc. under the guise of fighting “misinformation,” to the general plague of campus mores spreading into the corporate and political environments, these are worrying times for those who value life in a society where politics doesn’t “tap you on the shoulder.” But Gurri’s book, and subsequent interviews, have helped reassure me that much of this frantic activity is just a traumatized cultural elite, accustomed to thinking of themselves as natural gatekeepers of information, trying desperately to pretend that they can bully their way back to positions of uncontested authority. Nothing is ever predestined in human affairs, but the trends all seem to be against them. We may as well try to be optimistic.
More wise words:
Advice to the troubled & confused: avoid the news. Read books. Take walks. Listen to music. You’ll be healthier, saner – & smarter too…
— Martin Gurri (@mgurri) March 8, 2021
Whatever we may think of the relative claims of the two religions, one fact is now logically self-evident: that the new religion, every bit as much as the old religion, will be a persecuting religion. It will be, by its very nature, a thing fighting for its life against the normal forces of human nature; every bit as much as has been alleged of any system of asceticism or self-denial in the past. It is indeed a case in which extremes meet; though, in truth, extremes often meet because they are much less extreme than people suppose. The modern Pacifist is really very like the ancient Puritan; the man who now has a horror of all theology is very like the man who then had a horror of all things except theology. And the proof is in this practical case. The old Calvinist, like the new Communist, really did forbid children to read stories about fairies. The old Puritan, like the new peace-man, really would forbid boys to read a penny dreadful about pirates. This new idealist is not even new, in the manner of the babe unborn. He is our own Puritan great-grandfather dreadfully risen from the dead.
— G. K. Chesterton, “On the New Prudery”
All of that nags like an eyelash caught behind your contact lens, and it’s because you are watching a religion being born. That its adherents don’t realize they are under the influence of a religion is precisely evidence that this is what it is. No, that is not recapitulating The Elect’s circularity thing, that if you say you aren’t a racist then you are. When you say you aren’t a racist, you give reasons why – your commitments, your views, your history, these days often your dating history or even your spouse. This should qualify as coherent defense and it does. But with The Elect, if we tell them they are religious, they cannot defend themselves with even a stab at logic.
They insist that self-mortification is political activism – fail. They insist that being black is ever and only oppression from the white man – fail. That black people labor under threat of the return of disfranchisement as a people because Republicans try to depress black turnout to lower Democrat tallies, even though black women were central in determining the election of Joe Biden as President along with a black American Vice-President? Fail.
Only religion can explain why anyone would think that all of this doubletalk is sense. You, black or not, are not crazy to get that this stuff doesn’t wash. And your job is to learn to cover your ears against what feels like verbal jiu-jitsu from those whose sense of significance is founded in denying reason and teaching people who have already been through enough to build their identities around a studied sense of victimhood.
Of course, they call themselves pursuing “social justice,” thus telling the rest of us that we are resisting “social justice.” Some of them will claim that the thesis of this book is that “seeking social justice is just a religion.” Don’t get tripped up. They are using the term to refer to their very specific and questionable sense of what social justice is, and as such, to ask us whether we are “against social justice” qualifies as a dirty trick along the lines of being asked if you still beat your spouse. Or not – but only because they are arguing from religion, and for that reason truly do not imagine that their version of social justice is something other than scripture.
Do you see? I hope I am getting you to follow me, and I hope you will stay with me for the next chapter where I will outline the point more closely. That may sound dull, but I don’t think it will be – we just need to look at matters a little more closely to truly get what we are up against among people who seem so normal. We are genuinely in Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory. They will insist that they are not religious, but impotently so, before the simple propositions of this chapter. Adoring their kids, poaching their salmon, strumming their ukuleles barefooted, savoring their Stones and Coldplay and Adele, they may seem unlike what we think of as “religious.”
Don’t be fooled. Religion knows no culture. Nor do all religions entail the worship of a God (The Elect lacks one), or even forgiveness (which The Elect do not seem to have exactly caught up with just yet). As Eric Hoffer put it, religions don’t need a God but they need a devil, and The Elect have that down quite comfortably. Superstition, clergy, sinfulness, a proselytizing impulse, a revulsion against the impure – it’s all there. They think of it all as logic incarnate.
But so did Martin Luther.