Take heart, for even as the scorching sun and suffocating humidity crescendo to a hellish Summerdämmerung, the first red maple leaves are here to promise us an imminent end to the sweltering misery.
Whereas once I was at least a movie-a-week moviegoer, I now see, apart from movies shown on television, six or eight or at most ten movies a year. Sweet but unserious music, elegant food, lovely movies — these are among the shaded water holes in the desert of life; and now one of them is drying up. I find myself filled with resentment.
— Joseph Epstein, “The End of Moviegoing,” The Middle of My Tether
I recently had cause to reflect on the last time I saw a movie in a theater, and as far as I remember, it was the Simpsons movie in 2007. I went at the invitation of a younger relative whom I rarely see; dinner and a movie are her preferred means of catching up. Before that, I’m not sure — I saw the Blair Witch Project in 1999, but I can’t recall being in a theater again in the intervening eight years. Like many people, I’ve just never really enjoyed the theater experience.
But it’s not just a matter of preferring to watch movies on my own TV at home with my own snacks in my own chair, either. I think the last time I rented a DVD was in early 2009, Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla. I watched a few series through Netflix over the next couple of years, like Oz, The Wire, Six Feet Under and The Mighty Boosh, but I let that subscription expire a long time ago. As for watching TV shows, I’ve always been hopelessly behind the times. I love Scrubs, which I discovered late, of course, but I’ve never seen an episode of Friends, Seinfeld, or Sex and the City. In recent years, I’ve completely ignored Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and True Detective. Needless to say, perhaps, the Emmys and the Oscars are completely irrelevant to me. The Lady of the House occasionally enjoys silly comedies like The Librarians, so I did sit through that series with her (“this makes Firefly look like The Wire,” I said), and we watched the DVDs of the movies starring Noah Wyle after finding them at a library sale. Similarly, we watched a few Christopher Guest films one holiday weekend a couple years ago, and we’ve lately enjoyed the web series Letterkenny. “Seen any good shows lately?” is not a useful conversation-starter around here. Most of my TV and film references are of ’80s and early ’90s vintage.
It’s not that I’m ideologically opposed to movies and films; it’s just that books and music are my preferred means of filling leisure time, which is hard to come by. There’s simply no room to fit a few hours of screen-staring in there, and no real motivation to try. Tom Wolfe wrote that movies replaced the novel as “the great naturalistic storytelling medium of the late twentieth century” as fiction writers renounced naturalism and disappeared into their minimalist navels and up their magical realist colons. Perhaps I’m just old-school, preferring my intense storytelling via the printed page? Alas, no, I’m just as deficient there — I never read Steinbeck, Dos Passos, or Hemingway; I never mingled with Balzac, Zola or Tolstoy; I only acquainted myself with Dickens, Faulkner and Fitzgerald long enough to complete school assignments. Almost all of my reading is non-fiction. I apparently prefer my sense-making of the world to come via descriptive, rather than imaginative, prose. I do enjoy Tolkien-esque fantasy novels for entertainment (but, uh, I never actually read any of Tolkien himself, nor, um, did I see the famous films). Am I culturally autistic, or just a philistine?
I got the half-price deal on Prime Day for a 23andMe kit, and my results came in this week:
Based on family lore, I would have expected to find myself being primarily German and Croatian, but it turns out I’m mostly Swiss, Polish, and Balkan, with some German, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and British (!) spice thrown in.
Apparently the mysterious British ancestor was part of the family within the last two hundred years, which makes it especially interesting. My paternal side of the family were Swiss Anabaptists, who became Amish and Brethren on this side of the ocean, so perhaps some of them stopped in England en route to the New World long enough to leave some genetic roots behind. Or maybe some New England Puritan came down to Pennsylvania and joined the family? It’s not likely that I’ll find out, but it’s fun to speculate. Fascinating stuff. Grab yourself a kit when they go on sale again for Black Friday.
Some liberals, particularly classical liberals, can share some values with conservatives (and so also define themselves as conservatives), but their liberalism tends to emphasize the freedom of markets and individuals. As such, they often seek to minimize the state provision of such things as financial assistance for the unemployed, elderly and disabled and single-parent or poor families as well as being opposed to nationalized healthcare and schemes intended to increase the representation of underrepresented groups within profitable areas of work. This is because they believe this to limit freedom, autonomy and individual responsibility and be ultimately unproductive of social progress. They may also oppose attempts to strengthen gun control (in the US) and support home-schooling for these reasons. They are likely to support a smaller government, less government regulation on businesses, and consequently lower taxes.
Left-wing liberals typically disagree with them about this because we are motivated by values which are left-wing. Being liberal rather than socialist, we largely support the freedom of markets but there is also a strong focus on supporting the most vulnerable in society. For this reason, we also want some regulation in there to prevent exploitation of the poorest people with the fewest options. This focus on supporting the most vulnerable in society is a primary one and has historically been for the benefit of the working class but also, when warranted, for women and for racial and sexual minorities.
Sites like Areo and Quillete have been busy with an ongoing project to build a rhetorical border wall to protect their rationalist, proceduralist liberalism from the identitarian hordes of the postmodern left, and this is the latest brick to be added. I realize it’s just a blog post and not a policy paper, but still, even being charitable, you can already see some of the bromides and confusions that cause bystanders like me to be skeptical that “true” liberalism can ever be saved from tumbling downhill to a messy logical conclusion.
To read this, you might get the impression that at bottom there’s essentially an argument between compassionate liberal lefties who want to “support the vulnerable” in society and a sterner conservative wing who “oppose” welfare and regulation and want to push the poor and disabled out to sea on ice floes. In reality, as William Voegeli has written, even here, in the ruggedly individualist U.S.A., the regulatory state has done nothing but grow since it began. Assuming that they actually exist, any arguments between bleeding-hearts who merely insist that there should be a welfare state and the heartless who insist that there shouldn’t be one are entirely academic and moot. There is one, and it grows increasingly larger and more sclerotic regardless of which party is in power; whether it achieves its aims effectively and efficiently is a whole ‘nother argument. Many of the hyperventilating headlines you see about conservatives wanting to “slash” the safety net and “curb” entitlement spending are actually referring to the tendency of social spending to grow more slowly under Republican administrations. Not to go in reverse — just to grow more slowly. Even in the Reagan years, the Dark Ages as far as contemporary progressives are concerned, welfare state spending grew. As Voegeli notes, 1% growth for eight years may be much smaller than the left prefers, but it’s still a positive number. The real problem, he adds, is their inability and/or refusal to ever make an honest attempt to identify what “enough” might look like, or how we might recognize it if we ever achieve it. Looked at in this way, a dramatic confrontation between cruel robber barons and compassionate New Dealers becomes more like an inter-departmental bureaucratic squabble between policy wonks over who gets the corner office. Not exactly the stuff to quicken the pulse and get the adrenaline pumping, which is no doubt why we prefer to portray routine budget battles as life-or-death struggles between good and evil.
Then there’s that whole “equality of opportunity” issue (which, as Chidike Okeem has argued, is itself a utopian idea, even if it’s being claimed by those who consider themselves opposed to utopian leftists). Pluckrose puts it as clearly as I’ve ever seen it stated: “schemes intended to increase the representation of underrepresented groups within profitable areas of work” — i.e., we couldn’t care less how many sanitation workers are white men; we’re only interested in making the lucrative and prestigious fields more “diverse” in terms of superficial characteristics. Earlier, she mentions “equal opportunity in relation to removing any barriers that prevent certain groups in society from accessing all the opportunities it offers.” As with most abstractions, that sounds nice. The problem is that word, “groups,” which pops up in both sentences. It is, you might say, the banana peel at the top of the slippery slope. Once you start concerning yourself with “representation” in response to perceived injustice, you’re a sociopolitical feng shui practitioner, rearranging society’s demographic furniture to, like, free up the inequitable power flow and create some groovy multicultural vibes of social justice. Once you start framing justice in terms of aggregate totals and demographic generalizations instead of individuals, you’re implicitly accepting the logic of identity politics, no matter how many times you call your identitarian opponents the “regressive left.” Once you start tugging on the thread of “unearned” advantages, you end up unraveling the whole world, because there never was, nor will be, a state of perfect equality in which everyone had exactly the same opportunities as everyone else. There’s no sturdy, meaningful distinction between the “good” kind of identity politics, which merely thinks it would be cool ‘n’ empowering ‘n’ stuff if only there were more female Puerto Rican orthodontists, and the “bad” kind which sees such disparities as prima facie evidence of structural oppression. Freddie deBoer, in his usual combination of penetrating insight, astonishing naïveté, and honesty to the point of self-defeating tactlessness, came right out and said it in so many words: if you’re really that concerned with equality, you’re going to have to be against social and economic mobility. He was, again, clear-sighted and honest enough to admit that that would be fine with him, but I doubt many other liberal lefties will care to back him up, even if that means remaining mired in cognitive dissonance. If you move beyond “equality of opportunity” as a soothing phrase to nod along with, you find that what you’re really asking for is, as Thomas Sowell put it, equalized probabilities of achieving given results. You’ll then quickly realize that this is impossible due to everyone’s favorite buzzword, privilege. “Unearned” advantages can accrue to individuals through something as simple as growing up in a stable family where bedtime stories are read every night. There is no way to quantify, let alone fairly allocate, all the countless variables that make one person turn out more successful or contented than another, and there’s no way to compensate for those gaps by converting them into a cash equivalent and handing them to the disadvantaged. Stating this too baldly tends to get one classified as a conservative, which is why most progressives are content to settle for making vague rhetorical gestures in the direction of greater “equality” without adding much substance.
And that brings us to what Richard Hofstadter said, in regards to the essence of the New Deal, was “not a philosophy but a temperament.” Or, as the economist Robert Lekachman said, liberalism is more of an attitude than a program. It’s that vague, equivocating, finger-to-the-wind attitude that makes this type of liberalism seem so uninspiring, and that makes reading this growing genre of essays so unrewarding. It strikes me as a firm stand for unobjectionable values, a concern with optics more than substance, an interest in triangulating more than in clearly defining. Liberalism, in the last half-century or so of American politics, primarily defined itself in opposition to a caricature of conservatism. Like a permissive, “fun” parent, it left the rule-making and discipline-imposing to its conservative spouse while it granted indulgent favors to the kids. Now, those kids, rather than being appreciative for growing up in a more caring, non-judgmental environment, have turned into spoiled, angry little monsters, and as is often the ironic case, the parent to whom they show the most spite and ingratitude is the one they see as softer and weaker, the one who tries to occupy the middle ground, splitting the difference and pleasing no one as a result. I wish Pluckrose’s “liberal lefties” well in their battle to reassert authority over their mutant offspring, though I still suspect that there’s just something in the left-wing DNA that inevitably produces them, regardless of anyone’s good intentions. Besides, as someone who lived through the supposed bipartisan, neoliberal consensus following the Cold War, when history had supposedly ended and all ideological identitarianism had been laid to rest, I have little doubt that even if today’s intersectional left and their fraternal alt-right twins disappear, we’ll be right back to where we were in the ’80s and ’90s, bitterly fighting over the narcissism of small political differences. I remember Poppy Bush being called a fascist, ferchrissakes.
When left to my devices, I choose to be unobtrusive. I choose gray. It suits my diffidence and soothes my extroversion. It is the color, rather than the sound, of silence. It sits with monkish, folded hands and asks for nothing. It never shouts. It never pushes. As the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres said, “Better gray than garishness.”
Gray is the dark end of the light. The light end of the dark. Unsettling, perhaps, but full of possibility. Just think how beautiful we all look in the gloaming. It’s liminal, the color of our own potential to become.
A wonderful poetic tribute to an unappreciated color. If only she’d chosen the correct spelling.
There are two main kinds of apatheists: apathetic agnostics and apathetic atheists. Apathetic agnostics believe it is not worth debating whether or not God exists; perhaps because human beings cannot know the answer and perhaps because if God exists, He does not care whether one believes in Him. What’s true is what you make true, as represented metaphorically by “ideas” like the devil or God, according to them. Trevor Hedberg has defended “practical apatheism” largely on the grounds that there is no reason to think there would be harmful consequences to ignoring the question. (His philosophical defence for apathy depends, ironically, on a great deal of analysis and reflection.)
Apathetic atheists believe it is quite obvious that God does not exist, but that there is no point debating it, either because they believe that the argument has already been won or because their “live and let live” philosophy entails a mild tolerance of belief in God. Alex Nichols’s Baffler essay “New Atheism’s Idiot Heirs” mocks “a certain species of idiot” who is “devoted to the notion that his disbelief in God imbued him with intellectual superiority,” but it is the manner not the message he dislikes. Many apatheists have no more respect for arguments for the existence of God than do Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Daniel Dennett; they are simply more polite.
…Christians should also work to challenge the apatheists’ emotional complacence. This can be addressed by questioning the secular worldview and its ultimate telos—or lack thereof. What is the point of caring about God? Well, what is the point of living a purely material life without knowing where you stand?
As an apathetic atheist, this is a fair description. I think it is self-evident that whatever mysteries remain in the universe, none of them, if uncovered, are going to point convincingly back in the direction of the God of monotheism. Arguments from biology, geology, astronomy and history are far more convincing than any neo-Scholastic logic-chopping. And I agree with the main point of the article — Christianity is withering more from benign neglect than devoted iconoclasm. If anything, the self-inflicted wounds to religious moral authority by recurring scandals like pedophilia in the Catholic Church have been far more lethal than any invective from secular opponents. But I’m not sure what, exactly, they’re proposing to do about it here. Am I to understand that someone has finally come up with the immovable argument for God’s existence sometime in the last decade? Are they seriously calling for redoubled efforts to convince people of the literal truth of Christianity? When I was a young pup, abstruse theological debates were like Kongs, tug ropes and squeaky toys for me — fun exercise, and good for mental muscles and critical teeth. But, you know, there comes a time to put away puppyish things, and I think I’m pretty typical in having arrived at middle age without the slightest interest in what people believe as opposed to what they practice, and frankly, as Nietzsche observed to his disgust a century and a half ago, in practice, there’s very little noticeable difference between me and my Christian neighbors. The best parts of Christian practice have passed into the public domain as non-denominational common sense. In today’s Body of Christ, the doctrinal specifics and logical absurdities are like the appendix and wisdom teeth — maybe they served a purpose a long time ago, but now they’re irrelevant at best, only noticeable when they cause pain. It just seems like, uh, evolution in action to me.
As for that last bit, well, I’m not sure what a “purely material” life would be. Even the most resolute materialist still has hopes, dreams, sublime pleasures, and collective belongings. We just don’t fall for the intellectual fallacy that a life without a firm theoretical foundation underlying its practice is somehow incomplete or invalid. It’s a tired old false dichotomy that our only choice is between monotheistic belief or Ivan Karamazov’s nihilism. (Nihilism: the shadow of God — where the Son doesn’t shine.) In her book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt put it well: “[E]ven if there is no truth, man can be truthful, and even if there is no reliable certainty, man can be reliable.” (Centuries earlier, Marcus Aurelius had said much the same: “Although everything happens at random, don’t you, too, act at random.”) The higher things are not given to us from on high; they have to be created anew constantly — even, or especially, as they get wasted and destroyed. Is music any less sublime because it needs to be played into existence by fallible humans, rather than waiting, pre-composed, in some divine storehouse, to be given to us by the Master Musician? Why, then, would life itself be any different?
Now that we’ve opened the door for ordinary users, politicians, ex-security-state creeps, foreign governments and companies like Raytheon to influence the removal of content, the future is obvious: an endless merry-go-round of political tattling, in which each tribe will push for bans of political enemies.
In about 10 minutes, someone will start arguing that Alex Jones is not so different from, say, millennial conservative Ben Shapiro, and demand his removal. That will be followed by calls from furious conservatives to wipe out the Torch Network or Anti-Fascist News, with Jacobin on the way.
We’ve already seen Facebook overcompensate when faced with complaints of anti-conservative bias. Assuming this continues, “community standards” will turn into a ceaseless parody of Cold War spy trades: one of ours for one of yours.
This is the nuance people are missing. It’s not that people like Jones shouldn’t be punished; it’s the means of punishment that has changed radically.
Under the new manorialism of our age, it’s moral authority and consensus which have splintered and withered, rather than political authority. The centralized state grows ever larger and more invasive with the help of technology, but the ability of citizens to communicate and informally settle their disputes inversely shrinks. Through laziness, cowardice, and general stupidity, we’ve abdicated our responsibility to order ourselves from within our social relationships, and have thus resigned ourselves to being governed from without by employers, bureaucrats, and corporate moguls. We’re content to be granted a steady job and a small plot of social-media turf to tend; whatever useful data we produce there is handed over to our lords, and occasionally we may be called upon to march off to battle with petitions and disingenuous boycotts against hostile media territories. In contrast to the previous era of manorialism, though, our corporate lords are not bound by any restraints or obligations regarding us. Your service on behalf of your liege will not protect you should a mob target your job or public reputation. There is no manor court system to grant any rudimentary protection.
It’s further evidence, perhaps, of Campbell and Manning’s argument that we are transforming from a culture of dignity to a culture of victimhood, where pride in one’s self-sufficiency gives way to toadying and currying favor with powerful authorities in the hope of convincing them to extract petty vengeance on our behalf. Additionally, it’s also perhaps further confirmation of a related theme Philip K. Howard developed over a pair of books, that responsibility and judgment decay as a legalistic bureaucratic culture grows. As we focus increasingly on individual rights to the exclusion of questions of responsibility, the imperative becomes covering one’s ass and looking for any legal loophole that can be cynically exploited. Sure, you have the right to declare personal economic embargoes against anyone for whatever vindictive reason you wish. Certainly, when you’re determined to parse it closely enough, no one has a right to a particular job or platform. The question, as always, is whether or not the purported cure is worse than the disease, or, more importantly, whether empowering faceless corporate entities to exercise judgment on our behalf will turn out to be far more costly than we expected. In the new manorial landscape we’re cheerfully creating, where only the independently wealthy can speak their minds or act without fear of crippling social sanctions, whom do you expect to thrive? To ask the question is to answer it.
• Jason Willick, “False Dawn”
• Alan Jacobs, “The End of Hypocrisy”
• Jonah Goldberg, “On the Constant Hunt for Fresh Outrage”
• Barrett Wilson, “Moral Panic, Then and Now”
• E.J. Hutchinson, “The Hedonism of Reading Good Books”
• Meng-hu, “About Books”
• Julian Baggini, “Hume the Humane“
Undergraduate education is probably best begun at the age of forty, when one is a bit wiser about the world and so can better test the wisdom of both books and teachers.
— Joseph Epstein, “Time on My Hands, Me in My Arms,” With My Trousers Rolled
This is certainly true in my case. It is a poignant irony that I only realized how suited I would have been to the life of a humble scholar once that door had been long closed to me. Like the dog in Aesop’s fable, I was too busy snapping at illusory bones, like a musical career, to fully appreciate the one I already had in my mouth, namely a passion for learning kindled by philosophy class. In the ancient Hindu conception of the four Ashramas, I’m firmly situated in the Grihastha stage. But since I already did most of my big-picture philosophizing and spiritual-seeking in my teens and twenties, perhaps I can trade and use the upcoming Vanaprastha stage for devoted scholarship instead.
I check in with The Week every morning, not because I hate myself, but to do my duty and stay in contact with the relatively-sane left. Usually, I can reliably depend on Ryan Cooper or Matthew Walther to provide the dumbest take of the day, and Cooper does turn in his usual strong effort, but today, we get a surprise contender from the sidebar:
Well, if you overlook the formidable theoretical and economic obstacles, and if you’re a stoned adolescent who just discovered Bob Black’s The Abolition of Work (but I repeat myself), then yeah, I guess a campaign ad by a dude talking about how we can all live on the beach in a tropical paradise and meet our needs with four or five hours of labor a day might sound profound, but I thought I was reading articles written by and for adults. I realize that “democratic socialism” is the new red laser dot that online journalists are comically pursuing while crashing into walls and furniture, but come on.