You’ve seen me quote Eric Hoffer numerous times. You’ve heard me enthuse about his writings. But for some reason, perhaps owing to some inherent cussedness in human nature, you’ve never actually settled down to read one of his books. You say to yourself, “Self, I’m not actually convinced that this will be a rewarding experience.” Well, who can say why we’re led astray in these instances? I’m not here to judge. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s you. (I’ve thought it over. It’s you.) But if you won’t listen to me, maybe you’ll read Rob Henderson’s review of The True Believer and that will finally break down your recalcitrance.
• Ben Dreyfuss, “The Queen, She Is Dead”
LEAGUE OF RUDENESS
Truth! We must tell the truth! Even if it is uncomfortable! This is my answer to everything but that is only a coincidence! The truth is the queen is evil and anyone who is sad that this evil woman is dead must have their nose rubbed in the blood she spilt.
LEAGUE OF RUDENESS
Because this is how we make a better world!
How will it make it a better world?
LEAGUE OF RUDENESS
Because we make clear to everyone that in this life there are two types of people: the good and the bad. And the queen was bad. And when bad people die we rejoice! We rejoice! We dance until the sun rises and we kiss and sing!
Why was she evil again?
LEAGUE OF RUDENESS
Because the monarchy is bad!
LEAGUE OF RUDENESS
Oh right yes and colonialism.
But the queen wasn’t in charge of British foreign policy?
We’re tired of excuses! She could have done something!
LEAGUE OF RUDENESS
LEAGUE OF RUDENESS
She could have done some speeches!
LEAGUE OF RUDENESS
A tweet about how bad colonialism was!
LEAGUE OF RUDENESS
I think we should all just stop saying these nasty words.
ALL OF THEM
• Ian Leslie, “Being the Queen”
Queen Elizabeth II (I can only call her by her impersonal title, the formality acting as a reminder that the illusion of ‘knowing’ someone famous is just that) delivered some fine words over the years: “Grief is the price we pay for love”, she said in condolence to the families of those lost in the 9/11 bombings. In the early stage of the pandemic, she struck exactly the right note, harking back to an even bigger national crisis, one that she had lived through: “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” But really, words were not her thing. One reason she was such an effective figurehead for so long is that she said so little. Unlike Charles, she didn’t communicate her thoughts very much (whether Charles will do less of that now he is King, we will see). In a world of endless jabbering, she just was.
It’s not that she didn’t have thoughts – you can tell that she did from the avidity with which she engaged the statesmen at the 1991 G7 summit. Prime Ministers have testified to the wisdom of her advice in private, and to her great curiosity about the world. But she knew her legitimacy rested on not having a view, on not becoming part of the argument. Not just her legitimacy, but her capacity to unite, comfort and console. Emotions are pre-verbal. For all that we are encouraged to talk about them, it remains true that sometimes the best way to cope with our feelings is through symbols and actions rather than words. That’s what rituals are for. The Queen intuitively understood the advantages of being and doing over saying, which is why she was the perfect person for the role.
• Richard Hanania, “How I Overcame Anxiety”
One overcomes social anxiety in the same way one overcomes a fear of flying. Understand that your fear is irrational, don’t make excuses for or indulge in it, and then just practice the thing that makes you nervous. Eventually, it gets through even the thickest skull that nothing bad is going to happen as a result of flying on an airplane. This is the idea behind “exposure therapy,” which the PUAs seem to have independently discovered on their own.
If we told people that fear of flying was something everyone struggles with, that it was the result of what others have done to them, or structural racism or whatever, I’m sure we’d get more of it. Imagine further if TV, music, and movies taught kids that fear of flying made them deep and interesting, and schools and universities had fear of flying awareness weeks. This is pretty much the modern approach to mental illness. Our tendency to discount the benefits of exposure as a natural way to reduce anxiety and naïve faith in the professional management of the human psyche help explain mistakes in how we have responded to covid. It’s been a massive experiment in which we have taken away people’s ability to socialize normally with others – and no, doing so while wearing a mask is not anywhere near normal – with predictably disastrous results.
A series of data points converge on the idea that navel-gazing and the medicalization of things like anxiety and depression are themselves major causes of the conditions they are meant to fight. I see nothing else that can explain why we see such skyrocketing rates of mental illness among young people today. If it’s all explained by the rise of the internet, one needs to explain why the mental health crisis hits liberals so much harder than conservatives.
• A. T. Roberts, “Screaming Match”
Enter the landscape of modern noise. It’s televised, digitized, and auto-tuned. It comes at you through speakers made to look like rocks in gardens. It barrages you from screens in every room of your home and in your pocket, and even gas pumps now have flatscreens. Commercials blare at decibels almost painfully louder than the mindless noise you’re already half-watching while scrolling through more noise on your smartphone. It’s even in text, the trash that passes for journalism and education today is no less noisy than an eighteenth century wagoner cracking his whip or the bimbo next door playing Nicki Minaj songs on repeat.
The ghost in the machine that drives this noise can be the focus of a separate examination. Whether it’s Guy Debord’s spectacle, Mark Fisher’s capitalist realism, Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model, a combination of the three, or something entirely different, the obvious outcome of the legions of pro-noise adherents are proof of its effectiveness. Babbage and Schopenhauer would have immediate heart attacks if they were alive today, but it’s important to emphasize that the concept already described by the world’s two most crotchety thinkers hasn’t changed: the noise is designed, from inception, to prevent you from thinking. Know this, but don’t dare acknowledge it. You’ll be hated for it.
• Jason Peters, “Reading in Unprecedented Times”
But it is important to remember that material circumstances alone no more made my eyes move across the page than they made Defoe’s and Poe’s quills move across the paper. It may be that “Men are as the time is,” as the bastard Edmund said in King Lear. But men and women nevertheless have agency. They can refuse to let their thinking be dominated by the news cycle or by these “unprecedented times.”
That is to say, all of us can make an effort not to be as the times are. If we cannot step outside the tyrannizing present, we can certainly resist the reach of its presumptive scepter. It is an ancient dictum attributable, I believe, to Cicero that a liberal education should help us do just this.
…One reason we can’t “rise to the occasion” is that there are no shortcuts to any such rising, and yet we are incorrigibly prone to take whatever shortcut the nearest cliché offers us: “It takes all of us.” “Together we’ll get through this.” “Science is real.”
Jolly good for science, but so are ghosts. Exactly what pressing issue does the schoolmarmish yard sign needlessly reminding everyone else of an obvious reality—or, what is worse, telling everyone else what to think—put to rest? Nothing that fits on a sign or a bumper sticker or the back of a power forward’s warm-up jersey absolves us from the unrelenting demands of careful deliberation.
Another and more important reason we cannot “rise to the occasion” is that, like Lear, we know ourselves only slenderly. We no longer have a serviceable doctrine of Man, an anthropology at hand capable of helping us know ourselves better than slenderly. So we set about to “end racism,” as the moral philosophy elaborated on the wide receiver’s football helmet instructs us to do.
The question that really interests Mann is how an intellectual can justify not being a progressive—something that could not be more relevant in our age of wokeness.
Reflections has sentences that could be applied to current cultural debates without changing a word. Mann complains about the self-righteousness of the liberal, which is “directed morally toward the outside, it is aggressive, for he himself is right, he himself is unassailable, the man of progress and of moral security; only the others need criticism.” He attacks the cultural elitist who “completely perceives the life of his own people, the human reality as it surrounds him, as basically hateful and common.” He deplores the politicization of literature, the idea that a good writer “incessantly pursues humanitarian-democratic progress, insinuates the concept of democracy into every work” and that “art . . . must be the tool of progress.”
Such statements could be cosigned by many of the conservatives and onetime liberals who find themselves on the wrong side of today’s political orthodoxies. The issues at stake are, of course, very different—the progressives of 1914 wanted peace and universal suffrage, while the watchwords of 2021 are “equity and inclusion,” defined in terms of race and gender. And American conservatives who oppose woke orthodoxies have little in common with Mann’s brand of European nationalism. Still, one can recognize in Reflections the familiar frustration of a conservative who finds his core beliefs ruled out-of-bounds by the intellectual powers that be.
…For the Mann of Reflections, the problem isn’t which political side you support; it’s the necessity of choosing a side in the first place. He passionately defends the right to be nonpolitical, arguing that this is the proper stance for the artist and, more broadly, for the German people, whose genius lies in the realm of culture and spirit, not politics. “The German will never mean society when he says ‘life,’ never elevate social problems above moral ones, above inner experience,” he insists.
I’ve never read any of Thomas Mann, but Kirsch has long been one of my favorite critics, so I’m pretty much interested in anything he writes about.
• Matthew Crawford, “How Race Politics Liberated the Elites”
The white bourgeoisie became invested in a political drama in which their own moral standing depends on black people remaining permanently aggrieved. Unless their special status as ur-victim is maintained, African-Americans cannot serve as patrons for the wider project of liberation. If you question this victimisation, you are questioning the rottenness of America. And if you do that, you are threatening the social order, strangely enough. For it is now an order governed by the freelance moralists of the cosmopolitan consensus. Somehow these free agents, ostensibly guided by individual conscience, have coalesced into something resembling a tribe, one that is greatly angered by rejection of its moral expertise.
• Roland Elliot Brown, “Jocko vs. Evil”
Part of what makes Willink’s “evil” podcasts remarkable is that, though he would be unlikely to call himself an intellectual (he is highly intelligent but sometimes seems surprised to learn of the types of conversations going on in academic or media settings) he operates on what has long been considered intellectual territory, covering subjects Americans might typically expect to read about in The New York Review of Books. Willink’s audience appears to be comprised (at a guess) largely of US military types and first responders, martial artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and the patriotic wing of the self-help crowd. In some instances, he may be reaching an under-served audience, parts of which could be expected to end up on the frontiers of good and evil in their working lives.
• Honoria Plum, “2020 Escape to Wodehouse”
Wodehouse has often been classified as escapism, as grounds for derision by his critics or apology by admirers. But in 2020, readers are giving themselves permission to look for literary escape and are finding Wodehouse is just the tonic they’re after.
It’s no longer possible to keep up with the many articles and Wodehouse recommendations that continue to pop up, particularly online, but I’ve included a selection from 2020 for further reading at the end of this piece.
• Will Collins, “Memoirs of a Microaggressor”
The legacy of mass affluence, combined with a surplus of college graduates and a recent narrowing of economic opportunities, has introduced the educated middle classes to neuroses formerly reserved for the aristocracy. The subtle means of distinguishing oneself from the crude and the ignorant have changed — racially-tinged snobbery has been replaced by performative anti-racism — but the goal of signifying status remains.
• Gary Saul Morson, “Fyodor Dostoevsky: Philosopher of Freedom”
Dostoevsky understood not only our need for freedom but also our desire to rid ourselves of it. Freedom comes with a terrible cost, and social movements that promise to relieve us of it will always command a following.
• Greg Ross, “Turnabout”
In the early 20th century, medical students often posed for photographs with the cadavers they were learning to dissect — in some cases even trading places with them for a tableau called “The Student’s Dream.”
• Alan Bellows, “Let Us Be Joyful”
Evidently Mozart composed Leck mich im Arsch as a humorous canon intended to play with friends at gatherings. The lyrics were later rewritten by Mozart’s publisher for public consumption.
• Samuel Kronen, “The Prescience of Shelby Steele”
A great writer shows us how to think rather than telling us what to think. By taking us on a journey through their own thoughts, experiences, and revelations, we come to see, step by step, how they arrived at their own conclusions. There’s nothing mystical about it. It’s a matter of clarification, of revealing reality rather than coercing or intimidating the reader into accepting certain premises, of bringing to our conscious mind that which we already knew in our depths but hadn’t yet recognized. Shelby Steele is such a writer. His ability to state obvious but politically unfashionable truths resonates in an era when moral courage is a scarce resource. “This is not rocket science,” he has said of his work, “it is just common sense, applied in a social way. Anyone can see these things.” And yet common sense is not so common at the moment. At a time of intense political and racial division, Steele’s work is invaluable. If only his warnings had been heeded 30 years ago.
• Blake Smith, “The White Scare”
We might therefore call our contemporary moment “woke McCarthyism” or the “White Scare”—a moment defined by a paranoid search for, and hysterical denunciation of, traces of white supremacy in a society where actual white supremacists are no more powerful than actual communists were in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s America. In its alliance of political, corporate, and cultural power, directed toward revealing the secret sympathies of relatively powerless individuals who were then publicly denounced, humiliated and made unemployable in a theater of persecution that could be alternately terrifying and absurd, the Red Scare is a more obvious model for White Scare than the communism it opposed.
• Meng-Hu, “Favorite Hermits: 3. Paul of Thebes”
And here is the essential question of history and human affairs, whether asked by an observer east or west, ancient or modern. That which the average person finds permanent, enduring, important, are for deeper souls reflective of impermanence, temporality, even poignant in its short-lived presence on earth. This wide contemplation of a trajectory that transcends the concerns of average people is what the hermit catches on to. The hermit pays heed to and takes to heart, the lesson of life and death, watching as the world passes.
• Spotted Toad, “Shadows on the Grass”
As we approach the election, each day will offer more disruption, more confusion, more noise, more incoherence, an iterative intensification that may not end anytime soon. If you believe that the set of social arrangements being promulgated is unstable over even the shortest time horizon, the wisest course may yet be not to argue against their spread but to get far away, to make for the territory, intellectually or socially or physically. An endless game of Calvinball- in which rules are continuously rewritten ad hoc, and the game is not to play but to make up the rules- will be interesting for some, forever, and will pay some for its continuance- but for most it is better to walk away. If that cannot be done- if you are obligated by vocation or location or the expanse of the all-seeing, all-telling internet into every corner of your life- to keep playing forever a game you will never influence or understand, the risks will be great not just to the quality of daily existence but to your sense of self as continuous and integral over time. The task to come will be to find ways to see in yourself, your tasks, your immediate circle of human beings who are your life, as your own, that which is persistent, turn away from the dueling shadows to the endless grasses that wave in the timeless wind.
Just a miniature edition of Noteworthies this time. I’m still recovering/getting caught up after a busy week of work and travel. However, I did want to recommend a couple of interesting interviews. First, a Five Books interview with Melissa Mohr on swearing, and then an interview with Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter on the fifteen-year anniversary of the publication of their book The Rebel Sell (published in the U.S. as Nation of Rebels.)
• Franklin Einspruch, “Identity and Decline: Some Thoughts on the Schumacher Report on Visual Arts Journalism”
• Damon Linker, “The ‘Free Speech’ Debate Isn’t About Free Speech”
• Samuel Kronen, “The Evolution of Heterodox Black Thought”
• Jeroen Bouterse, “Philosophy: A Dialogue”
• Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Inventing the Future“
• Molly Brigid McGrath, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a Frontier Anthology” and “The Useful Errors of Terry Eagleton”
• Jacob Hamburger, “What Was New Atheism?”
• Alan Jacobs, “Social Media, Blogs, Newsletters”
• Dan McLaughlin, “Boycotts Are Not the Free Market”
• Jane Brox, “Disturbing the Silence”
• Himadri Chatterjee, “Putting the Plebs Back in Their Place”
• Kevin D. Williamson, “Crisis of Citizenship“
• John Pistelli, “Wesley Yang, The Souls of Yellow Folk” (review)
• David French, “Social-Media Idealism Collides With Human Nature”
• Jonathan Leaf, “Joseph Epstein: The Perfect Critic”
• Paul Seaton, “Christian Humanism: A Path Not Taken”
• Helen Andrews, “Shame Storm”
• Sir Roger Scruton/Dr. Jordan B. Peterson: Apprehending the Transcendent
• Fred Bauer, “On Culture War and the Moral Limits of Anger”
• Joseph Epstein, “The Bookish Life”
• Sophie Ratcliffe, “The Five Best Books on P.G. Wodehouse”
• Bradley Birzer, “The Autumnal Imagination of Ray Bradbury”
• Stephen Marche, “The Crisis of Intimacy in the Age of Digital Connectivity”
• Conor Friedersdorf, “The Idioms of Non-Argument”
• James Poulos, “Life Finds A Way: Jurassic Park‘s Warning at 25”
• Theodore Dalrymple, “In Search of Moral Authority“